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  After talking with him about it for a while, I agreed to think about it and I've since rescinded my resignation.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!