Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On "separate but equal." Still.

Or, Shouldn't We Be Done With This Already?
Or, I'm Not Racist. Some of My Best Friends Are Black. I Just Don't Want Them Grinding All Up on Me at the Prom.
Or, What, Does No One Watch "Footloose" Anymore?

Okay, so every time this comes up (and it's every year, and it's always the same time of year), I find myself thinking, "Seriously? Really, seriously?" And then I think, "Thank you, southern people, for making sure the South never, ever rises in the estimation of the rest of the country." Then I have another "seriously" moment, and then I thank God my high school never tried anything like this:
About now, high-school seniors everywhere slip into a glorious sort of limbo. Waiting out the final weeks of the school year, they begin rightfully to revel in the shared thrill of moving on. It is no different in south-central Georgia’s Montgomery County, made up of a few small towns set between fields of wire grass and sweet onion. The music is turned up. Homework languishes. The future looms large. But for the 54 students in the class of 2009 at Montgomery County High School, so, too, does the past. On May 1 — a balmy Friday evening — the white students held their senior prom. And the following night — a balmy Saturday — the black students had theirs.

Yup. We swear it's not racist, the parents say. It's just a tradition, they say. But when Morgan Freeman himself offered to personally pay for an integrated prom at Charleston High School in Mississippi, the kids were all for it - and the white parents were against it, thus the "private" all-white prom they held themselves. The school did eventually take him up on his offer. Eleven years later, in 2008.

That prom was the subject of a documentary, Prom Night in Mississippi, that followed students and their parents through preparations for the prom. Many students were surprisingly open-minded about the subject. Many parents were, unsurprisingly, less so.

In Montgomery County, Georgia, the "black-folks" prom does generally welcome students of all races, although white students rarely attend. The "white-folks" prom is understood to be whites-only, and the Times story tells of a group of black students who stood outside the white prom with the white parents and siblings of white students to snap pictures and cheer as their white friends prepared to go into their white prom. Then they were ushered out by the white chaperones so the white students could do their white thing. The black kids had their own prom the following night.

Which is not to say there hasn't been some push from the students to integrate the prom. A white Montgomery County graduate now living with her black boyfriend assigns the blame to the parents, saying that they're not willing to pay for an integrated prom. The black student-body president, however, notes that efforts to work with the administration and with the white prom-planning committee have fallen flat. And then there's the point made by one of the black students shooed away from the white prom.
And finally, more somberly, they questioned their white friends’ professed helplessness in the face of their parents’ prejudice (“You’re 18 years old! You’re old enough to smoke, drive, do whatever else you want to. Why aren’t you able to step up and say, ‘I want to have my senior prom with the people I’m graduating with?’ ”).

I'm going to make a request of all southerners, students and parents, black and white, small town and big city: Cut this shit out. Seriously. Segregated proms. Rebel flags. Anything with nooses. Hell, for that matter, cotillions. You're embarrassing us. It's bad enough that I have to discuss the finer points of the civil-rights movement with every person who finds out I live in Birmingham; don't make me try to explain why you can't let kids who sit together in the lunchroom dance together at the VFW, because I swear to God, I don't understand. Please, join us in the twenty-first century. It's great. We have cable.

And students, this one is for you: Sack the hell up. You say you want to have an integrated prom but boo-hoo, your parents won't let you. You manage to smoke, sneak out of the house, wear hooker makeup, skip school, find someone to buy you alcohol, use a fake ID, and get knocked up, all entirely under the parental radar, but somehow, you can't manage a party for all of your friends? Grow some. You can have the prom of your dreams with a shitty DJ and spiked punch and a gropey date and a poofy princess dress you'll probably never wear again, or you can actually take a stand and have a party and make the statement you claim you want to make, if only your parents weren't standing in your way.

Except oh, wait, it's "tradition."

In other news: Fairfax High elects gay student prom queen.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On someone the world doesn't know they'll miss

Okay, so Doug has already said more, and better, than I ever could about the passing of our Granddad this weekend. I think that, as he said, the biggest shock was how it happened; he was old, his body was breaking down, and a lengthy or not-so-lengthy illness would have been sad but not unexpected. That sort of thing gives you a chance to prepare, to the extent that anyone can prepare for such a thing. There was none of that with this. It was regular life - not really thinking about anything, planning a visit "when I have time" that I probably wouldn't have bothered to make, fully expecting that I would have a window to make time and plans before I'd lose the chance entirely.

Life lesson: Waiting until "when I have time" will screw you all the way over.

There will always be the memories. The several times that my grandfather has made it down to visit my family in the Southeast, I've had the opportunity to sit down with him and just let him talk. As with many people who have Alzheimer's, his memory of the distant past was still sharp and vivid, and the stories of his time in the Navy and all of his adventures afterward were fascinating. It was also a time to get close to him that I usually didn't have; family gatherings on my dad's side tend to be fairly crowded and bustling, and being able to sit down at the kitchen table and drink the Scotch he wasn't supposed to be allowed to have and hear stories and talk about his favorite Gilbert and Sullivan shows was a gift. His more recent memory was waning, so I'd sometimes hear those stories two or three times in a sitting, but it was always with the same enthusiasm. And during not one of those retellings did I have a recorder on hand to commit it all to mp3.

Life lesson: Eventually, we'll all just be stories that someone remembers.

There's a selfishness to grief. Situations like this one are always all about supporting others, of course, and kind of mentally prioritizing the stricken-ness of the grievers and assigning appropriate responses and support efforts accordingly. But when the top-tier grievers appear composed and fairly level, when you're in the car and nobody's talking, when you're by yourself right before bed, those are the times that the selfish grief comes in and "this weekend isn't all about you" fades away. My future husband and children will never have had the opportunity to meet my awesome granddad. When I go to family gatherings, he won't be there in his big green chair, sitting quietly and pretending to listen to what was going on but really catching little to nothing of it because he was too proud to wear a hearing aid. The part of him that touched my life won't be there anymore, and because he slipped out of my life so quickly and suddenly and without warning, it's hard to process it all, because there's nothing to add permanence to it. It's easy to pretend that he's just taking a nap or out for a walk and will be back any minute to complete the cast of characters so that a family gathering is exactly as it's always been. There's also the self-indulgent guilt - that I didn't make it up to visit, or even have best intentions, before this happened; that I'm not sure how I'm supposed to be feeling and that some of my feelings are certainly wrong; that all I want to do is talk about my feelings when Granddad's own children are hurting, I'm sure, far worse than I am.

Life lesson: It's not all about you.

Doug mentions that someone with Granddad's resume deserves a better passing than he got, and to some extent, that's true. We all talk, and sometimes joke, about the kind of death we'd prefer to have. Usually, preferences fall into either the blaze-of-glory category or the peacefully-in-my-sleep category, assuming that the latter would involve some measure of health, vitality, and self-sufficiency that dignity would be preserved. I don't have any statistics on the matter, but I'm willing to bet that very few people actually get to go that way. If you're lucky(?) enough to live that long, longevity inevitably outlives bodily integrity, and you're bound to end up with tremors and aches and loss of memory and loss of control over bodily functions, not to mention the attitude society takes toward people who have those things. In that respect, I think Granddad could have certainly gone out worse; from what I'm told, his suffering was no more than a groan and a fall, after which he was never revived, and I like to think he never really had a chance to appreciate pain or fear before it was over.

As with some others, I'm not afraid of dying. Moving from the state of being-here to not-being-here appears, on the surface at least, to be a fairly simple process. My fear is what happens before that. I'm afraid of that breakdown. I'm afraid of things like Granddad's loss of mental acuity. I'm afraid of being in pain for a long time, or a short time, before I go. I'm afraid of watching my friends and family grieve (should I be lucky enough to have those) and knowing that, once I'm gone, they'll continue to hurt. And as silly as it sounds, I'm afraid of all of my history that is likely to come out in the aftermath; not that I have a whole lot of dirty secrets, but I hate the idea that the idea of me that people will carry might be marred with something that wouldn't be comforting to them. Not that I'd know at that point.

I'm not sure what the point of this was. I think I intended it to be a bit of a salute to Granddad's life, and then it evolved into my own self-indulgent ramblings about my feelings on his death. So I'll close with this: My grandfather, even when he knew little else, knew all of the words to "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" from Pirates of Penzance. He loved his wife dearly. He was indescribably proud of his kids. When he got grandchildren, he learned to hug. He adored and was adored by my great-grandmother, who could be a difficult person to like. He loved children and was always talking to little kids in carts at the grocery store, even when their mothers started looking at him sideways. He used to have the world's sweetest golden retriever, named Happy because when they were first bringing her home, he asked my grandmother, "Are you happy?" and she said yes, and then the dog poked her head between them, and he asked, "And are you happy?" and she licked him. When they lived in Virginia, his license plate read "Fiz Pop" because my dad's plate used to read "Fam Fiz" (family physician), and I never even figured out what it meant until I was probably in college. He used to brag about not having a "captain's belly" that hung out over the top of his pants, when the only difference was that he wore pants big enough to go around his belly and needed suspenders to keep them up. Those suspenders were actually braces, though, because suspenders were what men used to use to keep their socks up. He was left-handed as a child, but his teachers forced him to write right-handed, and my dad says that's why he now has a bit of a lisp. He lost the heel of his shoe when he was in the Navy because he was hooking up the catapult to a plane and the pilot turned on the engine, nearly taking more of Granddad than just his shoe. He always, always wore a flat cabby cap when he left the house, thus the loaded hatrack Doug has at the top of his post.

It's so easy to throw out cliches - it's not how you die, it's how you live; you'll never be truly dead as long as people remember you - and to some extent, they're true. Once you're done with your life, it belongs to other people to do with as they choose. But memories of a good life lived often underscore one point: There will be no more of them. The fact that the memory factory is now closed and all models are out of production is unfair and painful. But my plan is to keep the ones I have shiny and well-maintained, out of direct sunlight, with a coat of wax on the paint and a coat of leather conditioner on the seats, so that when I bring them out and show them off, everyone will remember how great they always were and get nostalgic about the glory days. Because that's what Granddad deserves.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On liberal elitist groceries

Okay, so I'm a little bit late to the game here, but I did want to comment on the recent spate of criticism against Barack Obama: that he tops his burgers with snooty foreign mustard in a direct and probably intentional slight against the common, yellow-mustard-eating American man.
From the May 6 edition of Fox News' Hannity:
HANNITY: And finally tonight, as you all know, President Obama is a real man of the people. And yesterday he dropped by a popular Virginia restaurant to grab a burger with his pal Joe. Now, the Gateway Pundit blog pointed out that plain old ketchup, well, it didn't quite cut it for the president. Now take a look at him ordering his burger with a very special condiment.

OBAMA [video clip]: All right. I'm going to have a -- just your basic cheddar cheeseburger, medium well. I just want mustard, no ketchup. If you've got like a spicy mustard or something like that, or a Dijon mustard, something like that.


HANNITY: All right, I hope you enjoyed that fancy burger, Mr. President.
[All emphasis mine, all the way to the end]


From the May 6 edition of Talk Radio Network's The Laura Ingraham Show:

INGRAHAM: I don't even like the way the man orders a hamburger. You're listening to The Laura Ingraham Show. What kind of man orders a cheeseburger without ketchup but Dijon mustard? See, he was trying to do this whole thing with Biden -- "We're like the regular people, we're like every other guy, you know, with our -- on our lunch break, we're going to go grab a burger, two guys, two bros." No --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And a bottled water, what?

INGRAHAM: Well, we're gonna -- we're two bros hanging out together all right, man? How was your day? I love you, man. I love you. The guy orders a cheeseburger without ketchup? What is that?

OBAMA [audio clip]: I mean, that's nice.

I know, for real, right? A burger without ketchup? What's next, chicken fingers without honey mustard? What's it gonna be, prissy man? Huh? Huh?

From the May 7 edition of broadcast of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:

STEYN: It was wonderful watching the coverage of the hamburger visit. He's amazing, Obama. This coverage -- he's a regular guy. He eats a hamburger with Dijon mustard -- Dijon mustard. John Kerry couldn't get away with that stuff, but he makes it seem like just like a regular thing to do. Now there's -- I see that some of the left-wing commentators are saying, "Why are people making a fuss about the Dijon mustard?" but that's just an example of the way Obama is able to enlighten us.


STEYN: [...] Barack Obama -- that was -- what was that? That was yesterday, Barack Obama had a hamburger. I don't know what he may do today to prove -- to pass for human.

Like spicy mustard is a regular thing to do, like he thinks he's a normal person. I bet those construction workers who came into Subway the other day adding spicy mustard to their five-dollar footlongs thought they were "normal people" before they hopped in their Escalades and drove back to their construction site, confident that their $7.39 meal would get them through an afternoon of snootily running shiny copper pipes and covering themselves with elegant drywall pixie dust.

This isn't the first time Obama has screwed up on the food issue. Early May brought us his challenges with the "Bubba Gap" issues because of something I don't entirely understand about beer and lettuce. He made the mistake of referencing the fancy, unattainable leafy green arugula in a recent visit with Illinois farmers.
“Although there are an awful lot of farms in Illinois, in the neighborhood where I live, the main livestock is squirrels,” said Mr. Obama, who lives on Chicago’s South Side. “So I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about agricultural issues.”

So the Obama campaign convened a Rural Issues Forum outside this central Iowa town, about 30 minutes from Des Moines. For more than an hour, he took questions about a smattering of issues. When the conversation veered away from farming – as it often did – Mr. Obama sought to steer it back to agriculture policy.


And the conversation returned to food and farms, including a question from one man at the back of the crowd who extended an offer to Mr. Obama.

“You can come and help me load hogs in the morning,” he said.

“You can tell that I’m dressed for it,” replied Mr. Obama, casually dressed in slacks and a pressed shirt.

Again, the crowd applauded and laughed. One line that landed a little flat, though, was when Mr. Obama sympathetically noted that farmers have not seen an increase in prices for their crops, despite a rise in prices at the supermarket.

“Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?” the senator said. “I mean, they’re charging a lot of money for this stuff.”

What an out-of-touch, rich-guy thing to say. I mean, talking about grocery stores! To people who grow food that goes into grocery stores! In a state where that snooty leafy green is widely grown! What the hell, man?

Here's the thing that gets to me about this whole kerfuffel, even outside of the fact that conservative commentators are so desperate for something to criticize about Obama that they'll pee themselves over his choice of condiments. What gets to me is this assumption that the average American is some sort of butt-scratching, monster-truck-rally-watching, tobacco-spitting, middle-school-education-having yokel who wouldn't know some uppity brown mustard from a hole in the wall - or, for that matter, that even said yokels wouldn't pick up a bottle of Dijonnaise at the Piggly Wiggly to spice up their hot dogs.

In their attempts to connect with the average, non-latte-sipping American, they patronize the hell out of us* by assuming the 21st century has yet to hit flyover country. We're expected to be head-scratchingly stymied at the mention of a salad green available on the salad bar at Ruby Tuesday or a mustard found in just about every grocery store and fast-food restaurant in the country. For we are just unfrozen cavemen, and their world frightens and confuses us. When we see food like Artisan Cheese Wheat Thins, Jell-O with antioxidants, and Cafe Vienna International Foods coffee on the shelf at the local Wal-Mart, we shrink back at the unfamiliar words and fear the exotic flavors. Our primitive minds can't grasp why Kroger would put parmesan and oregano in their store-brand pasta sauce.

But there is one thing I know: There's nothing more un-American than a cheeseburger medium-well.

*And when I say "us," I must note that I do drink lattes, but I like to think that my subsistence budget and Target wardrobe balance it out.

(h/t Pandagon.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

On pet doors that mysteriously let small creatures leave the house

Okay, so the newest shocking development in parenting is the recent discovery that, against all logic, pet doors let small creatures leave the house (best headline from the Miami Herald: "Pet Doors Prove to be a Portal to Danger for Children.")
More than a hundred children have died or been seriously injured in the last decade after squeezing through tiny pet doors and getting into swimming pools or other dangerous places, new research has found.

"What we see is a picture that's emerging which shows that the pet door is a really serious hazard in a home that no one has really had on the radar screen," said Sean Kane, of Safety Research and Strategies.

Really? I mean, I'm not a parent, so I really can't speak from an informed perspective on the subject, but as a pet owner, I know that pet doors are specifically designed to let things in and out of the house. The ABC News piece goes so far as to include video of a dog exiting a pet door, as if to demonstrate that things get out of the house when a pet door is installed. In that respect, a pet door can be likened to a cracked door or a slightly open window, both of which create openings in the side of the house that let things get outside, and as with those openings, precautions should be taken to prevent kids from using them.

I'll grant you that children sometimes fit through spaces that one would not expect a child to fit through. The video also shows a child climbing through a small pet door no bigger than a sheet of paper. But if you consider that in the not-too-distant past, your child was able to wriggle out of your vagina, which is (I'm guessing) far smaller than a piece of paper, it shouldn't be a huge shock.

Now, I'm not trying to blame any of these parents for what sometimes happens. A child's death is always a tragedy, particularly when it's one of those things that doesn't have a single and distinct entity to blame. We have a tendency, when something like happens, to try to find someone to take the blame, even when such a person doesn't exist. In the case documented by ABC, the Ranfone family is suing the makers of their pet door for selling a product that... does when pet doors do and lets an animal out of the house.

More secure pet doors do exist. Many pet-door manufacturers do make safer pet doors using magnets and electronic sensors that are touted as safer for children. These tend to be more expensive, which the Ranfone's lawyer inexplicably describes as "talking out of both sides of your mouth." Apparently it's unethical to charge more for a pet door that is more complex and costs more to produce. It's also, one can suppose, unethical to identify such pet doors as more child-safe, indicating to concerned parents that those doors are more child-safe. And it's apparently unethical to offer pet owners like me, who don't have children, less expensive non-child-safe pet doors while marketing the more expensive child-safe doors to people who have kids.

Safety groups are launching a public-awareness campaign to inform parents of the dangers of pet doors and the possibility that children can wriggle through, and I think that's great. There is absolutely no harm in letting people know that they need to take certain heretofore unanticipated precautions to keep their children safe. But people also need to know that sometimes, things that are safer cost more. A car with side-curtain airbags generally costs more without. Flame-retardant pajamas cost more than the ones you buy in bulk for $5 for three from China. And, yeah, pet doors with little electronic devices are going to cost more than pet doors without. This is not the manufacturer trying to screw you over; this is the manufacturer selling a product at a price relative to the cost of production.

So to recap: Pet doors let things out, children are things, and your child's safety may have to be worth a little more money than you previously expected. And maybe keep an eye on your kid.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

On gays settlin' down in Maine: "Wicked pissah," says Gov

Or, Constitutional Protection: Ur Doin It Rite

Okay, so today, Maine governor John Baldacci signed a bill making Maine the fifth state in the U.S. to approve gay marriage. The bill may still have to pass a "people's veto," a referendum whereby opponents would have to round up 55,000 signatures to get the law on the ballot, so it could be as late as next June before Maine gays have the opportunity to settle down. But the bill holds significance nonetheless, and not just because Baldacci signed it after many New England governors rejected similar bills in their own states.

Its significance lies in Gov. Baldacci's statement after he signed:
Later, in a telephone interview, he said, “It’s not the way I was raised and it’s not the way that I am.” He added: “But at the same time I have a responsibility to uphold the Constitution. That’s my job, and you can’t allow discrimination to stand when it’s raised to your level.”

Congratulations, John Baldacci, for getting it right. You're welcome to your personal beliefs, but when it comes down to it, your obligations as an elected official are to the Constitutional rights of your constituents. You can't allow discrimination to stand when it's raised to your level. Even if it's personally abhorrent to you (and I'm not accusing Baldacci of that; his views seem to extend only as far as "not the way I was raised"), your job is to uphold the Constitution, not enforce your own squidginess.

And the people of Maine will have the opportunity to have their say. It could be argued that they've already had their say, in that their chosen representatives in the legislature have voted on their behalf to pass the bill. But in a national culture that recently has put increasing emphasis on the rights of the people to influence legislature directly, they may (with enough votes) be able to speak their minds directly.
“Just as the Maine Constitution demands that all people are treated equally under the law, it also guarantees that the ultimate political power in the State belongs to the people,” [Baldacci] said in the news release. “While the good and just people of Maine may determine this issue, my responsibility is to uphold the Constitution and do, as best as possible, what is right. I believe that signing this legislation is the right thing to do.”

My feeling, of course, is that the Constitution does trump majority rule when it comes to issues like civil rights and arbitrary discrimination, and the voters always have the option to try and change the Constitution if they have a problem with that. But the point is that everyone will have a chance to have their say before the law takes effect.

Regardless. The Weather Channel predicts showers over Bangor through the end of the weekend, with sun and a few clouds throughout next week. When God sends a hurricane and a tsunami and swine flu to the great state of Maine to punish them all for bowing to teh homos, you'll hear it here first.

Well done, Maine state leg; well done, Gov. Baldacci; and congratulations, people of Maine.

Swine flu mentions to date: 3

On cute ad FAIL

Okay, so I haven't really made a secret of the way my skin crawls at bad advertising. Friends are always sending me links to ads that they find horrific, ostensibly to hear my opinion but really to hear my violently cringing reaction.

I've also made no secret about my disdain for "cute" ads. I use the quotes because "cute" ads are rarely as cute as the admakers intend - the idea is that if you throw a baby or a puppy in there, in or out of context, it automatically pulls on the viewer's heartstrings and entrances them into using their product. This is not the case. To repeat: This is not the case. If you decide to have your toddler do all of your voiceovers in a screeching monotone, your viewers won't be able to understand what he's saying and will probably turn down the volume anyway. One ad for a dry-cleaning service in Columbus offers to come to your home to iron your drapes - and closes with a shot of two fluffy, white lapdogs jumping into the truck with the VO, "Even your dog will like us."

WTF? Where did that come from? What was the leadup to the dogs? Where was the context? And most importantly, why the hell do I care what my dog thinks of my dry-cleaning service?

This is not to say that ads with cute things never work or never can work. Cute ads work all the time - when the cute is in context. Used properly, babies and puppies can be both adorable and effective. Take, for instance, this ad for Pedigree (and basically every ad that Pedigree has done in the past few years; they do it right. I always tear up):

Isn't that the most adorable thing? Few, if any, people can resist the adorableness of a fat little puppy. Even if you're not a dog person, watching a fat little wiggly puppy on TV is adorable. But the ad doesn't work just because of the cute. The ad works because the cute is in context - Pedigree really is for dogs, and so showing dogs in the ads makes perfect sense. The fact that they're cute dogs is a big bonus.

The E-trade baby is more of a stretch. What, precisely, does a baby have to do with investment banking? But if you're trying to emphasize the ease of using your service, putting it in the hands of a baby is a good way to do it (in the hands of a caveman, Geico? Not so much. It's all about execution). In this case, the random cute is offset by the fact that the baby is ridiculously precocious in a non-annoying way, the kind of baby you'd like to take down to the bar for a sippy-cup of lager and a round of darts.

But there are ways not to do it. One way, of course, is to blatantly rip off an idea that someone has already done, quite publicly and quite well. That's just a bad idea in general. But if you're going for the cute, make sure you land on cute - and not incredibly, unspeakably creepy.

Shudder. Again, it's about execution. Make sure that your CGI doesn't make the baby look like a deformed Verne Troyer. Make sure that the "baby's" laugh isn't stolen directly from Krusty the Clown. And for the love of all that's holy, don't make the baby say the word "mother-trucker."

This is why it's been my refrain from the beginning: Local advertisers, you can't do it yourself. It looks easy, and I'm sure you have some great ideas, but people go to school to learn how to do these things. Dip into your pockets, beef up your advertising budget, and hire a decent agency who won't go turning your toddler into a midget Picasso with a potty mouth. Because that mess just isn't cute.