Archive for December, 2009

Longing for the End Times

December 31, 2009

According to Schweitzer, Jesus believed he was living in the end times. So did the early Christians. So did the Essenes. And the Zoroastrians. And they probably weren’t the first.

So did Mohammed. And many European Christians as AD 1000 approached. Various of the fringe Christian sects in England during the 1600s did too, along with many of the European Anabaptists. The Adventists arose out of a similar belief, as did the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And uncounted fringe sects in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

And then we get the secular end-timers, who worry about the War to End Everything, or the death of nature.

We tend to regard all of the people who believed they were living in the end times as blips in a more pedestrian history, exceptions to the rest of us who believe things will go on pretty much as usual for the foreseeable future. But that’s a lot of exceptions to a rule which becomes less and less convincing as we enumerate them. What if apocalypticism is the natural human condition, rather than a blip?

Science fiction writers have a term for it: “if this goes on…” Of course, it’s their job to be imaginative, to reason beyond their evidence. But why do they get such satisfaction out of writing (and the rest of us out of reading) various scenarios for the end of the world as we know it, mostly arising from an extrapolation of current trends?

Dunno about the rest of you. But I write TEOTWAKI stories for the fun of it. James Blish made a career of drafting scenarios for how the world ends. So, arguably, did St. John the Diviner, perhaps to alleviate the boredom of living on Patmos before the invention of solitaire. Why is dreaming the apocalypse so much fun?

Maybe it’s just the ultimate exercise of imaginative power. (“Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire, To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire, Would not we shatter it to bits—and then Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!”)

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when many of us believed we were on the edge of some dumb cluck dropping The Bomb, I had occasion to interview a bunch of people for a magazine article. One of them was William Alfred (playwright, professor, and devout Catholic.) When I asked him whether he believed we were on the edge of Judgment Day, he pointed out that Judgment Day will come sooner or later for all of us, and the possibility of its happening to all of us at once really didn’t make that much difference to any individual. He was talking, of course, about the relationship between the General Judgment and the Particular Judgment. But he was making a psychological point as well as a theological one. Knowing one is going to die means living in one’s own end times. For young people (as we were during the Cuban Missile Crisis), that’s profoundly offensive. Young people all believe in their own immortality, and anything that threatens it is disruptive to the entire order of the universe as young people know it. Maybe the only way most young people can grasp their own mortality is in the context of everybody else’s. By the time they get into the home stretch, they know better. They/we are mostly pretty sure both that their/our lives are approaching the end, and that the world will go on pretty much the same way it is now without them/us. Maybe that’s the defining characteristic of coming of age—the ability to imagine the world surviving us.

Jane Grey


Immoral, Invisible

December 31, 2009

It all started when my officemate moved out, last fall. We had shared the seventh-floor suite of offices over a liquor store, but the practice of law is as chancy as any other small business these days, and when Mike got an offer for better accommodations at a lower rent, he took it. I stayed on, putting up with the painting and moving all around me.

The United States Postal Service apparently does not handle change easily these days. It took them about three weeks to catch on to Mike’s change of address. In the meantime, his mail mostly got dropped off on the second floor of our building, where the landlord’s office is located. So did mine.

But when the USPS finally figured out that Mike was now at another address, for some reason I cannot understand, they decided I was too. Or maybe not. Some of my mail went to Mike at his new address. Some of it was returned to sender. Occasionally, I got some of it. And some of it just disappeared without a trace. No junk mail, no bills, no correspondence from court clerks and opposing counsel, and above all, no checks from my clients.

I called the Customer Service number at the downtown post office, and eventually got through to a nice lady named Joan. I explained the situation to her, and she suggested that I prevail on the landlord to number all of the offices in our suite—701, 702, and so on. I wasn’t quite sure what that would accomplish, but I talked to the landlord. I also stuck a number 701 on my office door. So far, that has accomplished nothing.

So then I started becoming Super-Customer, a guise I often adopt to redress wrongs done to my clients, my friends, and sometimes myself. When in doubt, the Super-Customer calls the head honcho, or his/her PR guy. Or dashes off a nastygram to the lowest-level miscreant first, with cc:s to everybody on up the chain of command. This is one of the things lawyers are supposed to be good at. Normally, it makes corporate moguls quake in their boots and shower me with product coupons. My track record isn’t bad.

But the Super-Customer routine works only when you actually know the chain of command, or at least the guy at the top. And several hours of online research failed to reveal the name or contact information of the Chicago postmaster. Or anybody else in his/her chain of command.

This is real transparency. A word from Mr. Wired about this term. “Transparency” is in these days. Everybody promises it, or aspires to it, or lays claim to it. It is supposed to mean honesty and openness (glasnost?) But think about it; if something is transparent, it is invisible. If you can see through something, you can’t see it. Apparently, that’s how the United States Postal Service operates, at least in Chicago. Trying to get results from a transparent organization is like trying to walk through a perfectly clean glass door. (Hence the title of this post, if you were wondering.)

I tried contacting my own congressional rep. His people were baffled. So then I looked up the House Committee list online, and discovered that another local representative (Danny Davis, from Illinois’ 7th District) is on the subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia. Hot dog! Called his office, got routed to his specialist in postal problems, and actually succeeded in getting her to understand my problem. She is still working on it (with time off for the holidays), but I’m already encouraged. Maybe I will start the new year with regular mail service and my usual quantum of junk mail, and Ben Franklin will stop spinning in his grave. But the USPS is not your grandfather’s post office. For those advocates of privatizing other government agencies, give this some thought.

Red Emma

In the Absence of a Village

December 25, 2009

Sometimes you need experts. Then again…

I think I’m squarely in the middle of this one. Our friend DSL, who apparently never met a hundred-word sentence he didn’t like, (Faulkner, thou shouldst be living at this hour…) has treated us to an amazingly unbroken and lengthy quote from Kenneth Anderson as a way of showing his Christmas spirit toward Hillary Clinton. Both DSL and Anderson might be surprised to find out that, having worked for 30-odd years in various parts of the child welfare system, I’m not much keener than they are about some of its accomplishments.

Admittedly, the child welfare system in Cook County, Illinois, may not be a fair sample of the species. It’s understaffed, underfunded, overworked, and mostly kept in line by some excellent reporting in the Chicago Tribune. The only people who have succeeded in getting rid of egregiously bad judges in Cook County juvenile court were both newspaper columnists. One of them is now dead, and the other retired from the profession for reasons that seemed to me at the time insufficient. And, worst of all (at least from my order-craving point of view), the system has no reliable bias. Sometimes they return a child to a home in which s/he is in obvious peril, and sometimes they remove a child from a fairly benign environment.

But on the other hand…

For better or worse, from either Hillary’s standpoint or that of That Other Blogger, there are no longer many villages around to undertake the raising of our children. That is to be expected when most middle class parents and many working class parents now send their children away from home to college or the military during the years in which they are most likely to meet their life partners. As a result, more and more of our newly-formed families settle in Portland, and have one end in, say, Austin, and the other in New Rochelle. Until the elders retire, usually one set in Phoenix and the other in Boca Raton. So we form our villages on the fly, among people who are at roughly the same stage of life as ourselves.

That’s a crucial characteristic of such villages. It means that most of the people in them don’t know any more than any of the others about whatever life problems they are currently dealing with. My neighbors don’t know any more about breastfeeding, or raising teenagers, or planning a Bar Mitzvah, than I do, and we are all, simultaneously, trying to learn. They will not, obviously, learn from me, nor I from them. They can call “home” to Mom or Dad, and get some useful tips. Or draw on things Mom or Dad said years ago that didn’t seem that important at the time, if they can still remember, and if those memories are accurate. Some of them may even feel that Mom and Dad didn’t do such a good job, and their advice might not be worth taking.

Another alternative is to rely on one’s own instincts and common sense. Dr. Spock was a forceful advocate of this approach. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The fatherly instincts of a man who was barely old enough to talk when his father abandoned the family are likely to be exiguous and erratic. The motherly instincts of a woman whose mother kept more vodka than cleansers in the cabinet under the kitchen sink are going to be unusual at best.

Some high schools take on the task of teaching “life skills,” as do some programs for people with mental disabilities. The teachers, of course, at least present themselves as the “experts” so despised by DSL and Mr. Anderson. Their “expertise” may come from some kind of professional training, or from their own life experiences, or just from a mess of never-challenged habits and prejudices. But they are at least willing to stand up and tell a bunch of teenagers that this is how you diaper a baby, or balance a checkbook, or boil an egg. “In a place where there are no menschen,” says Hillel, “Strive to be a mensch.”

Regardless of the source of parental “knowledge,” some of it is strange, or at least varied. I represented one mother in juvenile court who had been taught that you don’t feed a child solid food until it (the child, not the food) is at least a year old. Actually, I knew personally an extremely well-educated woman who had learned that you don’t feed a child anything but breast milk for the first six months, to protect the child from allergies. And yet another, for the baby’s first six months, put baby food into a baby bottle with an oversized nipple and gave it to her baby to suck.

Similarly, some parents let the kid cry himself to sleep from the very beginning, while others have an hour-long bedtime ritual that suffices to knock the kid out. Sleeping practices in general are a major source of conflict in the child welfare system. Google “family bed” to find out about something that drives social workers and judges absolutely nuts. One of my clients lost custody of her six-year-old son because he still shared her bed. Where she was from, in Malta, that was perfectly acceptable.

Some parents insist on cloth diapers, but most go with disposables and to hell with the environment. Some parents never allow their children to play shoot-‘em-up, while others buy them toy guns that resemble the real thing to varying degrees, and BB guns as soon as they turn 12. A friend of mine wouldn’t let her son point a banana at another child and say “bang bang.”

Discipline, of course, is a major source of juvenile court cases. In Cook County, hitting a child with anything other than an open hand, or hard enough to leave marks, or hitting a child under three at all, can get you charged with physical abuse. But the only way most parents find this out is by getting hauled into court. Maternity wards do not hand out “Rules of the Road” booklets. (Actually, I think some of them do provide handouts that cover basic care-and-feeding and car-seat issues, but only stuff that pertains directly to newborns, which discipline presumably doesn’t.) Most of the parents I encountered in court had been spanked routinely by their own parents, and had no reason to think there was anything wrong with it. In some subcultures, the use of belts and extension cords for disciplinary purposes is perfectly acceptable among otherwise nice people.

I figured out, after a few years hanging out in juvie, that there are two kinds of genuinely abusive parents. One is the total psychopath who beats up on anybody who crosses his path and isn’t bigger than he is, and who will never be any frakkin’ good no matter what and probably in a simpler society would be taken out and shot. Or at least (since I’m opposed to capital punishment) put somewhere as far away as possible from anybody smaller than himself.

The other, far more tragic, is the father (or sometimes mother) who is so desperately afraid of the chaotic, violent, destructive world outside the home that s/he has to discipline everyone in the family onto the strictest straightest path, for lack of any other way to protect them.

There are caseworkers who understand the difference, and those who don’t. Most of them are only a generation removed from their client population, in much the same relationship as police officers and criminals. Given another generation to think about it, cops and caseworkers both are likely to send their children to law school.

Anyway, even the most thoughtful of the “experts” can be wrong. B.F. Skinner had his daughter raised in a controlled-environment “box” (I roomed with her best friend for a summer in college.) Freud believed, and taught even his own daughter (who was one of his students) that women are morally inferior to men. The “experts” of the 1930s opposed “too much” maternal affection. The British “experts” believed children should, to the extent possible, be raised by people other than their natural parents, to keep them from being “spoiled.” There have been “experts” who endorsed breast feeding and others who opposed it. Same for early toilet training (indeed, some “experts” oppose any toilet training.) The “experts” in 18th-century France endorsed, or at least accepted, farming out one’s children to “wet nurses” in the country, where a huge proportion of those children died. Rumania’s president Ceausescu constituted himself an “expert” whose system of child-rearing began with an economy in which raising one’s own children was prohibitively expensive relative to available resources, and then prohibited birth control and abortion, so that the children ended up in “orphanages” where they died by the thousands from neglect and disease.

Let’s face it, deciding how to raise our children is one of the most important decisions any of us has ever made. And for most of us, it wasn’t a conscious decision at all. It’s a decision that embodies our highest values and our basest prejudices (I’ve seen one parent sue for custody of a child because the other parent has him/her in a school where another student is HIV-positive. Custody contests sometimes arise when the custodial parent changes religions, or gets remarried to a person of another race.) It’s a decision that maybe nobody is really “qualified” to make—not the parents in the private sanctity of the home, nor their families, nor the “village” they live in, nor the “experts” in the “helping professions.” Original sin, if there is such a thing, consists of being born with parents and raised as children. Only Adam and Eve avoided it. The best any of us can do is avoid the really deadly patterns, and try to learn something new about how children grow and develop.

Jane Grey*

*You may want to Google the original Jane Grey to see how she was raised.

Time for a Change

December 11, 2009

We are the last country in the world still using the English system of measurements. England gave up on it long since. (Even their currency is decimal now.) As a practical matter we buy our soda in liters, and our car mechanics use mostly metric tools. In the Carter administration, our road signs started using kilometers and miles, but Reagan cut that out in a hurry, along with the 55-mph speed limit.

But, if we are the last country in the world to use metric measurements of space, weight, and volume, we still have a shot at being first in one measurement advance. Let’s institute metric time. The French and Russian Revolutions brought us ten-day weeks for a while, but that didn’t last. Everybody has been tinkering with the yearly calendar for literally thousands of years, so that’s nothing new. But the second, the minute, and the hour are still linked inexorably to 60. Why? It corresponds to nothing in the natural world (like the week, but unlike the day and the year.) The Babylonians started it, and nobody has had the nerve to quit.

Well, it is, literally, about time. Why not a metric second, and minute, and hour? One hundred seconds to the minute, one hundred minutes to the hour, and—how many seconds to the day? That depends. Do we want to keep the length of our current second? It was arbitrarily chosen in the first place, but ditching it now could be messy, since it corresponds to a unit on the Atomic Clock, which has become the basis of the GPS system and a bunch of other important scientific and technological institutions. If we keep it, that’s 864,000 seconds to the day. Which breaks down into 8.64 hours per day.

The advantage to this system of measurement comes when we start calculating working hours versus leisure. Assuming we work (in current measurements) 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, that would, in the new system, come out to slightly less than a 25-hour work week! We are unlikely to arrive at that kind of arrangement using our current measures, so let’s grab it while we can!! That was what they promised us back in the Kennedy 60s, and finally we have a shot at it.

Red Emma

Shop Class as Soulcraft: a Book Report, Sort Of

December 8, 2009

That Other Blog Over There piqued my interest in Matthew Crawford’s SCAS some months back, but apparently someone or something did the same for many other Chicago readers, with the result that the public library didn’t have a copy available until last week. Sometimes that kind of situation makes me desperate enough to actually go out and buy the book, without even waiting until it comes out in paperback (which usually happens at roughly the same time that the Chicago Public Library acquires it.) Fortunately, this time, my current difficult finances enabled/required me to hold out a bit longer and finally read the library’s copy. I don’t mean to sound curmudgeonly, because SCAS was a reasonably good read. But it was not the wellspring of original thought that That Other Blogger led me to expect. It was, in fact, warmed-over Paul Goodman and David Riesman, without a single attribution to either of them.

Well, okay. See: The More Things Change… for more grousing about the same thing, and for a mode of reconciling oneself to it. Those who have not read Goodman and Riesman, as Santayana might have said, may have to rewrite it. With, admittedly, an interesting overlay of speculation about the financial crisis of the last couple of years, drawing a nice parallel between the alienation of labor and the commoditization of mortgages. These are still worthwhile ideas, and if books by Goodman and Riesman have become hard to find, Crawford is no doubt entitled to reintroduce their thinking to this generation, which probably needs it more than mine did.

And, like Goodman and Riesman, Crawford talks almost entirely about how our alienation from the world of physical work affects men. Which is a serious batch of issues, well worth discussing. But how about the way that alienation affects women, if in fact it does so at all, or even as much as it affects men? I think women are in better touch with the physical world, and physical work, than men, these days. We still, by and large, do the cooking and the cleaning and the housework. Admittedly, the portion of it that men agree to do is usually the least alienated and most interesting part of it, such as fancy cooking. But women do the day-to-day plain cooking, and take as many shortcuts in the process as they can afford, since they are under the same time pressures from the paid workplace as their menfolk. As a result, there are probably a lot fewer women around than in my mother’s generation who can tell you how to make a good non-lumpy gravy without buying it in a jar. Last night, for the first time in a couple of years, I made such a gravy. It took maybe ten minutes longer than the kind that comes in a jar, and that ten minutes was already tied up with various other tasks involving preparation of a pair of turkey drumsticks, so the total process didn’t take any longer. It felt like an accomplishment, even though nobody except Mr. Wired would ever have noticed.

Also, the other night, while working on a blog about the effect of third-party payment on the economy, I got so absorbed in this mind work that I forgot about the very material teakettle under which I had lighted the burner, until I discovered that the water had boiled away and the kettle had been ruined. Or rather (from Crawford’s point of view) its ruin, initiated by an inadequately performing whistle, was completed. So much for intellectual work versus physical work.

Generally, every night, I clean up the kitchen (having made the momentous discovery that the Elves will not do it for me, no matter how long I leave it, and that it really does feel nicer to make breakfast in a clean kitchen) and find the task quite satisfying. I proofread and copyedit my text as I type, and take pride in producing final text with minimal numbers of typos and fluffs. (It took me a while to understand that most people do not proofread their emails before hitting send, and that it is considered rude to call their attention to typos.) I don’t like messy text going out over any of my signatures. All of these activities are interactions with the physical world that lack the homespun glamor of Crawford’s conduit-bending and motorcycle repair work. So they lack even the narrow “public” of such predominantly male activities. They are mostly what industrial psychologist Frederick Herzberg calls “hygienic factors”—things, the presence of which does not noticeably please the person who benefits from them, but the absence of which seriously displeases him/her. A lot of women’s work fits into this category.

The other thing Crawford ignores, perhaps because he is a white male, is that the kinds of material immediate-feedback work he finds least alienated are also the kinds that attract many really intelligent “minority” workers and women. Rosabeth Moss Kanter discusses this phenomenon at some length. She feels that choosing “staff” rather then “line” positions within the corporation limits the upward mobility of women and minority workers, and generally advises against it. But “staff”—such as engineers, computer analysts, medics, and janitors—perform work that can be quickly evaluated, with little room for the evaluator’s prejudice. A good engineer builds bridges that don’t fall down, even if her boss doesn’t like her because she is “too shrill” or “too quiet,” or even if he is Jewish or Asian or Hispanic and doesn’t quite “fit in” in the lunchroom. Crawford draws on Dilbert and “The Office” to ridicule personality-based evaluations, but it seems not to occur to him that this style of evaluation encourages not only groupthink and stupidity, but discrimination. And Kanter does not, evidently, realize that taking a staff position may limit one’s upward mobility, but also limits the likelihood of suffering discrimination for not being the “right sort of person.” (For a lot more information on this phenomenon in the history of the American legal profession, see Jerold Auerbach’s Unequal Justice.)

So anyway, read SCAS, but don’t buy it unless you have never read Paul Goodman or David Riesman and can’t get hold of any of their stuff now. And while reading them, listen for the bloody teakettle. Or just heat the water for your tea in a self-limiting microwave (something Crawford would no doubt appreciate.)