Sunday, February 21, 2010

First Sunday of Lent: Lenten blog break

Stained glass from St Mary's, Greenville, SC: Christ stills the tempest.

In case you all haven't figured out by now, I am taking a blog break for Lent.

I did not initially announce this, because I wasn't sure I could do it. Last year, I tried it and had to break my silence over the death of my favorite author. This year, I thought I would do likewise, when I heard about the death of a well-known American war criminal.* Then I thought, NO, I will not break my Lenten devotions for.... him. I might, though, for something or someone of towering importance. (The official rules are that Lenten devotions are suspended on the Sabbath, so I will try to update you on my spiritual progress every Sunday, if I have anything to say.)


I need to get centered, and perhaps I need to get my blog-stats way down first, before that can happen. I have been thoroughly confused over various Blogdonia incidents of late (such as being banned at FWD/Forward without explanation), and once again wondering if I belong here, Land of the Ultra-Connected and Always-Trendy Grad Student. Certainly, I am not as smart as ANY of these people. (And they like to tell me so, often.) But I am committed to the idea that even us not-smart people deserve a place to hang out, and deserve to have our say, even if we aren't up to the standard of FWD or similar high-toned blogs.

Does everyone have to be a genius these days? When Dubya was president, the communication standards were much lower! ;)


I'm also trying to figure out how to talk/write about fat, of all things.

I have usually worried that anything I wrote about fat, fasting and/or calorie restriction had to be very careful not to "pile on" in a fat-hating, fat-hysterical culture. As is the case with disability, it is very difficult to discuss things honestly when dread, misogyny and negativity are the rule. But the fact of the matter is: fat is not good for me. Fat is trashing me. It is indisputable that 50 extra pounds on one's knees and feet (regardless of the source of that weight) are going to be pretty damn rough on that person's knees and feet, especially if they stand/walk all day. I have decided that drastic action is necessary to prolong my working life and my overall bodily health.

In feminist Blogdonia, it is not considered progressive to say anything negative about fat, and I have therefore been very reticent to write this, although I have written about the calorie restriction movement (CRON) and related issues in the past. In a culture that thrives on jokes about the likes of Jessica freaking Simpson being fat (!!!) ...well, this is obviously not a healthy environment to talk about fat. Duly noted and understood. But I am post-menopause and at my highest weight since my pregnancy. This is not good, and I am changing it.

In the process, I have noticed that our culture's negative-obsession with fat has dovetailed with the "personal acceptance" of fat overall. We all weigh more than ever. I remember when Archie Bunker was considered a fat guy, and now... well, go over to TV-LAND and have a look at him. Does he look fat to you?

Our standards have radically changed.

I was regarded as one of the biggest girls in my school. Looking at crowds of kids congregating outside of middle schools now, I am utterly amazed by their average size; that would certainly not be true today. My middle-school-sized self would not even be considered big at all, by today's standards.

Americans are just plain consuming too much. And not just food, but in every respect. Food is only one of many things we plow through at an alarming rate. We use most of the world's oil and other natural resources. We ship our garbage everywhere. As I get more and more involved with the Green Party, these matters are increasingly on my mind.

And I am meditating and praying and will get back to you. I loves you guys! (((weeps)))


*To the right wing trolls: I will not argue this point with you and will delete all comments defending ALL Nixonian-era mass-murdering swine. Thanks in advance.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Closing of The Open Book

It is with a heavy heart that I report on the loss of The Open Book, the first place I ever worked here in South Carolina. It's the oldest independent bookstore in the area, and ever since the arrival of Barnes and Noble, its days have been numbered.

I am always amazed when the heavily-Republican upstate prefers big business retailers over small businesses, all while bleating the patriotic, pro-capitalist mantra small business is the future of America. Somehow, that never actually translates into trying to SAVE those small businesses by, you know, patronizing them to keep them from going out of business.

At least once a day I hear the phrase, "I can get that cheaper at Walmart." (I fight back the urge to reply, well yeah, if you wanna burn in hell for all eternity!) But it is telling that I can first remember hearing "I can get that cheaper at Walmart," while working at the Open Book. The volume in question was of course some mega-billion-seller by Stephen King or Danielle Steele. We thought, well, they still have to come to us for the offbeat and hard-to-obtain stuff.

That was in 1989, and well before the internet. As you know, that is no longer true.

And unfortunately, you can still get it cheaper at the Walmart.

Greenville's Open Book closing its doors
Customers say a community will vanish with independent retailer
By Jeanne Brooks • Staff writer, Greenville News
January 25, 2010

A card with the news went out to about 1,000 of the store’s best customers over the past year. After four decades in business in Greenville, The Open Book is closing.

Park McKnight, a customer in the store Saturday, said once the doors shut for good, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

The independent bookstore first opened in August 1971, in what was then the Bell Tower Shopping Center, now County Square, long before the era of large national chain bookstores, big box retailers selling books at deeply discounted prices, or online book sales.

Tom Gower at age 48 left a successful corporate job to become a bookstore owner. He went on to make the Gower name “synonymous with local bookselling,” as a Greenville Piedmont story put it in 1987.

The Open Book has remained a locally owned family business to this day. At one point, there were three stores in Greenville and a branch in Clemson. Earlier, for a couple or so years, there was also a branch in Anderson.

Gower’s wife, Elizabeth, and three of their four children — Margaret, Tommy and Grier — worked in the stores alongside their parents. One son, Roger, became a doctor instead.

In 1978, the family opened an Open Book in what was then McAlister Mall, now University Center. Managing it fell to Margaret. She hired Duff Bruce to help, and the two married in 1984.

Through the decades, the bookstore attracted and kept devoted customers like Anne Howson and her husband, Art.

“We have relied on Duff for at least 25 years to make recommendations” about what to read, Howson said Saturday.
Every Christmas, Howson’s husband would call for suggestions for the five or six books he always gives his wife. When he came to the store later, Bruce would have a list ready.

Howson said she was sad to learn the bookstore is closing, “but not at all surprised. I know what a struggle this has been (to keep it going). It’s been a labor of love for them.”

For her, “It’s more than just a business closing its doors.” A sense of community will be lost. The Open Book hasn’t been the kind of place to hurry in and out of. “You walk around,” she said, browse the shelves, and talk books and ideas with the owners and staff.

The Open Book’s various stores were consolidated in 1993 into a single bookstore with a café, which the Bruces now own, in a 12,000-square-foot building at 110 S. Pleasantburg Drive.

Books-A-Million, on Laurens Road, “was already here,” Bruce recalled. “And we knew Barnes & Noble was looking.”

Barnes & Noble opened a 29,000-square-foot store on Haywood Road the following year.
But The Open Book held its own for a while. For one thing, “Greenville was growing at the time,” Margaret Bruce said. She has since come to think, “We probably weren’t getting the new people on the Eastside.”

The year the Open Book consolidated, in 1993, there were about 4,700 independent bookstores in the United States, according to the American Booksellers Association, The New York Times reported. By 2007, there were about 2,500.

The plight of the independents was portrayed in the 1998 film, “You’ve Got Mail.”

The independent bookstore The Happy Bookseller in Columbia, founded in 1974, closed in 2008.

But the Bruces said a combination of factors beyond large chain bookstores, some of which are also feeling pressure, have made it tough for independents. For example, some big-box retailers and online booksellers discount books to below cost, Bruce said.

The Bruces started thinking about what to do two years ago. “We both look at the sales every day,” he said.
They considered different options like going smaller. “But we were just tired,” Margaret Bruce said. “We’ve been doing this a long time.” They decided last summer to stay open through Christmas, then close.

They expect to lock the doors for the final time in about a month. There will be much they miss. They will miss the customers, many of whom have become good friends, they said.

And for Bruce, “There’s really nothing quite like handing somebody a book that you think they might like.”

His wife, who has worked in one or another of The Open Book stores most of her life, starting when she was 15, has always enjoyed looking at what sold the day before and reordering.

Once retired, they both intend to read more. Margaret Bruce also wants to do volunteer work.

Also “Margaret has never been to Europe,” Bruce said. “I haven’t been in 30 years.” So maybe they’ll go.

One thing for sure, “We won’t miss worrying about selling enough books,” she said.
At left: From the children's book department, The Cow Jumps over the Moon.

When the store closes, the book clubs, writers groups and nonprofit boards that meet in The Open Book’s back room will have to find another place.

Some schools will have to seek another advertiser for their yearbooks and another donor. A small pool of local businesses, such as office suppliers, will be in need another client.

And local starting-out authors, as Nicholas Sparks was at one time, will have to look for another spot willing to host a signing for someone not yet widely known.

Howson, a librarian as well as a longtime customer, said, “It goes beyond economics. It makes me sad to think that to save a few dollars we give up so much more.”

The Bruces worked on the language of the card they sent out. Margaret Bruce wanted to make sure it didn’t sound “too weepy.” At the end they put, “We will miss you all and hope you continue to shop local. It matters!”
My deepest and most heartfelt novenas go out to everyone at the Open Book, past and present... it always hurts when a dream dies.

*all photos from my Flickr account.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Snowing in Carolina!

I took these photos earlier today!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tuesday Music, better late than never

Bloggers often call it "Monday Music" (on Twitter, it's reversed: Music Monday), but I never have time to post Monday Music... so can't we change it to Tuesday Music?

Ahh, no alliteration.

In any event, I hope the following are arcane and interesting enough for all of you. I had originally believed they were in chronological order, but now that I am carefully checking the dates? I discover, hm, no they aren't. Sorry about that!


Ann Peebles is too great for mere words.

I Can't Stand the Rain - Ann Peebles (1974)


Excellent early-70s funk stylings, featuring terrific trumpet work by Cynthia Robinson. Also, a great song about drug addiction! (I realized this even in junior high school, which probably wasn't a good sign.)

Look at you foolin you...

Running Away - Sly and the Family Stone (1971)


Love the Bruce Lee doll that materializes out of nowhere!

I'm the Man - Joe Jackson (circa 1978)


Pylon is the band from Athens that was inexplicably left behind as all their friends became mega-famous. Life isn't fair.

Video footage is from the silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

Danger - Pylon (1980)


About time for another Black Swan event, isn't it? I used this song in my "Black Swan" post titled It should be obvious, but it's not (from the lyrics).

**Note: Repeated usage of F-word if you are at work or school or otherwise being monitored!**

Black Swan - Thom Yorke (2006)

[via FoxyTunes / Thom Yorke]

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids

NASA photo of Mars.

Would you crack up if you were closed in a small space for 520 days? And saw only the same two or three people? Which people, you are wondering... I suppose it might be important to LIKE those people, right? After being locked up for 520 days with someone, I might dislike them INTENSELY and never wanna see them again...

I heard about this on NPR. This past year, they did a 105-day run-through, and will increase the isolation-time during each test-period. They will finally do a whole 520-day simulation before an actual flight to Mars.

Volunteers Locked Away in Mock Mars Mission
By Tariq Malik, Senior Editor, LiveScience
31 March 2009 06:07 pm ET

Six volunteers locked themselves away in a network of metal tubes for the next 105 days on Tuesday in an experiment to study the human stresses of a manned mission to Mars.

Four Russians and two Europeans — a mix of cosmonauts, doctors, an engineer and an airline pilot — shut the metal hatch behind them, sealing themselves inside a habitat at Russia's Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in Moscow.

The three-month endurance test is a trial run for a planned 520-day mock Mars mission by the European and Russian space agencies later this year to study the effects of prolonged isolation on the human body and mind.

"A crew traveling to Mars will face major challenges, not least, how to cope with being confined to a small space and seeing the same faces for one and a half years," said Martin Zell, head of the European Space Agency's (ESA) space station utilization department. "It is of paramount importance to understand the psychological and physiological effects of long-duration confinement, to be able to prepare the crews in the best way possible and to learn about important aspects of the vehicle design."

German mechanical engineer Oliver Knickel and French pilot Cyrille Fournier represent Europe inside the mock Mars habitat. Cosmonauts Oleg Artemyez, Sergei Ryazansky, sports physiologist Alexei Shpakov and medical doctor Alexei Baranov, meanwhile, round out the crew's Russian contingent. The six men are the prime crew for the Mars500 project, the joint European-Russian effort by ESA, the IBMP with funding from Russia's Federal Space Agency.

"Mars500 is the proof that we are preparing for the future," said Simonetta di Pippo, ESA's director of human spaceflight. "[It] is an important part of this global endeavor as it provides us with the knowledge of how to keep a small crew psychologically and physiologically healthy, and ultimately, to succeed in the big challenge to bring humankind to Mars and safely back to Earth."

During the next 105 days, the six-man Mars500 crew is expected to simulate every aspect of a Martian expedition, including a long cruise to the red planet. After a mock orbital phase, the team would then simulate a landing on the Martian surface and an excursion before another long cruise period back to Earth.

Their habitat, which never leaves its Moscow facility, is a series of connected, but compact, metal tanks outfitted with supplies and equipment to last the full 105-day duration. It includes a Mars descent capsule, kitchen, medical area, research area and a crew compartment.

Altogether, the mock Mars ship contains about 2,152 square-feet (200 square-meters) of space. The Mars500 crew will have voice communications with a simulated Mission Control, as well as with their family and friends. But a 20-minute time lag will be built into the discussions to replicate the one-way transmission delay that would be experienced in a real Martian expedition.

A series of simulated emergencies are planned, and real-life emergencies would first fall to the crew to solve, ESA officials said.

"They will have to cope with simulated emergencies; they may even have real emergencies or illnesses," ESA officials said in a statement.
And they emerged from the imitation-spaceship on July 15, 2009:
MOSCOW (Associated Press) -- Russian engineers broke a red wax seal and six men emerged from a metal hatch beaming yesterday after 105 days of isolation in a Soviet-era mock spacecraft testing the stresses space travelers may one day face on the journey to Mars.

Sergei Ryazansky, the captain of the six-man crew, told reporters at a Moscow research institute near the Kremlin that the most difficult thing was knowing that instead of making the 172-million mile journey they were locked in a four-piece windowless module made of metal canisters the size of railway cars.

The men, chosen from 6,000 applicants, were paid about $21,000 each to be sealed up in the mock space capsule since March 31.
Don't think I could handle it.

And now, you know what comes next, or you should.

It's one of the great dramatic renditions of the 20th century!

William Shatner - Rocket Man

Have a great Super Bowl Sunday, everyone!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Staying True by Jenny Sanford

South Carolina's First Lady's book is out today! If the weather was better, we'd probably have LINES snaking around the bookstores.

Everyone agrees that it promises to be loads of fun!

Excerpt from one early review from the Los Angeles Times:

"Staying True," [is] Jenny Sanford's memoir of a marriage that only can be described as the Contract With America meets Southern gothic.

Sanford's husband, Mark -- the governor of South Carolina -- was once a rising star in the national Republican firmament. Then, last June, he disappeared from office for nearly a week, ostensibly to go "hiking on the Appalachian Trail." As it turned out, he was in South America for a tryst with his Argentine mistress.

After that, things went from bad to worse, personally and politically. Gov. Sanford's long, incoherently confessional television interviews didn't do much to help matters, and this book, for all its more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, clearly seems intended as the last nail in the coffin.

The former first lady, a one-time investment banker with Lazard Frères, is smart, focused and very angry. For all the pious references to forgiveness stitched throughout the narrative, revenge is a barely concealed subtext.

And revenge she gets, but there's a good bit of collateral damage in what's just as obviously unintended self-revelation. In fact, by the time we get to the affair late in the book, it's a bit of a relief, since this is about the first normative impulse either of the Sanfords seems to have had during their marriage.

Take, for example, the future governor's haggling over their wedding vows, because he was reluctant to promise to be faithful. Now, why do we think somebody might have that sort of reservation?

Sanford spends a great deal of time describing her heroic efforts to accommodate what she repeatedly calls her husband's "frugality." Frugality! If this guy is frugal, the unreformed Ebenezer Scrooge was thrifty.

Consider this anecdote: Never good about presents -- early in their marriage he gave her "half" a used bicycle -- and momentarily remorseful for all the time he was spending away from his family while serving in Washington as a congressman, he had an aide buy a diamond necklace and hide it in the family home.

On the morning of his wife's birthday, he faxed clues so she could have "a treasure hunt." She was overjoyed when she found the necklace and wore it to dinner when he returned home. "That is what I spent all that money on?" he said. "I hope you kept the box."

According to Sanford's account, "He returned the necklace the next day, thinking it was not worth the money he had spent. He could see I was disappointed. . . . In truth, once I knew he thought he had overspent, I also knew it would pain him to see me wear the necklace had I insisted on keeping it. I wouldn't have felt comfortable wearing it in his presence, so what was the point?"

The unintentional point, of course, has to do with the power of martyrdom. As Sanford informs us elsewhere in the book, "Women were made for sacrifice."

And boy does she sacrifice . . . over and over and over. What's never clear from her extended exercise in score-settling is why? The man she describes is driven, self-absorbed, pathologically cheap and 360-degrees weird. She runs his political campaigns, puts up with his habitual absences and bears him four sons.

She even believes him, she tells us here, when late in their marriage he explains an unexpected trip alone to New York by saying he needs respite from the extra stress he is feeling because the hair on the top of his head is thinning.

Gimme a break.

If you believe that, you'll also believe Sanford really was looking for family property records when she ransacked her husband's desk while he was away on one of many hunting trips and found the file with his love letters.

On the other hand, this guy's self-absorption appears so complete that he demanded his wife's permission to continue seeing his mistress because it was the first thing he'd ever done for himself. (This is the same man who voted for Bill Clinton's impeachment and called the former president "reprehensible.") It was then that Sanford realized "reconciliation" was impossible.
This is the Southern Lady personified; continuously behaving herself, greeting guests and praying to Jesus, all while the husband is carousing. And yeah, the acute martyrdom brought on by Advanced Southern Lady syndrome can be stultifyingly horrible... and smothering. For a man like Sanford, there is no escape, except to really escape, like to Argentina.

But this is the logical end-result of the Republican-approved family, in which the wife dutifully takes the husband's lead and obeys his orders. What other power does she have, except simpering and martyrdom and inducing the hubby's guilt to get what she wants? Us loud gals here in the south who dare to ask men questions, are the "bad" girls, against which women like Sanford are judged. WE demand answers of men, so in contrast, they do not. See? They are the nice girls.

And we see what being nice gets you, hm?

Speaking of which, I finally finished the utterly-fascinating book GAME CHANGE and was pretty shocked at the behavior of Senator (and former VP-candidate) John Edwards, whom I had once admired. And now, his campaign aide, Andrew Young, has written HIS tell-all memoir, titled The Politician.

For those unaware, Edwards impregnated world-class flake Rielle Hunter, a maker of mediocre videos who momentarily convinced Edwards he was the Second Coming, while Edwards' wife Elizabeth struggled with incurable cancer. After Hunter's pregnancy was confirmed, Edwards ordered Young to claim HE had fathered the baby. Do you believe?!?

From the LA Times review:
Got a chief aide? Don't abandon him for your mistress. That's the lesson of "The Politician" by Andrew Young. For all its salacious finger-pointing, Young's tell-all is really about a bromance gone bad.

"Where he once called several times a day, he now never dialed my number," he writes. "When I got through to him, he kept the calls brief and guarded what he said."

"He," of course, is John Edwards; when his affair with Rielle Hunter -- and Hunter's pregnancy -- hit the press, he persuaded Young to say the child was his. Then Young, his family and Hunter trundled off to a series of houses until the baby was born.

Young was an important player in Edwards' 2004 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and he was a close friend. The Edwards and Young families were on vacation together at Disney World when Edwards learned that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry had picked him as his vice presidential running mate.

According to Young, Edwards and Hunter -- who produced webisodes for the campaign -- carried on their affair for months before a story appeared in the National Enquirer.

Young details the affair from behind the scenes: He carried a special phone for Edwards to use when talking to Hunter; he was there during a visit she made to North Carolina when Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, was away on a book tour; and he caroused with Edwards, Hunter and others on the road during a night of rowdy drinking.

In 2008, Edwards had given up his second attempt at the Democratic nomination but was angling again to be the running mate. Elizabeth Edwards' cancer had gotten worse and Hunter had a baby daughter. In one of the more incredible details here, Young claims Edwards asked him to steal a diaper so he could do a DNA test; Young never did.

But as he was packing up a house that Hunter had briefly shared with his family, he found a box of her things, among them "a number of videotapes, including one marked 'special,' which had the tape pulled out and seemed intentionally broken. . . . I couldn't resist. With scissors, a pen, and some scotch tape, I fixed the cassette. . . . As I pressed play, we saw an image of a man -- John Edwards -- and a naked pregnant woman, photographed from the navel down, engaged in a sexual encounter."

Young is critical of everyone around him but never takes responsibility for his decisions. Edwards' women get particularly harsh treatment. Hunter is portrayed as a sex-crazed loose cannon. Elizabeth Edwards fares no better; in Young's telling, she's a controlling, vindictive harpy who leaves cruel phone messages for those who incur her wrath.
Indeed, one unexpected result of GAME CHANGE is how both Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards come out looking as ruthless as any male politicians. Most disturbing finding: Clinton was extremely eager to find the legendary videotape of Michelle Obama saying "whitey"--and exhorted her aides to find it so that she could use it against Barack Obama. (If it exists, no one successfully located it.) Like Elizabeth, Hillary also specializes in dumping all over her underlings. Sarah Palin actually comes off as more likable by contrast, if amazingly stupid and clueless, requiring several crash courses in world history.


One thing I like about the speed of our modern era: we used to have to wait YEARS to get these fabulous scandal-mongering books about presidential campaigns. Now, the campaign workers are racing to their laptops to type them out before the concession speeches have even been given...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

SAD (but three-dimensional!) update

So there I was on Sunday night, idly flipping channels as usual, and I suddenly came upon numerous hotshot CELEBRITIES with million-dollar winter-tans, trillion-dollar designer-gowns, thousand-dollar botoxed facial expressions (or lack of them) and fancy upswept hairdos, wearing... what?! 3-D glasses! They looked like my dearly departed grandpa at the drive-in movie! (In fact, it was a segment of the Grammy Awards.)

I admit, I laughed my ass off and made Mr Daisy come look at the spectacle of rich people with astronomically-expensive faces, hair and makeup, wearing cheap-ass 3-D glasses that looked like they came out of a Crackerjack box. HAHAHAHA! Did they know how stupid they looked? DEAD AIR certainly hopes so!

Interestingly, I can't find any photos of this humorous event online... did the stars agree to do it only if nobody took photos of audience-members while they looked dopey? If I'd known that, I woulda grabbed my camera for a video capture...

EDIT: In response to this post, has helpfully provided us with video captures of celebs in 3-D glasses at the Grammy Awards.--DD


In other news, blogging is becoming an old people's thang (something I have long suspected!):

Could it be that blogs have become online fodder for the — gasp! — more mature reader?

A new study has found that young people are losing interest in long-form blogging, as their communication habits have become increasingly brief, and mobile. Tech experts say it doesn't mean blogging is going away. Rather, it's gone the way of the telephone and e-mail — still useful, just not sexy.
The study, released Wednesday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, found that 14 percent of Internet youths, ages 12 to 17, now say they blog, compared with just over a quarter who did so in 2006. And only about half in that age group say they comment on friends' blogs, down from three-quarters who did so four years ago.

Pew found a similar drop in blogging among 18- to 29-year-olds.

Overall, Pew estimates that roughly one in 10 online adults maintain a blog — a number that has remained consistent since 2005, when blogs became a more mainstream activity. In the U.S., that would mean there are more than 30 million adults who blog.

"That's a pretty remarkable thing to have gone from zero to 30 million in the last 10 years," says David Sifry, founder of blog search site Technorati.

But according to the data, that population is aging.

The Pew study found, for instance, that the percentage of Internet users age 30 and older who maintain a blog increased from 7 percent in 2007 to 11 percent in 2009.

Pew's over-18 data, collected in the last half of last year, were based on interviews with 2,253 adults and have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points. The under-18 data came from phone interviews with 800 12- to 17-year-olds and their parents. The margin of error for that data was plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

So why are young people less interested in blogging?

The explosion of social networking is one obvious answer. The Pew survey found that nearly three-quarters of 12- to 17-year-olds who have access to the Internet use social networking sites, such as Facebook. That compares with 55 percent four years ago.

With social networking has come the ability to do a quick status update and that has "kind of sucked the life out of long-form blogging," says Amanda Lenhart, a Pew senior researcher and lead author of the latest study.

More young people are also accessing the Internet from their mobile phones, only increasing the need for brevity. The survey found, for instance, that half of 18- to 29-year-olds had done so.

All of that rings true to Sarah Rondeau, a freshman at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

"It's a matter of typing quickly. People these days don't find reading that fun," the 18-year-old student says.

I can't improve on that last line. ;)

(Thanks to Vanessa for the link!)


Pardon my spotty blogging over the past month, sports fans. I have had a pretty pronounced bout of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) this year, and my reliable herbal standbys, Rhodiola, Ashwanghanda and Ginseng have not helped me as much as they usually do. And then I read the Newsweek article, about how all of these BigPharma anti-depressants may be just as good as a placebo (OR AN HERB, Daisy interjected):
The research had shown that antidepressants help about three quarters of people with depression who take them, a consistent finding that serves as the basis for the oft-repeated mantra "There is no question that the safety and efficacy of antidepressants rest on solid scientific evidence," as psychiatry professor Richard Friedman of Weill Cornell Medical College recently wrote in The New York Times. But ever since a seminal study in 1998, whose findings were reinforced by landmark research in The Journal of the American Medical Association last month, that evidence has come with a big asterisk. Yes, the drugs are effective, in that they lift depression in most patients. But that benefit is hardly more than what patients get when they, unknowingly and as part of a study, take a dummy pill—a placebo. As more and more scientists who study depression and the drugs that treat it are concluding, that suggests that antidepressants are basically expensive Tic Tacs.

Hence the moral dilemma. The placebo effect—that is, a medical benefit you get from an inert pill or other sham treatment—rests on the holy trinity of belief, expectation, and hope. But telling someone with depression who is being helped by antidepressants, or who (like my friend) hopes to be helped, threatens to topple the whole house of cards. Explain that it's all in their heads, that the reason they're benefiting is the same reason why Disney's Dumbo could initially fly only with a feather clutched in his trunk—believing makes it so—and the magic dissipates like fairy dust in a windstorm. So rather than tell my friend all this, I chickened out. Sure, I said, there's lots of research showing that a new kind of antidepressant might help you. Come, let me show you the studies on PubMed.

It seems I am not alone in having moral qualms about blowing the whistle on antidepressants. That first analysis, in 1998, examined 38 manufacturer-sponsored studies involving just over 3,000 depressed patients. The authors, psychology researchers Irving Kirsch and Guy Sapirstein of the University of Connecticut, saw—as everyone else had—that patients did improve, often substantially, on SSRIs, tricyclics, and even MAO inhibitors, a class of antidepressants that dates from the 1950s. This improvement, demonstrated in scores of clinical trials, is the basis for the ubiquitous claim that antidepressants work. But when Kirsch compared the improvement in patients taking the drugs with the improvement in those taking dummy pills—clinical trials typically compare an experimental drug with a placebo—he saw that the difference was minuscule. Patients on a placebo improved about 75 percent as much as those on drugs. Put another way, three quarters of the benefit from antidepressants seems to be a placebo effect. "We wondered, what's going on?" recalls Kirsch, who is now at the University of Hull in England. "These are supposed to be wonder drugs and have huge effects."

The study's impact? The number of Americans taking antidepressants doubled in a decade, from 13.3 million in 1996 to 27 million in 2005.

To be sure, the drugs have helped tens of millions of people, and Kirsch certainly does not advocate that patients suffering from depression stop taking the drugs. On the contrary. But they are not necessarily the best first choice. Psychotherapy, for instance, works for moderate, severe, and even very severe depression. And although for some patients, psychotherapy in combination with an initial course of prescription antidepressants works even better, the question is, how do the drugs work? Kirsch's study and, now, others conclude that the lion's share of the drugs' effect comes from the fact that patients expect to be helped by them, and not from any direct chemical action on the brain, especially for anything short of very severe depression.

As the inexorable rise in the use of antidepressants suggests, that conclusion can't hold a candle to the simplistic "antidepressants work!" (unstated corollary: "but don't ask how") message. Part of the resistance to Kirsch's findings has been due to his less-than-retiring nature. He didn't win many friends with the cheeky title of the paper, "Listening to Prozac but Hearing Placebo." Nor did it inspire confidence that the editors of the journal Prevention & Treatment ran a warning with his paper, saying it used meta-analysis "controversially." Al-though some of the six invited commentaries agreed with Kirsch, others were scathing, accusing him of bias and saying the studies he analyzed were flawed (an odd charge for defenders of antidepressants, since the studies were the basis for the Food and Drug Administration's approval of the drugs). One criticism, however, could not be refuted: Kirsch had analyzed only some studies of antidepressants. Maybe if he included them all, the drugs would emerge head and shoulders superior to placebos.

Now, we need to talk about placebos and why they work. I think, you know, it's something quaintly known to some of us as FAITH.

Which leads me to...


Left: Cross by Wes-Wilson (1968)

And finally, more brawling over Jesus, Krishna, Moses, and all their friends. Good God (joke deliberate)--will I never learn? Why do I do this? I should know by now to listen to myself and what I hear myself saying: The atheists are as intractable as the fundamentalists. Buddha's extremely sane Middle Path will never go over with either party, so why on Earth do I bother?

I quit arguing with the fundies, since I decided their minds were already closed, but I really hate giving up on the atheists. I thought they were supposed to be SMART? If they are, do they honestly believe that the VAST MAJORITY of people in the ENTIRE WORLD will give up our magic talismans and superstitions?

Barefoot Bum, in above link, keeps lambasting me unmercifully as superstitious... but what he doesn't seem to understand is that I fully grant him the point. Now, in his perfect religionless world, what is he going to do with all of us incurably-superstitious people? Psychiatric hospitals? Gulags? Collective farming in the countryside? It's all been done. Didn't work. Now what?

Honest question, not at all rhetorical, and I put it out there for all "militant atheists" (name of thread wherein aforementioned brawl took place) to answer. I know what the fundies think. What do you think? You can't consign us to hell, since you don't believe in it, so would you lock us up? Barefoot Bum says no, of course not. But if you think certain people are DANGEROUS and spread evil and ignorance simply by existing, don't you think they should be locked up? If not, you must not really think we're that bad and it's all an exercise in advanced rhetorical hubris.

The above argument was borrowed from Michael Kinsley, who used to demand (during his stint on CNN's Crossfire) that pro-lifers answer the question: Would you put all women in jail who obtain abortions? If you say no, you must not truly believe abortion constitutes the crime of murder, as you SAY you do. Gotcha.

If Christians are dangerous wackos, it seems you would believe we should be locked up in hospitals for wackos. If you think we are spreading vicious awfulness and engaging in horrific hate-speech, you would of course want us to at least be ARRESTED, yes? And you don't?

Excuse me, radical atheists, I call bullshit.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Feast of the Presentation: Groundhog Day

The Presentation in The Temple (1342) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

(DEAD AIR NOTE: I am reprinting last year's Groundhog Day post, since I don't think I can improve on it!)


I was intending to write a cool post about how Groundhog Day was once the Feast of the Presentation in the Roman Catholic Church. Then I realized I would have to be fair and explain this was once known as Candlemas, which was unabashedly grabbed from Imbolc, only to discover that people aren't 100% sure about the social evolution of just how these holidays all morphed together.

And I realized that we all appropriate... the secular culture now has no clue about the Feast of the Presentation, just as most Catholics don't know from Imbolc. Just as most of us don't know that fireworks were first used by the Chinese for their own holiday festivals... we consider them all-American and now use them for every occasion.

Still, as a ritual-junkie, I like to know where my rituals came from.

Every culture in the known world, but particularly frozen Europe, has historically marked this day, which is the exact middle point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox... I get ancient images of women lighting candles to make the sun return, in bitterly-cold stone temples throughout the wintry places of my ancestors. They lit those candles for the future, for us. Just as the Feast of the Presentation was a way to celebrate the bris of Our Lord, his official entry into His tribe and people.

If anything sums up our modern irreligious times, it is how we don't seem to feel connected to the future or the past; the whole of humanity. We do things for ourselves, right now. Who cares what the people of the past imagined for us? Who cares what future generations might think of us?

We have cut ourselves off from destiny and then we wonder why we get so depressed.


I was recently studying Chaco, a place I am trying to talk Mr Daisy into going, and how they have literally had to OUTLAW religious ceremonies. As far as I know, the first worldwide attention to Chaco came after Carl Sagan's influential TV show COSMOS (1980), in which he demonstrated the incredible astronomical knowledge of the Anasazi people, who designed these structures.

At left, the "Chaco Sun Dagger"--in New Mexico. (approx time period 1000 AD)


Shown is the "Sun Dagger" by which the Chacoans (Anasazi) were able to read the harvesting and planting seasons and recorded time's passage. At the Winter Solstice, rays of sunlight fell between the 2 huge stone slabs, neatly bracketing the spiral petroglyph on 443-foot Fajada Butte at the south entrance to Chaco Canyon. At the Summer Solstice, a single band of light bisects the center of the spiral. The spring and fall equinoxes were heralded by an additional light that fell on the smaller petroglyph, visible to the left of the larger one. This discovery was made by Anna Sofaer in 1977.

Now, I ask you, is that awesome or what?

At various times of the year, the moon settles into some of the "windows" of these structures (see last link for example). I am made dizzy by how many generations dedicated themselves to understanding these celestial patterns; I bow in awe of their heavenly awareness.

I feel strongly that I must go's a bit reminiscent of Richard Dreyfuss playing in his mashed potatoes in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS; I am drawn to this location for reasons I can't readily comprehend. And then I read ((embarrassed)) that lots of people feel that way and have created something of a new-age ruckus out there in the desert, waiting for the moon and the sun dagger and everything. They ring bells and play instruments and such. I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to restrain myself, if I saw such a thing in person, I would likely shed tears and sing, or something. But that isn't respectful of the people who believe this is part of their tradition. Although the Anasazi are long gone; the Pueblo and Hopi are their relatives, but they are no more THE SAME as the Anasazi, as I am THE SAME as the folks who originally designed Stonehenge. I don't see that they or anyone else should have the spiritual copyright. And then again, I also believe it would be somewhat disrespectful to whoop it up out there during the Solstice. So, color me confused.

And so, a ritual we cannot imagine and have lost... has this one thing left from it: the calendar they used. And as we see time pass, we also see Imbolc morph into Candlemas, into the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, and finally, it becomes the harmless commercial hoopla known as Groundhog Day, featuring Punxsutawney Phil. And it would appear that as the story has morphed into a fun secular tale, people have lost all sense of time, except for the "6 more weeks of winter" prediction that goes along with it.

Pennsylvania had many German settlers, which accounts for why Phil ended up there, of all places. The introduction of an animal into the story was their unique innovation. Some believe it was due to the candles of Candlemas, that the animal saw its shadow (or not) in the flickering candlelight. Other sources believe it was due to the (human) carnivorous habit of searching for the whereabouts of hibernating mammals, who might peek out to see if the weather was pleasant, then dart back inside. (And it was originally a badger or hedgehog, which also changed when Germans came en masse to the Western Hemisphere.)

And now, we have Groundhog Day... also the subject of a great movie which starred my favorite comedian of all time. The movie, fittingly, has a deeply spiritual message, for those who can appreciate it: You can keep on repeating yourself forever, or you can evolve. Just as the holiday itself, has evolved.

Keep on evolving, and happy Groundhog Day!