Man hits tree; hell breaks loose

Ah, yes, the Tiger Woods accident story.

It was only a generation ago that the only really big news story likely to feature a black man and a tree was one about lynching.

Still, it’s too much of a stretch for me to call it “progress” just because every newspaper, “news” broadcast, chat room, social network and a zillion websites are carrying something about the silent hero and his low-speed crash the other night.

Okay, at first I was as guilty as a lot of other gawkers who can’t stop themselves from looking as they drive by someone’s misfortune. I typed “Tiger Woods accident” in Google a couple of times.

My support’s on the Tiger side of the ticket — the celeb spin doctors who say it is his “obligation” to speak publicly about the incident are, let’s face it, in the bullshit business, and their comments should be considered accordingly.

In my last search, I came up with a clever blog post that captures the pathetic and occasionally hilarious frenzy over a celeb electing to remain mum — how dare he! — until he’s damn ready to talk.

It’s James Ponewozik’s post in Time, here. His humorous jabs cajoled me into quitting my web crawling over this topic, which frees me up to criticize those of you who are still digging into Tiger’s business. Leave the guy alone, already.

Stranger than fiction

Who came up with the bright idea for our President to pardon a turkey on Thanksgiving?

(New York Times columnist Gail Collins writes about it here.)

And as weird as that is, imagine if pork or tofu became the national main dish for this holiday. Pardoning a ham? Letting a vat of that slimy soybean-sourced protein off the hook?

Giving food a stay of execution is just plain weird, let’s face it.

They know how to party

I can’t remember ever reading an article about a state dinner in the White House with such avid attention. But The New York Timesdescription of the dinner for India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh kept me riveted.

Sure, the President has a couple of wars to deal with, and that health care mess…oh, yes, and the limping financial situation…I’m following all that stuff. But it was with no little amount of relief that I turned to a description of how the First Family worked several messages into their menu.

Sustainable, healthy veggie items. Mixed collection of different china patterns. Very bright tablecloths and flowers that grew nearby instead of the usual flown-in-from-Holland varieties. And, lest anyone think this couple is all p.c. message and no fun, there were collard greens and cornbread on the table too.

Looking inside a sick system

Andrew Schneider, one of the best investigative reporters going, wrote this piece for Sphere, which is AOL’s new and promising news site. I don’t pretend to be objective — Schneider and I go way back — but I’m confident that I’m right about the quality of this piece.

It’s no news flash that people with health insurance get different care than those without it — but just how and when that happens is not always clear. Until we really grasp this process and where it collapses, we won’t be able to fix it.

This article sheds a lot of light on the issue. Another version runs on Cold Truth, Andy’s personal blog.

God is in the details…and the DNA

We humans hunt, gather, mate…and we instinctively reach out for something bigger than ourselves. We’ve evolved over zillions of years and all these behaviors seem to be wired into us, according to a tantalizingly short New York Times article, “The Evolution of the God Gene.”

Archaeologists in Mexico are the source for this provocative view. Their fascinating work has turned up more than worship spaces from 7,000 B.C., it has fueled the idea (for the NYT reporter Nicolas Wade anyway) that our need to believe in some kind of creator figure is not just the result of learned social norms…it is part of our cells and gray matter.

As Wade points out, this could shake up the religious and atheist alike. One side wants religion to be divine-inspired, the other regards it as superstitious voodoo. Wade goes on to assure both sides that there is no need to feel threatened, that this notion of a “God gene” doesn’t refute either position.

This passage also caught my eye:

“The ancestral human population of 50,000 years ago, to judge from living hunter-gatherers, would have lived in small, egalitarian groups without chiefs or headmen. Religion served them as an invisible government. It bound people together, committing them to put their community‚Äôs needs ahead of their own self-interest. For fear of divine punishment, people followed rules of self-restraint toward members of the community.”

That’s as cogent a description of religious community as I’ve ever seen. I’m going to save it in a file somewhere, like a good poem.

Here’s why I like it:

Religion is more often seen as a personal and elected thing in our society, but in fact it really is still an “invisible government.” Even if you do not believe that bad acts will send you to Hell, even if you never set foot in a house of worship; even if you do not believe that there is any greater force that influences the universe, you are still tethered to this government.

After reading the article, my mind wandered to a dear friend of mine who was raised as a Roman Catholic and who left the Church decades ago. When asked if he believes in God, he firmly says, “No.” Yet the rules he lives by are remarkably similar to, say, the Ten Commandments.

Also, I don’t want to speak for Jesus, but I’m pretty sure that if he came back, he’d give my friend a hearty high-five for all the clothing/feeding/caring for the poor, halt and lame that my buddy has done, all while politely eschewing God with a capital G. For that matter, the good this friend quietly does in his own small sphere is none other than the tikkun olam, the “repairing the world” that my rabbi endorses.

Yes, yes, I know. These things can be said to be morals or ethics, not religion. (In fact, I bet that’s how my friend labels them.) True. But it makes sense to me that this God-ish DNA is behind them, whatever labels we slap on.

More than once I’ve rolled my eyes at said friend when he does the no-God-for-me riff. Now I have a different way to think about this.

Somewhere back in time, when flippers gave way to feet and our ancestors plodded up on land and started considering condo development, they also developed wiring that drives us to create the invisible governments we need.

I buy that.

In my opinion…

Something author John Irving said at a reading here in Portland last week stuck in my mind.

During the Q&A, Irving was asked how he handles a “poor review.” The questioner could have been referencing any one of several critiques of Irving’s latest novel, “Last Night in Twisted River.”

Irving answered with some venom, in itself a not uncommon attitude for a prolific author exasperated by years of dealing with reviewers. In effect he said, “After 12 novels, it is possible that I am much better at what I do than a reviewer is at what he does.”

It got me thinking about reviewing; what makes a good one, good. And a bad one, bad.

I’ve turned this question over in my mind for a long time. I started reviewing for daily and weekly newspapers back about 1990. The books are almost always assigned to me by an editor; I don’t pick them. I do a fair amount of fiction, especially regional writers, but my strengths as a reviewer tend to nonfiction: religion, American history, biography.

(I’ve also been called on to review a lot of work on mental illness and self-help topics, which probably doesn’t reflect too favorably on how editors see me, but whatever. God knows there’s a lot written that falls under those headings, so you won’t hear any whining from me.)

An accomplished journalist I know has been ranting to me for years about the need for reviewers to be highly critical, not just point readers to new not-to-be-missed books. Not only does that keep readers engaged, he says, it gives the reviewer more credence.

He’s not wrong, but I don’t fully agree. Too often book reviewers do what I call the Reviewer Waltz: Step forward with one compliment, then back. Some sideways praise, then step away briskly. They so fear being considered soft that they opt for brittle. Or worse, they bury their opinion in such dense lecturing that the reader is too exhausted to go find the actual book and see for herself.

My own rules for reviews go something like this:

1 – If it stinks, I don’t review it.
One exception: If the author is someone so talented that this new-and-awful book is going to make fans feel deeply betrayed.

2 – Consumer protection is part of my job.
Literary quality aside, sometimes I need to provide a heads-up that will save a book buyer from misstep…or mortification. A novel by pop writer Eric Jerome Dickey was such a case when it veered from his usual frank treatment of sexuality to good ol’ fashioned porn. Not the best gift book for a conservative mother-in-law. Likewise, a nonfiction book packaged as a feminist treatment of women’s careers was really a right-wing wolf in hip-sheep’s clothing — and needed to be labeled as such.

2 – Read at least some of the author’s earlier work before writing about the new book.

3 – Aim for historical, cultural and literary references that result in I-feel-smarter! for the reader, rather than that Damn, I’m smart! feeling for me.

4 – Resist the cheap one-liner for a laugh. (I fail at this one sometimes.)

5 – When the review is done, ask myself this question out loud:

“How does this serve the reader?”

If my answer sounds like waffly bullshit, it is. Start over.

Oh, and for what it’s worth: Irving is right, he is better at what he does than most reviewers are at what we do.

You still working on that?

New York restaurateur Bruce Buschel
is this week’s hero.

His blog in The New York Times, in which he’s chronicling the planning and opening of his new eatery, does every diner in America a personal favor.

Buschel posted a two-part list titled “100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do.” True, by the time he gets to the last 40 or so, a reader is wondering where on earth he will find enough qualified servers. But a little overkill is fine with me.

Here’s why: I live in an excellent restaurant town–lots of good places, always new cuisines to try, original interpretations of old favorites, decent prices. And terrible server etiquette.

Servers here have a high need to interrupt table conversation to ask a question, and it is almost always a question that can wait. I have yet to try this, but I am quite confident that if I staged a weeping exchange with my tablemate at almost any restaurant in Portland, the server would still butt in and ask if I needed hot sauce.

Servers also routinely try to take my plate when I’m done, despite the fact that my husband has eaten only one-third of his meal. (Why don’t they just hang a sign around my neck that says SHE EATS TOO FAST?)

They touch the rim of the water glasses. They stack every plate in a towering, precarious pile instead of clearing quietly or using a tray.

There are exceptions, of course. Places with good, professional servers. Interestingly, they are often very modest establishments. (See here and here for two such places.)

I’m tempted to print out the “100 tips” and start slipping it under the other tip…the 20 percent I leave even when the service is rotten.