Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Socialism in the Bible, and Britney. Again.

Does God want us to be socialists? Well, I'm beginning to wonder, what with this passage from the Bible - that's right, the Bible - that Sojourners recently emailed out. Wonder what religious fundamentalist, so philosophically averse to "communism," make of it?

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

- Acts 4:32-35

I'm Like So Totally Shocked ...

On another topic, Britney Spears and her now-pregnant 16-year-old sister are making themselves useful in one area: being negative object lessons for pubescent girls. Yes, I know - they're sort of victims. But they're sort of perpetrators, too, and that's where their saga needs to end. Our already hyper-sexualized teen girls don't need any more examples of empty-headed and pathetic female behavior. What I hope girls learn? How's this: Put on a tube top and lip gloss, warm up the flashbulbs, and suddenly you're ... nowhere at all. Look at the Spears' girls.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More on Russia's Slide

From a Wall Street Journal article about a Russian Orthodox priest who was defrocked because of his support for an opponent of Putin. Miracle of miracles - he saw his errors, repented, and now he's back in his robes.

Mr. Taratukhin's repentance reinforces what has become a pillar of Mr. Putin's Russia: an intimate alliance between the Orthodox Church and the Kremlin reminiscent of czarist days. Rigidly hierarchical, intolerant of dissent and wary of competition, both share a vision of Russia's future -- rooted in robust nationalism and at odds with Western-style liberal democracy.

In recent months, Orthodox priests have sprinkled holy water on a new Russian surface-to-air-missile system called Triumph and blessed a Dec. 2 parliamentary election condemned by European observers as neither free nor fair. When the Kremlin last week unveiled its plan to effectively keep Mr. Putin in charge after his time as president ends, the head of the church, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexy II, went on TV to laud the scheme as a "great blessing for Russia."

Who's watching all this unfold? Why aren't more people talking about it?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Russia, Once and Future

I've been reading "The Whisperers," Orlando Figes' truly stunning account of private life in the Soviet Union under Stalin. It's a profoundly disquieting book not because the basic facts weren't known before; everyone knows about the insidious NKVD, the purges, the Terror, the Gulag. What's remarkable about this work is how Figes has collected literally hundreds of stories, some already extant in memoirs, many others the product of personal interviews, and woven them into a many-layered political and social history of almost overwhelming sadness. The stories here, though familiar in outline, still have the power to shock, and far more so because they follow breathlessly one on another.

The effect is almost claustrophobic. One after another we see bureaucrats, Party officials, factory workers, artists and peasants brutalized almost beyond comprehension, one family at a time, one career at a time, one prison term and exile at a time. Hearing the story told this way, one wonders if it's possible for an entire country to suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome (or battered-wife syndrome, as the case may be), and if that accounts for why Russians have never gained a sense of true perspective or even moral clarity about what happened to them in the 20's, '30s, '40s' and '50s. So amnesiac is the country that reportedly some Russians, bemoaning their lack of national self-discipline, remember Stalin and his iron fist fondly, longing for his equal today. How terribly disturbing, especially given the country's slow slide into what one Russian historian calls "mild authoritarianism."

It's not entirely surprising that Vladimir Putin calls the Soviet Union's disintegration a terrible mistake, or that the Russian secret police seem to be reopening their old bag of tricks, squashing opponents and critics with impunity. What's surprising is that everyone seems so willing to forgive and forget. Russians and everyone else in the immediate post-Soviet orb needs to read this book to remind themselves what happened, and why it really, really shouldn't happen again.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Faboprahlous and Photos

I like Oprah as much as anyone else, but does anyone imagine that a white Obama would excite her quite as much as the black one? I don't exactly blame her for wanting to promote a smart, electable black guy, but the obvious racial dimension here gives the lie to her insistence that she's being objective. She's not. (By the way, I happen to think Obama is a smart, sexy, cool guy who could be just what we need ... but I'm not willing to take Oprah's word for it, and anybody who is probably shouldn't be allowed to vote. Do you think?)

On another topic, two cool photos I took with my new Canon Powershot S31S.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Going to Baltimore, Wrecking the Planet

Oh, we're living in a green time alright. Which is why I'd like to know why one of the very best things we could all do to promote greenness can't seem to get any traction. I'm talking about this nonsense whereby we all fly around the country to sit at meetings where our presence isn't truly required - where we smile at all the right times, make a few pertinent remarks, and otherwise sit pondering the only question we really care about, which is how soon we can get back to the airport and then back home.

According to Native Energy, a website that calculates the amount of greenhouse gases various kinds of travel emit, a flight I took this week from Boston to Baltimore contributed, if that's the word, .288 tons of C02 to the atmosphere.

This is how the site says it calculates this number:

Shorter flights are more fuel intensive because of the significant amount of altitude gain relative to the length of the flight itself. On a short trip, a large portion of the energy per mile is devoted to climbing and landing, compared to cruising. That means shorter trips are more carbon intensive.

Depending on whether your travel fits into the short, medium or long haul category, we apply a CO 2 emissions factor of 0.64, 0.44 or 0.40 lbs of CO 2 per passenger mile, respectively. This gives us the direct CO 2 emissions from your flight. [These factors are from the GHG Protocol Commuting Emissions Tool v 1.2]

In addition, we apply an RFI (radiative forcing index) of 2.0 to the direct CO 2 emissions from air travel, resulting in total CO 2 equivalent emission factors of 1.28, 0.88 or 0.8 for short, medium and long haul flight segments. By doubling the direct CO 2 emissions, our goal is to account for the overall global warming impact of air travel for all air emissions - not just the CO 2 - such as the warming effect of contrails.

I don't fly all that much, but even so, a "carbon footprint" quiz I took recently tells me that if everyone on earth lived the way I did, we'd need four and a half planets to sequester all the C02 we'd produce.

So why in the world aren't we simply talking on the phone with one another instead of rushing compulsively to these face-to-face meetings that cost us a fortune, exhaust us, eat up productive work hours at our offices, and - this is the kicker - ruin the planet? Anyone? Chime in. I'd love to hear.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Ears Have It

I just took the 10-year-old daughter of a friend to see "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium." It was slight but sweet, with an especially charming performance by Dustin Hoffman (though as an aside, I do wish he'd return to material that's really worthy of him).

But my real interest in the movie concerns Zach Mills, who plays Mr. Magorium's eccentric young friend. Is there an unwritten but ironclad rule in Hollywood that all precocious little boys MUST have gigantic ears? The kind you're always staring at, because they're so freakish? (Remember the kid in 'Witness'?) This seems to me a rare form of exploitation. "Casting, get me a boy. I don't care who, just so his ears are huge. Like Spock, or one of the Seven Dwarfs. That way he'll be cute, and the audience will feel a little sorry for him. It'll also make him look smart, because with ears like that, you'd damn well better be smart." I imagine an audition room crowded with hundreds of big-eared boys, each one accompanied by a stage mother who is grateful that her boy's Dumbo-like appendages might finally come in handy.

As I'm typing this I'm wondering if this prejudice toward outfitting smart, socially inept boys with huge ears is a nod to the vulnerability all of us feel as kids. In some ways, I suppose we all had monstrous ears attached to our heads, if only metaphorically.

Still, I say enough. No more funny ears. It's a form of child abuse. Worse, like any cliche, it's so unimaginative.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Liberals: Can You Even Call Them Real Americans? Vote Now.

When I walk on the treadmill at my local gym, I like to zone out by watching one of the several TV screens mounted on the wall. But choices are limited. I can watch soaps, I can watch any of a variety courtroom shows (Judge Judy, Divorce Court, the youngish white woman, the middle-aged black guy), I can watch MTV, or I can watch Fox News. I abhor Fox News, but the other shows bore me, so I'm stuck.

Recent Fox headlines and near-headlines:

Does Being First Lady Qualify You to be President? (Ahem. Get it?) We'll Ask Laura Bush.

How One Town Destroyed Christmas with Its Ban on Colored Outdoor Lights.

Watch this Footage of Illegals Scurrying Across the Border. Is Prison the Only Answer?

Smashing Individual Liberties by Refusing to Hire Smokers. Good Idea or Bad? And How Upset Would You Be?

Why Socialized Medicine is Bad for Your (Financial) Health.

The Clintons: Evil or Merely Deluded? You Decide. (OK, I'm making this one up, but only barely.)

Depressing, from any kind of objective journalistic viewpoint. I know, I know, but I wish somebody would tell me again: how do they justify this stuff?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Bitch, Bitch, Bitch

So is it okay to call Hillary Clinton a "bitch"? The question came up when some woman referred to Clinton that way at a McCain fundraiser. "How do we beat the bitch?" she asked McCain. (To his credit, McCain was reportedly taken aback.)

But to the point. Since people call Hillary Clinton a bitch all the time, it's beyond futile to ask if it's alright. Of course it's not; that's why people do it. Being transgressive means breaking rules, not following them, even if the rule-breaking is, as in this case, so unimaginative. The question is, why do so many Clinton opponents, men and women both, need to spice up their anti-Hillary zingers with such gender-specific, sexually loaded language? Hillary's not an asshole, not a jerk, not a bastard, not a freak. She's a bitch. Only women can be bitches, and only certain types of women - those who exhibit symptoms of PMS 24/7, who are pushy, who are ambitious. Those who are, well, like Hillary Clinton. Uppity women. You know the type.

Well, well. For a woman like me, who's never been much of an overt feminist, this is a sad and revealing state of affairs. We're still ambivalent about women in this society, aren't we? It's taken Hillary Clinton to make me see just how infantile we still are. I'm no great fan of Clinton's, but I feel sorry for her. How much misguided, misdirected and poorly understood hatred is one figure supposed to absorb?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Athiesm, on Trial Again, with Baba

The cc'ing of emails can be a fascinating thing. It lets you glimpse bits and pieces of conversations that aren't yours, but that perhaps you have influenced, and then fill in the mysterious gaps with imagined dialogue. My friend Baba recently started and then abruptly ended some email correspondence with someone named Ted, who appears to be the son or nephew of somebody with a Polish email address (you got me; I don't know him.) The topic: God. Baba has always had something of a problem with him.

From Baba to Ted, cc'd to me:

BABA: Your uncle Bill has in the past forwarded some of his exchanges with you and I found them fascinating. I would very much love to engage in discussion with you but my Parkinson afflictions which has long prevented me from speaking properly is now extended to my typing where because of the tremors I double and triple strike the keys. Rather than attempt discourse I will shoot you a relevant reflection on scattered thoughts that I have now and then.

Andy Rooney said if his house was in flames... there is one book he would attempt to salvage from his library: Walter Lippmann's "A Preface to Morals". I have since read the book and concur with Andy... It is perhaps the most important book I've ever read. Suggest you do the same. Here is some of that exchange:

That exchange was with me. I had read the book at his behest, but he was bewildered by my feeling that it was a "period piece." I had written in explanation:

ME: You're absolutely right about the eternal nature of the book. Lippmann was very prescient in predicting that the loss of religious certainty would leave many people feeling unmoored. It's only a period piece in that he was right there, historically speaking, when the great shift was beginning to happen, and so speaks from the point of view of a very erudite guy who sees a cataclysm coming and doesn't know how it will all play out. You can actually tell how worried he is. Another thing I really love about the book is that it sums up religious history in a way I hadn't seen done before, and makes it so obvious (though Lippmann would never say so, exactly), that religion is an artifact of culture, reflecting us at every period of our development.

He had written back:

BABA: The Freudian notion that God is a projection of child/parent relationships is something with which I've long been familiar... but the further idea that the organization of governments in heaven historically reflect governments and societies on earth was a real mind-blower.

What I wrote in response to Baba's note to Ted:

ME: A few thoughts on this topic.

A while ago I read 'Letter to a Christian Nation' by Sam Harris, and found it quite interesting and challenging, though not always entirely convincing. In fact, in the last 10 years I've read any number of books about religion (including the Bible) in my own quest to understand the story that religion tells and what relevance it has to everyday modern life. I've sought to understand if there was something in it, some kernel, that I could really believe, because faith as a concept is so empty and cynical, at least to me. 'Faith' announces its very hollowness and dares you to
call it what it really is. Instead I wanted to find something in religion, down in the heart of it, that I knew instinctively to be true. I wanted to find something irreducible in it - an idea or fundamental truth - that could explain why modern, scientifically minded people are still carrying out these rituals and proclaiming these beliefs.

This quest was important to me only because the human impulse toward the sacred is so pronounced, at least in me and my life, and because religion offers a hallowed contemplative space that simply isn't available elsewhere.

Say what you will, but I've found this to be absolutely true - religion fills a social and personal function that is utterly unique. This is really the enduring appeal of religion, I've come to see. The discussion can't simply be about the religious claims that athiests get so hung up on.

Anybody can see that most of the "facts" of religion are either unverifiable or easily debunked. It's about the opportunities that religion gives us to think about ourselves, our obligations, and our destiny (and, in Christianity, to hold ourselves up against a model of pure goodness and rectitude, which is what Jesus functions as). And, in the community of a congregation, to join our best intentions with the best intentions of others for purposes that seem not exactly human, but divine.

It's obvious that people who are motivated by God will indeed manage to do things they wouldn't have done otherwise - they're unreasoning, for better or worse.

Either way, it's a powerful and seductive source of energy. I wonder if religious aptitude, so to speak, is like any other human trait - one either has it or doesn't. If one has, no intellectual attack on religion can truly matter. And a great many of us have it. We can try to rid ourselves of it, but we can't quite do it. Believe me, I know. And to the extent that our personal religious expression leads us to act pro-socially (excuse the annoying jargon), that probably isn't a bad thing. To the extent that it makes us stupid and destructive, it is undeniably a bad thing. (Look at social policy in the Bush administration to see how ridiculous religion can make us.)

What he wrote to Ted, who apparently wanted to argue the merits of athiesm:

BABA: This is getting funny. I was nudged into the discussion by your uncle (the one with the the Polish web address). To be fair to the process I would have to beg off since any respectable reply will require too much typing.

But a few quick points... I have been in NUMEROUS debates with atheists over the years except it was always I who was the atheist.

I have since come to realize that there must be a great deal more to this universe than meets the eye. I am content to call it "the great spirit" and let it go at that. Makes me feel good. Makes me feel joined. Gives me a feeling of reverence and humility. Gives me a sense of community and proves nothing!

Don't sweat it. You're an intelligent kid with an inquiring mind and as you continue to probe you'll experience many twists and turns in the years ahead.

You don't have to sell me atheism. On the limited level that it's debated, I already buy the dreary argument. It's just that I've come to realize after 80 years that this puny little ball of cottage cheese above my eyes is simply not up to the task of comprehending that awesome immensity out there. But I reverence it knowing that I, as a diminutive speck of star-stuff, am somehow co-generated and connected with it all. And it is precisely that mysterious connection that inspires in me what others might call religious feeling.

No more proofs. On the limited level of "proving" things, I'm already on your side.


And that is where we've come to rest. I'm with you, Baba. I'm with you.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Whose Culture is the 'Culture of Death'?

Read this...

Family-planning advocates criticize President Bush's appointment of a contraceptive critic to be head of the federal program responsible for providing birth-control funding and other family-planning services to the poor.

Susan Orr, associate commissioner of the Health & Human Services (HHS) Admin. on Children, Youth & Families Children's Bureau, is moving to a new position. Orr has accepted a transfer to become director of the Office of Population Affairs (OPA) in the Office of Public Health & Science. In her new position, Orr will advise HHS on a wide range of reproductive health topics. She will oversee Title X, the nation's family-planning program.

Family-planning advocates denounce the appointment. Orr currently is on the board of directors of Teen Choice, a nonprofit group advocating for abstinence in lieu of contraception.

Before joining the Bush administration, she was senior director for marriage and family care at the Family Research Council (a religious advocacy group founded by James Dobson of Focus on the Family), and director of the Center for Social Policy at the Reason Public Policy Institute. Orr has been criticized for public statements about her views on contraception.

In 2000, while working as a policy director at the Family Research Council, she objected to a Washington, DC, city council bill requiring health insurers to pay for contraceptives. By not including a "conscience clause" allowing employers to withhold contraceptive coverage, Orr said the council would force employers "to make a choice between serving God and serving the DC government."

"It's not about choice. It's not about healthcare. It's about making everyone collaborators with the culture of death," she said.

And this is exactly how religion poisons politics. One appointment at a time, often under the radar. I'd say the Bush experiment with God is complete: religion practiced as policy makes people stupid, and worse yet, makes them proud of being stupid. The stupider they are, the more God loves them. And if they end up martyred by the secular hordes, God will love them even more. It's the ultimate win-win. It's easy, in the above appointment, to see who loses.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Pro-Lifers, Get Serious

Garry Wills was on Talk of the Nation today. The discussion was about whether abortion is or is not a religious issue. He says it's not, because it isn't specifically addressed in the Bible, and besides, we humans happily engage in mass killing just about all the time, so let's not be so squeamish. (He didn't use those words, of course, but that's what he was saying in essence.)

I completely agree with him, even while wondering what his opinion might be if the Bible did proscribe abortion.

I've never had an abortion, and given what I know about myself, that's a very good thing. My heart would have been broken - by the procedure itself, and by the circumstances that would have necessitated it. Luckily for me, those circumstances never arose. And that's why my opinion shouldn't count for very much: I don't have the right to settle a question for others that I never had to face myself.

Not to say that others don't have this right. I'm willing to give it to them, for a price. But this is what I need from them first: some real commitment. That's right, all you pro-lifers out there. I will never take you seriously until I see you actually inconveniencing yourself for your pro-life principles. Here are some ways you might prove yourself to me:

  • adopt a child no one else wants; there are lots of them. These excess living children could use your assistance.

  • demand an end to our adventure in Iraq, which has killed untold numbers of innocent civilians (all already born and living on the planet at the time of their deaths).

  • become a vegetarian. (Ever seen photographs of "factory farm" chickens? It's genocide on a mass scale.)

  • write a 1,000-word essay describing what our society would be like if abortion were outlawed. Compare and contrast statistics from countries were abortion is currently legal/illegal. Describe maternal death and injury due to backstreet abortions. Face the fact that, if you got the society you say you want, it would look different from the one you enjoy now: more unwanted children, either raised by inadequate mothers or an inadequate social service system (one is as bad as the other, if you know anything at all about foster care), and growing up to foist upon society all their well-deserved furies and confusions. Graph and color-code all this, and get back to me with conclusions that for once are founded in reality, not theatrical religious impulses.

  • explain to me why we value some lives more than others. Don't deny it; we do. There are those of us in favor of keeping a brain-dead woman alive in Florida, at vast expense, and at the same time denying poor children insurance. Figure that one out.

Do all this, and I'll begin to listen. But not until then. Not one moment before then.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

So You Want to Live 'Biblically'?

Every few weeks, I run out of books to read. This always strikes me as a terrible calamity, which I remedy immediately by running to the local used bookstore, or by checking out what's new at our tiny local library, or by falling back, if the crisis is acute, on old issues of The New Yorker.

But tonight it's too late to go searching for a new book to buy or borrow. In moments like this, I resort to thinking about books I've read about. Often these aren't books I would be inclined to read, or at least not all the way through - but something about them has piqued my interest.

One of these books is 'A Year of Living Biblically,' which is by some guy I've never read before who seems to want to have it both ways - on the one hand, to make a semi-serious attempt to live every one of the Bible's rules, and on the other, to make a book-length joke about the absurdity of the whole project. In some promo, he's on a New York street with a shepherd's crook, a Moses beard, and a live sheep. Profound, huh?

I know, the book's gotten some good reviews, but I can't help thinking that's because none of us knows what to think of religion anymore. Is it, after all, a joke? Is it - any of it - worth taking seriously?

I've had a project in mind - I brought it up with David a couple of years ago. I'd just finished a biography of St. Theresa of Lisieux, who was so intent on self-effacement that she put herself last in line for everything, even when it was her turn to be first. She asked for the most unpalatable food, took the worst chores, befriended the most unlikable of her fellow nuns. Perhaps there was something self-consciously showy about some of her sacrifices, but this last bit - seeking out the company of unpleasant people, of bores - was exactly what Jesus was talking about.

Could any of us do the same, even as a temporary experiment? David has always complained about a particularly tiresome co-worker of his, an incessant moper who is always regaling someone in the office with the details of his most recent crisis. A misery sponge - that's what people call him behind his back.

I asked David if he thought, even for one day, he could make a project of this guy - sit down and talk with him, laugh, commiserate, be a friend. Give him the attention he so obviously craves. Just out of ... love, I suppose. The word, of course, made David cringe. The project didn't appeal to him. He could be good in other ways, he thought - any other way. But not this one.

But, if any of us really feels like taking the Bible seriously (and given that we can't stop talking about this very decrepit book, I assume some of us do), then what else is there? You can dress up in shepherd's outfits all you want, but actual kindness - the kind that puts us out and makes us uncomfortable - is the only act that counts. It's the only one required.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Why I Hate the Frat Thing

Quick note: college fraternities suck. They're abusive, counter-educational institutions, and should be banned.

I obviously sort of always knew this, in the dim way you do when you're in college and find you actually prefer hanging out in the library to getting drunk and slipping in somebody's vomit at a frat house. As fun as that can be, of course.

My son, who is a freshman at the University of New Hampshire, is completely unlike me (to his credit, I'm sure), and actually enjoys social interaction, so he was thrilled to be accepted into the pledge program, if that's what it's called, at one of the "better" fraternities at school. I was a bit alarmed, but he wanted it "more than anything," and besides, his tripled-up dorm room was getting on his nerves. At least the frat had some space. If he could only make it through about six weeks of frat boot camp. If only he could prove his commitment.

For many, many days, he had do things like this: get out of bed and rush to the frat house at 1:30 a.m. in shirt and tie to memorize a bunch of pointless statistics about the house "brothers" for a 5 a.m. quiz (yes, that same morning). Break into the house with other pledges and "kidnap" a brother and take him to an undisclosed location where they could all chuckle and guffaw at the sheer transgressive coolness of, well, kidnapping a brother. Accompany brothers, on demand, while they did their laundry. Swab the house down after major parties.

The problem here is twofold: 1) this is really moronic stuff that certain 18-year-olds are naive and needy enough find "important," and 2) my son got pneumonia in the middle of it and ended up in an ambulance in the middle of the night, headed for the hospital. Full of self-recrimination over his weakness, but hacking too much to make nightly appearances, he ultimately had to drop out of his fraternity quest. His dormmate, who was also pledging this particular fraternity, dropped out a few days later, after failing an exam - yes, these boys have classes, too! - the morning after an all-night quiz session at the, you got it, frat house.

It's not complicated: many kids want to belong to a small, exclusive community; they want to rest for a while in a cozy way station on their way to adulthood. Too bad fraternities - and this one could hardly be called the worst - are run by kids not much older, who themselves only dimly realize what a community is, and what it should take to get into one.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Times, The Atlantic and Elizabeth Taylor (No, Not That One)

I stopped my weekday subscription to the New York Times a couple of months ago. They raised the delivery rates and couldn't get the paper to my driveway reliably anyway. And it was hard to justify the all-around waste of resources when I could just read it online. (Though that's always a disappointing experience, if only because I can't do it lying in bed.) But I still get the Sunday paper. Not because it's the best paper of the week - in fact, it's usually the worst, with all its bloated, unnecessary sections and gruesome "style" inserts. (To me, those sections are almost Fellini-esque in their bizarreness. The journey to absurd has been long and tiring, and I wish they'd just prop up a corpse in a prom dress and be done with it.)

It's the Book Review I can't do without. A couple of weeks ago I found an article - no, wait. I'm thinking of The Atlantic. Never mind the Book Review, which I do love but isn't the subject here after all. It's in The Atlantic that a found a homage to the English novelist Elizabeth Taylor, and immediately ordered three of her books. (They've been out of print for years, but were just reissued by Virago Modern Classics.) She specializes in those small, deeply nuanced domestic dramas where everyone sips cocktails and makes polite conversation while wondering why they feel so desperate. Very British stories, and of historical interest, too, since they take place during and just after World War II, just as the country is struggling anemically back to its feet.

Taylor was well-enough known in her day, but is almost forgotten now, probably because her books lack any blockbuster potential. They're just gems of quiet insinuation and gently darkening mood, even more extraordinary because she works with such mundane material.

If I could turn just a few people on to her, I'll feel I've done my good deed for the week.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Giving by Getting, Giving by Freezing

Every year about this time I find myself rather unhappily immersed in two projects: a fundraiser dinner-auction for Haiti, and a "Polar Plunge" for abused and neglected children.

Leaving aside the topic of why I should be interested in such causes, except to assure you that I am interested, I'd like to concentrate on why these fundraisers are, each in their own way, so disturbing.

The Haiti fundraiser is kind of easy to attack. Think about it. Is there anything quite so surrealistically weird as throwing a country-club soiree, with canapes and wine and dancing, to benefit Haiti? I love Haiti. It's an interesting place, pretty in some ways, with a vivid Caribbean culture and many warm-hearted and devout people. It's also rags-and-bones poor. I wonder what they'd think, the Haitians I've met, about all of us toned and Botoxed white suburbanites forking up cheesecake and outbidding each other on high-priced chotckes in an effort to correct inequality in the world? And in a way that satisfies some rich-country rubric whereby the more we lavish on ourselves, the less poor they supposedly become? I suspect they would be sensible enough to think that we were nuts, which we are. I myself am merely kind of offended, mostly by my own sheeplike participation.

I know, I know. I willingly participate in this fundraiser. I want to be decent person, doing what I can to help people who, by sheer accident of geography, seem fated to watch their children grow up hungry and sick and uneducated. And the possibilities my middle-class life give me are limited - by imagination and energy, obviously, but also by a cultural ethic that maintains the people in party clothes are the best people to solve any problem. And it does raise some money for food and medicine and housing materials that presumably the Haitians are better off for having received.


Now, the other fundraiser. In February, I'll do a forced march into Boston Harbor to become a 'Polar Bear Plunger.' That's where a bunch of people jump into the icy water for a few seconds, stagger back out of the water and then run straight inside for a scalding shower. To what end? Pledges, of course. We raise money. Money you'd think would be made available through some more appropriate social mechanism, but which isn't. Schools working with deaf kids need classroom supplies; homeless shelters for teenagers need gas for their vans. The state and federal governments, who are ultimately responsible for the very expensive care of these children, throw in some money, of course, but not enough. And so we jump in the ocean in February. Microsoft never had to do this, of course, but then, as David reminds me, Microsoft makes something people want. I remind him that agencies that turn troubled kids around are making something people want, too. And that their products are arguably more necessary to society than software upgrades.

But this bleeding-heart stuff, this quest for spiritual integrity and meaning, gets old, doesn't it? Even I'm bored by it, and I'm the one wallowing in it. If anyone has something approaching an answer, or even a reasonable insight, I'd like to hear it. Until then, I'll just consider my pangs of conscience another symptom of what Marian Wright Edelman called "affluenza."

Monday, October 15, 2007

Kicking Them While They're Down

Digby, in her blog Hullabaloo, wonders why it is that conservatives so often seem intent on blasting to smithereens the character of anyone receiving public assistance.

She writes:

Ridenour's post (among others) reminds me of a well-off acquaintance of mine who agreed to give an aging relative a hundred dollars a month. He made sure that everyone knew how generous he was and then he would regale us all with stories about how he would go over to the old fellow's house once a month and inspect it to make sure he wasn't doing anything "bad" with the money. After all, he gave him a hundred bucks a month. He forced the old guy to stop buying cheap beer and made him quit smoking a pipe and pored over his bills to make sure he wasn't overusing the utilities. He had a right, you see. The man was taking his money.

The question to me when he would tell me this stuff was why this very well-off man (a Republican, by the way) took such pride at controlling the behavior of one sad old man through a meager offering of a hundred dollars a month. I could only conclude that it was because his sadistic joy at making someone else miserable was coupled with his inflated belief in his own goodness and pride in his superiority. He was allowed to deny this man his freedom in the name of helping him. The authoritarian's path to heaven.

In telling this anecdote, Digby is referring to the case of Graeme Frost, the 12-year-old boy recruited by Congressional Democrats to make the case for the S-CHIP program. Frost had had the misfortune to be in a car accident with his parents and sister; he suffered a brain stem injury, she a cranial fracture. Surely harrowing enough, right? But the point of his story was somehow a positive one: low-cost health insurance worked for his family. With an income of only $46,000, it was the only insurance they could afford. When catastrophe struck, they were covered. Whew.

But now, thanks to some over-the-top conservative bloggers, we need to hear about how the family should never have been eligible for this bit of social help, because after all, its kids all went to an expensive private school (though on scholarship, it turned out), and lived in a nice suburb in a decent house, and hey, why should we, the overburdened and much-abused taxpayers of America, have to pony up for people who aren't all that bad off? (And if they were bad off, it would no doubt be their own damn fault, but that's another issue.)

Aside from impugning the integrity of a family that has endured such unimaginable tragedy, this line of attack is notable because of what it says about our fundamental differences as human beings. What's the conservative-liberal split really about, and where does it come from?

Digby looks deep into the conservative psyche, finding the old Puritan need to control unseemly and unproductive behavior through social mechanisms. (Which often translates to financial mechanisms, of course.) The attitude goes thus: If poor choices and sub-standard behavior got you into this mess, I'm not bailing you out. Unless you change. And even then I'll humiliate you, because you're such a loser to have gotten into trouble in the first place.

And since conservatives don't like or believe in the social compact, their gripe is personal: My money belongs to me, and I really, really hate giving any of it to you.

But I think the real attitudes that lead to this kind of thinking are even more primitive, and are rooted in the tendency of each individual to cast himself either within a group or outside the group. We either acknowledge the reciprocal arrangements we have with one another, accepting that at any given moment some individuals will get more out of the deal than others, or we reject them, scrutinizing every social transaction as though the circumstances that necessitated it must by definition be pathological. Because we're not supposed to need each other. Are we?

Well, leaving the supposeds out of it, we in fact do need each other. That includes conservatives, who, in my experience, are perfectly happy to push their snouts into the government trough whenever they smell something tasty. In fact they do it all the time, pausing only to squeal when desperate parents with banged-up kids tap them on the haunch to get a nibble themselves.

So please. Let's get serious. Low-cost insurance is a good thing. Slam a 12-year-old with a brain stem injury if you like, but ... be sure to take a good look in the mirror while you're doing it.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Al, Lardbutt Yanks, and a Hillary Preview

As the rabid haters of liberals gear up for open season on Hillary, it's useful to consider the reaction of one English columnist to another famous liberal in the news. I have to wonder what our British friend would prefer - no efforts on global change at all? Or one undertaken by, say, an Aborigine from the Outback, whose mansion doesn't emit greenhouses and who therefore has earned the right to speak up?

From The Telegraph:

So Al Gore is the joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Admittedly, he has to share it with the United Nations’ climate change panel - but, even so, I think we need to declare an international smugness alert.

The former US Vice-President has already taken over from Michael Moore as the most sanctimonious lardbutt Yank on the planet. Can you imagine what he'll be like now that the Norwegian Nobel committee has given him the prize?

More to the point, can you imagine how enormous his already massive carbon footprint will become once he starts jetting around the world bragging about his new title? Just after Gore won an Oscar for his global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth - in which he asked American households to cut their use of electricity - the Tennessee Centre for Policy Research took a look at Al's energy bills.

It reckoned that his 20-room, eight-bathroom mansion in Nashville sometimes uses twice the energy in one month that the average American household gets through in a year. The combined energy and gas bills for his estate came to nearly $30,000 in 2006. Ah, say his defenders, but he uses rainwater to flush his lavatories. Is there enough rainwater in the world, I wonder?

I'm not saying that these are trivial questions. They're fairly trivial, given that individual uses of energy are absolutely nothing compared to energy policies of nations. But I get it. And you know what? I say, why not - let's put Al on the hot seat and make him explain himself. (Oh, wait, he already has. Check this out.)

But need you be quite so petty? We got it - you hate liberals, and the more praise they earn, the more you hate them. If one saved your child from drowning, you'd denounce him as an attention-seeker with a hidden agenda. Liberals think they're so perfect. But they're just the opposite. We hear ya.

Well, all that said, let's give Al Gore some credit: he's done a good thing for the world, lardbutt or no. More than our British reporter here will ever do, I dare say.

"What Did Al Gore Do for World Peace?" That was headline over this column in The Telegraph. If you haven't given it any thought at all - and this writer obviously hasn't, probably because he doesn't want to - you'll realize that global warming has quite a bit to do with peace. Doubt it? Read "Collapse," Jared Diamond's book on why societies like Easter Island, Greenland and Haiti fell apart. His thesis - that marginal human habitats that become stressed by overdevelopment and climate change fall like houses of cards, frequently after fierce factional warring over dwindling resources - should be a warning bell to us. Does anyone really imagine that the peaceful nations of the world couldn't easily be incited to war over water, arable land, food, migrating populations?

Friday, October 5, 2007

George Draws the Line

From a Washington Post editorial:

To say that George W. Bush spends money like a drunken sailor is to insult every gin-soaked patron of every dockside dive in every dubious port of call. If Bush gets his way, the cost of his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will soon reach a mind-blowing $600 billion. Despite turning a budget surplus into a huge deficit, the man still hasn't met a tax cut he doesn't like. And when the Republicans were in charge of Congress, Bush might as well have signed their pork-stuffed spending bills with a one-word rubber stamp: "Whatever."

So for Bush to get religion on fiscal responsibility at this late date is, well, a joke. And for him to make his stand on a measure that would have provided health insurance to needy children is a punch line that hasn't left many Republicans laughing.

Bush's veto Wednesday of a bipartisan bill reauthorizing the State Children's Health Insurance Program was infuriatingly bad policy. An estimated 9 million children in this country are not covered by health insurance -- a circumstance that should shock the consciences of every American. Democrats and Republicans worked together to craft an expansion of an existing state-run program that would have provided coverage for about 4 million children who currently don't have it.

I'm a social worker; I care about kids and know something about the ways that poor kids live.

Myself, I'm firmly in the upper middle class. I have nice stuff, a nice house, a reasonable job, decent clothes in my closet and good food in my refrigerator.

I mentor a 10-year-old girl who doesn't have these things. She spends most of her time shuttling between a housing project, where she and her mom live (illegally) with mom's boyfriend, and a ramshackle house dominated by a sometimes-abusive grandfather. This girl is adorable, spirited, fun, appreciative. And she's poor. Before she met me, she'd never been in a movie theater. Never played miniature golf. Never gone ice skating. These are simple and inexpensive pleasures that middle-class kids take for granted. Not so for poor kids; they don't expect these treats and rarely get them. They just cost too much.

A couple of months ago my little girl fell when she was playing in a sprinkler and broke her wrist. The next time I saw her, she was wearing a cast. How did her mom afford the care? The state of New Hampshire's S-CHIP program. Without it, this girl simply wouldn't have had insurance. Would she still have gotten treated? It's hard to say. Probably eventually, and begrudgingly, and at high cost to her mother, who wouldn't have been able to pay the bills in any case. Luckily for her, she had the low-cost S-CHIP insurance, and nobody had to worry about it. She got to get the same medical care that richer kids would get.

Enough said. We're spending $333 million a day on Iraq. And children's health insurance is where we're drawing the budgetary line?

My live-in David is a Republican, which makes him a big anomaly in my life. My sort generally don't mix with his sort. But I've learned quite a bit from him about how conservatives think, and, shocking to admit, not all of it necessarily appalls me. In fact, I get some of it. I agree with some of it.

This is what David says about the Washington Post editorial. It doesn't specifically address the S-CHIP veto, which David hadn't been following and didn't know about. But it does speak to how conservatives are feeling about this president. (Yes, I know. We dislike our president for different reasons, but not even David is against insuring poor kids.)

I'm a life-long Republican who leans towards the Libertarian end of the spectrum. Politically, I operate on the principle that one votes for a party, not an individual. The party you select mirrors, in the aggregate, your personal values and beliefs. It is the coherence and discipline of a party that generally ensures that it’s members operate (and vote) in an expected fashion.

Something sad has happened to the Republican Party in the last dozen or so years. First, they lost focus on what they ought to stand for – what their core supporters expected. There was less and less to distinguish them from Democrats. This resulted from the repeated “triangulation” beatings administered by Bill Clinton. Then they fell victim to the natural pitfalls of being the party decisively in power (think Democrats in the '80s).

Over time, the Republican Party has drifted further away from me. George W. Bush embodies this drift. I voted for him – twice. The second time without enthusiasm. He has demonstrated a shocking lack of conviction or purpose. President Bush has consistently approved ever greater government spending of money we don’t have. He has encouraged monetary policies (first under Greenspan and now Bernanke) that promote debt creation, asset bubbles, and currency devaluation. None of this helps to maintain a healthy middle-class, a necessary condition for a healthy democracy.

I have become disappointed in President Bush and disillusioned with the Republican Party.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Why Stop at Post-Pregnancy Makeovers?

From the New York Times:

Dr. David A. Stoker, a plastic surgeon in Marina Del Rey, Calif., has a surgical cure for the ravages of motherhood. He, like many plastic surgeons nationwide, calls it a “mommy makeover.”

Aimed at mothers, it usually involves a trifecta: a breast lift with or without breast implants, a tummy tuck and some liposuction. The procedures are intended to hoist slackened skin as well as reduce stretch marks and
pregnancy fat.

“The severe physical trauma of pregnancy, childbirth and breast-feeding can have profound negative effects that cause women to lose their hourglass figures,” he said. His practice, Marina Plastic Surgery Associates, maintains a Web site,, which describes the surgeries required to overhaul a postpregnancy body.

What a moron. He's ignoring the obvious. Duh. If we want women to retain their hourglass figures forever, we need only do two things:

1) ban pregnancy, or

2) euthanize women who violate society's esthetic standards by reproducing

I see two immediate benefits: first, we'll cut way down on our child-related social costs (no more annoying S-CHIP debates or welfare payments or expensive schools with their whiny teachers) and second, we won't have to look at ugly, deformed, lumpy women whose bodies have been destroyed by childbirth. Think of it as a policy twofer.

Of course, we'd have to kill women over 40, too - but we're already sort of doing that, with our obsession about beauty and youth. Might be we could just continue ignoring them, and they'd kind of disappear of their own accord.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Go, You Saudi Girls, Go

The Saudis are apparently toying with the idea of letting women drive. I'm very prepared to be culturally sensitive to their ... what shall we call it? Hang-up about women? Especially women who have the wherewithal to start a car and drive it straight out of the country and away from constant male surveillance?

I don't want to be a Western imperialist, after all. Yet, I applaud this trend toward liberality. The photo to the right is from a popular Saudi television series about a young woman who was forced, by the death of her father, to don a disguise and go to work as a cab driver. Of course she doesn't look in the least like a man. Maybe it's the salon-styled eyebrows and dewy skin. But I say, go girl. Go, and go, and go.

(If you don't know much about Saudi culture, go to Carmen bin Laden's autobiography Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia. I got more about the real lives of Saudi women from this book than from any other source.)

Biofuels. Let's Get Serious.

From Grist, the environmental blog. This is worth reading.

Biofuel: Is it a greenhouse gas, gas, gas?

By all accounts, biofuels deliver startlingly modest reductions in greenhouse gases. In a relatively generous assessment of the environmental benefits of ethanol and biodiesel released last year, University of Minnesota researchers credited corn-based ethanol with 12 percent less net greenhouse-gas emissions than gasoline, while finding that soy-based biodiesel emits 41 percent less.

But here's the catch: It takes so much corn to produce a gallon of ethanol, and so much soy to produce a gallon of biodiesel, that the net GHG advantages are likely to be almost nil.

And that's just what we already knew. Now comes a new study that says that simply growing the crops that become biofuel is dangerous - more dangerous than using gasoline in the first place.

(The study) claims that biofuel production emits far more nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas some 296 times more potent than carbon dioxide, than has normally been assumed. The source is artificial fertilizer, a potent source of nitrogen. When farmers apply it to soil, a certain amount of it -- between 3 percent and 5 percent, according to the study -- enters the atmosphere as nitrous oxide.

But despite all this, corn farms are going gangbusters, getting top dollar from the market, which seems to think biofuel is going to the great and profitable environmental savior, and from the government, through automatic annual subsidies to farmers. To feel sort of sick about the whole thing, read this article from today's Washington Post.

So where are we in our lackluster quest to save our planet as painlessly as possible? Nowhere, it appears. Maybe we're like alcoholics who have to hit bottom before we realize that, hey, there's really no easy way out of the mess we've made. We're going to have suffer, a little or maybe a lot. We're going to have to give up some stuff. Is there anything idea in the world that Americans resist more vigorously? Without real, evangelizing leadership, we're doomed.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Spam Lines: 'Your Insatiable Chick Will Be Full of Pleasure'

Oh, it's a time of high and low news. Hillary is a shoo-in (let the rabid haters of this woman commence their attacks!) and Jan and Marcia (oh no!) were lesbian lovers. Maybe. Whatever.

But I'm thinking about something else. It's spam, and the voluminous amounts I receive, mostly having to do with the male desire to, ah, please. I've gotten so much of it recently that I'm saving my best subject lines. My starter-list is below, though I intend to add to it on a daily basis. Send yours, too. In the end, we can submit them, papier mache'd,on a giant inflated penis, to Congress. For their legislative consideration, I'm thinking.

Subject: are you the next man in the world to get super sized in the pants?

Subject: attract more ladies with a huge trouser snake

Subject: life is too short to be small

Subject: Your problems with cock size will become history

Subject: Your insatiable chick will be full of pleasure

Subject: I went from being "mr little" too "mr big boy" within 6 months = )

Subject: Does your penis size ruin your life? Our product will stop that!

Subject: Increase your sperm and pleasure.

Subject: New size for Men especially for new feelings of women at once

Subject: my girl loves the new me.

Subject: Our penis growth pills will give you the results you need to make your intimate ...

Subject: Tired of being ashamed of your penis size? Leave it for losers!

Subject: Get personal pussy available on your command any time of the night or day.

Subject: 72% of all women need a larger and thicker penis to reach sexual orgasm

Subject: Take Megadik and enjoy the reflection of your penis in the mirror!

Subject: We provide for you a real advantage to turn her on!

Subject: Penis enlargement was never so easy before! Now there is MegaDik!

Subject: Thank you, a girl to be yours in here found!

Subject: My banger is HUGE now thanks to these guys..

Subject: The guys get jealous now when they see me in the bathroom

Subject: Customers alert, new pharma site is realised!

Subject: Men all over the world are going to love this product...

Subject: No more being shy of your manhood

Subject: Making your woman happy is very important for repeated sexual encounters

And finally this, from the probably-not-pseudonymous 'Maureen Dickerson':

Subject: i got no probs taking the girls home now

Monday, September 24, 2007

MoveOn, Stop Being Obnoxious

Memo to

Re: your recent email, "Republicans vs. our kids": stop being so divisive. You're becoming part of the problem, not part of the solution.

And this from somebody who's essentially on your side.

Iraq, the Documentary

So last night at 8 pm I was curled up on my cozy couch watching the Ken Burns' documentary on World War II. Whether you think Burns is a great filmmaker or not, it was hard not to be impressed by at least one aspect of the show: the relentless scenes of carnage that began in the first seconds and no doubt continued long after I'd slunk away. The personal stories Burns wanted to tell were already being ground under the weight of the nonstop death, burning buildings, blown-away faces, drowned corpses, emacitated prisoners of war, and howling children. It's a punishing thing to watch such audacious images of rat-a-tat-tat horror. But how much worse to have lived it?

But wait ... we are living it, aren't we? Rather than alternately wallowing and glorying in scenes of shocking 60-year-old violence, we might create more happiness in the world by considering the scenes of current violence being perpetrated, and counterperpetrated, this very day, in Iraq. What a wet blanket I am. You know, maybe I'll just skip the rest of the Iraq thing and wait for the documentary. Ken Burns will do a fabulous job with it. I just know it.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

It's Too Late for Sorries

So Sandra Day O'Connor regrets that she helped put George Bush in office. (Are we to believe that, if he had turned out more to her liking - had been a better representative of her "beloved Republican Party" - she wouldn't have regretted it? So much for judicial impartiality.) Never has a single person's political bias been so inappropriately applied, and to worse effect, than in her deciding vote in Bush v. Gore.

In "The Nines," Jeffrey Toobin says that while O'Connor would never say so publicly, she's suffering over it now - she's dreadfully sorry about her role in handing over power to the wrong man. It turned out Bush is "arrogant, lawless, incompetent and extreme," she says. Drat! If only she'd known ahead of time, it would presumably all have been different.

Well, I'm here to say that it's too late for an apology. Given everything that's happened since 2000, it's much too late. O'Connor will have to live with the mess she's made, and far more importantly, so will we.

For those who haven't read it, here's a paragraph from the NY Times review:

The story of Justice O’Connor, who helped tip the Bush v. Gore case in favor of President Bush and whose 2005 decision to retire (to spend more time with her ailing husband) would give the president a crucial seat to fill, is in many ways Shakespearean. Mr. Toobin writes that “the hiring of John Ashcroft, the politicized response to the affirmative action case, the lawless approach to the war on terror, and the accelerating disaster of the war in Iraq all appalled O’Connor.” He says she regarded the Terry Schiavo case as “the latest outrage from the extremists who she believed had hijacked her beloved Republican Party” and adds that she was deeply distressed over the administration’s efforts to undermine judicial independence.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fasting in a Country that's Protest-Proof

From USA Today:

No Child Left Behind is "wreaking havoc in our inner-city schools," alleges education author Jonathan Kozol, 71, who today begins the 75th day of a partial hunger strike to protest the law.

Congress passed the education reform law with bipartisan support in 2001, and lawmakers this month are preparing to reauthorize it. The law seeks to get all students reading and doing math at grade level by 2014, mandating annual math and reading tests for about half of all children and sanctioning schools that don't keep improving.

Kozol on Monday said the law effectively has dumbed down school for poor, urban kids, creating "a parallel curriculum that would be rejected out-of-hand" in the suburbs.

Apparantly Kozol believes that poor kids are being subjected to a rote, mechanical style of teaching that crushes creativity and any sense that learning can be fun.

It's sort of sweet to know that anybody is still willing to engage in '60s-style protest theatrics, but this particular case is more than strange. One, it's over No Child Left Behind, not a hill you'd think anyone would care to die on. (Is NCLB good or bad? Don't ask me, and my son just spent six years enduring it.) Two, Jonathan Kozol, that passionate champion of poor children, is undertaking a partial fast because doctors have warned him a full-blown one might damage his heart? Well, what's the point of a fast if not to positively beckon death to your door? Isn't your own imminent demise a necessary part of the equation?

Kozol has lost 29 pounds, and he can ill afford even that. I wish he hadn't lost a single one - not for this cause. But still, if you're going to go down in a blaze of glory, you might as well really go down.

But more to the point: Jonathan, you're in the wrong country for this type of thing. Personal gestures of protest don't get Americans anywhere with their politicians; indeed, in many cases, it only strengthens their resolve. Case in point: our current president and his war. His aversion to Vietnam War-style demonstrations is so strong that a flotilla of burning monks would only stiffen his spine. Which is too bad, since the usual mechanisms of democracy don't seem to be getting us anywhere.

But perhaps that's another story.

Right now, here's my message: Eat, Jonathan, eat. No one cares.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Mary Gordon and Jodi Picoult, on Mothers and Daughters

Once in a while I take a stab at reading an author I don't know, or know mostly by reputation. These exercises, as you might suppose, lead to one of three places: amazing discovery, so-so indifference, or are you kidding? I ventured into this territory twice recently, going from the sublime, as they say, to the ridiculous.

Try as I might, I can't seem to feel much for Mary Gordon beyond the acknowledgement that, yep, she's definitely talented. I can see that she is, but her whole tone suggests that she prizes that talent a lot more than any reader ever could. I looked and looked for her last book, "Circling My Mother," and finally had to order it from Amazon. I admire the project - telling the story of her mother from different angles, through friendships, family, work, religion, even her body (she was disabled from childhood polio). But throughout, Gordon's language is so solemnly pretentious and at times so vengeful that it's hard to view this as book for us. Mostly, I think, it's a book for her, where she gets to settle scores and announce verdicts. History belongs, as we know, to the one who records it for posterity. And Gordon revels in her role.

Then there's Jodi Picoult. Somebody recommended her books to me, and seeing them displayed, one after another, in a place of honor in my local used bookstore (whose owner I trust utterly with my reading life), I decided to give one a try. Yes - I kind of knew they were all of the topical, Woman's Day variety, but one of them had a particularly evocative cover (two kids wrapped in a red blanket in a swirling snowstorm), so I picked it up.

This book - "The Tenth Circle" - is one of the silliest, most unlikely books I've ever read. Teenage girl gets dumped by boyfriend, determinedly chases boyfriend, claims later to have been raped by boyfriend, then - doing what all girls do in such trying situations - hops a truck bound for Alaska, there to find we never learn what. In the meantime, boyfriend dies mysteriously, and Dad, a comic book illustrator who draws avenging superheroes, is implicated. Maybe I'm not making this sound as bad as it truly is. This plot, one would think, might after all be made to work, in capable hands. But these hands are not those hands. Yuk.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Ayn Rand, Gen. Petraeus and Other Random Thoughts

Mike Barnicle, who used to write for the Boston Globe, would occasionally devote a column to a list of quick observations. If I remember correctly, the columns were always titled "Not That It Matters, But ..."

For your consideration, my own "Not That It Matters, But...":

  1. Ayn Rand, whose "Atlas Shrugged" was published 50 years ago this week, was a pain in the butt. She may have given literary voice to her charmless philosophy of greed, and may have been influential in capitalist circles (as though the profit motive has ever really needed philosophical buttressing) but the ideas she expressed are now commonplace. Furthermore, carried out a few decimal places, they quickly become reprehensible. Yes, Ayn, let's kill all the handicapped people, since they sap society's strength and keep all us productive people from giving ourselves singlemindedly to the pursuit of pleasure and profit. Sometimes, it matters whether an object of veneration was actually a decent person or not. She wasn't. (Check out the 1957 NY Times review of "Atlas," which was brutal.)

  2. This morning, walking on the treadmill at the gym, I flipped back and forth between three Sunday morning news shows: Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and Fox's whatever-they-call-it. Each, predictably, featured panels of politicians talking about Iraq. John Kerry made some reasonable points; John McCain sounded cornered and defensive; Bill Kristol and Juan Williams got testy with one another; and all the Fox moderator wanted to do was make the liberals on his panel admit that was wrong (read: unpatriotic) to call Gen. Petraeus "General Betray Us." And everybody sounded like they'd enjoy talking about something else for a change, because they know as well as anybody that in a time of war, the President will get what he wants, and all their speechifying about it is boring, inconclusive and ineffectual.

  3. Bush shouldn't get what he wants, but like the pope, he seems to view himself as infallible, and apparently that's what counts right now. And that's despite what the rest of the country may think or believe or even ardently desire. So, this, we must acknowledge, is democracy.

  4. It's apple-picking time in New Hampshire, and the orchards are crowded with people giving their little kids the chance to see where fruit really comes from. My part of New Hampshire is so heavily covered with apple trees that the new upscale houses cropping up on every hillside are really just sitting on lawns cut into old orchards. Quaint theme-parks, really, and requiring something only the rich could afford: lawn service companies that specialize in tending trees, picking up fallen apples, and mowing around dozens of precisely spaced, gnarled trunks.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Really Strange Story of Joyce Hatto

Now here's a fascinating and sadly human tale: the story of Joyce Hatto (right), a middling concert pianist who, with her music publisher husband, fabricated a brilliant career for herself by literally passing off other musicians' recordings as her own. What's weird is 1) the couple wanted to do it at all, 2) that they thought they could get away with it, and 3) that they did get away with it for several years, fooling the world's classical music aficionados into believing Joyce Hatto was a genius whose talents, up til then, had simply and strangely gone unrecognized. The story's wonderfully told in this month's New Yorker, but it appears in other places as well.

Probably the strangest bit of the story involves Hatto's husband, a lonely London suburbanite who, even after her death from cancer, still maintains that the recordings are hers (well, essentially; he acknowledges a little digital tweaking on his part during the publishing process). And this even though he himself brazenly stole copies of other musician's performances, cobbled together CDs, sent them out to friends and correspondents under his wife's name, and happily watched the internet buzz grow. And it is stranger still that despite the audacity of his lies, he remains a sympathetic figure. That's the human part. He and his wife wanted success so badly that together they were willing to risk humiliation and scandal to get it, even though they had to know it would all catch up with them.

I suppose there's a chance that the hoax wasn't born of some pathetic longing to be something they weren't; perhaps it was just a lark that got out of hand, a little joke that grew and grew until they couldn't find a way out of it. Since he still can't tell the truth - can't or won't - we'll never know.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tony, George and Me, Kissing the Old Days Goodbye

President Bush on what he'll do after his term is over: "I'll give some speeches to replenish the ol' coffers."

Press Secretary Tony Snow, whose salary of $170,000 is apparently forcing an early departure: “I’m not going to be able to go the distance, but that’s primarily for financial reasons. I’ve told people when my money runs out, then I’ve got to go.”

I'd like to take this opportunity to announce that, like President Bush and Tony Snow, I too will be leaving my job to ... well, cash in. Frankly, it's been hard making ends meet all these years, but I've never complained because this job has been an honor and a privilege, as both my dog and my son know. They've meant a lot to me, but when it's time, it's time.

These years of grueling public service have been a blessing, though nobody could say there weren't moments of challenge. That time when Flopsy threw up in the kitchen and I slipped in it and landed on my back, dropping the Mexican bake casserole I was taking out of the oven and giving myself second-degree burns - we can't exactly call that a good time, can we?

And the afternoons picking up the kids at soccer practice, only to have my son and his friend Buddy hold flatulence contests in the back seat? A certain yuck factor, I'll grant you.

But those days are gone, and we can all look back now and smile. For me, it's time to kick back and let the moolah roll in. What exactly will I do, you ask?

Lecture circuit. Memoir. You know how it goes. I've frankly got some memories others might find interesting, and some advice I might not mind sharing. For a fee, of course. I can't just give all this stuff away for free.

It's a Fat World, er, Country, But Don't Blame Us

This week, Gina Kolata of The Times continues her mission to assure us that if we're overweight, it's Not Our Fault.

It's not! Truly!

Don't even start with that nonsense about diet and exercise. Moderate exercise makes very little difference, she says, because our brains want us to be a particular weight and will make sure that we stay at or about it. And crappy calorie-packed food isn't the problem because American never ate all that well, when you think about it. So while diet and exercise matter somewhat, it's really a lot more complicated than that.

For instance:

According to several animal studies, conditions during pregnancy, including the mother’s diet, may determine how fat the offspring are as adults. Human studies have shown that women who eat little in pregnancy, surprisingly, more often have children who grow into fat adults. More than a dozen studies have found that children are more likely to be fat if their mothers smoke during pregnancy.

The research is just beginning, true, but already it has upended some hoary myths about dieting. The body establishes its optimal weight early on, perhaps even before birth, and defends it vigorously through adulthood. As a result, weight control is difficult for most of us. And obesity, the terrible new epidemic of the developed world, is almost impossible to cure.

OK, stop. I've had enough of this. While acknowledging that, hey, she's the science writer and I'm not, I'd like to ask a simple clarifying question.

Even given that everything she says is true, and I have no reason to believe that it's not, why is it that people in other cultures are thinner, and that Americans in earlier decades were thinner? Surely we modern-day Americans aren't so unlucky as to be walking around with post-modern, fitness-sabotaging brains, while everybody else gets the regular old brains that somehow allow them to stay within normal weight ranges? Same goes for pregnancy and any other biological factors that supposedly tip the scales, so to speak, against us. These factors aren't new, and aren't specific to our very fat American society. Something changed somewhere, and it seems pretty obvious what it is.

What I wonder is why Kolata, who's written a whole book on why we should accept our fatness instead of trying to fight it, is so interested in letting us all off the hook.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Forgetting 9/11, or Never Knowing at All

Another turn of the calendar, and it's 9/11 again. Despite the fact that we keep on talking, none of us, I think, really has anything left to say about it. The fearful residue of that day remains, of course, and it's a cliche to say that no one who lived through that time will ever forget it.

Though already a new crop of children is appearing who have forgotten it, or else never knew at all. While at some point such children had to emerge, I somehow didn't expect to meet one for years and years. That's how deeply this event has soaked into our culture.

Yet, just yesterday, I did meet one. Sammi, a 10-year-old who I see once a week as part of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, merely furrowed her brow when I mentioned the impending anniversary. I asked if she hadn't heard of this date.

"Uh-uh," she said.

"Not in school, or on the news? Maybe your mother's said something about it," I asked. I could jog her memory by giving her a few clues, I thought. She just forgot for a minute, the way she might forget what a numerator is, or the capital of Montana. She'll get it then feel silly.

But she just shook her head.

Well. I explained, casually, so as not to frighten her, that on that day, six years ago, some people flew planes into two big towers in New York. On purpose.

She looked curious, but nothing more. "Why would anybody do that?" she said.

"Because they were very angry at the United States," I answered.

She shrugged again, and mentioned that she couldn't wait to get home, so she could run across the street and visit a neighbor girl.

But I pressed ahead. Surely a 10-year-old couldn't be quite so historically blank. It was disturbing that she should be. I asked if she heard about the war in Iraq.

At this she nodded vigorously. She knew all about it - a relative of her mother's boyfriend had been there for a very long time, she said, sounding indignant on his behalf.

I told her that we went to war because of the planes on 9/11, though Iraq really didn't have anything to do with that day. But she had lost interest before I even finished my sentence. She began fiddling with the knobs on the radio, looking for a station she liked.

I started to say more, but then stopped. How could this be? How could she not know? And was it a sign of regeneration that she didn't?

More unanswerable questions born of 9/11.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Pedophiles and Polygamists on Parade, All Under the Banner of Heaven

The 'lost boys' - no, not those lost boys, from Sudan, but our homegrown lost boys, thrown out of fundamentalist Mormon families in their mid-teens for committing sins that none of the rest of us consider sins - finally are getting some attention. Now there's a place where some of them can go to get a roof over their heads and some much-needed help finding a place in the world.

Timely that the story describing this neglected group of boys appeared just today in the NY Times. I happen, following my recent perusal of The Book of Mormon, to be reading another book about Mormons, this one a little more convincing and illuminating. It's Under the Banner of Heaven, a truly appalling account of that religion's splinter fanatics and the people they destroy on their happy way to realizing God. Like all religious lunatics, the creepy characters described in Under the Banner of Heaven are earnest, wily, dead set on discovering the actual Truth, and determined to reform their old, inadequate religion (in this case, the Mormon version of Christianity, which is already weird enough) by bringing it back to the Fundamentals. As they see them, of course, and see them selectively and self-servingly.

It turns out the lost boys, hundreds of them, are pushed out of fundamentalist outposts in the deserts of Utah and Arizona - where polygamist communities set up shop after their founders split off from the mainstream Church of Latter-Day Saints - for a very commonsensical reason. Sure, the boys are sinful; some of them even sneak out to movies, or read forbidden magazines, or look at girls and have sexual thoughts. But the sin isn't what really gets them bounced. Since each of these communities is run by a single "prophet" whose word is absolute law, they get bounced because he says they do. They became, by virtue of age and puberty, competition for him. He wants the pretty young teen girls, but the boys presumably want them too, and there simply aren't enough to go around. It's that simple.

Most boys have only a junior-high education when they're pushed out, and of course they don't know a soul on the "outside." Often their own parents weep while packing their bags. But everybody's going to straight to hell, no maybe about it, if the prophet's command isn't followed, so there's nothing to be done. The boys go out into a wider world they know nothing about, with the curse of damnation over their heads.

The child abuse and perverted psycho-sexual dynamics are beyond anybody's ability to describe, but Jon Krakauer tries. His writing isn't particularly elegant, but he's more fair than he probably should be, given that some of the sickos he follows actually end up slitting the throats of their relatives on the direct order of God.

Religion, apparently, will always unleash violence in that small percentage of the population who takes it completely seriously, especially when there are historical strains of violence in that religion that can be turned on and off like a tap, by those who know how. (And in the case of this religion, a scriptural justification for polygamy, introduced by none other than the religion's founding father, who had an astonishing libido and God's convenient instruction that it be satisfied with "plural" marriages.)

Does this cynical, self-justifying use of religion sound familiar? All too, unfortunately.

Shame, shame on the states of Utah and Arizona for not tracking these woman- and child-hating narcissists down and arresting them with anything approaching vigor, and for failing to protect the dozens of children that each of these men father. The group home the states just funded for these bereft, broken boys is a good start, but still a paltry response.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Poor Little Rich Boys and the Big Bad Meltdown

I love Robert Reich; he's so great. This is from his blog, where he's talking about what economists call 'moral hazard' - the likelihood that you'll take more risks if you know somebody will jump in and save your butt later. But as he points out, while bailing out the little guy is often the cause of much harrumphing in Washington, bailing out the big guy is pretty much standard operating procedure.

(The shamelessness of the corporate elite has reached satirical heights when even financial writers themselves are making fun of Wall Street stock brokers and hedge fund managers. When you're done with Reich, read this piece, from Bloomberg News.)

Here's Reich:

When it comes to risky behavior in the market, America has a double standard. We’re told that economic risk-taking is the key to entrepreneurial success, but when big entrepreneurs take big risks that fail it’s amazing how often they get bailed out. Indeed, the history of modern American business is littered with federal bailouts, loan guarantees, and no-questions-asked reorganizations. Some are well known, such as the Chrylser bailout of 1979, the savings and loan bailout of 1989, and the airline bailout of 2001. Most occur in the relative dark, such as the 1998 bailout of giant hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management (courtesy of former Fed chair Alan Greenspan), the not infrequent bailouts of under-funded corporate pension plans by the government’s Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, price supports for big agribusinesses facing market downturns, or the current bailout of Wall Street being engineered by Ben Bernanke’s Fed. Behind every one of these bailouts are CEOs or financial executives who were rescued from their bad bets.

CEOs get away with stupid mistakes all the time. Some, like Robert Nardelli, the former CEO of Home Depot, drive their company’s stock so low that their boards eventually oust them. But they leave with eye-popping going-away presents nonetheless. (Nardelli got several hundred million dollars on his departure.) If you’re an average American who gets canned from his job, even through no fault of your own, you probably won’t even get unemployment insurance (only 40 percent of job-losers qualify these days).

Conservatives tell us that unemployment insurance reduces their incentive to find a new job quickly. In other words, moral hazard. Some CEOs use bankruptcy as a means of getting out from under pesky labor contracts they might have "known they could not afford" when they agreed to them (Northwest Airlines most recently, for example). Others use it as a cushion against bad bets. Donald ("you’re fired!") Trump’s casino empire has gone into bankruptcy twice -- most recently, last November, when it listed $1.3 billion of liabilities and $1.5 million of assets -- with no apparent diminution of the Donald’s passion for risky, if not foolish, endeavor. After all, his personal fortune is protected behind a wall of limited liability, and he collects a nice salary from his casinos regardless. But if you’re an ordinary person who has fallen on hard times, just try declaring bankruptcy to wipe the slate clean.

A new law governing personal bankruptcy makes that route harder than ever. Its sponsors argued -- you guessed it -- moral hazard. Bush’s "ownership society" has proven a cruel farce for poor people who tried to become home owners, and his minuscule response to their plight just another example of how conservatives use moral hazard to push their social-Darwinist morality. The little guys get tough love. The big guys get forgiveness.

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