Friday, November 2, 2012

Humans in Society

Imagine three people naked and separate in the woods.  They have nothing with them, no one with them, no starting point.

One recognizes his coldness and gathers wood, and struggles for a spark, until he has a fire.

Another recognizes her hunger, sharpens a rock, and kills an animal for food.

A third recognizes his thirst, and searches far and wide for water, until he finds a spring.

The first is warm, but dies of thirst.  The second is full, but dies of exposure.  The third is slaked, but dies of starvation.

But if instead the three meet, and recognize what each the other can bring, what each the other needs, and what they themselves have and need, they can share one to the other and live.  The water carrier is fed, the hunter is warm, the fire-builder does not thirst: this is society.  

When humans come together and agree that they will do better together than alone, we build a social contract.  Perhaps I can build my own fire, grow my own food, and find my own water; perhaps so can you; but I will eventually sleep, and my fire will go out.  You will walk alone, and so you will meet the tiger alone.  The hunter who has fed herself will get too old to hunt.  So we agree: I will find food, and you will find shelter, and she will find skins, and they will keep watch in the night, and we will survive together.  None needs be starved or hunted or naked.

Thousands of years pass, and we find that you build homes, and I bake bread, and he raises chickens, and she weaves cloth.  And still later, she teaches, and he nurses, and I make machines, and he builds roads, and on and on towards finer and more minute actions.  The things we share one to another, the needs we have and things we can offer, are different now, and more abstract and separated, because there are thousands of us and millions of us, each with different needs, different skills, different knowledge, and the beginning absolutes of water and fire and food are very remote, now.  But we are still a society, still each putting in and taking out and absolutely reliant on the other.

It seems to me that now that we are so far from those absolutes, all so content and assured that we can turn the tap and have water, turn on the gas and have heat, and go to the store to find food, that we have developed the luxury of forgetting what a society is, what benefits we take from it, and what responsibilities we owe to it.  We have created an illusion of absolute independence, of solitary self-sufficience, because we make our money and pay for our goods and never need to agree to trade one service or one kindness or one promise to another human being who needs to do the same.  We come to a place and we are not naked, and we are not cold, and we are not hungry, so we can fail to recognize the person who sews as someone we rely on, the person who farms as someone we are beholden to, even though were we to suddenly be without clothing or food, we would just as surely die.  Our social contract has worked so well for us that now there are people who believe absolutely that they need nothing and owe nothing.

But I am not machining the factory that produces my heat.  And you are not paving the roads you drive, or that the trucks carrying your food drive.  Without those who are, we are cold and hungry.  So even though I don't give you fire for water, I do put a little in the pot so the water keeps coming from the tap.  And even though you don't build a roof for someone so that they will dig out a sewer, you put in a little so that the sewers keep moving.  Each of us benefits daily from utilities, from trade agreements, from infrastructure generally, so each of us gives a little back to maintain our utilities, make our treaties, and build our roads and schools and hospitals.  Otherwise, we are failing our side of the contract; we eat but provide nothing for the warmth of those feeding us.  We drink but provide nothing to the water-carrier.  In the short term, this is cynical exploitation of a society we rely absolutely on.  But in the long term, this destroys the contract, and consequently, the society - when we have no contract, we have no heat, no water, no sewer, no access to food and clothing, no one to watch for the tiger in the night.  

This is not a plausible system; this is not a livable world.  Without a society, we are all more or less doomed to die alone, whether of exposure or starvation or disease or attack.  So be wary of anyone who tells you that all will be well when we stop supporting our society; this is nihilism.  In the most basic terms, this is the end of civilization.  If they have already reaped enough benefit from the society that they have fire and meat and water to last them for now, they won't be the ones to suffer when the contract is broken--they may walk away without paying their due or owning up to their responsibility for the society that sheltered them so far.  But we are all only one cold night away from the fire going out, and one lonely walk away from the tiger.  The lines aren't as clear as they used to be, but we may still look face to face to face and see our survival in the eyes of the other. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The righteous sleep worse than the wicked

I think about that moment when someone asks the bad guy, "How do you sleep at night?"  The person who is exploiting other human beings or outright endangering them for some gain or another; "How do you sleep?" the outraged dissident asks them.

How well?

Probably pretty well, is my guess.  Poor sleep is a sign of guilt or worry or that nagging voice in the back of your mind, or that upsetting confrontation replaying itself over and over; if you've made the decision to behave in a way that disregards human dignity, and to continue to behave that way, you've probably decided that (a) it's worth it, (b) they deserve it, or (c) that's just the way the world works.  You're satisfied with that answer and have abdicated any responsibility you might feel for it.  There will be nothing to trouble your sleep until something worms its way past the surface.  If anything ever does.

I think about the ethical repercussions of everything I do; my purchases, my causes, my behavior.  I have an idea of the world I want to live in, a few clear principles I value, and I make my decisions based on those values, on making that world come to be.  I behave as rationally and compassionately as I can.  I apply this as broadly as I can.  I try to respect my fellow human beings and take responsibility for my actions as they extend out beyond me to touch those fellow human beings.  And when I play out the repercussions of policies I think are destructive or inhumane, I also try to find a way to not paint someone who supports that policy with that color, try to give them the benefit of the doubt in considering what aims they might have or what different theories of behavior, of government, and so on they might ascribe to.  Or if that fails outright, try to believe they're still a good person--just one with some gaping holes in their understanding.

I'm the one who doesn't sleep at night.

I believe I'm right; I don't believe everyone who disagrees with me is evil; I satisfy myself that I am doing my part to make a better world and living up to my own standards, while still allowing myself enough slack to not go insane.  But I lie awake having imaginary arguments with people I believe are good people, trying to get them to understand a point of view I think is righteous.  I replay moments of people I know expressing some sentiment I think is abhorrent, and of me being too struck dumb to say anything to propose an alternative--and then imagine alternate endings, standing up to their ignorance or unkindness either destructively, by indulging my insult and taking them apart, or constructively, by starting a conversation, sharing information.  But I lie awake when I think I have managed to do that, too, dissecting the conversation, wondering about the fallout, wondering if I've done any good, and wondering whether I have lost a friend or failed a cause or both.  I look forward in fear to the next conversation, the next confrontation, the next election.

I wonder whether I have done any good at all.

I'm the one who doesn't sleep at night.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Surrounded by community and lonely

I feel pretty lonely, right now. I've been struggling with this for a while, and with whether to even write anything about it, but here goes.

 I finally feel like I've built some community, here - that I have made some friends, that there are people here that I love. But I always have this aching feeling that in a lot of those cases, that love will never come back to me. Some of it I hope is just ungrounded fear, a symptom of depression and anxiety and insecurity. And sometimes I think it has to do with a a personality defect I suspect I have (maybe a topic for another post). But lately it has been a more existential loneliness.

 I live, now, in the church capital of the country. Almost everyone I meet here is a person of faith--of strong faith that plays a large role in their lives. I understand and appreciate that - it can give community and wholeness to a heart, and direction. It makes the existential terror of death livable, and there is no reason to live your life in terror and insecurity if you have something to believe in. And faith can sometimes bring out the very best in people, propel them to great acts of good, give them the strength for kindness, and I deeply respect and admire that. I am not willing to dismiss the importance of someone's faith in their life.

 But I have no belief of my own. I am something like an agnostic in the original Greek sense, because I know that there cannot be an absolute proof of one faith or another or none, that any one may be right or may be wrong; I know that I cannot know. And in the face of that I cannot dismiss anyone's beliefs, but I can't make myself have a belief in any one thread of millions, either, be it a belief in a god, an afterlife, or the absolute absence of either. It isn't part of me.

 Which is a lonely place to be, especially here.

 I don't talk to people of faith about my lack of it--it's my general policy to leave it be; no one would gain from it. But in a culture of faith, it's probably no surprise that strong believers do talk about their beliefs about the faithless; it's part of their lives and worldviews. It does mean they're telling me what they think of me as part of this nebulous class of people, though.

 For instance, last week I was told about a couple who were terrible to each other, didn't love each other and wouldn't care for each other in their times of need--and that they couldn't, because they hadn't built their marriage on Christ. And I realized that this person I know and am friendly with believes that I wouldn't change a colostomy bag for the love of my life, that I am incapable of care and devotion. I build my life on a love and respect for life, and cherish my loved ones, and believe that people on any path are capable of that, but that doesn't enter into it for her. I didn't know what to say. I was quiet.

 I also hear stories of fear, that loved ones who haven't seen the light will be lost and condemned; and stories of hope and peace, that those who have should not be missed or grieved, for they are in paradise. And I am so grateful for the comfort they can take from that, and that they can feel free to express it, to share fear and love and comfort, to have rich community in times of sorrow. But part of me is reminded in those times of my own losses--and that I never feel that comfort. And part of me is reminded that many of the people I know and love, friends and family, believe I will burn in eternal damnation; that regardless of my kindness or my love or any other goodness they might see in me, I cannot be part of their universe.

 And I wonder which of them know that I am one of those, and which ones don't; which ones suspect it, and whether or how our relationship would change if they knew, and whether some of them will never be close to me because of it.

 At those times I feel just how apart I am from so many of the people I love, and it's hard not to feel lonely.

 I don't know that there's anything to be done about it. I'm just hoping if I can talk about it somewhere it'll ease the feeling a little.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

On the best dinner I have ever made; aka, saving spoiling meat

I abhor waste.

I'm not perfect--I screw up and things go bad or beyond eating--but Grammy's Depression Mentality skipped a generation and hit me full force, and I do what I can. I am suspicious of calls to throw anything away (though Chris luckily provides a sound, cautious balance to any out-and-out packrat behavior), and minimize waste every way I can. If something can go to goodwill, to recycling, to a classroom, or into the compost bin rather than the garbage, I try it.

My proudest accomplishment recently was saving meat--poultry, no less--from beyond the brink.

In the past, this would have been something we'd have thrown out--it was only three days past its sell-by, but smelled unpleasant through the package, a sign of spoilage, and poultry is notorious for carrying bacteria. But I had looked all over for a large raw turkey breast (we planned to roast it for sandwiches), it was a couple of pounds, and I could NOT stand the thought of letting something so substantial and hard won go without a fight.

So I did a little research. How bad is bad?

According to this article (and the two separate labs and a human test subject involved), it's a lot farther off than we tend to think.

I don't understand all forms of spoilage, I'll be honest--but I do understand bacteria and temperature pretty well. While Tom Rawstorne said no to his chicken past-it's-prime, in the article above, the lab confirmed that while the smell was produced by an excess of bacteria, cooking it thoroughly would kill it; the only problem would be foul tastes left behind.

I won't eat things that smell or taste rotten; I'm not going to fight with evolution on this one, because I'll lose. But the world has developed plenty of ways to make "bad" food safe and palatable in famines, and I resolved that if I could get the turkey clean enough to NOT smell, and that if I could make it taste good, we would eat it. Reassured that it's safe if cooked through and cross-contamination is avoided, that was all that was left to cover.

(I also consulted with Chris to make sure he was okay with this plan; I would never push old meat on anyone.)

First, the smell--fat and skin spoil faster than anything else, and the plastic packaging meat tends to come in traps all manner of foul-smelling gases bacteria are emitting. (If you get inflated packages, this is most likely what is going on, there.) So I cut away every scrap of skin and fat I could get to, scrapped the packaging, and rinsed the hell out of the breast in running water. (Rinsing won't kill anything, but water and friction will displace a lot of things, and at the very least dispel the gases clinging to the meat.) Moved it to a clean plate, washed and bleached everything it had touched previously, and hit it from the cats so it could come to room temperature.

Room temp. probably sounds like a bad idea, since refrigeration slows bacterial growth, right? But the fastest way to undercooked portions of meats is to put them still cold into the oven or pan; a piece of meat with a cold core will not cook as evenly as a piece of room temperature meat, and uneven cooking is the enemy of safe cooking.

I smelled it every hour or so while I was waiting, to see if the packaging stench came back. It did not; there was a distinct smell of meat, strong, but not foul. Step one: success.

Second: taste. In case any of the off-ness survived the de-smelling, I wanted to be sure I cooked it thoroughly, safely, and with a lot of strong flavors. I don't want to go that far and come up with something that tastes funny and we won't eat.

So I looked at world cuisine. Cuisine from hot climates and from impoverished or famine-struck nations has developed in response to avoiding or curing spoilage; if you can't afford to throw anything away (famine) or food pre-refrigeration would go off in the heat too quickly (equatorial zones), you find a way. Hot climates have cultured spices and very hot peppers, which in addition to having vibrant enough tastes to hide off notes, have some health benefits related to insulin and heart disease, and have serious anti-bacterial properties--they retard or reverse spoilage.

So do garlic, onions, and alcohol - here we get into the impoverished era of French cooking.

Now I know "famine" isn't generally how we think of French food; French food is what comes incredibly expensive in incredibly small portions in incredibly fancy restaurants. But how do you think anyone decided eating frog legs and snails was a good idea? This was not the product of a rich nation.

A segment of french food comes down almost entirely to stewing for a long time (killing bacteria with heat; making tough cuts or scrap meat tender) and cooking with wine (alcohol will kill almost anything). The onions and garlic are an added bonus.

Anyway, I've been making a lot of curries and middle-eastern dishes lately, so I thought I'd try my hand at French. This is almost always Chris's bailiwick--southern French, northern Italian, Provençal--but he has taught me how to make two of the best things in the world: marinara and boeuf bourguignon.

Beouf bourguignon is taking hunks of beef and sauteing them with garlic and onions before (guess!) stewing them with vegetables for three hours in red wine (Burgundy, specifically) and stock. It is the most delicious thing in existence. (And stewing for that long would also hide how not-crisp those carrots and how soggy those mushrooms were, too). I knew there had to be chicken versions of this, too, with white wine, and confirmed that fricasée de poulet au vin blanc is a common enough dish, so I decided fricasée de dinde au vin blanc would do nicely--even though the turkey is a New World bird, not common in French cooking.

Here were the basics:

First, take as read that any time the turkey touched any implement, the implement was cleaned before it touched anything else--including the turkey as it was cooking. All veggies had devoted boards and knives that never came in contact with the turkey.

*Sauted garlic and onions in butter until slightly browned.
*Still on the bone, seared both sides of the breast.
*Almost covered with water, added a clove, salt, pepper, and a little wine (see below) and boiled for about 30 minutes, turning midway (this step should have killed everything even potentially dangerous, and as a bonus made the gorgeous turkey stock I wanted with the stew)
*Removed the breast, let it cool slightly (left the stock boiling down to concentrate; tasted the stock to be sure it was excellent before going any further--it was)
*Cut the meat off of the bone into hunks, returned to the boiling stock (in case any part of the meat close to the bone didn't cook thoroughly, this took care of that)

*Chopped up a pile of carrots, celery, and mushrooms; added to the stock
*added the rest of a half-bottle of Sauvignon Blanc to the stew (remaining half to have with the stew at dinner, naturally)
*set the whole thing to a gentle simmer and let it go 2-3 hours

Now I'm paranoid about off-tastes; usually, even the fear of something being off might convince me something tasted wrong. Not so, here: this was, without a doubt, the most delicious entree I have ever made. I even managed to whip up a sourdough-starter-aided crusty white bread to serve with it, and some green beans, so the meal was complete and gorgeous and trés Français.

I suppose I should say "replicate at your own risk"--be sensible about any food risk you decide to take, everyone is different... but if all of the appropriate precautions are taken, there really isn't any risk to speak of.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

PSA on Women's Health and Bodies, Part 2

Birth control is for sluts? What if I said I wanted to be on birth control so that, if one of these guys hopped up on viagra (that his insurance provided him) assaulted me, I'd at least be protected from pregnancy?

(I like to hope this is paranoid, but it crosses my mind more than I'd like to admit.)

For the record, I'm in a monogamous marriage to a man with a vasectomy, but in light of my history, have been strongly encouraged by my doctor to stay on birth control indefinitely, to (1) lower my chances of getting another ovarian tumor (and possibly losing the other ovary with it), and (2) avoid losing a half pint of blood every month. This is good for them, too, of course; ultrasounds to follow the progress of cysts, surgery, bloodwork, and care for anemia cost them more than my birth control does.

PSA on Women's Health and Bodies

Before you shave your twat (or ask your special friend to shave hers), please bear in mind that the denuded vulva is essentially indistinguishable from that of a nine year old girl. Food for thought.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Babylon 5 binge is go.

Because my birthday is coming up...

Because I had the foresight to work out an Amazon wishlist for the first time.. er.. ever...

Because Chris is FANTASTIC and loves me and has the excellent taste to share my interest...

(And because Amazon is listing all the suckers at approx. 1/3 the usual price, hint hint, this is the time to look...)

...we are now the proud owners of our very own complete set of Babylon 5.

No more hauling a season's worth of my mother's VHS tapes up from LA when we realize we might want to have access. No more waiting months to trade it out for another season. No more years of drought because we didn't think to do it or she was re-watching or...

Granted, seeing the commercials that were being aired in Torrance in 1998 on TNT during the original airing of River of Souls was kind of an amazing time capsule. Especially the one for how they were going to be recording Monday Night RAW at the Anaheim Pond (back when it was still the Duck pond, bless it), because I remember watching that commercial then, and we went, and we even trekked out to Venice Beach because Chyna and Triple H were going to be hanging out at the outdoor gym and we wanted to meet them and she was so freaking sweet and I still remember her nail polish...

...but not a really sustainable relationship. And anyway, I'm on a Bruce Boxleitner binge and have run out of movie-of-the-week Westerns from the 90s that are available for instant streaming. I'm going to be good and wait out Michael O'Hare--we're starting over from the beginning, just watched the pilot, The Gathering, last night--but it won't be long.

Anyway, short version: love.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Newer update!

All is well. Everyone who sent good vibes: it worked great. Everyone at Kaiser was wonderful and kind, and they even got me in early and gave me pictures, after; everything went swimmingly. I'm home safe and sound, now, one ovary (and one tangerine-sized cyst attached thereto) lighter. Gotta' take it easy, but everything should be fine in a few weeks. Now I'm going to slip back into a sweet, snuggly, slightly anaesthetized nap with my kitties, but wanted everyone to know things are fine first. Love you all so much. <3