Pedestrian Access to the 110 Freeway?

Wouldn’t you like to take a relaxing stroll along the oldest freeway in the world? It’s not the busiest freeway – that would be the 405 – but it’s still three or four lanes of hurtling steel. Along the east edge of the southbound side of this old freeway is a path for pedestrians, between the junction to the 5E and Amador Street. Every time I drive past, I wonder who it is intended for. I’ve never seen anyone on it.

Is, or was, the City of Los Angeles so concerned for pedestrians that it provided this odd little walkway to get across the LA River? If you need to cross the river on foot, you could always go to North Broadway, and cross there on a handsome, well-maintained, sidewalk.

I grew up a New York pedestrian; I first crossed the street unsupervised in 1960 at the age of 4 — I wandered off while all the adults were arguing about who was late and who was being a nudge. By the time they noticed that I was gone, I had already wandered into traffic on West End Avenue. They all came pouring out onto 72nd Street screaming my name. Someone shouted, “there he is!” and ran after me and scooped me up. It was very gratifying and exciting.

In the 60s and 70s, New York streets were dicey, and I developed street instincts, like 360-degree awareness, crazy-person avoidance, youth-looking-for-a-fight detection, and continual monitoring for escape routes.

This last skill would make me avoid this walkway along the 110, because there’s no way to run if two rival gangs approach each other in a deadly standoff. At least on the Broadway bridge, you could run perpendicularly into traffic, and take your chances with the trucks.

I’ve been commuting from West LA to Pasadena for five months ten years now (and for an additional eleven months about two years ago), and I’ve become obsessed with these strange, ramshackle staircases that go down to the freeway, snaking through the brush. Some of them, like the one on Solano Avenue, seem to serve the purpose of allowing pedestrian traffic to cross the freeway. There’s a school nearby, and it makes sense to let the students who live just 150 feet across the freeway walk across. Google Maps seems to think you can do that, but when I look at the satellite view, I don’t see a path. When I drive past, I get a glimpse of a railed-off walkway… I’ll just have to go there and take a look.

Google maps' directions for walking across 110 at Solano Ave
Google maps’ directions for walking across 110 at Solano Ave

I see how you can walk to Amador St, which crosses above the northbound side of the 110, and then under the southbound side. But where’s the fun in simply walking along an ordinary street, when you can walk on a barely used, falling apart, dangerous narrow path that is separated from speeding traffic by a chainlink fence? And that’s probably populated by fringe elements of society?

Maybe I could even do it with a nice camera around my neck? Hmmmm… That’s so smart!

As far as I can tell there are four ways to get onto this mysterious walkway (click on thumbnails for full-sized pictures):

  • Solano Ave Amador entrance to 110 walkway
    Solano Ave Amador entrance to 110 walkway

    The entrance on Amador Street (see pic) – that one looks the best maintained, and like it might actually be intended for use. The entrance to the ramp is visible in the satellite view; you’d climb the ramp, then switch back, then you’re right on the freeway.

  • Closed on-ramp to 110 and path from school to 110 walkway
    Closed on-ramp to 110 and path from school to 110 walkway

    The staircase rising from Solano Avenue (red arrow), near the elementary school, right by a blocked-off on-ramp (green arrow) which went from a city street into the fast lane in the space of about 20 feet; it must have been a bloodbath until they fenced it off.

  • Solano Ave stairway, other entrance to 110 walkway
    Solano Ave stairway, other entrance to 110 walkway

    The extremely weird staircase (see pic) which goes down to the fast lane of the 110N, just before the tunnel south of the exit to the 5N; why is there a staircase there? Has ANYONE ever used it? There is room for a single car to park out of traffic, so somebody had some kind of plan… Maybe, just maybe, if you broke down right exactly there it would allow you to flee; but if you broke down even 20 feet away, I don’t see how it would help. I would love to know the chain of reasoning that led to its construction; someone had to allot money for this thing.

  • Spiral staircase entrance to 110 walkway
    Spiral staircase entrance to 110 walkway

    Finally, the last entrance I can see is if you get on North Figueroa Street, where it crosses the Los Angeles River, walk south along the east side of the road, then turn sharply left along the ramp going from the 110N to the 5N (you have to turn left; your only alternative is to dive into oncoming traffic); keep walking, and then where the ramp meets up with the 110N, there is a spiral staircase climbing up to the walkway along the 110S. NOTE: None of that is true anymore. The old bridge was demolished and the ramp from N Fig to the off-ramp from the 110 is just gone. From what I can see, the only way to get on the spiral staircase is to get to the walkway at Solano or Amador, then walk along the southbound 110 until you get to the top of the staircase. As far as I can tell, the bottom of the staircase goes exactly nowhere now. Well, there is a walkway a few hundred yards along the ramp to the 5, ending in a tiny landing or plaza which, amazingly, is not a homeless encampment.

Please note that all of this can be considered more or less dangerous and I don’t recommend it to anyone.

That said, I can’t wait to try it.

The Parable of the Cousin

A person in a city had great-great-great-grandparents who owned a beautiful house in what was then a nice neighborhood. But, one day, there was great violence and tumult and they had to leave with nothing but the clothes on their backs and some keepsakes.

They wandered through the country and settled in a big city. They were literate and able, and found work. They were able to have a large family, who all moved to different places, worked, and had their own families. Everyone in that family, all the descendants of the great-great-great-grandparents, talked about that wonderful old house. Nobody went to visit, because travel was hard and expensive, but they told stories about it, generation after generation.

A while ago, travel became easier and the family started to visit that old neighborhood. It had changed, was run down and dangerous, but the house was still there. Now all the family could talk about was moving there. Many of them loved the idea but had roots in their new home towns and did not want to move. But eventually a cousin decided to explore the possibilities of moving there. They inquired around the town, and found the current owner. They big old house had been divided up into apartments, and had quite a few tenants, mostly quite poor.

The cousin offered the owner of the big old house a nice price, and the owner decided to sell and take their profits. Many of the tenants were vexed by this, and the neighbors were not happy either. They didn’t like the idea of these “outsiders” moving into their neighborhood, where they had lived for two or even three generations. The cousin explained about the great-great-great-grandparents, how they had been driven out against their will, how they always wanted to come back but travel was too difficult, how travel was now easier, and, finally, how they bought the house fair and square from the owner. The deed was legal and approved by the state and the city and everything.

The neighbors were still not happy. They thought it was an evil plot by the cousin’s family and the state and the city. And as soon as the cousin moved in, they attacked the house. The tenants were stuck in the middle. Some fled in fear of violence, some fled believing that soon the cousins would be killed and they could return to the way things used to be, and, sadly, the cousins forced some out. But many stayed and hid until things calmed down.

Eventually, the cousin, who had defended the house very resolutely, won out, and the neighbors, beaten and embarrassed, went home. But they kept attacking, sometimes by their teenagers throwing rocks, but later, when that didn’t work, sending children with bombs and stories about how they would go to Heaven if they blew themselves up.

The family who did not live there but remained in their home cities were proud of their cousin who had bought the house, and horrified at the constant attacks. The cousins asked for money on a regular basis, and because the cousins were the ones, it seemed, who were keeping the family’s legacy alive, the family sent money. They visited and they said many prayers for the cousin and their family.

But the cousins’ hearts were hardened by the constant attacks and they started to change. The rest of the family were horrified to learn that their cousin had joined the KKK. This was very different from the rest of the family, who were sophisticated urbanites and believed in equal rights and equality under the law. More and more, the cousin and their family were different from their family. Of course, the cousins said, the family could not understand what they were going through, or had an idealized romantic vision of the cousins’ neighbors, or were just soft from an easy life.

When the cousins asked for money again, some of the family said they understood what they were going through was terrible, but they were in the KKK for gods’ sake, and they felt they could not support them. I mean, yes, they were family, but they weren’t the only community the family members were part of; they had friends, colleagues, and affiliations apart from family. Among many of those were people who were very much against the KKK.

So there were conflicts within the family, those who said the cousins had to be supported no matter what because it was their house originally and if they were not supported they would be massacred. And there were others who said, true, it was their house originally, but nobody had to live there, and the family were not safer there than anywhere else, especially because of those violent neighbors who seemed to have nothing else to do all day. The neighbors could have just got jobs and got on with their lives, but attacking the cousins was now like a religious goal; they felt the neighborhood was theirs and they could not rest until it all belonged to them. And arguing with religion is a chump’s game.

So the family was divided and we don’t know what will happen.

My Speculation About Israel’s RWC and Hamas

I’m referring to Israel’s Right-Wing Coalition (RWC).

I have a suspicion that the real conflict is not between Israel and Palestinians or Jews and Arabs, or even (god forbid) Jews and Gentiles.

I think the real conflict is between the extreme Right wing, in Israel, Iran, Palestine and everywhere else, and liberal democracy anywhere. It’s a conflict you see everywhere in the world. America, Europe, Russia, the Middle East and North Africa. Maybe China, I don’t know anything about that. Maybe not there.

Here’s my chain of events:

Israel’s RWC, like the extreme Right elsewhere, believes the population is too placid and comfortable. The extreme Right everywhere is frustrated that most people don’t see that nations should be either mono-ethnic or, if they are unlucky enough to have a pluralistic history, have a dominant ethnic group; others would be tolerated, though disarmed, taxed, and denied a voice in politics.

A model of this Right-wing vision is the Islamic Empire — in the Islamic Golden Age, minorities were tolerated and their contributions were valued (to the greater wealth and glory of all) but of course they paid a tax, were forbidden from carrying arms, and lived at the pleasure of the Islamic overlords. I see this as the model of the most liberal form of an illiberal society.

[NOTE: I’m no scholar of Islamic, or any, history.]

More, I think it is a characteristic of most people (source: my own life experience) to want peace, reasonable prosperity, stability, and good health. But there are people for whom this is shallow and base, who crave dominance and are willing to undergo extreme hardship to achieve it. We are, after all, hierarchical apes; we are happy when we perceive ourselves as doing better than others, and frustrated when we see others doing better than (or as well as!) us. I suspect this characteristic, this desire to advance, varies among individuals just like many other characteristics. For some, you can barely see it, and they are content. Others delight in competition, are rabid for dominance, and are miserable if they don’t see others below them. Maybe this a natural variance within all populations like height and eye color.

I think on the extremes of both right and left we see this love of dominance. Which side one joins to satisfy one’s need depends, I’m guessing, on chance and culture. By the way, I’m not blind that much of the patter on both sides is about equality, about lifting up those unfairly dominated. Whether that’s the working class and marginalized (on the left) or the hard-working member of a given ethnic group who is victimized by PC and Woke (on the right)… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The driving motivation of those who would lead either side is… to lead, and by leading, dominate.

It so happens right now in history (as opposed to maybe the early 20th century) that many of those who crave domination have clustered on the Right.

Under this speculative schema, Hamas and Israel’s RWC are perverse allies, opposing all innocents on both sides. If that seems counterintuitive, remember those videos about how Netanyahu and Smotrich each called Hamas an “Asset.” Remember how they fought, with Bush II, to remove Hamas from a terrorist list so they could run for office. The actual elections, and the representation scheme, were very complicated. I can’t figure it out. I don’t know what influence Israel had on them. If the Mossad is half the organization it is reputed to be, it had some influence on it. Fatah split its votes by running too many candidates and handed victory to Hamas.

My speculation is that the Israeli RWC wanted Hamas to win the election because the RWC wants to further radicalize the Israeli population. I speculate that the RWC sees most of Israel’s population as soft and overly attached to liberalism. The second Intifada did some of the heavy lifting of muting the Israeli Left and empowering the Right, but didn’t go far enough. The various Palestinian political parties and leaders were insufficiently terrifying. The RWC wanted an overtly Jihad-y, Islamist party, willing to call outright for the destruction of Israel. A real “Stones & Trees” political party, blatantly anti-Semitic and warlike.

I think it was weird that there was pretty specific intelligence about the attack that was given to the Israeli RWC, but they did nothing about it. It could be because any intelligence comes in a cloud of confusing information (see 9/11) and one can miss signals amid the noise. In retrospect, it’s easy to point out the signals and wonder how they could have been missed. Maybe that’s the case here. Or maybe it’s exactly what the RWC wanted. Maybe they felt that a good bloody war was what was needed to put some steel in the spines of the complacent Israeli population. See Ambrose Bierce, who may have been sarcastic, but voiced something many believe.

To be tediously clear, I don’t think the RWC gave orders to Hamas. I think what might have happened is they successfully arranged things such that Hamas would have power and would do what comes naturally to a Jihadist, Islamist, authoritarian group. The RWC just had to sit back and watch Hamas be Hamas. And when it became clear they were going to attack, to let it happen when they could have prevented it.

How is Hamas their ally? I believe Hamas’s leaders are sitting comfortably in Qatar or Pyongyang, rolling, Scrooge McDuck-like, in their bags of €500 notes. I don’t think they are RWC cat’s-paws, but I do think the situation satisfies them because it keeps the euros and dollars rolling in, and it satisfies the RWC because it gets them closer to their goal of full annexation of Gaza and the West Bank, along with subjugation of the resident non-Jewish populations and assignment to non-citizen resident status of some kind. The only things standing in the RWC’s way are the Israeli judicial system and the reluctance of a lot of Israeli citizens.

The Israeli RWC and Hamas have similar visions of the good society — one in which they are dominant and others are subordinated. Maybe there was, once upon a time, a chance to develop a pluralist, democratic country with liberal ideals on an Islamic base; maybe CIA-backed coups in Egypt and Iran put paid to that. But they have had plenty of chances since then. And I don’t believe the scars of colonialism can forever be blamed for a society’s oppressiveness any more than we can credibly blame our parents for our problems for our whole lives.

In the sense that the situation rewards them both and that they have similar visions of society, Hamas and the RWC are allies.

As a die-hard (if maybe live-easy) Liberal, what is my solution? I would pull out all settlements, everywhere, leaving only a thin belt of IDF around Israel. Then I would tuck that back within the borders. I don’t believe Israel has the power or the right to keep a cordon sanitaire outside its borders, as much as it might want to. Even Russia is having trouble keeping its cordon sanitaire intact, though it is willing to threaten the entire world to do so. Most countries can’t engineer it such that they can interpose some third country and people between outside threats and their own territory. Even if they could, it is ethically dubious, to say the least. Israel has no greater obligation than any other country to behave ethically, but I wish it would. Giving a two-week warning to people that they’re about to destroy their homes is often touted as a truly wonderful thing, but I think they can and should do better.

Israel’s has every right to exist and to defend itself. I do not think it has the right to defend itself from within their neighbor’s territory, even armed with legalistic word-clouds about how their neighbor never accepted the borders or the nation offered them. No partner for peace? Fine, make peace without a partner. And if attacked, defend from within your borders. And if their neighbor disagrees about what those borders are, Israel should decide them unilaterally and make them close to what we expect they are. Let the Palestinians be oppressed, like many Arabs, by their own governments only.

How do you know if you’re an anti-Semite?

I have been seeing many posts on Reddit, indignant angry posts, that if you criticize Israel, people say you’re an anti-Semite! I responded in my (hopefully annoying) measured, calm tone that while I’m sure people do say that, it’s not true. You can certainly criticize Israel from many directions — you can criticize the existence of the settlements, the behavior of the settlers, the support of the IDF for the settler’s vicious anti-Palestinian actions. You can criticize Israel’s support for its Haredi community, subsidized housing, exemption from national service (is that still true?). You can criticize the ultra-Orthodox community’s behavior toward woman praying at the Western Wall.

I think all of that, and more, is fair game and doesn’t make you an anti-Semite.

Of course, you might make those criticisms and also be an anti-Semite.

How can you know?

I will take the example of your (fictional) Uncle Wayne at Thanksgiving. Uncle Wayne watches Fox News and constantly harps on Black-on-Black violence in Chicago. You talk to your cousins about him and agree, the guy is just an out-and-out bigot. Maybe you get a little high out back, and at the dinner table, unwisely (in my opinion) tell him he’s a racist. Uncle Wayne is shocked, insulted and appalled! He is just telling the truth! He trots out some web site and, sure enough, the statistics are as he reports them.

So, is Uncle Wayne a racist? Or is he “just” pointing out the truth? You won’t find out by asking him, because people usually don’t feel they are racist, bigoted, or anti-Semitic (and wouldn’t admit it if they did!). They feel that they are “just” noticing what “those” people are doing, while you are blinding yourself to the truth!

Simple fact about human nature, by and large: an impatient person doesn’t feel impatient, they feel other people are too slow. Cranky people don’t feel cranky, they feel like everyone else is a pain in the ass and they are “just” responding appropriately. Depressed people often don’t feel that they have an illness called Depression, they feel that the world is terrible and nobody cares about them. Anxious people… you get the point. It takes careful, painful introspection to learn that the problem (or part of it) is inside, not the rest of the world. And there is rarely enough incentive to take the trouble of going into therapy. And of course it’s expensive. And even in therapy, one can resist. A complicating factor is that sometimes the problem is other people. Terrible disappointments do happen to depressed people, people do pay with a check at the grocery and an impatient person might be behind them. It can be tricky to tease apart.

So how do we decide if our fictional Uncle Wayne is a racist? We look at his other opinions, the way he lives his life, who his friends and colleagues are. What else bothers him? We look at context. Is he appalled by violence everywhere or does it only bother him when it’s committed by Black people? Does he make excuses for it in other contexts? Are some of his actual best friends actually Black?

Side note — let’s say you decide he’s an actual racist. Ask yourself why would he be that way? There could well be an element of fitting in, of peer group pressure. The peer group could be that artificial group of “friends” we believe we know through TV (Fox News, in this case), and social media. Maybe Wayne is trying to fit in with the cool kids. Might seem nuts (they’re not really cool), but people do strange things to fit in.

We’re talking about bias. Some forms of bias are commendable, such as the bias we feel toward our family. When our teenage kid Jonah gets a C, maybe we argue with the teacher. We might look for reasons that it’s unfair. Maybe that teacher doesn’t like Jonah because he’s a little rambunctious. When the neighbor’s kid Melvin gets a C, my god that kid’s just a lazy good-for-nothing who spends all night playing that dumb video game. Lucky to get a C! Speaking for myself, I want my family to get somewhat more than they deserve, while I want other people to get exactly what they deserve. Fair? Of course not. Understandable? I think so. I try to keep in mind that I need to be objective about what they actually deserve. In other words, I try not to delude myself about how smart, kind, or deserving they are. I try to be objective, and I acknowledge that I’m being unfair in wanting them to receive rewards greater than those qualities might warrant.

I want the same for myself! I’m no genius, I’m a little wanting in the “grit” department, I’m not all that hard-working, but I want high pay for my work. I want a little more than I strictly deserve. To be perfectly honest, I have received quite a bit more than I deserve. I’m hoping that continues!

So, bias: everyone has it. The trick is not to expect to be completely objective and unbiased, that’s impossible. The trick is to be aware of one’s biases and try not to be blinded by them. Be aware of them and try to correct, like if your car pulls to the left a little, you have to steer to the right a little to keep going straight.

So let’s go to Israel and Gaza. Can you criticize Israel and not be an anti-Semite? Sure, but of course you might still be an anti-Semite. How do you know? What else in the world bothers you? If you’re picketing on behalf of Palestinians, are you also picketing on behalf of, say, Ukrainians or Albanians or Indian Muslims. Are you horrified that Palestinians in the West Bank don’t get to vote in Israeli elections despite Israel having control over many aspects of their life, but it doesn’t bother you that Saudis, Emiratis, and Qataris don’t get to vote on anything at all, despite their government controlling every aspect of their civil and religious lives?

If what bothers you is lack of democracy anywhere in the world, good for you. If it only bothers you when the lack of democracy is under Israeli control, well, you might be an anti-Semite.

Guignol for Good or Evil

When I was working in Lyon in 2017/18, an old love of Guignol was re-awakened. I saw Guignol shows when I was a little child in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. And in the 5th grade, my teacher, the beloved Mme Benzaken, gave me a book about Guignol. It had puppet show scripts and instructions for making the puppets and theaters. I have long since lost that book and still look for it whenever and wherever I can.

In Lyon, I went with my wife to a traditional Guignol theater and saw as old-fashioned a show as I could find. In other words, not a show about how Guignol saves Christmas from a hacker who scrambles Santa’s GPS… yes, they do that. No shade, but not for me. I’ll bet the kids love it, and that’s what matters, after all.

Guignol was born in the French Revolution and I think embodies its spirit as well as anything. He’s a working man — a weaver in the silk mills of Lyon — and a prankster who scorns the aristocrats. Guignol and his gang — his best friend Gnafron, a red-faced, blue-chinned alcoholic with a crushed top hat; his girlfriend Madelon; and the rest of the supporting cast — are beloved characters in France in general and Lyon in particular.

In Lyon, I encountered the below small poster stuck all over the bottle recycling bin.

I took the picture and thought, Fun! I wonder what that website is. Clearly, I didn’t look carefully at his angry expression, and wasn’t familiar with “Lyon le Melhor!” which, it turns out, is the war cry of the city. It translates as “Lyon is the best!” or We’re #1!

It turned out that the website was for a nativist, anti-immigrant group, and the image is a threat. This made me very unhappy. A perhaps ironic (not sure if that’s exactly right, I wasn’t an English major, but it’s nearby) sidenote is that when we went to the Guignol show, there was a mom with her little boy. Not so strange, but the mom was Islamic and wearing a chic black hijab, and looked hilariously like Guignol in his traditional hat.

I much prefer the Guignol below:

The motto, “A tous et pour tous,” means “To all and for all,” and is much more what I expect from a puppet of the people.

I was pleased to just discover now that the website on the mean little anti-immigrant poster is now available… Maybe I’ll buy it?

Current events part 1: Who speaks for a nation?

It’s easy to say that “Israel does this” and “Hamas does that”, “Azerbaijan wants this” or “Armenia wants that.” But of course, countries don’t have wills of their own, only people do. So who are we talking about? Leadership and their supporters, of course. It’s a pyramid of folks, the leaders at the top whose names we might know, their cadre of supporters, the military leaders whose names we wouldn’t know but whose support is crucial, their oligarchs whose funds back them.

In a more authoritarian regime, that pyramid may be short and narrow. Even in an brutal dictatorship or absolute monarchy, it’s never just one person deciding things, though that is a convenient way to think about it. Idi Amin, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, Vladimir Putin, they all need support from someone, though if they manage things well, that will be as few people as possible. For instance, Russian oligarchs depend on Putin more than he depends on them. How does he manage this? I don’t know, but I’ll bet it has something to do with Polonium and windows.

However they work it, they only need passive acquiescence from the public at large and don’t have to be too worried about popular discontent… unless it reaches mass riot proportions. And even then, a sufficiently well-paid police and army can quell that.

In a more representative government, that pyramid of folks who determine the personality and will of a nation will be wider and deeper and include more of the population. Certainly not all of it, though, since more than half of the voting public will likely be opposed or indifferent to it. In the USA, we famously can have rule by minority, thanks to the Senate and gerrymandering. In Florida, for instance, I think Democrats could win well over half the vote and still not control the legislature. I don’t know the number… seem to remember 70%.

And of course, there are a lot of people who are just not interested who don’t vote and don’t participate. Used to be, pre-Reagan, that the Christian Evangelical population did not participate much. Reagan’s support team noticed that and figured out how to involve them: tell stories from the Christian Evangelical point of view, use the right signal words, flatter them, and involve them at the highest levels. It worked well. Nixon’s team famously flipped the Dixiecrats over the GOP side the same way: agree with their story of America, blame and harass Blacks, and so on as is well known. Trump followed up by involving the disaffected — famously, people who had never seen politics as serving them (while often, paradoxically, on various forms of government support), by using brutal language and pumping fear and a kind of mean humor. That worked too, but that is a fairly small tranche of the electorate; though enough in a close race, when added to mainstream Republicans.

So that pyramid of people who create the nation’s personality and will to action can be manipulated, and one of the most important tasks of a ruling group is to do so to their own advantage. Sometimes they fail and lose power, sometimes they fail and are forced to submit their own will to that of their supporters. Rival groups (such as parties) work hard to shape that pyramid to benefit themselves.

Either way, there will be citizens who have no input into the country’s actions and others who do, to a greater or lesser degree.

So you can say, legitimately, that (for example) extremists don’t speak for all citizens. Sure, but of course the opposite is true too — sensible centrists don’t speak for all citizens either. Those who wish to find a peaceful accommodation don’t speak for all citizens. There are many citizens, obviously many young men, who prefer action, danger, and risk to peace and prosperity. So much more exciting.

And it’s also true that very busy people generally don’t participate as much in politics. If you’re a farmer with many children, you won’t have the time to show up at town meetings. Those with time on their hands control the levers of power; anyone who’s ever lived in a co-op or a condo knows this. Or been on a school board.

This whole website may change all of a sudden

I have started acting again — classes, pictures, auditions, yadda yadda yadda.

Who knows what happens, but it’s a fun process. I know, strike. Still.

So all this incredibly compelling “content” hahaha may soon end up gone or hidden, and you’ll see things like headshots and videos. Won’t that be fun?

I’m told actors should have a positive attitude.

How many genders are there?

Much noise is generated about the number of genders. Let’s look at this closely.

There are no genders

According to this approach, even referring to Man, Woman, trans-Man, trans-Woman, cis-Man, cis-Woman, or anything else, is hurtful and unnecessary. We are just “people with…”, i.e., people with penes, vaginae, ovaries, prostates… and presumably other bits and bobs.

Sidebar: yes, "penes." I've been pitching for this as the correct plural of penis for years, ever since penis has been referred to in the plural in the media. I don't even know exactly when this happened, the naughty aughts, I suppose, but it did suddenly happen. First the taboo against the singular "penis" was breached, and shortly thereafter, the (incorrect, IMO) plural appeared. I mean, Richard Nixon's book, 6 Crises was not titled 6 Criseses, right? The plural of axis is axes, not axises.

I don’t discuss this with people (not appropriate conversation at work, and why get into it at home), but my surmise is that this is expected to protect marginalized people, specifically the trans community. How effective is it? Well, how does it work in other contexts? When people say they “don’t see color”, that is taken to be a kind of low-level racist dog whistle. I don’t see why erasure of gender is supposed to be more protective of non-cis people than erasure of race is to non-White people. Sure, we can argue that these are “social constructs” — an argument I think has a lot of merit — but we can’t seem to get away from them. We live in a society, and social constructs happen. Ignoring them doesn’t seem to help anyone. So I would argue that the “there are no genders” approach is philosophically interesting, arguably true, but wildly counter-intuitive and politically unhelpful.

As long as people persist in speculating on whether their baby is going to be a boy or a girl, we’re stuck with gender.

There are two genders, Male and Female, period, and shut up.

This is a favorite of college Republicans everywhere, along with bow ties, suspenders, cigars and whiskey (and strong opinions on whiskey vs. whisky). It has the appeal of mainstream tradition and of being simple. Simplicity makes ideas easier to remember, and memorability is often confused with truth.

Once we get away from the “don’t say the word” approach, we are confronted with defining it. You can’t count what you can’t define. And here I am WILDLY out of my depth. Which doesn’t mean I won’t attempt to tackle it. It seems to me that one’s gender is a product of an interaction. I can certainly claim that I am any gender I like, but that ignores the complication that other people may perceive me to be a certain gender, and treat me a certain way as a result. It’s easy to say (while shaking your finger) that they shouldn’t, but there you are; people stubbornly keep doing things one says they shouldn’t. So I would say that gender occurs on the interface between one’s self and others; in the liminal space or membrane that separates our subjective spaces and behavior and other people’s.

Sidebar: I don't buy that we have clearly separate inner and outer lives, a mental life and a physical life. It's all one shifting blob. As my old acting teacher, the late, and truly great, John Stix, used to say, dialog is the ruffle on the edge of the dress of a dancer; i.e., yes, learn the words and they're important, but the action is what is truly preëminent. I'm also not a big believer in the notion of a unitary consciousness. I think we only have intermittent and unreliable consciousness... but that's a whole other thing. Oh, and did you like the word "liminal"? Love it. I'm going to try to sneak in "immanence" somewhere...

It is a fact, sometimes unfortunate, sometimes not, that people out in the world treat us a certain way, and the way they treat us depends on many factors, among them their perception of our gender. Also our other physical and behavioral characteristics. Maybe they can’t see into our minds, but they can see what we look like and how we behave. I can claim I am a certain thing, but how people treat me will usually not take my claims into account. This is the source of all those mean, dumb “jokes” about identifying or transitioning: “transitioning to Black” and so on. I tried this one, and I’m sorry: “I’m transitioning to being very attractive; I would appreciate everyone treating me as if I’m very attractive now — anything else would be hurtful.” Jokes, after all, are generated by incongruities, and this is a clear incongruity. Saying it isn’t is as futile as King Cnut telling the tide not to rise or Nancy Reagan telling us to “just say no.”

Instead of stamping our feet at the cussedness of all people refusing to do as we tell them, let’s grant that we have an inner idea of our gender and people in the world have an idea about our gender; also we have a history of that interaction, from childhood on, and this shapes who we are. I would say that our Gender is a combination of those. So there is such a thing as a Man: a person who grew up as a little boy, both perceived as such and feeling like one, and experiencing continuity in that interaction. And a Woman: grew up as a little girl, both feeling like one and perceived as such, and experiencing continuity. Of course, some people experience discontinuities. They may have grown up perceived as a little boy or girl, but did not have what they felt was that internal experience, and have attempted to change how they are perceived via dress, behavior, legal status, and more. This would be a trans Woman or Man.

Why make the distinction between trans Woman and cis Woman? Because they are different things. We don’t exist as a snapshot, we have histories. And if you grew up perceived by those around you to be a little boy, whatever your internal experience may have been, you will have been treated very differently than if they perceived you to be a little girl. Little boys are, on the whole, encouraged to speak up and be aggressive. Little girls are, on the whole, encouraged to serve and nurture others and be polite. While much of our personalities are formed via our genetic gifts, some of it is formed by training and interaction with families, peers, and society. Here we get into feminism, and the apparently (from what I read) thorny issue of women’s groups that fight for various political and social goals, and whether (a) they should exist and (b) whether they should be castigated for distinguishing between cis and trans.

This brings up the ugly term, TERF. First, I believe this is one of those AstroTurf terms, created by meme-meisters on the Right. I mean, does anyone even refer to themselves as a “Radical Feminist”? Is that even a thing? I guess there must be feminists who, say, don’t want to live around men at all; and I guess that’s considered a “radical” point of view. I would say god bless ’em. Why not? People should live and associate any way they choose… Freedom™, right? And they may even say that they don’t want any trans-Women around, because those people grew up as little boys and were trained and acculturated as little boys, however they perceived their genders internally. Trans-Women might be perceived as never having had to put up with the shit that little girls have to put up with routinely. I mean, I don’t know, they probably had to put up with their own varieties of shit — bullying, marginalization, ostracism — but it would be (and this is key) different shit. And to claim that the shit cis-Women had to put up with either didn’t exist or doesn’t need to be considered, or is interpretable however other people wish, is, understandably, kind of insulting. My shit is my shit, and I get to say what it was.

Of course, nobody likes to be excluded from anything; even more so if one has a history of feeling excluded. But there are things many of us are excluded from, such as amusement park rides if one isn’t tall enough (or too tall); or sitting on certain chairs in restaurants if one is too heavy to feel secure on them; or being a member of Opus Dei if one is Jewish.

If we flip this and look at Men’s groups, it’s a bit different; it’s an asymmetrical situation. Yes, there are “men’s rights” groups who delight in thinking of themselves as perfectly symmetrical with feminist groups. Oh, they’re so put upon, they’re so victimized! Me, I think that’s either disingenuous or idiotic (or both! why not). Like claims of “white genocide” or the “great replacement” business, it’s nothing more than men grabbing something of value from others. The “thing of value” in this case happens to be victimization; this didn’t used to be considered valuable. I suspect this goes back to the Civil Rights movement. I believe (to the extent that I can deduce the thoughts of perfect strangers) that the success (however blunted and curtailed, especially lately) of the Civil Rights movement against heavily-armed White men was a shock. The lesson learned, I believe, was that victimization could be weaponized. White men mainly, and white people and men in general, are always going to copy successful weapons. Claims that White Christian Men are the most discriminated-against people are clownish and idiotic. They are stealing valor, assuming the glamor of victimhood. Yes, it’s beneath contempt, but I think that’s the dynamic.

ALL OF THIS to say that men’s groups have less of a reason to exclude trans-Men. If you are a trans-Man, you are climbing up a step on the ladder of social hierarchy. A men’s “drumming circle” is an interesting example to look at. Perhaps as they share their stories of being a little boy maltreated or ignored by their father, perhaps the notion of such a group is that these stories are specific to cis-Men. Trans-Men, having grown up as children perceived as girls by their parents, would have different stories, and would not be able to relate as viscerally to the cis-Men’s stories.

Well, that’s a fairly tedious amount of rumination. But I think we can dismiss the notion that there are two genders, Male and Female, easily distinguished and nailed to one’s forehead for life. In other words, immanent. Sorry, college Republicans, your vaunted “rationality” is merely prejudice puffed up with hot air and flown about on a string to call attention to yourselves.

There are Four Genders: Male and Female, with cis and trans modifiers, and one can opt out at will.

This is, in my opinion, defensible. I think you can legitimately say that there are cis-Men, cis-Women, trans-Men, and trans-Women. If you like, you can opt out of the whole thing and be Non-binary.

I haven’t even approached the whole athletic team thing. I think it’s an interesting problem. I don’t have children in school, so my feelings on this may not be as strong as parents who do; I think this give me a better perspective, much as a company might hire a consultant to look at their operation with fresh eyes.

There are two angles to the panic on this: locker room and athletic competition. If you’re a boomer, you would remember how the Soviets would feed hormones to their female athletes to increase their chance of winning. I don’t remember exactly, but I believe there were claims of their surreptitiously entering men into women’s competition. So some say it would not be fair for trans-Female athletes to compete with cis-Female. I don’t think that anyone worries about trans-Male athletes competing with cis-Male, the assumption being they would be less competitive, not more.

Sidebar: The locker-room thing. The premise is that it would be horrible for cis-boys to have non-cis-boys in the locker room with them. We've heard this argument since Robin Herman gained access to NHL locker rooms in 1975. I don't know... I thought it was horrible, as a cis-boy, to be in the locker room with other cis-boys. It is also felt that cis-girls would be threatened by having trans-girls in the locker room with them. Again, I don't know — seems iffy to me. I think there are a lot of varying reactions. I just don't think there is a good way to do locker rooms at all. But that's me.

Is this fair? The reason there are women’s athletics at all is to protect women and girls from being stomped all over by, presumably, larger, stronger, faster, heavier boys. Is this archaic? Is it insulting? I am reminded of an argument about the Voting Rights Act made by Chief Justice Roberts, that there is no such thing as racism anymore, so oversight of voting rules is no longer needed. That was perceived, rightly, as disingenuous and contemptible, and proven to be untrue immediately after the decision. So I don’t think we would want to rush to saying girls don’t need protection from boys anymore. At the same time, I don’t think any boys are rushing to be trans-Girls in order to beat them at a footrace.

Of course, there’s a lot of injustice in athletics: some people are bigger, stronger, faster, etc., than others, and they’ll win a lot. Yes, via hard work and training, people can improve; that, I suppose, is one of the great benefits of athletics for young people. The argument is that if boys, however they identify, compete in girls’ athletics, they will so far outstrip the girls that there is no incentive for the girls to improve themselves anymore, they could never win, and the benefits of athletics would be lost. I don’t know if this is true; I imagine there are Physical Education professionals who study this, under a lot of pressure and oversight from people with very passionate (however uninformed) feelings about this, on all sides. I wouldn’t want to be them, I’ll say that.

Note, the other benefit of athletics is to learn teamwork. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I know very little about sports. My wife actually bought me a book about how to watch baseball; I’m still vague about what a ground-rule double is. That said, I am told that women’s basketball and soccer are quite different than men’s basketball and soccer, in terms of team dynamics. Women play more as a team, passing more, and men tend to grandstand more, and the game is more about setting up the stars for showy plays. I don’t know, I’m sure a true aficionado knows more.

I guess I don’t know how to balance the pedagogical goals of school sports with the rights of young people to identify across genders. Is accommodating the rights of a very small number going to spoil or mar the experience of the vast majority? I sort of doubt it, but I’d like to read more on this topic.

Along with this is the issue of medical treatment for young people under 18, as in gender confirmation treatments, either hormonal or surgical. I don’t know much about this; I tend to be suspicious of surgery on children for non-physical-health reasons. So I personally disapprove of the sweet-16 nose job that some Jewish girls I knew in school got so they could appear (identify as?) non-Jewish. When they’re over 18, sure, whatever, who cares; adults make choices all the time. Sometimes they work out well, sometimes not. An old friend of mine (from the 80s) was an actress; beautiful woman, Jewish, she told me she had a nose job. I couldn’t believe it, it was so perfect. I don’t know that her career benefited from this, but she looked good (I never knew her before, so who knows; I suspect she looked fine before, too). On the other hand, I knew a young man — 19, I think — who moved sets in a play I directed. He had literally run away from home to join the circus when he was 13. He got tattoos. When I knew him, he was saving up to get them removed; they were of Snoopy. Not really appropriate for a big, hulking, masculine dude.

Anyway, if a parent asked me whether I thought they should get hormone treatment for their child younger than 18, I would probably suggest they wait. I can’t understand the inner experience of a trans child, that’s true. Some people believe that gender is nailed to your brain at birth, regardless of the rest of your body, and that it can’t change. That it is immanent. I think that belief is motivated less by thinking it’s true than by the hopes of protecting people from the charge that they’re just posing, or from attempts to convert them. But I suspect that is a bit Procrustean. Just as sexual orientation can change over time (even if only a little), I suspect gender identity may too. I don’t know.

There are N Genders; the value of N is unknown, maybe unknowable

Maybe? I do think that the M/F toggle switch idea is wrong, and that the cM/cF/tM/tF/optout is probably close to something like true. But I also think that while gender is not a toggle or a simple dimmer switch, it’s more like an equalizer board, with many sliders, or even a room full of equalizer boards, all interacting in unpredictable chaotic ways. So maybe there are N genders.

On the other hand, we need to live in a world and cooperate. From the trivial consideration of how to design a form to the much more fraught consideration of schooling, people want answers. And one cay say, and I do, be kind to everyone, don’t bully, teach bullies that it’s wrong and how to stop, and teach victims of bullying how to fight back. That goes a long way, but not all the way.

The trouble with talking about gender

Simple messages are easiest to remember. Being easy to remember is often conflated with being true.

Unfortunately, the traditional view of gender is the simplest — it’s a toggle switch, there are two settings, M and F. Anything that deviates from that rubric is… deviant.

We have a more sophisticated view of this nowadays. Gender is not a toggle switch, it’s not even a dimmer, with gradual settings. It’s more of an equalizer board, with many sliders. I’d say it’s a bank of equalizers with unpredictable interactions — a truly chaotic system. So much so, that it becomes a chump’s game even to discuss, it’s just too complicated.

And, actually, why do we need to? I remember when I was a kid in the 1960s, people being very exercised over men’s long hair. Simpler times, I know! The cliché complaint was, You can’t tell the girls from the boys!

Now that I’m in my 60s looking back, I wonder, Why do you need to tell the boys from the girls again? Are you looking to match up your child? Do you need to know whom to underpay, whose ass you can grab without consequence, whom you would invite to the club? Why is it even interesting to know the boys from the girls?

I’d argue it isn’t — who cares? Well, apparently a lot of people. Parents care. Confession — I don’t have biological children of my own, I am a step-parent. I’ve never had a baby. But it seems that parents of babies are obsessed with the physical characteristics of their children. This is sensible and probably a survivalistic trait, selected for by evolution. Even as children grow into adults, I find their parents obsess over how they look, even if they know this is not a healthy focus. Better to reward them for things they’ve chosen, such as kindness, hard work, and generosity, rather than being pretty, handsome, or tall. But there you are, we are apes and we do ape things.

So parents want to know what their kids are, M or F, and if the kids don’t fall neatly in those categories, parents can get frightened, confused, and upset. Upset people like to blame others for leading their perfect offspring astray, because the alternative is to either blame themselves (very unpleasant) or just accept that life is more complicated than they thought. That is hard to admit.

I am reminded of the endless fretting about exposure to gay people (my family was in the NYC theater scene; I was brought up around every conceivable permutation of sexuality; for the record, I’m straight… though effete and sometimes taken for gay). It was almost as if being straight was some kind of grim duty and took iron discipline, which, if relaxed for a second, one would tumble into gayness. I think all the people who believe that need to examine their own sexuality, if they feel that being gay is truly where joy, delight and freedom lie, and being straight requires constant work.

A difficulty for the community trying to open us up from the strict binary era is talking about schools to parents. If you say that schools need to change, that parenting needs to change, many parents will feel insulted and attacked. They loved school! The sports, the dances, the surreptitious sex, maybe even the classes. If you’re telling them, no, do it differently, the challenge is how to say that without driving parents right into a defensive crouch. I’m not smart enough to do this, sadly. If I were the character in Ted Chiang’s Understand, maybe I could figure it out.

This is often true; one can “say what one thinks” and feel virtuous, but if, in the process, you make someone else defensive, you’ve lost.

Another resonance of the strict binary gender code, is the need, it seems, for many trans people to define themselves according to its strictures. In other words, many would say, there is no such thing as a “trans woman” or a “trans man.” There are just women and men. Even though a trans woman did not grow up as a little girl, with all of its expectations and social impacts. A trans man did not grow up as a little boy, perceived to be a natural heir to male privilege and strength. Every person, trans or cis, is entitled to be treated with respect, but, as with Black Lives Matter, to say “every person needs to be treated with respect” insults the additional scorn, strife and violence faced by trans people.

This binary cage seems to be escaped by those who are non-binary. They may appear androgynous and be dealt with, socially, in a whole different way. These individuals may prefer they/them pronouns, may select an ambiguous appearance, and refuse to be slotted one way or the other.

There is such a thing as a man and a woman. They were raised as little boys and girls, grew up into the gender expression and identity they had at birth, both in their own self-identity and the identity agreed on by those around them. In a sense, they have it easy compared to trans people. Nevertheless, they are in the history of their gender identity and in the reaction to them by their surroundings, distinct and different from trans people.

I have no problem referring to a wide variety of genders: men, women, trans men and trans women, and non-binary. I’m sure there are more that I don’t know of, and will be more that haven’t been dreamed of yet. Each one has their own situation with regard to their families and society, and has some of that in common with the gender group they have been assigned and that they have chosen, however that interplay works for them.

It should be possible for associations to form within each group, and it should be possible for members of that group to decide by whatever mode they wish (formal association, unspoken consensus, anything else) the membership criteria of their group. If business is at stake, or advancement in an industry, it should not be exclusive; so men’s clubs where business deals are made should not exist. Men’s clubs, though, why not? Women’s clubs, why not? Trans or non-binary clubs as well. People should have that freedom of association. And since cis-women have a particular history of oppression that is distinct and different from trans-women, they should be able, without argument, blowback, or recrimination, to form groups and associations of cis-women.

Of course, anyone can mix and match however they want. There will be groups of women both cis- and trans-, and men as well. People who menstruate are cis-women. The existence or the naming of “people who menstruate” as “women” does no harm to the trans-woman community, and to say it does is strange. There are, of course, cis-women who do not menstruate, but there are no trans-women who do.

A political organization devoted to any one, any selection, or all, of these groups, is perfectly reasonable, and should be able to exist without recrimination.

How to Offend a White Republican Man

A good old friend of mine was complaining about cancel culture. He’s an editor, and was given a proofreading job of a galley without the original manuscript. This is called “blind proofreading.” When he used that term, he was criticized for making an ableist comment. Being a witty guy, he said, okay, it’s partially-sighted proofreading.

Funny, right? It was not taken as funny. The individual was offended. I would conclude that, in life, you’re going to run into tedious scolds. If you’re in a university environment, they’ll be left-wing tedious scolds. One could be forgiven (if one didn’t understand statistics) for believing that all tedious scolds are left-wing, which is a logical fallacy (don’t know the name of it). I mean, if my friend were working in an oil company, nobody would have batted an eye at “blind proofreading”, but something else might offend them.

This conversation has me wondering, if I did work in a hard-right environment, what would be the unacceptable joke? Any right-wing environment would be either all-White men and/or very Christian. In a Christian environment, you’re not going to do the “I can see my house from here” joke (not that it’s a good one; I’m sure there are better Christ jokes), and no amount of saying (in that whining plaintive tone), I’m joking, can’t you take a joke? will help.

In an all White male environment, like maybe in an oil-extraction or mining company, or plumbing supplies, you could certainly joke about women, non-whites, the disabled, and nobody would bother you about inadvertently “ableist” comments. As a White man, I could even make some fun of the one Black employee, and if they were offended I could do that “I’m joking, can’t you take a joke” thing.

Any suggestions for jokes that a right-wing White man would be bothered by? 

I was just in Santa Fe and visited the art museum. There’s a mural showing some friar “converting” the Mayans or Incas or Aztecs (can never tell them apart). It’s the one friar, unarmed, just holding up a big cross, facing a redoubtable crowd of Native people. Right behind him, of course, is a heavily armed group of conquistadors, leaning lazily on their swords and pikes. Some on horses.

I think the Toltecs in this situation (Olmecs?) might be more defensive than the conquistadors, given the power dynamics and potential for violence. The conquistadors, not generally known for their sense of humor, might laugh at themselves, but certainly would be willing to laugh at the native people. When the conquistadors were far away, I’d bet the native peoples would laugh at them, and maybe at themselves too. But when they’re all together, laughter and jokes involve a comment on, or playing with, power dynamics that would be way more uncomfortable for one group than for another, given where the matchlocks and spears were pointing.

Because of the whole gun thing, and because our justice system, from cop through judge, knows where its bread is buttered, White men have the least to fear from anyone, in terms of actual physical violence from other citizens or from the state. Or, maybe more importantly, in terms of loss of status.

I think that’s even more worrisome. Those at the top of the social hierarchy are worried more about others catching up to them than anything else.

So maybe that’s how to offend a right-wing White man. JTK*.

* That’s “joke to come” in TV writer’s lingo, I’m told.

Digging for voters

So clearly what’s been happening since Nixon is this:

  • Republicans worry because their base is shrinking
  • They can’t broaden their base to other voters because their reliable base hates those other voters.
  • They have to find people who aren’t yet voters — those people exist! They hate politicians because they keep telling them they’re wrong to be (a) racist, (b) sexist, (c) fearful of anyone different than them, and (d) anti-Semitic. Trump did this with (famously) motorcycle gang club members. (Remember! They’re not a gang if they’re White!)
  • Republicans’ job is clear: be (a), (b), (c), and (d) and capture those voters.
  • Other Republicans aren’t thrilled about this, but they’re team players, so they justify (a), (b), (c), and (d). In the course of doing that, those fusty, old-fashioned “norms” become less normal.
  • Since Nixon’s Southern Strategy, when Democrats alienated their Dixiecrat base by extending a hand to Blacks, this strategy has been pretty effective.
  • Now Republicans have to find smaller and smaller numbers of more and more extreme and hateful voters. These are not many people, but every one counts and thanks to modern computational power, they can be unearthed.
  • To accommodate the very small potential group of voters who might be described as Heavily Armed Mass Murderers, Republicans have to normalize these people’s passions in murdering lots of people with powerful weapons. The rest of the party, being team players, will work at justifying this behavior.

The Republican party is well on its way to becoming the Party of Heavily Armed Mass Murderers. Even now, their speechwriters are working on stirring, patriotic defenses of this slim, but crucial, voting bloc.