Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Six Point Eight Pounds

Six point eight pounds. Three and a half inches. Twenty-seven items. What's that? The stack of catalogs* I have received in the past two(ish) months.

Over the past two years or so, catalogs have slowly gotten to a point where they are capable of inducing mouth-frothing rage in me. I hate them, but they simply keep coming! (In merely the past two days, there were eight of them! I know it's the holiday season, but come on!) I have never requested a catalog in my life. I don't purchase things from catalogs. Many of the ones I receive are for companies from whom I have never purchased anything. I unsubscribe from them as soon as I receive them, yet after a short break for decency's sake, it seems they always keep coming. And, since I moved three months ago, I've been drowning in even more catalogs for previous residents (mostly one previous resident, whose catalog problem, assuming she considered it a problem, dwarfs mine).

Yet, since I do purchase things online, it looks like I am doomed to receive catalogs until I die...and probably long after. And unfortunately I haven't noticed any space for notes or anything in most online checkouts where I can put a note requesting not to get a mailings. I assume if I actually made orders by phone I could request to be put on some list of "Please never ever send catalogs to these people because they might explode or something," but the internet doesn't seem to give me that option. Annoying.

This kind of bothers me for privacy reasons and because they're trying to exploit my weak willpower and because there isn't really an opt-out option at the point of "solicitation," but mostly it's the sheer waste. It makes me so angry that trees are being wasted to create and energy is being consumed to process, print, and deliver unsolicited and undesired materials to me. I try to be environmentally responsible, and I decidedly do not enjoy my efforts being overwhelmed by my forced complicity in everyone else's kill-the-earth marketing schemes. Yes, I'm recycling the catalogs, but that doesn't negate all the energy wasted to bring them into their short-lived existence.

Oh, and I particularly love their proclamations: "[...] 'green' is more than just a color in fashion apparel! Not only are our catalogs recyclable, we proudly use paper from sustainably managed forests"; "[...] catalogues are printed on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and contain 10 to 30 percent post-consumer recycled material." Oh, well that's all fine, then. I was concerned about wasting resources, but gratuitous waste doesn't matter as long as it's from sustainably managed forests. Don't get me wrong, I'd certainly prefer them use FSC-certified materials and recycled materials and everything, but you know what would be even better? Scrapping paper entirely and marketing online where your only costs are negligible electricity (or not marketing at all, but I suppose that's a bit much to legitimately expect). I'm not terribly knowledgeable, but I assume privacy rules are more stringent with email than with postal mail and that's why they don't do that? That seems entirely backward; you can always filter your email, and nothing's really hurt by the production of excess email, but when it's real, physical, paper things invading your life and having real-world consequences? Enh, no biggie.

It terrifies me to envision what the drifting year-at-a-time renting habits of my cohort must be doing for junk mailwe move blithely from apartment to apartment, unwittingly leaving ever-increasing trails of junk mail fanning out in our wake. We're long gone, but our "or current resident" mail lives on. I hate to imagine how many apartments the average twenty-something woman leaves receiving Victoria's Secret catalogs for years after her departure.

I've been using Catalog Choice for a year or two in an attempt to control my unruly catalogs, which has helped. Since this August (when I moved) I have requested for myself to be removed from 11 mailing lists, for the aforementioned previous resident of my current apartment to be removed from 17 (!!), and for five other previous residents to be removed from one each. Three different people (none of whom still live here) were receiving Crate & Barrel catalogs!

If it hadn't been for the move, I think I would have finally almost had it under control (with the exception of the one or two companies I do actually patronize semi-regularly, who apparently add me back to their mailing list every time I purchase something else from them). The problem with the move was that I was under the impression that filling out the change-of-address form with the post office was the responsible thing to do as it would merely forward anything to me that I forgot about in my address-changing spree so I could rectify the oversight and would prevent my old roommate from receiving random stuff addressed to me (with the exception of catalogs, which, since they're usually addressed to "or current resident" get delivered regardless). Now I know better. Not only do they provide your address to anyone who requests forwarding information, they actually sell the lists of new addresses to direct mailers.

I just did some research, and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse site seems to have a lot of useful information (and look much more official than the other things I ran across...) about ridding oneself of junk mail. The Direct Marketing Association, which is where many direct mailers get their lists, has a site where you can set your preferences either catalog-by-catalog or in a lump (for multiple addresses, too!). Anyone who is a member of the DMA will have to update their databases periodically and once that has happened will not be able to send you catalogs; however, this unfortunately doesn't apply to companies whom you actually patronize. (Also, I'm not entirely convinced it works, because when I went to go submit the form, it turns out I already had a profile, which means I had already submitted such a request and shouldn't have been receiving catalogs from people I hadn't purchased anything from... Maybe the catalogs I receive are from companies who are not members of the DMA?) They can also direct you to a site to stop getting credit card offers (which, if I have already done, is extremely effective, as I'm pretty sure I haven't gotten a credit card offer from anyone except my current credit card company in several years).

I hope submitting another request with the DMA helps, and now I'm newly inspired to actually call some companies to try to get on the special list of permanent removal now that it turns out such things do exist. (I had thought they should, but obviously that's no guarantee of anything.)

It just really, really bothers me that companies don't even have to offer an opt-out of mailings in online checkout. Obviously if I'm making an online purchase, that means I'm perfectly capable of Googling the company's name and completing a purchase without the reminder or aid of a catalog. In fact, it might even be reasonable to assume I prefer online ordering to phone or mail (do people even still do that?) ordering. It would also be reasonable to think that if I'm ordering from their website, perhaps emails would be a better way to draw me in. Sending me a catalog requires that I actually look at it, then if I decide I want something, that I either call or go to the website. If I get an email, I'm already at my computer, and I can just click a link and buy something in probably less than a minute. It seems pretty obvious to me that online marketing would be way more effective (at least to the Millennial generation) than any sort of physical paper marketing to close sales. Of course, it's also easier to opt out of, which is I guess why they keep doing the impossible-to-opt-out-of paper mailings. Really I think it probably just never occurs to them that there are people in the world who care so much about paper.

On a related note, it really bothers me when charities send me mailings (especially when they include cards or return-address labels or something) to solicit donations. I am never going to donate to a charity who is spending a sizeable chunk of the money donated to them mailing out physical letters; that's like a big neon light that says, "We have high overhead costs!"

* My default is "catalogue," but since I am apparently the only person in the entire world, or at least the U.S., or at least under the age of 40, who prefers that, I'm letting spell checkers and constant exposure to the abbreviated version wear me down so I'll look slightly less pedantic. "Dialogue" still has the -ue, though...unless it's a "dialog box." Don't ask how I make these rules for myself.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Epic Pare-Down, Update 1 (Because You Know You Care)

It feels somewhat dishonest to post possessions I've come to think of as stupid and annoying and cluttering to Craigslist or eBay or foist them off on friends. Here, I say, this is sucking peace out of my life, but I'm sure you'll love it!

But not dishonest enough that I won't do it. Things I've sold:
  • 62 tiny super-strong neodymium magnets
  • some plates that weren't even mine to begin with (continuing the streak of selling off things prior residents left in the apartment, which began with a bed, a rolling hanging rack, a computer chair...after I sold all that stuff I had a net profit on my move!)
  • some ridiculously kitschy wooden German Christmas ornaments (which, as it turned out, I should have asked for at least twice what I did as they sold on eBay in a mere eight hours and then someone else messaged me to ask if I had anymore lurking anywhere because that was such a great deal)
  • a pair of 5-pound dumbbells (way too light)
  • a pair of 15-pound dumbbells (slightly too heavy; also I always had the fear lurking in my mind that I would run into them in the dark or when not paying attention and break my toes)
  • a set of 10 Delft-looking dresser knobs from like eight years ago when I had a blue-and-white room
  • six books
  • 10-ish DVDs
  • one CD
  • one Wii game (No, I don't own a Wii. You can see why I would want to get rid of this. To be fair, I did live in the same house as a Wii until August.)
  • a black pencil skirt (too big, tags still attached *sigh*)
  • a dress that I got (tags still attached) several years ago from a friend who was moving, never ended up wearing, and sold today with the tags still attached
I've also donated 110 items of clothing and 69 other items to Big Brother, Big Sister, who kindly will come pick up donations from your porch. I have several boxes of other stuff waiting for their next pass through my neighborhood or for some other as yet undetermined fate. I've thrown away 209 items (that I remembered to count; I'm sure there are others I forgot). I've passed along five items to friends.

What I've learned thus far: eBay and Craigslist are entirely unpredictable. Nobody will buy my toaster, but those dresser knobs got snapped up immediately. I can't seem to get rid of two nice pairs of slacks with the tags still on them, but a half-used stash of ridiculously strong magnets? Gone in the blink of an eye. I still can't get over those stupid ornaments selling that quickly. Obviously I shouldn't have doubted that people would value those as much as I did when I bought them, but how can you tell that in advance? People should value these pants for as much as I paid for them! (And yes, I seem to have a problem with buying things and then losing weight or deciding I don't like them after the return deadline. I'll work on that.)

So far I've made $92 selling stuff ($150 minus shipping costs and eBay posting fees). Not a lot, but better than the nothing I would have got if I'd just chucked them in with the boxes and boxes of donations. But it is a pain. Take pictures of everything, upload pictures to computer, make listing, upload pictures to site, meet people to hand off things, go to the post office every two or three days to mail something...repeat, repeat, repeat.

I've also acquired 15 new items in the past few weeks. Ugh, I know. But how am I supposed to keep running if I don't have anything weather-appropriate or even really properly running-appropriate? And how am I supposed to make pie or lasagna without a rolling pin or a Pyrex? (At least those were basically free thanks to a gift certificate I got in the mail when I moved in!)

I think the thing I am perhaps most proud of thus far was going through my big box o' computer stuff. Cables to peripherals I probably don't still own, installation CDs for stupid crappy programs that came with the laptop I got in college and which died two or three years ago (and which I'm pretty sure I never even installed the first time), an entire spindle of blank CDs that I'm never going to use and had forgotten I even had, another spindle full of stuff from backing up my computer in an emergency while I was studying abroad, a bunch of music CDs I never use since I don't drive anymore... It took two full evenings, but I went through everything, making sure I had all the files on my computer that I did on those backup CDs, making sure all the CDs were ripped to my computer, and then backing all that up on my external hard drive (which has until now been backed up haphazardly and/or through the Windows wizard; I was not at all convinced that everything I might actually need had actually made it over in an easily accessible format). Now I just need to find a VHS player and get it and my brother in the same room so he can digitize my band videos, and I'll be set.

The thing that sucks the most? Scanning all my documents. Am I really ever going to need pay stubs from my high school job? No, of course not. But someday am I going to want to know how many hours I worked or what my wages were or how much I made? Yes, because I am that kind of person. I want to know how much money I tithed or donated to church when I was a minor (the encouragement of which, by the way, I think is pretty reprehensible) so I can attempt to counteract it now (or at least counterbalance); since I kept my old checkbook registers I can actually extrapolate from those two or three years. I want to know when I read 1984 for the first time, so having my reading lists from middle and high school (the times I actually kept up with them) is useful. But obviously I don't need to drown in the physical forms of these things; having them on my computer is actually more useful as I'll then actually know I have them and find them rather than not even knowing what papers I have stuck in random file folders or boxes or whatever. But it's quite the pain to scan page after page after page of stuff. I'm pretty sure that even I won't actually want to refer to the vast majority of this stuff ever again, but at least by digitizing it I can override my "But I might need it someday!" tendencies with what passes for rational arguments ("Look, it's here; you can still access it."). A slightly clogged hard drive is much less problematic in the grand scheme of things than piles and piles and piles of useless papers.

But hey, that's 429 items I've gotten rid of! Progress is indeed being made, even if it's slow and tortuous and likely not to actually end at my goal. (I think I'm going to have to recalibrate the way I counted things, too, for proper fairness. I realized I hadn't counted the couple dozen books and movies I had already posted to half.com in my possessions because they were already slated to be gotten rid of, but I think that's being unnecessarily harsh on myself, especially as whatever I haven't sold by the end of the year I'm planning just to donate or otherwise get rid of, so it's included in the process. Also, it's obviously unfair to myself to have counted the entire contents of my file box as one item when it's obviously there's a much finer gradient than that. If I get rid of three quarters of my papers, I'd like for that to actually count in some way!)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

"And When You're Living in America [...] You're What You Own"

I've been reading a lot of minimalist blogs and articles and stuff lately (read enough about natural food and eating and about being environmentally responsible and sustainable, and you'll hit minimalism sooner or later), so I've gotten inspired (and/or the crazy hippie bug has infected me full force). Now, a lot of people are doing challenges like living with fewer than 100 personal items, going three months wearing only 33 items of clothing, or wearing only 6 items of clothing for a month. I'm not going to pretend I even want to do anything that drastic.

Well, OK, the clothes ones, which I encountered before the 100-Thing Challenge, intrigued me for about two minutes. But see, here's the thing. Doing a one-month experiment where you only wear six items of clothing is interesting and a challenge, yes, but what good does it actually do? You still own everything else you own, you're just not using it. That's exactly the opposite of what I want to do. I'm not hung up on the number of items of clothes I own, but to me, the whole point of a functioning wardrobe is that you wear everything in it on a regular basis. Once you own something, you should definitely use it, and if you're not, then you should get rid of it. (Of course, the people participating in the two clothing challenges may decide at the end to donate all their other clothes—or most of them, at least—having lost their fear of needing something and not having it, in which case that's all well and good.)

So anyway, I have decided to become a minimalist, though I'm sure I'm using the term so loosely most the bloggers I've been reading would barely recognize it. I am bothered by how much stuff I have. Excess stuff sitting around distracts the attention and weighs on the mind if it's visible, but even if I manage to keep all my junk nicely hidden away, it still takes up psychological space. I know it's there. It's like I feel responsible for it, for caring for it and managing it. Plus I still have to cart it around every time I move, which I have done 13 times in the past seven years (counting moves to and from college each year, to Oxford, to Marburg, and my annual moves since). I have to spend a lot of time sorting stuff, picking it up, moving it around, putting it away, etc. So I definitely want to have less stuff—much less stuff. And, as I said, I want everything I have to be something I like having and use regularly. I'm tired of feeling obligated to my stuff. It's entirely irrational. Just because I've owned a thing for six years does not mean its feelings will get hurt if I get rid of it! Just because I paid $50 for a thing does not mean I'm getting my money's worth from simply having it sitting around for two years any more than I would if I just got rid of it. Just because my eccentric aunt gave me a thing does not mean she really thinks it's something that should be a central part of my life (at least I hope that's not her intent or she's much more eccentric than previously thought), and she probably won't give that thing one thought after she gets my thank-you note, so it's pointless feeling obligated to keep it around.

I decided a reasonable but definitely doable challenge would be to get rid of half my stuff. This presents me with a conundrum as well, however, as I definitely don't think just chucking everything into 20 trash bags and putting it out on the curb is a legitimate way of dealing with things. Of course it's easy to just tie things up and cut them out of your life in one fell swoop, but I feel like doing that isn't deliberate enough and just leaves you open to letting more stuff come in to fill its spot. Plus, obviously, it's no more responsible to fill the landfills with your things than to fill your house with your things, so as much as possible, things need to be actually dealt with. So clothes and books and things should obviously be sold or donated, but what about all that stuff? One thing I realized lately is I have a gallon bag full of 3-ounce toiletry bottles from traveling. I have recently found an amazing travel toiletry set, however (the bottles are all like 0.5 and 1 and 1.5 ounces so you can take small amounts of like 12 things instead of 3 ounces of like three products, of which you generally only use a third or half each), so I'm never going to actually use any of these for traveling again. So, yes, I'm going to spend the next month or so using up tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner and such at what I am sure will feel like an agonizingly slow pace. But this reduces waste, and, perhaps even more importantly, it forces me to be mindful of my purchases, to attend to the lifespan of each, to find a way to release them from my life naturally. I'm guessing (hoping) this will make me less likely to mindlessly acquire new things, since I'm aware of what a pain it is to deal with them. If you buy something knowing that when you're tired of it, you'll just throw it away, then money is pretty much the only impediment to acquisition.

Which brings me to another important topic. Obviously just eliminating half of my possessions won't solve the underlying problems. That's like getting extensive liposuction: great, the fat's all gone, but if you don't change the way you eat and live, it's going to creep back. My hope is that I'm actually undergoing a significant enough change in the way I think about possessions and consumerism and such that I will be able not to simply justify buying tons of new stuff since now I have the space because I did such an amazing job clearing stuff out. To a certain degree, I know this is true. Over the past few years I think I've actually managed to recalibrate my sense of disgust (disgust is the most powerful motivating emotion) so that things like fast food and big hunks of meat and piles of shiny new toys actually vaguely disgust me. This should be very helpful, since if I find mindless consumerism and acquisition disgusting in others or in principle, presumably I will at least think twice about doing such myself. It's an added hurdle, which in this case is to my benefit. However, of course, I am fighting against a quarter-century of some pretty powerful social conditioning and DNA full of pack rat tendencies. So we'll see how that goes.

Anyway: so I'm getting rid of half my stuff. I set January first as my goal date to be done. It's like a special bonus resolution that will have me already feeling good about myself on New Year's and will thus hopefully serve as the impetus to get a move on whatever resolutions I end up making then. This also gives me two and a half months, which I'm hoping will help with the mindfulness part that I mentioned before (I'm pretty sure calm, rational, deliberate culling over time is far superior to one fell swoop, as it has the best chances of actually getting habits started and getting me used to looking at everything from that perspective) as well as give me time to consume things like those travel-sized toiletries and hopefully at least some of my 14 types of hair products. (Note: I use between one and three hair styling products on any given day. In any given month, I probably use four max. But, like everything else in my life, as my tastes change, I just keep the old stuff and acquire new stuff (repeat, repeat), and then I have like five times as much as I actually need.)

So, how am I measuring? Being the kind of obsessive person I am (the challenges mentioned at the beginning really do appeal to exactly my brand of crazy), I'm taking an inventory of every single bit of stuff I own, listing it out, counting it, and then aiming to end up with only half that number by the end of the year. I'm not trying to halve each category of stuff; some categories (papers, random crap in boxes under my bed) should be eliminated almost entirely, while my 430 books are probably going to be lightly pared at best. Why? Because that's the way I want to do it. Because my books make me happy and are a psychological boost while the boxes of junk under my bed are a psychological drag that I constantly feel like I need to deal with.

I spent the last day and half or so (on and off) making my list. I just went clockwise around my room, cataloguing in a Word document all the stuff that was on each surface or in each box or drawer. (I have some stuff in the kitchen, bathroom, and basement, but those were all pretty easy to do.) And yes, being obsessive, I wrote everything down in excruciating detail. A partial list from my kitchen (the least embarrassing segment, I'm sure):
one set measuring cups
two sets measuring spoons
pastry cutter
small silicone mats (2)
electric mixer
white plastic bowl with lid
small springform pan
silicone muffin cups
small cutting board
medium cutting board
scoop cutting board
cookie sheets (2)
large plastic storage containers (2 rectangular, 1 square)
grippy things (3)
veggie scrub brush
kitchen towels (2)
vegetable peelers (1 normal, 1 palm-held)
cheese slicer
can opener
garlic press
plastic bin for compost
toaster oven
food processor
waffle iron
mini George Foreman
The final list was 16 pages long. (Just the one column per page, but still!) And what counted as an item? I wasn't entirely consistent. Each plate, bowl, etc. was counted separately, but "utensils" were one item. Pens and markers were each enumerated, but "file box and files" was one item, "2 xmas boxes I didn't feel like opening" were only one each, and "pile of papers" was an item each time one was encountered. The bag of toiletries previously mentioned was only counted as one item.

Andthe big revealI am the not-so-proud owner of 2,762 and a half items. This was way more than I was expecting. Of course, little thingsor well-organized thingsadd up quickly even though they don't take up a lot of space. For instance, I own 66 and a half pairs of earrings (um, yeah), but they take up about a quarter of the small half-drawer at the top of my chest of drawers. My 430 books fitwith extra room, evenon two Ikea Billy bookcases that take up exactly six square feet of floorspace.

That being said, I was horrified by a lot of categories. For instance: 104 pairs of underwear. What?! And of course I only wear like a third of them on anything approaching a regular basis. Actually, yeah, clothes are most of what appalled me. Seven swimsuits (four of which don't even fit). Twenty-two bras that are too big for me (!!), not counting the ones that fit (of which there is some subsection I actually wear). [I feel the need to defend myself. I have lost a lot of weight, in fits and starts and with fluctuations, over the past two years. So this, like several other areas of my wardrobe, reflects a good three- or four- or five-size range. And bras aren't cheap, so I held on to them in case I gained ten pounds back again or whatever. No need to give things away for free and then spend $100 to replace them in three months! However, this is actually ridiculous (they were in four locations, so I didn't realize I had held onto that many), so I'm getting rid of all but a couple. Plus, holding onto fat clothes is one of those big no-nos if you read dieting articles, because then it's like mental permission to get lazy and creep back up again. I'm not sure I buy that entirely, but whatever, it's a consideration.] Sixty-nine and a half pairs of socks. (Thirty are white tube socks or ankle socks that I actually do wear regularly, and that are actually often the limiting factor in determining when it's laundry time. Fifteen are knee socks, which, yeah, are not. Six are fuzzy house socks, which I'm pretty sure I did not myself purchase a single pair of. And obviously the lone, unmated sock is doing nobody any good.)

Then, on the other hand, are the seeming excesses that I don't think actually are. (There are few of these, by which I basically mean this one.) I own 11 black tank tops, 8 white tank tops, and 6 gray tank tops. (Also 39 others, but that's not the part I'm justifying.) I really do wear almost all of those frequently. The white ones especially are essential to wear under all sorts of less-than-opaque or low-cut tops. I actually have three of the same white tank top because I kept having to fish it out of the hamper because I always needed it again before it got washed.

But yeah, I'm appalled at myself. Thirty percent of my belongings are items of clothing, and that's saying a lot, since I started this mostly concerned with the proliferation of just random junk. If I got rid of all the junk and kept the clothes, they would probably be around half. Ridiculous!

Stay tuned. Over the next two and a half months, I've got to figure out not only which 1,381 items get to leave my life forever but exactly how I'm going to manage that. Also hopefully I'll have some great insights about how not to replace those items with thirteen hundred of their close cousins.

I feel accomplished already, and I haven't actually done anything.

Oh, right. The title is lyrics from "Living in America" from Rent.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Black-hole Decision Making

I find myself faced with environmentally framed decisions which I feel completely ill-equipped to make. It's hard to make a rational cost-benefit determination when you can only guess haphazardly at what those costs and benefits might be, or at least their exact measures. How am I supposed to make decisions on no information? For instance:

1) The bathroom, kitchen cabinets, and fridge in my new apartment are full of half-used toiletries and food belonging to previous residents already departed. Whenever I can waylay both of the other current residents more or less simultaneously, we're going to cull the collection. Obviously the environmentally (and fiscally and otherwise, I suppose) responsible thing to do would be not to simply throw everything out but to spend the next few months living off the two varieties of Herbal Essences shampoos (extra moisturizing and anti-frizz, both of which, conveniently, my hair could benefit from), the duplicate bottle of my face wash, and the myriad body washes left behind (and eating lots and lots of soy sauce and mustard?) so as not to allow huge quantities of perfectly good products to go to waste. And I likely will do this (at least for the bathroom supplies—using an unseen person's leftover shampoo seems a lot less gross than their leftover food, plus the food stuff isn't stuff I'll eat, or at least not quickly enough for it to benefit the stuffed level of the fridge with any alacrity).

But then what to do with the unwanted dregs? I'm a compulsive recycler (I've been known to fish roommates' bottles out of the trash, rinse them, and put them in the bin), but I know that the plastic recycling process isn't actually all that efficient, that the water wastage required in rinsing out a container (especially one containing body wash or something that foams seemingly eternally) is a nontrivial factor in this equation, and that—oh wait—washing loads of liquid pollutants (which is what toiletries basically are when you get down to it) down the drain where they eventually end up contaminating rivers and groundwater and such probably isn't the best of ideas. So, do I simply toss the whole thing—bottle, contents, and all—into the trash, hoping the bottle will remain intact enough to keep the contents from spilling out into our (eventual) water supply, and not wasting the water to endlessly rinse it, or do I spend an afternoon rinsing out bottles of Worcestershire sauce and conditioner, wasting untold gallons of water?

See, what I need to know: Exactly how inefficient is plastic recycling? (I'm sure this is publicly available if I really looked.) How much water is required to rinse out a shampoo bottle? (I'm sure I could figure this out on my own.) But then, how much water wasted counteracts the beneficial effects of recycling? (This is possibly close enough, given the inefficient nature of plastics recycling, to be significant.) What are the environmental effects of pouring bath products down the drain? (I am aware we do this daily anyway as our daily doses of shampoo, conditioner, face wash, body wash, shaving gel, toothpaste, mouthwash, and whatever gels, pomades, or mousses are already in our hair wash out and down the drain, but just because we already do it to some extent doesn't mean it's a problem. Peeing out all the drugs we take is doing awful things to fish, frogs, and other animals, including leaving them hermaphroditic thanks to 12 million American women's birth control pills.) Does anything thrown away in its container actually remain contained after being crushed and compacted and tossed in the landfill?

2) Since I always use my flip & tumble bags at the grocery store, CVS, etc., I'm finding that I actually have a dearth of paper and plastic bags around my house. In my area, paper recycling has to be either put into a paper bag to separate it from the other recycling, or tied neatly into a coherent package with twine. The latter sounds nigh impossible (only a small percentage of my paper recycling is regularly-sized and -shaped paper—what to do about all the receipts?!), but it seems beyond ridiculous to be sure to get paper bags at the grocery store for the sole purpose of restraining my paper recycling. (This is less a cost-benefit thing than just an annoyance thing.) Until recently I was making it by on the occasional Whole Foods bag the roommate would bring home (he's slightly less perpetually armed with reusable bags since he doesn't carry a purse), the small bags his beer comes home in, and then (a windfall!), somewhat embarrassingly, a stash of paper bags I filched out of a neighbor's recycling bin one day. But now? Nothing. I appear to be the only person in this apartment who cooks, so apparently I'm the only one who ever buys anything at the grocery store. (Odd.)

Plastic gives me an even worse conundrum. The other day I went to empty the bathroom trash, but then I realized I didn't actually have any plastic grocery bags to replace the bag with. (I would just dump the trash into the kitchen trashcan, leaving the bag there, but our toilet has a weird leak that the trashcan has been living under to catch, so everything was kind of soggy and gross, and the bag actually needed replacing.) So when I went over to the old place to swap out some stuff I'd unwittingly taken for some stuff I'd unwittingly left, I also grabbed a substantial portion of the stash of plastic bags we had accumulated over the past two years in our kitchen closet. (Of course, over half of them are the somewhat less conveniently sized bags that you get when you buy clothes or something somewhere slightly fancier than the grocery store.) But someday, these too will run out, and then what? It's ridiculous to buy trash bags, at least for that size trash can. (Seriously. How thoroughly stupid is it that stuff is manufactured—and we spend money on it—the sole purpose of which is to throw away?!) But again, is it much less stupid to refrain from using my reusable bags once or twice to build up my supply of plastic grocery bags to line the trash with?

3) Composting brings me to a problem in a similar vein. I had decided once I moved I would resume collecting my vegetable peels and such to take to the compost dump. (Another point entirely is that the compost site is only for residents of my old city, but that I live much closer to it now that I've moved across city lines. I'm going to just do it anyway, since I only composted for maybe two months of the time I lived there, so they owe me a good thirty-odd months of accepting my food waste on principle. Not that they check resident status at the entrance...) But I refuse to simply use my plastic bin unlined by anything else, because as the waste accumulates, it liquifies, starting to smell and leaking putrid liquid in my bag as I carry it. So here we are again—I can line with a plastic bag, which I not only have a dearth of, but I don't enjoy doing because then I'm still stuck with the now-disgusting bag to dispose of later, or I can line with a paper bag, except I don't have any of those either. Is it better or worse to purchase paper lunch sacks to contain the veggie refuse (introducing waste, including water waste in the manufacturing process) to prevent all my biodegradable waste from entering the landfill, where it is no longer to actually decompose due to lack of oxygen and thus absence of the bacteria that break it down? (An apple core only rots measurably faster than a styrofoam cup when you bury them in your backyard for science class, not when you throw both of them away—shrouded in a plastic bag, no less!—to enter a landfill.)

Gah, I need numbers! I need data! (Better yet, I need someone else to gather the numbers and data and make a nice little website telling me what to do!)

My other option—and don't think I haven't already done this to some level on light-waste weeks!—is to sneak my paper to be recycled into an unsuspecting neighbor's under-stuffed paper bag. I'm pretty sure that's technically illegal, though, not to mention embarrassing if I they catch you. And it doesn't help with my bathroom trashcan!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Subscriptions

I've always been rather disappointed by the subscription model's triumph over every other reasonable way of doing things, presumably primarily because I just can't shake the feeling that after paying month after month for one's entire life, one doesn't actually have anything for the trouble. This is pretty much the argument for buying a house rather than renting: you may still spend your life paying for a place to live, but at the end of it all, you wind up with a house. At any rate, I've always chafed at the idea that cable TV and phone service, for example, require eternal payments. (I mean, I understand the concept that you get something as long as you pay for it, but back in the day when people were predicting we'd all carry tiny computers and communication devices in our pockets, monthly service fees were never part of the picture.) I would probably have less of a problem if the pricing seemed more reasonable, but I think it's pretty obvious the companies just charge you as much as the disposable income you have (or debt you're willing to acquire), so I'm less likely to accept it as a legitimate cost of providing service.

I think this is one of the reasons I have such issues viscerally with the idea of e-readers. They're not subscription, but it leaves me feeling the same. If I'm going to pay for books, I want to actually own something afterward. I mean, clearly you do still have your digital books, but it doesn't feel as substantial or as real as paper books. Digital books seem less than two-thirds real, but you're paying two-thirds the price of a real book. (For some reason I don't have this issue with music. I have no problem buying music online, at least actual MP3s. (Now, the old iTunes songs that would suddenly become useless if you switched from Apple to anything else, on the other hand...))

Anyway, all of this is what makes it so weird that today I found myself suddenly having a vision of a happy, unencumbered future where I would hardly own anything, just pay for and use things as I needed them and then not have to deal with them any longer. This is (as far as I can tell) motivated by two things.

First, I'm moving in a few weeks, so I've been on a purging spree. I spent last weekend listing the majority of my DVDs and a not entirely insignificant number of books online to be sold. Going through all those movies and posting them for such insignificant sums of money while realizing how much I'd spent acquiring them in the first place (and how little use I'd since gotten out of them) was pretty dispiriting. I was sitting there thinking to myself how much richer I'd be if present me had somehow managed to go back and tell past me not to spend so much energy trying to build up a DVD collection when I really wouldn't watch them all that frequently (I'm not the kind of person who enjoys watching the same movies over and over, it seems), my tastes would change, and once Netflix came around (hm, a subscription service I'm more or less at peace witheventually, at least) I would entirely quit buying new DVDs and then quit watching the old ones as my DVD collection became more and more of an afterthought. (Then I started wondering what things I'm spending money on right now that I'd lament as shortsighted and misguided in five to ten years...)

Secondly, I joined Zipcar today. For some reason, I'm really, really excited by its entire concept, even though it is in no way different from anything else one might pay for and then not own at the end. Somehow, I think it's pure genius that you can have rights to occasional use of a car while not having to own, maintain, or insure it, etc. while not feeling the same excitement about cell plans or TV. (Maybe it's because cell phones and TVs aren't as annoying to take care of? A cell phone isn't a big enough investment for you to be terribly put out when you have to replace it; TVs don't really require any maintenance, just a place to sit.) For some reason, I see Zipcar as a liberating service rather than a restraining one. I wonder if this is is because I come at it from not owning a car, so it only adds to my possibilities, whereas if I were replacing a car with Zipcar, I might resent that I was still incurring vehicle-related costs but without even the benefit of owning it.

And there's the rub: why is owning something inherently better? The reason you own things is so you can use them when you want them. But if everything is set up to be easily accessible and not terribly expensive, you can still pretty much use them when you want themand all without having to store them anywhere!

And that's when I realized that between Zipcar, Netflix, and my local library, I was doing an awful lot of using-without-owning that I was pretty excited about. (I mean, I haven't actually used a Zipcar yet, but how can it disappoint?) Part of me feels like I'm throwing money away with Netflix, but then again, I do feel like it works pretty well with the way I watch movies. I can watch stupid movies I would never want to pay to go see or even to rent individually but am still for some reason interested in; I can watch really random and obscure stuff; I can watch weird stuff without feeling judged by the Blockbuster clerks or like I'm making them feel awkward (I'm looking at you, Ms. "And here's Eve EnslerohMonologues"); I can watch stuff without even exerting the energy to go out somewhere to get it; I can work through a list of things I feel like I should see without ever having to actually decide "OK, today is the day"it just shows up on my doorstep, and then once it's there, of course I have to watch it...eventually; since I never really want to watch a movie more than once a year (or longer), I don't feel like I'm wasting money on any particular movie. The library was similarly freeing (though I'll still definitely make an argument for having a book collection...but I'll admit my habits of the past few years were a little overboard and perhaps counterproductive). The library is great for new books I feel some push to read because I keep seeing them reviewed in all my news sources but probably don't actually want to own, particularly in hardcover (I hate hardcover books for some reason), but which are too time-sensitive to wait for the paperback editions. It's also good for all the stuff I feel like I should read or to fill in the gaps. There's less pressure to get a certain dollar amount's worth of enjoyment out of any given book, so since there's less at stake, like with Netflix, I'm more prone to dabbling.

So what's next? I really like the idea of owning almost nothing, just renting/borrowing what I need as I go. It feels more truly environmentally responsible: rather than every house having a car and presumably largely overlapping DVD collections andto a lesser extent, I would guessbook collections (and whatever else I'm not thinking of yet because I'm too in the box), it makes way more sense to share a smaller numbers of cars, movies, books.

Really, to make another dent in my acquisition habits, it would have to be clothes. Unfortunately, that seems a little more problematic to implement well. I know people who use Bag Borrow or Steal so they can have fancy, expensive purses while not having to actually make the investment. Unfortunately (well, fortunately) designer handbags aren't really on my radar, so that wouldn't be quite so useful for me, but I applaud the concept for those who are interested. I think you can do that with fancy jewelry, too. Maybe kitchen supplies? I don't really need to own a panini press, a blender, a waffle iron, a pasta maker, a rice maker, such a variety of cake and pie and muffin pans, and so forthwouldn't it make sense to share (and not have to store everything all in my house)? I've pretty much decided that I'm not terribly interested in actually owning a house (like cars, they're an awful lot of work), so I'm more or less unconcerned with renting for the rest of my life, unless that's going to leave me ruined in retirement.

I'll have to give this more thought, but I'm definitely excited about the general idea of having less stuff and a less cluttered living space and life. If the subscription model gets me there, I guess count me in.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Thoughts on States' Rights

Despite my absolute abhorrence of gun ownership and use and secret desire that the Second Amendment had never been written (or the punctuation therein had at least been applied less ambiguously), I find myself supporting the Supreme Court's recent decision (McDonald v. Chicago) that local or state laws cannot entirely prohibit handgun ownership. Why? Because I believe in a strong central government more strongly than I believe in gun control. I think it's pretty self-evident that states should not have the ability to entirely rescind rights given to its residents by the federal government. (Disclaimer: I have never taken a constitutional law course, and so while I know there are things going on with the Fourteenth Amendment and incorporation and such, I'm not even pretending to speak authoritatively about specific legal precedent, etc. This is all just one average citizen's "common sense" thoughts with very little background info other than the text of the Constitution.)

Only the First Amendment explicitly states it is enumerating rights that "Congress shall make no law respecting"; the rest simply refer to rights of "the people," "any person," or "the accused." Thus it seems to me it's entirely legitimate to assume that the entire Bill of Rights, with the exception of the First Amendment, describes rights that all U.S. citizens have and that neither the federal nor state or local governments can take away. (Lucky for us, the First Amendment very definitely was part of this mysterious incorporation process that somehow the Second Amendment was left out of, because it apparently seemed pretty obvious to everyone else that if Congress can't censor what you say, neither should your state legislature or city council.)

In general, I think the rights conferred upon citizens by the federal government should be the absolute minimum recognized by states, that states could grant extra rights but couldn't take away any already granted by the federal government. How can a state claim jurisdiction over something that the country of which it is a member has already granted to every citizen (resident?)? If people could be citizens of the U.S. without somehow being under the jurisdiction of any other governmental body, there might be a case to be made that states can then do whatever they want and if you don't like it you can go someplace else, but to me it seems like it's entirely pointless to be granted a right by the federal government if it's entirely possible every single state (you have to live somewhere!) would curtail it. Then where would you be?

Thus, the first issue I have with state's rights: that (in some cases) a person who is a resident of both the United States and a specific state is thought to somehow be primarily under the second-tier state's jurisdiction and only secondarily under the jurisdiction of the first-tier, overarching federal government. (I know the Ninth Amendment confers all powers not enumerated in the Constitution to the states, but I'm talking here about the ones I think it does very definitely enumerate.)

At first blush it seems all very nice and reasonable that local governments are best situated to rule and regulate themselves, that the people in an area may have different concerns than the country overall and that they might prefer to regulate different aspects of life or regulate life in different or opposing ways to those of some other locale. After all, who wants some distant bureaucrat telling them how to best run their own affairs? However, I think local rule can only be truly fair and effective when communities are remarkably homogeneous and when everyone there chose to live there.

Regarding the inevitably incomplete homogeneity: I think local rule tends to silence minorities (of all varieties) even more effectively than federal rule does. On a nationwide scale, people who are the minority in a city or state might be either a much larger minority (say, African-Americans in New Hampshire versus the entire U.S.) or even the majority (say, conservatives in Massachusetts versus the country at large). There is simply more room for a meaningful debate about equality and representativeness and more impetus toward protection of minority rights on a nationwide level due to the increased visibility and larger numbers. Protecting the rights of one gay couple in some random small, overwhelmingly conservative and/or religious town may not seem like a legitimate issue to the rest of the townspeople (it's just a few people being deviant or provocative or asking for special treatment), whereas on the national stage gay rights are at least a recognized concern, however divided governmental bodies and the populace at large may be on the issue. Minorities deserve protection no matter where they are, but if they're a small enough minority, a lot of times it's not even clear to the majority that they are a distinct minority that merits protection. It's helpful for a more removed federal government to make these calls.

Regarding choice: If every state had a clearly-enumerated list of laws that was easily compared to that of every other state and if all residents of a state chose to move there based on their willingness to be bound by those laws, I would have no issue whatsoever with states enacting whatever laws they so desired. However, the vast majority of people (myself excluded) probably did not simply pick a state they wanted to live in based on the political and social attitudes represented therein. People live places for all sorts of reasons: they were born there, their parents moved them there when they were still minors, that's where they went to school and so they stuck around, that's where the job they found is or their job relocated them to, that's where their or their spouse's family is, that's the kind of climate they enjoy or has the sort of landscape they find enjoyable (hiking, rafting, skiing, beaches, etc.). While many of these may in some way reflect legal structures (regarding industry regulation or educational funding or what have you), the laws of a place are very rarely a conscious consideration of any one individual when planning to relocate. It could be argued that that is the fault of the individual, not the state, but I find this pretty unrealistic.

In addition, there are plenty of reasons why the state you're in now is likely to be the state you stay in. Many poor people lack the resources to relocate or the skills to find employment in certain other regions of the country. And, more than anything else, people just tend to go for the status quo, so all other things being equal, they tend to stay put.

Moreover, it's not like everyone is just born into some limbo state and brought to the age of majority in an entirely neutral place then left to select where they want to live. I think it is deeply unfair to have minors be stuck some place that may have pretty extreme laws they never voted for or even tacitly accepted by willingly choosing to reside there. Pity the poor gay kid stuck against his or her will in a red state without hate crime legislation, gay marriage, civil unions, nondiscrimination policies that include homosexuality, etc. What about teenagers who want contraception who live somewhere they can't get it without parental consent? What about atheists (or just science nerds) living somewhere that mandates equal time for intelligent design as evolution? What are they supposed to do? It's hardly their choice to be there, and they have absolutely no representation. (I'm sure equally terrifying examples could be generated regarding living in a ridiculously liberal state, but I'm having trouble coming up with those since I just don't think like that. Or, you know, maybe not, since liberal states tend not to restrict what people can do; you can always be more conservative than your surroundings, but being more liberal than your surroundings often runs you up against legal bounds.) Simply because the adult population of where they live is unlike them, these children are stuck in what is quite possibly a hellish existence for them. With a stronger central government making many of the decisions that are now left up to the states, laws would probably be a little more balanced and mainstream, severely disturbing a much smaller percentage of the populace.

(Of course, the same argument can be made regarding citizenship on the national levela relatively small percentage of the world's population actively chooses in which country they want to live, and even if there were free movement between all nations, minors would still be stuck where their parents want them to be. This is one of the reasons I think Hobbes's social contract is full of crapnobody alive today actually made a conscious choice to leave the state of nature and join into the leviathan. Regardless, we as a country can't really do much to change that, but we could try to make life suck less for kids who aren't like their parents who happen to live in this country.)

And now the flip side of mobility: especially nowadays, everyone moves across state lines. (OK, not everyone, but 22 million people moved across state lines between 1995 and 2000, which appears to be about 13% of the population. In five years. So obviously way more than that has moved across state lines at some point in their lives.) It is absolutely impossible to be aware of every difference in law between your old state and your new state, especially before moving. (I'm still blown away that there's not a nice handy website that encompasses all state laws ever and permits them to be compared; states' websites are hit or miss, and they're all obviously in different formats and pretty much impossible to compare.) So you move to another state because of your job or something, and then the next thing you know, you learn you can't talk on your cell phone while driving, or your 17-year-old son can be charged with statutory rape for sleeping with his 17-year-old girlfriend, or you can't get a no-fault divorce without a year's separation first, or gay partners of biological parents don't have any legal rights over kids that were previously considered equally theirs, or it's illegal for medical insurance to cover abortions (or the reverse of any of these scenarios, though again, I'm having trouble seeing how discovering that the opposite of any of these was the case would be as problematicI guess there are plenty of people who would like the 17-year-old boyfriend of their daughters to be made sex offenders as punishment for premarital sex (essentially) and would be disturbed by the kind of laws that doesn't make it statutory rape if both parties are under 18 and within two years of each other's ages or whatever, right?). Most of these situations are ones that people would never expect to find themselves in in advance (divorce, abortion, children committing sex crimes, etc.) so they aren't that particular about seeing what the law has to say until it's suddenly applicable. How do you know, short of reading the entire legal code (which I assume is pretty obviously ridiculous) what random laws there may be that might crop up to impact your life in ways you never imagined?

If laws were consistent nationwide, there might still be things you never thought to look into, but you'd have a much better chance of hearing or seeing something about them if they were applicable to everyone in the entire country. You'd know that if it only took a month for your brother and sister-in-law to get a divorce, you could get one in about the same timeframe without having to remember that they live somewhere that's not New York (although actually I think that changed recently). You'd know if you read some story about surrogate mothers winning custody of the kids they bore that you'd better beware of that sort of thing if you're using any sort of nontraditional means of reproduction. (You'd know if you read some story about surrogate mothers suing for and losing custody of the kids they bore that it obviously wouldn't be an issue for you, rather than getting lulled into a false sense of security and then, ta-da, oh, that story took place in some other state and is actually the exact opposite of what would happen in your state.)

Basically I just don't think modern life works well with such a fractured system. In the age of the internet (which brings information about myriad such situations people find themselves in, often without making it clear how this may differ from state to state) and of frequent inter-state relocations (which suddenly and entirely (and largely unnoticedly) change the rules by which one is to abide), so many independent sets of laws seems pretty ridiculous. And then of course there are the ones, like most family laws, that turn into a giant mess when one party relocates. If you have a child with a partner you're not married to and then that partner leaves you and takes the kid to another state, which state's family laws apply? If you're gay and the state they went to doesn't recognize civil unions, domestic partnerships, or non-biological parents' rights but the state you resided in and formed your family in did, now what? Wouldn't it just be easier if it were the same everywhere? So yeah, I think states are pretty anachronistic, personally.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fighting for our Freedoms?

Preemptive disclaimer: I do not say this to downplay the real sacrifices, both on the battlefield and in later life, members of the military have and do make. (In fact, I think what our military asks people to do to their psyches is unconscionable and exploitative, but that's an entirely different can of worms I don't feel like getting into at the moment and has nothing to do with the specific, individual soldiers holidays like Memorial Day are meant to honor.)

I really, truly, honestly do not understand what people mean they thank our troops "for fighting for our freedoms!" Sarah Palin (I know, I know) tweeted this yesterday [edited to add spaces because my blog is not limited to 140 characters]: "VETERANS, not reporters, give freedom of the press. VETS, not politicians, give freedom to vote. VETS, not campus radicals, give freedom to assemble." Normally I would write this off as Palin being Palin, but I have heard the exact sentiment (though perhaps not those specific examples) every Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and many Fourths of July of my life from real-life, normal people I know. (At church, it was always "...who gave their lives for us to have the right to sit right here today and worship as we see fit.")

I just don't get it. I'm not trying to make a political statement abut war or the military or mock Sarah Palin for being an idiot (shocking, I'm sure) or decry the American habit of fetishizing our troops or imply that our troops aren't nice, honorable people or anything; I legitimately do not understand. (So if you can explain it in a way that seems at all coherent, please do.)

The general "fighting for our freedoms" formulation seems to imply that had we not fought in any or all of the wars we had, our country would have been taken over by our enemy or our government would have been overthrown or something catastrophic would have happened that would result in a totalitarian regime that would control our lives in unprecedented ways, banning religious expression and free speech, censoring the press, and doing who knows what other evil things. That's just plain untrue. In World War II, we weren't fighting for the freedom of American citizens, we were fighting to prevent Germany's gaining European hegemony. (The Pacific theater might provide more of a case since Japan actually did attack American soil, but again, had we not retaliated, I don't think anyone actually means to suggest that Japan would have rolled tanks into Washington and abolished freedom of speech.) If I remember correctly, World War I had even less to do with the U.S. Vietnam and Korea, though part of the general communist threat to the dominance of democracy and freedom in some grand sense, didn't have anything to do with fighting for U.S. citizens' rights.

Obviously the Revolutionary War was fought for the principles of democracy and freedom (though actually not the ones Palin or anyone else mentions since those tend to be part of the Bill of Rights, which didn't come until later). The War of 1812 seems a legitimate case of fighting in defense of the country and thus, by extension, the freedom of its citizens. Even the Civil War was legitimately about protecting a way of life in the United States (each side would have that perspective, even, though obviously they disagreed about which way of life deserved protection). But nobody still living knows anyone who fought in any of these wars, so presumably those aren't the people actually being thanked (which is a pity, really, because Memorial Day seems to be turning into Veterans Day part 2 or a Military Appreciation Day or something instead of a day of remembrance for those who have died).

So how about the current wars? I mean, I know we were attacked, but even so, and even despite the fact that it was indeed intended to be an attack on the American way of life and presumably on democracy and freedom, the terrorist groups we're talking about simply don't have the power to take away our freedoms. They're not big enough or strong enough to keep you from exercising your freedom of speech in this country. They're not in a position to tell you you can or can't worship as you please. And really, the 9/11 attack has nothing to do with Iraq at all, though I suppose had it turned out Hussein actually possessed WMDs, those would have posed a legitimate threat to America or Americans (depending on what he would be planning to do with them). Of course, even so, I'm still not sure anyone's ability to blow up chunks of the country in any way gives them a chance to deprive us of our freedoms unless they are able to then take over the country and replace the government.

So I wouldn't find it nonsensical if people thanked the military for "fighting for freedom" or "fighting for democracy" or even "fighting to protect our interests"—one or the other of those is actually applicable in every conflict we have gotten involved in. But fighting for our—Americans'—freedoms, especially fighting for specific freedoms like those of free speech, press, and assembly? I think that necessitates a deliberate (and inaccurate) reframing of the entire narrative of the American military's actions.

Regarding Palin's statement specifically, I do agree that reporters are not who guarantee or protect freedom of the press, politicians are not who bestow suffrage upon us, and protesters are not the source of the right of assembly. But neither are vets of any war in the past 300 years responsible for the granting of those rights (obviously) or even the protection of them in any literal sense. It's not veterans who give us the right to assemble peacefully, it's the first amendment to the Constitution. Barring an invading force of extreme power, the only way for our freedoms to be abridged is through the United States government itself in concert with a lack of attention or political will on the part of the citizenry.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Looking to be Offended

To take the evolution of language one step further, what do we do when words like "gay" get coopted and expanded until they are used to mean "bad," "annoying," "stupid"? ("Ugh, we have to get to graduation two hours early? That's so gay.") When confronted, people who use the word in this way generally claim that the meaning of "gay" has changed and that this is an alternate meaning that in no way refers to sexual orientation. In one sense, of course that's true—the people saying it do not actually mean that having to wait so long is in any way related to homosexuality—but in another sense, it's clearly hogwash.

Far be it from me to imply the language doesn't change and slang can't change the meaning of a word for good. My mother and I used to argue "that sucks" with me taking that very tack. ("But Lauren, do you know what that means?") I argued that if blowjobs were actually the etymology of "sucks," which I wasn't convinced of at the time, the word had long ago branched out from that meaning and the usage synonymous with "that stinks" should have no horrifying connotations to anyone. If oral sex wasn't in the mind of those who used the expression or those who heard it thus used (my mother excluded, apparently), then in some quite meaningful sense (yay for postmodernism), it didn't mean that anymore.

So I can certainly see the appeal of an argument from postmodernism, that the word "gay" has a new meaning ((3) stupid) in addition to (1) happy and frolicsome and (2) homosexual. However, I think it's clear that, whatever connotations definition three theoretically doesn't have now, it definitely arrived in the lexicon through pejorative application of gay definition number two. (This is where the previous post becomes relevant!) It's apparent we lack imagination or a sufficient vocabulary in English (and probably every other language, but I'll stick to what I know) and so constantly lift from descriptors of other groups of people we don't like or (ding, ding, ding!) don't respect to describe anyone or anything negatively. ("Don't be retarded," "how lame," "I was gypped," "what a spaz," "she totally freaked.") So while the 14-year-olds saying "that's gay" probably truly aren't at that moment actually intending to offend or even comment on anyone who is gay and legitimately aren't considering that use of the word in this context, people who are gay or who have friends who are gay (or who are just old and so aren't desensitized to this usage yet) often can't help but sense the traces of its etymology. (It's significant to me that I have never actually heard anyone who is gay say "that's so gay" in any sense other than the obviously directly derivative sense that that's something so ridiculously sparkly and fabulous that only super-stereotypically feminine gay men would like it, so obviously not everyone thinks it's a word entirely without connotation in this sense.)

(I know it's super-cheesy, but I love this PSA.)

So now we come to the crux of the matter: do people have a responsibility to avoid saying things that offend others if they don't think they're anything that should offend anyone? On the one hand, you never know what might offend someone; virtually anything you could possibly say would offend someone for some (probably initially bewildering) reason. (Stupid example: if, as I age, anyone younger than me ever refers to me as "this young lady" in that slightly-ironic-to-be-nice way (because heaven knows being old is an unspeakable horror best ignored by exaggeration in the opposite direction), I'm going to clock them.) I do, however, think political correctness can go too far, and it's probably not a worthwhile use of one's time to bend over backward trying to keep from the slightest possibility of offending anyone. However, I do think it's very important to think about how the words you use came to have the meanings you impute to them, and especially if someone tells you they find something offensive, you should seek to eliminate it (at the very least in their presence).

One friend of mine in particular often argues the other side of this point to me. He'll say something sexist that I get offended by and then spends half an hour explaining why either he's not being sexist or why I'm too easily offended. Similarly with "that's gay"—he thinks people are being overly sensitive and it's not his job to be sure not to offend someone who's 'looking' to be offended. It seems to me he and others are taking the Eleanor Roosevelt approach ("No one can make you feel inferior without your consent"), which I've always found to be terribly annoying and entirely untrue (or, if possibly true, to place an undue burden on the person feeling inferior). To a significant extent, it doesn't really matter if you understand why someone is offended; if they are, they are, and if you like them, stop!—even if you think they're being overly sensitive.

I think the reason people try to justify things they're told are offensive is simply because nobody thinks they're sexist or racist (or ageist or ableist or prejudiced in any other way), so when it's brought to their attention that someone does find something they said offensive in some way, they are so horrified or uncomfortable that someone thinks they're that sort of person that they feel the need to explain how they're not really. Cut your losses; you cannot win this one. Nobody's going to think you're incorrigible if they say, "That's offensive" and you say, "Really, how? Oh, wow, I didn't think of that"—the end. Being increasingly offensive as you explain how you're not actually being offensive or how it's their own fault they're offended, however, won't win you any friends.

There was a Motherlode post/discussion a while back (because, yes, I'm ridiculous and read a parenting blog despite having no intention of procreating for some time, if ever) that I found quite germane to this discussion. It's about classroom assignments (in particular, that one where you make charts with traits from your parents and yourself to learn about heritability—you know, if you can curl your tongue; whether your earlobes are free-hanging or connected to your head, etc.) that are potentially awkward or discriminatory (in this case, to adopted kids...or those conceived through donor sperm or eggs or anyone who otherwise doesn't have access to both biological parents). I thought the post to be quite interesting, as I'd never really thought about that problem, and it seems plain to me that if there are things we as a society are doing that make people feel bad about themselves (or unable to participate!), if there's any reasonable way to avoid that, we should. (It should be noted the post offered other options with the same educational value that could be easily substituted.) Many of the commenters seemed less charitable:

"[A]doptive families are by far the exception, not the rule. So you're demanding to change the system entirely, just to satisfy a small minority?"

"My gosh, if I got frustrated and angry over one of my Kid's homework assignments because it didn't pander to my special situation, I wouldn't make it as a parent."

"Goodness gracious the things we manage to find problems with in our society. Count yourself lucky the issue you have to write about is a genetic work sheet your elementary aged child fills out. So much complaining so few real problems."

I think all too often people like these commenters miss the point. It's not the case that (most) people just sit around looking for things that an argument could be made discriminate against some specific situation they are in or quality they have in order to cause a stink and get special attention and pity. In most cases people are truly saddened/disturbed/hurt by whatever everyone else is assuming is universal and bring it up because they assume nobody's trying to hurt anyone's feelings, that the apparent blitheness with which they're being disregarded is simply because everyone else, not being in that particular situation, is simply unaware that they're hurting anyone. (Which discussion unfortunately too often triggers the "But I'm a nice person!" defensiveness and rationalization...) Nobody's asking that the sensibilities of the smallest minorities be allowed to dictate the majority's actions but just that people show some awareness of the fact that not everybody is like them. Presumably since we're not all ogres, they would then have some willingness to adjust if the adjustment wasn't onerous. Obviously nobody is aware of every possible potential offense they could give anyone else, but that's exactly why people do and should inform others of things that make them feel slighted.

Back to language, though: my question is whether all words that were ever offensively intended should be off limits forever after or if there's a sort of statute of limitations of offensiveness. "That's gay" and "what a retard" are definitely still too loaded to touch for those of us who don't want to offend, but what about "moron"? My inclination is that since that word hasn't been used to refer to an actual medical condition in my decades, it's officially decoupled and is thus acceptable (same with "lunatic," "idiot," etc.—of course, I may lean toward their acceptability simply because they're words I regularly use and I'm being defensive). I remember my mom getting mad about my use of "spaz" (see: spasticity), which was the first time I was made aware of an offensive aspect of a term I regularly used. Then (only a few years ago) my brother called me out on "gypped," which is obviously (in retrospect!) a reference to gypsies. Nobody has actually said anything to me about "lame," but it is certainly also offensive. I guess my problem is that I started using all these words solely in their slang senses and at a relatively young age and either never thought of their original meanings until years later or was simply unaware of the etymology at all (I'm pretty sure that conversation with my mom was the first time I ever heard the word "spasticity"; I had no idea it was a real thing). So I feel that since my speech developed using them in an innocent sense, it's somehow acceptable for me to keep using them. But this is exactly the point! I'm sure that's how teenage guys feel about "that's gay": if they don't mean to be saying anything about homosexuality and are possibly actually entirely oblivious of the connection, we should just ignore the offensive overtones.

It's immensely annoying how few legitimate words the English language has for certain concepts. ("Good" and "bad" are especially bereft. "Fantastic" doesn't mean "good," it means unbelievable, a fantasy. "Great"? It means big. "Awesome"? Inspiring of awe (/terror)—in fact, basically the same as "awful." Similarly, "terrible"? Inducing terror. "Horrible"? A horror. None of these words actually mean "good" or "bad" in varying degrees; they mean different concepts entirely.) It seems the ideas of "stupid" (whether expressed as "lame," "gay"—or, you know, "stupid") and of an unpleasant or unthinking person are actually impossible to express directly, without loaded reference to groups like those already described. People often disparage cursing, saying it shows a lack of creativity in vocabulary, but is it actually possible to use an extensive vocabulary to replace all vulgarisms? I'm starting to think not, and that's utterly depressing.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

On Douches and Assholes

This is a two-parter: today, the evolution of offense; tomorrow (or eventually), how much our speech should defer to others' feelings.

I find the evolution of insults rather fascinating. Not so much the evolution from "misbegotten half-faced hedge-pig" (purportedly one of the ever-popular Shakespearean insults) to "you jerk," but the evolution of the meanings of "fag" or "moron" or whatever throughout time.

As is commonly known, "fag" (also meaning "cigarette") comes from "faggot" which at one time referred to a bundle of sticks or wood. Less commonly known (at least to me, until Wikipedia came along to enlighten me), "faggot" in reference to people likely originated as a term for the poor old women, usually widows, who gathered such bundles to sell as firewood. (The general habit of denigrating gay or effeminate men with terms originally used to describe women is particularly offensive in my mind, now from both directions though it was likely only intended to be offensive from the point of view of the man so impugned.)

In addition to slandering men by insinuating they might be as bad as—the horror!—a woman, slandering people by association with the less mentally gifted members of society is a perennial favorite. I find this evolution to be particularly interesting as it seems the medical establishment is constantly playing a game of linguistic whack-a-mole to replace terms that have been coopted as insults with more politically correct, less loaded terms...which are themselves coopted in short order. (Though, to be fair, it seems the medical establishment was not selecting labels with neutral connotations to begin with, as most of their terms have been in use in various derogatory senses for hundreds of years.) "Moron," "imbecile," and "idiot," though coming into the English language at different times, shared a period of time as part of a classification scheme for the mentally deficient (in order of increasing deficiency). "Cretin" at least started out with some degree of sympathy enshrined in its usage; literally it means "Christian," reminding one that this poor creature crippled by a thyroid disorder and low mental capacity was still, after all, "human despite physical deformities." So after every term already in use for the mentally handicapped becomes corrupted, on comes "retarded." As a term, I'm sure it originally seemed rather nice, implying simple delay or a slower pace. Of course, we all know how that worked out. Then there are the terms derived from the mentally ill segment of society: lunatic, deranged, crazy, insane, mental.

Gendered insults are fascinating. Basically any gender-specific body part is up for grabs, though often used in a less tidily gendered fashion. (This is where I get completely subjective and start going entirely off my own connotations.) Though of late there is more cross-pollination, in general I think terms dealing with male genitalia are only applicable to men (or at least started out that way): dick, cock, prick, jerk (well, the etymology of that one is slightly less clear), cocksucker (in an interesting turn of events, apparently cock-sucking isn't offensive to a woman who does it—nice to be given a pass for once). "Asshole" seems also to be primarily applied to men, though it's getting more equal opportunity these days. Women's anatomy seems up for grabs, though; "cunt" and "twat" seem like they were used probably more to describe women, though "cunt" at least is shifting man-ward. "Pussy" has, I'm pretty sure, always been directed at men. (Because, you see, women can't be expected to be courageous, so by a simultaneous usage of analogy and synecdoche, wimpy men are pussies. I was about to use "wussy" instead of "wimpy," but then the internet informs me the two likely etymologies for "wuss" are "pussy wussy" (as referring to a cat) or a portmanteau of "wimp" and "pussy." Well, there we go again.)

Then there are the blatantly misogynistic terms, all applied to women, of course (bitch, whore, slut—and yes, I know, "bitch" is becoming equally applicable these days, but when it's used for guys, it generally seems to be taking all the negative female aspects of the term and applying it to the guy for a double whammy of insultingness: a female bitch is mean or crabby or overly assertive; a male bitch is whiny or wussy or whipped, or he's someone's bitch, a loss of power not really implied with the female version). "Bastard" and "son of a bitch," though rarely used in their literal senses anymore, in those senses would deprecate the woman/mother more than the man being so designated. ("Motherfucker," however, would actually seem to only impugn the man...of course, dare I suggest it's because the mother is either already assumed to be depraved or because she is obviously powerless and without agency?)

And now, to my favorite (in some strange sense of the term): "douche" or "douchebag." Though obviously the intent is to insult a man by calling him something associated with the vilest of vile, the very dross of a woman, surprisingly, I have absolutely no (gender-associated, feminist) problem with this one (the word in general I find grating, but that's a different issue). Firstly, the implied action just doesn't have the same kind of weight. (What, you're so gross/insignificant/disgusting that you could be the thing to clean a woman's vagina!? Doesn't seem quite so intuitive as most of the rest of them. (And wouldn't a clean vagina be seen as a positive thing by the sorts of people who start using these words, anyway?)) But best of all, (though this is an appeal to modern thought, so it goes slightly against my general literal, historical, and semantic arguments elsewhere) douches are no longer seen as a good thing! Women (generally) accept their vaginas as healthy and clean the way they are. Douches are decried by doctors and even women's magazines as a good way to upset one's natural balance and cause infections and all sorts of lovely things. Modern enlightened women find them repulsive and more than a little oppressive (especially when taken in tandem with the past habit of using Lysol as a douching agent—yeowch). So if you want to insult a man with a term related to a woman, "douche" is your word! It's not offensive to women exactly because douches are themselves offensive to women, so who could argue with applying their label to people who offend? Or that's my take, anyway, and apparently one in which I'm not alone.

Some day I would be interested in being able to compare people's definitions of jerks, bitches, assholes, douches, etc. In my estimation it's clear they aren't simply used to fill in the blank when an insult is desired; they each apply to distinct groups of people. I imagine one man's "douche" is another man's "asshole," though.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Darndest Things

Adults swapping cute-child stories seem to be the last bastion of socially acceptable mockery. Is there ever a situation where "[Offspring] said the cutest thing yesterday!" ever doesn't mean, "God, children are so delightfully stupid!"? Your job as a parent is to correct your child's misconception and explain the world in a way so as to help them understand how things work, not go around and tell all your friends the dumb way your child thought things happened.

Especially if the misunderstanding involves sex, death, reproduction, or religion, probably the reason they hold such quaint misunderstood notions is because you did a really bad job of explaining it the first time around. If your kid says something 'cute' based off a baby being in someone's stomach, that's because someone was too squeamish to explain a uterus (or didn't even bother with the distinction of "a special compartment inside of Mommy"). When a kid worries a watermelon might grow in their stomach, dollars to donuts that's because some uncle or friend of the family told them not to swallow seeds or that's what would happen. How is a child supposed to not hold a warped view of reality when people insist on telling children out-and-out lies (Santa Claus, storks, boogey men who will steal you away if you don't stop crying) or oversimplifying the truth to a degree that it's no longer even slightly accurate? Your child is only going to know what you tell them (until school age, but even then, what the larger pool of adults tell them), so if they don't understand something, it's not cute, it means you're failing them. (It should be embarrassing for you to tell your friends how poorly you must have explained reproduction for your child to come out with that doozy.)

We do all agree that a parent's primary job is basically to turn their child into a real person, right? You're supposed to teach your child, help your child negotiate relationships, show your child how to do things, model behavior, etc. All too often I feel like adults think "having a baby" is a decision about them and what they want out of life, about liking pre-rational children and thinking they're adorable and wanting to have one for their very own. Well, that's not quite how it works. You're not making the decision to have a cute little baby, you're making the decision to bring a person into the world. Let's act like they're actually a person with (to varying degrees depending on their level of development, but almost always more so than they're given credit for) their own legitimate goals and not just an accessory or a lifestyle choice or something to give you meaning and purpose and make you happy and fulfilled.

At the very least, if you're going to laugh about your child's misguided notions, don't do it in front of them. I'm sure parents don't think they do this, but they totally do. Even if they don't tell the "cute" think Child A said today when Child A is in the room, they'll talk about a cute thing another child who's not present did. (Children aren't stupid. They know if you talk about their sibling or your friend's children with your friend, you talk about them too.) Or they'll tell the story when the child is in another room playing and ostensibly oblivious. Children hear. And if they're anything like me as a child, they're mortified. Children can tell that "cute" is code for "stupid," even if that's not what you think you mean. Why else would everybody be laughing merely from hearing the thing the kid said repeated with absolutely no build-up or context? It's humiliating to have your parents tell a story about you thinking something that you have since been told is not the case solely for the amusement of others. It's humiliating and bewildering to hear them tell the story of what you said and hear people laugh and still not know why it's funny. You were simply trying to clarify something about the world, and all they can do is squeal about how precious you are. Children don't want to be precious, they want to understand.

Friday, April 9, 2010


I'm too civilized.

Lest that sound conceited, let me hasten to explain I see this as a bad thing. (And perhaps I should rephrase: I place too much stock in the tenets of civilized interactions. Or: I rely too heavily on civilization.)

I thrive, insomuch as I do thrive, on order and predictability. My natural instincts seem based upon other people behaving as I would expect in a given situation (by which I think I mean as society expects, but probably the rest of society doesn't really). I become distinctly uncomfortable when people don't play by what I perceive to be the rules of social contact: random strangers asking for money for themselves or to save the environment or for gay rights, the gymno-dancing guys on the train who demand your attention and appreciation and try to demand your money, children too small to recognize that they're in your personal space, teenagers and their inherent unpredictability, and the like. I don't even like participatory theatre because I feel they are breaking the "rules" of theatre and violating the fourth wall. My ire is activated most strongly by people behaving as they like despite rules to the contrary, rules that enhance the flow of life in all its efficiency: people riding their bikes on the sidewalks despite the "no bikes" symbol emblazoned at every crossroad, people who stand on the left side of the escalator clogging everyone else's progress, people who walk four abreast on the sidewalk with a stroller and a dog so they're impossible to pass. Cutting in line, not waiting one's turn, demanding attention and special treatment—all the gravest of sins in my world. The vast majority of things I get angry or concerned about have nothing to do with anything real and inherently wrong; they are simply triggered by people failing to follow the laws (yes, as I perceive them) of polite civilization.

In addition, I have very bad instincts and poor judgment when forced to react quickly. Take the predictable nature of my life out of the equation, and I just simply die. I'm only still alive because the only split-second life-or-death decisions I ever need to make involve traffic, and luckily everyone else is paying attention and trying not to kill me as well. (I'm the kind of person who would die in a fire despite the fire alarm going off simply because no one else seems to think it's a real fire and aren't panicking and running out. I'm not going to be the first one to shrug off the dignity of normal life to break for the exits.)

So what happens when I suddenly find myself in a post-apocalyptic wasteland or (for those of you who prefer less absurd thought experiments) an extended natural disaster situation? After hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, I somehow doubt people wait patiently in line for what they are aware is insufficient food or medical supplies. Generally the laws of society break down and people are left to fend for themselves, doing whatever is necessary to do so. I can just see myself refusing to make a pain of myself and thus failing to make it onto evacuation buses or getting the dregs of whatever supplies are being passed out because everyone takes more than they actually need or, again, goes before their turn. (Now, in true cases of immediate life or death, I imagine I would overcome my natural tendencies and push and shove with the best of them, but in only moderately dangerous situations—situations where the social order has broken down due to whatever event but where we're not actually in danger of imminent death—I would be at a severe disadvantage since my tendencies toward order and such would be less quickly eroded than others'.)

This is only made worse by my absolute distaste for guns. It is generally thought that in case of any event in which your basement stockpile of canned goods, bottled water, and gold bars might be needed, a gun is as well. (It has been brought to my attention that New Englanders may be unfamiliar with this idea. I suppose that means I have chosen my location well and that in the case of the rapture, belated Y2K disaster, or nuclear holocaust, I will be surrounded by fellow dazed and overly-civilized New Englanders and will perhaps not be taken advantage of.) I'm not entirely sure of the reasons most people would prefer to have a gun in the case of some sort of situation in which the government has collapsed or is simply too busy or too understaffed to deal with the general lawlessness (e.g., Katrina), but I would imagine it is seen mostly as a tool to ensure you don't get pushed around and taken advantage of by other less scrupulous people. There's also shooting squirrels for food and such, I guess, but that only matters once you've run out of tuna fish.

So it seems most people think that in the case of social collapse, people need weapons to protect themselves from people attempting to steal their food/water/supplies (seems reasonable) or looting for other items (though obviously this depends on the disaster; the end times don't seem like a particularly useful time to collect 18 televisions). There is also the idea that there may be roaming gangs with guns (probably, again, primarily to collect food and such from others, but given the situation, they could also simply be having fun terrorizing everyone else or, given a particularly severe and presumably permanent disaster, could be setting themselves up as the new powers that be—I mean, seriously, would you want to have to rely on a sketchy right-wing militia in an emergency situation?), though I have been mocked for this idea as well. (Again, I am particularly thankful to find myself currently situated surrounded by people who find such ideas absurd. I am sure were I still living in Georgia, it would sound much less outlandish in context.)

OK, so as a not particularly strong or intimidating woman with an extreme distaste for guns and unreasonably strong beliefs in civilization and its attendant rules who thus is obviously ill-prepared for the collapse of civilization, what happens to me in such a situation? My food all gets stolen, maybe I get forcibly kicked out of my house or wherever I'm holed up if someone with a gun thinks it's a better base of operations than wherever they are currently, I go out and collect food only to have it taken by someone with a gun who thinks they would benefit from it more than I, I go out to barter for something I need only to be ripped off with no recourse. There is pretty much no way for me to demand adherence to the laws of humanity and justice from from those I encounter without a sizable population (or just a powerful one in form of the government and its police force) backing me up and enforcing such rules.

(And all this is ignoring the more devastating results of a breakdown of society: rapes, hate crimes, torture... People are vicious, and when they feel threatened they will do all manner of abhorrent things to feel in control. When they're the only ones with weapons, they feel strong and like showing off their absolute power and taking advantage of those who are powerless. Once the balance of power has shifted and the rules of polite society and the restraint and civility that come along with them have vanished, I would sure hate to be a gay guy in the middle of, say, Oklahoma. Actually, I'd hate to be a woman much of anywhere. People only have rights because of civilization; take that away, and suddenly people are less concerned about equal rights or being PC. [That's not to say I think everyone secretly hates women and gays and racial minorities, but some people certainly do, and they're more likely to be the ones with guns... Plus, it only takes one.])

So, cheery thoughts this morning. I guess I can either just trust that civilization will never fall, at least for more than a day or two wherever I may be at the time, or I can suck it up and buy a gun. I find it pretty stupid to assume nothing like that could ever happen here and to me, but I don't want to be the kind of person who owns a gun in the interim, so I guess I'll just die if things ever get terrifically bad.


Incidentally, I read an article a few months ago that laid out the difference between moral transgressions and societal transgressions (killing someone versus failing to adhere to the rules of etiquette) and said that psychopaths tend not to make such distinctions. I started to get concerned, as I've long been aware that I tend to find social violations (the gross misuse of homophones, strangers on the street telling me to smile, riding bikes on the sidewalk) to be nearly as significant as actual moral violations (being mean to people, hurting people, being unfair). Apparently psychopaths fail to make the distinction and thus don't find their moral transgressions to be any more significant than the average person finds the transgression of using the wrong fork. I fail to make the distinction and thus find violations of etiquette and manners to be nearly as significant as the average person finds moral transgressions. I am unsure whether this puts me on par with the psychopath or makes me the anti-psychopath.