Tuesday, July 2, 2013

On White Whine and the "N" Word...

So since the media hasn't found a more salacious story (I mean honestly, not even the Zimmerman trial, guys?) this week, we're still hearing about Paula Deen's adventures in racism and how not to plan a redneck wedding.

What can I say that hasn't already been said? She was dumb for saying it and dumber for getting caught. Was no one taking notes when Laura Schlessinger had her little misadventure in linguistic reclamation a few years ago? The one good thing that came of it (even in a twisted way) is that Deen shone a light on the hidden racism culture that's still prevalent in the south. But since many white southerners can't get over a war they (started then) lost 150 years ago, I don't see anything happening but "smarter" racists with finer tuned dog whistles in the future.

But once again, we see language coming into this. Largely due to a recent blog and broadcast feature, faux-intellectual whites who listen to too much NPR have been throwing out the phrase "code switching" over the last few months in particular, like their favorite limited edition Warhol is about to be sold as a mass-release poster and print at the local Wal Mart. Code switching, TL;DR: People modify communication based on their audiences, and some people aren't always told the rules of the code, so they struggle as they find it. There, I saved you from sixteen weeks of Postmodern literary theory from my undergrad linguistics seminar at FSU. I also saved you from some awful "privilege-shaming" (Jesus, I need to deconstruct this whole "privilege" kool aid sometime) 
programming on NPR. You're welcome.

As a writing teacher, this is the first thing I teach my composition students: know your audience. Study them. Learn how to genuinely reach out to them using their own chosen shared code. And this is the bite, controversy, and springboard to the next section: groups have various codes. Some codes are open and shared. Other codes are closed and proprietary--either because the word has insider significance or it simply has a signified meaning that those who share it have decided to create. For example, there's one phrase that I can use around my best friend from college (No, don't ask. It's better to say it in his presence. I'll get a far better reaction than if I just typed it) that can either embarrass him or make him lose his shit.

To outsiders, it's an ordinary phrase that makes him randomly blush and curl up in a fetal position. To him and me, it's a touchstone that brings us back to a special night in our friendship. It's like this: I can soak in tween programming to the point where I could use the lingo around my (nearly) fifteen year old nephew, but I'd never be authentic because I'd always be forty-year-old Uncle Panda, and not another tween. It was like when my father (then in his early 40s) hung around the old Invaders Arcade in Grand Blanc, Michigan, playing the video games instead of just watching with the other parents in 1981. (In a further analysis of good code-switching gone bad, Dad got extra "you're going it wrong" points for wearing golfing gloves to the arcades, embroidered with Pac Man on one hand and the ghost monsters on the other).

And as it always seems to happen when a non-black says the "N" word, get's caught, and becomes a media circus that distracts us from the *real* bullshit the government and our corporate masters are doing, a whole big cask of white whine gets opened up, with overly-entitled WASPS and white trash calling out double standards and asking why *they* don't get to say the word in question. (Who says that whites of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds can't come together on things...?) Maybe I just worked through that in my late teens. I'm forty, and still as socially awkward as a teenager, but I was an early bloomer with white guilt and associated self-awareness, I suppose... My maternal grandfather used that word (the big one, the Deen-killer) until the day he died, and I always flinched when he said it. Then in my sophomore year in college, my roommate was black, and we had a lot of late night discussions on race and race relations (we couldn't smoke weed in DeGraff Hall, so an hour of philosophical conversation gave that same head-spinning euphoria instead...without the munchies. Spend an hour wrapping yourself around Wittgenstein's _Philosophical Investigations_ if you don't believe me. You're welcome...again), including the "white whine" topic a few times. And by the end of it, I'd reached an epiphany: instead of getting pissy about not being able to say a work without social sanction, why say it in the first place?

Seriously? Why say it? It's not my word. I'm not its audience. It's like watching the middle class, early adolescent, WASPy white kid transform from preppy angel to gangsta thug over the course of a summer. "Trevor" at Memorial Day and "T-Dogizzle (bitch)" by Labor Day. He'll most likely never have the authenticity to be accepted by his entended adopted cohort, and he just looks like a poseur for pushing it.
"I said I wanted sprinkles on my froyo, mom! 
It's like crashing a party. No one may directly call you out for coming in uninvited, but a solid social shunning will let you know you're not wanted. It's like the weird transformation I saw in a few of my straight male friends from high school as soon as the phrase "I'm gay" left my mouth. I lost my party invite, the audience situation had reconfigured itself, and I was no longer a social insider.

I'm not going to police anyone's speech...if only because mine can get particularly...salty when provoked. However, as someone who has wasted far too many years of his life studying the mechanics of language, I'm also going to make my choices wisely. I'll leave others to make their own decisions using their own wisdom. Just as I never judged my grandfather (instead, I tried understanding him from a safe distance...if only because he was a crazy southern bastard who would use a fist or open hand far more than most rational reasoning skills), I don't judge anyone who uses that word. I just choose not to because I know it's a party where I'm not really wanted or welcome in the first place.

So to the white people still crying because they can't use the "N" word (which, come on, that's what you really want here. This "double standard" bullshit is just a logicfuck to justify it. Again, it's that toddler-esque, conservative sense of entitlement and envy over someone having more than you or something you don't), here's my challenge to you.

Teach your children to say the word "fuck." Encourage it. Make and sing songs using it. "Baa baa black sheep, have you any fucking wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three fucking bags full!" I'm really not being facetious here.

Seriously. Chances are, if they're older than eight, your kids are already saying it. It's just that they've adapted the code survival skills (back-pat moment: we've used out faux-intellectual word of the day! David Sedaris books on MP3 for all! Long live Jambi!) not to say it in front of you. So encourage them along. Let them say it anywhere: the house, school, public places, church, grandma's house... "That's the best fucking pie I've ever had, granny! I fucking love you!"

What's that? Pushback? Why the resistance? Why the revulsion? Why the urge to unwatch me because your sysadmin might see the much-fabled "F" word appear in your cache and call you out(...not that you should be surfing Tumblr at work anyhow, slacker)? A mark on your preschooler's record would keep him out of that dream prep school? A tactfully-deployed "F" bomb in front of Grandma might send her to her grave? People at the Harris Teeter (or Trader Joe's, or Publix, or whatever shi-shi grocer is in your region) might give you disapproving stares and tut-tut's under their breath?

That's why you can't use the "N" word, honkies.

It's not a double standard; it's audience.

If you won't let your ten year old use multiple forms of the word "fuck" in front of grandma because it's not appropriate audience relations, then you have no place trying to use racist logic and twisted guilt to try and either question another group's insider-speech or otherwise appropriate it for yourself.

So in closing, dear white conservatives: Our genetic line is now a numeric minority, and we'll soon be a true minority within a few more decades, as another group takes that magical 50.1% stake in America's racial identity. Can you *please* find something else to whine about here? Seriously, when I think of most of you using the "N" word anyhow, I imagine you having all the elegance and panache of the aforementioned middle schooler, T-Dogizzle (bitch). Honestly, it's time to find a new source of false outrage here...

...or just say "we want to be racist and want others not to care what we think." By admitting she used the word in question, that's what Deen tried to say...and we all saw how well that went.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"Wreck-It-Google": Why the Invite-Driven Userbase Model is Destroying Social-Driven Online Environments

As a fat kid turned fat man, exclusion and I go a long ways back. I mean, I could cite the almost-universal stories about team-picking for gym class or dividing up for impromptu games of Red Rover on the playground. I could talk about my illustrious high school basketball career, where I was drafted (they needed a tenth body to make a team, and I had a mandatory phys ed credit to fill that year) for the team and spent practices walking laps around the gym and games watching from the bench. I could talk about my early days out of the closet, where I was the purple elephant in the room (or at least the pre bear-chic bear in the room) or my introduction to pre-Internet, pre-social media gay social space, where interactions and access to social space and proportionate privilege were often dictated by paired edicts: NO FEMS, NO FATS.

Seriously though, this isn't a pity post. By high school, I'd become used to being solitary, to the point where my partner now rarely sees me on weekends. I tend to leave my room just long enough to get food before returning to my own little geek cave. I'm so used to being on my own that I now find many social situations awkward and confusing. I guess that I got so used to being left out that I just stopped seeking social spaces for fear of exclusion.

So with that in mind, I finally got around to seeing Wreck it Ralph the other night...alone at a 9:30pm Sunday show, wherein I was one of three in the theater...two if you discount the disinterested girlfriend who texted the film away as her boyfriend watched. By now, if you're interested in seeing it, you know the premise: video game "bad guy" gets tired of typecasting and goes on a quest of self-redefinement that would make both Madonna and Lady Gaga blush. Season with enough video game cameos to make geeks spontaneously squeal, release shortly before a holiday weekend, and watch Disney's revenues soar.
"Look, it's not you....but it's you..."

The pivotal scene in Ralph's quest happens at a party. His game, Fix-it Felix, is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, and not only are the characters in his game at the party, characters from other games have joined in as well…except for Ralph, who was excluded. After an awkward exchange with his in-game nemesis, Ralph enters the party and faces open hostility, to the point where one character even asks aloud why Ralph is present. An exchange erupts, the scene ends poorly, and Ralph leaves to try and recreate himself in a new light. Ralph was tired or being excluded and just wanted to belong.

Enter Ingress…
"It's a game! You'll be Enlightened, and you'll be Resistance!"

In a move that would make Tom Sawyer's whitewashing scheme proud, Google seems to have devised a game wherein two teams--an authoritarian regime (the "Man") and a rebellious underground (the "cool kids")--use geolocation in an augmented reality game that provides Google with free geo-scavenging. This was brilliant, whoever came up with the idea: get geeks with smartphones to go out and do the work that they'd otherwise be paying people to do for them. Seriously, I'm whistling "Gratifaction" just thinking about it. And from what I'm seeing on the app's entry on the Google Play store, when it's not crashing more than Mitt Romney's popularity rating, it's sort of a fun way to do Google's geo-scavenging for them.

…but Google is using an invite system to get players in--a "closed" beta.

Why is this a bad thing, people ask? Doesn't it ease the load on poor, overtaxed servers that would otherwise crumble under the crush of unwashed masses, all trying to fight for dominance for their corporate master…or at least the fictional identity assigned to them by it? Ratings in the Google Play store suggest that the early adopters have already gained a significant upper hand and advantage in the game (spoiler alert: the rebellious "cool kids" outnumber the "Man" significantly, as if no one saw that coming on a Droid-based app) in a disproportion of power that would make a seasoned EVE Online PK blush. But really, think about the servers, right?

That having been said, let's take a look at past Google product launches… The hype may already be moot if we look at the past Google product launches that used invites as a means of gathering users.

I remember when Gmail rolled out in 2004. I got lucky there. An early adopter got me in, and I spent my twenty five (then later, fifty) invites on access for friends. Still, I remember seeing the boorish behavior and the insider-outsider castes forming on my old blogging community. An experiment, Google said of the invites. Yahoo and Hotmail users stuck to their guns. Arguably, Gmail was the only Google product to successfully launch with an invite-driven model--largely because they out-spent competitors on storage space. 250 megabytes to several gigabytes of online email storage...that's a lot of porn attachments to stash away from mom, dad, and prying wives in a secure account.

Google Wave, 2010
Then in 2009, Google decided to use invites for Google Wave, their first attempt at making a social network. Anyone remember that? People were selling Google Wave invites on Ebay…for good money, no less. Twitter exploded with pleas from strangers for invites. Networking and invite-exchange communities rose overnight, all while Google portioned out G-Wave invites with a miser's touch. I remember finally getting my Wave invite around November 2009. It ranked up there with the loss of my virginity--not a crash of Nirvanaish bliss but rather an anticlimactic moment that had me scratching my head and thinking "I waited and anticipated all that time…..for this?" Of course, there were only a few friends around the network to hear it at the time, as they'd all gone back to Livejournal and Facebook, leaving Google Wave to die a stagnating, lonely death usually reserved for distant, elderly relatives.

"Welcome to Google Plus. Now circle a tumbleweed!"
Never one to learn from past mistakes, Google again used the invite system for the launch of Google Plus, their next social networking platform. As with Wave, there was a huge demand for invites, and Google again maintained its miser's touch on allowing access. And just as with their last attempt at forming a social network, people arrived to find the party largely deserted because friends either couldn't get in (they were still waiting on invites) or came, looked around, and left because no one was there to hang with. There was no spontaneous critical mass of mutual social contacts to keep people around.

And again, Google used invites for Google Music--a program that was promised to revolutionize the music experience. What program are you using on your PC or laptop to listen to your music? Chances are, it's not branded with a synonym for "do no evil."

"And his daddy don't even run Android..."
What do they all have in common? Let's look at the pattern: Google created a cool product…or at least the cool premise for one…or at least the illusion of one. Google then baited and teased the 'Net community with said cool product. Google then set up an invite system that not created hype, but limited access…which created more hype, as people wanted to be where they were otherwise restricted from. As demand for invites skyrocketed, early-users either tried to get friends in or acted like Eddie Murphy singing and flaunting invisible ice cream in 1983, which only further whipped outsiders into a frenzy. Eventually, the outsiders either become bitter and simply lost interest (even if they got their Golden Ticket eventually, just so they could officially snub their nose) or had their expectations so highly raised that no user experience could match the hype. It's like the adolescent discovery that the Santa you met at the mall as a child was a street wino for the other forty-six weeks outside the Christmas season or, after forty-five minutes of watching The Crying Game, that Jaye Davidson's character actually had a penis the whole time.

"Still waiting for a G+ invite? We're all on Ingress now! Soooooo sorry... Love your hair!"

Google Wave could have been awesome, had there been more users around (in a net-nod to Alan Smithee, Google was so ashamed of that failure, they pawned it off to Apache before you could say "Mommie Dearest"), but they strangled it before it could be born.

Google Plus wouldn't be largely regarded as a ghost town by social networking analysts, had more people been able to get in before Facebook pulled the wandering herd back to their hangout-less bosom.

Google Music wouldn't be seen as largely a play thing for those with Android phones, had greater numbers had access to it early on.

Never without a sense of ironic humor, it seems that cyberbegging has taken a new form for Ingress invites--performing photographed circus tricks for the developers' attention. One blog recently listed the names of the dev team's G+ names, and my own G+ feed has exploded with images of items embossed with the Ingress logo. A friend of mine even claimed to have put the logo on the infamous Goatse image (Google that one, kids. Even I have my taste limits…sort of) to get the attention of the developers. He said that the image lasted ten minutes before it was taken down…but that it got him an invite in his mailbox the next morning. So there you have it: Goatse=Ingress invite, it seems. May I suggest that someone jump "Two Girls, One Cup" while it's still unclaimed?

Level 8 Enlightened, been on since 11-16-12, NOOB!
Mom, we need more minutes on the phone!!!!!
And now, as more excluded users doom the Ingress client (seriously, it's on the Google Play store…but you can't play it…just request a code and look at the taunting, angular icon on your smartphone) with one-star ratings on Google Play, and early adopters raise their competitive levels and consolidate their gaming resources, all but condemning newer players to griefing that no longer requires a World of Warcraft account and a vindictive twelve year old at the other end of an opposing PC, Google seems to be on a collision course with history once again. Excluded players are getting angrier and more frustrated, which all but guarantees a stunted, small, exclusive player base. No one wants to be the fat kid who's picked last for Dodgeball or Red Rover. No one wants to see a party in progress only to arrive and see you're not on the building in the cake.

Now Google could make the smart move and wipe the player database clean once they've done their stress test….sorry "closed" beta, so all players have an even playing field. But then, they run the risk of alienating now-zealotic early adopters whose stories of betrayal would fill the net for a few days before the next "it" application comes along. Google "welfare epics," if you don't believe me. At this point, it's a lose-lose proposition for Ingress. Let the early players dominate or appease the new players at the expense of the older players' loyalty. Again, Google's invite model has created a perfect storm for yet another abandoned application, like so many midwest strip malls.

"I used to be somebody..."
"Resistance" or "Enlightened" (I'm opting for a third team, personally: "Apathetically Lethargic"), it seems that in a year or so, we'll be looking at our smartphones and thinking "Ingress…god, I remember that. I wonder what's going on there now," as we log in to see tons of activity from that one level 400 holdout friend who was in the early wave of invites, while the rest of our friends have long since abandoned it. Think about it, when was the last time you had to make a drive-by on that Starbucks to defend your mayorship in Foursquare? Exactly. Nobody wants it because nobody's on it anymore…

Got an application idea and want to wreck it? Let Google manage it for you… Sorry, Ingress. You looked fun. Maybe the company that apes your concept and puts out a competing app (speaking of Foursquare, I miss you, Gowalla) will learn from your mistake and make an adoption model that's more accessible for all new players, instead of creating yet another privileged (or unprivileged) class for Americans to loathe and revile.

And for christ's sake, Google, lose the invite model of building a user data base. For a company whose motto is "do no evil," you sure as hell love playing your minions against one another…

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Pareto Principle and the Radio Show Host

When I started this blog, I didn't want it to be like my more casual blog. I wanted to write when I had something of importance to say...or at least something more important than yet more rage over the current US political snafu or what I had for lunch today. Regretfully, I've not been struck with a lot of inspiration lately. At least not until tonight.

I was listening to a replay of The Derek and Romaine Show on Sirius/XM this evening (or morning. For me, they're one and the same). It seems that there's a big biking fundraiser coming up, and the show's producer is participating. So far, so good, right?

The hosts are trying to use the show to boost donations for the producer. Again, so far, so good, right?

So tonight, on a community service segment, the organizers of the event appeared. Shortly after, the hosts learned that their producer was in third place in the donation tallies, with 225 people having donated about twenty two thousand dollars, falling short of the leader's thirty four thousand...and one of the co-hosts staged a fifteen minute tantrum on the air. Among the sea of Mommie Dearestesque notions like "after all we've done for [our listeners], you can't even give enough to make us first place?" Romaine Patterson made a statement along these lines: This is just like how it goes in our community--a few people do all the work and everyone else does nothing!

Ah, the Pareto Principle--the over-achiever's best friend and enabler for over one hundred years! It's the notion that in a group, 20% will do most of the work while 80% do little, if anything. Realistically, it's more along the lines that 20% will consolidate what they need to make themselves look efficient compared to the other 80%--classic power politics and all-purpose interpersonal shenanigans.

Having tried to volunteer several times since moving to Raleigh, I felt that a letter was in order...


Where do you get off making comments in your little rant tonight that a majority of people in our community don't help carry the load? Even if we remove it from the context of you trying to (yet again) use your listeners to get some press and attention for your show, who gave you the right to cast judgement? Has it occurred to you that because of patronizing and condescending attitudes like yours that people don't get involved more in community service?

I'm a teacher by trade and education. In 1992, I saw a PSA and answered the call to education. I worked and borrowed my way through two master's degrees--one in my discipline and one in educational theory--and up to the dissertation phase of a doctorate. I worked as a graduate teaching assistant and later as an adjunct, as I worked on my latter graduate schooling. I taught high school for two years before I realized that I wasn't a good fit at my school and sought work elsewhere. By then, the recession had started, and because of our country's mindset of teaching as the ultimate fallback profession, the vacant jobs had long since been filled by white collar professionals who lost their jobs in the first wave of the recession in 2007 and 2008. In mid 2009, I was informed that my part time, temporary employer--a Florida community college--could no longer retain me, and I moved to North Carolina, where I had the safety net of promised shelter waiting for me. I spent the rest of the year looking for work, unsuccessfully.

In my second year of complete unemployment (no part time jobs, no temp jobs, nothing), 2010, I turned to volunteering--if for nothing else than a way to give myself some structure. Ideally, it appealed to that giving and helping instinct that teaching once fed. Having been "raised" by 80's era activists when I came out, I turned my attention to my own community.

I first approached the Raleigh GLBT center. Having answered a call for volunteers to write for a newsletter--one that the then-center director wanted to organize to try and shut down another local activist who ran a listserv, whose opinions he didn't agree with--I walked into the office and was met by suspicious glares from a group of men and women assembled there. Let me paint you a picture of what I look like: late thirties, six feet tall, three hundred pounds, thick glasses, bearded, and ponytailed. I spent several minutes in the collected group, trying to participate in the conversation, before a woman asked who I was and why I was there. It turns out that a local AIDS fundraising group, the Crape Myrtle Festival--known locally for their expensive and exclusive events--were having a meeting at the same time as the newsletter meeting, and I didn't fit in with their view of how a gay man should look. She went to the back to talk to the director when I told her that I was there for a meeting. Through an open door, I heard her say that "someone who looks like he doesn't belong here" was in the front room, asking about a newsletter meeting. The director left his office, not having realized that he scheduled two meetings at the same time. Suddenly, I realized why no one in the Crepe Myrtle group was even remotely friendly towards me.

Yes. In my own cultural "safe" space, trying to volunteer my time, a straight, bourgeois white woman suggested to Center leadership that I looked like I didn't belong there. Sadly, being a fat male, I've heard that quite a bit in GLBT space since I came out in 1991. Yet I still try to give to the community that doesn't want me...unless there's money to be given or the signature of a legal voter to be put on something.

The newsletter ultimately failed. I produced a single article that was given to the local GLBT paper (without my awareness or consent) to print. I never heard a thing from the GLBT Center again for volunteering.

Around this time (June 2010), I attended a Drag Bingo event, sponsored by the Alliance for AIDS Services-Carolina. Having lost a loved one to the disease, I saw another opportunity to volunteer. I attended an orientation session in July and was tasked with updating the Drag Bingo webpage. For four months, I updated code, replied to urgent requests, and gave nothing but 100% to the Alliance. Then in November, I was called in for a meeting to discuss the website.

It seems that they'd taken on a younger, more attractive volunteer who was going to be doing the Alliance's IT duties--including web development. The director swore that he'd use all of his connections to help me find either other volunteer opportunities or an actual job. Of course, aside from one rigged job interview at the Alliance (they somehow got money to fund an IT job in February, and strangely enough, it went to the volunteer they had...the who bumped me off the webpage), I heard nothing from him. I would email, but they would go unreplied. Finally in May, he sent a snarky reply and cut ties. He didn't even want me volunteering at the Alliance.

I've had two jobs since relocating to North Carolina. I had a job on one of the local college campuses, but I learned last month that in the wake of budget cuts, it's been defunded. Because I was a temp-part timer who was put on summer furrlough, I can't even apply for unemployment. I've also found occasional work as an adjunct at a local private college, but I learned on Friday that I'm going to be laid off in three weeks...after having just come off a six-week layoff in June and July.

So you go a rant because your show's producer is in third place in the donation tallies, raising twenty-two thousand dollars already, but you want her to top the boards so you have bragging rights for being number one? You have the audacity to chide your audience because only 225 people have donated to her? Really? Seriously? After August 26, I don't know where or when my next paycheck is coming from. I can't get unemployment. I can't even get food stamps any more. I'm so sorry that I don't have eight dollars--one for each of your eight years on the air--to send in so that you and your co-host can (yet again) masturbate your egos on the air for work having been done on the backs of your audience.

...And on top of it all, you have the gall to make comments that people in our community don't burden the load.

I don't have a privileged lifestyle that allows me to open a wallet or whip out a debit card on the whim of a narcissistic radio personality. I've tried giving the one thing I have--at this point in time, the only thing I have left--to my community: my time. And my attempts to do that in the Raleigh GLBT community have been met with nothing but thankless resistance, unanswered emails, and unreplied voicemail messages.

Maybe you should try seeking some volunteer work in the area yourself. Do it without dropping your name. Assume a pseudonym, Romaine. Do it without the words "Laramie Project" coming into the conversation. Do it without mentioning the influence or presence of Sirius/XM dishing out free publicity. You and Derek have used your media presence to the point of having an almost unrealistic view of life for people who can't boast media connections. You're like John McCain thinking that produce pickers make fifty dollars an hour--completely disconnected from the working class, much less the (gasp) icky poor people. Be an average, ordinary person, just trying to donate your time to a charity or non profit. You'll see how "easy" it is to volunteer then.

When you see how shittily most charitable organizations and non profits--GLBT, non-GLBT, AIDS, whatever--treat their volunteers, you'll realize why the little people don't get involved--not the monied men and women organizing the black tie fundraisers, but the grunt level volunteers actually making it happen behind the scenes.

When you "volunteer," you get put on a float or in a booth, with a staff of handlers to accommodate you. The rest of us aren't that lucky.

If the privileged men and women in our community stopped wagging their fingers disapprovingly all the time and realized that some of us do what we can and how we can, you might see more of us out there helping. But as long as GLBT community "leaders" treat volunteers like disposable tissues, I wouldn't expect people to come out in droves. Many of us are poor trash, but we still have our dignity.


As the recession continues, I've seen many articles suggesting volunteering as a means of managing the crushing, listless depression of not having steady employment. I honestly don't think that a single author of those articles have even tried seeking volunteer opportunities--at least not on a cold call basis.

...just as it's a buyer's market for employers, it's also a buyer's market for those with volunteer needs. What could be a great boon for American volunteerism (I mean beyond the funded positions that Americorps offers--it seems that's the only volunteering in high demand) is being squandered because charity and non-profit coordinators can't or won't risk using volunteers they see as being over-educated (speaking as someone who has heard that line far too many times in the last two years, I can safely say that what you call "menial" work beats the hell out of unemployment--nothing is as boring as unemployment) or risks for leaving for other jobs. They're squandering incredible resources right now--talented men and women of all skills and social classes.

I honestly believe that the 80's do want to get more involved, but the entitled and obnoxious 20's like Patterson simply make volunteering too difficult, especially considering how most volunteers are treated.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Letter From the Frontline in the War on the Working Class...

The dance that stigmatized a generation of fat kids...
One of my many secret shames is that I’m a lazy, lazy man. Just ask my dissertation advisor…if he even remembers who I am, as I’ve been a bit lax in my writing since my ABD status. If there’s a shortcut for something, I’ve probably found it. If there’s a workaround for something, I’ve done it at least once. It’s not that I’m maliciously lazy—rather twenty years of trying to find fulfilling work as a Gen X’er with an arts/humanities and education background has left me with an all purpose “why bother?” malaise. Years and years of earning degree after degree has left me in a state of perpetual underemployment, and after a decade of chasing a financial carrot on a stick, I realized that I’d be just as successful doing little to nothing as I would be on the resume/interview treadmill. When I was thinking of monikers for blogging, I’d considered SubliminalSloth, but a fear of the inevitable Goonies analogy (I was always more of a Chunk man, myself…right down to performing the occasional, awkward Truffle Shuffle…usually after an unspecified amount of alcohol was involved) made me look elsewhere in the animal kingdom for a cute and cuddly avatar to hide behind.

The thought of doing anything on a Saturday that involved showering, dressing, and being at a specified place at a specified time, qualifies as “work” in my world view. True to my Gen X roots, my time is my time and no one else’s.

But there are always exceptions.

I was alerted to the current labor situation in Wisconsin as it erupted. A dear friend of mine is a Wisconsin state employee, and she filled both my Facebook and Twitter feed with details of Scott Walker’s plan to cripple Wisconsin unions as well as the public reaction against it, all in glorious real time.

I started to feel excited as I saw the feeds and pictures of the protesters in the rotunda, as I heard the audio of the chanting masses, peacefully protesting this latest salvo in the right wing’s war on the middle class. I felt my own inner armchair activist starting to come out of hibernation, as I started passing along articles on my own Facebook page and retweeting appropriately. It started to revive a longing I’d long since stifled.

I’ve never hidden my loathing and contempt for the Baby Boomers. As a matter of fact, I’ve worn it on my sleeve to the point of drafting an essay (that’s recently been picked up by a publishing firm no less) about the Boomer/Gen Y love affair…expect the obligatory plug later. But in spite of the venom that I reserve for a majority of the Woodstock generation, I’ve always had a secret admiration of the idealistic activism that was so ubiquitous and abundant in their late adolescence during the 1960’s and 70s…even if it did transmute to selfish greed as soon as they started getting MBAs and BMWs in the 1980s. I remember the 20th anniversary retrospectives of the Summer of Love in the pop culture media, longing to join the demonstrating masses I saw in archived video. Listening to Paul Hardcastle’s “19” in the mid 80’s, I entertained daydreams about joining in the antiwar protests of the Vietnam era. Seeing Hair as a college freshman in October 1990 had me fascinated with protest culture for years to come, but ingrained complacency kept me indoors.

Part time, no bennies or full time with...
…But as the Wisconsin protesters entered their second week entrenched in Madison, word went out about solidarity protests across the country on February 26th—one in every state capitol, and then some, I felt that inner protester becoming restless. Suddenly, over my shoulder, like the clichéd conscientious angel (or was it a devil?) of the Tom and Jerry cartoons of my youth, I had a little Bob Dylan standing over me, strumming the opening of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” It was no summer of love, but it was a protest for something I believed in.

Growing up in Flint, Michigan, everyone had an opinion about unions—loving or hateful. For that matter, when I was growing up, organized labor seems to be one of the few things that everyone in the Flint region seemed to hold an opinion on, even in the days since GM’s decline left the city an economic wasteland. Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, the presence of organized labor was everywhere. UAW meeting halls were scattered throughout the city. Tradespeople advertised their professional affiliations on buildings and bumper stickers. UAW local ______ jackets were as ubiquitous in the cold months as high school varsity jackets were.

Hey right wing, how's that working for ya?
Opinions, for the most part, were divided along class lines. A majority of the blue collar workforce in Flint had a positive opinion of the concept of the union. If they weren’t union themselves, they had friends, family, or acquaintances who were. The only blue collar employees who were openly anti-union were those who weren’t employed in a unionized profession. These naysayers, however, tended to convert as soon as a friend, relative, or acquaintance got them into the Shop. Sour grapes, I suppose. Meanwhile, most of the white collar workers in Flint had nothing but contempt for the unions, especially those white collar businessmen whose businesses were either unionized or targets for unionization. Even now, I remember the constant picketing in front of the various Kessels grocery stores in the area, workers demanding a union presence in the workplace. Al Kessel lived in our neighborhood. His son was in my cohort in school. I remember one day on the bus, he mentioned that his father had installed a remote starter on the family car, fearing sabotage in retaliation for refusing to unionize his stores. Whether true or not, stories like that became urban legends in the middle and upper classes of the Flint area—thuggish organized labor threatening the poor, innocent, benevolent employers. For the children of middle and upper class professionals, they became our cautionary tales. “Do well in school and succeed…or you’ll wind up like them.”

My father’s business never directly depended on unionized labor, but union activity and actions indirectly influenced it. After all, when you’re locked in a bitter strike that extends for weeks or months, financial sacrifices have to be made. Usually, attorney bills are the first bills to get tabled when scarce cash has to be divided between rent, utilities and food costs. So my father always saw the UAW as the force that put a hold on his income when union contracts were due to expire and the negotiations almost always meant a work stoppage at the Shop. Growing up, he didn’t hide his contempt for organized labor. I remember a fight nearly breaking out one night, as we pushed past union protesters in front of a Hamady grocery store. They hurled unsavory words towards my father as he walked in; he hurled even more unsavory words towards them as we walked out; the presence of children on both sides of the conflict prevented fists from hurling as we walked to our car.

Yet growing up, I saw the human face of organized labor, in spite of the classist paranoia that filled my childhood and neighborhood. I had friends whose families were union. In 1981, the Grand Blanc school district closed several facilities, including Anderson Elementary, which primarily served the lower socioeconomic part of the district. Anderson refugees were bussed across the system, including to Indian Hill Elementary, the school I attended, which served several of the more affluent neighborhoods. For me, the mixing of social classes (race would have to wait, as even the poorer parts of the Grand Blanc district were still Tea Party-white) started to make me aware of not only my privilege at the time, but the stresses placed on the working class, including having to endure the financial crush of a strike. When it’s adults on the TV news talking about having to make ends meet, that’s one thing for a kid—distant and interpersonally disconnected usually. When it’s your new best friend telling you about how his family’s struggling because the union and GM won’t agree on a new contract, so he can’t get new comic books or G. I. Joe toys, it’s not only closer to home, but also far more engaging of the sympathies. Of course, with my father’s perpetual anti-union stance, I had to keep my opinions to myself for the remainder of my adolescence.

…then I became a union man in my mid-twenties. The family scandal wasn’t nearly as tumultuous as I’d braced for. At the time, my sister was involved in an interracial relationship. True to WASP form, racism trumped classism on the family gossip scale, so she took the heat that I’d have likely taken. In August 1998, I tired of the graduate student lifestyle—perpetual underemployment and poverty, existing as the lowest lifeform on the academic totem pole, and a diet of ramen noodles, generic label macaroni and cheese, and store brand cold cuts. A friend had arranged for me to test for a technician position with Lucent Technology’s Orlando microchip factory, Cirent Semiconductor. After taking some basic math and reading tests, a round of interviews, and a full physical, I was offered a position making $7.17 an hour on a guaranteed 36-48 hour swing shift, with full medical, dental, and optical benefits.

The choice reminded me of a Simpsons episode entitled "Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily.” In it, Homer and Marge temporarily lose custody of their children to their ultra-religious neighbors, the Flanders. The episode climaxes with Ned Flanders trying to baptize the Simpson children in a nearby lake, ala John the Baptist. Homer and Marge arrive just in time to stop Maggie’s baptism, but Maggie finds herself conflicted. She looks over to the Flanders and sees the family set against green grass and a blue sky. She then looks over to her family and sees a charred, desolate wasteland. Only the emergence of Marge from nearby brush sways her ultimate decision. Like Maggie, I had to choose: graduate school or the Lucent job. Unlike Maggie, there was no warm and loving Marge figure emerging from the brush in grad school to sway me.

I reported for training the next week. The academic world could wait.

The "Right to Work" state in action...
Florida is what’s known as a “Right to Work” state, essentially meaning that unions could exist, but they weren’t mandatory for the workforce to join. Moreover, nonunion members could enjoy the benefits paid for by union members, essentially negating the need to join and pay dues in the first place. (I guess I’ll ignore the obvious irony that the right wing has heavily favored the “Right to Work” concept—one wherein freeloaders and leeches essentially reap the benefits paid for by a small majority…which sounds like just about anything they relate to the working class. I suppose that “economic fairness” only applies when they’re dealing with CEOs and their corporate benefactors…). Having grown up in Flint, I already knew that I’d be joining the Union, and within a week, I was a card carrying member of the IBEW local 2000.

"I'm here for the job..."
Now admittedly, unions aren’t perfect. Their critics make valid points at times. Yes, they protect employees who would otherwise be fired in a non-union shop. During my time at Lucent, I saw several employees routinely hide behind the union when they made what could only be classified as stupid mistakes or repeated acts of sheer, unapologetic laziness. No, in spite of my previously confessed slothful demeanor, I was never one of them. That having been said, union protection isn’t a perpetual “get out of lazy/stupid free” card. The union instead was a path for a second or third chance, an opportunity to remediate and remedy poor workplace behaviors—something that is almost unheard of in the non-union workplace, much less in an economy where blue-collar workers have all the disposability of a store-brand tampon: yank one out, toss it away, and throw another one in and bleed it in. In an American workplace that perpetually dehumanizes its workforce, the union provides a necessary, humanizing buffer between the workers and management.

That humanizing force, at least to me, is what makes the union necessary in the modern American workplace. In an age where HR “professionals” treat workers no better than children of my generation treated green army men, and managers apply the tampon model of dealing with employees, the working class needs an entrenched advocate within the workplace culture. On April 5, 2001, I was one of nearly 300 people to get laid off (I still remember the quizzical look on my former supervisor’s face if I could have a real pink slip…or at least a pink piece of paper, as a souvenir) when Cirent made their first round of workeforce cuts that would ultimately lead to the closure of the plant in 2005 and bulldozing in 2010. In a scene from a blue collar version of Sophie’s Choice, we were separated in line as we waited to clock in. Some got to work, others were shuffled to the auditorium, where the company CEO applied the axe. This was followed by a full confiscation of company property (like our badges and PDAs), and security escorts as we cleaned out our lockers and left the premises. In spite of the completely dehumanizing treatment, the sole redemption was the $5000 educational disbursement for retraining that the union negotiated for us—members and nonmembers alike. The IBEW did little else to help us find work, but I was at least able to use that educational disbursement to finish the graduate degree I put on the backburner and earn my MA. Had we no union, I suspect that we’d never have gotten that benefit.

Love them or hate them, the working class needs a strong union presence. So when word of the February 26th solidarity protests started to trickle across my social networks, I decided to show up.

I’m no fan of the color red. I have just enough Native American in my bloodline to put a reddish tinge to my face that warm colors only exaggerate. Additionally, for my current part time job, I have to wear a red shirt as part of my uniform (I’ll ignore the Star Trek analogy here), so the color red has been coded as a “work” color for me. So there’d be no donning of red and white (University of Wisconsin colors) in the name of solidarity. I did, however, have badgers about—several stuffed badgers (I’ll spare the long story, as this is getting long winded already) that I keep over my desk. So as a show of solidarity to the Badger state, I grabbed one, and off we went.

I’d never been to a protest before. I didn’t know the etiquette or procedures. Did I spontaneously start a chant, or was there a chantmaster who would be directing us? Was it gauche not to show up with a sign? Should I have made a collapsible, telescoping protest sign beforehand, with blank canvas and attached marker, like Moonbeam had in PCU?

...proving that the most dangerous weapon is the human mind...
The only guidance I had was from my mother, in a frantic text message as I walked to the capitol: “Don’t get arrested! Don’t get arrested! Whatever you do, don’t get arrested!” So armed with my iPhone’s GPS app, I wandered over and across streets, eventually turning into the Chillyfest block party. Over the sound of street performers and a jam band warming up, I heard the sound of an impassioned speech and cheering crowds approving. I instinctively followed the noise…

No really, it's not sexual at all...
…and promptly ran into a guy in full Revolutionary War era cosplay, complete with “don’t tread on me” flag. Then, I saw the wall of police officers on both sides of the street. Between that and the hateful stares that I was getting from the cosplayer’s buddies, I realized that I’d come up the street to the wrong side of the protest. For a brief moment in time, I had a visual definition of the word “awkward” as I waited for the traffic light to change, with about fifty Teabaggers behind me.

As an undergrad at Florida State, November meant several things: the ramping down of the semester, Thanksgiving holiday, and the inevitable arrival of “Brother” Jed Smock. I had no idea at the time, but Jed’s week on campus each year was a taste of protest culture. Jed stood in the middle of a circle of students, preaching and taunting as students fired logic, barbs, and one-liners (not necessarily in that order) back at him. Once I crossed the street, I stood at the back of the crowd, raised my plush badger in the air, and cheered the speakers. The whole experience was energizing. I was surrounded by like-minded people, all there for a single objective. I started to experience that feeling of collective belonging that I’d seen the Boomers reflect upon in their own youth activism.

I hear he's getting a transforming robot in the next revision...
As soon as the roar of the speeches ended, the Teabaggers engaged. I wandered the crowd, taking pictures and taking in the whole scene. For about an hour, both sides stood on opposite sides of the street, shaking signs and yelling at one another over political differences. Of course, the right-wingers eventually resorted to religion, shouting out various bible verses at us, which completely confounded me within the context. Maybe my memory has degraded in the two and a half decades since I last read a bible, but 70’s era Ted Nugent exterior aside, I always took Jesus for more of a union guy than a moneyhungry businessman. I mean anyone who can take five loaves of bread and two fish, feed five thousand people, and not demand payment for it just doesn’t strike me as the rabid capitalist figure that I see and hear elevated to dietyhood in Libertarian and Teabagger circles. Using shared resources to help a group was straight out of the union playbook I worked with at Lucent. But then again, I’ve not engaged in the recent wave of Christian revisionism, so I may not have gotten the latest memo or talking points. All I can say is that the Jesus of my youth never rode a saddled dinosaur…but that’s the topic for another blog entry, I suspect.

"Big Boned Patriot"
When I see what Scott Walker is trying to do in Wisconsin, I see a blatant, open, and aggressive war on the working class’ last, best hope at staying strong and empowered—organized labor. As the American Corpocracy continues to annex our government one elected official at a time, and our country continues to slide towards plutocratic rule, Walker’s budget repair bill (ironically repairing the shortfall of giving $137 million in tax breaks to his corporate cronies) may have well as been the bullet that killed Franz Ferdinand, as it’s done what nothing has been able to do since Ronald Reagan’s attack on PATCO in 1981—rouse and rally the working class in the name of American labor. I worked to keep my union strong when I was employed by Lucent Technologies ten years ago, and on Saturday, I worked again to keep the American union alive.

More pictures of the Raleigh Rally to Save the American Dream can be found here

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"2011: Year of the Vegetarian" or "Eating Shoots Ain't a Metaphor Anymore"

Why bother? You'll only remember one or two anyhow...
In the waning hours of 2010, I made two decisions for the upcoming year. I loathe calling them resolutions because of the cliché of it all—as if I stumbled down from a mountain like a fat, shaggy Moses (I swear, biblical allegories never work with guys who look like me, since most of the men were already shaggy to begin with. I mean, The Hangover alone completely ruined my whole “fat Jesus” vibe) with some defiant or determined proclamation. New years resolutions are almost always self-fulfilling prophecies of failure—born to be broken in the days, weeks, or months that follow their birth. I suspect that several of you are either resentfully staring at your monitor or nervously shifting in your chair as you read this, thinking about your own “in 2011, I’ll…..” moment that’s already fallen victim to circumstances and excuses. So I don’t use the “R” word. No resolutions, just a few decisions to consider.

It's morphin...sorry, blood pressure time!
Anyhow… I had been having issues with my blood pressure earlier in the week, so I decided to try and eliminate caffeine from my daily routine. I’ve been living with atrial fibrillation since 2008, so I was supposed to be off caffeine anyhow, but you know how things get…especially if you’re a nocturnal person living (and working) on banker’s hours. A little coffee here and some Mountain Dew there can make those first few hours after the alarm goes off a little more bearable. But it still wasn’t good for my heart, so after having checked in at 180/92 a few days earlier, I was already several days into my abstention by new year’s eve. I figured that if I was making one dietary change, I might as well use the new year to make a few others. I had been thinking about several adjustments to my eating patterns, and I decided that a single rush of cold turkey was going to be preferable to an approach where I weaned myself off of several things one by one by one. So I made my list: caffeine, salt, and carbonated sodas. Vegetarianism was the unplanned surprise…

I’d been curious about vegetarianism for years. I’ve always been a bit concerned about the proxy junk I consumed when I ate mass-farmed meat—the chemicals, the artificial growth hormones and what not. But in the immortal words of Gen-X balladeer Joe Jackson: everything gives you cancer. Besides, having spent most of the 2000’s thus far on an academic’s (either grad student or adjunct instructor) pay, I couldn’t have afforded the organic, free-range, Whole-Foods-pretentious meat anyhow. So giving a nod to Joe Jackson, I wrote the meat off as one more thing that would probably inch me closer to the grave and consumed.

Pusher, comforter...
In 2002, I made an effort to lose weight, and I thought that a vegetarian diet would be the magic bullet to maintaining my then-new weight. Then, I met my first fat vegetarian…and second…and third. Between the revelation that a vegetarian diet was no more effective at staying thin than reparative conversion therapy was effective at keeping closeted Republicans in heteronormitive states and my then-grad-school addiction to double quarter pounders with cheese and extra pickle, my curiosity had been quelled and both fast-food chains and the Texas Beef Council rejoiced at their preserved profit streams. Then in 2010, I started having what I believed were gallstone attacks—or at least after having a heavy, greasy meal, I had an intense series of pains that matched the symptoms of a gallstone attack. Being underemployed (my glamorous, $8 an hour part time lifestyle) and uninsured, self diagnosis and instincts have been my physicians in the last four years since I had coverage. So one night in April, as I was cursing the consumed double Whopper that had me writhing in discomfort on my recliner, I again considered vegetarianism. After all, I rationalized, if fatty, greasy foods triggered a gallstone attack, removing meat from my diet would be a big step away from future gallstone attacks. I started by trying to do several vegetarian days a week, with an eventual goal of living mostly vegetarian by the end of the year. A more recent addiction to Qdoba poblano pesto chicken burritos led the charge that ultimately derailed my vegetarian intentions. Again, resolutions—new year or mid year—rarely succeed. So for years, my flirtations with vegetarian were like any other sorts of flirtations: brushes of feigned interest with a desired object that had no eventual consummation planned, just a playful wink over the shoulder. Facebook, Craigslist, Myspace, vegetarianism, I suppose. Then I cooked Thanksgiving dinner this past year, and I had one of those weird little moments that made me at least consider following through on my occasional winks at vegetarianism.

The night before...
I’m the cook in my household. My partner and our housemate both tend to lean towards convenience foods or takeaway meals. So as November loomed, and the discussion turned to Thanksgiving dinner, all eyes fell on me when it came time to discuss who would be doing the cooking. I didn’t volunteer as much as I was volunteered. I didn’t mind though. I love cooking for others. Far be it of me to endorse the notion that gay men adhere to feminine gender roles, but when I cook for people, it’s done with the love that could rival any mother or ethic grandmother: Fat Jesus meets Tita de la Garza, I suppose. I planned a huge traditional meal, from the homemade cranberry sauce, to the sides, to the bird itself. I started meal prep the day before, and when I went to bed, I had the materials for each course laid out on the counter: pans or baking dishes, with non-refrigerated items, and recipes, all ready for the next day’s cooking.

The next day...
The next day, around noon, I stepped into the kitchen. I began with the bird. I’m not a big fan of putting stuffing in the bird, so I needed to get the main course roasting before I started anything else. I cut the turkey free from its shrinkwrap and reached into its neck and abdominal cavity to free the bagged innards and the bag of frozen gravy concentrate. With my bird on the aluminum roasting tray, I pulled out my stick of softened butter and began to rub it down—starting with the breast and moving down to the wings and legs. As I pulled the drumstick and leg away from the body to butter it, I had a realization that thrust me back to my childhood and adolescence.

In the war of suburban pet families, my family was a dog family. My mother was allergic to cats, so when my brother and I demanded a family pet, the decision was already made. But which type of dog? I’ve noticed that families each gravitate to certain breeds of dogs. My maternal grandparents, for example, were Cocker Spaniel people. Visits to see them always meant having to deal with short tempered, floppy-eared, honey-colored mops. One of our neighbors fancied Sheepdogs and Irish Setters, while another preferred Shih Tzus.

My mother decided that we were to be a Yorkie family.

I always thought it was because she associated Yorkies with rich people, inspired by scenes of Eva Gabor holding a Yorkie in her arms as she looked at New York from her balcony, in the opening of Green Acres. So when I was five, Peaches entered our lives. Two years later, as my parents divorced, Mom kept the dog in the settlement—the kids, the dog, the house. Had my father been a fan of country music, he’d have had a potential hit on his hands. However, instead of putting his spleen into music, he opted for a more time-honored coping mechanism: one-upsmanship. Peaches was a regular Yorkie. My father wanted a better Yorkie, one even more special (and expensive) than the one he left with his ex-wife. He wanted a Teacup Yorkie. Teacup Yorkies are a subset of the breed known for their stunted growth—a detail that keeps them looking like puppies throughout their entire lifespan—the Gary Coleman of toy dogs, I suppose. Moreover, since we bought Peaches from amateur breeders, my father bought our Teacup from a registered breeder, meaning that she not only came with papers, but an equally pretentious name: Buttons and Bows VII, Buttons for short.

Nothing says bitter spouse like a new dog...
We had her for almost thirteen years—bought in the spring of 1981, she died in 1994. While my mother had to leave Peaches with our grandparents in Missouri after her move to Florida, Buttons was a fixture in my life throughout my childhood and adolescence, until I moved to Tallahassee for college. At night, she would run a patrol of the house, checking in on my brother, father, and I as we slept, taking short naps on our respective beds. During the day, she would jump up on the couch while I was watching television and demand attention with a shrill, scrappy bark. So I’d frequently cradle her in my arms as I watched TV, rubbing her tummy and tugging at her paws as she tried to nip at my fingers.

And as I was buttering up the Thanksgiving turkey this past November, I had one of those epiphanies where two random things suddenly connect: the joints and limbs of the turkey were almost identical in structure to those of Buttons’ hind legs. It didn’t bother me to the point of refusing to eat the meal, but it stuck with me in the days and weeks afterwards. In thirty eight years as a carnivore, I always knew that my meat had been alive before it had been turned into my meal, but aside from a few animal-rights videos shown during a Consolidated show I caught as an undergraduate at Florida State, I’d never really thought about where my meat came from—much less how it got to me. Meat was just the stuff in a cellophane-wrapped Styrofoam tray that I pulled from a cooler case at the supermarket. I certainly didn’t have images of my turkey morphing into a Yorkie right there in the aluminum tray, but I kept thinking about that connection in the weeks following. Mind you, it wasn’t enough to curb my carnivorous ways either, but it had me thinking about vegetarianism again.  I mean I didn't need meat to survive, and though I knew that my decision to live meatless wouldn't save masses of doomed livestock, it might at least balance out the carnivorous karma I'd been building up since the mid 1970's.

On New Years Day, my partner and I met up with a friend to see a film. Afterwards, we ended up going to a nearby Panera Bread for dinner. By chance, I’d ordered a bowl of macaroni and cheese and the tomato-mozzarella panini sandwich. As we ate, I looked at my plate and realized that I had no meat on it. Though it wasn't one of those R words, I figured that it was a good jumping on place to integrate vegetarianism into my dietary routine.  I decided to start my year by just doing three meatless days a week. Simple, right? Three on, four off, eventually shifting to totally meatless by the end of 2011.

January first became January second, another meatless day. The third, meatless. For the fourth day, I decided to go meatless again. I was on a streak. After a week, I simply decided to keep going for as long as I could sustain it. By MLK Day, I realized that I wasn’t even thinking about meat anymore. Yes, I was aware of meat when I was grocery shopping or in a restaurant (if only because of my new game: “hunt down the token two or three vegetarian options on the menu”), but I no longer found myself looking for the meatiest entrees when I was dining out, nor did I find myself thinking about meat-based entrees.

"Maybe tofu zebra was a bit extreme!"
Of course, it’s been an interesting few weeks since starting this. I made a few posts on Facebook that I was abstaining from meat and caffeine, giving a running tally of the days. The responses gave me a moment of pause. Most had that same tone of audience violation that I observed in theaters back in 1994, when Scar betrayed Mufasa: “How…..could you?” There were no posts along the lines of “Give up caffeine? Are you crazy?” (and if you know gamer culture, you know how much that such a proposition would border on heresy) or “Less salt? Are you stupid?” but several of the responses to my decision to eliminate meat ranged from agitation to the sort point-blank outrage that the US government currently holds for Julian Assange. “You’re supposed to be a carnivore!” one friend recently blasted on Twitter, as if my own dietary choices somehow affected him personally.

Let’s be honest, it’s easy to pick on vegetarians. Most of us aren’t born into it, so when we decide to change our dietary habits, some friends treat it like any other abrupt change in lifestyle—with a blend of suspicion that sometimes borders on distain or even hostility, depending on how greatly it clashes with their own values and beliefs. Considering things like the whole “cult of bacon” mindset (bonus points if it comes from an adult frat boy or other assorted manchild, complete with dated Tim Allenesque grunting) that’s become hip and trendy in the wake of celebrity-chef-driven-televised-food-porn, choosing to reject meat is as much of a rejection of the mainstream as opting to listen to the Smiths in the 80s or read in the new milennium. Of course, it doesn’t help that the public image of vegetarians is sometimes skewed by the more extreme cases, such as the stories of Linda McCartney having the trashbins on tours inspected (or the McCartneys' infamous tour riders), trying to ferret out closet carnivores who may have snuck a burger or two and tried to stash the wrappers away. If anything, my own encounters with militant vegetarians and vegans in college also made me shy away from the lifestyle, until I met several who neither preached at me nor condemned me for my then carnivorous ways. I suppose that most of the apprehension from friends stems from fears that I’ll start blasting PETA recruitment films at them, I suppose. But in the end, it’s my choice. I made the decision to change my eating habits, and I don’t feel that it’s my place to blast others for theirs. But for me, for right now, it’s what works. My health is already taking a turn for the better, and I’ve noticed that my weight has shifted down a bit as well. If friends and acquaintances have an issue with it, I made a realization recently: If I can cut a few ounces of meat out of my daily routine, I can certainly cut two and three hundred pounds of detractor from it as well.

Monday, November 22, 2010

"The TSA: fondling fat men’s balls since 2010," or "I got felt up by a guy with a community college security degree, and all I got was this lousy blog topic"

In 1980, my father decided that he needed a new wife…or at least one who wasn’t my mother. In 1982, she reciprocated by deciding that she needed a new locale in which to live…or at least one that wasn’t Flint, Michigan. In classic ex-spouse form, she wanted to live with at least one state between her and her new ex-husband. Since she had custody, and wanted to bring my brother and I on her career adventure, my father wasn’t elated at the thought of his children leaving the state. Did I mention that he was an experienced family law attorney? Court theatrics ensued. After a year of legal wrangling (seriously, I fear that my sole contribution to humanity—aside from two masters theses and a doctoral dissertation that no one will read—is being “Child A” in their precedent-setting custody decision, available for anyone interested in Michigan family law to see), she won the right to take my brother out of the state and set her sights on Florida. I’ve been a frequent flyer since. Christmas break, spring break, summer break, and the occasional family trips, I had the flight routine down pat. By the time I was fifteen, I was eschewing the peppermint-striped marks of shame put on unaccompanied flyers, as I was well accustomed to getting around airports, and found that having a flight attendant in tow was so pre-teen.

My choice to go to college in Tallahassee only complicated things—as I now had to fly to see both parents: my father in Flint, and my mother in south Florida. When I lived in Orlando, family visits and flights to fannish gatherings kept me in the air frequently. I remember that I could wake up an hour and a half before a flight, shower, dress, drive to MCO, pass through security, and be at the gate before the first boarding call.

No "reach around" lane?
Then September 11th happened. Flying became on Orwellian exercise in search, seizure, and paranoia. First, we just had to endure strangers rifling and scanning our luggage and carryons. Then, we were taking our shoes off for scanners. Later, in one of the greatest scams in aviation, carry on fluids were all but banned, as toiletries had to be shrunken to three ounce bottles and packaged in sealable bags. Bottled beverages were outright banned. S.C. Johnson and Son (the makers of Ziploc products) and airport convenience store operators rejoiced at the guaranteed stream of new income. What was once an exercise in elegance (and one of the last chances for Mad Men cosplay outside of themed season premiere parties) had been turned into a parade of sweatsuits and flip flopped passengers, to make the security screening process as painless, easy, and least humiliating as possible.

Never one to be seen as slacking in a manufactured war on terror and cutting edge performance theater, the TSA decided that after a gentleman decided to strap explosives to his underwear (write your own pun here, folks. I’m tacky and brash at times, but even I have my limits on taste), we needed more saving from ourselves, and the mass deployment of the AIT was born. Now, before I embarked on my floundering academic career, I worked as a metrology technician (think: quality control) in an Orlando area microelectronics plant. I know what an AIT does. I spent many an evening staring at an AIT screen as I dreamed about getting my graduate degrees and teaching. This is a machine that can do surface scans on the micron level—which is what we used it for in the metrology line, inspecting the integrity of the wafers as they went through the manufacturing process. So it should only make sense that the TSA would use an AIT to scan passengers for things underneath clothing…right? C-4 undies had nowhere to hide!

…Then the TSA released its first (heavily airbrushed) images of passenger scans from the AIT. Robin Williams used to remark that football was a game where men wore pants so tight that the audience could tell what religions the players were. The AIT took that level of invasiveness off the gridiron and put it in the airport terminals. In May 2010, the news broke that a fight broke out among TSA employees after a scan furthered the cultural theory that most men go into the security professions as a means of compensating for a small penis, and jokes were made at the scanned agents’ expense. The AIT has no friends or allies—everyone’s genitals are equal in its radiation eyes…or if not equal, at least equally accessed.

Yes, there are questionable health concerns about the AIT, but let’s be honest—as soon as news broke that the AIT could give a Bob Guccione-esque glimpse of travelers’ bodies beneath their clothing, health concerns became a mask for the real issue. “Don’t look at my junk!” became the battlecry on the Internet.

“We won’t look at your junk,” replied the TSA, “we’ll just feel it up…sort of.” Within weeks of the new scanners’ arrivals, the TSA announced the alternative: the “enhanced patdown.” Essentially, objectors (conscientious or not) could opt to be taken to a separate area, where a same-sex TSA agent essentially would run gloved hands over the passenger’s body…all over it. Touching. Lots of touching. We’re talking about touching that usually involves dolls and sympathetic-voiced prosecuting attorneys. I guess that for me, the first irony with this solution is that the government won’t allow me to marry a man I love, but they’ll pay another one to feel me up in the name of national security? The US government is now a homoerotic pimp, wearing blue sweater vests with captains bars on the shoulders instead of the more traditional purple velvet and leopard print trim? Does Maggie Gallagher know about this? Soon after the TSA’s announced compromise, the public’s new Internet-driven battlecry had an even newer sibling: “Don’t touch my junk.”

…And I had a flight that was going to happen, right as this issue was reaching critical mass in the news media. Grassroots protestors in the blogosphere were promoting November 24 as “opt out” day—a plan to choke TSA screeners in the patdown lanes by presenting a mass-push of bodies as a way of protesting both the AIT and it’s Bob Packwoodesque alternative.

Now I’m not afraid of residual radiation. I worked next to several ion implanters for three years, and even had to go back into the access bays to do safety inspections on them. Microelectronics manufacturing involves all sorts of fun things like chemicals, radiation, and office politics on a level that makes a day at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce look like a Boy Scout picnic, so a little halflife toot from the AIT wasn’t a big concern for me. I’m also not afraid of bearing all to the world, much less a few TSA agents in their secluded room near the scanning bay. I’ve done life modeling (i.e. modeling wearing just a smile) for friends who want to draw forms that aren’t chiseled and height-weight proportionate. I’ve also done some….art modeling (isn’t that what Vanessa Williams called it in 1984? Maybe there’s hope for my fame aspirations after all. I mean, a Grammy, stint on Ugly Betty, and now Desperate Housewives can’t be that punitive for exposing one’s body in the name of art and titillating strangers…can it?) earlier in my life. Somewhere out there, people can pay $7.95 to see what the TSA would be seeing for free. Hell, if I know you well enough, I may even model again just to rattle the cages of people who like to squeal “euuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuw, fat guys!” Seriously, I’m not ashamed of my body—no matter how badly the media and diet industry wants me to be of it.

For me, the AIT is the symptom of a larger issue. I love my mother. I mean, it’s either love her in spite of the past, or go into decades of therapy just to be told that I need to love her in spite of the past by someone with fewer letters after their name than I have. On my current $8 an hour lifestyle, I’m forgoing the huge therapy bills and just jumping to the logical conclusions. But that having been said, my mother was overprotective to the point of making a Milennials’ helicopter parent blush. She almost didn’t take me to see Star Wars (the original one…not those crappy prequels) because she heard that Ben Kenobi got decapitated and didn’t want me seeing it on the screen. Imagine that mentality, repeated in various contexts until I was in my mid-thirties.

When I see the TSA’s AIT plan, I see that same sort of overprotective parenting in play. No, I’m not talking about the sort of “nanny state” drivel that you see frequently vilified in libertarian and teabagger blogs. There’s common sense, and there’s over-reacting. As Americans, we’re still in a cultural state of shock after 9-11, and we’re still prone to overreactions. We’re Americans. Overreacting to things is as in line with our values as Mom, baseball, apple pie, and forced Imperialism in the hopes of cheap petroleum. In post 9-11 America, the overreactions are just taken to a Spinal Tappish eleven. Go big or go home, right? We don’t even question it anymore when the government introduces new policies…unless it runs the risk of somehow violating our genitals.

So I sat in front of my laptop monitor and tablet screen in the days before my flight, reading the ruckus about the new AIT-patdown combo. I saw the webpages propagating and the petitions surging across Facebook and Twitter. And I thought about my flight. Isn’t it the duty of every good child to resist overprotective parenting and push some boundaries? The last time I was fondled against my will was when I had my pre fat camp physical at thirteen, and I heard the phrase that makes all men cringe: “please drop your pants, turn your head, and cough when I ask you to.” As I figure, if the TSA wants to have a close, intimate relationship with me (albeit a brief one), why not just cut out the boundaries of the AIT and give them one?

I’ve been wearing a kilt for seven months now. For years, I thought about buying one and secretly envied friends who had and wore them. Then, to prepare friends and family for my eventual midlife crisis (start small and go bigger, I argue. The kilt today, new career at forty, sports car at forty-five), I broke down and bought two. By the end of the summer, pants and shorts had been strictly relegated to workplace fare. My kilts were my daily uniform. I’d worn my kilt on a flight two months earlier. Friends were starting to get used to the sight of me wearing a man-skirt (their words, not mine), and I was getting used to being out in them. Why let a new government policy change things? After all, if I had to wear pants or shorts, didn’t that mean that the terrorists won? Then again, isn’t the turning of that question upon the violation of American civil rights in the last nine years a cliché now?

Mystery date, are you ready for your mystery date?
My friends were divided. Most thought I wouldn’t do it. Others dared me to do it. The people in first group still don’t know me very well, what can I say? On November 18, 2010, at about 8:15am, I walked into Raleigh-Durham International, ready to strike a blow in the name of civil rights…or at least kilt enthusiasts everywhere. Friends were bracing to watch the news that night and see my image plastered across Glenn Beck’s wipeboard. I performed the old security theater: my iPad in one bin, Macbook Pro in another, boots, jacket, flat cap, belt, and cane in a third bin, messenger bag in a fourth bin, and TSA approved Ziploc bag containing my travel sized toiletries in a fifth. My rollerboard bag made the caboose of my little public safety train. The TSA agent pointed to the ominous machine (which looks more like the “Shake Shack” that Danny and Sandy serenade one another upon at the end of Grease….come on, could it be that bad? If I broke out in chorus of “You’re the One That I Want,” would I get arrested, or just get strange looks from the TSA agents?), and I took a deep breath. Showtime…literally.

The agent rolled his eyes before I could finish telling him that I was opting out of the AIT. He put the microphone of his radio to his mouth and muttered into it. Meanwhile, something in my rollerboard had the attention of the guy at the scanner. Like I said, American’s go big or go home. I not only had a dream date with a patter-downer, but I got to have a luggage inspection with one of an online security school’s finest.

Officer Gill met me at the patdown area—a glass-enclosed area to the left of the AIT. There were the usual chairs and mat with the paired footprints in the middle of them. I dutifully assumed the position as he introduced himself. I wondered if I was getting a corsage? Candy? Maybe just a little dirty talk first? Gill was a kid—he couldn’t have been more than twenty three years old. He sheepishly and nervously admitted that he was new to the TSA and that I was his first patdown. Poor bastard, losing his virginity to a middle aged fat man in a kilt.

The enhanced patdown is very much like a consensual rape. The screener asks before touching each body part with the back of his hand. “I’m going to put my hand between your beltline and belly, is that okay?” Obviously, the only correct answer here was yes. I could have said no, but that meant that I’d be hitch hiking to Chicago…if I wasn’t arrested and charged with a fine. So Officer Gill starts with my backside, then chest and belly. After that, I stretched my arms out, and we finished the upper body. He then took a courageous breath and steeled his reserve, asking me to step forward with my left foot. This was it…

Gen X’ers, remember the old commercials for Milton Bradley’s Operation game? In the game, players take turns using metal tongs to remove plastic pieces from an electrified board with the shape of a man on it. If the tongs touch metal surrounding the piece’s cutout, the board makes a loud buzzing noise and the patient’s nose glows with a red light. “Don’t touch the sides!” warns one of the kids in the commercial. That’s the enhanced patdown, essentially.

With blue latex gloves on, the backside of Gill’s hand caressed my ankles and calf. The hand moved up my knee and vanished along my inner thigh, under the kilt...


Had I a light bulb for a nose, it would have glowed. I almost thought about even making a buzzing noise, but since I had the attention of several TSA officers, plus the one waiting to rifle my rollerboard, I stifled my smirk. I’d officially been felt up by Uncle Sam. Meanwhile, Officer Gill (again folks, he was a young’un) probably had no idea that most men in kilts are almost always wearing it regimental. His was a lesson that ended in a combination of metaphorical tears and probable gay panic. No sooner had the back of his hand hit the crease of my thigh (and he realized what his palm was cradling by default), his hand dropped to my ankle with near-light speed. He paused a moment. I could see the storm of trauma churning in his eyes, having accidentally felt up a fat man. He took a breath and rose. Meanwhile, I stood on my left leg and extended my right. Officer Gill knelt down, and with surgical precision, drew his hand up my inner thigh and stopped just clear of the boundary of inappropriateness. If anything, he learned a lesson that day. Ideally, I would hope that it would be the appropriate proportions of a male’s hips and groin region, but I suspect that it had more to do with not pulling the short straw when the fat dude in the kilt requests not to be thrown in the AIT.

Officer Gill rose. With all the awkwardness of any other moment of mutually lost virginity, he thanked me for my time and told me that I was free to put my accessories back on. I realized that I wasn’t going to get a phone number or email address, but couldn’t I at least get a little help getting myself back together? Not even a forced and awkward “see you later?” I mean, even guys at glory holes have a certain code of honor, and wasn’t that what I’d just been subject to? Once I had my boots and belt on, I went to the station where my rollerbag was waiting. When the officer learned what the curious, thick metal ring that had his attention was (of course, he also had it in his hand at the time), there were more blushes. What can I say?

Ready for the flight home

So I get to my convention in Chicago, where friends were waiting to hear about the TSA confrontation that several had been reading about on Twitter in the previous days. “Operation” and “don’t touch my junk” jokes abounded. Three days later, I repacked my gear and stepped into O’Hare airport, kilt again snug around my belly. I was ready and braced this time. Once I set the safety train up (and explained to the agents that my cane is lacquered wood…and not a human bone) on the X-ray scanner, I turned to the agent and said the magic phrase: “I’m opting out of the AIT scan. I’m requesting an enhanced patdown.”

He cocked his eyes at me and told me that he wasn’t going to select me for the AIT anyhow. There was almost a nyah nyeah nyah tone in his voice as he visually scanned my kilt once more. I was pointed to the metal detector right next to the AIT.

I blinked. A metal detector next to the AIT? People going through the metal detector and not the AIT? People going through the AIT at the TSA’s choice and discretion? A guy with an online education diploma in “security” gets to decide who gets the metal detector and who gets the AIT…or the enhanced patdown? Didn’t we get over this in 2002, when they finally stopped “randomly” choosing bearded men for extra security procedures? How early-millennial…

Frosted glass, for our security and their pleasure...
Moreover, if the TSA is randomly using the AIT, why even have it in the first place? Wasn’t President Obama just telling us about a need to be more secure, when he justified the new program late last week? Wasn’t the point of the AIT to scan every passenger, to ensure that explosive britches aren’t finding their ways on to our commercial aircraft? Isn’t the point of an effective security plan to be consistent in it’s deployment? Since we’ve had shoe bombers, and then underwear bombers, I’m left wondering what the next bomber will be. The tampon bomber? The suppository bomber? What if the hypothetical internal-bomb-bomber gets the nod from the TSA agent to simply pass through the metal detectors and bypass the AIT? What’s the point? Why are we playing this game?

Americans have always had a flair for drama and the theatrics. We need only look at the 2000 presidential election if anyone doubts this. For almost ten years now, we’ve elevated airline security to the point of high theater—a show designed to scare would-be terrorists away. But I’m wondering if the threat of the AIT is a threat made for actual security or more for the implied gay panic of either having one’s genitals imaged or exposed to the gloved hands of a TSA agent? In the months following the September 11th attacks, the right wing, spurred on by urban legends of the past, gleefully suggested tactics like rubbing ammunition with pork or defiling the graves of suspected Muslim terrorists as a means to deter would be terrorists with threats of eternal damnation. Since Islam’s homophobia is legendarily notorious, maybe that’s the real threat of the AIT: if a same-sex infidel stranger sees or fondles your junk, no happy afterlife for you. Denied boardings, the threat of arrest, and $10,000 fines are all secondary threats, right?

In the mean time, based on my experience at O’Hare, it seems that the sight of a fat man in a kilt seems to be the current “get out of AIT” card—at least if the screener is one of the people who may be pulling straws to do the potential pat down.

Oh, and Officer Gill….call me? We did have an intimate moment after all…

EDIT, 11-23-10: I've had a few inquiries about my kilt. It's an Amerikilt. They're more fairly priced than the brand-name utility kilt ($98 vs $245), and this company makes them up to 64 inches, so a majority of men can get them in their size. I paid $98 for a 50-inch kilt, with no fat tax for the larger sizing. Also, the sporran is an awesome alternative to the lack of pockets.

...and they look great against those blue latex gloves on the TSA screeners. ;)