Friday, December 16, 2011


I had this idea of combining my two great enthusiasmsone is for [Jane Austen's] novels, and the other is for writing crime fiction, detective stories—and try and do them together, and I enjoyed it immensely. I think she’d probably forgive me, because I have kept very closely to her characters, and I think I've made a sort of picture of life at Pemberley which she would have approved of…

Six years have gone by since the end of Pride and Prejudice when three of the five Bennet girls got married: Elizabeth to the stubborn Mr Darcy, Jane to the affable Mr Bingley, and Lydia to the odious Lieutenant Wickham. Now even Mary, the studious sister with limited people skills, is happily settled as a vicar's wife, and Kitty lives contentedly at home with the elder Bennets. What more could Jane Austen possibly do with this group? No one is desperately looking for a wealthy spouse or falling in love with an unsuitable person; thus no one can gossip, compete, despair, fall from grace, or wildly rejoice.

P.D. James has come to Derbyshire at just the right time.

Baroness James, as I'm sure you know, is one of the best crime writers alive. Her detective fiction bursts out of the genre: most of her books are well-crafted novels with fully developed characters and intricate plots. Her usual detective, Adam Dalgleish, is not only a brilliant investigator but also a poet and a heartthrob. She of all people would know that beneath the apparently smooth surface of life at Pemberley,  disaster lurks.

I'm not going to tell you about the murder or the suspicions or the trial, and I'm certainly not going to drop hints about the surprising dénouement. I'll just point out that Death Comes to Pemberley is a fun read, though not as much fun as Pride and Prejudice or, for that matter, the Dalgleish books (but then what is?). It begins in full Jane Austen mode—
It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters
—and continues with the occasional hat tip to Charlotte Brontë:
From time to time the wind howled in the chimney, the fire hissed and spluttered like a living thing and occasionally a burning log would break free, bursting into spectacular flames and casting a momentary red flush over the faces of the diners so that they looked as if they were in a fever.
Much of the story, however, concerns neither ladies' relationships nor nature's staging but rather the public lives and utterances of various men: Messrs Darcy, Bingley, Alveston, and Wickham; Colonel Fitzwilliam and Captain Denny; Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, Mr. Justice Moberley, Mr. Mickledore, Mr. Cartwright ... The comedy of manners quickly turns into a courtroom drama, and Elizabeth quietly leaves the stage.

In her author's note James says, "I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation." If an apology is needed, it is for quite the opposite reason: Elizabeth should have been more present, more involved, more significant to the story. Fortunately she returns to prominence in the final chapters, not—alas—with her original maidenly wit and cheek, but sweetly affirming her husband as he drones on and on, waiting for just the right moment to spring a surprise on him.

And yes, everyone lives happily ever after, which shouldn't be a spoiler. What, after all, would you expect when justice is served and romance flourishes?

P.S. If Jane Austen would lend some of her superfluous commas to P.D. James, both authors would be easier to read.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Yesterday in U.S. health care policy - a step in the right direction

Yesterday a provision in the Affordable Care Act went into effect: health insurers' profits must now be limited.

In response, Rick Ungar, a journalist specializing in health-care policy, posted a feisty column on Forbes's Policy Page. Provocatively titled "The Bomb Buried in Obamacare Explodes Today - Hallelujah!," the article looks at "the provision of the law, called the medical loss ratio, that requires health insurance companies to spend 80% of the consumers’ premium dollars they collect—85% for large group insurers—on actual medical care rather than overhead, marketing expenses and profit."

Knowing how much Steve Forbes hates the Affordable Care Act (see, for example, my November 10 post), I started reading Ungar's post with trepidation. Was his "Hallelujah" sarcastic? Was he wincing when he wrote that the medical loss ratio provision would lead to "the death of large parts of the private, for-profit health insurance industry"?

Evidently not. Insurance companies can't possibly make a profit once this provision is enforced, Ungar writes, and their parent companies are "fleeing into other types of investments. They know what we should all know – we are now on an inescapable path to a single-payer system for most Americans and thank goodness for it." Ungar thinks the results will be good for the rich, who will still be able to buy expensive insurance for luxurious care; and good for the poor, who will finally be able to "get their families the medical care that they need." His Hallelujah is genuine.

I completely support the medical loss ratio provision, but I believe Ungar should have mentioned that the poor are unlikely to be able to get the medical care they need unless there is a federally enforced mechanism for limiting costs. As far as I know, there is no such mechanism in the Affordable Care Act - the providers' lobbies saw to that. So federal funds will continue to subsidize providers' profits (as long as the providers aren't insurance companies), and prices will continue to rise way beyond the means of poor and middle-income families.

I also believe he is mistaken when he suggests that "the death of large parts of the private, for-profit health insurance industry" will lead to the advent of a single-payer system. As T.R. Reid points out in his excellent 2009 book, The Healing of America, "the United States is the only developed country that relies on profit-making health insurance companies to pay for essential and elective care." Those other OECD countries, however, do not all have single-payer systems. Britain, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Spain do. France, Germany, Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland do not. Like us, they finance health care through competing private (but not-for-profit) insurers. There is no reason we could not do the same.

The United States has taken an important step forward by limiting insurers' profits. We now need to do something about profiteering in other parts of the gargantuan health-care industry. If we truly want to improve our health-care outcomes, provide health care for all Americans, and still spend less money per capita on health care, we need to take lessons from other developed nations, all of whom are ahead of us in all categories (see, for example, this 2010 article on a Commonwealth Fund study, or check out the facts and figures yourself at the World Health Organization's detailed database search page).

Or we can continue down our present path of allowing lobbyists to finance elections and line the pockets of our elected representatives in hopes of reversing or indefinitely deferring any meaningful health-care reform.

Friday, December 2, 2011

NEVER SAY DIE by Susan Jacoby

"Susan Jacoby has long made it her project to uncover ill-formed, cynical 'junk thought' and administer a cold dose of reason and logic against it," wrote Ted C. Fishman in the New York Times ("It Gets Worse," 2/25/11). "But Jacoby is no Mr. Spock. Her rationalism is delivered in an angry barrage peppered with enthusiastically snide asides."

"In her book, Ms. Jacoby serves as a reality instructor. Bad news flows from her as profanity from a rap group," wrote Joseph Epstein in the Wall Street Journal ("Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive," 1/29/11). "Imagine a modern-day Cassandra but one ticked to the max."

OK, Never Say Die isn't for everybody. Sheeesh, if neither the NYT nor the WSJ liked it, perhaps it isn't for anybody. But don't quit reading yet (I promise to keep this short). Though I agree with Messrs Fishman (aged 52 at time of writing) and Epstein (aged 74) about Ms. Jacoby's style (she is now 66), I still think she offers some insights that we neglect at our great peril (I'm 63):

1. When AARP magazine and self-help books dispense relentlessly upbeat advice and unfailingly inspirational stories, they focus almost entirely on the "young old" - people in good health in their 60s and 70s. Rarely do they look at the "old old" - people in failing health and/or over age 85, when fully 50% have Alzheimer's disease. Boomers who believe that the optimistic sources are giving an accurate picture of old age are in for a big shock.

2. To the extent that we live in a dream world in which old folks are happy and healthy until they suddenly, painlessly drop dead (while parachuting out of an airplane, perhaps, or in the midst of wild sex), we will not as a society provide for the real-life needs of real-life old people and their exhausted caregivers.

3. If we want to continue providing adequate health care for seniors, we're going to have to provide adequate health care for everyone else too. People will not vote to pay Grandma's medical bills if they can't pay their own.

Check out Susan Jacoby's short Newsweek column, "The Myth of Aging Gracefully" (1/30/11), for a preview of her position. Here's a sample paragraph from chapter 7 in Never Say Die, "Greedy Geezers and Other Half-truths":
The myth of young old age, which simultaneously overestimates the earning potential and underestimates the needs of the dependent old old, also poses a major impediment to any serious, reality-based discussion of social justice for both old and young. Healthy old old age is costly, and unhealthy old old age is even costlier. If, as a society, we see longevity as a good thing, then we're going to have to pay for it. But all we are hearing from public officials, now that the brief period when conservatives could use the health care debate to prey on the fears of the elderly has passed, is how to pay less to support longer lives. If there really were such a thing as a radically new brand of old age in which everyone can take care of himself or herself, there would be no reason to worry. Society would be off the hook. The boomers - healthy beneficiaries of this wonderful new old age - would surely be able to tote that barge and lift that bale until the very end.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The revised liturgy: medieval words, modern sexism

The bishops have spoken, or at least succumbed. This weekend American Catholics began saying new words at mass. Well, perhaps new is incorrect - the aim of the revised liturgy is to bring back older words that are closer to medieval Latin. In a time when the Catholic church has been rocked by scandals of almost Renaissance proportions, this move is supposed to make American parishioners feel more holy. It is also supposed to bring us in line with European-language liturgies, whose translations are closer to the medieval text.

Yesterday I went to the 10:30 mass at St. Michael's Catholic Community. The Bishop of Joliet, resplendent in purple robes and gold miter, processed medievally down the center aisle behind an honor guard of Knights of Columbus wearing feathery hats. When he greeted us with the customary "The Lord be with you," half of us responded "And also with you" while the other half said, medievally, "And with your spirit." By the end of mass, we had all caught on and were saying the revised words. I didn't feel especially holier. I did, however, feel greater kinship with European Catholics, who rarely attend mass.

Catholics sometimes reproach Protestants for acting as if the Holy Spirit stopped working with the church in the first century, after the New Testament books were written. Tradition, Catholics maintain, is the Spirit's continuing work in the church. Even the Spirit, however, has a bad century now and then, or at least a bad continent. Apparently the words he inspired the Western European church to use in the 11th century were superior to those he inspired the American church to use in the 20th century. So now instead of simple words like one in being and born, we're back to medieval words like consubstantial and incarnate; and instead of affirming our faith as part of the believing community ("We believe in one God ..."), we're back to medieval individualism ("I believe in one God"); and along with with our guilt-ridden medieval ancestors we can strike our breasts and confess that we have sinned "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault."

And of course we are just as sexist as ever. More so, in fact. A medieval priest did indeed say "Pray, brothers" (oráte fratres), but not at every mass. More likely those words were spoken to brother priests at  concelebrated masses, not to male and female parishioners at typical parish masses. And the medieval creed did indeed affirm that Christ came down from heaven "for us men" (propter nos homines)Never mind that any 21st-century English-speaker hears that as "for us males," whereas the Latin means "for us humans." Why change good sexist texts that are already close to the Latin words, even if the meanings have completely changed?

Alas, as Fr. Nonomen lamented in Commonweal magazine, "the majority [of parishioners] won’t care. They will dutifully learn all the new responses and musical settings and generally remain unaware of the powerful changes this liturgical language is likely to work on the church their grandchildren will inherit." Or will not inherit, as more and more of us get tired of medievally resplendent bishops making excuses for bad decisions by incompetent men in high places, and quietly drift away.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Flunking Sainthood has to be the most entertaining introduction to spiritual disciplines ever written. For that matter, it may be the only entertaining book ever written in that genre. Never mind—it would take first place even if the field were crowded.

It's been out since November 1st, so I'm coming late to the party. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and then named it one of the ten best religion books of 2011. Emergent pastor and radio host Doug Pagitt interviewed Riess three times. On the Patheos website, Holly Welker wrote that "it's hard to imagine a religious memoir with wider appeal." Welker's review is excellent, if you want to know more about the book. Or hey, just Google "review Flunking Sainthood." Everybody's talking about it.

When her publisher asked her to spend a year reading and writing about spiritual classics, Riess upped the ante: she decided to supplement her reading with practice. She would choose a different spiritual discipline for each month of the year, and she would chronicle the results. Wonder what happened? Note the title.

Instead of commenting on what Riess wrote (click on some links in paragraph 2 above if that's what you want to know), I'd like to suggest different ways this book might be used.

First, of course, you could just sit down and read it. That won't take long unless, like me, you keep it in the bathroom and read it in multiple sittings. And maybe it's good to take it slowly—after all, it's about a whole year of Riess's life. It's so engrossing, though, that if you settle down in a comfortable chair and start reading, you might forget to eat, drink, or pay the bills until you've finished.

Then you might want to do your own experiment. You could pick out a dozen disciplines and investigate them through reading and practice, as Riess did. Or you could choose one or two of the practices that appeal to you and devote six months or a year to making them part of your life.

But the further I got into this book, the more I thought that it really needs to be read with friends. Do you already belong to a book group, a prayer group, a support group, a study group? Your group could read and discuss Flunking Sainthood all at once or—much better—read a chapter each month, try out the spiritual practice described, and meet to share your experiences (this will work especially well if you enjoy laughing). As Riess says in her powerfully personal Epilogue,
One of the main lessons I learned this year ... was that I was ... an idiot for trying so much of this by myself rather than in community. Spiritual practices help the individual, sure, but it takes a shtetl to raise a mensch. There's a particular kind of hubris in the DIY approach I took to all of these spiritual practices, most of which weren't intended to be tried alone.
In fact, Riess makes it easy for you. You don't have to jump in with both feet: January is about choosing practices. February, when the liturgically inclined are probably feeling guilty anyway for not doing more about Lent, Riess looks at fasting. December is about generosity.

But she doesn't make it mindlessly easy. There are no thought questions, prayer starters, or similar irritants.  Flunking Sainthood is a memoir, not a tool. Riess comes across as a friend, not an instructor. And even though she says she flunked every practice she tried, she also learned a lot along the way—though not what she expected to learn—and her readers will learn a lot too.

If your taste in spiritual discipline runs to hair shirts and beds of nails, you probably won't care for this book. As an honest, funny, irreverent introduction to time-honored Christian practices, however, it can't be beat.

Full disclosure: Jana Riess is a friend and colleague. I used to be on the editorial board of her publisher, Paraclete Press, and Paraclete sent me a review copy of Flunking Sainthood. Actually, Paraclete sends me review copies of just about everything they publish, and I rarely review any of them (recent exception: Sarah Jobe's delightful Creating with God, which I reviewed last month). Publishers and authors never pay me for writing reviews. I'm poor, but honest.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

RIVAL TO THE QUEEN by Carolly Erickson

Years ago while visiting friends in Warwick, UK, I went out for an early morning stroll. Not far from their house I saw an interesting-looking old church, and, being a tourist, I wandered in. In a side chapel I spotted two tombs topped by splendid full-color effigies. These turned out to be the likenesses of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and his wife Lettice Knollys.

I was enthralled. A lover of all things Tudor, I knew that Leicester was for many years the boyfriend of Queen Elizabeth I. I knew he had been accused (and acquitted) of murdering his first wife in hopes that, once she was out of the way, the queen would marry him and make him king. I knew that when he finally gave up all hope of marrying power, he thumbed his nose at Elizabeth by marrying her beautiful cousin. I had no idea, however, that Robert and Lettice were entombed just down the street from my friends' house.

Nor did I expect to find snarky 17th-century doggerel on a wall plaque across from their tombs, extolling Lettice as once "fairest in the land," and going on to describe her as
She that in her youth hath bene
Darling to the Maiden Quene,
Till she was content to quitt
Her favour for her favouritt.
The 38-line poem, signed "Gervas Clifton," is headed by this inscription: "Upon the death of the excellent and pious Lady Lettice, Countess of Leicester, who died upon Christmas-day in the morning, 1634."

Brief explanation: Lettice, Elizabeth's first cousin once removed, attended the queen. At court she met the queen's "favouritt," Robert Dudley. Eventually Lettice's husband and Robert's wife both died, and Lettice and Robert married secretly. The queen found out, of course, and all hell broke loose. From then on Elizabeth wanted nothing to do with Lettie, though she continued to welcome Robert at court.

You'll learn all that and more - much more - in Carolly Erickson's newish historical romance (2010 hardcover, 2011 paperback and Kindle) about Lettice Knollys. Some of what you will learn is factual. Some is invented, but possible (Lettie's adventure in Frankfurt, for example). Some is distorted through Lettice's lens (e.g., the extremely unfavorable portrait of Elizabeth) - and justifiably, since the story is told entirely from her first-person viewpoint. Some is just plain wrong (e.g., the account of Devereux's downfall), as you'll know if you've read Erickson's own history of the era, The First Elizabeth (1983).

I appreciate Rival to the Queen for bringing to life a nearly forgotten but important woman whose very long life spanned the reigns of Henry VIII (who may have been her grandfather), Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth I, and James I. I appreciate it for putting faces on entrancing rapscallions like the Earl of Leicester and his stepson Devereux, and for making Tudor political intrigues slightly easier to follow. I was uncomfortable, however, with Lettice's mindless and perpetual attraction to ill-behaved men, and the way all female characters including the queen seemed to think of little besides their own beauty and their ill-fated love affairs. I wished Erickson had included more details about daily life at court and at home. And as for the scene where Lettice's brother, Frank, plucks a drowning girl out of the sea and discovers ... oh, I won't spoil the surprise. But it was really cheesy.

Maybe I should stop reading historical romances.

I did love Erickson's sly humor in the Epilogue, however. Lettie is in her nineties, and once more she takes up her pen to complete the story she had abandoned 33 years previously. Her great-grandson Gervase pays her a visit:
I must note here that Gervase ... is not a very good poet, though he fancies himself one. His verses are stale.... I am not a poet, but if I were, I would at least attempt to be original.

Gervase has attempted to write my epitaph in verse. He takes undue pride in his few lines. Pray God that when the hour comes, and I am laid in my grave, someone will have the good sense to prevent those lines from coming to light.

Monday, November 14, 2011

BLUE NIGHTS by Joan Didion

In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.... You notice it first as April ends and May begins, a change in the season, not exactly a warming ... yet suddenly summer seems near, a possibility, even a promise....During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.... Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

Only a "connoisseur of catastrophe," as John Banville describes Joan Didion in his New York Times review of her latest book, would see long, lazy midsummer evenings as a harbinger of doom. Life is good, Didion might have thought in 2003. She loved her work, her marriage was great, she knew lots of famous people, she was a famous person, she traveled the world and stayed in the best hotels, she wore designer labels, she had interesting friends, her daughter was now married to the love of her life ...

So of course a pessimist like Didion would expect it all to crash around her ears, maybe all at once, probably without any warning except the inevitability of loss. "Did I believe the blue nights could last forever?" she asks.

And indeed, as readers of her 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, will recall, Didion's charmed life screeched to a halt one week late in 2003. The first words of that book are the first words she wrote after her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a massive coronary event:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The evening her husband died, December 30, John and Joan had just returned from the hospital where their only child, Quintana, had been lying unconscious since Christmas day. The flu had turned into pneumonia, which had brought on septic shock. She would not come out of her coma for two more weeks; she would never regain her health.

Dunne's funeral was delayed until late March so Quintana could attend. Two days afterward, she collapsed from a massive hematoma in her brain and was rushed into surgery. In June of the next year, 2005, she was hospitalized with acute pancreatitis. In late August, shortly before Magical Thinking was published, Quintana died. Didion was now childless and a widow.

Blue Nights is about Quintana as Magical Thinking was about John. Didion wrote the earlier memoir in 88 days, finishing it about a year after her husband's death. Blue Nights comes six years after Quintana's death: Didion needed the time to grieve and to heal. Yet of the two books, Blue Nights feels more immediate, more agonizing, more raw.

Still, as The Economist's reviewer noted, "even when she writes about the hard drama of her own life, such as the sudden death of her husband followed by the death of her only daughter, her stories manage to be larger than her own grief." Blue Nights is not only about Quintana. It is about the losses of old age; the radical contingency of human life; parental guilt; adoption; fear; time; illness. It is about missed occasions for gratitude.

If I owned my copy of Blue Nights, I would underline these words:
We wished them happiness, we wished them, health, we wished them love and luck and beautiful children. On that wedding day, July 26, 2003, we could see no reason to think that such ordinary blessings would not come their way.

Do notice:

We still counted happiness and health and love and luck and beautiful children as "ordinary blessings."
Blue Nights is a poem about appreciating the moment.

"Ms Didion has translated the sad hum of her thoughts into a profound meditation on mortality," wrote The Economist's reviewer. "The result aches with a wisdom that feels dreadfully earned."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Steve Forbes's Prostate vs Mehmet Oz's Heart

Last week two articles highlighted America's split over health-care policy. One likened the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force* to a "death panel" and argued that we need more free enterprise in our health-care system. The other lamented the tens of millions of Americans who do not have adequate health care and argued that our inability to come up with "a health care reform law that we can all live with" is "a failure of basic morality."

The first article, "The Department of Health and Human Services' Death Panel" (Forbes magazine, 21 November 2011), is by Steve Forbes, a publisher and businessman whose net worth is estimated at $430 million.

The second article, "Enough Is Enough" (Time Ideas, 31 October 2011) is by Mehmet Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon and media personality whose net worth is estimated at $7 million.

I'm pretty sure both writers are part of the 1%. Both were graduated from Ivy League universities: Mr Forbes with a history major from Princeton, Dr Oz with an undergraduate degree from Harvard, an MD from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and an MBA from the Wharton School of Business. Both are Boomers: Mr Forbes was born in 1947, Dr Oz in 1960. But despite the similarities, their views on health care couldn't be further apart.

Steve Forbes is irate with what he calls a "committee of 'experts' [scare quotes in original] appointed by the Department of Health & Human Services," because "this group recently declared that men should not be routinely screened for prostate cancer." See, Mr Forbes recently had a routine exam which led to removal of his prostate, and he is convinced - medical research be damned - that routine prostate exams save lots of lives. What is more, he is sure that the HHS research is all about "rationing and saving money," and that "what we need in health care is more free enterprise, not Soviet-style controls." He does not explain why he is opposed to the government's saving money, or why he thinks free enterprise would be less interested than the government in doing so.

Let's say Mr Forbes is right, the researchers are mistaken, and all men should get regular prostate exams. I am wondering how free enterprise will encourage that, given the ever-increasing number of uninsured Americans. Mr Forbes has endorsed Rick Perry for president; both men believe that health care is best handled by the private sector. It's not working so well in Governor Perry's Texas, however, according to a September 8, 2011, article in the L.A. Times. Insurance premiums are up - "when compared with incomes, insurance in Texas is less affordable than in every state but Mississippi" - as is infant mortality. "More than a quarter of Texans lack health insurance, the highest rate in the nation." Texas has some of the best hospitals in America for the rich and the well-insured, but "nearly a third of the state's children did not receive an annual physical and a teeth cleaning in 2007, placing Texas 40th in a state ranking by [the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund]." I don't imagine Texas, despite its governor's faith in private enterprise, will be offering free prostate exams any time soon.

Looked at another way, how would a federally managed health-care system prevent men from getting regular prostate exams if they really want them? A PSA test can cost as little as $45. If insurance companies, those pillars of private enterprise, stop subsidizing such tests on the grounds that the federal government says they have no proven value, will it be such a hardship for men to pay for their own tests? The poor might not be able to afford them, of course, but they're mostly uninsured and aren't getting them anyway - unless they are enrolled in some government program like Medicare or Medicaid. Yet Mr Forbes doesn't seem worried that those very programs may be cut back by politicians who favor a free-enterprise-based health-care system. His logical contradictions make the head spin.

Mehmet Oz, by contrast, doesn't serve up any ideology in his article. If he cares whether our health-care system is based on free enterprise, a single-payer system, or some combination of government and private business, he doesn't say. His article was sparked, not by a personal health crisis, but by what he saw when he volunteered at the "CareNow Free Clinic in the Los Angeles Sports Arena, where more than 700 doctors, nurses and health professionals had turned out to serve the local community."

During this four-day event, according to the CareNow website, "1,000 patients per day [were provided] with medical, dental and vision care they would not otherwise have received. A total of 7,200 procedures were performed, from dental fillings and root canals to medical exams and podiatry; from eye exams and prescription glasses to mammograms, Pap smears, immunizations and other services. Everything was offered at no cost to the patient."

Dr Oz, who has also volunteered at free clinics in Arkansas, North Carolina, and Texas, saw a "tide of disease and despair" in Los Angeles. A young mother whose children were insured by the state but who had no insurance herself. A young man with untreated, out-of-control diabetes who had no idea how to treat it. A woman who had lost her job and her insurance two years before, and was "too ashamed to seek help for a mass she felt in her right breast. Now the tumor had replaced her entire breast and blasted through the skin." Dr Oz writes:
At what point, I wondered that day and still wonder now, will we finally say enough? ...  I don’t underestimate the complexities of implementing a health care reform law that we can all live with. As with most entitlement programs since the Great Depression, we will have to perfect health care reform over time, just as Social Security, Medicare, veterans’ benefits and others were.

But we’re not perfecting the law; we’re fighting over it. Politicians dither and people die. Lawyers argue the merits of this or that technical point, and more blameless Americans grow sick and slip away.
Which is the real "death panel" - a government agency concluding that routine PSA screenings save few lives, or a health-care system that, favoring industry profits over human needs, leaves 50.7 million Americans uninsured?
*The USPSTF, according to their website, is
an independent panel of non-Federal experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine and is composed of primary care providers (such as internists, pediatricians, family physicians, gynecologists/obstetricians, nurses, and health behavior specialists). [It] conducts scientific evidence reviews of a broad range of clinical preventive health care services (such as screening, counseling, and preventive medications) and develops recommendations for primary care clinicians and health systems. These recommendations are published in the form of "Recommendation Statements."

Monday, October 31, 2011

Why can't illegal phone sales calls be stopped?

Emailed response to one of my many complaints to the FCC
I'm getting more and more annoyed at the alleged enforcers of the Do Not Call list and, for that matter, at AT&T.

Like all 312,530,648 people living in the United States, I hate phone sales calls. All of them, without exception. Especially when they interrupt a nap or a meal or a visit with friends.

Of course I have caller ID. Of course I don't answer numbers I don't recognize. Of course I have put my numbers - landline and cell - on the Do Not Call list. In addition, I have filed many complaints at the DNC website and with the Federal Communications Commission.

And the calls keep coming. More and more of them. Even on my cell phone.

I'm not talking about equally annoying but legal calls, such as political nonsense from Congressman Peter Roskam, whose every recorded phone call makes me cringe. I'm talking about plainly illegal calls - recorded messages from people wanting to wipe out my debts (yeah, right), or incessant calls from numbers that simply hang up when they get my answering machine.

I have started Googling the supposed phone numbers to see what I can learn about the callers. I have learned that most of the annoying callers are listed many times on sites such as 800notesWhoCallsMe, and NumberInvestigator. The numbers have been reported countless times to the proper authorities. Some of the callers have been annoying people for years.

Why is nothing being done to stop them?

I know, I know - the numbers on my Caller ID are probably spoofed. It's illegal to spoof a phone number "for the purpose of defrauding or otherwise causing harm," but apparently not if all you're doing is selling dubious services. And no doubt some of these calls originate outside the United States, so perhaps the FCC has no way to stop them. But hey - the phone companies could trace these calls if they really wanted to, couldn't they? And if not - maybe the call is being made with a prepaid phone card, for example - couldn't they come up with an app that would allow us to instantly block any caller we never want to hear from again?

Note to geeks: invent such an app, and you could retire comfortably by next summer. Be sure to include a version that works on landlines.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Last week I went to Johnsen & Taylor Inspirational Books and Gifts to listen to five women authors from the Redbud Writers Guild present "Women and Writing: The Importance of Using Your Voice for Christ's Kingdom." After the lively discussion, I wandered through the store looking at book jackets. Most of the books, all aimed at evangelical readers, were written by men. Most of the shoppers in the store were women.

I suppose some men feel less queasy about walking through displays of fluffy angels and inspirational wall plaques if they know that stacks of books by male authors await them in the back of the store, though few men were there that evening. I believe that men - and women, too -  can learn a lot from male authors. On the other hand, I also believe that men - and women, too - can learn a lot from female authors. And I know that there are things that simply can't be said unless a woman says them.

Sarah Jobe is saying some of those woman things.

Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy isn't an obvious reading choice for a 63-year-old grandmother, but I picked it up anyway - and was almost immediately laughing out loud. "This book is an attempt to name how pregnant women are co-creators with God at precisely the moment in which we are pooping on the delivery table," Jobe writes in the author's note. "I will claim that pregnant women are the image of Jesus among us not in spite of varicose veins but because of them."

I remember pregnant. First baby nestling so deep within me that there was no room left for stomach, lungs, bladder, or various other organs I had formerly enjoyed using every day. Second baby perched so far beyond me that walking became perilous and friends pointed and laughed when they saw us waddling their way. And my pregnancies were a breeze compared to Jobe's, though her midwives dubbed hers "uncomplicated."

What bothered Jobe - who has an M.Div., is an ordained pastor, and works as a prison chaplain - is that she couldn't figure out "how God could be present in pregnancy in spite of back pain, financial stress, hormonal shifts, and constipation." But as she progressed through two back-to-back pregnancies, she writes, she "learned a startling truth. God is not present in pregnancy in spite of all the crap (and I mean that in the most literal sense). God is present in pregnancy at precisely the places that seem least divine."

If Jobe's wry frankness got me into the book, her theological ruminations kept me intrigued. Who knew that Eve's exclamation at the birth of Cain could just as well be translated a quite different way? That the glow of pregnancy might be related to the glow seen on Moses' or Jesus' face? That groaning in labor is not only inevitable, but also productive and even Godlike? That communion, the placenta, and breast milk have a lot in common?

Such observations are not often made by male writers. And even if they are, how many males could achieve Jobe's "been there, done that" realism? Listen to her reflect on how she was feeling days after her due date, with no sign of imminent labor:
In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus tells a story about waiting for the kingdom of God. There are ten virgins waiting to greet their bridegroom. They wait and wait, but he doesn't come.... Jesus chooses a negative example; a story about how not to wait. But he could have told a story about how to wait well by simply trading in the virgins for some pregnant women.

Pregnant women surely would have fallen asleep (probably before the virgins) but by the time the bridegroom came, they would have woken up twice to pee and once for a little snack of peanut butter toast and milk. When the bridegroom came striding in at midnight, at least three lamps would already be on. The pregnant woman struggling with insomnia would welcome him to the kitchen table for a midnight cup of herbal tea. The second-time mom would motion the bridegroom to the couch while she finished nursing her firstborn. And the third-time mom would say with a large dose of exasperation, "It's about time you got here - my six-year-old can't sleep for excitement about this wedding feast!" All of them would have their hospital bags packed and waiting by the door. Jesus could have said, "Wait like a pregnant woman."
That night at Johnsen & Taylor's bookstore, I did see books written by women, of course. Most of the novels had female authors. A few books by women were in the Christian Living section. As a retired editor for a variety of religion publishers, I'm happy to see women contributing to any and all categories. But I'm especially happy when women use uniquely female experiences as ways to see God.

The image of God is male and female. Half a God may be better than no God at all - or it may be dangerously distorted. It's way past time to let light shine on the neglected half of God's image. Thanks, Sarah Jobe - and please keep writing.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Keep it simple - eat by color!

Good food is usually simple. It is always beautiful. I wish people who devise recommendations for healthy eating would keep this in mind.

My favorite food advice couldn't be simpler. It's from Michael Pollan in In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto:
  • Eat food.
  • Not too much.
  • Mostly plants.

It's easy to add beauty to simplicity. Just eat by color:

  • half brown
  • half riotous colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple ...

You can eat by color whether you're an omnivore, a vegetarian, or a vegan. Your brown food includes meat, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds - and chocolate, of course. Your riotously colored food includes every imaginable vegetable and fruit. Serve the food on white plates for contrast, and enjoy a feast for the eyes as well as for the palate.

If your meal is breathtakingly beautiful, it's probably good for you. If it has a pale, recycled look, it probably isn't doing much for your body. How simple is that?

I'm not a doctor. I'm not a nutritionist. I don't know your particular medical condition or needs. Please follow your doctor's advice regarding food, drink, and medicines. If your doctor's advice doesn't sound right, do your own research and discuss your findings with him or her. You'll probably learn from each other. If not, change doctors.

Friday, October 14, 2011

No, I don't want your heart-healthy diet, thank you

In August I spent five days as a patient at Cleveland Clinic, which advertises itself as "#1 in heart care since 1995." Following open-heart surgery for a congenital valve problem, I was put on their "heart healthy" diet. I didn't expect gastronomic delights from a hospital food supplier, but meatloaf? white bread? sugary yogurt? caffeinated coffee? And that was just my first meal.

I am now attending cardiac rehab exercise sessions three days a week. As we pedal or row or walk or lift weights, someone lectures us on how we should be eating. This morning she told us how to estimate correct portion sizes of, among other things, canned spaghetti.

What planet do these people live on?

"My Plate" - would you
want a lifetime of this?
They are, of course, following recommendations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who periodically replaces one set of wrong-headed guidelines with another equally perverse set. The most recent is My Plate, simpler than the now passé Food Pyramid, but equally removed from the way anyone would want to eat. Dry whole wheat bread? Canned mandarin oranges? Canned green beans? A glass of milk? And what is that perfectly revolting slab of meat, anyway?

Granted, it is possible to follow USDA recommendations and still prepare an attractive plate. It is even possible - though often difficult - to follow their advice and serve food that is, in fact, heart healthy. (I am not sure why the USDA does not improve their suggestions, but certain farm subsidies and lobbyists may be involved.) Unfortunately, it was not possible for me to get a tasty, healthy meal at the hospital - except by sending my husband across the street to Cedarland, a wonderful storefront Lebanese restaurant, and ordering take-out.

Or would you prefer this?
(Add raspberries for dessert.)
"My Plate," though, doesn't have to be disgusting. Trade the bread for whole-wheat couscous with onions and raisins, for example. Top the couscous with a few thin slices of oven-browned chicken, if you like, or go vegetarian and give yourself a scoop of lentils (red lentils with curry seasoning are nice). For vegetables, think color: lightly steamed fresh broccoli, or wilted baby spinach or chard with garlic and lemon. If it's tomato season, put a few wedges in that upper-left quadrant. Drink the milk, if you like it, but realize that the dairy industry has a lot to do with the USDA's recommendations: it's OK to have a glass of water or wine instead. And for dessert, how about a bowl of fresh berries, topped with a spoonful of Greek yogurt and a handful of sliced almonds?

"Heart healthy" should not be identified with endless grim plates of gray fuel.

Folks, we can resist.

I'm not a doctor. I'm not a nutritionist. I don't know your particular medical condition or needs. Please follow your doctor's advice regarding food, drink, and medicines. If your doctor's advice doesn't sound right, do your own research and discuss your findings with him or her. You'll probably learn from each other. If not, change doctors.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Opposites attract - Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth

22nd Agatha, 2011
26th Hamish, 2011
Agatha Raisin is one of my favorite fictional sleuths (read my Books & Culture online review of her just-published adventure, As the Pig Turns, here).

A close second is Hamish Macbeth, a doughty if lazy policeman from the Scottish Highlands whose 26th story, Death of a Chimney Sweep, was published in February.

Both Agatha and Hamish are the creations of M.C. Beaton, author of maybe 100 books in addition to the nearly 50 in these two series (I apparently vastly underestimated her output in my B&C article; check out the scary-long list here).

Beaton, one of many pen names used by Marion Chesney, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, some two or three hundred miles south of Hamish Macbeth's fictional town, Lochdubh, in the real county of Sutherland. Now 75, she divides her time between Paris and the English Cotswolds, where Agatha Raisin holds forth in the fictional town of Carsely. If you get the feeling Beaton knows the eccentric characters who people her mysteries - well, she probably does.

If you're already a fan of Agatha or Hamish, you know that Beaton's mysteries are gentle, funny, relaxing, and delightfully anti-authoritarian. And yet, apart from their unorthodox methods of crime-solving, Agatha and Hamish could not be more different from one another:
  • Agatha comes from a dysfunctional family; Hamish's family is warm and supportive.
  • Agatha has few friends; Hamish is a friend to his whole village.
  • Agatha has extremely poor people skills; Hamish spends much of his time schmoozing with villagers.
  • Agatha is ambitious; Hamish is lazy.
  • Agatha takes credit for others' work; Hamish lets others take credit for his work.
  • Agatha funds village projects (but earns no love); Hamish is known as a moocher (but they love him anyway).
  • Agatha often blunders her way to solving a crime; Hamish's skills are based on hearsay, deduction, and chutzpah.
  • Agatha is short and stout; Hamish is tall and lanky.
  • Agatha is an amateur (who gains expertise along the way); Hamish is a professional.
  • Agatha has cats; Hamish has dogs.
  • Agatha's love life would improve if she were less pushy; Hamish's would improve if he were more assertive.
  • Agatha is comically fussy about her appearance; Hamish is comically negligent of his.
But just because Agatha and Hamish are polar opposites does not mean they attract different sets of readers. If you like one series, I can almost guarantee you'll like the other.

Which leads me to wonder - will Agatha and Hamish ever meet? Could they stand being in the same room? Could they work on a case together? And if they did, would their chief nemeses, Detective Chief Inspectors Wilkes and Blair, go completely berserk?

Thursday, October 6, 2011


When I was in high school, Frito-Lay introduced a slogan that became famous: "Betcha can't eat just one." I took that as a challenge, an easy bet to win since I didn't care for Fritos.

However, I cannot - cannot - read just one book a year by Alexander McCall Smith, and I'm so glad I don't have to. This year saw the release (in the U.S., which tends to lag) of The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, 12) and The Dog Who Came In from the Cold (Corduroy Mansions Series, 2). Today my public library, bless them, ordered The Forgotten Affairs of Youth (Isabel Dalhousie Series, 8), slated for December.

I have the first hold on the first copy received.

The Corduroy Mansions series, like the earlier and ongoing (in the U.K.) 44 Scotland Street Series, are serial novels à la Dickens, but delivered at a far more frenetic pace. The Dog Who Came In from the Cold's 78 very short chapters began life as an online novel  (you can read its sequel here, at the Telegraph website) and were then turned into a book. As you read, you get the feeling that McCall Smith has no idea what his characters are going to do next, and the book has nothing resembling a linear plot. It doesn't matter. Surprises are good. And you know everything will more or less come together by the last page.

Which is amazing, considering all the interwoven stories centering on Corduroy Mansions, a yet-to-be-rehabbed apartment building in Pimlico, central London.

  • Should William French, wine merchant, allow MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence Service) to use his Pimlico terrier ("an unusual breed obtained through the judicious crossing of an Airedale with a Border Collie, and perhaps just a touch of something else about which the breeders themselves were now hazy"), Freddie de la Hay, as a spy?
  • Can Caroline and James, art history students, find happiness without germs?
  • Will Dee, owner of the Pimlico Vitamin and Supplement Agency and proponent of colonic irrigation, lose all her money if she invests in an attractive marketing scheme?
  • Can Barbara Ragg and Rupert Porter, literary agents, resolve their dispute over an inherited apartment?
  • Can Berthea Snark, psychiatrist, stop her loony brother Terence Moongrove from making a very foolish decision?
  • Is an abominable snowman really shopping at Fortnum and Mason?
If it sounds confusing, it isn't. McCall Smith somehow keeps you anchored, and by the time quite a few of the characters gather at William's place for a party, you love them all - just as McCall Smith does - and maybe you even feel a little more love for some of your odder family members.
[William] looked down at Freddie de la Hay, who was lying in a corner, one eye open, watching the human comedy, or that small part of it that was playing out in the room. Dear Freddie, loyal Freddie; for whom there were no great existential questions because he knew at all times, and in all places, what he had to do - which was to do William's bidding and make him happy. That was Freddie's world-view, his Weltanschauung, it it was as good as any world-view, thought William. We had to love somebody, and we had to want the best for that person. Freddie knew as much because it was in his nature to do so.
Part of the delight of reading McCall Smith, who is a retired bioethicist, is that he scatters such observations throughout his stories: his characters are constantly pondering the human condition. But I don't read these books for their ethical weight. I read them because the characters are wildly eccentric and lovable, because the situations they get into are hilariously improbable, and because - at the end of a tiring day - McCall Smith makes me smile.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A very brief update

The T-shirt my daughters got me
Three weeks ago I posted about preparing for open-heart surgery, and then I fell silent. Just a note to let you know that I survived, my recovery is progressing well, and it will be a long time - probably several months - before I feel perky again. I'm sure I'll be blogging again soon, though. In fact, several ideas are even now simmering on the back burner. Something tells me, however, I'd be wise to wait to write about them until I'm completely off pain meds!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Twenty years ago, a woman in her mid-thirties wrote a book that would become an environmental classic. I finally read it last week.

Still in print and still selling briskly, Refuge defies classification. Check out the reviews posted on Terry Tempest Williams's website: Wallace Stegner evokes her poetic style; Barry Lopez mentions the story's emotional depth; the Kansas City Star calls the book an environmental essay, and Kirkus highlights its political implications.

Williams interweaves two stories: the rise of Utah's Great Salt Lake, and her mother's slow dying from cancer. "Most of the women in my family are dead," she writes in the Prologue. "Cancer. At thirty-four, I became the matriarch of my family. The losses I encountered at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge as Great Salt Lake was rising helped me to face the losses within my family."

I read more memoir than nature writing, and I found Williams's account both moving and satisfying. It is good to read about a strong family with supportive grandparents, aunts, cousins, siblings, and friends. The Tempest tribe has been Mormon for many generations, and their faith, shared history, and rituals clearly strengthen them. At the same time, Williams does not skirt difficult issues. Her father's grief sometimes turns into rage. Her grandmother and mother push well beyond Mormon boundaries to find beliefs that will sustain their difficult journeys. Williams grows weary of caregiving, even briefly considering giving her mother enough morphine to send her on her way.

I have cared for dying loved ones, and I have faced serious illness. I recognize the emotions she describes, both her own and her mother's.

I suspect that readers of nature writing find the book equally satisfying. Williams does not just use the natural world to illustrate her own emotions. "Currently the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah" (see her bio here), she writes as a scientist and a keen observer of nature. Her descriptions of birds, their habitat, and their interactions with their human neighbors stand on their own (she even includes a six-page appendix listing all the birds associated with the Great Salt Lake).

And although the book is by no means a political essay, she ends it with a stunning chapter, "The Clan of One-Breasted Women," that is simultaneously political, environmental, poetic, feminist, and urgent.

Thanks to my friend Molly H. for giving me this book. Twenty years ago I might not have understood it as well as I do today. Now I pass it on to you.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fear, death, and being human: thoughts before surgery

Heart and blood vessels
(Leonardo da Vinci)
I am scheduled to have open-heart surgery next week.

They will open my chest, slicing right down the sternum, and they'll hook me up to a machine to pump my blood and keep me oxygenated while they mend my innards. I am told this will take from three to six hours.

Fortunately, I will be sound asleep the whole time. And to prevent any operating-room chatter from possibly invading my dormant brain cells, large noise-cancelling headphones will fill my ears with reassuring music.

I've known this was coming since 2003. In May 2008 I wrote a brief note about it here. Last March my cardiologist and I agreed that it's time to go ahead. A defective valve needs replacing. An aneurysm needs repairing. Some faulty electrical circuits need rewiring. Bring on the plumbers and electricians.

As Samuel Johnson said to his friend Boswell, "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

In my case, the mental concentration is another word for fear. I felt fear when my cardiologist announced, "Mrs. Neff, you are not normal." (I also burst out laughing, which puzzled him.) I've felt fear every time  I've had echocardiograms, CT scans, MRIs, Holter monitor readings, and other tests - and I've had a lot of them. When the doctors decided I needed a catheter ablation, I could not stop shaking. My thoughts turned dark and morbid during three days in the hospital while they started me on a potent medication.

Most of the time, thank goodness, I can deal with fear. Denial works remarkably well. Failing that, joking can be effective. But when surgery became a date on my calendar, not just a remote possibility, I knew I had to pay attention. So I asked myself the obvious question, What are you afraid of? And I gave myself the obvious answers: Pain. Serious side-effects of surgery, such as stroke. Undesirable brain changes, such as compulsive alliteration.


Not much chance of that, they tell me. The numbers are excellent: the survival rate is at least 97 percent. I'm otherwise healthy, and my surgeon is one of the best. Not much chance of stroke, either. It happens, but not to the vast majority of patients.

When I strode up to the Grim Reaper to fling these statistics in his face, he was not impressed. Life, he pointed out, is a sexually transmitted condition that is 100 percent fatal. At age 63, if I am average, I can expect to live another 26 years (check out your own life expectancy here). That no longer seems very long. What's more, my healthy life expectancy is only another 8 years, according to the World Health Organization's database. I'm guessing I might have more time than that because I've never smoked, have had excellent medical care, have eaten good food, have exercised. My parents did all of those things too, and their health was good up to about age 79. But that's still only 16 years away.

If I survive this surgery - and I believe I will - I will probably have another 10 to 20 years before the artificial valve has to be replaced, or Alzheimer's infiltrates my brain, or I am attacked by cancer or strokes or some other disease. It's going to happen because I am dust, and to dust I shall return.

This is where I might go theological, or at least pietistic, and start talking about heaven, resurrection, immortality. I'm not going to do that. Undeniably many people find comfort in their faith. Morris West, author of The Shoes of the Fisherman and many other novels, faced open-heart surgery with strong faith: "Alive or dead, I was resting in the hand of Omnipotence. I knew with absolute conviction that I could not fall out of it" (A View from the Ridge, p. 145). Before he reached that conclusion, though, he had to face his own mortality. When he went into surgery, he knew he might never wake up.

As it turned out, West lived another 11 years: he died at his desk at age 83 while working on his 28th novel. He did, however, eventually die. So did all my ancestors. So did several of my friends. So will you. So will I.

This can be hard for us Americans to accept. When doctors want to talk with us about our end-of-life plans, some of us worry about death panels. When someone dies, we want to know who's to blame (the doctor? the hospital? the deceased's habits? ourselves, for not intervening in some way?). The idea that death is a normal part of being human - from the Latin humus, earth, soil, dust - is hard for us to understand - and what we do not understand, we fear.

Voldemort, remember, means "flight of death." His followers were Death Eaters - people who feared death so much that they were willing to kill to avoid it. By contrast, Dumbledore and Harry Potter accepted death willingly, and thereby saved the wizarding world. I don't expect to save any worlds, but I am guessing that if I can accept - really accept, believe at a gut level - that I am dust, I will save myself a lot of unnecessary anxiety over the next few days.

Oh, by the way, I may not be posting much for a while. Or - who knows - I may feel the urge to comment on every passing headline (someone please stop me! No one should blog while medicated!). If you want to keep up with Lively Dust but you don't want to keep checking back unnecessarily, sign up to "Follow by Email" - right-hand column, second box from the top.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


"This is the book I've been looking for," I said to my friend Carol at a book group last night. "I'm so tired of books where the characters are miserable at the beginning, think a great deal, and are equally miserable at the end. Not that I want sappy sweet books..."

"You want books that are redemptive," Carol said.

That's exactly right. Happy books featuring genuinely good people, like D.L. Smith's The Miracles of Santo Fico; gritty books whose protagonists take on evil and win, like Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch detective stories; or even deeply ambiguous books whose seriously flawed characters turn out to have a good side after all, like Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. What I don't want to do is waste my time with any book that goes nowhere or, worse, leaves me depressed and anxious. If I want to feel suicidal, I can watch the news.

I loved Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.

The book is very redemptive, though if I told you exactly what I mean by that I'd give away the plot. It is also a charming romance. Characters fall in and out of love; marriage proposals are made, accepted, postponed, and turned down. The necessary complications arise because of misunderstandings (or downright nastiness) between races, nationalities, religions, generations, sexes, classes, and people with varying levels of pretentiousness. The love of money and possessions triggers plenty of havoc.

Fortunately, this is a comic novel, not grim realism. The author, a native of England who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, enjoys poking fun at stuffy old Brits (aren't they almost extinct?) and brash Americans (thriving, alas).

While Major Pettigrew, 68, and especially the quietly indomitable Mrs. Ali, 58, are well-developed characters, many members of the supporting cast are hilarious caricatures - the vicar's dreadful wife, Daisy; the Major's narcissistic son, Roger; Mrs. Ali's scowling religious nephew, Abdul Wahid; the ecologically minded but fashion challenged neighbor, Alice;  Lord Dagenham, who brings bankers to the manor to shoot at farm-raised ducks... Well, all of Helen Simonson's characters, right down to walk-on parts like the rule-obsessed lady at the tea-and-cakes kiosk, are wryly amusing.

To be sure, the course of Major Pettigrew's romance does not run smooth. Potentially derailing subplots abound: an American real estate developer wants to turn Edgecombe St. Mary into a haven for displaced minor nobility. The Major and his sister-in-law disagree about who should inherit the deceased brother's valuable gun. A single mother confronts her child's father. The yearly club dance finds yet another way to showcase its planner's ignorance and bad taste. A love affair seems to die even before it gets properly started. Hey, this is a romance - we can hardly expect things to be easy.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is funny, it's heartwarming, it's even wise. And in the end, when the main characters get what's coming to them (for good or for ill), I'm betting most readers will chuckle and cheer and say to their friends, "Here's a book you've got to read."

When Googling for a picture of the book jacket to include with this post, I discovered that Alexander McCall Smith reviewed this book in the New York Times (March 3, 2010). His review is excellent, but even if you don't feel like reading it right now, click on this link to see the illustration. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Give me your tired, your poor - but only if they have a really good lawyer

Everybody agrees - the U.S. immigration system is broken. Americans strongly disagree as to how it should be fixed. But there's one fix, desperately needed, that just about all of us can agree on. When people flee to the U.S. because staying in their home countries means almost certain torture and death, we need to help them.

Alas, we don't.

I became aware of how the U.S. treats refugees when my husband and I became friends with a lovely family who escaped their home country at night, by boat, and eventually ended up in the Chicago area. For over 20 years they have been fighting to become citizens or even permanent residents. They have fought maybe half a dozen deportation orders. They have spent vast sums on lawyers. Twice a Senate bill has been introduced for their relief (and has subsequently died in committee). They don't want to be "illegal aliens"  - they are conservative, law-abiding, tax-paying, hard-working people. But they don't dare return to their country of origin. It looks like their green cards are finally coming through. They will believe it when they see them.

For all their uncertainty, fear, and dollars spent, my friends have had it easy compared to Regina and David Bakala, refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo featured in Josephe Marie Flynn's gripping new book, Rescuing Regina (the link will take you to my brief preview; my full review will appear in a couple of months in Christian Century). A coalition of Midwesterners, whose politics ranged from Tea Party to left-wing Democrat, worked hard to get Regina out of jail and to keep her from being sent back to the warlords who had promised to kill her.

Or check out this unfinished story about Edmond Demiraj, published yesterday in the New York Times. Demiraj agreed to be a government witness against a mobster and was then virtually delivered to the mobster's doorstep in Albania. He eventually made it back to the U.S. - legally - but now his wife and son are in grave danger. He is hoping the Supreme Court will hear their case.

If you prefer happy endings, read this story about Chicagoans Tony and Janina Wasilewski in Sunday's Chicago Tribune or the more extensive New York Times account. Twenty-two years ago, Janina applied for asylum. Four years ago, she and their six-year-old son were deported. Thanks to a persistent husband, a tenacious lawyer, a documentary filmmaker, several politicians, and a Supreme Court decision, the family was reunited yesterday.

Folks, it shouldn't have to be this difficult.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Why even hard-working, frugal, clean-living Tea Partiers may someday need Social Security and Medicare

I have to ask myself: am I part of the American majority who wants to scale back government expenses – as long as none of my personal benefits are touched?

I confess: I will turn 63 next week, and I don’t want Social Security or Medicare reduced or – heaven help us – privatized.

I have personal reasons.

My husband and I have been saving heavily for 20 years, have paid off the mortgage on our modest house, have nursing-home insurance policies, and have no debts whatsoever. Nevertheless, our retirement accounts have been significantly diminished by the recession of 2008–11, and the future of stocks and bonds does not look good. Without Social Security to supplement our savings, we’d have a rough retirement.

Both of us take good care of our health. We’ve never smoked, and we exercise daily. We eat no red meat, few desserts, and lots of whole grains, vegetables, and fruit. My weight has always been right where it’s supposed to be, and his isn’t far off. Nevertheless, I’m scheduled to have open heart surgery later this month, and I will need to have costly check-ups and possibly medications for the rest of my life. Without Medicare, I’d probably have a very short retirement.

So yes, I’d much prefer that we strengthen Social Security, Medicare, and our entire health-care system and stop paying for 46.5 percent of global military spending, for example.

But my reasons are not entirely personal. Although my husband and I are the kind of people Republicans love (and Jesus worried about), we will be in trouble if the senior safety nets come down, right along with people who have had to face unemployment, divorce, foreclosure, addictions, natural disasters, accidents, disabilities, and catastrophic illness; right along with people who don’t know how to manage money, who abuse their health, and who long ago stopped thinking about tomorrow (see my previous post, "The United States of Florida").

Really, folks, this isn’t a question of deserving. As Jesus pointed out, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). God may or may not be the sender, but I’ve noticed that crap falls on both the good and the bad as well. We all benefit from God’s grace, and we’re all just one step away from catastrophe.

Government programs can’t give us comfortable lifestyles if we have no job and no savings. They may not be able to give us good health if our bodies are faulty or abused. They can’t keep us from getting old and dying. What they can do is help us – all of us who need help – have food, shelter, and necessary medical care.

If this means additional funding – a payroll tax on all earned income, for example, and not just the first $106,800 – so be it. If it means ending President Obama’s extremely unwise payroll tax holiday , so be it. If it means I have to pay more taxes, so be it.

Our government is not only of the people and by the people, it is also for the people. May Lincoln’s vision of a nation dedicated to the common good not perish from the earth.


P.S. I’m not saying that Social Security and Medicare are our most important social programs, by the way. Nothing is more important than educating our young, and comparative test scores show that the U.S. is in trouble here (22nd place in math!). Still, many of our suburban schools are excellent. We say we believe in equality of opportunity: what are we doing to assure that all of our children, no matter where they live or how much their parents pay in property tax, have access to good schools?

Friday, August 5, 2011

The United States of Florida; or, Why we can't give up Social Security and Medicare

Yes, we have to do something about the federal budget. Yes, Social Security and Medicare cost a lot (about 1/3 of total expenses and rising, according to this graph). It's not surprising that politicians want to reform them, or redesign them, or cut them, or even get rid of them. But what exactly would we do without them?

Folks, we can't just say we can't afford them.

In 2010 about 13% of the U.S. population was 65 and older. This year the first Baby Boomers turn 65. By 2029, all Baby Boomers will be over 65, and by 2030 (according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates) over 19% of the population will be 65 or older.

If that doesn't scare you, look at it this way: in only 10 or 12 years, the entire U.S. will have a higher percentage of seniors than Florida has right now (only 17% of the Sunshine State's residents are 65 or older).

Seniors, per se, aren't especially scary, but the likely financial condition of Boomer seniors is truly terrifying.
  • As we retire, we'll be taking money out of the financial markets instead of putting it in. That can't be helpful to the national economy.
  • Most of us started out working for companies that provided defined-benefit pensions. Since then, most private companies have switched to defined-contribution pensions - 401(k)s. 
  • 401(k)s are fine for self-disciplined, well-paid employees when the economy is rapidly growing. However, a 401(k) can be quickly depleted in times of economic recession.
  • In any case, for a 401(k) to provide a decent pension, you need to fund it right up to the legal limit from day one of your career until your retirement party. Alas, very few people actually do that. One survey found that people in their 60s have saved an average of only $30,000 for retirement. Only 11% of all workers have saved over $250,000.
  • It used to be considered safe to withdraw about 4% of your retirement savings per year (that's really too much to withdraw during a recession, but let's stick with that figure anyway). A person who has saved $250,000, then, can safely take out $10,000 a year - $833 a month - for living expenses. A person who has saved $30,000 can withdraw $100 a month.
  • People used to figure that they could make up the difference with the equity in their houses. Right.
  • Meanwhile, we're all living longer, which means more of us are getting diseases like Alzheimer's - and health-care costs are soaring. Over the last 10 years, the Consumer Price Index rose 26% while health-care costs rose 48%. 
  • "Guess I'll never be able to stop working," say many Boomers. Some will indeed postpone retirement, but many will not be able to postpone it for long. Decreasing stamina and worsening health may make it impossible to continue working full time. And if seniors lose their job for any reason, it will be next to impossible to find another one - especially when the national employment rate is over 9%.
  • "If worse comes to worst, we may have to move in with the kids." This solution will work for some. But perhaps 20 to 25 percent of Boomers have no kids, and many Boomer kids are struggling to bring in enough income to avoid foreclosure or to send their own children to college. People with Alzheimer's and many other geriatric diseases require full-time care, and few middle-aged families can afford for one adult to quit working and stay home all day with Mom.
Social Security and Medicare are expensive. Reforming them is a great idea - but not if those reforms mean trading defined benefits for private financing. Privatizing Social Security and Medicare, as our experience with 401(k)s has shown, could mean big rewards for the financial industry. Unfortunately, it could also mean that a high percentage of unemployable seniors would have literally no place to go.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

INSIDE OF A DOG by Alexandra Horowitz

"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.
Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."
- attributed to Groucho Marx

Alexandra Horowitz has both a personal and a professional interest in dogs. Besotted with her own dogs - the late lamented Pumpernickel and the current model, Finnegan - she is also an assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College, where she studies animal cognition. According to Barnard's website, she "is currently testing anthropomorphisms made of the domestic dog, through experiments with dogs in natural settings."

Dogs, she points out, are not people. They perceive the world in an entirely different way from how we perceive it, and if we expect dogs to have human responses to our bumbling attempts to befriend and train them, we'll be disappointed. (So that's why my dogs never respond to my carefully reasoned explanations!) She labels the-world-as-perceived-by-dogs their umwelt, and much of the book is an explanation of how the world looks, sounds, feels, and especially smells to our canine friends.

On the other hand - and contrary to much popular opinion - she insists that dogs are not wolves. After at least ten thousand years of domestication, many of their physical, psychological, social, and developmental characteristics set them apart from their near relatives. "As the domestication process probably began with early canids scavenging around human groups - eating our table scraps," she writes, "it is a particularly silly stance to feed dogs only raw meat, on the theory that they are wolves at heart. Dogs are omnivores who for millennia have eaten what we eat."

Dogs, says Horowitz, are anthropologists. They study our behavior - our typical actions, and especially every minute variation of or departure from our usual theme. They know when we're thinking about going for a walk. They know how to persuade us to give them food. They may not actually feel guilt or shame (the jury is out on that one), but they know when they're likely to be punished.

And they know how to communicate. Not only with us (wag, lick, dance, growl) but also with other dogs: in one fascinating chapter, Horowitz describes how dogs invite each other to play, how they respond to another dog's invitation to play, how they play, and why they will play with some dogs and not others.

Are dogs, then, highly intelligent? Do they ponder philosophical questions? Most important, do they really, truly, love us? Read Horowitz and see what you think.

If you're only ever going to read one book on animal behavior, though, the book to read is Temple Grandin's highly original Animals in Translation. Once you've read that, you probably won't be able to keep from reading Grandin's follow-up book, Animals Make Us Human (my review is here). If those books whet your appetite - or if you want to skip the parrots and monkeys and cows and head straight for dogs - Inside of a Dog is a good choice. It's research based, well documented, aimed at a general audience, and seasoned with humor.

Your dogs will thank you for reading it - though if they had their druthers, you'd first take them for a walk.