Friday, March 30, 2007

The nanny state

There is much kerfuffle out here in California over so-called "nanny state" legislation. Members of the state senate and assembly have come up with a number of fantastically intrusive proposals in recent months, including bans on

1) incandescent light bulbs;
2) spanking;
3) children under 4'9" in the front seat of the car;
4) children under 4'9" in the back seat of the car without a booster seat; and
5) smoking in the car while children are present.

The state senate is to hold hearings on smoking in cars in the very near future. Now, I do believe that smoking is a public health issue. Smoking is prohibited in a lot of places in California, including restaurants, hospital entrances, and Berkeley bus stops, although citizens like myself are left to enforce the latter with varying degrees of success. Several months ago, at the Hayward BART station, I had the following exchange with a woman who meandered into my personal space with a lit cigarette:

me: Excuse me, would you mind smoking somewhere else? This is a no-smoking zone.
smoker: What the hell? I just came over here. I can smoke if I want to.
me: I have been sitting here for a while, and I don't mind if you smoke elsewhere. Just not here.
woman: What the hell?
me: Thank you for respecting the needs of a person with asthma.
woman: Oh, respecting your needs? What about mine?
me: I don't mind if you smoke somewhere else. But it's against the law to smoke right here, and I have asthma. Thank you for respecting my health.
woman: [wandering away, talking loudly into her cell phone] Sorry, some white bitch says I can't smoke near her ass. Oh, wait, that white bitch don't HAVE no ass.

So yes, smoking is a public health issue. But there's something about this no-smoking-in-your-personal-vehicle thing that really gets to me. I'm no lawyer, but it seems to me that one's car is an extension of one's residence. It's a private space. But the boundaries between private and public are a lot blurrier in the car because, unless your ride is pimped out with tinted windows (which are heavily regulated in this state anyway), everyone can see what you're doing, all the time.

If you smoke in the car with the windows up, your car smells like an ashtray. If you smoke in your house with the windows closed, your house smells like an ashtray. Anyone in a closed car will inhale second-hand smoke--but so can anyone in a closed room. Is it really worse to be in the car than in the house? I'd be willing to bet that kids spend a lot more time in houses full of second-hand smoke than in cars. So why target cars?

I think the answer is that it's a lot easier to enforce a ban on smoking in the car. The police can obtain immediate evidence that someone's smoking in the car--no need to justify a search warrant if you can see the crime in progress.

But you know, there are many other things in California which pose health hazards to children and other living things. There's pollution, crime, poverty, homelessness, abuse, disease, neonatal drug addiction, abysmal public education, gang violence... all of which are much harder to solve with a single piece of legislation.

If this bill passes, I hope someone will be able to sleep better, knowing that parents will be fined for lighting up while driving their children to school--in a district where less than 50% will receive a diploma and where gangs have more power than the principal.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Public transit story #18: Saving it for later

I admit: I have a very poor sense of smell.

For most of my life my nasal passages were completely clogged by allergies. It's only been in the past few years that I've been able to breathe through my nose. Say what you will about mouth-breathers--I've heard it all before.

Now there is a whole olfactory world out there with which I must become acquainted. I can smell lots of things now, but I have no idea what they are. I'm really good at identifying things like natural gas, peanut butter, baked goods, vanilla, popcorn and sulfur. But I tend to label vaguely unpleasant odors as one of the following:

1) tuna fish;
2) toast;
3) burning motor oil; or
4) pee.

You'd be surprised at how often I think Berkeley smells like tuna fish or toast. But then there was one morning when our entire neighborhood smelled to me like nasty stir-fry. The culprit turned out to be the garbage truck, which is powered by vegetable oil. Kitchen waste + hot vegetable oil = nasty stir-fry, indeed.

Mrs. Gerbil has the sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying task of helping me identify odors. Sometimes I need assistance telling burning motor oil from hot engine; but most of the time it's pot versus skunk. I know skunk very well, as I grew up in skunk country and have experienced live skunk under the house, dead skunk under the house, and of course dead skunk in the middle of the road. During my senior year of high school, a skunk crawled under the house, died, and perfumed all of my clothes. I was definitely not the most popular kid in school the next day. But I digress.

Pot versus skunk is tough. Mrs. Gerbil admits that pot smells like skunk, but her rule of thumb is that skunk travels, whereas pot does not. Sometimes, while we're driving on the highway, I'll yell "SKUNK!" and Mrs. Gerbil will say, "No, honey, that's pot." Which begs the question: why does the highway smell like pot, or rather, who's driving while stoned?

BART trains often smell like pot/skunk. (I'd rather people take transit while stoned than drive while stoned, but then I'd really prefer they sit in another car.) I'm reasonably certain that no one gets on BART after being sprayed by a skunk, and also reasonably certain that a whole lot of people in the Bay Area get stoned with great frequency. Most of the time it's teenagers who fragrance BART, but occasionally there's a middle-aged ex-hippie providing the aromatherapy.

On Tuesday an elderly, distinguished-looking gentleman sat down in front of me, and at that moment my world began to smell like a head shop. A lot of teenagers had boarded at the same time, so I gave in to stereotyping and figured one of them was high.

Then I saw the last little bit of a joint tucked behind this man's rather sizable ear.

I was proud of myself for correctly identifying pot, but I was even more impressed by this guy's storage facilities.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Ya think?

This entry is in memory of my grandmother, who passed away suddenly last week at the age of 90. I owe much of my sense of humor to her influence.

Last weekend, Mrs. Gerbil and I found ourselves taking an unexpected trip to Philadelphia. It was a strange, strange time.

We flew Southwest, so of course we were each presented with the famed Box of Carbs during the flight. Happily, Mrs. Gerbil and I are both carb monsters.

We also received several little packages of peanuts.

Ingredients: Peanuts, Dry Roasted with Salt. Produced in a facility that processes peanuts and other nuts.
Now, I appreciate allergy warnings as much as the next person. I have food sensitivities, but I have to read ingredient lists because no one prints handy warnings for things like echinacea, bananas, and flowers.

Mrs. Gerbil, however, is allergic to peanuts. She's not allergic to the extent that she has to avoid things processed in facilities which also process peanuts. But even if she were that allergic, I would hope that she wouldn't need to check the back of the little package to find out whether her peanuts were produced in a facility that processes... peanuts.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Public transit story #17: Private lives

Mrs. Gerbil and I took the bus into town over the weekend, in order to accomplish various and sundry activities such as paying the rent. We were among only a handful of people headed into town on that particular line at that particular time, which should have meant a nice, quiet 5-minute ride.

But no.

Also on the bus was a girl about our age who was engaged in an extremely loud pre-break-up conversation. The presumably-soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend was not on the bus, however, but on the other end of her cell phone connection. Mrs. Gerbil and I heard far more than we wanted to about this girl's life, her burgeoning self-confidence, and his infidelities. And about how "the punk-rock world is very small."

The awful thing was that there was really no way not to overhear. Mrs. Gerbil and I tried in vain to hold our own conversation at normal volume, but this girl was just so incredibly loud (possibly because of the volume at which the small punk-rock world plays its music) that we kept getting derailed. We tried really hard not to laugh, but that didn't work so well either.

She was still having words with her soon-to-be-ex as she got off the bus. I turned to Mrs. Gerbil and said, "There are some phone conversations that you just shouldn't have on the bus." Mrs. Gerbil agreed.

I mean, the punk-rock world is awfully small. There might only be two degrees of separation between you and the bus driver.

Monday, March 05, 2007

In sickness and in health

Mrs. Gerbil and I have been thinking (perhaps obsessively) about little gerbs. Conveniently, I've just begun a new job that will not only help fund the production of little gerbs, but also provides much more affordable and comprehensive health benefits. This job is very pregnancy-friendly, and at the moment there are several pregnant or recently post-partum people on site. This is all very good news for the two-member Committee on Gerb Production.

Our new health package includes full coverage for preventive care. Fantastic, I thought, because prenatal care is, by its very nature, largely preventive. But then I asked someone whether prenatal care is covered as preventive care, and I was sorely disappointed to hear that it is not. And then it dawned on me: Like most other health plans, our shiny new one considers pregnancy a sickness.

To be a covered "sickness," pregnancy must have its own diagnostic code, at least for purposes of billing. In the ICD-9 (the current US standard), the diagnostic code for normal pregnancy is V22.2. Anything diagnosable is de facto abnormal, and thus normal pregnancy is abnormal.

("Okay, okay," you are saying, "pregnancy is a departure from normal bodily functioning, so isn't this diagnosable sickness thing warranted?" But humor me here.)

Sickness is by definition bad. Nothing good can come directly of sickness. Sure, you might have a renewed appreciation for life if you survive a serious illness or injury; but the most positive direct result of sickness that I can think of is that once you've had the chicken pox, you are almost guaranteed not to have a repeat performance.

And yet every single human being that ever was is the result of pregnancy. Perhaps you are a cynic and believe that human beings are no good. But hey--you wouldn't be around to hate your fellow human beings if not for pregnancy. Which, I hasten to add, is diagnosable.

Now I shall blow your mind some more with my, well, mind-blowing logic. Even in our enlightened times, women are expected to want to have children. Those who do not want to have children are, at least in some circles, considered abnormal.

Thus: In order to be considered normal, you have to be considered abnormal.

I rest my case.