28 January 2009

Most of the luxuries and many of the
so-called comforts of life, are not only not
indispensable, but positive hindrances to
the elevation of mankind.”
  - H.D. Thoreau

How many gadgets does it take before you know you've got too many? Honestly, I don't have the answer, but I wish I did. This question rises after I realized that I spend a goodly portion of my life tending to things that I acquired in the hope that they'd tend to me.

The breakthrough moment of insight arrived as I plugged an electronic device to recharge it into the socket. The device had completely discharged without me having once touched it since the last time I charged it, about a month ago. As the little green LED indicator flashed, I wondered why I was holding onto something that apparently existed for the sole purpose of increasing my utility bill. I held onto that question, and then asked myself another: what do I get from owning this thing?

It didn't take long for me to ask that second question about nearly everything in sight. I picked up each item, running my hands over it, considering what value I'd attached to it, what need in me it addressed, and most importantly, what was required of me to maintain it. 

After a while, I'd learned a good deal about myself, and also about where my days were disappearing. Dusting, cleaning, winding, charging, storing, packing, unpacking, lubricating, upgrading, accessorizing, and washing all featured in some way or another for every item. 

The total time spent on those ancillary activities measured in double-digit hours every month, a sobering fact.

Rattled by my calculations, I made a list. My goal now is to rid myself of one time-sucking toy every month, until I really am down to things I cannot reasonably see myself living without. The way I figure it, if something requires more time or resource from me than it saves, we must part ways, no matter how alluring it is.

Excuse me. I hear a distant beeping noise--must be coming from a needy gadget that needs comforting.


25 January 2009

“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle 
and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in,
their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light
from within.”
  - E. Kubler-Ross

I've been reading accounts of the death of Mariana Bridi da Costa. The details of how her life changed, and then ended, are at once horrible, ironic, and mythic.

da Costa, a 20-year-old model and beauty queen, twice a finalist in the Miss World competition in her native Brazil, had felt unwell back in December. She sought medical attention, and was treated for what the doctors thought was kidney stones. By January 3rd, however, they realized they'd made a terrible mistake--she was admitted to the hospital in Serra suffering from a urinary infection caused by an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection known as pseudomonas aeruginosa. The infection became worse, and septicemia ensued.

The bacteria raged, and da Costa's condition steadily worsened, until last week, the only hope the doctors had for preventing further damage to her compromised system was to amputate her hands and feet. Her beautiful, expressive, and tender hands and feet. Feet that had walked the stage as thousands admired and applauded their beauty. Hands that had waved at cheering men and women, and had brushed long, silky black hair away from the flawless face.

That decision to amputate didn't save her. She was put on a respirator, and slipped into a coma, where she remained until her death in the small hours of January 24th. Her family and her boyfriend were at her bedside when she died, and Brazil is now in mourning.

She stood poised upon the brink of her womanhood, and the world was open to her by virtue of her extraordinary beauty, confidence, and youth. We mourn her passing not only because she was beautiful, but because she was so young. There is nothing more terrible than the unfulfilled promise of a life ended too soon. She is the beauty who died a beastly death, and I am appalled.

I could probably draw some comparisons with descriptions of how all the flowering youth of several countries has been destroyed by our insane desire to wage wars, and I might also be able to point out that diagnoses and caregiving are routinely botched when the medical establishment is more interested in its own bureaucratic protocols and policies than in the Hippocratic oath. I might even be able to mount an argument about how viruses and bacteria are actively fighting for survival--as our medicines get stronger, so do they. However, I won't bother with those tirades, because it's too late for da Costa, who was ultimately just another bit of collateral damage in those struggles.

It's our whole civilization that's toxic, and it makes me sick to think of it. Poor Mariana. She never had a chance, and for that, I'm sorry beyond telling.

Excuse me. I need to take a couple aspirin and a shot of penicillin. Call me in the morning.


15 January 2009

"The prostitute has come to symbolize
for me the ultimate liberated woman,
who lives on the edge and whose
sexuality belongs to no one."
- Camille Paglia

Let's get something straight. I'm not a prude. I'm a person who is perfectly comfortable in the presence of adult conversation, adult bodies of both sexes, adult acts, and adult toys. 

However, I do believe that there are some things best not touted outside a private bedroom, and certainly not within earshot of children, legislators, or other non-consenting adults. A fine example of what ought never be made public for any reason, other than as a cautionary tale against trying it, has been playing out all over the news and the public media for the past three months. There's so much wrong with it, I'm having a difficult time knowing where to start.

I was driving home yesterday and caught about 5 minutes of local talk radio. The host, Laura Ingraham, was interviewing a 22-year-old woman, "Natalie Dylan," who is auctioning off her virginity to the highest bidder.

Dylan, whose name is a pseudonym designed to keep her safe (ostensibly from sexual predators and weirdos), informed us that the bidding has reached nearly $3.75 million, and that she gotten bids from nearly 10,000 people. She also said she doesn't consider this prostitution, just a real "business opportunity." She pointed out that she's got a valuable commodity--her virginity--and since people are willing to pay for it, why shouldn't she sell it for the top dollar, instead of just giving it away? Dylan, a student at Sacramento State College, said that she got the idea for this auction while enrolled in a "women's studies" class, and that she and her sister decided this would make an interesting social experiment. 

Her plan for the money? To pay for further education, and to "stabilize" herself in this time of economic uncertainty.

When Ingraham questioned Dylan about her understanding of what prostitution actually is--the exchange of sexual favors for money--and whether she knew she could be arrested for this, Dylan's breezy response was that yes, and that is why she was taking care to do things "legally," under the auspices and protection of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Reno, Nevada. 

Yes, that's right. The deflowering will be completed at a brothel, after which both satisfied parties will leave the premises, presumably never to see each other again.

I would love to know what the Regents and the Board of Directors of Sacramento State College are now thinking about the direction that higher education in their institution has taken, but that's another story. Right now, my biggest issue is just with Natalie Dylan, and this hideous way she's picked to get her fifteen minutes in the public eye.

Are we really so jaded as a society and as a civilization that we have lost all sense of shame and decency? When did it become okay for a young, healthy, intelligent woman to announce to the world that she's entering the world's oldest profession, even if it's only for one night, and we all look on with prurient interest and cheer her audacity as the bidding climbs higher? When did it become okay to bid millions of dollars for a one-night transaction with a little fool, when there are countless causes that are more worthy of the money?

Let's all hope this naive, stupid girl either comes to her senses, or her family and friends intervene to stop her, before it's too late and she gets a psychological scar that she'll never recover from or be able to remove.

Camille Paglia, I hope you're happy.

Excuse me. I have to go wash my brain out with soap.


08 January 2009

Thou shalt not steal.
 - God, according to the King James Bible

Man. Just when I think I've heard it all, I hear something new that just leaves me scratching my head, wondering how we ever got into this mess in the first place.

This one's a beauty, though.

According to a January 6th article by Motoko Rich that I read in the NY Times, Neale Donald Walsch, who wrote the wildly popular "Conversations with God" series, has been revealed to be a plagiarist.

That's not the head-shaking part, though. Hardly a week goes by now that we don't get wind of yet another publishing scandal, whether it be a faux memoir, copied articles, or even wholesale lifting of entire books,plots, characters, and all.

No, friends, what made my eyes widen in wonder is what Mr. Walsch did when he was confronted with incontrovertible proof that he did not in fact write the essay, published on Belief.net, to which he laid claim. Mr. Walsch hauled out the Kaavya Viswanathan Defense, insisting that he was surprised, no, in his own words, "chagrined and astonished" that his mind "could play such a trick on me." According to Rich's article in the Times, after apologizing to both the publisher and his readers, he went on to expand on his theory of the trick his mind played upon him.

"All I can say now--because I am truly mystified and taken aback by this--is that someone must have sent it to me over the Internet ten years or so ago," Mr. Walsch wrote. "Finding it utterly charming and its message indelible, I must have clipped and pasted it into my file of 'stories to tell that have a message I want to share.' I have told this story verbally so many times over the years that I had it memorized...and then, somewhere along the way, internalized it as my own experience."


Spare me this disingenuous response. It's one thing for a 19-year-old student who thought she was going to wriggle out of trouble with her "I loved the book so much, I must have memorized it, and then forgotten I did" interview, but it's another matter entirely for a 50-something man, a professional writer whose books have been topping the New York Times Bestseller lists for years, to offer up such a lame excuse for his dishonesty. And why should anyone want to excuse him? The real writer of that essay, Candy Chand, doesn't--in the article, she makes several very good, valid points about why what Walsch did was bad. Bad for him, bad for her, bad for the publisher, and bad for the readers.

I completely understand how it's possible to find yourself so overloaded with bits and snippets of writing, that you might find yourself hard-pressed to remember their origins. What I don't understand, though, is why a writer of Walsch's reputation and stature in the writing world didn't have enough sense to at least label the essay when he filed it--no matter what the operating system, there are free utilities that allow you to annotate the file information. In this case, with a date and three simple words: by Candy Chand.

Is that really too much to ask of a professional?

Maybe, but it surely puts a new spin on how I'll view Mr. Walsch's writing in the future. Perhaps his next series could be titled, "Conversations With God: How I Don't Pay Attention to a Word He Says."

Excuse me. I want to go find Ms. Chand's essay, read it, and write her a fan letter.


01 January 2009

 And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne. 
     -Robert Burns

It's the first day of the new calendar year. It's too cold outside, so I figure I'll just take an internal constitutional today.

For the first time in two decades, we missed spending New Year's Eve with our friends. There was a snow storm yesterday that made the roads dangerous for driving. By mid-afternoon, we collectively made the decision to forego our celebration, and move it forward to tonight. We all agreed that trying to gather would be too risky, and we'd prefer to postpone, rather than brave the elements for a slice of roast beef, a glass (or two) of champagne, and a few midnight kisses. Better to wait until the weather is better.

As evening approached and the snow and wind whipped through the air, I turned my attention to dinner, which I'd not planned to cook. I finally opted for an omelet, creamed tomato soup (not canned), cheese platter, crusty bread, and an inexpensive but decent cabernet. We ate at the normal hour, just after 7:00, and took our time at the table. After we finished, my spouse cleared the table, and I donned several layers of clothes. The storm was ending, and it was time to dig out.

There was still plenty of strong wind, and because it was so cold, the snow was fluffy and crystalline. There wasn't any sound or traffic on our street. I briefly considered leaving things the way they were, but then decided I'd have a mess if the temperature raised a little between then and the morning, so I hauled out the shovel and snowblower, and went to work.

Half an hour later, I was finished. I put away my tools, took off my boots at the front door, and went back inside. My spouse asked me if it was cold. Yes, it was cold. He wanted to know if the road was plowed. Yes, it was plowed. He asked if there was much snow. Yes, there was a lot of snow. As I answered his questions, I shed coat, hat, scarf, gloves, extra socks, and extra sweater. I draped damp things near the heating ducts, and went to blow my nose. He went back to his computer, and we had no more conversation between us.

At 9:30, he went to bed, leaving me to sit in front of the television watching the New Year's Eve festivities as they occurred around the world. Fireworks in Australia, Germany, England; choirs and symphonies in Austria, France, and Canada. The whole world was amusing itself, having a grand party. I sipped my brandy as an operatic soprano sang "Auld Lang Syne," and found myself humming along with the tune. At 11:58, I changed the channel to ABC, to watch the 11,000 pound Waterford Crystal ball descend to New York Times Square, as pop icon Dick Clark counted down the final seconds to the year's end. For years, people--including myself--wondered if Dick Clark had the secret to eternal youth. Now, he looks a lot like Father Time incarnate. I noticed that although his stroke has left his speech somewhat impaired, he still had the gusto and energy for a big, lip-locking smooch with his wife at the end of the show. Good for him.

Brandy finished, broadcast of the world party over, I undressed and went to join my sleeping spouse and cats in our bed. Before I fell asleep, I considered that the evening, while not a party, had been absolutely perfect in its own way, and I didn't regret not facing the usual New Year's Day hangover. My cat curled his warm silky back against my knees, I fell asleep, and the new year felt positively glorious.

It still does.

Excuse me, I have to see if the popping sound in the kitchen is a champagne cork.