Friday, February 24, 2006

Reality check time.

Let's recap, shall we?

Through Friday, the U.S. had won 23 medals, eight of them gold. That exceeds the number won at any Olympics other than Salt Lake (where we had a surreal 34) by ten. Even subtracting the events that were added to this Olympics -- team pursuit in long track speed skating, side by side slalom in snowboarding and snowboard cross -- we've won 20 medals, six of them gold.

And yet, the general opinion of sportswriters has been that this Olympics has been a great disappointment for the U.S. team. Ann Killion of the San Jose Mercury News wrote that Sasha Cohen, by winning the silver instead of the gold in women's figure skating, had failed in her opportunity to "redeem" the Winter Games for the USOC.

What the hell is going on here? The answer comes from Yahoo's Ken Murrah. All medals are not created equal, he said. "The problem is, the wrong people won at the wrong times."

On behalf of Hannah Teter, Julia Mancuso, and the men's curling team, I would like to say...

Vaffunculo anche.

If what Murrah says is correct -- and I recognize that he was talking mainly about why the ratings are so dismal -- then we have become a nation that cares more about hype than actual results. It's not enough for an athlete to win one medal -- such as Shaun White, who dominated the men's halfpipe competition -- or even two -- such as Joey Cheek or Shani Davis, both of whom have a gold and silver apiece in long track speed skating. Nor is it enough to win a silver medal in a sport in which the U.S. has been hopeless for so long that there are no expectations of success, such as Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto did in ice dancing (ending a thirty year medal drought with a remarkable performance). No, you have to be annointed a star by the media (and Nike) before the Games begin, and, unless you are a figure skater, you have to succeed by winning multiple gold medals.

Have you noticed who sportswriters are griping about losing? Bode Miller, who was the subject of intense media hype before the Games. Chad Hedricks, likewise. (Hedricks wins my "Olympian I most wish belonged to some other country" award.) It's not enough that Hedricks has won three medals, putting him in an elite group of American athletes who have won multiple medals at one games: he didn't win enough, and only one of them was gold. Then there was the case of Jeremy Bloom, who was hyped because, not only was he a world class freestyle skier, he's a football player! Woo hoo!

They are complaining not because the U.S. isn't doing well, but because they guessed wrong about who the stars were. Big whoop. The football cliche about "any given Sunday" may be a cliche, but it still holds true, which is, as they say, why you play the games.

This is not to say that the U.S. Olympic team doesn't merit some criticism. Someone from the U.S. skating team or the USOC should have taken Davis and Hedricks aside and talked to them before their feud became bitter and public. And Lindsey Jacobellis, what in heaven's name were you thinking, girl?

But by hyping individuals rather than competition, by losing sight of the spirit of the Games themselves, the media have only fed a public perception of the Winter Olympians as losers. And that's unfortunate.

And unfair.

Oh, and Sasha Cohen? Maybe it's me, but being the second best figure skater in the whole freaking world strikes me as pretty damn impressive. So she fell. She didn't fall apart. She showed grace under the most difficult of conditions and came through. I am proud that she represents my country. If she wants to be disappointed, that's her perogative, but everyone else should just shut the hell up.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


I love the Winter Olympics.

I love the outfits the ice dancers wear. I love the goofy grins and youthful enthusiasm of the halfpipe snowboarders. (I really hope Shaun White gets to date Sasha Cohen -- who could resist such a pickup line as "You do a 1080? So do I" or that marvelous red hair?) I love the insanity of what was really the world's first X-Game -- ski jumping -- and the NASCAR-like aspect of skeleton (c'mon -- don't you watch to see if someone washes out? I do). I love the way that the people who end up being stars are rarely the people that have been designated as such beforehand by Nike (Bode who?), the unknowns who suddenly become household names. (Paging Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto.)

Tonight begins the major dramatic event (cue weepy music) of any Olympics: women's figure skating. Personally, I don't really care who wins -- I'm more interested in the men's 1500m speed skate. This year, men's speed skating is marked by the sort of off-ice drama normally reserved for the ladies in sequins: in one corner we have the outspoken Chad Hedricks, skating's more successful Bode Miller, groomed to be a multiple-gold winner, who had only won one, allegedly upset (or not, depending upon which newspaper you read) because Shani Davis had pulled out of the team pursuit, after which the Americans had finished fourth. In the other corner is the taciturn Davis, winner of the 1,000m, whose supposedly domineering mother has been portrayed as the force behind his success. A third factor is the heroic Joey Cheek, who has donated his bonuses for the medals he has won so far (a gold and a silver) to a charitable organization called Right to Play. Okay, so it's not Nancy and Tonya, but it's much more interesting that the whole Michelle Kwan "will she or won't she?" issue, and the hype surrounding the skater who finished third at nationals and who is a major news event primarily because of her sister.

I have six more days of Olympic bliss before I have to let go of all this. Then it's the long wait until 2010 and Vancouver.

Wait... I've been to Vancouver. I've even been to Whistler, where the skiing is going to take place. It's only a couple of good days driving from here. By then the kids will be old enough I could take off a bit and head north. I should start planning now...

After all, how could I miss the chance to experience Olympic fever in person?

In vino veritas...

Last night, my husband and I went out to a sports bar, looking to get out of the house and maybe watch some of the Olympics away from the kids. Trying to watch ice dancing when you can't hear the music -- because, after all, no self-respecting sports bar is actually going to be blaring "Carmen" from their television speakers -- is rather an exercise in futility, although it was interesting to watch the skating without the music.

I am a cheap drunk. There is a line from the junior show (a musical staged by the junior class every year) that played my first year at Wellesley, "You can't change a Wellesley woman's mind with just one drink!" which applies to me: it takes only two. Over my second rum and coke, I said something which has been terrifying me lately, and which I do not know what to do with. Something which I have been afraid to admit to anyone.

I am desperately afraid I have become a "good German." You remember them? The ones who stood by while the Nazis took power? The Nazis did not begin with concentration camps and ovens -- they started much much smaller, with the Nuremburg laws of 1933, and even before that. And all along the way were people who stood by, who did nothing.

It has become popular in some circles to equate the current Administration with the Nazis. I am not doing that here. But there is a great many things which we as a country are doing which are horrific and which undermine all that we once stood for.

We have accepted torture -- in fact, if not in words -- as a legitimate exercise of state power. (Oh, sorry, that should be "aggressive interrogation techniques.") We throw people in prison with minimal due process, on the grounds that they are "enemy combatants" -- even citizens. (Just ask Jose Padilla -- who was held for four years before being charged with criminal charges -- about the sixth amendment's guarantees of a "public and speedy trial.") We have a President who admits to illegal wiretapping, and claims that he is exempt even from legal requirements so favorable to the executive that since 1979 (the first year FISA was in effect) only 4 of over 18,000 requests for warrants have been rejected (all in 2003, in which 1,723 were approved). Opposition to the war is portrayed as being at best anti-patriotic at best and treasonous at worst. Desire to get to the truth of what is happening at places like Abu Ghrayub, or in Fallujah, where we have been so eager to "win" that we use weapons that skirt the line between chemical and non-chemical weapons (weapons we would decry as illegal and immoral were they being used against our own soldiers) is "undermining the troops."

And so on.

And I don't know what to do. I go about my everyday life. I watch what goes on, write the occasional letter to my congressional representative or senator (which gets acknowledged) or to the editor (which doesn't). I don't talk politics much with people except online (see my post about my family). In that last, I am cowardly and I recognize it.

And it makes me wonder, how many of those "good Germans" were simply people who were appalled but helpless? What can one person do in the face of institutional evil?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

A letter to the Mercury News

Dear Sirs:

In his letter of Sunday, February, 19, 2006, Scott Abramson upbraids the media for showing the latest round of photos from Abu Ghurayb, claiming that they will likely inflame more hatred towards American troops.

Whose sensibilities is he really concerned with here? As a nation we are responsible for what happened at Abu Ghraib. We need to hold our leaders accountable -- not merely the few low level military personnel who have been tried. To the extent that these photos show that the abuse was more widespread than previously believed by the American public, that it was a pattern and not merely the actions of a "few bad apples" like the Adminstration repeatedly told us, they need to be seen. Instead, people like Mr. Abramason would have us look away, would minimize what was done in our name. Rather than try and get to the truth, he would have us stick our fingers in our ears, and cover our eyes.

I am sensitive to the feelings of our soldiers, but that sensitivity must always take a back seat to a search for truth. I love my country enough to expect her to do what is right and honorable, even when that means facing hard truths, such as those shown in the photos from Abu Ghurayb.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Purple is such a lovely color.

In my wedding post, I spoke about my family's politics. That was way too flip of me -- I used a shorthand which obscured a range of opinions about many things. (I also forgot and left out my younger brother, who is likewise liberal, although not as liberal as I am.)

Truth be told, we don't discuss politics all that much. In the past, we have discussed "religious issues": abortion, gay rights, women in the priesthood. We don't agree. I know this. I don't discuss these issues with them any more because I think the chances of changing opinions are small, and we do not see each other often enough that I want to spend our limited time together arguing.

I come from the bluest of blue states. My oldest sister and her husband and my older brother live in the reddest of red states, and my other sister likewise in a red state. My younger brother lives in another red state -- although he's a moderate. By all accounts, if our family were a microcosm of the sort of public discourse seen today, we should be barely speaking to each other.

The fact is, there are things we agree on. My sister who lives in Alaska is upset about no-bid contracts and conflicts of interests with Halliburton and what she sees as the greed of the administration. My older brother is concerned with the NSA wiretaps (heck, even my mom is worried about that, if what she said at Christmas is any indication).

The closest I came to a political argument all the time I was visiting was when my eldest sister (the mother of the bride) and I started to discuss global warming. I dropped it after a few minutes -- she had enough stress in her life just then, and I didn't want to add to it.

But I have heard this sister, the most conservative -- and nicest, by the way -- of any of us, in the past speak against capital punishment. She has a consistent ethic of life: against abortion, against euthenasia, against assisted suicide, against capital punishment. I respect that a great deal, even if I don't agree with all the positions she takes.

One of the hardest tasks facing the country today is for us to get beyond the great divide that exists between political camps. Except... what if the divide isn't as big as we are led to believe? What if we could all step back, and figure out the ways in which people of different political leanings agree with one another?

Maybe we could start listening to each other? How radical would that be?

After all, people in red states and people in blue states are .... people. Imagine that.

I am using this blog to write, not as a place to link to other people's writings -- I don't have a large enough audience to make that worthwhile to anyone. However, in this case, I'll make an exception.

Terry Karney is an intellegent observer of the political scene. If you get a chance, you might want to check out his Live Journal (see my link list), he's an interesting guy. He's no knee-jerk liberal; a current Army interpreter who has also worked as an interrogator, he is willing to call out idiocy on any side.

He has several posts on the current political situation that more people need to read:

About the efficacy of the NSA wiretap scheme, and dangers it poses for the rest of us

About fear

About the dangers of an Imperial Presidency

As I said, Terry has a calm head on his shoulders. If he says we're in trouble, that means something.

Love and marriage...

I spent the last weekend at a niece's wedding. This particular niece reminds me of Bubbles, the Powerpuff Girl: blonde hair, blue-eyed, pretty, and with superpowers -- she has a mind like a steel trap, one bachelors' in math, another in computer science (she has yet to start her masters' work), and is able to program code like nobody's business. Did I mention she hangs out and helps her new husband when he works on his jeep?

During the wedding and reception, people talked about how lovely the bride looked, how handsome the groom looked, and how they just seemed right for each other. Since they had been dating for seven years, they pretty much had time to work out whether in fact they were right for each other. They also have a very large and supportive network of friends and family, which is invaluable to a young couple. I'm not in the least worried about my niece and her young man.

And it got me to thinking about marriage in general. One area in which my more conservative relatives (which would be pretty much all of them -- I'm the liberal black sheep of the family) and I disagree -- strongly -- is same sex marriage. I have trouble seeing where allowing long-term committed couples to be able to formally recognize that relationship endangers or trivializes marriage. (That my family and I are able to get along as well as we do having such disparate political views -- they love me in spite of much of what I believe -- gives me hope for the rest of the nation.)

I also remembered an exchange I had had with a woman in another online forum several months back. The context was a discussion of, I believe, the war. This woman was making nonsensical and bating comments. Another commenter, who I know pretty well through online interactions and through mutual friends, replied with a comment full of passion and eloquence, which included quoting Wilfred Owen. It was magnificent. I jokingly said "I know it would never work out -- as we're both married -- but marry me?" It was a stupid reply, I know, mainly because such eloquence deserved something better.

The first commenter went after me, saying "Since the concept of "marriage" doesn't mean much to most including the author (apparently) need I say more. Yeah, right, asking someone to marry one in an anonymous forum... how trivializing of the state of matrimony is THAT!!??? (Oh yeah... Just a joke. Hehehe.) "

For a great many reasons, most of them having to do with my personal history, that hit very close to home. I swear, if I had been in the same room with this woman, I might have become physically violent.

I managed to calm down enough to write a simple answer, along the lines of "I've been married long enough -- 22 years -- to have earned the right to joke about it....", but it was still quite an unpleasant experience.

And I also got to thinking about what does endanger marriage:

It's Renee and Kenny.

It's a nation that actually cares whether Brad is with Angelina or with Jen.

It's people -- Rob and Amber, Jessica and Nick, to name just a few -- who let the most intimate relationship of their lives become fodder for cheap entertainment.

It's a nation where couples, on average, spend enough on twelve hours of their lives to feed a family of four for a year.

It's every bride who has not asked her friend to be a bridesmaid because she was too fat or not pretty enough.

It's every groom who checked out and refused to have anything to do with the wedding or preparing for life together.

It's every bride -- or groom -- who went down the aisle and made sacred vows because "everything's been paid for and it would be a big problem to call things off at the last minute."

It's every planner who left people off the guest list that would have otherwise been invited so that the couple could have a fancier dinner.

It's every person who used wedding invitations for business purposes.

It's people who go down the aisle thinking that there are always "do-overs."*

It's every mother-in-law who insists she be more important in her son's life than her daughter-in-law.

It's every father-in-law who refuses to see his grown married daughter as anything other than "Daddy's little girl," and treats her husband accordingly.

It's every friend who said** "You know, your life would be so much simpler if you'd just leave him."

It's every coworker who says "I can't believe you let your wife get away with that!"

It's the Southern Baptist Conference, and every religious organization that insists that wives are to be submissive to their husbands.

It's every preacher who speaks of "wedded bliss", as if the two words implied each other.

It's every romance novel and fairy tale that portrays marriage as easy, or smooth, or forever romantic.

It's every movie where couples never go to counseling before splitting up.

It's every husband who sexually, physically, emotionally or verbally abuses his wife.

It's every wife who sexually, physically, emotionally or verbally abuses her husband.

It's every person in the world who think they know more and are more qualified to make decisions about what is going on in a given marriage than the two people who are in it, and who are willing to tell them about it.

A simple joke? No. Same sex marriage? No, not that either.

* I'm not saying that people should not get divorced, just that if you are thinking about how to get out of your marriage on your wedding day -- and there are people like that -- maybe you shouldn't be getting married. Linda Ellerbee once said that we had it all backwards, that we should make it hard to get married and easy to get divorced. I think she may be right.

** unless abuse is present. If one or the other parties is being abused, then friends should be urging them to leave.

Monday, February 06, 2006

'Night, Sister.

On Saturday, Betty Friedan died. She was 85.

It is hard to overestimate the impact she had on the nation's psyche. She destroyed some of the myths we held about who we were: all to the good, as those myths were eating the soul out of countless women.

There are a lot of criticisms of her feminist writings, most of them valid. She did view things from a straight, upper-middle-class, white perspective. After all, "the feminine mystique" that she railed against in her groundbreaking first book was a syndrome found among bored suburban housewives, not poor working women. As a friend of mine in college once explained, "If all your life you've had to work to support your family, it would be nice to have a choice to stay home and raise your own kids." And in some ways, perhaps, her writings made the choice to stay home and raise kids (because someone has to do it, if not you then a nanny or babysitter or day care worker) seem unacceptable for intelligent or educated women.

But because of Betty, and her comrades, women had choices. Not all women, in many ways not enough women and not enough choices, but more of each. The questions were beginnning to be asked.

I am three years older than Betty was when she wrote The Feminine Mystique. I came of age during a time and a place (the South) when girls were expected to be nurses, not doctors, before Little League fields had youngsters in ponytails, when a woman president was a joke, not a possibility. When you could be fired for being pregnant. Before the first woman astronaut, the first woman Supreme Court Justice, the first woman to be nominated to nationwide office by her party.

I am growing older now in what has been sometimes called the "post-feminist age". Rush Limbaugh and his ilk sneeringly refer to "feminazis" and young women without a trace of irony say "I believe in equal rights, but I'm not a feminist." At a time when Kansas state senator Kay O'Connor can say that granting women the right to vote was a bad thing -- and then run for the office of Secretary of State, which in Kansas oversees elections.

But you know what? I'm a feminist. And regardless of what goes on elsewhere, I'm going to be a feminist until I die. And do you know what that means? It means I believe...

In equal pay for equal work.

That all honest work is honorable.

That there is no "men's work" or "women's work" (outside of a very few short term gigs limited to reproduction) only "peoples' work."

That it is wonderful that my nieces have degrees in engineering and computer science, and that should be honored.

That it is likewise wonderful that my son wants to be a daycare worker when he grows up, and that too should be honored.

That being a doctor or lawyer or Republican State Senator is a choice that is open to all people who possess the proper qualifications -- and "having a penis" is never a requisite qualification.

That raising children -- your own or someone else's -- is a choice and should be respected as important work, regardless of the gender of the caregiver.

That men should change as many diapers, and wash as many dishes, and write as many thank-you notes and Christmas cards as their wives do.

That yes means yes and no means NO.

That women should have the same access to the boardrooms, the classrooms, the machine-shop floors, and the playing fields, that the men have.

In short, that all people, regardless of gender, are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This is who I am and what I believe. I would have come to believe these things without Betty Freidan, I think, but I would have been alone. With Betty, and the movement she was such an integral part of, I was part of something larger. There is safety in numbers -- it helps reassure you that you are not mad. Being exposed to the feminist movement meant that I had other people who understood my frustration and pain. Although I never met her except through her writings, by being the catalyst that she was, Betty Freidan changed my life.

So, Betty, a younger sister says thank you. Rest in peace.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Yeah, what THEY said....

Orson Scott Card posted a defense of teaching Creationism in the schools. I would have liked to pointed out all the holes in his argument, but then Pharyngula did such a lovely job of it, better than I could have.

I wanted to express my frustration at what I saw as the false theological dichotomy being set up -- just because we know how something works, why does that mean God is not present? -- but then Real Live Preacher wrote exactly what I was thinking, only so much more brilliantly than I could have.

So, I think the only thing left to say is....

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars— mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is 'mere'. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination— stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern— of which I am a part... What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent.
---- Richard Feynman

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

To inspire and guide....

On Devon Island, in the Canadian Arctic, there are seven inukshuks. An inukshuk is an Inuit "stone man" -- it serves to comfort people on dangerous journeys and mark pathways. The inukshuks are a little smaller than life-size, and are made of stone of the area.

I know about the inukshuks firsthand because my husband helped erect some of them. As part of the Haughton-Mars Project (so named because Haughton crater on Devon is a good analog site to conditions found on Mars), he was there in the summer of 2003 and 2004 when the stone men were being built.

Were you to go to Devon -- not many people do, it's only accessible for a couple of months in the summer -- you would find the inukshuks at McCool Crossing, Husband Hill, Anderson Pass. Brown Ridge. Clark Point. Chawla Peak. Ramon Point.

Each inukshuk has
the bio of one of the seven Columbia astronauts, a patch of the crew's shuttle mission, and a patch of the NASA Haughton-Mars Project. According to a statement by Pascal Lee, Principal Investigator for the Haughton-Mars Project, "it is our hope that the Columbia Inukshuks on Devon Island will help bring peace to all those who continue to miss these seven astronauts, and will help inspire and guide future generations of space explorers who will journey to the Moon, Mars and Beyond."

How interesting, to place memorials where the people who will see them are themselves explorers and scientists. To inspire people actually working to get us "to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond."

NASA is an agency of the United States government, make no mistake about that. There is bureaucracy. The politics can be byzantine, just like any other government agency. But often, you get people who work there whose idea of public service extends beyond our borders to all humanity, beyond our time to generations unseen. People think in terms of years -- sometimes in terms of decades.

There will be future Columbias, future Challengers. (Not to mention the occasional probe or rover that goes astray.) Space is not a place hospitable to humans. In many ways it's remarkable that there have been as few disasters as there have.

And there will be more inukshuks -- on Devon and elsewhere, perhaps only in our own imaginations. But there will still be those willing to take those risks, to push those boundaries.

We are all the better for it.

Maybe I need more windmills...

Samuel Alito is now on the Supreme Court. The Administration continues to defend its domestic spying program. There is Plamegate and the Ambrahamoff scandal and war and discord and fear.

And this weekend my nine-year-old and I completed a massive construction project: we rebuilt the Santa Barbara mission in styrofoam, salt clay and construction paper. We did this while listening to show tunes together -- because although he proclaims loudly how much he dislikes them, it is always "except for...." "Rent" (the song, not the entire soundtrack -- he's too young for that), or "I Wanna Be a Producer" (from The Producers) or "Do You Hear the People Singing" (from Le Miserables) or, tonight, "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha. You cannnot imagine how wonderful it is to hear a boy soprano singing "This is my quest, to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far..."

The Republic will survive, somehow. Me, I have a knight I have to hang out with.