Book Review: Slow Cooker Dump Dinners

Slow Cooker Dump Dinners:  5-Ingredient Recipes For Meals That (Practically) Cook Themselves, by Jennifer Palmer

By and large, I am a fan of food that does not involve a lot of fuss on my part.  Growing up as a kid, I got used to eating a lot of crock-pot dinners, some of which I remain fond of (like pot roast with cabbage, potatoes, and carrots), and some of which I was never that fond of (like chicken cacciatore).  So, I am generally on the lookout for books that involve fairly simple and straightforward cooking to add to my own repertoire of items that I can make if I have to or want to [1].  Although this book is by no means a perfect one, as I will comment more at length about anon, there is a lot about this book to appreciate, most of all its goal to provide simple dishes that people can throw in a slow cooker and then cook during the course of work.  This is a cookbook made for busy people for whom cooking is not necessarily an act of artistic creativity but rather a necessary task that has to get done in the midst of a crowded and hectic life.

This particular book is a short one at just over 100 pages and a great deal of the book consists of beautiful photographs of the recipes in question, presumably from the author’s own cooking efforts.  The author discusses various dishes in five chapters after a short introduction, and begins with the most important chapter:  chicken (1), which contains the most dishes, including some very tasty ones that either are or should be a regular part of my own menu:  chicken thighs with potatoes and carrots, chicken noodle soup, Italian parmesan chicken, chicken curry, sweet potato and kale chicken stew, chicken and cashew medley, chicken tikka masala, slow cooker pot pie, and chicken-apple sausage with sweet potatoes, among others.  After that the author talks about pork dishes (2), which may be of interest for some readers, though not for me personally.  After that the author gives some tasty beef dishes (3) that include broccoli beef, beef brisket, corned beef and cabbage, easy beef stroganoff, hearty shepherd’s pie, and family-style post roast.  After that there is a short chapter on fish and seafood, including some poached salmon fillets (4) and a closing chapter with various vegetarian dishes (5), including black bean and corn enchiladas and a green lentil curry, after which there are acknowledgements and an index.

Although this is in general good book, it is not a perfect one.  In particular, I find that too many of these dishes include onions, an ingredient I am not very fond of.  To be sure, the onion can be removed (making the dishes even simpler, as they do really only include five key ingredients along with seasoning to taste) or replaced by something else, but it is really irritating to see onions appear over and over again in these dishes.  Other than that, these dishes in general are pretty solid.  To be sure, not all of these dishes will be to everyone’s taste–the dominance of beef and especially chicken was definitely of interest to me–but at least the author makes an effort at appealing to a wide variety of appetites with dishes that range from hearty and traditional food for Americans and Europeans to more exotic fare from Asia.  I would add options to this–like a peanut soup or more vegetarian options, but as a simple and straightforward cookbook for hurried people looking for decent meals this slim volume definitely has a lot to offer.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Poetry From Scratch

Poetry From Scratch:  A Kitten’s Book Of Verse, by Jennifer McCartney

I happened to greatly enjoy and appreciate this book of cat poetry, but there is at least one thing wrong with the book, and that is the way that the book is framed as having been the first or only book of its kind.  Now, it must be admitted that books that purport to be by cats that express their own views in poetic forms are not a very common genre of literature, but at the same time this is at least the fourth such book I have read, the other three of which are by the same author [1].  To be sure, the author may not have been aware of these books, but given that this book was published in 2016, at least some knowledge of or awareness of these other books would have been good.  There are likely at least a few readers like me whose fondness for this sort of book would be gratified by knowing that at least those writing such books are aware of each other and aware of their shared role as part of a community of authors that write for audiences of people interested in pets.  This may not be a large audience, but it is an audience that deserves to be recognized, at any rate.

This book is a short one at about 100 pages in length and it is divided into several parts.  The book introduces with a typical sort of fake acknowledgement of the real cat authors and an amusing story that helps to give the poems some sort of provenance.  After this the author writes cat verse inspired by famous poems, which include poems by Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Percy Shelley, Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, and others.  After that the author includes a set of free verse and beat poetry that is also genuinely enjoyable.  An entire section of odes devoted to things cats love like fresh litter boxes, sunbeams, a piece of string, and the corner of the book one is trying to read follows.  After this the book concludes with a set of amusing and entertaining rhyming verses, haiku, and limericks, as well as acknowledgements.  These are the sorts of poems that will likely be appreciated both by children as well as adult fans of cats, and it is difficult to know who will smile or laugh at them more.

Like any great collection of poetry, this book offers considerable more depth than may immediately meet the eye.  Although the author is not as interested as others are in portraying human beings through the use of animals, this book does at least have two layers of applicability and relevance for readers.  For one, the book offers a chance for cat lovers and animal lovers in general to vicariously enjoy trying to picture art and artistic endeavors through the eyes of pets.  It is likely only for the best when people practice their capacity for empathy through means such as writing poems or reading poems and enjoying them that purport to come from animals where the animals and their ways of thinking and behaving are viewed in compassionate and understanding and generous-minded ways.  Likewise, this book offers the reader the considerable pleasure of trying to spot the poems and recognize the poets whose work is being honored by being reinterpreted through the perspective of the anonymous and falsely attributed feline authors of these poems.  If these poems provoke any of the readers to take a look at the original poems that are being lovingly parodied here, it will likely have done poetry in general a considerable service.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

All The Right Moves

One of the bands that I do not think is well understood is OneRepublic.  The band exists, it seems, because lead singer/songwriter Ryan Tedder does not appear to want to be a solo artist.  To be sure, he could be.  He has written and produced a slew of hits including Beyonce’s “Halo” and Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” and Natasha Bedingfield’s “Love Like This” an a slew of other songs.  He sometimes appears as a guest artist on other people’s music, but he has shown no interest in being a solo artist.  He seems to like being in a band.  Not everyone does.  And the fact that he is unquestionably the leader of the band means that everyone else in the group seems to enjoy going along for the ride from Paris to China to Colorado and that Tedder doesn’t have to go solo in order to get the sort of creative control he wants.  He gets to avoid being the center of attention while having the sort of power and influence he has to have a talented and capable band of brothers perform the music that he writes.  That sounds like a pretty good situation.

But most people do not seem to understand the band’s music nonetheless.  A very large percentage of the music of OneRepublic is about the music industry itself and life as a musician.  This is not entirely unusual.  Plenty of other bands have written songs about their life as musicians and dealing with the pressures of celebrity [1].  Edwin McCain sang “Beautiful Life” about the way that he was pressured to lose weight so that he would be more presentable and appealing on music videos.  Wheezer sang about the pressure that the band faced releasing an obvious single that would help promote the sale of the album they were making.  Lisa Loeb had one of her biggest hits that was written as a song about the abusive relationship between her and her label that appeared at first listen to be a song about an abusive romantic relationship, because the label couldn’t tell that “Let’s Forget About It” was a worthwhile single.  But few musicians have done it as often as OneRepublic has.

How often has OneRepublic referred to their music career in their music?  Quite often.  Here is a brief summary for the uninitiated.  In “Secrets,” Tedder wishes that he had some dark secret to tell and confesses that he doesn’t really like his flow, signifying his recognition of the appeal of emotional intimacy in songs without having in his mind anything to share.  “All The Right Moves” shows Tedder lamenting that after the great success of “Apologize” that there is nowhere to go but down, and that other people will have better connections and prettier faces to hold on to the spotlight a little bit longer.  “Good Life” sings about the traveling experience of the band and the fact that it’s hard to keep in touch as a busy and touring band, and that even if one doesn’t get as much sleep as one might want, it’s the good life.  And so it goes.  Not only is OneRepublic a reasonably popular band–their first two albums went gold and their third album went platinum, a respectable career so far–but they are also a band that has spent a great deal of their popularity existing in a metaworld where the song refers to the what it is like to be in show business.  This is not to say that every song is like that, but even songs that are not obviously like that can at least be interpreted like that, if “Counting Stars” refers to stars as celebrities and not as stars in the sky.

It is likely that this move had mixed results.  There were some critics that didn’t seem to understand what the band was doing, putting some of those songs that related to their life as musicians in the public eye on their worst list because they couldn’t understand what the band was after.  But their release of those songs indicated at least to me a great deal of insecurity about their place as a band and their longevity in a world that tends to have a lot of flashes in the pan.  I think it is appropriate for people to write about the life they live.  If people are surrounded by celebrity and concerned by their status in the world of artists and entertainers, why make them pretend that they are relatable.  If they have different concerns than I do, then I can learn from their world and their perception of it by their music.  I love it when bands sing about the loneliness of live performance, about the alienation of technology and the fake intimacy they feel with fans when performing live.  I am not offended in the least that their lives are different than my own, being a creative person myself I am well aware of the tensions between being isolated and simultaneously intimate as a writer.  Perhaps it is artists who can be most sympathetic to other artists.  If we do not stand up for each other, who will stand up for us?

[1] See, for example:

Posted in Book Reviews, History, Music History, Musings | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Virgil’s Aeneid

Virgil’s Aeneid, translated by John Dryden, edited by Charles W. Eliot

As volume thirteen of the Harvard classics series, this book, sent to me by a friend of mine, provided me a chance to give a second look to a classic.  About two decades ago or so I read the Aeneid and I did not find it to be all that enjoyable as a piece of literature [1], but I was willing to give the book another chance.  And looking back on this book, I am glad I did give it another chance.  I think it would have been unjust to the Aeneid as a poem to have viewed it given the prose translation of it that I first read, and given the excellence of this poetry translation, there is a lot more to the story than first met the eye, and a lot more to think about and reflect on that makes this epic far more than merely a pointless and pale imitation of the classic epic poetry of the Greeks, although there are plenty of echoes between the Greek epics ascribed to Homer and the Aeneid, such as an epic voyage full of danger and the attention paid to fighting as well as to the equipage of warriors opposed to each other.

This particular translation of the Aeneid is bracketed by the translator’s own writing.  There is a very lengthy introduction of almost 100 pages that allows the translator a chance to show off his classical knowledge and serve as a courtier and a short postscript to the volume that expresses the cost he paid for having spent such a long time translating such a long work as enthusiastically as he did.  The rest of the work is divided into twelve smaller books, each of which is summarized and then with some glorious poetry that provides the reader some pointed discussion of Aeneas’ journey from Troy to Italy and the twists and turns that journey took until the Trojan refugees were able to live in peace.  Of course, the book itself provides plenty of opportunities for the reader to see some convenient prophecies that show Virgil was no mean courtier himself and that demonstrate some of the issues that the Romans’ myth of their ancestry from the Trojans has concerning various unfinished business in the Mediterranean with the Greeks and Carthaginians.  To be sure, there is a lot of anachronistic treatment here, but as epic poetry this work is solid.

In reading this poetry, there were at least a few aspects of the poem that I thought were particularly worthwhile and made this book an obvious choice for classical literature to make young people familiar with.  Throughout the poem we see Aeneas as being responsible and focused on fulfilling his destiny of settling in Italy and helping to bring about the settlement of a people destined for rule.  The poem allows us to see the suffering and trouble that men must engage in so that they may do their duty, including leaving loved ones behind and facing a high degree of conflict with others.  We see a wide variety of women, including the ghost of Aeneas’ wife, who urges him to leave Carthage and sail to Italy, Dido, who kills herself when Aeneas leaves, to Juno, whose hatred of the Trojans leads her to stir up all kinds of trouble for them every step of the way, until the poem ends decisively and abruptly with Aeneas killing the treacherous Turnus, at which point we may see the Trojans as finally being able to live in peace.  There is clearly a lot of relevance that this work has for the present day, and many who would find the book and its point of view rather unsettling and unpleasant for the way it prefers duty and responsibility to the pleasures of romantic love.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Book Review: Plutarch’s Lives

Plutarch’s Lives of Themistocles, Pericles, Aristides, Alcibiades and Coriolanus, Demosthenes and Cicero, Caesar and Antony, edited by Charles W. Eliot

A friend of mine purchased this book and sent it to me, and I have to admit I was pleased to receive it and read it, for Plutarch’s writing has long been of interest to me [1], even if I have not been very familiar directly with many of his writings.  This book does not include all of Plutarch’s writings nor does it include many of them (with the exception of two collections of paired laws) in the form that he originally wrote it as parallel lives, but even with these flaws this collection is definitely one to appreciate, coming as it does from Dryden’s translation, corrected and revised by Arthur Hugh Clough, and serving as volume twelve of the lengthy collection of Harvard classics.  Reading this book almost makes me want to hunt down some more of these volumes to read for myself, as it represents an accessible collection of classical literature for the intelligent reader, and not the sort of thing that we can expect to be recreated anytime soon in our own day and age.

Plutarch as a writer was well aware of his goals and his limitations and his approach.  While he serves as the only or almost the only known historian for certain incidents and periods of Greco-Roman history, his writing looms larger than it would have at the time, when his work was part of a larger context of writings.  In this particular collection, we have a nice balance between Greek and Roman lives, which were originally put in parallel for purposes of moralizing and drawing conclusions about character and not necessarily a detailed discussion of all of the noteworthy deeds of the people in question.  In this collection, for example, we see the trouble that Greek leaders had in terms of keeping the unstable democracies of Athens on their side, the experience of leaders in exile, the question of cowardice and moral corruption, and the relationship between public and private virtue.  Some of the discussions are somewhat short, and some of them very long, and many of them involve tragic ends relating to suicide and assassination.  Even though this particular book is aimed at presenting historical heroes in their humanity and complexity, it left this reader at least with a great deal of melancholy feelings about the relationship between challenging times and capable men and the price that is paid for leading others.

Plutarch’s skill as a moralist is especially in evidence here, and he does not whitewash the people here, although it must be admitted as well that this version does not include the nastiest rumors about some of these historical figures that we have, such as Julius Caesar’s rumored time as the “Queen of Bithynia.”  Even so, there are a lot of aspects of the leaders discussed here that are worthy lessons for others.  We see from leaders like Themistocles and Alcibiades how virtue and reputation can be ruined by having a reputation for treachery and corruption of various kinds.  We see from Coriolanus how those who hunger and thirst after political power need to develop charisma and learn to control their temper to prevent themselves from destroying their lives.  The lessons these figures can help teach are of great interest for present and potential leaders, and it is little wonder that these works in their original and translation were sought after for centuries and why they remain relevant for readers today.  It is immensely worthwhile to learn through the example of others rather than have to make every mistake for oneself, after all.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in Book Reviews, History | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

My Thoughts On The Worst Pop Music Of 2018

A lot of the people I follow online make a lot of comments about terrible music, and this particular time of year is known among the music reviewing community as Lismas.  Lacking the sort of computer hardware to do vlogging about music criticism, I would like to comment on some of the worst trends/songs of music in 2018.  Why pick on 2018?  Well, it is a truth nearly universally acknowledged that 2018 was a terrible year in music.  It was not even terrible in ways that were entertaining.  Even as someone who does not go out of my way to listen to some types of music, the bad music of 2018 was continually assaulting one.  Whether it was trying to have a friendly dinner party at a park and being subjected to repeated listens of Drake’s horrible Scorpion album (more on that below), or whether it was being subjected to terrible trap music (more on that below) on Spotify while I was trying to look up better music, there was a lot that went wrong in the music of 2018.  For the rules of discussion, we are limiting this discussion to the top 100 songs of 2018, or else this rant could go on a long time.

Honorable Mention:  Album bombs!

For those who don’t know, an album bomb is a phenomenon where the release of an album led to most or all of its songs charting on the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time.  There are a few results of this.  For one, songs would have their chart runs prematurely ended when large amounts of debuts would happen simultaneously, thus hindering their totals for the year-end chart.  For another, most of the songs that debuted would be album filler of an uninspired nature, and reliance on first-week streams and sales for chart position led to quite a few songs not ending up on the year-end chart despite being well-regarded.  So we have no songs on the Hot 100 year end chart from The Carters’ Everything Is Love album, nothing from Kanye’s Ye, nothing from Pusha T’s Daytona album, nothing from Eminem’s attempt to return to form in Kamikaze, despite the fact that all of these albums sold very well and all were well-regarded.  The songs just didn’t stay on the charts long enough to have impact.

#10:  Drake, Part One

It was a big year for Drake.  This was not a good thing for the music charts as a whole.  He spent more than half of the year at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with a slate of mostly unimpressive songs.  It’s not that everything Drake released was bad this year.  God’s Plan was mediocre, and “Nice For What,” if fan service, was at least decent.  But there was a lot of terrible Drake songs that ended up on the Year End chart and most reviewers that I have seen have only gone after the whiny “I’m Upset” (#86 on the YE chart), and given the uninspired “Nonstop” a pass (#52).  “In My Feelings” (#9) was pretty uninspired too, but it’s only the third worst of Drake’s five solo songs on this collection.  And there was plenty of bad Drake music that hit the top ten in his debut that never made it to the year-end chart, including his grave-robbing of Michael Jackson, that we won’t talk about in more detail.  Here’s hoping Drake spends more of 2019 trying to be a good father to his unexpected child by an adult film actress and less time releasing terrible music.  We can only hope.

#9:  Drake, Part Two

Not only did Drake release a lot of bad music on his own, but other artists in rap and R&B figured out pretty quickly that the fastest way that they could gain clout was to have Drake as a feature on their generally uninspired songs.  And so not only did we have a lot of terrible Drake solo material this year as part of his double album release Scorpion, but we had a lot of bad Drake verses on other people’s terrible songs.  None of the three Drake features that appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 year end list were all that good.  “Look Alive” by BlocBoy JB (#23) at least provided me with a meme to use when the volleyball players at practice seemed particularly listless and inattentive.  “Yes Indeed” by Lil’ Baby (#25) was a terrible song that stuck around way too long, and Walk It Talk It (#43) was a pretty boring and unpleasant song from another one of the year’s examples of stream trolling in Migos’ widely panned Culture II album.

#8 Bad Latin Music

Over the past couple of years there has been a breakout in Latin songs.  Once “Despacito” showed that one could have a career, and not just a novelty act status, in having successful songs, and Mi Gente (#98) confirmed this trend, a lot of acts started having very successful songs, several of them ending up on the year end list.  And while I have a hard time telling a lot of these people apart, a lot of Latino acts had very successful songs with music that was pretty terrible, even if one didn’t bother to translate the often offensive and unpleasant lyrical content of the material.  Whether one is looking at X by Nicky Jam and J Balvin (#90), Dura by Daddy Yankee (#93), or the interminable Te Bote by Nio García, Darell and Casper Mágico featuring Bad Bunny, Nicky Jam, and Ozuna, none of whom distinguish themselves positively here (#81), bad Latin music showed it was here to stay on the charts, at least through the end of the year.  Drake even appeared on one of these songs, “Mia,” that mercifully failed to reach the end-of-year chart.

#7 Boring Pop Music

A lot of people thought that “Meant To Be” by BeBe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line (#3) was the worst thing ever, but I merely thought it was okay.  It did, however, show part of a trend where those few pop songs that managed to be popular were often not very exciting.  There was a lot of very boring pop music that was released this year, some of which managed to stick around on the lower regions of the charts long enough to be on the Year End chart and survive the glut of album bombs that were released through the first half of the year.  We have the mediocre “The Middle” by Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey (#8), and I Like Me Better by Lauv (#35).  It seemed as if the only pop music that could be popular was particularly bland, which made it bad for those of us who listened to a lot of pop to avoid the bad trap music.

#6 Just Go Away Already

There were some artists who definitely overstayed their welcome in 2018, and demonstrated why they need to just stop making music if they’re not going to make anything worthwhile.  While Drake was certainly one of those musicians, he was far rom the only one.  One of the most egregious offenders was Maroon 5, a band that has been releasing bad music for a long time now.  This year Maroon 5 released one song that didn’t chart very high but stuck around for a long time in Wait (#58) and then cashed in on the Cardi B trend and had their biggest hit in some time with “Girls Like You” (#10).  Honorable mention in this category goes for songs that just stuck around forever, including some from last year like “Sorry Not Sorry” by Demi Lavato (#64).

#5 Boring White Rappers

One of the more entertaining songs of the year was Killshot, in which Eminem demonstrated some pretty fierce feelings towards a fellow white rapper.  But aside from Em, who had no hits in this year’s top 100 songs, most of the other white rappers (aside from Christian rapper NF, who had a pretty good hear and one of the better rap songs on the year end list with “Let You Down” (#29)), this year was a predictably bad year for rappers like Gnash, who appeared on Max’s “Lights Down Low” (#66) and G-Easy, who had hits with Asap Rocky and Cardi B with “No Limit” (#30) and on-again, off-again girlfriend Halsey (who had some pretty bad music this year as well) in “Him & I” (#45).

#4 Message Songs

Perhaps predictably in a bad year for music, those artists who made message songs predictably did a terrible job at it.  Other than the fantastic “New Rules” by Dua Lipa (#16), most message songs missed the mark, whether we were dealing with Ariana Grande’s ode to the sacred feminine in “God Is A Woman” (#62) or Marshmello and Anne-Marie’s terrible friendzone anthem “Friends” (#26).  Odds are if someone had a message they were trying to deliver this year, it missed the mark considerably.

#3 Reprehensible Human Beings:  Part 1

A few years ago a couple of rappers with some loathsome and unpleasant personal lives teamed together for a mixtape and album “Fan Of A Fan.”  Both of them had hit songs in 2018, with Tyga coming in with the loathsome and creepy “Taste” (#28) and Chris Brown teaming up with Lil Dicky for “Freaky Friday” (#55).  Both songs featured some pretty obvious and terrible lyrics and both music videos are unpleasant to watch, especially if one knows the context of both singers and their lives.

#2 Reprehensible Human Beings:  Part 2

If 6ix9ine goes to jail for a long time, can he stop making bad music?  Seriously, there was a lot of terrible music that he released this year, two songs of which ended up on this year’s YE chart.  Regardless of whether one listens to FeFe, featuring Murda Beatz and Nicki Minaj (who had a terrible year this year as far as her music was concerned) (#31) or “Gummo” (#56), this “artist” released some of the worst music of the year.  How bad was it?  He released a song called ZeZe that featured one of the few more reprehensible people than he is in Kodak Black.

#1 Reprehensible Human Beings:  Part 3

While JuiceWrld had the biggest hit of the various emo rappers making terrible music this year, with “Lucid Dreams” (#12), he was not the most reprehensible either in musical quality (at least he had a good sample of Sting’s “Shape Of My Heart,” even if his lyrics were terrible) or character.  No, that belonged to XXXTentacion.  Despite the inconvenience of being dead most of the year after he was murdered, he still managed to place 3 hits on the Year End list, and all of them are terrible in terms of their awful music, terrible lyrics, and atrocious singing.  Whether one is looking at the manipulative guilt tripping of Sad! (#17), or lesser known atrocities like Moonlight (#88) and Changes (#94), XXXTentacion released a lot of music in 2018 that was just Bad! (an actual name of a single released late in the year).  In a year of terrible music, he was just the worst.

Posted in History, Music History, Musings | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Subtle Coercion Of Events

This morning I had an instructive performance that was somewhat complex, and as part of my working out my complex feelings about it, I will write, as is my fashion.  So, I got up this morning and dressed up for a trial that was expected to last up to four days.  I was not on trial, but as a party of the case, I was there as the court appointed special advocate of an elementary schooler whose mother was about to be on trial for the termination of parental rights.  I made may way through the streets to the CASA office, parked my car, and walked to the courthouse.  After passing through the security and recollecting my belongings, I inquired at the information desk as to which courtroom the case was in and climbed up the stairs to the third floor.  Arriving there I chatted with the foster parents, who are the kiddo’s paternal grandparents, and with the family members of theirs that were there, most of whom I had seen last night when visiting them for my monthly CASA visit.  After that I went inside where I chatted with the people there.  The mother had an adopted mother (it’s a long story) there to support her who was anxious about how things were going to go.

While I was outside again to do more chatting, there was a great deal of fevered negotiations, and when I returned inside it was time to sign the stipulation, after reading it, that the mother would voluntarily relinquish her parental rights for her kiddo and that there would be mediation to try to establish what degree of future contact between the kiddo and the mother and that side of the family would exist.  Of course, there was a great deal of mutual distrust and concerns about the way that the other party would behave, and as a neutral party (albeit one with my own perspective), my CASA supervisor and I kept friendly with everyone and kept our own counsel until everyone was gone.  After we all signed the stipulation the judge came in and asked the mother a few questions and offered to have another judge deal with the case because he had previously been a judge in juvenile court where the mother had appeared but the mother was fine with that.  The mother once tried to talk about being clean and sober, at which point her attorney politely but firmly cut her off.  The rest of us who were sitting before the judge, which included the Assistant Attorney General for the case, the DHS caseworker, the attorney for the kiddo, and myself, all made brief comments before the court in which we agreed that the stipulation was in the best interests of the kiddo, and then the case was closed, pending another permanency hearing in about a month.

One of the questions that the judge said struck me as particularly interesting.  He asked if there had been any coercion towards the mother to make her give up her parental rights.  She said, of course, that there wasn’t, but I am not sure that everyone would agree with that.  I don’t think that anyone literally twisted her arm, but there was definitely coercion, albeit of a subtle kind.  Let us examine the scene.  It is a courtroom.  The judge sits on a chair higher than the audience, and there is a corrections officer as well as a couple of court employees inside.  The mother is in an orange jumpsuit (more on that anon) and her attorney is telling her that she doesn’t have much of a case, an opinion that is nearly universally held within the courtroom, and so she had best settle this case and get the best possible deal rather than fight it out and get nothing at all for all the embarrassment and stress of a trial.  All of this is coercion.  It is not unreasonable coercion, but it is coercion nonetheless.  The solemnity of a trial, the fact that everyone else was dressed formally in the courtroom while the mother was in that orange jumpsuit, all of that contributes to an atmosphere of seriousness where the mother was at a heavy disadvantage.  She had one lawyer, and one person supporting her in the courtroom, while the state could draw on plenty of support, including myself, if that was necessary.

The odds are that it would not have been necessary.  Why was the mother in an orange jumpsuit with a corrections officer sitting not very far away from her?  As it happens, yesterday afternoon the mother had failed a drug test in front of her Probation Officer and had been put in jail pending an arraignment that was to take place later this afternoon.  She had violated probation a couple of times previously and had failed a urine analysis and was appealing the third probation violation that would have sent her to jail for 90 days or so, and the swab analysis showing positive meth use, combined with a confession on her part that she had been unable to deal with the stress and that she was pregnant with her boyfriend’s baby and that her boyfriend had given her the drugs, and that she was living with him, something that DHS had not been aware of.  All of this information was added to the trial memorandum that was sent to all of the parties yesterday evening, and it made for sobering and reflective reading on my part while I was engaging in my monthly visit with my CASA kiddo and her grandparents.  It is not as if this particular incident was the only one that would have been brought up, as the case included information going back to the mother’s difficult childhood, which included child abuse and a pregnancy as a teenager.  There is a generational pattern of failure here, and the mother would have had to answer for a large part of it today, something she could not have been looking forward to, and something that was made very clear to her.

All of this is coercion.  Again, that is not to say that all coercion is bad, but dealing with the power of government arrayed against you, having even your advocates and defenders telling you that throwing yourself on the mercy of the court is a better option than trying to fight it out when you have little or no chance of winning, and being given promises of a process by which you might get something you want but no guarantees, all of that is coercion.  To be sure, most people do not do drugs and find themselves involved in legal trouble, at least I don’t think that is a common experience.  However, we are all at least sometimes involved in coercive environments where someone who is engaged in coercion is very much interested in having the people brought before his (or her) authority proclaim that there was any coercion involved.  There is a certain theatricality involved.  The boss calls you into his office, or the minister says ominously that you need to chat.  Even when people in that particular position are trying to be polite and kind, and they certainly do not want to feel as if they are abusing their position, the reality of their position does put a certain degree of coercion on one’s interactions.  There is obviously a reason for the conversation, and obviously that positional power is being leveraged for a particular outcome.  Whenever that is the case, there is coercion.  Whether or not that coercion is ever admitted or acknowledged by the one using it or recognized by the person dealing with it, that coercion exists.

What do we do about this knowledge, though?  In my opinion, the subtle coercion of positional power needs to be made explicit.  Rather than use that power to lean on someone while pretending that we are nice people, why not be out in the open about having the power and authority and wanting a particular outcome.  If someone is doing something that we do not want them to do, or not doing something that we want them to do, or not doing something well enough, it is easy enough to have a conversation about expectations, especially if we express a willingness to wheel and deal as an equal.  So long as someone’s position is in the room but is not acknowledged, there is coercion in whatever is discussed or agreed to.  It is only when that position is acknowledged and consciously rejected that there is a chance of having open and honest conversation.  We may not like the open and honest exchange of ideas, but we should at least not pretend that no coercion exists when it is part of the structure of the situations and events that we are involved in.

Posted in Musings | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Book Review: The Archaeology Of Jerusalem

The Archaeology Of Jerusalem:  From The Origins To The Ottomans, by Katharina Galor and Hanswulf Bloedhorn

This particular book is one that seeks to toe a difficult line between showing appreciation for all aspects of the past and wrestling with the tense relationship between textual and archaeological approaches to a city that has a complex and conflicted history in Jerusalem [1].  The authors do not do their job perfectly, but the book does encourage readers to read more about the place, fills in gaps by examining eras that most writers neglect for one reason or another, and does supplement nicely a trip to the city of Jerusalem in imagining how the city has changed over time and how different ages left a mark on the city.  Fortunately, the authors do not tend to involve themselves too often in conflicts between writers or interpreters and take a generally irenic tone that lowers the hostility that some readers may have given the perspectives they present.  By focusing on the history of Jerusalem in a way that does justice to Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and gives praise to all for the way that they have left beautiful architectural and material remains throughout history, the book will likely appeal to a broad interest of those interested in Jerusalem’s history.

After an introduction that examines the history of various digs in the city of Jerusalem, the authors take a chronological view of the remains of Jerusalem.  There is a brief discussion of the natural and built limits of the city (1), an examination of the chalcolithic period and bronze age (2), an examination of Israelite iron age Jerusalem (3), a discussion of the Bablylonian and Persian periods (4), and a lengthy look at the Hellenistic period (6).  By this point the authors have gone nearly halfway through their survey.  There is a brief discussion of the Roman era (5) after the destruction of the second temple, the Byzantine period (6) and a lengthier discussion of the early Islamic (7) and alternating crusader and Ayyubid periods (8) before the book finishes with a discussion of the Mamluk (9) and Ottoman periods (10).  The authors then provide a brief epilogue as well as two appendices that show their views of Jerusalem’s chronology and a record of major excavations in Jerusalem.  Throughout the book there are a lot of photos and drawings of various finds and evidence of different periods of construction throughout Jerusalem’s complicated history.

By and large, this book is to be treasured for the picture it gives of the impact of various layers of settlement on Jerusalem.  The authors provide plausible and charitable interpretations of areas where the textual and material culture of the city of Jerusalem are in conflict, or where those who lived and ruled over Jerusalem for a long period of time left less of a record than one would expect.  The authors discuss the issues of Jerusalem’s place as a pilgrimage site for three religions and how the importance of various sites has led to a high degree of conflict in various parts of history.  The authors show themselves to be well-read about the history of the city and also well-informed about how to date periods from pottery and how difficult it is to distinguish individuals and time periods during some parts of Jerusalem’s history.  And while the author are not believers in the Bible (or apparently any other religion) their commitment to truth and to high standards of research and inquiry lead their work to be useful to those who desire to know the facts on the ground in Jerusalem, regardless of one’s background and perspective, and that is something to greatly appreciate, even if attempts at fairness and neutrality in Jerusalem are not as common as one might hope for.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in Biblical History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Book Review: A Hitchhiker’s Guide To Jesus

A Hitchhiker’s Guide To Jesus:  Reading The Gospels On The Ground, by Bruce N. Fisk

This is a rather ambivalent book in many ways.  The author combines a certain sense of openness with a desire to rise above orthodox certainty without being biased against the Bible.  He comes to an appreciation of the Bible as literature, but in doing so manages to run afoul of Israeli settlers and shows up late but an honored guest at an Arab Israeli wedding and wrestles with a complicated response to the evidence he sees on the ground, which is continually being argued over by people with different ideas and viewpoints and perspectives.  If the author comes off looking like a real person, he doesn’t exactly come off as someone whose opinion about the Bible is trustworthy, because he views himself a critic and a judge of the biblical texts (if in his mind a sympathetic one) rather than someone who views himself as being held accountable by God and Jesus Christ by the biblical text.  And as a higher critic, no matter how mild, his views are simply not as authoritative as he would like them to be.  But the author frames his story in such a way that one is intended to feel sympathy with him and with the Arabs of Israel and the West Bank, putting him squarely in the camp of those liberal Christians who do so much harm in the world at large.

In terms of its contents, if not its approach, there is much to like about the book.  The author writes about a trip to Israel he took as a young adult, a trip interrupted by terrible news about the health of his mother, in order to help sort out what he felt about the Bible in light of the reality on the ground.  The text is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into seven chapters where the author sees ruins, deals with security issues, and gets to know people while pursuing his biblical investigations and does a lot of good reading.  The book features a lot of notes about what other readers have said and sticky notes that add to the aesthetic appeal of the book as a whole, all of which offers considerable enjoyment.  The author introduces his discussion of a crisis of faith after having studied religion in college (1) and looks for historical ghosts at the Jordan River (2).  He seeks to find room at the inn in Bethlehem not only for himself but also for his worldview (3), and looks at the mist and mystery of Jerusalem (4) and the world of Galilee (5).  He then closes with a discussion of the wall of tears (6) and what it is like being on this side of the tomb (7).

Throughout this book we witness the author talking about true love and dealing with others, from friendly Israelis to shady antiquities dealers involved in the black market.  He discusses the Jesus seminar as if they were serious thinkers about the Bible and finds himself uncomfortable around orthodox believers, as well as dealing with the question of biblical prophecy and the relevance of scripture today.  He shows himself a person who can read well but is not nearly as good a thinker–then or now–as he fancies himself to be.  There are many people like the author, though, and it is probably not worthwhile to hammer them too much for their belief in their own approach to the biblical text.  After all, everyone is justified in their own eyes, and that is as true of the author as it is of those who will read the book, likely with different perspectives and approaches than the author.  Like the author, we are all faced with the responsibility of looking at the reality of the Bible on the ground [1] and in the text and to address where we stand and how we accept the judgment of God on our lives and on our deeds.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in Bible, Biblical History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

It’s All Fair Game

In our contemporary age, once someone is a public figure every aspect of their lives and behavior is viewed as fair game in attempting to destroy or discredit them.  It should be noted, though, that this tendency is not limited to public figures alone.  The same tends to be the case when one is looking at legal or administrative courts.  One time I was a mock juror who was supposed to help a personal injury case be settled before trial, and among the pieces of information dealing with an accident was that the injured party was an illegal immigrant.  It should be noted that I am rather hostile to illegal immigration, but at the same time, even if someone does not have a legal right to be here, if they are injured they have a right to seek redress, and then get deported.  Likewise, when you are a part of proceedings regarding child support, everything is fair game there as well, and it is something that tends to make such matters even more stressful, as people are seen at their worst in matters of grave importance.

In reading a great deal about Jewish ethics recently, it was striking to see that there is such an emphasis on evil speech on this tradition, and on truths that do not need to be known.  I must admit I am rather ambivalent to this.  On the one hand, I tend to be the sort of person who relishes digging up truths that are not well understood or well realized.  I tend to think that facts trump feelings, and that it is better to know the truth than to live in illusion.  Yet at the same time knowing truth does not mean knowing every fact that it is possible to know.  Quite frankly, I do not know want to know every detail about the lives of others, and I am sure that others do not want to know all of the details concerning my own life.  I tend to think that people, regardless of what position they are in, deserve privacy.  We are all accountable to God for our personal life, as well as to those who are in a covenant relationship with us.  At the same time, our personal struggles should not lead to our public shame and embarrassment.  To the extent that we betray the public trust, it is of interest to the larger public, but far too much of our own time is spent dealing with private issues that lead most people to exhibit at least some sort of hypocrisy.

I think the evaporation of privacy has a great deal to do with the general coarseness and cynicism of contemporary society.  It is difficult to hold people in high regard when there is nothing that we do not know about them.  When we know that they eat or drink too much, that they have problems in their marriage or with their families, it is hard to think of them as being heroic.  To be sure, people do their best to hide their bad sides, but with scandalmongerers all over the place, it is hard to hide such things forever.  The widespread belief that everyone is corrupt in some fashion makes it harder to disqualify people as corrupt in some aspect of their lives if they happen to support policies we like.  Yet neither we personally, nor the media itself, has any kind of fair and just and consistent standard when it comes to such matters in these days.  In the past, there were gentlemen’s agreements between the press and public figures that would keep certain matters off the table when it came to coverage, but there are few gentlemen in existence in our present days, and so narrow partisanship seems to have replaced a general sense of decorum when it comes to such matters.

It is not only in politics where the issue of this sort of decorum becomes an issue, but also when it comes time to look at historical heroes.  For example, recently I have read a great deal about Oskar Schindler, and in reading about him, there are several obvious aspects of his life that draw attention.  On the one hand, he is nearly universally considered to be a hero because of his bravery and daring in saving the lives of more than a thousand Polish Jews during World War II.  On the other hand, he was a person whose personal life included corrupt business dealings, flagrant womanizing, and a terrible approach to handling money.  Those who make a point of discussing his heroism in saving Jews often feel duty-bound to discuss how much of a failure he was in the postwar life because of his inability to find a settled place in a normal world, and that his reckless irresponsibility and general corruption helped him to save Jews and was an aspect of his heroism.  That said, not all who are considered heroes have the same degree of openness applied to their lives.  The heroism of MLK in opposing racism in the United States is typically celebrated without a great deal of discussion about his moral failings in academia as well as his personal life.  What is it that makes Schindler’s moral failings an obligatory subject of discussion while MLK’s failings, which are of a similar nature, are viewed as being irrelevant to his heroism?  A willingness to cross lines can be a good thing when it causes us to oppose popular errors and societal sins, but it can be a very bad thing when it leads us to violate our covenants to a spouse.

So what is fair game?  Is it necessary to acknowledge the sins and shortcomings of famous or heroic people at least briefly before we move on to the heroism and importance of their good deeds that we would prefer to talk about?  Do the foibles of people make it impossible for them to serve for the greater good of others?  What is relevant in a given situation?  Is it possible to have a fair standard that helps us to understand when vices can be virtues and when virtues can be vices in terms of saving lives and thwarting evil?  Perhaps such issues are hard because people do not fit into very many easy boxes.  It is easy to say that loyalty and fidelity are good things, in general, but when one is asked to be loyal to an evil regime like Nazi Germany, then disloyalty is something to be celebrated.  If we only define good and evil by our own views, and not seek to shape our views of good and evil by a just standard, then our view of privacy and our selectivity in how we judge others will continue as it has.

Posted in History, Musings | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment