Republicans are beating up on President Obama, telling him to do something to stop Putin from interfering in Ukraine.
Senator Bob Corker, Ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is good example of Republican thinking on the subject of Russia and Ukraine. “The Russian government has felt free to intervene militarily in Ukraine because the United States,” Corker said, “along with Europe, has failed to make clear there would be serious, potentially irreparable consequences to such action.”
Exactly what “serious, potentially irreparable consequences” does Senator Corker have in mind? “The United States and our European allies should immediately bring to bear all elements of our collective economic strength to stop Russian advances in Ukraine,” he said. Oh, our economic strength — maybe that means boycotts or trade sanctions or limiting the G8 to G7, something like that. Or, better yet, maybe we can withdraw our ambassador from Moscow before they withdraw theirs from Washington, that’s been suggested, too.
The unpleasant fact is that in this game of geopolitical poker, Putin is holding the strong cards.
The US is currently trying to disentangle itself from its longest war; our voters are broke, the Republicans want to shrink government and cut taxes, the Democrats want to raise the minimum wage and the middle class, and everybody is tired of wonderful foreign adventures to bring democracy wherever. Furthermore, the US wants cooperation from Putin in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear facilities, and in Syria and in regard to North Korea.
Ukraine had been part of Russia for about 300 years. Russia gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 when Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union – or Evil Empire, as President Regan correctly called it. And Crimea is sufficiently distinct from the rest of Ukraine that it’s a semi-autonomous republic with its own parliament. Ukraine has been an independent nation since 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart – that’s 23 years, during which time it’s had a largely corrupt pro-Russian government, the underlying reason it lost the support of its people.
What’s going on in Ukraine is terribly important for the Ukrainians. As for Russia and the West, in terms of strategic geopolitics, it’s far more important to Putin and the future of Russia than it is to the United States or the nations of Western Europe. We can jawbone the Russians and we can put together NATO meetings, committees and envoys and negotiators. But the principal actor in this dangerous game isn’t a politician in the United States or Europe, he’s an autocrat in the Kremlin.
Valentines and hearts are romantically linked. For long-ago centuries the human heart was thought to be the place where emotion resided. After all, our heart will beat faster and harder when we feel a great emotions (think terror or erotic excitement) even though we may be bodily at rest. What more proof do you need that emotion dwells in the heart?
So when we send a valentine, a message declaring love, the little note often carries the image of a heart, a human heart. Well, not exactly an image, but a symbol, a red thing that stands for a heart. That design, nowadays called a heart-shape, was around for a long time and was thought of as a leaf or a dart. It was taken over and used to represent a heart only later.
And in the photo below, there it is on the cheek of the young woman kissing the young man. Indeed, the young woman is wearing sunglasses, and the beach-like sprawl in the background suggest that this is not February 14th, that it’s not Valentine’s Day and that the heart is the sign of human affection any day of the year.
The first image we have of a man giving a woman his heart occurs in a Medieval manuscript and the heart is shaped like a pine cone, because classical authority, namely the philosopher-doctor Galen, said it was shaped like a pine cone. Gallen was a brilliant man and his influence lasted from the 3rd century through the 16th, but he did his disections on monkeys, not humans. Furthermore, there are many shapes to pine cones, and we don’t know what Galen had in mind when he said the heart was shaped that way. But we’re getting lost in a digression here.
Let’s take a look at that Medieval depiction of a lover giving his “heart” to his beloved. The scene comes from Li romanz de la poire — let’s call it The Romance of the Pear and please don’t get fussy over the etymology and meaning of romanz in medieval French. Here’s the scene.
You’re right, she doesn’t look happily impressed. In fact, she looks likes she’s going to swat the poor man. Yet she does have a certain passion. In fact, the story is called The Romance of the Pear because the Lady peels a pear with her teeth and shares it with her lover. There’s a certain intimacy in that. No? Well, the story was pretty hot in the 13th century.
All of this is quite far from our freezing Valentine’s Day of 2014. Today we have ice and snow from Georgia to Maine. So we’ll insert our favorite image from our previous Valentine’s Day posts.
As we said before on an earlier Valentine’s Day, we admire the young gentleman helping the young lady across the street in a snowstorm, and we admire the young lady who wears a short dress and those high-heel shoes in a blizzard. If you’d like to see the posts on a couple of earlier Valentine’s Days, just type Valentine’s Day into our little search box on the upper right, over the right-hand column.
Eighty-five very, very rich people own the same amount of wealth as the bottom half of the entire population of the world.
In the United States, the 400 richest have more wealth than the 150 million citizens who comprise the poorest half of the population.
Maybe you’re wondering if these crazy statistics were produced by a wild-eyed radical group intending to overthrow the capitalistic system No, these facts come from a briefing paper, “Working for the Few,” prepared by Oxfam International.
Just to be on the safe side, let’s take a closer look at that organization. Oxfam was founded in 1942 in Oxford, England, as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. It was organized by a group of Quakers, Oxford academics, and social activists. Over the years it has spread and now has many affiliates around the globe. Oxfam America is a member of Oxfam International, an international confederation of 17 organizations networked together in 94 countries, as part of – to quote them – “a global movement for change, to build a future free from the injustice of poverty.” Oxfam America is a 501(c)(3) organization, and gifts are tax-deductible to the full extent allowable under the law. Definitely not radical. You can make a donation without worry.
Here are some of the other interesting statistics from the Oxfam briefing paper:
• Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
• The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
• Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
• The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
• In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.
I’m sure there’s a way of looking at this data and believing that we can’t do anything about it. Capitalism is the dominant economic system around the globe — in some places it’s more regulated than others, but it’s still capitalism. And some people believe that capitalism is a “natural” system of economics, that it simply comes into being all by itself, naturally. But none of that is true. Capitalism is an economic structure created by people, not by nature nor by God and angels. Like legislative or judicial systems, it’s devised and brought into being by people. For a long time, monarchy was considered the natural system of governance, part of the divine order of things created by God. It wasn’t and neither is capitalism. We can change it. We can make it better, fairer, more broadly productive.
January is coming to an end and we’ve neglected to point out that January is officially National Soup Month. I don’t know who the national officials are who decide these things, but Critical Pages was informed it was National Soup Month so, to be absolutely sure, and knowing that the Web never lies, I looked it up on the Web and, yes, January is National Soup Month.
The soup in that pot is minestrone. Maybe you already knew that. The Italian word for soup is minestra, and when you make it into a diminutive and say minestrina, that means you’re talking about a thin, clear soup, and when you use the heavy word minestrone, that means it’s a thick soup. Maybe you didn’t know that.
The soup pictured in this post was excellent. Here’s what went into it:
- Tomatoes, 1 small can of diced tomatoes (14.5 oz). Whether or not to use the juice from the can is a judgment call. We used the juice.
- Garlic, 2 cloves, diced.
- Olive oil, 1 and 1/2 tablespoons. You can sauté the garlic in this.
- Onion, 1 sweet white Spanish onion, or any other onion, chopped. Half an onion if it’s a big one.
- Celery, 1 cup chopped.
- Carrots 1 cup, sliced carrots. That’s 2 or 3 good thick ones.
- Yellow summer squash, or zucchini, 2 of them at most, sliced or halved or quartered and sliced.
- Spinach, regular or baby. I tore the spinach up into biggish pieces and I guess 1 or 2 cups full, but I don’t how to measure a cup of spinach.
- String beans. Get a couple of handfuls and cut them up into bite-size pieces. I used a heaping 1/3 cup full and it was fine.
- Bell pepper, sliced to bite size. I added half a red bell pepper. Actually, this was a mistake. It was OK, but I won’t do it again.
- 3/4 cup of ditalini pasta. That was way too much. It’s best to cook up the pasta separately, otherwise it gets mushy.
- Vegetable broth or water. One time I used 1/2 can of vegetable broth and 2 cups of water, and another time I used no broth and 5 cups of water. When I’ve included the juice from the small can of tomatoes, I’ve added 3 cups of water. If the vegetable broth has herbs in it, then you should be careful when adding herbs.
- Wine. 1/3 cup of white wine. Some people add wine to every soup they make. I’m one of those.
- Oregano and parsley, 1/2 teaspoon. of oregano and parsley. Or maybe neither; salt seems to be all you need. Season to taste with salt as you go along, or in the soup bowl.
- Some people add ceci beans (also called chick peas or garbanzo beans). Those beans have all sorts of health benefits and I wish I liked them more, but I don’t. If you like them, open a small can (14 oz), drain the beans and use however much you want.
Get a fresh loaf of Italian or French bread to go with this.
Heat the olive oil and sauté the garlic in the pot you’re going to make the soup in. If you want to add the chopped onions, go ahead, but don’t add more olive oil. Add the broth and/or water and tomatoes, and stir it all. Then toss in the celery and carrots and stir some more. Next, bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. After it’s simmering add the softer stuff – the squash or zucchini, beans and spinach. The last thing to add is the wine and not quite a half teaspoon of parsley – and maybe a pinch of oregano. It’s best to add salt to taste, but that’s hard to do if the minestrone is too hot, so let some cool in a dipper and try it there. If you simmer it too long, things get mushy. A bit crisp tastes better.
By the way, a mix of carrots, celery and onions, roughly chopped and thrown together, is the starting point for a lot of soups, stews, stocks and sauces. These three aromatics, as they are called, are found together in so many recipes that the French have a word for the group — mirepoix. We’re showing off our Italian and French today.
Critical Pages isn’t a recipe site. This post is about what we got when we used these ingredients in this way. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, not even when we do it in our own kitchen. That’s true for a lot of things in life.
Johanes Kepler was the astronomer who first understand the beautiful eliptical orbits of planets around the sun. He had a wonderfully restless mind and in 1611 he composed a charming, learned little book speculating on why snowflakes have six points. Brilliant though he was, Kepler didn’t have the knowledge of atoms and molecules that we do today, so his book, fascinating as it is, doesn’t come up with the answer.
Here’s how we get those delicate snowflakes, some of which landed on Kepler’s coat as he walked across the Charles bridge in December of 1610. A molecule of water is composed of two little atoms of hydrogen linked to a bigger atom of oxygen. The two hydrogen atoms are positioned 104.5 degrees from each other, and that gives the three atoms taken together a shape rather like a three-sided pyramid. That’s a water molecule.
That’s not the same as what we call water, which is a bunch of water molecules hanging out together. The comparatively large oxygen atom is composed such that the side opposite the two hydrogen atoms is able to link up with the hydrogen atoms of other water molecules. When a water molecule links up with four other water molecules, it arranges into a nice four-sided pyramid – called a tetrahedron in your geometry class.
Now we’re getting someplace. Because as the temperature drops, these four-sided arrangements of water molecules draw closer together and form a six-sided, or hexagonal, structure – which is what we see when we look at an ice crystal. That ice crystal is the heart of the combined molecules which add up and spread out to a clearly visible snow flake. Now you know.
Another version of why snowflakes have six points can be found in the very short tale The Queen of the Rain Was in Love with the Prince of the Sky. Furthermore, that little story also explains why no two snowflakes are precisely alike. And this is shameless self-promotion, because that little gem is by Eugene Mirabelli, who writes all these unsigned posts at Critical Pages.
If you’d like to read the mini-book The Queen of the Rain Was in Love with the Prince of the Sky, which is considerably lighter and more entertaining than molecular chemistry, click on the title at the start of this sentence. On the other hand, if you’re a chemistry buff and can’t follow the lucid explanation of the arrangement of atoms and molecules posted here and insist on seeing diagrams, you can find some really good ones on the web. And if you’d like to read that book by Kepler, check out the offerings at Paul Dry Books.
Critical Pages has never taken notice of fiction in the Young Adult category. One reason is that we’re not Young Adults ourselves. Another reason is that when we were Young Adults — and that was a long, long, long time ago — young adult fiction was mostly books like the Rover Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries. And no, we’re not kidding. We were more or less aware that things had changed, especially when we read the Judy Blume novels that our kids left around the house. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that we’re astonished by Hollis Seamon’s young adult novel, Somebody Up There Hates You.
It begins this way:
I shit you not. Hey, I’m totally reliable, sweartogod. I, Richard Casey – aka the Incredible Dying Boy — actually do live, temporarily, in the very hospice unit I’m going to tell you about. Third floor, Hilltop Hospital, in the city of Hudson, the great state of New York.
This wild, touching but hard-edged story is about two teenage kids, Richard and his girlfriend Sylvie, who are in a hospice unit, dying and behaving pretty much the outrageous way teenage kids behave, or certainly might behave, knowing that their time is limited.
The narrator’s voice is one of the many marvels of this short, incandescent novel. Another marvel is the antic spirit that enlivens scene after scene amid the stark reality of hospice. The tone is not sentimental; Richard is dying and when you close the book you know he’s not going to get a reprieve.
The book’s flyleaf tells us that Hollis Seamon spent years visiting a children’s hospital, fascinated and touched by the young people she met there, while she was caring for her young son. Seamon’s web site shows that prior to Somebody Up There Hates You Seamon had published a collection of short stories, Body Work, plus a mystery, Flesh, and the recent Corporeality, a second short story collection — all for adult readers. No matter your age, Somebody Up There Hates You is a tough book to read but worth it all the way.
Taking down the Christmas tree is one of the saddest domestic chores. For a week or longer this evergreen has been standing in the room with us, filling the air with the scent of balsam or other pines, glittering with lights and sparkling ornaments. And those ornaments are so important, so beautiful, no matter that they’re inexpensive baubles or, say, ordinary pine cones tinted with gold-like paint, or paper and glitter glued together by one of the children a dozen years ago. Each ornament has it’s family history — the history of which grandparents had it on their tree a generation ago, or who brought it as a gift, or made it just this year.
There’s no joy of recognition when taking these ornaments from the tree. That delight happened two weeks ago when, after an absence of a year, we carefully lifted this delicate trinket from it’s wrapping and — oh, yes! — we remember that one, the Santa with the paint chipping off, the glass sphere with Mother and Child inside, or those tiny gold balls we got forty years ago for our first Christmas. And if you turn off all the lamps in the room and leave only the strings of tiny tree lights — how magically beautiful it is!
Now we’re simply returning the faded old ornaments to their little egg-crate boxes, if we can find the right boxes that fit, and stacking them one upon the other in a corner of the attic, or in a closet behind the bag of swim suits and beach clothes. Then, after struggling to unfasten the tree from the stand, and after spilling water on the floor, we finally grapple with the brittle tree amid a shower of dried pine needles, drag it out the door and toss it on the snowbank down by the road. And there it will lie until the town truck comes to take it away, bits of glittering tinsel still fluttering here and there.
It helps if we call them the less fortunate, rather than the long-term jobless. Calling them less fortunate means they do have some good luck — they just don’t have as much as we do.
The beginning of the New Year is a time of optimism, so it’s a drag to know that 1.3 million of our fellow Americans — those who have been looking for a job for 27 weeks or more — will no longer get unemployment relief. Families dependent on assistance will lose an average of $1,166 a month. According to the Labor Department, that means that in California some 214,000 unemployed workers will cease getting their payments, and by June that number will more than double. And on the other side of the country, 127,000 New Yorkers will be cut from the rolls.
On the surface, it looks grim. Fortunately, there’s a brighter way to look at this. It comes from the Cato Institute.
The Institute says this about itself: “The Cato Institute is a public policy research organization — a think tank — dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace. Its scholars and analysts conduct independent, nonpartisan research on a wide range of policy issues.” You can see right off that it’s a worthy enterprise. Of course, every think tank does independent, nonpartisan research. We chose the Cato Institute because it’s a very conservative think tank and they have a much happier way of looking at the end of unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed. Makes us feel better.
When you read the research provided by the Cato Institute you learn that “extended unemployment benefits raise the duration and rate of unemployment,” especially if those are “generous” benefits. You probably never thought of it that way. In fact, says the Cato Institute, “bribing people to stay on the dole for an extra 53-73 weeks leaves them with less money to spend, not more. It also looks bad on resumes, and may cause lasting damage to future job prospects.” Wow! You probably never thought of your government actually bribing unemployed workers to not get jobs
All right now! Looked at this way, we can all feel better — much, much better! — that Congress has not extended unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed.
A month ago we posted a piece about houses and mansions, because houses are so much bigger than they used to be and mansions are so very much bigger than even your average big house. Being rich is all about square footage when we talk about housing. And here we have a poem by Marilyn Robertson about mansions and what happens when they lose all sense of propriety, go wild and break the law.
When Mansions Go Bad
Bad news for big houses this morning:
COUNTY PURSUES TOUGHER RULES ON MANSIONS.
When mansions go bad, you’ve got to get tough.
They’ll start parking any which way on your street.
When you come home, they’ll be sprawling on
your front steps, smoking on your lawn.
A mansion can swallow a meadow in a single afternoon.
It can block a view, turn a clearing into a gym,
a lane into a bowling alley.
They’ve already hijacked a couple of houses over on Elm.
Just sat their big butts down and took over,
spreading conservatories, wine cellars, ballrooms
clear out to the neighbor’s fence.
Now mansions must keep to a modest 5,000 square feet.
But what mansion is going to stand for that?
They’re going to rebel.
They’re going to put their thousands of extra feet down wherever they damn please.
We now have a deal between Iran on one side and the United States, plus five other countries, on the other. Essentially, the agreement compels Iran to freeze its nuclear program for six months and to destroy its stockpile of near-weapons grade uranium, an amount almost enough to make one nuclear bomb. In return, the US and the five other nations will temporarily reduce, ever so slightly, the economic sanctions which have chopped Iran’s economy to a shambles.
Whether this is an careful first step toward a final agreement, or whether it is actually a scam carried out by crafty negotiators from Iran who have pulled the wool over the eyes of the stupid United States and five other stupid nations — that seems to depend on who is talking about it.
Israel’s ultra conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says it’s a “bad deal,” not a historic agreement, but a “historic mistake” that makes the world a more dangerous place. Or, as he put it in a Tweet the day after the agreement was reached, “Without continued pressure, what incentive does Iran have to take serious steps that actually dismantle its nuclear weapons capability?”
But Netanyahu’s Tweet misrepresents what’s going on: the slight easing of our economic stranglehold on Iran leaves a crushing array of sanctions still in place. Nonetheless, conservative members of the Congress of the United States have voiced the same sentiments as Netanyahu, and some Democrats are also against it.
Yes, it may be that ministers from the United States, Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia and China, along with their nuclear authorities and security experts, have witlessly allowed themselves to be fooled by super sly negotiators from Iran. And now that Iran’s economy is falling apart and Iran’s president has come forward to negotiate, it may be that, No, the current sanctions haven’t really worked, we have to add even more weight on their collapsing economy to really make sure the Iranians will be really truthful and really honest.
On the other hand, heaping on more sanctions at this point would end the negations and the Iranian nuclear program would then resume at full speed. And then what?
The art critic Blake Gopnik said that when it comes to a painting by Andy Warhol, the bigger the price of the work, the better it is as art. Gopnik is writing a book about Warhol and certainly knows what he’s talking about. Warhol began his artistic life as a commercial artist and in a sense he never ceased being exactly that. Whether it was a popular brand of canned soup or popular movie actress — you get the references, right? — it was something pop that was also big money.
Gopnik was talking about the 8-foot by 13-foot Warhol painting “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster).” He went on to say, “If this thing goes for a hundred million bucks, it’s a kind of the apotheosis of what Warhol was all about — maybe everything that Warhol was all about.” Gopnik pointed out that Warhol had taken a scene of horrific tragedy — a demolished car with a dead body in it wrapped around a tree — and turned it into a glitzy commodity. And, said his biographer, “That’s what Warhol did with his own life, right? He turns himself into the ultimate commodity.”
Blake Gopnik’s assessment of the painting and the price it might fetch and what it all meant was on the Marketplace Morning Report, broadcast by National Public Radio in the morning. Later the same day, the painting went on auction at Sotheby’s York Avenue salesroom and sold for $104.5 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for a Warhol. That beats the hundred million bucks that Gopnik was talking about. That makes this painting a very, very, very good work of art.
At Critical Pages we have an ongoing campaign to encourage reading, support independent bookstores and save writers from starvation. And we think the best way for you to do all three Good Works is to visit your independent bookstore and buy a book. Or splurge and buy half a dozen. Or a dozen and a half. And keep in mind our upbeat motto: Book Lovers Never Have To Go To Bed Alone.
That photo up there is charming, but what we meant was that if you were a reader you could always take a book to bed. So you’d never need to be alone. You’d have the company of all the characters in the book. That’s what we hoped you’d understand. The photo below is an excellent example of what we mean.
That’s better. Book Lovers Never Have To Go To Bed Alone. Book lovers can take a book to bed.
“God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” That quote is ascribed to Mark Twain, and maybe he did say it. And maybe we can re-write it to say that God created war so that we could learn about other societies and what they eat. Or maybe we should just talk about Conflict Kitchen.
The people who run Conflict Kitchen have announced this about their restaurant. “Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant that only serves cuisine from countries with which the United States is in conflict. Each Conflict Kitchen iteration is augmented by events, performances, and discussions that seek to expand the engagement the public has with the culture, politics, and issues at stake within the focus country. The restaurant rotates identities every few months in relation to current geopolitical events.”
We think it’s a very interesting idea. And if we were close enough to Pittsburgh to have lunch there, we’d definitely stop in the Kitchen and sample whatever they were serving. Past versions have had menus from Afghanistan, Iran and Venezuela, and currently the Cochina del Conflcto is focused on the food, culture and politics of Cuba. Their next iteration will focus on North and South Korea.
As you might expect, their Job Opportunities paragraph is unusual, too. Among other things: “We expect our employees to be expert conversationalists, deeply versed in the culture and politics within our focus county. We also expect our employees to learn how to produce our cuisine in an efficient, consistent, and professional manner.”
Conflict Kitchen has a stylish website that can give provide you with what you need to know about their project. If you get to the new post-industrial Pittsburgh drop in, and tell us about the food, the politics, the culture.
Having a certain amount of money — and we mean a certain large amount — insulates the rich from the hardships suffered by the poor. The rich have been doing quite well since the end of the Great Recession. But they’re trying not to flaunt their wealth. The divide between the rich and poor is getting so large that, well, if you’re rich, you can’t be too careful these days.
Luxury homes — let’s call them mansions — have shrunk in size. It’s hard to believe, but Laurie Moore-Moore of the Institute for Luxury Home Marketing, says there’s a trend toward smaller mansions. Biggies in the fifteen to twenty thousand square foot range are becoming hard to sell.
In case you don’t know square footage, the average American home grew from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,349 square feet in 2004. As you rise above 2,349 square feet, you come first to what’s sometimes called a McMansion, and only if you continue to rise and get real interior acreage do you come to the true mansion. The McMansion is simply a bloated dwelling with an exterior style which mimics a French chateau or an Italian villa, whereas the true mansion looks more like an exclusive hotel. A true mansion would have, or used to have, eight or nine times the square footage of the average dwelling.
But for the rich, the new, post-recession size is smaller, around five thousand to seven thousand square feet. Modesty has become important to the wealthy. In terms of square footage, anyway. It turns out that the inside of these smaller mansions are packed with more luxuries. After all, you have to do something with that money, you can’t just give it away.
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You may be aware that Eugene Mirabelli writes most of the posts here. The gold medal he won for literary fiction shouldn’t obscure the fact that he also writes science fiction and fantasy - a shameful pleasure.
The critically acclaimed Lightspeed is one of the leading science fiction and fantasy magazines in the United States. Gene's "Love in Another Language" appears in the February issue pictured above. And, no, the cigar smoking woman on the cover, admirable and maybe loveable in her way, is not a figure from his story.