Sunday, May 31, 2009

Simply Unconscionable

As many have probably heard by now, Dr. George Tiller has been murdered in his own church today, most likely by a right-wing extremist. Dr. Tiller happened to perform abortions, including some of the extremely rare late-term abortions in the U.S. Though abortion is legal, there are clearly many in America that would rather scare women and their doctors back into the dark ages in terms of reproductive care. Gruesome images of aborted fetuses, 24-hour surveillance of clinics, and websites dedicated to outing anyone who visit those clinics are only some of the scare tactics these nouveau-fascists use to intimidate and harass. Their callous disregard for human life around the world and laser-focus on abortion smacks of hypocrisy at best and mindless, savage hatred at worst. Their "pro-life" stance extends only to abortion, not to real issues that would save lives around the world or improve the lives of people suffering here in the U.S. 

Anti-choice activists lack of nuance and understanding is most clearly shown in their disdain for sex education and attempts to block any sort of abortion rights or access. There will always be the need for abortions. While the number will fluctuate over time, it has overall decreased significantly since the 1980s even as the U.S. population has increased rapidly. With better sex education and improved birth control methods, that curve is likely to keep declining. Women would much rather be able to use the variety of birth control methods to keep from getting pregnant rather than have to resort to abortion. Abortion is often the last resort of people who simple had no other option. Those with any empathy at all can imagine an infinite number of situations where a woman would not be able to access or utilize birth control. Lack of affordable birth control is one of the major reasons that the vast majority of abortions are received by poor and low-income women. Other countries handle this better by providing free access to birth control and training on how to use out. However, even the most effective birth control isn't fool-proof and accidents will happen. Women and their doctors should have all the tools available to make the right decision for them. This is not simply a matter of morality and common sense, this is a matter of women's basic human rights. 

Goodbye Ambush

I got the news yesterday that the last of my childhood family pets was going to be put to sleep.  This was something my parents saw coming and they weren't sure he would make it through the summer. He still had a good quality of life up until the last few days, and for a cat that it is 17 years old that is pretty remarkable. I thought I would just jot done some of my many favorite memories about Bush (pronounced Boosch). Bush was the first and only pet that was actually my own. Even though he gave his affection to anyone and everyone, I always felt that he and I had a special connection. The world is a little less bright today knowing he is gone. 

When we first went to pick up he and Stormy, it was a bright summer day and we were excited to get them. The woman giving away the cats had about 5-6 kittens and so my mom let Aramie and I pick. All of the kittens, but one, were in the house and Aramie picked the cutest female gray tabby. The woman said that Radio (as they called him, due to the pointy bits of hair sticking out of the end of his ears) was out back up in a tree. While I knew the name would have to change, I also knew that sounded like my kind of cat.  I quickly went outside and climbed up the tree to where he was. Bush looked a bit stuck and was just at the edge my reach. I was able to coax him in a little and then snatch him and hand him down to the lady whose house it was. I was so excited and couldn't wait to get him home. 

From then on, Bush and Stormy were inseperable and were both extremely loving cats. Stormy was always gentle and would just come lay with you and never asked for more than she was given. Bush was the best combination of sweetness and stupidity. Very often you would hear a crash somewhere in the house and then have him run by you, either completely soaked or covered in a fine layer of dust or food. You would then find the source of the mess as some upended plant or some knocked over school project. 

Bush also took great joy in lying on your reading material. My dad would often sit on the floor and read the newspaper. We have a particularly great photo of him reading the paper one day with both cats lying contently on his back. Bush just wanted to be wherever his people were and wanted to let them know he was around.  Sometimes he would lie down on the newspaper (or on puzzles) because he loved the way it felt on his belly. 

He was always gentle and always loving. One of his favorite ways to show affection was to bump heads with you as you lie in your bed. And he had a hard head. Of all his behaviors, this is the one I will remember the longest and most fondly. It was just so cute and he always looked so happy after butting heads. He also had effective ways to wake you up if he wanted to. He would drive his nose between your neck and the pillow and lift, instantly waking you and then he would give a big smile and start purring like "Oh, you're up! What a coincidence, I am ready for attention!" He would also do this funny thing where he would open his mouth just a tiny bit and then push it against the back of your head. This also would wake you up with a start. 

He always decided to lay in strange places that didn't seem terribly comfortable. One of the strangest and cutest was on the back of my computer chair...when I was in it. It meant that he was actually lying across my shoulders but just happened to have the back of the chair there so he wouldn't fall. I would be working on papers, playing video games, or searching the internet; he would come and find me and take a nap. One thing about Bush lying on you is that he generated an ungodly amount of heat. He was like a walking heating pad. After lying on you for 10 minutes or so you had to make him change positions because he would get so hot. Also, as he got chubbier he got a lot heavier. When he would jump on the bed and start walking up, yowling the whole way, as soon as he stepped on you, you knew it. He had broad paws, but they still couldn't spread out the weight enough not to hurt. There were many times I thought he ruptured my spleen or broke a testicle after one carelessly placed step on his part. There were also many nights where I would wake up and see him standing on Heather's back. Heather would be kind of whining and trying to move, while still sound asleep, and Bush would be looking at me like "Is she going to stop soon?" 

While Bush could often just settle down and sleep sometimes, it was difficult to get him to settle. Once that would happen he would display some of his more annoying behaviors including whipping his tail and yowling. If you disturbed the position in which he was laying, he would began slapping his tail against the offending party in an irregular but consistent pattern. I would then try to hold the tail in my hand or tuck it under his body; both of which would cause to him to pull on his tail until it was free, either because I had fallen back asleep or because he won the tug-of-war. The yowling would come whenever he felt he had been slighted or was just generally confused. Heather and I have many shared memories of him loudly coming down the stairs into the basement and upon reach his destination going "Rawour! RAWOUR!" until he was acknowledged. Sometimes his behavior was bad enough or we needed sleep enough that we would push him off the end of the bed. At first he went fine. Then he began learning tricks to avoid this scenario. My personal favorite was a combination of Judo and pure speed. As I would start pushing him off the bed, Bush would shift his weight and dart up to the head of the bed and begin yowlying pitifully as if saying "It wasn't me! Just let me stay!"

Bush was the kind of cat that made people who hated cats to at least like him. There definitely was something doglike about his straightforward manner and often doofy personality. He liked weird things like having his hips slapped. He would hold on tight to the legs of the slapper and then would look up and cry when they would stop. It was by far his favorite type of attention. People always found it so hilarious because it seemed like such a strange behavior. Bush never withheld attention as other cats do, I don't think the thought ever even crossed his mind. He always gave all that he could and asked for as much attention as you could give him. 

Bush, you will be greatly missed. I can't imagine ever having another cat so smart at being so dumb and so easily lovable. We had you 17 years, since I was 9, and even that wasn't enough... Goodbye.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A World of Gray

Contrary to the views of many, one of the biggest signs of political maturity, for me, is not moderation of your views over time but understanding that issues are much more complex than how they are presented. We often hear about issues at their lowest common denominator; with only buzzwords and soundbites to think about. People often discuss that the truth is somewhere "in the middle" between two perceived extreme positions. Often reality lies somewhere else completely. For nearly all issues of importance, there is no simple dichotomy of options. While most people lack the time or the incentive to come to fully understand the complexities of a particular issue, it is easy to understand how people increasingly talk at each other instead of to each other. When people are coming from completely different world views with large informational asymmetries, it is difficult to have a serious discussion.

Part of this problem lies with the current media, but also schools at all levels, and our political leaders also don't make things any better. The American people are often treated as less capable and intelligent as they really are. I have often agreed of the sentiment that Americans are too dumb and lazy to engage politically. Though I believe this premise is off target. It isn't that Americans are either dumb or lazy; or if they are, it isn't because of their individual actions alone. Just as there are large structural factors that lead to poverty and poor health, there are equally important factors that lead to a lack of intellectual sophistication or a deep engagement with civic, social, political, and economic issues. Often the causes interconnect and compound each others. Some examples include poor quality schools, acute and chronic childhood stress, penalization of the working class and the working poor, and virulent economic and social inequality. These are just some of the many forces that stunt development and hinder progress throughout the life-course.

Until we come to understand the social causes and the social reasons, we will continue to "blame the victim", as it were. Your average American has little real training in critical thinking or even basic empiricism, and this hinders their ability to sift through the noise and then incorporate information into a coherent worldview. Often, they don't have the time either. Probably most importantly, having a complex understanding of a particular issue or set of issues does your average citizen little in the long run. Unless it is something they do for work, the knee-jerk reactionary position they read in a flyer or hear on the radio is sufficient to engage with the debate, even if superficially. Adding layers of complexity can even lead to a fatigue as you realize that the change you desire will require much more than a petition or a protest.  Part of this is also the way our political system is set up. A couple big reasons (which I have discussed in previous posts) include the lack of risks of non-voting and the much heavier time investment required for Americans than for Europeans in countries with parliamentary systems that have coherent party systems.

Next time you think "stupid Americans", take a step back and look at it socially. It is much better to think "why would someone believe/do/say this?” Once we come to see that peoples’ actions and views are the result of a multiplicity of forces and experiences, we can begin to empathize and identify that the ignorance is the problem, not that the person is fundamentally flawed. We all have the capacity to learn and grow. When I hear someone deride another as a hypocrite or a “flip-flopper”, I become uncomfortable. Has there not been a time when each of us has realized our previous view was flawed or inaccurate or that in practice some of our ideas are not practical or desirable. As one of my best teachers said “everyone has the right to be a hypocrite.” By this she meant everyone has the right to grow and change and even contradict themselves in life. When we begin to internalize that lesson we see that maybe things aren’t so black and white, for others as well as for ourselves. 

Six Months Down...Forever to Go

Last week I had my first Performance Review Group (PRG) at work. It was actually a really good experience and I couldn't be happier with the outcome. The PRG itself is the culmination of 3-4 weeks of preparation and ratings. The first step is a self-assessment which is then reviewed by my supervisor and their supervisor. Luckily, I have received lots of positive feedback since I started working and was told that there wouldn't be any surprises in my actual review. It is nice to have others agree with your own assessment of your work and accomplistments. 

Also very nice is the raise that accompanies each six-month review. Given the current economy, I almost feel bad getting a raise considering most people would be happy just to have a job. I guess that is one of the perks of being a fed. The whole process of the review and the subsequent feedback was really good. I think it is smart to have regular reviews and raises in the first couple years; both for the employee and for GAO. It definitely helps retain staff and can also help them identify when someone may not be a great fit. 

In other news at work, I got the opportunity to cover a Congressional hearing on a GAO report for our Congressional Relations staff. It was a fun opportunity and it was nice to be back on the Hill. It reminded me of all the time I spent there on my internship, and I was suprised that I still knew my way around pretty well. A couple days after the hearing I wandered back up to the Capitol after work and just walked around. It really is amazing to live and work so close to so much. Heather recently got an issue of a local magazine that was listing some of the reasons it is great to live in Washington D.C. One of the ones I really appreciated was "You can see the sky." Being from "the Big Sky State" (Montana) it is definitely something I appreciate. There is something nice about the limitations that the city puts on tall buildings. It certainly allows much more sunlight and fresh air to mingle with the sights of the city. 

Looking forward, I can see myself here for a long time. It is now to the point that I am completely used to my schedule and commute. I don't even have to think about it and I enjoy both being at work and my time off. I don't feel overworked and I also don't get bored. I guess my only fear is losing that hunger. I am afraid of getting too comfortable. That burning drive for progressive causes and social justice is something that must be continued and nourished. Luckily, there are lots of great opportunities, both with and outside GAO, to remain involved in such causes.