Thursday, September 1, 2016

Maryland: The Clueless Driver State

We hadn't driven in Baltimore for more than a few minutes before we noticed that there was something seriously weird about the drivers. They weren't aggressive or angry. They seemed to float along in their own little bubbles, completely unaware of other drivers, traffic signs, or lane designations.

We were commenting on this when we drove onto a bridge and saw a sign that explained it all:

All right, then.

I wasn't shocked when I read that of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, GMAC ranked Maryland third worst on knowledge of traffic laws. 

Nor was I amazed to discover than of 200 U.S. cities and conurbations, Allstate ranked Maryland third worst on the per capita accident rate.

Now I understand why, when we moved to Baltimore from a Chicago suburb a couple of years ago, our car insurance doubled.

It's not that Maryland drivers are lethal: 37 states have a higher traffic fatality rate, and only 13 states have a lower one. They just don't seem to care about little things, like whether or not there's already a car in the lane they'd like to be in.

Pretty much every time we drive anywhere, we see at least one moving or non-moving violation. Today, for example, I parked in a lot reserved for compact cars. (I drive a Chevy Spark [144.7" x 62.9"], which is 15" shorter than a Honda Civic.)

At the entrance to the lot, a sign said "For compact cars only." Each parking space said COMPACT in yellow paint.

I parked next to the white Lexus LX470 (192.5" x 76.4") and left. When I returned, the red Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited (189.8"x 76.5") had taken the white SUV's place.

Well, at least they weren't RVs. I sighed and left the parking lot, slowing down to avoid hitting a compact car that blew through the stop sign.

Monday, August 22, 2016

And explaining doesn't seem to help...

Some Republicans in Congress.

Headline in the Washington Post, last year:

Half of American whites see no racism around them

Headline in the Washington Post, today:

Sexism is over, according to most men


Let's look at the 114th Congress, shall we? (Wonks: you can check out the stats here.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Where industrious ants get dinner

You know Aesop's fable about the ants and the grasshopper. Conservative libertarians think it's scripture.
One bright day in late autumn a family of Ants were bustling about in the warm sunshine, drying out the grain they had stored up during the summer, when a starving Grasshopper, his fiddle under his arm, came up and humbly begged for a bite to eat.

"What!" cried the Ants in surprise, "haven't you stored anything away for the winter? What in the world were you doing all last summer?"

"I didn't have time to store up any food," whined the Grasshopper; "I was so busy making music that before I knew it the summer was gone."

The Ants shrugged their shoulders in disgust.

"Making music, were you?" they cried. "Very well; now dance!" And they turned their backs on the Grasshopper and went on with their work.

But this morning I saw something far more sinister than heartless ants. A grasshopper was caught in a spider's web, and the ants were eating him.

No wonder the ants wouldn't share their food.

They're going to miss the concerts, though. And when the spider is done with the grasshopper, they'd better watch out.

Monday, August 8, 2016


If you're an American and spend much time in the U.K., somebody will undoubtedly quote you something that apparently George Bernard Shaw never actually said:

"England and America are two countries
divided by a common language."

Once upon a time I was the American editor for a British publisher, and I heard that aphorism frequently--probably because part of my job involved translating children's books from British to American English (please don't mention schoolchildren taking their rubbers to school!), or explaining to my British employers, for example, that the American author who referred to patting someone on her fanny was not being impossibly vulgar.

Altogether, my children, grandchildren, and I have studied or lived in Britain, France, Austria, Germany, Colombia, Taiwan, and China--so books about cultural differences interest me greatly. I was delighted to learn that my friend Amy Boucher Pye was writing such a book, and thrilled when she sent me a copy of Finding Myself in Britain: Our Search for Faith, Home & True Identity.

Amy is a Minnesota-born writer, editor, and vicar's wife (translation: her husband is a pastor in the Church of England) who has lived in Britain for nearly two decades with her U.K.-born husband and two children. When she moved to Cambridge (U.K.) as a new bride, she had no idea how isolated she would feel with an ocean between herself and her family and friends. Frequent moves as her husband finished theological college (seminary) and then took on several short-term appointments made it hard to feel at home anywhere. As a vicar, he was always busy on Christmas and Easter, so no trips to Minnesota for those holidays.

And then there was the plumbing: showers that barely trickled, separate hot and cold taps (faucets) so that warm running water was impossible. And the perpetual cold: drafts blowing the curtains out from the leaky windows, the radiators that came on only twice a day. All exacerbated by the legendary British stiff upper lip that would rather cope with discomfort than try to eliminate it.

As you can tell from the title, however, Amy grew to love her life in Britain, which has become her home if not her native land. What's not to like about free medical care? Twenty days a year of paid vacation plus bank holidays? Frequent breaks for tea (which is properly made in the U.K.)? Deep friendships that transcend cultural differences?

God, prayer, scripture, and evangelical writers and speakers show up frequently in Amy's story of her transformation from lonely foreigner to contented dual citizen. Herself a writer of devotionals, she encourages her readers to foster spiritual growth by keeping journals and rereading them at the end of each year--perhaps an intense evangelical form of the Ignatian daily examen.

If her approach to spirituality feels a bit over the top to people who do not share it, there is still plenty to enjoy for Anglophiles, expats, and Brits who spend time with Americans. Amy has a great sense of self-deprecating humor (how British!). Her Minnesota recipes may intrigue Brits unused to chewy cookies and pumpkin pie. And her abundant observations about British/American differences could spare eager Americans from self-inflicted indignities (the wrinkled nose, the tight smile) such as may occur, for example, if they prematurely introduce themselves (as one of her English friends explained, "Higher up the social scale it is still considered terribly forward to volunteer your name before having been formally introduced").

Be that as it may, if you happen to run into Amy, never fear. Though she now carries a British passport, she will be happy to learn your name!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

In case Mr Trump couldn't make it to church this morning...

If Donald Trump, who is technically a Presbyterian, attended church this morning (not unthinkable - he did attend an Iowa church one Sunday just before the caucuses), here is the Epistle reading that he probably heard:
If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things-- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Colossians 3:1-11
Some prominent evangelicals have claimed that Mr. Trump may be a new Christian. If this is true, I'm sure he'll be especially interested in studying this passage, since it is addressed to new converts who are just learning what it means to follow Jesus.

Mr. Trump has said he collects Bibles. If he unavoidably had to miss church this morning, he might want to pick up one of those Bibles, look up the passage, read it slowly and carefully, and ask himself how to apply its words to his life.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Picturing dementia: empathy, insights, and the occasional belly laugh

[One of Chast's unforgettable cartoons]
Some 25 years ago my parents and one of their best friends, Gertrude, started showing signs of dementia. As their conditions worsened, Gertrude’s daughter Ann and I began trading morbid geriatric jokes. Laughing helped us face the daily struggles of caregiving: it felt so much better than crying.

 In 2014, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast published a graphic memoir about her aging parents that would have been perfect for Ann and me. Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?... is often improbably funny. Its comic-strip presentation is poignantly true to life: frazzled caregivers will recognize themselves on every page, and they may also see aspects of their parents in Chast’s clueless father and ferocious mother. Chast’s drawings let us cry, and then they make us laugh—sometimes simultaneously.

These are the opening paragraphs of "Picturing Dementia," my double review - of Chast's book, and also of Dana Walrath's Aliceheimer's - in the May 11, 2016, issue of Christian Century

You can read the whole review online (and see more brilliant drawings by Chast and Walrath) at

I hope you will. If someone you love has dementia, you probably need these books.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Why this is the perfect time to vote for Bernie, even if you don't want him to be president

I voted for Bernie today. I am not sure he'd make a good president.

What I like about him--his refusal to be bought, his idealism, his modest lifestyle, his populist appeal, his independence, his concern for the common good--are the very characteristics that would probably make it hard for him to govern a nation that's in thrall to Money and Power.

But I voted for him anyway, even though it's highly unlikely he'll be the candidate in November.

And if you're a Hillary supporter in one of the 18 states still awaiting their primary, this is the very best time to vote for Bernie. Your vote will not make Bernie the candidate, but it could very well make Hillary a better president.

I voted for Bernie because Hillary needs to hear his message, over and over again. She needs to hear it so insistently that it will get through to her in spite of the power brokers who have financed her campaign.

She needs to know that a lot of us think she is dangerously hawkish. Her vote in favor of the Iraq war might be excused based on the misinformation available at the time, but her handling of Libya (and I don't mean Benghazi) shows her eagerness to rush in where better angels fear to tread.

She needs to face a continuing, relentless wave of public protest against her ties to big money sources including Wall Street and foreign governments.

If she becomes president, she needs to use her admirable skills to get Citizens United reversed and to do whatever it takes to assure that elections are never again bought and sold.

If she doesn't pay attention to those of us who wistfully admire Bernie's principles, the United States may soon be in big trouble. The rest of the world has gotten fed up with rich bullies. Despite their blustering, the sun did set on the British Empire, and it could soon set on ours.

I wish we had a candidate with Bernie's ideals and Hillary's political savvy.

But since we don't, I voted for Bernie because his heart's in the right place. And in November, I expect I'll vote for Hillary because her heart was once in the right place too... and maybe we Bernie supporters can help her see the light once again.