June 27, 2017

27 06 2017

I see so many posts and articles about the middle class, how certain policies will affect the middle class, warning that the middle class is disappearing, wringing their hands in anguish over the suffering of the middle class. Occasionally, someone mentions the poor.

If the middle class is struggling, the poor are being crucified. Their plight is far more tragic and terrifying. Yet the middle class gets far more press.

Is it because of the stigma attached to being poor? This ignorant notion that poverty comes as a result of character flaws and is purely voluntary? That the poor don’t deserve our compassion? That “hard-working Americans” are always middle class?

Is it that most of the people doing the posting and writing the articles, and those doing the reading and responding, are middle class? It’s all about them and the world they relate to, and the poor are these amorphous masses that they don’t really understand.

We are so immersed in the myths created by a prosperous America that we can’t get it through our heads that Reality just isn’t like that anymore (if it ever was). This is the Land of Opportunity. Work hard, go to college, and you’ll get ahead if you put your mind to it. Anyone can succeed if they just try. Which of course implies that those who don’t succeed must not have tried hard enough. Those who don’t have enough money must not be working hard enough, and have no one to blame but themselves.

The affluent look down their noses at the poor. Sometimes there is baffled compassion: “Why don’t they just [fill in the blank]?” Some times there is undisguised contempt: “They’d be fine if they’d only [fill in the blank].” The blank usually consists of options available to the middle class, which the middle class takes for granted. Options the poor simply do not have.

Why don’t they save up their money for (car, home, school, etc.)? When every penny goes towards paying your bills and that still isn’t enough, when you have to choose between paying the rent and eating, the idea of having spare change to save up is ludicrous. Even with grants and financial aid, going to school requires some outlay of money, and usually transportation. Also, when you are poor, you don’t qualify easily for credit and loans. Doors open to the affluent are closed to the poor.

Why do they live in such squalor? There isn’t much choice. If something breaks, there is no money to fix it. If something wears out, there is no money to replace it. So you cobble together and patch up and make do with whatever spare parts you can get for free, usually something scavenged out of what others have thrown away. The result isn’t going to be lovely.

Why don’t they get a better job? Because the job market stinks. For any given job that offers a livable wage there will be a huge number of applicants. Only one is going to get it. The rest are thrown back into the pond. Part-time work is often all that can be found. Businesses often hire very few full-timers in order to avoid having to give them benefits, filling the void with a pool of workers who get just shy of full time. Business owners think that’s good business. Workers call that poverty.

Those benefits, particularly the medical ones, are desperately needed. If one can’t get them through an employer, and one can’t afford insurance (if you’re choosing between rent and groceries the odds are excellent that you can’t afford health insurance) then one must rely on Medicaid or some other form of assistance. And guess what’s being cut.

So you are sick and stressed and hopeless. No matter how hard you try, your options are limited and your prospects dim. You are not a superhero, not gifted with exceptional brains or stamina or determination. You just want an even break and you aren’t going to get one. You get angry, maybe violent, maybe abusive to yourself and others. You are a rat in a cage being subjected to random electric shocks. And you are told it’s all your fault.

Let’s go back to the blessed middle class. Many are one paycheck away from disaster. They purchase their lifestyle with dangerous debt. The loss of a job could be the loss of the house, the credit cards, the beginning of the catastrophic plunge. At least when you are among the blessed, you do have options. You can afford lawyers and accountants to help you manage things. You have contacts that can advise you and help you. You have friends and family who can get you through the crisis. You can avoid becoming one of them.

The poor. The struggling. The ones who can’t afford nice cars and attractive houses. Who can’t afford to send their kids to good schools. Who go to the grocery store and can’t just buy whatever appeals to them, shop organic or indulge some special diet. Who have to resort to food pantries and soup kitchens and other forms of charity. Who eat fast food instead of fine food, who shop at Goodwill and church rummage sales. Who live in ramshackle houses or cheap apartments, can’t afford to get their teeth fixed or their hair done. You know, the ones you look down on and shake your head over. The ones you feel so superior to.

Picture this. You’ve been hit by a car. You are laying in the street, broken and bleeding. A crowd stands around you looking down at you in disgust. They say, “God, you’re a mess! Why don’t you clean yourself up?” They say, “Don’t just lie there. At least make an effort to get yourself off the pavement.” They say, “What, you expect us to help you? What about personal responsibility?” They say, “It’s your own fault for walking out in front of that car.”

That is poverty.





June 15, 2017

15 06 2017

Oh, how we want to share with our children the things we know and value! And oh, the disappointment when we have to accept that they just aren’t interested.

Each generation as it ages becomes increasingly disgruntled with the generations that follow. The older are critical of the younger. Critical of their values, their priorities, their choices, their work ethic, their lack of discipline and ethics. My parents’ generation disparaged mine, and now my generation wrings its hands over my children’s. I overheard in the library a couple of women my age talking about “kids these days” in ways hauntingly like what my parents would have said about me.

I remember. I saw the lives that adults had made for themselves, what they thought was important, and I rejected it. I saw what a mess the world was in, all the suffering, all the corruption, and determined that if this was what the values and choices of previous generations had brought us to, I wanted no part of it. I saw people working their asses off, sacrificing themselves to achieve success as they saw it, only to grow old and die without having lived life fully. Not me, I thought. Not me!

We remember our childhoods, how we were raised. If we had happy childhoods, we try to do the same for our own kids. If we loved playing in the woods, or baking in the kitchen with Mom, or building things with Dad, or spending hours reading or doing crafts, that’s what we want for our kids. We try to share the same things. But the world is not the same as the one we grew up in. Our kids quite likely will not have the same interests we did, especially as they grow older and discover what’s going on outside their parents’ sphere of influence. This can cause parental panic and the desire to protect one’s little darlings from the corruption—as we see it. When this doesn’t work, and they go their own way as young, curious, gregarious humans will do, the parents are heartbroken.

If our childhoods weren’t so happy, or we dwell on the mistakes our parents made raising us, we declare that we won’t make those mistakes. We wind up making different mistakes, which our kids then resent us for. Again, heartbreak.

Then there are the parents who are determined to give their kids every advantage. Only the best of everything. Their children must be happy, and any unhappiness is a problem to be immediately solved. Then they wonder why the kids grow up expecting the world to do the same for them. When life doesn’t oblige, they get angry and resentful. They do not understand hard work and self-sacrifice because it was never required of them. The generation that did the hard work and self-sacrificing then scorns these kids with their attitude of entitlement.

Each generation raises the next with expectations. Each generation tries to impart their wisdom, their values, their experiences onto the next. Each generation looks at the next with the eyes of age, judging the young by the criteria of the old.

Each generation is disappointed.





June 8, 2017

8 06 2017

She kept messaging me. Each time with a different version of what she had already said. Each time I politely repeated some version of, “I’m afraid I can’t agree. That’s not how I see it.” Finally I had to stop responding.

A friend of mine had the same experience, trying to end a futile argument with, “Let’s just agree to disagree.” But the person just kept at it. My friend and I agreed; the behavior was obnoxious.

In similar situations when I disagreed with someone, I’ve been accused of not listening. I’ve been accused of refusing to see the truth. I’ve been accused of being blind to the facts.  It makes me want to yell, “Just because I’m not persuaded by your arguments, it does not mean I am not listening. I hear you perfectly well. I disagree. I am going to continue to disagree no matter how you rephrase and repeat. Please, just stop!”

And yet, I have to admit, I’ve been in situations where my point seems so clear and inarguable that I can’t understand why the other person doesn’t see it. What I am trying to convince them of is obvious. Why don’t they listen to me? Why don’t they get it? I get frustrated. I get upset. I keep hammering at them.

Just like the person who didn’t want to “agree to disagree.”

Ideally, we all realize there are arguments we are just not going to win. When we have discussed something with another person long enough to get the clear picture that there is no way we are going to convince each other, we politely end the discussion. Sensible intelligent people take the hint when they are told, “I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree.” It’s a graceful way out of a deadlock. It’s civilized society’s way of avoiding coming to blows.

But if one of the people involved is strongly motivated, is passionate about their point of view, is absolutely convinced they are right and feels it is urgently important that they convince the other person because of what’s at stake, how likely are they to give up? If I am sure that your ideas and actions are going to do terrible harm to the community, and I must stop you at all cost, I am not likely to “agree to disagree.” I will keep arguing right up to the bitter end to prevent this terrible evil you are determined to bring about. You, of course, think that what you are doing is sensible and necessary. You aren’t going to listen to my hysterical warnings, no matter what I say.

Which one of us is objectively in the right? It depends on a thousand other things.

It makes me want to give up on the whole messy business of public discourse.  A lot of people feel the same, refusing to discuss “politics”.  And yet, our whole system of government is based on citizen participation.  And we can’t develop informed opinions unless we talk to each other, get the benefit of other perspectives, work out compromises.  So unless we are going to withdraw into the conflict-free cocoon of our echo-chambers, we have to put up with the cacophony, annoying as it may be.





June 2, 2017

2 06 2017

Puzzles again.

Perhaps they are so satisfying because they are problems with definite answers. In a world where problems often have no solution, or the solution is so complicated and baffling that it is beyond us, puzzles provide relief and comfort. Here is something I can solve. Here is something which, if I persist, will reward me with the satisfaction of resolution. I understand how to do, for example, a jigsaw puzzle, although crosswords or sudoku are much the same. I can be certain that there is a way to put the pieces together that makes a complete, coherent picture.

I don’t know how to solve the problems of people I know who are suffering, who have health issues, money problems, miserable relationships or just cope with depression and despair. The labyrinth of human relationships remains always an incomprehensible conundrum to me. The black box of my own psyche remains impenetrable. I do my best to try to worry loose threads of the tangle, but in the end, all I can do is throw up my hands and let go of it. I’ll never figure it out.

But puzzles, ah! I begin with a jumble of chaos, much as the world appears to be. One by one, I find pieces that fit together. Slowly a picture begins to emerge. And finally, it is all there. I have done it. I have figured it out. It is finite, sensible. Within my grasp.

I have done my puzzle for the day. Now, daunting as it is, I need to apply myself to the puzzle of living. A room the size of a gymnasium whose floor is covered with puzzle pieces. Over the course of my life I’ve worked out some of it; there are sections I’ve managed to put together. The rest? Futility.

There are those who claim to have solved the puzzle. I don’t believe them. The more certain they are, the less I trust them. These voices of certainty all say something different. Their answers don’t agree. One may be right; all are likely wrong; or there is some logic-defying Schrodinger’s cat of a way that they can all be right at once. Even that is a puzzle.

Never mind. The sun is shining briefly after days of clouds and rain, and the prediction of more rain and clouds to come. Let me do what I can and turn my face to the sun while it lasts.





May 31, 2017

1 06 2017

All the festivities of Memorial Day are over. Now, let all the summer fun begin. We’ve had our parades, made our speeches, waved flags and had solemn moments of silence for those who gave all. On the long weekend, of course, to make it more convenient. We’ve celebrated Memorial Day Weekend by opening our summer camps and lake houses, perhaps the first barbecue of the season, parties and get-togethers with friends and family. Hope you all had a great time.

And no, this isn’t going to be one of those tedious lectures about the real reason for the holiday, and how it isn’t all about having fun and cutting the ribbon on Summer 2017. The dead don’t give a damn. They are beyond suffering. Memorials are not so much for the dead as for the living, to reassure ourselves that we won’t be forgotten when we go, that our graves will be mourned over and our names will be spoken with reverence. Memorials also give the bereaved an opportunity to grieve, and to be comforted.

No, this is going to be a tedious lecture on how willing we are to sing praises and bestow honors on the dead, while ignoring the suffering of the living. That’s right, veterans. Oh, I hear you protest, but we have Veteran’s Day to celebrate them. Yes, one day in November to remember those who served. In the meantime, we allow our government to ignore them, to cut funding to the programs that serve them, or applaud a few pennies added to the VA budget.

Tens of thousands of those soldiers whose service we are so grateful for are homeless, suffering from PTSD, sleeping on the streets. An average of 20 veterans a day die from suicide. Meanwhile, our government pours billions upon billions into the defense budget, making weapons, our politicians talking tough and planning more wars to create yet more veterans to lie neglected in the street after they have expended their usefulness to the Military Industrial Complex.

We fall prey to the rhetoric of fear, terrorized into cheering government leaders who pledge to strengthen defense. That fear which they capitalize on keeps us from thinking through the consequences of aggressive defense. Billions in tax dollars are lavished on expensive weapons systems while our infrastructure crumbles and we argue about the cost of health care. But let’s not go there. Let’s focus on a major source of suffering, an inevitable by-product of our military presence abroad: veterans. Soldiers get shot at, blown up, see their buddies get shot at and blown up, witness the brutality of war, and it never seems to end. Bombing the hell out of people doesn’t seem to accomplish anything but radicalizing more terrorists. War is a soul-killing horror. And we put our soldiers through it for political reasons that are often vague or based on nationalistic ego more than real defense.

True, some military personnel come back and adjust without much problem. But the ones that don’t desperately need help. They aren’t getting it. The result is the shameful statistics I’ve cited.

No matter what your politics are, no matter whether you think US defense policy is absolutely justified or dangerously wrong, there is no denying that it creates a population of veterans who deserve to be taken care of. All the words of honor, praise and “support” will not feed them, shelter them, or get them the medical and psychological services they need. Next time some ambitious politician tries to get your vote with his talk about saving tax dollars by cutting social services, remember just who is going to be hurt. It’s not just some hypothetical, lazy “taker” trying to get on the government gravy train. It’s a very real human being, one whom you have lauded for their service to our great nation. And now you are telling them you think cutting taxes is more important than rewarding them for their service.

But by all means, let’s honor our dead and take care of their graves. It’s a lot cheaper and easier than taking care of the living.





May 22, 2017

22 05 2017

A recent blog by Susan Bruce got me thinking about rape culture. It suddenly dawned on me why it upsets me when authors play the rape card as a plot point in books. Even when they show the trauma and misery the rape causes, they are still doing something negative.

They are normalizing rape.

By using rape as often as they do to develop a female character or explain her behaviors and motives (or as a motive to a male character such as the desire for revenge if it happens to someone he cares about) they are subtly saying that rape is a part of life, something woman need to guard against, a normal part of male behavior.

In other words, rape is just a common misfortune, like getting cancer or being in a plane crash.

But it’s not. It’s a voluntary behavior. Rape isn’t something that just happens; it’s something that someone does deliberately to another person.

The frequency with which our fiction—books, videos, whatever—enforces this idea that rape is something that men do is not just reflecting reality, it is perpetuating it. Men can’t control themselves and should not be expected to. Men can be driven by desire to commit sexual acts and women just need to understand this and accept it. Boys will be boys. Happens all the time. Sorry, ladies, but you just need to deal with it.

If we put as much effort into eliminating rape as we do curing cancer or making airplanes safe from crashing, perhaps it wouldn’t “happen all the time” anymore. If men didn’t reassure each other that, yeah, we can’t help it, and women ask for it by their behavior, and some bitches really have it coming to them, if they didn’t make sexual aggression an intrinsic part of male identity, would it be so commonplace?

Rape should not be a normal part of social interaction. But the more often it appears in our entertainment, the more normal it seems. It reassures the rapist that his actions are not out of the ordinary. Even to be expected. The consequences are irrelevant to him as long as he gets away with it.

Read Bruce’s blog, please. I’ve provided links. Please think about what Rep. Debra Altschiller said, and the significance what other representatives did in reaction. I am sure they all consider themselves normal men.

Because rape and rape culture is just a normal part of life. Isn’t it?





May 21, 2017

21 05 2017

I am listening to an audiobook called The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel, about a man who, at the age of twenty, left his home in Massachusetts and disappeared into the Maine woods. He did not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later when he was caught and arrested for breaking and entering to steal food. Christopher Knight lived in a small, superbly secluded camp, emerging only to go on midnight raids for the supplies he needed to survive. These supplies, by the way, included books.

It’s a true story, and the author tells the story well, going into biographical and psychological details, interviewing people in the area and the police who caught him. He befriended Knight and got him to talk about himself and his experience. Finkel visited Knight’s campsite and describes the ingenious methods the man used to survive.

The story combines several elements that interest me: camping alone in the woods, solitude, and the psychology of someone who simply doesn’t need or want human contact. Ordinarily, human beings hate being alone. It is the worst form of torture we inflict on our prisoners. The United Nations has condemned solitary confinement as cruel, inhumane. And yet, this is what Knight chose. Even though he sometimes suffered terribly in the cold of winter, or from hunger, or both, he preferred this to returning to human society.

In the book, the author reports that very few people go more and a few hours without human contact of some kind. Most never go more than twenty-four hours. I thought back to my multi-day solo hikes. When I did the Grafton Notch loop there was a stretch of at least 48 hours when I didn’t see a soul. Perhaps it was longer. I recall passing one or two groups of hikers with whom I exchanged small talk, but I think that was just on the first day. Most of the time I saw no one. It was wonderful.

We are evolved to be a social, cooperative species. We managed to survive in a harsh environment by working together in groups. And yet, over the course of history, there have always been those who preferred solitude. Hermits, holy people, those who leave human commotion to go into the mountains, the deserts, the woods, hide themselves away in cells and caves, in order to find peace. Such solitude is the means to enlightenment, the way to the center.

What Knight experienced in his solitude was just the sort of enlightenment spiritual people talk about, that disappearance of self, the dissolving of the ego. He was never bored. Contemplation was his primary pastime, along with reading and the daily business of maintaining his simple existence. His way of life was the complete antithesis of our hyperconnected, intensely busy lives, where success is judged by achievement and how much accomplishment can be packed into our waking hours. We shun suffering and pursue happiness with dogged obsession. Knight accepted suffering—from cold or hunger, or the stress and guilt of having to steal to survive, the terror of being caught—as just part of life. It made the times of peace and contentment all the more sweet.

It occurs to me as I write that there are many in our society, the ones who praise self-sufficiency and scorn those who depend on others, would admire Knight. He solved his own problems, took care of himself, relied on no one to help him. But they overlook the stark fact that Knight could not have survived if it weren’t for other people. He could not have fed and sheltered himself without the help of others. That help was stolen, not given freely. But help it was. Even the hermits of the caves and deserts had food brought to them by others. They were not completely independent.

We need each other to survive. Social cooperation enhances our lives. It benefits us materially and psychologically. We experience mental and emotional distress when isolated from our fellow human beings.

Or at least, most of us do. Knight didn’t. And many of us can relate. Social can be difficult. Alone is easier. Perhaps we cannot live without other human beings, but we need a break from them. How much of a break depends on the individual. I can happily go several days without human contact. Perhaps even longer; I’ve never had the opportunity to find out. Being with people is a mixed bag for me. In general, it is always an effort, trying to think of what to say, trying to figure out what the other person expects. I am most comfortable in scripted situations, business transactions, interactions where what the other person expects and what I am supposed to do or say is clear.

Even being with people whose company I enjoy can be stressful. The pleasure of being with them is balanced against the constant effort I have to put into it. My earliest use of alcohol and marijuana were a way to reduce the anxiety of performing socially. I always experience a sense of relief when I am alone again, as well as a sense of accomplishment: Good, I got through that encounter successfully.

I hope my friends understand that this in no way means I don’t value their friendship. I envy those for whom social situations are pleasant and easy, and conversation flows effortlessly. It’s why social media, where interaction is mostly written, appeals to me so much more than face time. With an email or a post or exchange of comments, I can think over what to say, get it right, take my time. Much less pressure. I can be social while being alone.

Thinking about my solo hikes and how much I enjoyed the prolonged solitude has inspired me to plan another. It will be logistically difficult to arrange to have several days strung together without obligations. And I can’t really monopolize a vehicle for that long. Our household has four drivers and three cars, and wildly varying schedules. For me to disappear into the mountains for a few days with one of the cars would be a hardship for them. Still, I can plan and imagine. It is a pleasure to think about. In the meantime, I can find quiet moments of solitude here, in the early mornings, in the garden, in my room. Long walks in the woods close to home.

Peace.