I met The-Person-I’ll Call-Marilyn down the street before her moving van was emptied, and she was calling me “Sweetie” within about 12 minutes. She’s a sturdy woman with perfect cafe au lait skin who favors shorts and tight halter tops, and who–judging by the ages of her offspring–has to be in her 40s. Not a line on her face.

Marilyn quickly became notable for two reasons. One, she illegally saves a generous parking space in front of her house–and this is a very crowded street–by placing an orange traffic cone there the minute her husband pulls away in the morning. I’ve only seen someone try to move it once, and let’s just say they’re probably still twitching at the sight of anything orange or cone-shaped.

Second, Marilyn spends much of her day on the small second-floor balcony, which overlooks the street, and conducts her business on a cellphone while puffing one cigarette after another. She checks on various relatives, dispensing advice with a confidence that makes Dr. Phil sound shy. She updates friends on various forays into heath care that either Work Like a Charm or are Totally Worthless Shit.

I can hear her voice over the exhaust fan in our kitchen, which is roughly the same decibel level as a Cessna in need of a tuneup.

I’ve always fumed about loud neighbors–and I’ve had plenty of ‘em, living right in the heart of cities as I tend to do. But Marilyn changed that. She arrived on the scene while I was engaged in a tiresome process with the city/Bank of America/community-police officer to get squatters out of a nearby empty (foreclosed) house. I was dutifully working my way through the maze of agencies and procedures to get this mess cleaned up, and progress was s-l-o-w.

Starting on Day 1 of her occupation, Marilyn watched this house from her command deck, and she did not like what she saw. “I moved here to get my kids away from this kind of crap,” she told me, as we watched a car-full of sketchy looking young guys cruise past the house.

The drug buyers who tried skulking into the place for a quick exchange thought they were hearing the voice of God when Marilyn bellowed at them from above. “YOU DO NOT LIVE THERE! GO AWAY!” was the friendliest command. Sometimes she shortened it to “OUT!”

For months I’d been nagging neighbors to call the police when they saw anything happening at the place–that’s what it takes to get a property on record as a nuisance site. “You can’t be the only one who calls,” our community policing officer told me. “They’ll just write you off as a nut.”

The old-timers on the street were on the case. They remember the days when more houses than not were these kind of squats, and they don’t want it to happen again. Most of the newer folks, and I’m being kind here, are apathetic, chicken-hearted turds. They didn’t care about the squatters (did I mention the two hungry dogs chained in the house and left alone? Or the graffiti so graphic that even HBO would have bleeped it?) until they were personally affected. And then they called me, not the cops.

“They keyed my car!”

“They left needles on the sidewalk and my dog almost ate one!”

When Marilyn came on the scene, this nonsense was history. Along with terrifying the spaced-out druggies, she got the police on the case. She quickly disproved the claim that one person could not galvanize the police or city. I’m guessing that the poor 911 dispatcher who answered Marilyn’s ring just cashed in favors and pleaded with the cops until they handled the situation. (“I can’t fend off this woman again! Please! I’ll never send you to a drunk-vagrant call again!)

I was home when the Perfect Storm hit. A posse of nogoodniks was approaching the door of the squat-house; Marilyn was on duty and one of the now-regular police drive-bys rolled into view.

Marilyn yelled: “OFFICERS: THOSE PEOPLE ARE BREAKING THE LAW RIGHT NOW AND THEY DON’T CARE IF YOU SEE THEM!” The posse froze, the police jumped out of the car. IDs were checked, an oustanding warrant turned up.

Within the week the bank holding the paper on the house had been contacted directly by the police and city. Doors were boarded up, graffiti covered. Now there’s a For Sale sign in front and a lot of families in minivans are showing up for tours.

Marilyn, you’re my hero. If anyone steals that traffic cone, I promise I will lie down in that space until your man gets home.


Happy (?) Anniversary, Stonewall

An ad in the New York Times Sunday Styles section commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, that legendary 1969 uprising in a Greenwich Village gay bar. Rousts by police were not uncommon in these settings, but a combination of especially swift police brutality and We’ve-Had-Enough patron sentiments resulted in a roaring riot. What we would now call the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender crowd drove the police back and kept them there for days.

If such an ad didn’t say enough about the changed attitudes, the one below it sure did: A furniture and carpet store entreats:

Love love love…the partnership registry…co-create your home from the ground up.

A more cynical person might say that much of the progress towards acceptance of LGBT folks is, in fact, market driven. A really cynical person might say that the poor economy will push this acceptance to a new high. Retailers who want to survive will market across all lines: gender, class, shoe size.

I, however, am marking this historic occasion by shrugging off such thoughts, lifting my coffee mug and toasting the people who still worry that their sexual orientation or their place along the gender continuum might cause them to be fired, humiliated, hurt or killed. Sisters and brothers: I’m with you.

A recommendation to my blog readers: Go find a copy of “Stone Butch Blues” by Leslie Feinberg. (Other Feinberg insights can be found on the writer’s Transgender Warrior site.) You might have to get your favorite independent bookseller to order it for you, as it may now be out of print. This is a remarkable, heartbreaking book. (Along lines of “Fat Girl” by Judith Moore, another bit of painful genius in book form.) I could not put “Stone Butch Blues” down and it prompted me to get other works by Feinberg, including the essay collection “Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue.”

Feinberg isn’t the voice for all LGBT people any more than Ann Coulter is a spokesperson for me, another white female writer. But the story of oppression, uprising, triumph and hope is everyone’s story.


Reporters: Need a good source? Give me a jingle

Like most daily-newspaper journalists (or in my case, former), I can rustle up a small layer of expertise about a large number of subjects. There are a few fascinating subjects on which I am personally expert. (“Mile wide, inch deep” is the less flattering way to characterize this trait.)

When I see articles on “my” subjects, I always wish the reporter had called me first. To wit:

The New York Times piece headlined “The Little Voice Inside Your Twinge.” This article, in the “Personal Best” health section commiserates with active folks who don’t know how to evaluate pain:

“MAYBE the problem is that it is hard to understand what your body is saying.’Listen to your body’ is always a tough one,’ said Keith Hanson, a coach who directs the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, which recruits talented distance runners and supports them while they train full time…’There are several aches and pains that you can run through,” Mr. Hanson said, “and others that need some down time.”

In all due respect, Coach, you’re off base. There is one simple rule here, and you can quote me:

“Any twinge can be the start of something very dangerous,” warned Hartnett. “Best to repair to the couch with a book until you’re sure it’s gone.”

Another one I spotted, also in the NYT, is “The 10-Ingredient Shopping Trip,” in which Tara Parker-Pope ably chronicled foodie Mark Bittman’s plan to get five days of meals out of a 10-item list. Here’s his 10:

  1. Chicken breasts (4 boneless)
  2. Bacon (1/2 pound)
  3. Shrimp (1 pound)
  4. Spinach (1 pound)
  5. Tomatoes (6)
  6. Ginger
  7. Onions
  8. Asparagus (2 pounds)
  9. Button mushrooms (1 pound)
  10. Loaf of good country bread

Parker-Pope isn’t at fault here. Bittman means well, but this list is simply not accurate. It should read:

1. Loaf of “Dave’s Killer Bread
2. Case of caffeine-free Diet Pepsi
3. Case of kid-size chocolate-brownie Clif bars
4. Quart of almond butter
5. Package of Laughing Cow Lite Cheese wedges
6. Bag of apples
7. Package of frozen Morningstar Farms Tomato & Basil Pizza Burgers
8. Package of Trader Joe’s dark-chocolate covered raisins
9. One enormous garnet yam
10. One enormous can of albacore tuna in water

Anything else? Just give me a call. Glad to help.

Photo memories

I’m at that point in my life when almost any news story makes me think about my parents. (Especially any stories about people throwing stuff at each other.) When I read my buddy Andrew Schneider’s thoughts on the end of the Kodachrome era, even that triggered a memory.

My parents were not particularly talented photographers, but both liked cameras. My mother because she’d worked for Polaroid as a “demo girl” when she was in her early 30s. (That’s her in the photo.) And my father because he liked any image-preserving media, visual and audio. He favored Kodachrome, I think because it was Kodak’s signature product and they sponsored one of the TV news hours he anchored early on in his television career.

(Early in my childhood all our bread came from the Western Massachusetts bakery that sponsored him, called Dreikorn’s. Nutritionally this stuff probably made Wonder Bread look like whole grains.)

I never used the 35mm cameras we had lying around, but I was the anointed Polaroid assistant, standing by to apply that waxy fixative on the fresh black-and-white prints. I loved the weird smell of that stuff, which came in a small cylinder and was applied with the handy roller brush that fit inside. The fumes from that, along with the rubber cement in my mother’s newspaper office–and a daily dollop of secondhand parental cigarette smoke–surely combined to give me the sharp intellect I have today.

Now there are tools that allow you to make your regular photos look like vintage Polaroids.

When they can figure out a way to bring back the smell of that fixative, I’m in.

Posted in: Art |

Just Ed

Get ready to read and hear the phrase “second banana” repeated a million times over the next few days. The death of Ed McMahon, the most famous sidekick in broadcasting history, is the reason.

The man McMahon sat next to for almost 30 years was my all-time favorite television figure. I mourned his death like a beloved uncle. To be honest, McMahon used to be a bit of a distraction. Any sentence he uttered meant that was one less I could hear from my hero.

But McMahon was an important part of the mix. On the rare nights that he was missing from the second chair, the show just wasn’t as crisp. When the joke was on him, as it often was, McMahon wasn’t a fall guy. He was a funny guy, and there’s a difference. It seems to me he deserves at least one obit in which he does not have to share billing with the Man behind the desk.

He was a hustler, McMahon was. He shilled for any number of brands and clients, from dog food to sweepstakes. He was a 1950s-era salesman at heart. He was also a type found in the early days of television: someone who came to the medium because he was a good talker, a clever wit and would grab any break that came along.

He was also a decorated combat veteran. In this and other ways that are less openly admired, he was a real survivor. He did work he loved, he did it well, and he did it for a long time.

Godspeed, Ed.

You clicked on me at 3 a.m. Don’t deny it.

Like every other self-involved blogger on the planet, I have Sitemeter. This may be the best bargain since gas stations gave away free dishes. Even a techno-spaz can load this thing on and get a running tally of blog hits.

Thing is, it counts more than hits. Way more. The summaries show me where people are located, what time they clicked on, how long they stayed, what page they entered/exited; and referral sources. (Thanks, Cyndi! Your Facebook praise pushed my numbers up!)

Unfortunately, Sitemeter is also a lot like early puberty–you know, that time in life when you checked key body parts every few hours to see if anything had changed, preferably for the better?

I check this thing so often that I’ve come to feel that I actually know the people behind the numbers. Like that reader in Hong Kong who clicks on in the middle of the night. Surely this must be someone homesick for America, right?

I’ve not seen any Hong Kong hits for 43 hours now and I’m imagining the worst.

Do you have any idea how easy it is for a Westerner to get run over in that city? If you see this, Hong Kong Reader, please remind yourself that the vehicular traffic goes the other way in this city, and do so before you step off the curb.

And would it kill you to click in on time tonight? I’m worried sick here.


One small step

The brief profile of astronaut Buzz Aldrin in the June 21 New York Times Sunday Magazine delighted me. He’s a hero of mine, and his dry sense of humor comes through in Deborah Solomon’s column.

When men first walked on the moon 40 years ago, it was big news at Camp Teela-Wooket in Roxbury, Vt. We were allowed to stay up and watch the one night of television we’d see during the month of July 1969. Most campers fell asleep before Neil Armstrong emerged for his walk; I was wide awake.

I was 10, away from home for the first time and for a month, wearing a uniform of stiffly starched light-blue cotton shorts, matching button-down camp shirt and precisely knotted red neck scarf. My mother, who suspected that even the Girl Scouts were a Fascist front, had allowed me to do this only because she was recovering from a near-death illness, and because I begged.

“But you’re sewing all those damn name-tags in your clothes,” she warned. I was probably 20 before I tossed out the last garment with that little blue-lettered KIMMIE MARLOWE tag sewn in with my ragged Frankensteinian stitches.

I fell in love with both camp and the space program that summer, and for some of the same reasons. Both transported me to a new place, the latter with nearly infinite possibilities.

If there has been any other event in my lifetime that’s appealed to such a broad swath of Americans, I don’t know what it is. Especially in the turmoil of the ’60s, it was rare for people in my world to agree on anything.

“If you were a boy, I’d shoot you in the knee myself to keep you from going to Vietnam,” my mother declared. My father wished our gutless enemies (any or all of them) would try to come ashore in New England where the flinty locals would set them straight. “They’d never get past the beach.”

Space travel, though, was fine all around. It was art, poetry, history, science, triumph (we kicked Russian butt!) and it united people in a way usually seen only during tragedies. There was a place out there without war or race riots or arguments over too-long hair and too-short skirts.

I’m surprised by the casual disregard for the space program now. Most of the time the launches and landings of our spacecraft are barely mentioned on the news. The idea of an orbiting workplace for scientists of both sexes and from many nations is no big deal.

It’s still a big deal for me. When I sit down at my computer in the morning, with its desktop background a NASA shot looking back at Earth, I get a tiny flash of what I felt in front of the TV that night the first big boot touched the powdery moon:

I am 10, my name-tags are securely in place; the heavens and the future are exactly the same thing.

A Day In Which Our Heroine Uses a Magic Bed to Meet a Hells Angel

When I saw the obit for John Houghtaling in the NYimes today, I had to laugh. No disrespect meant to the family of the late Mr. H., but the headline took me back to a memorable event: “Inventor of Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed, Dies at 92.”

My first and only experience with one of these coin-operated vibrating beds was in, of all places, Montpelier, Vermont, around 1978. I was a (very) young staff writer for The Associated Press, based in Concord, NH. As the least-senior staffer, I was sent to Montpelier as vacation relief several times that summer.

I don’t remember much about my work, other than being generally terrified that someone would notice that I was way over my head. Alone in the bureau, I spent a sweaty few moments trying to figure out (in those pre-Internet days) if commas went inside or outside of quotation marks. At 2 a.m. in Montpelier, there were not a lot of ways to get an answer. The other thing I recall is that the keyboards on the Vermont computers were slightly different than the Concord ones, and every time I’d try to hit the return key to make a new paragraph, I would wipe out the last sentence I’d typed.

But, these mental challenges aside, I understood that I was on a Real Adventure. The AP put me up in a motel nearby–the kind with the doors right on the parking lot. When I arrived, every other room was occupied by bikers and biker chicks, all wearing Hells Angels leathers (with that famous sans-apostrophe logo). I slipped past them, and locked myself in the room.

There, in all its glory, was a Magic Fingers Bed. For the uninitiated, let me explain. These beds were touted as “sleep aids” — and you slipped a quarter in the coin box in order to get a few minutes of gentle vibrating. Of course, people found the vibes more conducive to other bedtime activities as well. I knew this, being a sophisticated woman of the world and all, but this was the first time I’d come face-to-pillow with one of the real deals. Naturally, I had to try it.

So, I slipped a quarter in the slot and waited for the thrill. The Magic Fingers motor hummed for a few seconds and then kicked on. All hell broke loose. If you’ve never heard a queen-size bed with a metal frame slam itself against a pine-paneled motel-room wall, you’ve never heard real noise. I’m sure I rose off the mattress like a cartoon figure: still horizontal and three feet in the air.

To make matters worse, this was a more-for-your-money version of the Magic Fingers bed, apparently. It ran for a full 15 minutes, hurling itself against the shuddering wall. Five minutes into it, I could hear the bikers next door cheering. Something along the lines of “Go get ‘er!” as I recall.

When the thing quit, it took an hour for my heart rate to return to normal, and I spent a tense night half expecting the thing to rev up again.

I emerged from my room very early the next morning, and some of the bikers were packing up their saddlebags for the day’s ride up north. One of the grizzled guys looked over at me with a big grin. “Well, honey,” he said, “You sure sounded a lot more fun than you look.”

So, to the family of John Houghtaling, I will just say this: My condolences. He invented something worth remembering.

You can’t make this stuff up

Ah, Oregon. We used to be known as the state Where It Rains All the Time, Where Tonya Harding Was Born and Where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Was Filmed.

Now Oregon is going to be known as the state Where Rabbits Get Room Service.

A local woman is making news because she’s been busted–again–for “allegedly hoarding” rabbits. On probation from an earlier rabbit-related conviction, she was popped the other day for having 13 of the long-eared critters in the Portland-area hotel room where she has been living. This would mean she’s violated the condition of her parole which said she had to stay 100 yards away from any rabbit.

If this wasn’t so downright wacky, and let’s be honest, funny, it would be just plain sad. Whenever I read a story like this, I marvel at the infinite number of ways we humans find to try to make our own small worlds feel safe and right.

I come from a long line of people for whom activities like compulsive hand-washing and late-night sock-drawer tidying are practically religious ritual, so I’m not as far from the bunny-harboring end of the spectrum as I’d like.

Judaism has a prayer for nearly every occasion, and if there is one thanking God for making my compulsive behaviors fall within the law (and the tolerance of my near and dear), I probably should be muttering it right now.

The (under) Wire

I took a wrong turn at the mall yesterday and instead of the Apple Store, I found myself in the Semi-Annual Sale at Victoria’s Secret.


The place is an estrogen tsunami: dozens of women swarming over sale bins, yanking out pink, purple, black, brown, green and ivory bras and waving them like flags. (God forbid anything white is on sale.) The sales crew is uniformly young, all dressed in all-black, with elaborate headsets clamped over their shiny hair and black waist-packs full of pink stock-order cards. The waist pack also doubles as a sort of lipstick holster.

The headsetters whip out measuring tapes to size up women on the spot: Want me to fit you? I can do it over your t-shirt? As usual, most of customers are told they are wearing the wrong size. If it’s true that most women wear bras in the wrong size, could it be that the definition of a good fit needs revisiting? New guideline: If an undergarment isn’t flapping in the wind or cutting off air supply, it fits.

As any riot-squad cop can tell you, this sort of behavior is contagious. So I find myself in line clutching my own pink card that notes my name and size. (I resist the tape measure; nothing is flapping or choking me, thanks.) There is one other middle-aged woman in line, and we exchange small smiles: Wrong turn at the Apple Store, right?

The noise level is high, both volume and pitch. It sounds like the Superbowl, only without men. (Actually, two young guys have ventured into the store with girlfriends. They look exactly like rabbits in the headlights. Happy rabbits, willing to get run over.) A headsetter comes to my side and raises her voice to explain the drill: Off to a roomy dressing room where I am handed a drawer containing one of each of the Victoria’s Secret bras in my size. (Why don’t they do this at shoe stores?) She urges me to try them all on, so I can “find out what really works” for me. I’m left to imagine my bra really working while I sit around and think deep thoughts.

The bras (unlike their sister garments from, say, Target) are made of lovely material and do indeed deliver on their various slogans. “Extreme lift” is exactly that.

As I gaze at my new Extreme self, I wonder if this is how I’m supposed to look. Where my 51-year-old chest once was, now sits a handy shelf. A counter, even. A full luncheon-service place-setting could be set on it, salad fork included.

I consult with my headsetter. She ponders. “I think,” she says solemnly, “that it looks awesome.” Of course I bought it. When someone uses that word about your underwear, $48 seems quite reasonable.

Just to be on the safe side, when I got home, I lugged out the Oxford English Dictionary (the massive two-volume edition with magnifying glass) and looked up “awesome.”

In some uses it has meant “appalling, dreadful and weird.” But, no, I’m sure that nice salesperson meant she was feeling “profoundly reverential.”

Yeah, that must be it.

A wild idea: Tackle health care while we’re waiting to solve it

If we can just step away from the Is it Socialism? argument for five minutes and consider some interim measures, we might have a prayer of slowing down the health-care avalanche.

Some things to consider while we watch Congress roll in the mud:

Accept the reality that many Americans will always get care from ER and doc-in-a-box settings, and invest in that model. Create a wellness counterpart, where drop-in consultation is available for preventative, nutrition, counseling services.

If obesity is so expensive, why don’t we offer universal, free Weight Watchers-model health care? And if Wal-Mart can sell $89 drugs for $4 a pop…well, you know the rest of that sentence.

Establish universal standards of care and fee ranges that consumers, not just providers, know going in. If we already know that if it takes a $50,000 machine and a $30/hour tech to run it for 2 hours per patient then we can pencil out the cost for a place that sees 100 patients and the place that sees 1,000. (Oops! Took longer for that guy…good thing there’s a price range.)

–In that previous vein (pun intended), establish a consumer-protection model as the industry norm. Hey, funeral directors had to do it and it works just fine. And people said it would be impossible to regulate prices of services/goods that are purchased during a time of great stress and grief.

Tax people at a higher rate when they have financial interest in any facility or related insurance or medical company to which they can refer patients;

Provide real educational-cost incentives for future docs, nurses and medical personnel. This doesn’t mean deferred loans. It means real cuts and practical support for older people who have aptitude to switch careers;

Speed up the inevitable move of coverage away from employer-based system, although encourage employers to offer coverage as a perk to attract workers;

Encourage private health co-ops (through tax breaks and other supports) which are organized by neighborhood, profession, alumni groups, ethnic/fraternal groups. A sort of upscale revisiting of the settlement houses that served immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries;

Stop pretending that “basic health care” means TB screens and annual physicals. It means wellness education; mental health and addictions treatment; full blood-panel testing that screens beyond the basics; birth-control services; vision/hearing services; and pain management clinics;

Encourage cooperation between medical-government-law enforcement communities in order to begin to get a real handle on use/sale/manufacture of drugs that create huge problems (and costs) for family stability, public safety, business and health;

Allow medical-care “credits” to be accrued and shared. If I don’t spend mine this year, you can have ‘em. This move alone will shut up a lot of the arguing over Right to Die laws. If I want to opt out of treatment that prolongs my life, I can leave health care credits to my family. So there! And finally…

Require that all members of Congress sit in an ER on a busy weekend night for 8 hours once a month.

You read it here first

I don’t want to brag, but I did think up the idea of pump toothpaste about a year before Colgate introduced this wildly successful product. Sadly, I sent my letter to them regular mail, not registered, so my chance at millions of dollars evaporated.

I did what any inventor worth her notepad does: I picked myself up and resolutely went on to hatch new notions.

My latest grows out of personal need, the best source of inventions. (I’m sure the Post-it guy was just sick of writing on the backs of envelopes.)

No matter how large my desk space, I always need a side table for materials I’m using–big notebooks, maps, paper documents I’m comparing side-by-side. Sometimes the table needs to be even with the computer desk, other times higher or lower. It also needs to be something I can easily put away. Due to square footage of my work space as well as personal preference, I go for furniture that can be used more than one way, like furnishings on a boat.

Today, Dear Reader, I hit on the perfect solution: the ironing board. It’s easily adjustable, the right width (not too wide, but big enough for my large loose-leaf notebooks) and it can be folded up and stashed in the closet in a few seconds. Plus, once it’s out, I have no excuse not to iron the linen napkins for Shabbat dinner.

If the Colgate-Palmolive people try to horn in on this one, I’m ready to fight.

A shameful reality

An estimated 65,000 gay and lesbian troops are on active duty in our military now, and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” regulation means they have to keep their sexual orientation a secret while in uniform. This New York Times short video profile gives me an inkling of the huge price paid by the partners, friends and families of those troops. Imagine if heterosexual troops had to keep their spouses and civilian lives secret, pretending to be something they are not and lying to their comrades every minute of every day.

Language matters

When I saw the headline in The New York Times that promises the answer to “Hispanic, Latino or What?” I was delighted. At last, I thought, I’ll know which word is correct, and when to use it.

Well, not quite. There’s still a lot of disagreement among editors as well as those to whom the terms can be applied. I came away with the sense that “Hispanic” is somewhat safer, but the ideal is to reference the country of origin instead. Oh, and by the way, it’s a really good idea to stop and ask yourself why the reference is necessary in the first place.

If this seems like hair-splitting, reconsider.

The language we use influences what we think. Remember the Ms. battle? “Girl versus woman?” When “Asian” usurped “Oriental?” and “Native American” came into use? Or perhaps you’re old enough to recall when newspapers started the chain of changes that included colored/negro/black/Negro/Black/Afro-American/African-American? I thought “person of color” would never roll off my tongue easily, but it does — and is a much more respectful and useful phrase than my various bumbling guesses.

Now and then I hear someone–usually a person my age or older–complain they don’t know what the correct term is, as if they are exhausted by the effort of updating their vocabulary. Oh, please. If you can remember your PIN numbers, you can do this too.

Fact is, if people use certain ethnic and racial labels long enough, they become default settings, and it becomes out-of-touch or even uncouth to use the old terms. This is a good thing.

Surprising film

We just saw Tyson, a film about one of the best boxers in history. The film is a Greek tragedy–with Tyson playing the hero, villain, and chorus. I’m a boxing fan, so expected to like the clips, but did not anticipate being so intrigued by the man himself. He is complex: terrified, fearless, needy, violent, dangerous and kind.

As I watched, I learned a lot more about the life he’s led, which in turn pushes me to reexamine and rethink notions I have about violent behavior. This is not to say that I’m questioning the seriousness of Tyson’s crimes–or excusing them in any way. However, the film does compel one to think in more nuanced ways about the outside forces and inner demons that make one man a driven, ambitious and successful athlete who is adored, and another man a driven, ambitious and successful athlete who is despised…and rightly, feared.

President Obama in Cairo

When I took Latin in high school in the 1970s, I stumbled through translating speeches written by brilliant men (and maybe some brilliant ghostwriting women) in Ancient Rome. I never got very adept at the process, but I did like the ringing brilliance that emerged once I (or the exasperated teacher) read them aloud in English.

President Obama’s Cairo speech will be studied centuries from now. The analysis of it so far has focused on the “something to make everyone mad/happy” angle, and that much is true. But more important are the courageous and intelligent stands taken on human rights, terrorism, women’s rights–and especially, the dangerous stereotypes of Muslim and Western peoples. It was a brilliant hour.

My message to the reluctant students of history who parse his transcript in the future: Hang in there, it will be worth it in the end. Oh, and if grades still exist, don’t panic if you get a C- in the course. Trust me, by the time you’re middle-aged, no one will know or care how bad you were at translating.

One of my favorite quotes from the speech:

“For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes — and, yes, religions — subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests.
Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating.
Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.
So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it.
Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.”