Obama's speech: inspiring or incoherent?

“Evil does exist in the world,” President Obama said. We cannot negotiate away our problems with Al Qaeda. “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.” We must not, he said, compromise “the very ideals we fight to defend.” Plus, there was whole business of the ‘just’ war: as long as it’s in self-defense, is a last resort, and you try not to kill too many people, especially civilians. It was a strange Peace Prize speech.

Many of us who voted for him with such optimism and (too-)high expectations caught our breath at the news of the peace prize. And listened with some skepticism to his Nobel address. We wish the options were better. We still hope.

The speech, comments Michael Muskal of the Washington Post, was “part political science lesson, part sermon and part politics, designed to answer domestic and international critics,” But I think the commentary that best summed up the speech came from Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things and a guest on PBS NewsHour Thursday night. It was “incoherent,” Bottum said, repeatedly, while addressing the points listed above.

The good word incoherent is defined, in old-fashioned dictionaries, as “without logical connection,” “rambling in reason,” “without congruity of parts.” Maybe this has to happen, when one is trying to answer critics and please supporters and whatever else in the world one speech, in accepting a peace prize, is intended to do. But for our most articulate, thoughtful and presumably peace-loving president in decades, it was a little disappointing — even if I can’t imagine what he might have done differently.

At the regular breakfast meeting of the San Francisco Interfaith Council, a peaceful group if ever there was one, the primary topic that same day was homeless veterans. Guests spoke of services being created and expanded to help the ever-growing population of returning veterans who wind up on the streets. Several members of SFIC are among the group which has shown up every Thursday at noon, rain or shine, for many years outside the Federal Building, to stand silently for peace. Many of them are Quakers, but there are always people of other faiths, or no faith at all except in the possibility of peace. One of them commented, at the end of the breakfast meeting, that the best way to solve the problem of homeless veterans would be to have fewer veterans. Perhaps even no veterans at all. “War,” he said, “is a choice.” His remarks were absolutely coherent.

Perhaps, one of these days, there will be a Nobel Prize for peace that has been made. It would be a lovely follow-up for Mr. Obama to receive a second time.

Forget Barry & Tiger. Cal Ripken is still my hero

Today’s news says it’s all over for Barry. A lot may be over for Tiger, since Pepsi says their eponymous drink will be canned — or not canned, as the case may be. Still, it’s hard to feel terribly sorry for either of them. Barry never showed much affection for his fans, and Tiger apparently didn’t have enough affection for his family to keep them out of the sordid spotlight. But I suspect neither will wind up in the poorhouse unless they find new ways to abuse the public trust. For Barry, today’s news, reported by John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle, just looks like a confirmation of last year’s news:

Barry Bonds’ agent finally acknowledged Wednesday that the home run king is done playing baseball.

‘It’s two years since he played his last game, and if there was any chance he’d be back in a major-league uniform, it would have happened by now,’ agent Jeff Borris told The Chronicle. ‘When 2008 came around, I couldn’t get him a job. When 2009 came around, I couldn’t get him a job. Now, 2010 … I’d say it’s nearly impossible. It’s an unfortunate ending to a storied career.’

I’m just not sure it couldn’t have had a happier ending. If, perhaps, he had seemed to care more about the fans who made him rich and less about the stuff he was stuffing into his body in the presumed interest of getting richer. Maybe Tiger can find a happier ending, if he gets his act together before he hits retirement age himself; golfers don’t hit it quite as early.

There is a caveat which should be entered here: 99% of my sports information comes second hand from my husband, who has the uncanny ability to read complex books and magazines with one eye while digesting unbelievable hours worth of every known sport on TV with the other. But who didn’t follow, first-hand, the steroid saga of Mr. Bonds? And who could possibly be missing all the interminable coverage of the Woods family tragedy?

For a while I occasionally watched Barry Bonds do magic at the plate, and for a while he made such an attractive hero. I never saw Tiger except on the small screen, but at first he seemed such an attractive hero. So now I’m left feeling just a tiny part of one more national betrayal.

But here is the good news: Cal Ripken will be in Secaucus, NJ at the World Series MVP and Heroes Show on December 12.

Let’s all go to Secaucus.

Can you beef up your brain?

Not multi-tasking fast enough? Trouble concentrating? Worried about memory loss?

Maybe those neurotransmitters in your poor, information-overloaded brain can be expanded to improve these functions… and maybe not.  A panel of experts on the PBS series Life (Part 2) is tackling the topic of brain exercise — a topic which has been tackled in this space several times in the past (How’s your brain fitness today, 10/5; Diet, exercise and Alzheimer’s, 11/28.)

We talked with panelist Denise Park, PhD, founder of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas, who starts right out by debunking any notion that those crossword puzzles will keep you sharp: [youtubevid id=”xZBzZZJHic0″]

But all is not lost. Jigsaw puzzles could indeed help. “With jigsaw puzzles you’re manipulating materials,” Park comments, “and actively puzzle-solving; what we call executive function.” This may explain — though only in part — the brilliance of British novelist Margaret Drabble, whose new memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet is subtitled A Personal History with Jigsaws; although my own personal history with jigsaws unfortunately hasn’t enabled me to write like Margaret Drabble.

It is the combination of functions that stimulates, and perhaps enhances, those brain cells, Park explains. She recommends doing something both stimulating and fun: dancing (“I believe the social component is important”), learning to play a musical instrument, etc. — in which motor, auditory and other systems all come into play. Or taking up something like photography, with which one masters one step and then moves on to the next.

“I’m reluctant to prescribe anything to improve cognition,” Park says, “because we don’t know yet. We need to know a lot more.” Still, current findings — Park’s Center is doing fascinating work with aging citizens who are learning to quilt — are heartening, and anecdotal evidence about those of us reciting lists of numbers to each other and then trying to do them backwards, as suggested by the SharpBrains people, suggests that hilarity is good.

And the best news may be that computers aren’t the be-all and end-all here. Park suspects that sitting in front of a computer playing games, even games advertised to stimulate the brain, may have no great brain-building value at all.

So this space advises getting out the dancing shoes or the mandolin, inviting friends in to play numbers games — and maybe buying a giant jigsaw puzzle (for two.)

The face of homelessness

My friend Kevin told me this afternoon that he will be going to Bakersfield to stay. St. Vincent de Paul, he says, bought him a bus ticket for Sunday. I will be seriously sad to see him go.

Kevin lives somewhere, he’s never explained and I don’t press, in the rich-man/poor-man city of San Francisco. Wherever he spends his nights, he spends his days, mostly, on a bench in Mountain Lake Park near my home, watching the seagulls and ducks on the water, the pigeons on the grass, children on the swings. The par course which functions as my personal gym loops around the park, leading me past Kevin’s bench just after the hop-kicks and before the newly replaced (thanks, Park & Rec!) push-up bars. Kevin finds my exercises highly amusing.

Kevin has skin like polished coal, a bushy Afro usually tucked under a leather cap that would work well in Moscow, and a grin that displays a wide row of crooked, gap-filled bottom teeth. He has few. if any, top teeth. His wardrobe, which also includes an outsized leather jacket and very heavy boots, seldom changes, nor does his mood, which is sunny with occasional fog.

Many months ago I introduced myself, mid-workout. Kevin has never asked for a handout, but I took to offering him a dollar for a cup of coffee and it’s never been refused. Once recently, while he was dozing in the sunshine by the playground, I stuck a folded dollar bill into the same pocket occupied by his large, square hand, hoping it wouldn’t fall out and disappear. The next day he confirmed, with a huge guffaw, that it had been found. “And I knowed it was you come around!!” he said, pleasing me immensely.

Sometimes, when the weather has been cold and rainy or the fog too oppressive I do not see Kevin for a while. “I been going to the liberry,” he tells me later, a testament probably more to the warmth of the nearby building and its inhabitants than to our educational system — but with Kevin you never know.

When I am not constrained by time and the cares of the world I join Kevin on his bench. We talk about the water birds, the golfers far across the small lake, or the construction going on farther across and to the west, where the Presidio Trust is spending your tax money to convert the old Veteran’s Administration Hospital into apartments which will have drop dead gorgeous views. Kevin, on my recommendation, once walked up there to see what it is like. That was about the time when, on a beautiful, balmy San Francisco day I remarked to him that I thought I was the luckiest person in the world. He said, “I be lucky too.” That is a comment to take to the bank.

Because he is of indeterminate age and mental agility, I would worry about Kevin going off to the far country of Bakersfield. But he says he has family there, is looking forward to the bus ride and thinks it will be swell. I just hope they have a park with birds and children to entertain him, and perhaps an occasional jogger to join him on the bench.

Still, I will feel his absence. Never once has Kevin failed to say, as I pass on to the push-up bars, “Have a guht one!” Coming from behind an unfathomable grin, from a man presumably alone on the mean streets of urban America, who considers himself lucky, that is a blessing one doesn’t always get in the middle of a fitness course. And a blessing one can always use.

Greeting the new GRE revisions

It should be said up front that I never took the Graduate Record Exam. MFA programs are not, I think, noted for their insistence on past academic rigor; and in any event I was grateful for the University of San Francisco graduate school’s willingness to consider 45 years’ writing experience in lieu of my less than stellar undergraduate record. In the interest of higher education in general, though, I try to keep up with such things as this, just reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:

After two false starts, the Graduate Record Exam, the graduate school entrance test, will be revamped and slightly lengthened in 2011 and graded on a new scale of 130 to 170.

On the quantitative section, the biggest change will be the addition of an online calculator. The writing section will still have two parts, one asking for a logical analysis and the other seeking an expression of the student’s own views.

One has to worry about that online calculator. I did indeed study math about the time of the abacus, but what’s the matter with adding and subtracting in the head? Maybe they just mean that some mysterious online genie will immediately calculate results.  Still, I am heartened that expressions of students’ own views will be sought.

The Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE, described its plans Friday at the annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools in San Francisco, calling the changes ‘the largest revisions’ in the history of the test.

Although the exam will still include sections on verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing, each section is being revised. The new verbal section, for example, will eliminate questions on antonyms and analogies. The section will focus more on reasoning than on individual words, all of which will be used in context.

Personally, I think I could shine on antonyms and analogies, not to mention individual words, and hate to see them go. But reasoning is good.

‘The biggest difference is that the prompts the students will receive will be more focused, meaning that our human raters will know unambiguously that the answer was written in response to the question, not memorized,’ said David Payne, who heads the GRE program for the testing service.

If one worries about online calculators, one can only rejoice over the presence of human raters. Best, however, that one who is possessed of a perfectly respectable BA in Art and a fairly impressive MFA in short fiction, stay away from the GRE altogether.

GRE undergoes major revisions, gets new scale.

New cancer insights from man's — and woman's — best friend

Lessons on love and fidelity have long been learned from the canine kingdom; now add cancer and aging.

The Gerald P. Murphy Cancer Foundation, a not-for-profit research foundation headquartered in West Lafayette, Indiana, has a mission “to accelerate medical progress in the fields of cancer treatment, cancer prevention, and aging,” and is coming up with useful data through studies of pet dogs. (The center was named posthumously, after his untimely death, for founder Gerald Murphy, developer of the Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) test that remains the gold standard for early detection of prostate cancer.) Most recently comes news of discoveries made with the help of Kona, a Rottweiler who is getting along in years herself. It was reported last week on MSNBC by by Anne Marie Tiernon of WTHR-TV.

There are new clues about why some of us live longer than others. A new study of dogs has revealed a new role for the ovaries. Ovaries produce eggs and hormones and also have a primary role in bearing children. But the study in West Lafayette points to a larger ovarian ecology, meaning the ovaries have a role in how long we live.

Kona, a 13-year-old Rottweiler from Cleveland, has achieved exceptional longevity for her breed. Most live about nine years. Data about Kona and 304 other Rottweilers was collected and analyzed at the Gerald P. Murphy Cancer Foundation.’We are trying to find ways to promote exceptional longevity in pets and people,’ said Dr. David Waters, DVM PhD. director of the Exceptional Living Studies Center.

In combing through the dog data, the Center’s researchers found links between ovaries and a long life.

‘To reach exceptional longevity is to live about 30 percent longer, similar to the difference between a 100-year-old person and a person that would only live, let’s say, 72 years,’ Dr. Waters said. So we are talking about a big difference and that keeping ovaries longer was associated with an increased likelihood of reaching exceptional longevity.’

Being a female, Kona was born with a 2-to-1 advantage over male dogs to reach her 13th birthday.

‘But the interesting part was when we take a look at the dogs who lose their ovaries, the females who lose their ovaries in the first four years, now the female survival advantage disappears,’ Dr. Waters said.

Dr. Waters, whose research work has extended to a variety of complex issues relating to cancer and aging, sums up the bottom line for women:

The takeaway from these studies, including the one with Kona? That doctors and women will pause and question the routine removal of ovaries during a hysterectomy. In the United States, the standard practice for decades has been to remove the ovaries during a hysterectomy to prevent ovarian cancer and maybe some breast cancers that are estrogen-fed.

The findings are something new to add to your plus and minus columns when making a decision with your doctor.

A quick solution for the national debt

I was just idly reading through the Wall Street Journal‘s Weekend Journal, a fine way to start a leisurely weekend morning and one of those niceties of life one cannot enjoy in front of a computer. Come on, folks, buy a newspaper for crying out loud.

In case you missed it, there are a few pages of Distinctive Properties & Estates for sale, and one of them might be just the thing for you. Skipping over the second home suggestions in the Turks and Caicos Islands ($9m and change) or New Zealand (Bay of Islands hotel, price on request) we find a comfy waterfront estate in Boca Raton, majestic views, $17,900,000, or a skier’s dream in Whitefish, MT for a mere $20m… or you might prefer urban living in the Big Apple in any of several condos with views for way under $25m.

I was particularly drawn to a shady Virginia estate overlooking the James River, where I learned to sail and to bum drinks from friendly millionaires (those were the days when a million was real money) sunning on their docks. It has garaging for 5 cars and a children’s stage on the lower level, and you can pick it up for a mere $4.8m, after which your children will no longer have to suffer with makeshift cardboard boxes for their theatricals.

Included in the 30-acre digs of a little piece of Garfield, MN heaven are a caretaker’s bungalow so you won’t have to worry about those professionally landscaped grounds going to pot, plus a couple of guesthouses for your friends who come to play midnight tennis on the lighted courts. That one’s a steal at $14.9m. Or maybe you’d be more interested in a fixer-upper in Los Angeles: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House, with separate staff quarters, can be yours for $15m and it is already “stabilized and awaiting future preservation.” Frank, whose designs were prone to have leaky roofs so caveat emptor, will surely bless you from the wherever-after of architectural geniuses.

Finally, mid-page, we learn that country superstar Alan Jackson’s pad (am I the only person who isn’t familiar with Alan’s oevre?) in Franklin, TN, is available for the first person to come up with $38m, and it has a bunch of rolling acres and a lot of two-story porches all of which “allude to the grand Southern plantations of years past.”

So here’s the deal. At the risk of being labeled a commie pinko redistribution of wealth fink, I am suggesting that we start a campaign of charitable giving to the national debt. It strikes me none of these prospective buyers and sellers (the above are only the tip of the golden iceberg) could possibly miss a couple million.  They would be honored at a grand ball, no crashers allowed, at the White House, possibly receiving a copy of Going Rogue, unless some Obama fan snuck in and wanted to choose Dreams From My Father. The point is, they would get a whole lot of honor and acclaim, and if a few thousand of these folks — even if it took two grand balls — each enlisted a hundred or so of their closest billionaire friends we could pay off the national debt and throw the leftovers into funding universal health care.

Since I am NOT a commie pinko anti-capitalist scum, I am only recommending this as a one-time event. You don’t pony up, you don’t get another chance at fame and feel-good glory. Then we all go back to our CA Prop-13-protected homes or our suburban underwater mortgages and life goes on.

Could anyone possibly argue with that?

Gay Rights, Abortion Lose – – Meanness Wins. Is this the 50s?

The New York State Senate‘s rejection of a bill that would have allowed marriage between two people who love each other — but happen to be gay — is just the most recent in a string of set-backs in the area of gay rights. Other set-backs have been occurring, or are currently looming, in women’s rights, specifically reproductive rights. One wonders about the mood of this country.

This particular one wonders if anyone else is harking back, with more than a little sadness, to the 1950s. If you weren’t around then, I can tell you it was a strange decade. Great optimism for the future — well, there’s not much of that today — while simultaneously there was terrible meanness behind the McCarthy witch hunts and the denial of women’s rights, plus a certain amount of smugness embedded into a bland, national complacency.

At ladies’ bridge parties there were small china ashtrays on each corner of the table and the conversation usually drifted toward those lovely wonder drugs emerging to give instant relief for any problem. The conversation never drifted toward back-alley abortions, unless someone had recently died and the others knew how it had happened. Those of us who had jobs — running a house, entertaining for the husband’s business, raising children; those were not considered jobs — usually had male counterparts doing the exact same thing for twice the salary. One did not complain. If one were middle class white, and involved in any sort of civil rights work, one never brought that up at the bridge table.  It was a strange decade.

Today’s New York Times story quotes senators who voted against the same-sex marriage bill as saying “the public is gripped by economic anxiety and remain(s) uneasy about changing the state’s definition of marriage.” The San Francisco Chronicle article includes a comment from sponsoring Senator Thomas Duane, “I wasn’t expecting betrayal.” I’m sure those are both accurate reports. Whatever its underlying economic, political or social fears, the public seems also to harbor a degree of meanness in discounting the rights of others.

If you substitute a measure of cynicism or hopelessness about the future for the complacency of a half-century ago, and throw in the self-righteousness of those who for religious or political reasons justify the denial of rights to their fellow citizens, it’s easy to draw parallels between this decade and that one long ago.

In the fifties the groundwork was being laid for civil rights, for women’s liberation, for Roe v Wade and the upheavals that eventually led to progress, by courageous and energetic people of all sorts. I wish I could list myself in that number; I was at the bridge table trying to pretend normalcy in a life gone amok.  Today there are others working just as hard for the rights of their fellow men and women.

I hope they can keep the faith.