Tuesday, November 09, 2004

It was a difficult book to find time to read -- not the sort of thing you'd choose to read right before bed or first thing in the morning. But difficult topics still need to be addressed, and for many people Michael Scarce's Male on Male Rape: The Hidden Toll of Stigma and Shame covers one of the most difficult. I want to be a voice against sexual violence, and not just that against children (which I've spent more time collecting resources on because of my own experience.) So I took Male on Male Rape out of the library and, as the due date neared, read it. I hope some things have changed since its 1997 publication, but I know many of the issues in it still need to be addressed. (And if I hadn't known, the Abu Ghraib prisoner mistreatment would have made it clear.)

It's hard for a woman to deal with having been raped; it's probably harder for a man because of the stereotypes that exist about men -- that they are all able to defend themselves in any situation; that having been raped would make them less of a man -- in addition to the stereotypes anyone who has been raped encounters -- that they must somehow have wanted, enabled, or deserved it; that they just changed their mind after consensual sex; that it's no big deal for anyone who has had a lot of sex. Some people don't even believe that it's possible for a man to be raped. In fact, in some jurisdictions it technically isn't, because "rape" is legally defined in some U.S. states and other countries as something that happens to a woman. Male-on-male sexual assault is given some other name, such as "aggravated sodomy" or "criminal deviate conduct." Indeed, in some places where male-to-male sex acts are illegal, it may be the man reporting that he has been raped who is accused of a crime for having had sexual contact with another man -- never mind that it was forced on him. (However, Searce points out that repealing laws against same-sex sex in jurisdictions with male-rapist, female-victim-only rape laws can end up removing any laws against same-sex rape.)

In addition to these ridiculous laws, most societies put up further barriers for men who have been raped. Hospitals, law enforcement, counselors, may not know how to deal with the situation. Even things as seemingly inconsequential as what clothes are available in the hospital rape kit to replace those which are taken for evidence can make the rare male victim who reports the crime feel more isolated, because the kit is not likely to include men's clothing. AIDS testing and counseling may assume that all male-male sexual contact was consensual and talk about making good choices, even though having been raped is one of the things likely to make a person want to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Men who have been raped by men might wonder if they have "become" gay because of it (this is a worry seen in sexually abused children also). And there just isn't a lot of information easily available for men in these situations. I've seen it myself in reading books for adult survivors of child sexual abuse; there's a tendency to default to "she" and "her" when talking about the survivor and "he" and "him" for the abuser.

Certain environments, most notoriously prisons but also the military, athletics, fraternities, and even single-sex colleges/boarding schools can allow a scary number of opportunities for male-male rape and still allow talk about it to be squelched. Organizations such as Stop Prisoner Rape try to work against perceptions that people in prison somehow deserve to be raped, that indeed it's a subject for humor (Scarce notes that several movies before the publication date have included "Don't drop the soap" type of jokes). A former president of Stop Prisoner Rape said in a 1993 New York Times editorial that "The fight against rape in our communities is doomed to failure as long as it ignores the network of training grounds for rapists: our prisons, jails, and reform schools." Perhaps this approach might help in making people understand that since rape is not just about sex but about a rapist asserting power and violence, those who learn it as everyday behavior in prison have a distinct possibility of taking that learning outside and continuing with it, even though they are no longer as limited in the people they can have sex with. People who learn about "hazing" that includes sexual assault in any other environment may also include that kind of behavior in the other parts of their lives (and it doesn't have to be penis-in-anus-or-mouth sexual assault; forcing people to strip and similar things still send the message that forcing sexual behavior from others is OK). This idea that events from one setting spread to the world at large is certainly not the only reason that male-male rape is just as wrong as that with any other combination of genders, but it may be an argument that will make the world at large pay more attention.

Men who commit rape on other men do not necessarily consider themselves to be homosexual. And men who are gay are certainly not all rapists. These two things seem to be the hardest for many people to believe. Many arguments against letting gay people into the military or other organizations, and even several murder defenses, have relied on the idea that straight guys are freaked out by the idea of gay men desiring them, even panicked enough to murder the man who was making an advance. (Hey, guys -- would you consider it justified if a woman killed a man, or for that matter a woman, for making an advance at her? Me neither. We women get used to saying "no" to advances in relative calm, and so should men.) And, rather oddly considering the "homosexual panic" defense, a fair number of male rapes of men seem to happen as a result of gay-bashing, an odd sort of "we hate you so much we'll do one of the worst things we can imagine to you, even if it means we will actually be doing the acts we feel disgusted by your doing." Or perhaps "we'll prove we're more manly and powerful than you by treating you this badly, even if (etc.)." Or both. There's no logic to any kind of gay-bashing and particularly not violent kinds.

Scarce's book provides not only an examination of how male-male rape happens and what its survivors go through but also a list of things that can help reduce it, which can be summarized under the headings of education, providing services for men who have been raped, more research and writing, legal reform, change in popular culture, and increased work toward prevention. He also provides a list of resources for men who have been raped (though given the publication date, it doesn't list which ones have websites, but at least the list could provide the names of organizations to search online for, in case phone numbers have changed since the book's publication). Still, it is a much-needed resource on an often-overlooked subject.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Hell yeah. This is the way you want tragic stories to work out in real life. And yet nothing in Kate Niles' The Basket Maker seems contrived, even though she manages an upbeat ending for Sarah Graves, molested by her father; Trent McIntosh, burned by scalding water in a manhole; Barbara McIntosh, Trent's mother; Maddy Oodegard, widowed when her husband hanged himself in their basement; and Chief Ouray, the unquiet spirit of an Ute chief dead for decades. Sarah, Barbara, Maddy, Ouray, and even the Colorado mountains get to tell their part of the story, but I was never confused by the changes in narrator, and once I got started I didn't want to stop. The different voices in the novel are particularly fascinating -- ancient peaks or elementary school girl, they all sound right and believable. And the ending was somehow satisfying, heartwarming without being sappy -- there was hope even for those who had not deserved it, while the victims seemed on their way to healing.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Wow. It's not easy for transgendered people to live the life and change to the body that matches their mind even now. Reading Christine Jorgensen's autobiography (Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography) makes it clear how much more so it was fifty years ago.

George Jorgensen was born in 1926 in Manhattan and had a quite normal upbringing, but was somewhat unusual from the earliest years -- the incident in which the teacher puts him down in front of his class and his mother for keeping a piece of needlepoint in his desk is the most evident example, but George had enough other characteristics that were considered "feminine" that his older sister Dolly wrote a college thesis on him. (On the other hand, a girl would probably not have been encouraged as much in photography by his parents, who took out a loan to pay for his tuition at the Photography Institute. It's interesting to speculate how Christine's later life would have been different if she'd been female from birth.)

The young adult years are the most fascinating time to read about George's inner life. Modern readers may wonder if he would have considered himself a homosexual man if he'd been born in a more accepting time -- he admits to having been in love with a man on at least two occasions before his transition, but still reacts with revulsion to being propositioned by a homosexual man. However, during his time doing clerical work in the U.S. Army, just after World War II, he noted that "During the months in service, I had seen a few practicing homosexuals, those whom the other men had called 'queer.' I couldn't condemn them, but I also knew that I certainly couldn't become like them. It was a thing deeply alien to my religious attitudes ... furthermore, I had seen enough to know that homosexuality brought with it a social segregation and ostracism that I couldn't add to my own deep feeling of not belonging." And later, "I always wanted the things girls wanted, because somehow I felt they just naturally belonged to me."

The first few doctors George consulted with in the U.S. seemed to think he needed psychiatric help, but his own library research revealed works such as Paul de Kruif's The Male Hormone and other information on the hormonal differences between men and women. Having used the G.I. Bill to start at the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant's School, he was able to get hold of estradiol tablets (a form of estrogen) and dose himself with this female hormone to find that "the great feeling of listlessness and fatigue, which often seemed to be with me even after a full night's sleep, had disappeared. I was refreshed and alive...At that point, I believed I had stumbled on the first step toward a solution that would allow me to live the life my heart and mind had told me I was intended to live."

Advice from some more open-minded medical men led George to Denmark, where he had relatives, with the hopes of going to Stockholm, Sweden, where some cases of sex-reassignment surgery were rumored to have been done. As it turned out, Copenhagen, Denmark, also had similar research going on. George became the subject of many tests -- comparing how he felt with and without his estrogen dosage, among others. Dr. Christian Hamburger, in charge of George's situation, "impressed upon me that no irreversible step, such as surgical removal of the male glands, could even be considered until all of the experts involved had thoroughly examined every possible avenue of knowledge." (Perhaps it is the era in which Jorgensen wrote the book, or a wish to gloss over male/female differences, but specifically male or female body parts are almost never named in this book -- just male or female "glands," and other terms that play down the physical differences most people think of as the most obvious determining factor in gender.)

Finally, the first of three operations took place, this one to remove the testicles. (Later, a second operation would be a penectomy, which required greater care because of the necessity to keep the urethra functioning to remove urine; the third operation was the plastic surgery to create a vulva and vagina.) It was after the first operation that George started dressing in female clothes, applied to the U.S. government for a passport with the new gender and the name of Christine Jorgensen, and first wrote to his family in the U.S. about his transition. His family were surprised, naturally, given that this was the first they'd heard of the existance of any sex-change operation, much less their child's desire to have one; but eventually they were accepting. "They still don't understand this, Chris," [Aunt] Augusta said, "but you are their child, and if this will bring you happiness, they're all for it." Would that all parents were so accepting.

During the recovery period from the second operation in December 1952 is when the news broke in America; exactly who among his parents' friends talked to the media was unknown to Christine until much later. But Christine began receiving calls in a Denmark hospital room, asking how she felt, "how tall I was, what my waist, hip, and bust measurements were and whether I slept in pajamas or a nightgown...or what?" The tendencies of the media, then as now, were for the titillating, and Jorgensen notes that "it seems to me now a shocking commentary on the press of our time that I pushed the hydrogen-bomb tests on Eniwetok right off the front pages." Since Christine was in Denmark, the Jorgensen family in America were badgered by the press even more than they normally would have been. Christine's absence, and then her agreement to an exclusive story for one magazine, encouraged the press to print the flimsiest rumors. While the decision to have a series of interviews with one journalist, who was also given information by Christine's doctors, probably did lead to a more accurate, less sensational series in the one publication (American Weekly), its short-term results were that a lot of junk appeared in other venues.

Jorgensen's account of her new fame, the reaction to her return to the U.S., and her realization that being a photographer and filmmaker would probably not work as a career when what people wanted from her was more exposure to her as a woman (and this being the 1950s, that meant making public appearances, eventually as a singer and dancer) occupy the rest of the book, written 15 years after her Denmark operations. Some people believed Jorgensen was a cross-dresser whose operations were fakes; others were far more accepting (and both Christine and her doctors received hundreds of letters from people wanting to go through sex-change operations themselves). Clubs who originally booked her nightclub act changed their mind and refused to have her appear on ground of "immorality" (despite the fact that apparently her act was far cleaner than many nightclub performers'). The City Council of Boston banned her from performing at clubs in the city, and she was blacklisted from entering New York's Stork Club as a patron. And when she was briefly engaged to a man, New York's Marriage License Bureau refused to grant her a license to marry a man, despite an American passport and New York driver's license identifying her as a woman.

The reprint of the book contains some photographs and information in the preface from after the original publication date, but Christine's own story is the most fascinating part. It is a book that would probably be more comprehensible to a person who does not understand the transgendered than someone's more recent experience would be, because it is so grounded in the mainstream culture of the past, familiar to people of conservative social views. But it also provides the history and background for a lot of current transgender/transsexual and even other "genderqueer" culture because Jorgenson's case forced the U.S. to confront the possibilities.

Friday, September 24, 2004

As I start this entry, my brain is singing a song used in Spunk, a stage adaptation of some of Zora Neale Hurston's stories I saw years ago. I only heard the song once, at the one-time-only performance, but the tribute to Zora Neale Hurston at the end of Marita Golden's Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex has put it back in my head.

I'm white. (At least as far as I know -- three of my four grandparents are from the South, after all, which is where most American black people were until around World War II. And Golden does say that as many as 40% of white people in the U.S may have black ancestors they don't know about or don't acknowledge.) And I've read many books about women in society, women's self-image, the influence of the media on what women think they should look like and how they should act -- all by white authors. Most of them mention that black (and Latina) girls grow up with less pressure on them to be rib-countingly thin, and generally I thought "That's cool; at least there are some sub-cultures in this country that don't drive women toward anorexia."

Some of the books did mention that among black Americans, the lightness or darkness of one's skin can be a social issue, determining one's acceptance in some groups. (If the subject got half a page in those books on women in general, it was a lot.) Don't Play in the Sun helped remedy my ignorance. Its title comes from the author's mother calling her indoors as a child with the words, "Come on in the house -- it's too hot to be playing out here. I've told you -- don't play in the sun. You're going to have to get a light-skinned husband for the sake of your children as it is." Words that struck Golden, and words that struck me -- a mother speaking with complete frankness for her child's best interest as she sees it, the way my mother did when she told me I had no common sense. And boy, when such frank words stick in your memory, the urge to prove them wrong lodges just as firmly in your head. I'm not surprised that Golden says she became a great adherent of the "Black is Beautiful" and Black Power movements which coincided with her college years. I am surprised to see her uncover so many examples of color prejudice within not only Golden's generation, but her children's age group. The European standard of beauty remains dominant, which is harsh to the darker-skinned or those with African-looking features. The girls in the tight dresses in the videos on BET are light-skinned blacks if they're not Latina or Asian, and they have longer hair than I do. Successful black men marry lighter-skinned women, but when Golden discussed this with her husband and castigated the men for their choices, he came back with, "The really dark-skinned brother . . . how many dark-skinned women do you think would give him any play?" People still worried about what their kids would look like (a concept foreign to me -- the closest I ever came was idly wondering whose eye color would be dominant). But I know how it is to feel you're not reflected in your world. I know not feeling attractive. I'm not skinny, I'm not blonde, I wear glasses and read all the time. I once wrote an essay called "A Doll Like Me" about the comparative rareness of brown-haired dolls in a world of blonde baby dolls and Barbies. How much harder must it be when it's not just a hair color you're looking to see reflected? In high school, we read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, about a little black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who wants blonde hair and blue eyes -- and feels maybe she wouldn't be abused in her life if she had them. The book didn't make as much impression on me then as Morrison's Beloved, perhaps because Pecola's mental escape method was so different from mine. Maybe it would make a bigger impression now.

After discussing the disadvantages that the lighter-skinned black person can experience in the U.S., such as exclusion by darker-skinned people for being "too white" and sexual pressure and exploitation because of their perceived "beauty," Golden looks at the situation in other countries. Even in Africa, the Western media have influence -- the idea that women in Nigeria would use chemical creams to bleach their skin boggles the mind. But it goes to show the spread of ideas to places where they are even more ridiculous than where they originated.

The book ends with dark-skinned female role models -- India.Arie, Venus and Serena Williams, and the aforementioned Zora Neale Hurston. I hope that role models like these help everyone accept that beauty, talent, and strength can be found in any place on the range of colors of humanity, and that books like this make people, white, black, or any other tone, think about how they view skin color and features instead of resting blindly on old prejudices.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Recent reading has essentially been variations on the theme of "why are we this way?" where "we" can be individuals or an entire society. How did we become what we are now? All these different takes on different aspects, different problems add up to an interesting look at modern life.

The first book I read was The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David Shipler. I am just barely out of that category by some definitions and definitely in it by others: I earn a low enough amount each year to get the United States' tax system's "Earned Income Credit." My income is low enough to get me free antidepressants from Wyeth's "Accesss to Care" program (thank goodness, because otherwise I would have to pay, literally, over four dollars per pill for the anti-depressant pill I take each day). And yet I don't feel poor most of the time, partially because my expenses are comparatively low -- I'm not supporting children, nor a car (car payments, insurance, and gas add up to a pretty big chunk out of a monthly income -- on the other hand, if I drove I could probably earn more) and I have no debt. I know, however, that one major medical problem could sap my savings in a brief time and put me into a deep financial hole. So I know where the people in The Working Poor are coming from. The book goes through a lot of situations that make people who are generally willing and able to do something in their lives have to scramble to live from paycheck to paycheck -- be it the problem of child care sucking up all that they can earn in the jobs they are qualified for, decisions in their pasts coming back to haunt them in the form of convictions, bankruptcies, or lack of education, or things that happened to them beyond their control, such as childhood abuse, and the resulting psychological problems -- this last seems truly overlooked in discussions of poverty I've seen before. It truly makes you aware that simply commanding people to get a job will not fix anything, and should probably be read by anyone before they dare to hold an opinion on welfare systems.

Tom Schachtman's The Inarticulate Society: Eloquence and Culture in America seems unrelated to The Working Poor at first in its discussion of the simplification of language, vocabulary, and the points being put across in words in the modern U.S. However, after its discussion of the changes over the last century in American language complexity, the book goes over American educational systems, popular culture, and politics, arguing that all of these are snowballing -- less literate Americans choose less complex entertainment and require less in-depth summaries of political issues, so politicians and the makers of entertainment dumb things down more, which gives the public, now an audience instead of participants, even less practice in understanding, so people trying to get a message out have to simplify still further, ad infinitum. I've always been a reader who watches comparatively little TV, and so my vocabulary and leisure choices have always stood out -- I feel comfortable in a sub-society with people I'd consider my fellow geeks, and after teaching university courses for several years, I had my own proof of how incapable some students of the American educational system could be of writing coherent papers or doing their own thinking. Thus Schachtman was probably preaching to the choir with me -- but I had never thought specifically about how this affects the political process. I certainly agree that if those seeking to represent the American people would express their own positions in more than sound bites, and if Americans would bother to listen, our country would be much better governed.

A different sort of articulation is covered in Audrey Nelson and Susan Golant's You Don't Say: Navigating Nonverbal Communication Between the Sexes. It is a natural follow-up to well-known books like Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand in that it goes into not the words we communicate with, but the body posture, gestures, tone of voice, placement with respect to others, type of listening and even clothing that can affect one's message as much or more as the words spoken. (The clothing issues are very similar to those raised in John Malloy's The New Dress for Success for Women.) It's not just gender differences, either, as any parent who has shouted "Don't roll your eyes at me!" at their teenager as much as my mother did to me can affirm. Some of these things are comparatively obvious -- men are socialized that big boys don't cry, and their attitude toward visible emotions differs from women's -- and some that don't register consciously, like the difference between men's and women's most common gestures (nodding, for example, tends to mean "I agree" for men, and "I'm listening" for women, a difference that can certainly lead to misunderstandings). Each chapter ends with "Gender Prescriptions" (and not only for one gender, either!) but as many useful tips can be found outside of these summaries. Perhaps teaching people to be aware of these nonverbal messages could ease their ability to communicate a verbal message more effectively.

The body can communicate to others, but it can also store one's own memories sometimes, as explored in Maggie Scarf's Secrets, Lies, Betrayals: The Body/Mind Connection. "Body memories" -- unpleasant flashbacks of physical sensations -- are a familiar topic from the sexual abuse survivor forums I used to spend a lot of time on, and the idea that a physical stimulus can bring back conscious memories (Proust's famous madeline cookie dipped in tea inspiring Remembrance of Things Past, for example) is nothing new. But the idea that body sensations could be used in therapy to get over trauma has not received enough attention, even though tension from an emotional state can cause all kinds of physical results and continues whether or not a person is even consciously aware of their emotions. Scarf focuses on two particular therapy methods, EMDR and psychomotor therapy, neither of which is terribly well known -- but if they can work as well as the cases highlighted in the book, they should be. The case studies, including the author's own life story, keep the book fascinating while exploring the results of both "big-T Trauma" and "little-t trauma" (Scarf's distinction between life-threatening events, such as wars and national disasters, and smaller but no less earthshaking personal events such as finding out about a spouse's infidelity), and the way physical carriage, alertness, and other symptoms are affected by such events. It's yet another area that needs further exploration.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

You wouldn't expect a book called Is Your Parent In Good Hands?: Protecting Your Aging Parent from Financial Abuse and Neglect to be so suspenseful that I had trouble putting it down. But it was, and the reason why was that in this book, author Edward J. Carnot tells the story of the longtime housekeeper-turned-caretaker who did everything she could to get money out of Carnot's father, and the older man's refusal to accept that anything was wrong, even when presented with the record of the two or three paychecks a week that the forgetful senior citizen had been signing for her. The difficulty Carnot and his sister had with their father's situation is extremely well expressed and will resonate with everyone who has an older relative whose desire for independence might lead to such difficulties -- despite the fact that my grandfather's preferred style of independence means that he would never accept any outside caregiver for himself or my grandmother, I can certainly see how problems can develop for them.

Carnot uses each event in his own family story to go through some issue that concerns seniors and their families: powers of attorney and other legal setups, mental/emotional health for both the senior and family members, working with officials such as police or social services, working with medical professionals, retirement communities/assisted living facilities/nursing homes (and the differences in those categories), home care, and others. Since Carnot has practiced law for decades, he has professional experience as well as personal in several of these fields. It's both an easy and interesting book to read and a useful overview of things adult children might want to plan for with their elderly parents, particularly as the events-gone-wrong in Carnot's family give a cautionary tale. I got the book from the library, but I am thinking of actually buying a copy for my mother because of our family's concern about my grandparents living by themselves.

Monday, August 23, 2004

There aren't a lot of mystery novels told from the viewpoint of a sock monkey. (Particularly not murder mysteries that stem from bodies being pulled out of New York City waterways by divers.) In fact, most mysteries are a lot more straighforwardly told than Penn Jillette's Sock. And that's why most mysteries are forgettable, quick reads that often disappoint. Since Penn Jillette is better known as half of the magic duo Penn and Teller, perhaps his interesting way of telling the story comes from his experience in misdirecting and adding some flair to his stage actions. But he's a fascinating writer; though Sock was not a difficult read, neither was it one of those zoom-through-in-the-waiting-area kind of mysteries. The sock monkey ("Dickie") provides an unusual view of his owner ("Little Fool"), and his hairdresser friend Tommy, as they try to figure out what happened to get "Little Fool's" ex-girlfriend murdered and tossed into the water, with many digressions into popular culture (there's even a list of songs and such referenced in the book at belm.com/sock, how people relate, and the meaning of life. The end does get a little preachy, I felt, but not preachy in a Christian way -- in fact, what the Fool and Dickie preach is a doctrine of atheism which even puts down agnostics as avoiding the real questions. Despite my own (agnostic) beliefs being put down in that way, I enjoyed the book.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Internal Bleeding: The Truth Behind America's Terrifying Epidemic of Medical Mistakes by Robert M. Wachter and Kaveh G. Shojania, both M.D.s themselves, is not nearly as sensationalistic as the title might imply. It is instead a fascinating exploration how how medical mistakes happen and what might be done to reduce the number of them, both from the medical and the patient ends.

People tend to look at medical personnel as either experts on subjects far too complex for the everyday human, or money-grubbing butchers. Internal Bleeding portrays doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and others in medical fields as exactly what they are: human beings with no special powers except training. The case studies they discuss are detailed without blame for individuals (in most cases), but they point out exactly where systems fail -- for example how the various procedures that are supposed to ensure June Morrison and Joan Morris don't get mixed up in the hospital, or that the wrong leg of diabetic Willie King doesn't get amputated (a case of personal interest to me as I live a few blocks from the hospital where it happened, and indeed once spent most of a night retching in their emergency room), or that the blood type of a transplant patient Jesica Santilan matches those of the organs she received in her transplant, all failed from a long series of separate human errors. Wachter and Shojania also have realistic (if sometimes expensive, as they admit) suggestions for hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, etc., to avoid these mistakes; suggestions that are not the type of safety rules that get routinely ignored (such as the rules that certain dangerous drugs be kept in locked cabinets, exactly where they aren't accessible when needed immediately for a flatlining patient).

They also provide a chapter and several appendices of things patients can do for themselves -- for example, making sure they know what drug in what dosage is being prescribed for them before leaving the doctor, so as to avoid the situation of Ramon Vasquez, whose pharmacist misread the handwritten prescription and gave him the wrong heart drug. (He was supposed to get 80 milligrams of Isordil daily; instead, he took 80 milligrams daily of Plendil, which is normally prescribed at 10 millligrams per day.) A similar case happened to a friend of mine, whose prescription was filled with some completely different drug from that intended; however, Ben knew what he was supposed to be taking and so caught the error. I think this book does an excellent job of showing people the need to be careful and aware of what's going on in their own medical care without being scary and inducing a fear of any and all medical help.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror is an illuminating look at the U.S. government's response to terrorism. Clarke worked for the Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr. administrations; presumably he's pretty good at his work to have lasted and kept getting promoted through 20 years under both major parties. However, George W. Bush's administration's response to September 11, 2001, disappointed him, as it will anyone who reads this behind-the-scenes look at officials (Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) who "complained that there were no decent targets for bombing in Afghanistan and that we should consider bombing Iraq instead, which, he said, had better targets." (Clarke compares this to "invading Mexico after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.")

Clarke explains much of the recent history of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, starting with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the revolution in Iran which replaced the U.S.-friendly Shah with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Most Americans at the time focused on these events only as they immediately affected the Cold War balance of power and the U.S. (the Iranian hostage crisis, for example) and not how the changing politics in these largely Muslim countries affected the attitudes toward the U.S. of a huge block of people. U.S. military forces being moved into the Persian Gulf area in the 1980s did not help matters, even though the Reagan administration felt it necessary to counter the possibility of Soviet forces doing the same. U.S. forces were placed in Lebanon to try and help stabilize the country during the partially Iran-instigated turmoil, but were withdrawn after car bombings of a Marine barracks and the U.S. embassy killed several hundred people. In the eyes of the bombers and many others, this was proof that terrorism worked as desired against the U.S. Clarke tracks the shifting alliances through 25 years which included continued Afghan fighting, the Iran/Iraq war, the Iraqi takeover and expulsion from Kuwait, and the results of U.S.-Israeli cooperation. He gives his opinions about about which things the U.S. did were good and which made things worse in the long run. Whether or not one agrees with his opinions, his behind-the-scenes looks at international politics are fascinating.

'"Well, something just exploded. We don't know if it was a bomb, sir. The World Trade Center," a young Navy officer replied. "I know you handle terrorism, sir, and we're supposed to tell you when something happens that might be terrorism, but do you want to know when things happen in the United States too? Do you guys handle domestic crises too?" The notion that might occur in the United States was completely new to us then.'
Clarke, then working for the National Security Council, calls the government Situation Room on the day of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
This seems to have been just the beginning of difficulties in figuring out who was responsible for doing what during crises affecting the U.S. This as well as money -- "There was not one fund for counterterrorism, but several department budgets. We sought to fund programs in the Department of Energy, the Health and Human Services Department, the Defense Department, the Justice Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other departments whose Congressional appropriators did not see 'their' agencies as being counterterrorist departments." -- seem to have been great difficulties in 1990s attempts to be on guard against terrorism.

Clarke has a tendency to say "we" did this or that, and one is often not sure if it's the U.S. government, the agency he's working for, or even an informal group of people he'd put together. It's easy to feel that he's saying he was personally involved in every single thing he's discussing, which he may or may not have meant to imply. However, the personal look at individuals he worked with, particularly presidents (Clinton and Bush Jr.) makes the names and faces from the news a lot more human.

When he talks about the George W. Bush administration, Clarke gets much firmer in saying that the wrong things were done and that Iraq was not the place to focus. And though I believed that already, this book gave me a lot more evidence that the top levels of W.'s administration ignored what the people working for them were trying to tell them. Maybe Clarke's ideas on what can be done to better the existing mess would work, maybe not. But both the government and the people voting for that government need information to work with, and this book provides a lot.

Monday, June 14, 2004

I never thought a book in support of a position that I believe in could make me so angry. But Jonathan Rauch's Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good For Gays, Good For Straights, and Good For America pissed me off far more times than I could count.

Rauch's basic position is that marriage is desirable for everyone, that alternatives to marriage are bad (for gay or straight people), and thus that gay marriage should be made legal and as acceptable as straight marriage. My position is that marriage is fine for people who want it, and anyone who wants it, straight or gay, should be free to enter into a marriage, but that alternatives are the better choice for some people and those alternatives should not be legally frowned upon. Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller of the Alternatives to Marriage Project represent my views very well in their book Unmarried to Each Other: The Essential Guide To Living Together As An Unmarried Couple: that unmarried (gay or straight) couples should not be discriminated against in such matters as:

  • Housing: it is technically illegal in many U.S. states for different-sex couples to cohabit; Florida, where I have lived with my beloved Jon for six years, is one of those states. This isn't enforced, obviously, but it leaves us without legal recourse if we encounter a landlord who wouldn't rent to an unmarried couple. And of course, in places without any laws against discrimination against sexual-orientation, a gay couple could encounter the same problem.
  • Insurance/benefits: Domestic partner benefits are not that common (and when available are often limited to same-sex couples on the theory that they cannot (currently) marry legally, and different-sex couples could)
  • Taxes: Married couples shouldn't be penalized financially on their income taxes, but neither should unmarried couples take a hit in the finances.
  • Children's issues: a married step-parent can adopt their partner's child, becoming a "third parent" -- this has been denied to both unmarried gay and straight couples wanting the person who is raising the child but is not a genetic parent to legally adopt.
  • Hospital/Inheritance issues: Unmarried couples have to jump through all sorts of hoops, filling out many, many legal forms to get the next-of-kin rights that legal marriage automatically confers. Hospital visits, health power of attorney, guardianship of children, inheritance, and many other relics of the legal system's former view of husband as wife as legally only one person still exist.
These are just the immediate legal inequalities of unmarried couples. Rauch acknowledges them when he says that marriage creates kinship; however, he seems to think that everyone should just be able to marry someone they love (and I certainly wouldn't deny him the right to marry the "Michael" mentioned in the book's dedication: "Marry me, when we can.") However, his view of traditional marriage's rights and responsibilities as something preferred for everyone is outdated. As Solot and Miller point out that the "wife" and "husband" roles put pressure on people to be a certain way; people they interviewed experienced this outside pressure: "It might be OK for a girlfriend to wear bright sweaters and crack lots of jokes, people seemed to be saying, but a wife should dress appropriately, speak appropriately, and behave altogether differently," or "a few men say they're uncomfortable with assumptions about what husbands 'ought to' do or be." I've seen it myself, at a friend's wedding shower: the assumption that the bride was going to change her surname, and when she said that she was hyphenating their surname, getting a response along the lines of "We'll see how long the groom lets that last!" (Despite the fact that this groom had seriously considered taking his bride's surname.)

And frankly, I don't think the government should have anything to do with my love life at all. Legal marriage is a contract between two people and one government, and I don't want that. Even if I wanted a contract with Jon (and neither of us see any compelling reason to have one), neither local, state, nor federal government need to have anything to do with it. If people want to marry according to the rites of a religion they believe in, they can do that. (If they are not religious and want to marry, let them figure out what it would take for them to feel married, but not force it on everyone else.) Christianity did not write out any rules for marriage until 770 A.D. (and kept rewriting those rules for at least 500 years), Judaism historically accepted unmarried relationships called "pilagshut," and many other societies of the past did not distinguish between marriage and cohabitation. Essentially, the bulk of the marriages of the past, around the world, were what would be considered "common-law marriages" in modern terms -- there was no ceremony, no paperwork; a couple moved in together and started calling themselves married. It is only in the past few hundred years that governments have involved themselves in marriage by limiting what types were acceptable or recording when a marriage took place.

Rauch, however, talks about the history of marriage as if since the dawn of time, there had always been white wedding gowns and marriage licenses, and so draws a distinct line between cohabitation (which he seems to consider at best a poor substitute for marriage and at worst a threat to the stability of society) and marriage. In the book's introduction, he states first, "True love means, first and foremost, a love which ends in lasting marriage" and later:

'Marriage depends for its success on its uniqueness and its universality. Those in turn, depend on two principles. One is "If you want the benefits of marriage, you have to get married." the other is, "Marriage is for everyone -- no exclusions, no exceptions." Gay marriage reinforces both principles. It makes marriage not just a norm (the one for heterosexuals) but the norm (for everybody). In doing so, it offers the best hope of stopping the proliferation -- aided, perversely, by the anti-gay-marriage movement -- of marriage-like and "marriage lite" alternatives.'
I found those statements to be as excluding of me, and everyone else who is in a long-term loving relationship without any desire for marriage, as the anti-gay-marriage movement is of Rauch and all other gay people who want to get married. Later in the book, he continues in an even more insulting vein: "It certainly would be convenient if your employer and society and the law simply provided recognition and benefits for whatever relationship you happened to be having ... a lot of people, gay and straight, would like a halfway house: or, to be more blunt about it, a free ride. Throughout most of history, society has been smart enough to deny it to them." No, throughout history, nobody got any "benefits" from employers except everyday pay (if that, given the existence of slavery in a fair number of cultures) and, as I said before, society and the law considered you married pretty easily.

Rauch is right in that gay people have almost always been denied any recognition, not even of their existence, much less their relationships, and he is correct in that this needs to be corrected. Many of his rebuttals of arguments against gay marriage, such as the idea that marriage must be between people who can have children, are well-thought-out and serve his cause well. However, his conservative view of what marriage is may drive away his possible supporters who started out with liberal social views, without necessarily winning over anyone whose opposition to gay marriage is essentially "God said marriage has to be male-female." (Though Rauch does point out how many things have been in the past said to be God's will and people have nonetheless changed; I particularly like his reference to 19th-century lawmakers opposing laws allowing married women to control their own property on the grounds that it was "contrary not only to the law of England but to the law of God.") And he may be right in saying that having states individually recognize gay marriage, one at a time, would work better in public acceptance than having it federally imposed on all states at the same time. In his example world where Maryland has legalized gay marriage and Virginia has not, "Even in Virginia, people who saw my ring and learned I was 'Maryland married' would know I had made the Big Commitment in my home state and thus in the eyes of my community and its law." (However, I am not as sure that this would help acceptance in other states -- Americans may recognize that a rich Saudi is legally and societally committed to four wives, but how likely is it to make them think of allowing plural marriage in the U.S.?)

Rauch says that gay marriage in a few states would be better than gay marriage in none and "marriage lite" in many. Some supporters of gay marriage agree with that, and others accept "civil union" or some other not-quite-the-same option. David Moats' book Civil Wars: A Battle For Gay Marriage deals with that issue and many others as it chronicles the attempt to establish legal gay marriage in Vermont and the state legislature's substitution of "civil union" for gay couples as a compromise. This book, being true story rather than hypothetical argument, is far more human than Rauch's book; we hear about the lives of the three couples who brought the gay marriage suit to the state Supreme Court, the lawyers who argued the case, and the legislators who had to deal with the court's decision to say that it was against the state constitution to deny gay couples the benefits given married couples, but that it was the state legislature's job to figure out and enact laws extending those benefits to gay couples. Some of those legislators wanted gay and straight marriage to be the same, some wanted a parallel structure for gays, some didn't want anything remotely like marriages for people they considered to be doing wrong, and some were completely undecided. Even knowing what happened in the end, the reader gets a new, close view into how it happened -- and what the results were.

I found it a more pleasant read (in that the author doesn't say anything that made me want to throw the book across the room, though some of the words of opponents of gay marriage certainly did) than Rauch's book, and even though many of the same points are made, the two books still differ greatly in their approach to marriage in general and gay marriage specifically. For example, Moats draws many parallels to the civil rights and gay rights movements, and the civil union option is even compared to the "separate but equal" setup for black and white Americans that was ruled legal by the Supreme Court in the 1890s and then overturned by the a different Supreme Court in the 1950s. Rauch barely mentions race as a possible comparison to sexual orientation when he talks about the discrimination of excluding gay couples from marriage.

Both books are necessary, because the issue of gay marriage is one that it is simply no longer possible to ignore, and they can both provide information to base one's position on. Many people do not want to think about it and say they'll go with their "gut feeling" on the issue, but political issues should not be decided by "this turns my stomach." Just because the mere smell of asparagus makes me want to vomit doesn't mean I should deny other people the right to eat the stuff, and the same applies to other issues -- think with your brain, not your stomach.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

It's hard to write for another author's characters and setting; the more interesting they are, the more this is so. The comparatively colorless Nancy Drew or Bobbsey Twins don't lose much by being handed over to whatever author the Edward Stratmeyer organization had available, while even as a child I found that any attempt at Oz books by writers other than L. Frank Baum were unreadable.

Sherlock Holmes has for a centurty been popular enough for other authors to try and write him, and eccentric enough that most have failed to capture his essence. Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Per Cent Solution was once the only novel-length story that I felt stood up to the work Sir Arthur Conan Doyle dashed off to support his more serious writing. Meyer's Holmes and Watson differed from the original, but it was explained why -- the consequences of increasing use of the cocaine that Holmes had indeed taken occasionally in Conan Doyle's stories.

My father, also a Holmes buff, a few years ago showed me The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie King. He'd enjoyed the story of a retired Holmes entertaining himself training the mind of a fifteen-year-old girl living near him, once she'd shown herself worthwhile material for training. However, my father will not read the sequels that Laurie King has written featuring a Mary Russell who has grown older, because Holmes and Russell have married. For my dad, a married Holmes is just unacceptable. To me, though, it follows perfectly from the relationship they have in the first book -- hardly romantic, but a marriage of best friends and working partners. Conan Doyle's Holmes only ever respected one woman -- Irene Adler, who outwitted him. King's Holmes has found another mind he can respect carried in a female body, and their partnership is merely made formal (and more convenient, given the era) by a marriage certificate. Russell even keeps her maiden name.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, A Letter of Mary, The Moor, O Jerusalem, and Justice Hall have been my reading material for the past week and a half, and I just started the latest in the series, The Game. Previous books in the series have been all over England with sea journeys to Palestine and Canada; this one heads towards an India still under British rule, thirty years after that of the frequently-referenced Kim by Rudyard Kipling (which I have yet to read, but will probably track down after this). So far I am enjoying this well-researched story as much as the previous ones. Like O Jerusalem, it takes place amongst the difficulties of international politics of the era (Holmes' older brother Mycroft, major figure behind the scenes of English government, appears more often in King's works than in those of most others who've tried their hand at Holmes) and the non-English cultures Holmes and Russell must disappear into.

Throughout the series, any differences from the Conan Doyle canon are explained -- there is no feeling of disregard for the original. I couldn't stop re-reading the first six of the series (hence the finishing them all in ten days) and I look forward to finishing the seventh.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Gorillas and autism. The two topics don't immediately seem to go to together. But then, most people have preconceived ideas about both: hostile King Kongs and children who can't be brought into human communication by any means. Dawn Prince-Hughes' book Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism dispels both stereotypes.

OK, so I'd read enough animal books to know that gorillas are not all that violent -- nothing compared to humans! And I was familiar with the idea that what most people think of as "autism" (specifically identified as Kanner's Syndrome) is just the far end of a spectrum with "normal" at its near end, with some of the middle areas identified by such names as "Asperger's Syndrome." That middle ground is "characterized by difficulties in processing stimuli, sensory oversensitivities, and challenges in social interaction." And who hasn't encountered those things some of the time? The author describes rituals from her childhood: "I also wanted to keep as many of my own accoutrements as possible the same. This meant that I did not want a new toothbrush, new clothes, new shoes. I continued to drink out of my favorite blue baby bottle until I was almost four, when it was replaced with a deep violet tumbler made of aluminum. I wanted to drink only root beer at that point . . ." I don't think this will sound particularly unusual to a lot of parents -- the concept of "security blankets" spread from the Peanuts comic strip because being attached to an object is common among kids -- and even adults; I'm reminded of the movie Pulp Fiction and its character Butch who risks his life to go back for a family heirloom, the watch owned by four generations. An incredible number of the traits the author describes from herself can be found in people who would never be considered, and many people who are eventually diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome are not diagnosed until adulthood. "Most high-functioning autistic people, not knowing what is "wrong" with them, develop a lifetime pattern of using their intelligence to appear normal," Prince-Hughes points out, and this reinforces the public image of what constitutes autism.

(However, some of the ways people cope with problems, be they neurological ones like this or any other kind, are not necessarily healthy in the long run. Drinking at a young age, dropping out of high school, and becoming homeless may have been the best ways available at the time for her, but one really wishes there had been other options.)

Price-Hughes' description of her earliest attempts at romantic and sexual relationships are particularly interesting because they bring up what everyone expects from first impressions of a person and how easy it is to mistake lust for love. The author compares herself to Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager -- "I find that I am only part "human" and very much something altogether different; I am overwhelmed by the social demands of "normal life"; and I am lonely." Then a visit to the zoo leads to her great interest in watching the gorillas -- their own interactions, and how zoo visitors act toward them. "The gorillas don't speak human language, look the way humans look, move the way humans move. They are stupid. This is why gorillas are captive. This is why crazy people are captive.We are the animals who don't speak the language, look the looks, move in the right ways . . . It is easy for those who are not captive to forget that those who are remain individuals."

Price-Hughes' interest in the zoo gorillas led her first to read on her own and then to seek out academic programs that would let her learn about them and gorillas in general. This book details the individual gorillas at this zoo and tells about their behavior; I found this particularly interesting because all the other books I've read on apes have either involved observation of them in the wild, or in laboratory environments where they are not in family groups. This different setting allows for more detailed observation of their interactions and their individual differences -- the story of the different gorillas' tactics when given the Halloween jack-o'-lanterns on the first of November was fascinating: how this one went for the biggest pumpkins, those two for whichever were nearest, another seemed to test them to find the best quality in a similar way to grocery shoppers in the produce department, and still another chose the one with the nicest carving. And human similarity to our ape relatives actually helped Price-Hughes: "I tried to apply the things I'd learned from the gorillas in social situations. I tried to put people at ease by acknowledging them with quick sideways glances and smiles -- which evolved from submissive primate grimaces and are intended to convey that no harm is meant." And so on.

The gorillas became the author's friends to such a degree that when one called Congo died, she took some of his hair to Africa to bury, as Congo's body was going to be dissected and analyzed in the U.S. Price-Hughes was also able to continue a long personal relationship and continue academically through a Bachelor's, a Master's, and eventually a Doctorate degree. None of it was easy -- could it be for anyone? -- and only through researching a younger relative's condition did she find out a name for what might be her own condition. However, just having a name and a diagnosis to point to does sometimes help in dealing with other people, and sometimes also with one's own emotions.

Price-Hughes is a proud parent of a son, but she is still also connected to gorillas and other apes. The single most amazing thing in this book for me was her story of meeting Kanzi the bonobo (the species formerly known as pygmy chimpanzee):

"When I first met him, he asked me to play chase, and so we ran up and down along the fence, back and forth, him with a big bonobo smile and me slipping into my natural gorilla ways. Suddenly he stopped, grabbed the lexigram board containing the symbols he uses to communicate with, made a series of gestures, and then pointed to the lexigram board. I had to explain apologetically that I didn't understand what he was saying. Sue and I discovered that he had realized I was a "gorilla," had remembered seeing videos of Koko the signing gorilla, formulated the hypothesis that gorillas use signs to communicate, and then employed accurate ASL signs to ask, "You . . . gorilla . . . question?" No one, not even Sue, knew that he had retained signs from watching the Koko video. He had gone through all of these cognitive and emotional steps to try and bridge the communications gap between us."
Wow. It would be impressive for a human to pick up enough words of a foreign language from a (non-language-teaching) video to form a new question (not just parroting the same sentences already heard), not to mention the chain of thought. It isn't always easy for humans to realize consciously what it is that someone's physical mannerisms remind them of, either. Even if Kanzi is the Einstein of bonobos, his example shows us how much thought the furrier beings on this planet can be capable of, and justifies a lot more respect for apes and contemplation of the similarities between the human and the other higher primates. Price-Hughes' book will stretch your mind on these subjects.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

I've read a lot of books about child abuse. (There's a stack of papers on the floor by my computer of reviews and comments that I need to add to my bibliography of children's and young adult books about abuse.) However, this is the first time I've read the story of a child abused through Munchausen's syndrome by proxy. I had actually heard of that particular mental disorder before, but then I have a brain full of all kinds of obscure things. "Munchausen's syndrome," named after the exaggerating Baron von Munchausen, is a disease where people fake illness or do things to make themselves sick, so that they will receive sympathy or care from others. "Munchausen's syndrome by proxy," or MBP, takes the deception one step further: a caretaker lies about the illness of someone dependent on them and may induce symptoms in the dependent person. The doctor who wrote the foreword to this book says that approximately 1,200 new cases of this are reported annually in the U.S., which seems like a lot if you look at it from the point of view of the people, mostly children, who suffer so that some adult in charge of them can get emotional satisfaction.

In Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood, Julie Gregory tells the story of growing up "fragile as a microwave soufflé," being forever tested for heart problems, migraines, food allergies, and anything else that her mother or whatever doctor is seeing her this month can think of. Being given medication that never cures anything, just makes her sicker than she was before. Being told, "I'm the mom: I know what's going on here. So if he asks you questions, you just let me answer" before doctor appointments, even though the elementary school girl already notices that "as she runs down the symptoms, I know some of them aren't all the way true." And when something is really wrong, her mother makes it worse: waiting hours to take her to have her broken wrist set (one during third grade, the other during fourth grade). Even a couple of incidents of misdiagnosis or parental error might befall any family. But Julie, and her younger brother, and even the foster children who arrive later, all seem oddly prone to all these different illnesses, and perhaps someone might have noticed this if it weren't for the secluded country house and the changes of doctors. (Or perhaps not; all the abuse stories I've read make me very sceptical about what people are willing to notice.) Her parents are hardly healthy in other ways either; her father makes her eat used tissues after she leaves them on the floor; her mother threatens suicide on multiple occasions.

Selections from Gregory's medical records throughout childhood are included in the book (doctors' names blacked out) and it's amazing how many can be summarized as "patient reports such-and-such symptom but we can't find anything wrong." Or perhaps it's not surprising at all; the parent is considered the authority, the one who knows when a child is acting cranky because they're tired and all those other not-obvious connections between outside and inside the offspring they're raising. If only all parents were really trustworthy interpreters.

Mom thinks I'm allergic to the new carpeting in our house, but Dr. Phillips puts me on an elimination diet to see if it's something I'm eating. He tells her to take chocolate, meat, eggs, dairy, and bread out of every meal I eat.

After our appointment, Mom and I amble down the aisles of the supermarket, my fingers looped through the metal slots of the cart as I watch what she pulls off the shelves: Oreo cookies, pork chops, Grade A eggs, two-percent milk, and a couple loaves of Wonder. Bay's Grocery doesn't seem to have any of the foods Dr. Phillips wants me to eat.

At sixteen, Julie is the one who discloses enough of what's happening to get the foster children taken away from her parents; she spends some time in foster care for her own safety ("And I wasn't sick anymore. The whole time I was in foster care, I didn't take any heart medications because they all got left behind when I ran away. Instead of seeing doctors, I spent my free hours jumping off the diving board and the public pool and shopping for clothes with my hospital [summer job] paycheck. It was going on six months since I'd seen a cardiologist...") but her parents go to court to get her back. "It was probably me, I told myself, just having a rough time adjusting to adolescence. Or, as Mom and the school counselor had decided in tenth grade, just an incredibly fertile imagination." Even once she's away from home, her upbringing hangs on: "The skinny and ravenous hospital girl of thirteen, the girl whose mother would not feed her, has given way to the skinny and ravenous girl of twenty-three, who cannot feed herself. [...] He [the doctor] doesn't ask me if I am eating. I don't know that I'm not. The way I care for myself is no different than the way Mom taught me to, following the doctor's advice."

Julie is in her mid-twenties and in a college psychology class before she ever hears of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. When she sees talk therapists, they are nearly as ignorant: "Most times I do not feel like a client, but an educator who pays to teach my therapist about MBP." But she identifies what has happened, faces her past and, unlike her brother and many others who were abused as kids, does not push all the bad times out of her mind. And she continues to take the brave steps of keeping children out of her mother's hands, when she finds out that her remarried mother has taken in children of her husband's relatives, putting up a web site, and eventually writing and publishing this book. I hope it spreads awareness of this condition and saves others from going through anything like her own experience.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Recently I picked up my big old omnibus volume of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series for relaxing reading while I was fighting a cold. I'm not all that picky about format (but I have had very little money for much of my life) so it's quite rare that I buy a hardcover version of something I already own in paperback. This series, Gone with the Wind, and Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass are the only ones I can think of where the paperbacks became so battered that I bothered to replace them with hardbound versions. For the Hitchhiker's books, the omnibus volume offers an author's introduction explaining why the books, the radio series, and the BBC television show have somewhat different plots, as well as an additional short story, but it's for the texts themselves that I acquired it.

Re-reading the Hitchhiker's books reminded me of how wonderful they are. Well, the first four. I read them out of order originally (second, first, fourth, third, I think) back in middle school, these stories of everyday Earthling Arthur Dent and his unwilling journey through time and space with Ford Prefect, an alien who got to know Arthur while stranded on Earth; Ford's two-headed, three-armed semi-cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox; Tricia "Trillian" McMillan, astrophysicist and mathematician who met Zaphod at a costume party in London. Douglas Adams was the master of digression, adding in random short chapters about planets entirely inhabited by pens or other gleefully ridiculous topics that somehow seem to explain a lot about how the universe works. Sometimes the digressions even ended up relating back to the main plot later, but that was a bonus. The fifth book, Mostly Harmless, doesn't live up to the others; it has its funny bits and if it hadn't followed such outstanding books it would probably rank above average, but compared to the first four it seems forced. However, I am thinking that my younger brother is about the age now that I was when I encountered the series, and perhaps I should buy him a copy of the first book and pass on the hilarity to a new generation.

I went on to read Adams' underappreciated Last Chance to See, a very different type of story because it's true. Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine journeyed around the world to visit the habitats of various endangered animals (many of which, like the kakapo and the baiji, you may never have heard of if you haven't read this). However, Adams' "ignorant non-zoologist" narration is very reminiscent of Arthur Dent's bewildered Earthman at times. The book has its humor, but not like the Hitchhiker's books; it may be easy to laugh at the idea of ill-tempered aliens blowing up the Earth and all its creatures to make a hyperspace bypass, but not so when real-life humans drive the Yangtze river dolphin (baiji) to near-extinction through pollution and boat accidents. Adams was justifiably proud of this book for increasing awareness of the situation of many beings on this planet among readers who might not have picked up a book on wildlife otherwise.

And after I finish that, I'll probably pick up Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and its sequel The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, going back to the humor but in a more convoluted way than the Hitchhiker's books. Because reading some Douglas Adams always makes me sorry when it's over.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Khassan Baiev is a man with all the bravery his Chechen ancestors could have wanted. Yet amazingly, growing up among the stories of Russian and later Soviet attempts to subjugate the Chechens, including his own parents' deportation to Kazakhstan after World War II, and encountering prejudice during sports competitions and medical training in different parts of the Soviet Union, did not seem to have left him bitter. He returned to Chechnya from a Moscow practice when the likelihood of a Chechen-Russian war became apparent, and rather than taking his own family and fleeing as so many did (and they can hardly be blamed for it!) he stayed in Chechnya, first in the capital city of Grozny and then in his hometown of Alkhan Kala, to provide medical care -- and not just for the Chechen wounded, either; he treated Russians, soldiers and civilians, despite risk to himself from Chechens who considered this traitorous. As he says at one point, "Speaking to the Russian doctor felt perfectly normal, yet there was something strange about it because we were supposed to be on opposing sides. However, we were really both on the side of the wounded." Though with years of fighting destroying his homeland, it is understandable that "there were times . . . when I was tempted to exchange my scalpel for a gun," Baiev stuck to his resolve to try and protect life, even though "sometimes I felt as though I was the little Dutch boy with his hand in the dyke, only I was holding back blood."

Even when peace had been declared, medical work did not stop -- disease was rampant, both from germs and from stress. Baiev speaks of his own depression amongst the ruins, and it is certainly an example of what many, many others are going through in Chechnya and other war-torn regions once there is time to think of more than daily survival. Baiev's Islamic faith, and the opportunity to visit Mecca as Muslims are supposed to do at least once in their lives, provided a lift to his mental state. (And his mentions of the differences between Chechen and Saudi Muslim practices may help Westerners remember that Islam is no more an undivided movement than Christianity.)

After fighting started again, Baiev had several narrow escapes from both Chechen and Russian fighters who felt he was serving the other side and deserved execution. Eventually he was forced to leave Chechnya and serve his country differently by telling the story of events there. (His nephew Adam had worked for some time videotaping events in Chechnya and getting the tapes out to the rest of the world, and was killed because of it.) Baiev says speaking out to foreigners allowed him to feel "I was doing something useful to Chechnya." Eventually his family was able to join him in the United States, and he chronicles the difficulty of starting over in a new place, going from being a skilled surgeon to someone who doesn't speak the language or have the certifications to be allowed to practice medicine, adapting to a new culture, and recovering from the trauma of war. His work with Ruth and Nicholas Daniloff on this book, The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire, serves as an overview of Chechen culture and its survival despite Russian control, a window into a war many Americans couldn't find on a map, and what a single determined human can achieve in the midst of the worst carnage.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Wow. I kept saying that thoughout Melvin Konner's Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews. There was just so much in here I'd never heard about!

My mom brought me up Catholic (in Columbia, South Carolina, where an acquaintance once asked what religion I was and upon hearing "Catholic" responded "Well, I'm a Christian." So I have some clue about being a religious minority.) My father's mother took me to Methodist Sunday school and Baptist Vacation Bible School when I visited. So I'm fairly well-grounded in the Old Testament, but as I recorded in my 9th grade diary, ("Mr. Brown had Noah tell us about a little of Jewish history. Mostly stuff I already knew but thought of as Christian history. Weird.") I wasn't likely to think about it from a different point of view. Becoming an agnostic made me a little more interested in other people's views, and I've always been interested in cultural history and anthropology. (My beloved jokes that I'll read anything with "social history" in the title.) So I picked this off the New Books shelf at the library, thinking of it no differently than if it were a book on England or Russia or China.

But I haven't really read much on a group that has had a minority status which persisted throughout millennia and settlement around the world. I'm not sure any other group has such a status. I don't usually read books about religion, but the author tells us in the introduction how he lost his Jewish faith and identity as a teen but re-entered American Jewish culture when his children were born, a confession that assured I would not think he was trying to spread the word of God as so many Christian works are prone to do. He covered the history of the Jewish people as told in the Torah/Old Testament, and where it was or was not corroborated (and indeed was sometimes contradicted) by other sources, and then the saga of the Roman-empire era and reasons for Jewish dispersion from their homeland. This was interesting and covered details I would probably not find in general histories, but the discussion of the Diaspora and the cultures made of Jewish people living among others was the truly new part for me.

A person on Amazon has a review of this book that complains,"The most notable omission is the lack of discussion of Jewish experience outside the Middle East except for Spain, North Africa, Ethiopia, China, and Cochin." Frankly, since I knew little about the Spanish and North African Jewish communities and nothing about the others, those discussions were fascinating for me. The United States has a Jewish culture largely drawn from the Ashkenazic Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe; finding out about the other Jewish people and cultures of this world was the new part to me, and no doubt to most American readers who knew of Jewish history largely from reading general European history. Also, there is an emphasis on Jews in the New World before the larger emigrations from Europe in the late 1800s which I have never seen in a general history book; it makes me proud of my country's founders to know that George Washington, in response to a letter from the congregation of a synagogue in Newport praising his equal treatment of Jews, wrote back:

"All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which gives bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection shall demean themselves as good citizens."
One wishes his views were followed by his countrymen, then and even now.

And then, of course, modern history gives us the most shameful episode in European history, the Shoah, the Holocaust. (Not that such genocides haven't been tried in other times and places, but rarely have circumstances and technology combined to give them such an immense body count.) My maternal grandmother says her maternal grandmother (my great-great-grandmother) was Jewish. If she and her Catholic husband hadn't come to America from Germany in 1883 with their children, my great-grandmother would have been in her fifties at the time when Hitler came to power, and such "half-Jews" were sent to the concentration camps as readily as those whose parents were both Jewish. Quite likely, if she had wanted to flee, by that time she would have been trapped by restrictions on Jewish immigrations that the U.S. and many other countries had enacted by the 1930s. In addition to the usual chilling stories of what happened in ghettos and concentration camps, Konner discusses the Jewish resistance, who sometimes even had to deal with anti-Semitism from non-Jewish resistance movements, and the saboteurs within the camps who managed to stage revolts that made at least two of the death camps unusable. I was also interested (and disgusted) to find that Jewish "displaced persons" after the war were under Allied policy to be sent back to their homes before the war, even if their entire towns had been destroyed by anti-Semitic locals, and that it was necessary for many who wanted to go to Israel to get there illegally.

And then there's the history Zionism and the birth of Israel, which I had read about in other sources but still had never heard some of these details (such as the British suggestion that Jews be given Uganda in Africa as a homeland). Konner does not ignore the situation of the Palestinians who were there during the decades when Jewish immigration increased and when the state of Israel was made official, though he does point out the contradictions in the policies of many of the surrounding Arab states in refusing to accept Palestinian refugees (essentially condemning them to living in refugee camps. These camps' existence perhaps helped to maintain anti-Israeli feeling in the Arab countries, but it does seem that it made the rejecting countries no better than the one the refugees left.) The book also covers the interesting relationship of Israel and American Jews, who in some ways rely on Israel for part of their Jewish identity, and the situation of semi-assimilation and a decreasing Jewish population in the U.S. because of intermarriage and people who drift away from the culture they were brought up in. His wonders about the future for Jewish people in various places are thought-provoking, whether or not they affect you personally or just as a part of humanity.

Monday, February 02, 2004

I don't read nearly as much fiction as I used to, now that I have access to libraries with non-fiction that isn't so astoundingly dated as the libraries around me in high school. But when I went on my holiday trips recently, I went through the paperback fiction shelves to find some books to bring on my travels that didn't weigh so much as hardbacks. And I found both good and bad. The stuff I didn't expect to like, I didn't pick up, of course -- the romance novels, the science-fiction movie/TV tie-ins, the techno-thrillers that my boyfriend once described as "like reading VCR manuals with dialogue." But it's not always that easy to judge. There were some really lousy mystery novels with covers that looked good enough to check out, so I didn't find out how bad they were until I was sitting in at an airport gate debating if killing time with a story this dumb was really worth it. However, I found two books I enjoyed enough that I was pleased to find both were the starts of series, and once I got home I promptly went and checked out all the books the library had from both of them. One series was traditional mystery, and the other a harder genre to label.

There are a lot of novels that might be summarized as "wacky Florida crime stories." Usually I have trouble getting into those, partially because the Miami world where most of them take place isn't very much like Tampa, where I like. An acquaintance on Everything2.com described Tampa and Jacksonville as "very much like normal U.S. cities" -- not something you can really say about the Miami or Orlando areas, or those Panhandle areas that are Florida's North but the American South. So one of the things that grabbed me about Tim Dorsey's Florida Roadkill was the fact that a lot of it took place in Tampa. (This was no surprise once I read the "About the Author" blurb, as he lived here and used to work for the Tampa Tribune.) But even for those who don't live here, this terribly funny story of several competing groups chasing around Florida after a suitcase with 5 million dollars cash in it, as well as each other, draws you in. Some of the characters are relatively normal and others are really messed-up, but some of the weirder people are easier to sympathize with than the ones you might expect to find living in any old neighborhood. On reading Hammerhead Ranch Motel, Orange Crush, Triggerfish Twist and The Stingray Shuffle, I realized that the first book hadn't really given me any clue as to which of the many characters from the first book would show up in the rest of the series; I was actually surprised as to who became the "main character" (though never the only focus of the action). Technically, Florida Roadkill, Hammerhead Ranch Motel, and The Stingray Shuffle are the ones that actually continue the same plotline about the suitcase of money; the other two are digressions featuring the same main character at a different time of life. (I haven't read the latest of Dorsey's, Cadillac Beach, because as I write it hasn't actually been released.) But all of them were crammed full of sentences and paragraphs that I just had to read aloud to whoever was within earshot because they were so amazingly hilarious to me, and it never got old the way some humor writing can get after five whole books by the same author in the same setting.

The other series I discovered starts with The Strange Files of Fremont Jones, a mystery set in 1900s San Francisco and featuring a young lady from Boston striking out on her own as a typist, across the country from the stepmother who wants to marry her off. I had also picked up one several books later in the series (it was all that was on the shelf) at the same time, Beacon Street Mourning. The Strange Files had its weak points, but not enough of them to keep me from reading the other book, and it was that one, where Caroline Fremont Jones has become an experienced private detective, which really made me go and check out the rest. It wasn't just the references in Beacon Street Mourning to events that had taken place in the intervening books, but author Dianne Day had developed the character far better in the later book. (And certainly the events mentioned in passing sounded like things that would mature a person quickly!) I haven't yet actually read the remaining books yet (Fire and Fog, The Bohemian Murders, Emperor Norton's Ghost, Death Train to Boston) but the stories that bracketed them were enough to recommend the series to me, and I think I can recommend them to others. I'm quite disappointed to find in the Amazon reviews of Beacon Street Mourning that "Doubleday no longer intends to publish series mysteries, and because of this, Fremont Jones has met an untimely end. And because of contractual matters, Day can't take the series to another publisher. So, enjoy this one, folks -- it's the last in the series. It's a real shame!" However, Day is still writing other works and I may have to pick those up.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

I just got back Monday from my holiday travels, and my cupboards and refrigerator were pretty well bare. So I had a long list of things to get at the grocery store. However, the book I was reading before I went food shopping had quite an influence on my purchases -- it was Greg Critser's Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World.

My weight has been creeping upward slowly -- about 20 pounds in the past 6 years -- and though it annoyed me to no end when I could no longer button the waistbands on my rarely-worn dress clothes, I wasn't really thinking much about what I eat. Fat Land made me think of more than how I look -- about the health consequences if my weight keeps slowly growing. I knew the amount of exercise I got dropped radically once I no longer walked two and from the campus of the University where I used to teach. But I only ever thought about the number of restaurant meals I eat in financial terms; this book made me think about the contents of those meals. It also, as I said, made me read the labels in the grocery store far more carefully, looking for high-fructose corn syrup -- a sweetener and preservative which has far worse effects on the body than sucrose, the sugar you can buy in bags or packets. Soda has always been a bad habit of mine -- my dentist has even remarked on the effect it had on my teeth (a result of the acids in it, not the sweeteners). But these HFCS-sweetened drinks may be even more likely to expand my fat cells than the equivalent calories of sucrose-sweetened home-baked goods, if I'm interpreting Critser's statements correctly. One more reason to keep buying 100% fruit juice drinks, and not the bottles with the pictures of fruits on the front and "27% juice" on the back of the label.

Portion sizes, food ingredients, and lack of exercise -- these are the major issues Critser cites as causes for the increased numbers of obese Americans. He also points out how the availability of both food and exercise is influenced by economic class; how the neglect of weight control information in schools for fear of inducing anorexia and bulemia in young people is setting them up for far more common diseases such as diabetes; and even the idea that Europeans consider smaller amounts of food to be a standard portion size. The book is truly thought-provoking -- and in me it is provoked consideration of where I could manage to fit that stationary bicycle into my apartment.