Saturday, May 31, 2014

What (I think) #TrustWomen means

Five years ago today, Dr. George Tiller was murdered.

In my family’s church in Wichita, the church we’d been members of since…’92? Something like that.  Before they moved into the newly built church at 13th and Rock, back when it was a smaller building on Kellogg next to Hooter’s.

My parents knew George and Jeannie Tiller, but I didn’t really.  The Tillers initially came to Reformation Lutheran because they had been rejected from their previous church, and the Reformation leadership wrestled with the issue a bit but the church population accepted them…in spite of the years of protestors showing up outside the church with their signs, and trucks emblazoned with pictures of bloody fetuses sourced from who knows where, and their bullhorns, shouting at people attending services….on Christmas Eve, in the snow. They were there, every Sunday.  For years.

After George Tiller was killed, this stopped. I try not to think too much about how much of a relief that might’ve been to some. The church now has a playground dedicated to Tiller’s memory, but there is no plaque proclaiming such. I think they’re concerned that it might be destroyed or defaced by vandals. They’re probably right about that.

On that Sunday morning, I was in town visiting my parents. They were at church, and I was at home moving a bed that was upstairs and needed to be downstairs (I’d stopped attending church regularly while in college).  

My mother was in choir, and my father was serving as an usher. George Tiller was serving as an usher too, and it was in doing so that he was killed—he was in the lobby, the narthex, on handing-out-bulletin duty when Scott Roeder (who’d begun attending services at Reformation some weeks before, specifically to scout out the territory) stepped outside the sanctuary, pulled a gun, and shot Dr. Tiller in the head.

Roeder then ran out, pursued by a couple of ushers who fell back when he threatened them with the same gun. (Approximately three hours later he was apprehended outside of Kansas City. He was later charged with first degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault. The jury deliberated quickly and declared him guilty on all three counts—the judge gave him the “hard 50,” fifty years without parole. )

My father came home from church and described what happened, how he’d guided members of the congregation out of the building past the blood on the floor. I sat down on the stairs and cried.

Later that day, my parents went to a service at Reformation which the Tiller family also attended. I went downtown to attend a candlelight vigil.

That’s how that day went.

The so-called Summer of Mercy happened in 1991, in Wichita….of course. I remember it, but at the time I was in middle school and not exactly sure what abortion was or how it worked, making me not too dissimilar from the majority of adult idiots sprawling themselves out on Bleckley Drive in front of Tiller’s clinic.

I had the defense of barely being a teenager, but wish I’d been more aware nonetheless.  I was a freshman in high school in 1993, when Tiller was shot by a protestor for the first time, in both arms.  I didn’t remember that he went to work the next day, citing a need and dedication to serve.

But he did.

I learned about this while watching the After Tiller documentary, which I’ve been simultaneously yearning and dreading to see since first hearing about it. I learned that Tiller had founded, and Julie Burkhart built and ran, a political action committee called ProKanDo when I attended the first anniversary party for South Wind Women’s Center recently.

South Wind is the women’s reproductive clinic started by Burkhart in Tiller’s former clinic. I had never seen the inside of the clinic before, but had the opportunity to do so during the event, and…it’s beautiful.  It’s an attractive, welcoming place, and quite extensive.  You can see some of the clinic, and some of the first anniversary party, in these short videos at MSNBC.  

Anyway, you’re probably thinking “ProKanDo? What about Trust Women?” That’s the name of the PAC that Julie Burkhart started in 2009, and echoes a button that George Tiller used to wear.  

I shared in this confusion wandering through the vigil downtown on that night five years ago, seeing people in Trust Women t-shirts. “Yes,” I thought, “You should trust women to make choices for themselves, but…where is this going?

Maybe you share my distrust of slogans. Maybe you don’t. Point being, I needed something more.

I found it watching After Tiller.

After Tiller tells the stories of four doctors—LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Susan Robinson, and Shelley Sella—who all knew George Tiller, prior to his death,  in various ways, and continue on the controversial practice of performing third trimester abortions—the kind Tiller performed.  Few than 1% of abortions are performed in the third trimester, mind.  This is not how most abortions happen. But these are arguably the most mythical, because of abortion proponents’ biggest lie: that women who abort don’t think or care about their pregnancies, and doctors who perform abortions don’t care about them either.

Boy, does After Tiller dispel that myth.

“Because we’re sort of a court of last resort here,” says Robinson at one point. “If we’re not going to help her, she’s not going to get an abortion, really.” And then we have to watch an aide, who is clearly not enjoying the experience any more than we are, turning a prospective patient away.

After Tiller is maybe 1/4 homage to George Tiller, 1/4 discussion of the harassment and antagonism (legal and otherwise) that the four doctors have experienced in the process of trying to cover the needs of women throughout the country—and outside of it, in some cases—who find themselves past ordinary limit but in dire need of an abortion, whether by threat to the fetus or potential mother or both, and ½ coverage of meetings with actual patients, discussion of their particular situations, and comments from the respective doctors on why they do what they do and the cases in which they will and won’t do it.

This half of the documentary is informative, and brutal, and necessary.

Here’s the thing—if you are stridently pro-life, allergic to nuance, and want to mine this documentary for material which will support your’ll find it. You’ll find doctors expressing moments of indecision and doubt. You’ll find desperate gambles, and patients trying to do the right thing for themselves that they might regret later.  You’ll find people acknowledging that all available options “suck,” and all they can do is pick the one that seems the best to them now.  You’ll find uncertainty. You’ll find a distinct and considered lack of stridence and dogmatism.

That’s the point, actually.

As Dr. Sella says at one point, it’s hard to understand or defend these abortions unless you can hear these womens’ stories and know what they’re going through.

You need to know the amount of suffering they and their children would experience, if the child were born. You need to understand how many women are aware of the fact that they will be unable to give a child up for adoption once giving birth, no matter how it might ruin them physically or financially to do so. You need to listen to a few women talk about the tremendous physical challenges their children will face if born, abnormalities you likely have never heard of, and hear them concluding that it’s better to end it now, before getting to know the child and having him/her ripped away from life at a very young age. In tears. In pain. 

As Dr. Robinson says, "We can't protect people from regret."

It’s torture, honestly.  It’s what these doctors deal with as a profession, and they deal with it carefully and consciously, every time. Again from Sella:
“I think for some providers, what’s difficult about third trimester abortion (and not just providers) is that a woman delivers a baby…and it’s a stillborn. And that’s hard to deal with. I think the reason I’ve struggled is because I think of them as babies. I don’t think of that as a fetus. To me, I think of that as a way to distance myself from what I do. I mean, it’s one thing when it’s a first trimester abortion and what you see is a little bit of tissue.   
But if you go all of the way to the other extreme, you can’t say that’s a some tissue, that’s not tissue….that’s a baby. Then you have to think it. About what you’re doing. And, why are you doing it? 
Well, it’s inside the mother, and she can’t handle it. For many many extremely desperate reasons. What drives women to seek a third trimester abortion—unless people understand what’s going on for the woman—it’s impossible to support it. How could you, really? I mean, it’s barbaric, isn’t it?” 
Unless people understand.

Empathy is required.

Robinson says:
"Women come here having decided that this is not a pregnancy that they can or want to sustain. And where do I get to say 'Oh yeah, well, why? Why do you want an abortion? You've got to explain to me!'? What if you're just not a very good storyteller? Why would it be okay for me to say 'No; you've got to tell me a better story than that'? Because what I believe is that women are able to struggle with complex ethical issues and arrive at the right decision for themselves and their families. They are the world's expert on their own lives." 
That’s what “trust women” means.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The saga of learning a new craft

Update: I'm now selling freeze peaches at my Etsy store:

I haven't been writing much lately, I know. That's due to a lot of factors, but one of them is something I have the opportunity to now write about and show you.

I've been learning how to make things with epoxy resin. Epoxy resin is the conclusion I reached after doing a lot of thinking about how to depict concepts as physical objects, objects that you can wear-- also called "jewelry." I'm a big fan of "Surly" Amy Roth and her Surlyramics, and have a couple myself. She makes a variety of jewelry, mostly necklace pendants, which depict skeptical, atheist, and scientific messages in ceramics. They're really popular because they're aesthetically nice-looking, affordable, and people love to have ways to promote beliefs they find important aside from slapping them on a t-shirt.

There's a theory I have about tattoos. There are three major components which a good, successful tattoo needs to have:
  • Placement
  • Artistry
  • Meaning
If it's lacking in any of these, it will suffer. A really nicely implemented, meaningful tattoo will suffer if it's in the wrong place. A well-placed and meaningful tattoo will suffer if it's ugly. A well-placed, beautiful tattoo will seem pointless if it has absolutely no meaning to the person wearing it-- or worse, a meaning they later reject.

With jewelry it's a little different, because the stakes are so much lower. There's much less of an investment to putting something around your neck for a day as opposed to etching it on your skin forever. But these factors are still important to varying degrees with different people, and the "meaning" aspect can refer to the actual message the jewelry is sending in addition to the normal factors of who gave it to you, the occasion on which it was given/purchased, its age, etc., none of which will be immediately obvious to the people who see it. So why not try to make jewelry which is visibly meaningful?

That was the sort of mental path I was following while thinking about how to create a freeze peach.

I'm not entirely sure who came up with the concept of "freeze peach" as a mockery of the misinterpretation of free speech,  but I think it might have been Stephanie Zvan. If you're not familiar with the concept, it might help to read a post I wrote about it or this one by Adam Lee.

Basically, "freeze peach" is not mocking the idea of free speech, but rather the invocation of the concept by people with a fuzzy (har) understanding of what it means. People who complain that Phil Robertson being suspended (for about 30 seconds, as it turned out) from Duck Dynasty was a violation of his freedom of speech. People who think sexual harassment policies at conventions, private venues, violate freedom of speech. People who think that if you as an individual don't feel the urge to pay attention to what the have to say and take action to avoid seeing it, such as blocking them on Facebook or Twitter-- that that's you somehow failing to respect their freedom of speech.

It's important to make the distinction between "freeze peach" and actual free speech because there are very real opponents of free speech out there, people who think that government entities are justified in preventing certain kinds of expression, and they should not be confused with some jackass yelling about free speech when he gets banned from an internet forum.

John Scalzi has also had some great things to say about the misconstrual of free speech.

So I was thinking...what would be the best way to make a block of ice that isn't a block of ice? After a lot of research (aka reading everything I could find online about it), I determined that epoxy resin would be the way to go. Making things with epoxy resin involves careful measurement, patience, and a lot of wax paper (resin peels off it, whereas it might not peel off your kitchen table-- at least not in a way you'd like) and hand-washing (yes, even if you wear latex gloves...which you should).

With the brand of resin I use, it involves carefully mixing the resin with an equal amount of hardener (a 1:1 ratio) which serves as the catalyst for the curing process, which takes about 24 hours. Your chief enemies of this process are cold and bubbles, the former of which can cause the latter. So I began pouring a bowl of hot water, placing the bottles of both resin and hardener in it, and letting them sit there for a little bit before beginning to measure and mix them. And then, when bubbles would inevitably still occasionally show up in something I was making, popping and/or chasing them out of the mold with a toothpick.

The mold? Oh yeah, the mold. Molds can be plastic or silicone, and I have both, but plastic is more difficult because you can't push something out of it nearly as easily. I've made two bangle bracelets so far using a plastic mold, and on both occasions I actually sat down on the floor and pushed with my foot to try and get the thing out of there. With silicone it's easy for the same reason that making ice using speciality silicone ice trays is sometimes difficult-- it's so pliable. Pliable enough to make water slosh out when you put the thing in the freezer, but hard resin objects pop out when you push on the back of the mold.

So if a freeze peach is a peach in an ice cube, you should be able to use a regular ice tray to make them, right? Well, not really. See, regular ice trays, even if they're silicone, tend to make pretty large blocks of ice, and they're not generally cubes. So I ended up ordering a cube-shaped silicone mold off Etsy, along with a drop-shaped mold for my other project, dragon drops.

Yeah, a cheesy pun. But I like cheesy puns, and I love dragons, and I thought it would be fun to make little dragons which sit inside hardened clear drops of resin. And it has been fun-- frustrating, challenging, and fun. See, you have to figure out what to make the dragons out of. I decided on clay, but what kind of clay?  I don't have a kiln, and I don't want to bake clay in an oven, so what to use? I tried air-dry clay, but it was too light-- the first freeze peach I made floated to the top of the mold when the resin was poured in. Oops.

So I switched to modeling clay, which is awesome and affordable and comes in so many colors. Only clay eyes look strange, so I need to find some sort of plastic shiny eye to use. Now I have a small box full of different kinds of eyes, but the one I settled on for dragon drops is 6mm (tiny), yellow, and round. And each one has eyelids. Eyelids are so important!

And the mold for the dragon drops is shallow, so they have to be flat dragons, which is its own level of difficulty.  In most cases the dragon hasn't been flat enough to not disturb the surface of the resin when I pour it in, so the eye and sometimes the thigh of the dragon protrude a tiny bit. I'm currently trying to decide if that's okay.

And I have other ideas. Oh, so many ideas.

But now it's time for pictures. I'll share a few here, and the rest are viewable on my Instagram account.

First attempt at a dragon drop, using a plastic mold. I can't even say how difficult it was a poke a hole in it and get the jump ring in there. 
A more evolved dragon drop, with plastic eye, sitting in the mold waiting for resin. 
Fat dragon drop. Yes, he's cute (I think) but he protrudes too much from the surface and looks generally squashed. 
I read online guides which say you can and should make holes in your resin pendants by drilling. I was not successful at this. 
Two problems, mainly. 1) No hole I drilled, regardless of location, would easily accept a jump ring. 2) In order to drill a pendant you have to put it in a vise. Even with leather padding, tightening the vise enough to hold the pendant firmly ended up squishing it (you can see the clay protruding from the surface of this freeze peach. Not supposed to happen). 
I found a silicone tray which would make specialty tiny ice cubes, one inch square. I made a tray of freeze peaches. When they cured they formed a hardened brick, which I then was able to snap apart and peel out the individual peaches. The color runs a bit in some of them, creating a peach colored "wave" inside the cube. 
The freeze peaches from the ice tray. They have a semi-translucent "frost" on all sides except the front which apparently is an effect of the tray. 
A size comparison of a freeze peach made from the single silicone mold I have (one peach every 24 hours, if I make one that often) and a frosty freeze peach from the silicone tray (which can make 15 freeze peaches every 24 hours). 
I ended up getting silver-colored metal alloy bails to attach the freeze peaches to a necklace instead. Here's one of the frosty freeze peaches on a 17" rubber cord around my neck. 
Dragon drops. Also using the same kind of bail and the same rubber cord. I got some silicone molding putty and I'm making some new molds today so that I can produce these faster. I'm happy with these, but need to practice so I can get them consistently the same size and depth, although it's neat that they're all different and have their own character.

In case you're wondering....
Do I have an Etsy store? Yes.
Am I selling anything on it? Not just yet. I'm not quite ready. Hopefully soon.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Or, why good storytelling requires good representation:

When the story doesn't contain the "why," the audience looks to the author.

Let me back up.

Writers are often advised to "write what you know." That's good advice, because you can't write believably about what you don't know. However, authors who took this advice to a logical extreme and wrote only about people just like themselves would suffer for it. They wouldn't tell very interesting stories-- or at least, they would have only one interesting story to tell, and it would effectively be a memoir.

Rather, fiction writers write what they know by research. If they want to write a story about a marine biologist, they would research marine biology. They would research what working as a scientist in that field is like, what kind of person goes into that field, what kind of education and training it requires, and so on.

Because even though it's fiction, believability is key. Fiction writers create worlds that are not identical to this one for the entertainment of the reader, but those worlds contain things that exist in our own world-- like people. If the people in the story don't act like people do in the world world, and no reason is given for this, the audience is confused. The story falls flat. It's bad storytelling.

So this is a kind of constraint on the author. When writing fiction it's literally true that an author can write any story he or she wants-- nobody is going to come in and hold a gun to his/her head and demand that he/she not write the story. However though the author is entitled to write whatever story he/she chooses, he/she is not entitled to the audience's reaction. The audience is not required to think highly of the story. The audience is not required to think highly of the author.

As an example, imagine an author who writes a book whose story involves the sole white occupant of a town being lynched by the rest of the town's population, which is black. If a believable explanation for this plot line can't be found in the story, the audience is going to guess that either the story is satire, or the author has some serious issues with black people. Their likelihood to understand the story as satire is a blend of their own knowledge and the author's adeptness at storytelling. Bad satire happens when the audience can't be expected to have the knowledge that will tip them off to its satirical nature, or when the author doesn't wink hard enough in the writing of the story to make it clear. Or both, of course. When the audience doesn't detect satire (it doesn't provide the "why,") then they quite reasonably look to the author's own beliefs for the explanation.

Good storytelling involves researching the elements in your story if you don't know very much about them. Bad storytelling involves misrepresenting those elements or leaving them out altogether in a way that isn't believable. An author who wants to tell a story about a world congress, in which multiple leaders from every country gather together to exchange ideas, isn't practicing very good storytelling if his/her story depicts this congress as containing only white men, unless a reason is given for this. Was there some mass extinction of women and people of color? Did the white men totally take over the world, including the government of every country on the planet, and if did that happen? The extraordinary event requires an extraordinary explanation. In fact in this case, it would be such an extraordinary explanation than it might as well be the story. If it isn't, but is treated as a totally unremarkable circumstance by the characters in the story, the audience would rightly look to the author with a "WTF?" expression on its collective face.

These examples are extreme, but that's on purpose-- to illustrate how the content of a story can lead the audience to negative conclusions about the beliefs and prejudices of its authors. The less cut and dry it is, obviously the less justified the audience would be in reaching these conclusions. But the audience is not wrong to see an unbelievable depiction of people in a story and assume that the explanation lies in the author's motives, and they're going to do it regardless.

The first people to notice when certain groups of people are misrepresented in or left out of a story for no discernable reason are, quite naturally, people in those groups. But they're not the only people who do notice or should notice. It might take a white guy a little longer to look at the "world congress" and think "Hey, wait a minute....why is it only people like me?" But he wouldn't be very bright if he never got there. Not very bright, or else like the author in either prejudice or ignorance (or both).

People want to hear stories told about people like them-- yes, of course. However, people also want to hear good, believable stories. If a story makes you stop and wonder why the author portrayed characters in a way that rings false, or leaves them out altogether when it seems like they should be there, that's bad storytelling unless making you wonder these things is the author's point-- and even then, if you can't tell whether it is or not, that's a problem.

That's why diversity matters in storytelling-- not just because people want to hear/see it, and they do, but because it makes the story better. Because the story contains the "why."