An Intervention of Kindness

As I was commuting to work this morning, the sounds of a woman objecting stridently drifted through my noise-cancelling headphones. Looking up from my reading, I saw we were in the Jay Street station, and a woman was arguing with a man as the crowd flowed back onto the train. Her voice was pitched with outrage and incredulity as she demanded he answer for his actions. She said that he had kicked her, while he fired back that she shouldn’t have pushed him. He held himself in a posture of sullen rage, but somehow inward facing. He was not looking back at her, he was looking down and moving away.

“Well don’t fucking push me!”

“So you kick me? What is wrong with you!?”

He might have called her a bitch; I’m not sure of the specific invective either of them were using, honestly.

As the woman continued to demand satisfaction, he moved into the train to stand by where I was seated, continuing to fire back, not looking at her. He took hold of the safety bar above-head and started ignoring her, staring resolutely at the floor and repeating the phrase “not this one” several times, and I wondered if he meant she shouldn’t have pushed “this one”, or of all the mornings, she shouldn’t have pushed him on “this one.”

Unsatisfied and furious, she moved in closer, taking photos of him with her phone, stooping down to get an angle of his face. When she got close and low enough, he lashed out and slapped the phone from her hand. The gap around us in the crowd widened and the person seated next to me just up and bounced.

The man grabbed the phone from the ground as the woman first recoiled and then lunged back in. There was more shouting and she demanded her phone back. I stood up, put my hand on his shoulder and said “hey!” as I looked around and saw a train full of people minding their own business. The man was strong and volatile. A physical intervention was out of the question.

I didn’t quite catch it because I was sizing up the train, but her did give her phone back, while I wondered what the right thing to do was.

“Hey,” I said to him. He looked at me and then away a bit. But not as far away as he kept his gaze from the woman. “Are you having a rough morning?”

“I’ll be fine,” he said. He did not look fine. He looked like misery wrapped in rage under a worn-through veneer of stoicism. I ducked down a little to catch his eye.

“You look like you’re having a terrible morning, man. How about I give you my seat… y’know… separate the two of you?”

“I’ll be fine,” he insisted.

“Yeah,” I said, nodding over toward the woman, “but I’m not sure she will be.”

The man nodded, once to me, then again to himself, took my seat, and slumped over his backpack, shutting the world out.

I stood next to the woman, between her and where the man now sat, and smiled tightly at her. She had just been in a confrontation with an imposing man who had lashed out physically at least once (that I’d seen), and everyone else on the train was just trying to pretend nothing was going on. I wanted her to see that someone was on her side… that I was on her side… but I also wanted to keep the fragile peace.

“Are you ok?” I asked.

“I get a bruise and he gets a seat,” she said. Not ungratefully, but ruefully. I realized I was still wearing my headphones, making it a little hard to hear. I wanted to say “Don’t worry about that asshole, he’s just a miserable jerk and everyone on this train has your back,” only it did not appear to be remotely true.

“I know,” I sighed. “It’s not fair, but it seemed like the situation needed to be defused… I’m sorry.” She said a few more things, and I nodded, said “mm”, and “uh-huh”. She got that I didn’t want to talk openly right next to him.

I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I just went back to reading. A seat opened up, a few steps away, and the woman sat in it and began using her phone. She looked… ok. I kept reading. Occasionally I glanced up, to find her on her phone, and him still a thousand miles away, eyes closed but tense. He appeared to be ruminating.

Eventually we approached midtown, where I would depart. I wondered how this woman was feeling. Helpless? Angry? How many times had she been assaulted in her life? I typed a message onto my iPad and handed it to her:

I didn’t want to put my faith in the will of morning commuters to intervene enough to commit to an altercation on your behalf, so I went with mollification, but should you need to contact me for testimony:

Avery Rosen
[my phone number]

She read my message, photographed it with her phone, typed, and handed it back to me:


I gave her the thumbs ups, and she pantomimed to me that I should take a picture of him in his seat, which I did. After a minute, I got this text:

hi avery, it’s **[redacted]**. thank you for your help. going to report at 59th

I texted back “got it” and went back to reading. We arrived in Times Square, and I reached over to get her attention one last time, wished her well, and headed off to work.

Minutes later, I got another text:

he apologized! how often does *that* happen?

Not often, that’s for sure. But the conditions were right for an apology. It is now clear the man was consumed by some entirely unrelated fury, which was immediately displaced in response to what I’m guessing was a “let me through” shove. While the woman he assaulted continued to confront him, he was was locked in fight mode, senseless and unable to distinguish between her and whoever had truly made him unhappy. The woman was likewise trapped in a cycle of escalation, fueled by justified indignation, perhaps also by the recollection of other indignities and abuses she had suffered or witnessed other women suffering. I’ve been there.

But just underneath the fury, he knew he was wrong, which is why he would not look at her, and why he very quickly handed her phone back to her. He just needed a time out, to calm down, to untangle everything. A sympathetic tone from a stranger (that he technically didn’t deserve) — the surprise that someone could care how his day was going — was all it took for him to start that process. He must have spent the rest of the ride reliving the incident, coming around, and psyching himself up to apologize. To be clear, I’m not drawing an equivalence between the two of them. She was right, and he was wrong. Or maybe she was a little wrong because she shoved him but he was way wrong for kicking her — I don’t know, I didn’t witness the incident.

What I do know, because I exchanged some more messages with her, is that his apology made her feel better. I’m sure it made him feel better, too. I’m grateful for the antecedents in my life that equipped me to do my part in that situation, because it’s a solid win for patience, kindness, and decency.

Pass it on.

Why are cars special?

A motorist in Brazil, fed up with Critical Mass bikers, mowed down about 20 people with his car.

This is a video of that incident. Humans are severely injured in it. While there is no real gore to speak of, do not watch this video if you don’t want to see bikers hit by a car.

I honestly wonder what’s going to happen with this guy. It seems like too often I read about someone mowing someone down capped by “no charges were filed.” I’m watching this case to see if justice is done in any measure. Here’s what’s developed so far:

“Prosecutors Eugenio Amorim and Lucia Callegari say in a statement they have asked for the preventive detention of Ricardo Jose Neis on charges of attempted homicide.”


The suspect is not arrested, but police said he could face a charge of attempted homicide, the newspaper reported.

Channel 6 News Online

So he’s not under arrest right at this moment. That already seems crazy to me, although it’s nice that prosecutors are taking action, so there will probably be a trial. But it boggles my mind that the police didn’t arrest him on the spot. He was brought in for questioning when they found his car abandoned, instead of simply being arrested, and then after questioning he was released.

That seems strange to me, since if someone had gone on a rampage through a crowd of cyclists (or, frankly, parked cars) with a baseball bat, the cops would have shown up with an arrest warrant.

This just the latest example among the myriad support for my theory that cars enjoy a special protected status in the minds of the populace (perhaps globally, certainly all over the US and clearly Brazil, so probably lots of South America). Even if this guy does jail time, we’ve already seen plenty of evidence of special treatment.

It’s as if the entire population is subconsciously repressing the knowledge of how the world as we know it would grind to a halt if we actually made people be responsible about motor vehicle operation.

Why Don’t Ask Don’t Tell should be repealed

The following is a letter I just sent to my senators via the HRC.

I believe that our military must reflect the society we are and aspire to be. I believe that it must affirm, not deny, the dignity of all Americans loyal and courageous enough to serve in our armed forces. Under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, being openly homosexual — which is no crime — is to be unfit for military duty.

Our history is replete with examples of these concessions to fear and hatred, and every time we overcame them, we became a stronger and better nation for doing so. Today it is no different. Supporters of DADT foment fear over military readiness, hoping to scare us with the prospect of a military so undisciplined that to acknowledge the existence and equality of the thousands of gays currently serving in the military would leave it unable to execute its duties. That is an insult to the military and citizens alike.

We must take action to overcome these forces now, for our own dignity is on the line as well. If we do not, history will record that we chose comfort over challenge, and cowardice over righteousness.

Please, for the honor of all Americans, you must repeal this shameful law.

Deepwater Horizon Thoughts

I’ve figured out what has been so depressing about this (beyond the obvious). It’s the future. A friend of mine has been fond of saying lately that today is starting to look more and more like the Jetsons. The future of our childhood is here today: jetpacks, flying cars, robots that walk, wearable computers and retina screens.

There are other, possibly worse, tragedies that have far worse immediate human life tolls, like Darfur and Haiti, but at least you can say that those woes belong to the past. Ideas of the past, and cities of the past. Not past enough, but that’s where they belong.

But this spill is of the future. As is climate change… but although that’s been a thing for a while, even a believer like me can’t claim that I’ve felt the impact of it yet. But the spill… in about 3 months we’ll begin to understand the scope of it. This is also the future; us spoiling our home planet on a scope previously unachievable.

Star Trek or Mad Max? I don’t like what this points to.

Mad Fuses

Whatever you say, buddy.

There was an a lot of response to my mention of a cabinet in my office that protested suspiciously that it contained no fuses.

There was pretty much universal demand that I open the cabinet, to find out if there were fuses, no fuses, or spring snakes in there.

Only Adam, however, took up the challenge of explaining the presence of the mystifying label, in light of my claim that labels are only applied in cases where the information on them is not self-evident, and that there is a cost associated with not knowing that information. Check on the info not being self-evident, no check on there being a cost to not knowing the information. Adam tried to explain that there was, maybe, a cost:

Frequently, the precise switch or fuse, is unlabeled and elusive. Example: My parents’ apartment has many intricacies (electrically speaking), poor labeling, and a poetic absence of order or common sense. If I were looking for the right fuse, and couldn’t find it, and saw a box like the one here in the pic, I would appreciate knowing that that NO FUSES were inside before I went ahead and opened it. Granted, opening the box usually isn’t such a big deal. Unless it is closed with screws, locked, or if there is just a bunch of crap conveniently positioned in front of it which would need to be moved before opening it (like at Mom and Dad’s).


Not a terrible theory, but what I hadn’t shown before was the context around that cabinet. Here, then, is the whole picture:

Wait, what about those other ones?

As you can see, the cabinet with allegedly no fuses in it (middle, top) is surrounded by 3 other cabinets, none of which have NO FUSES signs on them. For Adam’s theory to be correct, either that cabinet has to look more like it has fuses in it than the others, or all the other cabinets do have fuses in them, or they ran out of “NO FUSES” signs after just one.

No, let me stop you there. Don’t weigh the options. Instead, I will reveal what is inside that cabinet, and what is more, I will reveal what is in the cabinets alongside it!

Aptly labeled. But why?

Ooooh... that makes -- no, actually that makes no sense at all.

The cabinet in question? Well, it’s true, there are no fuses in it! And the semanticist in me even appreciates that there may be a distinction being made, although it unquestionably contains strips of metal that bridge circuits — those heavy, thick copper plates are more like permanent switches than fuses, because they are clearly not designed for the purpose of breaking a circuit by burning away when they are overloaded. They are probably the electric company’s demarc.

Do, however, take note of what is in the cabinet directly below this cabinet with no fuses in it. Go ahead and click through to the full-size image if you can’t tell… no wait I’ll just tell you IT’S FUSES.

I submit to you that really that wall should look like this:

Emphasize the positive!

Methinks the cabinet doth protest too much

Duting my initial survey of the office I now work in, I came across this box:

No sandwiches, either.

I have honestly been having a really hard time putting into words precisely how this sign made me feel. It’s been bothering me. And after literally hours of musing on and off, and several failed attempts at writing it up, I realized it was simple — I felt deeply and abidingly suspicious that there were in fact some fuses in that cabinet. And I felt compelled to tell it that okay, okay, whatever, I believed it.

I mean, why would a cabinet that didn’t have fuses in it need a sign saying so?

In fact, come to think of it, why do we put signs on things at all?

We label things when two conditions are satisfied:

  1. There is a cost associated with people not knowing the information
  2. The information isn’t plain to see

For example, take “CAUTION: HIGH VOLTAGE”, and other warnings. The cost of not knowing about the high voltage is a potentially lethal shock. And electricity is invisible. Sure, let’s let people know about that.

With something like “Recycling: Plastics and Glass Only”, the cost of not knowing is recyclable materials might be put in landfill or inappropriate materials might contaminate the recyclables. And it’s not possible to know where some bucket will be carted off to without some indication. So that makes sense.

But this NO FUSES business? Granted, unless you have x-ray vision, you wouldn’t be able to tell without opening the cabinet that there were no fuses in it. But what’s the cost of someone not knowing that in advance? In order for it to make any sense, there has to be some consequence to being wrong about the presence or absence of fuses in that cabinet. So it’s possible that there used to be people who were desperately looking for fuses all the time, and they couldn’t afford the precious seconds looking for them in the wrong place. But then why don’t I see that sign on everything that doesn’t have fuses in it?

Or maybe there are many more people than I would think who under no circumstances want to see fuses. Like maybe fuses killed their parents. And that sign is just to let them know that it’s totally safe to open that cabinet without their having to confront the painful past.

Of course those two scenarios are absurd. Consequently, failing to come up with a way to reconcile that sign’s message with the two requisites for rational signage, I cannot take it at face value. The most obvious conclusion is that the sign is trying to deceive me. Because fuses were in high demand in that office, but the fuses in that cabinet were already being used for something important. So in order to keep people who would go to any length, no matter how nefarious, from stealing fuses that were already in use, someone put up a sign that claimed that cabinet had none. Crazy? Definitely. But, not as far fetched as what I’d need to believe to think that there really weren’t any fuses in there.

Maybe the sign is trying to be sarcastic. What do you think? What could possibly explain that sign? Oh, and no, I haven’t yet checked inside the cabinet.

UPDATE: after much urging from the peanut gallery, I went ahead and investigated the oh-so-innocent sounding box. What I found was surprising.

If Marijuana Is Legal, Will Addiction Rise?

If Marijuana Is Legal, Will Addiction Rise? – Room for Debate Blog –

I came across this collection of arguments for legalizing pot a couple of weeks ago. I have to say that while all of the essays are good, I find  former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper’s essay to be the best (it’s the last one). He begins:

Any law disobeyed by more than 100 million Americans, the number who’ve tried marijuana at least once, is bad public policy. As a 34-year police veteran, I’ve seen how marijuana prohibition breeds disrespect for the law, and contempt for those who enforce it.

Reflections on Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight

I watched Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk a year ago, after my uncle J sent around a link to an article in the NYTimes called A Superhighway to Bliss. In her talk, she recounts how she experienced nirvana while having a stroke in her left brain.
A few weeks ago the topic came up again on a mailing list, and I linked the talk to the group. I insist that you watch the first 3 minutes (out of the total 20) right now — I bet you will not hit pause.

I watched Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk a year ago, after my uncle J sent around a link to an article in the NYTimes called A Superhighway to Bliss. In her talk, she recounts how she experienced nirvana while having a stroke in her left brain.

A few weeks ago the topic came up again on a mailing list, and I linked the talk to the group. I insist that you watch the first 3 minutes (out of the total 20) right now — I bet you will not hit pause.

T, one of the people on the list, and a psychologist, said that Ms. Taylor was describing psychosis, and that while we learned much from her description of her experience, to aspire to that state was to aspire to psychosis. This set me to thinking, and led me to articulate for the first time some thoughts I’d had on this topic.

I see the message of her talk as grounded in a very difficult philosophical point which relates to T’s reaction that Jill Taylor was describing psychosis. The definitions you find of psychosis all root in abnormal states of mind, in which contact with reality is lost. Well, the purely right brain experience that Ms. Taylor was having was in no was disconnected with reality. Not in the way a physicist would describe reality. Her right brain was unaffected by her stroke, and continued to be just as connected to reality as it ever was. The reality from which she was separated, and from which those with psychoses are separated, is the consensual reality that all of us with left brain dominance dwell in, in which “we” end at the borders of our skin.

Where “we” stop and the outside world begins, however, is not cut and dry. Is the air in your lungs at this moment part of you? What about the urine in your bladder which you have not yet eliminated? The digested food in your stomach? The water in the glass you are about to drink quickly becomes the cerebrospinal fluid in your brain. At what point does it become “you”?

To be sure, a human without left brain function, incapable of conceiving of themselves as individual and separate from the rest of the matter and energy in the universe, is maladapted. We have invested a lot of evolutionary energy into that left hemisphere way of perceiving reality, and it has paid off rather well, in that we can build cities and study dentistry and live longer. But we also know that adaptations which pay off in some ways can be detrimental in others. Many of the way our bodies manage nourishment were evolved when food was scarce, and are actually detrimental now. The adaptation to stand on our legs has freed our hands to use tools, but ruins our backs and our knees.

So would be the case with our development of a left brain mindset. It precedes and enables all of our thinking, but cuts us off from one another and the universe at large, prevents us from experiencing that bliss. Call it expulsion from Eden, if you will.

This is the insight of which she speaks — that the notion that we are all connected, all one, is not just some hippie-dippy way of expressing aspirations for peace and coexistence. It is in fact the unadulterated truth; and merely perceiving it at all, even if we cannot live in that state of mind perpetually, has immediate, powerful, and positive consequences for our way of viewing the world, and our actions in it.

The Inner Face

Think about the notions of beautiful and ugly. In particular, the way that the people you love become beautiful in your eyes. It reveals something about the different things we pay attention to depending on whether we’re regarding something new or something familiar. For most examples I discuss in this post, I will refer to people, but later maybe I can explore how this might apply to things as well.

A related aside: many years ago I had a brief conversation with a woman I had just met that evening. I honestly no longer remember where and when, or even the rough context of our meeting. At a friend’s party is about as far as I’d be willing to venture. In any case, the conversation was about wrinkles on your skin, in particular on your face. She was fretting about them. Now, I have always been dismayed by what I perceive to be a general and pervasive anxiety about the effects of aging that affects women, in particular, acutely.

People should be comfortable with the lines time draws on their faces, because those lines aren’t random cruelties of aging. They are directly caused by the expressions we put on over the course of our lives, In that sense, they are our personalities made manifest.

But this post isn’t about the whys and wherefores of the aging complex and gender. I just remember that I offered her a viewpoint that I hope I can maintain as time begins to show on my skin: that people should be proud of the lines in their skin, because they are a history of their emotional life. As my friend L. once said, “we’re made of the same stuff as everything else.” End aside.

When you look at someone unfamiliar, by definition, you can only see what’s on the surface. What strikes people as beautiful or ugly in an initial impression are the aesthetic markers — symmetry, ratio, cultural norms, etc. Sometimes familiarity with people can grow very quickly, but it’s a process. This surface-only perception is even more primary when a person’s expression is neutral — at that time, all you can see is the prettiness or ugliness of their “outer face”.

So, what’s the “inner face”? You can’t see it all the time, at least at first. When it’s visible, it sits on the landscape of the outer face. It is the thing that you find either beautiful or ugly in people that you know. It’s the collection of expressions that, because you are familiar with the person, you associate with traits of theirs, positive or a negative. A furrowing of the brow when they are concentrating that you associate with their pleasantly contemplative nature. A tilt to their lips that you associate with an unfortunate tendency they have to think of themselves as superior.

The inner face is a dynamic manifestation of who a person is. After a while, you may stop seeing the outer face of some people completely. Even when you regard the most neutral image of that person, you are still seeing that face’s potential.

To bring the aside back around, aging kinda puts your inner face on the outside, as time etches into your skin the evidence of all your expressions.