Monday, July 21, 2014

Mean girls. Part 1a (further meditations on the 'gas ceiling').

This is not intended as a full-fledged post in the series. I know I've been remisssome of you have even been kind enough to prod me, expressing eagerness for "round two"but as the old line goes, life got in the way. What follows is relevant to the discussion in its broadest sense, however, so I thought I'd post it as a "filler" of sorts. 

I am struck this morning by the juxtaposition of two crime stories in my local paper. In the first story we have a woman who plunged a knife deep into her boyfriend's chest, clearly intending to kill him, and almost succeeding. She received, in effect, no punishment: "time served" after spending a couple months in jail. In the second story we have a man who was repeatedly/serially abused as a childas one example, when he was 6, his mother set him on fire because he was hungry and complained about the stale sandwich she gave himand he gets up to 44 months for having sex with an underage girl. I am not condoning sexual activity with 14-year-olds. Nor am I even contending that the kind of abuse this man suffered as a child plausibly explains why he now seeks sex with 14-year-olds.

I am simply asking who committed the worse crime, and who received the more severe punishment.

In some cases, it seems, we are willing to consider all manner of periphera, context and mitigating circumstances. In other cases, not so much. Why is Ms. Concepcion's post-partum depression more of a factor in her crime than the almost incomprehensible abuse that Vincent Ritchie apparently suffered as a boy?

Some among you might say, "Come on, Steve, those are two entirely different situations. You can't compare them." Maybe you're right. Thing is, the dichotomy extends well beyond these stories from my morning paper. I have noticed that many of the cases where we're doing all the mitigating involve women. If you think I'm filtering all this through my own male biases, consider the stats on female executions, which I believe bear me out. Regular readers know I'm not a fan of capital punishment, but if we're going to have a death penalty, it should be administered/applied fairly. Though I have jokingly referred to a "gas ceiling"* in past references to women and capital crimes, it exists, and it's no laughing matter. The above-linked site shows that while women are arrested in connection with one about out of every 10 murders, they receive just one in 50 death sentences, and constitute just one in 100 of the convicts presently on Death Row.

Maybe this is just another (albeit ironic) form of paternalism/chivalrywe're condescending to "the weaker sex" even when they murderor maybe it's the "we just can't kill our mothers" ethic. Regardless, in American society we do  not, and will not, punish women as harshly as we punish men. We strain to find excuses to not punish them at all. This currency is aided and abetted by the Women's Movement, which is forever creating new defenses to crimes (especially anti-male crimes) that would never be taken seriously if a man were the perp. Women have post-partum depression, as in the Concepcion case, as well as premenstrual syndrome, battered-wife syndrome, and so forth. Obviously, the excuses that are are rooted in basic biology or biochemistry don't even apply in the case of men. But you know, if we're going to talk about being driven to hurt or kill people by irresistible forces from within, how 'bout the fact that men are walking testosterone factories? This is all the more true of the young men who commit the bulk of the violent crimes. Should there be a blanket "I'm a man, I'm awash in testosterone, therefore what can you expect from me?" defense for violent crime?

Women talk a lot about equal opportunity and equal protection under the law, but a bit more equal culpability under the law would be nice, too.
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* Readers under age 30: Once upon a time we used to execute people with cyanide gas; this was the so-called "gas chamber." Lovely way to die.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Mean girls. Part 1 in a series.

In the aftermath of the Elliot Rodger shooting, I've not only digested a wealth of what's been tweeted on the likes of #YesAllWomen and #Notallmen, but I've also read and thought at length about two prominent exercises in male mea culpa writing: one by Jeopardy's (admitted) uber-nerd Arthur Chu, and one by our own frequent contributor and master wordsmith Rev Ron, who is the farthest thing from a nerd. Lest there be any misunderstanding, Ron states forthrightly in his title, "I am the Problem." I commend both pieces to you. See what you think.

As for me, I would disagree with just about every point presented by our two featured apologists, as well about 87% of what I've heard on TV or the radio. 

I have linked to the pieces so I'm not going to quote from them extensively (not at all in this post) and/or try to "rebut" them line by line. I'm simply going to tell you how I see it, and if I come off as politically incorrect (at best), or some kind of brooding/hulking Neanderthal (at worst), so be it. I honestly can't understand why anyone would apply the latter label to me unless you're not really reading what I write, but rather are intuiting a certain ugly (misogynist?) mindset behind the words. Of course, nowadays, you're basically a misogynist if you believe that some small portion of men should be permitted to go through life with their balls still attached. Have you ever heard CNN's Sunny Hostin? Oh my God.

My overarching point, which will unfold over the course of several posts, is simply that there are women who have earned the rage some men feel. Does that mean they deserve to be shot dead on the street in front of ice cream parlors? Uh, no. I'm just explaining the motivation that may help drive some of the crazies to extreme action.

So here goes nothing...

My wife has often observed, correctly in my view, that "there is no more cruel being on this planet than a teenage girl." Kathy says this not so much because of what teenage girls do to boys (to be clear, my wife is not a big fan of teenage boys, either), but because of multiple offenses against "the Sisterhood": that is, what teenage girls do to other teenage girls: bully them, exclude them, belittle them, take great delight in fat- or clothes- or slut-shaming them, and so forth. I am purposely focusing here on intra-girl behavior (girl-on-girl crime, as it were) because I want to filter the gender tensions out of the mix. We'll talk in time about the animus between men and women, and what the arguments might be on the male side. Lord knows you've heard enough of the arguments from the female side, which are, apparently, the only arguments worth hearing, judging from our mainstream media. So far as I can tell from the coverage of the Elliot Rodger shooting, there are no rational grievances men may lodge against women. (I ask again, have you heard Sunny Hostin?)

These girls who are behaving badly toward other girls are, in many cases, the popular girls, the hot chicks that Elliot Rodger couldn't persuade to bestow sex upon him. (I also think the nasty behavior grows in direct proportion to privilege. The ones with looks and money may be the most insufferable. Or to hear my wife tell it, again, "They're narcissists bordering on sociopaths." For the record, Kathy does not have a degree in psychology, but she ought to.) The point I'm making is that leaving aside their disinclination to sleep with Elliot Rodger, these girls aren't, a lot of them, very nice kids. They are, as Kathy says, cruel. For the mere sport of it, for no other reason than to flex their social muscle, they'll pick on other teenage girls, powerless girls who are on the emotional edge to begin with. They'll drive those poor girls to antidepressants or cutting or in some rare cases suicide, then post laughing comments about it on Facebook. (Do some Googling around; you'll see what I mean.)

Which is why I don't want to hear that this "mean girls" motif is "Hollywood fare" or urban legend. 

Consider this poll from SmartGirl.org, an empowering site aimed at, well, smart girls, or those who'd like to be. Unscientific, yes, but telling nonetheless. Asked to respond to the statement "Bullies are usually boys," 62% of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Or you may wish to scan this white paper, which notes in its executive summary:

 "Relational aggression, broadly defined as 'behavior that is intended to harm someone by damaging or manipulating his or her relationships with others,' is more common among girls, and is difficult to monitor or observe due to its covert nature."
To repeat, a girl who bullies and berates does not deserve to be whacked by a Beemer-driving maniac with an overblown sense of entitlement. But she inspires a great deal of rage among people of both genders (and all ages) who wouldn't exactly shed a tear if she got run over by a speeding Amtrak one night. 

And expanding the context a bit: Is it at least possible that a girl who takes delight in shunning other girls and even driving them to suicide might do some pretty crappy stuff to boys as well? I'm getting ahead of myself, but I'll just put that question "out there" and let it hang...

Now, can teenage boys be pricks? Absolutely. I might even omit the qualifier, the "can be" part. Worse, some of 'em are profane, violent thugs. They will use and mistreat teenage girls, if the girls let them. But, you know, the dynamic between boys and girls is one of those chicken/egg things. The pattern starts young, and seems to be a natural (albeit sick) byproduct of their incipient mating dance, so it's hard to know where to lay the ultimate original blame (if such ultimate original blame even exists). As noted, we'll delve into that more later, but that's why I've begun this series of posts by trying to factor out the ugliness that grows organically from gender tensions. Yes, boys are fully capable of treating girls like shit, but girls are also fully capable of treating girls like shit...and call me naive (or partisan), but I do not think that on balance, boys are as "evil," if you will, as some teen girls are.

Boys tend to be direct and overt.
"Hey Amber," some charming lad will scream across the lunchroom, "why don't you come over here and suck my dick!?"
Girls do it differentlyand, I would argue, more diabolically.
They invite Amber to eat at their table. They invite Amber to a party. They ingratiate themselves with Amber, get on her good side. Then they stick the knife in and twist it in a way that Amber never saw coming.
The upshot of this post is that if anything, girls should bond together to support and uplift one another, to ease each other through the endemic horrors of adolescence and, yes, of dealing with asshole boys. Too often, they don't do that. Instead they are bitterly competitive over those same asshole boys.
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Next in the series: The objectification of women...who's really to blame?

Friday, May 16, 2014

I volunteer to be exploited...

On the surface of things, it's hard to find fault with volunteers and volunteerism. You start writing stuff in that vein and people really come down on you as the Voice of Doom.

Volunteers are, of course, the lifeblood of many American philanthropies and community outreaches. The likes of Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity, literacy programs at most libraries, and countless other boots-on-the-ground initiatives could not long survive without good people who donate their time.

That said, I am troubled when I see volunteerism increasingly playing a role in the operations of larger, well-heeled corporations. That strikes me as somewhat predatory. And the fact that there are people only too happy to volunteer for such "jobs" doesn't make the situation any better; to my mind it makes the situation seem all the more predatory.

My wife recently had surgery at St. Luke's Hospital in Allentown, PA, and the lady behind the desk in the post-op waiting room was a volunteer. She was a lovely older woman who actually gets up extra-early each day of her shift in order to bake brownies or other goodies for the people she'll encounter in the waiting room. These are from-scratch brownies and goodies, not the Duncan Hines variety. She told me that she'll average three shifts in a given week.

Here are some fast facts about St. Luke's, from its own web site:

  • 55,300+ annual admissions
  • 193,000 annual emergency room visits
  • 9,400+ employees (the region's second largest employer)
  • 1,342 physicians (representing more than 90 specialties; 92 percent board certified)
  • 1,652 volunteers
Here are St. Luke's financials from its 2012 Annual Report to the Community:
St.Luke’s operating revenue in excess of expense for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012 was $11,037,000, representing an operating margin of 2.5 percent.... Total operating revenue grew to $439 million... 
As you can see, we are talking about a giant regional network. A giant regional network that takes in $11 million "in excess of expense." Why allow anyone to be a volunteer? (OK, volunteers do get "delicious hot meals" in the cafeteria and "discounted" gym memberships.) Would it break the bank to pay the woman at the post-op desk a minimum wage? How far would such largess eat into the hospital's operating margin, even if St. Luke's-Allentown paid all 1652 volunteers a minimum wage?

Let's see now. Suppose they paid Brownie Lady $8 an hour for a five-hour shift. That's the princely sum of $40 per day. If she works her three-shift average she makes $120 that week. If she works 50 weeks (likely more than the real number), that's $6000 a year. Multiply that by 1652 (making the same assumptions about the other 1651 volunteers) and you have total additional annual wages of just under $10 million. So your operating margin is now down to around $1 million. But, that probably wouldn't happen, either, as the hospital might raise its rates subtly to defray the added outlay. Lord knows hospitals make adjustments and assessments to cover all sort of other routine expenses. Or St. Luke's could hit up one of its own big-dollar benefactors for a donation; maybe the donor wouldn't get his or her name on a new wing this time, but the hospital could put some kind of patch on the arms of the volunteers whose salary the donation is paying. Or Brownie Lady could design the altruist's initials into each batch via the creative use of icing...

In any case, I think St. Luke's would muddle through somehow. I don't get it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Requiem for a pilot.

[A note about the music I chose: Although tastes differ, this is a gorgeous version of a touching Michael Jackson song; it "gets me" every time... Also, the "sandy beach" reference reminded me of the fun times back in Jackson and Lakewood, New Jersey. Those of us who knew and loved the subject of this post can agree that he was surely "gone too soon."]*



Ten years ago, at around breakfast-time on May 14, 2004, commercial pilot Thomas F. Lennon took off in a small freight plane for what was to be a routine courier run between Philly and Baltimore; the cargo bay behind him held mostly canceled checks and other commonplace financial documents bound for the Federal Reserve. Instead, his flight and his life ended in the driveway of a private residence just outside his destination, BWI Airport. Whenever a small plane goes down in some tree-lined suburb and the utter catastrophe that could easily have occurred is avoided, the media tend to report the news in language that translates to "only the pilot was killed." I have heard that exact phrase used on a number of occasions since the crash recounted here. In this case, the "only the pilot," Tommy Lennon, was my nephew. He was 34, the youngest of my sister's five children; her only son. He had been married for just a few short years.

He hadn't even outgrown his baby face.
Tommy was one of the many deferred casualties of 9/11, as they are sometimes called: people who lost their lives as an indirect (but no less inevitable) result of what happened on that awful day in 2001. As is ever true in such cases, Tommy's path to tragedy stretched back decades. His late father, Tom Sr., had been a military pilot, and young Tom's dream was to follow in Dad's footsteps. This required a great deal of perseverance—for one thing, Tommy stood 6-7, too tall for the cockpit of the Navy jets he'd hoped to fly. Not to be denied, he took private lessons, then worked a number of menial flying jobs (for Wendy's-like wages) in order to accumulate sufficient hours for USAirways to offer him his first set of real wings. And such a proud moment that was, for the family: a picture of Tommy, resplendent in his new pilot's uniform, took a prominent place in my sister's living room. But Tommy lost that job in the carnage that befell the U.S. airline industry in the wake of 9/11. So it was that on that fateful May morning a decade ago, Tommy found himself behind the controls not of a time-tested Boeing 737, but a notoriously troublesome Mitsubishi MU-2.** And that is how 9/11 cost my nephew his life. (As a side note, Tommy's wife, Lara, and other heirs did not collect $2.08 million from the government, and I'm not saying they were entitled. But neither, in my opinion, were Lisa Beamer et al. As I've asked before, why is one life worth so much more than another?)

We tend to mythologize loved ones who die in tragic circumstances, so one doesn't want to overstate, but eyewitness reports suggest that Tom made a determined effort that morning to steer his faltering aircraft clear of a school, a bus stop and other public venues, until finally the plane's mechanical issues sent him hurtling through a thicket of trees. That collision dictated his final landing spot in the driveway. He died at the scene.

Tommy Lennon was a joy to know. Ever ready with a smile for everyone. He didn't just find common ground with people; he met you on your ground. Tommy was a nice guy, a good guy—the kind of guy of whom acquaintances said, "He'll do anything for you," and it wasn't just a throwaway phrase. Whether the help you needed involved a wrench or a ride or mere moral support, Tommy was your man. And yet there's no describing my nephew without mentioning his devilish sense of humor. His sister Chrissie, who lives in Boston, might use the local vernacular in describing her brother's wit as "wicked sharp"...and oh was it ever! When we were all younger and got together more frequently, those of us sitting nearest him would be convulsed in laughter at regular intervals by some patented Tommyism. He could fire off barbs with the best of them, comments on the goofs and gaffes unfolding around him...but always in good-natured fun.

In sum, then, this isn't like those eulogies where mourners must strain to find positives to talk about, selectively editing the unkempt narrative of the deceased's life or the inconvenient laundry list of his personality traits. (By comparison, my eulogists, if any, will have their work cut out for them.) In Tommy's case, you'd almost have to temper your praise so as not to sound corny or insincere.

The family get-togethers are fewer and farther between these days. His four sistersthose little girls I used to "water-taxi" on my back as we all cavorted in the lake near Jackson, New Jerseyhave moved into middle age. They, of course, have families of their own to tend to. Like the ever-expanding universe, the relationships have veered off in various directions, far from the original nucleus that bound us years ago: the all too familiar script of familial unraveling. Their kids were still youngsters in 2004, and had barely gotten a chance to know their uncle before he died. But their memories of Tom, though limited in quantity, are abundant in quality. They smile when they're asked about him. 

We all smile when we think about the Tommy we knew in life. And that's as fitting a tribute as the tasteful plaque on the ground that anchors an understated memorial in my sister's backyard in New Jersey. Rest in peace, Thomas F. Lennon. You were far more than "only the pilot," and we'll always miss you.
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* Best viewed on a PC. Smart-phone users may have to sit through an ad. Sorry.
** Roughly a quarter of the total MU-2 fleet has been involved in fatal mishaps. In a report published in December 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) conceded that the MU-2 is seven times more likely than similar aircraft to crash due to a loss of control. If a commercial jetliner were at the heart of a similar cluster, there is not a chance it would it still be flying.