The ice cream of happiness

I have been suffering lately from a bit of a case of BADD (that’s Being an Adult Dysphoric Disorder for those of you who don’t regularly make up maladies and their acronyms). I’ve transitioned to full-time at work, which is great except it means driving across town five days a week instead of only three. I’m also working on two new projects, which brings the stress of figuring out new data and new bosses and all of that. I’ll get the hang of it all eventually but right now I’m just exhausted and feel like I have no time because not only am I spending more time in the car, my time at work feels terribly unproductive some days because I’m still getting up to speed on the new projects and am re-learning different statistical tools with which I am not as efficient. Pour on top of that a generous helping of emotional malaise surrounding a situation that falls squarely into the “things I cannot change” category and you get a cranky, melancholy Sarahliz who becomes prone to trying to come up with cute names for what’s wrong.

Last night on the way home I detoured to cash some checks and stop at Trader Joe’s for bread. Of course when I got to the Credit Union I discovered that I had not actually put the envelope with the checks in my purse (meaning I still have to make a special trip to take care of that). Then as I was walking the aisles at TJs I started doing the mental “so what am I going to eat tonight.” It was already late and I didn’t feel like making anything. Plus, as per usual for the past couple of weeks, I was cranky. So I bought some frozen gnocchi, figuring I’d heat that up and have it with salad. I also bought coffee ice cream because I’ve been taking my lunch to work pretty regularly and eating a lot of salad and have generally been feeling pretty virtuous in my food choices. (Yes, it’s possible that the super crankiness is also influenced by the fact that I’m trying to lose a few pounds and save some money so have been bringing my lunch to work pretty regularly and eating a lot of salad).

Ok. We all see where this is going, right?

Yeah. I ended up having a HUGE bowl of ice cream for dinner. While taking a hot bath. It was awesome. And I woke up a great deal more cheerful and relaxed. Apparently I stumbled onto a fairly effective treatment for BADD. It helped a little with the feeling of being overwhelmed by work since part of my bath time was spent reading a work-related article that proved helpful. And I woke this morning with the sudden conviction that I actually will be able to accept the thing I cannot change with a modicum of adult grace.

That emotional malaise and the anxiety of facing a thing I cannot change has resulted in images from Alice Walker’s poem “Did this Happen to Your Mother? Did Your Sister Throw Up a Lot” tugging at my brain. Of course as they were tugging I could remember which poem it actually was. I remembered the bit about weeds coming up through the cracks. And I remembered the gist of the last two stanzas:

Whoever he is, he is not worth all this.
Don’t you agree?

And I will never
unclench my teeth long enough
to tell him so.

That was, after all, pretty much exactly what I was feeling as I hopped into the tub with a huge bowl of ice cream at my side.

So this morning I went looking for the full poem, with the hope of giving the rattling in my brain a little more form. While looking for it I found this article, an interview with Alice Walker’s daughter Rebecca. I think I had encountered things to suggest that the Walker mother-daughter relationship was strained. I just hadn’t read anything that really made clear how strained, or why.

It was striking to me to read this article today because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how one balances a desire to change the world with a desire to live a happy life full of strong relationships. They obviously aren’t goals that have to be at odds, but fighting for change is hard work. Even just figuring out what issues one might tackle, what solutions might be best, is more than I seem to be able to manage. I can’t imagine the time and effort involved with actually going to rallies or doing things that might directly cause change (I’ll confess I find rallies and protests and civil disobedience perplexing at times because it is so hard to trace out what they actually do).

Lately I’ll admit I’ve been judging myself through eyes that aren’t my own. And those eyes have been judging me very harshly indeed for my lack of real action in the world. It is perhaps the case that, in channeling that judgment, I am actually judging myself much more harshly that said person would. Still, even knowing that, I was deeply troubled for awhile. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly how to find more time, exactly what to give up, and exactly where to focus some world-improving energies. The truth is that I fully know that I need to do more to make the world look like I want it to. But, as I thought about it more and more, I realized that though I respect the person whose voice I was internally channeling a great deal, I have no desire to emulate his life. I have no desire to structure my relationships the way it appears to me that he has structured his. In short, after scribbling my way through circles of angst in my pen-and-paper journal, it suddenly dawned on me that my relationships to the people around me are more important to me than grander notions of social justice. I don’t mean that in the sense that I am selfish and think my life more important than others (though perhaps I am, and perhaps I do). I mean, rather, that if I focus all my energies on saving the world only to fail to feed and sustain my closest relationships, then I have failed. In doing so I would have undermined not only my world, but the worlds of those people close to me as well. I would, in short, have contributed to the circle of society closest to me to not looking like my ideal.

One could argue, of course, that the good that Alice Walker has done in the world–the positive effects she has had on people, myself included, through her writing–outweighs whatever negativity comes from neglecting her relationship with her child. I recognize that argument and recognize how, for some people, it is enough to justify consuming focus on activism. For me, though, it’s not the way I want to live. It’s not who I want to be when I judge myself through my own eyes rather than focusing anxiously on the judgment of others. I still feel guilty about not doing more, for remaining so inwardly focused. But ultimately I am slowly forming a better picture of who I want to be and how I want to live. And that picture involves a lot more focusing on real meaningful relationships than it does marching in the street.


"Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least."*

So it’s election time again. On Tuesday a friend had a dinner party to discuss the ballot. I think discussing politics in intentional and respectful ways is generally a good thing anyway, but in California I find that these sorts of gatherings are almost essential if you’re going to manage to vote with any degree of information. There’s simply too much on the ballot to process and think through all of it on your own. This year we have nine state-wide propositions and five of them are constitutional amendments. FIVE!!! Having grown up in a state where you mostly voted for people, bond measures, and sometimes a referendum or two, a ballot that includes nine big issues plus people (including a whole pack of judicial appointments) is just overwhelming.

So I’m writing up my take on the issues. This isn’t how I think you should vote. It’s just how I’m thinking about the issues and planning on voting as of right now, though I’m open to further discussion and could change my mind. I’m only going to cover the propositions and not the people because frankly I don’t have much of interest to say about the people. I think I’m probably voting a straight democratic ticket. In some cases this is because I like the candidate (Bowen, Chiang). In some cases this is because I really dislike the Republican candidate (Whitman, Fiorina). In most cases, though, it’s because after spending so much time on the issues I can’t really spare the mental bandwidth to figure out who would make a good insurance commissioner.

As a philosophical point I should note that I think the ability for the populace to get pretty much anything on the ballot strikes me as sort of absurd. I would much rather elect representatives who are going to focus their attention on the issues and then make decisions with the big picture in mind. Granted that’s not a perfect system, and the results are often frustrating. However, I really dislike being asked to make budget and tax decisions and vote on laws given that I don’t really know how everything fits together. As a result my default vote on propositions is no. From there I work out what I think the consequences of something will be and whether I’m going to vote yes. In all cases the task is to convince me a proposition is a good idea. Otherwise it’s a no. I could abstain on anything I’m unsure about, but since I’m sort of philosophically opposed to the very nature of the California ballot I prefer to vote no change on anything where I’m left with questions.

So, without further ado, the issues.
Continue reading “"Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least."*”

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)

Don't like it? Leave it? Lump it? Change it?

I have to admit that living in California (and working for a university in the UC system) these days leaves me wondering why I’m in this handbasket, and where exactly it is we’re all going. The nice Christians who periodically knock on my door to evangelize seem to be capitalizing on this theme. Unfortunately, my own theology doesn’t include a diety who intercedes in the lives and fortunes of individuals*, so their messages are not places where I find hope.

*(As an aside I have to note that any such figure who responds to personal pleas for aid that I could fathom would probably spend all his time shouting “if you children don’t stop your whining and bickering, I swear I’m going to turn this universe around. I mean it!”)

My hope, then, comes from my faith in humanity. Which is to say, people got us into this mess so people are going to have to get us out. It’s small hope indeed but I maintain it by willfully not thinking too much about the messes we make and instead focusing on the good and the beautiful. I studied inequality and poverty long enough that I’d be an ugly person to be around if I didn’t compartmentalize my knowledge of human ability to build ugly hierarchies into a neat little box with a label reading “really not our best quality but not the sole defining bit of human nature.”

And so, this brings us to lunch. Whatever horrible things you may be able to blame on humanity, you have to admit that the invention of the burrito makes up for it just a little. And so I sat with my burrito at my normal lunch hangout when a Spanish-language version of “Unchained Melody” began playing on the radio. This lead the gentleman at the next table, who I mentally refer to as Westwood Local Crazy Dude, began regalling the women at the table in front of me with the story of how the song was written about Chino prison. WLCD works for a local small store–if one of the previous rants of his I overheard is to be believed, I haven’t taken to fact checking–and is fond of harping on the negative aspects of current U.S. society and economy. Today was no exception and his lecture on “Unchained Melody” soon devolved into commentary on incarceration rates in the U.S. (higher than any other industrialized country and many fascist regimes as well), the ranking of California schools compared to other states (last, according to him) and divorce rates (68%, again according to WLCD). Fortunately, since I was sitting behind WLCD I could giggle to myself at his ramblings (none of which ever really strike me as patently false, just inappropriate for the setting) without getting drug into engaging with him. Meanwhile his audience just wanted to get back to their lunch but he continued on his tyrade on the ills of America. One of the women pointed out “well if you don’t like it, you can leave.” This lead him into a line of criticism beginning with “no one else wants us” and ending in some horrible world in which 1/3 of American teenagers are drug addicts.

Meanwhile it lead me to thinking about the “if you don’t like it you’re free to leave” response to political criticism. While I think it is perhaps a perfectly reasonable answer to negative diatribes from a neighboring table while one is lunching, it isn’t typically a reasonable answer in real discussions. Of course there are situations where leaving really is the right response to unhappiness with a system. But too often both the directive “if you don’t like it leave” or the threat “Screw you guys, I’m going home” are used to block–or in the case of the threat to avoid the effort of making–actual constructive criticism.

And so my thinking circles back to California and the question of where exactly it is this hand basket is heading. The current state of the budget, paired with other doomsday thinking (like how long can we survive on borrowed water), does have me wondering about how badly I really want to stay here. I think in at least the short term B. and I are committed to staying. If nothing else, home ownership makes the prospects of leaving more complicated. The current state of the state, though, has me wondering if I shouldn’t be giving some serious thought to where else I might be happy. At the same time, though, if I feel so strongly that “if you don’t like it leave” isn’t the right answer to criticism, does that perhaps suggest that there might be better ways to respond to my fears about the state’s future than looking elsewhere. A thought to consider, I suppose, as I continue to ask myself what I want to be when I grow up.

p.s. I’m getting over a nasty cold. To help fight off some remaining congestion (primarily in my ears, which is worrying me since it feels much like the early stages of an ear infection) I took some Sudafed this morning. Of course because I am otherwise thinking of myself as no longer “sick” I consumed exactly as much caffeine as I normally do on work days (2 to 3 cups of coffee in the morning and a diet coke with lunch). The combo has left me a touch, uh, wired. So if this post is touch flippant and scattered it’s because … oooh, shiny!

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”

A little political desperation perhaps?

I talked with my parents last week and my mother shared something that amused me.  I still sometimes get mail at their place and she goes through and throws out the credit card offers and piles the remaining newsletters and such for me to look at when I come to visit.  Apparently I recently got not one, but two, pieces of mail from the McCain campaign asking me to register to vote absentee.  Given that I’ve lived in LA for seven years and immediately jumped through all the hoops to be declared a resident for tuition purposes after a year of living here, the notion of voting absentee in Wisconsin is quite comical.  But the part that I find really perplexing is the fact that I was never registered to vote at that address.  I always elected to wait in endless lines to vote in Madison rather than voting absentee in Richland County.  My mother said she looked me up and I’m apparently still listed in the Wisconsin voter rolls at my last Madison address (which is interesting given that I didn’t know you could even do that, wonders of the internet I guess).  This almost certainly means that my name and address was pulled from DMV records since my drivers license always used my parents’ place as my address (UW records would be another possibility, except my current mail receipt seems to suggest that when my loans went into repayment last year all the other various mail-sending departments got my address update too).  Now I can sort of understand if I haven’t been purged from the voter rolls since I wouldn’t imagine there’d be much communication across state lines about voter registration.  But really you’d think that after seven years the DMV would have figured out that I don’t live in Wisconsin anymore.  Of course I think the responsibility of being registered to vote in two places would be overwhelming for me anyway.  I still haven’t worked through all the smaller races on the California ballot.

Who to blame when the butler didn't do it (or band-aids on amputations)

Today’s LA Times has an article about a brewing backlash against the homeless in downtown Madison, WI. Years ago I wrote my senior thesis about the young people (my primary focus, anyway) that spent time in a small park just off State Street, the pedestrian thoroughfare that connects the University of Wisconsin campus to the capital. Shortly after finishing my thesis I interned at the YWCA’s family homeless shelter. Having had those experiences, I take somewhat more interest in news about homelessness in Madison than I do that in LA. I also feel that I’m qualified to say at least a little about what the issue looked like there in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The article starts with a nice idyllic view of Madison, where residents knew panhandlers by name and interacted with them amicably. It contrasts that picture with a current fear of the homeless resulting from two unsolved murders in the downtown area. In both cases the victims were killed in their homes, in the middle of the day, presumably by strangers. The police have focused some of their investigation on homeless in the area. This has, apparently, included taking DNA samples. This resulted in some arrests on other charges, but no break in the murder cases. The LA Times article suggests that some of the services Madison does provide for the homeless (including some shelters downtown as well as meals) are coming under popular attack. Continue reading “Who to blame when the butler didn't do it (or band-aids on amputations)”

By the People…

Sometime between now and whenever I go to vote tomorrow I need to figure out how to vote on the seven propositions on the ballot (as near as I can tell those are the only ones I need to worry about since Prop S doesn’t seem to be on the ballot in Altadena). My polling place is within an easy walking distance so I will probably postpone much of this though and research until tomorrow morning and then take a nice stroll to vote, get lunch, and wander around enough to declare it a day I exercised.

I try not to be politically apathetic. I really do but all too often the ballots are overwhelming and I end just guessing on a lot of it. While that’s perhaps not a bad strategy for your average multiple choice tests it seems like a lousy strategy when the test is “what do you want politics to look like for the next X years.” In some sense I think voting blindly is really worse than not voting at all so I often skip things that I haven’t had a chance to research, particularly if they’re non-partisan positions where I’d be voting based on something utterly arbitrary like gender or how melodious the names are. Continue reading “By the People…”

Positive thinking.

I’ve been reading Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan lately. It’s good stuff.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about the coming primary election. Yes I live under a rock culturally speaking but I do read the Economist and the LA Times pretty frequently and I regularly interact virtually with people who read news from all sorts of places. So my living under a rock has not protected me from the inundation of election madness. Thus, this page from transmet really spoke to me (click on the snippet below to get my lousy scan of the whole page).

I'll tell you about voting

And yeah, I haven’t actually figured out how I’m going to cast my vote. I mean there are so many appealing ways to be tortured.

An eye for an eye, for ratings.

Last weekend I was feeling kind of crappy and decided I’d curl up on the couch and watch some stupid TV. The problem with this plan, of course, was that we don’t have cable, a tivo, or any of the other technologies that allow some sort of control over the stupidness of the available television. We have an HD tuner, which gets us all the networks, but seriously Sunday afternoon isn’t exactly the best time to curl up and watch network TV. My intent was to make use of Netflix streaming to watch copious amounts of Law and Order but once I actually got the computer attached to the TV working (with its finicky power supply and wireless keyboard from hell) I found I was no longer in an L&O mood. As I was flipping through what netflix has available I noticed that they had Sleeper Cell.

When the series first came out there were a couple of billboards for the show I drove past regularly. I can’t find a picture of the cast for the first season all together, but imagine if you will a billboard with a black guy, a Saudi, a french man, a bosnian, and a blond white boy from Berkeley with the tagline “Friends. Neighbors. Husbands. Terrorists.” With that as my only previous information about the show I was pretty much expecting an utterly offensive train wreck. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for highlighting the fact that not all arabs are terrorists and not all terrorists are arabs but the advertising made Sleeper Cell look like fear mongering of the “oh my god fear everybody” variety, which doesn’t exactly strike me as an improvement. So I opened a bottle of wine and settled in to see how bad it really was. Continue reading “An eye for an eye, for ratings.”