Monday, June 28, 2010

Terrific Read--Red Glass

I have just finished reading Red Glass, one of the books given to me by my friend who we met on our France trip.

We met up on our recent trip to Utah--she and her husband live in Colorado and had planned a vacation trip to Salt Lake City, so the timing was perfect. She is multi-talented but particularly of interest (and a touch of envy) for me is that she is a writer. She belongs to a writing group, and as a gift for me she brought along two books written by members of her writing group.

I was greatly in need of an enjoyable book to read, and selected first Red Glass, probably because it had a catchy cover.

Well, I have just finished the book, and it is a terrific read. It's been quite a while since I awarded a "terrific read" label to a book, but this one certainly merits it.

Curiously, the book is described on Amazon as being for younger readers--and it is very accessible, so I can understand that designation. But it appeals perfectly well to an older reader--such as me. The novel begins in Tucson with a blended family of a mother, originally from England, her husband who is step-father to her daughter. A distant great-aunt has come into their lives, and eventually her boyfriend and his son.

The plot revolves around a young boy who has been found in the desert with his parents who have died trying to cross from Mexico into the United States. The blended family take him in. After the boy, Pablo, has recovered, they decide to take him back to his village in Mexico. The trip includes an extension into Guatemala in quest of lost family connections.

Narrated by Sophie ( I find it significant that this name means "wisdom"), the young teen daughter of the English mother, the story is a coming of age story, and so much more. It raises very gently the question of illegal immigration. It throbs with the dreams and desires of people longing for a better life.

Many elements make this a terrific read--there is a very compelling and interesting plot; there are authentically drawn characters who speak in their own voices; there is an undercurrent of a significant issue being explored as the story unfolds.

I am already thinking of two places where I hope to recommend this marvelous book--for our church's youth group, and for one of my community college colleagues who teaches reading. Our church youth group recently completed a mission trip to El Paso, Texas, where they encountered first hand some of the consequences surrounding our country's complicated immigration policy.

And, for any reader out there looking for a very charming, terrific read--pick up Red Glass by Laura Resau.

Finally, thank you Leslie for the wonderful gift, and thank you Laura for your gift of writing.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


I have a life-long love of books. From the point I am able to remember anything about my life, books have been there. While I didn't read Nancy Drew or the Bobbsey Twins, I was entranced by a different series. I loved the Jungle Doctor books.

I suspect that when I first began reading books, it did not occur to me that there are good books and there are bad books. On that subject, I grew up a long time ago. I majored in English literature in college, and began to learn what makes something a "good book," and what makes something a "bad book." Of course, that determination has nothing to do with the subject matter of the book. It has to do with the literary skill of how the author crafts the work--novel or short story.

In this context, I am really talking about works of fiction. Of course, non-fiction books can be good or bad. But I am mostly thinking about fiction.

So, why all this "good book" "bad book" rumination? Well, I just finished reading a really "bad book." Usually, I quit reading a book that I determine is not worth my time. However, this time, I had bought the novel A Reliable Wife for my Kindle.
I guess because I had bought the book, I felt duty-bound to finish it. What makes it a bad book is that it is entirely plot-driven. Nothing arises out of a compelling portrayal of characters. The dialogue is stilted--there is no authentic voice for any of the characters.
The plot is so full of twists and turns, absurd reversals and unexpected surprise that it really made no sense.
So, why did I buy the book? Well, it was on last year's NPR list of summer reads. I was curious as to how the book had been received, so I went looking for reviews at the time it was published. Imagine my surprise at what sounds like a glowing review from the Washington Post:

This is a bodice ripper of a hundred thousand pearly buttons, ripped off one at
a time with agonizing restraint. It works only because Goolrick never cracks a
smile, never lets on that he thinks all this overwrought sexual frustration is
anything but the most serious incantation of longing and despair ever uttered in
the dead of night. . .
I'm reluctant to quote much more for fear of making the book sound silly -- "Love that lived beyond passion was ephemeral. It was the gauze bandage that wrapped the wounds of your heart" -- but once you've fallen into the miasma of "A Reliable Wife," it's intoxicating.

Well, that sounds enticing, doesn't it? But I began reading between the lines. A phrase such as "reluctant to quote much more for fear of making the book sound silly" said it all.

It is a silly book. And now I am done reading it.

So, what's next on my reading list?

I recently received a most thoughtful gift. We recently had a chance to meet up with one of the friends that we made
on our trip to France. This young woman is an author in her own right. It happens she is part of a writing group, and the books pictured to the right are written by other members in her writing group. She most thoughtfully had the books autographed, addressed to me.

I have begun reading Red Glass--in the space of the first several pages, it has already proved to be a "good book." It should be a most enjoyable read--a real cure for the "bad book" I subjected myself to.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Not the Method but the Intent

Detail from Manet's painting "The Execution of Maximilian"

Sometime this summer we will be visiting Utah. Now, this destination has not really been on our list of places to see, but we have a friend who had a time share available and with the offer of free lodging, we thought—why not?

Who knew that our summer visit would be accompanied by a headline out of Utah that is playing around the world: Firing Squad Executes U.S. Killer.
It is a most peculiar thing to me that the bulk of the outrage about this event falls on the MEANS of accomplishing execution, not the fact that we still not only allow but actively practice the death penalty. That puts us in the company of countries with whom we generally do not closely associate.

Of the countries that carried out capital punishment in 2010 are—Bangladesh, China, Taiwan, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Palestinian authority, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Belarus, and the United States. Great company, eh?

Capital punishment has been outright banned in 16 countries in Africa, in Asia 14 countries, in Europe every country except Belarus, in North and Central America most of the countries including Canada and Mexico, in Oceania every country except Nauru, Niue, Papau New Guinea, and Tonga, and finally in South America every country. Some company that we are in!

So back to my main issue: does it really matter that a man condemned to death elects to die by firing squad? No doubt, that method of dying is by far the most humane—swift, sure, without the agonizing moments of whatever suffering.

Perhaps you have gleaned the fact that I am totally opposed to the death penalty as a punishment for any crime, no matter how heinous. Of course I am troubled by some of the awful crimes that one human being can commit against another human being. But, the administration of the death penalty does not right the wrong that has been done. And for murder by the state to be carried out, in all our names, borders on the barbaric for me. How does it teach society that killing is wrong?

A while back, I
wrote about a man who was my husband’s and my friend. He had been Attorney General of Pennsylvania, and when he died, the New York Times’ obituary of him noted the singular act for which he had achieved national fame: he ordered the dismantling of the electric chair in Pennsylvania. Our friend Fred told me how he became galvanized into giving that order. He had visited the state correctional facility in Pennsylvania where the electric chair was housed. When he walked into that chamber of death a shiver of repulsion went through him, and he had the sudden sense that murder was being committed in that room in his name.

Fred’s opposition to the death penalty remained firm and was only increased when he read a book called Star Wormwood. Published in 1959 this true story by Curtis Bok recounts the horrific tale of a starving man named Roger Haike. It was during the Depression, and almost by accident he killed and then consumed some of the flesh of a young woman. He was tried, convicted and sentenced the death. When the death penalty was carried out, by electrocution, it takes a fearfully long time for the young man to die.

In a review of the book are these words: “Capital punishment was abolished by judicial decree in the early 1970's only to be resurrected by Congress a few years later. It still shakes its hoary, anachronistic head in the United States, the last western democracy to retain it.”

Its hoary, anachronistic head indeed. It makes no difference what the method is. It is the intent of capital punishment that I find offensive and wrong.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Getting There is Half the Fun

So, today I went to the retirement village where my father and step-mother live. The event--my father's 91st birthday. You may recall that a year ago, my husband and I threw a small birthday bash in honor of his 90th birthday.

This year's celebration was far more subdued--just a quick trip out for a lunch. Well, almost a quick trip. Events conspired otherwise.

To wit--as I drove along the PA Turnpike, two miles shy of the exit to reach the retirement village I encountered an Army convoy. Not too unusual; summer is the season when National Guards train, so we frequently encounter moving army trucks. However, this one had a most unusual cargo--golf carts. I am not kidding. There were about a half dozen trucks all carting (yes, pun intended) golf carts. I cannot imagine why.

When I got to my parents' cottage, I asked where my father might like to eat for his birthday luncheon. Mmmm, how about a friendly national chain restaurant? OK. So, we headed down the road for the brief 5 mile trip. Now, this road is undergoing extensive construction, so I keep alert for changing traffic patterns. I spotted an electronic sign that said: Road incident at intersection of XX and XX. Choose alternate route. No problem--I zipped off a fast approaching exit.

That dumped us onto a local road, that both my father and I know. But, I goofed and took the first right turn. No problem, I could think of a way to get to the friendly restaurant, albeit going about 2 miles out of the way. After a half a mile, I decided it made more sense to do a U-turn, then choose another road to get there. So, we turned around and headed back.

No problem. Except, no sooner had we turned on to a cross road to get us to the OTHER road that would lead to the friendly restaurant than we encountered a railroad crossing. With the safety arm lowering. With a train engine sitting just off to the right. Then, as we sat there, the train engine proceeded to maneuver back and forth several times, presumably shunting cars to and fro.

U-turn time again. By now, my father, step-mother and I were all more bemused than anything. Oh, never mind, my father said. Let's just go to the local steak house with a good soup and salad bar. It also has soft-serve icecream--vanilla, chocolate AND twist. And, this place is just a mile from the retirement village.

So, we did. We drove more than five miles, with multiple barriers to reach the closest restaurant.

But lunch was very nice. And the birthday celebration was just as fine.

See--getting there was half the fun.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Good Dog

It was August, 2001. I was still working at the big health insurance company. Our children were grown, and our proverbial "nest" was empty. Our home housed my husband and me, and our cats. While we have had several dogs in our lives, at that point we had no dog--our beloved English setter having died the year before.

We had been invited to visit with friends at their summer cottage in Thousand Island Park. During our stay, we decided to spend a day in Clayton, NY, a charming little town right on the St. Lawrence River. We had just come out of a small art gallery when I saw a woman walking a puppy. I have told this story before, here, but in brief I said--what a cute puppy. Whereupon the woman asked if we wanted her, as the puppy needed a home. On an impulse totally uncharacteristic for my husband and me, we agreed.

That's how we got Tipper.

Right after we got her, our friends and we stopped for lunch. My husband stayed outside with our newly acquired dog. Through the window, I could see him sitting with her and talking, occasionally wiping his eyes. When lunch was over, I asked him--what were you saying to her? Well, it turns out he was telling her about our prior dogs, and telling her that we would take good care of her, until that day that death would take her away from us.

Well, friends, that day has come.

About 10 days ago, Tipper suddenly stopped eating mid-meal. Very unusual for her. Then the next morning she was very lethargic. As I was checking her over, I noticed her gums were very pale, almost white. I knew enough to know that was a problem, an indication that not enough blood was circulating to keep her gums nice and pink.

We took her to our vet, immediately. She was diagnosed as being anemic. Blood tests showed that her red blood cell count was greatly depleted. The question was--why? There are various causes--for example, a tick-born disease. Or it could be an auto-immune reaction. For unknown reasons, her own immune system might be destroying the red blood cells.

She was immediately hospitalized in the vet hospital, given an IV to replace fluids, started on antibiotics (in case it was a tick-born disease) and given high doses of steroids, to knock down the immune reaction. By the weekend, she was not getting better, so we transported her to the emergency weekend vet hospital, where she received a blood transfusion. Her red blood cell level was so low that, in her excitement seeing us, she fainted on the spot, legs going out from under her.

While the transfusion briefly raised her red cell level, by the time we took her back to our usual vet, her red blood cells number had dropped again. And she fainted a second time, losing consciousness for several seconds.

Clearly, we were losing the battle, and losing her.

Tipper was such a wonderful dog. In some ways, it almost seems like she was a person who just happened to wear a dog suit. Her eyes were wonderfully bright and knowing. A part border collie, she was a mouthy opinionated dog. She told you what she thought! She had to inform everyone entering the house that this house was HERS. She hated delivery trucks--the engine noise set her off. She would bark furiously at UPS or FedEx trucks, hearing them even before they entered the neighborhood. Anything that moved fast set off her chase response--a bike whizzing by, a child on a scooter, another dog. We always kept a firm hand on her leash, otherwise she would try to run after whatever.

She thought it her duty to police situations. Our two cats, who do not like each other, occasionally spit and spat at each other. Tipper would rush in, take the side of her favorite cat, and tell the other cat--back off. When our son and daughter-in-law visited with their dog Sonnet, Tipper was insanely jealous if Sonnet played chase with her toys.

Tipper was a people dog--every person she saw she wanted to approach. She just loved being petted, especially having her chest rubbed. She was more discriminating with dogs. When I took her to the dog park, she was always unnerved by the rush of the other dogs who circled around the "new" dog. Tipper did much better one-on-one with dogs. She had her neighborhood favorites. The factors for her choosing which dogs she liked and which ones she didn't was never clear to me.

She loved car rides. She would sit up, completely alert, looking out the window. She seemed to be taking in all the sights, processing as we drove along. She would only whine when she saw the streets turning into our neighborhood, as she knew we were returning home.

And now she is gone. When she failed to respond to the treatment, we asked our vet the odds that she would recover if we prolonged treatment. He was very cautious, but I had read enough to know the odds were very bad. It turns out she had developed autoimmune mediated hemolytic anemia--cause, unknown. She had previously had, two years before, autoimmune thrombocytopenia which caused the destruction of her platelets. The two conditions are not identical, but related. Poor girl just had an awful run of bad health luck.

So, we let her go. And, just as my husband had promised, we were with her at the end, telling her what a good dog she had been.

Friday, June 04, 2010

The Fairer Sex

This date--June 4--is the 91st anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. The first election, then, in which women were allowed to vote was the national election of November 1920 when Warren G. Harding, who was from Marion, Ohio, beat Ohio Governor James Cox. It has been opined that part of what helped Harding win was his good looks, and women voters who were swayed to pick him. No one seems to have considered that women may also have been moved by the fact that Harding supported women's suffrage.

Well! An inauspicious beginning for more than half the population having the basic right in the U.S. to vote.

This anniversary seems like as good a time as any to ruminate of the state of women in the 21st century. Relax--I have no intention of tackling the sweep of challenging issues today. I guess I am in a somewhat saddened and reflective mood. Last week, our local paper ran an editorial--one of those "my turn" type--entitled "The Pill: Are women really better off with it?" The writer suggested that birth control has several adverse effects on culture. To support her premise, she cites a particular study. Her support points are three-fold: contraception leads to more divorce; contraception leads to more infidelity; and contraception leads to more abortion.

Oh my. I won't try to tell you how she (or the study she cites) reaches those conclusions. It is enough for me to rue the fact that as we forget where we came from, we will risk losing all the advantages we have gained. We, incidentally, means women AND men.

I wonder how many people know that it was not until 1965 that birth control was declared to be legal, within the privacy of marriage. Certainly there were many methods for birth control, particularly with the development of vulcanizing rubber (making condom development possible) as far back at the early 1800s. But such birth control devices were no sooner developed than they were declared to be illegal.

One of the issues the early feminists focused on, in addition to securing the vote for women, was birth control. It is difficult to control your life when you can't even control what happens to your own body. One of the real heroes of this early era was Margaret Sanger. When she disseminated information about birth control (a term she coined) by sending it through the mail, she was charged with violating obscenity laws. She opened the first ever family planning clinic in Brooklyn. Nine days after it was opened, the police raided it and Sanger went to jail.

So, when was birth control declared legal? Not until 1965 did the Supreme Court finally decide, in the seminal case of Griswold v. Connecticut, that using birth control was a right that was protected by "marital privacy." (This right to privacy has been the hook upon which other subsequent Supreme Court cases have been decided, most particularly abortion which the court ruled should be a PRIVATE decision between a woman and her doctor.) If you are now 45 or older, when you were born, birth control was NOT a right for your parents. The 45 years between 1965 and now is a whisper of a blink in the recorded history of humanity.

If you think we can't or won't go back, think again. There are people today actively working to once again deny women the right to control their bodies and what happens to them. Goodness, might "they" even decide women should not have the right to vote?

I think I once met one of "them." This incident in my life counts as one of the stranger conversations I have had. At the time, I was working for the state medical association. I had been assigned to staff the newly created Committee on Bioethics. I loved this assignment, and eagerly looked forward to meeting with the physician chairman and crafting the agenda we would have for our first meeting. I drove to Philadelphia to meet with him--he was a radiologist working in one of the many suburban Philadelphia hospitals.

As we walked through the halls of the hospital, we got to talking. We discovered that we were both Presbyterian. Upon that revelation, I told him that I was, in fact, an elder (in the Presbyterian church, elders constitute the governing body for the church). He stopped, and looked at me. Then, he said--I've never met a real life woman elder. I was stunned. I asked if his church didn't have any. No, he said, they did not. Then I asked, how did they meet the national church body's requirement to have a governing body that reflected the general composition of the congregation? Well, he said, they didn't.

Well, why not? I asked. Well, he said, Jesus picked only men disciples. And, further, he asked, how did I answer the fact that the Bible always referred to God as Father. With that, I gave him my final response. I said--I don't think the term Father for God means that God has a penis. And, further, I don't think a person needs to have a penis to be an elder.


The halls of the hospital went totally quiet. The radiologist said no more. Either I had just revealed something unimaginable to him, or I had doomed our working relationship before it even began.

I am so grateful that I know many men who do not think as that physician thought. But I worry when young women think as the editorial writer did. No, birth control did NOT set back women. The right to vote, and contraception--two hallmarks in the universal struggle for women to be valued.

June 4 may not rank up there with July 4, but for women it is every bit as important.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

A Reluctant Homage

Marilyn Monroe at 84
(Marilyn Monroe: June 1, 1926 – August 5, 1962)

Had it not been for a hot summer’s night
No bottle of pills beckoning to slumber now and forever
Had it not been for a buzzing telephone fallen away to the floor
She would have been eighty four

I was standing pool side at the rich house where I was working
Summer’s work, a lowly house girl
Maybe I was on break or watching the two children
I can’t remember

But someone came out from the rich house and said
Have you heard the news?
Marilyn Monroe is dead.
You’re joking, was my quick response.

I wasn’t really fond of her
I never liked women who played to the stereotype
Dumb blonde and all, big boobs
Women are so much more.

I knew so little of her
Dumb blonde? Not even blonde.
Marilyn. Oh really Norma Jeane.
Nine short years of fame.

But I was wrong, she was much more--
But too many men beheld her with their eyes
And saw what they wished to see
For her to ever be more

On this bright day, summer’s first
No matter what the calendar says
She would have been eighty-four
A life-time ago.

A poem composed (by me) this day, June 1, 2010, in homage to a woman.
Photo credit: a still shot from the movie "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"