“This is so topical!” and chasing trends

I have seen several people on Twitter trying to keep tabs on everything President Trump has done in a given week. This really, really highlights the problem with trying to chase trends and write to be topical: by the time your sharp, satirical story is available to the public–even if you self-publish on the spot with minimal revisions, the more so if you revise and find a traditional publisher–there will be three, four, ten fresher outrages. What was the scandal or gaffe in the Trump presidential campaign a year ago? Too late now, onward.

Which is not to say that there’s no room for political comment, but the more specific it is, the worse it will age. There are times when things start to look specific in context–I trunked a partial story that depended on the villainy of deporting ethnic and religious minorities. I still feel that that’s pretty villainous, but the rest of the shape of this story was not meant to comment on the current regime, and there’s no way it won’t look like it was trying under the current circumstances. And with a story I did sell, the editor and I worked on it to make sure that incidental things I came up with in January 2016 did not look like heavy-handed references to the current day. Instead they are light-handed references to the current day! Much better. Seriously. Much.

I guess what I’m saying is: big ideas weather better than small details. Principles weather better than current events in-jokes. “I am really mad at this current problem” is not the same thing as “I will cash in on this current craze”…except they lead to a lot of the same pitfalls, so tread warily.

Preexisting

I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir with this, but the thing about preaching to the choir is that sometimes you get at an angle of analysis the choir hasn’t been using. I have heard a lot of “depriving people of health care is bad” arguments that are absolutely true, but not a lot of the following.

So let’s talk about preexisting conditions.

You know those commercials that tell you to tell your doctor if you’re suffering from dropsy, the vapors, or a dozen other conditions that make you think, “Shouldn’t my doctor know that already”? Under the current system, where people can’t be dropped from all insurance possibilities based on a preexisting condition, those notifications are necessary because record-keeping and institutional memory are imperfect. Your doctor should know that already, but they may now, so: probably mention it, huh.

But if you can be dropped based on a preexisting condition, it takes on a whole new meaning. “Tell your doctor if you have a history of respiratory infections”: right, so your doctor can write down “history of respiratory infections” in the course of figuring out what drug to give you for something different, and boom, there you are with that tag on you, and who knows what the consequences will be. Your doctor needs to know this stuff to figure out how to treat you–sometimes to figure out a subtle cause or contributing factor to what you have right now–but you suddenly have incentive not to tell them. Healthy as an ox, me, just this sprained ankle to deal with! Something very temporary! Oh please don’t tell them I have anything non-temporary. Please ignore the anemia. Do not test my thyroid. Forget the anxiety. I just won’t get treated for the life-altering allergies. Only deal with the condition I tell you I’m in here for. For heaven’s sake don’t run any tests because you caught a murmur listening to my heart or my blood pressure is behaving funny. That’s all the sprained ankle. Has to be. And let’s wait until whatever else there is has caused permanent damage, because that’s the point at which it’s too bad to ignore.

I’m not saying this hasn’t happened under the current system. It does. Of course it does. We should be moving away from it, not towards more.

And this is all bad enough when we’re talking about a heart condition, or depression, or, well, any of a number of things. But when we’re talking about something contagious, all of a sudden it’s more than a dangerous calculation for one person–it’s a dangerous calculation for the people around them, too. Is what you have bad enough to disclose and get treatment, or should you just cope with it and keep passing it along to others? I should not have to say that this is not a good system. This attitude often gets billed as “be a smart consumer of health care,” but in this case a stingy consumer of health care is the opposite of a smart one.

But that’s not the only thing pushing people toward dangerous medical dishonesty in the current political climate. There are lawsuits wending their way through the courts claiming that doctors should not have to treat people who have certain sexual orientations. So not only the questions that pertain to your sexual health but also the ones about the rest of your life health–“Do you feel safe in your relationships?” is one of my favorites–are now extremely dangerous. Not just for getting dumped from insurance, although let’s not underestimate the impact of that. But for being rejected for emergency treatment even if you pay the entire gigantic bill out of pocket.

Last week a family member made a Facebook post of a meme saying that while other people freaked out in favor of or against Donald Trump, he was just going to keep doing what he always did. The people who connect me to that family member each have quite large preexisting conditions that can no longer be hidden–one of them was treated on an emergent basis, both of them are in the records. And of course there’s me and my giant flashing neon sign that reads “preexisting condition.” So…”keep doing what I always do” is not actually a functional mode here for his own family. It’s certainly not a functional mode for the country.

Self-care and social media

Last weekend I was at ConFusion in Detroit, which I told you I would be. And it was lovely and I had a great time, hurrah. I will probably want to talk about some things inspired by the panels I was on or witnessed, but that’s in a little bit. Right now I wanted to say: I do not have the passwords to my social media accounts on my laptop, and on my phone I only have the password to my Twitter.

This is deliberate, and I wanted to talk about it this week especially. Not being on Facebook for the weekend of the inauguration was definitely what is known in technical terms as a really great thing. But even if it hadn’t been the inauguration specifically, I find that taking breaks from social media periodically is a good idea. It helps me to see what I might be taking for granted otherwise. It gives me mental space. When I’m traveling, I can’t default to doing the laundry/unloading the dishwasher/checking Slack/taking out the recycling/checking Facebook/etc. I have some separation from all of that. I try to be sparing in my use of Twitter at those times.

This is hard for people in my life to remember. “Did you see the picture of–” No. I didn’t. Because I’m not on social media when I’m traveling. “I really loved X’s post about Y, did you–” No. Not on social media. It’s not up to other people to keep track of my computer quirks. But what their comments do is remind me of how submerged in social media I can be on a regular day. How obvious it is that someone will have seen the picture of and read the post about. Because that’s what we do.

It’s not wrong that that’s what we do. Social media is not bad. But taking it for granted, never taking a moment to asses its role in our lives–well, I can’t think of anything that’s a good plan for.

Maybe if I had kept reading social media all weekend, the sheer volume of political speech going on at the moment would have crept up on me. I’m part of that; I have been more overtly political in public social media in the last year than ever before. But suddenly the Twitter feed that used to be book release/politics/cute dogs/science news/personal yammering is politics/books maybe/politics/politics/politics/oh please give me some cute dogs/politics. Should I curate it differently? Spend less time on it? I don’t know. But whatever the answer is, I should be aware of the shift in balance. I should arrive an answer that is conscious of where and how political energy/focus is expended and not confuse it for happy fluffy things or interactions with friends just because it’s coming through the same channel those used to (and may again).

Occasional breaks help me do that. And for me it helps that they are coincidental: not me sitting down with a schedule and saying, “This is the right time and the right duration,” but chance handing me the opportunity to reevaluate. Maybe it’ll work that way for you. Maybe it won’t. But I think we have a strong cultural bias at the moment that staying up to the minute on news is what smart, engaged people do, and I don’t think it has to be like that for every single minute. Sometimes rest, perspective, and a chance to look for depth are called for.

The work of optimism

My friend Fran Wilde said this week, “Do not hesitate to speak up for the reality you wish to live in. Don’t live in silence or fear. Those are really crappy universes.”

They are.

Having an optimistic imagination as a professional skill is hard work right now. It’s never actually trivial, but when the people around you are all muttering, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” and you know exactly what they mean, it’s hard to turn from that to creating entire worlds from scratch with hope as a major component.

Hard, but important.

Hard, but necessary.

But hard. Did I mention hard?

I’m working on three things at the moment, two of which have other people involved in one role or another, so that’s taking up a lot of my time and energy. And rightly so. But every day this week I have made sure to write some number of words on the third project, which is an optimistic science fiction novel.

That’s not to say that it’s teddy bear picnic science fiction. Lots of dreadful things happen. Some of the characters are–brace yourselves–not all that cuddly. But many of them–most of them–are making at least some effort to solve problems and treat each other decently. Even if they don’t always agree on what’s a problem and what’s a solution. Even if they don’t always agree on what decent treatment would entail. It is science fiction about people who are trying. It is science fiction for adults. About people who are trying.

Did I mention that this is hard work? because it is. And combining the difficulty of it with the other projects I have going on means that I’m not writing reams at a time on this thing. A couple hundred words a day is all I’m getting for now. But I can see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel with the other projects. I’m getting them toward a point where I can pass them back to the other professionals involved, and my main project focus can be optimistic science fiction novel for awhile.

And you know what? I think it’s good for me. I think that making this effort, doing this hard work–putting in the energy to imagine doing some good, putting in the energy to imagine doing better–is a bit like working out. You get better at it. You find more capacity in yourself the more you do of it. And you find more challenges, places where your previous skillset would have been insufficient, but now you can manage, you can just barely manage.

I know that some people find that writing about terrible universes is their way of trying to avoid living in one. And that’s fair. Saying, “OH GOD NOT LIKE THIS” is valid both as art form and as approach to improving the world, to the extent that the two are separable. It’s just that it’s not the only valid approach. And honestly right now I think it’s the easy way out, and if we’re going to have some balance, some of us are going to have to take the hard way. Some of us are going to have to imagine realities we would rather live in, and then speak up for them.

A little bit a day will do.

In a good cause: choices for Aleppo

Some of the most annoying words in the language are, “You know what you should have done….” Or, “You should just….” “Just.” There are some situations where “only” and “just” should be stricken from the conversation.

The crisis in Syria is on that list. The people who are on the ground there know what factors they have to deal with–their health, their resources, people who cannot be abandoned and need care–and the last thing they need is for me to sit here comfortably in my non-threatened home and tell them how things would be fine if only they’d chosen what I imagine I would choose.

Which is one reason I like the Karam Foundation’s Emergency Aid for Children of Syria. They have options to support the families who are leaving Syria as refugees and options to support the families who are staying under the airstrikes, where schools and hospitals are getting hit as well as homes and other institutions. Individuals and families don’t all have to make the same choice–they don’t all have the same choices. Stay or go, the situation is grim, and they need help.

The International Rescue Committee is also providing aid, and they give some really grim statistics about who has gotten out, who is still trying to, where the funds are. I just found out this morning that there is a friend-of-a-friend connection to this organization, and it looks like they do really good work.

One of the strangely hard things about writing these charity posts is that lecturing you about how bad things are is not my goal, and yet holy crud are they bad. This has all been understated, but it has to be; the situation is hard to overstate. So I’m choosing to focus on the organizations as much as I can: here, here’s a good bit, here’s a thing that will make a difference for somebody. It’s what I’ve got right now.

In a good cause: for science!

I suspect that everyone who reads this blog knows that science is a strong and passionate interest of mine. Science! Because it works! Science! Because it’s built to incorporate new information when new information is available, and to provide tools for making it available! Science! Well. I don’t think you’re the people who need convincing.

But there are people who need convincing, because our president-elect has just been making noise about “nobody knows” whether climate change is real. Oh, sure, nobody except a vast consensus of scientists and a still more vast consensus of scientists whose fields are relevant to it. And the people who listen to them and read their papers and look at data. But other than that, nobody.

It’s a really good time to support science with a public face. Science playing a role in civic affairs. Science trying to shake us all by the shoulders and say “LISTEN UP BUDDY THIS IS SERIOUS.” This is why this week’s charity Union of Concerned Scientists. http://www.ucsusa.org/ Tons of scientists doing tons of work in a democratic society, towards a democratic society. Worth the time and attention. Go. Support. For science.

In a good cause: autism resources

A lot of charities for health variants assume that those health variants are illnesses or disabilities. And a lot of them are. And some of them aren’t. One of my metrics for whether I’m willing to support a group that’s “about” autism is whether they automatically assume that it’s a disease, a disability, a flaw. I’m a non-autistic/neurotypical person, but I have several autistic people dear to my heart, and they’re different from me, not flawed in the way that my balance disorder is a flaw. They process differently than I do. I’m really glad to see the word “neurodiversity” in the world, because I think having different modes of thought, different perspectives, is a positive good, and some of those are about brain wiring, not just philosophy. Sometimes we’re using a metaphor when we say that someone sees the world differently. Sometimes if you’re measuring, for example, discrimination between number of fine lines per inch, it’s really quite literal and you can poke it. And seeing the world in more than one way helps all of us.

Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) is one of my favorite resources for this philosophy. With the motto “nothing about us without us,” they form a solid opposition to the kind of rhetoric that treats autistic people as objects, and inconvenient objects at that. Website is http://autisticadvocacy.org/

(I am putting websites in text right now because WordPress ate my link yesterday. Sigh.)

Autism Housing Network definitely inclines toward the portions of the autism spectrum that are more clearly disabilities, or at least are disabilities under our current society. But people with those types of autism do need choices for where and how to live as adults. http://www.autismhousingnetwork.org/ has been recommended to me as a good resource for people struggling with those choices.

I would be glad to hear about other organizations that support neurodiversity in our broader culture, with a clear focus on not treating difference as a problem to be eliminated or solved. Or, as always, any other charities near and dear to your heart can go in the comments section, too.

In a good cause: NoDAPL and other Native Rights

Sometimes the obvious thing is the right thing. The NoDAPL movement–opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline–is something a lot of my friends are thinking about, talking about, wondering how to help with. So it may seem a little obvious. But obvious is sometimes right. And I think that–for example–the difficulties of reservation law enforcement in dealing with white people who commit crimes on the reservation are not necessarily obvious to people who don’t want to think about it. They’re only well-known in certain circles. So: Native rights, justice for Native people both at Standing Rock and elsewhere: generally a good cause.

Let’s start with Native American Rights Fund. They support a broad range of causes–government accountability, preservation of resources, individual rights and justice–with an ongoing umbrella organization that will not only help the people at Standing Rock, they’ll help the people at the next Standing Rock. And try to prevent the next one from happening in the first place.

Last week for Thanksgiving there were several round-up posts about what you can do, if you don’t want to go from site to site. Here’s one. And another. Please remember that if you’re going to go participate in the protests yourself, you want it to be about what the people there need, not about your own spiritual journey. (Actually that’s a good focus for any charitable/volunteer work.)

There are also individual camps taking donations, so you can take your pick: Oceti Sakowin camp; Sacred Stone Camp; Standing Rock Rosebud Camp; Red Warrior Camp. And hey. This pipeline was judged not safe enough to go through the predominantly white areas–that is, not safe enough for my cousins. So why is it safe enough for someone else’s? It isn’t. This pipeline is being built by people with some of the worst oil pipeline leak records in the country. The other question to ask is: what have I done, actively, to be a good neighbor to my Indian/Native American/First Nations neighbors? Because we are long past the point where “I didn’t personally go kick them in the shins” is enough.

In a good cause: going on

I said I was going to make a post about charities each week until the election. And look, the election is over! I took a week to think about it, but I don’t really feel like stopping right now. I don’t really feel like now is a time when I feel less like promoting good causes to which you can donate time and money. So I’m going to keep going with weekly charity posts, because that’s the world we’re living in right now.

(You know what? These charities would still have been a good idea if Hillary Clinton had been elected. There is so much more that needs doing in the world than we will ever get done in one lifetime, even if each of us makes exquisite choices every single day from here on out. When you are disappointed, when you are elated: the work of the world will still need doing.)

So let’s talk about civil rights for Muslims in this country.The biggest Muslim civil liberties group, the one you’ve probably already heard of, is CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. They need non-Muslim support in addition to Muslim support right right now–they have for years. (Other groups are increasingly vulnerable, too. By all means recommend charities in case I don’t have your favorite one lined up for another week. Additional positive groups are always, always welcome in the comments.)

If you prefer to keep your charity work closer to home, keep in mind that your local Muslim cultural centers may be facing various problems in times when the US’s treatment of its Muslim citizens and residents is in the news. In Minneapolis area, there is, for example, the Islamic Center of Minnesota, which provides all sorts of community services (listed on webpage) for local Muslims. This sort of group providing a food shelf and burial services is exactly the sort that get targeted when racists decide they want to do bad things. If you’re able-bodied and able to help with counter-demonstrations, clean-up, etc., find the cultural centers in your area and keep them in mind when you read the news. Inter-faith (or interfaced faith-with-lack-of-faith, why not!) outreach shows that we believe in civil rights for everyone, that we cannot be divided so easily.

Here’s how broken our culture is: when I went to google “Minneapolis Muslim cultural center,” Google tried to autocomplete, “Minneapolis Muslim problems.” And for some reason they didn’t seem to think that “getting kid good ice time” and “finding halal Swedish meatballs” were the Minneapolis Muslim problems in question. Some people would like you to think that Minneapolis is a war zone, with our Somali neighbors trying to force their religion on the rest of us. Nothing could be farther from the truth. That’s fear and ignorance talking, not fact. It’s all very well to say “if there’s a registry for Muslims, I’ll register too!”, but if it’s an immigrant registry, that’s not going to help. CAIR and your local Muslim institutions almost certainly have some very concrete ideas about what will help. We’re all in this together. We always have been.

On preaching to the choir

I want to say some things to you about preaching to the choir.

I’ve heard that expression a lot the last few days. We all know what it stands in for. The choir is your core group of faithful. They show up every week. They know the message by heart. Preaching to the choir means that you’re not reaching anyone new, you’re not changing hearts and minds.

But sometimes.

You look through the choir and you will find some people who are exhausted. Some people who only made it because they gave their word they’d be there. They feel hopeless, lost. Some people are frazzled to a nubbin, and their choir robe is sticking to the syrup they spilled on their shirt at breakfast. Didn’t have time to change it and still get there. They got there. But they need what you have to say just as much as anyone who has never heard it before.

In our lives, we have very few conversion moments. Very few grand revelations. Today is probably not the day for yours, statistically, and there probably won’t be one tomorrow either. But there are a lot of moments when you shift a little. When you get a slightly different angle on something, and as it percolates through your mind, through your actions, you’ll get different angles on more. And one of the things this means is that we’re not lucky enough to help other people to epiphanies very often either. Demanding an epiphany out of everyone, every time is the path to disappointment. Quite a lot of time it’s the small things–the things that you and your choir might not line up on just exactly. Nobody agrees with any other person on everything. But sometimes you can show another person something smart and interesting and compassionate about one more thing.

A choir sings together. That’s a truism. But the most expensive recordings in the world, from the biggest recording conglomerates: if they want the sound of a choir, they don’t record a hundred people singing their parts separately and mix them. Not just because the tracks would be a nightmare. Because it wouldn’t sound the same. If you’ve ever sung with a choir, you know it’s not the same as singing along to a recording of a choir. You’re surrounded by people with the same aim as you, the same goal, and you’re working together to make it happen. Solo performances are powerful, and choirs are powerful, but we need both. And sometimes the choir needs to show up and listen together. Sometimes knowing that they’re hearing it together, surrounded by people with the same aims as they have in at least one area, makes all the difference in the world.

For most people, it’s easier to show up and sing in a choir than to sing a solo in the middle of a public place. And that’s okay. Not everybody has to have the chutzpah–or the talent–to belt out “O Holy Night” in the middle of the subway station. That’s not the shape of everyone’s contributions.

We have to remember, though: the choir is not there in this metaphor to listen. They will listen. But that’s not what makes them a choir. The choir is there to sing. I know this isn’t a home metaphor for all of you, but for those of us who have experienced preaching from the choir loft, we can all think of a time when it went on too long. When each of us–and every face in the congregation–yearned silently for the sweet release of the offertory.

So don’t castigate yourself for preaching to the choir. Just don’t mistake it for the only thing you could possibly do. Make sure you have something to say, bring them together, say it–and sit down, shut up, and give them the chance to sing.