There’s a word for this

I had no sooner finished reading the obituary for William Safire, fearless commentator, tireless writer and unparalleled language-czar, when a faint beep sounded, warning me of an incoming job opportunity in my email.

I wish I’d never signed up for all those “career feeds” in the first place, but that’s what a day with a head cold and nothing good on pay-per-view cable can do to a person.

The job ad touts a community-relations position with a big international nonprofit that has an Oregon office. In the middle of its windy description of duties, this gem appears:

“The Community-Relations Officer will focus matrixed teams on matters of cross-agency benefit.”

I’m sure if I had any idea what this meant I would be an excellent person to do it. Alas, I will just continue to focus my un-matrixed team-of-one on cross-room trips from desk to ‘fridge.

Rest in peace, Mr. Safire.

Prayer, American Style

“The Right Way to Pray” by Zev Chafets in the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday is a not-to-be-missed article.

Chafets is a fine reporter and writer. Fueled by intelligence, humor and doubt, he writes in the first person without excessive posing. I was surprised to discover that Chafets is 61-ish. I thought he was much younger.

His opinion columns drive his detractors absolutely nuts. A 2003 piece in The New York Daily News is still being quoted far and wide, usually by someone who is furious about it. It comments on the death of Edward Said, the renowned Columbia University prof widely known for his theories and work on anti-Arab/Islam attitudes in the Western world. (Said’s 1978 book “Orientalism” put him on the map.)

Chafets slammed the venerated Said, winding up with this:

“He[Said] didn’t blow up Marines in Lebanon in 1983, ignite the Palestinian intifadeh or send Wahhabi missionaries to preach violence against infidels. He certainly didn’t fly a plane into the World Trade Center. What he did do was jam America’s intellectual radar. He wasn’t the architect of 9/11, but he was the father of the 9/12 inability to comprehend it…
Ah, well, Said is in paradise now. As an Episcopalian, he’s ineligible for the customary 72 virgins, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s honored with a couple of female doctoral candidates. No one deserves it more.”

That Chafets article caused the sort of intellectual whiplash that good and controversial writers visit on me:

–Yes! I’m a Zionist too!
–No! I don’t despise Said!
–Yes! Love the one-liner about the virgins!

Anyway, back to his latest NYT Magazine piece. “The Right Way to Pray” describes the various ways Americans are approaching their theo-chats, seeking support from megachurches and prayer coaches.

Prayer is a subject usually neglected by newspapers, and very rarely written about in the first person. Selling a story on prayer to a secular publication is an uphill battle. For years I tried in vain to get whichever newspaper was employing me at the time to consider a piece on people praying in their cars. I am positive that more true prayer takes place behind the wheel than any other place in America.

Why? Because it is the one place most of us have real privacy and time for reflection. And because driving routinely puts us in situations that trigger involuntary entreaties to the Higher Power: Please don’t let that cop be coming after me. Please stop that speeding dump truck coming up in back of me at this stoplight. Please get me over this very high bridge without fainting. Please don’t let that rattling noise be anything expensive.

I’m sure cellphones have cut into drive-time prayer. Which is ironic, given that we should all be praying more often than ever: Please God, don’t let that guy texting his girlfriend plow into my car.

Oppression 3.0

I’ve been thinking about division of labor lately and I realize just how dramatically the who-does-what-around-the-house process has changed for me.

Twenty years ago, the question of who emptied the dishwasher was a feminist issue. Ten years before that it was completely non-negotiable because I flatly refused to do any “traditionally female” activities. This hard-ass attitude was less impressive than it might have been, given that I had neither dishwasher nor many dishes in my household…nor, come to think of it, a man. But, hey, the principle was still valid.

I’m not less of a feminist now; in fact I may be giving off a higher reading on the Sisterhood Geiger Counter. But two things have changed, one of them positive, the other anything but.

The positive is that I’m married to a man who is a feminist, which means a load of laundry is just a pile of dirty clothes, not a teaching moment. On the downside, I’m more worried about other kinds of bigotry–that based on race and class.

I wonder what my younger self would have thought if someone had prophesied about the open-ended ransom being paid now to banks and other protected corporations, while the folks ponying up the dough are losing homes, cars, jobs. Or what I would have made of the spreading Neo-Klan mentality that’s come to light during the discourse on that Congressional moron insulting the President.

It’s enough to make me miss the days when my big worry was who did the vacuuming.

Try taking these with that puny little iPhone

This surely violates copyright law, but I’m going to risk it to draw attention to what has to be the most wonderful collection of photos to grace a website.

These Smithsonian magazine shots give our solar system its due: shockingly beautiful in its alternating moods of violence and calm. The pictures originated during various space-exploration missions and I don’t think have been grouped this way before, displayed with such clarity.

Saturn, of course, is absolutely the best planet, just by virtue of its ever-present accessories. But the moons of Jupiter and Neptune look pretty snappy here too. Click through all the photos using the panel of dots below the description–and feel free to add appropriate background music of your choosing. (Viewers of a certain vintage might want to dig out the “Trick of the Tail” album by Genesis.)

I did experience one reality check: I was delighted when the first good photos of Mars started coming back, but these much sharper shots make it look like the site of the Burning Man gathering. Sorry, but I just can’t get excited about any event involving a lot of strangers in the desert unless it takes place on a big screen with Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif nearby.

The article accompanying these photos is a delight too. (Not always the case with such pieces.) Writer Laura Helmuth has a fine touch that works for the science nerd and layreader alike. She writes this about Saturn’s moons:

Titan, the largest (bigger even than Mercury), has lakes of supercool methane and slushy eruptions of a water-ammonia mix. Enceladus is riddled with geysers so powerful they feed matter into Saturn’s rings. Rhea may have its own rings. Saturn is practically a solar system unto itself.”

If you too once spent many happy hours constructing a shaky model of the solar system involving a lot of toothpicks and ping-pong balls, this is your chance to be transported again.

The Children’s Hour

New research on how parental approval affects a child over time grabbed my attention. I’ve always believed that whatever self-confidence and related successes I enjoy come out of the nearly blind admiration I received from the adults in my family.

This boosterish view of me was oddly juxtaposed with other aspects of our lives together. It was a mood-altered, money-challenged, dirty-fighting environment, fueled by steady supplies of junk food, lived out in rooms and cars full of cigarette smoke. It was also a solar system that revolved around Planet Kim. My parents and older sister agreed on little, but they came together over their mutual regard for the smallest member of the household.

A therapist I knew years ago said I should be angry about this childhood. That a truly loving family would have provided a more stable, responsible home. But as my father used to say, what I got was lots better than a sharp stick in the eye.

I can count on one hand the number of times I was yelled at during my childhood. They spent what money they had on the books, summer camp, party dresses and bottles of Coca Cola I wanted. If another adult failed to see my obvious charm and talents, they were waved off in disgust. “Tell that piano teacher to go shit in her hat,” my mother said.

All three brought me along wherever they went, laughed at my jokes, took all my questions seriously.

My father was particularly good at this last thing. He was the weakest link in the chain, unable to go the distance as a dad-in-residence beyond my 11th year. But he listened when I confided to him, at about age 9, that I was pretty sure my ears were loose. He took me by the hand and we dropped in to see a buddy of his, the physician who lived down the hall. Another divorced guy living it up in a one-bedroom bachelor pad apartment.

Dr. Leonard set down his glass of Scotch, found his reading glasses, and examined my ears. “They could be tighter, but you’ll be fine,” he said. My father nodded solemnly. “Good news,” he said.

Now and then I wonder what I would have made of my life had I grown up with law-abiding married parents, regular encounters with all four food groups, better school attendance and fewer mid-day James Bond movies.

I might be more accomplished; rich and famous even. Or, I might be a fearful, lonely woman living alone in a very clean house, worrying about ear loss. I’m good with this.

I couldn’t agree more

I’ll be honest: There’s nothing quite as gratifying as hearing or reading strong opinions that mirror my own, voiced by folks who are better informed and smarter than myself.

To wit:

Columnist Maureen Dowd is a sharp and intelligent observer of the Washington scene she covers. (Her shrill tone irritates me, but there’s no denying the brainpower.) Her column on Congressman Joe Wilson’s outburst, in which he called the President of the United States a liar, gives voice to something we would all like to forget:

“But Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of the president — no Democrat ever shouted “liar” at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq — convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.

Likewise, when Doris Kearns Goodwin, one of the most accomplished historians of our time, was asked by 60 Minutes what she thought Sen. Ted Kennedy added to the historical canon with his just-released memoir, she didn’t hesitate.

She noted that in his book “True Compass,” Kennedy frequently cites his deep admiration for President Lyndon Johnson and his accomplishments. Kearns Goodwin seizes on those comments because they differ so from the Kennedy party line. (Both John and Robert made no secret of disliking LBJ, who energetically returned their disdain.)

To my mind, Kennedy’s comments are significant because they might just nudge a younger generation of readers to give LBJ the credit he deserves, and which has so often been denied by people my age and older. Strong feelings about the American disaster in Vietnam keep many baby boomers from recognizing the huge accomplishments of the Johnson administration, including the passage of civil rights legislation that helped Barack Obama get where he is today.

Life changing

We think we remember the feeling exactly, but we don’t.

The attacks on 9/11 were the sort of mind-freezing tragedies that human brains work hard to minimize. To remember it all precisely is too hard for most of us.

What comes rushing back to me is the memory of how urgently I felt pulled toward home that day. I was driving from a friend’s place on Cape Cod, skirting Boston to get to New Hampshire, where we lived at the time. My partner was at a conference in Boston, and left there just ahead of the orders to shut down the many tunnels and main highways. I knew it might not be the smartest move to be driving on major arterials not far from a big airport, but I was determined to get to that small nest of ours, with an address on “Liberty Street” of all places.

We both made it. We checked on all our New York loved ones. We sat glued to the television for what seemed like days.

Commentators today are remarking on the solidarity we Americans felt on that day in 2001, and for some weeks and months afterward. They inevitably get around to bemoaning the distance that grew up later, the way many things returned to the bad-old-days as the flag stickers on our cars faded and peeled.

I want to remember other things. The remarkable heroism of so many people at the attack sites. The gratitude I felt when we both got home. The decision we made soon after to move together to the Pacific Northwest, rather than live 3,000 miles apart for a few months while I started a job in Seattle. Instead of that admittedly more prudent plan, my partner left his job and we went together. Life is short, we said. We need to stick together.

Read on!

Author Anne Lamott, whose book “Bird by Bird,” is one of the most enjoyable guides to writing to come along in the past 100 years or so, penned this open letter to President Obama. It ran last week in the Los Angeles Times. It’s well worth your time:

“I am afraid there has been a misunderstanding since that election in 2008, during which 66,882,230 Americans cast their votes for you. Perhaps one of your trusted advisors has given you bum information. Maybe they told you that we voted for you — walked, marched, prayed, fund-raised and knocked on doors for you — because we hoped you would try to reunite the country. Of the total votes cast that long-ago November day, I’m guessing that about 1,575 people wanted you to try to reconcile the toxic bipartisanship that culminated in those Sarah Palin rallies.

The other 66,880,655 of us wanted universal healthcare.

Click here for the rest.

A Labor Day reflection: Sherrie, Chuck and me

The summer I was 16 I rebelled at working for my mother’s small newspaper. I was determined to be independent. Which I was, just as soon as she got through twisting a local factory owner’s arm to give me a job in return for a break on the company’s overdue advertising bill.

So I found myself at First-Rate Packaging Inc., housed in the basement of an old brick shoe factory. There I stood for the summer of 1973, eight hours a day, stapling bags containing clothes and accessories for a line of knock-off Barbie and Ken dolls, cleverly renamed Sherrie and Chuck.

At first glance, the plastic duo looked like their pricier counterparts. Sherrie had the same blonde ponytail and permanently arched feet; Chuck obviously worked out a lot. But on closer examination, Sherrie’s nose lacked the requisite perky tilt and there was something not quite right about Chuck’s neck.

The bags packed on my line held synthetic doll dresses and pants that molted like a flock of dying geese, and by day’s end we’d all be hacking and rubbing our eyes. I probably ingested enough polyester that summer to weave a circus tent.

The owner was a hulking middle-aged redhead everyone called Big Jean. Her swaggering, good-looking son and his silent, heavily pregnant wife worked on the line with us. Big Jean never spoke in anything but a yell, and started or ended nearly every sentence with “for shit’s sake!”

She didn’t like any unnecessary talking and went apoplectic if anyone took one second over the allotted 30 minutes for lunch. We could listen to the radio, but keeping time with a foot, head or hip was forbidden. To this day, whenever I hear “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight, my feet start killing me and I have to pee.

Most of the other workers were ancient-looking Polish and Italian women who were probably in their 40s. Each woman had one hand noticeably bigger than the other from years of operating huge industrial staplers and hot-press machines that sealed package parts together.

They made the most of the lunch break, snapping open countless Tupperware containers of homemade pierogi, meatballs and cannelloni, and passing them around. When I opened my lunch bag the first day and pulled out a limp peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a shocked silence fell over the table. Then all of them began pushing food my way, insisting I eat up.

One morning in July, the woman operating the biggest hot-press machine let out a loud whoop and jumped back. We all froze, imagining the worst. Big Jean ran the length of the room to the press.

“Well, for shit’s sake,” she boomed. “I thought you’d cut off your goddamn finger.” Big Jean stomped back to her office, glaring at us. “The rest of you get back to work!”

It turned out that the barrel of bathing-suit clad Sherries and Chucks awaiting packaging held a stunning surprise: Somehow a male doll had ended up in the female-doll plastic molder back at the toy factory. The result was a Chuck with breasts.

This was the funniest thing any of us could imagine. No amount of hollering by Big Jean could suppress us. For the rest of the day, every few minutes someone would start giggling and then we’d all start again. Even the usually mute daughter-in-law laughed, holding her huge pregnant belly.

We placed Chuck-with-breasts in the center of the lunch table, modestly draped in a paper-napkin poncho. Big Jean let us keep him there all summer.

Happy hour in the woods, that’s the ticket

Why is it that every new revelation about boosting brainpower requires pursuing some pastime I’ve taken great pains to avoid?

The two examples that prompted this worry:

A brief piece in The New York Times claims “moderate drinking” after age 60 reduces the odds of developing dementia.

A fascinating essay that ran some months back in the Boston Globe, and was given to me by a friend yesterday. It says urban settings jumble the mind and reduce ability to concentrate, while greener, leafier surroundings have the opposite effect. (“How a city hurts your brain…and what you can do about it” by Jonah Lehrer.)

Now, with my gene pool, the likelihood of my practicing “moderate drinking” is roughly the same as indulging in “occasional invisibility.” So that leaves the rural-settings-are-better issue. That sound you hear is my heart sinking. My natural habitat is pavement, and I like my big blue skies best on a large multiplex screen.

Lehrer is utterly convincing when he explains just how a walk along a crowded city sidewalk causes our memories to short-circuit, nerves to fray and our self-control to erode. This is straightforward stuff, not windy theory.

The worst part is the connection between urban chaos and splurging. The same part of the brain monitors both things, and once you’ve busied the prefrontal cortex by dodging skateboarders and purse-snatchers, it’s hard to say no to a $3.65 cup of coffee. (At last, an answer to the question of why Starbucks locates stores so close together on city blocks.)

Embracing nature at this point in my life is unlikely. The sight of more than two trees together makes me nervous, as do chirping crickets, swooping birds, rustling grasses and large amounts of (unbottled) still water. (A fountain is fine. As long as I can hear sirens over the rushing water.)

I’m clinging to Lehrer’s point that “studies have found that even a relatively paltry patch of nature can confer benefits.” I hope this is true, because I’m thinking of borrowing some technology from the Seasonal Affective Disorder folks — you know, the ones who stare into those bright indoor lights to get over the winter blues?

Instead of lightbulbs, I’ll set up a small basket of potted plants and a strip of sod on the coffee table. I’ll ease into the habit of sitting quietly in front of it for a few minutes a day.

I’m wondering; would it be cheating to put part of a gum wrapper and some tiny pieces of broken glass in there? You know, just until I get used to spending time in the country.

The (book)worm turns

There’s a vibrant educational movement growing up around the idea that kids need more cajoling and more choices in order to turn into avid readers.

The New York Times tracks which stories get emailed the most, and a recent one headlined, “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like,” has been zooming between readers. These educators say forcing a kid to read “Huckleberry Finn” is not necessarily going to make her beg for more. In fact, it may even sour her on People magazine.

Allowing youngsters to chose reading material can work much better, which doesn’t surprise those of us who spent eighth-grade with a dog-eared copy of “Valley of the Dolls” hidden inside a math book.

The NYT story got me wondering what books are being crammed down kids’ throats these days in those unenlightened schools that still do things the old-fashioned way. The summer-reading lists I found online surprised me. The dustiest classics I found are Rebecca by Daphne DuMarier and Agatha Christies’ Murder on the Orient Express–not easy reads, but still pretty juicy stuff. (And, let’s be honest, available in film versions, which makes it possible for the non-reader to fake it quite convincingly.) Most of the other titles are contemporary, ranging from sci fi to biography and narrative viewpoints from kid-with-two-mommies to brave war orphan.

Still, some kids resist those reading lists, which worries parents and teachers. I’m all for raising more bookworms, but I can see some flaws in the new approach.

The first is the persistent myth that a precocious reader is going to be a good student, or is automatically smarter than a non-reader. As a person who read Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea while still in elementary school, but could never memorize all the multiplication tables or stay awake during science class, I’m here to tell you that a bookworm does not an egghead make.

Another faulty assumption is that a group of kids reading and talking about a book is a socializing process that will help turn them into well-adjusted adults. I’d venture that some kids will be more likely to fall in love with reading if it is promoted as a solitary activity–far away from cliques, warring parents and other annoying adults. I learned early on that I could disappear into a book like a reverse magic trick in which the rabbit ducks into the hat. It remains my drug of choice. If a martini could put me in the same place that a good novel does, I’d be flat as a haddock most days.

It is also unwise to assume that faster reading is always better. Pushing a kid (or an adult) to hurry through a book is like rushing someone through a fine meal. Some of us gobble, some like to chew that meatball more thoroughly.

All of these things aside, it is a very good thing that educators are thinking outside the box about ways to introduce kids to the joy of reading, one of the few pastimes that is completely portable, legal, inexpensive, safe and fun at any age. And, when done in a certain fashion, need not be accompanied by custom-generated ads off to the side of the text.

Personally, I think any movement that gets educators focused on reading versus multiplication tables seems like a fine thing.