Monday, June 27, 2016

On Not Being Photographed by Bill Cunningham

I first heard of Bill Cunningham years ago when someone told me he was at the Jazz Age Lawn Party and I said, who? It was something I was supposed to know.

For 40 years, until quite close to his recent death, Cunningham took photos for the New York Times, specializing in people he found stylish. Some were famous, some were just people walking by. He would also turn up at events that drew those who wanted to show off their finery, which is why I used to catch sight of the dapper gentleman clicking away at JALP and the Easter Parade.

The dress-up people at JALP seemed obsessed with getting their picture taking by Cunningham. By dress-up people, I mean those who devoted themselves to period wear. The people who scoured eBay and thrift shops for authentic 1920s vintage clothing. Who studied old photos to get the look just right. Who purchased vintage picnic baskets. For many, that picture in the Times was a victory, and Cunningham obliviously walking past you without a glance at your authentic, over-priced 1920s hat a terrible defeat.

It was a race I never ran.

I mainly went to JALP to dance. Sure, I dressed up a little, but I've always had a close-enough-for-rock-n-roll approach to vintage dress, and worried more about being comfortable in the blazing heat of summer than in wowing the dress-up world. I would certainly never, as the serious folk did, wear wool on a humid, 90-degree day.

Look at this picture from the New York Post of me dancing with my girlfriend Laurel. I am making less effort than the three people I'm sharing the picture with, who are all aiming for authenticity. I've got some nice wide-legged pants, but I'm also wearing a golfing shirt that wicks away moisture, a bow-tie with a crossword puzzle design, and elastic suspenders with skulls on them.

Not that I don't think I look great. I love those suspenders, and that bow tie is hilarious. I had other great things I wore to JALP, like orange linen pants that Laurel still mocks me for. But though I liked my colorful, somewhat rumpled style, I knew it wasn't Cunningham-worthy. And I respected his vision.

While others think fondly back to the day Bill stopped to snap their picture, I celebrate him for a different reason; he knew enough about style to ignore half-assed outfits like mine.

Orange pants, suspenders with a newspaper theme and a golf shirt. Close enough.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Democracy: The System Everyone Likes Until the “Wrong” People Win

In 2011, Egyptians protested against their authoritarian dictatorship, overthrew the government, and held democratic elections that installed Mohamed Morsi as president.

By 2013, unhappy Egyptians were holding mass protests and demanding that Morsi resign. When the military stepped in, many of those protesters were thrilled. Soon the new government proved itself to be at least as bad as the one ousted in 2011.

I remember that after that military coup, there were pundits on both the left and the right who supported it, seeming to believe that this was a way to reset a democracy gone bad. To me that seemed a long shot. Democracy works when people accept it as the thing you’re stuck with. If after every election the people who didn’t vote for the government could persuade the military to step in, you wouldn’t really have a democracy.

Democracy is when both sides agree to accept the results, even if they don’t like them. It doesn’t work otherwise.

Now let’s talk about Bernie Sanders.

I’ve always liked Bernie Sanders. The things I want – a single payer health system, more taxes on the wealthy, greater worker rights, a stronger social safety net – are the things Sanders wants. If I were declared ruler of the universe and could choose the next U.S. president from anyone who has run for the position in the last couple of years, I would pick Bernie.

But in a democracy, one person can’t choose the president, or the nominees. Instead, there’s a whole electoral system in place.

Regarding the Democratic primary, that system is one Bernie Sanders has liked less and less the more it has become apparent that he is unlikely to win more votes or pledged delegates than Hillary Clinton.

As little as a few months ago, Sanders still had some hope for the democratic process, as long as it was truly democratic. He made the reasonable suggestion that superdelegates – free agents who can vote for whoever they like at the convention – should vote for whoever their state voted for.

The problem is, under that system, Sanders would still lose. Because Sanders is way behind Clinton. About three million votes behind.

So Bernie has a new plan. We throw out the democratic system and decide the nominee based on polling.

What Bernie wants is for all the superdelegates, regardless of who their state supported, to vote for Bernie. And he says they should, because in head to head polls, he does better against Trump than Clinton.

There are reasons those polls shouldn’t be taken too seriously. As the Times points out, Sanders hasn’t experienced a full-on Republican national attack yet, which could drive his numbers down markedly, and Trump is no longer competing against anyone, while Clinton is still fighting off Sanders, softening her support.

But beyond that, picking candidates according to polls is wildly undemocratic.

Right now, RealClearPolitics collection of recent polls shows that averaged out, Sanders beats Trump by 10.8%, whereas Clinton loses by .2%. Each of these polls represents 800 to 1100 voters. If you were to assume that these polls had no overlaps, then they give us the opinions of a few thousand voters. If Sanders is up by 10% over Clinton among a group of 5,000 voters, then that means a few hundred people like Sanders better than Clinton. Yes, they are presumably a representative sampling, but still, if we’re using the polls to select nominees, very few people are actually getting a say.

As of April, over 15,000,000 people have voted in the Democratic primary, and by the convention that number will be higher. Sanders plan is, very simply, to discount the millions of people who prefer Clinton over him in favor of the preferences of a tiny sliver of America’s voters.

How can anyone who believes in Democracy find that acceptable? If we are going to choose our nominees by poll, why don’t we just get rid of elections altogether, and every four years take a few polls and make whoever wins the president? How can Sanders supporters who scream about unfairness every time Clinton gets an extra delegate they believe belongs to Bernie be fine with simply taking the choice out of the hands of the electorate altogether?

What would happen if next week the poll numbers switched, and suddenly Clinton had the edge against Trump? Would Sanders drop out of the race? My guess is, no.

I understand why democracy failed in Egypt, a country unused to the messiness of a system that, in the words of Winston Churchill, “is the worst form of Government, except for all the [others].” But in the U.S., we’ve been doing this for a long time. And even if the results don’t turn out as I hope, which has happened many times, I hope we continue our experiment with democracy, and let people, rather than polls, choose our representatives.

Although I’m still open to just deciding the whole thing myself.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Finding out you're weird. Then finding out you're really, really weird.

When people tell you to imagine something, like a beach, or a polka-dotted elephant, does an image come to mind? Most people, it seems would say yes.

I didn't realize for a long time that this was true. I always took phrases like "mind's eye" as an abstract term for constructing concepts in your mind. But somewhere along the way I discovered that most people actually picture things. They can "see" a beach; see the color of the water and the shape of the birds flying through the air, much in the way I can "hear" a song in my head. I can imagine Yellow Submarine, and hear Ringo's voice, and the sound effects; not so clearly that I can throw away my stereo, but I can conjure it up.

So I figured that much out. And I thought, well, that's weird. It didn't bother me much, though, since it didn't seem like a terrible useful ability. It did explain  some things, like a famous quote that had always puzzled me. In the early days of television, some kid was asked if he preferred radio or TV, and he said radio, "because the pictures were better."

That sounded insane to me, but if people can picture the stuff they hear on the radio, then I guess it makes sense.

I didn't realize how much other people's brains use that facility until I talked to my girlfriend, Laurel. As I understand it, all her memories are visual. If she thinks on the past, she sees it. I had thought of the mind's eye as something you could turn on if you wanted, but from Laurel it seemed that it was just a constant thing. Shortly after our conversation I saw the movie Inside Out, and the main character does experience her memories visually, and I thought that perhaps this is how most people's minds' work.

The subject came up again yesterday when I read an article on Vox by Blake Ross. His mind had been blown by a 2015 article in the New York Times about a man who had lost the ability to picture things. The condition had just been given a name that year, Aphantasia. And his reaction, like mine, was, people can do that?

If you have Aphantasia, the Times article seems really bizarre, because it acts like this is an extraordinary thing. Imagine you'd been blind your whole life, and no one had ever told you, and then one day you read about a guy who "lost" his sight, and you suddenly realize almost everyone in the world except you can look up and see clouds and stars, and there's this whole thing going on you had no idea even existed.

As I read the Times article, I could see that people use their mind's eye for all sorts of things, because the researchers were amazed at what could be done without it. They asked aphantasiacs, how many windows are in your house, and were stunned that people could answer without picturing the rooms.

And I thought, that's how people remember things? They picture them?

Why wouldn't I know how many windows were in the house? I mean, you look at them, and your mind makes note of where they are, and if someone asks you, you can answer. The number of windows is a fact. I know a lot of facts. Water boils if you heat it on the stove. Cats have four paws. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. I don't even understand why you would need to picture the room to answer a factual question. That just seems weird.

While I asked a handful of friends about the mind's eye, Blake asked everyone he knew. He asked them to picture a beach, and they did. They could see the color of the water, the waves rushing in, people sunbathing.

It appears it's not something you turn on and off, it just happens. When Laurel read Blake's article, she said when he talked about picturing a red triangle, a red triangle just popped into her head. When Blake asked a friend how often he pictured things, he said a thousand times a day. The shocking this is, for 98% of you, italicizing that doesn't make any sense; it's just normal.

This explains so much. It explains why writers will spend two pages describing a forest; it's because people use that information to picture what's happening in the book. It explains why people claim it's impossible to not picture a polka-dotted elephant when someone tells you not to picture one. It explains how people count sheep (they actually see sheep and a fence), how people with a fear of public speaking picture an audience in their underwear to calm their nerves. It explains how people can tolerate meditation; with their eyes closed, they aren't actually locked in impenetrable blackness.

Some people are really bothered by aphantasia, one they know they have it. They feel they've been cheated. They think they might have other skills if their brain worked properly. But I doubt that.

Blake says he's been asked if he can draw, and he says he can't. I can draw, and at one point majored in art. How do I draw without picturing things? Kind of the same way I can tell you how many windows I have in my room. I store up facts. I look at a face, and see the nose hooks down slightly. So look down a draw a nose that does that and look up again. I see a short upper lip, look down, draw that, look up. Look up, note, look down, draw. It's easy.

If I had a mind's eye, perhaps I could just look at a face and hold it in my head while I drew it. That would be convenient, but it's not essential. I manage with what I've got. It's certainly less of a problem than my face blindness, which can make it difficult to make friends (because I treat people I've had interesting conversations with like total strangers). I think of aphantasia more as a curious condition.

At the same time, now that I realize how much people use their mind's eye, I feel aphantasia actually makes me more of an alien than my face blindness. I don't just lack a capability others have; I fundamentally use my brain differently than everyone else. (Between my  face blindness, aphantasia, and perhaps an auditory processing disorder, I have to wonder exactly how much my brain is diverging from the rest of humanity's.)

It also makes me wonder: is there anything else? Will I learn someday that there is something else other people can do that I didn't realize was possible? Are there other phrases that I've been taking figuratively when they are literal? Do people really *shoot* the breeze? Do bad dancers really have two left feet? Can people do handsprings when they're happen? Do hearts actually jump when people feel joy and break when people are sad?

Right now, I think I know how atypical my brain is, but I am prepared to learn, once again, that I don't know the half of it.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Sanders, Clinton, and the Agonizing Process of Deciding Which One to Vote For

In 2008, I voted for Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the New York primary. It was a decision I couldn't help second guessing in subsequent years, as Obama floundered amidst Republican opposition. My mother had been right; he didn't have the experience for the job.

I wondered if Clinton would have done better, and hoped that she would run in the future so I could find out. Now that has happened, and yet I find I'm strongly drawn to Bernie Sanders in much the way I was to Obama. I have to wonder; if I follow my heart, am I going to regret it a second time?


Clinton seemed terrific when she was first lady, smart and progressive, but as my senator she was suspect, displaying a mushy moderation that suggested she was more into positioning herself than changing the world. Then she voted in favor of a preemptive war in Iraq, which meant, I thought, that she was either too stupid to recognize the Bush administration's bullshit (detailed in the run-up to the war by the progressive press) or was simply taking a spineless, politically advantageous position.

Obama had been against that war. He also promised that his universal health plan wouldn't include a requirement that people buy health insurance; as someone who couldn't afford insurance, I was worried about facing fines. He spoke beautifully and offered a vision of a better, more hopeful world.

Unlike his most ardent fans, I never expected Obama to turn the U.S. into a progressive paradise. He was, after all, a politician, and bound to break the hearts of true believers. But I was still hugely disappointed by his meekness; he seemed the sort who would bring Roberts Rules of Order to a knife fight.


So here we are again. A man full of fire and fury, promising great things that might be impossible, versus a far more experienced woman who voted for a terrible war and offers less ambitious but far more concrete plans.

For a lot of people, it's an easy decision. Either Sanders is an impassioned visionary who will lead a modern revolution and Clinton is a corrupt hack with no principles who will hand the country over to the billionaire class, or Clinton is a brainy progressive feminist with deep experience whose realpolitik approach will move us forward while Sanders is an unelectable, impractical gadfly whose nomination is a Republican wet dream.

What I see are two smart, progressive, and imperfect candidates, either of which would be a million times preferable to even the least crazy Republican. Philosophically, Bernie is almost a perfect match for me, a fellow progressive who looks at enlightened Scandinavian countries and asks, why can't we do that? But as annoying as practical considerations are, they cannot be avoided. I have to ask, which candidate is more likely to win the election, and which candidate, if elected, is more likely to accomplish good things? Also, which candidate is more likely to royally screw up?


Electability is a big consideration when choosing a nominee, and in a normal political environment, electability would be Clinton's best friend. She is better known than Sanders, with more political experience. Sanders is an elderly agnostic Democratic Socialist; which normally would make him the most unelectable candidate in the world.

But let's face it, this is a weird year. Voters are sick of a political system that doesn't work and seems custom made for a wealthy elite. The Republican nominee is likely to be Donald Trump, a no-nothing blowhard with a frightening ability to sucker people in with his big daddy authoritarian promises and his constant lies and policy shifts.

Against Trump, Hillary is certainly the adult in the room, and in a sane country where voters want the reasonable, thoughtful candidate over the ticking time bomb, she could easily beat him. But in a year where people are obsessed with "authenticity," and shooting from the hip, Clinton's carefully triangulated positions and coziness with Wall Street  are more damaging than in a typical year. And her history of Republican-manufactured scandals has given her low trustworthy ratings with voters (I'm not saying that's fair, since all the problems I have with her are not the problems the Republicans have created, but it's still a consideration).

Sanders seems better positioned to beat Trump at his own game, out-shouting him, mocking his stupidity, while also being blindingly smarter than him. If people really want big changes, Sanders versus Trump offers a clear-cut choice. Sanders could win over Trump-ites, although the be fair, the reverse may be true as well; a lot of voters seem to just want to disrupt the system but aren't that picky about how it's done.

While Clinton's downside is that she has been softened up by years of molehills turned into mountains by the right, Sanders' downside is he hasn't experienced any real attacks at all. The Democrats' primary campaign has been pretty civilized. While the candidates are increasingly snippy, there is no real mud-slinging - no questioning of citizenship, no spousal slams, no mocking of physical attributes. I don't think he's even been attacked all that hard for saying up front he's going to raise taxes (claiming this will be balanced out by health insurance savings) which he would get slaughtered with in a general election.

What happens when Sanders gets into a savage knife fight with someone like Trump or Cruz? Does Sanders have any terrible skeletons in his closet? I doubt it. Can the Republicans create one? Sure. These are the people who used John Kerry's military heroism against him. Can Sanders withstand the tremendous heat? We don't know. We know Hillary can; she's been living on the sun for years.

Of course, the increased polarization of the electorate means the candidates might barely matter at all, because almost all the Democrats and Republicans will vote for their party, even if they hate the candidate. This gives the final decision to those freakishly unpredictable independents. In this case, enthusiasm and getting out the base is really important, and Sanders seems to have the edge there.

It is also possible that either candidate will win in a landslide due to a third-party candidacy for the conservatives if Trump is the nominee or a third-party run (or just a lot of sniping) from Trump if he isn't. Although things could get patched up with a Cruz-Trump ticket, which would be ... interesting.


Then there's the question of who can get more done.

Think of it this way. You have a stone quarry in the middle of a swamp, and you would like the stones mined, carried to a faraway hill, and built into a mansion. One contractor tells you it's impossible, but she can get enough stones to the edge of the swamp to build a decent, reasonably dry home, and maybe you can build a better house later. She has detailed  blueprints.

The other contractor says he will build that mansion on a hill, guaranteed. He will move heaven and earth to make it happen. He has a bunch of notes on post-its.

If she's right then voting for him will get you a bunch of stones littered along the path to the hill. But if she's wrong, you're living by the side of the swamp when you could have one hell of a view.

Who do you hire?

The pro-Clinton argument is simply that she knows how to work the levers of power. She knows how to deal, how to compromise, knows when to hold them and knows when to fold them.

She will build on what's here. She will tweak Obamacare, trying to get it closer to what it should be. She will try and push through a few more financial regulations. She will navigate the treacherous path. She will be sensible

But she'll never even try for the mansion on the hill. She doesn't believe in it.

Neither did Obama. He always started with a reasonable position, something centrist and practical that deserved wide support, and then was slapped down by Republicans who painted his most modest proposals as the works of a wild-eyed, America-hating Muslim anarchist.

Obama tried to be reasonable, and that failed because the other side was unreasonable. Sanders would not make that mistake. He would make huge progressive proposals. And while he might not get free college or a single-payer system, not starting at the center could be a powerful negotiating tactic.

What worries me about Sanders is that when asked how he will bring these miracles to pass, he says we need people to rise up, we need a revolution. But how does that happen? Politicians casually ignore what the majority want (better gun control laws, for example) in favor of what donors and lobbyists want. Even if Sanders could get people to demand the same things he demands (and this country is so polarized that this is unlikely), politicians entirely concerned with their own little gerrymandered districts are not going to join the Sanders revolution. This is a big, unwieldy country; it can only turn so sharply.

Still, Ronald Reagan created a pretty major shift in this country, and if Sanders can't turn the U.S. into Denmark, he could still, in theory, push it as far left as Reagan pushed it right.

Sanders is worrisomely vague about how he's going to pay for everything. He claims that his policies will lower health costs and improve the economy, and if that's true then we might be able to afford Sanders' big dreams. But what is the difference between Sanders' claims and those of Republicans who say if they cut taxes on the rich the economy will improve so much that the government will have more money than ever?

Once again though, the point may be trivial; if Republicans keep control of congress, neither Sanders nor Clinton is going to get anything done. The Republicans are perfectly happy to obstruct the government forever if need be. The stones will never be mined, the house never built. The contractor won't matter.

On the other hand, if Democrats get control of both the house and the senate, Sanders' big dreams could make a better country than Clinton's little ones.


Presidents can do a lot of damage. George W. Bush managed to tank the economy, plunge us into war and destabilize the mid-east. Bill Clinton pushed through laws that vastly increased the racial disparity in prison populations. 

I'm on the fence in terms of Clinton's electability and her efficacy, but I am far more worried about her capacity to screw things up. Because while Clinton's supporters offer her vast foreign policy experience as a positive, it is what worries me most.

First off, she voted for the Iraq war. At the time, I saw that as pure politically expediency, but it could also represent her general inclination to muck around in other countries and hope for the best. After all, she lobbied for regime change in Libya, which just further messed up the midle east.

I strongly believe in Obama's foreign policy tenet: don't do stupid shit. The history of U.S. foreign policy is the history of screwing up other countries, breaking their governments and alienating their citizens. Clinton, alas, has the interventionist mindset that leads to doing stupid shit, sometimes for very noble reasons. Obama gets a lot of grief because he realizes that America cannot remake the world; Clinton doesn't seem to get that.

I don't think Sanders wants to recreate the world in America's image. I don't think he's interesting in nation building. My feeling about Sanders lack of foreign policy experience is best summed up by the satirical op-ed, Sorry Bernie Bros, Your Candidate Just Doesn’t Have The Foreign Policy Experience Necessary To Prop Up A Pro-Western Dictatorship.  

The danger of Sanders is the danger of  unintended consequences. The more powerful the pill, the bigger the side effects. The more radical the change, the greater the unpredictable ripple effects. Sanders' sweeping proposals are tricky. A $15 minimum wage in Los Angeles is likely to affect the local economy differently than in Podunk, Idaho. Sanders could find himself spending an entire term trying to make one change work the way he expected it to. It's a sizable risk.


Sanders versus Clinton is not an exact repeat of Obama versus Clinton. Sanders has more experience in government than Obama had in 2008 and he's a far more progressive candidate. But once again I find myself torn between a candidate whose positions are appealing but whose practicality is suspect and a shifting compromiser who has a plan for getting things done but may not want to do the things I want her to. 

Maybe I was wrong to vote for Obama in 2008, but maybe I wasn't. Could Hillary really have done any better against the anarchists of the Republican party? We'll find out if she becomes president, and then I might be able to decide whether my Obama vote was a mistake. But I'll probably never know for sure whether Bernie or Hillary was the right candidate for 2016. All I know for certain is, whatever happens, I'll always wonder about the path not taken.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Bernie, Hillary, Sexism, Authenticity, and Elizabeth Warren

It is undeniable that, as a woman, Hillary Clinton faces a sexism that makes campaigning tricky. Pundits will obsess over stupid things like her hair and dress, they will scrutinize her actions as a wife in a way male politicians are never scrutinized for their marital conduct, they will look for signs of "womanly weakness" at every turn.

That being said, Clinton is not struggling to beat Bernie Sanders because, as Catherine Rampbell suggested in the Washington Post, Sanders' maleness allows him a freedom to seem authentic that Clinton doesn't have. Sanders, windblown and loud, can express passion; Clinton, constantly under watch by a sexist media, must be meticulous.

But its' not Sanders Brooklyn accent and mussed hair that make him seem authentic, nor are they the key to his popularity. And to see that, all one has to do is look at Elizabeth Warren.

With all due respect to Bernie, he was not most progressives first choice for president. Warren was the one every ultra-liberal democrat pictured taking the White House. Because Warren, with her kempt hair, midwest accent and pricey blazers, exudes exactly the passion and authenticity that Rampbell says sexism prevents Clinton from attaining.

One pundit suggested that Clinton's problem is we have cast her in the role of a grandmother, and when she raises her voice we feel we're being scolded. But Warren raises her voice all the time. She admonishes her foes with great force.

The difference is who is being admonished. If Warren is a grandmother, she is one who will see kids teasing another kid and run outside and chase them away with a broom. When she admonishes, she admonishes for you.

Hillary is something different. Like Warren, she can get angry, but often she's angry with all of us. She's angry because we keep throwing her vote for the Iran war back at her, angry because we asked for an explanation for her private email server, angry that people keep choosing dreamers like Obama and Sanders over a practical, sensible woman like herself. Hillary is the grandmother who tells you that you're a bad child if you don't eat your broccoli.

Hillary's authenticity problems are not because she can't be seen with messy hair. Her authenticity problems are because she's inauthentic. She answers questions with an evasive lawyerliness. She makes unsupportable claims, as when she said that being a woman makes her a true establishment outsider when her resume is remarkably insider-ish. She seems inauthentic because she switches positions and then says, oh no, I never really said I supported that, I just said I was open to it.

Authenticity isn't a male/female thing. Romney seemed inauthentic. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, comes across as passionate and authentic, even when she's being crazy and incoherent.

I'm not saying we should choose our political representatives based on that indefinable thing called authenticity. There are slick, talking-point-driven politicians like Nancy Pelosi who seem phony but still do a terrific job, and it's possible in the end that Clinton's experience, wonkiness, and nuts-and-bolts practicality would make her a better president than Sanders - I'm having difficulty making up my mind who to vote for.

What I'm saying is, if Elizabeth Warren were the candidate instead of Bernie, she would have the same fans, receive the same big crowds, and be attacked in the mainstream press for many of the same reasons. But no one would say she was doing so well because of sexism.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On Trigger Warnings and Toughening Up

When I first heard about trigger warnings, my reaction was not positive. To me, it seemed as though weak people were demanding to be catered to. People go through terrible things, but so many terrible things happen that the world can't be expected to grind to a halt for every traumatized soul. Trigger warnings struck me as the height of a coddling culture devoted to preventing discomfort. The world is a hard place, and people need to just fucking toughen up and deal with it.

I've been thinking this way for some time now, not really questioning my underlying visceral response. And then today an old remark happened to pop into my head; a simple question, asked years ago, that made me reconsider the whole idea of over sensitivity.


In the first grade, I had just moved to a new neighborhood, and was very unhappy about it. On the first day of school, while the class waited outside for the teacher, who was late, some kids started to tease me. I don't know what they said, but I started crying.

Tears are to children what blood is to sharks, and there was a verbal pile on. I panicked and started screaming, "STOP IT,"  which to keep going with the shark analogy, was like when the leg gets bitten off and the blood gushes out, pulling in more sharks until there is a huge feeding frenzy.

With that, my fate was sealed. I was the kid who screamed, and my peers all wanted to try that out for themselves. I was famous for it; people who had never met me would say, "hey, are you that kid that screams?", even when I no longer did.

Of course, some children go through far, far worse, but it still sucked. I avoided people as much as possible, hiding out in the library. I rarely had friends, and some of the few I had eventually turned on me, teasing me to gain traction with the other kids. From my perspective, the truest movie ever made about childhood is Welcome to the Dollhouse, the only movie I ever saw where I wasn't annoyed that the movie's "loser" character had a better childhood than I had.

I worked very hard to not cry and scream. It was a lot of work, it took many years, but by high school I was doing pretty well. Emotions were the enemy and the source of all my troubles, and it felt like a victory every time I managed to feel less and react less.


Decades later, I was talking to someone. I was talking about how fucking oversensitive people are, for example, people I dated. They would get upset about stupid little things. I could make some mild comment and they would just freak out. They needed to toughen up.

And the guy said, "you mean the way you had to toughen up when you were a kid?"

That was a "woah" moment. I was being asked, did I feel other people should tamp down on their emotions, curtail their feelings, so I could be insensitive? And the answer was no.

But it's easy to fall into old mental habits, which is why my first reaction to trigger warnings was still, toughen up, you big babies.


When I was perhaps ten years old, or whatever age it is when parents finally feel they can let their kids wander about on their own (an age that seems to have shifted since I was young), my parents gave me the lordly sum of $5 to spend at the state fair while they went off and did their own thing. I imagined going on a lot of rides, but I was distracted by a ring toss game. I bought three rings for a quarter, and missed three times. The guy running the booth said, don't give up, I'll give you four rings for another quarter. Then 5 rings, then 8, then 12, until I had spent the entire $5. There would be no midway rides for me.

Ashamed and heartbroken, I told my parents what had happened. They could have let that stand as a valuable lesson in the dangers of life, in the need to watch out for people, in the irrevocable nature of our mistakes, but they didn't. Instead, my dad hunted down the guy who managed the arcade and complained. He said it was wrong to take advantage of the naivety of a young child, and the ring toss guy had to give me my money back.

So I didn't learn that people will screw you, life is unfair and you have to accept it. I learned that people don't have the right to screw you, and that if they try, you should make a stink about it.


Toughening is a natural part of life. If you walk barefoot on gravel, your soles will toughen over time. If you don't like shoes, then that toughening is a good thing. It protects you from pain. It allows you to function. That's what toughening up is about; making adjustments that allow you to function.

For many of us, toughening up means growing a thicker skin. It means, in the words of Marge Simpson, that you, "Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down past your knees, until you're almost walking on them."

There's a problem with that sort of toughening, beyond the discomfort of walking on your own feelings. If it is necessary to toughen up because the world sucks, then by toughening up, you are agreeing to the world sucking.

So you toughen up, and when people are mean to you, you laugh it off. If your boss mistreats you, you cioe. Everyone's got problems, there's nothing you can do except to grin and bear it.

When we insist that asking for trigger warnings is a result of being weak and coddled, we are demanding that traumatized people (and very few of us aren't, to some degree, traumatized) be tough.

But perhaps the demand for trigger warnings is simply a different variety of toughness. Perhaps being tough is demanding that people show sensitivity to your needs. Perhaps you are tough if you refuse to let people make you swallow your feelings.

Some poeple argue that it's a cold, cruel world, and if we cater to college students now, they'll be in for a shock when they enter an adult life of asshole bosses and vindictive neighbors. What will these coddled kids do in the real world, when they can no longer run to daddy or teacher?

But maybe we have things backward. Perhaps this toughening up is why we are so quick to accept abuse. Perhaps demanding trigger warnings could lead to demanding fair treatment at work and home. Perhaps the assholes of the world rely on all these people who use their toughness to power through all the shit heaped upon them. Perhaps toughened people accept abuse that sheltered people would rebel against. Perhaps encouraging people to toughen up is making the world a safer for assholes.


In the classic Shel Silverstein song, "A Boy Named Sue," famously recorded by Johnny Cash, a father names his son Sue before leaving his family. Sue faces a lot of ridicule and fights back, becoming tough and quick-witted. As an adult, he meets his father, and tries to kill him, at which point dad says the name was to make him tough and he was pleased to see it worked.

The moral Sue took away? Don't fucking give your son a girl's name. Being tough enough to almost kill your dad isn't worth all the pain it takes to get you there.

Toughening up didn't make me a better or happier person. What has made me a better, happier person has been years spent stripping those protective emotional layers away, allowing myself to soften just a little. Still, I always wipe my tears away when I cry at movie; letting people see you will always feel dangerous.

How would my life have been different if I'd been more coddled? If teachers hadn't watched me being tortured and thought, that's just kids being kids?  If school administrators had tried to stop the bullying instead of writing me off as that kid who screamed because he wanted attention? If a psychiatrist had, instead of putting me on Ritalin (which had no effect because I was sensitive, not fucking hyperactive), admitted that bullying cannot be remedied by medicating the victims of it.

We'll never know, but I'm in favor of coddling a generation and seeing how it turns out.

I'll never be so soft as to need trigger warnings, and I'll probably always feel a visceral dislike of them. Trigger warnings are stupid and the people who insist on them are big fucking babies. And I say to all you big fucking babies; be tough enough to refuse to toughen up. See if it makes a better world.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Tin GOP

The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz was once (as you know if you read the book) a real man. He lost his body parts one by one to a cursed axe, until he was all tin, and thus, no longer human.

I suspect the moment other people thought of him as a tin man was earlier than when he thought of himself that way. There was probably a time when he was still thinking of himself as a human with a lot of tin when everyone else was thinking of him as tin with a few flesh parts. It always takes some time to acknowledge a new reality.


I've been fascinated by the panic of mainstream Republicans over the state of their party. Donald Trump, a racist loud-mouthed populist with no clear political philosophy beyond yellow at minorities, stands a good chance of being the Republican nominee for president of the United States. If he doesn't win, it will probably be Ted Cruz, a right-wing extremist hated by his colleagues whose only goal seems to be to cause the gears of government to grind to a halt.

Right wing pundits are wringing their hands and crying out, "THIS IS NOT OUR PARTY." They insist they are the party of small, sensible government and free-market ideals, not the party of racism and demagoguery and intolerance.

But of course, they are that party. Racism, intolerance, and rabid hatred of seemingly most of the country have been, for a long time, as much a part of the GOP as helping the rich at the expense of the poor.

Republicans once actually did believe in government as a tool to make things better. For all his flaws, it was Richard M. Nixon who started the EPA. But the party has moved much further to the right since then. The modern Republican party began with Reagan, an arch conservative who by today's standards is still too liberal for the GOP.

The GOP's cursed axe was the Tea Party. The Tea Party was fueled not by a consistent political philosophy (they would protest against government entitlements while demanding the government not cut any entitlements they enjoyed), but by rage at gun laws and the dewhitening of America, and a general sense that they were getting screwed by "them."

The Republicans saw the Tea Party as a large voter block that they could use to gain and hold onto political power. They embraced the Tea Party, they supported Tea Party Candidates, the chose Sarah Freaking Palin as a vice presidential candidate, all to get those Tea Party voters to come out and help them crush the Democrats. They raised their voices, questioned Obama's citizenship, swift-boated John Kerry, and allowed stupidity and craziness to take a place of honor in the party.

And without them realizing it, everything they saw as classic conservatism was being chopped away.

Right now the leading GOP presidential candidates, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, are all Tea Partiers. The are all extremely right wing. And the percentage of Republicans who support them make up a strong majority of the party. Republicans fed the Tea Party like that plant in Little Shop of Horrors, and my, how it has grown.

Now that the last vestige of human flesh is gone, the heart is absent, and the GOP is 100% tin, conservative pundits are screaming that something has to be done before the Republican party is destroyed.

But there is no more Republican party now, there is only the Tea Party. Eventually, the few remaining Republicans will have to accept that.