Monday, May 30, 2011

I Really Must Insist That Alan Rickman Stop Being So Damn Endearing.

I mean this is just excessive.

Prisons: We're Doin' It Rong

Mother Jones recently published a photo essay about California's prisons in the wake of the Brown v. Plata ruling, which addressed out of control overcrowding in California prisons and allowed for some remedies, including the release of some prisoners.  The reaction to the ruling has included an unfortunate percentage of "oh my God, they're releasing the Bad Drug Guys" response, which misses the point entirely.
We jail people because we have decided they need punishment for various crimes, but we also have provisions against inhumane punishment, because we recognize that even the worst criminals are humans as well.  The above - and the rest of Mother Jones' essay - shows that the overcrowding of our prisons has the potential to create a truly inhumane environment. 

In many cases, one might argue that that we simply must build more prisons, but when we look at the populations of our jails, a different picture emerges.  Our drug laws are remarkably draconian, and often serve a more political purpose than one in accord with the above recognition that punishment is needed in equal measure to the offense of the crime.  So many of these detainees are jailed for relatively minor drug related offenses, and in such an environment, we know that prisoners become more prone to worse offenses.  Rather than serving the presumed theraputic purpose of punishment, casually jailing people for the botanical equivalent of two bottles of vodka increases crime.   This is no way to run a society and no way to rehabilitate criminals, particularly those that are barely criminals in the first place.

TRUE LIFE: If Drumline Is On, I'm Watching It.

When I was in high school I did a lot of music - I sang in the choir and I had a hilarious attempt at french horn.  I also got it in my head that I wanted to be a drum major, so our director, Mr. Cain, told me if I went to George Parks' Drum Major Academy, I could be the drum major.  Never one to back down from the challenge, I went, and loved it.  I didn't get to use all of what I learned because we were basically a concert band occasionally forced to march in parades at a small high school with no football team.  Regardless, it was awesome and I had a lot of fun drum majoring around and occasionally producing column turns like you see to the left here.  I met a lot of terrific people at Drum Major Academy, too, many of whom allowed me to write field shows for and guest conduct with them.  Bless those dear souls for putting up with my chronic 2-beat hitch and inflicting it on their bands.

Many of us talked about joining a Drum Corps International crew and going off to mobile percussion our faces off before going to college; for the vast majority of us that was a total pipe dream (warning: do not click above link if you do not want your face rocked off) but it was cool to think about.  This led to me watching a lot of drumline and marching band videos, so needless to say I was thrilled when the movie Drumline came out and went to see it with a bunch of my fellow drum majors.  (You have no idea the depths of dorkiness to which I can sink, my friends.)  It ruled, and if you wrote it off as a Black People Movie For Black People, which is kind of how it was marketed, which sucks, you should check it out the next time it's on TV.

Shit yeah.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sometimes Racism Is Like When Your Parents Fight

I get V magazine, which is a gorgeous fashion magazine.  It's big and splashy, and the photographs are routinely glorious.  I kind of zone out on some of the "what's on the scene" stuff because I don't really care, but I thoroughly enjoy working my way through its glossy pages and looking at the creativity of their stylists.  When an issue of V arrives at the Outlaw Household, it's a great day, is my point, and it was a great day when this beautiful issue arrived in the mailbox.  It's two things I love!  Lady Gaga and V!  Together again!  Hooray! 

Except for the problem.  You might have noticed it already.  Hint: look to the lower left, then to the upper center. 

This issue of V is ostensibly about the rise of Asian artists, and there are some stunning photos and profiles inside of Asian (more on "Asian" in a minute) models, photographers, designers and artists, but here we have Miz Gaga on the cover.  This highlights one of the aspects of racism that is tricky to discuss: V magazine did not write "a bunch of chinks, but more importantly, GAGA!" as a headline, but they have effectively silenced and othered the very Asians that they purport to be excited about, not only by putting Gaga, a white woman from New York, on the cover of what they are calling "The Asian Issue," but also by co-opting a phrase of a book about geishas to sell it.  I love Gaga, but if you're going to make an Asian issue, you need a goddamn Asian model on the cover.  This isn't V hating on Asians, but it silences them and reinforces the conception that Asian models and celebrities cannot carry the cover of a Western fashion publication, a myth that they suggest in this magazine's own pages is getting debunked day by day.  Perhaps less concrete but equally damning is the fact that a quarter of the magazine features full-page depictions of why Asian models could rock the face off any cover you want, be it high fashion or more pedestrian; V had access to these models, but bounced them for a white woman on the cover. 

One might argue that Gaga's fame makes her a better candidate for the cover, but I would argue that Gaga's two previous V covers and numerous articles and profiles in the same magazine make it pretty clear that V is pro-Gaga and that the relationship is a good one that will result in more coverage.  That is great!  I like reading Gaga's whacked out treatises on whatever, and I love the fashion risks she takes.  However, if you cannot put an Asian model on the cover of the Asian about not having an Asian issue?  How about running Gaga on the cover and doing a different Asian issue?  It seems to me that V could have managed this issue much better and not reinforced 

There's another problem in this issue, and I went back to double check to make sure I wasn't making unfair accusations.  Asian is being interpreted here as "people from Japan, China or one of the Koreas."  V isn't the only offender in this situation, but we as a society really need to get better about identifying people appropriately if we must talk about their national or geographical origin.  Just for reference, here's who's left out of the fun by limiting "Asian" to those four nations:
  • Russia
  • India
  • Kazakhstan
  • Kyrgryzstan
  • Tajikistan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Uzbekistan
  • Hong Kong
  • Macau
  • Mongolia
  • Brunei
  • Burma
  • Cambodia
  • East Timor
  • Indonesia
  • Laos
  • Malaysia
  • Philippines
  • Singapore
  • Thailand
  • Vietnam
  • Afghanistan
  • Bangladesh
  • Bhutan
  • Maldives
  • Nepal
  • Pakistan
  • Sri Lanka
  • Armenia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Bahrain
  • Cyprus
  • Georgia
  • Iraq
  • Iran
  • Israel and Palestine
  • Jordan
  • Kuwait
  • Lebanon
  • Oman
  • Qatar
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Syria
  • Turkey
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Yemen
So...yeah.  Lots of Asians left out.  I haven't gone around and made a thorough survey, but I'm guessing that most of those nations have some spectacular artists and models, too, even if they're not enjoying the same boom as those featured in V's Asian Issue.  Being specific matters.  I don't have a problem with regionalism, because sometimes we talk about a certain section of the world having a boom in _________, so how about "East Asian"?   That is at least better.  The question of where to draw the line is always going to be a complex and touchy one, but we can at least try.

My TSA Patdown, Why It Matters, and Why It Doesn't

On March 21, 2011, I flew DirectAir flight D1-2802 out of Punta Gorda, FL, returning home to Worcester, MA after a week in sunny and fabulous Venice, Florida with my family.
Pictured: sun, fabulousity
Punta Gorda is a small but busy airport.  When I arrived for my flight, the ticketing area was awash in chaos as they tried to ticket, screen and board two DirectAir flights and I believe one additional Allegiant flight.  Whenever I have flown out of Punta Gorda, it's been this way, but I think they have some kind of in-house wizards, because they always get it sorted out and everyone through security and onto their flights just in time.

This time, despite having literally nothing metal on my but my underwires, I kept setting off the metal detector.  I'm doing all right in the chestular region but dude...not that well. In any case, I went over to the little screening corral and waited for a nice TSA lady to come over to give me a patdown.  She was excellent and slightly apologetic (though she didn't really seem to believe me when I said the only metal on me was my underwire; I'm with ya, Nice TSA Lady!), and started with explaining how the process would go. She explained that she would be patting me down, with her palms in most places and with the backs of her hands in certain places: under my breasts, between my legs, and under my butt.  She did all of this pretty quickly, and with good humor.  She also ran her hand along my waistband, which for some reason was the most awkward part for me - I think because it was hands inside my clothing instead of over the top.

My overall feeling is that it was...fine.  The woman at Punta Gorda was extremely professional and the explanation of how everything would go before she set a hand on me was reassuring.  That way, I knew what to expect.  I did not find it bothersome.  However, had I been a victim of sexual assault or abuse, or less comfortable with my body, I do think it would have been extremely stressful and potentially traumatic, particularly if I was a victim of assault at the hands of an authority figure.  It is also worth noting that I was wearing jeans.  Had I been wearing a skirt, dress, or even thinner pants, I would be less sanguine about the process.  I also lucked out and was on the walkway to the plane behind some nice, chatty ladies who had seen my patdown, who had a lot of questions and gave me the chance to hear what it had looked like from an outsider's perspective.  They both felt that it looked pretty invasive; one was concerned about someone touching the underside of her breasts and both could not believe that the TSA agent went right up to the crotch.  I asked them if watching my patdown had made them uncomfortable, and both said - immediately - that it did.  It certainly does build a certain atmosphere.

I object fundamentally to the TSA patdowns, and to the use of backscatter machines.  I object for two reasons, plus a non-legitimate* reason, that being "it is annoying and I don't think people need MORE reasons to act like idiots in security lines." The first is a minor detail called "the Fourth Amendment," which reads: "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."  I think that's pretty clear - the government doesn't get to rifle through my crap or my body, particularly if I have not done anything wrong.  I don't mind security initiatives, and I do think we should make sure that people can't bring bombs on a plane.  However, the measures currently in place are excessive.  I think the government has a right to make sure that groups of people can do stuff together safely (this is like "peaceably" bit in the First Amendment's right to "peaceably assemble"; you can have an anti-war protest or a pro-gun rights protest, but if you want to have a baby-kicking assembly, that's not okay), and that means that the TSA should be able to look for certain things, particularly explosives.  The locked firewall doors to the cockpit prevent people from assaulting the pilots and thus endangering the entire flight; knife or gun or nothing, if you can't get in, the flight can keep going smoothly and safely.  If, tragically, there was a murder on board, then the murderer - and the witnesses - would be delivered to the first available airport, where they could be tried and imprisoned.  That murder would not endanger the entire flight, as an explosion would.  As far as I can see, there are two main things that shouldn't come on aircraft: loaded guns on a person's body and explosives.  These can be checked for using metal detectors and "puffer" machines, which do not involve seeing your body or touching it.  The puffers (which puff air through a chamber to test for microscopic evidence of gunpowder or explosives; you may recognize this from those little pads they swipe on your carry on, then put in a machine...that machine is a teensy version of the puffer scanners), as I understand them, still have a ways to go in development, but I think they are the most appropriate and acceptable way to ensure safety without violating people's rights.

My Dad, who is a pilot, makes the argument that I am mostly offended by this because I'm used to not having to do it (he also admits that TSA's approach to security is...let's just say misguided, so it's not quite clear cut), and that this kind of security is simply the prerequisite for engaging in a voluntary activity.  This is partially why I would not have an argument against individual airlines performing advanced security like the backscatter machines and patdowns; if the TSA scanned with metal detectors and puffers, then at, say, the United gate, you had to go through a backscatter machine, I wouldn't fly United but I wouldn't object to it either, because it would be United making a choice to have that security standard and not the government.  There is also a problem of how voluntary travel really is; sure, it's optional for me to go to Florida on spring break, but it's not optional for a lot of business people. 

The second reason I object to TSA patdowns is a bit more slippery.  I think that the current procedure feeds into the unrealistic narrative we've been working on since September 11th: the idea that we can somehow be totally safe.  It is dangerous to suggest that there is a way to be entirely safe, because it discourages personal responsibility to pay attention to the world around you and manage your own safety, take your own precautions.  I hope I'm not rocking anyone's world too hard when I say: you will never be totally safe.  In the same way that you could eat nothing but kale and walnuts and run and lift weights and yet drop dead of a heart attack, you could take every precaution, seal yourself into a bulletproof hamster ball, never leave your house and STILL be hit by a car or have a tree fall on you or get shot in your whitebread neighborhood.  Life is chaotic, and suggesting that it can somehow be brought under control is a dangerous business indeed.  These TSA procedures feed into this idea that we can be safe, and that will only make us LESS safe, because we begin to assume that if we just submit to these practices, we'll all be okay, guaranteed.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

* I say non-legitimate here not because I shouldn't feel inconvenienced or be irritated by people in security lines (seriously folks - belts, shoes and metal off, laptop in its own bin.  WHY IS THIS SO DIFFICULT?) but because my interest in not being annoyed is not a valid basis for legality or illegality.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

My New Book is Coming Out in July and EVERYONE ALREADY LOVES IT.

You may know - I hope you know - that this past summer, I founded a small press, called Pink Narcissus Press, with my friends Rose and Bill, and in February we published our first book, an anthology of elf stories called Elf Love.  It was a great little book, and we have our second book coming out in July, which is a collection of short stories that continue or explore traditional fairy tales.  I just finished doing a final proof and that process reminded me anew that it is a damn good book.  Now, it's one thing for me to say that, but this time I have big league backup: both Publishers' Weekly and Independent Publisher have taken note of our book and given it great reviews.  Because this is my turf and I can do what I want, this is what they said:

From Publisher's Weekly:
Rapunzel's Daughter and Other Tales
Thirty-one stories of disparate quality and tone put a new spin on old tales. James S. Dorr's "The Glass Shoe" is a lighthearted political parody of Cinderella; Michael Takeda's "The Wolf in Standard Ration Clothing" is even darker than the original Red Riding Hood. Amy E. Yergen's brilliant title story, a meditation on family and matrilineal legacies, easily brings Rapunzel into the modern world, while David Turnbull's folksy "The Blood Cakes"; Duncan Eagleson's Viking Snow White retelling, "Snovhit"; and Michelle Markey Butler's Arthurian intrigue, "Sovereynte," have an authentically ancient feel. Line drawings by Ciaran Gaffney and Jade Liebes enhance each story, and introductions offer insight into the writers' lives and inspirations. The wide variety means many transitions are jarring, but any fairy tale fan will find something to enjoy in this collection. (July)
Independent Publisher named Rapunzel a Highlighted Title for "exhibiting superior levels of creativity, originality, and high standards of design and production quality."  EVERYONE LOVES OUR BOOK AND IT'S NOT EVEN OUT UNTIL JULY.

I hope you will swing over to our Facebook Page and like us - I personally crave validation, what can I say? - and watch our website for ordering info and calls for publication!  (PS - the "Chronicles of Silence" series on our website is a fun read and features one of my favorite characters I've ever written...check it out!

Books Yay!: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, by Oliver Sacks

I took a class at American University called "The Senses."  I had to take a science class to fulfill a core requirement, and "The Senses" sounded like a political science major science class if I ever heard of one, so I signed up.  This turned out to be a massive tactical error.  That class was incredibly hard, and I crawled out of it by my fingernails with a solid C.  It was also totally fascinating - it was all about how we take information in through our various senses and process it. One of the things you have to address when you're studying the senses is how weirdly out of whack they can go; while we know a lot about how things are processed in the brain, there's still a good amount of stuff going on in there that's not entirely clear, and obviously, when you aren't 100% sure how things work when all systems are running normally, you will definitely have trouble figuring out what's wrong with them.  When the professor talked about the "...whoa, what the heck is going on here?" cases, she often referenced this book, which after about nine years I finally got around to reading.  I see why she didn't actually assign the text, but I also see why it was recommended. 

One of the things that I kept thinking about as I read was the fact that this book was on the New York Times Bestseller List for an extended period of time.  Maybe I don't have enough faith in today's reader (Cannonball Readers exempted, of course), but I have a hard time imagining such a book returning to the NYT's Bestseller List.  It's basically a collection of case histories, and can be quite technical.  Though they do have the Wow Factor, I can't imagine a book that is so technical gaining so much popularity.  That's a shame, because I found this to be a really interesting read.

Dr. Oliver Sacks has assembled this collection of 24 stories, which deal with various "weird mental things."  The book is roughly chunked into sections by affliction, so there's a section on the brain doing too much of something, one on it doing too little (or none) of something, and one the deals with more universal perception issues.  Supposedly there are four sections, but I find that the latter two are much of the same type.  This might just be because I am not a psychology enthusiast and thus don't have the appropriate vocabulary and knowledge to make the distinction.  This includes all kinds of things, like the titular man who was unable to distinguish things as things, people with phantom limbs, problems understanding parts of their bodies in relation to other parts, Rainman-like fixations with naming massive prime numbers, etc.  All of the studies are interesting, and Dr. Sacks provides a great explanation of his thought process in each one.  It's kind of like a non-dickbaggy, non-Vicodin-addicted House.  I really liked seeing how he drew connections between known disorders in an attempt to figure out where the damage or malfunction might be in the brain, and then how he was able to take that info and extrapolate it out into an understanding of the patient's problem. 

One of the things I liked about Dr. Sacks' accounts of these folks is the way he is clearly concerned with their quality of life.  For all I know, he's a callous jerk looking to make a buck off publishing these stories, but the way he talks about his patients and works through the problems for the sake of their improved lives suggests the opposite.  Some of the problems aren't even crippling - several of the patients arrive at Dr. Sacks' office with coping skills already in place - but Sacks works through the problems with his patients regardless.  It's nice to see such compassion on display, especially in a field where there's a lot of stigma and misunderstanding.  

I'd definitely recommend this book to people interested in how the brain works and the weird stuff it can do.  It's a good read, and Dr. Sacks' voice is clear and entertaining.  He appreciates some of the goofiness these challenges present and admits it with gentle humor, keeping the book light and pretty entertaining for a fairly technical accounting.  It's a great read!

Today I Got an IUD and It Ruled

Note: I know that many people get squicked out by reproductive health stuff.  I understand that, but I also think that sex ed in this country is uneven at best and straight up inadequate at worst, including its treatment of reproductive mechanics and contraception.  Our best chance at having children that are wanted and born at a time when their parents can adequately care for them is to educate our public so people know what their options are and exercise them.  This information is important for men as well as women.  It is for this reason that I post about things like this from time to time, and if you think I'm being hyperbolic about the lack of sex ed, I invite you to tune in to Maury* any day of the week to listen to the abject ignorance spouted about why one person or the other can't possibly be the father**.  I am not kidding.

I started taking birth control when I was 15, mostly because I was rocking epic pizza face and the hormones in birth control pills force you on a regular schedule, i.e. one that does not encourage pimplestravaganzas on your face.  The first kind I tried was Ortho Tri-Cyclen, which is the Great Grandma of birth control pills. It is a progestin and estrogen combo pill, in which you take 3 weeks of active pills and one week of sugar pills (while your body is allowed to do its thing and have a period).  My acne did get much better, but I also got quite moody.  When I went to college, I switched to Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo, which works in much the same way, just with a lower dose of hormones.  While the drop in hormones did help even out my mood a bit, I did gain about 20 pounds almost overnight.  I suspect I would have seen a similar or greater gain when I went on Original Flavor Tri-Cyclen had I not been playing sports and running around like I was at the time. 

When I was a sophomore in college, I started hearing a lot about Nuvaring, which is ring that you insert into your vagina that releases the same hormones as the Tri-Cyclen family.  My immediate reaction was "...dude, that's gross."  The whole concept of putting a piece of plastic in there monthly just weirded me out, so I ignored it until one of my good friends came home from school absolutely RAVING about it.  I did some research and what really convinced me to make the switch was the perfect use statistics.  When you see information about effectiveness in birth control, those figures are usually based on perfect use, which means, for example, that at 8:00a every single morning, without fail, you take your Pill.  Most people don't do that, and when you don't, effectiveness drops - not to zero or anything, but definitely down from the way-high-nineties you usually see.  With Nuvaring, you basically have less chances to screw up; it goes in once a month and comes out once a month.  I made the switch around 2004 and have used it ever since, and it has been awesome!  I would definitely recommend it to anyone, particularly if they are busy and have an irregular schedule that might wreak havoc on their Pill-taking plan. 

Earlier this year, my Grad School Safety Buddy got an IUD and was raving about it (number one rule for getting good contraceptive advice: have awesome friends).  While it had been a little crampy to have put in, it had been free and was super comfortable, and did not need to be taken out until the end of its useful life. I started doing some homework on it, and really liked what I read.  First of all, it's one of the most popular forms of contraception in Europe, despite having kind of a bad rap here in the States; not sure why that's the case.  There are two kinds of IUD: hormonal and copper.  A hormonal IUD releases hormones (sound familiar?) to keep you from getting pregnant, and is good on average for about 5 years.  Mirena is one example of a hormonal IUD.  A copper IUD - ParaGard is the copper variety - lasts about 12 years and signals "no pregnancy!" to your body simply with its presence, and it also partially blocks the fallopian tubes so no sperm can hike up there and cause ectopic pregnancy.  I liked the idea of the copper IUD for its lack of hormones, and I liked that it was good for so long!  IUDs do carry specific risks, like dislocation or rejection, or perforation of the uterus (which can vary in serverity).  I decided to take the plunge, so I made an appointment with my local Planned Parenthood in Worcester, MA.

I went in to the beautiful new facility at about 2:50p for my 3p appointment.  My Mom drove me.  They suggest that you go with someone, because the cramping can be overwhelming, to the point that you shouldn't be driving.  They also suggest that you take a fairly large amount of Ibuprofen an hour before your appointment.  Now, I started my period on the day I was supposed to have my IUD put in, so I called to ask if that was a problem (besides being kind of awkward), and I was surprised to hear that having your IUD put in during your period can actually make the process more comfortable, since your body's already in a "hey, no pregnancy here" mode.  I did the obligatory paperwork stuff, and my appointment cost $20 with my Harvard Pilgrim insurance.  (Note: I paid $30/month for NuvaRing.  $30 x 12 months = $360 x 12 years = $4320.  So today, I saved $4300.  YOWZA.) 

After I got all that stuff worked out, I got called into the exam room.  The room has one side where you get your vital signs taken and your interview done, and another with the chair with the stirrups and all that hoo-rah.  I thought the interview was really well done.  Not only did they give me a really complete description of the benefits and risks of the IUD, but they also explained how the procedure was going to do.  They also asked for a profile of your sexual and relationship health, including whether or not you had a good support system and whether you'd ever felt abused or coerced in any relationship.  These are important questions that don't often get asked, so it was really great to hear them incorporated into a medical questionnaire.  During this intake process, they also took a prick test for chlamydia and gonorrhea and urine for a pregnancy test, which they do for everyone. 

Once all that was squared away, I undressed from the waist down and got in the chair with those damn stirrup things, and then the nurse practitioner came in.   Here's how the process goes.  First, she inserted a speculum and sprayed some kind of topical numbing stuff on my cervix.  Then, she had to open up my cervix, which she did with some other "-ulum" tool which actually looked like a giant, horrifying pair of pincers.  I was glad that she didn't show me those until the procedure was done.  Yikes!  When she inserted those, I did feel some pretty significant cramping, but she was awesome and kept talking to me so I was distracted.  Once that was all set up, she took the IUD, which is loaded into a tube with the little arms down, inserted the tube, and pushed the IUD in.  The whole thing took about a minute total, and for me the cramping stopped almost completely the moment she took the cervix "-ulum" out.  My GSSB said her cramping continued for some time, but I did not have a problem with it.  For the next couple hours I felt cramping, but it was not exceptionally bad - no more than I would experience in a regular period. 

IUDs are often given the side-eye, but I found the process to be relatively painless and I think the savings and effective use stats will more than make up for today's moments of cramping.  Your mileage may, of course, differ, and you should always consult your doctor before going in for any kind of procedure, but I have to say that so far I'm very impressed.  I hope that the rest of my time with the IUD proves equally rewarding!

*I like having noise in the background while I read and crappy daytime TV like Maury and The Steve Wilkos show have the maximum rise and fall of noise.  STOP JUDGING ME.

** For example: "We only had sex three times," "I don't make boys/girls," "she started birth control the day after we had sex," etc. It gets to be fairly sad because so many of these people clearly have no idea how sex and pregnancy work, much less how to present it.  This is "jump up and down after sex" territory.