Saturday, July 24, 2010

The List [of singularities]

We all have them.

I speak, of course, of those things that are truly singular.  What makes me, me -- and you, you, and how we figure each other out. 

Some people play a version of 20 Questions.  I use The List as a foolproof way to painlessly elicit revelatory information.

When I was young and stupid, My List was long.  Not too adept at posing a good essay question, My List actually resembled a failed version of 20 Questions, or maybe an employment application. 

Whom did you vote for in the last presidential election, and why? 

Plus, I had a host of inquiries based on the "if you were stranded on a deserted island, what 3...?" paradigm.

Now that I am old, but still stupid, I don't remember as much, as well -- so the list is short and not as dependent on an interrogation mark. 

If hard-pressed and wits are out the window, there is only one item on it -- because a good conversation around this one item will tell you everything one person might want to know about another:

How To Make 6 Cups Of Rice (Jasmine).

The only reason it isn't coffee or tea is that I believe more people learn to make rice than learn to make coffee or tea.  I might be wrong.

Of course, it used to be, simply:  How To Make Rice but along came familiarity with foreign cuisines, hugely popular Farmer's Markets, and The Food Network, and suddenly everyone wants to know what kind of rice I want, and how much, and what kind of flavor profile am I working with, anyway? 

People get all "it depends"-y on me. 

Maybe I shouldn't go along with the complications.  You know?  Know what I mean?

Maybe I should stick with How To Make Rice, refuse to amplify, and see what I end up being served.  But that's too much like life, ungoverned, when the goal of The List is to cut through the rank murk of existence! 

Anyway, I am thinking of adding another domestic-type question item to The List:  What is the correct thing to do with bath towels after bathing? (Interrogative phrasing, optional)

Recent conversations around The Manor have brought a riot of responses to that seemingly simple query!  Surprisingly, La Bonne et Belle Bianca Castafiore made me qualify my question -- Did I mean, said she, towels at home, in her bathroom, towels at home, but not in her bathroom, towels away, as in a fancy hotel, or towels away, as in a homestyle bed-and-breakfast?  Have I washed my hair or have I kept a dry head about me?  Have I a fluffy, thirsty, proper cotton towel or..."

That's just Bianca.  At least she didn't think of towels-while-camping versus towels-during-an-extended -stay-at-a-refugee-camp or bring up the always thorny issue of standard bath towel versus bath sheet. Besides, her questions are her conversation, her way of keeping it all about The Castafiore while still wielding the control of deflection.

Of course, the key to The List is to use it as a foundation for a normal conversation, although it is important not to stray too far from the literal subject -- that means you must seriously talk rice or talk towels in the same manner as people talk turkey.

Given my great love of origins, etymologies, translation, and derivations, I ought to be confessional and tell you how it was that the after-bath towel made its way onto The List [of singularities].

We are fortunate to have modern bathrooms aplenty at Marlinspike Hall, the non-modernized former salles de bains having been converted into surprising little solaria.  We are equipped with fans and do not suffer problems from humidity, for example.  And so I am constantly irked by the experience of transferring wet, freshly laundered, sweet-smelling clothes to the dryer * -- because I first must remove the two (and always the same two) bath towels that Fred has tossed in, following his shower.  The only time these towels are freshly laundered is when I have served up a fresh conniption fit, as I did earlier today, after the blast of stale air almost made me pass out.  ["Stale Male" would make an appropriate name for a cologne based on those essential oils...]

The conversation was fascinating.

"Fred, please, how many times do I have to ask you not to put dirty things into the dryer?"

"But darling, the towels aren't dirty.  I only use them after a shower!"

And so on, and so forth.

Be complicated, if you wish, and put abortion, capital punishment, or equal rights [for _____ ] on Your List, but rice and towels are about as much complication as I can handle.

* I agree!  Why have 39 bedrooms and almost as many baths -- but only one modern dryer?  Captain Haddock and I still go round and round on that thorny issue.

Neither Sharia Nor State: Looking Behind the Veil

Following France's most excellent example, the Spanish parliament opened debate a few days ago on the possible banning of the burqa in public.

In Spain, the leading opposition Popular Party put forward the proposal to support women's rights and prevent Muslim women from being forced by husbands to wear the veil.

But analysts see it as an opposition ploy to build strength amid economic turmoil and dismal growth prospects, particularly since no one has been able to cite any place in Spain where women routinely wear the veil.

I continue to be impressed by the dedication of lawmakers and law-enforcers to carefully distinguish -- by subtle visual cues perceptible only by right-wing Christian politicians -- which women wear the burqa due to matrimonial insistence (undoubtedly violent and repressive) and which wear it for some other, inconsequential reason -- such as the belief they are observing the teaching of the Qur'an.

The slight snarkiness of the last line of the paragraph quoted above sent my sieve-like mind back to last November, and the Swiss referendum.

It is terribly warm today and I'm too hot, tired to make much of a joke of it, or even much of a straightforward post.  One day I will prove to you all my capacity for the straightforward... but not today.


Last autumn, it seemed so funny, the Swiss referendum barring the building of new minarets.

Switzerland being known for its minarets, and all.

As it stands now, the country has well under half-a-million Muslims, and four (4, quatre, cuatro, vier) minarets. I don't know if minaret is meant to stand for mosque.  I sure hope not, because that would be slimy-sneaky, very naughty.

Ah, no, thank goodness: There are a reported 90 Islamic Cultural Centers that are open for Friday prayer, and some small subset of that number open for the five daily prayer services.  The wording I've adopted is that mandated by those gosh-darned neutral Swiss -- Islamic Cultural Centers  makes me think of nothing so much as... worship.

Twenty-two out of 26 cantons voted to ban the wanton proliferation of those wacky looking, clearly subversive, prayer towers.

One of the resultant punchlines was that the French were officially surprised and dismayed; Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner declared himself "shocked by this decision... It is an expression of intolerance and I detest intolerance."

Yes, let's sit with that for a moment.

Outrage, shock. I detest intolerance!

Swiss officials tried to explain the vote away as an understandable expression of the mounting fear of fundamentalist Islam. (By which they mean terrorism, packaged in less-than-fair skin tone. This article appeared a few days ago, noting the rising islamaphobia in the United States -- as found in pronouncements by Sarah Palin about plans to build a mosque near the site of the Twin Towers and by rightwingers fighting the construction of a mosque that would "loom over two churches" in Temecula, California.)

"Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing." is how the ever peace-seeking Palin tweeted it.

In fair Switzerland, the winking right wing claimed that the height requirements for minarets were actually a "political-religious claim to power, which challenges fundamental rights."

I feel an etymology coming on.

c.1300, "buttocks, anus," from L. fundamentum, from fundare "to found" (see found (1)). So called because it is where one sits.
Alle þe filþ of his magh ['maw'] salle breste out atte his fondament for drede. ["Cursor Mundi," c.1340]

Playing along with the rhetoric of The Winkers, Kouchner bravely opined that "if we cannot build minarets that means that we are practising religious oppression," and ended with a Rodney King impression, asking: "Is it really offensive that in a mountainous country there is a building that is a bit taller than the others?"

Incisive, the French.

There has been a much ballyhooed dialogue ongoing in France, called the National Identity Debate. Funnily enough, that innocent discussion built up a big head of steam about the time the Swiss noticed those four massive minarets blocking their view of heaven.

The point? According to Prime Minister Fillon, the point is "to introduce rules aimed at cultivating pride in being French and promoting the values of the Republic."

It makes my blood run sufficiently cold that -- for a moment -- I could care less that we are approaching 100 degrees here today.


Fly the flag! Sing the Marseillaise! Pledge to uphold a list of French values! Fly the flag! Sing the... what was that?

Fly the flag! No... not that.
Er... Sing the Marseillaise? No-o-o.
Pledge to uphold a list of French values? {cough} That would be it!

Yes, immigrants are going to be schooled in the French language, in gender equality, and be made to sign a pledge vowing to uphold those values identified as quintessentially French.

This has nothing to do with xenophobia born from longstanding, well-known, well-documented resentment of immigrants and exiles, welcomed under the auspices of the hexagon's longstanding liberality, but treated according to the prevailing winds -- and certainly this regulatory nonsense is not buoyed by economic and social stressors running rampant over Revolutionary Man -- running, running, slipshod, roughshod, and shod!

Don't touch my sentences. I write like H. P. Lovecraft.

Sarkozy tippy-toed away from the great dialogue as polls began to suggest the citizenry, for the most part, found it silly. Even so, lists have been established as to what is French, and thereby, what is not. If you're unsure about some private inclination, you can consult the official web page.  I love some of the entries -- almost all are wonderfully evocative of something, to be sure, whether that be core-value Frenchification or not, I'm unqualified to say -- but the impact, if open to it, is not unlike the taste of a madeleine, dipped in tepid tea.

Frenchness, an involuntary memory (of the first reading of Proust's quintessential depiction of involuntary memory)?

Some go so far as to say that le grand débat evokes, provokes, and encourages anti-Muslim sentiments, in specific, and racism, in general. The need, in difficult times, is to scapegoat. It is not par hasard that many of the identité française proposals were put forward by French Immigration Minister Eric Besson -- no,  it is par fatalité.

I want to love the idea. People amicably exchanging ideas, sharing stories of what it means to be French. Finishing the event off with several good cheeses: stinky Livarots and runny Camemberts, maybe a nutty Cantal, served with some properly paired wines.

I want to sit back and sip my pousse-café, contente.

But I know better (this would be one of the rare instances) -- because we've done this before, with disastrous results. In fact, to take the long view, the grand débat itself is but the same conversation, disguised.

Yes, the leap is huge in scope and largely unwarranted.  It is extreme, and ugly.  I don't even care if you want to call it, and me, a left-wing exaggeration, a piece of facile provocation.

Because, sadly,  it is not absurd.  It can be imagined.  It could be so perverted.  I did not strain any mental muscle at the thought, did you?  [I confess that a tidal wave of sadness broke over my infected and infested shoulders.]

Nonetheless, haven't we promised, in good faith, to make that leap, to never forget?  The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference, and so on and so forth?

Why is it called facile to invoke Nazism?  Would that it were!  Would it be better to mutter "Rwanda," and stalk off, confident of 100 days in 1994?  How about "Darfur"?  Should I speak of caste, classism?  Genetic discrimination, genism, determinism?  The killing of infant girls, sexism?  Am I responsible for the end terms of the continuum?

Do I have a stake in the mindset?

"Hannah Shah" wrote a guest blog post for The Washington Post, "Freedom to Wear a Burqa." She is the author of The Imam's Daughter: My Desperate Flight to Freedom, and her story makes what she has to say that much more important. Who would know more about rigidity and abuse founded in fundamental religious practices than this Imam's daughter, tortured in the cellar of her own home, targeted for an honor killing by her own father and brothers? She was condemned for apostasy, one of three sins punishable by death according to literal, fundamental readings of the Qur'an. She ran from an arranged marriage in Pakistan; She became a Christian. She did these things, and these things were done to her, in today's England, in a Pakistani community in the north.

One has to listen to such a witness. She writes:

In Europe, Belgium and France assume its OK for the government to say we believe in freedom, but then advocate that the laws should say what Muslim women can and can't wear. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the veil made women "prisoners behind netting." There seems to be a lack of understanding of Muslim women and their reasons for wearing the burqa. What about the human rights of Muslim women? In banning the burqa will we become the oppressor rather than fighting against oppression? If we are concerned for Muslim women as Mr. Sarkozy professes to be, should we not concentrate on empowering them and giving them a voice rather than spending time making laws that threaten their freedom to choose.

[It probably won't surprise you to learn that my favorite culinary moments relate to cutting -- as when acid cuts through fat, or even, more literally, when a certain slice of blade frees a flavor from oblivion. Sorry, but today, for the first time in weeks, I am cooking... And so I should say something now about "Hannah Shah" and her incisiveness, her clarifying voice.]

It is perfectly lovely, as a woman, to read this -- to hear: But wait, don't you really want to give voice and choice to women, isn't that what you meant all along with these decisions about head-coverings and identity and such? Come now, isn't it?

It distresses me to have to add this here at the end, but I took the rare step of asking a reader his opinion prior to publishing this post, and I think my reader is right -- I am too glib, too free and easy with other people's pain and circumstances.  I am, in short, presumptuous.

Real women die real deaths over things that I treat lightly.

Violations of 'Islamic teachings' take deadly toll on Iraqi women
CNN February 8, 2008

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The images in the Basra police file are nauseating: Page after page of women killed in brutal fashion -- some strangled to death, their faces disfigured; others beheaded. All bear signs of torture.

The women are killed, police say, because they failed to wear a headscarf or because they ignored other "rules" that secretive fundamentalist groups want to enforce.

"Fear, fear is always there," says 30-year-old Safana, an artist and university professor. "We don't know who to be afraid of. Maybe it's a friend or a student you teach. There is no break, no security. I don't know who to be afraid of."

Her fear is justified. Iraq's second-largest city, Basra, is a stronghold of conservative Shia groups. As many as 133 women were killed in Basra last year -- 79 for violation of "Islamic teachings" and 47 for so-called honor killings, according to IRIN, the news branch of the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

One glance through the police file is enough to understand the consequences. Basra's police chief, Gen. Abdul Jalil Khalaf, flips through the file, pointing to one unsolved case after another.
"I think so far, we have been unable to tackle this problem properly," he says. "There are many motives for these crimes and parties involved in killing women, by strangling, beheading, chopping off their hands, legs, heads."

"When I came to Basra a year ago," he says, "two women were killed in front of their kids. Their blood was flowing in front of their kids, they were crying. Another woman was killed in front of her 6-year-old son, another in front of her 11-year-old child, and yet another who was pregnant."

The killers enforcing their own version of Islamic justice are rarely caught, while women live in fear.

Boldly splattered in red paint just outside the main downtown market, a chilling sign reads: "We warn against not wearing a headscarf and wearing makeup. Those who do not abide by this will be punished. God is our witness, we have notified you."

The attacks on the women of Basra have intensified since British forces withdrew to their base at the airport back in September, police say. Iraqi security forces took over after British troops pulled back, but are heavily infiltrated by militias.

And tracking the perpetrators of these crimes is nearly impossible, Khalaf says, adding that he doesn't have control of the thousands of policemen and officers.

"We're trying to trace crimes carried out by an anonymous enemy," he says.

Amnesty International has raised concern about the increasing violence toward women in Iraq, saying abductions, rapes and "honor killings" are on the rise.

"Politically active women, those who did not follow a strict dress code, and women [who are] human rights defenders were increasingly at risk of abuses, including by armed groups and religious extremists," Amnesty said in a 2007 report.

Sometimes, it's just the color of a woman's headscarf that can draw unwanted attention.

"One time, one of my female colleagues commented on the color of my headscarf," Safana says. "She said it would draw attention ... [and I should] avoid it and stick to colors like gray, brown and black."

This extremist ideology enrages many secular Muslim women, who say it's a misrepresentation of Islam.

Sawsan, another woman who works at a university, says the message from the radicals to women is simple: "They seem to be sending us a message to stay at home and keep your mouth shut."

After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Sawsan says, the situation was "the best." But now, she says, it's "the worst."

"We thought there would be freedom and democracy and women would have their rights. But all the things we were promised have not come true. There is only fear and horror."

I stand by "Hannah Shah"'s message as the right message. If we legislate from a real desire to improve the plight of Muslim women, then the only legislation possible that is not as tainted as the desire to control by fatwa (even friendly, reformed fatwa) must empower these women-objects with the personal and political wherewithal to speak, and legislate, for themselves.

Assure freedom (of choice), pursue those that impinge upon that assurance, and, normally, the furtherance of human rights will result.  It is wrong to frame the problem as an argument forever proper and subordinate to either Sharia or State.

photo credit

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

1957 Woolworth's Menu

Let's see. A cheese sandwich and a milkshake... for 55 cents. Wow.

I hope this picture posts clearly enough for the prices to be visible. I missed the 1950s but do remember things like putting a quarter's worth of gas in my tank in high school, then roaring down the highway at 80 m.p.h., tennis racket at my side, hair streaming in the wind, not a care in the world.

(Thanks, Carol!)