Outside Looking In

So, New Year’s Eve. Like with all holidays, there are expectations. I hardly ever meet expectations.

Image darkened building of streetlight with cheery lights glowing in the apartment window

Outside looking in

Like most evenings when I want to go out, there’s a part of me that really hates the idea. And so I procrastinated til the last minute. I had to finish crocheting these legwarmers, you see! They were essential for my outfit!

At about 20 of midnight, I finally got in my truck and cruised over to this tiny little bar. It’s pretty bougie and lefty so I figured I’d see a couple people I know there. Nope. Oh well. I ordered a dirty martini, since the idea of getting one was the main reason I left the house in the first place, grabbed a teeny plastic glass of cheap champagne, and settled in at the bar.

It was perfectly enjoyable. I suppose it says something about me that I’m equally comfortable–or uncomfortable, really–interacting with a bunch of strangers as I am with a bunch of friends on New Year’s Eve.

There was one cute short stocky Asian guy that I was flirting with, but he got a little too drunk.

I bummed a cigarette and made friends with the white woman who gave it to me, once she finished escorting her cute friend back to his apartment.

And that was it. My New Year’s Eve. I feel a little defensive that I didn’t hang out with friends. Most of the people I would hang out with were in NYC anyway, an expensive 3-hour journey from Binghamton. I suppose it is nice to toast your past experiences and imagine what the next year may bring together. But I can do that anytime. Point is, I enjoyed myself. I was on the outside looking in, as I am anyway when hanging out with groups of people I call friends. I’m growing more and more comfortable with this, but I get twinges of insecurity about it anyway. I believe the cultural narrative that someone who has no friends but goes out anyway to party with strangers is, like, desperate or something? Anyway, it’s not good.

I don’t do resolutions. They contradict my philosophy of laziness. I might blog more in 2014, or I might not. I’m not saying one way or another. I hate it when people put expectations on me, so I’m hardly about to invite you to do it.

Happy New Year, fellow weirdos!

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Filed under blogging, Hometown, Personal, Photography, Upstate NY

Straightey C. McWhiterson Goes to Ballroom Dance Class: a Metaphor

Teacher: No! You’re doing it wrong!

Straightey C. McWhiterson: No I’m not. I’m doing it right, see?

Teacher: No, that’s not the Quickstep. You’re doing the Electric Slide.

Straightey C. McWhiterson: Really? Are you sure? Everybody knows how to do this dance. I see it all the time. I like it. It must be the Quickstep.

Teacher: No, really, that’s the Electric Slide. The Quickstep is a partner dance. It’s very elegant. You’ll need to learn how to properly “hold” your partner, first, here, the posture is like THIS:

Straightey C. McWhiterson: Hold? What are you talking about? Put my neck like this? But that’s uncomfortable. Ow! Hey, what are you trying to say about my posture? My posture is fine, I’m fit, I do yoga.

Teacher: It’s part of the dance. And the steps go like this: slow quick-quick, slow quick-quick, glide.

Straightey C. McWhiterson: Whoa nelly! I’m not here for this highfaluting terminology. I came here to learn dancing, not this uncomfortable posture and these confusing steps! Why aren’t you teaching me dancing?

Teacher: I am teaching you dancing. Ballroom dancing. The Quickstep. That’s what you came here for, right? That’s what the sign says on the door. Ballroom dancing. Learning hold, and learning the steps, are an essential part of ballroom dancing.

Straightey C. McWhiterson: What!?! Sir, that is so unreasonable! I have no choice but to conclude that you must not love dancing, nor wish to spread your love of it through teaching dancing, very much at all!

Teacher: … I think you’d better find another teacher.

Straightey C. McWhiterson: YOU DANCE-HATING PHILISTINE!?!! WHY WON’T YOU TEACH ME??

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A woman’s Place

A woman’s place is in the home.

We’ve all heard the phrase. What does it mean, really? Most of the time, people are using the phrase to speak of women’s place in a metaphorical sense – “place” means women’s roles, the tasks they are expected to perform, their characteristics, the type of work they do.

But of course, all these tasks don’t take place in an abstract etheric realm. They take place in the physical, 3-D spaces in which we move around. This is something that I wish more activists and philosophers would take into account. My belief in atheism and naturalism tells me that the 3-D world is the place that matters, because that’s where people live their lives.

So that’s why I’m interested in geography and municipal planning. The assumptions about the respective roles of men and women manifest in the physical world in specific ways. We take the built environment that forms the majority of our experience with the physical world for granted most of the time. We should keep in mind that we are moving through the physical manifestations of the thoughts of planners and builders who lived generations before us. Mostly, in the USA (I live there and am most familiar with the history of planning there), these planners and builders were white men. Bet you never saw that one coming.

Planning is a relatively young profession – it only got started about 100 – 120 years ago, and it really came into its own as an academic and professional discipline right in the middle of the 20th century, just as the mythology of the nuclear Leave-It-To-Beaver 2.5 kids and a picket fence was reaching its ascendency. It is not a coincidence that this era can also be considered the zenith of America’s love affair with the automobile. This was an era when Christianity, heterosexuality, and strict gender roles were strictly enforced and questioned only in small radical pockets of nascent resistance to the status quo. A woman’s place was, quite literally, in the home. A man’s place was in the public world, in government, in academia, in medicine, science, etc. These strict divisions of labor were reflected in the designs chosen by the planners of the time: the suburb. Residential areas were strictly separated from offices or industrial parks. Streets were planned and built with one purpose in mind: to quickly move large numbers of automobiles from homes to workplaces and back. Sidewalks were an afterthought.

While this design was convenient for the men who had to traverse physical space only twice a day, when going to and from work, it was less so for the women and caretakers who had to find ways to physically transport their children to and from school, fetch groceries, perhaps care for elderly relatives, and so on. The physical separation of suburban housing from centers of civic power, workplaces, retail, and other outlets for communal activities was in fact a driving force behind the housewife’s malaise that Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique.

Today, the assumption of rigidly divided roles between male/public and female/private are being eroded. And while governments have passed laws outlawing gender discrimination in the workplace, and private companies have undertaken measures to make it easier for their employees to balance the demands of career and parenting, all measures which contribute to women’s equality by giving them more opportunity to participate in public life, the physical layout of our cities and towns is a significant obstacle to achieving those goals. The intensification of sprawl since the postwar era has brought a drastic increase in commuting times, which translates into increased difficulty for the people who are charged with caring for and transporting children and elderly relatives to and from school, extracurricular activities, and doctors’ appointments – tasks which still disproportionately fall on the shoulders of women.

Feminist critique of urban planning is one contributing factor to the dramatic shifts that have taken place in the discipline of urban planning during the past few decades. This critique dovetails a lot of the time with critiques offered by environmentalists, environmental justice advocates, and sustainability advocates. Today, the urban planner is no longer a visionary in his ivory tower, passing down inspired visions to be stamped upon the landscape – rather, the planner is a communicator, a facilitator, bringing together various stakeholders in the community, listening to their needs, and trying to find a balance among all of them. The strict division between private and public life is no longer taken as a given – planners, city officials, and architects are seeing the value of “mixed-use” communities, that is, communities where housing, retail, office space, schools, nursing homes, and, to a certain extent, manufacturing are in relatively close proximity to each other. This sort of spatial design clears the path to participation in public life by women, the elderly, and children – all groups whose needs were severely neglected by the previous generations of planners.

I do not believe any movement for social change can succeed without changing the physical layout of the communities in which they are trying to create change – fortunately, influencing policy on the municipal level is far easier than influencing policy on the national or even state level. I urge any activist who wants to create real change to consider how their ideas can be implemented at the municipal, town, or village level, because it’s at that scale that small actions, such as painting an intersection can have big impacts, like decreasing traffic fatalities and fighting urban blight.

The physical dimensions of justice and injustice are too rarely discussed in most activist circles, but knowledge of the physical layout of your community is absolutely essential to succeeding in any activist or political campaign. And challenging the status quo often entails taking control and altering physical spaces, as we saw with the Occupy movement last year. If society fully adopts the feminist belief that a woman’s place is anywhere in the world, then our streets, public squares, government buildings, homes, and workplaces will eventually look very different from what we are accustomed to. Feminism will physically, literally transform the world.

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Filed under Anti-bigotry, Architecture, Feminism, geography

In Transit: The Joys of Flying

I like flying, I really do. My mother agrees with me. We talked about it in the car on the way to the airport—she was nice enough to agree to pick me up and drop me off.

For me, I love the aerial view. Just love it. Don’t care if it’s cloudy or sunny. If it’s sunny then I have an unimpeded view of the ground and I can track the changing watershed basins, transportation networks, topology, geology, and ecology right beneath me. When we’re close to the ground I analyze the connectivity of classic cul-de-sac suburban neighborhoods and compare them to the connectivity of the older, denser neighborhoods that you find closer to city and town centers. I try to guess which highway that is (probably the accursed I-81). When we’re higher up I try to recognize landmarks such as lakes and mountain ranges. Flying out of the airport in Burlington, VT provides an amazing view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks. Far below, tiny pools of water shimmer like coins, scattered at various elevations throughout the mountains, are testament to the legacy of the glaciers that shaped the landscape of the Northeast 12,000 years ago. If it’s spring or fall, I can see the changing seasons illustrated in the graduated amounts of green on the ground as I travel south or north. That was obvious today. Traveling from New York to DC, the white crusts of ice on ponds and rivers disappeared, exchanged for a faint fuzz of green shading over the farm fields.

If it’s cloudy out, once the plane rises above the cloud cover, I put on my polarized sunglasses (a necessity for this; otherwise, it’s just too bright to make out much detail, and probably bad for your eyes to boot) and attempt to puzzle out the topography of the clouds. There must be more atmospheric instability over there to the west, where the clouds are roiled and rising, as opposed to the other clouds which are smooth and scalloped and static. I know less about atmospheric science than I do about geography, geology, and ecological communities, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to apply my limited knowledge and having fun with it.
Having this level of intellectual stimulation, combined with the excitement of turbulence and the involuntary gasps of breath and speeding heart rate that comes with it, makes flying pretty much the best roller coaster ride I can imagine. (Obviously the excitement fades if you’re on the plane for more than a few hours, which is why I can’t in honesty extend my praise to international flights to, say, New Zealand–the thing I remember most about that flight is when a poor suffering 6-month-old baby puked on my bag.)

My mother, on the other hand, mentioned that she doesn’t mind having layovers in airports because she enjoys people-watching. Of course she does, she’s a people-observer and people-interactor by profession–she’s a registered nurse (shoutout to nurses! one of the most under-appreciated professions in the country). To me, the clothes, bags, languages and movements of the mass of people passing through an airport form a sort of cultural topography that the geographer in me itches to map somehow. Do people from different countries tend to congregate in different areas of the airport, what are the customs around sharing phone charging outlets, striking up random conversations, etc. Right now I’m at the Washington Dulles airport, staring more or less directly at an older balding white guy who has a ton of musical electronic equipment out and is bobbing his head and singing along to something, while a troupe of black-veiled Muslim women herd their children down the concourse behind him. Flight for Riyadh is leaving soon. Rarely do you see such a concentration of diversity, and the combination of people in an extreme hurry with people who are idling hours away, like me, is especially amusing to watch.

To top it all off, the musician I saw at my friend’s house last night sang a really sweet song of his own invention about the magic of kisses in airports, so I’m happily thinking of that right now. Thanks, Old Man Luedecke, for that. I promise I’ll buy some tracks, once my wallet recovers from this little jaunt. In the meantime, maybe some other folks want to check out his stuff? If you like good folky-style songwriters, you will not be disappointed, I guarantee.

All this, and I’m not even halfway to Austin. This is gon’ be good. If you’re in Austin, if you’re at the American Atheist Con, tweet at me if you want to hang out, talk, get a drink, do some karaoke, or whatever. I’m down for anything.

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Austin, Here I Come!

I have been so busy during the past couple of weeks. Spending a lot of time out in the rural areas where there’s little cell coverage, much less free wifi. I have so many things that I want to write about but here is the most important thing right now: tomorrow I get on a plane and will arrive in Austin TX for the American Atheist Convention!

Just the fact that I have a Surly Amy Scholarship to go to this event has pretty much forced my out of the closet with a whole bunch of people. I tell them that I’m going to Austin, and they ask why, and I tell them. It’s pretty awesome.

Tonight I was reminded that there are awesome people and cool things happening pretty much everywhere–a neighbor of mine hosted a house party/acoustic concert which was well attended, though I have my complaints about the etiquette of some of the attendees–why go to such an event if you just want to talk over the music at the top of your lungs?–but it’s nice to be reminded that my little upstate wannabe-city isn’t a complete washout in terms of art and culture.

I have made arrangements to rent a bike for the weekend and I intend to take full advantage of that rental. I’ve heard, via colleagues in the transportation planning field, that Austin is a great place to bike (relatively), so I plan on testing that out.

This is going to be, first of all, WARM. Second of all, lots of fun. More updates will follow as events warrant.

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Filed under anti-theism, blogging, Cool stuff, geography, travel

Fuck the Pope

In honor of the election of Pope Francis, I actually sat down and listened to the entire Pope Song by Tim Minchin. I agree with it entirely. Fuck the Catholic Church, fuck the Pope, and fuck you if you still call yourself a Catholic after everything–the tens of thousands of children raped and abused, the girls and women enslaved in the Magdalene Laundries, the needless suffering imposed on hundreds if not thousands of sick and dying people by Mother Theresa, the promotion of a profoundly, fundamentally immoral philosophy under the disguise of being God’s infallible moral voice on Earth–all of it. There no fucking excuse. None. The Catholic Church is evil.

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Carbon Crop

I recently discovered the website Information is Beautiful, run by David McCandless. As a person with interest and some experience in creating maps, I truly respect the work that has gone into these thoughtful, elegant representations of reality. Please click on the link, because the image you see above is cropped. The original graphic gives much more terrifying detail about the possible outcomes of 3 – 6 degrees of warming, which seems likely, including the flooding of coastal cities, reduction in crop yields, ocean acidification and attendant fishery collapses, droughts, severe hurricanes.

This is an excellent graphic – I already knew most of the information in it, but one thing that leaped out at me, which I hadn’t really grokked before. That is the fact that fossil fuel extraction companies already possess in their reserves enough oil and gas to push us into ecological catastrophe. And of course they are still proposing new pipelines, new wells in the Arctic and the Gulf, the Tar Sands, and that’s before you even leave North America.

I hope you click that link and take a look – the image you see above is a cropped version of the original.

I have to confess that I am pessimistic about the future of our civilization. I’m pretty sanguine about the ultimate survival of humans qua humans, but that’s cold comfort when I consider the fact that my sister’s grandchildren may only know about the internet from stories told by bitter old survivors.

Let’s think for a minute about a few of the things we would have to do in order to really get serious about climate change. According to the experts who provided the data behind the image from Information is Beautiful, we have about 10 – 13 years to get really serious about doing something to stop or slow greenhouse gas emissions:

  • Transportation: widespread replacement of fuel infrastructure for individual vehicles. Development of hydrogen or electric vehicles. Better yet, severe cutbacks in use of personal vehicles and large increase in public transportation and automobile alternatives such as bicycles
  • Food: complete redesign of food production and distribution systems so that fewer calories of oil are burned in the process of growing the good and the process of moving it to the market that needs it, and agricultural land is managed sustainably so that it requires fewer fossil fuel-based inputs
  • Housing: efficiency retrofits for all existing housing stock, stringent efficiency requirements for new construction, including possible the requirement of passive solar design and solar hot water heating
  • Energy: complete redesign of electrical grid so it can deal with decentralized power production as well as peaks of various types of energy production throughout the day
  • Consumer goods: entities that produce material goods for consumption should be responsible for entire life cycle of pollution generated by production, including greenhouse gases burned in transporting raw materials and finished goods from extraction to manufacture to market. “Recycle” would be a silly, redundant word, because it should be unthinkable to manufacture a product that can only be used once

These are all things which are completely doable – but they’re nearly impossible because our political system has been captured and subverted – and some of the same companies that are planning this irresponsible development of further fossil fuel extraction are the same that are causing the profound disconnect between what the constituents of our allegedly representative democracy want and need, and what their elected representatives are willing to do for them.

Take one example – in the housing category, one simple thing we could do is pass a law that all roof shingles and other roofing materials must be white or light-colored. This would increase the albedo, or average reflectivity of the land surface in the country, and that would slow the process of warming by sending more heat back out into space rather than keeping it here to get trapped by those greenhouse gases. And can you imagine the outcry from right wing Congressional representatives and the right wing media? How dare the government tell homeowners what color to paint their roofs! It’s unthinkable, at least for national legislation in the USA. Just that one tiny little thing.

So I’m pessimistic. Sad to say. I really hope I’m wrong, but I’m deadly scared that I’m right – and if I allow myself to contemplate the information, my heart starts to break and I can’t finish the work I was trying to do.

I do have suggestions for how we can achieve a change in our political system dramatic enough for us to make the drastic changes required to deal effectively with climate change, and I want to write about those too – but I doubt that 10 – 15 years is enough time to implement that change. I am still going to try, though.

EDIT: I have no idea why WordPress insists on transforming my hyperlinked text into text that is also HUGE.

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March 6, 2013 · 1:46 am