The Machinery of Cowardice Fails the Children of Rotherham

policeMy children once heard someone address me as “Doctor,” and so they asked me if I am the kind of doctor who helps people. I told them no, I have a PhD. I told them I’d studied why smart people do dumb things in groups. It interested me at the time, but when I see the headlines coming out of Rotherham, England—hundreds of children systematically raped and otherwise brutalized while authorities did nothing—I think the problem isn’t smart people collectively behaving like fools, but decent people becoming cowards.

The details of this tragedy are varied enough to whet any axe: the ethnicity and religion of the perpetrators; their targeting of impoverished children; fear by authorities that cracking down would lead to accusations of racism; the notion among police officers witnessing gang rapes that the victims—some of them as young as eleven—were willing participants; the concurrent persecution by child welfare authorities, even as they ignored these crimes, of foster care families whose political activities were deemed unsavory. The entire story sparks rage and it invites despair.

I am always curious about the decision processes of authorities in the midst of such atrocities. How can an infrastructure of ostensible protection become so dysfunctional that it overlooks mass rapes of children for a dozen years? [Read more...]

My Garden, the Book of Joel, and God’s Plagues

il_340x270.624628888_ss6oFirst came the vine borers. These are moths. The females lay their eggs inside the stalks of squash plants. When the eggs hatch, the larvae start to eat. They eat so greedily, the larvae can easily kill the entire plant.

I learned that you must split the vines open where you see gunk building up on the outside of the vine. Then you stick in your finger until you feel a grub and pull the little wriggler right out.

After the vine borers came the cucumber beetles, of the family Chrysomelidae. We had two types: spotted and striped. With cucumber beetles, it is not the beetle so much as the bacteria they carry with them. Bacterial wilt makes all the plants in your garden look so very yellow and sad.

The kale was being ravaged by two kinds of caterpillars. One sort was lime-green in color; the other a striped, fast-growing, slightly fuzzy little sucker that replicated at a rate faster than my wife and I could keep up with or understand. The fuzzy crawlers seemed to generate spontaneously. [Read more...]

An American Girl’s Tale

American-girlDave Ramsey, the millionaire evangelical Christian money coach who’s famous for telling his clients they “can’t afford it” and hectoring them to pay their bills in cash, would have thought I had lost my mind.

And, indeed, it is true that I was aflame with that particularly American form of madness which manifests itself as Having to Shop. The day before I had faced some obstacles peculiar to the American professional workplace, nothing that was all that punishing but was disorienting and exhausting enough—work-life balance, blah blah blah—that the only appropriate remedy was to spend money. I took my five-year-old daughter to the American Girl store in Tyson’s Corner Mall.

This was a matter of some urgency: The dolls Marie-Grace and Cécile had “been retired,” and I was in a race to get at least one of them.

Let us pause now to consider the phenomenon of American Girl dolls in general, premium-priced, but not especially fragile or rare dolls that were once noted for their exceptionally and historically detailed accessories. The line of dolls with accompanying books launched way back at the end of the 1980s, long after my own doll years in the more modest era of the patchwork-clad Holly Hobbie. [Read more...]

The Weary Lion and the Wary Lamb

tensions-remain-high-at-israeli-gaza-border-1Author’s note: Like many Jews around the world, I’ve been following the news out of Israel closely the past month and a half. In this piece, I continue to explore my responses to the conflict in Israel and Gaza. I began these explorations in my previous post, “Sitting in Pain in Israel and Gaza.”

The enemy of Israel shakes hands with the enemy of the Jews. The mother of the kidnapped scholar shakes. Just after the explosion, five fresh eggs shake.

In some places, the enemies of the Jews disguise themselves as enemies of Israel. In some places, an enemy of Israel disguises himself as a Jew, a Hasid in fedora boarding an egged bus.

Some days, the enemies of Israel and the enemies of the Jews quietly sip coffee. Yesterday, you had to listen carefully to hear a thin sliver of quiet while the mob on the Parisian street caught its breath.

You going to the Enemies of the Jews show? The Enemies of Israel is opening. I have to show my face at the solidarity rally. Besides, I hate heavy metal music.

An enemy of Israel marries an enemy of the Jews. Their daughter, a religious Zionist, marries a boy in the Givati Brigade.

[Read more...]

The Heaven of Animals: A Coin in the Mouth

Guest Post

By Jen Hinst-White

“I have this mystical-schmystical idea,” one of my writing teachers once said, “that stories exist outside of us somewhere, and it’s our job to get them down properly.”

He was a hard-nosed editor and a robust skeptic, and he confessed this notion five minutes before workshop’s end, as if not to give his own idea too much credence. I suspect, though, that most of us knew what he meant.

And if we can be mystical-schmystical for a moment and imagine this is so: Well, what does it mean to get a story down “properly”? Skillfully, yes; honestly, one hopes; but do we employ the storyteller’s guile, or the sage’s compassion, or the filleting knife of the satirist? What do we do with the stories we catch?

I recently happened on The Heaven of Animals, the debut short story collection by David James Poissant, and it brought this question to mind. In it, Poissant casts his storyteller’s net and catches sixteen kinds of suffering. Here, a grief to ring the bell of every reader’s memory: deaths of friendships, parents, children. In several stories, it’s a marriage that dies, or else hovers in death’s doorway, waiting to tumble in or out.

[Read more...]


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