Archive for September, 2014
This is going to be a long and convoluted story, so bear with me.
Or, you know, not.
When my younger son was in middle school, two things happened: he began to be mercilessly bullied by a student we will call G, and the school’s health center was taken over by a new head nurse.
We’ll call the head nurse ME.
This was a private school for grades K through 9, with about half the students in grades 5 through 9 boarding.
They bullying student–G–was a boarder, and a right little bastard. His favorite hobby was to lie in wait for Greg when I dropped Greg off at school, and then to follow him around jeering at him: your father died and it’s all your fault; you’re so poor your father just died in the street.
Greg did complain about this a few times, but when he did he was told to deal with it himself, to fight back, and all that kind of thing. Or to stay away from G.
In spite of what follows here, I don’t necessarily think that was bad advice.
Except for the fact that the school had a zero-tolerance policy for fighting, so that Greg wasn’t allowed to do the one thing that might have helped: fight back.
What Greg did instead was to do what he could to keep out of G’s sight. Very often he went to a large tree that lay in the middle of the campus and sit there thinking about the things he was writing.
Yeah. Greg writes.
Anyway, the tree was directly across the center lawn from the health center, and sometimes, if there was no other way to escape G, he would go there and talk to the nurses.
After a while, Greg realized he could fake being sick and get sent home, thereby escaping G entirely. He and I had a load of arguments about this. These included my offer to take Greg out of the private school and send him to the local public school, which was a good one, and where he would be away from G.
Greg didn’t want to do that. So we went on the way we were going, and one day, when he was sitting under that tree devising stories that would curl the hair of H.P. Lovecraft, he got called over to the health center.
And he went over there and, asked what he was doing, he–told them his story.
The story was about a rock on campus and the way it changed into all kinds of things and the way music came out of it and he could hear the chanting of monks saying they were from the dead and I don’t know what else.
That’s the kind of story Greg reads, and that’s the kind he writes.
THIS particular story happened to be stolen outright from a then very popular video game.
The nurses promptly incarcerated him in the health center and called me.
When I got down there, I was told that this was practically proof positive that Greg was mentally ill and that I had to get him a psych evaluation immediately and get him on psychotropic drugs.
Now, you have to understand something.
I wasn’t new to this kind of situation. It had plagued my own childhood, and my mother had cheerfully thrown me to the wolves in the face of it.
Obviously, if you have an imagination that produces something other than treacly replays of the Bobbsey Twins, there must be something wrong with you.
One of the reasons Greg was in this school–and Matt before him–was that I was hoping to protect him from just such people as this.
I was hoping I could get him through childhood without feeling he had to hide who and what he was–that he had to hide what I considered to be the best part about him.
I went down there and listened to the spiel, and then I said, very politely, that this was imagination, that Greg did it all the time, and that I didn’t want to make him feel bad about having an imagination.
I then got–it’s hard to explain it if you’ve never seen it.
ME, the head nurse, was a viscious, destructive bully. She was used to getting her way by hammering and hectoring people until they lost the will to resist.
And she hammered and hectored at me for an hour–and didn’t get anywhere.
In the end, I didn’t lose the will to resist. I just got fed up.
I told her in no uncertain terms that I would not brand my son psychotic that was not only perfectly normal but also pretty much the family business, that psychology was neither science nor medicine, that its affect on people was largely destructive and abusive, and that I wasn’t going to do that to him.
And then I left.
And the fun started.
ME started by talking to Greg’s teachers, telling them that he had “severe psychological problems” and that they should watch out for any “disturbed” behavior.
No, she wasn’t a psychologist or a psychiatrist. She was just married to one.
As a result of her little bulletin, an older teacher at the school reported that he had seen Greg pacing back and forth in the study hall talking to himself.
I was called in on that one, too.
ME had very carefully set up the situation that all my information had to come from her.
It took my four days to finally be allowed to know which teacher had made the report and also to talk to him.
And it turned out to be what I’d expected–at the time of the incident, Greg had been ALONE in the study hall and as soon as the teacher had come in, he’d stopped what he was doing.
Now, both Matt and I ALSO pace around talking to ourselves when we’re alone, normally because we’re writing in our heads, and of course Greg still does that.
But on that day, ALL he was doing was repeating French verbs to himself, because he had a test later in the day.
When it became obvious to ME that I wasn’t going to be bulldozed and I wasn’t going to allow her to control the situation, she tried other things.
For instance, she called Greg’s doctors and demanded information that under HIPPA she wasn’t actually allowed to have.
In the most spectacularly destructive of these forays into breaking federal law, she called Greg’s pediatrician, got a nurse, started in on the hectoring–and then just lied and told the woman that she had my permission to access Greg’s medical records.
By then, the pediatrician’s nurse was badly rattled, and what she ended up doing was giving ME MATT’S information–including the information that he hadn’t been seen in the pediatrician’s office in several years.
ME then lied to me by saying that the pediatrician’s office had called HER, and told the administration that I wasn’t taking Greg to the doctor.
I got this all straightened out, but not without cost.
This wasn’t the first time ME had called yelling at people and the pediatrician’s office had had it.
Since I couldn’t guarantee that ME would not call again, they terminated Greg as a patient.
Now, a couple of things are important to notice here.
Greg has a congenital skin condition, a form of eczema that never really clears up and never will, entirely.
He sees a lot of doctors all the time, and since the condition embarrasses him, it makes an enormous difference to him when he has to see somebody new.
He’d had this pediatrician since we brought him to the States in 1994.
And because of ME’s tactics, he lost her overnight.
And I couldn’t blame her. Greg wasn’t her only patient, and ME had just bullied her desk nurse into committing one of those felonies.
During all this time, while ME was going to the school administration and lecturing them on how Greg was psychotic and I was neglecting him by not taking him to a psychologist, Greg himself was stubbornly refusing to exhibit the characteristics of a psychotic child.
Remember G, the bully? He was bullying other people besides Greg, and he got expelled for it at the end of that year.
At which point Greg happily returned to loving school and acquiring an enormous group of friends who absolutely adored him and followed him everywhere.
He was, in other words, nothing like an “isolated” child.
My trips in to talk to the administration became common, and every time I came in I pointed out the fact that Greg didn’t actually have ANY of the characteristics of what they were accusing him of, and off I’d go.
And at that point, ME started something else.
She started following him around–and she started calling him into the health center office to “check his rash.”
The “check his rash” thing was patently bizarre.
She would call him into the office and demand that he take off his blazer and shirt so that he could see what the rash was like on his chest.
He would proclaim–he REALLY hated these sessions–that he wasn’t comfortable with that and he wanted to wait until I came so that I could be there with him while it was happening.
Then, when I got there, ME would say no, no, she didn’t need to see anything, that was fine.
This went on for months until I finally went to one of the administrators and told him that if it ever happened again, I’d take Greg down to the closest police station and have him report to them what he’d been reporting to me.
The sessions stopped. I set up a psych eval in order to at least attempt to be accommodating. (In the end, we didn’t go through with it–but all that comes later.)
The other thing ME started to do at this time was–follow him around.
Greg and his best friend waited for me and bf’s parents at a picnic table in the lower parking lot, which was right behind the health center. On the days when they were there, ME would come out of the health center and deliberately walk down to the picnic table to ask Greg how he was.
On the days when Greg was not there, she would take a different route to the lower school buildings.
The health center was in the same building as the cafeteria. When Greg was at lunch, ME would come into the lunch room and look around until she found him, and then stand there staring at him for minute after minute until he started staring back.
When Greg complained about these things to the administration, I would be hauled in yet again and lectured about how his paranoia showed just how skewed his thinking was.
When I pointed out that not only I, but several of Greg’s friends, had noted this same behavior, the interview would be terminated and everything would go on as it had been until it all happened again.
And then the summer came, and everything seemed to have calmed down, and so did I.
I shouldn’t have.
When Greg returned to school in the fall, everything went back to being screamingly abnormal, complete with the stalking behavior.
Now, though, I kept getting notes and messages from Greg’s teachers and from the headmaster that Greg was “unusually anxious.”
And, of course, he was. People who are being stalked tend to get a bit freaked out. And when this year started, the stalking had gone right up to the roof and off the other side.
And at this point, we SHOULD have been at least partially protected by what is supposed to be a bedrock principle of these kinds of things: listen to the children.
If a child tells you something, take him seriously, assume he’s telling the truth.
It turns out that the bedrock principle is “listen to the children, AS LONG AS they’re telling you what you want to hear.”
If the kid’s version of events ISN’T what you want to hear–“explain” it so that it’s really evidence of what you wanted him to say all along.
We made it through Christmas.
Not too long after that, there was a knock on my door, and there was DCF.
I want to say, right here, that we had the best experience with DCF we possibly could have.
The woman who came to my door was a seasoned veteran. She knew what she was looking at as soon as she saw it, which was more than I did.
It really hadn’t occured to me that people would make these accusations out of spite or that they would go to elaborate lengths to pay people back for not showing proper deference to themselves and their own importance.
That’s TS Eliot, I think–all the evil in the world is done by people trying to be important.
H, as we called her, walked into my house–I had no right to refuse her entrance; social workers don’t need a warrant–checked Greg’s fingernails, and then sat down and talked to me.
The fingernails thing is an interesting point.
One of the accusations was that Greg was not taking baths or showers, that he “smelled” so badly that other students couldn’t study when he was in the room.
It is in fact the case that the skin condition Greg has will sometimes produce an odor when it’s in full flare–BUT this was an odor his doctor hadn’t noticed (at all), none of his friends had noticed, none of the other people he saw had noticed.
And on one of the days when ME got Greg sent home for “smelling,” he was picked up by a family friend who is a) a meticulous Brit and b) has a very small compact car.
And HE didn’t notice any smell in spite of being cooped up in the tiny space.
The complaints about smelling, though, were what occassioned H looking at Greg’s fingernails–if he really wasn’t bathing, there would be dirt under those fingernails, and there wasn’t any.
And that’s when we won the war, I think, although I didn’t know it at the time. That’s when a couple of other things that had made her suspicious of the complaint before she ever showed up got confirmed in her head.
So, let’s talk about the complaint.
The first thing you have to know is that half of it was not about Greg, or about my behavior with and toward Greg, but literally about me.
“The mother communicates only by cell phone.”
This wouldn’t be proof of abuse, neglect of anything else anyway, but it provided a truly humourous moment, because as H read this item off, my land line rang right next to the chair she was sitting it.
“The mother always wears the same dress when she picks up the child at school.”
Actually no. I DO have three of the same dress which works really well for me, and I rotate them.
But that’s not evidence of abuse or neglect, either.
Anyway, there was a pile of that kind of thing, objecting to me personally.
Then there were the exaggerations and outright fabrications.
“Last year, there were squirrels living in the house.”
What had happened “last year” was that a single squirrel had gotten into our cellar–and it’s a cellar, not a basement; at that point, Greg had never been in it–
Anyway, it had gotten in and we’d taken three weeks to get it out because I didn’t want to kill the poor thing and it was so afraid of me (and the cats) that I had a hard time maneuvering it to the side door.
We’ll have to blame Greg’s imagination and his love of doing stand up for that one, too, because he told that story all around school for months.
Everybody except ME got it. Or maybe she got it, but found it useful to twist it to use as ammunition anyway.
H went through the rest of the charges–the complaint was five or six pages long–and every once and a while she’d stop and go, “oh, that’s nothing. They put that kind of thing in there because they know we won’t remove a child with what they’ve really got.”
Apparently, spite claims are frequent enough (and they’re shockingly frequent) that investigators know the signs.
Then H talked to Greg, and Greg gave her an earful.
And then she tried to talk to me, and I didn’t listen.
I didn’t listen because I worshipped this school. I really did.
I’d had children there for 14 solid years. I knew most of the faculty and the administration. I liked them and I assumed they liked me.
And I went on feeling that way until I made an appointment with the headmaster and listened to him lie to my face about what had happened.
I knew from H that nobody from that school was allowed to make such a complaint without permission from the headmaster.
The headmaster told me flat out that he didn’t know any such complaint had been issued–and yet his knowledge of it was in the complaint itself.
And that was it. H came for a follow up visit and we talked about cats. The school year was almost over.
Greg was in 9th grade, and only a few weeks from graduation, which is a formal thing with lots of parties that he’d been looking forward to forever.
As soon as we got the message from DCF that the case had been closed as unsubstantiated, Greg sat down and flat out refused to go back to school.
He was convinced–and probably with reason–that if he stayed in that school even another few weeks, ME would find another excuse to make another complaint.
And he had talked it out with H. He knew that whether he lost his family or not depended on the subjective judgment of the social worker, and the next social worker might not be H.
He understood that neither he nor I had rights in this process, that our fate was at the whim of the people running to system, that they could do anything they wanted to him and what he wanted or what was true didn’t matter a damn.
And that was the last time but one he left my house for TWO YEARS.
He would not go to school. He would not go to the movies. He wouldn’t leave the building.
Anybody could phone in a complaint anytime. They didn’t need any evidence. They didn’t need to give their names.
There was no place he could be safe.
And, of course, there was the rash. The rash is always with him. It will never go away. And it can look REALLY bad.
So even some nice people might see that and misinterpret it–as they had, often, over the years.
He didn’t start going out regularly until he was 19. Even now, he’s holding up finishing his education until he’s 21, and it’s not like I don’t know why.
Some of you out there are going to say well, hey–didn’t it all work out for the best? He didn’t get removed from your home, and it’s just a matter of better be safe than sorry.
I’ll tell you right now I’m not buying it.
This system ENCOURAGES false complaints, and it enables them.
And the result of one of these investigations is NOT benign.
In the years since this happened to us, I’ve made many people put into the same situation, I’ve heard about innocent children dying in the system from the system, I’ve heard about families destroyed because of the investigations.
And I’ve heard some of that from social workers IN the system.
This is, quite simply, unacceptable on any level.
The powers of DCF have to be curbed. We need to end the practice of using anonymous complaints as if they’re actually evidence of something. We need to end the anonymity of complainants. We need to make sure families have full due process rights.
My son is not an acceptable sacrifice to the do-gooder self-satisfaction of people who think they’re being noble by being “against child abuse.”
Everybody is against child abuse.
And what Greg was put through WAS child abuse–child abuse by the DCF system itself.
Oh, and there’s yet another kicker.
When Greg first left school, he talked to his friends–and he had a lot of them–very frequently on the phone.
By the time the school year was over, their parents were no longer allowing them to have contact with Greg.
Like to bet ME had a few words about how Greg had “severe psychological problems?”
So the term has started, and that means that I’m floating around out here on what I would probably call the slough of despond if I were another kind of person.
The difference is that the reason for the slough of despond is not my students.
My students have done some cringeworthy things already this term–one of them told me, in her second paper, that FDR was a Republican–but by and large this is the best class I’ve had since I returned to teaching in 2000.
It’s an upper level class. Most of the students have some connection with the necessary context and several are actually intellectually engaged.
And in spite of the fact the one of them almost certainly gave me the bug that just laid me low for a week, I love them.
No, what has brought on the slough of despond has to do with my reading, my writing, and, apparently, everybody else’s reading and writing.
Let me start here:
While I was sick, I reread a very old book, Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything.
I have read this book several times, although not recently. And I went back to it because I seemed to remember that at the start of it, Jaffe used a frame I thought would be useful for something I was working on, if I could learn to do it.
I was right, by the way, but that’s not the point.
The Best of Everything is what’s called a “four women” novel. I’ve always really like four women novels, even in their various incarnations as eight women novels, three women novels, five women novels…
In case you think you haven’t ever run into one of these, think again. The four (or whatever) women novel is one of the staples of American literature.
Little Women is a four women novel. So is Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. So is almost everything by Anne Rivers Siddons. So is The First Wives Club.
It’s a very useful form. You take four women with some connection. You start them off and then follow their various paths through life for a longer or shorter period of time.
When I first started out trying to be a real, honest to God, published professional writer, four women novels are what I wanted to write.
And yes, that is sort of what I’m working on now, but that’s a discussion for another day.
What started me on my way to the slough of despond is the fact that there is another, more recent, and probably much more famous four women novel out there, one which most of you only know as a television show.
Sex and the City.
And the television show of Sex and the City turns out to have been up free on demand on my cable service.
I didn’t realize that Sex and the City had started off as a novel until I saw the first episode of the show, which, of course, credits Candace Bushnell’s book.
The author’s name intrigued me, and it turned out that yes, she is one of those Bushnells, from one of the families that founded this state and after whom half a dozen or so major buildings (both government and private) are named.
This is not particularly important to anybody but me, and even to me is mostly means that growing up in Glastonbury is a hell of a lot more interesting than it was in my day, when the place was principally known for being very rich and very stodgy.
It’s also one of my favorite places in Connecticut. I am always very well disposed to places that spend serious money on their public libraries, and Glastonbury spends very serious money on its public library.
All that aside, Sex and the City has a very clever frame. The title is actually the title of the lead character’s column for a New York newspaper, and each episode is (at least theoretically) the content of one of those columns.
The columns follow the lives our our heroine and her (of course) three friends as they drift through NY in their thirties, desperately trying to find somebody to marry them.
Well, except for Samantha–not our heroine–who is rather refreshing in her single-minded pursuit of uncomplicated and endless sexual intercourse.
When I first saw that Sex and the City was a book, I gave serious thought to getting a copy, if for no other reason to find out what modern four women novels are like.
The book was even dirt cheap on Amazon, less than six dollars, and–
By the time I reached episode 3, I knew I was not going to read this thing.
Sex has always been a big item in four women novels–well, most of them. Not Little Women, obviously.
Hell, I even learned what sexual intercourse actually was from chapter 2 of Mary McCarthy’s The Group.
That’s the eight women novel.
The problem was, there was so much sex, so much of the time, that it turned into a gender-different form of Quidditch–just one more action scene with people running around Doing Stuff rather mindless and for far too long.
And yes, I know. Action scenes (of whatever kind) can be used to illuminate character.
But most action scenes don’t do that, and these surely did not.
They were sex scenes–graphic, right out front, and one step away from actual porn only because there were no “cum shots”.
And if you don’t know, you really, really don’t want to ask.
About the time I was getting rather depressed and annoyed at Sex and the City, I started following a FB thread that consisted of complaints from romance writers than romance novels these days are nothing but soft core porn.
The success of Fifty Shades of Grey and company have resulted in a romance market that wants sex first, sex last and sex always.
What’s coming out of even the category lines is a lot of frantic panting tied to really hackneyed, formulaic plots.
Romance has never been a genre I particularly liked, and it’s been years since I’ve ready any, so I have no way of knowing if these complaints are justified.
They do, however, match up eerily well with my complaints about Sex and the City.
And this is, of course, another case in which I am very much aware that I am in the minority, and possibly a very tiny minority.
I may not like action scenes, but most people do, and apparently lots of them like action sequences that consist of two people banging away at each other (ahem) from every imaginable direction.
Some of which directions look distinctly uncomfortable.
I am me, of course, and I would not want to stop people from reading or writing this stuff if that’s what they want to read and write.
I am, however, getting distinctly nostalgic for what I think of as “fiction,” which is–
Well, not that.
I’m not saying that all the Quidditch should go away.
Sex and violence are and always have been a part of life.
I’m just a little depressed by the fact that a vast proportion of the book buying and television and movie watching public seems to have forgotten they’re only a part.
I was getting into trouble on FB again yesterday because I was intimating, as I often do, that the two sides of our supposed cultural and political divide were, pretty much, internchangable.
The article that got me started was not about Ray Rice, but about the Tea Party, and was one of those things.
The article is this one
If you look through it, you’ll probably see what my problem was without too much trouble.
Like all left of center “analyses” of the tea party, it picks a small segment of the movement, and even smaller segment of the movement’s positions, conveniently ignores all aspects of the situation that contradicts its thesis, then ends up concluding that it’s really all about racism, the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan.
In this case, what it also did was to insist that what the movement really is about is opposition to change that comes through the “democratic process.”
The trouble started when somebody posted a declaration that the liberal response to Bush was MUCH more rational and less radical than the conservative response to Obama–something that can only be maintained if you have complete amnesia of what went on during the Bush administration.
(This led me to one of those useful insights–NOBODY realizes how crazy they sound when they’re being crazy. We always sound reasonable to ourselves.)
And at that point I noted that liberals are no happier with the democratic process than conservatives are, if that process goes against them.
State bans and state constitutional amendments on gay marriage have been democratically arrived at, but most of the liberals I know want no part of them.
Which got me a little post on how my correspondent was “one of those people” who thought democracy should be limited in some ways.
I’m one of those people, too.
The point is, so are the members of the Tea Party.
The difference isn’t in the principle, it’s in the application. Liberals think the democratic process should be limited in some ways, the Tea Party thinks it should be limited in others, and I’ve got a whole laundry list of the ways I want it limited.
In that way, liberals and conservatives are pretty much alike–they BOTH want democracy limited, they just have different areas in which they want the limitations to apply.
Which brings me to the Ray Rice thing, which I spent a good deal of yesterday paying attention to, and which has the virtue of being something on which the left and right agree not only on the principle, but on the particulars.
In case you don’t know, Ray Rice was–until VERY recently–a football player for the Baltimore Ravens.
A little while ago, he got himself arrested on a domestic violence charge for beating his girlfriend into unconsciousness into a hotel elevator.
This is not a he said, she said situation. There’s video. Very explicit video.
The man behaved like a thug, and worse.
Then two things happened.
On the day after the assault–and it WAS an assault; you can probably find it up on YouTube–she married him.
And yesterday, Ray Rice was fired from the Baltimore Ravens.
It’s that second thing I want to look at.
He was fired from the Baltimore Ravens.
Granted that what Ray Rice did was absolutely inexcusable and completely awful, he did it on his own time, when he was not on the clock.
He did it, in other words, in his capacity as a private person.
On top of that, he hasn’t been convicted of anything, he isn’t about to go to jail any time soon, and you can’t even make the case that he’s soon to be unavailable to fulfill his contract.
Now, I know that NFL contracts, like many others in entertainment and sports, include clauses that allow owners to do all kinds of noxious things.
What I’m not hearing, from anybody, is any complaints that these clauses exist, or that employers establishing rules for what employees can and cannot do on their own are pretty much allowed to do so by the courts.
Liberals and conservatives do not disagree on the principle that employers should be allowed to penalize you on the basis of your private behavior–they only disagree on which private behavior should be allowed to be penalized.
To me, it seems that the 13th amendment should have put an end to this sort of thing. Your employer owns your time when you’re on the clock. He should not own it when you’re off, because if he does he essentially owns YOU.
There will be obvious exceptions. The public spokesperson of a firm or an organization can legitimately be asked not to do anything in his private life that would damage the company’s reputation or cause, because that spokesperson is the public face of the organization.
But in order for such a firing to be legitimate, the private behavior should have something to do with the job. It would be legitimate for a Pro Life organization to fire a spokeswoman who went out and got an abortion. It would not be legitimate for the Krisy Cereal Company to fire her for that same reason.
Most employees are not the official public face of their employers, however, and their private lives should be their own.
This seems to me to be completely obvious, the sort of thing we shouldn’t have to argue about for even half a minute.
And we’re all quick to recognize the wrongness of specific cases of this kind of thing–the middle management superviser for a firm that makes pipe fittings tossed out because she opposes a bond measure that the company wants to see go through, or the janitor at a local television station fired for supporting a rise in the minimum wage.
Unfortunately, both sides are more than willing to let employers penalize workers for private behavior, and on a whole raft of issues that aren’t the ones you might think.
And they quite often do so in ways that are completely contradictory.
Most people on the left of center are usually admanantly opposed to drug testing in places like Walmart–but they’ve got nothing at all against rules that require employees not to smoke cigarettes even at home on their own time.
Cigarettes are bad for you and crystal meth is–I don’t know.
Conservatives have completely laundry lists of things they think your employer should be able to regulate in your life–the economic conservative wing of the party (“establishment Republicans”) pretty much think employers ought to regulate everything all the time.’
In what I think would be a decent world, employers would not be able to regulate most of these things. Your private life would be your own. You would only be subject to firing or penalties if whatever you were doing affected your actual performance on the job.
But what ought to be obvious here is that, in respect to the issue of whether or not your employer should be able to penalize you for what you do in your private life in cases where what you do does NOT affect your job performance–the two sides are completely identical.
That don’t differ on the principle of employer regulation of employee’s private lives.
They only differ on what in particular should be regulated.
And the list of what should be regulated will make far different impacts on different people–if you don’t smoke, anti-smoking regulations won’t matter to you much; if you do, they will be oppressive.
But the rules are oppressive even if they DON’T feel like it. And they shouldn’t be allowed.
So here we go–yet another case in which the two sides are, for me, entirely identical.
I keep waiting for a time and place when somebody, somewhere, will provide me with something actually different to vote for, but I’m not expecting it any time soon.
I am having one of those days when I can’t seem to settle down and focus on anything. I don’t have them very often, but when I do I get really annoyed, and I’m really annoyed now, and it’s only nine in the morning.
Part of it is the result of something really odd.
I have had, in this house and in others, a trade paperback copy of a book called The Image by Daniel Boorstin.
I don’t remember buying this book, and I have no idea how I came to have it.
It is, though, one of a small group of books I not only never lose, but never lose sight of. It always seems to be right in front of my face.
Other books like this include Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, which I bought in its original paperback edition when I was in high school, and which has followed me across oceans and continents without my ever intending it to.
I do remember how I got the Sontag book, however, and I’ve read it. In a way, it’s comforting to have around, because it brings me back to my 16 year old self and that total desperation to understand what all this stuff was about.
That was the same era in which I read Sartre and Camus and tried to convince myself I was just too stupid to get it, because Sartre couldn’t really be this big of a fathead.
Sartre wrote a play about segretation in the American South. It really has to be read to be believed. On the other hand, that’s a few hours of your life you’ll never get back if you do.
The Boorstin is around the way the Sontag is–it’s not only hear, but right where I can see it, all the time.
And although I don’t remember how I got it, I do know why I haven’t, until now, read it.
The copy I own is a trade paperback with a greyish and pastel cover that just looks–fuzzy. And amorphous.
I’m not terribly susceptible to covers, but this one has always just put me off. I could never get over the impression that this book isn’t actually about anything. That is was just someone gassing away without actually saying something in particular.
I enjoy gassing sometimes, but the gassing I like tends to ring with the author’s conviction that he really is saying something, and to come with lots of footnotes and references to history and philosophy that are at least interesting to consider.
The book would probably have stayed on my shelves and coffee tables and followed me around forever without ever being read, if it wasn’t for one other things–
It’s one of those books that nearly everybody references, always favorably.
In the process of reading books that interest me far more, I will run across one line or the other using Boorstin to validate a point. A lot of people seem to think that if Boorstin said it, we should all be taking it very seriously.
The latest author to do this with Boorstin was Bruce S. Thornton, one of Victor Davis Hanson’s people over at the Cal State Fresno Classics department and a writer on subjects like the culture of militant Islam.
I was actually rereading one of Thornton’s books, called Plagues of the Mind, when for some reason the references to Boorstin just started making me crazy, and the Boorstin book was right there, and…
And, I suppose, I decided that I might as well get it over with. I didn’t have a next up book I really wanted to read. The Boorstin book was staring at me, face out, from my office bookshelf. I got hold of it and got started on it and…
The thing is just as damned awful as I thought it was going to be, and for just the reasons I thought it would be.
Part of this may be just where it is I am in time and space. The Image was published in 1962 and has to do with the media and what the author calls the “rise of pseudo-events.”
By pseudo-events Boorstin means things like celebrity news and those political “debates” that aren’t really debates at all. He goes on at some length about journalistic practices and how they’ve changed over time, press releases written in the past tense to describe things that haven’t happened yet, the rise of the interview and other things that seem silly and vaporous to me because I live beyond the point where they were new.
There is not a whole lot any of can do about the passage of time. I have grown up in the world in which I have grown up, and that’s all there is to it. A lot of what seemed unusual and strange to Boorstin is par for the course now.
But even after making exceptions for the passage of time, I am still struck by how nebulous this thing is.
There is a lot of faffing around and musing, but nothing much in the way of hard information.
We get an anecdote here and there, some of them interesting–I liked the information on the welcome home parade Chicago threw for Douglas McArthur.
But anecdotes aside, what we have is what that cover always made me expect–a lot of musing.
Muse muse. Muse muse muse.
I am not nearly finished with this yet. I’m not even half way through. It’s possible that the tone and organization will change over the course of the book, and I’ll end up with something substantial after all.
But I’d be willing to be that won’t be the case.
That just doesn’t feel like the way this is going.
And that leaves me with a few questions.
First–this book was never a best seller, but it has been a steady seller for nearly 50 years. It might be a CAT these days, but it wasn’t when it first came out, or even a few years later when I was in college.
And that means that there are people out there buying this book of their own free will and intention.
They’re doing it on purpose and because they want to.
And the question is–why?
Boorstin’s original readers might have found his ramblings illuminating, but nearly everything he actually has to say is now conventional wisdom, and banal conventional wisdom at that.
The significance of some of what he has to say has been over taken by events. Network television forced us all into a news cycle that never ends? Welcome to CNN! People are becoming “well known for their well knownness”? Let me introduce you to Kim Kardashian.
FWIW, Boorstin may have been the first person to define “celebrity” in that way. We’ve change the formula to the snappier “famous for being famous,” but it’s still a useful concept to have.
These days, however, nobody has to go to Boorstin for that concept, and that bring me to my second question.
Why is it that so many writers who are–ahem–younger than I am so in love with this book?
People of my father’s generation may have learned something from this book, because many of the things it describes were relatively new.
People who grew up watching Jersey Shore will only learn something from this book if they have been entirely comatose throughout their entire upbringing.
Being a CAT may explain why this book is selling year after year.
It does not explain why the people who read it quote it in their own works and rhapsodize about it in essays and columns and blogs.
I am used to having minority tastes, but I find this entire phenomenon completely mystifing.
I find it much more mystifying than I find the popularity of Party Down South, which at least generates the fascination of a train wreck.
And it bothers me more than when lots of people like a novel that I don’t.
There isn’t even a definite partisan point of view, so that I could say that lots of people are using the book to bolster their pre-conceived ideologies.
There’s just…gently rolling mush.
I got into one of those FB conversations yesterday that–well, that requires me to write a long answer to something.
And because I have to write a long answer to something, I find myself required either to wait until tomorrow to do so on the computer system at school, or just give up.
My system at home does not handle FB well–trying to load the thing causes total computer freeze and a lot of rebooting.
And I really can’t write anything this long on my Kindle. I’ve done it a few times, but it’s a struggle, and I end up forgetting half of what I’m saying.
So here I am, and I’ll just have to post a link to this on FB later.
To start, I’ll direct your attention to this:
which is at the heart of what started the FB conversation.
This is not the link that was posted on FB, but it is a link to the study William Donohue, head of an organization called the Catholic League, was referring to when he made a statement that resulted in a headline that read something like
“Head of Catholic League Says Sex With Teenagers Is Not Pedophilia!”
And at that point, I did my usual pedantic thing, and pointed out that this was not a scandal, it was simply factual.
Pedophilia is sex with children who have not yet entered puberty.
There is a different name–a couple of them, actually–for sex with teenagers.
What’s more, the difference matters.
Sex with children has been viewed as an aberration in most societies over most of the history of the human habitation of earth.
Sex with adolescents has been viewed as entirely normal, and still is, in most places.
We may have enxtended the definition of childhood to include people all the way up to the age of eighteen, but rest of the world, and the rest of history, have not.
Now, none of these things is in serious scientific dispute, and most of the conversation I posted them consisted of a discussion of the ways in which are extention of the definition of “childhood” and the use and abuse of the sex offender laws and registry was doing bad things all around–
When a new poster chimed in to declare that: it didn’t matter what you called it, it was an evil thing that had ruined thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of lives AND Donohue was defending the priests who did these evil things and therefore he was just as evil himself.
And that’s how we ended up here.
So let me make a few points:
1) what the priests did was evil, and they most certainly deserve to be condemned for it, but by no stretch of the imagination were “hundreds of thousands” of children and/or adolescents involved.
There were in fact fewer than 5,000 such allegations for a period covering nearly 30 years. Even if you consider all of them to be automatically true and substantiated–and they weren’t–you’re still dealing with a problem whose dimension are (grantly sadly) pretty par for the course for this kind of thing.
This does NOT excuse what happened.
This does NOT relieve the Church or the priests of responsibility for what they did and didn’t do.
It’s just a fact, and the facts won’t go away just because we want them to, or because cartoonish exaggerations are so much more emotionally satisfying than reality.
2) Donohue was not defending the priests or what they did.
The Catholic League, which Donohue created, exists to combat what it feels is anti-Catholic bias in the media and the culture.
In pursuit of this, the League has done some fairly silly things, like picket museums that show Andre Serano’s Piss Christ.
In this case, all Donohue was trying to do was insist that reports on the “priest pedophilia” scandal be accurate.
When we get to the point where calls for accuracy result in accusations of siding with the evildoers, we’re in a place we shouldn’t ever want to be.
No matter what it is that you think you’re doing when you declare that facts don’t matter, only passionate condemnation does, what you’re NOT doing is siding with the victims or preventing any more victimization.
In fact, you’re probably helping to increase the number of children and adolescents who will be victimized in the future.
Without accuracy and honesty in investigating the problem, there’s no chance in hell that you’ll be able to understand enough about what the hell went on so that you’ll be able to prevent the same thing happening in the future.
A Catholic Church full of priests lusting after 6 year olds is not the same thing as a Catholic Church with a distinct minority (about 4%) who preyed on 15 year olds.
It’s a different problem morally, physically, and in every other way.
If you set up a bunch of defenses against the problem with 6 year olds, you’re going to miss the majority of what’s going on.
3) No matter how much fun it might be to beat up on the Catholic Church, or how much need you may have to be able to declare the Church to be totally discredited from commenting on moral questions, making accusations so exaggerated as to make them false does not help your case.
The “priest pedophilia” scandal generated as much attention as it did because the Catholic Church is rich and powerful and on very vocally on the conservative side of lots of social issues.
It is not, however, at all unusual in the percentage of its staff who engage in pedophilia or sex with adolescents.
Predators go where the prey are. Every organization in the country which deals with large numbers of children has pretty much the same percentage of staff engaged in sexual predation–and that’s an important thing to know.
If all you care about is whether or not you can make the Church look bad–well fine.
But if you want to decrease the number of children and adolescents who fall victim to these people, then you have to acknowledge who they really are and what they’re really doing.
4) One of the things we all have to acknowledge if we really want to do something about these problems is that pedophilia and the urge to have sex with adolescents are VERY different things.
They are different historically, culturally, and psychologically.
And because of that, it may be much easier to combat the one (pedophilia) than the other.
But you’re not going to combat anything if you restrict yourself to morally satisfying fairy tales.
So, this morning, on ALDaily, I found this
Yet another hymn to what is good about Luddism–the stubborn refusal to accept change as it manifests itself in new technologies, particularly the technologies that disrupt our world by making some forms of employment and occupation obsolete and substituing new ones–
Or, as all Luddites, ne0- or otherwise, insist, possibly not substituting anything at all.
It is this fear–that technology will take over all our employments and leave us with nothing, groveling and starving in the dirt while the few people who own these technologies or who are otherwise able to access and use them gobble up all the resources and ignore us as if we don’t exist.
I have gone over and over and over again why I believe this scenario is farcical, not the least of which is the fact that those people who own the technologies need custoners if they’re going to make any money at all.
If we ever did reach the point where there was nothing but the “1%” and the starving, groveling masses whose only opportunity for making a living consisted of playing pool boy to Silicon Valley tech barons, the whole system would promptly collapse and the tech barons would find themselves out on the streets with the rest of us.
There is no market without people. It would be possible for the tech barons to make individual products for individual rich buyers, but they would be a lot poorer when they did it, and the rest of us could and would ignore them. They’d do what they do, and we’d go back to doing things like farming small plots of land or herding cattle or inventing widgets that our neighbors and friends would value.
We tend to forget that “employment” as we now understand it is a very knew thing, brought on by the industrial revolution.
But that’s the worst case scenario, and it’s not what I’m worried about, because the changes that it will come about are virtually nil. Tech barons like to make money just the way robber barons did, and to do that they need a middle class.
That middle class may be in India and China instead of here, but it will be somewhere, and it will have both employment and income.
With any luck, it will also have more imagination than the writers of these articles ever seem to have, because if there is one thing that categorizes pieces like this, it is the MONUMENTAL failure of imagination required to even conceive them.
I understand that it is very difficult to peer into the future and conceive of what might be coming down the road. And my older son is always telling me that we’re very bad at knowing what we’re going to get good at, his prime example being the old Jetsons tv show, where there are flying cars and robots doing all kinds of work people did then, but where telephone calls still need a switchboard and computers still occupy entire buildings.
No, I do not know what’s coming next, but I do know that whatever it is it will be something we do not have now, at all. We’re having trouble conceiving of it because it does not now exist.
Whatever it is will come, however, and when it’s been around for a while, people will start complaining that the good jobs it once guaranteed to the middle class are being decimating by yet newer technologies coming up.
But nobody will say “yet newer.” Everybody will talk as if the technology under discussion existed from always and it’s just this latest innovation taking away what we’re “entitled” to.
But all those things aside, the REALLY interesting thing about this piece occurs near the end, where the author talks about a new HBO series called Silicon Valley.
The author heartily approves of this series, because he feels it shows Silicon Valley for what it really is–a collection of very strange people who don’t care at all about our welfare.
Think about that.
“…very strange people…”
You know, weirdos.
We are, God help us, back to that.
And that, quite frankly, says all I need to know about Luddism, neo or otherwise.
Luddism has been synonomous with stupid, or foolish?
Well, that there–that “very strange people”–is why it should be.
I first heard that Gordon Ramsay’s television show Hotel Hell was coming to Connecticut to film a segment on Woodbury’s Curtis House about six months ago.
At the time, all I could think of was: oh, my God. I’ve eaten in a restaurant with a kitchen full of rotting meat and cockroaches.
For those of you who are not familiar with Gordon Ramsay or his television: he is a chef of some serious reputation, with three or four internationally famous restaurants in operation, who started on the tube with a show that took him to various failing restaurants in the US and the Uk and gave him a chance to fix them.
It’s really remarkable how many of those restaurants have turned out to have kitchen conditions that ought to make them immediately nonexistant by order of the board of health–but somehow, the various boards of health never seem to have discovered the messes in these kitchens, and there were are.
I’ve always wondered why these people invite Ramsay in to take over and film, because although there are obvious compensations (the show often picks up a hefty tab for remodelling or the services of a professional chef who can retrain the restaurant’s incompetent staff), the simple fact is that I would eat in one of these places to save my life.
If the kitchen was that filthy to start with, my hunch is that it will go back to being that filthy again, given time. I don’t trust these people to maintain hygene. They haven’t up to now.
Aside from the original program (actually two, Kitchen Nightmare’s and Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares), Ramsay also has something called Hell’s Kitchen, which is a sort of standard competition show where hopeful chefs compete for jobs in one of Ramsay’s restaurants, and this thing, Hotel Hell, where Ramsay charges in to fix an entire hotel instead of just a restaurant.
Now, I won’t say Gordon Ramsay is an acquired taste. The experience is more like watching a train wreck.
American versions of the show are full of bleeps. BBC America versions just let the effing and essing fly. The man has the most remarkable ability of anyone I’ve ever seen to lose his temper on camera and to do it completely articulately.
He also has the ability to be charming in unexpected ways–like spoofing himself on a cell phone commercial or calling his mother for mother’s day while he’s on his way to…the Curtis House.
Of course, there are exceptions on all these shows, places in which the underlying problem isn’t filth and neglect. One of the episodes on one of the restaurant shows featured a place whose kitchen was pristine but whose owners were crazy. Customers would complain about the food and then be told, “you’re wrong, our food is great, you’re just trying to make trouble, you should get out of here.”
Clips from that show ended up on YouTube and went absolutely viral. People started showing up at the restaurant to see if these people were as crazy as they appeared.
Apparently they were.
But in spite of these exceptions, the shows run pretty close to formula almost every time, so when I hear that Gordon Ramsay is coming in to fix a restaurant or a hotel, I assume that at least some of what I’m going to get is, you know, cockroaches.
And the thing about the Curtis House is that, although I’ve never stayed there, I have eaten there.
It was a while back, and there’s nothing to say that what it is like now is what it was like then, but still…
It’s not the kind of thing you want to think about.
So, when I heard that Ramsay was coming to Woodbury, I really, really, really wanted to see the episode.
Sort of as a matter of principle.
Well, a couple of days ago, I did see it–I can find it difficult to watch shows on television, because I don’t like to watch episodes when they’re initially aired.
That’s fine as long as the show is popular and the station it originally appeared on is interested in having it reaired, but it can also mean that there are some things that just disappear into the night, or that vanish for long periods until you can’t remember why you were interested in the first place.
With the Curtis House episode of Hotel Hell, I didn’t take the chance.
Like everything else that airs on Fox, episodes are up FOD the day after they’re first aired. The episodes are “free” only in the sense that they don’t require anything out of pocket. The commercials are running full blast, and you can’t fast forward through them no matter how much you may want to.
On the other hand, that’s fair. Fox makes its money through advertising. And there’s nothing to stop you from going to the kitchen instead of actually watching the commercials.
So I sat down after lunch one day and watched the thing and…
Well, first, it was one of the exceptions. Although there was a fair amount of filthiness in the rooms upstairs, there was no indication that the kitchen was anything but properly run, at least as far as hygiene was concerned.
Ramsay did rework the inn’s menu, because he thought the food was “stodgy.” I’ll give that too him. The time I ate there, the food was very stodgy indeed.
And that was what was most interesting about all of this.
With a lot of other people, I tend to think of “reality TV” as essentially UNreal. I’ve always assumed that what I saw there was distorted by definition.
If it was up on the air and meant to be entertainment, then it must also have been falsified in some way.
The Curtis House episode of Hotel Hell, however, was not falsified in any way I could see.
It’s possible that the central drama–a brother and sister ownership teamwho had stopped talking to each other, at all, years ago–was scripted into unrecognizability.
But I’d have no way of knowing that.
And from what I do know about this place, the episode was entirely authentic.
If you want to know what it’s like to eat at Connecticut’s oldest in–in operation since before the Revolution–this episode is a good guide to the experience.
I feel like I need to revise the way I view and judge at least some reality programming.
You’re never going to get me to think that there’s anything “real” about Jersey Shore. You’re never going to get me to watch a single entire episode.
But there are other things on the air–the Lockup series that goes inside prisons, for instance–that might have more to recommend them than I originally thought.