More inventions we need.

1. Prayer books with source footnotes pointing out that “our” religion is a direct descendant of “their religion.”

2. An African American man playing James Bond.

3. Toaster that works in 60 seconds.

4.  GPS for socks in the laundry.

5.  An iPhone ap for personal body scans in event of mysterious middle-of-the-night pains.

Sir James Dyson, slayer of bed bugs?

Sir James Dyson has done more than any man alive to keep floors clean, breezes flowing, water moving uphill, and hands dry. He is, of course, best known in America for his “root cyclone” vacuum cleaners.

Now is the time for Sir James to truly shine. As the epidemic of bed bugs makes news across America, the nervous itchy population awaits some new way to fight these hardy critters. A recent convention in Chicago brought hundreds of entomologists and pest-control experts together and the consensus was: The bugs are winning.

Who better to invent a device to zap these mattress invaders? Anyone who has experienced the 400 mph winds of a Dyson hand dryer in a restroom knows the man can’t be far from figuring out how to roast, suck up or blow away bugs.

It’s true: It gets better.

For anyone who is getting bullied, left out, harassed because of her or his sexual orientation…or really, any “difference” from the so-called norm…this video project initiated by writer Dan Savage will strike a chord. He’s a professional speaker, so his video is more polished than the others, but the theme is the same: We all just want to be accepted for who we are. The project was initiated as a way to honor a young man who took his own life, and it has grown quite quickly. Check it out.

A state for the robber barons.

Columnist Paul Krugman takes a tough stand in his New York Times column. Consider this excerpt:

“…if you want to find real political rage — the kind of rage that makes people compare President Obama to Hitler, or accuse him of treason — you won’t find it among these suffering Americans. You’ll find it instead among the very privileged, people who don’t have to worry about losing their jobs, their homes, or their health insurance, but who are outraged, outraged, at the thought of paying modestly higher taxes.”

As Krugman points out, everyone gets to whine…but things are really going south when Forbes magazine runs a cover story saying that President Obama “is deliberately trying to bring America down as part of his Kenyan, ‘anticolonialist’ agenda, that the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s.”

These rich people are obviously terrified. And of what, exactly?

Maybe it would be easier to let this one percent of super-wealthy Americans have their own state. They can elect their friends to leadership positions, ban all state income taxes, and call in their state’s militia when anyone tries to cross the border who doesn’t think the way they think.

Of course, it might be tough to form a state militia. Or get the living rooms cleaned.

As for that clogged bathroom drain…unplug it yourself, moneybags. All the little people are busy helping the President figure out ways to screw you out of your last buck.

Yeah, Nick. I’m sorry too.

Prejudice, even xenophobia, is not always all about hate. Sometimes it’s about plain ol’ laziness.

This insight dropped on me this morning like the anvil in the old Roadrunner cartoons. Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column, “Message to Muslims: I’m Sorry” was the shove.

Kristof makes the point that those of us who fume over the question “Why don’t moderate Muslims speak up against extremists?” should also ask another question:

Why don’t I, a moderate non-Muslim in America, speak up against the extremists in my own country?

Well, let’s see. I guess I’ve decided that Tea Party folks, Fox News, Rush Whatshisname, and followers of Sarah Palin are so absurd that there’s no reason to spend time debating their hateful and demoralizing messages and their flatly untrue “reporting.”

And I guess I’ve shrugged off the Arizona approach to illegal immigration because it seems so patently ineffective that it is beside the point to decry its racism.

And maybe because our tax structure is easily dismissed as slimy self-interested rich people taking care of their own, I haven’t felt much need to point out that it is systematic discrimination and larceny directed at the working poor.

In other words, because it is easier to ask: Why don’t those moderate Muslims stand up for what’s right?

I’ll tell you what: I’ll do better.

As with any new exercise, I’ll start slow. Whenever I hear someone trot out that moderate Muslim criticism, I’ll look up from my full plate in my cozy home long enough to say: Bullshit.

I can do it, I know I can.

Stuyvesant would have liked Fox News.

Historian Jonathan Sarna wrote this in the The Jewish Daily Forward recently, referencing Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New Amsterdam (now known as the Big Apple), who lived 1647-1664.

An excerpt:

In distancing himself from Peter Stuyvesant and the many others who have defined American religious liberty in narrowly restrictive terms, [Bloomburg]  reminds us that if today’s target is the mosque, yesterday’s was most assuredly the synagogue.

(Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. He’s the author of the excellent book, Judaism: A History. The book should be on every American history buff’s bookshelf.)

Review: “The Warmth of Other Suns”

An excerpt from my Seattle Times review of Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

Many of us see the history of African Americans as bracketed by slavery and the televised moments of the 1950s-’60s civil-rights movement. Coverage of Barack Obama’s historic election replayed those midcentury milestones: cruel, brave, jubilant, violent moments. The past unrolled in footage of powerful speeches; attack dogs and fire hoses; a dignified, unblinking dark-skinned girl walking into a Southern school with white adults screaming abuse all around her.

Isabel Wilkerson’s exceptional book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” moves the story to a much larger screen, as she chronicles the migration of some six million African Americans who left the South behind between World War I and the 1970s. Her extensive demographic and social-history research, thousands of interviews and select oral histories create a fresh, rich book.

Wilkerson, who teaches at Boston University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times writer. She spent more than a decade on the book, which is framed by the migration of three very different people in this revolutionary exodus out of Jim Crow segregation.

See the whole review, here.

Yup, the little woman is clever.

Last week I wrote a long overdue fan letter to our health care provider about the terrific attention my husband received from hospital staff more than a year ago.

A note came back promptly from Member Relations, addressed to him, which said:

“Thank you for the letter submitted by your wife in which she expressed your satisfaction…”

It’s not often that a big health care operation seizes the opportunity to thank a guy for his wife’s actions.

Escapist reading has its uses.

If you wait long enough, your favorite theories will be proven by some researcher, somewhere. If you’re very lucky, the research will be explained by a talented reporter.

Some years ago I returned to college as a full-time student. It was the first time I’d studied for exams in more than 20 years. Okay, if I’m honest, it was probably the first time I’d ever studied for exams, period.

I discovered a technique, by accident, that helped me retain information. The week before exams, I read through my notes from textbook readings and class lectures.  I read those notes for 30 minutes or so, then took a break. During the break I read a trashy period-piece novel with very detailed descriptions of places, furnishings and clothing. It had a plot so predictable that it took almost no thinking to absorb what was going on.

I aced the exam.

Now perhaps I know why it worked. As reporter Ben Carey explains in The New York Times:

The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

It’s not exactly what Carey is describing, but close. For me “background associations” were not the physical rooms in which I studied, but the places I saw in my mind while reading the novel.

This is cool stuff. Read Carey’s piece, here.

And the next time you have to read and learn material, try switching locations. If nothing else, it will acquaint you with new coffee shops.

Bookish. (updated) (updated again)

Some of the books from this summer and fall that I can recommend…or not:

“Blind Man’s Alley” by Justin Peacock - You wouldn’t think a thriller about a New York City developer and the lawyers who represent him would be a page turner, but “Blind Man’s Alley” is, in fact, just that. The characters’ dialogue rings true; the lawyers, real estate robber barons, and the journalists are well cast; New York City is as much of a player in the plot as any human. There’s even some biracial angst and the realistic amount of sex possible for a lawyer who works 80 hours a week. It won’t be long before this one is a movie, I’ll wager.

“Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski - This gratifyingly fat volume is what you always hope to find when you buy a new, writerly, recommended-by-bookstore-staff, nouvelle-cuisine kind of book. Only this one isn’t contrived or over-written and it’s about a boy and dogs without turning into Old Yeller 2.0.

“Up from Orchard Street” by Eleanor Widmer – This is the first novel written in 100 or so years about Jews on the Lower East Side that has an original story line. It’s historically accurate and the characters are much more interesting than anyone you’re going to meet this week, so read it instead of perusing Match.com or going to Happy Hour.

“The King’s Favorite,” by Susan Holloway Scott and “The Other Queen” by Philippa Gregory – I got my annual Royal fix with these two novels. Gregory is the better-known author, and she carries on her strong research and convincing narrative style of 16th-century English intrigue here. Its rotating first-person accounts by Mary, Queen of Scots; the Earl of Shrewsbury (George Talbot) and his wife, Bess of Hardwick, are good stuff, although Bloody Mary’s egotistical rants get tiresome. (Think how poor Bess felt…she had to host the annoying Mary for more than two years while the reigning Queen Elizabeth I tried to figure out what to do with her plotting cousin.) Scott’s novel is just as well researched, and ultimately a more enjoyable tale with its lone narrator, the bawdy Nell Gwyn. This illiterate, street-smart actress and mistress of King Charles II started out as a tavern wench in the 1660s and never lost sight of those humble beginnings. By all accounts she was an honest, uncomplicated friend to Charles, a rarity in court life. (Then and now, probably.)

The 37th Hour” by Jodi Compton – After I read “Hailey’s War,” I hunted up this novel by the same author. Also very good. Compton has a gift for strong, flawed, believable, contemporary female characters. This one stars a police detective with a gift for finding missing people. She’s put to the test when her husband, also a cop, disappears. It’s a thriller on the surface and underneath…a meditation on the many ways people get lost. Sometimes without going anywhere at all.

“Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right,” by Benjamin Balint – I bought this planning to get a sense of period details relevant to 1940s-50′s Jewish intelligentsia, and ended up reading it with care. This is a sleeper; well researched, well written. It’s a close look behind the scenes at a magazine that brought America good stuff by Roth, Malamud, Singer, Arendt, Mailer, and the staff’s gradual move to the Right. This arc of change is a fascinating process and (former Seattleite) Balint does a masterful job explaining how it went down. The cast of characters is worthy of a novel or two. Balint’s four-year stint as an editor at Commentary came in handy.

“Hailey’s War” by Jodi Compton - Very good novel that is much smarter, less predictable, fresher than whatever thriller you last read. Hailey has much of the panache of the blockbuster heroine Lisbeth Salander who will apparently be on the bestseller list for years. She’s a West Point washout, bike messenger and wow, she can kick some butt and think meaningful thoughts at the same time. Loved it.

“Wherever You Go” by Joan Leegant - New novel about three people pursuing their vision of Judaism and Israel today. I disagree with the NYT review on this one. I found the characters and their struggles to be realistic and the push-pull of life as a Jew today to be captured with clarity and feeling. Buy it.

“South of Broad” by Pat Conroy - Someone has hijacked this formerly wonderful writer. A whacked plot and a hero I wanted to slap. Reread any of his other books instead.

In My Father’s House” by Lynn Harris (of blessed memory) — Slightly convincing gay soft porn and a lot of fashion detail exhibited by characters of color. Flaccid plot. You decide.

“Poor Little Bitch Girl” by Jackie Collins - Yes, I am ashamed. But I got it at the library. I did not spend money on it. You probably wouldn’t buy it anyway, right? Don’t.

“Born on a Blue Day: Inside the extraordinary mind of an autistic savant” by Daniel Tammet - Wonderful, fascinating, occasionally gently funny first-person account. It is impossible to look at other marching-to-different-drummer type humans quite the same way after reading this one. It helps that he’s a Brit on top of it all.

“Marriage and Other Acts of Charity” by Kate Braestrup – Not as good as her previous book, but continues the appealing story of the widowed chaplain who ministers to law enforcement and civilians in the Maine woods. If all clergy were this practical and funny, the world would be a better place.

“The Devlin Diary”  by Christi Phillips – Story moves between Oxford of today and 17th century England. An escapist novel with very good historical grounding and a female protagonist with brains and bravery. The duties and drawbacks of a female doctor in the royal court are considerably more interesting than those of the contemporary scholar of history at stuffy Oxford.

“Dragons” by Michael Connelly – The Detective Harry Bosch series is now DOA. Or should be. This one reads like a movie treatment.

“Split Image: A Jesse Stone Novel” by Robert B. Parker – Trademark terse sentences. Snappy one-liners. Alcoholism. Washed-up cop. Hot private detective. If this mystery book was food, it would be those little oyster crackers that float. Only unsalted. And past their expiration date.

“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story if America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson.  See my review for Seattle Times, here.

I’ll spare you the list of books related to lynching and racism that are part of my ongoing writing project. At least for now. Except to say that Professor Paula J. Giddings created a suitable monument for the heroic Ida B. Wells with “Ida: A Sword Among Lions.” Until this book, Wells did not get the credit she deserved for helping to end widespread lynching in the American South.

This is your brain on my blog.

Clip this article, get a sharp pin, and attach it to the shin/arm/other appendage of anyone whose life will be better if they understand how drug/alcohol abuse works.

And, as long as you’re going to that much trouble…make a few copies and leave them in every exam room, waiting area and restroom at your medical-care facility. Some of the folks there need to know about the real science behind addiction.

Give Mom a check, and she’ll spend it on rent.

This post by Paula Span on The New Old Age blog in The New York Times is intriguing. It makes sense, but who knew Social Security had this effect so quickly?

(I’ve excerpted, then edited it down. See the whole piece here.)

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, almost 70 percent of elderly widows lived with an adult child; by 1990, that proportion had plummeted to 20 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

Economists Robert F. Schoeni of the University of Michigan and Kathleen McGarry, now at Dartmouth College, investigated this phenomenon, using more than a century of Census data showing where elderly widows resided…they pinpointed the year the big change began: 1940. After that, the graph depicting the percentage of widows living with children resembles a ski slope: down, down and down some more, until by 1990 more than 60 percent of widows lived ALONE.

So what happened in 1940? The economists, testing various hypotheses, found a far simpler explanation.

In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act. In 1940, the monthly checks began to flow. And even those tiny checks — Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vt., got the first one, for $22.54 — were enough to allow widows, who had historically high poverty rates, to remain in their homes. As Social Security benefits rose and reached a larger proportion of the elderly, the trend toward remaining at home accelerated.

The single greatest factor driving this immense cultural shift, in other words, was economic. Once elders no longer had to move in with their children to survive, most opted not to.

“When they have more income and they have a choice of how to live, they choose to live alone,” Ms. McGarry said. “They buy their independence.”

Review: “The Pain Chronicles” by Melanie Thernstrom

An excerpt from my latest book review in the Seattle Times:

Pain, most of the time, makes sense. It happens for a clear reason: Break a leg and it’s going to hurt.

Even booming migraines and ruptured discs have a kind of logic. That’s “acute pain,” and it warns us something’s wrong. When the broken things abate or mend, the pain quits.

Melanie Thernstrom is concerned with a very different animal: one that lives on long after it has served its purpose and “transforms into the pathology of chronic pain.” That “pathology” bit is important, because this isn’t just pain that lasts longer, it’s the body’s failure to return to normal.

Chronic pain, Thernstrom notes, is like a security alarm that never quits ringing, so itself becomes the problem.

She writes from personal experience, having suffered for years from pain of various intensities and locations, especially of shoulder and neck. Pain that imprisoned her and either baffled doctors or was shrugged off by them.

For the rest of my review in the Seattle Times, click here.

[Full title: "The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing and the Science of Suffering" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 328 pp.]

A toast to life.

Booze, the great giver of….well, what?

If you guessed “a red nose and a lot of apologies”  you have not been listening to TV news.

A respected study has shown that moderate drinking in one’s later years leads to a longer life. The University of Texas at Austin study looked at 1,824 people, age 55 to 65, for twenty years. “Moderate” drinking is defined as one to less-than-three drinks per day.

By the time the study had been “reported” through a full 24-hour news cycle, it had boiled down even more. I watched as the statement  “Three drinks a day can help you live longer” crawled repeatedly across the bottom of the TV screen.

Yes, and lying down on the freeway can help you sleep better.

Even with my shockingly limited science background I was able to trudge through the original report, and see that this was misrepresented from start to finish.

It appears that there is indeed evidence that people who take a drink now and then can be longer-lived than abstainers. The bigger issue, for me, is that definition of “moderate” as one to less than three drinks a day. That’s less alarming than the truncated TV-news summary, but I still wonder. That’s 7 or 14 or almost 21 drinks a week. The only time in my life I thought even 7 drinks a week was moderate was when I was losing count.

The writers of the report and other experts have bent over backwards to stress that these findings are not a reason to let ol’ Johnny Walker nestle in there next to the B Vitamins and wheat germ on the shelf.  But, alas, the sound byte is winning.

It reminds me of Animal Farm, when the Seven Commandments observed by the critters (“Whatever goes on four legs or has wings in a friend” and “No animal shall sleep in a bed…wear clothes…drink alcohol…kill another animal” etc.) gets reduced to “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better!”

We do love to reduce things to the one-liner that justifies our excesses, don’t we?