Sunday, September 30, 2012

Happy Gold Star Mothers Day

Celebrated: in the United States, since 1936

The first headline I saw this morning was that the death toll of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has reached 2,000. It's a bad number, but it's just a number. Too many people will see that headline without stopping to think about the effect of those 2,000 deaths on 2,000 families: mothers, fathers, spouses, children, a number that quickly gets too high to count.

The American Gold Star Mothers society was founded in 1928 through the efforts of Grace Darling Seibold, whose son George was shot down over France in 1918. That year (1918), President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the practice of replacing traditional mourning attire for war-bereaved families with a black band adorned by a gold star for every family member killed in action. Almost every American family would have been wearing some indicator of mourning in 1918, not only because of the war but also because of the flu pandemic, which killed 43,000 soldiers by itself. Since its founding in 1928, the American Gold Star Mothers have expanded their membership to include the mothers of soldiers killed in the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and countless other military operations.

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, everyone in the United States knew what a gold star meant. In the 39 years since the end of the draft, our nation's defense has become something that involves only a small group of Americans, and it's become much too easy for the rest of the country to ignore it. The occasional rally or halftime show "for the troops" is almost worse than pointless; it lets people feel good about "supporting the troops" without doing anything that requires effort.

If I sound sharp about this, it's because I feel sharp. My father was a career Naval officer, and continues to serve (at 70) as an ordinary seaman with the Military Sealift Command. My nephew serves in the Air Force, and I have cousins in the Coast Guard and the Navy. We are a military family, and yet when my own son was thinking about a military career a few years ago, I couldn't help feeling dismayed. Who wants any child to choose a job that deliberately puts him or her in harm's way? It is an impossibly complex tangle of emotions: pride, fear, anxiety and even a little anger — because the responsibility for our nation's defense is not equally shared.

The military has always been one of our society's few true avenues of social and economic mobility, and possibly the only true American meritocracy. But here in Maine, at the northern end of Appalachia, I see that our system allows the wealthiest segments of our society to outsource our national defense to the economically disadvantaged. And that makes me angry.

Incredibly, the effects of bereavement on military families are only now being studied. The first major scientific study is now underway here, conducted by the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. The study looks specifically at the effects of loss on military families who have lost members since September 11, 2001; if you're a member of one of those families, see about participating in the study here.

And if you see a woman wearing a gold star, stop to say hello. Ask about her son or daughter. Say how sorry you are for her loss, and ask if you can do anything to help. Don't forget to say thank you.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Happy National Coffee Day!

Celebrated: All over the United States, including right here on Water Street

Today is also National Museum Day. Free admission to lots of museums all over the country, so check it out. However, it's unlikely that I'll get to a museum today, and I am about to have a (rare) l second iced latte, so it's pretty clear where my priorities lie.

I have no idea who proposed the idea of National Coffee Day, when, or why, but does it really matter? More to the point, why isn't every day national coffee day? Here are some lists of places to get free or discounted coffee today.

Whoever thought up coffee was a creative genius. The legend says that an Ethopian goatherd noticed his goats were more active after eating the beans of a coffee tree, but who looked at green beans on a tree and thought, "I will roast those, grind them up and run water through them"? Trade in coffee was active through the Arabian peninsula in the 16th century, and by 1600 had made it to Venice, where the local clergy condemned it. Pope Clement VIII himself was asked to intervene, and famously said, "Why, this Satan's drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it." (And yet the man has never been canonized. Go figure.)

Coffee has been banned and campaigned against at several points over the past five hundred years, not only because of its stimulating effects but also because people who drink it tend to hang out in the places that brew it. Coffeehouses have always been places to share news and opinions, to host performers, and to give writers the illusion of doing something productive with their day.

It took a couple of centuries for coffee to get to North America. The Dutch brought coffee beans to New Amsterdam in the 17th century, but coffee was a rare luxury until the 1720s, when Gabriel de Clieu, the French governor of Guadaloupe, brought a coffee seedlings to Martinique. (Dutch settlers had already brought a plant to Surinam, and an earlier French colonist may have brought a plant to Saint Domingue.) The Martinique seedling took hold, producing millions of descendants and making coffee available to American colonists who met in coffeehouses to talk of revolution.

Today coffee is grown in more than 50 countries, but only in a narrow climate band — high altitudes in the tropics, between 25 degrees North and 30 degrees South. Sun and rain make a big difference to coffee, so climate change skeptics should pay attention: if you don't care about the polar ice caps, you'll care about a global coffee shortage. Or at least I'll care about a global coffee shortage, and you're going to want to stay out of my way.

I've posted this video before, but I love it and it's appropriate, so I leave you with an invitation to join me as a Coffee Achiever.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Happy National Voter Registration Day!

Celebrated: Nationwide in the United States

The right to vote is the most basic benefit of American citizenship, but six million Americans didn't vote in 2008 because they didn't know how to register, or didn't register in time. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (the "motor-voter law") requires all 50 states to let people register to vote when they get their drivers' licenses, but that assumes that all Americans have drivers' licenses, and that's just not true. People who don't have drivers' licenses tend to be old and/or poor and/or living in places well-served by public transportation (i.e., cities).

For all the attention being paid to efforts to prevent voter fraud (which the nonpartisan Brennan Center says is about as rare as being struck and killed by lightning), the rate of non-registration of eligible voters is much higher, and a much more serious challenge to the goal of a free, self-governing society.

Are you registered to vote? Find out here, and follow the links to register if you're not. Make sure your voting address is up to date, and take a minute today to figure out what might have changed about your voting district since the last election. Here in Maine, as in most of the country, we've redistricted as a result of the 2010 Census; my own address moved from Maine's 1st Congressional District to the 2nd, so I'm going to an event on Thursday night to meet my Congressman for the very first time.

Over the past 236 years, millions have given their lives, in one way or another, to win all U.S. citizens the right to cast a ballot. It's the one and only thing that truly defines us as Americans. Once you've figured out whether you're registered to vote, ask your relatives, friends and neighbors whether they are — even, or especially, if you expect them to vote differently from you. Achieving your own policy agenda because the opposition is silent isn't democracy; it's tyranny. I don't want to be a tyrant. Do you?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Happy Hobbit Day!

Celebrated: On this planet and in Middle-Earth since 1978

Before we begin, an admission: I never fully embraced the Lord of the Rings trilogy, although I loved (and still love) The Hobbit. I read The Hobbit in elementary school, and read the trilogy in middle school (1977-79). The Hobbit enchanted me, but the trilogy felt unnecessarily complex and detailed, I wanted more female characters, and I cared nothing about the battle scenes. So there.

That said, Tolkien's Middle-Earth is a dazzling achievement, a magical place anyone would want to visit, and a Hobbit's life is idyllic. September 22 is the birthday of both Bilbo Baggins and his nephew Frodo Baggins, born 78 years apart, and celebrated by the American Tolkien Society since 1978:

Hobbit Day is a virtually ideal holiday, incorporating attractive elements of several others: the masquerade fun of Halloween, the feast of Thanksgiving, the exchange of greeting cards and gifts associated with Christmas and birthdays, the picnic atmosphere of Labor Day and Memorial Day, the fireworks of Independence Day (or Guy Fawkes Day) . . .
Hobbit Day caps Tolkien Week, a week-long celebration of all things related to J.R.R. Tolkien — Ronald to his friends — poet, polyglot, professor and practicing Catholic. (Among other things, Tolkien translated the Book of Jonah for The Jerusalem Bible, and he gets some credit for C.S. Lewis' conversion to Christianity, though Lewis became an Anglican.) Tolkien served in the Great War and trained to be a codebreaker in the Second World War, but did not serve. Before he became a best-selling author, he was best-known as the world's preeminent scholar of Beowulf, arguing in particular for the importance of the monsters in that narrative. 

The Fellowship of the Ring begins with Bilbo Baggins' 111th birthday party. Hobbits celebrate their birthdays with singing and dancing, games, presents for their guests (no gifts to the birthday celebrant), and, of course, plenty of food and drink. Hobbits eat six meals a day, when they can get them: breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, tea and dinner and/or supper. (That's seven, but who's counting?)

2012 marks the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. The Hobbit was originally written as a children's book. After Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings in 1949, he made two sets of revisions to The Hobbit to bring its story into conformance with the trilogy, but The Hobbit is still much different in structure and tone from the longer novels: lighter, less complex, faster-moving (not to mention shorter). Paradoxically, it turns out to be The Hobbit that requires two separate films in order to adapt to the screen. The first of these opens in December, and it wouldn't surprise me if people are already lining up for tickets.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Happy International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Celebrated: Worrrrldwide since 2002, me hearties

Ahoy! Apologies that this post be so late, but piracy takes a good chunk o' the day, and we must make sail while the sun shines.

Just the other day I were pillaging the local market and saw a little lad, no more than four, hanging off the cart and chantin', "Captain Jack Sparrow, Captain Jack Sparrow." Really, now? Are these motion pictures not rated PG-13, and would ye really be showing them to a four-year-old? Or is there some toddler version I'm not privy to, being a seafaring spinster?

Okay, that's enough of that. The truth is, we don't really know how pirates talked. Several of the better-known pirates were gentlemen, educated to the highest standards of their day: Sir Henry Morgan, for example, was a squire's son with an English Letter of Marque, a royal license to capture and confiscate enemy ships. Stede Bonnet, Charleston's "gentleman pirate," was a plantation owner who, according to legend, turned to piracy as an escape from an unhappy wife. Contemporary accounts of Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, report him speaking in language that approaches poetry: "Damnation seize my Soul if I give you Quarters, or take any from you."

At a time when British naval practices were grim, to put it mildly (Winston Churchill later called them "rum, sodomy and the lash"), the life of a pirate in the 18th century might have been as close as a man could get to absolute freedom. Pirate crews were almost all volunteers, except for the occasional skilled laborer pressed into service. Pirate society was a democratic meritocracy, and mixed by race and nationality if not by gender (although history records at least two female pirates, not to mention Grace O'Malley, the 16th-century Irish "Pirate Queen"). Blackbeard's crew included several escaped slaves. The language spoken on pirate ships probably sounded something like the dialects you hear in Caribbean port cities to this day: a slangy combination of English, Spanish, French, Gullah and sailing jargon.

Sailors have always been readers, singers and storytellers; in the days before modern communications, how else would they entertain themselves in the doldrums? Pirates undoubtedly had better stories to tell than the average sailor, and those stories have only improved with time. Blackbeard probably wouldn't recognize Captain Jack Sparrow, but I have a feeling he'd be amused and flattered by his existence.

Illustration borrowed from National Geographic's website, where you can learn much more about Blackbeard and other pirates.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Happy National Cheeseburger Day!

Celebrated: in the United States, by the Cattlemen's Beef Board

This is a real thing. Read more about it here.

I came to cheese relatively late in life, and still rarely put it on hamburgers or sandwiches. It might be some deep, unconscious longing to keep kosher, it might be the relic of a childhood spent insisting on no cheese, or it might be that the combination of flavors and textures still doesn't really appeal. But I understand that I am in the minority on this, and I am grateful to cheeseburgers for inspiring brilliance in music and art.

Without cheeseburgers, we would never have Mayor McCheese — although he was retired sometime back, and a whole generation is growing up without the McDonaldland characters, and that's just wrong.

Without cheeseburgers, we would never have the immortal "Saturday Night Live" skit — which, it turns out, is actually called "The Olympia Diner," and is based on a real place in Chicago called the Billy Goat Tavern.

Without cheeseburgers, Jimmy Buffett would have had to call his restaurant chain something else. 

But most important to me, without cheeseburgers, Lyle Lovett would never have been able to give us the ultimate example of regret and missed opportunity.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Happy Constitution and Citizenship Day

Celebrated: in the United States, informally since 1787, officially since 2004

On this date in 1787, the Constitutional Convention of the United States completed its work in Philadelphia, after four months of contentious debate. Two hundred and twenty-five years later, the four-page document stands as the supreme law of the land, although it has been amended 27 times.

Benjamin Franklin was 81 years old on the last day of the Constitutional Convention, but not too old to be an essential part of the process. Before the signing of the final draft, he had some last comments on the document - and because he was too frail to deliver them himself, he wrote them out for his colleague, James Wilson, to read aloud.
". . . I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered . . . I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? . . . Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good."
The complete text of Franklin's remarks is here. I want to print them out and hand them to every elected official in Washington and Augusta, highlighting that last phrase: I sacrifice to the public good. What is citizenship, after all, but the agreement to surrender a certain measure of wealth and autonomy in order to be part of a community larger, stronger and more lasting than oneself?

The first three words of the U.S. Constitution are "We the People." Not "Each of us," not "I, the undersigned," not even "The United States." We, the people. And what do we the people propose to do with this Constitution? Come on, sing it with me:

  • Establish justice
  • Ensure domestic tranquility
  • Provide for the common defense
  • Promote the general welfare
  • Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity

Constitution Day has been an official observance in the United States since 2004, when Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) slipped it into the omnibus spending bill. On this day, all publicly funded educational institutions must offer educational programming about the U.S. Constitution and its history. Whether you're still in school or not, take 15 minutes to reread it today. You might be surprised at what you find.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Happy Roald Dahl Day!

Celebrated: Worldwide

Today is the 96th anniversary of the birth of Roald Dahl, author of a score of wonderful books for children, dozens of sharp, creepy and darkly funny stories for adults, several memoirs and - to my surprise - two James Bond screenplays, although these were rewritten by other screenwriters.

Dahl is probably best remembered for the classic children's novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which has twice been adapted to the screen. Dahl disliked and disapproved of the first adaptation, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, so much that he never allowed another adaptation of the book in his lifetime, nor did he authorize a film version of the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. He believed the Gene Wilder film spent too much time on Willy Wonka and not enough time on Charlie, and that the film's ending contradicted the whole point of the book.

I agree with both of Dahl's objections. I detest that movie, which I know puts me in a small minority. But the biggest failing of that Gene Wilder movie is its abandonment of the very thing that makes Roald Dahl's books so wonderful, and will keep children reading them forever. Roald Dahl's books have an uncanny ability to show us the adult world from a child's point of view: irrational and fantastic, sometimes scary, sometimes full of magic and wonder. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was inspired by Dahl's own experience in a harsh English boarding school, where every so often the Cadbury company would send every boy a box of new products for sampling. The arrival of these boxes must have seemed like magic; the idea of a factory where people spent their lives working to invent new types of chocolate was a fantasy almost too good to be true.

My own first Roald Dahl book was Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, a gift from my grandfather McLaughlin that might have been my first "chapter book." Charlie and his family — mother, father, four frail grandparents — have been launched out of the Wonka factory with their host, and arrive at the U.S.-owned, as yet unoccupied Space Hotel. There they encounter the Vermicious Knids, a particularly nasty kind of alien, and — well, you can read the book for yourself, and you should.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, which came out when I was six (or maybe seven), was the first book I ever recognized some version of myself in. Charlie is smart, resourceful and above all wants to do good, wants to be good. He loves his parents and his grandparents, he admires Mr. Wonka, and he wants to live up to all their expectations. He is afraid, but he does not let his fear get in the way of doing whatever needs to be done. We see these traits in all of Roald Dahl's heroes: James, Matilda, Danny, Sophie, the unnamed narrator of The Witches, even The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

I read Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator and, later, The Fantastic Mr. Fox until my mother literally took the books away from me, so I would read something else instead. I can still recite all the songs in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and it's kind of a shame that no one ever asks me to do this.

So thank you, Mr. Dahl, for a lifetime of reading. I wonder if it's a coincidence that today is also International Chocolate Day.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Happy Defenders' Day

Celebrated: The City of Baltimore, since 1814

Yes, Japanese troops did land on and occupy two Aleutian islands in 1942. But except for that, the last time American soldiers fought foreign invaders on U.S. soil was in 1815, at the end of the War of 1812, or the second war of independence.

A major turning point of that war was the Battle of Baltimore, which took place over September 12 to 15, 1814, after British troops had already sacked Washington, DC, burned the White House and destroyed the Washington Navy Yard. Alexandria, to the south, surrendered without firing a shot. Baltimore, to the north, took a stand.

Some 5,000 British troops started the attack in North Point, just outside Baltimore, on September 12, while a fleet of 19 British ships laid siege to Fort McHenry, in Baltimore Harbor. The British bombarded Fort McHenry while Baltimore waited, dark and silent; the cannonballs made a lot of noise and light, but did little damage. The Maryland Militia and more than 10,000 U.S. Army troops held off the British at Hampstead Hill, blocking the British plan to land troops from the water and close in on Baltimore from all sides.

Thwarted, the British army withdrew in the early morning hours of September 14, and fled to the waiting ships, which pulled out of Baltimore Harbor and headed for New Orleans (where they met with another defeat).

Later that morning, the American defenders raised a new, oversized flag over Fort McHenry, replacing the battle flag that had been shot to pieces. A young lawyer named Francis Scott Key, trapped on the HMS Tonnant after a visit to negotiate the release of American prisoners of war, watched it all happen, and wrote a poem about it that he called "Defence of Fort McHenry." We know it better as "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Since then, on September 12 and every other day, the Star-Spangled Banner has waved over Fort McHenry, commemorating the heroism of those who fought the Battle of Baltimore — then, as now, the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Happy Patriot Day

Celebrated: in the United States since 2001

Wow, and I thought I didn't want to write yesterday's post. I almost didn't write about this today; it is also the National Day of Catalonia, the Coptic Christian feast of Nayrouz, and Teacher's Day in Argentina. Oh, and the feast of Saints Protus and Hyacinth, martyrs. But it's a Tuesday, and it's a day just as beautiful as that Tuesday in 2001 was, and there's no escaping it or ignoring it. In ten minutes I will observe the minute of silence at 8:46, when the first plane hit the first tower.

Patriot Day is legally, officially, a national day of mourning, as designated by Public Law 107-89. We'll never forget, but I don't want to remember the fear or the sorrow. I want to remember the comfort I felt in being with my friends and family, spending that long, terrible day on the couch in Moira and Meredith's apartment. I want to remember the powerful sense of community a couple of nights later, when my neighbors and I stood with candles and bells along the sidewalks of Genesee Avenue. And I especially want to remember what it felt like to sing and dance and embrace strangers at the Farmer's Market that weekend, when we all cried and laughed and passed around a red-white-and-blue leather vest as if it had some magic properties.

Because that, to me, is patriotism. It's not chest-beating or saber-rattling or announcing over and over (in increasingly loud and obnoxious tones) that the United States is the best country, ever, no matter what. It's turning to our neighbors and asking, "How are you? What do you need?" It's building things and sharing things and looking for ways that we can be better, always better, instead of congratulating ourselves for things our ancestors did 70 or 100 or 200 years ago. It's helping each other be the best we can be, even if it means giving up some small portion of our own time or money or professional success. Because a great country requires effort and accomplishment from all of us, not just some of us, and a great country leaves no citizen behind. 

Later today I'll head over to the Augusta Civic Center, where the Red Cross is holding its annual September 11 blood drive. Chances are, they're holding a blood drive somewhere near you today, too. The original American patriots pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. I can spare a pint of blood.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Happy World Suicide Prevention Day

Celebrated: Around the world, sponsored by the World Health Organization

I don't want to write about this today. I've already said everything I have to say about this, here and again here.

But the post on "Five Practical Reasons Not to Kill Yourself" still gets more traffic than anything else on this eight-year-old blog, and although I've disabled comments on that post (and will allow comments on this post for only a day or two), people still send me personal emails to argue about it.

And yesterday I read this post by Erika Christakis about the death of Harvard junior Cote Laramie, a boy who was loved, a boy who shone brightly, a boy whose world got too small to keep the monsters from blocking his way. Because that's what depression does: it makes your world small and dark and unbearably heavy, and it keeps you from believing that things might ever be any other way.

"Suicide is a major, preventable public health problem," says the National Institute of Mental Health. "Public health problem"? Yes. It's the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, outranking (among other things) both prostate cancer and cervical cancer. It's contagious and it's hereditary.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has launched a new public awareness campaign called Take 5 to Save Lives. They ask everyone to take five simple steps:
  1. Learn the warning signs for suicide
  2. Join the online movement to prevent suicide
  3. Spread the word
  4. Support a friend
  5. Reach out if you need help

Dizzy and I are going to the vet in about an hour, to have that terrible conversation about how we ease his transition into whatever comes next for dogs. I hope that's a long transition, and as easy as it can possibly be. In the meantime, I learn from him about how to live in a world determined to kill us. It's still fun to ride in the car; it's still interesting to sniff things. Bacon is still amazing and sometimes people will pet you or give you treats for no reason at all. You never know who you might meet when you go outside, and you have no idea of what might happen tomorrow, so you don't worry about it. Humans can't live like dogs, but it might not hurt to try once in a while.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Happy Chrysanthemum Day

Celebrated: In Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam, for centuries

The chrysanthemum was cultivated in China before recorded time. It appears in pottery fragments and writings as far back as the 15th century B.C.E. Chrysanthemums were considered a medicinal herb, with root, leaves and petals used to make everything from health tonics to salads to wine. Confucius grew them, and praised their value as objects of meditation.

The Japanese began to write about chrysanthemums in the eighth century A.D. They considered it so perfect a flower that it became the official symbol and seal of the Emperor, who still sits on the Chrysanthemum Throne. High-ranking families were allowed to use the kikumon, or chrysanthemum seal, in their own family crests. And the ninth day of the ninth month, a day of "double yang," became Chrysanthemum Day, one of five ancient festivals celebrated in Japan. While Chrysanthemum Day was traditionally tied to the lunar calendar — meaning that in 2012 it would be celebrated on October 23 — in Japan, at least, its celebration has been moved to match the Western calendar.

Chrysanthemums belong to the same botanical family as daisies, but have been bred over time to become far more complex. A chrysanthemum's petals are actually tiny flowers in themselves, shaped as either rays or discs — so it is, in fact, possible to see an entire garden of flowers in a single mum. They are hallmarks of autumn, their blooming season, and in much of Europe, they are the distinctive flowers of funerals. (By contrast, they're the symbol of Mother's Day in Australia. Go figure.) In the United States, the chrysanthemum is the official flower of Chicago, Salinas (CA), and the month of November.

In this household, Dizzy gets a natural alternative to Frontline whose main ingredient is pyrethium, an effective insect repellent made from dried chrysanthemum heads. Not only does it keep the fleas away, but it makes him smell lovely.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Happy International Literacy Day

Celebrated: Worldwide since 1965, as declared by UNESCO

The first sentence on that UNESCO page begins with the simple assertion, "Literacy is a fundamental human right." Hard to believe, but that is a fairly recent and radical idea.

For most of human history, literacy has been something reserved for the wealthiest or the holiest members of a community. Reading took time and money, and the things recorded in writing were secrets. Secrets are power. Restricting the ability to read and write was — and is — as effective a method of amassing and preserving power as physical warfare. Even now, limiting access to education is a means of oppression in too many countries. Freedom begins with information, and literacy is its most basic tool.

The good news is that the number of literate people in the world has never been higher, now approaching four billion. The bad news is that the global adult illiteracy rate remains just over 16% - about one in six adults worldwide - and is well over 50% in many of the world's poorest nations, particularly in Africa. The correlation between illiteracy and poverty is no coincidence, and economic development is simply not possible without a literate workforce.

That's true in the United States as well, where the literacy challenges are a little more complex. In industrialized nations, basic reading and math are just the beginning of the skills the market wants. Some people argue that we're living in a post-literate society, a society in which the availability of video and audio technology makes the written word less important.

This is nonsense. For one thing, video and audio media assume universal availability of 1) electricity, 2) compatible technology, and 3) people who know how to use that technology. (I spent most of a day this week trying to upload a video to a client's website, and can tell you that even the most user-friendly systems require specialized knowledge.) For another, the surge of self-publishing (including blogs like this one) shows us the depth, breadth and power of people's need to be heard and seen — which still, for most of us, means to be read. Even people who don't read much have stories they want to tell, and the easiest, most accessible, most permanent way to do that is to write those stories down. Are we going to be watching YouTube videos twenty years from now? Maybe, but I can guarantee that the important books on library shelves in 1992 will still be there in 2032.

So anyway, back to literacy. I realized years ago that it was my only marketable skill, and because of that my only real wealth. I don't have much money to give away, but I have time, and I choose to give that time to the Literacy Volunteers of Greater Augusta. If you're reading this, and you have an extra hour or two a month, I urge you to consider finding a program of your own to help. Community centers, shelters, correctional institutions: these places all need tutors, and you can make more of a difference than you could possibly imagine.

A personal note: friends and family know that Dizzy, my 13-year-old pointer mix, is struggling. I'd planned to take him to the dog beach in Portland this morning, but the weather's crummy, so we're going to try to do that tomorrow. He's okay today — in pain, but he ate some breakfast and a bunch of treats, and we'll try to get to the Augusta dog park in an hour or two. Thanks for all the good wishes. Dizzy loves you all, especially if you have bacon.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Happy Read a Book Day

Celebrated: Worldwide, but I can't find any information about where, when or how the event originated

Every day is Read a Book Day at Answer Girl headquarters. At the moment I have four different books going, which is on the high side even for me — two for work, one for Gaslight, and one for my own entertainment. Oh, and the manuscript I'm finishing a third pass on, which would count as five.

I don't see books as any kind of escape from life; instead, books are the frames I use to look at the world. Books — even and especially novels — explain things to me and show me truths I don't have the experience or insight to figure out on my own. Books are both records and dreams, and as an earlier incarnation of this blog discussed, books are the way I keep track of my own history.

But most people don't measure their lives in books, and the question of how people decide what to read has created entire industries. My own corner of the Internet has been roiled lately by the revelation that some authors have been gaming the system in sleazy ways, using false identities not only to praise their own books but also to trash competitors' books in online forums. It matters because the Internet has become many readers' primary source of word-of-mouth reading recommendations, as Amazon,, Goodreads and LibraryThing have moved into the roles once served by neighborhood booksellers and hometown librarians.

Tonight in Dublin my friends/colleagues/clients John Connolly and Declan Burke are launching BOOKS TO DIE FOR, an anthology of essays from the world's top crime writers in response to the question, "Which novel should all mystery fans read before they die?" The result is a 700-page collection that belongs not only in every serious reader's library, but also on the shelves of more casual readers — because if you only read 10 books a year, isn't it even more important to choose those books well?

I've been working on this book with Messrs. Connolly and Burke since the beginning of this year, and am proud of the result. It lands in the United States on October 2, just in time for Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, but you can pre-order it here. I promise not to do too much promotion here between now and then.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Happy Feast Day of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

Celebrated: Worldwide by Catholics since 2003

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Albania and left home for good at the age of 18. She spent the next 69 years as a missionary, first with the Sisters of Loreto but eventually founding her own community, the Missionaries of Charity, in 1950.

By the time she died at 87, the Missionaries of Charity had grown into a worldwide network of thousands that included both active and contemplative communities of nuns and monks, a community of priests, an affiliate program for diocesan priests, and communities of co-workers and lay missionaries. All of them devote themselves to the service of the poorest of the poor, in both body and spirit.

Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and drew harsh criticism in the last years of her life for what some saw as inappropriate attention to celebrities and shady or even wicked donors. Christopher Hitchens, in particular, seemed personally offended by what he saw as Mother Teresa's hypocrisy and susceptibility to flattery by the rich and famous. Others criticized the order's administration, financial management, and philosophy about acceptable levels of suffering. Mother Teresa's beatification process revealed that she had spent most of her life wrestling with a terrible feeling of isolation from God, which some argued was evidence that her whole life had been a lie.

The whole point of recognizing sainthood is to remind us that our essentially flawed human nature doesn't, or shouldn't, keep us from trying to love each other as God loves us. How does God love us? That's a mystery, frankly. In the slums and hospitals where the Missionaries of Charity work, God's love must often seem very far away — and so these flawed human beings have taken it on themselves to be God's love in the world.

"If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one," Mother Teresa said. Smile at one person. Press one person's hand. Send one person an email, call one person on the phone. I need this reminder every day, and I suspect that most of us do.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Happy First Day of School

Celebrated: on this day in Virginia, but I'm not sure where else

Kids in Maine went back to school last week, but my nephews and niece in Virginia follow the custom of my own childhood, starting school on the Tuesday after Labor Day. (At least, it was the custom of my childhood; my prep school always started the week before, possibly to differentiate itself and remind the community oh-so-subtly of its higher standards and general superiority.)

The school year traditionally follows the farming year, but even now that children are no longer required to help with the harvest, it makes sense to keep them inside when the days are shorter and the weather's cooler. It follows the natural rhythm of the year in the northern hemisphere, but it helps create that rhythm, too. The day after Labor Day will always feel like the first day of a new year to me, a good time to start new ventures, set goals, get organized and buy school supplies.

I miss school supplies. These days I have little use for more than paper, envelopes and printer cartridges, but I can still stand mesmerized in front of a display of spiral notebooks. I love binders. I own, at last count, three three-hole punches, because I never seem to be able to find one on the rare occasions when I need it.

As a child I longed for a set of Mr. Sketch markers - the scented kind, where light blue for some reason was mango, a fruit few of us at Baylake Pines Elementary had ever seen in real life. In fact, I'll bet nobody in Mrs. Holmes' 4th grade class had ever seen or smelled a real mango, unless one of the Navy kids had spent time in Hawaii. My often-indulgent mother, overwhelmed by the need to buy school supplies for five kids (my brother James, the sixth, started first grade the year I went to college), drew the line at such extravagance: they were absurdly expensive, the smell wouldn't last, and we never treated nice things well. (I still can't have nice things, I'm sorry to say.)

In middle age, I see the impracticality of Mr. Sketch markers, and wonder where the idea even came from. I've been able to afford my own Mr. Sketch markers for years, but have never bought a set. What would I possibly use them for? Nothing in my life requires any kind of marker, much less the scented ones.

 But if I had kids, they'd be going to school today with the 12-pack.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Happy Labor Day

Celebrated: in the United States and Canada, on the first Monday in September, since 1882

It's not entirely clear who first had the idea to set aside a day to honor our nation's workers — not the people who run things but the people who do things, the builders and fixers and caretakers who form the vast majority of the American population. The movement began in either New Jersey or New York, pushed forward by a man named McGuire or Maguire, and you can read more about it here.

130 years after its first official celebration, most people who get this day off couldn't tell you what Labor Day is supposed to honor, or why it's more important than ever that working people have the right to assemble and negotiate as a group. The economic gap between haves and have-nots is as great, if not greater, than at any time since the Gilded Age. It was the Gilded Age that spurred the trade union movement in the United States, and I keep waiting for our current troubles to spark a union revival. It hasn't happened yet, and maybe it won't — the idea of bargaining for collective good has always sat uneasily with the American ideals of self-determination.

That said, it's not politics but simple history to point out that unions negotiated most of the benefits American workers take for granted: the 40-hour work week, health and pension benefits, paid vacations, workers' compensation, and more. (As a freelancer, I wish I had any of those things.) If unions went away, would those things go away, too? I don't want to find out.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Happy Tibetan Democracy Day

Celebrated: Since 1960, by Tibetans around the world and specifically the Parliament of the Central Tibetan Administration.

The Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile formed on this date in India in 1960, and has been elected to 14 five-year terms since. It represents the approximately 128,000 Tibetans in exile around the world, most of whom live in India, with 44 members drawn from the diaspora, from Tibet itself, and from the Buddhist and Bon schools. The Dalai Lama appoints between one and three members.

Tibet is "the roof of the world," at the junction of China, Nepal and India. The Himalayas separate it from Nepal and India, while the Central China Plain abuts the Tibetan Plateau to the north and east. Traditional Tibet comprises the three provinces of U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo, an area more than four times the size of France, or approximately 1/4 of the current territory of the People's Republic of China. China incorporated most of that territory, including the province of Amdo and most of Kham, into the provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan. What remains is the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), a region of approximately 1.2 million square kilometers that comprises all of U-Tsang and a portion of Kham. The population of the TAR is 2.7 million, but more than three million ethnic Tibetans live in China.

Tibet's history of independence is a short one, spanning only the period from 1912 to 1950. China's ironically named People's Liberation Army invaded Tibet in 1949, and defeated the Tibetan Army in 1950 at the Battle of Chamdo. The government of China has treated Tibet as a conquered territory, imprisoning, torturing and killing political dissidents and diverting its natural resources to support the rest of the country. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's traditional head of state, fled Tibet in 1959 after the Chinese crushed a national uprising in Lhasa. Establishing a government in exile, the Dalai Lama committed himself to creating a structure for democratic rule in Tibet. He has said that when Tibet is free, its first task will be to elect a constitutional assembly — and that once the constitution is in place, he will transfer all of his authority to the new President, and live as an ordinary citizen.

As the United States goes through its quadrennial political circus, it is worth a moment to remember how many of the world's people have no voice in who governs them, or how. Our American system was founded on the principle that self-determination is not only the most powerful human desire, but also the most basic human right. We take it for granted, and we demean it and debase it by trying to withhold it from members of our own communities with unnecessary and burdensome "voter fraud" rules. Our founders would be dismayed, but Mao Tse-Tung would approve.

"When bad men combine, the good must associate," wrote the Irish orator Edmund Burke, "else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle." Today, on Tibetan Democracy Day, we celebrate the continuing efforts of the Tibetan government-in-exile, and we should cherish our own political freedoms a little more closely. Please register to vote, if you haven't already, and exercise your rights on November 6.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Happy Emma M. Nutt Day!

Celebrated: Worldwide, or it should be

Today we celebrate the world's telephone operators, in honor of Emma Mills Nutt (1860-1915), who became the first female telephone operator in 1878, when Alexander Graham Bell hired her for Boston's Edwin Holmes Telephone Company (later the New England Telephone Company). Emma's sister, Stella, was the second female telephone operator - that's her in the foreground of this photo, while Emma stands behind her. Miss Nutt earned $10.00 a month, a respectable sum when the median household income for a family of four was $116/year.

Early users hailed the introduction of female telephone operators, who had better manners and warmer, more pleasant voices than male telegraph operators, and surely made the new technology seem easier and less intimidating. Becoming a phone operator was an attractive career for many young women, including my great-aunt Agnes Colloton, who worked for New York Telephone before her marriage and after her widowhood. When Aunt Agnes talked about work, she described a world of, by and for women — in her early working years, the switchboard room was a women-only zone, where men were not allowed and operators would occasionally strip down to their slips when the weather got really hot. Aunt Agnes was one of the first women I knew who worked outside the home, and it can't be a coincidence that my twin sister used to tell people she wanted to be a telephone operator when she grew up.

It's hard to imagine a four-year-old saying anything like that today. "Telephone operator" has all but disappeared from the jobs available to American workers. Telephone service is almost entirely automated now. Even directory information minimizes human contact, and if you do speak with a human, chances are good that that person isn't in the United States. Major corporations have automated and outsourced their telephone reception, with results that verge on the surreal. Last month I decided to quit using a major shipping service entirely after, among other things, being unable to reach a live human being by telephone.

This is not just an economic loss, but a human one. The fact that machines can replace many human functions does not mean that they should, even when it saves money. In hiring Emma Nutt, Alexander Graham Bell understood that friendly, well-trained people are a company's best advertising, and the most valuable service that any business can provide.

Reports vary about when Miss Nutt retired — some books say 1911, some say 1915 — but either way, her career spanned more than 30 years. It's a bittersweet tribute that her name was used for EMMA, the first virtual receptionist system, introduced by Preferred Voice in 1998. Miss Nutt, who reportedly memorized every number in the New England Telephone network, would never have wanted to be replaced by a machine.