The Bog of Lost Scholars

June 27, 2015

A Note on Marriage

Filed under: People, Culture, and Society — castiron @ 7:26 pm

My husband and I have been married for several years. Both of us divorced previous spouses, and as far as I know, neither of our previous spouses committed sexual infidelities while married to us.

According to Matthew 19:9 and Mark 10:11-12, this means that the marriage between my husband and me is an immoral relationship. So it is entirely reasonable to question whether by Christian standards we are actually married in the eyes of God. And we can certainly expect that some churches would have refused to solemnize our marriage, or would be unwilling to admit us as members now unless we repented of our marriage and separated.

There is absolutely no doubt, however, that we are married in the eyes of the law. The State of Texas placed no impediments towards our legal union, despite our union being wrong according to the words of Christ himself. No matter where we live in the United States, we are considered legally married.

Congratulations to all the couples who may now enjoy the same rights and responsibilities of legal marriage that my husband and I do, and may expect to have these rights and responsibilities recognized under the law no matter where in the United States they live.

January 4, 2014

What I Learned from a Crappy Book

Filed under: People, Culture, and Society,The Castiron Reading Journal — castiron @ 1:57 am

I like to read self-improvement books — books on decluttering, organization, motivation, time management, and general ideas on how to accomplish more and better things. A few weeks ago I checked out one of these books from the local library; today I returned it unfinished.

To be polite, it did not work for me. To be blunt, it was not even a heap of steaming crap, because a heap of steaming crap could have been composted into a useful and fertile idea. The book took a vague central concept — let’s call it flocculation, to be completely meaningless — and then spent half the book talking about how flocculating would make your life better and make you accomplish awesome stuff; it ignored the fact that there are millions of people who have flocculated and still failed catastrophically. It berated certain segments of society for discouraging people from flocculating, and then gave as a counterexample a friend of the author’s who flocculated while a member of that segment and became extremely financially successful; er, why didn’t the friend use the power of flocculation to change that segment of society, then? And by the time I realized I was in peril of violating my morals re: library books and the wallbanging thereof and closed the book, the book *still* hadn’t really defined flocculating or given any evidence that flocculating actually does anything. I suppose there’s a 0.004% chance that the book got better towards the end, but as I was over halfway through at that point, I decided I didn’t need to read more.

I did, however, get one useful personal guideline:

Any book talking about how you can improve yourself so that you can accomplish great things, but that uses “lose weight” as one of the examples of what you can do with this willpower and strength, is a complete crock.

There are a bunch of things I want to accomplish with my life — write novels, make cool crafts, help good books find their readers, trace my genealogy for myself and my distant cousins, rear my children well, nurture my marriage, dance, learn new skills, gain in-depth knowledge about many different topics, travel, etc. “Lose weight” isn’t on the list any more than “breathe” or “shower regularly” is. (It’s not even on the personal maintenance list, though “eat in the way that’s healthy for my body” and “get enough exercise” are.)

Really, this book is talking about how you should start flocculating because you’ll be able to change the world through political activism or entrepeneurial daring or artistic accomplishments, and then in its list of things you can accomplish by flocculating it includes “lose weight”? (And not even a list that included, say, “get off drugs” or “stop smoking” — “lose weight” is supposed to be an accomplishment like reducing crime in your neighborhood or directing a society-changing film or raising a million dollars for medical research.) Those things don’t even belong on the same spectrum, and this makes it clear that this book isn’t really about how to make the world better; it’s about how to gain the author a fawning crowd and some money.

June 16, 2011

Reading The Wealth of Nations

Filed under: People, Culture, and Society,The Castiron Reading Journal — castiron @ 6:54 pm

For several months now I’ve been working my way through Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations; I’m not quite a quarter of the way through.

Why read The Wealth of Nations? It’s a foundational document of Western economics; it was hugely influential when it was published in 1776, but all I knew about it was the idea of the “invisible hand”.

And there’s a reason most people today haven’t read it. It’s long, and it’s often tedious. (Smith was well aware of the latter; early in the book, he says, “I am always willing to run some hazard of being tedious, in order to be sure that I am perspicuous.”) If my goal was a greater understanding of economics, I’d be better off reading some shorter and more modern works.

But the book has little rewards that make it worth the slog. So many of Smith’s examples still make sense 250 years later and resonate with situations in the modern world. And it’s a huge pleasure to see what makes Smith himself tick — when his tone has been even and rational for a hundred pages, and then suddenly he’s discussing legal restrictions on workers’ ability to switch jobs, the shift in tone jumps off the page. You’re in no doubt that he considers it appallingly WRONG.

At the rate I’m going, it’ll probably be 2014 by time I finish reading the book, and it’s worth the trouble. (And this is a perfect book for reading on an iPod Touch. It’s dense reading, and the tiny screen gives about the right amount of text for me to process in one chew.)

May 20, 2011

Competition

Filed under: People, Culture, and Society — castiron @ 9:01 pm

On various articles discussing the problems of education, and in discussions among my own relatives, I keep hearing the opinion “They’ve taken all the competition out of education, and that’s a bad thing. We keep protecting kids from losing, and then when they get to the real world they can’t cope, because some people are better than others, and you shouldn’t get a position or accolade just because you happen to show up.” Which I’m generally in agreement with, but then their solution is to rank kids and not worry about someone who loses; that kid just needs the incentive of losing to make them work harder.

And I’m not convinced they’re right.

Or rather, I think it’ll work fine for some kids, and will be an utter disaster for others.

When I was in school, I played clarinet. I was very good, but I figured out early on that I wasn’t nearly as good as a couple of the other students. According to the “let them fail” crowd, this should have given me incentive to practice my butt off and try to beat them. Instead, I decided that there was no way I was ever going to be as good as them — let alone good enough to actually pursue a career in clarinet — so I shouldn’t even try to be.

Oh, I still practiced; I liked the music and wanted to do a good job. But in retrospect, because I knew there was a level I wasn’t going to reach (and I still think that assessment was correct), I didn’t try to be as good as I could get.

The attitude of “I can’t be the best at this, so I’m not going to even try” is a dangerous one, and one that a competitive environment can encourage. Have some competition with others, certainly, as a reality check for where everyone’s skills lie. But the most important competition shouldn’t be with the fellow student who’s a genius in this area, or with the student who’s hopeless at it. It should be with yourself.

Are you better at this skill, this task, this technique than you were last week? Are you doing as good a job as you can reasonably do (or, if it’s something that’s actually worth it, as good a job as you can possibly do)? If you can answer “yes” to these questions, you may never reach the highest levels, but you’re a lot more likely to reach the “good enough for my daily life and my community” levels. I don’t have to be good enough to play for the New York Philharmonic in order to be good enough to play for fun with my friends.

October 6, 2010

A Letter to My Nephews

Filed under: People, Culture, and Society — castiron @ 1:05 am

Dear nephews:

At the time I’m writing this letter, several years in advance of when I’d want you to read it, the news is full of stories of young gay men who killed themselves after being bullied for months or years. Given the percentage of men who are gay, while it’s most likely that all of you are straight, there’s a significant chance that at least one of you is gay.

It’s not a choice. You don’t have a choice about who you’re physically attracted to (if you’re straight, did you decide that you’d be attracted to girls?). You do have a choice about whether to act on that attraction, but the attraction itself? All hormones, pheremones, and the way your brain’s wired.

So, if you’re straight, and one day a friend (or your brother, or your cousin) tells you that he’s gay, which of these is an appropriate response?

  • a. You beat him up.
  • b. You tell all your friends, and the group of you make his life a misery.
  • c1. You say “Thanks for trusting me with that. It’s totally cool with me”, continue to be his friend, and stand up for him when someone else tries to harass him for being gay — there’s nothing wrong with him, and those jerks shouldn’t treat him like there is.
  • c2. You say “Wow, that must be tough for you, trying to live a Christian life and dealing with that. Hey, let’s pray for each other! It’s hard for me to stay chaste with all these cute girls around, so you can pray for me and I’ll pray for you”, continue to be his friend, and speak up when someone else tries to harass him for being gay — we’re all sinners, and God commanded us to love and help one another.

Hint: the answer starts with c. (Which version depends on whether you’re a non-observant Jew or a conservative Christian; if you’ve left the religious path of your parents, variations in the same spirit are acceptable.)

If you’re gay or bisexual, I love you as you are. You are part of my family, and if you need a safe place to live for a couple years, call me. I expect you to conduct your sex life ethically and safely — wait until you’re an adult for serious sex, treat your partner(s) well, use the damn condoms, and get tested for diseases regularly; beyond that, what you do is none of my business.

If you’re straight, I love you as you are. You are part of my family, and the offer of safe space stands if you need it for reasons unrelated to your orientation. I expect you to conduct your own sex life ethically and safely: wait until you’re an adult for serious sex, treat your partner(s) well, don’t have vaginal intercourse unless you’re willing to become a father and have a lifelong relationship with your partner, use the damn condoms, and get tested for diseases regularly; beyond that, what you do is none of my business.

You’re good kids. Make me proud.

Love,
your aunt

P.S.: Dear younger son: In case of my death or incapacitation before you’re of an age for me to tell you this, the above all applies to you too, and will also apply to your older brother if he’s ever of mental capacity to understand it.

P.P.S.: Dear nephews by marriage: Yep, you too.

November 18, 2006

Revising My Reasons for Parenthood

Filed under: People, Culture, and Society — castiron @ 1:14 pm

One aspect of rearing a mentally disabled child that I don’t see talked about much: For your own sanity, you need to be able to change your reasons for being a parent.

Of course, that’s true to a degree for all parents — for example, countless folks have thought they were rearing a new member of religion X/political belief Y/culture Z, only to find their child goes their own way. But most parents realize that their main purpose is to raise the next generation of adults. And a severely mentally disabled child is never going to become an adult in the way that a mentally able child, even one with physical disabilities, will be able to.

Changing my reasons is a process that I’ve mostly but not completely managed. Why did I want kids originally? Well, in part because it was clearly expected of me, and in part because I’m the latest in a long line of lifeforms that successfully reproduced and biology didn’t plan to stop with me. But also, I looked forward to seeing a new person grow up and eventually take his or her place in the world as a competent and responsible adult. I didn’t expect my child to change the world — I certainly haven’t, and that kid shares half my genes — but I expected them to at least be able to take care of themselves and others.

I’m not going to get that.

If I’m lucky, I’ll get a grown person who doesn’t injure others even when he’s mad, does basic household tasks, and knows how to use a toilet. Maybe he’ll even be able to hold a job, with a suitably sheltered workplace.

But most likely, he’ll always need someone to look after him. I’ll never be able to put him down as my designated decisionmaker in case I become incapacitated. He’s not likely to marry. If I have grandchildren, it won’t be because he married, but because he raped someone — or someone raped him. He’s never going to be an independent adult, competent to manage his own affairs. (Yes, it’s possible that he could still surprise me. But let’s face it: he’s almost eight, and it’s getting less and less likely.)

So I’ve had to change my mind after the fact about why I’m a parent. It’s no longer because I want to add one or more competent adults to the world. It’s simply because my actions created a new person, and I might as well enjoy watching him explore this place to the best of his abilities, and help him discover it further. I have to believe that my son’s life has value and purpose, even though he’s not going to make any direct intellectual, social, or economic contribution to the world.

After all, he’s already caused one person to earn a degree in working with autistic kids, because she found teaching him so rewarding. Who knows what else he’ll do?

October 18, 2006

On Savings

Filed under: People, Culture, and Society — castiron @ 11:30 pm

Several months ago, I volunteered to be the publicist for a folk dance camp. I didn’t realize at the time that this meant I’d have to pay up front for running the copies of the registration brochure, a $180 expense; I’d get reimbursed for it, but not until some weeks afterwards. I grumbled a little when I figured this out, as I’d just paid my annual auto insurance fee and my budget was a little tight, but I was able to pay for the copies and to do without the money until the reimbursement check arrived, no other expense other than what interest the $180 might have earned if it’d stayed in the bank for a month.

One of my acquaintances had a phone bill that was $25 more than usual. This threw them into complete financial crisis, scrounging and scraping and having to charge other basic needs on an already-laden credit card; in the end, that unexpected $25 bill probably cost them at least $50 in credit card interest, late payments, etc.

The more I observe myself and my friends, the more I think the real guideline for assessing someone’s financial shape is how big an unexpected expense they could pay for if given, say, three business days to come up with the money.

Needing $X right now — that’s it right there. Most Americans, if told that they would have to spend $100 on something a year from now, could save the money by then; a lot fewer could write you a check for it this afternoon. If I have until 2010 to come up with several thousand dollars to replace my roof, I could do it barring other financial or medical disasters; if I had to come up with that money by the end of the month, I’d probably have to take a loan, which would cost me more in the long run. If you have a medical emergency and need major surgery, you don’t just have to come up with $50,000; you have to come up with $50,000 now. (This is why I’m highly skeptical of medical savings accounts as a solution to the U.S. healthcare crisis; there’s no guarantee that you’ll have saved up the money to cover the expense when it happens, especially if you’re young or poor.)

What’s helped me to develop savings, besides having the good fortune to earn more than I need for immediate survival, is the attitude that money in savings doesn’t exist. It’s leftover from childhood training; as a kid, I got it in my head that money in savings accounts was Never To Be Touched Because It’s For College. Now I have it in my head that money in savings accounts or CDs is Never To Be Touched Because It’s For Major Necessary Home Repairs (like that roof replacement that I really need to do in the next couple years) Or Disaster Survival. When I’m thinking “can I afford X?”, where X is a book or a new laptop or a loom, the savings doesn’t even enter the calculation. (And even if X is a home improvement or a major car repair, I still tend not to remember my savings. My idea of being rich is to have so much saved up that I can pay cash to replace the roof and still have enough to cover basic expenses for a year.)

September 11, 2006

9-11

Filed under: People, Culture, and Society — castiron @ 9:20 pm

For me, 9-11 was a wake-up call.

Not in the sense of awakening new fear for my safety and the safety of those I love, or of a reminder to wake up and appreciate the beauty and brilliance of life. Rather, as I listened to the reaction of friends on- and offline, I realized that I didn’t feel anything about it other than a mild sorrow for the bereaved; NYC is farther from me than Istanbul is from Brussels, and DC almost as far, so what was there for me to get freaked about?

When your reaction to a major terrorist attack on your country that kills thousands is basically “eh”, that’s a strong suggestion that you’ve got a major problem, whether it’s your brain chemistry or a plethora of troubles sucking up your energy.

Suffice it to say that I got some counselling and dealt with the problems, and by time the tsunami and later Katrina hit, I was able to care. But 9-11 still feels a bit like something that happened to other people. I only emerged in time to see the wreckage.


During the months before and after 9-11, I faced the growing realization that my son wasn’t just speech-delayed; something was wrong. In January 2002, we received our first official confirmation that his behaviors were consistent with those of autistic kids.

It’s been up and down since then. He still rarely uses words; he still isn’t toilet trained. He’s obsessed with shredding paper and grass; he’d rather do those things than play with toys. But he’s able to clean up after himself somewhat, to take his plate to the sink, to put his laundry in the hamper, to sing recognizable tunes, to remember a route through a park, to blow a raspberry on my neck, to occasionally look at me when he wants to know if it’s okay for him to do something.

And today, September 11, 2006, we were watching the Debbie Harry episode of The Muppet Show. In one of the segments, Debbie Harry and Kermit sing “The Rainbow Connection” together. After the song was over, my son got up, went to the video shelf…and selected the DVD of The Muppet Movie, the movie the song originally comes from.

It’s a little thing, that the average three-year-old could do, that even my two-year-old nephew might be able to do. But it means that my son made that cognitive leap, that he realized the two different versions were the same song. And it thrills me to tears.

…above all shadows rides the Sun
and stars forever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.
–J.R.R. Tolkien

September 9, 2005

On Poverty

Filed under: People, Culture, and Society — castiron @ 6:56 pm

I’ve been pondering John Scalzi’s Being Poor ever since I read it.

On “it’s their own fault for bad financial management”: Off the top of my head, I can think of three acquaintances who have bad spending habits — routinely buying items on credit that they can’t pay off at the end of the month (unneccessary things, at that!), limited or no budgeting, impulse buying, etc. Yet to the casual observer, two of them would appear to be doing well enough financially, while the third is clearly in woeful shape.

Acquaintance #3 is managing money the same way as acquaintance #1 or #2 — but #3 makes $15K/year, and #1 and #2 each make about $60K/year. That extra money cushions a lot of errors and setbacks. If #1 or #2 had a catastrophic illness that made it impossible for them to work, cost hundreds of thousands in medical bills, and put them into utter financial ruin, most people would shake their heads in sympathy and consider it bad luck; if the same happened to #3, a lot of folks would shake their heads in disgust and consider it no more than #3 deserved for irresponsible behavior. But #1 and #2 are just as irresponsible; it’ll just take a bigger mistake to ruin them.

On being poor vs. not being poor: Having read the article and the comments, it’s clear to me that I’ve never been poor. I’m certainly not rich. I often have to put off fun purchases because the money’s not there this month. I don’t have cable or DSL, and if I get a cell phone it’ll be because they’ve gotten cheaper than my land line, which I’ll then drop. My PDA just broke, and I’m not going to replace it for several months if at all. And I’ve occasionally been really limited on funds — I remember, when I first moved to my current city, walking several miles to a feed store to buy a cheap tapeworm remedy for my cat because I couldn’t afford a proper vet visit (and certainly not a car). But I’ve never been poor. I had well-off parents who paid my rent while I was in school and would certainly help me if I’d had a financial disaster. I’ve never had to eat ramen. I’ve never had to worry about which bill I could pay and which I’d have to let float.

On luck: Damn straight it plays a role on whether you’re poor or not, and whether you can get out of it or not. Sure, one’s own decisions play a role too. (I would be much poorer if I didn’t regularly track my spending and force myself to stick to a budget. I would be much richer if I hadn’t wasted a lot of money on craft supplies that I’ve never used.) But luck is most definitely involved. I didn’t choose to be born into a well-off family who could afford to live in a good neighborhood with good schools when I was young, and to help me out as I started out on my own. I didn’t choose to be healthy, or white. And on the other side, I didn’t choose to have a mentally disabled child. (For that matter, my son didn’t choose to be mentally disabled.)

July 21, 2005

On Spending

Filed under: People, Culture, and Society — castiron @ 6:03 pm

It’s a truism that the more money you make, the more you find yourself spending.

In January I had a schedule change at work that, among other things, enabled me to take my son out of after-school care for the semester — almost $400/month more to work with! Yes, the truism applies to me. And yes, some of it is due to more “fun” spending — I can actually afford to take those ballroom dance classes now; since I’m less cash-pinched I’m eating out a bit more often; I’ve actually crossed the door of Ginger’s Needlearts for the first time in ages.

But you know where most of that money’s going? I’m getting around to all the home repair projects that I’d been putting off due to lack of funds.

I got the air conditioner repaired. I bought primer and started on the long-overdue eaves scraping and repainting. I bought a replacement door for the one that’s been covered by a piece of plywood ever since my house was broken into in September, and I’m hoping to install it or have it installed by the end of the summer. I finally ripped the carpet in my hallway and living room, the ugly and getting-moldy carpet that already needed replacing when we moved in here seven years ago, and replaced it with tile. I might even fix that falling-down fence at long last.

This is how a lot of financially-strapped people manage. If it’s not absolutely urgent, we put it off because the resources just aren’t there. The door’s ugly with that panel nailed over it, but it closes. The air conditioner wouldn’t have become an urgent need until mid-June. The fence may annoy neighbors, but it’s not hurting the structure of the house. So I let them float. (And I’m well-off compared to a whole lot of people in this country.)

Not all spending increases are frivolous!

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