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Misleading notions my teachers taught, Part 1: Democracy’s Not What You Think

U.S. population isn't equally distributed, which wouldn't be a problem except that the Constitution apportions several important thing by state. (click to embiggen)

U.S. population isn’t equally distributed, which wouldn’t be a problem except that the Constitution apportions several important thing by state. (click to embiggen)

I believe that it was one of my fourth grade teachers who first explained to me how the Founding Fathers designed our government. First she explained that seats in the House of Representatives were allotted proportionately to each state’s population. Then she explained why the Constitution gave every state two Senators, regardless of their population: “They were afraid that the big states would gang up on the little states.” And she pointed to Virgina on the map as an example of a big state, then Rhode Island as an example of a small state. For elementary students this choice evoked a very specific idea, because we were all familiar with the experience of a kid who was bigger bullying a smaller kid, as well as how gangs of bullies seemed to form on every school yard.

There were problems with the teacher’s analogy, of course. The first is that Virginia was a “big state” for purposes of the actual Constitutional question, not because it was physically larger, per se, but because it had a much higher population. The second is that, while a state is a governmental entity that in theory represents the people inhabiting it’s territory, that entity doesn’t always represent the needs and wishes of all of its citizens equally.

Now, at the time the Continental Congress was drafting the Constitution, state population densities were not as lopsided as they are now, so there happened to be a rough correlation between the physical size of most states and their populations, so it is easy to understand how the geographic size became conflated with size of population.

There was a fear among the states with lower populations that the higher population states would, if given power in the new government proportionate to population, overrule concerns raised by those states. That is one reason why the original Continental Congress had consisted of an equal number of delegates from each state, and why each state only got one vote (despite having multiple delegates). It is also why under the Articles of Confederation, the Congress (which consisted of only one house, and was the entirety of the Federal government for the first ten years of independence—there was no executive branch nor a judiciary) had also consisted of an equal number of delegates from each state, regardless of population.

It wasn’t a fear of a few big hulking bullies, it was a fear of the tyranny of the majority.

So, when the states all agreed in 1787 that the Articles of Confederation weren’t giving them an actual working government, they called a Continental Congress (separate from the federal Congress) to draft a solution.

That process created a Congress of two houses, one had members (in theory) proportionate to the population of each state, the other gave equal representation to each state regardless of population. At the time, this seemed like a brilliant compromise. Another portion of the Constitution laid out the election of the President in a similar way: each state would get a number of votes equal to the total number of representatives and senators it had in the Congress. This gave high population states more votes than low population states, but also gave the low population states more votes than they would be entitled to due to population alone.

I mention above that the representation in the lower house is only proportionate in theory, and here’s why: every state, regardless of population, gets at least one representative. There are currently three states whose populations are fewer than the average population of a congressional district in more populous states. And, because the size of the lower house hasn’t been increased in 90 years, these disparities get weird even when comparing only states that have more than two Representatives in the House: some districts are nearly twice the population of others.

Because the Electoral College is skewed by both the two-senators-no-matter-population rule and the mathematical disparities of the apportionment of the House, that means that voters in the less densely populated states have, for all intents and purposes, four times as much say in selecting the President as voters in some of the more densely populated states.

Because of this disparity, half the population of the country only accounts for 18% of the votes in the Senate. That means that the other half get 82% of the votes.

Because of this disparity, half the population of the country only accounts for 18% of the votes in the Senate. That means that the other half get 82% of the votes.

When maps like the second one here are shared by conservatives, the question that gets asked, “Do you really want only this much of the country to elect our Presidents?” This plays into the same misconception that my teacher gave about big states and little states: Even though it says right there in the text by the map that these nine states comprise a full half of the population, emotionally you process the size of the other states as representing a majority, when it doesn’t.

The fact that 82 of the 100 members in the Senate represent only half the population of the country, is also one reason why we frequently have Congressional gridlock. And it is certainly playing out in the current government shutdown.

How to steal and election. Gerrymander.

How to steal and election. Gerrymander. (click to embiggen)

Gerrymandering of district for electing Representatives also contributes to these problems. And gerrymandering can be very powerful. My favorite example is to just look at what happened in my state, Washington, during the 1994 midterm elections. At the time, Washington had nine Representatives in Congress. In that election, just over 60% of the voters of Washington state voted to have a Democrat represent them in Congress. Knowing that 60% of the voters chose a Democrat, you would expect that out of 9 seats, at least 5 of them would be filled by Democrats, right? That isn’t what happened. Instead, only 3 seats went to Democrats, and 6 went to Republicans. That was because of gerrymandering.

When I’ve written about these issues before, some folks have pointed out that fixing it would require amending the Constitution—which requires supermajority votes in both houses of Congress and then a supermajority of states have to ratify. Plus, fixing the Senate is a particularly difficult issue. And no one likes the solution I suggested (half-jokingly), which is a Constitutional amendment that requires any state whose population isn’t large enough to justify three Representatives must cease to be a state and merge with a neighboring state.

But there are things that can be done to alleviate the problem which don’t require amending the Constitution. The first is to simply increase the number of Representatives in the House so that the district disparities are alleviated. There have been a number of bills proposed (and some with bipartisan sponsors) toward this end. One popular solution is called the “Wyoming Rule.” Not because it was proposed by Wyoming, but because Wyoming is the lowest population state. The Wyoming Rule would set up a system where each time when Congress does reapportionment after each Census, part of the process is to increase the total number of Representatives so that the average size of a Congressional District equals the population of the least populous state. Many nations of parliaments/assemblies/what-have-you that are much larger than our House of Representatives and they manage to conduct business just fine.

Increasing the number of Representatives alleviates at least two of the problems: it decreases the odds that a Presidential candidate who lost the popular vote will win the electoral college, and it makes gerrymandering much more difficult.

Another couple of things that could help: Statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. D.C. has a population larger than two of the states of the union, and they have no vote in either house of Congress. D.C. statehood has been opposed by National Republicans for several years because the demographics of the district make it likely that it was most often elect Democrats to the Senate. Puerto Rico has a population that exceeds the three least populous states added together! In fact, it has a higher population that 21 of the states. Again, National Republicans have opposed statehood for the territory because it is assumed it would likely add two more reliably Democratic seats to the Senate. And that is precisely why statehood for each would alleviate some of the problems of partisan imbalance in the Senate.

Then, of course, there is the movement to change the way the states appoint their electors: National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

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Sometimes someone needs an explanation

“I have been forced to explain homosexual relationships to my four year old because his uncle is gay. This incredibly difficult and traumatic conversation went as follows: Child: Why does Uncle Bob go everywhere with Pete? Me: Because they are in love, just like Mommy and Daddy. Child: Oh. Can I have a cookie?   We're all scarred for life. Scarred, I tell you.”

“I have been forced to explain homosexual relationships to my four year old because his uncle is gay. This incredibly difficult and traumatic conversation went as follows: Child: Why does Uncle Bob go everywhere with Pete? Me: Because they are in love, just like Mommy and Daddy. Child: Oh. Can I have a cookie?
We’re all scarred for life. Scarred, I tell you.”

I’ve been finding myself doing a lot of eye-rolling and teeth gnashing and biting my tongue lately over extremely asinine questions and assertions that cross my various information streams. Some of these are on social media, but a lot are also in news stories and/or coming out of the mouths of politicians, pundits, and so forth. When it happens on my social media, I sometimes decide to mute, block, or just unfollow the person. And when I mentioned that recently, someone asked didn’t I have a responsibility to educate people who unintentionally said bigoted things (or asked questions that are layered in all sorts of bigoted assumptions) so that they wouldn’t keep causing other people pain.

I had several answers—all of them true:

  • It takes a lot of time and energy to try to educate someone on these complex topics, and that’s time and energy I will never get back and which I’d rather spend on writing or editing my own stuff.
  • In my experience, very few people actually listen to your attempt to explain such things, they instead become defensive—sometimes extremely aggressively defensive. So you’re asking me to put myself into a fight.
  • I’ve been explaining these things my whole life—just look through this blog!—and it’s exhausting. Please refer to the first bullet.
  • One reason it is so exhausting to try to answer is because of what Foz Meadows once described as onion questions: “seemingly simple questions that can’t possibly be answered to either your satisfaction or your interlocutor’s because their ignorance of concepts vital to whatever you might say is so lacking, so fundamentally incorrect, that there’s no way to answer the first point without first explaining eight other things in detail. There are layers to what’s being misunderstood, to what’s missing from the conversation, and unless you’ve got the time and inclination to dig down to the onion-core of where your perspectives ultimately diverge, there’s precious little chance of the conversation progressing peacefully.”
  • Thousands of other people have been explaining all of these things. There is no shortage of information about these things out there. I’ve educated myself on all sorts of things that don’t directly affect my life, why can’t they do that, too?

However, K. Tempest Bradford recently shared a link to a post she wrote on this topic a few years ago, Pearls Before Swine – Or, Why I Bother and she makes some good points. I’d read the post before, but had forgotten. In the post she’s referring specifically to a long article that astronomer Phil Plait wrote, attempting to answer questions from people who don’t believe in evolution and so forth:

“I’m fairly sure that the reason the creationists in the Buzzfeed article asked such ragingly stupid questions is because no one has ever bothered to answer them seriously before. I know why that might be. Like I said, the questions are really stupid.

“So stupid they can inspire rage. Or stupid enough that it makes people shake their heads and think This Person is Not Even Worth It. Not everyone has the spoons to deal with crap like that.

“If one does have the patience to answer and explain in a real way it helps both the person asking the stupid question and it helps people who have to deal with the kind of people who ask those stupid questions. They can either offer up the knowledge as they understand it thanks to the helpful answers and info behind those links or they can say: “This post over here answers all of that and more, go read it and stop talking to me.” Drop that link and mambo, people!”

And it reminded me of a recent exchange with a friend who shared something with me that was chockful of misconceptions and concealed bigoted assumptions. And I decided that his friendship was probably strong enough to deal with the discussion, so I wrote about a thousand word email explaining the misconceptions, false equivalencies, and so forth. Even though he is a good friend and generally a nice guy, I have to admit I was a little worried he would be upset. Instead, he replied thoughtfully and realized, having read my explanation, that there were some things that he had been taking in and just accepting in various videos and articles and such that were similarly full of false equivalencies, straw man arguments, and so forth.

So, I’m reminded that not everyone gets defensive. Also, as Bradford observes: “Other people have come to me over the years, usually at conventions, and told me how they, at first, thought I was SO WRONG about race and the community and so angry… But then their anger and defensiveness went away and they pondered and listened and read other people saying the same things and finally came to a better understanding.”

I’m not going to go back and unblock any of the people I blocked this week and attempt to re-engage. I am going to think about whether I could keep a list of handy links to certain blog posts or articles on topics that come up again and again and share those links when it might help.

What’s spooky for me may not be spooky for you

“If you've got it, Haunt it!”

(click to embiggen)

Many years ago the gaming group I was in rotated who was running the game and which system/world we were playing in, and most of us gave our scenarios titles, which sometimes we told the players in advance. One time I had titled a sci-fi adventure where the players eventually found themselves in a dark, twisty location being pursued by something which they weren’t sure what the something was, just that it had killed some other people, “Welcome to Your Standard Nightmare.” I didn’t mention the title up front, it was after we were finished that I identified the scenario, and suddenly we were having a debate on what, really, a standard (or universal) nightmare ought to be.

I was reminded of this incident by two different events recently. First, after a few weeks of working on my Halloween playlist, I took a dip into a couple of music streaming services to see what they were serving up on various Halloween channels. The other was a series of disturbing dreams I had in the wee small hours of a recent morning.

Quick digression: the psychological definition of a nightmare is an unpleasant dream evoking an emotional response which disturbs the sleep cycle. It doesn’t necessarily have to be scary to be a nightmare as far as psychologists are concerned, but it does have to actually make you wake up to qualify as a nightmare. So while colloquially we usually think of nightmares as bad dreams, usually invoking fear or despair, other kinds of emotions can be involved.

So, I’ve more than once had a nightmare where I woke up extremely angry. And that was very disturbing, especially during those initial moments of waking up where you don’t quite realize it was only a dream. I had a new one, this time, I woke up extremely annoyed. Three times in one night. The first two didn’t really have any element most people would think of a spooky: I was trying to set up some sound equipment for some kind of party or concert, and someone kept moving my toolbox full of patch cables. There were a number of people in the dream, most of whom I haven’t seen in person in many years. And they were all being uncharacteristically unhelpful. The second one involved someone I didn’t recognize who kept trying to make me go to this place I also didn’t recognize and pack up things that had been left behind by someone. Oddly, once I gave in, I recognized all of the blankets and towels (which were only a subset of the items) as ones that had belonged to my family when I was a child and a teen-ager. The third one was like a combination: I was walking somewhere intending to retrieve something I needed, and I noticed an open door of an apartment, I think, and inside I saw scattered around clothes that belong to me. When I was checking out the place and gathering things, people kept wandering in to try to take stuff from me—and they people each had these weird glowing eyes and I was absolutely convinced that they were undead or something similar.

Even then, when I woke up, I wasn’t feeling fear, but extreme annoyance that I had to deal with weird creatures and someone stealing my clothes when I really just wanted to go get the thing—whatever it was—that I had started out looking for. (And no, I don’t need any dream analysis. My subconscious is never subtle. I know what I’m feeling anxiety about right now.)

The thing was, even though my feeling at each awakening was annoyance—neither anger nor fear—there were still moments while I was waking up where I felt that disturbing confusion about what was real and what wasn’t. Which is its own kind of spooky.

Many Halloween playlists I see on various streaming services or that people post often contain songs that I don’t think are spooky at all. Many seem to be chosen because the title of the song has a tenuous connection to some spooky concepts, while the lyrics of the song are often just standard pop fare.
I happen to believe that a Halloween playlist should consist of tracks where the content of the track has some connection to ideas, moods, et cetera, that people associate with Halloween, trick or treating, monsters, and so forth. I make exceptions for instrumental tracks from movies and such that I personally find spooky. I realize that most of those don’t seem spooky if you don’t recognize where they are from (but some are very eery and really set a spooky mood even when you don’t recognize their source). Anyway, here is my 2018 Halloween playlist:

1. “It’s alive!” From the Young Frankenstein soundtrack. This isn’t a song, it’s the dialog for one of the funniest scenes in the movie, when Dr Frahnk-in-steen finds out that he put an abnormal brain in the body of his creation.
2. “Monster Mash” A blue grass cover of the classic Halloween song by a band called Hayseed Dixie. It’s quite fun.
3. “Science Fiction Double Feature” From the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the campy lyrics describe several classic sci fi thriller movies.
4. “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” by Julie Brown. “Everybody run! The Homecoming Queen’s got a gun!” and “…it’s like the whole school was totally coked or something!”
5. “Anything Can Happen On Halloween” by Tim Curry from the movie The Worse Witch. A fun song.
6. “Thriller” by Michael Jackson (with narration in the middle by Vincent Price). A classic for Halloween. And you can dance to it!
7. “GhostBusters (I’m Not Afraid” by Fallout Boy. An interesting cover/re-imagining of the original Ghostbusters them recorded for the new GhostBusters movie.
8. “Rest in Peace” from Once More, With Feeling, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode. “Whisper in a dead man’s ear doesn’t make it real.”
9. “Bad Moon Rising” by Mourning Ritual. A very creepy re-imagining of the old Creedence Clearwater Revival hit that I first heard in one of the spookiest, creepiest episodes of the Teen Wolf TV series. I can’t hear this song without reliving the scenes where Void Stiles was doing various horrific things.
10. “Monster Mash (featuring Black Magic” by Halloween FX Productions. A cute cover of the Halloween classic.
11. “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space” from Little Shop of Horrors just fun!
12. “Haunted Honeymoon Main Title” by John Morris. A spooky instrumental from one of my favorite comedies ever. Gene Wilder, Gilda Radner, and Dom DeLuis in a hilarious send-up of 30s mystery radio shows and spooky forties movies.
13. “Teen Wolf Main Theme” by Dino Meneghin & Bloody Beetroots. The theme for the Teen Wolf series is just some really dramatic music.
14. “Theme from the Ghost and Mr. Chicken” – if you aren’t familiar with this comedy send up of various Hitchcock-esque movie tropes starring Don Knotts, you really need to Netflix it or something. And the organ music is suitably spooky and silly, at the same time.
15. “”Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” Yes, the theme song from the original cartoon series.
16. “Dark Shadows” the original eerie, spooky, haunting theme song from the ’60s gothic horror soap opera.
17. “Funeral March of a Marionette” an orchestral piece which was used as the theme for the old Alfred Hitchcock show.
18. “The Munster’s Theme” by Jack Marshall. A tiki-fied cover of the them song for the 1960s horror comedy series.
19. “Mamushka” by Raul Julia and Marc Shaiman. The silly show-stopper song from the theatrical Addams Family movie.
20. “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers. The original, classic Halloween Novelty song.

It’s not just a word—when I say “Nazi” I mean it

The cover of the very first appearance in any comic of Captain America shows him punching out Adolf Hitler, in case there was any doubt whose side he was on.

The cover of the very first appearance in any comic of Captain America (March 1941) shows him punching out Adolf Hitler, in case there was any doubt whose side he was on. (click to embiggen)

I keep seeing the same retort coming up again and again on line: “You’re just calling everyone who disagrees with you a Nazi!” And while I know a bunch of them saying that are just trolling, I also think a bunch of them actually believe it. So let’s clear some things up. The original Nazis were a Aryan nationalist movement in Germany that rose up amid the social turmoil occurring in the former German Empire during the aftermath of World War I, exacerbated by the world wide Great Depression. Which isn’t to say that the social and economic upheaval justified the movement, just that it made fertile soil for resentment and hatred, right?

The Nazis wanted an ethnically and culturally “pure” society, and were willing to use violence to make it happen. That means they advocated for what would now be called “self-deportation” of anyone who did match their mythical Aryan ideal. In other words: everyone who wasn’t white, who wasn’t culturally Christian, who wasn’t heterosexual (Berlin in the 1930s had a thriving and public homosexual community), and who didn’t agree with them were out. In the early stages the government arrested undesirables under pretexts of other crimes while they turned a blind eye to the actions of their supporters who terrorized people in various ways. The message was clear to people of color, to Jewish people, and queer people: disappear or else.

Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II. Even though both of them were from the south and their accents would make anyone think they were “good old boys” they had no patience for racism or sectarian prejudice. And while the image most people have of white guys who were their age in the 1980s, they both despised Reagan. My paternal grandfather said for years that he was going to move to North Carolina (we had relatives there, so he visited a lot) and establish residency just so he would have the pleasure to vote against the notorious racist senator, Jesse Helms.

My dad, on the other hand, was a blatant racist. He regularly used the n-word and other racial slurs. And every time he did within earshot of his own father, Grandpa would tell him not to use that kind of language around him. My maternal grandfather also told Dad not to talk like that.

But it wasn’t just about coarse language. When Dad would say things (about Black people or Jewish people or queer people) like: they should go back where they came form, or they were all lazy/greedy/dishonest/immoral, or they deserved it when bad things happened to them—my grandfathers called him on it.

I can’t tell you how many times I heard my paternal grandfather admonish my dad sternly along the lines of: “I didn’t spend four years of my life fighting in a war just so people could do the same racist hateful stuff here! All people deserve respect and a chance to live their lives, no matter where they were born or what religion they believe or the color of their skin!”

Each time he argued with my dad on those subjects, he mentioned his service in WWII and compared Dad’s beliefs to those of the Nazis.

My maternal grandfather wasn’t around Dad and me at the same time as often as my paternal grandfather was (and after the divorce when more details of how bad Dad’s physical abuse had been, Grandpa absolutely refused to be around him), so I only heard him lecture Dad like that once, but it was a doozy. As I recall, it went something like this: “I spent years fighting Nazis and fascists. I watched a lot of good men die. I saw people who had been starved and beaten and imprisoned just because their skin was the wrong color or they attended the wrong kind of church. And all of that bloodshed happened because people said that kind of B.S. you just said and other people believed it. You have a right to your opinion, but if you try to put THAT opinion into action… well, I for one am not afraid to fight again!”

Both of my grandfathers knew what Nazis and fascists were. They literally fought them. And when Dad spouted off his racist, anti-semetic, and otherwise bigoted opinions, they all but called him a Nazi.

They set the bar, for me. When I hear someone saying that people of color should “go back where they came from” or that every member of a particular religious background is a terrorist, or that the poor or disabled or mentally ill people are burdens on society that need to be “dealt with,” or that whole categories of people should be locked up, or that the economy isn’t working right because of “those people” taking “our jobs” and someone should do something about it, or lump refugees and immigrants together and call them all disparaging names, et cetera, then I’m going to say you’re talking like a Nazi. And you are advocating the policies of Nazis.

I do not call everyone who disagrees with me about some things a Nazi. There are people I disagree with on really important things that I don’t think are talking like Nazis. I have a couple of relatives I could name who are opposed to gay rights in general and marriage equality in particular. They are civil when they talk to me or my husband, and they don’t think they have a bigoted bone in their bodies. They’re wrong on that point. And obviously as an out proud queer man we disagree about a bunch of important things because of their feelings about gay rights. But they don’t believe that we should be herded into “quarantine camps” and they are outraged that border agents have seperated familes and put children in cages and so forth. We disagree on some pretty important things, but they don’t advocate the policies of Nazis. So I don’t call them that.

If you don’t like being called a Nazi, maybe, just maybe, you should take a closer look at the kind of things you’re saying, the people you are supporting or defending, and the policies you’re reporting. Because if you take an honest look, you may finally see a Nazi looking back at you from the mirror.

And like my grandfathers said, those policies aren’t welcome here.

A great man died this weekend… farewell, Neil Simon

Just a few facts about playwright Neil Simon.

Just a few facts about playwright Neil Simon.

I’m not going to be talking about the politician who passed this weekend. Plenty of people are whitewashing that sepulchre already. When I do write about that guy (and I will, later this week) I will try to be civil, but I will only write the truth. No, today I am mourning a great writer: Neil Simon (1927-2018): The King of Stage Comedy – The playwright, whose ‘Lost in Yonkers’ won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991, died on Saturday at age 91.

Neil Simon is probably most famous for writing The Odd Couple in 1965. The original production won 5 Tony awards (including one for Simon). It was adapted into a very successful movie (Simon was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay), three different television series (one of which was nominated three times for an Emmy and won three Emmys and one Golden Globe for the leads), and a cartoon. Simon reworked the play twice over the next several decades: once with gender bent characters, and one just to update the dialogue and situations which had become a bit dated.

(click to embiggen)

But he wrote a lot of other plays and movies. A few were autobigraphical (The trio of Bright Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound, for instance, which were all later turned into movies). Most of his plays and movies were comedies, yes, but many dealt with serious interpersonal issues, sometimes in heart-wrenching ways. On the other hand, he could write incredibly zany comedy. For example, the 1965 movie After the Fox was an over-the-top parody of every caper/heist film ever. While 1976’s Murder By Death is an equally mad parody of every murder mystery movie and novel ever.

As Playbill noted:

‘Simon also made his mark as a creator of original screenplays, writing the scripts for the 1972 critical hit The Heartbreak Kid, which was directed by Elaine May; The Out-of-Towners, starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis as hapless visitors comically victimized by New York City; Murder By Death, a spoof of the detective genre; and the 1977 romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl, which starred his then-wife Marsha Mason and helped to make Richard Dreyfuss a star. He was nominated for an Oscar for the latter, as well as for the films of California Suite, The Sunshine Boys, and The Odd Couple. He won a Golden Globe for The Goodbye Girl, and was nominated for The Sunshine Boys and The Heartbreak Kid.’

I’ve only gotten to see stage versions of two of Simon’s plays (The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, both by community theatre companies), but because he wrote many original film screenplays and adapted a lot of his plays to movies, I’ve seen a lot of his work. And one thing that I have always envied about his writing is how much he could convey with just dialog. The dialog is always witty and sharp. When it’s funny, it is hilariously so. But he also had a knack for placing a dagger of human frailty into the dialog, so that you are laughing, and then brought up short as a character’s pain or fear is laid bare.

For a few decades, Simon really ruled the American theatre stage in comedy. Don’t believe me? The promotional campaigns of most movies focus on the lead actors or the director, right? When movies were made from Simon’s plays and screenplays, the promo’s led with the author. It was “Neil Simon’s California Suite” or “Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys” or “Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners” and so on.

His plays worked because the characters in them, no matter what circumstances we met them under, felt real. Their fears, their hopes, their drems, their foibles, and most importantly their relationships always rang true. He was a master at dialog, but his dialog worked because he made us believe in the characters speaking his lines.

It’s an accomplishment every writer longs to achieve. Simon honed his craft during years of writing for radio and television. It took him years of hard work, careful observation, and then fighting to make each line count. When he hit his stride, he made it look easy.

So join me in raising a glass to Neil Simon, the playwright who taught us that life is weird, and that’s why we love it.

“You get attached to the way you write, and I'm attached to notebooks. That's where I really write the plays. Just two or three pages at a time, then I transfer to the typewriter and rewrite while I type. —Neil Simon”

(click to embiggen)

Can I offer y’all some tea?

Making sun tea on my veranda.

Making sun tea on my veranda.

A while back I was reading with more than a bit of amusement a conversation on tumblr where some Americans (by which I mean people from the U.S.), specifically some of my fellow southerners, were trying to explain sweet tea to some British folks. There were a few Brits who had spent some time in the U.S. also chiming in. I’m not sure if the most amusing bit was how many of the Brits were scandalized that most Americans don’t own tea kettles, or how horrified they were to learn about southern sweet tea. Southern sweet tea is not the same as tea which has had sugar or honey added. Southern sweet tea is an altogether different phenomenon. Just for a hint of what I mean, there is a recipe for Tea Punch (a different drink, but likely the granddaddy of sweet tea) from shortly after the American Revolution that includes this: “Make a pint and a half of strong tea in the usual way, then pour it boiling over a pound and a half of sugar…”

This article gives a nice overview: Why Sweet Tea Is the South’s Quintessential Drink.

In the movie version of Steel Magnolias Dolly Parton’s character observes that “sweet tea is the house wine of the south.” Which is true, though there can be weird nuances. For one thing, there are people who disagree about which parts of the country constitute the south. Seriously! I once had a temporary co-worker from Georgia sniff very disdainfully at I and another co-worker after we mentioned that our families came mostly from Oklahoma and Texas, that “those aren’t part of the south, those are in the West.” I have also heard people from North or South Carolina insist the Florida is not part of the south. I’ve been told by one acquaintance who grew up in New Orleans that “N’Orleans doesn’t really do sweet tea!” Whereas a friend whose family comes from other parts of Louisianna once commented after sampling my sweet tea, that I didn’t have nearly enough sugar in it. Some people insist that Sweet Tea states should get their own designation, with arguments about whether the “tea line” encompasses all of Texas, or only East Texas, for instance.

I grew up on sweet tea, and I learned how to make it from my mom and various grandmothers and one grandfather, and each of them had a slightly different recipe. They were all good in their own ways, but they were also very different. Many families guard their sweet tea recipes, sometimes referring to them by names like, “Great Aunt Pearl’s Sweet Tea.” So, before we get any further, I’m going to warn you right now that no, I absolutely will not tell you my Great-grandma S.J.’s Sweet Tea recipe, nor Great-grandma I’s, nor my Nice Grandma’s Sweet Tea recipe nor her Sun Tea recipe (which is a different beast altogether).

What I will do is tell you my Evil Grandmother’s Sweet Tea recipe. One reason why is because she frequently told it to other people outside the family. Another reason is because I don’t think hers was the best, but it will give you an idea of how these go.

My Evil Grandma insisted that Sweet Tea was best made in an aluminum pitcher. She had a 2-quart aluminum pitcher for just that purpose. To make her tea, you fill a whistling tea pot with water and set it to boil. While it is going, you measure out four and a half cups of sugar into the bottom of the aluminum pitcher, then you add a half teaspoon of baking soda. You let the kettle get to a loud whistling, then pour the still boiling water into the aluminum pitcher. Stir furiously until the sugar dissolved, then count out fourteen Lipton flow-through tea bags, put them in the pitcher, stick a lid on it, and put it into the fridge for one hour. Then, take the pitcher out, pull out the tea bags, but make sure you squeeze them so all the dark tea gets into the pitcher. Top off the pitcher with however much tap water is needed to fill, and stir some more (because some of the sugar probably precipitated out). Put it back in the fridge for at least another hour. Now, you can serve it over ice.

Now that you’ve read the one recipe that I am willing to disclose, we can analyze it a bit. Most of the sweet tea recipes I have acquired over the years use tea bags, not loose tea. And very often people have strong feelings about which ones to use. I have seen, for instance, recipes that call for specific brands and varieties of tea bags–specifying X bags of specific brand of black tea plus Y bags of a specific brand of mint tea plus Z bags of a specific brand of orange pekoe, for instance.

I will neither confirm nor deny having witnessed two relatives almost come to blows over an argument about whether an Earl Grey tea is ever suitable for sweet tea (with a third relative opining that Earl Grey is all right in a sun tea as long as you have a few other kinds with it, but really should only go in to sweet tea if you have nothing else).

Why do some recipes include baking soda, you may ask? Tea leaves contain tannic acid which is very bitter. When you steep most teas for more than, say, 2 minutes, you can get a lot of tannic acid in the tea. Some people swear that a small amount of baking soda (which is an alkaline compound and will neutralize an equal amount of acid) mellows out the tannic acid flavor. I’ve also heard people claim that the baking soda helps with dissolving more sugar into the water.

Many recipes specify how to boil the water. There are people who insist the sugar must be in the pitcher that the hot water or hot tea is poured into. Others say that most of the sugar should be mixed with the water as it is brought to a boil.

My Evil Grandma’s sweet tea was very dark, nearly the color of coffee. A lot of people say that is two strong, the tea should have more of a rich reddish color than a deep brown.

Because most of my life has been lived outside of the sweet tea states, I got used to drinking the rather weak and completely unsweetened tea served here. Also, in my late twenties when I realized just how rampantly adult-onset diabetes stampedes through my dad’s family, I made the decision to mostly stop sweetening my tea or coffee. And now that I am diabetic, I don’t make sweet tea ever.

And while we’re on the subject of diabetes, I want to point out that all of the sweet tea recipes from my mother’s side of the family called for way more sugar than any that I learned from Dad’s side, yet Dad’s family is where almost all the diabetes is. So don’t come at me on that.

While I don’t make sweet tea, I still make and drink a lot of tea and have many fond memories of sitting down with friends and family, everyone with a frosty glass of tea, on hot summer days. So the last few weeks, after my husband brought home a one gallon glass jug, I’ve been experimenting with sun tea recipes, based only loosely on my Nice Grandma’s. Put the collection of specific tea bags in the water, set it out in the sun for an hour, then remove the bags and let the jug chill in the fridge. The one thing to remember about sun tea is that since the water is never brought to a boil, it is more susceptible to bacterial contamination, so you want to finish off the whole batch in no more than two days.

It’s not quite the same, but drinking the cold, unsweetened tea that I’ve made this way, brings all those fond memories back. As Fred Thompson observed in his book, Cornbread Nation,

“Sweet tea—your mother’s sweet tea—means you are home.”

No one deserves to live in a closet

“If Harry Potter taught us anything, it's that no one deserved to live in a closet.”

“If Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that no one deserved to live in a closet.”

It’s National Coming Out Day! And just for the record, in case it isn’t clear: I’m queer! Specifically I am a gay man married to a bisexual man. For many years I lived in the closet, and am ever so happy that those days are far, far behind me. So, if you’re a person living in the closet, I urge you to consider coming out. Being in the closet is scary—you live in a constant state of high anxiety about people finding out and what they might do when it happens. Studies show that this affects us the same as extended trauma, inducing the same sorts of stress changes to the central nervous system as PTSD.

The problem is that coming out is also scary. 40% of homeless teen-agers are living on the streets because their parents either kicked them out because the teens were gay (or suspected of being gay), or drove them away through the constant abuse intended to beat the gay out of their kids. This statistic is the main reason I advise kids not to come out until they are no longer financially dependent on their parents. Yeah, there are many stories of kids who came out to their parents and those parents became supportive allies. But not all, by any means.

“My only regret about being gay is that I repressed it for so long. I surrendered my youth to the people I feared when I could have been out there loving someone. Don't make that mistake yourself. Life's too damn short.” —Armistead Maupin

“My only regret about being gay is that I repressed it for so long. I surrendered my youth to the people I feared when I could have been out there loving someone. Don’t make that mistake yourself. Life’s too damn short.” —Armistead Maupin

Even if you are a self-supporting adult, coming out is often accompanied by drama. Some of your family and friends will not take it well. You will be surprised at some of the ones who you thought would be okay with it being exactly the opposite. On the other hand, some people will surprise you with how fiercely supportive they become.

In the long run, being out is better than living in the closet. You will finally know who loves you for who you are, rather than those who love the idea of who they think you ought to be. You will also find out that you were expending far more energy than you realized constantly being on the look out for signs your secret is discovered. There will be a moment when you feel the burden lifted. But you will also discover the coming out isn’t a one-and-done deal.

But the freedom of no longer living a lie is incredible. So when you’re ready, come out, come out, where ever you are!

Don’t just take my word for it:

Defining one’s self vs being defined — adventures in dictionaries

“Practice saying the word 'bisexual.' Say it again: bisexual. Paint it on the walls. Wear it on a t-shirt. Write it in toothpaste on your bathroom mirror. Notice is as you stare at your beautiful self. Bisexual. Say it louder, say it in public. Say it to someone who might not be comfortable hearing it. Let them begin to get over thir discomfort. Begin to get over your own. Ask yourself: what is it about that word that is so frightening to people?”

“Practice saying the word ‘bisexual.’ Say it again: bisexual. Paint it on the walls. Wear it on a t-shirt. Write it in toothpaste on your bathroom mirror. Notice is as you stare at your beautiful self. Bisexual. Say it louder, say it in public. Say it to someone who might not be comfortable hearing it. Let them begin to get over thir discomfort. Begin to get over your own. Ask yourself: what is it about that word that is so frightening to people?” (Click to embiggen)

It is Bisexual Visibility Week, so this post shouldn’t be about me. Because I’m not bisexual. But I happen to be married to a bisexual man and our social circle includes a lot of bisexual people. Bi-erasure is a real thing that I am at least adjacent to (and sometimes find myself really irritated about). But it is also something which I am guilty of contributing to. Let’s get that part out of the way: I was once one of those queer kids who—full of internalized homophobia and surrounded by everyone else’s homophobia—was so scared that I would never find love and never live the kind of life that I had been told was the only way to be happy, that I tried to convince myself I was bisexual. Because if I was bi, see, I could fall in love with a woman, and I could marry her, and I could become a father and maybe when I died I would get to go to heaven. Maybe. But only if I was bi.

Not every person who identifies as bisexual is experimenting. Nor are they in denial of their real orientation. Because a certain number of gay people who are struggling with accepting themselves take shelter in a lie (a lie we were trying to sell to ourselves even harder than to anyone else), we give other people anecdotes that get weaponized and used against people who actually are bisexual. So, for my contribution to that misperception, I must apologize. I’m sorry.

So, to be clear:

  • A bisexual person who settles into a long term committed relationships with a member of the opposite sex is still bisexual. They just happened to fall in love with this person.
  • Also, a bisexual person who enters a long term committed relationship with a member of the same sex is still bisexual. They just happened to fall in love with that person.
  • A bisexual person who isn’t dating anyone at all is still bisexual. They’re just not seeing anyone right now (or ever). A person’s sexuality isn’t determined by their current relationship status.
  • A bisexual person who has never been (or you have never seen) in relationships with members of both sexes is still bisexual. Again, relationship status is different than sexual orientation.

Bi erasure is a real problem. Bisexual people often don’t feel welcome in queer spaces. They also often don’t feel welcome in non-queer spaces. People assume that they are straight of gay based on their current relationship. Other people dismiss them as confused or in denial. Sometimes they don’t just feel unwelcome, but unsafe.

Studies have shown that the stress of enduring homophobia affects the health and nervous system exactly the same as PTSD. It’s traumatic and physically damaging. That’s true whether you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or any other orientation outside the heteronormative. And its true in all the forms it takes, including biphobic attitudes of other queer people.

Don’t contribute to someone’s trauma. Don’t be an asshole about bisexual people—all the time, not just when you think you’re in the presence of a bisexual person. Because if those National Institutes of Health studies about covert sexual activity are correct, about 46% of the population is bi (and about 6% is exclusively gay). So if you’re sitting around with a half-dozen people, the odds are more than one of them is bi. You just don’t know it.

When the NIH published those studies in the mid-90s, the summary included this little gem: Americans would rather admit to being heroin addicts than tell someone they were bisexual. And that’s because of homophobia in general, but also biphobia among both the straight and queer communities.

So, if someone tells you they are bisexual, don’t argue with them, don’t doubt them or try to convince them that they’re just confused or curious or uncertain. Believe them. Accept them. They were brave enough to open up to you. The least you can do in the face of that is refrain from being a jerk. You know, don’t be a “contemptible, stupid, or inconsiderate person.”

Instead, be an ally. Their sexuality is valid. Period.

“Your sexuality is valid.”

“Your sexuality is valid.” (click to embiggen)

Don’t try to obscure hate and violence with your false equivalence

“We can disagree and love each other and less that disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

“We can disagree and love each other and less that disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” (click to embiggen)

Since I wrote about the Nazi getting punched yesterday, I thought I was through, but a lot of people have been sharing a tweet that says, “I want to live in a world where people wearing Nazi symbols and people wearing rainbows can do so without being attacked.” And oh, I have so many responses to this. The first is that this is the mother of all false equivalents. When queer people and their allies where rainbows, they are saying “everyone deserves to live free of unfair discrimination no matter their sexual orientation and gender identity.” That is it. When a person wears a swastika, they are saying, “I think people like me should be able to live a life of privilege and that everyone who is a different race or religion should go away and/or die.”

That is not histrionics. When they talk about “saving the white race” and so-called “self deportation” and the like, they are saying “go away and die!” When they say that queer people are a threat to the future of the planet, they are saying we deserve to be killed. When they say that brown and black people are destroying “white culture” they are saying brown and black people deserve to be killed. When Richard Spencer said, literally moments before he was punched in the face on camera last summer, “we have to ask ourselves whether humanity needs the black man, and having confronted that question, then ask how to most efficiently dispose of them” he is saying that black people aren’t human and that they must be killed.

And if you don’t believe that saying that deserves a punch in the mouth, then I question more than just your morals.

In the case of the angry man who was punched in downtown Seattle this weekend: he wasn’t punched just for wearing the swastika. He was punched for yelling at every dark-skinned person he passed on the street, specifically calling them an ape. He was explicitly saying that they aren’t human. He brought a frickin’ banana with him that he eventually threw at someone after screaming that that person was an ape—underlining and emphasizing the claim that the person thus targeted isn’t human (and implying that said people don’t deserve rights, dignity, respect at the least, and that killing would not be murder). That wasn’t just expressing an opinion, that his verbal assault and a declaration of intent. And under the law, throwing the banana is physical assault.

Wearing a rainbow and chanting “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” is none of those things.

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can say mean, hateful, threatening things to other people and that those other people have no rights to speak up and defend themselves. Calling other humans animals, and saying or implying those humans should he rounded up and executed is not merely stating an opinion, it is revealing their hateful and murderous character. So if other people don’t want to be friends with a hateful person advocating genocide, that’s just making the decision not to associate with horrible people.

“Your sexuality is valid.”

“Your sexuality is valid.” (click to embiggen)

When we wear rainbows, we’re saying “my sexuality is valid, and your sexuality is valid, and bi, gay, pansexual, transexual, asexual, and straight people are all equally valid and have a right to be who they are.” Yes, we’re saying the straight people are valid, too. We aren’t calling for straight people to self-deport. We aren’t calling for straight people to be killed. We aren’t calling for straight people to be converted. Rightwing anti-gay people do call for queer people to be fired from their jobs, denied the right to rent or own homes, denied the right to put their spouses and children on their medical insurance, denied the right to marry their significant others, denied the right to adopt, denied the right to protection from assault and harassment, denied health care, and so forth. They advocate rounding us up and putting us in prison, or camps, or so-called hospitals (depending on how blatant they are in their bigotry). They advocate the widely debunked conversion therapy. They advocate bullying queer kids in school (when you insist that religiously conservative kids can’t be punished for bullying queer kids or the children of queer parents, you are advocating bullying).

When the anti-gay people (including the neo-Nazis) do that, it isn’t a difference of opinion, it is oppression and assault.

When queer people say we don’t want to be bullied, we shouldn’t be discriminated against, we deserve to have our families and jobs and homes just like anyone else, we aren’t calling for the oppression of anyone else. Because not being allowed to discriminate isn’t oppression. Not being allowed to bully, terrorize, or assault queer people isn’t oppression.

Sexuality isn’t an opinion or a choice. Sexual identity isn’t an opinion or a choice. Sorry, the medical science has been clear on that for a long time.

Hate, however, is a choice. Violence against others because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, and so forth is a choice.

All races are valid. All sexualities are valid.

Not all choices are valid.

There are only a couple reasons that you can’t see that distinction. There are only a few reasons you would defend the hate by attacking its opposite. Either you aren’t very bright, you’re deeply misinformed, or you are blinded by hatred.

Please, step out of the darkness and join us in a more glittery, sunny world of the rainbow.

Where is the missing generation of rabbit drag queens? — more adventures in dictionaries

“Bugs Bunny: where kids used to learn about classical music and drag queens.”

“Bugs Bunny: where kids used to learn about classical music and drag queens.”

At several points during my childhood people asserted the claim that what was “wrong” with me was caused by the movies/TV shows I watched or the books I read. At one point certain extended family members were trying to convince my parents that I shouldn’t be allowed to watch scary cartoons. At another point, a lot of church people were certain that my interest in science, particularly astronomy, was turning me into a satanist or even worse, an atheist! There were lots of times that various people asserted that either musicals, or fantasy/sci fi, or some other thing I was interested in was why I kept getting bullied by the other kids at school. The truth is, that many teachers, church members, and family members were all bullying me as much as any kids at school were, though they weren’t willing to admit it. Throughout my childhood and teen years I was constantly trying to figure out how to get people to stop despising me. A big part of why I couldn’t figure it out was that there were actually two reasons. First, I was queer, and second, I was smarter than average with a particular knack for analytical thinking.

When people find a person in their midst who does not conform to their expectations, their reaction is to try to find a behavioral cause of that non-conformity. Because admitting that different kinds of people exist naturally challenges the simplest notion of normality. So when confronted with a smart, slightly gender-non-conforming kid who seems to know about things people don’t expect kids to understand, they go looking for an easy explanation of why I’m different. And it really was both of those differences that confused people. More than one relative on different sides of the family commented that as a young child I seemed like an adult trapped in a kid’s body.

When you are clinging to the notion that there is a limited number of ways to be normal with someone who doesn’t fit any of your notions, the easiest thing is to look at which of the non-conforming person’s interests seem least like theirs. So in the 1960s and ’70s, people focused on my interest in science, science fiction, fantasy and related topics. Because before the era of the personal computer and the cultural behemoth that was the original Star Wars, those things were completely beyond the kin of normal humans. Some of the cover art of magazines and paperback books raised a few eyebrows. At least one relative asserted the belief that reading superhero comics, with all of those skin tight costumes on the male heroes, would turn a boy into a sissy.

In retrospect I find it hilarious, because of all the media/fiction I can recall from my childhood, the only place where gender fluidity and related topics occurred regularly was not in science fiction, fantasy, or science fact books, but in one of the most popular forms of pop culture of many decades: Looney Tunes cartoons, specifically Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Even before Bugs Bunny had the name “Bugs,” he was dressing up as a woman to seduce a male character. Long before he ever dressed as a woman to distract Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam, the character then referred to informally as “Happy Rabbit” disguised himself as a female version of the unnamed hunter’s dog to distract the dog from his trail. So if everyone’s theory that somehow what made me non-conforming was the shows I watched, clearly it should have been Bugs Bunny they focused on, right? Contrariwise, Bugs is a great argument against the whole media-causes-queerness argument: as I pointed out in a post last week, for a number of years the Looney Tunes cartoons weren’t just ubiquitious, they were almost universally adored by a couple of generations of folks. If media exposure causes queerness, then just about every single person aged 40-something through 60-something alive in North America right now should be an out queer, because Bugs taught us all that to be a drag queen was to be triumphant.

This meaning of drag: “Women’s clothes as worn by a man; (less commonly) men’s clothes as worn by a woman; a party at which such clothes are worn” as rendered in the Oxford English Dictionary has been around since the late 19th Century. The first written citation coming in 1870 as a reference to male actors portraying female characters on the stage. At various times in the history of the theatre, it had been common to cast young men in the feminine roles, because it was considered inappropriate for women to perform on stage. So there is a certain tradition in the theatre (which cropped up later in movies, though usually for comedic effect) of men dressing as women on stage. There is also a tradition of characters of either sex on stage and in movies dressing in disguises—sometimes disguises that shouldn’t fool anyone—and carrying on for scene after scene completely pulling the wool of the eyes of other characters.

The disguises that Bugs donned in the various cartoons weren’t always drag. The point of the gag was how gullible Bugs’ adversary could be in light of the disguise, no matter how ridiculous. Which is why I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone back then that how easily the hero of the story could adopt the persona of a woman and seductively entrance the villain might be just a little bit queer. Maybe it was the fact that the audience was in on the joke—Bugs was dressing as a woman to fool his antagonist and make the audience laugh, not because he enjoyed it, and certainly not because he was actually trying to seduce the other character. Maybe it was simply the fact that they understood the jokes in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but sf/f didn’t appeal to them, and a lot of that cover art looked erotic, demonic, and sometimes both.

To me, the ease with which Bugs transformed himself in his various disguises is a manifestation of a much, much older narrative tradition: The Trickster God. One of the oldest examples of which is the Old Norse story of the time that Loki is tasked by Odin with getting the gods of Asgard out of a particularly unwise bet. The gods had made a deal with a builder to create a magnificent fortification, but that if the builder couldn’t do it in a ridiculously short time with no help except that of his horse, the gods would never have to pay for the fortress. It quickly becomes clear that that both the builder and his horse are possessed of magical abilities and will succeed at the seemingly impossible task. Loki tries various things, but eventually is only able to succeed by transforming himself into a beautiful mare in heat, and thus lure the magical horse away. In the Norse story, Loki actually mates with the horse and later gives birth to another magical steed, Sleipnir, which becomes Odin’s horse and figures in a lot of other myths.

I’m just glad that I never pointed out that little similarity back then. It was one thing when I was sometimes forbidden to check out certain books from the library, or buy certain paperbacks at the used book store. It would have been infinitely crueler to forbid me from watching Bugs and Daffy!

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