Huck Finn, Censorship And The N-Word Controversy

January 7, 2011

My ten year-old came home from school the other day with an assignment from his teacher: to write an original story based around the concept of a “ship wreck.”

He promptly sat down at the dinner table and began composing his opus. It was the story of a “tan skinned” pirate of Somali origin who hijacks a boat with an AK-47. In broken English, the pirate threatens all the passengers on the ship with his weapon. Then they die.

When my son showed me his essay afterwards, I was mortified. “You can’t write this!” I exclaimed. “You sound like a racist!” I then forced him to expurgate the most offensive passages from his text, including the color of the pirate’s skin and the derogatory description of his accent.

But when I recounted this story to an English friend of mine, she just shook her head. “Oh you Americans!” she said, laughing. “You’re so hung up on political correctness! An English teacher would neither notice nor care about any of this. Lighten up!”

I was reminded of this vignette earlier this week when I read that a new edition of Mark Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is coming out in February. In the new version, all instances of the N-word – which appears more than 200 times in the book – are to be expunged. In its place, the book will employ the term “slave.” (“Injun” – a derogatory term for Native Americans – will also be replaced by “Indian.”)

Read the rest of this story at www.PoliticsDaily.com

Image: Huck Finn by CaZaTo Ma via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five “Comfort Activities” When You’re Sick

December 15, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I spent most of last week in bed, shaking off a flu.

I really fight against being ill. On some fundamental level, I don’t want to accept that my defenses are down and that I can’t accomplish what I normally do in a day. So I spend a lot of time feeling frustrated when I’m sick, which is, of course, not only pointless but counter-productive.

But then I read this great post over on Daily Plate of Crazy about how Big Little Wolf woke up one day feeling really lousy and decided that even though it meant tossing out her “interminable checklist,” she accepted that she was ill and had a really nice day in, reading magazines and watching chick flicks.

And that made me realize that if you re-frame it, being sick can actually be a nice excuse to relax and engage “comfort activities” that you might not allow yourself during your normal routine. And I vowed that the next time I’m ill, I’m going to approach it with a whole new outlook. Here are five things to do when you’re sick:

1. Play Board Games. I’m a huge fan of board games. And, once again this year, I have used Hanukkah as an excuse to replenish our supply. (This year’s additions include Backgammon, Risk and Battleship.) The drawback (and advantage) of board games like these is that they can take several hours to play. And so you really need to clear an entire afternoon or evening, which can be tough to manage during “normal times.” But when you’re sick, you’ve got nothing better to do. So assuming you can actually sit up, playing a board game is an excellent way to spend a sick day.

2. Watch Old Movies. I’m not sure why, exactly, but watching old movies is another great comfort activity when you’re not feeling your best. In theory, any film should do, right? But there’s something particularly soothing about old movies. My daughter’s school is performing Oliver! for the Christmas play this year so we happened to have a copy of the film lying around last weekend. And so all four of us snuggled up in our bed and watched Oliver! as a family. Lovely.

3. Drink Tea. I don’t drink much tea these days. I’m more of an espresso-brewing gal. But when I’m sick, I take a hiatus from coffee and drink only tea. And I *always* enjoy that. There’s nothing that screams relaxation quite as much as a large mug of tea. Preferably with sugar and milk. Yum.

4.Take a nap. This has got to be the classic comfort activity that I routinely deny myself during my “normal life.” Despite all the research showing that taking a 30 minute nap every afternoon is really conducive to productivity, I never, ever nap unless I’m feeling ill. But when I’m sick, I allow myself this luxury and boy, is it worth it every time.

5. Read a guilty pleasure. This will vary from person to person. I don’t read women’s magazines so that’s never going to be a comfort activity for me. But I did find my eye straying to the pile of “to be read” books by my bedside table – you know, the ones that you really want to read but always feel you *should* be reading something else? So after, like, I don’t know…8 years?, I finally picked up Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker and plunged in. Just like that. So glad I did.

OK, so you know where I’m going with this, right? If these things are all so fantastic, then why don’t I incorporate them into my regular routine?

I’m working on it, folks. Really I am.

*****

For those who are interested, here’s my latest piece in Politics Daily on the woman in Iran sentenced to death by stoning.

Image: Nightime tea pot by racineur via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Signs You’re Working Too Hard

October 6, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Sometimes it’s the off-hand comment that really gets you thinking.

So there I was in the playground yesterday, about to pick my daughter up from school, when I started talking to a friend who was also waiting for her son. We were midway into a vague, “How’s it goin’?” sort of chat, when she suddenly commented, seemingly out of nowhere: “You seem so busy. Do you ever eat lunch?”

I laughed, reassuring her that I did, even while suppressing the memory of stuffing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into my mouth but two hours earlier as I galloped up a hill towards a bi-monthly appointment with my life coach (whom I see to help me…relax.)

But it gets better. As we talked some more about my work schedule, my double-school-run-afternoons and my husband’s recent business travel, she asked – in all seriousness – “Do you ever watch TV?”

She meant it in the nicest way, of course. She’s a really nice person. But, still, it cut me like a knife.

I mean: Do I ever watch TV? Am I so busy that the image I now project is that of a pop-culture-bereft, ready-meal-popping freak show who zips around North London on her collapsible bicycle desperately trying to keep up with her life? (Don’t answer that question. And by the way, does falling asleep to the Director’s Cut of Pride and Prejudice count as “watching TV”?)

So I gave it some thought. And I realized that I have been working too hard lately and trying to do too much. And I really need to relax. Here are five other tell-tale signs that you need to take a break:

1. Strangers tell you that you look rushed. It’s one thing when a friend tells you that you seem over-worked. But when even a stranger expresses concern that you’re too busy, it’s really time to take note. I was in the pharmacy the other day – where, because of the multitude of medical problems afflicting my family – the pharmacists are basically my extended family. Again, seemingly out of nowhere, the owner of the shop stepped forward and observed: “You always seem to be in a rush.” (“Why do you say that?” I wanted to reply. “Because I just knocked 42 of your contact lens solutions on the floor when I whooshed in here to grab my prescription while – literally – jogging?”) Once again, she meant it in the nicest way. This lady brings the descriptor “kindly” to a whole new level. And that made her remark all the more telling.

2. Muscle pain migrates to new corners of your body. Remember my piriformis syndrome? Thought I had that licked, didn’t you? Nope. It’s back. Only it has inexplicably migrated to the left side of my body. As soon as the pain started about six weeks ago, I recognized the symptoms instantly. And for a while, I ignored it. (Even though you should never ignore pain. You heard it here first.) But you know it’s time to cut back on what you’re doing when your body is basically screaming: “Hey! Pay Attention to Me!”

3. You feel relieved when you *have* to read your favorite magazine. I love The New Yorker. But despite my Sabbath Saturday resolve to devote more time to reading this magazine, I’ve fallen off the wagon. There are three – quite possibly, four – issues sitting in my magazine rack as we speak. One day last week, I found myself waiting for one of my kids for an hour with nothing to do but read my New Yorker. And I felt…relieved. As in: “Thank goodness this hour presented itself miraculously in my life!” Not as in: “Gee, I love the New Yorker and I think I’ll spend an hour reading it this afternoon because I want to.” What’s wrong with this picture?

4. You mistake tragedy for comedy. I love Indie films. The bleaker, the better. So when I recommended Winter’s Bone to some friends recently, I was puzzled when one of them, while passing me on the school run, shouted out: “Hey, thanks for the movie recommendation. We had a lovely evening. But it was a bit…grim, no?” To which I responded: “Grim? Really? I found it kind of uplifting.” When I recounted this exchange to my husband later that evening, he looked at me as if I were smoking crack. Like me, he also loved the movie. But “uplifting”? To paraphrase his reaction, when you mix poverty, drugs, murder and rural American sub-cultures, that’s not generally characterized as “uplifting.” Just sayin’.

5. You read Nora Ephron. I like my books much like I prefer my movies: heavy and (often) dark. (For me, the Dragon Tattoo series constitutes “light.”) So when my book club chose Nora Ephron’s Heartburn as its selection this month, I was initially disappointed. Not my cuppa, as they say. Boy, was I wrong. It’s not a great novel by any stretch. In fact, it’s not so much a novel as an extended rant by Ephron against her ex-husband for cheating on her when she was seven months pregnant. (And who can blame her?) But, man is Ephron funny. She has a terrific voice. And sometimes, we all just need to laugh.

Fortunately, I will have a chance to take a break later this month when I travel with my family – and my mother – to Berlin, one of those European cities I’ve always wanted to visit. Let’s just hope that whole terrorist threat thing has lifted by then. Speaking of grim…

*****

I was very grateful for this shout-out on the New York Times Freakonomics blog for my recent piece on health care reform in the U.K.

Image: Eat On The Run by Brave Heart via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Things To Do On A Staycation

August 4, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

My family is doing a staycation this year. We’re taking a few local trips here and there. But mostly – due to assorted work deadlines and exhaustion from our recent move – we’ll be at home in London.

Apparently, we’re not alone. Here in the U.K., a combination of airline strikes and the Eurozone debt crisis have prompted many more British people to holiday at home this year. In the United States, the whole concept of staycation (a word now enshrined in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary) has shifted from being a temporary outgrowth of the financial crisis to a social phenomenon that’s here to stay.

I love London, so I don’t really mind being here in the summer. Still, the longer days, warmer weather, and changes to the kids’ schedules do inspire me to do things a bit differently, if for no other reason than to shake up my own routine.

So if, like me, this is a summer when you’re going to give traveling a pass, here are some ways to mark the occasion:

1. Discover a new place. One way to make a staycation feel special is to travel somewhere new near your home. This might be a new museum, a restaurant you’ve been meaning to try or that park that’s just a bit too far to visit during the school year. At the top of my list is to take a backstage tour of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London’s oldest theatre. On their tours, a group of actors perform key events from this theatre’s rich history while you look around. I may even (gasp) do this on my own, since I don’t think any of my friends or family members quite shares my thespian enthusiasm. (Adulthood fantasy #6 is where I manage a community theatre troupe in which I also make the occasional cameo. Hey, we all need to dream…)

2. Get a new toy. Usually, we associate the novelty of a new toy with children. But it’s equally valid for adults, who also need to play. This year, my summer treat to myself is a bicycle. Because our new house is located considerably further from the kids’ schools and assorted other activities, I find that I’m often in motion between the hours of three and five on any given afternoon. And so we finally broke down and bought a bike for me on Ebay. It’s one of those funky collapsible things – (a Brompton, for those in the know) – because I’ll need to take it on the Tube and the bus with the kids. Bonus? I feel terribly hip and urban. Bonus-by-association? Guess who’s got a handy new gadget to play with?

3. Learn a new skill. “It’s like riding a bike.” The only problem with that old chestnut is that it only means something if you actually *know* how to ride a bike. In light of our staycation, my husband and I took the command decision that this was an opportune time to teach my nine year-old how to ride a bike. (I know, I know. Ridiculously late to be teaching him this life skill, especially since his six year-old sis has been bike riding for more than a year. What can I say? We’re bad parents.) But we’re on it now, and – in light of #2 – it also means that we can now go for family bike rides.

4. Tackle something on your “dreaded” to-do list. I once wrote a post entitled “Five Ways To Get On Top Of Your To Do List.” One of the strategies I recommended was to divide your to-do list in half into long-term and short-term items. The idea was to tick something off of the short list every day, and to take a step towards removing something on the long list every week. I think this strategy works very well. But it does pre-suppose that every so often, you really do take that crucial step on the dreaded (long) to-do list. In my case, I’ve had “clean rugs” on there for – oh, you really don’t want to know how long. But darn it if I didn’t pluck up my courage yesterday and call around for some estimates. (Needless to say – and like most of the “dreaded” tasks – contemplation was much worse than execution.) And now I feel so much better as a result. Up next? Wash duvet cover…

5. Read some really long books. Let’s face it. We all have a list of books on our bedside table which – tempting as they might seem – we never get around to reading because they’re just too long. And I don’t mean the medicinal ones that you feel you *ought* to read so that you’re up to speed on such and such a topic. (Eternal Message of Muhammed anyone? Oh, is that just me?) No, I mean the really good ones that entail a level of commitment that’s just beyond your comfort level during a busy week. I just finished the third volume in the highly addictive Dragon Tattoo series – The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest. Now I’m on to Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall. Up next? Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. If time, there’s always Tolstoy’s War and Peace. No, seriously. Don’t laugh.

What are you doing this summer around home?

*****

For those who are interested, I’m over on Politics Daily today talking about a lawsuit against the British government on the grounds of gender discrimination in its new austerity budget.

Image: Very early Brompton (number 333) by marcus_jb1973 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Five Reasons Not To Get An E-Reader

June 14, 2010

For my mother’s 79th birthday later this month, her four children are going to give her an e-reader. We have yet to decide which one to give her, but she’s very keen to join this trend.

As a frequent traveler, and avid reader, she finds that she’s always lugging 12 hard-cover books wherever she goes (often London to visit me!). So she’d like to lighten her load. Apparently, several of her friends already have e-readers and they are all thrilled with them.

I have mixed feelings about this present. On the one hand, as someone who — by her own admission — barely has running water and electricity, my mother is not exactly what you’d call techno-savvy. So there is a dragging-her-into-the-21st century quality to this gift, which, as someone who spends all day online, I welcome with open arms.

On the other hand, I’m also wary of the onslaught of e-readers. I worry about what happens to our society when we no longer read those great artifacts of the 20th century: books.

Read the rest of this post at www.PoliticsDaily.com

Image: 23/365 plus 1 [eReader] by The Hamster Factor  via flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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The Death Of The Library

June 7, 2010

I walked into my local public library in London the other day and got a rude shock. All of my favorite librarians were gone. They’d been replaced by machines. Where the circulation desk once stood — manned by a friendly soul with whom I’d chat about politics or the weather or the latest London Review of Books — I now swiped my library card and pushed a button that said “borrow” or “return.”

They’d also done some remodeling. This particular branch sits in an elegant 1930s building located in the garden of the house where the poet John Keats wrote his “Ode to a Nightingale.” The main room — once cluttered with books that literally spilled onto the floor — now is a shadow of its former self. Rather than books, the main thing on display would appear to be tables — artfully dotted around the room as if this were a café or the premier-class lounge for an airline. (“It’s so bright even druggies wouldn’t inject here,” quipped a cynical online reviewer.)

And it’s not just in the United Kingdom where libraries are morphing into something else . . . if not dying out completely. I’ve seen numerous articles about the demise of them in the United States, whether it’s the closure of branches in Boston, reduced hours in Los Angeles, or the architectural makeovers that render library books merely decorative, as in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read the rest of this article at http://www.PoliticsDaily.com…

Image: NYC-Midtown: New York Public Library Main Building via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Live Frugally

June 2, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve just moved. One of the things that happens when you move is that you get a chance to reassess your life . You reconnect with your past, you re-imagine your future and you start noticing things about your life that might have passed you by because you hadn’t opened a certain cupboard in four years.

One of the things I’ve noticed is how frugally our family lives in London compared to when we lived in the United States. Some of that has to do with the global economic recession of the past few years, some of it with the exchange rate, and some of it with the exorbitant cost of living in London.

But we’ve also made some smart choices about how to cut costs and I thought I’d share some of those with you today:

1. Don’t buy books. OK, this may sound insane coming from someone who regularly posts about books and reading, but it’s a good piece of advice. Owning a lot of books not only wastes a tremendous amount of space, but you have to ask yourself  how often you actually re-read them. (In my case: almost never.) Books are expensive. The average hardcover book retails for about $26 right now. Whereas in the library, you’ve got loads of choices and they’re all free. So as long as you request them sufficiently in advance, the sky’s the limit to how many books you can read without ever spending a cent. (OK, I’m not counting late fees….)

2. Don’t buy movies. I have a good friend here in London who watches a lot of films. But whenever I recommend one to him, he always says “Great! I’ll go buy it this afternoon!” This friend isn’t loaded and I always wonder why on earth he spends so much money on movies when you can subscribe to something like Netflix (US) or LoveFilm (UK) and see all the movies you like for a low monthly fee. (Or get them at the library for nothing. See above). We own a few films, but most of them are for the kids and almost all have been presents. It just strikes me as a really easy way to cut down your budget without losing out on anything.

3. Make your own coffee. This one is a no-brainer. If you add up all the money you spend on buying coffee out everyday – let’s say you spend $2.50/day on some kind of fancy coffee drink, that adds up really quickly:  $16/week, $74/month, $888 a year to be precise. (This is, by the way, is exactly the sort of logic we used to use when I worked at Chicago Public Radio in order to exhort listeners to donate to our station.) For $800, you can buy a really nice espresso machine these days, and possibly even a grinder to go with it. I’ve gotten to the point where I actually prefer my own coffee to the stuff they sell on the High Street. I can even send you a video on the optimal way to tamp your espresso (free of charge.)

4. Buy second-hand items. For years I resisted this. Part of the reason was that my mother always shopped at vintage clothing stores when I was growing up and for that reason alone, I was hell-bent on not doing it. But now I see her infinite wisdom. And it’s not just clothing. We’ve furnished half of our flat in London with (really nice) second-hand furniture that we’ve acquired from other American families who come here for a few years and then move on. Over the past few years, we’ve chalked up sofas, rugs, waffle makers, night lights, you name it…and all at a really moderate price. I’m a member of a local women’s group that lists such second-hand sales as part of its services. But many schools, churches and other community organizations do this sort of thing regularly. So keep your eyes peeled…there are some real treasures out there and people are often dying to offload them.

5. Do some travel writing. Granted, this one is going to be easier to implement for the journalists and writers out there. But it’s amazing what kinds of deals you can get on hotels and travel arrangements if you agree to do a review. We’ve done a ton of traveling around Europe over the past few years – to places like Helsinki and Vienna and Croatia – and most of it has been possible because I arranged to do a review of the hotel where we were staying. Note: you don’t necessarily have to be a professional writer to score this kind of gig. One site that I write for is mostly just a bunch of mums offering tips for family-friendly travel. And once you’ve done one of these reviews, getting more gigs is a piece of cake. Try it! You *will* like it.

Image: Unphotographable Otto Espresso Machine by CoffeeGeek via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.