Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dead bats and feminism

My project for today was fixing the ductwork for our bathroom ventilation fan. As I posted last week, our original "good enough" installation resulted in a dead bat inside the fan housing.

I thought I was prepared and had everything in the attic I needed to complete the job. But I kept making minimal progress before having to climb out the access hatch and wander around the house looking for tools. I didn't know where any of the tools were, because I think of them as "my husband's tools," and therefore not my responsibility.

During one of these expeditions, a recruiter calls me. Good, I think, another person helping to end my unemployment. "Well," he says, "the job I'm looking at doesn't accept women."

All tools finally collected, I really get down to work in the attic. And discover that self-tapping sheet metal screws require significant assistance to "self-tap." I kept having to take breaks to pant. I wished a man were there to do that part for me.

Near the end of the project, to let me work at a more comfortable angle, I detached the ductwork from the fan. Inside were four dead bats, furry and dessicated-looking. I pondered them for a while. Slowly, it dawned on me that they would have been unable to escape from the vertical portion. It was too small for them to fly out of. It was too large for them to chimney up, and of course too smooth for their claws to get any purchase. Becoming trapped while exploring the ductwork, they must have died of thirst inside it.

With that grim image in my mind, I descended from the attic once more, taking the duct with the bats down with me. I "buried" them in my compost pile, then finished the work that would save future bats from sharing their fate.

Later, I went to my radiation treatment. The techs asked what I had done that day, and I told them I'd fixed the exhaust ducting for my bathroom fan, and found dead bats during my work. "Wow, you must be really handy!" said one woman. The other woman expressed fear of creatures in her attic and commented, "I think my home inspector took pictures of my attic. That's the closest I'll ever get to going inside it!" My doing home repairs and being unafraid of creatures in the attic was not anything they could relate to.

Maybe they would have responded the same way to a man telling that story. But my own feelings of thinking of our tools as "my husband's" and wishing for a "strong man" during the project make me wonder if their reaction was specific to a woman doing these things. After all, as the recruiter reminded me (he was looking to fill a military position), we still live in a world where our gender determines what society expects us to do.

I guess I'll keep working on my own attitude, and trying to be an example of change. One dead bat at a time.

Friday, August 21, 2009

7 Quick Takes (home improvement edition)

--- 1 ---
Jen at Conversion Diary generously hosts "7 Quick Takes Friday". This is my second entry; my first "quick takes" post was a lymphoma edition.

--- 2 ---
Last weekend, we investigated the broken exhaust fan in our bathroom. Once we had taken apart the heat lamp assembly, we found a dead bat in the fan housing. After putting everything back together sans bat, the fan works beautifully.

--- 3 ---
Over the past five months, a contractor has been working on remodeling our house. They were here everyday at first, but for the finishing touches sometimes weeks have gone by with nothing more done.

The electricians worked all day Monday. And now the contractor's work is all done! We're doing some more work ourselves, but it's exciting to have passed this major milestone.

--- 4 ---
Another sign of progress in our house is that all our pictures are back up. The construction pounding had literally made them fall off the walls.

--- 5 ---
Through our remodel, I learned something new about contractors: gutter installation is a specialized trade.

As electricians work only with wiring and plumbers only with pipes, gutter installers only work with gutters. I'm not sure if this impresses me with the size of the construction industry (that people can make a living working with such a small building part) or with the importance of gutters. Maybe a little of both.

--- 6 ---
Recently, my husband prepared to replace a broken lamp socket. I asked, "Do you want me to come with you for moral support?"

"Of course," he replied. "Just think of the immoral work I would do without you."

--- 7 ---
Home improvement is a rewarding way to spend one's time. Completed jobs often provide a sense of satisfaction that lasts for months or years. I feel lucky to have a home I can improve; I hope I can continue to work on it for many more years!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wikipedia, dashes, and me

Over the past few years, Wikipedians have developed a number of bots and semi-automated processes to fix common errors. I find that I feel like I've been chastised if I make an edit and then a bot immediately comes and cleans up after me; it's become a point of pride with me to try to prevent this.

My efforts to lower the workload of automated computer scripts have given me new habits. One is a compulsion on using hyphens and dashes in certain ways. For example:

I am receiving 36 Gray—at the high end of the recommended range of 32–36 Gy—of proton-beam radiation.
Note the hyphen in the compound adjective, the en dash in the number range, and the unspaced em dash in the parenthetical expression. A year ago, I would have just used a hyphen for everything and never thought twice about it. Now I've memorized the HTML codes for the dashes and it would drive me nuts to type something that used them "incorrectly".

Thanks, Wikipedia. I think.

Monday, August 17, 2009

On holiday dates

I have long been somewhat cynical about the date to which Christmas has been assigned. After all, no one knows the time of year in which Jesus was born. A date near the winter solstice was chosen, not based on historical accounts, but to aid in the conversion of pagans who also had major festivals at that time.

I suppose I'd made the assumption that since modern Judaism doesn't actively recruit converts, such considerations were not part of the dates of Jewish holidays. Well, except for Hanuka, which as the "Festival of Lights" has rather obvious midwinter symbolism. But, I rationalized, that's a minor holiday: the book of Maccabees with the Hanuka story isn't even part of the Hebrew Bible.

Learning that the High Holy Days—the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur—were suspiciously similar to certain Babylonian holidays didn't phase me, either. Celebrating the passing of a year and pondering the ways in which we have gone wrong over the past year are not time-dependent activities. They could be just as meaningful on any date; that the date used by the Jews is the same as that used by the Babylonians doesn't affect the significance of the holidays. Similarly, the way that Easter evolved from Passover has never been something I thought negatively about.

But speaking of Passover, the Bible study I attend is currently studying the Exodus text relating to this holiday. Regarding Passover, the commentaries we use say it used to be two or three separate holidays, none of which was related to freedom from slavery. A date near the spring solstice was chosen, not based on historical accounts, but to institutionalize the telling of the Exodus story by setting it near the date of unrelated pagan festivals.

One of the group members protested, "But Passover has to mean more than that." I come to Bible stories with the belief that they have some basis in truth, but that few details are historically factual. Even so, it bothered me to learn that the date so explicitly spelled out in the text (Exodus 12:18 and 13:4) was chosen for reasons completely unrelated to the story.

I'm not sure if my feelings are rational, or if they are caused by an irrational anti-Christmas, "my husband's holidays are better than your holidays" prejudice. (I specify "my husband's holidays" since I have not converted to Judiasm.) I am very glad, however, to have access to a Bible study group that causes me to think about myself and my assumptions in such interesting ways.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

History is powerful

I recently finished Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, a history of the civil war. The narrative began with a highly abbreviated description of the Mexican-American war. A striking similarity to our present time immediately drew me into the story: one political party believed that use of troops had spread American freedom and democracy; the other believed American values would have been better spread by being a good example than by military force. The way differences over the Mexican-American war fed into increasing polarization on other issues also felt eerily familiar.

The political situation of the 1850s soon went well beyond our present-day experience, but it continued to tell a powerful story. The experiences of Americans during those years was vividly brought to life. My school history classes had focused on the outcome of the war; reading Battle Cry of Freedom taught me why it was fought in the first place, from the motivations of the leaders to the soldiers to the women and non-soldiers who supported the cause behind the battle lines.

I had been taught that of course the North won, it had a stronger industrial base. McPherson argues that the two sides were evenly matched. Having read through battle after battle where a chance event caused one side or the other to gain advantage, I'm convinced and awed at how easily the war could have gone the other way. I don't think I've ever before read a book that long (900 pages!), but it was a surprisingly easy read, and I'm glad did.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Look good, feel better?

I've gone a few weeks now without wearing a scarf. While I'm excited to note that my scalp area has gone from "looks like five o'clock shadow" to "very, very short hair", I'm sure I still present a startling sight to most people.

I appreciate comments along the lines of "you have a nicely-shaped head." Other comments, though also well intended, don't make me feel so good. One person told me, "It's a good thing you look good bald!" As if my right to leave my house without a scarf is dependent on my appearing attractive while scarfless.

In a recent email discussion, I expressed sympathies for a friend with prostate cancer. He was rather retiring about his diagnosis but commented that "observing a roomful of attractive young ladies wearing head scarves and baseball caps" was a "misfortune".

I have been interested recently in the idea that a social system can exist that results in certain outcomes that none of its participants intend. I believe these comments are an example of such a system: the people I quoted above were intending to convey admiration and sympathy. But the language available to them for doing that was limited, and the word choice they made resulted in them reinforcing the social concept that, for women, "value=physical attractiveness".

It's not really what I expected when I went out without a scarf.