Brave or (Possibly) Stupid

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the stupid from the brave.

Sometimes it’s little things. Spending $12 to enter a writing contest. Did I just waste $12? Do I have a chance of beating 230 other people to win the prize? 220 people to make it into the money? How can I stand it until the first cut is announced? Is the piece I submitted even close to what they were looking for?

But I did it. I paid my $12 and entered the contest. Stupid (possibly) and brave.

I was told I needed to have a medical treatment that terrified me. Did I really want someone to try something so drastic on me? What if all I got were side effects? What if I got no effects? What if I didn’t get myself back the way I used to be? Should I believe all the negatives I’d heard about it? Should I believe the positives?

I agreed to have it. Stupid (possibly) and brave.

Once upon a time I told someone that I loved him.

I knew the rules. In a casual relationship, never be the first to say it. But how long can you go feeling it but not saying it? What if he runs? What if you thought it might be welcome but afterward you feel like dirt? Couldn’t he have figured it out by this time? Was he not wanting to say it either? Or just not feeling it?

So I said it. Stupid (possibly) and brave.

No risk, no reward, they say. But there you are, hanging out on that cliff, looking over the edge, making the decision. Knowing that it’s brave but (possibly) stupid. That the reward may not be worth the risk, or that there may be no reward at all.

Except. Except taking that step off may mean that you fly. You could win. You could be cured. He could love you. If that’s the case, then not taking the step would be the stupid thing to do.

But you might fall. You might waste $12. You might be no better off, or even worse. He might laugh. Then you were brave but stupid.

How do you weigh bravery versus stupidity? Wasting $12 isn’t much of a gamble. Considering a risky medical procedure is. So is admitting your feelings. Does taking the small risks, being a little bit brave, prepare you for taking the big ones later? I’m not sure. Each risk must be weighed anew. You could still fall, every time.

But taking the leap and not failing puts you a little closer to doing it the next time. I would pay to enter another contest. I would consider another scary health option. I would talk of love.

None of those decisions has turned out exactly as I hoped – or as I feared. One was disappointing; one proved unnecessary; one was satisfying.

Have I been brave or stupid? The next time I have a choice, which will it be?

Statistically, some of my decisions are going to prove to be stupid. Historically, many of them have been. The next one may prove stupid too.

But, as one of my favorite authors said, “If you don’t bet, you can’t win.” That argues for bravery.

We all teeter on that cliff at one time or another. Fall, or be pushed, or leap. Or stay where you are. Which is brave? Which stupid?



For “Me Too” Women and “Not Me” Men

The “Me Too” campaign, in response to all the accusations, admissions, apologies, non-apologies, and political maneuvering, has had enormous effects. Women everywhere are opening up and sharing their stories of microagressions, unwanted attentions, assaults, and rape that many of them have never spoken of before. Most of the attention has gone to politicians and media figures, but the problem goes right down to every level of society.

I’m one of the women who has “Me Too” stories.

  • When I was delivering a job to a client at his home, he tried to kiss me on the lips. And my boss made light of it, wheedling me into saying I wasn’t afraid (I wasn’t) and that I wasn’t offended (I was), and telling the client that I wasn’t bothered by it. I suppose it came in the category of unwanted attentions, though technically it may have been at least battery.
  • Then there was the time that a different boss sat on my lap, just to make me uncomfortable. (He did.)
  • Another boss went around the business comparing the size of female employees’ breasts, including who should be in the “Itty Bitty Titty Club.”
  • And there was the guy who expected sex even though I was newly engaged at the time (one for the road, as it were), then stormed off in a huff after the “No.” (I’m glad that’s all he did.)

But I also have plenty of other stories – of men who were decent, gentlemanly, and reasonable, men who had my back when I needed it, men who respected my autonomy.

I don’t want to get into the “Not All Men” debate, or the “Now I can’t even make a pass” furor. I was challenged by my friend Diana to think about the good men in my life and celebrate them. And that’s what I’m doing here.

Let’s start with my father. One clear memory I have is of when I went to buy my first new car and he came with me. He looked at the cars with me, gave me advice on their mechanical soundness, and shared his experience of various models. I picked out my car (a blue Chevette) and he went with me to the sales office. The salesman asked my dad if he would co-sign the loan with me. And my dad said, “No.” Firmly but politely.

This was back in the day when young single women found it hard to get credit for a major purchase, especially if there was a man around who might take up the slack. But my father said, “No.” He believed that, since I had a job and was living on my own, it was my responsibility to make my own financial decision – and take responsibility for fulfilling it myself. Was I upset that he left the transaction up to me and the car dealer? I was proud.

Then there were the friends, male and female, in line with me at a restaurant. I objected to the racist and sexist decorations. The host replied, “If they really bother you that much, you could leave.” Did I just imagine the sneer in his voice?

“You’re right,” I said, turning on my heel and marching off down the street. When I finally looked back, every one of those in my party were following me, including the men. They literally had my back.

Or the work friend, whom I joined in after-hours putt-putt golf matches and card games at his house. He was a notorious horndog, but he never made a move on me – until the day that we were driving around and he confessed that he was interested. “But you haven’t even kissed me yet,” I replied. Then he did, once I had given him the go-ahead.

There have been men who accepted a “No,” without getting mad, or whining about the “friend zone,” or making me feel like dirt. There was even one, a big, tough guy who accepted a “No” when the interaction had reached the point of “heavy petting,” and held no grudge.

There have been men who accepted a “Yes,” without gloating or bragging or taking it for granted.

And then there’s my husband. We met under peculiar circumstances, in which I was stranded in a town miles from home (by a man who ran off with another woman, never giving a thought as to how I’d get home). Dan lent me money, drove me to the bus station, and gave me a bag of dried apples for snacking during the trip.

Since that time he has had my back every minute, under every circumstance, supporting me when I needed it, backing off when I needed to handle something myself. He has loved me when I was unlovable, cooperated when I was uncooperative. He’s literally supported me when I couldn’t work, and not resented when I could work and made more than he did. We’ve had our disagreements, but he always listened to my side – and sometimes changed his mind because of it. All in all, he’s an unusual man.

So either I’ve met a lot of unusual men and only a few jerks, or there are decent, reasonable, polite, and understanding men out there who get no publicity. Because where’s the newsworthiness (or entertainment value) in saying, “When I knew so-and-so, he treated me like a person. And I appreciated it”?

Adventures in Cat-Sitting

House-sitting is a great way to get away from home, relax, water a few plants, and scare off burglars who are frightened by lights turning on and off without a pattern.

Cat-sitting is an entirely different matter.

Most cats do all right if you leave them alone for a day or two – even a three-day weekend. Just set out extra food and water and maybe an extra litterbox (depending on how many cats you have). They’ll be fine. They’ll snub you when you get back, but they’ll be fine.

When you’ve got a special-needs cat, or your trip is longer, it’s a different story.

My friends were off to DisneyWorld for a ten-day stay and one of their cats is an insulin-dependent diabetic. I volunteered to sit house and cat. It was a house in a quiet country setting by a stream and the cats were pretty chill, even the diabetic one. Give him treats, I was told, and you can stick him easily. There were four of the critters, but I’ve had as many as five (I love cats), so I left our two in the tender care of my husband and headed for the north woods.

When I arrived, the cats assembled to sniff and greet me and I quickly discovered that they, having been described to me as “large,” were in fact small, medium, large and HUGE. (The small cat had somehow given birth to the other three, a feat I did not envy her in the least.)

P.J., my soon-to-be patient, flopped on his side and demanded a belly-rub. He was the large cat, easily 15 pounds. Maybe more. He was wearing a jaunty purple collar so I could tell him from his brother Red, the HUGE cat (upwards of 20 pounds, I would estimate). Both of them were orange tabbies and only a few pounds separated their heft.

The trial injection went well. I had experience giving cats subcutaneous fluids, which was one reason I was tapped for the job (the other being that I could do my work on the family’s computer instead of my own). Pinch up a fold of skin between the shoulder blades, stick the needle in, squirt, and voilà!

There was a packet of needles on the counter, a bottle of insulin in the fridge, and a handy sharps container for the used needles. Two water dishes and two food dishes, a huge plastic bin of dry cat food, four litter boxes, and several bags of treats stashed in the cabinet completed my cat-sitting kit.

For the most part, the cats ignored me. That was okay. Most cat owners are used to being ignored by their cats. On occasion, Red would accept an invitation to curl up on a blanket beside me on the sofa and allow me to stroke him, or demand treats. P.J. would do his belly-exhibiting routine on the dining room table, and Mama Cat and Vaughn (small and medium) wouldn’t give me the time of day.

Then one day, when I checked P.J.’s litter box (he had his own; he was the only cat in the household who would use the granules with an absorbent pad underneath them), I found a circle of pink around the yellow. Blood! I thought. I had instructions on what to do if the big boy looked lethargic and zoned out (rub corn syrup on his gums), but nothing had prepared me for this. Except when one of my own cats had a blocked urethra, which required surgery.

The vet’s number was on the refrigerator and on my list of instructions. But it was the weekend. I didn’t know if the vet’s office was open, or what the charge was for emergency visits, or where the cat carrier was, or whether I could get P.J. in it, or whether I could even pick up and carry the awkward thing with my bad back. (It was hard enough picking up Red when he wanted to be on the sofa but couldn’t be bothered to jump.)

Well, you all know what the next thing I had to do was: text DisneyWorld, or at least my friends there. They got back to me remarkably quickly (must have been waiting in a line). They discouraged me from running off to the vets and advised I just keep an eye on things, i.e., the pee-pad, and see whether P.J. pee-peed pink again. Or red. (Not Red.) Or some other color.

Two hours later I checked the pee-pad. Nothing. Not yellow, not pink. Nothing.

I had lunch. I checked the pee-pad. Nothing.

I did some work. I checked the pee-pad. Nothing.

I took a bath. I checked the pee-pad. Nothing.

By this time I was biting my nails. The next symptom of a blocked urethra is an inability to pee at all.

I checked the pee-pad. Nothing. I went to bed.

The first thing I did when I got up (after peeing) was check the pee-pad. There was pee and all was clear (or at least yellow).

Then P.J. flopped down on the dining room table and grinned at me.

Sometimes I hate cats.



The Not-So-Traditional Cookie Challenge

Make three different cookies – a dozen of each – inspired by your family holiday memories and traditions.

That was the assignment on a recent holiday baking show I watched.

It occurred to me that I would have failed miserably. It’s not that I can’t bake, or that I can’t bake cookies. I just have no family memories or traditions associated with cookies.

My family never baked at the holidays. Occasionally we’d get a tin or box of assorted cookies – chocolate and plain shortbreads, butter cookies, and so forth – that we kids called “kind-a-wanna cookies” because we could each choose the kind we wanted.

My mother’s baking exploits centered around box cake mixes, lemon meringue pies for my father (his favorite dessert), and slice-n-bake chocolate chip cookies. (I notice that now the company that makes these believes even slicing to be too much to task the modern baker with.)

I did have one holiday cookie-baking ritual in my teens, however. I would go over to my friend Peggy’s house and we would make either chocolate chip cookies (from scratch, no slicing involved) or sugar cookies.

The chocolate chip cookies were ones we had learned how to bake in home ec class and Peggy still had the original recipe on the original 3″ x 5″ index card. (I know she recopied the card when it became old and ragged, and I think she may have laminated it.) Actually, Peggy did the baking. I helped with the math (2/3 cup butter times 2 is 4/3 cup is 1-1/3 cups) and ate some of the raw cookie dough, this being back in the days before that was dangerous or if it was, we didn’t know it.

Our other holiday cookie tradition was Christmas sugar cookies. Again, these were from scratch and my assignment was to sprinkle the cut-out Santas and bells and stars with red and green sugar sprinkles. We’d listen to the radio (but not Christmas carols) and tuck the cookies lovingly away in colorful tin boxes with layers of wax paper. After eating just a couple ourselves, of course.

So, were I to be magically transported to a holiday baking contest, what could I make? Chocolate chip and sugar cookies, of course. Though I’d have to think up trendy flavors like bourbon-guava-cinnamon-chip cookies and sugar cookies adorned with fondant and gum paste and decorative isomalt shards.

But what would my third cookie be?

As a young adult, I had a recipe for a spice cake with raisins that I adored. Back in the day my friends and I were always broke, so I made small loaf pans of spice cake and my husband made miniature banana cakes from his Grammy’s recipe. So I suppose I  might have to fudge a little and make banana-spice cookies with raisins. (Fudge! Now there’s an idea!) Not a childhood memory, but sort of a family tradition, of a new family just starting out anyway.

I suppose I could make some kind of peanut butter cookie. That was one my mother did make from scratch, and I loved pressing the fork into the dough to make the criss-cross on top. (I suppose today we would call them “hashtag cookies.”) They’re not very “holiday,” but at least they represent a family memory.

Or, if I was a really accomplished baker, I could invent some kind of lemon-bar cookie with a toasted meringue on top, in honor of my father’s favorite, but non-holiday, pie. My mother would slip the pie into the oven to brown the meringue, but nowadays I see people using blowtorches. I still think of blowtorches as things that belong in the garage, though, not the kitchen.

No, this year I’ll do the same as ever. I don’t have children and Peggy’s son is now grown, but when she comes to town for the holidays, I fully expect we’ll both make time in our schedules for a cookie-baking fest. Chocolate chip cookies and sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles. They won’t win any competitions, but I can honestly say they are holiday traditions.



R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find out What It Means to Everyone

“Hello, Marvin,” I said, as I stepped to the front of the line at the polling place.

“Hello,” he said, looking puzzled. “Let’s see if I can remember your name.” He thought a minute.

“Janet,” I said. No light went on in his eyes. “Coburn,” I added.

“I know I must have seen you around somewhere.”

“Actually, no. I just read your name off your name tag and wanted to be friendly.”

“I forgot I was even wearing it,” he said.

* * *

My husband was working in the electronics department of the store. He saw a customer looking at the merchandise. She was apparently transexual, or in transition, or perhaps a transvestite.

“Hello,” Dan said, with a friendly expression on his face. “Is there something I can help you with?”

The woman seemed taken aback.

* * *

Dan also sees many customers from Arabic-speaking countries. He greets them the same way, then helps them as best he can, holding up items and doing his best at understanding heavily accented English.

Those customers always come back. Sometimes, late at night, they talk to Dan, compliment him on his full, lush beard, and introduce him to their friends.

* * *

I was walking through the university’s Student Union building, leaning on my cane. Tired, I tried to take a seat on a convenient chair, but missed my landing and fell to the floor.

Instantly, a group of young women appeared at my side, expertly hoisted me into the chair, and offered to get me juice or a hot, comforting beverage. (I was a bit shaky after my tumble.)

When I assured them I was fine, they returned to the juice bar or went off to class, with no fuss or fussing. It was a big deal to me, but seemed just another event to them.

* * *

Not so long ago, there was a vogue for “random acts of kindness” – helping unknown recipients by putting a coin in an expiring parking meter or paying for the next person in line at the toll booth. And these were indeed nice things to do. They did add a little kindness to the world. Largely, they were anonymous.

What I would like to see in the world, however, are random acts of respect – using a person’s name, waiting on all customers with an attentive expression and welcoming word, helping a fallen stranger.

In fact, these shouldn’t be random acts of respect. Ideally, they should be everyday occurrences, practiced by everyone. We know that’s not going to happen, or at least not anytime soon.

So for now, let’s concentrate on “random.” Just try it whenever you think about it, or once a day. Use a person’s name – even if it annoys you when a server tells you hers, don’t summon her by saying, “Hey, waitress!” Say “Thank you” to the baggage attendant that just lifted your 50-lb. suitcase, even if you’re furious that you had to pay extra for it. Smile and nod at the worker who cleans your hotel room as you pass her in the hall. Shake hands when you’re introduced to the young person with blue hair and sleeve tats.

Do it because it will surprise someone. Do it because it will make someone feel good. Do it because you’re a good person. Do it because your mother told you to be polite. Do it because it’s the only lift a person may get all day. Do it because the people you meet every day deserve respect and too often don’t get it. Do it because we’re all human beings, sharing the planet.

And say “thanks” or nod and smile when someone shows respect to you. You deserve it too. Then keep the chain going.

Practice won’t make perfect. But it will make better. Help. Greet. Smile. Thank. Look at someone when you talk to him. To quote a different song, “Little things mean a lot.”

Three Ways to Revise Your Writing

There is no writing. Only rewriting.

I’ll admit that in high school and college I used to sit down at my typewriter (yes, I’m that old) and knock out a piece of writing that I would turn in unrevised except for typos. (Thank God for Corrasable Bond and Wite-Out.) And I skated through somehow.

But now that I write and edit for a living, I know the value – the necessity – of rewriting. I checked my blog posts and they average six different versions before I post them each week. Some of those revisions are only a word or two here and there, or a better title or an illustration, but many changes are more significant.

The three main types of revision I do are to add, cut, and rearrange.


By adding, I don’t mean padding. Hardly anyone pays by the word anymore, so there’s no need to bump up your word count on that account. But there are legitimate reasons to add to the text you’ve written. Here’s an example:

Nicky and Spike, trotting now, plunged deeper under the dim canopy of trees. A light sweat on the boy’s forehead and the dog’s rhythmic panting mixed with the early evening’s chill, a seesaw between warm and cool. A few newly fallen leaves scuffed underfoot, reminding him of the sound of rattling papers and the dusty scent of school.

This is a piece of fiction I was writing. In the original I used visual words like “dim”; sound words like “panting”; and even touch words like “sweat,” “chill,” “warm,” and “cool.”  In the sentence I added, I beefed up the sound words (“scuffed,” “rattling”) and added a smell – “dusty scent of school.” Smell is one sense that often gets overlooked in description. In a later scene, I described a garage mechanic’s shop using mostly smell words – “There was the distinct tang in the air entering my nostrils: grease, fuel, ozone, and some solvent that smelled like nail polish remover but probably wasn’t.”

Of course, sensory description can come in to play in nonfiction as well, but more often nonfiction needs supporting points to bolster a thesis, such as arguments or examples or sentences that extend a thought.


Back in the day, there were two kinds of cutting often required. The first was surgical editing, snipping a word (usually “very”) or even an ending here and there to bring up a widow or orphan in typesetting. (Yes, I am that old.) The other was slash-and-burn cutting, removing entire sentences and paragraphs when an author had overwritten the space allocated. When you have a specific word count, be it 300 words or 3000, you may very well have to cut.

Here’s one case in which I had to cut:

But let’s get back to (advertising. It’s bad enough that large men can’t find clothing to fit and flatter them, but onscreen they’re invisible.) real life. The plus-size men I know don’t even have a clue where they can find underwear that fits.

The text I cut is in parentheses and the words I added to take their place are in bold. When I looked at the paragraph, I realized that I was no longer talking about TV, so I ditched the part about on-screen ads and brought the discussion back to lived experience.


Finally, there is changing the order of sentences or paragraphs – rearranging. This can be triggered by pragmatic as well as aesthetic concerns. In one piece I wrote, I discussed pantyhose, hair coloring, and packaging. The best visual I could find for the piece was one of packaged fruit. Voilà! The piece became one about packaging concerns, hair coloring, and pantyhose. (If you wonder how all those worked together, you can find it at

Another post started with the title “Does It Help When Celebrities Talk About Mental Illness?”

The first and second sentences were:

It usually doesn’t hurt.

(Except when it’s someone like Andrew Tate, of course.

I continued:

But how much does it help?

And then it occurred to me that the order was wrong. The intro should read:

It usually doesn’t hurt. But how much does it help?

So I rearranged it. But that left the Andrew Tate sentence hanging. So I cut it. Unless the reader already knew about the Tate incident, it was meaningless, and expecting the reader to go look it up was an imposition.

There are many other techniques of revision – unburying the lead, starting in media res, strengthening the flow of a piece, switching from third person to first – and ones that apply more to fiction or nonfiction (or poetry for that matter). But a fair amount of the revising you do will be a variant of one of these three techniques: adding, cutting, and rearranging.

The Big and Tall Blues

While I am pleased to see that “curvy” (plus-size) women are being featured in clothing and retailer ads on TV, and encouraged to accept – nay, celebrate – their figures, I have noticed a certain lack.

Where are all the plus-size men?

Well, we all know the answer to that. They’re on TV commercials as the butt of every joke, the loser in every office, the fall guy in every set-up. Or they’re dancing in a manner destined to spark derision. (Never mind that Drew Carey proved on the intro to his sitcom that hefty guys can bust a move.)

But in clothing commercials or ads for retailers that carry clothing? Nary a big guy to be found.

It should be noted that this merely reflects the reality of shopping. If a store has a “big and tall” section, it usually caters to tall and defines “big” as topping out at 3X (and those are always sold out, which should tell retailers something).

Then there are the b-and-t shops, which charge a hefty (sorry) premium for larger sizes. C’mon, it’s not like a few extra inches of fabric costs that much. If shoe manufacturers can afford the extra leather, canvas, or whatever for wide sizes, why do larger Dockers cost $50-75? (And that’s the last time I shopped. It could be even higher now.)

And while we’re on the subject, think of the difficulty I had finding a stock photo to illustrate this post. What I got when I searched were images of Santa; rednecks with shotguns; and men eating giant, dripping burgers or pizza. (Most of them had beards, too, which apparently are correlated with weight in someone’s mind.)

But let’s get back to real life. The plus-size men I know don’t even have a clue where they can find underwear that fits. They go from Target to Penney’s to Sears, only to find a dearth of options. It’s like large men are being urged to go commando. And if they do find undies that fit, they invariably are plain white. (Though this is a flaw in women’s undergarments as well. What, do you run out of flowers and stripes at size 10?)

What does this leave? Internet shopping, of course. And the price and selection problems persist there as well. At least women have sites like eShakti where we can have fashionable styles tailored to our dimensions, at only a nominally higher cost, and can find ready-made plus sizes in flattering and diverse designs (and by flattering, I don’t mean just vertical stripes).

Wait. Where was I? Oh, yes. Plus-size men’s clothing. The men’s rights movement has appeared not to have noticed the lack of clothing choices and the insulting ads, being more vigilant about custody decisions and uppity feminists, but they perhaps ought to take a lesson from the women who are working for body-positive fashion choices.

Until large men (let’s be clear here – fat boys get aware and vocal about their limited choices, unequal representation, and demeaning depictions, they will have to live with the choices that the fashion and retailing industries give them. And that’s a meager diet.

I have known, and admired, and lusted after large men. I just wish they had something decent to wear.

Science Madness

The problem these days is not so much “mad scientists” as people who are mad at science.

Where did the Mad Scientist come from? Arguably it was Mary Shelley’s horror novel Frankenstein, published in 1818. Science fiction classics like Jules Verne’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) kept up the theme and the “Golden Age” of science fiction provided many more examples.

In these novels, scientists either tampered with things better left alone or succumbed to a lust for power. Death rays and the precursors of gene splicing abounded. The outcome was mostly dreadful, except for those few gallant hero scientists who managed to save Earth from a deadly plague/alien/monster/giant something/tomato.

While the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s were the heyday of mad scientists in fiction, they also constituted a time when real scientists were heroes. The atomic bond ended WWII in the Pacific. Polio was conquered. The U.S. space program began. (So did the “Space Race,” what with the Soviets and their Sputnik.)

Back then, scientists were revered.

Later on, not so much.

There was the conflict between science and religion, way back before Mary Shelley warned us about “playing God.” Galileo and Kepler removed us from our God-given place in the center of the universe, and Darwin implied that we were just another animal. The Earth suddenly became billions of years old,  circling a mediocre star.

Then there was fallout, both literal and figurative, from the atomic bomb. Medical science gave us thalidomide. NASA spent billions of dollars, with no guaranteed payoff. Science didn’t seem like such a good deal after all.

And that led to changes in the general public’s attitude toward science.

By the ’60s. medicine was under fire from those who found Eastern philosophy and natural healing just as good, or better. Physicists were condemned for the same atomic bomb for which they had been lauded. (Even Einstein took a hit over that.)

And there’s some truth to the complaints. Many scientists believed that math, physics, and chemistry were all. If it didn’t have numbers attached to it, forget it. Psychology, sociology, anthropology, and most other -ologies were “soft sciences,” barely sciences at all. Hard sciences ruled. Special relativity and moral relativity butted heads.

Slowly, the ground under science had shifted. Now science was the enemy, the domain of elitists and narcissists and people who felt they were entitled by their intellect to run the world.

Of course, the stereotypes from early science fiction had nothing to do with that.

But the Average Man (and Woman) had a bone, or at least a fossil, to pick with science and scientists. Again, science was denying what people believed.

People believed in the efficacy of non-Western medicine, or at least the non-efficacy of Western medicine. Science believed in genetics and stem cells and cloning.

People believed in souls and the spiritual realm. Scientists believed in the measurable.

People believed in religion. Science believed in science.

You can see where this is heading – right back to the days when science meant slime monsters and scary aliens and death rays. Because what, after all, is the distance between growing human organs and creating life in the lab, between a cloned sheep and a half-man-half-fly, between a laser-guided missile and a death ray?

And many scientists are arrogant, dismissive of popular opinion, and unwilling to engage in dialogue with opposing viewpoints. “Because I said so,” seems to be enough for them.

Unfortunately, “because I said so” seems to be enough for the general populace as well. (Or “because the Bible, or David Avocado Wolfe, or Jenny McCarthy said so.”)

Unfortunately, everyone is shouting and no one is listening.

Personally, I am a sometimes science geek as well as a word nerd, thanks to high school chemistry and physics, college astronomy, and lots of reading. I don’t think science knows it all, and it’s a long way from figuring it all out. I also think that psychology and spirituality and art have a lot to teach us about the human condition and our place in the universe.

If only we didn’t have all these mad scientists and people mad at scientists mucking things up.



I Am a GPS

The other day I was musing on all the things I’ve been in my life – daughter, wife, student, college graduate, cashier, editor, writer, blogger, and more. But I realized there were more roles, ones that I acquired because my husband assigned them to me.

Unfortunately, my husband is topographically challenged, so I have to be his GPS. I know it’s not his fault; he just doesn’t have those little magnetic bits in his head that tell him how to go around a city block and know where he is, or to reverse-engineer directions so he knows how to get back from wherever he’s gone.

As a consequence, I have to go with him to the plant store, the KFC, and even the airport (north or south on the main highway?), despite the fact that he’s lived here for over 30 years.

I bought him an actual GPS once but he refused to use it because I refused to set it up for him.

Another role was Dictionary. Well, and Thesaurus too. Let’s just say that spelling is not his strong point. He used to love amazing his co-workers by dialing a number, saying, “Dictionary,” and getting an automatic definition or spelling.

Of course this spilled over into his college work, when I also became his copy-editor as well as speller. And sometimes his content editor as well. (He did write the papers himself. He earned that degree.)

Once when he had to be out of town I even went to his class and took notes for him. (One guy in the class was so impressed he said I was the best wife in the world.) Luckily, it was a religion class, not a math class.

My husband returned the favor. When it was my turn in college and I was writing a paper on William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens (my “Willie and Wally” paper), Dan went through the indexes of every book I took from the library and put a sticky note at each reference.

(I know another couple who put each other through college, working menial jobs while the other studied. I was impressed, at least until they divorced.)

But the role I hate most is snooze alarm. If he asks me to wake him up at 3:30 (which I maintain is the clock’s job), and I do, he’ll say, “Give me another half an hour.” Then ten more minutes. Like I dispense time, or sleep. I used to be the ATM, too, and dispense $20 bills.

I can’t complain too much about my husband, though. He has definite roles too, prime among them Picker Up of Icky Things. No matter if it’s something hairy in the back of the fridge or something dead in the driveway, it’s in his domain.

I know every good marriage is a matter of give and take, and that couples do well who share their strengths and weaknesses. But honestly, the clock has an actual snooze alarm, and I can pick up icky things if given tongs and a shovel (unless they’re also smelly, which is when I call for help).

At least I don’t have to be the ATM anymore. My husband figured out how to work one of those.

The Nature of Terrorism

According to the definition of “terrorism,” we have some pretty half-assed terrorists out there.

Merriam Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” Another definition says: “a surprise attack involving the deliberate use of violence against civilians in the hope of attaining political or religious aims.”

And the word terrorist is defined as “a person, group, or organization that uses violent action, or the threat of violent action, to further political goals….”

What’s missing from terrorism as spoken of by the media, politicians, and the general public? The goal. The coercion. Especially when discussing “domestic terrorism,” most of the examples have no goal. When no goal can be accomplished or even named, what you have is crime, not terrorism.

Oh, certainly some of them have goals – pointless, ineffective ones. The 9/11 attacks had a goal of destabilizing U.S. political, military, and financial structures. In that sense, it was terrorism. But as a goal, it was poorly thought-out. Political, military, and financial power in the U.S. are simply too complex and decentralized to be destroyed or even much hindered by destroying a symbol of that power.

Destroy the Pentagon and military power remains (not that the bombers succeeded in destroying the Pentagon). Destroy the World Trade Center and American capitalism carries on. Eliminate the White House and structures exist for the government to continue. While those events were powerful as symbols, as attempted coercion, they had the opposite of the effect intended. They did not weaken U.S. power; if anything, they increased it.

Goals of more “successful” terrorist actions have been more precise, and more effective. The terrorist acts of the Irish Republican Army resulted in the release from prison of members of their organizations. The domestic Islamic terrorism of the Taliban caused women in Afghanistan to abandon jobs and other freedoms for fear of violence against them. The violence and threat of more violence coerced them into altering their behavior.

Compare the lack of effectiveness of “Islamic terrorism” in the U.S. Any Sharia law enacted? No. Any convicted prisoners freed? Any populations so terrorized that they abandon former freedoms and daily routines? These shootings and bombings have been crimes, but not actual terrorism. Or at least not terrorism successful in its objectives.

And what of “lone-wolf” terrorism in the U.S.? (Let’s remember that Timothy McVeigh was not a lone wolf. He had accomplices. And they caused terrible death and destruction, but not terror in the sense of attempted coercion.) David Koresh’s Branch Davidians did not have an apparent goal. They caused fear for the people held hostage and for the lives of the government representatives trying to remove them from their compound. But they posed no real threat to the ATF, the U.S. government, or the population of Waco, TX – only to themselves and their children. The Unabomber’s schizophrenic efforts seemed random to anyone who could not follow his demented logic, because they were, indeed, random and unhinged.

The anthrax scare was perhaps the most ineffective of all. While ostensibly targeting the media and the Congress (again, to what supposed effect?), they primarily caused terror among tabloid mailroom employees and assistants who open mail for higher-ups. Fear, maybe. Terror, no. There were no demands, no goals, no proposed change in potential victim behavior.

In the U.S., the most “successful” terrorist actions have been those against abortion clinics and gay meeting places. Abortion clinics have not been eliminated (at least by bombings and shootings), but employees have in response to the death and destruction quit their jobs or instituted complex and expensive security measures. Bombings and shootings at gay night clubs and hate crimes against individuals, for example, have not eliminated the gay population, of course, but they may have had a chilling effect on the gay community and their willingness to speak up, gather in public, and feel secure in public spaces.

And what of other “terrorist” attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing? Did that event have its desired effect of bringing attention to the situation in Chechnya? No. What does the citizen-on-the-street know about Chechnya? Any more than before? That bombing and other attacks have been expressions of impotent rage, futile protests, and deadly crimes, but they have not been terrorism.

Calling these actions “terrorism” gives them a power they do not have. Terrorism is meant to alter the everyday behavior of people or institutions. To some small extent, they have done that. Americans are more vigilant, more suspicious, more angry, but not more ready to give in to the goals (if any) of the terrorists. That suspicion and anger are in many cases too widespread and likewise devoid of specific achievable goals, but they are certainly not effects that supposed terrorists intended.

The terrorists have not won. Yes, they’ve killed and maimed and destroyed property and lives, strained our resources, and made us unreasonably fearful. But they’ve hardly accomplished anything.