Howard Zinn Dies: He Changed My Life

We have lost Howard Zinn, an old lion of the Left, who never stopped writing and speaking for the underdog.  With his passing, there’s “a hole in the sky.”

There are not too many books of which you can say, “Reading this changed my life.”  I can probably count them on the fingers of one hand.  One of those is Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”  It is the history of our country from the perspective of those who generally remain voiceless: native Americans, slaves, women, immigrants, poor laboring people.  It’s what you never learned in high school or college when you took American history and read about all the conquering men and heroic deeds of U.S. past.  If you haven’t read Zinn’s book, read it now.  You will be shocked, you may weep.  You will be changed.


Loaded Oatmeal Cookies

Those of you who have been following my blog for several years know that occasionally I publish a recipe, one of the many recipes which I find in a newspaper or magazine and cut out, but never actually use.  I will rip a recipe out of its moorings, thinking that one day I may in fact make this delectable dish, but thus far, I’ve never done so.  I must face facts: I collect recipes, but I don’t cook.  My weakness, however, should not prevent my passing on to readers a recipe that catches my eye, so here goes:

                                           LOADED OATMEAL COOKIES

                      (from some out-of-date women’s magazine in the doctor’s office)

1/4 c. butter, softened                                   3/4 c. all-purpose flour

1/2 c. brown sugar, packed                         3/4 c. rolled oats

1/3 c. granulated sugar

1 t. ground cinnamon                                    1/4 c. flax seed meal

1 t. baking soda                                            1/4 c. wheat germ             

1/8 t. salt                                                        2 oz. dark chocolate, finely chopped

1 egg                                                             1/4 c. dried cranberries

1 t. vanilla                                                      1/4 c. chopped walnuts, toasted

(Note on ingredients: I like all of the healthy stuff in the cookies, although I might, if I ever actually cooked them, reduce the amount of sugar.  Also, I might substitute raisins for cranberries.  And I wouldn’t bother to toast the walnuts, since I’m going to bake the cookies, after all.)

Preheat oven to 350F.  In large mixing bowl, beat butter with electric mixer for 30 sec.  Add brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt.  Beat until combined.  Beat in egg and vanilla.  Beat in flour.  Stire in rolled oats, flax seed meal, wheat germ, chocolate, cranberries, and walnuts (dough will be a little crumbly, and you will think,”Oh, what have I done wrong!”)  Drop dough by rounded teaspoons 2 inches apart onto ungreased cookie sheets.  Bake for 9-11 minutes or until tops are lightly browned.  Cool cookies on cookie sheet for a minute and then transfer to a wire rack to cool.  Makes about 30 cookies.

Good luck with this!  If anyone our there in cyberland actually makes these cookies, please let me know how they came out.




Review of Film: “Crazy Heart”

This little essay on the film “Crazy Heart,” which I just saw this afternoon, cannot in all good faith be considered a “review,” I suppose, in that it is in no way comprehensive or even objective.  It falls under the category of “What, again??”

First I should say that I did enjoy the film.  Jeff Bridges was excellent in the role of the down-and-out country singer, and the talented Maggie Gyllenhaal can hardly miss, whatever role she plays.  And I really like country music–good country music, not “that artificial stuff,” as Gyllenhaal calls it.  I grew up listening to Hank Williams and first heard Johnny Cash back in the ’60′s in New Orleans.  Bridges sings well, and the song writers do a more than decent job.

But the “What, again??” refers to the portrayal of male/female relationships.  I found myself asking the following questions, as I viewed the film:

–Would a beautiful young thing like Maggie really fall goo-goo in love with a 53-year-old gross, unkempt, chain-smoking, pot-bellied alcoholic with a series of failed relationships (4 marriages and a son he has essentially deserted)?  Even if he is a sincere, charming, talented country singer?

–Why does a man always need a female muse to allow him to create his art?  (Read art history, and weep, women.)  And by the way, when a female artist needs a muse, where does she go to get hers?

–When are we going to see a movie about a talented woman who is well past her youth, destitute, overweight, and a promiscuous alcoholic to boot, who attracts a young handsome man who saves her from her decline and inspires her to do her best work ever?

Now the film does get a few things right.  “Bad,” Jeff Bridges’ character, is a true portrayal of an alcoholic.  He is careless about his health.  He doesn’t really understand the consequences of his behavior–in particular, the hurt and distrust he evokes in others.  Nothing is more important than the next drink–not the woman, not her child, not his child, not his music.  He is, however, charming and courtly–qualities which characterize many male alcoholics, in particular from the South.

And what else the film gets right is Bad’s losses–his quick and quite unbelievable recovery to sobriety is too little, too late.  He is surprised that his woman turns him away.  “Hey, I’m different now.  Everything has changed.”  She tells him she loves him, but she can never trust him again with her child.  Never.  Much can be forgiven, but nothing is forgotten.  What is done, or not done, clouds our experience ever after. Bad walks away, bewildered.

When the movie ends, Bad (now calling himself by his true name, Otis) has left alcohol behind, has written terrific new songs, and has made a load of money.  I wish I could believe it.  Johnny Cash conquered his addictions with the help of June Carter and Jesus.  Ray Carver was saved from alcoholism by the poet Tess Gallagher.  I don’t believe Bad had the character to rid himself of his addiction–at least without a whole lot more support than he had–or that the film portrayed, in any case. 

I think producers believed the film needed a (somewhat) happy ending, as almost all Hollywood films do.  This was no Nicholas Cage “Leaving Las Vegas.”  The theater was crowded–”Crazy Heart” is packing them in.  Redemption just feels good, even when it’s unlikely.        


Luxury Cruise Liners Visit Haiti

It seems that a luxury cruise line based in Florida is continuing to have its ships stop off in Haiti to let passengers “tour” the country and buy trinkets–in spite of the current devastation by the earthquake.  When interviewed by the BBC, and challenged by the reporter for allowing pleasure tours in the midst of the death and destruction, the spokesperson for the cruise line explained that it was important to continue the present practice, because the cruise ships brought much-needed jobs to the Haitians and spurred the economy of this very poor country.

Now on the surface of things, this seems like a perfectly logical position to take.  We’re doing the Haitians a favor, to pump up business!  To be sure, the country is poor–the poorest in the Western hemisphere.  So why was the reporter (and this writer) so clearly astonished and disgusted with this decision by the U.S. cruise line and by the justification articulated by its representative?

I think it is because we intuitively know that when great loss and suffering take place, the only appropiate response is grief–and then an outpouring of heartful help, in whatever way is possible for those of us who have had the good fortune to be spared by Fate this time around.  We know at moments like this that we are one human family, and our hearts are wounded, heavy with the vastness of the tragedy and distraught at our feelings of helplessness in the face of it.

If there are tourists on board luxury liners who can consider “touring” Haiti at this terrible time, they and the ship’s masters are drastically out of touch with their humanity.  They are denying their own flesh and emotions surely, if they can separate themselves from the suffering all around them.  There are so many dead that there can be no proper burial for most.  In fact, many may never be identified.  Huge communal graves are being dug with earth-moving equipment, and the bodies of men, women and children are tumbled in together, in a last embrace. 

What makes us human, at last?  Is it not the understanding that there are some accidents, some terrible losses, some acts of nature, some evil-doing that is so profound that we must be silent in the face of it?  Surely we will continue to eat our dinners and laugh over trivial things and wonder at the beauty of the sky at dusk–but at times like this, we must stop and notice, we must mark the moment.  There is no business as usual.  We breathe deeply, we know once again the fragility of our flesh, and all flesh, and our hearts are broken open.  The fantasy of safety is gone, we float into the unknown, on the edge of time, and we are one.


Conversation with Christopher Hitchens

I have an article in the January issue of Portland Monthly–it’s a conversation with Christopher Hitchens, the well-known British atheist whose big book is God Is Not Great.  (Someone quipped that his book title is just one word too long.)  If you want to check it out, go to their web site, and then go to “Current Issue.”  Or try the following link:

I also had dinner with Hitchens and around a dozen others on Tuesday evening after his talk at Portland Arts and Lectures.  He must be one of the most articulate people on the planet, and there is great pleasure in watching his mind play with words and entertain with turns of irony.  However, Hitchens is as well known for his drinking as he is for his wit, and as the evening wore on, I found he became more and more acerbic and insulting.  The man is brilliant, but not wise; clever, but not deep; and a fundamentalist, in regard to religion, rejecting any form of liberal Christianity as bogus religion, not to be respected. 

Hitchens clearly has never studied theology, and most of the comments he made concerning the Bible, Jesus, salvation, etc., were shockingly naive.  Where he has something to offer, of course, is his critique of religion and society, and all of the horrors and nonsense done in the name of religion, which I have no argument with.  It’s not exactly news that the Inquisition was a bad thing.  And that Catholic priests shouldn’t abuse altar boys.  And (his particular nemesis) jihadists shouldn’t blow up innocent civilians. 

Hitchens is  the ultimate intellectual “bad boy.”  He performs.  He “debates.”  He entertains. All of which he does very well.   But this should not be confused with thoughtful discourse.