Saturday, February 05, 2005

The New Cappuccino Bar. A Reposting.

- This is my pro-environment lament.

Cafe latte. Hold the caffeine. Wait in line. Sit at a postmodern table, take out your high-tech substitute of a newspaper and bury your nose in it. Time flies. Time is money. Money flies. The cups clink, the machines hiss, money changes hands. Nothing here has a simple name. Tall means small, grande a little bigger. The fire in the fireplace is a simulation. The clientele is also a simulation, all young, all affluent, all postmodern, with sharp edges and fuzzy middles. The bathrooms are clean and contain no reminders about the need to wash afterwards.

This place used to be an abandoned lot. Not a beautiful meadow, but a rough patch of ground where weeds battled for survival. In late summer it looked like a dead field. Every day an old man would come with an even older dog and slowly, majestically, the pair would part the reedy stems of the brown grasses to enter the field. Then she, the dowager queen of all dogs, would lower herself, arthritically, majestically, to rain over the parched soil; a goddess of grass being worshipped in an ancient ritual in her honor. Every day.

Now the rituals are different. The lot is sealed with asphalt, the space decorated with yellow lines, arrows and mystical signs worshipping a different god, a god of computers, sunglasses, cash registers and ears pierced seven times. The awkward weeds are gone. In their place stand rows of boxwoods, all perfect spheres.

It is possible to come here without seeing a single weed, a single poor face, a single wrinkled face. The whole world is available here if the world is sanitized, straightened out, converted into electronic impulses. It is possible, here, to pretend that death never comes, that food is born pristine, that life is clear and good. The whole lot is paved with asphalt, anything and everything can be removed from the cappuccino grande and it still remains cappuccino grande. The god of this place is the god of logic and cool goodness, god of clean bathrooms and everlasting life.

The old man is probably dead by now. The old dog certainly is. She has gone away to where old dogs go. The weeds are dead under the asphalt. The new rituals are winning: The lot is full of shining cars, their metal wings momentarily at rest. The tables under the plastic umbrellas are crowded with people who have good skin, expensive watches, silver-colored toenails. No-one uses the door marked "Exit" to enter. The new god is strong.

But at night doubts arise. The moon casts a different light. The parking lot is empty, the outside tables deserted. In the shadows the yellow lines seem to waver, the paving seems to crack, as if pushed from below. And, sometimes, fleetingly, one can see a furry paw, a phosphorescent eye, a glimpse of a slow, majestic movement of something sinking, lowering. Does the new god turn his head when he hears the night rain fall?

The Bee's Knees

Most readers don't get this one. See if you do.

"Oh man, you should've been there to understand" I said while I reached for the third ice-cold beer of the night. "It was pure hell and I swear to God I never thought I'd see daylight again."

"Tell us again, pal" pleaded Goggles as usual at this time of evening. I didn't mind repeating the story, not at all. It's only once in a lifetime a flyer gets thrown into a supernatural world and comes back to tell about it.

"Well, guys, it was like this" I started. "Some years ago I had this shipping job up in the North. You know, transporting plant oils and fragrances. The hours were long and hard and often I flew far into the night dead tired. But the pay was good, so I stuck to it for a while."

"Anyway, one night I had been harvesting and shipping for sixteen hours nonstop and suddenly darkness fell. I was still in the air and the engines didn't sound to good. The freight load was heavy and I was flying low. Maybe I had had a few too many the previous night, too, I don't know, but what happened suddenly was that I was lost. I couldn't find any land marks to use to find my way home, and when I looked up from my indicators I saw that I was flying straight into the side of a tall mountain."

The silence in the bar was absolute. You could've heard a flea fart. I took another mouthful of beer and went on with my story.

"I tried my damnest but I couldn't rise or turn. So I closed my eyes and prepared to kiss my ass goodbye. I braced myself for the crash, and went through all the evil deeds of my life asking for forgiveness from the powers that may be. And then I waited for death."

"But the crash didn't come. After a while I opened my eyes and you'll not believe this but I had flown inside the mountain! I was not dead but I was inside this hell of a mountain, and it was daylight! I looked up and I saw several suns and moons, all shining at the same time. I thought that maybe this was heaven after all, but my backside ached something awful and I was covered with fruit essences."

"Well, I was pretty disoriented, so I kept almost flying into things that looked like something out of a science fiction tale: large valleys covered with the hair of dead animals, frozen lakes in impossible shapes, gigantic spiderwebs covering the horizon. And all the time I could hear this noise, this eerie keening, like a million tortured souls pleading together. All my indicators were off. I felt air move suddenly, then stop, and the temperature went way up from what it had been just a little earlier. I felt weak and dizzy and I just had to try a landing."

Goggles was staring at me all bug-eyed with excitement. I fiddled with my beer to make it last longer for him.

"I managed to make an emergency landing on this large plateau under one of the suns. It was so hot and empty and I was parched. I started walking across the emptiness, fearing my own shadow, listening to that horrible howling sound."

"It seems like years of wandering now, but it was probably not that long when I finally reached the other side of the plateau. And what do you think I found there? A precipice straight down. It went on for miles. I was trying to decide whether to turn back or to try a liftoff from the edge when everything went dark. Dark and sort of heavy, and the ululating sound was now all around me. My ears hurt and my eyes stung and my body was shaking uncontrollably. Something really heavy was pressing on me, surrounding me, suffocating me. The stench was unbearable."

The bar had all its focus on me. Nobody even took a sip. They knew that the end was near and they appreciated every second of its horror.

"I struggled valiantly, pulled out my gun and prepared to shoot. I was that desperate. I felt being crunched to little pieces of some overwhelming power, the keening sound was breaking through my brain and sending all of me into outer space, and the stench was after my very heart, looking to stain it and burn it with its acid. I screamed and screamed and desperately tried to pull on the trigger. Then everything went black and I remember nothing more."

"Well, I woke up the following day, all splayed out on the grass near my working fields. I was alive! How and why I still don't know, but I was alive, and boy was I glad to be so! I spent a few hours doing maintenance to the engines and finally managed to make my way slowly back home."

"And to a cold beer!" I added while emptying my glass. Goggles got up to get me another one, and everybody in the bar gathered around me to shake my hand or to pat my back. They sure were impressed by the story.
Editors note: This fragment of a manuscript was found in the recent archeological digs of some 21 century beehives in North America. It is an example of the early macho-style of the honey-gathering period of the bees' evolution. It has also been published in the annals of the Bees' Adventures, vol. XXI. We recommend its use in the early education of all young bees.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Today's Action Alert

(The "I" in this is Hecate, another goddess)

Harry Reid wasn't my first choice to lead the Dems, but, so far, he's not doing such a bad job. Write or call Harry and give him some love, but also remind him that the Dems need to act like an opposition party. Let him know we'll support him when he gets the Dems to stand up to Bush.

Reid, Harry - (D - NV) Class III
(202) 224-3542
Web Form:

Thanks for taking Today's Action.

Friday Dog Blogging; A Reposting

I went out with Hank today, actually walking her on a leash. It goes something like this: she zooms forward like mad, me being dragged behind like one of those people hanging from a moving car in an old tv crime series, then she stops to sniff at some interesting pee and I come to a halt, rise up, shake the dust off and inspect the new wounds. Then she spots a squirrel or a cat and the thing repeats itself. So I don't do walking-on-a-leash very much, except with Henrietta, of course, who has taught me to heel very well indeed. (And don't give me advice on how to train Hank; she's untrainable, and I have many dog-trainers' written affidavits on that.)

But today was a little different, as I took Hank for a run, several swims and mudpool baths first. She was somewhat calmed by all this activity and actually stayed within the usual bounds of a leash-walked dog. We passed by an outdoor cafe with several people, and they all got up to coo and goo over Hank. (This is something I have not mentioned before. Hank is very cute. For some reason her shape never changed from that of a Labrador puppy, and she also has a puppy face. So people want to eat her and stuff.)

Can you imagine how hard it is to stave people off the idea of getting a Labrador puppy when Hank looks angelic? I had to work so damn hard, telling them about the koprophagia and vomiting and the need for three hours' running a day and the fact that Labrador puppies eat the house and how you can't sleep through a full night for months. When that wasn't enough I had to tell them about her being a Bush-lover (this is a solid libural area), but they were just not convinced. Then Hank did a round of groin poking with her freshly mudded snout and that cooled some of them. But I fear I have spread doom and despondency by my careless act of taking Hank out.

This is very different from walking Henrietta, of course. She's so perfect that you'd never know I'm the one who is heeling, obeying and taking commands. We stop at all traffic lights, look first left and then right and then left again, wait until the road is clear and then cross quickly. We hold long conversations about the deteriorating urban architecture and the poor taste in human fashions and the total pointlessness of having cats exist. When we meet humans, Henrietta leaps backwards, raises her hackles, bares her teeth and wags. So we are left alone, pretty much. When we meet dogs Henrietta waits until they pass by and then bites them in the butt. Friendly-like, of course.

Walking the two together is something I've only ever done once. I had to take to my bed for a week afterwards. Now I just load them into the car using the shortest exit route from the house, and pray that nobody is made deaf by the barking.

What Ails the Health Care Markets? A Reposting.

Still reposting...

Many on the political right believe that the U.S. health care system should be operated as an unregulated market system, without government intervention. (If this sounds alien to you, replace the word 'unregulated' with the word 'free'. The term 'free markets' has gained such religious overtones among some pro-market groups that it no longer has a clear economic meaning. I prefer to call such markets unregulated.)

Totally unregulated markets in health care will not work for reasons that have to do with the basic characteristics of medical care. For simplicity, compare some medical care commodity, say, the provision of an appendectomy to that of some more ordinary consumption good, say, bread. Then consider the differences between the two commodities:

1. Feeling hungry is an adequate reason for a person to decide to buy bread. In contrast, all a patient who will end up having appendectomy knows is that something hurts a lot. Thus, we know our own needs when buying bread, but we are unsure about whether we even need an appendectomy. The level of information is very different in the two cases; in the latter case we as consumers lack most of the necessary information.

There are no such people as specialists who tell us when we should buy bread. But we do have exactly such specialists in health care, usually physicians, who diagnose and inform us about our condition and the best products and services to buy for it. This creates an unusual situation, as the person advising us about these needs is also in most cases the person who is going to sell us the products and services, and is therefore directly going to benefit from our purchases. Just think what would happen if bakers were allowed to decide how much bread we 'need'.

This dependency on professional advice leaves patients quite vulnerable. An unregulated health care market would not stop ruthless providers from exploiting the most desperate and/or wealthiest consumers. One reason why physicians traditionally did not advertize lies in this very fact: such advertizing can never be guaranteed to be objective, given the self-interests of providers and the lack of information most consumers possess.

2. Hunger is quite predictable, and if a person likes bread she or he can plan its purchases long in advance. Much of health care use is very unpredictable. With the exception of routine checkups and preventive care, health care consumption can't be planned in advance. Illness and accidents are uncertain events, and this fact makes health care use also an event which we can't predict with certainty. This is the basis for health care insurance. Insurance solves the problem of unpredictability and the need to keep large sums of money at hand for any major expenses. Instead, insured consumers can pay a fixed smaller sum every month (or have their employers pay it on their behalf).

While having insurance is a good thing, on the whole, insured patients behave differently from those who have no insurance. Just think what you would do if you had insurance for bread eating with no cash down needed. You would probably buy more expensive types of bread and more bread in general. This is what happens in health care markets, too. As a consequence, prices don't have their usual ability to affect consumer purchases. What most people take into account in their calculations is the actual amount of money needed (for example any deductibles and copayments), not the total bill of the treatment. Yet it is this total which is counted in the overall costs of medical care.

3. Quality assessment by patients is extremely difficult. In contrast, most of us can tell when bread is stale, and it usually takes just a small sample to find if we like the taste. Taking small samples of health care services may not be practical. It can even be extremely dangerous. That's one of the reasons why patients employ providers as advisers on the type and quantity of care needed. It's also the reason why pharmaceuticals and hospitals are so rigorously regulated, and why the system of malpractice suits exists.

Quality or effectiveness of health care is not completely known even to its providers. Many treatments are routinely carried out that might have only minor impact on the disease they aim to treat. New technologies are sometimes developed on the basis of nothing much more than a hunch, and they often spread widely before any research can be carried out about their appropriateness.

4. Whether I consume bread or not should have no direct impact on others' welfare (though it may affect others indirectly if I'm very poor and others would like me to have more bread). Whether I get treated for an infectious disease or not is of obvious direct interest to others: If I don't get treated, I am going to be a risk in the community. This means that the society as a whole, usually seen as reflected in the government, has an interest in assuring that infectious diseases and other general health problems are tackled. Markets tend to underprovide such services. Why? Because firms don't have the ability to charge other people for the benefits they receive when someone else's infectious disease is treated. These benefits are not then taken into account in market decisions; only the private demand of those infected will be satisfied by the market forces.

All these differences between bread and various types of medical care explain why markets perform poorly in health care and well in the bakery industry. Competitive behavior in most markets drives prices down, keeps quality up and offers variety to the consumers. But in health care prices may not go down with competition because consumers can't always judge what they are getting in quality, which makes per unit prices meaningless, and because insured patients are not taking the whole price into account in making decisions. Quality may not increase through competition if consumers are truly unable to judge quality, or if they use wrong signals to measure the inherently unknown quality. As an example, think about hospitals offering intricate technological services. Competition between hospitals might make them all acquire the latest gadgets, and consumers might think that a well equipped hospital is a high-quality one. But in reality, such competition may mean that none of the hospitals gets enough patients that actually need these services. The personnel operating the technology may not then get enough practice to remain skilled. And, as noted above, markets will underprovide those medical care services which have strong effects on the well-being of others than the patient under treatment.

For these reasons health care costs keep on rising year after year, despite our best attempts to control them, competition seems to have no real impact on keeping prices low, malpractice suits remain common and government regulation an important aspect of health care. The markets for bread, on the other hand, are doing pretty well with minimal intervention.

Those who advocate unregulated health care markets seem to assume that medical care is no different from bread, and that just getting rid of the government role in health care markets would make an appendectomy as affordable, bland and safe as sliced bread. I hope that this post shows why they are wrong.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Still on Vacation

I have a hard time staying away from the blog, but I'm only allowed to repost. Part of my get-sanity-back regime. My first regular day back will be this coming Tuesday. Until then, I'm going to repost things that I like, especially if they don't have too many links (links tend to deteriorate). Here's a long short story that I wrote some time ago. It's not that good but it doesn't have a single link. If you'd like something shorter, the next post is quite funny, I think. Miss you!

Looking For God

Jonathan is looking for God. He has looked everywhere: in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, in Hinduism. He has studied native religions from all parts of the world, studied meditation and shamanism. He has read all the holy texts, but he has not found God. He has talked to believers of all the faiths he has been able to find, and he has found them convinced of their own truths, shiny-eyed in certainty and happiness, and, yet, somehow, very frightening.

Of course, God might not exist, Jonathan thinks as he makes coffee in his kitchen, grinding the shiny, brown beans in the electric grinder. He probably doesn't exist. Jonathan pours the ground coffee in the filter and filtered, clean water in the coffee-maker. He clicks the on-button and waits. Who made the water? Did anybody or anything intend coffee to grow and humans to drink it? Or is the world just a chapter from books on physics, chemistry, geography and biology? And people, what are they? Lumbering apes with small lusty eyes, who can rape and kill, who can break everything with their clumsy paws, who can decode the DNA and go to space, still lumbering apes with small lusty eyes? Who, then is the god? The man with the most Nobel prizes? The man with the most money? The man who killed the most men and impregnated the most women?

Jonathan takes his coffee to the balcony. It is a beautiful morning, birds sing and the sun dapples the grass under the trees below. Here he sits, watching children play, drinking good coffee and drinking in the sun and the birds, the fresh breeze of a spring morning. He doesn't see how this goes with the lumbering ape theory, and, besides, he doesn't believe in lumbering apes. Apes are a mystery at which people gaze through human eyes, a mirror which humans warp to see what they believe is there, what their theory needs to be there.

The wind ruffles Jonathan's hair. It is not a chilly wind. Still, it sends shivers down his body. This is why he needs God: because everything affects him, tells him something, and he can't close his doors against that. A God would let him see patterns, understand what refuses to be understood. Not just why there are wars, holocausts, murders, cancer or airplane crashes. All religions tell stories about this, and although Jonathan doesn't believe in these stories, he is more obsessed with other patterns; patterns so subtle that he can't even see their presence, only sense them in some apparent absence.

He finishes his coffee and sets the empty cup down on the balcony table. The wind tosses a green willow leaf into it. The leaf hesitates a moment on the edge before falling to the bottom of the cup. Was this a conscious act? Anne would have smiled at this thought.

Jonathan picks up the leaf and looks at its intricate veining. Anne found Jonathan's search for God funny and exasperating. She knew that there was no God. They had read the holy texts together, criticized them to each other. She was the first to point out their inconsistencies, their espousal of some values which ancient tribal societies once shared but which now seemed reprehensible. She was the one noting that the god in these texts favored men over women. But they both saw the texts as reflections of what people once had thought god to be, what they had wanted god to say, not as a proof of the existence of God. Jonathan had been disappointed, Anne had been deeply hurt at his disappointment. She wanted to know why Jonathan could still seek for such a god as the texts described. She feared that he needed a heavenly father even if this father had disowned her as an equally loved daughter.

Jonathan wished that she could be with him on the balcony this morning. He would tell her that the God he is seeking is not a man, is not a father. Probably God would resemble no human being. But if Jonathan had to choose he would have God be a heavenly mother, a Goddess. Anne would raise her eyebrows in disbelief. Still, Jonathan rather liked the idea of a Goddess: a beginning and an end in her dark lap.

Is that where Anne was now, he wondered, in Her dark lap? Do suicides sleep there peacefully? Or is Anne simply gone like her ashes he had to sprinkle into the winds? Would she miss him if she could?

He misses her, the dark twin to his light, as she laughingly once said. They were together from the beginning, sharing the womb together, hardly ever apart even later. Without her Jonathan is unfinished, neither coming nor going, a man with one foot in some other invisible world. He needs God to put him firmly in one or the other.

Anne had taken the leap alone, trusting in the existence of no-one, not herself, not God, not Jonathan. She had been outfought. Her war against the world was an impossible one, and when she knew that she could never be more than half-alive, she had opted for total death. Leaving Jonathan behind, half-alive.

Jonathan picks up his cup and goes indoors. He is not working today and plans to spend the whole day looking for God. It doesn't matter if God doesn't want to be found. It doesn't matter if God doesn't exist. If ancient people could create gods in their own image, Jonathan can surely look for God in his own life. Today he is going to do so by meditating in the park.

The park is full of people. Joggers pass Jonathan as he walks in. Children and dogs run around and the benches are all taken. A kite climbs toward the sun. Jonathan finds a small empty corner and sits down under an oak tree. It must be an old tree; its roots are everywhere. Meditation is something Jonathan learned when he studied Buddhism. He never got enlightened, but he can relax his body, quiet his mind and, for some time, enter a state of emptiness. Should God come calling he'll be at home.

He closes his eyes and the sun paints psychedelic bursts on the insides of his eyelids. His body slowly slips its tension and his breathing gently expands. Thoughts drift in and out of his mind, then stop. Somewhere deep inside him a neutral eye opens and observes. Time passes and the sun moves.

He comes back to ordinary awareness when something earth-smelling and moist touches his face. He opens his eyes, staring straight into the brown curious eyes of a dog. There is barely an inch between their noses. Jonathan doesn't know dogs very well, but this seems friendly. It waves its large plume of a tail from side to side. He gives it a clumsy pat on the head. The dog looks at him with raised eyebrows. Evidently pats on the head are not correct.

The dog steps back a little and then bows to Jonathan. Or whatever it does, that's how it looks. It? He? She? She. She turns around and walks away, stopping and turning her head toward him as if asking him to go along. Who does she belong to? She has no tags or collar. She doesn't act like a dog who belongs to somebody. Jonathan looks around for a possible owner, but the park is now empty. The dog keeps insisting that he follow. Perhaps he should, perhaps the dog will show him what she needs or lead him to an accident victim or to God.

This amuses him as he gets up and starts trailing the dog. Dogs are used to hunt, after all, and he is a holy hunter. And wasn't Artemis, the goddess with the bow and arrows, always accompanied by hounds? Then there are the hounds of hell, of course. Better be careful.

Off they go, the man and the dog, stopping every now and then for her to sniff at an interesting smell, zigzagging across the park in apparently meaningless patterns. Jonathan begins to feel like an idiot, but whenever he tries to turn around and leave, the dog looks at him again with that challenging expression in her eyes.

They finally leave the park through one of the side gates. The street outside is busy and Jonathan suddenly realizes that loose dogs are dangerous in traffic. He lunges at the dog, trying to get hold of her but ends on his knees and elbows, staring at the ground. She must have evaded him at the last moment. He must have imagined that his body had gone straight through hers in its path to the ground.

The dog has already crossed the street, and Jonathan rushes after her. She disappears into the crowd and is lost from sight. Suddenly following her is imperative. Jonathan starts running, bumping into people and objects. He can't spot her and is becoming desperate. He looks everywhere, almost ready to give up. Then he sees her, patiently waiting for him at a corner. She turns to a sidestreet and Jonathan follows.

They walk on for what seems like hours to him. The streets begin to look alien. There are fewer and fewer people about. Jonathan is getting tired. Their tempo speeds up. She seems to know where she is going, now, and he can barely keep up. Storefronts whizz by and the occasional pedestrian on the street looks frozen in place. They go faster and faster, turning corners recklessly, crossing streets without checking for cars. Jonathan needs to catch his breath but they go on. He develops a stitch in his side. They keep going. He is sweating freely now, and his legs tremble and ache. They must have run for miles; the dog always at the same easy trot, Jonathan more and more haltingly. Finally he simply must stop and rest.

He stands leaning against a lamppost, drawing in ragged breaths. He doesn't know where he is, the shop windows are full of writing in some foreign script. He doesn't see any people. The dog sits at the next street corner, a vague blurry shape. She hasn't released him yet.

Jonathan closes his eyes and notices that they are full of tears. Is he that tired? The tears fall down his cheeks. He hasn't cried since Anne's death. She didn't care for tears; she managed her emotions by acting them out, by violently throwing books into the wall or by lifting weights until she was exhausted. Jonathan didn't want to cry for her but now he does. He wants her back alive and he wants God to arrange it.

The dog is coming towards Jonathan, stopping once to pee on something on the sidewalk. She is not a handsome dog, her ears don't match and her coat is tangled and matted. But she has something Jonathan needs. Perhaps she knows God.

She sits down nearby and waits until his tears are done. Then she gets up, tells him to follow and trots off.

Jonathan is hollow and light, empty to his bones, but he follows. They pass through streets he never knew existed, cross rivers marked on no map. They walk by odd, distorted buildings, by traffic signs with constantly changing wavering messages. He doesn't understand any of them.

The sun is setting and the mounting shadows take the shapes of plume-tailed dogs. Jonathan thinks that he may have walked like this not for a day but for a year, an eternity. He no longer feels tired, he can now walk tirelessly, softly like a dog. Anne walks by his side, sometimes smiling, sometimes turning her head away. She tells him stories which he doesn't understand. She storms ahead in frustration, then waits for him in mock resignation.. She takes his hand, her eyes fill with love and then she becomes ashes, scattered by the winds. Jonathan looks at his empty hand.

The dog has led him into a deep forest. He has to bend down to avoid the tree branches as he makes his way in. The needles of evergreens sting his cheekbones, the roots try to snare his ankles. The dog is a dim light ahead, still moving deeper into the darkness. Jonathan follows. Finally they emerge into an open area, a hollow, a bog surrounded by trees. The air is scented with something pungent, earthly. The ground beneath him gives on each step, squishes liquid and musky half-remembered smells as he forces his weight on it. A full moon is centered in the sky.

The dog leaps into the bog, splashing water everywhere, her four legs dancing in the air as she rolls onto her back. She rolls back on her stomach and lies there, panting. Jonathan can hear her panting; it is the only sound.

He sits down against a tree trunk and waits. This is where God will speak to him. The dog gets up and shakes herself. Suddenly she starts running. Not the way she moved before. Now she runs in the air, rising up in impossible arabesques, twisting around in slow motion. She chases her own tail high above Jonathan's head, chases imaginary cats around the moon, bounces and leaps through Jonathan's heart. She is all motion; a gentle, piercing song of air, a wild howl of pirouettes. She runs and turns into a golden shower of ashes which rains down on Jonathan. She becomes a dog again, lies down next to him, panting, and starts licking her paws in order. She turns her head and looks at him again with that unfathomable message. Anne turns her head and looks at him, her eyebrows raised. He almost gets it.


He opens his eyes. He is sitting under the oak tree in the park. It is night and he is alone. His body is stiff and numb; it takes a long time before he can get up. His clothes are wet and cold and there are pine needles in his hair. He walks home trying not to think. He takes a scaldingly hot shower still not thinking, changes into dry clothing and makes coffee.

He sits down at his desk with the coffee cup and pulls open a drawer. Somewhere in there is a picture of Anne and him, looking at the photographer through sun-squinted eyes. They are smiling in that picture, wearing matching T-shirts with 'twin' emblazoned on the front. Jonathan had hidden the picture in his grief. Now he needs it. He pulls open another drawer and finds it. He props it against the cup and looks at their faces, first hers, then his, then both of them together. He thinks of the dog. He almost gets it.

After a while he gives up and goes to bed, taking the picture with him. He places it on the pillow next to him and closes his eyes. Tomorrow will be a new day. Just before he falls asleep he hears, from somewhere far away, a solitary dog howl.

On Buttocks ; A Reposting

The links no longer worked so I took them out. Sorry.

I've had a deeply philosophical day, and I'm going to share with you my conclusions and the process I used in coming to them. It started with the lovely springlike sunshine in the morning, which drew me out to sunbathe on a mountain cliff. Now, mountain cliffs are made of hard materials called rock. Yet I was perfectly comfortable there, hundreds of miles away from Green Mamba and his revolutionary movement GROEN (Get Rid Of Echidne Now!). And the reason was the two divine cushions on which I sat; all my own. Buttocks.

What a wonderful invention they are, the buttocks. Where would we be without them? What would we talk about in their stead? And how would we sit? Clearly, we couldn't.

Sheep don't sit around very much, but even among the sheep buttocks can take on exceptional beauty. This is called callipygia. Geneticists have found that a specific gene mutation causes some sheep to develop pronounced buttocks full of muscle rather than fat. I predict a future species of sheep that sit around blogging on the internet.

Human buttocks are every bit as wonderful. They are even scientifically defined:

the two rounded prominences on the human torso that are posterior to the hips and formed by the gluteal muscles and underlying structures.

or more simply:

n : the fleshy part of the human body that you sit on

But human buttocks are not just for something to sit on. They are a myriad of other things: a source of sexual attraction (though some like them big, others small), a way of telling someone to work harder ("get off your butt"), a way of showing contempt (you reveal them) and a handy shorthand for describing lots of other people (a pain in the butt). They even have meaning in dreams:

Dreaming of your buttocks, represents your instincts and urges. It may also indicate feelings of insecurity and reveals your struggles with some situation. Dreaming that your buttocks are misshaped, suggests undeveloped or wounded aspects of your psyche

No wonder that humans worry about the shapeliness of those twin mounds: if they are not shapely, neither is their psyche. Your buttocks can even foretell your future, believe me or not:

Ulf Buck, 39, is a German clairvoyant who claims a person's backside has lines that allow him to predict anything from financial fortune and family life to health and happiness.
Buck said the lines on a person's buttocks are similar to those found on the palm of the hand. He said that he has trained his fingers to acquire the skill of reading buttocks.

Hmm. Maybe something to consider if you want to make a career change? I can almost see it: A revolutionary method for predicting worker performance before hiring. If you do run with this idea, remember to give Ulf and me some credit.

Human buttocks are clearly quite wonderful. But how exactly did they evolve? I have spent the rest of the day in solving this crucial question, and I didn't get anywhere until I put two separate concepts together: what I have learned about the callipygous sheep and the excellent scientific method of evolutionary psychologists. The sheep taught me this:

Geneticists, on the other hand, study the sheep in the hope of understanding the strange way in which large bottoms are passed down through the generations.
Sheep are only callipygous if their father is; mutant mothers do not pass the trait on. And two big-bottomed sheep will have snake-hipped offspring. How the two mutants cancel each other out is still a mystery.

Maybe humans inherit big buttocks from their fathers, too? But why did this gene (if it exists in humans) survive? Here's where the scientific evolutionary psychology comes to my aid. The rules are something like this: Figure out how something that appears today might have once been useful, then explain its prevalence by the fact that it was once useful. It's a neat method, as lots of time is being saved by not having to go out to gather evidence or set up laboratory experiments, and it has the additional advantage (to me, at least) that nobody can prove my theory wrong. So here's my theory entitled "How Buttocks Came to Be".

A long time ago and far away lived a tribe of humans. Some of them were slender as a reed, and where we have buttocks they only had a small tight knot. Others had very large buttocks dragging behind them on the ground as they walked. Yet others were just right, not too slim and not too fat. Like we are.

Once a year the tribe would gather together for a mating ceremony in which all the men would fight each other for the right to inseminate all the females. (The females, as is common in evolutionary psychology in general, are going to be ignored from now on.) The mating ceremony took three days: On the first day all men would sit in a circle until they couldn't take it anymore. All those no longer sitting at sunset were discontinued. On the second day all remaining men would run around in a circle, nonstop, until the sun set. The fastest runner at this time would be declared the winner of the insemination ceremonies. The third day was spent on insemination.

Well, dear reader, you can guess what happened. None of the stick-figurelike knot guys could sit on the ground all day. They developed terrible sitting sores and despite firm determination and great stamina eventually had to admit defeat and get up just to get the blood moving again.

The really big-butted guys had a wonderful time with the first day's tournament. They could have easily sat for another week. But the next day they had to run and run, and as they ran their buttocks dragged behind, hit rocks and sticks and just hurt. Then they started bleeding. Besides, it's hard to run fast with something like that. However, valiant they were, these men, too, were disqualified. Only the fastest of the just-right guys got to pass his genes on.

And that's how buttocks came to be.

What do you think? It needs a bit of work before publication, of course, a few footnotes here and there, but the gist of the story is there.

I also have in mind a second article about the possibility that, as the sheep taught me, snake-hips might be the next stage in human development. Remember:

And two big-bottomed sheep will have snake-hipped offspring. How the two mutants cancel each other out is still a mystery.

This seems perfectly logical to me as a goddess of snakes. The problem is how to keep Green Mamba from reading it and getting even worse ideas about his own importance in the evolutionary tree.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Bye, bye Athena!

This is an old post reposted. Still enjoying my vacation!

I just waved goodbye to her! She threw some kisses back and disappeared in a puff of dark cloud. Then I collapsed.

But it was a good visit: the only thing that suffered was my blogging career. I just didn't have enough time, and I get all crooked-eyed from sipping on the nectar nonstop. So I apologize for not being my usual scintillating self.

I bet you want to know what happened. Well, Athena was kind of stiff at the beginning. She didn't take to the snakes very much, and when Artful Asp drew a picture of her with an enormous bottom, Athena sulked for a few minutes. But things got better after a while. I plied her with made-up stories about how loved she still is and how famous she's becoming among the feminists, and she lapped it all up.

Then she told me several risque stories that I hadn't heard before. Some of them would make your hair (if you have any) stand up, and would be on the front pages of most newspapers in this world. But I have sworn to remain silent about them. At least for a time. Let me just say that Athena is a lot hawter than all that steel and marble would make you suspect.

We also spent some time laughing at the U.S. politics. She finds the neocons extremely funny, and she's planning to work some sort of a joke on the freepers. (She knew nothing about blogging, by the way, and I had to enlighten her there. She really took to Atrios, though of course she prefers me.) We'll see if the freepers think the joke is hilarious, too. Athena sometimes has a rough sense of humor.

And then we imbibed some more nectar, and she got all weepy and teary about the past glories and all that crap. I have no time for self-pity, especially as I don't need any, so I started tickling her and then we practised some new assassination techniques on each other and also worked a Wild West act of lariat throwing with the snakes as the rope. It was a little childish perhaps, especially as she kept changing my lariat snakes into strings of chewing-gum and the snakes found this disrespectful. Anyway, we then went shopping at a mall! I bought a Marilyn Monroe outfit (I can do the head on my own but the clothes are a bit trickier), and Athena bought a new helmet and a set of Wusthoff kitchen knives. It was a real girly bonding time! Just the two goddesses together.

Well, then I fell asleep. I'm not that used to the way gods and goddesses get drunk anymore, but falling asleep was a big mistake, because Athena had gone out boy-scouting in the meantime. I did save everybody, pretty much, and I do apologize for any damage she caused to the bar furniture and the cars parked outside. I'll pay for all of it.

But this morning she was really nice and repentant about everything. She taught me a goddess trick I didn't know before, and even invited me for a visit! And as she was taking off Artful Asp burst into tears. It looked so sweet, and Athena was quite touched. It's good she didn't know that Asp had poisoned all the nectar she drank and had waited with great excitement for the coming death contortions. I did tell the snakes that venom doesn't work against goddesses, but Asp is an optimistic little one, and she was bitterly disappointed when she realized that if Athena would die it wouldn't be in front of us.

But on the whole it was a very successful visit, don't you think so?

Some Thoughts About Misogyny

This is an old post reposted.
Misogyny, like in the hatred of women. This term always seemed inadequate to me, as there's considerably more contempt of women in the air than actual hatred, though the latter can be found, too, especially on the net, and there is also something close to fear of women. We need a word that encompasses all of these, or words to reflect the different types and intensities of feeling.

I believe that misogyny has always existed. I also believe that the majority of men, or the majority of people in general, are not misogynistic, but there is a sizable chorus of hateful voices, and these voices are always humming in the background. The effect this has is to make us almost oblivious to mild hatred of women: it's just how things are. This happens to me a lot. I read an article or see a cartoon or overhear a conversation, and I'm left with an odd displaced feeling which is not quite fear or disappointment but something similar, a feeling of something being wrong or missing, like looking at a group photograph where one person has been whitened out, yet nobody notices. Then later my overworked brain puts the pieces together and I realize that the point of the story was something negative about women or that the cartoon was only funny if you think that women are stupid/greedy/indolent/overemotional, or the overheard conversation expressed an anger at some woman by smearing her for being a woman.

David Gilmore, an anthropologist at New York University at Stony Brook, wrote a book titled Misogyny some years ago. In it he gives us hundreds of pages of evidence on the existence of fear and hatred of women in primitive societies, in so-called advanced societies and in all types of intermediate societies. He also almost delights in showing us the extent of misogyny in many religious writings, in literature and in the visual arts. Any reader brave enough to read him should prepare by downing a stiff drink of nectar or two.

Just about the only people not committing misogyny in Gilmore's book are women. My suspicion is that this omission is a direct result of Gilmore's mild misogyny: that women don't exist except as objects of men's hatred and/or veneration. But this omission is a serious one. Misogyny is not uncommon among women. Misogynist women give us advice in radio call-in shows and political advice as television commentators. They are hired by some religious extremists and politicians to justify largely anti-woman practices. They write articles and books telling women how to live and then blaming them for the negative consequences of these 'choices'. Some of them probably even live in your neighborhood.

True, there are many more misogynistic men than women, but the ignorance of the fact that women, too, can be infected by misogyny casts doubt on Gilmore's theories about the causes of woman-hating. These rely largely on psychological and genetic explanations stressing men's experiences and emotions about women, in particular about women as mothers or as sex objects. Since Gilmore specifically argues that women's experiences and emotions are different from those of men's, his explanations can't cover generalized misogyny.

Which is sort of disappointing, as he provides the reader with a multitude of possible theories. In fact, almost anything seems a likely cause, which doesn't bode well for women, or the reader who might reach for another strengthening sip of nectar. Still, there are a few dim rays of hope for us equalists: Studies suggest that misogyny decreases when men take a more active role in child-rearing and when the sexes work together. Maybe it's just a case of increasing the general understanding between the sexes? I don't know. Disappointingly, Gilmore ends his book by appealing to men to fight their incipient misogyny by noticing how gentle and kind creatures women really are. He obviously never met me.

Whatever the other reasons for misogyny might be, I believe that one reason for its endurance is that people bash women because they can. Women have traditionally not been able to fight back very effectively, and have thereby become a safe target for the general venting of spleen, diffuse rage and other sinister emotions. Obnoxious children torture flies, not bears or lions or tigers. It doesn't matter to these children that the flies might be wholly innocent of any wrong-doing.

So one solution to misogyny and similar maladies might be to fight back: Be a bear or lion! Roar! Or if you prefer to be a fly, at least crap on the misogynists' dinner plates.

Athena Is Coming For A Visit

On vacation. This is an old post reposted, so Athena is not actually visiting me right now. Tomorrow I'm going to repost the story of what happened during her stay.

Yes she is. In a few days' time she will land at the Snakepit Inc., and I haven't finished the cleaning and the polishing of the snakes, I haven't decided which way my hair would look most divine, and I still don't remember all her great deeds in a chronological order. I have butterflies in my stomach.

Does this surprise you, me being a goddess and all? Well, you shouldn't be surprised. Athena is a Much Bigger Goddess than I ever was, and the only reason she deigns to hobnob with me at all is that lots of her good pals have expired over the centuries. That's what happens to gods and goddesses when their believer base drops below a certain level. I'm lucky as the snakes were never really Christianized. This makes me one of the stronger goddesses now, but Athena will think of me as just the bothersome half-breed who never had tea with Hera. (As if I had ever wanted to have anything to do with that origin of the Phyllis Schlafly myth!)

And I'm not sure if I really like her that much, Athena, I mean. Sure, she's great to have around when logical thinking is needed or when an intricate long-term war needs planning. But all those shields and helmets, all that clanging of the pot lids! And she's such a daddy's girl. She even got a myth started about her birth containing no female assistance whatsoever. Which is a lie as all gods and goddesses know. Her real mother was probably a goat, but whoever she was, Athena never burst out of Zeus' head. Nothing burst out of his head except for lust and stupid ideas. I can say this now safely as he has long since expired. But Athena likes to think of herself the Exceptional Goddess: the one with no touch of femininity, all pure reason and military strategy. Poor thing, Zeus never cared for her anyway, and femininity is a very useful aspect in the goddesses' tool kits.

On the other hand, goddesses get lonely, and only another goddess really knows what it was like once. If only I could keep her off the topic of Ann Coulter. Athena thinks that Coulter is one of her acolytes or something, and I get so fed up with having to stare into corners with glazed eyes while she goes on and on about Ann. As I'm the hostess with the mostest I can't just bite Athena's butt. So annoying. I must write a list of suitable neutral discussion topics soon.

So what do you think about the hair? How would a goddess have her hair arranged? Would a few small baby snakes look cute peeking out on the temples? Give me some help here!

Why, Despite Everything, Humans Should be Given a Second Chance

I'm still on vacation! This is a reposting of a post from last Spring

This is meant to be a happy post, to keep my dear readers reading rather than running away in disgust at the gloom and doom I usually radiate. So here is my list of wonderful things that humans have created:

1. Chocolate. True, the ingredients are from nature, but people invented the formula for chocolate. It is food for goddesses and anyone else sane. It is said to contain chemical ingredients similar to those that are unleashed when one falls in love. It should be called 'the little orgasm', and it should be declared the national food of all countries. Eating chocolate is good for you, researchers have established (too lazy to find the link now but this is true). The only bad thing about chocolate is something called 'white chocolate'. It is an imposter and should be shunned. The best, absolutely the best chocolate is a home-made truffle. I make a mean chocolate truffle.

2. Buttons, zippers and safety pins; all things to hold us together. Nothing else has come close to these nifty inventions, not therapies or antidepressants, not even velcro (which sticks too much). Where would we be without these helpers? Imagine Bush trying to march looking militant while his toga disintegrates all around him. Sorry, maybe you don't want to imagine that.

3. Vermeer's paintings, especially his blue tones. They are a good substitute for illegal drugs.

4. Dickinson's poetry; so innocent that it covers the most obscene with equal surety.

5. Taj Mahal. Though I've never been there, so this is provisional. But based on the pictures I've seen it is an eternal ode to love.

6. The ancient South American feather murals. I want one!

7. A little medieval wooden head of Christ in a tiny rural church somewhere in Scandinavia.

8. Physicians Without Borders.

9. Blogs.

10. Emergency Rooms, for reasons that to me are obvious.

11. Pesto, another food for goddesses, and freezable!

12. French kissing, though only by people who know what they're doing.

13. Siberian throat-singing, because it is so inexplicable, and sounds to me like an attempt to French-kiss oneself.

Define "A Successful Woman"

This is a reposting of a post from last Spring.
Please. I think that this phraze is an oxymoron: there is no such thing as a successful woman, or at least no generally agreed-upon definition of one. If a woman has had a life of fame, if she has been a famous writer or painter or scientist, there's bound to be books written about how unhappy she was in her private life: either she didn't have a partner or she didn't have children or if she had both of these, well, the partner and the children must have been very deprived and unhappy. If a woman led a private life, doing things for her family and local community, she was just doing what was expected of women in general: to be the basis on which other things can thrive without getting any fame or reputation from it. She didn't DO anything, you know, she didn't lead armies or invent the theory of relativity.

Yet the fact is that men who we universally regard as successful have equal 'gaps' in their lives, but we don't decide that this would stop them from being successful. Einstein was a terrible father and husband if the existing accounts are to be believed. Can you imagine how this would be portrayed if he had been female? Her theory of relativity would get quite a new meaning.

Of course any person, man or woman, is successful in a sense if he or she satisfies all important private goals for life. Perhaps being content is a sign of success. But the world at large doesn't define success this way, and we do get rewarded on the basis of the world's definitions, and these definitions make it essentially impossible to be a conventionally successful woman. Then some 'genius' writes another book wondering why women still have trouble getting to the top...

You may have guessed that I have been reading stuff that gives me indigestion. It started with two excellent post about the oh-so-wearing mummy wars at ms. musings (Alas, no longer permalinkable). I'm so very tired with this attempt to pull and yank every woman until they fit into the same standard pattern, and what's more, a pattern that is not humanly/humanely possible to fit. Then I read in a comments thread of another blog about what's wrong with Republican women: the ones who are well known are 'cold ice-maidens' that no man would want or 'too busy and career-ambitious to have had children' if some man did choose them. Come on, give us a break. If the 'cold ice-maiden' had three small children at home, she'd be blamed for neglecting them or she would never have been promoted to her current position of power. You can't win if you're a woman, it seems.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Listen to Bill Moyers

He has written a deeply feeling article on the current state of the American politics, on the Rapture gang, and on the impact of all this on the environment. The conclusion he comes to is stark and scarey: A large number of Americans don't care about warfare or about the slow dying of the trees and the animals because they believe that all this will help to expedite the end of the world, the Rapture, and that God sees this all and finds it pleasing.

More frighteningly still, this is the part of America that is in power. We are ruled by Talibanish values by people who have interpreted the last U.S. election results as support and approval of policies that include attacking one country after another and letting the nature slowly wither away.

Moyers is appealing to the one emotion that might work to counteract the rapturous mindset: our love for our children and grandchildren. Will this be enough? If a grandfather believes that he will Raptured up into the heavens when the mercury poisoning takes over his grandchildren, will he care? If a mother sees the war in Iraq as a step towards Heaven, will she care that it is someone's children that are killed in this war?

I so hope that Moyers is overly pessimistic in his piece. So does he.

The Freedom Loving Young Americans

U.S. teenagers appear not to care about the First Amendment. A study analyzing their opinions showed that:

The original amendment to the Constitution is the cornerstone of the way of life in the United States, promising citizens the freedoms of religion, speech, press and assembly.

Yet, when told of the exact text of the First Amendment, more than one in three high school students said it goes "too far" in the rights it guarantees. Only half of the students said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.

Other findings of the study suggest that the teachers are more willing to allow others to express unpopular views (97%) than their students are (83%), and that many students don't know what the Bill of Rights guarantees.

The reaction to these findings has been moaning and whining about the indifference of students and about the lack of teaching on these issues in schools. Yes, all that is necessary and important to do, but I wonder what earlier studies would have shown about the students of earlier generations. Were the teenagers of the 1980's and 1990's any better informed or any more passionate?

I don't know the answer to this, but I suspect that the vast majority of teenagers has always been fairly uninformed and fairly uninterested in anything that doesn't affect their personal lives very directly. It's always the minorities who start change and initiate revolutions, and the real question is whether today's active and informed minorities are smaller than those in the past.
The study covered more than 100,000 students and was carried out early in 2004.


I haven't had one for over a year. So I'm having one now, starting tomorrow morning and lasting for one week. My blogging will be reduced from its usual levels, though I won't stop altogether. Time to recharge the batteries and all that. Americans take far too few vacations. Maybe that's why we are so belligerent? My vacation will be a nice study on that!

Check out my blogroll if you need to have a bigger fix than this blog will provide.

Today's Action Alert

Today's Action:

She's not always on the side of justice and light, but Maria Cantwell has been consistently one of the strongest voices in the Senate on the issue of energy market manipulation of the sort that rocked California and Washington State. She's introduced a bill -- S.22, Electricity Needs Rules and Oversight Now (ENRON) -- that will amend the Federal Power Act to broaden prohibitions on so-called "round trip" trades. Round Tripping was one of the schemes that Enron used to jack up prices. Cantwell recently explained that schemes such as Round Tripping cost the West an estimated $35 billion in domestic economic product and a loss of 589,000 jobs.

Write a letter to the editor of your newpaper and explain that this country doesn't need any more Enrons. No energy traders should be allowed to engage in Round Tripping or other schemes designed just to jack up the price of an essential service such as electricity. S.22 ought to be passed this session.

Thanks for taking today's action.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

More on the Iraq Elections

I am no expert on this topic, so I wish to draw your attention to someone who is: Juan Cole. He has a good post on the meaning of these elections in terms of the politics of tomorrow. He also links to a study by Zogby which showed that

The survey, to be released at 5 p.m. ET on Abu Dhabi Television, found three-quarters (76%) of Sunni Arabs say they definitely will not vote in the January 30 elections, while just 9% say they are likely to vote. A majority of Shiites (80%) say they are likely to vote or definitely will vote, as are a smaller majority of Kurds (57%).

Majorities of both Sunni Arabs (82%) and Shiites (69%) also favor U.S. forces withdrawing either immediately or after an elected government is in place.

The poll also found that of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups, only the Kurds believe the U.S. will "help" Iraq over the next five years, while half (49%) of Shiites and a majority (64%) of Sunni Arabs believe the U.S. will "hurt" Iraq.

The election was in the nature of a referendum on various parties as individual candidates' names were not known to the voters beforehand (and in some cases the candidates themselves had not known that they were on a list). It's hard to see what the voters were voting for, exactly. Maybe it was just for the idea of voting?

I'm glad and relieved that casualties were kept to a minimum, and I'm happy for the Iraqis who could vote for the first time in decades. But the meaning of this election will not be clear for some time. The day of voting is not all there is to democracy, and most of the real tests lie ahead. To be quite honest, I'm not more optimistic than I was before the elections. Although maybe Bush can now withdraw the troops honorably, pretending that everything has been fixed. That would be something to cheer about.

Open Thread?

I'm cleaning house today. Dustclouds in the horizon and lots of snakes hiding in the closets. The dogs are not allowed to shake for a day because no more dog hairs are allowed.

I'm going to have an important visitor and the house must be spotless. So I won't have time to blog right now. Besides, I need cleaning advice and recipes and general whining about the state of the world and anything else you might want to contribute.

In other words, this is an open thread. Yes, I know that I'm not a big blog with good reasons for open threads, but I'm having one anyway.

Voting in Iraq

This is not a proper analysis of the Iraqi elections or whether anybody voted today or what the insurgents have accomplished in blood and suffering. That must wait until later. For now, my feminist side is ascendant and immediately noticed this interesting aspect of Iraqi democracy in action:

Al-Yawer was among the first to cast his ballot, voting alongside his wife at election headquarters in the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad. As poll workers watched, he marked two ballots and dropped them into boxes, and then walked away with an Iraqi flag given to him by a poll worker.

''I'm very proud and happy this morning,'' al-Yawer told reporters. ''I congratulate all the Iraqi people and call them to vote for Iraq.''

A Postscript: The link I give above now leads you to a different article than the one from which I took the quote. However, if you put my quote into Google and Google the news you get the link I gave you. Does this mean that the article was changed? I don't know. I was unable to find another link to the original article, though the second paragraph of the above quote was also used here.

A Second Postscript: Jay Sundahl in the comments points out that I may have misread this piece. There are two ballots, so Mr. al-Yawer may have been just filling his own two ballots. If so, I'm very glad. It's very good sometimes to be mistaken, if the reality is better than what one thought.