Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book resellers warned about children's books manufactured before 1985; concerns over lead

The controversy regarding lead in books, particularly children’s books, has come back, according to a story by Michael Birnbaum in the Washington Post, Health Section, p. F1, on March 24, 2009. The title is “Book dealers told to get the lead out; libraries resist ban on potentially toxic books”, link here.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has banned the resale of children’s books printed before 1985, because of the miniscule threat of lead in paint in the books, which was stopped from use in 1978. However, the Commission says that it cannot presume that use stopped entirely in book manufacture until 1985.

The CSPC has numerous recalls of children’s books in its records; a typical one is here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Adam Shepard's "Scratch Beginnings" takes on Barbara Ehrenreich (review)

Author: Adam Shepard.
Title: "Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream".
Publication: Collins, ISBN 0-06-171436-8, 2009. 221 pages, hardcover.

Just like the “obedience and sacrifice” riddle that I discussed on my main blog March 17, 2009, another favorite whiplash phrase that my father would wield was “learning to work”. I would become disputative and quibble, that one only learns specific tasks. Yup, I resented being made to do things a certain way when it didn’t matter. “Formation of proper habits” he would add. Then, on my own websites a half century later I would throw around the phrase “paying your dues.”

Adam Shepard told John Stossel on ABC 20-20 that he was assigned Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed” in English or perhaps Sociology class at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. He got educated away from his North Carolina upbringing, and decided to return to his roots, to some random city, that turns out to be Charleston, S.C., to see if he could challenge what he thought was Ehrenreich’s negativity about starting out in the minimum wage job market.

He gets off a train on a hot July night and winds his way to the Crisis Ministries Men’s Shelter. He quickly settled in to the quasi-regimented and scrappy life (there were chores, and a required TB test), and the exploitative Easy Labor company that hired the homeless as day laborers and rather ripped them off. He sold his blood (plasma) repeatedly for a while for income (many poor people do). But he soon found his way to a moving outfit called Fast Company. Household moving is hard work, and he was most fit to do it. He quickly made crew chief and soon could afford an apartment and used car. He did take on a roommate (which Ehrenreich wouldn’t do).

Shepard passed his self-imposed rite of passage (or call it a journalism project, which rather reminds me of ABC’s hiring undercover workers to work at Food Lion in the 1990s) because he was physically fit (very much so, despite what he says is an genetically unimpressive beard) and has great social skills – call it Donald Trump’s “street smarts” as well as “book smarts”. Yes, he would make it as The Apprentice, probably. He did, as he says, come from a good family, and now must return the favor and stay near ailing parents in North Carolina. Most of the homeless, it seems, do have some major personality or social adaptation problems. His own account makes it seem that way.

The writing in this book is crisp and his images move quickly. In his Epilogue he provides a "didactic" look at the experience (again, "didactics" was one of my father's favorite words, like "deportment", from the early 20th Century) and makes some "policy" suggestions, that people should reach out more and mentor more. That sounds great if you're starting out in adult life.

The dust jacket says that this is his first book, so maybe he does plan on political journalism. It strikes me that he has the right aptitude for the military (he manages to imply that he is straight when talking about the blood plasma experience – although it’s a shame if that matters much longer, as in my previous post). I would think that the US Army would sign him up for OCS and language school tomorrow if he wanted to go. We need all the help we can get in military intelligence in unusual languages. I wonder if he has thought about that.

Picture (mine): Gulf coast railroad tracks (in Mississippi), Feb. 2006.

Here is Stacey Cochran's YouTube interview with Shepard. The book was originally self-published before being agented and picked up by Harper Collins.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Nathaniel Frank: "Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America" (review)

Author: Nathaniel Frank.
Title: "Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America" (website).
Publication and description New York: St. Martins/Thomas Dunne, 2009. ISBN 0-313-37348-1. 341 pages, indexed, hardcover, with Introduction and Prologue of 21 pages, and eleven chapters. Amazon link.

Dr. Frank is a research fellow at the Palm Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The Palm Center used to be known as the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, headed by Aaron Belkin, whom I visited there in February 2002. In 2003, Belkin and Geoffrey Bateman authored “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: Debating the Gay Ban in the Military,” published by Lynne Rienner (Boulder, CO) (ISBN: 1-58826-121-2).

But Nathaniel Frank’s new book is clearly the most comprehensive book on the military gay ban since Randy Shilts gave us “Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military" in 1993 with St. Martin’s Press. Although organized more conventionally than Shilts, Frank’s opus has the same focus on detail with many incidents and examples, and effectively reviews the history project started by Shilts and continues it on to the present day, especially covering all the problems since 9/11.

In reviewing the book, I need to point out one essential right now. Today, the “military gay ban” is essentially synonymous with the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, the supposed “honorable compromise” announced by President Clinton in July 1993, and codified into law by Congress in November 1993, with tighter language. The “old policy” had been instituted administratively in 1981, just before Reagan took office, and required “asking.” The “compromise” was to drop the mandatory “asking” which, as Frank points out, usually happens anyway, at least de facto. And because the 1993 debate after Clinton took office was so polarized, the policy in practice has made things worse. Before 1981, the services had their own separate exclusionary policies, which they often, at their convenience, took the liberty to ignore.

But rather than summarize the book, I’d like to compose an impromptu reaction, given that this whole issue has consumed my own life in the past years because of some very unusual circumstances in my own life. On my other web pages and in my own “Do Ask Do Tell” book I’ve detailed how my own involvement with the issue started, ironically, with my expulsion from a civilian college (William and Mary) in the fall of 1961 for admitted latent homosexuality, and yet my history, with the military, includes my two years of drafted service without incident, well, sort of.

In general society has changed because technology has, over decades, encouraged the development of individualism. In various ways, freedoms associated with technology-driven individualism tend to create dilemmas and moral contradictions and gray areas, leading to crazy rationalizations of policies in the political area. To me, it’s interesting that the 1993 Clinton-started debate took place just before the Internet and World Wide Web took off, which would challenge our ideas of privacy and pose ethical questions unimagined only a decade before. Much of the 1993 debate focused on “privacy” and “forced intimacy” in the barracks – producing rhetoric on both sides that Google would soon blow away. But looking back into history from 1993, as Daniel Solove has pointed out, we find that the modern idea of privacy and autonomy has only been accepted in modern times. Privacy and expressive freedom were essentially impossible for ordinary people in earlier societies. Everything focused on the survival of the family and the group. In that climate, the idea of limiting sexuality to heterosexual marriage seemed like a “natural” (if religiously driven) way to make sure that every man “does his part” in ensuring the long term viability of the family or group. Some men had privileges and wealth denied to others, but that was supposed to be predicated on their ability to protect and provide for women and children. That was certainly the focus in “morality” that I grew up with.

Frank traces how social changes (already outlined by William Eskridge’s book “Dishonorable Passions” (reviewed here May 2008) tracked with changes in military policy. Before WWII, the military tended to focus on homosexual acts in the ranks, but in time, it developed the idea that homosexual people were a threat and needed to be screened out prospectively. Other histories (“Coming Out Under Fire”) suggest that the military backed away somewhat as WWII progressed and it needed men – a trend that would be repeated in every war. Frank points out that even men with “feminine bodies” (such as, sometimes, less body hair) were incorrectly and irrationally “suspect” -- a practice that goes along with older notions (very noticeable to me as I grew up in the 1950s -- covered in Peter Wyden's notorious 1968 book "Growing Up Straight") that “masculinity” is an “accomplishment” and a moral virtue (for men) and that a “gender deficit” is a real moral “failing” (an idea common with ex-gay therapists today, such as with the Nicolosi book discussed here on Jan. 21).

Frank’s history of the 1993 debate is encyclopedic, and the most complete available. He covers all the “arguments” and shows how they were constructed from strings of thought, postulates about social mores that simply were changing more rapidly than elected politicians (or military leaders) could deal with. Some of the testimony in Nunn’s hearings turned out to be word salad. (I remember, “when you have stated your status, you have described your conduct!”) The hearings in Norfolk were a particular low point. Tracy Thorne was scolded for his lack of consideration for his fellow sailors and bunkmates when he “told”. Well, I was scolded by the College and later by psychiatrists for my self-centeredness in “telling” and “stepping on people’s toes.” I laughed when I came across the Thorne exchange (as well as Strom Thurmond’s “It isn’t natural…”) I also recall the low crawl on the submarine deck by Sam Nunn and John Warner – which I would repeat with my own submarine visit later in May 1993 (as I geared up for the possibility of my own entry into the debate). What has become striking to me in recent years is how much many people feel that their ability to function lifelong in traditional marriage is undermined not only by weaker social supports but by being expected to deal with knowledge of those whose sexual values are different. Indeed, in the barracks (as Andrew Sullivan once pointed out in TNR), some straight soldiers might fear being “scoped”, but it’s more that they’re afraid that someone will judge them unattractive and unworthy of a lineage than as potential sexual partners. (Clark Kent’s “Xray” vision in the Smallville series certainly suggests a potential amusing commentary on military “privacy”).

It’s important to note that some of the “debate” got to levels much baser than the “they don’t go home at night like you and I do” of Nunn’s. There was an undertone of talk that homosexuality (especially among men) is largely about self-promotion and over-individualism, a value contradictory to the “self-sacrifice” for the “needs of the group” required by the military. That’s an important notion in the civilian world (“paying your dues”) and when we consider that we used to have a draft and still could, as well as the fact that the military is an important career-starter for so many disadvantaged people, we see why the military gay ban is an important issue outside of the military (as my own life demonstrates with so much irony). Frank goes into a lot of discussion of the “unit cohesion” argument, and (like Rand’s commissioned 1993 report ["Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy: Options and Assessment"], which Congress ignored) differentiates between task cohesion and social cohesion, and argues that even in the military, task cohesion prevails. (Rand also provided a concept called “propinquity”; Rand's study is probably now best remembered for it's idea that sexual orientation should be seen as "non germane" to military service). It’s also noteworthy that, although the public “moral” objections to homosexuality (and the religious right’s desire to use military values as a blueprint for society at large) focus on men, a disproportionate percentage of the discharges contested by legal aid group SLDN (Servicemembers Legal Defense Network) involve women soldiers and “lesbian baiting.”

Frank often points out the irony of anti-gay arguments, casting straight men as “prey” and traditional families as “victims”, apparently of people whose lives seemed to be based on getting out of things (but then why join the military?). It seems that libertarian ideas of individualized personal responsibility don’t work when talking about the “family” since much of its personal benefit to people is so communized.

He goes on to analyze the horrible results of the policy, since its adoption. Up to halfway through his book, he has more or less said the same things that I had said in Chapter 4 of my 1997 “Do Ask Do Tell” book, but less personally and with much new detail (and I thought my chapter on the ban, at 47000 words, was monumental).

The most interesting new material probably concerns the loss of critical skills, especially language translators. He discusses the difficulties for any Americans to learn Arabic, and starts one chapter with the NSA message received Sept. 10, 2001 and not translated in time. It’s reasonable to say that, had Clinton been able to fully lift the ban, we might not even have endured 9/11; at least we would have had a significantly better chance of intercepting it (although much of the issue here was the lack of communication between agencies). Alastair Gamble’s story is particularly interesting here. He also goes into many other terrible situations, involving the catch-22 situation that DADT presents for security clearances, and one tragic situation where a female officer was discharged after having to take care of a female partner with cancer (a situation that reminds one of the movie “Freeheld”).

Frank points out some really silly ideas that the Pentagon considered, as as a "gay bomb" of sci-fi channel aphrodisiacs to disorganize the enemy, prompting a political cartoonist to show Saddam Hussein running from a gay soldier.

Were I to have written this book, I would have given more attention to the potential effect of the Internet, social networking and blogging on the military (he does mention it with the AOL “McVeigh #2” case, which now is old.) The new repeal bills in Congress (Meehan and now Tauscher) will require detailed tracking in later updates of this material.

The Palm Center has always been known for its study of lifting the ban in foreign militaries, particularly Canada, Israel, and Britain. Israel makes an interesting comparison because its military forces are so essential to national survival, and, with a draft, it uses the military as an instrument of national socialization, an experience that was true for America’s “greatest generation” but that started to come apart during the Vietnam war.

The last sentence of the book is, “It is not gays and lesbians alone who are silenced by ‘don’t ask don’t tell’—it is all of us.” In much of my own life, only two years of which was in the military, I have had to fight this off. How right he is.

In the March 11, 2009 episode of Smallville, Clark says, "The world fears me as long as it knows who I am." Is that what the United States military comes to now?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Short book by a Vietnam era gay marine is available online

There is a PDF draft of a short book by former Marine Robert Le Blanc on his website. The 57 page book is called “A Marine’s Diary”, which you can link to easily from his home page. He gives a reference to my 1997 book “Do Ask Do Tell: A Gay Conservative Lashes Back” where I mention his experiences in civilian employee discrimination at note 32 in my Chapter 4. My own experience in the military (1968-1970, Army) was much less harrowing but much more subtle (my troubles started in a civilian college, proving some irony).

I have met the author in California and corresponded with him periodically for some time.

The book recounts some harrowing experiences with harassment and investigations when he was in the Marine Corps starting in the mid 1960s. He speaks first of an incident where a fellow Marine, Allen, was interrogated and given a dishonorable discharge, reportedly for “associating with homosexuals” and perhaps not cooperating enough with the NIS investigators' demands to "name names" of other homosexuals in the Marines Corps. Randy Shilts reported such incidents in his 1993 book “Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military" (St. Martins Press) He also gives a harrowing account of his wounding in Vietnam and medical rehabilitation.

Then Le Blanc would himself face multiple investigations and interrogations and even polygraph examinations on suspicion of homosexuality. He also gives a harrowing account of his wounding and medical rehabilitation. The appendix gives several newspaper stories about the discharge attempts. He would be cleared and promoted to staff sergeant and then drawn into another investigation and subject to court marital, but be cleared. He would later run into illegal discrimination and shenanigans as a civilian employee of the VA.

He also gives some summary of the events of the debate in 1993 over lifting the ban started by President Clinton’s initiative, which would eventually lead to the notorious “don’t ask don’t tell” policy codified into United States Code today.

There is now an effort in Congress to resume the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell”, originally introduced by Marty Meehan and HR 1246, (SLDN discussion here). Rep. Ellen Taucsher has reintroduced the bill in the 111th Congress in 2009; watch her video of her announcement at the Center for American Progress here.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Terry Lynch: "But I Don't Want Eldercare" (review)

Author: Terry Lynch.
Title: But I Don't Want Eldercare: Helping Your Parents Stay As Strong As They Can As Long As They Can.
Publication and description: Denver: Legal Center for People With Disabilities and Older People. 2008. ISBN 978-0-9970179-6-6 308 pages, paper.

The title of this book suggests an upbeat approach to looking after one’s parents: indeed, they are adults, and ought to be encouraged to remain as independent as possible as long as possible. Technology may provide many methods for doing so, especially for (these days, often single) professional adults in other cities. These include security systems, medical alert systems, and the private sector development of many communities especially for seniors.

But most of the book deals with a practical reality of caregiving: it requires a great deal of socialization, which may be unwelcome to some people, especially those who did not marry and have their own children or whose lives “on other planets” are so specialized as not to be potentially helpful to parents. The social demands often inherent in caregiving can be particularly troubling to introverted adult children who don't want to maintain familial social continuity.

Much of the “social skills” include pressuring medical staff, who often don’t have complete information (the new president’s proposal for medical records seems relevant) or who often don’t always “do the right thing” unless pressured. This is very disturbing: that one has to depend on the social bearing of the adult child to get the best care for the parent, because the medical (or particularly caregiving) “profession” is not always up to the job.

Although the Wisconsin author offers many practical home-oriented tips to make life work for seniors, some issues need great care. One of these is medications. Caregivers need to pressure doctors to completely explain the medication risks (particularly drug interactions, when there are different Medicare providers who don’t have a national system yet to cross-check prescriptions for interactions) and contingencies. For example, for a heart patient on Coumadin (blood thinner), a normally innocuous “24 hour diarrhea” bout can cause life threatening bleeding (partly by compromise of friendly bacteria that normally are essential to blood clotting) and in some patients requires a 911 call.

He does discuss dementia, and makes the important point that most of the time mild “dementia” is not Alzheimer’s Disease. That’s another reason why the socialization is important: many mildly “impaired” “clients” can function better in familiar social situations than when they must deal with abstract ideas and facts by themselves to solve problems.

He provides some cautions in hiring home health, and prefers independent aids and suggests that caregivers do their own background checking.

He briefly takes on the issue of Medicaid coverage of nursing homes (ordinarily Medicare does not cover custodial nursing home care) and the problem of asset dispersal to qualify, for which the federal rules have been greatly restricted. But he doesn’t mention that 28 states have “filial responsibility laws” or “poor laws” that could force adult children to support indigent parents.

He also briefly covers some of the legal instruments like living wills, powers of attorney, and advance medical directors, and even conservatorship or guardianship.

We have challenging trends colliding and creating a perfect storm. Families are smaller, many more people are single and/or childless (people who themselves are now turning elderly), and people are living longer, and, partly because of the way medicine is practiced and reimbursed by public programs (Medicare) sometimes in a frail condition. It used to be that unmarried family members were expected to stay home and look after the elderly, who often did not live as long then. In the meantime, we have grown used to an “individualist” notion of morality, where responsibility is created by personal behavioral choices (like having children). The flip side seems to be growing: family responsibility that happens in a community beyond the capacity of choice. We see more examples all the time in the media of adult children who have sacrificed everything for aging parents, with the 1998 film “One True Thing” strangely prescient. This problem -- being able to replace the emotional attention expected of a deceased spouse -- may be much more psychologically challenging for people who did not (or, as in that film, have not yet) married and had their own children, in order to socialize themselves into “creating” families as well as being loyal to those already created by their parents. (Imagine how this plays out for LGBT people, including those in relationships; it provides an urgent but little understood argument for same-sex marriage.) We don’t have a consistent ethical model in our culture today for filial responsibility, in a world where demographics (and now a broken economy) will surely force the issue (and compound the economic crisis even further). For a couple decades, remember, we've had a "Darwinian" workplace often hostile to family responsibility (although, check the review in April 2006 here of Emily Burkett's "The Baby Boon"). If people will be expected to step in to social responsibility which they did not “choose” we need to develop the mechanisms for people to have the authority they need.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

IndieBound urges webmasters to support independent bookstores

A group called IndieBound, as part of a “sustainability” effort to support local shopping and businesses across the United States, has a program to encourage webmaster to support local bookstores. The posting, Feb. 19, 2009, is called “Info Pages for Books” and is here. There is an affiliate program and a widget for offering the book for sale on your site through the independent store.

Independent stores long have experienced difficulties competing with the large national chains, even in relatively niche-like markets, and this has become even more difficult with e-commerce. I’ve noticed that with my own authored books, that sometimes the prices is higher on indie sights than on the major e-commerce sites like amazon.

Until the 1980s, it was relatively common for small neighborhood books stores to start, particularly those from "countercultures". A young man running for Congress from the "People's Party of New Jersey" opened a "Make Up Your Mind Bookstore" in Madison, New Jersey in 1973, while decrying the concept of profit! Independent bookstores have always been important to the "New Age" culture common in rural California (like around the Mt. Shasta area) and the southwest (as around Santa Fe, New Mexico).

Among many independent stores are LGBT stores, including Lambda Rising.

Picture: from an indie bookstore in Rehoboth Beach, DE, 2006.