Thursday, July 28, 2011

One Man's Crazy is Another Man's Wholesale Cultural Condemnation

I've been indulging in a meditation lately on relativism, vis a vis the world going to hell in a handbasket.  We were doing okay when one man's trash was another man's treasure, but I'm talking about bigger stakes: One man's human rights  (or two men's, as the case may be) are another man's abomination. One man's social responsibility is another man's wasteful spending.  One man's holy war is another man's crime against humanity. You get the idea.  The irony here is that everyone involved is pretty certain of their position.  In the mathematics of social ideology, Perceived Objective Truth + Perceived Objective Truth = No Functional Objective Truth.

It's really not all that noteworthy.  I don't think there's anyone who doesn't have some kind of narrative to explain why they do the things they do, whether they're professors or garbage men or 4-years-old or schizophrenic.  When confronted with the suggestion that they've acted badly, they can offer what is, for them, a perfectly reasonable explanation of why they did it.  The logic may be faulty and/or the moral judgment may not sit well with a segment of the population (or in some cases, community standards), but by and large, people are doing things for a reason, and in their minds, at least, a good one.

Given that militant commitment to subjective morality is the name of the game in the twin cesspools of  politics and public discourse, this headline in today's New York Times gave me pause: Lawyer Says Suspect in Norway Attacks is InsaneGosh, lawyer, you think?

I'm not the first person to point out that the reception of this suspect relative to other terrorism suspects.  I've already read a number of op eds and blog entries and facebook-repost zingers noting that the same mostly conservative, mostly Christian folks eager to define terrorism as the purview of (inherently-evil) Muslims have managed to give Anders Breivik a religious hall pass.  He may be a Christian, but not a good Christian, and isn't their denunciation of his acts proof that real Christians are the standard-bearers of moral righteousness? [Insert tired argument that moderate Muslims "aren't speaking out against terrorism"]

Well, gang, I hate to bust up the xeno-/teleo-phobic party, but no. Just like I don't expect English majors to apologize for the Virginia Tech shooter because they share intellectual interests, I don't expect religious communities, nations, or other cultural subsets held together a tenuous group of shared characteristics to apologize when one of their number loses it.  Whatever identifiers were in play before the attacks, there's really only one that actually defines this guy, and his lawyer hit the nail on the head.  Breivik is insane. In my mind, that doesn't let him off the hook, it just means that pundits on all sides need to stop trying to make any meaningful points about terrorism, causation, religion or any other pet subject based on the actions of one cracked egg. 

This guy probably had a lot of things in common with a lot of very disparate folks.  Those people didn't gun down children.  Let's not pretend we can extrapolate things about Christians, or, say, Norwegians, based on one who did.

Of course in the context of legal proceedings, the definition of insanity is itself a little whacked.  I'm neither a lawyer nor a psychiatrist, but my understanding is that insanity, as determined by court-appointed experts, is a condition in which the perpetrator was unaware that their actions were wrong.

In my mind, this is where things go off the rails a bit:  The question isn't really whether they were aware that their actions were wrong (which suggests an objective, universal standard), but whether they were aware that other people would judge their actions to be wrong.  It's one of the reasons that the insanity defense is so seldom successful:  no matter what deluded logic makes a person feel vindicated in committing a heinous act, most of the time they understand that their convictions are at odds with society at large.

There's a lot a wingnuts with a martyr-complex and optimistic lawyers.  Generally, if someone is caught murdering people, they'll do their level best to convince a jury and the world at large that their motive excuses an act they understand is morally repugnant to pretty much everybody.  It's a tiny, tiny group of people who are a) living independently in society and b) so delusional that they honestly don't understand what the problem is.

The outcome in insanity cases is a bit cockamamie as well.  Pleading insanity means accepting a sentence in a mental institution regardless of the jury's findings.  If you're found not guilty by reason of insanity, you are institutionalized for an indefinite sentence until it's determined that you're no longer a threat.  You might also be found "guilty, but insane" in which case you will receive a sentence of pre-determined length like a regular prison sentence, but serve it in a mental institution.

Aside from the penalties, insanity has some galling semantic implications for victims' families.  When someone is not guilty due to insanity, they are "not responsible" for their actions.  I'm just speculating, but I bet that tidbit makes for some salty wounds.

Maybe there's a good reason to keep the definition of insanity as stringent as it is.  I guess it means that if if you're willing to fess to it and receive treatment regardless of the outcome, some worthwhile goal is achieved.  But, and maybe I'm crazy myself, but it seems to me that if you kill someone and believe that you were right to do it something in your brain is not okay.  The DSM-IV is a wonderful, nuanced volume.  Here are some of the ways the DSM-IV describes sociopathy: "failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviours as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest," "Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another."

At the end of the day, this is just another weird cultural judgment call: One man's dangerous criminal is another man's dangerous mental patient.  And maybe my lefty bias is showing, but if the purpose of the penal system is rehabilitation (and despite all evidence, ostensibly it is.  I'm speaking now of the U.S.), then warehousing people who are, from a clinical perspective very obviously damaged in an environment where they will receive little or no treatment from overworked and under-trained staff is an embarrassment to the social ideals we purport to have. I'm not saying that we should fill psychiatric centers with violent criminals, but I absolutely believe we should be providing a whole lot of psychiatric treatment to violent criminals.  Particularly in cases where there is a likelihood that the prisoner in question will re-enter society, we have an obligation to them and to the public at large to address the issues that caused them to offend in the first place.  I can almost guarantee that those issues will not be that they are of a particular faith, race, gender, political party or sexual orientation.  So what say we stop sniping at each other and think about how we identify actual risks, prevent actual casualties and deal with the actual, individual perpetrators instead of strawmen.

Here's where the sprawly expanses of this post comes together: In order for a society to function, there has to be some common ground.  And there is but we've become increasingly fractious and fractured, so focused on the things that define us separately,  and so intolerant of perceived and actual differences that we're in danger of losing our identity.  It shouldn't be hard for us to agree that people who commit mass murder are sick, sick individuals.  It shouldn't be hard for us to refrain from using national and international tragedy to frame pot shots at ideological opposites or to hop on a soap box on those occasions except to express solidarity with victims and their families or seek partners in working toward an end to these kinds of atrocities.  Instead of chasing down metaphorical escaped horses and blaming each other for leaving the door open, we ought to agree that we all want to keep the horses in the barn and work together to make it happen.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Night Owl Jamboree

We keep some pretty weird hours.

I sometimes go to work at 4:30 a.m. and sometimes at 2 p.m.  B doesn't work.  I've learned to be something approximating a morning person when necessary, but ultimately, given my druthers, I'd stay up all night and get a million things done.  And these days I often do.  It makes those early mornings a little harder to fit into my schedule without cat naps here and there, but that's the price you pay for freedom, I guess.

I've referred to the woman down the hall as Scary Neighbor, but most of the time we refer to her as Bad Nana, Mean Nana, or, if she's been particularly awful in our direction, Bitch Nana.  From what I've gathered, she cares for (and I mean this in the very loosest sense of the word) her granddaughter, who is roughly 4 or 5, and, based on my interactions with her in the hallway, smart and sassy as all get out.

This makes me incredibly sad, because Bad Nana is the very last person I would put in charge of anyone's well-being, least of all a child's.

In our late night world, we make music and talk philosophy and blog and cook and generally live a happy life of creativity, terrible jokes and awesome food. And then Bad Nana came and added the hobby of listening to Bad Nana hold court among her weird harem of 20-something hoodlums and 40-something, generally intoxicated African men.  In general, she has nothing good to say about any of them when they're not around.  And she's got some pretty ignorant things to say about her Muslim friends, and you'll have to trust me on that, because I wouldn't repeat them for a million dollars.

This evening I decided to reclaim a tupperware container of beans that had been sadly neglected.  It is a sad but true fact that vegetable proteins rot with a furious stench worthy of their animal counterparts (a word to the wise: if your tofu turns, just toss the container. Seriously.  I've literally never encountered anything as foul as rotten tofu).  So I dumped it in the trash and took the trash out.

Around from the back of the building came one of Bad Nana's older-type friends who greeted me with vigor and attempted to make small talk.  The last time I exchanged pleasantries with one of Bad Nana's friends it ended with, "Aw, you gettin' cold over there...I see you, girl."  It took me until I was in the apartment and had put the grocery bags down to realize that he was referring to my nipples at which point I considered going back outside to throw down.  Instead, I adopted a policy of icy avoidance of the whole lot.

So when I found myself there with Cheery Drunk Guy, I began to consider my options.  He obviously wanted to get in the building, and I, obviously, did not want to let him in behind me.  Happily or not, it turned out that in his sojourn behind the building, he'd managed to wake Bad Nana.  Bad Nana was not happy.  And when Bad Nana ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

She stormed out the door.

"Do you know what time it is? Don't DO this to me. For real.  It's motherfuckin' three o'clock in the morning...who the fuck's that? [I waved a little] Oh...For real, what the fuck do you want at motherfuckin' three in the morning?"

I was really hoping here that she'd just relent and let him in and make a path for me to scurry back to my happy little world, but instead they sat down.  I was running out of ways to drag out the task of putting out the trash.

"Seriously, yo, do you know who's awake at three o'clock in the morning?  Motherfuckin' crackheads.  The only people awake at three o'clock in the morning are motherfuckin' crackheads. For real.  I finally got to sleep after four days awake and you fuckin' wake me up..."

I finally just sucked it up and excused myself to get past them.  They stayed on the steps dropping motherfuckin' F-bombs for another half-hour.

And I went back to my cocoon and made a baked tempeh salad to take to work tomorrow night while B nerded out on the new sampler we got for pennies.

The number of times the phrase, "It's a small world," has come in the past week has been astronomical.  It's funny that people use it almost exclusively to demonstrate how many ties there are between disparate people at great geographical distances, or in unexpected circumstances.  And I've used it a million times myself. Portland, Maine, is practically the capital of the Small World phenomenon.

It's interesting, then, that we rarely note the opposite, which is undoubtedly more common.  The life that Bad Nana leads has virtually nothing to do with mine, despite our shared accommodations and physical proximity.  The same could be said for Gordon, the elderly fellow who used to live across the hall and could often be found holding a sign asking for change at the corner of State and Forest, "Homeless, please help."  Whatever Bad Nana thinks she knows about crackheads, Gordon was one, and he was in bed by 9 every night.

The parade of coincidence and serendipity that triggers our "Small World" excitement is definitely enthralling and more than a little magical, but I'm way more intrigued with the flip side, the people I pass on the street every day, the clerks in the store, the tenants of buildings I pass all the time that I've never met.  That we are capable of encountering people all the time and know nothing about them is astounding.  I think there's a sort of instantaneous, animal sorting that happens, "Like me, not like"  It's really a kind of alarmingly disengaged way to go about our lives. Because whether the assessment is "like" or "not like," the result is the same:  we never really consider the people around us as distinct individuals.  Unless someone is singled out for fame or infamy, we tend not to bother.

If that sounds like a judgment, it's because it is.  But from a practical standpoint, I know it would take a huge amount of energy to think differently, given the number of people we encounter every day.

There's something (or several somethings) swimming around in here, but the sky's pink and Bad Nana's cussing on the stoop and it's bed time.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When you gotta go, you gotta go

I swore when I moved into my apartment seven years ago that I wouldn't move again unless it was into a place I bought.

It's been a promise that hasn't been difficult to keep.  At the time, the rent was ridiculously low (roughly high-market for a 2-bedroom) for a gorgeous three bedroom apartment with awesome neighbors, off-street parking, a private porch, and a couple of vegetable beds at my disposal.  The rent made a small jump from ridiculously low to just regular low a few years back and since then there's been one small cost-of-living increase.  When I moved in with my then-fiance, we used the third bedroom as his office and eventually as the HQ for the publishing outfit we started.

Slowly, so slowly that I've been able to stay comfortably in denial about the issue, my home sweet home has become, though no less lovely, not a great fit.  It's a bitch to heat, which changed the value situation when the price of oil shot up.  The neighbors have changed a bunch of times and they're still nice, if a little wilder.  But while they seem to have peaked out bad behavior the time they had a party with portapotties, fire jugglers and beer-pong in our quiet west end yard, even the twice-monthly 2 a.m. drum-circle/shitty Jack Johnson sing-alongs (everybody stomp, now!) are pretty obnoxious when you wake up at 4 to go to work.  Then there's the matter of the landlord, a passive aggressive weirdo who spends more time puttering in our basement than at his home in Kennebunk.  I digress easily and stories about this guy are such solid gold that I could write a whole post, so we'll just leave it that he's become someone pervy and paternalistic at the same time, both of which I could live without.

Plus, it seems B and I (I've just decided to call my boyfriend B here.  It's short for his name, not for boyfriend, so don't barf.) have reached that point where we spend all our time in one place, and it ain't mine.  It's insanely counter-intuitive, since B lives in a ghastly low-income property ("where poor people and sex offenders go to die," is how he once described it).  You're going to have to take my word for it that there are legitimate reasons for spending our time there.

Thing is, those reasons have to do with it being B's home and absolutely nothing to do with the place itself.  Again, I'm putting the pre-emptive kibosh on digressive rantings but between the permanent stench of beef stew, ill health and desperation and the new neighbor who triggers every long-buried bullied-nerd tendency in my body and whose friends actually make me fear for my safety, and the bed bugs that recently turned up (Guess who's insanely giant-hive-style allergic? Yay welts!) this is not a place we want to be.


It's time to move.  The original plan was to keep my promise re: moving before ownership.  It's not just about consolidating our living arrangements -- we also rent a practice space for our band and the end game would be to make a finished-basement recording/practice space in our home because while the current bedroom-recording, frigid-bunker-with-sketchy-wiring-for-practice model has worked so far, it's cramping our style and expensive to boot.  At the end of the day, buying is still where we want to go, but Scary Neighbor and Paternalistic landlord have changed the game where the timeline's concerned.

We're looking for a place for September 1.  It's a little scary to me.  It's been a long time since I looked for an apartment and it will be hard to give up the place I have.  I worked hard to keep it from being haunted after the divorce, but I don't have the same sense of home there that I did before, and in some ways it's the last thing that links me to the person I was then.  I never hold a grudge against the people I've been before but I am unapologetically nostalgic and it's hard to make clear-headed decisions about the future when those people are still hanging around.

Well, there. I've been writing blog posts all week that have been epic in scope and so radically unfocused that I had to abandon them on the side of the information superhighway.  I think it's just a matter of taking a little break from thinking and writing all my big philosophical thoughts -- I was starting to feel like a bit of a pompous ass.  I'm really enjoying the writing anyway, though, so maybe I'll indulge and allow myself some utterly frivolous Landlord and Scary Neighbor posts.  It's gonna be so fun. Promise.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Both Sides Now

[In case you're just jumping in here, this is the second of three posts on marriage.  The first can be read here. The second can be read here.]

Alright, then.  One more and then I'll shut about marriage.  If I were writing with my journalist hat on, I would have put this right up front so you could judge whether I had a conflict of interest.  Because I'm not, I didn't want you to.  The truth is, I think that most readers, armed with this information ahead of time, would probably not have taken the time to read the other posts, or at the very least would have inferred certain things about my mindset and dismissed any thoughts I have on the subject as irrelevant and jaded.

I am an ex-wife.

Three years out from my divorce, I can write that phrase and although it still gives me the willies, it doesn't feel like being punched in the face anymore, and I no longer allow it to define who I am.  I had been seeing a therapist for several months before I decided to end my marriage, trying to wrap my head around...well, my head and what was going on in there.  I'd been very open with him, cried my way through dozens of sessions, but I remember that when I told him that I'd actually done it, told my husband that I was leaving, I was fairly matter of fact.  It wasn't a casual decision.  I'd weighed everything out and even though it felt unbelievably shitty and there were a million ways that I was punishing myself about it on a regular basis, I knew it was the right one.  But when I'd finished explaining the basics of how I felt about it, I paused and burst into tears, "I'm going to be an ex-wife!  Ex-wives are horrible!"

I was kidding, in a morbid sort of way, but it summed up not just my own self-loathing for being a failure at marriage (and the instigator of its demise) but also my certainty that the recrimination I directed at myself was only the tip of the iceberg compared to the swift and terrible judgment soon to be rendered unto me by, well, everyone in the city.

The years that have followed have been a long, torturous, fascinating lesson learning curve.  For the most part, I doubt that anyone, my ex-husband included, judged me more harshly than I did myself, but there were definitely some haters.  Most people turned out to be too wrapped up in their own shit to bother with mine (possibly the most valuable lesson I learned, and one that made a huge difference in this people-pleaser's life).  But there was a also a large contingent who were so awkward and uncomfortable that they might as well have been judging.

It's probably apparent by now that I'm difficult to embarrass.  Easy to shame, but difficult to embarrass.  For pretty much everything I do or have done, I'm willing either to defend it or admit my error.   And in turn, I'm game for pretty much anyone wants to tell me.  In fact, I'm like a weird inverted gossip.  Everybody's got something going on that makes them feel like a freakish outsider, but because we feel that way, we rarely share the information.  I suspect that if everybody was more open about their lives, we'd all be shocked at how much "abnormality" we all share.  Look at the Republican party.  For all their judginess about each others' foibles, there's nary a one without a foible waiting in the wings.  We're all killing ourselves to hide our idiosyncracies and be "normal," based on a radically inaccurate picture of what normal is.

But wait, I was talking about marriage, right?  Right.  Much like people are uncomfortable when someone their age dies because it brings home their own mortality, divorce makes people uncomfortable as though it were a contagious disease.  

My husband was a smart, funny, talented man. He still is.  He loved me, and if he feels about me like I feel about him, he still does, in a different, distant way.  We spent a lot of years together.  We experienced some hard and beautiful things.  I'm not interested in sharing the particulars of how our relationship ended, because while I'm an open book, the co-author of this particular volume might not appreciate it. And ultimately, although there were various contributing factors, the thing that I understand now is that I do not want to married.  Period.

As I talked about in the first post of this series, marriage is a powerful cultural phenomenon and most people are raised either explicitly or implicitly to expect that the end game of romantic relationships is marriage.  I certainly thought so. My parents were divorced, and I had no intention of every letting such a horrible fate happen to me.  In retrospect, I can see how artificial the actual, "getting married" part was relative to the actual, lovely substance of the relationship we were in, but at the time, it seemed the natural next step, a big deal, the grown up thing to do.  It was all very theoretical, really.  Because hey, what's the difference between the first five years you're a couple and the years you're married?  A technicality, right?

Well, yes.  But here's why I firmly believe that it was not my marriage that didn't work for me, but marriage in general.  As a life-long people pleaser, I have an extremely difficult time protecting and cultivating my identity as an individual within the structure of a relationship.  That's not to say that my partners have been monsters or bullies, but that I will, incrementally and in subtle ways, defer to their plans, prioritize our plans and goals as a couple over mine as an individual.  It's not something that causes me to suffer necessarily. I don't lament these things, and I rarely notice until after the breakup, but I do it.  In my relationships prior to marriage, including the years in which I was dating my future husband, I would right the ship after the initial infatuation and get back to the business of being me.

I honestly expected that getting married wouldn't really change anything except to allow him access to my health insurance, but over a short period of time I began to feel as though obligation was supplanting mutual support.  We started a business together before we got married, his dream job, and I worked the day job to support it, with the expectation that when it got on its feet, I would have a turn. Again, I'll skip the details, but after we were married there came a time when I felt that our mutual life (maybe buying a house or having children, etc.) and the possibility that I might have a chance to explore my interests had been sacrificed.  I take responsibility for allowing that to happen. And I know that in similar circumstances with financial and legal obligations tied to another person, I would, against my better judgment, let it happen again.  People love to give the relationship advice that you shouldn't expect the other person to change, that you should go into it anticipating and accepting their faults.  I would add the also seemingly obvious but often ignored idea that you should do the same for yourself.

Divorce was easily the most horrific experience of my life, and ours was relatively amicable.  I think people expect that the person who does the leaving gets off easy, but I'm here to tell you it just isn't so.  Both parties walk away feeling broken, disappointed, frustrated confused.  It's crushing in ways you can't imagine unless you do it, and I strongly recommend you take my word for it.  My husband (for the same reasons I dislike the baggage that goes with the term "ex-wife" I hesitate to use the term ex-husband. Besides which, since I will not marry again, he is the only person I could be referring to when I say "my husband") has a girlfriend he's been with for years now and is the stepdad to her children.  I have been in a relationship for the same amount of time.  We're both satisfied with our lives, and when we run into each other, we're glad to have a chance to catch up, although we don't go out of our ways to make plans with each other.

My boyfriend and I are in love.  Both of us are personally strongly opposed to marriage, although we are equally adamant supporters of gay marriage as a civil rights issue.  After three years, we don't live together, which suits us just fine as we're both fairly finicky sorts who enjoy time to ourselves.  We're comfortable saying things like, "I think I need to just be on my own for a few days," and comfortable hearing it as well.  We have mutual projects including a band that is his project originally but in which we are partners, and we're supportive of each others' individual ventures, and participate in them as much as we are welcome and/or comfortable doing so.  I don't think it's fair to hold up any relationship against another one, but I will say that the lessons I learned in the course of my marriage and divorce have allowed me to be a better partner, both more responsible to myself and more cognizant of the health and balance of the relationship I'm in.

That I'm not cut out for marriage is fine by me.  I think there are people who are suited to it, and beyond that people who thrive in that situation.  Those people don't need an advocate because the world is set up to embrace them.  I didn't write this series because I'm a bitter divorcee hell bent on exposing the failures of the institution that ruined me, I wrote it because I firmly believe that the divorce rate should not be as high as it is, and the corollary is that the marriage rate should not be as high as it is.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of things we'd prefer not to see so much of in our society: divorce, abortion or robbery, for example.  But as much as we punish and marginalize people who are "guilty" of those activities, obsessing about the actions is an exercise in futility.  These are effects, and the only way to get real results in reducing those effects is to give some serious, honest, unflinching thought to the causes.  We need to re-evaluate our assumptions about marriage, get serious about sex education and de-stigmatizing contraception in places where stigma still persists and allocate at least as many resources for the war on poverty as we do for the war on drugs.  We're a talk-show culture, eager to dissect transgressions against our accepted norms, but too intellectually lazy to a) stop it or b) change our conception of what the "norm" is in any given arena.

So yes, I'm an ex-wife, a current girlfriend (which, though diminuitive, is at least less de-humanizing than "partner") but more importantly a proponent of living an examined life regardless of its resemblance to cultural expectations.