Monday, December 31, 2007

new year's eve: enjoy the ride!

My friend Barrett offers this analysis of current political events (take your pick):
“Dumb people are doing bad things.”

Thus it ever was, but as Molly Ivins says, “things can always get worse.”

But wait! This is to be my optimistic last-day-of-the year entry.

This morning I decided that after more than a week without exercise, unless you count coughing, I had to drag myself to the gym. So I bundled up and headed out into the cold to walk the half-mile to the YWCA.

As I neared the school on the way, I heard children screaming as they sledded down a hill so tiny that I’d never even noticed it.
There were five little kids and a couple cheap plastic sleds, so they were going down in twos or threes. In the few seconds it took them to reach the bottom, the sledders screamed in joy.
Then they leapt up and rushed back up the hill, dragging the sleds behind.

I thought of the myth of Sisyphus, as retold my Camus. Remember Sisyphus is the guy who ticked off some Greek god, I forget why, who condemned him to endlessly push a boulder up a hill, which endlessly rolled back down again once he reached the top.
Camus says this in an allegory for the absurdity of human existence. We exercise our freedom in assigning meaning to an existence that has no ultimate meaning in itself.
He concludes that we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

I love Camus’ brand of optimism.
It’s the grimmest possible sort, but anyone who can say that he has within himself, in the midst of the wintertime of war, “an invincible summer” is some sort of optimist.

However I never could imagine Sisyphus happy.
Accepting, in a Zen kind of way, yes. But not actually happy.
Until today.
Since Sisyphus was condemned to push that rock forever, presumably he’s still at it. People are very clever monkeys. I’m thinking that by now he has figured out some way to make the downhill ride fun, something that makes pushing the thing back up the hill worthwhile.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Looking Up

An academic acquaintance e-mails that she is surprisingly devastated on a personal level by Bhutto's assassination, but her New Year's resolution for 2008 is to be more positive and she's trying to keep her chin up.

(She has her work cut out, as her field is Algeria.)

Her attitude, which is mine too, is quintessentially American. A couple summers ago, my family and I spent an afternoon coming up with representative American qualities, and "optimistic" was one of our top five.

The Economist this week doffs its hat to American optimism. A reporter illustrates it with a scene from the movie Dumb and Dumber:
The main character, the dumb guy, asks the popular girl he has a crush on what the chances are that a guy like him could be with a girl like her.
Very slim, she says.
Like one in a hundred? he asks.
More like one in a million, she replies.
So you're saying there is a chance? he says.

A person's level of optimism measures luck more than intelligence. You can even manipulate it in a lab.
Scientific studies show that animals denied any control over their environments will stop trying to escape painful shocks. These unlucky creatures learn to be pessimists.
Animals that could stop shocks by pressing a lever or some such action continued to try to find solutions to painful situations. These lucky dogs are optimists.

Some American kids grow up in the equivalent of a shock chamber with no levers; but our collective myth that, as the recent movie Ratatouille contends, even rodents can win glory is going strong.
It's a sign of strength that many of us believe this, even if it isn't strictly true.

A few posts back, I started collecting optimistic stories from 2007. A couple days ago, I heard my favorite yet:
Wendy, the middle-aged relative of a friend, has enrolled in community college.

I was shocked. Wendy lives up to her name: cute, feminine and lacking a grown-up version. She has used chemicals, marriages, and religion as alternatives, not very successfully. Further, she has denied her children a decent education by putting them in a feeble Christian-fundamentalist school.

What changed?
Well, Wendy recently went on vacation with her husband to Washington, D.C., for a week. They did the full tour: the Capitol, the White House, the Library of Congress--all the sites of our nation's capital. And Wendy realized she didn't know how any of it worked and, further, that she wasn't happy about that.

She came back home and right away called up her local community college.

Could she enroll as a student, to start in January?

Yes, they said, she just had to take an entrance test.

What if she couldn't pass the test, she asked.

No problem, they told her. She could study with one of their tutors and take it again.

What if she still couldn't pass it, Wendy asked.

No problem, they told her. She could enroll in Basic Skills classes, and eventually take the entrance test again.

Wendy took the test and passed everything but math, so she signed up for Basic Math as well as a regular English class.

Lucky girl.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bad and Sad and Scary

It is the moment of the boomerang. --Jean-Paul Sartre

My brain is not well.
A gunky head cold overtook me on Christmas afternoon, and I haven't left the house till now, two days later.

Last night and this morning, I lay on the couch watching the 3-DVD set of Battle of Algiers, which includes almost 5 hours of Special Features:
documentaries about terrorism, torture, and political violence, including a fascinating interview from a couple years ago with two American security advisors.

(They are Richard A. Clarke, former national counterterrorism coordinator and Michael A. Sheehan, former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism.)

These men both point out that the film shows torture does, in fact, work:
the French use of "rough interrogations" during the Algerian war of indpendence (1954-1962) led to their capture of the revolutionary leaders who organized bombings against European civilians in Algiers.

But both advisors also point out that the use of torture is bad policy ("besides being immoral and illegal," one of them notes).
It is bad policy, they say, because while effective in the short run, it breeds hatred that encourages more resistance in the long run. The French won the Battle of Algiers, but they lost the war.

The use of torture "is a hydra," one of the advisors notes, referring to the mythical monster that grows two heads for every one cut one off.
He referred to the old advice from the Vietnam War era that victories are won not just by winning militarily but by winning "hearts and minds." (Though in Vietnam that was a vicious farce.)
We have to win through having better values and ideas, the advisor said.

I am at the library now and, as chance would have it, the DVD of the documentary Hearts and Minds about the United States's involvement in Vietnam is available for check out.

I thought coming out to the library would cheer me up, but when I sat down here at my laptop, the first thing I see is that Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated in Pakistan.
When I hear bad and sad news like this, I wonder if this time we are hearing the final bit of news that will push the world over the edge.

In this mood, I e-mailed my sister, who replied that maybe I needed a dose of Monty Python.
She's right.
I am going to check out "Hearts and Minds,"
but tonight I am going to watch some or all of the four Star Trek episodes that came from Netflix today.
(They are from the series' first year, 1966, the same year Battle of Algiers came out.)

It's not Monty Python, but even the most serious Star Trek show provides some bizarre, restorative humor--at the very least through its low-budget special effects and costumes that don't quite fit anyone or that look as if they're made out of orange garbage bags...

I'll get back to political violence when my head clears.

Hearts and Minds

Turns out "hearts and minds" didn't originate with the Vietnam War but, according to wikipedia, with John Adams, the American Revolutionary War patriot and second president of the United States.

In Adams's letter of February 13, 1818, he wrote:
"The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people;
a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.... This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution".

That's its American roots, anyway. No doubt people figured it out long ago, too.

Friday, December 21, 2007

I Miss Writing Sidebars

I see by some of my posts, like the pigeon-racing ones, that I miss searching out quirky fun facts to feature as sidebars in my geography books. I always gathered way more wacky material than fit in the final book.
Joe G. once suggested that I should one day write an autobiography called Unused Sidebars.

I also sometimes miss knowing what I'm supposed to be researching and writing about, even though I chose to give that up to find out what I WANT to be researching and writing about.

I am not sure where this blog is going, and that's OK. I don't know where I am going either, now that I have stepped out of the security of writing on assignment.

I'm once again engaged in that old struggle between security and freedom.

Security is so comforting, so efficient. You have the illusion, anyway, of thinking you know where you are and where you're going.

Freedom is so cumbersome and inefficient and sometimes scary. And it's a lot of work, waking up every morning not knowing quite where you are.

I can see why sometimes populations welcome a strong hand imposing order on a floundering political scene, the way many Chileans welcomed the military rule of Pinochet at first, after the social disarray and economic disaster of Allende's presidency.
But without checks-and-balances in place, security can easily turn into a dictatorship that smothers freedom.

(I was heartened to see that Venezualans just voted against Hugo Chavez's attempts to eliminate even more checks-and-balances from his presidential powers--in this case, removing term limits, so he could run for reeelection indefinitely.
He's done good stuff, but when he shut down a public television station, looked to me like he'd started down that road toward absolute power. [From the How to Be a Dictator Rule Book: Step #1: Control the media.]
Kudos to Chavez for accepting the vote of the people limiting his power.)

Anyway, in my own life, I've chosen the inconvenience of freedom, for now.
I want to use this sabbatical--this freedom--to reclaim the emotional and intellectual autonomy of writing whatever I want, even if that is just gathering sidebar material off the web (for my future autobiography).
I remind myself of that when I freak out and want to get a safe, secure job.

The cool thing about freedom is the same thing that makes it uncomfortable:
you never know what's going to happen next.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hope-full News Stories of 2007

The AP's Top Ten News Stories of 2007 [post below] are all important, of course, but they are mostly dread-full. (Though their subheadings could be hopeful. "Global warming" includes the Nobel Peace Prize going to Al Gore, for instance, as recognition of what the Onion calls his weather slide show.)
Here's the beginning of my list of hope-full news stories.
Help me think of some others!

January 4, 2007. The first Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison (D-Minn), takes the oath of office on Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Quran.

February: The Lives Of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), with its message that people, even Stasi agents, can change for the better, wins the Academy Award for best foreign language film.

July: Libyan leader Qadhafi frees the Bulgarian and Palestinian medical personnel unjustly imprisoned for eight years.

Paris, France, introduces the first of 20,000+ low-cost rental bikes available at hundreds of sites around the city, to promote a cleaner, healthier place.

Doris Lessing wins the Nobel Prize in Literature 2007.
From her acceptance speech, at

The storyteller is deep inside everyone of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise ... but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us – for good and for ill.
It is our stories, the storyteller, that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, what we are at our best, when we are our most creative.

December: New Jersey abolishes the death penalty, the first state in 40 years to do so.

What's newsworthy?

The AP listed the Top Ten news stories of 2007 today [listed below].
Anna Nicole Smith's death finished "in 32nd place ahead of such stories as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the departure of Tony Blair as British prime minister, and the military crackdown in Myanmar."

"Anyone who picks the Anna Nicole Smith story in the Top Ten should be beaten with sticks," commented Mike Bailey, managing editor of The Courier News in Elgin, Ill.

I laughed when I read that.
But what makes the #1 story--the Virginia Tech killings--substantively all that more significant than ANS's death?
They are both indicative of America's craze for sick celebrities who don't do anything constructive (or even anything at all) and for the voyeuristic titillation, playing on death's power to call up a kind of lust, that passes as news.

The mass killing that finally leads to banning guns--there's the #1 story I'm waiting for.

AP's Top Ten
1. VA Tech killings
2. mortgage crisis
3. Iraq War
4. oil prices
5. Chinese exports
6. global warming
7. bridge collapse
8. presidential campaign
9. immigration debate
10. Iran's nuclear program

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Do It Afraid"

I looked up several of the people Gary mentioned, including the TV minister Joyce Meyer.
I don't believe in a personal god, so her "frame" around being human doesn't quite match mine, but she seems pretty OK.
I clicked on her article "Do It Afraid."
She says if you wait until you are not afraid to do things you need or want to do, you will not get much done. Go ahead and do it afraid, she suggests. The constant exhortation in the Bible to "fear not" means,
she believes, "Don't run."
I can go with that.

Managing Change

Managing change without freaking yourself out is the challenge of our generation.

That's what Allan K. said when I told him I couldn't yet bring myself to open up the box containing my new (and first) digital camera, I first have to gather my emotional and intellectual resources to face learning another new technology.

Allan's response also fits the challenge I face on sabbatical as I try to figure out what I want to do next, and how. It can be both exciting and freaking frightening.

I felt both those emotions after talking for two and a half hours today to Gary G., a retired journalist Lucinda met in water-aerobics class, about the career of journalism.

I don't know that I want to be a journalist, but I do want to move my writing along, and that's one possible direction.
After the informational interview I was torn between running out to buy a tape recorder (whoops--that's a reference to a defunct technology--I mean an mp3 recorder, or whatever the lasest recording device is) for interviews or going home to take a nap. I will split the difference and write up my notes from interviewing Gary. [To follow.]

Rough Notes on Journalism

This is the first rough organization of notes I took while talking to retired journalist Gary G. about his profession.

Some Recommendations to Aspiring Journalists

1. Educate yourself: Read a wide spectrum of magazines and news sources, which many other journalists are not reading,
from the Nation [left] to the National Review [right],
and lots in between, such as
The Economist ("should be number 1 on everyone's list, but isn't"),
Mother Jones, Vanity Fair, The Sun, Harper's, etc.

2. Get published. Research newsworthy items of interest to you; write up a brief outline of your thesis and your sources, and pitch the idea to an editor of a fitting newpaper or magazine. Do an informational interview with the editor in person first, if possible, to establish a relationship.

3. To become an Olympic journalist:
Pick two or three topics of interest to you that are going to become major in the news in the next year or so (e.g. the way one could see a few years ago that stem cell research was going to become hot news sooner or later) and research them thoroughly, on your own time. When the news breaks, you will be in the position to be the resident expert.

Some phrases Gary used:

"public-service journalism"

"Live-In Reporting" = getting up-close to your subject(s) for a long enough time to get to know them, and write from that vantage point. This is related to Gary's principle of "reporting from the bottom up."
Problem: this is expensive, and most media outlets won't pay for it.

We are in an era of financial cutbacks. Newspaper managers are always concerned with the "allocation of resources" (spending money) and, Gary says, "Crime is the cheapest form of coverage."

"Enterprise Reporting" = generating and reporting a new story, as opposed to working on assignments or rehashed stories

"pseudo news"

"You don't get what you don't ask for."

Further Reading

1. Melvin Mencher's News Reporting and Writing: best textbook for aspiring journalists, now in its 11th ed. (Do the assigned exercises.)

2. News Is a Verb, by Pete Hamill of the New York Daily News

3. Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman

4. Jim Romenesko's Media News
News, daily commentary and links about journalism and media, out of the non-profit Poynter Institute.

5. Also connected with Poynter: Jay Rosen (at NYU) writes a lively blog PressThink about journalism and its ordeals ( NewAssignment.Net is his experimental site for reporting projects.

6. Columbia Journalism Review

7. American Journalism Review

8. The Society of Professional Journalists Their ethic code includes: be accurate and accountable, minimize harm, and defend journalistic independence.

9. The N Y Times also publishes their ethics code.

10. Look into Oliver Wendell Holmes, William O. Douglas and Hugo Black's Supreme Court decisions on free speech ("no prior restraint" on free speech except reporting movement of troops in a time of war, and you can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater).

11. Look into the media reform movement, which works against the concentrated ownership of media.

12. Committee of Concerned Journalists and Project for Excellence in Journalism (Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach.)

Journalists Gary Mentioned

Bill Moyers (he says patriotism means questioning authority)

I. F. Stone (I.F. Stone's Weekly)

John Wicklein (changed the way the NYTimes covers religion)

Joyce Meyers, TV Protestant minister

William Raspberry (said the question, "What works in your town?" leads to newsworthy stories; journalists should cover efforts to help improve society not just cover conflict)

John Laurence, covered Vietnam War for CBS News

Walter Lippman (old school journalist, d. 1970s)

Saul Alinsky, "guru of community organizing"

Fred Friendly (CBS--the guy George Clooney played in Good Night and Good Luck)

Google McCandlish Phillips and Daniel Burros and see what you find, Gary tells me.
I do, and find a bizarre and intriguing story.
Phillips was a reporter for the NYT who reported in 1965 that Burros, a leader in the American Nazi Pary and the KKK, was himself a Jew. When the article appeared, Burros shot himself to death.
Ken Auletta's article on Phillips, "The Man Who Disappeared," covers this and other aspects of the life of this journalist who was also a devoted born-again Christian.
The article appeared in the New Yorker on Jan. 6, 1997, but can be read at:

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Cardamom Dream Recipe

Huh--this blog seems to be turning into a recipe book. While I'm at it, I'll include this recipe of mine, part the Christmas cards I made this year:

Cardamom Dream
Substitue your own winter holiday memory, if dog and bakery not available.

1 white dog
1 Scandinavian bakery, in another town
2 tablespoons orange zest, scent of
handful of stars
2 demitasses sweet Persian coffee
wine-baked pears (warm)

Walk the dog past the bakery on winter evening, long ago. While remembering this, stir the orange zest scent into the stars. Sprinkle a dash on top of the coffee.
Serve to a friend, with pears.

Tu Tu Cookies Recipe (from Sicily)

 ABOVE: Photo from Lori's Lipsmacking Goodness

My Ama-- my Sicilian grandmother--regularly baked two kinds of biscotti, or cookies: 

1. SOS cookies (or Biscotti di Monreale---click for recipe), butter cookies flavored with almond, vanilla, and cinnamon, and shaped into S's and O's; 
2. and these tu tus, chocolate cookies flavored with coffee and cinnamon

Another family recipe for Sicilian cookies:
My Father's Biscotti

I used to think she had made these cookies up, but when I went to Monreale, Sicily, where she was born, there were SOS-shaped cookies in the bakery windows, labeled as biscotti di Monreale, a local specialty.

I found a reference to "tay tu" cookies on the Web, defined as spicy, iced chocolate cookies rich with clove, cinnamon and nuts. These seem to be a relative of my Ama's tu tus. Southern Sicily is closer to North Africa than it is to the European mainland, and Arab influence--spice blends, for instance--is strong in Sicilian cooking.

Last night at L &M's Christmas party, the tu tus were a hit. Here is the recipe:

TU TU COOKIES (Cousin Celia's recipe)

2 sticks butter
¾ cup white sugar
½ c brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
3 eggs, beaten
½ c cocoa
1 tsp vanilla
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ c strong brewed coffee
4 c flour
½ c chopped nuts (optional)

1. Cream butter and sugars.
2. Mix in the eggs and the vanilla and the coffee.
3. Combine 1 cup of the flour with the b. powder, b. soda, salt, cinnamon, and cocoa. Stir into the butter-sugar-egg-coffee mixture.
4. Add the rest of the flour slowly, stirring after each addition, until you have a tacky dough. Usually about 3 to 3-½ cups total is about right.
5. Make walnut-sized rounds with your hands and place on cookie sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. Do not overbake!
6. Frost with chocolate frosting.

1. Combine 2 ½ cups powdered sugar and ½ cup cocoa.
2. Add vanilla (½ -1 tsp) and stir in enough brewed coffee and/or hot water to get the frosting consistency you like. Less liquid makes a fudgier frosting like we made; more liquid makes a thinner glaze.

Recipe makes about 4-5 sheets of cookies. Eat and enjoy!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

SOS Cookies

Photo of a bakery window in Monreale, Sicily, birthplace of my Sicilian grandmother Rosaria DeNicola (1900-1996).
(Thanks for asking, Maren.) 

Other family recipes for Sicilian cookies:
My Father's Biscotti 

and Tu Tu Cookies

SOS Cookies
or Biscotti di Monreale

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.


1/2 pound (2 sticks) salted butter
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
4-5 cups flour

Either dip the raw cookies in sesame seeds before baking,
or frost with powdered sugar glaze (powdered sugar mixed with milk to be fairly runny) after baking, when they are cool.

1. Cream butter and sugar together thoroughly.
2. Beat eggs, stir in vanilla and almond extract, and add to butter mix. Blend well.
3. Sift baking powder and cinnamon into 4 cups flour. [There is no salt in this recipe--the salted butter adds enough.]
4. Stir 2-3 cups flour into butter mix. Slowly add another 2-3 cups, for total of 4-5 cups. Dough will be dry.
5. Roll a ball of dough in your hands into a "snake." Shape the snake into an S or an O.
6. If you are using sesame seeds, dip each cookie in the seeds before you place them on a cookie sheet.

BAKE for 15-20 minutes in 350 degree oven. (I like mine pale and soft; my auntie likes hers brown and crisp.)

Remove from cookie sheets and frost when cool.

These cookies keep well, even getting better as they age. When dry, they especially are good for dipping in coffee or red wine.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Algerian Coucous Recipe

On a happier note (after "Speak Out", below), here's a recipe for

Algerian Vegetable Couscous

This is a vegetarian version of couscous, Algeria’s national dish. The stew that goes on top of couscous (the steamed grains of semolina that are the base of the dish) appears in endless forms. Feel free to substitute other vegetables and to adjust the spices.

Using fruit in savory dishes is a hallmark of North African cooking. If you like, add ¼ cup raisins or chopped dried apricots or dates to the stew.


1 onion, chopped
2 T olive oil
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp cayenne
1 tsp black pepper
1/8 tsp cinnamon
2 whole cloves and/or 1 tsp coriander
1 tsp salt
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
½ c. water
1 turnip
2 zucchini
2 yellow summer squash
4 carrots
4 potatoes
1 bell pepper
1 15 oz. can garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
½ c. dried fruit (raisins, dates, or apricots), optional
1 c. couscous
1 ½ c. boiling water

1. In large pan, fry onion in olive oil over medium heat until translucent (clear).

2. Add spices, salt, tomato paste, and ½ cup water to onions. Mix, and cook for 5 more minutes.

3. Cut the vegetables in large chunks. Add to onion mix, and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then turn heat to low. Cover pan, and simmer for 15 minutes.

4. Drain the garbanzos. Add to vegetables, along with dried fruit, if you choose. Cook for 15 more minutes.

5. Pour boiling water over couscous in a bowl, and cover. Wait about 5 minutes. Fluff with fork.

6. Serve the vegetable stew over the couscous.

Serves 6 to 8.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Speak Out

"The best antidote to bad speech is not censorship, but more speech."
--Nat Hentoff, journalist and civil libertarian

Algeria is one of the countries I wrote about for work, and one that I cared most about. Yesterday, looking ahead to the long dark winter, I rejoined Netflix, and I added the 1967 film "Battle of Algiers" to my Netflix queue. It's about the bloody terroristic Algerian war of independence (1954-1962) against France.

With independence, the triumphant secular party turned around and censored and repressed its opponents, and civil war racked Algeria again, starting in 1992.

Algiers, the capital city of Algeria, just got hit with another bomb, outside the United Nations. On and on it goes, each side bashing the other.

The historical roots of this conflict are deep and tangled, but it seems that repression, torture, and censorship never work to resolve them but only serve as fertilizer for more violence. The price for speaking up in these conditions are high.

During Algeria’s civil war, extremists assassinated writers and other people who spoke out against them. And both the rebels and government forces slaughtered ordinary citizens caught in the middle who only wanted to live in peace.

Algerian author Tahar Djaout expressed the frustration of this no-win situation. He called for bravery in the face of death in his short-lived newspaper Ruptures.
Extremists killed Djaout in 1993. But these lines he wrote remain famous in Algeria:

"Silence is death
And you, if you speak, you die,
If you remain silent, you die,
So speak out and die."

(Translated by Julija Sukys, in her book Silence Is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout, University of Nebraska Press, 2007.)

Why You Can Make a Battery Out of a Potato

I don't know. So I wrote to my old pal Matt, Scientist, and he replied:

Re the potato-- the directions are going to tell you to stick two metal
pins into the potato, and they are two different kinds of metal.
The power comes from these metals turning into metal ions and
electrons. The electrons go to power your device.

(The metal ions stay in the spud so you shouldn't eat it
because it will have unhealthy amounts of zinc or copper.)

What the potato does is provide a conductive solution, and you could achieve the same result using the same metal electrodes in a pickle or a glass of club soda, saith Dr. Science.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Death on Holidays

Speaking of how one feels about holidays that coincide with the death of a person you loved ("Grief Is a Bee..."), I think of JW wondering how to handle the holidays the year after her brother died on Christmas, shortly after my mother killed herself. She told me she'd found the perfect Christmas cards. They read:

Merry Fucking Christmas!

I think a lot of people could relate, even people who never experienced death on holidays. But JW decided not to send them, after all.

Recibo de Ventas

Note: The United States does not have an official language. Many Americans don't seem to know this.

Last night I went grocery shopping at my local Hispanic grocery, where I have started to shop more and more, since I discovered that they carry fresh milk, which the Asian groceries don't.
It was cold--near 0 degrees--so I wore my hat with ears, which I didn't bother to take off when I checked out.

Usually the Spanish-speaking cashiers switch to English when they serve me, but I guess this woman couldn't tell, what with me so bundled up (and being half Italian, I am not so far removed anyway), and she greeted me with her usual "Hola!"
I replied "Hola," but she sussed me out, (even one word gives away an accent), and when I paid she said "Thank you."
Still, I was kind of pleased to be temporarily Spanish speaking. Which I am sorry to say I am not, though I have picked up lots of bits and pieces of the language.

When I got home I noticed for the first time that the sales receipt is entirely in Spanish.
Here's what I bought, in both languages:

Marissa's Supermarket
Cashier: Carmelita

Recibo de Ventas

El gallito frijoles negros...$0.99
Adelita Maiz Dulce...$0.99
Nopales en Bolsa...$2.19
Tortilla de harina...$2.29
Chile Pimiento Rojo...$0.52

Total $6.98


Sales Receipt

Little Chicken [brand] black beans
Little Adele [brand] sweet corn
Prickly Pear Cactus in a Bag (i.e., de-spined and cut up)*
Flour tortilla(s), made in the bakery next door
Red bell pepper

*Nopal, or prickly pear, tastes like green beans would taste if they were a citrus fruit. (Lemony.)

P.S. Here's the CIA's World Factbook entry for the United States's Languages (2000 census):
English 82.1%
Spanish 10.7%
other Indo-European 3.8%
Asian and Pacific island 2.7%
other 0.7%
note: Hawaiian is an official language in the state of Hawaii

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Fat Farms

Dates [from here]

Sally got me thinking about the issue of what it means to be physically attractive and how we as individuals choose to pursue that, or not.

One fun (or disturbing) aspect of that issue is looking at how different people and cultures define beauty.

One counter-example to white America's obsession with female skininess comes from Mauritania, in West Africa, where fat women have traditionally been preferred by the Arab culture. (This is the dominant class in the country. The black Africans are generally of lesser standing.)
But it's not a happy one:
while some American kids suffer in diet camps to gain the coveted skeletal look, some Mauritanian girls suffer in diet camps in order to look like giant pillows.
Just goes to show Americans have no corner on the out-of-whack-body-image market.

I came across this article about Mauritanian fat farms, below, while I was researching neighboring Mali a couple years ago. Here's an excerpt from it:
Mauritania's 'Wife-Fattening' Farm
By Pascale Harter
BBC, Mauritania

Obesity is so revered among Mauritania's white Moor Arab population that the young girls are sometimes force-fed to obtain a weight the government has described as "life-threatening".

A generation ago, over a third of women in the country were force-fed as children - Mauritania is one of the few African countries where, on average, girls receive more food than boys. Now only around one in 10 girls are treated this way. The treatment has its roots in fat being seen as a sign of wealth - if a girl was thin she was considered poor, and would not be respected.

"I make them eat lots of dates, lots and lots of couscous and other fattening food," Fatematou, a voluminous woman in her sixties who runs a kind of "fat farm" in the northern desert town of Atar, told BBC World Service's The World Today programme.

Although she had no clients when I met her, she said she was soon expecting to take charge of some seven-year-olds.
"I make them eat and eat and eat. And then drink lots and lots of water," she explained. "I make them do this all morning. Then they have a rest. In the afternoon we start again. We do this three times a day - the morning, the afternoon and the evening."

She argued that in the end the girls were grateful.
"When they are small they don't understand, but when they grow up they are fat and beautiful," she said.
"They are proud and show off their good size to make men dribble. Don't you think that's good? ...Once they are fat and beautiful they can serve their men well, once they are fat they can be married."

However, the view that a fat girl is more desirable is now becoming seen as old-fashioned.

A study by the Mauritanian ministry of health has found that force-feeding is dying out. Now only 11% of young girls are force fed.
"That's not how people think now," Leila - a woman in the ancient desert town of Chinguetti, who herself was fattened as a child - told The World Today.
"Traditionally a fat wife was a symbol of wealth. Now we've got another vision, another criteria for beauty.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

"I am not resigned..."

I've just started researching prisoner recidivism (serving more than one prison sentence) for a possible article. It introduces me to a world I know little about--the justice system with its many branches, including victim assistance.

At the library I came across a handbook called Working with Grieving Children After Violent Death: A Guidebook for Crime Victim Assistance Professionals.
I checked it out because I lost a parent to a violent death (suicide) five years ago this month, and when you lose a parent, no matter your age, you are a child.

The book didn't say much I didn't already know, but I still welcome reminders of the obvious:
that violent death compounds grief,
that the duration of grief after traumatic deaths may be extended for years--even five or ten years is not unusual.

Most welcome, though, was a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay in the appendix. I thought I'd read all the standard biggies of death poems, but I had missed this one.
It's not perfect--not all the qualities of the dead are quite so nice as the ones Millay lists; but she captures perfectly the irrational refusal to assent to death or to be consoled by sentiment.
I'm copying it out here:

"Dirge Without Music"
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,––but the best is lost.

The answers quick & keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.


For more info on suicide prevention or help if you are struggling:
"The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals."
Outside of the United States, please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Being Pretty

Living in a female body is a complexity in my life and in the lives of most women I know.
Trying to write something succinct on the subject it is like trying to hold a thrashing big fish, but I'm giving it a go.

I'm trying because in response to a post on Already Pretty that said if you (female person) feel bad about yourself, you're not trying hard enough to look good, Krista wrote about how she used to spend about 17 hours a week on her appearance, and it was a no-win situation--you could never do enough to win out over the body shaming. 
This got me thinking.

I have never spent much time on my appearance, partly because I'm not very interested and partly because I'm lazy, and as Krista points out, it takes a lot of work. (Not to mention money.)

Instead of attending to clothes and makeup and the like, I'd rather lie in bed eating tangerines and reading a biography of Gerald Ford, as I did last night.
I sometimes feel bad about my lack of effort, but I got my choices in perspective back when I was an undergraduate studying Classics.

One evening I was doing my Latin homework at a cafe near the U.
As I hacked my way through a thicket of conjugations, I overheard several women students at a table next to mine discussing their diets.
They gave extensive details about what they had eaten that day, and how bad they felt about everything they ate. One woman said how many M&Ms she had eaten as if confessing a disgusting act.

It struck me that the attention the women paid to their diets required the same kind of mental effort I was expending on Latin grammar.

Maybe that's an even trade, depending on how you look at it (is studying a dead language of greater or lesser inherent value than counting calories?).
But it's not an even trade emotionally: 
I was gaining something personally, by studying, while women and weight is an emotionally draining relationship, I know from personal experience of me and most of the women I know. 
  The conversation was a peculiarly female one. Men certainly talk about equally temporary matters, but I've never heard them talk casually and publicly, as if it's perfectly normal, about hating themselves for some daily activity like eating.

Our species seems to long for beauty.
Some of the prettiest humans on the planet are the men of the Wodaabe culture of Niger, right, who spend as much time as movie stars on their makeup. [Image from National Geographic.]

Working to be beautiful is a human impulse. Nothing wrong with that.

But for American women, the desire is skewed in part by media and business interests that have a ton of money riding on the outcome. Not to mention a long history of power imbalances between women and men. And that seems to make a lot of us crazy and self-hating instead of beautiful.

It bugs me to admit that I while I reject the idea of such materialistic manipulation, it gets to me anyway, and I still feel a little bit like a morally bad and unlovable person when I eat too many M&Ms, even if I'm reading nonfiction at the time.
If I had a magic vacuum hose that could suck out useless, hurtful thoughts & feelings from my brain, I would set it to get rid those ones first.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Grief Is a Bee in a Basement

John told me that his new girlfriend accused him of being a scrooge because he said he was dreading Christmas. He said he's not a scrooge, he just knows he'll feel bad because his father died on Christmas a few years ago and he always feels bad when that time rolls around, no matter what.

Grief is like that, I agreed. It enters the body's memory bank at a certain time, and when the earth is once again in the same alignment to the sun, it activates itself. (Though its intensity usually wanes over time.)

It's like a bee study I read about once.
Some scientists took a bunch of bees from North America and put them in a windowless basement in Great Britain, where the bees had no clue what time of day it was. Nonetheless, the bees changed their schedules to be active when the sun was out and to sleep when the sun set. Seems they have some internal compass that orients them in space no matter where they are.

So if grief is like that, is happiness too? Does that explain the inexplicable feelings of joy that sometimes arise? Are the bees in the basement dancing?

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Dark Time

Heavy snow is falling this afternoon.
As I walked through the skyway downtown, I heard a woman behind me ask her friend,
"What time is that Holidazzle parade?"

Her friend replied,
"It starts at the dark time, don't it?"