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[LJ Idol 9: Week 26] The barrel

You've heard so often what's holding you back - not what, but who.

It's your family of origin, it's your neighborhood and everyone in it, it's your culture and everyone who is part of it. All so easily labeled "dysfunctional". All trying to keep you down because they don't want you to succeed, because it would make the rest of them look bad, it would show that anyone can succeed and they're just too lazy, too interested in living off of the government or whoever else feels sorry enough for them to get suckered in.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to turn your back on all of it, on all of them. Everyone from your great-grandma to your baby brother or nephew. You have a chance to succeed, you have opportunities, you can actually live the American Dream - go to college, get a good job, have a car and a house in the suburbs and what people call a life. Or maybe even more than that - real fortune and fame.

Well, sort of. Because there will always be people around you who suspect that you don't deserve it. No matter how hard you work, there will be those who assume that you aren't as good, that "quotas" got you everything you have. Any mistake, any momentary weakness will be taken as proof of your inferiority, of your unworthiness of the "chance" you've been given.

Even those who think that you are a "credit to your kind" will look upon you as strange. They might build a surface-level friendship with you that never goes deeper. They might, on the other hand, make a point of getting close to you, to prove to you and to themselves that they are good people, good enough to overlook everything that you are because of who you are "inside" - that "inside" that exists only when everything that went into your creation from the first two cells of your embryonic body until your appearance into the world is disregarded. You must simultaneously represent and disown every fellow human who looks like you, who has a name like yours, whose ancestors shared a country or even an entire continent with you. You must forget where you came from, even as you are never allowed to forget.

And if you dare - even for a moment - to protest any of this, the people who gave you your "chance" have all sorts of carefully-practiced phrases to put you back in the place they gave you. You are too outspoken and arrogant and impulsive and controversial and disappointing and a bad example and a risky prospect - and worse, of course.

Now, who is it that's trying to push you back down the sides of the barrel? Your own community, or those who "gave you a chance" to give up everything that matters to you, so that you could be a subhuman failure in their minds anyway?

Don't let them, kid. Don't apologize for pointing it out when someone treats you unjustly. Keep on letting the world know that you love who you are, what you are, where you came from. If someone wants to take you on, to give you that amazing opportunity, but cares only about what you can do and not who you are - you don't have to jump on it.

You ARE all that. You can wait till you get a chance with the people who want you, not a skill set. And when you find it, you will know, and you will shine.


I am my parents' only child. I always wished I wasn't. It probably didn't help that both of my parents are very introverted and I'm...well, not.

I used to say I had "part-time brothers" because the woman who watched me while my mother was at work was a mother of four boys and a girl, and I spent a lot of time playing with her two youngest sons - and alternated between playing with and fighting with the second-youngest, almost as if he were my actual little brother. I think. But I would always go home to my own quiet house with just me and my parents, in the end. It wasn't really the same.

Then I went on to college, and then to another college. And this second college had a thriving "Greek life" scene - by which is meant fraternities and sororities that name themselves with two or three Greek letters. Some were "national" (the group exists at many colleges throughout the United States) while others were "local" (only existing at this college).

There are those who mock such groups, as a whole, as full of people who are "paying for friends" and those who have heard of "frat parties" gone extremely wrong and assume that every Greek organization exists for the purpose of providing a place to perform drunken gang rapes and humiliating and dangerous hazing.

And of course there are always rumors, always, about specific groups and their specific traditions. One sorority on our campus, it was said, had a hazing ritual where the pledges were required to strip naked while the older members circled every "flaw" on their bodies. And that was one of the milder rumors!

When I looked at the organizations for myself, I was drawn to a local, co-ed fraternity. Gamma Chi Epsilon. And "co-ed" meant double the rumors. While going through the "formal interview" phase of the rush process, twenty years ago, I was directly asked my feelings about one of the rumors:

What would you say if I told you that to get through pledging, you would have to sleep with every member of the opposite sex in the organization?

I didn't miss a beat. I smiled at my interviewer, and responded:

That's discrimination! What about the members of the same sex!

And she laughed and laughed as she said, "Oh, I like YOU!"

I had found myself all the siblings I could possibly handle. Eighteen of us, twelve girls and six boys, came together in the Fall semester of 1994. We were given rules to follow: Contrary to the rumor I had been asked about, we were specifically not allowed to form romantic or sexual relationships with each other or with existing members. (This rule was later clarified to "new" relationships, because sometimes a newbie would join us while already dating an existing member.) It was our time to get to know each other and the members, and we had to complete "interview forms" with members that we didn't know as well.

We had study hours that were meant both to keep our academic work in good standing and to learn the history of our organization: the founding by a group of medieval literature geeks, the reputation as "fraternity of last resort", the alliance with a national fraternity, the joining of "little sisters" and the national's eventual ultimatum that either the girls had to go or the whole group had to leave, and "the split" that followed between the minority who felt the strongest ties with the national and the majority who believed the girls made the group what it was and it was time to offer them full membership.

We had a pin with our letters on it, and a red or black bandanna, and we were to wear them every day - though how we wore them was entirely up to us. I often wore mine on my favorite hat: bandanna tied around the center of the hat, pin stuck to the center of the bandanna. Sometimes I threaded the bandanna through my belt loops and wore the pin on my shirt. Sometimes I coiled the bandanna around my wrist and pinned it together. There were so many possibilities!

We also had to spend time together, "just" the 18 of us, to bond as a group over community service Saturdays and silly art projects. One of the projects was a big banner. We dipped our hands into yellow and orange paint, forming a gigantic sun in the center out of our handprints - and the sun became our unifying symbol. (We also had one HELL of a paint fight that night. One of my pledge-brothers returned to his dorm with paint still dripping off of him. His suitemates thought he had been mistreated by some kind of hazing ritual, rather than realizing that this was the aftereffect of a bunch of goofballs throwing paint at each ohter and having the absolute time of our lives!)

These are the first people I think about when I hear the phrase "chosen family" - not only my own pledge class, or my "big sister" Kate and my "little sisters" Tracy and Robyn, but the whole group - Gamma Chis who graduated before I showed up, Gamma Chis who joined long after I graduated, the lot of us alumni who are scattered from Rochester, NY (the nearest large city to Geneseo) all the way to Moscow, Russia.

Though our colors may have been red and black, we were the Hufflepuff House of the Geneseo Greek scene, long before Hogwarts Houses were a thing. What mattered to us was the desire to find family, to create family with intention. We were a "merry band of misfits" who often felt like we fit in nowhere but with each other - but twenty years later, we're doing well for ourselves. Gamma Chi alumni seem to have taken two major career directions - some of us went for the helping professions (doctors, teachers, speech therapists, and a whole lot of social workers for graduates of a school that didn't have a BSW program) or the nonprofit and NGO world (one of my Gamma brothers is heavily involved in anti-sweatshop work overseas) while most of the rest became owners of quirky small businesses, selling everything from musical instruments to wine to the best tie-dyed clothes ever.

I love all my siblings. :)
[trigger warning: suicide, substance abuse, domestic violence]

Proud swagger out of the schoolyard
Waiting for the world's applause
Rebel without a conscience
A martyr without a cause

Every time I had to explain you to someone, which seemed to happen a lot, I'd ask if they played Dungeons and Dragons.

If the answer was "yes", I'd start with, "Well, basically, Steve has a Charisma stat of about 23. You know, when the max stat for a mere mortal is supposed to be 18?"

It wasn't just the perfect clothes from your extensive and expensive wardrobe, the impeccably cut and styled blond hair, the dazzling smile, or even the charmingly cultured voice that never lost the hint of an accent from your year in Australia. It was all of that, sure, but there was just something about you that ordinary words don't seem to capture. I've tried, for a long time.

Static on your frequencies
Electrical storm in your veins
Raging at unreachable glory
Straining at invisible chains

And then there was that story you told, that made me laugh until I cried at the time, that still makes me both laugh and cry, of what happened when someone tried to use one of the usual medications of the 1990s to treat your bipolar episodes - that they got worse:

Hi Mom! you had said. The munchkins on my shoulder told me to call you! Um, they're throwing No-Doz pills at the gremlins on the floor!

Always with a big smile and a laugh that you were too far up for any known anti-manic to bring you down. Which might have been part of the whole charisma thing, too.

And now you're trembling on a rocky ledge
Staring down into a heartless sea
Can't face life on a razor's edge
Nothing's what you thought it would be

But with the ups came downs, and some of them were pretty well terrifying. I remember that summer when I was 17, unable to sleep for some unknown reason, going out onto the porch of the shared summer house and finding you there with a jug of cheap red wine, considerably below your usual alcohol standards. And you saying that maybe this was the night for suicide attempt number eight. And I looked at that jug and did some math about my body weight, and yours, and DMV-defined drinks, trying to figure out how much of it I should gulp down, how drunk I needed to get, how hung over I would be on stage the next day, so that you wouldn't drink your beautiful self to death on that bottle. Because I was 17, and scared, and being with you and getting drunk but not drinking-ourselves-to-death seemed more helpful than anything else I could offer.

All of us get lost in the darkness
Dreamers learn to steer by the stars
All of us do time in the gutter
Dreamers turn to look at the cars

I remember riding around in that little maroon hatchback you called Esmerelda, not just around Geneseo but down to Letchworth and up to Rochester to watch the drag shows at Club Marcella. You were always up for an adventure, it seemed, always ready to go.

And there were all sorts of trips I wasn't part of but heard about, usually the ones that you took yourself - an overnight run to Ohio to buy some real Everclear for you to soak "forbidden fruit" in, a quick stop at a certain infamous rest stop on the interstate where I learned more than I wanted to know about not only your sex life but also the sex life of one of our professors...yikes. And the drives to the airport, to visit a friend in London on Thanksgiving break, to drag your lover with you to the Dominican Republic for spring break, and scare the hell out of him when you got into some sort of scuffle with the authorities and weren't sure when you'd be back.

(turn around, turn around turn around)
Turn around and walk the razor's edge...
Don't turn your back and slam the door on me

That was the real hell of it, wasn't it?

I loved you, I hated you, I was - that one night - literally angry enough with you to kill you if your recklessness didn't do the job first.

We were on a "double date" - you and your lover, me and a friend-of-a-friend who showed up in full evening-gown drag. And you hit it off swimmingly with the lady, and I don't know what drugs you were on or what you thought you were doing driving away from that party. I do know that I held your sobbing lover in my arms as he told me that he was the worst person in the world and deserved to die, that you were going to kill yourself either deliberately or by wrecking that car while you were drunk or high and that it was all his fault, all his fault for not being completely and entirely 100% the person that you wanted him to be.

That was my dearest friend, the one person I loved more than anyone or anything in the world, that thought he deserved death because of how you treated him. I was the one who introduced the two of you, who left you in the kitchen at the summer house one night with a loud "WOULD YOU TWO RIDICULOUS BOYS JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER ALREADY?" after each of you had let me know in more detail than I perhaps needed to know just how desirable you found the other.

And I held him while he cried his fear of losing you and his self-hatred that you put there. And then you came waltzing back in like nothing was wrong. And I was relieved that you weren't dead. And at the same time, I could have killed you myself - strangled you, torn you limb from limb - I was so furious with what you had done to him. And to you, it was only jealousy, only that you were sure - as you had always been - that I wanted him for myself.

It's not as if this barricade
Blocks the only road
It's not as if you're all alone
In wanting to explode

Besides, what the HELL, dude? You were Tina's friend, too. I saw the "WHY?!?!" e-mail you wrote after we lost her, the e-mail she would never be able to read. I heard you ramble on and on, scared out of your normal charming wits, absolutely certain that you had seen her ghost, that the spirit had angrily confronted you.

You were no different from the rest of us in that circle. We'd all stared Death down, wondering if it was preferable to living either with the closet or with the stigma of being openly queer. We all knew what it was like. Finding each other, I had thought, would help bring us all through.

Someone set a bad example
Made surrender seem all right
The act of a noble warrior
Who lost the will to fight

But you were different. You were the only one of us who took it out on someone else. You were the only one who had a gun. You were the one who waved the gun in your lover's face, just to let him know that you had almost tried to kill yourself, again, with it. You were the one that was the subject of police reports and 911 calls.

That was why I didn't talk to you for so long. I cried for you, I missed you terribly - but I could not condone any of this. I could not afford to involve myself. I could try to keep your lover safe from you, as much as he'd have it, give him a safe place to go when you were too unsafe to be around. Which was much more often than it should have been. So much more that when graduation came, it was me he moved in with - not you.

And now you're trembling on a rocky ledge
Staring down into a heartless sea
Done with life on a razor's edge
Nothing's what you thought it would be...

I thought long and hard about it, ten years later, before I pressed that "Friend" button of Facebook. It seemed that you had changed, for the better. The additional weight your frame held spoke to the possibility that perhaps one of the newer medications had worked for you after all, and your profile and other friends talked of Ivy League schools and medical research. You'd gotten things together after all, and I wanted to get to know the person you had become.

And I'm so glad I did. I'm glad I have those newer memories of better days, of hearing about your research, of planning to meet up some weekend in your new college town and introducing you to the kids. I was so happy that time had done its work and that it could let us find each other again, let there be peace and love and joy again.

All of us get lost in the darkness
Dreamers learn to steer by the stars
All of us do time in the gutter
Dreamers turn to look at the cars

And we drifted apart again, as old college friends so often do, with the odd Happy Birthday wish or liked photograph. I thought all was well. I hoped all was well. I hadn't heard anything otherwise.

Except two years or so ago, for some reason I ended up sticking your name in Google, and well...someone with the same first and last name, who was the same age and living where your parents live, was in trouble with the law for assaulting a police officer while apparently high on the latest designer drug fad.

No hero in your tragedy
No daring in your escape
No salute for your surrender
Nothing noble in your fate
Christ, what have you done???

And then Facebook again, Thursday night, with this as a status update:

"If you are reading this now it is because I am no longer in this world with you. I asked my mother to post this and I wanted everyone to know that your friendship was important to me. Goodbye to all of you."

And some of us, your friends from high school and from all of your different colleges and activities, thought that maybe your account was hacked. Some of us thought this was your idea of a social experiment. Some of us thought maybe there was still time for EMS to check on you if they were only sent to the right place.

All of us had to accept this was real. No matter how much we don't want to.

Damn it, Steve. I suppose it was inevitable. I'm glad that I'm better able to cope with such things at almost-37 than I was at 17 and that I don't feel like it's my fault. But I'm still there with your ex-lover, listening as he remembers the 911 calls, giving him what comfort I can because he is so very certain I am the only one who understands all of why this hurts.

I wish you could have saved yourself.

Credit for lyrics: Rush, "The Pass"
I used to be able to snark it up with the best of them - that is, if I wasn't one of "the best of them" myself. My parents had impressed upon me, quite firmly, the importance of "proper" English spelling, grammar, and usage.

When I was a very little girl, small enough that my printed "n" uncomfortably resembled an "h", my mother used to take out a red pen and mark the errors she found in the school district's monthly newsletter, then hand it to me and explain why the errors were incorrect. I learned that improper writing was to be scorned, and that it was a near-unforgivable sin if the "bad writer" was also an educator. I can't remember, now, if my mother actually sent one particularly red-marked newsletter back to the district superintendent's office, or if she merely threatened to. What I can remember is her anger, her scorn, and her hope that I would internalize her high standards.

I also remember one incident that led up to her decision to homeschool me. While I do not remember what it was that I wrote for a second-grade assignment, I do remember my mother's fury when my single compound-complex sentence was split into two sentences, and one of them was started with "And" - for such things were Simply Not Done! That is, they were not done in formal writing. The conventions of dialogue, dialect, and perhaps poetry were sufficiently different that some relaxing of the rules could be permitted.

There was nothing, however, that upset my mother more than seeing "it's" written where "its" should be. Yet, as I am sure all who read this are aware, this error is everywhere. It's for this reason that I hope she does not try to text form her phone, for its tendency to autocorrect "its" into "it's" regardless of what was meant would surely become a source of pure frustration.

I used to be like my mother in this regard. While there was no actual red pen involved, I would think poorly of people whose use of written English did not conform to the standards I had learned. Strangely, it was graduate-level study of linguistics that led my first steps away from the path of the Grammar Snob.

You see, "Ebonics" had been a source of many a satirical news item around the time I took a sociolinguistics class - so, naturally, it was something we discussed in the class. This is how I learned that African-American Vernacular English is not "bad English" filled with seemingly random errors, but a distinct dialect with rules that have their own internal consistency. Or perhaps more correctly, a creole with its own continuum, like the example from Jamaica given in our textbook - beginning with the standard English sentence "I gave him one" and ending ten "steps" later with "Mi di gi he wan."

Another oversimplification, of course, as all rules of this sort are. But it was one that gave me a new way to begin to see and understand the world and the people in it.

I understood still more when working for a supervisor who is legally blind and uses a screen reader. Sometimes he wrote the "wrong" homophone, because he would hear it read back to him and it would seem OK. One of my occasional tasks was to make sure to change their back into there, or two into too, when it was needed. This stuck with me when I took a class on curriculum design and my classmates were discussing grammatical errors. While once I would have wielded the virtual red pen with the "best" of them, I had learned differently, and I was there to defend substance over style.


My daughter Tori's idea of a joke, age 1 and a half:

*picks up chair cushion and puts it on her head*
Tori: "HAT!"
Me: "No, Tori, that's not a hat."
Tori: "I SAID HAT! HAT!"

Tori's idea of a joke, age 2:

*loud giggle*
*another loud giggle*

Tori's idea of a joke, age 2 and a half:

*loud giggles*
"I'm being funny! I'm being noisy! I'm being giggles!"

Tori's idea of a joke, age 3:

"POOP!" *giggle giggle*
[Because of course poop is the funniest thing possible to a 3-year-old?]

Tori's idea of a joke, age 3 and a half:

*lots of loud giggles that only intensify if anyone tries to say this isn't funny*

Tori's idea of a joke, age 4:

"Beer of root! Can I have some beer of root please?"

Tori's idea of a joke, age 4 and a half:

Knock knock!
Who's there?
Victoria who?
Victoria - me!

Tori's idea of a joke, age 5:

Knock knock!
Who's there?
Banana who?
Knock knock!
Who's there?
Banana who?
Knock knock!
Who's there?
Orange who?
Knock knock!
Um...who's there?
Orange who?
Knock knock!
Strawberry who?
Strawberry aren't you glad I didn't say orange or banana!

Now, at five and a half, Tori informs me that she is "the principal of Silly School!" Because she's "sillier than anyone...even Daddy...EVEN GRANDPA!"

And she can actually tell the knock-knock-banana joke the way most of us know it. And read some of the jokes on the Laffy Taffy wrappers and Popsicle sticks, even if she doesn't always understand them. I'm glad she likes to be silly without being mean about it. To quote her favorite book, The Cat in the Hat: "It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how!"

She knows how.
[Consider this trigger-warned for basically All The Things.]

There's this idea that people get every now and then - it happened recently on a forum I'm part of, but that's just the latest. Like everyone who gets this particular idea, the poster is absolutely convinced that this is a Brilliant Idea That Will Solve Major Social Problems and (at least originally) absolutely unconvinced that there is any possible downside to the idea.

The idea? Yet another variant on, "Hey, we should make people get licenses to parent!" This particular form was a "screening test" meant to detect "people who would abuse children" that would be given to anyone before they worked with children at all, and to anyone involved in a pregnancy. A parent-to-be who "failed" the screening would lose custody immediately upon birth; if one parent failed and the other passed, the parent who passed would have to immediately sever all contact with the parent who failed, or the child would go into care with "supervised visitation only" with the parent who passed. There was also a lot of cheerleading for temporary and permanent sterilization methods, with the idea that if there weren't "so many lies" about these things, more people would want them.

I understand that the person who proposed this meant well. I understand that they were a survivor of child abuse, including but not limited to incest, and did not want to see other children abused. I understand that they really, truly, genuinely believed that such a test could be created, that it could accurately (to within 90% or so) discern people who would abuse their children from people who would not in an unbiased, scientific way, and that those who "failed" the test could get "treatment" and re-take the test at any time. AND that removing a child from the biological parents right at birth would not cause any trauma whatsoever (not the case, by the way) and that there would be plenty of test-passing prospective parents available just waiting for all the babies to come to them.

Needless to say, I think this is a terrible idea. Why? Well, consider these reasons:

First, contrary to what a lot of people consider "common sense", babies and young children who can't "remember" in the ordinary sense of the term (that is, recall something that happened and describe it in words) can still show serious signs of traumatic stress if something traumatic happened to them - and those signs can continue or can resurface later without the young person, the adoptive family, or anyone else really understanding what is going wrong. If there has been actual maltreatment, then there are two traumas involved - the removal itself, and whatever led up to it.

Next, society has tried this before, in various incarnations. The forced adoptions in Australia, including the Aboriginal Stolen Generations. The United States trying to "Kill the Indian to save the Man. And the many cases of involuntary sterilizations of women of color and people with disabilities, including people who were only perceived as mentally disabled (but in all likelihood were not).

More recently, a group using the acronym CRACK (Children Requiring A Caring Kommunity) started a "pay addicts to be sterilized deal. Some women have reported feeling pressured to have abortions if prenatal testing shows the baby has or might have a disability, while larger women may be told that they are "too fat to have a baby", pressured to have abortions or to combine a c-section with a tubal ligation.

This doesn't stop abuse. It further targets society's scapegoats. Much as this (long!) study of the child protective system in Michigan describes, there is a problem with "racial disproportionality" in the child welfare system, at every stage. Families of color are more likely to have a CPS call made about them, are more likely if the call is made to have the report indicated, are more likely if the report is indicated to have their children placed in foster care rather than offered in-home services, and are less likely to have a successful reunification. A 19-year-old mother's understandable upset at a combined police-CPS "raid" where she was screamed at to "get on the ground!" while her baby was taken was considered a sign that she was mentally unstable and needed psychological evaluation and treatment before she could be allowed to see her baby again. Caseworkers would describe a white woman who said she had never used drugs as "no history of substance abuse" while describing a black woman who said this as "denies history of substance abuse." Et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. (If this isn't infuriating, it should be.)

Which reminds me, my family would be considered at high risk for child abuse if we lived in Colorado. Why? Because my husband was abused as a child, was involved in the child protective system, and had a malicious jackass file a false CPS report accusing him of creating porn out of our daughter. Oh, and both of us are crazy-on-paper, because apparently treated mental illness is worse than untreated mental illness, as usual in the bureaucracy.

Which is another problem. Even if we could have a totally unbiased test (we can't), I have seen nothing to show that it could predict with the level of confidence that would be needed. Most risk assessment tools I've used break into low, medium, and high risk categories. Low-risk might mean 10% risk, medium-risk might mean 40% risk, and high-risk might mean 70% risk. Not good enough. Besides, this is generally based on risk of recurrence, when something has already happened, like a person committing a crime, and what's being judged is the risk of it happening again. Somehow I don't think that "figure out who will keep doing bad things after they've already done them" is what the person who wanted a "child abuse screening test" had in mind.

So, to sum up: This won't work. And if the conditions that might make it work - a true removal of racial and other biases in the social welfare system, sufficient resources that parents don't get charged for neglect because they made socially unaccepted child care arrangements, enough prospective foster/adoptive parents able to care for the children who would be removed at birth, a society that is genuinely interested in prioritizing the well-being of children, and enough ability to validly predict who would become abusive that this test could be given - existed, there would be so much less child abuse that the test would become unnecessary.


[LJ Idol 9: Week 22] Access matters

Some images just stay with you.

One of those images, for me, came from my first social work internship. Specifically, from a disability rights conference I attended as part of that internship.

One of the people who worked at a Center for Independent Living near the one I was interning at had brought a picture with him. The picture was of a rectangular wooden dining room table, with two of its legs removed and the other two partially sawed-off. This was, apparently, what a wheelchair-using man had for a "ramp" to get into and out of his house until the Center for Independent Living was able to connect him with a source for funding and building of an actual, safe ramp.

I was, at the time, working with a consumer entirely over the phone because he could not leave his house except when transported by stretcher in an ambulette - for about the same reason. His wheelchair couldn't leave the house, so neither could he. When he finally had a positive decision (after repeated denials) on his Social Security Disability claim, the first thing his back payment went to was getting a ramp installed so that he could leave his house. Then I finally got to meet him in person, and I felt like we ought to be having a party. But he said that it was like a party just to be able to roll down the sidewalk a quarter mile, get a coffee at Dunkin Donuts, and be outside when he wanted to be.

Of course, wheelchairs and ramps and blue-colored accessible parking spaces are what a lot of people think of when they think of "accessibility" - as if it begins and ends there and is only for people who use wheelchairs. It's only the beginning, though.

One of the movements within my church denomination (the United Church of Christ) is A2A, which is short for "Accessible to All" regardless of disability - it is seen by some as a complement to "ONA" (Open and Affirming, the official shorthand for "we welcome transgender and non-heterosexual people"). So I think a lot about what being Accessible to All really would mean, and what it would take to truly get there. Sure, our building has a ramp and wide enough doorways and wheelchair-accessible toilets. It's also a considerable distance from any public transportation stop, which from the perspective of "accessibility" is a much bigger problem, as there are any number of disabling conditions that make driving one's own vehicle impossible or inadvisable. Being able to get into the building is great! But being able to get to the building is an important prerequisite.

Likewise, I'm not sure what (if anything) we have set up for people who may have difficulties with seeing or hearing. We have a projector that shows the lyrics to the songs being sung, but sometimes people's idea of "pretty" design for that ends up making the words difficult for anyone to read - and that's not even getting to the possibility of designs that wouldn't work for someone who is colorblind.

It's complicated, and it's an ideal, and I'd even say that it's an impossible ideal to be truly accessible to all because there will always be situations of conflicting access needs: the service dog user vs. the person with a severe allergy to dogs, the convicted sex offender who has done his time and is trying to reintegrate into the community vs. the survivor of sexual abuse whose damaged mental health could not handle being in a place where such a person was present, the person whose auditory processing difficulties make it really hard to be in the same space with the person whose tic disorder sometimes causes loud involuntary vocalizations.

Still, it's an ideal worth pursuing. And "we can't please everyone" is no justification for either just not bothering or putting together something that sort-of works so it looks like you're doing something - like pulling two legs off of a table to call it a ramp.

[LJ Idol 9: Week 21] Musical Prejudice

It was a standard getting-to-know-you question when I was in my teens and twenties. It probably still is:

“So...what music do you like?”

And it probably has pretty much the same answer, if you are trying to impress your conversation partner as reasonably open-minded but still possessing some standards:

“Oh, you know, a little bit of everything. Well, except [pick at least one of: heavy metal, rap, and/or country].”

Because, after all, you don’t want to come across as dangerous, or as unintelligent and backward. And each of those three genres have particular prejudices against them, in that regard.

There are the stereotypes - oh, so many stereotypes! - about heavy metal. And well, I was a teenage metalhead, though most of my favorites were more on the pop-metal end of the spectrum, so I probably know these the best from having been on the receiving end.

Because we were all stupid, stoned, suicidal Satanists, don't ya know? It was the rock 'n roll part of the sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll. Rock concerts were supposed to be the scariest places ever, and the albums were supposed to have "subliminal messages" that would be revealed if you just played the record backwards, which weren't so much of a thing until some of the bands got sick of this nonsense and started adding backwards messages just for the hell of it. (But wait, if the message is backwards, wouldn't a "kill yourself" backward message mean NOT to? Or is that too logical?)

Oh yeah, about that. Parents were severely upset by Ozzy Osbourne having released a song called "Suicide Solution." Because of course this is one song by one artist, but it proves everything...except the song isn't about what the angry parents assumed it was about, but is instead about Ozzy telling one of his buddies, "Dude, you're slowly killing yourself with your addiction to alcohol!" Observe:

Wine is fine, but whiskey's quicker
Suicide is slow with liqueur
Take a bottle, drown your sorrows
Then it floods away tomorrows
Away tomorrows

Likewise, consider rap. Although I wasn't "into" rap as a teenager, myself, and didn't know a whole lot about it, I knew enough to know that the outraged-rural-white-parent demographic was wrong about "911 Is a Joke." Although the content might have been far outside the experiences of those of us who were rural enough that we were only starting to get 911 emergency service at all in the 1990s, I was mindful enough of current events to listen to what was actually being said when I caught the video for Public Enemy's song on the late-night music video show on broadcast channel 33, or was it 68...? Anyway, I understood that there were some parts of some cities that were considered so "bad" that emergency services would try to avoid going there, out of a combination of fear, prejudice, and sometimes just plain indifference. And that simply moving out of those places might not be an option - especially if you aren't even legally an adult. (After all, would I have been living in the ass-middle of nowhere, myself, if I had any say in where my parents bought a house and made their careers? NO, I most emphatically would NOT have.) And while I didn't understand as much as I do now about structural racism and such, I had put together "malls caused the crack cocaine problem" before I knew the term "suburban sprawl" (which is what I was trying to say).

So these lyrics? Not about someone thinking that emergency services are useless in general but about someone believing - with some supporting evidence - that those services won't be there for him and those he cares about in time of need:

Now I dialed 911 a long time ago
Don't you see how late they're reacting
They only come and they come when they wanna
So get the morgue truck and embalm the goner
They don't care cause they stay paid anyway
They treat you like an ace they can't be betrayed
A no-use number with no-use people
If your life is on the line then you're dead today
Latecomers with the late coming stretcher
That's a body bag in disguise y'all, I'll betcha
I call 'em body snatchers cause they come to fetch ya
With an autopsy ambulance just to dissect ya

The stereotypes around country music seem the most innocuous at first. It’s old-people music, the music that uncool parents listen to (even if your uncool parents listen to something else). It’s about the life that you are trying to get away from, if you are a teenager in a small town who wants to be anywhere but here, please…

But at least some of the prejudice is something different. It’s the prejudice that assumes the stronger the Southern accent, the lower the IQ. Oh, and that all the women are abused and “too stupid” to leave, and all the men are beating up gay folks and black folks when they aren’t beating up their wives. The prejudice that thinks the best way to fight back against homophobia is to contrast “fabulous” well-to-do gay men with fat working-class heterosexual women (sometimes men, but especially women), and to hold the latter up as subjects of ridicule – I saw a lot of this in the calls to boycott Chick-Fill-A.

Because, of course, it's not like there aren't lesbian country singers - k.d. Lang, anyone?

She was a big boned gal
From southern Alberta
You just couldn't call her small
And you can bet every Saturday night
She'd be heading for the legion hall

Put her blue dress on
And she'd curl her hair
Oh she's been waiting all week
And with a bounce in her step
And a wiggle in her walk
She'd be swinging down the street

Sounds good to me.

[LJ Idol 9: Week 20] Brooke, flowing

This is an intersection week. I am partnered with lawchicky - her entry for "Shibusa" is here, and is probably best read first. This is my take on "Rapture of the Deep"

Brooke didn’t like to think in words because they just seemed like so much trouble!
They were lines and circles and parts of circles to draw letters that then had to “draw” words that were made up of waves when they were spoken.
Sometimes she thought she saw the waves when the grown-ups talked around her, about her.
Soft and warm when she did something right and a cold angry drowning spray when she was wrong.
Sometimes she thought she felt the waves cool and sparkling like the word that was her name.
Like the water. But “Brooke” - it moved so fast - why couldn’t it be “ocean” she wondered.

Oh-see-ahn. Which of course they say is not how to say it, but it was how she felt it.
But if she didn’t say it their way, cut see-ahn into “shun”, then they would shun her.
She wanted it, so she’d say it their way even though it hurt like cutting off a piece of something that mattered.
The water and the salt, they belonged with her, familiar as her own tears that came as easy from delight as frustration.
So they said, the grown-ups, as they sprayed out disapproval for her not telling them how she felt, for confusing them with her crying.
And the waves would wash over gentle and warm when her face did something to show what they wanted to see.
Even if she didn’t know what it was she was doing – right or wrong.

She wanted to think in water, think in temperature and texture and sensation, in the rainbows shimmering within drops.
She wanted the water, to be in the water, to be part of it.
When she was much smaller, and understood less, she somehow turned it all from liquid into invisible vapor and fear-ice for the grown-ups.
And they took it away from her, for a long time.
No swimming, no soaks in the tub, just fast showers running past her with someone always always watching.
Stern looks and “consequences” for so much as stepping in a puddle or catching a raindrop on her tongue.
“Oh-see-ahn” she said to herself, knowing it would be Worse if she said it out loud.

And one day there was a new grown-up to teach her, one that seemed to know what she needed.
And slowly, gently, carefully, this one let water surround her.
And she felt like she was herself, the water that was part of her name.

She had to work to understand the words, but at least she didn’t have to say them back.
When you’re in the water, after all, you need to breathe more than you need to talk.
And the time in the water helped, for the time out of the water when she needed to say what grown-ups needed to hear.
Because when she did it right, they let her come back, and they stopped holding on and stopped making her hold on.
Finally. FINALLY.

And she realized she could pass their tests. The deep-end test. The diving-board test.
And then at last, years later, the SCUBA test.
And the grown-ups were okay with her love for the water, now, and tried to put it to use to learn other things.
Words and numbers, which sometimes came easier when she could fill them with water in her mind.
And science, which she liked. And history, which she didn’t. HIS-story. Hissssssssstory.
Like the snake in the garden, a man tempting a woman to do what he said instead of what some other man said.
Like the grown-ups who were forever commanding her not only what to DO, but what to THINK about what she did.

But they took her diving, to ancient ruins, to where the hissing past and the fascinating future met and clashed and clanged.
And in the quiet clamor of taking it all in, she started to understand what it meant, what the past can mean.
This was somebody’s home, long ago.
And these, the smooth clay of bowls once eaten from like she ate morning oatmeal from Fiestaware.
And this, over here…? This was a bone of someone who met his end in a watery grave.

This, then, was the vapor and the fear-ice they had drawn out of her, once, when she was small and knew nothing of fear.
This was why, in the midst of her love, the grown-ups tried to teach her their fear.
Why all the lectures on breathing sprayed cold and frightened at her and then tried to pull her close.
The water had captured the skeleton-that-was-once-a-man, drowning him. That was HIS-story.
And once, when she was almost too small to remember, it had been HER story.

But she had broken the grown-up rules that existed from the ancient world into some far-flung future.
She had met her adversary unafraid and called to it as a much-loved friend.
She was Brooke, flowing water, flowing with the water.
She did not have to fear, and they did not have to fear for her.


[LJ Idol 9: Week 18] Reductio Ad Absurdum

As the Ice Bucket Challenge makes its rounds, so too does the explanatory backlash:

I have particular charities I donate to, and I’m satisfied with them.

And inevitably, there is reference to that quick snapshot of how “good” a charity is, the “administrative percentage.” This is also the measure that the governor of the state I live in and work for has set official limits on in order to receive government funding in this state.

The way I see it, focusing on this figure is one of the best examples out there of “simple, neat, and wrong” in action. It is usually presented as the choice between “your donation” (or, in the case of nonprofits that contract with government agencies, “your tax dollars”) paying for “real services” - or paying for some executive somewhere to draw down an exorbitant salary and give cushy no-real-work-required job titles with large sums of money attached to family and friends and perhaps create an endless supply of mid-level managers who aren’t “really” doing the work.

The reality is, as ever, quite a bit more complex. It’s not about the cake-to-icing ratio of a single-sheet cake, but rather more like a many-layered torte, with filling that actually holds the cake layers together. Although even that isn’t clear enough – in many cases, rather than being a cake at all, it’s more like trifle or bread pudding, where there is an awareness of the different components but they are all cut up and mushed together to the point that sometimes you can’t tell whether what you’re looking at is the “bread/cake” part or not.

In my experience working for and with nonprofits and talking with people in the field, generally three things are done to keep “administrative expense” down: lower-level clerical staff are not paid anything resembling a living wage, “program” staff are spending considerable amounts of their work time on “administrative” tasks, and infrastructure is kept in...sub-optimal condition (to put it politely).

First, there’s the problem of underpaid or sometimes UN-paid office staff. An agency might have a rotating schedule of two or three or four part-time minimum-wage no-benefits “receptionists” – sometimes young students or retirees who enthusiastically support the cause of the agency and are content with the pay they receive, but all too often people who are desperate to have any job at all to put on a résumé so they don’t LOOK unemployed. It might lean heavily on the labor of unpaid interns, who are told that this is “good experience” for them, or of volunteers – including the involuntary “volunteers” who have school-mandated “service learning” as a graduation requirement or court-ordered community service hours to complete. Cutting the administrative corners this way can have bad results for the agency’s mission. For instance, in one agency I know that over-relied on volunteer clerical help, a large series of case records were mis-keyed into a database by a volunteer, showing that several applicants for service were in the “least critical” category of need when in fact they were not. It was several months before another volunteer discovered and reported the error.

Then there are all the games played with who counts as “program” vs. “administrative” staff. Fundraising is the most “administrative” expense there is, the greatest target of ire for those who report on what charities do with their money – unless, of course, you are providing “work experience” or “practical training in grassroots activism” to your fundraising canvassers, in which case their (and their supervisors’) percentage of the canvassing take is still a program expense! Convenient, isn’t that? Non-profits that directly serve youth, or serve adults diagnosed with severe disabilities of some kind, can also provide “work experiences” to their clients either as fully unpaid life-skills education or attached to a sub-minimum wage “stipend” (much as I might give my children 50 cents to wash and put away the dishes – but that is a WHOLE other rant outside the scope of this one) and then have the paid program staff who are overseeing these activities or performing the activities with the clients considered to be not doing whatever it is they are actually doing (cleaning offices, making copies, mowing lawns, etc.) but providing employment training, within the mission of their “program” work. Even when this sort of thing isn’t going on, no “direct program” employee does “direct program” work all day every day – and the leaner the office support staff is kept, the more often necessary clerical (and sometimes building maintenance) tasks will actually be performed by program staff.

Last but not least, there are the issues of physical infrastructure. Fortunately, I was quickly able to convince a caller from another state office that NO, the beds in a group home that teenagers sleep in are NOT administrative expenses just because they are not “direct staff” costs. (I’m still rather boggled that this even had to be said, but apparently it did?) Offices are another matter, of course, and here is where much damage is done. I’ve seen dot-matrix printers and monochrome-screen terminals in use as late as 2003. I’ve worked with agencies as recently as a year ago that were still using Office 2005 (or possibly an even earlier version) and could not open a needed .xlsx spreadsheet. I’ve known social workers who kept file boxes of confidential case records in the trunk of their car because there was no secure storage at the agency office where they saw their clients, and others who had to hold family meetings in the lunchroom their agency shared with another non-profit because there was no other room large enough. I have worked with a school for children with severe disabilities, many of them wheelchair users, who are still being carried into the building because there is no accessible entrance – and this school’s “temporary” classrooms housed in trailers have been in use for more than 30 years.

These are not things that should be happening, but they do. I believe they happen in large part because of the pressure to hold actual or perceived “administrative” expenses down. I would rather donate my money to a nonprofit that reported 25% or even 35% of its expenses as administrative, if those expenses paid for sufficient support staff, earning living wages, to free up “program” staff (also earning living wages!) to put their own skills to the best use and interns to have truly educational job-shadowing experiences rather than picking up haphazardly-assigned administrative or maintenance tasks – and for a modernized and accessible physical and technological infrastructure appropriate to the agency’s size and mission. A competing agency that reports 9% administrative expense and arrives at that number by relying on an underpaid skeleton crew of clerical staff supervising unpaid interns in an inaccessible building with improperly maintained and secured technology is NOT one I want to donate to – unless, perhaps, the donation is to fix these problems.
Ah, the elusive "real job" - an occupation with many contradictory definitions.

I'm not sure what, exactly, counts as "real" enough.

Working at McDonalds isn't real, of course. That's a "McJob" - perfect for threatening underachievers and dreamers with in mocking chorales of, "Would'ya like FRIIIIIIIIES with that??" Unless, of course, you're long-term unemployed, or a stay-at-home parent in a struggling household - in which case, "Go out and get a REAL job, you lazy slacker! Even McDonald's is hiring!" is likely to be some of the first advice you get.

For those of us stumbling toward a PhD, the "real job" is often conceptualized as: a full-time tenure-track position at a research university, or at least at a four-year college. Everything else is just some sort of temporary waystation or frivolous diversion. Of course, we have to deal with all the folks outside academia who insist that NO academic job is a "real job" and that it's a cushy, easy life of being paid too much for working too little. In fact, every teacher - PhD to preschool - has to hear about that, which is ridiculous.

I hear about it, too, as someone in civil service. My job isn't "real" because it's a government job, and supposedly we have it super-easy and do very little work for far too much in pay and super-awesome benefits. And also because the jobs I've had in civil service - "foster care program rate setter" and "compliance program reviewer" and "local assistance budgeting analyst" - are easy to get an oversimplified perspective on as variants on mindless paper-shuffling and arbitrary power-mad decision making, and difficult to explain the details of what I actually do.

(The short oversimplified versions of each: "Foster care program rate setter" meant reviewing proposed and actual budgets for group homes and setting a per-child per-day reimbursement rate for the organizations that ran them. "Compliance program reviewer" meant making sure that medical providers who received more than a certain amount of Medicaid funding every year had internal anti-fraud programs that met certain legally-required criteria. "Local assistance budgeting analyst" - what I do now - means, among other things, that when the Federal or state government pays for part of some task a local government performs, for example hiring Child Protective Services workers, I'm the person checking the rules that say what of the many different state "funding streams" - think individual bank accounts - the money to pay the local government should come from, in what order, and then making sure the money is actually there to make the payment.)

On the other hand, it's not as if there aren't plenty of jobs like these in the for-profit corporate world - I don't think "Investment Operations Assistant", the title I held when I worked for one of the many banks that merged into Bank of America, is any more self-explanatory than any of my civil service job titles. (What it actually meant: I worked in the security vault of a bank, doing data entry based on the physical stock certificates and savings bonds, and occasionally other items like real-silver silverware, sent to the vault, as well as regularly participating in an inventory of what was currently in the vault.) But it met the criteria of a "real job" to those who are a bit less fussy about such things - I worked full-time from 8AM to 5PM, it paid a few dollars above minimum wage an hour, and after the first few months the bank hired me directly so I wasn't even temping!

And yet a lot of the people I hung out with outside of work at the time didn't think of my bank job as particularly "real" because I was sitting at a desk and typing most of the day. I wasn't on my feet moving boxes or waiting tables or physically repairing computers! Perhaps I got a little extra "real job" cred from them because my job was actually IN the vault, and we had special requirements for what we were allowed to wear and security cameras on us all the time.

But prior to that job, when I had interviewed at "Bounders Books-n-Muzak" for a bookselling job, the interviewer went out of his way to make me feel like my secretarial work-study job wasn't a real job. I dressed up nicely, as a college senior is taught to do when job-searching; my interviewer wore a stained t-shirt and jean cut-offs. And he repeatedly put down the idea that I'd be able to work well in a team because something about my job just wasn't "real" to him.

It just goes to show that anybody talking about "real" jobs generally has a "real" axe to grind!

Random recommended reading

copyright1983's letter to his father-in-law is something you should read, whether you're following LJ Idol or not. Just...go read. Seriously.
My undergraduate career was coming to an end, not with a bang but a whimper. My GPA was less than impressive, I had failed one of the courses I needed to actually complete my second major, the one graduate school I had applied to had rejected me, and I really didn't know what I was going to do with myself after I left. There was a cheap shared house and another summer of my old work-study job by day, and community theater by night, but the next steps were a big question mark.

So what are you going to do with your life, anyway?

I didn't know. Not school for a while. A job. And an apartment. And friends, maybe a relationship sometime.

My friend Rachael was moving up to Rochester, the nearest relatively large city, and said that she thought the apartment upstairs from hers might be open. It wasn't, but her landlord had one across the street: the entire second floor of a two-family house, two bedrooms, one bathroom, $450 a month. I thought that sounded good, and I talked my best friend - who was similarly at loose ends, not knowing what to do with himself next - into moving in with me.

How come you and Jason can't just get married...you know, like NORMAL people do?

My mother was the one who actually asked the question in so many words, and Jason's mother had asked it a little more gently not long before, and apparently there were a lot of people thinking it. A lot of people who missed the memo that "gay" generally means "not interested in marrying someone of the opposite gender." A lot of people I was sick and tired of telling, "No, we're NOT together, he's GAY, he has a BOYFRIEND!" (Including a recent ex-boyfriend of mine and yes, that WAS why he was an ex - he accused me of cheating on him with my gay best friend one time too many and I told him what he could do with himself and his suspicions and hung up on him. End of relationship. No loss, really.)

As if that line of questioning wasn't irritating enough, there was another that again, was said in so many words by my mother, but that seemed to be on a lot of people's minds:

So...uh...besides you and Jason and Rachael, are there any, uh, white people in this neighborhood?

I actually started answering, "Well, our landlords are a couple of white guys, and there's the maintenance guy who lives a couple blocks away..." before I realized what had just been said, and exploded in a fury of "WHAT THE FUCK, I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU JUST ASKED ME THAT, WOW THAT'S SO OFFENSIVE!" The neighborhood was a mix of working-class African American families, LGBT folks who were mostly white gay men, and students of one of the several colleges in the area. But it had a Reputation as a "scary inner city neighborhood" and I had been taught to be afraid of the inner city when I was younger.

The worst fears of the fearful came true perhaps two months after I moved in when a murder took place about a block and a half from my new apartment. There was some kind of interpersonal dispute, a young man came looking for another young man with a gun, aimed for him and hit his mother. But still, it was as my landlord had informed Jason and me when we signed the lease, "Look, this place still has a bit of a reputation. But I've lived here a long time and I know that if you aren't black, male, under 25, AND dealing drugs, or living with someone who is all of those things, you will not have a problem here." So being one Latino-passing-for-Anglo-white-guy who was just turning 25 and one just-plain-white-girl who would be 20 soon, and with no plans for dealing drugs, we weren't too worried.

Sometimes, though, I was afraid there. Walking alone at night was fine - this was my home, and the people knew me, and I swear the streets themselves knew I belonged on them, and the autumn leaves beneath my feet, and the summer rain and winter snowflakes catching on my tongue, even when I felt the urge to wander outside at 3:30 AM.

Walking home from work at 3:30 PM? That was another matter.

Honey, you lost? Do you KNOW where you ARE?

Always from a white guy in a fancy car, usually wearing a fancy suit, too. Always leaving me that mix of scared and infuriated that street harassment of any kind is so well-calculated to inflict upon its targets. That was the scariest thing about living in Rochester's Plymouth-Exchange neighborhood. The people who didn't belong to the neighborhood, telling me that I didn't belong there either. One of the more persistent drive-bys tried to offer to pay my rent "somewhere nicer" after I had angrily snapped, "OF COURSE I know where I am, I LIVE HERE and have for the last four years!" in response to his honey-you-lost? variant.

This was what the other white people, the ones who questioned the wisdom of my living "in the hood" never did get. I did not fear the guns or drugs that were supposedly everywhere on account of being a majority-black neighborhood in, well, you know, the inner city - my landlord knew the place well and I trusted him and his judgement. I did not fear the neighbors, regardless of appearance - in fact, it was a standing joke of mine that the only gang of black teenagers I'd encountered was the one that was kind enough to dig my car out when I got stuck on the side of the road in a Rochester blizzard. I did not fear the occasional loud drunk guy near the convenience store - I didn't bother them and they didn't bother me.

I did fear the white guys in expensive cars driving down South Plymouth Avenue, asking their loaded questions, telling me that I didn't belong because they knew they didn't belong and so they assumed things about me - either I must be lost and dangerously naive (and thus an easy target) or I must be some kind of loose immoral woman looking for drugs and sex in the wrong part of town (and thus an easy target). The idea that I belonged there simply didn't occur to them - I must have been there for them, looking all out of place, to turn them into heroes of some sort of rescue-the-damsel-and-then-have-my-way-with-her fantasy.

No thanks. To quote one of my favorite songs of the time (Ani DiFranco's "Not a pretty girl"):

What if there are no damsels in distress?
What if I knew that and I called your bluff?
Don't you think every kitten figures out how to get down...
Whether or not you ever show up?"
One summer when I was in college, I stayed in town to work during the day and do some community theater in the evening. In this particular college town, housing was often quite expensive during the semesters (because even ridiculously overpriced housing was cheaper than the dorms) but ridiculously cheap during the summer. So it was that I ended up, for $200 a month, subletting a furnished room from a music professor and his family. It was a reasonably nice little room, though the dark wood paneling on the walls and floor made it hotter than it needed to be. I had some use of the kitchen and bathroom, though it was often too hot and I was often too busy to cook. To make up for that, there was a mini-fridge in my room, and I added a blender to this and made Moosewood's "fruit soup" out of fruit, juice, yogurt, and sometimes other flavorings regularly.

Besides the mini-fridge, the basic dresser, and the twin bed, this room included an Attack Chair. It seemed a nice enough chair at first - when I sat down. Getting up seemed to be the problem. Something about the springs had gone wrong, in such a way that they tore through the pantyhose I was wearing. I dismissed this as no big deal, because that stuff snags and tears on everything and sometimes on nothing at all. I couldn't dismiss it when the next hole was in my favorite skirt, or when it left a visible scratch on my skin that somehow stopped just short of drawing actual blood.

I started avoiding the chair and just using the bed to sit on. No chair at all was better than THAT chair. And the homeowners agreed with me, and put the chair out to the curb on the day that the students who had left for the summer came back. My dad came to help me move from the sublet into another apartment (which did not have any attack chairs but also, I later realized, did not have a working oven...ah, college housing).

Some of my other friends, who still lived on-campus, were getting settled into their dorm suite. Dad gave me a ride over there, and on the way we passed the sublet and noted that someone had picked up the Attack Chair. Then, when we went in, Dad noticed that my friends had picked up the Attack Chair, and he warned them about it.

A pillow belonging to someone living in the suite was located and repurposed into a chair cushion. I wished I had thought of that back when the chair was attacking me. But if I had, my friends wouldn't have scored a free chair from the curb.


[LJ Idol 9: Week 13] Utopia Lost

I'm not sure how to write this or where to even begin, seeing as how the specifics have only been on my radar at all the last few days, what with my going about life and all.

But at some point when I was more involved both with the SCA and with science fiction fandom than I currently am, I became aware that once upon a time there was something called the "Breendoggle" and that it involved the ex-husband of a writer I particularly admired, a man who was apparently both completely brilliant in his own fields of writing and research and capable of completely monstrous behavior otherwise. And I had believed then that this writer (Marion Zimmer Bradley) had written one particular villain-often-sympathized-with-in-fandom (Dyan Ardais) as a way of processing through the experience of being married to someone like Walter Breen.

And like many, I didn't know the half of it. Or the hundredth of it, really.

The rest is going behind this here spoiler cut due to discussion of child physical and sexual abuse.

[Spoiler (click to open)]
I'm struggling a lot with the revelations that MZB herself was perpetrating abuse rather than merely covering it up - her work had a lot to do with how I saw the world 10-15 years ago (Darkover was my second real fandom, after Amber) and has somewhat carried into today. And by struggling I don't mean that I don't believe it, it's more of a "I believe this, even though it is breaking my heart, but what does it mean about me that I found this world so appealing even though it was built by someone who had done so many terrible things herself and enabled so many others...?" And that's not even touching that she's the one credited with giving the Society for Creative Anachronism its name - the group where I met my spouse and most of the people I call chosen family, including my godchildren.

The books meant what they did to me because I could see myself in them, more so than most anything else. While I'd read some queer lit here and there, most of it focused on characters who came out as gay or lesbian and never looked back, so having someone like her character Magda Lorne saying, "I won't call myself a lover of women, though there are women that I love" and actually admitting that maybe bisexuality is an actual thing was something that 15-years-ago me desperately needed in her life. I loved both the Renunciate Guild and the Forbidden Tower, those bands of misfits who were not following ordinary social rules but who were actually doing useful things like getting complex medical care to people who normally didn't have access to it, and who could live this way in a complicated network of chosen family without giving up the idea of giving birth to a new generation. All of that was really important to me and was the right ideas at the right time in my life.

And now that I'm less a part of that sort of world anyway, now that I am still open about being bisexual but am in what looks to all the world like (and essentially is) a "normal" nuclear family with an opposite-gender spouse and two kids (in Catholic school!) and a suburban house and car, I feel that I have more to lose by pursuing more radical solutions. And while I've never been totally happy or at peace with that, I've realized that maybe it's time I let go of the utopian communitarian dreams of late adolescence/early adulthood and actually grew up a little.

So I'm heartbroken for my old self right now. But after some thought, I am unfortunately nowhere near as surprised as I could be to learn that the dreams were built on the backs of the author's own biological children, whom she abused both physically and sexually (even if, as she is quoted as saying, she believed groping her nine-year-old daughter's breasts wasn't sexual because "children that age don't have erogenous zones") and on the backs of the many "fosterlings" and "young friends" who were preyed upon by her openly pedophile husband.

Because this is so, so often the case. I've been that younger person who wanted desperately to be respected as and treated as a full human being with full agency and understanding of the world. (Now I'm old enough to admit that there is no such thing as full understanding of the world!) And looking back on it, I see the pattern that exists. There are those who go out of their way to befriend or romantically attach to young people, or to say, "Hey, I believe you when you say that you're old enough, and that you've got this." And in some ways I used to be one of those people, because I remember being the young one on the other side of it. But then I started learning about this little thing called interpersonal boundaries, and actually taking it seriously. And realizing that communities that want "no rules" and "no limits" - no matter how noble and lofty the intent - are either consciously choosing to enable predatory behavior or at the very least are creating vulnerabilities that predators can easily manipulate to their advantage.

The actual "Breendoggle" open letter from 1963 [TW: extremely graphic descriptions of sexual abuse of young kids] makes clear what the problem is. At the time, there were people troubled by Breen's unbelievably blatant sexual behavior with children as young as three. However, some of those same people didn't want to kick him out of various organizations or bar him from conventions because of the old argument of "we're all weird here, and where's the line that says you won't kick someone out just because you think he's a little too weird?" They also argued (in a weird look into the "alternative" mindset of the early 1960s) that the littlest kids Breen had targeted probably wouldn't remember what happened anyway, and therefore it wasn't like he was doing permanent damage, and conversely that the older boys he targeted were old enough and big enough to tell him to go away if it bothered them that much, so that also wasn't really that big a deal except that it made people uncomfortable.

I guess we've made some progress in that these days, when I hear about creepy guys in fandom, the people who are told they should "tell him to go away if it bothers them that much" are generally legally adult women, at least most of the time. Not teenagers or ten year olds. It's still frightening yet instructive to see these same patterns of justifying bad behavior used, then, to justify behavior that now I would hope everyone would recognize as clearly over the line.

But at the same time, I wonder about the young people. The ones who want to be taken seriously, who want to have friends who take them seriously. The ones who have ideas that perhaps the person they should be exchanging the ideas with is a few years over the line of "adult" that they are a few years away form reaching. The ones who already are taking on more than they should have to for one so young and who need to be told "you're doing awesome, even though you shouldn't have to be doing this" rather than "the very fact you tried to do this shows how immature you really are, you silly child!" The ones who may find themselves lured by a monster because the not-monsters don't want to be confused with the monsters in any way.

And...I wonder, am I a monster too? Even though I wouldn't have sex with a minor and I don't think it's OK? Is the instinct I still have to fight on the side of "kids" and against the side of "adults" a sign that something is wrong with me?


[LJ Idol 9: Week 12] Learning by Imitation

"Monkey see, monkey do! Monkey get in trouble, too!"

That's something I heard a lot during my childhood. Although it was often commentary on the behavior of other kids, usually smaller kids than I was at the time, I have a few memories of when it applied to me.

The earliest one is of Sesame Street's Don Music. For those who don't remember or never saw him, he was a Muppet who played the piano, and when he made mistakes, he would bank his head on the keys and moan, "Oh, I'll never get it right. I'll NEVER get it right!"

I was maybe three or four years old, and my parents had recently bought me a miniature piano. Guess what I did when I made a mistake playing London Bridge?

I also remember getting in some trouble as a slightly older child when I tried to mix up honey and powdered paprika and a few other things (and made a huge sticky mess!) because something in a book I had read talked about honey-and-herb hair conditioners.

To say that the books we read, the shows and movies we watch, the games we play, that these do not impact how we handle situations is ridiculous. And all the more so when it's about little kids.

This is not to say that I think particular kinds of content should be banned from being produced at all, or that children "shouldn't" be exposed to media that is meant for children because of "bad messages". I think that it is important that young people who are growing up as part of any given society should not have entire giant swathes of popular culture hidden from them because of "questionable" elements. I don't think I've come across very much children's media or very many children's books (if any) that weren't problematic in some way. And sometimes I bring out my old favorites and realize that I'd entirely forgotten some element that I didn't particularly want my kids seeing in that sort of context. (The scene surrounding the song "Sign!" in Annie, for instance. What the heck?!)

It certainly means keeping on top of the overall mix, though, and I have had to ban a certain PBS Kids show from this household because my younger daughter was both irritatingly obsessed with it AND using certain of its catch-phrases when she wanted to be rude and defiant towards me. ("I'm Chet the mouse! I don't listen!" and saying that she had to go to Australia and taking money to try to get a plane ticket and, well, various obnoxious Fetch!-related behavior.)

That said, what a lot of media does for kids (and sometimes even for adults) is provide mental scripts for handling situations that would otherwise be unfamiliar. And for younger kids who are very much at the making-sense-of-the-world stage, I think that overall and more often than not, even with irritating or problematic content involved, I'd rather let them at least know what the scripts are - they'll be on the receiving end of script-prompted interactions, if nothing else, and knowing the expected reaction is a problematic one is not nearly as bad as not knowing that the problematic reaction is an expected and common one.

If I find something offensive, and it's not something that will completely go over the girls' heads, I'll say so and talk a bit about why. Especially if it's something problematic in otherwise excellent work - qween394 just finished reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I made a point of discussing with her why, "They're orcs, therefore evil, therefore let's go kill them!" is Really Not Cool, and neither is the idea that the most conventionally-attractive-by-white-people-standards race is the one that lives the longest and is generally considered exceptionally "good". And comparing it to the movie Peter Pan and that cringeworthy "Red Man" song as something else I have also stated firmly is Really Not Cool.

Still, we need our scripts. We need our passcodes to groups of friends - qween394's choice of reading materials and other entertainment says a lot about who she is, and she gravitates towards others who make similar choices.

I'm just glad that one of the scripts actually IS "monkey see, monkey do" - a nice little reminder script of the danger of overreliance on scripts.

[LJ Idol 9: Week 11] Like Sirius Black?

Two little girls are mine, flesh and blood. I carried them in my body, six and eight days past their due dates, respectively. I carried them home and kept them close. I still carry them, when they need it, one at a time, fifty-ish pounds of sleeping girl from the car up the porch steps to the bed.

Sometimes the world shrinks down to them, or even to one of them, just for a little while. Because I am Mama, and it's what they need, and it's what I do.

And tonight the smaller girl has crawled into bed with the bigger girl, and they remind me of two other little girls, the ones who should-shouldn't-should have been mine. Should because their mother asked them, when they were a few years older than my little sleeping ones, if they wanted me and my husband to be their godparents, to take care of them if something happened.

"Like Sirius Black?" one of them asked, bright-eyed and intense, for this was when the new Harry Potter books and movies were still coming out, and all of us were big fans of Harry's godfather.

"Yes, exactly like Sirius Black."

It was what their mother wanted. It was what they wanted. It was what my husband and I wanted, should it ever become necessary. And when we heard that their mother had fallen asleep, never to wake up, we wanted to make good on our word, but - like Sirius Black, in a way - we couldn't. Without blood ties or paperwork - and we had neither - there was nothing to be done. Even if we had one of those things, their dad became (marginally) less of a deadbeat and took them home with him, and that was the end of that, even though I'm sure it was exactly what Cilla hadn't wanted.

And shut us away from them, not long after, even though he promised he wouldn't do that.

Two times two times two years. Two little girls born to me, brought home by me. Two less-little girls in another state, in "the system" - and I didn't know, I couldn't know, not until they had both crossed the line of legal adulthood and Facebook brought us together again.

Two young women, newly adults, out of "the system", and soon enough - too soon, to some - there were two little boys for each of them. I shouldn't be shocked or surprised or disappointed - I'm a social worker, I know the statistics about these things, and I know how well they've done all things considered. Both goddaughters have finished high school, and my older goddaughter is married to the father of her two boys.

And I feel like I'm too young to be a grandmother, though I know that technically it's not out of the question. And I'm not really a grandmother, but in a way I am. But not as much of one as I would like.

I have two girls who are here, who are mine, by law. Two girls who are minors, who live here, who must by those two reasons be the focus of my time and money and attention and whatever other resources I have.

I have two girls I was asked to be the back-up mother for - just in case - but law and circumstances were not on my side. Time and distance makes it hard, as if the lack of proximity and recent in-person contact further diminishes the already tenuous hold of it's what Cilla wanted.

But they know. As soon as they heard that my first daughter's middle name is Priscilla, after their mother, they knew that their godparents had never stopped loving them or missing them, either. And somehow we will cross this distance, and I will figure out how to be the not-quite-mother that I wanted so badly to be all the years without contact.
...to quote my department manager, "When we say we're from the government and we're here to help, we mean it!"

I changed jobs late last year, but I'm not sure I've talked much about exactly what it is that I do now. I work for the Office of the Medicaid Inspector General's Bureau of Compliance, reviewing "compliance programs" that health care providers who accept Medicaid are required to have if they either bill Medicaid for more than a certain amount of money or provide certain specific types of services. Although I can be, and have been, assigned to just about any type of medical provider, my focus is on home health care providers and "Medicaid waiver service" providers (specialized services that might not be thought of as "medical" in the normal sense, but that allow people with significant disabilities to return to or remain in their own homes instead of in a nursing home, psychiatric hospital, or other "institutional" setting).

So, what's a compliance program, then? It consists of, at a minimum: a written code of conduct or code of ethics (that is itself mandated to include certain things), a training program on that code, related disciplinary policies to deal with code of conduct breaches, internal identification and review of "risk areas" for that type of provider, a specific employee who can be contacted about any of these things, and functional confidential and anonymous means of making that contact. It's a way that providers help themselves by having internal systems set up to prevent and/or catch-then-stop the things that are legally termed "waste, fraud, and abuse".

Yes, that same "waste, fraud, and abuse" that our politicians LOVE to go on about. That "Medicaid fraud" (or sometimes more generally "health care fraud" or "benefits fraud" or even "welfare fraud" etc.) that's costing the government approximately a million bazillion dollars a second, or whatever. And that, unsurprisingly, is usually blamed on recipients.

Are there ways that recipients can commit fraud? Sure.

Are there a lot more ways that providers can commit fraud, with a lot more money involved, and also a lot more danger to the service recipients? OH HELL YES.

My "favorite" example of Medicaid fraud is a psychologist who got caught billing group and family therapy sessions as individual sessions for every person present. How was this caught? Because he would've had to be working thirty hours a day, six days a week to have generated that many billable hours. Sometimes this stuff really isn't subtle.

Sometimes it is. And sometimes there are false positives. Most home health agencies in New York City have an automated conflict-check report, which shows when the home health aides do not call in and out "properly" from the land line of the home they are working in. These situations range from the actually fraudulent (aide caught "working" for two agencies and supposedly being at two homes at the same time) to the simply careless (aide was distracted because the person she was working for needed immediate help with going to the bathroom, then forgot to go back and call in, but called out at the end of the day normally, and had to explain why she called out when she never called in) to the really bad situation (the person the aide was supposed to be working for started throwing things at her and threatening to call the police if she did not leave, so she did what she needed to for her own safety and then dealt with her employer).

Part of why we want providers to have their own in-house compliance programs is because we don't want to and can't afford to, at the government level, investigate every single instance of "home health aide didn't call in/call out properly" or "family claims there is jewelry missing and aide must have taken it - oh wait, they do that every time a home health aide who is such-and-such race or ethnicity is sent." (Yes, that's a thing, too. Unfortunately.)

But we also want to have providers understand that good providers can hire bad people and not realize it. "We're all good Christians here!" is NOT a compliance program. (Shortly before I started, a few of my co-workers did an onsite review and had to pretty much start from scratch with a provider that thought "we're all good Christians and nobody will commit fraud here because that would be WRONG!" was enough.) And also that good people can make honest mistakes that look like fraud, and sometimes the attempt to downplay or deny that becomes fraud when it didn't start out that way.

Still, some providers get a call or an e-mail from us requesting information and think that we're there just to take their money or shut them down. That's not all or even most of what the Medicaid Inspector General does, and it's not something my particular department does AT ALL. (If a provider is recalcitrant enough, or we stumble upon something horrifically unacceptable? We'll refer it to the people who WILL shut them down. But we don't do that, ourselves.) We're from the government, we ARE here to help, and we don't want to waste anyone's time - but the next government reps who show up might not be so nice.

made it through...

Did the Idol read/comment/vote thing, for all the polls.

Wish I could've left more per comment but more comments were important.

Now my hand hates me but my brain is much less annoyed at me.

And alas, probably too late tonight for swimming, unless I go to the Y without the whirlpool.

And also with the weird weather maybe I should just stay home.

My poor hand. 2048 seems to bother it less so maybe I'll do that for a while. I want to clean stuff up in the house but unless I am picking up trash left-handed that's not gonna happen right now because grasping things hurts. OW.
"The only disability in life is a bad attitude." - attributed to Scott Hamilton

I'm sure that if you've spent much time on the parts of the Internet where memes are regularly reposted, you've probably encountered this quote. Quite possibly in picture-meme form, superimposed on one of (take your pick):

- A guy in a power wheelchair, seen from the back;
- A guy doing pull-ups in a lightweight "athletic" wheelchair;
- Someone with a fancy graphic tattoo that incorporates a missing or unusually-formed body part;
- Someone running on visibly obvious prosthetic legs or feet;
- Some cute little girl with the characteristic facial features of Down Syndrome;
- Some cute little pet with a missing limb;
- etc.

I hate, hate, HATE this meme.

It is the worst kind of toxic bullshit. Why? Here are a few reasons:

- It is usually in pretty obvious breach of the disability rights principle of "nothing about us without us". That is to say, this meme is not FOR people with (visible) disabilities to be inspired by. It's for one generally able-bodied person to be able to point to and say to another able-bodied person, "Orange you glad you aren't THIS GUY?" like a little kid's knock-knock-banana joke. That joke isn't funny anymore.

- It completely downplays, ignores, or outright denies the possibility of mental illness and of non-visible physical disabilities. This kind of crap is why Allie Brosh's drawing of following herself around spewing verbal abuse about all the reasons she had no right to be Having A Sad struck a chord with so many people.

- It completely downplays, ignores, AND outright denies all of the systemic social factors that get in the way when a person with a significant impairment (visible or otherwise) is just Trying To Go About Living Life and can't because of all of the systemic social crap in the way. To give my pet example with the numbers made easy: if you get disability benefits in the amount of $750 per month in actual cash, $500 per month in various other things (food stamps, discounted public transit passes, utility bill assistance, etc.) and $3000 a month in medical expenses, and you get a job offer that pays $2500 a month and kicks you off of all assistance, and your "new" insurance won't pay for the medical things you need to keep being alive (let alone productive!) it doesn't make you a freeloading bum to turn the job down. What it makes you is NOT SUICIDAL. Yes, ObamaCare sort of fixes this, in theory, maybe.

- It completely downplays, ignores, and outright denies all of the systemic social factors that have nothing to do with disability that get in people's way. You might have two legs in good working order, but if the place you need to go (your commute to work or school, a medical appointment, some can't-miss opportunity you've been looking forward to) is 50 miles away in an area that isn't served by public transit and your only car broke down and you can't afford to fix it, that "50 miles away" might as well be on the moon. When you really NEED a thousand dollars, or even a hundred, and you just don't have it, it might as well be a million. Life is full of these little traps and disasters, and while your attitude might - MIGHT - have an effect on their impact, it won't magically make them not-happen to you. No, really, it won't.

But that's just me having a bad attitude. Fine. I have a bad attitude. And I really don't give a fuck, because I'd rather have a bad attitude about a meme that hurts people than continue to replicate a meme that hurts people.
So, something that has been making its rounds around the parts of the Internet I hang out in, and even landed in my Inbox at work, is Yet Another Article about how women's lack of confidence holds them back from achieving everything they're capable of achieving in life, and how women need to be more confident, or at least act more confident.

Way, WAY down the page, the authors manage to acknowledge this:

Which is why any discussion of this subject requires a major caveat. Yes, women suffer consequences for their lack of confidence—but when they do behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences, ones that men don’t typically experience. Attitudes toward women are changing, and for the better, but a host of troubling research shows that they can still pay a heavier social and even professional penalty than men do for acting in a way that’s seen as aggressive. If a woman walks into her boss’s office with unsolicited opinions, speaks up first at meetings, or gives business advice above her pay grade, she risks being disliked or even—let’s be blunt—being labeled a bitch. The more a woman succeeds, the worse the vitriol seems to get. It’s not just her competence that’s called into question; it’s her very character.

And yet, while admitting the "Catch-22" involved, they go on to claim that, "...coming across as too confident is not the problem." And of course, they conclude that women-in-general don't do as well as men because women-in-general don't try to do things they think they can't.

There are a few problems with this idea. The one I want to focus on was summed up in two cartoon panels by XKCD - "How It Works". If you can't see it or don't want to click the link, the two panels show an identical mathematical error (that has been explained to me but I don't entirely understand the explanation - I didn't do so well in calculus) and an identical observer responding to two different people writing on the board. When the writer is male, the response is, "Wow, you suck at math." When the writer is female, the response is, "Wow, girls suck at math."

See how this works? You don't just get to be yourself - congratulations, you must now represent your entire gender! (Or your entire group that isn't "middle class or higher white guys who are - or are able to present themselves as - heterosexual and without any physical or mental disabilities", but since the article is about women, I'm focusing on women.)

So if you screw up, it's "women don't do this well." But if you don't try because representing All The Women Everywhere is just too much at the moment? You get blamed (by other women, no less!) for letting down All The Women Everywhere.

I don't much want to be All The Women Everywhere, or to speak for them.

And I don't even want to be All The White Cisgender Middle-Class Married-to-a-Guy-but-Still-Queer Fat Slightly-Mobility-Impaired Twice-Exceptional Working-Outside-The-Home Grad-Student Mothers Everywhere, even though I know that's a much smaller group.

And I don't want to put the energy into re-learning calculus so I can better understand the XKCD comic or so I can prove that I can do math, too! I've taken multiple graduate-level statistics classes and that's the kind of math I like and understand.

And, for a different kind of numbers, I don't want to post my "health numbers" (blood test results) just to show that even though I'm fat, it's somehow "okay" for me to prioritize things other than trying to engage in intentional weight loss. That's a game that nobody wins, and people with disabilities (visible and otherwise) always lose more so than anyone else.

And I ESPECIALLY don't want to justify the underestimation and mistreatment of women in the workforce by saying that everything would be fine if they WE would act more like men. [Edit to note: I originally posted "they" and felt the need to call attention to how I didn't even notice that I talked about women like I'm not one, and then it was so obvious I couldn't UN-notice it, given the subject matter!] While I'd like to encourage women who want to to enter male-dominated fields, I'd also like to point out that we devalue the living daylights out of stereotypically "female" work - creative arts and helping professions most notoriously. I think I'll save the "fuck you, pay us" rant for another time, though. :)
One of my personal side projects right now (in my oh-so-copious spare time!) is working towards the goals outlined in 50books_poc. In other words, though it might well take longer than a year - it will take two, at my current pace - I am making an effort to read, and track my reading of, 50 books by authors who are not white.

As a part of this personal challenge, and because I have a fascination with parenting books in general, I picked up Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The "Tiger Mother" concept has seen a certain degree of mockery among some of my friends, and I wondered whether what I read would be added to my personal list of "referencing this book as good parenting should be probable cause in a Child Protective investigation" or whether I would simply be rolling my eyes and snarking at the competitive parenting taken much too far.

Would it surprise you to know that, once I really got into the book, the primary emotional reactions I had were empathy and envy?

Empathy for the author, yes, so very much. While our cultural backgrounds are very different, and this is a recurring theme throughout the book, I have seen the "Chinese generations" that Ms. Chua references play out similarly in my own Polish-American family, beginning with the near-penniless immigrants, continuing through greater degrees of success and then taking a step back after life has become, somehow, "too easy". So often, I fear that in my own family, I was - am - that step back. I can understand Amy Chua, as a woman, as a mother, as an academic. While I seldom have the energy to carry out the battles she describes with her daughter Lulu, I know the impatience with a child who is just...not...GETTING...it even though it is SO totally obvious that the ability is IN there. I've screamed my share of frustrated things that I don't want to admit to, and I admire her bravery in admitting to a certain selection of her moments of strongly vocalized impatience. And, having read the whole book (not the hyperbolized to the point of satire excerpts that were initially published), I can also identify with her realization that, as we say over in plan_survive, no parenting plan survives contact with a child. I have to consider myself fortunate, in some ways, that my realization of that came in the second month of my first daughter's life, on the day I admitted that exclusive breastfeeding was no longer an option for us.

And then there is the envy. I wish I had the drive and the energy to drive my kids the way she does, to supervise hours of musical practice and seek out only the very best teachers and instruments and so forth and so on. I 110% believe her frustration with and indignation at the question, "Are you really doing this for yourself?" - because, well, I so often feel like I fail at Adulting, and parenting is definitely a part of Adulting. Consider that I am writing this from a disaster of a messy desk while the girls watch a PBS Kids video they've already seen many times and simultaneously playing Rock-Paper-Scissors-Shoe and the noise is driving me up the wall. On a purely sensory level, I'm not sure I would have the patience to endure several daily hours of children's musical instrument practicing.

Then again, I might have to...qween394 is intending to take up the flute next year, and her little sister is obsessively fascinated with the musical keyboard in the living room and with any piano she gets even temporary access to. Perhaps re-reading the Tiger Mother's tale will serve as inspiration, as a set of mental earplugs. If she can listen to four or five hours of childish classical music day after day, perhaps I can suffer through an hour or two?

From the department of blessed-with-suck

So apparently the shoulder pain and the weird pins and needles in my hand alongside thumb pain especially when grasping much of anything but also sometimes when typing etc can be traced to pinching the C6 nerve in my neck (and probably provoking the tendinitis that the Horrible Job caused years ago but that hasn't been too bad lately).

In other words, new doctor is interested in finding problems and helping me fix them. And once again, I'm shocked to find that I'm not malingering, that there is an observable and findable thing wrong and there are medications and stretches that are supposed to help with this sort of thing but also that it's going to hurt for a while because it's real.

And of course I have to encounter someone on facebook ranting about how kids are whiners asking for special consideration every time they turn around, and my own awareness that trying to NOT be that person has led me to some pretty bad places.

I'm frustrated because I was trying to do "comment ALL the entries!" on LJ Idol and in my current state I really can't.

[LJ Idol 9: Week 6] Scar

I carry a scar in the palm of my hand - a small, raised divider that neatly bisects my life line.

The scar marks the end of my days of joyful careless running down the sidewalk from place to place, at any and every hour of the day or night, face up to the sun or moon or stars. It came that first year after finishing college, when I was filled with elation to have an apartment and a full-time job and a bus pass in my pocket.

One lovely cool evening, my steps were interrupted when my toe caught the crack in the sidewalk about half a block from my place. As I fell, the "bad leg" that I had broken six years before twisted under me, and my hand that reached out to break the worst of the fall caught a piece of broken glass.

I saw stars, far closer than the ones in the early evening's skyline.

The old first-aid training came back. Could I stand and walk four steps? It hurt - oh, it hurt! - but I could do it. I hopped and hobbled down the block, then dropped to my hands and knees and crawled up the apartment stairs.

I had a job. I had insurance. I lived on the busline to the best hospital in the area. Probably, I should have gone to the emergency room. But why, I asked myself, when all they would do for me is give me an Ace bandage and a dose of Tylenol, and charge me fifty dollars for the privilege. Fifty dollars was a lot of money for someone whose half of the rent was just over two hundred each month, whose hourly wage was less than nine dollars.

I didn't go. I took my own Tylenol and made use of a bag of frozen mixed vegetables. There was no Ace bandage right there, but I was able to find a long scarf and tie it around the ankle. That got me through until my lunch break the next day, when I bought a real Ace bandage.

I probably should have gone. There might have been more they could have done. At least I would have known. But I didn't go, so I don't know.

When I am in danger of forgetting what it is like to fall, the scar over my life line reminds me. And I watch my step, and move cautiously where once I was carefree.
Three New Castle, PA families displaced by Taylor Street fire.

One of those families is my goddaughter Bronte, her husband, and their two little sons. They've pretty much lost everything except each other. The immediate stuff is being covered in the usual ways (Red Cross, support from local businesses and from their church, family and friends with spare baby stuff) but it's going to be a long and difficult road for them.

If/when I have more information on more concrete needs, I'll post it. For now, prayers etc. are good.
I would guess that most of us have heard that the large, double-blind, randomized controlled trial is supposed to be the best kind of research - if one is particularly fanatical on this topic, it is the ONLY kind of research worth acknowledging. Never mind the practicalities - sometimes "blinding" research subjects to what they are receiving is not possible. Never mind the ethics - in a particularly infamous recent example near me, the mayor's office of a large city had proposed, in the name of research, randomly assigning homeless people seeking shelter to either receive or not receive shelter, in the supposed interests of scientific inquiry about how best to help the homeless! The more objective and controlled the experiment, the "better" it is.

The pursuit of neutrality and objectivity is, all too often, a pursuit of the status quo. It is a relatively straightforward path to become a recognized researcher by building on common assumptions or prior findings about how a process works, but not so simple to engage in research that stands to contradict a cherished assumption researchers hold about a discovery they think they made.

Consider the case of Rat Park. If you are not familiar with the story of Rat Park, I will summarize:

In 1977, a group of researchers at Simon Fraser University reviewed existing publications over the previous
twenty years or so on the topic of lab rats becoming so addicted to various drugs that they would choose drugs over food and even drug themselves to death in their laboratory cages. It occurred to them that something was missing - rats, naturally, are social animals. The lab cage or "Skinner box" situation was not a natural environment for these animals. As such, the researchers wondered how much could be learned about human or even animal response to the presence of addictive drugs in their natural environment by studying animals in a decidedly unnatural environment.

So, they decided to do an experiment. Or rather, a series of experiments. Some rats were assigned to standard laboratory cages, and others to "Rat Park" - a spacious enclosure with nature scenes painted on the walls, cedar for nesting in, interesting toys to play with, and (perhaps most importantly) other rats to interact with, including the possibility of producing baby ratlings. To quickly summarize the findings:

- Rats in standard cages were more likely to be interested in morphine-laced water than rats in Rat Park.
- Rats in Rat Park would, in fact, avoid morphine-laced water even when it was also heavily sweetened, in favor of plain water, until the amount of morphine in the water was decreased or a second drug that blocks the effects of morphine was added.
- Rats who had been given only morphine-laced water until they developed physical dependence on morphine, when given the opportunity to "kick the habit" and drink clean water, overwhelmingly chose to do so if they lived in Rat Park, but not if they lived in standard cages.

Of course, the big-deal journals didn't want to touch these results. One of the researchers later commented that the peer reviewers from Science and Nature who turned down the paper could not point to a specific methodological flaw but nonetheless strongly gave the message that something had to be wrong somewhere with the results. Smaller journals eventually did pick up and publish the results of the Rat Park experiments*, but the lab lost its funding soon after.

In recent years, Rat Park has received renewed attention for what it says about treating chemical dependency. I think it may be equally important for what it says about how we treat science. The idea that results that give a different explanation than the one with current popular scientific acceptance must be wrong somehow is alive and well, as is the drive to support and fund only those interventions that are "evidence-based".

To a point, this is probably a good thing. When we support evidence-based methods, we move away from things like Scared Straight, a program that takes teenagers who have been involved in minor acts of juvenile delinquency and brings them into prisons so inmates can lecture them away from a life of crime. "Everyone knows" this will work - except research shows that likelihood of reoffending increases with exposure to this type of program. Oops.

On the other hand, when we mechanically apply "evidence-based" interventions as a pre-packaged solution, there is the possibility that we are treating the wrong problem. I've written before about seeing this happen in the field - the young mother misdiagnosed as psychotic due to linguistic and cultural barriers between her and the diagnosing psychiatrist, the gay young man whose truancy had him labeled as "oppositional" and "defiant" when he was skipping school to avoid homophobic bullies, the teenagers supposedly "beyond lawful control" of their parents whose parents were actually asking them to do unlawful things.

You can't build a better treatment, or pick an existing treatment to use, when you don't understand the problem in the first place.

* If you want to see the Rat Park research for yourself, check out Alexander, Coambs, and Hadaway 1978 and Hadaway, Alexander, Coambs, and Beyerstein 1979. (Links go to actual articles, on a server that provides the first few pages free. A good summary of the experiments, in comic form, is available here.)

[LJ Idol 9: Week 4] This AGAIN?!

Perhaps it is the case that a perfectly straightened back is an unride-able back and that we ought to be all about teaching better posture for social change. Perhaps.

Or perhaps "nobody can ride your back if it's not bent" is another variant on all of that empowerment nonsense that boils down to the idea that "you, and only you, are responsible for 100% of your circumstances 100% of the time, beginning - if not from birth or from that mythical 'age of reason' than certainly from the moment of attainment of legal adulthood in your country."

Consider these things, then:

There are medical conditions that will cause backs to bend - some present from birth and some acquired later on. Perhaps someone has scoliosis, which theoretically can be "fixed" with various treatments, including braces that are cumbersome and surgery that is not without its risks. But perhaps not. Perhaps the bent back has some further underlying cause, and it's something that can be managed rather than "fixed".

There are other medical insufficiencies - for instance, osteoporosis. While some bone loss is likely with aging, particularly in women, there is some evidence to support the idea that malnutrition may aggravate this process. In fact, osteoporosis is a disease that is associated with low weight. The reasons for an insufficient diet may, in turn, be many and complex. Simple poverty is, of course, always a potential factor. Cultural taboos regarding specific foods may play a role (for example, the idea that drinking milk may make a woman sterile or unable to breastfeed). And there is always the risk that someone trying to "get healthier" via weight loss may in fact have accomplished the exact opposite.

Cultural pressures might also lead to a bent back when there is nothing "really wrong" (that is nothing medical that can be diagnosed). I'm a tall woman and I instinctively slump down a bit, so often people don't realize my actual height, how much taller than them I might be, why I'm having a problem finding pants that fit correctly, etc. I'm also aware, as a fan of historical fiction, that the "debutante slouch" was once a fashionable pose, and that someone who was a young lady during that fashion might not have unlearned it when it fell out of favor.

There might also be simple and practical reasons someone needs to bend their back at a certain time - picking up something dropped, harvesting some fruits and vegetables, even being checked for scoliosis. Doesn't make it right for anyone to think that landing on the bent back is a good thing. Or that the shoulders that have been lowered to let a small child climb up for a ride must then be for laying burdens upon un-asked.

And of course, when I talk this way, about considering context and about not considering individual people to have 100% ability to affect their circumstances 100% of the time and about blaming the person jumping on the bent back instead of the person with the bent back, I invite all sorts of accusations that I am saying things I haven't said:

- That I believe nobody ever has any control over their circumstances, and am thus disempowering some particular group of people (generally NOT people of a group that the accuser belongs to);
- That I believe social ills are what they are and that nothing can be done about them;
- That I believe it is wrong to give people the tools they need to keep from being hurt (WRONG IN SO MANY WAYS, but what I do very much believe is the most important tool is the ability to say "HEY STOP HURTING ME!" and have the hurt stopped rather than a bunch of rigmarole about how it's all your fault for being hurt and besides it can't be that bad);
- That I think every instance of back-riding is as harmless as me giving a shoulder ride to my little girl (NOPE NOPE NOPE).

Here's what I am saying:

Whether it is giving full consideration to the social determinants of health before saying unkind things about how individual people manage their health, or [trigger warning] removing the Social License to Operate from the local "Missing Stair" people, or making clear my understanding of why a poor black kid won't make the decisions a rich white guy assumes he would make in those shoes, I will always, always remind people to consider context rather than to assume that some sort of life-skill min/max decisions can be made in a vacuum.

[LJ Idol 9: Week 3] Per Diem Princess

The scenes are ever-changing: the 11th floor of a hotel in lower Manhattan, the sprawling too-big "studio" of an extended-stay place in Westchester County that we're just staying in this one night, the king-bed room on the third floor of a Syracuse hotel that I knew as "the fancy one" when I was a kid.

These are the places I sleep and shower and (sometimes) eat breakfast when the decision has been made that one of the service providers New York State contracts with cannot be adequately assessed or understood by the e-mailed exchange of documentation, or by conference call or that videoconferencing set-up that never does work right, or by having them come to meet with us. Sometimes we actually do have to go to them and see what they do for ourselves.

It feels like I'm living someone else's life when I'm traveling on business. I usually traveled alone in my last job, but my new agency prefers to send workers out at least in pairs. We travel in cars that are newer and nicer than my actual car, if only by virtue of not having the remnants of children's snacks and craft projects littering the back seat no matter how many times I try to clear it out. Government per diem rates can cover quite a bit, especially in New York. So when we're there, we stay in "decent" hotels, as defined by people who think that Holiday Inn Express is too small and downscale. All too often, we end up at those semi-upscale restaurants that charge too much money for insufficiently substantial cuisine, and (to what I'm sure would be the horror of my co-workers) I find myself walking out of the hotel over to the Duane Reade two blocks away at 11:00 because I'm too hungry to sleep and maybe a couple of protein bars or a small bag of trail mix will help.

I like the travel, most of the time. I like my job, most of the time. I absolutely believe that, if we have seven-figure contracts with an agency, it's reasonable to pay for two or three program reviewers to spend two or three days onsite to actually see that the agency is doing something resembling what it's supposed to be doing with the contract money. And even in New York City, sometimes it's nice to have a car and not have to juggle luggage and laptops and whatever else on the subway and the steps out of the subway.

But this still seems so strange to me because of how different it is from the rest of my life. There is no maid service, no maintenance to call for a burned-out light bulb. There is no large room with attached bath that I can shut myself into when I want quiet. The daily "meals and incidentals" budget for myself while traveling needs to cover a four-person household, or thereabouts. The view outside my own window, through a miniblind that really needs replacing, will still look out onto the diner I stopped going to because I was sick of the owner ranting on and on about bootstraps and how lazy people are.

When I come back to home office, and it's close to payday, sometimes I'm still the one who is counting my change to see if I can turn it into a cup of coffee, and blushing as pride is overcome by relief when my supervisor notices what I'm doing and hands me two dollars with a gruff, "It makes better economic sense for me to do this than for you to keep doing that!" and a much softer, "Besides, I've been there."

I'm not the per diem princess anymore. Midnight has struck, the ball is over, the temporary luxuries have vanished. Until the next trip.

We leave Monday afternoon.



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