August 31, 2009

The Interloper

Every once in a while, you meet a writer who can do something totally insane. I'm talking about things like combining My Three Sons, the meaning of life and the unconscionable burden of original sin to make a point about accommodating religion. And making it work.

Of course, as an atheist, I can look at the pathetic claims to “other ways of knowing” and scoff. I acknowledge that I have been using very general terms and examples, and in my examples I allow religion to be relatively harmless. It is a concept that claims an authority it cannot have. I could simply sit back and say “Well, if some people want to believe, then that’s their business” and I could leave it at that. With that, I could be just as accommodating as Josh Rosenau or Chris Mooney or Chad Orzel, and then I could whistle on my way nonchalantly.

My problem is that I am not content to leave it at that. I didn’t become an atheist because of science; it was a slow realization that I was not born a lowly worm. I was not born dependent on the sacrifice of a man-god and his resurrection in order to gain “salvation.” I realized that I had no overriding purpose to uncover; I was not born to any certain fate.

You know, I've read that essay more than once. I edited it, paying attention to all the details. I still haven't got a clue how it worked. But work it did, and that's hardly the only time that he's surprised me like that.

Happy birthday, Mike, and may you continue to write in your own inexplicable way for years to come. One of these days, I'll even figure out how you carry it off.

August 30, 2009

Carnival of the Elitist Bastards XVI

The Carnival of the Elitist Bastards (alternately subtitled "We Don't Need No Stinkin' Pictures" or "In Which I Kill Everyone") is up at Quiche Moraine. I hope you enjoy it some small fraction of the amount I did.

August 29, 2009


In case you were curious, science fiction and fantasy aren't the only kinds of fiction I write.


Mollie studied the table one more time, desperate that everything be perfect. She'd been waiting two years for Jeff to get out, and today was finally the day.

Her to do list was in the living room, but she knew it by heart. The table was set with her grandmother's bone china and silver. The new cut-crystal tumblers looked good, even if Jeff would be expecting wine glasses. The tulips in the matching vase were fresh from the yard. The breadbasket was filled with buns from the bakery in town. Candles sat on the table for the first time since Jeff had been arrested, ready for him to light when he came home.

Mollie walked into the kitchen. She wasn't sure it had been this clean when she and Jeff had bought the house almost twenty years before. The steaks, rubbed with oil and salt, were in the fridge next to a cucumber salad, which was waiting to be tossed. Sliced mushrooms were ready to be sauteed. Asparagus, picked from the garden this morning, sat in the steamer on the stove. The potatoes were pricked and in the oven.

Her strawberry-rhubarb pie had turned out well. It was cooling on the counter. Mollie turned the pie so the sugar on the crust caught the dull light from the window.

Mollie looked out at the grill, sitting on the deck. Its cover was already off, the fresh propane tank hooked up. She squinted at the clouds, dubious, but the weather looked like it would cooperate. The forecast said heavy rain before morning. She was hoping it would hold off a little longer.

She worried about the roses. If it rained hard tonight, it might be a couple of days before the ground was dry enough for planting. She turned reluctantly away from the window.

Upstairs, Mollie looked hard at the bedroom walls. She'd painted them a light yellow winter before last. They'd needed paint for years, and she'd decided not to wait anymore. She liked the color, but she wasn't sure about Jeff's reaction to the walls and matching bedclothes. At least everything was tidy.

She stopped in the hall outside Tony and CeCe's bedrooms. CeCe's was the cleaner of the two, but it still contrasted sharply with the rest of the house. Mollie had swept the dust and cobwebs from all the other unused corners of the house, but she hadn't had the energy to tackle these rooms. She shut the doors and went back downstairs. Her footsteps on the wooden stairs rang hollowly.

Mollie hoped today would fix that. She was so tired of living in an empty house.

Stepping into the living room to pick up her purse, she froze. How could she forget the most important thing? She moved the hinged silver picture frame, polished to a soft glow, from the mantle to the buffet in the dining room. Jeff's picture was in the center frame, and CeCe and Tony looked out at her from their seventh and ninth grade school pictures.

It was only right that the kids be there when their father came home, Mollie thought as she got into the car and pulled out of the garage. Without the pictures, it might never have happened.

She swatted at the thought, trying to bat it aside. She didn't want memory to intrude today. She already had too much to deal with. Still it came, hard and sharp, pushing aside all her plans. Her knuckles went white against the steering wheel as she unwillingly relived the shock she'd had when she'd heard about the accident.

Jeff had been at his monthly poker night. He'd promised to bring the kids home from the last dance of the school year, using the Suburban to play chauffeur to a pile of teenagers from across the county. She'd gone to bed early, reveling in the decadence of a full evening of freedom and the sweet scent of chokecherry blossoms drifting in on the breeze.

The doorbell had dragged her into consciousness--but not for long. She'd opened the door to find two nervous uniformed deputies. When they told her why they were there, she passed out.

"Mrs. Curran? Mrs. Curran, please talk to me. Are you okay?" The voice came from far away.

The floor felt hard and cold as consciousness crept back to her, but that wasn't why she shivered. Mollie resisted waking up.

"Mrs. Curran?"

The deputy sounded ridiculously young, almost as young as.... Mollie opened her eyes. "I'm--I'll be all right."

"Can we help you up?" Both deputies crowded over her, all anxious eyes.

Weren't sheriff's deputies supposed to be prepared for this? Mollie suppressed an urge to laugh at the pair of them. Laughing wouldn't be right if.... She gasped for air. "Please."

They helped her to the couch in the living room. "A glass of water?"

"No, thank you." Mollie's hands didn't feel quite steady. She didn't want to spill.

The deputies still looked ridiculously uncomfortable. She hoped they didn't have to do this often. They fluttered their hands from belt to chin to behind the back, to holster, briefly folded, scratching at the head, and on, never settling for more than a moment. With British accents, she thought, they'd make a great Laurel and Hardy.

More to stop the laughter she was afraid would come than because she wanted to know, she clutched her robe around her and asked, "What happened?"

Laurel, the taller deputy, who'd stood back as his partner blurted the news, cleared his throat. "The Suburban went into a ditch off County 22. It rolled going down, and the passenger side was crushed."

Hardy, almost as young as he sounded, stepped in gently. "We think the kids were killed instantly."

Mollie felt that should mean something, but she was numb. She wondered whether the other parents getting this news tonight felt anything. "How many were in the truck?"

Laurel glanced at Hardy, who nodded briskly and trotted out. "There were two kids in the Suburban. Should there have been more?"

"I hope not." She looked at the clock. It was almost two. "When did it happen?"

"A bit before one. We think."

She sighed. "No. The dance was over at ten. That was plenty of time to drop off the other kids."

"Your husband was giving rides to other kids?"

Something in his tone made Mollie look up. He had a notebook out and was frowning at her.

"Yes. Jeff was--" Mollie gasped. "Jeff! You said he'd be okay. What happened to him?"

"He's resting comfortably in the hospital. It looks like he escaped with just a few cuts and bruises, but they're keeping him for observation."

Mollie stood up. "Can I see him?"

He started the dance of the hands again. The notebook and pen made it even more absurd "I don't...uh...think that's...uh...wise right now."

"Why not? What's wrong?"

"He's..." He coughed. "He's pretty well sedated right now."

He wouldn't look at her, and at last, Mollie felt something. A cold knot of suspicion formed just under her ribs. She had trouble sucking in enough air to ask the suddenly all-important question.

"How drunk was he?"

The look in the deputy's eyes was far kinder than his words. "About twice the legal limit by the time we got him into the ambulance."

It wasn't enough to lose the kids. Jeff had...he had.... She felt light-headed again.

It was only the start of the nightmare. She had to come up with the names of children whose parents were about to get unpleasant midnight visits. Then she had to answer questions about Jeff's drinking. Some of them were questions she knew she should have asked herself years before.

After that came the long trip to Lafayette, the county seat. Riding in the squad car, she fought to keep from hoping. It was harder than she could have dreamed. She reminded herself that if they weren't her children waiting in the morgue, some other mother would have to live through this.

It was cold in the basement of the sheriff's offices. Sitting in the observation room, she could hear sound echoing harshly from the hard surfaces on the other side of the window. Waiting, nothing felt like it could touch her, and Mollie blessed the thin film of unreality between her and the world.

They apologized before asking her to look at the bodies. It was CeCe and Tony, but they looked so horribly, horribly wrong. She fainted again.

They made her call someone to come get her. She couldn't think of anyone but her mother, although she really didn't want to face her right now.

Mom was decent, though, after the one habitual crack about how she'd always said Jeff wasn't good enough. She stopped when Mollie didn't argue. She was quiet through the drive back to Mollie's to pick up a suitcase and on the long trip to Braselton, where Mollie had grown up. There, she made Mollie a cup of cloyingly sweet chamomile tea and dosed her with Ativan. Finally, Mollie slept.

Mom decided Mollie needed a hero, and she appointed herself. She didn't look the part, with her constant cigarette and her teased hair an unnatural shade of dark red. She was remarkably effective, though.

She stood alone on the front step and berated the media who set up camp on her lawn. She called them vultures and ghouls, challenging them to go find some real news to report. This would only be news, she told them, if CeCe and Tony were to suddenly be available for interviews. Since her vocabulary was completely unsuited to either print or broadcast, they soon disappeared.

The sound of her voice drifted back to Mollie through the open windows, and Mollie was hit again with that horrible urge to laugh. She stifled the impulse, afraid laughing might open a door to other feelings. She squeezed her ribs with crossed arms and rocked, willing herself to hear nothing, understand nothing.

Daytime was easiest. Mollie could listen to the bustle of traffic going to work and returning, watch the sunlight travel the length of the room's floor, and tell herself she'd survived another day.

The nights though.... Mollie tried not to be awake at night, but sometimes the drugs failed her. Then she lay alone in the timeless dark. She couldn't set aside memory and feeling for later when night promised to go on forever. When it hurt more than she could stand, she buried her face deep in her pillow to scream. She didn't want to wake her mother.

While Mollie huddled in the room that used to be her bedroom, Mom handled calls from the relatives who meant well but wanted to hear all the details. She made the funeral arrangements, only asking Mollie to sign the papers.

She refused to pass along the papers from the bail bondsmen that said Mollie agreed to put the house up as collateral to spring Jeff from jail. Jeff must have arranged his own way out, because she sent him away when he showed up. After that, the slamming of the phone, which had dropped off as the reporters gave up, became more frequent again.

Mom stuck tightly to Mollie's side at the funeral, glaring at anyone who threatened to add to her daughter's pain. Mollie drifted through the service and the brief reception afterward. She nodded at well wishers and briefly accepted hugs and condolences, not really noticing who she talked to.

Then Mom was suddenly tugging hard on her elbow, trying to steer her. Mollie didn't have time to react before Jeff stood in front of her, determined to have his say. She resigned herself as he opened his mouth.

"Mollie, I have to talk to you. Please listen. I'm so sorry. I...."

Mollie looked at him and listened to his frantic words, but she couldn't make them mean anything. She only knew that he was talking and the whole room was watching them. She couldn't even make herself care about that.

Eventually Jeff must have seen that something was wrong, because Mollie realized he had stopped. She let her mother lead her away.

Mom told Mollie when Jeff pled guilty to vehicular manslaughter. Mollie decided against going to the sentencing hearing. She didn't have anything to say that her absence wouldn't say for her, and she was afraid to face the other parents whose children's lives Jeff had risked. She didn't think they’d direct their anger at her, but something told her it wouldn't be good to spend much time in its presence.

She did go to court to finalize the divorce, since Jeff was in prison by then. He didn't contest it, even though the lawyer Mom retained made an aggressive property division request. Mom said it was because Jeff knew he'd never find a sympathetic judge. Mollie wondered whether there might be more to it, something closer to remorse, but she didn't suggest it.

Mollie didn't know how long she would have been content to hide from the world if it hadn't been for the check. Mom was so good at handling everything.

She walked into Mollie's room one day and lay the check in front of her. Mollie didn't understand what it was. She was too tired to want to puzzle it out, but Mom stood there, looking proud and waiting for Mollie to say something.

It was obviously a check, but it came from a company Mollie had never heard of. She couldn't figure out why they'd make a check out to her, much less one for.... Mollie blinked. That was a ridiculous number of zeros. Numbers like that belonged on one of those big prop checks in the ads, not on little scraps of paper.

She looked up at her mother. "What's this?"

"It's your settlement check." Mom beamed.

"Settlement check?"

Mom's smile dimmed a little. "For the accident. Patrick Connors' insurance company settled the wrongful death suit."

"I don't...." Mollie thought hard. She didn't remember authorizing a suit, but Mom had asked her to sign a lot of things in the past few months. She'd explained most of them at the time, but Mollie usually hadn't listened.

There could have been a suit. Pat was Jeff's best friend, and the poker party had been at his house. That much made sense--or more sense than the number on the check.

Looking at the amount, Mollie felt nauseated. She didn't want money. She wanted the whole thing to have never happened.

"Mollie, are you okay?" Mom looked worried.

Mollie was sorry for taking away her triumph. "I...I'm fine, Mom. Thank you. You've taken very good care of me."

After that, Mollie read anything Mom brought for her signature. The simple act was terribly difficult. She felt that she'd stepped out of the world the night of the accident. It had flowed on without her. She couldn't get up to speed, and stepping back in was bruising.

At least catching up gave her a goal. She started doing small things, taking walks and washing dishes.

There were still times when she just couldn't keep up. She rocked in the day and screamed at night. But these occurred less frequently as Mollie discovered that she could do mundane, everyday tasks without allowing the whole world to crash in on her.

She waited until after Christmas to move back home. Mom fussed at her through the long drive, but Mollie wouldn't let her do more than drop her off at the other end. An audience wouldn't make this easier.

Mollie hyperventilated as she unlocked the front door, but stepping inside wasn't as hard as she'd feared. The pile of shoes and jackets that she expected to see by the door, the clutter of her family life, wasn't there. Someone had cleaned while she was gone. The place was so tidy it looked like someone else's house.

Mollie hoped that whoever it was had gotten one of the thank you cards Mom had given her to sign. The strangeness of the clean house gave her the little distance she needed right now. The panic she felt when she approached certain parts of the house--the kids' rooms, Jeff's closet in the bedroom--told her how foolish she'd been to think she was ready to come home. But now that she was here, she was staying.

Mollie debated going back to work at the bank, just to give herself time away, but she didn't think she could face all those people who had known her before. They'd be as kind as they could, but they'd want to know how she was doing, and they'd have a thousand other questions she wasn't ready to ask herself yet, much less answer.

She gave her notice instead. If she got tired of living off the settlement, she'd find a job where fewer people knew her. She hid upstairs when her manager dropped a box of her stuff off on the front step.

When she had to close her eyes to get down the hall, Mollie considered moving. She decided against it. If she wasn't ready to face the accident, she wasn't quite ready to leave all signs of her past life behind either.

The seed catalog came when Mollie needed it most. She didn't know how she'd gotten on the mailing list, since she'd never had a garden. The yard was all lawn and trees. It had been Jeff's domain. Still, she wasn't going to question anything that promised an end to winter and a chance to spend time outside the house.

She wiled away the claustrophobic hours until spring planning a small bed and a tiny vegetable garden for the back yard. She bought graph paper and plotted out bed after bed. She never ordered plants, afraid she'd change her mind about what she wanted before they arrived.

On the first warm, dry day in March she was back in Lafayette, walking out of the garden center with a shiny new spade in her hand. She even had some new ideas after finally seeing the plants in person. She went home to tackle sod.

The next day she stayed in bed, her middle-aged back a mass of aches and twinges. Still, she thought when moving made her wince, strictly physical pain was a nice change. She was back outside two days later, digging up more of the turf that Jeff had worked so hard to establish.

Gardening saved her. She loved the quiet, the weirdly right smell of dirt and bug spray. The trees surrounding the back yard gave her plenty of privacy from the neighbors. She liked the imperfect symmetry of the annuals she finally planted.

In Lafayette, where no one recognized her as a local tragic figure, she was able to have long esoteric discussions with the garden center staff about the best types of edging and sprinklers and the right brand of compost for tomatoes. It almost felt like being human again.

One stormy afternoon in August, when she was stuck inside, she decided it was time to tackle the box from work. It was still sitting inside the front door, where she'd left it after Kara dropped it off, and it kept getting in the way. She felt that if she could reclaim two hundred square feet of yard from grass, she ought to be strong enough to clear out one simple box.

She wasn't so sure when she opened it. Someone at work had packed it for her, so she wasn't prepared for what was inside. Sitting at the top of the box were the pictures from her desk, one of Jeff and one of each of the kids. Family pictures were one of the things she'd avoided all winter, but these she saw before she could panic.

It was a bittersweet moment. They brought back memories of how she'd talked about her family at work, nearly bragged. She'd been so proud--of all three of them.

The panic stayed away.

She spent some time over each picture, refreshing every well-known detail--CeCe's crooked smile and deep blue eyes, Tony's strong chin and his cowlicks.

Then it was Jeff's turn. She expected anger when she looked at him, but what she felt was more complex. Even the accident couldn't entirely obliterate the feelings of seventeen years of marriage. There was anger, but it was jumbled up with too many other emotions to sort out.

She put the pictures in their tri-fold frame on the mantle. There wasn't really anything else she wanted from the box, just logo gear from the bank, the extra nylons she'd left in her desk for emergencies, and a few cartoons that weren't funny outside of work. She threw it all away.

She made herself look at the pictures every day when she came in from outside, when she felt strongest. It was good to see the kids, good to know she could look and remember without collapsing again. She couldn't get them back, but she could at least start to reclaim the happier memories.

She started spending time with the photos, talking to the kids, discussing garden plans. It made the house feel less lonely, even at Christmas. Once or twice, she found herself waiting for answers. She had to remind herself they were never coming back.

It was spring again before she realized that, while CeCe and Tony were gone forever, Jeff didn't have to be. Not unless she wanted him to.

She shoved the pictures back onto the mantle and all but ran outside. Her heart was pounding.

She walked over to one of the flowerbeds and, with shaking hands, started to weed. She slowly let herself think about the idea.

Why was it so frightening? He hurt us, he hurt them, he'll hurt us, babbled a little voice in her head.

She pulled more weeds, took deep breaths and waited for the litany to stop. Doesn't being alone hurt? He hurt us...

As she weeded, Mollie kept dropping questions into the well of her mind, each one creating the same rippling terror. Would it be better to be with someone who couldn't understand what she'd been through? Would the kids want them to be apart? Would it help them if she kept him away? Had he meant to hurt his own children? To hurt her? Didn't she have some responsibility for what had happened?

The answers were always the same: he hurt us, he hurt them, he'll hurt us....

How? What did she have left that he could take away?

She almost laughed in the silence that followed, but it wasn't that kind of victory.

Walking into the prison the first time was the hardest thing Mollie had ever done, harder than walking into the morgue. She was afraid the prison doors were going to slam behind her, telling her that what she was doing was criminal.

Jeff cried when he saw her, just put his head in his hands and bawled until their time ran out. Mollie realized she had to be positive she could follow through before coming back. Raising Jeff's hopes, only to smash them by sending him away, would be crueler than she'd considered being even in the darkest moments after the accident.

She'd worked it out in the garden. She was expanding, putting in perennials and adding some taller flowers for contrast. She put in a row of sunflowers along one side of the vegetable garden, a clump of foxglove in the center of a new tiered bed, and a patch of delphiniums along the back fence. She enjoyed watching them grow and reach for the sky.

It was two months before she was sure enough. She still didn't think he could hurt her, but she'd prepared herself for the possibility. She thought she knew what she was capable of, what she could and couldn't live with. She'd even told her mother--and sat silently through the tirade that followed.

She had some hard words for herself over her decision too--she was afraid it was the weak thing to do, a surrender to loneliness--but it was made. The kids looked, if not approving, then at least accepting.

Jeff controlled himself on her second trip, making things easier. His desperation was visible, though. Mollie thought he was checking himself to avoid scaring her away again.

They didn't have a lot to talk about. Jeff didn't hear much from anyone outside, not even his family, and Mollie hadn't seen anyone in so long she didn't have any news.

Glancing nervously at the clock after a long silence, Jeff blurted out, "This reminds me of our first date."

"What?" Mollie looked around at the sterile concrete walls, guards in dark uniforms, and the hunched shoulders of other prisoners. Off to her left, she could hear a woman crying quietly. She couldn't think of anything less like the amusement park they'd gone to.

"Don't you remember all the standing in line we did, waiting? We had no idea what to say to each other."

Mollie nodded as it slowly came back to her. "What I remember most is how neither of us was willing to admit we didn't like roller coasters."

Jeff smiled. "We went on that thing, what, five times?"

"Something like that. I still don't know whether it was the roller coaster or the cotton candy that made me sick."

That set the tone for future visits. They always talked about the distant past, good times while they'd been dating and their first couple of years as newlyweds.

They never talked about the future, and by an unspoken mutual agreement, they never talked about CeCe and Tony. The closest they came was at the end of each visit, when he told her he was sorry--not for what, only that he was sorry.

Mollie didn't know why he kept silent aside from the apology, but whatever his reason, it suited her fine. She wasn't ready to talk about the kids, not to Jeff.

Still, by Christmas, the idea of Jeff coming home had seemed natural. In March, the date of his parole had been set, and Mollie had started her serious preparations.

Now that the day was finally here, Mollie was nervous, even though everything was as ready as it could be. She told herself she was being silly. She'd known Jeff for almost twenty-five years, had spent more of her life with him than without him. She stayed nervous.

Jeff looked uncomfortable too, when she picked him up from the release center. They were both quiet on the ride home. Mollie wanted to say something, set the right tone, but she couldn't think of anything.

It was Jeff who broke the silence once they were in the house. "Wow! This place looks great. I didn't expect...well, it looks just great."

He kept talking about how good the house looked and how nice it felt to be home. He complimented her on the yellow bedroom, the nicely made up dining room table, and the choice of food. When he walked out onto the porch to start the grill, he shouted her name.

Mollie ran out to find out what was wrong.

"Nothing's wrong." Jeff shook his head. "It's the gardens. They're amazing. You never told me you liked gardening."

"I, uh, thanks." Mollie caught her breath. It hadn't occurred to her that Jeff might not like the gardens.

“What’s that?” Jeff pointed over the railing at the new raised bed, a neat twelve foot long oval of empty black dirt penned in by two tiers of green timbers, and the plants sitting in pots around it.

“It’s a rose garden.” She'd prepped it over the last week when she wasn't cleaning. She'd dug and mixed compost and fishmeal deep into the soil. It had been a good substitute for thinking, but she could hardly tell Jeff that. “The roses came this morning. They were late.”

"Boy, you've been busy. You've hardly left me any grass to cut back here."

All Mollie could think was that without the kids, they didn't need a big lawn anymore. Again she kept silent. This might be harder than she'd expected, although Jeff seemed to be settling in.

Dinner was easier. Her grandmother's china had been a wedding gift, and it set off another round of do-you-remembers. Jeff didn't even ask about the lack of wine glasses on the table, although Mollie saw him look to where they sat in the buffet.

She never saw him look at the pictures.

He helped her with the dishes, drying them and putting them away. Then they moved into the living room. He took his usual chair and she curled up in her corner of the couch.

For the first seventeen years of their marriage, this had been their time, even after the kids were born. They'd talk over their days, complain about work, make plans for the future.

Mollie didn't know what to say. There was too much to talk about and too many subjects to be avoided.

"Ah." Jeff settled into his recliner. "This really is the most comfortable spot on earth." He picked up the remote from the end table. "Just where I left it. Didn't you watch any television while I was gone?"

"I put it back this morning." She smiled. "You can watch if you want."

He met Mollie's eyes, and she knew he was thinking the same thing she was. It would be better not to try too hard to entertain each other. Besides, watching television would make things feel more normal. He turned it on.

Mollie grabbed one of her catalogs. She wanted to try planting bulbs this fall, but she hadn't decided what kind or how many. As she debated a front lawn peppered with grape hyacinths versus clumps of oriental lilies scattered among the perennial beds, she kept half an eye on Jeff.

The chair might be the most comfortable he'd ever sat in, but he was twitchy. He shifted every couple of minutes. He drummed his fingers on the armrest. He flipped channels faster than she'd ever seen him, and she didn't think it was because almost three years in prison had made him a more discriminating viewer.

Her courage failing her, she pretended not to know what was making him edgy. She buried her nose further into the catalog, but she couldn't concentrate.

After about the eighth time she caught Jeff out of the corner of her eye, looking at her mournfully, she gave up. "What's the matter?"

He opened his mouth, then closed it. He shook his head.

"Go ahead. Tell me." She sighed. "You're going to have to say it eventually."

He looked startled. "I was, well, I was thinking..."

His eyes were wide, and Mollie realized that he must be almost as scared as she was. "Thinking what?" Her voice held a gentleness she didn't entirely feel.

"I just, uh.... Do you know what would make this perfect?"

CeCe and Tony? She didn't say it. "What?"

His mouth worked, but no sound came out. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He let it out. He took another. Mollie was ready to scream with tension.

"A little glass of whiskey." The words rushed out. "Just a tiny one, you know, like you used to fix me back when...before." He opened his eyes and looked for her reaction.

She couldn't face him. She closed the catalog in her lap and studied the cover, trying to think. She'd made her plans, but now that the moment she'd been half expecting, dreading, was here, she didn't know what to do.

She wanted to scream, "Haven't you learned anything? Didn't prison and treatment and killing our children make any difference to you?! Are you really so ready to risk the one thing you have left?"

Instead, she tried to remind herself that she had no reason to be unprepared for this. She'd understood about Jeff and alcohol for most of their married life. She could hardly have forgotten about it since the accident. She'd told herself she was prepared to deal with this.

Forcing her emotions back down where they wouldn't show, she stood up. "There's a bottle of Windsor in the kitchen. Why don't I pour you a drink?"

The walk to the cupboard seemed interminable. Part of her was yelling, telling her she was making the biggest mistake of her life. It wanted her to keep walking, go back and shake Jeff, anything but pour that drink. She ignored it.

She'd bought the whiskey last summer, but as a compromise with herself, she hadn't decanted it for Jeff the way she used to. She opened the bottle and swirled the liquor inside before pouring three fingers into a lowball glass.

She held the glass up to the evening sunlight coming in through the window. The tawny liquid looked so harmless and inviting.

She carried it back and wordlessly set it next to Jeff. He was sweating. She wondered whether he'd also been thinking she might leave. Then she went back to her catalog.

"Whoo!" Jeff shook his head after the first sip. "No matter how well you think you remember, that first sip always has more kick than you expect."

Mollie smiled politely. She debated getting both hyacinths and lilies. Maybe some daffodils, too.

Jeff relaxed after a couple of swallows, looking cheerful as he settled on watching a baseball game. When he finished the first drink, Mollie got up without being asked and refilled the glass.

The first sign something was wrong was Jeff rubbing his eyes and squinting at the television. Mollie didn't think it was the whiskey. Even after three years without it, she didn't doubt Jeff could hold his liquor better than that. She'd never seen him do more than speak very precisely when he was drunk. She went back to the catalog.

When Jeff closed his eyes and leaned back, Mollie was relieved. She'd been hoping he would just drift off to sleep. It was the best possible end to the evening.

It wasn't to be, though. Soon, Jeff was awake again.

"Mollie?" His voice was weak.

"It's okay, Jeff." Mollie didn't want to look at him.

"Mollie, I don't feel so good." Jeff belched. "Think I'm gonna be sick."

She grabbed the bucket she had standing by. Jeff fumbled at the handle of the recliner but didn't have the strength to move it. She had to help. She put the bucket between his knees.

He leaned over and rested his forehead on the far edge of the bucket. "Mollie? My head hurts."

She leaned down and smoothed his hair. "I know it does, dear." She reached for his left wrist where it loosely gripped the bucket. His pulse was getting slow. "It'll all be over soon."

"I'm sorry, Mollie." His voice was barely above a whisper. "I didn't mean to."

Mollie sat back down on the couch. "I know, dear. You never did."

In the end, he died as quietly as she could have hoped. She wasn't even sure how long he'd been dead when she checked his pulse for the last time.

The sun had gone down, but she decided to wait a couple of hours just to be safe. She'd only worry about the body tonight. Even in loose dirt, that was plenty of digging.

The weather had cleared up enough that she'd wait until morning to plant the roses. She wanted to be able to read the tags and get everything in the right place. The border would be alternating Anthony Meillands and Saint Cecilias. In the middle, over the body, would be half a dozen Peace roses.

Then it would be time for more planning. It was really time she figured out what to plant where the foxgloves used to be.

She thought it should be something Jeff would approve of. She'd been so glad he'd liked the gardens.
Continue reading...

August 27, 2009

Let's Talk Pre-existing

I'm grumpy today because I'm not feeling well and haven't been for...well, far too long. The migraines are getting more frequent again, and more of them hurt instead of just making me stupid (thinking through sand) and hypersensitive. The allergies are taking a different tack this summer. I can breathe through my nose, and I'm content to leave my eyeballs where they are, but I feel as though I've been wandering around with about an extra twenty pounds of weight strapped to each ankle. I am so tired it hurts to have to stay awake sometimes, like after taking a shower in the morning. I've been working from home more so I can nap. And now my temperature is going wonky. To be fair, it does that whenever I'm tired or slightly sunburnt or....

It's time to do something, which means going to the doctor. The old OTC antihistamine is no longer doing what it must. The class of antihistamines that works best for me isn't available OTC in a 24-hour form. The migraines have been successfully treated in the past, but only with drugs that are only available by prescription for a very good reason.

On top of that, it's time for another MRI of my heart. Oh, yes, and a new antibiotic prescription so I can go to the dentist without pushing myself another step closer to a valve replacement. Time is already doing that for me, but no need to hurry things along. I'm hoping the original will last until Medicare kicks in.

Thing is, there's nothing acute wrong with me (as far as I know; the static can get pretty loud sometimes). Everything I have is a pre-existing condition. Everything but the allergies dates back at least to my teens. Arthritis included.

This is kind of a big deal. HIPAA's got me covered somewhat, but needing to maintain constant coverage limits what I can do. My husband and I can't start a business together without being absolutely certain that we can afford the exorbitant prices of individual coverage, assuming a carrier will cover us. I can't pursue writing full time, or him photography, without being sure we can afford COBRA if something happens to the other's job. We also have to be prepared for something happening to both our jobs, even if we don't take any entrepreneurial risks.

I can't experience a gap in coverage (neither can he), which means we are hostage to the highest priced insurance plans in the U.S. If I do, if I can't afford that insurance, none of the crap I have to deal with will be covered for a year. Any treatment I might need, including open heart surgery, would be mine to pay for, even while I was paying for insurance.

And after all this, I'm relatively well off. I just hurt every day. I have a flexible job, so my health doesn't keep me from being a good employee most of the time. Other people lose jobs because their health makes them not unemployable, which would give them access to Medicare, but undependable, which gives them access to nothing.

Like me, a lot of these people have little or no control over their conditions. They didn't ask to be ill and marginally employable and uninsurable. Anyplace civilized, they wouldn't be punished for the accident of their health while insurance companies rake in profits.

This is why we need health care reform and, more specifically, health insurance reform.

August 26, 2009

Elite Bastardry at Quiche Moraine

Don't ask me how a decidedly landlocked blog, in name and location, will manage to host the decidedly nautical Carnival of the Elitist Bastards this weekend, but it will. Actually, you can ask, and I even have something cool planned. I'm just not going to tell you what it is.

To quote the admiral:

Aye, it be that time again! Extract yerselves from the dens o' iniquity (where ye've been discussing philosophy o'er the finest wine, right? Right?). Send me a link to yer finest Elitist Bastardry no later than Friday, August 28th. We be sailin' wi' Captain Stephanie from Quiche Moraine, and she be intendin' to sail wi' a full crew.

For those o' ye who've watched the Bastards sail and think ye might be o' proper caliber for such an illustrious crew, here be the requirements:
1. Pick a blog post o' yours that hits the stupid where it hurts.

2. Send us the link.
That be it.

See ye aboard!

Or somewhere thereabouts.

Still don't know what we're looking for? Try here. And remember, the more you submit, the more you make me work. How's that for motivation?

August 25, 2009

Wouldn't It Be Good

Posted for a Somebody to remind her she isn't alone, that far too many of us have those times when we just can't. This is one of those songs that's gone back and forth in my memory from poignant to unbearably true to a decent but dated song, and it hasn't changed a bit.

I'd stay out of my shoes if you know what's good for you.

What's Wrong with the U.S.?

Charlie Stross hits where it hurts:

I've been suppressing the urge to explode angrily ever since Thursday, when Abdelbaset Al Megrahi was officially released from prison and flown home to Libya. His release — on compassionate grounds, as he is suffering from terminal cancer and has weeks to live. Mr Al Megrahi was serving a life sentence, handed down by a rather oddly constituted Scottish court for his part in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988 — the biggest aviation disaster ever in British airspace, and one of the biggest acts of terrorism of that decade.

What am I angry about?

Go read. He got it in one, I think.

August 24, 2009

District 9

Why are you reading this? Go see District 9 instead. Then come back and we can talk.

You want a review? Fine. This movie does what more science fiction should do. It educates you in science. Social science. History, politics, sociology, psychology--they're all in here. They are aggressively, in-your-face in there.

This is the best science fiction movie since Serenity.

Like Serenity, District 9 is brutal. Unlike most films, science fiction or otherwise, District 9 uses its brutality to good effect. When violence shocks you, you know you're not supposed to be taking it for granted. When you see a moment of casual evil, you know you're not supposed to look away, that it's meant to be there, that you're watching it for a reason. Still, if you think the messages of the movie are delivered with 2x4s, you're not catching them all. Nor is it all about its messages.

The film does have its flaws, of course. You're supposed to be unsettled, but unless you bring Dramamine, your stomach may take the brunt of it. There are plot holes centered around the alien tech, some of them large.

Ultimately, however, the tech isn't what the movie is about. It's about all the different ways we generate excuses to treat each other like crap and the consequences we don't consider when we do that. In short, it's right up my alley. It's bracing and thought-provoking and, frankly, all I really want to talk about right now. I want to dive into how it was constructed and compare notes on what people caught and what they didn't. I want to see the movie reflected in the minds of the people around me.

So go on. Go see it. Then come back. I'll be waiting.

Still waiting.


Update: Don't go into the comments if you want to avoid spoilers.

August 23, 2009


This is actually a tougher fight than the election was. Corporations far and away recognized that four more years of rule by the monster that the Republican Party had become would be as disastrous for them as it would be for all of us. They were pragmatic in their understand that business cannot flourish anywhere the government doesn't meet at least its minimal obligations in law and the maintenance of infrastructure, so they supported Obama.

They are not supporting health care reform, which means we need to do more. Their disproportionate influence isn't all arrayed against us, but neither is it on our side. We're much more alone this time.

Find out what we need to do at Quiche Moraine.

August 22, 2009

The Issue Isn't....

This is the full video of the couple who are alleging discrimination. Regardless of gender or sexual orientation, one would expect folks to not be that intimate in a restaurant. When asked to tone it down a bit (it being lots of body contact and burying a face in the other's breasts), the couple responded angrily and was then asked to leave. The main thing here is... it isn't about sexual orientation, but rather, its about behavior, because what the manager saw wasn't just a hug or an embrace as some of the news outlets are describing in their headlines.

So says the text that accompanies this video. See for yourself.

I'm not sure how that's different from what the couple was claiming all along. You?

Of course, there were large breasts involved, which makes it obscene, because anybody can just tuck those away out of sight...or something.

August 20, 2009

Required Reading

A few items worthy of some serious thought.

This one is older, but I've been thinking about it since it was posted, so it's definitely worth sharing. The Gates arrest and the chatter afterward prompted my friend Naomi to some serious comparison of policing styles and outcomes.

Even at the time, even as a snotty teenager, I had to respect the way the police handled this. This is what I'm talking about when I say Couper used Judo principles. This approach will not work in every situation, but running in and cracking heads rarely defuses things either. In Minneapolis, years ago, PETA ran a protest where they sent attractive young women to strip naked and lock themselves to public signs while chanting "I'd rather go naked than wear fur!" In January. Minneapolis dealt with this by sending about two dozen officers to cut the locks, rough up the protestors, and arrest them. I thought, "It's January in the upper midwest. Isn't this likely to be self-limiting behavior?" It would have worked just as well to send a couple of cops to direct traffic and wait until they got bored. And cold. Nudity is not a major public menace, you know? (They may have done just that in Madison. I can't remember for sure.)

Instead of just focusing on what might or might not be in a future health care bill, Mike is talking about the current health care situation with the help of the experts.

After two years with the smaller employer, the private insurer boosted the premiums by a factor of two. The premiums doubled because in the prior coverage year, one employee’s spouse was treated for an advanced cancer. We didn’t get any raises from our employer, and my own take home dropped because of the increase in my coverage. I guess I could have raged that it “Wasn’t fair! It isn’t my fault she had cancer!” The thing is I knew that it could have been me or my kids who had been sick or needed treatment for an expensive medical condition. Sure enough, my daughter in the next year needed expensive brain surgery and new meds; none of which her mother nor I could have paid out of pocket.

Sara Robinson at AlterNet is taking a hard look at whether the U.S. is stepping away from fascism now that we've gotten rid of Bush--and not liking the answer. (via the Chimp Refuge)

In a 1998 paper published in The Journal of Modern History, Paxton argued that the best way to recognize emerging fascist movements isn't by their rhetoric, their politics, or their aesthetics. Rather, he said, mature democracies turn fascist by a recognizable process, a set of five stages that may be the most important family resemblance that links all the whole motley collection of 20th Century fascisms together. According to our reading of Paxton's stages, we weren't there yet. There were certain signs -- one in particular -- we were keeping an eye out for, and we just weren't seeing it.

And now we are. In fact, if you know what you're looking for, it's suddenly everywhere.

And finally, Greg has had enough of the idea that pointing to obvious racism in politics is off-limits. The rant itself is tasty, but the comments on the original post and at ScienceBlogs are a stunning display of missing the point that really, really need to be read.

Join me, if you will, in a moment of utter, deep cynicism. That would mean you thinking, for just a moment, exactly like I think every second of the day. This will be painful for you, unless you are already where I am....

August 19, 2009

Quick and Easy Advocacy

Something happened today that was cool enough to share. It happened at work, so the details will be almost nonexistent, but I think the idea will come through.

We have periodic office-wide meetings in which we talk about the various things different parts of the company are doing for our clients. They're about being able to cross-sell and about staying engaged in the business and the office despite being so busy we can go weeks without seeing even the people in our own line of business.

Given that, it wasn't too surprising when an email came out saying we'd be doing something at the next meeting that would require some action on our part. In order to demonstrate the efficacy of a targeted communication strategy, we would take a little survey about where we stood on an issue. The survey would sort us into groups, and we'd put our group name on a tag when we got to the meeting and sit with others in our group while we learned about the strategy.

It felt like one of those games you play at a party where no one really knows anybody else, but whatever. I know not everybody is as weird about manufactured group cohesion as I am. I took the survey.

Then I looked at the questions that were being asked. Then I looked at the category it put me in ("there are no bad categories," said the email). Then there was this little roaring in my ears. I didn't disagree with the category, but what it said about where I stand was no one's business but my own. No, I thought, you can't make me reveal that.

I knew there was another person in the office who was going to end up in the same category and was going to be just as reluctant to talk about it. I could have gone to them and commiserated. It was tempting. A steam valve would have been useful. But this person wasn't in a position to fix this any more than I was.

Instead, I wrote back to the person who sent the email. I didn't tell them I was upset personally. That wasn't any of their business either. I didn't say, "You can't do that." It was true, but it wasn't specific enough to point to the outcome I wanted.

Finally, I settled on, "What are you doing to protect the privacy of those people who don't want to reveal information on this issue to their coworkers?"

The answer came back, rather quickly, "Oh, thank you. I wasn't thinking about that, but I see how people could be concerned. I'll make sure everyone knows they can opt out when I send out the reminder."


Then I talked to the other person I knew would be upset at the idea of sharing and told them the second email would be coming. This person told me how they'd gone back into the survey and lied to see what other group they might end up in--and thanked me three or four times for doing something about it. Made me pretty happy for the rest of the day.

Turns out, sometimes all you need to do is know how to ask.

August 18, 2009

This Is About Sex, Right?

No, this isn't a story about sex trafficking. This is a story about immigrant women working in factories in fields all across the country. And [Southern Poverty Law Center's] response is not to criminalize their work, thus penalizing the victims, but rather to help them file lawsuits against their employers and attackers. You can read about one such case, U.S. EEOC, et al. vs. Tuscarora Yarns, here.

It struck me as a stark and important contrast to the antiprostitution activists who claim to be working to help victims of exploitation but who are really further victimizing them by criminalizing their livelihood instead of prosecuting abusers. SPLC's strategy makes it clear that they understand the issues: All people have a right to earn a living. No person should be subject to abuse, violence, or exploitation at work. Workers in many industries put their bodies at risk to do their work, but those risks should be minimized and worker safety is everybody's concern.

This is a lesson that feminists who claim they want to protect women in the sex industry ought to learn.

If you're not already reading Sex in the Public Square, you really should, and articles like the one quoted above are why. In a society that can't seem to refer to sex without heaping loads of shame, it's good to have people who expose that shame to the bleaching power of a little sunlight. Even I--whose circle includes burlesque artists, former strippers, sex-shop owners, erotica writers, nude models and photographers, customers of all the above and prostitutes as well, and people who have engaged in sexual relationships that one would have to stretch to call something other than prostitution--even I find challenges to my understanding of sex work at SitPS.

Here's a recent example: Did you know that "indoor" (non-street) prostitution is currently legal in Rhode Island? I had no idea until SitPS started covering efforts to make it illegal, efforts which in turn shed some light on the people who claimed they were trying to protect women from exploitation by making criminalizing their jobs. The longer this process goes on, the harder it is to believe the most vocal supporters of criminalization are anything but deeply disturbed by the very notion of sex.

In this piece on myths of the sex trade:

Despite what some activists claim, most of those working indoors in the U.S. have not been trafficked against their will.

Many indoor workers made conscious decisions to enter the trade, and a significant number actually like their work. A recent New York City study found that indoor workers expressed “a surprisingly high degree of enjoyment” of their work, and several other studies also find that indoor workers have fairly high job satisfaction and believe they provide a valuable service. This is not an exceptional finding; it is confirmed by a growing body of research. The media often ignore it, and prefer to do feature stories on the abused and exploited.

This is not to romanticize indoor prostitution. Some indoor workers work under oppressive conditions or dislike their work for other reasons. At the same time, there is plenty of evidence to challenge the myths that most prostitutes are coerced into the sex trade, experience frequent abuse and want to be rescued. This syndrome is more characteristic of street workers, but it’s important to point out that the vast majority of American sex providers work indoors.

SitPS included a link to an opinion piece by Donna Hughes of Citizens Against Trafficking, one of the main forces pushing for criminalization. She described the testimony of those who willingly work in the sex industry (i.e., those who would be made criminals under the new law) as "a sordid circus, with pimps and prostitutes coming forward to oppose the legislation." She complained about hearing testimony from a smoker and from people who were camera-shy. And she used scare quotes wherever the topic of sex came up.

Then a man reeking of cigarette smoke and other odors came forward. He was identified to me by Hurley as a pimp. He claimed credit for the growth of the spa-brothels in Rhode Island for his now-deceased wife. Another Korean woman came forward and said she did “it” for depressed, shy guys who needed stress relief. She implicated construction workers, judges and lawyers. She proudly exclaimed that she does “it” to make money.

Then a tattooed woman, calling herself a “sexologist and sex educator,” spoke against the bill. She is also a reporter for a prostitutes’ magazine called $pread. (I couldn’t make this stuff up!)

But don't forget, her goal is to help those in the industry. She isn't doing this because talking about sex gives her the squeems. Not her. It's everybody else who's working from a place of irrationality.

The State Senate’s obstructionism has been aided by the silence of many who should be speaking out. Some local and national anti-trafficking organizations have actually worked behind the scenes to oppose the desperately needed reforms. They blame the lack of trafficking prosecutions on lack of political will and inadequate police training. In reality, trafficking laws work only where law enforcement is empowered to fight prostitution.

Other groups, such as the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU and Rhode Island NOW, have opposed passage of a prostitution law for ideological reasons. They support the decriminalization of prostitution and mistakenly believe that good trafficking laws make prostitution laws unnecessary. The Rhode Island experience demonstrates that it is long past time to lay that utopian hope aside. The truth is that these very groups are to blame for obstructing efforts to equip police to protect victims of trafficking.

But it's Citizens Against Trafficking's most recent salvo that really lays their anti-sex opinions wide open for everyone to see. It came in response to a letter signed by 50 academics don't believe the evidence supports the assertion that criminalization of prostitution is a solution to the problem of human trafficking. Citizens Against Trafficking responded, not to the substance of the letter, but by, well, the title of their letter is "International Sex Radicals Campaign to Keep Prostitution Decriminalized in Rhode Island." Some highlights:

Citizens Against Trafficking has learned that their letter is not an isolated action, but part of a larger “Rhode Island Campaign.” Citizens Against Trafficking is working on a multi-part analysis of the authors and signers of the letter, the statements they make in the letter, and their campaign methods.

Part 1 focuses on initial discoveries made by Citizens Against Trafficking researchers about some of the authors and signers of the letter. We found shocking information about what they stand for and the goals of their international campaign. We will describe how members of this group are using sophisticated communications technologies to rapidly mobilize other sex radicals from around the world and how they are targeting Rhode Island legislators and media.

Translation: We're going after them personally, and not only are they sex-positive, but they blog. And Tweet!

The leading signers of the letter call themselves “sex radicals,” meaning they oppose any limits on any sexual behavior as long as it has the superficial appearance of being consensual.

Translation: People don't really know what kind(s) of sex they want to have.

For years, Wood has struggled with feeling “invisible.” During her sabbatical leave she started to feel “more like herself, more free,” which led her to start acting out her latent exhibitionism. “During my sabbatical I had some … exhibitionistic urges that I allowed myself to explore.” Earlier this summer, she stripped on a dock and swam naked in the Mystic River, within sight of a restaurant and boats passing by. She said she wanted to declare her independence from society’s rules, but she also wondered if anyone saw her and might complain.5 The exhibitionist’s intention is to shock and force unsuspecting people to view their nudity. Citizens Against Trafficking wonders if the administration at SUNY is aware that one of their faculty members is crossing the line into sex offender territory.

Translation: Eeeeek, skinny-dipping!!!! Lock her up!

The sex radicals have now moved on to the second phase of their campaign; they are organizing a second letter, written by the same people, but to be presented as coming from “sex workers.”

Translation: Prostitutes and strippers aren't competent to decide which petitions to sign.

The sex radicals think their letter has had a persuasive impact on Rhode Islanders’ views. Citizens Against Trafficking thinks the letter has got an inordinate amount of attention considering what these sex radicals advocate and defend. Their supporters on the Mix Tapes for Hookers web site are planning a party in Providence for late September. They’re inviting “hookers, strippers, rentboys, sex educators, porn stars, burlesque performers, dominatrices, go-go boys, and more.”

Translation: They're listening to those people?

If you want to help those in the sex industry, who else would you listen to? Well, besides the academics who have actually studied problems, solutions and the status quo? Answer: Not the people who are trying to turn all the "victims" into criminals.

Instead, I recommend the following reading:

Don't let personal attacks distract us
Letter from Norma Jean Almodovar to RI Lawmakers
Finding common ground for rational discussion
Being a Powerful Advocate: The Rhode Island Case
Stop, Look, Listen - what is really being done to stop human trafficking? (petition)

August 16, 2009



August 15, 2009

Pretty in Pink

It is a day to go and play, but apropos of the discussion at Quiche Moraine, I thought I'd leave you with this lovely cover.

The one who insists he was first in the line is the last to remember her name.

August 14, 2009

Congratulations, Doctor

Betül has successfully survived, researched, survived, written, survived, defended and survived. Congratulations, Dr. Arslan!

Now you can get back to that all important blogging. (You left it over here, by the way.)

Destroy Ferris

He didn't flinch from geekdom. It wasn't prettied up, Hollywood geekdom in his movies, or at least, not all of it. Hughes's geekdom was awkward and painful. It was played for laughs, but they were always at least half-sympathetic laughs, which was rare at the time.

He didn't do issue films or bright, fluffy teen romances. He captured the pain of trivialities and the lack of perspective of teenagers. His parents weren't monsters, just caught up in their own lives. Still and all, I never watched a John Hughes film that didn't make me uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.

Find out why at Quiche Moraine.

Bring Bing Back Home!

Bing Haubrich has made new friends in Japan, but they want to keep him there. In fact, they have threatened to hold him for ransom unless his American friends and family do two things:

1. Answer questions about Japan/Nippon culture and cuisine.

2. Donate money to help his mother pay the plane fare for his trip.

It's tempting for a young man to stay in Japan, because so far he has found the food to be awesome and the shopping (even in vending machines) to be, let's say, "unique." In fact, the Japanese students think that if he stays long enough he could use his ninja powers to be Emperor someday. I don't think that this would be a good thing for world peace, as Bing has not worked out his "megalomania" issues and bad things could happen.

In a Japanese restaurant which serves "family style" what is the polite way to move the food from your platter to the plate when dining with close friends?

a. Using your fingers after washing them in the finger bowl.
b. Using a scoop.
c. Using the back end of your chopsticks.
d. Using the front, sharp end of your chopsticks.

August 13, 2009

Not the Dolphins!!!

I know they're bad. You know they're bad. But try explaining to your friends who make more emotion-based decisions why they shouldn't use antibacterial products for normal, daily applications.

Actually, now you can.

Dolphins are swimming in waters tainted with germ-killing soaps, but they aren't winding up squeaky clean.

Triclosan, an antibacterial chemical found in everyday bathroom and kitchen products, is accumulating in dolphins at concentrations known to disrupt the hormones and growth and development of other animals.

Scientists have found that one-third of the bottlenose dolphins tested off South Carolina and almost one-quarter of those tested off Florida carried traces of triclosan in their blood. It is the first time the chemical has been reported in a wild marine mammal – a worrisome finding, researchers say, because it shows it is building up in the ocean’s food web.

Thanks to Ana for the link.

August 12, 2009

Reality-Based Politics

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson has no quarrel with publicly funded treatment for alcoholics. But he said he struggles with taxpayer money going to housing for chronic alcoholics that offer no treatment at all.

Not only that, he was surprised to learn, the so-called "wet houses" don't even require their homeless residents to stay sober.

"I understand these people are very sick, but I don't think that means you should expect absolutely nothing out of them," Johnson said. "If we're going to provide you housing, you should figure out how to stop being drunk all the time."


Jeff is a nice guy, generally. I used to work with his wife, so I've met him and the kids, and a cuter family you're not likely to meet. But this....

According to the American Indian Community Development Corp., which operates the home with Project for Pride in Living, Wakiagun saves taxpayers more than $500,000 a year by reducing detox admissions, emergency room visits and jail bookings.

In the JAMA study, published in April, University of Washington public health researchers monitored 95 homeless chronic alcoholics before and after they moved into a wet house, and compared them with 39 others waiting to get in.

Before the wet house, the median cost of each of the 95 was $4,000 a month. After a year in the wet house the cost per person dropped to $960, mostly for housing.

This works. It cuts down on crime, both those perpetrated by the residents and those with the residents as victims. It cuts down on drinking. Several of the people interviewed for the story had quit while residents, even though sobriety wasn't a requirement of residence.

Still, Johnson isn't persuaded. "If what you're doing isn't right, the fact that it might be cheaper in the long run doesn't mean it's the best outcome. ... It seems to be spending money to help people give up on themselves," he says. That would indeed be terrible--if it were true.

The only way Johnson's point of view would be valid is if alcoholism were the vice the Victorians and Edwardians thought it was instead of the disease we now know it to be. Like any disease, what the JAMA study shows is that treating the symptoms of alcoholism, the homelessness and victimization, leads to a better outcome for the patient. Acting as though those symptoms are a visitation from God for a life of sin does not. It just adds a burden of stress for a patient whose disease is worsened by stress.

This is why I want my politics to be reality-based.

August 11, 2009

To My Conservative Friends and Colleagues

Who needs to die before you speak?

We've already had one death arguably attributable to this insanity of refusing to recognize the authority of a duly elected president and Congress. How many more will it take?

Sure, the guy was a raving loon, but there are a lot of people out there right now who are being told insane things and believing them. They believe a man could be elected president without anyone verifying his citizenship. They believe Congress could and would pass a bill that mandates euthanasia. They believe they're about to be rounded up and shipped to gulags or concentration camps for disagreeing with the administration's policies. It doesn't matter that those things are insane. These people have been whipped into a fine state of paranoia.

It's easy to tell yourself you're not like them, that you merely disagree with the changes that are happening. After all, you're not insane, just conservative.

Will that matter when the next person dies over this? Representative David Scott has had a swastika painted on his office sign. Another representative was hung in effigy. Representative Brad Miller received a death threat. Senator Arlen Specter invited people to tell him what they thought about health care reform--held back the police who were concerned about violence and disruption--and still people screamed in his face and called him a tyrant. A man showed up to protest the president's town hall meeting today wearing a gun and carrying a sign that said, "It is time to water the tree of liberty" (referencing Jefferson's "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.").

Those are just some of the politicians who are on the receiving end of violent anger. Fights are breaking out outside these meetings on health care. My husband was accused earlier this week, by someone who should know better, of planning to turn an old friend in for an "incorrect" political position. I can't buy ammunition right now to go target shooting because it's all sold out and has been for months. This whole thing is teetering on the edge. Someone else is going to die soon. Maybe lots of someone elses.

It will be your fault.

"Why?" you ask, "I'm not the one feeding their paranoia." No, you're not, but you're the only people who can stop it.

They're not going to listen to us. We liberals are already traitors and, somehow, simultaneously Nazis and communists. They believe we're going to round them up and put them to sleep. They believe that if they listen to us, they die.

Some of them will listen to you because they know you're on the same side. Some won't listen, exactly, but will find their first reasons to doubt the lies because you speak against them. Some won't listen to anyone but Rush and the rest of talk radio and their friends at Fox.

That's where you need to do your most talking. Talk to the stations and tell them you won't watch or listen while they refuse to speak against the violence. Tell them you can see how they're dividing the country and they have a responsibility to do better. Tell them the same thing I've told you: Unless they speak against it, they who have so much influence, they are complicit in the violence. They condone with their silence.

Then tell their advertisers the same thing. Then the conservative politicians.

Unless you want the violence, you have to tell those in a leadership position to lead their people in a different direction. They represent you, and you haven't argued up to this point that they don't. If they lead us into more violence and death, they are doing it in your name.

If you don't speak now, the next death will be your fault.

August 10, 2009

"Thank God for PZ Myers"

One more follow-up on civil atheism, with a somewhat unexpected conclusion.

To put it differently, thank God for PZ Myers. That man chaps my behind. He and I have no reasonable hope of ever coming to a perfect agreement on the social good, though we might achieve overlapping consensus. But he usually takes the issues of belief and reason seriously, and even when he doesn't, he forces me to do so. For that, he is "good health to me nevertheless." I am a better man and a better citizen for having to consider his perspective, even if I do wish he'd go jump in the lake more than just occasionally.

Loving Local Media

Big newspapers may be dying, but I'm loving what I'm getting in their place. We've got three donor-supported online news sources in the Cities that I read regularly. All of them also rely on the community for tips or for covering events. Not one of them is the combined police blotter and traffic fatality feed that my local big, bankrupt paper is (yes, there's more than that, but it does tend to get buried).

The UpTake is one of the better-known local media outlets, as it provided the full coverage of the various Coleman-Franken hearings. Video is their big thing, and while they're a little slow at the moment with the state legislature not in session, they're still updating with features like Kyle's iPhone interviews as he hitchhikes across America and asks people about the economy. They're also hosting the White House videos debunking the anti-health care reform lies. Those videos come in handy far more often than I'd like.

The Minnesota Independent is part of the Center for Independent Media, so they cover national issues more, but they keep an eye on the local slant. For example, their Religious Right Watch covers the political actions of local and national groups.

Jan Markell of Maple Grove–based Olive Tree Ministries called on her radio listeners to attend congressional town hall meetings in August. “Here’s what you can do, your congressmen and senators are coming home for much of August,” she said on last week’s program. “They are going to have town hall meetings all over the place. You need to go there and give them an earful. The ideal thing to do is to go to their town hall and read them the riot act — in Christian love — but read them the riot act on this issue of health care.”

But she implied Rep. Michele Bachmann should be spared, heaping praises upon her: “[Michele Bachmann] is one of my favorite people. She is doing just an outstanding job in Congress standing up for what is right. She’s got a target on her back. You need to pray for her and her family.”

They do still cover solely local issues, such as how instant runoff voting will change our Minneapolis city elections this fall.

This year, Hofstede (now the incumbent, again the DFL endorsee) must contend for three more months with all four of her challengers: Libertarian Raymond Wilson Rolfe, Republican Jeffrey Cobia, DFLer Allen Kathir, and Melissa Hill, who is running under the banner of “Civil Disobedience.”

Due to personal circumstances, Hill isn’t able to run the full-bore campaign she had planned on earlier in the year — when, she says, she was courted by several political parties, including the Greens.

But thanks to IRV and the lack of a primary election, Hill is guaranteed time to get out her message about the value of political protest and civil liberties.

The MinnPost is my favorite of the three sites. Why? Well, they do a bit more analysis in addition to the straight reportage, but I don't think that's all of it. Maybe because they do a better job of looking critically at the behavior of both political parties, not in some kind of false dichotomy, but simply in the sense of keeping everyone on the straight and narrow.

They've already started talking to Michele Bachmann's DFL challengers for next year to get a sense of where they stand on the big, controversial issues. Sen. Tarryl Clark is pretty comfortably standard for a DFL endorsee, which could be a problem in the general election but makes me fairly happy with her. Dr. Maureen Reed is either coy on the big topics or a poor communicator with fairly nuanced positions.

The MinnPost is also tracking Minnesota's big national Republican hopeful, Governor Pawlenty. He's expected to try for a national leadership position in the party and for the Republican nomination for president in 2012. By the time either of those come around, the MinnPost will have documented his stances (and veracity) on, well, just about everything he decides to talk about. Last week, it was health care reform.

Here's what Pawlenty said:

"…many Democrats in Washington want a government-run plan that would require states to comply with dozens of new mandates and regulations. One study by the Lewin Group recently concluded that an estimated 114 million Americans could be displaced from their current coverage under such a plan…"

Truthfulness rating:

Half true. There was indeed such a study, but the governor's statement oversimplifies the study and is misleading.

I have to admit, I don't necessarily know a lot about the details of individual crimes in my city, and I have to go looking if I'm concerned about weekend road closures, but these sites are going a long way toward keeping me from missing the papers that look to be drying up and blowing away.

August 09, 2009

More Reading on Civil Atheism

It all started with a little lament that we atheists allow people to convince us that pointing out unequal (and even illegal) treatment is being strident. It went from there to an elaboration of the social pressures used (even by our friends) that make us think that. And then it exploded into a classic example of the consequences of telling an articulate minority to pipe down.

Lou didn't care much for having a Christian step in to tell him he was the person being too uncivil.

The non-delusional have been trying for a couple of centuries now to have a quiet, rational discussion with the religious and what’s it’s gotten us is more, not less, marginalization. What it’s gotten us is a society hell-bent on theocracy and longing for the dark ages. What it’s gotten us is suffering of innocents and willful ignorance that is cartoonish and nearly unparodiable.

Phil debated whether Lou's post meant he should just give up on us atheists.

So, rolling all this around, what should I do? I’ve stayed in the fight thus far, in part because I do believe that America as a nation can benefit from a lot more discussion, and a lot less internal warfare. I am also of the belief, based on what I was taught in church, that my response as a Christian needs to be acceptance of everyone, and the extension of as much understanding, compassion, forgiveness and tolerance as I can to those who do not share my beliefs. And, if they are being discriminated against, in any way, I have to stand with them against that discrimination.

(Still no recognition, though, that I woke up Friday morning to being told I should die as soon as possible. Just for the record, Phil, when one of my atheist friends sees that and doesn't say anything, I know they've gotten similar treatment. When you don't say anything, as part of that majority, but instead talk about your feelings, I don't even know that you've seen it, much less whether you care about it.)

Jason put together a nice summary of the different issues at play in the discussion.

Thirdly, not every theist is as irrational as the people who are actively trying to abridge our rights, however they are also not stepping up to the plate when people say things like “atheists are worthless fuck stains and should die”. However, they do get the vapors when someone dares to suggest that all religious folks feel the same way. In the thread over at Almost Diamonds, you’ll see a so-called reasonable theist jump as soon as he realizes Lou gets paint on him in his characterization of religion as a whole as damaging to human rights. I know a number of very reasonable theists who are able to reconcile their belief systems with the universe as it exists and as science has come to understand it; and this is fine. As an agnostic atheist I do allow for the sliver of possibility that something “caused” all this; I just don’t feel the evidence as presented at the moment by theists is compelling (or even truly amounts to anything worth considering in fact). So, to those that do not directly attempt to abridge the rights of gays, the faithless, women, or any other group that is not WASPy enough for their liking, I apologize in advance when you get tarred with the same brush as the whackjobs, but if that’s the case, then you’re obviously not doing enough to distance yourself from said whackjobs. Get in the fight or get out of the way!

Skeptigirl points out to the moderate Christians that they can do more good by actions other than telling atheists to "play nice."

Many don’t understand, or won’t, that when we try to get Christianity out of school, we’re not attacking Christianity. If they want to believe that Jesus was awesome, great. But they should do it at home or in church where it belongs — they should not force kids in public school to have to sit through revised science and history classes for the sake of Christianity. This isn’t only about atheists — it’s about every single other religion that’s marginalized by this practice. And I don’t for one second believe that if they were in our position, they wouldn’t fight buildings being adorned with Muslim scriptures or Greek/Roman mythology being taught as literal interpretations of creation.

Rystefn tells them what we hear when moderate Christians think they're being so reasonable.

Every day, I hear some asshole say we’re alienating potential allies by being so vocal. Really? There are people out there whose willingness to see us get the freedoms that are our right hinges on how polite we are? You know what I say to that? Fuck those people! I’m not interested in trading angry oppressors for kinder, gentler oppressors. I will not allow my rights to hang on the whim of another, whether that other wants to deny them as a matter of course, or simply because I said the word “fuck.”

And finally, Dan does his gentle best to explain what civil is all about.

You see, I’ve been missing the fact that the moderates have been out there all along, and they do have the majority over the fundamentalists. I was just confused about the name. You see, the other members of the church have a name that they’ve used for the moderates all along, but I had failed to make the connection. Not to worry, though, as I’ve got it now.

Anybody I missed?

August 08, 2009

Votes Needed

I love it when the talented people I know get together and make something cool happen. In this case, my husband, Ben, and our friend Analiese set up a vintage-look photo shoot at a St. Paul landmark. In Ben's case, it was an opportunity to get a beautiful shot he's been wanting to do for a while. For Ana, it was an entry in a contest for a walk-on part on Mad Men, and for that, the shot couldn't be more perfect.

However, taking time to get that perfect shot means that there's very little time for Ana to accumulate votes in the contest. So, please, now and for the next four days, click over to Ana's contest page and vote her up. Five stars, once a day per unique IP. Ben and Ana would appreciate your votes, and I would too.

Let's not see such a beautiful collaboration go to waste.

August 07, 2009

Physics Graduate School

I encounter the second year grad students. The ones who earned their class the name “The Class From Hell”. They had a poster up in the TA office the previous year with a running total of how many female students came to see each TA. These amazing specimens move from dirty looks or come-on looks to comments: “You wear that just to show off your legs, don’t you?” “Not many skirts around this place.”

The thought that I would dress to show off my legs is so funny it takes my breath away. I’m in grad school, struggling and trying to stay sane, and I’m going to wake up and say “I think I’ll wear those tights that make my legs look good. Maybe that asshole second year will notice.” I didn’t even brush my hair every day. I washed it, braided it, and only rebraided after it got too messy by the third or fourth day. I had custom wrist braces which limited my hand mobility. (Keys on a carabiner clipped to my belt loop, since I couldn’t stick my hand in my pocket.) Obviously my only purpose for being there was to tempt him.

Today's post at Quiche Moraine is a little different. This is something a friend of mine, chair of her physics department, posted somewhere else. I told her more people needed to see it, and she agreed. Go read.

August 06, 2009

Atheism and Alienation

How polite do atheists need to be? There's always a current of this particular conversation going on in the atheist blogosphere, but Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's attack on PZ Myers' actions in Crackergate seems to have thrown it into high relief. A bunch of people are popping up in various places to suggest that PZ's actions "just didn't help."

Even this blog isn't immune. Philip H. from DC Dispatches started it by praising Jeff Wagg's tactics.

I would also add that the dialogue you posted was, at least in print, civil, even cordial. I detected no hint of explative throwing, no threats to dessicrate a Denny's Apply Strudel, and thus no reason that Denny's shouldn't tkae the threat seriously. I know many atheists will disagree, but tactics matter. And in this case, the tactics, as reported, were probably very effective.

He got a response from me that I don't think he was expecting.

Phil, define desecrate. Do you mean like two guys kissing on the front steps? There are good reasons to be very leery of that word, not the least of which is the fact that my continued existence and happiness is desecration by some people's definition.

With some later elaboration.

The thing is, Jeff's is a very reasonable response to a meal costing a dollar more for a non-churchgoer. Complaining to the manager is not a reasonable response to death threats.

In fact, what PZ did in Crackergate was pretty merciful. It had no real-world repercussions. He could have turned over all the threats of violence to the FBI. They have jurisdiction for terroristic threats made electronically. Instead he hurt their feelings. Badly, maybe. Still feelings.

I know you appreciate that I'm fairly polite and reasonable about these things. You may not notice it, but I never forget that it's the people who take a stronger, more "outrageous" stand who give me the space to do this. Without them, it wouldn't matter how nice I am on the subject. I'd be in the same position as the Jews PZ talked about in his cracker-piercing post: different, therefore suspect, therefore game, therefore dead.

I may reach out more than they do, but I can only do that as long as I'm alive and free to speak.

There are a few things that Phil and I don't agree on, but one of the things I like about him is that he argues fairly. He tries to understand what's going on on "the other side." In fact, the first time I really became aware of him was in the middle of an argument, and he ended up by reading my blog. (He's not the only one that happened with. Is that weird? Anyway.) So, when Phil asks for more information, I'm more than happy to give it, and he's asked for more on this.

Wow. Perhaps I've been in too many academic communities in my life, where this sort of freedom is taken for granted. Perhaps its my forgiving nature, where I labor against all evidence to look for good intent. But reading my words my first reaction was that you had personnally been threatened due to your atheism. As in threatened with death. If that's so, I am sorry to have touched a nerve. If not, perhaps you can elaborate, so the simple verbal literalist in me can get where you are going.

No, Phil, I haven't been directly threatened personally. I have seen others threatened for doing something I might do.

Webster Cook was threatened and assaulted and removed from office for mistaking the conventions of one Catholic service for another. I've spent time in Catholic churches to admire the art and architecture. They're open to the public for that purpose as well as for worship, but they don't come with guides. Even being respectful by my definition, I'm in an alien culture there. If a kid walking back to his seat without swallowing is worthy of assault and death threats, how difficult would it be for me to cross someone unknown line and become subject to the same?

PZ received death threats for mocking people's sense of proportion. I don't think I need to explain how this one is directly relevant to my life. Do I get to die now?

There are things that are said directly in conversations I'm a part of that tell me there are religious people who think that because I'm an atheist, I'm less than human.
  • I can't love.
  • I have no morals.
  • I can't find any meaning or joy in life.
How big a step is it from that last one to "it doesn't matter if I live"? How big a step from the first two to deciding that it's better for the world if I'm not here?

Me being visibly atheist, polite or no, offends people, even when I'm talking to other atheists. See the bus ads that were just pulled in Iowa. They literally tell atheists they're not alone, but they were pulled because of complaints. "DART claims it received numerous phone calls from people who were offended by the ads".

This is something I do have direct experience with. I'm involved in a number of activities designed to raise the profile of atheists, precisely so people feel less alone. I'm not as active as I could be, but I don't keep silent either. Someone I know posted this in a discussion at Greg's.

I'm a Christian who chooses not to preach to others. I have an incredibly devout Catholic friend who doesn't preach to me. However, I'm finding some of my other friends are very irritating with all their atheist proselytizing.

Let's live and let live, already.

Now, that looks pretty simple on the face of it, but as I said, I know this person. I know what kind of "proselytizing" they're exposed to. My response:

I post about atheism on Facebook and on my blog because I find the topic interesting, because I want people to know they do know an atheist, and because a large number of the people who read my stuff in both places are atheists. I don't do it because I'm trying to change anyone else's mind about their religion. Maybe their assumptions about mine, but that's somewhat different.

If you mention a sermon you found interesting, are you trying to convert me? If you mention a TSA agent you found annoying, are you trying to get me to rebel against the government? If you wax enthusiastic about knitting, are you suggesting I need to take up needles? No, you're just talking about your life.

That's exactly the problem that an atheist faces in a situation like this. As far as society in general (in the U.S.) is concerned, mentioning religion is just talking about your life. Mentioning atheism is somehow encroaching on someone else's. Do you do it anyway, or do you hang out in the closet?

My behaviors are interpreted differently, even by people who know me, because they involve atheism. Being nonreligious is seen as a direct challenge to religion. I'm annoying because I address other atheists, publicly, on the topic of atheism.

So, I'm annoying, offensive, subhuman. Other people in situations similar to mine have been threatened and assaulted. They've been silenced. People not that much further away have been killed.

Do I expect PZ's actions to reach moderates and make them feel warm and fuzzy about atheists? No, of course not. I expect his actions in Crackergate did two things. I saw that it gave Catholic extremists someone to focus their hate on in a very public, educational way. I suspect that, for a number of people, it deflated some of the drama of desecration. After all the build-up, the reality was downright prosaic. Secular even. And, well, look at that, that blog post had some interesting points.

What PZ has done is make it harder for people to look at me, minding my own business with a bunch of my atheist buddies and a few people who don't hold anything sacred, even if they think its sacred, chatting about what we've got in common, and think I'm doing something wrong. What PZ did? Well, you know, that wasn't very nice, but that well-spoken little atheist chick over there is much more reasonable. People will--and do--reserve their arguing for him and talk to me. Or to plenty of other people who sound much more moderate.

We get to be good cops, but we couldn't do it without the "bad" ones. That is why we need atheists who are less than polite.

Update: And the very first comment....

Update 2: Quite a ways down in the comments, Steve apologizes and blames the whole thing on a prank by a friend. The apology has been accepted.