Monday, December 26, 2016

Looking for light: Christmas 2016

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God...
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
The Gospel according to John, chapter 1

Take those words literally, spiritually, metaphorically, mythically, mystically, poetically, or however you can. At the end of 2016, we all need reminders that the universe is ultimately good, creative, loving, alive; that though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice. We need to hear that light overcomes darkness.

There is so much darkness.

For most of 2016 the world has felt like Narnia before Aslan showed up: always winter, never Christmas. Even Christmas alarms us as the world perches on the edge of chaos. We read W.B.Yeats's "The Second Coming" and wonder:
...[W]hat rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

And then an angel slashes through the darkness, shouting: "Don't be afraid!"

And the shepherds, who have been diving for cover, suddenly notice that the sheep are laughing at them, and so they sheepishly crawl out from behind the rocks and begin singing "Everything's gonna be all right."  And they all live happily ever after ...
... except for those Bethlehem babies that Herod murdered, of course; and Jesus's family, who were so afraid of the new king that they hid from him in Egypt; and Jesus himself, who was executed by a Roman puppet too timid to stand up to the mob; and most of Jesus's best friends, who within a few years were dead, and not of natural causes...
There has always been so much darkness.

In noontime darkness two thousand years ago, the dying Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" In this dark year, 2016, the dying Leonard Cohen cried out,
We kill the flame

And yet there has always been a glimmer of light in the darkness.

The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around.... 
But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.
Martin Luther King Jr., "I've Been to the Mountaintop," 1968

On the year's darkest days, we light candles for Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa. Their light is faint. It flickers. It is imperfect. But still, we light them.

As we head into a possibly calamitous new year, I think of Cohen's "Anthem":
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

If 2017 turns out to be even darker than 2016, I hope I can hang onto the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins in "God's Grandeur":
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

The light shines in the darkness, 
and the darkness has not overcome it.

Is it too much to hope?

Monday, December 5, 2016

How does your net worth compare to Donald Trump's?

Here's a fascinating video using the Morgan State University football field to compare the age of the earth - approximately 4.5 billion years - to the length of time humans have been on the planet.

You could use the same visuals to compare Trump's net worth  - approximately $4.5 billion, according to some estimates (and much more according to Trump) - to other Americans' net worth.

Trump's net worth, using the $4.5 billion figure, is the entire football field.

Approximately 99% of individual Americans' net worth ($8 million or less) is within the last 7.5 inches of the football field.

Approximately 50% of individual Americans' net worth ($82 thousand or less) is within the last 1/12 of an inch of the football field--the width of a matchstick.

Approximately 20% of individual Americans' net worth ($4314 or less) is within the last 100 micrometers of the football field--the width of a human hair.

Odd that so many voters didn't see Trump as part of the elite.

Check here for U.S. wealth amounts by percentile.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Powerful Men: when philandering becomes misogyny

[Pablo Picasso, The Harem, 1906]
In its March 13, 1998, issue, Commonweal magazine published an article I wrote just as Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky began dominating the news. As far as I know, it received only one comment. Someone thought my language was crude.

I am reposting that article the day after the Washington Post released a video in which "Donald Trump bragged in vulgar terms about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women . . . , saying that 'when you’re a star, they let you do it.'” This happened in 2005, 8 months after Trump married his third wife, Melania, and 6 months before their son, Barron, was born.

More than 18 years have passed since I wrote the Commonweal article, and some things have changed--though not nearly enough.

If I were writing a similar article today, I would continue to encourage women--no matter their political beliefs--to speak out about Men Behaving Badly. Fortunately, women in 2016 are a good deal more vocal about sexual harassment and abuse than they were in the 1990s, though some are still trying hard to excuse the inexcusable.

I would definitely say more about how men--no matter their political beliefs--should speak out whenever a man demeans women. Fortunately, a number of prominent Republican men have finally denounced Trump's vulgarity--though unfortunately, few have named his behavior assault and adultery, which it certainly is, and it took most of them way too long to say anything at all.

Here's what I wrote in 1998 [lightly edited]. I am deeply sorry that it needs to be read again.
"Of course, this isn't about sex. It's about possible obstruction of justice." "Clinton's sex life is his own business. What matters is whether he's doing what we elected him to do." "If his wife can live with him, why should we care?"

Gosh, we're all so grown-up. Sex may have been all we thought about in the late sixties, but we're far beyond that now. If it weren't for those questions of perjury and the electoral mandate, we would certainly not be watching all those prurient commentators, now would we?

Well, I for one find sex fascinating, and having been grounded by the flu just when Monica hit the airwaves, I relentlessly watched the alleged scandal unfold. I confess I've been startled to hear countless fastidious people denying any interest in Clinton's sex life (though at parties, after a drink or two, they begin calling him the Unabanger, and worse). This is not because I'm a Clinton-basher. I voted for him twice, and I hope he is eventually found to be pure as the driven snow. But I am really watching because I am amazed at [some] women's willingness to overlook men's perfidy.

The subtext of l'affaire Clinton is that old law of nature: the most powerful male can have all the females he wants. In the West he is unlikely to have a state-supported harem, but he is allowed to keep a wife, a mistress, and any number of sexual servants at his disposal. Who allows him to do this? We all do--especially when we say that allegations of sexual misconduct are relatively unimportant, as long as the alleged perpetrator tells the truth about them.

If the top baboon can have all the females he wants, it's clear where he's sitting. His bright pink rump is planted firmly on the glass ceiling. Look up, women: you can't miss it. If you're young and nubile, he may beckon to you. Take a breathtaking ride up the elevator past that glass barrier, right into the inner sanctum of power. Make him feel good and be rewarded with small gifts and better jobs. Afterward, as you fly past your plainer colleagues on your way to the basement, console yourself: at least you have seen the view from the top baboon's penthouse, while they--with all their integrity and hard work and brains--will never get past the barrier.

Well, one of them might. For there is also a top female: the wife. She may be powerful in her own right. She certainly shares her husband's glory. She bears his children, speaks for him when he cannot be present, counsels him at will. And she can live above the glass ceiling for life--as long as she does not mind the eager young things getting off and on the elevator[, and as long as she is never replaced by a newer model].

According to one school of thought, men will behave if their wives play a prescribed role to perfection, whether the role be domesticity and maternity or professionalism and assertiveness. If men do not behave, it is because their women have somehow failed. Perhaps this idea works with lesser baboons (though it seems hardly fair to blame one person for another's misbehavior), but the top baboon does not generally subscribe to it. Their wives' dazzling beauty did not keep the husbands of Jacqueline Kennedy or Diana, Princess of Wales, from finding extracurricular interests. Brilliance did not protect Eleanor Roosevelt from the other woman; gentle reticence was no safeguard for Mamie Eisenhower; political astuteness was insufficient for Lady Bird Johnson. Did all these women simply make poor choices? Coretta Scott King and Kasturbai Gandhi married saints, but both had to endure the elevator that kept delivering fresh women (Gandhi, who presumably was not after power, also claimed not to be after sex: he wanted naked young women in his bed so he could strengthen his character by saying no).

Back in 1964, the year [before] Hillary Rodham graduated from high school and a year after publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Jack Jones was crooning to nervous housewives: "Hey, little girl, comb your hair, fix your make-up...." You'd better look good when your husband walks in the door, advised Hit Number 14, "Wives and Lovers," because "day after day, there are girls at the office, and men will always be men." Is that really what it means to be a man--to be unable to resist attractive women? And are the only possible female responses either to "Stand By Your Man," if you're directly involved, or to argue that adults can do whatever they like sexually, so long as they're otherwise fulfilling their job descriptions?

I'll agree with the prevailing wisdom on one point: the current scandal is not about sex. But it's not about perjury either. It's about power. With enough power, we apparently still believe, a man can have all the women he wants. Some will throw themselves at him; others will be more subtle. Very few will turn him down, and virtually nobody will kiss and tell. And through it all, the wife smiles graciously and makes excuses.

This scandal is also about self-respect. Women--whether single or married, professionals or homemakers--are not tokens of winning, like poker chips, and we demean ourselves when we speak of adultery, sexual compulsiveness, and harassment as peccadilloes. I don't know how, when, or if women are going to get past the glass ceiling. It is more likely to happen in our lifetime, however, if we have the courage to say that philandering is misogyny. It's time to stop making excuses for men who see women as prizes in the power game--playmates, not players.

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!