Friday, November 23, 2018

THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS by Isabel Wilkerson - a book well-intentioned white people should read

I just finished reading a powerful book: Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns. Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, profiles three African Americans born in the South in the second decade of the 20th century. All three moved away: one to New York, one to Chicago, one to Los Angeles. The men died in the 1990s. The woman died in 2004. Unless you are very young, they all lived during your own lifetime. Unless you are a person of color, their experiences may startle you.

I am 70 years old. I was in third grade when Rosa Parks kept her seat in the bus, had just finished high school when LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, was a college student when race riots broke out all across America, and had just gotten married when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was appalled by racism without realizing I had spent my life in an extremely white bubble whose privileges were built on a racist past.

As a well-educated white woman, I wanted black people to be able to ride in the front of the bus and eat at lunch counters, of course; but I was completely unaware of the daily hardships, insults, and real dangers that provoked the civil rights movement, in both North and South. And I certainly didn't know the extent to which racism continues to exist.

Nearly five years ago I moved from a county that is 5% African American to a county that is 29% African American. I live walking distance from a city that is 63% African American. From new friends, I have learned something that should have been obvious all along: that as a white woman, I can't begin to imagine what it's like to be a woman of color. Things that happen to my black friends do not happen to me. It's been easy for me to assume they don't happen at all, or at least happen extremely rarely. I had no idea.

I've tried to educate myself by listening, watching, and reading. The more I learn, the more I realize I need to learn. Humility is painful: I will never know what it's like to be black in America. I do know, however, that I learned a lot from The Warmth of Other Suns. It's not a history book, though from it I learned parts of history that were somehow not covered in my undergrad history major. It's not a sociology book, though I couldn't miss seeing how the protagonists' social context affected their lives. It's not a political argument, though politicians show up in its pages from time to time. The book is a carefully researched story of three lives, told mostly in their own words. And it's not fiction.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

REVIVING OPHELIA, Christine Blasey Ford, and what most women know

In 1994 Mary Pipher's book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls was published. On the New York Times bestseller list for three years, it is still selling well almost 25 years later. It's an excellent book, and painfully relevant to today's news.

In less than an hour the Senate Judiciary Committee will start questioning Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. Whatever they determine and however they vote, I am convinced that any woman who thinks Dr. Ford's story could not possibly be true has lived a sheltered life indeed.

Actually, I lived an incredibly sheltered life myself, and yet something similar - though considerably milder - happened to me when I was 11 and the boy was 12. During the school day. In the teacher's office. When class was in session, but kids were working on projects and the teacher was distracted. And that was in the bucolic 1950s. By the way, I never told my parents, and I'm feeling really conflicted about mentioning it here, nearly 60 years later.

Most women know that these things happen.

Here's a story from Reviving Ophelia about a 15-year-old girl who was assaulted by a classmate in 1993. Her assault was worse than Dr. Ford's, but look at the parallels:

"She'd been invited to a party by a girl in her algebra class whose parents were out of town. The girl was supposed to stay with a friend, but she had worked out a way to be home. The kids could use her parents' hot tub and stereo system.

"Cassie didn't get invited to many parties, so she accepted the invitation. She planned to leave if things got out of control. She told her mother the truth about her plans, except she didn't mention that the parents were gone....

"The party was okay at first--lots of loud music and sick jokes but Cassie was glad to be at a party. A guy from her lunch period asked her to dance. A cheerleader she barely knew asked her to go to the movies that weekend. But by eleven she wanted to go home. The house was packed with crashers and everyone was drinking. Some kids were throwing up, others were having sex or getting rowdy. One boy had knocked a lamp off a desk and another had kicked a hole through a wall.

"Cassie slipped away to the upstairs bedroom for her coat. She didn't notice that a guy followed her into the room. He knew her name and asked for a kiss. She shook her head no and searched for her coat in the pile on the bed. He crept up behind her and put his hands under her shirt. She told him to quit and tried to push him away. Then things happened very fast. He grabbed her and called her a bitch. She struggled to break free, but he pinned her down and covered her mouth. She tried to fight but was not strong or aggressive enough. He was muscular and too drunk to feel pain when she flailed at him. Nobody downstairs heard anything over the music. In ten minutes it was over."

Cassie, unlike Dr. Ford, told her parents, who called the police. Here's why she might have wished she hadn't.

"The guy who sexually assaulted her had been suspended from the track team pending his trial. His friends were furious at her for getting him in trouble. Other kids thought she led him on, that she had asked for it by being at that party."

If you've ever been a high school girl, you know that rejection by your peers can be the unkindest cut of all.

Maybe you believe Judge Kavanaugh, or maybe you think he's lying, or maybe you think he was too drunk to know what he did. Maybe you believe Dr. Ford, or maybe you think she's lying, or maybe you think it was someone else who assaulted her.

But don't ever say the event couldn't have happened just as Dr. Ford describes it. It could have. Similar events often did. And very likely still do.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Truth and lies in the Kingdom of Catlovers: A grim fairy tale

[Remedios Varo, "Cats Paradise," 1955]
Once upon a time, in a land not far from here, King Leo the Thirty-Fourth ruled over the Kingdom of Catlovers. Everybody who lived in the Kingdom loved cats. They loved black cats, gray cats, yellow cats, and white cats; striped cats, spotted cats, fluffy cats, and sleek cats.

Some people thought cats should be allowed outside. Some people thought cats should be kept inside. Sometimes those people argued politely with one another, but everybody knew that everybody loved cats.

Alas, as usually happens, King Leo the Thirty-Fourth grew old and then older. One day, everyone knew, he would die, and then his eldest son would become king. There was a problem, though. His firstborn son was a twin - and nobody in the kingdom could remember which twin was born first. "Let the people choose," King Leo the Thirty-Fourth decreed. "It might have been Felix. It might have been Wiley. Which twin do you want for your ruler?"

To help the people choose, Felix and Wiley began walking from village to village, talking to everyone they met. "I love cats," said Felix. "I love cats," said Wiley. "Well," said the people, "that's no help. We all love cats."

"I want all cats to have a happy home," said Felix. "I am sad when I see cats living in alleys and under bushes. Some of those cats look very hungry. Some of those cats are sick. I will give them food and medicine. I will help them find homes." The people clapped and cheered, because they all wanted cats to have happy homes too.

"I want all cats to be safe," said Wiley. "I am sad when I see cats that live in alleys and under bushes. Some of them have been killed by coyotes, run over by oxcarts, and forced to eat disgusting rats. I will get rid of the coyotes. I will build bridges over the major oxcart routes. I will make sure no homeless cat has to eat rats." The people clapped and cheered, because they all wanted cats to be safe too.

[Engraving, Paris, 1880]
But the people weren't sure whether they preferred Felix or Wiley. They asked a wizard to help them choose, and he decided Wiley should be the next king. The very next day, King Leo the Thirty-Fourth died, and Wiley was crowned king of the Kingdom of Catlovers.

Now in the Kingdom of Catlovers there were ten Town Criers. These were people who ran through the streets of every village, telling the villagers what was happening in the whole kingdom. Some of the Town Criers were happy that Wiley was now king. Some were sad that Felix was not. But all ten of them loudly proclaimed, "King Leo the Thirty-Fourth is dead. Long live King Wiley the First!"

Oddly, one of the Town Criers added a few words to his proclamation. "Long live King Wiley the First," he said, "the first choice of all the people!" That was not true, but it made King Wiley's friends happy. It made King Wiley happy too.

"Everybody in the Kingdom of Catlovers loves me," said Wiley. "They do not love Felix."

Right away, King Wiley got busy. As promised, he had bridges built over the major oxcart routes. Unfortunately, the bridge-builders had never built bridges before. Many of the bridges quickly fell down, and some cats were pinned under them. The ten Town Criers ran through the streets again.

One of them said, "King Wiley is using bridges as weapons to kill cats." That was not true, but some of King Wiley's enemies believed it.

Two of them said, "King Wiley has built all the bridges he promised." That was true, but it was not the whole story.

Six of them said, "King Wiley has built all the bridges he promised. Half of them have collapsed. The number of cats being killed by oxcarts has not changed. The number of cats killed by falling bridges has increased." That was true.

One of them said, "King Wiley has built all the bridges he promised, and now no cats are being killed by oxcarts!" That was not true, but it made King Wiley's friends happy. It made King Wiley happy too.

"No cats are being killed," said Wiley. "If any cats are being killed, Felix is doing it. Seventy percent of the Town Criers are liars."

The people began to take sides for and against the bridge project.

[Charles Livingston Bull, 1911]
Next, as promised, King Wiley went after the rats. He sent soldiers to every village to spread rat poison wherever rats were known to gather. Soon the streets and alleys were full of dead and dying rats. The ten Town Criers again took to the streets.

One of them said, "King Wiley is using rat poison to kill cats." That was not true, but some of King Wiley's enemies believed it.

Two of them said, "King Wiley has killed most of the rats in the Kingdom of Catlovers." That was true, but it was not the whole story.

Six of them said, "King Wiley has killed most of the rats in the Kingdom of Catlovers. The villages stink, and homeless cats have little to eat. Some cats eat poisoned rats, and then those cats die too. Some cats die of starvation." That was true.

One of them said, "King Wiley has destroyed the rats, as promised, and our beloved cats are now eating well!" That was not true, but it made King Wiley's friends happy. It made King Wiley happy too.

"Nobody helps cats more than I do," said Wiley. "Nobody. Especially not Felix. Felix thinks cats should eat rats. Even poisoned rats. Felix is a cat poisoner. Seventy percent of the Town Criers are liars."

The people began to take sides for and against the rat eradication project.

And then something dreadful happened. Coyotes no longer had rats to eat, so they started eating cats. First they ate all the remaining homeless cats. The ten Town Criers ran through the streets with the news.

One of them said, "King Wiley has killed all the cats in the Kingdom of Catlovers." That was not true, but some of King Wiley's enemies believed it.

Two of them said, "There are no more homeless cats in the Kingdom of Catlovers." That was true, but it was not the whole story.

Six of them said, "All the homeless cats in the Kingdom of Catlovers are dead. Some died when they were injured by oxcarts and falling bridges. Some died when they ate poisoned rats. Some died when they could not find enough food. The rest were killed by coyotes." That was true.

One of them said, "Cats in the Kingdom of Catlovers are no longer in any danger!" That was not true, but it made King Wiley's friends happy. It made King Wiley happy too.

"I have ended cat homelessness," said Wiley. "Your cats are now safe. If Felix were king, your streets would still be swarming with dangerous homeless cats. Seventy percent of the Town Criers are liars."

[Jan Steen, "Argument over a Card Game," 1665]
Many of the people in the Kingdom of Catlovers turned against the Town Criers.

"Why do you tell lies about our great king?" some asked the Town Criers who spread bad news. "You must not like cats. We are happy that there are no more homeless cats in the Kingdom of Catlovers."

"We are only reporting the facts," the Town Criers said.

"You are biased," replied King Wiley's friends.

"You should move to the Kingdom of Rattlesnakes," said Wiley. "You should take Felix with you."

Meanwhile, the well-fed coyotes married and produced baby coyotes. The baby coyotes were hungry, and there were no more homeless cats to eat. So the grown-up coyotes raided people's yards and grabbed outdoor cats from happy homes. Soon there were no more outdoor cats. Most of them had been eaten. Some had joined the indoor cats. 

The number of coyotes continued to increase. They were still hungry, and they were also smart. They figured out how to open doors and windows. They sneaked into people's homes, grabbed the indoor cats, and fed them to their pups. Soon there were no more indoor cats.

Once again the Town Criers delivered the news. This time all ten of them agreed:

"There are no more cats in the Kingdom of Catlovers," they sadly proclaimed. "Hungry coyotes are roaming the streets. King Wiley has disappeared. Felix will be crowned tomorrow." That was true.

One of them added, "This would never have happened if people had only listened to us." That might have been true, but one never knows.

On the day he was crowned, this is what King Felix said to his people:

"I share your sorrow about what has happened in the Kingdom of Catlovers. I know we all love cats - black cats, gray cats, yellow cats, and white cats; striped cats, spotted cats, fluffy cats, and sleek cats. Some of us prefer inside cats and some of us prefer outside cats, but we can work together for the good of all cats.

"As my first official act, I shall adopt a dozen fertile cats from neighboring kingdoms. Let us all join hands and begin anew.

"And please, my fellow Catlovers, let us stop talking about biased Town Criers. Let us simply look for the truth: the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

Nine Town Criers ran through the streets reading the king's message to people who could not attend his coronation.

One Town Crier said nothing. Some say she sneaked out of town while King Felix was speaking. That may be true.

The End
[Cat drawing used by permission of]

Saturday, September 8, 2018

One way you can (maybe) help keep Brett Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court

[Collins & Kavanaugh, 8/21/2018]
Have you been keeping up with the campaign to persuade Maine Senator Susan Collins to vote against confirming Brett Kavanaugh? You pledge whatever amount you please--$20.20 is suggested--which will fund her Democratic opponent in 2020 if she votes for confirmation. If she votes against confirmation, you will be charged nothing at all.

I'd heard about the campaign, but I was startled this morning when I learned how much has been raised. Less than a month ago, the organizers were talking about kick-starting an opponent's campaign with, say, $50,000. Last I looked, over $700,000 had been pledged. You can check current totals, read about why a lot of people in Maine oppose BK's nomination, and make your own pledge, if you like, at Crowdpac.

A few things to add, in case you think this is a wonderful or a terrible idea:

  • Remember that she's not up for re-election this year. In 2020 she'll be almost 68. Maybe she won't care if she doesn't get to stay in the Senate until she's 74, who knows? If she does care, maybe she'll think that however much this campaign brings in is a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $6 million she raised to get elected in 2014. Or maybe she'll be so offended by all this pressure that she'll vote for confirmation just to show her independence.
  • On the other hand, this may worry her. She might not want a Democrat to win her seat. If you're a Republican, you might not want that either. But if you're a Democrat, you might think it's a great idea.
  • The media gives a lot of attention to the future of Roe v. Wade. BK might well cast the vote that would reverse that decision. If you think women should choose for themselves, you're no doubt hoping Collins will vote against BK. If you are opposed to legal abortion, you might want BK to be confirmed. 
  • On the other hand, you might realize that BK's nomination is about a lot more than abortion.There are other important reasons to hope BK is not confirmed. Today's New York Times editorial,  "Confirmed: Brett Kavanaugh Can't Be Trusted," gives quite a few. Be sure to scroll past the "Related: More on Brett Kavanaugh" interruption and read the latter half of the article, where several serious concerns are raised. Most damning, in my opinion, is this: "He misstates facts under oath, and Republicans cover for him by making it hard, if not impossible, to get the documents proving it."
  • Susan Collins's vote could make the difference. 

A man who can't be trusted is not a man I want on the Supreme Court, even if he's a really nice guy. Especially since he'd often have the tie-breaking vote. There are already enough people in Washington, DC, who can't be trusted. We don't need their accomplices on the Supreme Court; we need justices who will hold them accountable. That's what separation of powers is all about. And that's why I contributed to the Crowdpac campaign today.

Click this link to make your provisional contribution.

Friday, September 7, 2018

America's Would-Be Sun King

[Louis XIV. Check out amusing parodies
of this painting here and here.]
"Is it treason? ... It's treason," the president said at the Montana rally last night.

He was talking about the New York Times op-ed piece in which an unnamed White House insider criticized the president for his amorality, the basis for at least a dozen other of his listed failings. If you've only read about the op-ed, but haven't read the actual article, you really need to read it now. It's short. And if you're a Republican, never fear: so is the writer of the op-ed piece.

Interestingly, treason is specifically defined in the Constitution, Article III, Section 3:

Treason against the United States, 
shall consist only in levying War against them, 
or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. 

Criticizing the president is not treason. The president is not the United States. France's King Louis XIV may have said "L'État, c'est moi" (I am the state), but divine right kingship, at least so far, has not been popular here. As a New York Times editorial reminds us, "Twenty months into the job, Mr. Trump has yet to grasp that the highest law of this land is the Constitution, not whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given moment."

In fact, this president seems to be waging war on the Constitution, not preserving, protecting, and defending it as he solemnly swore to do when he took the oath of office (which you can read, if you like: it's in the Constitution, Article II, Section 1). He seems particularly upset with the First Amendment.

"There oughta be a law," he frequently grumbles - not only against people who criticize him, but also against newspapers that publish stories he doesn't like, protesters who oppose him, and religious groups he doesn't like. The First Amendment explicitly disagrees:

Congress shall make no law 
respecting an establishment of religion, 
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; 
or abridging the freedom of speech, 
or of the press; 
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, 
and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Christian Trump supporters would be wise to consider that a president who attacks every clause in the First Amendment is not protecting freedom of religion, even if he helps some Christians achieve their current pet goals. Evangelicals' "dream president" (according to Jerry Falwell, Jr.) may well turn out to be their worst nightmare.

The First Amendment protects the nation against tyrants. It may seem nice to have a would-be tyrant on your side right now, but beware. White evangelicals are in serious decline - from 23% to 15% of the population in just 11 years. With a weakened First Amendment, a future tyrant  (or even this one) could easily turn on you.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Yes, Mr. President, you should fix Google!

Dear President Trump,

Your tweet this morning was absolutely on target--a high percentage of online news reports about you are BAD. You are right in saying that this is a very serious situation (and you didn't even mention that the percentage of bad news may have gotten even worse since Google and Twitter started weeding out disruptive Russian trolls, bots, and political ads, which were mostly in your favor). Believe me, most Americans are glad you are onto this.

The good news is, YOU can singlehandedly fix this problem! Here's how:


If you aren't sure about the difference between BAD and GOOD in any specific situation, you can ask people who read lots of books to advise you.

You'll be surprised at how quickly the news reports change in your favor!

A friend who wants to make America great again

Saturday, August 25, 2018

On turning 70 and looking for wisdom

A decade ago I published my Top 10 on turning 60. Most of the items on my list are truer now than ever. Septuagenarians are much less likely than sexagenarians to die young, for example.

Still, I'm finding it hard to come up with a new Top 10 list. I don't much care for the biblical description of this decade: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away"(Psalm 90:10).

Some of my friends have already flown.

It's not that I want to relive my 60s. I'm glad to be done with the Great Recession, heart surgery (I hope), retiring, figuring out Social Security and Medicare, moving 750 miles from my home and friends of 33 years, saying goodbye to two sweet dogs, remodeling my new old house, and learning how not to get lost in a state none of whose roads are straight. Good things came out of that tumultuous decade, however: I like my new neighborhood, friends, and small dog, and I'm happy that many of my longtime friends have come to visit.

It would be nice to think that my 70s will be a more peaceful decade than my 60s, but I hear that's highly unlikely. Another recession, most economists say, is just around the corner. Good health may or may not last the decade. Social Security and Medicare are under attack. The house needs a new roof. We'll probably want to move again before 2028. Still, new friendships are likely to increase and deepen, and my new dog, who just turned two, will probably last awhile.

The psalmist advises numbering our days, "that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" (Psalm 90:12). The Social Security Life Expectancy Calculator numbers my remaining days at 17.4 years, though retirement planners advise making savings last to age 100 or 105, just in case. So what wisdom should I apply to the next 15, 25, 35 years? I'd love to hear your ideas, especially if you've lived even longer than I have.

About leaving comments: Some friends have told me they can't get this site to accept their comments. Others have  no problem. I don't know what the difference is, but Blogger sites sometimes do strange things. Please be patient, because no comment is posted until I've read and approved it. That can take anywhere from a minute to a day. I weed out bots, spammers, and trolls, not good people like you. Blogger will tell you if your comment is awaiting moderation. If your comment simply disappears into the ether with no comment, Blogger is misbehaving again.

Monday, April 16, 2018

What James Comey got wrong

During the interview by George Stephanopoulos broadcast by ABC last night, James Comey spoke with calm dignity about the man who fired him last year. Comey did not call him names. He didn't even call him a liar, though he mentioned numerous occasions when the president told demonstrable lies. That the president lies, of course, is neither news nor opinion: it's verifiable fact. And Comey did express an opinion about that:
A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they're pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it, that person's not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds.
Well then, wondered Stephanopoulos, "If you are right, what is the remedy? Should Donald Trump be impeached?"

Surprisingly, Comey said no:
Impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they're duty bound to do directly. People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values.
Perhaps the president should be impeached and removed; perhaps not. There are some problems, however, with Comey's answer.

First, America is not and never has been a direct democracy. We are instead a representative democracy. That is, American citizens do not directly make, enforce, or judge laws: our elected or appointed representatives do. American citizens do not directly elect the president of the United States: our electoral college does.

Second, the people in this country did stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values in 2016, and the largest number of votes—by a margin of nearly 3 million—were for Hillary Clinton. But our representatives in the electoral college nevertheless gave the election to Donald Trump.

If people in this country are appalled by the president's crude, cruel, immoral, and illegal behavior, do they really need to wait until 2020 to put a stop to it? If the people's representatives in the form of the electoral college got them into this mess, why shouldn't the people's representatives in the form of Congress get them out of it?

Of course they should. The catch is that the people's representatives have been cowed by the playground bully in the White House. James Comey on several occasions should have told the president that his behavior and requests were out of line. He did not. Republican members of Congress on many occasions should have censured or stopped the president rather than attempting to put a good face on his behavior. They did not. And now some Republicans are hoping to energize Republican voters by warning them that, if Democrats take Congress later this year, Trump will be impeached.

I can think of no better reason to vote Democratic in November.

But then, I'm not a conservative. Still, I feel bad for my good, decent, kind, intelligent conservative friends (and they really do exist—probably in much greater numbers than many of us progressives want to admit). Progressives and conservatives need each other. Our country is strengthened when principled legislators with differing perspectives sit down together to craft policy. Conservatives should not be asked to shelve their deepest convictions in order to remove from office someone who violates them.

Comey again:
We owe it to each other to get off the couch and think about what unites us. I think about the people who supported Trump, and continue to support Trump. A lotta them come from families with a proud history of military service. And that's a wonderful thing. What did their fathers and grandfathers fight and die for? Not for immigration policy. Not for a tax policy. Not for Supreme Court justice. They fought and died for a set of ideas. The rule of law. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. The truth.
We know our president is not personally interested in military service, the rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or the truth. We may soon learn to what extent his business affairs and other foreign entanglements cross the line from fraudulent to criminal.

Is it really a good idea to wait another two-and-a-half years for the people in this country to vote their values? Didn't we already do that in 2016? In a representative democracy, why shouldn't our elected representatives—of both parties—act on the values that unite us and put an end to our national nightmare?
(The portion of the interview aired Sunday night was edited down to fit in a one-hour time slot with lots of commercials. You can read a transcript of the complete interview here.)

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

THE DISCOVERY OF CHOCOLATE by James Runcie, with 2 ways to make chocolate cake as God intended

Five years ago I learned about Cook the Books, an online book club featuring not only books about food, but people who read those books and invent recipes inspired by them. One of those people even wins a prize. What could be more fun?

Back then they asked David and me to judge contributions based on Andrea Camilleri's The Shape of Water (the book, not the current movie by the same name, which bears no relation to it). Here's what we decided, and wrote.

Ever since, I've been reading their bimonthly emails announcing more books and more recipes. In February I noticed that they were featuring The Discovery of Chocolate by James Runcie (author of the books that inspired Grantchester, for you James Norton and Masterpiece fans), so I immediately ordered it. If, in the intervening weeks, I hadn't also acquired a new puppy, had a family reunion, celebrated 50 years of marriage, and survived Easter while being married to a church music director, I might have blogged about The Discovery of Chocolate in time to join their contest.  I liked the book more than any of their contestants did (and I'll tell you why), and I have a couple of killer chocolate recipes.

About the book:
I've read a lot of comments from people who hated it, or were mystified by it, or were bored by it, or thought it should have been written differently. As a former editor who helped authors develop their books in hopes of getting people to buy them, I respect those comments. Runcie's book fits no categories - not even magical realism, which many commenters think it is. It could be a hard sell.

But as a big fan of Voltaire's Candide, I chuckled all the way through Runcie's mash-up of impossible stories.* Candide is a classic and The Discovery of Chocolate is a bit of fluff, but both books are wickedly funny, both authors wink as they toss out allusions for readers to recognize, and both sweetly expose cruelty, pomposity, and hypocrisy through the naïve observations of their credulous protagonists.

Like Candide, Diego voyages throughout the world, having one bizarre adventure after another. Both characters are inspired by love, and both witness actual historical events. Unlike Candide, however, Diego also voyages through time. He's a gourmand, not a philosopher. He ends up at a Día de los Muertos festival, not in a garden. And he has a dog.

Also, the book is about chocolate.

About chocolate:
There's something called red velvet cake that I didn't discover until I moved to Maryland. Apparently it's a Southern thing. They think it's chocolatey. It is not.

There's something called a Texas sheet cake that is slightly more chocolatey, but it's still pretty wimpy.

Chocolate, my friends, can be assertive and even rough. It can be deep and rich and smooth. But it should never be bashful. It should never be milky, for heaven's sake. And it's not about the sugar. Cocoa content of 72% is good, but 85% is better, and 100% is just fine with a bit of coarse salt. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

[Flourless chocolate cakelet.
Raspberries and candle are optional.]
Back in 2009, I posted a recipe for a seriously fortified Texas sheet cake. The previous year I posted a recipe for flourless chocolate cakelets, whose chocolate content is even more intense. Both recipes still work. Try them. I can't promise that they'll make you immune to death, like Diego's elixir in The Discovery of Chocolate, but who knows?
*Clarification: I have degrees in French; Runcie earned a first in English from Cambridge University. I'll bet he was thinking, not of Candide (1759), but of Gulliver's Travels (1726). It's possible that Voltaire was thinking of Gulliver's Travels too--he was living in England when it was published. Take your pick. The point is, The Discovery of Chocolate is an 18th-century novel with sly 21st-century allusions. And it's about chocolate.

Friday, March 23, 2018


I asked Google to find the cover of the book I'm about to praise. "Everything happens for a reason," I typed, and clicked "images." Instead of the cover, I got a pageful of annoyingly pious memes and posters--and this perfectly wonderful empathy card,

I've never met Kate Bowler, but I heard Terry Gross interview her on "Fresh Air" (which is why I read her book), and I'm pretty sure she would love the card. 

Bowler, who teaches at Duke Divinity School, is the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford, 2013). The prosperity gospel is attractive: God wants you to be healthy and wealthy! And so if you trust God enough, and get rid of the sins that hold you back, and think positively, and (often) donate money to some ministry, God will make you prosper!

Except when he doesn't. Suppose, for example, that, like Bowler, you contract a mysterious neurological impairment that baffles doctors and keeps you from using your hands. Suppose you lose a much-wanted child to miscarriage. Suppose you discover at age 35 that you have stage 4 colon cancer.

Is your suffering your fault? Did you not trust enough, give enough, repent enough? Is God trying to teach you something? Is he using you to teach someone else?

No, says Bowler. These things happen because we're human.

Read this book if you've ever wondered why people suffer--or if you think you already know the reason.

Read it if you've ever wondered what to say to somebody whose has had a sobering diagnosis, or who has lost a loved one, or who is going through some other painful crisis. 

Read it, too, if you've ever wondered what not to say. The two Appendixes alone are worth the price of the book: "Absolutely never say this to people experiencing terrible times: a short list" and "Give this a go, see how it works: a short list."

Read it if you appreciate memoirs that are introspective but not self-absorbed, wise but not preachy, ironic but not unkind, often hilarious but never, ever chirpy.

And read it if you like good writing about what it means to be human that will make you laugh as well as cry.

I went back to Google and asked for "Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason." Here's what the cover looks like. I hope you read the book.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Midlife: the best of all possible ages?

The other day a friend of mine, who is 45, was offended when someone referred to her as middle aged.

This seems odd, since female life expectancy in America is now approximately 81. Or since a woman who has reached the age of 45 can expect to live another 40 years. Or since the ages at which an American is most likely to be employed are between 20 and 61. By all numeric indicators, my friend is clearly middle aged.

People used to think middle age began at 40 and ended at 60 or 65. Even they were somewhat optimistic, but not downright silly like folks who now say that 60 or even 70 is the new middle age.

No, 60 or 70 is not middle-aged, unless you think the middle lane on a three-lane road is the one farthest to the left, in which case I'd rather not drive with you.

But why doesn't my friend want to be middle aged?

After all, middle age is when you might be
  • young enough to be beautiful and old enough to have character
  • young enough to stay up late and old enough not to want to
  • young enough to be stylish and old enough to know what suits you
  • young enough to have a bright future and old enough to have solid experience
  • young enough to have energy and old enough to know what to do with it
  • young enough to feel good and old enough to take care of your health
  • young enough to have strong opinions and old enough to know when to express them
  • young enough to start over and old enough to put down roots
  • young enough to protest and old enough to govern
  • young enough to have living parents and old enough to appreciate them
  • young enough to be smart and old enough to be wise
Oddly, I don't know anyone past 40 who wishes to relive their youth, nor do I know anyone of any age who longs to be old (despite recent research indicating that the older we get, the happier we are). 

Apparently most of us prefer middle age--as long as we can call it something else.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Remains of the Day

A Nor'easter swept through Baltimore on Friday, uprooting trees and downing power lines as it went through.

Our lights went out at 2:30 in the afternoon. The inside temperature began to fall. I put a second down comforter on our bed.

We took the dog and our electronics to our church and spent a warm evening and morning there. And then the power at the church went out.

Fortunately we have a gas stove and a gas water heater. We were still able to shower and cook. This is a picture of our table after Saturday night's dinner (good thing the Christmas candles were still out). It would have been romantic if we hadn't been shivering.

Sunday morning the church temperature was 50 degrees. Most of the faithful bundled up and went to church anyway. After the Eucharistic prayer, the priest faced the congregation and said, "The gifts of God for the people of God." At that exact moment, the lights came on!

Or so they say. Back in my neighborhood, where the new pup and I were vainly trying to keep warm, the power was still out. Most of Baltimore was back on the grid, but badly damaged areas could lack power until midweek, said the newspaper. Several big trees were down near us. I was ready to despair. We packed up the pup and drove to a warm place.

And then good news!

Rejoicing! Merriment! Celebration!

Funny how we take heat and light for granted until they're missing. Funny how grateful we are when they come back.

I suppose that's the point of Lent--a little deprivation makes Easter that much more radiant. Though I confess: I'd rather have bunnies and chocolate all the time.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

THE NATURE OF THE BEAST by Louise Penny: a chilling conversation

I love Louise Penny's novels about Three Pines, Québec: a Brigadoon-like village near the Vermont border full of friendship, good food, warm fires, beautiful scenery--and the occasional murder. Penny can terrify you, though more often she makes you chuckle. With a perspicacious eye for character, she can also amaze you with her insights.

I recently came across this chilling conversation in The Nature of the Beast (2015). Retired Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is questioning a physics professor about a suspect, Gerald Bull. The professor speaks first:
"... no one really worked with Gerald Bull. It might start out that way, but eventually you found yourself working for him."

"Were you working for him when he came up with the plans for the Supergun?"

"No. I left when he began using the Soviets as a back door to sell his arms. He wasn't very smart."

"Is that why you left? Fear you'd get caught?"

"No. I left because it was wrong. ... Gerald Bull was the consummate salesman, and completely without a conscience."

"Why did you just say that he wasn't very smart?" asked Gamache.

"He made some stupid choices, like cozying up to the Soviets. He had an outsized ego that told him he was smarter than other people."

No, Ms Penny is not alluding to Donald Trump.

[Hand-colored woodcut, 1523,
for Martin Luther's New Testament]
She most likely wrote this passage in late 2014 before Trump had begun exploring the possibility of running for president. And, while Trump's connections to Russia had been going on for decades, they were not yet a matter of public speculation.

Penny's stories tend to have literary, not political, themes, and this book is no exception. In it she frequently mentions an image from the biblical book of Revelation, chapters 17 and 18: the great whore who--riding a fearsome seven-headed beast--glorifies herself and lives luxuriously, consorts with kings and merchants, helps them become rich and powerful, and deceives all nations.

But don't feel bad if your first thought was that the passage referred to Trump, not the great whore. Feel bad because the two have so much in common.