Rules for the Ivy League

So you got into an Ivy League school? Congratulations!

You’ll want to fit in, so to get you up to speed, here is a list of things you are not allowed to say during your time in school:

– I feel that my years of experience living as a woman or minority qualify me to discuss women and minority issues with at least as much authority as a white male.

– This student activity happens to be a feeder for many prestigious jobs after graduation, and all of the people in the club happen to be men. Don’t you think that’s a little strange?

– If everyone knows that this Computer Science class requires 50 hours a week of homework, then why can’t they break it into two semesters with only 25 hours a week of homework?

– Since I do not have 2 wealthy parents — including one who stays at home full time — as my support system, I was wondering if you might have any sort of institutional supports for students?

– It’s my second year. Shouldn’t I at least meet my academic advisor?

..and finally, never under any circumstances speak the following words:

– I don’t know.

I need help.

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The Good Ol’ Days When Women Could Dote On Their Children (and other Fairy Tales)

Nowadays, it is often strongly implied that women who go to work and leave their children for 8 whole hours a day are quite possibly scarring the children for life, just because the mothers want to “work,” “get educated,” or “eat.” The thinking goes that while some women work outside of the home by necessity, and a few strange oddballs do it by extreme conviction, the majority of working mothers are heedlessly depriving their children. Deep down (we are told) we all know that life was so much better in The Olden Days, when mothers had absolutely nothing to do but sit and gaze lovingly at their adorable offspring.

So, I would like to point something out. The average woman these days has 2 children, plus electricity, heat, and running water.

No matter what she does, her kids are coming out way, way ahead.

100 years ago, most women were pregnant or with a babe in arms – if they managed to survive childbirth — for Twenty. Years. Straight. Families of 10 or even 15 kids were not uncommon. This is because there was no birth control except abstinence…and abstinence, as it turns out, does not seem to work very well.

“Ah,” you say, “But even though the mothers had 10 children, they were at least home all day with the kids, right?”

Well, sort of.

The women were up with the sun to tend the chickens and milk the cows. Then they had to stoke the fire and tend the stove and cook for 12 people, then clean up and do the whole thing again for lunch and dinner. In the copious free time they had left over, there were chores like Washing 12 People’s Clothes By Hand in Boiling Water, Blacking the Stove With Caustic (non-child-friendly!) Chemicals, Churning Butter, Bringing the Eggs to Market, Nursing the Baby, Taking Care of Children with Life-Threatening Diseases, Sewing Muslin Together to Make Sheets, Knitting Sweaters for the Entire Family, Carding Wool, Canning, Quilting, Darning, and so on and so forth.

Because it was literally impossible for the average farmwife to do the allotted 100 hours of weekly housework while also supervising 10 kids, childcare consisted of putting your toddler into the care of your 8-year-old, crossing your fingers, and hoping for the best.

If you think that a modern woman with a job – plus a dishwasher, plus a washing machine, plus electricity and running water, plus a microwave and frozen foods, plus a refrigerator, plus a way to heat the house without having to chop wood first, plus vaccines that keep her children from coming down with horrible diseases, plus an automobile…

…If you think a woman with all these conveniences, taking care of only two children, is giving less individual time, care and attention to her children than a woman in the olden days…then you are out of your fucking mind.

Just sayin’.

I’m Yo-Yo Ma

Sometimes people ask me what Harvard was like. I struggle to explain the sheer superciliousness of the student body. Here’s an example:

We had a cellist in our class, Matt Haimovitz. Prodigy, recordings with Deutsche Gramophone, the whole bit. Were we proud? Oh no. The orchestra geeks made up a little song about him, to the tune of the Shostakovich cello concerto:

“I’m Yo-Yo Ma…”
“–No-you’re-not-no-you’re-not.”

That’s what it’s like. It’s a school where you’re a freshman in the top of the world in your field, and people jeer and mock you for not being number one in the world in your field.

Just wanted to share.

(Here’s what the cello concerto sounds like, so you too can sing along like the second-rate musicians in the Bach Society Orchestra making fun of a world-class musician.)

Progress

The other day a new “West Elm” furniture store opened in downtown Boise.

For those of you who don’t know, West Elm is what you buy when you’ve grown out of Ikea. It’s got a sort of mid-century modern aesthetic, but it’s still cheaper than some other furniture brands.

Like many fashionable stores these days, the national chain is trying to look as rustic as possibly. In the case of this store, that means that the floors and outside display appear to be covered with unfinished reclaimed wood, possibly from a barn.

I say “possibly from a barn” for one very specific reason: when I walk into this expensive furniture store, it smells…very faintly…of manure.

Now, I’m old enough to remember when expensive stores did not smell like manure. In fact, I would say that, if you had asked a designer, “How shall we appeal to wealthy customers?” their first thought would have been, “Do not smell like manure.”

But times have changed, and now all of your fancy furniture comes pre-impregnated with dessiccated cow poo dust.

Progress.

 

The Five Stages of Health

In an earlier post, How Things Got Better, I talked about the process I went through to choose Boise, Idaho as a place that would help support my health. I thought I would write a few more posts this summer about my (mis)adventures dealing with health problems.

From the time I contracted Lyme Disease in 2009, to the time I moved to Boise in 2014, I struggled a lot with my health. The most difficult thing for me was not the pain, weakness, chills, or fever, but rather the sense of isolation I experienced. The Austin social scene was all about the moveable feast; by not being mobile or healthy, I missed out on the sense of community I’d come to rely on. I began to feel as if life was like a beautiful circle, and I’d been somehow cast outside of its bounds, into a shadowy nether realm. The only people who seemed to make the effort to reach out to me now were Netflix, Amazon, television advertisers, and mail order catalogues.

And a few very dear friends. Thank you.

All this is to say: there were two aspects to getting through this time; the emotional / spiritual, and the purely logistical. The emotional/spiritual was comprised of questions like, “If I used to have friends before illness stripped my talents away, and my friends don’t come see me anymore, did I ever really have friends in the first place?” ***

The logistical was more like this: “If I don’t get out of this house soon, I promise you I will lose what little grip on sanity I have left!”

The challenge I had with my illness was that my health was extremely variable, and I was too ill to drive safely in car-centered Texas. This led me to articulate the 5 Stages of Health:

#1: I am too weak to get out of bed.

#2: I am too weak to leave the house.

#3: I am feeling well enough to do something easy, as long as I have a way to get there and back.

#4: I am feeling well enough that I could do something energy-intensive, such as walking in a park, as long as I have a way to get there and back.

#5: I am strong enough both to do an activity, and to transport myself there and back.

So, as you can see, if you are at Stage #5, you are more or less independent. You may still have health problems, but they are not holding you back from mobility or activity. I was rarely in Stage #5.

On the other hand, if you’re at Stage #1 or #2, mobility isn’t even a problem because it’s not really an issue. If your head is split in two with a horrible migraine, you don’t really care whether, in theory, you’d be well enough to drive today.

The problem is when you’re at Stage #3 or #4 — well enough to engage in activity, but not well enough to be independent. Too often, when I lived in Texas, I would be stuck inside even when I was at a “4” level, because of a lack of appropriate transportation.

What do I mean by this? Well, a person with ok health but no car can plan to take a taxi to a special event. However, a person with extremely variable health may spend $20 for a taxi to an event, only to realize 20 minutes later that a dizzy spell is coming on and she has to get home right away. Maybe by now the taxis are all taken and she must wait, extremely sick, out in public, at the event.

Or maybe the taxi arrives promptly, and she goes home, having spent $40 to exhaust herself, and take a round trip straight back to her home, and not go to an event.

Because of this variability, and also the expense and inconvenience, the person with poor variable health really needs either a loved one who is willing to put her first — to drive her and take her home when she needs — or some form of transport that’s under her control. Otherwise, the fear of collapse while out in a public space is too great, and she stays home. Again.

This is particularly frustrating because healing from illness is a mental game as well as a physical one. If you spend all month being diligent and cautious, and finally have a day where you’re at Stage #4, you want to experience some positive reward for your efforts. If, however, the only reward is that you are merely well enough to feel even more keenly the bars of your prison, then there is almost no incentive towards getting better. In such a scenario, there are no repetitions of success when you improve, only repetitions of failure, and it can be extremely difficult to crawl one’s way towards a better life.

The wonderful thing about moving to a walkable city like Boise is that I finally get to build on my successes, rather than only suffer from them. I have things I can do when I can only walk 3 blocks, things I can do when I can walk 8, and even other places I can get to when I can walk a mile or more. As I’ve mentioned before, the dry climate is very supportive of my health, but so too is the knowledge that, if I can get just a little stronger, I can experience even more success. That in itself is an incredible incentive to work even harder at my recovery.

If I were to suggest a takeaway from this experience, it would be that if you or someone you know is struggling with something very hard — whether it’s recovery from an illness or learning a difficult subject in school — make sure that, for each measure of progress you gain, you also gain a commensurate reward. If you have to achieve perfection before you can even start living your life, you’re playing the wrong game.

————————————————————————————————————-

*** It can lead to even deeper (and more confusing) trains of thought, such as,

“Aren’t all relationships, at their source, mere transactions?”

“Do we ever really ‘love’ anyone, or do we just love what they can do for us?”

“When even something as fundamental as someone’s personality can be changed in an instant by illness or accident, how can we promise to love someone ‘forever?'”

Spain: Pros and Cons

Advantages to Living in Spain

– Streets are paved with tortilla de patata

– Constant stream of snacks, sandwiches and tapas == Hobbit Life

– Small mom-and-pop stores still exist because there’s no Walmart or Target to mess them up

– You can get nice leather goods for 1/3 of their price in the US

– Free healthcare

– Decent public transportation

Disadvantages to Living in Spain (versus America)

– America’s “The Customer is Always Right” motto generates a level of customer service that borders on the sycophantic. But Spain’s motto would be,

“The Customer May Grudgingly Be Allowed to Shop Here (But Only If They Can Figure Out When It Is We’re Actually Open)”

– If you’re under 30, good luck finding a job (that would let you actually move out of your parents’ house)

  • Corrollary: Many jobs pay 50% or less of what they’d pay in the States. For example, the average salary for a software engineer in Madrid: about $35,000 (versus say $70k – $150k in the States)

– Walking around in cities which extol the glories of the past can be suffocating for a young person trying to make a mark in the present

– Even the simplest transaction is made into a 12-part bureaucratic travail with echoes of the movie “Brazil.” This is a culture that has never met an experience that cannot be improved by adding little pieces of paper that need to be stamped in triplicate.

– Public restrooms. They’re a thing, but in Spain, not really. They are hard to find and sometimes you have to pay to pee. THIS IS IMPORTANT, PEOPLE. Did you know that there is a *direct relationship* between “availability of public restrooms” and “how much your city streets smell like piss?” Strange but true!

 

…Overall, Spain wins of course, but only if I’m not looking for a bathroom.

Weight Watchers Ads Are Trying to Make You Hungry

I’m on a gluten-free diet, which is a special kind of torture, and so whenever I hear someone mention The Forbidden Foods, I notice.

This ad, that manages to say the word “bread” 6 times in only 30 seconds, hits me with all the force of a Pavlovian experiment:

So. Let’s talk about this ad. Ostensibly, the goal of it is to get you to “become inspired to lose weight.” But it’s actually a craving-trigger in slow-mo.  And a lot of Weight Watchers ads do the same thing. Descriptions of cakes..pies…pizzas. Then: Weight Watchers.

So this is how it goes: You watch the Weight Watchers ad. You feel suddenly very hungry ( I wonder why?). Then you have shame/guilt/whatever over the cravings they just awoke in you. You decide you “have a problem.” Then you call Weight Watchers.

Weight Watchers doesn’t want you to lose weight. It wants you to lose self-control, and then try (and fail) to get back on the wagon.

This is a cruel and duplicitous strategy. It’s as if AA advertised:

Mmmmmm….Isn’t scotch delicious? Couldn’t you just drink a smooth, velvety aged scotch all daaaaaay?….Alcoholics Anonymous. For when you have a Problem. 

Now, it’s possible Weight Watchers does good for some people. Hey, if that’s true for you, great. But the advertising is downright evil. Don’t fall for it.

 

 

Quote

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

– Susan Sontag

Inequality & Climate Change

The very definition of inequality is that in an unequal society, some people don’t suffer any consequences for their bad decisions, while others suffer not only for their own mistakes, but for the mistakes of people above them.

So asking us to fix climate change without fixing inequality is impossible, because those who are making the worst decisions are those whose unequal status is protecting them from the consequences.

The science is clear. We don’t need more data, we need more equality.

The “Amazing” Disruption

We’re currently using technology to “improve” / “disrupt”:

– Cat video dissemination
– Stealing music, movies, and books
– Removing pesky “put on clothes, go outside” aspect from buying stuff

We’re currently not disrupting any of the following — in fact, they’re all more expensive than they were 20 years ago:

– Education
– Housing
– Healthcare
– Public Transportation

Coincidentally, the second list is the stuff that actually makes your life fundamentally better.

Instead of using technology to level the playing field, we’re using it to create exquisite distraction while we make the game even more rigged.

I’d love to see it go the other way.

The other day, I was listening to the radio as some tech entrepreneur evangelized about his “amazing” new product. “Usually, when you’re searching for a picture, you have to scroll and scroll and scroll . . . but now with {some new app} you can {find your digitized pictures slightly more conveniently}!!!”

As he explained the features of his completely unnecessary product with all the zeal of a missionary, I was struck by how utterly little any of these products matter. We have, at this moment, arguably the most minds in history and the most technology in history focused on solving problems . . . but, for the most part, they’re the wrong problems.

The Silicon Valley spin machine is busy working full time, touting each product as “amazing.” But it’s conflating “this product stands to make me billions in the IPO” with “this product fundamentally improves the world.”

They are not the same thing.

If only this man, with his massive intellect and great salesmanship, had been working on getting new and disruptive vaccines to poor villages without refrigeration! If only he were trying to ensure every American had a decent roof over her head. That, my friends, would truly be deserving of the word “amazing.”