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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

I Will Send Rain and The Potato Metaphor


We know everyone we love is going to die, but we don't know it, can't possibly believe it, she thought, or long ago I would have gone andd started digging until I had a hole big enough to lie down in. - Rae Meadows, I Will Send Rain

Well. There are a lot of directions I can take this thing. Let's start with this article
In the 1910s and 1920s, another land boom spread across the Plains, luring a new generation of farmers unaware of the previous century’s drought disaster. Tractors that could rip through thick native grasslands replaced the old plows. Bullish news stories on generous rainfall, war-inflated wheat prices and farm subsidies helped bring tens of thousands of settlers. When wheat prices collapsed, farmers with large mortgage payments responded by tearing up even more of the grasses that had evolved over thousands of years to hold the Earth together in dry times. Early ecologists warned of the need for a conservation ethic. Most farmers never heard those warnings. Those who heard them did not believe. 
The next great drought settled in around 1930 and seared for a decade. Summer temperatures passed 115 degrees. Thousands died from the extreme heat. When hot prairie winds met stripped ground, they kicked up violent black dust storms. These storms really did follow the plow. Rather than rain, they carried millions of pounds of dirt. After riding out blinding blizzards in Oklahoma on Black Sunday in 1935, AP reporter Robert Geiger dubbed the region “the Dust Bowl.” In response, writes environmental historian Donald Worster, chambers of commerce formed “truth squads” that worked systematically “to deny, and to repress, the Dust Bowl label.” But the winds would not be censored. They blew five more years of dust and death.
The main point of the article is that for as long as there have been businesses, American business interests have been telling us that that thing that science says is killing us really isn't that bad. Take, for example, the gasoline and paint industry.
On October 26, 1924, the first of five workers who would die in quick succession at Standard Oil’s Bayway TEL works perished, after wrenching fits of violent insanity; thirty-five other workers would experience tremors, hallucinations, severe palsies and other serious neurological symptoms of organic lead poisoning. In total, more than 80 percent of the Bayway staff would die or suffer severe poisoning. News of these deaths was the first that many Americans heard of leaded gasoline–although it would take a few days, as the New York City papers and wire services rushed to cover a mysterious industrial disaster that Standard stonewalled and GM declined to delve into.
Seriously, read that article. It's long, but interesting. It says that industry actively fought to cover up the impacts of lead gasoline and paint on public health, with the help of the United States Surgeon General and a series of tactics to obfuscate science that are still used today. The upshot is that in spite of the Bayway deaths in 1924, the United States didn't start phasing out leaded gasoline until 1975, and tanks still offered "leaded" as an option until 1986. A lot of us remember pretty clearly as kids seeing it as an option. A CDC study showed that blood-lead levels declined from 1978 to 1991 by 78%.

The amount of deaths caused by this intentional cover-up are essentially incalculable, but in just under 10 years, street soil already found a massive increase in lead.
In New York City, at least, Charles Norris decided to prepare for the health and environmental problems to come. He suggested that the department scientists do a base-line measurement of lead levels in the dirt and debris blowing across city streets. People died, he pointed out to his staff; and everyone knew that heavy metals like lead tended to accumulate. The resulting comparison of street dirt in 1924 and 1934 found a 50 percent increase in lead levels – a warning, an indicator of damage to come, if anyone had been paying attention.
It took another 50 years after that study before lead was banned, and the number of drivers in the US increased exponentially. Some estimates say that there is enough accumulated lead in our soils to account for 68 million cases of toxic levels of lead in children, and an annual 5,000 adult deaths of lead-induced heart disease.

The men who got rich off of leaded gasoline in the US are dead now, and they couldn't take their billions of dollars in blood money with them, but every day people die because of their greed and corruption. The politicians who manipulated the message in order to get more campaign contributions are dead, too. But we still live with the results. There is a compelling correlation between lead levels and violent crime that suggests that the steady drop in crime the United States has experienced since the late '70s is the result of the phasing out of leaded gasoline.
So Nevin dove in further, digging up detailed data on lead emissions and crime rates to see if the similarity of the curves was as good as it seemed. It turned out to be even better: In a 2000 paper (PDF) he concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the ’40s and ’50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

We hear a lot about Flint, where city officials knew there was a problem but did nothing about it. Or there's Maryland's secretary of housing, community and development, who:
dismissed the never-ending lead crisis in Baltimore by callously suggesting that it might all be a shuck. A mother, he said, might fake such poisoning by putting “a lead fishing weight in her child’s mouth [and] then take the child in for testing.” Such a tactic, he indicated, without any kind of proof, was aimed at making landlords “liable for providing the child with [better] housing.” Unfortunately, the attitudes of Holt and Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan have proven all too typical of the ways in which America’s civic and state leaders have tended to ignore, dismiss, or simply deny the real suffering of children, especially those who are black and Latino, when it comes to lead and other toxic chemicals.
Hey Howie? It looks like so far you're just filling out a blog post with quotations and very few of your own words in between. Did this work for you in college?

I don't know. Maybe? I want to keep making this case, though. We're still using lead in bullets, which is messing up birds, including bald eagles, but hunters are fighting to overturn an Obama directive to stop it. Also, let's not forget the rest of the world. "While Americans cruise their freeways burning exclusively unleaded gasoline, as of 1996, 93 percent of all gasoline sold in Africa contained lead, 94 percent in the Middle East, 30 percent in Asia and 35 percent in Latin America."
According to the World Bank, 1.7 billion urbanites in developing nations are in danger of lead poisoning, including neurological damage, high blood pressure and heart disease from airborne lead, 90 percent of which is attributable to leaded gasoline. Excessive exposure to lead causes 200,000-500,000 cases of hypertension in the Third World, with 400 deaths per year attributable to lead exposure in the late eighties. In Mexico City, one of the world’s most polluted (and populous) cities, 4 million cars pump an estimated 32 tons of lead each day into the air. In Jakarta, one and a half tons enters the atmosphere every twenty-four hours. A research scientist with the Canadian National Water Research Institute performed roadside-dust analyses in Nigeria that revealed as much as 6,000 parts per million of lead. In the United States, lead dust is considered hazardous to children at 600 ppm.
I was in a conversation (argument ((fight)) once about climate change in which I was told that God would not let us ruin the Earth to the point of it becoming uninhabitable. This was news to me. The God I was raised to believe is in fact kind of famous for letting us make mistakes and then live with the consequences. That's kind of His whole deal. I can definitely ruin my backyard, as my next-door neighbors have so aptly pointed out. A city can ruin a park, a state can overgraze to the point of complete ecosystem conversion, and an entire region can tear up the grass that keeps soil in place and create a 300,000 ton dust storm, so dense that farmers put ropes between their houses and their outhouses in case they needed to venture out in a cloud of dirt so dense they couldn't see their hands in front of their faces. All because the phrase "the rain follows the plow," was just so dang catchy.
To those who possess the divine faculty of hope—the optimists of our times—it will always be a source of pleasure to understand that the Creator never imposed a perpetual desert upon the earth, but, on the contrary, has so endowed it that man, by the plow, can transform it, in any country, into farm areas. 
That's the scenario one finds oneself transported to when reading Rae Meadows' I Will Send Rain. We meet the Bell family in 1934 Mulehead, Oklahoma. There's Annie and Samuel, the parents, and their two kids: teenage daughter Birdie and young Fred, who is like 8 or something? I can't remember. I'll be honest, the family is the least interesting thing about the book.


“Stay calm,” the mayor said, though it was unnecessary. They were calm, resigned to the storms that had, over these months, worn them thin. How fast a new normal took hold.” 
Like, I feel like I've read this story one million times now. Annie is middle-aged and pretty but sad, and has a crush on the mayor. Birdie is 15 and has a crush on a boy. Fred is very smart and sweet but has bad lungs (guess what that doesn't go well with dust storms). Samuel starts having dreams that he thinks may be visions from God. Everything that you think is going to happen eventually happens. For some reason we're supposed to interpret Birdie's young love as naive and irrational, but Annie's adult fascination with the city mayor with his nice shoes as a very serious awakening of super great self-discovery. This is how people behave in literature, the author says. I know because I've read a lot of it.
As the darkness grew, and with Samuel gone, Annie thought she’d join her children upstairs, but she stopped outside the door when she heard Birdie mention Cy’s name. Since he’d left, Birdie spoke to her in short angry sentences, as if Cy’s leaving were Annie’s fault. She wished she could hold her and say she understood. She had more in common with Birdie than she could admit. But she knew how trying to talk to her would go. They were each spinning in the dark, like flies in a glass of water, flapping around for something to latch onto.
See, that's good prose. Meadows is a very good writer. The setting is especially evocative. I just would have loved to be surprised even once. There are side characters who I loved, and moments that were beautiful:
Pastor Hardy’s wife had been the organist back in Arkansas, and he missed her acutely whenever Mrs. Turner—her small spidery hands—would play the opening chords of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” or “Abide with Me.” A warmth would travel up his spine and then fly off, leaving him more lonesome than ever. In front of his flock, he sometimes could feel the abyss of despair open beneath him. He feared these moments and felt the hand of the devil in them.
These people have faith, and struggle with God and His apparent abandonment of hard-working people. They waste their money on snake oil salesmen who shoot dynamite into the clouds. They get the band together and dispense lemonade while rounding up and clubbing jackrabbits to death. There is so much meat here, and yet it feels like the book wants to spend all of its time describing the mashed potatoes. Like, I've had mashed potatoes. They're fine. But if you're going to focus on them, they better be frickin life changing. Instead they're from a Pinterest recipe already shared by Kate Chopin and Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Connor and Henry James. They are, in short, just potatoes.

That dang dust bowl, though. We just don't learn, do we? Nowadays just 90 companies account for 63% of air pollution. And half of that took place after 1988, when NASA testified to congress that climate change was no longer theoretical. And yet we're the only developed country to actively withdraw from a cooperative agreement to reduce its effects. I wonder what percentage of campaign donations those 90 companies account for? If only there were some way of finding out...

I'm not pretending that these companies don't provide jobs and livelihoods to a lot of people. Nor am I saying that I don't use the products they create. We're all sharing the blame on this thing, just like in the end the farmers' lands were coated and crops were choked by the same dust they ultimately sent into the air due to their farming practices. But there's a big difference between me filling up my very fuel efficient car with the only fuel source available to me, and an industry actively manipulating the market and the policy-makers who supposedly represent us and calling it freedom.

We've had those potatoes before, too, you guys. Those are what we call dumpster potatoes. They have lead and mercury in them and Big Potato is calling it a superfood. Wow this potato metaphor really went places.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Lucky Boy and The End of Jokes

But no matter what, strangers never disappointed, because she expected nothing from them. It was the people she knew, who liked and even loved her, who could let her down most cruelly. - Shanthi Sekaran, Lucky Boy
If this thing ever takes off and people want to buy shirts, one of the shirts is going to say "I remember when Howie's Book Club had jokes in it." It's going to be a very multi-layered thing because on the one hand it's debatable if Howie's Book Club ever had jokes in it in the first place so there's the irony there, and also because it will be made of fabric so thin and cheap you'll need to wear more than one layer just to meet the very basic standards of decency.

Anyway, it's hard to write jokes when you've just read, back-to-back, two of the most emotionally draining books to grace your nightstand in the last maybe decade, and you read them both in the same week. And also you read the most recent one in two days (brag). Holy crap I read Lucky Boy in two days. Also in that week my best cat ever died. And we went camping, with three smallish children. OK but where are the jokes, Howie?

Ugh, they're in here somewhere. We'll see what happens. See, Shanthi Sekaran's Lucky Boy is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read. It's also one of the toughest. But there are jokes in there, mostly in the way of clever banter between maybe the best married couple I've ever had the pleasure of meeting on the written page, but there's also just plain old observational humor.
At the farmers' market the week before, a little girl had fallen and scraped her knee. As she stood sobbing, inconsolable, her mother knelt down beside her. Here, sweetie, have some kale. The little girl had taken it, chewed on the tough, primordial leaf, and stopped crying. The stakes were high in Berkeley. The toddlers were eating their cruciferous greens.
There's so much to talk about. It's hard to know right after finishing a book if it will stick with me by the end of the year and beyond. I can't imagine ever forgetting this one, though. I imagine we as a society have covered every version of the beauty comes from adversity metaphor, what with our every rose has a thorn and our ancient, gnarled, windswept trees. But I'll be darned if I don't come up with my own.

When I was camping we had some Hershey bars in the cooler for s'mores. Now I don't get s'mores myself. I don't think I've even asked for s'me, let alone more, but I am also well-renowned for my self-control. Anyway, when you camp, you're supposed to bring the fixins or the camp host will dig through that metal tube until they find the envelope with your fee in it and they will tear it up in your face and throw the scraps in the fire. I've seen this happen and it's demoralizing to all parties.

We actually forgot to bring graham crackers (which if you need jokes, the origin of the graham cracker is the best one you'll read on this blog), but that has nothing to do with this metaphor and is just the set-up to this picture, which is amazing and good:


Anyway, I was looking at Hershey's bars and thinking about how amazing it must have been for soldiers during World War II to bite into the milk chocolate in their D-rations. Oh, what sweet joy to bite into that little taste of home, and how much sweeter it must have been given the hardship.  "Imagine," I said, while we looked into the fire and my daughter visibly vibrated from a sugar high. "Imagine being in a foreign land and scared for your life and tasting something so American as Hershey's chocolate."

Then I told my own experience away from home.I served a 2-year Mormon mission in Mexico, and while the food and drink there was amazing, there was just one thing missing: root beer. Mexicans hate root beer like we hate candy with chili in it and their music and also soccer. They think it tastes like medicine and now that I think about it, it kind of does. I hadn't had root beer in over and year and one day while walking through a street market I did a double take. There at a stand was a man selling A&W by the can. I bought it and lo, even at room temperature it was a little slice of home if you could slice a newtonian liquid.

Being a missionary isn't as hard as being a soldier, but it's dang hard. In real life I only kind of like root beer, but like how raisins can be almost barely tolerable if you're on a very long hike, plain chocolate or root beer seem like exotic delights when the going is particularly tough.

Furthering the metaphor, this is the ending screen for the unreleased California raisins game.
Were the costs too great? The rewards too sweet? Let the player decide.

A new life would begin--possibly a very good or even better life--but before it did, he and Kavya would have to journey there; they would cross a no-man's-land of uncertainty, parched and dark and crawling with vigilantes. The possibility of emerging unscathed felt slim. The search for a child would take them through stifling obscurity, and already Rishi was finding it hard to breathe.
In the passage above, we meet Rishi and Kavya, both second-generation Indian immigrants. Rishi works for an Amazon-like Silicon Valley company and Kavya is a chef for a sorority. Kavya is desperate for a baby, and that want comes across in a way that is very effective and heartbreaking for the many people I know who would love to have kids and have struggled. They start to look at other ways, including adoption and foster care. Rishi is imagining the sweetness of finally being a father, in spite of all of the obstacles in the way.

It reminded me a lot of when we started having kids. It's scary but you get pregnant anyway (ok I did not get pregnant) because even though there are hardships and terrible and gross things in between that first thing and the last, the rewards are good enough.

That is this book, you guys.

See, the other main character in Lucky Boy is Solimar Castro Valdez, who leaves her tiny village in Oaxaca because she is made out of pure potential. The economically depressed and near-vacant town has nothing for her, so she contacts her cousin Sylvia and departs for Berkeley, CA. Soli is 18 years old. The journey is rough, but would be so much rougher if she didn't meet Checo, who rescues her from shady coyotes.

It sounds like I've told the whole story but that's just how it begins. She makes it to Berkeley, and then things get nuts. I don't want to get into it more, but the stories of Kavya and Rishi and Soli become inextricably connected.

There's lots of stuff here. The beauty of motherhood. The way fathers sometimes don't feel like fathers until something happens and they realize how vital their part in their child's life can be if they let it. Kavya and Rishi are lovely together and it's so refreshing to see a healthy relationship for once. The stress they are under is sometimes immense and they screw up, but they talk to each other because they actually love each other and want it to work.

There's also the microaggressions that immigrants feel, both Indian and Mexican. Soli gets a great job as a housekeeper and nanny, and her hyper-liberal employers are mostly lovely but also very white about the whole thing. It's rough, but Soli is resourceful and hyper-intelligent and lovable. She has a tiny baby.

Then things get so bad.

Here's the thing about how we treat immigrants in detention centers: it's monstrous and horrible and each one of us will have to answer for it when our kids and grandkids learn how bad it is. We cannot treat human beings like this and call ourselves Judeo-Christian. We just can't. You can talk about obeying the law of the land and how we are a nation of laws and about jobs and about social security all day long and I'll have that conversation, but the treatment of undocumented immigrants in the United States is obscene.

Call them "illegals" all you want, but if you think that makes them less than human, but remember that every gulag, concentration camp, slave plantation, and internment camp in our world's history has been founded on dehumanizing people who feel emotions just as strongly as we do. They were all run by people who were "just doing their job." All these justifications may help them sleep at night, but history has never once looked kindly on the people in charge who perpetrate it.
Because such men occupied the public spaces, they kept the women locked in their rooms. Women were treated like criminals, while thieves roamed the yard like bison, and men were as free as children to play and fight. Soli was no angel. She was fairly sure she wasn't a criminal, either.
But these are criminals, you may say. Dangerous people who pose a threat to our women and children. Hmm. Let's consider the case of high school student Marco Coello, who was arrested during a peaceful protest in Venezuela and tortured: beaten with golf clubs and shocked with a car battery. He fled to the United States where he applied for asylum. While waiting for his interview he was apprehended by ICE and put in a detention center. At the same center was one Denis Davydov, an HIV positive gay man who fled Russia, where homosexuals are put into literal concentration camps. Coello is still waiting on his asylum request. Davydov has been sent back to Russia.

Guadalupe GarcĂ­a de Rayos didn't commit a crime in 2008 when she was put in handcuffs in front of her boy. Jackie, her daughter, remembers waking up at 4 AM to visit her mom at a detention center far from her home. Lupita was in the detention center for 6 months, including Christmas. She was returned to live with her family. This year, however, Lupita attended Mass before meeting with her immigration attorney. She was apprehended outside of the immigration office and put on a deportation bus. She had lived in the United States since she was 14 years old. She lived here for 20 years. But Howie! She lived here for 20 years, was she just too lazy to become a citizen? Hardly.

All of this would be bad if the detention centers were nice, but they aren't. They're awful. Inspectors at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange County, CA found moldy showers and meat that detainees had to rinse off before eating. They found that high risk prisoners were mixing freely with low-risk detainees, putting people innocent of all crimes aside from undocumented entry into the country at risk. They found that phones were regularly down and broken, preventing detainees from having access to lawyers and family.

People die in these things. All the time. For reasons that were easily preventable.
Manuel Cota-Domingo, detained at Eloy Detention Center, died of untreated diabetes and pneumonia after numerous delays, including a policy that placed restrictions on which staff could call 911, resulted in eight hours passing between the moment he started to have trouble breathing and his arrival at an emergency room. Tiombe Carlos died by suicide in York County Prison after being detained for two-and-a-half years. The mental health care she received was deemed “woefully inadequate” by an independent expert. Santiago Sierra-Sanchez, detained at Utah County Jail, died of a staph infection and pneumonia. A correctional health expert said of the care he received, “Medical staff essentially abandoned this patient by not properly assessing him or following up.”
In Texas and Pennsylvania, over 2,000 women and children as young as five years old are shuffled around detention centers, sometimes in shackles. One teen's mom had her gall bladder removed, she was sent back to the general population the next day with no follow up care.

Then there's this:
The OIG (Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General), tasked with investigating government wrongdoing, started categorizing “sexual abuse” complaints in 2014, and since then the agency received at least 1,016 reports — primarily from the division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — according to the complaint based on several Freedom of Information Act requests.
"That’s an average of more than one complaint of sexual abuse per day," said CIVIC Executive Director Christina Fialho.
Yet, OIG ignored almost 98 percent of those, deeming them unsubstantiated or referring them back to the agency accused of the abuse with no follow-up, she said.
In addition to those complaints of sexual abuse reported by people in detention, there were 402 complaints of "coerced sexual contact," 196 complaints of "sexual harassment," and 380 complaints of "physical or sexual abuse" lodged against ICE, according to the complaint.
I say all this not because I want to rail against what I consider the worst human rights violation taking place in the United States, well, mostly not because of that. Every Sunday I hear someone shaking with rage that gay people can marry. That transgender people can have their own bathrooms. They grimly say that this is a sign of the end of the world. It's harder to be a Christian in America, one says, than any other group of people. This while women cower in fear of the men who are paid to protect them, but who instead treat them like objects.

The real reason I put this all together is because I want you to read Lucky Boy. I want everyone to read it. I wish there was a way to prop up our lawmakers in the machine from Brazil with their eyes peeled open and personally hold each page up to them so long that they have to read each page just because there is literally nothing else to do. I want it to be read to them by women who have spent years in detention centers. And when you read it, I want you to remember the sources I cited. That this is the tip of the iceberg and there is so much more. The story is fiction, but everything in this book has happened to someone who loves and has been loved, who has hopes and fears, who has sacrificed their own well-being to give their children a better chance than they had.

And before you smugly say this is a Republican problem, that we can solve this by voting back into power the boys and girls in blue. Lucky Boy is set in 2013, and exhaustively researched. Every one of Soli's trials takes place under a Democratic president. And so, also, do the majority of the examples I've cited. We are all guilty.
And good intentions? These scared him the most: people with good intentions tended not to question themselves. And people who didn't question themselves, in the scientific world and beyond, were the ones to watch out for. 
There were times when I thought I couldn't stand it any longer. That I needed to know that it didn't end tragically. These people have been through too much. There's a tendency in contemporary, serious fiction to end novels in the worst possible way. To burn it all down. The reason I think Sekaran is a great writer, and why this book will stick with me, is that she knows that things often do turn out in a way that is--if not what we wanted--then something that we can live with. I certainly could have come up with a happier ending, but Sekaran came up with the right ending, which is so much better.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Jung Yun's Shelter and Why My Facebook is Weird

One of his clearest memories of Mae dates back to grade school, when she stood in the hallway outside his room for over and hour, staring at herself in a full-length mirror. She was wearing a new mink coat, a plush gray one streaked with black and white--the kind that actresses on television wore when their characters were supposed to be rich. Mae kept turning from side to side, swinging the coat to make the fur brush against her legs, which were purple with bruises. He hated her then--he hates her still--for teaching him that everyone had a price. Jung Yun, Shelter
Have you ever been in a group of your friends talking about whatever it is that's going on in your lives or your bad opinions or jokes or whatever and you see someone you kind of know leaning towards you and listening in? Like it's kind of flattering but also kind of creepy but it mostly makes you very self-conscious. You start realizing how banal every conversation you have is. You think you're being profound and hilarious, but all of that is based on the shared experience you have with the people with whom you're talking.

The reason you know this is because when you're alone and bored and listen to a table full of friends talk about their lives it's almost universally horrible and makes you feel like the bad guys in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark when the eponymous lost ark gets opened. I can't be that awful, you say to yourself as your eyeballs recede into your bloody face before you turn to dust and blow away into the wind like so many delusions of your own importance.

Most of us have 5-10 social media friends who we interact with regularly, which may actually reflect your closest friend group but probably has more to do with the handful of us who check it every day and have similar opinions about the kind of stuff people talk about on social media--but who we've maybe never met or have met only briefly decades ago. It's kind of easy to assume that we're just talking among ourselves and nobody even cares. Maybe they don't. I kind of doubt it, though, because of how much I quietly soak up about people I barely know based on their own Facebook activity.

I don't do this on purpose. I'm just curious sometimes. If someone "likes" a marriage and family therapist, I don't dive into their lives and search for evidence of anything going on, but maybe I just log it back there in my head. Maybe it's your friend who you are supporting in her new business, it's not any of my business. But it kind of sticks in there, you know? Not even in a gossipy way but in a way that says, I hope she's OK. I know a lot of stuff about people who I barely know just because it's so easy to be out there about your life and you forget that there are hundreds of people who quietly watch what's going on without any context.

So then I think about my end of that. If you follow me on Instagram and read my blog, then my Facebook probably makes some sense. If the only interaction you have with me is that we worked together for one season in the field seven years ago, or we went to high school together and didn't even actually hang out, then my feed is probably... really weird? I went through it just now and it's basically divided into thirds: one third is jokes (most of them kind of bad in retrospect), one third is family stuff, bird pictures, and food I made, and one third is about domestic violence and rape.

If you don't know me well, that last one must make you shake your head. If it were me reading it, I'd be speculating too. What did this guy go through? That would be my first impression. I would assume, if I were you, that there is abuse in my history. That seems like a pretty reasonable conclusion. But there isn't. I haven't been personally affected by domestic violence or sexual assault. It wasn't even on my radar until a few years ago. The closest I got to even thinking about it was when I was trading in my ancient flip phone for my first (and only, so far) smartphone and I was asked if I wanted to donate it to battered women and part of me thought about keeping it as a toy for my kids instead.

One question that comes up every time I'm at the shelter or on a hospital call is "why did you start volunteering?" For a lot of people they do it because they need to in order to get college credits. Or it's an internship for a career in social work. When I'm asked, I rarely have the same answer. Looking back, I'm not even sure how it happened myself. The rough timeline is that I got a job in which I work four ten hour shifts and have Fridays off and on my day off I would stay in bed until 11 staring at my phone and then feeling guilty about it so I started googling volunteer opportunities.

For whatever reason I started with the domestic violence shelter and once it stuck in my head, it was the only thing I wanted to do. The other stuff sounded great--mentoring kids who are struggling in school, food bank, etc.--but I couldn't shake a memory of walking into the grocery store in my old city where a couple of college girls were asking for donations to the shelter there. A white-haired man in his 60s with his wife walked past, and when he was addressed, he scoffed at her and said, "No thanks. I won't contribute to organizations that tear up families."

That guy stuck in my head. I thought about him when I was told that I'd have to wait a couple of months before training started. And when I went to training for four hours a night, three nights a week after working a 10-hour shift, I couldn't shake it. I lived in a society where men, distinguished looking men who looked like grandpas and bishops and stake presidents, believed that a woman should stay with an abusive husband because apparently living with an abuser is better for her and her children than living as a single mother.

I remembered a time when I was on my mission in Mexico, where we ate once a week at the house of a woman who was being physically and emotionally abused. We asked her why she stayed, and she said that her bishop told her that if she divorced her husband, he would take away her temple recommend, which she considered her most prized possession. I remembered a friend telling me about her first marriage. That she told her bishop she'd rather go to hell than spend another day with her husband.

Even then, I was just looking for something to do. It was during that training we listened to the recording of a tiny girl calling 911 while her stepfather beats her mother in front of her and her baby sister that I started feeling like an activist. It's awful. You should listen to it. You should also read up on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study done by Kaiser Permanente between 1995 and 1997. Over 9,500 people participated in a questionnaire in which they were asked a series of questions about their lives before the age of 18 and then compared them with multiple questions about behavior and disease.
Persons who had experienced four or more categories of childhood exposure, compared to those who had experienced none, had 4- to 12-fold increased health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempt; a 2- to 4-fold increase in smoking, poor self-rated health, ≥50 sexual intercourse partners, and sexually transmitted disease; and a 1.4- to 1.6-fold increase in physical inactivity and severe obesity. The number of categories of adverse childhood exposures showed a graded relationship to the presence of adult diseases including ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease. The seven categories of adverse childhood experiences were strongly interrelated and persons with multiple categories of childhood exposure were likely to have multiple health risk factors later in life.
There's plenty of evidence showing that infants under the age of one who are exposed to violence against a parent show long-term effects, even if they didn't have the cognitive ability to understand what is happening. A Michigan State University study even showed that unborn children show symptoms of trauma when their mothers are abused. "The study of 182 mothers ages 18-34 found a surprisingly strong relationship between a mother’s prenatal abuse by a male partner and postnatal trauma symptoms in her child."

In Utah, one third of the homicides are related to domestic violence. And occurrences are higher than the national average. "147 Utah children were directly exposed to an intimate partner-related homicide from 2003-2008 and 78% of these children were under six years of age."
Part of the reason so many children are victims of lethal domestic violence in Utah, Oxborrow said, is because the state has a high birth rate to begin with, and many mothers fear they will lose custody of their children if they report domestic violence because they have exposed their children to a dangerous environment.
Also, the wage gap in Utah between women and men is bigger than in many other states, she said, and women are often afraid they won't be able to survive financially if they lose their household's main income, provided by their abusers.
"It's just a really bad combination of factors," Oxborrow said. "People are staying in really dangerous relationships for a long time." - Source
I say all of this because the main character, Kyung, of Jung Yun's Shelter is insufferable. It's almost impossible to relate to him. I'm unaware of a single reasonable or laudable decision that he makes in this book that he isn't cajoled into by his saintly wife Gillian. Often someone asks him why he's behaving the way he is, and his inner dialogue is a perfect description that if he only spoke out loud, it would open up lines of communication and healing. Instead, when he opens his mouth, he consistently says something awful and cutting.

It's the housing crisis and Kyung, a South Korean immigrant, is upside-down on his house. He has a tenure-track professor job, but the ballooning house payment is a constant source of stress. Then his mom shows up to his house, brutally beaten, and he immediately assumes it's his father, because for much of Kyung's young life, his father beat his mother often and mercilessly. He soon finds out that the situation is much worse: both of his parents and their housekeeper were victims of a cruel home invasion.

The emotional fallout in the aftermath would test the most emotionally healthy of us. Kyung is not healthy. And what many consider the book's biggest fault ends up being, to me, it's greatest strength. People who have experienced trauma, especially at a young age, and especially especially the kind of relentless and steady trauma that takes place over years and years like domestic violence does, develop survival skills. Some of these survival skills are not good social skills.

This pops up at the domestic violence shelter sometimes. Humans tend to want victims to act like some kind of caricature so that we can feel good about helping them. Humble, but strong. Grateful for our help. Lovable. In reality they are coping with extreme things in the best way they know how. Sometimes these survival skills take the forms of hoarding, manipulation, theft, or wild mood swings. Sometimes they are lazy or don't want to leave their room. Or they take drugs. Sometimes they threaten and push away the people who are trying to help them.

As any school teacher will tell you, kids with tough homes are hard to love, even if they need the love the very most. From that angle, Kyung is sympathetic because he isn't sympathetic. He's selfish and almost incapable of understanding anyone else's emotions. As we learn more about his life and his childhood, we want to love him, but he's so consistently unlovable. It's almost fascinating. The fact that he's been as productive and useful so far is basically amazing, but the standards required to thrive in modern society are so high, and the margin of error so low.

Kyung is talking to his boss, who is bragging about his twins' amazing accomplishments:
As he feels Craig's grip loosen, he squeezes harder, realizing that the answer was right there in front of him the entire time. The twins turned out well, not because of anything that Craig or his wife did but because of the kind of people they are. Good, decent people who always put the needs of their children ahead of their own. It was never more complicated that love, one generation raising a better version of the next.
"I never really had a chance, did I?"
Craig squints at him. "A chance of what?"
"Nothing," he says. "I was just thinking out loud."
As a society we're getting better at helping victims. Clients who complete their goals and stick with the commitments required of them from the shelter and post-shelter care have a remarkable success rate. That only covers the people who are reaching out for help, though. And we know that to be a small percentage. The rest are coping the best they can without any professional help. And from the outside it often looks like normal life unless something comes along that pushes too hard for too long.

Understanding what someone is going through isn't the same as not holding them accountable. Given Kyung's history, we're not surprised by his behavior, but it doesn't excuse it either. He hurts people, and it's not their fault that his dad hit his mom. It's not a victim's fault that their abuser was abused as a child as well. Sometimes people end up at domestic violence shelters because they've burned every other bridge available to them with the aforementioned behavior. Ultimately, I'd say that's a good thing. It's a better place for them to be than, say, a sister's house or a friend's. They have policies that protect other people, they have government programs, they have professional training and counseling services. They can hold victims accountable on their path to independence in ways family members are uncomfortable or incapable of doing.

If you're in a position where you're asked for help, make sure you reach out to a professional as well. It's not selfish to consider your own health and especially that of your children if you decide to take this on. Get your friend or family member plugged into services, many of them free, that will help them in ways that just a bed to sleep in and a safe place to stay can not. The Hotline is a good place to start. This isn't something you can do on your own.

Kyung's story ultimately ends hopefully, but his suffering is nothing compared to his mother's. Her ordeal is traumatic in multiple ways, shattering a talented woman on the brink of rediscovery. I have a hard time recommending a book in which someone is treated so cruelly, even knowing first hand that these things happen with sickening regularity in real life. It was worth reading for me, though. I needed the reminder.



Anyway, all of this is to say sorry about the Facebook stuff.