Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Wife Keeps her Name at Marriage--and Other Ways to Get Respect

An article last week in in the New York Times argued every-which-way about changing or retaining names at marriage. It provoked a huge response, because the central issue isn't really about keeping a name, but retaining respect as an individual.

The piece mainly described women's dilemmas and choices, noting that men haven't rushed to claim their wives' names. A Lesbian couple made their own mashup: Ms. Rothman and Ms. Gerkin became the Gerkmans. (Seems odd; classmates of any future children could taunt "Jerk-Man!" and their choice includes "man" when neither partner is one.)

"Third wave" feminists, the now-marrying generation, often take their husbands' names, even though their own mothers kept their original names out of conviction. The older moms seem disappointed when daughters don't follow their examples, but one youth suggested, “Your generation did all the work, now we can go back to having our husbands’ names.”

One hundred twenty comments, almost all by women, reveal the passion this issue still evokes. The majority of writers insisted that keeping their names preserved their identities, and posed no difficulties. But awkward stories threaded through the rest, bemoaning confused contexts, hyphenated horrors and attacks for choosing the traditional path.

One couple avoided the entire his/hers issue by making up a euphonious Tolkein-esque name and both changing to it in court.

Now that marriage is optional, divorce ubiquitous and unmarried parenthood acceptable, what's the big deal? The crux of the passion is a need for respect as an individual. For many nowadays, taking another person's name feels like a surrender of one's persona, a loss of the unique individuality established and nurtured throughout life.

I think people should be called by whatever they prefer. More crucial for engendering respect than a name, however, is title. "Dr.," "Ms.," "Mr.," and even "Miss" or "Mrs.," if desired, should precede whatever name someone uses, because titles confer respect.

Graffiti, foul language in public (and in media), and pushy drivers all reflect the same decrease in respect for others that dropping titles demonstrates. It's a societal malaise--haven't you noticed it?

Lack of respect begins when a youngster's allowed to address adults casually, by their first names, teaching him there's no difference between children and elders. When a well-meaning teacher tries to "get close" to his charges by going by his first name, students learn that they and the teacher share similar status; children become elevated and the teacher loses ground. The snot-nosed kid gets snotty because nobody's ever superior to him; no one else's position or needs trump his own. Self-esteem's great until it destroys deference to anyone else.

When a store salesperson calls me by my first name, I'm unpleasantly surprised, because the context dictates that he cater to me. A doctor should address her patient as Mr. or Ms., and a child should use those titles for neighbors, because of something becoming startlingly rare: common courtesy. Courtesy is at root respect for others.

Respect is the entire point, the nexus of name-passion.

Feminists want acclaim for their own accomplishments, not as extensions of someone else. They'll get it no matter the last name if we insist upon courtesy and respect for every individual in every circumstance. Titles are one small and perhaps superficial means to remind all present to recognize and honor others. The secondary results might be less inclination to vandalize others' property, cut in when in traffic, and dull sensitivity to politeness with public swearing.

As one of those earlier-wave feminists, I thought it dumb that tradition saw wives as
husband-extensions--and then I fell in love with someone I was proud to extend. More precisely, I was honored that this particular man wanted me to share his future, and delighted we could create our own family united under a single moniker. Suddenly it didn't bother me anymore that I would "lose" my name, because in marrying, I was entering a new phase, as a partner in a new enterprise, the adventure combining my husband and me.

This is the key to what I believe is the value of marriage, and a couple sharing a single last name simply symbolizes it: the whole of the two individuals creates something that is different from, and better than, what each person can be alone.

Each individual deserves respect. But so does the entity of a family, the commitment of two people to each other. If that universal respect was restored, perhaps more people would guard and protect their marriages. And if problems arose, they might work to overcome them, rather than divorce, hurting so many others, and destroying the history and combination they've built.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Animals Too Weird for Evolution

Copulating hermaphrodite sea slugs soon to get violent
Sometimes the headline grabs you: "Sea Slug Sex and Violence," for example. Or, "Clever crocs, gators balance sticks on snouts to lure prey." Both are real, and both made me ask, "how in the world would these evolve?"

First, the violent sex of sea slugs. An item in the Science section of the New York Times reports, "Researchers have identified a new kind of hermaphroditic sea slug living on the Great Barrier Reef that uses its phallus to stab its partner in the forehead after copulating..." This certainly caught my attention, and I found a Scientific American article with the lead: "Everyone remember not to have sex with hermaphrodite sea slugs, because they’ll want to inject prostate gland fluid into your forehead."

Turns out biologists led by Rolanda Lange of Monash University in Australia captured 32 of the 2-4 millimeter-long Siphopteron sp. 1 sea slugs off Queensland, and videotaped sixteen couplings of their several-times-daily antics. The slugs enjoy quite a mating ritual: 2.5 minutes of twirling embrace, with a few romantic neck-bites, and some organ "everting," (the phallus turns outward or inside out). Then the sex act, and since both have male and female openings, well, one of them behaves as the male and the other, female. After that, the "penile stylus" gropes the "female", until whap! It's injecting glandular fluid deep into "her" forehead!

The experts witnessing this were flummoxed. No other animal has been observed stabbing its paramour in the forehead after coitus. They had no idea why one hermaphrodite would inject prostate fluid into the head of another one. Their speculation is that this neurologically manipulates the partner to absorb more of the sperm just received, but they honestly have no evidence for that.

Given that this weird behavior appears unique among all animals, I just wonder how and why this would confer evolutionary advantage. Apparently, the "penile stylus" is flexible enough to reach any part of the recipient; lots of other creatures poke and prod, but not the forehead. How could this fit the workings of Darwinian theory? It's possible that with enough research, we'll eventually discover why this one species of sea slug developed a behavior so different from any other creature--but for now, its habit seems illogical and amazing.

Equally astounding are the crocodiles and alligators who, only during the spring mating season of nearby-nesting birds, balance twigs on their snouts and lie motionless in the water for hours until a mama-bird, seeking nest-building material, plucks the twig and...SNAP! She's lunch!
Alligator (that's no log!) with twigs awaits lunch

Researchers observed crocodiles in Tamil Nadu, India, and alligators in four sites in Louisiana laying twigs on their barely-submerged snouts, as "tools" to snare prey. "Use of objects as hunting lures is very rare among animals," writes a team of authors led by Vladimir Dinets of the University of Tennessee. The only animals ever found with that ability are "captive capuchin monkeys, a few bird species and one insect." The big question is how the reptiles know to try their trick only in the weeks birds compete for twigs. Are they looking up and saying, "gee, I see birds swooping around, so I'm gonna camouflage myself like a log and balance some twigs on my snout"?

OK, I can't resist one more strange animal story, this one from a splashy piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Rasberry Crazy Ants, named after Tom Rasberry, the exterminator who brought them to the attention of authorities in 2002, are swarming over Texas and several more Southern states. The weird part is that they congregate in electrical appliances by the thousands, and blacken dirt and pavement by their sheer density and number. When they cozy up inside a radio or TV, their little bodies complete electrical circuits, shorting out the appliance, zapping the critters, who send out a pheromone smell calling for reinforcements. By the time the owner opens the appliance, thousands of bodies, dead and alive, jam its inside.

Crazy Ants: Just 1/8 inch long, but overpowering
A June NBC News report noted, "In one case, the ants quickly spread to 90 out of 150 air-conditioning units in an apartment building in Waco, Texas," and their swarms in industrial sheds are a "problem for industries in Texas and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast." They often overtake local fire ants who bite, but at least perish with regular ant bait, which crazy ants ignore. Also called tawny ants, the crazy Nylanderia fulva drive off the much-larger fire ants; see them in a two-minute YouTube video that's had more than 91,000 views.

How did all these bizarre and mind-boggling species manage to exist and survive today? My personal reaction is found in Psalm 104, expressing the awesomeness of nature, "...How abundant are Your works, God, all of them you made with wisdom; full is the earth with Your possessions."

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Disney's "Frozen": Scary with Bad Messages for Children

Princesses Elsa and Anna, in Disney's "Frozen"
The new Disney seasonal animated movie, Frozen, kicked off big. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the film broke the all-time record in its Thanksgiving debut, and earned $93 million over the long weekend (second only to Hunger Games' sequel, Catching Fire, $110 million). The reviews are glowing as brightly as the ice castle Queen Elsa waves into existence with her mysteriously-endowed power to freeze whatever she touches.

Though generating profit is great for the economy, Frozen is too scary for kids, proffers bad messages, and follows a nonsensical, convoluted plot. I went to a preview screening of the film, and afterward, saw kids more dazed than excited.

Adults fuel the success of Frozen--Mom and Dad hear there's a new Disney movie with princesses and a loveable, joking snowman, and, looking for something to share, grab the kids and go.

But parents, beware. In fact, anyone who doesn't care for fright, beware.
That would include me, a mother whose youngest is 21, who covered my eyes and hummed as an amorphous abominable snowman-monster attempted to kill the sweet, if unwise younger princess, Anna.

That's the hook for boys: scary monster and dumb-joking snowman. Upside for girls are the two personality-infused princesses. Then, there are significant downsides. Girls will recoil in fear as their heroic Princess Anna faces destruction (by an agent of her own sister, no less!), and boys will disdain the sisterly lovey-dovey/distancing-rejection theme, not to mention the musical number portraying Anna falling in love. I'm surprised no reviewer has mentioned the royal deaths that make the young princesses sudden orphans--after which the girls' grief is oh-so-brief, the closing of a curtain on a portrait of their drowned parents. Wouldn't watching this event distress any child who understands what transpired?

For parents, Frozen presents the challenge of resisting smart phones for 108 minutes; no adult would pay to see this movie if it weren't for his kids. Sure, the Disney Animation visuals, especially in 3-D, are excellent, but while grown-ups may appreciate the artistry, that's not enough to lure anyone over middle school to the theater.

Most importantly, parents should note the deleterious messages for kids embedded in the story. After the parents' demise, Elsa, noticing her freezing effect increasing, locks herself in an empty room so she won't harm anyone. The younger Anna is perplexed that her once-loving sister has, well, frozen her out, and won't even answer her musical pleas for contact from behind her closed door. The lack of any other individuals in the girls' world--to educate, play with, amuse or even feed them--receives its own musical number, "Do You Want to Build a Snowman," in which a spurned Anna begs her sister for a response: "...I think some company is overdue, I've started talking to the pictures on the walls. It gets a little lonely, all these empty rooms, just watching the hours tick by..." And indeed, we see Anna doing absolutely nothing beside watching the clock, and the visuals accompanying the song imply her vacuous existence lasts about a decade.

Even Beauty and the Beast's Belle, who had her aging father to tend, found time to read. We tell our kids not to waste time. We tell our kids to express themselves, sharing their feelings and discussing issues that separate them from others. These princesses model exactly the behavior we work to discourage in youngsters: withdrawing and sitting around, bored.

Aside from that, Frozen doesn't hold together logically, but a cogent plot may be an unreasonable expectation for a princess movie. Certainly fantastical characters get a pass, even if the main one is a snowman Elsa unknowingly created and abandoned, but who remains unrelentingly upbeat and loquacious, even when his body is disassembled.

Elsa's quick decision to renounce the crown she'd just accepted in a public coronation doesn't make sense given her slavish devotion to duty expressed in the song "Let it Go:" "Don't let them in, don't let them see, be the good girl you always had to be." When her freezing power becomes revealed, she dumps her kingdom--which incidentally she'd just turned from summer to perpetual winter--and runs off, finding fulfillment as the self-centered scion of her private ice palace.

With her empire facing hypothermia, the remaining sister Anna, now in control by default, makes a nonsensical executive decision to head into the snowy wilderness alone, sans supplies or escort, on the unfounded belief her sister can reset the season. She leaves the kingdom in the hands of a foreign prince she's known for 24 hours, a poor choice.

In fact, she'd be toast, er, popsicle, if she didn't coincidentally come across a trading post among the snow-drifts, and there bump into Kristof, a goofy reindeer-whisperer who sells ice and was raised by a family of rock-trolls. And, happy news: the trolls' "Grand Pabbie" happens to know the antidote to Elsa's freeze-inducing condition. While in search of Elsa, wolves attack Anna and Kristof in another too-scary-for-small-kids scene, but they luckily run into the snowman, out just chillin', who directs them to the palace.

Am I a curmudgeon for noticing the difficulties in such plot points?

Also irritating are the final scenes with a reversal I won't spoil, and an interminably trite running-breathlessly-to-make-it finale.  Oh, and the music is pleasant but forgettable, even with the rash of charming articles about their husband-wife songwriting team, the Lopezes. You're not going to leave the theater remembering, much less humming, a tune, because these sound too much like most other musicals. A case in point is Elsa's anthem, "Let it Go," which celebrates casting off restriction and unfettering her harmful proclivity: "no right or wrong, no rules for me...I'm never going back; the past is in the past."
Princess Elsa, happily ensconced in her ice castle

My objections about the film don't blunt the lavish effort promoting Frozen. "...Disney fired up its vaunted cross-marketing engines," notes the NY Times, calling on its Disney TV Channel, its several theme parks and resorts, and even a tie-in give-away of hash-browns, despite absence of potatoes in the story.

Resist the hype. If you're the parent of little kids--any kids!--looking for some holiday entertainment, I suggest you ice skate, view lights displays, make cookies and play in the snow; don't spend your precious time together in the Frozen dark, implanting scary images and dubious messages.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

(Most) Girls Don't Want to be Engineers

My son with his plastic tools
Who said this, and when: "Ad agencies are predominantly men, and the men in ads are generally heroic and funny, while women are sidekicks or home-makers."
Was that...Gloria Steinem, 1970?
Was that...Betty Friedan, 1969?

How about this gripe: "I thought back to my childhood with the princesses and the ponies and wondered why construction toys and math and science kits are for boys."

Was that...Sheryl Sandberg, on why she leans in? Was this Tina Fey in "30 Rock"?

No, this is the anachronistic grouse of the makers of the currently viral YouTube commercial for GoldieBlox building toy, kits for girls to build things. The ad shows three gleeful girls watching their elaborate Rube Goldberg contraption knock over stuff, turn on water and generally make a mess rivaling the classic "Cat in the Hat." Their ad is destined for even greater fame, as the result of a New York Times business section front-page story today.

All the feminists are posting the link to their Facebook pages. They're tweeting how innovative this ad is, with its girls wearing hardhats and cool new lyrics to the Beastie Boys' song "Girls." Hey, I'm a feminist, and I think girls should be encouraged in math and sciences; I want girls with the proclivity to become engineers.  And I have no problem with GoldieBlox.

But I doubt girls will play with them.  Parents will definitely purchase and push the toy, and since sales is the goal of any entrepreneurial endeavor, GoldieBlox will make some money. That's great; I want every start-up to succeed.

But in five years, lots of dusty GoldieBlox will lay in thrift shops, barely used.

Modern feminism, the one that sent many more women back to the workforce, is forty
years old. Since that first feminist wave, toy makers have marketed chemistry sets and tool kits to girls. Aisles in toy stores were re-named from "Boys'" and "Girls'" toys to generic "dolls" and "sports." But...take a stroll down any Toys R Us, and you won't find lots of boys dawdling among the toy kitchens, or girls ogling the trucks.

Serious boy with toy gun that has an orange tip
I've got a raft of books on my shelf--more than a dozen--describing the difference between boys' and girls' brain hard-wiring. No matter what idealists would desire, male and female are created differently. Little girls want to play with dollies and set up dining-room vignettes (like my daughters did, without my coaching); little boys, like my son, want to push toy lawnmowers, "shoot" with anything handy, and wrap ropes around furniture. Arriving as he did as the third child after two sisters, our Danny's first gun was a Barbie doll, held by the head with a barrel of a pair of legs. Our first, Sarah, made her "Shabbat table" tableaux using erasers and other "food" scavenged from my desk drawer.

Makers of GoldieBlox, yours may be a noble sentiment, but it's not just because girls don't have their own build-it kits that they stay away from engineering. Note that in 1985, women earned 37% of computer science degrees, and now they earn half that, according to the NY Times piece. Girls just want to have fun; can't we just laud their natural preferences, and stop implying their choices' inferiority by insisting they really want something else?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Government as Savior: Feed the Hungry, Slim the Obese

Pic from a 1949 'Life Magazine' article on obesity
It's ironic: the poorest Americans, the ones on government food stamps, tend to be the fattest. Which calls for another government program to get them slim.

Reading a fascinating series of articles in the Washington Post by Eli Saslow about poverty and obesity, I was struck by the underlying assumptions fueling many expensive, publicly-funded efforts to "save" the obese poor.

Everyone wants to spare people illness and pain. Everyone wants to enhance longevity and add to quality of life. No one wants to pay for medical services for poor people if their illnesses can be avoided. In fact, with the laughable state of Obamacare in its first roll-out weeks, it appears no one wants to pay for governmentally-required health plans.

But we're paying for a lot of health-oriented programs, anyway. One Post article describes ignorance and incapacity in nutritious food preparation of residents in Hidalgo County, Texas, near the Mexican border. Forty percent of the population there relies on federal programs to pay for comestibles, a percentage nearly the same as the area's 38% obesity rate. Local food stores don't offer many vegetables, but do a brisk business in Cheetos smothered in melted cheese. Is it greedy grocers who are pumping pounds onto hapless neighbors, or, could it be that if these outlets offered veggies, neighbors would still opt for Cheetos?

slide show with the Washington Post series offers a rather disheartening, though honest answer. One photo shows a portly woman guffawing in a nutrition class when the teacher suggests serving smaller portions. "Yeah, well, try telling that to my husband!" she retorts.

In Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel boasts city efforts brought a 21% decline in "healthy food deserts" in the last two years, obesity remains high. Childhood obesity rates are notably higher than the national average; overall, 27% of Chicagoans are obese, 34% overweight, and 38% of "normal" BMI. Reporting on a study that made national projections, the Chicago ABC affiliate last year headlined, "Half of Illinoisans to be Obese by 2030."

A conundrum that health experts ponder is that food stamp recipients--whose need for sustenance is great enough for the government to step in--are disproportionately obese. As I frequently note, more and more non-gluttony causes of obesity are surfacing. Offering vegetables to the poor obese, even with education explaining how and why to cook them, can't affect most causes being discovered. It's condescending and silly to think that government-programs for classes, gyms and markets with produce can have much effect on the poor's collective girth.

That relates to the "government will provide" mentality inculcated in the public by Obama's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the values-free new moniker for Food Stamps.

Under Obama-administration direction, taxpayer-funded "outreach" workers infiltrate low-income pockets to sign-up as many candidates as possible. One illuminating Washington Post article follows a recruiter as she approaches residents of a shabby central Florida trailer park, pursuing her quota of 150 seniors per month. Her method is to bring piles of free food to attract a crowd, and then lure them to enroll, using a set of SNAP-provided talking points crafted to silence listener's doubts.

If a prospect hesitates because of welfare stigma, the recruiter responds, "You worked hard and the taxes you paid helped create SNAP."

If a candidate's embarrassed, the recruiter soothes, "Everyone needs help now and then." If accepting denotes failure, the recruiter just normalizes the experience: "Lots of people, young and old, are having financial difficulties." The recruiter might add that with the step-up in loading people to the dole, fellow recipients likely live next door. In Florida, the setting for the story, food stamp enrollment soared in just the last 5 years from 1.45 million to 3.35 million beneficiaries.

The whole effort riles me, not only because of the increase in federal tax burden, but because stifling moral objections scoots a vulnerable population down the chute to permanent dependence. Of course, the presently-empowered political party gains supporters when more voters rely on them rather than on family, church or self-starting entrepreneurship. It's a smart move for Democrats to ease in as many new SNAP dependents as possible, because they form the voting bloc guaranteeing support for politicians who guard their entitlements. Challengers who would rein in government largess become the bad guys grabbing food away from the hungry.

Clever strategies cajole low-income elders with salesmanship and persuasion. The stigma of ripping stamps or paper slips from a coupon book is gone. Now, recipients swipe a cute little card called an EBT, for Electronic Benefits Transfer. Looks just like a credit card, but you never get the bill.

In an astonishing reversal of right and wrong, recruiters claim that taking federal assistance is actually altruistic, because it brings money into the local economy and thereby creates jobs. Despite the appeal to civic responsibility, seniors are reticent to sign up, and only 38% of eligible Floridians have, a rate half that of other age groups. "That means about 300,000 people over 60 are not getting their benefits, and at least $381 million in available federal money isn’t coming into the state," spins the Post article. Mr. Low-Income Senior, it's your duty  to, well, snap it up.

The article describes the moral dilemma of one older Florida resident who prided himself throughout his life in being one of society's "makers" rather than "takers." He resists shifting to a new demoralizing status that confirms his failure, but the implication is that sooner or later, he will succumb.

While certainly some assistance to people in need is important, the search-and-SNAP effort brings two kinds of harm. First is replacing initiative with entitlement. And the second is the intrusion of public agencies' tentacles into the crevices of families' lives, all the way to their dinner plates. Cheetos smothered in melted cheese are awful as daily fare, but the issue isn't lack of broccoli, but the desire and energy to create vegetable-laden dishes--that children eschew anyway. Poor single parents, especially, are exhausted, and they'll never pay six dollars for salad when the Cheetos their kids crave cost just two. And once again, obesity can be driven by chemical, genetic or environmental causes that fruit and veggies can't cure.

 Government-as-savior's response is to do something. Subsidize greens for poor people. Install basketball hoops in every cul-de-sac. Send nutrition educators to every low-income home. Help these poor people!

Concerned legislators began throwing money at obesity ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, and even with Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign, it seems obesity outruns it all. Mrs. Obama seems to see the futility in her efforts; last week she officially turned her focus from pummeling childhood obesity to encouraging college. Her new cause is a more constructive direction, because the college message says "you can make something of yourself." Much better than "we can make less of you."

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"I Swerve for Trash," Litter-ally. Or, "My Husband Uses a Grabber"

Man and grabber in action
In this season when leaf-blowers blare, scooting piles of ocher maple leaves out of driveways, my anti-litter husband is ever-more vigilant in his quest for man-made debris marring our tidy town. And now the police have caught him.

He can be seen every Sabbath, walking the nearly 3 miles to our synagogue, seeking bottle-necks poking out from the thick, crisp foliage on the sidewalk. He'll trudge into a damp ditch next to the street to retrieve a carelessly-tossed Kleenex. He'll triumphantly display the shiny beer can he's clutched in his "gopher" grabber, scooped from the grassy parkway.

And, while driving in our community, he's also on the look-out for obnoxious cardboard, and fast-food wrappers tossed along the roadway. So compulsive is he about removing wayward garbage that I really must make the bumper-sticker that I've been threatening to paste on his car: "I swerve for trash."

Perhaps if the law-keeper had seen it, he might not have pounced, lights flashing, when he pulled over yesterday in a muddy narrow strip next to a tight two-lane passage. I was in the passenger seat, rolling my eyes perhaps, since my husband's many detours for toppled garage sale signs, runaway hubcaps and the like delay us whenever we go. After my husband stopped in this peculiarly-cramped spot, he leaped out of the car exclaiming, "A bottle! And a cup!"

I thought he'd said "A bottle! And a cop!" And I was right. The officer slammed his car behind us, hemming us in, because there would be no reason for anyone to pull over there--unless for nefarious purpose. When I saw the him grilling my husband, all I could do was guffaw.

After the policeman pulled away, and my husband retrieved not only the bottle and the Starbucks cup but several cigarette butts and a candy wrapper, he wryly climbed into the car...laughing.

Because after the officer ascertained that my husband was not in trouble nor planning vandalism, and he understood that the objects he was removing from his trunk were merely a plastic (recycled) supermarket bag and his gopher grabber, the response was: "Thank you."

My brilliant husband has taught me many, many things. One of them is litter awareness. I shall never walk by a discarded energy bar wrapper. While on foot, I examine my surroundings, detecting detritus partially obscured by fauna: The sparkle of aluminum foil. The glint of white notebook paper peeking from the gutter. If, while driving, I note an egregious Styrofoam carton or flyaway paper napkin, I make mental note but do not stop, since I know that after work, my husband will pass here on his way home. And swerve.

I tell you all this to ask for your help. If you're walking your dog, pick up not just his droppings but any litter you come across. If you're a jogger and see refuse in your path, take a plastic bag in your pocket, circle around and get the exercise benefit of swooping down to grab it.

Also, don't overlook the beauty in your world. Enjoy your neighborhood; enjoy the seasons, and while doing that, develop a determination that anything that detracts is an opportunity to make an improvement. Carry a plastic shopping bag you can un-wad and pop offensive litter into. Talk about litter to your kids; let them know that they can improve the environment--not by un-doing Global Warming, but by leaving the places they walk and see a bit cleaner.

This is what my husband calls "do it yourself conservatism," but I don't think that cleaning up visible garbage is "conservative" except that it conserves nature, and conserves a sense of order and calm.

One birthday, I made my husband a special present: a fluorescent orange safety vest with letters I cut out of reflective tape. Over the front chest pocket was his name. On the back, I glued, "Help me pick up litter."  I wish he'd wear it, for safety's sake, but also because perhaps it would let the people watching him with his plastic bag and grabber at the side of the road know they're empowered, too.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Halloween...it's not just for Kids and Martha Stewart Anymore

Martha Stewart as 'Queen of the Wild Things'
Am I the only one noticing a proliferation of Halloweeniana in my neighborhood? More houses than ever before shine with strings of orange "Christmas" lights. Cottony white blobs drip from bushes; rubber spiders hang over the street from crimson maples. Plastic tombstones sprout from lawns, set off by foam cuffed arms with clutching hands reaching desperately upward.  The real arachnids of autumn are outdone by super-sized, LED-illuminated webs pasted on front doors.

The other night, I accompanied my husband as he lectured at the fund-raiser for a local politician at a lakeside mansion. The lane to the home flickered with eerie illuminaria; a large 3-D ghoul welcomed us, chalky face, long white hair and arms with skeletal bony fingers that caught the clothes of those passing within. The entry danced with the light from blinking vignettes of haunted houses, replete with flying bats, fluttering ghosts, and sound effects of screaming and slamming doors. Piles of pumpkins graced tables, some gilded, others warty, some sparkling with sequins. A metal cut-out of an arched-spined, hissing black cat stared, frozen on the fireplace mantel.

Free party invitation from Crate and Barrel

Martha Stewart has for years embraced Halloween as her opportunity for expression, and scores of other purveyors recently joined the party. Pottery Barn tells you how to throw a Halloween soiree, with a recipe for "ghoul-a-tinis," while Crate and Barrel has embraced the Day of the Dead (actually November 1) with black skull candles ($4.95 for three) and free party invitations. Annual special issues of Martha Stewart's magazine offer pumpkin-carving designs, table-scaping ideas and costume-making innovations. Pop-up stores dot malls as summer ends, offering costumes for all, from the adorable to the skanky.

Every year, my husband and I enjoy "the Great Halloween Debate" on his radio show. I'm "for" and he's "against," saying it teaches kids to beg, inspires vandalism, and turns focus to death. I counter that it's all voluntary and great fun; that costumes bring imagination and creativity, and holiday purchases fire our economy. We'll once again enter our friendly on-air spar next Thursday. Every year I win.

Martha Stewart in her cat costume
The National Retail Federation projects a slightly smaller turnout this year--158 million participants, down from last year's all-time high of 170 million, due to "cooler weather." But the organization expects "far from a bust" as consumers will happily part with $6.9 billion for costumes, candy and accoutrements.

I think retailers will be pleasantly surprised, judging from the way my neighborhood looked even weeks before the spooky night. Ghoulish Scrooges will simply turn off their porch lights, while the rest of us smile as children fill our doorways with their excited one-word exclamations: "Trickertreeeet!"

Friday, October 11, 2013

Rain in Seattle--Is it a Blessing?

Photo I took of downtown Seattle, from the I-90 floating bridge
They say there are two seasons in Seattle: August and the Rainy Season. Every outdoor scene in the 1993 film "Sleepless in Seattle" showed torrential rain.

Well, it's not like that. We're London-esque, usually living under a blanket of gray punctuated by drizzles. By spring, lichen has turned the sidewalks green and four kinds of moss drip off the trees in my backyard.

Just this week I used the kids' magnetic letters on my refrigerator to spell out "stop raining!" a wasted command, for sure. This September broke the record for most rain, 6.1 inches, compared to the usual average for that month of 1.5 inches. We bounced almost half a wet inch off our umbrellas in just the last 24 hours.

I'm a sun person; my mood is in direct proportion to the amount of bright sunshine I see. Sun is universally equated with happiness--You are my Sunshine; you're never my downpour.

But according to Jewish tradition, rain is not only a blessing, but a reward for doing what God wants. The seminal Jewish prayer, "The Shema" ("Hear O Israel...our Lord God is the One and Only") describes three types of rain as the result of diligently following the rules; those who flout them will see the heavens "restrained" and no rain will fall. Hebrew actually has at least four words for rain--geshem, which shares the same root as "gashmiut," worldly material; matar, rain, the basis for the word for umbrella; and for precipitation at different times of year, yoreh (the early rain) and malkosh (the late rain).

The more words a culture has for something, the more important it is. We in Seattle deal with quite a bit of moisture, so you'd think we'd have a plethora of rain words. Our newspapers have two: Showers (light rain) and Rain (steady to pelting rain). You will not see the word "drizzles" in our print media. No, "drizzles," in Seattle parlance, is "chance of showers." Nimbus clouds with spaces creating stops and starts of showers or rain, is called "Sunbreaks."  When the sky is a low blanket of misty drizzle that might evolve into recognizable clouds, you'll read "Chance of sunbreaks." Clouds that do not produce water are called "Sun."

Those who read the weather forecast here, a small and masochistic crew since the forecast is irrelevant to the actual weather, look for the bright side. They'll peruse the weekly lineup, see "chance of sunbreaks" four days on, and chirp, "We're supposed to get good weather on Thursday!"

There's no need to answer. These are the same folk who thought Barack Obama was going to bring Hope and Change.

This is not to complain. We do get some interesting clouds. My draperies do not fade. The

Mt. Rainier is right there. Really. (btw, I took this photo)
skin cancer rate is low. Vitamin D sales are brisk. Gray goes with everything.

And we have great fun playing a cruel game with visitors, insisting there's a 14,400-foot mountain right there, that they just can't see because of the clouds. Mount Rainier is almost a religious experience: you can't see it, but you know it exists.

I should add that we just ended a most beautiful summer. July had zero rain.

I have joined the Cloud Appreciation Society, and highly recommend their gorgeous gallery of photos as a pleasurable way to spend several hours. I've learned a lot about the clouds that fill our view: Our altocumulus undulatus bring...rain.

But rain makes our lush Northwestern environment so green. How about this deal: rain at night, sun during daytime. That would please everyone.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Why Burger King's Healthy "Satisfries" Will Fail

Burger King announced they're going after "lapsed" customers who eschew their fat-infused French Fries by offering a new lower-fat, lower-calorie option made with a special new batter thick enough to repel cooking oil. Nice try, but it'll fail.

The new spuds are crinkle-cut, so staff won't confuse them with the sleek regular fries they still offer. Their name, "Satisfries," while  planting a positive association, is too cutesy; NPR repeatedly called them "Satisfies," missing the pun entirely.

BK's company website says they've got 40% less fat and 30% fewer calories than MacDonald's French fries, though only 20% less fat that the regular Burger King offering. A small serving of the slimmer fries is 270 calories, while the same size of their regular recipe is 340, a saving of 70 calories, but at a cost of an additional 30 cents.

I keep kosher, so I won't do a taste test to proclaim whether the less oily style trumps or slumps compared to the classic. But even if they taste the same, as claimed by the company, it won't matter. They're sure to bomb. Here's why:

If you're happy with the fries you usually get (customers of McDonald's love their greasy, thin fries; Burger King loyalists opt for thicker sticks), you might, under burden of conscience, try a healthier alternative. But not if you have to pay thirty cents more to do it.

How do I know Satisfries won't succeed? By observing the reception of mandates designed to improve school kids' diets. Michelle Obama spearheaded as part of her anti-childhood obesity program "Let's Move!" new standards for federally-subsidized school lunches. Turns out schools are dropping out from the program because kids won't eat the healthier offerings. One New York City student, Zachary Maxwell, 11, went "undercover" taking videos of each day's lunch tray, compiling them in a 20-minute class project he called "Yuck!" that has so far won six recognitions. "What would you rather eat?" he asks. "Five fresh Delicious apples, or a yummy crispy chicken sandwich?" He's quickly answered by a visual of the sandwich. "Exactly," he nods definitively.

Zach's secret films reveal day after day of day of brownish gray, tough-to-identify options (whole grain stuff tends to be monochrome) with a pile of cut fresh celery or carrots or an apple. Some school districts are finding that it's too expensive to buy all these veggies and fruits only to watch them spurned by kids who'd rather spend the afternoon hungry, or who sample the tastier components and dump the expensive stuff into the trash. By the way, our federal Department of Agriculture pays schools $2.93 for each of those trays, for kids who qualify for free lunches.

So far only 5% of participating schools have or are considering dropping out of the federal program--but it only started this year. Just wait until schools start tallying the waste and noticing dwindling desire for their fare.

Nutrition pundits love to blame "fast food" for the increase in American obesity that started in 1980 and continued until leveling off in 2000. But Burger King and its ilk serve up what people like, at a cost consumers are willing to pay. They're not nefarious, profit-greedy conspiracies who knowingly sacrifice the health of their market for extra coins, despite Michael Moss's accusations in Salt, Sugar, Fat. He told "CBS This Morning" that BK's new fries "might give people permission to overeat."

While availability matters, in our bounteously blessed nation, the real determinant of what people eat is what people themselves put in their mouths.

Are Burger King's Satisfries more an effort to quell the food-police (who, I'd guess, seldom eat in their establishments) than the result of consumer-driven demand?  Authorities brainwash the public to feel guilty about eating what they really like, basically teaching us not to listen to our bodies because erudite-types know best. Rather than swallowing the advice whole, frugal and determined customers will politely laud the new choice, and then  save money--ordering exactly what they want.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

There's No Such Thing as a "Good Divorce"

The cover story in our local Seattle Times Sunday magazine a few weeks ago was headlined "The Good Divorce." I was pretty incredulous after reading the story about this family who now can sit around calmly with his re-marriage, her-remarriage, their kids and his new baby. Now they're just peachy, and experts agree. But my reaction to the article was mild compared to several friends'.

A 40-year-old never-married woman shook the magazine in my face, shrieking, "I am so mad about this story!" A 60-something friend whose husband unexpectedly left one night kept muttering, "No. There's no such thing as a good divorce."

Constance Ahrons, who coined the phrase “good divorce,” thinks split families should be called “binuclear” and meld seamlessly, sans stigma, into our social fabric. The message seems simple: With the right attitude, divorce can relatively soon lead to a pleasant mélange of happily combined relatives.  But that wasn’t what I saw in my years counseling divorcing couples, and after writing The Case Against Divorce.

Yet a year post-divorce, most claim they’re stronger, better, wiser, and smarter, spurred by the split to growth and new directions.  So why not “good divorce”?

Heartache, pulling away, financial loss and time detangling inevitably bring irreparable setback.  Lots of spouses simply get dumped, with no recourse; 80% of US divorces “are unilateral, rather than truly mutual decisions,” notes researcher Maggie Gallagher. Still, healthy people wade through the hurt and make the best of the situation.

That doesn’t ameliorate the damage done. Divorce necessitates selfishness, hardening  one’s character. Children never have a say in their parents’ parting, becoming collateral damage dismissed with the dubious phrase, “kids are resilient.”  Judith Wallerstein, whose landmark 25-year study of divorced families convinced her of its ongoing harm, found that “by necessity, many of these so-called resilient children forfeited their own childhoods as they took responsibility for themselves, their troubled, overworked parents; and their siblings.” Trauma peaks in adulthood, she cautions, retarding love, sexual intimacy and commitment. Though some kids see why their parents split, all of them wish Mom and Dad could once again love each other and stay together.

Divorce mars the lives of loving in-laws, and unsettles otherwise content bystanders; it unsteadies society, de-stabilizes neighborhoods, and brings awkwardness and discomfort in social encounters.

Sure, they’ll survive, but everyone affected would rather dodge the agony.

 A “culture of divorce” grew as new technologies gave us feel-good instant gratification, demoting the virtues of duty and obligation. Americans’ attention span shrank from reading tomes to watching TV shows to three-minute YouTube videos—and now to 10 seconds of disappearing SnapChat.

 Our notion of commitment  became shorter, too. Marriage pledges are now really “hopes,” easily revised by a Facebook status change. The New York Times’ “Vows” page recently began a new column called “Unhitched,” each week highlighting one couple’s estrangement and divorce.

 Stripped of connection to gender or paternity, marriage becomes optional. Latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control reveal that 48% of women cohabited with a partner as a first union; the overall out-of-wedlock birth rate topped 40% in 2011. With men’s age at first marriage up to 27, and divorce devoid of stigma, we now joke that the only people enthusiastic about legalizing their relationships are homosexuals and priests.

Years ago, tempted cartoon characters paused to consider the coaxing of an angel perched on their right shoulder and a devil on their left. The conscience angel urged "Do your duty!  Do what is moral and right! Defer gratification; you know what you ought to do" and the self-centric devil whispered "Do what feels good! Follow your heart! Get what you want, right now!"

 Granted, not all marriages can survive, like the hopeless cases where an abusive or addicted spouse won't get help, or when one partner decamps. Ongoing cruelty, anger or restriction can force their target out. To overcome problems, both partners must want to stay married, and see some potential for good; the hitch is that our non-judgmental culture greases their paths out the door.

 
 I learned two lessons counseling countless divorcing couples. First, a rejected mate usually requires at least half as long as the marriage to recover. Second, recovery occurs not when a spouse “feels good" about the former mate, but when she’s indifferent—a difficult goal if you’re entwined with new partners, shared children and ongoing “good divorce” accoutrements.

 Our accept-it-all milieu grants so much leeway for individual happiness that relationships have no backbone with which to stand. Friends think they’re helping by standing back when they fall. Religious and social communities refuse to shame jerks who behave badly. The little devil perched on society's slumping shoulder gloats, “You can have a good divorce! Do what you want, and do it now!” That angel guy’s so old-school he can’t even text his apologies to the kids.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What We Learn From the Convergence of 9-11, the Syria Decision, and the Jewish Days of Repentance

My photo at Seattle's Safeco Field taken 9-11-05
It's a Jewish principle that when things come in threes, they're symbols for past, present and future.

Today is the convergence of three emotionally-charged events, and the "principle of threes" seems to hold.

With the twelfth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and United Flight 93, we recall the shock of our vulnerability, and continue to mourn the horrendous losses perpetrated by al-Qaeda suicide bombers. This is our reminder of the past, even as it influences our lives daily via ongoing security precautions and suspicion.

In the present, politicians and pundits mull the best response to Syria's use of poison gas on its populace. Secretary of State John Kerry says he'll meet with Russia to work out an agreement in which Syria would surrender its gas stores. This after his urging a "limited air strike" that Pres. Obama pushed as recently as last night: "The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use," the President broadcast.

Pres. Obama justifying 'limited air strike' on Syria, 9-10-13
Meanwhile, both Republicans and Democrats remain divided on whether an expensive gesture so long after Assad's Aug. 21 chemical attack would accomplish anything other than repeat the displeasure Pres. Obama has already expressed. However, now that Russia has Syria's acquiescence on the possibility of relinquishing its chemical weapons, the President's argument for his "limited air strike" seems wimpy and even irrelevant.

The present includes tension and potential for frightening--or peaceful--consequences.

The third simultaneous occurrence is the Jewish "Ten Days of Repentance," in which we search our souls, redress our wrongs and beg God and those we harmed for forgiveness. We hold that certain times of year are imbued with spiritual characteristics, and these days just before Yom Kippur, the most fateful in our calendar, brim with intensity, not only because of our personal evaluation and correction, but because our sincerity and effort will determine events in the coming year. In other words, our contrition and resolve to do better now will influence what happens to us in the coming months: the future.

Today is an opportunity to mourn and learn from 9-11; to discern carefully and ask for guidance as law-makers make the decision about Syria; and to right our personal courses in anticipation and preparation for consequences in the future.

Here in the Northwest, summer's heat lingers, even as the leaves on maples burnish. The beauty of God's physical world is vibrant and apparent. His influence on non-material events is easy to dismiss, but just as pertinent. Perhaps some sensitivity to the confluence of the physical and the spiritual can improve the chances that these three coalesce for the best.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

What the Jewish New Year says about the Cheneys' Disagreement on Gay Marriage

Tonight Jews around the world welcome in the year 5774, using a lunar calendar, counted from the time Adam spoke. Language is the defining characteristic of humans; though physical evolution is compatible with Judaism, the underlying concept of undirected randomness leading to our complex creation is not.

Liz Cheney, candidate; Mary Cheney, pro-gay marriage
So on the eve of our celebration, Rosh Hashana, while I should be busily baking round challah breads, I find myself distracted by a news item over language, a disagreement between the two daughters of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Liz Cheney is a candidate for the Senate from Wyoming, and does not support (nor oppose, actually) legal gay marriage, saying voters in each state should decide. Her openly-gay sister Mary said Liz is "dead wrong," and that re-defining marriage "is not something that should be decided by a show of hands."

No, Leonardo, you're not King of the World.
On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, we reaffirm that God is the King of the World, the movie Titanic aside. Kingship is a major theme, and our willingness to be His subjects is repeated throughout our two-day celebration.

Of course, since language is the basis of our humanity, and the bible the basis of Jews' link to God, its language, the words in the bible, are extremely significant. In fact, when we celebrate the next major Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, probably the most-highlighted errors for which we apologize involve the words we've said.

Redefining marriage from its thousands-of-years, cross-cultural purpose of permanently linking man and woman (granted, in some cultures one man and several women) certainly isn't something done with a show of hands. It's something not done at all, if the bible continues to be the source of one's beliefs.

Here in America, of course, a "show of hands" by marking ballots is how we decide our leaders. It's how we resolve issues, and often how we impose taxes. A "show of hands" reminds us that accomplishment is by those who show up, and who make a difference using their hands.

Marriage in our secular society has always been our foundational institution because of its beneficial function: the binding of male and female gives offspring their best chance of health and success, and offers a format for harmonizing feminine and masculine differences. Also, because our founders were guided by the bible.

The important change that Mary Cheney demands and Liz Cheney steps back from is government's endorsement of a redefinition of the institution. Without laws transforming marriage from "one man, one woman" to "any two adults," gay marriage advocates remain dissatisfied.

That brings us back to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, when we affirm the One whose words we obey. It's no coincidence that kingship is the concept with which we enter the year. Without designating who is the authority, there's chaos, each person with equal claim to follow his inclinations. In America, our legislators gain their authority via election by a "show of hands," assigned to represent their constituents by making laws to their benefit.

Jews on Rosh Hashana every year choose the authority God, and accept His laws, because we believe the King knows what He's doing. The language in His lawbook is unequivocal that marriage unites man and woman. It's not approving of male homosexuality.

To some, that's homophobic and antiquated. They can't believe that a loving God would create people whose aversion to the opposite sex is sin. Certainly each individual's religious beliefs must be respected. But on Rosh Hashana, we affirm the Source of our beliefs, and accept there's a wider view, beyond what we can fathom, that they express.

Happy New Year to all my Jewish friends. May 5774 be a year of health, accomplishment and love for you and your families. May we all use language to uplift and inspire, carefully, remembering its role in elevating humanity and its potential to do the opposite.

On Rosh Hashana, it's traditional to shape challah in a circle, representing the circular nature of the year. Between now and the conclusion of the major Jewish holidays, culminating with Sukkot, we dip slices in honey, representing our hope for a "sweet year."

Jews wish our friends "L'Shana tovah u'metuka!" (May you have a good and sweet year!)
And that is what I wish for you. Here's my challah recipe (back by popular demand), but instead of braids, shape rounds.

Diane Medved's Challah

2 1/2 teaspoons yeast
2 cups warm water
8 1/2 cups King Arthur bread flour
1 tablespoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
3 eggs
2/3 to 3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 beaten egg, room temperature, for glaze

Sprinkle yeast on warm water in measuring cup; set aside for about 10 minutes. In large food processor with dough blade, combine flour, salt and sugar. Add oil and eggs but don't mix. Return to yeast/water and gently make sure all yeast is combined in water and starting to bubble. Flash blend while slowly adding yeast mixture, then process until dough moves in one clump around processor bowl. Remove the clump to a trash bag-sized plastic bag; knead a little and then seal the bag with a twist-tie, leaving room for dough to expand. Place in a warm place several hours until risen. Line 2 large baking sheets with foil and spray with nonstick spray. Punch down and divide dough into four large pieces. Divide one of the large pieces into three strands and braid onto the baking sheet; repeat so there are two long loaves per baking sheet. Set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush beaten egg on loaves and bake for 16 minutes, til golden. Say a blessing, and enjoy.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Miley Cyrus' Twerking: More Compelling than Syria?

President Obama is oh-so-trapped when it comes to following up on the use of poison gas on innocent civilians in Syria. It's a press of his own making, having said that use of nerve gas was the "red line" that would "change the equation" and possibly trigger US action. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said any aggression would bring repercussions to the region, igniting a dangerous conflict that threatens to involve the Muslim world on one side, and European and American forces on the other, with Russia and China alienated and warning against any move not authorized by the UN Security Council. Tension is mounting as more grisly evidence and anecdotes about the torturous deaths of as many as 1,400 Syrians, mostly women and children on the outskirts of Damascus, surface.

It's in this consequential context that the world seems fascinated with child star Miley Cyrus, 20, whose "twerking" wiggles at the MTV Video Music Awards and foam finger made nearly every mother jump on a soapbox. From my view, Miley and Pres. Obama are unintentionally collaborating toward the same end.

President Obama wants focus on anything that will keep his foreign affairs faux pas and Syrian decision-making out of the news. Miley Cyrus apparently will do anything that will put herself in the news. The two dovetail nicely.

I'd wager more Americans know about Miley Cyrus' embarrassment of Robin Thicke on Monday night's awards than can name the president of Syria, a person, it could be argued, who could explode the security of the world. True, viewers are likely to have been exposed to images of swaddled bodies killed by sarin gas, simply because those images are ubiquitous. But Miley Cyrus images are equally prominent, and while few consumers are in a position to comment on the fragile mid-east, every mother and teenager holds an opinion about the flesh-colored lingerie-clad former Hannah Montana.

Miley Cyrus must be gloating. She managed to commandeer every entertainment page and blog and in a period of five minutes transformed her image from wholesome to skanky. She's now a candidate to replace Lady Gaga in outrageousness, which is an enviable place to be in a world now so bulging with competition that YouTube nobodies can in just a few days go viral and overshadow the cadre with agents and portfolios.

Do I want Miley Cyrus in my mind? Well, I'll admit it: I'm scared about Syria and would rather not think about it. And yes, Cyrus' thrusty gyrations were offensive, but no child was forced to watch, and the ones who did likely relished the naughtiness. 

Can parents protect their children from such overtly smarmy content? Probably not completely, but they'll mitigate damage by establishing a home culture where more lofty topics dominate, and where achievement and thoughtful discussion of values permeate. By themselves exemplifying the kind of adults they'd like their own children to emulate, and talking often about their own decision points, and the inspiration for their own aspirations.

My son, who's starting his junior year of college, watched part of Cyrus' performance on a friend's cell-phone. Then tonight, he stood over my shoulder muttering how disgusting it was, as I watched it via YouTube on my generously-sized desktop computer screen, for my cultural education. The whole twerking brouhaha is simply silly. The situation in Syria is decidedly not.

But we're more comfortable with issues over which we feel some control, and last I checked, turning off YouTube or the TV still qualifies for that.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Strongest material ever, just an atom thick, set to change our world

Remember that iconic scene in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman, as Ben Braddock, a new college graduate, is taken aside by his parents' friend Mr. McGuire, who has "just one word" of advice for the young man's future? Of course that word was "plastics."

And indeed, since then everything from car bumpers to dental floss holders is made from the ubiquitous product.

Now the watchword is "Graphene." My spell-checker doesn't know what that is, but soon everyone will, as this thinnest material known, derived from pencil lead graphite--or "synthesized using carbon from sources as diverse as grass, Girl Scout Cookies and cockroach legs" will soon revolutionize just about everything. A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal left me agog about graphene's properties. It's one of the world's best conductors of heat and electricity, absorbs and emits light over a broader range of wavelengths than any other, and is the hardest, thinnest, lightest and most stretchable material ever found.

How about printing circuits with graphene ink? That would allow "flexible phones and
electronic newspapers that can fold into a pocket" or wrap around a wrist. Or, because of graphene's ability to carry electronic charges without any mass (called "the anomalous quantum Hall effect") combined with its chemical properties, it could attach to cancer cells and zap them in the body. Or, because graphene is so strong, combined with plastics it would produce very light airplanes and cars. It can be used as a filter to desalinize sea water. It can be attached to a mini tone-maker to become a flat-keyed piano.

Nobel winners Andre Geim & Kostya Novoselov; graphene pattern
Researchers Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov at the University of Manchester, England isolated graphene in 2004 by pulling apart layers in thin pieces of graphite using sticky tape. They finally got the layer down to a single atom's breadth, and found a flexible honeycomb pattern that is stronger than diamond and 200 times stronger than steel. The illustration they give is that a graphene line the thickness of a human hair could easily suspend a piano.

The research group received the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on the substance. So far, 9,218 patents have been applied for or granted. Many tech companies like Samsung, Nokia, Apple, IBM and Lockheed have multiple patents; Dozens of universities including Cambridge, Columbia, Rice and Harvard and Sungkyunkwan in South Korea are engaged in graphene research. Georgia Intstitute of Technology grad student Mike Sprinkle produces an up-to-date compendium of research on graphene, the Graphene Times.


The manufacture of graphene is still too expensive and delicate for immediate industrial use, but its potential is so wide-ranging and revolutionary that scientists and companies are scrambling to be the first to apply it, and make its production economical.  Another issue was that scientists couldn't figure out how to build in an on-off switch in a one-atom-thick material. They'd tried by fusing two layers of graphene, putting a gap for the switch between them, but it never quite worked. Last week Berkeley Labs' Aaron Bostwick found that the fusing of the two layers caused an eensy misalignment that now they'll be able to account for. This type of discovery is happening on hundreds of graphene fronts, in labs world-wide, which makes me hopeful that graphene-containing products will hit the market in just two or three years.

In the meantime, I'm reminded of the miracle of man's industry, of our God-like power to imagine and then create. Technological change seems to be accelerating, with the benefits more quickly and widely shared and spread. Makes me humble and grateful and excited to see what's to come. Here's an informative video by Jonathan Hare, if you're scientifically inclined.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Outlawing goals for therapy is a Pandora's Box

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
I was astonished to see that New Jersey governor Chris Christie actually signed into law a bill banning therapy to change minors' orientations away from homosexuality.  If he'd done nothing, the bill would have become law anyway. But he chose to step forward and sign.

I'm just surprised he did it. Not because he risked his Republican cred by jumping headlong onto the side of gay supporters--in what some think is preparation for a presidential bid.

I'm perplexed, but not even because Christie inserted the State in parents' decisions to work with their own children on a delicate issue in their own ways. The law now makes New Jersey an adversary against traditional, religious families whose biblically-based beliefs inform their childrearing decisions.

I'm flummoxed at his signing, but not because Gov. Christie sides with the American Psychiatric Association, which condemns conversion therapy by citing frightening and extreme tactics used, we're told, "in some cases." I don't know what goes on in sessions addressing minors' sexual preferences, so I won't comment on what is also called "reparative therapy." But I do wonder if it's appropriate to peg a child's sexual orientation before that child can legally comment or consent.

No, the thing that shocks me is the audacity of New Jersey to interfere in the content of any therapy. If conversion therapy does produce in some participants negative consequences, shouldn't state licensing boards and professional groups step in? And if crimes occurred, shouldn't courts decide the evidence in individual cases?

As a therapist, I've seen plenty of discomfort on the part of clients as they confront and work through difficult issues, so I'm astounded that a state can pick one client goal and rule it forbidden for everybody at all times. It seems bizarre that a government can start rooting around the confidential relationship of therapist and client should that client desire a particular outcome that affects only himself.

I can understand that every state seeks to protect its citizens from fraud. And many gay advocates hold that changing one's sexual orientation is fraudulent--that one cannot change, even if he sincerely desires it.

Chirlane McCray de Blasio, the wife of New York mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio, wrote an
Chirlane McCray with husband Bill de Blasio
article
in Essence Magazine in 1979 proclaiming, "I am a Lesbian." She was "out, loud and proud," according to the magazine. Now, 34 years later, she's been happily married for 19 years to the candidate, with two teenaged children, living, as she described in a May Essence update, in a "traditional marriage."

When she "came out" at age 17, she told Essence, she hadn't really dated any men, but later was attracted to them. Asked if she is bisexual, the articulate McCray responded, "I am more than just a label. Why are people so driven to labeling where we fall on the sexual spectrum? Labels put people in boxes, and those boxes are shaped like coffins."

I agree with McCray that there's a wide spectrum of sexual attraction and response, and I respect that she changed her orientation and her own label of herself from "lesbian" to "conventionally married."  But the professional psychology associations are against voluntarily changing one's orientation. I wonder what they think of Ms. McCray?

Why would Gov. Christie sign a bill that outlaws therapy to assist clients who, like Ms. McCray, choose to move to another point along the sexual spectrum?

If New Jersey can ban one type of change efforts because they're "unlikely to be successful and have some risk for harm," disgruntled clients may bring the same standard to bear on just about every form of therapy. After all, even mainstream modalities often produce negative reactions, even under the most gentle and professional of circumstances. And when the likelihood of a client achieving a goal is slim, should therapists be banned from aiding someone who still wants to pursue it?

After I authored a bestselling book describing the harms of divorce, many readers sought me out with the goal of saving their marriages. Often, their spouses were emotionally long gone, sometimes enmeshed in other relationships or new pursuits, and a remaining spouse faced devastated children, a reduced standard of living and extreme hurt.

Sometimes such couples approached me together, even though the agenda for one partner was to repair the marriage while the other was there out of guilt or to placate a pleading mate. Should I have turned away these people in their emotional pain and life transition? After all, at that point marital therapy "is unlikely to be successful and contains some risk for harm." That's the basis for outlawing conversion therapy, according to the American Psychological Association; why not apply the same standard to poor-prognosis marriage counseling?

Obese people frequently receive psychological counseling (along with diets or other program components) with the goal of reducing their weight. The recidivism rate for people who lose weight is extremely high (90-95% regain, according to a 1997 study in the New England Journal of Medicine); failure to lose or maintain lost weight can lead to anxiety, depression and even life-threatening eating disorders. Oh wait, these results would qualify weight-reduction counseling for elimination by law.

The kinds of sticky issues that arise once a state chooses one type of psychological therapy to target just keep multiplying. We're talking about clients' most personal, intimate issues, in a context protected by confidentiality and by federal laws guarding privacy. Just imagine how the client and his therapist would feel knowing they may not stray into forbidden topics like certainty about one's sexual attractions. Imagine the intrusion and taxpayer funds necessary to investigate whether someone's desired outcomes for their sessions are lawful.

States aren't protecting anyone by censoring aims of voluntary patient-doctor efforts. One could reply that the anti-conversion therapy bill that Gov. Christie signed pertains only to therapy for those under 18--but then why not censor other potentially wrenching goals of youngsters' therapy? The dangerous issue here is the state's deciding the content of therapy it will approve or disallow.

Psychology is an idiosyncratic pursuit. The fit between therapist and client may shift, or it may never work. The course of therapy may be re-adjusted as progress is made or new issues arise. Professional psychiatric organizations change their definitions, and modalities go in and out of style. The reputation right now of reparative or conversion therapy is mud. I remember when electroconvulsive therapy was vilified in the films "Snake Pit,"  "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Francis" and many others, yet now it's receiving new respect as a treatment for severe depression. We don't need laws prohibiting out-of-favor methods any more than we need them promoting modalities currently in vogue.

Clients dissatisfied with their therapies should have redress, and every session should contain respect and understanding for participants' backgrounds and beliefs. With that in mind, licensing boards, professional organizations and in some cases the courts are available to ameliorate specific conflicts. Legislating the types of therapy that may or may not occur is just stepping too far into the interior worlds of people already suffering and reaching out for help.