Men vs. Bears

Unless you’re one of those sensible people who actually succeeds in not spending too much time online, you’ve probably seen something somewhere about the man versus bear debate.

I gather it began on TikTok (which I don’t watch on account of not being into video when words work just fine) but I’ve seen it on all the social media that I do read. Basically, women were asked whether, if they were hiking on a trail, they’d rather run into a bear or a man.

A vast majority of women said bear.

Some percentage of men were upset by this and proceeded to explain to women just how dangerous bears really are, on account of they assumed women couldn’t possibly understand that bears were dangerous.

Most of the posts I read about this were by women dunking on such men. Many shared a quote from someone – I only saw it in meme form so I don’t know who – to the effect of “If I were attacked by a bear, no one would ask what I’d been wearing.”

Which is to say that a lot of women used this bit to hammer home the fact that most women are conscious all the time that they’re at risk from men. It brought out the lists of things that most women do to protect themselves.

Note to the men out there: that list does not usually include “find a big strong man to protect me” because most women are well-aware of just how badly that can go.

While these days I usually go backpacking with my sweetheart, on account of the fact that we both like it and also that he is willing to do the part of setting up the tent that involves crawling around on the ground, an activity that my knees do not care for, I have in the past done such trips both by myself or with another woman.

I have not had a problematic run-in with either a bear or a man on those trips. I attribute the lack of bear problem to the fact that I used to hang my food in trees, as you are instructed to do when doing backcountry hiking in the Shenandoah National Park.

And one good way to avoid the man problem is to camp out of sight of the trail, which is also the accepted practice (or was back when I did it) in that park. If you can’t see people on the trail, they can’t see you.

Here in California, perhaps because of greater worry about fire, you are instructed to camp at designated campsites. There are shelters in Shenandoah National Park and people do stay in those as well. But I always used the camping off the trail system on the East Coast.

The closest I ever came to bears was one night when I was car camping in West Virginia and heard much snuffling outside my tent. I was sure it was bears. I was terrified. I finally summoned up the nerve to peek out of the tent and saw a large herd of deer. I’d apparently pitched a tent right in the middle of their salad bar. Continue reading “Men vs. Bears”

The Met Gala and J.G. Ballard?

I do not usually pay attention to the Met Gala, which is happening next Monday. In fact, I think the first time I was even aware of its existence was several years back, when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went wearing a white dress that had the words “Tax the Rich” on it in bold red letters.

But I happened to see a NY Times piece about this year’s event that explained that the theme is “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion” and the dress code is based on J. G. Ballard’s story “The Garden of Time.”

As The Times describes it, the story is:

about an aristocratic couple living in a walled estate with a magical garden while an encroaching mob threatens to end their peaceful existence. To keep the crowd at bay, the husband tries to turn back time by breaking off flower after flower, until there are no more blooms left. The mob arrives and ransacks the estate, and the two aristocrats turn to stone.

The purpose of the Gala is to raise money for the fashion wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which apparently has to pay for itself. This does not seem to be a problem: last year’s Gala raised $22 million.

It is a party where the rich and famous pay lots of money to hob and nob and many people wear extravagant costumes. Apparently the “sleeping beauties” of the theme are items from the museum’s collection that are too fragile to be displayed even on mannequins.

But it was the reference to and description of the Ballard story that really caught my eye, caught it so much that I went looking for it and fortunately my library had The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard. “The Garden of Time” was first published in 1962 and was, I gather, Mr. Ballard’s first appearance in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I have now read it twice and I still find in unbelievable that this story is inspiring the dress code for a gathering of the rich and glamorous celebrities.

I am also amazed that The Times managed to report on this without any comment beyond “Just what comes to mind when you think “fashion,” right?”

I mean, they’re using a story in which rich and elegant people are trying to stave off the masses as dress inspiration for a gala that costs $75,000 a person in a time of extreme wealth inequality. You’d expect the reporter to have noticed that. Continue reading “The Met Gala and J.G. Ballard?”

Money Is Eating a Place I Used to Love

Money is eating Austin and the Texas Hill Country the way it ate the San Francisco Bay Area.

As I often say, everything happens in California first. The only hope I have is that Texas – which like California is majority minority – will also slide away from the extreme right, but watching money destroy a place you love hurts.

Also, I’m pretty sure that money is not why California (which gave us Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Grover Norquist) moved away from the extreme right.

I’m just getting back from a road trip to Texas to see family and the eclipse. While on the road, my sweetheart and I were reading Marjorie Kelly’s Wealth Supremacy outloud to each other, so I was thinking a lot about our flawed economic systems while traveling through a part of the country I’ve known well all my life.

Rural areas in Texas seem to be surviving in large part on hunting camps and taxidermy, which are service businesses catering to the rich who like to pretend they hunt. For the most part, the small towns of the west are tired and dusty, and not just from the harsh arid climate. So many businesses are boarded up.

As you drive east from El Paso toward Austin and San Antonio, you go through small towns about 50 or so miles apart. Sierra Blanca probably survives on the Border Patrol folks stationed there.

Van Horn and Fort Stockton have motels and quick car repair shops for travelers. There’s a little more in Ozona and Sonora, both county seats with a decent restaurant or two.

And then you hit the Hill Country, with fancy wineries and places bought up by rich people. Fredericksburg has been a cute tourist town for awhile, but now all the towns around there have fancy boutiques and interesting restaurants, plus a large number of real estate offices: Johnson City, Blanco, Boerne.

The closer you get to Austin or San Antonio, the more big money developments you see. Sprawling subdivisions. They’re finally repairing US 290 going into Austin from the west, but it’s in service to massive development in a relatively fragile ecosystem.

The Hill Country isn’t desert, but it still has water limits. Meanwhile, none of this big money is going to places that would benefit from the spreading around of wealth. Continue reading “Money Is Eating a Place I Used to Love”

When We Grow Up

We humans don’t yet know what we’re going to be when we grow up.

In my morning senryu, which I call zentao, I often close with the last line “not civilized yet.” Here’s an example:

We can do better.
We have the tools and knowledge.
Not civilized yet.

A lot of those senryu are written in anger. If we were civilized, this thing wouldn’t happen. Or we know better than this; we could be civilized.

This is rooted in an idea I’ve had for many years that every established group of people – particularly the wealthy ones – thinks they are civilized. We are civilized, unlike the people from a thousand, a hundred, fifty years ago.

Or, more dangerously, we are more civilized than those people over there, which often becomes an excuse to kill them.

This is not a popular theory. Once on a science fiction convention panel I suggested we humans weren’t even close to civilized, and got a lot of pushback from everyone else.

Of course, it depends on what you mean by civilized. My own conception of that is long and complex, but the gist of it is a world in which we use what we know and can learn to make good lives for all in sustainable ways.

As we were driving across the country this past week, my sweetheart, having gone down a rabbit hole online based on something we’d noticed, told me that the horse was first domesticated by humans maybe 6,000 years ago.

(My sweetheart also suggests that teenage girls first domesticated the horse. It’s an interesting theory.)

And it suddenly dawned on me – because my mind goes down its own rabbit holes – that human beings are a very young species.

Of course we aren’t civilized. We haven’t been around long enough. Continue reading “When We Grow Up”

Time to End American Exceptionalism

I’m beginning to think the underlying flaw in the United States is a kind of schismogenesis rooted in American Exceptionalism. Schismogenesis is a term for the way groups – including countries – define themselves against other similar groups or countries. The classic example is Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece.

The United States has always defined itself as different from every other country in the world. So when someone looking at our current political mess mentions, say, Weimer Germany, the response is “we’re different,” followed by a list of differences.

We’re “special,” which is just another way to say “it can’t happen here.”

Sinclair Lewis’s novel of that name got at the heart of the very real fascist dangers of the 1930s. The book’s still relevant, for all that it is rooted in the world of the 1930s.

Because we’re not different or special here in the United States. We’re very much like other countries. Our big advantage has always been wealth but we’re far from the first country to become powerful because we had a stranglehold on a lot of resources.

We put a lot of faith in the rule of law, in our institutions, and in our Constitution. But the Constitution is not the perfect document we’re taught to revere, especially in the legal profession, and our institutions have been severely weakened.

The rule of law seems to be hanging by a thread.

And let’s not forget we had a very nasty civil war and left many issues from it unresolved.

Right now in the United States we have an upcoming presidential election in which a candidate from one of our two major political parties — the only ones that matter — is under multiple indictments for things related to the security of the country and the undermining of our political system and has also been found liable civilly for financial grifting and sexual assault.

This person — this grifter now selling bibles as well as sneakers — has declared he intends to be a dictator, and his enablers are plotting an authoritarian government that, among many other things, intends to put women and Black people “in their place.” (Not just women and Black people, but given the history of the country, that’s at the core of the right wing extremist planning.)

The odds that this grifter is beholden to oligarchs from other parts of the world are also pretty high.

But the assumption underlying this election is that the American people have the “right” to choose a president who intends to destroy our country. Continue reading “Time to End American Exceptionalism”

Talking to Strangers

Awhile back I made a comment on someone’s Facebook post to the effect that I wished people at the gym and on the street wouldn’t wear earbuds because it makes it hard to have casual conversation with them.

I don’t recall the subject of the post, but my comment was related.

Someone else — a person I don’t know — castigated me for this opinion, saying that they should not be required to “placate” me in my desire for conversation.

This comment pissed me off, but I did not respond because

  1.  the person asserted they were neurodivergent in some way and, assuming that to be true — they were clearly not a garden-variety troll — I did not want to cause them any harm by replying rudely;
  2.  I really didn’t want to end up in nasty back and forth on social media — one advantage of not having a huge following on any platform is that I don’t end up in flame wars with people I don’t even know and I want to keep it that way; and
  3.  I have learned that one doesn’t always have to respond to people, even rude and offensive people, though I will confess that I am better at that online than I am in person.

But it bugged me enough that I haven’t been able to forget it. I find the very idea that engaging in the practice of engaging with other members of a social species is asking them to “placate” me offensive

Besides, there is a great deal of scientific evidence that suggests that the casual conversations we have with people we don’t know is very good for our mental health.

I recently came across a book entitled The Power of Strangers, by Joe Keohane. Keohane is a reporter and, because of his job, prided himself on his ability to talk to strangers. But he reached a point where he didn’t think he was doing it as well as he should, so he set out to write a book on the subject.

I have been reading the book, or rather skimming it. There is a lot of good material in it, but it is unfortunately written in a style and tone that I find annoying, one that is most often associated with self-help books. However, he’s a good reporter and has collected a lot of things we all should know.

His core point that humans should talk to strangers and that such communication is part of how we became the species we are is good and valid, so I’m skimming to get the gist of what he has to say. (Also, his style may not annoy other people the way it does me — it’s a very common form of nonfiction writing, so common that I suspect a lot of editors push it on people who come to them with an idea.)

Connecting with other people is important and speaking with people who are not just strangers, but very unlike you, opens a lot of mind doors. Continue reading “Talking to Strangers”

No Good at It

I took a drawing class through my local parks and rec department and learned that I can, in fact, draw. What I lacked was an understanding of how to look at something if I wanted to draw it.

I didn’t do this to become a serious artist and certainly not to become a professional one. I just want to be able to draw. I always have, even though I was told as a kid that I wasn’t any good at it.

I don’t know if it’s still the case — though I suspect it is — but back when I was a kid if you weren’t naturally good at something you were often told not to bother. Seems like a lot of teachers can’t be bothered with explaining things so that they make sense to those who don’t have a gift for them.

Plus, of course, art isn’t “important” because the accepted opinion is that it’s hard to make a living as an artist. So only those who are already talented are encouraged to try it and even they are rarely encouraged to take it seriously.

The fact that learning to draw can give you insight and personal satisfaction never gets considered. Just from taking this one short class I have learned so much about how to look at things as well as how to try to render them on paper.

I took up martial arts at 30. I’ve got a fourth degree black belt in Aikido and am a decent teacher. I still do a lot of Tai Chi. I spent years going to the dojo four or five times a week.

I am not a superstar and I never became a professional teacher. But movement matters to me, matters a great deal. It has nothing to do with making a living, though everything to do with who I am.

I spent much of my youth in marching band. I used to sing in church choir. I have a decent voice and can play an instrument. I am not a professional musician and I never had the urge to become one. I like to perform. I’d like to get back into making some music, just because it’s pleasurable to make music.

All these things are important, as are many other things we do in life. You don’t have to make a living from them for them to be important.

And all these things are good for your brain, good for your thinking, good for your health. Continue reading “No Good at It”

It’s International Women’s Day!

I was reminded that the day this post first appears is March 8, which has been designated as International Women’s Day, so despite the fact that I had another post almost finished, I decided that I should write about women.

I mean, I am a woman. While I like a lot of things coded male — swords, for example — I am definitely not male. In fact, my current go-to answer when asked to name my gender is “not male.”

And while I find the idea of non-binary attractive, especially since I do not fit particularly well in many of the niches coded female and am fine with “they” as well as “she” when it comes to pronouns, I am a woman. I am also very sure that nobody gets to tell me what that means.

In particular nobody gets to tell me it means wearing pink or wanting babies or civilizing men, not to mention that nobody ever — EVER — gets to tell me that I can’t do such and such because I’m a girl.

I resisted that lie as much as I could while growing up, which, of course, meant that I never fit in much of anywhere.

I still don’t fit in much of anywhere, but one of the best things about getting old is that you don’t give a fuck.

I’ve done some things to push boundaries in my life, like criticize sexist practices in organizations, go to law school back when women didn’t much, and get a fourth degree black belt in Aikido, but here’s the thing I’m proudest of:

I love my body.

I came to this love through martial arts because I discovered in training how my whole body informs who I am. So part of this love is the fact that my senses and the way I move are integrated into who I am.

But also, I’m capable of looking at my naked body in the mirror and enjoying the shape of it, the curves of my hips and breasts, the width of my shoulders, the strength in my chest and legs, my height.

I don’t have a supermodel body; my height’s in my torso, not my legs, and there’s no way I could get skinny enough to fit into those tiny clothes even if I wanted to because my bone structure is too large.

Also, I like food way too much to starve myself. It’s my understanding these days that, despite all the uproar about obesity, being what is labeled “overweight” is actually healthier than being “normal,” not to mention “underweight.”

Which is to say that our norms for health and weight are completely entangled with our norms for beauty and it’s hard to take any of them seriously. I claim overweight with some pride.

Another thing I’m proud of is that I am not afraid of men. Continue reading “It’s International Women’s Day!”

The Decline and Fall of the U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court just tossed aside its last scrap of legitimacy. You don’t have to have gone to law school or practiced law to know that the argument that Trump is “immune” from criminal charges is legally hogwash.

A basic tenet of a democracy is that no one is above the law and that certainly applies in the case of a grifter who tried to hang onto the presidency after he lost the election and now wants to be dictator.

If you want the legal arguments, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit made it abundantly clear in its ruling. You can read that here.

All the Supreme Court had to do was say no and let the D.C. Circuit ruling stand. Instead, they set it for argument two months out. Even if at least five of them come to their senses and rule against Trump, the trial on his actions in the January 6 insurrection will be pushed off until the fall, with the presidential election looming in November.

I note that Brazil has taken much more concrete action against Jair Bolsonaro, who used similar tactics when he was defeated in their 2022 election. His supporters stormed government buildings in January 2023; by June 2023 the Brazilian courts had blocked him from running for office again until 2030.

It was only in 2023 that prosecutors finally got around to indicting Trump for his actions in 2021, and now our Supreme Court is helping him delay trial.

I once would not have expected Brazil to do a better job of dealing with wannabe dictators than the United States, but the last few years have cured me of any belief in American exceptionalism.

They’ve also cured me of believing in the Supreme Court.

Continue reading “The Decline and Fall of the U.S. Supreme Court”

Do We Need “Rough Men”?

I came across this quote the other day on social media:

People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand read to do violence on their behalf.

It was attributed to George Orwell, but it probably won’t surprise readers to learn that it was actually said by a right-wing cultural columnist named Richard Grenier. A look at a Wikipedia page on misquotations and a site called Quote Investigator suggests that it is a paraphrase of some ideas Orwell expressed.

Regardless of who actually said those words, I think the general sentiment is widely shared by a large number of people. I recall it being an underlying point in the many spy thrillers I read back when I was in high school (Len Deighton, John Le Carre, and even Ian Fleming, plus others who were big in the 1960s and later).

It’s also something you hear from police officers and people in the military. I think it has a strong following, particularly – but not exclusively – among men, regardless of their political opinions.

Back when I was in my early 20s, I had a discussion with a good friend who was a Vietnam War vet. I stated my strong opinion that the fact that the draft only applied to men led to increased sexism and that women could and should serve in combat if military action was necessary.

To my surprise – I didn’t expect a lot of push back from my friends for my radical opinions in those days – he disagreed vehemently.

Twenty years later, he explained to me that one of the things that he held onto for a long time that let him tolerate his miserable war experience was that at least he was protecting others from having to do it. He had by then thought the subject through more deeply.

The sentiment makes sense, in our violent world, but on the whole I think it’s a myth that many people, like my friend, tell themselves to deal with the trauma of the horrors of war or other violent actions.

In truth, one of the key things that makes us safe is that some people – and sometimes enough of them – stand up against various kinds of injustice. Continue reading “Do We Need “Rough Men”?”