Monday, December 27, 2010

Socially Irresponsible Vacation

Last week I met with a financial adviser about investing my money in socially responsible companies. As Wikipedia describes it, "socially responsible investors favor corporate practices that promote environmental stewardship, consumer protection, human rights, and diversity." It's just the sort of thing a liberal pinko commie like myself would do with his money.

It turns out that after buying a car, a house, and a divorce, I don't have a big enough nest egg to do any serious investing yet.

So instead I'm taking a socially irresponsible cruise.


I've never taken a cruise before, but I'd always wanted to. For some reason I imagined when I did take one, it would be with my family or with my significant other or with a good friend or with my cult.

But I'm going solo, which is also another first. Although I've traveled a lot by myself, I've never had an entire vacation where I wasn't meeting people I didn't already know. So that will be an adventure.

I'm not sure that a cruise-- where you get pampered, use up tons of resources, and take advantage of locals in economically depressed areas-- fits with my liberal values. Some times I'm embarrassed to tell people about it. On the other hand, I'm single, it's 20 degrees outside, I have three weeks off during the semester break, and if I don't have some sort of diversion to look forward to I might just gnaw off my own hand.


Despite my liberal white middle-class guilt, I'm really looking forward to it. It's something to plan for and get excited about. Suddenly everyone wants to tell me about the cruises they took, so it's a good conversation piece. At the very least I will get to enjoy tropical weather in January and eat my weight in free (or pre-paid-for) shrimp. I can sit in the sun, read, drink margaritas, and escape from my regular life for a few days.

So, the deets: The ship, the Carnival Triumph, departs out of the Port of New Orleans. It's a five-day cruise with two stops in Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula. Although I've lived in Europe, I've never been to Mexico. So that will be something else new.

I'll spend a "Fun Day At Sea" crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, the official itinerary actually says "Fun Day At Sea," so the destination is Fun!

On day two we land in Progreso, Yucatan, Mexico. I keep forgetting the name of this port when I tell people about it. Isn't there a name of a soup called Progresso?

There's also an insurance company called Progressive, and a pasta sauce called Prego, which I thought was Protego, and which I keep mixing up with the port name.

Thus my brain goes from Progreso, a touristy port city in the Mexican Yucatan peninsula, to Prego, the brand name of a pasta sauce made by the Campbell's soup company. See, this decadent cruise is already putting consumer products in my brain.

While in port in Progreso, I'm taking a 2-hour bus ride to see Chichen Itza. It's the most famous, and most extensive, tourist site of the late Mayan empire. It's kind of like the Vegas of the Mayan world.

I'm also very excited about this because it's one of the Wonders of the World from the Civilization III game that I used to play so much. I've never visited such a famous virtual wonder before. I hope the real thing can compare to the Civ III version.

On the third day we'll visit Cozumel, which is a place that most everyone's heard of and that I don't confuse with soup or pasta or insurance. I don't have any plans for that yet, but I figure I'll wing it once I get there. It's supposed to be a happenin' place, and by then I will have made great life-long friends from having been on the boat two days, so they'll probably drag me around jet skiing and scuba diving and frolicking at the topless beach. Or something. It'll work itself out.

Then we get another Fun Day At Sea as we head up through the Gulf back to New Orleans. After that I fly home and it's back to winter, back to work, back to real life. Back to being socially responsible, shopping at the co-op, driving my Prius, and being anxious about my privileged middle class abundance.

After that my itinerary will be nothing but Fun Days At Home and Work.


We've had a lot of snow the past few weeks. This picture I took from my desk tells the perfect contrast of my real life versus my upcoming vacation. Outside it's snowing, and on my desktop is a picture of Cozumel.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Tyranny of Positive Thinking

This post is going to be awesome. It will get me everything I want. Because I can visualize it. People will flock to it and smother me with love and affection. Because other people exist to help me reach my personal goals. Yay me!!!

At least, that might have been the case if my positive attitude hadn't been hijacked by the curmudgeonly Barbara Ehrenreich in her latest book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

It's an amazing book, and like all eye-opening nonfiction, parts of it disgust me.

Ehrenreich shows how positive thinking, something that in general benefits a person and a society, has become so perverted in our culture-- in medicine, psychology, religion, and business-- that it's turned into a form of propaganda that subverts reason and critical thinking.

She writes about her own struggle with breast cancer, and how she was never allowed to feel angry, sad, or frustrated by the disease. People who voiced any negativity over the fact that they had a possibly fatal disease were chastised and told they were only making the cancer worse. Some went as far as to say that it was their negative energy that gave them the cancer in the first place. (Despite some earlier studies that showed a positive attitude increases your chances of beating cancer, further studies have shown this not to be the case. But the attitude remains in the public mentality.)

Having cancer in America means that not only do you have to deal with all the shit of having cancer, you also have to deal with the "additional burden" of feeling guilty if you ever fall off the positive train.

Positive thinking has infected American business to such an extent that it's used as a justification for downsizing. Yes, you CAN lay off thousands of workers and increase your stock! If you're one of the laid off workers, you're told to stop moping about it and find a new job. If you can't find one, you only have yourself to blame! This mania has also contributed to our current recession. So many investors, bankers, and loan officers were so busy saying, "Yes, I can!" they didn't bother to ask, "But should I?"

In religion, mega churches adopt the business model and use positive thinking to attract members (some churches even call them "customers") by avoiding all that pesky stuff about sin. Instead, negative thoughts are the only sin, and the basic message is God is there to make you rich and happy. God is a servant, and if you only stay positive, he will get you everything you want.

The most insidious extreme of the positive thinking movement is books like The Secret, that preach that you can control all the events in your life merely by your mind. They are so afraid of any unpleasant thoughts that they advise you to avoid or dump any people in your life who are negative or critical. Parents, friends, spouses, children. Hey, if they complain, get rid of them! You don't need that in your life!

The worst thing about The Secret is how ultimately selfish and self-serving it is. It completely disregards the reality that we are all interconnected. In one story, a boy doesn't like having to wait in long lines at an amusement park, so through positive thinking he decides he's not going to. The next day his family wins a special pass that allows them to jump to the head of the line all day. But what about all the other kids who still have to wait in line? If you can get whatever what you want merely by imagining it, and at the expense of other people, then other people are simply pawns in the story of your life. It's an incredibly narcissistic and juvenile way to view the world.

One part of the Bright-Sided I found particularly interesting is when Ehrenreich writes about the American myth that everyone will get rich. The reason so many poor Americans politically support conservative fiscal agendas is that they hope to one day become rich. This, despite the fact that Americans are less likely to move from one economic class to another than members of many other industrialized countries. This is exactly the lottery mentality I wrote about last year.


As Ehrenreich points out, in nature animals survive because they are vigilant. The antelope doesn't escape the lion with a mind full of positive thoughts. The meerkat doesn't find yummy grubs merely by visualizing them. Humans don't protect their children from harm with mere thoughts that they'll be okay. Real world vigilance is what helps us survive.

Ehrenreich's solution isn't to just be negative all the time. She says negativity can be just as delusional and dangerous as positivity. Her advice is to "get outside of ourselves and see things as they are." We need to emphasize critical thinking over positive thinking.

In short, pull your head out of your Secret and see the world as it really is.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Chilly Feelings

This may surprise people who think of me as an anal numbers freak, but there's one measurement during winter that I really hate.

The weather person on the radio this morning announced, "The wind chill makes it feel like it's 13 below."

Excuse me? Feels like? This is science, not a support group. No weather report should include what the weather feels like. It should give the cold, hard facts. Temperature. Humidity. Precipitation. Wind speed and direction. These are actual things that can be measured. Not feelings.

Sometimes they bypass this by simply saying, "The wind chill is 13 below. " But they're not fooling me. They're still just talking about an imaginary measurement. Something that represents how cold it feels to humans, not how cold it really is.

No one appreciates more than me how the wind can make a cold winter day miserable. I live in the flat Midwestern plains. Wind chill, as an effect, is something I'm on intimate terms with. But wind chill, as a measurement, frosts my boxers. It's one of those pet peeves that I can't quite explain.

The thing about wind chill is, it's just a measurement of how people are affected. It doesn't tell us how the ground or the trees or the cars or the houses or anything else relate to the cold. It's a made-up, for-humans-only factor. Scientific measurements should be universal. It's like measuring the level of disappointment or hunger. It may be important to people, but it has no business among the hard facts.

That's how I feel, anyway. The tim chill factor is at -22 on this issue.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Miracle Snot Rag

In an ongoing effort to better myself, I have made a lot of changes in the past year. I've started cooking more. I joined the local co-op and buy more organic, local foods. I've learned to love onions. I've started using cloth napkins instead of disposable ones. I've started doing push-ups, sit-ups, and leg exercises on a regular basis.

None of these changes were very difficult. I added them to my daily routines without much complication.

But my latest improvement, the transition from disposal tissues to cloth handkerchiefs, has not been seamless. It turns out there's a learning curve to carrying around a snot rag.

This is the actual model of hankies I bought. The blue ones. Six of them.

You see, I blow my nose A LOT. Maybe it's because I'm so fastidious, but I like to clean that thing out as much as possible. And I never realized how often I did it until I started keeping all my sinus detritus in a pretty little patterned cloth hankie.

I'll spare you the details, but it's pretty dis-gus-ting.

With my disposable tissues, I had them strategically placed throughout my house. There is a box on my nightstand, in the bathroom, on the kitchen table, on the coffee table, on my computer desk, in my car, and on my desk at work. I never like to be more than an arm's length away from a noseblowing apparatus.

But how do I do that with a cloth handkerchief? Do I put one of those in each of these locations? Keep collections of my boogers all over the house?

The other challenge was having yet another thing that I have to carry around with me everywhere. It used to be that all I needed when I left the house were my wallet and my keys. A few years ago I added a cell phone to that. Now I've added a handkerchief. My pockets are starting to bulge with all this stuff. I wonder what the next item will be that I do fine without today but will be indispensable in the future.

I was also worried about washing my handkerchiefs. Would I have to soak them first before I put them in the laundry? Is this going to cause me more work?


Well, I'm glad to report that I have successfully integrated my handkerchiefs into my daily routine. The transition is complete.

The trick to dealing with carrying around a collection of your own snot is in the folding. I have perfected the art of folding my handkerchief in such a manner that I can hide the grossness in the folds, thereby allowing multiple uses out of one hankie. I use it, fold it over, and a new pristine section of the handkerchief is ready for more punishment.

And now that I've started carrying my hankie around with me, I've gotten used to it. And realized there are many advantages to having it around. It fits well in the front of my pants pocket, and it's kinda nice to have that little bit of inconspicuous padding there.

It turns out that my sinus genetic material breaks down with laundry detergent, so I've never had to do anything more than throw my used hankies in with my regular laundry, and they come out clean and fresh.

Before, when I went out in public, I always had to worry about whether there would be tissues there. At people's homes, I would usually seek out the bathroom to see if they had tissues in there. Many didn't, and I'd have to use toilet paper. But what about just out on the street? In restaurants? At the movie theater? At funerals? These were all places where I often found myself needing to empty my nose but having no recourse.

My portable ubiquitous handkerchief has solved all of those dilemmas. Also, there are times when I need some sort of cloth rag, like to wipe my glasses after coming in from the rain, or to rub a stain off of something. Sudden crying fit at a boring meeting? Thanks, hankie! Now I have something handy. It also can double as a napkin when I'm eating away from home. It's like a miracle square of cloth!

The cloth handkerchiefs are now an integral part of my life. It's good to know I can weather such a difficult transition and embrace change, even at my advanced age.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Small Victories

It's been a rough week. In national politics, every candidate I voted for lost, giving Republicans control of the house and, in all probability, assured a stalemate in congress for the next two years.

On top of that, I've been voted out of a very significant personal relationship.

So it was nice to have one moment this week were I won something.

My church (okay, they're Unitarians, so it's more like atheists playing church) donates half of their collection basket money each month to a different charity or non-profit cause it supports. A few months ago I joined the committee that decides which charities they choose. I was interested in this committee in general, but I was mainly a one-issue joiner: to get a local health care organization on their list of monthly charities for next year.

I had met the director of the local health care organization a few years ago and have been impressed with her drive and the organization's mission to advocate for local health care concerns.

So I joined the committee, went to some meetings, and this week we held the annual meeting where they decide on donations for the next year. The meeting was much larger than usual, since anyone could attend and talk up the charity they nominated. I spoke about my pet charity, pointing out that health care advocacy seems like a very timely cause. There were about 20 organizations submitted, which meant eight of them (40%) wouldn't make the cut.

After we'd discussed the merits of each organization, we voted by anonymous circular sticker, a system that would be too long and boring to describe here. When all the stickers were counted, my pet charity was tied with one other for the 12th spot. Since there are 12 months in a year, only one of them could make the cut. It was disappointing that so few people voted for my health care cause. Would all my efforts-- my main reason for joining this committee-- all be for nothing?

They decided to have a run-off vote between the two groups tied for the last spot. So once again I had to campaign for my charity. I gave an impassioned speech about why mine was the better organization.

I think there was an obvious reason why mine was better. The other organization was one for children and women. Four other organizations dedicated to children and women had already made the cut, and none dedicated to health care had. Honestly, if the had been the other way around, I totally would have argued for the other organization. One person brought up the lame counter-argument that supporting children and women is supporting health care, but luckily, the electorate didn't fall for it. My charity won in a landslide.

Because of my efforts, this organization will now get an infusion of money from my church. (I have no idea how much that typically is.) It feels good to have made a small difference in the fate of a local charity.

It doesn't feel so good know I beat women and children to do it, though.


This reminds me of the time I joined the diversity committee at my college for the sole reason of getting Martin Luther King Day listed in the college calendar. The college observes it by canceling classes, but for a conspicuously suspicious reason, they never listed why in any of their printed schedules. It was the only day off all year that had that distinction. Through my persistence of trying to get an answer for this, they finally agreed to change it.

That was three years ago. Maybe in another three years I'll do something else that makes the world a tiny bit better.

It's little things, I know, but sometimes you have to take a victory where you can get it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Content of my Wallet

I got a new wallet a few weeks ago. It replaces one that I've had for probably ten years. I never realized how attached I could get to a wallet, but it's probably the object that has spent more time with me than any other single object this decade.

So I'm trying to get acquainted with a new one. It has a different layout so I have to decide on new locations for all the things that go there. Which has made me assess the contents of my wallet.

I wonder what is says about me-- all the things I carry around in it. If someone fished my corpse out of a river, what could they discover about the person I was based on the contents of my wallet?
  • They'd know I work in education because of my college staff ID card.
  • They would know I'm not a big consumer, because I only have three credit cards (and two of them are actually debit cards.)
  • My car insurance card would let them know I'm prudent and responsible.
  • They might think I was a hypochondriac based on my health insurance card and my health clinic ID card.
  • The library card shows that I like to read, at at least get videos, CDs, or recorded books for free.
  • Membership card in the American Library Association shows that I'm a librarian. This would be confirmed by with several copies of my business card.
  • Tennis center coupons and membership card would let them know I'm an avid tennis player.
  • My local food co-op membership card would be evidence of my hippie granola tendencies.
  • If someone paid enough attention, they would know that I'm anal about how my cash fits into my wallet: all bills facing the same way, with the denominations in order from smallest to largest.
  • In fact, the overall organization of the wallet would belie someone with a very ordered and simple life. It's not bulging with stuff, everything seems to be in its logical place, and nothing is sticking out all higgledy-piggledy. It's the wallet of a man who has his shit together.
One piece of evidence that would probably throw off the homicide detectives is the Starbucks card. Someone seeing this would probably think that I drink coffee. I don't. The card was something I won in a raffle, but I carry it around thinking I can use it the next time I find myself at a Starbucks.

So, that's it. The truth and lies that my wallet tells.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Monkey Money

This story comes courtesy of the last chapter of Superfreakonomics, an interesting read that stirs up lots of unusual ideas about human behavior.

Scientists trained capuchin monkeys to use money. They gave them coins and slowly taught the monkeys that they could use those coins to buy food. After several months, the coins soon become just as important as food.

So it was pretty amazing when, one day, one of the monkeys made a break for the tray that held all the coins. In the first documented case of a capuchin monkey bank heist, he grabbed the whole tray and ran back into the cage, scattering coins all over. It was a monkey free-for-all as they all scrambled to grab the coins.

This in itself was pretty amazing, but even more amazing was what happened next. One of the monkeys, instead of keeping his coin so he could buy some food, ran over to another monkey and gave it the coin. Is this an example of pure altruism in the monkey world? A tribute to a monkey with higher status? Paying back a debt?

The answer became much more clear when, seconds after this transaction, the two monkeys were having sex.

The scientists had just witnessed the first-ever case of monkey prostitution!

Mere months after money was introduced to these primates, they had already discovered that you could pay for, or be paid for, sex.

I think this proves that it really is the oldest profession.

Monday, September 20, 2010


My local cable company, which I'll call "Bombast" for no other reason than I like pseudonyms (even when they're nonsensical), is pissing me off.

After a week in which I already lost power and sprained my ankle, I came home on Friday night, after visiting the doctor for x-rays of said ankle, to find that my cable was out. This not only affects my TV watching, but also my internet connection, which I get through cable, and my landline phone, which goes through my internet (VoiP.)

So, using my cell phone, I called Bombast's customer service and, navigating an annoying automated menu, finally talked to a live person. Unfortunately, the annoying automated menu made me choose between a cable TV issue and an internet issue, and I made the wrong choice. The guy at the cable TV service line was not listening to me when I told him my issue, or else he had no choice but to a follow a script that doesn't allow for my type of problem. He kept having me turn my cable box on and off, and I kept telling him that the problem wasn't that my cable box wasn't working, but that I wasn't getting any internet, either, so it was the CABLE LINE COMING INTO MY HOUSE that needed fixing.

While I was on hold with him, my cell phone died. You see, I hardly ever talk on my cell, and mostly use it just for texts. So I don't usually need much battery power, and I don't recharge it very often. Hence, the battery died while I was on the phone with the incompetent man from Bombast. Now I was really cut off from the outside electronic world: No cable, no internet, no landline, no cell. Since all of this was beyond my control (i.e. I didn't choose to take an offline vacation) it was terrifying and disorienting.

Finally I was able to recharge my phone enough to call Bombast back, navigate the annoying automated menu, and this time choose "internet connection problems." This guy was more competent than the last, and noted that he couldn't get any signal whatsoever into my house. EXACTLY!!!! Thanks for noticing. He determined that a technician would have to come out to my house to check the external lines.

Unfortunately, he said, the soonest he could schedule an appointment would be next Wednesday, five days away. But, he would "escalate" my issue so that someone would probably be able to come to my house this weekend. That sounded good, since I had no intention of taking time off work to stay home all day and wait for the cable guy. He asked for my phone number, because the technician would call before they would come. I gave him my cell number, since obviously my landline-- which goes through my internet, which goes through my cable-- was out of service. When he read back the last four digits of my cell number to me, he had it wrong, which did not instill confidence in me.

So all day Saturday I kept checking my phone to see if they'd call.

They never did.

By about 2:30 Sunday afternoon I was pretty sure I'd been lied to. Bombast was like a sleazy guy after a desperate one-night stand: they had no intention of calling me. I re-evaluated my options and called them back. Navigated the annoying automated menu, finally spoke to a human, who confirmed that, no, they would not be visiting me this weekend. My appointment was for Wednesday morning between 7:30 and 10:00 am.

So I figured I would have to take some of my precious little personal business time off work to wait for the damn cable guy.

On Monday I arrange to take Wednesday morning off work. Later I check my home voicemail from work and find that Bombast has left me a message (automated, of course). There was an issue in my area that they have resolved, so they've canceled my appointment for Wednesday. Huh? This pisses me off for two reasons. First, if there was an area-wide issue, why couldn't they have told me that on Friday and saved me a weekend of anxiety? And two, how do they know that fixed the issue at my house? Why did they go ahead and cancel my Wednesday appointment without confirming that it works?

So I get home Monday night and, sure enough, cable is still out. The lights on my cable modem, telephone modem, and cable box still blink red, nagging me to fix them. I restart everything, but no dice.

I call Bombast again. Navigate the annoying automated menu. Every time that I've done this, I've had to listen to an automated voice tell me helpful things like, "Make sure your modem is plugged in" and "You can chat with customer service representatives on our website at..." This infuriates me. If I could get on the fucking website, I wouldn't be calling you! I have no website access, because I have no internet access, because my fucking cable is broken! Every time I hear this message, I feel like I'm being mocked.

So then I get a live person. At this point I'm much less patient and tolerant than I was the first three fucking times I called them. I ask why they 1.) told me my cable was fixed when it wasn't, and 2.) canceled my Wednesday appointment. After waiting forever while the guy looks up my account, using my escalation number, my reference number, my name, address, and the names of my first dozen elementary teachers, he tells me that the problem in the area was not fixed. No kidding. They didn't cancel my appointment. Then why the fuck did they leave a message to that effect? What kind of incompetent miscommunication is going on at this stupid corporation?

(Whenever conservatives rail against the inefficiency of big government to provide services, I'd like to point them to examples like Bombast, a for-profit company that appears to be just as fucked up as any government agency. But at least the government agency isn't screwing you over to make someone else rich.)

So I guess I'm right back to where I thought I was before I heard the automated voicemail from Bombast. Of course, the tech support guy has no good answer as to why I received that message to begin with. He does, however, have the moxie to ask me if I'd like to try some other service that Bombast offers. Seriously? I'm frustrated and angry and showing it, because my current service doesn't work, and you want to shill more stuff? "Um, I'd like to get the things I pay for to work before I think about any new services," I said. Wow, that took some balls! I'd like to nominate this guy for Stephen Colbert's Alpha Dog of the Week.

You would think that would be the end of the story, at least until Wednesday morning. But later that night I get a call. From Bombast. The lady clearly has no idea what I've been through the past four days, because she's confirming my appointment on Wednesday. She asks me to explain what is wrong with my cable. "You're having a problem with your TiVo?" (I think I mentioned my TiVo in my very first phone call.) Are you fucking kidding me? I've talked to four people over four days about this problem, and you still don't know?

The cherry on top of this customer service shit sundae is that she verifies the phone number the technician is supposed to call before he comes. She lists my landline number. NO, NO, NO! I've given four people my cell number and told them to use that!! How can you still have it wrong?

My English teacher in high school used to tell us that millions of dollars are lost every day in the business world because of poor communication. He was trying to get us to see the value of English as a course of study, but I see much wider implications for that statement. I'm so angry at this breakdown in communication, I'm... I'm... I'm... well, I'm mad enough to write a letter.

And blog about it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Due to a confluence of reasons that I won't go into here, I decided to fast on Saturday in honor of Yom Kippur. Even though I'm not Jewish.

In keeping with the theme of "atonement" for the day, I did something that felt like a penance: cleaned my bathroom. While I did that I listened to This American Life, my favorite radio show. This week there was a story about a vet who returned from the Iraq war and was all messed up and violent because of it.

This story hit me at just the right time, because lately I'd been feeling uneasy for something I wrote on this here blog a while back. I wrote about an experience I had at an airport, where I witnessed the family of a serviceperson get all bent out of shape because they weren't given free drinks at a fast food place.

I still believe that their indignation at not getting free drinks was misplaced, but I do feel bad about some of the things I wrote about soldiers that post. I know that soldiers during wartime must have one of the most awful jobs imaginable. I tried to downplay that in my post and I was wrong. How many of us have to go to work every day worried that people are trying to kill you? And not just an isolated wacko, but an entire army of people who make it their job to kill you?

However you feel about the politics of war-- whether it's a necessary evil or an ineffective and dangerous way to settle disputes-- I think it's undeniable that the stress and trauma that individuals go through during war is uniquely horrifying. So I apologize for downplaying that.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Game Over

That's it.

I'm out.

No more NFL for me.

The game is no longer about the strategy of using different configurations of 11 men to either advance or stop a ball. It's not about running fast, or tackling well, or throwing a bullet pass, or making an amazing catch.

No, all of that has been overshadowed by the Rules. Now it's about yellow flags, conferences, reviews, and ponderous stoppages of play to interpret some stupid, inane rule that makes no sense.

It's to the point now that I can't actually enjoy a fantastic play any more because, more often than not, it will be negated by a flag. My appreciation of the game is on a 7-second delay.

A hard-earned, 25-yard run up the middle? Sorry, holding, let's do it over.

An incomplete pass on a crucial third or fourth down? Pass interference! When the flag is thrown, everyone cheers. I don't know about you, but I don't enjoy watching my team advance down the field without actually doing anything. It's like watching someone get a traffic ticket. It may be good for traffic, but how is that entertainment?

A 50-yard scramble on a kick return? Don't forget about "illegal block in the back," a penalty that gets called on 75% of kick returns. Why even bother to have a kick return anymore? Just give the receiving team the ball 10 yards behind where the ball lands.

And it's not just penalties that slow the game down. A close first down? Let's get out the measuring stick, even though the placement of the ball is largely arbitrary and I can see from my perch on the couch that the ball is over the chalk line.

Apparent touchdown? Not so fast. Let's spend the next five minutes reviewing every frame to make sure all the rules were followed. Seriously, how is this fun? Would NFL fans also pay hundreds of dollars to wait outside a courtroom while a jury convenes about a routine murder case?

My last straw was the ending of the Bears-Lions game last Sunday. Because of some stupid rule that somehow defines a catch in the end zone differently than a catch anywhere else on the field, a perfectly good touchdown was taken away from the Lions. I'm a Bears fan, mind you, and even I could see that the Lions got jobbed. Take away the jerseys, and there's not a fan around who wouldn't have called that a legitimate reception.

Although the Lions were able to defeat the Bears' defense on that play, they couldn't overcome the toughest defense in the league: the Rules.

And I didn't tune in to watch the Rules dominate.

I won't make that mistake again.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Fluid Sex

Cheryl and Ellen were good friends of my best friend. As a lesbian couple, they were in a monogamous relationship for many many years. So I was pretty shocked when my friend told me that they had broken up, and Ellen was now in a relationship with... a man. But... but... but... she's a lesbian, I thought. How could she be with a man?

I had no idea at the time, but that was my first exposure to a new way of looking at sexual orientation. Since then I have heard of several anecdotal cases of out lesbians, women who were clearly established and comfortable in their sexuality, who went on to date or marry a man.

The issue become much more personal to me when a good friend of mine, a lesbian, recently started dating a man. She herself was surprised to find herself with a man, because she's never been attracted to men, and although she's happy in her "straight" relationship, she knows that her orientation is still overwhelmingly homosexual. One relationship with one man is not enough to "turn" her straight. This has confused a lot of people. "How can she be happy with a man if she's gay?" "Why won't she call herself bisexual?" "Won't she ultimately crave women too much?" "Doesn't she think, 'Ewwww... penis!'?"

These are good questions, and the people who asked them are sincere supporters of gay rights who take sexual orientation very seriously.

A book that I've recently read helps to address this issue. It introduces a new way to think of sexual orientation, a way that challenges the old dichotomy between biological unchanging rigid determinism and environmental malleable lifestyle choice. (The book was so important to me that I actually waited til I was done with the whole thing to blog about it. No half-read review this time.)


Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire by Lisa M. Diamond provides ample evidence that human sexuality, like so many other domains of scientific inquiry, is much more complicated than we thought. The old view of homosexuality-- that it's inborn and unchanging and it can't be "cured"-- has helped to give homosexuals much mainstream acceptance, but it's time for "more forward-thinking approaches to sexuality," as Diamond says. One that is more inclusive to the wide range of ways that people (particularly women) feel and express their sexuality.

Over the course of 10 years Diamond follows a hundred women, interviewing them every two years to track their sexual identity, orientation, and behavior (which are actually three distinct things.) At each interview she asks them to identify themselves as gay, straight, bisexual, or unlabeled.

What she found was that only about a third of the women keep the same identity label throughout the entire study. For the others, they tended to shift as circumstances changed-- from straight to lesbian, or lesbian to unlabeled, or bixexual to lesbian, or unlabeled to straight, and every possible combination. Some switched multiple times throughout the five interviews.

This "sexual fluidity" varies from individual to individual, but Diamond believes (and provides evidence) that women on the whole are much more "fluid" than men. Women are much likely to be attracted to "the person, not the gender." My personal anecdotal evidence bears this out: I know several cases of lesbians who ended up dating/marrying men, but I don't know of any personal cases of out gay men dating a woman. (I don't mean to imply that sexual fluidity only applies to lesbians. Many "straight" women find themselves in same-sex relationships, too.) Historically, most of the homosexual research done has focused on gay men, which would explain why the idea of fluidity has not been studied til now. Women's sexuality has been largely left out of the research.

One important idea that Diamond challenges is the assumption that if something is biological or inherent it cannot be changed, and if it is the result of environment or experience it can be. Both assumptions are wrong. Some biological traits can be changed, and some "learned" traits cannot. Rather than focus on whether homosexuality is natured or nurtured, she focuses on the varying degrees that one can be gay, straight, or bisexual, and how that can change as some women become attracted to "the person, not the gender." There is a lot of room between being 100% gay and 100% straight, and that percentage itself can change over time. As she quotes Kinsey, "The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats." (Which reminds me of the homoerotic scene from Spartacus where the skeevy old Roman patrician asks his bathing slave boy, "Do you prefer oysters or clams?")

As Diamond says, is altogether false to assume that if a woman's sexual orientation is an essential trait, then her sexual attractions must be fundamentally rigid. Sexual orientation can have an inborn basis and yet still permit variation in desire over time. The amount of variation a woman experiences is determined by two factors: (1) her specific degree of fluidity, which varies from woman to woman, and (2) her exposure to the types of environmental, situational, and interpersonal factors that might trigger her fluidity. (p. 161)

Don't get me wrong. I love categories. I am a librarian, after all. Diamond is not advocating that we disregard labels altogether, but she is saying that a gay or straight identity doesn't always lead to the same orientation or behavior. She tells the story of visiting a school to give a lecture on providing support for gay students. One teacher asked her at what age you can be sure that kids will no longer question their sexuality. Diamond's answer was, there is no such age. There's no time in a person's life when you can say, "Okay, you're safe-- you won't turn gay now." (Or vice-versa.)

The last chapter, on biological processes, posits a fascinating idea that there is a demonstrable difference between sexual attraction and romantic love. For example, prepubescent children feel romantic love without sexual attraction. It turns out the two forces come from different parts of the brain. The theory is that romantic love actually happens to be a residual form of parent-child bonding. So when you fall in love, you're using the same part of the brain that infants use to bond with their caregiver. In our evoluationary development, this parent-child bonding impulse turned out to be useful for bonding mating couples, as well. I happen to thing that is amazing, and it's yet another reason why I love evolution.


I can understand the confusion and consternation that many well-meaning supporters of gay rights have when they hear stories of perceived "flips" in sexual orientation. Most of the arguments in the gay rights movement have depended on the idea that homosexuality is inborn and unchangeable, not a lifestyle choice. For years and years anti-gay activists have maintained that "gay can be cured," and people who think they're gay are really just choosing an abhorrent and sinful lifestyle. So when a seemingly gay person takes up with someone of the "wrong" gender, it puts at risk the political gains made by gay rights advocates.

Diamond addresses these concerns in her book, and she doesn't take them lightly. She makes very clear that just because sexuality can shift (due to forces beyond our control) does not mean it can be manipulated or controlled. In the end, homophobes will always take whatever research is out there and try to twist it to their own agenda. We do homosexuals (and women in particular) no favors by sticking with obsolete ideas that, although well-intentioned, do just as much damage as good.

There is no longer any excuse for dismissing female sexual fluidity as an anomaly attributable to women's repression, disingenuousness, confusion, or immaturity. (p 234)

Plus, it's never a good idea to ignore the truth, even for a good cause.

If you want to expand your understanding of sexual orientation, I highly recommend you read the book yourself.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Ever since I read the latest indictment of the abuses of big business, The Omnivore's Dilemma, I have been looking at my food a little differently. I've started playing a game where I read all the ingredients of the things I eat, and indeed corn-processed products are all up in them. It's like playing Where's Waldo with my food, only in this case Waldo is cut up into 17 different parts and spread all over the ingredients list. I was actually giddy a few weeks ago when I bought an upscale off-brand soft drink and it listed "cane sugar" as an ingredient-- and not "high fructose corn syrup."

I also have a new campaign to try to eat local whenever I can. This seems to be the best solution to our processed food problem. Local food solves most of the problems caused by the economies of scale that are necessary with large industrial farming. Eating locally grown food is better for the environment, better for our bodies, and better for farmers. (You know, the people who actually grow our food.)

This presents quite a dilemma for me, a lazy convenience-phile who rarely cooks and never buys produce. Probably 60% of my diet is frozen dinners and pizza. This is the same person who, when I lived in Germany, used to complain that my bread would go bad after a week. "Haven't these people ever heard of preservatives?!?" I would shout. So it's going to be a challenge for me to put my, uh, mouth where my mouth is. This new attitude has the potential to just add another heap of guilt on me when I eat, to go with all the other Catholic guilt I grew up with.

But I can start with small steps, like joining the local food co-op and trying to be on the lookout for better eating options. Just like you can't eat Rome in a day (I think Godzilla said that), neither will I be able to completely transform my bachelor eating habits overnight.

So it was with this mindset that I was looking for food on my latest road trip to Philadelphia. (My fifth visit there in the past eight months-- Boy, do I love history!) I often break the trip into two days, and my 800-mile, 14-hour journey always has me driving through the Washington, PA area around lunch time. The past few times I've stopped at Wendy's there, but it's been less than satisfying. In addition to my new social food conscience, I fear that I may be becoming a food snob. I blame it on the people I hang out with.

So, with fast food not appealing to me, and with this new attitude about eating local, non-processed food, I pulled off the highway and drove past Wendy's, McDonald's, and Taco Bell hoping to find some local restaurant that might have fresher options.

My eyes perked up when I saw a sign for a place called Eat'nPark. Not a great name (what the hell does "eat 'n park" mean? Shouldn't it be the other way around?) but it looked like a local greasy spoon that might at least be something different than the ubiquitous MickieDees. But it also looked like a sit-down restaurant, and I wanted something fast. I did have a schedule to keep, after all. I drove past Eat'nPark, but there were no other options closer to town. So I turned around. I was just about to give up and go back to Wendy's when I passed Eat'nPark again. And I noticed the marquee sign outside said, "Local produce in our salad bar." If I was looking for a sign from the Universe, that was it. With all my talk about eating local, how could I pass that up?

So I pulled off the road and parked. I was very apprehensive, because I never take chances like this when I travel. I'm not spontaneous, daring, or comfortable with unknown situations. But I took a chance.

It was like a higher quality Denny's. Clean and wholesome with fast friendly service and a glass case full of pies next to the register. I ordered a chicken mushroom sandwich with a side of cole slaw and felt very pleased with myself. Look at me, taking chances! Eating local and healthy! The food was great and it didn't take me much longer than a fast food place. I ate half my sandwich and took the other half with me, which made a great leftover lunch the next day. The rest of the afternoon I felt so smug and self-satisfied for my lunch choice that I could have burst. I can't wait for my next road trip to Philly so I can stop there again.

When I got home I looked up Eat'nPark. It turns out it's a Pittsburg-based chain of about 75 restaurants in PA, WV, and OH. I couldn't find any mention on their website about the local angle, but the one in Washington, PA, sure had a local feel to it.


While in Philadelphia, I visited a local farmer's market in, of all places, a subway station. It was one local farm selling their products, and although I wasn't interested in any of the produce (my friend bought enough for the both of us), I did noticed that they had beef jerky. One of the things that I learned from my book is that grass-fed beef is way healthier (and better for the environment, etc.) than the corn-fed ones that live in crowded factories their whole life. The grass-fed lifestyle also appears to negate many of the (legitimate) objections that vegetarians have about eating beef. So I asked the guy if their cows were grass-fed, and he said yes. I couldn't pass this up, so I bought grass-fed beef jerky. I wonder if it's the first time I've ever had grass-fed beef, but there's really no way to know. I am enjoying my jerky as I type this. (I know that sounds dirty, but it's not. Unless you think eating beef is in itself pornographic.)


On my return trip, I was driving through western Ohio at lunchtime and I had the same dilemma as before. How can I feed myself without stopping at fast food?

I couldn't hope to find another Eat'nPark with a local salad bar, but I decided to just pull off at an exit with lots of restaurants and hope to find at least a local business, if not local food. What I found instead was Tim Hortons. What the hell was a Tim Hortons doing in Dayton, OH?

I'd never seen a Tim Hortons before, but as I understand it, it's like the Canadian Starbucks. They are ubiquitous in Canada and serve coffee and pastries. Do they also serve lunch? I didn't know. But I was going to find out.
I realize that going to Tim Hortons is the opposite of eating local. It's a large international chain that probably buys all of its food in bulk from all over the world. But it's also Canadian, and I imagine that large evil corporations in Canada aren't nearly as large and evil as their American counterparts. Plus, it was at least a new experience.

The food was serviceable and the service friendly. My turkey club sandwich at least had the appearance of being fresh, like they advertise.

And now my Eat'nFresh souvenir cup has a companion.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Feeding Our Cornholes

There I go again, reading.

Learnin' stuff.

The more I learn about how our world operates, the more I believe that ignorance really is bliss. Because The Omnivore's Dilemma : a Natural History of Four Meals, a book by Michael Pollan, is bumming me out.

Basically, it's about how we're all just big ole' walking piles of corn. Bushels and bushels and bushels of corn. It's in almost everything we eat. It's in a lot of things we don't eat. It's what the things we eat eat. It's what the things we drive eat.

As omnivores, humans eat both plants and meat. We're not like koala bears, who eat nothing but eucalyptus leaves. The "dilemma" in Pollan's title is, when you have such a wide range of possibilities, what do you eat? Well, it turns out that more and more, we Americans eat corn. And we don't have much choice about it.

According to Pollan, 45 out of the 60 items on a McDonald's menu contain some form of processed corn. It's in the drinks, it's in the hamburger bun, it's in the cheese, it's in the fries. The McNuggets? Fuggedaboudit! They're loaded with corn products! (Ironically, actual corn is not on the menu.)

Because of all this cornhole stuffing, we're becoming less like omnivores and more like the koala. "This is what the industrialized eater has become: the koala of corn."

That's what you are.

Pollan lays out lots of reasons why it's become almost unsustainable for farmers to grow anything but corn in this country: "A quarter century of farm policies designed to encourage the overproduction of this crop [corn] and nothing else."

The problem is-- this overproduction of corn at the expense of all other crops-- it's bad for us. It's bad for farmers, who, because of the supersaturated market, can't get a good price for their corn, but because of subsidies can't afford to grow anything else. It's bad for the environment. It's bad for the livestock who eat it. (Cattle don't naturally eat corn.) Hence, it's bad for us who eat the livestock who eat the corn. It's bad for our health, because of all the unhealthy ways it's processed. ("We subsidize high fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots.")

The only people who benefit by this overproduction of corn is (SURPRISE!) the large food corporations (ADM and Cargill) who process all this cheap, overabundant corn into the high-calorie products that we stuff down our fat gullets.

It should come as no surprise that this policy, which has hurt the little guy (farmers) at the expense of big corporations, was instituted by a Republican administration. Earl Butz (heh, heh, you said "butts") was Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture. He made it a priority to change many New Deal farm subsidy programs, to the detriment of small farms. According to Wikipedia (this quote sounds like it was lifted from Pollan's book):
His mantra to farmers was "get big or get out," and he urged farmers to plant commodity crops like corn "from fencerow to fencerow." These policy shifts coincided with the rise of major agribusiness corporations, and the declining financial stability of the small family farm.
Incidentally, after implementing policies that would dismantle the family farm, rape the nation's soil, stuff livestock into unsustainable factories, and cause the current obesity epidemic, Butz went on to make offensive and racist statements which forced him out of office. Oh, he also went to jail for tax evasion. What a guy!

For a more sympathetic view of Butz that considers historical context, see this:


This whole story just bums me out because it once again shows how we live in a corporatocracy. Corporations wield all the power, and all the big decisions get made based on the bottom line. Our health, our environment, our standard of living-- none of that matters when it gets in the way of a corporation making a big pile of money.

Another example from the book: the "Industrial Organic" industry. That sounds like an oxymoron, but it's actually how most of the "organic" food that we buy is grown. What started out as an alternative movement to grow food on smaller farms in a sustainable and healthy way has grown into a huge industry, run by giant corporations. The corporations themselves have a hand in defining how the FDA labels things as "organic." So of course they allow a lot of the same practices that support the economic model of the factory farm.

An economic model that, though efficient and financially successful to the large corporation, is overworking the land and its resources. As Pollan warns, "Civilizations that abuse their soil eventually collapse."

So as organic farmers have become more successful, they have turned into the very thing that they originally set out to oppose. Overworking the land for economic gain. It's depressing to see how human nature does that. How even the best intentions get corrupted.

Seriously, how can you think of anything but corruption when you hear phrases like, "organic Twinkie" or "organic frozen dinner"?

Ugh, it hurts my head to think about. Where's my corn-coated organic aspirin?