Midnight Run: What I Learned When I Stopped Doing Nothing and Helped People

There are a lot of reasons not to do charity. Personally, I come up with new ones every day.

Source: news.change.org

When I say “sorry” to homeless people who ask for money on the street, passing them without giving, I think to myself, “There’s no way this is the most efficient use of my money for good. Also they might use it for drugs and alcohol. Also I’m tired and I have places to be. And it’s not even my money, most of it is my parents’.” Plenty of that is true, of course, but it’s also true that I generally don’t donate to charities and I have extra cash almost all the time and it would likely mean a great deal to these people if I donated and it is especially true that I spend my parent’s money on far less worthy things.

But let’s say all of it is true and just because I don’t do better things with money doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do at least some, less good things. Maybe I don’t have the time?

Except, my time isn’t worth a lot (I’m currently doing two different unpaid internships. My time is not just worthless, it is doubly worthless. Which, to be fair, is still just worthless.) So, presumably, I should do good things with it, like volunteer or, for the purposes of this post, help out the homeless.

So maybe there are other reasons it’s a bad idea. I mean, isn’t it just putting a band-aid over more systemic issues? And people aren’t hungry in this country, right? And Maimonides had a thing somewhere about not doing charity for other people in which they know who you are. And if I were homeless, I wouldn’t want privileged rich kids feeling all righteous and virtuous because they took one night off from drinking or watching Youtube videos to make and hand out basic sandwiches, the cheapest apples they could find, and three shirts someone was kind enough to take off his back root out of a pile of things he likely never wears (which is still better than almost everyone else, myself included, who did not donate any clothes).

So I, wracked by guilt and paralyzed by indecision, do nothing. I am not sure where or how to give money, so I do not give at all. I am not sure that this is the right decision, so I do not look those who ask in the eye, worried that at some level they know that my smile and conversation would be a self-serving act intended to alleviate my guilt over not doing what seems like the obviously correct things by replacing a donation that would help them with a greeting that helps me because I get to be proud of “treating them like a human” and therefore being better than everyone else on the street. But, of course, I don’t even have that, because I don’t do it at all.

The truth is, I do not give food or money to the homeless because I am embarrassed. I am embarrassed at how little I am doing compared to how much I could do. I am embarrassed that I am abusing my privilege, that I am Othering the homeless, that I might be causing more harm than good. I am embarrassed that I might be, in the end, making the wrong decision, and my heartfelt sincerity is my socially evolved emotions’ joke on me. I am embarrassed that my friends might find out, and think how silly I am, to do something so gauchely earnest instead of engaging in further argumentation about Foreign Aid legislation and welfare politics. I am embarrassed to be doing something that I know looks good to others when I do not totally believe in it myself, even though I’ve been doing social justice projects my whole life.

What this means, of course, is that more privileged than spending money on conferences instead of malaria nets, more elitist than acting as if other humans are not worth my time, more self-serving than potentially getting more out of charity in the form of gratification and a sense of righteousness than I give in help or kindness, worse than all of that, I decided that my embarrassment was more important than their need.

It took doing the Uri L’Tzedek Summer Fellowship’s annual mandatory-for-fellows Midnight Run on Tuesday night to get me to shut up my over-active hyper-analytical excuse-finding machine that sits atop my neck. We signed up ahead of time, made about 100 sandwiches, put them in paper bags with cookies, juice boxes and snacks, and went in a van to preset spots to give them away. When we handed out the bags, we also spent time talking to the people we saw. This is fraught, too; who are we, to be entitled to their stories and their lives, when we would expect nothing of the kind from the housed? And yet, they spoke to us freely and happily, and those that did not want to talk were not pushed. We learned that Jose’s parents died when he was young, and Cynthia has a nursing degree and a terrible employment agency. Another woman told us she loved us and gave us all hugs. They often formed a network, telling us where their friends were and how long it had been since they’d eaten. One man hadn’t had anything to eat in two days. Overall, they preferred tuna sandwiches to peanut butter. It was wonderful, joyous, friendly, amazing. I felt happy; I felt like the evidence of the happiness and gratefulness I was causing showed I was doing the right thing, or at least a right thing.

What did I learn?

That empathy has limits. Empathy is a process of plugging a situation into your brain and letting it spit out what you might feel. It does brilliantly at illuminating the truths of what it means to be other people in the face of humanity’s overwhelming commonalities. It crosses barriers, extends care and undermines Otherizing. But empathy fails to contribute to understanding when there are real differences of experience and circumstance to contend with, and such is the case here. What I think I might feel is less than unhelpful; it turned out to be actively counterproductive, and exactly wrong.

That, contrary to popular belief, people still go hungry in this country.

That kindness, a willingness to engage, and a respect for choice go a long way.

That charity is a severely political act.

That even if we get more than we give, it’s a getting that doesn’t take.

I don’t think everyone should necessarily start giving money or food to the homeless. There are many reasons not to. Find whatever moves you, or maximizes the variable you’re looking for. But if what’s stopping you from doing something good is constant fear of doing it wrong, you should just do it. Grab friends, or do it alone. Sign up with a group, go with a church or a community service group or Volunteers Beyond Belief. Do it thoughtfully, of course, with as much care and respect and planning as possible.

When the stakes (your embarrassment, possibly making a fool of yourself, maybe doing a suboptimally good thing) are so low, you should just try. There’s time and space to improve; we don’t have to get it right the first time. If we get Food Aid wrong, we can destroy the economy of a small country. But if we get the everyday things wrong, the worst we have done is given sandwiches to those who are hungry, or lost a few dollars to the vicissitudes of humanity, or faltered while learning how to do good. So you try, and you learn, and you reflect, and then you get to do more good tomorrow.

This is going to sound saccharine, but I don’t want to be embarrassed of that anymore, so here goes:

Go make the world a better place. Even if you’re scared. We all are.

In Which Geek Culture Is Not, In Fact, Perfect: Female Role Models

So there’s this image going around:

What’s going on here? Female Role Models are selected from “popular culture” and “geek culture,” the viewer is supposed to instantly understand how vastly superior the latter are. Why?

Well, since much of geek culture is constructed and circumscribed by the all-important trait of knowing and caring nothing of “celebrities” and “popular culture”, it’s probably not because everyone recognizes all of the women on top, realizes that by their actions or opinions they are poor role models for young girls and thus agrees with the image. More likely the women being cast into the “NO” pile for what one might want one’s daughters to be fall into two categories: Try As They Might To Deny It, Geeks Know Some Celebrities And These Are Some Of Them That They Know And Hate and Scantily Dressed. Note: These categories are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they pretty much overlap entirely.

Snooki (top left) and Kim Kardashian (middle top), as near as I can tell, are famous because they are famous. I’ve never seen Keeping up with the Kardashians or Jersey Shore, so maybe I’m not qualified to discuss, but they have personalities and lives which people like to observe. It may not be everyone’s dream for their child, but I’m having trouble understanding why they’re really all that bad. Kristen Stewart makes the line-up more complicated, since I’m almost certain that she’s meant to be representing not herself, but Bella Swan. If anyone knows of any particular reason Kristen Stewart is a bad person/role model, they should let me know in comments. I’m not going to discuss the matter of whether or not Bella Swan is a good role model. She’s certainly boy-obsessed, largely passive and strangely non-troubled by some very problematic behavior on the part of her suitors, but she’s als0 intelligent and has sexual agency. So…it’s complicated?

I’m really baffled as to why Lady Gaga is on the list. She’s an LGBT activist, a philanthropist, a kink-aware artist and she likes to play with social norms through fashion and other behavior. The problem is what? That she’s a conventionally attractive woman who is dressed sexily in the photo shown? Wouldn’t want my daughter ever wearing less clothing than I deem appropriate. Gross. Nothing at all like any of the women in the bottom column (*cough* all the way on the left *cough*). In fact, it seems like that might be the problem with all of the women on the top row. They’re conventionally sexy/are in pictures that are geared to illustrate that fact, and we’re supposed to hate them for it.

It’s that, or it’s that they represent pop culture, which we’re supposed to hate all the time anyway. (This notion deserves its own post).

On the other hand, the characters in the bottom row are sexy, but not over sexualized. They’re talented, intelligent, respected, in positions of leadership and can wield a weapon with flair and skill. Great! Go Geek Culture! No problems here.

You, convenient foil in the back, you want to say something?

“Yes, I think it might be worthwhile to recognize that the women on the top (aside from Bella Swan) are real people whereas those on the bottom are fictional, meaning that the potential perfection and badassery is much higher for the Geek Culture set.”

An excellent point. On the right, obligatory Devil’s Advocate, you have a response?

“Ok, but it’s still important to point out that popular culture glorifies women who aren’t famous for any particularly admirable characteristics like those mentioned above but rather for more superficial traits whereas geek culture does a much better job elevating useful and important aspects of womanhood in their portrayals thereof.”

*snort* Sorry, that was unladylike. While I finish laughing, I’ll let Ellen Lundgren (who also blogged about this very issue here) explain why that’s ridiculous.

Well said (though she did not create the image).

It’s still complicated. For example, Leia is indeed dressed gratuitously sexily and the outfit she is wearing is intended to make her a sex object. But that’s the only time in the movie where that occurs, it’s a punishment by the villain, and she’s a generally badass character. Also, Carrie Fisher requested more interesting outfits to wear.

But it’s by far the most common portrayal of her at Comic/Nerd/Geek Conventions, and dressing that way is highly rewarded by the Geek Community. (Please go read that link, it’s wonderful, and the video linked directly prior is very telling). Sexism is a problem in Geek Culture, and that means it cannot go around claiming that it is a producer of solely Good Role Models for Girls. Ellen is totally right to point that out.

If you’re still skeptical, go check out Geek Feminism. And these analyses of the Starfire reboot. And how female superhero’s bodies are contorted in sci-fi and comic books. And the way Anita Sarkeesian of the amazing Feminist Frequency has been treated for attempting to explore the way women are portrayed in popular videogames. Then come back and tell me you want your daughters (or sons, for that matter) growing up in unexamined geek culture.

Absolutely buy your daughter a ray gun instead of a Barbie*. But don’t consider yourself the enlightened elite unless you’re fighting the battle on other fronts, too. No free passes.

*For the purposes of this post, we’re ignoring the problems with glorifying violence for children, the disconnect between the admirable traits of intelligence, leadership and self-respect demonstrated by the characters in the bottom row of the first picture and what a ray-gun signifies, the gender essentializing and socializing and the possible femme-phobia associated with the denigration of a doll.

Lasagna and Cake: Or, the joy in doing needlessly complicated things

It’s summer vacation, and while I’ve just started one internship and am about to start another, I don’t have too much to do all day. Besides reading, catching up on The (newest) Conversation about sexism in the atheist movement, and going swimming in Lake Michigan, one of the most fun things to do with a lot of time is take on ridiculous projects. It lets us try new things, challenge ourselves, have fun and hopefully come out the other side having learned something, or being a person who does slightly cooler things than they did yesterday. Hence, Blogathon. And it was wonderful. We’ve raised $82,304.00 so far, and I think I met a lot of my other goals as well, like having fun and writing short posts (that I hope were fun to read), although I really didn’t drink enough coffee.

But when that ended, I needed something else to do. There was only one choice: mushroom lasagna.

Which I’ve been wanting to make for forever. It’s somewhat more complicated than pizza: you have to cook the noodles, make a béchamel, sautée mushrooms, grate cheese, and then layer it all and cook it for 45 minutes. It took me about three and a half hours total, but was totally and absolutely worth it.

Step 1: Go shopping.

Step 2: Get home. Open package of lasagna noodles.

Ha! Nope! I didn’t buy any stinkin’ lasagna noodles. I made them.

Real Step 2: Start making pasta dough according to this recipe. Realize it calls for a food processor, which you don’t have. Frantically google. Find out there are a million different recipes for pasta dough, some of which have oil, some have more flour, some fewer eggs, etc. Freak out a little bit. Get yourself together and just use your stand mixer.

Combine ingredients with paddle attachment, knead with dough hook. Have everything work out. Calm down. Let the dough sit for an hour to allow ‘gluten formation’ which is probably some food science hoax buzzword designed to make the whole process take longer. Take a nap in the meantime.

Step 3a: Take out and assemble your mother’s absurdly old fashioned pasta roller. Isn’t it awesome? It has a hand crank!

Step 3b: Insert dough.

Step 3c: Roll by hand. Feel like a superstar.

Step 3d: Repeat.

Step 3e: Lay out on all available clean flat surfaces. Proceed to run out of clean flat surfaces.

Step 4: Cook them in boiling water with salt. Be astonished at how fast fresh pasta cooks (like 45 seconds, it’s crazy). Protip: Add oil to the water. It stops the pasta from sticking together.

Step 5: Make béchamel by adding flour to butter to make a roux. Then add milk simmered with garlic (not shown). Hope that the recipe accounted for a sixth of the milk spilling on the oven top before making it to the saucepan.

Step 6: Cut and sautée a ridiculous amount of mushrooms (a full pound and a half).

Step 7: Assemble ALL the ingredients!

Step 8: Layer in a pan. Realize you didn’t buy Parmesan cheese. Decide all cheese is delicious so it doesn’t matter. Use the motley mix of colby, muenster and cheddar you have in the fridge.

(No picture, I know you’re all very disappointed).

Step 9: Place in oven.

Step 10: Take out.

Step 11: Ignore instructions to let cool and try to eat immediately.

Step 12: Realize that maybe the instruction has a point. Let cool.

Step 13: Serve to friends. Eat. Have fun. Unfortunately, no pictures of the food.

This is my friend. Don’t worry, I won at Bananagrams 🙂

Also at some point in the evening I made a cake. It was delicious.

Friends, games and absurd cooking projects. What else do you need on a lovely summer day?

P.S. The lasagna freezes and reheats very well.

Wrap-Up: Honoring Things that Are Way More Difficult From the Inside

When I took a break earlier today, Jay suggested that when I come back I write a post about “the inside vs. the outside view of how difficult things are?  Like, say, writingblog posts? 🙂

It’s certainly true that “easy reading is damn hard writing” but I’ve really enjoyed writing all of this, working at writing short, fun pieces and getting to interact with all of you who commented or lurked. For my final piece (yes I’m doing 20 posts instead of 25), I’m going to show three videos of things that we consume in just minutes but no doubt took hours. Let it remind all of us to appreciate those things that other humans put so much effort into for our joy and amusement. It’s been quite a ride!

For reference, here are all the posts I wrote for Blogathon:
The Beginning: In which I list my goals and what I’m willing to do to achieve them.
Maybe you aren’t actually an atheist? And other stories: In which I relate stories of being accused of being secretly religious.
Nuance: It’s What’s for Dinner: In which I discuss when nuance is more and less useful in personal and professional interactions.
Why the UChicago SA is awesome: Dropping eggs off of Rockefeller Chapel: In which the University of Chicago Secular Alliance is indeed awesome.
Are liberal, queer-loving, feminist religious people our allies?: In which I define ‘allies’ in five different ways and then get to answering the question.
Religious Atheism: The Great Contradiction: Part 1: In which I discuss the word ‘religious’ and why I think it applies to me.
Religious Atheism: The Great Contradiction: What I get out of it: In which I talk about why I like religion, or at least my religious practice.
Fun Facts about Me: In which I talk about myself and have a lot of fun links.
Is there an Is/Ought Distinction?: In which I say “no.”
Could Reparative Therapy be a Choice to Protect?: In which I try to grapple with individual choice and social oppression.
Puppies! We found one at the cafe: In which puppies are cute.
Teleportation or Death?: In which we become multiple people and then possibly kill ourselves.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma: In which you are kidnapped and then asked to do game theory.
What is reductionism?: In which I am very snarky about philosophy.
Depictions of Love: Call Me Maybe: In which “Call Me Maybe”‘s music video is somewhat revolutionary.
Love as Understood through Image/Text Combinations on Pinterest: In which I try to analyze Pinterest’s view of love.
Polyamory: I made a video!: In which I yammer at a camera about dating multiple people.
Because Real Men Wear Only the Things We Tell Them to: In which masculinity is policed and femininity is degraded.
Why I Don’t Care About Authorial Intent: In which readers own the books they read.
Aren’t Muffins Just Cupcakes Without Frosting? Blogathon, the Food Science Edition: In which fat and flour ratios are very important.

Thanks for reading!

Look out for posts by me and here and on the Friendly Atheist. Since I still owe you all five posts, I’ll take suggestions here that I’ll try to do in the next couple of weeks, and they don’t have to be secular/atheistic/rationalist.

Thanks so much for supporting the SSA!

This has been Post the Twentieth for Blogathon

Aren’t Muffins Just Cupcakes Without Frosting? Blogathon, the Food Science Edition

Muffins and cupcakes are both dome shaped pastries that are a healthy part of a balanced breakfast. No? That’s just muffins? Not in my apartment. Anyway, they kind of seem like the same thing. But are they? Let us examine the ingredient lists:

Chocolate Chip Muffins:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 egg
  • 3/4 cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 3 tablespoons white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar

Chocolate Chip Cupcakes:

  • 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup milk

What we’re looking to compare here are the important structural elements, not the flavor elements, so that’s fat and flour here. The cupcakes have a .444 ratio of fat to flour, and the muffins have a .1666 ratio. That difference gives the cupcakes a much tighter, smaller crumb, making the texture finer, making the cake much more tender. Also, because the cupcakes are made with the creaming method and the flour is added at the last minute, there is not much time for gluten to form, making them more tender, whereas the muffins need gluten to give them their heartier texture.

Conclusion: Muffins are not the same as cupcakes.

This has been Post the Nineteenth of Blogathon

Why I Don’t Care About Authorial Intent

When we study books in English, we’re often sent on a treasure hunt in which the text provides clues to the ultimate goal, the true meaning of the text. By and large, kids hate it. “The author couldn’t really have meant to put in all these symbols.” “Is this what is actually means?” And I think that’s a really bad way to read literature. There aren’t actually objective truths to be found here; there isn’t anything called “the right way to read books” out there in the world. I just think there’s more meaning to be found when we relinquish our death grip on the value of authorial intent.

Authors create texts which they try to imbue with meaning and significance through their choices of characters, settings, metaphors and symbols. But because they are human, they cannot help but also employ tropes and make connections that are a result of the societies in which they live. They write stories which make sense to them in a certain way, and though they try, they simply cannot imagine what it will mean to all their readers. Once the text is in the hands of the reader, it is entirely up to them and their brains how the interpretive process will go. They will interpret it through the light of their own experiences and understandings, and there is nothing illegitimate about that interpretation. Stories are not indulgent acts of self-gratification; they are written for others, and if the author’s intended message is lost, that is the fault of the author, not the reader. And if an alternative message is found, then the text has served a purpose; it has formed a relationship with the mind of the reader to produce meaning. So what if the author meant something else? The text must be able to stand on its own.

John Green likes to say that his books “belong to their readers now, which is a great thing–because the books are more powerful in the hands of my readers than they could ever be in my hands.”

That’s why fan fiction and fan art are so wonderful. Because fans can take a story in a direction the author never even considered. They could even write something better than the author could. That’s why Love and Time Travel is so awesome, especially without the author’s authoritative statement on the meaning of the video. Because the video is beautiful and complex enough to be imagined in so many ways one person could never have intended them all. The hundreds and thousands of ways in which humans understand and appreciate art should not be collapsed into the singular wavefunction of the author’s initial conception. It does a disservice both to the author and the readers. Let meanings flourish, and may they ever be enriched.

After all, the Copenhagen Interpretation is wrong.

This has been Post the Eighteenth of Blogathon