My New Year’s Resolution

December 31, 2009 at 3:16 am (By Amba)

Tweeted.  (The Anchoress asked.)

@TheAnchoress My NewYear’s resolution was expressed in action: I got us to dojo 4 last workout of year/decade. Augur & earnest of resolve

Kind of a ritual. Just making the effort, not crapping out, gets the new year off on the right (correct) foot. Won’t give up.

What you do on the last or 1st day of year is like a Chinese fairytale about a pot that multiplies whatever you put into it.

I am pleased that I did not put laziness and reclusiveness and inertia–constant temptations–into the pot.

What are yours?  Or don’t you do that?  If something short of resolutions (self-improvement vows in particular may leave you feeling more wistful, cynical, or wary than resolute), it’s a natural time to think about things you’d like to improve, change, start afresh, find time for, stop putting off . . . or, as in my case, merely sustain.

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The Killer Mothers are Coming!

December 30, 2009 at 6:22 pm (By Realpc)

I am so relieved. I just found out that careful scientific research has discovered the cause of our society’s worst problems — war, violence and religion. And that there is a cure! It turns out that, believe it or not, people become violent because they were raised by “killer mothers.’ Yes, killer mothers. We think of mothers as loving comparssionate creatures who would die to save their baby’s lives. In reality, when their babies cry, mothers sometimes have an urge to throw them out the window! Most of the time, they don’t act on these urges. But they feel them, and the babies know it, and are therefore terrified most of the time. And, of course, when they grow up, they enlist in the armed forces. Not, as you thought, because they love their country, but because their amygdala has enlarged and their frontal lobes have shrunk — all from being raised by a killer mother!
You don’t have to believe me (you probably think what I’m saying is ca-razy!) — no, you can read it for yourself:
This is real scientific proof, and we know that because they used brain imaging technology!
So what can we do? Killer mothers have been around since our species landed on earth. In fact, it used to be much worse, and thanks to scientific progress and the decline of relgion, killer mothers are not quite so common as they were. But we still have an epidemic on our hands. What can we do? Well, start by making sure every mother gets psychotherapy. As we all know, psychotherapy makes angry, depressed, violent people as fluffy and loving as a batch of purring kitty cats! If you haven’t tried it, you should!
But don’t stop there. We need government programs and agencies that will ensure mothers do a good job and don’t even think about hurling their screaming infants out the window.
So that’s that. Have a fluffy loving day!

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Romantic Medicine vs. Utilitarian Healthcare: A Dialog [UPDATED]

December 29, 2009 at 5:15 pm (By Amba) (, )

UPDATE: Highly pertinent to this post is Wendell Berry’s 2002 essay “Two Minds.” While it was ironically published in The Progressive, Berry is what you’d have to call a green conservative.  He talks about “Rational Mind” vs. “Sympathetic Mind” in very allied terms.

I recommend this beautiful post by James P. Pinkerton at his blog Serious Medicine.  I don’t have time right now to excerpt it in a serious, bloggy way, so I’ll quickly post the brief tastes I “tweeted” from it:

The argument for heroic surgery is like that 4 sending people to the Moon.

Talmudic teaching, who saves one life saves the entire world, vs. the health-policy, quantitative way of looking at it

‘Serious Medicine’ … “is qualitative, not quantitative. The quality of mercy is hard, if not impossible, to quantify.”

“the overall romance & mystique of medicine is inherently qualitative…that’s why civilization has so revered medicine…a romantic aspect”

While not unaware of the real problem of how all this is going to be paid for, Pinkerton makes a stirring argument — human, religious, and Romantic — for saving single lives even at horrendous cost, whether at their precarious beginning (look at Charlie Miller now!!) or near their end (the example of the advanced-cancer patient in the post).

I had recently been thinking about these issues as a result of hearing about an 80-year-old with fairly advanced Lewy Body dementia (what J has) who fell, broke his hip, and is now getting hip replacement surgery.  Because of the impairments that caused him to fall, it’s going to be very hard for him to rehab to the point of being back on his feet.  Does it make sense to replace the hip of someone who will probably never stand again?  Or is the surgery the only way of keeping him from being in intractable pain?  In the old days and the old world (I saw this in Romania), someone who broke a hip was usually bedridden for the rest of his or her life, yet could last a couple more years well-tended to by exhausted family members.  This man is now going into a nursing home to stay; he wife was reaching the breaking point anyway coping with his irrationality and paranoia (the latter being what J, thankfully, mostly HASN’T got).  She was terrified of trying to explain to him why he had to go into a facility, and was actually relieved that he fell and broke his hip.

All this led to another exchange between me and my sistah the doctah:

A[mba]: I found this an absolutely beautiful post, if problematic.  Even if you disagree with its “never give up” ethos being taken to absurd extremes, it will still make you feel good about being a doctor.

S[istah]: I confess to not being able to wade through the entire post…when I hit the religious stuff my brain shut down. even though he writes beautifully and says some perceptive things.

I read the NYT article about the surgeon and the surgery and confess that my first thought was Wow how incredible, my 2nd was what a cowboy (about the surgeon. not a fair response but an extrapolation from my own dealings with transplant surgeons who have egos as big as the great outdoors and motives that aren’t always altruistic but cravenly human), my 3rd what a waste. of time, money, resources. But how potentially amazing for both the patient and his family (i refuse to get involved with the god part).

The economization of medicine maybe does separate us all too much from the glorious ability [of] medicine to save and improve lives.  But we’ve gotten way out of hand here. I can’t help thinking of what the hundreds of thousands spent on that guys surgery could have done for old people who can’t afford their basic meds and all the other medical inequities that exist. It’s obviously not a quid pro quo, I know. And you can certainly make a point that in this particular situation the surgeon was trying out techniques that may be useful in more hopeful situations. But one of the problems I see is that people (Americans specifically) have absurd expectations about health and healthcare. we’re all going to fucking die some day. we need to focus on doing the most good for the most people…not do outrageous things for the few. or we can do those things as long as the many are getting the basics.

I REALLY feel it’s all about the capitalization of health care…so much $$ is being made by drug co’s, hospitals, insurance cos, and…yes…some doctors. Until we do something about that care will continue to be insanely polar. whew. a rant.

A: I think the conservatives’ argument would be that people on the whole are not motivated to do great things simply by the fact that it’s good and compassionate and sensible to do so.  They are most motivated by rewards — money, power, and fame.  So if you restrict the rewards, you restrict the greatness of what will be done.  Decapitalize “serious medicine” (or any other field of activity) you demotivate it.  And of course you will still have greed and corruption, the monopolization of wealth by the powerful and power by the wealthy, fraud, black marketeering, etc. etc., with less ability to regulate/correct them.  They would argue (despite their religion thing) that virtue and common sense are weak rewards, to which most people have to be prodded by fear (hell) and shame, or perhaps luxuries — the ultimate rewards for people who’ve already had all the other rewards, like Bill Gates and Pastor Rick Warren (of The Purpose Driven Life, who now gives away 90% of his income, so he says).

Do I agree, i.e. am I a conservative?  No; just not a liberal anymore either.  I’ll sadly entertain their argument (“entertain” rather than “hold” is what I do with most beliefs these days), but not being very motivated by material rewards myself (obviously, or I’d have some), I don’t get it viscerally at all.  I can just see that it may be true of others.  The Darwinian conservatives would just say this proves that a) I am simply not the fittest, not vigorously self-interested, not surviving, not reproducing, being eliminated from the gene pool, and b) proof that when greed dies out it is either the ultimate luxury or a symptom of vitiation or decadence.  It’s the brawling “getting yours” stage that they most admire, the force that propels deprived but enterprising people out of poverty and doesn’t stop there, but goes on to build empires, empires which do great good as well as harm.  I find it amusing that they can be so Darwinian and so pro-Christianity at the same time…until you observe that maybe Christianity serves its holders’ survival, optimism, will to power, and reproduction.

Possibly to be continued/updated between us; in the meantime, I hope you will jump in.

P.S.  In the interests of full disclosure (lest I make myself sound like a noble failure), while not very motivated by material rewards, I’m certainly motivated by attention, recognition, admiration.  Just not any good at getting them on a scale beyond the happy few.

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Don’t Worry. Be Happy.

December 28, 2009 at 11:34 pm (By Amba)

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Outliving Life

December 26, 2009 at 11:50 am (By Rodjean)

A lot of us will remember 2009 as a hard year. I will remember it as the year my mother died. I was reluctant to write about this. I’m not sure if it was simply too personal, if I didn’t want to troll for condolences, if I was too busy with Christmas and in the middle of moving houses to gather my thoughts, or if I had a hard time connecting them to my feelings.

The good news is that my mother lived to be 87, died married to the man she married 64 years earlier, was lucid until the end, suffered no pain, and faced her final passage without fear. From where I sit, that looks like about 75% of the measure of a successful life, right there.

One thing surprised me about her final days. She did not die from any acute illness, but from a weariness of life itself. This caused our family much consternation as we tried to push her to eat and drink enough to survive. Over her last six weeks I called ambulances to take her to the hospital three times and to quick care facilities twice, all for episodes of falling caused by her weakened condition. She objected each time, but each time the family wore her down. And, she had four stints in rehab facilities.

I did not realize it, but since my mother died, several friends have told me of parents who died in the same way. They just lost interest in eating or drinking, and they faded away. They outlived life. It is not that my mother did not know starvation and dehydration would kill her, she was simply indifferent to that outcome.

Our postmodern culture, with its relentless materialism, cannot comprehend not wanting to live any more (absent a painfully terminal illness) because life is seen as all there is. The religious culture which preceded modern times rejected suicide as a denial of God’s sovereignty. At the edge of life, the lines between suicide and not caring whether you live or die become a bit blurred.

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Mexican Chicken Stew

December 25, 2009 at 4:57 pm (By Amba)

No food feast today, although a couple of friends did stomp in out of the rain for an exchange of presents and talk-story.  Chris, the Feldenkrais teacher whose avocation for years was helping out on her neighbor’s now-decommissioned dairy farm, explained how to bale hay.  Kris, the residential karate student from Hawaii, showed us YouTube videos of very masculine and martial traditional hula. Chris brought us an artist’s print of the Japanese ideogram for “friend,” which touched me.


Our food feast was Wednesday night, when the core of the karate dojo came over and I had nine to feed.  Since people, including two young boys, would be sitting on the couch and eating, I wanted to make some kind of easy-to-eat one-bowl meal.  For some mysterious reason, Mexican chicken stew came unbidden to mind.  Encouraged and supplied by Amy (the brown belt on the other side of J in our holiday card), and loosely guided by two recipes on the ‘Net, I made the following, which was easy and absolutely delicious.  The only part of it that takes any time is cutting stuff up, and it’s almost impossible to ruin.  Quantities and seasoning may be varied according to circumstances and taste.  This fed 9 hungry people with 2 days of leftovers for two.  (Note that I cut the ingredients pretty small so J won’t choke.  You could cube them larger if you want.)

5 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut small (~3/4″)


olive oil

2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut small

1 green pepper, cut small

1 red pepper, cut small

1 large onion, chopped

several cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

3 cans corn kernels, drained

3 cans black beans, drained

1 large can diced or crushed tomatoes, with liquid

cumin, to taste

cinnamon, to taste

salt to taste

cayenne or chili pepper, ground, to taste

chopped cilantro, to taste

1.  Toss the cut-up chicken in a bowl with a handful of flour (adjust to amount) to coat.

2.  Heat olive oil — enough to spread out and coat the bottom when hot — in a large stew pot.

3. Toss in chicken and cook at medium high heat, stirring and scraping often, for a few minutes, till no pink is showing.

4.  Remove chicken to a bowl.  Replace olive oil and heat.

5.  Cook sweet potato, peppers, onion, and garlic, covered, stirring often, 7 minutes or until onion is translucent and soft.

6.  Add back chicken.  Add corn, black beans, tomatoes, 1-2 cups water, conservatively generous amounts of cumin and cinnamon; salt; and a pinch of hot red pepper.

7.  Simmer, partially covered, ~15 minutes or until thick.

8.  Stir in chopped cilantro; let stand for 5 minutes.

9.  Taste, and add more cumin, cinnamon, hot red pepper, cilantro, and/or salt to taste.

10.  Serve with sour cream, grated cheddar cheese, and cut limes to squeeze juice on top.

Excellent with any kind of cornbread.

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Merry Christmas!

December 25, 2009 at 1:25 am (By Pat)

Many thanks and blessings to the friends I have made through Annie and this blog! I hope each and every one of you have a wonderful Christmas.

Snoopy Christmas

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We Want an Informed Faith, Too . . .

December 20, 2009 at 11:27 pm (By Amba)

. . . and a faith-informed intellectual culture.  Peter Steinfels, retiring his “Beliefs” column at the New York Times (why??), points out, and True Ancestor — now a grad student at the University of Chicago Divinity School — confirms, that great thinking is being done by theologians, virtually unheard by most of the mainstream culture:

I am constantly undone by how many great thinkers pace the halls. These are not merely great thinkers but great teachers, too. That they think about religion — both passionately and dispassionately — just makes them that much greater, in my mind. […] [Steinfels writes:]

Intelligence and critical reasoning are essential to adult approaches to faith. In short, theology matters. It is curious that so many otherwise thoughtful people imagine that what they learned about religion by age 13, or perhaps 18, will suffice for the rest of their lives. They would never make the same assumption about science, economics, art, sex or love.

People who do constantly reapproach those issues produce some great thinking and writing — much of which is marginalized, precisely because it is about religion.

A contemporary abundance of serious thought and scholarship about religion is marginalized. Thinkers and scholars who should have a presence in the intellectual and cultural landscape — whose books, for example, might well be noted in the annual “holiday” listings — are instead known almost entirely in their own religious circles or academic specialties. That is a loss this column has tried to counter.

And now the column itself becomes a loss.  Maybe Steinfels will write a book, or collect his columns in one.

His insight sheds light on a phenomenon we take for granted that is in fact quite startling:  the confinement to shrinking reservations of religion, which as recently as two centuries ago was still the basis of most philosophy, culture, and — science.  I was amazed to learn through my researches for Natural History that almost all the early naturalists were “divines” who viewed learning about the natural world as a way to glorify God.  The very fact that living creatures are identified by mostly Latin genus and species names is a deep thumbprint of its religious origins:  virtually all education was once religious education.  Now secular science has successfully unseated religion as the foundation of “mainstream” culture, as witness the fact that the brain is far more “real” to us than the soul.  (Actually, “my brain” is at least as much a construct of imagination.  You can experience what was once called your “soul,” or psyche, much more directly than you can experience your own brain.  There’s a weird alienation, a flattening relief, in talking about your serotonin levels instead of your sorrow.)  To the extent that religion remains influential in the public square, it is often in the form of basic ritual and piety, with an anti-intellectual slant.  (I have to say that this cannot be said of the Catholic world, but how many of us outside that world ever encounter, much less seek out, robust contemporary Catholic thinking, including on the discoveries and powers of science?  It’s all William Donohue as far as we’re concerned.)

My own bro wrote a fantastic paper, for a course on the Book of Job, that used the physics metaphor of wave and particle to examine the differences between Simone Weil’s and Joseph Soloveitchik’s theologies of suffering and affliction.  (Note that the Soloveitchik link — he was the founding rabbi of Modern Orthodoxy — appears to lead to the website of Jesuit-founded Boston College.  The link I found for Weil is even wilder.  The Internet could break down the ghetto walls segregating religious thought, if only people would navigate it in search of surprise as much as validation.)

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“An Informed Patriotism is What We Want.”

December 20, 2009 at 1:29 pm (By Amba)

H/T:  L.A. Times Top of the Ticket.

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“Palin Is Like Obama”

December 20, 2009 at 12:51 am (By Amba) (, )

Phrased like an Althouse tag (though I don’t know if she’s ever made it a tag), a meme I picked up on before Sam Tanenhaus of the New Yorker:

The fascination with Palin owes something to the way that her cultish aura mirrors, or refracts, the aura that surrounds Barack Obama, the other political figure who comfortably inhabits the nexus of politics and celebrity. It has become fashionable to ridicule Palin as a tabloid creature, but it was not so long ago that Obama was being depicted as the chum of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Even now, the nimbus of celebrity clings to him, often with deflationary effect—for instance, during his recent visit to China, when at times he seemed less the leader of a major diplomatic mission than an attractive student ambassador, genially exporting good will and posing for photographs. When CNN intercut its evening coverage of Obama’s trip with Palin’s first bookstore appearance, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the two mise en scènes seemed eerily equivalent.

For the moment, Obama and Palin divide the electorate, and are bound by a strange symmetry [my point exactly]: born in the nineteen-sixties, the only candidates from outside the Lower 48 ever to grace national tickets, and the beneficiaries of powerful social movements that they were too young to have participated in (civil rights in Obama’s case, women’s liberation in Palin’s). Just as Obama, with his “post-racial” affect and his Ivy League pedigree, made an older African-American political figure like Jesse Jackson seem the relic of a vanished era, so Palin—with her lustrous mane and form-fitting skirts, her coddling of her infant son in the full glare of TV cameras—presented a new model of the spontaneous woman politician, free of the overmanaged self-discipline that constrains Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.

Enthusiasts of either one who disagreed or criticized me for comparing them were focusing on content; I was focusing on form.  They are similar and symmetrical containers for antithetical contents:  avatars of the two poles of a riven America.

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