Friday, May 30, 2014

Right many a nipperkin!
Or, how quaint and curious war is...

Another Memorial Day has come and gone, and as usual I was saddened by the outpouring of gratitude for those who have "served our country" in the armed forces when the expressions of gratitude accepted war as a matter of course, as something that will never change.

Obviously, a species (humanity) that enjoys warfare so much won't ever change without beginning by thinking about how to change. Rarely do people think about how war can be eradicated; instead, they tend to start with the premise that war is inevitable and then go from there into how they think we "should" conduct ourselves in this state of inevitability.

I can certainly understand the sentiments and pragmatism that lead someone to want to be prepared for things. But I find it troubling when the larger idea is meant only with this insistence on pragmatism that refuses to reject the violence or call a spade a spade.

No one wants to be kidnapped. As a child, I learned about "stranger danger," I was taught not to accept a ride from someone I didn't know, I was taught about safety, my mom knew which friends I was playing with, I had to be home by a certain time,  I knew that I should scream or fight or run or put my bicycle between me and the attacker...all sorts of scenarios were met in my 8- or 9-year-old head with a plan as to what I should do if I met with this imagined potential kidnapper.

No one would have ever been so absurd as to suggest that kidnapping was not completely and totally evil, wrong, immoral, sinful, depraved, wicked, whatever word you want to use. Kidnapping = bad. Kidnapping should not exist.

I don't understand why when I mention that war is evil and should not exist, I am forever met with the argument that war is inevitable, so we should thank the soldiers who fight. It completely fails to address the philosophical issue at hand. Unlike kidnapping, apparently not everyone has yet decided that war is evil, and that is what I'm talking about when I say war is evil.

This happened, as usual, on Memorial Day. From what I can tell, it's nationalism that provokes it, and this may be the largest part of the disconnect. For example, when I post on Facebook about how absurd it is to ask some young man or woman to be slaughtered in order to make rich and powerful business leaders and politicians (especially arms manufacturers, let alone oil magnates) richer and more powerful, even the most "anti-war" touchy feely hippies among my Fb "friends" chime in with arguments about how "our" freedom hasn't been threatened in our lifetimes, that "we" have been the aggressors ever since WWII, etc.  All this does is fixate on the lines in the sand that make up our nation states. (As if only nation states ever engage in warfare.)

When I cite Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum Est," it's meant to remind you that it is a vicious lie to tell someone they should be honored to die for their country. It's a crock of shit to tell someone that being torn apart by bullets or having your life forever scarred by the trauma of battle is glorious because it was for [insert country name here]. When so-called anti-war folk in the U.S. chorus their "agreement" with the idea that "Yeah, no one's really dying for their country! They're dying for oil! We're being the aggressors! They're attacking! Our politics are wrong!" and so forth, there's an implication that it would be OK if we were really sending 18-year-olds to die for their country. Some have even come out and said that: WWII was "necessary," they say, to defend our nation, so in that case our boys were really dying for our freedom! etc.

What this really means is you have zero other ideas for solving problems--and fail to recognize that WWII didn't come out of nowhere. International politics don't happen in a vacuum. Years and years of choices led to WWII, just as with any other war.  And I respectfully disagree that asking anyone to die "for" their country is any better than asking them to die "for" their country's economy, rampaging electric grid, or politicians.

...If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
      -- Wilfred Owen

Is it because people are so easily deceived that those from another nation are so different that they could really be "enemies" by virtue of their passports? There is no nation on Earth that is my "enemy." This has already been covered in poetry, too: if the German and English soldiers met up in a bar, they'd joke and drink and swap stories, but on the battlefield they're expected to shoot each other to death. It's absurd. Why can't everyone see that it's absurd?

In some way, the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld trifecta of supreme evil may have at least got this part right; rather than trying the traditional nonsense that this or that nation was the U.S.'s "enemy" they just declared a war on "terror," because they perhaps knew that people in the global economy internet age are, we can only hope, getting to know more and more people from and getting more and more economically involved with other nations, which could lead to them being resistant to suddenly having to shoot and bomb those people to keep Boeing or the Saudi royal family in business. We cannot reach the day soon enough when every nation looks on every other nation with the kind of ironic friendship the U.S. and Canada share; a war between the U.S. and Canada has no place outside of a Saturday Night Live sketch.

The other large part of the disconnect seems to be in my questioning of the way we are constantly asked to revere the so-called "heroes" and the veterans who have served in armed conflict (and/or cruised through a war-zone free stint in the armed forces before going on to have their college/health care/retirement at age 40 paid for).  I can't for the life of me fathom how clapping for them in the airport or offering them a discount on their baseball game tickets or appetizers at some family restaurant is supposed to make up for the evils to which their own government has subjected them. But I can fathom exactly how this "hero" worship leads directly to more and more war. It creates an endless sanctification of the military, endowing returning vets and fighters in battle with a spiritual greatness (rather than acknowledging the real life desperation and adrenaline and fear and courage and physical effort and pain felt in those moments); it creates a culture of way-more-than-pragmatic acceptance of the concept of war; it blesses anyone who decides to join up to "defend freedom" when that is not even remotely what they will be doing; it pressures susceptible minds, minds that refuse to think critically, and even reasonable minds that simply want to do what is right into thinking that if they don't support soldiers, and they don't laud their acts out there (acts that involve war, aggressive military, atomic bombs, drones, the whole kit n' caboodle, if you will), then they the citizens are somehow at fault for daring to say "Hey, veteran -- no f------ way should you have been sent to war!"

Some people like to separate this in their minds. "I don't support the war, but I support the troops," they say, and then they have to fall all over themselves showing their "support" at parades or ball games or wherever.  I'd rather see you support the truth: that "supporting" the troops as people would mean calling off this nonsense immediately, and that supporting the seriously flawed military institutions of superpowers and empires (over the last many thousand years) just leads to more troops and superpowers and empires -- and death. As for war itself, this "ingenious" way humans have come up with of "solving" their problems? Of course that shouldn't be supported. It should be challenged at every turn.

One of the hardest (for me) misinterpretations of my thoughts this year came when someone suggested that I was failing to thank public servants who put their lives on the line because I was missing the reality that lives will be put on the line every day by police, firefighters, and many other professions, in addition to the military.

I would hasten to add: coal miners.

I am grateful every day for police officers and firefighters and other emergency responders. Not one of us who has ever flipped a light switch is grateful enough for coal miners. There is a difference between risking your life in the line of duty and having your life put on the line for you in this ridiculous "game" called war, where no lives are put on any line until the parties join together to enact their pathetic bloodbath. Why can't the world leaders (pretend) just go in a room with the board game Risk and play with green and plastic soldiers instead of wreaking real havoc all over the world with real people, real families, real lives, real torn flesh and real spurting blood?

This isn't about the U.S. military (although I'd love to see such a powerful country set a good example by putting its many resources, financial and human and university-endowed and so on, to good use finding other ways to solve problems on a global scale), nor is it about the skill and achievement of an organized military operation or the ways members of the armed forces can step in when disaster strikes with aid, engineering, transportation, and other help as needed. By all means, let's have a force ready to serve in times of emergency around the world. Let's have people trained to react, strategize, and defend against attack (like a kung fu fighter would also be able to do). Let's deploy ditch-diggers, nurses, teachers, builders, and other workers all over the planet. Let's march boldly toward every child dying of hunger or suffering from abuse and violence (including in our own towns where we live) and try to create solutions to those problems. If the U.S. or any other nation or empire wants to organize its young and able as well as a few old and curmudgeonly (I believe they're called "generals") in squadrons to rescue and create and serve, go for it.

But for god's sake, let's stop with this ridiculous notion that war is ever "okay."

Monday, May 26, 2014

Fun with divestments!

This is the part where I freely admit that I have paid very little attention to what my city invests in. And not just because I hardly know what city to call "mine" in the first place. (In the five-year period preceding this blog post, I have lived in Guangzhou, Queretaro, Andong, Chicago, and New York, and I have "lived" in Phoenix, Grand Rapids, and Phuket.) Because I don't think I've ever given much thought at all to the fact that cities are investing in anything.

I mean -- if I stop to think (which I don't, ordinarily), "How does my city get money?" then it seems that "Um, sales tax?" is the answer. Isn't that what they tell us all along: property taxes fund schools, sales taxes fill city coffers, and income taxes make possible our roads and social services and all those billions of dollars of soldiers' salaries, education, housing, equipment, ammunition, etc. as they make the world safe/defend our freedom/generate greatness/get applauded at airports/kill people/lay waste to entire villages/stuff like that. (Cue apocryphal Thoreau: "No, Ralph, what are you doing out there?")

But then I go and read a little story like this one in which the city of Portland weirdly wisely gets rid of 25% of its investments in Walmart, with plans to dump all its Walmart bonds by 2016, becoming the first U.S. city to divest funds from Walmart. Leading to some oh-so-very-obvious questions, among which:

1. Only 25%? Bigger, better, faster, more!! Come on, Portland!
2. Why the !@#%&* are you so invested in Walmart to begin with?
3. The "first" city to divest? *suspicious look* How many other cities are funding fucking Walmart and its horrible, abysmal practices?
4. Um - millions of dollars in Walmart bonds? That each of our major cities is just randomly paying?

That item #4 there is the one that strikes me deepest today. Amid all the talk about "We the Corporations" and the 99% and how freedom isn't free but tax loopholes apparently are and other hullabaloo, I don't think many people have ever really talked about the fact that cities like, say, Portland are investing millions of dollars in corporations like, say, Walmart. That is pretty terrible. Not just because Walmart's evil (it is) but because this whole moneymaking things goes unseen. Our society rolls merrily along with this idea that governments and corporations are separate things going about their business separately. Only, no. No, they are not.

How did cities make money in the past? In the year 1700, what did Boston and Plymouth and Providence do? Was there even a city clerk then? Maybe not. When were city clerks invented? When were city clerks' pensions invented? Who among ye knows anything whatsoever about all this?

Bankers, that's who. Rich ones.
And their CEO pals.

It's pretty grotesque, no?

(But seriously, people. Walmart?? Just: no.)

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Beer tent or bust!

There's that old saying: I never make the same mistake twice--I just make new ones. That is so me and the River Bank Run. I am totally going to conquer this 25K race! But not this year.

Careful readers of this blog may recall the River Bank Run. Brian's hometown of Grand Rapids puts on this big ol' race every year, and he has run the 25K a bunch of times, and I myself had previously indulged twice, but the third time was not my charm at all.  From the first time to the second time I ran it, I improved by seven minutes, but this time I did a major backslide. Just how displeased are we with my race results? Well, naturally I say that with all the sarcasm I can muster; I'm not particularly "displeased" because I enjoy doing things, regardless of how "successful" the outcome is.  Let's just say that after the race, one person I know, upon walking up to me, gave me her pitying look and an accompanying shoulder stroke/pat. Yikes! (I know, right? It's like, hey spectator--what was your race time this year?) Most people took a bit of a higher road with the "hey, you finished the race! that's all that matters!" approach, which is much more to my liking.

But what went wrong, exactly? Did I wear new running shorts on race day, like the first time I ran the 25K (which was totally Brian the seasoned runner's birthday gift to me the day before the race, by the way)? Nope. Did I go way too fast out of the gate, running the first couple of miles above race pace and then hitting a serious wall around mile 12? Nope! Did I screw up my eating and water drinking and have to stop and use the bathroom once or even twice along the race course, as in my first and second attempts? Nope. No, this time around was some entirely different failure. My stomach and clothes and early-miles-time were just fine, but my legs and body just lost the battle. Pretty much at mile 1, really.

So what were my new mistakes? For one thing, we didn't do the complete 25K training schedule, because we didn't start until we returned to to the U.S.A., so I tried to do the training in half the time, and I obviously failed at doing the accelerated version that I kind of invented. Because of that, I thought about doing the 10K instead, but then my 13-mile training run went all right, so I registered for the 25K. I obviously didn't do enough preparation, though. I tried to rectify that by eating all the right carbs in the few weeks before the race...but I really failed at sleeping well the two weeks prior. And then, spectacularly stupidly, I ran really fast -- don't know why! -- on my 3-mile run two days before the race, in what should have been my totally tapering nothing-but-easy week. I looked at my time at the end of Thursday's run and was like, Hmmm, that was really fast. Would that be enough, going too hard for only three miles, to really screw up my resting up for race day?  Maybe. Finally, I ran out of time to properly stretch before the race--we had a longer walk from where we got dropped off than we had time for and so I even failed at fully stretching. That's pretty terrible. Seriously, in the first minute of my race I thought, "Gee, my legs feel tired" as if I had done an intense workout a few hours earlier. Is that from the too-fast Thursday run, the not sleeping enough every day that week, the failure to fully stretch, or some other bonehead move? Who knows?! Here's what we do know: during the second half of the race, I walked a lot. Like, a couple different times. For maybe four or five miles out of the 15.6 miles. Quel d├ęsastre, n'est-ce pas?

I was totally mulling over my options as I willingly gave in to giving up, too. When the paramedics came by in their van and on their bicycles to check on the slowpokes, as they are wont to do for the last fourth of the people in these races (well, technically they're available for all the people, but this is the riding back and forth looking for dying/collapsing people in the last part of the run that I'm talking about) and I would be walking along, fine, but thinking, hmmm, if I take a ride back from them, will they still let me go get my free drink in the post-race beer tent?  Then I would chastise myself, no, just finish the course, silly! So I'd make myself play little run-ten-minutes-walk-five games, but I even failed at a couple of those. My legs (left hamstring and feet) were just not having it. (Oh yeah, that's another fail: I should have got new running shoes this year, seriously. But we didn't have our money from China..and...ugh...)  Being back with the 12-minute mile peeps (and eventually, listening to some fellow half-running/half-walkers next to me lament that the 12:00 pacer was about to pass us) means I get to see a lot of strugglers who are encouraging each other and digging deep to find what's in them to make it up that hill (screw that dastardly River Bank Run hill that starts between miles 9 and 10! I walked it) and to tell each other, "There's mile 11! There's mile 12!" and so on. I wasn't buying any of it. I even had my mp3 player with me --also a new idea this year, as I had not brought tunes on my previous two 25K races--and my go-to playlist songs just pissed me off.

Another thing that I have seen every year, hanging out as I do (even in the good part at the beginning of the race before I start dying) with the 10- and 11-minute mile people and not the elite runners, is someone on the phone. Yes, on the phone. During the race. I freaking hate people jabbering on their cell phones all the time, but while running a 25K it's just plain amusing. Usually it's something like, "Hi Mom! I'm at mile 4!" or "Honey, I'm halfway. I'm alive!" and so on. This year, as the aforementioned twelve-minute mile pacer was about to pass us, a random runner was on her mobile leaving a message. 12:00 pacer said, "Never seen anyone leaving a voice mail during their run before! Sorry, had to call you out there!"  Voicemail responded, "My dad called me! I had to call him back."  12:00 pacer said, "Oh, well, okay, if it's Dad" and was prepared to leave it at that (as she left us, in the dust) but then Voicemail's running buddy chimed in, "She just passed a big test for her work as an insurance actuary; she had to let him know."  WTF?!  Are you serious, lady? You're running a 25K right now!  Can't you focus on one accomplishment at a time? And seriously, this race started at 8 a.m. You have to have had at least a day since you passed this exam. You couldn't leave him a voice mail yesterday? Are you going to call him next weekend and be all, Hey dad, I was at mile 8 a week ago? ?!?!

You know what's fun, though? The people who cheer (including actual cheerleaders) and dress up and hand out water and Gatorade and pump you up and sing in bands with an accordion and write bluesy songs about the race ("You're in the River Bank Run, da-duh-da-duh-duh, you started training in January, da-duh-da-duh-duh" etc.) and also: make signs. It's always great to see signs like "Pain now, beer later" and "Your heart is in your soles" and whatnot, but my favorites this time around were two guys, maybe thirtysomething, just standing there in their t-shirt and jeans kind of style (wouldn't have surprised me if they'd had beer in a cooler) around mile seven.. The signs were simply marker on white poster board. The first guy's said "Worst Parade Ever." The second one was, "Making this sign was hard too!"  That's awesome. They were super duper fun. Way to go, random fun sign guys.

Ahh, slowness. I had an 11:40 mile pace the first seven miles, but my race average was 13:17, so you see where slowing down and dying and giving up will get you. That whole walking-a-few-miles thing made me so pathetically far behind that one of the running-coach-race-y-people jogged to me to motivate me at the final turn (which has one more stupid !@#$% short  mini-hill before the sprint to the finish) and ran alongside me for a bit, making me run with him. (I was, frankly, considering continuing walking, which I had been doing all through miles 14 and 15, thank you very much, all the way until that sprint-to-the-finish, but he made me run up the mini-hill, too, silly inspirational-dude.)

Running is so very interesting to me. I love it. I love the things I think about while running, I love the things I learn about my body, and I usually love pushing through the hard times to pursue the goal. This weekend, I skipped the whole pushing-through thing, but I'll get back to that one again, later. The worst thing was that I didn't get to hang out in the beer tent and have fun after the race because Brian (who finished the 25K an hour+ faster) and his friends (who did the 5K and 10K, starting and ending much earlier) had long since finished hanging out by the time I rolled in. And we didn't make a plan with his parents (yet another mistake) for them to, like, go home (although I know I had vocalized the idea that no one should be responsible for waiting for me, but I failed to make a plan) so they hung around watching the race and waited for me and then I had to, like, skedaddle pretty quickly with them because they'd been there spectating for hours and were so ready to go and I was like, Oh. OK. No fun times.

My next 25K is going to be so awesome. Things are going to change, I can feel it! (said the perdedor...)

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

No, really, don't touch me

Continuing yesterday's musing about the importance(?) of being polite...

My greatest fear is that some airline is going to start letting people use their cell phones on airplanes. I can't tell you how horrible that will be. As I have pointed out to many people, listening to one end of a phone conversation is actually a traumatic experience. It is physically unnerving to hear the punctuated vocalizations, uneven pauses, and up-and-down decibels. It's not like listening to background chatter at all. When you are sitting in a coffee shop or a bus or some other place where people are chatting (no, not a movie theater, assholes) it can be almost like elevator music or ocean waves or whatever--perfectly ignorable. And then someone takes out their damn cell phone because god forbid they just sit down and shut up for five minutes of their lives. The worst is when you run into One of Those. The people who finish one phone call and instead of putting the phone away or even putting it down immediately start scrolling through their contacts, trying to figure out who will be next to fill their lonely, unimaginative existences while destroying the serenity of all around them.

I think quiet cars (on commuter trains and whatnot) are the greatest thing ever.

Perhaps we could designate one flight per day for all of the people who want to either talk on their stupid phones OR travel with kids that aren't taught that they have to behave differently on airplanes than they do in other places? That would be fine. Let them all fly together, and leave the rest of us in peace.

I have a lot of sympathy for the "Get off my lawn!" people. By this, of course, I mostly refer to metaphorical lawns, although the other day I did watch a small child from next door toddle across the grass of the house I'm staying in (that's right, it doesn't even belong to me!) and my first thought was "Ugh, that kid totally thinks he can stray into someone else's yard..." or, rather, "Ugh, that kid's parents totally don't care if he toddles across someone else's yard"...what that experience taught me is that the main reason I mostly want people to get off of my metaphorical lawn is simply that I don't have a real lawn, and if I did, I would want people to get off of that, too.

It's like this, essentially: don't touch me, don't touch my things, and don't touch my mental things (i.e., give me my mental/emotional/psychological/whatever "space").

I understand there are some of you who don't go through your days with these feelings?  What must that be like?

Some folks describe themselves like this: "I'm a people person." I'm pretty sure I've never uttered those words about myself, although I do like to meet smart, interesting, funny people (usually in that order). And obviously I only truly like people if they read and they are non-violent and they like cats. I tolerate other kinds of people all the time, because I live in society, but I wouldn't say that I like them, no. Where is it written that it's better to like more people, anyway? Is there some kind of prize at the end of life, some I-liked-the-most-people award?? I think not.

How serious am I about this?  (Do you really want to ask?)  Well, let's see. This all comes in the spirit of thinking about being polite. And what's polite about bothering people? Nothing. So if someone wants you to get off his lawn, metaphorical or otherwise, then maybe you should get off of it. What inspires these thoughts right now? Oh, I don't know. It's just that I'm in a very Virginia Woolf-esque phase of my life. I am writing and editing and trying to write more and sifting through and creating and embarking upon many writing projects and ideas and I am following through on creative intentions and just generally trying to do all that and yet I lack those two things, those two keys, oh yes, Virginia, the all-important wealth and a room of one's own. Constant frustration!

Is it a lack of creative space (physical) that leads to a feeling of lack of (mental/emotional) personal space that makes one crankier and more willing than ever to be annoyed by humanity in general? Talk to me, artists.

Was it the past year living in China that sent me over the edge? That is a strong candidate. China's throbbing humanity goes way beyond personal crowding and inability to walk up an escalator and crosses all the lines, right into bodily functions and wanton fluid-spewing, with an added bonus of scarcity mentality and eating of cats and dogs. It doesn't get much easier to hate humanity than living with those kind of thoughts every day.

Is humanity actually becoming more annoying? Although things like Buzzfeed, Fox News, and the misuse of the word "literally" argue strongly for the idea, I don't think this is the case. I think humanity has probably always sucked roughly the same, but it's just that the population grows, so there are fewer refuges and stuff.

And then there's the whole fact of being in the Midwest, where they have the audacity to say chatty good morning things to you before serving you your coffee...

Yes, I'm (partially) kidding. I like sarcasm and I am one of those who is greatly amused by the "How much do you hate people?" quiz. But seriously, I don't know if it's a late 30s thing or what, but lately I just more and more find myself wondering why everyone can't just be quiet once in a while. Every once in a while, don't you just want a day when you can sit around without having to acknowledge anyone's existence? Is that so much to ask?

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Don't Touch Me
(I'm a real live wire)

So there's this Talking Heads line running through my head today...

"I hate people when they're not polite..."
(from, I'm sad if I have to tell you this because you are missing out, their song "Psycho Killer" of course)

Now, I could probably leave the modifying clause off of that sentence, as I tend to hate people a good lot of the time. But this gets us nearer the point. I was thinking about the whole concept of being polite. Which is worse, do you think: to be rude or to be mean?

I realized that I generally go through my days thinking it's far worse to be mean, and I'm just starting to discover that/wonder if all you other people are actually the opposite, and all care more about being polite than about being nice.

And thinking about this, with David Byrne's voice in my head, it's like a whole new perspective on the world. I am not a mean person. I really don't believe in doing things out of malice. This includes making fun of people, even when it's, like, the bros all giving each other shite just to be a jerk. This includes stirring things up on the internet and mocking something just because you can (such as the new Cubs mascot). This includes punching people (and all violence, really). All of these things with spiteful but no other motivations really bother me. I actually, really think people should be nice. It bothers me when people are mean and jerky. If I am having a disagreement with someone and I say, "That's so mean!" in my mind that is it. Game over. They lose, because they were just being mean. I've obviously learned that some people don't look at things that way. (Is it Taylor Swift and me against the world?)

But what about being polite? So different. I am afraid that I am not really a polite person. This isn't intentional, usually. (Unlike the motive of malice!) But for one glaringly obvious example, I really believe in saying what you think. (Motive: saying what you think.) And I sometimes forget that there are people out there, merrily going about their lives all the time, holding back and refraining from saying what they think in this or that situation, apparently out of politeness. Also, there's the whole thing about dropping an argument just to discontinue the argument. (Motive: ?? Being afraid to argue?)  Once someone told me, "You know it's not always the most important thing to have to be right in every situation." To which I responded - um, it's not? Sure it is! Why wouldn't it be?! Whoever's right, is right. Now, if it's a difference of opinion, two people could be right, or no one could be right. But the point is, if you are right and you're trying to show the other person why X is right and Y is wrong, but the other person insists Y, apparently a lot of people think at that point you should just drop it and let the person go on thinking Y is right. But Y is not right! How can people do this? This baffles me.

So, because I am an adult (I mean, you know, more or less) and because I am smart I know how to "be polite" in certain situations, like "being professional" and "formal occasions." But today's Talking Heads-accompanied thinking is not really about holding the door open and stuff. I once used this blog to try to determine whether or not I am a literary snob. (Verdict: probably.) Today, let's use it to see if I am polite. Let's say you typed into a search engine the query "How to be polite"...what would happen? You might get a WikiHow checklist along the lines of the following:

1. Be gentle, not forceful or insistent
Oh dear. Not off to a good start. Leaving aside the misogyny (that men are allowed to be far more forceful and insistent than women are), I wouldn't even begin to try to argue that I am gentle rather than forceful in my conversations. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I need southern belle finishing school in the worst way.

2. When in doubt, observe others (topics, standards of formality, what are they doing with their coats, etc.)
OK, I'm better at this. Especially when entering new social gatherings or new workplaces, I'm super into hanging back and observing at first. It's only when I know people and situations do I start being and insistent.

3. Be nice. Always be courteous...if someone annoys or insults you, don't get into an argument...
Well, I would actually prefer a distinction here between nice and courteous, because as I said there is such a difference between being not-mean and being courteous. But if it's about withdrawing from annoyances rather than arguing, then I obviously fail this one.

4. Start a conversation by asking questions about the other person. Oooh! I do that!

5. Shake hands firmly and look your acquaintance in the eye while doing so. Totes. And you know, I would like to add here that shaking hands is an accepted (in the U.S. anyway) social contact and hugging is NOT ALWAYS APPROPRIATE!  I am not a hugger, and I definitely don't want to hug everyone who goes around initiating hugs, and I happen to think it is really impolite when people hug you without tuning in at all to the fact that you are not hugging them back. So there. Hands off, people. Back away.

6. Know the proper dinner etiquette. This is my jam. ("They don't even chill the salad forks!") I will quote Martha Stewart if necessary. I don't want to hear or see you chew, and I don't want to hear your clinking and scraping silverware, and it's not just because I loathe mouth noises with every ounce of my being. I just can't believe there are people anywhere who think it's OK to smack food or talk with their mouths full, unless they were raised by wolves. (Which: no one I know.) Now, that said, when people are jamming out around the barbecue or just loafing around enjoying a pizza all greasy-finger style or when they are in China eating with their life partner in a casual place and something slippery  falls from their chopsticks, I couldn't care less if they eat with their hands or whatever, in silly casual moments. I know that proper polite hosts never serve their guests something that puts them in a difficult situation in the first place! And don't pick your teeth at the table. Gross.

7. Have a laugh which shows you are having fun without being loud. 
I've never really thought about this. Or been told about my laugh. Does that mean I pass? Not when I was a riotous 17-year-old dorm resident, obviously, but now that I am in normal life? I think I pass. When I really crack up at something, I think I tend more toward the silent, tearing up kind of hysteria, anyway, not cackling.

8. Be graceful and show elegance. 
Goddamn it, I already said, I want to go to southern belle finishing school! For reals! Although I *can* walk with a book on my head. But otherwise, fail.

9. Be aware that etiquette and manners vary depending on the cultural region you are in. Yes. Aware. I cover my shoulders lots of times for cultural reasons. I like awareness. Although I shouldn't have to watch people urinating or have children wantonly flashed at me on the streets anywhere -- are you listening, China??!

So, that's YES for culturally aware, reasonable laughing, dinner etiquette, shaking hands, asking questions, and observing others (6) but a big fat resounding NO for grace/elegance, always being courteous, and (gulp) being gentle rather than forceful or insistent (3).  While my overall score is a "win," who are we kidding? I am not polite. David Byrne hates me, even though I'm not a psycho killer.

Gentle. Not forceful or insistent. I I can't even... ???  OK, I'll try.