Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Small World Stories Website....Is there A Good Political Reason to Support It?

All names have been changed.


When I was 13 years old, my piano teacher encouraged me to join a jazz band at the Bloomingdale House of Music. The bass player who I will call George (names are all changed to protect the innocent) and I were kidding around. I thought he was cute. George thought he was cute, too. One day I was talking to a friend of mine from school talking about this very cute boy.
"George Jenson?" Gloria asked.
"I think so," I said. I mean, I was 13. We were introduced with last names when I joined the band, but I didn't really pay attention to them.
"Is he kind of built, but not too much?"
"Uh-huh."
"Next week, ask him if he went to Camp Kimpel."

Of course next week I would learn that he *did* go to Camp Kimpel, and he knew my friend Gloria, and we thought that was very funny.
"It's a small world," my mother told me, when I told her about it later that day.


As I grew older, the small world stories in my life started to flourish; somedays it seemed like EVERYONE knew one another somehow. One boyfriend from my sleepaway camp went to the same synagogue, and was in the same Hebrew Youth Group, as Gloria. Gloria would later go to college with ANOTHER boyfriend from the same sleepaway camp.


The small world stories fascinated me because they suggested that we were all connected; another friend once stipulated that they really showed that there were no more than 5 thousand people in the world, all of whom were connected to one another in three or more ways. If you couldn't find at *least* three connections, the person probably was just a bad special effect created by Universal.

My mother loved these stories, too. I suppose the stories verified that we had found our people; sometimes it's hard in New York City to feel like you belong. When people you know from different areas of your life know each other, it makes you feel like you're finding your own.

My husband Fred and I met at work, which probably isn't how you're supposed to meet people, but the rules don't always apply in New York. While we were working together, but before we started seeing each other, I learned that Lola, one of my parents' neighbors, a woman I used to catsit for in high school, also knew Fred -- from the New Music Scene in New York in the early 80s. Also one of my father's coworkers was married to one of Fred's old college friends.
After Fred and I became a couple, we learned that one of my mother's coworkers had gone to college with Fred. At one of Mom's birthday parties, we ran into yet another connection when a woman cried out, "Fred! What are you doing here?"
Fred introduced me to terry, and explained that we had been involved for 3 years. Lisa had been in No More Nice Girls, a pro-choice zap-action group that Mom and a bunch of her friends started in 1976, in response to the Hyde Amendment. Terry had been on of Rodney's girl-friends; probably where Fred met Lola was through Rodney, too.

Rodney was getting his Doctorate in ethnomusicology in New York in the 80s. My piano teacher, Julia, was too. They may know each other, since they both teach in a relatively small field. But Rodney lives in Arkansas and I haven't communicated much with Julia since I stopped taking piano lessons in 1987, and there is no real way to verify whether they do or not.

See, when we talk about how everyone's really connected, what we never really get is that we're all in this together. The Ego in the White House encourages people to ignore that, but if the world goes to hell, we're all going with it. I think the small world stories can show that we all have common interests; like wanting our children to be able to drink clean water that comes out of a tap.
Maybe if we can see how we're all connected to one another -- not how we can all get to this or that famous person; trust me, if you know ANYONE who has tried to be on the stage or in film, you are 2 degrees from somebody who has been on Law & Order, and then you are no more than 4 degrees from almost everyone -- but that we are a few steps from the homeless guy who is camped out by Starbucks on 37th avenue in Jackson Heights.

Fifteen years ago there was a homeless guy named Larry in Richmond Hill, where I worked. He was a drunk, and we knew him by name. So did the police department, as the drunk's brother was a police officer, and we're not sure how Larry fell so far, but he did. I know that alcoholism drives people apart, and it's scary to know that someone could fall so far.

When I was in high school, a classmate who volunteered with a homeless shelter used to say that any of us could become homeless. I recognized that that was almost true; most of us could, but it would take longer for us to become homeless than others.
We were amused when Gina one of my friends from high school hailed a cab, and the cab driver said,
"You're wearing a Columbia Prep jacket. Tell me, does Mr. Grable still work there?" The next week Gina asked Mr. Gatch about this man. Mr. Grable recognized the driver's name.
"I guess he's still trying to make it in theater," Mr. Grable said. "He was pretty good at it. Good to know he's doing something."

You are three degrees from the panhandler whose glare you avoid. Not just because he's been walking the C train for a few years and everyone on your commute knows him, but because his older brother did go to City College, and was the favorite of a professor there, who is in my mother's Writers' Group.
Perhaps I made that up; Doesn't mean it's not possible.

So my mother, my uncle and I are going to start a Small World Stories website just to show how closely connected we really are. Perhaps we let socially constructed barriers -- class mostly -- separate us, but we shouldn't. The world's population is all in this together, and we all love our children. Ideology shouldn't come before family (it has, but only in extreme times). Please, tell how guy died from an overdose near my elementary school, dying in plain sight for everyone who was going to school the next morning to see, had dropped out of MIT when the voices in his head became too much. Let me tell you about the woman who thanked me for finding books to help with her depression left me a $100 tip (she wrote a card and slipped some money in it before giving it to a coworker), so you can tell me she was your aunt's neighbor.

And perhaps I don't want to know that the waiter who got my order wrong at the diner, who I complained about because I was running late that day, went home and took it out on his wife, who turned to Legal Services (where your uncle works) and while his wife got away safely, I started something I really didn't intend to.

I think those of us who disagree vehemently with one another need to find some common ground. There have to be some things we agree on, and if we can just start seeing what we have in common, instead of sitting across the ideological spectrum, arms crossed, glaring at one another, perhaps it's a place to start.

Except, of course, for the Nazis. They can go fuck themselves.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

What "not all white people" must sound like....from a woman who just heard "not all men."

Privilege is supposed to be invisible, or at least discrete. If privilege were obvious, people would rail about it more. Older children have more privileges than younger children, and younger children resent this. Younger children are told "when you get older, you'll be able to do that, too," because that's supposed to make it better.

I'm guessing a bit about that one, having been an only child.

I'm pissed off because I was reading "Men Explain Things To Me," by Rebecca Solnit and remembering every time a man where I worked "mansplained" technology to me. Remembering with a certain vitriol when a certain gentleman approached the Reference Desk where I was working and told me "Gmail isn't working."
"Yes it is," I told him. I did not tell him that I was on my Gmail account at the moment (which is why I knew there was nothing wrong with Gmail).
"Well, then there's something wrong with my computer," he told me. "I need to switch computers."
There's nothing wrong with his computer, I'm sure of this. I also don't like being talked so abruptly, but I say,
"Let me see what's going on on your computer," get up, and follow him to his computer.
He is typing in gmail.com in the address bar. He's getting an error message.
"See?" He glares at me, "there's something wrong with this computer. Other people can access their Gmail."
"Try typing in http://www.gmail.com," I tell him. "See if that works."
"I don't have to type that in at home," he tells me.
"You're not at home," I say. "Try it."
He glares at me as he sits down and does what I tell him. It works. He ignores me from the on and forgets to say thank you. I don't know how to tell him our ISP doesn't do his thinking for him without sounding insulting, nor do I feel like picking a fight with a strange man, so I walk away.
I sit back down at the Reference Desk and am looking at a list of Adult Fiction books we could order, when the gentleman returns.
"Now Facebook isn't working." He tells me. I follow him back to his seat and discover that this gentleman couldn't not make the cognitive leap that if typing "gmail.com" into the address bar doesn't work, but typing "http://www.gmail.com" does work, then perhaps, if typing "facebook.com" doesn't work, perhaps typing "http://www.facebook.com" will. He glares at me again.

Some of these customers perhaps are yanking my chain, but this customer looked really indignant when I told him the computer program was working when it wasn't and I am certain that if he'd been talking to a man, the random male customer would have been more respectful. And I get more annoyed just thinking about it.

So when my husband comes over and asks what I'm thinking about, I tell him, remembering this story and a few others.
"Not all men do that," he interrupts me, mid rant.
I stare at him. "Only men behave like this," I explain.
"Not all men," he repeats.
I try to figure out what he's disagreeing with me about and he says, "I'll just get up and go into the other room until you've calmed down," and leaves for the bedroom (which has better air conditioning anyway.)
This is not a way to calm down an angry woman.
I think about following him and continuing the fight, because right now I feel like he's defending the assholes who come to my branch. And I know that sometimes he thinks that all the random customers are doing is pissing off a random person because they can, and "because upsetting you IS the high point of his day," Richard has told me.

That may be true. That's not quite was I was talking about.

And I'm not going to rehash the rest of the discussion. You don't care. What's important is the epiphany I had about it several months later.

I am a white person. I have been reading essays complaining about what white people do, about the white privilege that we get and aren't even aware of, but I don't think I really understood the anger until I heard the man I love say "not all men."
I get to live in a society where an unfair proportion of opportunities and rights are given to me and I accept it. I enjoy those privileges while I know that other people don't, and while I fight against the discrimination in theory, you still benefit from the system.
But people expect credit being aware that the system is biased TOWARD them.
My husband has never been sexually harassed on the street. He's certainly never been told "you were dressing like that what did you expect?" like I have (only twice, it's true, but still). He doesn't know the shit women go through because he can't, but he benefits from a system that doesn't penalize men for being assholes.
And he wants credit for knowing that he benefits from it, and he's not an asshole. Isn't that enough?
When I'm angry, it's not enough. It's not sympathetic. It's not meaningful.

Just saying "I'm not an asshole, don't blame me," isn't an acceptable answer. Don't give it.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

our neighbors....the people in A Big City

People come to New York for lots of reasons, but some of us were just fortunate enough to have been born here.

All the stories about how we don't really know each other are true, though. We have distinct means of keeping a distance from one another because it's what we do, or perhaps it's just what I do. I work with people, but I don't really know them. And perhaps I should try harder to get to know them (a former coworker pointed out that our coworkers ARE our families, because we spend much more time with them than we do with our actual families, when you take into consideration that we all SLEEP, too), but what I'm concerned with is the people you know in passing. There are half a dozen people who come to the public library where I work regularly whom I feel I know; they know something about my life, and I know something about theirs, and we see each other rather regularly.
Until we don't.
And we don't know when we stop seeing them, exactly, because our interactions have always been casual. They are like the people I know from the gym, and we smile at each other, but it never goes any further than that.
And then they disappear.
Or perhaps I'm being overly dramatic. I realize I haven't seen somebody for a few weeks and that's fine. People go away. People travel.

None of these people are answerable to me, but I realize I have no way of knowing what happened to them. Their families don't know *me*. Perhaps their families know that the library is important to them, but that's not a reason to contact the library when their aunt gets sick, is it?
When the aunt dies?

3 years ago I learned that a friend had died. Somebody on Facebook had initiated communication with me (send me an unsolicited message) asking "I see you're friends with Jill. I haven't heard from her in a few weeks and that's very unlike her. Do you know if anything has happened to her?"
I did not know. I did know that Jill hadn't talked to me in over a year and a half, really. We'd had a disagreement a year earlier when she'd asked me "have you wept for your grandfather?" in an overly sympathetic tone and I'd felt that Jill wasn't willing to share my pain, but rather wanted to know that somebody else felt just as sad as she did. Except Jill was miserable about EVERYTHING, and I had a few things that were a little upsetting. Attending my grandfather's memorial was more upsetting than his actual death. When a 95 year old dies, it's not exactly a tragedy, nor is it a surprise. I wanted to have room to be upset about family dramas that were working out, not drown in sorrow over a not unexpected death.
But I don't know Jill anymore, and when her depression took over, she would not allow me to be her friend. I could only be a chorus to her misery.

I told this stranger as much, and did not hear from her again.
When I learned from a former Professor that Jill had died, I reached out to the stranger on Facebook. It turned out Jill's brother had contacted her to say that Jill had died. The stranger on Facebook thought it wasn't her news to tell, so she didn't contact me.

We don't know each other. Why should we contact strangers only to give them bad news?
The World Wide Web is a great thing, in some ways; social media makes it easier to keep in contact with people cheaply. Email is marvelous, but it also allows us to believe we know people who share a few opinions or experiences with us, and cover the fact that we don't really know them at all. Facebook allows us to share opinions and keep up to date with each other. It also gives us a myriad of opportunities to deliberately misunderstand each other, speak without thinking of how what we're saying might be misinterpreted, and because we are NOT in front of each other, it gives us many other opportunities to fail to communicate and to hurt one another's feelings.
Facebook also us to meet people outside our circle and find what we have in common with people we might not otherwise see, but more likely it allows us to continue our little circles of people who agree with us. Unfriend the people who piss you off, because arguments on social media usually slide into flame wars remarkably quickly.
Facebook is like the big city. People wander in and out of your circles and you think you know them, but you don't. I see some people on the subway regularly. A friend from Texas once asked why I didn't interact with these people more. Because I don't know them and the fact that we share a subway line in our commute means next to nothing. If we were reading similar books AND taking the same subway line, that would be different.
Facebook is just another big city and we don't know each other and perhaps we should treat people we barely know in real life as though we barely know them on Facebook.

Particularly when they piss us off.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

a fairy story

We'd bought cake because we'd remembered it was momma's birthday next week and we wanted to get something to celebrate it. WE'd bought cake now because we had the money now and we were that we couldn't find someplace to hide it or keep ourselves from spending it and Kelly had proven that we couldn't save for shit.

No, I didn't mean that, but Daddy always said that money was like water, it'd flow through your hands if you're not careful and while Momma said that was why we had banks, as buckets to hide the money, and it earned interest there besides, and Daddy just made a face and said something about how he didn't think the bank charging him fees should be paying his wife interest, and then voices were raised, mean thing were said and doors slammed. Daddy didn't come round much anymore, but we hadn't bothered thinking of any of that when we asked the little girl for her money.
She was walking down the streets, and she looked nervous and we knew she had some. We'd seen her before going out to get ice cream, and we didn't think she'd ever noticed us.
She did just hand it over, though. Didn't ask questions. Didn't say "no!" Just "OK" and handed it over like it meant nothing to her. We didn't even want that much, just a few dollars to play video games with and split a donut.

"No, we don't need it all. Take this back," I said, because this was more than we could spend at the arcade before momma got home, expecting us to have dinner reading and on the table.
It spelled like spring. There was a sign for a fair behind us, and Kelly nudged my kidney, and said, "that'll be fine," and we took off.
I looked behind us. The girl just stood there for a moment and kept walking. Didn't cry or anything.

There were two cops on the corner, the opposite side of the street. I stared at them, fingering their night sticks. "Stop it! They're not looking at you!" Kelly whispered, as he took the money and pushed it into an envelope.
"Where'd you get that?" I asked. I'd never seen money in an envelope before.
"Mrs. Jones gave it to me for the permission slip for the trip. I thought it might come in handy, so I slipped it into my notebook. Stop staring at the cops. They don't know what we've done."
The cops weren't even looking at us. It was 1981 and they had bigger fish to fry; the "broken window" policy hadn't been dreamed up. These dudes were looking for actual criminals.

"She gave us $23!" Kelly whispered.
"Shit! What we gonna do with that? Momma'll know for sure"
"Wait! Didn't she tell us to get dinner going? She's working late tonight that's why we were out on our own. We could buy food with this!" Kelly's bright idea.
"Nothing too fancy," I warned. "I mean, if we go overboard,"
"Will you stop worrying? I say we can buy dinner!"
There was a bakery next to the Chinese restaurant. We stared into the window sometimes.
The man at the Chinese restaurant asked what we wanted. We looked at the menu, and figured we could get dumplings, beef with broccoli and that General chicken that Mom liked. We'd still have $12 left, and that was too much money to be caught with.

Passing the bakery again, Kelly said,
"We found a twenty dollar bill,"
"Who'd lose a twenty! Momma'll never believe that." I argued.
"Lots of people. Hell you mighta dropped it, running away from the cops like that," I fumed. I hadn't run from the cops. We hadn't even *seen* the cops when we were running, and when we DID see the cops we just kept real still. "But we found 20 dollars and decided to get dinner. Then we remembered her birthday is next week and I didn't think we could keep the money safe, so we'll buy her a cake."
"Can't keep the money safe. You mean, you think I'd spend it." Kelly always had to be the sensible one in his stories.
"You want to say that it was your idea? You think Momma will care which one of us bought her a birthday cake?"
I stared at him in awe.
"That way she can't ask where we got it and it leave $3 for later!"

The cakes in the bakery were amazing. All kinds. Kelly remarked that Momma didn't like chocolate frosting, but then I said, "it's our Mom's birthday next week!" and the lady said, "Then I'll have to show you our birthday cakes," and took us over to a different counter.

We got momma a cherry cake with black frosting that said, "Happy birthday Mom!" and hid it in the refrigerator when we got home.


Momma got home about 20 minutes later and took one look at the carefully set dinner table, with the food laid out, and shook her head.
"I probably don't want to know what you boys did today. No, I probably don't," and sat down to eat.

She loved the birthday cake, though.

Metaphors

It's always darkest before the dawn is a great cliche because it reminds us that things always look at their worst before they get better. But isn't that kind of obvious? When things start getting better, than they clearly have gotten to be as bad as they are going to get NOW, this time. They will start getting bad again later, but right now this is the worst it's gotten.

And the night doesn't actually get darker. Once it's night, it's dark. Unless you're in a city that knows how to burn bulbs, in which case the evening begins to look like a nite brite toy from the 70s.

I prefer to think of the day being an injury to the night. Our language backs me up. Day breaks. Yes, night falls, but it heals and cools the earth after the day has heated it up. The horizon looks like an injury at both ends of the day. The sun rises and burns red over our earth Eastward. When the sun sets over the West, the horizon burns red again, as a dark cover of night tries to cover it, and cool the earth from the damage we have done.

We act in daylight, where we can see what we're doing and we are culpable, people can tell what we're doing. What we do in the daylight is meant to be seen, we save criminal activity for night.
That is not true, of course, but right now I'm just following metaphors around trying to figure out why we think the way we do.
I was reading a book and grown women were referred to as "girls;" the novel was written in the 60s and that WAS how a grown man might have thought about two women who were older than he was. The women were childlike. He was a man. That doesn't happen much anymore. Yes, of course some men refer to women as girls, but not all men, and certainly not like they did in 1962.

Hope springs eternal; I'm not going to list all the ways that it feels like the Ego "taking our country back" is turning into this country going backwards. We all live here, and we all live here now. But I do want us to think about how he's mangling the language so we can use it properly against him. Language shapes the way we speak, of course, but also changes the way we think, because we get comfortable with certain means of expression. It's important to notice when those means of expression change and why.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Way too personal

Dear Mom,

I'm not sure how to write this, but I'm sorry if I was difficult. My father's love, no his adoration, of me was something I got used to. I was accustomed to, and when you seemed to want more from me, I didn't know what it was or how to give it to you.
No, that's not right, either. I knew that you expected more and I wasn't sure why. Dad seemed to understand and was happy with less, and I was OK with that. At 14 I didn't understand that you wanted the child I was before the head injury back, because I didn't really understand who that was.
I knew I was smart. I'd always known that. I even knew I was smart after the head injury that left me comatose for ten days. At 11 years old, I knew I was smart. I was still reading hard books, or trying to. I was still good at math. I was still ME, I was just me with a lot more growing up to do.
This might be seen by people who don't know me. By people who don't know that I taught myself to read when I was three. People who don't know how much I might have lost. If you, reader, are already tired of listening to me, click the back button. You don't know me, and you don't know what I put my parents through.
Because Dad wasn't sure what to expect, because he was sure this was going to be awful, that any recovery was just going to be impossible, that if I was LUCKY I might still have lists in the bathroom of what to do in the morning, and what to do in the evening, it was easier to live up to his expectations. He knew that this was going to be bad, and he wanted to prepare me for that.
Perhaps he didn't even understand the preparation for college that you were looking forward to. The seeing ALL the places around the country where I might discover who I was meant to be. And you wanted me to want that, to want to see the rest of the world.
I'm not being too hard on you. You wanted me to have the opportunities that I might have had if I had not stepped out into the street at the wrong moment, if I had not gotten in the way of an automobile. If I had not spent 10 days in a coma a month before my eleventh birthday. Mom, you wanted me to have options.
Dad wanted me to get well, too, but he was used to adjusting expectations, and moving them down, I think.
We can't ask him now, at any rate.
But I'm sorry that I didn't understand that by setting standards you wanted me to know that I could reach them. That by asking me what I learned in school, that you wanted to engage me in school. You wanted me to have the life that perhaps I could no longer see an an option.
And to thank you, I became more closer to the parent who asked less of me. Who was willing to settle at a lower point, but was perfectly happy with the results in the end.
That was exceptionally not fair to you. And I'm sorry.

And perhaps I am being too hard on myself, too.

Friday, July 7, 2017

What Privilege Looks Like

She came into my branch, no she came to the branch where I work, for an meeting.
"How are things going?" She asked, pleasantly. We had always gotten along, and I felt this administrator was in my corner.
"Things are OK, if you can ignore what Trump is doing in the White House," I tried to say, but as soon as I said "doing" she cut me off.
"I don't talk politics," she said primly, as though reminding me to chew with my mouth closed, and I stared at her.

A few seconds passed of silence.
"Things are fine," I told her.
"Good," she replied.

The event went as planned, and the woman said goodbye to me before she went back to her home office, but I had a bad taste in my mouth.
Not discussing politics is probably a good idea when you work with the public (as I do) because we have to help everyone who comes into our building and we never want to give the impression that our collections were chosen because of politics, or we help people because of our politics. Being viewed as a safe space is crucial to my organization, and we work to preserve that, but doesn't that mean that some element of politics shines through?

Being able to say "I don't talk politics," primly is a way of saying "this is not an appropriate forum," or it's a way of saying "we know that we don't rock the boat."
Perhaps I'm wrong, because my organization depends upon political goodwill. We need the funding from government officials, and this coworker knows that. When an earlier administrator tried to rely more on private funding he did not get support from the employees or administrators, but I still feel that saying "I don't talk politics" is an exercise of privilege because you can decide that politics are not important to you.
But you're just fooling yourself. Of course politics are important.

Black Lives Matter. There is no Planet B. We're all in this together, damn it.
The ability to choose what you care about it, or decide that "those issues don't affect me," is privilege. It's the same thing that leads most of us to think that the wealthy are just planning to buy their own new planet when we've destroyed Planet Earth beyond repair. They'll do the same damage to the next planet, too. Because some amount of privilege allows you to not need to learn from your mistakes.
The Ego in the White House is all about doing deals and not worrying about politics, because he thinks it doesn't matter. It does matter.