Archive for January, 2010

Patting My Own Damn Head

January 30, 2010 4 comments

It’s been about ten years since my awareness of my privilege has been safely hidden behind a curtain of “I don’t see races, I just see people.” I had never heard the term white translator, unpacking was something you did on a camping trip, and allies were those other countries that helped the U.S. win World War II.

Then, as part of my ongoing training as a Unitarian Universalist youth advisor, I learned the definition of “privilege” during an anti-oppression workshop.

One of the exercises was to take seven different index cards, and write down on each card how I identified according to seven different axes: Race or Ethnicity, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Age, Ability or Disability, Class, and Religion.

Once that was done, I was to separate the cards into three piles. Into the first pile went the identities that made me feel privileged or advantaged in society. The second pile was for my unprivileged or oppressed identities. And the third pile was for cases where I was unsure or where it depended on the situation.

My stacks ended up looking like this:

Identity Privileged Oppressed Depends/Unsure
Race/Ethnicity White
Gender Cis Male
Sexual Orientation Heterosexual
Age Middle-Aged
Ability or Disability Currently Able
Class Educated Middle Class
Religion Humanist

My first reaction was shock. Not wanting to feel so alone (marginalized!) I looked around a room of about fifty people, but could see maybe two who I thought might have arranged the cards the way I did.

Faced with the dissonance between the person I thought I was — liberal, egalitarian, kind — and my position as a member of the most privileged of the privileged, I think my second reaction was predictable. Full denial. Don’t I have some kind of disability? I mean, doesn’t my height make it hard to fit into an airline seat comfortably? I’m pretty darned nearsighted. My Asperger’s has mainly been an advantage only in terms of school and work. My religion has made it uncomfortable when I’ve had to work among right-wing Christians.

I didn’t succeed in fooling myself for long. Being able to ride airplanes, having had access to health care, an education and a job — no matter how I tried to spin it, these identities meant I’d had advantages pretty much across the board.

So now what? I did finally realize that sitting around feeling bad about all my privilege wasn’t going to help anyone. What I needed to do was use that privilege against the very system that institutionalized the oppression that gave it to me in the first place. In other words, be an ally. The problem is, you can’t really proclaim yourself an ally. And there’s probably nothing so annoying than the cookie-seeking behavior of a privileged person looking for an oppressed person to be an ally to.

But probably the biggest problem with being an ally is that (surprise) it isn’t easy to break habits formed by a lifetime of privileged behavior. Like when hearing that a white friend had behaved in a dismissive sexist and racist manner, I started trying to explain that he’s an equal-opportunity asshole, but really a nice guy deep down. For all I’d learned, it still hadn’t sunk in that

  • I had to stop trying to explain away the lived experiences of oppressed people.
  • I couldn’t count among my friends people who refused to acknowledge or address their own isms.
  • I wasn’t going to get any pats on the head for doing the right thing.

I think this last one is the toughest for me. After all, if I’m giving something up, shouldn’t I be getting something in return? The answer, of course is: NO, STUPID. Because what I’m giving up is something I never earned.

So, how to stay motivated? For a while, it seemed to make sense to find other white people doing similar work and share my experiences with them: white caucusing. But this really doesn’t work for me. For one thing, I’m rather misanthropic as it is, and don’t need more reasons to spend time with people. And it takes a lot of energy to keep such meetings from turning into the ally olympic competition.

Of course, there are some rewards. There are the relationships that wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t started down this route. And I don’t have the discomfort I used to feel when I find myself in situations surrounded by people of color.

But nobody owes me anything for this. It’s the right thing for me to do. Like eating oatmeal. And if I need motivation to continue, well… I’ll just have to learn to pat my own damn head.

Categories: Essays Tags: , ,

Missing the Bus

January 26, 2010 1 comment

I started taking the bus to work regularly sometime after 6/6/06, which was when a driver on Long Island ran through a red light and through the intersection and through the front end of Stitch, my blue 2005 Honda Civic. I decided to start taking mass transit when I realized that the bus fare would be less than my annual parking fee. I decided not to replace Stitch when I woke up to the fact that my single income wasn’t covering the two car payments I’d been making since my wife had stopped working. Since I’m getting divorced, I’ll be needing to buy a car again soon, but for now the bus — aside from walking — is still my primary form of transportation.

Usually I enjoy mass transit. I grew up in Brooklyn where I took either a bus or a train to school from the time I was 10 until I graduated college. I like meeting the drivers and other passengers — my interactions with them are nicely limited — and I like having the time to sit and read my New Yorker or whatever book I’m working on.

In NYC, I never really had to pay too much attention to schedules because the buses and trains I took generally ran all day and all night long (though occasionally, particularly in my Rocky Horror-going days, I would have to be aware of when the last train ran). But here I need to know the schedules, and so I have a nice collection of all the ones that go to or from the places I need to be.

I like reading schedules. They’re nice and orderly. They give me a sense of comfort the way a map does when planning a trip.

But occasionally taking the bus is stress-inducing, as it was tonight when the first of the two buses that go down my street didn’t show up. I’m used to it being a few minutes, ten minutes late. But tonight, not at all.

That there is a bus that goes down my street at all is probably because a Centro board member lives in my neighborhood and requested that route. I can’t understand it otherwise, as there’s rarely anyone besides me still on when the bus turns the corner off the main drag onto my street. I can take the one that doesn’t turn on my street, though that leaves me with a 3/4 mile walk. I don’t mind the walk, but in winter when it’s really cold and the sidewalks are impassible I like having the option of not having to walk home in the road in the dark.

The driver of the second bus had no idea why the first one didn’t show. She asked if I’d called the problem in. Generally I don’t bother, as it’s not likely to make a bus appear. She mentioned that the regular driver was on vacation — I noticed he was missing yesterday, so it makes sense that someone goofed.

I really like that driver. He recognizes me, and stops directly in front of my house without my having to ask him. I used to have mild anxiety attacks because a previous driver on that route used to get annoyed if I asked her to stop anywhere but at the scheduled stop. For some reason there isn’t one on that side of the street within a quarter mile of my address though there’s one right across the street.

The regular driver — and I’m ashamed to say I’ve never asked his name — also honks and waves when he sees me walking down my street if I’ve taken my non-winter commute. And he offers me a free ride if it’s raining or he sees me carrying groceries when I’ve made a quick stop at the corner store. It’s one of the little things that makes me happy to be a passenger, and that I think about to offset my anxieties when I encounter breaks in the routine.

So I made it home and dutifully sent out an email to the bus company informing them that the bus never showed up. My partner suggests that I should complain in cases like this because, as a white suburban male, my voice is one that is likely to be heeded. It’s a small thing I can do on behalf of the other passengers whose needs might otherwise not be considered.

I’m home now, and soon I’ll be eating dinner and then getting the kids through their evening routines. It’ll be a relief to be back on a predictable schedule.

When life hands you bananas…

January 24, 2010 11 comments

I like bananas, but only when they’re yellow. If I eat one when there’s any green to it at all, I know I’ll be punished for my impatience by a hard and bitter fruit. On the other hand, ripe bananas have something in them that tickles my throat — when I was a kid, they used to make me cough — so I probably have a mild food allergy. Still, they’re a very healthy, inexpensive and versatile fruit so I usually like having them around. But being a cheapskate I hate having to throw away the brown ones which have passed their window of attractiveness, which is why I’ve always been a big fan of banana bread.

I always thought of banana bread, and its cousins carrot cake and zucchini bread, as the “stone soups” of quick breads. I mean, looking at most of these recipes, each of these would probably taste just fine without their eponymous ingredient.

Some years ago when I was a UU youth advisor, I was looking for a snack to bring to a overnight event and saw all these brown bananas in the kitchen. Knowing that there were vegans in the group who generally chose to abstain from most baked goods — all of my own baking included milk and eggs — I wondered if I might be able to find something in one of my hippie cookbooks (I’ve flirted with vegetarianism and veganism for years, but haven’t managed to work up the discipline, leaving me a hardly worth mentioning lacto-ovo-pescatarian).

My hippie cookbooks failed me, and there was no internet yet to speak of, so I was forced to improvise. Amazingly, I found this vegan chocolate cake recipe in — of all places — the Betty Crocker cookbook that had been left behind by an old roommate who probably used it mainly for its instructions for cooking meats and potatoes. Anyway, it turns out this recipe uses the science fair volcano technique — baking soda and vinegar — to get the cake to rise. With a little trial and lots of inedible error, I managed to figure out how to use the same method to make the eggless, milkless banana bread that for years has been my default pot-luck contribution. I get lots of requests for the recipe, so here it is:

Redlami’s Vegan Banana Bread

redlami's banana bread

3 – 1/3 cups flour*
2 cups sugar
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 cups water
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla
2 tsp cider vinegar
4 mashed ripe bananas
1 cup chopped nuts (optional; some people like nuts in it but I don’t)

Mix dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately. Combine and pour into three lightly greased loaf pans, or one 13×9 baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 – 40 minutes, or until dry toothpick comes out clean.

Variation 1: Chocolate Swirl Banana Bread
After mixing all the batter, separate out about a third of it, mixing in 1/4 cup cocoa. Pour the plain batter into a 13×9 baking dish, then add the cocoa mixture on top, swirling it in with a knife. Bake as usual.

Variation 2: Spiced Banana Bread
Add the following to the dry ingredients: 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp ginger, 1/4 tsp nutmeg, 1/4 tsp ground cloves, 1 cup raisins.

*I don’t claim it will make it healthy, but if you’re looking to cut down on the guilt, whole wheat flour works just fine.

Categories: Essays, Recipes Tags: , ,

Verizon, No Means No

January 23, 2010 4 comments

No means no. No is always no. If they say no, it means a thousand times no.

~They Might Be Giants

Last night, I heard the dog barking downstairs before I heard the doorbell ring. Which meant that someone unfamiliar was at the door. And since I was trying to rest because of this nagging cold, I decided to just stay in bed and let my oldest son deal with whoever was there.

“Dad, it’s the cable guy. He wants to talk to you about FiOS.”

Now, I’d guessed that Verizon was wiring our neighborhood for FiOS — Fiber Optic Service — because each week for the past year I’ve received at least one piece of junk mail offering me high speed internet, phone and TV via their new service.

I like to think of myself as a savvy consumer as well as a tech geek, so when I first heard about it, I did my homework. I found out that yes I’d probably get somewhat better bandwidth than I was getting with my RoadRunner cable. But without upgrading my home wireless network — which I have no interest in doing — that bandwidth would be wasted on the lowest-def screen in the house, the TV.

And the cost — even the heavily discounted “for the first year” bundle price — was no better than what I’m currently paying for the combination of RoadRunner internet ($50), Time Warner basic cable ($8) and Vonage phone ($35). And while that would get me more programming I don’t have time to watch (thanks in part to Hulu and Netflix), the low introductory FiOS price would definitely go up by an undisclosed amount after the first year of my required two-year contract, which by the way comes with a hefty $350 early cancellation penalty. Yeah, no thanks.

Which is why I told my son to let the guy know we weren’t interested. My son may not be tough looking but standing in the doorway at six foot three — accompanied by an enthusiastically barking dog — I’m sure he presented an imposing figure. So I was surprised when he came back up to pass along the news that this wasn’t a sales call, the guy just wanted to answer any questions I might have about FiOS.

So I dragged myself downstairs to quickly assure the guy I wasn’t interested in hearing his not-a-sales pitch.

“Hi, I’m with…”

“I know all about FiOS, your people have sent me lots of literature. I’m happy with the service I’ve got.”

“I’d just like to tell you…”

“I said I’m not interested.”

“Why not?”

That was it, I was done expending any more energy trying to be nice. “I said I wasn’t interested. Now go take your sales pitch down the road.” And while I don’t think I actually slammed the door, I did close it rather decisively, though not before I noticed the cable guy giving me the stinkeye as he turned to leave.

Now sometimes, when I’m feeling good or in a kindly way, I might actually provide the exit interview. But not only wasn’t I feeling well, but something about this encounter rubbed me terribly wrong. It’s not just that he didn’t listen to my seventeen year old. After all, “can I speak to one of your parents?” is probably the first thing they teach you in sales training. And it’s not that he tried to cloak his sales pitch in the white fluff of “providing information.”

I think what really pissed me off was his sense of entitlement, not just to my time and attention, but to an explanation as to why I wasn’t interested. He acted like one of those guys on OKCupid who get all whiny when women don’t answer their emails, but abusive when the answer they get is “no.”

As a fellow white guy, I know what that entitlement feels like. All my life, I’ve been taught that people will listen to what I have to say. And the popular media reinforce that when educated white guys speak, people are supposed to listen. In trying to be anti-oppressive, I find one of the hardest parts to be just shutting up. Not just waiting for my turn to speak, but not presuming that just because I want to say something anyone else has the responsibility to listen.

And when it comes to white guy entitlement, you can’t really get much whiter than corporate America. So I shouldn’t really be surprised that some Verizon lackey got all butthurt that I would neither listen to his pitch nor tell him why.

And now with corporations being given license to buy all the political speech they can afford, I’m afraid that it’s going to be even harder to convince them that “no” really does mean “no.”

Never give a crow a tuna sandwich

January 14, 2010 2 comments

No good deed goes unpunished

Some months ago I read an amazing article in the New York Times by Michelle Nijhuis about how crows can recognize human faces. Humans have evolved some pretty sophisticated pattern recognition skills, especially where faces are concerned, but I’d always understood this was generally limited to the faces of our own species. I know that when I look at, say, a Golden Retriever, I tend to see that breed, and would have a hard time telling the difference between another of the same breed just by facial features. Though maybe dogs don’t differ as much facially as people do. Dogs tend to rely more on what they can smell than what they can see, so evolutionary pennies might have been wasted on making doggy faces different.

But getting back to crows. It’s not just that they recognize us by our face. They can also remember our good deeds – a friend of mine has learned not to give crows peanuts because they keep coming back – as well as bad ones. Even more remarkable is that they share this news – I guess you could call it twittering – among their friends and relations. In one study, students at the University of Washington who trapped crows were followed and harassed for months afterward, even by crows they’d never encountered. Fortunately the researchers had their students wear masks; grad school is tough enough without being chased around campus by an angry mob of crows.

Read more…

Categories: Essays Tags: , ,