Give me that pill!

What is your drug of choice?  There is a reason I never really got into drugs- illegal or prescription.  Somewhat like Woody Allen’s attitude in Annie Hall:

Alvy Singer: (As Annie is trying to get him to smoke weed) Yeah, grass, right? The illusion that it will make a white woman more like Billie Holiday.

Annie Hall: Well, have you ever made love high?

Alvy Singer: Me? No. I – I, you know, If I have grass or alcohol or anything, I get unbearably wonderful. I get too, too wonderful for words. I don’t know why you have to get high every time we make love.

Annie Hall: It relaxes me.

Alvy Singer: You have to be artificially relaxed before we can go to bed?

Annie Hall: Well, what’s the difference anyway?

Alvy Singer: Well, I’ll give you a shot of sodium pentothal. You can sleep through it.

Annie Hall: Oh come on. Look who’s talking. You’ve been seeing a psychiatrist for 15 years. You should smoke some of this. You’d be off the couch in no time.

 [Later in the film Alvy is asked to try cocaine]

Alvy Singer: I don’t want to put a wad of white powder in my nose. There’s the nasal membrane…

Annie Hall: You never want to try anything new, Alvy.

Alvy Singer: How can you say that? Whose idea was it? I said that you, I and that girl from your acting class should sleep together in a threesome.

Alvy’s sex fantasies aside, drugs just seemed like more trouble than they were worth.  What little experimentation I did in my Mesozoic era taught me one important thing- drugs are never as fun as they are a complete, mostly negative distortion of perception; something I was not too keen to repeat (although the fuzzy, laugh enabling feeling from a glass of wine can be cathartic).  Coming down from various drugs after surgeries and caesarians just made me headachy and afflicted with nausea.  Why people want to take those drugs is beyond me.


Right now I am on a strong dose of prednisone for a truly horrifying case of hives.  Hives that prove no vacation is a real one unless someone gets sick (at least it wasn’t one of the kids vomiting in a hotel bed this time).

Husband confirmed tonight (he found the bite holes) what I suspected at 35,000 ft in a crowded airplane.  A spider had found its way to my hairline on the back of my neck and bitten me during the last night in our B&B.  My immune system went into over-drive, and I started feeling hard lumps on my scalp that were forming down my body as the plane ride went on. Of COURSE when asked, flight attendants had no Benadryl handy for such a common problem (what?  No official form I could quickly sign saying I was aware, no liability, etc. then give me the damned Benadryl!).  So I looked like a poorly stitched, scratching Bride of Frankenstein when we landed, and had to wait in the heat while someone brought the wheel chair for my father that had been requested five hours earlier.  A mob of people were waiting for a flight to L.A., and thankfully, by the sheer grace of one observant woman (who was pushing a small child in a stroller while waiting) I got some Benadryl.  She reached into the emergency zipper on her mom bag (mine is still woefully under packed, and Benadryl will become a staple now) and drew out two small pills and gave them to Husband, who was standing near her.  He passed them on to me and in a panic I ran down the hall for a bottle of water and took them while in line to pay.  At that point I could not move my neck from the swelling and hoped the fabulous B would at least stop the mutation (over the next hour, it stopped the swelling in my neck.  It did not stop the formation of hives down to my toes).  When I got back to the family, the LA plane had boarded and I did not get a chance to thank the mysterious wonder woman.  If anyone knows her, thank her for me.  This all happened on Memorial Day, and she was flying out of D.C. (and always carry Benadryl- you never know when someone might need it!).  I passed out on our connection (I mumbled to Husband, “is this what Beany-drill does?” and he laughed, saying yes), and I fell into bed once we got home.

Upon waking, it was all so much worse.

My doctor (the office is over an hour away) fit me in, and chuckled that I had a classic case of hives.  She told me it could be caused by anything- even though I had never had such hives before (my virulent reactions to poison sumac and ivy were not quite the same thing).  So I got a small dose of doxycycline (in case it was a bite from a tick or spider), and the magic drug Prednisone.  My father says it is the only drug he was ever tempted to be addicted to, but for the liver damage and other side effects.  He says I’ll feel like a teenager by Friday.  I hope not, I did not enjoy feeling like a teenager.  My favorite years were my early 30’s. Where is the drug that will make me feel like that again?.

I finished my entire New Yorker, and was chatty tonight with husband who kept falling asleep.  I asked, “Is this what steroids do to you?  Are they a stimulant?  I did not have any coffee today. . .Ohhh! Look!  The redness is subsiding and the welts are going down, it must be working. . .”

Husband grunted a laugh, saying, “Yes.  They are a stimulant.  I am going to sleep.”

That’s usually a variation of MY line.

The histamines are being blocked, and the steroids are doing what ever they do, and instead of lumpy, tired and grumpy, I feel rested and wakeful, and cognitively alert.  Yep- this is a drug I could get used to (but for the liver damage and all that. This is NOT, by the way, how I felt as a teenager.  Closer to how I felt in my 30’s).  We’ll see if it gets me through tomorrow and the unseasonably high heat, a parent teacher conference, and a play date at our house with my sons friend- among the usual work of unpacking and getting back into a routine. 

Oh, yeah, and through a monster case of hives.

I am invisible

We are a collection of wonderful paradoxes, Walt Whitman might say.  I am both a very shy person, and yet can be charismatic and outgoing.  Choosing to be invisible is easy.  Worn teeshirt, jeans, frumpy hair, no makeup, what I think of as my Coco Chanel glasses (large, plastic frames and glass bi-focal lenses), small silver earrings.  Keen sandals.  Wedding band.  All this and I disappear.  Literally.  Counter clerks have to look twice, as if I appeared out of thin air from the first time they glanced.  When I am done with my business and walk away, I doubt they could recall anything about me at all.  Crossing the street, cars forget to stop. 

When I make myself “presentable”, people seem shocked.  The mothers of the children at the preschool my son attends recently had lunch together.  Many are academics, most over the age of 30.  When I walked in, the organizer of the event looked stunned.  She commented on how I appeared, positively.  So did others.  When I picked up my son from school his teacher could not stop asking about the large funky ring I wore (Did Husband make it? No.), the sweater, the black jeans, the BCBG black shoes, the silver bangles.  I had makeup and less crazy glasses on as well.  When she could not seem to stop, I interjected “Yes.  I clean up.”  She seemed embarrassed at that point.  I usually drop him off and pick him up while cleaning or gardening, or any number of banal and mundane activities that require “work clothes”.  Also, I know I am invisible when I dress down and no one bothers me.  They avoid me actually, so I suppose my appearance is a few steps above bag lady.

 I have a fantasy about my own super heroine.  She is a late 50’s retired chemist, widowed.  She lives in a neat and orderly craftsman style house in an older neighborhood, in a university town.  Her neighbor is a Native American man who looks after her garden when she travels.  Her old grad assistant looks after her dog.  She has become a finely attuned killer.  She has educated herself about all manner of methods (very funny scenes in the beginning of the development of her alter ego when she is learning methods of how to kill).  She scans various newspapers for people she believes deserve to be taken out of the gene pool as she says; child abusers who have gotten off on technicalities for example.   She expertly hunts them down and erases them.  She does so with relative ease because she is smart, but also because she is invisible.  She is the kindly, graying older woman no one takes seriously.  She slips through crowds without being seen, but without needing camouflage.  Hey, men have their Spider-mans and Dark Knights.  I have my Invisible Woman. 

 One sided dialogue from imagined film pitch:

“No.  Not like Ms. Marple.”

“No.  Not like Dexter.”

“No.  She does not have super powers.”

“No.  She does not dress like a tart.  I don’t think you get the idea.”

“No.  Not like Stephanie Plum.”

“No.  No no no.  The core demographic is not male 12-35.”

“Do you know what irony is?”

“We are done here.”

  That’s pretty much how life goes anyway.

I may not have the brains or nerve to BE my super heroine, but on a smaller scale I know how to manipulate my appearance and energy to achieve certain perceptions.  You have to “work with what you have” my mother used to say.  I was never beautiful, and youth is a great help in attractiveness.  Middle age is another situation entirely.   It was near the end of my graduate school experiences, at a conference, when a woman told me “you look like somebodys mother”.  I had not dressed that way, and wondered why she got off on insulting me.  She was older than I was and trying way too hard to be hip in her appearance.  It was just another straw on the proverbial camels back for me regarding academia, and not really a surprise.  People are just as messed up, petty, competitive, dim and prone to superficiality as in any other arena, they just have the skills to mask it better.  Being invisible does not mean it is a good quality, and there are a lot of women whom it really chafes.

Most of us know as we slip into invisibility.  Men cease to take the automatic sneak peek at our breasts, and we move beyond sexual opportunity into “safe” ; not yet grandmotherly, but not a sexual bulls eye to hit either.  We gain a little social authority, but only when we are persistent in a goal.  Otherwise we risk being called crazy, or threatening and are thus dismissed.  As Husband says, that is a grave mistake- because a middle aged woman comfortable in her body and experienced is “a thing of wonder and pleasure”.

Try to remember: you never know about all those ladies you pass on the street.  Don’t underestimate us, because you really have no idea about all the things we are and who we can be.  You have been given fair warning.  Besides, isn’t it better to imagine a bunch of terrific Invisible Women out there fighting for the greater good in the world?

Why we need the fly over

Amidst all the flash and bang, the sturm and drang of what passes for news, entertainment, and the gripping social scene of the U.S., there are vast swaths of what the glitterati like to call “”fly over””.  We won’’t discuss how many of those glitterati actually grew up in the fly over and departed for the flash (usually in their early 20’’s), or the good reasons they had for doing so.  But it is curious that many of them who later became successful got known and labeled for their “Midwestern-ness”.  Some say it disparagingly, as Bret Easton Ellis did of David Foster Wallace (something akin to suggesting “he has a fake Midwestern sincerity”, but really- if he calls DFW fake, then I question if he knows what sincerity is at all).  Some say it with a slightly charmed, slightly condescending expression, as if to say “isn’’t that so cute, so naive”.  Some say it with camaraderie- “They remind me of myself at that age, so earnest and hard working””, and on rare occasions, “”I’’d only hire a former midwestern kid.  They are the only trustworthy ones in the lot””.

You get the idea.

Midwesterness is a general category, often used in film and political campaigns to denote the “backbone of America”, the thing that carries everyone along but gets little attention paid, even when it is sending out pain signals.

It is not “southern”; it is not of the “coasts”.  It is not “northwest-like”, and it is definitely not “southwestern”.  It bears a passing resemblance to the crusty, stink eye stare of rural Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine but with a firm, quick handshake and offer of some refreshment.  It goes about its’ business trying not to offend anyone or get in anyone’’s way. 

It is the humor of Garrison Keillor, state fairs, hale cheerleaders, and tractor pulls.  It is high schoolers on dirt roads drinking at 10 p.m. knowing they have to be home soon for family curfews and in time to sleep then get up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows.  It is white, but also brown, and sometimes yellow and red- there are more Native American reservations in the Midwest than anyone ever considers, more Latin Americans, more African Americans and more Asians (and not just in the cities). 

It is thrift stores where dust collects on old Ball jars, while cases of new ones sell out of stores every year.  It is Agri-business controlling vast swaths of green seas, and contracting out with cattle, poultry and pork farmers.  It is musty Carnegie libraries with amazing stained glass ceilinged tiny rotundas that kids bike to in the summer to stay cool and read.  It is the wind.  It is quiet broken by the occasional vicious argument over heard from blocks away, usually over money or some subject akin to any country music song on the radio.  It is the twang of the teen learning the electric guitar, and listening to AC/DC in the basement.  It’s churches of brick, stone and wood with interchangeable signs and denominations. 

To have known Midwesterness is to have looked at the sky, to read the clouds, and know the screech of tornado sirens.  It is all the contradictions of passivity and sometimes self-indulgent ignorance, as well as knowing the meaning of loyalty, kindness, and unspoken anxiety always at the corners of life.  It is to know awe; genuine, gob smacking awe at the greens of a dragonfly, the belly of a hummingbird, the taste of a fried tomato, as well as the sight of a Calder or an Oldenburg sculpture occupying the grass.  It is to revel in awe and not be ashamed, and no knee-jerk jump to tying that awe to any sort of god.

It is a built-in patience with many things, and open-faced impatience with that which seems time wasting or superficial, irrational, or especially unjust.  It is also dumbfoundingly strange from time to time; creative, silly, and sometimes pointless.

Belly laughs are considered good things in most venues, and volunteering is a given.

It can be cruel, not doubt.  Punishing as well.  The wheel that grinds souls in midwesterness is not so much about isolation among many, but isolation itself.

It is a quality often recognized, but difficult to describe.

Without it late night comics would have little fodder, and the very groundedness the flash and bang relies upon would be gone. 

Say what you will.  But I know a Midwesterner when I speak to them.  I may come to dislike them later, but for a moment- there is a kindredness of spirit that I appreciate. 

I do not look down on the green, grays and browns when flying from one coast to another and breathe a sign of relief that I do not have to drive.  I wistfully look down, having traversed those roads so many times, and wish I had the time and money to do it again.  Not to discover Kerouac’s dream, not to mourn with Bill Bryson, not to revel with W. Least Heat Moon but because I have already done it and I miss it.  I don’’t know if I could put my muddy shoes behind the door there again, but I miss it and appreciate it for what it is, and what it gives all of us.

That old feudal feelin’

A Washington Post journalist writes this week that his time at Davos (the world economic conference) surprised him.  He found a form of “populist” rage simmering in the most powerful and monied people of the world, and it was spurring many extreme conversations about what should be done to fix world financial systems (one such suggestion was global labor laws).

Yet the anger he observed is significantly different from the populist rage and anxiety of the powerless (which means most of us).  We are angry because everyday basic transactions of life have been and continue to be violated, while we are expected to conform to “rules” and at the same time be suckers- at the loss of home, health, family, and life in many cases.  Some predict a French revolution style acting out- but the very wealthy know better.  They are angry because enough nouveau riche (newly rich), many of whom are in banking, designed systems to get rich quick, without thought for consequences, and made the very rich feel threatened, robbed and worst of all- duped.  My father told me once not to taunt a big dog, you’ll get bitten.  That newly rich man with ties to Madoff found floating in his pool?  Get bitten indeed.  The worst thing a very powerful (which is synonymous with wealth in our world; money being necessary, but not the whole definition of what constitutes a powerful individual) person feels is to be duped, taken advantage of, treated like a fool.  It is the highest form of insult, and retribution is always swift.

 Those who were at Davos now talk about “fixing” the series of problems that have brought us to our current global economic insecurity, and in ways that circumvent a revolution (because those are bad for business) and consolidate their power even more, so that such recent financial events do not happen again.   I am not a fan of “runaway” capitalism.  Quite the opposite.  But it fills me with feelings of foreboding to know that the super powerful are trying to find ways to change things, and not in ways that mimic socialism, communism, or capitalism.   The discussions at hand are filled with the knowledge that to maintain any economic stability, the vast majority of people must feel safe, or at least not threatened.  Thus did the discussion of global labor laws arise.  The uber-powerful already consider themselves the care takers of the rest of us, if for nothing more than the fact that to do so stabilizes their own positions. But how much care?  How much cost-benefit analysis must be done?  There will be complex formulas, there will be intricate arguments.  But what these proposed changes at the very highest levels will mean seems to be a new feudalism.

 Let’s consider this for a moment, shall we?  There have been many societies in history that had explicit class levels (Thank you William the Conqueror, and India for examples).   Consider the warrior/military class; think the new global Blackwaters, er, newly named Xe, that have taken over global military function.  All else, at the national level, is a form of employment that takes the lower class (as defined by education, intellect, money, family, and regions) and gives them a job- makes them a National Guard so to speak- that does domestic work.   Think of recent events around the earthquakes in Haiti.  It is a textbook example of one of the poorest places in the world (and hence not of high financial stakes, such as Iraq, that require explicit military “intervention” to “secure”: control for the profit of specific people).  The fast, very public response to the events was amazing.  How many photos, tweets, essays, videos, and general information moment to moment got circulated?  With no invested entities to curtail it (as was in the recent Iranian elections), the information flowed and then did resources.  Will this become a global pilot model of support to shape the future from?  This model allows us all to feel involved, puts resources in poor places, and happens globally, not just locally.  Interest dies in increments of time out from event, as information overload leads us to believe things are being taken care of.  What a machine!

 Will the new skilled/crafts class be our doctors?  Our lawyers?  Engineers?  What will the business class be, and how much will they be allowed to do?  Will there be a rise of the sanctioned social services class (teachers?  nurses? city planners?  garbage people?  mail persons?) generally labeled as government workers?  Will there be untouchables (with the complete privatization of prisons, will they become workhouses to be “productive” and contribute to the overall system?  Will there be degrees of this class on a global scale?  Will execution of the very worst be a global standard?)?  What will the new global legal courts look like?  Will the aristocracy maintain the highest levels of judges and law?  What will the religious/priestly class look like?  What will their sanctioned roles of control be?

 Most of all, are we kidding ourselves if this is not implicitly, if not explicitly, already the case?   Those at Davos will do what they will do, hash out compromises among themselves, and agree upon ways to squelch any reaction in ways that will not be overtly violent (China is learning the backlash of that approach).  They will find ways to garner our support, throw us bones.  We will be more organized, we will possibly even feel “more” free.  We may not fear global war anymore.  We may not fear for our children’s lives.  I do not know what the specifics will look like, I can only imagine possibilities.  But I wonder, will George Orwell’s books quietly disappear?  Will all the IPads and Kindles just not carry them, and then our collective memory of these books and what they posit simply evaporate into history?

 Post Davos, post 2010, what does the future look like?  I don’t know.  I may be in the intellectual class now, but we are only allowed access to certain information and means of expression.  I am ignored by those who would rather happily munch toxins and watch quasi-violent entertainment, and am segregated by those who would rather have their ideas promoted, not mine. In sum, my class has some cultural capital, but we are wage slaves none the less.  Perfectly contained in other words.  Now if I could only get my hands on some Soma, I’d be fine.  But I’m sure the CEO’s of Glaxo are working on that.

Stuck in the middle with you

It has been said that describing the American experience as being at the mercy of anything is to give in, to invite patriarchy.  To believe that forces larger than the collective of the citizenry control our fates for good or ill encourage hopelessness, and metaphors of parents (which conservatives and religious leaders seem to like overly well).  This may be generous- because feeling powerless and recognizing forces larger than oneself are also a form of realism, grim as it can be.  Also, it seems these are the first steps to action, to reacting, and to resisting.  Not just in the ways of adolescents, but in ways that are methodical, well thought out, and effective as resistance.

It seems in our current moment most of us are caught between descriptions and forces of extremes in politics, economics, and other facets of life.  We have become again faceless masses others like to speculate about, and use for their purposes.  Even, it seems, with a new populist media/technology of tweets, Face and Space ramblings, and blogs- have we become still more invisible?  It sounds like a paradox, but it is not.  Listen to several different objects at once, and it all becomes white noise.  When a stronger signal breaks through, it is all we can hear.  That a limited amount of people control stronger signals is simply fact.  That we can become seduced by the plethora of information, disappear down rabbit holes of specificity that appeal to any current emotion and interest is the new soma.  George Orwell had the date and substance wrong, but in general I think he was right.

The film The Matrix comes to mind, a metaphor for waking up from our collective pervasive delusions.  Is revolution truly fomenting as some of late have claimed?  Or are we the stepchildren of warring parents, ostensibly being protected and shut into rooms, not seen, not heard?  The uber rich dine with religious extremists; if an apocalypse is coming they simply hole up, drink up, and toast to the end.  What becomes of anyone else is not their concern, and justifiable by pointing blame out to those they refuse to see.

We do not seem to feel a basic strength that would help make positive change- our very collective humanity.  Kinship with people different than we are by nationality, class, or any other category seems antithetical to the current paths of anger, mistrust, defensiveness, and blame that are popular.  Workers who fought for unions at the height of the most egregious corporate abuses knew that kinship was key.  Humanism is a force for good, not to be vilified.  Without it, we fracture and fall.  The signers of the Declaration of Independence knew this.  The figure known as Jesus Christ knew this.  Mohammed knew this.  Buddha knew this.  Mother Theresa knew this.  Artists, musicians, poets and philosophers have known this.  Scientists know this.

When will those of us in the middle recognize it, stop talking about it, and actually act collectively on this knowledge for a greater good?  I think expecting elected leaders, business moguls, and celebrities to do it is not only passing the buck, but will only frustrate.

What this means can be manifested in multiple ways.  Maybe they will not all be strictly compatible, maybe we’ll see a cobbled together set of actions that overlap, a messy vision in action that is dramatically different than what we have now.  Driven by collective humanity that is not drugged, not locked away, and willing to broker a different reality.

Hope must spring eternal.

I am too lazy for that

Ok. I admit it.  I watch Battlestar Galactica (the new one) on the net after it posts every week.  With my husband.  After the kids are in bed.  It is a delicious, silly treat.  Somewhat akin to reading fiction in bed as a child, with the flashlight (dad did not encourage me to read fiction, he said it was junk).  But like the Star Trek fans of old, there are people who make costumes, go to conferences to meet actors and discuss plots, and in general show a high degree of focus and energy on these things that it makes me shake my head.  Live and let live, but I am just too lazy to do that.

I also read about how pro-anorexia and bulimia sites have ballooned on the net, in all languages thinkable.  I looked at some of these sites, trying to understand what goes on in these peoples (not just female anymore) heads, hearts, and bodies.  Aside from feeling very sad, because there is a grain of truth in the sentiments that each site echoes about how women (and men, particularly young men) are valued, I also thought:  I am too lazy to do that.  The discipline and obsession required to pursue those sorts of eating disorders is just not something I could pull off.  In addition, I like cheese too much.  And bread.  Really good bread.  And fruit, fresh fruit. . .and garden vegetables. . .and grilled meat. . .and pasta, tossed with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, or clam sauce. . .mmmmmm. 

Ok, I digress.

Digressing is not focusing, I tell myself. I realized with many tears last week that as creative as I can be in problem solving, I am just too lazy to really get crazy about anything.  Even when I was dating, I couldn’t get too worked up about anyone who wasn’t more obsessed with me than I was with them.  I usually became friends with the people I dated, because I was just too lazy to do anything else.  Being angry takes way too much energy, and there seems to always be something more interesting to think about.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I can be stubborn when it comes to gross levels of injustice, and inconsolable when it comes to issues of profound evil.  Yet going over the edge about anything, especially daily habits, seems like a lot of work.  It takes enough effort to keep a level of structure in my life that keeps the recyclables going out every week, the floor picked up, laundry done, family fed, my mind and the garden reasonably cultivated, and so forth.  To simply stave off chaos requires a lot of work.

I tried being a vegetarian for a while when I was younger (and single) because good meat was expensive, and I wasn’t very good at cooking it.  It didn’t last long.  My mother used to tell me with a high degree of irritation in her voice that I “always fell into things”.  I think what she meant was that I wasn’t disciplined enough to choose and chase any particular activity, and that all the mistakes I made were not particularly by choice, but due to ignorance and laziness.  You can imagine, it frustrated her greatly.  It frustrates me now, to think about all the opportunities blown, the paths not taken. 

I see some of this in my eldest son.  He is very easy going; some call him “happy go lucky” (not to be confused with Holly Go Lightly, at least I hope not).  He did not cry for the first year of his life, but would do this strange grunty thing when he was upset.  We used to call him the growly bear with chicken hair (he had very blonde, wispy, unruly hair that stuck out everywhere).  He is usually a very sunny child, and many people remark upon it.  He has developed an impish, rebellious side though and for that I am grateful (even if it sets me off from time to time).  But usually, he is an easy to please, happy, go-with-the-flow sort of little guy.  The down side is that he too can be manipulated, and coerced into things he would rather not do, and sometimes be the butt of a cruel child’s joke.  He does not understand it when this happens, and neither do I.  As I said, it takes way too much energy to be mean, and there are so many better things to do.  

Husband disagrees with me as I read this to him.  He lists all the times I stay up until three to finish a book, or “go like a terrier down a rabbit hole” when doing research and trying to find out about a subject.  I tell him this is not obsession.  I say this is not the same thing at all as the comi-con fans, the eating-disorder women, the muscle heads, the political wonks, the bunny boilers, the rebel flag wearing gun-nuts, or any assortment of folks that do not fill the role of “hobbyist”, or even earnest endeavor, but rather something quite a bit more, something bordering on the crazy, something that requires a large amount of energy, time, and not a drop of laziness. 

I think one of the core trusts we have in this country, the comfort, is knowing that no matter how crazy anyone seems to be, how different, how engaged in things utterly alien to some, that these things usually are not truly harmful and usually are not really obsessive.  Even differences that are core to our identity do not usually cause harm, and do not fit the term obsessive, but rather descriptive. 

In general, I think we have all come to trust that one of the things about living in the U.S. is that we are our own worst enemies.  If our government at all levels manages to keep infrastructure going, and stays out of our personal lives above that line of actual harm (not theoretical, an important distinction when dealing with religious nuts who want fascist reforms), if the economics of this country allow for most to work for livable wages under conditions that are both fair and encourage good work, creates considerations for those who can’t contribute in traditional ways, and the greater good is achieved not by excluding others, but by trying to work that complex space of “liberty and justice for all” (the under god part was tacked on very recently by the way, and nothing the Heritage Foundation says or does actually encourages any part of the liberty and justice part, no matter how much they wish to copy-right the verses)— well, then we do as we can and as we like.  This lays the foundation for the best R&D imaginable (with good education and funding) because it opens up the realm of the imagination, and experience.   We trust that people can make costumes for themselves, role play; collect rocks, books, cooking utensils, baby shoes or nail clippers; that people can have organizations that are specially formed for the discussion of these interests, and can lose themselves in these activities.  We trust the utter craziness of this social experiment we live within, and shrug when we see the array of parades and web sites for every damned thing imaginable.  It is when we forget that this is an important part of our lives, when we try to suppress or actively harm people who are different, that we lose.  Because as we do this to others, so can it be done to us. 

I should not have to repeat but I will: this is not to say there should be no baselines of law established.  But those baselines should restrict those who do actual harm, and do more encouraging of actual liberty.  Economic coercion of individuals and groups is not acceptable either, because in practice (as we currently see) it does the same thing as suppressive laws, and not nearly enough economic support for liberty and fraternity, or general social good (I will not even go into the financial support of corporations as individuals, one of the most insane definitions ever made in financial law).

It takes an enormous amount of front-end energy to set systems to do good, and an even larger amount of energy to suppress, harm, and manipulate after the fact.  Some say not being engaged in this process at all is the position of apathy, or laziness; and that this leads inevitably to chaos.  Also, most will angrily add, this requires that others become obsessed, “do all the work”.   That Hen making the bread story meant to teach children sort of thing.   Oh, in all things entertainment related, being lazy is fine- encouraged even.  But when it comes to being a citizen participation is essential.  I do not disagree.  But participation and obsession are two different things.  I’ll participate to establish those golden means all at once necessary as well as unattainable.  I know this requires a constant level of knowledge and action.  But I can’t get obsessed. Eternal vigilance may be the price of liberty as Milton Friedman posited.  But can one be vigilant and jubilant as well?  Can we take care of our daily lives with some degree of finesse, attend to the greater good, and still have time for Battlestar Galactica?  I hope so.  Because if not, be afraid.  Be afraid for us all.  Because most of us, most of us are just too lazy for that.


A weakness for cheese and a fondness for robots

I joined Facebook recently.  What a strange phenomenon it is.  I appreciate getting to share photos with relatives and friends who live at a distance.  I even appreciate people I knew finding me/being found, and being able to post links and other pieces of errata.  But I am still trying to understand this twenty-four hour news cycle, Twitter-fomatic orientation to the world that seems the domain of a generation younger than I.

Someone passed on the “tell me twenty five things about yourself” irritant that is popular right now.  I cringed.  I did not like the trend when it started, and am not much of a joiner that way.  My first response was flip, “Fingers, toes, eyes, ears and nose”.  When I considered it fully, I finally just said “oh, read the blog you lazy thing” and forgot about it.  Then, I came up with my own version of the challenge.  If you took a snap shot of your life right now, what would you title it?  I don’t particularly mean the micro level of the actual minute, but a more general sense of reality.  I decided mine would be “A weakness for cheese and a fondness for robots”.

Another friend forwarded a photo essay about egregious acts of culinary evil that “make you fat” from restaurants around the US.  Well, they are not responsible for my particular issues, I thought, but certainly having become more sedentary and having a weakness for cheese has.  When we were courting, Husband made a joke about my fondness for fermented milk by sending me the biggest hunk of cheddar (from Wisconsin) I had ever seen.  The man understood me.  The title also reminds me in some vague way of all things Monty Python, with some of Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit series thrown in (and I do like a bit of gorgonzola).   Cheese somehow sums up both the domesticity and absurdity I find myself in right now, and my fondness for it is both my downfall and my pleasure.

The robots reflect my Husband and sons’ fascinations.  This birthday the boys are begging for a robot cake, which I have figured out how to make thanks to many examples from Google images (no, not a cake that walks around- although that would thrill them, and the subsequent active narrative of destroying it).  Robots are everywhere in our home, and I have yet to completely understand the devotion to them.  Which brings up my latest food related idea.  Normally, if I had caught eldest son drawing on paper with one of my exquisite small bars of Madagascar chocolate that he obviously found on the ‘fridge door behind the butter (ok, I should have hidden it better), I would have been angry.  But it was cool in the house, and like a crayon it glided over the paper making an interesting brown robot.  Most chocolates have a high wax content, so this came as no surprise really, but my special bar had a low wax content so in any warmer weather it would not have had the same effect.  I thought about an Iron Chef episode in which a young pastry chef marveled and amazed the audience with his mastery of sugar, food coloring, and heat.  I wondered if such a chef could make a sort of edible rice paper parchment, and a chocolate crayon to draw upon it.  Little cartoons could be quickly sketched, and stuck at odd angles into small mounds of homemade ice creams.   Finally the Chef could respond to his devotees like political cartoonists in dark bars and cafes.  I have never heard of such a thing, so maybe I have actually come up with something new for once!  You “heard” it here first, folks.

When I joined FB and logged in as “trying to figure this out”, one witty person told me to ask a neighborhood kid.  If it were pure mechanics, I might have.  But the statement was addressing the larger issue of cultural context, and the varieties of meanings behind all the applications.  I still have not mastered Facebook, nor any of her sister circles of internet hell.  But I am learning, and to my surprise- am glad.  Maybe I am moving beyond the cheese.  What would robots eat?  What does this mass of circuitry consume other than time?  I wondered out loud.  My son’s reply:  “Metal mom.  Just like Iron Giant.”  Well, I have been a little short on iron lately.  Pass me the supplements. . . or perhaps no.  Machine age steam punk aside, that time has passed.  Wetware and silicon, electricity and bio-projects swirl in my head.  High-energy consumption gray matter, and we are back to a need for glucose doping.  That greediest of organs, our brains.  So maybe I am back to cheese after all, in moderation, with some crackers. 

Shaped like robots, of course.  Such conceptual fractals life seems to be, and I am out of bandwidth to follow the pattern for now.

“See you” on Facebook.

Needs and wants

There seems to be a lot of discussion right now about what defines need and want. Both are categories of desire.  Need is most clearly defined by the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy: food, shelter, safety. Included above this is some vestige of social connection, a form of intimacy akin to love- that thing without which babies die (see the studies regarding this from mid-twentieth century), old folks slip into afflictions and die, and the rest of us suffer depression and a variety of illnesses.  Abraham Maslow (1943) developed a pyramid of levels to represent a complete individual that has been revised from time to time, but the basic ideas have stayed the same.  There is a line on the pyramid, below it are needs and above it are what we might call wants.  Above the line categories include respect, achievement, creativity, self-determination.  Our founding folks might have seen these as the basis of the “pursuit of happiness”.  So are they really wants- or another form of needs?  I suppose it depends on whom you talk to. 

Many wealthy people in this country think cutting back on their monthly liquor orders constitutes privation.  They will also tell anyone who listens that everyone else, those making below 50k a year especially, ought to just suck it up and cut back.  They shake fingers and cluck, some massaging their conscience with a few dollars thrown at a charity (for which, as Blago of Chicago made clear, they expect a return in money, big parties, and other benefits).  No health insurance?  Too bad you are not “talented” enough to find a good job with benefits.  Need extra tutoring for your kids?  Daycare?  Too bad.  You should not have had children you can’t afford.  The list goes on and on. They strut around at cocktail hour, palms open, telling their friends “what do they expect?  Of course our companies/banks/businesses need the bailout.  We are the ones who keep this country going.”  The unquestioned assumption that big salaries, and big compensation packages are also necessary, needful things; this fun-house mirror of self regard and privilege is horrifying.  Finding out recently that a high percentage of the businesses getting bailout money operate core off-shore tax havens and that much of that money is being funneled away to these havens is also scary.  It all points out that the modus operandi for too long has been nothing more than greed driven to the extreme, and instead of being the foundation for a healthy, complex economy– undermined it entirely.  Like over-mined ground in West Virginia, the ground is collapsing and everything that rested on top is caving in and becoming toxic.  The fires that burn below in the mines of Pennsylvania will burn for thousands of years (  Let’s hope this metaphor for our financial system is a little less long term. 

Maslow had it right I think.  In a very pragmatic way, we know if people don’t have basic needs met their lives spin out of control, and even worse, they die.  I don’t think the vast majority of people in this country are confused about the difference between needs and wants, and they don’t need daytime talk show hosts to wag fingers and wax poetic about the uplifting opportunities for self improvement by learning to live with less.   What most people seem to need is parity between those who want to believe they are the caretakers of our systems, and those who have little control over them. Business journalists held hands over their collective mouths until the holidays had passed, and now are starting to blather forth all the bad news they held in.  It’s gonna get a lot worse, and no one is really sure how much worse.  Where have you gone Nancy Reagan; ketchup never was a vegetable and a full belly is a basic need.  We can’t wish or talk away the realities of what is happening.  The time for blame seems to have passed when the government is giving life boats to the very wealthy while yelling into the megaphone to look the other way, these are not life boats, they are some thing else, um, yeah, bailouts that will make everything better.  Just keep your noses to those rapidly sinking grindstones, and we’ll give you a couple hundred bucks at tax time (and take it back in the now $17,000 per wage earner that will be needed in taxes to fund the bailout).  When the ship is going down, those scions of business and culture will be off to their private islands stocked with alcohol and say it was everyone else’s’ fault. The nut-bags plan to hole up in Idaho, and as one blogger put it, “I’ll have the guns to come take your organic gardens, liberals”.  No, we have no time to blame.  

What do I need today?  I need a laugh.  I need to clean my house.  But more importantly, I need to know I can feed my kids, get them adequate medical care, and keep a roof over our heads and clothes on their rapidly growing bodies.  A solid elementary and secondary education is essential as well.  For myself, I’ll skip a meal or two but I can’t live without the laughs. It is way too dark for me, and many others, right now.  We have to find a way to laugh without sticking our heads in the sand as many conservatives would have us do.   We have to find a way to channel our anger productively, and act.  When we suggest a state-wide schools strike involving students, parents and staffers in the local newspaper comments section (in response to the announcement of deep cuts in public schools as the first place to plunder now that the state is broke) it is rapidly removed.  There was no foul language; it was a short, thoughtful, polite comment.  Do we need or want to speak out?  How about both? Perhaps it is doubly necessary, this need to speak, to form consensus, then act– no matter how scary it seems to those in control.  The ship is sinking.  What do you need as it does?  What are you going to do about it?

Fly on the wall

There are two old guys I would like to know have met: Stephen King and Garrison Keillor.  They are almost the same age, and are talented, funny, grounded writers.  Someone buy these two lunch! Seriously, what a broadcast that would make: have them go to lunch together, record the whole thing, and let them edit it as they please.  Sort of “Dinner with Andre” for the audio set.  Then do it again with other folks. Instead of celebrity death match entertainment (remember the claymation series?),  a series for those of us who would love to be flies on the wall when specific famous folks meet.  

 Fill in the blanks:  Madeleine Albright and ___.    Buddy Guy and ____.   The interest is generated by an overlap of some similarities, some differences, but generally two people who in meeting would generate some interesting conversation.  Steve Jobs and  ______ (Say, somebody get that guy on tape in a non-Apple environment before it’s too late).  Brad Bird and ______.   Isn’t this a project for NPR?  It would certainly generate revenue for the cash strapped radio company.  Who would you like to hear talk about life, themselves, all that rot and face the challenge of being introduced to someone new?   

I’m no celebrity, but I happened to meet a woman my age with two daughters my sons age yesterday at a local auto repair/dealership.  She came into the “crying room” as I think of it (like the sound proofed room in my childhood church, where parents with unruly or bored kids could go to the back of the church and peer out, ostensibly still participating in mass), while my son and I sat on the floor watching PBS kids on the ceiling mounted TV monitor.   When the repair clerk came in to give me the standard lies (I was only there for a state inspection, a yearly scam I have written about before) and tell me what the routine tax was this year (wiper blades and a rear light bulb I KNOW was not out), and try to manipulate me into more charges (an alternator belt, when only 5 weeks ago they went over the whole car and we dropped a bundle getting anything that needed fixing done- but the auto industry being what it is, there is a push on to make cash from claiming things need to be done that don’t, especially when they pick a mark they see as a “stupid woman”).  I was instantaneously furious, and firmly told the man I expected the usual petty “taxes”– items for getting an inspection done, but NOT egregious inflation with other items.  He asked me to come see the belt.  When I got out to the repair bays, the tech was a very young man that I told right away I resented being manipulated and I did NOT think the car needed the new belt, and if it had they should have caught it five weeks ago.  He backed off, and told me it didn’t really need it, it was just a recommended thing.  Sure, for $100 extra bucks you make your quota and I get skinned, I thought.  No thanks.  So I said do the blades and bulb.  Fine.  But do not touch that belt and if I have any problems with it in the next month, I will assume you deliberately monkeyed with it.  The belt is not part of the inspection either, I have lived here long enough to know that- so I better get the sticker on this only 30,000 miles two and a half year old van.  I did not know what to expect, but boy was I pissed.  

When I went back to the play room, the other mom whispered, “How did it go?”  I told her what I said and vented about how much I hate the bureaucracy and corruption at all levels in this state.  I also laughed.  She was sympathetic, having brought her Prius in that day for a repair and having just moved from Washington State.  We talked for a long time, and we found a wonderful set over overlapping interests.  I gave her my email and phone number as I left, thinking I wish I had recorded that conversation.  

I thought about meeting new people as I drove away.  Making new friends is always difficult, no matter what your age and I find it useful to have many friends at many degrees of intimacy.  The model I have been shown is a bulls-eye, as in playing darts.  A very few people in the center with which we have extreme intimacy, the more people and less intimacy as the circles fan out.  Since moving here, I have felt a profound loss of some good friends, and have not made many new ones.  Randomly meeting someone and feeling camaraderie is a rare and good thing.  It’s a lot like dating.  I tell this to my father, who has always been awkward about trying to meet people, especially since mom died.  Try and try again I suppose, and those wonderful conversations will happen.  I hope.  No one else may want to listen to them, but they make life better none the less.  And it sure would be nice to know those intellectually gifted celebrities go through much the same thing too.

I read the news today

Alan “buddy” Peshkin told me he did not read the newspapers, nor watch the TV news anymore.  It was at a grad advisee meeting, and I noticed the small clump of cotton on his arm, and tape.  I asked him if he was O.K.  He did not reply.  He died approximately three years later.  The comment had been a piece of advice; advice with knowledge of what he had left and how he wanted to spend it.

I read the news today.  I read the news every day in some form, on the ‘net.  I also get Wired magazine, my dad’s month-old National Geographic, the Economist and the New Yorker.  Our techno-centric culture wonders at all that can and might be, as written about on those pages.  Cancer cured by nano-tech is the latest hot headline.  But what of it?

I read about a young woman, fourteen years old I recall, who had been ritualistically stoned to death in front of an arena of over a thousand people– people who were in all probability all male.  Her crime?  Having been raped.  I have an active visual imagination, and I cannot wipe the scene from my mind.  The calling out of the privileged few who got to stand close, skin hot and sweaty with anticipation, maybe even feeling the rise of hard-ons, as they held stones in their hands.  The ritual reading of crimes perhaps, and the girl buried in the ground so her head sticks out, or hands and legs tied as she lay on the ground (both methods are used in extreme Islamic regions).  Then the throwing of the stones, the target practice lobs, the laughs, the yelling, the rise of sound as the crowd cries for blood.  The thousands of egos, feeling powerless and emasculated in so much of their lives, venting forth in the death of this girl.  And her head eventually exploding, blood everywhere around her, brains, hair, flesh. Nothing left but a ragged stump where her small mouth, fearful eyes, and nose breathing fast used to be.  Where her mind had been wondering what kind of God existed, that let her be raped and then led through the courts, forced to take blame for having a vagina, being young, and who knows what else.  Her bad luck to have been born in a place that not only allows such punishments for no personal failures, but encourages and enforces them.

Some crow about our amazing evolution as beings.  But are we so very far from the Well of Children in ancient Carthage?  That place where thousands of children were thrown, left to die with broken bones, of thirst, or of the head injuries they suffered on the way down.  Two year old and four year old boys in very different parts of the U.S. died recently from a form of torture—water deprivation.  A long, sad, lingering death.  I can see these little boys crying for a drink, and as they were given cups laced with hot pepper and Tabasco, screaming in pain, needing the drink.  I can see them curled up on the floor, no longer able to produce tears, whimpering, just hoping someone would pick them up and hold them, let them drink, love them.  Then they died.  The foster mother of the four year old said she didn’t know it was wrong– even though it took the child seven days to die.  Her companion said he didn’t know either.  The caretakers of the two-year-old thought it an appropriate punishment for wetting the bed– also using cups laced with hot sauce.  Most two year old boys are not toilet trained, nor able to be.  It took him four days to die.

I also read about the millions– yes, you read the number right, the last number I have seen is over six million– millions of women, children, and men in central Africa who have died in the last several years.  Horrific deaths, defenseless, often starving, in what has become a culture of torture across many nations.  Churches burned with entire villages inside, children forced to watch parents raped, tortured, then killed.  Then, children forced to do the same as indentured servants and slaves.

Have we forgotten Stalin?  Have we forgotten Pol Pot?  Have we forgotten the camps of WWII?  Are our memories so short and our compassion so limited that these events pass into being stories, and then into just disposable news?  I am haunted.  I can’t trust the glories of science, technology; the glossy pages selling hope while the reality of our collective human existence rages on, oblivious to the labs curing cancer in mice.  I am a product of the 20th century.  I am an adult of the 21st.  I have a split reality, I read the news on my computer and wonder what I can do about what I read.  I feel powerless. 

I was brought up to believe in God, I was told Mother Mary cried tears for us all, for our sins.  I think she cries out of sadness, yes, and out of powerlessness.  I am agnostic now, and if there is a God, it is without feeling for us.  We have been left to our lonely planet, our environments, and our evolution.  Hell is other people, as certainly as heaven is. 

I read the news today.  There are things I wish I did not have in my head.  I work very hard to keep them out.  But sometimes, things slip in.  And they are images I will never be able to erase.