Hearing the voices on the Metro

715px-Rolling_stock,_open_door_-_Metro_CenterOne of the doctrines of this weblog is that to understand how ordinary people live their lives, journalists need to “get religion.” You don’t have to force faith into these stories. In most cases, it’s already there.

This has certainly been true the last few days here in the District of Columbia, where residents and commuters have been dealing with the worst crash in the history of the Metro subway system that binds together our common life inside the Beltway.

Actually, the Metro is what links the places of power in this region, while it is the city’s buses that link the neighborhoods. You don’t have to live here long before you realize that “Washington” rides the Metro, while “DC” rides the buses. I know that there are overtones of race and class in that statement, but it’s true. At the same time, it is true that the Metro brings together a wide variety of people in one rushed, crowded, remarkable space.

This morning, a giant team of Washington Post reporters and editors assembled what can only be called a magisterial news feature on the nine victims — alas, there may be more — of the mysterious Red Line crash the other night at rush hour. This train was headed into town, instead of out to the suburbs, or it would have been even more crowded. Here’s the opening of the report:

The people who stepped on Metro’s Red Line cars on a warm summer evening were the perfect cross section of the careers and characters who make the nation’s capital so compelling: a military general, a Bible school teacher, single moms balancing work and children. It was during that common gray space of their day, while they passed the time reading a book or fighting the urge to sleep, that a single event united nine of those diverse people in a common tragic fate. …

At a memorial service yesterday at the transit agency, someone read Psalm 23. A black cloth was draped over the Metro symbol. People prayed for those whose life stories unfolded before them. Ana Fernandez, the woman who left behind so many children. LaVonda “Nikki” King, an aspiring beautician.

“It’s a common bond. Everybody at some point uses Metro,” said Phillip Barrett Jr., who paused to remember those who died. “Everybody was going about their everyday routine. Then this happened.”

Faith details dot these story, as they should. But these details are not spotlighted and there are many other poignant details of human life that fall into place next to the Godtalk. Faith is very human and this is what it looks like when you meet it on the sidewalk:

Scores of children in different parts of the District were affected by the loss of Dennis Hawkins, 64, of Washington. Hawkins had no children of his own, but he was beloved by kids at the school where he worked and in the church where he taught, friends and relatives said. He was on his way from work at Whittier Education Center in Northwest Washington to teach vacation Bible school in Ivy City when he was killed in the crash.

A family friend, Christina Cobb, 23, was sitting in her Bowie bedroom early on Monday evening, chatting with a girlfriend on the telephone, when she heard the call waiting signal. It was her aunt. “Chrissy? Hi, it’s Aunt Dora. Where’s your mom?” Cobb recalled. Cobb, who works at a consulting firm, got up from her bedroom, sensing her aunt’s urgent tone, and headed toward her mother’s bedroom down the hallway.

“She said, ‘Dennis was on the train. Dennis Hawkins,’ ” Cobb said. Then she asked her aunt if he was okay. “She said, ‘No. He was one of the fatalities.’ That’s when I dropped to the floor.”

Members of Bethesda Baptist Church waited and waited for their Bible school teacher to arrive Monday night. Cobb’s grandmother was enrolled. Finally, word from Hawkins’s family reached a church official. And they began to mourn.

When I first moved to the Washington area to work on Capitol Hill, a decade ago, I rode the Orange line east into Maryland every night at rush hour — through some very rough neighborhoods and out into middle- and lower-middle-class suburbs. I now ride a regular-rail MARC commuter train up to the south side of Baltimore every day.

800px-Washington_DC_Metro_in_carI soaked in the sights and sounds of Metro life, in large part because I have always been fascinated with the communities formed by mass transit (dating back to my newspaper and graduate school days on the great bus system in Champaign-Urbana, Ill.). One night, I witnessed a very unusual event that pulled it all together for me. With the encouragement of a close friend at the Post, I pitched a first-person piece about the experience to the Style section.

Well, there was just too much religion in the essay for their tastes. I ended up editing the essay way down, to become a rare first-person column for Scripps Howard. My archived copy of the full-length piece died a few years ago when a Sasser virus nailed the last Windows computer I will ever own. So here is the start of that Scripps column. If “Just another voice on the Metro” hits home, make sure that you read to the part about the Bibles:

The elderly black woman began preaching moments after the train left the Capitol South subway station.

“Praise the Lord. It’s a good day,” she said, starting a 20-minute sermon as her rush-hour congregation rolled toward the Maryland suburbs.

Her voice was calm, strong and serious. She was carrying a cane and, I wouldn’t dare make this up this detail, a fragrant box of spicy fried chicken. I didn’t take precise notes, but what follows is real close to what she said. My father was a Southern Baptist preacher and I have a knack for remembering sermons.

“God’s grace is real, but that doesn’t mean you can just keep on sinning and sinning and sinning,” she said, gazing straight ahead. “God is watching all the time. God sees all of you. … Our God is a Holy God.”

People kept their eyes down, reading their newspapers and paperbacks. A young black woman across the aisle giggled. “Oh no, it’s church,” she whispered to a friend. New riders glanced around in surprise, as they boarded the crowded car. But no one challenged the preacher or asked her to stop.

It may sound strange, but the Metro is a very good place to pray. Right now, I urge you to pray for the people who work and ride on the Metro, day after day.

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One voice in Afghanistan

Sometimes, a reporter has to know when to get out of the way.

The Washington Times Sunday magazine featured an interview today with one of the world’s most controversial women — Malalai Joya of Afghanistan. It’s an interview that will be of great interest to all classic liberals who work to defend human rights and, in particular, the rights of women. At the same time, the interview is sure to infuriate many people who believe that the United States has won or is on the way to winning a great victory in Afghanistan.

The reality, as Joya makes very clear, is much more complex than that. Needless to say, this fighter for the rights of women is not beloved by the Taliban. Yet at the same time, her criticisms of the U.S.-backed government are fierce.

Thus, this interview can be seen in the context of a question I have been asking here at GetReligion for some time, now. It is interesting to ask: Why is the “Bravest woman in Afghanistan” story in the Washington Times, as opposed to being in the Washington Post? Is this kind of advocacy piece for women’s rights now “conservative” news?

With that said, let me simply urge you to read this and judge its religion contents for yourself. What you get, essentially, is the voice of one woman standing in the danger zone between the mosque and the state. Here is a crucial chunk of the interview, held in a safe house in Kabul (and researched, in part, with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting):

The Kabul government’s stated willingness to negotiate with militant fundamentalist leaders such as Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, while tolerating the alleged drug-related activities of President Hamid Karzai’s own brother is, in her view, proof that “one group of criminals has replaced another.”

As for Afghan women, who were supposed to be liberated by the U.S. toppling of the Taliban in 2001, she said, “The situation for most women today in Afghanistan, if I say it is still like hell, this is not enough.” …

Things were not always so repressive, she said. To make her point, she held up a picture taken in 1967 of schoolgirls in black skirts and tights strolling the streets of central Kabul. Then she held up another picture, of a 7-year-old ethnic Hazara girl named Shiquiba who was raped last year by unknown assailants.

A catalogue of other disturbing examples followed: 12-year-old Anisa from Sari Pul province, kidnapped and gang-raped by five men; 14-year-old Shuqufa, whose ravaged body was found in a garbage heap on the outskirts of Kabul; and Bashira, also 14, raped by three men, one of whom is the son of a member of parliament. The man was never punished, according to rights groups, because Afghan officials were bribed to change his age from 22 to 18 in their investigation.

Building her case, she cited a host of grim statistics: “Last year, 47 women burned themselves to escape abusive husbands. Today 80 percent of marriages are forced. Almost as many women are beaten at home.” In March, the low status of Afghan women made headlines after a new marriage law was passed by the parliament that denied Shi’ite Muslim women the right to refuse sex with their husbands and the freedom to leave the home without male permission.

That law was scrapped, but the threat remains — especially the possibility of legislation for the majority Sunni population. All of this, of course, is framed in terms of the intersection between the powers of the mosque and the state. Once again, debates between clashing camps inside Islam are at the heart of this story.

And her view of U.S. policies in her nation? Read it all.

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Struggling to keep his promises

608px-scarletletterblacksvgThe world-weary folks at the Washington Post Style section have made it official — the Sen. John Ensign affair is just no fun at all.

Part of the problem is that the senator is running toward the story rather than away from it. To put this in Beltway speak, he followed the age old mantra: Hang a lantern on your problem. Here’s a chunk of the intentionally boring Style report:

Heterosexual politician cheats on wife with consenting female family friend? Not that it doesn’t have its own seething outrage factor (Hypocrisy angles: He’s a Republican Promise Keeper who condemned those who had committed similar acts). … It’s just that the bar for slimy extra-political behavior has been set so very, very high. …

Handled properly, … this could all eventually go away. And so far, all the handling has been nearly flawless.

“He was able to control the story by running to it, not away from it,” says Michael Robinson of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington. There was no National Enquirer gotcha photo, no wiretaps or sheaves of naughty text messages. There was only the news conference, the I’m-just-a-man admissions of his own weakness, the no questions, please.

Yes, there is a bit of the “what happens in Nevada, stays in Nevada” angle to this. But you can see the religion angle of the story sticking out there — as it has in almost every mainstream story about Ensign’s sin. The man has backed the Promise Keeper’s Movement and he failed to keep his promise. When you’re playing by biblical rules, it doesn’t matter that the affair took place during a time when he and his wive agreed to a time of separation.

Here’s another typical passage on that theme, adding the scarlet “born again” label, from The Politico:

A staunch fiscal and social conservative, Ensign has been considered a rising star in his party, recently making headlines by speaking at events in Iowa, raising speculation about his interest in a run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012.

A born-again Christian, Ensign has been a member of the Promise Keepers, a male evangelical group that promotes marital fidelity.

And one more time, from the Los Angeles Times:

The senator also could be vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. He belongs to Promise Keepers, a Christian group whose members pledge, among other things, to abide by biblical principles to build strong marriages.

As a candidate for the Senate, Ensign demanded that President Clinton resign after having an affair with a White House intern. He also voted to impeach Clinton. Years later, Ensign strongly suggested that Sen. Larry Craig resign in the wake of his arrest in a 2007 airport bathroom sex sting in Minneapolis. The Idaho Republican pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

john_ensign-thumb-400x292This story may still have legs and there is always a possibility that, in trying to clean up the mess, Ensign took some actions that stretched the laws of man as well as those of God. However, it does seem that reporters are missing part of the story here, when it comes to the Promise Keepers.

Yes, that movement stressed fidelity in marriage. But one of its strengths was its efforts to get men to come clean about their sins — from workaholism to infidelity, from porn to alcohol — and then to seek reconciliation with their wives and families. The defining moment of a Promise Keeper’s rally was a wave of men heading to the altar to repent, not to claim that they were without sin.

Thus, for cultural conservatives, the crucial part of this story is that Ensign has outed himself and then condemned his own actions. The Los Angeles Times used this quote:

“It’s absolutely the worst thing I have ever done in my life,” he said at a televised news conference. “If there was ever anything that I could take back in my life, this would be it.”

The senator’s wife also released a statement that, together, they had sought out a counselor and are seeking to pull their marriage back together, with the support of their children.

So, a hypocrite? Yes. That’s pretty normal for human behavior.

A repentant sinner? You bet. Ensign called a sin a sin.

Reconciled? That’s the hard part and that’s what the Promise Keeper’s Movement was all about.

In other words, there’s a story behind this story, even if it’s a little boring and lacks true Beltway style.

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Woman abuses blog; anti-abortionists hardest hit

AprilMom.jpgKim Janssen of the Chicago Tribune did a generally solid job with a delicate topic on Friday, telling the story of a woman who blogged about having a baby with Trisomy 13, then losing the baby to death soon afterward. This pregnancy, although fictional, drew on what blogger Beccah Beushausen said was her previous loss of a baby under similar circumstances.

The most poignant remarks from Beushausen, who blogged under the pseudonyms of “B” and “April’s Mom,” are about the seductive power of blogging:

Beushausen said she really did lose a son shortly after birth in 2005. She started her blog in March to help deal with that loss and to express her strong anti-abortion views, she said.

She had expected only a handful of friends to read it, but when her first post got 50 comments, she was hooked.

“I’ve always liked writing. It was addictive to find out I had a voice that people wanted to hear,” Beushausen said.

“Soon I was getting 100,000 hits a week, and it just got out of hand,” she said. “I didn’t know how to stop. … One lie led to another.”

Two things about Janssen’s story are frustrating. First, rather than going into the detail of Trisomy 13, Janssen describes the imaginary child only as “diagnosed as terminally ill in the womb.” Part of the drama of Beushausen’s story was her claim that, because the baby had Trisomy 13, “we were told to terminate.”

My second frustration is that Janssen describes the blog as misleading “thousands of abortion opponents,” with no reference to anyone else being misled by it.

Is there any way to know how many fans of the blog were drawn to it entirely because of its messages about abortion? Even the cached version of April’s Mom provided by the Tribune undermines that description. The largest art consists of glurge-drenched photos that mostly link to ads: Diaper decorations called RuffleButts, a bow boutique known as MissyPrissy and a sonogram image that’s labeled “April Rose.” The editorial content is of the same flavor.

Another cached version of the blog promotes a hair bow that benefits a crisis pregnancy center, and shows a color photo of a pregnant woman’s torso, labeled “April’s Mom.” As pro-life activism goes, this is tame stuff.

The adjectival use of anti-abortion is inescapable in stories about abortion protests. In this story, it’s about as tone-deaf as the infamous Tyson Homosexual and anti-abortion opera stories. Even pro-natalist — once attributed to the barbaric reign of Nicolai Ceausescu — would be an improvement.

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Stories have more than one side

mobius-stripA few years ago, Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll sent a memo to all section editors expressing his concern that the paper had covered a story about abortion in a remarkably one-sided manner:

I’m no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.

I thought of that while reading a “Column One” story in the Times about Dr. Warren Hern, a Colorado abortion doctor known for performing late-term abortions. As I mentioned a few days ago, with the murder of late-term abortion doctor George Tiller, stories about the practice of late-term abortion, the women who seek them and the doctors who perform them are important. Unfortunately, the Times story, written by DeeDee Correll, was really nothing much more than a puff piece:

Reporting from Boulder, Colo. — At the Boulder Abortion Clinic, Dr. Warren Hern leaves no window uncovered.

Full-length blinds shroud the bulletproof entryway; in his office, vinyl shades block a small window.

This is one of the facts of Hern’s life — no windows, ever. That was how Dr. Barnett Slepian’s killer shot him in upstate New York, through a kitchen window. Slepian, like Hern, performed abortions.

“I can’t sit in front of an open window. The shades have to be drawn,” Hern said.

After Slepian’s shooting in 1998, Hern predicted another would follow. “Will I get to live out my life?” he asked in a newspaper column in 2001. “. . . Who’s next?”

It’s a provocative story and the Hern perspective is well written, as the lede indicates. But that last quote gives a hint at what’s missing from the story. He asks if he’ll get to live out his life. Later we learn:

Hern has been familiar with the hazards for decades. After performing abortions for more than half of his life, the 70-year-old doctor has never been injured, but the constant threats with which he has lived since 1973 have transformed his life into a series of security measures: sleeping with a rifle, scanning rooftops for snipers, wearing a protective vest.

“It ruins your life,” Hern said.

Speaking of ruined lives . . . nowhere in the story do we learn anything substantive about why Hern is reviled or considered controversial. We learn nothing about the abortions he performs or why people oppose them. When Stephanie Simon wrote about late-term abortion doctors for the Wall Street Journal, she included some information about what, exactly, late-term abortion doctors do:

Late-term abortions also are grueling. In 2007, the Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on one late-term procedure, sometimes called “partial-birth abortion,” in which the physician begins to deliver the fetus, feet-first, then punctures its skull. Doctors are still allowed to dismember the fetus in utero. Dr. Tiller’s preferred method is also legal. He stopped the fetal heart with an injection of digoxin, a drug used to treat adult heart patients. Then he would induce labor. Patients said they would wait in hotel rooms through two to three days of contractions until they were ready to deliver their stillborns at his clinic.

Such procedures discomfit some abortion doctors. William F. Harrison, who performs abortions in Fayetteville, Ark., said he considered Dr. Tiller a friend and called him “a very brave and great doctor.” Yet he has long expressed concern about Dr. Tiller’s willingness to abort into the ninth month. “Some of his practices are hard to defend,” Dr. Harrison said.

It’s such a simple thing to do, including details about the work of late-term abortion doctors. To speak repeatedly about Dr. Hern’s life without filling readers in on any details about how he has ended the lives of untold thousands of fetuses is just odd. If Column One is supposed to be an unreflective puff piece, that’s one thing. But if it’s supposed to treat contentious issues as complex and challenging, this one just failed.

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Moving past the bumper stickers

pro-life-sign1Following the murder of prominent late-term abortion doctor George Tiller, gunned down in the foyer of his church, many mainstream media outlets have run articles about the controversial practice of late-term abortions and the doctors who perform them. This is a good thing. On a public policy issue as heated as late-term abortion, it’s good to provide readers with more information about the practice and who is involved.

Let’s look at some of the stories. Here’s Stephanie Simon of the Wall Street Journal, with a very balanced article on the topic. She somehow manages to move her sources beyond the “bumper sticker” level of discourse to get some meaningful quotes from both sides about the difficulty of the issue. She includes an anecdote from people who chose a late-term abortion after learning that their unborn child had a fatal form of dwarfism but she also speaks with someone who decided to continue with her pregnancy after a different fatal fetal diagnosis. The article helps show the issue’s complexity. It’s a really good story for everyone to read — no matter your views on the topic.

But Simon’s story, published a few days ago, is what got me thinking about the way some of the “facts” surrounding late-term abortion are reported. First and foremost, I’d like a definition of what constitutes late-term abortion. We use that phrase all the time but I rarely see it defined. A separate Wall Street Journal story reports that nearly 90 percent of abortions are conducted during the first trimester of pregnancy with just more than one percent conducted after 21 weeks. Simon’s story says that it’s fewer than 1 percent that are conducted late in the second or during the third trimester. When does the “late-term” of “late-term abortions” begin?

Or note that Simon writes that “perhaps 1,000 [abortions] a year” are performed in the late second or third trimesters. But that other Wall Street Journal story says:

Stanley Henshaw, a senior fellow at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health-research group, told WaPo that 2001 data from 15 states and New York City suggest that as many as 2,400 abortions were performed after 24 weeks in the U.S. that year. But Henshaw said that number might have come down because there are fewer abortion providers now.

Perhaps they did decline some 60 percent in a couple years but, if so, an explanation might be in order.

Or note something about the paragraph below where Simon does her best to explain the reasons women might get a late-term abortion:

Nearly all the late-term abortions at Dr. Tiller’s clinic involved fetuses that were deformed or disabled in some way, said Peggy Bowman, who worked at the clinic as a top aide to Dr. Tiller for a decade. …

Dr. Tiller also took some late-term patients with healthy fetuses. Though the clinic’s medical records typically remain confidential, he said they were only the most desperate cases: very young girls, victims of rape, drug addicts, women in abusive relationships.

It struck me that all of this is self reported. We’re relying on one side — perhaps there’s no other option — for information about one of the most contentious topics in public debate.

The Washington Post‘s look at late-term abortions basically just quotes two other famous late-term abortion doctors (Warren Hern and Leroy Carhart) with an assist from the National Abortion Federation’s Vicky Saporta. The trio make a number of contentious claims about women who come for abortions after their fetuses are viable. And rather than speak with a doctor or three who specialize in helping women bring to term children with fetal abnormalities, we get a response from Operation Rescue, a group that doesn’t exactly represent mainstream pro-life thinking. However, the story, by reporter Rob Stein, does a fantastic job of explaining just how sketchy the data on late-term abortions are. I thank him for that. He was also one of the few reporters to actually investigate how many abortion doctors perform late-term abortions. While many media outlets reported that Tiller was one of only two or three doctors to do them, Stein reports that a survey of a couple thousand abortion practices from a few years ago found 18 clinics and 12 hospitals reported performing late abortions.

But there are some holes as well. The story begins with a heartbreaking account:

When Susan Fitzgerald went in for a routine ultrasound near the end of her pregnancy, she was expecting good news. Instead, she was stunned to learn that the fetus had a rare condition that left his bones so brittle he would live less than a day.

“It was unbelievable,” Fitzgerald said. “You think by the third trimester you’re home free. It was devastating.”

Desperate to end the pregnancy, she flew from her home in New England to Wichita, where George Tiller was one of the few doctors in the country willing to perform an abortion so late in a pregnancy.

“It was very difficult, but I knew it was the most humane thing I could do for my baby,” Fitzgerald said. “It was absolutely the right thing to do. I’m just so grateful that Dr. Tiller was there for me.”

The name of the condition is not included in the story. Later we learn:

Under Kansas law, an abortion can be performed after a fetus is viable only if the doctor performing the procedure and an independent physician agree that the woman’s life is at risk or that continuing the pregnancy would cause “substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.”

Many are performed in cases such as Fitzgerald’s, where a major abnormality in the fetus is discovered late, Saporta and others said.

And while Stein’s article doesn’t mention how Tiller performed abortions, Simon’s article did:

Late-term abortions also are grueling. In 2007, the Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on one late-term procedure, sometimes called “partial-birth abortion,” in which the physician begins to deliver the fetus, feet-first, then punctures its skull. Doctors are still allowed to dismember the fetus in utero. Dr. Tiller’s preferred method is also legal. He stopped the fetal heart with an injection of digoxin, a drug used to treat adult heart patients. Then he would induce labor. Patients said they would wait in hotel rooms through two to three days of contractions until they were ready to deliver their stillborns at his clinic.

Okay, so after reading a number of articles on late-term abortion and the doctors who perform them, I’m left wondering a few things. How is it legal to abort an unborn child post-viability in Kansas on account of fetal abnormality or genetic defect? In other stories, Tiller says he’s conducted abortions on account of women being in abusive relationships. How is that legal? And while I understand the sensitivity of the topic of pregnancy and abortion (as I write this, I’m holding my daughter who just a month ago was a “late-term” fetus), I wonder if the reporter could include a bit of an explanation as to why the mother felt it better to fly to Kansas to have a doctor stop the heart of her unborn child and deliver him as a stillborn rather than wait for the few remaining weeks of her pregnancy and deliver him? She says she knows that she did the “right thing.” I can’t help but think that deserves a follow-up question and that the answer to that follow-up question would have merited the type of quote that Stephanie Simon gets in her stories.

I’m all for including the stories of women who have undergone late-term abortions but I’m not sure how much these anecdotes are adding to the debate. I feel like there’s this assumption that of course any woman who discovers her child has a fatal abnormality would of course consider ending his life. But as we saw in that fascinating story by Julia Duin a few weeks back, many women don’t terminate their pregnancies when they discover their unborn children have problems.

I also feel as if there’s this assumption about the vast majority of Americans who oppose late-term abortions that they just don’t understand that the women who request them are experiencing difficulties. And yet I think that assumption is probably unwise. Maybe it’s just because I’m a woman, maybe it’s just because I have a mother, maybe it’s just because I know women (perhaps you, too, fit into one or more of these categories!) … but perhaps this debate is not one that could be settled if we all realized that fetal abnormalities are heartbreaking and that pregnancy is difficult. It’s possible to sympathize with women who are carrying fetuses with abnormalities without believing that terminating their lives is just or that the practice should be legal. Simon’s story does a good job of getting that and helping the two sides speak to each other. Most other mainstream accounts, sadly, did not.

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Can you top (less) this?

Wednesday Mollie looked at a story from CNN.com about an odd encounter between a shop-keeper and a would-be robber. It wasn’t clear exactly what, if anything, actually happened during the meeting.

Spurred by the thought that I might find one as weird as Mollie’s, I jumped when reader Adam sent GetReligion an Associated Press story hot off the wires proving that “sin” still sells — or at least percolates. Here is another tale that leaves the reader begging for more: that of a topless coffeehouse that burned to the group a few nights ago, apparently a victim of arson. Situated in Vassalboro, Maine (the name itself is worth an article), the cafe and its shirt-free waitstaff had been controversial since it opened in February (apparently not every small town in the state has one).

The story opens in a straightforward fashion. It’s not until the middle, when the writer interviews owner Donald Crabtree, that things get a little confusing.

Crabtree said he’s determined to reopen his business.

“I’ll keep going. … I’ve got some girls out of work and I’m going to do all I can to get in there,” Crabtree said.

The shop’s opening in February raised the ire of dozens of residents. Someone recently called police to complain that a waitress was outside the business without a shirt. An ordinance was proposed to regulate nudity at local businesses.

Where was the ordinance proposed? Didn’t the town have any rules regulating nudity before — or was the opening of a topless coffee bar something the “Town Fathers” never envisioned?
Were any churches or religious organizations involved in trying to get the cafe shut down — or at least get the waitresses to wear shirts when the weather got cold?

Then there’s a quote from a Richard Flick (otherwise undentified) arguing that 97 percent of the townspeople probably opposed the coffehouse. Say that was the case. Who were the patrons?

But the most mysterious quote comes at the end, when Vassalboro resident Sherry Perry says: “I’m a believer and I’m a Christian and I don’t want this trash in my backyard. No good can come from it.”

A “believer and a Christian?” Sherry, what is it you believe in? Either reproter Glenn Adams didn’t ask her, or the editor chopped off the story at that point. Without more context about local and state “decency” laws, the possible opposition from local faith groups, and how Ms. Adams identifies herself, readers might get the idea that there’s some odd happenings going on Maine.

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Family + friends + faith equals …

atlantichappinessOne of the best things about making a 9-hour flight on an airliner is that it gives you enough time to read an issue of Atlantic Monthly. Thus, on the way to Kiev, I finally got to read the stunning “What Makes Us Happy?” cover story by Joshua Wolf Shenk.

The subtitle to that headline is an important one, seeing has how it has to lure the reader into consuming a 11,526-word piece of magazine journalism: “Friends matter. Cholesterol doesn’t. Lessons from an amazing 72-year study.”

I called the article stunning, not so much in what it reveals, but how it reveals it. You want to read this article. Trust me.

Yet, at the same time, there is a giant, gaping hole in the middle of the piece — literally a hole in the soul. I’m going to try to write a short post about this that will encourage you to wade into this long, long article about the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Here’s the crucial information that gets us rolling:

The project is one of the longest-running — and probably the most exhaustive — longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history. Begun in 1937 as a study of healthy, well-adjusted Harvard sophomores (all male), it has followed its subjects for more than 70 years.

From their days of bull sessions in Cambridge to their active duty in World War II, through marriages and divorces, professional advancement and collapse — and now well into retirement — the men have submitted to regular medical exams, taken psychological tests, returned questionnaires, and sat for interviews. The files holding the data are as thick as unabridged dictionaries. They sit in a wall of locked cabinets in an office suite behind Fenway Park in Boston, in a plain room with beige carpeting and fluorescent lights that is littered with the detritus of many decades of social-scientific inquiry: a pile of enormous spreadsheet data books; a 1970s-era typewriter; a Macintosh PowerBook, circa 1993. All that’s missing are the IBM punch cards used to analyze the data in the early days.

For 42 years, the psychiatrist George Vaillant has been the chief curator of these lives, the chief investigator of their experiences, and the chief analyst of their lessons. His own life has been so woven into the study — and the study has become such a creature of his mind — that neither can be understood without the other.

Some of the anonymous men involved in the study have openly discussed their participation, such as former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Study leaders have also stated that a young Harvard man named John F. Kennedy was another subject whose life was studied until his untimely death.

The article is built around italicized excerpts from the case-study files, offering insights into these anonymous men worthy of fine fiction. It is also clear that, in the end, one of the goals of this article goals is to find out, well, if Vaillant is himself a happy, healthy and fulfilled man. I will not reveal anything about the plot of that drama.

marriagehandsIt’s clear that stability and fidelity are crucial, especially in terms of family and friendships. It really, really helps to have a solid, happy marriage. And did I mention fidelity? That seems to be a crucial factor linked to mental and physical health, which is interesting for a study of men who came of age just ahead of the Sexual Revolution (or who wrestled with mid-life pains in the midst of that moral earthquake).

But wait. Might there be another crucial happiness factor, producing a trinity of family, friendships and, well, faith? The article does offer this:

… (H)appiness scientists have come up with all kinds of straightforward, and actionable, findings: that money does little to make us happier once our basic needs are met; that marriage and faith lead to happiness (or it could be that happy people are more likely to be married and spiritual); that temperamental “set points” for happiness — a predisposition to stay at a certain level of happiness — account for a large, but not overwhelming, percentage of our well-being. (Fifty percent, says Sonja Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness. Circumstances account for 10 percent, and the other 40 percent is within our control.) But why do countries with the highest self-reports of subjective well-being also yield the most suicides? How is it that children are often found to be a source of “negative affect” (sadness, anger) — yet people identify children as their greatest source of pleasure?

So marriage and faith lead to happiness? They are crucial factors? What if those factors are turned upside down? Does the study reveal anything else about the faith factor?


At least, this article does not contain another word of substance on that issue, other than a few references to church attendance. If you are looking for the role of faith and spirituality in human happiness, this is not the article for you.

I really, really miss Michael Kelly.

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