30 June 2009

Gold - A 100 Word Story

The machine goes ping and she stifles a laugh. They loved that movie.

His hands are cold in hers, so she is not surprised when the rhythmic ping changes to a whine, then to the chaos of nurses and doctors performing a full code. She allows herself to be ushered out to the sterile comfort of the waiting room.

Couples fight silently overhead, the trash tv thankfully muted. Her fingers caress the worn gold of her ring. She wonders if she will wear it once he has gone.

She sees the doctor in the doorway, and stands to meet him.

29 June 2009

Simple - A 100 Word Story

[Steve's note - not a story for the kiddies.]

When we dated, her lips brushed my ear, saying: "I don't want to get into anything complicated." Now, one lip hangs decomposing from her ruined face.

I stumble back over the playroom's plastic chairs. I had pretended nothing was wrong, had imagined she was happy. Our son's first birthday pictures show her flat expression and storebought birthday cake. She - it, zombies are it - drops his gnawed arm.

Trapped in the corner, I can't run from reality anymore. I level the shotgun.

"Keep it simple, baby."

I fire one barrel through my sobs and her head.

I save one barrel for me.

26 June 2009

Chair - A 100 Word Story

It first creaked as she rocked in summer's heat, waiting for the baby. Dad fixed it, but she wouldn't sit in it until he made it squeak again.

She rocked through my breastfeeding and tantrums. I showed up once with teenage bravado and a cigarette. She stopped. I put the cigarette out and heard the rhythmic creak again.

I missed it when I left for college. Squeaks lulled me to sleep when I returned for Dad's funeral.

It's silent now. My wife asks if I'm okay.

The wind moves the rocker, and for a second I pretend that I am.

25 June 2009

Cereal - a 100 Word Story

For a while after the attempt, everything was spectacular. It was as if a sensory grime was vomited with the sleeping pills and charcoal, and left behind in the ER's biohazard bag. He drank in the sky's shifting shades of blue, the smell of grass and gasoline on suburban weekends. He even savored the oaty richness of generic cereal scraping down his throat.

He was discharged, but doctors warned that relapse was often subtle.

"People feel fine but don't notice the symptoms returning."

He wouldn't forget. He promised he would be back to see them -- when cereal was boring again.

24 June 2009

Taboo variation #2 - a 100 Word Story

Samantha always knew the exact location of the door. She knew the ways to exit any room. She knew when to run, when to hide, when to agree, when to be silent. These lessons were her mother's gifts.

His rampages were a time for silence.

She did not flinch as bits of smashed vase skittered across the kitchen floor. The vase was her mother's. A shard came to rest against her toe.

She looked up at him, angry in the kitchen doorway.

Samantha always knew the exact location of the door.

She also knew the exact location of the icepick.

23 June 2009

Taboo, variation #1 - A 100 Word Story

"I do not like to speak Spanish in public," she said, hoping he and his bright, inquisitive eyes would just go away.

"Well, could I practice with you? I am having problems in my Spanish class."

Kate ("Katiana," her mother whispers in accented English) twirls a dyed blonde strand of her hair. She prays he has not heard her call home.

"No. I do not remember that much, anyway. I am sorry."

"Lo siento, tambien," he says, walking away.

That night, she hears Univision from her mother's television and cries. It is a melodramatic soap opera.

She understands every word.

22 June 2009

Zombie - A 100 Word Story

Hush. Do not say another word.

You stand out. You are not dressed like them - no suit, no power tie, no flag pin. They swarm downtown during the day. Nighttime is safer; they shelter in their homes.

I can pass among them. I can rattle off last week's scores and the contestants on the reality TV shows. You have to talk in soundbites, not analysis. Are you stupid? They will eat your brain if they notice you.

Damn. My co-workers. Follow my lead.

Bobby! Yeah, shame about last night. We were just talking about who got voted off, right?

Right?

19 June 2009

Steamer Trunk - A 100 Word Story


"Are we supposed to be up here?"

The third attic stair squeaked before I answered my sister's whine.

"Mom is gone for the afternoon. I am bored and in charge until they get back. So yes."

The attic was full of Grandmother's old stuff. Here there was a stack of yellowing magazines, there were some musty papers and old books. Under it all was the prize: Her old steamer trunk, blackened with age and oil.

"Bobby, I heard Grandma was a witch."

Pandora Spyros, Grandma's name, was written just above the latch. I ignored my sister and opened Grandmother's box.

18 June 2009

Expected Surprises - A 100 Word Story

I have all the books here - the Qu'ran, a Torah, Bibles, the Book of Mormon, an Egyptian Book of the Dead, and dozens more. Water flows under the thick smoke of incense and burnt offerings. My sweat dampens the white robes; a priest rubs the ointment on my head. Priests and priestesses crowd around me. Their chants drown out the monitor's alarms; my last heartbeats and breaths are recorded for posterity. Hundreds of traditions. No-one knows what lies on the other side, but with their help, I am ready. I breathe my last.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is real? Damn.

17 June 2009

Nightingale - A 100 Word Story

Cherry blossoms perfume the air, decorating it with the fall of their petals. I stand before her, my katana soiled with the blood of her enemies. Her rescued family is my wedding offering.

I have read the tales of heroes. I fashioned my armor, my habits, my life in imitation of them. I completed their trials, their feats. I am the greatest of them.

I smile at her. I have read the tales of heroes, and I know how this will end.

She turns, walking away under the cherry blossoms.

As in all the tales of heroes, a nightingale sings.

16 June 2009

Chocolate Pudding Homecoming - A 100 Word Story


The recipe amused her: "As this homey dessert bakes..." It was appropriate, in an overdone kind of way. He had been gone for just over a year. He would appreciate a little care package.

The scoop whuffed a small puff of flour onto her mother's old cookbook. When she cooked, her mother's memory was close. She could almost hear her voice.

"Sissy, get all the ingredients together before you start cooking," it chided. Fine.

Sugar. Eggs. Baking powder. Metal file. Chocolate. Vanilla.

Her son called from the other room. "Mommy, when will Daddy come home?"

"Soon, baby. Real soon."

15 June 2009

Rough Sex Defense

[Steve's note: This was a response for a criminal justice class I had. It also outlines why I tended to frustrate the CJ majors in that class. The next week or three, so I can take a small mental break, I'll be posting (and reposting) flash fiction from the last year. Some of it isn't even in the archives of this blog - it was posted elsewhere, or on MySpace. So I hope you find this intriguing, and find the flash fiction fun to read.]

It is generally difficult to judge the merits of a particular type of defense through the lens of a small number of cases. This principle holds true in the "rough sex" defense, as reported in Time magazine in 1988.

Before turning to the defense itself, some exegesis is required with the article in question. The author, through (perhaps unintentional) use of language, is clearly unconvinced of the merits of the defense. Further, the world is a very different place now than twenty years ago. As the ease of communication and finding others with our own particular kinks, the relative embarrassment of asphyxiation play [1] is greatly lessened. In fact, in recent years the entire BDSM community [2] has emphasized safety as a key, defining element of the subculture. You can find safety, guidelines, and more for any particular type of sexual play fairly easily. It is arguable that the relative openness and availability of community for these types of fetishes effectively eliminates the merit of these types of defenses. Indeed, a cursory search of the literature indicates that while autoerotic asphyxiation is still occurring, incidents such as described in "The Rough Sex Defense" are extremely rare in the modern day. A cursory search of the internet for information (and warnings) about asphyxiation (or breath control) play are pretty easy to find.

With these elements in mind, it is difficult to accept Porto's defense, even in 1986. It is difficult to believe that admitting to brutally killing one's lover is more acceptable than kinky sex gone wrong, especially when the confession is repeated. If there were corroborating evidence (e.g. diary entries, notes, or other acquaintances who stated that she had wanted to date other people), it would definitely make the prosecution's case more solid.

This does not mean that accidents do not happen, despite the protestations of relatives who are unaware of their "innocent" child's sexual kinks. It is illogical and unrealistic to presume any person's kink or lack thereof - regardless of outward demeanor, age, or social class. What points to greater guilt in both the Porto and Bulloch cases are the actions of the men afterward: repeatedly confessing to murder, and trying to hide the evidence by torching the garage.

Still, given merely the evidence of death and Porto's testimony, it would be difficult to prove murder beyond a reasonable doubt. The eventual verdict of criminally negligent homicide seems to be the highest available with the greatest chance of conviction. As we have no access to any other evidence, it is impossible to determine premeditation or malice - especially since Porto's testimony contradicts earlier statements. It is, however, demonstratable and admitted that he did cause Holland's death through a lack of safety, thus providing grounds for conviction on criminally negligent homicide.

I would recommend the maximum four year sentence for Porto under the manslaughter conviction. Even if his story is entirely true - something of which I remain unconvinced - his passions overwhelmed any empathy or concern for others, thus rendering him temporarily subhuman. If it were possible to impose therapy during his incarceration, I would seek this as well.

As noted above, the "Rough Sex" defense does not appear to be very common twenty years later. I strongly feel this is due to the relative openness of the BDSM community, and their ongoing emphasis on safety. This undercuts the primary mechanism of defense. Our society's acceptance of deviant sexual practices - while still far from ideal - has surely progressed to the point where any type of sex is less shameful than murder.

[1] "Play" is meant in the jargon sense of sexual roles or acts that are purposefully enacted for the participant's pleasure, that are not typically part of mainstream sex norms or the everyday lifestyle of the participants.

[2] Asphyxiation is not equivalent to BDSM, nor do I intend to imply such. In fact, it's rather discouraged in that community because it's simply not safe. Being not safe, however, never stopped people.

12 June 2009

Explain Sex To An Alien

As I mentioned a waaaaays back, one of my classes recently was the Sociology of Sex, with the excellent book edited by Dr. Tracey Steele. (No, really. It's good.) A lot of my sex-oriented posts lately had a start in that class. The below actually is part of my final for that class. (Read it anyway, dammit. I hadn't had this much fun with a final since... well... yeah.)

Describe sex to an alien. Assume they haven't been listening to our broadcasts - or at best, are horribly confused by them. What is sex? What isn't sex? What does it mean - or not mean?

All of the references here are to articles within the text. The price is a bit steep, but much of the source material is also linked to in past entries (or at least, the abstract is linked to). Despite the price, Sex, Self, And Society is easily my favorite textbook from my undergrad career. (My favorite textbook that wasn't a textbook is Privilege, Power, and Difference.) Which, by the way, my undergraduate career is over as of today. Go me.


I'd be more impressed by the saucer, the short grey alien in front of me, or its black shiny eyes if I didn't know it was all lifted straight from that bad Whitley Strieber movie. Still, its ability to listen in on our media makes the question - Pat's question - all the more mystifying.

"Sex," it repeats in Ben Stein's voice. "Tell me about sex."

I resist the urge to say "Bueller..." and reach into my bag. The green & white book has already been promised to two different people who want to read it, but this kind of overrides their requests.

"I have this book -" and my fingers are only slightly singed from the heat ray that obliterates it.

"Or not," I say.

"Tell me about sex."

I sigh, sit, and motion for Pat to sit next to me. "First of all, Pat, you just obliterated my references. I was going to..."

The alien hands me another copy of the book. I take it, and shake my head.

"Right. Okay, fine. First thing you need to understand is this. Humans are animals. So on one level, there's a biological thing going on. Sex is how we combine our genetic material to avoid errors. Without the combination, a genetic mutation can cause cascade effects throughout the population's descendants more quickly. This is done by the male of the species - with an organ that becomes erect during mating - squirting gametes into a special organ in the body of the female. About every twenty-eight days, the woman becomes fertile, and produces her own gamete; the two are supposed to meet inside the woman's body. But it's the actual act where the male's erect organ enters the female that is considered biological sex."

Pat looks confused, so I gesture for it to be patient.

"That was the easy part. First, people get pleasure from biological sex. It's routinely hooked into our pleasure centers. But that's also where it gets complicated. We aren't just biological creatures; there's an overlay of consciousness over all of that. So what might start out as a biological urge or drive can be altered, fulfilled, and shifted through the mediation of conscious experience. See, that pleasure is not only caused through penetration of the male organ into the female organ. Many types of friction - though preferences vary - can still stimulate these pleasant sensations. The person themselves or other organs with other people can cause these same sensations.

"So when that pleasurable sensation gets associated with a particular situation, type of person, or anything else, that can cause the anticipation and resulting stimulation to be more or less intense. And when it's intense, it's a pretty intense sensation. Since it is so intense - and also because it is tied with biological procreation - it also gets wrapped up into a whole other set of things with our consciousness. Those feelings of pleasure - and the anticipation of them - gets associated with ongoing relationships (Siedman). They get associated with power. Because they're so powerful and sparsely shared, deciding who gets to cause those sensations with whom gets to be a Big Deal (Luker, Rothman, Griscom). And forcing others to give you those sensations - that's a Big Deal too, though it's one that society usually frowns on (Beneke, McCall). Yet even that kind of disapproval gets wrapped up into ideas of power and authority, where people use these couplings to justify other kinds of power structures and hierarchies (Hall).

"And that's just talking about heterosexuals - the male-female coupling. Sometimes people prefer to be with people of the same gender. Relatively recently, they aren't just behaviors, but actually started considering their entire outlook as different (Katz). Then everyone else had to figure out how to prove that they fit in the same old categories, since just dividing people up by which organs they had wasn't useful any longer. They selected some behaviors - and continue to amplify them to make sure everyone around them knows they like people of the opposite gender (Messener). We tend to think of males having bigger problems with this, but women have just as many issues trying to keep identity from being mixed up with who they care to have sex with (Lewin). And even more recently, we've started to actually pay attention to people whose organs aren't as well-defined as everyone else's, or who view themselves as being the opposite of what their organs say they are. Then not only does their appearance have little relationship to their biology, but it also has little relationship to whom they care to have pleasure with (Devor).

"In a lot of ways, we're still dealing with the fact that we aren't just non-conscious apes. We finally have both the intellect and the resources to transcend a lot of the social structures and categorizations that biology and scarce resources forced us into, but trying to fight inertia is hard."

I breathed heavily, fingers worn from flipping through the Table of Contents, pointing Pat at the appropriate essays. It looks at me again, and I see... nothing in those big, black eyes.

"Dude," Pat says to me. "I just want to know where to put the anal probe."

11 June 2009

Advertising is dead. Long live Advertising!

The first extension I put on Firefox is Adblock Plus.

I have been using ad-filtering software for years; the way the Internet normally appears to me is very different than the way it appears for most people. After using this software, Facebook and MySpace are no longer billboard-clotted roadways; they're smooth ad-free sailing.

The only ads that get through are ones for small companies - independent publishers, music companies, and the like. These I do not mind - they're rarely as annoying and they support alternative products, music, and books. I was genuinely surprised when my wife ordered something from a Facebook ad - I didn't think anyone actually looked at them.

While Affluenza talks more about television commercials, that model does not apply to me. Much of the advertising that I am exposed to is through other mechanisms: billboards, product placement, and the like. To deal with the advertisements, I have developed the skills to see through the empty exuberance, and search for actual content. I am a savvy - and extremely skeptical - viewer of advertisements.

This doesn't help with my son.

When The Spiderwick Chronicles came out, my son begged for a particular lunch pack that had a character from the movie on it. It took nearly a half hour to convince him that there was nothing better about that particular brand. It cost nearly a dollar more - and was a selection that he didn't like! Yet the simple image, the flash-bang-oooh reflex was enough to woo him.
I was once like that. I was especially prone to it with music; I would easily buy two or three CDs (tapes, whatever) every time I went into a music store. The album art or band name - or the de facto "advertisement" of playing a single on the radio - was enough to lure me into purchasing the entire album.

For a little while.

As my son would have learned with the lunch pack - and has been reminded since with other products - advertisements are inherently lies. They have a specific agenda - and the consumer only enters into that agenda in order to purchase the item.

As advertisers continue to make more and more extreme and intrusive claims in order to win our purchasing power, they become more and more unable to deliver. Now, I'm more apt to be affected by recommendations from independent, trusted sources - like Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools, or honest reviews of products. When friends recommend a band - or I can hear more of their music on last.fm or other websites - I'm more likely to make that purchase.

As advertisements have become more extreme, their message has been taken less and less seriously. Perhaps soon, advertisements will collapse under their own unsupported edifice, and we can start recognizing true value once again.

09 June 2009

Getting the Memo



A little over a month ago, we had a staff meeting.

"Please make sure that you fill out the TPS reports," my supervisor said. [1] "We're required to fill these out and keep track of them. We are expecting an inspection from the state soon, and they could ask where all the TPS reports are." [2]

Sometimes the paperwork is a banal bit of absurdity; sometimes the paperwork is required by state and federal law. Sometimes it's both. And sometimes it's tracking the location and usage of, say, radioactive materials. Let's just assume that it's an important bit of paperwork - that's not my point here.

The point is this: A month later, there was a large mis-match between the TPS reports and the inventory the reports were linked to. I was tasked with finding out why the forms did not match reality, which meant wading through large amounts of digitized paperwork. The problem was linked to two people in particular - both of whom were not at the staff meeting. Both of them, however, got the information from the meeting in a written summary.

This is kind of worrisome for me. I've long agreed with David Allen's (of GTD fame) assertion that meetings should be for discussing and deciding, not mere information dispersal. I've gotten soured on several committees because the entire meeting time was taken up for relaying information, leaving no time to actually discuss, decide, or change anything. [3]

It applies in my classes as well. I enjoy classes where we do not recap the reading, but instead discuss and debate it. My least favorite class EVER was high school Physics; the teacher literally read the textbook to us from the front of the class. For the entire term.

But my co-workers make me worry.

This is not the first time a change from a staff meeting has been overlooked. The more I think about it, the more I realize that those who aren't physically at a particular staff meeting are the same as those who don't get the message. The students who aren't there when the syllabus is read to them (shudder) are the same ones who complain that they "didn't know".

Is it due to a lack of consequences? Do they not read the syllabus or summary because they don't feel they will be held accountable? Or is it due to differing learning styles, and they're less able to comprehend textual communication?

What do you think?

[1] No, not really TPS reports.
[2] While not about TPS reports, this is true.
[3] In at least one case, I think this was on purpose.

08 June 2009

Thermidor - a Flash Fiction

Ron was trying to avoid puking.

"Relax, Ronster!" Matt held the lobster by its tail. The animal writhed, and Ron imagined that it knew about the pot boiling on the cabin's stove.

"God, but it'll scream," Ron said. "I've heard that they scream." Trips with Matt always ended up this way - Matt enjoying being cruel to some animal, and enjoying Ron's discomfort almost as much.

"It's just steam coming out of the -" A knock at the door interrupted Matt. "I'm not waiting for you, asshat."

Ron fled the kitchen and went to the cabin's door. The ranger looked serious.

"You boys been up here long?"

"Just got here today, sir. What's wrong?"

"I didn't know anyone was up here. The well water's been contaminated by some kind of chemical spill from a government lab. They won't tell me anything more than... you boys haven't drank any, have you?"

"No, just-" Ron's words were drowned out by the scream of the lobster. Then by the rattle of a pot hitting the floor and Matt's scream.

The next scream was much louder. It was not from Matt. It sounded eerily like steam escaping from a carapace.

Ron and the ranger ran.

07 June 2009

Undermining Christianity, One Die Roll at a Time

No, this isn't about Dungeons and Dragons.

Maybe it seems a little uncharitable to review an explicitly Christian game on a Sunday - one that was a gift, no less - but... well, I just need to tell you about this.

We got the game Pilgrim's Progress: The Game(styled after the book) as a Christmas present, and finally had a chance to break it out and play tonight. First, there's something unsettling about the square "Meet an atheist, lose a turn". Not "listen to and be tempted by" or anything... just meet one. I understand it's an explicitly Christian game, based on an explicitly Christian book, but... c'mon. Just to meet a guy, and you're held back? Should you happen to draw the "atheist" card, however, it's much worse, severely setting you back on the CandyLand style game board. I have to wonder if it was playtested - there are more than a few places where going forward two spaces sends you back one - or one particularly bad place where there's a "move forward one space" immediately followed by a "move backwards one space".

Despite the flaws, the board is attractively styled, with stand-up figures and events from the book. The book, by the way, is helpfully turned into an illustrated story so that those at the lower end of the game's audience (5yr olds) can have the background to make this meaningful. And the essentially chance-based mechanism is fine when you're dealing with wanting to make a story more interactive, especially for younger children.

Except.

This is supposed to be a moral story, about salvation, choices, and perseverance. What it ends up being in the game is a crap-shoot based on die rolls and card draws. There are more than a few points where the path you take is supposed to mark decisions made by the players - but the "decision" as to what path to take is based solely on a roll of the die.

Or as my son put it when playing the game once more by himself: "Now I'm playing two guys, I'll have a better chance of making it into the Celestial City!"

If you stop and think about the lesson this game is teaching, it's directly counter to the source material it's drawn from. The mechanics of the game make redemption into a roll of the die instead of a personal decision. I can only presume that it was whipped up to make money off of the success of the Pilgrim's Progress book and movie. Unlike the fans of both, those money-grubbers should be made to lose a turn.

05 June 2009

I can hold her down

I can hold her down.

No matter what else transpires in our relationship, she knows this.

I can hold her down.

In a long ago online discussion, Lenny insisted that government power always came down to the potential for violence. I argued otherwise, insisting that people could self-organize, agree to compacts, and generally overcome such dictatorial insistence.

"Ah, Steve," he replied. "What happens when they don't?"

A "train" of men - boys, really - performing a gang rape has a very explicit message. It isn't a message of sex, though both the boys and their victims might think it is. One type of person is restrained, powerless. Another is not, despite their own uncertainty and insecurity. Or rather, perhaps because of that.

Long ago, we were social animals. It doesn't matter if the mechanism for that is passed down socially or biologically; the end result is the same. We have a tendency towards chimp hierarchies - power structures based on social status that inform our sense of our own self worth. Those who manage to short-circuit it are either revered or cast out. In the meantime, the rest of us keep perpetuating the same old social contract. And sometimes, they don't.

The reinforcing structures are so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible. Women are chopped up metaphorically in advertising and (visually) literally on film (Dreamworlds 3). The threat of rape hovers over each woman (Beneke), and solidarity with survivors is brutally discouraged through hysterical fascination and skillful deployment of defensive attribution or the Just World hypothesis. Whether intentional or not, the mythology and violation of the veneer of a just world then ties in to create the fear of stranger rape and serial murder in women (Caputi). In this, the directionless, faceless, leaderless male patriarchy has been more effective than most dictators; it is not actual violence, but the imagined threat of violence that keeps people in line.

Through the images of violence and degradation that can be easily seen permuting our culture, the mindset is set up (MacKinnon). By making violence sexual, such as with the rape lynchings in the South, the power structure is maintained (Hall). Even well-meaning people, trying to simply protect those they care for, can be sucked into this pervasive power structure. Even if we actively fight against it, even if we know better, it still lurks in the back of our minds.

This is not an ideal world. This is not a world where we can ever start afresh, where we can start anew. This is a world with context and history.

This is a world where, in her bones, she knows.

I can hold her down.

04 June 2009

Paychecks, Fulfillment, and the modern workforce

The manager spoke passionately about healthcare reform. The day's presentation had been a crash course in toned-down Patch Adams style relationships; ways for workers to interact more personally with their patients - though not at the expense of threatening the existent managerial hierarchy. He wrapped up with this statement: "We all know why we're in healthcare. We're here, not because of the money, but because of the patients."

Although there were murmurs and nods of agreement, I did not see anyone move to hand back their paycheck.

This highlights the supposed motivational quandry between capitalism and socialism. Capitalism has ridiculously uneven financial rewards, leaving many with barely enough to scrape by. Socialism poses the problem of motivation: Why go through extra effort, training, and drudgery without financial reward? Yet financial rewards alone - as evidenced by the statements of the manager - are not seen as a pure or good motivation in and of itself.

This dilemma is a false one. It is created by a misunderstanding and an overgeneralization. The first is a misunderstanding or imperfect appreciation of Marx's term alienation. What is frequently comprehended is when alienation exists, and its consequences. We can intuitively empathize with an alienated worker. The sensibility of being unfulfilled by one's work is a common experience in our industrial society. Consider the terms "rat race", or the expressions in popular media through television shows like "The Office", or the movies Office Space, American Beauty, or even The Incredibles. The opposite, however, has rarely been seen as a natural part of work. Instead, fulfillment and meaning was sought throughout the 20th Century through hobbies, social groups and sports, or volunteer work. It was only with the economic boom of the late 1990's that statements like "follow your bliss" became legitimate advice instead of countercultural polemic. That sensibility and advice has continued through a recession and a half; the expectation has shifted towards both workers and managers expecting work to be fulfilling and meaningful for all involved. That ideal - doing work that you love and find fulfilling - is the opposite of alienation.

It is also payment.

Neoclassical economists and functionalists alike concentrate on monetary wages, forgetting that payment can be things other than wages. I do not mean "fringe benefits" such as healthcare coverage, onsite daycare, ego stroking, or casual Fridays - though the last two come closer than the others. For some, a stressful and demanding job in an emergency room is intrinsically exciting and rewarding. For others, it would be a nightmare, who would prefer a more aloof healthcare job taking x-rays or doing hour-long scans. The vast majority of jobs are not differentiated by required intrinsic skill; instead, they are differentiated by training. Most people, provided adequate training, could be capable of doing nearly all jobs. But a job fulfilling to one person may not be "worth it" to another.

We implicitly acknowledge this reality in our everyday lives. Some choose the reward of living in the country to work. Some find it rewarding to live in the city. A person may choose to teach, even if the private sector could provide a bigger paycheck. Another may choose to be a professor at a less-competitive school to avoid the competitive stress, regardless of their own aptitude. On a recent episode of the podcast Planet Money, an economist interviewed a blue collar worker who had excellent job security and satisfaction simply because he could leave his work at work.

In Scott Adams' daily cartoon Dilbert, the smartest man in the world is also Dilbert's garbage collector. As Adams points out: If the smartest man in the world wants to be a garbage collector, who are we to argue with him?

03 June 2009

Should is a four... er... six letter word

For all the posturing about the threat of relativism, we still live in a society that enshrines the worst aspects of structural functionalism.

As a quick refresher, structural functionalism is a sociological view that holds that everything that occurs within a society has some kind of function. Some functions may be openly stated, some functions may happen unintentionally, but there are functions.[1] There's also an evolutionary undercurrent here as well - an implication that any institution, group, or function that persists must be a net positive for society. Otherwise, it claims, that part of society would not be able to continue. [2]

That last part frequently leads to a judgment call - that therefore, whatever exists now in society should exist, and must therefore be useful and good. And that's crap.

However, this viewpoint has an emotional appeal to many people - because it's easy. It means that whatever currently exists should exist, exactly the way it is now. [3] Just because it gets by the way it is does NOT imply that it cannot be better.

Look at marriage as one convenient example. We're still hearing a lot about the "traditional" view of marriage [4] being under attack. Divorce rates, same-sex marriages, and people wanting to marry toasters oh my! Okay, so the last is a little nonsensical, but the other two aren't as big of a deal as they're made out to be.

Or at least, they don't have to be.

The functionalist viewpoint tends to avoid splitting off the function from the activity itself. For a practical example here, it holds that marriage is there to raise children. Which is a function - but not a function that requires any particular kind of formal relationship between any particular gender of people. That function also doesn't apply to anyone who is unable (or unwilling) to have children themselves.

At this point, the functional mindset switches gears - then marriage is about X, or Y. Each of those functions may be needed in society - but there are few marriages that embody all of these functions. There's few that (IMHO) do most of those functions really well. The ability to enumerate the things society does is clearly functionalism's strength - but it's dogmatic lack of flexibility is its weakness.

In a world where things change faster each day, we need the flexibility to make sure the functions of society are met (or improved) without being rigidly held to the dogma that held years ago.

I mentioned this all before when talking about lesbian mothers; the arguments both there and here are principles. There is no such thing as something that people automatically should do.

There are always choices.


[1] For example, public schools are explicitly there to teach children, but also indoctrinate them into following rules, obeying a schedule, and the like.
[2] Which actually doesn't make sense - unlike a biological organism, an individual portion of society can be only a negative as long as there are other positive parts of that society can take up the slack.
[3] Which again doesn't make sense. Biologically, we still have organs that don't do much besides get inflamed and make us ill (appendix, I'm looking at you!), or systems that are horribly inefficient (hello, eyes!).
[4] Which isn't. Women were essentially property after marriage (and frequently before, up until the 20th century.

02 June 2009

We Have Lost Control... and that's okay.

[Steve's note: Yes, this was originally for a class, hence the slapdash attempts at paragraphical citation.]

"Attention all Planets of the Solar Federation/We have assumed control." - Rush, 2112

Whether it be from Jim Morrison's being booted offstage to the slowly-repealed sodomy laws of the United States, the controversy over who can marry who, or even the sexual travails of Tamar, Er, Onan, and Judah, human society has consistently and constantly attempted to regulate who may have sex with whom.

There seems to be an economic rationale - though justified by "morality" behind much of this. The Biblical story of Tamar is an excellent example. In it, her first husband Er - the eldest son of Judah - is struck down by God for unspecified wickedness before producing an heir. The second son of Judah, Onan, is tasked with creating an heir. The child produced by their union would stand in as a child of Er. Onan instead withdraws, "spilling his seed" onto the ground. He wants to take the inheritance for himself and his line. This produces the misnomer of Onanism for masturbation, though both are related to a lack of procreation. For this crime, Onan is also struck down. Judah refuses to let Tamar be with any of his other sons, which would leave her without any means of supporting herself. Rather than accept her destitute nature, she poses as a prostitute, and Judah has sex with her. This produces Judah's heir - and incidentally, Tamar's place in society and economic security.

Likewise, the societal concept of the family as an economic (and social) unit leads to a defensiveness of the structure. A threat to the stability of the family - and the nature of the social contract - is parsed as a threat to the entire system of society (Luker). Rather than being interpersonal relationships, it has been a complete way of economic life. This has not stopped individuals from expressing their sexual identity and needs in ways outside the procreative heteronormative sphere; homosexual acts have been around since antiquity, and what we would now recognize as stereotypical gay male behavior was quietly acknowledged throughout history. The image of the Victorian fop, though recently romanticized by Ted Turner's faux-historical romances of the 1990's, is actually a representation of quasi-closeted homosexual men (Katz).

The Industrial Revolution, for all its ills, has brought about consider amounts of surplus to society. In a historical instant, the imperative of mere economic survival does not require the same sort of family unit. The surplus created has allowed the existence and eventual tolerance of what would otherwise be considered "dangerous" deviations from a merely procreative norm. The creation of a homosexual identity, for example, has largely been able to exist due to the societal separation from the need for merely procreative relationships (D'Emilio). This surplus did not create the scientific advances of the latex condom or the pill, but permitted their acceptance as normative parts of our society.

However, humans are not the rational actors of economics. Our concepts and ideas rarely change as quickly as economic conditions. Further, despite recent surpluses "lifting all boats", they have not been lifted uniformly or equally. This may go a long way to explain why, for example, there appears to be a stronger stigma against homosexuality and transsexuality among economically disadvantaged groups (Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought). This mix of learned norms, individual desires, and economic realities has led to conflicts and confusion over these intersections. This is not simply limited to the status of homosexuals; sexualized expression in popular culture alternates from castigation of sexual promiscuity (reference any slasher movie from Friday the 13th onward) and the hypersexualization of modern music stars (Dreamworlds3). The internal conflicts of lesbian mothers are a quintessential example of this dialectic; the thesis of the traditional family smacking right up against the antithesis of a lesbian couple (Lewin).

The eventual synthesis - the future shape of our society is still in flux. There are no precedents for this situation. Our species simply has never had the widespread degree of surplus that we have today. We still try to parse our individual expressions into the old, limited categories, even when they no longer fit. Yet it is perhaps here that the most hope lies. Images of transsexuals - were once thought to merely reinforce existing gender stratifications. Yet the resistance to the binary male/female hetero/homo combinations has been under way for a little over a decade (Devor), and media representations have begun to take a tonally different quality. Whether through the election of a transgender woman to the mayorship of Cambridge to the gentle coverage of two pre-adolescent MtF girls on This American Life, the fault lines might just be widening.

01 June 2009

Talk Show - A 100 Word Story


"So Sandy," Gerard said, "you say that Kut-Haran isn't a good husband."

"He doesn't give us krat!" the female kobold screeched. The studio audience roared approval.

Gerard pointed to stage left. "Well, here he is!"

Kut-Haran was not a kobold. He was a nine foot tall troll. The studio chair broke under his weight. This episode Gerard would have to keep it calm.

"Okay, Sandy," Gerard said, but she was screeching obscenities at Kut-Haran. The crowd shouted, chanting Gerard's name. When the troll grabbed its club, Gerard buried his head in his hands.

He didn't get paid enough for this.