Saturday, June 28, 2008

Cold Hard Reality

In the past couple of days I've read Molly Ivins' Bill of Wrongs and John Grisham's The Innocent Man, and I think I've had my dose of cold hard reality for a little while. But before I retreat to my hammock to read pulp fantasy novels, I just have to comment on this post at Obsidian Wings, "Unless a Solder Has a Personal Fortune...". The post quotes an Army Times articles to emphasize how little disabled vets are left with after they're discharged; it amuses me that the article gets it so wrong, like while the writer wanted to bring some light to how vets are treated, she couldn't bear to actually admit just how bad it can be. Hence, this quote:

(I)njured service members are discharged on just a fraction of their salary and then forced to wait six to nine months, and sometimes even more than a year, before their full disability payments begin to flow. (...)

Most permanently disabled veterans qualify for payments from Social Security and the military or Veterans Affairs. Those sums can amount to about two-thirds of their active-duty pay. But until those checks show up, most disabled veterans draw a reduced Army paycheck.
It gives the impression that a disabled veteran, upon leaving her military base with discharge papers, receives a reduced paycheck until the VA and/or SSA get their shit together to evaluate that veteran. And once the VA does evaluate that vet, which happens within a year, she can expect to actually get two-thirds of her active duty pay. And this is supposed to be an example of the system failing- which I guess it is. It makes me wonder if the writer even realizes that this horrible scenario of hers is orders of magnitude better than what happens to many, many vets.

Just to be clear: I have never heard of a vet receiving a reduced Army paycheck after discharge. Maybe that happens if you get a certain disability rating from the Army on discharge; when I was discharged, I got a zero rating from the military board although I was only able to work part-time at a civilian desk job at the time, and I was told that the military board often gave soldiers zeros when they deserved much higher disability ratings. The policy was to give soldiers as little as possible from the Army and just let the VA deal with them. So maybe you get a bit of an Army paycheck if you're a combat amputee or something, but your average disabled vet doesn't.

So you get out of the Army with maybe some severance pay, a few thousand dollars or so, and it takes the VA 3-4 months to get you into the system so you can apply for disability benefits from the VA, and then the VA takes a year or so to decide your claim. But the VA also has a policy of minimizing payments for disability, and so its quite likely that if the VA even admits that your medical problems are service-connected, they'll minimize your symptoms, and therefore your payments, as much as possible-or more. (The most recent example of this in the news was the hearing on VA administrators directing their subordinates to find that vets with PTSD had "adjustment disorder" in order to save on compensation costs.)

So you've been out of the military for a year, not working because of your disability, and you get a disability rating of 30% or 40%. So you appeal, but appeals don't have a time limit at the VA- they have no incentive to process your claim, so it gets tossed on a pile, and maybe a couple years later someone looks at it. If you're lucky, that someone will take the facts into account and get you the compensation you need; if you're not lucky, they won't, so you appeal again and the wait starts all over- and you're still living on $512/mo.

This is what really happens, this is how vets are really treated. It destroys people's lives and is an absolute disgrace; it irritates me that all anyone talks about are best case scenarios.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Ice Cream!

Many of my family members are allergic to milk. My dad is so allergic that he doesn't even eat milk chocolate, but most of the rest of us get at least a slight stomach ache from drinking milk or eating it on cereal or wev. For a long while, we used soy milk, but only my dad was willing to drink the stuff; it was horrible. And soy ice cream is just not worth eating. However, because of the recent mainstream interest in organic food and anything that can reasonably claim to be "all- natural," goat's milk is available even in the local mainstream grocery store. Goat's milk isn't exactly as tasty as cow's milk, but I like it much better than soy milk, and, most importantly, its creamy enough to make decent ice cream.

I made some vanilla-cherry ice cream first, but I don't have pictures from that batch. This is the peppermint ice cream that I made on Sunday. Once enough ice has been frozen to make another batch, I'm going to make some more, either mango or plain vanilla. The thought of making just plain vanilla ice cream is a bit sad, but my dad likes it so I'm considering it. He likes mango too, though, so we'll see how inclined I am to stand up and chop up mangoes into little pieces when it comes time to make the next batch.

I smashed up pieces of peppermint candy to toss into the ice cream.

My mum's ice cream machine is about 30 years old. It still works great, though.

I made a half batch so it wouldn't overflow the top before it was churned enough to be creamy. Even using whole goat's milk isn't quite as creamy as using heavy whipping cream (go figure), so the longer it churns, the better.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

the liquid that we're all dissolved in

AiG's Ken Ham on PZ Myers:

What’s he so worked up about anyway? If he’s right, God doesn’t exist—so prayer can’t do anything and, therefore, can’t harm anything. But, then, who cares about harm in a world without moral absolutes? It’s the survival of the fittest; so, evolution will inexorably eliminate these weak-minded “idiots” at the Pentagon. If they nuke some people along the way, so what? That’s just the death of the weakest in this purposeless accidental existence of ours; sooner or later the more fit will triumph, and the world will be more evolved. So, what’s Myers concerned about? This is all just time and chance and the laws of nature at work. What is, is. There are and can be no “oughts.”
This is a fairly common concept in American culture: those who reject God also necessarily reject all morality and concern for other people. I have heard people claim that atheists are unable to love their spouses, parents or children, and like Ham here suggests, atheists ought to have no problem with just killing people at random for no reason. In fact, evolution demands that anyone who admits that people evolved actively desire the murder of those "less fit" in order to continue the evolution of the race toward a better goal. Nevermind that this kind of teleological view of the world is a profound misunderstanding of what evolution is; the implication that I'm some kind of murderer just because I reject Jesus, well, it irritates me.

There is this concept in philosophy- I encountered it while studying linguistics- called Theory of Mind, which is essentially the ability to imagine that other people have minds much like one's own even though you can't directly experience another's mind. Without this, much of social interaction including things like language and commerce would be completely impossible; it is the basis for all of society, and all neurotypical (and at least almost all a-typical) humans have it. Empathy is a closely related ability.

Religions tend to disguise it, with ceremonial laws and proscriptions against things that are said to offend God although they hurt no one, but they can't disguise it completely: the theory of mind is the basis for morality. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and "Love your neighbor as yourself," are not concepts that must be revealed in a holy book, they are accessible to everyone with a human brain, simply because we are able to imagine what it might be like to be another person. Morality doesn't require divine intervention, or supernatural woo, or special revelation. Religion has added those trappings onto what everyone is able to know: if you want to know what is right, consider how your actions affect those around you, weighing the effects on others with the same seriousness as the effects on yourself.

Empathy is a scary thing; it is often painful and frustrating to put yourself in someone else's place, especially when you don't have the power to change the things that are causing that other person pain. It takes a great deal of effort to learn someone else's history, to understand all the forces at work in someone else's mind. And when your actions affect whole swathes of people, the determination of what is right is very complicated. Morality isn't easy or simple, but it doesn't require the supernatural.

Religious people who insist that divine revelation is the only source of morality either have such an atrophied sense of empathy that their understanding of morality has withered, or they are deceived and are trying to pass that deception on to others. Or both, I guess.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A short, ugly dose of political reality

So the Supreme Court recently decided a case, Boumediene, regarding the rights non-citizens detained at Guantanamo Bay have to challenge their detainment in court. Pretty basic habeas corpus stuff, and I think the decision was made correctly: the Supreme Court ruled that in fact our government does not have the right to hold people indefinitely without charge. Western civilization has acknowledged this right for at least the past, what, 800 years? (Wikipedia says since the 12th century) and I'm glad we're not going to throw it out just yet.

Of course the neocons are freaking out. Glenn Greenwald has a nice bit on John Yoo's take on the case; the best quote is "It takes an indescribably authoritarian mind to believe that one's own Government should have the power to put people in cages for life without having to provide them any meaningful opportunity to prove that they did not do what they are accused of." Yoo, apparently, like the rest of the Bush administration, is just that kind of authoritarian mind.

McCain, too, disagrees with the Boumediene decision. Here's Time's reproduction of his campaign's official statement. The core of it is this quote: "The United States Supreme Court yesterday rendered a decision which I think is one of the worst decisions in the history of this country."

John McCain's America is one where the government can put people in prison for life without any kind of trial or court action. His statement against Boumediene is a statement against the founding principles of the Constitution and is against everything our nation stands for. Maybe its hyperbole, but I'm strongly tempted to say that anyone who votes for this man is a traitor, and I find it greatly distressing that he is a major candidate for President.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

J's cat's kittens

They're almost two weeks old, most of their eyes are most of the way open, and they're starting to get feisty although of course they're not strong at all yet. When they're in their box they totter around on wobbly legs, crawling all over each other, but for some reason when you hold them up in the air to take their picture, they cry. They won't look at the camera any other way, though: they can't hold their heads up consistently yet. I'm sure it will only be a couple of days before they're out and about causing trouble, though. These kittens have been growing up awfully fast.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

far away, the thudding of the guns

I used to memorize poems sometimes, just because I wanted to know them. I think maybe I will see if I can memorize this poem I read today. Sassoon was never a favorite of mine, but this poem is quite striking.

The Death Bed, by Siegfried Sassoon

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Some Pictures from the Trip

Some people say South Dakota prairie is boring, but I have to disagree. The way the wind blows the grass makes it look like the ground itself is alive.

The hills in Wyoming reminded me of Brokeback Mountain, and I teared up, again. I'm such a sucker for sad stories.

Montana was a bit colder than I expected- that's snow on the hills there.

And even more snow!

I love the Decemberists, so when I saw Tarkio's namesake I had to stop.

Turns out Tarkio is on a river that is absolutely gorgeous.

I believe this may be the Columbia River. There was a turnout by the highway with this incredible vantage point. The eastern Washington desert is just brilliant.

You know you're home when the trees are bigger around than you are tall. Also when the temperature drops and everything becomes shrouded in mist. Western Washington's climate is a real downer, but it does produce some beautiful landscapes.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

A Gorilla on the Road

There was this post for BADD, by Mary at This Is My Blog, comparing having a disability with having a gorilla living in your house with you. I find it a very apt description of the process of "taming" your illnesses and injuries until you're able to cope with them in a practical way. Anyone interested in a vivid illustration of what it means to cope with a disability should read that post.

I think in the past year I've come along way in managing my life. It's helped that I haven't been putting pressure on myself to go out and get a regular job and fit into a regular life; in some ways getting the Voc Rehab people to admit that I'm not rehabable has improved the quality of my day-to-day life. I've been able to allow myself to slow down and take all the time I need to get places and do things, but more importantly, I've changed the things I try to do.

And now it's summertime, the time I feel the best, and I'm contemplating taking my new openness to life onto the next level. I've written here before about my desire to travel, and about my poverty due to the VA's denial of the reality of my condition, and now these two things have come together fortuitously. My husband and I will soon be out a place to live due to various factors, and my tentative plan is to start a grand journey, camping out of my car and exploring the world a little bit at a time. My gorilla and I are going on the road.

First stop will be my parents' house outside of Seattle, possibly for several weeks, and then I hope to head south. The trip from here to Washington will take me several days; its my trial run to make sure that I can actually handle sleeping in the back of my VW and driving around strange places without getting too stressed out. Maybe the trial run will fail and I'll be stuck living in my parents' attic or something, but I have high hopes, and faith in my hard-won coping skills.

I also hope that this may help my husband. Quite frankly, while I have made friends with the gorilla in our house, he hasn't. It would have never occurred to me, before, that the person with a seriously life-altering physical event could adapt to the changes in their life better than someone who just has to sit and watch the person affected. But a gorilla in the house fixated on your housemate is still a gorilla in your house, I guess, and he's had a hard time. I hope that giving him some time where I'm not sitting around being sick at him may help him out.

I realize that all my high hopes may be a little foolish, brought on by sunny days and a desire to choose to be optimistic, but even if things go horribly wrong, I'll still have a nice visit with my family and some neat photos to share when I get onto a computer again. My sister's cat had kittens like two days ago, so when I get there they'll be a week and a half-ish old. Honestly, I'm about as excited to see those kittens as I am to see the rest of my family, how sad is that?

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Remembering Discrimination

I have this theory about how people remember pain, and how those memories are recalled and used in daily life. I've written about it at length here, but basically the idea is this: pain is a traumatic experience that would harm the mind if it were remembered clearly, so the human brain regularly blurs the memory of pain so that it is more remote. Its easy to remember the fact that pain is unpleasant and distressing, but its not at all easy to remember the actual sensation. My evidence for this theory is both my own experience with chronic pain- which is difficult to remember even when I experience it every day- and also signs in the relatively healthy population that indicate that people don't remember the pains they've encountered in the past, things like drug laws that severely punish chronic pain sufferers, doctors who consider a set amount of daily pain to be perfectly acceptable and not worth treating, people who are otherwise compassionate who just assume that chronic pain sufferers choose not to engage in certain activities simply because they are lazy, and so on. People act like they have no idea what pain is, because they really don't remember it when they aren't experiencing it.

I have a more tentative corollary to this theory: discrimination is like pain in that it is a traumatic experience that is difficult to understand unless you are currently on the receiving end of it. I used to be pretty sure that this was true, but now I'm not as sure.

My evidence in favor of this theory was my experience with disability rights activism. As I've said before, my acceptance of my disability has transformed the way I see the world, my place in it, and the place of other people. I have a stronger sense of the goods of society, which includes a much better understanding of all the ways those in power discriminate against out groups on the basis of race, gender, religion, etc. I understand sexism and racism better because I understand disablism. Obviously there are differences between various outgroups, and there are a lot of ways in which being female, or being gay, or being Latino, or whatever, is not at all like being disabled. But I think that, for example, understanding the ways in which being seen as a "good" crip (that is, inspiring but not socially challenging, asexual and passive and dependent) is just as marginalizing as a negative stereotype, helps me understand how being seen as a "good" woman (that is, motherly and submissive, pretty and a good cook) can be just as marginalizing as negative stereotypes of women. And I think that knowing the cost of trying to "pass" for perfectly healthy helps me better understand what it must be like for a homosexual person to "pass" for straight: not only is there the cost in physical pain, but I have to avoid talking about most of what my life is like, hiding the things that are important to me for the sake of the social comfort of the person I'm talking to. Obviously it's not the same. But I think its similar, and while my understanding of discrimination in all it's forms certainly isn't perfect, its better than it used to be.

The thing is, though, that political events of the last few months have clearly proven to me that experiencing discrimination yourself doesn't necessarily bring understanding of the discrimination that anyone else experiences, even if you understand what is going on in your own situation. When the Democratic primary races started, I assumed that in general people who voted Democratic would think more or less along the same lines I do: people who experience discrimination on whatever basis have more in common with each other than with people who don't experience discrimination regularly. So white women are more likely to have philosophies and voting patterns in common with minorities than with white men. And as far as I know this has traditionally been the case (although its not like I'm an expert on election history). The Democratic party is the party of women and minorities and the poor and those marginalized on the basis of religion or gender or any damn thing, right?

But it seems like I was wrong. It seems like there are a lot of people out there who think that the best way to achieve power for their particular marginalized group is to crowd out anyone else. There is a particularly nasty video making the rounds of a Hillary supporter making racially based arguments against Obama, and the Hillary Sexism Watch at Shakesville is up to installment #104. All this infighting makes me think that I am entirely wrong about the instructive value of discrimination. Maybe its just that you have to chose to learn, and then you have to chose to generalize from your own experience to others' experiences. Maybe we're just not brave enough to empathize with others who are in pain.

I also don't think that this is likely to work, as a political tactic. I mean, as a chronic pain sufferer, if I want to accomplish a political goal like, say, increasing funding into research on pain and brain function, my best bet is to include everyone who suffers into the same coalition. When it comes to policy and social movements that benefit those with chronic pain, there is no difference between people with arthritis, people with migraines, people with phantom limb pain, people with fibromyalgia, or people with diabetic neuropathy. I believe it is the same for those who are trying to fight discrimination. We all have the same goals, and forcing divisions does no one any good.