It’s Not That Simple

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In America we try and draw lines: this is always right, this is always wrong. I grew up thinking that was the way things were.

But it’s not that easy. Life is much more nuanced. Sweeping statements only make sense if you don’t know very many people that you are making sweeping statements about.

We crave simplicity. And some things are better simple. But I think one of the reasons that we long for simplicity – whether that is slowing down, downsizing, or enjoying the simpler things is because we know that life is complex and it stresses us out.

Sometimes, I think we get it backwards. We complicate the parts of life that should be simple by overcommitting and overbuying and try to simplify the parts that should be complex by trying to find the easiest solution for difficult societal problems.

It’s easy to complicate what should be simple because it takes no effort – it is difficult to choose to step back. It’s easy to assume creative solutions to complex issues don’t lie with us because we don’t want to think about them.

Let’s work to keep the two separate.

Theoretical Activism

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There are a lot of opinions going around. People express them on social media and debate in online forums. Some of these even carry over in person.

Sometimes, this can be fun. Especially when it comes to theories of government and international relations, and even Blackfish and environmental issues I love to throw out ideas and hear other people’s thoughts on them.

But I am speaking theoretically.

I forget sometimes to clarify and a friend recently expressed frustration that not only had I contradicted myself in one discussion (online – so vague anyway) but he was really confused where the heck I was even coming from. Reading back over the comments a second time, I realized what had happened : I was speaking theoretically the whole time while he was talking about absolutes.

So the fact that I had contradicted myself was nothing to me – I meant both statements – I was saying “what if we tried this? Oh you think that’s a bad idea – okay – well what about this?” So in my head it’s all theoretical.

But in general, when someone posts something online, I have come to realize they aren’t speaking theoretically – most of the time it’s their opinion.

So I’ve stopped getting into discussions online. There isn’t any point in it. I’m not going to change anyone’s opinions of anything if that’s a strongly held belief. Even if I think it’s largely theoretical.

Government policies and politics are like that in my head. We have in the States a two hundred year old experiment. Does it need constant tweaking and changing for our time? Absolutely. Do I know how to do that without creating utter chaos? Absolutely not. I studied International Relations, not domestic government. But I have seen things around the world that work and things that don’t. Things that work well in one culture that wouldn’t in ours etc.

But policy on the academic level is like that – you aren’t ever going for the absolute end all perfect. It’s always going to need updates, tweaks and changes. It’s not Rocket Science – an equation isn’t going to appear to magically cure all issues.

But imagining and discussing possibilities – throwing them out in transit forums and city government issues – sometimes people will consider it – and it starts slow change.

Maybe that’s what it is to be an active citizen – to be involved on the local level and look for things to affect there. Sure – go vote – but maybe it’s not worth getting worked up about things at a national level (that we have zero control over) if we aren’t involved in the small scale – where we are and where we could actually affect something.

But again – this is all my speaking in theoretical ideas. Anyone have more thoughts?

Guns & China Robberies

I noticed a top ten posted on a friends page today, it was the top ten reasons to vote Democrat by conservative author Allen West.

I don’t know who Allen West is – and to be honest, I don’t really care. I vote all over the place, for Republicans, Democrats and everything else and check “other” as far my own personal politics. I am always up for humor though, and usually enjoy good satire. This satire wasn’t very good, and listed the usual stereotypes about Democrats……which having many Democrats in my family, I will say is simply not true. But this one thing on the list caught my attention.

“6. I’ll vote Democrat because I’m way too irresponsible to own a gun, and I know that my local police are all I need to protect me from murderers and thieves. I am also thankful that we have a 911 service that get police to your home in order to identify your body after a home invasion.

”

I will be the first to admit that I lean left on guns. Even though I am from Texas and my immediate family (siblings) owns like an arsenal. I’m not against them for recreational hunting however. I’m more just for keeping them out of the cities and making sure they are all registered and locked up, so small children can’t accidentally hurt themselves.

The statement above is part of a cultural myth – and in it, there is the deepest echo of another truth – so first the myth and then the truth, and then how I came to where I am on gun control. (And by gun control – I do not mean taking away everyone’s guns – we are in general far too absolutist on this issue).

The myth is that in a break-in one person must die. Over stuff.

The truth is that since we think this way, we believe this to be true and it results in more armed robberies all around.

How did I end up with these thoughts? By being robbed.

Back when I was single and living in China my apartment was robbed. I remember having an eery feeling, as if I was being watched (I had the window open because of the heat) earlier in the day while I was working at my computer. When I came home, my computer was gone, as well as cash, credit cards and my plane tickets to go home that summer, among other things. I called the cops, and they came and spent a while investigating the apartment, found the thief had left a handprint on my window and took the window down to the office for questioning. (In its place there was a bamboo shade – I think they figured everything of value was gone already?)

They then questioned me about my IKEA chair, taking turns trying it out and asking how bad the shipping fees are from Guangzhou. i think IKEA owes me for a few sales that night. They then put dust on the floor for footprints (?) and left. Ah China – always an adventure.

I bring this up not to make fun of the police – I was grateful for them and despite their somewhat interesting ways, later they did catch the thief. I taught in China four years and this happened during the third. It is the only time something like this occurred.

I would much rather be robbed in China than in the US. Mainly because China has strict gun control.

I was never – even when I flipped the switch saw my apartment and thought for a moment that the thief might still be there – never worried about dying. Nor did I have to make the choice to take someone’s life for stuff.

The thief had calculated when I wouldn’t be there. He wasn’t looking for a confrontation. If he had come in with a knife and I had done exactly what I did – which was grab my wok – chances are I would still be alive and so would he. I was in an apartment building. People would have heard the noise.

I went back to the states that summer. Many were bewildered that I was going back. What about assault and no guns? Well – it’s China, and the apartment building I switched to at the end of the semester had a gate guard who paid really close attention to everything. What about murder? Again – unlikely. Taking someone else’s life – over stuff – not ever a position I would want to be in.

I don’t know how to use a gun well enough to not run the risk of hurting myself and someone else. And having a gun doesn’t mean you can get to it in time, and doesn’t guarantee it won’t be used on you instead. Or someone in my family accidentally shooting themselves or someone else – also possible. My great Uncle, who was a good hunter, actually died in an accident and another of my cousin’s was shot randomly in a drive by. It’s Texas.

Being in a country with no guns, but a wok on the table right by the door – that was comforting.

So all that to say – that’s how I got there. Stats back me, but I am sure others will have conflicting ones. As a nation – we don’t care about stats. And this wasn’t ever about stats. Thats not how I got there.This wasn’t a cerebral argument. It was one of the heart – I am so grateful that happened there and not here.

Longing

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It was a bit of a rough day.

There are days when I am fine. When America is okay, and I don’t mind my life here now. There are good days when I really enjoy my life here and now.

And there are bad days. Those days hit unexpectedly sometimes – they are like a ton of bricks just gets dropped on you and you feel like you are suffocating.

I find it often happens when I dream of Asia. Because I do – often. I am asleep and back somewhere in Japan, China or Thailand (the most common anyway) and then I wake up.

And I’m here. And I don’t want to be – and that moment of waking is horrible – because I just want to go home.

Wherever home is. Right now I have no idea where that might be.

The odd thing I realized – is that I can’t remember ever dreaming of America like this while I have been gone. The exception to that is Alaska and Hawaii I do think/dream/catch images of briefly and miss.

Even though I have never lived in Hawaii.

I finally realized what it is – its color, beauty, smells, vibrance and vividness. Texas doesn’t have much of that.

I wonder if that is why as a kid, years after coming back from Ghana I could still picture the jungle in all its beauty. There was something rich, vivid and alive there in the colors of the jungle – the banana and mango trees right outside the door, the smell of the earth right after a rain. The sound monkeys and birds in the nearby trees. Do you ever stop longing for some of those places? Does it ever go away?

But maybe I don’t really want it to – because the memories remind me that I was there. They remind me how much I loved those places. Maybe being okay with the occasional pangs is good.

Because it just means I was there – and I loved it.

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Taxes

April 15 is that day every year when Americans get to file their taxes. I have seen a lot of posts going around about how awful this is. I would disagree. 

Look at it as membership. We pay membership to lots of things so we can enjoy its benefits. If we don’t get our monies worth on our memberships, we can always go somewhere else. 

There are a lot of things that the US government could do better. The citizenship here is great for middle and upper class. It isn’t very poor friendly at all. But rather than spend time on that – perhaps it would be good to be grateful for the good things that the tax system helps to fund:

1) Potable water.

2) Smooth roads.

3) Building codes.

4) Sewers.

5) Public schools.

6) Military.

7) Safety regulations. 

I have been in a lot of places where some-to-many of these were missing. And we don’t think much about them until they are gone. Do you know what it can be like to have no fire code? Or roads built haphazardly? No public education? No potable water? 

It’s doable, but not as easily. More of our day disappears as we are boiling water and vegetables. More money disappears to pay for education in expensive private schools. More care has to be taken not to step into open sewers on the streets. 

Could we do better? Of course! We can always do better. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate what we have already. Rather than griping about the government, perhaps we should show up on our local level and be grateful for what we have. We can always improve. Government is largely experimental – we try and some things work. Some don’t. 

So lets be grateful for the good we have and look toward the small ways we can improve in our communities. 

The Never-Ending Move

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So we moved into a house on base nearly two weeks ago. The never ending boxes seems daunting. Just when I finish one room, I find another box that has been mislabeled and needs to go in that room. I have been “done” with the kitchen about five times now.

Moving with a one year old has been an adventure. Most unpacking has to be done during nap time and after he goes to bed.

Part of the problem is that we are downsizing in this move. After 4 1/2 years in Japan, we decided too much junk piled up in our apartment there and so we intentionally chose a smaller one here. So I am getting rid of a lot of unnecessary stuff that piled up after living in Japan for 4 1/2 years. Sometimes I wonder if the government would be better off storing our stuff in the States and giving us furnished apartments overseas, like they do for diplomats.

The problem with the moves and stuff is that stuff that worked in one place, house and country no longer works. Everything ends up having to be redone. So then you end up searching for shelving that fits in your new place to accommodate things that fit just fine in your old place.

It would be nice if there was one universal floor plan that worked everywhere. But there is not. Our furniture is mostly from IKEA (tells you what quality it is) which is about as universal as you can get – however, our bedroom furniture – one bed two nightstands, a mirror and a dresser doesn’t fit. The dresser is in the “office” (we have 2 1/2 bedrooms – which I didn’t know existed until this move – the office is a little bigger than a walk in closet) because it won’t fit in the bedroom.

Some observations:
1) In America, we generally have more usable wall space. I think this might have been because of the earthquakes in Japan.
2) There are also more closets.
3) There are ceiling fans in every room in Texas. Helps to save on air-conditioning.
4) America has more wasted space. The room layout sometimes doesn’t make much sense why the extra floor space in the bathroom? It’s not like you can put anything there. Japanese homes are much more logical – likely due to density issues.
5) Car-centrism is an issue. One of the reasons we moved on base was the bike path out the back door which is separated from the road. It’s a great place to (safely) take Jared for a ride. In the regular city, this is unusual.

These are all things that make furniture – and furnishing a place – which is necessary – more difficult. This is one of the reasons I like the idea of pre-furnished. That way everything fits in the space as it is designed to do.

Just random thoughts as I continue the unpacking…….of course I neglected to mention the biggest reason it’s taking so long: there are just too many interesting books I’d rather read and bike paths to explore. So…….procrastination?

When Laws Make You Fat

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Having recently returned from Asia, one of the most baffling things about the US is the isolation. The US has very little sense of community, and people in the same community are incredibly isolated from each other. We lived in an apartment complex for five months before moving onto base and I never learned the names of any of my neighbors; in fact I never saw them that I know about.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this life was the lack of local stores. There was nothing nearby. Nothing. You are forced to drive miles out of your community in order to shop. There is nothing close enough to walk to.

In China, right outside the gate of my apartment complex – actually sharing the bottom floor with the first floor residents was a series of little shops. There was a congee (breakfast soup) cafe, a mini-grocery, and a clay pot restaurant all within a minute’s walk out my door. In Japan, right outside the base were all night combini’s – which are little groceries that you can buy sushi and fried rice at any time of day or night. When I lived for a short time in off-base housing in Sasebo, Nagasaki I had no vehicle and made my nightly walk to the grocery store after class ended at night when the fresh foods of the day dropped to half price. The grocery was five minutes walk. The rice bowl restaurant where I regularly had dinner was three minutes away.

For a while, I didn’t understand this dissonance. There is nothing nearby. I have never seen this in any other country I have been in (I am sure there must be others; but I just haven’t seen it) from Canada (the parts I have been in – seems like there are likely places in Canada that would have the same issues) to Mexico to Thailand and around Southeast Asia to Holland to Ghana – this is not the norm.

As I looked into it more, the compulsory zoning laws of the US that cropped up in the 80′s are largely to blame. They separated neighborhoods from commerce making it illegal to have a local grocery store in your neighborhood or anywhere near your apartments. These forced people into their cars to drive to larger stores located miles away. Kids were sued for having lemonade stands on their street corners. Neighborhoods did away with sidewalks as there was no longer anything to walk to.

Is it any surprise this coincides with the rise of obesity in the US? Correlation is not causation to be sure – and there are many, many contributing factors to the rise in obesity – but really – when we took away a local, healthier option within in walking distance and forced the public into vehicles and congestion isn’t it logical that the general population would gain some weight?

It’s funny how I hear Americans defending the so called “free market” in the United States. What free market? We don’t have one.

Again, correlation is not causation, but since our whole system in the US is experimental anyway, what is the harm in relooking at some of these laws? Asking questions and perhaps revisiting them, maybe even revoking some of them.

Show up at your local zoning meetings and ask questions. It never hurts to ask.