Sunday, August 13, 2017

What would Naomi do?

eric1513 | 123RF.com
Like most of you, I've spent the last 48 hours alternately outraged and horrified by what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend.

To catch you up: Three people died and 26 were injured in connection with a protest conceived by alt-right groups to protest the Charlottesville city council's plans to take down a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. One of the dead is Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old woman who was attending a counter-protest when a car plowed into the group. The driver, 20-year-old James Alex Fisher Jr. from Maumee, Ohio, is being held on charges of second-degree murder, malicious wounding, and hit-and-run. The Justice Department is investigating and may file additional charges against Fisher. His high school history teacher says Fisher was enamored with Nazis even then.

The other two dead were Virginia State Troopers whose helicopter crashed on landing in a wooded area not far from downtown. The cause of the crash is under investigation.

Reaction to the events has been almost unanimously against the neo-Nazis, white nationalists, KKK members, and fellow travelers who conceived of the event. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have condemned the groups' actions. About the only people who have spoken out in support of these groups, in fact, are other white supremacists.

And then there's President Trump, whose remarks could most charitably be described as noncommittal. Instead of condemning the march's organizers, he spoke against "the egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides."

He also tweeted condolences to the family of the dead woman and "best regards to all of those injured."

"Charlottesville sad!" he said in another tweet.

I keep saying I'm not going to turn this into a political blog, but that guy in the White House, who has at least a couple of white nationalists on staff, keeps testing my resolve.

However, I will forbear. Instead, I'll risk turning this post into a shameless plug for my own books by dreaming aloud about how the characters in the Pipe Woman Chronicles universe would react.

As it happens, the Land, Sea, Sky trilogy -- which is part of that universe -- is set in DC, mostly, and not too far in the future. Thanks to the return of the gods to Earth some years before, a powerful coalition of military, industrial, and legislative leaders has been watching its power slip away. The co-conspirators are organizing what they believe to be a foolproof plan to defeat the gods and put themselves on top again. (You may see a parallel here with the white nationalists who would like to claw back majority control of the United States by staging protests like the one in Charlottesville.)

The good guys in Land, Sea, Sky include Sue Killeen, who works as a project manager for a nonprofit called Earth in Balance; Tess Showalter, an investigative reporter for the New World News Network; Darrell Warren, a Potawatomi healer turned Navy SEAL; and their gods. All the gods, actually. And I included cameo appearances by some of the main characters from the original series: Naomi Witherspoon Curtis, Joseph Curtis, and their children, Sage and Webb.

Any of the humans would give the alt-right a run for their money. But I'd especially love to give Naomi a crack at them. Her special talent is pushing people to do the right thing, and she would have a field day with the boys of the alt-right. And in the White House, too. If Naomi could get hold of President Trump, his tweets would sound very different. Believe me.

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These moments of speculative blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Counting calories.

I've posted here before about weight loss, but not for quite a while. That's because I decided to quit trying to lose weight. I've been dieting, off and on, for nearly 50 years. At first I counted calories, then carbs, fat grams, and Weight Watchers points.

For a short while, I was on NutriSystem: prepackaged foods, a bunch of supplements, and no bananas. Seriously, no bananas. It had something to do with the way their diet handled potassium intake. I lost weight on it -- but anybody would. It was an 800-calorie-a-day, high-protein diet. They achieved the protein numbers by putting protein powder in everything -- even the prepackaged hot chocolate mix.

I've managed to stay away from gimmicky diet aids -- Ayds "candies" (remember those?), Slim-Fast shakes, fasts and cleanses, fen-phen. Haven't done any of them, ever. In most cases, I'm glad. I've also glad that I've never fallen for the siren song of bariatric surgery; nearly everyone I know who's had it done has gained the weight back, and some have had medical complications, to boot.

I've met with nutritionists several times over the years. I even signed up for a clinical trial for some weight loss drug, but I quit when the nutritionist gave me information that conflicted with information that another nutritionist had given me years before.

In short, over the years, I've lost hundreds of pounds...and gained them all back.

So I related to the New York Times story that came out this past week. It turns out that Weight Watchers has an image problem. People are tired of thinking about their weight. They're tired of thinking about food all the time. Instead, people today want to be healthy. They want to be strong. They want to eat clean (whatever that means).

Weight Watchers solved their problem by reinventing their program yet again (they tweak it every couple of years, anyway) and hiring Oprah to be their spokeswoman. Sign-ups skyrocketed. I highly doubt whether their results are any better, though, and here's why:
Diets don't work.
We have known this for years. One big reason is this one, from a Psychology Today article published in 2010:
Obesity and overweight can be conditions that are caused by early life trauma... In one early study of 286 obese people, half had been sexually abused as children. In these cases, "...overeating and obesity weren't the central problems, but attempted solutions." For these people, therapy might be a prerequisite to healthy weight loss.
Programs like Weight Watchers address physical hunger. They focus on the scale -- on measurable results to show investors and prospective clients -- and they basically tell you that if your problem is emotional eating, you just need to change your attitude, gosh darn it, and here are some tips for that.

Of course, there's a lot of recidivism in diet programs. As the author of the New York Times article says, if you want to be successful at Weight Watchers, you basically have to resign yourself to being a member -- counting points every day -- for the rest of your life.

No wonder I got discouraged and quit.

Unfortunately, that means the pounds have come back. So I'm trying something slightly different this time. It's an app called Noom Coach. You can download the app for free, but to get full use of the features, you have to pay for the coaching and group meetings. So far, I've been using it for a little less than a week. I haven't learned anything that I didn't know already, and the group chat feels a lot like a daily Weight Watchers meeting (for good or ill). But it's easy to log my food and the app does the calorie counting for me.

That's right! I've come full circle. I'm back to counting calories.

I'll let you know how it goes.

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These moments of calorie-free blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

American Gods is -- wait, what?

In casting about for a topic for this year's Magic Realism Blog Hop (and thanks to Zoe Brooks for organizing once again!), I reviewed a list on Goodreads of books purported to fall under the category of magic realism. Not too far down the list, I spotted Neil Gaiman's American Gods.

I read the book several years ago, before I'd really begun studying mythology, and thought it was pretty weird. I mean, I liked it, but a lot of it seemed surreal. And confusing. I was fairly far into the book before I twigged to the fact that (spoiler alert!) Mr. Wednesday was Odin, the Norse Allfather.

So when I saw the book on that Goodreads list, I hesitated. I remembered several key scenes from the story -- the "Russians" living in genteel poverty in Chicago, the car in the lake, the hanging tree -- but not much else.

And then I remembered Starz had recently created a series based on the book. So I began to stream the episodes, in order to refresh my memory, and discovered -- oh haha -- season one don't cover the whole book. There's going to be at least one more season. Welcome to video storytelling in the 21st century.

Also, I was right -- American Gods is weird. But is it magic realism?

We've had our share of "what the heck is magic realism?" posts on this blog hop over the years. For the purposes of this post, I'm going to use Merriam-Webster's definition:
A literary genre or style...that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.
If that's strictly what we're going by, then I suppose both the series and the book qualify. The main character is Shadow Moon, a black ex-convict who runs into a mysterious con man named Mr. Wednesday. Wednesday hires him as his personal assistant. His duties become increasingly weird as things around him get more and more surreal.

Eventually, we figure out that Wednesday is a god, that a whole lot of gods immigrated to America with their followers, and that new gods -- the media and technology -- are staging a takeover. In the America of the story, gods survive only so long as people believe in them.

But back to the show.

The question for me is not whether American Gods is sufficiently fantastic; the question is whether it's realistic enough. It's set in America, but much of the action seems to happen on a different plane of existence. For example, Shadow suffers a pretty severe beating and lynching in episode two. But apart from a nasty torso cut that requires staples, his wounds seem pretty minor. Why isn't his face swollen? Is it because the whole thing happened on a different plane? Or is that just TV not being realistic? (I don't watch a lot of TV, so you'll have to tell me.)

Gaiman has written a number of great books, including some wonderful magic-realism novels. I'm not sure, though, whether American Gods qualifies as magic realism. Fantastic, yes; surreal, for sure. But magic realism? For me, the jury's still out.

What do you guys think?

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These moments of magically real blogginess have been brought to you by Lynne Cantwell and the 2017 Magic Realism Blog Hop. Please check out the other posts in this year's hop!




Sunday, July 23, 2017

Reasoning vs. rationalizing.

We live in rancorous times. Here in the United States, we're split by political views -- conservative on the right, liberal on the left -- and each half is further fractured. Republicans have majorities in both houses of Congress, but they have been unable to get much done; major pieces of legislation have been shot down by moderates who think they're too harsh, and by members of the Freedom Caucus who think they don't go far enough.

Democrats are okay with that. But they can't get themselves together, either. Neoliberals, who has been in charge of the party for the last several decades, are still trying to figure out how they lost the presidential election last year -- while progressives are frustrated that the party is not embracing their farther-left economic stances fast enough.

Each side keeps trying to convince the others of the rightness of their position, using poll results replete with charts and graphs. "Proof!" they cry. "Why won't you listen to us? We're headed for disaster! Why won't you change your minds?"

It turns out we're not hardwired that way.

A whole host of studies have been done on decision-making behavior and how preconceived notions affect it. One of the most striking was done by a Yale law professor in 2013. He set up a fairly complex math problem and had the study participants come to a conclusion from the data given them. I won't bore you with the details (you can see the questions at the link). But the upshot was that when the question was about a skin cream that caused a rash, people who were better educated at math were more likely to get the answer right.

However, if the question was about concealed-carry laws and whether they made crime better or worse, knowing more math didn't help. In fact, people did worse if the data were presented in a way that went against their stance on gun control. In other words, conservatives did well if the right answer showed that the ban didn't work, but poorly if the right answer was that the ban did work. The same was true in reverse for liberals. And the people who knew more math were worst at picking the right answer if it didn't support their stance.

This goes back to confirmation bias: humans' tendency to form an opinion first, and then seek out facts to back it up. Moreover, when confronted with facts that don't back up our opinions, we tend to reject them -- or figure out some convoluted way that they actually fit our opinion. Knowing that, we should all be searching out opposing viewpoints to challenge our opinions, but of course we don't. And the harder we're pressed to change, the more likely we are to stick our fingers in our ears and go, "LA LA LA LA LA!" until those annoying nonconforming facts go away.

So if we won't challenge ourselves, and we won't listen to the other side, how do we bring everybody together again?

In the past, major historical events have been catalysts. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 both caused Americans to rally 'round the flag. Examples of positive events are harder to come by, although the moon landing might fit the bill. In each of these cases, opinions became divided some time after the event: many people now are second-guessing our going to war against Iraq as a result of 9/11, and some folks are questioning the money we spend on space exploration. But in the first flush of excitement -- or horror -- we all pretty much reacted the same way.

We must find a way to come together again soon. We cannot continue to function as a democracy (or, to be more precise, a democratic republic) without some degree of common ground. Let's hope that this time, it's a positive event that brings us together.

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These moments of reasonable blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.