Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Valentine exchange

Want a valentine?  Email me and I'll send you one.

Feeling vaguely crafty?  Want to make some valentines and get more than one?  Email me by February 4th and I'll set up an exchange - you make a couple of valentines, mail them out, and receive some from other participants.  It will be great!

juliawise07 at gmail dot com

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Tell them.

Last week I complained about a problem. I've been thinking about what the solution might be.

I had never heard of Aaron Swartz until he died, though I used his inventions every day. This happens a lot with famous people – I had never heard of Frank Sinatra until he was dead and suddenly he was all over the radio. Of course, if you're Sinatra, you probably get more attention than you want. But I'm guessing a lot of awesome people, probably Aaron included, don't hear enough “You're awesome, and I'm glad you're doing the things you do, and I want to help if I can.”

I had a friend with a famous father. It struck me as strange that people were so excited about meeting him, because in person he was less interesting than her (possibly because he'd been pursued by too many fans and was sick of meeting people). People just walked up to him and told him how much they admired him and his work, but no one said that to her. I didn't tell her, “You're so fun, and I love your hair, and this spinach you made is really good,” even though I thought it every day.

When people die, we wish we had told them things like that.  And yet it's hard to say it in the course of everyday life.

What praise do we not give, and why?

One reason is the fear other people will think you're weird.  It's true that flattery can come off as creepy. But I think people can usually tell the difference between flattery and honest praise. And accepting weirdness is a good life skill.

Maybe hearing too much praise would make a person conceited after a while. But I think in most cases, it would just make them happier and better at being awesome. I love that as a social worker, I get to give my clients real criticism and real praise, because we're outside the normal realm of social interactions.

And the normal realm does not encourage this kind of thing.  It embraces irony, and geeky subcultures especially prize critique and verbal sparring (see also: Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate).  Which is fine, but that's not all there is to life.

So sometimes there's love and admiration that I don't have an easy outlet for.  It took years of angst before I gave myself permission to be in love with men who were not viable romantic partners. I kept trying to reconcile the love with the impossibility of acting on it. I finally realized I didn't have to act, and I also didn't have to squash the love. It was okay to give up hope and just love them.

With some of them I got to move on from the awkward-non-lover stage to real friendship, and that was great.  And one of them broke up with his girlfriend and married me, and that was pretty great too.

I try to push myself to tell people the things I love about them. It's scary, because there are probably situations where this could go wrong and people would be uncomfortable. But I'd like to move towards a culture where it's not weird.

For well you know that it's a fool
Who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder.
- Paul McCartney

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Don't glorify suicide

After a busy life of activism and entrepreneurship, and facing possible jail time for downloading academic articles, Aaron Swartz killed himself Friday.  They're calling him a martyr.

But let's remember that the Department of Justice didn't kill him.  MIT didn't kill him.  His death was not some kind of inevitable consequence of their choice to prosecute.  He hanged himself.

My grandfather committed suicide about 40 years ago.   I never met the man, but I saw the repercussions his last act had on his wife and children.  The bitterness.  The gap, where there should have been a grandpa and wasn't.  I grew up understanding that there was nothing glamorous about suicide.

In the grip of depression, that didn't stop me from considering it at times.  I have been where Aaron was when he wrote, “Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you.”  But even in that haze, I couldn't ignore what my death would do to my family.  On the day I got married I promised to be a loving and faithful wife, and that meant not leaving Jeff.

And things got better, as I fully expect they would have for Aaron.  For a man who had accomplished so much by age 26, he undoubtedly had more gifts to give the world. Yes, his death drew attention to his cause, which may have been part of his intention.  But I seriously doubt that cutting things off now was the best way to further digital freedom.

I think there are cases where a person really can expect their life to be net negative, and death is their best option. But that doesn't seem to have been the case here.  People are talking about the 35 years he faced like it was a sure thing, but it was likely he'd have gotten a light sentence.  And a jail sentence, as Martin Luther King could have told you, does not have to ruin your life or your cause.

I don't mean to minimize the pain Aaron was in, which I'm sure surpassed anything I've experienced. But I don't think it justifies his action.  It is deeply wrong to hang yourself where your girlfriend will find your body  she will never be the same.  You don't do that to someone who loves you.  And it was wrong to abandon his cause when he had so much to give.

Suicide has a situational aspect and a psychological/biological aspect, but also a cultural aspect.  And we need to think about what we want as a culture.

Our reaction to Aaron's death informs every young hacker's idea of what will happen to their reputation if they follow in his footsteps.  If we really don't want to lose brilliant young minds, we can't glamorize death.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Prison, work, songs

This weekend I heard a presentation of work songs from the prison farms of the early 20th-century south.  Pain, sadness, humor, anger  all were intense in this music.

The vast prison farms were an evolution of the plantations that had been there before. When the 13th ammendment banned slavery “except as a punishment for crime,” Southern whites did the obvious. They imprisoned their former slaves for offenses like loitering and failing to yield the sidewalk.

If you ever go to Houston,
Boys, you better walk right,
And you better not squabble
And you better not fight.
Benson Crocker will arrest you
Jimmy Boone will take you down.
You can bet your bottom dollar
That you're Sugarland bound.

Of course, hearing the work songs of imprisoned people, I thought of the prisoners I work with in a northern, urban jail.

They spend a lot of time watching TV. I think it keeps people pacified, but I also wonder if there weren't something better they could be doing.  Being idle is especially hard for some of the immigration detainees, who have mostly been manual laborers since childhood. “I worked my whole life,” one of them said, “and now I'm sitting here with my arms folded.”

Work is one thing I wish we could have more of at the jail. After you've been there a while, and if you've stayed out of trouble, you can work if you want to. Men work in the kitchen or print shop, running errands, and cleaning things. Women are taken out of the facility to pick trash and paint walls. They earn about a dollar an hour, but the biggest perk is that it passes the time.  There are more inmates who ask for work than get it.

(More work might have the benefit of reducing prison costs. But I'd like to stay clear of actually making a profit, as the labor camps of the old south did. Economic incentive to imprison people is a very bad thing.)

On the way home from hearing these songs, I talked with a friend who had worked with prisoners at Angola Prison in Louisiana (so named after the origin of the slaves who originally farmed that plantation). She said work there was mandatory, and inmates there spent their first months hoeing the collard fields before they had the option of switching to cushier jobs.

Ironically, hoeing collards is the kind of job idealistic college students love to sign up for. I spent my first summer out of college as a part-time farmhand on a small hippie farm. But I chose it, and I worked with other people who wanted to be there. We sang a lot, mostly happy songs, not the slow-burning songs of slavery. We loved eating the fruits of our labor, just as the inmates of Angola Prison feed themselves. Everything is different when it's chosen freely.

(Side note:
I couldn't write about field hollers and not include Stan Roger's parody, the White Collar Holler.  He reframes computer programming as soul-crushing drudgery, presumably in contrast to the old-fashioned fishing and sailing jobs he loves to write about.  The song doesn't resonate for me, because most of the programmers I know have a good bit of freedom and enjoy their jobs.  Again with the autonomy and the work satisfaction.)

The other thing I wish we could have more of at the jail is creativity. The emphasis is on passing time rather than doing anything with it. Some inmates make ingenious things with their hands – teddy bears sculpted from soap and delicately tinted with toothpaste. A Christmas tree from a carefully deconstructed toilet paper tube. And those more frightening creations in the contraband exhibit they show you at orientation: the blow-darts made from staples, the shivs made of toothbrushes and razor blades, the hotwired contraptions used to heat urine to boiling temperatures so it can be thrown in an enemy's face.

That kind of destructiveness is the explanation given for why inmates can't have any materials: no colored pencils, no yarn, no crochet hook, no wood to carve, no guitars. But sometimes I wonder if they'd be less destructive if they had something constructive to do.

Of course, like those older prisoners, they still have word and song. Those inalienable tools are alive and well in the form of rap. I have yet to hear the compositions of any of the inmates I work with, but several of them have explained how important it is to them.

One more song to finish with.  Hear the anger channeled into work: