Rubbernecking

from the Boston Globe

from the Boston Globe

It is fashionable to express contempt for those who drive past an accident and slow down to look. According to the critics, rubbernecking signifies a prurient interest in the misfortunes of others, a fundamental and irresistible inhumanity automatically triggered by the prospect of blood, gore, and emotional wreckage. The same principle applies to other varieties of voyeurism activated by celebrity meltdowns, tell-all memoirs, sexual indiscretions, mass tragedies, noble sacrifices, and spectacular acts of strength and courage. If we were a better species, not so prone to viewing destruction and exposure as entertainment, so the story goes, our curiosity would not be so much on display.

Personally, I’m not convinced that our human interest in calamity (and calamity barely averted) stems from something sordid that sprouts from the brickwork of civilization. In a work of literature, captivation begins where good luck runs out, and we attribute the burning compulsion to turn the page to curiosity or a search for meaning rather than bad character. When disaster hits bricks-and-mortar reality, though, the same impulse seems outré. If the medium is the message, then Twitter, facebook, Reddit, and the blogosphere seem to lead us towards the worst of both fiction and reality, where facts and meaning are equally elusive.

Yes, I am talking about the Boston Marathon bombings.

When I see a car accident, I always, always look. I am not ashamed of looking. I want to know two things: Is it someone I know? and Are the victims okay? I do not seek the frisson of adrenaline rush that comes from contorted metal or imagining something worse behind the ambulances and fire trucks. In a work study job cataloguing historical photos when I was an undergraduate, police photos of local car crashes comprised a good portion of the collection, but I couldn’t bear to look at them; and in high school Driver’s Ed, when we were forced to watch several editions of the car-crash scare series Red Asphalt, I became so terrified I would kill someone that once I finally got my license I didn’t want to drive. In other words, I am looking for reassurance, not a cheap thrill at someone else’s expense.

I think that something similar happens when someone seemingly “normal”—or at least normal enough—commits a large-scale atrocity. Some people complain that we are more interested in the perpetrators than in the victims, who are more deserving of media attention. But, to me (and, I suspect, to others), the victims’ role is not nearly as frightening as the perpetrators’. Certain horrific acts, like what took place at the Boston Marathon, or Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or Tuscon, make us seek answers to our most terrifying questions: Who could be capable of such a thing? Could I? Could someone I know? Would I recognize such a person? How does someone make the decision to become a terrorist? Could he have been stopped?

At least from the preliminary reports, both the Boston Marathon bombers turned to violence in response to ordinary human pain: parents’ divorce, immigration, a best friend’s murder. The evidently more volatile brother, who already felt out of place in the United States, lost the possibility of citizenship when he committed domestic violence, and, in response, threw away his own humanity to retaliate with terrorism. He went to Bunker Hill Community College (where I have colleagues), and then dropped out while immigrants with similar problems kept going. The younger brother, the one almost universally described as warm, kind, and popular, bafflingly went along with his brother’s plans—why?

Peter Young Hoffmeister, a high school teacher and former Huffington Post blogger, lost his HuffPost blogging gig when he submitted a post recounting his past as an angry, lonely, gun-obsessed young man. After being expelled for carrying a loaded, stolen handgun to high school, he got kicked out of two more schools before “the support of some incredible adults” and an outdoor program for troubled teens inspired him to straighten out. Compassion saves, at least sometimes. Maybe there will always be Loughners and Holmeses who spiral out of reach, but on the other side there are also Hoffmeisters who force us to ask, Couldn’t something have been done?

I have noticed that it’s much easier to throw around the “evil” label, to dehumanize, to call for the torture and death of the “monsters,” than to ask such questions—at least judging by the talk shows, media rhetoric, and inflammatory facebook posts that have rippled through my feed the past few days. Now that the victims are maimed or dead, it’s too late for compassion to make a difference in the outcome, but to look for reasons is to acknowledge that there might have been a moment, or even moments, when someone might have intervened, or some time when a few kind words might have helped prevent so many worlds from breaking.

Seen and Not Seen: The 98% Inauguration, 2009

Four years ago, the night before inauguration, some friends came up with a pair of tickets. For several hours, I felt like the luckiest woman in DC: new to the area and suddenly gifted with a chance to witness the inauguration of our country’s first black president. I felt only slightly less lucky when I couldn’t find a friend to go with me on such short notice. When the Metro stop I needed closed because of overcrowding and I had to get off a stop early, my luck meter wavered only slightly: I had functioning feet, after all, and moving around would help keep me warm on a day with 9 degree wind chill.

I squirmed off the train at Gallery Place Metro and saw this, which is meant to be a photo of the mob on the escalators, but is also a reminder that our Swedish friends are happy to help us change our living rooms if we can’t change the country:

2008_0210Inauguration0022 (2)It was a strange day in D.C. It took me a while to realize why people looked so different, besides that they all were walking (though “pressing forward” is probably more accurate) in the same direction: Almost everyone was smiling underneath their hats and scarves.

2008_0210Inauguration0028If everyone you meet feels lucky, it’s hard to worry too much when emergency vehicles start blocking all possible paths to the Mall. Just find the big cheese, and move when the cheese does.

2008_0210Inauguration0032Eventually I reached a turning point: Give up and go get coffee, or carry on? I carried on, looking for a route to the Mall. I even tried to slip through the lobby of a hotel, but I ended up routed back to the same spot, back with a lot of people who didn’t know what direction to walk.

2008_0210Inauguration0033Soon I couldn’t walk any farther because I reached a bottleneck – an entrance gate, supposedly – with snipers on all the rooftops and Secret Service trying (but failing) to steer a family through the crowd. One of the girls, probably in her late teens, started to cry, and a man who must have been her father kept shouting, “I own that building!” until it became clear that there was no way to move in any direction.

Welcome to the proletariat.

This is what I saw for the next four hours.

2008_0210Inauguration0037I am under five feet tall, and for most of my time in the crowd, we were packed too close for me even to lift my arms. The fence on the left was a temporary barrier. Periodically the crowd would press forward, unleashing the hope that we might actually get through the line. It became clear that all of us, even though we had tickets, were going to miss the inauguration, but we were squeezed too tight to turn away. Often I couldn’t bend my knees or feel my feet, and when the crowd moved, I was carried by the pressure rather than walking under my own power.

But it was a happy day. Nobody complained or argued, at least that I heard. When Obama took the stage, a young woman called a friend who was on the Mall near a Jumbotron and streamed the inaugural address through her Blackberry (remember those?) so that everyone around her could hear it. She was our hero that day!

2008_0210Inauguration0046But…we were still stuck between the crowd and the fence. Soldiers controlled the gate, letting people dribble through a few at a time. When the gates opened, the surges forward became more forceful as we got closer. Finally the crowd pushed forward, and though I couldn’t get my feet under me to stop, I saw the gate closing as I approached. For a moment I was sure I was going to be crushed, but the soldier left the gate open long enough for me to stagger through.

I looked back and saw the other people who were still trapped behind the fence:

2008_0210Inauguration0045This is me with a numb face, feet, and hands. I had a big smile for a bad hair day in a gigantic coat:

2008_0210Inauguration0047My inauguration experience ended shortly after I got through the gates. Already people were gathering along the parade route, showing off how prepared they were:

2008_0210Inauguration0055 2008_0210Inauguration0057Then I finally got coffee.

2008_0210Inauguration0054A USA Today journalist saw me walking to the Metro and asked me why I was leaving. I told the story you see here, some of which he got right (the part where I’m quoted is near the end of the article).

Today’s inauguration doesn’t even compare. For one thing, I had no interest in being there in person. It’s true that there’s never a second second time, but the view from my sofa was perfect. This year, the story is “I turned on the television. I turned off the television.”

In 2009, on the other hand, I had a story you couldn’t get on television, and that’s something that’s amply worth standing in sub-freezing cold to see.

No, Really and Truly – The Absolutely, Positively Worst Ideas of 2012

Copernicus_-_Heliocentric_Solar_SystemFor some reason, The Washington Post prematurely nominated its worst ideas of 2012 way back on October 1. All the Post’s bad ideas had to do with sexual indiscretion by powerful men, political incorrectness, hubris, or all three. The one bad decision in the bunch made by a woman was the failed ouster of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan, which was spearheaded by that self-appointed defender of vision, the unfortunately-named Helen Dragas.

Speaking of hubris, though, the Post left out almost three months of bad ideas and almost an entire gender – which is sort of amusing, considering that some of the worst ideas of the year were about women. Here goes:

Do-it-yourself birth control: First, Foster Friess, a billionaire and mutual fund manager, kicked off the war on women when he suggested Bayer aspirin could prevent pregnancy: “The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.” In case we excused Friess’s comment as anomalous, Missouri Republican Todd Akin – also known for trying to eliminate school lunches for embryos that make it to grade school – defended prohibitions on abortion for rape victims by declaring, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Rape as God’s will: Not to be outdone, Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock argued – several times! – that any life resulting from rape was “something God intended to happen.” His idea manages to be terrible on several levels: first, that (despite its frequent appearance in the Bible) rape is acceptable because the ends justify the means; second, that God means to torture women; and third, that Mourdock somehow knows what God intends.

Ayn Rand: From Rand’s excruciating prose, eugenically-selected protagonists, contempt for acts of generosity on the grounds that they enable helplessness, and glorification of selfishness, we learned that the Romney-Ryan defeat stemmed from the triumph of mediocrity rather than Romney’s staggering ignorance of the world inhabited by the ordinary riffraff. (Dana Milbank’s piece in the Washington Post, “At Romney Headquarters, the Defeat of the 1%” does the best job I’ve seen to show that Romney’s insensitivity comes straight from the heart.)

Teachers bearing arms: If I actually have to explain why this is a terrible idea, please stop reading now.

The Second Amendment: If you skip the “well-regulated” and “necessary to a free state” parts, assault weapons make perfect sense.

Jonathan Franzen’s opinion of Edith Wharton: Based on Wharton being unattractive and sexless, America’s most popular purveyor of unpleasant characters dismisses her entire body of work. The bad idea – which you really might expect someone at The New Yorker to question – is the entire assumption that women have no artistic legitimacy without sex appeal.

New Yorker cartoons: Looking for sexism? Women carping at their downtrodden husbands? Gender dynamics that haven’t changed since the 1920s? I love The New Yorker, but I wish it would reconsider its tradition of phallocentrism.

Women are helpless, except when they’re not: Okay, I’m supposed to believe that the general of the most powerful military in the world was prostrate before the siren song of Paula Broadwell? Either he couldn’t resist – which I highly doubt, given that Petraeus was entrusted with our national security – or he could have resisted, but didn’t bother since the popular press would blame the woman anyway.

Voyeurism. Maybe Invisible Children was a showcase for the arrogance of Jason Russell, but when TMZ broadcast him staggering naked through the streets of San Diego and ridiculed what was clearly a mental breakdown, it didn’t exactly show the public in a flattering light when we played along. Same with the photograph of a man about to be hit by a NYC subway car. And same with the anguished photo of a woman trying to find out the fate of her sister, who had already been killed by the Sandy Hook shooter.

Illusions of privacy. Yes, my privacy has gone the way of the Twinkie, without the anti-union rhetoric. I value privacy, but not when it gets in the way of seeing the cartoons and photos my friends post or being able to avoid entering twice as many addresses into Google Maps on my phone.

The end of the world. The true bad idea here is that I didn’t plan an end-of-the-world potluck holiday party; I hosted one in 1999, asking guests to bring the dish they would want to eat if the world really ended at the turn of the millennium. Good times. P.S. Runner-up: blaming the prediction on the Mayans.

The end of the list. And if you believe that these are the only worst ideas of 2012, I have something I want to sell you. Close your eyes, hold out your hands, and count to ten.

Not with a Whimper but a Bang

candlesThis is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

-T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

Something about the slaughter of twenty first graders and seven adults in Newtown, Connecticut makes me want to state the obvious rather than striving for eloquence. The dead deserve eloquence, but they will be honored more by a thoughtful response to our country’s dysfunctional relationship with guns.

Massacres of innocents with semiautomatic weapons have become so frequent that recent articles on the Sandy Hook shooting haven’t even had space for them all in their ledes. Grisly greatest hits like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Aurora usually get a mention, but so far there have been eight mass shootings in 2012, not including a bow and arrow attack at Casper College in Wyoming last week or a man who opened fire this morning at a hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. Also left off most lists of past shootings are Kip Kinkel, a depressed 15 year-old who killed his parents and two classmates and wounded 22 others in Springfield, Oregon in 1998 – yes, before Columbine – whose story was featured in Frontline but has been all but lost in the crowd of other shooters.

An objective observer might conclude that we have a problem.

It’s not a some-people-are-evil problem, a constitutional problem, or even a mental health system problem. It’s a gun problem.

How many times have you heard that the mass murderer of the moment was “always polite,” “perfectly normal,” or “doing well”? Kinkel’s parents were dimly aware of his psychiatric problems and tried to help him; Seung-Hui Cho and Jared Lee Loughner had attracted the attention of school officials who were unable to compel treatment; James Eagan Holmes had been seeing a psychiatrist. In most cases, the guns used in mass shootings were legally obtained. The overwhelming majority of people suffering from mental illness are not dangerous and never will be. However, the overwhelming majority of people, period, are clueless about what is going on with other people, period; and those who are not clueless are often reluctant to intervene, unsure of how to intervene, or helpless to intervene.

Meanwhile, shots continue to be fired. Firearms in the home significantly increase the risk of death from domestic violence, crime, suicide, and accidents. Gun-rights advocates rightly say that gun owners who are careful, properly trained, and law-abiding can safely use guns and that Second Amendment rights trump the risks. But since when are humans consistent about being careful, properly trained, and law abiding? There are more than 17,000 car accidents per day in the U.S. with a crash-related death, on average, every 13 minutes.

With cars, though, the driver who makes the mistake is roughly at as much risk as the other drivers and passengers involved, which theoretically acts as a counterbalance to carelessness and stupidity. Not so with guns. Also, cars have keys, meaning that it is difficult for anyone but the lawful owner to use them. Again, not the case with guns. In a perfect world, only people kill people, and on purpose. But our world, the real one with routine violence and accidental death, is filled with rampant imperfection and frequent errors in judgment. It’s nice to think that only responsible people will use guns, or that these good citizens can somehow deter killers who have abandoned civility or reason, but reality is not on the side of idealism.

The gun control topic has come up regularly in my classes since I started teaching. At first, I adamantly opposed all guns in all circumstances, and I regarded the fiery psyches of my gun-owning students with suspicion. From talking with students, though, I realized that in cities, guns are used overwhelmingly for violence, but that in rural areas, they were necessary for protecting and euthanizing livestock and sometimes for defending humans against large predators. When I moved to DC and commuted on a highway to work, seeing so many deer disemboweled by cars even made me sympathetic to hunting: Which is more cruel, a clean shot or a painful and terrifying evisceration by accident?

But semiautomatic weapons? Seriously? In Newtown, the six- and seven-year-olds were shot multiple times, presumably because the guns Adam Lanza used continued to fire after the children were hit. In this as in so many other things, the bullets are speeding towards their victims much more rapidly than a shooter can think.

We’ve had almost fourteen years to think about Columbine, though, and as the gratuitous death toll has mounted, the political environment has become more hostile to gun control. So many families will go through the holidays missing loved ones who died for no reason – or, rather, who died because skewed notions of self-defense and the right to hunt have overshadowed the reality of the world we live in, in which the killers right in front of us are far more dangerous than the ones from which we imagine guns will protect us.

Reality is on the side of reinstating the ban on semiautomatic weapons, keeping guns out of schools and other public places, requiring robust background checks and review of owners’ continued ability to use guns responsibly (we do it for driver’s licenses!), and considering possession of lethal weapons as a factor in judging whether a mentally ill patient is a danger to him/herself or others.

According to the ancient Mayans (or at least catastrophizers crediting the ancient Mayans), the world is supposed to end on 12/21/12. If the world really ends, I may die regretting my blithe attitude – another day, another apocalypse that hasn’t materialized – but really I’ve hardly given the date much more airtime than it takes to roll my eyes.

In the case of guns, on the other hand, it’s time to stop pretending that we can do nothing to prevent another apocalypse like the many others that have unfolded in the past year. For every family dealing with the aftermath of the dozens of shootings that have cumulatively caused hundreds of avoidable murders, the apocalypse has already come and gone – and any of the first graders who were killed at Sandy Hook, if they had lived, could have told the rest of us what we should do to stop the next one.

The Spectre of Sandy

Hurricane Sandy’s wind field as of 6 p.m. Sunday evening (Brian McNoldy), via Capital Weather Gang

On Friday, I shared a climate change case study with my transfer composition class, simulating what would happen in an eight-foot storm surge in New York City. The case study came from a four-day workshop at Dickinson College a couple of years ago, Cooling the Curriculum, which aimed to help liberal arts faculty integrate climate science into their courses in meaningful ways.

The storm surge simulation had been on the syllabus since last summer, but it ended up coinciding with the approach of Hurricane Sandy, which by then had already killed 29 people en route to the U.S. East Coast. While my students picked apart the data in the case study and discussed what it meant in an emergency, I pulled up the New York Times on the computer projector to show students how New York City planned to respond to Sandy. As of the middle of class, planners seemed nonchalant, saying they had no plans for subway closures and that they anticipated the storm would be much less severe than Irene.

Two nights later, the simulation has become a horrifying reality, with massive evacuations and citywide closures. For a while, it seemed like Washington, D.C., where I live, would not need to take such drastic measures, but by dusk, the National Weather Service had predicted hurricane-force winds, feet of snow to the West, and probable flooding of the Chesapeake and Potomac. Then the DC Metro, too, announced closures beginning at midnight; the rain totals shot up to a possible ten inches, and the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang blogged that people shouldn’t venture outside after tomorrow afternoon because of the risk of falling trees and flying debris. Almost as alarmingly, I received robo-calls from the power company and Comcast, plus emails from a credit card company, warning of extended outages and waiving fees, respectively. (Few things are as scary as a credit card company having a fit of generosity.) We were bombarded with messages on how to prepare, along with dire advisories on how to protect pets in hurricanes. I wondered: could a hurricane-force wind lift a small dog?

Suddenly, the storm threat we’d discussed in class seemed starkly real, and the giant lollipop dwarfing the coastline looked nightmarish and psychedelic. Until I moved to DC, I have always lived in earthquake country – California, and then Seattle (the quake that damaged the Washington Monument and National Cathedral notwithstanding) – where catastrophe could strike without warning, which spared us the spectre of watching it approach.

To the many, many friends, students, colleagues, and family members I know who will be impacted by this storm: I am scared with you and for you. May we all find shelter, and may we all emerge from it safely.

The Other Elephant in the Room

At this point, we have all heard plenty about James Eagan Holmes’ mass murder of an Aurora, Colorado audience at a midnight opening of The Dark Knight. We have heard very little about Holmes, however, other than that he was a neuroscience graduate student at the University of Colorado, that he killed twelve people and wounded 58, that he was struggling in his program and was in the process of withdrawing, that he booby-trapped his apartment with explosives, and that, oddly, he left only the barest traces on the internet.

In a way, I have been relieved not to be bombarded with the sordid details of Holmes’ quiet life. I’ve been thinking quite a bit this week about a point that protection expert Gavin de Becker makes in his book, The Gift of Fear: “Reporters usually refer to assassins with triple names, like Mark David Chapman, Lee Harvey Oswald, Arthur Richard Jackson…Our culture presents many role models, but few get as much hoopla and glory as the assassin.” Add to this list Seung Hui-Cho, Jared Lee Loughner, and James Eagan Holmes.

In the absence of concrete information about Holmes and his motivations, often-acrimonious debates about gun control have proliferated on editorial pages, blogs, and – naturally – facebook. (My favorite facebook feature these days is the “Unfollow Post” button.) Many, many gifted writers have argued eloquently in favor of increased enforcement of existing gun control laws, reinstatement of the Assault Weapons Ban, and more conscientiousness about background checks.

Other than David Brooks’ column, “More Treatment Programs,” though, I have seen very little about the role of mental illness in mass shootings. In his article, Brooks criticizes those who use the Aurora shooting as a pretext for calling for more gun control, saying, “These killers are primarily the product of psychological derangements, not sociological ones” and arguing that “The best way to prevent killing sprees is with relationships — when one person notices that a relative or neighbor is going off the rails and gets that person treatment before the barbarism takes control.” Just a few weeks ago, however, The New York Times Magazine featured an article by journalist Jeneen Interlandi, “When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind,” describing her and her family’s futile efforts to hospitalize her father long enough for him to regain stability.

Though the Virginia Tech shooting in particular has provoked huge changes in protocols for how mental health issues on campus are addressed, I have noticed an uneasy silence among my colleagues about these mass killings, especially considering that most of the shooters have had some sort of connection to an educational setting. When Jared Lee Loughner – who, incidentally, is still not stable enough to stand trial as of this writing – shot 18 people, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, I read with anxiety about the many, many attempts by teachers and students to alert the college of Loughner’s threatening behavior. My first thought was “There but for the grace of God go I,” because Loughner could easily have been one of my own students. Likewise, administrators at Virginia Tech asked Seung Hui-Cho to get mental health treatment, but because he was an adult, the college had no real way to enforce their request.

In 1997, the summer between my two years of graduate school, I worked as a temporary executive assistant for a mental health agency, and the site where my office was located also served as a day program for severely mentally ill patients who could not function on their own and were unlikely ever to recover. In August of that summer, a man with a sword held up downtown Seattle for 11 hours, after which police finally subdued him by blasting him with a fire hose. It turned out he was a client at the agency where I was temping, and one of the administrators and I had a long conversation about what it was like to devote your life to social work with a population of people who would never really be functional. Violence among mentally ill patients is extremely rare, but, in that particular setting, so was recovery.

Many people have commented that what Holmes did is evil, an impression certainly fostered by his emulation of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker. My observation is that it seems easier to accept that someone might be evil than that someone might be incurably, dangerously psychotic. It is almost un-American to consider that there are some illnesses that have no cure, or sufferers whose bootstraps are terminally inadequate, or people who cannot keep themselves from harming others. Even when a mental breakdown seems patently obvious, as in Jason Russell’s post-Kony meltdown in San Diego, the default reaction is contempt or mockery. I have had many students with criminal histories in my classes, including occasional sex offenders, and many students with a variety of mental illnesses, some of them serious. So far, fortunately, there has been only one time, years ago, when I felt like I was in danger, though once in a while a student has been, and every time there’s a media blitz about a student assassin, I wonder what I would have done if the student had been in one of my own classes.

This afternoon, Fox News reported that Holmes sent a psychiatrist at his school a notebook with the details of the massacre he was planning, but that it sat in a mailroom unopened for over a week. It’s not clear whether the psychiatrist was treating Holmes or was one of his professors, but it’s yet another instance of clues to a dangerous young man’s mental state being ignored, dismissed, denied, or just plain missed. (As for the news that gun sales have gone up since the shooting, I’m not even going there.) A judge has issued a gag order on the case, so neither the school nor the police will comment on the record.

I am not sure whether Holmes is evil or not, but it seems futile to treat out-of-control situations and people as though they have control. Interlandi’s article about her father makes it painfully clear how difficult it is to get treatment for an adult who doesn’t want it; and the reporting on the Aurora massacre makes it clear how easy it is for a murderer to get guns, ammunition, and explosives. David Brooks blithely talks about “getting [a mentally ill person] treatment,” but without the means to compel someone to get treatment – and adequate treatment facilities for those who need it – we can expect more violence, not less. It is easy to slap the “EVIL” label on senseless violence, but when violence occurs so frequently, it’s not an aberration: Instead, it’s an inevitable collision between lax-to-nonexistent gun law enforcement, a dysfunctional mental health system, and the tragic consequences of letting ideology trump compassion…over and over again.

It Seemed Like a Bad Idea at the Time

Photo by the Washington Post

My first job after college was at a health insurance company, making copies, printing out letters to reject claim appeals, filing, sending out mailings, and answering phones…and those were the fun parts. For this position, across from Westlake Park in downtown Seattle, I’d turned down an offer for the proofreading night shift at a tiny publisher situated in a bad part of town and a position assisting a quadriplegic entrepreneur, which sounded fascinating until every last member of his staff made a point of telling me he regularly insulted them until they cried.

By the time I capitulated and took the health insurance job, I was feeling the strain of hunching over a computer on a flea-infested rug in an apartment without furniture (yes, in the same building where I was later threatened by a shotgun-wielding retiree), living in a city where I knew no one and couldn’t afford to go out. I took a part-time telemarketing gig that involved calling up unemployed people without health insurance and trying to get them to buy season theater tickets. A bubbly blonde actress who started the same night I did almost immediately started reeling in customers, while I rapidly proved myself to be the world’s worst telemarketer. I didn’t even make it through the training, and after two nights on the phone I stopped coming, too humiliated to ask if I would have a paycheck.

I did not have much more aptitude for clerical work than I did for telemarketing. I learned that my high GPA and undergraduate degree did not necessarily mean I could survive in an office without losing my mind. I thought health insurance was ethically wrong – insurance companies profited from people’s vulnerabilities and fears, weaseled out of paying for illnesses, and had an entire department of registered nurses and doctors whose sole purpose was to ensure that treatments were medically necessary, which turned out to be code for finding reasons to deny coverage – but by then I needed the money.

Essentially, my first lesson after graduation was one that most people grow up knowing: idealism is hard to maintain when you need to pay the rent. Though I looked down on my coworkers for their unquestioning loyalty to a company that made its money through the pain and suffering of its customers, I quickly realized that I had fallen into the same moral compromise as the insurance profiteers. I dragged slowly through the filing, stealing chances to read the documents as I went and then justifiably being chastised for my lack of productivity.

I found a fiction workshop to take at night, but the couple of hours a week devoted to writing withered under the pressure of 40-hour weeks devoted to work I hated. The job was spectacularly dull, but worse than that it sucked me into a bottomless pit of self-loathing. My supervisor, a truly kind person trying to do the right thing, began to express concern about my emotional state. One morning, filling in while the receptionist was on a coffee break, she told me that my voice was too soft on the intercom and asked me to speak more loudly. When she turned away from the reception desk, my eyes filled with tears. I can’t even answer the phone right, I thought. How am I supposed to get a decent job?

A moment later, though, I had one of those merciful, lifesaving thoughts that from time to time have saved me from myself: What does answering the phone right have to do with anything? A day or so later, I gave notice. My last day was Valentine’s Day, some five months or so after I’d started, and I celebrated with a date at the Pink Door with a man from the writer’s workshop.

Those five months, however, ended up more than paying for themselves as the health insurance system got more and more complex. Because I played Harriet the Spy with the filing, I understood the labyrinthine rules of insurance games, even as they grew more and more labyrinthine in the decades after I graduated from college. I knew definitions, exclusions, preexisting conditions, capitation; I knew the difference between copays, coinsurance, deductibles, and lifetime maxes. I knew that, as people suspected, the regulations were, in fact, meant to give insurance companies reasons not to pay. And, from doing filing in the provider services department, I saw the kinds of malpractice and sexual harassment that would be tolerated without serious repercussions by the medical establishment. (When, a dozen or so years later, a gynecologist faced criminal charges for drugging and then raping female patients, I thought of those files.)

As I’ve been absorbing today’s news that the Affordable Care Act defied the pundits and survived its constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court, I have thought a lot about my insurance years. Yesterday, Sarah Palin repeated her erroneous and much-debunked claim that “death panels” would determine whether patients received care. Meanwhile, those who would most benefit under health care reform misunderstand the legislation, and those who oppose reform actively distort and wrongly characterize its provisions. Even as the quality and availability of health care have plummeted below any other advanced Western nation, factual information has failed to counter ideological misrepresentations.

One reason for the public’s confusion may be that the law’s advocates have not adequately explained the ACA or persuaded citizens of its benefits. I think that the main reason, though, is that insurance in general is difficult to understand unless you have spent substantial time learning about insurance. The whole system is a sleight of hand, meant to fool the unwary, and, despite the victory in the Supreme Court, a large segment of the public are still too easily fooled.