Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: My Year in Books

[A wall in my office]
I started keeping a reading list in 1997 when I began commuting by train to work. I've been keeping a list ever since.

Because I rarely remember what I've been reading once I've gone on to the next book, the list comes in handy whenever someone asks, "So, have you read any good books lately?"

Yes, of course. Here is a short list of my favorites from this year, in order from the ridiculous to the sublime:

What I read

Jeanne Ray, Calling Invisible Women, is a delightful comic novel in which a middle-aged woman becomes literally invisible, and her family doesn't notice. The author, a retired nurse, is author Ann Patchett's mother. She was in her 60s when she wrote her first novel, Julie and Romeo. I love Patchett's novels, but Ray's are more fun.

Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (newly published in paperback) is a comic novel likely to appeal to my friends in the book business and other bibliophiles. It features a curmudgeonly bookstore owner, a publisher's sales rep, a book tour that goes hilariously wrong, and a precocious child who loves to read.

Laura Lippman has written a slew of detective stories based in Baltimore, my new home. I began reading her in Illinois in preparation for my move and kept on reading her once I got here. Lippman's detective, like Lippman herself, formerly wrote for the Baltimore Sun; her books might appeal to readers of Sue Grafton's alphabet series.

When a new Baltimore friend told me Lippman is married to David Simon, creator of The Wire, I ordered a copy of his nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. First published in 1991, Homicide reads like fast-paced detective fiction. This means I do a double-take whenever I hear the name of Jay Landsman, my local police captain, the real-life son and namesake of one of the book's main characters who was transmuted into a fictional character in The Wire.

If you are planning to visit me, however, and want to bone up on Baltimore, it might be more reassuring to skip Lippman and Simon and go directly to Anne Tyler. Before moving here, I reread my old favorite Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Once installed in Baltimore, I got a review copy of Tyler's forthcoming novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, which takes place in a Baltimore neighborhood only 10 minutes from my house. I love Tyler for her unsentimental yet kindly way of describing family life. And even though all her books are set in Baltimore, her characters do not generally get murdered.

Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers, is a fascinating collection of articles about probably the most important female 19th-century religious leader and reformer you've barely heard of--unless, like me, you were raised Seventh-day Adventist. Here's my review in the September/October issue of Books and Culture.

Finally, here's the book I've recommended to more people this year than any other: Atul Gawande's Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Gawande, a surgeon, has written an impassioned plea for how end-of-life medicine and end-of-life care in general should be practiced. Gawande is also a regular contributor to New Yorker magazine, which tells you something about the quality of his writing.

Why I read

Like everyone else I read Marilynne Robinson's Lila, just as in earlier years I read Housekeeping and Gilead and Home. Robinson is brilliant at character portrayal, and she knows how to turn a phrase. She's also gifted at stuffing her books with Christian theology and still gathering accolades from the New York Times (by Diane Johnson, author of Le Divorce, no less). I recommend her to all my friends whose brows are higher than mine.

But I guess this year I was just more interested in invisible middle-aged women and the floundering publishing industry and my present life in Baltimore and my past life as a Seventh-day Adventist and my future life as it winds down. Which leads me to think about the books I've loved at any given time.

2014 was stressful: I sold a house I'd lived in for 26 years, moved into an apartment, bought a house, moved into it, and lived through renovations. In the midst of all that change, I preferred books that closely connected to some aspect of my life--past, present, or future.

In more humdrum years, I've chosen books that took me out of my environment and introduced me to new times, places, and ideas. Three years ago when recovering from open-heart surgery, I read dozens of completely mindless but diverting mysteries.

I thought I just liked to read, but apparently I also use books as therapy. (I'm sure there's a reason that no matter what kind of year I've had, I adore Harry Potter.) What books did you read this year? Do your selections say anything about the kind of year you had?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet

You really ought to subscribe to Books and Culture: A Christian Review. Do not be afraid. It's definitely not Christian™ (the armed and smarmy brand of contemporary American Christianity that, sadly, has given a venerable word a bad name). Rather, it's classically Christian, mere Christian in the C.S. Lewis sense, philosophically Christian with no alarming political agendas--a bimonthly collection of some two dozen well-written, thoughtful book reviews and cultural commentaries, mostly by respected (but not fusty) academics and a few by people like me.

Such a fine journal can't survive without paid subscribers, of course, which is why most of the articles are behind a paywall. I'd like you to be able to read my latest review, though, so I'm going to post it here in hopes that it will inspire you to check out the contents of the current issue and then to click the "subscribe now" button, or perhaps to endow B&C with a substantial legacy.


Ellen Harmon White: 
American Prophet
Oxford University Press, 2014
400 pp., $34.95

A Prophet with Attitude 

On Ellen Harmon White and Seventh-day Adventism 

Many decades ago my six-year-old daughter Heidi came home from church and announced, "I'm not going back to Sabbath school ever again." "And why not?" I asked. "Because they don't teach the Bible there. They just teach Ellen White," she said.

This was awkward, because her father was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor at the time, and many Adventists consider White a prophet of near-biblical standing. We compromised. She would go to her father's church service on Saturdays, but on Sundays she could attend Sunday school at the Presbyterian church down the street.

Heidi didn't know how lucky she was: her kindergarten class was only listening to endless stories about White's childhood. By contrast, her sister's primary class was pretending to escape pretend end-times persecution by fleeing to pretend mountains. Molly, 8, may not have realized that this dramatized apocalypse was based on White's writings, but she happily joined her sister at the terror-free Sunday school.

I sympathized with the girls. A scrupulous and studious child, I was immersed in White's writings throughout 17 years of SDA education. I knew that for some children, her books should come with trigger warnings, and I was relieved when my family joined an entirely different denomination a couple of years after the kids' defection to the Presbyterians. So when I learned through Facebook that a consortium of scholars—some of them friends and former classmates—had published a book called Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, I picked it up with reluctance.

I'm glad I got past my initial hesitation: it turned out to be an engrossing study of an era, a church, and an indomitable woman I didn't know nearly as well as I thought I did. The book will no doubt interest current and former Adventists, but even those who aren't sure who White was may find it fascinating. Adventists are everywhere: there are 18 million of them worldwide (and only 15 million Mormons). They have made major contributions to American culture: corn flakes, veggie burgers, so-called creation scientists.

More important, at least to history buffs, White's story is the story of 19th-century America in microcosm. Unlike tendentious pro- or anti-Adventist literature, Ellen Harmon White sets its subject squarely in her historical and social milieu: a time of religious barnstorming, racial conflict, institution building, and geographical expansion; a time when reform movements in health, education, care for the poor, and women's rights proliferated. This was the environment that formed White, and that White in turn helped to form.

With a foreword by Duke University historian Grant Wacker, the book has 18 chapters and 20 authors—"Adventists, ex-Adventists, and non-Adventists"—all of them scholars and most of them university professors. Often such an erudite lineup results in a densely unreadable or, at best, uneven book. Not here. The editorial team has gathered and shaped a group of clear, interesting writers who avoid academic jargon while looking at White under different aspects.

Jonathan Butler's opening chapter, "A Portrait," sets the stage with a biographical and cultural summary. Born in 1827, young Ellen Harmon was caught up in the Millerite movement that expected the Second Coming in the mid-1840s. Greatly disappointed when the Lord didn't show up on schedule, she became "the fragile trance figure of a motley group of ephemeral millenarians," Butler writes. Braving sexist opposition, marital problems, financial crises, ill health, and widowhood, she would eventually "be transformed into the full-fledged, incredibly forceful prophet of a viable and durable church," a woman whose "lifetime of longing for another world placed its indelible and historic mark on this world."

If White had stuck to preaching and writing, evangelicals might have accepted Adventists as eccentric fellow travelers. But White claimed to have visions directly from God. This seems odder today than it did in her era. White's religious experience, writes Ann Taves, was "shaped by the visionary culture of shouting Methodism," a prominent hyper-emotional stream of early American revivalism. The challenge for White and her followers was to distinguish her experiences from those of other seers, whose visions, White asserted, were neither God-inspired (as religious visionaries claimed) nor due to natural phenomena (as mesmerists believed): they were satanic deceptions aimed at destroying faith in Christ. White did not deal with "false prophets" gently: Ronald Graybill reports that, "confronted by a young woman she believed was having a 'false vision,' she recommended getting 'a pitcher of cold water, good cold water' and throwing it 'right in her face.'"

Many of White's visions concerned the behavior of individual Adventists, families, or congregations. After having such a vision, White would write a letter to the offender(s), "expressing her convictions and persuading [them] to change their attitudes and habits," writes Graeme Sharrock. These letters, called "testimonies," were widely distributed, and many were eventually published. This did not necessarily please their original recipients. Her late-1860s spate of testimonies against "solitary vice," for example—some of which named names—may have won her more readers than friends.

Other visions helped to set directions the SDA church would take. Ronald Numbers and Rennie B. Schoepflin describe White's 1863 vision about health: "God showed the thirty-five-year-old prophetess the evils of medicinal drugs, alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee, meat, spices, fashionable dress, and sex and the benefits of a twice-a-day vegetarian diet, internal and external use of water, fresh air, exercise, and a generally abstemious life style." Health reform, medical missionary work, hospital building, and education for the health professions all have become hallmarks of SDA practice.

White's enduring influence depends primarily on her writing. The author of 26 books—one of which, Steps to Christ, has sold twice as many copies as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—she also wrote pamphlets, articles, and letters totaling some 70,000 typed pages. Theology was not her strong point, but everything she spoke or wrote was built on her conviction that Jesus would soon return. The faithful would then spend 1,000 years in heaven before coming back to a re-created earthly paradise. For White, as for John Milton, both paradise lost and paradise restored were literal. The Genesis creation story was to be read as history—six 24-hour days of work followed by one 24-hour day of rest. To understand the story any other way, she believed, was to weaken the argument for seventh-day Sabbath observance. Evolution was a lie promulgated by infidels; Noah's flood, not geological ages, explained the fossil record. If this sounds familiar, it's because there's a direct line from White's teaching to that of an early 20th-century SDA convert, George McCready Price, and from him to the "creation scientists" that still exist today—though few of them worship on Saturday.

Much of White's writing was heavily edited, ghosted, or borrowed without attribution. White, whose education ended at third grade, did not see this as a problem. Some of her contemporaries did. But in the early 20th century, Adventism, like much of the rest of conservative Christianity, was moving toward fundamentalism, and Adventist leaders who believed that White's words were practically inerrant managed to suppress the critics' objections. From the 1930s to the 1970s, "the 'practical inerrancy' perspective rose to a position of orthodoxy," say SDA professors Paul McGraw and Gilbert Valentine. And then in the 1970s an assortment of Adventist writers uncovered the suppressed documents, researched White's sources, and argued that her theology was faulty. All hell broke loose.

My daughters abandoned Sabbath school in the late 1970s, and our family began attending an Episcopal church in 1981. We avoided most of the acrimony briefly described in the last chapters of Ellen Harmon White. I can't evaluate McGraw and Valentine's assertion that "early twenty-first-century Adventists appeared little concerned about her words at all," though they are surely right in noting that "divergent perspectives on the role and authority of the Ellen White writings continue to compete in the church." While many SDAs, like the contributors to this book, now hold a nuanced view of their church's prophet, some of the church's top administrators are actively promoting a 1950s-style fundamentalism. Personally, I like George Bernard Shaw's description of another visionary, Joan of Arc:
There are people in the world whose imagination is so vivid that when they have an idea it comes to them as an audible voice, sometimes uttered by a visual figure. … The test of sanity is not the normality of the method but the reasonableness of the discovery … . But she was none the less an able leader of men for imagining her ideas in this way.
Whatever else she may have been, Ellen Harmon White was "an able leader of men" who deserves to be more widely known. This book is a welcome step in that direction.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Does getting medical care really have to be this hard?

["Can't you please just fit
me in somewhere?"
18th-c. engraving]
If you're my friend (or have read my blog), you know I'm (a) grateful for American medical specialists who have taken excellent care of my heart problems and (b) frustrated by the American medical system in general. It should not be so difficult to get good medical care.

Here's my story this week.

Late Wednesday afternoon I apparently had a TIA. It lasted less than 10 minutes, but TIAs shouldn't be ignored: they can mean a stroke is waiting to happen. To be safe, I went to the ER. They tested me and advised me to see my primary care physician or cardiologist early this week for follow-up tests.

Ideally follow-up tests for TIAs are done within 48 hours, but this was the Fourth of July weekend and my risk factors are low. I decided to call for an appointment after the weekend when medical offices reopened.

Monday, however, I learned that my primary care physician is on vacation. The PCP's triage nurse faxed my cardiologist's office an order for an echocardiogram, but they couldn't do it for two weeks or so. (If they did it earlier than six days from now, they told me, I'd have to sign a waiver saying I'd pay for the whole thing myself if my insurance company wouldn't. I have no idea what Medicare thinks about echocardiograms, so I demurred.)

Actually, though, my discharge instructions say that I need more than an echo. I also need a "an outpatient stroke workup including a carotid ultrasound ... and possibly additional testing." Because I don't have a physician's order for any of that, I need to see a doctor before getting the tests done.

So I called the cardiologist's office directly and learned he too is on vacation, and besides, he doesn't have any openings until September.

Next I called the hospital whose ER I visited, and they referred me to their cardiology team. Unfortunately the lady who answered the phone interrupted me (so I'm not sure if she knew what I was looking for) and connected me to a cardiologist's voice mail box. I hung up.

Next try: a different cardiology group. They neither answered their phone (after 15 rings) nor offered voice mail.

So I called the Johns Hopkins Heart and Vascular Institute. The man who took my call thought he could get me in to see a doctor 45 minutes from my home on Wednesday or Thursday, but before I could make the appointment, the call dropped.

I called right back, and the woman who took my call said the first available opening was a week from today, which is nearly two weeks after the TIA, also 45 minutes away. ("These appointments fill up fast," she explained.") I took it.

 I'm probably fine. It's very unlikely that any further problems will develop in the next week (or however long it takes to get the tests done after I see the doctor). If they do, of course, they could be major, and they could affect the rest of my life. But I'll just have to take my chances. What else can I do?

The American health care system is excellent - if you can figure out how to work it, and if you don't mind waiting, and if you aren't scared that you might get an enormous bill after the work is done.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Our summer vacation: 10 ways that moving house is like 2 weeks in Yucatán

[Chichen Itza, Yucatán]
[Our new front door]
July is the month when everybody in our neck of the woods goes on vacation. Everybody but us. We're not going on vacation, but we are moving to a new house. And really, there's not much difference.

1. We will spend two weeks without doing any paid work.

2. We will pack and unpack repeatedly (and when we arrive, we'll realize we brought a lot more stuff than we needed).

3. We will take our dogs to the dog sitter.

4. We will go to a place where we don't know where the light switches are or how to set the thermostat.

5. It will be hot.

6. We will be surrounded by people who speak with strange accents.

7. We will eat in fast-food restaurants.

8. We will climb stairs.

9. We will spend a ton of money.

10. And when it's all over, we'll be so happy to be home again.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

What's missing in the fight against puppy mills

Another day, another puppy-mill outlet.

I was distressed to learn yesterday that Naperville, Illinois - the next town over from where I used to live, and in most aspects a very progressive community - is allowing yet another puppy-mill-sourced pet store to open within its limits. Some residents of this wealthy Chicago suburb are rising up in predictable - and entirely justifiable - outrage (the blog post I just linked to is headlined "Naperville: The puppy mill outlet capital of America").

The blogger says she isn't trying to shut down pet stores; she just wants them to "go switch to an adoption model with rescue dogs instead of continuing to sell puppies at the expense of the parent dogs left behind in puppy mills...breeding litter after litter."

[My favorite pound puppies]
I get that. I got my own little dogs through a rescue group many years ago. Tiggy the mini-schnauzer mix was a young mother whose previous owners surrendered her, very pregnant, to the pound because, they said, they had "too many dogs." Muffin the toy poodle mix (and empress of the universe) was running wild in one of Chicago's meaner streets when animal control picked her up. The dogs are now at least 13 years old, and I love them dearly. I am a big fan of rescue groups and of the people who work tirelessly so animals will have better lives.

But something important is missing from nearly every call to shut down puppy mills. Folks, we've got to look at why puppy mills exist in the first place. It isn't just so the people who run them can make money. It's because lots of people want puppies.

Try this thought experiment: Imagine that every puppy mill in the U.S. was shut down, and every dog owner made sure their dog was spayed or neutered, and every pet store worked with shelters and rescue groups to re-home rescued dogs. A lot fewer dogs would be discarded, to be sure, and a lot more discarded dogs would quickly find homes, and that would be wonderful.

But very quickly all the available puppies would be gone, along with all the bright and attractive young-adult dogs, and the only dogs left would be the old ones, the ugly ones, the dangerous ones - the very dogs that are so hard to place right now.

And then where would people go to get puppies?

Good breeders, you say? Have you ever tried to find one?

The Humane Society publishes an excellent document called "How to find a responsible dog breeder." If you're looking for a puppy, you should read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it. But it has two problems, if we really want to solve the nationwide puppy-mill problem. First, such a breeder tends toward very small-scale operations and "doesn't always have puppies available." More realistically, such a breeder tends to have puppies available once every year or so, and the waiting list may be extremely long.

The second problem is that such a breeder requires you to "sign a contract that you will spay or neuter the dog unless you will be actively showing him or her." The aim, of course, is to cut down on unwanted puppies. The result, however - if all breeders followed the Humane Society's guidelines (this is a thought experiment, right?) - would be that the only available dogs would be potential show dogs.This could lead to genetic problems with the whole dog nation. It would certainly lead to extremely high prices for puppies. And there would be no more havanoodles and schnorkies and goldendoodles.

What's missing in the fight against puppy mills is a long-term solution. Shutting down the mills, adopting rescued dogs, spaying and neutering pets--good as these things are, they are all interim solutions. We need to come up with new ways to provide healthy, happy (but not necessarily purebred) pups at a reasonable price to families who can't afford potential show dogs, and whose children want a dog now and not three years in the future when their name finally comes up on the responsible breeder's waiting list.

One way to accomplish this would be strict regulation (with frequent inspection and adequate enforcement) of all pet breeders nationwide. I'm guessing this won't happen: it would cost money, and taxpayers who aren't willing to fix the ten percent of American bridges in urgent need of repair probably aren't going to open their wallets to help puppies.

So what's the solution? I wish I knew. One thing I never read about: large-scale (or even back-yard) puppy breeders who take good care of their dogs. Do these people exist? If so, could we learn more about them? Could we hold them up as examples?

Shaming cruel puppy mills is important, but it hasn't shut many of them down. Offering practical alternatives might be more effective. Can we do both?

What ideas do you have about better ways to connect puppies with the people who want them? Please comment!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The worldwide obesity epidemic - bad reporting, fairly useless advice, and government subsidies

[(c) Showface|Dreamstime Stock Photos]
One of this morning's headlines from Worldcrunch "While You Slept":

Don't choke on your doughnut until you've looked at the statistics. No matter how much you hated high-school math, surely you can do better than the people who wrote this headline and the accompanying article.

First, note that 2.1 billion is not "more than a third" of the world's population, which has passed 7.2 billion. It's more like 29%.

Second, don't be unduly alarmed by the article's report that the number of oversized people has increased from 875 million in 1980 to 2.1 billion today. Remember that there weren't as many people 34 years ago - fewer than 4.5 billion. Even in 1980, nearly 20% of the world's population was overweight or obese.

Bad reporting aside, however, we still have a problem. We still have a worldwide overweight/obesity rate that's 45% higher than it was in 1980. This would not be important if it were only a question of good looks. People come in all sizes, and all can be beautiful. What's scary is not people's appearance, but their health. 

Sadly, "the number of Americans with diagnosed diabetes has more than tripled" since 1980, says the Centers for Disease Control.* And by the way, up to 20% of people with Type 2 diabetes are neither overweight nor obese.

Cue the "experts" - we're eating too much, we're exercising too little. Well, that's probably true for most of us, but it doesn't adequately explain the statistics, and it certainly doesn't explain those skinny diabetics. Here's a better explanation from Mark Bittman's summary of another recent study:

White table sugar. Molasses. Maple syrup. All those deceptively labeled ingredients like "cane juice" and "fruit juice concentrate." And, of course, high fructose corn syrup - heavily subsidized by the U.S. government and exported all over the world. According to the study, Bittman writes,
 it’s not just obesity that can cause diabetes: sugar can cause it, too, irrespective of obesity. And obesity does not always lead to diabetes. The study demonstrates this with the same level of confidence that linked cigarettes and lung cancer in the 1960s.... And just as tobacco companies fought, ignored, lied and obfuscated in the ’60s (and, indeed, through the ’90s), the pushers of sugar will do the same now.
Thanks for reading. You can choke on your doughnut now.
*The CDC is right about tripling: the number has gone from 5.6 million (1980) to 20.9 million (2011). But of course the U.S. population also increased between 1980 and 2011, so I did the math. The diabetes rate in 1980 was 2.46%; by 2011 it had climbed to 6.71%. That's a 273% increase.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Papa don't preach - but family-friendly work policies would be nice

[Alfred Stevens, "The Widow," 19th c.]
"Single moms are rarer in America than France, Sweden, New Zealand, the UK, or the Netherlands" screams today's headline by Matthew Yglesias on

"And honestly, it's no big deal," sighs an exasperated Swiss friend of mine, weary of conservative American Facebook memes. Unmarried mothers apparently do just fine in Switzerland (though admittedly the Swiss rate of 20.2% of births to unmarried women is considerably lower than the American rate of 40.7%).

Actually, though, it is a big deal in the United States, for several reasons.

1. An unmarried mother is not necessarily a single parent, and America has a higher percentage of single parents than any of those other countries.

Some couples choose not to marry, but they raise their children together. They are unmarried, but they are not single parents. Others marry briefly, but they divorce while their children are small. They become single parents.

The majority of children in France and Sweden are now born to unmarried mothers, but only about 20% live in single-parent families. Compare that to the United States, where over 40% of children are born to unmarried mothers, and about 30% live in single-parent families. America may have fewer unmarried mothers than France or Sweden, but it has half again as many single parents--and being a single parent isn't easy.

2. Single parents fare better in countries whose policies support working women than in the one developed country - the United States - whose policies don't.

And not just single parents. As Judith Warner details in an excellent New York Times piece published yesterday, women fare better in countries and states that mandate paid family leave (including maternity leave) and sick days; and that provide affordable early childhood education, child care, and workplace flexibility for all workers, not just highly paid professionals.

In other words, women in general - and single parents in particular - fare far worse in America than in any other developed country, because the United States is the only developed country that does not provide at least some of these benefits to all who need them.

3. America's haphazard family policies and programs have led to America's high rate of economic inequality.

Ms. Warner's article is titled "To Reduce Inequality, Start with Families."  We Americans, to our shame, have failed to support families, and our inequality score is 41 on the Gini scale (where 0 is perfect equality and 100 is perfect inequality)--worse than that of France (33), Sweden (25), New Zealand (36), the United Kingdom (36), the Netherlands (31), or Switzerland (34). "If we want to strike at the roots of inequality in America," Ms. Warner writes,
we’ve got to start at its source, in the family, at the very beginning of children’s lives. We have to make it possible for mothers — two-thirds of whom are now breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families — to stay in the work force without the sort of family-related job interruptions that can greatly limit their lifetime earnings and even push some families into bankruptcy. We need to make it possible for all parents to give their kids the kind of head start that is increasingly becoming an exclusive birthright of the well-off.
4. As long as Americans refuse to provide the social supports that allow women to flourish, single- parent families - 86% of whom are headed by females - will continue to bear the brunt of economic inequality.

On April 20, the same day that Matt Yglesias listed unmarried motherhood statistics and Judith Warner's piece appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal published an article headlined "Ignoring an Inequality Culprit: Single-Parent Families."  In it, Robert Maranto wrote that "the strongest statistical correlate of inequality in the United States" is "the rise of single-parent families during the past half century." If only we could persuade poor people and racial minorities to get married, he seems to think, poverty would decrease, upward mobility would increase, and we would solve all manner of emotional, psychological, educational, economic, and behavioral problems.

To be sure, growing up in a two-parent family is a child's best hedge against poverty, not only in America but in the other OECD countries as well (even Switzerland). But the reality is that a high percentage of children around the world are growing up in single-parent homes.

And the shameful reality is that if those children are American, they will suffer more than they would if they were French, Swedish, British, Swiss, Kiwi, or Dutch. In spite of the fact that many Americans think America is a Christian nation. In spite of repeated biblical admonitions to care for families without husbands and fathers.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Killing people is hard to do

[Moose's last photo]
Twelve years ago we took our beloved Maltese dog, Moose, to the vet and came home without him. Moose was in the late stages of congestive heart failure, and many times each day he was wheezing and crying out in pain. While my daughter held the little dog, the vet gave him a shot. It was over very quickly.

Why don't we treat death row prisoners at least as well as we treat dogs?

"Secret Drugs, Agonizing Deaths" is the headline on an article in yesterday's New York Times. Back when executioners wielded axes, they tended to wear hoods so people wouldn't recognize them. Nowadays states still conceal executioners' identities - and much more. "In the past year, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and other states have expanded the reach of their secrecy laws to include not just the execution drugs used, but even the pharmacies that supply them. These laws," say the authors of the article, "hide the information necessary to determine if the drugs will work as intended and cause death in a humane manner."

Too often they don't.

European drug manufacturers, opposed to capital punishment, have stopped producing the drugs that once killed American prisoners quickly and painlessly (read about it here and here). Americans have tried a number of substitutes, causing a lot of pain in the process.

The problem isn't that it's hard to kill someone without inflicting pain. Our vet could do it. 

But of course he wouldn't. And most of the world's drug manufacturers wouldn't. And of those who would - some American lawmakers, some American prison officials, some American executioners - few want the details made public.

The problem is that killing a fellow human being, even one who has incontrovertibly committed heinous crimes, is  a disgusting business. Even for people who favor capital punishment.

In his newest book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power,  President Jimmy Carter points out that "the United States is the only country in NATO or North America that still executes its citizens, and Belarus and Suriname are the only exceptions in Europe and South America."

Maybe our aversion to knowing the details about capital punishment is a first step toward joining the rest of the world with a more humane policy. Maybe instead of closing our eyes to what we are doing, we should open our eyes wide - and then stop doing it. If we are too humane to ask veterinarians to kill prisoners painlessly, let's be too humane to kill them at all.

Life in prison is punishment enough. And though it's expensive, it's not nearly as expensive as execution. As Fox News has pointed out, "Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Liminal Living vs The Impossible Dream

[A. Casolani, 16th century]
We are househunting.

Will our new place be a relatively new condo with no exterior maintenance, plenty of storage, an open floor plan, lots of bathrooms, and no stairs?

Will it be a city rowhouse that is older than we are, has arches and built-in cabinets and red oak plank floors, and is walking distance from a university, bookstores, and libraries?

Whatever we dream of, will our retirement income be sufficient for both the house and, say, groceries?

And will we still be able to live in it when we're crippled, incontinent, and demented?

I've been asking myself that last question with every house I inspect, which is probably why I've been getting more and more depressed. Medieval folk kept cheerfulness at bay by contemplating skulls. An afternoon of looking at potential retirement homes, I've found, also works.

Last week I blogged about our liminal lodging - the apartment we've rented for a few months to tide us over until we find our, um, final resting place. (Snap out of it, LaVonne!) This morning I had one of those blindingly obvious insights that you sensible people have understood all along: Life itself is liminal.

As I mentioned last week, it's good to put a threshold between one phase of life and another. Living in our  rented apartment is allowing us to do that. But I'm deluding myself if I think our next house is going to be permanent - just as suitable to our life in 30 years, when we're 95 and 96, as it is to our life today. I'm glad I figured that out, because I'm not all that excited by houses that would presumably appeal to nonagenarians.

In my search for the permanently perfect place, I've been driving my realtor to distraction ("I keep getting mixed messages from you," she says, and then five minutes later she says, "But you have such specific requirements"). Bless her, she persists in spite of me. She's even cheerful, or at least pleasantly resigned.

However, she did tell me about a friend of hers who made himself miserable for years because he wanted so badly to give up smoking and thereby live forever, and he simply couldn't do it. At age 42, having stopped to help a stranded motorist, he was struck and killed by a drunk driver.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The threshold : making space for the new

[Our former living room]
It has been three months since I posted on Lively Dust or wrote a book review. I was not ill. I did not die. But I did exchange one life for another, and that took all the energy I could muster.

This is a picture of the living room of the house I lived in for nearly 26 years. When I moved into that house, the floor was covered with a dog-stained gray carpet and the walls were light blue. The fireplace was surrounded with shiny gray bathroom tiles. My daughters were 15 and 17.

When I moved out 17 days ago, the floor was hardwood, the walls were Benjamin Moore's Manchester Tan, and the fireplace was surrounded with marble tiles and a hand-crafted oak mantle. My grandchildren are 15, 17, almost 19--and two-and-a-half.

Benedictines use the word threshold a lot. They say it's a good idea not to plunge directly from one experience into another, but rather to pause, recollect, and gather strength before moving on. A threshhold allows each situation to be what it is. It gives a person space to take a deep breath and let go.

We are now living in a threshold apartment while we look for a more permanent place.

In our liminal lodging we don't have a lot of space, but that's OK because we don't have a lot of things either. (Well, a few miles away there's a book-packed storage unit with our lock on it. We don't plan to stay on the threshold forever.) We gave away and threw out a lot of stuff before leaving Illinois. To our surprise, we have also given away and thrown out a lot of stuff after arriving in Maryland. Downsizing is easier when you have no place to put things.

As it turns out, we still have more than we need. Under what scary circumstances would two people need three bathrooms?

I am not a pack rat--I can and do throw things away. I am not a shopaholic, I do not collect things, and I fancy that I live simply. In 65 years of living, 46 years of marriage, and 26 years of being in one house, however, I still managed to accumulate thousands of pounds of unnecessary stuff. How?
  • By hanging on to things I didn't really want. Did I wear that orange sweater in 2013? Yes, once. Did I enjoy wearing it? Not at all. Do I plan to wear it in 2014? No. Out, out, orange sweater!
  • By buying something new without tossing whatever old thing it was supposed to replace. Do I need several dozen mismatched drinks glasses, the unbroken remnants of long-forgotten sets? Only if I plan to invite 30 people for cocktails. Out, out, old glasses!
    [Our threshold living room]
  • By buying a specialized item when I already owned a general item that served the same purpose. Do I need an apple corer, a mandolin, and a food processor when I already have knives? Well, maybe need is too strong a word, but I do enjoy using them...
Right. Even we downsizers don't have to toss everything that isn't strictly necessary. Some non-utilitarian things--my framed French posters, for instance--seem even more important as the old inexorably recedes.

It feels wonderfully light, though, to be free of so much unwanted stuff as we stand on the threshold, looking back at the cherished old and ahead to the exciting new.