Ways to Shut That Whole Thing Down

A little over two years ago, Missouri Congressman and Senate candidate Todd Akin made a fool and a national punchline of himself by suggesting that, if a woman is raped, her body has magical defenses that kick in to prevent pregnancy. While arguing that rape exceptions to abortion restrictions are a distraction, Akin said:

It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work, or something. You know, I think there should be punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist, and not attacking the [fetus].

I’ve always particularly enjoyed that little “but let’s assume” bit. Yes, let’s consider, just hypothetically, that your nonscientific bunk theory about the mind-reading powers of a woman’s uterus doesn’t pan out.

Akin’s election-sealing stumble came to mind recently when I read a story from my alma mater, North Carolina State University. Four enterprising undergrads (#yesallmen) have developed a nail polish that changes color when exposed to certain “date rape” drugs.1 They’ve also founded a company to sell this nail polish: “Undercover Colors.” Swirl your finger in your drink, ladies, and find out if it’s been dosed. Their product is, in a sense, attempting to give the female body a way to try to shut that whole thing down.

I saw my first notices about this when it was shared by several fellow NCSU alumni on Twitter and Facebook. One of the four students behind the product is in the scholarship program that I was a part of at NC State, and that program’s official Twitter account also got in on the fun with this little interaction with NYT columnist Nick Kristof, who had shared a link to a story about the nail polish. It turns out that the program had awarded an enrichment grant to one of the company’s co-founders “to support a portion of the team’s research efforts.” This had all the makings of a call-out in the coming year’s annual report to Park Scholarship donors and supporters.

By now, lots of other people have already pointed out the problem with Undercover Colors. It places the responsibility to prevent rape on the victim, and from there it’s a quick step to blaming the victim when it happens. Oh, you were drugged and raped after a night out? Should have been wearing your special drug-detecting top coat — and probably also a prairie dress and veil, to be extra safe. You can never do too much to stop men from raping you.

The lack of special nail polish does not cause rape. Rapists do.

When I was a student at NC State, I didn’t think much at all about sexual assault: about the way we talk about it, the problem of victim-blaming and where we put responsibility for prevention. If you’d told me about this nail polish 10 or 12 years ago, I probably would have thought it was a good idea. So I don’t want to condemn too directly the young men who created the product and are now, as per the American Way, attempting to profit from their creation.

What troubles me most is the apparent lack of adult supervision. These students developed this product and started this company with the support of professors and advisors at the University. They won funding (and publicity) last spring from the University’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, through a multi-round competitive process. I already mentioned the Park Enrichment Grant given to one of the company’s co-founders in direct support of the development of their product. Those grants are also awarded competitively by a committee of professors and alumni.

There were plenty of opportunities for someone to say, “Hey, guys, maybe this isn’t a good idea.” I understand that projects of all kinds develop momentum, and it becomes difficult — both practically and emotionally — to be the person who steps in front of the boulder that’s already rolling downhill. But at every step in the creation of the product and the company, many people had ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

Spinning off companies is not the point of a college education. It’s learning — and not just learning subject matter and professional skills, but also how to be a better human. How to think more carefully about our decisions. How our actions push the world one way or another, so we should do our best to make sure it’s the way we mean to be pushing.

A college campus isn’t the only the place for those lessons, thank goodness. Both before and after, we keep learning, sometimes through pain and embarrassment. Like I said, when I was in college, I probably would have thought this nail polish was a good idea.

College students are young adults; both words matter. They bear responsibility for their actions, their ideas and opinions, and their education. But in many ways, the grown-ups are still in charge: of directing those actions, of shaping those ideas and opinions, of providing and improving that education.

Maybe in the backlash against the drug-detecting nail polish that has appeared over the last few days, the young men behind it are learning something — with the help of pain and embarrassment. Maybe.

This is also a “teachable moment,” though, for the professors, advisors, and administrators at North Carolina State University. You are molding young minds. Do better.


  1. The phrase “date rape,” wherever it is used, needs to be one word shorter. 

Mania

“Ladies and gentlemen, from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City: Robin Williams.”

Sometime in my last two years of high school, a friend loaned me his CD of Robin Williams’ 1986 stand-up album A Night at the Met. You should know that I graduated from high school in 1999, so as I was driving around my eastern North Carolina hometown laughing my face off to this album, it was already over 10 years old.

Some comedy is timeless, but A Night at the Met is shot through with contemporary references. Ronald Reagan I knew, sure, and Gorbachev. I sort of understood who Muammar Gaddafi was. I certainly didn’t know enough then about the Reagan administration to get the joke about Disney’s Goofy being the Secretary of the Interior. It’s possible I don’t get that joke now. He mentioned Adnan Khashoggi within his first minute on stage.

But I still laughed my face off. I memorized the whole album, and while most of it has faded now, bits of it still bubble up in my mind.

“Bring a lunch. Stay for the day!”

I can’t say A Night at the Met ages particularly well. Those current events references don’t help, and certain bits leans on really broad, dumb stereotypes. It’s very 1986 — not that my sense of taste or perspective was developed enough when I was 16 or 17 to see any of that. I just knew that it made me laugh.

Then it passed from something that made me laugh to something that changed the way I looked at the world.

I am not a comedian. My wife and friends will attest to this if you require proof. But late high school is where I started to find my own personality and, with it, my own ability to make people laugh, at least in conversation if not on stage. A handful of stand-up albums and books, A Night at the Met among them, were important in shaping what I thought was fair game for laughter — which was everything, basically — and how to get it.

Williams was the kind of comedian who would imitate or create characters, often for just a few seconds, to build bits around. He carried all these voices inside him, brought them to life momentarily, and then riffed off them as his own straight man. Here, listen to his bit about alcohol from that album. Most of the little characters he does are lampoons of drunks — though the whole time, he’s really talking about himself. (He starts the bit saying he had to stop drinking because “I used to wake up nude in front of my car with my keys in my ass.”) He puts on these tiny plays that are realer-than-real, and, as people say, funny because they’re true.

That style has influenced the way I talk to people to this day — probably often to the detriment of my relationships, but so it goes. Something about the creation of little characters and scenarios that were funnier than the real world was and remains very attractive to me.

I’m not saying I wanted to be Robin Williams. I’ve never been pointed toward acting and comedy, nor have I ever harbored the notion that I was that funny. Another thing I knew I could never match was Williams’ pace. His rapid-fire riffing, often just with himself, is what people remember him for from his comedy specials, talk show appearances, and even whole movies built around that ability. When performing, he was, more often than any other mood, manic.

Manic. There’s a word that wants to follow that one. I know we don’t say that anymore. Still, they’re a pair in my mind.

I think all funny people have a darkness in them. I guess we all do, but you know, the stereotype of the clown crying on the inside is a stereotype for a reason. The sadness was always there. It’s how come he was so good at what he did.

That doesn’t explain anything, of course. Depression kills. We know that. That doesn’t make any particular victim of the disease any easier to take.

Everybody has their Robin Williams thing, it seems. Maybe yours was Good Morning, Vietnam. Maybe it was The Fisher King. Mine was A Night at the Met. He created everything from tiny characters to whole worlds, and pulled inspiration from everywhere, and spit it all back out in this beautifully inspired mania. It lit me up. It opened my eyes.

I guess what I’m saying is thanks, Robin Williams. Thanks.

The Eastern Shore #8: The 1947 Partition Archive

On The Eastern Shore for Monday, August 4, my guest was Guneeta Singh Bhalla, founder and executive director of the 1947 Partition Archive. The Archive is an organization based in Berkeley that works around the world to gather the personal stories of people affected by the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. They’re working to gather 10,000 personal accounts by 2017, then release all of the information for use by academics, artists, museums, and anyone else who wants to learn how the Partition changed the lives of some of the millions of people affected by it. It was a good talk. You should listen.

The Eastern Shore #7: Baseball in Oakland

On The Eastern Shore this week, I spoke with John Hansen, co-founder of Oakland Fan Pledge, a website devoted to keeping the Athletics in Oakland. We got into the A’s recent Coliseum lease renewal with the City & County, what the team owners really seem to want, and what fans like John would like to see for the future of baseball in our city.

Head over to the podcast site to listen or download. If you’re subscribed via RSS, Stitcher, iTunes, etc., those feeds should update soon.

The William Henry Winstead Two-for-One Special

Earlier tonight, I attended a memorial service for my uncle, William Henry Winstead. It was almost two weeks to the hour after I’d found out about his death. He lived in Mandeville, Louisiana, and his body was cremated there, the ashes then shipped to my aunt, his last surviving sibling, in Wilson County, North Carolina. Tonight’s service concluded with the scattering of some of his ashes at a pond on our family farm, a place that he loved and that he always said he’d come back to one day.

As part of the memorial service, I gave a (an?) eulogy for my uncle. Before I knew I was going to have that opportunity, though, I read a different eulogy for him at the end of one of my recent podcasts. The two cover similar themes — they are, after all, about the same man — but they were built for different constraints and for different audiences. The eulogy today was written to deliver to his family (my family, too) and his friends. The one I read on my podcast was written to deliver to an invisible audience of my friends and, if any listened, total strangers.

I’m posting both of them here because I want more people to have at least some sense of who my uncle was. It’s important to me, not because I wrote these words, but because they’re about him.

#1 – Transcript from The Eastern Shore #4, 6/9/14

(To listen to original, head to 1:44:03 on this recording.)

You probably noticed, if you looked at a clock, that I ended the normal program a little early today. That’s because I needed a few minutes to do something personal. I’ve asked Jonathan to leave the studio. He did a great job, but this probably would’ve been a bit much for someone I just met. So it’s just you and me.

Last Thursday night, I learned that my uncle, William Henry Winstead, had died. We found out that day, Thursday, but it appears that he’d been dead since Monday or Tuesday. His body was found by police when they were called to do, I guess it’s called a welfare check at his home in Mandeville, Louisiana.

He’d shot himself.

Mandeville is the city opposite New Orleans, at the other end of the very long causeway bridge across Lake Pontchartrain. New Orleans is at the south end. Mandeville is at the north end. That area, those parishes on the north side of the lake, that’s called the North Shore. I know this show is called the Eastern Shore, so I hope you’ll forgive me for changing direction for the next few minutes.

William Henry Winstead was the fourth of the four children of William Winstead and Myrtle Wiggs, my paternal grandparents. His older brother Dan was my father. William Henry – and that’s what we always called him, both names, because we’re from the south and that’s what we do – William Henry was the youngest and the strangest of the bunch. Not that he was all that strange, really, but of course, in families, that sort of thing is relative, which sounds like a horrible pun, but that’s the word.

William Henry was the black sheep of the family. He lived exactly as he chose to, and the other Winsteads – who were and are generally a buttoned-down, bottled-up bunch of Baptists – viewed him with a mixture of head-shaking bemusement and worry and occasional frustration. I think they never really knew what to make of him and his life choices. They cared about him. It was hard not to care about him, to like him. He had the easy charm of a youngest sibling.

But William Henry was the one of the four who didn’t take what the family would have considered a traditional path through life. He was the closest thing to an artist that family produced. He spent longer just finding his way in the world than the others. He made a lot of plans that he never followed through on. And he had more fun than the others.

He was also – and these are all related – he was also the only one of the four siblings who ever moved any real distance away from the eastern North Carolina farmstead where they were raised (and pretty much where I was raised, too). He wound up on the Gulf Coast because he found work and what would end up being his career as a SCUBA diver on oil rigs. I don’t know what divers on oil rigs actually do, but whatever it was, he did it for several years. And when he aged out of that physically demanding work of diving itself, he moved on to managing diving operations and teams. He’d spend weeks at a time out on some rig in the Gulf, where, in addition to his official duties, he also often cooked for the crew, something he was good at and proud of and known for.

Over his years in the oil diving work, William Henry bounced between Louisiana and Texas a few times, but he’d been settled in Mandeville for a good while now, I don’t really know how many years. He had a little house not far from the lake, and a boat, and neighbors and friends – friends everywhere he went; again, he was charming guy. I got to see all that when I visited him there, a few years ago. My wife had a work event in New Orleans, and I tagged along. One afternoon, the three of us did some New Orleans sightseeing together. We tooled around the North Shore on his boat, had a great time.

And one day, he and I, just the two of us, we took a trip to Mississippi, where he’d bought some property outside one of the little coastal towns that just about got wiped off the map by Hurricane Katrina. We had a long truck ride on the Interstate, over bayous and through patches of forest. We talked. We had lunch in Bay Saint Louis, at a little restaurant called Butter Cup, where he was friendly with all the employees. He bought a bunch of shrimp right off the dock from some fisherman he’d gotten to be friends with. We took a look at his property, and he talked about his plans for it. Plans I knew he’d never follow through on. But that’s okay. It’s fun to have big dreams. It’s fun to share them with other people, like your nephew.

He also traveled a fair bit. Over the last few years he’d gone to the Philippines several times. He’d met a woman there named Ruth. They seemed to genuinely and deeply love one another. I’m glad they shared that. Though in all of this, the person I feel the worst for, actually, is Ruth, halfway around the world, alone.

Through all his travels, and even though he moved away for work and he found a lot to like about Louisiana and the Gulf Coast – despite all that, William Henry loved the place he was from, the family farm in North Carolina. He always regarded it as home. And he always said he was going to move back there one day and live on the farm. The rest of us in the family were all pretty sure it would never happen. We knew how he was with plans. But we didn’t think this would be the way it didn’t happen.

He lived as he chose, and now he has died as he chose. None of us would have ever predicted suicide for the easy-going, easy-smiling youngest child of the family. It really came out of the blue for us, and we don’t get it. All my life I have hated not knowing things. And the only thing worse is not being able to know something. But I think this is one of the things I just don’t get to know.

My uncle William Henry and I were hardly the same person – I don’t have nearly the easy way with people he had, for one thing – but we were alike in some important ways, things I don’t have in common with other family members. And I had enjoyed getting to know him as an adult. I wish, of course, that I had done more of that. That’s not a terribly original regret on my part.

At first I thought I would say something here about dedicating this show to my uncle – and I kind of did with some of the music choices. But the more I thought about it, that didn’t really seem right. This is a nerdy little show about Oakland, California; it doesn’t have much to do with his life, with the things he cared about. Well, he cared about me, and I think he was happy I was doing this because it was something I wanted to do, and he was all for that. But really, as far as the content goes, it didn’t have a whole lot to do with him.

So I think it’s more accurate and more appropriate to say that I have dedicated at least some small part of my life to his example. Like him, I have lived my life so far as I have chosen to, at least as much as any of us ever can. And like him that has sometimes bewildered and worried and occasionally frustrated my other family members. Like I said: he and I were alike in some important ways.

Everybody grieves differently. I do it with words, which I guess is how I do everything that matters. So thank you for listening to my words.

This has been the Eastern Shore. I have been and continue to be Brock Winstead, proud nephew of the late William Henry Winstead of Mandeville, Louisiana – but really, in his heart, of a 115-acre family farm in Wilson County, North Carolina.

And to that dust he will return.

Thank you for listening. Talk to you again soon.

#2 – Delivered at Memorial Service, 6/19/2014

This isn’t the happiest of occasions, but I’m glad you’re all here. It’s good to see some people I haven’t seen in a long time. Some of you I don’t think I’ve ever met. But we had somebody in common. And I’m glad you’re here.

Every one of us knew a different William Henry Winstead. I don’t mean he had multiple personalities — any more than all of us do. We all show different faces to the world depending on a lot of things. Depending on who we’re talking to. Depending on what side of the bed we got up on this morning. Depending on where we are — where we are physically, and where we are on the journey of our lives. And you all knew William Henry at different points on his journey through life.

Some of you knew him as a boy, the boy who grew up on this farm. He learned to love this land and never forgot how to love it. He carried that love of this place with him all his life. He carried that boy that you knew inside him.

Some of you knew William Henry as a young adult – the young man who took a while to find his way in the world. He did that on his own terms. He looked for adventures; sometimes he found them. He had a lot of fun. At times, I’m told, that could cause a certain amount of frustration or worry for the people who cared about him. But he was going to do what he wanted to do. He carried that with him all his life, too. He lived as he chose.

Those of you who knew William Henry as a brother or a cousin or a classmate or a lifelong friend over those decades – I’m a little bit jealous. Like I said, I’m told that relationship could bring certain frustrations or worries. He made a lot of plans and he didn’t always follow through. He was searching for a path through life that made sense for him, and sometimes it can be hard to love someone who’s on that kind of search.

But eventually he did find his place and his way in the world. He settled down — as he defined that.

And that was William Henry the man. With a job – a career, in fact – and friends and a love of cooking. And a boat.

That’s the William Henry that I knew best. I wasn’t around for William Henry the boy. And when I was a boy, I couldn’t really understand William Henry the young man, searching for his path in the world. I had gotten to know him better as an adult — once he was one, and as I have become one. Or at least as I’ve tried to.

None of us is defined entirely by who we were when we started out in life. Thank goodness. We’re not defined by who we were at a moment in our youth, or even yesterday. Because every day of our lives, we become. We all hope that what we become — who we become — is better than who we were when we started, or in our youths, or even yesterday. We try to get to a good place.

I think my uncle William Henry succeeded at that. He had a good life, with good people in it — like you. He had a good time. He had a boat.

And now here he is in another good place: on this land that he loved so dearly. He always planned to come back here. Like I said, like we all know, he made a lot of plans he didn’t always follow through on, and this isn’t how any of us would have wanted to see him make good on that plan.

I’m sad that I didn’t have more time with my uncle William Henry the man, the young man, the boy. He remains all of those things in our memories. But I’m glad I had the time I did. And I’m happy that I could be here, and that you’re all here, to welcome him back home. It’s what he would have wanted. Thank you for being here.

The Eastern Shore #4 – Walking & Biking in Oakland

On The Eastern Shore this past Monday (June 9), I spoke with Jonathan Bair, board member of Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, about making Oakland a safer, easier city to get around on foot and bicycle. We also talked a little about Oakland politics, Jonathan’s history as a DJ, and his still-growing record collection.

Also, I devoted the last 15 minutes of the program to a remembrance of my uncle William Henry Winstead, who died last week.

You can read more about the program, listen, and subscribe to the feed over on my Podbean site.

The Eastern Shore #3 – The Business of Food in Oakland

On The Eastern Shore for June 2, I talked to food writer Sarah Henry and restaurateur Jay Porter about the recent restaurant boom in Oakland, what it takes to open and run a restaurant in our city in these times, and what role restaurants can or should play as centers of community and places to earn a living wage. Sarah and Jay did great (and I tried to keep up). Give it a listen and subscribe.