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.