Tuesday, February 22, 2005

A pleasant interlude in northern Arizona...

I was just reading Tony Hillerman's latest, Skeleton Man (btw, if you are likely to read the book, don't read the blurb on his web site - in my opinion it's too detailed). It reminded me of a motorcycle trip I did from California to Claremore, Oklahoma, about fifteen years ago. My grandmother lives in Claremore, so this gave me an excuse for a long ride. It was a lovely two-week trek. I think one reason for going on a trek like this is to deliberately put yourself in a situation where stuff will happen to you that isn't what you'd intended - to allow fate an opportunity to broaden your horizons. Afterwards, we call these experiences "adventures."

For me, on this trip, one broadening that occurred was my discovery that once you get out of the confines of civilization, the things you want aren't very readily available. I grew up in a rural location in western Massachusetts, so I'm familiar with being a little way from civilization, but it was only five miles from my house to the nearest gas station, for example, and since we had a house, the lack of a decent motel in town wasn't a problem for me. My first discovery when crossing Nevada was that I could no longer count on the availability of gas - there were stretches of U.S. 50 where the distance between gas stations was nearly the capacity of my tank. Fortunately, I figured this out from reading the map, rather than from running out of gas in the middle of the desert.

On the way home, I discovered another problem: not every town has a place to stay. I was sticking to the back roads, because I like back roads - when you're on a motorcycle, a winding country road is just a lot more pleasant than an interstate, because the journey is the entirety of the experience - you don't have a CD player to listen to, or a traveling companion with whom to chat. I came back through Shiprock, because I wanted to do the tourist thing and stop at the Four Corners. The Four Corners are overrated, but Shiprock is pretty cool, and so are the mesas on the other side of the highway, at least if you go in for that sort of thing, which I do.

I got to Shiprock pretty late in the day, and took a nice back country road that looked good on the map, and was good in reality. The road went through, if I remember correctly, the Navajo reservation. It wasn't any shorter than the main road, but it was inspiringly remote - it had the quality that I figured it would probably get me where I was going, but there was a chance I'd wind up someplace else instead. I ran into another motorcyclist on a beautiful green Kawasaki at a gas station along the way, and he mentioned that he was heading for the Grand Canyon, so as I was continuing west I got the idea to go there too.

There are a few towns along the road there - Kayenta is one, and then Tuba City is another. I got to Kayenta just after dark, and I was pretty tired - I'd come from Durango that morning and stopped in Mesa Verde on the way. So I thought I'd stop at the Holiday Inn, and they had room, but it was $60/night, and that was more than I felt I could afford - I'd been shooting for under $40/night. So I kept on going, thinking that since Tuba City looked like a bigger town, there'd be a cheap hotel there. No dice - I could see any hotels from the highway. Maybe there were some in town, but I was still not aware that I was in trouble, even though I was getting tired and cold, so I kept going.

One other little tidbit contributed to my trouble at this point - I was on a bike, and I was in a hurry to get where I was going, so of course I wasn't looking at the map. I had a pretty good idea of what the map looked like, and where the major towns were on the map, and I figured that Page had to have a hotel. And I knew that U.S. 89 went to Page. What I didn't remember is that U.S. 89 is a weird road - it has two completely separate branches that split off south of the Grand Canyon, and don't reconnect again until you get up into Utah, at Kanab. When I got to the split-off point, I should have stopped and checked my map, but by this time I *really* didn't want to have to turn off my electric vest, so I went left when I should have gone right. I realized that something was wrong, but the signs didn't clue me in, so I wound up turning north on the western loop of 89, thinking that that would get me back in the direction of Page.

There was a partial moon that night. It was very dark, but there was enough light to see the outlines of the land, and to see buildings, without much detail. The land along the road was spookily beautiful - there were what looked like huge heaps of dirt on either side with rounded tops and stripes, and I passed a lovely old barn with a windmill on the left as the road descended toward the canyon. The air was rich with moisture, and I smelled freshly-cut grass of some kind, but couldn't see clearly enough to tell what it was - it just smelled wonderfully of farming.

I kept on riding for what seemed like quite a long time, although on the map it's about ten miles. I finally got to a bridge at a place called Marble Canyon. By this time it was very late, and it was clear to me that I was not on the road to Page, and that if I turned around and tried for Page it was going to take a really long time to get there, and I figured it would be better to press on (I still hadn't looked at the map at this point, by the way). But when I crossed the bridge, there was a motel on the right. It didn't look like much from the outside, but beggars can't be choosers, and the light was still on, so I stopped.

It turned out that it was really very nice inside, but still I figured that since we were out there in the middle of nowhere, it wouldn't be too bad. When I asked, the price was, if I remember correctly, $55. I was really disappointed - I didn't feel I could afford it, so I glumly said thanks and started to leave. The person behind the counter stopped me, and said he (I think it was a man - it's been a long time) would let me have it for half price because it was so late. I was grateful in that "oh boy, I got a bargain" kind of way.

Why does this come back to me just now? The Tony Hillerman book I was reading touches on a number of Native American tribes down there - the Hopis, the Navajos, the Havasupai, the Hualapai (apologies if I missed any or got the names wrong). I'm pretty sure the owners of the establishment were Native Americans. I finished the Tony Hillerman book just before bed, and then I have some nighttime practices I do before I go to sleep, to try to work on my intention for how I want to be. After doing these practices, I turned off the light to go to sleep, and suddenly this whole incident flashed back into my mind.

At the time, I was certainly grateful to have a comfortable place to sleep that night. I thought I'd scored a minor coup by getting the room for half price. Looking back on it, it occurs to me that the reason I got the room for half price was because the man behind the counter knew that if I got back on the motorcycle, at nearly midnight, I was going to have to do about a hundred miles of straightaways and grueling switchbacks, followed by a long trek across the Kaibab Plateau, where there would be no place to stay. By the time I got to Zion, I was going to be too late for any motels there, and it was going to be difficult to find camping in the dark, even if there were spaces available. And I was going to freeze my butt off.

And he didn't want me to have to go through that. Maybe I would have been okay, maybe I would have gone off the edge of one of the steep dropoffs on that section of highway 89. I don't know. He probably didn't know either. Here I am, as caucasian as they come, child of his grandfather's oppressors. I have a nice credit card, a nice motorcycle, I could totally have afforded the $55, but I was too damned stubborn to go for it, and I was going to make myself suffer to avoid paying it, so he took responsibility for my happiness and let me stay for half price.

There was nothing even remotely fair about this transaction. It was a good person deciding that kindness was better than fairness. I didn't really appreciate what he did at the time - to me it was just a case of hard bargaining winning out. It may be that the reason I'm here to write this today is because that man decided to be kind to me. I don't know his name, I don't remember what he looked like, I don't know if he even still lives at Marble Canyon. I think it's highly unlikely that he'll ever read this. I have no way to pay him back, except to tell this story.

Friday, February 18, 2005

The golden rule...

The problem with the golden rule is this. We don't have any control over the effect of what we do. Let me illustrate:

Today I was walking to the library to pick up a new book by a favorite author of mine, G.M. Ford. On the way I found myself hopping up into the air to avoid something moving on the sidewalk, which turned out to be a little Arizona lizard. Dunno what they're called, but they're everywhere when it gets warm here.

Anyway, I don't like killing critters, so here I am up in the air, both feet off the ground, milliseconds from landing, and the damned lizard is scampering around trying to avoid me, so I don't know where to put my feet to avoid squashing him. So I try. And I miss him (or her - lizards are coy about secondary sexual characteristics). But here's the thing - I had no idea when I did what I did to try to avoid him whether he was going to be where I predicted he was going to be - come on, how could I? I had way less than a second to react, and nerve impulses just don't travel that fast, plus I really have no reflexive knowledge of how lizards move, and things were happening too quickly for my reaction to be much beyond an avoidance reflex - you know, "eek, don't want to step on that, *zoom*."

The fact is that the vast majority of all the actions we undertake in life are just like that. We have some kind of illusion of control, because we have time to react, but we don't really have control. I don't know whether the carefully-crafted response I make to an email requesting help is going to elicit a happy response, an angry response, or no response at all. I don't know if, when I hand a dollar to a guy on the street who asks for it, he's going to spend it on a sandwich or a bottle of thunderbird.

But I feel good about trying not to step on the lizard. I think it was the right thing to do. I think that in general it's safe to say that any action I undertake with the intention of avoiding causing harm is an action worth taking. Anytime I stop myself from doing something because I am afraid it will visit harm on someone, that's worth doing too. I won't always notice that something I want to do is going to cause harm, and I won't always succeed when I try to avoid causing harm, but it's worth trying.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

A little less abstract...

Why do I care about fairness? I'll give you two examples. The first is a good friend of mine, whom I have know for almost exactly half my life at this point. She is a really well-intentioned person, with a strong sense of fairness. I have seen her, over and over again, get screwed by people who also have a strong sense of fairness - they use her sense of fairness against her, to get what is fair from her rather than doing what is right under the circumstances. As a result of this, she's in a very bad situation right one, one about which I feel helpless to do anything. What was fair in this case? Her former sweetie decided it was fair to take half of everything she had when he left. Was it right? It doesn't look that way to me, but who am I to judge?

Another example of fairness in action. The way that Native Americans have been treated is incredibly unfair. At every turn, the U.S. government has broken its agreements with various Native American people. So I was reading Will Shetterly's blog and somehow wandered from there to an interview with a Native American activist carrying a gun. This activist was saying in his interview that simply by being a citizen of the United States, and by not actively resisting what the U.S. government is doing to other peoples with as much force as is required to stop them, I am as guilty of bringing harm to those peoples as if I was personally putting them to the gun.

If you believe in fairness, both the activist of whom I speak, and the ex-boyfriend of whom I speak are in the right. What the U.S. did to the Native Americans was unfair. What we are doing now in various parts of the world is unfair. So if fairness is a real thing, I should stop typing right now, go find an AK-47, and try to create a fair world. You see the problem with this idea of fairness? Any fool can see that getting an AK-47 and using it isn't going to create a fair world. But because we enshrine this idea of fairness, angry young men with AK-47s go out and try to create fairness with depressing regularity.

The result is a lot of dead people, and even less fairness than would otherwise have been present, because now we are bearing the cost of dealing with the damage the angry young men do, and the damage the people they are trying to force to behave differently (usually governments) do in resisting them.

Being a bastard.

So if you reject the idea of fairness, one natural reaction would be to just become a total bastard. If nothing is really fair, why not just get what I want? Some people live that way. They don't look very happy to me.

Then there's another response. Okay, I'll just do unto others what I would want them to do unto me. There are a couple of problems with this. The first is that we don't really have the power to do unto everyone as we would like them to do unto us. The second is that frequently what someone else wants isn't what I want. Why should it be different when reversed? So someone else might think that I would really appreciate it if they'd wash my dishes, for example, because they would appreciate it, but they don't realize what an anal-retentive pain in the neck I am, and that when they wash my dishes, badly, it isn't going to make me happy.

Another response might be to just not care about fairness. Don't go out of your way to be nice, and don't go out of your way to be an asshole either. This is kind of isolating. Again, it doesn't seem like a recipe for happiness.

What is fairness?

This is going to be a very self-indulgent, pompous entry, because it's the first, so bear with me. For some reason I've been wanting to start a blog entitled "unfairness" for a while. Why? In our culture, we have an idea of fairness. The idea is difficult to explain; we all know what we think we mean by it, but I think different people frequently take widely divergent meanings for the word. And I think that our belief in the idea of fairness is frequently used against us. I also think we frequently use the notion of a "fair deal" as a way to justify undertaking an action we might otherwise find morally repugnant. You know the rationalization: "yeah, I really hate to do this to you, but fair's fair." "I'm just trying to come up with a fair compromise." It's a statement that's frustrating because it's hard to answer.

The fact is that the only real application for the word fairness that I know of is the happy situation where two or more people engage in some kind of exchange, and at the end of the exchange both parties to it are happy with the outcome. This does happen in real life, and it's nice. But it isn't a thing that can be constructed - it's a quality that a thing that has happened might have. When two people, of their own free will, try to construct a fair exchange out of a feeling of wanting to benefit the other party, it can go nicely. But the idea of creating a social construct called fairness seems doomed to me.

So the point of this blog is to talk about what to do instead.