Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Not fancy enough

This week I was in an Italian restaurant for a birthday dinner.  The person whose birthday it was seemed to quite enjoy the experience, and so did everyone else at the table as far as I could tell.  Me ... not as much.

The trouble was that it was trying hard to be a fancy, exclusive restaurant.  This is accomplished in a variety of ways including high prices, frustrating menu design, attitude of the staff, decoration, and more.

I hate fancy and exclusive just makes me sad.  Generally exclusive is meant as a compliment, another way of saying superior.  But when you look at the root of exclusive you should note that it comes from exclusion.  A thing is exclusive when people are kept out.  In this case, people like me.

The core of it is always price.  I looked at the cost of food in this place and was appalled.  I certainly don't mind if other people want to spend one hundred and twenty dollars on a steak, but the idea of doing so myself makes my head spin.  Just being in that place puts me in a position I hate - I am reliant on other people to carry me, to pay for me.  It underlines the power difference between me and others, even if I am not paying, because I can't possibly afford to eat at such a place and so if someone else pays it means they are going to throw money at me, but not in such a way that I get to have control over how that money is spent.  When I am in a place where I might go normally having someone else pay isn't an issue, but I hate that sense of obligation that comes with knowing that someone else is paying a bill for me that I would never consider paying if I had a choice.  It is all very awkward.

There were lots of small things though, like the menu design.  I don't speak Italian, though certainly I can puzzle out the great majority of a menu written in Italian.  But without an English description I have to resort to bothering the wait staff to translate a ton of the menu which is annoying and frustrating, or simply guess and hope.  I also am not familiar with the categories of food, which means I don't know what things will actually be enough food for me and which will not.  The restaurant clearly assumes a body of knowledge I do not possess, largely because I don't have the money to eat at expensive Italian restaurants.

I should say that I don't object to languages other than English!  It is often important to make sure that non English speakers have resources to understand things, and having the names of food in their original languages is actually a plus.  But fancy Italian restaurants aren't refusing to have English on the menus as an attempt at outreach to hard done by Italians - they are doing it to seem fancy and exclusive.

And in this case the people they are trying to exclude are people like me.  People who don't have the money to be familiar with this sort of thing, people who don't wear suits or fancy dresses, people who find the 'fancy restaurant' style of serving to be strange and offputting.  Restaurants like this focus hard on things that make me feel powerless, uninformed, and out of place.

There are plenty of places where things are not designed well for me but I get why they are designed that way.  Maybe it is for 'the average person' who is smaller than me, or maybe for someone with a different knowledge set.  That is a challenge, but not an affront.  But when they make a clear point of doing things just to make it harder and less comfortable for me to create an aura of exclusivity, when they do this deliberately, it makes me sad.

I grew up somewhere between working class and middle class, and that is where I am comfortable.  I am glad that Pinkie Pie is getting to experience these things as she grows up, because I hope that she will find a greater variety of places comfortable when she gets to my age.  Perhaps she will even have the money to make those choices herself.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The speech that should not be free

 Today I am going to get myself in trouble.  Specifically I am going to talk about free speech, and in the context of recent events that is a messy and charged topic.  So here goes.

The defining principle behind free speech laws and philosophies is the idea that we need to protect people's right to criticize the state and those in power.  Part of that is protecting things that aren't necessarily direct criticism but which push back against cultural norms and powerful institutions and individuals.  We definitely want to make sure people can safely say that the current leader of the nation is an asshat, that we should all be communists, that one religion or the other is nonsense, or that patriarchy is wrong.  Even if I don't agree with all of these sentiments there is a real public good in letting people talk about them without fear of government persecution.

There is some confusion on that last bit, so it should be clearly noted that free speech is NOT consequence free speech.  You may be entitled to say that Islam is evil, but Muslims are free to tell you that Christianity is evil right back.  Atheists might tell you that you are stupid and wrong because all religions are terrible, and perhaps the Jews will laugh at you and tell you that their religion is way too cool for you and you aren't invited.  The government should not censure, harass, or imprison you for saying these things, but other people are free to disagree and there will be social consequences for your statements.  These social conequences are not only acceptable, but desirable.

Just because the basic tenets of free speech are admirable does not mean that you get to say whatever you want without any pushback.

The problem with free speech right now is that it is being invoked as though saying anything you want is the goal.  It isn't.  There is nothing inherently good about spouting off your opinion.  The good comes in the improvement in human circumstances that occurs when people are free to tell those in power that they are stupid and bad.  The goal of free speech is to make the world better for people to live in. 

So when someone wants to speak publicly about their desire to murder everyone of a particular group or to simply oppress them brutally, remove their rights, or throw them out of their homes, we must decide if this sort of speech is something that we ought to protect under the banner of free speech.  The important question is this:  Is protecting this kind of speech helping to make things better for humanity?

Obviously the answer is no.

So while you can make a coherent argument that we must protect the rights of people we hate to speak their mind at the end of it you have to justify it on the basis of improving human life, not just upholding a particular social custom and set of laws.  Laws and customs are created to serve humans, not the other way around.

When a person argues that we ought to be communists I disagree with them.  However, I think the harm that comes to society from letting them speak their mind is not significant, even if you assume there is harm at all.  When a person argues that they should be free to unfurl the swastika and advocate the destruction of queer people, Jews, people of colour, etc, they are imposing a dire and terrible burden on society.  That burden is of course primarily borne by those who are already oppressed which makes it even worse.  There is no demonstrable benefit to society whatsoever in allowing this behaviour so we have a moral imperative to stop it.

While I like the concept of free speech in theory, at the moment it is brought up consistently to defend reprehensible conduct.  This is a huge problem because there are plenty of legitimate cases of speech needing defending and yet if you post on the internet that you are pro free speech in a vacuum many or most people assume you are taking a pro Nazi stance.  Free speech is so consistently being invoked as a way to excuse evil that those two words are being tainted with a dark shroud.

The idea of free speech is to protect the powerless to push back against the institutions that might otherwise oppress them.  It is not an assumption that trying to organize genocide is something that we all ought to protect.  It is there to make human life better, to defend those that cannot defend themselves from those that would hurt them.  Defending that concept, and indeed defaulting to letting people speak when we aren't sure, is a fine and noble thing.

But Nazis chanting that they want to murder all the people who aren't like them are far beyond the pale.  We can exercise judgement to know that they are evil and must be stopped, and we are capable of judging that their speech is not something that should be protected.

That doesn't mean that law and policy surrounding free speech is easy.  On the contrary, it is nearly always thorny and difficult.  Stopping the Nazis without randomly squashing other people is a difficult task from an administrative standpoint, and we don't want overreach.  However, this is a challenge worthy of our efforts, and one we must work hard to succeed at.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The tricky choices

Sometimes people ask about the tricky choices involved in polyamory.  Usually it is about how you avoid catastrophic jealousy when your partner goes out with somebody else, or how you cope with telling your children, or who sleeps where when a lover comes to visit you and a domestic partner.

Mostly this stuff just works itself out incredibly easily for me.  I have had a couple of moments where I felt jealousy, but it was easily worked out with an honest conversation.  I just tell my kid all the things that I would if I were single and dating people, and figuring out who sleeps where has never really been a problem.  Many of the things people think would be an issue are just easy, in large part because of a paradigm shift.  Once you get away from the norms of behaviour that mononormativity suggests the answers fall out without much effort most of the time.  Also these issues are one offs, usually, and once I have solved them I can just walk away.

One thing I have struggled with recently is figuring out how to deal with two long distance relationships at once in a single city.  Nothing bad has happened, but there has been a lot of thought spinning through my head at times trying to sort out what the right thing to do is.

It started with the simple decision of whether or not to pursue anything in the first place.  I have been dating The Flautist for a year and she lives in KW.  I met someone new and exciting who also lives in KW, and we did a lot of chatting for a few weeks.  That was great, but it left me trying to figure out if I should actually pursue a relationship.

The trick is that there is no neutral option.  If I refuse to follow my attractions I will feel cruddy about it, but I think The Flautist would too.  She wouldn't want to be the reason that I don't pursue other people.  But if I do pursue it, then I risk being in a position where I pit two lovers directly against one another in terms of the time I can spend with them.  It isn't like two people in the same city as me; none of us is able to travel between the two cities constantly.  I can ratchet up my time in KW a bit but there are serious practical limits.  Any realistic assessment will conclude that the time I have there will have to be divided up to some extent, and this means both people will end up feeling time pressure from each other.

And as anyone that knows me well is certainly aware, when faced with no neutral option I will go for broke and pursue the Whee! option.  And I did, and now the Danthropologist and I are dating.  This is great so far but the crunches for time are real.

Seriously though, Toronto has a lot of people in it.  How is it I am worried about dividing my time between two different people in a much smaller centre!?!

There are so many things to consider when I have to figure out where I will spend my time.  I want to see both of them, but I have more preexisting plans with The Flautist.  But how much do I weigh that?  I also really don't want to run my relationships in an overly hierarchical fashion, and since I was dating The Flautist before the Danthropologist (I decided to capitalize one The and not the other, and I don't know why) there is a real risk of putting The Flautist higher, and I don't want to do that.

But on the other hand, my feelings for The Flautist are bigger and more powerful, in large part because they have had so much more time to grow.  Surely spending more time with people you have big feelings for is reasonable... but how do you balance that against the desire to find time for new feelings for someone else to flourish?  I want that; the opportunity for it for certain, the actuality is more of a thing that will happen or it won't.

The jackass part of my brain wants to answer with "Obvious solution.  Threesomes.  All the time!  Problem solved." but this isn't actually a solution.

If it was a solution I would win at life and everybody else could just play for second place, but it isn't.

This problem isn't one I can solve.  It isn't going to be resolved permanently, I hope, because that will really only happen if one relationship blows up.  It is just a constant thing I have to balance and consider, and because needs and circumstances are rarely simple or equal it will never be trivial.  People move and need strong arms, or have bad days and need comforting, or come up with exciting plans on particular days.  All of that must be carefully weighed.  That weighing is something I take really seriously, and although I am sure I get it wrong at times, I always think carefully about it.  This is precisely the sort of thing that keeps me up at night, worrying at the edges of the problem, trying to find better solutions.  I don't like disappointing anyone but you can't avoid that entirely.

Of course I recognize that this is about the best problem to have.  There are two smart, driven, interesting women that make me happy and who want to see me.  I have to figure out how to balance that.  This is exactly the sort of thing that #firstworldproblems was made for.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A game of babies

The other day I saw something that illustrated clearly to me the struggles we have with compassion as a society.  In a forum about the World Boardgaming Championships which I attended two weeks ago someone was complaining about baby changing stations in the bathrooms in the convention centre.  You might imagine that people would be complaining that there weren't enough change stations, or that the change stations were only available in the women's washrooms.  I have encountered both of these issues personally.

But no.

The complaint was about changing stations existing at all.  The complainer was unhappy that children were being changed in the washrooms, because he expected people with children to take them back to their rooms to change them.  His preference was that change stations would be eliminated entirely because that would get rid of the problem of people changing babies in public spaces.

His complaint was pitched around the idea of contamination.  He didn't like the idea of the possibility of fecal matter from baby changes being spread around, and expressed concern that other babies might get sick if they were changed on the same change table that another baby had used.

This nonsense reminds me a lot of the arguments used to try to force breastfeeding out of the public domain.  It is entirely driven by people's ick reactions, with the added twist of sexualizing breastfeeding parents and/or babies.  Some people will be honest and just say that they are icked out by the whole thing, and although I think they should just shut up and cope at least they are being honest about why they object.

It really riles me up though when people make bonus 'safety' arguments to justify their attempts to control others just based on an ick response.  The idea that baby changing stations should be removed to help the babies is transparently absurd.  Toilet seats aren't removed to 'help' adults who don't want to spread around fecal matter.  We don't ask fully grown people to walk long distances to their rooms to use the washroom to reduce contamination.  But some of those adults still seem to feel justified asking parents and babies to travel this way.

In the same way some people insist that breastfeeding ought to happen in cars or washrooms to get it out of the public eye.  It is usually pitched as a way to make things safer for children who might accidentally see a breast, with no thought as to how much of a problem it is for the baby or the person feeding them.

The classism is these arguments really gets to me.  Some people have enough money that they can easily set it up so that they aren't the ones who have to cope with a baby's needs.  When they want to go out they just pay to have somebody else deal with their children.  Rich people are also in a much better position to have one of the baby's parents dedicate themselves entirely to child rearing which makes dealing with these logistical issues simpler.  But many people don't have the money to farm out baby care and they have to bring their infants along with them.  They don't have the resources to sequester their infant's bodily needs away from all the people who are made squeamish by them.  It is a situation of a rich person being angry at a poor person for the crime of being poor.

Even when it is a choice we should support it.  Even if someone has plenty of money we ought to set up the world so that they can care for their babies as they go about their day.

I totally understand that some people, especially those who have never made a baby, can find it hard to know what a caregiver needs.  That small bit of ignorance is easily enough cured.  The real problem is people who know what caregivers need and then insist that they not get it in order to keep babies at bay, and do so with bogus 'safety' arguments.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Country muscles vs. city muscles

When I am home in Toronto I lift weights.  I spend about an hour and fifteen minutes in a session lifting as hard as I can.  It leaves me with pain all through my upper body, and this is a good thing as I have developed an addiction to it.  When I don't have pain through my shoulders, arms, and chest I start to feel weird, like something is missing.  I need more suffering!

This has given me some pretty reasonable muscles.  However, now that I am up visiting my folks in Thunder Bay I am doing some very different exercise indeed.  Today I spent a good chunk of the day shovelling gravel to build a new lockstone patio.  This is the country boy kind of exercise I am used to from my youth!  It takes a long time, gets real things done, and doesn't seem to leave you with the same kind of muscles that city boy exercising does.

I get sore doing country boy exercise.  Right now I feel it in my traps and delts, (shoulders) and I certainly feel like I worked hard today.  I guess the real difference is consistency.  I might do a bunch of different work when I am out doing the whole country living thing, but I never consistently push a single muscle over and over to its limits.  I might work hard and get things done, but that lack of consistency means that I never got big, and never saw any changes.

It isn't just doing it every day either.  Country muscles do all kinds of things.  Painting, climbing, lifting beams, shovelling gravel, and carrying buckets.  Also there are lots of types of work that leave you tired at day end but don't actually push your limits in any way like mowing gigantic lawns and driving tractors around.

I spent my early life doing country boy exercises, and getting country boy muscles, which is to say, not much to look at.

I like city boy exercises.  I do wish they had the 'getting things done' aspect that country exercises do, but I really like the limited time frame of weight lifting and also the results.  I want to get it done quick, and I want to get big.

That means a gym instead of a yard.  I guess I am okay with that.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

How to be a storyteller

Pinkie Pie likes telling stories with me.  We often end up telling team stories where we take turns swapping who is the one telling the story which means that the stories end up in all kinds of strange places.  I often will start a segment with "and an elephant falls from the sky, crushing all of them to death" and then Pinkie Pie will fuss at me and tell me to do it right.  Eventually I will stop dropping rocks on the characters and continue the saga of the princess who has a magic wand or the fairy who has to go to school.

One thing that is tricky for me to figure out how to handle is the way Pinkie Pie resolves conflict.  She often resorts to instant solutions for plot problems that don't leave much in the way of story.  If the princess has an enemy, she just waves her wand and the enemy goes away.  If the fairy is swept downstream in a flash flood, she is instantly rescued.

What Pinkie Pie doesn't seem to grasp is that overcoming problems is the key to interesting plot and stories that people care about.  Nobody wants to read about the princess who fixes every problem by waving a wand and magicking it away!  They want to hear about suffering and challenge and effort to overcome long odds.

I am not quite sure what to tell her about this.  On one hand I like the idea of letting her just go with her stories.  Criticizing her and telling her that she is doing it wrong doesn't seem especially productive when I really want her to just explore her options and be creative.  Her stories aren't *wrong* after all, they just aren't compelling.

On the other hand I want her to understand how to craft a narrative.  I want her to learn how to tell a tale that will entrance her audience, and capture their imaginations.  Stories about invincible heroes who defeat all comers without any effort are boring.

(The fact that Eddings' stories about Belgarion are as popular as they are is still a shock to me, considering how badly they violate the guidelines I am laying out here...)

I have defaulted to just letting her solve problems instantly with magic or luck without any comment from me.  It doesn't make for good stories, but eventually she will see that and begin to craft more interesting resolutions to issues.  Or not, I guess, but telling uninteresting stories isn't the worst character trait you can have.