Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Moral Budgets?

The Prophet Jeremiah

Just got this from Sojourners, a magazine that is probably the nation's leading Christian voice for justice.

It's an editorial about the budget decisions now being made in Congress. More specifically, it's about the severe cuts in services for the poor that legislators may enact as a prelude to passing even more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

I appreciate that some conservative legislators sincerely believe they're helping the poor in the long run by cutting basic services for the poor now and then cutting taxes on investment income for the wealthy so that more jobs will be created.

Folks lobbying for justice have to take economic growth seriously--a stronger economy does normally help poor people along with everybody else. In some situations, lower taxes on the wealthy can help spur economic growth.

But in my mind these kinds of arguments, at this point and in this situation, don't make a whole lot of sense.

The facts are that right now the wealthiest 1% of Americans control 40% of the wealth of the country. Those are "developing world" inequality numbers. And inequality in the US, by virtually every measure, has increased over the past five years.

Taxes on our wealthy are among the lowest in the developed world.

We've been spending massive amounts of money on the war in Iraq.

While I think some conservative legislators are genuinely motivated by concern for the poor, it appears to me that many more are simply following an extreme economic ideology which views tax cuts for the wealthy and cutting "discretionary social spending" as almost magical tools. That's not to say that type of economic thinking doesn't have its merits at certain times and places, because it does. It is to say, however, that this is simply not one of those times in my mind.

And certainly, there are some who believe many of these legislators are simply following the money and paying off the wealthy who pull the strings. From the point of view of human nature that kind of speculation makes sense to me, but I'll leave those conclusions to others.

Well, enough intro. I'll let Sojourners speak for itself. And whether you agree with everything they say, it's nice to hear a Christian voice speak up for the poor in no uncertain terms. If you've got anything to say about Sojourners' editorial go for it in the comments section so we can kick it around. And by all means, if you're moved by what they say, take action.

"Woe to you legislators of infamous laws...who refuse justice to the unfortunate, who cheat the poor among my people of their rights, who make widows their prey and rob the orphan" (Isaiah 10:1-2, Jerusalem Bible).

There are moments in every generation when a society must decide on its real moral principles. This is one of those moments in history: When our legislators put ideology over principle, it is time to sound the trumpets of justice and tell the truth.

In the early hours of the morning before leaving for their Thanksgiving break, the House of Representatives passed a budget bill that cuts $50 billion, including essential services for low-income families. Funding for health care, food stamps, foster care for neglected children, student loans, enforcing child support orders - all fell to the ax. If the House bill prevails, more than 200,000 people will lose food stamps, people already struggling to make ends meet will have to pay more for health care, and low-income students will find it harder to pay for college loans. When they return, the House also plans to pass a tax cut bill benefiting the wealthiest people in America.

Let's be clear. It is a moral disgrace to take food from the mouths of hungry children to increase the luxuries of those feasting at a table overflowing with plenty. There is no moral path our legislators can take to defend a reckless, mean-spirited budget bill that diminishes our compassion. It is dishonest to stake proud claims to deficit reduction when tax cuts for the wealthy that increase the deficit are the next order of business. It is one more example of an absence of morality in our political leadership. "Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss" (Proverbs 22:16).

The religious community has already helped influence the Senate - its version of the budget cut about $35 billion, with virtually no cuts in services to low-income people. The decision to protect low-income families in the Senate was a bipartisan decision - supported by both Republicans and Democrats. The House decision to sacrifice the poor was a victory of the extreme Republican leadership over all the Democrats and moderate Republicans who voted against the harsh and punitive House bill. Congress now faces a stark choice that requires moral clarity and outrage. The differences between the House and Senate bills have to be resolved in a joint conference committee, and the result brought back to each body for a final vote in mid-December. The convictions of the religious community must be brought to bear in these next few weeks - a final bill containing the House cuts that are an assault on poor families and children must not be passed. Budgets are moral documents that reflect our priorities. The choice to cut supports that help people make it day to day in order to pay for tax cuts for those with plenty goes against everything our religious and moral principles teach us. It is a blatant reversal of biblical values. It's time to act.

Contact your legislators Call your senators and representative during their recess and over the next two weeks and demand they refuse to pass a budget cutting services for low-income people.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

My Teenage Prostate and the Cold War

Ran across a "biology blurb" in Scientic American today.

Some Swedish medical researcher wanted to know if brain cells regenerate naturally and, if so, how often. He was working on ways to help repair human brain damage.

Certain cells regenerate but there was no way to measure that process in humans because the chemicals used to measure it in animals are toxic to people.

Turns out that the Cold War era nuclear detonations in the deserts of Nevada lent him a crucial hand.

Above-ground atomic weapons testing increased dramatically starting in 1955. Those explosions threw enormous amounts of radioactive carbon 14 isotopes into the atmosphere which quickly diffused around the globe. Plants absorbed the carbon 14, animals ate the plants and people ate 'em both at the local Bob's Big Boy or in the comfort of their own dining room. Little did they know that their "Swanson's TV Dinners" were brimming with nuclear isotopes along with the squeaky green beans and the soggy french fries.

The above-ground testing stopped after the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, but the unusually high traces of carbon 14 have continued to show up in people ever since with lower and lower levels each year.

By measuring the amount of carbon 14 incorporated in the DNA of various tissues in the human body, and then correlating it with atmospheric carbon 14 levels, this guy can now figure out how "old" specific body tissues are. Tissues that regenerate more regularly show less carbon 14 while those that don't show more. Using the extreme spike in carbon 14 levels beginning in 1955, he can give very accurate dates for pretty much any body part for anybody living today.

Carbon 14 dating is the same technique that paleontologists use to date fossils, but nobody has ever figured out how to make it work with such specific year-to-year accuracy with living human tissue.

Seems that some body parts regenerate regularly more readily than others. Some internal organs and skeletal muscles are decades younger than the chronological age of the person. Brain tissue, unfortunately, doesn't seem to regenerate very well. Our brains are as old as the people who lug 'em around in our skulls.

The findings from this sort of research may lead to the creation of new and effective medical therapies.

On the other hand, I was born in 1957. We late era baby boomers apparently got the worst of the fallout from the testing.

If somebody between the ages of 42 and 50 glows in the dark, or sets off airport security alarms, or suddenly mutates into a 200 foot "Amazing Colossal" giant that attacks Las Vegas, hey, go easy on 'em. Remember that they had to crouch under their desks regularly during elementary school "nuclear war drills" and had only 8 channels of television to watch. It was a dark time when life was nasty, brutish and short.

Rough Night on the Town: The Amazing Colossal Man, 1957

I guess I have a "multi-generational community" living within my body. My brain is apparently "middle-aged man" who knows all about mortgages and garage door openers and is increasingly sceptical about passionate claims of any kind. My biceps and hamstrings may well be in their early 30's and ready to climb a mountain. My naive teenage stomach probably loves every new experience and is ready to party.

Who knew?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Race and Raising Kids II

Got some interesting emails from folks about my recent post "Race and Raising Kids" so I thought I'd get back to that topic one more time.

Some people obviously felt better discussing race privately than on the blog itself. I guess that probably says something significant about our sense of freedom to get into race openly.

Anyway, as a result of those emails, here are a couple of quick clarifications and additions to my original thoughts:

• One person was surprised and thought I sounded a little like many Euro-Ams who deny that racism and racial prejudice are current and relevant.

I’m sympathetic to that comment. Writing or talking about race is pretty complicated. I have fundamental respect for anybody who makes an honest and good faith effort to do so and sometimes clarity is hard to come by.

I think ‘racial’ prejudice and racism are both alive and well. The current effects of historical racism are so obvious that it’s hard to know how to respond to the people—mostly social conservatives--who don’t take it seriously

Unfortunately, there are many Euro-Am folks, mostly conservatives but some progressives too, who truly believe that ‘racial’ bias and racism are a thing of the past. I have some sympathy for that take because so much progress has been made in the past 50 years, but at this point I think they’re wrong. I hope someday they’ll be right.

So, no, I’m not among those who want to deny that current racial prejudice or racism exist or who want to downplay the current effects of historical racism.

I do think, though, that there are lots of folks who take the effects of historical racism seriously but simply disagree about how to deal with them.

I don’t automatically assume that people who reject affirmative action, for example, lack an appreciation of our disgraceful national history of racism and genocide. I support thoughtful affirmative action, but it has to stand on its own merits in an honest discussion of social policy.

Seems best to appreciate our history while also paying attention to the realities of the current moment and planning for something better in the future.

• When I say that racial prejudice and racism still exist, I mean there are still a significant number of people who believe that biological and physical characteristics and differences—-skin color being the most obvious example--are truly meaningful and are somehow determinative of the way people will behave or act.

The traditional concept of race—as Americans understand it--is a fairly recent social construct meant to justify European supremacy on the basis of biological superiority. We’re talking about an idea that is probably no more than 5 or 6 hundred years old. It was one of the most effective weapons of European imperial expansion.

We’ve lived for four centuries here in the US steeped in that kind of thinking and perception, so it’s silly to think that lots of people don’t think in those terms. Some still believe in their heart of hearts that their 'racial' group is somehow "genetically" superior (to use our current biological terminology).

But I’m just not sure that most people in the US really think in terms of biological superiority anymore.

That’s why I say that when people talk about ‘race’ (which is a biological concept) what they usually mean is ‘class’ and ‘culture.’ The prejudices and systemic injustice we’re dealing with in the US right now are based—-in my view—-mostly on class and cultural differences. I go into more detail on this whole thing in a previous post, “The New Meritocracy and the Poor.”

The distinction between race on the one hand and class and culture on the other is important for people who are serious about justice.

Europeans marketed the concept of biological superiority and inferiority so successfully that almost all Americans swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

Slavery and Jim Crow and the indigenous genocide were all firmly based on the idea of biological superiority and inferiority.

A turbo-charged version of that same racial ideology led to the killing of 60 million people during WW2. That was just 60 years ago.

I travel a lot around the world. Traditional biological racism is thriving.

If the idea of biological superiority or inferiority (traditional racism) has lost most of its historical hold in the US we should party. People who are serious about justice should lead the celebration.

If what I’m saying is accurate, those who are serious about justice in the US should still work hard for racial reconciliation and should still challenge traditional racial prejudice and racism where they exist.

But perhaps we'll need to pay a lot more attention to prejudice and systemic injustice based on differences in class and culture. I think that’s where the real action is now. A change in language and terminology could help too.

I’m not hopeful for any quick changes along these lines. The ideas of “white” and “black,” etc., etc. are so deeply ingrained that we can hardly think or speak without them. Even though I believe most of us have left behind the substance of traditional "biological" racial ideas we’re still trapped in the old-timey language and categories of traditional race.

• When I say we should consider raising our kids “color blind” I mean we should teach kids that physical characteristics don’t determine character or behavior. I think that’s what Dr. King meant.

Raising kids color blind doesn’t mean raising them to ignore:

--the obvious variety of ethnic backgrounds and cultures in the US
--our collective history
--current forms of traditional racial thinking, racial prejudice and racism
--current prejudice or systemic injustice based on differences in class and culture.

• Here’s something curious. Some of the most outspoken justice-oriented proponents of what I consider to be old-timey racial thinking marry across traditional ‘racial’ lines and raise kids who don’t fit into any traditional ‘racial’ category. I guess sometimes our lives can be more relevant and eloquent than our words.

In a famous film from the civil rights era that most of us have seen at one time or another, an Imperial Wizard of the Klan rails against integration because he thinks it will create a “mongrel nation.” He had the good sense to know that youth and love--given some social leeway--would tend to break down arbitrary ‘racial’ barriers faster than almost anything else by mixing up the gene pool.

Count me among the 'mongrel' lovers. Marriage and family across traditional 'racial' lines might be the most effective tool of all in dealing a final blow to old school racial thinking in the US.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Bad Names

I read the other day about a woman in San Francisco who makes an extravagant living "branding" businesses and products with memorable names that move the merchandise. She specializes in replacing "bad names" that drive customers away.

She recently branded a popular soy milk product. A simple matter of blending the words soy and milk to get Silk. The new name suggests the texture of the liquid too, a professional complexity she made sure to point out during the interview. That name change doubled the sales of that product and made her some serious scratch.

What's in a name? Plenty, apparently, in a market economy. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet but it won't necessarily make a buck.

I guess that's no surprise since names have played a pretty significant role for quite awhile.

Our early ancestors thought that names contained something of the essence of a person or a nation. They thought if you knew the name of somebody you understood them and had a kind of power over them. And they thought a new name might signify a new kind of power and identity or even a rebirth.

In one of my favorite biblical passages the Old Testament patriarch Jacob wrestles with an angel of God all night long. Jacob won't let go until God blesses him. The angel dislocates Jacob's hip but eventually realizes that Jacob is too determined to be denied. So the angel asks Jacob his name. Jacob makes his tag known and then the angel says, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed." In the view of the writers of Genesis, Jacob's new name, Israel, was a critical part of his new identity and power.

Jesus meets a man possessed by demons in some of the gospel accounts. The demoniac is a pretty scary guy who tears chains to pieces and rips his own flesh and howls at the moon.

But rather than cutting his food stamps in order to increase his sense of responsibility or shooting him with an M-16, Jesus wants to know the suffering man's name.

The guy groans the name "Legion" because he's under the power of a whole army of evil spirits. Jesus casts the spirits out of the man and sends them into a herd of swine. A whole lot of the other white meat (patented trade name)then rushes down a hill and drowns in the Sea of Galilee.

Names are obviously important.

Even now we still seem to believe that corporate names should capture the essence of a company or a product.

I'm not sure that's true with individual names. Some parents name their kids with meanings in mind but most just want to please grandpa or create a pleasant sound that will give the little ones a chance to succeed. Individual names are mostly lifetime soundtracks now and a test of good taste and class consciousness.

I've always been particularly fascinated with bad names and why people dislike 'em.

Some names are "bad" because they have such dark connotations.

Few of us in the next century will ever run across a successful guy at work named "Bob Hitler." Not many local pastors or teachers will get by with the first names of "Lucifer" or "Cain" either.

On the other hand, there's a pretty good pro hockey player named Satan. First name Miroslav. He's from the Czech Republic where they implicate the Prince of Darkness with another sound.

Slap Shot Satan's bad name works in his favor since it makes such good headlines in the sports sections around the country. "Satan Torches Chicago" or "Satan Dooms San Jose" definitely gets your attention over the morning cup of coffee.

Satan (number 81 for those without a program) Levels Philadelphia

Clearly, a perfectly acceptable name in one culture can turn into a bad name in another.

When I finished college I had a chance to live in London for about 3 months and for part of that time I crashed at the apartment of a Scottish friend named Ian McGregor. Ian laughed out loud every time I mentioned one of my American friends named Randy.

Turns out that for the British "randy" is the equivalent of the American word "horny." Parents in London would no more name their son "Randy" than an American family would name their boy "Lusty." English Randolphs reliably remain Randolphs to deflect the heavy-breathing connotations.

My son Andrew is studying world geography right now. He cracked up when he found out there was a country in the Horn of Africa called "Djibouti" and pronounced "ja-booty." He now refers to that unfortunate country as "Shake Ja-Booty" and I'm guessing he'll think of it that way and giggle every time he comes across that name for the rest of his life. That probably kills the diplomat-in-East Africa career option.

Other "bad" names are weak cuz they're no longer in fashion. How often do you run across a "Hazel" or an "Ethyl?" Most folks associate those names with a frumpy dustbowl housewife in a smock, though I've noticed that some new Asian immigrants to the US use these kinds of old-timey names for their girls in a way more experienced citizens never would. I still can't get used to meeting the "Ethyl Nguyen's" of this world.

Sometimes "bad" names are the result of differences about "good taste."

Let's face it, how many people outside the Latino community can easily get with the idea of a used car dealer named Jesus?

Similarly, I've always thought that universities and colleges take themselves too seriously with magisterial names like "The Johns Hopkins University," and the "The Massachussetts Institute of Technology."

Why don't some schools have names like "Al's College?" More than a few of us would probably like to tell a corporate headhunter that we graduated from a place with a name like that, but you know the bad taste meter would go off the scale if we did.

Finally, seems that some names are "bad" because nobody can remember 'em and keep 'em straight.

A number of years ago I gave the non-profit organization I work for the name "Servant Partners." I've been regretting it ever since because people garble that name at least as often as they get it right.

Here are some actual samples of the kinds of creative renderings I hear on a regular basis:

Servant Partner-- Some people can't get it into their heads that there are more than one of us working for SP...

Service Parts--We're your auto parts experts...

Service Department--We're your trusty maintenance crew...

Servile Partners--Groveling doormats united to serve you...

Sentient Partners--Conscious, thinking vertebrates that are aware of you...

Shepherd's Parents--Nurturing unreached goat and yak herders everywhere...

Those are just a few of the ways people mess up our corporate name.
You know, come to think of it, I may just get in touch with that woman from San Francisco....

Sunday, November 20, 2005

6 Days in LA

Traditional Fall Scene

Just got back from a trip to the left coast.

The Blind and The Good

Saw our old housemate Jen. She's helping renovate the inner-city home of an emotionally disturbed and very elderly couple who lived next door to us for years in Pasadena. She figured out how to relocate them--nothing short of a miracle--while their dilapidated and crumbling house gets a major makeover thanks to a non-profit group that does redos for old folks.

Is she wasting her time on people who are too far gone to be worth an investment?

Some folks would think so.

But I wonder if sometimes the best generosity--like the best justice--is blind.

40 Miles in 3 Hours

Had to go from Corona Del Mar to Pomona at 5 pm on a Tuesday.

Took the 73 to the 55 to the 5 to the 57. If you're from LA you may recognize those freeways, though plenty of people who live there for years never do figure out the numbers or how to get from A to D.

I went 40 miles in 3 hours.

Housing prices in SoCal probably rose 5% and the number of middle class people who can afford a home there dropped 10% during my drive. An Olympic athlete, running at a marathon pace, might have beaten me to Pomona.

Enough said. I love SoCal, but living at altitude has its advantages.

Fall on the Sand

Spent the afternoon today raking the last of the leaves on a strikingly lovely Colorado fall day.

Three days ago I had a chance to walk north along the Southern California shoreline from Dockweiler to Marina Del Rey.

I've lived almost my whole life within a short drive of the sea so almost any beach feels familiar and yet still pretty magical too.

Temps were in the 80's and the Santa Anas were blowing which means crystal clear air quality. I could see the details on Catalina and the buildings in my hometown of Santa Monica looked like I could reach out and touch them from 10 miles away.

SaMo Bay was beautiful as always. The pelicans got altitude and then dove straight down and plunged into the waves looking for dinner. Cool.

Just before the sun went down the water was almost sky blue. Moments after the sun dipped below the horizon the bay turned silver. Even cooler.

Fall of Troy?

Oh, one last thing for you Trojan fans. I've seen most of USC's games and Texas's too now that I'm a Big 12 fan. If SC beats UCLA, be concerned about the Rose Bowl. Texas isn't last year's Oklahoma team. Much faster, much better and much more physical. I'm looking forward to that game. I'm pulling for SC, and it's never a good idea to bet against a team with over 30 straight wins, but....

Friday, November 11, 2005

Race and Raising Kids

I’ll be out of town and offline for a week so I thought I’d leave a post you can kick around in the comments section while I’m gone.

I’ve mentioned a time or two that I’m not always clear what the concept of “race” means at this point.

Seems to me that the best way to take a look at how people view race is to see how they raise their kids, or in some cases, how they plan to raise their kids.

Economists have long been aware that people’s actual economic decisions reveal a lot more about their attitudes than what they say about those decisions. I guess you could modify the old saying, “Follow the money” and substitute “Follow the moves” if you want to get a better feel for what people really think about race. And what could be more important or revealing than how people raise their children?

I recently reread Being White: Finding Our Place in a Multi-Ethnic World by Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp.

Overall it’s a useful book on race and culture in America.

But they make what I think is a very curious and specific plea for parents to avoid raising their children “color blind.”

They argue that parents of all "races" should raise their kids with a clear commitment to their "racial identity.”

They go to great lengths to explain the specific cultural and behavioral markers that characterize the "white race." In one section they catalogue a long list of ways “white” adults can be spiritually and personally inauthentic by departing from those characteristics. Innovation is one of those characteristics and presumably all 'white' children should be raised to understand that marker of 'whiteness' and be proud of it as a part of their racial identity.

They encourage parents of all 'racial' groups to get clear on the markers of their particular race and make sure their kids embrace those racial distinctives.

To their great credit, Harris and Schaupp make this argument as a way of encouraging a more honest and just society. They believe that the vast majority of European-Americans aren’t aware that they have a specific ethnic culture (or cultures) and believe their culture is just “American” culture.

They also believe most European-Americans are out of touch with the tremendous advantages they have as a “racial” group due to historical racism and racial prejudice and therefore aren’t willing to take actions and support policies that would create a fairer society. They believe the only way to remedy that wrong is to embrace race and ensure that children are not only aware of their racial history and its implications but also committed to their own ongoing “racial identities.”

I haven’t raised my kids along those lines. We’ve tried to make Andrew and Rebecca very aware of their ethnic background (northern and southern European roots, which are quite different, by the way) and keenly aware of historical and present ethnic and racial prejudice and the effect that has on their own opportunities and the opportunities of others. We’ve encouraged them to live now and as adults in a way that helps “make amends” for the damage that has been done by ethnic and racial prejudice and to build strong relationships with people of varying cultural backgrounds.

But we’ve also encouraged them to hold the concept of race lightly.

By race, I mean the idea that biological and physical characteristics and differences are truly meaningful and are somehow determinative of the way people will behave or act. Racial prejudice takes that definition a step further and says that biological and physical characteristics make one group superior to other groups. Racism, as I understand it, takes that second definition a step further still and says that racial superiority entitles the superior group to set up a society and economy that dispossesses the “inferior” group or groups.

Here’s how Jan and I have thought about race and why we’re raising the kids the way we are.

From a biological point of view it’s very clear right now that the physical differences between various ‘races’—in particular skin color, which is at the heart of the concept of race--are so minor as to be virtually meaningless. Basically, we’re talking about different adaptions to getting Vitamin D from the sun. So why make a big deal about race? Culture and ethnicity and history are all pretty solid concepts, but what about race?

And with the mixing of people of different ethnic backgrounds—which has been going on for millennia—what does race mean? Americans have reduced the ethnic and cultural complexity of the world to a 5 crayon crayola pack world view (white, black, brown, red, yellow), but it’s not clear to me that our point of view corresponds to the actual ethnic diversity in the world. Various asian cultures have always thought of themselves as different “races” throughout history and in many ways still do—-it took immigration to the US to learn that they were all one 'race' (“yellow,” I guess). And of course, the whole concept of a ‘brown’ race really creates headaches if you think about it for even a few moments. Does that include both Mexicans and Pakistanis?

And do physical characteristics really strongly influence culture or behavior? Culturally speaking, what does a Somali sheepherder have to do with an African-American banker in Cleveland? Or even a wealthy and 'white' Protestant suit in California and a poor and desperate farmer from a distinctly non-innovative place like Bulgaria?

But I guess my final question is “What good, on the whole, has the concept of race ever done anybody?”

There are physical differences, and people are indeed descended from ancestors coming from different parts of the world. So the concept of race can’t simply be ignored, but why play with fire by emphasizing it? If history has shown anything clearly it’s that whenever race is emphasized prejudice, racism, and injustice soon follow.

That's just our current take. But every parent has to decide whether to embrace race or hold it lightly. I'd enjoy hearing any thoughts.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

One More Reason to Go Wireless

At the risk of bad taste....

I guess a pastor got electrocuted down in Texas last week. He was standing in waste deep water in a baptismal and grabbed a corded mike and, well, he's home with the Lord now.

I'm not sure what deeper lessons can be learned from such a tragedy except that common sense can sometimes prolong your life.

The church he served is in Waco, which is the home of some pretty odd religious cults and offbeat churches.

Who knows, maybe some wierd group will be inspired by this whole unfortunate event and create an updated version of Christian snake handling cults. Rather than wrapping venemous snakes around their necks in order to show God's protection against grave danger, these folks may stick their tongues into power outlets during the service to demonstrate their faithfulness.

I'm joking of course...I think :^)

Here are a few ideas to prevent unsafe situations in churches.

• Never use napalm in the Pentecost “Tongues of Fire” Extravaganza

• Avoid base jumping “trust exercises” at the high school weekend retreats

• For liturgical churches, don’t let the kids hold the extra long candles during the midnight Easter services. I was raised in the Greek Orthodox church, and one Easter back in the mid-60’s I actually fell asleep during the service and let my candle touch the heavily hair-sprayed bouffant “do” of the middle aged woman in front of me. Her hair caught fire. My mom and the woman's husband put out the flames with their coats. Bad for the bouffant. Bad for me.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Snap and Go in Morocco

Some takes on making pics cross-culturally....

New Convert

I've never been much of a picture taker. I've always prefered to replay events in my mind rather than through photos or videos.

Visual memories stored in your mind get layered with emotion and interpretation and all kinds of other good things that turn them into a pretty rich mixture. Photos or videos sometimes seem too literal a medium for satisfying memories.

I'm a medievalist in some ways and I freely admit it.

But I've been getting more into picture taking recently. The only explanations I can give for my change of attitude are my ageing brain and digital cameras.

The problem with rich and layered visual memories as you get older is that they get stuck in some inaccessable corner of your brain where you can't get to them. All you soft lens contact wearers will recognize the experience of one of your dried-out contacts folding up and disappearing somewhere underneath your eyelid and around the corner of your eyeball.

That's pretty much what happens eventually with visual memories. You can't remember what people or places look like anymore. Sometimes--as you get into your 40's--you can hardly remember what you looked like at 20 as you stare into the mirror and wonder who this old guy is standing in the bathroom wearing your clothes. So pictures and videos can be a pretty good reminder that jump starts all that layered good stuff again.

And digital cameras just make the whole thing so easy....

Cross-cultural Pics?

I travel a lot internationally and picture taking in the two-thirds world is a whole different thing.

My work gets me into overseas slum communities. When I'm there I generally avoid taking pictures. Carrying a camera tends to create a certain distance with my hosts. Most people in the developing world associate picture taking with tourists or journalists and that's the last thing I want to communicate. Understandably, too, people living in urban poverty aren't normally thrilled about having folks snapping pictures of their difficult circumstances.

But aside from the connotations of tourism or poor folk's discomfort with photography, people in a lot of cultures just don't like to have their picture taken, period. Not everybody loves the camera as much as Americans do.

Quick Pics

I just got back from Morocco. People there frown on taking photos of people. And forget about getting easy pics of religious buildings of any kind.

That's a pain because religious structures are pretty much the only interesting architecture among the miles of butt ugly buildings in most developing world Islamic cities.

Some of those social restrictions are due to current Morrocan culture and some to the long-term influence of Islam which forbids human representation in art.

So if you're going to get some pictures of people (I just avoid religious buildings altogether in these kinds of places) you've gotta be stealthy and quick and ready for a lecture or two when you get caught camera in hand.

I've developed my own little idiosyncratic method for just such occasions.

Once you see what you want to photograph, you figure out the shot in your head. Then you turn your back to it with camera concealed under your crossed arms. You get the camera ready and get your finger on the button and ready to shoot. Then you quickly spin clockwise--if you're a right hander--in order to face the object or person and all in one motion bring the camera up to your face. Sort of like the motion you'd use to throw a frisbee except you keep your elbow in a lot closer to your body.

Line it up quick and bam! snap the shot.

Then quickly swing the camera behind your back and move off at a brisk pace.

With a little practice you can do the whole thing with one fluid motion in 3 or 4 seconds.

Yes, I agree. It's pretty embarrassing what a grown man will do sometimes to get a picture.

And like I said, no matter how careful you are to avoid offence, once in a while you'll face the judgment of a local. Just after I took the picture of the vegetable and fruit souk (market) above I headed quickly through the crowds thinking I'd gotten the shot off with no fuss or muss. But an older woman about twenty yards away must have seen me and she gave me her two dirhams worth in Arabic. I'm glad I couldn't understand her, though I'm guessing it had something to do with knuckleheads and Americans....

Strike a Pose

In contrast to the cultural consensus in these places, some locals make a living being photographed. Since it's hard for the average tourist to get good pictures of local people they'll pay a premium to snap one of these "professional voguers."

Usually the "peevees" wear some kind of colorful indigenous clothing or do something "exotic." In Egypt these guys dress up like some romantic Bedouin Sheik and ride a camel. In Morocco they wear traditional Moroccan footware--kind of a pointy slipper deal--and "charm" snakes and strike a 1001 Arabian Nights pose.

The snakes are highly venemous cobras, though skilled handlers suture their mouths shut with medical filament just before showtime. Some tourists don't know that and I saw a few fearful and panicky looks on people's faces.

If you whip out your camera these guys are on you in a second speaking good English, Spanish, French, or German and demanding a fee for service. Once you pay up and take your shot, they jump on you again and coax your camera away from you so they can take a shot of you with the snakes in the background. After they snap the shot they double dip you and demand a further fee.

Not a bad joint.

Maybe lean and pacifistic European tourists in the U.S. would pay for pictures of "exotic" American voguers striking a pose with greasy fast food in one hand and a legal assault rifle in the other. I'm surprised nobody at Venice Beach has done that take for cash :^)

Pro Vogueing