Posted in history, people, Saturday / samedi / sábado / lördag / Sonnabend or Samstag, Things I try to hide, Values & Ethics, Weave of Traditions

I hate to post this right now.

‘Because the man in question has helped me a good deal. We have a decent relationship and he is amazingly helpful and has sent me things that may well be the only things keeping alive. Nothing is simple in this world. Remember my grandfather’s fiddle. Only this man is not as bad as my grandfather, not by far. He has learned his errors. It is possible. And that is important. People think it’s not possible and they give the perpetrator no chance of redemption. That helps nobody. There are people who are beyond hope but in my case that is not true. But I have to talk about this. It is awkward because he just helped me a lot. But it is true regardless. So I have to say what I have to say, to bear witness to something most people refuse to acknowledge, and I have been putting this off far too long. Understand this post is not to punish the perpetrator, it is to explain what is possible, some things that most people do not think of.

So. I will call him John to be as anonymous as possible even though some of you know who he is.

I was molested from at least the ages of 11 to 15 by John. I have been hurt by other men, including something i am now told as rape (someone put his toes up my butt) but John did the worst damage.

It is easy to tell you how John threatened to butt-rape me. How he rubbed his penis on my butt. How he did sexual things to me that I was entirely unaware of at the time (Lolita has some scenes that explained to me how that is possible). I told him “Oh that is okay” and he very guiltily said “No, no, that is worse.” He feels remorse and went to therapy and tried to learn. He doesn’t even date now. These are facts. They are not the whole story but they are facts.

Anyway, so, the thing is, everyone things that child molesters are all pedophiles. That is, that they have a sexual orientation that gives them an irresistible attraction to children that they have trouble not acting on. But the most important message in this post is that this is not true.

So what is true?

I was molested because John was a misogynist, a big-time misogynist.

Most important message in the post.

The term incel didn’t exist back then. I know the history of the word, that it wasn’t always bad, that a woman invented it. But it has come to mean exactly what John was.

It matters that I am a woman. It doesn’t matter my inside gender. It matters that I am a woman, as in I belong to the class of people known as women, and misogyny is the hatred of that class of people. And that doesn’t change. And yes trans women are also women, I am not denying that. But I am also a woman and I can’t deny that. And I mean for the purposes of who is subject to misogyny. Or transmisogyny. Any kind of misogyny, and you are a woman for all practical purposes.

So.

John set a date by which he would marry.

It didn’t happen.

He picked a woman to marry.

She didn’t want him.

He could not accept this.

He tried to date a string of women, unsuccessfully.

John felt entitled to own women’s bodies. And use them however he wanted. And it made him angry when women would not do what we were told. Very angry. Very bitter. Very cruel. He threatened to threaten suicide to force a woman to have sex with him.

So the damage he did to me was not so much the things I listed above.

The damage he did was that he taught me all about women and he taught me all wrong.

He taught me to hate myself.

He taught me it was all right for men to treat women like things.

He taught me sexism and misogyny.

Those have stuck in my head longer than anything else he did. I am still disentangling them like the worst of my yarn monster.

But I asked him. I asked him why. I asked him why he did it.

And John said to get back at the world.

For not automagically giving him a wife when he felt entitled to a wife.

I was the smallest and most vulnerable girl he could get his hands on. Or his dick on.

And I had nightmares about him and back then people thought all nightmares about abuse were abuse flashbacks and 100% real. So I believed in the nightmares, I believed he anally raped me. My only anal rape came later in a psych ward. And involved feet, not penises.

This was the nineties which explains the confusion.

Anyway, for John, this was a power thing, he had power over me, and he used it.

He was not a pedophile.

He was a raging misogynist and what these days they call an incel.

The most important thing is his sense of entitlement to the bodies of women no matter what. And the rage tantrum he threw when he could not get his way with women his age. I was the target for all his rage and fear and disappointment and especially, especially, misogyny.

Which is one reason I need the word woman for myself no matter what else I feel. I can’t escape it. Do you think that little girl who survived being shot in the head, for trying to go to school, would have been shot any less if she was secretly a trans boy? Because she wouldn’t. She was a girl for all practical purposes and sometimes practical purposes are all that count. I am sorry that I don’t remember her name. I am still a little delirious from the hospital.

But I remember something like this:

I do not tell my story because it is unique. I tell my story because it is not unique.

Let me see if I can look up her name. That is from her Nobel Prize speech.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI.

Malala Yousafzai giving a speech. She has black shiny hair, brown skin, and an orange headscarf and robe of some kind, with a lace wristband poking out from underneath. She is holding a microphone. She is very beautiful inside and out, to me. I love her from a distance.

Anyway, she would be facing misogyny no matter whether she is really a man, woman, both, neither, some combination, whatever her gender identity is. For the purposes of misogyny you only need one way to be female, and there are many.

And the same is true of me.

John did not hurt me because he was a pedophile. He hurt me because he felt entitled to women’s bodies and I was a girl he had near total control over.

John, i know you will read this. I didn‘t want to write it in some ways, especially after all you helped me. But I think you, if no one else, will understan why I had to tell people the truth. I’ve been afraid to for far too long. I’ve been afraid. Of what will come raining down on me from family for writing this, of how you might feel after all this time.

But I also know that you take responsibility for your actions as much as you can. And you take what you did seriously. And if anyone is going to understand why I had to say this, it is going to be you. And you know, you know in your bones, like I know in my bones, that if you didn’t want anyone even anonymously telling why you molested a child, you shouldn’t have molested a child in the first place.

Because that is what I was. A child. And you hurt me. And you shouldn’t have. And you filled my head with the worst of misogynist nonsense. You learned. But you hurt me. You hurt me. And not just with your dick. Not even mainly with your dick. Your words and ideas hurt me the worst.

Your misogyny hurt me the worst. And your misogyny, not pedophilia, fueled the whole thing. And everyone needs to know that. For their own safety. Which is why I wrote this. For the safety of other people. Not to “call out” John, but to inform everyone that there are more than one reason for child molestation.

Also, thank you for changing. Thank you for the help. Thank you for getting help. Thank you for taking as much responsibility as you can. Thank you for having a conscience, that puts you leaps and bounds ahead of my grandpa. None of this excuses what you did, and you know that. But thank you for knowing there are exceptions.

And I am not telling anyone else how to feel about their molester. I am not telling anyone to forgive. I am not telling anyone how to feel. I am telling you how i feel. to the best of my ability. That is all. For now. I am sorry, I do not mean to air dirty laundry, but this is too important not to talk about.

I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is not. Paraphrase, Malala Yousafzai.

I tell my story not because is unique, but because it is not.

Paraphrase, Malala Yousafzai

Thank you, everyone. Everyone. Including John.

Posted in crossroads, death, Developmental disability, disability rights, family, history, Self-advocacy, Temporal Lobe Epilepsy

Crossroads #05 (Self-Advocacy Sunday)

A walkway leads out into a desert within pink sand, with a sign with arrows pointing both directions sideways. Letters matching the pink sand read "Crossroads."
Crossroads in the California desert.

Dear Cheryl,

Your bone resonance exists unseen
By those who can only
Read the words
On gravestones
Without feeling
The bones underneath

The grave of my dad’s aunt Voicy — he was close to her, she was more like a sister in age (my dad was 1941-2014). May they both rest in peace, and her husband as well. The gravestone is in Rose Bud, White County, Arkansas.
My great-aunt Voicy.
(I think. I’m faceblind and
some memorial websites get her and her
mom confused. I honored both of them
in my name change.)

They would have it
That you were a crip
And only a crip
You almost believed them
And were probably afraid
To say what you may have suspected

But your bones know better
And so do I

Spoken from the bone,
Mel

Posted in family, history, Okies

Atomic Vets Again

I’m late for Memorial Day, and I have no new posts on it planned to make, so this is it. But I made old posts. So for Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, I always remember America’s atomic vets. I have at least one in my family — he died from the experimentation he was subjected to by the military — and until I heard his story, I’d heard of this kind of thing but had no idea my grandpa’s cousin was involved in what I’d thought of as just another part of history. And that’s the thing: History is made up of people. Every single one of us is history. That’s important. And it’s important that we understand where we and our families and friends are part of history.

US Army troops in Nevada, training for nuclear warfare.
These troops are about 6 miles
from Ground Zero. The Pixley Farm was about 120 miles away.

Ronald Baggs, My Life As a Ping-Pong Ball

My father wrote this in his memoirs about living in the San Joaquin Valley on a farm called Pixley Farm during that time period, which meant Nevada where the nuclear testing happened was right over the other side of the Sierras:

In the early 1950’s, everyone was afraid of the communists, Russia and China in particular. In 1949, the communists took control of China and Russia exploded its first atomic bomb. Russia was supplying arms, ammunition, aircraft and tanks to the North Koreans and China. China joined with the North Koreans to fight UN troops in October of 1950. The mood in the United States was one of near paranoia. It seemed that war with Russia was inevitable. The specter of WW3 loomed on the horizon. It was at this time that Senator Joseph McCarthy began his famous communist witch-hunt. He contended that there was “A Red under every Bed”. The United States engaged in extensive Atomic Bomb testing in Nevada. From our vantagepoint on the farm, the flashes of light from the tests lit up the sky behind the Sierra Nevada mountains. Following the flash of light by a couple of minutes, we were jarred by the shock wave. The roar of the blast came many minutes later. It was an eerie experience. On one occasion, just before sunrise, I was helping Dad set siphon pipes when we saw the flash. We hung on to the pickup until the shock wave arrived. When it hit, it was so strong that it sloshed water out of the irrigation ditch. On another occasion, I was knocked out of bed by a shock wave. Atomic bombs were fearsome things to a nine-year-old kid. (They are fearsome things to a 66-year-old.)

Ronald Baggs, My Life As a Ping-Pong Ball
The red marker that says E Terra Bella Ave shows roughly where Pixley Farm was located, where my dad could see the atomic testing over the mountains.

This is the part where my dad talks about meeting the atomic vet in my family, who eventually died as a result of the radiation:

One afternoon, I came home from school and there was a strange man in the living room talking to Dad and Mom. He was one of Dad’s cousins and was home on leave from the Army. I sat and listened with wide eyes as he described his participation in the atomic bomb tests in Nevada. He along with many other soldiers had sat in a trench one mile from ground zero. They had dark goggles and ear protection that was their only special equipment. The bomb sat on a tall tower. They were told not to look at the tower or to raise their heads above the edge of the trench. When the bomb went off, Dad’s cousin saw a blinding flash, and was thrown backwards against the trench wall. He said that the blast was deafening and that a sheet of hot sand whistled over his head. We talked for a while and then he left. I never saw him again. Six years later, in 1958, I heard that he had died of leukemia.

Ronald Baggs, My Life As a Ping-Pong Ball

I made a more detailed post on atomic vets awhile back, called America’s Atomic Veterans, if you want to read it.

I think it’s important to remember not only the soldiers who died in foreign countries, but also the soldiers who died right here in America. They died without volunteering to be experimented on by their own government. The government considered them expendable. Just human guinea pigs to see what the bomb would do to them. And while we’ve made progress, neither the living vets nor the people who died have been properly compensated for the mess created. This isn’t a partisan thing, and it’s not about whether you approve of the military or not, this is just messed up what happened to people.

Posted in Californication, culture, family, history, music, Okies

Okie Country Song: “California Cotton Fields”

It’s nice to find Okie-themed songs that aren’t by Woody Guthrie.  Not that all of his were bad, but a lot of us have mixed feelings about him for all kinds of reasons both good and bad.  (Mine are mostly around the fact he made a living off making fun of us as much as anything else.  But tempered by the knowledge that is making a living in a situation where especially at first he had no guarantee of one.)

Anyway as far as I know this is just a straight-up story from Merle Haggard’s life.  I’ve always liked Merle Haggard’s music.  He was one of the pioneers of the Bakersfield Sound, basically Californian country music, mostly Okie in origin, that sounded very different from Nashville either at the time or since.  Bakersfield being one of the largest cities in the San Joaquin Valley where the Okies lived, and one of the big centers for country & western music in California. This is mostly about the way people from Oklahoma and surrounding states, largely but not entirely during the Dust Bowl and Depression eras, were lured into California with promises of a standard of living that didn’t pan out.  A method of getting a cheap farm labor force into the state that hasn’t changed much. 😦 My family got lucky, after some time in the labor camps they were able to buy a series of small farms (one at a time, not owning several at once!) they spent the rest of their lives in debt over before being pushed out of farming altogether.  Most Okies didn’t even get that.
California cotton fields.
Posted in culture, history, music

The Eagle Flies Alone, and what does Armageddon mean today?

Sorry I can’t write out the lyrics.  Kruschshev must’ve really made an impression on Tony Carey as a kid, he’s always referencing the shoe-pounding incident.  I don’t know if I’ve ever shared my collection of Cold War songs in its entirety or not, but this is one of them.  (The vast majority are by this artist, he did a lot of Cold War inspired work both under his name Tony Carey and his sci-fi/historical dystopian band name Planet P Project which was basically just him with a synth and a lot of time on his hands.)

I find it interesting to hear the perspectives of different people who were there, writing songs about the Cold War during or shortly after the Cold War.  I’m at the tail end of the Cold War generations (I’m about as young as you can get and still have understood what was going on enough to absorb the historical context despite some massive comprehension problems on my part) and this guy is from close to the other end so it kind of bookends things for me.

To me, the end of the world is nuclear war.

Like.  Those two things mean the same thing

It’s taken me time to realize there are other ends.

It’s taken me even longer to realize the end of the world is not the end of the world.

It’s taken me even longer to convince anyone that nuclear war never stopped being a threat.  I never understood why everyone was so fast to think we were safe when the Cold War ended.

Like.  No.  Really.  I knew those nukes didn’t just vanish.  I knew the technology didn’t just vanish.  I knew the nature of modern human cultures didn’t just just vanish.  I was a kid but I wasn’t that oblivious to the world.

I wonder what Armageddon today’s kids are inheriting.

Understand I didn’t first hear Armageddon in a religious context.  It was another word for nuclear war.  I had no idea it was a religious metaphor or what religion it came from.

So I wonder what Armageddon means to today’s kids.

Does it mean this?

They were beginning to tell us stories like the above when I was a kid, but it was harder to grasp or believe.  Especially since I associated environmentalism with upper-middle-class and rich snobs trying to one-up each other’s status symbols.  So I had an aversion to taking them seriously.

This last song, I take as a call to action, to say, “This will happen if we don’t do something now.

But a friend warned me that the tone of the song can also signal despair, and stop people from hoping, and stop people from believing they have any obligation to carry on even in the face of loss of hope.

And I can see that.

So I’d remind people that the fact that each of us individually will die does not absolve us of our responsibilities while we are still alive, it only underscores them.  Because there will always be those who come after us.

And I’d remind people that the same is true of us as a species.

It still matters what we do for each other right now, because each of us matters right now.

It still matters what we leave for the next generation, and how hard or easy we make something that will never be easy.

It still matters, even in the event of extinction, what we leave for other life that may come after us.

It still matters what we do now.  Because everything now matters.

It still matters what we do for the future.  Because the future is not just any one of us, and it is not just all of us, it is a whole world, a whole universe, it is things we can’t understand or anticipate, and what we do has an effect and matters to all of that.

It matters because we are all on Julian of Norwich’s hazelnut together — this one tiny fragile nut that we have to take care of because it’s all we’ve got.  And if you think she lived a long time ago in simpler times, a reminder she lived during the frigging Plague in Europe, which sure looked like the end of the world at the time.

And just as death was considered a marker of social equality back in those days, another song from my Cold War collection references nuclear war just before saying “Ashes and diamond, foe and friend, we were all equal in the end.”

Wow I’m cheery today.

A Slovenian Danse Macabre mural

I actually love the symbolism of the Danse Macabre, though.  For real.  It says that death is the one thing that happens to every one of us, that makes us all equal.  It’s an art form depicting dead people dancing together, from all walks of life.  The Plague got people thinking that way.  That’s bleak optimism for you.

Ashes and diamond Foe and friend We were all equal in the end Pink Floyd, “Two Suns in the Sunset”

As far as I knew, growing up, the world ended with a flash.  The only difference you got was whether you were at the center of the flash and died quickly, or a further distance away and died slowly.  On 9/11, I was sure from FBI chatter (and lack of communication device) that I was headed towards the center of the flash.  I was a lot of things, but I wasn’t afraid.  I’d been ready for it my whole life.  It only took minutes to adjust to the “okay it’s finally happened, no time to feel bad about it” mentality.

It took a lot longer to adjust to the reality of what’d actually happened.  But I was baffled by all the people saying “We’re not safe anymore.”  Safe?  Since when were we safe?  Did everyone forget so fast?  And honestly what happened for real was a lot less bad than what I imagined when I heard the snippets like “Plane headed for the Pentagon” and “We think downtown San Jose will be a target, we need to shut down San Jose” and people standing on street corners waving newspapers with “ATTACK ON AMERICA” in giant letters.

I mean — there was no context for planes flying into buildings, and anyone old enough to be reared on Cold War propaganda and unable to get access to the real news was gonna come to one conclusion.  My dad was coming out of an isolated part of the Sierra Nevadas and came to the same exact conclusion when the planes stopped flying over (he memorized plane routes and used them to help orient to both time and locations) and he could only get patriotic music on the radio.

And now we’re facing so many different ends.

And yet none of the ends are ends, if we look beyond ourselves, just as our own end isn’t the end, if we look beyond our own personal death.  And even what looks like the end of the species may be survivable for small tiny numbers of scattered people.  But end of person, end of most of our species, end of our entire species, end of many species, whatever it ends up being — we still have a responsibility right now.  To everyone who still exists, to everyone who will exist, to everyone within our species, to everyone beyond our species.  We have a responsibility.  That never goes away.

As for despair, this is worth keeping in mind:

It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. Gandalf the Grey, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I know I’ve said all this before.  But some things are worth repeating.  And the memory of the Cold War seems worth keeping alive.  Different eras in history shape not just big forces in the world, but also the lives and beliefs and perspectives of small people everywhere.  And those lives and beliefs and perspectives and memories are, each one of them, vitally important.  They are what history is really made of — each one of us, not a single one invisible — and why history matters.

Posted in history

We got the cutest little cameras hangin’ everywhere oh yeah…

We got the cutest little cameras hangin’ everywhere, oh yeah…
After awhile you just forget they’re there, oh yeah…
What a perfect place

-Planet P Project (Tony Carey), “This Perfect Place”

Or if you want the entire song, with the lyrics in large subtitles across the screen:

I grew up on that.  The album came out in 1984, and the song is clearly highly influenced by the novel 1984.  It’s actually part of a very long concept album, and in fact was my introduction to prog rock, concept albums, and Okie singers with recognizable Okie accents who weren’t singing country.  (Although when he was asked if he’d ever do a country album, he said “They’re all country songs really” or something like that.)  So I heard this song a lot.  I won’t get into the plot of the thing, it’s long and complicated and not the point here.

When I was growing up, the idea of cameras everywhere was something out of a dystopia.  If someone said it could happen people would probably think they were a conspiracy theorist or paranoid in some way.  It was certainly something to be afraid of if you thought about it.  Not something normal.  Not something people would accept.  Something that would creep people out to think about.

These days in a lot of countries there are cameras everywhere, used for far more than the security purposes they’re claimed to be used for, and people are just frigging desensitized or something.

I know people who are very concerned with the role of surveillance in modern societies, who dedicate a lot of their time and energy to it.  I’ve never done that.  I’ve never liked the situation, I’ve detested the situation, I’ve feared the situation, but I’ve never been able to devote much time or energy to understanding it or doing anything about it or thinking about it much of the time other than in passing or when it affects me or someone I know.

It doesn’t sit easy with me, but even I’m used to it by now.  I hate it, but I’m used to it.

How the hell did we get from there to here?  I remember a time when nobody would’ve been used to it.  I can’t even remember how or when they were phased in.  How quickly or how slowly.  What changed.  What made people accept this.

I used to live in an apartment complex full of cameras, supposedly for security purposes.  In reality they were rarely used for security.  They were used for everything from finding lost items in the halls, to making sure tenants didn’t use the bulletin boards without authorization.  (I ran afoul of that one by posting landlord-tenant law on them.  Nothing but a snippet of actual landlord-tenant law printed out.  At 3 in the morning.  They were gone in an hour.)  Which is a free speech violation but they never did care about violations of our rights, it was low-income housing and they pretty publicly didn’t think highly of their tenants.  And they were largely used as part of the War on Drugs — catching any drug deals that happened to take place in the halls and evicting people.  None of which had anything to do with actual security or safety, the claimed purpose.  I can’t ever remember an instance where they were used to protect anyone.  There could be one, I just never heard of one.  They certainly didn’t use them to catch the people yelling death threats at me and a roommate through our door, during the same time period they were using them to police their bulletin boards.  Or the guy running around threatening to murder people with a crossbow.  Long story.

Anyway, I just wonder how we got there from here, and why people are okay with it, and how and why it happened, and what happens when everyone who remembers what it was like before is dead.

Posted in history

An eighties child’s conception of AIDS.

AIDS is something that slowly absorbed into my awareness, despite a lot more barriers to comprehension than the average child would be dealing with.  This is my best rendition of my child’s understanding, looked back on with adult eyes.

I was a child when I first heard the word AIDS, and like most words at the time, I didn’t understand it but it recorded itself in my memory.  Well — not AIDS as a single word, but rather the full phrase AIDS antibody test, which ran together in my head because news reporters repeated with a tone to their voice that meant it was important.  I stored it as important with no comprehension of any of the three words.

Later, it became important in another way.  I was learning to use words with minimal understanding.  I had worked out a rule I could use — if a word seemed to be used in many different contexts and have vastly different effects, I would not use the word.  Aides were people who existed in the classroom, aids were something else entirely, and AIDS was a word you heard all over the place.  I didn’t know they were different words, or how they were spelled.  I didn’t do this with all sound-alike words, but only ones that fit certain patterns I still can’t articulate.  I just knew better than to say any of them.  So for many years, I never said aides, aids, or AIDS.

On the playground, children ran around tagging each other.  As they touched each other, they’d say “Tag, you’ve got AIDS.  Tag, you’ve got AIDS!”  It wasn’t like regular tag.  Each child would run around touching other children one by one on the arm, saying “You’ve got AIDS,” and then some of those children would run around doing the same thing.  They weren’t playing tag, they were playing a plague game.

As I got a little older, I learned a little more about what AIDS actually was.  My mom’s friend Matt (not his real name) from work got AIDS.  In the process, he was outed as gay at work.  This was a hospital, everyone involved were healthcare workers, and he had tons of friends there.  By the time the dust settled, my mother was his only work friend.

I didn’t spend much time with him, but we did go with my mom up to Filoli Gardens once.  It’s the only time I’ve ever been there, and I will always associate it with Matt.

Filoli gardens, a large garden on the grounds of a mansion on the edge of the Santa Cruz mountains in San Mateo County.
Filoli gardens, a large garden on the grounds of a mansion on the edge of the Santa Cruz mountains in San Mateo County.  It’s the last place I went with Matt before he died.

I was a child and I picked up child things from this.  I didn’t know what gay meant — it was another word I would not use because of multiple meanings that fit a certain pattern.  I saw that he looked sicker and thinner every time I saw him, and one day my mom said he was dead.

I remember Ryan White, a boy with hemophilia, contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion, and hearing on the news how he was shunned by his entire school.  I remember him dying in 1990.

I was a little more able to understand things by the time Guy Nakatani started speaking at schools, including two schools I attended.  I still didn’t understand the moral weight people gave to AIDS or being gay.  Guy Nakatani had AIDS and talked about its effects on the body, and the effects of the treatments back then on the body, and that much I could grasp.  I remember him saying that he would talk about anything about AIDS except how he got it.  He said that people divided people with AIDS into innocent victims and deserving victims, and that he didn’t want to say anything that could put him on either side of the divide.  I didn’t understand the reference.  I’m pretty sure the other kids did.

I remember the second or third time I saw him at a school.  He was so thin he couldn’t sit down.  I had read in the paper that he doesn’t disclose how he got AIDS, and his reasons.  The paper had then gone on to say he’d gotten it from gay sex.  I understood enough to know this was horribly cruel and unfair.

I was in high school now.  I had some idea what gay meant.  I did not understand my own sexuality yet, but it gave me great amusement to learn that the only person friendly to me in that school was also gay and in the closet.  Everyone thought we should be dating, or were dating.  Nope.  I’d come out as bisexual in a year or two as one of the first steps in my coming-out process, which I know makes me a tired stereotype but it’s what happened.  I’d be 19 before I could say the word lesbian about myself, and that was a long way off.  And even longer before I could articulate anything even vaguely coherent about gender.

There was one openly gay boy in my high school.  I heard everyone talk about him when they thought I wasn’t listening.  They said that he only was out for attention.  They said he read gay magazines in the student lounge for attention.  He transferred to another school across the country.  Then he ‘burned out’ and had to come home.  I later wondered how much homophobic bullying had to do with that.

Likewise, there was one openly gay guy in a student organization I’d drifted into.  (I drifted into a lot of things at that age without a lot of intent or agency involved.  I understood a lot more, but was hiding at least some of my continuing incomprehension without actually trying. It’s just how I operated.  And I ended up doing everything from joining organizations to choosing majors in this manner.)  It was kind of like a debate club.

I remember there was a debate about gay marriage.  And he said he wanted to meet a beautiful man and then marry him.  That line from his speech, and the emotion he said it with, was the only one I understood.  But I understood it.  I heard people gossip about him, too.  They said he wouldn’t be such a big deal in the organization if he didn’t use being gay to get attention.  Like when I was younger, I didn’t evaluate those statements for meaning for many years.  But I remembered them, and I still remember them.  For what it’s worth, as is obvious, I couldn’t disagree more.

So Guy Nakatani came to our high school, just as he’d come to my middle school.  It was just after that horrible newspaper story had been published.   He looked exhausted, weak, and sick but he wanted to continue educating people about AIDS for as long as humanly possible.  He tried to do so.

I don’t remember most of the questions, but I remember one  One student raised his hand and said, “How did your parents react to finding out you were gay?”

Guy Nakatani was silent.  The whole room was silence.  There was just an eternity of awkward, stony, defiant silence.

And then things moved on.

I later read in the paper that Guy Nakatani had died.

And apparently, however they reacted at first, his parents came to see it as their mission to promote loving acceptance of having gay children.  But I could feel the burning horrible invasiveness and unfairness of the question when it was asked.  And I could feel his equal shock and defiance in response.  He seemed to be trying not to cry.

In health class at school, when they covered the topic at all, they tried to tell us everyone could get AIDS and everyone needed to use comdoms.  One day, they had a gay couple come in.  One of them had AIDS, one didn’t.  They were sexually active, with protection.  Later I heard both kids and adults condemning them.

That same year I saw Guy Nakatani the last time, and after I’d crashed and burned and had to drop out of high school, my mom told me that her friend’s daughter had just died of AIDS.  She wanted to get rid of all her clothes, and wanted to give them to me.

I thought at first that her mom had just given me all of her clothes.  As in, all her clothes from her entire life.  Because there were clothes that seemed like they were for children.  Young children.

My mom explained to me that the clothes that were too small for me were because she’d gotten so emaciated towards the end of her life that she had to wear children’s sizes.  I never forgot that.  And I always remembered her when I wore her clothing, even though I didn’t know her and never met either her or her mother.

900038364_4356c03290_o
Mel at 15 or 16 in a residential facility playing with a dog and wearing the dress of a girl who died from AIDS.

Objects tell stories of their own, and they talk to me better than words do, so I have never forgotten her.  I wore her clothes and I wore her shoes, and I still wear a pair of shoes in the exact make and style of the ones her mother gave me.

I only dimly registered the major AIDS battles that were heating up the country and the world throughout my childhood.  I didn’t know about ACT-UP, although I’m sure I heard of their activities in the background and didn’t connect them (I did a lot of that).  I didn’t have the opportunity to look for information or ask questions, I didn’t drift in that direction.  But as I drifted through life — which is what I did back then — I drifted near enough for AIDS to penetrate my awareness for as long as I can remember picking up on words at all.  And it’s weird the things you remember…

Remember that history is made out of each of us all put together, ordinary people, and what we remember of it is important.  I may not have understood everything being said and done around me, but I absorbed it all.  This may be a bit of a dismal post for Pride Month, but this is what I grew up with.  This is part of our community’s history.  And it’s important to remember it all.

Posted in Being human, Californication, culture, family, history, medical

Every part of your life makes your perspective vital to the world.

We all come to the world from a particular place. Each of us it’s a little different. Sometimes a lot different. Some of it is culture. Some of it is background and life experiences. Some of it is our families. Some of it is the way our body works. Some of it is location. There are so many things that influence our perspective on the world.

But we all have one particular perspective. And that perspective is important. Without many perspectives on the world, the world would be in a lot of trouble. We need people from different backgrounds, different thought patterns, lots of different things.

But every part of your perspective, everything that makes it up, is important. And that includes the things that seem to contradict each other. And all the things you’re ashamed of. Or afraid of. Or all the little details that seem to make things a little more complicated. Those things are all important to who you are, where you come from in the world, and what makes your perspective important.

I’ve talked before about being an Okie. I may have even talked about how ashamed I was and afraid I was for a long time of recognizing I was an Okie. There were a lot of reasons for this. But I could not understand myself, or my culture, or the things that made me different from my neighbors where I grew up.  Not without understanding both that I was an Okie and what an Okie is. And the history behind Okies in California.

Mel wearing an orange t-shirt that says "California Okie" with a picture of a redwood tree and a map of Oklahoma.
Mel wearing an orange t-shirt that says “California Okie” with a picture of a redwood tree and a map of Oklahoma.

But it goes beyond just being an Okie. There are tons of specifics to it. There is how long most of my family was in Oklahoma and the surrounding area before coming to California. There is why each specific part of my family came to California. There is when they came to California. There is what opportunities were open to them and not open to them compared to other Okies. There is what states they came from both originally and before they came to California. There is who stayed behind, who came to California, and who went back. And why. There is the specific ethnicities of different parts of my family.

There is also the fact that we left that San Joaquin Valley and ended up in Silicon Valley. There is the fact that my father was a very specific kind of person who existed in Silicon Valley, even though their presence was rarely acknowledged. Which is he was an Okie techie. There were Okies who left what were usually farm jobs and made it into some part of the Silicon Valley tech industry.

In my father’s case, that meant he was an electronics technician. He, like many Okie techies, came from a small farming or farm working background. He grew up tinkering with electronics in the attic of his farm. His high school in Kern County had an excellent program. Every year, they built a house. The carpentry class would build it. And the electronics class, which my father was in, would wire it. And so on. They would sell it as cheap as they could to a family who needed a home, and use the money for next year’s house. My father got practical experience with electronics while still in high school.

He went to a two-year college and got a degree that allowed him to be an electronics technician. But like many Okie techies, most of what he learned in the world came from practical experience of some kind.  His on-the-job experience gave him enough knowledge that he could do the work of an engineer without the schooling.  He even trained engineering grad students.

This all meant that I was born in San Mateo County in the redwoods. Because this was very close to the physics research facility where my dad had a job when I was born. And it meant when we left the redwoods I grew up in Silicon Valley, mostly San Jose. I have also lived in the San Joaquin Valley, Santa Cruz County, Santa Barbara County, and other places. But that’s the basic area I was in.

And that means that while my culture was Okie, this was not the culture I was surrounded by. And I was exposed to a lot of things that most Okies would not believe in. Like all the stuff I call California dreaming. A large, destructive part of California’s culture where a lot of people try to live in a dream world. It’s most famous I guess as a Hollywood thing. Because it’s easy to see that Hollywood is based on a lot of people’s dreams about the world. But it’s around a lot of mainstream Californian culture. There’s a whole branch of the Silicon Valley tech industry where people  live with their head in the clouds and don’t seem to have any idea that there is a basic physical world they have to live in. There are also the new agers who think you can wish physical reality into existence using only your mind.

And so I was exposed to all these ideas, even though within my family they got very short shrift. Because like anyone who’s done farm work pretty much knows that you depend on the physical world and you cannot wish it away. And any Okie with any sense remembers the dustbowl and how you could not wish or dream that mess away, and how people created that mess by ignoring the realities of their physical environment. So my cultural influences push me very far away from the sort of thinking that gives us dream worlds, and thinking the Singularity will save us or kill us or whatever, and things like The Secret and the Law Of Attraction. Which are a lot more connected within Californian culture than you would expect.

But exposure to those ideas while young led me to try them out. And I tried them out in a pretty spectacular way. And I never could shake a pretty iron sense of the real physical world, even though I did my best to pretend. And part of that is my cultural background kicking in. But I heard if you pretend something it’ll happen, so I tried my best to pretend reality didn’t exist. But I couldn’t pretend to myself at all. So these were these two influences fighting in my head. What I heard around me and what I kinda knew in my bones.

My exposure to those conflicting cultural values shapes my understanding of the world. If I had only been exposed to one or the other, or if I had come from a different direction, my perspective would be extremely different. And I do think my perspective on this gives me insight into things that are important.

There’s also the specifics of my family, like my personal specific family history. Three of my grandparents were Okies, the other was the daughter of Swedish immigrants. My mom’s family tended to be FDR Democrats, my father’s family were Republicans. Both of my parents had political and religious disagreements with their parents. There were frictions in the family over politics and religion. There is the combination of political liberalism or leftism and a sort of cultural conservatism or traditionalism that’s pretty hard to nail down in words, but that definitely exists in my family and in me. There’s a lot more diversity among Okies in this regard than you will ever hear. And these things factor into everything as well.

But all that, all those influences, all those oddly specific things about my personal, family, and cultural background. Those all and far more things that I could not get into, contribute to what my particular perspective is and what I have to offer based on that perspective. Even my weird little personal aversions to being an Okie, my attempts to hide from being an Okie, my attempts to become something I’m not, my final understanding that regardless of anything I am an Okie. All those things, all those twists and turns, are important to who I am.

It is all of these extremely specific things that are specific to each person that are very important in so many ways. And culture is just one part of what I am describing.

Like you can go into anything. And all the specifics matter.

Another example:  I have a severe kind of inertia. So severe that in the medical world it’s been diagnosed as a form of catatonia since I was a teenager. First just as a description and later as an actual diagnosis. Severe enough that sometimes I need help with physical movement through physical prompting. But also not always that severe, fluctuating a lot throughout my lifetime. And fluctuating a lot based on a lot of things. And something that started out not as severe and became more severe over time.

That means that I intuitively understand a lot of the mechanics of how prompting works and does not work. I intuitively understand the vulnerabilities created by inertia.  These vulnerabilities are not well-understood by most professionals or family. I understand how things can go right, and how things can go wrong. This is true of many of us who have this kind of inertia.

Some people have never consistently done a voluntary unprompted movement.  Unlike them, I have had a degree of privacy to develop certain abilities. When I was a certain age, I was able to go on the computer, in a room by myself, and dial in to BBSs.

A BBS, or Bulletin Board System, was a computer system or network that you dialed into using a modem. At its simplest, it would have message boards where people can leave messages for each other. Kind of like if you’ve ever used a web board for some topic or another. It could also have email, whether within the BBS or with an Internet feed. Sometimes it would have Usenet which was again kind of like a web board in its way. Sometimes it would have what we now call chat rooms. Sometimes it would just have the ability to chat with the sysop, or systems operator, who is the owner of the BBS. Sometimes it would even have Internet relay chat. But not all BBSs connected to the Internet. Many were one computer.  Some had their own small networks like NirvanaNet. Which I used a lot.

But my time on BBSs was a time when I could type anything into a computer screen, and watch whatever reaction I got back. At that age, anything I said or typed had a lot of echo to it. So it was not necessarily reflective of what I was thinking. Sometimes it was. But that was not consistent for me. It was formative to privately and anonymously type words into a screen and get words back. Even if the fruits of that experience were in no way immediately obvious.  My communication skills would never have been the same without that.

And there are people who have a lot of inertia. Who have the same awareness I have of how it works and does not work. But who because of either their life circumstances, or their degree and type of inertia, have never had that formative experience of typing with nobody seeing what you’re typing. Or speaking without anyone hearing what you are speaking. And as minor as that might sound to someone who doesn’t know what that means, it fundamentally and hugely affects many things about how you communicate and even what you can communicate.

It also affects what you can safely communicate about. Because if you are dependent completely on other people for your communication, there are things that have consequences if you say them. And some of those consequences may be having your communication taken away forever.

But even aside from the risks, the lack of the experience of ever having communication privacy has an enormous effect on a huge amount of things. For me, having the ability to at least some of the time, and for me it’s most of the time, communicate or even just use words in private means there’s a lot of things I am able to say. Including a lot of things about the mechanics of inertia. And the mechanics of prompting. And the inherent dangers of prompting that cannot ever be erased.

And talking about those dangers is hard for people who depend on physical prompting to communicate. Some people do it, some people try. But they can’t always manage it. And when they do manage it, they may face very severe consequences.

So there are these dangers built deeply into any way of helping someone overcome inertia. And I can’t get into all of what they are right now. I’m not always actually that good at describing the exact nature of them. But I am able to say they are there. I am able to say that they can’t go away.

I am able to say that they are different from, vastly different from, the dangers that most people are aware of. I am able to say they operate in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with the fucking ideomotor effect. That human beings are not Ouija boards. That the fact that this takes place does not mean communication does not take place. But also the people who create, develop, and promote the many different forms of assisted typing do not understand this either. I don’t think some of them want to understand it. But others they just can’t understand if they’re not aware of what the actual problems are. And of course because of the stakes, there’s a lot of pressure to not even acknowledge there is a problem. Or to oversimplify the problem.

And the problem is someone like me is in a position to know and understand the dangers very well, and to be able to say hey there are dangers here. And that is so specific to my position in the world. Like my exact experiences with inertia. My exact experiences with prompting and assisted typing. My exact fluctuations in abilities. My exact background in this entire area, my entire personal history, the ability I had to experiment with language in private for years without anyone knowing who I was and what I was saying and why I was saying it.

And I’m also in a position to understand that even saying there are dangers carries dangers for those who rely on assisted typing of one kind or another. I know that anything I say can be used as ammunition to try and shut down attempts to allow people to communicate. And I take that very seriously, so if that’s your position on this is that all assisted typing is nonsense, I can tell you that is wrong. And I know exactly why it is wrong. Because I have used it.

So I exist in this borderland that is an extremely useful borderland to exist in. And all the twists and turns, all the little details, give me a perspective that is important to the world. I know other people with this particular perspective. Just as I know other people of my basic cultural and family background, both general and weirdly specific.

I’m not saying that I’m uniquely important in my perspective. We all have, each one of us, because of all the specifics of everything about us, an important perspective. We need every perspective we have. Even, or maybe especially, where our perspectives contradict each other or disagree. It doesn’t mean every single one of us is right. But every single one of us has something important to give to the world in terms of how we see the world and how we react to it. And when we try to hard to force everyone into the same perspective, we lose that.

Even weird things matter. Like being seen as high IQ and being seen as low IQ, both officially. Having gone from an early entry college to special education high school in that order. All of these things create understandings of the world that each of us has. Each of us has weird little specifics in our life that all matter.

Often it’s the things we don’t want to know about ourselves, or don’t want to think about, that are important. It’s the things we’re ashamed of. It’s the things people give us crap for. It’s the things we’re afraid of. It’s the things that aren’t even true, but other people’s belief in them has changed our lives.

Painful as some of these things are to think about, the more we understand them, the more we accept that all these things are a part of us, the better equipped we are to understand where we’re coming from. The more you understand the perspective you’re coming from, the more you can contribute from that perspective. It lets you know your exact place in the world and that is a very powerful thing to know. It gives you choices. It gives you understanding. It gives you insights that you would not otherwise have. It gives you more of an in-depth comprehension of both the strengths and limitations of your particular point of view.  It makes you understand your place within human diversity, and the importance of that diversity in all its forms.  It makes you understand why and how it is that diversity can never be neatly summed up.  It lets you know how you can use all of this.

So I’ve used a lot of examples of my own life here. But that’s to illustrate something that applies to every single person on this planet. Our culture matters. Our background matters. Our family matters. Our life experiences matter. Our physical body’s makeup matters. Everything about us contributes to this. And the less we can hide from the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to see, and the things about this that are so painful we don’t want to look at them, the more powerful we can be. And the more powerful our perspectives and our use of those perspectives can be.

So I guess the short version of this is:  Know thyself. But know thyself in detail. Know thyself fearlessly or at least courageously. Know all parts of thyself. Know the parts of thyself you would rather not know. Know the parts of thyself that you are proud of, that you’re ashamed of, that you’re indifferent to, that you are afraid of, all of them. Know how they all fit together. Know the parts of thyself that seem like contradictions and like they throw everything else about you into question. If something scares or repulses you, look twice, and look harder, and overcome the fear enough to see whatever is really there. I guarantee it’s important.

This is not navel gazing. This is how to understand where you fit in the world, where your perspectives come from, what contributions this makes you capable of or even obligated to, and what you can do about it. And it will go on your whole life. But the more you understand, the more power you have to do something good in the world.

Posted in family, history

America’s Atomic Veterans

Black and white photo of mushroom cloud in the distance with a number of men sitting on the ground in the desert, watching. Cacti are visible in between the men and the mushrom cloud.
Atomic bomb test in Yucca Flat, Nevada, April 22, 1952.

I was raised on stories of atomic bomb tests, witnessed from afar.  My father’s family were California Okies who lived and worked on a series of farms all over Kern County and Tulare County, California.  My father told childhood stories of seeing flashes on the other side of the Sierras, then watching the shock wave roll towards them.  The shock waves were often strong enough to  knock you out of bed, or knock water out of the irrigation canals.

I didn’t know this story, though, until my father wrote his memoirs in his late sixties or early seventies.  He was born in 1941, and this seems to take place in 1952:

One afternoon, I came home from school and there was a strange man in the living room talking to Dad and Mom.  He was one of Dad’s cousins and was home on leave from the Army.  I sat and listened with wide eyes as he described his participation in the atomic bomb tests in Nevada.  He along with many other soldiers had sat in a trench one mile from ground zero.  They had dark goggles and ear protection that was their only special equipment.  The bomb sat on a tall tower.  They were told not to look at the tower or to raise their heads above the edge of the trench.  Wen the bomb went off, Dad’s cousin saw a blinding flash, and was thrown backwards against the trench wall.  He said that the blast was deafening and that a sheet of hot sand whistled over his head.  We talked for a while and then he left.  I never saw him again.  Six years later, in 1958, I heard that he had died of leukemia.

-Ronald Baggs

That’d be my first cousin, twice removed.  (I had to look that up.)  Family history meets just plain history.

The American military carried out these bomb tests regularly, and often they tested the effects on American citizens.  Quite often, these were low-ranking military personnel who were not told what they were getting into and given no radiation protection.  This is besides the effects of fallout on civilians, which was a huge problem in Nevada, surounding areas, and anywhere else weather patterns happened to take it.  And testing on unwitting civilians, which happened as well.  And the civilians in the Pacific Islands who because of all kinds of racist and colonialist crap were even more disregarded by America and France and other places that nuked the crap out of the region than most people I just talked about.

The Only Country that Ever Nuked America Was America.

Sometimes, they even had their test subjects stand up and walk towards Ground Zero after the bomb went off.

Many people, like my grandpa’s cousin, didn’t survive long.

But many people did.  And many of them — and their children — had a lot of health problems that continue to this day, especially cancer.  They were sworn to secrecy (sometimes under penalty of treason), but many began breaking that silence in order to protest lack of compensation or apology for being made into human guinea pigs for nuclear weapons.

Today, they’re known as atomic veterans.  But most people don’t know, or only know in passing, that this happened, and what happened to them and their families.  The following Retro Report video is a good overview with lots of interviews with atomic vets and their families:

It makes the point that while nuclear testing officially stopped, there are still atomic vets from after that era:  People who were sent in to clean up earlier test sites.

This post may be late for Memorial Day, but on Memorial Day I always remember people like my grandfather’s cousin, completely forgotten casualties of the Cold War, killed by their own superiors in the military. They’re rarely given the recognition for this that they would be had they died in other military contexts.

Here’s a video shot by a guy whose dad died after being subjected to atomic testing in the Marines:

And he makes the also-good point that this is not a partisan issue, it’s a matter of basic respect.

So that’s what Memorial Day has had me thinking of.   I have lots of vets both living and dead in the family, but the only one I know of who died because of something that happened during his service was used as a lab rat in Nevada without being told.  My grandfather on the other side got a Purple Heart for a relatively minor injury in the Pacific Theater of World War II, but my other grandpa’s cousin got no recognition to my knowledge even though he died from the effects of the radiation.

Apparently they were usually sworn to secrecy under threat of treason charges, but he had no trouble telling family.  I imagine that was common.

They’re still fighting for recognition and compensation, to my knowledge.  The unfortunate joke among atomic vets — probably quite real — is that the government’s just waiting until most of them die.

And most people don’t even know they exist.

Posted in Being human, Developmental disability service system, history

Why Vasili Arkhipov should matter to you.

Most people have never heard of Vasili Arkhipov, but it’s quite likely we all owe our existence to him.

Vasili_Arkhipov
Vasili Arkhipov, a true hero unrecognized in his lifetime.

He was in the Soviet military during the Cold War.  While serving aboard a submarine, he witnessed death and suffering from radiation during a nuclear accident.  This had a profound impact on him.

He played a role in the Cuban Missile Crisis that changed the world in ways the Americans were not even aware of until relatively recently when his deeds came to light.

The Americans didn’t know that some of the submarines they were dealing with during the Cuban Missile Crisis were armed with nukes.

The Soviets in these submarines were suffering extreme physical and mental deprivation that was affecting their judgement.  They were overheated, dehydrated, exposed to high levels of carbon dioxide, going without food, and being bombarded by intimidation from the Americans, so they were pushed to their physical and mental breaking point.  Not a good situation for making rational decisions no matter how good your training is.

Vasili Arkhipov was aboard one of the subs.

In order to launch a nuke, normally there were only two people who had to agree:  The captain and the political officer.  Arkhipov was in a unique position, because he was second-in-command on this submarine, but he was also commander of the fleet.  This gave him a third-person veto power that didn’t exist on the other subs.

The captain and political officer aboard his sub decided to launch a nuke at the Americans.  A nuke the Americans were not even aware existed — they didn’t know the subs were armed in this way.  If the captain and political officer launched the nuke in the situation they were in, with the USA and USSR armed to the teeth, it’s likely that all-out nuclear war would have devastated most of the planet shortly thereafter.

Vasili Arkhipov remembered what radiation did to people.  And he argued against using the nuke.  He used the veto power he had.  It took an argument.  The captain still wanted to do it.  But Vasili Arkhipov prevailed and we are all still here as a result.

For his efforts, by the way, he returned to the USSR in disgrace, being told he’d have been better off going down with his ship, and never talked about it due to shame and embarrassment.

Vasili Arkhipov’s story is dramatic.  And now we know that he was one person standing in the way of all-out nuclear war.

image1170x530cropped.jpg
Photo of Licorne nuclear test – French Polynesia, 1970.  Article on such tests:  French nuclear tests ‘showered vast area of Polynesia with radioactivity’.

What we don’t know is how many other times things like that happen, day after day, because someone decides to be the one person who says “No, this isn’t right.”

Probably the world has been saved many times over by the actions of people who will never understand the effects of their actions, and will never be recognized for them.

And even when it’s not on the scale of saving the world, being the one person who realizes the right thing to do and then does it can have a profound effect on the lives of other people.

Which means each of us has an obligation to try to be that person.

It doesn’t mean we’ll get it right.

It doesn’t mean we’ll know the effects of what we did.

It doesn’t mean we won’t be punished for our actions.

But it really is that important.

The developmental disability agency that provides me services seems to have a culture or policy that works against people doing the right thing when they see something wrong going on.

It works against them in many different ways.  There are all kinds of pressures on people.  To look the other way.  To decide they aren’t responsible if they don’t do anything to help a situation.  To assign all responsibility for the situation to other people and factors besides themselves.  To not act.  To not do the right thing.  Even if their conscience is crying out that everything they are participating in is hurting people, and that they could step in and do something.

A lot of agencies have this kind of culture, office politics, whatever you want to call it.

But not all agencies have it in the same way or to the same extent.

I used to receive services from a developmental disability agency in California.  There was a week where I wasn’t getting services.  I ran into trouble rapidly with food, water, medication, hygiene, and everything else I couldn’t do.

I somehow dragged myself into their office, turned my communication device up as far as it would go, and say I hadn’t eaten or had water and wasn’t leaving until I did.

The head of the agency came out of nowhere, drove me home, cooked me meals, made sure I ate, made sure I got water, and cleaned my apartment.

I didn’t ask him to do this.  He just saw there was a problem and stepped in to solve it.

That impulse to step in and do the right thing is a good impulse.

I have seen agencies that foster that attitude.

I have also seen agencies, like my current one, that do their best to suppress such pangs of conscience and their results, in their employees.

The thing is, even in an agency culture that tells you to look the other way, that it’s not your fault, that it’s an imperfect system failing someone and not in any way you as a part of it?  You can still fight against that.  You can still be a Vasili Arkhipov for someone. My agency sure as hell tries to blur the distinction between “We can’t do that for you” and “We refuse to do that for you,” but there is a distinction and it’s your responsibility to figure it out.

And if you do step in and do the right thing… you may not save the world from nuclear war, but you might save some people from needless suffering or even death.

And if you do that only once you’ll have had a major impact on the world for someone.

You can resist the pressure to pretend it’s not happening, pretend you have no responsibility, pretend it’s someone else’s problem.  I have seen agencies move mountains to do things that my current agency flat-out refuses to do as a matter of course.  I have also seen even individual workers within this current agency go out of their way to help people.  They are often punished for their efforts  But they know it is right so they do it.

All of us can take a lesson from Vasili Arkhipov.

All of us.

None of us is exempt from the good we are capable of doing.  Nor the evil we can allow and excuse if we decide to turn the other way.

A smaller example:

Before seatbelt laws, my mom was part of a preschool committee for my brother.  The committee ran by consensus.  Meaning instead of a majority vote, everyone had to agree to something.  There can be huge problems with consensus, but this is how it was run.

They were trying to make a decision about whether to make the kids were seatbelts on field trips.  Everyone in the room decided not to make them wear seatbelts.

My mother stood up.  She had worked on ambulances.  She described the imprint of a baby’s head on a windshield in graphic detail.

Everyone changed their minds.  The kids got seatbelts.  Lives may have been saved.  I grew up hearing that story, being told to always be that person if my conscience is yelling at me hard enough about something.  I can’t say I always manage, but I can say I try.

Next time your conscience is screaming at you, listen to it.  Listen hard.  Then do whatever you can.

Today I Found Out has a good summary of Vasili Arkhipov’s role in saving the world, if you’re interested.

And remember you don’t have to be a commander of a submarine fleet or anyone special at all to stand up for what you believe in.  And whether you save the world or not, you’ll still have an impact.  And you’ll be able to live with yourself a lot more if your conscience is clear.  J.K. Rowling emphasized in her Harry Potter series that there’s a choice between doing what’s right and doing what’s easy. What Vasili Arkhipov did should be a wake-up call for all of us.

So here’s my challenge to everyone:  Be Vasili Arkhipov for someone, sometime, and keep trying.  You may never know what good you’ve done.  This isn’t about feeling good about yourself, it’s not about recognition, it’s not about staying out of danger.  It’s about doing your best to follow what you know in your bones to be the right thing, no matter what.

tl;dr:  Listen to your conscience even — especially — when everything and everyone around you seems to be saying not to.  You may never know the good you’ll do by doing so.  You may never know the evil you might allow to happen if you don’t.