Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jennifer L Pozner: Reality Bites Back

Before I blog about this awesome book by Jenn Pozner (follow her on twitter- she's awesome, you need to watch this video (H/T to Laughing Squid.) It will get you in the mood, and it's relevant.

You're in the mood to think about advertising and media, right? Jenn Pozner watched approximately 8 bajillion hours of reality TV in order to deconstruct the effects that the genre has on (American) ideas of gender and race (and to a lesser degree, class). Full disclosure: I don't own a TV. I've never seen an episode of "America's Next Top Model" or "American Idol." I had never even heard of "Flavor of Love" till I read this book. I had heard of some of the "Home Makeover" type shows, and "Top Chef," but not only have I not seen them, they don't even interest me. Throughout the book, I kept trying to remember any episode of any reality show that I might have seen- the only one I can think of is the first season of "Survivor"- my dad and sister were really into it, as was most of the country, and I do think I watched a few episodes. One of the reasons I don't have a TV is because I hate the commercials. I hate the idea that someone is selling me something every time I turn on the TV. Well, I hate it even more after reading Pozner's book: you don't have to wait for the commercials to be sold something. Turns out, most of reality TV is an advertisement. Some of the shows are completely paid for by the sponsors. Like the product placements in the videos above, the shows are half hour long advertisements for jewelry companies, cleaning products, makeup companies, etc. Any thoughts I had of experimenting with a new show just went out the window. Yuck. "The genre of reality TV would not exist as we know it today without embedded advertising," she writes. These shows are not about entertainment with some advertising thrown in like the movie clips above, they're about "manufacturing entertainment around sponsors' goods."

Pozner's book is based on the premise that you don't have to take my route out and turn off and tune out. Rather, she encourages readers/reality TV watchers to watch "guilty pleasure" TV as long as they understand what they're seeing; be willing to deconstruct; and hopefully move forward with activism. Reverse the "take no prisoners" attitude of the producers of these shows and fight the bullshit that they are perpetuating. First, it's important to acknowledge that the shows aren't in the business of making good TV (as I said above)- they're in the business of making cheap TV to fill airtime in order to make bank for a few giant media companies. These are the "Big Six": Disney, News Corp, Time Warner, General Electric, Viacom and CBS, which control pretty much everything that we take in on TV. Where TV producers and writers used to have some integrity about product placement and advertisement in general, reality TV (and TV at large) now use some basic strategies to make sure it's all ads, all the time: brand integration in the shows (placing products in visible locations throughout the set), dialogue revolving around products ("Oh, honey, I just NEED that Banana Republic shirt!"), and even in the plot (for the next shoot, we'll see the models skip around Target to make the next ad campaign). Even if you pride yourself, like me, on being semi-advertiser--proof, it's impossible to get around. The ads ARE the show.

Second, it's important to remember that these Big Six are heavily manipulative in the ideas about society they put out there, and hide them under the code word of "reality." If these are Real People doing Real Things, the beliefs about women's roles in society must be true, right? If these are Real People on these shows, they must WANT to be there, right? If these shows are So Popular, it must be because the viewing public wants to see them, right? Not at all, not on any count. The shows, while claiming to be unscripted, are heavily edited to highlight several basic themes that make for "Good TV" (i.e. TV that rakes in the money while costing very little), and aren't really representative of reality at all. While some of the cast may want to be on the shows, producers often use tricks to get them signed up, including making cast members believe they will be on entirely different types of shows entirely. And the viewing public isn't really interested in some of these shows at all- the hype around them is often entirely generated by the companies that make the products that are paying to sponsor the shows and the Big 6 that are putting on the show. The shows exist because they are hyped, and the hype causes people to believe that they are missing something. We are being sold a product that is selling us stuff. (Sidenote: I know this sounds like something I would say, something that I would believe, but I am really truly reviewing Pozner's book here. I love the book, and feel totally vindicated by it, but you don't have to believe me. Like I said, I don't even watch reality TV. Believe Pozner. She watched it all, like a true martyr to the cause.)

So what is the bullshit that Reality TV is selling us (besides jewelry, cars, soap, etc)? Basically, Pozner demonstrates, if you had no idea that this is the year 2011, and just watched a whole lot of Reality TV to develop a mindset on where women stand in society and how America views people of color, you'd probably think we were somewhere between the 50s and the 70s. It's that bad. Women's agency is stripped, almost from the get-go of the majority of reality TV shows ("ANTM," "The Swan," "The Bachelor," etc.): life is a fairytale, but only if the fairytale is "done to a woman rather than achieved by one." Women are princesses, and they need their men to come get them ASAP. Not only that, they WANT their men to come get them, ASAP, no matter what. The individual man doesn't matter, the cost of finding this man doesn't matter- hell, it's a man and every (real, remember?) Woman Needs a Man. The premise of the "Bachelor" type-shows is that women are fighting for the right to marry a man. "A Man," as in, generic. They don't even know the man they are fighting to marry, but without him, they're not Good, Complete, Happy, Healthy, Women. The fairytale is complete when one ones. Who cares if the man has a history of domestic violence, or is a total douche, or in the case where women are competing for a man because he is rich, isn't rich at all. He is a Man, and in the fairytale, the girly princess Gets The Man.

The white girly princess, who doesn't work, loves wearing dresses, wants kids, and loves serving a man. Women of color don't get the man, of course. Women of color are portrayed by their stereotypes: skanks, hos, exotic, etc. Smart women are eliminated- agency doesn't sell stuff, subservience does. Tears REALLY sell stuff. And the next thing to remember is that although viewers are led to believe that these Real Women are mimicking societal views, they are actually creating them: "In the reality TV universe, human beings are not a product of their environments and of cultural conditioning- they are simply acting out the roles preset for them by their DNA or their deity." So TV presents the princess and the gold diggers as preordained and as real, and we viewers accept them as real because a) they're presented that way by convincing TV producers and b) they're REAL dammit, not actors/actresses. So the hegemonic and sadistic and old-fashioned ideas are reproduced and passed on to TV viewers. (While selling us crap. Remind me again why I don't have a TV?) In Pozner's words, "reality TV producers codify, rather than reflect, viewers' prejudices." Further, because we're conditioned to believe that we are represented by reality TV, rather conditioned by it, producers of the shows can feed us lines racist TV and then convince us that "it's not racist if people enjoy it." We wouldn't watch TV shows if they weren't socially acceptable, right? And the shows wouldn't be on if Real People didn't believe this stuff, right? And women really want the Princess Life, right? And black people really are violent gold diggers, right? No.

I'm not going to go into each myth that reality TV would have us believe. There are tons, and they're not new ones. Thin is good, stuff makes you happy, white is right, etc. Reality TV is a new, sophisticated means to pass on these tropes (one of my favorite words that Pozner uses to its fullest). And lest you think that these are harmless and passe societal cliches, apparently there are reality beauty shows that are about 5-7 year old beauty pageants. Your young child can be a beauty queen, too, if only she is cute enough, made up enough, and yes, sexy enough. Onward and upward with the sexist, racist value system! Sing it, small children! Pozner gives us the tools to unpack reality TV, and the myths it promulgates. If you watch reality TV or any TV at all, you need to read this book. If you're like me, and watch very little TV (I have my shows that I follow, but none of them claim to be remotely real), you need to read this book. If you live anywhere outside of a bubble, and you do if you're reading this, you need to read this book. Check the website, too, for a lot of cool links and useful information, as well as WIMN, Women in Media and News, one of Pozner's projects. Unlike me in most of my book reviews, Pozner goes a step further: not only does she tell us the sad state of television, she gives ideas on how to move forward. Thank goodness. And we better use these, too, because as it stands now, the media has a whole lot more power than any one of us readers and fighters. It's time to get up off our couches and fight for the right to be REAL!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Year of the Bug: Camera Porn

Mac, Naked, with Party Girl (the Brownie)

4/52: Camera Porn, Brownie Edition

Vacation, Part 3

So far, all that I've shared about my trip to NYC (aka the first "authentic" vacation I've taken in a very long time) is a Whole Lot of Snow, and one meal in the style of THB. I feel I need to back up and share the history of vacations ala themacinator. (Edited: I initially wrote that I took a vacation 3 years ago. It's true that I went away, and that I left Mac, but I went with my parents to New Orleans, and the trip had a "stated goal" of working with the St Bernard Project to rebuild New Orleans.)

When I was just a wee young thing, I was privileged enough to go on many vacations courtesy of my family and extended family. We went to Hawaii, to Jamaica, we took a summer long trip to Europe, etc. Once my mom and I went to visit our family friends in Japan. We often traveled in a "family friendly" style- staying in condos or house-style places so that we could eat in and spread out, instead of more traditional hotels where we'd have to eat out every meal. My grandparents took the extended family on more exotic and lavish trips to dude ranches and even as far as Israel. When I was older, beginning in my teens, I stopped traveling like this. My first trip was to Costa Rica, where I went on one of those "service learning" trips. Of course, these trips are only really available to relatively wealthy families as participants have to pay to live in impoverished villages and do service projects, but I loved it. It changed the way I traveled. My parents and sister went to Costa Rica at the same time and traveled in a much more "touristy" way- seeing the sites and staying in nice hotels, while I slept in a house with no electricity and ate beans and rice and rice and beans and developed a nasty case of impetigo and came home with sores and open wounds all over my body.

I was no longer able to travel without my conscience getting in the way. I think this actually started in Jamaica, where tourism was so clearly the entire economy, and racial and gender subjugation was so clearly what made tourism possible. (If you haven't read Cynthia Enloe's "Bananas, Beaches and Bases", it's a must read on the subject.) I couldn't bear to travel in my old privileged way. My next two "real" trips were to Mexico (I lived the first 19 years of my life in the Bay Area without ever traveling to Mexico!). The first trip was a semester long study abroad program, which emphasized border issues, both the border with the United States and with Guatemala. Again, I stayed with a low income family, although this time we had electricity. I came home sick again, but decided to go back to Mexico the following summer with another service group, this time to Oaxaca, where it was back to sleeping on the floor (again paying for the privilege). I came back even sicker, this time with salmonella. Although I loved both trips, my traveling days were basically over.

They were over for a few reasons: apparently, my immune system sucks. This was the least of my worries, though hospitalization was not really very fun, nor was being treated repeatedly for "bichos" in Mexico and Guatemala the highlight of my trip. More importantly, traveling was no longer a simple joy that it used to be. Both sides of my family are huge travelers, and my parents are enjoying their retirement by traveling all over the word. You can read about it. The only places that interested me were in the global south, but the only way I wanted to go was not in traditional tourist ways. I didn't want to be part of the exploitation that most travel to the "third world" entails, but I also don't want to take part in making humans animals in a zoo. The last, and most practical reason, is that right before my final trip to Mexico I adopted Mac. Mac doesn't kennel well, I don't do well with leaving Mac, and the few times I've left him, it's been a disaster.

So all of my trips have been local. And I'm not complaining. But when my fellow traveler to New York this week asked me before we went if I had ever been on a "real" vacation, I stumbled. He meant not doing service, staying in a hotel, and as an adult. Out of the 100 mile radius of my home. Yeah, not really. My dad and I went on an awesome road trip a few years ago and saw Dodger Stadium and the new ballpark in San Diego. V and I went on the epic road trip to the Salton Sea, with Mac of course. I've been to LA to visit my grandparents, for a day at a time. But I haven't really GONE anywhere, with the sole purpose of... vacating.

So this birthday I got a Whole Lot of Money. With the express directions to use it for traveling. This was tricky, as I'd have to leave Mac, but fortunately I have the Best Roommate Ever, and Mac has developed a fan club, and a good friend offered to spend the night with him every night. So, off to New York I went. I couldn't just travel without a purpose, that seemed too easy. So I decided to photograph things. And that's why you have those videos. And that's why you're seeing All That Snow. Apparently they're calling this winter in New York "Snowpocalypse." I rather loved it. Snow everywhere- it was beautiful. Almost none of that brown slushy crap you normally see in the city. And I walked everywhere in it. Here's another video of a slightly obscene snowman being constructed by some kinds on a rare snowday. Taken from knee deep in snow- that's dedication.

Unfortunately, I also felt like this part of the time. You must see The King's Speech if you haven't seen it. I don't even like movies so much, but I traveled all the way to New York to see this one (kidding).

I had this giant plan to go to Coney Island and Brighton Beach. I knew Coney Island would be deserted and snowy, but I thought that would be awesome. Not so much. Most of it was closed for construction, and there was almost no one there. I mentioned Snowpocalypse- well, smart people don't go out in Snowpocalypse. Only tourists, and crazy photographers. Then I went to Brighton Beach, which is around the corner. The photo ops were amazing. All these Russians in amazing fur hats with amazing faces. Amazingly hostile faces. Sometimes my old camera (I was carrying my rolleicord that day) entices people to talk, which gets me an "in" to ask them for their picture. In Brighton Beach it just led to lots and lots of glares and scowls. One lady even chased me away from taking pictures of the side of a store. I'm nonconfronational even though it's legal for me to take pictures from the street, and kind of a pushover, so I got the hell out of dodge. But I was sad (and cold and wet). The next day, I lost my light meter again, and was basically guessing about the speeds my shots should be taken at. Combined with the fact that the snow made my focusing screen and the magnifier all wet and foggy, I am pretty sure that none of my shots are remotely technically accurate. This made me grumpy. It made me say "shit shit shit and tits." I had to go and buy higher speed film at Adorama, and the people there were surly and rude. I missed Looking Glass.

Vacation was good. I tried new things: I even ordered room service! I used an iPad provided by the hotel, and disliked it, as I expected. Yes, I'm a Luddite. I flew and survived. I ate a delicious pie, two nights in a row. I had blintzes, and they were fried, and that was amazing. I took five rolls, and if they don't come out, I'll chalk it up to vacation. I got to hang out in snow. I miss winter. I went on vacation, and it was good.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Gramercy Park

Just posted late- didn't bring my laptop to NYC and was having trouble integrating technology.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

In Honor of THB

Best dessert ever. Some fancy drink with ginger and rum- hotel bar. Candy bar pie by Milk. Total for one: $20.

Dinner of vacation champions

Morning view.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Fred Ritchin: After Photography

Sometimes you just have to buy a book. Sometimes, marketing works. I was gloomy the other day, and walked into Diesel, even though I knew they didn't have the book I wanted, but I Just Needed a Book. They had a very cool display of all white books. Yes, I literally bought a book off of a shelf that was organized by color. Sidenote: I've also organized books by colors, so maybe it was a subliminal message?

always wanted to do this

So I picked up Fred Ritchin's "After Photography" and read a few pages, just to convince myself that I wasn't buying a book for its cover or color. And bought it. Similar to Lippard's "Lure of the Local", Ritchin situates digital photography in time, then posits where he believes it's going- not as "prophecy" (his word)- but as a deeper look at the revolution that digital photography engenders. The "digital revolution," he believes, is not just a cute phrase. Human beings have become "users" of technology, and often feel at a disadvantage when faced with the products of the revolution- outsmarted by "smart" machines that the majority of us don't and never will understand. Ritchin writes "digital media translate everything into data, waiting for an author or an audience (or a machine) to reconstitute it." People are now understood to be the sum of their DNA, and photos are the sum of their pixels.

Creepy, right? The whole book is creepy and unsettling like that. Some of Ritchin's ideas, when he gets done spinning the premise, seem far-fetched, but when you think about it, they're probably not wrong. Photographs, the film kind, would have been unthinkable before they were thought of, why shouldn't Ritchin's ideas be plausible. Ritchin quotes John Berger on analog photography:
What served in place of the photograph before the camera's invention? The expected answer is the engraving, the drawing, the painting. The more revealing answer might be memory. What photographs do out there in space was previously done within reflection.
Ritchin goes on to talk about the alteration of the landscape of memory and existence with digital photography, but I'm still stuck on the idea of memory instead of photography. Back in the post I linked to from almost exactly a year ago, I was wondering the same thing- why all the photos? What are they for? What are we trying to see? What are we trying to remember? What are we trying to experience? Can we experience anything without an LCD screen? Ritchin uses a picture like this, with a caption that phones are the new lighters:
The Crowd

Two thoughts on this: one, I don't think phones are the new lighters. I'm sure that sometimes, a band asks people to hold up their phones as a light, since most venues don't allow smoking and/or lights anymore. Second, it's all in the captions. My first thought when I saw the picture was "wow, people can't even go to a concert anymore?!" I've experienced this at A's games with fireworks, but I really don't go to concerts. I look down my nose at this kind of photography, because photography is what I "do," but really, it's all the same. Says Ritchin, chillingly, "even analog photography divides up the world into rectangular images that are recorded from a segment of the electromagnetic spectrum in fractional seconds- discrete segments. Each of these segments, the photograph, wrests a record of appearance out of what is only the tip of a complex and changing, multilayered set of physical and conceptual systems, many of them unknown." Photos turn life, a multi-dimensional thing that exists in time and space, into something flat, "paused" into a frame in time. They are "both salutary and distancing," making the known unknown and the unknown known.

I've only scratched the surface of Ritchin's book. It's slightly science-fiction-y in tone, when it's not textbook-y. It's a must-read for the intellectual photographer, but it's also disturbing for anyone who wants to think about what they're doing. I'm both glad that I finished it two days before I leave for a photography trip and sad that I did so. Sometimes, I just want to enjoy myself, without thinking too much. But then, I wouldn't be themacinator.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

George Will: Men at Work

It took me almost a month to read George Will's classic baseball book "Men at Work," and I can't really explain why. It's a well written work, and I'm starved for baseball. Maybe that's exactly why- I'm starved for baseball- jonesing, even- and had to make this one last. If you're a baseball fan, this is a must-read, if you haven't already read it. If you're my age, you probably haven't read it, you've probably read Michael Lewis' "Moneyball" (which appears not to have a website to link to)- the story of Billy Beane's A's and the importance of sabermetrics. "Moneyball" was a great read, and enhanced for me because it was about My Team- it was so cool to see the players come up after reading about their signings- and George Will's classic was even better because it was about My Team in the late '80s, as well as being the unintentional prequel of Moneyball. (Obviously not, but reading them in the reverse order, decades apart, had that affect.)

I recently had a conversation with a friend who is an avid Warriors fan (poor guy) where I made the (to me) blatantly obvious statement that baseball is a Thinking Man's sport, which is why a) I like it and b) I like it more than basketball. Basketball is growing on me, but it's just not the same. It's fast and furious (except for all those stupid time outs), but it's more about sheer athletic prowess than brains. My friend was shocked, and seemed to truly believe that basketball is also about brains, especially on the court. There are just so many MOVES, he exclaimed! I couldn't even begin to argue with him. He obviously hasn't read George Will. I'm not going into Will's politics (when I first realized he wrote this book, I almost passed it up), but how can you resist this? There is, he writes
a civic interest served by having the population at large leavened by millions of fans. They are spectators of a game that rewards, and thus elicits, a remarkable level of intelligence from those who compete. To be an intelligent fan is to participate in something. It is an activity, a form of appreciating that is good for the individual's soul, and hence for society.
I'm not trying to get all sentimental here, but I have written about baseball as an American religion, and I think Will persuasively argues about baseball as American religion, at least in the civic sense. Baseballs practitioners are citizens in the best sense, and its fans are the followers, the analysts.

The book is divided into four parts which both compliment each other and serve as arguments against each other: the manager- Tony La Russa, the pitcher- Orel Hersheiser, the hitter- Tony Gwynn, Jr, and the defender- Cal Ripken. Each man is someone who represents to Will the pinnacle of the thinking man in his respective category. And in each section, Will portrays the manager, the hitter, the pitcher, and the defender as the most important and the most discounted part of the game, while also insisting that they must all work together for a team to succeed at all. In the end, Will comes down on the side of "small ball"- speed, defense, and pitching: for baseball to be baseball, bats must stay wood (interesting that this debate is coming up again with even more shattering bats than when he wrote in 1990), runners must keep running, and homeruns and big innings should be secondary to taking the game 90' at a time and holding the team to 3 outs an inning. Writing before everyone was juiced, Will writes
Ruth was a wonder, but he was more a harbinger than an aberration. The home run was here to stay, which was fine. What was not fine was that home runs began to drive out other forms of offense. When home runs became the center of baseball's mental universe, the emphasis shifted away from advancing runners. The new emphasis was on just getting runners on base to wait for lighting to strike.
This kind of ball devalues the whole game: sit around and wait means that the rhythm is broken. Base runners don't run, fielders don't field, pitchers don't pitch. The subtlety is gone. Sure, it brings in money as fans like the Big Stuff, but it takes out the brains.

Will wrote "Men at Work" before the advent of sabermetrics but was still all about statistics. (Interestingly, the A's "style of play" was already in business, long before the Beane era- I had forgotten about this. I shouldn't have- this was Rickey time, after all. On the other hand, it was also the Bash Brothers, which is probably why everyone forgets that there was something besides home runs going on- pitching and defense.) Even with all his focus on numbers, Will knows that "Part of baseball's charm is the illusion it offers that all aspects of it can be completely reduced to numerical expressions and printed in agate type in the sports section." Each of the men that he profiles are sublimely focused on studying the stats, studying the men they will face on opposing teams, history, research, etc. But Will also knows that luck is involved, that artificial turf can cause things to play differently- that there is a human factor. It comes down to 90 feet, which is a long enough time for anything to happen. He quotes Red Smith:
Ninety feet between bases represents man's closest approach to absolute truth. The world's fastest man can not run to first base ahead of a sharply hit ball that is cleanly handle by an infielder; he will get there only half a step too late. Let the fielder juggle the ball for one moment or delay his throw an instant and the runner will be safe. Ninety feet demands perfection. It accurately measures the cunning, speed and finesse of the base stealer against the velocity of a thrown ball. It dictates the placement of infielders. That single dimension makes baseball a fine art...

I've written before about emotions in baseball. Will also has a theory about this, which I find plausible. It's not done, he believes, because the game is both humbling and quick to change. "The exultation of success is going to be followed in short order by the cold slap of failure. Any team's success. Anyone's success. So why get high when a low is just around the corner? Baseball is a life best lived in an emotionally temperate zone." He backs this up (though much later in the book) with statistics: No team improves their record three years in a row. Only the A's had played in two consecutive World Series when Will wrote the book in the 10 previous years. It's a "mild roller coaster," he writes. I'm not fully buying this explanation, though. It's very clinical, and prosaic, but it's also very much an "easier said than done" kind of thinking. Sure, the ups are followed by downs and visa versa, but can a baseball player, a man who works at serious play, really tell himself that when he concentrates every day for 9 straight innings on something that the whole world is watching? That is his life? I'm just not sure. Will also discusses how the life of a baseball player, his career, is a shortened life, which occurs in public: "The decay is chronicled and monitored by millions of people." Not easy to just say, oh well, it will get better.

On the other hand, I do agree with Will's assessment that baseball is a cheerful business. An optimistic one. While Will writes that we baseball fans love to complain and nitpick on what is a remarkably hard profession, we are also optimistic. Year after year we root for teams that can't or don't win, complain that they barely win more than half of their games, and yet continue to do it again. I know I do. We are fans of an optimistic sport. The players go out there again. Hitting .300 is considered great, and that means (Will reminds us) that the hitter misses the ball 7/10 times. That's not so good in any other circumstances. But baseball fans cheer for it. We are cheerful, whiny optimists. Read this book, during the off season. Make your winter.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Honest Assessments

A hat tip to one of my favorite blogs (humorous, honest, AND scholarly), We Are Respectable Negroes for this clip from Howard Stern. I don't remember all the controversy around Howard Stern, but I know there is controversy, and I know you probably won't want to listen to this whole thing. But listen to some of it. It's abrasive, and I'm sure some people will find it racist. But it's honest- there's no denying that race exists, and there's no denying that we make assessments about what we see based on our presumptions and assumptions about race.

Howard Stern talks with a (real??) trash collector about how he knows whose trash he's looking at just by looking at it. At first, Stern, the trash collector, and a woman are playing a guessing game- does a sample can belong to a black person, a Spanish (!) person, a white person, or a Jewish person. The categories alone are interesting, and a chance for a dialogue about racial categories, but this isn't really about breaking down this clip, or discussing Howard Stern and the trash man. They start talking about how the trash dude can tell whose trash is whose by how the trash is bagged, where the trash can is positioned at a house, what is in the can. What would people in each of these groups DO with the stuff that becomes their trash? How do people eat that makes their trash? Would they be home-owners or renters? Then, the trash man starts talking about backyards, where he might encounter the trashcans. Are they trashy (eek)? Etc.

What I have been thinking about since I heard this in mid-December was that it was REAL. We do make this kind of assessment all the time, at least I do, both on and off the job. Not just racial assessments, although I think it's extremely important to acknowledge those, since this is the era of denying race, being "colorblind. For example, the Year of the Bug shot that I just posted, was very close to my house. Without even showing my neighborhood, you can tell that I live near a freeway where people dump trash. There's broken glass and a tag on the sidewalk. And if you didn't know me, you'd also know that I have a pit bull, a dog often associated with a "rough neighborhood." I have a tough time separating myself from my neighborhood and my dog and making an assessment of it, but others might, just from looking at that picture? What do you see?

When I go into neighborhoods, or even just read a call without knowing where it is, I make assumptions. When I do adoption screening, I make assumptions. I hate that I do this when I do adoption counseling. I find that it can be helpful when I am in the field, as long as I am aware that I do it. In the case of adoption counseling, I tend to make assumptions about the kind of dogs that people will select based on their appearance and race, the way they carry themselves, the way they speak. This is racist, and I believe that the majority of people doing adoption counseling do this, whether they acknowledge it or not. I believe people judge people of their own race and social status, and have witnessed it. Chinese coworkers have "warned" me that Chinese people coming in to adopt will want a German Shepherd to stay outside and be a guard dog, because that's "a cultural thing." I have told coworkers that Spanish speakers often use the word "inside" to mean "inside the yard" as opposed to running loose. Many people who are new to "modern" pet ownership don't know what declawing is, and only know that their parents did it. I don't think that my peer's biases are questioned very often. I try to acknowledge to myself that I have these biases each time they arise, and put them aside, as each person is an individual. When collecting trash, it has to be picked up, no matter what. It's ok to make assumptions and then throw the trash away, as long as the assumptions don't bleed into your daily life and become toxic. When dealing with people, you have to make adjustments.

When I'm in the field, I often find myself spontaneously guessing where a call will be, or who I will be dealing with. I question myself when I do this, even though my guesses are often accurate. For example, even though cock fighting nation-wide is associated with all races, in my jurisdiction, it's almost universally associated with Hispanics. Even further, 90% of the cock fighting takes place in a certain segment of the city. At one point, I was dealing with so many cockfighters that when I would see rooster "lawn art," I would assume that the residents were Hispanic and further, that they were associated with cockfighting. This is like one of those Venn Diagrams, and it's a falsehood. I was making an unfair leap, like the trash collector. Most cockfighters in my jurisdiction are Hispanics, but most Hispanics are definitively NOT cockfighters, and many people appreciate roosters and are not cockfighters nor Hispanic.

Calls about chained up dogs are the same way- people across all races still chain up their dogs, even though it's been illegal in California for several years. People of all races have pit bulls (including me). People of all races chain up their pit bulls. When I pull up to a house where I've received a call about a chained up pit bull, sometimes I find myself guessing what I will be dealing with. Generally, the most useful assessment is about economic status. Very few people who chain their pit bulls are wealthy, and I've talked about this before. My theory about this is partially about social status as well as economic status. With economic status comes education, and the more educated you are, the more likely you are to know your local laws. Many people I deal with really don't know that tethering is illegal. They also don't have access to the internet to learn this, or even any other resource to become educated on changes in the law that affect them as animal owners. In my jurisdiction, again, this kind of educational and economic poverty tends to land in certain areas in the city. Sure, there are other reasons why people have pit bulls, and why people chain up pit bulls (one of the main ones is inadequate fencing. This can be because of the nature of the yard or because of money, again. The landlord isn't going to fix the yard, and many people lack the money to fix the fence). When I see a call, or even the actual chained up pit bull, I make assessments based on the neighborhood, the house, the fence, and the dog owner, often in that order.

I am not making judgements, on myself, or on the reader, if you're also assessing yourself and your assessments. I'm acknowledging that I do this, that it happens. I'm trying to move forward. Sometimes my assessments are accurate, but that doesn't mean that I should let them stop me from assessing each situation and each person as an individual. Generalizations don't serve anyone well.

How do you preconceive situations? What are your markers? What kind of neighborhood do you think I live in (if you don't know me)? What do you think of my neighborhood if you DO know me? What are the kinds of things you use, useful or not, to pre-judge? How do you catch yourself? Do you find these pre-judgements useful?

The Year of the Bug: The Dwarf and the Sofafree

This is NOT a 52 Weeks of Sofafree project, but I have a hard time resisting a good sofafree.

3/52: The Sofa and the Dwarf

Friday, January 14, 2011

Year of the Bug

The sofafree theme continues.

2/52: part of mac, part of sofafree

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Responsibility and Failure

I've been thinking a lot about one of the main phrases of dog training/management that I believe in and preach: "set your dog up for success." It is kind of a universal one that applies from simple things like potty training- dog owners can use a crate to prevent un-trained dogs from having access to areas that they might pee in to help potty train- to more complicated behavioral issues- working under threshold allows dogs to build up tolerance/confidence and overcome their issues at their own pace. It also applies in general dog ownership, and is part of responsible ownership. I hear a lot of excuses that involve blaming some other human or blaming the dog, and it results in the dog failing. Really, it's the humans failing the dogs, but the dogs are the ones that suffer. Sure, the human suffers- they might lose their dog or have to pay fees, but at the end of the day, the dog suffers.

One of the criticisms leveled at animal shelters by No-Kill advocates is that they are too quick to blame animal owners for needless killing. There is, they argue, no pet overpopulation problem. There are homes for all the companion animals, and shelters are responsible for killing them. "Excess" animals are a myth.

This may be, but I'd like to qualify "homes" for companion animals as "responsible" homes, ones that will set their pets up for success. I can already here the arguments, and I'm not going to address them right now. There are a couple: one is that you can't assume a home is a bad home, people deserve the benefit of the doubt. Another is that a home is better than a shelter, or a death sentence. Another is that shelters and animal welfare people in general bear the onus of educating pet owners. I agree with some of this. My issue is that animals are the ones who get the short end of the irresponsible owners, and they DO end up in shelters, and they DO end up being euthanized. No-Kill believer or not, it's not ok to pass the buck off the pet owner and onto the animal shelter.

Some examples that have been bugging me lately. A few months ago, some people left their dogs with some other people. There was an incident between the dogs, resulting in dead dogs. The visiting dogs were impounded due to the the owners of the property calling the police. The dog visiting dog owners knew where their dogs were from the day they were impounded. They did not come in to see their dogs or to ask about reclaiming them. They did not come in until I called them over a week later. One dog owner came in promptly after I gave her instructions. She paid the fees, found an alternative housing situation for her dog, and redeemed her dog a few days later. The other dog was still sitting a month later. The owner never came to visit his dog and was never proactive about coming in or even calling to see about reclaiming his dog. When he was called about redeeming it, he acted like redeeming the dog was a priority, but would fail to come in and meet his deadline. The dog paid the price for the man's irresponsible actions: leaving his dog in an inappropriate place and then failing to get him out of the shelter when given ample opportunity. He did not set his dog up for success.

Another thing that comes up frequently is dog owners threatening, or actually acting on, to surrender their dogs rather than correct a licensing fix-it ticket. We are required to issue these tickets when we're at any kind of call and the dog owner does not have a city required dog license. Say what you will about dog licensing, but it's a pretty basic thing: it proves to the city that you own your dog, that he's current on rabies vaccinations, and where I live, that he has a microchip. Where I work, it's substantially cheaper to license your dog if he's neutered than if he's intact, but it's not a requirement. When I issue fix-it tickets and the dog is intact, I always explain this and offer locations where the neutering can be done cheaply. The ticket gives ample time to get the dog neutered prior to fixing the ticket. I have had people practically throw the dog at me in the field because they either don't want a fix-it ticket, or don't want to license their dog. Many people surrender their dog in the shelter because they have waited well over the limit for fixing the ticket and now don't have to money to pay BOTH the license fee and the fee that was assessed for not getting a minor fix-it infraction ticket fixed. Really. This is basic dog ownership. And it fails the dog, because it ends up putting him into the system. I don't think we should stop requiring dog licenses.

Then there's the dogs that get out frequently. Dogs get out, it happens. It doesn't happen because they're bad. It happens because their humans fail to confine them adequately. And when they get out, they do things that dogs do. They might kill cats or injure other dogs, they might snap at people or bite people. I had a man argue with me that his dog who was picked up at a school after snapping and growling at multiple teachers and children would never do such a thing because he was a docile breed. He would not take no for an answer. At least he redeemed his dog. I have had many people surrender their dogs because they will not fix their fences, or because their dogs have killed animals when they get out of their fences, for the second or third time. I do not expect everyone to keep their dog indoors (in my recent post I talked about a dog who lived in a dog run. I didn't like that situation, but it is legal, and what many people consider appropriate for dogs.), but if your dog lives outdoors, I expect him to be appropriately contained. This will be different for each dog, but it needs to be appropriate for your dog. Wrought iron fence, which is the fence of choice both where I live and where I work, may work for a giant dog with a giant head who can neither get through the fence, over the fence, or put his head through the fence to bite anyone. (Note: this is true of exactly 2 dogs in the entire world.) It is not, however, appropriate for the 8 million small dogs running the streets who can and do slip right through wrought iron thereby becoming food for larger dogs, roadkill, ankle-biters, and baby momma's and daddy's all day, every day. Set your dog up for success.

We fail our pets every day. It's so easy, at least it seems to be, to blame other people for our failings:

"Someone stole my dog out of my [unfenced] front yard!" [Or maybe even my fenced yard.]

"They're going to kill my dog! [because he got out and killed a dog and I'm refusing to pay them!]"

"They're going to kill my dog! [because he got out and wasn't licensed so he needs to be neutered, so I'm surrendering him and he's never been socialized and can't be touched.]"

"My puppies all died, WTF?" [I never vaccinated them, or the mom.]"

"My landlord was supposed to fix my fence six years ago. He won't do shit. [and even though my dog has gotten out a bunch of times since then, I didn't buy any plywood for 20 bucks and make a temporary but sturdy fix.]"

etc, etc, etc. I could go on. I believe in people, and I believe in the benefit of the doubt, and I believe in education. I do all of this, daily. I also believe in responsibility, and think it starts with setting our animals and ourselves up for success. A lot of these are quick fixes, that just take a little thinking- what would work best for the dog? How can I keep my dog? How can I keep my dog safe? What do dogs do? What does my dog do? How can I prevent this from becoming a problem, or a situation where he suffers, and I suffer financially, or worse, from losing my pet?

And yes, I was lying awake this morning, thinking about this. The dorkiness continues. More nice photos, later.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Will the Glory Never Cease?

Mac's introduction to the Year of The Bug Made the "Picture of the Day" feature at Oakland Local. The fame keeps rushing in.

While flattered, I was a little disturbed with the title and caption: "Sofa, um, sold" was the title, along with the caption "Looks like he just "finished" the last person who attempted mess with his find."

Sure, it's easy to laugh hardy-har-har when the joke is directed at someone ELSE's pit bull, but that's MY bull they're taunting! And it's easy to say, well, fame is good, right? But in the pit bull world, some people are known to say "no news is good news." I hope I was nice, but clear, with my response:
well, more like he'd like to lick anyone who appreciates the beauty of a fine sofafree.

we appreciate you featuring mac and sofafree on your blog, and appreciate you appreciating that he doesn't eat people :)

(Sidenote: This is part of why Mac wears sweaters so often. How can you dis a dog in pink?!)

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Introducing The Year of the Bug

or The Year of the Bull or The Year of the Monkey (I haven't decided on the final title yet- suggestions appreciated!).

Many people participate in 365 photos a year. For example, see V's new project. J just finished her year in spectacular style with The Stranger Project. This is way too ambitious for me. I know I can't do it. I can barely wake up 365 days a year. I thought about doing it once, with Mac, and got bored after about 4 days. I thought about doing it with an iPhone once, since that seemed doable, but again, too easy to forget.

But someone suggested I do 52 weeks of Mac. This seems doable. I'm sure it won't happen in its entirety, but I'm trying.

So here's the first week- I started with a signature sofafree and Mac. The photo didn't satisfy me, but I failed yesterday and needed to get it done today before the light failed and work started up again tomorrow. The members of the 52 Weeks for Dogs group on flickr are extremely talented, generous and inspiring- with their help, I'm hoping I can do this! And hoping Mac will remember his love for the camera!!

1/52: subject 1 and 2

Monday, January 03, 2011

Results: When We Want Them, How We Get Them, If We Like Them...

The cheer that keeps going through my head about results in animal welfare, especially animal control:

What do we want? RESULTS!

When do we want them? NOW!

How do we want them? OUR WAY!

And, honestly, this isn't exactly unfair- the people who want results from animal control usually want them because they are concerned about the welfare of animals. Can you blame them? Animals can't talk for themselves, and if a person gives a crap enough to call animal control, they've probably been watching a situation deteriorate enough to the point where they're willing to involve the PO-lice, so they're probably at some sort of desperation. It's what happens from there that I've been thinking about, thanks in large part due to some conversations with a friend of mine.

I have to back up a bit, though, because my annoying habit of self-analysis requires me to point out that I wasn't always an animal control officer, and I used to be the person chanting about results, criticizing animal control, and being scared to call, not the person standing up for the men and women in blue. I used to, in fact, as I've mentioned before, be the person yelling "Damn the Man!" So I forget that it's hard for "civilians" to understand "us." And it's not the non-animal-welfare-professional person's job to understand. It's my job to make sure that I understand the need of the person calling in a complaint, and to make sure s/he feels heard, and that I do my best to GET results. I think I'm one of the least intimidating people I know, and I'm actually, when not in my uniform, quite a push-over, but when I remember to be self-aware, know that anyone with any kind of police outfit on is in a position of power. By default, I'm in charge of the situation, and someone coming to me for help may never even have spoken to any type of police officer. If s/he doesn't get results, or doesn't feel heard, s/he is going to resent the uniform even more. It's a failure of The System. I used to understand this and preach on it- now I forget.

So, my friend has been running into a couple of extremely frustrating situations in a different jurisdiction, and because we're long time friends, I bend the "you get one animal control call" rule that I've established to keep work/friendship separate. (Plus, talking to her is different- I can work out philosophical shit like this, and we bounce ideas off each other. Much different than "my neighbor's dog is always shitting in my yard, what do I do?" Oh, that's MY neighbor! Never mind.) I have a better understanding of animal cruelty laws in our state because I deal with them every day, so many of our conversations are playing through various situations of "what if we do this..." and "could the officer in my town do this..." And this is what's been leading me to think a lot about results.

One situation we discussed involved a dog owner who wasn't giving proper treatment to her animals. Both of us agreed that it was a clear violation of California Penal Code 597(b), which reads in part:
whoever, having the charge or custody of any animal, either as owner or otherwise, subjects any animal to needless suffering, or inflicts unnecessary cruelty upon the animal, or in any manner abuses any animal, or fails to provide the animal with proper food, drink, or shelter or protection from the weather, ... is guilty of a crime punishable as a misdemeanor or as a felony
This subsection allows me to do much of my work- get negligent and down-right cruel animal owners to comply with laws that they're violating, and/or allow me to seize animals in shitastic conditions. It's basic: if you own an animal, you have to feed it, water it, provide it shelter from the elements, and provide vet care for it so that there is no needless suffering. Other parts of the penal code require sufficient area for exercise, prohibit chaining dogs, etc.

In this case, the animal owner was failing to provide vet care, and the animals were needlessly suffering. Fortunately for the animal, and unfortunately for my friend who was deciding whether or not to get animal control involved, there was no *visible* suffering. The animal has no open wounds, no severed limbs, lives inside with access to water and shelter, etc. The animals appear healthy and well-cared for except for issues that are not visible to the naked eye. It's similar to calls that I get over the radio of people beating their dogs. When I get there two hours later, even if the people and dogs are still there, there is never evidence of beating, and what person (psychopath or not) is going to say, "Oh, sure, I was hitting him. I do that every Tuesday at noon because I'm an asshole animal abuser"? The result that my friend would have liked is that the animal owner was forced to a) take her animals to the vet and provide veterinary care and b) change her behavior which was making the animals sick. The problem, which I discussed with other coworkers, is that I'm not sure that an animal control officer would have the authority to make her do so. When I arrive at a scene with an alleged complaint of animal cruelty, I need to see something that falls within the confines of the law, as it is laid out by state or local laws. Obvious failure to provide vet care is something like hairloss, open wounds, broken limbs, limping, being underweight, etc. Any kind of internal disease that isn't making the animal visibly suffer is extremely hard to prove. Further, if an animal lives inside and the owner isn't home or doesn't allow me in, I do not have the right to go inside and assess the animal. I can and do ask, but I can't bust in unless I have a warrant. (There was a recent case in LA that said differently, but it's new territory.)

It sucks. My hands are tied. I believe the person who called, like my friend. I know there is an animal suffering, but often what I can do stops at leaving a notice on the door saying that I have received a complaint of failure to provide vet care, and demand that the owner show proof of taking the animal to the vet. If they fail to comply, there is little that I can do. I still can't bust down doors, and unless I have serious evidence, I still can't seize an animal. The result isn't good, for anyone.

I thought of a recent case that I dealt with for weeks. Many neighbors were concerned about the state of a dog who lived outside. The dog had a doghouse, but lived always outside in a dog run. The dog was tied up The neighbors never saw the dog owners walk the dog, and they did hear the owners yell at the dog. The water was often dirty, and the dog liked to play with her food bowl. One time, the bowl was glass, and she broke her bowl, so she was standing in broken glass shards. The dog owners did not pick up after her shit enough. We got called out repeatedly. There was no access to the front door, so we left notices on the gated door. After our first notice, the dog was never tied up again and the feces started being picked up regularly. After the incident with the glass bowl, the bowl was metal. The water bowl turned into a large bucket, and I never saw any dirt, just an occasional leaf. The neighbors were concerned because the food was too close to the dog's shit, but again, the dog liked to play with her food, and even the most fastidious owner couldn't control where the food ended up. The dog barked at her bowl, and did bark when approached, but otherwise was quiet. Multiple neighbors continued to call, and were extremely frustrated with the results that they were getting from us (many officers went out to this call).

I spoke to the direct neighbor at length. She believed she was the only person feeding the dog, though she only had access to the dog through a chain link fence. She never saw anyone feeding the dog, so she believed it wasn't happening. She didn't feel it was humane that the dog wasn't walked. She didn't understand why we hadn't removed the dog. She had a fairly good relationship with the neighbors and had brought toys for the dog to them. I explained why I hadn't provided more satisfying results for her. Dogs in California are allowed to live outside, provided they have access to shelter, which this dog did. The dog kennel was large enough for her, and as soon as the owners had been notified of the tethering law, she was removed from her tether. The water was clean, and one pile of feces is not considered a sanitation issue. (I would be happy if that's what my neighbors left!!) I discussed with her ways to approach her neighbors to see if she could spend time with the dog, or if they would like her to provide food. She wanted me to remove the dog, because she felt the dog was suffering. She felt the dog would be better off at the shelter, but didn't want the dog euthanized. I explained that I couldn't remove the dog, legally, and that the dog might be euthanized at the shelter.

No one liked these results. I wasn't thrilled that the dog was living outside, in a dog run. The dog was in good weight, fed, watered, and had a home. That's not a life that I would want for my dog, but it's a life that falls under "legal." All of the neighbors continue to be upset with the results that animal control has provided. I'm fairly certain the dog owners are upset with animal control and their neighbors for continuing to bother them after they comply with each request. No one is satisfied.

I don't have a good answer. The best I can offer is, if making a complaint, ask to speak to the animal control officer before getting frustrated. Maybe before and after the call gets dispatched. Ask them what happened (we can't always talk about it), and what you can do in the future to help get the results you want. At least in my case, the results I've gotten aren't necessarily the results I want, either. There's laws that have to be followed, though, and policies that I'm bound by. Animals are property- I can't just take them. People have rights that I can't just violate. This also works in the callers' favor: you wouldn't want me to take your animal on an allegation of cruelty. I often use my dog as an example: Mac stays in my room all day long (often up to 12 hours) with no access to food or water. Technically this is cruelty, as he doesn't have access to water. I don't believe that he is treated inhumanely though, as unlimited access to water causes him to vomit, so I have to monitor him. Some people think that this is too long to leave him in a room, just as some people believe crating is cruel. When I am in officer-mode, I have to evaluate individual circumstances. I can't always follow a callers' (or my own) beliefs are. Talk to your officers. Try to put yourself in their shoes, as I try to put myself in my non-officer shoes. Know your local laws, and spit them back at your officers (nicely) if you feel they're not knowledgeable. Ask for a supervisor, if you can't speak to someone directly. And keep calling. The animals deserve it.