The Right’s War on Birth Control

If you thought the legislative attacks on family planning and Planned Parenthood were all about abortion, think again.

In a moment of unscripted political bravado, Republican State Representative Wayne Christian made clear to the Texas Tribune that the Right’s true agenda is not about what happens in health care clinics after all, but rather about what goes on in bedrooms between consenting adults.

When they declare “war on birth control” they are intruding into the private, personal decisions of every man, woman and family in Texas.

How extreme are they? Consider that they’ve already repealed the law that requires insurance companies to cover the pill just as they do Viagra, they’ve encouraged pharmacists to undermine doctors’ orders and deny emergency contraception, and now they are pushing an outright plan to defund family planning — even though none of the funds can be used for abortion.

It’s time to draw the line and get politics out of our bedrooms once and for all.

Obama Returns to His Moral Vision: Democrats Read Carefully

Last week, on April 13, 2011, President Obama gave all Democrats and all progressives a remarkable gift.  Most of them barely noticed. They looked at the President’s speech as if it were only about budgetary details. But the speech went well beyond the budget. It went to the heart of progressive thought and the nature of American democracy, and it gave all progressives a model of how to think and talk about every issue.

It was a landmark speech. It should be watched and read carefully and repeatedly by every progressive who cares about our country —whether Democratic office-holder, staffer, writer, or campaign worker — and every progressive blogger, activist and concerned citizen. The speech is a work of art.

The policy topic happened to be the budget, but he called it “The Country We Believe In” for a reason. The real topic was how the progressive moral system defines the democratic ideals America was founded on, and how those ideals apply to specific issues.  Obama’s moral vision, which he applied to the budget, is more general: it applies to every issue. And it can be applied everywhere by everyone who shares that moral vision of American democracy.

Discussion in the media has centered on economics — on the President’s budget policy compared with the Republican budget put forth by Paul Ryan. But, as Robert Reich immediately pointed out, “Ten or twelve-year budgets are baloney. It’s hard enough to forecast budgets a year or two into the future.” The real economic issues are economic recovery and the distribution of wealth.  As I have observed, the Republican focus on the deficit is really a strategy for weakening government and turning the country conservative in every respect. The real issue is existential: what is America at heart and what is America to be.

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Read This And You Will Become Smart And Go To Heaven


Dictators often come wrapped in lofty literary pretensions, it seems. And you thought the novel was dead.

Suzanne Murkelson has a terrific piece in Foreign Policy about the literary lives of dictators. She was disciplined enough to avoid the term tortured prose. But I’m not.

Murkelson notes that it was the late Turkmen autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov who blurbed his own work:

A person that reads Ruhnama becomes smart … and after it, he will go to heaven…

What writer wouldn’t love such an Amazon review? The gift of intelligence in this life, the promise of eternal happiness in the afterlife? I wonder what you get if you reread it?

Muammar al-Qaddafi wrote a children’s story called “The Astronaut’s Suicide” about an American space explorer who ends it all after he returns to Earth and discovers he’s lost his job due to budget cuts. Goodnight, Moon. One hopes he at least read Niyazov.

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Animal Kingdom

I had never heard of the Australian gem and terror of a film Animal Kingdom until Jacki Weaver was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her sweetly diabolical role as “Smurf,” the mother of a family of bankrobbers. A fan of every Australian film I’ve stumbled across (Flirting and Somersalt leap to mind) I decided to give Animal Kingdom a view.

The film begins with 17 year-old J sitting next to his mother as she ODs on heroin. The paramedics arrive and go to work. Cut to J calling his grandmother “Smurf”, who he obviously barely knows, to tell her his mother is dead. His grandmother tells him she is on her way to fetch him.

The surprisingly lovely grandmother arrives and whisks J to live with her and her four sons, a tight clan of loose cannons. The viewer quickly realizes that this family of crooks is truly complicated and terrible when Smurf gives one of her boys a lingering kiss on the mouth in front of all of the others.

The viewer has the unsettling sense that even J, a quiet, awkward boy gifted at keeping his head down and his mouth shut, will not be able to safely navigate his new place in this madhouse family.

This gorgeous, poetic, and terrifying tale by first time screenwriter/director David Michôd will resonate with anyone who remembers the helplessness of late adolescence, the time when we are so close to adulthood, yet not yet able to chose our household.

The Mick Hits Two

During the summer of 1961, Mantle and his Yankee team- mate and room-mate, Roger Maris, each threatened to break Babe Ruth’s seemingly unbreakable 1927 record of 60 home runs. As the summer progressed, nothing else in sports seemed to matter. While all that was going on, I was hitch-hiking  up the eastern seaboard with a friend named Gentry Lee.
Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris (right to left). image by Corbis.

Journalist  Jane  Leavy was an acquaintance of Mickey Mantle, having spent an Atlantic City  weekend with him (in separate hotel rooms) in 1983, during which time he propositioned her.  She says she declined.  If so, she may have been in the minority of the girls and women who received similar invitations from the Mick.  His many legendary home runs were not limited to the ball park.  Ms. Leavy, who says in the book’s preface that she fell in love with Mantle, did do something that none of those other women did.  She wrote a best-selling biography called The Last Boy  Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s childhood. Of the numerous Mantle biographies, hers, published  in 2010, is by far the best.  She does a beautiful job of reconciling the man’s basic honesty and innocence with his philandering, boozing lifestyle and occasional streaks of meanness, while at the same time writing in vivid prose a riveting history of the Yankees’ greatest era.

This is not a review of that book, although I  recommend it to anyone, sports fan or not, who would enjoy reading a masterful biography about a fascinating  20th Century American icon.   Instead this is a brief account of one Mantle fan’s recollection of watching him play in one game during the summer of 1961.  Leavy’s account of that year’s season re-kindled the memory.

During the summer of 1961, Mantle and his Yankee team- mate and room-mate, Roger Maris, each threatened to break Babe Ruth’s seemingly unbreakable 1927 record of 60 home runs.   As the summer progressed, nothing else in sports seemed to matter.   Years later the season was chronicled by a writer named Ron Smith in a book Entitled 61* The Story of Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and One Magical Summer. In that book, Smith wrote that “(Maris) stepped reluctantly into the New York spotlight in 1960, a naïve, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is small-town boy from Fargo, N.D.  (Mantle) had been auditioning for the role of New York icon for the better part of a decade, a handsome, fun-loving Oklahoma farm boy turned savvy sports star.”

In a forward to Smith’s book, Billy Crystal, a wildly enthusiastic, lifetime Yankee fan, declared that, “The summer of 1961 was the greatest of my life.”. . . “Maris started the season slowly; Mickey was on fire.  Then it happened.  Roger got going, Mantle matched him; Roger went ahead.  Mickey fought back.  We all started to take sides.  This was serious.  Someone was going to do it.  Two Yankees going after Ruth.  Perfect!”

While all that was going on, I was hitch-hiking  up the eastern seaboard with a friend named Gentry Lee. We were nineteen, somewhat foolish, and short of funds. We would stop and work for a few days, make a few bucks, and again hit the highways and byways, travelling through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia to Washington D.C. and eventually all the way to Montreal and back to Austin.  It was slow going because hitch-hiking was difficult at times, and we frequently had to stop and find work.

Along the way we would get a newspaper now and then to read about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, the “M&M Boys” as they had become known.  Mantle was our hero and had been for years.  We knew little about Maris other than what he was doing that summer for the Yankees.

By the time we got to Washington, D. C. on the Fourth of July, Maris had hit 31 homers, Mantle had hit 28, and we were almost broke.  Gentry finagled a job as a copy boy for the Washington Post.  I settled for a stint as an all- night hamburger cook at a downtown White Castle restaurant that filled up with rowdy and hungry drunks when the bars shut down at 2 am.

On the morning of Tuesday, July 18, the Yankees came to town, following a series in Baltimore, to play two games against the Washington Senators at old Griffith Stadium.  By then, Maris had hit 35 homers and Mantle 33.  Gentry and I must have made a few bucks because an hour or two before start of the July 18 afternoon game, we were perched in the cheap seats at Griffith watching the players warm up.  This was the first major league baseball game for both of us.

We were rooting for New York over Washington and for Mantle over Maris.  Odds heavily favored the Yankees, in first place with a 58-30 record, against the Senators, (later to become the Texas Rangers)  in 7th place with a record of 40-50.  Attendance, including Gentry and me, was 17, 695.

Pre-game batting practice was spectacular.  Both sluggers repeatedly blasted balls far over the fence and each time, as they say, “the crowd went wild.”  Drinking- age was 18 in D.C. then so we even had a legal cold beer or two in public  as the teams warmed up.  That, like the game itself, was a first for us two teenagers from Texas where the drinking age was set, sensibly, at 21.

On the mound that day for the Senators was right-hander Joe McClain. It must have been a daunting experience for him, a mediocre pitcher, to have to face the Yankees when the M&M boys had been hitting homers for weeks with seeming impunity.  McClain had only broken in with the big leagues on April 18.  He finished 1961 with eight wins and eighteen losses, and  only played in the majors for one more year.

Maris didn’t get a hit against McClain that afternoon; his fireworks all came in batting practice.  But in the first inning with a man on first and two out, the Mick strode confidently to the plate, took a couple of high inside fast-balls, and  on the third pitch slammed a towering two-run homer high over the right field fence.  The crowd went even wilder. It seemed that even the Washington fans were rooting for Mantle and New York.

Now Maris with 35 homers only led Mantle by one.  Nothing else spectacular happened until the top of the 8th when Mantle, again with two out but with no one on base, smashed an inside fast-ball deep over the center field fence to leave the two slugging team-mates  tied at 35 home runs apiece.   The Yankees won the game 5 to 3.  Mantle’s three RBI’s were the difference.

Mantle had been playing for most of his career with a badly injured knee (and often with a hangover).  After an infection put him in the hospital late in the summer, he faded somewhat and ended the season with 54 home runs.  On October 1 Maris hit number 61 to break Ruth’s record.*

The record book contains an asterisk pursuant to a controversial ruling by Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick that Ruth’s record had to be broken in 154 games because there were only 154 games played when Ruth hit his 60 home runs in 1927.  Maris hit his 61st in the 162nd. Game of the 163 game season.

Getting to see Mantle hit  two home runs in that phenomenal  1961 season is a memory I have always cherished.  The game ended in time for me to make it to my cooking job at the White Castle.  After the bars closed, the 2 a.m. drunks seemed rowdier than usual that night.  Maybe they were Washington Senator fans who had been celebrating Mickey Mantle.

Tahrir Square and Me

Egyptian fireworks

Egypt and I go way back — forty-one years, to be exact.  That is a bare blink of an eye for a country that is over 5000 years old, but for me, forty-one years is a long time.  I first set foot in Tahrir Square in January, 1970.    I was twenty-three years old, the same age as many of the young demonstrators who swarmed central Cairo in January, 2011, to reclaim their futures from corrupt and oppressive rulers.   The Tahrir Square I knew was not a place of peaceful encampments and chants of freedom, but a traffic-clogged vortex of car horns and exhaust fumes.

I had just married my college boyfriend Larry and followed him to teach and study at the American University in Cairo.  I thought myself sophisticated — I had bummed around Europe in my teens and studied in Greece for my junior year abroad —  but I was not prepared for Cairo.  Some mornings Larry and I walked from our apartment in Zamalek to the AUC campus on the far side of Tahrir Square.  I can still remember the flood of relief I felt as we rushed through the gates of the school and sank into chairs in the back garden, where bougainvillea dripped from the balconies and kindly assistants served us mint tea or Turkish coffee.  Tahrir was a scary place  — vast streets pouring in from seven directions, no cross-walks for pedestrians, ancient buses tilted permanently to the right from the overload of passengers hanging on the doors, and pent-up taxi drivers honking and cursing and driving like fiends.

Tahrir at night

I wonder now why we ever walked to school, since it required us to cross through the heart of chaotic Tahrir!  Maybe we were lured by our charming neighborhood with the peanut vendor wishing us a morning full of light and flowers, and the portrait painter, Samir, greeting Larry as “my darling” as he kissed him on the cheek.  Maybe it was the immense and sculptural Banyan Tree on the corner, graceful and exotic, in spite of its urine stench.  Maybe it was the walk across the Nile, that river of Biblical lore, where we could look out at the island of Roda in whose bullrushes Baby Moses is said to have been found.  Or maybe it was the pull of the Egyptian people themselves, welcoming and warm, humorous and endearing as they spilled into the streets to chat and drink tea and exchange the latest jokes.


Flash forward to January 25, 2011, when the streets of Tahrir teem not with traffic but with pedestrians.  Demonstrators carry signs that read “Mubarak leave!” in both English and Arabic, for broadcast over Al Jazeera and YouTube.  Such brash confrontation has been unthinkable for decades under the despots that have dominated Egyptian life.   A day or two into the uprising, Mubarak’s state police crack down on the marchers with tear gas and truncheons, beating them until they retreat behind make-shift barricades and hurl bits of rock and broken pavement in self-defense.  Armed men in uniform literally pound on peaceful protesters in the middle of Tahrir Square with the world watching.

Roberta and Larry Wright in Egypt (far right)

Friends from my AUC days begin to email that the revolution will probably fail.  The Middle East has delivered disappointments before.   Why would this be any different?  I watch TV almost obsessively as, day after remarkable day, the brutality seems only to stir the determination of protesters from Alexandria to Aswan, and Egyptians pour into the streets in ever greater numbers.  They link arms in Tahrir Square to protect their museum.  They set up sound stages to rally the crowds and medical units to treat the wounded.   They turn chaos into a freedom encampment right in the center of the square.  “Tahrir” is Arabic for “liberation”, as Anderson Cooper reminds us again and again.  Maybe, just maybe, the name will now hold real meaning.

What I Learned from Television

I love television. Yes, I have a PhD and teach literature and all that, but I really like television, including the occasional dip into PBS, the favorite and sometimes the only channel most of my clan will admit to enjoying. Nope, not me. Ask me about Real Housewives, Toddlers and Tiaras, Dancing with the Stars, Intervention, or just about any HBO drama series. In my defense I can’t stand the warbly, overwrought balladeers and tween-hipsters of American Idol any more, and I only watch Dancing with the Stars so I can talk about it with my 83-year old mother (I swear that’s mostly true). And because I like television so much, the DVR has changed my life: I would sooner give up my refrigerator than do without it.

But what I really like to settle into my sofa’s ass-groove (in Homer Simpson’s immortal words) and watch for hours on end is sports. Maybe some people can do it, but I can’t watch sports that have been recorded. It’s not just that I’ll have to put myself in an information isolation booth to avoid finding out the result before I watch; it’s more subtle (and more embarrassing) than that: I’m afraid I’ll discover how little of an event is actually meaningful. Is a Wimbledon Final just as gripping without Nadal’s ball-bouncing, bangs-tucking, and wedgy-picking, for example? I think not. With the Red Zone, some fans have already discovered what an all-wheat and no-chaff NFL Sunday looks like, but I don’t really want to know.

But I digress. What I started to say was that when I indulge in a sports watching endurance event like the first weekend of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the DVR is of no use and I have to watch commercials. The same ones. Over and over again. And what I discovered this past weekend is that, partially as a function of the DVR and, alas, partially as a function of generalized old-fartitude, I don’t understand many of the commercials. I ponder them like foreign film, like the James Joyce novels I never finished reading, like jazz, and financial statements.

What hellscape are Mr. Peanut and his Lady (?) nut-friend in when he cheers on the spicy Spanish almond in a cape who’s bullfighting a cockroach? “There’s a lot of spice in that boy,” he intones with his monocle and walking stick and waistcoat. I don’t even want to remember if he’s wearing pants. Perhaps I need to adjust my medication, and I am aware of some vague stirring of desire, but I’m pretty sure it’s not for a can of nuts.

And who is supposed to buy that tricycle for geezers, the motorcycle with training wheels? Does it come with the Danica Patrick wannabes tumbling their raven locks from helmets (safety first!) and unzipping leather jackets. Maybe it’s the same people who must be obsessed with insurance of all kinds. I mean, in the name of all that’s holy, how much insurance-shopping do people do? Do we want to buy it from a horrible horse-faced man with a blue phone? Or from simultaneously ironic and peppy (a tricky double salchow of affect) Flo? I don’t want to know her name, but god help me, I do.

Then there are the pharmaceuticals ads, with their peculiar set of hermeneutical challenges. I’m especially baffled by the gout medicine commercial that shows the man lugging around the burden of his (bright green) excess uric acid, but then after he takes the magic pills, he still carries it around, except now in a hip leather messenger bag. What, the medicine doesn’t get rid of it; it just gives you something to carry it in? I don’t understand. Nor do I think my kitchen or laundry room flooding with water is sexy, Cialis people. Is this supposed to appeal to people old enough to need Cialis but unencumbered enough not to start thinking about plumbers and water-damage, and – wait – insurance? Oh, I get it.

For Japan

A community I visited north of Tokyo, the Asian Rural Institute, sent a message to its friends about shattered glass, structural damage, no electricity, and lots of aftershocks, but no fatalities. My friends and family in Japan are safe, as far as I know. But no one is OK. It will take more than one lifetime for people to recover.

Unless you’ve been to Japan, it’s hard to imagine the destructive force of the tsumami that raced as far as 6 miles inland. You have to imagine half the population of the U.S.–150 million people–living in an area about 20% of the size of California, most of that area on the coastal plains that hug the seacoast. Now, massive, sprawling garbage heaps have replaced the towns and villages that once were squeezed along the northeast coast. Profoundly worse, however, for the only country to survive two nuclear bomb attacks, is the threat of a nuclear explosion at Fukushima’s reactor.

I haven’t got words for how I feel. My friend Tyler Boudreau, a Marine veteran of Iraq and author of Packing Inferno, thought of me and sent me this song, “Requiem,” by Austin musician, Eliza Gilkyson. It’s from her album, “Paradise Hotel.” The Mother Mary reference may seem culturally out of place, but the primary deity of Shinto is the goddess Amaterasu. And during the 250 years of hidden Christianity during the Shogunate, Christians used statues of Kannon, the female Buddhist saint of mercy as a stand in for Mary (Kannon as the Madonna). Here are the lyrics. Amen.

Requiem by Eliza Gilkyson

mother mary, full of grace, awaken
all our homes are gone, our loved ones taken
taken by the sea
mother mary, calm our fears, have mercy
drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy
hear our mournful plea
our world has been shaken,
we wander our homelands forsaken
in the dark night of the soul
bring some comfort to us all,
o mother mary come and carry us in your embrace
that our sorrows may be faced
mary, fill the glass to overflowing
illuminate the path where we are going
have mercy on us all
in fun’ral fires burning
each flame to your myst’ry returning
in the dark night of the soul
your shattered dreamers, make them whole,
o mother mary find us where we’ve fallen out of grace,
lead us to a higher place
in the dark night of the soul
our broken hearts you can make whole,
o mother mary come and carry us in your embrace,
let us see your gentle face, mary