Blame the victim, create the victim. We do both.

The story about the aftermath of an attack on a CBS newswoman in Tahir Square and the obituary for B.N. Nathanson, the famous abortion defender-turned-opponent don’t bear any similarities on the surface. But both reveal the power of provocative views spoken loud.

After Lara Logan was separated from her news crew, beaten and assaulted by a mob, a number of  bloggers, Tweeters and “columnists” took her to task for being there in the first place. And we’re not talking about anonymous idiots; these are commentators with big, visible platforms. (No, I’m not going to link to them. )

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who quickly went after the hateful Logan-bashing writers, as did Kim Barker, ProPublica journalist, also writing for the NYTimes. Other writers are still responding with articulate anger. One of the common points is that Logan is being punished for her sex and looks (attractive, blonde female); more than one writer points out that no one would berate a man for being mobbed and sodomized.

There are two reasons for this kind of blame-the-victim spewing: The spewer is a publicity-seeking fuckwit willing to use any shocking rhetoric to stand out. Or, s/he needs to believe that evil things happen for reasons, e.g. you get raped  if you’re too pretty. The reality of random hate crimes is too frightening to acknowledge. (There is now actually debate over whether Logan was raped or “just” sexually assaulted.)

Now, Nathanson. This intelligent activist doctor had a lot to do with legalizing abortion and moving it from a back-alley butcher’s job to the safe medical procedure that is the right of every woman. Later, upset by the large numbers of procedures he carried out and supervised, he spoke up as an opponent to the procedure. In both incarnations he wielded great power over public opinion. He founded what became the powerful pro-choice group NARAL and he gave the anti-abortion faction their favorite line when he pointed out a fetus’s “silent scream” while narrating a sonogram of an abortion in progress.

The other similarity between these news stories is that they reveal the only-sometimes-veiled misogyny that still exists in our society. Nathanson was okay with abortion as long as not many women exercised their right to make decisions about their own bodies, lives and health. Commentators (and others who silently agree and don’t challenge them) mouth politically correct sentiments about women being equal to men in the world of journalism, until they get a chance to berate them for being too attractive, too female, and for asking for trouble.

In both cases, I wonder how this sexism would hold up if the tables were turned: The hate-blogger gets left alone with an angry mob or the anti-choicer is told that he cannot elect a medically safe surgery, but must instead sneak off with a fistful of cash to a dangerous, illegal appointment.

A soldier’s courage takes many forms.

For a lovely–and timely–article that manages to be lyrical and tough all at once, see the blog post, “A Soldier Writes: Taking off the Armor” in The New York Times by Rajiv Srinivasan:

Just because a soldier doesn’t have a diagnosis of PTSD doesn’t mean he does not have life-altering post-traumatic stress. The war zone is not limited to the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan. The fight does not end for a soldier when he comes home. He may shed his helmet and rifle, but he still carries his armor.

For the full piece, click here.

Presenting gifts.

The Christmas season, with its achingly heavy backpack full of memories, is almost gone.

Around Thanksgiving the old familiar feelings started. I began to wish that I could wake up and find I’d effortlessly time-traveled from mid-November to the second week of January. Once again, this wish was not granted.

But this year has been different. Christmas went by like a pleasant view outside a train window. A blur of red ribbons and white lights…and, done.  The flashes back to Advent’s alcohol-fueled drama in my childhood (“it’s not Christmas until someone falls into the tree!”) were brief. The annoyance at commercialism blew by too.

A few times I’ve come quite close to living in the moment, something I do with roughly the same frequency as I climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. While yodeling.

Now, of course, I am picking apart this surprising change, a behavior that is decidedly more typical. I’m not sure what shifted me from full-throttle Grinch to placid observer, but I have a theory of sorts. It has helped to make a point of eating only the best chocolates out of those fancy boxes on various coffee tables and unhesitatingly rejecting the disappointments after a test bite.

I am also remembering a beloved one, gone these past two years, who was the only person I’ve ever known who was delirious with joy when the stores put Christmas stock out…in October.  I’m not sure where people go when they die, but when I get lucky with an orange cream on the first hit of the candy box, I know who pointed me right to it.

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.

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.

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?

Taxes are not the enemy.

We Portlanders used to go online or pick up the phone to get the city’s help on anything from graffiti to a wily garbage-tipping raccoon to a pothole. Now the handy online forms seem to be disappearing and the corps of neighborhood helpers has been whittled down.  I picture a stadium-sized empty office with a lot of phones tethered to one answering machine.

This isn’t unique to Portland, and in fact the Rose City is better off than most. But everywhere I turn, I hear or read people grumbling about taxes and bloated government. (What is it with old high school boyfriends on Facebook who turn into such right-wing whackjobs?)

Let’s not simplify this to the point of idiocy. Taxes are not evil. We should reserve our ire for politicians who make entire platforms out of promises to cut taxes. Cutting waste and shifting priorities is vital, but that doesn’t mean putting on a blindfold and heading out to the weedy garden with a machete.

This New York Times column, “America Goes Dark,” by Paul Krugman hits it on the head:

How did we get to this point? It’s the logical consequence of three decades of antigovernment rhetoric, rhetoric that has convinced many voters that a dollar collected in taxes is always a dollar wasted, that the public sector can’t do anything right.

The antigovernment campaign has always been phrased in terms of opposition to waste and fraud — to checks sent to welfare queens driving Cadillacs, to vast armies of bureaucrats uselessly pushing paper around. But those were myths, of course; there was never remotely as much waste and fraud as the right claimed. And now that the campaign has reached fruition, we’re seeing what was actually in the firing line: services that everyone except the very rich need, services that government must provide or nobody will, like lighted streets, drivable roads and decent schooling for the public as a whole.

(PS: If you need to rail at someone or something about huge waste and routine gouging of the little people…Big Banks present plenty of opportunities. Check this out. Wells Fargo is not the only bank defending its practice of charging customers big fees for small services.)

Uh oh, the rich are bailing on mortgages too.

Proof that this foreclosure tsunami is real:

“The housing bust that began among the working class in remote subdivisions and quickly progressed to the suburban middle class is striking the upper class in privileged enclaves…” writes David Streitfeld in The New York Times. (The other quotes are from the same piece.)

A hint that that Congress may figure this out soon:

“Whether it is their residence, a second home or a house bought as an investment, the rich have stopped paying the mortgage at a rate that greatly exceeds the rest of the population.”

Indication that this is beyond the reach of Congressional fixing:

“In a recent column on Freddie Mac’s Web site, the company’s executive vice president, Don Bisenius, acknowledged that walking away “might well be a good decision for certain borrowers” but argues that those who do it are trashing their communities.”

First thing to worry about as soon as you find a new place to live and unpack your sleeping bag:

A whole lot of people are going to grow up with the belief that “trashing their communities” is okay.

Additional gloomy whining:

I live in a city with a citizens committee for just about everything. Maybe we need to suspend those for a time and form the All-City Housing Cooperative that works on ways to hold back this wave. (That way we’d be sure to have an actual neighborhood in which to debate the merits of roses versus rhodies on the intersection traffic circles.)

And as long as we’re moving closer to real panic, let’s start substituting the words “and condominiums” every time we read aloud a sentence describing an increase in the number of houses foreclosed.

That shiny new high-rise downtown is going to have a whole new feel when the penthouse owners decamp.

All the news that fits. And solves.

I’ve only read some of the stories and ads in three sections in Sunday’s New York Times (Book Review, Business and Week in Review) and here’s what I’ve already learned:

Most new fiction is deeply flawed. A five-line letter from Ronald Reagan to his old actress friend Kitty Carlisle Hart is worth $6,100. Whales and dolphins are as smart as we are, and probably nicer. Congo is still the rape capital on earth. Congress still has absolutely no balls when it comes to regulating Wall Street. Our cellphones are built with materials that are obtained at human cost. Author Danielle Steele and legal pot growers in Colorado work harder than the rest of us. Camile Paglia says “female Viagra” pharmaceuticals will not cure the sexual malaise blanketing America.

It seems so clear:

Send sexually disappointed whiners to witness real problems in Congo.  Sell collections of witless Presidential missives as e-books in order to fund the increased cost of cruelty-free cellphone manufacturing. Deploy the hyper-prolific Ms. Steele to the pot-growing operations for one week. Swear in Ms. Paglia, stand her up in front of Congress, and let her spell it out for them: No balls, no glory.

If that last thing doesn’t work, vote for a whale or a dolphin next time.

A tale of motherly love. Co-starring a turtle.

Mother’s Day is coming. I know this because every retailer in sight is trying to cash in. My gym has a Workout With Mom! special. My email is full of mail-order offers for chocolates, flowers, perfume. The spa down the street is even giving discounts on eyebrow and lip waxes in preparation for the holiday, which seems really weird if you think about it too long, so don’t.

Yes, the crass commercialism is alive and well. But that doesn’t mean I disdain the whole notion of celebrating our mothers. In fact, I think the holiday ought to be expanded to include the entire month.

We should all start dinner each night with a favorite mother story. I’ll go first.

My own mother passed many years ago, but she would have appreciated the story I heard the other day, told by a single mom of my acquaintance. I’ll call her Nancy. This tale began a decade ago.

Remember those little dime-store turtles you could buy for a buck? You’d bring them home and they’d last a couple of weeks, then off to turtle paradise they’d go, usually via a one-way ticket on Toilet Airlines.

Well, Nancy’s boy wanted one of those little critters, and being a game sort of gal, she bought him one.

Weeks passed. The turtle thrived. Nancy cleaned the bowl.

Months passed. The turtle thrived. Nancy cleaned the bowl.

Years passed. The boy left for college and, yes, Nancy stayed behind and cleaned the turtle bowl.

Eight years after its arrival, the turtle showed no signs of heading to the great beyond. By turtle standards, it was quite a bit larger. It was time for a change.

A lesser woman would have introduced the turtle to the backyard or a nearby pond, but not Nancy. She did what a resourceful and brave mother always does. She found a way.

She loaded the turtle into a totebag, put on her darkest sunglasses and drove to the nearest Pets-R-Us. There she slipped into the row of aquariums, and after making sure no one was watching, she plopped her hard-shell roommate into a tank with its own kind.

Never one to take separations lightly, she returned the next week to assure herself that the relocation had gone well.  You don’t live with a turtle for nearly a decade without committing its features to memory, so she quickly found him among the others. He seemed happy.

Now, I ask you, would anyone but a mother do this? I think not.

When Mother’s Day arrives, I will be thinking of Nancy and the other mothers I’ve known. Heroes, all.

A snapshot of us.

Sometimes an hour with the newspaper is all I need to see the immense contradictions and ironies of this country. These New York Times pieces are a case in point.

A story by Katie Zernike ponders polling of resentful Tea Party supporters.  I am ashamed of these fellow citizens; their racism, their short-sighted, self-serving demands for a return to the so-called  “real America” — code for a class system that keeps them snug and well-fed while shutting others out:

“In the poll, Tea Party supporters …were almost unanimous in their dislike of President Obama. Overwhelmingly, they said he does not share the values most Americans live by and does not understand the needs and problems of people like them. They are significantly more likely than Republicans or the general public to say that too much attention has been made of the problems facing black people, and that the policies of the Obama administration favor blacks over whites and the poor over the rich or the middle class.”

Then I turned to the obit page and saw that another highly visible figure in the civil rights movement has died: Benjamin L. Hooks. age 85. Hooks, who headed the NAACP for many years, was a minister, businessman and the first African American to be named a judge in Tennessee’s criminal courts. He was also the first to be appointed to the Federal Communications Commission. Hooks struggled to keep issues of civil rights in the forefront when Americans began to take the gains of the 1960s for granted. He wasn’t the most compelling public voice in the movement, but to look at his life and work is to understand the crucial changes wrought by Americans who would no longer tolerate Jim Crow.

And, finally, a profile of Eddie Feibusch, the undisputed king of zippers, reminds me that this is also a land of opportunity, imagination and very good stories.

The piece by Ralph Blumenthal describes the indefatigable 86-year-old:

“He sold a zipper for Margaret Truman’s wedding gown when Miss Truman, the president’s daughter, married Clifton Daniel in 1956, he is proud to say. He sold zippers to Nike for Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. And a prison in North Carolina called for a zipper for Bernard L. Madoff. Why? He doesn’t know.

New York City’s garment industry once had lots of zipper shops, some bigger than his, Mr. Feibusch says. But little by little they relocated, to China, India, Costa Rica. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks. ‘They couldn’t get their goods in,’ he said. “That was the end of the business.’

But not for Mr. Feibusch, a prewar refugee from Vienna who overcame not just the Nazis but also Velcro…”

Why computer chips will not replace the human brain just yet.

Conscious thoughts upon dropping a hot microwave pizza on the floor, pepperoni side down:

Shit I’m starving that thing cost almost six bucks I should have said no when I saw the price ring up but the grocery cashier was already close to tears because the woman ahead of me had $40 in food stamps and $62 in groceries and had to put stuff back while her kid watched I shouldn’t be eating this crap if I flip it over fast maybe some of the sauce will still be on the crust when did I last wash this floor will the tomato sauce come out of my t-shirt I’m not even sure what pepperoni is could any of that ant-killing stuff I sprayed last week still be on the floor if I get sick I can say it’s from the goat cheese we had last night I’ll run cold water on the shirt as soon as I finish eating

Elapsed time: 4 seconds.

Gimme five so I can blog faster

Human touch is a powerful language, says a study written about by Ben Carey of The New York Times. The story says a range of emotions can be shown, or triggered, by the most casual interactions, such as a slap on the back or a high-five.

Touch makes people feel better and even excel at things they do. I think back to that boss who often gave me an encouraging shoulder whack on deadline.  I probably worked harder in that job, or at least rose above the chaos with some success.  (I’m not talking about the creepy grabber-boss here, mind you.)

Read Carey’s story; he’s a fine reporter and always a strong writer. This time he slipped in a clever last paragraph, so pay attention.

Admiring a master

I found myself at the nearby enormous Fred Meyer store on Christmas Eve morning, something I would normally avoid like a hot-tub full of Republicans.

But my watch battery died and that night’s cake recipe called for chocolate chips…and Freddy’s is the place where one can find both necessities. In fact, this particular store is so big that it has a full-size jewelry store inside it.

There was a queue for the watch-repair man, a very tall fellow with a German accent, who was attracting the sort of attention usually reserved for a magician. He changed watch batteries, untangled gold chains, attached poodle-shaped charms to bracelets.

I was shocked to see that people were tipping him. This is not a big gratuity town; a parking valet outside the swanky Benson Hotel told me he can tell locals from visitors: locals are the ones who say, “Darn! I only have a five..catch you next time.”

When my turn came, I could see why the tips were flowing: the watch-fixer opened my battered Seiko, removed the battery, replaced it, put the thing together again. Elapsed time: 2 minutes. Cost: $10.

He didn’t sit down, but bent over a work bench behind a low glass wall, moving his elegant hands with the grace and speed of a surgeon or a pianist.

Each time he completed a task, he quoted the price, took the money and gave a slight, courtly bow.

It isn’t easy to appear dignified when hemmed in by half-price poinsettias and talking over a recording of Alvin & the Chipmunks singing “Jingle Bells,” but he managed.

What we know still hurts us


The question of when a woman should begin annual mammograms is getting a lot of ink, air-time and, yes, close scrutiny in Congress, not a gang I reflexively list under the heading, “People I trust with my personal health-care decisions.”

(I’m trying not to veer into paranoia here, so I won’t dwell on my impression that such waffling never seems to happen around, say, male health problems.)

Most women I know, hear, or read about are quite peeved (or at least, unsettled) that there is such sharp disagreement in the medical-expert world over this. I share their peevedness, and at the same time, I keep thinking about how reluctant we often are to use good preventative-health info when we DO have it.

Consider:

Thanks to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, we know that that drinking gets rolling early in our lives, immediately boosting the odds for all manner of regrets, from car crashes to quickie marriages at the Vegas Elvis Chapel.

We know that booze is harder on women, and not simply because we tend to be smaller than men. To paraphrase the NIAAA folks, we’ve got less water inside us, so that Strawberry Mojito gets to the brain faster and makes us stupid sooner.

We adult women are more likely to get certain cancers and bone disease from too much alcohol. It takes surprisingly little alcohol to wreck our skin, addle our brains permanently, and cause us to mix up our meds. And although it is rarely written about, over-cocktailing by women is pretty much a direct ticket to picking dangerous/disappointing partners and ensuring a rotten sex life.

Okay, okay, so where does all this blogdignation get me? It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the progress made on many health fronts, including awareness of the risks of alcohol abuse. Nor do I think the folks who set health-screening standards should throw in the towel because we American women often thumb our nose at the solid wellness info we do have. I’m not even lobbying for Congress to get out of my doc’s exam room, exactly. (They’d just sneak back in anyway.)

I guess I’m just wishing that while the experts screw around with the mammogram-timing standards, we use some of the down time to pay attention to the solid life-saving facts that have already smacked us right in the kisser.

That noise? Oh, it’s my knee.

Even in this youth-obsessed culture of ours, there are a lot of things about aging that are kept very, very quiet.

You’d think any such bad tidings would be waved at us like so many flags, just as a way to further nationalize us into the high-fiber, deep-breathing, sun-avoidant, heart-rate-monitored, liposuctioned, mood-enhanced, hair-colored landscape of middle-aged America.

Yet somehow, we remain in the dark about the inevitable crossing over from Mono During Finals Week street, which heads straight through the Shouldn’t Move the Couch Alone zone, eventually pulling up to the Weird Maladies cul-de-sac. None of these territories are marked on a map. It’s easier to find out where Jennifer Aniston lives.

Suddenly we’re regulars in the Emergency Room, sheepishly huddled among the knife wounds and screaming ear-infected babies. We know what everyone else is thinking: She doesn’t look sick to me. Of course they don’t know, just as we didn’t until now, that Weird Maladies not only exist, they almost always happen on weekends or after hours.

Rashes, ringing in the ears, locked up backs, knees and jaws; apocalyptic reactions to foods once considered treats; numb hands, inexplicably swollen nose bridges. Who could have imagined?

One can only hope that during all the hard work over our new healthcare policy, someone slips in a small line-item for better age-related health education. No Child Left Behind was all well and good. Let’s get on to No Adult Sandbagged by the Inevitable.

Partner = Best + Friend

You know those “sponsored” links that show up on the bottom of some news sites? This morning some clever algorithmic gnome decided I should read this blog called The Frisky: Love. Lives. Stars. Style.”

The link took me to “Girl Talk: Should Your Boyfriend Be Your Best Friend?” — a headline I couldn’t resist, for some unfathomable reason.

The author, one Jessica Wakeman, has her doubts about whether it is wise to put all your emotional eggs in one basket. Doesn’t that put a huge load of responsibility on one person? What if I suffocate this person with all my needs?

Or, more truthfully: Aren’t I more vulnerable if my partner is my best bud? As Wakeman so winningly puts it:

“It has occurred to me that if my boyfriend were to be (God forbid) hit by a Walmart 18-wheeler, I would be isolated.”

Jessica, I know I’m way outside The Frisky’s target demographic. (It’s possible I was never in it.) But trust me: If you’ve found a boyfriend who fits the Best Friend bill as well, you should grab him.

To paraphrase (and slightly mangle) the wisdom of vaudevillian Sophie Tucker: I’ve been partnered by a best friend, and I’ve been partnered by a non-best friend, and a best friend is better.

Me and The Frisky, right in sync. Yeah, I’m cooler than I look.

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’s 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.

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.

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.