Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What I Learned From Nelson Mandela

Certainly a lot has been written about Nelson Mandela since his death by many writers better than me and also by many who knew the man personally. Obviously I didn't know him, but he affected my life in a fairly profound way. Most of it was who he was as a man, but some of it was the timing in my life of my becoming aware of him.

When I was a young teenager of about 14 or 15 I discovered the music of U2. Now, whatever one thinks of the persona that Bono would eventually take on as the pompous rock star, in the early-mid 80s he could be an inspiration to a lower-middle class white suburban American kid who wasn't really aware of the the world outside of his cul-de-sac. Hearing the War album for the first time was a life altering moment for me. I know there a lot people my age who find this ridiculous, but that is because they likely grew up with a parent or older sibling who listened to The Beatles, Dylan, Springsteen, The Who, or other such artist. I had an older brother who listened to Kansas, Foreigner, and Kiss. My mother's favorite band - to this day - is fucking Air Supply.  Up to that point in my life I thought I didn't like music.

Getting in to U2 led me to Amnesty International since the band were big supporters of the organization. I think I learned who Nelson Mandela was right after I joined Amnesty and may have even been the first political prisoner whose letter-writing campaign I joined. I don't think I knew what a political prisoner was before that, or that this thing called Apartheid existed. From what I had been taught in school, after the days of MLK (the "good" civil rights leader) and Malcolm X (the "bad" one) this kind of institutionalized racism was over.

So I learned I was wrong about that.

And it boggled my mind that someone could be put in prison for (up to this point) 23 years for trying to gain equal rights for his people, and that anyone would be OK with that. Which means I also learned because of Mandela that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were truly evil people. They called a democratic reformer a terrorist and cozied right up to the racist regime who put him in prison. This kind of evil reared its ugly head after Mandela's death with many comments from right-wingers about his "terrorist" past and supposed communist leanings. Somehow the struggle for freedom for a people that has been given no choice but to answer violence with violence in self defense equals terrorism. These would be a people who every year on the 4th of July celebrate our own forefathers decision to wage a bloody war for our own independence. For some reason violence in the name of freedom is OK for white people but not black people.

Mandela also taught me that my family is batshit crazy. As I started to discuss these issues at the dinner table I realized that my mother and my brother didn't see eye-to-eye with me on an issue that was as clear-cut as wondering whether slavery was wrong. My brother - a Reagan fanatic who still has a signed picture of that bad B-list actor on his wall - insisted, towing the Reagan line, that divestment in and sanctions against South Africa would hurt the black people more than the white people there. Arguing with him that it was the black people in that country that wanted those sanctions made no difference to him. He and Reagan knew what was better for them. And Mandela being in prison was not a big deal, he didn't consider that it was a violation of basic human rights.

My mother was worse in many ways. I remember her saying to me, "The blacks have ruined every other country in Africa, why can't we let the white people have one of them?" seriously, she really said this. She also used, along with my brother, the dreaded C word that Reagan fed them to describe Mandela - Communist.

This is when I realized that a person could have black friends and still be a racist.

I despaired that things would never change in South Africa, despite the work of activist all over the world and the pressure of international opinion.

But then it happened. Mandela, who had been in prison eight years longer than I had been alive, was finally released and change did come to South Africa.

I learned that you can still hope for a change for the better in the world. Even when the odds seem stacked against it. 27 years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement and with forced hard labor. Yet he never stopped dreaming a change could come to his country and for his people.

Hope. That's what I learned the most from a great man.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Dodging Motos in SE Asia

I was recently in SE Asia with my wife and daughter for what has become our annual international vacation. We started taking these trips with our daughter a couple of months before she turned two and she would celebrate her fifth birthday on this last one. As we were anticipating this vacation and telling people about it we were often greeted with a look shock from many people and even a "wow" every now and then at the idea that we would take a five-year-old to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Some people were impressed by us, others thought we were crazy. I think the ones who thought we were crazy didn't think we had really thought it through really well. But we had quite a bit. Before this trip our girl had been on four foreign vacations and in a total of eight countries, all in Europe but having taken a step in to Asia by being in Istanbul.

In all the traveling we've done with her she has been fantastic and easy on the flights and pretty much all aspects of the trip. Sure she gets tired and cranky on occasion but that can happen at home, too. Having done the 12-hour flight to Istanbul and back with no problem we figured we were ready to up our game with our choice of vacation destinations. And my wife, who traveled much more than me when she was younger, really wanted to get out of the Europe trend we'd been in since our daughter was born..

My wife and I had gone to this part of the world as our last trip before trying to have a kid, six years earlier, so we knew what we were getting in to. Sure SE Asia is a hectic place, but it is also so beautiful and full of wonderful people.

But there was one part of the trip that maybe confirmed our craziness for taking a five-year-old to this part of the world. They drive like lunatics over there.

It is really hard to explain to people who have never been to this part of the world just what the driving is like. If you go to cities like New York, Chicago, or Boston and think that the driving is insane there you have no idea how much worse it can be. The best description I've ever been able to come up with is imagining you are on a crowded New York City sidewalk with all the people weaving back and forth and going around each other, coming within millimeters of one another, getting out of an oncoming person's way just before you would bump in to each other. Now imagine that with everyone on cars, motorbikes, and bicycles instead of walking.

Nowhere that I've been is it any worse than Hanoi. And it got worse since we were there six years ago. Sure traffic was bad with all the motorbikes but when you got off the main thoroughfares you could usually find some breathing room on small streets like in the charming Old Quarter. Not any more. Traffic seems to be a constant flow on those small streets just like in the more urban looking parts of the city. And a lot more of the vehicles are cars (as opposed to motorbikes) now that more and more Vietnamese can afford them.

This makes crossing the street very tiring, especially when you are trying to do it with a five-year-old. We spend so much time as parents trying to train our kid the rules of crossing the street only to have to throw them out the window. I explained to her that we she had to hold our hands and when we said "go" to just start walking and don't stop for any reason. Telling her that when there are motorbikes and cars coming at us they will swerve around us. Rightly, she looked at me like I was crazy.

I had such a great memory of how charming Hanoi was when I visited before but that's been replaced by sheer hatred of the place. It is just exhausting to be there. Luckily we were only there for one day as a stopover on our way to Hoi An. We were staying away from the bigger cities on this trip and after the stay in Hanoi I knew we made the right decision. And a big reason that Hoi An was one of my favorite places - on top of the fact it is a charming town with lots to do and see - is that for several parts of the day the Old Town section is closed to motorized vehicles. The calm it creates in contrast to the chaos of the traffic is as wonderful as being in a typical European pedestrian plaza.

It is as crazy as Hanoi all over this part of the world. There is no sense that there are any rules to follow. Major roads are clearly marked with solid or broken lines to indicate a passing or no-passing zone but they are completely ignored. Drivers will pass going in to blind curves without giving it a second thought.  They will also begin an overtake even if there is oncoming traffic only 100 yards away. The right-of-way rule seems to be whoever is bigger gets their way. It is like the bully on the playground method of traffic control. For instance, there was an oncoming truck that started flashing his lights at the car we were in on a trip between Hoi An and My Son, telling our driver to make way from about 200 yards away. Except that the truck was the one that was passing and was in our lane. But if we hit him, we would lose.

This applies to pedestrians as well. No way should you assume that if crossing the street at an intersection with a stoplight that the cross traffic will stop when they have the red. You should assume they won't.

This of course was not new to us since we had been there before. We knew the traffic and driving there would be crazy, that people in these countries were nutty and aggressive drivers. But one thing did change in the time we had last been there:

They all have freaking smart phones now!

Holy shit, if you thought driving under the influence of smart phones was bad in the ain't seen nothin'. I was biking between the beach and town in Hoi An and a guy came by me on a motorbike while casually texting, face buried in the phone, while within centimeters of me. This was a common sight, drivers texting while swerving around pedestrians and other vehicles, sometimes while driving a motorbike with their toddler child between their legs.

Probably the most bizarre/hilarious/frightening example was during our ride between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia, for which we had hired a driver to take us on the four-to-five hour trip. While our driver was in the middle of passing another car at about 60 km/h on the patchy narrow highway (I use that term lightly) with oncoming traffic in sight he decided that would be a perfect time to take a picture of the sunset happening to our left. I suppose it is nice to see someone still appreciates the beauty of his country enough to snap a photo of a nice sunset. It was a really nice sunset.

There is something about traveling that makes you throw your usual rules out the window. "Why yes, we can have gelato for dinner." You know, things like that. This time we threw out pretty much any standard we have at home for transportation safety for our kid (except that we did do several of our trips by boat to avoid buses on the highways in Vietnam). At home we always make sure to have her booster seat if we are going to be in a car, we make her wait for the light at intersections, always cross in a crosswalk, etc. You know, responsible middle-class American parents.

In Cambodia we rode tuk-tuks so many times every day. If you've never seen a tuk-tuk, this is it:

The family on a tuk-tuk in Siem Reap

It is basically a trailer hooked on to the back of a motorbike and then a guy drives you somewhere in the previously described traffic. My daughter loved this more than just about anything else we did on the trip. She begged to take a tuk-tuk every time we left the hotel. And so we did.

At one point during out trip I was telling our daughter about how when I was a kid that we would just pile in the back of a pickup truck but how that wasn't allowed anymore because it wasn't safe. And then in Luang Prabang we went on a hiking and kayaking trip with a guide. And how did we travel the 40 minutes to where we were trekking? In the back of a pickup truck, of course.

When in Rome, I suppose. Even if it is the most dangerous thing you can do.

One tries not to judge the culture of another country while traveling. But on both trips to this part of the world I could not help but think that there must be a decent amount of people who don't like the status quo. There must be a high number of people that have lost children to accidents because of the insane lack of traffic rules that would like to see a change. I just wonder what it will take to change the madness. Looking at the situation it seems impossible to change. But it wasn't that long ago that there weren't any drunk driving laws in the U.S. Or seat belt laws, car seats for kids, and helmet laws.

There is, I discovered, a helmet law in Vietnam that came in to effect just a few years ago. So there seems to be the beginning of an effort to change things there. And I noticed a lot more traffic lights than when we visited before.

Some drivers even stop for them.

Monday, December 02, 2013

The Fake War On Thanksgiving (or: The Hypocrisy of Matt Walsh & Everyone Else)

For some reason this year people were much more upset than they were last year about Walmart and other stores being open on Thanksgiving. There seemed to be a consensus among liberals and conservatives that this was evil and wrong, that people should have the day off to spend time with their families on Thanksgiving. To that end most people posted links on Facebook to articles slamming on Walmart and the other stores who dared to be open on Thanksgiving. One popular one I saw was this one by Matt Walsh, which was posted by many of my well-meaning liberal friends (I have maybe 4 or 5 conservative friends on Facebook, and by "friends" I mean people that I kind of knew in college who I never actually communicate with on Facebook. They are just kind of there.). It s odd that I had never heard of Matt Walsh before but suddenly I have now seen two of his pieces pop up in the last couple of months because they were shared by liberal friends. which is odd since Walsh is a right-wing asshat who basically thinks that "Obamacare" will be the end of Western Civilization and fully supports Creationism being taught in biology class alongside Evolution (one of his more laughable blog posts was his claiming that religion is what started and advanced science throughout history).

Walsh's post tells us all that if we shop on Thanksgiving we are "part of the problem" and goes on to write about the poor single mother who will have to work 14 hours at a register ringing up people's unnecessary shit, among other things. In this article Walsh calls himself a capitalist but not a "consumerist" which is about the stupidest attempt at splitting hairs that I've ever read.

On its surface this diatribe looks like a defense of the working class, so I understand why my liberal friends linked to it on Facebook. But they would be wrong, Matt Walsh cares nothing about the plight of workers.

For some reason this whole idea that everyone should have Thanksgiving off of work began when these stores decided to open up on Thanksgiving. Where was this huge concern for workers who didn't get the day off before this? Walmart, Target, Macy's, JC Penny, Sears; none of these companies were the first ones to ask/make people work on Thanksgiving. Where was all this outrage for the poor Denny's waitresses or the 7-11 clerks? What about all the grocery stores that are open on Thanksgiving?

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Matt Walsh says that people who shop on Thanksgiving are part of the problem, meaning that if nobody shopped these stores wouldn't open. He's certainly right about that. But aren't we also part of the problem if we do just about anything on Thanksgiving that causes the need for people to work?

I would assume, being the Republican-American manly man that he portrays himself to be, that Walsh watched football on Thanksgiving. There were three NFL games on that day and a couple of top level college games. Isn't Walsh "part of the problem" if he watched those games? In addition to the players, coaches, referees, and TV announcers there are the ball boys, equipment managers, trainers, network production assistants, gaffers, boom-mike operators, cameramen, stadium ticket takers, security guards, and the thousands of part-time concession workers, among I'm sure many other types of workers I'm not even thinking of. And in those college games the players are not making any money at all (not counting the scholarship players - which is not all of them - getting a free college education).

Hell, if he turned on his TV at all he is part of the problem. There are a lot of technicians and other staff needed to run a TV station even if you are just airing reruns. And did he watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with his family? You know, tradition. Well, there are a lot of people who had to give up the holiday with their family so he could sit on his couch and watch the parade with his. That includes a lot of cops and other first responders who would have the day off if they didn't have an event with millions of people in the middle of New York City

If you used your computer at all you were making somebody work. Despite a lot of people's belief, the internet is not magic and run on its own. I wonder how many people who railed against the stores being open that day ended up ordering something on Amazon? Amazon's warehouses were staffed that day (and don't even get me tarted on the shitty business practices and anti workers' rights attitude of Amazon) because people go online to order stuff on Thanksgiving. Again, the internet is not magic, there are actual people pulling shit off of shelves to ship to you.

I took public transportation on Thursday, meaning I'm responsible for bus drivers, train operators, station agents, mechanics, switch operators, and many others having to work. Even if you drove your car and think that means nobody was affected, well, there are a lot of tow truck drivers, toll road attendants and gas stations clerks having to work because of you.

I read that something around 30 million people ate out or got take out on Thanksgiving. They made a lot of waitstaff, cooks, busboys and delivery drivers work that day.

What about people who fly home on the holiday? That's a lot of flight attendants, pilots, baggage handlers, counter agents and others who have to work. I suppose we should close the airports on Thanksgiving. What would we do about the international flights that day? Should we not allow any international flights that day to land in the U.S? Even though they don't celebrate Thanksgiving?

I could go on but I'm sure you see my point. Fact is, a lot of people have to work on Thanksgiving. Some are for good reasons (ER docs, police, fire department, etc) and some are for stupid reasons (cheap plastic shit or needing to pick up a can of cranberry sauce). And it is almost impossible that any of us are not part of the reason why. Anyone who calls out the idiots who go shopping on Thanksgiving causing the need for people to work is a big goddamned hypocrite.

For people like Walsh this has nothing to do with the plight of the underclass even though that's the terms he tries to frame it. No, it is about the world conforming to the way he thinks it is supposed to work. People should hang out with their family, eat turkey, watch football, and adhere to whatever the hell he means by "tradition."

Well fuck Matt Walsh. Just like how he thinks every child in America should be taught his Judeo-Christian idea of how the world was created (which is complete and utter bullshit to begin with) this is just another way he wants to tel everyone else how they should live their lives. Well, I'm a vegetarian, I hate American football with a passion, and my family sucks (except for my sister). So I pretty much have no interest in his traditions.

When I was a young man living in Seattle and making my living as a barista (I know, it's a cliché) I never had the day off work. And that's exactly the way I liked it. I would work at my cart in front of the Safeway and make more in tips than I usually made in two weeks. Then I would go home and watch crap on TV while drinking beer. And that's the way I liked it. I'm not saying that everyone who had to work on Thursday wanted to work that day, I'm sure some wanted to be home with their families. But some people don't give a shit about these holidays and how dare anyone presume to tell people what they should be doing on them.

Thing is, I did spend my holiday with my family. Just my wife and daughter. We went over to a tree lot and bought our holiday tree (yea, that's right Matt Walsh you right-wing Christian douchebag, I called it a holiday tree), which also contributed to more people working, and just hung out together. But I don't really think about it as a "family" thing. My wife is a super smart and hot woman who I like having around and my daughter is an awesome kid who cracks me up and amazes me. I don't really think about it as some sort of tradition or family thing to do. My wife had four days off so we all got to hang out together. It doesn't matter at all that it was Thanksgiving or in April.

The difference between the likes of Matt Walsh and myself is that he's concerned that his single mother working behind the counter get this one day off (unpaid), whereas I'm concerned that that single mother has to have two jobs because Sears or Walmart or JC Penney doesn't pay a living wage, so she doesn't get to see her kids pretty much the whole year. And those kids are going to do poorly in school as they don't have great parental involvement because Mom has to do everything she can just to keep a roof over their head. If that single mom could pay the bills with just one job and have time to spend with her kids all year long, but in return had to work Thanksgiving, how much do you want to bet that she would make that trade?

Walsh telling us to give them Thanksgiving is the same as "let them eat cake."

That's where I think my liberal friends are misguided to take up this argument.

Look, Walmart is an evil company. They have been known to lock overnight workers in the stores, they cheat workers out of overtime pay, they pay substandard wages, they offer crappy health insurance plans that are expensive and don't do anything, they wrestle tax breaks out of communities and then ruin small businesses. The heirs to the Walton family fortune have more wealth than the bottom 40% of Americans (which includes pretty much everyone who works for Walmart).

Being open on Thanksgiving is probably the least evil thing that Walmart does. And to focus on this one issue obscures the real problem that we should be focusing on - namely workers rights.

Getting Walmart or these other stores to close on that one day won't change the fact the employees don't get paid a living wage and so many have to use food stamps.

If and when Walmart employees finally unionize there is no way the union leaders would try to negotiate closing on Thanksgiving. They would negotiate a volunteer and seniority system to decide who works. They would demand overtime pay of double-time or at least time-and-a-half. This is on tip of the fact that they would already have demanded a living wage and real benefits like health insurance and paid vacations.

These are the real issues that are being obscured by this "war on Thanksgiving" argument. People like Matt Walsh don't give a shit about these employees the other 364 days of the year. They don't think Walmart needs to pay a better wage or offer benefits. They don't have any problem at all with Walmart's business practices. They are not even arguing for a paid day off for these workers, just the day off. Unpaid is not a problem with them.

I don't shop at Walmart. Not on Thanksgiving, not on Black Friday (I stay the hell away from any store on that day), not ever. They are bad for workers and they are bad for the economy. I don't order from Amazon for the same reason.

Costco is not an awesome company because they close on Thanksgiving, they are an awesome company because they lead their industry in pay and benefits.

The whole year matters, not just the holidays. We lose sight of that by focusing on this one issue. That's why I think this is just as dumb as the war on Christmas.

And just like in the war on Christmas, I refuse to cede the moral high ground to jerks like Matt Walsh.

I'm disappointed by the progressives who have allowed themselves to be drawn in to this narrow issue framed in the way conservatives want it to be framed.