Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Beauty Pageants Show the Ugly Side of Humanity

The other day, while addressing the Polar Vortex-induced roof leak that had seeped through the bathroom ceiling, I took a break in front of the muted TV. It was silently airing the kind of lame infomercial I usually channel past. The remote was out of reach so I just kept watching. What I saw felt so revolting, it shook me to the core.
Although I couldn’t hear what was being said, it was a safe bet the sponsors were hawking beauty products since it showed a series of ‘before’ and ‘after’ images of women. At first I was struck by how all the women in the ‘before’ photos were already beautiful. The only difference in the ‘after’ images was that they wore more makeup. No big deal, initially.
Then the scene changed. Now the same women were clad in two-piece bathing suits and walking across a stage in front of an audience, apparently competing in a contest. Although the sound was down, I dismissed that this was some straight forward beauty pageant since their swimwear was rather modest, compared to racier swimsuits I’ve seen in my day.
...After. No wait! That's prince not princess.
Sitting in silence, I thought about what brand of pageant it might be. Some scholarship-based competition, I guessed. Perhaps of the sort where competitors demonstrate how well-rounded they are in order to win. It was then that I began regarding what I was watching as repulsive. And it wasn’t because of anything the women were doing.
Instead I was revolted by the implication that in order for a woman to compete and win a scholarship or whatever, they had to show off their body. Oh, I’m sure pageant organizers crafted some mumbo jumbo in the contest rules that explained the swimsuit category as a physical fitness segment or other fabrication. After all, there was also baton-twirling and the obligatory ‘world peace’ statement each contestant was also required to make.
Still, watching the beauty infomercial unfold, I gained a deeper awareness of the truth and it was like having a bucket of cold water thrown on me. That’s because reality has been right there in front of me all along to recognize – except for the meta brainwashing by the male-centered cultural conditioning (i.e., patriarchy) I’ve undergone since birth. And unfortunately continue to experience.
Watching in silence reminded me of the disturbing reality that accompanied the TV images and it wasn’t pretty: sex sells. Admission: it’s not as if in my younger days I didn’t know the real deal about why pageants like Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Universe conduct swimsuit segments; I just rarely went there in my mind. Back then it felt right to watch women be depicted in skimpy swimwear for my (and other males’) “benefit”. After all, it was just the natural order of things, right? Wrong.
Frankly, I almost give a pass to pageants like Miss Hawaiian Tropic, if it’s still even around. Almost. At least the sponsor made no bones that their exploitive contests was all about sexuality and bodies. Oh yeah, and suntan lotion. But compelling women to undress to win a college scholarship and then insist it’s merely about eating right and working out is disgustingly disingenuous.
Maybe I’m all bent out of shape about this because my oldest daughter turned 18 last month, she’s knee deep in popular culture (which encourages female exploitation), and is about to leave the nest. In any event, I got up from in front of the TV to go look at something that, if not as attractive as the images on the screen, was at least more honest: the water-stained sheetrock decomposing on my bathroom ceiling.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Storms Can Bring Out the Best in People

Swing low, sweet weather pattern...
I call it PV-14. No, it’s not some video war game or a jet fighter designation. Nor is it the latest flu bug or computer anti-virus, for that matter. Polar Vortex 2014 is the bone-chilling, back-breaking, accident-inducing North Pole blast that put Michigan and a good part of the Northern U.S. in a deep freeze. We’re, quite literally, iced out. That’s good news too but we’ll get to that in a second.
               Polar Vortex. I first heard the term on the Weather Channel. Sounded kind of cool, excuse the pun. Some scientists call it a Polar Cyclone. For those who are elsewhere and unaffected by this frigid meteorological event, please refer to 2004’s “Day After Tomorrow.” That sci-fi weather catastrophe flick can help you to gain an admittedly exaggerated yet undeniably visceral appreciation of what we’re experiencing. Thank goodness I get my winter gear from LL Bean.
               From a social harmony point of view, this crazy cold climate has brought out the best in folks in my neighborhood. I’ve witnessed and even participated in random acts of kindness all along the avenue. Seems a human being’s levels of empathy, generosity and kindness spike when unexpected reversals of fortune occur. Especially when it involves weather or the environment.
A present help; can you dig it?
               What a difference a prickly weather system can make. We don’t need an attack by space aliens for us to all be on the same page, dang it. All we need is Mother Nature. Remember in 2011 when Battle Creek was pummeled by straight line winds, a tornado, or whatever weather people ended up calling it? People were giving of themselves like there was no tomorrow.
               Humans and our machines. I like to believe folks wielding their chainsaws and snow throwers with all the generosity of Santa Claus is more than a simple matter of neighbors having an excuse to show off their power tools.
               What drives an already hard working person like Kate to venture into harm’s way to dig out a friend stranded in the weather? After all, she no doubt had her own snow drama at home. How about Ron? This white-bearded fellow toiled for hours, along with others much younger in tooth, pushing vehicles out of ice-laden trouble. What compelled him to help people from their snowy mess, doing whatever it took to see car after car made its way to wherever? Shovel, elbow grease, cat litter; you name it, he provided it.
               There are others. Like Brent who insisted on loaning my mom his generator during the recent power outage. Or Mr. McNutt a few houses down. He works tirelessly each winter to clear the driveways of up to three fellow retirees not up to the task themselves. For nothing more than a thank you.
               Then there are people like my mother and late father, parents who modeled to me, my sister and others to help those in need. Why? Because you can.
Oh the weather outside is frightful...
It’s a pity other longer-term disasters, those of a social kind (poverty, hunger, homelessness, discrimination, bullying), aren’t met with the kind of urgency afforded more in-your-face emergencies. Like it or not, these social ills are equally threatening and speak to our humanity (or inhumanity) toward each other. And I’m not talking charity or check-writing. I mean rolling up your sleeves and working in the trenches.
               Still, there’s reason for hope. After all, Kate didn’t wonder if her friend could afford a tow truck, Brent didn’t ask about the color of my mom’s skin, and Ron didn’t care if those he helped were younger than him. They helped because it was the human thing to do.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Right Time is Now

Time slows for no one.
It’s 2014! Wow. Time flies. Another day, another year. It just keeps rolling by. And the older I get, looking back, the faster it seems to pass. In fact, it’s to the point where so many of the important events in my life feel like they happened too quickly. Sometimes almost in the blink of an eye. And l often lament their passing.
What probably trips me out most are the markers I put in place as a kid. They were sort of milestones; time-related signposts that, back then, seemed far-flung in the future. Yet today they are memories from my long ago past. Or that’s the way I perceive them. And I’m not sure how I feel about it all.
For instance, when I was eight, there was an outer space event I looked forward to that seemed impossibly far off, timewise. Halley’s Comet. It was scheduled to, and in fact did, arrive in 1986. It was something most folks would get to see just once in their lifetime because it only came close enough to Earth for us to see in the sky once every 76 years. As a kid, I anxiously awaited its arrival, though it seemed so far in the future.
Along the way a funny thing happened. The time for it to come came and went. On reflection, in the apparent blink of an eye. Yeah, the comet was traveling really fast through space but that’s not what I mean. During the days it was actually in our viewing skies, I remember thinking, “Dang, that was quick.”
1997's Hale-Bopp comet
Now I never actually saw that comet; it was cloudy where I lived. Besides, scientists confessed that it was not traveling as close to us as predicted, so it wouldn’t have been all that dramatic if it had been clear outside. But the point is that looking back, the apparent speed at which time passed (some 20 years) from childhood until that moment seemed fast.
It was the same sort of feeling at the turn of the century. When I was a kid, I remember thinking, “It’s such a long way off. By the year 2000, I’ll be too old to enjoy it. I’ll be over 40!”
Yet here we are 14 years after Y2K. I’m not a spring chicken anymore, but I’m no Methuselah either. In fact, I feel pretty much the same way I did that decade-and-a-half ago. Body aches and gray hairs aside. Oh and the bumps and bruises life has bestowed on me.
It’s interesting how the amount of time that’s passed seems not to have changed me in as dramatic a way as I thought it would when I was a child. Or maybe it has but I just haven’t noticed. Like the change of the seasons.
The tree in the foreground is gone, just like yesterday.
Take winter, for instance. It’s not my favorite time of the year. In fact, each August I dread its arrival, even though it’s still months away. Yet by the time the first real snowfall hits, it always feels like the most natural thing in the world. I welcome it. That is, until it’s time to clear the driveway.
Looking out the window this moment at the falling snow and watching it accumulate on the lawn and branches – it seems so right. There have been countless other snowfalls. Yet this one, right now, matters most.
So often, we look back on the past and think longingly about it. Or we look forward and anxiously await it. But I think, at least right now, it is today we should be focused on. Like they say, there’s no time like the present. This moment. This time. This place. Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Apes and the Top of the Food Chain

Ever wonder why apes flick poop at zoo-goers?

A couple weeks ago one of my Facebook Friends posted an outrageous news story, one that boggled my mind. At first. Then it got me thinking and made me go, “Hmmm.”

The article he posted referred to a New York court case involving four chimpanzees. An advocacy group (Nonhuman Rights Project) filed a lawsuit to get the quartet of caged primates recognized as legal persons, with rights to certain liberties. Chief among them, their freedom. The case was dismissed; most say rightly so. The advocacy group is appealing the verdict.

What makes this case so interesting to me is how it brushes up against an intriguing, complex and often confusing question. It’s one that has affected modern Americans for quite a while now: just what is a ‘person’?

Thanks to our judicial system, a business corporation, a non-biological thing, is designated a person. As such, corporations enjoy many (but not all) of the same legal rights as humans. So is it really that much of a stretch for some to want living, breathing and, to an unknown extent, thinking chimps to be legally considered a person in order to gain its release?

They’re just animals, some argue. We are too, says science, and a corporation isn’t even that. So the question remains: why aren’t certain apes afforded personhood status? It’s a fact chimpanzees share most of the genes we have, along with many of our physical and mental qualities. For the record, apes (chimps, gorillas, bonobos, etc.) are different from monkeys and other lower primates.
Corporation: not quite human but still a person

Also for the record, I am not comparing apes to humans. While science tells us chimps and humans share about 99 percent of the same DNA (an essential molecule that's sort of the instruction manual for building all living things), that’s not the whole story. That last one percent accounts for about 35 million differences, some of which are huge; others are less so.

Apples and oranges aside, this column is about assumptions; being so certain we’re right about something that we ignore other possibilities. Remember, we once knew the Earth was flat; it is round. We once knew dinosaurs were cold-blooded reptiles; they were warm-blooded. On a personal level, I once knew my alma mater Michigan State didn’t have a chance at the Rose Bowl this season; guess where the Spartans are January 1?

All this back and forth ignores another, equally important element that’s driving this maddening dynamic: power. Human beings have it, chimpanzees don't. It’s a somewhat similar situation among and between people.

Some will counter that it’s the nature of things that some folks have power while most others don't. To my mind, even though a select few possess positional, institutional or political power, that doesn't mean we should simply roll over when that power is used in harmful or offensive ways. That includes when it’s used against chimpanzees, other animals and the environment.

I was just following orders from the Emperor
What I'm getting at is the often tyrannical arrogance and/or insensitivity that come when people of a certain ilk or even largely benevolent persons and institutional systems project their power. Typically, it’s used to benefit themselves rather than for the good of all. They become so certain of a thing that they lose their empathy and with it, their humanity.

But ordinary people also have power. It goes largely unused but it’s there and can be quite formidable. Case in point: the cluster of folks who banded together recently to prevent the 3-day eviction of the homeless colony taking up residence beneath the I-194 bridge at the edge of downtown. The assumption by those in power: nobody will care. Boy, were they ever wrong.