Reflections on Affluent White ‘Progressive’ Parents who Keep Their Kids in Affluent White Bubbles, Part 2

Yes, I think the parents described in the editorial are hypocrites, at least in a general way. I would probably have a more nuanced view if I got to know them.

I have some relatives who could be described as affluent white progressive parents, and I think, for the most part, they are not hypocrites with regards to social justice. But they do not behave like the parents described in the editorial. They do send their kids to race-and-class diverse public schools, some of them used to live with their kids in a neighborhood with plenty of non-affluent African-American neighbors (which, um, gentrification, but that’s different from the issues raised in the editorial) and I’ve seen that their kids’ peer groups is also diverse, and based on listening to their kids talk about social justice issues, I think they’ve done as much to pass on social justice values as is possible for affluent white people.

I believe the parents described in the editorial are sincerely in favor of progressive changes which do not threaten their privilege, but when their is a conflict between preserve their privilege and pursuing social justice, they clearly choose to preserve their privilege. If they actually cared about racial and class diversity, they would send their children to public schools and get involved in school politics to improve those school. As a public school parent, my mother was able to make a few very small improvements to San Francisco’s public school system. If she had been a private school parent she would have been too far outside the public school system to do anything meaningful.

And I do not think that social justice values is the only way they are hypocrites. They claim that they want their children to have the best education possible. Yet, based on what I read between the lines in that editorial, that’s not what they are doing. They are trying to improve their children’s social standing, not their intellectual or personal development.

First of all, I think there is an educational benefit to being around students of diverse backgrounds. That includes, but is not limited to race and class diversity. As a teenager, I attended a summer boarding school which had an admission policy of having student body which represented all of the regions of California, with a slight tilt in favor of students from rural regions which offered fewer summer education options. It was the first time in my life I got spend a lot of time with peers who weren’t from San Francisco. Exposure to that geographical diversity expanded my horizons.

I think the greater benefit of diverse schools is not the passing on social justice values, but the fact that people from different backgrounds tend to have different points of view, and being exposed to many points of view is good for developing independent thinking skills. By not sending their children to diverse schools or putting them in diverse environments, they are denying their children that benefit.

Beyond that, it seems that these parents are choosing their private schools for prestige and exclusivity, not because they have verified that these private schools actually offer better education. It is very difficult to compare the education quality at public and private schools, but the studies with the largest sample sizes find that, when you control for socio-economic background, private schools do not offer better educational outcomes than public schools.

That is not to say that all private schools are primarily for entrenching/advancing elite privilege. There are many kinds of private schools. Yes, I think there are situations where attending a private school may be the better choice for intellectual/personal development, as well as situations where, even if the private school does not provide a better education than public schools, it has some other advantage which justifies the cost.

Though if it is one of those high schools which charge $40,000/yr for tuition – and San Francisco has some of those – I cannot imagine any advantage which justifies that cost; even if it were the best high school in the world AND the only high school in all of San Francisco AND I had that money on hand, at that price I would choose homeschooling, and if I were so wealthy that $40,000/yr was pocket change, I would rather hire a bunch of really good tutors than send my kid to high school. Okay, I can imagine ONE situation where paying more than $40,000/yr for high school tuition would be worth it; my child has special needs due to disability which I absolutely cannot meet with homeschooling and that super-expensive high school is the only way to meet those needs.

However, the real tell for me is this line from the editorial: “One boy said proudly, ‘My school is not for everyone’ β€” a statement that reflected how thoroughly he’d absorbed his position in the world in relation to others.” Okay, yes, it is impossible for a school to be right for absolutely everyone, therefore no school is for everyone, but clearly that was not the boy’s point. It’s seems that these parents are choosing schools for their exclusivity, to signal that heir children have the means to enter schools which less privileged kids cannot. I cannot find the essay, but I recall reading a piece by Alfie Kohn which argued that, if a private school really wants to prove that they offer superior education, they need to do admissions by lottery, and then produce better education outcomes than other schools. If a private school gets to cherry-pick students, it’s not proving that it provides a better education, it is just proving that it knows how to choose better students.

I think for some private school parents – including the ones described in the editorial, the point is not to actually provide a better education, but to have those schools mark their child as being ‘superior’ by admitting them while rejecting ‘lesser’ children. It is also why some people prefer to attend colleges with lower admission rates – admission rate does not say much about educational quality, but being able to say ‘nyah nyah, I was one of the 5% who was able to get into this famous exclusive college where most of the lower division classes are taught by underpaid graduate students with little teaching experience’ is a much more prestigious social marker than ‘I got into this college with wonderful experienced teachers which has a 100% admission rate’.

(And obviously, private schools select heavily for income/wealth, especially the ones which charge higher tuition and/or offer less financial aid).

You remember that summer boarding school I mentioned? Not only did my parents not help me get in, they were opposed to me attending it, it was harder to convince them to let me go than in was to get admitted to that school, and I had to pay for the tuition myself (as a 15-year-old, when I was not eligible for financial aid because of my family’s income). But in the end, I’m glad that summer school experience was something that I made happen rather than something that my parents handed to me on a platter. My parents almost did me a favor by being an obstacle (though that is not how I interpreted the situation at the time).

If the parents described in the editorial really are doing things like arranging ‘coveted summer internships’ for their children, than means that their children are not learning how to go out on their own and seek their own opportunities. And that disturbs me for than their social justice hypocrisy.

Advertisements

Reflections on Affluent White ‘Progressive’ Parents who Keep Their Kids in Affluent White Bubbles, Part 1

I recently read the editorial “White Progressive Parents and Conundrum of Privilege” and a lot of it rings true based on my experience.

One of the clearest bits of evidence that San Francisco is not actually a progressive city is to point out that a higher percentage of K-12 students are in private schools than any other metro area in USA (or at least it did when I was in high school, apparently San Francisco fell to third place, though it seems that it is still true that about one fourth of all K-12 students in San Francisco are in private school).

I remember, when I went to Museum of African American History and Culture in Natchez, Mississippi, and I told the man who worked there that I was from San Francisco, his reaction was not ‘wow, you come from such an progressive and enlightened city’ but ‘wow, San Francisco has the most racially segregated school system in the country.’ And I did not argue with him because I knew he was probably right. One of the main mechanisms for maintaining the high level of racial segregation is the private school system (though there are also mechanisms within the public school system itself which contribute to segregation).

I was a bit of an anomaly, because my parents are white and had the financial means to send me to private school, yet they sent me to public school for all of my K-12 education. Very few white parents with the financial means in San Francisco did this. That meant most of my classmates came from families with less socioeconomic privilege, including my white classmates. I know that some of my white classmates would have definitely been sent to private school if their parents had the money to cover tuition. My most affluent white classmates often had attended private school for some years, and then their parents decided to switch to a public school. I would not say that being different from my classmates in this way was a bad thing – in fact, I think most of them did not realize how much money my parents actually had – but it led to some odd experiences.

When I was in high school, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a series of articles about San Francisco’s education system. Many of the articles focused on the differences between public and private schools. I noticed that, even though the articles quoted many parents who said they chose private school for their children, none of those parents provided evidence that private schools offered a better education (and the articles also did not find any evidence that students learn better in private schools than in public schools). The only parent who actually had first hand knowledge of both private schools and public schools because he sent one child to private schools and another child to public schools said that the public schools offered a better education, and that he regretted sending his older child to private school.

After I discussed these articles with my mother, she said “private school parents don’t actually care about the quality of education, that’s why they don’t check whether private schools offer a better education, they just want to keep their kids away from black kids”.

I don’t think my mother’s assessment is entirely fair, since I have met quite a few people who attended private school in San Francisco for at least a few years, and I learned something about their parents (though since these were mostly the parents of students who eventually ended up in public school, they probably are not representative). But I do agree with her that these parents actually care more about social image/status than whether or not their children are learning a lot in school, though many of them do not seem to understand the difference between a prestigious education and an education which actually develops a student’s intellectual potential.

And I think the public schools might even be safer than the private schools. When talking to some former students of private schools in San Francisco, I found some of the things they described rather scary (though I might be biased by the fact that most of these students later ended up in a public school; students who find themselves in danger at a private school are probably much more likely to transfer out). I suspect that the illusion of safety at private schools might actually make them more dangerous. A lot of people are concerned about safety at public schools and there is a lot of scrutiny; a lot less people pay attention to safety issues at private schools.

That said, the private schools are definitely better for making social connections and offering opportunities which can entrench/increase a child’s privileges. I’ll give a specific example: one of my high school classmates was admitted to Harvard. It was a big deal because a) my high school was small, so everyone knew this guy and b) he was the first student at my high school to be admitted to Harvard. He later found out why he was the first, and told us about it; that was the first year that Harvard admissions actually bothered to read applications from students at my high school. If he had graduated just a year earlier, the Harvard people would have tossed out his application unread, and he would have had zero chance of getting into Harvard. That was because my high school was a public school in San Francisco that wasn’t Lowell. Previously, with regards to applicants from San Francisco, Harvard’s policy had been to only read applications from private school students and Lowell students (Lowell is the top-rated public high school in San Francisco). The year he applied, Harvard decided finally read applications from students from other San Francisco public high schools. I think that my high school previously had students who were just as qualified to get into Harvard as my classmate who was admitted; it was unfair that they did not have a chance. Hopefully Harvard reads all applications now, but I suspect that there are still other ways that private high school students get unfair advantages (especially social connections).

Speaking of Lowell and racial diversity, I recently read that Lowell only has eight African American students in its class of 2018. I was surprised. I looked through one of my old yearbooks, and counted thirteen African-American students in my graduating class (not including several students whose racial background was not clear based on the photos and I couldn’t remember whether or not they identified as African-American) – and my high school was much smaller than Lowell. (No, I am not in favor of changing Lowell’s admission standards, but based on the article, it seems that their outreach could be significantly improved).

My parents are white, and might even be described as center-left, but they definitely are not progressive. They did not particularly care about racial and class diversity in schools – they would have been totally fine sending me to an all-white-affluent school, but they also did not mind sending me to racially and class diverse schools. So why did they send me to public schools? Both of my parents thought that paying private school tuition would be a waste of money, but it was more than that. My father felt that it was his civic duty to send me to public school. My mother did not care about civic duty, she simply was not convinced that I would receive a better education in private school than in public school, therefore private school tuition was a horrible waste of money.

And my neighborhood? It’s racially mixed (mostly white people and Asian-Americans, but there are also some African-Americans around here and there). The class dynamics in my neighborhood are complicated, so I’ll oversimplify for brevity: there are poor, working class, middle class, and rich people all living within walking distance of my home, but that does not mean we’re socially integrated, we tend to keep our social selves separate from anyone who is more than a notch or two away from us on the class hierarchy. For example, there is an upper class enclave just a ten minute walk from my home, yet I rarely set foot there, and if I did go there and encountered one of the people who live there, it would be awkward because I don’t know how to engage with them.

Ironically, the fact that my parents care a lot less about ‘social justice’ might be why they were more willing to send me to public school than affluent parents who do care about ‘social justice’. The affluent parents who care about ‘social justice’ probably spend a lot of time about thinking about how disadvantaged poor and/or brown kids are, so the subconsciously think that they need to keep their kids away from the those unfortunate people in case the bad luck is infectious. In other words, as affluent white people who care about ‘social justice’ they may have be more susceptible to the classist and racist assumption that schools with lots of poor and/or brown students must be worse because that is where the poor and/or brown students are. (And if they discovered that some of those schools with lots of poor and/or brown students are actually good, and that poor and/or brown students are not always to be viewed with pity, it might blow their minds). My parents spend a lot less mental energy obsessing over how disadvantaged poor and/or brown kids are, so they did not develop the subconscious feeling that they needed to isolate me from all that.

To be continued…

I Have a Stream of Consciousness about the New San Francisco Transit Center

Looking down an escalator in a fancy stucture of glass and steel.

I took this photo at the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco two weeks ago.

A month and a half ago, the glittering new transit center in San Francisco somehow managed to open. And a couple days ago it suddenly closed.

I was quite surprised when the transit center opened in the first place, because I’ve been trained to believe that these projects are never finished. I was also surprised when the Salesforce Tower was finally finished because I expected that to take forever too. However, though I would not say that I ~expected~ engineering problems, I’m not terribly surprised that the center was closed less that two months after it opened.

When I was in Taiwan, I remember going to some exhibit about bridges. They had photos of bridges all over the world, including the east span of the Bay Bridge, and I was surprised that the Bay Bridge did not look at all how I remembered it. Then I looked at the caption, and realized it was the new Bay Bridge which, as of the time I was living in Taiwan, I had never seen before. They had been working on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge since the bridge was broken in the 1989 earthquake, they had been building it when I was in middle school and high school. The cost overruns were a well known joke, and the consensus when I was in high school was that the new bridge was sucking up so much money in exceeding its budget again and again that, if the bridge were ever completed, it would not have been worth the ridiculous cost. For as long as I remember, they had been working on a bridge which was a vortex of wasted money which kept on being delayed and delayed, so I was shocked to learn in Taiwan that the new bridge actually was completed, and being used by the public.

And of course, given that it took more than twenty years to build the new bridge and it cost way more money than anyone predicted, it had engineering failures as soon as it opened which were expensive to fix.

Fortunately, since the Temporary Transbay Terminal (which is where the buses stopped before the transit center was complete) is still there, it was possible to quickly reroute all of the buses quickly, and restore things to the way they were two months ago – except most of the signs had been removed, which meant that most passengers did not know where their bus was supposed to stop.

I took this photo at the former Greyhound terminal in San Francisco about a month ago – except Greyhound has now moved back in because the transit center is closed. You can see the Temporary Transbay Terminal on the other side of the glass doors. The building was never this empty when it was an active Greyhound stop.

Until a few days ago, Amtrak was the only service which was still available at the Temporary Transbay Terminal. The Amtrak ‘station’ used to be a small room in the Greyhound terminal, but since Greyhound moved out, Amtrak got to take over the entire building. During my most recent trip, I was not sure where the Amtrak stop in San Francisco was going to be when I returned because Amtrak had told me they might move their stop any day (it turns out they did not move). When I got back to San Francisco, they had even closed the bathrooms in the Temporary Transbay Terminal (which I think was rather rude given that Amtrak was still operating there), so I had to walk all the way to the new Salesforce Transit Center to relieve myself (another problem with the new transit center is that the signs which are supposed to indicate the bathrooms are very confusing). That is when I took the photo at the top of this blog post.

For Amtrak passengers, it’s rather inconvenient that Amtrak stops in a location which is no longer served by any other form of public transit (though it’s only a block and a half away from the new Transit Center, and a few blocks from Embarcadero Station, so it’s not terrible). Of course, with the closure of the new transit center, there is now a lot of public transit at the Temporary Transbay Terminal again.

According to the Amtrak employees I talked to, the reason why Amtrak stayed at the Temporary Transbay Terminal while every other service left was that the Salesforce Transit Center was going to charge Amtrak more than Amtrak was willing to pay to lease a ticket office. Like a lot of locals who ride Amtrak, I am rooting for Amtrak to forget about the Salesforce Transit Center and lease a ticket office at the Ferry Building, which used to be Amtrak’s official stop in San Francisco. A lot of bus lines go the Ferry Building, all of the ferries go to the Ferry Building, and it is right next to Embarcadero Station.

A photo of the Ferry Building taken shortly after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Notice that the Ferry Building is intact, and that there is a lot of rubble in the lower left part of the picture.

The people behind the new Salesforce Transit Center say that it will become “Grand Central Station of the West.” The irony is that the “Grand Central Station of the West” used to be the Ferry Building. Before the completion of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, the Ferry Building was the second busiest passenger terminal in the world (the busiest was Charing Cross Station in London). It was the most expensive public building built in San Francisco in the 19th century (though I doubt it has as many cost overruns as our new transit center or our new Bay Bridge), and it was so well built that it go through the 1906 earthquake and fire and the 1989 earthquake without major damage. The trains no longer run to the Ferry Building, and it’s not built to handle all of the transbay buses, but it seems like it was a more successful project than our new transit center.

I also have a new appreciation for the Temporary Transbay Terminal. It’s cheap, simple, and a lot more foolproof than these fancy construction projects. Most of the terminal is an open-air bus staging area – very cheap to build and maintain, the roof can’t collapse because there is no roof. The building which used to be (and is once again) the Greyhound terminal is basically a one-story tin shed – cheap to build, simple engineering, the roof is unlikely to have too much load to bear because it is a single story structure. I do not miss the old Transbay Terminal (and I suspect renovating the old Transbay Terminal might have been just as much as a mess as building the new transit center), but maybe, instead of pouring lots of money into a fancy new transit center, it would have been better if the Temporary Transbay Terminal were in fact the Permanent Transbay Terminal and they did not build a new transit center at all. After all, the Temporary Transbay Terminal functioned well as a bus terminal, and that’s all we really need.

There Is a Big Problem with How We Talk about Othello

content note: murder, specifically murder related to sexual jealousy

This summer, I saw a performance of Othello. It was the first time I had seen or read the play in over ten years. And I was a bit shocked, because even though I knew the story of the play perfectly well, when I had seen or read the play before, I had never consciously thought about the fact that Othello thinks it is okay to kill his own wife because of infidelity. And everyone else in the play, except Emilia, seems to agree with him. The characters treats the murder of Desdemona as a tragedy because she was chaste, if she really had been engaging in an extra-marital affair, they would have been fine with Othello murdering her.

Othello’s final line came across as especially creepy, the one where he describes himself as being “one that loved not wisely, but too well.” Wanting to kill one’s wife because of jealousy counts as ‘loving too well’? Really? And if that is not what Othello means, then what does he mean? (note: I hope that people who consider killing their own wives because of jealousy to be an expression ‘love’ will never, ever love me)

In an English class in high school, we studied Othello. We analyzed the play extensively, from various different angles. We had in depth discussions of Othello’s feelings. Yet amid all of that analysis and discussion, I don’t recall anyone asking the question ‘if Desdemona was really having an affair with Cassio, would it be okay for Othello to kill her? Is the problem that Iago tricked Othello into thinking she was unchaste, or is the problem that Othello wanted to kill Desdemona ~at all~?’ And in retrospect, I am shocked that I have no memory of any discussion like that happening in my high school English class. If my memory is accurate, and we did not talk about that, then what does that imply about our values?

The most memorable part of studying Othello in that high school English class was hearing the teacher describe her Real Life Soap Opera. She shared with us the story of how a woman had an affair with one of her brothers, causing him to divorce his wife, then she had an affair with another one of her brothers, causing him to also divorce his wife, and then this woman had an affair with my teacher’s husband, which ruined their marriage, leading my teacher to legally separate from her husband and stop cohabiting with him. In addition to doing everything short of divorce to break up with her husband, my teacher played some mean-spirited pranks on the woman who had the extra marital affairs with her brothers and husband. My teacher was very proud of her pranking skills, and that she made the woman break down in tears. I got the impression that our English teacher really sympathized with Othello.

Legal separation and ending cohabitation are ethical and reasonable responses to infidelity. Mean-spirited pranks are not necessarily ethical or reasonable, but at least my English teacher (as far as I know) never threatened that woman with violence.

When Othello came to the conclusion that Desdemona was unfaithful, why did he immediately decide to murder her? Why not divorce, or legal separation? Or even mean-spirited pranks?

Maybe you’re thinking that we do not discuss whether it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona even if she had been unfaithful because the answer is obviously ‘no, of course it would not be okay’. Sadly, I can tell you that it was NOT obvious to all of my high school classmates.

This is a true story. I don’t want to reveal these people’s real names, so I am going to use the following names: Sara’s Classmate, Girlfriend, Friend, and Victim. Sara’s Classmate became convinced that his Girlfriend had some kind of sexual flirting with Victim. Therefore, with the help of Friend, he kidnapped Victim. Sara’s Classmate said that he wanted to kill Victim, and had a loaded gun. Though Friend was willing to participate in the kidnapping, Friend did not want to be an accomplice to murder, so he came up with a scheme to deceive Sara’s Classmate into thinking that Victim is already dead. I would like to think that my classmate would have come to his senses in time, and not actually carry out his murder threat, but I think it is very possible that, without Friend’s deception, Sara’s Classmate would have killed Victim.

The obvious parallels between this true story and Othello are Sara’s Classmate = Othello, Girlfriend = Desdemona, Friend = Iago, and Victim = Cassio. However, whereas Iago deceived Othello so that Desdemona and Cassio would die, Friend deceived Sara’s Classmate in order to save Victim’s life.

Though my classmate and I were not in the same English class, I know he also studied Othello in his English class because all of the 10th grade English classes at my high school studied Othello. I suppose it’s possible that in his English class they discussed whether or not it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona if she had been unfaithful, but … I doubt it.

We were classmates in theater class, and I definitely know that he studied Othello in our theater class because he performed a monologue from the play. Specifically, this monologue:

OTHELLO:
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,β€”
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!β€”
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.
[Kissing her]
Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and this the last:
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears: this sorrow’s heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love. She wakes.

Yes, it’s the monologue shortly before Othello kills Desdemona. When I was in that theater class, and saw my classmate perform this monologue multiple times, I had no idea that in a few years he was going to try to do something like this in real life. In retrospect, it is hard to believe that it is a coincidence that he chose this monologue, and then later attempted to murder someone because of jealousy.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Othello inspired him to perform kidnapping and attempted murder – if anything, I think the reverse is more likely, that he chose this monologue because he already had fantasies of doing something like this in real life. However, in English class, and even in theater class, there were opportunities to discuss whether Othello’s conduct would have been okay even if Desdemona were guilty, and those discussions, as far as I know, did not happen. And maybe, if that discussion did happen, my classmate may not have tried to imitate Othello.

The last time I had seen or read Othello was before my former classmate committed his crimes. This year, when I watched the play on stage, I was thinking of my former classmate quite a bit.

And my former classmate is not an isolated anomaly. At least one third of all women murdered in the United States are murdered by a male initmate partner, and that is not counting people like Cassio or Victim, who were suspected of being the women’s lovers, or attempted murders which did not result in death. I could not find statistics indicating how many of those murders were related to sexual jealousy, but I suspect it is a high percentage.

I am not opposed to reading or studying or performing Othello. On the contrary, I think it can be useful for provoking discussion. But, in my observation, the discussion of whether murder due to jealousy is ever justified usually does not happen. I certainly noticed no traces of that discussion around the production of the play I saw this summer.

Compare that to The Merchant of Venice. I studied the play in a college class, and my college class did not ignore the anti-semitism. On the contrary, the anti-semitism was one of the most discussed aspects of the play. And whenever there is a production or adaptation of The Merchant of Venice in the contemporary United States, the way the anti-semitism is addressed tends to be the focal point of the producer’s, the performers’, and the audience’s attention. I disagree with some of the common ways the anti-semitism is addressed, but at least it IS acknowledged and addressed, people aren’t silent about it. To a lesser extent, this is also true of the way readers, directors, actors, audiences, etc. treat the misogyny in Taming of the Shrew.

I do not think the play Othello itself is dangerous. I think ignoring the way the play tacitly supports murdering unfaithful wives (conditional on the wives being truly unfaithful, unlike Desdemona) is dangerous.

Living without Air Travel

At the end of my long hike in Southern California, I was trying to work out a way to get to a place which had Greyhound and/or Amtrak service so I could get home. I had assumed this would involve going to the City of San Diego (I was wrong; I ended up in Oceanside instead, which was fine). There was a woman who was helping me try to get a ride. Even though I ~never~ said that I wanted to go to San Diego Airport, when she was making phone calls, she said multiple times that I needed to get to ‘San Diego Aiport’ and I had to keep correcting her. It was only after she heard me have a conversation with someone else about how I do not do air travel that she finally understood that I was not going to the airport.

What impressed me was that a) she assumed that I was going to the airport and b) it was so hard to correct her. It was as if she could not imagine any other way I could get from San Diego to San Francisco without a car (even though the bus/train connections between San Diego and San Francisco are remarkably good by the standards of the western North America).

And it was not just her. There were so many people during my hike who assumed I was going to travel from San Diego to San Francisco by air, and it was remarkably difficult to correct this assumption. And last year, when I hiked into Canada, a lot of people were astonished that I was not going to ‘fly out of Vancouver’. Last year, I explained that I was not going to fly out of Vancouver because it was illegal (which was true – I could not have legally boarded any flight in Canada), but even if it had been legal, I would not have flown.

Let me explain why I no longer go in airplanes.

When I returned to North America in late 2014 (by airplane), I made a vow: I would never use air travel again for non-urgent reasons. An example of a possible urgent situation where I would consider air travel is: my uncle is in the hospital, he’s over a thousand miles away, and somebody needs to care for him. What would not count as an urgent situation: visiting friends or family when they are not in crisis (do weddings or funerals count as urgent? I’ll decide that on a case-by-case basis, but in most cases, the answer is going to be ‘no’).

At first, I did it partially because of environmental reasons (though I have since discovered that comparing the environmental impact of airplanes vs. other modes of transit is complicated and in some situations substituting a flight with a train ride does not make much difference, but that’s a topic for another post). However, I also do not like travelling in airplanes anyway, whereas I love trains. I do not love buses, but I would rather spend a lot of time in buses than a lot of time in airplanes.

Sometimes people ask if I will ever return to East Asia. I sometimes answer ‘maybe’ but a more honest answer is ‘probably not’. I doubt I will ever have an urgent reason to go back to East Asia, and I also do not think I will ever want to go badly enough to undertake a trans-Pacific boat voyage.

A lot of people over the years have told me that New Zealand is awesome, and that I would love New Zealand. I believe that New Zealand is awesome, and I think I probably would love to travel there – but I cannot imagine it being worth an extra-long trans-Pacific boat voyage. When I tell people I’m not considering New Zealand because of the long flight, most of them assume it’s the expense, and nod their heads. A few people then say ‘but it’s only [x] number of hours’, and even when I tell them that I don’t like long flights, they still insist the flight is not a big deal. I’ve never tried to explain that I’ve given up on non-urgent air travel.

I have discovered that, aside from the fact that being stuck in train stations/trains is way better than being stuck in airports/airplanes, that there is another, subtler benefit to cutting air travel out of my life.

I have much more appreciation of just how big North America is. And I experience more of what is in between my starting and ending points are when I go by bus or train than when I fly. I have a much better sense of all of the places between Chicago and San Francisco because I went by train than I would have if I had flown from Chicago to San Francisco (I got to go through the Rocky Mountains in winter!) Heck, I got to know the coach car attendant (we were both on the same train for three days) way better than I’ve gotten to know any flight attendant (on Amtrak, conductors and engineers take shifts, and are allowed to get off the train when their shift ends, so the conductor will keep on changing every 8 hours or so, but the attendants are required to stay on the train from start to finish, even if it takes 3 days).

And because I am basically charging myself an inconvenience penalty for travel, I savor the travel more. Instead of dreaming about visiting distant countries, I am getting to know the United States (and North America) way better than I ever did before I gave up air travel. And I am discovering more wonderful places right here in California which I may not have otherwise considered visiting.

It does not bother me that some people prefer air travel. What does bother me is how so many North Americans find it so difficult to conceive of someone covering long distances in North America without an airplane or car. It’s that assumption that I am going to the airport and ‘fly out’ or whatever. I am surprised by how prevalent this attitude is even among long-distance hikers, who know something about slow travel (though there are also a lot of long-distance hikers who are totally into trains – I have also been surprised by how many long-distance hikers I’ve met on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight line).

My goal for this post is not to convince anybody to give up air travel. My goal for this post is to help people grasp the concept of travelling a lot without airplanes (or cars) in the 21st century.

Do Flavored Tobacco Products Cause Significantly More Youths to Get Addicted?

In June, San Francisco voters will vote on Proposition E, which would ban flavored tobacco products in San Francisco. Here is the Yes on Prop E campaign and here is the No on Prop E campaign.

I’m not going to state my opinion of Prop E in this post. Instead, I’m interested in the question – do flavored tobacco products cause significantly more youths (in this post, I will define ‘youth’ as someone who is less than 18 years old) to get addicted to tobacco than would otherwise happen?

The proponents of Prop E claim that the answer is ‘yes’. Their evidence is that most youths who use tobacco started with flavored products, and that a high percentage of youths who use tobacco used a flavored product within the past month. However, it’s possible that, in the absence of flavored tobacco, they all would have just been using unflavored tobacco instead.

Though flavored tobacco products have been around for a really long time, tobacco flavored with anything other than menthol has only been widely available in the United States recently
(because there already is a ban on flavoring cigarettes with anything other than menthol, and the popular alternatives to cigarettes are fairly recent). So if these new flavored products are causing lots of youth who would otherwise not use tobacco to start using tobacco, I would expect to see a spike in tobacco use among youth.

Based on the information I could find, the percentage of youth in the USA who smoke cigarettes at least daily has dramatically decreased since I graduated from high school (I don’t want to reveal what year I graduated from high school; suffice to say, it was a year when a lot more youth were smoking cigarettes daily than in recent years). There is less information on e-cigarettes because they have not been around very long, but the percentages they report … look roughly like the percentages for daily cigarette use when I was in middle school and high school. Except they count any youth who used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days, whereas only cigarette smokers who used on a daily basis were counted.

With these numbers, it does not look like flavored tobacco products are actually increasing tobacco use in youth – it looks like it’s just substituting the use of unflavored tobacco with flavored tobacco. That is consistent with what I remember from high school. A lot of my classmates in high school were cigarette smokers – in fact, I suspect my high school had a higher percentage of cigarette smokers than what that link reports. There were certainly a lot of smokers in my peer group, though maybe not all of them smoked every day, or maybe some teenagers do not answer these surveys honestly. Some of my peers in the 12th grade also went to hookah bars and got flavored smoke – but only if they were 18, because otherwise they could not get in the hookah bar, and they had been smoking cigarettes before their turned 18.

However, this is just the surface. I’m far from an expert on any of this, and it is possible that there are important factors that I do not know about.

There is a study (Villanti AC, Johnson AL, Ambrose BK, et al. Use of flavored tobacco products among U.S. youth and adults; findings from the first wave of the PATH Study (2013-2014)) which found that “81 percent of current youth e-cigarette users cited the availability of appealing flavors as the primary reason for use” but since I have not seen the study itself, I’m not sure how to interpret this. Do these youth mean that the main reason they use e-cigarettes INSTEAD OF CIGARETTES is the appealing flavors, or do they mean that they would not be using tobacco AT ALL if ‘appealing flavors’ were not available? I don’t know.

I know little about e-cigarettes. I suppose they may be way more horrible than cigarettes in some way, but that is not the case that the Yes on E campaign is trying to make. Based on their arguments, e-cigarettes are bad because they are a ‘gateway’, they are not claiming that e-cigarettes are worse than cigarettes in any other way.

The one piece of evidence I have found that leads me to think that flavored tobacco products may actually induce people who would not otherwise use tobacco to use ironically comes, not from the proponents of the ban, but from the opponents. Specifically, it the fact that storekeepers are so adamantly opposed to Prop E, and that the opponents of Prop E emphasize that banning flavored tobacco would hurt small business. I understand that the small-business storekeepers have a tough time making a living in San Francisco, and that tobacco products are an important source of revenue for them. The fact that they are so vehemently opposed to me indicates that THEY think that a significant portion of people will stop buying tobacco if flavored tobacco is no longer available (or does flavored tobacco have a much higher profit margin than unflavored tobacco? Or do they think they will just lose all of their customers to the internet? I do not know). It is also possible that this will primarily influence adults, not youth.

In short, based on the evidence I’ve seen, I’m not convinced that flavored tobacco products lead to significantly higher usage of tobacco among youth than would otherwise exist, but I admit that it is possible that flavored tobacco products are hooking more youth than unflavored tobacco products would hook.

Sara, you’re doing it wrong, you stopped using toilet paper!

That’s right, I’ve stopped using toilet paper (errr, for the most part). Obviously, that is wrong.

For a long time I’ve been vaguely aware that manufacturing toilet paper kills a lot of trees and uses a lot of water, but actually looking at the statistics, it’s worse than I thought (i.e. I got it wrong). Apparently, manufacture of toilet paper is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation in the United States, and not only does it require a lot of water, but the water is much more polluted after it has been used to process toilet paper than before. You can do research on the environmental impact of toilet paper yourself, but the TL;DR is: people who use toilet paper are evil cartoon villains who wreck ecosystems, harm future generations, and can make an awesome cackling sound.

Of course, the ~right way~ to show one’s concern about the environmental impact of toilet paper is to switch to recycled toilet paper so no trees die, at least according to a lot of websites such as “Green Living Tips”. Oh, but recycled toilet paper tends to contain even more toxic chemicals than toilet paper made from virgin fiber. Should one subject oneself to more toxic chemicals to save some trees, or should one let the trees die to protect oneself from toxic chemicals? Apparently, one could solve this dilemma by using toilet paper made from sugarcane or bamboo instead of from trees, or checking that the recycled toilet paper was processed without chlorine, or something.

I suppose a good consumer would do their due diligence, research all of this stuff (because, you know, good consumers have unlimited time and energy for all this because they don’t have jobs, social relationships, or fun hobbies), and make sure they were making the most ethical and healthiest choice when buying toilet paper, no matter how inconvenient or expensive. But I’m a bad consumer, which means instead of trying to find a boutique store which sells expensive fair-trade-organic-locally-manufactured-sugarcane toilet paper, I decided to just stop using toilet paper. Like I said, I’m doing this wrong.

But to be honest, I did not stop using toilet paper purely out of concern for the environment. I have a confession to make: I don’t like toilet paper. Wrong, I know.

Even when I’m being careful, I often got bits of feces directly on my hands when I use toilet paper, and little bits of toilet paper often got lodged in my butt, which fester there until I take a shower and can wash them out. Speaking of which, toilet paper never fully cleaned my butt of feces, which is why, along with those bits of festering toilet paper, I often washed out more bits of feces when I took showers. In Taiwan, I had a bathroom setup which make it easy for me to rinse out my butt after I used the toilet, but in my home in San Francisco, I can’t do that without actually taking a shower, so until I stopped using toilet paper, between I defecated and when I took a shower, there was still quite a bit of residue of feces riding on my skin. It turns out that it’s not just me – this newspaper article also says that toilet paper is a bad way to clean up feces. I know, it’s wrong to admit all this publicly.

The right way to stop using toilet paper is to use a bidet instead. 93.482% of all articles on the internet about switching away from toilet paper tell you to use a bidet, because that’s what civilized people in Japan/France/India/Italy/Greece use, and if you don’t switch to a bidet you are a barbaric American/Brit/Australian and all of the civilized people from those civilized countries will think you are gross and make fun of you. Though they will say that Canadians are okay even if they don’t use bidets, because Canada. And they say/think nothing about Kiwis because they don’t know that New Zealand exists.

Second confession: I have used bidets, and I don’t like them either. I think this blog post already has too much information, so I will just express my opinion that I feel that the results using a bidet (probably because I am using the bidet wrong) are unsatisfactory (I found the bathroom setup I had in my apartment in Taiwan – which was not a bidet – to be much more satisfactory). Obviously, I am a barbaric American who has earned the mockery of civilized people.

That said, my family (until recently) were not just in an American level of barbarism – we were in a Taiwanese level of barbarism – we put used toilet paper in the bin, not the bowl (though our used toilet paper eventually made its way to compost, not landfill) . We put toilet paper in the bin for a similar reason the Taiwanese do it – plumbing issues. Yep, we were doing it wrong by adapting to the limitations of our plumbing system rather than spend lots of money and enduring lots of stress trying to change the plumbing.

(I have read various tracts by non-Taiwanese about how the Taiwanese habit of putting toilet paper in the bin is so ‘unsanitary’ and is ‘bad manners’ but instead of presenting scientific evidence of how Taiwanese practices help spread disease or cause more environmental damage than putting toilet paper in toilet bowls, their argument seems to be that it goes against their own non-Taiwanese cultural norms, and thus the Taiwanese are wrong.)

I have stopped using toilet paper the wrong way: I’m now using pieces of fabric to wipe myself after I use the toilet. Specifically, I am re-using the same pieces of fabric over and over again. That THAT, you snotty bidet-using elitists (and I bet you don’t clean all of that snot in your noses with your precious bidets). Pieces of fabric which are used and re-used to clean butts are called ‘family cloth’.

The right way to start using family cloth is to cut up old worn-out fabric goods, such as a shirt you would never wear again. This undeniably is very cheap (as in, costs no moeny) and very eco-friendly (you don’t waste resources making new fabric and you keep old fabric out of the landfill). Of course, I switched to family cloth the wrong way, that is to say, I bought brand-new family cloth. I bought a packet of organic linen ‘toilet paper’. This proves that I am a coastal millennial hipster elitist, which is wrong. Meanwhile, that store seems to be run by mid-westerners who practice an obscure form of Christian fundamentalism which tries to follow the rules of the Torah (though I am not sure of this), which is also wrong (they take Leviticus 19:19 seriously, so vegans can trust them not to slip wool into the linen fabric).

a square piece of linen cloth

This is what my family cloth looks like. I have 15 pieces. I don’t need all of them, so some of them have not been used yet, though I may find a use for them in the future.

When I was doing research on family cloth, every website said that one would clean them by putting them in the washing machine, just like cloth diapers. The people who wrote this articles/blog posts assumed that all of their readers ~have~ washing machines. Once again, I’m doing this wrong – the building where I live has no washing machine. Furthermore, I don’t want to run to the laundromat every time I need to clean a piece of family cloth (especially since that would require a lot of quarters).

So I clean them the wrong way – in a sink, by hand. This is what my process looks like (for poo, not for pee):

1. Immediately after use, I put the soiled piece in a container stored in the toilet room (like many older buildings in San Francisco, the toilet is in a different room than the bathroom).
2. Once a week, I take all of my soiled pieces, and rinse them in a tub that fits in the sink, and then pour out the rinse water. This gets rid of most of the feces.
3. I put in clean water and some baking soda, and let it soak for at least 10 minutes. After the baking soda treatment, the family cloth has no odor I can detect. Then I pour out the baking-soda-water.
4. I put in some more clean water, and add a few drops of liquid castille soap, agitate, and pour out the water.
5. I wring the family cloth pieces, and they put them somewhere to dry. However, if they are still wet when I need to use them, that’s okay too.

I’m probably doing this wrong, so if you do use family cloth, just wash them any way you want.

Oh, and for pee, I use a separate piece of family cloth (a ‘pee rag’). I just rinse it out quickly after each use, just before I wash my hands. This is enough to prevent them from stinking. When I am going to the laundromat anyway, I also throw the pee rag into my wash load (though I do not throw in the pieces of family cloth I use for poo into my general wash load).

I also now keep a spray bottle full of water in the toilet room. I spray my butt before I wipe (it works much better than a bidet, in my experience). This knocks off the biggest bits of feces, and the wetness helps the family cloth clean more effectively.

However, I’m not an organic-linen-family-cloth purist, which means I’m doing it wrong. When I use a bathroom away from home, I use the toilet paper that is provided. Shortly after I started doing hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), I converted to using wet wipes instead of toilet paper. Though I considered taking family cloth on my current PCT hike, I decided to go with the tried-and-true wet wipes instead – which is wrong. Wet wipes are also terrible for the environment, though at least I don’t flush them down toilets and I use a brand which is compostable and made from not-so-toxic chemicals.

Following in my footsteps in going away from toilet paper would be wrong.

Of course, as you may have noticed by now, no matter what you do to clean yourself after you pee or poo, someone in the world thinks you’re doing it wrong. So just do what you want. (As far as sanitation goes, handwashing ~after~ you clean your butt is much more important than ~how~ you clean your butt).

If you want to do what I do, great, we can do it wrong together. If you want to convert to the School of Wet Wipes for Everypoop Use, you can do that. If you want to use a bidet, you can do that. If you want to use recycled toilet paper, you can do that. If you want to use toilet paper made from sugarcane or bamboo, you can do that. If you want to use quadruple-ply scented toilet paper made from virgin tree fiber because you think the world needs more deforestation, you can do that. If you want to use a sponge on a stick dipped in vinegar, you can do that. If you want to find in a thrift store a shirt featuring the logo of a brand you hate, buy it, cut it up, and then wipe your butt with that, you can do that (this idea was inspired by Linda Tirado). If you want to find a plant with large, broad leaves, tear off the leaves, and use the leaves to wipe your butt, you can do that. If you just want to use whatever is most convenient, you can do that.

It’s your butt, and if you are lucky enough to be able to defecate in privacy, you can clean it however you want, without anybody else knowing how you do it.