Thursday, July 28, 2011

Odds & Ends

It's been a long week.  April may be the cruelest month, but in my opinion, July just plain sucks.

I'm determined to read John Maynard Keynes' The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money and Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom and Free to Choose.  It bothers me to see people bandying Keynesian economics about and referencing Friedman, with no real understanding of what they actually wrote and argued.

As the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus once said, ""You always get exaggerated notions about things you don't know anything about."

So basically, I'm going to ride out the debt ceiling crisis with some pertinent reading.

Talked to a friend who was in Greece a couple of weeks ago. Apparently, the news coverage of the riots was a bit... over-dramatized.

He said that although several people were hurt, obviously, it was more common to see the protesters hanging out on a cigarette break, while a few blocks over, in Syntagma Square, the cops in riot gear would also be taking a cigarette break. But yet, they were "rioting."

When I asked if he thought this would be the starting point for global revolution, he said, "Well, you never know, obviously, but it seems somewhat unlikely. It ain't Egypt, that's for sure."

I also received a free copy of The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore in the mail today. 

No one loves a free copy of the work of an anonymous 13th century Icelandic scribe the way I do.

My response upon opening the unexpected package: "Oh, AWESOME." 

Watch out world.

Here's hoping I don't confuse the ideas of the Vikings with those of the free-market capitalists.  I suspect I'll see quite a few similarities, actually.

Finally, this Sunday marks the 5th anniversary of my dad's death.  Each year, I try to spend some time thinking about all of the good qualities my dad embodied, so I can be sure to implement them in my own life.

This year, because of my friend Ezra's death, the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi is on my mind--it was read at Ezra's funeral service:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
I'm neither Catholic nor religious, but I very much like this prayer.

In the same vein, I always listen to this song around this time of year.  My dad always used to sing along with it when it came on the radio, so I associate it with him and with his spirit.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Hands of Friendship

"Sorrow makes us all children again--destroys all differences of intellect.  The wisest know nothing."         

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

I've been thinking a lot about Ezra, obviously, and also thinking about my friendship with his mom. We roomed together as college freshmen... over 25 years ago.

At the memorial service and all this week, people have been commenting on what a good friend I've been to her through all of this.

How could I not be?  How could I call myself a friend and then turn away or not show up?  No matter how hard it is, it's what you do when you're a friend. 

You show up.

I think of the lyrics to Jewel's song, "Hands":
I won't be made useless
Won't be idle with despair
I'll gather myself around my faith
For light does the darkness most fear
My hands are small, I know, but they're not yours
They are my own. 
They're not yours, they are my own
And I am never broken... 
The song concludes, "In the end, only kindness matters."  All you can bring to a friend's life is light and the choice not be made useless, even by life's sheer senselessness.

When he was little and we would visit, I'd ask, "So what are we going to do today, Ezzie?", and he'd say, "Play, play, PLAY, Missy!!!"

So on the afternoon before he died, I leaned down and whispered, "Missy's here, like always. And when you feel better, we'll play, play play.  Like we always do."

I miss him horribly.  I can't believe he's simply no longer in the world, my poor, sweet little friend.

It's obvious, but this is the song that always reminds me of my best friend and our friendship. 

I have no words to comfort her and I wish I did.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


This is what I'll be reading at tomorrow's memorial service. 

The House at Pooh Corner, Chapter X: In Which Christopher Robin and Pooh Come to an Enchanted Place, and We Leave them There

"Christopher Robin was going away.  Nobody knew why he was going; nobody knew where he was going; indeed, nobody even knew why he knew that Christopher Robin was going away.  But somehow or other everybody in the Forest felt that it was happening at last.  Even Smallest-of-all, a friend-and-relation of Rabbit's who thought he had once seen Christopher Robin's foot, but couldn't be quite sure because perhaps it was something else, even S. of A. told himself that Things were going to be Different; and Late and Early, two other friends-and-relations, said, "Well, Early?" and "Well, Late?" to each other in such a hopeless sort of way that it really didn't seem any good waiting for the answer.

[They call a meeting, write a poem for Christopher Robin, and take it to him.] 

"Hallo, everybody," said Christopher Robin--"Hallo, Pooh."

They all said "Hallo," and felt awkward and unhappy suddenly, because it was a sort of good-by they were saying, and they didn't want to think about it.  So they stood around, and waited for somebody else to speak, and they nudged each other, and said, "Go on," and gradually Eeyore was nudged to the front, and the others crowded behind him.

"What is it, Eeyore?" asked Christopher Robin.  Eeyore swished his tail from side to side, so as to encourage himself, and began.

"Christopher Robin," he said, "we've come to say--to give to you--it's called--written by--but we've all--because we've heard, I mean we all know--well, you see, it's--we--you--well, that, to put it as shortly as possible, is what it is."  He turned round angrily on the others and said, "Everybody crowds round so in this Forest.  There's no Space.  I never saw a more Spreading lot of animals in my life, and all in the wrong places.  Can't you see that Christopher Robin wants to be alone.  I'm going."  And he humped off.

Not quite knowing why, the others began edging away, and when Christopher Robin had finished reading POEM, and was looking up to say, "Thank you," only Pooh was left.

"It's a comforting sort of thing to have," said Christopher Robin, folding up the paper, and putting it in his pocket."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

My Friend

Spent the day at the children's hospital, trying to stop crying.

Life is hard right now.  Too sad to think.

Monday, July 18, 2011


Last Friday, the D.C. Circuit Court ruled on the petition by The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) regarding the decision by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to implement full-body scanners as a primary method of screening airline passengers at airport security checkpoints.

A copy of the opinion is available as a PDF file.

EPIC argued that the use of "advanced imaging technology" (AIT) constitutes a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which establishes that "'The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.'"

The Circuit Court was not convinced by this argument, however, noting that "any passenger may opt-out of AIT screening in favor of a patdown, which allows him to decide which of the two options... is least invasive" (17).

They acknowledge the controversy surrounding some of the patdowns ("some who have exercised the right have complained that the resulting patdown was unnecessarily aggressive" [4]), but this issue was obviously not part of the case at hand.

I can't help but think that the judges probably all heaved quite a sigh of relief, given the recent incident in which a TSA agent was groped by a potential passenger.

Quite the little free-for-all at the airports lately, it seems.

Meanwhile, I have been stuck in airports for hours on end and no one has ever attempted to grope me or to grope anyone else around me--whether in an official or an unofficial capacity.

The most exciting thing that ever happened to me was when I had a scathing case of pink-eye when I boarded an airport shuttle in Montreal at 6 a.m. (swimming in a hotel pool is not all it's cracked up to be).

By the time I boarded my flight to Philly at 3 o'clock THE NEXT MORNING, it had cleared up.

But I digress.  The opinion is quite interesting, because the judges ruled that the AIT screenings do not violate the Fourth Amendment.  As they note, "screening passengers at an airport is an 'administrative search' because the primary goal is not to determine whether any passenger has committed a crime but rather to protect the public from a terrorist attack" (16).

The standard of whether an administrative search is "reasonable" "is determined by assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which it intrudes upon an individual's privacy and, on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests" (United States v. Knights, 534 U.S. 112, 118-119, 2001, qtd. on pg. 17).

The ruling in EPIC v. The U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security argues that, in airport screenings, the "balance clearly favors the Government" (17).

Although many believe that a warrant is always required under the Fourth Amendment--and that is certainly the case in most instances--there are carefully crafted exceptions, and the standards that people assume constitute what is "reasonable" may not be what we would expect.

Although law enforcement cannot gather fingerprints from free individuals without probable cause, the State has the right to obtain fingerprints during "booking," even though the person being booked is only accused of a crime and not necessarily guilty.

Similarly, although a warrant based on probable cause is usually required to obtain a blood sample from a free individual, the absence of such a warrant does not necessarily imply that the person's Fourth Amendment rights have been violated.

The Supreme Court has identified the drawing of blood as a minimally invasive search.  Likewise, the Court has upheld random, suspicionless drug screenings in schools.  Sobriety checkpoints--which motorists can avoid, if they choose--are also an exception to the Fourth Amendment.  You can be stopped and briefly questioned at these checkpoints, but additional screening requires further justification (in the form of individualized suspicion).

The police cannot conduct "blanket searches" or go on a "fishing expedition"--these are typically considered "unreasonable" in the context of the Fourth Amendment--and are the legal safeguards against the formation of a police state.

What the ruling does argue, however, is that the TSA violated the Administrative Procedures Act, which "require[s] an agency to publish notice of a proposed rule in the Federal Register and to solicit and consider public comments upon its proposal" (7).

Although it might seem like a silly, bureaucratic law, the Administrative Procedures Act is actually quite important.  It requires that "agency rules, opinions, orders, records, and proceedings" be made public in the Federal Register prior to implementation, so that the general public can engage in "notice-and-comment" upon forms, rules, procedures, and any proposed changes.

The TSA argued that they didn't need to do this for several reasons (I won't go into all of them here: you can read the opinion for more details).  The D.C. Circuit Court argues, however, that "the change substantively affects the public to a degree sufficient to implicate the policy interests animating notice-and-comment rulemaking" (8).

In fact, they argue that "few, if any regulatory procedures impose directly and significantly upon so many members of the public" (8-9).

Given the chance, the public would have expressed concern over the more widespread use of AIT as a primary mode of airport screening (from the initial 486 used at 78 airports to the additional 500 planned for late 2011) and, under the Administrative Procedures Act, the TSA is required to address that concern.

As the opinion argues, "the purpose of the APA would be disserved if an agency with a broad statutory command (here, to detect weapons) could avoid notice-and-comment rulemaking simply by promulgating a comparably broad regulation (here, requiring passengers to clear a checkpoint) and then invoking its power to interpret that statute and regulation in binding the public to a strict and specific set of obligations" (10).

In essence, you can't issue a sweeping regulation affecting all American citizens who travel by air, argue that you are not required to publish that regulation in the Federal Register for notice-and-comment by interpreting the APA to suit your own purposes, and then make the regulation binding upon the public at large.

Ultimately, it's a very interesting opinion.  On the one hand, it argues that the TSA's use of AIT in airport screenings does not violate the Fourth Amendment (thus, it is not unconstitutional), but on the other hand, it argues that the way in which the use of AIT screening was more broadly implemented at airports without public notification in the Federal Register violates procedure.

This may seem minor, but it isn't: it means that the TSA now has to do what it left undone and engage in notice-and-comment rulemaking by publishing its policies and procedures in the Federal Register.

This in turn creates the opportunity for the public to express its opinions and concerns about the use of AIT as a primary form of airport security screenings, and ultimately, the TSA is required by law to address those concerns.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

"Universal Mixing, Love and Chance"

I've been reading two good books this week, Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1992) and John Hockenberry's autobiography, Moving Violations (1996).

Alvarez's novel is extremely funny--and extremely moving--at times, particularly when she describes the  emotional and linguistic (mis)communication that occurs between the different generations of the Garcia family, as they accept and adjust to their lives in the United States.

In particular, the chapter dealing with Yolanda's college experiences as an English major (and a virgin) in 1969 is priceless.

I think we all had a class with "that guy"--"Rudolf Brodermann Elmenhurst, the third"--his descendants were definitely still on the prowl on the 1980s college scene...

Hockenberry's memoir is incredibly powerful, but difficult to absorb in long stretches (for me at least).  His description of the car accident that left him a paraplegic at age 19 and his reactions to that event and its aftermath are understandably difficult to read about, let alone process and write about.

I think Hockenberry's point--that the (temporarily) able-bodied among us need to learn to listen to the stories of disability and resist the temptation to reduce them to the kind of overly reductive, overarching narratives that flood American culture--is worth taking the time to digest.

As I read his story, I constantly feel like I need more time to take it all in, that I have to read slowly in order to do it justice and make sure that it is all, in fact, sinking in.

I constantly weigh this against the fact that, as someone whose life was changed in an instant, Hockenberry didn't, in a very fundamental way, have "time" to take this all in--he had to get busy and live, never knowing, obviously, how it would all turn out.

At times, I feel like Hockenberry's story is one that the human psyche automatically resists, on some level.  We don't want to think of ourselves as potentially disabled, in any way, and this story reminds us that it is an ever-present possibility that always looms large in any given moment.

We simply refuse to see it, perhaps because to do so would render us emotionally or mentally "paralyzed," unable to put one psychological "foot" in front of the other.

If you knew right now that, when you get up from that chair, you will collapse and never walk again, what would you do?  What would you think?  What would you experience?  As I mentioned in a previous post ("Life's Fragility"), this is the narrative essence of Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

The way that Hockenberry situates his experience on that February afternoon in 1976 in terms of quantum physics is particularly interesting and resonant:
In a quantum era we creep along a crumbling ledge made by Descartes, a ledge where the unknown is just the writing on the pages we haven't turned.  All knowledge and experience are bound together in a handsome volume.  Humans still need to believe that there is a sea of stuff out there in which everything bobs.  We are just beginning to confront the lack of order in the world. (25)
Hockenberry goes on to argue for what he identifies as a "quantum view of disability," which
allows you to dare to think that you can have lived two lives, two bodies occupying two places at once.  Suddenly, in an instant, radical change: I was different, yet I was still the same person.  I knew that was possible then.  It would take a lifetime to be sure. (25)
One of the aspects of disability theory that is emphasized is the way in which impairment--whether physical, mental or emotional--alters the possibilities and prerogatives of narrative.

In The Ethics of Identity, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah notes that
a picture that comes from romanticism, is the idea of finding one's self--of discovering, by means of reflection or a careful attention to the world, a meaning for one's life that is already there, waiting to be found. (17)
In contrast to this notion of "authenticity" is what Appiah identifies as "the existentialist picture" in which "existence precedes essence: that is, you exist first and then you have to decide what to exist as, afterward" (17).

Both pictures (authenticity and existentialist) are inaccurate, Appiah argues, because neither fully grapples with the problem of creativity: in the "authenticity" framework, identity is predetermined and fixed, ready to be "found."

In the "existentialist" conception, however, "there is only creativity" (17)--an approach which overlooks the fact that we identify ourselves in response to a history and a culture that exists outside of ourselves.

We are who we are because of both what we are and where we are, and all of these processes are constantly in flux.

I find Hockenberry's quantum theory of disability fascinating because I think it complicates what seems to me to be Appiah's overly seamless discussion of identity and potentiality.

Disability isn't just something "out there" that happens to an individual, and likewise, disability isn't simply something individual.  Neither authenticity nor existentialism fully accommodate disability's chaotic processes of intrusion and inclusion.

Disability marks an aporia that is essential to our understanding of not only "the good life," but also of what it means to be "alive."  Although it marks an essential doubt that we have relegated to a group identified as "the disabled," in fact, it shapes all of us.  As Tobin Siebers has argued, the able-bodied might be better identified by the acronym TAP: "temporarily able-bodied."

Disability awaits us all, whether in the form of age, accident or illness.  It shaped the opening chapters of our lives, when our extreme vulnerability rendered us dependent upon others for our every need.

As the French physician and philosopher Geroges Canguilhem once wrote, "as sick men, we are the effect of universal mixing, love and chance."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Pesto and Vanilla Ice

One of the nice things about having a garden--aside from being forced to consult an attorney because you're being threatened with jail time by petty bureaucrats who are foolish enough to listen to your disgruntled neighbors--is that there is always something to make or do.

This afternoon, I spent an hour or so harvesting basil and making jars of pesto to freeze while listening to "Ice, Ice Baby."

Somehow it seemed appropriate.  "Anything less than the best is a felony."  It's good to keep that in mind when you're cooking.

If you've been asleep for the past week or so, you missed Julie Bass's apparently controversial decision to put raised garden beds in her front yard in Oak Park, Michigan.  Here are links to the story and some pictures of what her yard looks like.

Personally, I kinda think it would look better if there were grass or something between the beds, but I can't blame her for not wanting to go to the expense of re-sodding her entire yard.  I'm assuming they're working on getting some of the grass to grow again, but it takes time.

It is Michigan, after all.  They're probably predicting a frost tonight and snow showers tomorrow.

If a lawn isn't in the works, though, it isn't really anyone's business.  It's not like she's planting a yard full of pot and poppies and sitting on the swing brandishing a semi-automatic, for heaven's sake. 

If I were her, after this little city-ordinance-debacle, I'd make it a point to sit out with my friends every weekend, drinking just a little bit too much cabernet and loudly announcing that "certain sons-of-bitches around here ain't gonna be GETTIN' no goddamn TOMATOES!"

Actually, what I'd do is invest in some ancient sculpture.  Here's a lovely wind-chime, for instance:

If you look closely, the little man is being attacked by a phallus that is almost as big as he is.  Ancient civilizations certainly knew how to advocate for fertility.

In ancient Rome, the fascinus, or divine phallus, was thought to ward off bad luck.  So I'd definitely be angling this particular bas-relief in the direction of the neighbors who complained to the city:

Here, a phallus (with legs, no less) is ejaculating into the evil eye.

"Whadda YOU lookin' at?"

Good fences may make good neighbors, but an outsized brick-dick with legs should guarantee you a little privacy.

Finally, for the areas in between the beds, I'd go with something a little more straightforward, yet subtle. Something classy:

(I have no idea what he's holding in his hand.)  

Somehow, talking about making pesto now seems so very... uninteresting.

"If there's a problem, yo, I'll solve it
Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Historic Victory: 757 Species Closer to Protection

Historic Victory: 757 Species Closer to Protection

Finding the Words

My best friend's ten-year-old son is in hospice at the hospital; he is dying.

His brain cancer has morphed over the past several weeks from stage 3 to stage 4.  The progression of MRI's from May to June to last week show that the tumors are, in my friend's words, "consuming his brain."

She said she had never seen pure evil until she saw those MRI's.

There won't be any trip to Legoland.  In the end, there just wasn't enough time.

I'm going to stay with her again, to help as much as I can. 

I have to uncover the simple words in my heart and help them find their way into the world.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Yoda Fixes the Kitchen Sink

On Friday, I discovered that the drain on my kitchen sink was leaking.

This is the single woman's Gethsemane.

As we toss every suddenly and shockingly soggy thing out from under the sink and frantically search for a bucket that will fit, we all fervently pray, "If it is possible, let this cup pass me by...  Literally."

"Oh, please don't let me have to call a plumber."

"Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"

All melodrama (and unintended blasphemy) aside, I have always feared having to call a plumber.  Let's face it: they have us right where they want us.  The displays of "plumber's butt" to which they subject us during the repair process are simply a taunt, designed to remind us of exactly where we'll feel we're getting it once the bill arrives. 

But then I remembered the wisdom of Yoda: "Named your fear must be before banish it you can."

Could I, a lowly bookworm (pace Richard Scarry), aspire to repair the dripping drain myself?

As I tentatively thought, "Well, I could try...", I again remembered the advice of the 900-year-old Jedi Master: 

"Do or do not... There is no try."

So armed with a light saber and a blaster (which, to the untrained eye, would simply appear to be a spud wrench and a jar of plumber's putty), I crawled to the Dark Side, remembering that to Luke's query, "What is in there?" Yoda's sage response was, "Only what you take with you."

And thus, I did wage valiant war against a corroded drain basket and some nondescript sink-glop.

It is very true that "The dark side clouds everything.  Impossible to see the future is."

But when faced with the distinct possibility that I would be unable to tighten the slip nut sufficiently, I growled, "Not if anything to say about it I have!"

So it's fixed.

"Mind what you have learned.  Save you it can." 

Saturday, July 9, 2011


It's been a quiet week, and I spent part of it reading Ted Conover's Coyotes.  Although it's an "older" work (it came out in 1987), it still strikes me as very interesting and very relevant. 

Conover spent a year crossing and recrossing the US-Mexican border with (in most cases, illegal) Mexican migrant farm workers, working alongside of them in Arizona and Florida and visiting them in L.A. and Mexico.

In particular, Conover describes the economic relationship that has fostered illegal migration between the two countries--the fact that, in certain regions of Mexico, there is a lengthy history of migration back and forth for work during the growing season, and that this is a relationship fostered on both sides of the border, in spite of the law.

He also highlights many of the paradoxes of immigration law--that Mexican workers have frequently been not only encouraged to come but also brought to work in the US at times when their labor was needed to sustain the economy, even though their presence was, in fact, "illegal."

The key players in this relationship are the "coyotes": individuals who negotiate transportation across the border for a fee.  As Conover learns from a Mexican hunting coyotes (the animal, that is, not the human variety),
...they're the most suspicious creatures on earth.  Sometimes you see them in the orchard, in the early morning or else at sundown...but only if you're alone, for two people will always scare the coyote off.  Before they leave the trees to cross a road, they look both ways.  They want to know if anything's there.  And if they hear the slightest noise, the slightest disturbance, they'll go back into the trees.  They hate the daytime.  And they trust nothing, nobody. (238) 
What I find particularly interesting is the way in which terms such as "migrant," "immigrant," "legal" and "illegal" have shifted over time, from the Bracero Program to its demise, from 1983's "Migrant and Seasonal Worker's Protection Act" (MSPA) and 1986's "Immigration Reform and Control Act" (IRCA).

And, as Damien Cave's article "Better Lives for Mexicans Cut Allure of Going North" in the July 6th edition of The New York Times suggests, the terms and the definitions of this relationship are bound to change again soon.

Finally, in completely unrelated news, my garden looks great.  Tomatoes, eggplant, cilantro, dill, basil, cantaloupe, jalapeno peppers and red peppers are here or well on their way...

 And I've been making jam (apricot, strawberry, cherry, blueberry), jelly ("jalapeno gold" and red pepper & balsamic vinegar), and watermelon rind pickles:

So good things are always lying in wait. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Making Mistakes

I've been reading a lot lately, and one of the interesting books I've worked my way through is Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson.

As the subtitle indicates, Tavris & Aronson examine "why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts" in the personal, political, legal and military realms.

In a nutshell, we do so because of the rather destructive combination of two psychological factors: cognitive dissonance and self-justification.  As Tavris & Aronson argue, "cognitive dissonance" is the "state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent" (11).

To resolve or reduce cognitive dissonance, individuals will engage in acts of self-justification--some small-scale, some large.  We've probably all heard a two-pack-a-day smoker tell us that of course smoking is bad, but a cigarette or two (or twenty) is relaxing (all scientific information about the effects of nicotine to the contrary).

Or, I can blissfully sit here eating a pack of Double-Stuff Oreos and assure you that I'm a staunch advocate of healthy eating because I'm washing them down with a cup of green tea.

Tavris & Aronson look at a wide variety of examples of individuals--doctors, lawyers and politicians, of course, but also plain old wives and husbands--who end up engaging in morally and ethically despicable acts that we simply cannot comprehend, all the while insisting that they are not, in fact, doing anything "really" wrong.

Because we see them at the end of the road, we can only wonder how they got there without realizing what they were doing.  It seems so obvious to us that they were headed in the wrong direction--so why didn't they turn back or stop?

As Tavris & Aronson point out, the slippery slope isn't all that slippery, if you don't take big steps.  While it's true that some people just dive right into a life of morally reprehensible activities, most of us don't.  We fudge a little here, crimp a little there... a white lie, ever so tiny, never really hurt anyone after all...

And we have blind spots.  I have met one person--only one--in my entire life who told me flat out, "I'm homophobic.  I wish I weren't, but I am.  I don't know how not to be, but I'd like to learn."  I told him that the fact that he acknowledged it and even considered it a problem was half the battle, really.

Because, in essence, it is.

Most people who say or do racist things will insist that they are NOT racist.  They are, of course, but they don't want to think of themselves as such.  This is cognitive dissonance: they realize that, if they're racist, it means they're also unjust, unkind and irrational.  They judge people on the basis of surface characteristics.  They cannot look past the surface and see the innate and unique value of a particular individual, irrespective of race or ethnicity.

Almost nobody will ever want to admit this about themselves, so people justify their ideas and actions, usually with the help of some hard-wired confirmation bias and a hearty dose of self-justification.  They tell themselves that of course they're not racist, it's just that, as anyone can see, all of "those people" are gun-toting gang members.

There are some long-term remedies for this tendency to self-justify.  One is self-awareness and a willingness to admit when one has--or even may have--made a mistake.

This is tough to do, even on a good day and even with small mistakes.  As Tavris & Aronson note, however, it has become increasingly difficult in a culture like that of the contemporary U.S., where admissions of error are seen as a sign of weakness.

As they point out, this is not the perception in other cultures, where mistakes are seen as an integral part of the learning process.

And it was not the perception in earlier phases of U.S. history, either.

We have a tendency to resort to the passive formulation-- "mistakes were made"--because, as Tavris & Aronson argue, this formulation implies that we ourselves are in no way to blame.  Here is George W. Bush in October of 2004, on the subject of the ongoing war in Iraq:
"It was the right decision...  Now, you asked what mistakes.  I made some mistakes in appointing people, but I'm not going to name them.  I don't want to hurt their feelings on national TV." (235)
Tavris & Aronson contrast this with a speech Eisenhower drafted in 1944, to be delivered in the event that the invasion of Normandy had failed:
"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and the troops have been withdrawn.  My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available.  The troops, the Air [Force] and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do.  If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone." (236)
Eisenhower made only one revision to this brief statement: he changed "the troops have been withdrawn" to "and I have withdrawn the troops" (236).

Luckily, he never had to deliver this speech at all.  But if he had, how much more it would have meant to see a frank acknowledgement of human error and ethical responsibility.

No one is right all of the time; the future is always uncertain.  And sometimes, we goof up.  Royally.

Ultimately, this is what Aronson & Tavris stress, that our current culture of deferred or denied responsibility satisfies no one and only ensures that more mistakes will be made and that we will all continue to make them.

We assume that, in a litigious environment, a frank admission of human error is bound to get us in further hot water.  And yes, that is sometimes true.  But at the same time, many--if not most--people are more inclined to forgive someone who openly admits, "I screwed up.  Really.  I'm sorry."

Provided they mean it, of course, and provided there is no contingent self-justification attached.  And provided they don't go out and do it again.

We all do dumb things.  It's hard to admit it, but when you think about it, why should it be? Obviously, we all make mistakes from time to time, and sometimes they're really big and really embarrassing.

I once taught the wrong material to my class.  I assumed I remembered what the assignment was, and I went to class and taught my little heart out.  I even did the wrong reading the night before, all 80 pages of it.

And it took me two hours to come up with all of the wrong questions for class discussion.

During the class, I wondered why no one was answering my questions.  At one point, one of the students said, "Well, I don't know about that specific passage, but I know that in the reading I did for today, it said...".

I thought it was odd she said this, but I just chalked it up to her being honest about not completing the entire assignment herself.

Imagine my chagrin when I got home and realized I had taught one section of Ben Franklin's Autobiography, after assigning a very different section.

I could have ignored it, but I told the class the next time we met that I had, quite frankly, screwed up. Big time.

Imagine how embarrassing it was when I did it again two weeks later.

The second time, I didn't teach the material, I simply commented at the end of class that we'd spend the next class on section Y of the reading, when in fact I had assigned section Z.  Luckily, I caught it in time, but it meant that I had to eat crow.  Again.  And in the same class.

Ultimately, I reassured the class of two things: that the final exam would cover the materials listed on the actual syllabus, and not the ones on the imaginary syllabus in my head, and that I had posted a copy of this actual syllabus on the bulletin board above my desk so I could check it regularly from that point on--definitely before I opened my professorial mouth.

It was quite embarrassing, obviously, and certainly didn't do much to shore up anyone's perception of my intellectual authority.  I dreaded the final course evaluations, expecting to read things like, "This woman doesn't even know what she's doing from one class to the next," and "I was horribly confused all semester long and my GPA suffered and it's all her stupid fault," and the like.

No one even mentioned it.

So I decided from that point on that it was actually quite healthy to own up to doing dumb things from time to time, and I'm glad to see that Tavris & Aronson would agree with me.   

Friday, July 1, 2011


Well, I for one can't quite believe June is over, since I'm still not sure where May went...

It's been a busy couple of weeks.  I was in SC for a week, so I spent this week regrouping after my visit.

The time just flies.

One of the highlights of my trip occurred at Chuck E. Cheese.  Believe it or not, I had never been there before.

On one of the games where you have to shoot and sink all kinds of battleships, I hit the little speedboat that periodically zooms across the water behind all of the other aircraft carriers and U-boats, leaving a rainbow wash behind it.

When you do, you win in a big way.  Not only do you get 20 tickets (which you can cash in for what looked to me like a glorified package of SweeTarts ), but the seat vibrates (kind of the high point of my day, if somewhat unexpected) and lots of lights and sirens go off.

I was very ambivalent about my accomplishment, though, primarily because of the rainbow left in the little boat's wake.

Given the status of gays in the U.S. military, I couldn't help but think that this seemed somehow very symbolic, in a way that I was not entirely comfortable with.

I mean, you automatically override all other military achievements if you simply blast a zippy little rainbow-trailing speedboat out from behind all of the other large, manly vessels in front of it?

That can't be a coincidence. 

Anyway, I came back to discover that my garden had tripled in size, which is good, but it meant I actually had to install another raised bed to accommodate everything.

And, as is typical, if the plants triple in size, the weeds quadruple, so I'm still trying to catch up with that.

I spent the day making jam and pickles--I'm not finished yet, actually.  I have Frankenstein-fingers from cutting up cherries.  They look a little better now, but for a while there it looked like someone had taken a hammer to each one of my finger-tips.  (I think a couple of people out there would probably like to, but that's neither here nor there.)

My cat has been projectile-vomiting water on occasion for the past few weeks, which certainly keeps things interesting for the both of us.  It seems to startle him almost as much as it does me.

It really isn't attractive.  The only thing you can do is make sure you're not standing in front of him.

Really.  It's just not where you want to be.  Trust me.  For a cute little guy, he's got quite a range and trajectory.

My electric composter is on the fritz, so now I have to mail it back to the good people at Nature Mill.  They sent me a mailing label, which is good, but I still had to get the box (which needs to be huge) and of course, I ran out of packing tape somewhere in the middle of the third seam during the box assembly-process.

I knew I would.  It's a Murphy's law kind of thing. 

I put a large composter outside, since I don't think I'll be getting this electric one back anytime soon.  The outdoor one is designed for something like 100 gallons of compost, which is probably as much as I generate in a decade, but it was the smallest size they had.

Meanwhile, the rain barrels have cut my water bill down to a quarter of what it was last summer.  This is good.  They are all still pretty much full, so that venture has worked out well.

My plan for the next few weeks is just to get cracking on the reading and writing that has been on hold for a while now because of everything going on with my friend and her son.  I'll see what I can accomplish on that front, and try to finish up the NEH grant application I've been working on since March.

And then it'll be time for courses and syllabi.  Yikes.  Don't even go there right now.

Happy 4th, everyone.  Be free.