I Am a GPS

The other day I was musing on all the things I’ve been in my life – daughter, wife, student, college graduate, cashier, editor, writer, blogger, and more. But I realized there were more roles, ones that I acquired because my husband assigned them to me.

Unfortunately, my husband is topographically challenged, so I have to be his GPS. I know it’s not his fault; he just doesn’t have those little magnetic bits in his head that tell him how to go around a city block and know where he is, or to reverse-engineer directions so he knows how to get back from wherever he’s gone.

As a consequence, I have to go with him to the plant store, the KFC, and even the airport (north or south on the main highway?), despite the fact that he’s lived here for over 30 years.

I bought him an actual GPS once but he refused to use it because I refused to set it up for him.

Another role was Dictionary. Well, and Thesaurus too. Let’s just say that spelling is not his strong point. He used to love amazing his co-workers by dialing a number, saying, “Dictionary,” and getting an automatic definition or spelling.

Of course this spilled over into his college work, when I also became his copy-editor as well as speller. And sometimes his content editor as well. (He did write the papers himself. He earned that degree.)

Once when he had to be out of town I even went to his class and took notes for him. (One guy in the class was so impressed he said I was the best wife in the world.) Luckily, it was a religion class, not a math class.

My husband returned the favor. When it was my turn in college and I was writing a paper on William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens (my “Willie and Wally” paper), Dan went through the indexes of every book I took from the library and put a sticky note at each reference.

(I know another couple who put each other through college, working menial jobs while the other studied. I was impressed, at least until they divorced.)

But the role I hate most is snooze alarm. If he asks me to wake him up at 3:30 (which I maintain is the clock’s job), and I do, he’ll say, “Give me another half an hour.” Then ten more minutes. Like I dispense time, or sleep. I used to be the ATM, too, and dispense $20 bills.

I can’t complain too much about my husband, though. He has definite roles too, prime among them Picker Up of Icky Things. No matter if it’s something hairy in the back of the fridge or something dead in the driveway, it’s in his domain.

I know every good marriage is a matter of give and take, and that couples do well who share their strengths and weaknesses. But honestly, the clock has an actual snooze alarm, and I can pick up icky things if given tongs and a shovel (unless they’re also smelly, which is when I call for help).

At least I don’t have to be the ATM anymore. My husband figured out how to work one of those.

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The Nature of Terrorism

According to the definition of “terrorism,” we have some pretty half-assed terrorists out there.

Merriam Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” Another definition says: “a surprise attack involving the deliberate use of violence against civilians in the hope of attaining political or religious aims.”

And the word terrorist is defined as “a person, group, or organization that uses violent action, or the threat of violent action, to further political goals….”

What’s missing from terrorism as spoken of by the media, politicians, and the general public? The goal. The coercion. Especially when discussing “domestic terrorism,” most of the examples have no goal. When no goal can be accomplished or even named, what you have is crime, not terrorism.

Oh, certainly some of them have goals – pointless, ineffective ones. The 9/11 attacks had a goal of destabilizing U.S. political, military, and financial structures. In that sense, it was terrorism. But as a goal, it was poorly thought-out. Political, military, and financial power in the U.S. are simply too complex and decentralized to be destroyed or even much hindered by destroying a symbol of that power.

Destroy the Pentagon and military power remains (not that the bombers succeeded in destroying the Pentagon). Destroy the World Trade Center and American capitalism carries on. Eliminate the White House and structures exist for the government to continue. While those events were powerful as symbols, as attempted coercion, they had the opposite of the effect intended. They did not weaken U.S. power; if anything, they increased it.

Goals of more “successful” terrorist actions have been more precise, and more effective. The terrorist acts of the Irish Republican Army resulted in the release from prison of members of their organizations. The domestic Islamic terrorism of the Taliban caused women in Afghanistan to abandon jobs and other freedoms for fear of violence against them. The violence and threat of more violence coerced them into altering their behavior.

Compare the lack of effectiveness of “Islamic terrorism” in the U.S. Any Sharia law enacted? No. Any convicted prisoners freed? Any populations so terrorized that they abandon former freedoms and daily routines? These shootings and bombings have been crimes, but not actual terrorism. Or at least not terrorism successful in its objectives.

And what of “lone-wolf” terrorism in the U.S.? (Let’s remember that Timothy McVeigh was not a lone wolf. He had accomplices. And they caused terrible death and destruction, but not terror in the sense of attempted coercion.) David Koresh’s Branch Davidians did not have an apparent goal. They caused fear for the people held hostage and for the lives of the government representatives trying to remove them from their compound. But they posed no real threat to the ATF, the U.S. government, or the population of Waco, TX – only to themselves and their children. The Unabomber’s schizophrenic efforts seemed random to anyone who could not follow his demented logic, because they were, indeed, random and unhinged.

The anthrax scare was perhaps the most ineffective of all. While ostensibly targeting the media and the Congress (again, to what supposed effect?), they primarily caused terror among tabloid mailroom employees and assistants who open mail for higher-ups. Fear, maybe. Terror, no. There were no demands, no goals, no proposed change in potential victim behavior.

In the U.S., the most “successful” terrorist actions have been those against abortion clinics and gay meeting places. Abortion clinics have not been eliminated (at least by bombings and shootings), but employees have in response to the death and destruction quit their jobs or instituted complex and expensive security measures. Bombings and shootings at gay night clubs and hate crimes against individuals, for example, have not eliminated the gay population, of course, but they may have had a chilling effect on the gay community and their willingness to speak up, gather in public, and feel secure in public spaces.

And what of other “terrorist” attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing? Did that event have its desired effect of bringing attention to the situation in Chechnya? No. What does the citizen-on-the-street know about Chechnya? Any more than before? That bombing and other attacks have been expressions of impotent rage, futile protests, and deadly crimes, but they have not been terrorism.

Calling these actions “terrorism” gives them a power they do not have. Terrorism is meant to alter the everyday behavior of people or institutions. To some small extent, they have done that. Americans are more vigilant, more suspicious, more angry, but not more ready to give in to the goals (if any) of the terrorists. That suspicion and anger are in many cases too widespread and likewise devoid of specific achievable goals, but they are certainly not effects that supposed terrorists intended.

The terrorists have not won. Yes, they’ve killed and maimed and destroyed property and lives, strained our resources, and made us unreasonably fearful. But they’ve hardly accomplished anything.

 

 

 

You and Your Manuscript: Struggle and Success

Suppose you are a freelance writer or want to become one (and I suppose you are or do because you’re reading this).  Here are a few tips and tricks on how to make your manuscript more publishable.

First, as anyone will tell you, read the publication. And that means more than just the How to Submit page and the rates they pay. If you have a touching story about how your darling Muffin passed away, don’t send it to every magazine with the word “cat” in the title. Cat Fancy, for example, is about registered breeds of show cats. You’d be better off sending it someplace like I Love Cats, which pays very little but will give you a byline to wave in the next editor’s face. Likewise, if you have an article on how to select a vet or home remedies for ear mites, don’t send it to a publication that already has a monthly column that is written by a vet.

Write down any ideas. Despite what you think now or how good it is, you will not remember it later. Keep the bad ideas too. Later they may turn into good ideas – for a different market, say, or a different novel. Make a file called “Works in Progress.” Write ideas on sticky notes. Whatever. Then, when you hit a dry spell (which you will), look them over. Maybe they won’t look quite as stupid as they did at first.

Have a schedule. I don’t mean a Stephen King-10,000-words-a-day schedule. Or even 1000 words, necessarily. The idea is to establish a rhythm. I post my blogs on Sundays, for example, so I like to start on Wednesday by choosing a topic; Thursday and Friday to write; Saturday to proof, tag, and illustrate; and Sunday to proof and post. Yes, proof twice, at least.

Don’t be a slave to a schedule. I’m writing this on a Friday, which isn’t ideal according to my wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey schedule. Just leave enough leeway in it that if something important comes up, you can shuffle a bit. For example, I often choose my illustration on Thursday or Friday, instead of Saturday. If you think you’ll have your novel done by Labor Day, figure Christmas, or maybe even Easter. Unless a publisher has given you a deadline.

Illustrations aren’t absolutely necessary – except when they are. Some publishers like The Mighty and Medium want you to submit a photo with your story. Others don’t. And when they say photo, they mean a professional one, not one of your Aunt Sally at a family picnic (unless yours is a true crime book and your Aunt Sally is a serial killer). So cough up a few bucks and get a royalty-free image from Fotolia or Adobe or a free one from Creative Commons. And know the difference between landscape (horizontal) and portrait (vertical).

A title is part of your writing too. Even when the editors change it (and they probably will). A title should make your readers want to read. “A Dreary Day”  is not a good title. “How to Survive a Dreary Day” is better.

Have more than one project. If you just can’t face your blog, start a mystery novel. If you can’t even look at your mystery novel one more day, write a children’s story. Then come back to your old project with a fresh brain.

Pick a point to move on. Even though people will tell you how many times some famous novel was rejected, you don’t have to keep on with something that’s not working. Pick a certain amount of time that feels reasonable to you – the end of the year, two years, whatever – and then move on to something else. Or rewrite the piece entirely – first person instead of third person, or vice versa, for instance.

These bits of advice will stand you in good stead whether you are writing a novel, a magazine article, a poem, an autobiography. Maybe not a play or a movie script. I don’t have any experience with those. But for prose and fiction. most of these rules (well, more like guidelines, really) will apply. Unless you’re Stephen King. But I doubt that he reads my blog.

 

The Things We Do for Cats

“Would you get me a beer, honey? I’d get it myself but there’s a cat on my lap.”

In our house, one of the things we do for cats is to give them priority seating. Often that seating is on top of us. And the person so sat upon is immune from chores or any activity that requires getting up. If the cat is sleepy, this condition can last for hours.

Other things we do for cats are less ridiculous. My husband and I, and a number of people we know, have been trained and trusted with our cats’ medical procedures. Most people can give pills or liquid medicines, eye drops or ear drops at home. (Although even these duties are not for the faint of heart. One of our cats invented the sport of projectile drooling when given a pill.)

Some go even further. When one of our beloved cats developed kidney disease, and vet visits and fluid treatments became prohibitively expensive, we were permitted to buy the supplies at cost and administer them at home.

What it takes is a dripset, a bag of fluids, and a disposable needle. You hold or hang the fluid bag higher than the cat’s head, attach the dripset (hose and controls), and carefully attach the needle. It resembles an IV for a human.

But the fluids are delivered not intravenously but subcutaneously – beneath the cat’s skin. The procedure is a little tricky. You pinch up a triangle of skin between the cat’s shoulder blades and insert the needle under the skin but above the muscle. Then you turn the little wheel and the fluids flow. You watch the bag carefully to make sure the right dose is given, and you hold the cat still.

That would be the tricky part, and the reason giving sub-cue fluids generally requires two people. Many people wrap the cat in a towel, which is supposed to be immobilizing, but isn’t. We prefer putting the cat in a pillowcase, which makes it easier to control all four paws. If kitty is feeling very poorly, she may not object strenuously, but a cat on her way back to health can be a handful.

Naturally, after the procedure, you dispose of the needle safely and give kitty a treat or let her go off by herself and sulk.

In order to do this level of cat care at home, you must have at least one person who is willing and able to stick the needle in the cat. My husband is an old softy, so I am the designated cat-poker in the family.

It’s a valuable skill. It isn’t just the cost savings that makes a person go through the sometimes distressing procedure. Ailing cats do better when they receive treatment at home from their loving, reassuring caregivers. And they avoid the stress of those extra visits to the vet.

Yes, it’s difficult (it gets easier with practice) and no, it’s not for everyone. But in our house it’s just one of the things we do for cats.

P.S. Even as I post this, I’m house- and cat-sitting for a friend whose cat needs insulin injections twice every day. I’m not suggesting this as a career, but it is nice to know someone you can trust with advanced home cat care.

What Kids Should Learn About Mental Health

The stigma and the misinformation surrounding mental illness are staggering.

How many adults believe that depression is “just being sad”? That the weather can be “bipolar”? That you can call yourself OCD because you’re a little too organized? That suicide threats are never acted on? That mentally ill people are dangerous? That prayer, or sunshine, or positive thinking will cure all mental disorders?

We can’t do much about educating and informing the adult population that all those beliefs are false. But we can avoid raising another generation that buys in to these misconceptions – if we start now with mental health education in schools.

Whenever someone proposes this idea, there are common objections. You want kindergartners to learn about schizophrenia. You’ll have impressionable kids thinking they have every disorder you teach about. Discussing suicide will give teens ideas.

Again, those are misconceptions. Mental health education in schools could look like this:

In kindergarten and grades 1-2, part of the health curriculum should be a unit about understanding emotions and how to deal with them. This is already being done when teachers tell kids to “use your words” or “use your indoor voice.” But more could be done in the area of teaching children how they can keep from letting anger, sadness, frustration, and other emotions cause them difficulties. Yes, this may involve techniques that resemble meditation and yes, these may be controversial, but the outcomes will be beneficial.

I also think that young children ought to be taught about autism. They will certainly meet autistic children in their classes at this age. Helping them understand the condition at their age level will, one can hope, lead to more inclusion and less bullying of kids who are “different.”

Older children can learn about mental illness in their science or health classes. This should be a unit that covers the basic facts: that mental illness is like physical illness in some ways, that treatment is available, that mental or emotional disorders will affect one in four Americans in their lifetimes, and that mentally ill persons are not generally dangerous.

Middle schoolers can be taught some more specifics: the names and symptoms of some of the most common disorders, the kinds of treatments available, famous people who have succeeded in spite of mental disorders and ordinary people who live fulfilling lives despite them. Speakers from local mental health centers or the school guidance counselor would be helpful.

The topics of self-harm and suicide should be brought up at the middle school level. It is sad but true that children in the middle school age range are affected by both – if not directly, by knowing a classmate who is. And suicide is the third leading cause of death for children ages 10-14. Learning the facts may help students who need it find help before it is too late.

In high school, the focus can shift to human psychology; more detail about serious psychological conditions; and the possibility of careers in mental health treatment, nursing, or advocacy. Topics of self-harm and suicide should be covered in greater detail, with discussions of how suicide affects the families and loved ones of those who die by suicide, how to recognize possible signs that a person is thinking about suicide or self-harm, and what does and doesn’t work when a person shows those signs.

The details of mental health education in schools still need to be worked out. These suggestions come from my experience as a person with bipolar disorder, who began showing symptoms while I was a child. Organizations such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) provide resources that can help in understanding the need for mental health education among school-aged children.

Understanding mental health is as important for schoolchildren as understanding physical health. Why should one get all the attention and the other virtually none? Mental health education that begins early can help children and their families in ways that will resonate far into the future.

Most adults have little to no understanding of the realities of mental illness. It doesn’t have to be the same for the next generation.

Who Is a Lady?

 

Lately there have been a lot of memes portraying Michelle Obama and Melania Trump. Among the many questions raised, along with personal style, charitable activity, physical grace, and styles of dress, is this: Which one is a true lady? If I remember correctly, one specific meme asked about “showing skin” vs. “class.”)

Since this is a problem of definition and I am a former English major, I felt compelled to jump right in. Here are some definitions I’ve heard for the term “lady.”

“A lady never wears white after Labor Day.” As far as I can tell, all prohibitions regarding fashion have, praise be, flown out the window. Here’s what wisegeek.org has to say about the white/Labor Day rule:

In many parts of the United States, a rule about not wearing white after Labor Day . . . is heavily ingrained. The roots of the idea . . . appear to be shrouded in mystery, and the rule has been greatly relaxed since the 1950s and 1960s, when it was more heavily enforced. People who choose to wear white into the fall are no longer heavily criticized for the choice, and are sometimes embraced as fashion forward trendsetters.

Originally, the restriction applied only to white dress shoes and pumps, which are typically unsuitable for winter weather anyway.

“A lady is never unintentionally vulgar.” My friend Doreen said this, though she was paraphrasing Lillian Day, who said, “A lady is one who never shows her underwear unintentionally.” (The gender-flipped equivalent of this is Oscar Wilde’s “A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally.” I have also been informed that there is a version that goes “A gentleman is one who, when he pisses in the sink, removes the dishes first.”)

“A lady only accepts countertop appliances.” This idiosyncratic rule was voiced by my friend Karen upon learning that a male acquaintance had offered to buy a mutual friend a dishwasher. I’m sure there must be a rule somewhere about gifts of jewelry (“A lady only accepts semi-precious stones”), and if there isn’t, I’m inventing it now. One has to be more than just good friends with a man to accept diamonds.

“A lady has modest and maidenly airs and virtue a blind man could see that I lack.” Uh-oh. Now I’m quoting from Man of La Mancha. Someone stop me. It takes us into Madonna/whore territory, where I suppose this discussion has been heading all along. Or Lady/Tramp. No wait, that’s Disney.

Notice that in all but the first and last instances, the qualities of a lady can be seen only by her actions and not by her appearance. A lady is as a lady does, as it were. That’s one reason that Michelle/Melania memes are ridiculous. You can’t tell whether either woman is a lady simply by her appearance. It is her actions (not showing underwear, not accepting large appliances) that are better at separating ladies from women.

And after all, isn’t that what we’re talking about here? Having rules that separate women from other women and making a judgment on who is the better person? This dichotomy has assorted male versions as well (sperm donor/daddy, gentleman/jerk, redneck/anyone else), but it’s the woman/lady rules that carry a real bite. Ladies are worthy of respect; mere women are not, is the implication. There are even further distinctions: lady/slut is the most common and most invidious.

It’s my belief that these comparisons are frivolous and ridiculous, meant to divide (and conquer) women by pitting them against one another instead of paying attention to issues and distinctions that really matter. Then another person is entitled to hoist his (yes, his) nose in the air and say,”Women will never be able to hold power when they’re always sniping at each other and obsessing about shoes.”

Apologies to Doreen and Karen, who I think were being ironic rather than sniping, but if we want other people to stop judging us, we should give ourselves a break too. “Lady” is a term with little meaning. It essentially says only, “I like and approve of this woman but not that one.” It’s not worth mud-slinging about. Or wasting our time on insulting memes.

What’s With All the Crazies? Are They Crazy?

Yes. Yes, they are.

And no, they’re not.

I say yes, because so many political extremists out there are acting, well, crazy.

And you can define  “crazies” any way you want – alt-right, alt-left (two handy meaning-free terms), in-office, out-of-office, politicians, your Facebook friends, your Uncle Ned, whatever. We’ll just leave out for the moment the tin-foil hat squad.

Whoever your opponents are, there’s more than a fair chance that some of them are acting irrational, delusional – some variety of crazy. Is it crazy to run down peaceful protestors? Yes. Is it crazy to still be battling over the outcome of an election that happened close to a year ago? Yes. Is it crazy to carry rifles in Walmart? Yes. Is it crazy to spend news air time on the First Lady’s shoes? Yes.

Most of all, though, people are acting paranoid. Everyone on the “other” side is out to get us, destroy America, or at least scare the pants off us. Conspiracy theories abound. And nearly all of them are crazy. (I wrote about this a short while ago: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-AH).

And paranoid means crazy, right? (Unless, as the saying goes, “they” are out to get you.)

Well, not actually. “Paranoid” is a clinical term from psychology, and it has a specific meaning: Paranoid Personality Disorder is an actual psychiatric condition, manifested by, among other things, “generally unfounded beliefs, as well as … habits of blame and distrust, [which] might interfere with their ability to form close relationships,” as WebMD says.

Those traits your political or social opponents may have, but most of them don’t also:

  • Read hidden meanings in the innocent remarks or casual looks of others
  • Perceive attacks on their character that are not apparent to others; they generally react with anger and are quick to retaliate
  • Have recurrent suspicions, without reason, that their spouses or lovers are being unfaithful

The fact is that none of us (except perhaps psychiatrists) can diagnose a person as paranoid or any other variety of mentally ill without having met the person and performing detailed interviews and tests (I’ve written about this too: http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6F).

So, if by “crazy” we mean “mentally ill,” then no, the political and social “crazies” are not “crazy” as a group. Their tweets and posts and dinner table conversation are simply not enough to declare them mentally ill.

This is also true of public figures. We can say that Donald Trump, to choose an example not entirely at random, has narcissistic traits, or is a narcissist in the garden-variety meaning of the word, but we cannot say that he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, an actual clinical diagnosis. We may think he’s crazy, but we can’t say whether he’s mentally ill.

Our readiness to label people, both our acquaintances and public figures, with loose pseudo-psychiatric terms raises a number of problems, particularly stigma.

Labeling is a convenient way to dismiss a person who disagrees with you without listening to what he or she has to say, or considering the possible validity of an argument or even a statement of fact. He’s a Southerner; of course he’s a racist. She’s a liberal; of course she’s a snowflake. If we can apply a label, we can make an assumption about a person that may or may not be true. (It can also lead us into “Not all X are Y” arguments, which are seldom productive.)

Stigma comes with the label “crazy” or mentally ill. People with diagnosed mental disorders are too often assumed to be violent, out-of-control, homicidal (or suicidal) maniacs – and therefore not worth listening to, despite the fact that their cognitive abilities are generally not impaired.

As for terrorists, they are in common understanding automatically mentally ill, so anyone you label as a terrorist is automatically insane. And we’re far from agreeing who is and is not a terrorist. (Antifa? Greenpeace? The NRA? The DAR?)

So, bottom line. “Those” people may be crazies, may act crazy, talk crazy, believe crazy things, but it is not accurate or helpful to call them crazies. I know I’ll catch hell for this. But I’m not being an apologist for reprehensible behavior.  I just think that how we talk about people affects how we treat them. And that matters.

Now, as for the tin foil hat squad, they’re mostly harmless. Let’s leave them alone.

 

 

 

 

Looking for Work Is a Job Itself

It’s not that I’m unemployed. It is, rather, that I’m underemployed, as the saying goes.

It’s not like I haven’t been here before. When my husband and I first married, we paid for our wedding reception food with food stamps (think of that what you will). A peaceful Saturday morning was standing in line together at the unemployment office. (This was way back when you had to show up in person.)

Since then I have lost the ability to work full time, or in an office. Or even in a burger joint where I’d be required to stand all day. My skill set is solidly in the field of writing and editing, and those I can do from home, on my own computer and schedule. In my pajamas.

A freelancer’s life is iffy at best, though, and recently I’ve experienced a downturn in clients. The economy is to blame, I suppose. Or the recent eclipse. Or Mercury being in retrograde, for all I know. I am looking for new clients and more work from my old ones. I am looking for other sorts of telecommuting jobs, and even part-time outside work that seems to be within my modest-at-this-point physical and mental capabilities.

I pursue these avenues every day.

(This process is hindered by the fact that all the job search engines are lousy. When I say I am a writer, I get leads for technical aerospace writing and service writers for car repair shops. When I say I’m an editor, I get invitations to become a driver for Uber. True story.)

I did get a small gig writing a children’s story, with the possibility of writing four more if I’m picked out of the pack. That would be good, and would at least pay the cable and the electric so I can keep writing.

And while I’m searching for more possibilities? When the days stretch out with nothing happening and the sofa calls my name?

I blog. I work on my mystery novel. I house-sit. And I take surveys.

Admittedly, none of these pursuits brings in mortgage-payment-sized money. The surveys bring in a couple of dollars a day, which is pitiful, but helped with a getaway my husband and I booked before the finances went belly-up.

(My husband is still working, but his wages alone aren’t enough to pay all the bills. We need both of us, a situation familiar to millions of people in the U.S.)

And we’ve instituted cutbacks. We typically spend way too much on food and now must revisit our newly married days, when we subsisted on mac-n-cheese and tomato sandwiches. It’ll be good for us, I tell myself. We could both stand to lose some weight.

I’ve applied for some of the most unlikely jobs as well as the more likely ones. I’ve even applied to write for Cosmo, for God’s sake! And writing greeting cards, which I once swore I would never do.

Security is nowhere in sight.

Working at home is great. Looking for work from home is not. But at least I don’t have to go buy a suit for interviews. It would take months of surveys to raise enough money for that.

 

Sometimes Things Are as They Appear

There was a furor and a spell of blocking and unfriending in one of my social circles last week. It seems that a person well known in the group and respected for her considerable talent voiced the opinion that the terrorist incident in Charlottesville was a “Wag the Dog” exercise meant to distract the public from other topics.

For those of you not familiar with it, Wag the Dog was a 1997 movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. In it the fictionalized President of the United States manufactures an international incident to cover up a real scandal he is afraid might embarrass him and derail his administration.

The reasoning in terms of Charlottesville breaks down. But the general gist was that the car plowing into a crowd was a manufactured incident, meant to make the trouble-making protestors look sympathetic and the well-intentioned marchers look evil. This take on events fell apart rapidly when it came to light that the driver of the car actually was associated with “alt-right” or white nationalist causes.

But the tactic of switching blame has been used before. The tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, were believed by some to be a “false flag” operation in which anti-gun forces staged the entire incident to promote their own agenda and make gun-owners and the NRA look bad. It was even rumored that some of the mourners were actors who go around to various such events and fake distress for the cameras.

These are far from the only conspiracy theories that have taken hold and outlived attempts to debunk them. The 9/11 attacks are particularly fertile ground for the “truthers,” as the theorists often style themselves. But there are others. From the McMartin Preschool to the Malaysian airplane’s disappearance to the “pizzagate” child sex ring rumor to the death of JFK and on and on, many among us refuse to take any news story or public horror at face value.

Notice that these assorted accusations of dastardly schemes and heinous cover-ups come from both sides of the political spectrum: President Bush’s administration created the 9/11 attacks to justify a war. President Clinton and assorted cronies killed Vince Foster and made it look like suicide.

Never mind that for these conspiracies to be true, an impossible chain of events involving thousands of people (not one of whom ever screwed up the plan or spilled the beans) would have had to be either participants or in the know. None of these things could have happened outside a Tom Clancy novel or a Jerry Bruckheimer film. And no private citizen or group could have uncovered the “truth” if such things had happened.

That is to say, they are fictions. And believing them doesn’t make them true. Unexplained aspects are just that – not able to be verified or explained because evidence doesn’t exist or for some other reason.

I think it’s telling that many of these theories are expressed in military and intelligence terms – for example, “false flag operations,” “black ops,” and so on. Everyone wants to be an expert, especially in fields where few can claim true expertise. Phony experts are even interviewed on television regarding these incidents, giving even more credence to pop psychology and self-styled warriors or spies. Few Americans have ever served in the military and even fewer in the intelligence field, but you wouldn’t know it by watching TV or listening to talk radio.

Now, it’s true that the press can be, and sometimes is, manipulated. Politicians have been known to make announcements that they’d rather not draw attention to on Fridays, so that by Monday, when the next news cycle begins, the story will have been replaced by more recent events. Press releases and talking points can present one-sided, skewed, or outright false information and journalists without the time, resources, or interest to check them let them run as is.

But for the most part, things are what they appear to be. Coincidences are exactly that and not evidence of conspiracies. As Carl Sagan said (though he was talking about something else), “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And by “evidence” he didn’t mean what-ifs or convoluted chains of suppositions or the plots of dime novels. He meant hard facts and physical objects, scientifically verifiable, tangible or observable, and demonstrably real.

Those who support conspiracy theories appear to be motivated by the desire to be “in the know” and feel superior to those of us who are pathetic dupes, unable to see the truth, even when it’s presented to us with passion and conviction. Apparently many people want to live in a world where diabolical Bond-ian villains pet their white Angora cats and invent doomsday devices until a plucky hero foils them. I’d rather not.

Reality is scary enough without flummery, embroidery, and delusion.

 

 

Shame, Shame, Shame!

When I was a child and had done something wrong, my mother would shake her finger at me. I hated that pointing, wagging finger more than I hated getting yelled at. The gesture conveyed shame, even if my mother’s words didn’t.

Nowadays we seem to see a lot of pointing and shaking fingers, pronouncing blame or shame on the offending parties. Here are some that you are likely familiar with and others that you may not be.

Fat-shaming This is probably most common kind of shaming and comes in various forms. One of the most noticeable kinds is fat-shaming actresses for carrying a few extra pounds – or even ounces. Increasingly stringent and nearly impossible standards are held up. Who the hell notices whether the woman in the supermarket or on the soccer field has a thigh gap anyway? Are the rest of us supposed to try to achieve this dubious standard? Thigh jiggle was bad enough. And 99% of those “People of Walmart” photos? Fat people in outfits that don’t even have the “decency” to try to hide it.

Body-shaming There are other types of body-shaming. Skinny-shaming. Have you ever heard someone pass a thin woman and call, “Eat a sandwich”? Fashion models are held to unrealistic standards of thinness, then mocked when they do. Women at science fiction conventions are shamed for having the “wrong” body type to wear a She-Hulk or Slave Girl Leia costume. And forget black Supergirls and Wonderwomen. You’d think we’d be over this by now. But no.

Slut-shaming Even the term makes my skin crawl. It contains the assumption that there is such a thing as a slut who can be recognized on sight. Or if you’re not going strictly on clothing, hair, and makeup, it becomes sexual-behavior-shaming. It’s a thin line between that and blaming rape victims for the crime.

Mommy-shaming Suddenly, everyone’s an expert. Underprotective mothers, overprotective mothers, breastfeeding mothers, bottle-feeding mothers, mothers of “free-range children,” “helicopter moms” and “tiger moms.” Worst of all, people feel entitled to comment on their behavior, not just on social media, but face-to-face with the mothers themselves. Oh, there’s plenty on social media too. Recently a celebrity was caught giving her child the wrong sort of toy, which apparently viewers could see had eyes that were a choking hazard. There’s nothing like 100,000 people telling you you’re killing your child.

Age-shaming This started in Hollywood too, it seems. Feminists have long noted that female actors’ careers are over when they hit 40 – or long before, especially if they play romantic leads. Meanwhile, male actors star in such films long into their 60s or 70s – with ingenues young enough to be their granddaughters. Body-shaming is also involved. When it was announced that Meryl Streep was starring in the action-adventure film The River Wild, critics couldn’t help sniping that no one would want to see the 45-year-old Streep in shorts or a bathing suit. But this insidious trend isn’t limited to LaLa-Land. Think about all those articles you’ve seen that tell women over 40 what they shouldn’t wear – even women over 30, for God’s sakes! I’m not throwing away my leopard-print flats just for them!

Poverty-shaming Again, think about those “People of Walmart” photos. Who shops there? Not the rich. So the poor are targets for shaming. Now think of the “Welfare Queen” stereotype – a woman on public assistance who drives a Cadillac, has her hair and nails done weekly, smokes and drinks and drugs, never works, dines out on steak and lobster while feeding her kids junk food. You’ve seen it in memes and rants on social media and even heard it from elected officials. This is particularly hurtful, because it affects public policy. And it’s simply untrue. Most people on public assistance have jobs and close-to-the-bone lives. But even school lunches for their kids are politically controversial. Life is hard enough without the shaming.

Am I just ranting that shaming is shameful and wrong? Of course I am. It’s mean-spirited and insulting and unnecessary. But look at who gets shamed the most – women. And often, it’s other women who do the shaming. From the time when fashion magazines covered the eyes of women committing clothing “crimes” to nowadays when women can be shamed for how they look – no matter how they look – and for what they do and how they behave.

And people wonder why women have low self-esteem and doubt their every decision, and why poverty is seen as a moral failing. Shaming is a nastier form of gossiping, which is nasty already, but it is worse than that. All those pointing, wagging fingers are pointing the wrong direction. What we need is a little more shame-shaming.