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Archive for the ‘Morality’ Category

Happiness Is More Than a Rolls Royce

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

As I ushered the little boys (as JDP and SSP have been termed in our family) out onto the church playground after collecting them from the nursery we approached two much older boys (probably nine or ten) who were playing some sort of game with a disconnected tether ball.  While we waited briefly for a break in their game to walk through I heard Boy #1 say to Boy #2, “You can be a skin doctor, or you can be a heart doctor.  You make a lot of money as a heart doctor.  You can buy a Rolls Royce if you’re a heart doctor.”  I cringed when I heard it and we quickly traipsed through their game. 

I find it sad to hear grade school kids already vying for careers that will put them in a particular tax bracket.  And yet, I know that by age ten I was well aware of who had money, who didn’t, and how its presence or lack thereof shook out in the playground pecking order.  So I don’t suppose I should have been surprised that these two boys (one of whose father is in fact a physician) would be just as aware of it as I was at the same age.  Money is an easy way for kids to measure the merits of a career.  Things like whether a job is engaging, challenging, rewarding, satisfying, or meaningful to the greater good are much harder to evaluate for yourself and to communicate to other people.  It’s much simpler just to make a lot of money and drive around in your Rolls Royce, isn’t it?

I thought about this moment again yesterday morning as my buddies at NPR told me that there is now a course in China for the offspring of billionaires and other very wealthy parents.  It is run by China Britain Financial Education, has been dubbed a “mini-MBA” and focuses on teaching these kids – who will likely never have to work – how to do things like raise money for charity.*  These children are clearly very aware of their privileged circumstances, as evidenced by one girl’s response to the question of what her ideal future would be.  She responded, “I want to become a princess. I want to have a castle, and I will have lots of servants. I won’t do anything, because I’ve got lots of money, so I just buy whatever I want.”

The NPR piece goes on to explain that large scale wealth (China now has the world’s second-highest number of billionaires after the U.S.) is a relatively new phenomenon, and that the incredible focus on money (described as the “be all and end all in modern day China”) has created something of a morality vacuum which is present at all points along the socioeconomic spectrum.    Paul Huang, head of R&D at China Britain Financial Education comments that “For the wealthy family, their problem is they don’t know and don’t care where money comes from, and they spend money in a disgusting way to other people.  For children from poor families, when they grow up, they try to do anything to get money. They don’t think it’s right or wrong. That’s another problem.” 

Presumably if you’re reading this blog you’re an adult.  And if you’re adult you probably know someone who is wealthy and miserable.  You probably also know someone who is scraping by and yet lives a full and happy life.  If you’re an adult you probably know well enough that money is not a one-way ticket to happiness.  I do not begin to deny that money can accomplish all sorts of wonderful things.  It can eliminate the incredible stress brought on by things like unpaid bills, cars that break down, lack of health insurance, or untended home repairs.  It can also add immense pleasure to life by enabling things like vacations, date nights, pedicures, or a new tube of lipstick even though you don’t need it.  So yes, money is certainly a big contributor to happiness.  But it is only one component of a happy life.  Other factors include meaningful work, physical health, satisfying friendships, a strong support network, and enriching interests and hobbies.  In actuality, this is a much taller order than mere wealth.   Kids don’t see that, though.  They see castles and servants and Rolls Royces. 

I would be lying if I said that earning potential wasn’t a factor in my choice of career.  (If it weren’t I’d probably be a horse trainer of some kind.)  But it wasn’t the only factor.  I also wanted a career that would allow me to help people in some way.  I wanted a career that would be intellectually stimulating.  And I wanted a career that would be compatible with my family life.  I have a career that meets all of those needs and I am grateful that I wake up every day in a life that makes me very happy.  I wouldn’t take a Rolls Royce today if one were parked in my driveway because I couldn’t fit all of my kids in it.    

Back to the boys on the church playground.  Someday my boys will be in that same position, bouncing a ball on a playground and puffing up their little chests about what they want to be when they grow up.  Right now they are four, two, and one.  The little boys have no concept of money whatsoever.  IEP’s conception of it is vague at best.  But I know that window is closing, and probably by first grade he will be well aware of the markers of money.  And when that day comes I will work to impart upon him (and the little boys in time) that money is just money, and the only thing that matters is what you do with it.  By and large, you will be happy when you decide to be, not when you have a Rolls Royce. 

*The great irony of this is, of course, that it bears absolutely no resemblance, even on a kiddie scale, to an actual MBA.

An Especially Tricky Topic

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Once again, this is the week of touchy topics here at TDT.  For my earlier disclaimer on the matter, click here.

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There’s a great bit in an Eddie Izzard standup routine.*  I’m paraphrasing here, but he says, “The National Rifle Association says that, ‘Guns don’t kill people – people do.’  But I think the gun helps.  I think just standing there going, ‘BANG’ isn’t going to kill too many people.”  And if we’re going to grossly oversimplify things, it’s a pretty good summary of how I feel about gun control.

That said, I understand that if we’re going to address the issue in any kind of a meaningful way we can’t afford to oversimplify things.  This is not a simple problem.  But it is a huge problem.  It is a huge problem that is mired in all sorts of political and emotional complications.  This makes it an especially tricky topic to broach even in the most civilized of forums.  Unfornately, these days our national conversations are typically broached in the forum of cable news, which is anything but civilized.  (That’s a topic for another day.)  I will try, though, to broach it here in a way that is fair and decent.

If we want to take it all the way back to the beginning we look at the Second Ammendment.  There are two primary ways to read it.  The first is that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed.  Period.  As you no doubt inferred from my opening paragraph, that is not my interpretation.  My interpretation is that the Second Ammendment was first ratified in 1791, eight years after our young nation successfully defended itself against the British.  It was the era of minutemen.  We had to be able to defend ourselves against foreign governments and arming civilians with muskets was a critical component of doing so.  We also had to ensure that citizens could protect themselves against their own government, should it desire to attack them.  I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that that is no longer true.  If a foreign government wanted to attack the United States today, or if the United States government wished to attack its own people neither one would do it on foot with or with rifles.  It would involve bombs, tanks, and predator drones.  And no civilian would stand a chance, armed or not.  I will concede that a “well regulated militia” is still “necesary to the security of a free state.”  But we have one.  It’s called the United States National Guard.

While purists will quarantine their arguments to the interpretation of the written law (which is a fair stance), I am willing to admit that it’s not necessarily a realistic approach these days.  American citizens have had the right to own guns for centuries, and like it or not gun ownership is a big part of large swaths of American culture.  It’s also a big part of the American economy, grossing roughly $6 billion annually.  Even if everyone admitted that our adherence to the Second Ammendment has been misguided all these years, forcing our country to go cold turkey on guns would be a bad decision with all sorts of unintended consequences (most significantly, a huge black market for guns).  This doesn’t mean, however, that today’s permissive gun and ammunition laws aren’t due for revision.

Call me crazy, but I believe that people should be able to go to the movies without the risk of an ambush.  I believe that children should be able to go to school without walking through metal detectors.  I believe that students and professors should be able to walk freely around a college campus without being mowed down by gunfire.

I get that guns are big part of life for many people.  Hunting is a very popular pastime.  Handguns provide a sense of security for people who live in rough neighborhoods.  Many responsible adults go to shooting ranges to blow off steam in a safe and controlled environment.  And by and large, these people are not the problem.  I understand that it seems unfair to penalize the sweeping majority of gun owners just because some people are erratic and dangerous.  But I also think that it’s unfair for movie-goers, school children, and college students to risk death just because some people believe that their right to guns trumps other people’s right to life. No person’s hobby is more important than another person’s life.

So where do we go from here?

I believe there has to be some sort of reform.  (Even Bill Kristol believes there should be some sort of reform.)  The data bears it out that a strong correlation exists between stricter gun laws and lower gun deaths.  And as information has become available about James Holmes and his actions leading up to last week’s attack I’ve been shocked and saddened to learn that not only were most (if not all) of his gun, gear, and ammunition purchases legal, they didn’t even raise any red flags.  This man was able to outfit himself to the extent that the SWAT team nearly took him for one of their own without any part of our gun control system taking notice.  That shouldn’t be the case.  I won’t sit here and suggest that I know what the right regulations are.  I am not knowledgable about what is an acceptable number of guns or bullets for a single individual to have at any given time.  (Is “none” too constraining a suggestion?)  But I know for certain that semi-automatic assault rifles (such as the one used in Aurora last week, and those affected by the now-expired 1994 Assault Weapons Ban) exist for one reason alone: killing large numbers of people in short periods of time.  And there is no reason that any civilian person should have access to that kind of weaponry.

The popular refrain among gun advocates is that if more people have guns, fewer people will use them.  That if someone else in the Aurora movie theatre had been carrying a gun, fewer people would have been killed.  For starters, no one with a pistol in her purse was going to outshoot a man with chemical bombs and assault rifles.  Further, as a friend of mine aptly put it, crossfire doesn’t improve anything.  More shooting is just more shooting.  No one comes out ahead there.  So then what’s the point?  Well, the argument is based on creating a culture of fear.  Its proponents assert not that it’s the gun that reduces violence; it is the fear of someone else’s gun.  ”I won’t shoot at you because you might be able to shoot back.”  It’s a position I can’t begin to understand.  The idea that we are all safer because everyone is carrying deadly weapons is unfathomable to me.

Another popular response to the call for stricter gun laws is that murderers aren’t likely to follow them in the first place.  In that vein, a Facebook friend of mine (who is also a gun rights advocate) posted a digital postcard this week that read, “Gun laws would prevent shooting sprees?  Please tell me more about how criminals follow laws.”  And while I take his point to a certain extent, it’s not the inner city gang bangers I’m expecting will be reined in by gun laws (though if they were, it would be terrific).  It’s the James Holmeses, the Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds, and the Seung Hui-Chos.  It’s the people who are disenfranchised and disturbed and looking for some outlet for their pain.  It’s the people who act out in fits of massive violence because they can and because it’s easy whom I want to prevent; people who, without access to 6,000 rounds of internet-purchased ammunition, would have would have done something far less tragic with their destructive energy.  The data tell us that mental illness is negatively correlated to gun deaths, which is encouraging, but even if the people mentioned here are outliers, they’ve still managed to kill dozens of people.

With that in mind, the other thing I think we should do is learn about James Holmes.  Some people will say, ”It’s done.  Why does it matter why he did it?”  To those people I say, because he has problems.  And he’s certainly not the only person with these kinds of problems.  So let’s try to understand what drove him to do this and find ways to identify and help people like him before they go on a rampage..  Let’s try to understand what the warning signals were (aside from, you know, the detailed description of the attack that he mailed to a psychiatrist more than a week before he actually carried it out, but which wasn’t opened until nearly a week after the damage was done…)  Let’s try to understand how to help people with problems like this so that we can prevent future killing sprees.  So often in situations like this the shooter is killed – either by himself or law enforcement – at the end of the raid.  I see the fact that James Holmes is still alive as an incredible opportunity.

The saddest part of all of this is that for all the conversation about gun laws, chances are slim that things will change.  Research shows that support for gun control is withering away in this country.  It’s a fact that’s hard for me to digest.  I want to know who the people are who believe that the lives of the victims in Aurora were appropriate prices to pay.  Or what about the victims of the recent homicides in Tulsa (in April and July of this year)?  Were their lives less valuable than the right to bear arms?  I don’t think so, but our decreasing support of gun control measures indicates that many Americans do.

This is the longest post I’ve ever published here.  If you’ve read this far, thank you.  You may or may not agree with me.  If you do agree with me, I’m glad.  If you don’t agree with me, I hope I’ve presented my position in a way that you found worthwhile, and that you’ll consider my point of view.  I don’t believe that this one blog post will change anything.  But I do believe that it is my part of the national conversation, and to keep quiet on the issue would be a waste.  I hope you’ll continue this conversation both here in comments, and in the offline world with people on both sides of the issue.  It’s far too important a matter to let slip by just because it’s hard to talk about.

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*Actually, there are lots of great bits in that particular Eddie Izzard standup routine.  It’s from his 1999 show “Dress to Kill” and it’s probably my all-time favorite standup routine.

When $60 Million Isn’t Enough

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

I’m treading into touchy territory this week.  For my disclaimer on this little foray, please see yesterday’s short post.

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I don’t suppose there are many occasions in life when $60 million doesn’t seem like enough.  But upon reading the list of NCAA sanctions imposed on Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky’s conviction and the findings of the Freeh Report, that’s exactly how I felt.

Unfortunately, though, no amount of money can right these wrongs.  Nothing can unrape those boys.  So absent the ability to change the past, incredible focus is being paid to what punishments will be handed down to Penn State in the future.  People went sort of berserk yesterday at what most media outlets, FB posters, and Tweeters seemed to think was quite a stiff penalty.  But I just don’t see it.

Amidst all the discussion of the imposed sanctions the vacating of losses during the Sandusky era seemed to draw the most attention.  Per the NCAA’s official tally, Joe Paterno is no longer the winningest coach in the history of college football.  And I can’t help but respond with the question, ”So what?”  In a conversation on this very topic a friend of mine said something along the lines of, “You have to admit, being stripped of that title… it’s pretty symbolic.”  And I said, “You’re absolutely right.  It’s symbolic.  It doesn’t actually mean anything.”  Paterno isn’t even still alive to suffer whatever humiliation might have come from having his record stripped away.  So why bother?  Why not focus the sanctions on something that will make a difference moving forward?

With that in mind, I also bristled at the four-year bowl game ban and scholarship reductions.  Bill O’Brien and whichever Nittany Lions don’t head for the hills* will now pay the price for the hideous acts of Sandusky and the inexcusable complicity of Paterno and others.  Ineligibility for bowl games doesn’t even come close to being as damaging as what Sandusky’s victims endured.  Not only is it a trivial punishment when compared with the crime, but it is inflicted on people who weren’t even implicated.

As for the fine, $60 million is one year’s worth of football program revenue for Penn State.**  One year.  That’s all.  It seems like a drop in the bucket, doesn’t it?  I am thankful that the NCAA mandated that the $60 million must be spent on child sex abuse and awareness programs.  But given that, why stop at $60 million?  Why not $100 million?  Why not $300 million?  Why not mandate that all profits from the football program must be funneled into advocacy programs for sex abuse victims for the next 20 years?

As I socialized my objections to a few people yesterday, someone actually confronted me with a reasonable answer.  That answer was that it’s not the NCAA’s job to inflict the punitive measures for the entire scandal.  That is the job of our legal system and under the jurisdiction of our judicial branch Penn State University will like have millions more in civil damages to pay out to the victims.  The NCAA’s job, on the other hand, is to correct a culture where football was so revered that many people opted to knowingly allow multiple boys to be raped over a period of 10+ years rather than to risk so much as a blemish on the spotless sheen of the Penn State football program.  One way to do that is to knock the program down off its pedestal and force the State College devotees to square themselves to a losing team for the next several years.

I can respect that the NCAA isn’t on the hook for administering the full legal ramifications of this crime.  But in light of the severity and duration of Sandusky’s actions; and in light of the casualness with which most Penn State supporters treated the allegationsbefore they were proven in court (fiscal 2011-2012 was PSU’s second highest fund raising year ever), I feel confident that it’s going to take a lot more than a four-year bowl game ban to convince many members of the Penn State community that it was the very thing that their love and idolatry built up into legend that laid the groundwork for this sex abuse scandal to become so widely known and yet still unreported.

Stripping a dead man of wins?  So what.  It’s a hollow gesture at best.

Curtailing scholarships and access to bowl games for four years?  Sandusky raped and abused boys for at least 14 years.

A five year probationary period?  Given the number of people in the Penn State administration who knew about it the probationary period should last for as long as any one of them is still employed by the university.

A $60 million fine?  A drop in the bucket.

People are saying that this collection of penalties somehow adds up to a fate worse than the death penalty for the Penn State football program, but I don’t follow that logic.  Football with limitations is still football.  And knocking the program down a peg or two isn’t the same as knocking it out altogether.  Let me be clear.  Winning football games will never be more important than protecting the health and safety of children. And I’m not sure that the Penn State community fully understands that yet.  That isn’t to say I think everyone at PSU is as deluded as those who were involved in the scandal.  But if even one person thinks that this punishment outweighs the crime, then that’s proof enough for me that the lesson hasn’t yet been learned.

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*Permission to transfer for all entering or returning football players was one of the sanctions.

**Well, it was one year’s worth.  I wonder if the program’s revenues will decline in the face of what is almost certain to be a losing team for several years into the future.

The Dominion of Sin

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

If you’ve made it past the title then bully for you.  Sin is a messy topic, full of disagreements and contradictions and diametrically opposed perspectives.  In short, it’s not the type of thing I’d usually address in this forum.  But last Sunday as I sat in church and listened to the sermon the priest said something that caught my attention:

The dominion of sin isn’t the act, it’s the ego.  It’s the wanting to be first.

He conceded that murder and adultery and all of the despicable acts we associate with sin are indeed horrific examples of it.  But he posited that the sin starts much earlier.  The sin begins when a person places himself above other people.  I was fascinated because this had never occurred to me.

I started thinking about sins of all stripes and as I thought through the list of some more garden variety sins I was amazed at how well the priest’s position held up.

  • If I am a bully it is because I care more about feeling big than I do about whether or not you feel scared or threatened.
  • If I am materialistic it is because I care more about presenting a certain image than I do about being a certain kind of person.
  • If I am judgmental it is because I care more about finding myself superior than I do about exhibiting compassion or tolerance.
  • If I am selfish it is because I care more about myself than I do about the people affected by me.

I’m sure the list is endless.

And as I thought through these various sins, some of which I myself am guilty, I was struck by one thing.  Putting yourself first in all of these situations is almost always a byproduct of insecurity.  Put another way, not sinning requires and incredible amount of confidence.

When I feel confident in myself I don’t need to bully.  I don’t need appearances to feel good about myself.  I don’t need to make snide remarks about other people to inflate my own sense of self.  And I don’t want to put myself first if I know that it will negatively affect another person.  When I feel confident I am more patient, forgiving, substantive, and empathic.

The rub here?  Confidence is a hugely difficult thing to develop.  It takes years of cultivation.  Each person requires a different concert of people and experiences and reactions for its care and feeding.  But like a house of cards, it can collapse in an instant.

Yet churches do precious little to cultivate our confidence in ourselves.  As Christians we are taught to have confidence in God; confidence in His omnipotence and benevolence; confidence in His love and forgiveness; confidence in Him to guide us and save us.  And I know that this kind of confidence in God can also lead us to lives of less sin.  (I don’t believe anyone lives a sinless life.)  But I wonder if churches aren’t missing the boat a bit.  Would more sin be eliminated if people had confidence in themselves?  And further still, if more sin is eliminated by fostering confidence in oneself than in God which approach should churches take?  Should it be their chief end to cultivate Christian belief throughout the world or to end sin in the world?

I’ve gone a bit far afield here.  Clearly purpose of faith and the purpose of a church is an enormous topic that I actually do have the good sense not to opine about here.  (Nevertheless, it’s an interesting question, isn’t it?)

The dominion of sin isn’t the act, it’s the ego.  But the great irony here is that it’s when my ego is healthy that my sins are fewer.


A Recipe for Disaster?

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

I don’t have an answer here.  But if you know me at all you know that that won’t stop me from asking the question.  This time around the question is: How on earth do we train hot-headed young men to be cocky, trained, killing machines, and then expect them to simultaneously demonstrate prudence and cultural sensitivity?

A pair of stories in this vein have caught my attention recently.

The first incident was the more horrific.  Early this month a US soldier opened fire on Afghan civilians, killing 16.  It boggles the mind, really.  How on earth could this happen?  And yet, when you think about it further it seems even more curious that it doesn’t happen more often.  We take young men, at the most aggressive, arrogant moment in their lives.  It’s the moment when they are technically adults, but still mere adolescents in so many ways.  We train them about the enemy.  We ship them off, thousands of miles from home.  We place them in shockingly stressful situations.  We arm them.  And then we expect them to exercise sound judgment and restraint.

The second incident was alarming, but mostly for its stupidity.  A pair of helicopter pilots in a remote region of Afghanistan were showboating and buzzing an outpost building.  On their rapid descent they lost control of the aircraft, crashed to the ground, and then flipped the helicopter a few times before it finally stopped.  It is either by the grace of God or crazy dumb luck that no one on board or on the ground was killed.  Here again is another example of something that initially seems alarming.  But after pondering all of the contributing factors perhaps we should be surprised we don’t read more stories like this.  Why wouldn’t headstrong young men, stranded in remote mountains, and trained to make amazing pieces of machinery do amazing things, want to have a little fun with their skills every now and then?

It all sounds like a recipe for disaster, and yet to a certain extent we can’t afford to have it any other way.

We need these men (and women) to be confident, even cocky.  We need them to be fearless.  We need them to be able to see a situation in the stark contrast of black and white when the moment comes to pull the trigger.  They are doing a job that most people are unwilling to do and that requires traits that aren’t always easy to muster.  In the words of Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, “…deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!” And he’s right.  We do.

But while we need our military personnel to be able to stand on a wall, we also need them to understand cultures highly different from our own.  We need them to exercise deference and nuance in dealing with people whose assumptions about Americans are likely not favorable.  We need them to respect customs they don’t share and gods they don’t worship.  And we need them to do this in their early twenties and with guns in their hands.

It is an incredible testament to our military and the respect for its chain of command that these kinds of disasters don’t happen more often.  Thankfully most decisions are coming from older, more experienced, and more level headed officers.  And thankfully most younger troops seem to hold their authority in sacred esteem.

Perhaps some of these disasters are par for the course.  I don’t know whether to be disgusted that they happen at all, or grateful that they don’t happen more.  As is the case in most situations that are streaked with grey, I think I feel a little of both.

Not Applicable

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

I’ve made mention here before of the fact that GAP and I intend to adopt.  Well, now that we have our two biological children we have set out on the path toward adoption.  It feels a wee bit crazy to be starting this next parenting adventure before the most recent addition is even sleeping through the night.  But when you consider that the process takes about two years it makes a bit more sense.

We submitted our application a few weeks ago and right now the name of the game is: paperwork.  And lots of it.  Forms, forms, and more forms.  Most of them are fairly predictable – employment verifications, tax returns, medical exam results, and so on.  One form, however, is more of a doozy.  We each have to fill out a 16-page personal information form that addresses everything from our parents’ marital status to what we might do if our adopted child wants to seek out his birth parents.

Not surprisingly when it comes to international adoption there is quite a bit of focus on the racial aspect of things.  We intend to adopt from Asia which means that, by definition, our adopted children will not have the same fair skin and blue eyes that our biological sons have.  The adoption agency – quite rightly – wants to know how we will help our adopted kids deal with any discrimination they may face as minorities, and in that vein asks about what discrimination we have faced in our own lives and how we coped.  One such field requested: Talk about a time when someone made an assumption about you based only on how you look.

I was stumped.

I called my sister and she knew exactly why I was at a loss.  I’m a completely normal looking white woman.  I am of average height and build.  I grew up around people who look largely like I do.  I currently live in an area where most people look largely like I do.  I imagine people have made all sorts of assumptions about me based on my appearance, but none to my detriment.  And that is almost certainly what the adoption form’s question is trying to unveil.  And I wonder about the effect this has on how I go about my way in the world.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t mean to sit here and say, “It’s too bad I’ve never been misjudged or discriminated against based on appearances.  My life would really be a lot more colorful if I had some experience in this realm.”  I should be – and am – incredibly grateful that I’m struggling with this question.  But if I am to answer it with a true story (which I will, some way, somehow), I’m going to have to dig to come up with it.

As I talked through it with my sister she told me about a friend of hers.  This friend was from an affluent community in the mid-Atlantic region.  She ended up attending Prestigious University A for undergrad, but amongst her other applications was Prestigious University B.  Prestigious University  B’s application asked her to describe a time when she had been discriminated against based on her race.  In her teenage naiveté she wrote, without a trace of irony, “Not applicable.”  The story is funny now because as adults we all understand that this is the kind of question we are supposed to answer with nuanced empathy.  But a part of me applauds her response for its candor and honesty.  For truly, if you’ve never experienced discrimination of any kind, isn’t it insulting to those who have to pretend that you know anything of what they’ve legitimately endured?

I think what the adoption agency wants to learn is how I will empathize with and support my adopted children when they are  on the receiving end of ignorant and hurtful assumptions based on their race (as they almost certainly will be at some point).  And the fact of the matter is that no matter how genius a response I dream up for my personal information form, I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever experienced what my children will.  When it happens I will listen to them.  I will explain that some people are ignorant, and judgmental, and bigoted.  I will ring up GAP’s brother or sister (both of whom are Asian and were adopted in the mid-’80s) and ask for their perspective and guidance.  And I have confidence that GAP and I together will chart those waters successfully, if imperfectly.

I think it’s a shame that I can’t respond to the form’s query honestly.  A lot of people in this world have lived through real, painful, and damaging discrimination.  And it feels a bit disingenuous for me to claim that I, in any way, am one of them.

Questions I Can’t Answer. Chickens I Won’t Eat.

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

You can’t blink or you will miss it.  It’s in the first line of this article called ”Farming the Unconscious” posted on We Make Money Not Art.” You don’t even know to be looking for it.

The “it” I refer to is the fact that the project discussed in the article comes from the Royal College of Art.  Not agriculture.  Not livestock.  Art.  This is relevant because it throws into question whether or not the entire project was created as an earnest attempt to solve a problem, or as a commentary on modern animal husbandry practices.

I encourage you to read the article.  The images alone are quite impactful.  The jist of it is this: Most people understand that the factory farming methods applied to chickens are largely believed to be inhumane.  The birds have been bred over time to reach physical maturity in about six weeks.  This rapid growth cycle is often too much for the cardio-pulmonary systems of the birds to withstand and many of them die before they can be slaughtered.  On top of the questionable breeding they are housed in huge, windowless, poorly ventilated barns with little-to-no room for movement, standing on a bed of their own feces, and reduced to cannibalizing each other out of boredom.  Seriously, it’s pretty disturbing.

But more disturbing still is student André Ford’s proposed solution.

He suggests that if the demand for poultry is such that we must be able to produce it on a mass scale, then why continue to raise chickens when we could just grow them?  Yes.  Grow.  Like a crop.  It is (apparently…) the logical extension of Purdue University professor Paul Thompson’s belief that raising more tolerant blind chickens we could circumvent many of the animal welfare problems plaguing the egg and poultry industry today.  If they are blind they won’t object as much to the conditions in which they live.  So why not take it a step further, render them fully unconscious, and house them in the most economic conditions possible?  While the chicken isn’t technically headless, it is effectively brainless.  To quote Ford explanation of the project:

As long as their brain stem is intact, the homeostatic functions of the chicken will continue to operate. By removing the cerebral cortex of the chicken, its sensory perceptions are removed. It can be produced in a denser condition while remaining alive, and oblivious. The feet will also be removed so the body of the chicken can be packed together in a dense volume. Food, water and air are delivered via an arterial network and excreta is removed in the same manner.  Around 1000 chickens will be packed into each ‘leaf’, which forms part of a moving, productive system.
I won’t even try to pretend that the very thought of this doesn’t disgust me.  But if it is worth anyone’s time to explore this topic in the first place then it is also worth it for me to withhold my gut reaction at least long enough to earnestly consider the merits of such an approach.
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There are two major objections to factory farming: its negative effect on human nutrition, and concerns for animal welfare.  The nutrition concerns stem from issues like drug resistent bacteria that have evolved from use of antibiotics in animal feed, the effects of growth hormones from animal byproducts on children, and the compromised nutritional profile of many factory farmed animals.  The animal welfare concerns stem from the often-filthy and sardine-like conditions in which factory farmed animals are raised.  These conditions are a far cry from the idyllic pastoral scenes we like to envision when we think about where our food comes from.  But due to a flurry of media attention to this issue over the past five-ish years, we all know better now.
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In thinking about this collection of concerns I have to admit that it would be intellectually dishonest not to concede that Ford’s suggested solution could mitigate, if not altogether eliminate, most of them.  Growing chickens in plexiglass containers would keep them in a clean (perhaps even sterile?) environment, removing the need for the excessive antibiotics used today.  Removing their brains would prevent them from objecting to such conditions.  And such intensive growing practices could allow more animals to be produced at a time, potentially limiting the need for the growth hormones that are used to increase production rates.  I suppose the entire approach could be more efficient than current practices.
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None of this, however, changes the fact that if forced to choose between meat raised in these conditions and vegetarianism I would choose the latter every time.  And what frustrates me most about this is that I can’t really articulate why.  It’s a gut reaction.  It just feels wrong to me.  I am comfortable with my place on the food chain.  But I am not comfortable hideously subjugating an entire species of animals just because there is a market demand for cheap and abundant poultry.  Ford, however, would argue that we’re already there.  In his interview he candidly comments, “ Unfortunately, there is very little that is natural about the way the our food is currently produced.”
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But as for cheap and abundant poultry… A follow-up argument here is that if the poultry industry were to follow Ford’s lead, chicken could become incredibly inexpensive.  Think of all the malnourished people living in poverty who might be able to afford a package of drumsticks for the first time.  Meat is calorie-dense and (obviously) high in protein.  Would I rather grow a chicken in a plastic box or watch a child go hungry?  It’s a conundrum that throws my moral high ground into question.
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Here I am, more than 900 words into this post (if you’ve made it this far, bully for you!) and I don’t have an answer.  I won’t apologize for that because this is a topic that deserves some serious wrestling and I think it’s okay that I don’t yet have my views packaged up with a bow on top.  As I’ve said in previous posts on previous topics, asking these questions is the first step in answering them.
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But back to where I started: The Royal College of Art.  Does André Ford really want us to grow our chickens in plexiglass containers?  Or did he just assert that we should in order to set us to thinking about whether the ends they produce justify such extreme means?  Either way, it worked.
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This issue of our food supply is something I’ve explored in multiple prior posts.  If you’re interested, you can read further via the following links:
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Posts on eating meat
Posts on feeding the poor

A Dying Man’s Wish

Friday, February 24th, 2012

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my crush on Downton Abbey, and how watching it had started my wheels spinning on the topics of honor and pride in one’s work.  Well, I’m continuing to plug my way through the series (I’m now deep into Season 2) and my wheels are spinning again.  You know, for a show that is basically a beautifully costumed soap opera, Downtown Abbey really does provide a lot of food for thought.

With that, I will offer this warning before I continue my post.  If you watch Downton Abbey and are current through Season 2, then read ahead because you know what happens anyway.  If you don’t watch Downton Abbey and have no intention of doing so, then read ahead because I’ll explain everything you need to know to follow my moral conundrum.  But, if you do watch Downton Abbey but haven’t yet made it through at least the first four episodes of Season 2, STOP, because there are major spoilers ahead.

[For those lacking context, here's the play-by-play.  Daisy is the kitchen maid.  William is a footman.  William has a massive crush on Daisy, and while she is fond of William she doesn't share his romantic affections.  But William misinterprets a friendly and innocent peck of a kiss from Daisy as an indication of greater feelings.  William enlists in the British army during World War I and is about to head to France.  William proposes.  Daisy wants to correct the misunderstanding before he leaves but the cook intervenes and says that she can't send him off to war with a broken heart.  The cook persuades Daisy to accept William's proposal so that he can go into battle believing that his true love is waiting for him back home.]

So what’s a girl to do when the boy in love with her is headed off to war but she doesn’t love him back?  What’s a girl to do when that boy proposes?  Does her requital bolster him for the unthinkable horrors he’s about to face?  Or does it patronize him and belittle his integrity?  These are questions that Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes asks with a pretty heavy hand.

Sending someone off to war is brutal for everyone involved.  The soldier who is departing must believe in the cause and must be brave.  He must draw upon anything he can to face the grim scenarios that await him.  The people staying behind must do what they can to support the soldier.  They must fill him up with enough love and comfort to last him weeks or even months.  Everyone in the equation has a role to play.  But do those respective roles change the morality paradigm?

Under normal circumstances a young girl wouldn’t accept a man’s proposal just to make him feel good.  But in this situation Daisy is encouraged to do just that.  And those of us watching are left to decide for ourselves whether she’s right or wrong.

Quite plainly, Daisy is uncomfortable with the path that is chosen for her by the others.  She finds her dishonesty to William to be disrespectful and unfair.  She doesn’t want to lead him on.  Older members of the household staff see it differently.  They see a young girl making a personal sacrifice of sorts in order ease the emotional burden of a young man who very well may be killed.  And they see a young boy – one far too young to face the atrocities of war – who may hold his head a bit higher, may feel a bit warmer, and may fight a bit longer for the belief that his girl is waiting for him back home.

As William heads to war the stakes of Daisy’s lie are comparatively low.  When he returns she can (and presumably will) break it off with him.  He will be heartbroken, but alive.  And they will go their separate ways.  Little harm, little foul.

Alas, that’s not how it panned out.

William returns home alive, but dying.  Massive lung injuries have issued him a death sentence.  He knows his days are numbered and all he wants is to marry Daisy before he dies.  He wants her to be taken care of.  He wants her to get a war widow’s pension.  And he wants to die knowing he married the girl he loved.

Again, Daisy can’t bear it.  She doesn’t want to lie to a dying man.  She doesn’t want to take a war widow’s money when she knows the marriage isn’t where her heart is.  Nevertheless, she is pushed ahead by older members of the staff who see her opportunity to grant a dying man’s wish.  They marry, and William passes mere hours later.  Daisy is filled with regret.

“Marrying him was a great kindness,” says the head housekeeper.  But was it?

If no real damage is done by the lie – if it helps a wounded man die with peace and love in his heart – then what is the harm?  Conversely, aren’t moments of life and death the precise moments when truth and honesty matter most?  Daisy does care for and respect William, even if she doesn’t love him.  And it is out of that care and respect that she is so reluctant to lie to him.

There is an honorable path here.  Is it the truth?  Or is it to grant a man’s dying wish?  Or better yet, is Daisy’s willingness to marry William, but heartbreak at doing so the most honorable path she could have chosen?

In some strange way, I think it is.

Gleefully Gay

Monday, February 20th, 2012

It  all started here: an article on Huffington Post about a seven-year-old boy who proclaimed to his parents that he is gay.  A friend posted a link on Facebook.  I read the article, loved it, and reposted it on my own Facebook page with a comment that the boy’s parents were to be commended for their supportive response.  However, that is not all there was to the story.

As it was told by his mother, a significant part of the boy’s coming out had to do with his crush on the character Blaine from Glee.*  He apparently also has frequent exposure to gay and lesbian couples through his parents’ friends.  So as far as he is concerned liking boys is no bigger a deal than liking girls.  I was thrilled to learn that this kid is blessed to grow up in a family and community where such a confession at the age of seven was met with complete acceptance, but there is the question of how he came to consider his sexuality at such a young age in the first place.

Is there a chance that this boy decided that he is/wants to be gay based on a very likable character in a television show?

I thought about it and I think the Glee crush probably gave this boy the platform – context and vocabulary – to express himself, but wouldn’t have put the idea in his head. I’m sure there are lots of kids who watch Glee at impressionable ages and don’t walk away believing they’re gay.  But what if they did?  What if kids watched Blaine, with his bowties, crooning voice, and wisdom beyond his years and said, “I’m going to be like him.  I’m going to be gay.”?  What then?  Would it be the worst thing in the world?  And why do we hang the weight of the world on it?  We chalk most of what kids say at this age (“I want to be a ninja turtle.” “I want to marry you, Mommy.” “Girls are yucky.”) up to their being children and not up to permanent beliefs.  So why is this topic so different?

Unfortunately, the answer is easy: fear for our kids.  Not all kids live in environments as tolerant as that of the boy from the article.  To run around the grade school playground pronouncing your homosexuality carries risks, right?  It would have for us, certainly.  But what about for today’s kids?  They are growing up in a world with Glee on the air.  They are growing up in a world where gay marriage is legal in more than half a dozen states.  Is it really the taboo ordeal today that it would have been 25 years ago?  Or are we just projecting our own fears onto our kids?

I don’t know the answer to this question.  I’m sure it varies by region of the country, religious and political persuasions, and various other criteria.  But any way you slice it, I don’t see how this kid coming out as a seven-year-old should be a problem.

If he identifies as gay now, it’s great that he’s being supported, just the same as it’s great to be supportive of a kid when he says he wants to be a secret detective. If he decides later that he’d rather kiss girls that’s fine too. What matters most is not how he came to this identification, but the fact that he’s being given the space and support to decide for himself.

*For the purposes of this post I am entirely setting aside the issue of whether or not a seven-year-old has any business watching Glee in the first place.

The Good Man – Bad Man Continuum

Monday, December 12th, 2011

I was about finished handing over my donations when he rode up on his bicycle.  His coat was brown oilcloth, worn with the collar turned up, and didn’t look to be very warm.  Behind his bike was a cart of sorts – homemade out of plywood and fastened to a single axle attached to two tires repurposed from a jogging stroller.

I waited for the Goodwill guy to get my receipt while this man got off his bike and walked up with the first of three large cardboard boxes.  Each one was literally overflowing with children’s clothes.  I saw snap-crotch onesies, tiny pink tops, pants, and dresses.  I was on my way to the gym and felt liberated being out of the house for a bit.  I decided to make some small talk and commented that it’s amazing how quickly kids outgrow clothes.

“Yes,” he said.  ”Some of them are practically disposable.  They wear them once and then they don’t fit anymore.”

As he responded he walked back to his bicycle cart to collect the second box.  I followed him with my eyes, and only as I watched him pick up the next box did I notice a tiny little girl in the cart as well.  She was somewhere between 18 months and two years old.  Her skin was fair, but pink from the chilly December air.  Her eyes were bright.  And her coat was much too big and gapped around her neck.  She didn’t have on a hat or gloves.

“Well hello, little one!” I said.  She  smiled broadly yet bashfully.   “It’s a cold one today.  Are you staying warm?”  She didn’t look like she was.  I scrambled to think whether or not any of IEP’s many winter hats might have been left in the car that I might give to her.  None had.

“Yeah, how’s your brother’s coat working out for you?” her father added, as if to imply an explanation as to why it didn’t fit her.

The father and I wrapped up our cliched conversation about how quickly kids grow and I got back into my car.  The outside temperature on the dashboard read 36 degrees.

As I waited to turn left at the light just outside of the Goodwill parking lot I saw the man cross the intersection on his bike and turn right.  As he did his little girl struggled to keep herself upright in the cart behind him.  And for the rest of the day I thought a complicated mix of conflicting thoughts about this encounter.

A man who clearly did not have a proper winter coat, or a hat, or a car was donating dozens upon dozens of articles of children’s clothing.  Presumably he no longer had use for them and wanted to see that someone else – someone who had even less than he? – could used them.  At the same time, this man dragged a tiny child out on a very cold day without proper protection against the winter weather.  He rode his bike in traffic while his daughter sat loose in the back, unbuckled and without any kind of helmet.

What kind of man was this?  A good man?  A man who thinks about those less fortunate even when he himself seems to have so little?  Or was he a careless and irresponsible parent?  Someone who jeopardizes his daughter’s health and safety to do something which, while admittedly good, was not at all urgent.  Couldn’t he have waited until a warmer day, or a day when his wife or a friend or neighbor was available to watch his daughter?

All of the above?  Is that the answer?  Like anyone else in the world I am prompted to say, “Yes, and…”

We never really know all of another person’s story.  We know only what we see in many cases.  We know what we are told in others.  But we are almost always left to fill in some of the blanks with our own suppositions.  I believe in most cases the answers to those blanks are clouded with nuance.  They are the places where the answers aren’t clear and we are forced to confront both the triumphs and the failings of the people around us.

The man I saw at the Goodwill drop-off door last week is just like most of us in many ways.  His circumstances may be vastly different from yours or mine.  But he exists on a continuum just like anyone else.  He has some very admirable qualities.  And he also makes mistakes and imperfect choices.   Is he a good man or a bad man?  He is a little of both, just like everyone else.