The prison of soulmates

Saturday was September 11th. Early in the day I saw a comment from one of my facebook friends that made me realize that I really had no interest in actually hearing any news coverage about the day. Fortunately, since my plan for the day already involved spending a large portion of it at a barbecue, instituting a media blackout for myself was fairly easy. However, in the early afternoon I turned on NPR in the kitchen while cooking. While this didn’t expose me to any of the hatred and ignorance around the 9/11 anniversary that I feared, it did expose me to a tidbit on Off-Ramp that annoyed me enough to actually turn off the radio and finish my food prep in silence.

The segment asked people whether they believe in soul-mates. Now I realize that this perhaps make me hopelessly unromantic, but the idea of soul-mates depresses me. I live in a metropolitan area with over 14 million people. Let’s assume for a moment that your soul-mate always magically resides in the same county as you do. My chances of meeting him or her would still be less than nine million to one. Obviously even if you cut that in half to take into account people’s gender preferences and then reduce it again to limit it to a reasonable age band (I’m just going to assume that by this point in my life my soul-mate* is at least a legal adult) there’s still an overwhelmingly small chance of meeting your one true love. And keep in mind, I’m assuming for this exercise that my soul-mate lives in Los Angeles County. Remove that assumption and the math becomes even more far-fetched.

*before anyone asks: no, I don’t consider Brad my soul-mate but that’s just because I don’t believe in soul-mates.

So they ask a number of people about whether they think there’s one person out there for everyone. The interviewer ends up talking to a nineteen year old girl whose love is in prison for three more years. And this is the part where I start to squirm. I’m mostly content to let people believe in fairy tales, even if they are mathematically impractical, but if we’re going to bolster some people’s fairy tales it feels only fair to me to apply the same rules to everyone else. The interviewer met this young woman’s description of who she considered her soul-mate with “you’re serious,” in a tone of voice that belied both disbelief and horror. Then the interviewer asked the next woman she talked to about whether the guy in prison was the nineteen year old’s soul-mate and the woman said no and another cute guy would come along who wasn’t a felon. Because of course soul-mates are always perfect, right?

Let me be clear here, I don’t think a nineteen year old in love with a man who still has three years left in prison is in a good situation. And since I don’t believe in soul-mates obviously I can easily dismiss him as not her soul-mate. But if you believe in soul-mates then you have to acknowledge that perhaps, just maybe, he is her one true love, criminal record and all. And I think the tendency to laugh off these sorts of complicated situations with “another cute boy will come along” is something that pushes women in non-ideal situations to stay in them, to try to prove the doubters wrong.

But that wasn’t what made me turn off the radio. What made me turn off the radio was that dismissive tone of voice. That sound of horror and disbelief. I’ve heard that tone. Indeed, if you knew me when I was nineteen there’s actually a chance that I heard that tone of voice from you. Because when I was nineteen envelopes stamped “this letter sent from the Wisconsin Prison System” regularly landed in my mailbox. It was a different situation, in that what I felt for the man on the other end of those envelopes was not romantic love. And I wasn’t waiting for him to get out of prison so we could be together. But still I cared for him deeply (and still do, I might add) and I used the word love to describe that caring. Any time I told the story, ultimately there would come a point where whoever I was talking to would get this strange look in their eye and ask “how did you come to know this guy again?” I’d sigh and say “he was my next door neighbor” and I’d try to explain that just because he’d made some really dumb decisions that lead him to be where he was, it didn’t mean he was, at the core, a bad person. It was a hard sell, though.

In the end I maintain that I was right and my doubters were wrong. He is, after all, one of the only people from my childhood besides family that I keep any regular contact with. But it is also the case that, generally speaking, I don’t tell the story anymore. I don’t talk much anymore about how we came to know each other, about those five years of letters, of what he meant to me then, of the five years we were out of touch after his release and how bad I felt about allowing that to happen. Perhaps that is because I don’t need to tell the story in the same way I did then. I think, though, part of it is that I don’t like to give people the opportunity to respond to a part of my life that was incredibly important to me with “really? You’re serious?” in that grating tone. And Saturday I resented that little piece of radio that seemed to me to be trying to invoke that exact tone of response from its audience.


Only connect

This morning I read something my friend Ben wrote about his search for an answer to the question “why are we here.” About halfway through the story what popped into my head was the phrase “only connect.” This motto from Howard’s End was oft repeated in my college years by Bill Cronon who was, in those days, running the Honors college and working to create a program in Chadbourne Hall that looked more like the residential colleges of Yale than the typical UW dorms. I was privileged, I think, to at that formative point in my life have been surrounded by so many people really interested in learning and thinking about the world. Of course I spent many of the years following that in academia so I have spent most of my adult life surrounded by really smart, interesting people. But smart people very focused on their own areas are different than smart people interested in the whole of the world around them, in connecting ideas, connecting people, just connecting.

I haven’t thought about that phrase in years, I don’t think. But having just come back from Burning Man–a week camping in a harsh desert environment surrounded by amazing large scale art and mind-blowing people–my brain is primed both for thinking about the why are we here question and the idea of connections. I had been to Burning Man before, three summers ago. And I always fully intended to go back because it was fun and some people I like a great deal go regularly. But I didn’t quite feel like the event lived up to the hype. Indeed it was merely weeks ago that I had a conversation in which I argued that Burning Man is not inherently a life-changing experience. And to a certain extent I’m still willing to stick by that. I don’t buy it as a new model for the utopian society. I don’t buy it as a gospel that I should be spreading to the masses. It’s a festival in the desert. The scale of it is mind-boggling, I’ll give you that. But it’s still 50,000 people coming together in an insanely harsh environment and bringing with them all the pieces of who they were before they got there. Sure there are different norms in Black Rock City. There’s space to try to figure out who it is you want to be, but the dichotomy that many people draw between BRC and the default world feels false to me. I feel like it creates this suggestion that we are different people when we are there, rather than creating a space to try being the same people doing different things.

This year there were some things that happened that gave me great heaping plates of food for thought. And I want to believe that I can actually use that as a catalyst to change my life in certain ways that have needed changing for a great many years (though I think I would still argue that Burning Man is not a life-changing event, just an inspirational one because now that I am home the real work of changing the patterns that have been harmful to me still needs to be done). But one of the things I’ve been thinking about hard is this question of connection. In those halcyon college days my life was chock full of connections that felt meaningful and deep even when they were brief. That sort of thing sustained me, made me feel as if the world was an interesting and worthwhile place. I was happy and excited about my life.

Somewhere along the line I let go of that searching for connections and just focused more and more on the day-to-day and the practical. As the years passed I think I cut myself off from people more and more. I am surrounded by amazing friends who I do feel that I connect with, but I don’t make quite the same effort I did all those years ago to start new conversations, to learn new things about people. I miss that. And a week in the desert has convinced me that I am still capable of it, even if I do feel like the intervening years have left me scarred and jaded.

Ben’s punchline is ultimately perhaps better than mine. But in the end, I think the only answer to “why are we here” is to live and love as well and as interestingly as we can. And connecting to other people, even if only briefly, is one way to do that. I think in the intervening years I’ve become too concerned about how connections flitted away, losing track of how they were formed and how they fed me at the time in the process. It may be a very long time before I again reach a point where I trust connections to last any real amount of time at all. But I think I can see my way forward again to a point where I remember how connecting for its own sake enriches my life more than the pain of connections that break reduces it.

little things

Many many years ago I was enthralled with a woman who was important to a man with whom I was also enthralled (complicated enough for you?) This woman–call her J., because that was her first initial–was enthralled with another man, who happened to be at Harvard at the time. J. and the man with whom she was enthralled, and many other people, wrote for a website called medianstrip. I spent many hours in those days, many years ago, reading things written by J. and people important to J. The things I read moved me in their own right but also because they came from friends of J. who was important to A. who was important to me. I have long since lost touch with all parties but sometimes I am inspired by memories of my then self, watching the full moon move across the eastern sky above the Humanities building, and I look to see if medianstrip still exists. And really, it doesn’t. And this is a little thing that makes me sad.

Lead, follow, or get the $@#& out of my way already. (learning the zen of discourtesy)

I know it’s said that nobody walks in LA (or alternatively, only nobodies walk in LA). If that were true I’d probably be a great deal happier given that one of the main things that irks me about living in LA is how oblivious people seem to be to other people. This is true, too, when people are enclosed in their little plastic, glass, and metal boxes, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me much then. On foot, though, it drives me crazy, leaves me seething.

I went to college in Madison, WI, which has a huge pedestrian population. It is, however, also very orderly. In fact, as a sophomore I wrote an argument for anarchy in my political theory class that basically made the case that centralized government wasn’t really necessary because social norms (and their accompanying societal sanctions) could achieve the same ends. I cited as examples the orderly progression of students up and down Bascom Hill (which has two main sidewalks and is incredibly crowded but mostly avoids pandemonium because on both sidewalks there’s two streams of students who avoid colliding by keeping right) and dorm elevator behavior (don’t you dare take the elevator to the 3rd floor unless you’re crippled or sick to the point of near death). The point was less that these were important examples than it was that these were totally self-organizing example. It was sort of a silly, simplistic political argument, but for a 19 year old who was absolutely NOT an anarchist, I think I made a reasonably solid case, particularly given that this class was my first experience in arguing for things I didn’t actually have an emotional attachment to. I have since realized, however, that the argument worked only because I was a sophomore at UW. Had I been a UCLA sophomore I couldn’t have possibly argued that self-organization leads to outcomes nearly as orderly as rules imposed from the outside, no way, no how.

I really do love a lot of things about LA but I spend a lot of time out in public grumbling to myself “why don’t these people get out of the way. One could argue that this is merely the shock of moving from a small midwestern city to a large over-crowded metropolis. And I’m sure that to some extent that is an explanation. However, in Madison I lived in the extremely dense downtown area and I’d hazard a guess that my daily experiences there actually brought me into the presence of way more people than my daily life in LA does. Even Target on the weekend can’t really hold a candle to the UW campus between classes. The truth is I think the difference is cultural. I think people in LA simply don’t pay attention. I think many people here think they’re entitled to walk through life without taking into account other people’s needs. In short, I think people here are RUDE! And it annoys me. A lot.

Take for instance one morning last week when I walked into the office kitchen to rinse out my coffee cup in the sink. The kitchen was crowded with a group of people waiting for the conference room to open up. Our kitchen has a large table in the middle and to get to the sink requires walking around the table. A woman was standing at the table directly in front of the sink. “Excuse me,” I said. Rather than scooting down the empty table far enough that I could stand fully in front of the sink, she shifted slightly to her right. “Oh well, at least I can now reach the handle on the faucet” I sighed to myself and set to washing my cup, while leaning slightly to actually be holding my cup over the sink (and then leaning more dramatically to reach the pile of paper towels to dry it). Then I turned to leave, only to discover that another woman had filed in behind the table such that my way out was completely blocked. Fortunately the table is just far enough from the wall that two people can pass comfortably. That is, they can if one of them makes an effort not to be standing directly in the middle of the available space. I walked toward the woman. “Excuse me” I said as I reached the point where I had to pass her. And she responded by swaying ever so slightly forward. She did not move her feet to step forward so I could pass. She did not step around the end of the table so that I could pass without even having to turn sideways to do so. Simply put, she did not get out of the way. I squeezed behind her as best I could, thinking the whole time “really? really you feel so entitled that you cannot bother to step forward six inches to make someone else’s life easier?” One might argue that she was so engrossed in her conversation that she did not hear my “excuse me.” I would respond to that by pointing out that a) being so absorbed in your own stuff that you don’t notice your effect on other people is itself rude, rude, rude* and b) she did respond, ever so slightly, to my entreaty, just not by getting out of my way.

(* yes, of course, I also find myself frequently in situations where I have lost track of my surroundings and accidentally put myself in the way. It’s an unavoidable thing in a crowded world. The difference, though, is that I realize it when the other person gets within excusing distance, at which point I apologize and I MOVE)

If this were an isolated sort of incident I would not make sweeping indictments about the courtesy levels of my fellow Angelenos. However, the days I work in the office, I walk about four blocks from where I park my car to the office. That’s 4 blocks, twice per day, 3 days per week (plus a walking to lunch on days when I don’t bring my own or go to the burrito place half a block away). The sidewalks in Westwood are wide but have many trees. This means that practically speaking much of the sidewalk is only two people wide. As result I find myself frequently stepping aside when I get to tree because I am being approached by people walking two abreast who show no sign of dropping back to single file so that I can pass without being knocked aside into the break in the sidewalk where the tree is. Never is this met with an “excuse me,” a “thank you,” or even a simple smile. It is as if it is perfectly natural to people that I would stop walking, and step aside to accommodate their passage. I can forgive this for tired mamas wrangling strollers and toddlers. But hear me, self-absorbed twenty-somethings walking with friends: you do not get a pass. You are simply being rude.

Continue reading “Lead, follow, or get the $@#& out of my way already. (learning the zen of discourtesy)”

Breaking the law while white (and female? and midwestern? and boring?)

I work at home two days a week and in an office on the other side of the city from home three days a week. So Wednesday through Friday my life is pretty focused on that whole “commute” thing. To make things a bit more pleasant than they could be I work 10ish to 6:30ish and take a freeway route that cuts across the mountains North of the city and then South to campus. This route is somewhere between 5 and 10 miles longer than the other obvious route, but a pretty drive and generally takes about the same amount of time as the alternative. Because I leave the house around 9, and am not traversing a popular commute route, traffic is generally light and pretty speedy for the first 20 miles or so of my trip (the other 15 are on the 405 and another story altogether).

This morning traffic was particularly light and it was a lovely sunny morning. I eased into the left lane and relaxed into my drive. Just after cresting one of the big climbs, I glanced down at my speedometer, and then up at my rear view mirror. And cursed. Fortunately, particularly light traffic means you don’t have to fight your way through 5 lanes when you get pulled over.

I am, as a rule, polite to people in general. I am, however, particularly polite to cops. To be perfectly honest, cops (and pretty much anyone else who routinely carries a gun) scare the bejeezus out of me and thus politeness is a way to try to speed up the process of getting out of their presence. So, I pull over to the shoulder of the road, prepared to accept the ticket I so clearly deserve as politely as possible. There was simply no arguing it. I was speeding. Significantly. I know the ticket is going to be ugly but I figure it’s my own fault and there’s not much I can do about it. And so the conversation went something like this:

We exchange “good morning”s and he asks me why I was going so fast. I reply a bit sheepishly that I wasn’t paying attention (and this is mostly true. Though a more wholly true answer is that it’s a beautiful stretch of road, there was no one in front of me, and I was going downhill). He asked for my license. I gave it to him. Still smiling and cheerful. He asks me if I still live at the address on my license. I tell him no. (note to self, add a notecard with my current address to my wallet for these sorts of occasions). He asks if I’ve ever gotten a ticket before. This is where I sort of stumble. “No,” I say “well, not here. I got a ticket in WI once, years ago.” Then he starts giving me a lecture about slowing down, noting that people drive this stretch of road very fast and there are lots of accidents. He then notes that he caught my speed on a downhill and says “Do me a favor and slow down” and hands me back my license. “I will,” I say, “thank you.” As he’s walking away I wish him “have a nice day.”

And thus he gets back in his car and I sit for a moment, processing the situation. Did he really just let me off with a warning? Really? I was going fast enough that this seems truly impossible. But he gave me back my license. And the end of the conversation sounded unequivocally like the end of a conversation. So I decide that I have in fact been let off with just a warning and set about trying to pull into very light (but very fast) traffic from a dead stop, which isn’t fun since I don’t have as much visibility as I’d like. Cop pulls out after me, passes me, and goes on his way while I continue to drive at exactly the speed limit in the far right lane.

This is a mostly unremarkable story. Polite woman who drives too fast gets pulled over, is given a warning instead of a ticket, and goes about her day incredibly grateful for her good fortune. However, I mentioned this incident on a message board I frequent and noted that I had no idea how I got out of the ticket. One guy responded that it was likely because I was polite and respectful and added “I wonder if that would have spared Henry Louis Gates Jr. a world of hurt.”

It’s an interesting response to me in part because when incidents like the one with Gates happen one of my first reactions is always something along the lines of “well, yeah, what did you think would happen if you copped an attitude with the police?” Which is not to say that I think the arrest was in any way legitimate. Just that it didn’t surprise me, particularly. But Chalicechick makes the, very reasonable in my opinion, point that being rude to cops isn’t actually illegal and that the likely consequences of being rude to cops varies according to your skin color.
And indeed, I suspect that the likely consequences of being polite and respectful to cops varies too. Who knows why I managed to land myself a warning instead of a hefty ticket. Probably being polite had a lot to do with it but I suspect that the fact that I look totally boring and law-abiding (no matter what stereotypes you employ) had a lot to do with it too. And of course there’s the dumb luck part.

Perhaps it’s a sign I should buy a lottery ticket. But I think I’ll stick with just feeling generally cheerful and fortunate. (And, of course, driving more slowly)


I’m a bit behind on my movie watching (and by “a bit” I think I probably mean “hopelessly”). However, I’m spending the week with my parents, who actually use their Netflix membership to get as many movies per month as Netflix will send them. So tonight we watched Doubt. I was left, at the end, unsure what we were meant to believe about the characters, which I think was part of the point of the movie. For me the movie raised the question of whether it is enough to be personally convicted of a man’s wrongdoing even if you cannot prove it. It’s a tricky question, actually, and one where my own answers are certainly biased heavily by my own experiences. Of course in some sense it’s not a relevant question when the institutional structures at hand mean that even with some amount of proof those in power are still presumed to be innocent. In Doubt there’s a very strong gender story to the power structure, but I think the same sorts of dynamics play out in all sorts of institutional hierarchies, not just the very male-dominated example of the Catholic Church.

I have to admit that in some ways this was a very hard movie for me to watch even though the abuse of the student was never made explicit (nor was it ever demonstrated unequivocally that it even happened). As a high school student I was sexually harassed by a teacher (only touched inappropriately once–and in a way that he might have been able to claim was accidental though it clearly wasn’t–but habitually the recipient of unwanted attention). I fought to avoid it in my own ways, which did not include officially reporting any of the incidents. In part this was because the ickiest of the behavior took place before their was a specific policy in place for the reporting of inappropriate behavior. In part it was because the teacher in question was extremely popular and I knew standing up to him would leave me even more ostracized than I already was. In part it was because even though his behavior was clearly inappropriate and intentional to me, it would have been trivial for him to argue that his behavior was accidental or being misinterpreted. I resisted where I could but mostly spent four years of my life with my arms crossed tightly across my chest taking one step back for every step he took into my space, mentally scanning the space behind me lest he back me into a trophy case.

And I think it is that question of institutional reception of complaints that made Doubt so hard for me to watch. In some sense I ultimately didn’t really care if Father Flynn was guilty in the movie, because the figure of Sister Aloysius so dead set in her conviction, and her willingness to use what small power she has however she can to get him out, is so gripping. There were plenty of people who could have been that sort of institutional advocate for me. For the most part I don’t blame them for not doing so.* But I do sometimes wonder what would have happened had there been someone willing to take up the fight on my behalf. I’m not entirely sure that it would have made a wit of difference. I’m not sure I would have been able to bring myself to put myself through the sort of fight that would have been required. And I’m not entirely convinced that the end results would have been worth the effort. Of course Doubt doesn’t exactly leave one feeling that such interventions are guaranteed to be useful anyway.

The movie is interesting in its character development, though I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure I believed any of the interactions. I also wasn’t quite sure I liked being left at the end of the movie with no solid answers. I suspect that the writers’ intent in the titling of the movie was not to describe the feelings one might feel when asked if they liked it. Then again maybe my annoyances with the film were rooted more in the subject matter than the telling of the story itself.

* The exception to this is the guidance counselor who, when I started trying to talk about some of what had happened in the previous years said “unless you want to file a formal complaint, I don’t want to hear it.” Certainly I understand that the statement likely stemmed from the frustration of having a teacher who was widely known as a dirty old man allowed to remain because no one had the courage to deal with it. But I was 16 years old. Trying to bully me into action was hardly the right way to deal with the problem.

Another art

In her poem One Art Elizabeth Bishop begins:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

But what of the art of quitting? It is much like the art of losing, I think. But I am realizing lately that though I thought perhaps I had mastered the art, quitting is not easy. And it is not contained simply in a single act. But, like Bishop’s losing, it is an art that can be mastered. And in the end, I think I can conclude that like losing, quitting is no disaster. Even if it has taken me years in some cases to convince myself of that (much longer, I might add, than it took to convince myself that any of the things I have lost in the past were not disaster).

I think I was in my late 20s before I ever quite anything important. There were jobs I left for other jobs, of course. Projects I handed over to other people. And of course there were things I did earlier in my life that I stopped doing as I got older. Those were acts of quitting, I suppose, but they weren’t conscious acts. I did not wake up one morning and decide to quit playing the clarinet. Nor did I, one afternoon, decide to quite writing poetry. When I started college I did not decide that I would quit reading fiction. I just simply couldn’t find the time for years on end.

The first really important thing I quit, consciously, intentionally, and with a great deal of emotional angst was the church board. The second major thing I quit was the church itself. That decision process actually took a very different form, which I will discuss in a moment, and chronologically might be said to have come after the third major thing I quit, which was graduate school. Effectively in the span of two years I quit my association with the two institutional structures that had nearly completely defined my life since moving to L.A. I broke those ties intentionally. And, though, I do not regret any of these three decisions, they were much bigger decisions than the simple words “I quit” can possibly convey. And I am coming to realize that it is only the first of these decisions that I can talk about without feeling I need to justify it, though in many ways that decision is the most complicated to really explain completely.
Continue reading “Another art”

The dirt on my hatred for Valentines

Ok, if you know me, you may very well know that I hate valentine’s day. I have always hated valentines day.* In high school I used to try to get my friends to join me in wearing black on February 14th to demonstrate our disdain for the whole concept. They, however, shared neither my hatred of the day nor my love for wearing black, so that never actually worked out.

This year I am finding myself particularly annoyed as the day approaches and I’m not sure why. I mean the reasons not to like the holiday are pretty obvious:

  1. pink. I really really do NOT do pink. I’m cool with red, but not when it’s paired with pink.
  2. bitterness. I admit it, my early feelings about valentines day were heavily influenced by my failures in the romantic realm. If you’re single it’s hard not to hate a holiday that celebrates the very state of couplehood.
  3. unrealistic expectations. Even when one is in a relationship, the hype of a day where your significant other is supposed to express the depth of his or her feelings for you with a gift, is just asking for trouble.
  4. gender stereotypes. This is a holiday that by its very design reinforces countless gender stereotypes. Don’t believe me? See point 1.

All of these are, in my opinion, perfectly reasonable reasons to not be a fan of the day but I will admit that the sensible thing to do, really, is just ignore it altogether. To a certain extent I do this, but this year, with just under two weeks to go before I can forget it completely, I’m already sick to death of valentines day. Of course the magazines I read for their food and gardening content (Sunset and Better Homes and Gardens) are full of articles keyed to the holiday. I’m sure some of the baked goods and other ideas are worth looking at but I frustratedly flipped through the many pages of pink and red without a second glance on Friday night when I decided I was going to chill out in the bathtub with the current magazine offerings. Too much pink! Seriously.

Continue reading “The dirt on my hatred for Valentines”

Still in Hollywood (well, within 20 miles of hollywood, close enough)

People sometimes ask me what it is that I like about living in L.A. (usually in conversation where I have just admitted that I thought I’d hate it here when I moved but quickly came to love it). Of course there is one obvious answer. It’s about 68 degrees today and while it is hotter in the summertime than some other places in the country it’s also less humid. So when you sweat it actually evaporates and cools your body off the way it’s supposed to.

There’s more to love about LA than just weather but it’s sometimes hard to convey. I have long likened feelings for cities to romantic relationships. Along those lines one might describe LA as the brilliant, interesting, and kind boyfriend who somehow can never hold down a job and is always leaving his underwear on your floor and his dishes in your sink. Your friends can’t understand why you don’t kick him to the curb but you can’t imagine how you’d live without him. Sure things would be cleaner and you’d have more money if he were gone, but life would be less interesting and exciting.

This analogy came to me a week or so ago as I was coming home from work, sitting in stop and go traffic on the 405 coming out of Westwood into the valley. The 405 is one of those freeways that you can pretty much guarantee will throw a monkey wrench into your commute. It’s the metaphoric equivalent of a moldy bowl that probably once contained cereal festering in your sink. Usually I forego the freeway in favor of the slightly less direct–but often faster–Sepulveda Boulevard. Sepulveda is a lovely drive in its own right, meandering slightly with hills rising off to one side. The 405, though, is a beautiful sight, if you can just let go of your frustrations with traffic long enough to appreciate it. One of the reasons this particular stretch of freeway is so crowded is that it’s one of the few routes through the Santa Monica Mountains. At 4:30 in the afternoon in January that means golden light of a sun about to set lighting up the hills rising on either side of you as you creep toward the top. And when you finally crest the hill you are greeted by the spreading vista of the San Fernando Valley.

I have heard people complain that Los Angeles isn’t green. I will acknowledge that this is probably somewhat true of the less prosperous neighborhoods but in general I find that my complaints tend to run the other way (too much of the city is falsely green due to heroic efforts to keep turf-grass healthy in an environment not suited to lawns in the least). Aside from my ire about the constant use of sprinklers, though, I have to say there is something magical to me about the view from freeways (or the view from a landing plane) of city stretching out in all directions until it is checked by the hills. The city is nestled within the confines of the geography, having started as a small pueblo along the LA river (which I am lead to believe once actually contained water before it was lined with concrete and fell victim to the water needs of the city). No one in their right mind would have planned such a large city on such unfriendly terrain. But yet here we are.

And I think sometimes what I love most about LA is the improbability of the whole thing. It is a city built on shifting ground, punctuated by two mountain ranges (and plenty of other hills), with very little fresh water and almost zero precipitation for seven months of the year. At the same time it is a city where you can hear three languages while waiting for a bus or standing in line at the grocery store, a city where you can find food from almost anywhere in the world (though I’m still on the hunt for authentic Puerto Rican, having gotten a taste of what I’m missing on the east coast a few years back).

I think it is fair to say that Los Angeles embodies everything that is wrong with our society: the lack of foresight; the careless assumptions of human superiority and invincibility; the divisions among the haves, the have-less, and the have-nots; the tendency toward selfish individualism. But at the same time the city is a monument to the hope, ingenuity, and folly that characterizes our species. I think what I love most about LA is the way that it constantly reminds me how small we are, and how big we are, all at once.

The mathematics of politics: US is always greater than THEM

I would like to preface this post by noting that some of the people who know me in person might suspect that this was inspired by a recent very emotional conversation that followed a similar thread (well, to the extent that it followed any threads at all given my state at the time). In fact I began writing this post weeks ago, though the recent conversation did inspire me to try to actually finish pulling my thoughts together. This is, however, still a very general set of ideas I’m trying to flesh out, not a response to any one particular conversation, comment, or experience.

Ah, it’s time for another presidential election, and with it come my least favorite parts of politics: the name calling, the self-satisfied claims of superiority, the rancor. No, I’m not talking about the political ads, though there’s enough of all of the above coming from the various campaigns to fuel its own rant. I’m talking about the mudslinging done by ordinary citizens toward anyone who doesn’t believe the same things they do. It’s no secret that I’m extremely liberal so you might assume that I’m specifically talking about the trash-talking done by conservatives. But I’m not. I’m talking about the hate that spews from liberals and conservatives alike. I am simply sick to death of hearing how one side is so much better than the other. How anyone who votes for the other candidate is either stupid or just plain evil. I’m going to talk here specifically about the things I hear from fellow liberals. This is not because I necessarily believe that liberals are worse about their mudslinging but because as a liberal who travels in pretty liberal social circles (both in the flesh and online) I hear a lot of things that make me sad, angry, and a little sick.

I will be the first to agree that a lot of political decisions are made with too little information, or information that is just plain wrong. But let’s be clear that just because one is ill-informed or poorly educated does not make one stupid. Many liberals are quick to paint broad swathes of the country with the stupid brush. I’ll admit that when you watch the various cherry-picked videos of idiocy on youtube it’s very easy to think that perhaps stupidity is the explanation for all the nation’s woes. Of course since the formulation is generally put forth in the form that some THEM out THERE is STUPID, it does leave one wondering a bit about how stupidity became so geographically concentrated. Perhaps the non-fluoridated rural water is to blame?

Formulating the problem as ignorance manages to side-step the question of how some sort of inherent stupidity might have such a dramatic geographic component (without even having to throw in words like “in-bred,” which yes, I have heard at least once this fall). Pointing to THEM and saying THEY are IGNORANT allows the blame to be spread to culture, to education, to the environment that surrounds THEM. To a certain extent I am willing to accept an argument about the perils of an ignorant population. What I’m not willing to accept is the formulation that suggests that WE are knowledgeable while THEY are ignorant. The skills involved in weighing evidence and using it to come to logical conclusions are not easily learned, nor are they the focus in much of the education system. If you want to argue that politics are negatively influenced by the state of our education system I’ll gladly agree with you, as long as you recognize that the problem doesn’t just affect the people who vote differently from you.

There are those, though, who do not think that ignorance and inability to reason is an affliction that crosses demographic or political lines. And it is with them that I take issue. Continue reading “The mathematics of politics: US is always greater than THEM”