Hypergraffiti

Where I spray-paint my thoughts…


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Come From Away. Then … Go Back Home?

For a few gloriously warm and mostly-sunny days — the summer days we’ve all been waiting for — near the end of July 2019, a gentleman from Texas who shares my last name (but is no relation, as far as we know) briefly became Newfoundland’s most celebrated tourist.

Preston Morgan became a fan of Newfoundland and Labrador — and a long-distance friend to many Newfoundlanders — by following and engaging with lots of Newfoundlanders on Twitter. When he, his wife, and their daughter finally made their dream visit to Newfoundland last week, they were greeted by reasonably good weather, stunning scenery, and friendly people — all the things a summer tourist should expect. Preston met in real-life some folks (like me) that he’d chatted with online. And the Morgans responded warmly, posting pictures of their travels on Twitter and enthusing about the beauty of everything they saw.

This is me looking WEIRDLY INTENSE (no idea why) with Preston and Louise at the Victoria Park Lantern Fest. (Photo credit: Emma Cole)

In short, Preston and his family seem to have had a true “Come From Away” experience — the same kind of experience celebrated in the award-winning Broadway musical now playing on three continents. That musical is based on the experience of a group of travellers who, far from choosing to visit Newfoundland on a dream vacation, were stranded here for several days after US planes were grounded following the 9/11 attacks. As many of us remember, the citizens of Gander and other Newfoundland communities rose to the occasion with warmth and generosity, opening homes, hearts and wallets to help the stranded passengers.

It’s something we’ve always been known for and always been proud of: the kindness with which we welcome visitors. You see this attitude celebrated not only in Preston Morgan’s Twitter feed and on the stage of Come From Away: it’s present in one of the first local songs I can ever remember hearing as a child (“There’s No Price Tags on the Doors in Newfoundland”) and in some of my favourite This Hour Has 22 Minutes skits (like this one about sending in Canadian Forces to help Newfoundlanders after a storm, or another about a man trying to “survive” in the Newfoundland wilderness).

We’re not the only place famous for this, of course, but welcoming visitors and making them feel at home has always been a proud part of our culture. But does our welcome depend on the knowledge that the visitors will, eventually, go back home?

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The Answer is Not “Buy More Stuff”

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Instagram likes to sell me stuff. Occasionally it even works: I’ve clicked on a company’s pic and ended up buying a product from them (only once, but still). And knowing my generally leftie, aging-hippie-mom profile, it’s not surprising that the image on the left, above, keeps cropping up in my Insta feed.

It’s from a company that sells reusable products intended to cut down on the use of disposable plastics. I’m not going to name and shame the company here because they seem to be a small business genuinely trying to do their best to make a buck. But I will use their ad as an example of capitalism’s misguided attempt to solve big problems by selling us products that fit our image of who we’d like to be, rather than actually addressing the problem.

The company that produced this ad targeted it at the right person. I do care about the overuse of disposable plastics, and I think reducing our dependence on those products is a key step to a more livable planet. And I think consumer choice is important here, because businesses big and small — like fast-food chains and coffee shops that automatically hand over plastic cutlery packaged in plastic sleeves — won’t make changes unless they see a customer demand for those changes.

And yes, I am the crotchety old hippie mom who brings her travel mug to Starbucks, her reusable bags to the grocery store, even her stainless-steel straw for her cold drink in summer. So it’s understandable that somebody’s algorithm also thought I’d like a complete set of reusable stainless steel cutlery and a tidy cloth bag to put it in. Ready to slip into my backpack and pull out whenever I’m at a place that offers me plastic cutlery.

Except: here’s the thing. I already HAVE stainless steel cutlery. Pretty sure you do too. At home. In that drawer in the kitchen. Like the stuff pictured on the right, above.

What’s wrong with just slipping a knife, fork and spoon from my kitchen set into my bag and hitting the road?

Since metal cutlery is something virtually every home-owning or apartment-dwelling person in North America already has, how could there conceivably be a market for single sets? How could anyone who wants to reduce plastic use possibly be duped into buying this product?

If you know of a legitimate reason why the single set of cutlery pictured above is somehow superior to just grabbing a knife, spoon and fork from the kitchen drawer, hit me up in the comments. Otherwise, I’m just going to say: this is peak capitalist craziness.

Our entire economic system is driven by the engine of making people wantthings they don’t actually need. I admit I was briefly seduced by the attractive design of the cutlery in the ad on the left. It’s so pretty! Using it would make me feel like I’m helping solve the plastic problem. Plus, if I used it at Starbucks, people might glance at it and say, “Oh, how cool!” They would know I am Environmentally Conscious and Concerned About the Right Things.

As opposed to pulling out my flatware from home, which, frankly, is going to make me look a little like a nutty old bag lady.

If your concern is truly what’s best for the environment, there is no conceivable metric by which buying a new product — one that had to be manufactured and then shipped to you — is better for our planet than using something you already have around the house.

What’s being sold in this ad (and countless others like it) is not a product that saves on disposable plastic: it’s an image. A picture of who you want to be. A visible cue to what kind of person you want others to see when they look at you. A smug sense that you have done something, however tiny, to Make the World a Better Place.

We are so hard-wired to the idea that the solution to any problem is to Buy More Stuff, that we don’t critically interrogate our purchases as often as we should. T-shirt that promotes feminist ideals, made by women in a Bangladeshi sweatshop under unsafe conditions? I’ve bought it; I’ve worn it. Sipping non-fair-trade coffee from a mug that promotes a socially-conscious anti-poverty message? Guilty as charged.

I’m as susceptible to that desire to look good, to package my social concerns in a pretty bundle and slip them into a drawstring cotton bag, as the next aging hippie mom. I’ve definitely fallen prey to that urge a few times.

But not this time. This time I’m putting a set of my kitchen flatware in my backpack and going off to get my morning coffee and bagel, looking like the crotchety old future bag lady I am.

I encourage you to do the same.


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New Kids on the Block (if your block includes a public school)

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Recently the Ontario Education Minister decided that larger class sizes in public schools were actually good for kids because they build resilience. While the Doug Ford government in Ontario may be a special kind of stupid, governments in other places, while not stating it as blatantly, have shown a callous disregard for what teachers, parents and students have to say about what’s needed in public school classrooms.

If, like me, you haven’t been in school yourself in nearly 40 years, and if you haven’t had your own kids in public school, you may think, “What are teachers whining about? Back in the day, Miss Belchington had 30 kids in my Grade Nine class and she kept us all in line with a stern glare. And we turned out just fine!”

Here’s the news: public schools have changed since you were in Miss Belchington’s class. A lot.

I finished high school 37 years ago, and I’ve been teaching for 23 of the years since then, but most of my teaching has not been in the public school system. For the last 13 years I’ve been teaching in an adult-education program where we serve young adults, many of whom have dropped out of the public system or failed to find success there. My knowledge of today’s public school classrooms comes from talking to my own students about their school experiences, and from observing the classrooms of my own two children, who both graduated recently from a public school in the centre of our small Canadian city. It also comes from talking to friends who are teaching in the public system.

Putting all these pieces together, I’ve learned a few things.

The main thing I’ve learned is that there are a lot of kids in class today that weren’t there 30 years ago. They’re all good kids. And the reasons why they’re in school are all good reasons.

But the presence of those kids means that the dynamic of the classroom has changed.

To illustrate what I mean, let me take you into a fictional ninth-grade classroom, somewhere in North America, and introduce you to three theoretical students. None of them were in the classroom when I was in Grade 9, exactly forty years ago in 1979. And the presence of these new kids on the block changes things.

1. Emily is severely hearing-impaired. She uses assistive technology to understand what the teacher is saying, and requires accommodations, including a separate room and extra time for testing, to complete her classwork. Intellectually, she has above-average ability, but apart from the things she just can’t hear, she has some gaps in her education due to material she missed earlier in her education.

In 1979, Emily wouldn’t have been in Grade 10 with me. She would have attended an institution across town called the School for the Deaf. Like a lot of specialized schools, the Newfoundland School for the Deaf no longer exists; it closed in 2010. The movement in schools over the last 20 years has been towardinclusion — bringing students like Emily into the regular classroom rather than segregating them in separate classrooms and buildings.

Inclusion is absolutely a good thing. People with disabilities need to be able to participate more fully in society, including in school. But when hearing-impaired Emily, and Shaina with her wheelchair, and non-verbal autistic Josh, are all in the classroom (sometimes with student assistants) along with 27 other students, more is required of everyone — the teacher, the disabled students, and the rest of the students. Inclusion without adequate support doesn’t help kids with disabilities; in some cases, it further marginalizes them as teachers and fellow students see them as a problem or a distraction.

2. Abdel and his family came from Syria as refugees in 2016. English is his second language, and he’s learning fast, but he requires an ESL teacher although he is in the regular classroom for part of the day. Abdel also has PTSD because of the loss of his home in the Syrian war and his experiences in a refugee camp, but nobody has diagnosed this because of the language barrier.

In 1979, Abdel wouldn’t have been in my Grade 9 classroom — he would have been back in Syria. When I was growing up in Newfoundland we had virtually no immigrant population. Even in other places, where there was already a diverse population 30 years ago, immigration is on the rise.

3. Robby is bored with school. He loves working with his hands and is great at anything mechanical, but he hates book work. He has some learning disabilities — dysgraphia and dyscalculia — though neither is severe enough that he’s ever been identified for any accommodations. Robby just knows that he hates school. But he loves helping his uncle, who owns a garage, tear down and rebuild engines.

In 1979, Robby started the school year in my Grade 9 class, but he dropped out in November. His uncle had a job opening at the garage, and Robby went to work. Today he owns the garage and is making a good living as a respected member of the local business community.

2019 Robby doesn’t have the options that 1979 Robby had. He can be a mechanic, sure — if he graduates from high school and does a course at a vocational school. Society has changed: there are far fewer jobs available for people without formal education, and we require almost everyone to have a high-school diploma for entry level jobs. Robby’s dream job of fixing cars has changed too: so much of the work now involves computers that he needs a different skill set.

Because society and the labour market have changed, we’re keeping a lot of young people in school who used to leave before completing high school. That includes Robby, who’s bored in a desk, and Janelle, whose anxiety makes it hard for her to get through the classroom door each morning, and Jessica, who’s unexpectedly pregnant at 15.

Keeping more kids in school is not just a good thing — it’s a great thing! But accommodating kids who find traditional learning a challenge, and kids with mental health issues, and young single moms, and all kinds of other students who once would have dropped out, also creates new challenges for that classroom teacher with her 30 students.

Inclusion is good. Immigration is good. Preventing drop-out is good. But none of these things can be successfully achieved without cost.

The cost can’t be teacher burnout and lower quality of education for kids. That doesn’t work. The cost has to be a greater investment in public education, smaller class sizes, and more resources to meet the varying needs of the classroom of 2019 — along with all the new kids on the block.


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Prone to Wander (or, my vanity project that you might also enjoy)

p2w coverLast year, one of my favourite musicians went on a tour he titled the “Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour” — the idea being that on this tour he was basically just going to play the stuff he wanted to play, not the big hits but the stuff only hardcore fans would know and care about (no I didn’t get tickets to it and yes I’m still bitter, thanks for asking). This year, with many major writing projects on the go, I’ve decided to release what might be my own Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Book.” It’s not my usual field of historical fiction (don’t worry, there’s more of that coming soon) — but it’s a book I’ve always wanted to write and, after writing, always wanted to share with readers.

But for a long time, I didn’t. Share it, that is.

I’ll tell you a bit about it and then you can decide if you want to read it.

In the summer of 2004 I sat down to write a piece that had been in my head for a long time. It started with a well-known, maybe even hackneyed trope: a middle-aged man is driving on the highway when an out-of-control truck speeds toward him in his lane. As he’s about to get slammed by the tractor-trailer, the man’s whole life flashes before his eyes.

The flashbacks take him back to being a teenager in a very specific time and place: St. John’s, Newfoundland, attending the Seventh-day Adventist church and school there in the early 1980s. Why yes: the very same time, place, and circumstance in which I grew up.

I could never write a memoir; writing the novel that became Prone to Wander is as close as I will ever come. The characters and many of their experiences are pure fiction, but the setting in which they live is absolutely real, and numerous details, experiences, quirks and incidents are lifted straight from real life, though often in a different context than how they happened. Novelists always borrow, and sometimes steal, from their own lives: in this case I ruthlessly looted and pillaged mine.

I have never written anything as quickly, and with as much passion, as I did the first draft of Prone to Wander, which was substantially finished by Christmas 2004. Partly this was because, unlike historical fiction, it required almost no research: I was following the dictum “write what you know” in the purest sense. I wrote about five young people — three women and two men — growing up in the same world I had, and about five lives that go in wildly different directions while the bonds of teenage friendship still hold them together.

So I finished the book in about … four months, maybe? And then I spent a year or two editing, revising, getting people to read it and give me opinions, honing, improving it … and then: nothing. I put it in a metaphorical drawer and didn’t send it to a publisher or anything. Although several of the early readers had really loved the book and connected with it strongly, I didn’t put it out into the world.

Why?

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Candace Owens’ Question Period

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We all know the purpose of feminine protection is to allow women to leap about in fields while on their periods.

Well, the Oscars are over and they managed to make both conservatives and liberals mad. And yes, I have opinions, despite never having watched the awards ceremony this or any other year.

From what I can tell via Twitter, which is where I learn about things I don’t care much about, liberals are mad (justifiably) because the Best Picture award went to Green Book, a movie that transforms the true story of an exceptional black musician into a white-savior narrative seen through the eyes of his racist driver.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are outraged because somebody said the word “menstrual.”

Did I get all that right?

I found out about conservative outrage through this stellar tweet from Candace Owens — well, this tweet and the 46,016 people who had apparently liked it up to that point. (As I write this, it’s reached an even 50K).

Much like the Oscars themselves, Candace Owens exists on the periphery of my awareness. I don’t really know who she is, but I have a few friends who quote her a lot and admire her because she’s a young, smart, black woman who’s also a conservative Trump fan.

These American friends of mine — they’re the people who aren’t supposed to exist. They’re very smart women; they don’t call themselves feminist but they fully enjoy the benefits of liberation. They’re well-educated; they’re kind; they’re compassionate; they appear not to be overtly racist. They voted Republican, and they think Donald Trump, even if he wasn’t their first choice, is doing a good job. And they could easily be among the 50,000 people (so far!) who liked this tweet.

What did Candace Owens see in her one minute of viewing the Academy Awards ceremony? She saw a the end of a speech about the award-winning documentary short Period. End of Sentence, which deals with the stigma faced by girls and women in India around menstruation, and a project that attempts to dispel that stigma and make it easier for women to obtain sanitary pads. As one positive side effect, this makes it easier for teenage girls to stay in school.

I had never heard of this film before the Oscars, or more specifically before Candace Owens got her knickers in a knot over the phrase “menstrual equality.” As a result, I watched it today (it’s on Netflix) and it’s great. It does what a documentary should do: gives us a brief and insightful glimpse into an issue most of us probably didn’t know much about.

So how does the use of the phrase “menstrual equality” explain why Donald Trump won the US 2016 election?

Candidly, Candace: I haven’t the faintest clue:

But I can guess that Candace was turned off by the phrase because it represented a concept that disgusted her. She presumably menstruates, but she likely has excellent access to feminine protection, as do most North American women of middle-class and higher socio-economic status. So she has never probably had to think for one second about what life might be like for women who don’t enjoy that privilege.

Just as I had never thought much about it either.

For Candace Owens, that two-word phrase seems to have pushed a lot of buttons. People talking openly about things that should be shrouded in shame and secrecy. People insisting on equality. People speaking about issues that seem obscure and unimportant to her.

And because someone used that phrase during a Hollywood awards show, conservative America has risen up in protest to elect a government that will … what? Stop people from talking about their periods?

Like a lot of things people say on Twitter, it sort of falls apart if you try to analyze it.

But here’s the thing about these conservative friends of mine who love Candace Owens, who think Trump is doing a great job, who think the Oscars are full of self-absorbed Hollywood liberals who hate America. If you said to any of them, “Do you think it’s right that girls in India can’t go to school because they can’t access sanitary pads, or bathrooms in which to change their pads, and there’s so much stigma they can’t talk to anyone about it?” these woman would almost certainly say, “That’s terrible!”

And if you said, “There are entrepreneurs trying to make more affordable pads and get them into the hands of Indian girls and women,” I suspect they’d say, “That’s great!”

In fact, if (prior to the Academy Award) you showed the film Period. End of Sentence to many of these women, they would likely find it interesting, informative, and even worthy of an award. Maybe some would even donate to www.thepadproject.org . They’re big supporters of charity.

But now? A political line has been drawn around something that wasn’t inherently political. Now, because of Candace Owens’ tweet, at least 50,000 (and counting!) conservative American Twitter users likely think not only that “menstrual equality” is a weird phrase, but that Period: End of a Sentence is some degenerate liberal plot and that it’s “socialist” to care about girls in India getting access to affordable sanitary pads.

All because someone heard a phrase they didn’t like and didn’t understand, and instead of trying to learn more about it, reacted with a polarizing political statement on social media.

How often we all do that — hear something unfamiliar, something that grates or jars on us, and respond with a knee-jerk “Here’s Why The Thing Is Bad!!!” rather than a curious, “What is the thing? Can I learn more about it?”

As a card-carrying bleeding-heart liberal, I’d like to suggest that people on the conservative side of the culture wars leap to attack far too often when they should move towards curiosity. But the truth is, people on “my” side do it too. I do it. Shoot first, and ask questions later. Or, don’t ask questions at all.

And that’s a pain. Period.


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Toxic Femininity

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Photo: Lukasz Dziegel, pexels.com

Throw into the 2018 file of “Things That Happen So Regularly We Hardly Even Notice”: liberal friend uses the phrase “toxic masculinity” on social media to refer to a man abusing his partner or shooting a bunch of strangers or whatever. Conservative friend responds aghast to the idea that “masculinity is toxic” and rushes to the defense of all the great, truly MANLY men she knows who embody masculine qualities. Tired liberal friend explains that the phrase “toxic masculinity” does not mean “being masculine is toxic.” Blah blah blah: at this point we all know our lines.

But my latest go-round on the Merry-Go-Round-of-Gender-Norm-Debates triggered a new thought: Is there such a thing as “toxic femininity”? 

If “toxic masculinity” means not “masculine behavior is inherently toxic” but “there is a version of masculine behavior that can be expressed in toxic and damaging ways” — violence, anger, abuse, rape, etc — is there a female corollary? Are there behaviors our society marks as typically “feminine” that can also be harmful, both to the woman in question and to those around her?

If your answer to this is “no,” I can only assume you have never gone to a girls’ school, lived in a girls’ dorm, belonged to a church women’s group, or worked in a largely-female workplace.

Toxic femininity? Let me try a few words out on you.

Catty.

Manipulative.

Gossipy.

Competitive.

Backstabbing.

Bitchy (and not in the good, empowering, “I’m a bad bitch and I own it!” kinda way, but in the “Susan, that cake you brought to the shower was delicious — I never would have guessed you bought it at Costco” kind of way).

Amid all the talk of female empowerment and feminist sisterhood, we also have all these images in our head. The catty coworker with the snide remarks. The judgey girls’ clique in junior high.  The church lady who looks down her nose at anyone who doesn’t dress right. The girl who’s your best friend right up until she steals your man. The woman who gets what she wants from the male boss by using her “feminine wiles” to undercut another female employee. The list goes on and on.

Yes, there’s such a thing as toxic femininity. Having lived in the world as a woman for 53 years, I’ve been on the receiving end of other women’s stereotypically feminine bad behavior, and yes, I’ve perpetrated some of it myself.

The thing is, toxic femininity has the exact same root cause as toxic masculinity:

Patriarchy.

Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m NOT saying individual women are not responsible for their own bad behavior, or that women’s bad behavior is men’s fault. I’m talking about a societal system that’s bigger than any individual man or woman: a set of expectations about male and female behavior that’s baked into our culture and into the way we raise and socialize little boys and little girls, just as surely as Susan’s cake was baked at Costco.

The same patriarchal system that tells men that they have to be physically strong and tough to be “manly,” that tells them violence is more acceptable than expressing emotions, also delivers some powerful messages to women:

  • Your most important value is your physical appearance
  • Your most important achievement is attracting a man’s attention
  • Other women are your competition for male attention
  • Exercising power directly — especially over men — is inappropriate: you must learn to be the “power behind the throne”

Teach generations of women these things, directly and indirectly, for centuries, and what do you get? Competition among women. Women using manipulative, underhanded tactics to control men and other women. Gossip. Back-stabbing. In a word, bitchiness.

Sure, part of the cure is for individual women to resist those messages and behave better (and teach our daughters and other young women to do so). Just as the cure for toxic masculinity is, in part, individual men resisting violence and aggression and teaching others to do so.

But a systemic problem can’t be entirely solved by individual solutions. The problem of toxic femininity comes down to the same thing as toxic masculinity: the patriarchy is bad for everyone.

And that’s why it needs to be dismantled.

 


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On the Death of Robots: Who Gets to be Human?

ai-artificial-intelligence-astronomy-73910I’ll admit it: like lots of people, I’ve shed a tear or two over the “death” of the Opportunity Rover, which spent far longer recording information on the surface of Mars than it was ever supposed to. After seeing dozens of cartoons and tributes, it’s hard not to anthropomorphize a machine that embodied so much of our humanness, our striving to know more about the universe we live in.

The story of Opportunity and the response to its “death” showcases the best of humanity: our curiosity, our ingenuity and ability to create technology that satisfies that hunger for knowledge, and our empathy, which is so vast that we can anthropomorphize a data-collecting robot, endow it with human characteristics, and mourn its loss as if it were one of us.

As a species, we take my breath away. We are amazing.

At the same time, the machines of human ingenuity churn away here on earth – answering questions, solving problems, and at the same time destroying the very planet we live on, the air we breathe and the water we drink. The creativity that sent Sojourner, Opportunity, Spirit and now Curiosity to Mars has not, so far, been channelled towards making our own planet a fit place for our great-grandchildren to inhabit.

Nor has our incredibly capacity for empathy and imagination enabled us to humanize the creatures who are being endangered and made extinct by our rapacious greed – or even our fellow humans who suffer from floods, desertification, wildfires. We weep for a dead robot and ignore dead animals, dead fish, dead human children.

As a species, we take my breath away. We are horrible.

We can look at robots, at animals, at fictional characters in books, and make them human by the power of our imagination – care about their fates as much as those of our fellow human beings. But our empathy has limits.

We anthropomorphize dogs and cats, celebrate them as our best friends and make them the heroes of books and movies. But an insect in the Amazon rainforest that a whole ecosystem depends on? We can’t imagine it as human, so we ignore its extinction.

Those who work in conservation are familiar with this paradox. Here in Newfoundland, we were subjected for decades to cries of pity for big-eyed harp seal pups, which were never endangered, but which looked so cute they were easy to humanize. The far less adorable northern cod, which really was endangered, didn’t make a good conservation poster, so trawlers dragged the ocean floor and depleted its stocks to the point that they will probably never fully recover.

We can’t even imagine all our fellow human beings as human. The Other: the foreigner, the refugee, the illegal immigrant child in a detention centre, the homeless panhandler on the corner. If we really saw them as human – even as human as our dogs or our Mars rovers – could we ignore their suffering as we do?

(This lack of imagination is not limited to one side of the political spectrum. Even as I write this, I’m reminded that my pro-life friends would be quick to point out that I, as a pro-choice progressive Christian, might not be capable of imagining a human fetus as fully human, either, until it passes a certain arbitrary cut-off point. We see each other’s failures of empathy more clearly than our own).

We cannot yet travel to Mars, but we can send our emissaries there to do our work, and invest in them our imagination, our hopes, even our empathy. They represent us, and so we imagine that they are us, in some small way.

Yet we will never solve the problems of this planet – the problems of a changing climate, of poverty, of terrorism and violence and inhumanity – till we broaden our vision of who – and what! – deserves our empathy. Until everyone gets to be seen as human.

I honestly don’t know if we will. But a species that can send Opportunity to Mars and fall in love with it – that species certainly can do all that and more.