The Decline and Fall of the U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court just tossed aside its last scrap of legitimacy. You don’t have to have gone to law school or practiced law to know that the argument that Trump is “immune” from criminal charges is legally hogwash.

A basic tenet of a democracy is that no one is above the law and that certainly applies in the case of a grifter who tried to hang onto the presidency after he lost the election and now wants to be dictator.

If you want the legal arguments, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit made it abundantly clear in its ruling. You can read that here.

All the Supreme Court had to do was say no and let the D.C. Circuit ruling stand. Instead, they set it for argument two months out. Even if at least five of them come to their senses and rule against Trump, the trial on his actions in the January 6 insurrection will be pushed off until the fall, with the presidential election looming in November.

I note that Brazil has taken much more concrete action against Jair Bolsonaro, who used similar tactics when he was defeated in their 2022 election. His supporters stormed government buildings in January 2023; by June 2023 the Brazilian courts had blocked him from running for office again until 2030.

It was only in 2023 that prosecutors finally got around to indicting Trump for his actions in 2021, and now our Supreme Court is helping him delay trial.

I once would not have expected Brazil to do a better job of dealing with wannabe dictators than the United States, but the last few years have cured me of any belief in American exceptionalism.

They’ve also cured me of believing in the Supreme Court.

Continue reading “The Decline and Fall of the U.S. Supreme Court”

Victory Garden 2.0

During the early days of Covid (y’all remember the early days of Covid, right?) I realized that if I didn’t do something I would get…a little frantic. I have a well managed tendency to anxiety, counterbalanced by the belief that running in circles flapping my arms and squealing does nothing to improve the situation. If I can do something–even a small something–to ameliorate an anxietous situation, I feel better. I think of this as tending a Victory Garden*, after the WW1 and WW2 practice of home gardening to reduce the strain on supply chains during the war.

During first couple of years of Covid I sewed masks for donation; hooked up with a group that provided materials and found recipients (health and day-care workers, etc.) and distributed them. And spending a few hours every week had the wonderful benefit of making me feel calmer about getting through the pandemic.

We are, as you may have noticed, in an election year.  And the world is a mess. At the state and local levels, not to mention the national levels, the stakes feel almost unbearably high. And my tendency toward anxiety (see above) has been ratcheting higher and higher. This is something that no amount of sewing is going to help. So what can I do to do something? I’m  not a good debater–for someone who works with words, when I’m confronted with the opportunity to discuss politics with someone of differing opinions I tend to get incoherent and arm-wavy and anxious, which convinces no one of my deeply-held feelings in the matter. I am conflict averse (read: I’m a big coward) and actually rather shy about approaching people. But there’s that ratcheting anxiety thing, which is only going to get worse.

Fortunately, during the last couple of elections I’ve found a way of helping that is A) within my skill set, B) does, I think, a good deal of good, and C) makes me feel better. I write postcards. Working with a group called Reclaim Our Vote, I hand-write postcards to voters who may be in danger of missing their opportunity to vote, either through lack of information or outright attempts to mislead them. What I like about these postcards is that they don’t endorse a candidate or espouse a particular platform. They’re simple and informational: “The election (or primary) is on X date. Your state rules say you can vote in the following ways. If anyone tells you you aren’t registered/aren’t allowed to vote, here is what you do. Your vote and your voice are important.” It’s about making sure that every voice is heard.

Writing out the full script (which varies according to the state the recipient lives in)–using multicolored pens (for impact) and my best handwriting–is hard on my increasingly antique wrists–I can do maybe 20 in an evening. So I start small, with a list of maybe 100 recipients. When I get those done, I order another set of postcards and addresses. It’s not exactly rocket surgery, but Center for Common Ground has evidence that post carding gets people to the polls, especially in areas where redistricting or other shenanigans has left many potential voters confused about where, how, and when to vote.

During the last Presidential election my brother, whose politics are, shall we say, entirely opposite to mine, was concerned about election integrity. So he and his wife did a smart thing: they volunteered as poll workers. Not only did they help the process, but they were able to report to their friends that they saw zero evidence of vote tampering, but considerable evidence that everything had been done to ensure that the vote was aboveboard. They felt less anxious about the process. I think sometimes that it’s the ground-level stuff that is most important: convincing people one at a time that the system can work.

So in and among all the other things I’m doing this spring, if you want me I’ll be writing postcards. Or icing my wrists.

If you’d like to get involved in post carding, check out the Center for Common Ground’s page.

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*the irony here, of course, is that no one in their right mind wants me to actually garden. Plants see me coming and recoil in terror. In this case the pen, and the needle, are my wheelhouses, and I stay in them.

Yesterday and Tomorrow

When I need a break from the very bad news that wants to control my life and eat my brain, I watch old TV. The series I’m watching right now is the original The Tomorrow People. There is a reason for this. Not a very sensible reason. I’m not watching it because it’s primary fodder for my research (though if something comes up, I keep that something in mind): I’m watching it because it is the TV series that matched my age and interests when I was a teen. I needed to discover some parts of my past. Re-visiting the past is particularly useful when the present isn’t as easy as it could be.

Australia was a lot less USA-like in the 1970s, and The Tomorrow People is a classic science fiction show targeted at teens, and I was a classic SF tragic when I was a teen, and… let me get back to the beginning.

The Tomorrow People was shown from 1973 until 1979.

If I were to ask you to to take a wild guess as to when I began high school I hope that you would say ‘1973’ without hesitation. I was eleven-going-on-twelve. I was a science nerd and a history nerd but we had no words to describe that. The science didn’t need a term to help it fit into my life, because my mother was a science teacher. The history I had to argue for and persuade people that museums were worth visiting.

“You have half an hour” I was told when we went caravanning. Five minutes if it was a monument, half an hour if it was a museum. I found ways of spinning out that half hour. When I found a display of diamonds that had been found in streams (it was the goldfields, of course diamonds were found in streams, though in my case I found a few minuscule rubies and garnets, some gold and a vast amount of cassiterite) the whole family came in to investigate them. We understood rocks. All of us. Rocks and food. And, for me, baby clothes and irons from a century ago, and anything written or printed from before I was born and…

I’ve wanted to understand the whole world around me since I was about two. I was told “It will get boring” and it never has. A friend gave me an Australian cookbook from 1968 just this week, as an early birthday present (when things are difficult friends give early birthday presents, I suspect) and I cannot put it away until it has been thoroughly explored and my relationship with each and every recipe has been re-established… I knew this book when it first came out, you see. I was seven. I loved it then and, now, at 62, I have my own copy and life is suddenly so happy I needed to rewatch The Tomorrow People.

I am quite possibly, a failure, but I’m a failure who developed an early love of science fiction. SF and food are two of my happy places.

When I was heading for my teens, I read SF magazines from the US and watched a few TV series from the US but mostly, in the 70s, it was Doctor Who and Blake’s Seven and The Tomorrow People. For me it was, anyhow. The Tomorrow People was the one with children like me, who didn’t fit in. I couldn’t do telepathy, but I liked the TV series so very much that an aunt gave me Franklin’s ESP (a board game for incipient telepaths) for my birthday. I could try to be a Tomorrow Person. I could write stories about it. That need to write stories stuck, but my need to teleport did not.

My favourite actor on the series was Elizabeth Adare. I discovered today that this was because her acting style channels my inner teacher. I wanted to meet her. The actress, not the character. I probably still do. She was the right public person when I was the right age to pay attention. The series of The Tomorrow People where she was absent felt a little bereft. Why is this so? (A totally misplaced quote from an Australian science TV show, also from my childhood.) It’s because The Tomorrow People finished just when I left school and went to university. It lasted just the right amount of time. There was an adult woman on the television who was permitted to be intent and interesting and intelligent and when the actress was interviewed she was even more interesting and intelligent. We all need role models: I was very lucky to have that one at that precise and difficult time.

And now, if you’ll kindly excuse me, I have books to see and TV to meet.

Do We Need “Rough Men”?

I came across this quote the other day on social media:

People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand read to do violence on their behalf.

It was attributed to George Orwell, but it probably won’t surprise readers to learn that it was actually said by a right-wing cultural columnist named Richard Grenier. A look at a Wikipedia page on misquotations and a site called Quote Investigator suggests that it is a paraphrase of some ideas Orwell expressed.

Regardless of who actually said those words, I think the general sentiment is widely shared by a large number of people. I recall it being an underlying point in the many spy thrillers I read back when I was in high school (Len Deighton, John Le Carre, and even Ian Fleming, plus others who were big in the 1960s and later).

It’s also something you hear from police officers and people in the military. I think it has a strong following, particularly – but not exclusively – among men, regardless of their political opinions.

Back when I was in my early 20s, I had a discussion with a good friend who was a Vietnam War vet. I stated my strong opinion that the fact that the draft only applied to men led to increased sexism and that women could and should serve in combat if military action was necessary.

To my surprise – I didn’t expect a lot of push back from my friends for my radical opinions in those days – he disagreed vehemently.

Twenty years later, he explained to me that one of the things that he held onto for a long time that let him tolerate his miserable war experience was that at least he was protecting others from having to do it. He had by then thought the subject through more deeply.

The sentiment makes sense, in our violent world, but on the whole I think it’s a myth that many people, like my friend, tell themselves to deal with the trauma of the horrors of war or other violent actions.

In truth, one of the key things that makes us safe is that some people – and sometimes enough of them – stand up against various kinds of injustice. Continue reading “Do We Need “Rough Men”?”

Friendships

I am a bit late today because I met a baby on my Monday. Not just any baby. The baby of a student who has, over the years, stopped being a student and became a friend. T is her second child and is so curious and intelligent. Not even four months, and responding to everyone and laughing when I teased him and happy to be held by me.

While I and T were being happy together, his mother and I chatted. We spoke about a lot of personal things, and about the cultural differences between Indonesian women over 60 and Australian women over 60.

She’d been to a lecture recently and so we also chatted about the bias that means that much research into early trade between SE Asia and northern Australia has been under-reported. The talk was by a scholar whose papers I read. We would both like to see more written about the pre-1600 non-European engagement with the people of the far North of Australia.

By pre-European, I’ve seen more papers about Christian voyages to the north, especially Dutch, Portuguese and British (the British ones were more recent) than about those from all the other cultures that are close, or who have settled or converted land that’s close to Australia. Given that much of Indonesia and Malaysia are now Muslim and given the large influence of Indian cultures on that whole region, this lack of public reporting has led to a vast, vast gap in popular knowledge and understanding.

Also given that the people of far Northern Australia know Muslims and Buddhists and Chinese traders with quite different religion still and they have incorporated this knowledge into their own cultural traditions rather than converting to any of those religions, it’s important in other ways. We talk about different cultures working together or living alongside each other and yet we don’t understand this for not-so-modern Australia.

The conversation moved (of course) to the particular culture of Sulawesi and how it has connected with the Australian continent. This led to beef rendang which, as my friend knows very well, is one of my favourite foods. Decades ago I made kosher beef rendang, just to prove that it could be done. It’s easy to make rendang kosher because it contains no dairy products, but I had to adjust the cooking slightly and the ingredients slightly to allow for the differences in the meat texture and salt levels.

From this we returned to talking about the children. Of course we did. My friend has two utterly gorgeous children and they’re a joy to talk about. Although we did spatter the conversation with why some childless women adore children and why some do not. I think we concluded that everything depends on who the woman is and what our life experiences are, but I’m not certain about this. I don’t think the conversation is done. We are certain that I like children of all ages and am keeping my role as an honorary aunt.

It’s going to be a month or so before we can chat again. As a mother of young children she won’t have time until after Ramadan. After Ramadan and before Pesach: perfect.

Some Thoughts on Learning

I’ve been taking a drawing class this winter and it got me to thinking about learning. It dawned on me that it’s really difficult to teach yourself something with books or online videos unless you already know the basics.

For example, if you’ve trained in Tai Chi and know not just a form, but why you move certain ways, you can watch a video of a master instructor and get some insight. You can probably even teach yourself a new form that way.

But until you have a good grounding in the basics, videos are not going to make sense. You need to learn the basics from someone who knows them and can guide you past the errors that most beginners make.

Until your body has integrated those basics, you aren’t going to know how to interpret the things you see in a video.

In a lot of cases — particularly if you are learning to do something physical — such classes need to be in person with hands-on instruction.

In drawing class this week we were working on drawing negative space, because you need to understand negative space to see things the way an artist does. I was trying to do it, but the teacher came by and said, “You’re drawing the chair, not the negative space.” She showed me a couple of things and I was able to shift what I was doing.

I can’t exactly explain what shifted, either, because some of what I am learning is not the sort of thing that is easily put into words. It is instead the sort of thing you learn by watching and trying and getting just the right kind of correction.

When it comes to drawing — and we won’t even get into painting or sculpture or other visual arts — I don’t have enough grammar and vocabulary and comprehension of the basics to figure out what else I need to know. Having a good teacher is gradually giving me those basics.

A friend of mine recommended some online video classes, but she’s been doing art of various kinds for some time. I don’t think I know enough yet to pick up much that way. Once I have more grounding, I’ll look into that. Continue reading “Some Thoughts on Learning”

Building A Village

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. Not the future. My future.

My aunt turned 98 on Thursday, and I went down to spend a couple of days with her. I am often awed, not just by the devotion her primary caregiver shows (a woman who was her housekeeper for 30 years and took caregiving certification courses so she could be there for my aunt) but at the network of care that surrounds her. My uncle’s nephew manages the finances and coordinates her home care. Her medical care is overseen by UCLA’s Geriatrics department (which coordinates with all the medical visitors–primary care doctor, PT, nurse supervisor, meds management, etc.). Her wonderful primary caregiver is there for several days at a time (and her younger daughter, who is a PhD candidate at UCLA, subs in on occasion), and there are several respite caregivers that my aunt knows and likes, who come in so that Maria can have some time off. The guy who manages the building and takes care that everything is working properly. And family: my daughter lives in the garage apartment of the building and has dinner with my aunt a couple of times a week. I am planning to visit for a few days every couple of weeks for the foreseeable. So that’s more than a dozen people.

My aunt wanted to stay in her own home, and is fortunate that a lifetime of work and saving has made that possible–and that her sweetness, and the love everyone has for her and my uncle, ensures that she’s surrounded by kindness and affection.

On the other hand, my father, and my in-laws, both chose to go to continuing care residences. My father did so because he went blind, and living in a rural community meant that all of his time was spent arranging rides to shop and visit doctors, and… Dad was ferociously independent and deeply social. It was a better fit for him to move–on his own initiative–to a place where things like rides, and shopping, and a social life, were part of the of the package. He lived there for about a dozen years, and loved the place. And my in-laws sold their home and moved into a similar continuous-care place while they were still hale enough to make it their home: they made friends, got involved in politics and other things, traveled widely, and were always happy to come back to their new home. In both cases, moving in long before they needed assistance (medical assistance anyway) or heightened care, meant that they had a community and a sense of belonging. They did not mourn, as some elderly folks do, for the home they left when they were put into nursing care. They were home, and the care came to them.

Because I write SF and so many of my friends are writers (with all the colorful personalities and imaginations that implies) the subject of how to handle our own futures sometimes comes up. Every few years someone says “what we should do is pool our money and buy an apartment building/subdivision/whole town and live there.” Continue reading “Building A Village”

Two types of hunger

Way back when I did more things that were political and public, friends and I learned that it’s possible to get through life without hating, without accusations based on little or no evidence, and without destroying the lives of others. We learned, quite simply, how to learn before judging. We talked about folk dance and folk music (in fact, some of us danced and some of us sang), we learned much history to advance our understanding. I can still do some of the dancing (although these days it hurts, physically, which is ironic) and sing some of my favourite songs to myself (not to others beachhead really, I have no voice) and I still learn the history. What I’ve never stopped doing and what I can still do well is cooking. Hunger for food helps feed the equally-important hunger for understanding. Let me introduce you today, then, to four cookbooks that have served me well when I need to remember how complex and wonderful different cultures are and how there are many paths to avoiding hate.

The first book is Christiane Dabdoub Nasser’s Classic Palestinian Cuisine. A friend who is Palestinian Australian said I was missing her cultural background from my book collection, even though I was cooking food that was very similar to her own cuisine. She was right. I had not even begun to understand where her food and foodways were like mine. We talked a lot, and we ate each other’s cooking, which helped, but my library didn’t reflect this at all.

I couldn’t find a Palestinian Australian cookbook. Nasser’s was published in London, though, so it’s close enough for now. By ‘for now’ I mean I need more. One cookbook is not even close to a whole culture. The first cookbook is to open a window and to begin to see through that open window. I begin learning where I make non-rational judgements and where I lack knowledge and understanding, and then the recipes I cook help me break down my issues and to stop applying them to someone else’s culture. It helps me see people, and to stop hiding behind my own biases. It helps me look for what we share and to avoid hate.

I make a variant of Nasser’s potato with rosemary dish for Passover. It’s wonderful. Sadly, there are never leftovers. For dinner tonight, I’m choosing between two different eggplant (aubergine) salads. I’m hungry just thinking about it.

I chose the second book because I needed a cup of coffee. I’ve just finished my cup, and I feel almost awake. Given I’m writing on a hot summer’s day, this is a good thing. Antony Wild’s Coffee: A Dark History is not my favourite history of coffee volume. It was the first I saw when I looked at my shelves. It is, however appropriate for today.

We all carry a lot of half-understood history with us. All our foodstuffs and foodways have their own history and sometimes we know things and we think we know things and… it helps to find works that debunk and reconsider and don’t shy away from the less-good elements of the past.

The history of coffee walks hand-in-hand with empire-building and slavery if you want to focus on one side of its history. Coffee offers so much more than this, however, and I’d not use Wild’s book alone. Coffee helped European political blokes talk to each other through coffee houses from the seventeenth century. It changed the shape of discourse, in fact, in those countries. It shaped that discourse in part of the Middle East. Opening the door to coffee history is to open the door to understanding how even the history of a single type of bean carries with it cultural complexities and is worth understanding.

The last two books are, in my library, a pair. I use them a lot. They’re both by Claudia Roden. Roden does all the things I’ve talked about. She breaks food and foodways down into specific cultures: her volume The Book of Jewish Food is a masterpiece in this way. It doesn’t contain my foodways (there’s a story in that) but it’s given me a basic understanding of how Jewish food and foodways can be interpreted and understood in a wider sense. I can integrate this with my own historical knowledge (and it helps being an ethnohistorian, I admit) and I can talk Jewish food with most people. I have favourite Jewish foodways, and I explore them separately, but I always begin with Roden’s work.

The same thing applies to my learning about the different food and foodways of the Middle East. Her A Book of Middle Eastern Food is the book that began me on this wonderful journey, when I was a teenager. I owned my own copy from the moment I left home. My little paperback is from 1982. Without it, I would not have known enough to ask friends “What should I look for in a cookbook that takes into account your background.” I have hundreds of cookbooks now, but this was one of my first, and I still love it. My copy is battered and much used.

Each note Roden makes about this cuisine or that has sparked research at my end. I find more recipes, look into the culture that owns them, begin to understand the food customs and rules… and remind myself that doing this help me remember, every day, that respect and understanding trump hate. This means, of course, that I need another cookbook. It’s been a very difficult year so far for me as an Australian Jew. My obligation from that (according to the way I see the world) is to understand better other people who are also hurting. I shall watch for cookbooks and recipe websites. This is not the only way I try to understand, but it’s definitely the most fun.

Workarounds, With Belts and Suspenders

Modern life requires workarounds. Under the principle of Murphy’s law – whatever can go wrong will – there are many situations where having more than one way to do something will save your butt.

This is also an argument for redundancy, or, as I like to put it, using both a belt and suspenders. That may be an outdated metaphor – I’m not sure anyone uses suspenders to hold up their pants these days – but I’ve always liked it.

Both workarounds and belts and suspenders are at the heart of the way I deal with tech, but they can also apply to other things. I use workarounds when I cook, for example — if we’re out of one thing, I use something else.

Earlier this week, I needed to make granola. I like an easy cold cereal for breakfast, but it’s hard to find ones made from whole grains with very little sugar and a lot of nuts, so I make my own. My preference is to make it with mixed rolled grains — wheat, barley, oats, rye — but I have been known to make it with just barley.

We can usually get one or the other in bulk at a health food store, but my backup is Bob’s Red Mill 5-Grain hot cereal. However, we haven’t been to the health food store lately and our local store’s been out of the 5-Grain for two weeks.

So this week I made it with rolled oats. (No one is ever out of rolled oats, near as I can tell.) It makes very little difference in taste, though it doesn’t give me the perfect mix of grains I want for good health (barley is very good for you). Still, it will do and it’s still way better than the commercial brands.

Workarounds are often imperfect, but in a lot of cases, perfection isn’t worth all the extra effort.

A typical workaround in tech is saving documents as rtf if you need to be able to open them in different word processing programs. Or emailing them to yourself in addition to saving them. Or even printing things out just to be on the safe side. I save my taxes on the computer, but I also keep a print copy.

Another is having multiple browsers available because one of them won’t work for some things you try to do. For some reason, I can’t pay one of my health insurance bills in Firefox, but I can in Safari. That’s the sort of thing I mean.

Making extra copies and having multiple browsers are both redundant, but that’s where the belt and suspenders point comes in. It’s a lot easier than spending hours trying to find something that should be saved online but isn’t or even more hours figuring out what’s causing the problem. Redundancy can be very useful. Continue reading “Workarounds, With Belts and Suspenders”

When You Can’t Write

For a long time, I used to joke that I couldn’t afford writer’s block. I began writing professionally when my first child was a baby and I learned to use very small amounts of time. This involved “pre-writing,” going over the next scene in my mind (while doing stuff like washing the dishes) until I knew exactly how I wanted it to go; when I’d get a few minutes at the typewriter (no home computers yet), I’d write like mad. I always had a backlog of scenes and stories and whole books, screaming at me to be written. The bottleneck was the time in which to work on them.

I kept writing through all sorts of life events, some happy, others really awful and traumatic. Like many other writers, I used my work as escape, as solace, as a way of working through difficult situations and complex feelings. I shrouded myself with a sense of invulnerability: I could write my way through anything life threw at me!

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

I hit an immovable wall during a PTSD meltdown following the first parole hearing of the man who raped and murdered my mother. For weeks at a time, I battled flashbacks and nightmares. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t stop crying. Also, I couldn’t write. That creative paralysis added another dimension to the crisis. If I couldn’t write, who was I? Where were my secret worlds, my journeys of spirit and heart where people healed and things got better? Gone…and I didn’t know if I’d ever get them back.

I was fortunate to have a lot of help, professional and friendly, during those dark weeks and months, some of it from fellow writers. No pep talks, just friendship, constant and true. Eventually, as I recovered, I was able to return to fiction writing as well, although by then, I found myself a single working mom and had a new set of demands on my time.

Writers stop writing for all kinds of reasons. In my case, it was personal and emotional, part of a larger crisis. Other times, however, the well runs dry when the rest of life is going smoothly. Quite a few years ago, I ran into a writer I greatly admired (at an ABA convention), and I’d not seen anything from this writer in quite a few years. I introduced myself and asked when the next book would be coming out. Only when I saw the change in the writer’s expression did I realize how difficult the subject was. I was probably the hundredth person that weekend to ask. (Eventually, this writer came out with several new books; I wonder now if the appearance at the ABA wasn’t a way of trying to get the head back into writerly-space.)

Sometimes, a writer feels they’ve said everything they have to say. Or that one book or one series is it; there are no new worlds begging to be explored. They can rest on their laurels with a feeling of satisfaction and closure. For the rest of us, though, not writing is anywhere from excruciating to devastating.

I  think it’s not at all helpful to try to “cheer up” a writer in the middle of a dry period. The specific reasons–creative paralysis, personal crisis, discouragement–vary so much. I think it’s safe to say that each of us has to find our own way through. For me, it’s helped immensely to know I’m not the only one to go through it–and that’s the operational term “go through it.” Come out the other side. Talk about what happened, in the hopes of being the light in the darkness for someone else.