Monthly Archives: January 2009

“My Mercedes Is Not For Sale”

A quick summary: a memoir wherein the author, Jeroen Van Bergeijk, drives a Mercedes into West Africa to have a bit of an adventure as well as to turn a profit selling it to an African car dealer, or deserving cabbie, or whoever ends up actually producing the cash in the end.

It may be that in translation, pulled off by one John Antonides, the tight, clever character of the writing was utterly lost. But whatever the reason, a chant of the writer’s commandment to SHOW DON’T TELL grew in volume in my head as I progressed through the book.

Also, I think there is some kind of guideline about not treating your reader like a blockhead. If every time I read an analogy, and three sentences later the only thing I can think is, “DUDE! I get it…” then something needed to be edited, methinks. Let me soften this by saying, I was never actually insulted by the overexplaining; it is not pompous, just annoying.

That said, where else are you going to be able to read about an automobile trek across the Sahara? I’m sure there are other places, but there are enough things in the plus column to warrant joining Van Bergeijk’s trek:

1. It’s a pretty quick read, assuming you don’t have little kids interrupting you for food every couple of minutes.

2. The narrator is successfully presented as somebody you’d actually want to hang out with (even if he is a bit circuitously long winded).

3. He pulls in a lot of references to other relevant texts and some historical facts to illustrate the events and his observations, so you feel like you’re exploring the continent from several angles.

4. It takes a fairly balanced look at Africa – I’ve been studying the continent’s history and art for a few years, so I’m attuned to some of the common pitfalls as far as assumptions and prejudices go. The narrator manages to present his feelings (which tend toward compassion) but makes sure to include enough alternate testimony that you feel you’re getting a sufficiently broad crosscut of various points of view.

In conclusion: it’s worth a go, if the African continent holds any fascination for you.

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Filed under literature

There Are Things Worse Than Death

Sometimes the news gives you a story that you just can’t shake.

A woman accused of trying to suffocate her 11 month old.

Not your run of the mill child abuser, though. A loving mother who has cared for her child, born with severe physical defects that she can never hope to recover from. A devoted parent who has had to watch her child suffer her entire life, with no end in sight to the suffering.

Not just suffer, but have to be resuscitated over and over again.

To me this is the deciding factor. This baby’s body has been trying to die. It is done. But our ability to perform medical miracles keeps the poor soul alive to continue its agony.

Why can we not learn to use our skills wisely? Why have we not established a really good process for determining the situations when it is an imperative of humaneness to just let a person go when it is obvious that death would be the best thing?

I’m not talking about euthanasia here, which is what it sounds like this mother was allegedly attempting, perhaps after a mental breakdown. Although I do think there are extremely rare occasions that might call for euthanasia, (I approve of Oregon’s Right to Die Law), I think in this circumstance a more appropriate concept is Do Not Resuscitate.

From what I’ve heard it is even difficult for an old person to have their DNR instructions respected.

There are things worse than death.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all in favor of our amazing techniques to bring someone back from the brink of death. Had this baby been in a car accident, obviously any extreme measures would be most welcome to keep her alive long enough for her body to heal and regain function.

But this baby’s body is not going to heal. Her brain stem will never grow. It will never function properly, according to the doctors’ own diagnosis. And yet they perpetuate this body’s life.

People comment that it is up to God, not us, to take a body. But God HAS BEEN trying to take her body. I am not saying that our medical abilities exceed the power of God, but if you believe in prayer, then aren’t actions a very concrete expression of our will, what we wish to see happening? Are we very naively asking for a person’s life to continue, and perhaps God is “allowing” our prayer to be answered, the way God “allows” all sorts of horrible things like murder, rape, torture. “Allowing” us to exercise our free will and then deal with the consequences later.

And if found guilty, this mother will have to deal with the consequences of what she’s done, legally and otherwise. I would never attempt to condone or make excuses for her alleged actions, but I also believe that the way a person has lived counts for something. There is ample evidence that she has been a devoted mother to both this baby and her 3 year old son, including this online website that she has maintained. It appears that she herself has suffered through a situation that few of us could handle and come out the other side with our sanity intact.

I can’t help but wonder, in the event that this crime really was committed, how her community might also be held responsible: was anyone making sure she got enough sleep, enough to eat? Was anyone making sure she didn’t need some mental health care? Is the medical establishment in any way responsible for having developed the ability to diagnose permanent defects, having developed procedures for keeping humans alive when their bodies are failing, but then refusing to resolve these two aspects so that families do not get caught in a nightmare of suffering?

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Filed under Life

Lincoln Inspiring American Heroes

Inspired by President Obama’s admiration of Abraham Lincoln, my daughter and I have been focussing some of our homeschooling efforts on learning about Lincoln’s life and his participation in American history.

This morning we watched “The Real Abraham Lincoln,” which I’d recorded off the National Geographic channel. I highly recommend it. Fascinating and accessible, even for a 6 year old! It helped that we had read a book about him yesterday so she was able to key into facts she recognized, little touchstones along the way.

What struck me today was how this man from humble beginnings made it so far. How he had the courage to face the conflict with the South, not knowing at the outset who might win.

Something I learned today was the context in which he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. As one of the commentating professors explained, this historic act occurred at a moment when Lincoln was freed by a dark hour of the war, when failure seemed a likely outcome. At this moment when there wasn’t much more to lose, he decided to make his boldest move and free the slaves. Apparently it was a “now or never” act, he had been waiting for the right moment and realized that, if the momentum of fate was truly on his side, then he would have to move forward and commit himself and the country to the profound change that he’d always wanted to see happen, to repair one of the glaring errors our founding fathers had neglected to fix, namely, the inhuman treatment and status of a large segment of the American population.

The connections with President Obama’s election are so deep that I can feel history happening now even as I watch how it happened back then. A black man finally residing in the White House. The desire to move towards a new unity, a more complete justice, a further validation of the rights of all citizens. A belief in the value and the dream of the United States of America. A willingness to dedicate one’s public and private life to serving one’s country. All these details link the two presidents by more than just the fact that President Obama studies Lincoln’s life and words.

The commentating professor also stated that one of the most important characteristics of Lincoln that led to his great success was believing in himself. After all, he ran for president directly after having lost two bids for the Illinois senate seat. A powerful reminder to us all that if we don’t stand behind our own dreams with our whole heart, then we are certainly doomed to be drowned in the inevitable, occasional failure that happens even to the greatest people who have ever lived.

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Filed under homeschooling

Renaming

My first lesson gleaned from studying Mark Morford‘s columns in the San Francisco Chronicle is how concisely he adds meaning by simply renaming things.

For example, in his column entitled “When History Spanks,” he talks about the Republican campaign team and refers to them once as “vile, cold-blooded tacticians” and then as “these Rove-trained dung-flingers.” Apart from the humorous element, renaming is also a tidy way to cram a lot of opinion into a quick statement. I can see a more clumsy writer saying instead, “The campaign team members, who were trained by Karl Rove to fling dung,…” Doesn’t pack the same punch.

To rename is to cleanly insert ideas and impressions without pausing to go down an explanatory side street.

Naming is a very powerful act. Think of how profoundly important it is to choose the name of a child or to be the first to discover a new species or star and have the honor of establishing its moniker. Imagine the god-like power of the people who “found” certain islands, rivers, mountains, and even though their own name may be forgotten, generations of people have referred to that particular chunk of earth by the title they designated.

To rename is to reclaim this power and use it to your own ends.

Gertrude Stein had this to say about nouns, which represent the basic act of naming: “Things once they are named the name does not go on doing anything so why write in the nouns.” Why, indeed, continue in one’s essay to refer to something or someone by a noun that has become an empty shell, like an anonymous finger pointing. Instead, assume the divine right of a writer to express the world as you see it, which includes the essential job of creating a fresh, revealing name to replace the old lifeless one.

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Filed under writing

Top Five: TV Cartoon Characters

Okay, time for something light and silly.

Dig deep into the past, unless perhaps you’ve had free time lately to ingest some animated goofiness, and reveal to the world which cartoon characters have made you really laugh?

Mine:
1. Daffy Duck
2. Bugs Bunny
3. Ren (of “Ren & Stimpy”)
4. Bart Simpson
5. Yosemite Sam

Okay, I’m a little Bugs-heavy, but hey, Mel Blanc was a freakin’ genius. If I could only watch one kind of cartoon ever again, it would definitely be Looney Tunes. (Every Saturday morning as a kid I used to watch the hour-long Looney Tunes cartoon show. Religiously.)

So which colorful character gets your funny bone in a spasm?

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Progress?

True to my promise, I have been trying to think of concrete ways that I can participate in this move forward that we as a country are attempting.

One big area that I used to participate in a lot but have lately slacked on severely is taking better care of the environment. I tend to blame my slide away from greenness on where I’m living now, and after my recent attempt to investigate local green possibilities, it does not appear that I will get away from this excuse any time soon.

Cycling – out of the question where we currently live. I’d be run over within a week.

Composting & Gardening – we want to move out of our current house as soon as humanly possible, so there is no point starting anything outside. Plus, there isn’t any room anyway, unless I started digging up the front lawn, which is going to seriously piss off the landlord.

Buying bulk – I used to do this a lot on the West Coast (Santa Cruz and Eugene). Yesterday I went to a local health food store and found pre-packaged bulk items, which kind of defeats the purpose of using re-usable bags to go fetch your bulk grains, flours, etc., which would thus cut down on packaging. It was a small store, so I politely inquired of the three employees standing around chatting in the empty store if they knew of any place locally that had bins where customers could bag their own foodstuffs. They looked at me as though I were insane. So that ain’t gonna happen.

On the brighter side, here are some green things that might work even though I am living in an extremely pale green community:

Cloth grocery bags – I already have three from my previous incarnation as someone who cared about the environment. I’m going to check at Goodwill for old curtains or some other kind of sturdy cloth which I can cut up and make into some more bags.

Produce bags – in the past I’ve made some little mesh bags to carry produce home in (although a lot of things like cucumbers I don’t even put in a bag anyway) so that I won’t have to use any more plastic bags. I will invest in some twine and get on that project.

Homemade foods – I should dedicate more time to making things homemade, such as bread, so that it will reduce the amount of wrappers and containers that must be thrown out. Although, since I can’t find bulk flour, I’m going to have to throw out the paper flour bags anyway… if we had a garden, I could have a burn barrel and use the ashes to cultivate the compost pile…

If, if, if if if ifififififififififi

Hey, it turned into Fifi. Fifi the if-angel, the one that takes all your goofy fleeting fantasies, turns them into chocolate chip cookies and drops them in your lap when you least expect it.

A girl can dream.

Dream green.

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Filed under society

“Baby Food”

I recently found, in the Jan. 19, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, an article entitled, “Baby Food” written by Jill Lepore. I got to this quote and it just about made me cry:

“When the babe, soon after it is born into this cold world, is applied to its mother’s bosom; its sense of perceiving warmth is first agreeably affected; next its sense of smell is delighted with the odour of her milk; then its taste is gratified by the flavour of it; afterwards the appetites of hunger and of thirst afford pleasure by the possession of their objects, and by the subsequent digestion of the aliment; and, lastly, the sense of touch is delighted by the softness and smoothness of the milky fountain, the source of such variety and happiness.”

No offense, I swear I’m not a genderist, but I can’t believe it was written by a man; in 1794, Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandpappy) included this passage in his “Zoonomia; or The Laws of Organic Life.” I feel like it so beautifully expresses the whole, multi-layered experience. I realize it is written from the perspective of the child, and I wasn’t ever breastfed, and most of us wouldn’t remember it if we were, but it reflects so well the feeling of total satisfaction and well-being that pervades every aspect of existence when a child nurses.

I really don’t understand bottle feeding.

And the gist of the article is how many women now decide to bottle feed their breast milk. Yes, I know: work, partying, vacation sans enfants. But I’ve had to use a pump (my first baby was premature) and lemme tell ya, it ain’t fun. It is the worst of both worlds.

Whereas, in my opinion, breastfeeding, you know, out of the breast, is the best and easiest.

Anyway, if you have the slightest interest in breastfeeding or children, check out the whole article.

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Filed under kids, society