Monthly Archives: June 2012

Missed anniversary

Wow, for someone who pays obsessive attention to anniversaries, it’s a little surprising that I missed my ninth anniversary of starting to blog.

Pretty auspicious beginning, that snake hug.

And the people whose kinda new blog inspired me to start are still at it as well.

IN other news, a commenter on this post offered this effusively lovely compliment:

tarian 2012 06 20 at 6:14:36 pm Close
I have no idea what link I followed to get here, but:

That teenaged man is as far remote. I carry around the mended bones he broke; I maintain memories of being him, banked and kindled over and over like an endless chain of cadged smokes. He had no knowledge of me and I see him only dimly, a voyeur watching an unsuspecting target through gauze curtains.


I am actually working to release two distinct collections of my writing this year! In the meantime, were a person to go buy a copy of my book Walking With Zeke, that person would be the first person to do so in about a month and a half.

Misogyny, the skeptics movement, and grand theft auto

I had a Jeep stolen in the last few days. I got it back two days later. It was missing a bunch of moderately pricey stuff that I’d kept there, and one thing of immense sentimental value.

I have been feeling supremely sorry for myself about going through this, and I have complained a lot about it here and on Twitter and Facebook, to the point of posting maudlin drunken things I then deleted.

The responses people have offered have been uniformly kind and sympathetic. I have had offers of shoulders to cry on. I have had commiseration. I have had stories about when something similar happened to someone and how bad they felt and how sorry they are that I might feel that way too.

I have had apologies from people who wish they could step up and cover costs I incurred in being a victim of a crime. I have had someone even offer to give me a truck for a dollar. (That truck may need more work than would make it worthwhile, but the point is this: that friend made the offer.)

I would much rather not have gone through this experience, one I share with thousands of people in the state of California per year. But the response I have gotten from people, close friends and strangers alike, has been uniformly kind, sympathetic, and supportive.

I kept hundreds of dollars worth of camping equipment in the Jeep, and as a result I lost it. I carried only liability insurance, having gambled that damage to my own vehicle would cost me less than paying for comprehensive coverage each month. (I may still have won that bet: I don’t know.) I parked the Jeep on the street. On a busy street, in fact, with lots of traffic and lots of people with impaired faculties passing by. I didn’t buy a theft prevention system: not even the annoying kind that you lock on the steering wheel. I didn’t have OnStar. I didn’t park the Jeep in a covered garage with 24/7 security. I left the Jeep parked in the same place for as long as a month at a time, long enough for cobwebs to build up in the wheel wells. There were many things I did that contributed to the likelihood that the Jeep would be vulnerable to theft, and that said theft, if it happened, might do some damage to my economic well being,

And people mentioned a few of those things. One friend said privately that he’d wondered why my camping gear had been stored in the Jeep, but that he’d then realized it was likely because we don’t have enough storage in the apartment. (He was right.) Another friend responded to my revelation that I carried only liability insurance by saying “Yeah. That sucks. We do it too on our old car and it’s the sensible thing, but ow.”

I’ve second-guessed myself to hell and back, of course, and Annette has quietly felt guilty about not finding some brilliant storage solution for the camping equipment, possibly involving a Tardis. Normal behavior for crime victims. It’s understandable that you blame yourself, because that gives you more of a sense of control over the malevolent randomness of the universe: “This is MY fault somehow. I did this.” But we haven’t taken it seriously, and no one else has been anything but supportive.

No one else has been anything but supportive.
No one has suggested that I should get over it.
No one has asked for corroborating evidence of my allegations that someone took my Jeep without my permission.
No one has suggested that I was asking for it by having a $300 tent and a $250 sleeping bag stored in moderately concealed fashion in the back of the Jeep, (Well, I have to myself, but no one else has.)
No one has asked me if I ever left the Jeep’s doors unlocked on any previous occasions, and if so if that didn’t indicate I was really okay with strangers entering my Jeep.
No one has asked me if I formally reported the “so-called theft.”
No one has implied that Palm Springs’ economic woes are due in part to potential visitors spurious fears of car theft due to my ill-considered complaining in blog posts and social media.
No one has joked that they “disagree that my Jeep was ‘too ugly to steal.’”
No one has complained that I’ve treated everyone in the Coachella Valley as a potential car thief, made hectoring arguments about the presumption of innocence, or criticized me for assuming anyone capable of holding a slim jim is “Schrodinger’s Thug.”

There are two main reasons for this. The one that makes me happiest is that I have succeeded in surrounding myself with friends and acquaintances who are not incredible flaming assholes. I am, of course, very proud of my accomplishment in this regard.

The other one is that I’m the beneficiary of privilege. If I wasn’t male, I’d still almost certainly have gotten all the lovely support from my friends that I’ve gotten in the last couple days. Someone I don’t know well on Facebook or passing by this blog would have very likely called me stupid for parking on the street with stuff in the vehicle I didn’t want to lose.

This was a really upsetting crime, and emotionally taxing. But I was not injured. The perpetrator never made me feel afraid, or threatened, or even uncomfortable. I was treated with professionalism and respect by law enforcement, and they took the issue very seriously. I had no physical proof whatsoever when I reported the crime, and they solved it in two days anyway. I complained and whined and beat my breast about what had been done to me, and some of my closer friends may have rolled their eyes but they’d never admit it. If I wasn’t male, though, a mild, self-deprecating wish that someone had not done that thing might have set off a firestorm. The crime against me never threatened me except financially, but if I wasn’t male, even lamenting the existence of actions that made me feel personally threatened might have launched a month-long pileon.

It doesn’t matter that my friends and associates are all of sterling character, generous to a fault and of fine moral judgment. If instead of being a male complaining about somebody joyriding in a car I got for free and then my getting it back the worse for wear, I was a non-male person complaining about feeling physically threatened, people other than my friends and associates would find this blog and pile on. Some of them might, if they were motivated enough, send me death threats intended to shut me the hell up. Probably no one would have offered me a free Tacoma.

It’s been an interesting juxtaposition of events from my own point of view, is what I’m saying.

Which sucks.

Got the Jeep back, sort of.

We got a call from the Cathedral City cops in the wee hours. They’d arrested a woman who had my Jeep.

All of the items listed here that were stolen along with the Jeep are gone. As is the spare tire. And, essentially, the windshield—at least to the point where it’s pretty much not safe or legal to drive unless it’s replaced. And possibly the gas tank and front suspension, though I’m not certain about those.

The Jeep was evidently used as a getaway car for burglaries. When the cops found it it was full of apparently stolen things. Including weird stuff like badly gilded plaster Louis XIV molding and a teakettle.

The fabric that was lining the ceiling is shredded, hanging down from the ceiling in a way that would block visibility in the rearview mirror, if the rearview mirror were still there. Which it isn’t.

And, you know. Little ancillary items like the full gas tank that is now empty, and the missing registration that will cost 20 bucks to replace, and the broken center console, and the need to fumigate to get rid of the methhead stench. All of it expense to lay out just to get back to the point where I was on Friday, worrying about saving up for the tires and deferred maintenance it needed.

And Zeke’s collar is gone, which really when you come right down to it is the only permanent loss. As much as I have loved the Jeep, and as grateful as I am for having had it, and as much as it will be a serious fucking pain in the ass to replace the several hundred bucks worth of camping gear, I’d trade every last bit of all of it to get the collar back.

Here’s what was in the Jeep when it was stolen last night

The Jeep was parked in front of our house last night. This morning it wasn’t. I have to write this up for the cops, so I might as well do so as a blog post. The only item I truly care about getting back is the last one, though losing the others is a pain in the ass, and losing the Jeep itself is the kind of thing that makes me want to go find an Old Testament for creative retribution ideas.

1) North Face Cat’s Meow sleeping bag
2) Thermarest expedition grade self-inflating mattress (discontinued)
3) Marmot alpinist 4-season tent (discontinued)
4) Coleman propane stove (oh well)
5) Titanium non-stick cookware
6) approximately 40 maps and atlases
7) custom ground liner for tent
8) odd cute blue fluffy Jeep stuffed animal thing Tiff made me
9) my favorite Patagonia fleece jacket
10) two copies of Phantom Seed #4 with a piece of my writing in the issue
11) small sewing kit
12) heavy fleece-lined zipper hoodie with Middlebury College logo
13) LL Bean Flannel-lined denim shirt
14) Columbia fleece-lined canvas shirt
15) four gallons of water
16) 1980s-era Oakland curbside recycling bin with various camping supplies (matches, lighter, propane bottles, plastic flatware, nylon rope, spare tent stakes
17) large Eureka car-camping tent (a wedding present from 1995)
18) The less expensive of my two camera tripods
19) the last nice note Becky wrote to me as I was moving out
20) Zeke’s collar and tags, hanging from the rear-view mirror.

A few thoughts about sexism in the skeptics’ movement

For those of who who have neglected to keep close tabs on the misogynistic slagfight in the so-called “skeptics movement” — which started when Rebecca Watson suggested men not hit on women alone in elevators late at night, apparently the greatest assault on Reason since Urban VIII asked Galileo to tone down that whole heliocentrism thing — that misogynistic slagfight proceeds apace.

The most recent iteration of the thing, as far as I can tell with only cursory digging, is that women who attend skeptics’ meetings started comparing notes, and found that there were certain prominent male figures in the movement with whom many of said women had had unpleasant experiences ranging from sexual harassment to physical assault. Some of those women, and their non-women comrades, started talking about ways to address and correct this problem. As usual, when the women started talking about this issue publicly they were told by their detractors to “name names!” and then — when a couple people speculated as to how that might actually work —-accused of having a secret smear list with which to threaten prominent men. Jen McCreight provides a good summation of the dynamics of the discussion. The idea of a list was dropped very quickly.

But not before the gasoline hit the warm coals. People who were working through possible approaches to the problem of harassment in good faith were the recipients, once again, of nasty insults, physical threats both explicit and implicit, gendered and racial epithets, and other such niceties.

Some of the objections were couched in civil language, however. One of those was that such a list would be compiled by people acting as prosecutor, judge and jury, and that contravened the principle of the presumption of innocence, the bedrock of jurisprudence in some countries with Internet access. People backed off on the notion of a Jerk List in rather short order. Then discussion centered around having event-sponsoring organizations adopt specific sexual harassment policies, which would seem a likely and reasonable solution to anyone who’s held a job at any point since about 1997. But wouldn’t you know it, the same arguments got trotted out against that idea as well, claiming that such a policy would “convict” men for the crime of “flirting.” And similar arguments.

As it happens, I actually got called up to jury duty recently and was presented with a really good illustration of why these really aren’t sound arguments. The case in question was a drunk driving arrest, and the prosecuting attorney was quizzing us prospective jurors along a line that clearly indicated that the physical evidence for her case wasn’t what she hoped it would be. She asked us all what standard we used to tell if a friend at a party was drunk enough to take his car keys away. Would we insist on a Breathalyzer test? or take a blood sample? We admitted as how we probably wouldn’t insist on a blood alcohol level in that hypothetical situation. Then she asked another hypothetical involving a kid promised a trip to Disneyland on Saturday if she wasn’t sick. (Yeah, it seemed exactly that far out of left field at the time, too.) Kid wakes up Saturday morning burning up, then runs to the bathroom and vomits. Would we insist on getting a firm diagnosis from a doctor, maybe some blood work and throat cultures, before canceling the trip to Disneyland? No, of course we wouldn’t.

The prosecutor asked if any of us had any questions about the Disneyland story. I raised my hand. “I’m not sure how it’s really relevant,” I admitted. “We’re not talking about a party or a trip to Disneyland here. This defendant’s facing criminal charges in a court of law. If we were discussing whether he was drunk at the time and therefore we’re not taking him to Disneyland, that’d be one thing, we could use our judgement about a small amount of evidence and he could say “yeah whatever.” But here we need a much higher standard of proof. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

She did, and she kicked me off the jury. But that argument works in the other direction, too. The presumption of innocence is a crucial protection for the accused in a criminal trial. But having a public discussion about notable figures in the skeptical movement from whom multiple women have been subject to unpleasant and inappropriate behavior? Not a criminal trial. The accused might suffer loss of respect. He might not get invited back to speak at similar events. That might mean a loss of income. All that would undoubtedly suck. Life is like that sometimes, when your actions have unpleasant consequences.

Still, though: not a criminal trial, and someone discussed publicly as a person who bothers women has had precisely zero rights violated. That person might still retain the option to bring libel or slander charges, which would compel the accusers to find corroboration of their charges for the record. Truth is a defense, after all, so a savvy defense attorney would likely find several other women claiming familiar experiences with the defendant and persuade them to state their stories for the record. As skeptics always look for evidence pro or con when discussing contentious matters, the accused would certainly welcome this process.

Though you know what would be really fair? What would really protect the rights of the accused to being presumed innocent? We could make sure they’re brought up on charges. Then the whole spectrum of their rights would be guarded diligently. They’d get to face their accusers in court. They’d get to be presumed innocent unless the evidence brought against them on the record, in front of a judge and possibly a jury, was sufficient to erase reasonable doubt.

And all of this would happen in a setting designed by the some of the most important philosophical forebears of the skeptical movement, namely Enlightenment philosophers. What Real Skeptic could object to that?

Barring that, though none of these quasi-legal arguments have any bearing on the discussion in the skeptic’s movement. No courts are involved, so the arguments are irrelevant.

I mean, it’s a lovely thing to be able to give every person you encounter the benefit of the doubt. But it’s no one’s business but mine if I decide, in my mind, that any man who complains about sexual harassment policies poses some a threat to women.

Which I generally do decide.

In any event, there are two salient character-related facts among all this discussion.

One is that the skeptics movement contains a significant group of men who are among the whiniest little shits I have ever had the nonpleasure to encounter. Note I said “among.” I cannot declare definitively that the skeptics movement contains the whinyshittiest men. They have serious competition in the world of gaming,for instance. (Though there’s a chance that demographic overlaps some, the same way the Skeptics in Buffalo in the 1970s overlapped significantly with the Society for Creative Anachronism. And the D&D crowd. And the Monty Python fan club. And Mensa. And the homebrewers’ club. Really, the reason I didn’t become an active skeptic in my teens was that I wanted more than one group of friends.)

The other, happier salient fact about the character of some involved in this discussion is that a group of people feeling aggrieved and frustrated by systemic bad treatment at the hands of a distinct group of individuals 1) realized they had a list of repeat offenders and 2) did not publicize that list. Not only is this a clear indication of their patience, forgiving nature, and palpable desire to reach a solution optimal for everyone concerned, it is also very likely the only time something like that has ever happened in the entire history of the Internet. If this group acted according to internet traditions set down by any other group online, be that other group feminists, the Daily Kos crowd, enviros, or—let’s face it—the men in the skeptical movement complaining about people complaining about sexism—then “” would have been online in about forty seconds, and linked on io9 about a minute and a half after that. The forbearance of skeptical women in this matter has been nothing short of amazing.

In other words, what we have here is a group of men in the skeptical movement, either rampant misogynists or those happy to give them cover, who project onto their critics the personal failings they exhibit in spades. They say arguments about harassment are spurious and harass those who make them. They claim their critics are uncivil and issue rape threats in response. They viciously slam the critics for “scaring women away from meetings,” and thus scare women away from meetings. They claim their feminist critics are acting irrationally, and they make the Time Cube guy look measured and cogent while doing so. They accuse their opponents of destroying skepticism, while — well, you get the idea.

And all because someone has the temerity to suggest, Galileo-style, that the universe doesn’t revolve around them. Some goddamn skeptics.

Regarding My Sixteen-Year-Old Self

I wasn’t going to take part in the writing prompt going around lately of writing a note to your 16-year-old self, in part because I did something similar a couple of years ago.  But the last few weeks I’ve been aching to write something not on deadline. I’ve been reading old posts here, finding sentences and images I’d forgotten. I’ve been wondering when the last time was that I wrote something simply for pleasure, not for income or as a way of answering some external crisis or other.

Two writers I really admire offered really moving writing in response, and I remembered that I wrote things like that myself once, but when I thought about what I would say to myself at 16 all I could think of was “run.” I’m more than three times as old now as I was then, 2,500 miles from the epicenter of my adolescence, seeing my grandfather in the mirror when I wake in the morning, and thinking of what came after 16 still takes the bottom out of me. It’s not a time in my life I am anxious to remember. 

And of course the past was prologue. The foundation laid. A crumbling life is easier to bear, in the short term, for those already persuaded they deserve no better. Why dredge all that up in writing? It’s hard to imagine saying anything to my 16-year-old self that wouldn’t make me sound still adolescent. “You’re right and they’re wrong, don’t listen to them”? “No one recognizes your brilliance”? “Your parents don’t understand”? 

I am older than my parents were then, too, by a considerable sum. I understand them now better than they understood themselves at the time. I feel like I haven’t changed much in the last 36 years, like I and that slight 16-year-old would recognize one another immediately. That feeling is farcical. I am the only person alive who remembers what that child thought, wanted, and feared, and I am an unreliable witness. I have edited out some of the worst parts, and embellished some of the other worst parts.

Cosmologists say there are places in the universe so far distant, speeding away from us so quickly, that we cannot observe them and never will be able to. That teenaged man is as far remote. I carry around the mended bones he broke; I maintain memories of being him, banked and kindled over and over like an endless chain of cadged smokes. He had no knowledge of me and I see him only dimly, a voyeur watching an unsuspecting target through gauze curtains.

What would I say to him?

Maybe this: “You will get laid. In December. In a room filled with quilts and a layer of snow on the windowsill where the breeze sifts through the leading in the glass.”  That would give him hope, I think. And it would ruin the surprise.

“You will find the love of your life. There are several loves of your life, in fact. One of them is a dog that won’t be born for fifteen years, and another one is a species of tree. Another is a woman who will see into your head better than anyone else ever has and love you despite what she sees in there. She’ll tell you she loves you because of what she sees in there. But don’t bother trying to find her right now, because she’s ten.”

“Another love of your life will be the desert. Get out to the desert as soon as possible. Don’t waste time.”

It’s hard to say what would be useful. It’s hard to say what he would actually hear.

One day, bored and lonely and struck with random inspiration, he walked a few blocks to the drugstore. Three quarters in his pocket covered the pack of smokes, and buying the smokes covered the bottle stuck in his inside coat pocket. Back in his room he pulled out the bottle, unwrapped it. Five ounces of Winsor and Newton’s blackest India Ink, obtained economically through petty theft. He grabbed an eyedropper off his shelf and opened the cap, placed a small droplet on a blank page in his black blank book.

He watched the drop of ink for a moment, watched its tint move capillary-like into the thin page fibers. After half a minute he pursed his lips and blew softly. The ink rolled slowly across the page, leaving a thick straight track.

That wasn’t what he’d had in mind. He blew again at the ink, more forcefully: a short strong burst of exhalation. This time the droplet broke in two, three pieces. Each smaller droplet jagged crazily across the page, buffeted by the turbulence he’d aimed at them. Another droplet on another page, and he was starting to get the hang of it. A few sharp and well-delivered breaths, and each drop of ink became a clump of ramifying branches, dark ink twigs sprung from a common root. He had recently read a book on Zen, and he decided this was a lesson in letting go. You could carefully direct where the ink went, but the result wasn’t very interesting. If you wanted beauty, you had to give up the illusion of control. Blow forcefully, scatter the droplet to your small wind, and something worthwhile was likely to result — though there was no telling just where the ink might wind up.