Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Forwarding Address

Holy crap, guys! Remember a million years ago when I said I was going to move this blog and do all kind of cool web site-y stuff?  I almost don't either because it was a looooong time ago. 

But it's done (ish)!  Behold the glory of!

The new web site includes this blog, drawings, and players featuring my band's music, with more pages and features on the way.  I'll be honest, the site's  probably nowhere near done, but it's serviceable and I'm impatient, so let's all head over there and get the party started.

I'll leave this up for the time being as a detour sign, but all new entries will be on the new site.  Thanks for reading!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Bullshit on Parade

Recently some coy, anonymous Occupy types got their knickers in a twist about the cover/content of a shitty, puerile comic publication called Vex.  So they took all the papers from news stands, slapped stickers with a flower and a proclamation that Vex is lame and their position is awesome on the covers and inserted a rebuttal to Vex's position into the pages.

Then it was Vex's turn to get pissed off and melodramatic, so they started loudly proclaiming that the vandalism was a violation of their First Amendment rights to anyone who would listen.

All of which annoyed me in about a million different ways, so I started writing about it, but realized that it was actually so obnoxious that I couldn't even muster a real post, so here's what I have to say in lazy-blogger bullet-point-list style:

  • The cover was lame.  In response to the city's decision not to sell Congress Square to the Eastland hotel, they made a typically barf-tastic comic illustration of a scale with a drunk homeless bottle collector on one side (the weighted side) and a carpenter, businessman, and waitress on the other with the headline, "PORTLAND POLITICIANS PREFER BUMS OVER JOBS." Maybe it's the nature of the format or maybe Mort Todd and company are just looking to get a cheap rise out of people, but it's pointless and reductive to pretend that anyone thinks Congress Square is just fine the way it is. It's gross and kind of scary sometimes, but giving up already-limited public space for a ballroom/convention center when we're already building a huge complex on Thompson's Point and renovating the Civic Center is one of the dumbest solutions to the problem.
  • The Occupy response was lame.  I think it's awesome when people are passionate about a cause and take action in support of it, but not all action is created equal.  What was the intended audience for this particular stunt?  Presumably people who are either on the fence about the ballroom thing or think it's a reasonable idea.  What was the intended effect?  Presumably to sway those people to support your position.  So did anyone involved really think that the punked out guerrilla 'zine approach was going to win friends and influence people?  Anyone who thought the city missed an opportunity by denying the sale is way more likely to see it as a bunch of disgruntled, unemployed hippies trying ineffectively to stick it to the man, identify with the man, and become even less likely to support discussions about creative, progressive uses of the space.
  • Okay, free speech, for crying out loud?  Nice try, but the argument wasn't silenced.  The majority of the drawing and the headline remained intact and the argument easily identifiable.  Vex got its point across.  I'd be with them on this one if the issue hadn't been recirculated at all (they do allege that some number appear to have gone missing) but that wasn't the case. As Todd noted in this week's edition, the number "missing" would have marked a jump in circulation if they went out legitimately, which means they didn't expect that many to be picked up by readers anyway. It's likely that there was an issue, albeit modified, available to anyone who cared to have one.  I worked at the USM Free Press when Sigma Nu followed the circulation vehicle and removed every copy of the paper from both campuses in order to suppress bad publicity for a sorority: that was arguably the squelching of free speech.  As for whether you can steal something that's given away free, an argument people sympathetic to the vandals have made, the FP introduced language in the masthead limiting the number per "customer."  It's virtually unenforceable, but it does offer protection if someone makes off with all of them.  Which didn't happen here, but if I were Vex, I'd prepare for that possibility.
  • As I mentioned right out of the gate, no one's taking credit for these shenanigans.  So again the question of intended consequences comes up.  If you're trying to convince people of the righteousness of your cause, and insist that you've done nothing inappropriate, acting like furtive weirdos might not be the most effective route.  I doubt very much that this was ever about the actual issue at hand.  It looks very much like someone taking a swing at Vex because they find them intolerable and not very much like an earnest attempt to communicate.
  • As ludicrous as I find Mort Todd's free speech complaint, Rob Korobkin (author of the inserted essay but not, he says, the mastermind behind this escapade)'s attempt to claim that this wasn't vandalism is equally laughable.  The aforementioned mastermind(s?) may not have obscured Vex's message, but they did mischievously and maliciously alter it. That's vandalism.
So that's that. The whole thing is just so riddled with petulance and buffoonery that I want to clonk all their heads together and tell them to spread out, Moe Howard-style. 

To be clear, I'm philosophically with the Save Congress Square crowd and was a believer in the Occupy movement.  One of the most effective aspects of early Occupy was its insistence on making radical thinking and participatory, direct democracy accessible to people who might be alienated by the angry-punk image of G8 protesters:  The message didn't change, the approach did and it succeeded in drawing a stronger, wider base than any protest movement in recent history.  Watching that good will squandered on what appears to be a petty personal beef is quite sad. 

I think Vex's approach to the homeless, many of whom are mentally ill and/or badly substance-addicted is callous and inhumane. I find much of the content of the magazine at large childish and distasteful.  It's unclear to me whether Mort Todd's intention is to talk meaningfully about ideas or just fuck around indulging a snide and vaguely fratty sense of humor. Hopefully it's the second, because at least he's succeeding there.  Either way, I avoid it, because the result is distasteful to me.

 But in this case, everyone's behaving badly.  As much as both sides want to pretend this spat is about some universal, more meaningful issue, it's just schoolyard dust-up that ends up making everyone involved look small. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Privilege Denied

Here is a sad statement, but true:  When I cut my hair, I figured it was a matter of time before somebody called me a dyke.

My best guess was that the person who did it would be male, young, and a stranger.

So yesterday, when a teenaged boy came off the Maine State Pier fresh from a swim in the gritty, oil-slicked water of the near-shore harbor water, shirtless in saggy, soggy shorts, buzz cut, the chip on his shoulder visible, swaggering through the parking lot where I was driving the forklift and said, "Nice skills, dyke," it felt somehow expected.

What I didn't expect, maybe because I'd braced for it or maybe because I'm straight or maybe both, is how really awful it felt.  How personal, visceral, sickening it felt.

I think most readers will understand implicitly that I wasn't offended by the suggestion that I'm gay, and they'll be right.  But I've been catcalled and heckled and called a lot of names in my time, and nothing's shaken me quite like this and I've spent the past day and a half trying to figure out why.

It's not unlike the effect of the mother of all cuss words, cunt, a word that gives even my foul-mouthiest friends pause.  Unlike other slurs and swears that have been largely divorced from their literal meaning (the now ubiquitous f-bomb comes to mind) the c-word still links to a concrete anatomical idea.  It feels filthy to me, because it makes me feel exposed, self-conscious as though my body is being scrutinized.  Generally speaking I'm a confident gal, sure of myself in tasks intellectual and physical, content with my looks, and happy to live in this strong and healthy body. But that word carries with it a long, sad history of misogyny, the implication that a woman is defined by her body, that that body is inferior, that a woman is a sexual object, identified by and useful for her sexual organs.

Do I overstate the case?  I really don't think so, and definitely not inasmuch as I'm describing my own very immediate and very real response.

So yes, I had a similar reaction to dyke-as-slur because it felt like someone was thinking intimately about my body and what it does in private moments.  Which, what? That's some creepy shit.

And it's heartbreaking that while this was a new experience for me, it happens to people all the time.  Sometimes they're straight and that's hideous enough, but sometimes they're gay, and that's worse.  Because I can take some weak solace in the fact that this little troll wasn't criticizing my actual identity.  And it happened once (so far).  How much deeper would the sense of violation be if he'd hit his target and if there were more like him enacting these verbal tyrannies on a regular basis?

I've acknowledged my frustration with the use of "privilege" as a weapon for neutralizing discussion, but I will never deny that privilege is real.  In this uncomfortable encounter, I glimpsed beyond the curtain of my straight privilege.  I've been empathetic, but by necessity it's empathy based on imagination rather than experience.

As we approach an election season with gay marriage on the ballot yet again, I encourage everyone not to let the strides we've made toward equality lead to complacency.  In some sense I'm lucky to have a shove toward remembering that the personal is political and it isn't necessary for an issue to be personal to you in particular to make it one you ought to fight for.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Missed Opportunities and The Portland Press Herald

Okay, I'm going to make one more lap around the track and then cease beating the sorry carcass of the Portland Press Herald for the time being.

The paper has removed Audrey's photo and replaced it with a link to her Flickr set, put a check in the mail for use of the photo in print, taken down their ridiculously insulting op-ed on the subject, failed to make any meaningful response to the lifted photo debacle, and missed a genuine and valuable opportunity to raise their professional reputation above the Podunk Weekly Bugle (motto: Now with 30% more Weather Hamsters!) status they've recently enjoyed.

All companies, newspapers and otherwise, have policies in place that sometimes seem opaque or unreasonable to customers.  I sympathize.  I spend an outlandish amount of time at work explaining to people why we do this or that thing, why something that seems simple and obvious to is, in practice, not feasible.  There are very often factors operating behind the scenes that customers haven't considered. 

Even so, when dozens of customers all cite the same reasons that they find your policy problematic and those reasons are clearly stated and easily enumerated, it's in your best interest as an organization to consider whether they might be on to something.  Even if you stand behind the position you've taken, it's absolutely worthwhile to consider that suggestions embedded in the debate that might help you clarify or improve the existing policy. And if you find that you have, in fact, substantively violated your own policy, the professional and responsible thing to do is acknowledge your mistake, examine ways to avoid that error in the future and let your concerned customers know that you have done so.

This would be an excellent time for PPH editorial staff to clarify the procedure for identifying ownership of non-staff work.  Perhaps they could outline a simple set of steps: 1) Attempt contact via messaging functions on the source site, if available. 2) Google any pseudonym associated with the material.  By delineating and practicing a concrete set of best practices, they'd create a situation where a good faith effort at contacting a source is clearly defined and either did or did not happen.  If there had been a policy like this in place, this recent debacle might never have happened.

A much bigger discussion that the Press Herald should be having right now concerns their photo-crediting procedure in general.  I might be inclined to be a little more generous about their failure to identify a non-professional photo by a pseudonymous author if I didn't know that they regularly fail to credit photos they receive through official channels, supplied to them by known sources who, if they aren't the artist themselves, know the artist's name.

Currently if, say, a band provides the paper with a photo for a review or event listing, they credit the photographer only if the band explicitly tells them the artist's name. Yes, it would be nice if the band thought to do that anyway, but they're not in the publishing or visual arts fields and in many cases it probably doesn't cross their mind.  A media company, one that publishes content for profit knows very well that this is an issue.  The onus is on them to make sure their use of that content is appropriately credited.  It should be part of the initial request: "Please supply a photograph of your band/event and the name of the photographer."  If the photo is received unsolicited in a press kit or the like, there should be an immediate request not just for the artist's name, but permission from the copyright holder to use the image in that commercial setting.

Here's a quick side-by-side:

I work for a photographer.  He did photos for a local band in advance of their album release.  The Press Herald ran his photo in association with an item about the band uncredited.  When he contacted them, they essentially told him to take it up with the band. They didn't volunteer that they would add the credit; He had to suggest it himself. 

He later did headshots for someone whose work appeared in Maine Magazine.  When the magazine received the photo, they asked who took the picture and immediately contacted the photographer to request a release allowing them to run the photo.  That is responsible behavior by a professional media organization.

I understand that there are time constraints facing a daily newspaper, but "we were really busy" is a lame excuse for failure to meet basic industry standards.  I recently read a comment by professional photographer Jay York on the facebook page of the Union of Visual Artists, noting that two of his photos were in the Maine Sunday Telegram uncredited this week and that this is a regular occurrence despite their purported policy of "making every attempt" to properly credit work.  Here, again, a simple, formal, consistent policy of asking for artist info on receipt of art would do a world of good, both for stymied photographers for whom credit is key to their livelihood, and to the Press Herald's reputation as a serious and professional publication.

At this point, Audrey still wants, but knows she's unlikely to get, an apology.  I want that for her, even though I only know her in the context of our exchanges during this debate. And here's the thing:  if they really believe using the photo falls under Fair Use, they shouldn't apologize for that.  They shouldn't be apologizing simply to appease the crowd. What they do need to apologize for is their failure to do appropriate leg work upfront, their failure to respond to her reasonable request to remove the photo from the web site, and the bizarre attempt to paint her with the wacko brush in their op-ed.  But that apology wouldn't be sufficient for me at this point.

Audrey's case has cast a bright light on a long-standing, systemic problem within the newspaper.  Professional photographers have run into this wall for a very long time, and I'm happy to see this issue playing out in front of a wider audience.  But the only resolution that I would consider truly satisfactory would be for the Press Herald to do some real soul-searching, clean up their house, and reach out to their readership with solid evidence that they are working to make their product serious, professional, reasonable, and responsive. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Portland Press Herald is Bad at teh Internetz.

Photo:                    Permission: Copyright Holder  

Here is a very basic summary of a thing that happened:

Reporter Steve Mistler (and it bears saying that Mistler isa seasoned and respected journalist, a feather in the cap of the Portland Press Herald which spent the better part of the past decade running its credibilityand relevance into the ground) got a tip for a story, along with a link to a Flickr account that contained photographic evidence supporting the tip.  It’s unclear how close to deadline he got thisinformation but the story ran in the August 7 edition of the paper along withphotographs from the Flickr account.  

The owner of the Flickr account, Audrey Slade, was unaware of the use of her photos until a friend sent her a link to the article.  So here's where the dispute starts.

One of Slade's main contentions is that the paper never tried to contact her prior to publication, a contention that seems reasonable given that she never heard a word about it until after the piece went to press.  

The PPH has a rather more Clintonian approach to the word "tried."  Their position appears to be that they looked at the flickr page, didn't see a link that said, "This page belongs to Audrey Slade, click here if you're the Portland Press Herald and would like to contact her." That's maybe the snidest possible way to put it, but pretty close to the spirit of the paper's response which was that they were unable to figure out who the page belonged to and how to contact her by deadline, so they seized the photos marked "All Rights Reserved" (that, by the way, is the link for "how to request use of Flickr content) under the Fair Use exemption of copyright law and called it a day.

I have zero interest in examining the Fair Use claim.  I have no legal expertise and copyright law is an endlessly complicated field, particularly where the internet is concerned.  But I do care deeply about journalism, and newspapers specifically, so I will take issue with the procedural and ethical questions at hand.

So then. The claim that it was impossible to determine ownership/contact info because of deadline constraints would be laughable, if the paper wasn't doubling down on that assertion, behaving as though the legitimate questions raised by the photo's owner and others aren't worth their consideration.  In an op-ed response today, they let fly some of their pent up contempt. In response to criticism that they'd failed at a simple task:
"However, we neglected to click the message button on Flickr, which presumably would have sent an email to the account holder."
Allow me to translate, "Ugh, yeah, we GET it, there WAS an obviously marked link to contact the owner.  You just can't understand how much BIGGER our concerns are than your stupid 'process.' 'Presumably' we could have contacted her by clicking the envelope on the Flickr page, but how could anyone know whether, 'send a message' would send her a message?"  Riiiight. PPH is bad at teh internetz. Why don't you go write a twit about it or something?

Welp, PPH, you may not have sent a message on Flickr, but your larger message that we should sit down and shut up is coming through loud and clear. But I just can't when you're being so all-fired ridiculous.

Look, even if a message on Flickr went to an account the owner never checks, it would have constituted a reasonable attempt to contact her.  But fine, let's suspend disbelief, pretend it's reasonable not to do that, and go back to examining the apparently inscrutable nature of identity on the internet. Let's point out that the pseudonym on the Flickr account, the one that apparently stymied them (I picture fact-checkers in the newsroom closing the phone book with a thump: "Nope. No JadeFrog_01 in here!") is the SAME AS HER TWITTER HANDLE.  Close to deadline or no, Mistler wrote enough words to buy them time to send a tweet.

But all of those are red herrings, because they absolutely knew who she was.  They cited her by her job title while at Husson, "the former administrative assistant to Rodney Larson, dean of the School of Pharmacy," so the claim that they couldn't identify her is not only silly as noted above, but completely, utterly, unapologetically false. Unless they're as bad using Google as they are at Flickr...or, um, at asking that guy what his assistant's name was.

The bottom line is that the Press Herald knew they were in the wrong but didn't expect any pushback, or, just as bad, it didn't cross their minds that this was an issue.  Since they tell us they did try to contact her, it appears it was the former. 

What galls me at least as much as the initial breach has been their response.  Their first response was to insist that they weren't malicious, just incompetent, and when it was pointed out to them that no one is that incompetent, they dropped the "aw, shucks" routine and went straight for the "you people just don't understand the importance of the work we're doing."

From today's response:
Lost among these comments is the media's obligation to inform the public on matters of vital public interest.
Okay, fine.  But let's get real about the burning importance and timeliness of this particular story.  Rev. Bob Carlson is dead.  If this piece had waited one day while they contacted the owner of the photos, it would not have meant that Carlson was free to roam the campus for another day. William Beardsley is now the former president of Husson.  If this piece had waited one day while they contacted the owner of the photos, he would not have had one more day to make inept policy decisions.   The only reason that this story worked to this deadline was for the gratification of the PPH breaking it.  That they did it at the expense of reasonable, responsible journalistic procedure, made themselves look like incompetent buffoons in their excuses and continue to a) leave the picture up despite being asked by the owner to take it down (it's online, guys, you can link to the Flickr account if you want, but you can't pretend it's yours) and b) pretend that their position is reasonable is pathetic.

Several years ago there was a quiet discussion among professional photographers I know about the Press Herald's tendency to use their photos, particularly in listings, without notice, compensation or credit, and I recall the paper's response being a similarly disingenuous, "Golly, mister, is that yours?  I just found it on the ground on the internet."

If the PPH wants to distance itself from its reputation lo these past many years as ideal for housebreaking puppies and wrapping fish and not much else, they're off to a rocky start.

EDIT: Speaking of journalistic ethics, I should mention in the spirit of full disclosure that I did two freelance concert reviews for the PPH back at the dawn of time, which is to say in my early twenties.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Anywhere There's Oxygen

A silly video for Phantom Buffalo's "Anywhere There's Oxygen"

 Today we think our car got towed for unpaid parking tickets and our savings are temporarily depleted because we made an investment in a really great piece of recording equipment and haven't yet sold the other equipment that will pay for it and I'm scheduled for some overtime this week but thanks to some one-time unexpected bills, very little of the surplus will end up in savings, most likely.

So I've been thinking of this song by Phantom Buffalo.  It's always been a favorite of mine, and I think there are very few people who can't relate or couldn't at some point relate to the desire to be free of the daily grind, the pressure of the grown up obligation to figure out how to "buy my food and stay alive."

I wrote on this subject fairly recently and mentioned that I was making a move in the direction of leaving my job and moving to something more personally fulfilling, but even those baby steps have been halted having collided head first with the hefty time commitments of working in a seasonal business.  Only a year ago I would likely have folded up in despair and resigned myself to the high probability of being stuck indefinitely, but now that the ol' serotonin's flowing properly I see things in a different light.

In the midst of a particularly stressful and soul-crushing weeks at work recently, I cracked. Sobbing in the bathroom at work cracked.  And after several days of this, I had an epiphany while talking to the lumber delivery driver who's become my friend.  "I'm going to go give my notice for the fall after this boat leaves," I told him.  "Aw shit, girl, good for you.  I wanna do the same thing.  Good luck."  And in a state of total insanity, I did.  I walked into my boss' office just as he was reading a particularly defeated incident report I wrote that concluded, "Obviously I am a bad person," and I told him I was done after Labor Day.  After talking with him about it for a while, I agreed to think about it and I've since rescinded my resignation.  For now.  That I'm on my way out is a "when," not an "if" proposition.

Yes, I was acting rashly in an emotionally charged moment, but it wasn't completely irrational.  Being extremely risk averse I've built up an unreasonably high tolerance for bullshit when the alternative is walking into the unknown.  The safety of a job that pays well and offers health benefits is something I don't take for granted and I've been willing to work around the parts that don't work for me in order to hold onto it.  But I never intended to stay there forever and I know what I'd rather be doing.  So no, I'm not going to storm out the door in a fit of pique with nothing lined up, but I am going to have to make a bold move and possibly a leap of faith.

In our household we're at a crossroads where we're confident in our strengths and eager to put them into service.  We can easily picture a future in which we support ourselves by doing things that are deeply satisfying.  In the short term, though, that requires taking scary and decisive action and doing some serious preparation to put some sort of safety net in place before we throw ourselves into the uncertain future.  On a spaceship built for two going anywhere there's oxygen.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Probably the Most Depressing Post I'll Ever Write

Sometimes my thinking goes to some really dark places, and a really weird thing happens:  I recognize that I'm being grim and fatalistic, but it doesn't seem all that unreasonable.  I think it's probably some kind of cognitive dissonance that allows me to think wild theoretical things without the emotional weight of real-life consequences, but knowing that intellectually doesn't have any practical effect.

Here's a case in point:  P.Z. Myers, a biologist and blogger that I generally enjoy reading and often agree with posted this yesterday.  In it, he discusses a medical science experiment in the U.K. wherein kittens' eyes are sewn shut in order to explore the relationship between the physical, structural growth of the brain and visual processing.  The Mirror conducted a (typically useless, as public opinion polls tend to be) public opinion poll about whether this was an acceptable practice.  For a number of reasons including the fact that kittens are wonderful and people love them and the decidedly inflammatory tone to the article, the poll was, at the time of Myers' post, roughly 92% against these experiments.

The point of the post, to some extent, was to encourage readers to "pharyngulate" the poll, a process wherein readers of Myers' blog, Pharyngula, rush the polls to reflect the community's pro-science, skeptical values.  When last I read the comments, the poll had been successfully pharyngulated to the extent that the numbers were closing on an even split.

Meanwhile, in the comments section of the post itself, the chatter among Myers' readers departed from the typical script wherein fans agree and dissent comes from outrageous trolls and wingnuts. In this case the debate was, as blog-comment debate goes, fairly collegial and, with notable exceptions, civil.  While a large majority supported the "necessary evil" of animal testing, there was a contingent of loyal opposition that just couldn't get behind it.

The general consensus posited by supporters was that opponents found this exercise horrific because the animals in question were kittens, a species for which humans feel a particular emotional and often familial attachment.  A portion of the naysayers agreed that they would feel differently about non-companion animals, and a tiny faction opposed animal testing full stop.

Some way into the hundreds of comments, Myers' chimed back in to say that he found it disturbing that people would suggest that there was some inherent difference in using kittens, over, say, ferrets as the process was so mildly intrusive and humanely practiced that it should not be objectionable regardless of species. The implication from the pro-test crowd was that opposition was illogical and emotionally-driven at best and anti-science nut jobs at worst.

You can probably guess that I, a person who just yesterday exclaimed over some delicious potato chips, "Wow!  They taste like sour cream and onion, but no cows were raped to make them taste good!" oppose animal experimentation.  And I KNOW huge advances in medical science have come from it.  And I KNOW that even products labeled "no animal testing" contain ingredients that were likely tested on animals some other time by some other company. And I KNOW everyone's just dying to say, "If your mother/boyfriend/self/insert-loved-one-here had cancer/multiple sclerosis/insert-lethal-disease-here and animal testing could produce a cure you'd change your tune," but you know what?  This is where shit gets really dark.

Because while I've actually worked myself into full-on panic attacks thinking about the possibility of losing the people dear to me (Have you seen the movie "The Fountain"?  I wept uncontrollably for nearly half an hour afterwards at the idea that I could easily lose my then husband to long disease or in the blink of an eye to a simple traffic accident or mad gunman) but I really just can't square the morality of torturing and killing animals (yes, they're "euthanized" afterwards... the silver-lining of which is it cuts down on the lingering psychological effects) in the name of possibly reducing suffering in others.

This debate is one of those intractable ones like abortion and religion wherein arguments on both sides are familiar and heavily worn and generally ineffective in swaying the opposition.  The comment-section debate was chock full of but-they're-not-sentient-yes-they-are-okay-maybe-but-they-don't-have-agency arguments with a heavy dose of sewing-their-eyes-shut-isn't-painful-sometimes-it's-used-therapeutically-and-you-don't-call-it-torture-then-plus-lab-assistants-care-for-and-about-the-animals-post-op.

To which I say this:

I feel bad when I step on my kitten's tail because I know she feels pain. I put the cats in a different room when I vacuum because they experience fear.  They experience and remember and avoid recurrence of trauma as evidenced by their immediate flight at the sight of said vacuum cleaner or the grim cat Alcatraz that is the travel kennel.  To the extent that they have preferences for what does or doesn't happen to them, however reflexive and instinctual those preferences are, they have agency.  Sometimes, like children, their preferences are overridden for their greater good (going to the vet, say) but, as with children, we respect their needs and desires as members of the community that is our home.

As to the relative lack of suffering involved in this procedure (compared to, I dunno...force-feeding poisons? putting chemicals in their eyes?  vivisection?) I'll turn some smug chump's comment back on him: "I don't see anyone opposed to animal testing volunteering themselves."  EXACTLY, you moron.  You would not conduct this very "gentle," very "non-invasive" procedure on your child or yourself, so please spare me the argument that it's really no big deal.  And there are a lot of cringe-inducing things we do to treat disease, things that are painful and difficult but which we deem a worthwhile trade off for the privilege of staying alive (radiation and chemotherapy come to mind) that we wouldn't dream of inflicting on a healthy person.  Context matters in questions of morality.

I can't think of any distinction between human and animal life that makes the sacrifice and suffering of the latter on behalf of the former acceptable.  We've agreed that we ought not experiment on any humans regardless of their physical or mental capacity or their relative contributions to society so what makes similar considerations fair game when we're talking non-human animals?

Down, down the rabbit hole (ha!) I go to a place where I just don't think humanity inherently deserves...well, a lot of the things we take for granted as a reward for being the smartest monkeys going, where I'm so unclear about what our end game is that I wonder why we play at all, where our similarities to parasitic organisms, propagating and expanding for the sake of it without regard for anything but basic survival are uncomfortable.  Surely we've done amazing, wonderful things with all the gifts evolution has wrought, but to my mind our capacity to ponder and act on complex philosophical and ethical considerations is the characteristic that ostensibly sets us apart from the hoi polloi of critters scrambling to pass on genetic material.

It's normal to want to protect the things closest to you before you extend care outside your personal sphere.  In times of scarcity, a parent will feed his or her child before offering food to the neighbors, and help the neighbors before donating to a charity (mostly, maybe, unless they let their dog poop on the lawn).  But we generally recognize (some more clearly than others) an obligation to the larger society, that despite our desire to take care of those closest to us, it's not acceptable to inflict suffering on others in order to alleviate our own.  Unfortunately, this recognition is incredibly myopic.  As the spheres grow larger into national and international human communities we become increasingly willing to overlook that moral logic, and when it comes to the place of humans in a global, ecological context, that sense of community obligations tend to break down altogether.

I believe, on an individual level, in living while you're alive, making the most and best of every day because when you're dead, you're done.  Ideally we would enact a similar M.O. as a species.  Yes, we should strive to learn and explore everything we possibly can, make the most and best of our big brains, but conscientiously, with more respect for the world around us right now than for our theoretical future selves, because if we go the way of the dinosaurs, we're done.  I don't wish ill on the imaginary future, but I think the greater responsibility ought to be to building for that future by creating the most just and sustainable culture possible in the relatively-controllable present

It feels weird and kind of awful to think so bleakly, and I'm sure there's more than a little news-induced gloom in play, but it's also crushingly depressing that people can so easily rationalize cruelty from a position of incredible arrogance.  I'm not giving up on humanity, I'm just doom-fatigued and disappointed in a thousand different ways.

I'll be over here in my misanthropic cave eating twigs and dying of preventable illness if anyone needs me.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

This Agression Will Not Stand

Let's set aside the obnoxious old saw that it takes more muscles to frown than smile and admit that, in situations that are frustrating or unpleasant, the path of least resistance is to be awful.  It's a hard thing to admit and most of us have the blinders on when it comes to our own tendency to be ungracious, but it's true and human and something that requires vigilance instead of denial.

The past few weeks at work have been particularly hellacious, an impossible numbers game wherein hundreds of people descend on our five-person operation with everything they own and, owing to a poor understanding of geometry, physics, and the notion that the world doesn't revolve around them, become enraged to find that we can't fit the astonishing pile of consumer goods they've deemed necessary for a weekend getaway on a boat immediately.

Look, I'm no angel where this is concerned.  No one ever thinks they're the one being unreasonable, and I'd like to imagine that I can claim the high road. Realistically, though, it takes an extraordinary amount of energy not to trade snark for snark, raised voice for raised voice, veiled insult for veiled insult.  I try. Really hard.  But while I'm mostly successful in not shooting first, I struggle not to fire back in kind and when I dig in for a fight, I am not fun.

That said, being on the receiving end of these shenanigans and being responsible for young seasonal employees who are still learning the operation but who are smart, courteous, and hard-working, and watching bitter hags having a bad day just eviscerate these kids makes me realize what a lot of assholes there are in this world.  And now that I'm more conscious of it, I see it everywhere that customer service happens: in stores, at the movies, in restaurants...Ev. Ery. Where.  Customers are awful, entitled know-it-alls.  Sure, sure, there are times when things are legitimately bad and someone needs to do a better job, but just look around and see how often someone in a line near you goes from 0 to subhuman because a grocery clerk needs a price check or won't accept their Canadian currency or asks them to wait a moment while they put out the fire that's just erupted in the trash can.

So the thing is, it takes a little bit of decorum, a little bit of restraint to overcome the junkfood-style satisfaction of being awful in the moment but it's well worth it because in the long run it's kind of soul-crushing.  Or it should be, if you're even kind of a good person.

Am I a broken record?  Maybe.  But if the easiest way to be is awful, it's worth reminding myself and others to be diligent about NOT being so as often as possible.

It's 4 a.m. and I'm about to go to work.  Today I will behave as though every customer is an alien new to earth and in need of guidance.  Today I will muster an appreciative laugh for lame jokes just to honor the spirit of positivity.  Today I'm bringing cupcakes to work just because.

Ready? Go!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Kickstart(er) My Heart

The other day on facebook I saw that a friend of mine loaned money to an El Salvadorean woman to help her buy spare parts for her bicycle repair shop.  The woman and her husband started the shop when they were unable to find jobs.  Their loan request, for $1200, constitutes approximately a quarter of their yearly income.  They requested a similar loan last year and successfully paid it off.

The loan was made through Kiva, an online micro-lender that connects entrepreneurs from around the world with the capital they need to advance their businesses.  Each owner creates a profile describing their operation, the improvements the loan will fund, and the target loan amount.  Individual investors contribute some portion of the loan until the requested amount is matched.  Repayment is generally due over the course of two years, with interest and fees in place.

Within the hour, the same person who made that loan noted that they'd contributed to a Kickstarter campaign for a friend's documentary and encouraged others to support the project.

For people who've been living under a rock or maybe just don't know a lot of hipsters, Kickstarter (and the very similar Indiegogo) is a platform wherein people create accounts describing a project -- movies, albums, and restaurants are pervasive, but ideas run the gamut -- what they need money to accomplish vis a vis the project, and an amount they hope to raise by a target date.  Individual investors contribute some portion of the money until that end date. If they succeed in getting the full amount pledged, the project gets the money.  If not, they get nothing.  Incentives are offered at various levels of support, a la PBS.  The rewards generally run from a warm thank you to a t-shirt to a copy of the product, official backer status, etc.  These are not loans; the money is not repaid.

What's that you say?  These things sound very similar?  That's exactly  what I was thinking!  I'm a little embarrassed that I've been aware of both programs for some time now and never really realized this.

Here's what gets me in the juxtaposition of these two platforms:

One of them procures money primarily for people in poverty-stricken regions, where it's unlikely that any of the contributions come from friends or neighbors, because, well, the friends and neighbors are likewise in some dire financial straits.  These entrepreneurs are being offered old-fashioned loans through the banking establishment and are subject to the terms and conditions of old-fashioned loans.
The other procures money primarily from the entrepreneur's friends and neighbors and their extended networks (there are, certainly, donations from strangers, but those are fewer and farther between than the others, celebrity Kickstarters notwithstanding).  These are paid back in handshakes and tchochke.

The bottom line is that people for whom this money has very serious financial consequences are taking out business loans through Kiva and paying them back.  The people whose friends and larger networks have disposable income to help them make, say, a $3500 monster costume or acquire $850 for the world's largest jock strap are gifted the money in exchange for a high five and a chuckle.

Anyone currently on Kiva would be better served setting up a Kickstarter, and obviously they could.  But I'm guessing that very few of the rural entrepreneurs using Kiva have the internet access and savvy to compare their options and lack the social networks that make it a breeze for a millenial Stanford grad to raise $20,000 to fulfill his lifelong culinary-punk dream of owning a food truck called "Blintz-krieg Bop."  So the former follows a traditional business model and builds their business the hard way and the latter has the assistance handed to them on a silver platter, no strings attached.

Don't get me wrong, Kiva is a really wonderful and important idea, one that ought to have a huge base of support and really, I'm okay with people helping each other out to accomplish their dream projects on a donation basis.  And I think that people who give to either or both have their hearts in the right place, but it's really unfortunate that in tandem they reinforce the bright line in culture and class politics that separates how we as middle and upper-middle class westerners approach giving as patronage, as charity, or as business, to artists, to western businesses, to third world businesses, to NGOs.

It's not difficult to imagine that this formula puts a strain on the available resources. People with a limited amount of disposable income are more likely to fund projects by people they know over a third-world business start up despite the arguably more substantial social and economic return on the latter.  Instant gratification is instantly gratifying.  Playing that band's CD is a far more tangible outcome than the slightly ephemeral knowledge that somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa a farmer is able to meet the demand for amaranth in his village and provide security for his family.

This is all just a lot of spitballing, but as I've been thinking about it, I've thought of a pretty awesome Kickstarter campaign: A request for money to travel and film Kickstarter videos for people seeking loans on Kiva, effectively giving them both means and access to the more forgiving platform. I think they'd do well in the short-term while the glow of the initial filmmaker's Kickstarter allowed them accesss to his or her extended network, but would likely peter out once awareness fatigue set in.  I'd give, as long as I got a high five.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Here's the Beef: Where's the Beef?

Know what's delicious? Bacon.  Know what's a tasty addition to almost everything? Goat cheese.  Guess what I ate a lot of in 2010.  Give up? Pizza. And quesadillas.

When I went vegetarian and eventually vegan, I didn't suddenly decide that these things don't taste good. I made a decision that my desire for certain flavors really didn't justify the death and suffering that comes with them.

Within the realm of foods that I have no ethical objection to, I eat the ones that taste good when I can, the ones that taste okay when necessary, and avoid the ones that taste bad.  Them's some pretty simple criteria.  Using this program, I don't reject good tasting food because the ingredients aren't what I expected.  I've never, for instance, thought, "Wow, this is the best blueberry pie I've ever eaten, but they thickened it with corn starch instead of flour, so I'll buy that blander one down the street where they use flour."

Which is why, a few short weeks into baking for profit as well as fun, I'm feeling a little frustrated.

I knew going into it that getting vegan food to the general public would be an uphill battle.  "Vegan" is a word with a lot of baggage, conjuring images of asceticism and denial, visiting judgment on omni eaters, and linked to its extremist cousin raw foods with all the peculiar culinary acrobatics that go into crafting familiar-food analogs from walnuts and agave syrup.  Going in, my plan was to make awesome stuff, send up the vegan Bat-signal to let them know it exists, but not market it specifically as vegan.  I'm a child of the 80's and I've internalized the core lesson of the Pepsi challenge:  what people like and what they think they like aren't always the same, and that gap is largely a function of ephemeral concerns like image and marketing.

But as it happens, my first customer is a conventional bakery, and the fact that they carry my wares is specifically a function of the fact that I bake without eggs and dairy, an alternative option labeled accordingly.  It wasn't necessarily in the original plan, but I'm grateful to have a steady outlet where my stuff sells well.  And in the first batch, two sold to my friends, one to a girl whose vegan friend needed cheering up, and one to someone who made no mention of it being vegan.  It's a small sample, but it leaves room to hope that I might still appeal to a wider audience even with the scarlet V on the label.

Then I took some samples to a coffee shop.  The owner knew before I arrived that the samples were vegan and after asking some questions about ingredients and process she asked, "But you only do vegan, right?"

When I said yes, she got a far-away, disappointed look.

"'s just that we're looking for someone who can do other things too."

"Well, try the samples and see what you think.  If you can taste the difference, more power to you, but I think you'll find they're not any different than conventional," I said.

In the course of our fifteen minute conversation she mentioned that they wanted someone who could do "other things that aren't vegan" at least three times, always wearing a little frown and using that let-you-down-gently tone that says, "It's not you, it's, actually, it's definitely you."

And fine. It's her business, it's her decision, but it's dumb.  Not just because I think I make a really great product (which I do), but because it was a decision that very clearly had nothing to do with the actual product and everything to do with her gut reaction to the idea of vegan.

I have a tasting coming up with a large corporate concern to make a bid for snacks at their meetings, etc.  I have not mentioned that I'm a "specialty" baker, nor do I plan to.  More than one person has asked if I've told them, and to a person they've responded with surprise when I say no, as though I'm planning to scam the elderly out of their pensions.

But I'm not tricking anyone into eating something they object to -- the ingredients are the same as most conventional items,  and I'm fairly sure no one's looking to get their protein or calcium from the egg in a cupcake or the scant amount of milk in frosting, so I'm not depriving them of any expected benefit.  I'm offering tasty treats.  If they reject them because they don't like them, or don't like the price, or because I can't do the volume they need, I can accept that because those are reasonable, reality-based issues.  But I won't put myself in a position to lose business based on vague ideas about what a recipe should be like instead of what the product actually is.

Someday I'll have a brick and mortar establishment, a little cafe with pastries and cakes and soups and sandwiches like any other cafe with pastries and soups and sandwiches, except there won't be any meat or animal products.  I won't point it out, and most people won't notice.  I'm not looking to proselytize, I just want to make awesome food consistent with my ethics and stand or fall on the strength of my skill.

And as my semi-estranged father told me the other day in a moment of casually shocking intimacy, "That's what I've always admired about you...when you want something, you go to the mat to get it."

Thanks, Dad, I guess I do.  And I will, I just want a fair fight.

Saturday, April 28, 2012


This happy l'il guy's gonna be the face of Rutabaga Baking.

Good news, guys.  The moment has arrived for me to stop being wistful and get busy.

After lo these many months of mooning about, talking a big, vague game about Finally Doing It, allow me to talk a big, only slightly more specific game.

I'm currently procrastinating on putting together a price list for Rutabaga Baking, for a customer who will receive delivery next week.  Until the order's actually in I'll refrain from naming the venue, but that'll follow soon.  I'm just too excited to keep it entirely under my hat!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Daydream Believer

If wishes were horses than beggars would ride, and if I were half as responsible to myself as I am to other people, I would be self-employed doing awesome things all day. 

I like to think that I’m a free spirit, but I’ve been made to face the fact (over and over and over again, in fact) that my particular spirit is rather like a small child:  It craves boundaries, direction, structure in which to exercise its gifts in a safe and loving environment. 

I will take on an extra project at work, but fail to shop for groceries until my third day of eating nothing but unadorned grits and Bisquick pancakes with ground pepper (for real), help a friend move or paint an apartment but leave my laundry until I’m channeling Pigpen from Charlie Brown.

Ask me to do something and give me a deadline.  I’ll do it in style, with gusto. I’ll dot all the I’s with little hearts, wrap up the results in fancy paper and bows, and deliver it to your door with a curtsy and a flourish.

I’m a diligent ditz, a spazzy robot.  I’m a freight train making all its stops, leaving the mangled corpses of a million grand schemes at every crossing.

Because there are plenty of things that I do just for myself: I play my ukulele, make songs, I sing, I sew, I write stories and essays, I walk, I cook elaborate and not-elaborate meals, I bake and decorate and bake more, I draw, I build simple electronics and modify the complex, I replicate (with varying degrees of success) everything that strikes my fancy from shoes to food to furniture.  I MacGuyver the shit out of things.  Our VHS library currently resides in a six-shelf condominium fashioned from packing tape and vintage Casio boxes. I build tiny people in tiny dioramas because tiny things are just so, so satisfying. 

But there’s the rub.  There are so many things I want to do just because I want to that if you put all of the tools for all of those activities in a room, I would end up running from station to station, flailing my arms like the robot from Lost in Space and finally collapse like a birthday girl when the cake wears off.

I'm heavily motivated by guilt, and I swallow my own excuses easily enough that I don't feel guilty when I let myself down.  A friend pointed out today that my goal shouldn't be to make myself feel guilty for breaking promises to myself, but to recognize that my personal projects deserve attention as much as outside jobs do.  It's two sides of the same coin, and she's right that the latter would be preferable, but I'm hoping for either at this point.

More than hoping, I'm baby-stepping in that direction.  In the past I've looked at this glaring flaw in my operations as something huge and wild and untame-able, something to be acknowledged with a sigh and shrug, but as I cruise into my "grown up" life still holding tight to teenaged optimism, I'm increasingly aware that that's both really counterproductive and ultimately soul-crushing. 

I like my job a lot as far as working for someone else goes, but as my ten year anniversary approaches, I shudder at the thought of another decade, or even another five years. 

When I started this blog I hinted at a big project in the works, and I'm happy to say that I'm actually working on it.  This is in no small part thanks to the community of wonderful people around me, friends and family and co-workers, who nudge me when I'm flagging keep my alternately inflated and flattened ego in reality.  In the end, it would be great if I could be accountable to myself, but I consider it a good start to be accountable to the people who care about and believe in me.

In the very short term, I'm working on a web project, aggregating all of my projects into one space.  It's a relatively passive endeavor, but it's useful for taking stock.  In the next month or two my art, this blog, Giant Marshmallow Pillow (it's not dead, it's sleeping), and my first stab at a commercial baking endeavor will find a new home together.  Like most things I do, it's happening in fits and starts because the ol' squirrel in my noggin keeps running off to check out other stuff, plus I decided to go all out and learn a little bit of WordPress coding just to make things interesting.

So thanks to everyone who humors me and challenges me and keeps me on track.  I'll be sure to give you all presents tied up in fancy paper with a curtsy and a flourish.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Queen Bee

[I started writing this post on International Women's Day, but a) I'm slow and b) I'm note a huge fan of selecting a calendar date on which to "celebrate" a huge swath of the population.  Anyway. Shout out to all my ladies.]

It's easy to lose track of the idea that the people who've always been your seniors were once young, or, even if you know the basic facts, to really imagine who they were. The pictures are so abstract compared to the complexity of a real person.  Family stories fill in some blanks, but those too, get fairly static after a  few listens and stop feeling connected to their subject.

My grandmother is a great example.

In family photos, she's child number 8 in a Von-Trapp-style line up. She's grinning and maybe a little mischievous. You can pair it with the stories of cramming her feet into her sisters' hand me down shoes or listening to her mother playing little tunes that she taught herself on the piano to cobble together the picture of a wholesome childhood light on material wealth but rich in resourcefulness and small pleasures.

We've got pictures of her on the basketball court later, refereeing women's basketball games, a young woman in charge.  We can put it next to the story of winning the Bausch and Lomb Science Award, an important moment for her, and here's a picture of a girl with talent and ambition.

I know these pictures and stories, and plenty of others like a favorite book I've read a million times, but what I love best are the strange asides that come out from time to time:  that her older twin sisters gave her her name, Rosalie, and that she didn't really like it. Some game they used to play with their dolls.  The little stories that go nowhere: the way she and her friends used to horse around walking home from school, the hilarious nicknames that everyone in that generation apparently had. Hers was Diddy.  A family favorite is Flubby (or Fluvvy...we're never sure) Cowan.  I think I'm not making my point very clear, but it's essentially this:  the illustrated book we use to describe our lives often only hints at our real experience, and not a day goes by that I don't find myself trying to imagine what happens on the pages of I can't see.

In my grandmother's case, there's one photo, a senior high school portrait inscribed to her future husband, that says volumes more that any anecdote.  The inscription reads, "Too bad you're an English teacher. Diddy"

Nana, you sassy thing! How bold and flirtatious! What a clever, demure and simultaneously forward way to go after what you wanted!  This is the girl I want to know, whose brain I want to get inside.

Of course to a certain extent, I do.  That girl married the English teacher and when he passed away young, raised five children to be kind, funny, loving people.  She raised them to be like her: resourceful, gracious, ambitious but easygoing, curious, open-minded, and tough-as-nails as the situation required.  And while I think she'd balk at being called a feminist for dubious semantic reasons, I can't think of a better role model.

And when I think of it that way, it occurs to me that I probably have a pretty good idea what she was like as a young woman because I grew up with her daughter and think to myself nearly every day what a lucky break was.  She was a single mother who rolled with the punches, figured out how to make things work, and still managed to be sweet and silly and wonderful.  She's still sweet and silly and wonderful and as I get older, I realize how difficult and rare it is to hold onto those qualities with the kind of responsibility she had.  And I know my grandmother as a young woman because I know my aunt, my mother's sister and another really special mom.

And I know my grandmother as a young woman because of all the children her five kids had, six of us are girls.  Some of us excelled at sports and some of us are musical and most of us inherited a quick, dry wit. Some are mothers to little girls and early indicators suggest that we're right on track for another generation of awesome women. All in all, it's a pretty amazing group of hilarious, bold, pretty, talented gals.  And we may not represent exactly who my grandmother was when she was young, but we are a testament to our matriarchal roots where the "Queen Bee" runs the show.

So I'll keep listening to Nana, hoping to catch additional glimpses of what makes her tick, but ultimately the evidence is all around me in a family that forms like a feminine Voltron.  I love you ladies!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

We, The Living

Hey, here's something to make the majority of readers break out in hives and gnash their teeth:

I like Ayn Rand.

Okay, now here's something to make Ayn Rand roll over in her grave while breaking out in hives and gnashing her teeth:

I don't think you have to accept all of her ideas to find value in some of them.

I read Anthem in 7th grade, which would have made me, say, 12. By the end of 8th grade, I'd plowed through the twin giants The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and by high school I was making my way through the non-fiction like it was my job.  No, seriously, it was like a part-time job.  It was a laborious slog through a forest of "epistemological" this and "metaphysical" that, and required some crash-coursing in works by  Kant and Nietschze, plus economic theory, soviet history, etc.  Looking back I can say with some certainty that I wasn't fully equipped to absorb Thus Spake Zarathustra at 14 but man, did I try.  It was weird times.

But anyway, like many a teenager before me, I got my knickers all in a twist about Ayn Rand. I won a couple of scholarship essay contests through the Ayn Rand Institute, then promptly used the money to pay for housing while I attended a tuition-free school whose founder promoted the very un-Objectivist notion that "education should be as free as air and water."  Oh irony, you devil.

In my experience, a lot of people loved Ayn Rand in their youth, and why not?  She's just the thing for your teenagedly rebellious nerd. The conviction, the autonomy, the suave condescension, and oh man, the selfishness.  You know, all the things you explore as a teenager, but tidy and controlled and attractively intellectual for kids who don't get off on piercings and Mad Dog 20/20.

Usually it ends one of two ways:  You get metaphorically punched in the face by real life, realize that the world is a nuanced and amazing and sometimes grossly unfair place, swing way to the left politically, and only admit to your Rand obsession as a sort of embarrassing folly of youth, or you're blessed with smooth sailing in life, vote for people who want to create a flat tax and keep a picture of yourself shaking hands with Alan Greenspan over your desk like some kind of Libertarian-leaning Bat Signal. (For the record, I enrolled as a Libertarian when I first registered to vote at 18.  I did not, however, vote for Harry Brown that year).

For my part, I still make a point of reading Atlas Shrugged every year, and it functions for me now in a lot of the same ways it did then as delicious, delicious brain porn.  In the world of Dagny and Hank, and yes, John Galt, there is nothing sexier than being smart, talented, proficient.  Well, actually, several passages suggest that a little light S&M might be sexier to them, but that's neither here nor there.

In all seriousness, here are a couple of lessons that stuck with me, albeit somewhat altered or expanded, from those days:

1. There is a value in selfishness.   It's a particularly Rand-ish idea, but I think she had a fairly myopic view of what that means, or at the very least described it in such a cartoonishly flattened way that a lot of people did it wrong. We need to think critically about what that means.  I'm talking real selfishness, the kind where you take the time to understand who you are, what you value, and what you need,  both in the immediate sense and the bigger picture.  We think of selfishness as inherently anti-other-people, but that's a pretty terrible piece of logic unless you're capable of compartmentalizing so severely that you barely have a concept of cause and effect.  Here's an example:  During the first snowstorm of the season, the city didn't call a parking ban because it was supposed to be a minor storm.  It ended up being pretty significant.  I depend on street parking, and live in an area where it's very limited.  When snow doesn't get cleared, there's less parking.  So while it's inconvenient to find a place to park off-street and conventional selfishness means not inconveniencing myself, in the big picture, doing right by everyone and moving my car benefits me the most.  Here's a broader example: I'm not a sociopath, so I dislike seeing or making other people suffer.  I have a selfish interest in living in a just world where people are well treated.  Women who vote Republican, people on Medicare who vote for politicians who promise cuts to entitlement programs, people who claim they love their children who deny climate change: these are people who could stand to be a little more selfish.

Which would require...

2. Valuing thinking.  No joke, the false dichotomy of being a critical thinker/educated/smart or being a "regular person" needs to be killed with fire.  In the past year, the number of letters to the editor in which someone has bragged that they don't have some stupid education has exploded, and it's a real crazy-maker.  You don't have to be a super-genius to be a thinker, but remember this gem from the NYT Magazine quoting Karl Rove?:

[Rove] said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN REGULAR PEOPLE ABDICATE THE RESPONSIBILITY TO THINK.  Evil geniuses decide they can literally hijack reality.  I think that's grossly optimistic, but it's been proven a bazillion times that they can hijack the popular perception of reality which is dangerously close.  And if you think for even a second that someone who thinks like this is remotely interested in what happens to your life, you're not a "regular joe" you're a numbskull.

I'm going to create a feedback loop here and suggest that you read this, a blog entry by a friend and delightful thinker.  It links back to here, but I promise it's not quid pro quo -- I just don't feel like doubling up the good work he's already done.

I'm a traitor by real Objectivist standards. It is, after all, an ideology that insists you take it whole or leave it, but I still credit Ayn Rand with sparking a lot of the big picture thinking that informs who I am now and giving me permission to have enough ego to survive my early teens with my self-esteem in tact.  

Saturday, February 18, 2012

War of the Worlds

I submit for your consideration that not every disagreement is a war.

But let's indulge a little parable:  One of the most adorable couples in my little burg we'll call Hank and Betsy.  They're autistic and met while working in a hospital cafeteria.  They've been married for roughly 20 years now and on their anniversary Betsy wears a taffeta prom dress for the day.  Every morning at 4 a.m. they go to a popular local diner for breakfast.

Ten years ago, they'd come in every morning and order coffee, then Hank would order a full breakfast.  He'd eat in silence while Betsy lustfully watched every forkful go from the plate to his mouth.  

One day the owner of the diner asked, "How come Betsy doesn't get breakfast? Aren't you hungry, Betsy?"

Hank looked up.  "We can only afford one." 

"So why do you always get to eat but Betsy doesn't?" asked the owner.

"Because I'm the man," answered Hank, and continued munching away.  It was clear that in his mind, this was a perfectly reasonable, logical answer.

"That's not very fair, Hank," said the owner. "Both of you work to get the money but only one of you gets breakfast.  Next time, how about I make two plates and split the food so you both get to eat?"

This was an arrangement that hadn't occurred to Hank before.  In his literal world, informed by the traditional culture he was raised in, the breakfast inequity issue was simply a non-starter.  He wasn't crazy about the proposed arrangement, even though he rarely finished the whole meal.  When quizzed, he liked the idea of being nice to Betsy, but the prospect of changing the established dynamic was unsettling just on the face of it.

The million dollar question, then: Did the diner owner's proposal constitute a war on Hank's worldview?

For those of you on the fence, the answer is no. Come on, now.

Likewise, there is no war on faith in this country despite indignant cries to the contrary.  This bears repeating: There is no war on faith in this country.

People of faith are largely unaware of the extent to which their worldview dominates the discourse. God casually saturates everything: our money, our oaths, our sneezes.  On the national "war on faith" stage (with "faith," by the way being code for "Judeo-Christian faith, preferably less Judeo but at least that Old Testament was a page turner") they like to point this out as though the rest of us haven't noticed, as though not complaining abut the little stuff somehow means that speaking up about the big issues is hypocritical.  We have, and it isn't.

I am generally a laissez faire atheist. I don't believe in god and I find it difficult to understand how and why other people do.  But they do, so okay. My grandparents were exceptionally devout and it brought them a measure of comfort, something I don't begrudge anyone.  Where things start to get problematic for 
me is when religious dogma creeps into public policy. Thing is, it's been creeping (and occasionally crashing around like a bull in a china shop) for years and is currently manifesting in a particularly unsavory way.  Protesting this is very different than executing an unprovoked assault.  In fact, unlike, say, evangelical Christians, the opposition voices aren't arguing that people abandon their beliefs, they're asking them not to use their beliefs as a bludgeoning tool in the service of ulterior motives.

Let's think of it in fun, retro-marketing terms: God-drunk politicians are all, "Hey, stop trying to get your peanut butter in my chocolate!" but everyone who doesn't share their faith is like, "Dude, your chocolate's been all up in my peanut butter for years now and I've tried to be accommodating, but dang!"

Yes, for a lot of people their faith informs their ethics, but when you start applying your ethical guidelines to public policy, you best make sure you have a better reason for espousing them than, "Because a bunch of long-dead or possibly never-living guys wrote a book that told me so."

As I watch the slow-motion trainwreck that is the Republican nominating process, it strikes me that the figureheads crying "War on Faith!" are purportedly acting on faith-based ethics, yet their positions are pretty wildly out of step with the ethics of many of the self-described faithful among the electorate.  The question of whether that portion of the electorate is apostate is for that community to decide, but it's more likely that they   find it reasonable to understand their faith in a contemporary context instead of blindly applying standards dictated thousands of years and half a world away.

So what to do when you're a politician who's such a wackadoo that you're alienating even your usually conservative and agreeable base?  Find a scapegoat and try to convince everybody to circle the wagons.  Doctor up a false choice.  Equate examined and thoughtful moral stances with godlessness.  Make sure they have to choose between their identity as a believer and their dirty, dirty modern ideas.  If possible, try to get people less polarizing than you to promote this idea so it has a patina of credibility and the debate winds up such a muck of hate and accusation that everyone's too tired to suss out who the real enemy is.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

I Don't Want To Hurt You, But It's An Election Year

This one's gonna be quick and dirty, folks.

Even before I got political and drifted so far left I fell off the map, I hated election years.  I hate them. They are hateful. The are horrible and hateful and over long and I hate them. HATE THEM.  But as I think of it, it actually has very little to do with the candidates themselves, who I just generally assume are disingenuous at best and dangerous at worst.  No, I hate election years because of the plague of outrageous stupidity the sweeps the nation, infecting even people I generally respect.

If you would prefer that I don't lose my shit on you (at least not from a talking-about-the-election standpoint), keep these things in mind:

1. Party loyalty is for the weak (minded).  This is one of those things that I say from the bottom of my heart, and while I want badly to pull punches where dear friends who are party activists are concerned, I just can't.

If you want to be an enrolled voter because you find yourself mostly aligned with their viewpoints, fine.  But you  have a responsibility to speak up when you disagree, and if you find yourself torturing logic to excuse the sketchy shenanigans of some slimy douchebag just because he's "on your team," you suck.

By the same token, there are some parties that have more unpalatable platforms and attract a disproportionate number of bottom feeders, but they are not always evil, and they're not always wrong.

Elections result in people literally controlling our lives. We're not picking the homecoming queen.  Think a little harder than that, 'kay?

2. There's tons of egregious shit to criticize. Don't be petty. You know how when people argue on the internet and one of them has a typo, the opponent inevitably responds, "Oh, you 'knoe' it's true?  Guess you don't 'knoe' how to spell, though, huh?"  This is not meaningful debate, this is elementary school. If you must bicker, even knowing that political debate NEVER results in people changing their minds, own your opponent on logical fallacies, factual errors and dishonesty. Otherwise you look weak and cheap and too poorly informed to win the debate on substance.  Also, you make people who share your views look like morons, so stop. Please.

3. Single-issue voters can suck it.  Single issue voters love Ron Paul. I'm against U.S. military involvement overseas. Bam, Ron Paul.  I'm a hardcore pro-lifer. Bam, Ron Paul.  I don't think about issues beyond things that affect me in my dorm room and I'm a wicked stoner who wants to legalize. Bam, Ron Paul. I'm racist, sexist, and homophobic and want to see any protections for minorities thrown out the window. Bam, Ron motherfucking Paul.  Ron Paul could get elected by single-issue voters, but I'm guessing that the hippies that wanted to end war and legalize pot are probably not really into the whole pro-life anti-already existing humans agenda.  Dear Otherwise Sane People: Stop saying things like, "I like that Ron Paul is anti-war, but I don't agree with a lot of his other ideas," as though you're still weighing out whether he might be an okay choice. Thanks, The World.

4. Consistency is not necessarily a virtue.  Okay.  Pandering is a bad thing.  This is when someone says that they believe whatever will get them the most support in a given situation.  This means they might be inconsistent in what they say about their position on a topic from campaign stop to campaign stop.  Pandering is a bad thing. This person probably has a consistent opinion, but "flip-flops" out of political expedience.

Open-mindedness is a good thing.  That's when you espouse a belief in something, but you listen to other people talk about that thing and, when presented with compelling evidence, change your mind.  Suppose you believe that car engines are powered by magical sprites on exercise bicycles, but then someone shows you the interior of an internal combustion engine and you now declare that you firmly believe the scientific community's position on what makes cars go.  Your new opinion is inconsistent with your previous position, but the change represents new wisdom and growth as opposed to deceit.

Suppose a candidate also believes in car engine sprites, and after being shown the same information you were, proclaims that the tenuous internal combustion "theory" is just some mumbo jumbo that scientists like to throw around and that he still believes in the sprites and furthermore thinks we need to spend more money on researching engine sprites.  He's consistent, but he's fucking crazy.

Alright, I'll stop now, but please.  Don't let the internets and televisions whip you into the kind of berserker state that makes these behaviors and beliefs happen.  Be sane. Be rational. Be skeptical.  Of all of them.  Groucho Marx famously wouldn't join any club that would have him as a member.  To be honest, I don't really want to give the job of president, or congressman, or senator to anyone who would want it.  Question motives and don't be an asshole.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

My New Year Comes Late

I'm not much for celebrating the change of calendar years, but I do like to take a quick inventory of the past year when I've successfully lived another 365 days.  In other words, it's my birthday and amid the fun times with my awesome friends and family, I like to sprinkle in some thinkin'.

Yesterday evening I had a lengthy and fairly intense conversation with one of my favorite people about depression, empathy, and general philosophy.  Specifically, we talked about what it means to be smart and depressed, what it feels like to be "over" empathic in a culture that doesn't, despite its best intentions and platitudes, value empathy (and how it's often perceived as kind of creepy), the relative insignificance/importance of a single human being on macro- and microcosmic scales, and how we understand our personal context and the larger human historical context in the world within an atheist framework.   And contrary to how that probably sounds, it was one of the most engaging, funny, uplifting conversations I've had in a while.

I will mark this year as the year I got happy and the beginning of my radicalization (it's short way to radical in these gross political times, by the way). Strange conceptual bedfellows, a bit, but definitely symbiotic .  Being happy means I have the luxury of engaging with the world outside in way that is vigorous and positive.  Even when I'm seething with indignation about this or that injustice or ranting about letters to the editor, I know it's because I like life and it matters to me that this world is good.  For the record, I recognize the nearly unbearable earnestness of statements like that and even that feels like a triumph, even if it makes you, dear reader, barf just a little.  Take that, increasingly-marginalized cynical Meg!

What cropped up over and over again in the conversation last night was the idea that being responsible for your own happiness is maybe the defining responsibility of a person's life.  Complaining that things are terrible and vaguely hoping they spontaneously get better is a miserably inefficient solution, and one that has ripple effects through other people's lives. Prayer is complaining and really hoping things will spontaneously get better.  Next week or next month or next year are not more magical than right now.  Your future is happening by seconds, now, now, now, now, now, again now. Be kind now.  Appreciate the good things now.  I'd cite the Serenity Prayer, but I don't want anyone to wait for a god to give them serenity or courage or wisdom: Accept the things you can't change, change the things you can, take yourself off autopilot and figure out which are which.  It sounds incredibly simple, to the point of being meaningless, but in practice those three tasks are very, very difficult.  A lot of terrible things happen.  A lot of frustrating things happen.  Sometimes those things will happen continuously for kind of a long time and there's nothing you can do about it.  I've let that stuff own me plenty and all it got me was a double dose of misery.  Sometimes the bright spots to focus on belong to a friend or a stranger in a news story, but being happy for those bright spots beats wallowing, defeated, in a dungeon of suffering.  It's easy to let yourself off the hook. Sometimes I have to remind myself out loud.

Here's a useful object lesson:  I started writing this post this morning before I met friends for lunch.  I was supposed to go visit my father afterwards.  I thought he was being impatient and calling me at 1 and again a half-hour later, but as it turns out it was his neighbor calling to tell me that Medcu was taking my dad to the hospital.  I got to the building as they were leaving, gave them his basic info and told them I'd meet them at the hospital.  The facts aren't in yet, but he probably had another in a series of seizures following a stroke more than 8 years ago.  It's not serious in the sense that it's unlikely to be fatal, but it will quite possibly mean the end of his independence, something he's fought tooth and nail for over the years. We think this every time, though, and every time he manages a miraculous recovery, just slightly more impaired than before the latest event.

What I've learned from doing this over and over and over again is that I can start fretting now about how this might all turn out, or I can take the simple steps necessary to ensure his care, check in with the hospital, maybe revisit some of the information from last time.  I can go hold his hand and let him try to communicate using one or two words, which is usually what he's left with after these events.  I can laugh at the very funny two-way text exchange I'm having with friends, take care of a couple of tasks for the part-time job I recently took on, be grateful for the flurry of birthday wishes on facebook, go to dinner with my boyfriend and consider what a really rich, loving, mutually respectful life we lead together and how excited I am about the plans we've put in action.

I can't make my dad not sick, the best I can do is...well, the best I can do and falling down a rabbit hole of negative speculation won't do anything good for anybody.

It's not quite where I thought I was going with this when I started, but I guess it's actually pretty close.

This new year's off to a rousing start!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Giant Marshmallow Pillow -- Yeah!

When I started this blog I was like, "Hey, everything's so awesome! I can't wait to see what awesome stuff's obviously just about to happen every second from now until forever!  I'm going to document all that awesome here in this space, just watch! Yay!"

Well, yeah.  I meant to, and I really do, actually, experience the majority of my life as a series of awesome events.  The things is that I'm also a little bit hermit-y and if I were to write about the things that make me the happiest and most excited on any kind of regular basis, what we'd have here would be a collection of adorable cat pictures and stories and a series of groaningly punny dialogues between me and my boyfriend and/or one or both of us talking to the cat.

Also, for all the fist shaking and righteous indignation on the page, having the energy to invest in larger social issues is a luxury that depressed-me couldn't afford (or was too miserly to budget for).  Despite appearances, it's a sign of mental health.  But, depending on your taste, maybe less fun than the rainbows and unicorns I seemed to be promising in the beginning.

And I like it.  I like my over-long and thinky entries.  I like my old smart friends who leave comments and the new friends I've acquired because they're smart and leave comments. I like that even though there aren't a ton of readers, at least some portion of my stats are actual human beings and not click-back bots.

Now you say, "Get to the point, Ramblin' Rose!"

And I say, "Right. Anyway, I'm leaving this business just the way it is, but for those of you with a taste for fly-by-night animation and the disassociative short fiction of dreams, I made a fun blog."

Go now, my pretties.

Seriously, though, how awesome is he?