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Friday, July 9, 2021

Well, we moved.

Our move to Big Town is behind us. It was a painfully stressful week or so. Packing our things. Hiring movers. Getting six people, two cats, and two cars to the new place. Directing movers, in an empty house. Getting stickers for our cars so we would be allowed to park at our new house. Weathering many, many tears from the children. Waiting till they weren't looking so I could shed some tears of my own while still pretending that This Is So Great, Aren't We Having Fun? in the hopes that they would play along.

I'm not going to lie to you, though. This whole thing has not been much fun. And even now that the most stressful part is behind us, I'm not super jazzed about these changes. I guess I was hoping that all I dreaded was the transition, and once we were a little used to it here it would all be find. Instead I'm seeing more and more ways that this place is just not as good as what we had.

In a small town, we could afford a large house with a large yard. And much of what we did for fun was free. Here, we are in a townhouse with no yard to speak of, and everything I try to drag the kids to is stressful and expensive. Of course it doesn't help that it's the most miserable month to live in Virginia, where even in Small Town we would be hunkering down with crayons and playdough rather than attempting the kind of summer fun I remember from my childhood. (Not that even the Pacific Northwest is still cool enough in summer to go outside every day, anymore. There's a lot of heavy "you can never go home" feelings around right now.)

I don't know anybody here, yet. I don't even speak the same language as half the people here. I was hoping to introduce the kids to diversity. Instead they shriek, "I can't play with the neighbor kids because they TALK FUNNY and I HATE people who talk funny!" I know that this mostly has to do with missing home, but it also makes me worry. Fear of the unfamiliar is natural, but it's also where racism comes from and I am not sure how to combat it. Especially in my culturally-alienated but legitimately Hispanic children.

I thought moving here would make me closer to things and give me more options. But it's actually significantly further to the next grocery store than our old house was. Closer to Aldi, I'll admit, and that's my favorite, but even if we want to just run out for a couple things, it's still ten minutes. There are more restaurants, but they're all more expensive. There are more pools, but I still haven't found an outdoor one that's open on weekdays, and the indoor one near us gives me a headache and costs $25 for the massive bunch of us. There are parks but none of them are the sort of shady/ splashy/ uncrowded parks we had back home.

The roads around here are either grungy or massive and busy. Or both. I hate wires that crisscross over the road, and huge parking lots, and places without trees. There is a part of town that's more scenic, and we don't live in it because it's even more not-cheap than where we do live. Driving north is pretty nice, because we pass through a large regional park. Though there is no entrance to that park from our end, only from the county on the other side. I wonder who made that decision, and why.

The new house is newer than our old one, less broken. It has central air, and I'm certainly not complaining about that. I did dream of buying a house with fewer stairs, though, and this one does not fit my hopes.

I put friction tape because I'm terrified of slipping, but I've still slipped on them twice.

The kitchen is pretty. Of course I'm the rube who doesn't like gas stoves. There weren't enough cabinets, which was the tragedy of my existence for a few days. I felt near tears even going in the kitchen because it was all scattered with dutch ovens and ice cream makers that I had no possible place for. But we got an IKEA cabinet to put along the side wall and now everything fits. It makes me feel marginally better about my life.

New cabinet not shown in this one. The hatch into the living/dining room is cool though.

The view off the back deck is quite acceptable. This green patch doesn't really belong to anyone but the HOA, so it's not like having a yard, but if I can just coax the children to have adventures in there with me it might be a little bit the same.



I don't care for the view out the front. It is a parking lot and there's no getting around that. But the kids can scooter there so they use it more than the back. We've managed to play with the neighbor kids some, the ones who are younger than my kids and don't speak English. It turns out you don't really need to talk much to scooter. Their dad seems to be the social center of the block and talks to everybody. I am so thankful for him.


He's the one who tipped me off this creek spot. The whole time I've lived in Virginia, creek spots have been precious; if you know a spot, you spend your whole summer there if you can. This one is within walking distance of our house, on the other side of the HOA, and three out of four kids loved it.


Problem: it was covered with trash. The whole woods behind are apparently a general party zone for everyone in the area, and there aren't any trash cans. It's the tragedy of the commons in action. If it belongs to everyone, it belongs to no one, and no one seems to be responsible for cleaning it up.

WELL, while we were there, and I was feeling morose about the garbage situation (which was much larger than I had the slightest hope of cleaning up), a guy showed up to tell us it actually did belong to someone, which is the HOA (if I understood him right). So there will now be RULES. And a cleanup day. And maybe paved paths.

I like the idea of cleaning it up. I didn't much like this guy's insinuation that the problem was Hispanic people from outside the neighborhood coming in and drinking there. First because most everyone here is Hispanic, in or out of the neighborhood, but that isn't super relevant when it comes to finding out who's littering. Second because who really cares if the people from the neighboring apartment complex hang out at the same creek; nature should belong to everyone and it's honestly more fun the more kids there are to play with. Third because I don't care if people drink so long as they throw their bottles away. Fourth because his solution was unsightly no-trespassing signs and fences that are hostile to walkers. It would be much easier to get there from our house if there weren't so many fences, but I understood from talking to him that making it impossible to walk around was a goal. That people who walk from one neighborhood to another are a problem, and it's better to make it impossible for people in this neighborhood to get around without burning gas than it is to let apartment-dwellers get to our creek.

I am just feeling really demoralized about our future here. Maybe I'll feel different when the kids start school, especially if they find more friends here than they did back in Small Town. (What if they don't??) Maybe I'll feel different when I finally find a way to meet people (if I ever get that brave). Maybe I'll feel different if I start taking classes at the local community college, a thing I mean to do if I am never not overwhelmed and stressed all the time.

But I keep thinking, what if I don't? I'm a hermit at heart; maybe what was best for me was to have a little space to be a hermit in. I can't believe I had two friends and a school in walking distance and a splash pad that was eight minutes away and free, and I gave that up seeking . . . what? Friends? Opportunities? Happiness? I had those things available to me at the old place, but I couldn't access them because I was scared and bad at leaving the house. Which I still am, just in a smaller house.

I hope things get better soon. They kind of have to.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

How to leave the Catholic Church

I've been intrigued by Steve Skojec's last few posts. I disagree with him on most things, to be sure, but where it comes to the Legion of Christ and the traditionalist movement, he gets it. Both groups are high demand and abusive, and he knows that personally.

He certainly sounds to me like he's thinking of leaving the church altogether. In general, I approve: it's not just fringe movements that can be abusive, and as long as you're in the church, you're always going to find more of those anyway. But I also worry a little bit for him. A life inside the church doesn't prepare you very well for a life outside. If he goes dashing outside the church without rethinking a heck of a lot of first principles, he'll run after the next nutty person he sees who promises him the complete ideological purity that attracted him into his first two cults.

That's true of anybody who leaves a church, so I thought I'd write a little how-to guide.

How to Leave the Church



1. Stand up from the pew


2. Go through the doors, they're at the back



3. Run and don't stop


I kid, I kid. It isn't hard to leave the church, once you've made up your mind it's the right thing to do. You simply stop showing up, and if they call you, tell them nobody by that name lives at your number anymore. It's not like leaving the Mormons. They really aren't going to try to stop you. They will, of course, insist that you are  still Catholic, per canon law, and count you in any numbers they keep track of. But you can leave them counting those beans, because you're not there anymore.

But what do you do next?

1. Take a break from religion.

You know how, when you get out of a bad relationship, any subsequent relationship looks so good by comparison? "Wow," an abuse survivor raves to her friends, "he doesn't beat me at all! I had no idea guys could be this good!" And the friends look at the guy and are like . . . "Okay but he still forgot your birthday and expects you to clean up after him, are you sure this isn't a rebound?"

If Steve jumps ship straight into Orthodoxy (as I suspect he will, the trad-to-Orthodox pipeline is well traveled) he'll be so amazed it isn't as toxic as a traditionalist parish that he'll boast about it to anyone who will listen. But that doesn't mean it will be healthy. With a long break (months, maybe a year) without going to church at all, he'll be better able to weigh whether a new church is actually bringing goodness into his life or simply less badness.

Of course you can still pray during this break time, study theology, call yourself a Christian. But a person needs to decompress a little from church. I think the enforced decompression of the pandemic has gotten a lot of people realizing how little they were getting from their churches, how perfectly capable they are of worshiping at home. The churches they return to will be the ones that actually offer something other than obligation.

2. Dig down to first principles. 

Steve sees something wrong with the church, which should be adequate proof he has a moral code apart from the church. If you can judge the church and find it wanting, then there's something in you that knows right and wrong apart from the church telling you so. What is that compass telling you?

Steve knows it's wrong for the priest not to baptize his child. But why? Is it because of the first principle "Nobody says no to me, Steve Skojec"? Probably it's more some sense of fairness. The feeling that everyone deserves to get the things they absolutely need. How could Steve extend that outward to more things? If his child deserves baptism, do all children deserve food? What does it mean to deserve something, and how can we obtain for everyone what they deserve?

I highly recommend reading some moral philosophy, or, if you're not up to homework, watching The Good Place. You don't have to have a perfectly spelled-out moral philosophy, but it's good to have some general principles to guide you.

3. No, further down than that.

It's too easy to become exactly the same brand of person you were before, sans church membership. To keep the same politics, the same biases, the same ingroup. People like Jordan Peterson, whom Steve Skojec likes so much, promise to let you do that. Here's a non-religious defense for all the same things you thought before!

The world does not need more repackaged, atheist patriarchy, homophobia, or hierarchies. You don't need to do evo-psych to work out why the same moral code you had before is scientific. It doesn't actually work that way. It's like when Aquinas tried to make Aristotle prove the church was right about everything. If the church is wrong about some things, what else could it be wrong about? Maybe it was wrong about gay marriage, or monarchy.

It's easier to keep mostly the same opinions you had before. If the church taught you to be constantly afraid, constantly angry, about "how the world is going," it will be hard to change your point of view. But Steve believes, as I believe, that one has a responsibility to know the truth. What if all of that was fear tactics? What if the way you vote, the things you promote, or the condemnations you've pronounced have done harm? Reconsider everything. 

Take your time. You don't have to have it all worked out right away. Catholics will demand, "So are you contracepting now? What do you think about abortion?" It's okay to say, "I'm still working all that out." In fact, that's almost the only answer you can say that won't get you attacked with either, "Here's why you're wrong," or "If you agree with the church on that, you should just be Catholic again!"

4. Don't look backwards

You know how Lot's wife was turned to a pillar of salt for looking over her shoulder? That's a terrible story, the bible is messed up. Anyway, there's an impulse after leaving the church to keep obsessing over it. You study the theology you already know, in order to reassure yourself that you weren't making up the problems. You keep talking with Catholic people, maybe arguing with them to get some kind of closure, a point where they admit you did the right thing by leaving. (You will not get this.) You can even make an entire living, like Rod Dreher does, out of criticizing the church you're no longer a part of.

It's one thing to do this for a little while. Maybe it's even healthy. But if it's been a year and you're still mostly surrounded by Catholics, reading Catholic blogs, coming up with ever more airtight refutations of Catholic teaching . . . it might be time to move on a little bit. That history is always going to be a part of you; you don't have to pretend otherwise. But it can be like picking at a scab a little bit. Leaving the church is painful, and constantly putting yourself back into that mindset keeps that pain going. 

Find some non-Catholic friends, both ex-Catholics and never-Catholics. (The former get you so well. The latter remind you that you have to have something else to talk about besides that.) Have new interests and hobbies. Get, eventually, to a point where having been Catholic is just one thing about you. (I'm not going to claim I'm fully there.)

5. Replace those things that actually helped you.

When I first left the church, I tried to replace all of it: the prayers, the holidays, the songs. The church was just such a big part of my life, I felt like I needed all of that. These days I don't do so much of that. Many of the things I used to do, I found I didn't really need, so they fell by the wayside.

You have to ask yourself, what have you been relying on the church for? For good reason,* the church doesn't encourage you to think about what you're getting out of it, but it's very likely you did get something out of it. A way to self-improvement, some daily or weekly meditative time, a coping mechanism for anxiety, an opportunity to do charitable work, a community of like-minded people. Where can you get those things? It doesn't have to all be in the same place.

(*it's because if you actually kept a tally, you'd see you give much more than you get, and very often you get nothing)

There's one thing, though, that you shouldn't replace. Don't replace one all-inclusive, package vacation to truth with another. The church claimed to have all truth so you never needed to go elsewhere. Don't find some other organization or guru and eat up everything they say. Don't fall for ideologies that claim to explain everything. Everything is not privilege vs. oppression. Everything is not order vs. chaos. Everything is complicated. Listen to a variety of people, read different sources, keep thinking.

The church taught you to doubt yourself and seek an outside arbiter of truth. It's not wrong that your reason is fallible. But if your reason is fallible at finding the truth, it's even worse at picking authorities that can find the truth for you. Everyone else's reason is fallible too. The best safety measure against all of that is to double-check other people's claims of truth against your own reason.

6. Heal emotionally.

When you're newly out of the church, you're recovering from two traumas. One of them is leaving the church, and the other is the time you spent in it. Depending on how it went for you, those may be more or less severe.

Your time in the church might have loaded you down with:

  • Terror of hell
  • Conviction that you are not a good person
  • Fear of the outside world
  • Guilt for small things
  • Fear of enjoying yourself in any way, and guilt when you do
  • Sexual dysfunction or shame
These aren't things that will leave you all at once. As a result, when you leave the church you may find yourself feeling worse at first. You might have rationally worked out that there is no hell, but when it's 1 am and you can't sleep, you might still feel afraid of it. This isn't a sign that you did the wrong thing necessarily; it's just that you were taught to be afraid of certain things and that lesson went deeper than reason.

Meanwhile, leaving the church can cause problems like:
  • Social rejection by your community
  • Existential angst or fear
  • Worry about doing the right thing
  • Grief at losing God
  • Panic that this life might be all there is
  • Regret at how you've spent your life this far
I hit many of these things very hard. I worried all the time that one of my children would die and it would be my fault and they wouldn't go to heaven because there wasn't one. I cried because Jesus had been my best friend. I lay awake at night because I was afraid I would go to sleep and not wake up, and never have a chance to do anything different with my life.

You see why it's so tempting to jump into the first religion or ideology that presents a soothing answer. I'm not saying you shouldn't, at some point, find one. But it should be after you've done a little healing on these things, so you're not just trying to fill a church-shaped hole.

I can't get you through any of this with a blog post. It takes time and emotional processing. It might take therapy. But I will tell you it gets better. You're living each day without whatever pain the church was causing--which, as you go on, you'll realize was more than you thought. And you find new ways to cope with the different pains of human existence, things the church once answered for you.

I hope that helps.

Friday, May 28, 2021

The soul of a house

 I don't know where I got the idea of the lifelong family home. It certainly wasn't from my family. My father and three out of four of my grandparents were in the military, so although we didn't move that often, I always understood a house is a base of operations where you live for a while before moving to the next place. When I was a kid, I always wanted to move.

Maybe it was It's a Wonderful Life. You know how Mary wishes on a broken window that she could someday live in that drafty old house, and then she does? She makes a home of it, somehow, painting while the kids are in their playpen and putting up with the banister end coming off all the time. Which gives the impression that it is affordable and possible to buy a big house and fill it with children if you're just not picky about banister ends. We got awfully close to buying one of those for our first home, till the inspector said "no, the back of the house is literally sliding off, you cannot possibly." What a buzzkill, that guy.

Anyway, here's the dream. You buy a house when your first child is a baby, or before. (Already the millennials in the room are shaking their heads at me.) It's in a good neighborhood, with a nice yard. Or maybe it's out in the country, but still close to work.

It's not a perfect house. It's probably inconveniently laid out and the paint is a little chipped. And that's when you start. Over the years you build onto it or knock out that inconvenient wall, probably by yourself. The gardens develop thick soil from years of planting. You put in an apple seedling, and by the time your kids are teenagers they're harvesting apples.

You know how the Velveteen Rabbit becomes real when all his fur gets loved off? That's what happens to houses. There's a doorway somewhere with marks showing all your kids' heights at different ages. There's a door that doesn't close right because a kid swung on it too much. Your kids have names for the different faces you can see in the paint chips. There's been a heap o' living there.

Most importantly, you stay there the entire time your kids are growing up. They never have to leave. You look at old photo albums and everyone knows the house, because they're sitting in it while they look at the album. The neighbor's baby grows up alongside your baby, and 18 years later they have their first kiss in that apple tree you planted when they were toddlers. Of course you couldn't leave that house. That house is family.

You stay in that house when all the kids are gone, and fix it up a bit the way you never could when they were underfoot. But you keep a couple boxes of their toys under the stairs, and when your grandkids come over, they sleep in their dad's old bed. With luck, you die in that house, peacefully in your bed.

I don't know how often that ever happened. People have always had to move, for one reason or another. But it feels even less possible now. Nobody stays at one job their whole career anymore; they carefully hop diagonally through the job market, accepting big changes to go slightly upward because they're never getting a raise where they are. Nobody has money enough, early on in their career, to buy a house big enough for the family they'll have later. We could never have bought this house when Marko was a toddler, but we also could never have fit four kids into the house we did buy. And nobody can be certain their kids will stay in the area; people of my generation and class very commonly live across the country from their families. When we were young, flying to visit seemed easy. Now that we're older, moving closer seems impossible.

Houses these days seem like commodities more than homes. You have to be doing improvements all the time. Mark your children's heights on the wall? Heck no. You need to be updating the kitchen for when you sell it. Don't make it too individual, too yours.

Selling a house feels like ripping the soul from its body. You tone down your presence in the home, you clean it to make it look like you don't even live there. And soon you won't. The house you filled with your laughter is a set of bare floors by the time you say goodbye to it. You'll miss it all your life, but your last memory of it is just echoing rooms.

Sometimes I think I like houses more than I like people, because I cry when they're sold and I don't always cry when I say goodbye to people. Then again, often a person's house is a symbol, in my mind, of the person. I miss my great-grandpa's house because it was his, because a big part of what I ever knew of him was his house. He talked to the grownups, but we kids were downstairs investigating his knickknacks, discovering what kind of a person he was from the things he left lying around.

The house I loved the most was my grandparent's lake cabin. My grandpa built so much of it himself, and I remember the process from bare beach to the polished, hand-carved towel hooks. It was in such a special place, where we made so many important memories. But most of all, it was his house. It meant Grampy to me, in a lot of ways, while their town house held more of Grandma's soul.

I did take my kids to that town house, showing them the couch with lemon upholstery and the elephant statue and the trees. It felt like a link I had to forge, connecting my children with at least one place I had been as a child. The house I grew up in was sold when I was fourteen. Now my parents don't even live in the same state. It feels disconcerting, wrong. That a place I felt was my home no longer has a place I can stay.

I feel like I am taking something away from my kids by moving, even though they are mostly on board with the move now. I wanted them to have roots. I wanted a place that connected them to their memories, so the past doesn't seem like it happened to somebody else. I wanted them to feel more grounded in a place than I have been able to be.

I didn't want them to feel homesick their entire lives, like me.

I've stopped being agrarian because I no longer feel like it explains anything or has any of the answers. But, even though I don't have an alternative, I still object to modern society. Maybe the things that were traded away were for good reasons. But sometimes I feel it was because nobody felt they were worth anything at all. I don't think people get what I mean when I say a house has a soul, when I say it has to be more than an asset and a way to save on rent.

But, if I linger in this house when the movers are gone and hide in the closet to whisper goodbye to its bare bones, I hope you understand why.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The city mouse and the country mouse

I grew up at the edge of a city, but I always dreamed of being a farmer or living way out in the country. Living here in a small town has been the closest I've ever gotten to that.

In many ways, living in a small town is the best of both worlds: there's plenty of nature around, but it's still five minutes to the grocery store. And our town isn't so small as to limit what we can access very much. There might be fewer options, but we have doctors, dentists, restaurants, even a (rather minimal) hospital.

Despite that, though, we're moving 45 minutes closer to the big city, to a suburb I'm just going to call Bigger Town. Because what we don't have are jobs that pay a one-income living for a family of six. John's been commuting over 90 minutes a day for about two years now, and that's really sapped his spirit. He's tried and tried, but librarians in this area tend to make under $40,000 a year--it's a job for married ladies whose husbands also work, or perhaps older people who don't want to retire.

I'm sad about it, but I'm also trying to find the bright side in moving closer to the city. Tons of people would love to live near a city, and many would never dream of living anywhere else.

People

Cities are full of things to do. Museums, restaurants, concerts, big libraries, water parks, community theaters, classes for kids. The libraries have more books. The shopping district has more shops.

In the city, there are more people to hang out with. That means a better chance of finding people who share your interests. I could find a writing group near me. I hear there's even a children's Magic: The Gathering club.

Downside of all this is that there are people when you don't want to be with people. Your yard is small if you have any, and you might share walls with noisy people. The streets are never quiet. More people means less starlight and birdsong.

My relationships with humans have always been fraught. The worst thing nature has ever done to me has been a bee sting. So it's no wonder I tend to pick nature every time.

But, you know, I'm looking to relearn how to interact with people, so maybe having a lot of opportunities to do that will be Good For Me.

Nature

The tradeoff for more people is less nature. I live next to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River. It's absolutely gorgeous here, especially if you go two minutes or so out of town. Even from our upstairs windows we can see the Blue Ridge. 




Seattle has a giant mountain and two large bodies of water going for it--you still get to look at some nature, even in the middle of the city. Bigger Town isn't like that. It has parks, but you have to go to them. It's flat, and I don't like flat.

Here, we have woods in our actual yard. Okay, a strip of trees, but you can climb them. We have lots of birds. We have redbuds and dogwoods and holly. When I'm feeling depressed, it's hard for me to get in the car and go somewhere. But I can sit at the window or go out in the yard and get some nature therapy. I really feel it feeds my soul.

High population density, I am told, is much better for the environment. Living closer to work means less energy use and emissions. Townhouses and apartments mean less land is taken up with housing and more can be left for animal habitats. Our yard is populated by deer and bears, but that's because their proper wild habitat is shrinking. As roads encroach into the forest, more animals are killed in road accidents. So love of nature should encourage me not to live smack in the middle of it.

And it does, but it's tough.

Diversity

Small Town is more diverse than you'd think, but it's very segregated. The Justice Map shows our current neighborhood as 100% white. Just down the hill there's a little block that's allegedly 100% Black. I'm sure that's at least somewhat inaccurate, but not by a lot. 

They say what you see growing up is what you expect, what you assume is normal and right. I grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, and I think that was good for me. I knew racist garbage for racist garbage early on, because it wasn't accurate to what I'd experienced. I'd like the same for my kids.

Bigger towns and cities are almost always much more diverse. And the town we're moving to is much more shaded and speckly on the Justice Map. Feels . . . I dunno . . . more American. More representative of what this country is actually like.

Politics

Cities are more liberal. It's a reason I wanted out of the city to begin with, back when I was ten million times more conservative than I am now. Small Town is red as red can be. Trump and Thin Blue Line flags everywhere. Racist comments said openly. People lining the street to pray the rosary against gay marriage. Awkwardly, a lot of those people know me and don't know I think differently now, so I find myself constantly being assumed much more conservative than I am. I don't want to start fights, but I also don't want to smile and nod through a rant about how trans people are ruining society.

I find it ironic in the extreme that I was so conservative when I lived in Seattle and am so liberal now that I live here. Maybe I'm a little contrary. Maybe I just didn't understand just how much further right the right wing went.

Anyway, Bigger Town is about 60% Democrat, meaning it's liberal, but shouldn't be a bubble either. I would like to meet some more like-minded people.

Career

A thing they don't tell you, when you're considering a life path, is that most college-track jobs are in cities. College specializes you, and the more specialized the thing you do, the less likely you'll be able to find an opening for it in a town of 10,000. Small towns have openings for doctors, lawyers, dentists, real estate agents, and optometrists. Teachers and librarians too, but the pay will be low. If you have student loans, you might not be able to pay them on a small-town salary.

Plumbers, cashiers, mechanics, barbers, and factory workers are needed everywhere. You can pick a town and live there; there will probably be a job for you. Though if you want to move from a small town to a larger city, you may find cost of living is a barrier.

Cost

You know all that fun stuff available in cities? The vast majority of it costs money. Whereas the entertainment available here in Small Town is largely cheap or free: hiking, wading, swimming in the creek. If we want to pay money, we can swim in the pool or rent a canoe. It's not terribly expensive.

In the city, everything costs so much more. The houses, the groceries, the activities. Making the switch is going to be tough. In Small Town, we've been living (relatively) like kings the past few years. Large house, large yard, cheap groceries. To move to Bigger Town, we will have to downsize by about 500 square feet of house and almost all the yard. We certainly can't keep up the suburban lifestyle some people manage close to the big city. Those houses are like a million dollars.

Aesthetics

I never wanted to be rich, I just wanted to be surrounded by beauty. It took me years of adulthood to realize that beauty costs money.

The country is beautiful, right? My dream was something like this:


It turns out this costs a bundle. If you are poor and live in the country, what you can afford is more like this:


Likewise, there are beautiful, picturesque city neighborhoods, like this one:



But if you're of reasonable means, you're just as likely to live here:


So the short answer is, if you want beauty, try being upper-middle class. Or at least don't try to raise four kids on one income. The first street we lived on in this town wasn't aesthetic at all. Where we live now is much nicer, but it costs an amount that hardly anybody pays out here.

That said, there are more free beautiful things in the country. The spur of the mountains that sticks out over Small Town is one of my favorite things, and I see it any time I drive anywhere. There are lovely drives all over this area. Even just taking the kids to school means driving past people's beautifully landscaped yards, with tulips and flowering trees . . . and yes, some number of crumbling buildings and cars on cinderblocks.

I've had ten years of practice finding the beauty here. I know where it is, and I am familiar enough with the ugly bits that my eye skips over them. Whereas when I go to Bigger Town, I mostly see this: 



The main drag is just one long soul-destroying succession of strip malls interspersed with used car lots. I hate it.

But, of course, there's more to the town than that. There are some lovely parks. There are cute, picturesque neighborhoods. The house we're hoping to buy is surrounded by some patches of trees, so I won't be starved for nature. And the art museum isn't very far.

And perhaps I can see beauty in some unexpected things. I always need to learn to do that more. People, for instance. That's a place beauty can always be found, but fear keeps me from looking.


* * *

I cried today, driving back from the grocery store. I will definitely miss living here. And it feels deeply unfair the way life conspires to push me away from things I want, the way none of the choices are simple and easy, the way decisions made long ago tie us down into consequences nobody wanted. I get so deeply attached to places. I'm sometimes struck with homesickness for a place I visited one time, for one week.

Small Town is going on the huge mantlepiece in my mind of Places I'll Miss Forever. And I'm going to a place that feels terrifying and strange, though I have lived there before. I worry my soul will be flattened out, stomped, suffocated.

But a line of a poem came to me, And for all this, nature is never spent. Flowers grow in crannied walls and sunsets happen everywhere. I need the Earth, but I won't be leaving her. So maybe that's going to be enough.



Friday, May 7, 2021

The old Babysitters Club and the new show

 Next up on my "reread and ruin classics from my childhood" is The Babysitters Club. I devoured those books as a kid. There must have been a million. And they were a quick read, perfect for winning library reading challenges. Sometimes I'd read several in a single day.

I remember being really jealous of these girls, with their independence and their babysitting jobs and their tight friend group. I had none of those things. Of course, I was about nine and ten when I read them. My dream was to be like them when I was a bit older (I was not).

With that vaguely in my memory, I sat down to watch the show by myself, and within moments was swarmed by kids who also wanted to watch it. They picked it for their shows most nights, especially Miriam and Michael (6 and 9).

You guys, I loved it. That feel of girls living their best lives and being responsible and solving friendship problems was just how I remembered. The characters looked and acted how I imagined, though the ones in the show are a bit more diverse (Mary Anne is biracial and Dawn is Hispanic). Their personal styles are updated (no leg warmers or giant ponytails) but their vibes are the same. Claudia is my fashion icon, personally. Kristy remains totally "square, don't care." Stacey, I assume, is still cool. I wouldn't know what the cool kids wear these days.

They stuck closer than most reboots to the original plots: Kristy not wanting her mom to get remarried, Claudia's grandmother Mimi having a stroke, Dawn moving into the area, Mary Anne shyly crushing on Logan. Like the books, each show is narrated by a different girl but includes what's going on in the lives of the other girls. And like the books, each episode contains some actual babysitting.

A few new issues are introduced: Janine explains internment to Claudia; Mary Ann babysits a trans girl (and stands up for her bravely). Some stuff went over my kids' heads. In one episode, Kristy gets her period, and I had to explain that to my kids. Which is fine, they were due for it. It makes me wonder: what age is BSC really for? The girls are about 12 or 13, but I know I read them much younger, and here my kids are watching the show that young too. I think the appeal could be pretty wide: my kids certainly enjoyed it, but there are nods to things only adults would really catch (Handmaid's Tale and Hunger Games references). 

Most of all, I loved watching the girls face their demons (Mary Ann's shyness, Kristy's bossiness, Claudia's grades, Stacy's fear of bullying) and come out on top. I honestly felt a little teary at times rooting for "my girls." It's just such a preteen show, where (for instance) learning to say no to a pushy adult is a serious Triumph. You feel the full weight of everything the way the girls do, that is, deeply.

Anyway, after watching it I had to go back and read at least one of the books. I hadn't realized just how easy they are to read--really, more like a second-grade reading level than a seventh-grade one. That's actually a benefit, meaning they can work both for younger kids dreaming of being older and for actual preteens who aren't strong readers. The style is very breezy and light. No wonder I plowed through them so fast.

But the depth in the show is definitely there in the books. There's a lot of babysitting; honestly I probably learned most of what I used in my early babysitting work from them.

Verdict? They hold up, and the show is every bit as good.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Cancel culture commandments

The first rule about cancel culture is, don't criticize cancel culture. Because why would you criticize it unless you want to be a terrible person with no consequences? The corollary is that the only people who do criticize cancel culture have already been canceled, and thus anything they say on the topic can be immediately dismissed. You can't even reference what they have said on the topic, however insightful, or people will sneer, "Oh, I didn't know you stanned [REDACTED], guess you're a [REDACTED] like them!"

But I really think it's time to lay down a few ground rules. It's going to take some social pressure to make these ground rules stick, and the only way to make that happen is by people being gutsy enough to occasionally, mildly criticize the excesses of cancel culture.

I don't think nobody should be canceled. I think it's great when outspoken racists get uninvited from things, or people stop watching movies made by serial rapists. The trouble is that the worst people are pretty much uncancelable (about which more later) and consequences only start to stick when the person wasn't that profitable an option anyway. So, as a tool for making human society generally less cruddy, it leaves a lot to be desired.

I can't stop people from starting cancel mobs against people they don't like, and I further can't uncancel anyone after the fact. I am also, bee tee dubs, not powerful enough to cancel anyone anyway (canceling is not the organic process it appears). But I can make a few personal commitments of how I intend to behave, with regard to canceling.

1. Humans operate in teams; keep those teams big.

I tend to think tribalism is bad, and I tried for a while to consider everyone equally my teammate. But it doesn't really work. There are people with whom I have almost no common ground; pretending that isn't so is a recipe for frustration. So yes, everyone should find their team.

But everyone, the left in particular, has a tendency to shrink those teams. To eject people they don't like from their team, for slight reasons. Protestant denominations splinter till it's five people in one strip mall church and five in another, and they hate each other. I recently learned that #ExposeChristianSchools and #ExposeChristianHomeschooling can't abide each other. Same basic mission of bringing some kind of oversight to education, would be more powerful together, but there was a feud a couple years ago and now they're not friends.

I don't want to shrink my team. I want my team to consist of everyone I can find common ground with. So when a fight is going down, I try not to come in, guns blazing, on either side. I have principles, of course; I'm outspoken about those at ordinary times. But mid-Twitter-fight is rarely a good time for that. No matter who says otherwise, it's okay to sit it out.

I don't cast people off for wrong terminology or being randomly obnoxious once in a while. The autism community is very emphatic that "autistic person" is correct and "person with autism" is not correct, but I'm not the language police. If you come to me saying "what can I do for people with autism," I'm going to tell you. At some point, if our conversation goes on a while, I might mention the terminology issue, but honestly, I think most people using person-first are doing that because they were told it was more sensitive. The last thing they want to do is offend anybody, so acting like they're the enemy is unfair.

When your teams are big, you're in a better position to reach and educate people who are interested in learning. You also have more allies if you're ever in need of something. Ever-increasing purity requirements will leave you with hardly anyone on your side.

2. I don't believe in guilt by association.

Say person A does a bad thing. Then person B defends them, perhaps not knowing the full story. And person C collaborates on a project with B and didn't disavow them after A's cancelation. And person D follows C on Twitter. How guilty is person D?

Zero, zilch, nada. I refuse to play that game. We're all six degrees from Kevin Bacon, or somebody who once did a hatespeech.

Sometimes people go around on Twitter and demand that everyone unfollow [PERSON] and everyone who still follows [PERSON] is bad. That especially sucks for people who aren't on Twitter all day and totally missed what [PERSON] did. Are we all morally obligated to spend hours tracking down caps of deleted tweets so we can decide whether to alienate [PERSON] or person's enemies? Let's not. Let's condemn bad people for being bad and leave everyone else the heck alone. It's okay not to police your friend list that hard.

3. Always be polite and never, ever escalate.

I always try to be nice on the internet. Sarcasm doesn't translate, and more people than your intended audience may see it.

If you do get into a fight, it may occur to you to fight dirty. They called you a name, so you put them on blast to your larger number of followers, thus demonstrating that you are more powerful on the internet than them! Don't do this, it looks petty.

Don't ever, ever, ever, no matter how justified it seems, take things past the internet. Don't call people's employers complaining about their behavior, don't threaten to sue, don't call a swat team OBVIOUSLY. Not only because these things are almost always uncalled for, but because the other person will feel justified responding in kind. You may think they can't hurt you, but I've seen a lot of internet bullies find a way. Just don't ever do this.

If you are the subject of an internet mob, large or small, your best bet is to log off for the day. They often get bored and wander off. Whereas if you stay online, arguing however politely, sooner or later you will start to get upset and be a little less tactful. That's when they scent blood in the water. I'd never judge someone for getting heated mid-cancel-mob, but it will work out much better for you if you comport yourself with grace and/or silence.

4. No marginalization Olympics.

There seems to be a set of unspoken rules among social justice advocates that goes like this: there's some kind of ladder of marginalization, everyone knows where everyone is on it, and you can punch up as hard as you want but can't punch down ever.

Trouble is, there isn't, in fact, a hierarchy of how un-privileged you are. Which is worse, being trans or being both Black and disabled? I sure as heck don't know. I also don't know if someone is trans or gay or disabled unless they tell me, and they don't owe me that information, ever. A lot of people have come out, not because they wanted to, but because they were told they couldn't talk about [topic] unless they were [marginalization]. So they were bullied for doing so until they finally came out and said OKAY OKAY I ACTUALLY AM THAT. But that's hardly the ideal coming-out, is it?

Honestly, whoever you are, you still shouldn't be terrible on the internet. You don't know who you're talking to. And you don't know what they've gone through, personally, regardless of the categories they're in. Maybe they're a white woman (the worst thing to be, in these conflicts, so far as I can see. Because you earn zero marginalization points for it but you're way easier prey than the men) but they have a really traumatic background and are going through some stuff.

It's just really super gross when, say, A says something. B responds aggressively, so C snipes back in kind. And then C gets quote-tweeted everywhere with "look at that nasty thing she dared to say to a person more marginalized than her!" Well maybe she didn't realize? Maybe, for a second, she forgot the rules in the heat of, you know, being yelled at herself?

You should try to be nice to people who might be struggling more than than you are, that's true. But that could be anyone.

5. On the other hand, don't ignore power dynamics.

Ever notice who the Twitter cancel brigade comes for? It isn't established authors, in the book field, it's usually debut authors, new agents, people who are seen as having a little power but who are by no means top of the heap. Trans people get canceled incessantly for some reason, by other trans people. Women are canceled more than men. People of color are canceled a lot, for tiny things. I'm still a little shaken by the story of an Asian debut author being called racist against Black people (in a fantasy novel that, I believe, did not contain Black people) and her book release being pushed back. There are plenty of white authors who actually are racist!

The reason is that it's a heck of a lot easier to come for these people than the actual power brokers. You can't cancel J. K. Rowling, not really. You can cancel people a bit more vulnerable than that, though, so that's who they always come for. The most vulnerable of all are people whose entire life is online: people marginalized in so many ways they haven't been able to find a supportive community except online. To these people, an online shunning feels like the end of everything good in their lives.

6. Cancel for serious things only.

You don't have to stay friends with someone who's behaving badly, of course. When there's a cancel brigade out against someone, you certainly shouldn't reflexively defend them. (Oh my god do you want the mob to come for you? Because that's how you get the mob to come for you.) 

Consider what they actually did. This can be difficult, because very often the only version you see on Twitter is something like "is a bigot," with all details elided. Personally, I think it's deliberate. It's a lot easier to get people on your side with "X is a bigot" than with "X recommended ten books and all of them were by white people." (Made up example.)

But once you do find out, it's up to you to decide if it's a big deal. I consider sexual assault a big deal, and long-term patterns of racist behavior. I don't think cussing at people who are in the middle of trying to cancel you is a big deal. If someone does something I think is a big deal, I unfollow them. Maybe I make a mental note not to buy their book. I still don't join the cancel mob. There's always plenty of people doing it, and I don't see that it's helpful to join in. 

Plus, if you participate in a cancel mob, even in a mild way like "I agree X behavior is bad," it's very likely that the victim will attempt to cancel back and go for you next. As an unfamous nobody on in the internet, your best bet is to stay as far from drama as possible.

7. There ought to be some way to come back from it.

There are no rewards from cancel culture for a sincere apology. Every apology is assumed insincere; at this point one may as well double down as not. It shouldn't be like this. If you act badly on the internet (everyone has, because no one is perfect) you should be able to say you're sorry and eventually move past it. Instead, the internet seems to be keeping a permanent hit list (I mean "receipts") and you can't ever move on.

I don't exactly have an action item for this one. I don't have the power to decide when someone's changed. But I tend to ignore decade-old screenshots because honestly, odds are that whoever found them went digging for some nefarious reason. For instance, gamergate types love to do this to feminists to make their own allies turn on them. Generally that stuff is either way out of context or expresses a worldview they don't hold anymore. Obviously I'm going to come down hard on the side of not holding people to their past ideas. Half the stuff on this blog, I wouldn't stand by. I hope people would give me the grace of understanding I've changed a lot.

I've heard never to apologize because it won't placate the mob. And it's true, it won't. But it still is a good thing to do, if you see that you made a mistake. Sensible people may give you credit for it, even if the loudest voices don't.

8. Consider the why

Why do people cancel? There are tons of reasons, some of which are better than others.

  • They're looking for a sense of justice, of fairness. It isn't fair if somebody does evil and isn't punished, especially if you've done less-bad things and had worse consequences. Just ask my kids about this one.
  • They're angry and want revenge. (On that topic, this thread is fire.)
  • They're jealous of the attention that person is getting and want to let everyone know that person isn't so great.
  • They've been told their whole movement is tainted if they don't "call out" bad actors. The right loves to say this to the left, which is ridiculous because the right hardly ever calls out their bad actors.
  • Likewise they genuinely don't want bad people in their movement; they worry these bad people will cause harm and throwing them out will prevent harm.
  • Some people are just bullies throwing their weight about by doing this. After a while you start to notice who you're always seeing starting things. Avoid these people like [people should have avoided] the plague. 
  • Sometimes the actual cancel material is dug up by people completely outside the group, like when transphobes try to get the trans community to throw out a fellow trans person.
  • Sometimes it's a "cancel back" attempt: someone tried to cancel them, so they try to find dirt on the person who tried to cancel them. At that point, whoever's more popular wins. (This is a good reason never ever to start or participate in these things, by the way.)
Consider first who is harmed by the bad action. Is anyone? Or is this just a sign that a person is a bad person deep down inside, so that we need to treat them as irredeemably bad? If no one is being or has been harmed, it's generally best to let well enough alone.

Next, consider what you're trying to accomplish. Ruin that person's career or friendships? To what end? If you don't have a positive goal, like "making our group safe against this genuinely hurtful person," then maybe let it go. Not because what they did wasn't bad, but because there isn't an action you could take that will make it better in any way.

9. Basically, steer clear of internet drama.

Don't start or join internet mobs. Use twitter to plug your product or find friends but don't be on twitter all the time.

Machievelli said you should never take a person's property while leaving them alive, but instead kill them immediately. The reason is that if he's still alive, he now has nothing to do but seek revenge, whereas if he's dead you don't have to worry about him anymore.

With cancelation, the same thing is true: don't fight with people, block 'em. Block early and often. Somebody is behaving badly on the internet? Don't linger and give them reasons to remember your name. Erase them from your internet life.

Further content

These are just my personal rules; they don't have to be yours.

Here is one good video on this topic (warning: creator is super canceled). I've also watched about half of this one and it was good (warning: I don't watch a lot of YouTube so you're lucky if I watch half of anything before sharing it).

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Two models of marriage

The Vatican made waves recently by repeating yet again that it will never bless gay marriages. To people who actually follow that conversation, it came as no surprise. Despite liberals who think Pope Francis is on their team, and traditionalists who think he's dismantling the church stone by marble stone, the institution has tremendous ideological momentum. It's not shifting an inch on this, at the very least, not until it's been long enough that they can plausibly pretend they never were against gay marriage in the first place.


What it really comes down to (as Catholics keep patiently explaining, because they think we don't get it) is a different view of what marriage is, what it's for.


The modern view of marriage is that it's a commitment of two people who love each other to do life together. That it can take different forms based on what the people want. Even the vows said at modern marriages are often hand-written by the couple from scratch: they decide what they're committing to, and while other people are invited to witness, they don't really get to decide what that couple's marriage means.


The Catholic view is much more communitarian. There is one thing that marriage is, and you sign up for it or you don't. That's symbolized by a wedding liturgy that's mostly rigid. If you're lucky, you might be able to pick one of a list of readings, and the music. The vows, you simply repeat.


This marriage model is centered around the creation of a family with children. You can have a marriage without them, but you have to be open to them in theory. They even ask you if you are willing to welcome them in the ceremony. I also got prayed over, individually, with a prayer that I be blessed with children. I was, at the time, down for it, but in retrospect it seems very strange.


Because my wedding was not about me (as more than one priest felt the need to remind me at the time). It was about the community, and me taking my place in one of the roles intended for serving that community: wife, nun, or single person. Each of these is a vocation, a calling to service. The specific difference of the vocation I chose was parenthood.


The Church will remind anyone who listens that marriage, historically, existed for children, to create a stable family for them. Even before Jesus, people were getting married, and they mostly did it to keep track of which children were whose and to support those children's mothers. Love was more optional.


The church has presided over weddings of twelve-year-old girls and fourteen-year-old boys. (The minimums are slightly older now.) It has married princesses to princes they'd never met at the command of their parents. It has preached the dominance of husband over wife, and then later their equality. The important thing was that the couple intended to have sex that had some chance of being procreative. And no sex can ever be had besides that kind, within marriage. Contraception of course is out. Because that's not what marriage is for. Catholic marriage is for children.


Naturally, if that's what it's about, gay marriage is never going to be a thing. They might love each other, they might intend to stay together for life, but they can't reproduce together naturally, through procreative sex, so it's not Catholic marriage.


But what that really makes me think is this: who looks at these two visions of marriage with their eyes wide open and picks the Catholic ideal? Who picks the one where they are signing up for a prefab framework they can't alter, which is purely about begetting and raising children as a service to the community? Who signs up to have their equality to their husband be a matter for debate? History is all very well, but history was terrible for most people, especially for women. Historically-accurate marriage was no great thing.


I now believe in human agency a lot more than I did. I believe that people should get married if they love each other and choose to. I believe that marriage could have sex as a part of it, or not. It could have children coming along, or not. It could be held in a church as part of a larger community, or not.


The worst part of this debate is that the Catholic Church does not believe that people should get to choose how they think about marriage. It wants its version to be dominant and non-optional. It does not believe gay couples should be able to get married by the state, adopt children, or be recognized as equal in any way. It has combated every step modern society has taken to revise the idea of marriage, from contraception to no-fault divorce. In America, it's already trying to hide that history and saying "it's JUST that we can't bless your marriage, don't we get religious freedom?"


But I remember. It wants to impose a procreation-focused marriage ideal on everyone. It is willing to use legal force to do so, because it thinks it's the Good Cop helping you cooperate before you get handed over to the Bad Cop, which is God. There really isn't any room for compromise between their vision and the world's.


I just think the world's idea is better.
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