Sunday, September 25, 2005

Friends and Family

My friend Tess, who is my wife Jamie’s best friend, was upset when I told her that I don’t think of her as family. I also said that, semantically, I don’t think Jamie is her family either (or vice versa). But semantics are subjective, so I really can’t speak for Jamie. In fact, she tells me that she does consider Tess family.

Jamie and I have been married a little over three years, but we’ve been friends for nine. So I’m only just starting to think of her as a family member. Even marriage didn’t do that. Having a child has made me think of us as “a family”. But that’s still different somehow from being in my family. My family, in my mind, is my mother, father, sister, brother, and other assorted branches down from there. I guess I haven’t quite accepted the fact that I’ve created a new branch. And that I’m actually a part of many more trees than I was previously, if anyone’s doing the genealogy. It’s all very clinical.

I think the sticking point for me is that in my semantics one chooses friends but can’t choose family. Family is about a shared history but not necessarily anything more. Family is about obligation, not choice. There is love, of course, but it’s a different kind of love. It’s less visceral, though more tangible. It’s in the blood after all. Obviously, this just has a lot to do with my particular family.

There is more than familial love in my family, though. And I see that love, the love that lives in ethereal places, the love that chooses itself, as the love of friendship.

I dare say I love some friends more than I love my family. Many of my friends know more about who I truly am than my family does. But there are different levels of friendship, much like branches of family. High school friends are like first cousins with whom you share common experiences but from whom you’ve grown apart. Friends you only see at parties are like second cousins, about whom you really know nothing of substance but with whom you’re willing to laugh, drink, and eat. Acquaintances are like third cousins, once removed. Okay, so I’m not really going to be able to continue this metaphor. But there are degrees of separation (and degrees of closeness) -- some come with similar bone structure, others with an interest in the same TV shows.

I guess my deepest friendships share a connection that can’t be easily defined. There might be a tree showing who introduced who to who, but the length of the branch isn’t relative to who knew who first or even what you’ve experienced together. It’s just…a connection.

So I just said it, I realize – friendship, like family, is all relative. To call someone “friend” or “family” will mean different things to different people, will even mean different things about different people. Even the word “love” holds different meanings – it may be held in reserve for just the right moment or the right person (or the right person in the right moment), or it may be thrown around with less intent or impact. It’s all a matter of degrees. Personally, I hold “love” pretty close to my chest and only pull it out when I’m truly feeling it. And I don’t really have a word for the people who mean the most to me. Maybe I need one. Maybe Tess is right. But I can’t really see using “family” that way. It’s just too loaded. Posse? Gang? Clan?

The people I love the most, who I hold most dear, make me feel safe, comfortable, at home. They are my home. Is that a good word, “home”? Unfortunately, there’s a Billy Joel song that contains the lyric, “I need you in my house, ‘cause you’re my home.” So I don’t know if I could say it with a straight face. I feel as though I’ve heard someone say in some movie, “You’re my heart.” Of course, there’s Jerry Maguire’s “You complete me.” They’re all good. But taken.

Maybe I’ll just go on feeling it without a label. Like I said, it’s ethereal anyway.

Addendum: Tess made an excellent point in a comment about this entry – that, for her, some kinds of (what I would call) non-familial relationships are not chosen; they just are, much like family. I don’t actually know that I ever meant to imply that friendship is a purely intellectual choice. Though, certainly, there are friends who you may even like but could take or leave without too much trauma. Their absence does not leave a void. So I suppose that is an intellectual choice. But there are some friendships that choose themselves. So, like family blood, they can’t be broken. But in my mind, they are born of something even more powerful than blood. They are not handed to you; you find them. And, once more, I’ll go back to ether. They are of the ether. They are mystical and transcendent and might make you sleepy.

I probably don’t often enough tell the people I love most that I love them at all. That they are unique not only in my world but in the world at large. That when I am with them, I feel whole. And when we are apart, a piece of them is still swimming inside me, making me stronger.

I honestly can’t remember my life without those people. I know there was a time, but when I picture it, they’re still there, like an aura. So in some way, they’ve always been there. I just didn’t have a name or face to give them. And I’m thankful that I will never go another day without having them with me.

So you want me to name names? Somehow that doesn’t seem to suit the blog. But I’ll say that if you are reading this (and you didn’t just stumble across it), you form the nebula of my heart. Well, you and Wyatt, who can’t read yet.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Blog Like You Mean It

After reading and very kindly commenting on one of my recent entries, my friend Tess became very enthusiastic about what I’m doing here; I think she thought I had stumbled across some new form of expression. Then, upon checking out another blog I’d linked to, she said, “Oh. I get it.…So this is something people do. That's cool.”

Yea, I know, it really isn’t all that cool. Well, in principle, it’s cool. I always marveled at the pure egalitarianism of the Internet. It is a forum for anyone with a computer, an Internet connection, and some tech savvy. More and more, the numbers of the former two are increasing, and the latter is becoming less of a requirement (thanks to services like Blogger).

The downside, of course, is that it’s a forum for anyone with a computer, an Internet connection, and some tech savvy. And who really wants to hear from everybody?

Of course, there’s more to it than that. One has to have some kind of motivation and/or egotism to put their voice out there. I dare say they’re the same people who write Letters to the Editor and call in to radio talk shows. Point is, it’s a very special cross-section of our society. If there were truly a way to make sure all voices were heard, maybe we’d be on to something. But right now we’re only certain to hit the extremes.

The other problem with this din of chatter is finding it. Or, the assurance that you’ll be able to find a balanced representation of perspectives.

Oh, yea, but here I am writing about blogs in my blog. And I’ve never written a Letter to the Editor. I’ve never called a radio talk show. Does that make me the silent majority finally coming forward? Well, I can’t speak toward other bloggers’ motivations, but I am doing this as an act of discipline. I’m trying to hone/rediscover my writer’s voice, to settle into the egotism that comes with having and standing by an opinion. It’s an exercise for me.

Even just doing this for the past week or so has made me more motivated to write a Letter to the Editor, to have a viewpoint, to take a stand. So maybe it’s working. Maybe I’m unleashing my inner pundit.

So I’m acknowledging that my perspective is valid, as valid as anyone else’s. It is genuine and true for me, even if for nobody else. But just being me, just taking a stand certainly doesn’t make me an expert on anything. And I dare say that’s true of most bloggers out there, though I don’t know how humble they are about it. Many, it seems, have deemed themselves watchdogs of the Media and the Government. In return it seems like the Media at least is starting to take them seriously, whoever and wherever they are.

Why, just today, in listening to NPR’s coverage of the confirmation hearings for John Roberts, one of the commentators said, “Well, we’ve been checking opinions in the blogosphere, and….” I would actually love to know how you get on their radar. And, again, what makes these people qualified. I mean, I suppose having an opinion about the man who will most likely be the next Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t take a great amount of expertise – just an opinion. But what about news stories that have broken in blogs (and I’m not talking about the mainstream newspapers and TV networks that have been starting blogging just because it’s currently “the thing to do”)?

On September 8, 2004, 60 Minutes aired a story citing proof of favoritism given George W. Bush during his early 1970s service in the National Guard. Within hours of the broadcast, a user named Buckhead posted a message on the conservative “gathering place” Putting geek skills to use, he claimed that the documents displayed by CBS News could not possibly be authentic since a proportionally-spaced font had been used, instead of the monospaced font used by typewriters of the day. Now, technically, that was not a blog (it was a forum or message board). But many blogs kept the story going, even refuting Buckhead’s hypothesis, since apparently IBM did have a proportionally-spaced typewriter available in the early 1970s. However, enough pressure was put on CBS to verify their information that they ultimately determined their source to have perpetrated a fraud. So the truth won out (damn it) because of some meddling kids.

What will become more common and valuable are blogs focusing attention on news normally given short shrift by the mainstream media. A Wired magazine article notes a number of stories from 2002 which would not have been given the second look they deserved if it hadn’t been for some persistent blogging, by quite prestigious people, I might add – professors and professional columnists. So apparently you don’t have to be a nobody to blog. In fact, I’m starting to think that that’s who makes up most of the blogosphere that actually gets media attention and respect – professionals in their particular fields who are looking to express their personal views for a change (perhaps normally quieted by corporate or government pressures).

I also remember a story I heard on NPR, about an employee of Los Alamos National Laboratory, who started a blog specifically to create a safe forum for other employees to voice concerns and opinions about the way the lab was being run. That’s pretty specific, but truly democratic.

However, the issue of focusing on and perpetuating a mainstream news story is actually what brought me to write this entry. I’d stumbled across a blog the other day (actually, I guess it’s one I’d been to before, “100 monkeys typing”) which had a link accompanied by one sentence, “Bet Terri Shaivo's rolling over in her urn about now.”

That link took me to the website for The Daily Telegraph, an Australian newspaper. There I read an account of euthanasia perpetrated by doctors in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Now, it’s not an absurd story. As the flood waters rose and without assistance to move critical patients who had lost their life support due to electrical problems, difficult choices invariably had to be made. What struck me, however, was that I could not find this story anywhere from a mainstream American media source, only blogs (that’s the blog for the editor of The American Journal of Bioethics) and a Baton Rouge radio station.

I did, however, find what I believe to be the original story, written by a reporter from The Mail on Sunday, the Sunday edition of The Daily Mail -- an English paper which is apparently somewhere between a tabloid and a “serious” newspaper. The article cites an interview with an anonymous doctor and says the story was corroborated by “local government officials”. It goes on to quote one “emergency official” named William “Forest” McQueen. Mr. McQueen is quoted as saying, “Those who had no chance of making it were given a lot of morphine and lain down in a dark place to die.” Later in the article, he is quoted as telling relatives that patients had been ‘put down,’ saying: "They injected them, but nurses stayed with them until they died." Here, in the second-to-last paragraph of the story, they reveal that McQueen is in fact a utility manager for the town of Abita Springs, a town north of New Orleans, and had been working with emergency teams.

Doesn’t quite sound like an “emergency official”. I’d actually missed that little detail the first time I perused the article, so I did a search for his name, figuring maybe he’d come up on some government page, confirming his identity and lending him some kind of credibility. Instead, I found a BBC article naming him as missing, by his English wife. There’s even a picture and a description of his job -- maintaining the grounds of an old plantation house.

So it seems pretty apparent that, fortunately, Mr. McQueen did get in touch with his wife, who in turn spoke to the Mail reporter. Beyond that, the story is fairly uncorroborated.

So what’s my point? Well, I guess my point was going to be that I’m a pretty keen investigative journalist. Or, that real (read, non-tabloid) journalists realized there was something fishy about this story, and that’s why it never made it off the international tabloids and some knee-jerk blogs. So it was meant to be an example of bloggery gone awry, potentially perpetuating a myth (“When Blogs Attack!”).

That said, as soon as I went to find more blogs wrongly citing the Mail story as absolute truth, I found a number of bloggers who had done the same miniscule amount of research I had, coming to much the same conclusion, with some actual medical experience to back themselves up. All I’ve got going for me is my skepticism (I really should have been born in Missouri, the “Show Me” State). As Walt Whitman said, “Reexamine all you have been told…dismiss whatever insults your soul.”

I know that only because it was on a Body Shop t-shirt I used to have.

So I guess the bottom line is that blogging allows the masses to easily disseminate misinformation (the beauty of the mob mentality), but they can also, hopefully, challenge it. Then again, if nobody with money and a TV channel is listening, does it really make a noise?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Support Ribbon Awareness

Back in the day (the day being, oh, 1993) ribbons were all the rage. I feel like it started with Tom Hanks wearing a red AIDS awareness ribbon to the Oscars, where he won for Philadelphia. Apparently, singer/songwriter Paul Jabara, who died of AIDS in 1992,  conceived of the idea. Finally, we as a nation were ready for some AIDS awareness. It was an elegant statement (especially draped on an Armani tux). And it was subtle and simple – one strip of satin looped in an embrace, begging the question, “What’s the deal with the red ribbon?”, forcing people to go find out, to become aware.

(Upon further research, I’ve learned that Jeremy Irons wore the ribbon while hosting the Tony Awards in 1991. But I’m sticking with Tom Hanks for the move to mainstream, because, seriously, who watches the Tony Awards?)

Now, AIDS was unique – it was a closeted disease coming out for a night on the town, in need of some public recognition. Of course, that didn’t stop every other issue out there from choosing a color and trying to get some exposure. I can’t seem to find anyone to support this, but I’m fairly certain that racism was purple (well, anti-racism), anti-Semitism was yellow (anti-anti-Semitism), the environment was green (pro-environment), and I’m pretty sure blue was for or against something. I wish somebody could back me up on this.

Regardless, after losing their fashion cache around 1998 (when all social and political awareness was transferred to the curvature of Bill Clinton’s penis), ribbons are back with a vengeance, though they mostly have taken the form of car magnets. If you have something to say but are afraid of the commitment a bumper sticker requires, there’s a car magnet in your future.

Actually, I’m amazed no one came up with the idea sooner. Metal boxes, hurdling across America’s highways and byways. Magnets, liking to stick to metal. It seems like an obvious fit.

For awhile, though, I didn’t think the phenomena was going to move beyond the yellow ribbons of wartime. What began as a benign, relatively religio-political-free gesture of support for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (“Support Our Troops”) turned quickly toward jingoistic, righteous, sectarian chants of “God Bless America,” “Pray for Our Troops,” “Freedom Isn’t Free,” and “One Nation Under God,” in a variety of colors – from traditional yellow, to stars and stripes, to camouflage. I even saw one ribbon, turned sideways (into a Jesus Fish), reading, “Got Bless our Troops”. Brilliant. I can’t seem to find that one anywhere, but here’s one that says, “JesUSAves”. Equally craptastic.

I’m actually glad to see that there are more peaceful alternatives, like “Bring My Soldier Home” and “Pray for Peace,” but I feel like their messages, while going against the current administration’s dogmatic, blindly patriotic furvor, are only socially permissible because the first shows a closely personal stake and the second acknowledges the existence of a higher being. I liked that “Support Our Troops” required neither a military connection nor piety and did not truly take a position on the validity of the war, only on not punishing the thousands of brave men and women who got roped into fighting it.

One blog I read suggests that “Support Our Troops” is too much of a directive, as opposed to simply stating, “I Support Our Troops”. I guess I can’t deny the implied “you” in the imperative. So perhaps a plain yellow ribbon would be best, left to be interpreted however you like. For me, it would say, “I like to pee.” Because I do. Peeing is good. Except when I haven’t had enough water; then it kind of burns.

Interestingly, I think for most people (okay, me), the yellow ribbon recalls the 1973 Tony Orlando song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree”. Relatively soon after, yellow ribbons first cropped up as a mass media symbol, during the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis; family members of the hostages decorated their homes with yellow ribbons as a plea for their homecoming. Now, I’d always thought the Tony Orlando song was about a soldier coming home from Vietnam. But that’s because I never really listen to lyrics, even when I’m singing them. But Tony sings:

“If I don’t see that yellow ribbon
‘round that ole oak tree,
I’ll stay on the bus,
forget about us,
put the blame on me.”

“Put the blame on me.” What the hell is that about? Apparently this soldier is coming home to his girlfriend or wife but is giving her a chance to back out of their relationship, because he’s been away so long? So the ribbon would be a sign of welcome, okay…but what’s the deal with “put the blame on me”? Why should he blame himself for being drafted into an unjust war?

Well, according to this site (and Tony), the story is actually being told from the perspective of a convict returning from prison, not a soldier. So there’s your blame – the guilt of being sent to the pokey.

Basically, it seems like somebody screwed up the symbolism. Which I suppose just creates a brand new symbol from the same piece of cloth. That happens all the time – like red meat; it used to clog your arteries, now it’s low in carbs.  I do have to wonder how Tony Orlando reconciles all of this with the fact that he travels around performing his song at military bases, veteran’s hospitals, and ceremonies welcoming soldiers home. Apparently he doesn’t listen to the words either.

Whether buying a yellow ribbon for your car is actually doing anything more than make a statement, I don’t know. Magnet America claims to have produced the “original” ribbon car magnets (their quotes, not mine), but I’m skeptical of any company whose accomplishments need to be quoted:

“Hey, Fred, would you say that this here ribbon car magnet is an original?”

“Well, I don’t know, Harold, have you ever made a ribbon car magnet before?”

“Nope, this is the first.”

“Well, then, by gosh, I guess I’d have to say that that there is one original ribbon car magnet.”

They’re also happy to point out that charitable groups like Operation We Care are certainly free to buy ribbons in bulk and then sell them to support the troops, but Magnet America itself barely donates the money it makes. I don’t know how much they’re raking in, but I think it’s fair to guess it’s more than the $42,000 they gave to the Freedom Calls Foundation, which “has deployed its first wireless VOIP telephone and video conferencing services in an Army Camp located in the Sunni Triangle”. That’s in Iraq (which I did not know, though it sounded vaguely familiar).

Magnet America, along with other brothers in commerce, is also happy to provide many other charitable organizations with the opportunity to purchase merchandise which can be sold to actually support their non-yellow causes (if you don’t like ribbons, they’ve got bracelets). I found a site that educated me on what all colors now symbolize (and battle). The list is honestly too long to bother pasting here (so just go to the damn site), but I hope that purple and lupus will be very happy together.

Of course, all of these ribbons have led to the inevitable backlash. Pomo Sideshow lets you design your own ribbon or purchase parody ribbons with such slogans as “Support the Magnetic Ribbon Industry” and “God Bless Jingoist Ribbons”. Sadly, I just don’t have the balls to buy them, for fear that someone will slash my tires (if not my balls).

AntiMagnet sells actual bumper stickers (since, obviously, they are opposed to magnets) that say things like, “We support the guy in China selling these idiotic magnets” and “We support the guy in the U.S. selling bumper stickers that complain about the guy in China selling idiotic magnets” (very meta). They feel compelled to fill most of their website with a defense of why they’re doing what they do. I guess it wouldn’t be a backlash if people didn’t sound snide and defensive, though I wish that questioning the conventional wisdom didn’t feel dangerous enough to put people on the defense.

The magnetic ribbon/awareness industry should be able to support both the perspective of the sayer and the naysayer. No, the mere presence of a message on your car touting the need for a cure for cancer is not likely to spur along said cure (though never underestimate the mysterious healing power of magnets). But it might encourage someone to donate to an organization that is trying to develop a cure. And it most certainly gives the driver of the car the small satisfaction of telling the world a little bit about what makes him/her tick, whether it’s wishing well for the less fortunate or keeping everyone informed of the ever-fluctuating cost of freedom. I for one have been turned right around on the issue of mean people and have determined that they do indeed suck.

But the revolving door of the First Amendment swings both ways. We should disagree with what we say and defend to the death our right to say it, to paraphrase Voltaire (who apparently never said that). Dissent is patriotic.

Hey, that would make a good bumper sticker.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Giving Till It Hurts

Some jackass columnist in our local paper was ranting last week about the lack of foreign response to the recovery effort for Hurricane Katrina. He said the rest of the world is always quick to jump down the United States’ throat about not giving enough foreign aid but then offers no assistance when we’re the ones hurting.

Of course, that’s complete bullshit, since there has been plenty of international aid (yes, even by the French) -- in money, medicine, and personnel coming to the ravaged areas:,1564,1705852,00.html

But the jackass got me thinking about fair measures for any sort of criticism about how we all act as global citizens. I often hear reference to aid as a factor of Gross National Product. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (whoever they are), the United States is by far the largest donor (among 22 Development Assistance Committee countries) in Official Development Assistance (nearly $19 billion in 2004). However, when you look at assistance as a factor of GNP, we are No. 21 of 22 countries, giving just 0.16%. Granted, even the most generous country, Australia, gave a mere 0.25%.

But what does that really mean? I think it’s official, government-channeled monetary aid. So is the GNP really a fair measure? While it certainly shows that we are a wealthy nation, it’s not like all the money made by U.S. citizens goes into the federal government’s coffers. For instance, this chart just blows my mind – suggesting that every American could make $40,000 a year. We should be communists. But certainly the tax rate is much higher in many nations (with fewer loopholes) than in the U.S., isn’t it (yea, I’m looking at you, Sweden)?

Okay, apparently not. I just looked up some international income tax rates, and the U.S. has amongst the highest taxes. Even Sweden is lower in corporate taxes (see here). Which begs the question – why did my friend Henrik’s family move to New Jersey in the early 80s? Must have been the parachute pants. Hmm, though Information Please shows lower individual rates.

So never mind taxes. Never mind how much money we make. How rich is our government compared to others? Well, this chart from the CIA World Factbook shows total government expenditures. Granted, some countries might spend less than they have; some might spend more. But it’s a somewhat reasonable gauge of actual government wealth, don’t you think? You can even look at it per capita (someone at The Vatican’s getting away with something). Now we’re getting somewhere…except that it doesn’t include the United States. What the fuck? You’d think the CIA would keep track of that. Well, according to Information Please, in 2008 U.S. government spending will be $2.5 trillion, so that’s much higher than Japan’s $1.6 trillion. But, per capita (using InfoPlease’s 2000 census number), that’s only $8,432. So that would put us at No. 27, between Austria and Israel.

Give me a minute. I’m trying to decide what that means, if anything. In terms of our larger population, we’re not crazy rich…okay…so does that legitimate being stingy with aid? And can I get my $8,000 back, because I’d really like a plasma TV.

Well, what about private charitable donations? What about non-monetary assistance? And I don’t mean the kind of help that involves bombing the hell out of somebody.

Well, according to this site, none of the richest countries give as much as they could (or should) and tend to do so for political reasons, not philanthropic ones. Even when individual charitable donations are factored in. Though I still think that’s monetary, not people power and supplies, but maybe it is. And it says that in 2002 two thirds of all U.S. aid went to Egypt and Israel. More and more, I’m realizing how thoroughly unaware I am of everything.

But, looking here, among the world’s wealthiest countries, we’re looking…pretty piss poor. Man, would you look at the Norwegians go? Makes me wanna go kiss a Viking. Actually, that’s probably it – those long winters spent doing guilty shots over raping and pillaging lends itself to a giving spirit.

Back to Katrina (wasn’t I talking about Katrina?), I was actually wondering what kind of corporate response there’d been, since it’s such a golden marketing opportunity (you can’t get something for nothing, right?). So far, I’ve seen FedEx providing trucks on Oprah. Wal-Mart has donated $20 million; 1,500 truckloads of “stuff;” 100,000 meals; and a job for every Wal-Mart employee whose workplace no longer exists. Which I suppose makes Katrina the ultimate union buster.

Poland Spring has donated “several million” bottles of water. I’ve also discovered that they are in fact owned by Nestle, which makes me feel a little sick. But a chocolaty, crispy kind of sick.

After wading through all of this, I think my basic conclusion is that people are generous by nature, but only as long as we can see ourselves in the suffering. Understandably, we are wrapped up in our own lives most of the time but will step up and offer assistance when the direct need arises.

There’s been a lot of anger directed at the government’s clunky, bureaucratic response to Katrina, but what’s struck me more has been the smooth and efficient grassroots response. We stepped up as members of a community, not just as citizens of a nation. Honestly, that might not have happened had the government’s actions been more swift and effective. That capacity for generosity is not uniquely American, but I think we tend to forget it by quietly relying on the government’s efforts to express benevolence on our behalf. Best I can tell from all the numbers I've come across, I’m kind of cheap, by proxy.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Are Those Balls?

I was stopped at a light the other day, forced to stare blankly at the tailgate of the truck in front of me. And so I stared, gazing upon something hanging down from the tow hitch thingy. There are lots of boaters around, so I thought it could be some sort of truck hitch thingy floatation device, much as that makes absolutely no sense. But it had that molded white styrofoam look about it. Though more solid. Distinctly solid and white and shiny and cleaved…yea, almost like two large fishing sinkers, fused together and sealed in a white metal sack.

Sure enough:

Takes all kinds.