Monday, March 31, 2008

Books that Got Away

I love Belle Lettre's post on "the book that got away" - that book that you started reading but could never quite finish. Belle mentions The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, which made me want to read it again (I adore Ishiguro, and I have a special fondness for the utterly strange, utterly frustrating Unconsoled). But evidently, The Unconsoled is also my "book that got away" in the literal, rather than figurative sense, because my copy is nowhere to be found. (Any of you have it, incidentally?)

But I very much sympathize with the concept of the book that got away, because I'm rather irrationally obsessive about finishing books that I start, so the ones that I don't finish nag at me for years as well. Anna Karenina I put aside because it just isn't suited for subway reading, and never quite got around to picking it back up. Notes from the Underground, even though I really want to like it, I actually find awful and tedious - but I remain convinced (why, I have no idea) that if I just finish the thing depths will be revealed that will speak meaningfully to me. Or if not depths, perhaps acceptance that my Dostoyevsky moment has passed.

Strangest, perhaps, of my books that got away are The Savage Detectives and The People's Act of Love. Both of these books I enjoyed immensely, yet nevertheless quit reading about halfway through. I wonder if I felt they were somehow too good to finish - that I was becoming so caught up in them, I couldn't bear the inevitable loss that would come when I finally reached the end. Better, perhaps, to leave them out there as possibilities, the title and page number resting permanently on my to-do list as though I'd just stepped away from them for a bit.


Noted in the City

Reading the news crawl playing on the TV screen city cabs are now required to have, I would say that a good two out of three of the headlines dealt with criminal activity and/or serious bodily injury. I certainly understand the urge to scare off the tourists, but I thought New York was all about the warm and cuddly image nowadays...


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Too Many Loraxes (or Why I am Deeply Dubious about Everyone's Health Care Plan)

M. LeBlanc posts an observation on how many more medications are available without a prescription in France than in the US at Bitch Ph.D.'s blog, and the resulting comments thread is, I think, a good illustration of why health care debates in this country tend to be so unproductive.

The discussion starts off wondering if Big Pharma's money isn't responsible for the various roadblocks that exist to getting access to basic medications like antibiotics and birth control pills. A bit into the comments, somebody suggests that doctors are responsible, as they obviously make money being gatekeepers for prescription drugs. Then, somebody shows up to explain the pharmacists' interests, and somebody else defends doctors and blames trial lawyers.

The problem is that all of these groups - doctors, lawyers, drug companies, pharmacists, regulators, even insurance companies - all claim to be speaking on behalf of the interests of consumers, but nowhere in the process do you get much in the way of actual consumers speaking on behalf of consumers.

It's not that I think any of these groups are ill-intentioned, necessarily (though I am extrordinarily dubious about insurance companies). I suspect that even at big pharma, the majority of employees are proud of and motivated by making drugs that help sick people become healthier. It's just that they all have a strong tendency to see the consumers' i nterest most clearly where it intersects with their own.

Now, obviously, experts are experts for a reason, and I don't think all of health care policy should be put up for popular referendum. But it seems to me that something like how to organize access to commonly used medications would be a good issue to put to the general public, because there's obviously a lot of workable middle ground between some sort of completely unregulated libertarian utopia, and our current regime where doctors are the only gatekeepers for most all the good stuff.

But instead, we find ourselves playing the "guess which interest group is responsible for this silly state of affairs" with regard to our medical system, and the thing is, nobody's health care plan involves a strategy to decrease interest group influence. Instead, they all involve making sure everyone gets enough of the pie to keep them from torpedoing the plan, making sure that the squabbling will continue unabated and consumers' interests will continue to get drowned out in the shuffle.

But this article in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine about a website that encourages people to share their detailed experiences treating their serious, chronic diseases offers an interesting model for one way that people can educate themselves about their health problems, and take a more participatory approach towards their treatment. And also, perhaps eventually a way to involve more consumer voices in the debate on health care policy?

Grouch, Grouch

The Kirov Ballet is coming to New York in April and, aside from several all-Forsythe evenings, the program is about as exciting as warm milk - without even a single full-length classical or modern work. Now that a major international company should tour with a program devoted entirely to a living artist (an another evening devoted to an artist who was alive within my lifetime) says worlds about why the ballet world is healthier than that of, say, opera. But this trend towards excerpting full-length dramatic works irks me, in large part because what tends to get lost is the drama - leaving just the pretty costumes and virtuosity.

For instance, the fourth act of La Bayadere (one of the excerpts on the program) is supposed to represent the guilt-ridden opium dream of a man who has inadvertently driven his true love to her death. In context, the 32 identically-dressed women dancing in perfect unison represent some of the best choreography written ever for the corps de ballet, but they're also really, really creepy - 32 copies of his lost love come to haunt his dreams, and no way to identify the real one. Out of context, the whole thing plays like a courtship, not the ghostly reproduction of one that it's supposed to be.

I wish people would take the grand romantic and classical ballets a bit more seriously, all together. Yes, they're sometimes rather mannered, but there's an incredibly rich vocabulary of emotion and symbolism there for anyone who cared to mine it a bit more carefully.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Spring? Perhaps? Finally?

This weekend I spotted the first blooming things of the season - a few shivering daffodils, and several patches of pale purple crocuses. Though the weather is still chilly and windy and the trees resolutely bare, at least the clouds and rain have stayed away for several days in a row. I am contemplating expressing a belief in spring, but those few delicate, valiant blossoms still seem so vulnerable to attacking snow flurries or freezing rains.

It's more than the end of gray skies, bare trees, and dead grass that I'm craving. I want it to be warm. I want the freedom to walk outside without a coat and scarf and umbrella. I want to ride my bike to the library on a whim, take my Sunday cup of tea to drink on a bench in the park at the end of the street, stroll at sunset along the river without hunching my shoulders against the wind. So many times this month I've said, "As soon as it's warm, I will." Always soon, it seems, never now.

My mother's yard is awash in blooming things: the apple tree, plum trees, bottlebrush, camellias, pansies, poppies, marguerites, azaleas, even the gladiolas have joined the general exuberance, despite being very out of season.

March is always when I miss California the most.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Last Spitzer Post, I Promise

So I was going to write something about how despite all the online discussions about whether Silda Wall Spitzer is hot or not, nobody seems to find it relevant that Eliot Spitzer is balding and has features kind of like a gargoyle. Then I came across this New York Times article which is

The latest model is the familial crisis facing Silda Wall Spitzer, corporate lawyer, mother of three daughters and, most pointedly, wife of Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned after revelations that he had been paying for prostitutes. In conversations and throughout the blogosphere, wives at great remove have imagined what they would do if they were in her shoes, even as they hastened to add that those shoes would never, ever fit.

Except, of course, for those rueful, former Cinderellas who know better.

I love the way that Eliot Spitzer's infidelity turns into Silda Spitzer's familial crisis. It's one of those framings that masquerades as choice and empowerment (now she gets to choose if she stays or leaves) but is really about work. The Times article goes on to describe various strategies for dealing with infidelty, but the common theme is that it's the wife's job to figure out where the marriage is going to go from there. Husbands, the article seems to say, are like kids who break a glass to get out of washing the dishes. "Oops! I broke our vows here, honey. You better take care of the marriage from now on."

Throughout the article, it's the woman who does the forgiving, initiates counseling, explains to the kids what's happening, starts divorce proceedings, and of course, is left caring for the kids alone when the marriage goes belly-up. Which is, of course, only reflecting the division of labor society still universally enforces. Even those outlets with enough reticence to avoid saying it's her fault for failing to keep him satisfied, it's still unquestioningly her mess to clean up.

(And, gotta love the extra dose of fearmongering the Times throws in to the whole brew as well. You may think you man would never cheat, but how can you ever be sure, huh?)

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And This is Supposed to be a Defense?

This article in Slate purports to be a defense of Eliot Spitzer, but it nevertheless manages to encapsulate everything I found dubious about his approach. The key quote:

Many of those who ran afoul of Spitzer failed what I call the Parents' Night Test. Even if certain practices are commonly accepted in your industry or circle of friends (like going to strip joints) and are plausibly legal—or clearly illegal but rarely prosecuted (like running an NCAA betting pool in the office)—would describing these practices to your kid's kindergarten teacher embarrass you and your spouse, cause other parents to place junior on the no-play-date list, and spur the headmaster to rue the day he accepted your child?

If someone stood up at a Parent's Night I attended and announced which of the fathers (or mothers - let's not be heteronormative) had been seen in a strip club in the past year, I wouldn't applaud. I'd launch a suburban-style Stop Snitchin' campaign. Spitzer's campaign is not as obviously appalling since corporate privacy means something different than individual privacy, but there are still several issues with Spitzer's approach.

It's one thing to shame people for unethical but not illegal. It's another to use the threat of an expensive lawsuit to extort an expensive settlement for this sort of behavior. Government prosecutors exist to prosecute crimes, not arbitrate reputations.

While it's tempting to applaud Spitzer's hard-edged "we'll bury you under legal bills, even if we don't really think we can win our case" approach when it's aimed at companies like Merrill Lynch, the most common application of this sort of tactic is by large companies against much smaller ones, with chilling effects in areas such as fair use and patent law. I'm highly dubious that normalizing bullying - even if one claims to only bully other bullies - is the best way to help out the rest of us.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Obligatory Comments on Scandal du Jour

Blah blah blah Eliot Spitzer blah prostitute blah scandal blah blah hypocrisy blah blah victimless crime private matter blah blah blah.

All that said, how entitled do you have to be to be to a) frequent high-priced escorts b) as a governor of New York c) whose marquee accomplishment in the office to date has been the acquisition of a number of high profile and powerful enemies d) and who built his career on the public exposure and humiliation of those he opposed e) including others who frequented high-priced escorts and f) engaged in the sort of financial shennanigans he himself used in an attempt to cover up his predilection and g) nevertheless think something this juicy will stay secret?

And, is it incoherent for me to think this says something not particularly flattering about his character that could perhaps be relevant to his qualifications to hold the governorship, even though in an ideal world I think this ought to have remained something for he and his wife to work out, privately? (Of course, in my ideal world, there wouldn't be the stink of hypocrisy about the whole thing since prostitution wouldn't be a matter for the criminal courts in the first place.)

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008


I haven't seen the final season of The Wire yet (I watch the TV series as it comes out on DVD) but I've found the first four seasons,besides saying a number of painful things about class in America, present the most compelling argument against our current drug prohibition regime I've ever encountered. And, the show does all this while being fantastic entertainment - a suspenseful police procedural overlaid with pitch-black gallows humor and enough tragic hubris to launch a dozen wailing Greek choruses. Now, the creators of The Wire have come out advocating jury nullification as a weapon to fight against the war on drugs.

While I recognize that jury nullification has had a troubled history (to say the least), I'm still incredibly pleased to see them take this stand. Of course, other commenters have pointed out that jury nullification isn't as simple as refusing to convict...many jurisdictions eliminate potential nullifiers in voire dire and committing perjury goes beyond nullification (though certainly one can argue, and I would agree, that it could still be justified). Nevertheless, even though the article doesn't go as far as suborning perjury, I think it does point out that citizens are not sheep, nor are individual actions meaningless.

Radley Balko suggested that laws making jury nullification explicit are a key first step in the fight against the War on Drugs, but frankly I think we'll see heroin sold by Walgreens before we'll see legislatures endorse jury nullification. While there are certainly more robust theoretical justifications for enforcing and obeying laws with which one disagrees, I believe the most common vulgar rationalization tends to follow a basic line of "I agree to respect the body of laws in its totality because I wish others to follow laws with which they disagree but I support." According to the common understanding, jury nullification violates this basic contract - I certainly believe jury nullification can be just, but I don't see how a legal system that includes the ability to selectively decline to enforce laws with which one disagrees can be perceived as fair by the majority of participants.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Endlessly clicking "refresh" on the results page is failing to make the Texas and Ohio vote counting go any faster, so I've collected some of my favorite recent links regarding Obama.

From Edge of the American West, quoting Obama advisor Samantha Power:
He’s acutely conscious of the loss of US standing in the world...and the need to recover it in a hurry, so first acts will be closing Guantanamo, renouncing torture etc., and trying to embed ourselves again back in the international system.

From Timothy Burke:
...this is very much how I understand some of Obama’s emphasis on bipartisanship. Not as centrism, but as a desire to reconstruct processes of consultation, to remove politics as much as possible from those aspects of governance that need to at least strive for neutrality, to firewall off partisan calculation from ordinary administrative work.

From Verbal Privilege
As appalling as our current domestic political shortcomings are, I cannot grant them the same moral weight as the terrible impact of American foreign policy—above all, the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terror—on people who have no voice in the democratic process in this country.

This is the first election I can remember where I've actively rooted for a presidential candidate, rather than simply against one of their opponents. After nearly seven years of feeling helpless and discouraged by the direction our country has taken - our willingness to spy on, lock up, torture, and kill in a misguided quest for security - I finally feel, yes, hopeful that we can change our course, and motivated to go out and fight for that change.

Currently, Obama is barely hanging on to a lead in Texas. Here's hoping it sticks...

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