Friday, June 29, 2012

In God We Teach

I found this video on Chris Rodda’s Blog, This Week in Christian Nationalism, and found it interesting and thought provoking. It runs just over an hour. The filmaker describes it as follows:

A film by Vic Losick, “In God We Teach” tells the story of a high school student who secretly recorded his history teacher in class, and accused him of proselytizing for Jesus. The teacher, in danger of losing his job strenuously denied it. The specifics of the controversy lead directly to the church & state arguments that are in the news this election year. With Stephen Colbert, Alan Dershowitz, Neil deGrasse Tyson and others.
It can be found, with more information, on the website

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Monday John wanted to go see Moonrise Kingdom. I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing a movie, but figured I could always nap through it if I didn’t like it.

I didn’t get a wink of sleep.

I don’t know how exactly to describe this movie. I suspect it belongs to a genre of movies that I don’t recognize because I haven’t seen the others. I found it whimsical and charming, but with an underlying realism. The cinematography had a stereotyped look, sort of like a Norman Rockwell painting, very much in contrast with, say, the grim visual realism of Snow White and the Huntsman. The first look at the screen let you know that you were about to see a “once upon a time” tale, although the time was 1965. True, those were real trees and boats and cottages and kids running around in “Khaki Scout” uniforms, but they looked too precise and a little unreal, like the kind of illustrations you would find in the books that Suzy, one of the two main characters, steals from her school library.

The characters are stereotyped and improbable as well, especially Tilda Swinton as Social Services (the only name we are ever given for her character) who wears a uniform reminiscent of visiting nurses of the Cherry Ames era and projects a combination of efficiency and rules-first thinking that still manages to hint at some concern for her missing charge.

Her charge, Sam, is a 12 year old Khaki Scout, orphaned and living in a group foster home, who has run away during a camping trip to be with his girlfriend, Suzy. Sam is picked on by his foster siblings and troop mates. Suzy has a reputation for going berserk when things don’t go her way. They meet when Sam blunders into the girl’s dressing room at a performance of Noye’s Fludde, and write to each other for a year before planning to run away together. Their running away is marked by the whimsical unreality of the movie as a whole. Suzy packs her suitcase with her favorite (unreturned) library books and canned food for her cat, and runs off wearing a skirt and Sunday School shoes. They run away on a small island where there is nowhere to go where they can’t be found, as they are rather quickly, only to run away again when Sam’s troop mates decide that they have been unreasonably unkind to him and that they should help him instead. While this is going on, a record storm is brewing.

So at first blush, the movie seems like a cartoon, a comedy for preteens to keep them busy on a summer day.

Yet there is the underlying reality. With all its whimsey, the movie tells the big truth about twelve year olds. They keep secrets. They run away, even if only into the recesses of their minds, where their parents cannot follow. They think about love and sex much earlier than their parents would prefer to acknowledge. They pick on each other for no really good reason and make alliances for no really good reason and have a code of conduct that has nothing to do with the adults around them.

As teenagers we fight to defend our boundaries from our parents and to keep secrets, and then as parents we fight to know what our children are thinking and feeling so we can keep them safe. We become the ones who are whimsical and unreal, thinking we can get inside our children’s heads and protect them from making every bad decision we ever made. Suzy travels with a pair of binoculars so that she can see everything in detail. She likes to think that it is her “secret power”. As a parent I would have given a lot to have that secret power.

So once upon a time there was a real, true story of growing up and away from the people who are desperate to protect us. And all around, a storm is brewing.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Survey Says

Sunday at St. Anonymous Dr. J handed out  a relationship survey for members to fill out. The answers are going to be the basis of sermons she will preach on what women wish men knew about women and what men wish women knew about men.

What I wish men knew about women is that each one of us has our own unique wish list and that I would be happy to convey mine upon request if only a man would a) ask and b) listen to the answer. I can’t speak for other women, let alone men, but I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar held true for them.

Anyway, after five demographic questions about age, marital status, and sex, the survey asks the following questions. The answers I’ve come up with so far are given, followed by comments in italics that won’t appear on the form when turned in. 

6. The most common misconception about men is:

That they know how to use logic.

7. The most common misconception about women is:

I really wanted to say, “That ‘vagina’ is the word for our external genitalia rather than being the name only for the sheath that connects the vulva to the uterus”, but did I mention that this survey is for a church? So here’s the answer I’m really giving:

That we don’t know how to use logic.

I don’t mean to flip the stereotype and say that women are more logical than men. I think it’s clear that human brains are no more perfectly suited to logic than our bodies are to bipedal locomotion. Even when we humans, male or female, think we are being logical, our thinking is often full of fallacies and shortcuts. So I think men are less logical than they’d like to believe and women are more logical than we’ve been led to believe and we all could use critical thinking classes.
8. If I could convince members of the opposite sex of ONE thing it would be . . .

They aren’t the Princes of the Universe.

Was the Queen song written  to be the Highlander theme or did it just get borrowed, does anyone know?

9. The TV or Movie character that most accurately portrays my view of the ideal man is:

Nico on Necessary Roughness.

 (What? He fixes things, just like my husband. I like that in a man. He’s also amazingly easy on the eyes, but that didn’t influence my answer, honest.)

10. The TV or Movie character that most accurately portrays my view of the ideal woman is:

She’s not the ideal woman, but I like Mary Shannon on In Plain Sight. She has many of the same flaws that I do, but she’s proud of hers.

11. I believe the secret to a happy, healthy relationship is:

a poor memory.

Okay, yeah, I understand that a poor memory can just as easily lead you to forget the good stuff that you need to remember to stay in love with your spouse or let you forget the bad stuff that you need to remember if you are in a relationship that’s dangerous, but the ability to forget the little irritating thing your spouse does  can be really helpful. Besides, I’m on my second marriage; I’m not sure anyone should be asking my advice on happy, healthy relationships.
If anyone wants to chime in on any of these questions in the comments, feel free. I have until July 9 to turn them in.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Law of Holes, Revisited

Last night I followed the discussion of the Jerry Sandusky verdict on a blog that I read. The second comment expressed a veiled wish for Sandusky to be raped in prison, a remark which quickly brought admonishment from other posters. The commenter jumped in with explanations (which eventually became contradictory) of what he meant, and the conversation devolved from there*. References were made to the Law of Holes: "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging."

This gave me reason to reflect on two meanings of the word “law”. There is of course the meaning of a set of instructions regarding conduct that carries a penalty for its violation. That is the meaning people have in mind when they invoke the Law of Holes, or First Law of Holes. 

There is also the meaning of “law” in the context of a scientific law: “ a statement of fact, deduced from observation, to the effect that a particular natural or scientific phenomenon always occurs if certain conditions are present.” 

Coleslaw’s Law of Holes is a law in the second sense. Coleslaw’s Law of Holes cannot be stated quite as pithily as the First Law of Holes. It goes something like, “If you are digging a hole, and people come along and start throwing rocks at you, keep digging further as fast as possible so you can take cover.”

The First Law of Holes, is, of course, an excellent piece of advice for living.   Coleslaw’s Law of Holes, on the other hand, is the one people actually follow.

*link here, but major trigger warnings.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

What You Wish For

There was a period of time between April, 1999 and September of 2001 when I was the most dangerous person on earth. I certainly didn’t intend to be. I don’t know where my powers came from or why they disappeared, but –

Let me start at the beginning. In 1999, my son was still wending his way through college at a snail’s pace. I don’t remember what he and a friend’s son, also the same age, had done, but to cheer my friend and me up I wrote my Twelve Steps for Parents of Teens and Young Adults.  

Around then I also read and posted on a newsgroup devoted to anti-fandom of a well-known radio personality. I had been invited into a sort-of inner circle of posters, the existence of which was rumored to exist in the larger group. Not all rumors are untrue. Another of the members is a journalist who wrote mostly features for a newspaper out west. One day she emailed us about the troubles one of her friends was having with her teen. I sent her back a copy of my twelve steps and suggested she use her best judgement as to whether sharing them would make the woman feel better or worse. 

C thought they were funny and asked my permission to use them as a sidebar to an article she was preparing on coping with teenagers. I agreed.

On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris showed up at Columbine High School with an arsenal and killed 13 people and injured 21 more before dying themselves. Columbine High School is in the vicinity of C’s newspaper.

It took me until at least the next day to get over the horror of the event enough to realize I needed to email C and suggest that my humorous take on parents’ woes with their teens was not going to be a suitable subject for the newspaper for any time soon (“soon” being a decade or so). C was ahead of me on that; she had emailed me saying basically the same thing.

A year later, I bought my beloved Ford Mustang, after the usual negotiations with sleazy car dealers, which I poked fun of in an email to friends and family in the form of a game show entitled What’s The Catch? It was a list of ten multiple choice questions such as “The reason the car’s price was discounted was that, unbeknownst to me

A) It had been used for transporting drugs across state lines.

B) It had been used for transporting toxic waste from a nuclear facility.

C) It was a dealer’s demo with 6500 miles on it.

D) All of the above."

C again wanted to use my writing as a sidebar, this time for an article on buying a car. The article never got approved, for one reason or another, but on August 9, 2000, Firestone had to recall 6.5 million SUV tires after the ones on new Ford Explorers started exploding.

Some time in early 2001 an internet friend from another email group, this one comprising women weight lifters, was looking for some guest posts for her new blog. I sent her one called Getting Dressed, a mood piece about the days after my verbally abusive ex became physically violent and I evicted him from the house. I sent the link to other family and friends, including C, who showed it to her editor. They recommended I send it to another editor for consideration for publishing in a section of the paper devoted to reader’s submissions. 

My essay was accepted on September 10, 2001, for publication the next weekend. I don’t need to remind anyone what happened the next day. It was domestic, and violent.

By this time I was feeling a little queasy. I emailed my group about the series of events and said I was beginning to feel like a character in one of Ursula Le Guin’s novels. One of the group emailed back saying he was sure I hadn’t caused anything to happen, but just in case, could I write my next essay about how he won the lottery?

And I thought to myself, not said, not wrote, but thought, “You don’t understand, E, if I wrote something about how you won the lottery, the next week we’d see headlines about anthrax spores being found on lottery tickets.”

Then just like that, my mysterious ability to cause mayhem and mischief in the world just by thinking about it faded away, and not a moment too soon, in my opinion.

And yes, I know, I didn’t cause any of these horrific events. The above narrative is a product of pareidolia, selective memory, and the human desire to feel somehow magical and special, possibly even helped along by remembering events out of sequence. I know I wasn’t ever actually the most dangerous person on earth.

I do wonder, however, how the processes I listed above - pareidolia, selective memory, and the human desire to feel somehow magical and special - affect my prosaic thinking and decision making when I don’t have as strong a motivation to engage my reality testing skills as not wanting to be the most dangerous person earth. It makes me think.

I know those thoughts don’t cause bad things to happen, and that’s the important thing. Unless - oh, no!  Could it be my fault that LSU lost the national championship?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
Mark 12:41-44, NRSV

John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!
—Andrew Jackson, 1832

In 1830, the Indian Removal Act was passed by the U.S. Congress, and later that year, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was signed, ceding 11 million acres of tribal lands in Mississippi for 15 million acres of land in what is now Oklahoma. Of the Choctaw who moved westward along what would become known as the Trail of Tears, the first of five nations to be removed from the fertile farmland of the southeast, an estimated one third to one half died along the way, of starvation, illness and exposure.*

In 1845, potato blight struck Ireland, causing a famine, which reached its height in 1847. Many Irish immigrants left their land and came to the United States.

Moved by news of starvation in Ireland, a group of Choctaws gathered in Scullyville, Okla., to raise a relief fund. Despite their meager resources, they collected $170 and forwarded it to a U.S. famine relief organization.
— 154 Years Ago: The Choctaw Send Aid

$170 of 1847 dollars is worth $4,722.22 in 2012 dollars. It’s still not a huge amount, but coming from people who 16 years before had to walk 500 miles west with only the possessions they could carry, to learn to make a living on land completely different from the land they left behind, it was a fortune. 

I first learned of this story in reading Effigies by Mary Anna Evans, one of series of mystery novels featuring an archeologist, Faye Longchamp. As the story is narrated in the novel, by a character who is the descendant of Choctaws who stayed behind in Mississippi:

I’ll say this for the Irish. They didn’t forget. In 1997, for the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of The Great Potato Famine, a bunch of them flew to Oklahoma to say thank you. Then they walked five hundred miles until they got here, to Nanih Waiya. After that, they donated a hundred thousand dollars to feed hungry people in Africa, in honor of our brothers and sisters in Oklahoma.

They should teach these things in all the schools. The world would be a better place.

I’ll do my bit to pass the word along.

*You will notice each of the links gives different numbers.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


John wanted to see Prometheus for Father’s Day, and even though it’s not my type of movie, it’s his day, so we went. Here’s my summary:

Scary alien life forms! Mysterious cave paintings! Expensive special effects! Almost lifelike robot! Occasional near-naked ladies! Space-ships designed the way they are for no apparent reason! Bad science! Theological reflections! Heart-stopping surprises! Big philosophical questions about the meaning of life!

I mean, I could go into details, but for me that pretty much sums it up.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Coffee to Go

One of the things my husband and I do for fun is to attend monthly meetings of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, an organization we joined to get the cheaper rate for their annual bus trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. They do have some interesting speakers as well. In the last few months we’ve attended a talk on native plants and heard the author of From Animal House to Our House talk about how he and his wife restored a historic Baltimore row house that had previously been owned by a fraternity. Last night’s speaker was Elizabeth Williams, president of The Southern Food and Beverage Museum of New Orleans, giving a talk titled Louisiana: The Coffee State.

For the last few weeks we’ve been having late afternoon thundershowers, so we found ourselves stuck in traffic on our way downtown to the Old Governor’s Mansion. We got there early enough to nibble on a few light refreshments, and to be told that our speaker was also stuck in traffic and would be running late. The person who told us this added, “I don’t know if I could talk for a whole hour about coffee.”

“Perhaps if you drank enough first,” I murmured.

Ms. Williams arrived, and began by stating something I had half realized, but never completely though about: that somehow people have begun associating the city of Seattle with coffee, when it should be Louisiana’s claim to fame. 

I didn’t start drinking coffee as a regular thing until I was almost out of college, so when I moved to New Orleans for graduate school I quickly learned what real coffee is supposed to taste like. Unfortunately, that has led to decades of ordering coffee on the road and being given what tastes like dishwater. Louisiana coffee preferences run to dark roast coffee that can be brewed strong without tasting like bitter sludge.   There is a large group which likes coffee with chicory, especially when it is served as cafe au lait, but coffee without chicory is served throughout most of the state and is, of course, the basis for Cafe Brulot

There is a good reason why Louisiana is The Coffee State. Of all the coffee beans shipped to the U.S, one-third come in through New Orleans and one-third through New York. That leaves one more third to be divided up among all the other ports, including that city somewhere in Washington State. Since coffee beans are shipped to New Orleans, a lot of them are also roasted in New Orleans. Folger’s brand, according to Ms. Williams, not only has a plant in New Orleans, but has also closed its Kansas City plant and transferred those operations to New Orleans. Louisiana also has its own brands, Luzianne (which is what I started drinking back when I lived in Buffalo), Community Coffee, which has a chain of CC’s coffee houses throughout the state, CDM, the Cafe du Monde brand, and Mello Joy, operating out of Lafayette.

Oddly enough, in its earliest days, coffee was not a beverage, but a snack. It began in Ethiopia, where people chewed the coffee berries. Arab traders acquired the plants and began making brewed coffee. From the mid-East, coffee was imported to Italy through Venice and from there spread throughout Europe.  Louisiana coffee drinking habits, including the use of chicory, were most influenced by the French. By the early 1600’s, coffee, tea, and chocolate as a beverage all became popular, which meant that, of course, the demand for sugar grew as well.

The Dutch were responsible for getting coffee berries, which unlike coffee beans, will germinate when planted, from the Arabs, and encouraging planting around the world in suitable locations. French planters began growing coffee in Martinique and shipping to New Orleans. 

Other fun fact that I did not know: the process of vacuum sealing coffee started in Louisiana.

So if you ever find yourself in our interesting little state, swatting mosquitos and sweating in the January heat, find a CC’s or a PJ’s or a Cafe du Monde and get yourself a cup of coffee.

Or maybe not, because it would really be unfair of us to spoil you for Starbuck’s forever.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Today is my 65th birthday, so I am officially an old lady. I went walking at the mall with my friend D for the first time since I dislocated my foot, which was convenient (walking at the mall, not the injury) since I had to pick up my new glasses. The glasses are my birthday present from my husband. As new glasses always do, they feel strange.

D and I made two laps around the mall (about a mile) and then had coffee at the food court and caught up.

Naturally, a lot of the conversation involved our boys, or as much about their lives as we know at present. That led to D sharing some information from the latest issue of the AARP magazine. She had read an article about children who are completely estranged from their parents, and was shocked at how high the number was. She recalled the number as one in eight, but I am not sure whether that was one in eight adults is estranged from a parent, or one in eight parents of adults are estranged from at least one child. It makes a difference. Either way, it does sound high.

The article apparently had some advice for keeping a relationship with your children, all of which can be boiled down to “don’t criticize”. Don’t offer unsolicited advice; don’t criticize your child’s sexual orientation; don’t criticize your child’s spouse; don’t criticize how your child is raising your grandchildren.

I think I would find the last one hardest of all if I had grandchildren. Not that I would criticize how my son and (future, someday, please God) son-spouse dressed a child, fed a child, or what bedtime was, or in what if any religious tradition they chose to rear the child. What I would have a hard time with is if they let grandkid ride a bike without a helmet or ride unsecured in the back of a pickup truck, or something else I saw as risking life and limb.

Besides, I have concluded from comments others make about me that I have really expressive body language. When I think I am sitting in a calm, neutral posture with a calm, neutral expression on my face, I apparently look like Medusa on a bad hair day. I can imagine a conversation with son or son-spouse in which one of them takes a look at me, asks with a sigh, “What’s wrong?” and I answer “Nothing” while easily hitting G above high C. That would go well.

My other concern about a someday daughter-in-law is not that I might not like her, but that she might not like me. I am a very introverted person, and to someone who expects outgoing and bubbly, I could seem unwelcoming. I doubt that, “This is me being warm and welcoming, dammit!” will go over well, either.

Naturally the article was written in terms of what older parents can do to heal or prevent estrangements with their grown children, because it was an AARP magazine and the only advice you can give people in that situation is to clean up their own side of the street. I doubt that all estrangements come from the parental side, however. We had friends from church whose troubled son, who had been adopted at the age of six and always been a handful, left home at 16, with the help of members of his birth family, and dropped completely out of their lives. Last time I saw them, they were afraid he was living on the street, if not in jail. They have since moved away, but occasionally we think about the young man and hope he is okay, and back in touch.

I doubt the well meant advice for parents will touch those parents who were cold and abusive and drove their children away, or the ones who simply cannot accept what they see as sin in their children’s sexuality or life choices. I also suspect some parents may be safer away from grown children who are themselves abusive or demanding. But one in eight? That’s sad. That’s truly sad. And strange.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Or Else What?

Whenever someone makes a suggestion using the format, “You should do X” or “You need to do Y’ or “Everybody should do Z” my unspoken (okay, occasionally spoken) response is, “Or else what?”

Sometimes there is a compelling answer to “Or else what?” “You should put money in  that parking meter or else the city will boot your car.” “You should come to a complete stop at that totally unnecessary stop sign at the cul de sac because there is a police officer who lives near it and the fine is over $100 when he catches you.”

Sometimes the answer to “Or else what?” is a matter of taste. Will I really miss the best time of my life if I don’t go to the movie that I really "should see," or will I think of it as 2 hours of my life that I will never get back? 

Sometimes the answer to “Or else what?” is  “Because it will be good for me if you do.” Of course, that answer will be implied, not stated. I suspect that’s the answer whenever someone says, “You should read this book/column/blogpost” when the object of the book/column/blogpost is to persuade me to believe something that the speaker already believes. 

I’m much more likely to be persuaded by “you should” statements that already contain the answer to “or else what?” If someone says, “You should get out of here quickly because the building is on fire/we just got a bomb threat/there’s a man with a gun”, I’m not going to argue. I may be an annoying smart ass, but I’m an annoying smart ass who would prefer to stay alive. When my rheumatologist’s P.A. said to me , “Girl, your knees are creaking. You need to take glucosamine," I did not contemplate a snappy retort. I don't like it when my knees creak.

Of course, I know I often unthinkingly say, “You should ___” to other people instead of thinking through my advice a little more clearly and stating it a little more persuasively. I try to remember to say things like, “I think you might like this book or movie” or “I’d be interested in your opinion of this column” or “I’d like it if you do X and don’t like it when you do Y.”

But I like to think if someone asked me “Or else what?” I’d say, “You know, that’s a good question.”

Friday, June 8, 2012


As everyone knows, June 5 saw the last transit of Venus across the face of the sun until December, 2117. Scientists kept telling us this event won’t be seen again in our lifetimes, and for me, that’s almost certainly true. I doubt very much I’ll live to be 170. It’s almost certainly true for just about everyone living today. A newborn of today would have to live to be 105 to see the next transit, and the newborn wouldn’t have been part of the audience who could understand the phrase “for the last time in our lifetime.” On the other hand, a list of the verified oldest people on Wikipedia lists ages ranging from 115 years to 122 years for the top ten. So it’s just barely possible that a 10 - 17 year old amateur astronomer of today could be around for the next one. Wouldn’t that be cool? Imagine a very old woman telling her great-great-whatever granddaughter, “The last time I saw this happen I was your age.” And great-whatever answering, “Yeah, Gammy, it’s a spot on the sun, okay?”

Since we’ve established I’m not going to be around, I spent most of the evening of June fifth glued to my computer monitor watching the live feed from Oahu on the Exploratorium website. Not that there was much to watch. It was a spot on the sun, moving so slowly that it was impossible to detect actual motion at all. It was kind of like watching hour hand on your watch: you know it’s changing position but you can’t make your eyes see it move. So when I say “watching”, I mean mostly sitting reading a book, looking up every so often, listening to the kickass background music ( a sound composition being created from the video of the transit in real time) and to the audio commentary every thirty minutes or so. From the commentary I discovered that the transit is marked by four points of contact: first contact being when the leading edge of Venus appears to touch the outer surface of the sun, second contact being when the entire disk of Venus is first visible against the sun, third contact being when the leading edge of Venus touches the opposite side of the sun, and fourth contact being just before Venus appears to have completely cleared the sun, when only the trailing edge is making contect. You can see videos of first and second contact and third and fourth contact here (just look down at the index).

What I found most interesting about the Mauna Loa feed is that it gave three views of the transit: in white light, and filtered through a calcium filter, giving the sun a blue-violet look, and through a hydrogen alpha filter, giving it a red look. Each view revealed a somewhat different surface: the sun as seen through the calcium filter looked somewhat smaller, because you saw below what is considered the surface, and so third and fourth contact appeared sooner than they did when the sun was viewed in white light. The hydrogen filter allowed us to see more of the gases off the surface, making the sun appear larger and delaying the onset of third and fourth contact.

Since I am not really an astronomy person and definitely a words person, knowing this leads me to muse about the definition of the word “surface”. We ordinarily don’t think of “surface” as having a vague meaning. We live with surfaces all around us, and graceless as I am, I bump into them a lot. When I’ve stubbed my toe or banged my hip or barked my shin on a surface, I think it’s pretty clear where that surface is.

The sun, however, is a ball of fiery gases. What we call the surface is really the photosphere, the part we can see. What we see depends on how we look at the sun. Since looking at it with the naked eye is harmful, that generally means looking through a filter, and a filter changes where we perceive the surface. So what is the surface? The outermost area we can see in white light? The outermost area we can see through a filter? Which filter?

Furthermore, when Venus transits the sun, it is not at any time making contact. Venus is a little over 67 million miles from the sun. The “contact” is apparent, not real, as Venus comes between Earth and the sun. Even if it were real, however, just how much contact counts as contact? How many degrees of arc must be touching for us to perceive contact?

If “surface” and “contact” are vague, “lifetime” is even vaguer. An individual’s lifetime is easy to measure, from birth to death, at least if allow a little wiggle room in the times of “birth” and “death”. When we use the term “in our lifetime”, however, whose lifetime do we mean? The average life expectancy of a poor child in a developing nation? The natural lifespan of a person in good health who does not meet with any accidents or violence?

I think there’s a good chance that one of the world’s many newborns kicking in their cradles on June 5, 2012, unaware of any astronomic events of note, will make it to December, 2117, possibly still unaware at that great age of any astronomic events of note. For myself, however, I think it’s a certainty - never again in my lifetime.

In A Dark Wood

A few decades ago, I read Joy Davidson’s book, The Agony of It All, The Drive for Drama and Excitement in Women’s Lives, which was published in paperback as The Soap Opera Syndrome. In the book, Davidson discusses what she calls “sheltered risks”. Davidson maintains that it is harder to break the “girl rules”, rules that maintain a woman’s femininity, than to break the “good girl rules”. So using drugs, drinking, dating married men are what she would call sheltered risks: they do not challenge a woman’s femininity the way, say, starting her own business might. They also, of course,  do not give her the fulfillment that challenging the girl rules will.

I was reminded of Davidson’s book when we went to see Snow White and the Huntsman. In its way, the movie, like the fairy tale it is based on, is all about challenging the good girl rules without ever challenging the girl rules.

The movie opens with a scene of Snow White’s mother pricking her finger on a thorn and dripping three drops of blood on the snow, and thinking how nice it would be to have a child with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and the strength of the rose. Soon Snow White is born, and grows to be a good-hearted child who nurses sick birds and climbs trees with her friend William. Her mother, in the meantime, becomes ill and dies, leaving the king inconsolable. An attack on his kingdom by a phantom army leads him to discover a prisoner, who says her name is Ravenna. The king marries Ravenna, who murders him and lets her real army into the castle. William and his father escape, but Snow White does not.

Ravenna is all about breaking the good girl rules. She uses her ageless beauty, maintained with black magic and something close to human sacrifice, to manipulate men and achieve power. She uses her beauty as a weapon against men because her experience has taught her that they will use it as a weapon against her.

As we all know from the tale, Ravenna has a magic mirror, in this case, a polished round of brass, not silvered glass, which she consults to find out who is fairest of them all. In the movie, the mirror emits a stream of molten metal that forms a figure which converses with Ravenna. In one scene, we see Ravenna talking to the figure and then see the scene from the point of view of her brother, who sees Ravenna talking to nothing. This is only fitting: after all, the mirror represents the male gaze. The whole story of Snow White is about the male gaze, as represented by the mirror. When the queen asks “Who’s the fairest of them all?”, she is not asking who the scullery maids and farmwives of the kingdom perceive as the fairest of them all; she wants to know who men, especially men of power, see as the fairest of them all, and it had better be her.

So of course her brother does not see the shadowy figure of the male gaze; it is never directed at him and so is transparent to him. That’s how I interpret it, anyway. I think the film’s author meant us to see the scene as either meaning that Ravenna is dealing with dark powers invisible to mortals or else that she is descending into madness. There is a lot in this movie that I see in a way that I am not sure was intended.

Snow White manages to escape from the queen’s prison to a dark forest infested with evil things. Ravenna’s brother finds a huntsman who has been able to escape the forest before, and Ravenna promises him the one thing he wants in exchange for bringing her Snow White. Once he finds her, however, he chooses to help her escape to Duke Hammond’s castle, which he has been able to hold against the queen as a refuge. The duke’s son, William, Snow White’s childhood friend, has been leading guerilla actions against the queens’ forces. On the way they meet up with some women characters not in the original story as well as the dwarves.

The movie passes the Bechdel Test, sort of. There are at least two conversations between women in the movie that are not about men, because they are about the queen, Ravenna. But nobody is breaking the girl rules.

Even the part of the movie that deals with Snow White being poisoned by the apple and then revived by true love’s kiss underscores the idea that women’s power is beauty, and is fleeting, but men’s is not.  When William and Snow White meet again, he falls in love with her. Ravenna disguises herself as Will and gives Snow White the poisoned apple. William and the huntsman find her dead, and William kisses her. Nothing happens. Later, as Snow White lies on her bier in the duke's castle, the huntsman comes in, bends over her and tells her what she has meant to him, and kisses her. As he does so, a tear falls on her. That's what revives her.

It is a touching moment, befitting the movie and what the audience was no doubt hoping for. At the same time, what does it say that William, who is Snow White's age, does not have the power to revive her, but the older, grimmer (and still hot as a firecracker, but there again, it proves my point) huntsman does? Men gain power and wisdom as they age. Women lose power as their beauty fades.

The movie’s passing the Bechdel Test is true perhaps of the letter, not so much the spirit. The other women in the movie talk about the queen, but as the queen represents the idea that a woman’s power is her youth and beauty, they may as well be talking about men.

At the end there is another one of those scenes that leave me unsure what the filmmakers meant. Snow White has conquered the queen, leading a male army under the banner of the king, her father. She catches a glimpse of herself in the queen’s mirror and walks off with an enigmatic expression on her face. Has she broken the girl rules or not? 

I’d say, go see the movie. Leave the children home. This isn’t Disney, but then, the old fairy tales never were.

ETA: Since the movie has come and gone, I retranslated the spoilers from rot13.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

It Still Counts

I have an online group of friends, all of whom currently or in the past did weight training of some kind and two of whom still compete at the national and international level. One no longer competes due to health problems, I never started competing due to health problems, and a third got interested in running and other sports instead. After some time spent competing in the javelin and marathons, she is now doing triathlons.

Oh, and she’s my age.

There isn’t a large proportion of women in the over 40 age bracket, let alone over 60 age bracket, who do competitive lifting. In absolute numbers, there are more than you may think, but some of my friends have shown up at local meets and been the only person in their age group.

So as you might imagine, they each have been reluctant to accept awards for being the best lifter in their age group when they were the only lifter in their age group.

Until one of our members spoke up and said something like the following:

You were the only woman there in your age group because most women aren’t willing to do what you do. You trained for this competition for months, you made arrangements to be there, and you showed up willing to compete against whoever else showed up. You took the risk of bombing out in front of an audience. So if no one else was brave enough to do that, that’s not a reflection on you. You earned that trophy, and you have every right to be proud of it.

I offer this to any reader who has an accomplishment they are downplaying at the moment. I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, you have every right to be proud of it.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

We Could Use Some Rain

I have been in and out of the garden watering plants. We did get some rain a few days ago, but less than half an inch at best. Since it’s 93 degrees out there, my plants are using water up at a rapid clip.

The topic of rain reminds me of the one session of NOOMA based lessons hubby and I attended recently at St. Anonymous.  

NOOMA is a series of short films produced by Flannel promoting spiritual reflections on individual life experiences. The name NOOMA comes from a phonetic spelling of the Greek word πνευμα (pneuma), meaning "wind," "spirit," or "breath." (I cribbed all that from Wikipedia.) 

“Pneuma” is also the root word for “pneumonia”, a word most people have no trouble associating with its spelling, so I’m not sure why the producers felt it necessary to replace the spelling with NOOMA, but they did.

At any rate, the title of the short film we saw was “Rain”. It was narrated by Rob Bell, who told the story of the time he took his young son for a walk around a lake near where they had been camping. Bell Jr was around nine months old IIRC, and so was being backpacked by dad in a baby carrier. When they started out, the weather was fine, but when they got halfway around the lake, a storm came up. Not just rain, but wind and lightning. At first the baby was just curious, but when his hood came off and he heard thunder, he began to cry and then to wail. As Bell tells the story, he finally took his son out of the carrier and held him the rest of the way home, while saying over and over, “I’ve got you buddy, and I know the way home.”

Even hearing the story was scary. From the sound of it, and from the accompanying video, they were walking through a wooded area, which means that at any moment, lightning could have struck a nearby tree or wind could have blown a limb down on top of them. For a baby, loud noises are one of the two things they are born to fear. It must have been a huge relief for both of them to get home.

Bell’s conclusion, however, was puzzling to me. He draws the comparison that through the storms of life, God is with us holding us and telling us he knows the way. Quelle surprise. But then Bell goes on to talk about how he would react if someday his son says to him something like, “Dad, remember when you took me for a walk in that awful storm? Why did you do it, Dad? I was so scared.”  You would think most parents at this point would say something like, “Son, I'm so sorry. I had no idea it was going to rain like that. The sun was shining when we left and by time the storm started, we were halfway around the lake and there was no fast way home. I was probably every bit as scared as you were, but I had to stay calm and get us home as fast as I could. I'm so sorry I put you through that, but at least I learned my lesson about checking the weather reports so it wouldn't happen again. ” 

Bell, however, tells the viewer that if his son ever said something like that, he, Bell would be heartbroken because the memory is so precious for him, because he felt a tremendous intimacy with his son, carrying him home in the rain.

I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I assume that Bell is tweaking things a little to make his point about God, and that he really wouldn’t brush his son’s fears off and make it All About Bell. I hope so, anyway, for his son’s sake. A parent who takes a baby out for a stroll knowing a storm is threatening sounds a little too much like a sociopath for my taste, and a parent who is heartbroken at hearing that one of his own fondest memories is one of the son’s most terrifying memories sounds a little too much like a narcissist. Somehow I don’t think “sociopath” and “narcissist” were descriptors Bell wanted us to apply to God at the end of his lesson.

Speaking about the end of the lesson, at the end of the film there were discussion questions for our small group to answer. I think there was a longer list than we had time to discuss and that the group leader was picking and choosing questions, none of which gave me an opening to talk about how appalling I found Bell’s closing statement to be. 

So that was the first and last such lesson we attended, mostly because we thought they were going to be something different, discussions of practical ethics, but partly because I found that one really creepy. To be fair, though, NOOMA is supposed to promote “spiritual reflections on individual life experiences.” This film certainly did that for me, just not exactly the way its producers intended.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Chicken the Way My Mama Made It

John and I recently had the chance to shop at one of those big warehouse grocery stores that usually require you to be a member before they let you in the door. While there, we bought a giant pack of chicken wings because he loves to make hot wings. The wings are funny, however. They have a strange texture and don’t cook suitably for hot wings.

Since we still have a dozen left, I decided to use them for Chicken the Way My Mama Made It. That’s my name for it, I’m not sure mom called it anything.

I rarely make Chicken the Way My Mama Made It, because it is completely heart unhealthy. I tried one time making it with only chicken breasts, and it just doesn’t work. It needs the dark meat to make the pan juices that cook the chicken and give it flavor. So if you need a nice healthy recipe for the boneless, skinless chicken breasts in your freezer, this is not it. 

Ideally, what you need is the whole chicken, cut into serving pieces, but just thighs and legs would work nicely, too. You need a big, heavy pot with a lid and a stove with a low heat setting. I have one of those pricey Le Creuset Dutch ovens that was a Christmas gift, but a cheaper cast iron chicken fryer works just as well.*

You can flour the chicken lightly before browning, but you don’t need to. Season well with salt, pepper, and maybe a little paprika. 

Now, brown the chicken in enough olive oil to cover the pan bottom by about 1/8 inch or less. You need just enough to brown the chicken well and keep it from sticking until it starts producing its own juice, so you may have to eyeball it. In the last minute of browning, add a few cloves of garlic. I’d say 3 or 4, depending on size, but you might like more. (I have an online friend who substitutes a head of garlic for each clove called for in a recipe.) You can leave whole, cut it half, or sliver, so that you can remove it when the chicken is done cooking, but don’t chop unless you are okay with having the chopped garlic in the pan juices when you are done.

Add a bay leaf (two if they’re small), salt and pepper one more time, reduce the heat to as low as possible, cover the pan and cook until the meat begins to fall off the bones (an hour and a half, two hours maybe) and the skin is lightly caramelized.

It is important that the oil be olive oil. It doesn’t have to be the fancy extra virgin stuff. It’s actually better if it’s the heavy, fruity (cheap) kind, but it needs to be olive. It is also important that you use fresh garlic, but if you only have garlic salt or garlic powder in the house, I’m not going to call the garlic police on you. The oil is important, though.

Once it’s done, the way you serve it is you throw out the chicken and soak a loaf of bread with the pan juices. No, seriously, of course you eat the chicken, but you do need a nice crusty bread to sop up the juices. Unless, of course, you are gluten sensitive, in which case, just serve the chicken with some sort of starch to slop the juices over: mashed potatoes, rice, maybe quinoa? 

You can brown some onions in with the chicken, and add some mushrooms during the latter portion of the cooking, but the juices may toughen the chicken. Better IMO to take the cooked chicken out of the pan and keep warm somewhere while you brown the mushrooms and onions and then add them to the pan juices and cook for a few minutes. 

Serve with a green salad, a favorite vegetable, and, of course, the bread.

*You can find instructions online for restoring grubby cast iron pots that you find at flea markets and estate sales. One you clean them up and season them, they will outlast you just like they did the previous owner.