Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Welcome to East of Eden!




Happy New Year and welcome to East of Eden! After blogging at Far Above Rubies for nearly four years, I've decided to move on. But it's not so much of an end as a transition. Pretty much the stuff I wrote about there will carry on over here. So why the change? Well, for starters, Blogger can be a royal pain at times. I've mysteriously lost whole posts, comments have never showed up, and I was getting hit with too many spambots behind the scenes. I never liked keeping up the comment restrictions, but I preferred it to having my readers subjected to comboxes full of joint cream ads (By the way, why joint cream ads? I can't even join AARP for like twenty years! Geesh!).

Also, I haven't felt totally at home with the title "Far Above Rubies" since... ever. A quick Google search of the term reveals not only is it way overused, but it's usually the moniker of some nice homeschooling group from the Midwest. Or some nice Southern Baptist lady with a blog, a Bible and receipes for macaroon brownies (which I'd love to sample). In other words, not an on-point descriptor of me. While I still strive to be that Proverbs 31 woman, with her early rising, fabric business and organized home, I'm not there yet.

So why East of Eden? With "Eden" in the title, there is a direct Biblical reference. But the "East of" part is key. I'm not in paradise, I'm not in some utopian state. I like the east reference because I'm from the eastern part of the U.S. (Jersey Strong!). It's also the title of my favorite John Steinbeck novel. If you get a chance and haven't already done so, read it.

I also love the new digs, don't you? I have to stop a sec and thank my wonderful husband, Keiron, for coding all this into an actual wonderful, working website. Some lovers pen sonnets or compose songs to their muses; my K purchases domain names and builds websites. Tel est l'amour.

Take a look around, hope you find this site much easier to navigate. Please feel free to share your opinion, and bare with us as we move the 700+ posts over. We're like ten percent there. Sigh. 

 And again, Happy New Year!


PLEASE NOTE: THIS WILL BE THE LAST POST AT THIS LOCATION. FOR NEW POSTS, PLEASE GO TO WWW.EASTOFEDEN.ME

Monday, December 31, 2012

I resolutely resolve not to make resolutions.

It's New Year's Eve, so besides preparing for parties, Times Square, or Watchnight Services, people are setting about making New Year's Resolutions. Weight loss, job goals, learn a new language, try yoga, yadda, yadda, yadda. I say, good for them. For me? I'll pass.

I'm not anti-resolution, or against fresh starts. Or not so fresh starts. I'm not so caught up in the whole new year thing, though. As my slightly cynical brother pointed out years ago, January 1st isn't our new year, meaning, it's not our birthdays. So if I were to croak tomorrow, despite it being 2013, I'd still be thirty, same as if I croaked this very minute. My "new year", so to speak, is February 2nd. But backtracking from this tangent, resolutions can be great, if kept. I just see no need to chain them to a particular date on a calendar. Start today or start the second. Start tomorrow, screw up on the second and then restart on the third. Whatever, it's all good.

So if you've got some resolutions at the ready, more power to you and best of luck. If not, best of luck. To all, Happy New Year.

Great(ly different) Expectations

 Princeton University. I did not attend. I did, however, drive by a number of times on my way to the neurologist's office.


I attended and graduated from a state university, and one not in the top tier at that. That is not to say I received a second-rate education. Far from it. I learned so much, in class and even more-so, from occurrences not transcribed on to a syllabus.

Reading "Lost in the Meritocracy" by Walter Kirn at The Atlantic, I was heavily reminded of my college days. Sure, he matriculated at Princeton around the time I was just arriving on this Earth, but there are some transcendental experiences with which I could relate:

With no stored literary material about which to harbor critical assumptions, I relied on my gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas disguised as conclusions that I'd reached myself. The deployment of key words was crucial, as the recognition of them had been on the SATs. With one professor the charm was "ambiguity." With another "heuristic" usually did the trick. Even when a poem or a story fundamentally puzzled me, I found that I could save face through terminology, as when I referred to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land as "semiotically unstable."

The need to finesse my ignorance through such stunts left me feeling hollow and vaguely hunted. I sought solace in the company of other frauds (we seemed to recognize one another instantly), and together we refined our acts. We toted around books by Jacques Derrida, and spoke of "playfulness" and "textuality." We laughed at the notion of "authorial intention" and concluded, before reading even a hundredth of it, that the Western canon was illegitimate, an expression of powerful group interests that it was our sacred duty to transcend—or, failing that, to systematically subvert. In this rush to adopt the latest attitudes and please the younger and hipper of our instructors—the ones who drank with us in the Nassau Street bars and played the Clash on the tape decks of their Toyotas as their hands crept up pants and skirts—we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we'd never constructed in the first place.

I came to suspect that certain professors were on to us, and I wondered if they, too, were actors. In classroom discussions, and even when grading essays, they seemed to favor us over the hard workers, whose patient, sedimentary study habits were ill adapted, I concluded, to the new world of antic postmodernism that I had mastered almost without effort. To thinkers of this school, great literature was a con, and I—a born con man who hadn't read any great literature and was looking for any excuse not to—was eager to agree with them.

I never drank anything stronger than coffee with my profs (I shudder to think how some of the wackier ones would be wasted), but that... that contrarian deconstruction of great literature, of bad literature, of politics, poetry, religion, life... that type of postmodern thought ran rampant throughout my English department. While Kirn hid not reading the lit he so heavily lambasted, I didn't. I didn't have to because many of my profs never bothered to even assign them. How I received a Bachelors in English without having read a single book by Hemingway or Steinbeck, I'll probably never know. But I felt like something of a con myself.


Closing in on graduation, Kirn fumbled at what to do next. Years of prepping for academia left him feeling unprepared.

All around me friends were securing places in grad schools and signing contracts with worldwide corporations, but I found myself without prospects, in a vacuum. I'd never bothered to contemplate the moment when the quest for trophies would end and the game of trading on them would begin. Once, I'd had nowhere to go but up. Now, it seemed, I had nowhere to go at all.



I felt similarly adrift as my undergrad career came to a close. I majored in English and Communications. I remember complaining repeatedly, "What does that even mean? I can speak and write. Big whoop." SAT prep class, years of honing study skills and writing on index cards for drills to get to college. And just like that, college was a wrap. How did this relate to life?

... I couldn't quote the Transcendentalists as accurately and effortlessly as he could. I couldn't quote anyone. I'd honed more-marketable skills: for flattering those in authority without appearing to, for ranking artistic reputations according to the latest academic fashions, for matching my intonations and vocabulary to the background of my listener, for placing certain words in smirking quotation marks and rolling my eyes when someone spoke too earnestly about some "classic" work of "literature," for veering left when the conventional wisdom went right and then doubling back if the consensus changed.

Flexibility, irony, class consciousness, contrarianism. I'd gone to Princeton, and soon I'd go to Oxford, and these, I was about to tell Karl, are the ways one gets ahead now—not by memorizing old Ralph Waldo. I'd learned a lot since I'd aced the SATs, about the system, about myself, and about the new class the system had created, which I was now part of, for better or for worse. The class that runs things. The class that makes the headlines—that writes the headlines, and the stories under them.

...

My cynicism had peaked, but later that summer something happened that changed me—not instantly but decisively. A month before I was scheduled to fly to England and resume my career as a facile ignoramus, I came down with a mild summer cold that lingered, festered, and turned into pneumonia, forcing me to spend two weeks in bed. One feverish night I found myself standing in front of a bookcase in the living room that held a row of fancy leather-bound volumes my mother had bought through the mail when I was little. Assuming that the books were chiefly decorative, I'd never even bothered to read their titles, but that night, bored and sick, I picked one up: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Then I did something unprecedented for me: I carried it back to my bedroom and actually read it—every chapter, every page. A few days later I repeated the feat with Great Expectations, another canonical stalwart that I'd somehow made it through Princeton without opening.

And so, belatedly, haltingly, and almost accidentally, it began: the education I'd put off while learning to pass as someone in the know. I wasn't sure what it would get me, whose approval it might win, or how long it might take to complete, but for once those weren't my first concerns. Alone in my room, exhausted and apprehensive, I no longer cared about self-advancement. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read. I wanted to find out what others thought.


It's oh-so amazing what one learns in the school of life, where the best classes often occur far outside ivory towers. Away from the pretending and preening, no need for false provocateurs. Meritocracy can shove it. Life lived apart from the race has much merit.

A losing battle in the never ending War on Drugs.



Federal judge Mark Bennett writes in The Nation of the incredibly long minimum mandatory sentences handed down to non-violent offenders found guilty on drug charges:

You might think the Northern District of Iowa—a bucolic area home to just one city with a population above 100,000—is a sleepy place with few federal crimes. You would be wrong. Of the ninety-four district courts across the United States, we have the sixth-heaviest criminal caseload per judge. Here in the heartland, I sentence more drug offenders in a single year than the average federal district court judge in New York City, Washington, Chicago, Minneapolis and San Francisco—combined. While drug cases nationally make up 29 percent of federal judges’ criminal dockets, according to the US Sentencing Commission, they make up more than 56 percent of mine. More startling, while meth cases make up 18 percent of a judge’s drug docket nationally, they account for 78 percent of mine. Add crack cocaine and together they account for 87 percent.

Crack defendants are almost always poor African-Americans. Meth defendants are generally lower-income whites. More than 80 percent of the 4,546 meth defendants sentenced in federal courts in 2010 received a mandatory minimum sentence. These small-time addicts are apprehended not through high-tech wiretaps or sophisticated undercover stings but by common traffic stops for things like nonfunctioning taillights. Or they’re caught in a search of the logs at a local Walmart to see who is buying unusually large amounts of nonprescription cold medicine. They are the low-hanging fruit of the drug war. Other than their crippling meth addiction, they are very much like the folks I grew up with. Virtually all are charged with federal drug trafficking conspiracies—which sounds ominous but is based on something as simple as two people agreeing to purchase pseudoephedrine and cook it into meth. They don’t even have to succeed.

I recently sentenced a group of more than twenty defendants on meth trafficking conspiracy charges. All of them pled guilty. Eighteen were “pill smurfers,” as federal prosecutors put it, meaning their role amounted to regularly buying and delivering cold medicine to meth cookers in exchange for very small, low-grade quantities to feed their severe addictions. Most were unemployed or underemployed. Several were single mothers. They did not sell or directly distribute meth; there were no hoards of cash, guns or countersurveillance equipment. Yet all of them faced mandatory minimum sentences of sixty or 120 months. One meth-addicted mother faced a 240-month sentence because a prior meth conviction in county court doubled her mandatory minimum. She will likely serve all twenty years; in the federal system, there is no parole, and one serves an entire sentence minus a maximum of a 15 percent reduction rewarded for “good time.”

...

If lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug addicts actually worked, one might be able to rationalize them. But there is no evidence that they do. I have seen how they leave hundreds of thousands of young children parentless and thousands of aging, infirm and dying parents childless. They destroy families and mightily fuel the cycle of poverty and addiction. In fact, I have been at this so long, I am now sentencing the grown children of people I long ago sent to prison.

For years I have debriefed jurors after their verdicts. Northwest Iowa is one of the most conservative regions in the country, and these are people who, for the most part, think judges are too soft on crime. Yet, for all the times I’ve asked jurors after a drug conviction what they think a fair sentence would be, never has one given a figure even close to the mandatory minimum. It is always far lower. Like people who dislike Congress but like their Congress member, these jurors think the criminal justice system coddles criminals in the abstract—but when confronted by a real live defendant, even a “drug trafficker,” they never find a mandatory minimum sentence to be a just sentence.



You can read the piece in its entirety here. I'm glad Judge Bennett spoke up about this, but I feel pessimistic as to any real change being enacted in the law. After all, he upholds the law, not makes it. Maybe some in Congress will take note?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Rolling with the overly self-critical homies.


Quite a few people have told me I'm far too harsh a judge of my writing. Jos most disliked this, taking it as a personal insult when I'd dismiss something I've written as boring, inconsequential or silly. Or sometimes, just plain bad.

My friend David continually boosts my pieces, while sheepishly and reluctantly accepting praise for his own. I know it's not low self-worth or a false sense of humility in his case. Most times, it's not with me, either. I genuinely look at my essays and think, "This could, no should be better." When I was younger and being graded or even published, this push for the best could become tiring and frustrating. Sometimes, it led to a stunting paralysis. I would stare at a blank Word document for hours.

This morning at Rod Dreher's blog, I read a post about the upcoming release of his book, "The Little Way of Ruthie Leming." In the combox, he expresses his own harsh self-critiquing standards.

... All I can see in anything I ever write are the flaws, and it’s very difficult for me to re-read it without cringing and feeling terribly guilty for my mistakes. I can’t take pride in anything I’ve written. This is one reason I love cooking: the proof of its quality is in the tasting. When I’ve fallen short on cooking, I don’t feel bad about it, only resolved to learn from my mistakes. When I’ve fallen short on writing, it’s crushing … and I always think I’ve fallen short on writing. The one saving thing is I know this is neurotic, and that I can’t trust my judgment regarding my own work.

Once I found a document on my computer desktop, opened it and started to read it. I was thinking, “This is good, I wonder who wrote it.” And then I remembered that I had written it a year before for a magazine that decided it didn’t want it. It was a tossed-off essay. If I had remembered from the beginning that it was my own work, I would have thought it was sh*t. Because that’s how I roll.

I've done the same thing. Guess I roll in good company, then, neuroses and all.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

What is going on in my newsfeed?

WTH is this?


In the last week, I've been subjected to multiple shots of deformed babies and children, abused animals and even a disturbing photo of a mother and baby together in a casket. They're all captioned with something along the lines of "Like to show respect" or "Like to show you're against abuse." Some even do the 21st century, social network equivalent of a chain letter by adding, "Ignore if you hate God" or "Ignore if you don't care about child abuse" or some other kind of  jerky statement.

These awful things are circulating through my feed because my friends are liking or commenting on them. I'm not sure how or if I can get rid of them. Facebook is always in flux... oh quick tangential rant: what's up with FB trying to make a buck off everything? Promote a picture or link or whatever for money, send a message for a dollar, send a gift to a friend. It's getting ridiculous! But back to the bad memes, I'm thinking, like the ubiquitous bootleg Nike/ Louboutin photo ads that ran through my feed a couple years ago, this too shall pass. If not, Facebook is quickly going to fall into the trashy internet area once filled by MySpace. And then I'll pass.

Interviewing kids in a tragedy... for what?




Caught this segment from On The Media with WABC-NY's Bill Ritter and was... repulsed? Disgusted? I'm not even sure how to describe my reaction. Listen for yourself:



On the day of the Newtown tragedy, I flipped on the TV to CNN and watched clips of chubby faced elementary students attempting to describe the sound of gunshots. Mics were stuck in their faces, and they were usually standing in front of their shell-shocked parents. It felt voyeuristic and intrusive. Yes, they were witnesses, but their accounts added very little detail, no substantive information. It did up the emotional ante, which of course leads to higher ratings. When K got home, he immediately flipped the TV off. I'm glad he did.

Although I have watched Ritter for years on ABC7, I'm disappointed in his weak justifications for interviewing these kids. Even with their parents' (who were probably not thinking straight) consent, it just seems wrong.
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