Monday, February 18, 2013


The long wait begins: Americans will not see Downton Abbey Season 4 until next January, though Britons will see it in September (however, they began waiting Christmas Eve). So what's going to happen?

I of course went on a Google search and learned that Lady Mary is going to be important in Season 4, and that she's going to get a new love interest, though possibly not a new husband. A nanny will be added: Julian Fellowes says there will be "a lovely nursery story." The Dowager Countess "logically must be about a hundred and something now," as Maggie Smith told 60 Minutes in a rare and delightful interview broadcast yesterday, but we can all breathe a sigh of relief--she's not leaving the show, and Fellowes has no intention of killing her off.

So what else might happen in Season 4?

Well, something interesting will surely happen with Tom Branson. With Matthew gone, he's the estate manager now: will Lord Grantham's gratitude to his first son-in-law for saving the farm extend to son-in-law number two? And Tom's a good looking man with a baby: surely another romance is in the offing (this is soap opera, after all). Trouble is, he can't really marry a chambermaid--Mrs Hughes gently made that clear last night. And he isn't invited to the best parties, so a titled wife seems unlikely. Unless she's rebellious, of course, like Lady Sybil. Which makes me think that Tom and Lady Rose MacClare are going to get along just fine. Lady Grantham and Rose's mother, after all, were commiserating about the difficulty of having headstrong daughters. And Rose is coming to live at Downton Abbey. And it is 1921, after all, when traditional matings seem so stuffy. I mean, look how Rose's parents turned out.

And dear Lady Edith. She's 27 now and still a spinster, poor dear. Will she go to live in sin with her married editor, Michael Gregson?  Matthew is no longer an obstacle, but Lord Grantham might have a heart attack--oh, right, Fellowes has said Season 4 won't be as lethal as Season 3. Or maybe Fellowes will remember Jane Eyre and have the asylum, with Mrs Gregson in it, burn to the ground, thus freeing Mr Gregson for Lady Edith. It would be a nice twist if she then refused him, bought the newspaper, and became a media mogul, wouldn't it. I doubt if that will happen, but at least she's going to glam up.

And that's just upstairs. What will happen downstairs? The cook, Mrs Patmore, narrowly escaped a bad marriage (cf Upstairs Downstairs: "The Sudden Storm," in which the cook, Mrs Bridges, has an almost identical misadventure). I'm guessing Patmore won't get another proposal, but will something develop between Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes? Will O'Brien wangle a job as lady's maid to Lady Rose's mother and get to travel to India? Has Thomas turned into a decent human being after all? Anna Bates is getting a new hairstyle--will she also have a baby?

What are your guesses?

Friday, February 15, 2013

WHAT'S A DOG FOR? by John Homans

When I saw this book's title in a New York Times review last month, I thought it might be similar to Jon Katz's engaging 2003 book, The New Work of Dogs. Katz wrote about how dogs have gone from being diligent farm workers who help us take care of our physical needs to being companions and even substitute children who help us take care of our emotional needs.

What's a Dog For?, it turns out, is wider ranging than Katz's book. It never quite answers its own question; it might have been more accurately if less attractively titled Lots of Stuff about Canines that Dog Lovers Will No Doubt Find Fascinating. For example, Homans, who is executive editor of and a frequent writer for New York magazine, looks at
  • how dogs and wolves are similar and different
  • the history of dogs from Newfoundland
  • what kinds of emotions dogs (may) feel
  • how humans have created dog breeds, mostly recently, and often by fast and reckless selective breeding
  • how the animal rescue movement has both helped and hurt dogs
  • how big dogs adapt to life in New York City
  • how dogs think
  • how Freud and Darwin related to dogs
  • why it's dangerous to be a Pit Bull
--among other things.

I am a dog lover; I have lived at various times with Pepi the Toy Manchester Terrier, Willie the irrepressibly cheerful pound puppy, Baja Humbug the psychotic Chihuahua, Taco Bell the only mildly disturbed Chihuahua, Ladybug the sane but bossy Yorkie/Chihuahua, Maggie the docile but dumb Sheltie, Moose the TV-watching Maltese, and now Tiggy the perpetually distracted Mini Schnauzer mix and Muffin the Havanoodle princess. I enjoyed What's a Dog For?--a question that frequently crosses my mind--though the book may have more words than content. And I wish Homans hadn't focused quite so much on his dog Stella in particular, and on Labrador Retrievers and other big dogs in general.

Little dogs are people too, and mine would not be pleased to learn that Darwin considered them "sports of nature," i.e., spontaneous mutations. At least Homans showed some restraint: he did not descend to the level of a dear though Lab-owning friend who refers to our pups as "kick-its."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Is the West's reckless lifestyle killing our poorer neighbors?

[Africa, with Tanzania highlighted]
I spent all day Monday in an outpatient clinic (I'm fine; thanks for asking). I met a lot of nurses, and every one of them was excellent.

When Velda came to take away the remains of my lunch, I offered her my untouched can of ginger ale.

"I don't drink soft drinks," she replied. Since I rarely do either, we started chatting.

Velda grew up in Tanzania, moved to Belgium, spent several years in London, and finally came to the United States. She returns to Tanzania regularly, and she is not happy with what she sees.

"I grew up eating lots of vegetables," she told me. "We might have had ice cream once every three years. But now people are eating American-style junk food. They don't know it's not good for them."

Tanzania's cigarette industry is big. In spite of national bans on most forms of advertising, Velda vividly recalls a huge billboard for Sportsman - one of Tanzania's most popular cigarette brands - right across from a school entrance where children can't help seeing it every day. And the children are smoking - she's seen them.

Supposedly regulated drugs are easy to buy without a prescription. Velda's 18-year-old nephew, once an honor student, is now a prescription-drug addict and a drop-out.

"The thing is," Velda said, "there's no way to get treatment for most diseases. It's not like here. If people want to be healthy, they have to take care of themselves. When they get sick because of junk food or smoking or drugs, they just die."

I checked the statistics. Tanzania's per capita income is $1700 in U.S. dollars. There is one physician for every 125,000 people (compare America's ratio of one physician for every 375 people; or Cuba's of one for every 156). Tanzanians live, on average, to age 53. Velda's twin sister died at age 23.

Velda, who is a kind and gentle nurse, gets angry when she thinks about what's happening to her people. "Why?" she kept saying. Why are international companies so aggressively promoting foods and cigarettes and drugs that will shorten people's lives and even kill them? Why is nobody stopping them? Why?

Monday, February 4, 2013

The contraceptive kerfuffle: a common-sense approach

If I were Queen of America, here's what I'd do about contraceptives.

First, I'd apologize for the current kerfuffle over whether faith-based institutions (or any business whose owners disapprove of contraception) have to provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance policies, and I'd rescind the HHS directive and all its amendments. Never mind whether it's a good idea to require contraceptive coverage; it has become politically unfeasible to do so, and we might as well drop it.

Second, I'd disentangle contraception from insurance altogether. Instead, I'd make an assortment of contraceptive medications available free or at a low cost as a direct gift from Uncle Sam to anyone with a valid prescription for them. Let's name the program Common Sense, shall we?

Third, I'd require pharmaceutical companies to provide Common Sense with low-cost equivalents of every category of contraceptive drug they manufacture. At the same time, I'd prevent price gouging by putting a price ceiling on all contraceptives paid for by the Common Sense program.

Fourth, I'd encourage continued research and development by allowing pharmaceutical companies to develop all the fancy, high-priced contraceptives they wish, and by allowing insurance companies to cover these designer drugs (because such meds would not be distributed through Common Sense). I'd even throw in some government funds for research, since improvements in contraception should lead to better health and, eventually, lower prices for all.

As Queen of America I'd fund Common Sense through tax money, which would no doubt offend some of my subjects. So be it: we all are offended by something, and right now I'm mightily offended by how much of my tax money goes to military intervention around the world.

If Common Sense helped Americans reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, we'd likely have fewer abortions, fewer high-school drop-outs, and fewer people on welfare. Common Sense might even save us money in the long run.

I'm not likely to become Queen of America, of course, and that's as well. Democracies - even contentious, inefficient ones - are generally safer than absolute monarchies. But gosh, wouldn't a little common sense be refreshing?