Monday, June 30, 2014


It drives me crazy when my children make bad choices. They're all grown now, so I don't get to choose for them, but still I think I know best. I'm probably wrong about that--they certainly think so--but it doesn't keep me from cringing when they go off in some direction that I think won't be good for them. Even though I raised them to be independent thinkers, what I think I really had in mind was independent from the idiots out there, not from me. I'd steer them straight if I could, but alas...

So it was with some sympathy that I considered Hobby Lobby's position that their metaphorical children--the employees of their closely held family business, which they founded on Christian values--should be made to do what the business owners, the metaphorical parents, felt they should do. And not just at work, but in their private lives as well. In their most private lives. (I note here that except for advising that tenderness is generally the best foreplay, I have at least stayed out of my children's bedrooms.) 

Hobby Lobby just wants for its employees what I want for my children, that is that they do what Dad, or the boss, thinks is best for them. The difference between us is that I realize I am wrong to want that, and Hobby Lobby does not. Indeed, the Hobby Lobby owners have worked themselves up into a good old fashioned stem-winding religious frenzy about the matter, saying that if they are forced to offer a health plan that pays for contraception, even if they don't foot the bill for it, they are being made to violate their religious beliefs. 

Since the ACA does not require Hobby Lobby to force-feed contraceptives to its employees, nor impose any requirement that any employee ever use any kind of contraception unless he or she wants to, the Hobby Lobby complaint must be seen, simply and nakedly, for what it is: the company owners don't want their employees going against the owners' religious beliefs. Regardless of the employee's individual religious beliefs on the subject, if any, the owners mean to make certain forms of contraception more difficult to choose by forcing their employees to pay for them out of their own pockets.

This is the same trick I tried when I used to tell my children that if they wanted to do something I didn't want them to do I wasn't going to pay for it. In the days when both their allowances and their independent financing alternatives were small, this was pretty effective. I'm not completely sure it prevented the behavior I wanted to discourage (does a parent ever really know what his children are doing?), but I do know one thing it did: it made them resent me, at least for that time and that issue. That kind of resentment builds up. Like steam. Eventually the lid blows off.

We don't like being told what to do. Hobby Lobby doesn't like being told its health plan has to include contraception coverage, even at no cost to it. And I expect none of its employees, no matter how devout, want the boss in the bedroom.

Religious freedom means not being persecuted for what you believe. It means being able to worship when and how you want. Those are the freedoms we sailed across the Atlantic in tiny wooden ships to secure. It does not, almost by definition, mean the right to tell others that they must conduct their lives in accordance with your religious beliefs. Indeed, if they are to be free to practice their own religion, or none at all, it cannot mean that.

I will spare you the legal analysis. The conservative block of the current Supreme Court is, it sufficeth to say, not actually that great at legal analysis: see, eg, campaign finance, gun ownership, voting rights, and now this case. We will be saved from them in time. Hopefully we will not have to wait for that other life in heaven they talk about. If so, maybe I'll have to start going to Hobby Lobby's church.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

In the Window

The first place the tour guide took us on our walk about Amsterdam was the red-light district. We turned a corner, and Voila! Women in windows. Scantily clad women in windows. Like watches or purses, except that I never felt self-conscious staring at a display of watches.

Prostitution is legal here. You know that. I knew that. Still, it's a little shocking--I don't have a better word for it--to pass these little four-foot wide window perches with women sitting or standing there leaving no doubt about why. Pot is legal here too. Actually, it's not; just no one, including the police, cares. 

So what about that? Let's start with pot. I guess its fine. I confess to not having too strong a feeling either way. I don't think getting stoned regularly is the gateway to a productive life. But then neither is getting drunk regularly. So, I don't know. Whatever.

But prostitution bothers me. It's between consenting adults, and all that, so why should I care? Even the state doesn't care. It makes money (taxes) on it. But it's not the way I like to think about women, and more importantly, I don't think its the way they ought to think about themselves.

Prostitution, even if legal, perpetuates the stereotype of women as sex objects. A sex object is different from a sexual partner. Sexual partners are the inspiration for sonnets. Sex objects are the inspiration for scorn.

We don't need to be looking at women as fucks for sale. Something that can be bought, even a woman's body for fifteen minutes, is no different than anything else that can be bought. It is not your equal. It is your possession. It is yours to do with as you please. Without any responsibility on your part for its over-all well being, never mind its humanity. It's yours to buy and use and toss aside. 

That's what slaves in America were. That's what too many women in too many parts of the world still are. We men need to take a stand against looking at women that way. Until we stop seeing them as our disposable sex toys, we cannot truly see them as our equals.

Scammers of the Seine

You won't do this on the first day you're in Paris, or the second or third, or maybe even the first week. There are museums and towers and jardins to see, and bridges over the Seine at night. And baguettes to eat and wine to drink. So much beauty, such good bread and wine. But after a while, when Paris has settled into you, and you to it, I recommend this diversion. Meg and I call it spot the scam.

Go to one of the pedestrian bridges over the Seine, where we all go with our lovers to gaze upon the light on the river, and watch the hustlers work. There are many scams in Paris, but on the bridges, the "gold ring" seems to be a favorite. It's fascinating, really, to watch the women who do it. They sit on the benches looking bored and talk to one another and every once in a while one of them gets up and trolls for a mark. She (always a woman) bends down in front of some prosperous looking person and pretends to find a gold ring. "Is this yours?" she asks sincerely, with a hint of longing. After a time we identified at least a half dozen women and girls, of three generations, languidly working together, chatting up the sellers of paintings and love locks between forays. Theirs was obviously a family business. One of them seemed to handle the money. What we didn't know was how they got it. What the scam was. 

So we watched. Maybe it's a pickpocket diversion, we speculated. One gets the mark focused on the ring while her accomplice lifts a wallet. We watched for a long while, but we couldn't see anything dramatic happening. One of them came toward us. "Look out over the river, like we are absorbed in one another," I said to Meg. Sure enough, the girl produced a gold ring from the ground at our feet and asked if it was ours. About the same time, one of the guys who we had seen being friendly with the women passed behind us. We guessed that if we had stood up he would have magically looted us.

It turns out--thank you, Youtube and Wikipedia--that the scam is more prosaic: if you hesitate when asked, she will say you should take the ring, that her religion forbids her to wear jewelry. When you reluctantly accept, she will tell you she is poor and could use some money for food, for her sister, for whatever. You, already feeling guilty for keeping the ring, fork over a few Euros for a worthless piece of brass.

Another group you see on the bridges and at the Tuileries are the petition girls. "Do you speak English?" they ask, looking earnest and pitiful all at once. Say "Non," if you are wise. A "yes, gets you several of them swarming around you, asking you to sign for freedom for sex slaves. They brush you with the tenderness of a bird's wings as they pursue the freedom they are actually seeking, which is of your wallet from the bondage of your pocket. Pickpockets are legendary in Paris. If you go to the Eiffel Tower, as you're packed in the line or on the elevator like Pringles in a can, you will hear the recorded warning, "Pickpockets are active in the tower." They play it instead of muzak.

Pickpockets practice a vulgar art, though. They may be agile and light-fingered, but they don't play on our own cupidity. The gold ring girls are running a low-level con. When one of the younger ones returns to the bench where a much older woman waits, you can almost here her asking, "Grandma, when are you going to teach me to play the big con?" Newman and Redford would approve.

On the way back to our apartment, just below our third-floor window, we came upon a small crowd gathered around a man squatting over the shell game. He was using shallow wooden boxes, about the size of matchboxes, and a bright white pea. His hands were fast, but he tipped the boxes back slightly when he moved them so that often I could see where the pea was, as could anyone watching carefully. Those in the crowd held out their Euros and guessed where the pea was. Sometimes they were right, sometimes wrong. If you watched long enough, you began to realize that many in the crowd, men and women, were his confederates. 

They were also excellent actors, feigning enthusiasm, nervousness, joy and disappointment. Every once in a while a live prospect walked up. The pea man often let him pick without betting, and when he got it right, one of his peeps would say excitedly, "You've won." She might even offer to lend a reluctant mark money to try her hand. The ultimate result is pretty much what happens to most of us in Vegas, or when we buy lottery tickets. The way the shell man keeps the odds in his favor is by, at critical moments, simply palming the pea. He's good. You never see it. 

But he and his pals see everything. I had my camera phone out, down by my side, and I snapped a few pictures, inconspicuously, I thought. Apparently not, as I drew a finger wagging reproach from one of the helpers. A short time later, Meg photographed them out the window of our apartment. They saw her too, and her long lens broke up the game. As he walked off, the maestro looked up at me. I was standing back in the room, thinking about something else, but somehow his gaze compelled me to look toward him He pointed at me in a way every man understands: this is a game for players, not rats; surely I kew what happened to rats.

I have to admit, I kind of like cons. Harold Hill was always one of my favorites. The best ones   leave you never knowing you were conned. The hustler makes a living and you don't get hurt, or at least you don't know it, not right away anyway. It's so much more civilized than sticking a gun in someone's face and scaring the hell out of them. 

Like Ponzi schemers, the gold-ring and shell-game scammers along the Seine are just looking for an edge, and depending on the greed of others to give it to them. Whom do we have to blame for that? A con artist has no chance except with someone looking to get a little something for nothing.