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Dead lines

Perusing the new books at the UC library, I'm once again awed by how little time it takes for some people to become eminent: Mikhail Lermontov died at 27, killed in a duel after writing more masterpieces than most of us manage in 100 years.

Every day Google tells me how much longer I have before iGoogle goes away (16 days and counting). For a while the Googlebots kept changing my start page in Chrome, but I kept changing it back, so they finally gave up. As much as I've come to depend on this personalized portal, I know that life will go on after its demise; I'll grieve for a few seconds and then move on. But as with any longtime companion, I intend to enjoy the benefits of iGoogle until it has breathed its last. How insensitive to expect me to abandon it prematurely!

Other deadlines have come and gone:

- My Netflix trial has evolved into a regular subscription, which I will cancel soon.
- My MacBook with the almost-dead hard drive has been replaced by a shiny new MacBook Air with nothing hard about it.
- I'm now 59-1/2, the age at which I could withdraw retirement funds without penalty if they weren't in a Roth IRA established less than five years ago.
- My LiveJournal subscription has been renewed for another year.

It's been almost 9 years since I started whining and musing (whusing? mining?) on this site. Now is as good a time as any to put this sorry journal out of its misery. I'm sure I'll keep writing somewhere, somehow, but for now, campers, I have nothing to say.


"I say 'Florida'. You say..."

Thus begins a promotional section of the Southwest Airlines inflight magazine. After spending two days with people who are trying to get their various states, including Florida, to implement health-care reform, here are some answers I would give to this word-association prompt: dysfunctional, mean-spirited, backward, and corrupt. Of course, these are not part of the impression that Sunshine State boosters want us to have, so instead we learn about golf courses, museums, resorts, and spas.

Not that I expect a state that's seeking tourist dollars to tout its dismal political climate, but to me this divergence confirms the utter futility of trying to make people's lives better. Most of us can't see any further than our own noses and pocketbooks. We don't care how much we're destroying the earth and its atmosphere in our pursuit of the perfect vacation. And in Florida, apparently, many comfortably retired folks don't care much about the welfare of others. "We got ours, and that's all that matters," they're alleged to think.

The apathy and ignorance of the average American should not be misunderestimated. Case in point: the recent stunt by Jimmy Kimmel in which he asked people which they preferred, Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act. Most people in the video said they preferred the ACA, and they tried to give justifications for their preference. I like to think that the majority of people questioned knew the laws were one and the same, and that those genii were edited out. But still, that's a lot of scarily ignorant folks, many of whom could probably give you a detailed summary of last week's episode of NCIS or Dancing with the Stars.

Even people who think of themselves as knowledgeable and conscientious often fail to connect some pretty glaring dots. The other night I ate dinner across from a health-care activist who left about half her food uneaten; the next day I heard her give an impassioned speech in which she professed to care about climate change and the environment. And of course lots of so-called environmentalists continue to eat meat, and they continue to drive or fly frivolously. (OK, I fly more than I should, but at least I feel guilty about it.)

Then of course there are the people who believe in free speech, transparency, mutual respect, and dialogue—as long as those don't occur in their own home. I wish I could handle that kind of cognitive dissonance so effortlessly. I'm sure I'd be a much happier person.

It's going to be a long night

Morning really. It's after midnight, but I intend to stay up for at least another six hours, until it's light enough outside that I can turn off the kitchen light.

A few hours ago I came "home" to find smallish insects darting about in and around the sink. I figured they were either baby cockroaches or oversized ants. (I didn't look at them too closely before squashing, drowning, or scalding as many as I could.) Then, about an hour later, I was sitting in the dining room when I saw something large and dark make its way slowly across the kitchen floor. Definitely bigger than the other critters. I figured it was either a Brazilian cockroach or a small, dark, tail-less mouse.

The creature had been headed toward the garbage when I lost sight of it. I went to find Alice and aimed her in that direction, but she had no interest in checking it out for me. Since then, she's patrolled the kitchen several times, and even lounged on the floor for a while. This does not make me feel any safer, because I'm pretty sure she would ignore a moving bug/mouse just like she ignores the laser pointer. At one point I heard some loud rustling or chewing coming from the garbage area, but Alice paid it no mind.

Yes, I could go to bed (keeping the light on, of course), but I figure that my noisy presence may deter--

AAAAAACK! Now THAT was noisy. Me, not the bug that just ran out of the kitchen. At least now I know it isn't a mouse that's tormenting me. My neighbors probably think it's an axe murderer.

So, clearly, this bug has no fear or shame. Neither light nor cat nor scream of wimp will keep it from its pointy rounds. If my sister were here, she would kill it for me. But the reason I'm here is that she isn't. Oh well, it's good to be reminded sometimes of (1) what a miserable coward I am and (2) why I shouldn't consider moving back to the South.

For crying out loud

I dreamed that Daniel Handler and I worked at neighboring library systems. We were both at a party, where no one except me knew that he was a famous writer.

It's amazing that I've been able to dream at all the last couple of nights. I share an apartment with an elderly, confused cat named Alice whose usual caretaker is on a three-week vacation. Alice spends most of her waking hours (which is most of her hours, unlike most cats) telling anyone who will listen just how unhappy she is. Right now she's sleeping peacefully in front of the door to the kitchen deck, which I open for her about 16 times a day.

Last night, as I put in earplugs to muffle the meows and yowls, I remembered how hard it had been for me to ignore my child's crying when she was just a few weeks old. My father had advised me to let her cry herself to sleep, just as he and my mother had been advised to do by Dr. Spock. Years later I came to believe that this act of early neglect contributed to my lifelong feelings of distrust, alienation, and helplessness, and there seems to be support for this belief. I have no way of knowing how closely our parents followed the advice. Heck, I can't even remember how closely I followed it, but I know that the urge to run to a creature in apparent distress is very hard to overcome.

I read somewhere that adult cats have the mental and emotional maturity of human toddlers, but a cat does not have the same developmental needs as a baby. At 18 years old, Alice probably can't learn very much about emotional regulation or trust. So I will continue to tend to her needs, soothe her when I can, and use earplugs when I need to sleep. The job would be easier if I could recognize what each of her vocalizations really means. Hunger? Loneliness? Anger? Actually I think I know that one: it comes after her gentler pleas have been ignored.

Some cat lovers claim to know the language, just as mothers are supposed to know what their babies' cries mean. But I'm skeptical. I think we're a long way from developing a lexicon for either babies or cats, mainly because both are one-way languages: Unlike elephants, babies and cats use their vocalizations to communicate only with other, mostly clueless species.

Where I'm going

The other day I signed up with a Web site that, in exchange for the opportunity to market to you, will tell you where it thinks you should live. It bases its conclusions on your answers to a series of questions about your preferred climate, activities, topography, etc., as well as your political and religious beliefs. For reasons I have not fathomed, most of my "top spots" were in Louisiana (the survey did not ask about bug phobia); the others were mainly in Arkansas, Nevada, and New Mexico. Then there was Salisbury, Md., "famed for waterfowl and decoy carvings." Oh well, I guess you get what you pay for: I had given a fake name and address and immediately opted out of the targeted marketing program.

I once knew someone whose sole criterion for choosing a place to live was that it not be a tourist destination. At the time I didn't have much sympathy with this goal, but now I completely understand why one would want to avoid the hype and forced friendliness of a place that's desperate for tourist dollars. The trouble is that this is now every place. (In the words of the immortal bard Michael Trew, "Every small town has its claim to fame...") Most other sources of income have dried up, but intrepid travelers still stray far from home in search of new subjects for the billions of photos that get uploaded to the Internet every week.

More and more it seems that my ideal place is not to be found on this planet, or at least not in this millennium.

Where I'm from (continued)

I just took a quiz designed to pinpoint a person's particular variety of American English. Not too surprisingly, the results said that my idiolect would seem least idiotic in Providence, R.I.

As far as I know, I have never been to Rhode Island, and no one in my family is from anyplace near there. I would have been just as unsurprised to learn that I sound like people in Dallas or Denver. What would have surprised me would have been to learn that I sound like I'm from any of the places that I've actually lived. Always painfully aware of how I sound, I try to speak as generically as possible. I have, however, adopted some of the expressions people use in the places I've lived, expressions like "neutral ground" and "y'all," which didn't fool the computer for one millisecond.

I had hoped to let this quiz determine where I will live out my days, but I'm afraid the winters in Rhode Island would greatly reduce the number of said days. Luckily the quiz seems somewhat unreliable. The answers to many of the questions depend not on how you choose to talk but rather on where you happen to be at the moment. For example: I could have said that "the City" is New York or Los Angeles or one of several other choices. I could have said that a train that runs underground is called BART or the El/L (which isn't even mostly underground, is it?) or Metro. I could have said that a sandwich on a long loaf of bread is called a hoagie or a poor boy or a grinder. I think for all of these questions I chose Other, because they had no generic, all-purpose answers. Just try taking BART to get a grinder in New York (assuming that's your City).

Of course, a soft drink is never soda or pop. Apparently not in Providence anyway.

Double trouble

This morning I heard that the Syrian regime had crossed a "red line" by using chemical weapons on its citizens. There was no explanation given for why chemical weapons should be considered unacceptable when apparently it was perfectly OK to slaughter tens of thousands of citizens with conventional weapons. Why the outrage over doing it chemically? After all, Syria is one of the very few countries that hasn't officially promised not to use chemical weapons, so it's not like they're going back on their word.

It turns out that at least two other people have found the distinction puzzling. Writing in The American Prospect last December, Paul Waldman asked: "So what is it that makes chemical weapons more morally abhorrent than guns or bombs?" He found at least a partial answer in an article by Dominic Tierney:

Strip away the moralistic opposition to chemical weapons and you often find strategic self-interest lying underneath. Powerful countries like the United States cultivate a taboo against using WMD partly because they have a vast advantage in conventional arms. We want to draw stark lines around acceptable and unacceptable kinds of warfare because the terrain that we carve out is strategically favorable. Washington can defeat most enemy states in a few days--unless the adversary uses WMD to level the playing field.

This issue reminds me of a similar question that's rarely asked: Why is it OK for powerful countries to have nuclear weapons, but not for Iran, North Korea, etc., to have them? Why do our leaders and news purveyors expect that we'll just understand such distinctions? In the absence of any explanation to the contrary, it's reasonable to assume that underneath the moral posturing is a bully's fear that if he doesn't get to dictate which weapons are used—and who gets to use them—he will lose his strategic advantage.

Of course there's nothing new or remarkable about double standards (or bullying, for that matter). Most of the people I encounter every day have one set of guiding principles and ideals for the larger world and a completely different set when it comes to their private lives. For example, some passionate defenders of civil liberties and transparent governance draw a line (perhaps a red one) at the door of their autocratically governed, cooperatively owned home.

Baby wars

An article in an online women's magazine asserts that "There's no right or wrong way to give birth." The author criticizes what she sees as the competitive nature of childbirth: Women feel inadequate if they aren't able to give birth "naturally" or even vaginally, or if they don't breastfeed for a full year. These feelings of inadequacy, the author contends, can lead to severe postpartum depression. "Suicide is one of the leading causes of women dying after childbirth in the developed world," says a midwifery professor interviewed for the article.

The reasons for depression after childbirth can be complicated, but I'm sure it does't help to feel as if you did it all wrong. I fleetingly felt overwhelmed in the days after my child was born, but I would not say I was depressed. I didn't really start berating myself as a maternal failure until much later. Now, as a volunteer for Hesperian Health Guides, I am constantly reminded of how badly I messed up. Here are some assertions from A Book for Midwives:

  • ...there is no need to shave a woman's pubic hair before a normal birth.

  • Women should be able to eat and drink during labor.

  • Women should be allowed (and encouraged!) to sit, stand, or walk during labor.

  • Women should be allowed to give birth sitting, squatting, or standing.

  • Women should be allowed to hold their new babies right after the birth. They should be encouraged to breastfeed right away.

  • Babies should be kept by their mothers, not in a nursery unless there is an emergency.

My childbirth experience violated every one of these recommendations. I was shaved, ordered to lie on my back, and fed only ice chips. After the birth, I was so out of it from the drugs I'd been given that it would have been unwise to let me hold a baby. She was taken to a nursery and brought to me for just a few hours each of the three days I was hospitalized.

The facility where I gave birth in 1984 was not in darkest Africa or remotest Peru; it was near the Gulf Coast of Alabama. It had all the modern conveniences, and I think the staff would have accommodated some of my birthing preferences if I'd actually had any. Since I hadn't made any arrangements in advance (I had just moved to the area a few weeks earlier), I got the standard treatment, which included intravenous pain killers that turned me into a raving lunatic for most of the 11-hour labor. When I say that I wasn't present for my daughter's birth, I'm not entirely joking.

I did try breastfeeding, but with the baby in my possession only some of the time, this wasn't easy to do. Still, the hospital made a big show of meeting my dietary needs: Each meal arrived on a tray with a huge placard reading "Breast." I was an anomaly; when I left the hospital (in a wheelchair--they would not let me walk if I wanted to carry the baby), I got the standard gift bag full of infant formula. Because no one (certainly not Dr. Spock, the reigning expert) had told me that babies should be fed whenever they demand it, I never got very good at breastfeeding. After about five months, I gave it up entirely.

Clearly there's some disagreement about how paternalistic to be in maternal matters. The folks at Hesperian seem to believe that there is indeed a right and a wrong way to give birth, and they insist that "Breast is best." This insistence may be necessary in some parts of the world, where heavily promoted powdered alternatives to breast milk can lead to disatrous health outcomes. And their pronouncements are aimed at health workers rather than pregnant women or new mothers. Still, it's hard not to feel guilty when you read these recommendations and see that you have failed on all counts.

Adventures in thievery

Today I walked into one of my two neighborhood CVS stores (yes, they are taking over) and saw that it had been completely remodeled almost overnight. After reorienting myself, I found a bottle of store-brand calcium tablets for $8.29. As instructed by the label, I compared this bottle with the name-brand product, which sold for about $10 for the same quantity. Good deal, I thought.

Only one of the four shiny new self-checkout stations appeared to be working. Geeky misanthrope that I am, I waited patiently rather than going to a live cashier. When my turn came, I scanned my bottle and was surprised to see it register a charge of $11.49. Righteously indignant, I pressed the button to call for help and was immediately rescued by one of the many employees who were trying to get the other self-check stations to work.

"I thought this was $8.29, or something," I explained to the employee.

She spent a few minutes voiding the transaction and then asked me, "How much is it?"

"I'm not sure," I said. "$8.29, I think, but I could go check the shelf. I could be wrong..."

Ignoring my offer, she entered a price of $8.19. I then tried feeding the machine a fairly pristine $10 bill, but it was rejected repeatedly. Finally the nice lady brought me a crisp new one, which worked.

After pocketing the 3 yards of coupons printed with my receipt, I went back to the calcium aisle. Sure enough, the price for the product I'd bought was $11.49. I'd been fooled by the old shelve-the-bottles-above-the-wrong-label trick. I forgot to look at the name-brand item and see if it was really $1.50 less for the same amount. Maybe those bottles too had been shelf-shifted.

I went back to the checkout lady and said, "Well, I was wrong. Now I owe you some money."

"No, you don't," she said. "We're fine." And she waved me away.

I left the store, feeling a combination of remorse for being such a cheater and satisfaction at sticking it to The Man (who clearly deserves it for apparently believing the customer is always right).

Memento mori

Thirty years ago I thought it was the height of cinematic rudeness to give viewers a reason to laugh uproariously in one scene and then immediately follow that cheerful moment with one of unspeakable tragedy. Every time this happened I felt hoodwinked and hornswoggled. Now I see that my resentment was symptomatic of a general obliviousness: I hadn't learned yet that this is exactly what happens in real life. At times (as depicted in the movie Le train) people really are laughing, singing, and dancing at one moment and then dead the next.

With my heightened awareness of everyone's mortality, I now prefer gritty, existential realism to the fluff that kept me entertained back in the day. Maybe that's why I can't sleep, have lost 10 percent of my body weight, and wish I had the gumption to kill myself. My doctor certainly thinks that reading matter matters; she has advised me to read only romance and mystery novels and to avoid French and German literature (funny, she didn't rule out the Russians). Last night one of my neighbors prescribed listening to ragas on Pandora at bedtime, but it's hard to believe that anything could be more soporific than NPR.

My doctor also strongly encouraged me to take medication, surmising that if I had a genetic predisposition to heart disease (which I probably do) or some other physical condition, I wouldn't say, "I can take care of that with exercise and positive thinking." I used to think that such drugs were a bad thing, because they allowed you to pretend that all is well instead of addressing the root cause of your misery. Now I understand that this is exactly what "normal" people do every day, all day long. So I may soon be rejoining the ranks of the fat and fog-bound pill poppers, at least for as long as it takes to gain some weight and get some sleep.