27 October 2014

Fairies Teenagers Can Believe In

Several friends have children younger than mine - grade schoolers, mostly - and are currently confronting, for the first time, the fact that their children no longer believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy. This is a difficult time for parents, as it heralds the end of a period of magical innocence. They lament the loss of the fantasy that magical creatures live among us and make miraculous things happen, seemingly without effort.

Fear not. I have gone through this period and come out in one piece on the other side, and I have a solution for you. It is my pleasure to introduce your older offspring to a solution that works for them. It is a continuation, if you will, of the active fantasy life so essential to their healthy development.

Fairies, elves, and fictional creatures they can continue to believe in.

Please meet:

1. The Laundry Fairy

To prepare for her arrival, cover the floor of your bedroom with damp used towels, dirty underwear, mismatched socks, and other sundry items that need to be washed. If you have nothing dirty to offer her, that's okay; just throw clean clothing and bedding haphazardly on the floor. She'll be unable to distinguish it from things that genuinely need to be washed.

Then simply go to school, or work, or your sports practice, or whatever it is you do all day that requires you to take six showers, using a clean towel each time.

When you return - wonder of wonders - all the dirty stuff is washed, dried, folded, and placed neatly back in your room! And you barely lifted a finger!

2. The Toilet Paper Elf

This one is my favorite. He lives in the basement, wearing a cute little tissue paper hat, and waits for you to use the last of the toilet paper on the roll. Then, just in time for the family's return from the lunch rush at Chipotle, he dashes upstairs to the bathroom, bearing rolls of toilet paper to replace the ones you left empty. He installs them neatly on the dispensers for your use.

Sometimes he brings extra rolls from the storage closet and puts them in the bathroom cabinet, so they're handy if you run out and find yourself in an awkward situation. But don't feel obligated to replace the empty rolls, even if doing so would take minimal effort. Believe in the Elf, and he will continue to serve your needs!

3. The Dish Bunny

We've all been there. You have just finished making yourself a midnight snack of microwaved something-or-other that you found in the refrigerator while your mom was sleeping. Or maybe you have made a big bowl of popcorn in that popper with the hand-washable-only plastic lid. Or maybe you made yourself a healthy breakfast before dashing out the door to school in the morning.

You would have put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, but the dishwasher was full - of clean dishes. Who has time to deal with that? Or with the annoying reality that some things need to be washed by hand?

Never fear! The Dish Bunny will do it! After you leave the house, or before you rise in the morning, she hops on into the kitchen and cleans up the mess. She unloads the clean dishes and puts them away, reloads the dishwasher and turns it on, washes the popcorn popper, scrapes the melted cheese off the inside of the microwave, and wipes the splattered gunk from the counter. You don't even need to share your food or leave her a snack, the way you do for Santa or the Easter Bunny. That stuff makes her fat anyway. She'd much prefer to clean up after a meal she hasn't had the pleasure of eating - wouldn't you?

4. The Light Bulb Pixie

You flip the switch, and the light bulb gives a sad little buzz and a flash, and then it goes dark. You know where the illumination comes from: a box of replacement bulbs in a nearby cabinet. But don't waste your energy to fetch a bulb or climb up on a stepladder. That's the Light Bulb Pixie's job!

She comes along when no one else is home, usually late at night, equipped with magic sparkly dust that allows her to avoid tripping over the shoes, books, and sports equipment you left on the hallway floor. She works her miracles silently, installing environmentally-friendly CFL bulbs all over the house and disposing properly of the burned-out ones.

No one else in the house needs to risk breaking his neck in the darkness if he believes in the Light Bulb Pixie!

5. The Cash Leprechaun

This handy little guy comes up with money (presumably from an unlimited pot of gold stored somewhere near the horizon) whenever your earnest little teenaged heart desires it. School fundraiser? No problem! Feel free to order several hundred frozen cheesecakes - the Cash Leprechaun will just throw the money into an envelope on the date it's due! No questions asked!

What about all those iTunes songs you need to buy? The last-minute check needed for a school field trip, prom tickets, lunch or ice cream with the friends, gas for the car? No problem. The Cash Leprechaun has you covered. One hundred per cent. Face it, you deserve it because of your steadfast faith in miracles.

I have never actually seen the Cash Leprechaun. He seems to work his magic only for teenagers and college students. Just about everyone else has to work to support their material whims and fundraising goals. But if you happen to see an extra Leprechaun floating around your house, could you send him my way?

I believe, I swear. I really, truly do.

03 September 2014

Nude Photos! (Just Kidding. Why The Content of Stolen Photos Doesn't Matter)

I usually don't have much to say about celebrities and their nude photos, serial marriages, sex tapes, dubious diet plans, and questionable expertise on scientific and medical issues.

But I want to say something about the actress Jennifer Lawrence and her nude photos, which, if you haven't heard, were stolen when someone hacked the cloud-based service on which she had stored them. (Read more here.)

Let's say you just got your brakes fixed, and then, as you were speeding across the Tappan Zee Bridge at eighty miles an hour, they failed, and you careened into a barrier and got hurt. (Stay with me here - I am explaining a concept that will become important to what I have to say about the nude photos.) For the sake of easy math, let's say your damages total $100,000. You'd like to sue the boneheaded mechanic who didn't fix your brakes properly. You argue that he was negligent and that he owes you the whole $100K.

But wait. You were speeding at the time, says the judge. We need to figure out how much of your damages were caused by the faulty brakes, and how much were caused by your excessive speed. Because maybe the mechanic's negligence wasn't the cause of most of your injuries. Maybe your speed was responsible for 60% of your damages. If, at the posted speed limit, you would have sustained only $40,000 worth of damages, then that's all you're going to collect from the mechanic.

Your stupidity - your own negligence - exacerbated the problem. You don't get to collect damages resulting from a problem you helped to cause. That's a basic tenet of civil tort law, and it's called contributory negligence. Every law student learns this in her first-year torts class.

Now, let's say I left my back door unlocked and someone snuck into my house and stole a $100 bottle of scotch. It was really, really stupid of me to leave an expensive item like that in plain view, behind an unlocked door. It's like I was practically inviting a thief to come steal my Macallan.

But does that mean the thief is immune from punishment?

No. Because, as everyone learns in their first-year criminal procedure class, there is no contributory negligence in criminal law. That doctrine is limited to civil lawsuits. Think about the rule, and it will probably make sense to you rather quickly. All criminal behavior is discouraged, no matter how easy it was to pick on the victim. We can't let thieves off the hook simply because they prey on people too stupid to lock their liquor cabinets. Taking a bike that doesn't belong to you is still theft, whether or not the bike was locked to the rack; reasoning otherwise would put too heavy a burden on potential crime victims.

People who blame rape victims for their dress, their habit of running alone in the park after midnight, their consumption of alcohol - those people don't understand the concept that a victim is a victim and a criminal is a criminal. If we sanction the criminal behavior in any circumstance, we have started down a slippery slope that will undermine our entire legal justice system.

I have a shoebox in my basement that's filled with my parents' wedding photos. If someone comes into my house and takes them without my permission, that's burglary. It's burglary whether they're in a shoebox or a beautiful album, whether they're in a closet or a locked safe or a pile on the floor. They belong to me, and you don't have permission to take them, regardless of how stupidly I store them.

And if the shoebox were full of naked pictures of me? Same rule. The content of the pictures doesn't matter any more than the method of storage. They're mine. That's all that matters. And if you steal them, you are a thief.

Back to Jennifer Lawrence. I haven't seen the pictures, so I don't know what's in them, and I don't know anything about the cloud service she used to store them. I can tell you, however, that those pictures belong to her, and the hacker who took them without her permission is a thief. A twenty-first century thief, but still a thief.

And those of you who are saying it's her fault? That she shouldn't have taken naked pictures of herself? That she should not have stored them in the cloud, which she should have known would be insecure? That anyone who has nude photos taken of herself must be some sort of brazen, narcissistic hussy who was asking for it? Do you know what you are called?

You are called victim-blamers. You are conceptually indistinguishable from the people who think rape is okay because the girl was drunk or scantily clad, or who think the thief has a right to the bike because its owner was in too much of a hurry to lock it up, or who think my shoddy scotch storage justifies a burglary.

Let's stop blaming Jennifer Lawrence for owning nude pictures of herself. Maybe it was stupid and narcissistic, or maybe she had a damned good reason for owning those pictures. I simply don't know, it's none of my business, and it shouldn't matter. If it matters to you, know that the law says otherwise, and ask yourself why you care.

P.S. If you have my Macallan, I want it back. Thanks.

25 August 2014

An Honest Conversation About Ferguson

Believe me, I have been thinking for some time now about writing a post about the events that have been unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. (In case you have been living without benefit of news outlets, you can catch up by reading a fairly good, if sparse, timeline of the events here.) The basics: on Saturday, August 9, shortly before noon, a police officer in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, responding to a call about a suspected shoplifting, shot and killed an 18-year-old unarmed African-American man named Michael Brown. The exact events leading up to the shooting were not made immediately clear, and they still haven't been, but the community, the nation, and the world erupted in outrage, with the people of Ferguson rioting and the governor of Missouri calling in the National Guard for help. Things have quieted down somewhat, but I think it would be inaccurate to say that peace has been restored and that all is well.

Peace has not been restored, and all is not well in America. As Mother Jones recently reported, at least five unarmed black men, including Brown, were killed by the police from mid-July to mid-August of 2014. No one knows for sure how many unarmed people are killed by the police each year; because of inconsistencies in reporting, estimates vary widely (source). But the issue is one of great concern to just about all observers, particularly those who, like myself, take more than a passing interest in the issues of gun violence and race relations.

Why haven't I written about it? Well, first of all, it seems to me irresponsible to write unless I have solidly educated myself about the issues, and that takes time. I've read everything I could get my hands on, from news reports to blog posts to first-person accounts of the Brown killing and several other, similar incidents. I have been struck, though not particularly surprised, at the anger - most of it justified - coming to the surface in reaction to the incident. The conversation seems to be in part about the use of force and the militarization of the police, but most of it centers around the age-old problem of race in America. Why are the young men being shot to death on the street primarily black? What is it that makes the racial divide one of the defining features of our society, and why can't we rise above that divide?

Smarter people than myself have tried and failed for two hundred years to answer these questions, so I won't attempt to solve society's evils in a glib blog post. But I am not going to be afraid to enter the conversation. I am aware that many commentators have hesitated to venture into these waters because they are afraid that, not being "people of color," they will be viewed as unqualified to opine. They have been told, or led to believe, that the color of their skin somehow invalidates their thoughts on the subject, or makes them incapable of understanding the depth and horror of the situation. But anyone can understand the depth and horror of the loss of a loved one (a son or otherwise) for no good reason.

We cannot be quiet, and we cannot sit on the sidelines and allow the color of our skin to determine the validity of our opinions. The idea that only people of a certain racial background are qualified to talk about the problem of race in America is not only polarizing, but also renders a solution to the problem - if a solution exists - nearly impossible. We cannot hope to unite ourselves under a banner of equality, and to eliminate racially-based violence, if our first instinct is to define ourselves as black, white, or other, to separate ourselves accordingly, and assign a value to our thoughts based on nothing more than pigmentation.

I had thought that our parents' generation, those who lived through the Civil Rights era, who fought a hands-on battle against segregation and prejudice in American society, had made some progress. I had thought the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts had made a difference. I had thought that the summary execution of young people on the street had become anathema to a country of laws. But as I read the news and the conversations it engenders, I see no progress being made. We are treading water in a poisoned pool. We may never reach the other side, because we are pulling each other down under the surface.

Let us talk, but let us also listen. Let us come up with constructive suggestions for forward progress. Can we have an honest dialogue about the relationship between our law enforcement and our civilian population? Can we talk about violence and its prevalence in our society, state-sanctioned or otherwise?  Can we get to the root of and address the disproportionate numbers of African-Americans living below the poverty line, spending their lives incarcerated, and dying on the streets? Can we separate our opinions of each other from the many shades of skin color our ancestors gave us and instead focus on the ideals they left us as their legacy?

I am willing to try, and I hope you are too.