Saturday, September 26

The Hunger Within and Without

Suddenly, everyone's talking about food, and here in Madison, Michael Pollan can draw so big a crowd that cops are called out to direct traffic around the basketball/hockey arena where he's speaking on the subject of nutrition. Yes, you heard correctly: Mobs are gathering to learn about food.

Well, Pollan's actually speaking sort of against nutrition, a sort of pro-food, anti-nutrition position that begins to make sense once you read his bestselling books or listen to him. I preferred listening. I have tried reading two of his best-selling books, first The Botany of Desire then The Omnivore's Dilemma, and I have to confess I not only didn't finish them; I barely made it to page 30 of either. I have no problem with his analysis or his writing; he's a good writer making good points about issues we should attend...I guess I just don't want to read about food.

There's a book, allegedly for children, written several decades ago by one of my favorite authors, an incredible woman named Margaret Wise Brown. Her middle name is no accident, I'm quite sure. And the book of hers that comes most often to my mind is neither of her best known books, the children's classic Goodnight Moon or its marketed companion, The Runaway Bunny. No. The book I love is called The Important Book.

This slim book brings representative components of life down to their truest significance, to their very essence. I don't know any other book that does it as well, or even dares to try, and that includes the writings of Socrates and Sartre and maybe Richard Gibbard, along with the whole crew of writers of the various gospels. It doesn't really go head to head with Darwin or Einstein, essence being immune to either mutation or relativity. It doesn't address food really, other than the apple, but if it did, I am quite sure what it would say, and it would be this: "The important thing about food is it ends hunger."

Pollan and everyone else writing about good, truly nutritious food and the sustainability of our food supply are all right. We could eat a lot better than we do, most of us, by far most of us. And yet we are hungry and so we eat what is in front of us. We eat Froot Loops, and we put yogurt in plastic tubes in our children's lunches, and we are reasonably certain that the carrots we put alongside the silly plastic tubes of fruity, sugared yogurt are tossed, still in their unrecyclable Ziploc bag into the lunchroom garbage. We stop at McDonald's now and then, although we have begun checking our rearview mirror to see if anyone we know is within sight of our dereliction. Because we are hungry, and we are hungry for more than nutrition, even for more than flavor.

We are hungry to have life be easier. We are hungry to be able to believe that it's going to somehow turn out all right, to believe that McDonald's has not been poisoning us all these years or our children, raised on Happy Meals. I ruefully remember taking my children along with my best friend and her children to McDonald's when the children were small and we were obliging. Tracy and her children were devoted vegetarians. They ordered cheeseburgers, hold the burger. Their Happy Meals were soft, white, perfectly round buns with a single 1/8" slice of American cheese on it. And we were all so happy to be there.

We are hungry not just for health and correctness. We are hungry for time, hence the Happy Meals. Hungry for trust, to believe that our farmers are shipping us the same food they will serve at the table to their children. Hungry for a world that does not poison us. We are hungry for life to be simpler, to come home after a long, exhausting day of work and not have to cook a potful of dried legumes for six hours, not have to skin tomatoes and seed peppers before we can stew them into a pasta sauce. So we reach for a jar of Prego; we pop open a vacuum-sealed container of lentil soup. And when we go to bed with every intention of reading at least one chapter in one of the three books we currently have going, the one we put aside is Pollan's...but at least we bought it.

In Indonesia, during Ramadan, the servants of the middle class and wealthy tend to leave their house of employment to return to their homes in the villages of their birth. The employers of these nearly unpaid domestic laborers are forced to cook their own food and put their own children to bed. It is so exhausting a good percentage of them simply pack up and go stay in Jakarta's hotels for the duration of the Muslim holiday. Which I mention so you know it's not just we spoiled Americans who have difficult doing the right thing.

Cooking good nutritious meals is expensive and time-consuming. Unfortunately for the planet, lots of us have neither time nor money.

Friday, September 25

Diminishing the spaces between us

Today a wonderful young man named Enrique taught me how to greet the man I love when I meet him. I'll give you a hint. It did not involve a handshake. It did not involve a hearty hug either, no crushing anyone to the chest, no thudding anyone on the back. It involved a light touch of the hand to the hip, a light kiss to the cheek. Maybe two.

I'm not even romantically involved with Enrique, and I have to tell you it was wonderful. So, because it was so wonderful, I'm going to share it with you. I am hoping, you see, to start an inocuous and dumfounding epidemic of loveliness, a spate of undeserved contentment that has hitherto missed the Land of the Puritans and the Home of the Charlatans. I think this is just what our country needs right now. Because I'm serious: You could not greet anyone this way or be greeted this way and not feel somehow cherished. You might even get to remember what a blush feels like, a blush, which is itself a most wonderful phenomenon, a mixture of honor and humility expressed with that most human of paint: our rising blood. And to feel cherished is to feel content and to feel content is to quit picking on everyone around you. America needs this. I need this. My friends agree I need this.

So try this. Try it first with someone you already love or at least trust. Next time you see them, next time you spot him or her walking down the sidewalk grinning at you like a fool or dozing in a favorite reading chair with a mouth unattractively slung open or maybe waiting impatiently for you in the theatre lobby, pacing as curtain time ticks closer and closer---do this. Walk up slowly (rouse them if they're napping) but don't say anything, and when you are close enough to touch, reach out with your right hand and touch them lightly. If there is no romance between you, touch near the waist, just to connect your two persons. If you're romantically involved, touch more personally, maybe right at the vulnerable place where the curve of the hip bone melts into the hollow of the groin, don't press: just touch, not so anyone else can see, but just the two of you. And then you are close enough to lean over and kiss the left cheek once, lightly, don't dwell, just be gentle. If you feel continental, kiss left, then right. If you really love this now hushed friend of yours, kiss the left cheek twice. Don't rush it. This is a moment to savor.

Americans have a funny thing about space. We live in a country with more wide open space than nearly any other, and we are still fencing it in. We covet houses with acres of rolling green lawns and then we situate them in gated communities where no bare feet will ever feel their lushness. We not only keep more space between our houses than other cultures, we keep more space between our persons, whether we're friends or lovers or strangers. Our beds are bigger than most cultures' bedrooms. We keep each other at a distance. Distance is part of what is America. It has been part of what has accorded us power: the oceans that once separated us from Europe and Asia. We feel safe when we are isolated.

Oceans, however, don't really matter much anymore, and so here in North America we have somewhat awkwardly embraced hugging in the last five years or so. Hugging has become fashionable, almost de rigeur in certain circles, but it's so robust it's not even really personal. Handshakes are certainly not personal. But kissing, gentle kissing, this is personal. The curve of a waist or a hip is personal, whether you are stout or anorexic or obese or just plain old normal. Touch is personal.

Next time you meet a friend, someone you trust and love, don't hug, don't shake, don't slap on the back, reach out,touch them, kiss them. We could use an epidemic of intimacy. "And if you really like this person a lot," Coach Enrique tutors, with a knowing twinkle in his eyes, "you locate the kiss a little closer to the lips. The closer, the more you like. And if you kiss twice, you really like."

I really like the way they think south of the newly walled-in border.

Monday, September 21

The Happiness Ceiling is Falling

OK, I'll come right out and say it: I'm depressed. Perhaps some of this has been showing through in recent blog posts, or perhaps my gloominess regarding current events seems so well warranted that it didn't occur to you that it was personal at all. But it is. Depression, depressingly enough, is almost always personal, unless we are talking economics, which can also be, well, depressing.

But no. I am sufficiently depressed that I am actually going to find time to find a therapist besides you, my unseen, unknown reader. I want to talk to someone who will always have a box of tissues on the client side of her desktop, within easy reach. My mom and dad used to fulfill this function, my mom with a (clean) tightly folded sheet of Kleenex tucked reliably into the band of her shirt or dress sleeve, my dad always, always, ALWAYS with a perfectly ironed handkerchief folded squarely into his back trouser pocket.

My parents undoubtedly still have their respective hankies tucked into their everyday clothing. I won't ask them, though, and I'll be doing my best not to even let them know I could start crying at any given moment of time, that a flood of uncontrolled sobbing is only as distant as the next kind smile or the next knit brow of disapproval. Be unexpectedly nice to me or unexpectedly surly: Anything can start me crying right now. And a lot of it has to do with my parents, which is precisely why I'm at my most valiant and cheerful when I'm with them, why I won't be asking them for their hankies, I hope.

My mom is dying, bravely but terribly, from ALS. I see her almost every weekend, and her muscles and abilities are disappearing almost more quickly than I can record or absorb. My dad, who never ever expected to outlive the woman he fell in love with sixty years ago, is doing his best to take care of her, but at 84 years old and having never before done household tasks like cleaning and cooking or dressing another person, his skills are understandably limited, if expanding. I see them almost every weekend, and I do my level best to bring not only physical strength into their lives but also to bring them what may ultimately be more important: good cheer.

But I am running out of cheer, it seems, hence my need to spill my sadness to you, here, and also to the therapist I hope to find this week. And I find myself noticing articles like Maureen Dowd's column in this last Sunday's NYT, entitled "Blue Is the New Black," about increasing levels of unhappiness among those we might call "post-feminist women," referencing a culture-wide growth of unhappiness among women, posts like Ariana Huffington's, "The Sad, Shocking Truth About How Women Are Feeling."

What's the deal? Apparently, I'm not the only woman of my generation who is sensing a lowered ceiling to the sky. Apparently, the clouds have been gathering, while we were busy becoming mothers and executives, scholars and politicians, community leaders and volunteers. While we were busy raising our children, assessing their daycare, organizing their OM and DI groups and cheering their every soccer goal and homerun hit. While we were all worried about cracking our noggins on a glass ceiling. While we were so busy we never stopped to look down and inside ourselves and wonder who was taking care of us.

Men, it seems, have become happier. For the documentation of this, you can read Dowd's excellent column, referenced elsewhere, or Marcus Buckingham's book titled Find Your Strongest Life. And why would they not? They are no longer the sole breadwinners. We are helping pay for the kids' college; we are plunking our money into the retirement fund. And we are still doing the lioness's share of the housework, the childcare, the volunteer work, and the contact and maintenance of family ties with parents and with siblings. No wonder we women are becoming exhausted and live our present lives perpetually on the verge of tears.

It is the first full day of autumn. There is a new moon overhead in the sky, even if the cloud ceiling has lowered here in Madison today, and the glass ceiling remains a factor in our womanly endeavors. For me, it is time to get some help. For me, it's time to acknowledge that I am not the Superwoman I pretend to be around my dying, enfeebled parents or the effervescent free spirit and energetic creative intellect my friends and coworkers routinely expect me to be. I need some help, and I'm going to get some. I hope you will, too, if you recognize yourself in any of this.

For Dowd's column, see:

Friday, September 18

Walking to School Through the Land Mines

It began, I believe, with the Nike Foundation. "Invest in a girl and she will do the rest." The idea, to put it simply, is to spend a teeny bit of money enabling a girl from a underdeveloped nation to attend sufficient school that she attains literacy, then let her return to her familial duties and watch the improvements roll on in. This concept is based on the following observation: When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of that income into their families; men reinvest only 30 to 40 percent.

Known now as "The Girl Effect," the amazing ripple effect of educating one single adolescent girl is now behind social and economic improvement movements in countries from China to Botswana and back up to Pakistan. Health, wealth and welfare all improve noticeably when girls are allowed to gain literacy. Population growth subsides. Infant and maternal mortality plummet. And if wars are society's cruel means of doing to men what childbirth does to women in areas without prenatal care and natal medical expertise, then perhaps we might even expect to see the grim statistics of war deaths slow somewhat, too.

Take a girl to school today. Give her a book and a notebook and a pencil. Better yet, give her an iMac notebook and a book and a good lunch. Give her a safe place to learn, a place where she can decide for herself whether or not she wants to wear a hijab. Leave the burkas at the door please; shoes are optional, except in wintry climates. The boys are either already at school or they're out in the fields learning to wield the heavy blade of a machete. Let the old men and women fix the lunches and watch the crops dry up in the fields for lack of rain. Send a girl to school today.

The Girl Effect is a very wonderful effect. Educated girls return to their families and communities and share their newfound knowledge. It spreads. Conditions improve. Other girls go to school and the ripples continue to spread. It's just about the best thing happening in un- and under-developed countries of the world today, especially if you take the time to stitch it loosely to some of the great work being done with mini-grants and cottage industries in parts of Africa, again, using women as economic producers. And yet you may have noticed a note of futility in my narrative voice today.

One, every time I think of this unknown adolescent girl heading off to school, I can't help but notice a shadowy shape leaning against the doorway of her home. It's a man, and there's a weapon slung over his shoulder or stuck in the waistband of his trousers. It's a soldier. And at some point he's going to rape our adolescent girl, right now heading off to school with a pocketful of hope and a little something to eat at lunchtime. And at some point he will kill someone and at some point some other soldier will kill him. Meanwhile, our slight girl, slight glimmer of hope, is walking lightly down the dusty road to school. If the Girl Effect is truly to take hold and spread, we need to get this man out of the doorway of her home, too. We need to stop the violence.

It seems a little unfair to leave the salvation of the world up to this slight figure in loose clothing heading down a faraway road with a song in her heart. Girls are great, no doubt about it, but it shouldn't be left up to them. The ripples of educating girls do spread over the pools of our interconnected lives. But in all this talk about the phenomenon of female motivation, I find another thought running like a river alongside this newer, stronger current, a babble I've been conscious of for as long as I can remember and then some, back into the rivers that flowed through my mother's veins and my grandmothers' and their mothers back in the Old Country: "A woman's work is never done..or appreciated...or paid for...or..."

It's time to take that weapon away from the man in the doorway. It's time to take away nuclear development options not only from North Korea and Iran, but from Russia and yes from ourselves. It's time to quit organizing men into armies as if they have nothing better to do. The women of this world wouldn't need their protection if they would only stop being soldiers. Then maybe a woman's work, a girl's effect, might be truly accomplished.

Thursday, September 17

A Gate at the Celestial Stairs, With Armed Sentinels

I just finished reading local author Lorrie Moore's newest novel, A Gate at the Stairs. It's an uneven novel that sometimes feels like a house that's had a few too many owners, a few too many additions, some of them well-made, others less so, even a few spaces that make you cringe some to enter. Happily, though, Gate.. finishes well, and you close the book with a feeling of satisfaction, tinged slightly with regret, as good books have a tendency to leave us. You also close the covers with a feeling of sadness, for it is not a joyful story and the culminating event of the narrative, the death of the narrator's teenaged brother in Afghanistan, is too close to our own moment to give us any scant comfort of distance. As I finished reading it, as the heroine was climbing into the coffin that held her younger brother's blown-apart remains, newspapers and blogs were full of the ongoing and reinvigorated debate over our military presence in that besieged nation.

Feelings on this run higher than usual in my family this round, as a very dear and special person who has been a part of our family circle just enlisted in the U.S. Army's Special Forces. The wind is knocked out of me by this; my heart feels bruised and tender. No one in my family has enlisted in any branch of any military since my father's stint as a Lieutenant in the Navy during WWII. My family in succeeding generations has changed. Most of us are no longer the kind of people who follow leaders very well. We're made up now of Democrats and Quakers and Unitarians, Jews and liberal Christians; our idea of military service is attending antiwar protests and prayer vigils, and we don't even do those very well. And now someone we know and love has voluntarily enlisted in a unit that is not only military but aggressively so, charged with often covert violent actions intended to protect US citizens, a secretive and undercover military organization which has as its very basis strict obediance regardless of violence, motive or intention.

It has stirred deep emotions, some of them rising in the middle of the night to stand like sabered sentinels at the gateway to sleep, forbidding entrance. It has made me wonder why he would do this, what attracted this bright and talented young man to years of unbreakable service in far away places doing untellable deeds at someone else's command? He is not a young man who needed to see the world; he is extremely well-read, well-travelled and even well-mannered. He is not a young man who needs income nor education nor career. He has everything our country, a loving and affluent family, and good genes can offer.

The Special Forces are what we used to call the Green Berets. I looked it up, and this is part of what Wikipedia offers: "The United States Army Special Forces, also known as Green Berets, is a Special Operations Force (SOF) of the United States Army tasked with five primary missions: unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, direct action, and counter-terrorism....Currently, Special Forces units are deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. They are also deployed with other SOCOM elements as one of the primary American military forces in the ongoing War in Afghanistan. As a special operations unit, Special Forces are not necessarily under the command authority of the ground commanders in those countries. Instead, while in theater, SF operators may report directly to United States Central Command, USSOCOM, or other command authorities."

This is not an issue I will resolve in one blog posting. There is no single pill I can toss down my throat to feel better. I have been asking so many questions, among them biggees like, "Do I want to feel that I, as an American citizen, am protected?" "Do I think we should have a standing army, let alone Special Forces?" You see, of course if I want "someone" to enlist, then I have to be able to accept that someone I love may enlist, but I'm not really so sure I want anyone to enlist. I'm not so sure about sending soldiers anywhere. I don't really understand why we don't just send teachers or food or power generators or running shoes or more flu shots. I'm not so sure the "Girl Effect" isn't more important than spreading democracy or enforcing democracy. I'm not even sure it isn't contradictory to think about "enforcing democracy." I'm not so sure we, with Joe Wilson's behavior so prominent, should even be touting democracy this week.

There will be more on this. There are enough people blogging about Joe Wilson and racism and the Obama administration right now. Me, I am left with the lines from the first 45RPM single record my older sister bought: Sgt Barry Sadler's Ballad of the Green Berets. "Fighting soldiers, from the sky. Fearless men, who jump and die... He'll be a man, they'll test one day: Have him win the Green Beret."

And I'm also left with the question of whether we should be sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Sunday, September 13

The Real U.S. Open: Refereeing Congress

Serena Williams is being fined $10,000 for yelling at a referee at a sporting event. The referee had just made a verifiably wrong call about a foot fault on a serve done by Ms. Williams in her final round of competition at the U.S. Open today. In addition, she was fined another $500 for racket abuse. She may, pending the result of the ongoing investigation, have to forfeit her entire winnings from the tournament and/or be banned from all further Grand Slam tournaments. These are the consequences for losing control of language in the heat of an adrenaline-fueled competition, in a field of endeavor--professional athletics--that routinely includes benches emptying for brawls, slug-outs on the ice, and coaches being jettisoned from the playing field. Tennis, of course, is a more refined sport than ice hockey, right?

Congressman Joe Wilson, R-SC, meanwhile, who dissed the President of the United States of America during a joint session of Congress last week, breaking the most basic rule of comportment of those august chambers of democratic debate, may be asked to apologize again, to amplify the muttered apology he delivered to the President's aide last week to the full floor of the House of Representatives. Mr. Wilson was empassioned and therefore not able to control his lips or his tongue. Thank god he didn't have a hockey stick. Thank god doubly he didn't have a gun.

There will be no fine. There will be no payment. There may not even be a public apology or sincere acknowledgement of wrongdoing. There have been no real consequences. This, after all, is the Arena of Advanced Argument. I am the referee; you are the referee. We approve or we censure with our votes and our commentaries.

Does anyone besides me find it ironic and somehow dismaying that a tennis player is held to higher standards of accountability than those who serve in our Congress?

Friday, September 11

Nine one one nine eleven 911

Eight years it's been. Some of us have forgotten. Some of us lost no one when the towers came crashing down. Some of us lost friends, family, neighbors, enemies, innocence. Some of us lost careers, some only computers. Some of us lost our sense of safety. Only some of got it back since. Some of us were changed, changed utterly. Some of us shrugged it off, said "What'd ya think? That humans were good?" Some of us still believe humans are good. Some of us were changed utterly. Some of us still don't know what we lost; we're still wandering around in the ashes, scuffing our bare feet in the cold ashes of girders and mortar and gold fillings. Some of us said it was evil flying those planes through the clear September morning; some few of us said a prayer even for those souls that drove their own lives into the side of those tall tall towers, some very few.

Eight years and all is not well. No one's captured, no one's accountable, the world is not better off, airplane travel will never be anticipated eagerly by anyone over the age of six; eight years and we're still arguing about who we are looking for and in what country we are looking. Hide. Hide everything. Run stealthily.

Eight years and I am still full of unanswerable sadness and a sense of loss growing more profound with each passing day.

Thursday, September 10

Hooligans in the House: Rednecks Above the Starched Collars

What is wrong with Republicans? I mean, besides their politics...

Last night's behavior of those on the right side of the Congressional aisle catapulted us right back to where we were during the electoral campaigns last fall: dumfounded by the rudeness of those who claim to have a firm grasp on the American ideal.

Something happened, it seemed, when Republicans realized that they could not sustain a working majority just representing the rich. The percentage of those identifying with the rich had grown so uncomfortably small, you see, like the collar of a fat man, stiff and white and oh so tightly buttoned up, it was making the blood vessels threaten to burst on those Daddy Warbucks jowls. The Republicans needed to beef up their ranks. In fact of matter, they plain old needed a rank, a rank and file of Republicans.

So. Time to rip off that stiff white collar. Pull off that tie too. Southern rednecks would fill up the empty seats in the townhall meetings...good old plain Americans with good old reverence for the American greenback and a healthy disdain for that pesky and growing population that was filling the Democratic ranks so fluently: the wetbacks. No way Republicans were ever going to succeed in winning over significant numbers of the nation's rapidly growing Hispanic population, not with their stance on immigration. And the overwhelming preponderance of white faces in their ranks was doing little to convince African Americans that Republicans really represented their best interest.

And so they turned to the south, to the rancor of rednecks, which had never really healed from the Civil War and who still had enough good old American intolerance around to fill a spitoon to overflowing so why not a dying political party full of cranky old white men and a few well-coifed white women. Bring on the rednecks. Their values, after all, weren't really so far from those pasty old white men's, certainly not from Limbaugh's or O'Reilly's or anyone who spoke for the right from televised pulpits. The right had nodded at the idea of an uneducated, vindictive, and overtly misinformed and malicious Presidential candidate in Sarah Palin already; it was clear that neither intelligence or civility were assets valued by the Republican leadership any more.

And now the Republicans stand for bad manners and boorishness and outright incivility. I find it frightening. The importance of behaving with good manners is not about how many weeks you have to write a thank you note; it's about allowing discourse despite differences. You speak, I speak. We take turns. We don't shout each other out; we listen and respond with as much civility as we listen. And the halls of Congress, where our most important differences are addressed in order to form policy that effects each and every one of us, no matter what our opinion, ought to be the place where civility is best demonstrated.

Representative Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's address to the joint members of Congress last night was more than lamentable, it was pathetic and outrageous and worthy of censure from not only his peers in Congress both Democrats and Republicans, but from his constituents. South Carolinans, having barely weathered the scandalous behavior of a governor who can't keep his pants zipped, now stand represented by someone no more mature than a 9 year old heckler. He is unworthy of a seat in our Congress. A five year old interrupting a teacher with such an outburst would suffer consequences. There should be some firm consequences for Joe Wilson.

What have the Republicans proposed be done? Rush Limbaugh doesn't even think the rude man should have offered a token apology. Republicans are snickering in their antechambers, aiming at that old spitoon. They should be wondering just what kind of people they've invited to the party and what has become of their values. The politics of fear is now the politics of crude, rude belch-in-your-face-and- damned- if-I'll-apologize-for-anything. I'm starting to yearn for the days when Republicans just seemed snobby and rich and full of disdain for the rest of us.