No comment

24 02 2010

From RH Reality Check, Jodi Jacobson notes the case of  ‘Amelia’, a 27-year old Nicaraguan pregnant woman and mother with advanced cancer, who has been denied both an abortion and treatment itself. She quotes from a release by Nicaraguan women’s groups:

In order to treat the cancer and improve Amelia’s chances of survival, doctors determined that termination of the pregnancy was necessary.  However, because abortion is illegal and punishable with criminal sanctions in Nicaragua, this lifesaving abortion was denied by hospital administrators where she is being treated. Furthermore, her doctors have not provided Amelia cancer treatment claiming this could harm the fetus or interrupt her pregnancy. According to Nicaraguan law a pregnancy takes precedence over a woman’s right to life. (emphasis added)

(h/t: Shakesville)


Dirty War

22 02 2010

I love war movies.

Spy movies, dirty tricks, government and intrigue—love ’em!

Can’t say exactly why. Oh, sure, I have this ongoing affair with politics (don’t know why that is, either), but while I enjoyed West Wing and Dave, I don’t swoon for the up-front political movies the way I do for the backstage stuff. Even Bob Roberts, which was more backstage than on-, didn’t turn me on. A good—a very good—movie, but nothing I want to watch over and over again.

Unlike Dirty War. I saw this movie for the first time while living outside of Boston. I didn’t have cable then, either, but I did have a t.v., and PBS broadcast this HBO production over the freewaves.  I think I saw it twice.

Well, now three times, since I just watched the DVD from Netflix. Christ, if this movie streamed, I’d probably watch it once a month.

The set-up is simple: We’re shown nuclear smugglers in central Europe, and cops, fire fighters, government ministers, and terrorists, in London. We see radioactive material smuggled into London, cops trying to track down terrorists cells, a government minister who knows better nonetheless lying so as to reassure the public, and the terrorists themselves, as they meet, assemble the bombs, and prepare to carry out their allegedly divine task.

No, no spoilers here. Watch it for yourself.

Again, I”m not quite sure what the attraction is. The movie is well done, and, to this civilian, utterly plausible. The moviemakers note the research behind the movie, and while I can’t vouch for a smidgen of it, I’m still left thinking Yep, that’s how this could work.

I don’t worry about terrorism on a regular basis. I moved to NYC in 2006, aware that it remains a target, but not terribly concerned about it. I don’t know if it will be hit again, but were I afraid that it would be, I’d have moved somewhere else.

I don’t think of this as denial so much as the same kind of practical calculation that eight million of my neighbors have made. I want to be here, so I am.

Still, there is one possibility which, mmm, tweaks me a bit: the detonation of a dirty bomb.

I was the kid who had nuclear nightmares, who was sure that the world would end before I, well, before I’m the age I am now. This could have been the adolescent impossibility of imagining oneself at middle-age, the morbid outlook of a self-destructive depressive, and/or my rational political concerns mutating into nighttime irrationality.

I don’t have dirty bomb nightmares. But I do think, rationally, that if some group really wanted to fuck over a city, their best bet would be through a detonation of a conventional bomb packed around radioactive material.

A nuke itself would be too hard. Even if a group could manage to get its hands on one, there’s the matter of access to a detonator, as well as that of transport and concealment. Yeah, I remember the material on backpack nukes and worries over uneven security of the nuclear stockpile of various nations, but nuclear weapons, even thousands of nuclear weapons, are still relatively rare things.

What about biologicals? The issue here is one of predictability. Anthrax was used to kill a number of people and frighten a hell of a lot more in 2001 and 2002, but the total number directly affected was relatively few. That’s no comfort to the victims, of course, but as a weapon of mass death, biological agents leave much to be desired.

First, there’s the matter of accessing the biological agent. If it’s controlled, as with smallpox, one has to find a way to get hold of it; if it’s not controlled, one has to find a way to get it and control it before it kills you. Ebola is a nasty disease with a high mortality rate, but it is precisely its nastiness which makes it difficult to handle. Flu is capable of killing tens and even millions of people, but to create a flu like the one which hit the world near the end of WWI requires decent lab facilities and highly trained people—and even that is no guarantee that one could derive a virus both highly transmissible and highly virulent, which could then be released in a maximally controlled manner.

Radioactive material isn’t just scattered like pennies on the streets, but it can be culled from college campuses, hospitals, research facilities, and, of course, nuclear power plants. Further, to make uranium or plutonium suitable for a true nuclear explosion requires extensive processing; the cast-offs from low-grade processing can be used as is.

And it’s use can be controlled. Conventional home-made bombs are apparently not that hard to make (I wouldn’t know, not being the bomb-making or -throwing kind); once the radioactive material has been obtained, you steer your van or boat or truck to the location you want to hit and BOOM. Blast damage, fire, death, and mayhem. And long-term radioactive contamination.

My understanding is that New York City has a very good intelligence network (although in the wake of  the apparently mishandled investigation of Najibullah Zazi, the FBI might disagree), and that agents almost certainly are on alert for any and all kinds of bombs, be they dirty or clean.

So I mostly don’t worry. It’s not that I think the cops and intelligence agencies are infallible—hah!—but given that certainty isn’t possible, the best that can be expected is vigilance. Hell, even with the errors of the Zazi case, they did manage to  stop the guy.

But certainty isn’t possible, and bombs do go off.

It’s this sliver of knowledge that has worked its way deep under my skin. It doesn’t bother me on a daily basis, but sometimes, when a train is stopped too long on its tracks, or I notice all  the trucks in the Financial District or the boats in the harbor, I remember it’s there, and I wonder.

Friday poem (Sunday): Detached Verses

21 02 2010

It’s pretty clear that I’ve been a bit off with the blogging in general and the Friday poem in particular.

Damn that full time job!

(How long can I damn or curse the bank-account-sustaining office job? Can I turn it into a ‘card’ to be pulled out whenever I get lazy or sullen?)


Okay, so I know I have to readjust how I think about my free time and how I want to make use or live in it. I work M-F 9-5 and teach Thursday and Friday nights. That’s how it is.

There is time. Maybe not enough, maybe not in the shape or line I’d like, but there is time.

So, in casting about for a Friday/Sunday poem (and yes, I’ll continue to call it ‘Friday poem’ regardless of the day on which it is posted), the theme presented itself.

I thought I’d look for something funny or wry, something witty or sly.

I thought  it might take some time(!) to find the right poem, but I found the right poem in no time at all.

It’s not funny, but there is a taste of wry in the following poem by Abba Kovner (translated from the Hebrew by Eddie Levenston).

And the final admonishment is witty and sly and altogether human.

Detached Verses

Soon you will pass from the darkened room
to another world. Freed from debts
and contacts.

One more
One more look
at the neighbor’s garden
and his dog asleep
on the still warm tiles.

A headline
A headline still blaring
by the base of an overflowing garbage can.

A little
A little longer in the setting light of
the sun.

The stub of a moment of parting
from things we ignored when we could still
live erect on our feet.

Things we believed would never
fade have already been abandoned
by your memory.

If only you had been one of the philosophers!
Giving a flavor of meaning
to ruined buildings, to acts

of heroism, to our fate.

Was that leap
into the depths
any easier?

Soon we shall know
if we have learnt to accept that the stars
do not go out when we die.

I am iron man

17 02 2010

Or straw man—the same thing, really.

This post’s edition of hay*-covered solemnities concerns that which threatens to bring down/is significantly degrading/has already brought down Western Civilization, aka, all that is Good and Holy in the world: Relativism.

Mind you, the crusade against relativism isn’t confined to the autocratic right; Good Liberals are also apt to say, before observing that what’s okey-dokey in one society might not fly in another, that of course they’re not advocating relativism, but. . . .

I’m not a particularly Good Liberal, tho’ I don’t have anything against them. In fact, the imaginary Good Liberal brings forth exactly the point that needs to be made about relativism: that there is a difference between recognition and advocacy.

I am one of those who merely recognizes relativism (as well as its aliases-slash-cousins social constructivism, anti-foundationalism, and epistemological nihilism), as opposed to those who advocate on its behalf. (I don’t know many people outside of  first-year grad students who are advocates, but I’ll get to that in moment.)

First, recognition. I mean this plainly, which is to say, I relativism as a condition of our (post)modern existence. There is no singular rule, no singular god, no singular absolute standard against which to measure ourselves. There is no transcendent rule, no natural law, no universal order of human life.

There is no inherent meaning. There is no essential good and bad.

But this does not mean that no rule is possible, no standards may exist, and no judgments of good and bad are allowed. It simply means that any questions of judgment cannot be thrown back to an absolute or transcendent marker.

It simply means that questions of meaning have no necessary relationship to capital-T-Truth.

It simply means that capital-T-Truth may not much matter.

To recognize all of this is not to say this is good or bad. As the saying goes, It is what it is.

Those who think this is bad tend to mourn the loss in culture of an overarching purpose/underlying order; some try to figure out how to live with this, some blame those of us who point out the fractures for causing them, some deny any fractures exist, likening them to surface cracks distracting us from a deeper unity.

Perhaps they’re right, the denialists. I have no way of knowing.

And I’m fine with that.

Some might think this makes me an advocate of relativism, but it simply means that I refuse to take epistemological sides. I look through time and space and see so many ways of living, so many ways of being, and instead of choosing one over the other, shrug and note that outside of a way of being, I can’t say that one is absolutely or transcendentally better than the other.

Again, this doesn’t mean I can’t have my own preferences or that I can’t judge. It does mean that I have to lay out the terms of that judgment, terms which have no final grounding in any sort of metaphysic. Terms which can be rejected, in other words.

It’s not as if I’m completely at sea. I live in a particular time and place, and can call upon the values and concepts of this time and place—this way of being—in order to make my arguments and interrogations. But I have no ultimate trump card, nothing to throw on the table to say, absolutely and finally, Ha! I win. Instead, any wins are provisional, subject to override and undertow, and thus in need of constant defense and elaboration.

Nothing can be taken for granted.

That’s my starting point—nothing can be taken for granted—and while I understand that life might be easier if I could, epistemologically, take a few things for granted, that’s not something I choose. Instead, I choose the nothing.

But this doesn’t make me an advocate for nothing and, to be fair, I don’t think most advocates for relativism choose nothing, either. Even Nietzsche, who’s sometimes held up as the grandee of nothing, recognizes rather than advocates nothing. His great challenge is, Precisely what will we do with all this nothing? Now that God is dead, what?

What he did advocate, an embrace of the life of the Overman, repelled many, but the advocacy for the Uber-life is but one response to the condition of nothingness, not its apotheosis.

Anyway, I snarked earlier that only the eager young joyfully embrace relativism (and no, I’m not just talking about an earlier version of me), but this isn’t quite right, either. Rather, there are those who, in the name of its corporate-friendly version, diversity, admonish that it’s not acceptable to judge those from other cultures or with other ways.

If this is what people choose, well, it must be okay.


Not that one might can’t say ‘Whatever’ to the choices of others, but that one must say this. In a sense, this type of advocate implicitly accepts the charge from the absolutists, et. al.: absent something eternal and outside of ourselves, we can make no judgments.

Again, the crucial point is not that no standards may exist, but that no standard must exist.

There is another dimension, of course, which adds some urgency to these issues, which is the consideration of power. It’s too late (cursed that 9-5 job!) for me even to finish the exegesis on relativism, much less sketch out the implications of power, so allow me the upshot when I say that such a consideration argues in favor of setting standards.

But that’s another post.

*I know hay isn’t the same thing as straw, but gimme a break: I’m not in Wisconsin anymore, and my audience is muuuuuch more sophisticated than those persnickety rural types who insist upon dunning us sophisticates with their petty knowledge of, oh, farming and plants and nature and everything. Honestly.

Jody Howard, 1940-2010

15 02 2010

Jody Howard, one of the founding members of Jane, the underground abortion-and-women’s-health care network, died February 5th.

Howard was given the name ‘Jenny’ by Laura Kaplan in her history The Story of Jane, and her story opens the book:

The first voice Jenny heard as the anesthetic lifted was the surgeon’s, “The sterilization procedure was a success, and congratulations, you’re eight weeks pregnant.” That was the news Jenny dreaded most. “All I wanted to do was roll off the table, pull the IV out of my arm, and bleed to death right there,” she recalls. Jenny was twenty-six, the mother of a two-year-old and a three-year-old and had been suffering from lymphatic cancer (diagnosed while pregnant with the younger daughter–ab), Hodgkin’s disease, for the past two years. Her health had deteriorated to such an extent during her previous pregnancy that she had every reason to believe another one would kill her.

Kaplan noted that when Jenny asked a doctor to perform a tubal ligation after her second daughter was born, he refused: ‘He could not endorse elective tubal ligation for a woman as young as she.’ Only after months of trouble with birth control pills did he agree finally to sterilize her.

She then sought to end her pregnancy, which required the permission of the hospital board. Even though her oncologist, radiologist, and gynecologist supported her decision, the board denied the request, as ‘her life was in no imminent danger. It was only after she convinced two psychiatrists she would commit suicide if she didn’t get the abortion that the board relented and agreed to it.

‘She came out of the hospital after her abortion infuriated.’

The key to Howard was not just the fury, however, but the context for that fury—that others, in this case, all men—had a quite literal control over her life. And not just her life, but, by extension, over the life of every pregnant woman.

It took Howard a while to make that connection, that women could never be free as long as someone else controlled their bodies and their lives, but once she did, she gave herself over to Jane.

She fought the good fight, for us all.

Rest in peace, Jenny.

(h/t: Feministing)

Oh the weather outside is frightful

10 02 2010

Not really.

The snow is currently only wisping down and barely covers naked sidewalks; the wind is not howling.

This is not a blizzard. This is winter.

I’ve noted that I grew up and went to school in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and spent a few (beautiful) years in Montreal, so I bring a certain snobbishness to an ability to handle the cold.

A city should have plows, sand, and ice—and know how to use them.

A person should—I—have a kick-ass jacket, a hat, scarf, mittens, long underwear (if necessary), and boots. Heavy duty boots.

Today is just a day in February; there’s no reason to shut the city down.


If my bosses decide to close the office for the day and wish us all a happy snow day, why then I’ll be that obedient office drone and stay home.

I’m adaptable that way.

Oh what a circus, oh what a show

9 02 2010

I think Sullivan gets this about right about La Palin:

Friday poem (Sunday): Peeling an Orange

7 02 2010

J.D. Salinger died recently.

The celebrated author published his first work in his twenties, and was in his early thirties when Catcher in the Rye came out. Over the next fourteen years he published some short stories and novellas, including Hapworth 16, 1924, in 1965.

And then he stopped.

He reportedly went on writing, and there were rumors of possible later publications, but when he died at the end of January of this year, his nonpublishing streak of over 45 years remained unblemished.

I mention this in contrast to the record of today’s poet, Virginia Hamilton Adair. Like Salinger, Adair began her writing career as a child, and while young won a number of prestigious prizes. She continued to publish as she aged, and taught writing at a number of universities.

But she didn’t publish in book form.

Didn’t have the time, she said. Had better things to do. And she was unwilling to ruin her joy in writing with the polluting effects of fame.

You can get a sense of that joy in one of her earliest poems, written at age eleven:

I should like to rise and go
To the land of ice and snow.
I would take a wicker chair
And sit and watch the polar bear.
The polar bear sits on the ice
Because it makes his rear feel nice.

Such wit earned her a D-.

Adair kept her wits about her as she moved about the country, raised her children, and, devastatingly, after her husband shot himself.

Through it all, she wrote.

Finally, around her eightieth birthday, she agreed to her friend Robert Mezey’s suggestion to gather a few of her many poems into a book.

Ants on the Melon was published in 1996. Adair was 83.

As Mezey notes in his afterword to Ants, ‘I believe Virginia Hamilton Adair is the only American poet—perhaps the only poet—to have brought out her first book of poems at the age of eight-three.’

While the short youth and long and silent adulthood of Salinger occupies one niche in the writing mythos, a kind of blankness onto which one can sketch her own story of the author, Adair creates a beacon for those of us who only committed to writing late. Salinger (unwillingly) draws us to him, to try to discover him; Adair sends us out, to discover ourselves.

Peeling an Orange

Between you and a bowl of oranges I lie nude
Reading The World’s Illusion through my tears.
You reach across me hungry for global fruit,
Your bare arm hard, furry and warm on my belly.
Your fingers pry the skin of a naval orange
Releasing tiny explosions of spicy oil.
You place peeled disks of gold in a bizarre pattern
On my white body. Rearranging, you bend and bite
The disks to release further their eager scent.
I say “Stop, you’re tickling,” my eyes still on the page.
Aromas of groves arise. Through green leaves
Glow the lofty snows. Through red lips
Your white teeth close on a translucent segment.
Your face over my face eclipses The World’s Illusion.
Pulp and juice pass into my mouth from your mouth.
We laugh against each other’s lips. I hold my book
Behind your head, still reading, still weeping a little.
You say “Read on, I’m just an illusion,” rolling
Over upon me soothingly, gently unmoving,
Smiling greenly through long lashes. And soon
I say “Don’t stop. Don’t disillusion me.”
Snows melt. The mountain silvers into many a stream.
The oranges are golden worlds in a dark dream.

It’s raining again

6 02 2010

Penises are trouble.

You may recall a recent post in which I noted the odd-cute manner in which Jasper approached the litter box and his business therein.

I even posted pictures.


There have been developments since then, none of them good. Some cat is no longer confining his or her elimination to the litter box.

At first I thought it was Bean who, tired of being ambushed by the dauphin, went outside of the enclosed box so as to observe better the movements of the said ambusher. I therefore removed the top, thinking this would solve the problem.

It did not.

I reconsidered: What if  the matter were not that of a female cat squatting outside of the box, but of a male cat perched on the edge and overshooting? What if the puddle were produced by a poorly-pointed penis?

This seems to be the case.

I’ve had a conversation with Jasper about his aim, but he gives me the blank look of a teenager bored by everything an adult has to say. If he could, I’d bet he’d stick his paws in his ears and sing la-la-la-la-la-la over my remonstrations.


I must be moving on

1 02 2010

State of the union. Sarah Palin. Bipartisanship. Obama. GOP. Moderates. Health care reform. Financial reform. Don’t ask don’t tell. . . .zzzzz

Okay, no, not really. I care about all of that stuff—tho’ not, obviously, all in the same way.

But I don’t want to write about it.

No good reason not to, really. I’ve got that ol’ political science degree, a long history with American politics, and Oh! leftism to burn! Plus, I never really shut up.

Laziness? Perhaps.

Or perhaps there is one good reason not to: Someone else is already on it.

Now, in conversation, I’m more than willing to go over this stuff, rehash what others have said, reconsider my own thoughts, find out what the other person is thinking—it’s quite enjoyable, in fact. But what makes it enjoyable is the give-and-take, the mutual mulling-over, and our willingness to let ourselves dig in or get distracted down some other conversational path; what makes it enjoyable, in other words, is the other person.

But chewing over an already-well-chewed nugget of political wisdom: eh.

It’s not that all of my thoughts are original (if only. . !), or that an issue which has set off a kabillion other people won’t also set me off. But the main reason I write is to find something out. When writing fiction, I write to find out what happens. When writing nonfiction or when blogging, I write/blog to find out what I think.

This isn’t always the case, of course: there are the rants, and there are times I simply want to record an impression or observation or line of argument. Yet unless I happen to have WordPress open at the moment of or shortly after the observation, or unless an impression was so striking or has so wormed its way into me, I’m unlikely to blog about it. And sometimes I simply want to sit with a thought, let it work its way through me.

As for political commentary, well, it’s rare that I notice something that someone else hasn’t already noticed. Obama runs steady? I think one or two people have already remarked on that. Palin is as good with truth as she is with syntax? Ditto. I might find each phenomenon worth commentary, but it doesn’t have to be my commentary.

(Now, the question in politics as to the role of truth, lies, and lies which believe themselves to be truths—now that’s worth some thought. . . .)

I’m not trying to be precious or present this position as a particularly principled one. This is more about temperament than integrity: I get bored by the repetition, and can only motivate myself with the prospect of discovery.

(This is not unrelated to why I left academia—but that’s another post.)

If it’s already been done, and done well, I pause, applaud—then move on.