Monday, November 28, 2005

The Empty Heart of Darkness

Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and curse the darkness. There are only so many candles one can light this time of year. Falling back into darkness hastens depression, lethargy, and long hours of sleep. Being in a world that gets dark at four or five in the afternoon can feel downright isolating. We have so little light this time of year without the time change taking what little afternoon light we have left.

I hate the time change. I wish we were on daylight savings time year ’round. Of course, the return to standard time has different effects based on how one’s longitude and latitude fall within a time zone. Here in Vermont–and in Massachusetts where I grew up–the fall time change hits especially hard. One day, darkness arrives a bit after six o’clock. The next, it’s dark before many people can get out of work or get home. There is no time for outdoor activity in the light. By Christmas, it’ll be dark just after four. It is routine, for a month or two in the winter, for folks where I’m from to go to work and come home in the dark. It’s miserable.

And to a significant degree, we bring this on ourselves. Rather than simply drift into darker days, we launch ourselves smack into the change. I’m not a smack-into-anything kind of guy. So, this year for a change, I decided not to change my clocks. Since the time change, I have been using the alarms on my cell phone to wake me in the morning. As the cell signal reset the time on the phone automatically, I simply set the time for when I usually get up, and it kept getting me up in time for work.

This was great for the first few days. Getting up when all my house clocks read 7:30 (instead of 6:30) explained why it was suddenly so much lighter in the morning. At night, when I was feeling downright exhausted at 9:30, I could see it was really 10:30 in my body. And if I went to bed past my usual 10:30 bedtime, well it may as well have been midnight. I navigated the clock differences pretty well at work. The biggest shock, though, was getting in the car and feeling, each day, like I had lost an hour. I can usually get out of school between 3:30 and 4:00. Now, I wasn’t getting home til after five, and I hadn’t put in any extra time.

After a few days of this, I realized that I was acclimating, at least partially, to the change and no longer needed my clocks to remind me why I felt so off schedule. First I adjusted the clock in my car and my bedside clock. I took my time changing the clock in the kitchen, though. I still needed a point of reference until this weekend, when my body seemed pretty well adapted and, intellectually and emotionally, I began to feel put out by that sole timepiece. Each check of the time had become an upbraiding, as if I were constantly running behind. With a glance at the clock, my heart lurched, my breath caught, and then I had to settle down again. It was time to give in.

I’m now living in a world that gets dark early, and this is taking a toll on my moods. I am feeling a little less cheerful and a lot less certain about my world. While I am looking forward to the extending of daylight savings time into March and November (but not until 2007), it does nothing for me now. But I haven’t surrendered entirely to the winter blues.

I believe it is high time for Vermont to go on Atlantic Standard Time and stay on it all year long. In fact, I believe that most of New England, except for Metropolitan New York, should be in the same time zone as New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and eastern Quebec. In the winter, we would have time in common with these Canadian provinces. In the spring, the rest of the eastern U.S. would “spring ahead” to have time common with us. This would allow those of us in the New England states to have quality time with all our neighbors while avoiding the harrowing changing of the clocks. And it would eliminate the odd fact that we are only in standard time for five (soon to be four) months and spend the better part of the year with our clocks in the alternative setting.

Checking a time zone map indicates that, at its southernmost in the U.S., the Eastern Time Zone only gets as far west as the Florida peninsula and the state of Georgia. In the north, Eastern Time runs from Maine to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and all of Lake Michigan to the shores of Chicago. Is this fair? Of course not. While I’m content to let the midwest sort this out themselves, I’d like to see New England take responsibility for its placement far ahead of most of the nation. Or maybe I’d just like to see Vermont secede from something and the northeast join Canada in at least one way.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

On Abortion

When I first heard the term “pro-choice”, I didn’t quite understand it. Why choice? What did that have to do with abortion? The euphemism “pro-life” was also odd. Aren’t most people in favor of life, rather than death? Why aren’t the anti-abortion people euphemistically “anti-death”, or the pro-access people “anti-restriction”? Maybe it’s time to find some new ways of expressing these positions. Pro-choicers could certainly find a more galvanizing term to rally around.

As the Senate considers a Supreme Court nominee who may change the legality of access to abortion in our country, I want to explain how I have come to be firmly pro-choice. I wasn’t always this way. When I was young, I considered myself a moderate Democrat. Along with most Americans, I thought atrocities against Native Americans and exploitation of workers of all races, for example, were excusable, necessary evils. I allied myself with official government stances regardless of whether they reflected my best interests or beliefs.

At the same time, I was trying to figure out where I belonged. I tried on different identities; one of the most significant was “Catholic”. At the beginning of my adolescence, I had strong opinions on many things, but I didn’t have a particularly strong position on abortion. I had the sense that my parents were pro-choice, and I chalked abortion up as another necessary evil, and therefore excusable, but nothing meriting a closer look. Then, in ninth grade, I had a religious education teacher who changed that. He was earnest, faithful, passionate, and certain in his belief that abortion constitutes murder. He provided solid guidelines for life at a time when having some certainties appealed to me. At the time, I regularly borrowed literature from the brochure rack at the entrance to my church. I found much of the literature simplistic and was, even at fourteen, able to unravel the false syllogisms in the logic of these Catholic writers who argued against abortion and pre-marital sex. Still, I consumed religious literature in an effort to find an incontrovertible, logical argument proving the abomination of abortion. I even recorded my own contortions of thought on the issue in my notebooks, stretching to the utmost my powers of argument. At times, I also provoked dinner-time arguments with my pro-choice parents. I found it fun, as teenagers sometimes do.

In college, both my anti-abortion zeal and Catholic identity wavered, and I returned to a sort of laissez-faire approach to the issue. It’s legal, I figured, and even though I’m against it, I wouldn’t vote to make it illegal. It seemed a bit cruel to make anyone live for nine months with the consequences of one mistake. Another aspect of my feelings was more libertarian. I believed that prohibition is a generally unsuccessful approach to society’s marginal and necessary evils. Now, I’d go further and say prohibition is almost always a disaster, and that such stances usually require absolute positions that force people to avoid rather than confront our human frailties and complexities.

During my time with my former wife, I had many conversations with her that gave me a stronger, if not yet immediate, sense that women ought to be in control of their own bodies. It was she who took the time to explain, in depth, the meaning of the term pro-choice. I was still immature enough to enjoy teasing her about an issue that was clearly of more than passing importance to her. Through our lengthy discussions, I began to see the issue’s medical aspects, which helped me frame it as a matter of control over one’s own body. For the first time, I began to see it as an issue of confidentiality and privacy, as any medical decision and action must be. I was also able to relate the desire to control one’s reproduction to my own desire to make medical decisions about my own body.

As a closeted homosexual, I still had a few things to learn about taking responsibility for my own life. Perhaps it is reasonable, then, that I gained a further understanding of the issue when I became openly gay. I spent a few months renting from a Unitarian-Universalist who was actively pro-gay marriage and whose church was engaged in examining acceptance of transgendered people. I watched some videos in which trans people explained that their transgendered identity was simply an understanding that came from deep within each of them. I understood that feeling quite well, as each day in the coming out process allowed me to connect with and express feelings I had long hidden.

Such internal knowledge forces itself out one way or another, I knew. I understood that the same must be true for trans people, as well. This understanding gradually generalized itself within me and grew into a greater belief that each of us deserves the unabridged right to make decisions, to the fullest extent possible, that affect the course of his or her life.

My more recent thinking has further expanded my understanding of the importance of the freedom of women to make decisions about their own bodies. I have come to believe that restricting women’s control over reproduction is usually part of a greater set of beliefs that would make women subordinate to men. And such subordination inevitably extends from women to all weaker, poorer, disempowered members of society, include most men. Also, before modern surgical abortion, female herbalists and midwives routinely provided compotes to women seeking to terminate pregnancies. Such decisions and remedies were between women. Modern medicine has done much to demonize such medical practitioners as “witches” and to put medical control into the hands of men or, at least, of those who practice the more traditionally masculine, invasive procedures which constitute most of modern medicine.

It was the calm assuredness in the voices of women I know discussing their own past abortions that finally convinced me, however, that abortion must be legal and available, and that it need not be controversial. These women–usually women I have known for several years without knowing of their experiences with abortion–have spoken of the procedure as matter-of-factly as I speak about being gay. That is to say, unless defined as such, abortion (like homosexuality) need not be considered evil at all. It just is. It is a procedure. It does not have to be deeply tragic and painful, as Hillary Clinton has recently suggested. Defining the issue in vitriolic terms where none need apply has worked wonders in heating up conservatives over issues that, when defined more evenly, need not be inflammatory at all. Indeed, through a calmer, less histrionic lens, abortion is as morally neutral as a hysterectomy or the removal of a problematic gall bladder. Discovering that these women–trusted, intelligent, independent, considerate, generally-happy people–have had abortions suddenly made it easy for me to stop the theoretical permutations and simply understand abortion as an acceptable part of life.

These recent experiences make me wish there were a sort of “coming out” festival for women who’ve had abortions and who aren’t self-tortured, guilt-racked and brimming with regrets, as the public is so often led to believe. Coming out has been a powerful way of changing people’s views of homosexuality and of fostering acceptance. Today, when my teaching ventures onto the topic of abortion, I remind (or inform) my students that they already know more than one woman who has had an abortion, even though they aren’t likely aware of who these women are. After all, it’s much harder to demonize someone we know, like, and trust. While people may still disagree about behaviors, discussions of controversial issues often become respectful and civil in the presence of others we already respect and treat civilly. Too bad most women who’ve had abortions couldn’t just come out about it. For me, their frankness and personal openness has made all the difference.