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Songs about mothers

I have a soft spot for sensitive singer songwriting men talking about their mothers, even when it’s a fraught relationship. After all, I’ve got three sons, and it’s nice to imagine they won’t forget about me once they leave. And hey, I’d rather have hate than nothing!

This morning I’m all about that. I started out with Sufjan Stevens (who has a new album coming out, by all accounts his best) singing For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti:

Next I moved on to another incredibly emo heartfelt band called Iron and Wine, one of my favorites when I’m in this pineful mood. Here they are singing Upward Over the Mountain, a song I credit with the internal efforts I’ve made (so far) to let my sons someday leave me:

Next, now that I’m thoroughly in the mood, I’ll just go ahead and – brace myself and – listen to John Lennon’s Mother:

And to top that off, I’ll finish with something hopeful, Conor Obersts You Are Your Mother’s Child:

Categories: musing

I felt warm and relaxed

When I was a kid, being the child of nerd atheists, I spent more time watching Star Trek, Animal House, and Monty Python than in church.

Scratch that, I spent no time at all in church, and quite a bit of time at sci-fi conventions, where my father was a sci-fi book dealer. In fact it was a yearly ritual to carry a bunch of boxes of books to the car to tote them to Boskone, where we’d have a table in the big book room.

Sometimes I’d be in charge of selling, at least once I was old enough to make change. When I wasn’t on duty I’d wander around the room and wish I had enough money to buy sparkly purple crystals from weird women wearing scarves.

Sometimes I’d even read the books, out of boredom. They weren’t my thing, and I didn’t know why back then, but now I think I do.

Most of the time, the set-up seemed along these lines: some extremely macho guy, misunderstood and brilliant, gets into some kind of jam and uses his brilliant mind to find his way out of it. On the way he meets stupid men and even stupider – but gorgeous – women, who trick and finagle him, distracting him from his high-minded goals. Every now and then he’d get back at the women by fucking them. And yes, I’m thinking about Heinlein here, which my dad absolutely worships. Probably Larry Niven isn’t quite as bad.

In other words, it was mostly an adolescent male fantasy, with a side order of scientifically flavored situational crisis. Too much getting laid and proving yourself to other men, too little science. Waaay too little science.

Fast forward about 30 years, and I’m married to a man who reads sci-fi for fun (don’t tell him I said this, he denies being a fan). But progress has been made, because he can laugh at the ridiculous posturing.

About 10 years ago, in fact, he laughed out loud at a particularly ridiculous line from Heinlein’s “Puppet Masters.” I will show it to you so you can appreciate how much this explains to me about my childhood:

I felt warm and relaxed, as if I had just killed a man or had a woman.

I mean, for fuck’s sake. Oh, and if you want more context, please go ahead and read this excerpt, which taken as a whole is even worse than I remember. Oh, and here’s the cover:

Robert A Heinlein_The Puppet Masters_GALAXY_Don Sibley

Also, here’s another thing that I now (finally!) understand. Namely, when a boy reads this stuff, he actually might identify with it. I know this because my husband admitted this to me, and although I was momentarily stunned, it makes sense when you think about it.

Whereas, when I read it, I naturally concluded that it wasn’t about me at all, that it was in fact alien to me. If I wanted to force myself into that universe, where the women were so vile and dumb, then I’d have to decide between:

  1. not admitting I’m female, or
  2. admitting it, but trying to prove that, unlike those bimbos who couldn’t even fix a broken warp drive, I would be different. I’d have deep thoughts too, just like men.

Either of these attitudes, both of which I tried on at different times, were and are fucked up. I shouldn’t be surprised then that sci-fi never held sustained interest for me.

Anyway, it’s all good, because in our house nowadays, when we want to be funny, one of us mentions that they feel “warm and relaxed,” and then the other says, “holy crap, did you just kill a man??”

Categories: musing

Earth’s aphelion and perihelion

Sometimes the stuff I think about gets me down. I mean, jeez, I think about cynical stuff all the time, and I need to rest my brain sometimes.

When that happens, I sometimes fantasize about really long-term things that happen in the solar system or even the universe. It gives me perspective.

One of my favorite videos to watch at these moments is this one, which always blows my mind. The take-away: nothing is permanent unless there is actually a physical law forcing it to be. Here it is:

p.s. I vote for “tropical year” because I love analemmas.

p.p.s. Looking forward to Vega being the pole star once again.

p.p.p.s. This came up because my husband and I got into a conversation about earth’s aphelion and perihelion and we were wondering if it’s just by chance that perihelion happens near the beginning of winter. The answer is yes, because [take-away above].

p.p.p.p.s. How cool is the name “invariable plane”? And how amazing that the period of the orbiting plane of the earth and the period of the axial tilt are different? There’s really nothing that we can rely on, is there?

Categories: education, musing

Tomtown Ramblers killing it

Last night my bluegrass band, the Tomtown Ramblers, was killing it at band practice. Here’s a picture of us learning a song:

When we sing in 3 part harmony we get all squeezed together.

When we sing in 3 part harmony we get all squeezed together.

As for what song it was, probably this one:

What we lacked in talent we made up for in numbers.

If you’re a musician and want to jam with us, come to Clearwater at the end of June, we’ll (mostly all) be there!

Categories: musing

Vacation in Utrecht

Please ignore this post if you are at all squeamish or otherwise appropriate. I fully intend to offend people like you.

OK, so here’s the thing about family vacations, at least for me. They make you lose your genitals.

Seriously, I’ve misplaced my vagina, and for the life of me I can’t find it, or even remember when I last had it. I can barely remember anything at all about it.

This has happened to me before, on numerous occasions. It’s nothing new. It happened a couple of days after I landed in Orlando with the family for spring break a few years ago, and it happened within seconds of entering Great Wolf Lodge about a year ago.

Have you been there? It’s an indoor waterpark, and something about the chlorinated air and hundreds of dripping wet and screaming children made me instantaneously lose contact with my genitals. I know I’m not the only one, I polled the other grownups there and I got serious resonance with this sentiment.

In fact, I walked around for a day and a half (in order to get the most out of my one expensive overnight room) asking people if they’d seen my vagina anywhere. The reactions were mixed and were not always good. In fact once or twice the stares I got were so weird and intense that I was forced to blurt out, “Oh, here it is! In my purse! Just where I left it.” True story.

Conclusion: family vacations are the ultimate birth control.

Honestly, there should be a law that anyone who is thinking of getting pregnant should spend a couple of days at Great Wolf Lodge. If they are still horny after that experience then they deserve whatever they get.

Why, oh why, did we decide to have so many kids? And how can it be so incredibly expensive to pay for them to complain about every moment of the day that doesn’t contain wifi?

Here’s another reason there’s no physical joy in family vacations. The food. The disgusting food you end up eating when with your entire family prevents you from feeling sexy. Never mind sexy, it makes you borderline suicidal.

Yesterday we had pannekoeken for lunch, poffertjes as a snack, and sausage wall frikandels, loompjes, and french fries for dinner. Just in case you are wondering if anything I just listed isn’t fried, the answer is no.

Seriously, it was hugely disgusting, although temporarily delicious. I now know exactly why people declare diets for New Years, it’s because of the food situation in the week beforehand. It’s not that you want to lose weight, it’s that you never want to eat again.

And yes, I know that you can technically eat better food here in Utrecht, but not, as it turns out, if you’re traveling with a 6-year-old. In that case, you have a tiny little hunger striker on your hands, and the longer the strike goes on, the more crying and whining you’ve got, which, since you’re sharing a small hotel room, is a huge hassle. It’s a cost benefit analysis, and the costs always outweigh the benefits. In other words, you decide to forgo actual food for one more day and give in to warmed up waffles with smeared nutella. Breakfast this morning, thankyouverymuch. Kill me now.

Dear readers, please do not judge me. Or at least, if you judge me, then be compassionate. Or at least, if you’re not feeling compassionate, keep an eye out for my vagina, I know it’s around here somewhere.

Categories: musing

How to ignore your family on Thanksgiving

There has been lots of advice lately on how to have a civil conversation at Thanksgiving – NPR ran a piece yesterday on “topics both Democrats and Republicans enjoy”, for example, which made me slightly annoyed and amused – perhaps because I am neither – and inspired this somewhat alternative list of ways to enjoy or otherwise ignore your family today.

  • Football, obviously. Few people actually know the rules of this game, never mind the names of the various positions of the players on the field. I personally have been watching football for more than 20 years and I still really don’t know what a tackle or a tight end is, nor exactly how to recognize a blitz. No matter, that’s not the point. The point is to choose a team and root for them blindly. Ignore the long-term brain damage.
  • If you don’t like football, may I suggest An Idiot Abroad, a ridiculous travel show from Britain created by Ricky Gervais. It’s embarrassing and awkward, obv, so relative to those situations dinner with your family will seem seamless and well-meaning. I say this even though The Office, also developed by Ricky Gervais, was on NPR’s list. Also, having a The Office marathon is really not a bad idea either.
  • Drinking. Adults can go for beer and spiked eggnog, but kids can get totally spaced out with just the normal eggnog. I’ve seen it before, it has a crazy high, especially if you add nutmeg. Buy tons.
  • The above suggestions should keep you busy up to and including the beginning of dinner. Be sure you don’t actually talk before dinner, because then you’d run out of things to say during the eating part.
  • For the actual dinner conversation, may I suggest keeping things light. For example, I plan to provoke a fun-loving conversation on who thinks the Ferguson grand jury’s lack of indictment serves justice and who thinks it exposes a broken system. It comes down to who trusts the system and who the system works for.
  • If that seems awkward, move on to white privilege in general. If there’s a denier at the table, throw out some data: black teenagers are 21 times more likely to be killed by a cop than white teenagers, for example, or if that seems hyperbolic, move on to the social mobility matrices for blacks versus whites in Figures 8 and 9 of the appendix of this paper. Nice and aggregate. I plan to use a projector.
  • Hahaha, just kidding! We don’t want to scare the kids. Instead, we’ll stick to the usual, where we enormously overconsume and simultaneously discuss upcoming diet plans, and/or vivaciously and competitively plan our impending holiday shopping whilst worrying about money.
  • For a nice surprise, sign up your whole family for spots on the bus to participate in a Black Friday Walmart protest tomorrow morning in North Bergen, New Jersey. Bus leaves at 8am. Come one, come all!
Categories: #OWS, musing

Is tourism in Haiti inherently exploitative?

I recently returned from Haiti, where I was a tourist traveling around the country for 6 days with my friends Jamie and Becky. As I spent time there, I felt increasingly aware of the difficult if not miserable spot that the country as a whole finds itself in, even though there are of course wonderful and incredibly beautiful and creative things happening too: art is everywhere.

Everyone knows about the 2010 earthquake which devastated the capital Port Au Prince – which was indeed terrible and its ramifications are still being felt – that natural disaster is really only one more thing for the Haitians to deal with, on top of a long and excruciating history of manmade, political and human disasters.

I read the book Mountains Beyond Mountains while I was traveling, upon the recommendation of a bunch of my friends. It’s putatively the story of a white doctor from Boston, Paul Farmer, who is trying his best to enlist a growing group of doctors and philanthropists to help the deeply impoverished town of Cange in Haiti achieve state-of-the-art healthcare. It’s an impressive book, and beautifully written, and doesn’t shy away from frank discussions of how the United States has meddled with and manipulated the politics of Haiti to its own advantage. You should all read it.

One of the most memorable scenes from the book, at least for me, is when the writer discusses the juxtaposition of spending one day in Cange in Haiti and then flying directly to New York, or maybe Paris, but in any case a glamorous, rich, first-world city, and how it seems like two bizarrely separate worlds. Farmer says that no, in fact, it’s exactly what you’d expect – that there’s a direct line between the poverty of Haiti and the richness of New York. New York is rich in part because Haiti is poor, and we New Yorkers depend, even if invisibly, on exploitation of places like Haiti to stay rich. When you concentrate wealth in one place, you are concentrating poverty as well.

That brings me to my question today. Is it inherently exploitative to be a tourist in Haiti?

Reasons it is:

  1. First and foremost, as Americans we can choose to visit Haiti, and then return after 6 days. Haitians cannot choose to visit us for 6 days, even if they had the money to do it. And again, that discrepancy is directly due to U.S. foreign policy.
  2. American tourists like myself are impossibly rich and powerful compared to the people we interact with in Haiti. That creates a weird and deep distance between people. It means that everyone on the street is aware of me and nobody fucks with me because the consequences for them would be dire. That’s what power looks like. As a result, t may be impossible to actually have a normal human relationship with a native Haitian.
  3. As a white person, you pay something like 10 times the normal costs of anything, which is both strange and totally understandable, but in any case it means that you are seen as a piggy bank by anyone with a service or a good to sell, which is pretty much almost anyone you meet.
  4. There aren’t very many tourists in Haiti. All the white people we met there were there on religious or charitable missions, or worked for the UN, or were trying to set up businesses along the lines of Etsy for Haitian folk art, or are themselves art collectors. That adds to the uncomfortable sense of dependency you feel as a tourist.
  5. When you are at a hotel, you are being served by Haitians. It’s impossible not to see the historical racial symbolism of this, given that Haitians were brought from West Africa as slaves to the French, and not to mention the more recent history which has made American influence so undermining.
  6. There’s a reverse sex tourism industry in Haiti, which is to say that middle-aged white women are known to go to Haiti as well as the Dominican Republic to pay for sex with young men. That fact further clouds the possibility, at least for me, of even having a single conversation in which the goal is non-transactional. How do you know if your joke is actually funny? Or if the cultural exchange you are happily engaged in is truly reciprocal? How could it be?
  7. Conclusion: it is in fact inherently exploitative to be a tourist in Haiti, and it’s not something you can choose not to participate in.

On the other hand, here are a few reasons I’d argue against my own conclusion:

  1. First and foremost, you are what you are as an American, even if you’re not in Haiti. You are just more aware of what that means to Haitians when you are in Haiti. In other words, if the decadence of ample food, and wifi, and excellent health care is in part due to the impoverished state of Haiti, maybe it’s good you are made aware of that.
  2. Haitians desperately need money, and tourists have money. If lots of tourists went to Haiti, it might be better for Haiti than a bunch of money coming in the form of aid.
  3. My friend Becky came with us to Haiti, and she stayed a few extra days and connected with a Haitian biologist and nerded out completely in a national park (she’s a huge biology nerd and nature photographer). It seems to me that, if it is possible to cross the human divide, and get out of a transactional conversation and into another place, it might happen in the context of a scientific discussion.
  4. I’m not a biology nerd, but I love music. I felt like the closest I came to normal human interaction was through discussing and enjoying live music.
  5. It’s really fun to travel, even if you learn sad things. You become more aware and more grateful, and you bring that back to your community and your family. There’s something to be said for simple cultural awareness. Plus, now I really care about Haiti, which maybe is irrelevant, but may someday become relevant, who knows.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Update. A comment from Jamie:

Fundamentally, I do and always have agreed to your point of exploitation. I knew we would be weird voyeurs going in to the trip, and as we discussed on the last day, Cathy, we were both acutely aware of how it would look if we started taking pictures of Haitians and the streets from inside of our fancy 4-by-4. It’s a complicated dynamic. And I think you’re right that it is nearly impossible to have a normal, balanced relationship there; I felt similarly while traveling around West Africa. It’s like we have a bank account and a green card attached to our foreheads, and it can be difficult to trust that someone is seeing us beyond that. Even if they have no ulterior motives other than being our friend, that trust is hard to grasp and hang on to.
All of that said, however, I do believe that it is incredibly important to spend time in countries and cultures that are different from our own. And I believe even more fervently that we should visit those countries with a mind to experience and enjoy rather than “save” it through mission-based organizations. That’s not to say that all aid is bad aid (on the contrary, many aid orgs and NGOs are very, very important!), but I do push back against the notion that one should always attach a mission to a visit. I’ve found that going somewhere as a volunteer or aid worker puts an even bigger wall between cultures (“I am here to help you because I have the means to help you and it is clear you can’t help yourself”). I strongly believe that just sitting, listening, and learning without the motive to “save” is one of the only ways of conducting a fair and balanced cultural exchange. I want to listen first, not fix first. Once I listen, and begin to understand (as if I ever could…), only then do I feel comfortable enough to think about working in/for a country.
Additionally, on the notion of choosing to vacation in a non-traditional spot that is so clearly economically and politically struggling, is it better to only travel to first world, highly developed countries and ignore that others exist? Should we blindly trust the media (and all of our friends, relatives, etc) that constantly tells us that a country is “bad” and avoid them? How will we change the discourse surrounding cultural and economic imbalances without having any first-hand experience? Are we perpetuating a notion that we are “too good” to visit a country that is struggling to stand on solid ground?
It’s all a complicated notion. And on a specific note, I’d love to open the floor a little on your #5 exploitative point (“When you are at a hotel, you are being served by Haitians. It’s impossible not to see the historical racial symbolism of this, given that Haitians were brought from West Africa as slaves to the French, and not to mention the more recent history which has made American influence so undermining.”). True. I think it’s important that we are aware of that dynamic. On the other hand, what would it look like if we were being served by ex-pats? Would we not be rebelling that we are not supporting Haitians and the native economy? That the ex-pats are just making a place for other ex-pats to work and remove all Haitians from the operation? Tricky. I’m interested in hearing both of your thoughts on that.

 

Categories: Becky Jaffe, musing
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