Category Archives: Radiolab

The Myth of Bootstraps

There have been several podcasts in my feed over the last year dissecting and observing the subject of poverty. This is probably because of the over-hyped evidence that the majority of Trump (OHM) supporters were poor, rural whites. The podcasters in their turn feel they need to address the issues raised by these people. The issues that made these poor, rural whites feel so desperate that they would hazard the welfare of us all on a known liar and con artist.

I say over-hyped with no intention of belittling the plight of the poor, or the fact that poverty runs rampant in the modern United States. Poverty is more widespread and more painfully felt now than it has been at any point since the end of World War Two. The disparity between rich and poor today is comparative to 1929, in the time leading up to the crash and the Great Depression. People are poorer now and paid worse than at any point in modern American history.

But it isn’t trade deals that are causing this problem. It isn’t illegal aliens in the US taking our jobs. It isn’t any of the things the OHM says is causing poverty; and his solutions to fix poverty are solutions that not only have been tried before but failed to work previously. So why do them again?

No, I say over-hyped because the rural poor more than likely voted for Trump because the rural poor have been the largest viewing block for reality TV. The rural poor have little other entertainment they can access aside from television. The Apprentice was popular with the same people who voted for Trump. Why is it so hard to admit that these people thought that the character on that show was the guy they voted for in the election? That the lack of broadband access in the rural areas of the US have lead to an information gap that resulted in the election of a con artist to the presidency? That poverty is merely a factor in the larger problem of inequality in America?

All of these podcasts have struck a chord with me. I have blogged both directly and tangentially about this subject in the past. It is not a subject I like writing about. The nerves are raw and the wounds are kept fresh in my current situation of disability and poverty. The series from On the Media, Busted: America’s Poverty Myths brought me to tears. I recognized so many tropes from my own childhood. Things family members and friends both have uttered in my hearing. Things that I have been guilty of believing in the past. In this article I will take a more purposeful walk down that  memory lane, painful as it is. I want to do this in the light of these discussions by scholars, writers and journalists.

…and I will start this journey of introspection with the writer/journalist Stephen Dubner and his podcast Freakonomics,

James Truslow Adams, born in 1878 to a wealthy New York family, became a financier and, later, an author. He won a Pulitzer Prize for a history of New England; and later he wrote a book called The Epic of America. Even though it was written during the Great Depression, Adams took a fundamentally bullish view of the United States. 

His book was hugely popular, and as best as we can tell, it introduced the phrase “The American Dream.” Adams defined this as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”  The phrase caught on, and not just a little bit. Especially among our presidents…

…The Stanford economist Raj Chetty has been working with large data sets to try to understand why so many Americans are no longer living the American Dream. When it comes to economic opportunity, Chetty and his colleagues found huge regional and even local differences throughout the U.S.

As he told us, kids growing up in San Francisco have about twice the chance of living the American Dream as kids from just across the bridge, in Oakland. Why? One easy explanation would be that the people in those different areas are just different – they have different abilities, different cultures, different job opportunities. And that certainly has some explanatory power. But Chetty and his colleagues found the story isn’t that simple… 

…This is hardly a new idea – that growing up in a poor neighborhood isn’t the best launching ground for economic success. This idea, in fact, led the Clinton Administration to experiment in the mid-1990s with a program called Moving to Opportunity. 

Okay, so young kids who move out of a high-poverty neighborhood do much better later on. What, exactly, does this signify? What’s going on in the poor neighborhoods to depress income mobility and what’s going on in the better neighborhoods to increase it? Answering those questions has become a big part of Raj Chetty’s work. 

The above hits the high points without getting into the meat of the episode, which is excellent. The scholar Raj Chetty‘s five factors address my personal experiences of poverty directly. It was because of this episode that I felt the need to write more on this subject, but the title of the post comes from a segment of another podcast, which was introduced to me through this episode of Radiolab,

In a 5-part series called “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” On the Media picked apart numerous oft-repeated narratives about what it’s like to be poor in America. From Ben Franklin to a brutal eviction, Brooke gives us just a little taste of what she learned and shares a couple stories of the struggle to get ahead, or even just get by.

This episode features an excellent overview of the 5-part series; enough for the casually interested, but not enough for someone who remembers the shock of sudden poverty as a child. A now old man who lives in poverty due to illness, disability, a truly lackluster US economy, sexism/ageism in the workplace directed at the Wife, etc. But I don’t want to get ahead of the narrative, and discussing the particulars of my experience in poverty even in the general sense gets ahead of the introduction provided in the full five part series from On the Media.

“You had a population that wanted to cling to those things because it justified them not sharing.” – Jack Frech Athens County welfare director

As the Freakonomics episode mentioned, It is actually twice as easy to move up the income ladder in Canada as it is in the US. This is a travesty, an ongoing insult to America, this delusion we live under. What delusion is that? The delusion that the US is the best country in the world to live in, that we provide more access to social mobility than anyplace else in the world. It simply isn’t true. Hasn’t been true for a good, long time.

The first episode of the On the Media series is an introduction to the reality of poverty in America. It is the boxing glove on the fist of the next three episodes that drive home the fact that we Americans really don’t have a clue what it is to be desperately poor in the US. Even I only vaguely recognize the lives that the truly poverty stricken must live. The reason for this is; I profited from the status of my parents. My parents, in their turn, benefited from the status of their parents; white, working class, upwardly mobile christians with land. My paternal grandparents had enough property that they farmed at first, and then sold land to the city and to new families moving into the bustling township that Leoti, Kansas was after the dust bowl. They sold and profited as the town grew around them, just like the dreams of all Americans play out.

“Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.” – Thomas Paine Agrarian Justice The Writings of Thomas Paine pg 331

The possession of land leads to wealth, if one is lucky enough to own the right piece of land at the right time. The Steele family in Wichita county, Kansas were those people. The fact of their ownership of land made them powerful within the township. The location near a then-growing town gave them a chance to sell off some of their property for cash, something that there is never enough of in any small town. People have to eat, after all. They have to have somewhere safe to sleep. All of this costs money in the modern economy, and the only way to get money is to work or be born into it. So I wasn’t born into poverty, at least.

I was born overseas to a father who was stationed there in the military, a mother who enjoyed being overseas for the first time but really didn’t enjoy the constraints of a military wife in the 60’s. She returned to the states not too long after my birth, and my father left the military as soon as his mandatory term of service was up. They returned to my father’s home on the high plains of Kansas as I mentioned. My father grew up in a little town named Leoti that would be so small you would miss it if you blinked, if only the main roads went anywhere near the place. My father’s family had settled there a few decades previously and Grampa had several thriving businesses in the town. One of those businesses was sold/given to my father when he left the military, and he settled down with my mother for the happily ever after that all young people believe in.

Did I say “happily ever after?” Yeah, that never showed up. Dad took to drinking a fifth of bourbon every single day as he struggled to deal with bringing in enough cash to support his growing family. Mother was unhappy because the family kept growing and her husband didn’t seem to be around much to help. The fighting got worse until it damaged the furnishings and frightened the children, and the divorce wasn’t long after that. Coming out of the 40’s and 50’s and the attitudes about women and families, the ridiculous notions of money and politics, wealth and poverty and the meaning of all these things all wrapped up together, the surprising part of this story is that some women put up with the way life was for them. They put up with it instead of leaving. Maybe they had better husbands?

The story of my pre-teen life was pretty common for the time. By the mid-70’s when the divorce happened fully half of all marriages went that way. Prior to World War Two women were expected to stay home, raise children and provide for the running of the household which encompassed pretty much everything you can imagine. Everything you can imagine, if you imagined a self-sufficient household operation that was a day’s horseback ride from the next nearest town, a train ride away from the nearest city with running retail businesses in it. A household without running water or electricity. That is what frontier life was like just two generations into the past for me, four generations now. My grandparents remembered towns without electricity, the introduction of indoor plumbing and the automobile.

Automobiles made the difference. This fact is spelled out in the heaps of rusted metal you can find dotting most older farmsteads. When the old car dies you leave it where it sits and buy another one, just as you did the tractor and the harvester. On the Wife’s family farm you can still see her dad’s first tractor, parked on the edge of the field where it died, rusting into nothing as the decades fly by. It still sits there even though the farm itself has changed hands twice since her mom sold it. Sold it because there just wasn’t any reason to keep it any longer.

We weren’t farmers. We were never going to sign up for that life. The automobile made city life bearable because you could live in the outskirts of the city and commute downtown for work. In the city you don’t need to make your own clothes, you can go to the store and buy them. You can go to the store and buy them, that is, if you have the money. Money has been the limiting factor imposed on the poor for longer than any of  the now living can remember. Longer than those who came before us can remember. Further back than even our great-grandparents and their parents time.

Brooke meets Carla Scott, a young woman in Cleveland forced to sell her plasma for bus fare after a series of events derailed her life, as well as Carla’s nonagenarian grandmother, Grace, a hard-line believer in “personal responsibility.” 

Personal responsibility or paying for every mistake you’ve made for your entire life. That would be costly, and hasn’t been my experience. This is the privilege of white skin in the United States. It certainly hasn’t been luck that has seen me through to now. I’ve told myself all my life I make my own luck. I make my own luck because 50/50 chances almost never fall my way.  Even so, there are many behaviors that I have engaged in that would have resulted in imprisonment and probably death, had I been caught doing them while black.

While I was near homeless for a few years living in friend’s spare rooms and sleeping on enclosed porches, I never had to sell plasma. I didn’t have children of my own to tend to before I was ready largely because I knew what a pain children could be. That was one of the many lessons I learned being raised by a single mom.

The benefit of city living masques the machinery of poverty creation. Having everything you want or need available at a store for purchase makes the delusion of self-sufficiency seem quite real. Self sufficient, if you have the money to buy these things. Self sufficient, if you have work that pays money. I have always had work because I would do just about any job offered to me. White, young, male, with no tattoos and no piercings. This was important above all things; maintain the illusion of a fine, upstanding middle class status. That illusion kept me working.

Poverty waits for those who fail to maintain the illusion. Jobs that go to others. Careless sex that leads to children. Drug addiction. Tattoos and piercings that announce your rejection of white bread America. That inner-city poverty of slums and ghettos? The tattooed and the peirced? The drug addicted and the ne’er-do-well? That poverty that has moved out into the country from the cities. The rebellion that motivated the election of the Orange Hate-Monkey (OHM) was generated in rural America, in the persons of the last victims of a grinding poverty that has plagued the poorer neighborhoods of cities since their creation. I noted the rural American bellyaching rang hollow to me in the essay I named after him,

Listening to the people who attempt to defend their affinity for the Orange Hate-Monkey in the podcast isn’t helping. Oh poor, misunderstood me whining by rural whites strikes me as just this side of pathetic. As if urban blacks don’t have problems, haven’t had worse problems for the better part of two hundred years. The fact that the researchers on this podcast are so divorced from the truth of the matter, that the reality-disconnected people they have been interviewing actually turned out to be the ones who had the last laugh, that they got their American Psycho candidate on a collision course with the White House, in the face of the researcher’s own blithe belief that Hillary Clinton was a shoe-in for the presidency, isn’t helping with the surreality of this moment in time.

I know what grinding poverty looks like even though my experience with it was mercifully brief. That time was right after my parent’s divorce. For a time my mom made the best of life in rural Kansas. We got to keep the house. Dad moved into a trailer parked behind his service station. He managed to wrangle down his child support to $300 which wasn’t enough to cover the cost of keeping a roof over our heads, even though that roof had been home for as long as we could remember. Mom took her first job outside the house since going to college, a job teaching Head Start to Leoti preschoolers, a job that was taken from her because she didn’t have a teaching certificate. She left college to get married and had no saleable skills aside from homemaking, a job she couldn’t do anymore without a husband.

So mom remarried. He was a nice enough guy when we met in Leoti. As soon as we left Kansas and moved to Texas, the trouble started. The poverty got worse. Dad stopped paying the child support and only restarted it after mom sued him to get it. The stepdad started drinking heavily, and he was a mean drunk. There were a number of times where my mouth got me in trouble and I ended up on the floor. The last time I saw him was the day he brought another woman to the house. After watching him abuse my mother wordlessly for months, after being the victim of his abuse during that time, having him show up and flaunt his girlfriend in my mother’s face was too much. When mom sent us into the house and told us to hide, I waited behind a door I knew he would come through if he did come in for his stuff. I waited with a high vantage point and a heavy blunt object. I wanted to make sure that if the opportunity presented itself, there would be a near guarantee of killing him. I hated him that much.

Luckily for both of us, the opportunity never occurred. He left without his stuff. I was on a plane to stay with my father in Kansas within the week. Psychotherapy was part of that process. I was the lucky one. The luckiest of the four children who endured the stepfather. I had a room of my own in my father’s house. I had running hot water at the tap. I had a mother and father who were concerned for me. I never appreciated this fact, this blessing, until visiting my mother in Texas and seeing what hitching her cart to the stepfather’s wagon had wrought in the end.

The unlucky ones? They had one bed for the four of them to share. Mom went through another divorce, which means those three siblings went through it with her. The garage apartment they found in the tiny town they had ended up in didn’t have a reliable roof or much in the way of indoor plumbing. They had to heat water on the stove to fill the bathtub so that they all could bath each night. My mother had taken the next of dozens of jobs she would eventually hold, working the night shift running that blight of the American landscape, a convenience store. Virtually the only profitable business in yet another small town whose only claim to fame was being on the road to somewhere else.

When I saw how bad their living conditions were, I cried. We siblings then made the first of several pacts that followed over the years. After a few weeks of mutual badgering, our parents in their separate hostile camps were convinced to let the rest of the kids move back up with dad and his new wife. I didn’t appreciate having to share a bed with my brother again, but at least they had hot water to shower with. Television to watch. Decent schools to attend, back in the good old days, when Kansas still believed in investing in young people.

For the first time in my mother’s short life, she was free. No children to supervise. No husband to cook for or tend to. Free to try and advance her skills by returning to school. So she did that. She moved to a larger town in the area, a town called Sweetwater. It was a town with a school, a town big enough for a trade school, but not so big that it became expensive to live in. She took business classes and worked odd jobs. She was probably about as happy as she had ever been.

This happiness was short-lived. This is a section of the story that I wrote about at length here,

Dad had remarried, but found the chore of raising 5 unruly children too much to deal with so he sent us back to our mother in Texas to live. The 5 of us crammed ourselves into whatever housing she could afford on the wages for whatever jobs she could get.

…She just went back to working at fast food joints, bars and restaurants, the odd convenience store job as the demands for housing, clothes and food for her growing children required.

It was a point of pride to my mom that she never took food stamps. That she never had to go on welfare. Her memory is a bit more selective than mine. We may never have needed food stamps, but we certainly ate a lot of government bread and cheese. Drank a lot of government milk. I got a job as soon as I could after moving back in with mom. I knew even before she explained it to me, there was no way we’d survive if I wasn’t working. So I started sacking groceries and cleaning up at night at one of the two grocery stores in that mid-sized Texas town. I took a lot of food that the store was going to throw away home with me instead, one of the benefits of being the flunky who throws out the trash. We never went hungry, but that is just barely the truth.

I spent my senior year in high school as a stranger in a school I didn’t really want to attend. I preferred the Kansas schools of the time. Kansas’ investment in higher education (now abandoned) Kansas’ belief in better times ahead (ditto) Texas was meaner. Texas was harsher both in climate and attitude. That mythical Southern hospitality is the velvet glove over the iron fist of crony capitalism and repressive social structures designed to keep the poor in their place.

I attended the same trade school my mom had moved to Sweetwater to attend and I made the best of the illusions I had been fed as a child. That I could be whatever I wanted to be. That I had no limitations. That all I had to do was work hard and I would make the grade. That I could live happily ever after, too.

It’s not about IQ… it’s the context you inhabit

In the third installment of our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we take on one of our country’s most fundamental notions: that America is a land of equal opportunity and upward mobility for all. And we ask why, in spite of a wealth of evidence to the contrary, does this idea persist?

With the help of historian Jill Lepore, Brooke traces the history of the “rags to riches” narrative, beginning with Benjamin Franklin, whose 18th century paper manufacturing business literally turned rags into riches. We hear from Natasha Boyer, a young Ohio woman who was saved from eviction by a generous surprise from strangers… only for the miracle to prove fleeting. And we consider the efficacy of “random acts of kindness” and the fateful role of luck — where you’re born, and to whom — in determining success.

Much like Benjamin Franklin in reality, as detailed in this segment of the story, I moved away from the family that was a drag on my ability to succeed on my own. Their poverty making my poverty that much harder to ignore, that much harder to escape. After a brief, heartbreaking few months trying to establish myself in Kansas back living with my father, trying to make good on promises made to a girlfriend I had left in Kansas and failing at that rather spectacularly, I returned to Texas and moved up the road from Sweetwater to Abilene for a brief time, living on my own. Like everyone who transitions to life on their own, that was quite a shock. I think it was the month driving on a leaky tire because I couldn’t afford a new one that brought home just how hard it was going to be to make the grade. Just how remote the possibility that happily ever after might ever occur.

“It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Martin Luther King Jr.

It was while living in Abilene that I noticed that I effectively had no boots and thusly no bootstraps to draw myself up by. I had limited education, most of which I provided for myself through voracious reading. I clearly had a problem producing work in my chosen profession, a barrier that I had never realized was mine alone until that time. There was no one with money in my immediate family. I knew no one in Abilene aside from co-workers at jobs I no longer had, and I wore out their welcomes in pretty short order. I even had to borrow mom’s pride and joy, the first new car she had ever bought for herself, just to get myself out of the rut I’d made in Abilene and move myself to a new, hopefully more promising locale, San Angelo.

It was in San Angelo that I met the Wife, working at one of the many odd jobs that came my way. It was there that I dragged the rest of my Texas family, after I finally found a job that paid money and had rented a house that would fit all of them. It was there that all of them eventually went to college. It was a long, hard struggle even getting to that level, the level where I felt I could attempt to repay a debt to my mother that I knew I still owed. But I was still poor, just not as poor as I had been. In order to not be poor I knew I was going to have to find a bigger city. Bigger cities require more architecture, more planning, more design, and I knew that was a demand that I could help satisfy if I could just get there.

In the fourth installment of our series “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we examine the strengths and shortcomings of our nation’s safety net. Government assistance does help lift millions out of poverty each year — indeed, without it, poverty would be twice as high — but those in the most dire circumstances often slip through the cracks.

With the help of Linda Tirado, author of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, and Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, we consider how anti-poverty programs can actually keep people poor and offer little hope for a way out.

Also, Brooke meets Margaret Smith, a Columbus woman made homeless after a violent crime derailed the life she’d carefully built with her six children. And we visit an Athens County food pantry that provides not just meals to the community, but also school supplies, clothing, furniture, job training, home repairs, disaster relief…even burial plots.

In the city there is no illusion about the temporariness of prosperity, of hearth and home. If there is any real difference between city life and country life, it is the illusion of permanence that country life affords. In the city you pay by the month for everything including hearth and home. You never stop paying for anything, ever. New cars, bigger houses, longer commutes, more roads, taller buildings, denser usage. The city is a meatgrinder, and the meat it grinds is human. Best not to watch it happen if you have a weak stomach.

It’s true, there are more opportunities in the city if you can afford to go there and look for them. I took that leap almost thirty years ago now. Left what I see now as a quiet little town of a hundred thousand people; ten times the size, and more, of my hometown of Leoti at its peak. Austin boasts more than a million citizens now. if you incorporate its far-flung suburbs, there is something closer to two million people who work and live here because of Austin being here and pretty much for no other reason. It certainly isn’t for the weather, which is Texas hot nine months out of the year.

There is a little joke in Austin that if you move here and don’t have allergies, wait five years. You’ll have them, just wait. I had allergies before moving here and I never intended to stay here. Fate has kept me here, year after year in spite of my intentions to leave as soon as I was assured of an ability to provide for my family. I was ill before I got to Austin, and my illness has gotten worse every year I’ve been here. The symptoms which had no name eventually got so bad that I found a name for them, Meniere’s. Finding that my symptoms had a name is the only reason I’m alive to write this uplifting little post today. Having a name for what keeps me from working is what gets me disability payments that kept my now-grown children fed while they were still growing. The disability made me worth more alive than dead; so I’ve kept living, to the consternation of many.

Disability isn’t a carefree life of freedom and bliss. Ill health is generally hard to endure even without the grinding poverty that accompanies it in most cases. The poverty is inflicted on those of ill-health by the system itself, not as a function of their relative worth. The cost of treating illness is itself a function of building the wealth of countless millions of healthcare professionals, people who would be as poor as I am without people like me coming to them for treatment. Without Social Security and Medicare paying my bills, I’d have taken my own life years ago. All those thousands spent to educate my children, house, clothe and feed them, would never have existed. Their promising careers, the careers of my Texas family who went to college because I brought them somewhere that had a college, all of the people who benefitted in some way from the work that I’ve done if not by the simple existence of my health issues, none of them would be where they are now had I simply not existed. Had I been cast aside like the poster-waving homeless visible on every city street corner in the US.

Nothing hits so hard for me as being in my car pulling up to an intersection, and having someone come to me with their hand out. I can’t look because I know that if I give in to my desire to help everyone around me, I will soon be the one standing on the street corner holding a sign. See to your own needs first, as any properly trained triage attendant knows. You can’t help others if you end up needing help yourself. I have clung to the top edge of a vertical drop into non-existence for more than a decade now. Every single cent of every dollar spent in the last ten years having to be justified in some way. Kicking myself for ever frivolously spending anything in the years that I had money, not realizing that those years would be the briefest of all.

When reporting on poverty, the media fall into familiar traps and pundits make prescriptions that disregard the facts. So, in the fifth and final installment of our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we present a Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Poverty in America Edition. It’ll equip you with the tools to spot shoddy reporting and the knowledge to identify coverage with insight.

With help from Jack Frech, former Athens County welfare director; Kathryn Edin, co-author of $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America; Greg Kaufmann, editor of TalkPoverty.org; Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City; and Linda Tirado, author of Hand To Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.

This brings me full circle. From bootstraps to bootstraps. How can you lift yourself with your own bootstraps when you have no boots? Casey Gerald asks that very question in a TED talk that I favorited over a year ago. I love this talk. It makes me cry and laugh and cry.

“The gospel of doubt does not ask that you stop believing, it asks that you believe a new thing: that it is possible not to believe.”Casey Gerald

Like him I really don’t have any answers aside from the plain observation that what we have attempted so far in the realm of aid to the poor has failed, utterly.  We must begin again if we ever hope to improve the human condition. The only sane way is to approach the problem with the knowledge that we don’t know what will work before we try it. So it will profit all of us to make sure that what we are attempting can be tested for effectiveness before we embrace it as true and real. 

A Toast to My Alcoholic Father

“You would never know if I relapsed,” he said to me. “I was very good at being an addict.” 

No, honey, you weren’t. None of us are. We think we are cleverly hiding it. We think we have it under control. We think we are getting benefit from it. We think we are the exception to the rule. We think we will be able to prevent it from consuming us. 

– A Facebook Status Post

I have taken out the garbage in my home (eldest son always gets that job, ditto with husbands)  for my entire life. Consequently I know what people throw away in the house. I know who recycles and who doesn’t. I know who is doing what based on what garbage appears in their waste cans. It is extraordinarily hard to disguise behaviors that create garbage, behaviors that leave behind evidence which must be destroyed if you want that behavior to be secret.

My dad went through an astronomical amount of Canadian Club, Black Velvet, etc. At least a fifth every, single, day, without fail. I must have hauled several tons of discarded glassware to the ashcan over the course of the years I lived at home with my parents. We kids knew the drill. Ice (this much) bourbon (that much) water (a much smaller amount) He always drank, all the time. It wasn’t until the drunk driving laws started appearing that he knew he was heading for trouble, because he couldn’t be without his glass of bourbon and a cigarette (Pall Mall‘s) at any point in any day. Couldn’t do without it (them) until the cancer started.

When the cancer started it became imperative that he stop smoking and drinking, and he still couldn’t do it. He just didn’t know how to stop. He switched to low-tar cigarettes first. No more filterless Pall Mall’s, it was Carlton‘s or whatever else he was trying that week. He insisted the low-tars were filled with cabbage leaves, but he had to have a smoke. The bourbon took longer for him to give up. He switched to cheap beer when it finally became clear he was going to have to stop his addictions, not understanding that he was going to have to actually stop the behaviors entirely. He smoked and drank until they stopped allowing him to eat because of throat cancer. In the end the addictions killed him by causing the cancer, and that is what I remind myself of mentally every time someone offers me a cigar or I pour myself a drink.

I stopped smoking cigarettes ages ago because I could feel the drag they were putting on my lung capacity, and that process took years. One of my sisters now runs a cigar shop and I have to decline offers of cigars every time she comes to town or we meet with relatives who have seen her recently. I can feel the itch of a lifetime nicotine addiction in the corner of my mind just thinking about picking up a coffin nail. The air in the Steele household was blue with tobacco smoke for my entire childhood. Nicotine was in the air I breathed every day until I left home and had to infuse the drug by smoking it myself. Kicking that habit was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and it took years of mentally associating the desire to smoke with the smell of a the bars I worked in as a young adult, reminding myself of the stale smell of smoke, sweat, alcohol and vomit that permeates the air of a bar before all the people show up and renew the smells with life.

My dad loved to tell a story about me when I would drink with him. One thing my dad was really good at was spinning yarns, and he could talk all day and night if you let him. He was a certified master of bullshit and I could sit and listen to him talk for as long as anyone would let him talk. I was fascinated by his ability to just make stuff up on the fly. The bare bones of the story went like this; The first time my parents took me along for a fine dining experience, one that included courses of meals and an after-dinner drink, I cried for the glass of cognac they sat in front of my father. My father, being the indulgent person that he really was, wanted to see what I would think of the cognac. Would I hate it? Would I reject it because of the alcohol taste? He didn’t know. So he handed me the snifter and as he told it “You drank it right down. Sat there for a few seconds. Then you cried for more!” It always got a laugh and I laughed right along with him.

I am reminded of that story every time I crack open a new bottle of brandy or cognac, which is about the only thing I will drink these days; and I will drink a quiet toast to my father on those days. It is because of him that I am not an alcoholic, and that is probably the best lesson I learned from him. I have often wondered what he would have made of the efforts to end addiction these days? Would any of them have helped him? Would he have wanted help?

The Justification for the Explanatory Pause

Code Switch is one of those podcasts that I make a point to listen to even when the titles make me cringe. This is one of those episodes that I cringed through while at the same time having some relevant old white guy points I really felt were worth addressing.


The podcast hosts bring on Hari Kondabolu (whose podcast Politically Re-Active isn’t one I listen to) to talk about why he takes a break in the middle of a subject riff in order to explain the subject matter being discussed.

He refers to it as Hold Up, Wait a Minute which is amusing, the right move for a podcast that is humorous in nature. However the title of this podcast Explanatory Comma had me yelling explanatory pause at my headphones by the end of the episode.

In my opinion, the breaking point for when/when not to explain things is entirely subjective. If the audience member knows about the thing, they will think you are talking down to them. If the audience member doesn’t know, then they will be lost if you don’t explain it. I knew who Tupac was, so was not lost during the previous episode of Code Switch that dealt with him but didn’t explain who he was.

On the other hand Hari Kondabolu says Tribe Called Quest and stands on his outrage at having to explain that this was another music reference. I know it is a music reference now, because I went out and looked it up and realized that my ignorance on the subject is a product of not having any interest in Rap, Hip Hop, or any other form of music that wasn’t Rock or Classical or the Country music my mother made me listen to as a child.

All of us are products of our experiences. If our experiences don’t include your experiences, then any attempt to connect will be fruitless unless a common ground of conversation can be established. So you have to take time to explain to the audience so that you can bring them along with you if you want them to go where you are going by the end of your narrative. If you don’t do that, they get bored, stop reading/listening/watching and your attempt to communicate fails.

When you can’t see your audience, the curse of the A/V field, you have to attempt to gauge what your audience will understand without your providing an explanation. Which is largely what this entire episode of Code Switch is about.

But I didn’t start writing this entry to talk about why explanatory pauses are necessary.

What I wanted to address was making sure that you don’t take time to explain things that really shouldn’t have to be explained. All of us have our own lives, our own heuristics, our own foibles and our own prejudices. Most of us are smart enough not to air our dirty laundry or (as Hari Kondabolu quite pointedly says) force our white supremacy onto the rest of society.

There are exceptions, the entirety of the FOX news team springs immediately to mind, but generally we keep our thoughts to ourselves because, hey, everybody is busy and why burden a total stranger with the bullshit in your life? Right?

On the other end of the spectrum we have something like the TED talk below;

Now, I’ve made a few attempts to line out what I think on the subject in the talk. Tiptoeing through Gender IssuesPartnership by Any Other NameHomophobia In Denial. Before you come to any snap judgements about what I’m about to say, I’d suggest that you take an explanatory pause and go look at what I’ve said before, so that what I’m about to say doesn’t strike you as callous or unfeeling.

When I look at that couple I do not see the complex characters they want us all to accept them as. What I see is a perfectly average couple who clearly love each other. If I’m passing them on the street, serving them food, or any of the dozens of jobs of the people they will encounter every day, none of those people will have the time or the desire to understand and accept these two as what they see themselves as. There comes a point where you have to rely on your gender presentation (clothing, hair style, scents, makeup, whatever) to communicate all the myriad things you think are important as a first impression. You cannot go back and make a second first impression, and an angry explanation about why your presentation should have been understood will be accepted just as well as the FOX news junkie who goes around insisting that Santa is white.

This TED talk is an example of the dreaded internet oversharing. The needy posts on various social platforms that start with “Let’s see who reads this” or “if you really are my friend”. The entire TED talk is an explanatory pause; and frankly, I’ve contested a few of the belabored points in the talk.  Contested them because, in the end, no one really should care that much about you unless they are having sex with you. You aren’t having sex with the entire internet and if you are you probably need therapy of a different kind.

A Queer Version of Love and Marriage goes over the line from explanatory pause into the realm of browbeating. If you are in an educational setting like a podcast or a TED talk, then you are going to get things explained to you that you probably already know. That is what the 30 second jump button is for (if your podcast app doesn’t have that, go get this one) if you don’t have the patience to hear something explained for the 97th time, skip ahead 30 seconds. But if you are getting a gallon of milk at three in the morning, don’t expect the cashier to know your preferred gender pronoun. Just pay the person behind the counter and say “thank you” and walk out. He’s got mopping to get back to and he really doesn’t care about your frustrations.

When I’m listening to a podcast about Code Switching I expect to have musical references, as well as many other references, explained to me. That is why it is called Code Switch. Because we are trying to Switch the Code; Race and Identity Remixed. Understand the other side. Broaden our understanding of the human animal. Can’t do that if we don’t understand the references. Hope I’m being crystal clear here.


I edited the first sentence in the second to last paragraph to be more clear as to where the line between explaining and over-explaining is, or where it is for me. Your Mileage May Vary, as the saying goes. Damned indefinite pronouns, the bugaboo of all attempts at clear writing.

Earlier on I changed the last paragraph to link the FAQ for Code Switch so that anyone who disagrees with what is being said can just go to the FAQ and educate themselves.

The most amusing thing about writing this piece, about my initial response to pushback against White Supremacy being attached to everything white people do, to the explanatory pause being denigrated as a distraction from the actual storytelling, is that the overwhelming number of negative attacks have come from White Knights who feel obliged to jump in and defend minorities from aggression. As if Old White Guy points are always going to be aggressive. Or White Supremacist. As if minorities aren’t capable of defending themselves in a battle of words and ideas.

May I always resist the urge to come to the defense of someone whom I consider to be my equal and does not appear to be losing a battle of words. All Social Justice Warriors should be compelled to adhere to that oath.

If Gene Demby (whose sole response was two characters “NO”) feels that the explanatory pause is an interruption to his storytelling, I would suggest that he might want to take some time to talk to Jad Abumrad of Radiolab fame and get a feel for how he explains while not appearing to explain. Because explanation is a necessary part of the equation if you want to broaden your reach. Widen the appeal. Another suggestion from a humble listener.


I’m still listening to Code Switch several months later. Currently I’m looking forward to the last installment of the look back at the influence of President Obama. I have an opinion piece on that subject which I title Obama Best President Since Eisenhower. No, I am not subtle. Not in the least.

The last episode put a bug in my ear about the miscommunication of what Code Switch means to black people and why it might mean something different to white folks. I talk in code to old white people; old being my age and older (yes, there are older white people than I am) I will occasionally put on a filter for children that aren’t mine as well. I have found that being dead honest with the children of strangers can be more troublesome than being dead honest with old white folks.

However Code Switching takes on a whole new meaning when you take things like this into account,

The Green Book, or to give it its full title, “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” was first published in 1936. It was a revolutionary publication which listed restaurants, bars and service stations which would serve African-Americans.

Traveling during the Jim Crow era was difficult for African Americans. In the South, “black code” laws targeted them for loitering. In many towns, black travelers risked death if they stayed past sundown.

Travelers came up with their own ways to avoid violence and humiliation. One was called ‘The Green Book’ created by Harlem postal worker Victor Hugo Green. It was an invaluable tool to help black people plan a safe route across the country.

Alvin Hall’s BBC program ‘The Green Book’ documents this little-known aspect of racial segregation.

When you might be lynched or shot for simply driving into the wrong town, knowing what the code is takes on a whole new meaning. I know this. I knew this. But knowing isn’t being. While I know that I don’t speak freely (to not speak in code) around parents, children, people who aren’t into SF or video games or recreational drug use (legal. All my drugs are legal now. Have been for at least 25 years. I have the prescriptions to prove it) the downsides of slipping out of code for people like me are radically less life-ending than for people who face the possibility of death at the hands of people who hate them just for existing. Which is why a Code Switch takes on much more weight for minorities than for people like me.

My apologies for approaching the subject with less gravity than it probably deserved. I still see the refusal to explain as a missed opportunity to connect; but truthfully there is little use in telling me about one more artist whose rap I probably won’t be interested in either. The explanation for how I lost my music (and with it the appreciation for pretty much all music) is a story I haven’t tried to write down yet.

Another time, perhaps. 

The Planned Parenthood Frame-up

I don’t watch gotcha films. I don’t watch gotcha films on any subject, not just on this subject. The reason I don’t watch gotcha films is because there is no way to know whether or not what you are seeing is in any way real. The protest that “these videos are unedited” is a claim which cannot be verified, in a general sense. It is possible to fake almost anything you’d like to these days, and that ability only becomes easier with time.

What I rely on instead is my established ability to sift through a large amount of written language and recognize currents through various writers and posts.  I take people at their word for goals and drives, and filter what they then say against those stated goals looking for what they say that isn’t crafted to further those goals.

That is why my first stop on visiting a site is generally the about page. This is so that I can see who funds the site, what the stated goals are, what the makeup of the management of the site looks like.  With that knowledge in hand, it then becomes possible to determine what any entry on the site is placed there to achieve.

Case in point, the recent melt-down involving Planned Parenthood selling body parts from abortions they’ve performed. As the article on the subject over at Snopes.com points out;

Fetal tissue may only be used or sold post-abortion with the consent of the woman undergoing the procedure. Although some researchers may obtain fetal tissue directly from abortion clinics at their own medical facilities, others have to purchase it from middlemen who pay fees to providers such as Planned Parenthood for specimens and then resell those specimens to researchers. Planned Parenthood maintains they charge only what the law allows (i.e., what they need to cover their expenses in such transactions), while the middlemen charge a markup to cover their processing costs. But regulation of these types of transactions is somewhat murky.

So what the Republican candidates for President are tearing their hair over, and what the morons who lead the House of Representatives want to shut the government down over, is already illegal in the first place. It can’t get more illegal than it already is; and since Planned Parenthood and its leadership have not been charged with violating any laws, I’d bet that what we are witnessing is just more demagoguery and not real revelations on the issue.

I am a certified fan of Planned Parenthood and a fan of it’s current leader, the daughter of a former Texas Governor. Planned Parenthood provides vital and irreplaceable services for the poor all across the US, and services for women’s health (be they rich or poor) which cannot be obtained from any other provider in many areas of the US. If your response to this declaration is that abortion is murder, I direct you to my previously posted article titled simply Abortion, and to the hopefully soon completed EPHN article on the misunderstanding of what human life is. Abortion is a protected procedure that every woman will contemplate at some point in their lives.  Those women who deny this are lying to you and possibly even to themselves.

h/t to Brian Bloomer

It is worth noting that the incident which is most often quoted, the one related by Carly Fiorina in the second Republican Presidential debate, never actually occurred in any of the video that Ms. Fiorina could have seen. So she was lying on national television during a debate.  This really isn’t news because candidates lie all the time (Lips are moving? They’re lying) but usually it’s about things that they’ll do if elected.  Rational types might hold out the hope that threats to end legal abortion in the US are equally lies since the President cannot override decisions set down by the Supreme Court, but there is plenty of other mischief that an activist President can do with his or her office.

The videos that started this whole fiasco are a frame job even so, cooked up by avowed anti-abortion activists (and a right-wing hate group) looking for material to indict Planned Parenthood with.  They have no remorse for the people whose lives they destroy in the process, either;

Arguably the worst aspect of this scam video, beyond the harm it will do to reproductive rights and Planned Parenthood, is the reality that Dr. Nucatela’s life is all but ruined for the foreseeable future. At this moment, anti-choice extremists are likely fanning out around the internet, collecting damaging information about her; finding out her home address and contact information; discovering whether she has children and where they go to school; planning rallies outside her house; or worse. Based on wrongful charges, she now represents Enemy Number One for googly-eyed radicals, fueled by visions of aborted fetuses and the false impression of Planned Parenthood as the Walmart of black market fetus organs.

Real people with real lives in the real world whose lives are ruined because of these faked videos. Faked in that the materials sold are not sold for profit, and are a part of a vital network of research and transplantation that saves lives.

If you doubt that this is true, then I highly recommend the episode of Radiolab titled Gray’s Donation which goes into precisely how many lives the materials from a single aborted fetus can be impacted in a positive manner.  A fetus that had no chance for life because of the birth defects he would have suffered from, in the specific instance of the Gray’s investigation.

That is the practice that this anti-abortion hate group wants to end. Let these facts sink in for a minute.

I’ve taken the time to write this because I was recently sent a link to an article on Rational Review News (a site I used to follow pretty regularly) that was so patently false on its face that I found it hard to believe that the same guy I used to rely on for libertarian news could be so demonstrably wrong on the subject. Proof that, if nothing else, the Balkanization of internet information continues unabated. Clear thinking and understanding of a subject has never been more critical than it is today, nor has it ever been more wanting, apparently.


The net effect of this blatant targeting of Planned Parenthood over the subject of compensation for the cost of obtaining research materials is that Planned Parenthood will no longer accept compensation for the costs of providing them. That cost will now have to come out of other sources such as donations to Planned Parenthood, because the research work will continue and the materials will continue to be available.

Stand with Planned Parenthood,
Support this lawsuit.

One can hope that the effect of exposing this obscure process to light will lead to more transparency on the subject, but I personally doubt it.  Few people really are interested in the details of transactions that occur all around them without their noticing.  Subjects like this only occasionally see the light of day, and the outrage in response is predictable and almost humdrum in its monotonous outrage. If the individual who is outraged over fetal tissue used for research were to spend time investigating the subject of medical history and the process of obtaining materials for research historically, the outrage over the acquisition of cadavers for medical schools would be something we’d never hear the end of.  Because that, historically, was a very dark process indeed.

The anti-abortion industry having beaten this dead horse long enough will simply find another soft target to attack in their never-ending drive to stop abortion in all cases.  They really aren’t interested in truth, reality or the constraints of biology or biological life.  The procedure is evil in their eyes, and evil should not be tolerated. Their own blindness to the reality of human life ensures that the fight will never end, because women who do not want to have children will continue to end pregnancies whether the procedure is legal or not.  Whether the woman is pro-life or pro-choice, the choice occurs anyway.


The long and tortuous process of holding these fakirs accountable for their damaging actions continues to unfold in various state courts,

After the videos surfaced last year, Dan Patrick, the Texas lieutenant governor, a Republican, asked the Republican district attorney in Harris County to open a criminal investigation into Planned Parenthood in August. A grand jury ended up indicting Mr. Daleiden and Ms. Merritt, and taking no action against Planned Parenthood. 

The New York Times, Last Charges Dropped Against Abortion Foes in Making of Planned Parenthood Video July 26, 2016

As the title of the source article states, the charges in Texas were dropped. Texas as a political entity hates itself in a very weird and self-destructive way. This comes out in events like the above, with religious crusaders elected to office attempting to score religious points in a political arena simply don’t understand what the law says even though they are trained lawyers. Luckily for justice, there are other states who aren’t as consumed with self-loathing as Texas,

Prosecutors filed 14 felony counts of unlawfully recording people without their permission — one count for each person — as well as one count of conspiracy to invade privacy.

Becerra, a veteran congressman who became attorney general in January, said his office “will not tolerate the criminal recording of confidential conversations.”

“The right to privacy is a cornerstone of California’s Constitution, and a right that is foundational in a free democratic society,” Becerra said. 

The Los Angeles Times, Two antiabortion activists behind undercover Planned Parenthood videos charged with 15 felonies March 28, 2017

The problem in all these cases, and there were cases being investigated in several states after the videos were released, is that the concerns and laws protecting privacy are butting heads with the first amendment right of the press and freedom of speech. It is a near-impossibility for a public entity like Planned Parenthood to win a case of slander or libel against the perpetrators of these fraudulent videos. It might be possible to seek damages from them if they weren’t essentially penniless conspiracy fantasists in the first place. The chances of any case being successfully prosecuted against them on any grounds fades to a faint hope when you understand the hurdles placed in the way of justice in this case.

Justice would require that  Daleiden and his conspirator Sandra Merritt go in front of groups of people who think like they do and explain why what they did was wrong. This is the form justice should take, because I don’t think that they or their supporters understand the injustice they engaged in. The harm that they have committed in their blind ambition to see abortion ended in the US and across the world. Real people harmed in real ways by their delusions about life in the womb. It is criminal that they cannot be shown reason that will convince them on this subject. 

Podcasts, Obsessions & Faulty Memory

I write about podcasts I listen to on this blog quite a bit.  There was a phase I went through when I first started listening to podcasts and having a lot of free time due to disability, a phase of needing to document the various episodes that I had enjoyed.  If you do a label search for FFRF you can see that my obsession with recording my impressions of this particular podcast was quite intense (and yet another subject that I have a series of lengthy articles on that I haven’t published.  I really need become obsessed with finishing my writing and publishing it) likely because I felt their online library lacked any real organization.

I’ve noticed this compulsion in other’s behavior over the years, a need to retain copies of all the things they’ve watched, or all the things they’ve listened to.  I had never attributed it to myself until I had time to reflect and notice the stacks and stacks of books, music and movies that cover every shelf in every room of my house.  Since that time I have consciously tried to restrict the impulse to retain every smidgen of information that I run across, trust the internet not to loose the data that seems to sieve out of my mind, everyone’s mind, unless we are reminded of it on occasion.

Besides, it has become clear over the past few years that there really isn’t time enough to watch all the things I want to watch, or listen to all the things I want to hear; much less space in my, our, homes for all that content. Space in our minds for all that memory. Youtube’s content alone expands so quickly that if you attempted to start watching it, you would never get to the end of it. My Tivo (thanks to Grande) is always full of things I want to watch, but almost never get time to watch sans distractions.   Gaming occurs while watching and listening to other content that I need to catch up on, and it all gets blended together in a sort of melange of information that I can’t separate cleanly.

Try as I might to break obsessions when I find them (I used REBT methods to quit smoking and learn to hate the taste of french fries just because both were obsessions that were bad for me) I can’t seem to shake a process once I get started on a project.  The process that I’ve gotten into with podcasts is I go back and listen to their back libraries once I’ve determined that the content is dense enough and worthy of further scrutiny.  So while I have followed Freetalk Live off and on for years, I have felt no need to go back and review the hundreds (thousands?) of hours of talk show inanity like I have for Dan Carlin’s podcasts which are generally shorter and more informative than 3 hours of random callers.  Those are just examples.  If I listed all the podcasts that I dabble in we’d be here for days. Just listing the ones I love will take hours.

My most recent project is the Radiolab podcast. I rediscovered Radiolab recently; and I say rediscovered because I remember hearing it on NPR years ago.  Or perhaps that is a false memory.  I want to say I remember it, because I remember a lot of the voices I hear on it, but I have to say that I haven’t run across an episode yet that I distinctly remember hearing on the radio. Which may be a way of saying that the internet is the modern example of public radio, television and the library all rolled up into one, because a good portion of PBS and NPR are available on the internet if you know where to look.




Apocalyptica (above) was the episode that decided me on going back and listening to the rest of the catalog for the podcast, and I had started into that list on the podcast feed when I discovered that the feed isn’t all inclusive, that there are several years (years) of episodes on the website which are not on the feed.  So I had to backtrack (the obsession kicks in) and start from the beginning, from the shows on the website.

I like relying on the podcast feed to tell me what I’ve listened to.  None of the podcasting apps track your listening across platforms, so if you are like me and can’t remember if you’ve listened to something just based on the title of the episode, it can become quite tedious downloading, listening and then discarding content because, meh, I’ve heard that before.

So this morning I roll out of bed and decide “enough” of the current book I’m struggling through (The Last Dark, book 10 of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant) I think I’m in the mood for something lighter.  What did I listen to last from Radiolab…?   Memory and Forgetting is loaded on the phone. Did I listen to that one? I can’t remember.  So I crank it up. Rats and Spotless Mind; false memories; the muse of a New York painter; the story of Clive Wearing. Listened to the whole thing again.  I have a hard time believing I forgot this episode; Clive Wearing’s experience (like the movie Memento mentioned in this story) is a rather potent nightmare for me.  His repeated statements “It’s like death” ring with a certain terror in my mind.

I have to admit that I was running on hour 20 something with no sleep, and had listened to two other episodes that same day.  I noted the other two episodes (Zoos are depressing, I agreed with Jad. I was struck with the statement “At the beginning of the morning, the things left standing are the things you need to know.” 37 mins in to the episode Sleep) but somehow the last episode got lost in subsequent sleep.  I would go on to mention that the episode Stress reminded me so much of myself and might go a long way to explaining how and why I forgot Memory and Forgetting but I think the rabbit hole is deep enough now.

Welcome to my morning.


Just discovered that the Radiolab feed/website is as freeform as the show is.  There are two different archives for the show; the podcast archive and the radio show archive, some of which overlaps.  Not all of it does.  It’s actually worth the time to go back to the early radio shows in the archive and listen.

Especially shows like Emergence, a subject I will be spending a lot of time talking about in the future.