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mercredi 28 août 2013

I read Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin and here is what I think

There are many memoirs flooding the US book market. Most strike me as contrived, unconvincing and forgettable. Not this one. It is thoughtful, candid and well written (Hardy is a poet). The story it tells is true and rings true. In some ways, it is everyone's story. Growing up means figuring out who you are and what you want in life, identifying the obstacles and contradictions, accepting that you can't have everything, and pursuing what you choose as vital. Hardy chose the writing life and the childfree life and thus had to rethink her relationship to the Mormon Church and risk disappointing her loving and deeply religious parents. Sex, detached from its procreative function, plays a role but not a big one. This isn't a book about unburdening oneself of one's virginity at the ripe old age of 36. It's a book about the struggle for self definition and a room of one's own. One review I read faulted the author for not taking down the Mormon Church for its profound sexism. The reviewer expected a different book than the one she read. I would say she did not read deeply enough. This book does offer a stinging critique of the rigid role Mormonism assigns to women. Its tent is not big enough or generous enough to hold men and women who eschew the traditional family model. Gays, lesbians, men and women who don't want to be parents (and those who can't)* are turned out of the Temple. Virginia Woolf did a little thought experiment in A Room of One's Own, imagining the life of Will Shakespeare's sister Ann. I found myself wondering how things would have gone for Nicole Hardy had she been a boy named Nick Hardy.

*In fact, the Mormon take on people who are unable to have children is that they will be "blessed" with a family in the afterlife, and that their childlessness is a temporary, inconvenient condition. Reading between the lines on this doctrine, I think it is fair to say that "temporary" and "inconvenient" and "condition" are all code words that in fact mean "inferior", "flawed" and somehow "not as good as those with busy, productive wombs". Let's face it, many people - from atheists to Catholics - look upon those who are childless but not by choice with pity. Certainly, religions that put such central significance on breeding future generations of the faithful are sending out a strong message, whether they officially embrace the childless or not. Hardy recounts an anecdote in her memoir about a conversation with a Mormon woman who seemed to think that the desire to have children was something God instills in people and something one could pray for. It is not farfetched to imagine that, for some people, anyone who can't have children is just not wanting to have them hard enough. And the idea that they will be "rewarded" with children in the afterlife underscores the notion that life without children is inferior at best, meaningless at worst.

In other words, when having children assumes such singular importance within a religion, then not having them - whatever the reason - is suspect.

So I will persist in my view that the Mormon Church, like the Catholic Church, frowns on not having children, regardless of the reason, and that this disapproval can take the form of "conditional acceptance" and well-meaning pity.

Photo : So this just happened, at Elliot Bay Books. Took me a sec to figure out what book was trying to sidle up to the stack I was signing. Hilarious.

vendredi 26 avril 2013

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month: In Memory of Meredith Kercher

Did you know that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the United States? Someone is sexually assaulted in this country every two minutes. Each year, there are 207,754 reported victims of rape and sexual assault. Of course, the number of unreported rapes and sexual assaults remains high.

When people think about sexual violence, they generally imagine that the victim does not know the attacker - that the assault involves a stranger. In fact, the reality is startlingly different: among female rape victims, 51.1% of perpetrators are reported to be intimate partners and 40.8% are acquaintances. In total, more than 90% of all reported rapes are committed by people who know their victim. And in more than half of these case, the perpetrator is more than just an acquaintance.

The photo here is of Meredith Kercher, the British exchange student to Italy who was tortured, threatened, physically assaulted and then killed in the cottage she shared in Perugia with three other women. Three people, all of them known to Meredith, were convicted of these heinous acts, including one of Meredith Kercher's roommates. Another person who was convicted, Rudy Guede, opted for a fast-track trial and is currently serving his sentence. The roommate - Amanda Knox - and her then boyfriend - Raffaele Sollecito - were unanimously convicted by the eight-person panel that heard the case and then released on appeal. Those familiar with the case AND with knowledge of the Italian system of justice were surprised by the acquittal and fairly certain that the Supreme Court would annul it. Those who looked to the US mainstream media for information were fed a pack of inventions fabricated by the multi-million dollar PR campaign on behalf of the American, Amanda Knox, who was convicted along with Guede and with her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito.

Knox and Sollecito lost no time signing book deals and working with co-authors to pen their memoirs. Sollecito's book was published months ago and Knox's is scheduled for release along with her exclusive interview with ABC on April 30. Knox was allegedly paid an advance of 4 million dollars for the book, which appears to be a 462 page turkey that HarperCollins hopes will appeal to the tabloid junkie lurking in some human souls.

Remember the old rhyme? Thirty days has September, April, June and November... April 30 is the last day of the month of April, the month designated in the US as Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

On Sunday, April 28, a rally will be held at noon in connection with Sexual Assault Awareness Month in New York City. This rally is dedicated to Meredith Kercher. I have read that participants are asked to meet at the Lincoln Center Fountain. I wonder if Diane Sawyer or any of the folks at HarperCollins will attend. You know, in honor of the victim of a hideous sexual assault that left her dead.

Incidentally, Italy's Supreme Court did annul the acquittal, though it upheld the felony conviction of Amanda Knox for having falsely accused Patrick Lumumba of killing her roommate.

Is it just me or is there something surreal about publishing a "memoir" written by someone convicted of a felony charge of lying, about a sexual assault and murder in which the question of her participation remains a pending matter, on the last day of the month of April, sexual assault awareness month?    

mardi 16 avril 2013

Some thoughts about Boston

Like everybody, I was shocked and saddened by what happened yesterday at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Not one but two explosions, concocted to inflict maximum pain and disfigurement to ordinary bystanders. Lots of commentators and distraught observers are looking for a ray of hope in all of this, and we keep hearing the words of Mr. Rogers over and over again, which roughly come down to this: when something bad happens, look at the helpers. Look at the ones who are running toward and not away from the scene of destruction, the ones who are courageously trying to limit the loss of life and, especially in this particular tragedy, of limb.

When the eye witness reports started filling the airwaves, at first I was annoyed that every runner seemed to want to make sure that listeners got the vital information about their own accomplishment as a runner. I heard lots of things like "I was just crossing the finish line because I was going for my personal best" or "I wanted to finish in under four hours, so I was right there when the first bomb exploded" or "I was already back in my hotel room when the blast occurred, having finished in 3 and a half hours", etc. It seemed ridiculously vain to be talking about personal bests as reports of the casualties just got worse and worse: three dead, scores wounded, make that 120, many of them amputees.

When I mentioned my annoyance to my wise husband Walt, he said something simple and very true. He said, "but you have to remember that these people have worked very hard to get here and that finishing the marathon is a huge deal for them". I realized immediately that he was right and that what I initially heard as narcissim and vanity was really something else entirely.

It's hard to explain. I ran a marathon once, and have written about it on this blog. Once I had done so, however, I had no desire to run another one and in fact gradually stopped running, after traversing an unhappy period during which I hated every second of running and even had nightmares about running. But I will never forget what it took to get to the finish line of that one and only marathon and how explosively happy I felt when it happened. It took months of hard training, after several years of running 10ks. Many folks work their way up from 10ks to a half-marathon or two before tackling a marathon. I didn't go that route. Instead, I decided to pass directly to the 26.2 mile race and began training in earnest just five months prior to the big day. I followed a plan that was published in a running magazine, tailored to the needs of first-time marathoners who worked full-time. For five months, I either got up at the crack of dawn to run before work or ran after work, usually after dark and often in the rain. I got permission from my boss to do one long run each week at lunchtime, which meant taking a much longer lunch hour than was allowed. So every Wednesday, rain or shine, I changed into my running clothes and ran from Belltown up to and around Magnolia and back. And every weekend I took one long run, which started at ten miles and got a little longer each time. As I recall,  my goal was to run at least 35 miles per week. On the day of the marathon, my longest run had been 19 miles.

The first 19 miles of the marathon felt good. My ex-husband (we were married at the time), who had already completed several marathons, ran with me - which meant running a slower pace than he was used to but at a fast clip for me. It felt exhilarating. Running, I felt like a gazelle, until I hit 20 miles, at which point I came smack up against the proverbial but very real wall. How to describe it? I began to feel not like a gazelle but rather like an old elephant. I felt heavy and clumsy and acutely aware of my legs and how tired they felt, of how tired I suddenly felt all over in fact. I found myself trying to remember what it was about running a marathon that had ever appealed to me in the first place. A nagging pain in my left foot (which turned out later to be a nascent stress fracture) began to scream at me: Stop! Now! The thoughts inside my head soon took over, until they were all I could hear. This might have been a good development had they been happy, positive thoughts. But they were not. They were dark thoughts. What were you thinking? They said to me, in indignant disbelief. What is so great about running a marathon? I felt defeated and just wanted to quietly exit the course and blend in with the crowd. Just then, I was abruptly yanked out of my own head by a burning sensation in my foot that was spreading up my leg. I stopped. What's wrong, asked my husband/pacer. I stepped on a rock, I yelled. It was true. I had stepped on a sharp rock and the pain was unbearable. Don't stop, he said. When I did just that, he told me I would get excruciating cramps if I didn't cool down first. Just walk, he said. You don't have to run. Just keep walking. So I did, limping a bit and cursing him under my breath. What did he know? That's about when the crowd came to my rescue, not just encouraging me but also appealing to my orgeuil.  You're almost there, they yelled. You're doing great, they yelled. And though it was not true that I was "doing great", it was true that I was almost there. As I returned to the reality outside my head, I heard someone yell - to me! - C'mon, you've got less than a mile to go!" This was meaningful to me and it was galvanizing. I thought to myself, no matter how I feel I know I can run one lousy mile. This thought go me moving more quickly, jogging at first and then running. I had no idea until I saw the photo below (and now I can't remember if it was an official photo or one taken by a friend) how visible on our faces was the sheer joy we felt at finishing that damn marathon. Look at us. We are grinning madly, almost laughing. We are about to cross the finish line!

In the end - and perhaps only because this photo is the sole physical reminder I have kept of the event (unless you count the lingering pain of my decades old stress fracture when I walk barefoot) - what I remember about the marathon is this: the absolute joy I felt at crossing the finish line and the deep gratitude I felt toward the cheering crowd of mostly strangers.

And that's what makes yesterday's Boston Marathon so deeply horrible: the fact that the simple, sheer joy of this event was obliterated for many participants and spectators by a bomb. A bomb designed and then assembled to suck joy out of this world and this life.

My old friend Michael Mosher, who continues to run at age 70, posted this on facebook today:

I am reposting something from Brian Bort which was posted on the meet-up page of the Berkeley Running Club (BRC). It seems like the right thing to remind people of after yesterday.

Dear Runners,
Thanks to Anya for checking in with our BRC Boston Marathon runners; they are all fine. Running is an extremely peaceful endeavor, and it will remain so. I hope you feel that peace on your runs, and remember that every step running is a step in the right direction.
Thanks for what you do and who you are, keep running.

My run has slowed to a walk, but in my head I am still running with all of you runners out there as you lead us in the right direction.

jeudi 11 avril 2013

HarperCollins UK suspends publication of Knox "memoir"

Victim Meredith Kercher as a child

This is welcome news and a no-brainer. Can you imagine HarperCollins US publishing Jodi Arias's memoir right now, with her trial for murdering Travis Alexander pending? But this is precisely the situation Knox is currently in, except that the murder victim was English and the alleged crime took place in far-off Italy. I'll try and make this as simple as possible: When Knox signed her book deal with HarperCollins, allegedly for a 4-million dollar advance, she was not yet out of the woods legally.

Several of us pointed this out at the time. But in the headlong, greedy rush to make out like bandits, none of her handlers or advisors seemed to be paying attention. Here's the truth: Knox and her then boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were initially convicted for their role in murdering Knox's roommate, Meredith Kercher. In addition, Knox was convicted of calunnia, or defamation, a felony in Italy, for falsely accusing her boss, Patrick Lumumba, of the crime, claiming in addition that she was an ear witness. Both the prosecution and the defense teams filed an appeal, the prosecution because it felt that the sentences were too lenient in light of the heinous nature of the crime and the attempt to derail the investigation by (i) falsely accusing an innocent man and (ii) tampering with the evidence to suggest a break-in. The subsequent appeal trial was quite strange, against the backdrop of US media vying for the rights to an exclusive with Knox. If you are interested in the details of this media circus and the trial itself, you can read my other posts or go to the website True Justice for Meredith Kercher (.org).

Oddly, the Hellmann court "acquitted" Knox and Sollecito but upheld Knox's conviction by the first court for aggravated calumny. Both the prosecution and the defense teams appealed this court's ruling. I bolded that line because it is important. As far back as October of 2011, it was virtually certain that the case would go to Italy's highest court for a decision. In other words, the matter was still pending and you can safely ignore all of the ignorant commentary in the US about double jeopardy. A few months later, the actual appeal was filed by PM Galati. The discussion board I moderate ( translated this document. You should read it. The grounds for appeal were very strong indeed. Too bad the folks at HarperCollins did not read the appeal; I guess they were too busy working out the details of the infomercial with ABC, which outbid the other networks for the chance to sit down in a carefully controlled setting and throw softballs to Knox, kicking off her book promo.

Truly, the only real mystery is how a bunch of people who should know better went ahead and negotiated a book deal and then a promo gig with someone whose legal status was and is still pending. The Italian Supreme court heard the appeals and issued its decision in late March. And the decision is without a trace of ambiguity: the court overturned the Hellmann court decision in all of its aspects except for his decision to uphold Knox's felony conviction for calumny.

In other words, that conviction is now final. As for the rest, a new appeal trial will be held in Florence, Italy. The calumny conviction will loom large. In the meantime, will HarperCollins realize the folly of its plan to publish a memoir co-written by an individual who is a convicted felon for the crime of lying to police and accusing an innocent man of murdering her roommate in her presence? How credible is a memoir written by a co-narrator who is prima facie unreliable? Maybe HC should take my advice and rebrand the book as fiction. That would certainly be more honest, assuming that truth in advertising matters.

mardi 9 avril 2013

Why kids are getting fatter: it's the environment, stupid

According to the latest research on why children are getting fatter, the main culprit is the environment. Take kids with normal genes and normal activities and put them in a fattening environment and they will get fat. Seems fairly obvious, right? But what is meant by "environment"? What are these environmental factors that are producing more obesity in children than ever before. It turns out that they range from the seemingly small things - like plate size - to the more substantial things - like not getting enough sleep because of school-related tasks. And then there's the rest: fast food, technology, more eating out, more exposure to food advertising, more processed foods and sugary drinks, larger serving sizes, easy access to all this shit (think vending machines, sporting events, giant home refrigerators and pantries loaded up for Armegeddon), etc.

The good news is that parents have some control over many of these environmental factors. For example, they can make sure their kids get to bed at a decent hour and buy smaller plates. They can prohibit sugary drinks in the gigantic home refrigerator and refrain from buying processed foods to be served as snacks. They can buy apples, oranges and pears instead. They can insist on home-cooked meals and - this is not on the list above but is a pet peeve of mine - they can stop acting like short-order cooks. This requires planning and making a meal, not anticipating a myriad of individual whims and wants. They can lock up their pantries and tell the kids to go out and get some fresh air. In other words, they can create an environment that resembles nothing so much as the one I grew up in, way back in the 1960s. My mom never bought Hostess twinkies or pies or "pop", which is what we called soda. She never bought those little packages of potato chips and fritos that the other kids got in their lunch boxes. We didn't even have lunch boxes. We carried our lunch to school in brown paper bags. Lunch was a sandwich on brown bread (which filled me with shame and indignation), a piece of fruit (usually an apple) and a small box of sunmaid raisins. I suppose we got homemade cookies once in awhile. Occasionally, my grandmother would bring us a bag of forbidden booty: red whips, packages of chips, mini boxes of sugar cereal, 7up... It never lasted long. We snarfed it up like famished street urchins. But I digress. I used to love to babysit for people (which girls were encouraged to do from about thirteen on) because it was an opportunity to raid their pantries for ding dongs, hohos, Hostess cherry pies, twinkies and other delights. I once ate dog food during a babysitting gig, but only because I was curious about the taste. It tasted like dog breath, pretty much, but I liked the captain crunchiness of the kibble.

I'm not suggesting that parents give their kids dog food, but reading about the importance of environment in curbing obesity, I was reminded of my dog Neko. At Neko's last visit with the vet, I was alarmed to see that she was a pound above her top winter weight. This may not sound like much, but Neko's normal weight is 20 pounds. In the winter, she generally puts on a pound. This winter, she put on 2. I decided it was time for a change. I was truly worried she would get diabetes. After analyzing the situation, I quickly realized that Neko's major obstacle to weight loss was her handlers. We control her environment. Even if she understood what it was for, she could not open the refrigerator and pull out a hunk of meat. Neko's weight gain was mostly due to being fed from the table, being given too many snacks, her getting cat food from the floor and her eating cat poop from the litter box. On these last two points, in our defense let me say that one of our cats is severely disabled. We cannot put the litter box downstairs; nor can we put the cat food in a place where Neko cannot get to it. It has to be served on the floor. However, it does not have to be left on the floor at all times. I told Walt that our five-year experiment with Neko had yielded the following finding: Neko, like all dogs, will eat whatever she can get to. Ergo, it was time for her handlers to make some changes. I bought some high fiber kibble that's lower in calories and supposedly more filling. We started feeding Neko at the same time as the cats, 5 pm. Before, Neko was a late diner like us. The first few days, she thought she was getting two meals, but now she has the drill down. One of us patrols the kitchen during the feeding minute (this event sometimes lasts just 30 seconds for Neko) and then removes the leftover cat food as soon as the cats walk away. I watch over the litter box like a hawk, cleaning it several times per day. Not one morsel of kitty roca goes undetected. We have stopped setting aside a bit of our dinner on a special plate, just for Neko. She had trained us to do this as a sort of ransom for allowing us to eat in peace. She was getting regular exercise, but now she gets a 45-minute walk every day.

It has been about two months since we altered Neko's environment. I think she is down at least a pound, which is five percent of her total body weight. She has more energy. According to her many fans, she looks better. She still tries to get in the litter box whenever she thinks my back is turned and has taken advantage of a couple of ill-timed phone calls to shove our disabled cat aside and steal food, but these are rare occurrences now. At first we thought we could train her out of her bad habits, but this is like thinking we could train her to be something other than a dog. We have come to accept that we are the ones who had to be retrained. And whenever we get distracted, she grabs a bit of cat food or poop. So we are working on staying focused. And Neko looks fabulous!

lundi 8 avril 2013