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Scheduling Conflicts

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

I have a problem: I’m supposed to start my tour for Hardball on September 22, but that’s also the season premiere for NCIS.  I confess that I’m a fan.  Some of my friends say the dialogue is wooden and the action predictable, others that the show is hard on women, but I still love it.  Because we left Ziva in a Somali torture cell, I’m not sure I’m strong enough to go to Old Orchard to read from Hardball


while her fate is in the balance.

Agent Todd was murdered, Agent Cassidy was killed in an explosion, Agent Lee was exposed as a traitor, Director Shepherd died in a shoot-out.  Women do not fare well on NCIS.  I don’t know if this is misogyny or just one of those things where none of the male leads have died and all the females have (except Abby, of course), but Donald Belasarius fate hangs in the balance on September 22.

By the way, August 31 is the last day for the “Where Has V I Been?” contest.  You can post here, or at the original contest site:

Slow Reading

Monday, August 24th, 2009

There’s a beautiful, thought-provoking commentary on reading in the August 23 NY Times, a tribute to the late Richard Poirier, whose work I confess I didn’t know–but am now eager to read. Poirier wrote about reading in slow motion–like the slow food movement–a step aside from our hyperlinking era.

I’ve pasted much of the essay below:

A Man of Good Reading   By ALEXANDER STAR

The literary scholar Richard Poirier, who died last weekend at the age of 83, was one of the strong critics of his time.  For five decades, Mr. Poirier taught literature at Rutgers University, where he founded Raritan, a quarterly named for the river that borders New Brunswick. He reached a broader public by collaborating with another man of letters, Edmund Wilson, to create the Library of America.

Mr. Poirier’s most important contribution came in his criticism, which tried to convey why the act of reading is — and should be — so difficult. The most powerful works of literature, he insisted, offer “a fairly direct access to pleasure” but become “on longer acquaintance, rather strange and imponderable.” Even as readers try to pin down what a writer means, the best authors try to elude them, using all the resources of sound, rhythm and syntax to defeat any straightforward account of what they are doing.

This approach to literature is as resonant today as ever. Mr. Poirier’s criticism poses a challenge to literary professionals who bemoan that Americans are spending less time with the established classics as well as to Internet enthusiasts who boast that the Web will provide immediate access not only to the best that has been thought and said but to everything else.  he suggests that linking and hyperlinking are no substitute for a sustained encounter with the great writers of the past, who were themselves both tormented and thrilled by “what words were doing to them and what they might do in return.”

As an English professor, too, Mr. Poirier was often at odds with his colleagues, whom he mockingly compared to bureaucrats: “Criticism in the spirit of the F.D.A. is intended to reduce your consumption of certain of the golden oldies, to reveal consumer fraud in books that for these many years have had a reputation for supplying hard-to-get nutrients.” In the “canon wars” that raged on campuses and beyond in the 1980s —with multiculturalists feuding with traditionalists — Mr. Poirier faulted both sides.

For Mr. Poirier the act of writing — in particular the tradition of American writing that ran from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Wallace Stevens — was an assertion of individual power.

An advocate of “reading in slow motion,” Mr. Brower asked, simply: “What is it like to read this?”

Mr. Poirier took this question seriously. In painstakingly close readings, he showed that poets like Robert Frost and Stevens and a novelist like Norman Mailer seek to trumpet their individual voice, but when they do so, they find that they are using words that are not truly their own or that they are imprisoned by previous self-definitions. “Struggling for his identity within the materials at hand,” they “show us, in the mere turning of a sentence this way or that, how to keep from being smothered by the inherited structuring of things,” Mr. Poirier wrote.

Mr. Poirier cherished self-contradiction. He helped enshrine the nation’s literary classics at the Library of America, but he also wrote that “works of art are not required to exist. There is nothing outside of them that requires their existence. If Shakespeare had never existed we would not miss his works, for there would be nothing missing.”

Literature was not sacred or even necessary. But it mattered enormously, because, at its most potent, it insisted that we not take ourselves, or our words, for granted. “We ought to be grateful to language,” Mr. Poirier wrote, “for making life messier than ever.” Or, as Wallace Stevens put it in a poem Mr. Poirier quoted again and again, “Speech is not dirty silence/Clarified. It is silence made still dirtier.”

In the Unlikely Event

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

Of one’s own death, what happens to all your emails, websites, blogs, bank accounts and bills with online only access?  Searching for another topic, I came on a nifty article in Time Magazine, “How to Manage your online life when you’re dead.”  There are several companies now that will store your details–passwords, and so on.  They’ll check in with you periodically to see if you’re still alive, and if some number of e-mails go unanswered, they’ll release your information to a designated recipient–who has to present your death certificate in order to get access to your files.


I’ve actually often wondered about how my husband or estate would tell American Express and everyone else to cancel my accounts.  These services seem to provide the answer.  Now, all we can do is hope that they’re not run by enterprising 28-year-old hackers like Albert Gonzalez.  Who, I gather, is not related to another criminal mastermind, a former US attorney general of (almost) the same name–Alberto Gonzalez was one of the key promoters of Bush’s policies on torture.


Sunday, August 16th, 2009

The New York Times Magazine has an essay of mine this morning  in the “Lives” section.  It’s about my husband’s and my experience with the French health system, with a side look at a French  student of French eating disorders.

Barack, Gates, and America’s Most Segregated City

Friday, August 14th, 2009

A reporter asked me recently how I feel, as a Jew, when I tour in Germany. I said I feel like a ghost–in every major city there’s a Jewish museum with an armed guard outside, housing relics of a people who’ve vanished. At the same time, I find that history weighs heavily on people, making them grave and thoughtful.  I never feel more fully engaged with the people I meet than I do in Germany.

I wonder sometimes how our history weighs on us European Americans, not just the history of slavery, of Jim Crow and lynch mobs, but of the deliberate creation of a poverty-ridden ghetto in a city like Chicago.

In April, 1917, the Chicago Real Estate Board drew up a plan for block-by-block segregation. Housing would be opened to Negroes in an adjoining block only when every unit in the current block held an average of four people per room.

Chicago’s realtors adhered enthusiastically to this plan until it was finally declared illegal in the late 1960’s. The city was by then the most segregated in the nation, a dubious title which the Chicago Tribune says still stands today. Not only that, the forced over-crowding created poverty-ridden slums. Schools in the black community were never funded at the level they were in white neighborhoods.

One of the programs I support in Chicago is called Girls in the Game, which provides a combination of sports, health, and self-esteem education to about 2,000 Chicago public school girls. The need is particularly important for black and latina girls, because recess and physical education have all but disappeared from schools in Chicago’s non-white neighborhoods. It’s cheaper, and easier, to keep kids penned up all day, cramming rote memorization down their throats so they’ll do better on test scores.

In many Chicago public schools, children are punished for speaking to each other in the lunch room. The now-dead and unmourned Henry Horner homes on State Street were dubbed “Public Penitentiaries” when the first Mayor Daley built them: many of our city’s schools take on that role today.

Boys have as much need for physical exercise as girls, but for them, at least, there are organized sports programs after school. Girls in the Game reaches about 1 percent of Chicago’s public school girls. It’s a drop in the bucket, but at least someone is putting in a drop.

I thought about this history during the recent brouhaha over Professor Gates and the Cambridge police. When the great John Hope Franklin taught history at the University of Chicago, his teenaged son was stopped by the police when he was going up the steps to his home.

When Barack Obama was first elected to the Illinois legislature, he also taught at the University of Chicago law school. One of his colleagues, a friend of mine, told me back then that Barack had been stopped by Illinois State police for driving while black between Chicago and Springfield. The President has never alluded to his own experience with Chicago’s fraught racial history, but that might explain his own off-the-cuff remark about the Cambridge police when he first heard of the incident.

I don’t know how we move away from the slums and the gangs they foster to a vibrant city.  I don’t know how we get a mayor who’s not much interested in such problems to pay attention to them.  I guess I don’t know much, so if anyone has helpful advice–pass it on.

Book v Kindle

Friday, August 7th, 2009

My cousin Barb, in Ukraine with the Peace Corps, took a Kindle with her, and a mighty fine idea that was, too: remote from any English-language bookstores or libraries, she was able to bring a hundred or so texts overseas with her without needing all those boxes we used to lug to foreign parts.  So I will say I am not adamantly opposed to the e-book.

However, I have tried reading on a Kindle and it doesn’t work for me.  Even though I get how convenient it is, and even though I just my second copy of American Pharaoh because I couldn’t find the first in my thousands of books, I don’t find it easy to use. I’m sure I could get used to searching instead of flipping pages, although I like to see where I am physically in a novel–did this event or character appear early or late in the narrative? But the way the text is framed slows down reading.  When you’re used to scanning a page, getting text one page at a time actually makes it harder to stay in the narrative flow.

I also prefer newspapers in print, especially since I live with someone, and we trade sections back and forth (we actually get 3 daily papers, so we often trade papers back and forth, sharing stories that have caught our eye.)

However, Green Apple Books in San Francisco has brought a whole new dimension to the Book v Kindle debate.  I think these little video clips are highly entertaining, and you may enjoy them, too.

Urban Life

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Strangers to Chicago, and even us hard-bitten natives, are wary of muggers in the parks and after dark.  I recently learned that all last winter, as my dog and I were happily roaring around the Wooded Isle nature preserve near my home,

Wooded Isle: the Japanese Garden in Winter

Wooded Isle: the Japanese Garden in Winter

we were stalked all winter by a coyote that was living in the preserve.  I saw it once from a distance and thought it was a German Shephered.  Little did I know that as we were sliding on the ice, our silent companion was thinking of breakfast.  Now I don’t know if I’ll be brave enough to go back out this coming winter.

Callie, Sara, I see you!

Callie, Sara, I see you!

I’ve seen foxes near my home, pheasant, and beavers, but the coyote is a first.  Given that I live in a dense-packed neighborhood, roughly 50,000 people in a city of 3 million, these sightings always amaze me.

Hyde Park, aerial view. President Obama's home is at 51st & Greenwood

Hyde Park, aerial view. President Obama's home is at 51st & Greenwood


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