Friday, May 30, 2008

Someone Called The Cops On Me!

I returned from dance practice yesterday evening to find my husband getting back from the gym. He told me that the cat had brought in a baby bunny. Before she could harm the baby, Frank separated her from it and left it on the porch, hoping it would hop back home. I went straight to the porch and found there a tiny baby bunny. It was about 2.5 inches long and weighed a couple of ounces. It was sitting right where Frank had left it a couple of hours ago (the cat was locked indoors).

I knew this little thing would not survive without feeding from its mother. So I picked up the wee thing and decided to walk around my community of town homes and see if I couldn't find it a safe bunny hole. I did try to set it down from time to time near where I saw some adult bunnies grazing but no luck. I continued my quest for a secure location with some chance of it finding a bunny mommy. What with coyotes and other predators (like my cat) little bunnies are not safe in the prairies.

A little while later I saw a cop car. The young cop pulled up near me and said, "Ma'am, someone called us to report you." Puzzled, I said, "Yes?" He continued, "A lady called us to report someone in yellow walking the lawns." I said, "And?" He just looked sheepish and embarrassed so I said, "Is it a crime to walk the lawns now?" He laughed and said, "No, I'm sorry." I showed him the bunny and told him that I was looking for a home for it. He said, "Good luck with that ma'am. I'm sorry about this but we have to respond to calls." By this point, I was starting to feel upset and hurt that someone would report me and that a cop would actually come up and talk to me. He was a nice person who tried to be as kind as he could be, but to be approached by the police is still unnerving. I said to him as he was beginning to pull away, "If that lady calls again, would you please tell her that what she did was not right." He said, "Yes ma'am, I shall be calling her back."

I tried to find a bunny hole as quickly as I could since I had begun to shake and feel upset and tearful. See the thing is, I attend Bharatnatyam dance lessons and I was dressed in a bright yellow salwar kameez for it.* I had not even realized that I might have looked different to anyone else as I had passed a few of my neighbors- some familiar and others new- and exchanged pleasantries with everyone on my bunny sojourn. Everyone had been kind and nice. I remember passing under one window where a lady was talking loudly on the phone and I heard the word yellow but I thought it a coincidence and moved away so as not to intrude on her conversation. I hadn't realized that she felt threatened by seeing me walking outside in a yellow outfit.

The time since last evening has given me a little bit of perspective. Talking to some dear friends as well as my husband has helped a little. This is happening in the same time frame as Dunkin Donuts pulling the ad with Rachael Ray wearing a b&w scarf because a right-wing hate-monger says Ray's scarf is somehow glamorizing and condoning middle-eastern terrorism. Puh-leeze!

Yesterday, I would have wanted to say that my brush with the police indicates racism or xenophobia here in America. But now I think that what we have here is plain old intolerance of yellow. Hard-core, foaming-at-the-mouth, the hidden underbelly of a seamy reality- the hatred of yellow. It is not ok to come right out and say you hate this bright and sunny color. But at the same time, when you see it, it makes you angry and you wonder at the inconsideration of the person who walks about happily rubbing your face in all this yellow-ness. I was going to add a picture here with me in the offending outfit but thought better of it. Instead, I have added a jazzier and jeweled version of the salwar kameez I wore yesterday, in seafoam and lavender. If this offends anyone, please write me and I will send you Parker Police's phone number. They should be getting used to receiving calls about the colors I wear and walk about.

[* Bharatnatyam is a form of classical Indian dancing and it is ancient. Kinda like yoga- in fact a lot of mudras are shared and of course, the language of both is Sanskrit. In fact, in India, female yoga practitioner's often wear the outfit I had worn for my dancing.
The bunny pictured is not the exact same one written about here. This one is another victim of my cat's translocation program. The bunny mentioned in this article was safely relocated to a bunny colony near my home.]

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Misplaced Pride?

In my previous blog I wrote about the court-mandated changes in the U.S. currency that should be forthcoming unless the court case drags on or the ruling is overturned. One piece of the news however, was a bit puzzling and perhaps even disturbing. The National Federation of the Blind sided with the U.S. government in this case and said that no changes were needed in the currency. In an interview on NPR, the NFB spokesperson said that this issue is detracting from other more pressing and important issues for the blind. Such as, said he, the blind still have trouble being accepted in the work place and are often seen as not being as competent as a sighted person. He went on to imply that acknowledging that the blind need a change in currency is tantamount to accepting that without "special" arrangements the blind function sub-par. Here is an excerpt from the NFB's website about the ruling:

National Federation of the Blind President, Dr. Marc Maurer, said: “Today’s ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is profoundly misguided and may unintentionally do real harm to blind Americans. Hundreds of thousands of blind people use paper money every day without difficulty. We hope that this ruling will not have the unintended consequence of reinforcing society’s misconception that blind people are unable to function in the world as it currently is. Identifying items by touch (including currency) is convenient, but not essential to blind people being able to participate fully in society. For a court to say that if we cannot identify it by touch, we can't use it is a fiction and a dangerous one. Millions of items that cannot be identified by touch must be managed by the blind in business, industry, and education every day. We are successfully managing all of these endeavors, and the court's ruling challenges our ability to do so without any supporting evidence.

If America really wants to improve opportunities for education and employment of the blind, then it should focus on providing Braille instruction to the 90 percent of blind children who are not getting it, effective training for the 70 percent of blind adults who are unemployed, and books for the approximately 300,000 people who are about to be locked out of the only library for the blind.”

This is a convoluted argument. A person's worth is not judged by how good s/he is at telling change on the world's only currency designed to give this kind of difficulty to its users. The NFB should realize that the change in currency would be less a special accommodation than a step toward equal rights. And fighting for equal rights is not tantamount to an admission of a weakness. It is an acknowledgment of a system skewed against a sub-group within the population.

All the things that Maurer talks about in his second paragraph should still be important and the government should do those too. For Maurer to present it as an either-or scenario is ridiculous. Dr. Maurer's claim that the court ruling challenges the blind person's ability to function in a modern world is a gross misreading of the ruling. The noises coming from the NFB sound a lot like misplaced pride.

[The photograph is from the weblog of Doli Akter, a young blogger in Bangladesh. She wrote a photo essay about being blind in Bangladesh. The photograph shows a young man counting the money handed to him by the cycle riksha wala. If you click on the photo, you will be taken to her weblog.]

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What You See is What You Get

Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a decision by a lower court, made in 2006, which ruled that the U.S. discriminates against blind people by printing money that is indistinguishable by feel. The Treasury Department has been fighting this change for a long time by saying that it shouldn't have to be told how to design money and that the blind have adapted to the greenbacks by asking store clerks to help, using credit cards or by folding bills of different denomination differently...

Considering that the U.S. has an extensive set of guidelines through the Americans with Disabilities Act and through its wide adoption in most public places (such as restaurants and libraries), it is indeed an anachronism that the debate on making the currency more friendly is still happening. I remember having this conversation years ago with Americans as well as with Europeans.

Growing up in India, I never thought about the fact that each note was distinctly colored and of a different size. I never made the mistake of handing out a Rs. 20 bill when I meant to give Rs. 5. The bills ascend in size with denomination. We have done away with the old Rs. 1 and Rs. 2 bills- they are now coins. The Rs. 5 bill is the smallest paper denomination now. The colorful notes make for a pretty riot of color in your wallet.

Moving to the U.S., I found the greenback (and its more recent reincarnation, the somewhat-pinkback) to be all alike. I found myself pulling out the wrong note quite often compared to never before. There have been times when someone has pointed out to me that I had the wrong denomination. I am sure there have been other times when the wrong denomination has slipped out or in unnoticed. The greenback has been designed very conveniently to fit the billfold wallet. You don't have notes of different sizes floating in it. They all stack in nicely. I wondered how convenient it was to have this lovely uniform greenback if you were blind.

One of my dearest friends is blind and has been from a very young age. She is an associate professor of political science at an east coast university. She is completely self-sufficient and owns her own home. I brought up the issue of the currency on one of our many chats. And yes, she has tried to adapt given that she cannot change the currency. But of course, it is an inconvenience as I saw myself when I accompanied her to the store sometimes. Someone has to tell her what a particular note is and then she tries to fold it a certain way and put it in a pocket. I suspect, she loses money sometimes as folded bills also feel like wadded up paper and receipts. But perhaps I am wrong.
Meantime, the Europeans have moved on. Since the introduction of the Euro, this discussion is a non-starter as the Euro not only has distinct colors, it is also sized differently with lower denominations being smaller.

Changing the dollar to make it more distinct for distinct denominations is an idea whose time came a while ago. The U.S. is playing catch up now. Why should a simple change like this not be made when the benefits to a whole section of the population are easily recognizable? Having distinct bills is good for everyone as it reduces denominational errors but it is imperative that this change go through for those of us who shouldn't have to rely on someone else for something so simple as telling change.

[Click on pictures to be taken to website where they were found. The picture of the Rupees is taken by Steve Mullen. Thanks!]

Saturday, May 03, 2008

How Can A Person Be Illegal?

May 1st passes by mostly unnoticed in this country. May Day is The Labor Day. I know, that seems confusing to many in the United States who understand Labor Day to fall in September and think of it as the biggest sale day of the year. The other Labor Day is acknowledged in many parts of the world as celebrating the social and economic achievement of the workers/ labor movement. Some in the US are cognizant of the importance of this day.

In Seattle, this May 1st, the members of the LGBT community (of whom my sister is one) protested the conditions faced in the US by the many workers from other nations, such as, facing unreasonable searches, separation from family, deportation and generally degrading treatment. It takes a group of people fighting for their rights to recognize the anguish of another marginalized group. Till yesterday, I called the many Mexicans and other workers in this country who did not have legal visa status "illegal immigrants." Today I am so ashamed that I have been using this term without thought.

Even though in the past I have written about immigration issues (deaths in custody, benefits of migration & intimidation by ICE), in everyday language, I have been using the term "illegal immigrants" to refer to the many guest workers who fell out of status or those who crossed the border in search of a better life. It is a term much in use by the media, the authorities, politicians and people you meet (like at the gym or the grocery store). So, I never gave it another thought.

But what does it mean for a person to be "illegal"? No person is born illegal. If a person does something that all of us can consider to be illegal- such as murder someone, or steal from someone or hit someone- then they would be a criminal. But despite having committed an illegal act, the person would not have become illegal. It is a strange concept to have people who are illegal. As if they need to be wiped off in order to restore legality. Terms like this dehumanize people and allow us to treat them as if they are criminal or worse. Even if it is the economic situation created by the developed world in the immigrant's nation, that has lead to a centrifugal movement. Even if it is the economic situation in the developed world, which depends on cheap and unsupported labor, that has drawn the itinerant worker across the border.

Immigrants are blamed for a lot and credited with little. We can all probably think of some Americans (and for that matter, Europeans and Australians) today who behave like ignorant bigots mindless of their own ancestors' struggle for basic rights and to better their family fortunes by moving across borders. They say that their ancestors came to this country legally and worked hard for the prosperity they have. However they forget that the story of America's settlement hasn't been pretty in the past. For instance, did you know that from 1882 to WWII, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed by the American congress, withheld citizenship to the Chinese person along with "convicts, lunatics and idiots"? Prior to 1880, the Chinese were allowed in, in droves, to work the most back-breaking jobs at low pay.

Unfortunately, we are not much further along in 2008. The way we treat migrant workers is shameful. These are people driven by the same desire to better themselves that most of us can relate to. Let's look within ourselves to find better solutions for economic problems than demonizing those less fortunate.

[Please click on the bottom photograph to see more pictures from the past and the present at the host website of Ellis Island. This particular picture is from 1892 and shows European immigrants. The top two signs were part of a vile email I received whose purpose was to drum up anti-immigrant hysteria.]

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

A news article from a few years ago reported that on average, American families eat out 18 times in a month. The statistic stunned me. I was thinking oh my, are most Americans rich enough to be able to eat out that often? Another article questioned whether eating out was more expensive than cooking at home. Conventional wisdom from another age and place would suggest that eating out has to be more expensive than cooking at home. Conventional wisdom may not be so wise anymore in this age of fast-food proliferation.

In the United States, people have gotten used to spending only around 10% of our personal disposable income on food. (Even the poorest families pay only a third of their income towards food expenses.) Americans do not have the highest per capita income and yet, when compared with other nations in terms of proportion of per capita expenditure on food, Americans spend the least!* This combined with spending about a third of their income on shelter, leaves the average American family with more than half their spending power still intact. This extra income, after taking care of life's two big essentials, has been important in the spending patterns and developments in consumerism we witness today.

This model of capitalism and consumption doesn't crave quality. It craves a Walmart and McDonald's type mentality which depend on mass production at cheap cost. What's more, this brand of capitalism has now been exported to some of the fastest growing economies of the world. I believe that the way we have been living and feeding ourselves has been neither healthy nor fulfilling.

How is it that you can buy a quarter-pounder at Micky D's for 99¢ when it takes 700 lbs of grain to grow 1 lb of beef? (And let's leave aside McD's outlay on advertising for the 99¢ burger.) Not only do we not question how and where cheap food comes from but we behave like real gluttons eating all that growth-hormone laced, stressed-cow meat. Meat consumption is at the highest point it has ever been in human evolution. We eat not to survive anymore but because cheap food has been easily available. But cheap food is not healthy food. I am not saying that by costing more, food is guaranteed to be of better quality. But good quality food cannot be obtained as cheaply as food has been available in the hypermarkets of America (or for that matter, the world now).

The global rise in food prices is not the worst thing that could happen to us. It is the worst thing that could happen to the world's poor and those who spend most of their income on food. Food is essential to life and good food is essential to good health. If food became a central item in our bills again, perhaps we would learn to appreciate what we put in our bodies and perhaps we could also drum up some compassion for others in dire straits here and across the world. We would learn to live on less and spend less on non-essentials. We would learn that ethanol made from food-grade corn is a poor panacea for our pollution problems. We would learn to use the car less and use public transportation or bicycles more so that we have more money for essentials. We would teach our kids the importance of saving electricity to lower our bills so we could spend them on healthy family outings. Can you see why I think that by paying too little for our food we also value it little?

*In 1994, Americans spent 7.4% of their income on food to be eaten at home whereas, the Canadians spent 10.3% and the British 11.2%. In countries like India, almost 50% of the income went toward food eaten at home.
[click on picture to be taken to site where it was found without attributions.]