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Taking Down The Christmas Tree

Christmas tree trashedTaking 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.

How To Feel Good About The Less Fortunate

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.  Duration_of_U.S._unemployment copy

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.

When Mansions Go Bad

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:

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.

—Marilyn Robertson


Conflict Kitchen

Conflict Kitchen Serving Iranian Takeout

Conflict Kitchen Serving Iranian Takeout

“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.

If You Got It, Don’t Flaunt It

Gold bars

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 grewHouse size average US 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.

“Problem” (n.) May Be Dropped from Dictionary

Webster's Dictionary of the English Language

Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language

Problem — the word that Google defines as “a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome”  is fading from the dictionary.  Ours is a living language. Words come and go. Google says that problem is synonymous with difficulty, trouble, worry and complication Of course, difficulties, troubles, worries and complications sometimes do occur. But when that happens it’s bad for business and, furthermore,  it undermines belief in the military and in academia and makes government the butt of jokes.

To avoid these kinds of disasters, business and the armed forces, as well as the government agencies and virtually all academic institutions, have quietly done away with the word problem and all its synonyms. In it’s place they now use challenge or issue.  Upper echelon government and military personnel feel much better when facing challenges than when dealing with  problems or complications, and university administrators believe they can handle issues with discretion, whereas worries tend to become public and become very difficult to manage.

Now a populist movement among workers is growing to get rid of deficiency. No one feels good about being deficient, and employees feel especially bad about being stigmatized as deficient in skill or knowledge essential for the job they’re being paid to do.  Middle managers and foremen have suggested that the felicitous phrase opportunity for growth be substituted for the old fashioned and discriminatory word. You wouldn’t be deficient in your ability to prioritize your workload,  instead that would become an area where you had an opportunity for growth.  Everyone likes opportunities. Ours is a living language. It’s great!



As American as Apple Pie, Or …

By the end of the day, most of us had heard the news  — somebody had gone on a shooting rampage at the naval Sea Systems Command and thirteen had been shot dead, including the gunman. But this is the United States in 2013 and though most of us heard the news, most of us weren’t absolutely shocked, weren’t stunned that such a thing could happen here. Unfortunately, we’re getting used to it. This is the way we live now. This is who we are.

Rachel Maddow

The night of the shooting, Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel MaddowShow,” pointed out that the Washington Post’s timeline of the 12 most lethal shooting incidents revealed that the first six occurred over a period of 50 years, but the most recent six have taken place in the last six years. “The first half of this awful list happens across half a century,” she said. “The other half-dozen of the worst killings in our history takes only half a dozen years until today. From Virginia Tech to the Navy Yard. The bloodshed of half a century is compressed into this blink of time.”

Nationals Park is just a few miles from the scene of the shooting, and a scheduled game between the Washington Nationals and the Atlanta Braves was postponed because of the carnage. The day after the shooting, the game went on as the teams played a split double-header, and prior to the start of the first game the players and spectators observed a minute of silence for those killed at the naval base. A  British newsman from the BBC, broadcasting on BBC America that evening, observed that mass shooting were getting to be as American as baseball.


 Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau is an original and penetrating look at class in this country. We’re pleased to present this review which not only examines this book, but also places it in the context of other works in the field. Our reviewer, Robert Greene, known in the academic world for his studies of French literature, has long been interested in the subject of class in America. Line horizontal halfpoint 460 X 10

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Second Edition, with an Update a Decade Later. By Annette Lareau. 461 pp. Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 2011.

Unequal Childhoods book coverAnnette Lareau’s ground-breaking Unequal Childhoods shows us what social stratification consists of in the United States and how it perpetuates itself. In effect, the process of sorting ourselves by social/cultural/economic class begins in childhood and never really ends.  We may be unaware that we are nudging the process along, but in fact we are doing precisely that.

As parents, we practice, basically, one of two types of child rearing, “concerted cultivation” or “the accomplishment of natural growth.” (More about these terms and concepts in a moment.) Lareau draws her thickest line of socio-economic demarcation between the middle class, on the one hand, and the working class and poor, on the other.  For Lareau, only two classes count in American society, shape how most of us actually live our lives. She proposes the two different styles of child rearing she has identified as distinguishing the first mode of living from the second, as dividing us into two distinct socio-cultural groups. She concedes that family income and assets play a large role in directing our lives, but the determining factor for her is how parents view and carry out their responsibilities as parents. This, in turn, reflects the parents’ own education and occupation, as well as their aspirations for their children. Here is where “concerted cultivation” and “the accomplishment of natural growth” enter the picture:

Middle-class parents who comply with current professional standards and engage in a pattern of concerted cultivation deliberately try to stimulate their children’s development and foster their cognitive and social skills. … For working-class and poor families, sustaining children’s natural growth is viewed as an accomplishment. (5)

Lareau maintains that “these different philosophies and approaches to child rearing … appear to lead to the transmission of differential advantages to children (5).” She then spells out these differences:

The white and Black middle-class children in this study … exhibited an emergent version of the sense of entitlement characteristic of the middle class. They acted as though they had a right to pursue their own individual preferences and to actively manage interactions in institutional settings…. The working class and poor children, by contrast, showed an emerging sense of constraint in their interactions in institutional settings. They were less likely to try to customize interactions to suit their own preferences. (6)

Lareau’s method is ethnographic. She has studied 12 families in depth, focusing each time on the fourth-grader in the family, a child of about 10 years of age (boy or girl, black or white, middle class or working class/poor). She and her team members (graduate students in social sciences under her supervision) spent a month closely following the daily life of their subjects, at home, in school and participating in activities outside home and school. A team member, Lareau or one of her trained assistants, would visit each child’s family for several hours at a time, and once for an overnight, engaging the child and his or her parents in conversation, or silently observing the child interacting with his or her family. (Team members found that, when observing their subjects, their own presence soon went unnoticed.) Team members also talked with the children’s teachers and accompanied the children to their extracurricular activities and medical appointments.  The schools the children attended were located either in a city or a nearby suburb, reflecting the family’s socio-economic circumstances.

The most salient difference that Lareau and her team noted between their middle-class and their working class or poor subjects involved how language was used in the children’s respective worlds.  The team observed, for example, that for middle-class children conversations with parents (and other adults) were usually give-and-take dialogues, often speculative or playful in nature. In contrast, for working-class or poor children, the speech of parents (or other adults) almost invariably took the form of directives that anticipated no response from the child other than compliance. It became clear to Lareau and her team that middle-class children, while still in childhood, acquire linguistic confidence and sophistication via their conversations with adults. The skills thus learned would serve them well in adult life and would give them a distinct advantage over individuals from working-class or poor backgrounds. (more…)

Horizontal line 460pxIs the best art always beautiful, or does ugliness itself have a place in it? It art best when it’s purely for the sake of art itself, or is morality a component of great art?  Here’s an excerpt from an essay by the critic Timothy Cahill, a man  deeply interested in these questions:

I don’t swoon in front of every Impressionist painting on the wall. But I knew that the aesthetic intention of “Is It Art?” was to make me feel shitty, and I was not so suspicious of my instincts as to welcome its hermeneutical defoliation. What self-respecting person suffers a churl, or worse, a roomful of them? Weighing the question of aesthetics, immediately, almost instinctively, it was clear to me that as an ideal Beauty is not simply a matter of pleasure, delight, awe—it has a moral component as well. I could not at the time have defended this impulse, but it was self-evident that to live in contact with beauty is immeasurably healthier to the spirit than living amidst ugliness, whether that ugliness be the blight of an urban slum, the brutal classlessness of a communist tract, or the drab uniformity of a suburban subdivision.  Those forces that deny great swaths of the population access to the sensual and spiritual influence of beauty—whether out of indifference, bigotry, ideology, or greed—commit a kind of mass soul murder. When artists, our chief orators of beauty, deny its importance as well, they make themselves complicit in the violence.

                                      —The excerpt is from Timothy Cahill’s blog, Art & DocumentHorizontal line 460px

Egypt, the Mobs & Democracy

On the evening of July 3 and long into the night, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians celebrated the Egyptian military’s ouster of their democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, who had been in office for about a year.

We old sourballs at Critical Pages have never liked President Morsi. His party, composed primarily of the Muslim Brotherhood and a sprinkling of conservative Islamic groups, was the last to take part in the grassroots uprising that overthrew the autocratic Hosni Mubarak — an uprising that succeeded when the military withdrew their support of Mubarak, forced him out of office and took him prisoner. And when the Muslim Brotherhood did begin to participate in the move against Mubarak, they said they were not interested in political power and would not field a presidential candidate.

That was merely the first in a long list of lies and stealth maneuvers that brought Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to power. And after getting into office President Morsi behaved like a man who, having won the election, believes he has an intrinsic right to do whatever he pleases.  And what pleased him was to acquire more and more power. At one point in 2012 he granted himself unlimited powers to “protect” the nation and the power to legislate without judicial oversight or review. Yup, he was a rotten president.

But we old sourballs don’t feel like celebrating the overthrow of a democratically elected president, even a rotten one, by a military junta acting in the name of “the people,” by which they mean the mobs in the street. That mob is made up of secularists, yes, and liberals, yes, and also by lots of supporters of Mubarak and by religious zealots more backward than the Muslim Brotherhood. But even if those cheering in Tahrir Square had been saints and angels, it’s still a lousy way to remove a president from office.

So the military powers have rolled out the armored personnel carriers, arrested the president, arrested the leaders of his political party, suspended the constitution and announced to the cheering throngs that they, the generals, will present them with a roadmap to the future. The last time this happened was at the fall of Mubarak and after the military had been in power for a while the mobs discovered they didn’t like it.

Maybe this is what Egypt needed to do. Maybe the political system had failed — it certainly looked that way — we know the economy was failing and maybe the society as a whole was sliding toward failure. Now, this time, maybe the secularists will get their act together, get organized, field one candidate and not three. Maybe Egyptian society will get around to the concept that people have certain rights regardless of which party wins an election. Maybe the idea of live-and-let-live will spread everywhere.

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.