I was typing in various combinations of keywords into Google, trying to find a web page that I hadn’t visited in a long time. The summary of one of the pages it served up in answer to one search attempt mentioned the pseudonym of a fannish acquaintance I hadn’t talked to in a long time. It was a blog, with a date of just a year ago. So even though it wasn’t what I was searching for, I clicked on the link out of curiosity to find out what had happened to the acquaintance.
As I read the blog entry, I realized the author was another fan I hadn’t seen in many years. One who I would just as soon never have contact with again, since he was a troublemaker who had caused several people I care about a lot of grief. But, like a collision that you cannot turn away from, I had to read on. The post was a rant about a bunch of people (including the person whose name had attracted me to the link) who, years ago, had “violated his privacy” by reading his public posts on LiveJournal. These “despicable stalkers” even had the temerity to repeat some of the nasty, slanderous* things he had said about some other people.
Reading a publicly available blog, particularly on a service such as LiveJournal, is hardly invading your privacy. Especially not when, as this guy used to do, you have advertised said blog far and wide. Neither is it stalking to read said blog. When you say nasty things about people in public, there can be consequences. It is not unreasonable to expect that the people you have said nasty things about, as well as their friends, will take exception to your words.
Similarly, if you donate money to an initiative or referendum that aims to restrict someone’s legal rights, or strip those legal rights away, that is not a private act. That’s a public act. You are attempting to change the law to conform with your personal opinions. You’re trying to force people to live the way you think they ought. Thinking that they ought to live a particular way is a private opinion, so long as you just think it. But once you cross the line to signing petitions and donating money to get the law passed, you have crossed the line into public action.
People who would be harmed by that law are perfectly within their rights to boycott your business, to suggest to their friends that they boycott your business, or to suggest to strangers that they boycott your business. They are perfectly within their rights to tell you that they disagree with you. They are perfectly within their rights to refer to your opinions as bigoted or hateful.
It’s not right to threaten you, vandalize your property, physically harm you, or call you nasty names.
Pointing out that your arguments are illogical, or that statements you have made are untrue (even to call them lies) is not calling you a nasty name. Calling you a liar edges over the line, but pointing out that your statements are false does not.
Opinions are personal. Expressing them in a conversation with a friend in a location and under a context in which you can expect them to exercise their discretion is mostly private. Putting the opinion on a bumper sticker is not private. Paying for political ads that urge other people to act on your opinion is not private. Paying to enact laws that force your opinion on other people is not private.
* I am well aware of the legal distinction between slander (which in court refers only to spoken assaults on another’s character), and libel (which in court refers to printed or published assaults). However, slander also refers to any false, abusive, or malicious attack on another’s character, while libel generally has a narrower and more restrictive definition. As an adjective, slanderous, being less specific is clearly applicable as a means to characterize the nature of statements, no matter how they are delivered.
I have a bad habit regarding old shoes. Though it’s really just another manifestation of my packrat tendencies.
I hang onto shoes after I replace them. I don’t intend to accumulate a bunch of unused pairs of shoes. My thinking is usually, “these still have some wear in them, and if my new shoes get damaged or something, I can use these temporarily.”
That would be fine if my next step was to toss the older pair that the now-old pair was bought to replace, but I don’t. One reason is that the old shoes tend to vanish into the closet or under the bed, and I slowly forget about them. So things will trundle on this way for long periods of time until (usually while cleaning out the closet or something similar) I discover a bunch of pairs of old shoes. It’s always a surprise just how many pairs there are in the stash.
But even the hanging onto one pair just in case is a bit silly. There are people who only own one pair of shoes at a time, but I’m not one of them. I try to keep one pair of very nice dress shoes for those rare occasions that one needs to dress up, and a pair of faux dress shoes for the office, a pair of sturdy shoes for those times one is digging in the garden, helping a friend move, et cetera, and a pair of casual, comfy shoes for just general running around. And since I was permanently placed on a no-carb diet by my doctors, I have a tendency to get flare-ups of gout every now and then, so I have a pair of sandal-like shoes that pass for regular shoes, but that I can actually get my feet into when one is badly swollen with gout.
So, in the event that a pair of shoes gets damaged or soaked or something, I have several other pairs of “current” shoes that I can wear until I replace the damaged ones, without resorting to any old pairs.
I know this, but convincing my inner packrat is hard. And when I pick up a new pair of shoes, it’s too easy to worry about getting rid of the old ones later. Which quickly turns into forgetting that they are even there, and so on.
Of course, I think the paltry three pairs of old shoes I discovered yesterday pales in comparison to how many old shoes of my husband’s are kicking around the bedroom, but that isn’t an excuse.
I need to toss the old ones. Then I won’t be standing in a glass house if I mention his. Right?
During the last 27 years I have shaved off my beard exactly twice. Both times it was for a Halloween costume. The first time, a friend who was attending one of the parties we went to had just completed medical school the year before and was in his internship. I had noticed him looking at me oddly. The first time I attributed it to this being the first time he’d seen me without a beard.
Eventually he asked, “So, how did you get your lip tore so badly it required stitches?”
I had forgotten about the scar. I didn’t think it was that noticeable even when there wasn’t facial hair to hide it.
So I told him the story of one of my dad’s worse drunken Sunday afternoons when I was 10 years old, and how he’d come to beat me badly enough to break my collar bone, split my lip, and so on. This led other people who had starting listening in to ask some questions, so I wound up talking way more about Dad’s abusive behavior than I like. The sum up is: I, my sister, and our half siblings each has our own small collection of physical scars thanks to dad’s beatings.
One of the people listening observed, “Wow! You seem so much more together than I would expect.”
I made some kind of self-deprecating comment, such as, “Oh, I’m far less sane than you realize” or something, and tried to change the subject.
One of the others started telling a story of an ex who had had a similarly abusive childhood, and how incredibly messed up he was after. A couple others chimed in with similar tales. And then one person said he had known a few people like that, who blamed every time they screwed up—particularly when they hurt people close to them—on that abusive childhood.
“It’s just an excuse to be as thoughtless and irresponsible as they’d like,” he said. And then looked at me as if the fact that I at least try to think and be responsible proves his statement.
Which I wasn’t completely comfortable with. I agree that a dysfunctional childhood isn’t an excuse for such behavior, but life is very seldom as simple as that.
My paternal grandmother doesn’t believe in mental illness. She would insist that it’s all just excuses or someone wanting attention. Never mind that for some mental illness we can point to specific physical problems in the brain, or a lack of ability to produce or regulate a particular neurochemical, she always believed that if the mentally ill person wanted to be well, they would be. This was particularly troublesome when one of my sisters began having epileptic seizures, and grandma announced that as far as she was concerned, epilepsy was in the same category as mental illness, and it wasn’t a real problem at all.
So, while I agree that a bad childhood doesn’t excuse any and all bad or troublesome behaviors a person may exhibit in adulthood, it’s no less arrogant and cruel to dismiss those experiences as totally irrelevant than my grandmother’s thoughts on epilepsy.
It is a gross oversimplification to say that people like me have “gotten over it” and everyone else is just using it as an excuse. More accurate to say that some coping strategies are more socially acceptable and less disruptive than others.
While I do think that I’ve done a fairly good job of moving past that unfortunate history, I can’t honestly take all the credit. Some of it is just luck. I inherited a certain amount of arrogance and bullheadedness from that same abusive father, reinforced by an extra dose of stubborn refusal to give up from the grandmother on Mom’s side of the family. When my parents finally divorced and we moved more than 1000 miles from Dad, I was lucky enough to find a group of sci fi geeks and music nerds my own age. That gave me a new sense of family and belonging I hadn’t had before. I’ve built a career out of a knack for language, a predilection for troubleshooting, a level of curiosity some might describe as unhealthy, and a compulsion for explaining things to anyone I can corner.
A lot of my “talents” would be exceedingly annoying characteristics in a different context.
Which isn’t to say that we are obligated to put up with behavior from someone who doesn’t seem to want to change. We all have our limits. Sometimes we have to make that cold calculation: is having this person in my life worth the effort and trouble they put me through? If the answer is “no,” then we find a way to gracefully bow out of their life. No need to make a dramatic statement, or try to convince everyone else to drop the friend. Drastic measures are only required if someone’s health or safety is in danger, or if the other person willfully pursues you and tries to drag you back into their crazy.
Because troubling or annoying behavior isn’t an excuse for you to be a jerk.
When I was about 9 years old, my parents paid for swimming lessons. My dad did so under protest, because he had never had swimming lessons. Apparently when I was much younger he had tried, once, to teach me to swim the way he had learned: during a fishing trip he threw me into the creek.
I have no real recollection of this. I have had nightmares about drowning, and for the longest time I would have a bit of a panic if my face went underwater, but I don’t remember his attempt. I’m told That I just screamed and went under, sinking like a rock. And when he decided to pull me out, I struggled free and ran until I found someone to tell that my dad had tried to kill me.
So, some years later I had lessons. I learned how not to drown, but I didn’t like being in the water, so I never got good at it.
During the summer that I was taking those lessons, it seemed every conversation between adults near me was about whether swimming lessons were a good idea. There were people who agreed with my dad: if I couldn’t learn by being thrown in, I deserved to drown someday. Others thought maybe just a friend of the family or another relative should be able to do it without the expense. A few thought if you didn’t learn before a particular age, you never could. One particluar woman from our church, I recall, said it was okay for boys to take swimming lessons, but not girls, because “while they’re learning, some guy is going to take them out there and turn into an octopus.”
(I thought the image was hilarious, even after someone explained they were talking about sexual assault; come on, an inexperienced swimmer can pull a good swimmer trying to rescue them to a mutual death, you think someone fighting off a groper can do less?)
When another woman pointed out they could get lessons from a female teacher, and it would be better to know how to swim, in case they ever fell into the water somewhere, than not.
“I just stay away from the water, and so will my daughters!”
Which is very shortsighted, but then we approach many things about young people’s education that way, like abstinence-only sexual education. The latter is far more dangerous than not teaching kids how to swim. Statistics show that kids with abstinence-only sex ed are absolutely no less likely to have sex sooner than their parents think they ought, and far, far, far more likely to have unprotected sex when they do.
And don’t get me started on all the myths and misunderstandings about sex that plague people for decades into unhappy marriages!
Not teaching kids truthfully about sex is like not teaching them about healthy food. Yes, you need to pick age-appropriate levels of disclosure, but it is a natural part of life, and just as important to one’s health, mental and otherwise.
But, hey, If you want to stick with, “Just stay away!” I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.
“You’re probably too young to remember…” was a phrase that sometimes I dreaded. Other times it signaled a bit of a history lesson I would find interesting.
I’m not entirely happy with how often I find myself using that line. It’s just a natural consequence of getting older. But that’s the problem. We’re not socialized to be happy about getting older.
I’ve known people who got quite radical and angry when they heard that phrase. “It’s nothing more than an ageist attempt to disempower me for being young!” Which sometimes it can be, but most of the time it is simply a literal statement of fact: you weren’t alive when such and such happened, so you have no personal memories of the event.
I read the phrase this morning on a few news blogs because the man who played the clown host of a morning children’s show that was popular in the 60s and 70s died last night.
I don’t have the excuse of being too young to remember the glory days of his show, but I don’t remember them. It was a show produced and seen only on a Seattle channel, and when I was young enough to be in the target age, I lived far, far away. So I’m just as detached as a bunch of much younger people about this. I can understand, in the abstract, how people feel, but I may never quite get it.
He never completely retired, continuing to make public appearances, raise money for charity, and so on, showing up in his patchwork painted limosine. By random chance earlier this year I nearly attended his final public appearance. I was buying salmon at the wild salmon market at fisherman’s terminal and confused that there was a giant crowd of people, and a bunch were wearing red clown noses. Then, as I was driving home, I passed his limo going the other way.
The memories of some experiences we have sometimes carry far more emotional weight and importance to us years after the fact than we expect them to. And that can be hard to explain to another person. When we describe it, even to us, it sounds silly. So he told some jokes and acted silly on screen. And you watched it every single morning when you were supposed to be getting ready for school. And?
But we all have experiences like that. It might be a family ritual, or a thing we used to do in church, or a favorite food at a chain restaurant.
In the abstract it is no big deal. But the human heart doesn’t live in the abstract.
In A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge is trying to get rid of the men soliciting charity donations, he declares, “If they would rather die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population!” Later, the Ghost of Christmas Present hurls that line back at Scrooge, when Scrooge is worrying about Tiny Tim’s health. The notion of people’s lives being a surplus to be disposed of sounds harsh to us, but it was an accepted notion to many people at the time.
Long before Dickens wrote that line, in fact, before Dickens himself was born, the British Parliament passed the Chimney Sweepers Act 1788, which, among other things, forbid Chimney Sweeps from “hiring” apprentices less than eight years of age. Climbing boy (sometimes girls) where small children essentially sold by families too poor to feed all their kids to Chimney Sweeps. They climbed up through the elaborate and dirty ducts of industrial chimneys to clear and clean them. It was a hard and dangerous life. Most died before puberty. Virtually all that live past puberty died in their late teens from “a most noisome, painful and fatal disease” called Soot Wart, which was eventually identified as Chimney Sweep’s Cancer, the first identified industrial-caused cancer.
But a lot of them didn’t live long enough to succumb to the cancer, since the soot they literally lived in (one master chimney sweep once famously disparaged another because he actually allowed his climbing boys more than two baths a year) contains all sorts of nasty substances, including arsenic. Others got trapped in chimneys where if they were lucky they would die of asphyxiation before they were literally cooked to death.
Then there was the habit some bosses had of setting a fire once the boy was up to make sure he moved fast (if he didn’t work fast enough, he died from smoke inhalation).
Being a climbing boy wasn’t truly an apprenticeship. The only skill one learned was climbing chimneys, and that didn’t lead to better employment. They were never paid wages. And their room and board included a nightly routine of standing close to a fire and while having elbows and knees scrubbed with brine on a stiff brush (which toughened the skin into something that resembled an insect’s carapace). In Scotland Chimney Sweeps didn’t use climbing boys at all, but rather pulled sets of rags and specially designed brushes up through the chimneys one ropes. In 1803 a man named George Smarts invented a mechanical sweeping machine, but virtually no one in the U.S. or U.K. used it.
But the climbing boys system was cheaper. The 1788 act was never really enforced, neither were subsequent acts (1834, 1840) that set the age higher and called for various health and safety measures. One reason they weren’t enforced is because the enforcement mechanisms proposed in each bill were always amended out in order to get enough votes to pass. A very few Master Chimney Sweeps switched to the mechanical brush system. From time a politician or other somewhat prominent person would take up the cause, but sending boys up the chimneys was cheaper and mostly worked. The price of the suffering and death wasn’t factored in because, well, there were always more boys.
It wasn’t until 1875 when a Coroner’s Inquest first ruled the death of a boy in a chimney as manslaughter (rather than “death by misadventure”) that anything really changed.
Then there were the baby farming scandals of the 1870s, in which people who were supposed to be fostering children (many orphaned, but most were the children of unwed or widowed mothers who had to work in grueling factory conditions, and couldn’t care for their own children) were systematically murdering them.
Or people like H.H. Holmes, who’s “murder hotel” was shut down in 1894, but not before he murdered (then either dismembered and sold to medical schools, or incinerated) between 100 and 200 people (modern serial killers are amateurs by comparison).
We live in this delusion that our modern world is more brutal and uncaring than “the good old days.” An event like a theatre shooting happens, and we tut-tut about how much more dangerous our modern world is.
Never mind that murder rates have been going down for centuries. The murder rate, as a percentage of the population, is far, far lower in 2012 than it was in 1812. Never mind that in the 18th and 19th century the overwhelming majority of deaths were due to violence, accident, or illness that is now preventable. It is only in relatively recent times that most people can look forward to the probability of dying of old age, rather than any of those other things.
The times are not getting more brutal. People are not more uncaring than we used to be.
And the solution is definitely not to turn back the clock. We’ve been steadily decreasing the number of deaths suffered through violence, industrial accident, and so forth for a couple of hundred years by incrementally improving how we do things—and sometimes that means imposing regulations with real penalties.
In December, 1999, a U.S. Customs agent in Port Angeles, Washington became suspicious of one passenger driving his car off a ferry from Canada, and asked him to step out of the car. While she was trying to get him to answer questions while she checked his passport, other customs agents searched the car, and found a large number of bags and bottles of suspicious substances. The driver fled on foot, was tackled a few blocks away, and arrested.
Experts quickly determined that the materials in the car were ingredients to build a very big bomb, and soon put the pieces together of a plot to set the bomb off at the Los Angeles International Airpot on New Year’s Eve.
In Seattle, a suddenly nervous mayor and city council feared that there might be more bombers out there, and announced they were considering canceling the New Year’s Eve fireworks display at the Space Needle, just in case. People were upset. Businesses that had spent a lot of money for the celebration were very upset. People argued that canceling the celebration would be the same as surrendering to the terrorists.
After bit of sturm und drang, the officials agreed to let the fireworks go forward. But the park around the Space Needle would be fenced off, so the public could not come in. Some private property owners offered to clear out a couple of nearby parking lots so people could gather there. And the fireworks happened.
And Mayor Paul Schell (whose embarrassing defeat in the primary election the next year has earned him a bit of immortality, as reporters in Western Washington now refer to the act of an incumbent failing to advance from the primary to general elected as being “Schelled”) earned a new nickname: Mayor Wimp.
The stupid part was that fencing off the park didn’t put anyone in any less danger. Since the parking lots were announced days in advanced, any theoretical bombers could have placed their bomb near one of those parking lots and caused a horrific number of deaths. The only thing that the fencing did was make sure that those tragic deaths would happen on private property, so the city would theoretically not be liable.
As if a good legal team couldn’t argue the city was still somewhat culpable because the city told people to gather at the parking lots.
It’s tempting, when some horrible thing like a bombing, a shooting spree, or a threat of such a thing happens, for people to run around frantically doing things to keep people safe. Just in case someone else is planning the same thing. Or in case someone decides to copy the sociopath.
Bank robber Willie Sutton (who stole about 2 million dollars during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and spent more than half his life in jail) is said to have once answered that he picked banks because “that’s where the money is.” He probably never actually said those words, but they remain true nonetheless.
The Millenium Bomber wasn’t targeting LAX because he had a grudge against that airport. The Theatre Gunman didn’t target The Dark Knight Rises because he hates Batman movies. These places are picked because that’s where people are.
And the reason no one was killed in a bomb blast near the Space Needle on New Year’s Eve, 1999, wasn’t because nervous officials fenced off the park. It was because no bomber was targeting Seattle that holiday.
If we all suddenly decide not to got to the movies, the next nutjob will just figure out where the most people will be, and he’ll go there. Hiding isn’t a solution.
There isn’t an easy solution. We can look at better ways to enforce gun laws and better ways to deliver mental health care. We can try to pay a bit more attention to our surroundings. We can try to increase the amount of goodwill and mutual respect in society. Those things won’t cure the problem, but just like that Customs Agent who had a hunch, sometimes we’ll get lucky.
When I was in my teens, Agathe Christie’s Curtain, Poirot’s final case, was published. A friend read it before I did, and told me there was no way I’d figure out the ending. We had had discussions before about mysteries. I had been a big mystery fan as long as I could remember—not surprising, since my mother had read Heinlein and Christie novels aloud to me as a baby and toddler.
We ended up in a bet about whether I would figure it out. He bought a second copy of the paperback and rigged it up with a seal covering the last fifty or so pages. I would read it to that point, stop, and then not read further until I had told him my guess.
I did it. He was carefully examining his seal when I told him who the killers were and what had happened. He stared at me, open mouthed. “You swore you wouldn’t read another copy or ask anyone how it ended!”
I insisted that I had done neither, and asked him if I was correct.
He threw the book at me and stomped out.
I tore the seal off and finished the book. I had gotten it right, not quite down to every detail, but I had definitely solved it.
For at least a year afterward he would occasionally accuse me of cheating. Other times he would bring it up, say he believed me that I hadn’t cheated, but still couldn’t understand how I did it. He would tease me that I should become a cop instead of pursuing my writing dreams.
I want to be clear here that I did not cheat. I didn’t peek. I didn’t overhear anyone talking about it. I didn’t find another copy. I didn’t ask anyone about it in any way.
But, it could be argued that I had a some possibly unfair advantages:
1. I literally had been listening to and reading mystery stories for longer than I could remember.
2. I had been intentionally studying the art of crafting mystery stories: reading countless articles in magazines like The Writer and Writer’s Digest, getting books on writing fiction in general and mystery in particular through interlibrary loan, writing mystery stories of my own. I was exceptionally well-versed in the tricks of the trade.
3. I was familiar with Christie’s writing in particular.
Those probably weren’t unfair, really, however:
4. I knew that Agathe Christie had written this book 30 years earlier intending it to be the fitting end to Poirot and Hastings’s careers. She’d originally stuck it in a vault to be published after her death. She agreed to the publication in ’75 because she knew she was dying and would never write again. That narrowed the possibilities of how the story would end.
5. I knew that the ending was something which this friend, who was no dummy, had thought was completely unforeseeable. Again, that made it easier to pick from the possibilities that occured to me as I contemplated the clues. Another way to look at it: that prompted me to at least contemplate possibilities which might otherwise seem too outlandish to consider.
This friend once asked me how could I enjoy mysteries at all if I often figured them out before the end. He is hardly the only person to ask that.
For me, part of the fun of a good mystery is finding the puzzle pieces in the storyline and admiring how well they are constructed, or how good a job the author does of putting them in plain sight while not making them obvious.
Sometimes I am completely blindsided, and if that happens without the author cheating, that is just as much fun as figuring it out before the reveal.
Bad mysteries aren’t bad simply because they are predictable. They’re bad when they are too predictable. When the author (or author and director, in the case of a movie or show) clumsily gives things away or relies on cliches, there is no delight in the reveal. If the author cheats by simply withholding information, or otherwise pulling something bizarre and shocking out of nowhere, that also spoils the fun.
And, as in all stories, if the author makes us care about the characters, even if the puzzle isn’t terribly difficult, we can still enjoy the battle of wits between the detective and the same puzzle.
On the first day of school my eighth grade year, instead of having each of us go to our final period class at the end of the day, they had all the girls go to the library for an “assembly,” while all the football players went to the gym for a pre-practice meeting. And they told the boys not going out for football to report to the math teacher’s room.
It was a small town middle school: sixth, seventh, and eighth grade totaling a bit less than 200 kids, about half of them boys. There were only eight boys out of that 100 who were not going out for football. So the eight of us sat in the room, not sure exactly why we were there, or what we were supposed to do.
And then the principal walked in.
I was having a wide-ranging talk with a friend last night, and I found myself quoting another friend. “There’s a part of me that lives in constant fear that other people are going to figure out that I’m just faking it. That I’m not really all grown up, et cetera.”
And he said he is continually amazed (and somewhat heartened) at how many people he thinks of as pretty accomplished confess to that feeling. “It’s sort of comforting to know I’m not the only one.”
The thing is, there’s another part of me, possibly a bigger part, that is probably the world’s most arrogant man imaginable. That part of me is absolutely convinced that there is not a single problem in the world—heck, in the universe!—that I can’t fix, if I just have the time. That part of me knows it can figure out anything, just given some time to study the situation.
And somewhere in between is a practical part of me that knows some problems are intractable. But it can only reign in the arrogant one with the argument that we have to pick our battles. We don’t have time to solve everything, and besides, we should have some fun every now and then.
I don’t completely understand how the arrogant guy and the “I don’t know what I’m doing!” guy live in the same head, but I’ve had to come to accept it.
This morning I had the following epiphany: I know that there are things I’m really good it. Even “I don’t know what I’m doing!” me knows that we are freaky good at diagnosing certain kinds of computer problems and finding work-arounds. I know it. I’m constantly doing it at work. I receive frequent compliments and expressions of gratitude from other people for helping them with these things.
But, there’s that niggling suspicion that the reason so few other people are good at it is not because it is the result of a particular talent, but more because it isn’t really that important. Everyone else secretly knows that there will always be one idiot savant who actually can fix these weird issues (or at least show you how to recover your work and make the application produce what you need). It’s not worth their time to learn how to think like this and do those things, see?
Objectively, I know that isn’t true, but this comes from that irrational part of the brain. There is always going to be that doubt that these things I’m good at aren’t anywhere near as difficult or important as they seem to me.
There’s also the fact that I don’t want to turn into the arrogant jerk all the time. There are plenty of them out there, already. So the practical me understands the value of that self-doubt. Self-esteem unchecked is bad for myself, people around me, and the world at-large. Unchecked self-doubt is pretty destructive, too. There needs to be a balance.
Acknowledge your own talents. When you do something, do it with confidence, but never forget that you can make mistakes. And when those mistakes happen, don’t despair, don’t deny, don’t ignore. Fix them.