August 31, 2005

This is where the party ends

Filed under: Laws and Sausages — tomemos @ 9:18 am

Everyone, please give whatever you can to the Red Cross to help with the damage from Hurricane Katrina. The news is saying it may be the worst natural disaster in American history, certainly the worst since the 1906 earthquake. Sounds like as good a time as any for charitable work.

And, if you’re looking for something to be cynical about, check this out.

Addendum: I wasn’t clear: I’m not cynical about the looting. I mean, it’s bad to take valuables that aren’t yours and that you don’t need to survive, it adds to the devastation, whatever. But I could give a shit about people taking food and supplies, and I’d like to see anyone placed in the same situation take some kind of moral high ground.

What I’m cynical about is the captions. You’ll notice that the picture of the black guy with food says that he has just “looted” a store, while the white couple has just “taken” food, as if it were in a Free box or something. Now, admittedly these are from different news agencies, so it’s not proof of egregious racism. But it does seem to confirm something which I’ve suspected, which is that a lot of the attention paid to the looting has been paid because New Orleans is a largely black city.


August 25, 2005

God, sometimes you just don’t come through

Filed under: Laws and Sausages — tomemos @ 10:43 am

I’ve been following the Gaza pullout with interest and a fair amount of optimism. I’ve been particularly impressed with the resolve and professionalism of the military in executing the operation. They didn’t refuse to perform the mission, they were compassionate but firm, even in the face of obstinate and sometimes (understandably) hysterical settlers. My other main fear, that the Palestinians would disrupt the process somehow, was also not realized. I knew that the pullout wouldn’t solve everything, but it still seemed like things were on the upswing.

Well, of course it’s the State of Israel that has to spoil the party:

Israel Confirms Plan to Seize West Bank Land for Barrier

This is the kind of shamelessness I’d expect from the Bush administration, the equivalent of calling a logging measure the “Healthy Forests Initiative.” Isn’t Sharon worried that this is a little too transparent? After all the paranoid anti-Israel cynics claimed that Israel was just pulling out of Gaza in order to strengthen its hold on the West Bank, don’t you think he would want to wait more than one day to prove them right?

And the media is rolling with it, as always. Not only was this story not on the front page of either of the newspapers I looked at, it wasn’t on the front of their websites, either; I had to follow two links to find the story at The most bizarre example of whitewashing was on the front page of the SF Chronicle. There was an article about economic conditions in Gaza in the paper’s continuing series, “The Disengagement.” Below that article were the words, “Seizure: Israel to take land, expand settlement. (A12).” Um, guys, does it seem like “disengagement” might be only part of the story?

August 22, 2005

We live, as we dream, alone

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 12:46 pm

I got an e-mail from a friend recently, part of which read something like this:

I took advantage of the iPod recycling program and my education discount to get the prettiest iPod I’ve ever seen. It can hold so, so many songs. Yet is it having a negative impact on society’s interactions as a whole?

This last sentence was a parody of the worried dialogue you hear a lot regarding the iPod: is it cutting us off from those around us? Are we so immersed in our portable MP3s that we can’t hear the song of the birds and the kind greetings of our neighbors?

Like my friend, I think this sort of strident complaining is pretty ridiculous. You never hear anyone complaining about people reading on the bus, about what a shame it is that everyone has to bury their nose in the newspaper rather than reaching out and making a connection to their fellow citizens. Is reading the Financial page automatically a higher plane of endeavor than listening to music? And doesn’t it involve the same sort of immersion in media, to the exclusion of personal interaction? The backlash against the iPod is basically identical to the backlash against the Walkman, or the internet. For every neato invention, there’s a paid corps of grumpuses to gripe about how our reliance on technology is leading us away from the good old days when strangers chatted merrily all the way to work. I’m sure some of them believe this. Others, I’m just as sure, know that there’s always good money to be made writing for people who react to innovation with suspicion and anger.

Besides, our portable gadgets are not the prime factor in our isolation, not by a long shot. If you want to pick a single invention that cuts us off from the world, you want to start, not with the cellular phone, but with the car, an enclosed, personal transportation bubble that absorbs one’s whole personality. (As has been noted elsewhere, we say “He hit me!” rather than “His car hit my car!”) If you want a symbol of our isolation, it’s not the millions of pairs of white headphones. It’s the highways of Southern California, where only a tiny fraction of the cars on the road contain the two people necessary to drive in the carpool lane.

However! The other day I had a sobering (and deeply embarrassing–it’s taken me this long to bring myself to write about it) reminder of the iPod’s potential for isolation. I was walking home from downtown Berkeley, with two bags of newly purchased CDs in tow. (Two more contributions to the list of Bands That Sound Like Several People But Are Really Just One: Cat Power [Chan Marshall] and Iron & Wine [Sam Beam].) I was listening to Help! and thinking excitedly about cracking open my new music when I got home. Walking through Ohlone Park, I passed a disheveled woman pushing a shopping cart. As I passed, she smiled a little, held out her hand, and said something. I couldn’t hear her through the music, but I assumed she was asking for money, and I didn’t have any change on me, so I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”

As I kept walking, I was dimly aware of the sound of her shouting. Thinking she might be lambasting me, I turned back and took out a headphone to hear what she was saying.

She was yelling, “A GIANTS FAN! I said, ‘You’re a GIANTS FAN!'”

I felt the same helpless nausea that I feel when I realize I’ve overslept for class. She hadn’t been asking for money; she had been commenting on the Giants shirt I was wearing. I had taken a gesture of camaraderie between strangers and assumed it was a plea for a handout. More insulting acts don’t readily come to mind.

With the calmness and clarity of mind that comes from having screwed up royally, I took out the other headphone and walked up to her. “I’m very sorry,” I said. “That was extremely insulting of me. I owe you an apology.”

She was still incredulous and angry. “I said, ‘You’re a Giants fan,’ and you said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you!'” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘what is wrong with this conversation?!’

“I know,” I said. “I’m really sorry, that was inexcusable of me.”

She spat on the ground, then seemed to calm down and collect her thoughts. “I’m a forgiving person,” she said. “And I’ll tell you something else: I didn’t graduate from high school, but: I have been a single mom, I’ve had jobs, I’ve taken care of older people.” She looked at me significantly. “I believe it,” I said lamely.

“It’s the truth,” she said. “But now, I’m getting older. And I’m wondering, who’s going to take care of me?”

“I… I hope… I don’t know,” I finally said.

“I don’t do drugs,” she said after a pause. “I do”–she gestured with her hand–“drink every once in a while. But I don’t do drugs.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Listen,” she said. “I don’t want you to feel bad. You were just going down the street, listening to your music…”

“I am really sorry,” I said again. “That was so selfish of me, I was just absorbed in my own world.”

“I don’t want you to feel bad,” she repeated. “I’ve had guilt trips laid on me, and I don’t want to guilt-trip anyone. I think it was just a misunderstanding.”

“That’s very kind of you,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“Lois,” she said. “I’m Tom,” I said, and stuck out my hand. “I’m not really the handshake type,” she said, and showed me her hand. It was weathered, and there was dirt under the fingernails. “My hands get dirty digging in dumpsters.”

“Well, good to meet you, anyway,” I said. We said goodbye, and she said again that she didn’t want me to feel bad. I started walking away. “Peace be with you!” she called after me, making a V.

“Peace be with you,” I replied. I walked home, with the cathartic feeling that comes after the resolution of a stern talking-to.

That meeting reminded me that none of us, no matter how liberal and understanding we feel we are, is immune to cutting oneself off from society, from taking refuge in one’s own reality. My self-absorbtion was a barrier between me and the world, as was, it must be said, having the money to afford a little device that lets me listen to the Beatles while I’m walking around town. Lois was much more gracious than she needed to be, and I got off much easier than I had any right to. But that’s part of the point, too: even after being egregiously insulted by some young punkass, Lois believed my apology and assured me that she didn’t want me to feel bad. Homeless people have every reason to be angry at the world, and I don’t begrudge those that are, but to be so kind and forgiving even after so much provocation, by me and by the world, indicates the sort of understanding and patience that one only meets once in a great while. And if the volume of my music player had been a little higher, I wouldn’t have heard her yelling and wouldn’t have met her at all.

But even then, I don’t think the lesson of this episode is, “Don’t listen to music while you walk around the town.” The lesson (and pardon the obviousness of this) is to resist the easy assumptions, stereotyping, and prejudices that our modern isolation encourages. I’ll continue to listen to my iPod, because I prefer it to the sound of cars going by. But I’ll make sure I can hear what’s going on around me, and if someone speaks to me, I’ll do what I should have done last Friday: stop, take out my headphones, and say, “Sorry?”

August 20, 2005

I left my baby on a pretty blue train

Filed under: Romance, Travels — tomemos @ 2:17 pm

Sorry for yet another long silence. At least I have an excuse this time: Julie and I took a road trip to Iowa City to get her moved in to her new digs. It took four days, with stops at Provo, Utah; Ogalalla, Nebraska; and Ames, Iowa. We made the trip in Pearl, Julie’s white Saturn, which performed admirably, even nobly. Some highlights:

–While still in California, we saw one of the jerkiest (in MHO) religious bumper stickers imaginable. It was on a pretty expensive two-seat car, along the lines of a Mazda Miata but different. The sticker said, “Don’t let the car fool you–my real treasure is in Heaven.” Now THAT is assholic. Basically, this guy is saying, “Oh, I know I have lots of expensive material goods, but that’s not the best part. The best part is, I’m righteous and holy and I’m going to Heaven!” You know, if your real treasure is in Heaven, why do you have that nice car? Sell the car, donate the money, get yourself a 1992 Altima and use it to take food to soup kitchens. Remember that thing about the camel, and the eye of a needle? Remember that?

–A much much better tribute to Christianity was on view on that same stretch of highway. It was a pickup truck with a CRUCIFIED TEDDY BEAR on the back, legs crossed and everything. I got a picture, I will Flickr it and link it here. An incentive to keep checking the site!

–When we woke up in Provo, UT, the newspaper’s top story was that, according to a study of American cities and their voting habits, Provo is the most conservative city in America. The most liberal city? Detroit. Don’t ask me.

–Our initial plan had been to get to Provo on the first night, Cheyenne, Wyoming on the second night, and Omaha, Nebraska on the third night. This was based on the assumption that while a ten-hour drive was reasonable on the first day, we wouldn’t have the energy for more than seven or eight hours after that. In fact, what we found was that when you reach a town like Cheyenne, the main thing to do is to get back in the car and keep driving.

–This goes double for Nebraska. A young woman who served us in a roadside Subway found out that we were from Orange County, and asked, “So, is Laguna Beach a real place? Are the people they film there real?” I felt like I was from Camelot. Actually, my relatives in Ames (who were the reason to push ourselves past Omaha, for a real meal and real company) told us a joke: On the night before the Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer addressed his men. “I have good news and bad news,” he said. “The bad news is that our scouts tell me that the force we’re facing tomorrow is so large that they will slaughter us to the last man. The good news is, at least we won’t have to march back through Nebraska.” This is a representative sample of midwest humor.

–Aside from the conservatism of the towns we passed through, gas prices were the other major news story in the papers, not to mention in the car. $2.13 was the cheapest we saw, somewhere in Utah; by the end of our trip, it was around $2.70 for Regular. One unexpected benefit to being in corn country was that, in Nebraska and Iowa, Plus was cheaper than Regular, since Plus had ethanol in it, much cheaper than oil in these states. Meanwhile, back in Berkeley, I’ve seen $2.93. It’s like living in Spain or something.

–We got Julie moved in okay, with a decent complement of furniture and everything. Iowa City seems like a pretty cool town, and also a true college town: the student population is about half that of the town, and the bars and cafes have shorter hours during the summers. I don’t envy her the winters she’ll face, but from now until December she’s definitely living in the cooler place.

As for being long-distance again…it’s not ideal, obviously, especially since we had gotten really used to living together after four months. At the same time, after France, it should be cake. I’ve long thought (and maybe I’ve even said this here) that the major factor in the success of a long-distance relationship isn’t distance or availability, but whether the two parties are up to something interesting that they can talk about in those late-night phone conversations. It certainly seems like that will be the case now. So, here’s to a short wait and frequent visits.

August 2, 2005

The little critters of nature…they don’t know that they’re ugly

Filed under: Funny Stuff, General Me — tomemos @ 5:16 pm

I am not a pet person. I became a vegetarian for animal rights reasons, yet I have very little interest in animals. I mean, I admire (or coo over) them from a distance, like babies, but when it comes to actually owning one and taking care of its every need, I balk. Same with babies, by the way.

For all that, I’ve spent an awful lot of my life taking care of people’s dogs for pay. (Also their babies.) I recently took my most recent and probably last job of this kind, which put me face-to-face with many of my animal aversions. At the end of June, when I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to find a job (I did end up finding one, teaching summer school. I say “finding,” but really it just fell in my lap; someone else pulled out at the last minute and I was next in line. My campaign to live my whole life without ever having to do well in a job interview continues)…at the end of June, as I was saying, I decided to take a housesitting/dogsitting job to get a little extra cash. (All housesitting is also petsitting; housesitting=subletting + a pet.) I was to housesit for a professor and his rambunctious dog. We will call the dog “Fido” to protect the innocent (which, as you’ll see, does not include the dog).

Fido was indeed a rambunctious dog, and I am not a very assertive dogwalker. I’m not very assertive with people, either, but I like them a lot more (and I’m never asked to pull on their throats with a cord). Fido liked to walk through the tall grass of the sprawling ecological preserve that encircles the campus, and she didn’t always have a clear idea of where the trails were, preferring instead to drag me through swaths of tall, unkempt grass that, it turned out, was crawling with ticks.

I know ticks live in tall grass, but I had always assumed that there weren’t any in the ecological preserve, for the simple (stupid) reason that there were no signs saying, “Warning: Ticks.” Getting them off me was pretty easy, with the help of tweezers and a patient girlfriend, though every day while I was there I found a tick somewhere on my person or clothing, and for the first few days back at my place I kept compulsively putting my hand under my shirt to grab some phantom tick.

Getting them off Fido was a different matter; where I might get four ticks on me during a walk, she would get 25, and dogs don’t like it when you pinch their fur with tweezers. We were eventually able to get it down to a science, yanking them off without her even noticing, and, since ticks have hard bodies that will not be easily squished, dropping them into a pitcher full of water to slowly, slowly drown. Later, I realized that I could simply squeeze them with the tweezers after extracting them, and they would softly explode. My anti-cruelty stance notwithstanding, I found it very satisfying to squish these awful eight-legged monsters that wanted to stick their heads through my skin and eat my blood. Guess you didn’t count on my use of tools.

The other bug problem we found was with Julie’s least-favorite crawly, spiders. The otherwise very nice house we were in seemed to be infested with them, and every night I was put on spider-stompin’ duty. I usually try to keep non-bloodsucking bugs alive when disposing of them, but there were far too many for this to be feasible, and every night I would kill between one and two dozen, washing so many down the sink that the drain clogged. A few days in, we realized that the family’s leniency towards bugs in general might have been responsible for the infestation: the instructions they left for me mentioned that we might get ants (indeed, we did), and laid out the family’s policy towards them: “We just leave them alone. It’s their house too.” Pardon me, no. If it was their house, they would be paying the mortgage. If it was their house, you wouldn’t be paying me to house-sit; you could get the ants to do it for you. There were so many spiders, in fact, that we speculated that they were the family’s other pet; they would come home and ask, bewildered, “What happened to our spiders?”

So we had a number of run-ins with eight-leggers that were disgusting but ultimately comic. The stories of the four-leggers were not so pleasant. I had been told that Fido was friendly with people but not with other dogs, and indeed had gotten in a fight with another dog a few months ago. It was true that every time she saw another dog she tried to attack it, and I got quite adept at steering her away from dogs before she saw them. Even then, there were some near misses. Then there was a direct hit: another owner brought her much smaller dog too close to Fido, and they started sniffing each other. “I guess she’s being friendly,” I said, and at that instant Fido grabbed the other dog by the throat and began shaking him around. It took us about a minute to pry her off him, during which time the victim’s owner was knocked down. From then on, I walked Fido with a muzzle, which she hated and was constantly trying to scratch off; people understandably avoided us on the street, and I felt like an asshole. A couple days later, I saw them again (Fido was not with me, luckily): the other dog had to have tubes put in his throat to prevent infection.

Then, on the last day of my (by then excruciating) tenure there, I ran over a squirrel. It was darting across the street, and I didn’t put on the brakes fast enough, and there was that thump. I went back to clean it up and saw that it hadn’t been damaged at all, except for being killed; it looked like it was just asleep. I wrapped it tightly in two plastic bags–it was still warm, obviously–and threw it away. I never had to throw away a mammal before, and it felt like I was breaking the law in some way. I also suppose that this is the first vertebrate I’ve ever killed in my life.

That was actually what led to my long hiatus from blogging: this happened on July 7, the day of the bombings in London. And I was going to blog about it, but it seemed tasteless to be talking about a squirrel on a day like that.

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