My incredulous daughter and her mother’s alternate reality

Last night I had a conversation with my daughter. She is 22 years younger than I am. Sometimes the age difference almost disappears, but other times there is an unbridgeable gulf. Not because we are so different, but because our experiences were.

I told her that I had never knowingly met a gay person until I went to grad school. She was, not surprisingly, stunned. Especially since I began studying for my Ph.D. when I was 40. I knew gays existed, of course, but it didn’t occur to me that some of my friends and acquaintances might be in the closet. I was naïve, more so than my daughter can appreciate. Hard as it is to imagine today, when the AIDS epidemic was raging in the early 80s, it was something I knew about, but it had never hit close to home. Not even in the neighborhood.

I told my daughter that in my first year I had taken a class in Medieval Latin with an engaging professor and that I couldn’t understand why he rarely looked at me. It was strange, so I had attributed it to my age. One day after class, I saw him joking with a small group of male students, the same ones that he directed most of his attention to in the classroom.

“And didn’t you realize then that they were gay?” my daughter asked. Actually, I didn’t. They were just guys, joking around. My daughter refused to believe me and became very angry because she thought I didn’t understand her question. I repeated that I had not ever had any contact with gays. She lost it— I think she thought I was being deliberately evasive and provocative. She simply could not accept that someone like me might have such limited experience until the diverse population of a university gave me an even richer education than I had anticipated.

This is not about a mother-daughter relationship that has moments of turbulence and tension— all mother/daughter relationships have their moments— I write this only to illustrate how far society has come in three decades, from gays being invisible to people like me to becoming good friends who love and respect each other. (The professor in my anecdote became my mentor and then a close friend and confidante.)

Gay Straight Alliance photo by Quinn Dombrowski

Gay Straight Alliance
photo by Quinn Dombrowski

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Forgotten subway pastime

I was on the subway this morning, riding with a neighbor. A snippet from our conversation:

Me: I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people without a handheld electronic device.

Engrossed in WSJ

Engrossed in WSJ
photo by C Pichler

Neighbor: Not so long ago on the morning ride, the subway car was filled with newspapers, neatly folded and held up, hiding most of the faces.

Me: Many faces are still hidden. They are underneath the bent heads that are concentrating on email, games and perhaps even news. The rest have wires streaming from their ears. Their eyes are closed and a beatific expression reveals their enjoyment of their music.

Neighbor: Well, I am a relic. I like to read the newspaper on newsprint because my eyes stare at the computer all day. [He’s a graphics designer.]

Last week I was reading my paper as usual, and a young woman was sitting next to me.

She looked at my newspaper and asked me what it was!

Shocked silence on my part.

Best use for newsprint?

Best use for newsprint?
photo by David McDermott

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SCOTUS at a crossroads (again)

Contemplation of Justice, North side of Supreme Court

Contemplation of Justice, North side of Supreme Court

CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade

Go back or go forward? That is the question for the Supreme Court in  Obergefell v. Hodges, a case that could determine whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, whether the Constitution requires every state either to license same-sex marriages or to recognize those marriages if they’re performed outside the state.

I believe that SCOTUS will (actually, must) rule for the plaintiffs and establish the right for all couples to marry anywhere in the U.S. When a group is defined by an innate attribute and singled out for either special privilege or punitive measures, that is discrimination, and such discrimination is prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution: that no state may “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” As Emily Bazelon says, “Marriage equality is a civil rights slam dunk.”

Though the justices are not required to consider the practical results of their decisions, I should think that even the conservative justices (except perhaps Thomas) would shrink from disrupting millions of established families. Then again, conservatives won’t allow abortion, but when a child is born to an indigent mother, they wash their hands of all responsibility for both mother and child. So much for their concern for children.

Justice Kennedy’s assertion that the “traditional” definition of marriage has been around for “millennia,” as well as Chief Justice Roberts’s saying that in every definition he looked up marriage had been defined as the legal union of a man and a woman until a dozen years ago, is not quite true. They call themselves scholars? The justices didn’t restrict their definition of marriage by characterizing it as Christian or Judaeo-Christian or Western or modern. They couldn’t do that, of course, because of the establishment clause in the First Amendment that prohibits the government from establishing any religion. But even within the U.S., let alone internationally, there is hardly uniformity in the nature and purpose of marriage. (Think of Utah and the Mormons, who until 1890 practiced polygamy. Muslims may also have up to four wives.)

As far as I know (I haven’t read transcripts), even though Antiquity was mentioned in the oral arguments on April 28, there was no acknowledgement that marriage then or in the Middle Ages or at any other time or culture, was any different from the Court’s 20th- and 21st-century models. Not that they should have made such concessions, but neither should they have made vague references to something they clearly know little about. There was no mention of the fact that for most of Western history, marriage was for dynastic and economic reasons. Marriages were arranged, usually by the parents, to preserve and increase the family’s wealth and power and to ensure the production of an heir to continue the family line. The care and protection of children was not a big concern.

Opponents of gay marriage argue that heterosexual marriage is a societal good, because it produces children that perpetuate society. And if gays marry, opposite-sex marriages won’t produce children? If same-sex marriage is legal, opposite-sex marriages will die out?

As is usually the case, the justices must consider other, secondary issues in their decisions. Beyond the questions of philosophy and tradition, the justices will have to give precedence to government by judicial fiat or by the will of the people. The ballot box should be more powerful than the decision of nine intellectuals who are far from the fray. And yet — if the Court had not imposed its unpopular civil rights decisions upon a recalcitrant South, does anyone really think that they would have integrated their schools and welcomed everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, to their restaurants and drinking fountains?

When Roe v Wade came before the Court, Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg, a steadfast champion of women’s rights, feared that imposing a decision that went against the convictions of a majority of people rather than letting them change their minds gradually might rouse opposition to the new status quo, i.e., legal abortion. Now we know that she was right — far from being quietly and universally accepted, abortion has become the most divisive issue in America.

Perhaps the pundits who say the outcome of the case is in doubt, that it could be a nail-biter, are hedging their bets. I know I’m prejudiced, but I just don’t see it. History and logic are not on the side of the retrogrades.

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Medicare compromise


Congressional leaders Pelosi, McConnell, Reid, Boehner hold hands after passing bipartisan bill (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Sad to say, the optimism in a post I wrote a month ago was misplaced. “Don’t look now, but we’re actually governing!” was quite misleading. While it’s true that the bipartisan legislation passed with overwhelming support from both parties and it solved the “doc fix” dilemma that had been frustrating doctors and legislators for years, it does so at a significant cost (surprise, surprise!).

The physicians were being paid successively less each year, and many were threatening to leave Medicare while others had already left. The new legislation will give them a guaranteed 0.5 percent pay hike for the next five years. While the doctors win, wealthier seniors (earning $133,500 to $214,000 yearly) will pay more for their medical insurance and prescription drug coverage.

Somebody has to pay, not just seniors. Medicare’s budget will be cut by billions of dollars. Spending for long-term care (hospice, home health services, nursing homes) will also be reduced. A reason to cheer, though, is the two-year extension of CHIP, the Children’s Health Care Program.

Pres. Obama is extremely happy to sign the second most significant health care bill after the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. The Tea Party of course isn’t happy. Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) denounced the bill because it will add to the deficit. (These presidential contenders seem to be going out of their way to antagonize significant sectors of the electorate with their stances on immigration, gay marriage, and now seniors.)

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“Writer’s Block”: You Don’t Have It

Diane Vacca:

I used to think that writing was hard only for me, that good writers just … wrote. When I read what a good writer says about the misery and torment that writing inflicts and the discipline it exacts, I feel, well, comforted, in a masochistic way.

Originally posted on Ben East:

I’ve been known to comment on various blogs: “I’ve never had writer’s block. I have no shortage of things to write about or the desire to write them. If I’m not writing, I’m chewing on it.”

Ok. In January I blew through 20 chapters of a first draft. Four weeks and done, rough edges and all. February wasn’t so kind. I hit the wall at chapter 12, a nut that took 10 days to crack. I couldn’t deliver background on a lesser character. Frustrating, because I could easily write what I wanted to write. But it was information my narrator couldn’t have known.

I faced options: cut the material; drop the character; change the narrative position; re-write, re-write, re-write. It sucked. It was basically 10 days of 100 words here, 100 words there, a bleed on the train, a grueling transcription by night, one step forward, two steps back. It was hard. It was…

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April 25, 2015 · 7:39 PM

Does NBC value audience share over integrity?


Brian Williams, NBC’s former number one news anchor, is back in the news. According to the “Washington Post,” NBC’s internal investigation of Williams’s exaggerated reporting has already confirmed eleven instances in which what Williams publicly reported was not exactly what he had witnessed.

The investigation came on the heels of the accusation made last February by soldiers who were with Williams in Iraq that the news anchor had repeatedly lied about being in a helicopter with them when it was shot down. As a result, NBC suspended Williams for six months and he retreated into silence, invisibility and presumably, shame.

The “embellishments” of his exploits made Williams’s reporting more dramatic and therefore more interesting. That may be the reason NBC, who must have noticed that Williams’s tales became more exciting with each retelling, did nothing. Williams was drawing the largest audience share of all the networks’ competing evening news shows.

The New York Times” reports that the investigation has identified details that Williams added to his story of a Hezbollah missile attack in Israel in 2006 and discrepancies in his accounts of how he acquired a fragment of the helicopter that crashed during the mission to kill Bin Ladin in 2011. His eyewitness accounts of the Arab protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and even of Hurricane Katrina are also being called into question.

Until the scandal broke, Williams had everything: good looks, engaging personality and a quick, dry wit which he often displayed to good advantage when sparring with Jon Stuart on the “Daily Show.”  When I was a journalism student at Columbia, he came to speak to our class. Since I got my news by reading newspapers rather then watching television, Williams was little more than a name to me, and I was impressed with his story-telling skills, affability, and above all, his sense of humor. He was actually quite funny. I don’t think he had yet started making the rounds of the late-night shows. He wasn’t yet the celebrity he later became.

One comment in particular that he made stayed with me. It was so important to him to appear impartial, Williams said, that he told no one how he voted, not even his family. That certainly sounded like an exaggeration at the time, and now, I realize it may well have been.


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Hire great writers

“If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer. It doesn’t matter if that person is a marketer, salesperson, designer, programmer, or whatever; their writing skills will pay off.

“That’s because being a good writer is about more than writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They know what to omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate.”

I found this on LinkedIn. It was posted by Tim Perez, who honestly said he stole it. I assume it’s been circulating for some time. It is also an  excellent justification of a liberal arts education. The humanities are losing ground rapidly, and with them go the creativity and critical thinking needed to analyze problems and communicate results clearly.


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