The Socioeconomics of Snow Days

Snowzilla, the Miller B-type storm that clobbered the Mid-Atlantic in late January, caused schools in my county to close for a week. That shouldn't have surprised anyone who has experienced more than one severe weather event in this area. In 2010, our kids had what amounted to a second winter break, with the HCPSS offering more or less the same reasons: it takes time to clear out the parking lots, lingering ice endangers children at bus stops, and students in rural parts of the county have to trudge a long way to school.

It shouldn't be a surprise, either, that frustrated working parents began to kvetch. During the aftermath of any snow event, there's a period of time during which everyone agrees that the schools should be closed. Then, as the driveways get dug out and the roads cleared, dissension begins to manifest. This started to happen around Wednesday. By Friday -- seven days after the onset of the storm -- the irritation index was high. Some took to the school system's Facebook page, only to be punched back by defenders of the closures.

 "Not all of us 1) stay at home, 2) have relatives who can help out or 3) work [that] allows us to have make-shift take your child to work day," wrote one parent, Renee Kamen. "Not all of the residents in HoCo are privileged and [able to] just take off of work and it shouldn't be the assumption." 

The opposing camp fired back, piling on the indignation. Schools are not daycare centers. The HCPSS knows whether it's safe out there, and you don't. There's still ice on the roads, dammit -- a kid could slip and fall. Don't you care about safety? What kind of parent are you, anyway?

The attempted emotional blackmail didn't faze Shannon Drury, another closure skeptic. "If we are going to wait to send students back to school until we can be guaranteed no child will be injured, we will never be sending students back to school," she pointed out.

Things took a creepy, passive-aggressive turn when some posters hinted at a wish for the children of school-criticizing parents to suffer accidents, so that these misguided folk would see the light.

I side with the misguided, personally -- if only because the other set is piling on the sanctimony and dishonesty, dismissing valid concerns, and refusing to see that this debate is about socioeconomic privilege. For the record, the extended closures are not a big problem for my family. It's good to see the kids out of doors and offline. My wife and I both do work that can be done at home, and we work for employers that make reasonable accommodations. We're lucky.

We know people who are even luckier, like a former neighbor -- a civil servant -- who is only required to be physically present at his office a few times a month. Pretty sweet deal, I say.

For some, snow days are no worry at all. They're an opportunity for hot chocolate, family memories and Facebook photo ops.

But what if you work in retail? What if you're at a company that regularly threatens its workers with layoffs? What if your work isn't transportable, and an unplanned week off the job leads to missed deadlines? What if your employer is stingy about general leave? What if you used it up already on doctor's appointments or school system "professional work days"?

Flexibility, in our society, is a perk. Just as some people work at organizations that offer excellent health care coverage, an on-site gym, or subsidized classes, some people also get the right not to feel anxious about snow days. Unfortunately, when we don't feel anxious about something, we often lose the capacity to understand others' anxiety. I see a lot of that going on in the Facebook comments.

If extended school closures aren't a headache for you, it probably means you're a stay-at-home parent, married to a stay-at-home parent, or employed at a job that lets you take leave on short notice or allows you to work at home.

And if you're snide and dismissive when someone speaks up on behalf of the less privileged, it's not because you're taking a brave stand on behalf of child safety.

You're just gloating.





Ulysses With Smartphone

For more than a quarter century, Joyce's Ulysses has been at or near the top of my literary bucket list.

I gave it a half-hearted shot during a hitchhike across Ireland during my twenties. Inspired by seeing the Martello Tower -- the outside of it, at least; the Joyce Museum was closed -- I managed about five or six pages. The tome mostly served to add extra weight to the backpack.

Over the last couple years, I've felt that maybe I'm now focused enough to succeed where my younger self failed. (My younger self was more interested in crawling Irish pubs). Also, my brother-in-law read it and has spoken to me on several occasions of his love for this book.  And he isn't even a current or former English major. I have a graduate degree in English but have not read Ulysses, one of the defining literary works of the modern era. There's less Someday available than there used to be. It's time.

In late May, I bought a copy of the Vintage paperback edition and set a goal of 10 pages a day, which I've been able to keep (and sometimes exceed). So far, it's lived up to its reputation for being worth the trouble: it has the linguistic virtuosity that I love in Shakespeare, and the eye for human ridiculousness that I love in Monty Python. It's by turns earthy, cerebral, satirical and compassionate; high points for me include the "Hades" episode, which details Leopold Bloom's journey to the funeral of one Paddy Dingnam, and the "Wandering Rocks" episode, a tour-de-force involving multiple points of view.

And yes, it's difficult -- although it presents varying kinds of difficulty. Often it's a matter of Joyce's methodology; he ditches a lot of conventional narrative glue in favor of jump-cuts, sudden shifts between interior monologue and exterior happening, free-associating banter among the characters, and so on. This requires more attention of me as a reader. In return for that closer attention, there's a sense of immediacy and direct access to the characters' experience of the world.

Another kind of difficulty in Ulysses arises from references and allusions, of which there are many -- particularly in the episodes centered on Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's fictional alter ego. If someone were to conduct a survey of readers who gave up on Ulysses, I wouldn't be surprised if the majority said they threw in the towel somewhere around page 36 or 37. This is the "Proteus" episode, which follows Stephen's trains of thought as he walks along Sandymount Strand. It's one philosophical, literary, cultural or political allusion after another, and making any sense out of the episode depends on understanding these allusions.  Without being a Jesuit-educated, early 20th-century Irish intellectual, that's not so likely.

UlyssesLuckily, we have Google. And not only do we have Google, we have browser-equipped smartphones.  For me, then, the experience of reading Ulysses has often involved alternating between a bulky, printed book and a considerably lighter electronic device that serves as a dictionary/encyclopedia/study guide. Thanks to mobile technology, I now know that Mananaan is the Irish god of the sea, and that some accounts have the Virgin Mary claiming she was impregnated by a pigeon.

Google's also a help in navigating the novel's vocabulary, which includes numerous visitors from the hinterlands of English. Do you own a gamp?  Are those birds over there rufous? How does one learn to walk in chopines? Not knowing these words makes me feel like a bosthoon

Sometimes I get the sense that Joyce had in mind an ideal reader, one who understands Irish history, Catholic theology, Greek and Gaelic mythologies, and the landmarks of Dublin well enough to get all the references.  With Google at hand, I can be that reader.

Tweenhood With Zombies

During my late childhood and tween years I often puzzled over a difficult Question. It was an especially perplexing one because I couldn't figure out how to articulate it correctly. I'm aware now that this hard-to-define Question was actually a combination of questions, and that the central one had to do with what philosophers of mind term qualia.

If I'd had the right terminology at hand, I might have asked: why is there a sense of subjective, conscious experience?  And why do have such a sense; why is it something that is instantiated in the form of an Self? Does everyone else have it too? This third question bothered me especially. It's difficult to prove that anyone else is having a subjective experience, because such experience is, well, subjective. Making statements about it requires knowledge of what's going on inside another person's head.

And even observing the contents of someone's head isn't enough: one could subject another person to an MRI and still be unable to detect whether any qualia were happening in there.

What if I'd been born into a world of zombies? Or suppose this was a world that is partly inhabited by zombies, and partly inhabited by sentient beings who experience qualia? How could we distinguish one from the other? There seems to be no way to logically rule out the possibility that zombies are moving among us. Indeed, a now-famous thought experiment by David Chalmers invites us to conceive of zombie twin: "someone or something physically identical to me (or to any the conscious being, but lacking conscious experiences altogether."

The creature is molecule for molecule identical to me, and identical in all the low-level properties postulated by a completed physics, but he lacks conscious experience entirely....he will be awake, able to report the contents of his internal states, able to focus attention in various places, and so on. It's just that none of this functioning will be accompanied by any real conscious experience. There will be no phenomenal feel. There is nothing it is like to be a zombie. (The Conscious Mind, 94-95)

Chalmers's purpose wasn't to suggest the existence of a zombie population, but to show the difficulty of explaining qualia in physical terms. If we can conceive of a zombie world, though, what's to prevent our actual world from being populated, to some degree, by zombies? How can we know?

Empathy is one way of establishing the reality of other people's subjective experience; humans generally have the capacity to "understand another person's condition from their perspective," to use Psychology Today's definition of the term. The possibility of zombies probably bothered me more at a younger age because younger people are still building their capacity for empathy, some more quickly than others (I was a slow learner). Very small children don't have the capacity at all; they are unabashedly narcissistic.

It's true that empathy is not always reliable; some people know how to fake and manipulate. In theory, a robot could mimic human body language, facial expressions, and vocal inflections so closely that we'd begin to empathize with it. We sometimes respond to the wrong cues: a dolphin, for example, is not really smiling. Its jaws are just shaped that way.

All that aside, though, empathy is reliable at least some of the time. That gives us enough to work with. We can recognize what others are going through; we can relate their experiences to ours. And empathy is not merely a process by which psychological functions in one person trigger a psychological response in another; a non-empathetic psychopath is capable of responding in this way. Rather, empathy involves the recognition that others are conscious beings. We can infer that not only are they having experiences, but that they have the experience of subjectivity -- we're all pinging the network: "here I am, here I am."

Another clue to the prevalence of qualia is the fact that people have philosophical discussions about the topic. If they weren't common to humans, we would have no reason to engage in such conversations. It would be like having late night talks on the subject of zzkvgt or brgrwatsq. (That can happen, after enough booze).

So, for  me, the clincher is that the question has been defined and asked. It means others have wondered about it, intensely enough to figure out how to express it precisely. Whatever qualia actually are -- epiphenomena of the brain, the result of "psychophysical laws," or some kind of non-material property -- we can be sure others have them. Most of us, anyhow. I think.