Mr. P is feeling philosophical a few days ahead of his birthday, "Sometimes I have the idea that my whole life is just a dream and when I die I'll wake up and be with all the other people."
Oh, I say, that's a very interesting idea. Will that be a nice waking up, do you think?
"No, because, if you must know, I rather like my life." ("If you must know" and a few other odd phrases, like "to my way of thinking" and "after my reckoning" and "by my way of telling", permeate his speech these days. I blame Tolkien audiobooks.)
This statement, though it is delivered somewhat mournfully, is a big relief to my heart. I smile huge and hug him tight and tell him I'm very happy to hear this.
He decides to further explain why he rather likes his life, "I don't think I could have such a nice comforter as I have now. It's really warm and I like it a lot."
And, then there's the downside of death to consider (although this doesn't fully compute for me with idea of "waking up"), "It's kind of hard to imagine," he says, "forgetting everything and not being able to see or hear or anything. Really, I don't want to die ever."
He had a very nice birthday, although when MarMar asked if it feels different, being 7, he said it kind of did and that it is the reason he climbed the retaining wall at the school event last night. One of those that follows a hill, so it starts off a few inches above the ground and ends up over my head. With a tiny little ledge for your feet (except that it's not for your feet, because you're not supposed to be up there) and a chainlink fence, which serves the competing purposes of constantly pushing you towards the edge and being a good thing to hang on to. I was not pleased when I found him. But he and MarMar both point out that although he could have fallen, he didn't.
The party is coming up. Still a pinata to finish and a cake to bake, but that's how it goes.
I thought about writing about how we went to the other side of the lake to get two car loads of firewood this weekend. The kids helped a ton because they were having so much fun.
I thought about writing about trying to get Mr. P to finish up his math sheet (it wasn't technically homework, because it's work he was supposed to be doing in class but in class he was coloring his pants green with a marker, trying to make "a Smaug costume"). We did some modification of hopscotch, which he at least enjoyed. I don't know if the math concept got any traction, but the numbers got written down.
I thought about writing about reproductive rights. Have you read what is happening at the local and state level in this country?? It is HORRIFYING. (And it's been happening for a while, am I the only one that's been a little slow on the uptake? Why is this not a topic of discussion?) And yet I feel tongue-tied.
I've always been pro-choice, but abortion just isn't a comfortable topic. It's not something you bring up at the dinner table or on the playground. It's so personal, so emotional, we take it so seriously. And of course we do. I've got kids — miraculous entire human beings that were once invisibly small nausea-inducing indeterminate balls of cells burrowing into my uterus. Hey, you and I and everybody ever were once invisibly small nausea-inducing indeterminate balls of cells burrowing into someone's uterus! It's not like we can deny there's nothing at all there until some magic line of time... Where, after all, could such a magic line be? Conception? Implantation? 12 weeks? 20 weeks? There's got to be someone out there ridiculously horrible enough to say that every ovulation deserves a chance at fertilization. To which we should all cry, But what about all the dying sperm??!!?
Nature is so cruelly profligate, if you think about it. All this pain and striving and struggling and joy and every living thing constantly approaching death...
But all that, as important as it feels, is a bunch of smoke and noise that just distracts from the one thing that is crystal clear — if women do not have control over their reproductive lives, then they don't have control over their lives. And if we don't have control over our lives, we will never be fully equal citizens of the world.
Looks like I did more than think about writing about reproductive rights.
You'll be happy to know that I really did only think about writing about gun control.
Related, but a little less eww — I read an interesting thing this morning, on how porn makes people, even women, more sexist. (I only said a *little* less eww...) Even women with feminist values. I'd say it's probably not just porn, either. That book I still keep meaning to write about, Homeward Bound, paints a complex and slightly uncomfortable picture of the "movement" of women "taking back the home", which I am, somewhat uncomfortably, kind of a part of. I keep wanting to write about it, but it's complicated.
I've also been thinking about Harry Potter (it's hard not to, with the audio book filling many hours of the day in our house and car and occaisional snippets of the movies being watched with supervision; the movies are a huge disappointment when watched with the books fresh in mind, btw). The unfortunate thing is that although Rowling treats female characters vastly better than many of the male sci fi authors I've read, these books are not exactly a bastion of feminism. Mr. P himself said recently, "I've noticed there are lots of books about boys and not very many about girls." I said Laura! and, Hermione was important! But he has a point. The biggest-deal woman in the books is probably Professor McGonagle. But the good guy (Dumbledore), the bad guy (Voldemort), the tortored double-crosser-actually-in-the-end-good-guy-but-it's-complicated (Snape), the original good guy (Gryffindor), the original bad guy (Slytherin)... You get the picture. Most of the serious subjects are taught by men. The stupidest subject (Divination) is taught by a particularly dippy woman. People sometimes complain that although there are four school houses, named for the four founders of Hogwarts, only two seem to matter at all (Gryffindor and Slytherin). What I hadn't realized until our recent bought of all-things-Harry-Potter-all-the-time is that Gryffindor and Slytherin were men. Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, the apparent unnotables, were women.
Anyway, I was feeling sad and disappointed about all this but then I remembered the powerful thing that I do think Rowling got very very right. Do you remember Winky, the unhappily freed house elf? (She didn't make it into the movies, another strike against them.) House elves are bound by magic or evolution or simply psychology, we're never quite sure, to do exactly what their owners demand. Any attempt at disloyalty sends the disobedient elf into fits of physically harming themselves. No matter how horrible their masters are to them, the house elves are viciously loyal. We meet Winky after she's been freed (or "sacked", in her opinion) and she's so ashamed and miserable about it she can't even function. She finally makes a small show of backbone when she declares that she has not sunk so low as to accept wages for her work.
The whole house elf story line, and especially that scene with Winky, is quite the commentary on oppression and status quo and how the oppressed are usually somehow coopted by the status quo into helping to continue it. Whether you want to read it as a feminist allegory to balance out the standard heavy weighting of major characters to the masculine side or more simply as a comment on class, it's good stuff.
Finally, speaking of Britain and class, I've been really appreciating following A Girl Called Jack, she's got a cookbook coming out, which I can't wait to see, all recipes with a strict eye for budget (seems like she usually lists less than 2 pounds for 4 servings) because she started blogging about food when she was an unemployed single mother of a toddler, waiting for benefits that got hung up in the UK's welfare system. Now she's speaking out strongly against the austerity policies that have been so popular but really don't seem to be getting most people out of this bloody recession.
And speaking of that, Planet Money had a compelling segment on the origins and failings of the poverty line metric recently.
Mr. P has unbuckled himself while I am driving, so I deliver a stern speech threatening death in a car accident.
Mr. P: "But you never have an accident."
Shmoogie: (slightly tremulous) "I don't ever want to die!"
Mr. P: (excited) "You know, Shmoogie, if you never died, you would get to see what species comes next [after humans]!"
For the second time in as many weeks, I was in the car this afternoon blinking back tears. I could write it off as stress, end-of-semester and holiday, maybe one of those random hormonal fluctuations I love so much, maybe lack of exercise, maybe too many sweets, maybe lots of things. But what it feels like, mostly, is that five years ago was the last time my dad was alive at Christmas, which means that coming up in January is the fifth anniversary of his death, and it's not that I'm consciously thinking about five years and calendar dates, but the subconscious picks up the cues and goes where it will when it gets the chance.
Last week, it was a stupid schmaltzy Christmas song on the radio that I don't even care about and who knows why my subconscious does… but that's not the interesting part of the story.
Today is the interesting part of the story, because I was listening to On Being and Krista Tippett was interviewing Brene Brown, who did a TED talk on shame that I might have linked to a while back. I was listening to it because I was intrigued by the TED talk but felt like it was a little superficial and I thought maybe the full hour and the interview format of On Being would toss up more satisfying cud to chew on, for lack of a better metaphor.
It's a great interview and you should listen to the whole thing, really, and I don't say that lightly knowing how busy everyone is right now (but maybe you have some crafty things to get done and need a little piped-in company, not that that's what I use podcasts for or anything… there's a transcript, too, but I think you're missing a lot that way). Anyway, it covers a bunch of broad topics around the idea of shame and vulnerability and the research that Brown has done in that area, but what caught me up short was when she talked about why she started considering men in her research when she had been dealing for years with only women.
A man came up to her at a book signing and asked why didn't she talk about men and she said because she didn't study men and he said, "We have shame, we have deep shame, but when we reach out and tell our stories, we get the emotional [bleep] beat out of us. And before you say anything about those mean fathers and those coaches and those brothers and those bully friends, my wife and three daughters, the ones who you just signed the books for, they had rather see me die on top of my white horse than have to watch me fall off."
And a little bit later in the interview Brown says, "…for men, the perception of weakness is often very shaming and... one of the things that's interesting is, I talk to men and, you know, what I heard over and over was some variation of, look, my wife, my girlfriend, whomever, they say be afraid, they tell me, you know, share your vulnerability with me, open up, but the truth is, they can't stomach it."
Immediately, as I'm listening to this, the years are dialing back at lightning speed and I'm standing in the kitchen of my parents' house, a few years into official adulthood, and my dad is standing there, too, but looking small and huddled into the corner, and I've just been informed that he is seriously struggling with extreme anxiety. I could feel his fear and I could feel the shame that came with it and I didn't know what to say or do. I know I opened up about my own struggles with depression and anxiety, which it turned out I had hidden from my parents better than I realized, and I know that I wish now I had given him a really big hug but I don't know if I did or not. But whatever it is that I said and did or didn't do, I hope to God that, as imperfect as I know it was, I did not make him feel that I couldn't stomach it, that I would rather he die on top of his white horse than have to watch him fall off.
And I hope that he wouldn't mind me sharing this story. Actually, I can clearly imagine him chuckling and saying, "I'm dead! What do I care?" but you never quite know after a while if the loved one in your head matches the loved one who really was in every perfect detail. Still, I think even in life he would have been uncomfortable as hell about it, but might almost have said it was ok to post this anyway (especially if he knew he'd be dead!), because he was brave and he cared. And, probably because of that, his falls from the white horse in my eyes were never permanent, more like well-deserved dismounts for a little rest and recuperation. I hope he knew that, too.
I'm so exhausted from staying up late last night, but I want to take just a second (ok, an hour) to note the best things I've been reading today.
I know data mining has a mixed reputation, but the Time article today on the Obama campaign's masterful use of data and statistics is quite a read, if you haven't already seen it. I've also really enjoyed watching the nerdy portion of the Twitterverse cheering Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, who has stood calmly by his statistical poll-aggregating engines for months and came out with an essentially perfect call on all 50 states. Score for math, reason, science. (And worth noting that FiveThirtyEight deserves some credit for preventing a nervous breakdown in yours truly in recent weeks.) (Ok, I have to sneak in and add this response to a "humorous" tweet by David Frum, "Horrible possibility: if the geeks are right about Ohio, might they also be right about climate?" I was myself mulling that over last night, wondering if the idea might be dawning on some people. Math. Reason. Science. Too late?)
Bill McKibben's proposal that we start naming hurricanes after fossil feul companies and ThinkProgress's recap of five things we can now count on from Obamacare warmed my heart. So did the victory speech I stayed up ridiculously late to hear. And "Barack Obama and the Death of Normal" by David Simon is a symphony for the liberal soul.
When I needed calming reading material during the wait last night, I was comforted to have my spiritual reading group's current selection, "The Wisdom of No Escape" on hand. It's a short and wonderful book on the transcendent practice of loving-kindness.
For more on the spiritual grounding side of things, I listened to some of Krista Tippett's discussion with Pete Domenici and Alice Rivlin yesterday evening after polls had started closing but results weren't yet in and I was getting way too agitated. Krista Tippett is like an anti-agitation pill. I also felt enobled by Jonathan Haidt's piece in the NY Times this morning (which Tippett tweeted about, which is how I found it) on getting our own minds out of partisan gridlock. I had trouble explaining that one the first time I tried today... I think the point, for me, is that because we can easily get so tribalized about our politics, we would do well to seek out the glimmer of light in the opposition's most sacred worries, even if it's painful for us. Not that we have to agree, but that we would do well to recognize the worthy values at the core of their concerns.
It reminded me that a few weeks ago I was deeply moved by another Tippett conversation, with pro-choice activist Frances Kissling and pro-life activist David Gushee. I appreciated that Kissling was willing to say that the way the pro-choice movement has talked about the fetus has often been "crass", but she remains strong in her convictions and responded firmly to Gushee's leading question, "Is abortion empowering to women?" saying that "I would not say childbearing is necessarily empowering to women, either".
But voting in an election that crushed so many arrogant men with an utter lack of moral imagination when it comes to people different than themselves? I bet Kissling would agree with me that was pretty empowering.
We're three weeks into kindergarten now and, overall, things are going pretty well, but Mr. Pants does go a little crazy in the evenings. Predictable, really, and I try hard to be sympathetic (while also not, say, allowing him to beat up on his sister just because he's cranky) because, you know, he's in this very structured situation with very little say over what he's doing for six hours a day and he probably needs to blow off some steam once he's out of there.
But an interesting thing happened on Friday. He came home with some little stuffed animals that he'd gotten to choose "from the treasure box!" because he'd racked up 10 days of stars for good behavior. Boy, was he excited. Remember being a kid? A treasure box! You get to pick a toy!!! Awesome!!!!!!
So he was showing me his treasures and he was so happy and then after a little while his mood shifts and he starts to pout and he quietly says something about how he's scared that he won't always be able to be good because sometimes he feels like he wants to do something against the rules and he's afraid he won't always be able to make good choices.
And a little flashbulb goes off in my head, Oh!!!! He's not just "blowing off steam" because he's got excess energy after sitting still for awhile, he's anxious. Anxious about "being good".
(And then I'm kind of pissed off, because, you know, if there wasn't a treasure box and all this pressure to have 10 perfect days in a row, he'd probably be a little less fixated, but this is not really my point...)
So, then, on Saturday night we're reading before bed and now we've gotten to Little Town on the Prarie and Laura is 15 years old and her sister Mary is two years older and, by this point, blind from a bout of scarlet fever several years before. We're at the beginning of the book and the girls are going for a walk together and there's this astonishing moment where Laura tells Mary that she used to really hate her because she was always so good and Laura just never could be that good and it made her so mad she wanted to slap her. And Mary is upset, mostly because she's afraid that Laura still feels that way sometimes, but Laura says, no, no, you just seem to be good without trying now and it isn't annoying at all.
And then Mary admits that she deserved to be slapped back then because all she was doing was "showing off", being so impressed with herself for how good she could be.
And what had changed, Laura wants to know?
First, Mary quotes the Bible, that "we are all desperately wicked" and then she says, "But that's not the point... I don't believe we ought to think so much about ourselves, about whether we are bad or good... — it isn't so much thinking as — as just knowing. Just being sure of the goodness of God."
And I'm reading this to Mr. Pants, thinking up to this point, oh, how lovely is this little vignette of two sisters reconciling and clearing the air of their younger quarrels; maybe this will help him somehow, and then we get to this and Mary's words hit me. "I don't believe we ought to think so much about ourselves."
Because, really, how much effort do I spend worrying about whether I am bad or good? About whether this purchase, that meal choice, this babysitting arrangement, that school, this career, that hobby is good or bad or good enough or at least not too bad? Too much, even if I do try so hard to avoid "showing off" about it.
Clearly, there are choices that good and bad and better or worse and it matters, but nothing is perfect and the world is so complex that we would have to be God Himself to see every last ramification of any one of our decisions. And thinking too much about myself, about whether I am "bad" or "good", sure does make me cranky after a while (or — for shame! — self-righteous), which really gets in the way of what I know is the higher calling, being sure of goodness and, maybe simply as a side effect, being a blessing to those around me.
Because I am, yes, "desperately wicked". But studying my own accounting book, however subconciously or surreptitiously, trying to make sure the "good" marks outnumber the "bad" ones can't fix that or help much of anything else, although I think most of us hope or think or wish sometimes that it could.
Hitting "post" before I lose my nerve.... Happy Monday!
Honor! What a glorious word!
Or, maybe not so much.
This is a theme that's shown up in several books I've read recently, including Better Angels, that a "culture of honor" is actually a really damaging thing. Take offense easily, take it personally... run a much higher risk of violence.
Pinker (Better Angels author) talks at length about dueling, which used to be quite common and taken very seriously, but in a matter of a generation or so became the object of ridicule and then quickly disappeared.
(As an aside, the ridicule-leads-to-vanishing idea has me thinking a LOT. Is that the problem with climate change? Just think about who has the ridicule advantage there. The other side is so unstintingly EARNEST. Not that earnestness is always a bad thing. I'm much better at being earnest than at being humorous, myself, but this does have me thinking...)
Anyway, I'm thinking about the news last week, the assumption in the media that "of course" an insult to Islam will lead to violence. Of course? Surely Colbert isn't the only one capable of pointing out (with humor!) that plenty of people respond to insults with something ranging from indifference to disgust to anger, but that doesn't mean other people die.
The violent defense of honor, Pinker says, is going the way of witch hunts. Good riddance.
I think I'm finally coming out of the gloom I couldn't quite shake while reading (listening to) The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Not that the thesis was depressing! Far from it! Hugely optimistic thesis!
But, as the author states as part of his powerful conclusion, "In writing this book I have adopted a voice that is analytic, and at times irreverent, because I believe the topic has inspired too much piety and not enough understanding. But at no point have I been unaware of the reality behind the numbers. To review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the cruelty and waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust, and immeasurable sadness."
In a book about violence, even if it is about the shockingly successful reduction in violence that has been achieved in the past 1000+ years of human history, there is a whole lot of violence to consider.
It clings to you for a while, like the smell of rot.
But it's been a few weeks since I listened to the final chapter and finally the miasma has mostly lifted and I the optimism is shining through!
No post could do this book justice, but I have so many thoughts about it, thoughts that keep emerging and recombining and evolving as I hear the news and consider the election and watch my children fighting, playing, forgiving, and clinging to their grudges.
My point is, my thoughts are going to have to come out in dribs and drabs. They would anyway, but it's nice to have the excuse of being busy with school. ;)
For today, I just want to see how succinctly I can state the main ideas:
Just for fun, as a haiku:
Violence shrinks away,
praise reason, novels, justice,
men no longer duel!
I stopped worrying too much about global warming a few years ago because it seemed like finally everyone was worrying about it and therefore something was going to be done about it and therefore I didn't need to worry. It kind of fell out of the news there for a while, too, and there were terrorists and wars to worry about and I had real life to worry about. I figured the scientists had global warming covered and the politicians were coming around and everything was going to be fine.
But Bill McKibben's recent article, Global Warming's Terrifying New Math, scared me. And pissed me off. How dare he write 5 pages of words and numbers that are supposed to add up to "The sky is falling! Do something!" but not include a single informative graphic? The article is trying to be terrifying but ends up being stupifying. People — real people with jobs and kids and lives to deal with — cannot read that crap and get anything meaningful out of it.
Do you know the story of the Challenger launch? Not the one where it blew up and everyone was shocked. No. I mean the one where the engineers knew the very cold temperatures that day were going to make the launch a catastrophe but couldn't explain that clearly enough to the people who could have stopped it.
And that's the problem with climate change. Honestly curious, because I'm not a climate scientist and I've pretty much always just accepted "global warming is scary!" because that's the message I've gotten my whole life, I went googling for some basic information after reading McKibben's article. I figured it's such a big deal and so many people have been so concerned about communicating it for so long that there have to be some really great infographics and stuff out there.
But no. Most of what I found was either extremely vague pronouncements in the media, or super technical stuff with lots of numbers and chemistry lessons and caveats. Numbers are thrown around that are meaningless to me and to most other normal people. Billions of metric tons. Parts per million. One hundred thousand years. Two degrees celsius.
And THERE's the other problem. Two degrees? Wait, I understand two degrees! Two degrees is nothing! Even if two degrees celsius is 3.4 degrees fahrenheit... I mean, I've fought over a 2 degree difference on the thermostat, but it's still hard to get too freaked out by 2 measely little degrees, right?
But it turns out, two degrees (we're already about half way there, by the way) is quite a lot when we're talking about long term shifts in the global average temperature instead of daily shifts in the temperature of a living room.
One or two degrees, according to NASA, defined the Little Ice Age! Just one or two degrees and glaciers were shoving Swiss farmers off their land, New York Harbor was freezing solid, and crops were failing, killing a tenth of the population in European countries through starvation. (thanks, Wikipedia)
And there's plenty of reason to think that we'll be up more than 2 degrees by the end of this century. I won't be here, but my kids might. And I hope their kids will be.
So, two degrees is actually a big f-ing deal.
But let's not leave it at that. Let's take just a minute to look into the parts-per-million thing and the gigatons of carbon dioxide thing, since I went to all the trouble of filtering this stuff out of the Internet and firing up my calculator.
First of all, the most shocking news in the McKibben article comes from a recent report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative, which looks at the oil and coal industries from the dispassionate perspective of investment banking. Let's look at how much coal and oil and gas is on the books, ready to be dug or sucked out of the ground, they say. And let's see how that compares to how much we can stand to burn before the world becomes something utterly different.
Oh, yes, let's. See, there's this number that people have come up with. That number is 565 gigatons. Supposedly, we can pump another 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and still have some hope of staying within 2 degrees of change.
But, get this. The various coal, oil, and gas producers have already found and accounted for 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide. It's worth $27 billion to them and that's what the Carbon Tracker Initiative is concerned about because that's a lot of money being counted before it's made off of burning a lot of stuff that we can't actually burn because...
Well. What the heck is a gigaton??? Giga sounds big. Ton sounds heavy. But carbon dioxide sounds light. Invisible. Hardly measurable. Right?
Ok, but it turns out it isn't that complicated, afterall. The atmosphere is made up of a bunch of different gases (I'm partial to oxygen, myself) and gases are made up of molecules and — guess what! — you can count molecules. So we can measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that way. Corral a million molecules of air and count how many of them are carbon dioxide molecules.
And here, thankfully, the numbers become nice and normal again, something you can actually wrap your head around. Because for the past 100,000 years, which is quite a bit longer than the entire existence of humans (I always have to look that up), the atmosphere has been between 270 and 290 ppm carbon dioxide (that's "parts per million", meaning 270 to 290 carbon dioxide molecules in every hunk of a million random molecules).
Until the Industrial Revolution started. Since then, we've burned a lot of carbon and that's put a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Woah. I was pretty shocked to find that. You mean, the entire existence of humankind we've been at 270 to 290 and now we're at 394??? That sounds like an awfully big change already. That sounds kind of scary.
So, what about the 565 Gigatons they say we can still put into the air?
That would be 745.
Humans have only ever lived with 270 to 290 and now we're well on our way to 459? And somebody's already counted the $27 billion they're going to make by pushing us to 745?
I'm not a scientist. But those are numbers I can wrap my head around. Those are numbers most of us can wrap our heads around, I'd say. So, scientists, stop confusing us with gigatons and stop trying to scare us with 2 silly little degrees, and start showing us 270 climbing to 394, heading for 459 and threatening 745. Maybe something like this:
You know the craziest thing? According to an investment analyst, the coal and oil and gas companies are still spending $100 billion dollars a year looking for more. How about for starters we make that stop? How far to a wind, solar, geothermal future would $100 billion dollars a year get us?