Monday, January 30, 2017

The Moment of the Story

Mix Bakeshop
Decaf Americano
Morning Bun

Four years and a day ago, I began this blog, just days after another exhausting election.  But it was nothing like this.  Consolidating these blogs into a book wasn't supposed to take this long.  The process is all but finished, but the final formatting and whatnot has been postponed while family matters, and health issues and the like, have been at the fore.  I did consider my last blog to be my last blog, but so much of what I have been writing about has been feeding into this moment.  All the myths surrounding economics, health, feminism, race, religion, empathy, and finally, the bubbles that keep us from understanding each other.

Consider this an epiblog.

I was expecting that, the day after the election, I would be frazzled and exhausted but I'd feel done.  Somewhat shell-shocked, for lack of a better term, but I thought it would be over.  Instead, we got another popular vote - electoral college split.

Bush versus Gore was the first presidential election I voted in.  I keenly remember the drawn-out drama, the appalling court rulings, and the last-ditch hopes that the Electoral College would switch just a few votes and side with the popular vote.  They are legally able to do so.  I don't hold out any hope there will be any vote switching this time, if there wasn't any then, when there was a clear indication that the complete count would likely have flipped the outcome, and that there was clear partisan efforts to suppress the count.

But this fraud is a different case.  People had different reasons for their supporting him.  Some were happy to support his racism and xenophobia, while some were fiercely rationalizing it away so they could cast a vote for their team, or against the other team, the other allegedly corrupt candidate.  Or they were desperate for some much needed help.  Those folks were not wrong in their assessment that they have been failed, but they were woefully mistaken in thinking this conman was the one to help them.  As I've said before - right angst, wrong resolution.

Mix Bakeshop
Rooibos Tea
Fruit & Almond Tart

So that was 2 months ago.  I'm never very productive around the holidays.  Excuses, excuses...  Moving on.

I know that many people who voted for Trump bristle at the accusation that their vote makes them racist.  As I said, some are overtly and pridefully so.  But make no mistake that he made racist statements, even if sometimes only implied, dog-whistle coded language.  But many times, open, and not to be dismissed.  A policy proposal to "ban all Muslims"?  How can any American, in good conscience, vote for someone who even imagined such an idea? even flippantly threw it out there amidst a stream of consciousness?  The core principles of America, that we are born equal and to be treated as such under the law, that we are free to pursue our own intellectual and spiritual paths, are anathema to such a proposal.

A registry?  It's one thing to stick your fingers in your ears when people point out that the no-fly list is a de facto registry, one structured by racism.  But to rationalize the government tracking people for their religious beliefs or heritage is to bury your head so far in the sand you come out the other side of the Earth and plant your feet in a different country.

You may not like it, it may not have been your motivation, but voting for Trump made you complicit in a reprehensible ideology.  There have been more than enough think-pieces about the topic that break this down, point-by-point, one statement after another, so I am going to leave it there.  My only hope is that, over the next four years, things don't turn out as bad as they could.

But back to the title of this epiblog: the Story.  This past year was a testament to the power of stories.  We saw how deeply affected we were with the loss of so many beloved storytellers - from Prince to Princess.  Far too many names to recognize in these few words.  Sometimes it was the stories they told that shaped our lives.  Sometimes they, themselves, embodied the stories that changed us, that ignited our passions, that freed our identities, that let us live as ourselves without shame and stigma.  It hurt when we lost these strangers because they were a part of our selves, part of our stories.

Stories are important and we feel them deeply.

But this year was not just about the storytellers we lost, it was about the stories being told.  It was about the stories not being told, too, or not until far too late.  It was about the consequences of knowing and not knowing, believing and not believing.

When this perspective on the year started taking shape in my mind, I thought of calling this blog "2016: His name was Robert Paulson..."  If you read the book or saw the movie Fight Club, then you're familiar with the scene.  This group had moved from a secret club of manly aggression turned inward, to a secret group of disruptive mayhem turned outward on society.  And when its leader recoils in horror at the deadly consequence that has befallen one anonymous member and tries to shake up the group, to reinstate the identity and importance of the individual, the members adapt his rationale to fit their story and maintain their sense of purpose.  The leader no longer had control of the story he began.

It is a horrifying prospect that you can tell someone the truth to their face, reveal how you did the trick, and still have them insist on the illusion.  But when hate crimes increase after someone makes broad, inflammatory statements about whole groups of people, the storyteller does not get to take no responsibility.  You are responsible for your words, and must be aware that all kinds of listeners are present.  Basing stories on group biases - about races, nationalities, economic groups, political or activist groups, sports teams and clubs, religious and other affiliations - no matter how benign the comment, these us/them, in-group/out-group stories all travel towards violence, division, and misery.  The words "something must be done" about "these people" is a death knell when pealed to the wrong ears.

For the record, so that there is never any misunderstanding, if anyone ever takes something I have written or said and concludes, based on that, that they should cause harm to another person - any other person - then they have not heard anything I've said.  That shit comes straight from their own ass.

I find I resist speaking flippantly, now, and turn away from using any hyperbolic examples, lest someone hear it.  Because, no mater how absurd and obviously false, for every story, there is a believer.  Some believers are inspiring and transcendent and shape the course of history.  Some believers are fucking scary, and... unfortunately... shape the course of history.

Rogue Valley Roasting Co.
Soy Cappuccino
Veggie Breakfast

 I can't get anything done!  Anyway, I have about 45 minutes - let's see what I can do.

Aw... Louis Armstrong is singing "As Time Goes By" overhead.  "It's still the same old story..."

Yes, it is.

Greg and I got into an argument last week.  He wasn't there for most of it.  I worked it out in my journal, mostly, and in my head, having one of those prolonged car fights where one of you is making a masterful argument and the other one is offering no substantial defense, in that they are obliviously at work helping customers with their problems, thinking you were finished talking about all this an hour ago, or rather, not thinking about it at all, because you were done talking about this an hour ago.

The argument was over a vacuum.  But bear with me, it's relevant.

Of course, it was about a hell of a lot more than a vacuum.  It embodied the central grievance - my central grievance - in our marriage, and the greatest existential core problem humanity faces.  Okay, one of the greatest.

We had lent our old vacuum to one of our young neighbors who was moving out and trying to get something of their deposit back.  The next time I went to use the vacuum after it had been returned, it was broken.  Literally, a chunk of plastic fell out.  I was not heartbroken about the loss.  We had gotten it used and for free, years ago, and it was so loud it sounded like it was opening a portal to some circle of Hell.  Henry has been terrified of it since he was a little baby.  I couldn't even vacuum in another room with the door closed without him having a minor panic attack.  So, fine, we'll get a new one.

The timing sucked.  Our sink had just backed up and flooded a portion of the kitchen (I was not too kind leaving that voicemail for the property managers, especially since our rent went up - again - this month).  We've been sick, we've had snow day after snow day, so the kitchen was full of holiday boxes and other leftover tasks that needed doing. The whole place is in chaos, I'm not writing, not getting anything done, and I'm freaking out about money, so the last thing I want to deal with is tracking down another vacuum.  And that's where the argument comes in.

We found our last vacuum online for free.  It served us for many years, even if it sucked.  No pun intended.  But it was replacing another sucky (again, not punning) vacuum.  And we are stuck in this loop of getting stuff cheap, usually used, and having it not really be what's needed, and having it break anyway, leaving us in need of another cheap, insufficient replacement.

So, damn it, I don't want to put energy into another bad solution.  I want a new one.  Nothing fancy, but something that won't break or have the same problems.  Yes, it'll hurt.  Even a cheap new vacuum is a painful purchase.  But refund season is nearly here, and it needs to get done.  After waffling for a week, I inform Greg over the phone that I'm going to stop by Target, bite the bullet, and get one.

He has already informed me that he would rather get one from WalMart because WalMart's cheaper and it's the same brand name on the vacuums, anyway.  I have already made clear that I have strong moral objections to WalMart, because of their negative impact on wages, workers' rights, safety, the environment, society as a whole, and that even the same name brands will use different factories to supply WalMart over other retailers to allow those factories to cut corners to meet WalMart's low-ball prices.  I've made clear that I don't think they're the only bad actor out there, just that they lead the way.  (Also, they have guns in the store, and I, frankly, don't want to knowingly be around guns if I can help it.)

Greg's argument is that all business are evil, so it doesn't matter where I go.

Mix Bakeshop
Rooibos Tea
Carrot Cake

Okay, I'm not happy that this is the forever blog, but this is really tasty carrot cake. (It's my birthday next week, so that's going to be my excuse.)

So... did you catch what set me off yet?  Like so many times before, Greg said "all" of them.  All of these companies are evil.  It doesn't matter which them he's talking about, it's the same problem.  He thinks he has some moral high-ground because he's not racist and supports equal rights for women, and all that.  And yet, he will make blanket moral judgements against CEOs and politicians and lawyers, not to mention Republicans and anyone who lives in the South, because they're all racist, and he can say that because he lived there, and I'm just an naive, idealistic hippy.  I have told him he's disregarding all of the people who contradict those biases, and that he's a racist, just not about race.

People always try to rationalize their particular prejudice.  They'll call it a "culture of..." whatever disparaging characteristics that allow them to condemn whatever group.  Like, apparently, a "culture of laziness" encouraged by too generous government "hand-outs" is what keeps people (usually followed with "in our inner cities") from discovering the "dignity of work."  That's one way to frame it.  That's one story that has been encouraged and retold, with the end result being support for policies that would cut social programs, and feeling only an over-inflated righteousness doing so.  Or worse, feeling contempt, hatred, anger towards those who would so undeservedly "take your money."  Worse than bad policy befalls those who are seen as morally unfit, and all because of a story about why people are poor.

The other story, one that I can attest to from years of experience and abundant data, is that people are poor because of math.  Because labor is an inelastic good and social programs fall deathly short of what is needed to bridge the shortfall of our wages, especially when they are being continually hacked at.  But I've said all of this before.

But it gets back to why I was so angry over Greg's easy hatred of faceless mega-companies.  I was really damn angry.  So much so that I stewed over what he had said.  I, fortunately, had a journal and a pen and was able to start unpacking it.  And after my parking spot's time expired and I headed north towards Targets home goods department, I continued to stew.  It's an annoying marital conflict, but one I am annoyingly familiar with, at this point.  It is an important principled stance for me, but why was I so affected by his contempt for these unknown people?

Just before I reached Exit 30, I got it.  It's because I recognized that what he was doing had hurt me when other people had done it.

I was the poor kid, a Welfare Kid at a Rich Kid school.  And there was a story for poor kids.  There was a time when the story of the poor was a sympathetic one.  Not then.  One big story that covered the poor, as a whole group, or "most of them" because people always make carve-outs for those personal contradictions that they meet and like before they know to dismiss them, but "most" is really "all" no matter how many times people say they don't mean you.

So I was hurt by the believers of that story.  I was hurt emotionally, by words, day in and day out.  I was wrecked and left less a person than I could have been.  We were hurt as a family, by the insufficiency of the help, by the cuts to that paltry amount, by all the various regulations that kept us from getting back on our feet.  As an adult, I was hurt by the poverty myths that kept education unattainable, that kept wages down - "they need to be hungry or they'll get complacent and never leave their minimum wage jobs" - that kept me from ever being able to get stable, to get out of debt.  I was hurt more than I will ever be able to express when I chose to end my first pregnancy, knowing that the believers of that Lazy Poor People story would keep cutting, and cutting, at my ability to be okay.

I was hurt... and I was angry.

And yes, I know all that personal choices and accountability crap - it's a given.  Don't get distracted.  Because for all my anger and the lies about me and my family and my life, I will not use the word "Republican" as a pejorative.  Yes, the Lazy Poor People story is a Republican narrative.  Yes, this leads to terrible policies that cause real harm.  I still won't use the word with contempt.  Because Republicans are my family, too.  They're people and they come to identify themselves with that party for different reasons.  They come to believe that story - or not - for different reasons.  They're just human beings, and right now, in this country, there are only two major parties that dominate the political story.  That's not a lot to represent all the different ways of thinking and being in this place.

And trust me, I have plenty of criticisms for the Democrats.  Don't think because I criticize the one that means I'm all sunshine and roses about the other.  It's not either/or... and that's the whole damn point.

If I infuse hatred into a word that describes someone else, not only will I have a harder time reaching them and undoing some of that false narrative, I will also be denying them some of their humanity.  I will be denying myself that reality, too.  This only leads to bad places.  You can be critical - you can fight like hell against the lies and stories and the actions that cause harm.  But you can do it without creating monsters out of family.  I will not chastise anyone for speaking out, but be mindful of the words you chose to do it.

Right now, this very moment, we are in a truly precarious place in history.  We have worse than a conman, a liar, at the helm of the government - we have a gaslighter.  George W. Bush lied.  He lied and took us to war and thousands died in that fight.  Hundreds of thousands more have died in all the destablization that followed that fight.  He lied about what was known by the only people who could know it.  Donald Trump, on the other hand, lies about what people can know and see for themselves.  What on Earth will he say about the things we cannot see?

Before the election, there was a side-by-side video somebody put together that showed Donald Trump describing something that happened at a rally where Obama was speaking.  There were no cutaways, just Trump describing what happened next to a video of what actually happened.  It should be needless to say it, but they didn't match up.  Not exaggeration or one interpretation of what happened.  He flat-out lied.  It was right there - there and provable and he still lied.  And I said then, "This is all you need to know to understand why he can never be president."

And yet, here we are!

("We" are also at home now, since the coffee shop closes early this time of year.  Can't wait for Shakespeare and tourism to start up again, next month.  Bring on the thespians!  Any-hoo...)

Kitchen Table
(steadfastly ignoring really interesting Charlie Rose interview in the Living Room)
Traditional Medicinals Throat Coat - Lemon Echinacea
Graham Crackers

As I write this, it is just a few days since the "temporary ban" executive order thing was signed.  Which led massive protest.  Which led to some 3000 or more lawyers offering their services pro bono to the detained visa holders (And how does that square with your "all lawyers are evil" story, honey pie?).  Which also led to more than one court order demanding that said lawyers be allowed to meet with their detained clients.  And that has led to Customs and Border Protection officials saying "no" to the court orders.  And that has led to lawyers going back to seek a "contempt of court" ruling, and, frankly, that's all I know, because I haven't caught up to the news as of this moment because this is all happening so damn fast. 

This is scary.

This is not about keeping America safe, either, although that is how the story is being sold to those willing to believe it.  All the acts of terror committed on US soil since 9/11 have been committed by people who don't come from any of the countries included in this ban.  So this restriction would not have "kept America safe" in any of those instances.  Not one life saved.  But this ban will absolutely kill some of those seeking refuge who must now wait, or be turned back - after they've already been vetted!

But worse, this is another verse for a deadly story, told to would-be recruits...  See?  The Evil Empire hates Muslims (these were majority Muslim nations, after all, with specific carve-outs for minority religions over Muslims).  It's a holy war.  It's a war for your homeland.  They came before, they'll do it again.  Look at all the horrible things they've done...  And in the White House, right now, sit believers in the flip-side of that story.  People who actually believe that Islam, itself, is inherently evil - ignoring all the evil shit and hypocrisy in the Bible - and who are only too willing to bring their righteously unholy war.  Holy war is, in their eyes, inevitable.

For every story, there is a believer.

So what are the rest of us to do?  Believe in the better story that doesn't end in people dying, for a start.  Be skeptical when you are told anything - seriously anything - by this current administration.  Seek accurate information, and be wary of your trusted sources.  Challenge your own ideas for bias.  Over the next four years, you will need moments for self-care and check-ins and check-outs, but don't throw your hands up, altogether.  As Mad-Eye Moody would say, "CONSTANT VIGILANCE!"

I have no idea where we go from here, what the next few years will be like.  If the tagline for 2016 was "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street", a story of suspicion and turning against your neighbors to make way for alien invaders to take over, I feel like the tagline for 2017 is "That gum you like is going to come back in style."  It's a line from Twin Peaks, which is returning this year.  It's troubling for me because, while it was an awesome show and I'm looking forward to seeing the new series, it was also a pretty messed up story.  Does it portend old cycles arising of humanity at its worst?  Fascism, war, terrorism?  Or will it be a time of nostalgia - of the good kind?  A kind of second wave of global community and defiant optimism? perhaps with somewhat angrier hippies... (*waves*)

When it comes to terrorism, the precursor is the story - not the country, not the skin, not even the religion.  You cannot bomb away a story.  All you can do is offer a better story - one that seeks truth and tries to literally love the Hell out of your fellow humankind.

Humanity arrived at this moment in the Story gliding in on half a wing.  If we can just survive ourselves at this moment, imagine how, one day, we could soar.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


Mix Bakeshop
12 Decaf Americano
Veggie... thingy (I assure you, it was yummy)

Considering the shitty week, I'll start with a humorous anecdote from one of my brothers (if I recall it correctly) from his much younger days, whilst he was getting high with friends...

One friend pointed to another and said, "Dude!  There's a bubble around your head!"

Dude replied, only slightly concerned, "No, there's not."

Friend said again, but a little quieter, "Dude!  There's a bubble around your head!"

Dude replied, more concerned and his own voice dropping, "No, there's not!"

Friend repeated this over and over, until he emitted no sound as he mouthed the words: Dude!  There's a bubble around your head!

Dude shouted in fear, "THERE IS NOT A BUBBLE AROUND MY HEAD!"

They laughed.

Friend turned to my brother and pointed.  "There's a bubble around your head!"

My brother giggled.  "Pokin' a hole through it."

This same brother and I got into a conversation the other day, and the subject of bubbles came up again.  These were not tangible bubbles, either, but the metaphorical bubbles that exist that keep people from understanding each other.  Information bubbles.  We had strayed into a political discussion.  It did not go as I had expected.

I've said before that basically everyone I know is a Bernie Sanders supporter.  Now that he is, presumptively, shut out from the Democratic nomination, many of my friends are fractured over what to do next, who to support.  Some are fine voting for Hillary.  Some are unenthusiastically resigned to voting for Hillary, believing that it is too important to never allow Trump to become president.  Some are set on voting for Bernie, even if they have to go write-in.  Some are preparing to vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate.  Some are thinking of sitting it out, altogether.  Some, however, despise Hillary Clinton so much, and are so committed to seeing her not become president, that they will vote for someone they, themselves, describe as racist, vile, narcissistic, incompetent, and all-around hateful.

More than one of my Bernie-supporting loved-ones are considering, or planning on, voting for Trump.  Including my brother.

As we finished our conversation, he referred to her as "the antichrist."  All this was pretty surprising to me, since I thought we were much closer, politically.  But as we talked, I found as he was bringing things up, the way he was phrasing things started sounding more and more like it was coming from a particular sphere of information.  And I said as much.  We were trying not to delve into the topic, at all, but I tried to end with a diplomatic assessment that there were many particular charges I couldn't speak to, specifically because I hadn't heard about them, and couldn't evaluate their validity or importance.  We were coming from different info bubbles.

And that's something important to keep in mind before you start getting too judgey about other peoples' beliefs and opinions.  You don't know where they are in their information journey, so to speak.  There's certainly a mainstream information bubble, wherein Hillary Clinton is the most qualified presidential nominee, maybe ever, though there's some amount of dislike and controversy.  And then things start breaking down into the mainstream Democratic info bubble and the mainstream Republican info bubble, and then into more "fringe-y" bubbles, for lack of a better term.  And in each bubble, Ms. Clinton becomes a slightly to extremely different person, hell-bent on destroying America as we know it.

But if you are immersed in one bubble exclusively, you end up committing yourself to a certain amount of ignorance.  It's not even so much that you are ignorant of the True information, though you are bound to be missing details that keeps you from a truer version of reality.  Mostly, it's that you are keeping yourself ignorant of what the people around you think, who they are.

And if you want to poke a hole in someone's bubble, you have to first know what it's made of.

The best you can do, for yourself and for others, is to listen.  Put your ear to the other bubbles, hear what people have to say.  Seek more than one information source.  It can be difficult to listen to the hurtful, hateful stuff, but it's worth it to, at least, check in with what is being said elsewhere.  You may find real and important information you were unaware of.  At worst, you should gain a broader perspective.

...And wouldn't that be a nice short-ish blog, and shouldn't I just leave it there?  Unfortunately, it's been a busy week.  And this is going to be my last blog.

I've been trying to end this blog and make it all into a book for the last, oh, couple years, but I can't shut up.  So I kept writing and revising and adding more.  The file stands at more than 150,000 words, and my trial version of Word is about to expire.  But as I was reading through my edit-copy, I realized that much of what I wanted to say about the last few days is already written somewhere in another blog.  Not in just one, but throughout.

This blog started right after the contentious 2012 election, right before the Newtown massacre.  Both political contention and violence have scaled up since then.  I wrote about the mental health aspect of the gun debate after that.  I did not anticipate that there would be nothing done.  We had crossed the Rubicon.  How could there be nothing done?  Not even the easy, common-sense stuff that most gun-owners agree with, like universal background checks.  Not even that.  And basically nothing changed on the mental health front, either, which was the only thing the resistance wanted to discuss, if they had to discuss anything.

Many people have said that even this newest massacre will not be enough to inspire action.  The have conceded defeat.  There is no act horrifying enough, no body-count high enough, to break the thrall of gun hysteria.

I'm hoping for a different analogy.

Yes, it was Newtown.  That was the bottom for us.  We are the junkie who ODed and woke up in the ER.  We knew, then, exactly how bad things had become.  And still we kept shooting up.  Not only did we hit bottom, we kept on cracking our head against the concrete.  My hope is that this is our rehab hangover.  That is the story for some.  I hope it's ours.

If I have to be explicit: No, having more gun regulations doesn't ban guns.  Even under your most paranoid scenarios, we're a long way from that ever happening.  Also, no, this is not because of "radical Islam."  Terrorism, yes.  Islam, no.  For one thing, there are plenty of gay Muslims in mourning today.  Islam is set-dressing.  Declaring allegiance to ISIL/ISIS/whatever-you-want-to-call-them was a fanboy move, trying to tie meaning to something bigger so he could validate his insane, violence-fetish.  To put it glibly.  We're still in the early stages of information-gathering, so there's risk in trying to assign any kind of rationale.  What seems fairly obvious is that it was a hate crime against gay people.

Also, there is at least one religious figure who has publicly endorsed the actions of the Orlando terrorist.  Are we going to start calling out "radical Christianity"?  People of the LGBTQ community are disproportionately targeted for hate crimes, here especially, but around the world, as well.  There have been something like 200 bills put forth this last year trying to strip them of their rights.  People have been in a froth about where transgender people are legally able to go to the bathroom.  Why not call these hateful actions, which are almost entirely put forth by Christians, radical?  Is the ideology that promotes the hate only "radical" once someone takes it to the violent conclusion that these other people aren't really people?

If they're people, you treat them like people.  All of the time.

One of the saddest ironies for me, is that, at the same time this tragedy was taking place, I was sharing a post on Facebook about the veteran in Oregon who was just ruled to be legally "nonbinary" gendered.  This is what I had to say about the news:

I saw many comments on this article that ranged from exasperated to outright hostile.  "What next?!" they said.

I think this is great.

Frankly, I don't know 'what next' because I've never had to personally deal with these biological symptoms and feelings.  What is wonderful - and kind of exhausting, and confusing - is that we live in a time where people are beginning to believe that it's safe enough to have these honest and exploratory conversations openly.  For so long, most people were acquainted with only binary, heterosexual orientations because they were the only acceptable situations to be acquainted with.  Now, finally, people are bringing their experiences to the rest of the human conversation.  There's room.  We can roll with this.

If these folks have learned how to live with the truth hidden for so long, the rest of us can learn how to live with it openly from now on.  Frankly, figuring out the paperwork is a way easier task than figuring out how to live your life according to someone else's fiction.

...Finally feeling safe enough...

It's remarkable to me that the same people on my social media feed who are posting about how wonderful it is that this couple decided to keep this baby with a severe genetic deformity because this child is a gift and every bit as human as anybody else, are the same people posting petitions to boycott Target because they respect transgendered humans to choose their own bathroom.  Do they not see the irony?  Shaming people who wouldn't see some humans as humans, no matter how they were born different, then shaming other people because of how they were born a little different.  And frankly, I don't give a shit if it was a "lifestyle choice" because our choices are just another part of our human experience.  So long as they don't hurt anybody.

And does being gay hurt anyone?  No.  Does being trans - or non - gendered hurt anyone?  No.  Are any of those people more likely to harm someone else?  Statistically, speaking they are less likely to harm others and more likely to be the ones hurt.  Would stating that trans people can or can't use a certain bathroom affect the likelihood of a sexual predator attacking someone in a bathroom?  Nope.

Does singling out a group of people, either for the way they were born or the beliefs they were raised with (Christians, Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, all included), and judging them, diminishing their value, assigning stereotypes - just referring to them in sweeping terms, at all - does that cause harm?

I believe it is at the root of all harm.

Let's get over this, people.  Let's get past this, let's come together.  With love and compassion and room for all the people of the human spectrum...  We can make it a pretty roomy bubble...

And I will commit myself to kindness, even when I feel unkind.  Love beyond fear.  Maybe even hope beyond reason... for change.

We are not a lost cause.

Peace, my friends.  And lovingkindness...

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Human Spectrum

Rogue Valley Roasting Company
12oz Iced Soy Latte
Veggie Breakfast Burrito

In a few days I'll be meeting up with my new choir.  And by "new choir" I mean brand new just forming choir.  For the last couple years, I've been auditing the choir class offered at the local community college for free.  But my teacher departed last December for a better job, and the college has yet to fill the position.  So, when I saw an ad in the local paper looking for singers to form a new medieval choir, I summoned together all the scraps of my ego and emailed the director to set up an audition.  And then I freaked out.

The ad had said she was looking for "polished" voices.  The Fraud Police in my head were berating me for putting myself out there when I am not a fully trained singer who can read music fluently.  I mean, I know enough to ask for the bathroom and order the soup, but I'm not going to have a discussion about nineteenth century utilitarianism.  Metaphorically speaking.  But I had also had bad luck with solos.

The first time I had tried out for a solo was in my first choir class in the seventh grade.  It was terrifying.  I had spent the last six years of my life in elementary school being verbally bullied, day after day.  I was an outsider, looked down upon by most.  The only thing I took pride in was my brain.  No one could argue that I was smart.  But I also had a voice, and almost no one had heard it.  I thought it was good, but I had never shared it in front of my classmates.  I was deeply afraid, even if I didn't consciously put it in those terms at the time, that they were going to take this away from me. 

But they didn't.  When I stood in front of my class and sang, I was so quiet they had to turn down the backing music to hear me, but everyone applauded.  Later, a girl I didn't know came up to me in gym to say that she had heard I had a good voice.  I was not used to other kids coming up to me to say something nice about me.  From that validation and some others, I felt pretty sure I had gotten one of the two solos.  The class seemed pretty sure that I was going to be picked, too, because, when our teacher named, not just the two, but the four, soloists, the entire class turned to look at me.  I had not been named.  I just sat there with that punched in the chest feeling, willing my face to stay impassive, to not cry.

Shit, it still hurts.  It had taken so much to get up there and I knew how well I had done.  I was quiet that first time, but that's fixable with just a little bit of encouragement and practice.  And let's not forget, there would have been a damn microphone in front of me.  I know that getting passed up wounded me more deeply than it would have affected others because of all the wounds I had going into it.  I don't think my teacher had any idea of who I had been at my other school.  I don't know what drove his decision to go to with the louder singers rather than try to teach this little mousey voice to be a stronger singer.  I don't know if he didn't want to bother trying to teach me or if he thought it would motivate me to sing out more next time.

It didn't.

I didn't try out again for a long time.  When I did finally get a solo, I screwed up by accidentally telling off my friend in the front row loud enough for the mic to pick it up and boom my mutterance across the auditorium.  A later solo - a beautiful duet with a very talented friend of mine - got scrapped because our teacher spent so much time chewing out a classmate that he declared auditions over before we had tried out.  Audition sooner next time, he said.

After that, I moved, and when I found my new choir to be a little more "jazz-hands" than I really cared for, I dropped the class.  I stopped singing for a long time, even at home.  That was a mistake.  I've never fully recovered that high soprano of my youth, and later solos have been unwieldy or underwhelming.  To my ears, anyway.  I've still had compliments, which helps.  But putting myself out there again is incredibly difficult.

And that is part of the reason that I keep putting myself out there - because it does scare me.  I love music, and I love singing.  I don't want to lose it again.  Yet, most of the people who know me still have never heard me sing.  So, I sing in choirs because I love to sing, and I audition in front of people because I want to be able to sing in front of people alone without being scared of them.  I've come a long way with that, but I discovered that there is still so much anxiety bound up in doing it.

I had gotten myself to send that email because I had decided that I would let this new choir director decide if my voice was "polished" enough, instead of culling myself ahead of time on her behalf.  But it had still taken me a couple hours to write those few lines.  And when she replied, it took a couple days to get through the full-on panic attacks to reply back.  But somewhere in there, in the backs and forths and reschedulings, I decided to trust her.

Instead of expecting Simon Cowell, or the other belligerent bullies who made me miserable at school, I decided I would expect the best of this potential new choir director.  I would expect that she is warm and friendly and encouraging.  Maybe I would have another sucky audition, or maybe it would go well but I still wouldn't be a good fit for the new group, but I decided that she would still not be all "judgey" and condescending, and would not accuse me of wasting her time as a professional.  And if she did, well that was something she would need to work on as a person.

Fortunately, she turned out to be just as warm and friendly as I could hope for.  My audition did suck, in many ways.  I left my music at home and my water in the car.  The music, I turned out not to need as I had pretty well memorized all three pieces, and she supplied me with a cup of water, because it turns out that my throat turning into Death Valley right before I have to sing is just a thing my body does.  We chatted for a bit, then she let me pick which piece to do first.  I said, let's do the one I'm sucking at right now.  I had pretty well taught it to myself between the sheet music and YouTube, but I could not get the trills down.  She even let me try it a second time.  A little smoother, but I still bombed on the trills.  I think she appreciated my "let's do it anyway" attitude.

The next two pieces went better.  At 37, with two small children to yell at ("Get OFF your brother!"), my voice is not a little mouse anymore.  It's not a high soprano anymore, either - I sang the "Ave Maria" chant a second time as a tenor, to give a sense of my range.  And since we're doing medieval pieces, which were mostly sung by men, having a deeper range worked as an advantage over the many "coloratura" sopranos who also auditioned.  I was eventually selected to fill one of the three soprano slots in this new choir.

So, while that all feels like an overly long and self-indulgent preamble, it ties in with a lot of what I've been writing about over the life of this blog.  A little bit about my sensitivities and struggles coping with my anxieties, a little bit of the "I kiss my fear on the mouth" mantra I have tattooed to encourage me to overcome them.  And it's a little bit about how society often shows a lack of support for people who don't "fit."

Why are people so afraid of public speaking?  Because we are afraid of what the group will do when we focus its attention on us.  In a state of nature, if we are kicked out of the group, then our survival is very much more at risk.  So nowadays, when we put ourselves out there to be judged, we still feel that primal fear of rejection as a matter of life and death.  And let's be honest, even in our modern stability, we do not cultivate a culture of encouragement and acceptance.  Instead, we cultivate competitiveness and dominance.

But that's a broad generalization.  There are many individuals, many localized spaces, that are supportive and accepting.  Just imagine if that's what this society did as a rule.  What would it be like if we rallied around each other?  What if we didn't try to make people feel threatened, separate?  What if we didn't try to make people fit in and instead allowed them to be in, as they are?

From my early life, I had been degraded and bullied, up close at school, and from afar by the media proxies who scorned the poors.  This, as well as my innate sensitivities, left me in greater need of feeling secure within the group.  My difficulty sharing something precious to me, something I enjoy - music - is just one way this damage has manifested.

This last January, I did another whirlwind trip to SoCal (nobody had died, this time).  I was able to meet up with an old friend at Santa Monica's 3rd Street Promenade.  We had discovered that, during our long absence from each other's lives, we had both had sons at around the same time, and both of these beautiful boys had turned out to be on the Autism Spectrum.  We sat there for a while talking about how each differed and how they were the same.  Her son is especially fond of asking pretty girls if he can give them a hug.  It helps that he's adorable and a five year-old.

We talked about the challenges of being out with each of them and our strategies for dealing with their respective outbursts or challenging behaviors.  We talked about how other people did or didn't deal with it.  I had considered, at one time, printing up little cards with a brief explanation of what the Autism Spectrum is so that I could hand one to people when I couldn't talk to them because I had to deal with Henry.  I had seen a few examples online that often came off as confrontational and snarky.  Some of my friends had also argued that it's none of anybody's business what's going on with my son and I didn't owe them any kind of explanation.  It's on them for being ignorant and intolerant, they said.

The problem, I said that afternoon in January, is that people are not shown how to handle people on the Spectrum.  Not just the Autism Spectrum, but the Human Spectrum, too.  Some people are going to have outbursts.  Some people are going to be overly sensitive to different things.  Some people are going to be loud and yell at you for no discernible reason.  Some people are going to need to open and close every door they see.  Some people are going to be unable to touch any door unless they have a glove on.

Some people are just going to have bad days.

The healthiest solution is to cultivate a society that is more aware of the diversity of mental health behaviors and is more accepting, in general.  We should scorn scorn.  There are always boundaries and caveats, but that is the direction to aim for.  That is the goal.

And in the meantime, we have to try to trust other people to be understanding.  Many of them will be.  There are many more people who want to see you succeed than want to tear you down.  And for those who would show hostility or indifference when you are vulnerable, we need to not elevate their failure to be kind and understanding.  We need to be sympathetic that they have fallen victim to society's failure to teach them compassion.  We don't know their story, either.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

In this world

Mix Bakeshop
Decaf Soy Cappuccino
Ginger Cookie


"Mommy?  Is Moby in this world?"
"Yes, Oliver.  Moby's a real person."
"But where is he?"
"Somewhere in California...?"
"Because it's a lovely state, dear..."


"Mommy?  Is Dr. Bruce Banner in this world?"
"No, Ovi.  He's just pretend."
"Welp...  I will want to be the Hulk for Halloween, and I want Daddy to be Iron Man, and Henry to be Captain America, and I want you to be Thor, Mommy."
"What happened to being a superhero-fairy-knight?"
"I'm going to be that, too.  I just need the big green Hulk hands!"
"No.  More.  Costumes."


"Mommy, I know Santa Claus is in this world, but he's just pretend."
"...Hmm.  I'm not sure you've quite got this one, O-boy."
"He's real?!"
"Not exactly...  There was a real person, who lived long ago, who gave gifts to all the little children in his little town.  And over many, many years, his story - the story of his kindness - became the story of Santa Claus which we tell today."
"Does Santa live at the mall?"
"No, little love.  The real Santa isn't in this world anymore.  The Santa that we see every year and take our picture with is just a kind person who dresses up in a Santa costume to help people celebrate Christmas.  It's just like when you dressed up as a fireman to celebrate this Halloween."


"Why are you covering your eyes, Ovi?"
"I don't like this commercial!"
"You know Star Wars is just pretend, right?"
"Yeah, but the guys on there have the things that poke holes in people!"
"Oh...  You don't like the Stormtroopers because they have guns?"
"Yeah!  But I like the music, that's why I'm just covering my eyes!"

"Mommy?  Can we look up the Star Wars commercial on YouTube?"

"I want the shoes that light up, Mommy!"
"You're sure you're okay having Kylo Ren on your shoes?"

"And here we meet our first hero... Princess Leia..."


"Hey, Stormtrooper!  Wanna hear a joke about killing bad guys?  Pew-pew!!"

I never taught him to say "pew-pew", nor did he hear it from anyone else, so far as I can tell.

"I don't want you to die, Mommy."
"Me neither!  But I'm not going to die, baby, not for a long time..."
"But I don't want you to die ever!"
"It's okay, babylove...  Someday, most likely a long, long time from now, when I'm very old and my body's done... eventually, it'll be my time to die."
"But I will be too sad!"
"It's okay to be sad.  And it's okay for people to die.  You know how much you want to be a daddy, someday, and have a baby?  Well, think about all the babies being born right now, and how they are going to grow up, too, and have their own babies...  If the older people didn't die, there would be no room for all the babies to be born.  But we've got a long, long time to spend together before that happens..."


"When I'm a grown-up, I'm going to make a merry-go-round that makes people be alive again, so when you die I'm going to put you on my merry-go-round and you won't be dead anymore, Mommy, and we can all be alive together - you and me and Daddy and Henry and my baby and the lady that I will make my baby with..."


"Mommy?  Did you know that it's a good thing that people die, so they can make room for the babies?"
"Yes, I think I've heard that before..."

"I'm going to kill the rest of the spaghetti..."
"Don't say that word, Daddy!"
"No!  Kill!  That's a bad word - I don't like that word!"
"Says the boy building lightsabers and blasters out of his blocks..."
"But I need to kill the Stormtroopers to keep you safe, Mommy!"
"You know you can also put them in jail, right?  You don't always have to kill the bad guy, right?"
"It's just pretend, Mommy.  Stormtroopers aren't really in this world."


"Can I talk to you now, Mommy?"
"Yes, baby...  Thank you for waiting so patiently for Mommy to be calm again...  I appreciate it."
"I don't like that you get so sad sometimes."
"I know, baby...  But I'm not sad all the time.  I've got a bad headache, and it's harder for me to be calm like I should be when I'm hurting a lot...  But I'm okay now.  I'm not sad now..."
"I will be so sad when you die someday."
"Yeah, but you know that's a long time from now..."
"When I'm a grown-up, I will make a machine to make the Earth bigger every time a baby is born, and bigger and bigger so there's always room..."
"...So nobody ever has to die to make room for the new people..."
"Yeah, 'cause I love you and I love the babies!"
"Well, that would have significant gravitational ramifications for the other planets, but it's a sweet idea, honey-love..."


Case Coffee
Soy Cappuccino
Vegan Donut

...and that's about where I thought I was going to finish.  The coffee shop was closing and I thought I would wrap up at home with some kind of closing thought.  But then this happened the very next day...

"Mommy!  I need you to make my sandwich!"
"In a little bit, baby.  I want to finish what I'm reading..."

Scroll, scroll, scroll...

"Mommy!  I need you to make my sandwich now before the end of the episode!"
"I said in a minute, Oliver."

Scrolling on...

"Mommy?  Do you want to be alive anymore days?"
"I want to be alive a lot more days..."
"Then you better make my sandwich right now!"

There is a loud record scratch inside my head.

I look at the quiet fury in his tiny, scrunched face.  I get up, turn off the TV and the DVD player, then sit back down and stare at him for another few moments.

"You wanna try that again?"

He is unable to speak in his anger.

"Did you just threaten Mommy?  Did you just say that if I didn't make you a sandwich I wouldn't be alive anymore? that you'd kill Mommy?"

He says, very quietly, his face still tight with anger and all kinds of emotional discomfort, "Yes."

He is a stubborn child.  Stubborn, precocious, and deeply sensitive.  I stare at him a moment more.

"I don't think you want to kill me.  I know you love Mommy.  But you're frustrated.  You're frustrated that you can't get what you want, and you don't know how to get Mom to do what you want.  You feel like you have no control, so the only thing you can think of doing is threatening to hurt me.  But you don't really want to hurt me, do you?  You just don't know what to do."

He crawls into my lap and wraps his arms around my neck and cries.  I start to rock him and rub his back.

"Let's just sit here and cuddle for a bit..."

While we were sitting there, rocking, I couldn't help thinking that, as disconcerting as the situation was, that I'd handled it right.  There are many times that I've blown up at the boys for something like that, for threatening to hurt each other, or actually hurting each other.  I know that yelling or spanking or using any rough physicality with them (yanking them by the arm, picking them up and throwing them onto the bed) is useless, ineffective and emotionally scarring.  I've known it every time I've done it.  Which is not every time, of course, and anytime I do overreact I make sure to talk to them about why my behavior was wrong, too, and what we can do to maybe not get to that point.  I feel like I've said all this before.  The good thing is that we've all been getting better at this.  My outbursts are less frequent, Henry's are much more predictable and manageable when they come.  And Oliver... well, he's 4.  He's very, very 4 years-old.  Which means he's still learning.

This is not quite where I thought this blog was heading when I began it.  I thought it was basically a cute reflection at Oliver's evolving understanding of the world... of what and who is real, of existence and the inevitable end of our existence...  But I think this also illustrates just how much we are shaping and guiding his moral worldview.  It hasn't been easy, and there's a lot that I still don't know quite how to handle.

I never wanted to emphasize guns or violence, even fantasy violence.  But I knew that we couldn't suppress those things.  They are too present in our society and they would encounter them sooner or later.  My brothers and I played with toy (or pretend) guns when we were little kids.  Some psychologists argue that it's healthy for kids to pretend fight bad guys and monsters, that it teaches them that they can conquer the things that scare them.

I wonder, though, if "conquering" our fears isn't a concept entrenched in our violent culture.  Does the thought of "slaying" the imaginary dragon translate to suppressing unwanted emotions?  Should we be teaching kids how to live with their dragons instead?  (There is a book to that effect called, "You've Got Dragons", but it's probably more for school-age kids).  Are the boys too young to introduce them to all these moral complexities?  Should we continue to let them "pew-pew!" the bad guys, and just gradually continue to introduce them to the practice of empathizing with others?

We've pretty much tended towards the latter strategy, using the vernacular of the social norms that surround us.  We've let the boys wear their Star Wars t-shirts, each with a picture of mass murderer Darth Vader on them - a big-headed cartoonish Vader on Ovi's, and a Lego version on Henry's.  At this point, it seems futile to fight the appeal of one of world's most popular science fiction franchises.  We have decided to take them through the movies ourselves (we started with Episodes 4 - 6, and have gone back and begun the prequels), so we can try to avoid the worst parts, and so we can discuss some of the motivations and choices of the characters.  And it seems to be paying off.

Later, the same day as Oliver's peanut butter sandwich meltdown...

Oliver and I had picked up Henry from school, and I was helping them with their seatbelts.  I gave each one a kiss and told them I loved them before crawling out of the back and reentering the front.

"And do you love everybody in this world just a little bit, Mommy?"
"Yes, Ovi.  I really do."
"Even the bad people?"
"Yeah.  And sometimes that's really hard because there are people that have done some really bad stuff.  Just like Darth Vader did some really bad stuff-"
"But he's a good guy!"
"Not while he was Vader.  He did some really terrible stuff-"
"But why did Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader?"
"Well... he was a good guy.  He did a lot of good things, but he also had a lot of fear and anger... and people can do bad things when they're hurting like that... and that's what lead him to the dark side, to Vader... Doing the bad things made him feel powerful, like he could control all those things that made him scared and hurt..."
"But he became a good guy again at the end..."
"That's right.  He thought he was bad, and had to stay bad because of all he'd done.  But Luke knew that there was still good in him.  Deep down, he still wanted to be good, and because Luke saw that, and because he believed that his father could be good after all that he had done, Vader saw it too and became Anakin again...  The Emperor was never conflicted.  He only ever wanted power, and he never cared if he was doing something good or bad.
"And that's why it's hard but I try to love everyone, just a little bit, because you don't know if the bad guys in this world are Darth Vader and can be saved, or are the Emperor...  Either way, I'm going to go with love...
"You remember how you were frustrated earlier and said something very bad?"
"What did I do?  Did I yell and punish you?"
"You said I can't have ice cream tonight..."
"Yeah, and that stands.  But right then I talked to you, and I hugged you tight.  That's the love..."
"What about Kylo Ren?"
"We'll have to wait and see..."

As I said before, Oliver is four (four and a half, to be more precise), and Henry just turned six.  They don't really want to hear Mom wax philosophic.  They have both, at times, told me they don't want to hear my voice anymore.  So I try to not overdo the speeches, and focus instead on show-don't-tell teaching.  But it's still important to talk, and to keep talking, and to look for the moments when you can - or must - redirect their focus.  It's just really hitting me now how different that focus could be with different guides.

later that night...

Tucking in the boys, Oliver kissed me and wrapped his arms around my neck.

"Good night, babylove..."

He whispered in my ear, "You're my favorite mommy and my favorite person..."

Monday, March 14, 2016

Skeptics and circle-squarers

Mix Bakeshop
Decaf Americano
Chocolate Croissant

It's Pi Day!  So I thought it would be a perfect day to talk about circle-squarers: people who are unreasonable about irrational numbers.

Circle-squarer is a pretty obscure reference, and it relates directly to pi.  Pi is a specific number equal to the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter.  Exactly the same ratio for any size of circle.  Specific, but not exactly friendly to our base-10 number system.

For millennia, humans have tried to pin down pi as an easy number that can be written on a single line of a single piece of paper, either in decimal form or, even better, as a fraction.  They've gotten closer in some times and places than in others.  The Bible said pi equaled 3, which was maybe the least accurate guess.  In reality, it's 3 and a smidge.  And for the last few hundred years we've been getting really good at determining the value of that smidge.  But we can only get so far because pi is only exact in its own number base - in base 10, the number goes on and on with no end in sight.

I used to have pi memorized to a modest 12 digits (my copy of "The Joy of Pi" has pi printed to the millionth digit), but most of my math classes used 3.14159 for practical purposes.  And the average J.Q. American gets by with 3.14.  But mathematicians are certain that pi goes on well past even the billionth digit, and have been for a long time.  This makes it an "irrational" number.  Yet, despite this communal certainty, every so often some young mathematician will proclaim that they have found the actual value or pi - and its terminus!  And if pi is not irrational, as we pretty well know it to be, then you could, in mathematical terminology, "square the circle."  Thus, these bold but misguided, would-be truth-speakers are called "circle-squarers."

In other words, it's a nerd burn, and it roughly translates to "birther."

The question is, what makes someone believe something so wrong in the face of so much knowledge to the contrary?  Well, partly, because they are not always wrong.  Sometimes it is the well-established "knowledge" that is wrong.  That was the case with Einstein, who's birthday it is today.  Funny enough, he was born 100 years, 1 month, 1 week, and 1 day before I was.  Not that that means anything.

So, back before Einstein was Einstein, the scientific community initially pushed back against his new theory.  But, because scientists know how to science, some became open to his theory and later endorsed it, after they made the observations that could confirm it.  Bam!  Nobel in Physics. 

Okay, to be fair, that whole process took many, many years and much analysis.  Science generally doesn't 'Bam!' unless it's on Mythbusters.  Science is about a method of determining reality.  Or trying to, anyway.  I have glibly said that scientific laws are laws as long as they work.  When you run into a bit of reality that doesn't fit into your model, you first go through the process of determining whether or not it really happened, then see if your model can be tweaked to accommodate the new reality.  If it can't, you start looking again for a better model.

That's probably the greatest virtue of science - letting go of cherished misbeliefs to seek the truth in earnest.

But scientists are also people and have all the same flaws that other people do.  They have biases, prejudices.  Fortunately, scientists are aware of this and try to minimize the risk of their own biases ruining their work by faithfully following the rigors of the scientific method, carefully noting how they followed these rules, what data they found, and then offering all this up to other scientists to check their work.  The more people scrutinizing the work, the more confident everyone can be in the conclusion.

So how does bad science still get through the checks and balances and pass into Common Knowledge?

Firstly, if it's not science but propaganda.  And the best propaganda is put out - by scientists!  As I said, scientists are still human, and even they can be bought.  I recently shared an article on my Facebook page about how a corporation influenced a university to declare that their study showed the corporation's product had astounding health benefits.

They said special milk prevented concussions.  Yeah.

But that was such an obvious red flag to the rest of the scientific community that the statements were quickly retracted "pending further investigation."  What about when the red flags aren't so obvious?  That's the problem.

These days you can pretty much find an "expert" for any point of view.  Experts who are legitimate, trained experts who are espousing a false view because... the payoff is too good to refuse, or they have too much ego or bias on the line to see that they are wrong, that the data is really inconclusive but they want it to mean something it doesn't, or because they are talking about stuff that's not even in their own field that they don't know is incorrect but they trust whoever told them... and the like.  Then there are the experts who are outright frauds, fake doctors or paper universities with names that sound like the names of reputable institutions... and so on.  It's hard to know who is a trustworthy source of information.

What's harder is that fact that so many people don't care too much about being well-informed or scrutinizing the source of their information.  They accept the information of chosen authority figures (experts) and don't much utilize the other means of knowing the world.

Way back a million years ago when I was in college for the first time, I took ye old philosophy 101 and we discussed four ways in which we gain knowledge: authority, tautology, empiricism, and logic.  I think.  It's been a while.  Anyway.

Authority is obvious - someone tells you something and you believe it.  Tautology is something that is true by definition.  As in, 2 plus 2 equals 4, because that's the way we have defined those values and operations.  Tautologies are useful in math proofs because you're basically stating the same thing but in a slightly different way, which you may need to reach a particular conclusion.  That's why "tautological" also gets used interchangeably (though not always correctly) with the word "redundant."

On to empiricism, which basically means observations.  I can determine, empirically, that it is dark outside because I'm looking out a great big window and it's night.  But seeing that it's dark doesn't tell me whether or not it's also cold.  I'd have to go out there and feel it or, even better, get a thermometer.  And hope the thermometer is accurate. (Technology is kind of an authority figure, too, isn't it?)  But I also might be able to determine that it's cold outside by combining the empirical observation that many people are walking by wearing coats and other cold-weather clothing with the logical observation that most people wear coats when they are cold.

Logic.  I love logic.  I kid you not, symbolic logic was my favorite class of my "some college" career.  It's so clear and... well, logical...  It has distinct rules, known fallacies, and understood limitations.  Sometimes there is no logical conclusion to a given question.  God is like that for me.  As I understand logic and as I understand physical reality, I don't believe you can make a logic-based argument for God's existence or non-existence.  To me, God's nature is outside the rules of nature and, thus, beyond the knowable.  And I'm okay with that.  But maybe, someday, someone will convince me one way or another.  I'm okay with that, too.

cold decaf americano
cold pasta

Okay, what was my point?

Well, this reflection on knowledge has really been prompted by a some appallingly untrue things floating around lately.  But rather than parse them all, the point is what this abundance of untruth says about the state of knowledge today.  In short - we don't think.  Some would say, cynically, that it's always been like this, with a statistical handful of people doing the intellectual heavy-lifting, and another handful of people utilizing or distorting those ponderings to mobilize the opinions and behaviors of the masses.  I still say it's different today.

Historically, most of the intellectual exploration was done by the educated, the scholars.  Yes, I know there were many exceptions.  Broadly speaking, however, the masses knew that they were at an informational disadvantage and had to, therefore, rely on trusted authority figures to explain their opinions to them.  Again - broad generalizations, I know.

But this is the Hyper-Information Age.  Somehow with the opportunity to be well-educated and continuously and accurately informed, we have instead become excessively passive in our pursuit of knowledge.  And also, our exposure to differing opinions has become narrower.  I blame all the algorithms designed to sell us things, even sell us the "optimal" social media experience.  And when we only see the same opinions bouncing back at us from the same kind of people - our Opinion Tribe - not only do we have less opportunity to hear other opinions, our own opinions feel more valid because they are more readily reinforced.

This is a breeding ground for the low-scrutiny of bad data.  This is the very reason you need friends at your table who don't agree with you on everything, to push back when you say something dumb.

If you told me that some study or other proved that raising the minimum wage reduced poverty and crime and did many other positive things, I'd probably say, "Yeah, that sounds about right," and maybe not even glance to see whether or not a recognizable institution conducted the research.  But if you told me that some study showed that raising minimum wage caused massive unemployment and runaway inflation, I'd say, "Let me see that..." and I'd scrutinize the heck out of that study, starting with who conducted it, when, under what circumstances, and what measures they used to reach their conclusions, and what confounding factors they did or didn't account for.  And we'd both be better off in the end because we would have more confidence in stating whether or not that particular study was accurate or bunk.

But in the absence of that scrutiny, we leave ourselves more vulnerable to misinformation.  If we don't even look at how we know what we think we know, we commit ourselves to ignorance.  Instead of being the strong, well-informed, dynamic people we could be, we instead make ourselves somebody else's tool.

There will be times we make mistakes, reasonable ones, too.  People we thought were reasonably trustworthy, neutral arbiters of information, may lead us astray.  Perhaps unknowingly.  The important part is to be both vigilant and humble, and don't just say you've considered that argument from both sides unless you've really putting the effort in.  I've seen plenty people give lip-service to objectivity and then go on to say clearly ignorant things.  Instead, go to the people who say you're wrong and ask them what information has convinced them of their opinions.  You show me your data and I'll show you mine.

And maybe you both are citing experts with the same title - compare those too.  Is it one or two fringey scientists with known biases versus a pantheon of scientists and well-respected institutions?  Is it a political think tank versus the CDC or the like?  If your side seems like the less credible one, it might still be right, but that is usually not because of some big conspiracy undertaken by the government or mainstream institutions.  What you have to answer is, "What would it take for this to be true?  What is the real probability that what I think I know is right?"

Am I Einstein or just a circle-squarer?

Monday, February 15, 2016

Can empty pockets ever make the grade?

Downtowne Coffee
Veggie Burrito

I like to serenade my dishes.  Most often, I start with "Black Coffee" a la Ella, or "God Bless the Child" by Lady Day.  The lyrics are particularly poignant when I'm feeling all disenfranchised.  Billie Holiday was apparently inspired by an argument with her mother about money, but I see a pretty easy metaphor for our modern economy.

Yes, the strong get smart
while the weak ones fade.
Empty pockets don't
ever make the grade.
Mamma may have.
Papa may have.
But God bless the child
that's got his own,
that's got his own...

Last week (or so), when a couple of well-respected Hillary surrogates took heat for the way they scolded Millennial women for their overwhelming lack of support for a fellow woman, it revealed to me, not a hypocritical sexism from feminist trailblazers, but an astounding lack of understanding of the financial state of the younger generation.  In their (Albright and Steinem and Hillary) generation, there was a clear need for feminist reforms, and they had to fight like hell to win liberties younger women now enjoy.  And we younger women know that, and know that we have further to go and much to protect that is under threat.  But to dismiss the views of Millennial women as if they were ignorant, entitled, and over-sexed girls? It blew my mind.

That dismissal says to me that, while liberals might generally understand that there is an unfair, unequal distribution of wealth and that people are struggling, they don't have a tangible sense of the desperate state we are in.  Millennials, male or female, break towards Bernie because they are the economy's polar bears, struggling in open water, frantic to find some of that fast-dwindling ice, and he is the only one who has been giving their plight the sense of urgency it is due.

The fact of the matter is that the further removed you are from the start-up stages of your economic life, the less likely you are to have an accurate sense of today's economy.  The numbers have changed and continue to change at an exponential rate.  Exponential.  There was a time when a summer job could put you through college, and when that was all it took, the outcomes could be very different.  Today, a student will most likely have to work throughout the school year - something that has been shown to bring down grades, proportionally to the number of hours worked - and will have to take out substantial loans, even if they qualify for government assistance or scholarships.  And they better hope they can make all that work because if they don't have some kind of degree when they finally leave school, they will be hobbled in the job market.  Even with a degree, they are having an especially difficult time finding a job that pays enough to pay back those loans, let alone build a life, career, and family.

Even under the best circumstances, debt is a mental burden.  But when the low-wage job you took because it was the best you could get doesn't allow you to pay down your debt and you know that you can never have those student loans expunged, debt can be outright lethal.  Seeing no way out, having no hope that things are going to change - that has devastating consequence.  And this is not a niche concern of a small portion of the populace.  This is a substantial burden on an entire generation, and the rest of the population is not untouched, either.  It seems, however, that the older generations, on the highest metaphorical ground, are having trouble seeing those furthest out at sea.

And to those of any generation living in the thin air atop Mt. Denali, we don't even register as driftwood.

Whether or not Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee, he has succeeded in grabbing hold of the party and hauling its focus to the left.  Too long politics has been under the thrall of laissez faire capitalism.  The right has been far too successful in conflating anarchy-capitalism with Freedom.  I would love to hear the left make the argument for democratic capitalism, to invoke the presence of inelastic goods to explain why some kind of regulations will always be needed in certain markets to ensure our minimal security and, yes, our freedom.

For the record, I can vote for Hillary, and she has, personally, been very diplomatic and humble in reaching out to younger women.  I am certainly leaning towards Bernie, at the moment, but I feel like I need to do a little more reading to be really confident about it.  Should she become president, though, I hope Hillary puts less emphasis on winning the game as it is (which she is more than capable of doing) and more on making the game what it should be.

That'll have to do or I'm going to be late.  No edits.

Peace and love, hippy chics!

Monday, January 18, 2016

No shit Sherlock

Rogue Valley Roasting Co.
Vegetarian Breakfast Burrito
12oz Soy Butterscotch Mocha (Foamy!)

I never read much by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but I do enjoy his literary creations.  The recent Hollywood adaptations with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are fun (and nice to look at), though I think I'm more partial to the BBC's Benedict Cumberbatch-Martin Freeman version - still fun (and nice to look at), but less gory than its American television counterpart (which is still, nice to look at).  But as entertaining as it is, in any of these versions, to watch a super-hot guy make impossible deductions with his super-hot intellect, I've realized that, in real life, that exact behavior bugs the hell out of me.

It took me a long time to figure out that this was at the core of what drove me crazy about my ex.  It crystallized in this analogy:

Me: My favorite color is blue.
Him:  No it's not - it's red.
Me:  No... It's blue.
Him:  You're wearing a red shirt.  You just bought a poster with a giant red rose.  Even your microwave is red.
Me:  It's my favorite color!  And my favorite color is blue!
Him:  Fine... now you like blue.
Me:  No!  It has always been blue!  I can like any other color I want, but I decide what my favorite color is, and myyyyyyyyy favorite color is Mother. Fucking. Blue!!
Him:  Whatever.  If you want to change your story and like blue now, that's fine.  Be in denial.  I don't understand why you're getting so emotional over it.

My ex.

It also occurred to me, after reading more about the trend of "gaslighting" women in our society, that this is a really good example of it.  But, frustrating though he could be, my ex was not a bad guy and he would definitely consider himself a feminist.  In his case, this behavior was not his subconscious feelings of intellectual and emotional superiority over women.  Rather, he very consciously felt intellectually and emotionally superior to basically everybody.

And therein lies my problem: that decisive intellect.  Yes, my ex is a smart guy - that was a major part of his appeal.  But the arrogance... ugh.  Just because you may have an exceptional ability to make connections, doesn't mean those connections are always correct.  Just because you perceive something, and there seems to be a likely conclusion, that doesn't mean you can make that conclusion, categorically.  And so many people do this!

What is entertaining, intellectually thrilling from the Sherlock character, is more like arrogant judgmentalism from these real-life, would-be geniuses.  If you're Sherlock Holmes, you see a red microwave on the counter and you can render a complete psychological profile, give the person's whereabouts at the time of the murder, and the whole why-the-who-dunnit.  And because you're Sherlock Holmes, the writer will, obligingly, make your conclusions correct.  In real life, however - no.

The truth of the matter is that even the most brilliant minds are not all-knowing.  Such minds can make tremendous connections, have profound insights that others might take half a lifetime to reach.  That doesn't make their insights infallible.  That doesn't keep them from seeing connections that aren't really there.  That, especially, doesn't mean they can then draw conclusions about the way people or things will be, however far off, in the future.  But when you add the arrogance of knowing just how smart they are, that can keep them from admitting, or even seeing, when they are wrong about any piece of it.

As much as someone might seem to have such-and-such an opinion or motivation or personality, no one else can say definitively why they are doing anything, or how they truly think and feel.  By all means, offer me your perception of me... but don't think you're right about me.  Only I can say what is my favorite color.  If I dream of a cigar, only I can say if I was really thinking about a cigar or if I was... ruminating on the merits of ending the American embargo of Cuba.

And no one gets to say that, even if all our debts were paid, we lived in our own little house with a yard for the boys to play, and all broken things were fixed, that I'd still be unhappy, because that's just how I am, that's just how I'm choosing to be.  Fuck you, Sherlock.  I'm the only one who has been with me from the start.  I'm the only one who has a chance of knowing me, and knowing how I might be in the future.  No one else gets to decide that for me.

And you don't have to be an annoying smarty-pants to act like you know it all.  Politicians are rife with this attitude.  Obviously, you have to have a considerable amount of confidence and ego to get out there and sell yourself and convince total strangers that you have the Answer.  The hazard is that this does not foster an open and considerate mind.  Flexibility comes off as being weak-minded, with weak convictions.  But overcompensating with this undue decisiveness encourages prejudices against ideas, against data, even against whole groups of people.

The truly brilliant thinkers are humble.  The smartest people know how to listen - and how to be wrong.  The real geniuses of the world should give their every definitive conclusion an asterisk.  Especially, when you are trying to understand people.  Wisdom is knowing that you're probably wrong about something, and that insight - wisdom - can come from anyone, not just sexy, fictional detectives, or real-world, crazy-haired scientists.  And definitely not from most politicians.