Monthly Archives: March 2011

Sociology and HGTV

Toilet Stainless Steel Vessel Sink standing on...Image via Wikipedia

Watching the couples who own homes or who are shopping for homes on HGTV can be quite informative. You can often see which partner is the dominant one in the relationship. You can see how much women still blame men if they are not handy. You can also see how many people begin projects and either run out of steam or run out of skills before they finish. There are awful looking rooms all over America and Canada; gutted kitchens, unusable baths, bizarre basements, master bedrooms without walls.

Most of the women on HGTV claim that they do not cook. In some cases the women imply that the kitchen will belong to the man. In some cases it seems that neither the woman nor the man cooks and heaven knows what these people do for meals. Even though they don’t cook all appliances must be stainless steel and top of the line, countertops must be granite or marble, and, whether you cook or not, you need custom cupboards.

Touring or renovating bathrooms brings out lots of private peeks at how couples negotiate their division of this prime piece of real estate. If there are not double sinks then usually the woman gets the sink in the main bathroom by default. Hopefully there is another, secondary bathroom that the man can use for his ablutions. People are always getting into bathtubs together or showers, but they are not usually suggestive about it, thank goodness.

Closets and laundry rooms belong to women; garages, basements and yards belong to men. If there are two walk-in closets in the master, the male may be allotted some space in one of the closets. If there are two smaller closets they become hers and hers. If the closets get too small they don’t buy the house.

Americans looking for houses in Europe or Asia or various tropical islands consistently reveal that no matter how much people may claim they want to go native, they don’t. People are always excited to get an oven in a tropical country although they will probably never use it. You can see the struggle the real estate agent is having trying to find American amenities in a place that is not America.

A number of gay couples (often men) appear on HGTV, but they do not seem to go through these same rituals as the two sex couples. I do not mean to leave them out of the discussion but they must do their negotiations off-camera.

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Both reactors and cooling towers at the Susque...Image via Wikipedia

This sorry saga of the six Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors plays out each day in the news and pushes all our worst case scenario nuclear energy buttons. The reactor explodes (multiple times). The radiation escapes. The radiation gets into the air. The radiation gets into the soil. The radiation gets into the water. We haven’t gotten to the one where the radiation poisons everything and everyone yet, but no one seems to have a grasp on what will happen, when it will stop, how to stop it, or what the long term effects will be.

It seems impossible that the heroic workers at the reactors will get out of this unscathed or even alive. What about the people who still live near the reactors? They should have been told that evacuation would be a good idea long before they were. In America, say lawsuit. How will these people be affected? Where will they go?

Once the radiation gets into the soil, water, and air it gets into the food supply. How will Japan ever recover from this? When will they recover? Will they keep the radiation from infiltrating the ocean?

I was quite certain that we did not have a clue what to do in a serious nuclear reactor failure. That I was apparently right is not giving me a great deal of personal satisfaction. We will all watch this play out with great trepidation because this chain of events could happen here. I wish we could shut down all the world’s nuclear reactors until we figure this out. It is potentially too toxic, and there are no true remedies. I also know we are unlikely to abandon nuclear power right now when we need to lessen and end our dependence on fossil fuels. So, yikes!

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It’s Alive!

Advertisers must have found that the most effective way to sell anything is to make it take human form. How can we continue to eat M&M’s now that they have figured out that they are not invited guests but are on the menu? How can we force them to be snack food when they defy us and tell us to “get in the bowl”? Does this appeal to some ancient cannibalistic instinct?

There are so many clever ways to anthropomorphize products or even household objects. I was astounded one day (all right, I was entertained one day) to notice that a three prong wall outlet could not only resemble a face, but a face with attitude. Of course, in this case, I don’t remember what the commercial was for. I don’t think it was a product commercial; I think it was an energy commercial. Maybe it was a product; perhaps it was a Glade commercial. I need to see it again.

I suppose this is all in the fine old tradition of hot dogs marching on the drive-in movie screens of my childhood and is therefore nothing new. I will await with interest any new characters advertisers may invent for normally inanimate objects. What’s the data on this? Do we really buy more products when non-living things talk or give face?

Our History with Immigration

When we first heard that Peter King planned to have a hearing about the radicalization of Muslims we were concerned that our Muslim neighbors might be so offended by this hearing that it might turn them into instant radicals. If we really think back through our history we were not only mean to or distrustful of immigrants groups during times of war or when threatened by terrorists. In spite of our Lady of the Harbor, our Statue of Liberty, almost every group who came to America, and in the 1800’s there were many, was not exactly welcomed with open arms by people who considered themselves “native” Americans.

The Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Poles, Jewish people, the Chinese, the Japanese all have stories of prejudice and ill treatment and ridicule to tell. We were horrible to the Chinese entering America on the West Coast, it was almost impossible to be German in America during World War II and the Japanese were actually interned in camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. We have not hauled out the red carpet for any of these immigrant groups; instead we have invented derogatory nicknames for these groups, told jokes at their expense, and made exclusionary social rules to prevent ourselves from having to hobnob with these parvenus. When fear enters the equation, as in the case of the Japanese immigrants prior to World War II, this fear does seem to push us over the paranoid edge. While this is somewhat understandable, it is not very admirable. We know we should be able to treat our new neighbors as individuals, but we almost always end up treating them as groups. Perhaps the 21st century calls for a more enlightened approach.

The First Law of Thermodynamics

I experienced a deep personal satisfaction when I finally understood the law of conservation of matter and energy (also called the 1st Law of Thermodynamics). I learned this law in a rote fashion in high school physics but I did not really understand it until I was an adult. It is sort of an elegant little law which apparently engenders no end of complicated experimentation and theorizing among physicists and chemists, and others. The law simply states that matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed but are changed in state (e.g., solid, liquid, gas). It finally occurred to me that what this law says is that there is a finite amount of energy in the universe and that new energy is not being created somewhere outside the system and added into it. It also implies that there is a constant state of flux in the universe in which matter may change its state or matter can become energy and energy can become matter. This helped me understand algebraic equations (why what you have on one side of the equal sign must equal what you have on the other side of the equal sign), chemical equations (its why they are balanced ), the water cycle, photosynthesis, heating and cooling, atomic energy, E=mc2, ashes to ashes, dust to dust (with room for argument), and that very male phrase which keeps cropping up lately “zero-sum”. Eureka! Matter does not disappear; it just changes form. It suggests that there is order in the universe, a sort of cause/effect, although often on a scale so huge or so tiny that it is sometimes impossible to predict. We even have chaos theory which says that even in chaos there is order. And string theory which looks for similarities in the order of things (I think).

Even though we understand how this all works, we cannot always control it. E=mc2 says something with a tiny mass can exert an amount of energy multiplied by the speed of light squared, which is a huge number. This is the basis for nuclear energy. When we can control the reaction and turn it into electricity, nuclear energy is very useful, but we know we are putting a human leash on potentially huge forces and we know the rules for keeping these huge forces under control and we know the dangers if the rules are circumvented or cannot be followed. If it were just a matter of creating energy that would be fine, but the only substances we can use to create this energy at the present time are substances that are unstable, radioactive, and injurious to humans above certain levels. The radioactivity of these substances is also long-lasting, it can be diluted, but it doesn’t subside for a long, long time. This is sort of equivalent to the Hindenburg disaster when they used hydrogen to make a dirigible lighter than air. Hydrogen is a very active element. It forms bonds easily with other substances and differing amounts of energy can be released. In this case a spark caused a bond that produced an explosion and a spectacular and horrifying accident. Using helium solves the problem, because helium is inert and usually nonreactive. That’s what we need, a way to produce nuclear energy that does not have the side effect of producing dangerous levels of radioactive material and tons of long-lasting radioactive waste. I’m obviously no scientist. Maybe this cannot be done. Maybe it can be done and it will be the answer to the future. E=mc2 – we know there is something there.

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March Book List Two

More books on my March list:

I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson about 2 thirteen year old girls from Wales who love David Cassidy. They finally get to go see him in Las Vegas when they are much older.
Satori by Don Winslow is “a classic thriller of the 20 century
The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier After a fatal car accident 5 other suffering people are changed by reading a private journal of love notes from the husband to the wife
The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas is described as “an enchanting debut. A story of the “old soul” 8-year-old and the Ottoman Sultan
Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carre equals his best thrillers
Left Neglected by Lisa Genova in which we experience the readjustment of a career driven young mom after a traumatic brain injury
Pym by Mat Johnson is “a comic journey into the ultimate land of whiteness by an unlikely band of African American adventurers”
Precious and the Puggies: Precious Ramotswe’s Very First Case by Alexander McCall Smith and James Robertson
The Saturday Big Tent Wedding: The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, also Mma Romotswe
Luka and the Fire of Life by Salmon Rushdie
Portraits of a Marriage by Sandor Marai (Hungarian) “startlingly honest dissection of a romantic triangle against a dying society
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, What it was like to be a broke ambitious writer’s wife in Europe in the 1920’s
The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M. Auel, the next book in the Cave Bear series

This Again

Three hundred plus people recently received pink slips from the city school district. This is just one school district. Every school district in the area is losing teachers and staff. New York State has decided to tax Social Security Benefits, although I thought they already did. When I hear things like this I just have to try to express, once again, exactly how wrong all this seems. Maybe I keep thinking that if we all keep talking about this someone will finally listen and ask wealthier Americans to do what is right and pay their fair share. Our recent American financial reverses have been illuminating. The bottom fell out so fast. I guess that is how a recession/depression always feels. After the 1930’s depression, people pulled together and supported each other. Even the government was on the side of the people and thought of ways for peoples’ lives and the economy’s life to improve at the same time.

Thankfully our recession was not as deep as the Great Depression but the pulling together part has not been so great either. Even the rich were affected by the Great Depression; this recession, not so much. Instead we have been polarized, have fought each other and some very mean things have been said. Apparently poor people (and by poor people I mean people who are not rich) have been a burden on the rich for some time. Apparently the rich want their taxes to pay only for their own needs. Apparently we are seeing selfishness on a scale not seen for well over a century.

I really don’t care about our huge debt or our need to balance the budget. I don’t feel responsible for this situation. I feel the Republicans were actually in charge of America when these financial difficulties were spawned and that their policies gave birth to these conditions. I very much resent that everyone who is poor, young, old, or unemployed is now being asked to bear the blame for the financial shenanigans of our government, our banks, and our corporations. I very much fear that the former groups will bear the brunt of the cost of any recovery, and that it will not be enough because we really have precious little to spare. I had not been too scared of old age because I felt I could make it, not whoop it up, but have a peaceful, acceptable existence. Now I am not so sure.

I live with the shock that our government wants and plans to take from the poor for the sins of the rich. Corporations and banks are very powerful and vindictive, as we have recently seen. If we try to hold their feet to the fire they will find ways to make us pay for our actions. When we bailed them out but tried to make some rules they raised everyone’s interest rates to usurious levels. Perhaps our government fears the repercussions if it tries to tax the wealthy. I no longer believe we can remedy this situation or stop it. We can’t elect our way out of it, we won’t revolt our way out of it, although if we get more frightened and angry we might see more demonstrations. Our corporations already shrugged us off. Our banks are treating us like pariahs, inspire of campaigns to get us to consume, consume, consume. Our government is now “punishing” us and keeping the money people happy. They will win back the economy for the rich by cutting loose the poor who the rich feel are holding their ankles, dragging them down.

This is a debt made by the rich and the rich should take care of it and leave us, the poor struggling masses, alone. Why didn’t our government close the very glaring loopholes in Medicaid and Medicare long before this? Entitlements did not get us into this difficulty. Solving the problems with entitlements is really a separate problem from paying off out debts because the debts came from out of control spending by the Bush government and from lack of regulation of the financial sector.

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The Good Wife – TV Show

One reason I really like TV on Tuesday nights is because there are two NCIS shows in a row. The third show on Tuesday nights, The Good Wife, I like because of the characters. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) seems demure and soft-spoken but she is no doormat. Christine Baranski’s character, Diane Lockhart, I also get a kick out of; she doesn’t get mad, she gets even. Will Gardner (Josh Charles) and Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) are both so annoyingly and handsomely male. Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) is so deliciously amoral. But the real winner is Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), a Lisbeth Salandar type of character, a totally opaque witchy, fearless person that you definitely want on your side. She is so effective as an investigator, so mysterious as a person and so powerful as a confident and enigmatic woman that she keeps attracting enemies who want to overpower her, humble her, and ruin her. Blake is her current nemesis, but he is acting on behalf of more powerful people who are using Kalinda to destroy Peter Florrick’s bid for political office. Cary (Matt Czuchry), the Assistant DA is also a villain you love to hate and has resentments to avenge. Lawyers and politicians all tangled up in a messy heap; it is good stuff.

Books – Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

This is one of the things great fiction writers do. They invent characters that become real to us. I have been living with Walter and Patty Berglund along with their children Jessica and Joey and Walter’s friend Richard Katz and Walter’s and Patty’s neighbors and eventually Walter and Patty’s parents for a number of days and now that I have finished the book I will miss them. Maybe these characters are based on real people. I expect that they are still living out the rest of their lives somewhere in New York City.

Why is the story called Freedom? Sex plays a big role in the book – love too – although often confused with sex. Is the book about sexual freedom? Personal choices play a large role. Is the book about personal freedom? Politics crops up often in the book so is the book about political freedom? Do the birds have freedom issues? Birds are an important part of this story.

We all, by now, realize that there is no such thing as absolute freedom. If we have important relationships the issues of freedom get complicated. We will often rein in our own freedom because of the needs of a child or a partner. Even casual relationships sometimes inspire us to revise our freedom parameters. Career considerations may cause our freedom levels to oscillate. Even in terms of politics, one person’s freedom can result in the lessening of someone else’s freedom or at least their perception of how free they are.

These are the issues Jonathan Franzen addresses is his book Freedom. The Berglund family is unique, but not bizarre. The Berglund’s fall within the range of “American normal”. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with the Berglund’s and I completely understand Patty’s unrequitable desires and Walter’s also to some extent.

Does freedom set everyone free? As long as you accept that “mistakes [will be] made”, perhaps it does.

March Book List

My booklist for March is a combination of the list from the independent booksellers and from the librarians.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman , about the staff of an international language newspaper in Rome
The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine, a funny book about three women who must start over
Tinkers by Paul Harding, this stream of consciousness style is not beloved by all, but others say it’s a wonderful book
Solar by Ian McEwan, This is a satire about the scientist and the world of global warming science. Apparently the main character is a doozey and not in a nice way.
When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle, This book involves a battle over what to go about an invasive species when two locals go up against a National Park Service biologist.
Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy, A community in Dublin helps a dysfunctional man raise a surprise daughter
West of Here by Jonathan Evison, The author writes about the fictional town of Port Bonita, Washington with one segment circa 1890 and one segment their descendants in 2006.
The Jungle by Clive Cussler, The next book in the Oregon Files series, action thrillers
Three Stages of Amazement by Alan Bradley is a great story about business and a marriage in modern America
Open City by Teju Cole in which a young Nigerian doctor in NYC walks to get over a lost love and learns something stunning from a fellow immigrant
The Complaints by Ian Ranking in which a cop has to investigate another cop
Murder in Passy by Cara Black In this mystery set in Spain a 12 year old gets revenge for his father’s murder and “a mysterious witness offers him the choice of a lifetime”
Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson, Two dectectives adopt a child and a dog and learn that “no good deed goes unpunished”