No food, no water, no land in sight: Santa Cruz’s Justin Moore stars in ‘The Raft’

May 10, 2015


There has to be an easier way to get on TV than the way Justin Moore did it.

Making the cut on “American Idol,” going “Naked and Afraid,” marrying into the Kardashian family – they all have to be a easier path to television fame than sitting on a 4-by-4-foot raft in the open ocean with no food or water with another person.

“It was just miserable, man,” said Moore of the experience which will be documented on the latest episode of “The Raft” on National Geographic Channel on Sunday.

Generally, Moore loves being out on the ocean. The long-time Santa Cruzan is a veteran sailor and waterman who was one of the captains on the popular Santa Cruz charter boat the Chardonnay II. But what he had to endure for “The Raft” was, to use his own word, torture.

“It kind of gives me the shivers thinking about it,” said Moore, 41, who moved to Maui last November. “You get a little bit of post-traumatic stress.”

The point of “The Raft” is put two people together on a life raft smaller than most kiddie pools, without provisions, to see how long they last in a more-or-less genuine simulation of what could happen after a ship’s sinking. Moore wouldn’t say how long he and his partner, Elliot Sudal of the British Virgin Islands, lasted under such circumstances – you’ll have to tune in to find out what happened to them – but he’s not shy about how awful it was.

He said he suffered “fairly well-developed salt water sores” on his body, as well as second-degree sunburn and sun blisters on his legs. Most life rafts, he said, have a canopy. Not so on “The Raft.” But as hellish the days were, the nights were even more horrible.

“At night, they would put a light on us, an array of LEDs for shooting purposes,” he said. “And I remember thinking, this is how you torture someone. You put them out in the sun with salt water and dehydration. Then, at nighttime, the temperature drops, you’re cold and constantly being splashed, and can’t even experience darkness so you can get a little shut-eye. Plus, light attracts fish, and fish attract sharks. It was really sharky out there.”

It was a year ago when Moore, working both on the Chardonnay II and at the Santa Cruz-based Pacific Yachting and Sailing, was offered a chance to be on a new reality show. The production company found him on the website “Find a Crew.”

When he heard about the challenge of the show, to be shot in the open ocean of the Caribbean, he figured he could engineer the raft to make landfall at a nearby island in, by his calculations, 30 to 40 hours. To do so would require repurposing parts of the raft designed to keep it stable in the water. At the last minute, however, the producers told him such modifications were prohibited.

“They changed the deal on me,” he said. “But eventually, I played along. It’s TV; you’re trying to make a television show. I think their purpose was just to see how long you could suffer.”

The two men were given minimal supplies, which included a pump that could desalinate ocean water for drinking, and a can of sardines. Moore said that the two had to pump about six hours a day to have enough drinking water to survive, and it was the paucity of water that, ironically, kept them mentally sharp.

“The worst part of it, when you have no food and it’s just calm and you’re floating, there’s nothing to keep you tethered to reality.” He had read several accounts of other people in such circumstances, and learned a few survival techniques, including the need to establish a routine to keep the mind engaged. That routine turned into taking one sip of water per hour.

“It gave you something to look forward to every hour,” he said. “That strategy gives you something to hold onto mentally. You really need that kind of structure to keep you from going crazy.”

New in Hawaii after having lived in Santa Cruz for 18 years, Moore said of the episode to air on Sunday, “I miss my surfing friends, and everybody at the Chardonnay II and Pacific Yachting and Sailing. I don’t even know if I’m going to watch it. I might not. I’m sure I’ll see it eventually.”

“The Raft” airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.


The other Wonder Years: Joan Anderman and the art of putting the life back in mid-life

May 6, 2015


You may think that the best part of mid-life is the satisfaction of experience, of knowing how to do something well by sheer force of having done it for years.

But if you ask someone like Joan Anderman, they may tell you that the best part of mid-life is giving up that satisfaction and embracing its opposite, the exhilaration of being a beginner again.

For 25 years, Anderman was a prolific and successful music journalist, having free-lanced for several top publications before landing a coveted gig as the pop music critic for the Boston Globe.

But five years ago, pushing 50, Anderman walked away from that perch. Now, instead of writing about music, she’s playing music. She brazenly did what our youth-oriented culture dictates you should do only in your teens or 20s: She formed a band.
“I cannot believe I almost lived my entire life without being in a band.”

Anderman comes to Santa Cruz next week to lead a workshop at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods designed for people in the mid-life years wondering if the forward momentum of their lives has become inertia. “Middle Mojo” is aimed at people between 40 and 60 looking to reinvigorate their lives, question some assumptions about aging and ponder the possibilities of going in other directions.

“We have this idea,” said Anderman, “that as life progresses and you grow older and more experienced, you’re going to become master of your domain in an upward trajectory. But I stumbled on the Zen idea of ‘beginner’s mind,’ and that’s really helped me. In the expert’s mind, there are few possibilities, but in the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. That’s the head space that I wanted to offer in this workshop, that it’s OK to be a beginner.”

Part of Anderman’s mid-life leap of faith was to devote her journalistic energies to exploring the links between creativity and aging. She wrote a column for the New York Times on the subject and interviewed artists, from Yo Yo Ma to Stevie Nicks, on the impact that aging had on their work for her blog “Middle Mojo.” That led her to make the creative leap in her own life.

“In retrospect, it’s so obvious now,” she said. “I wanted to do it myself. I had been writing about other people’s music for so long. I no longer wanted to be on the outside looking in. I wanted to make something of my own, and that desire dovetailed so beautifully with the more journalistic inquiry that I was making. I just wrapped it all in a big bundle and that’s what I’m doing with my life.”

It was on that blog that Anderman first took the risk of documenting her “baby steps” in learning to play music. She said that her skills at the time were not much beyond campfire level.

“Without getting too Psych-101 on you, my passion for music and songs was there from the beginning. I really just lacked the courage, the willingness to take a risk and the faith in myself. Rather than pursue music when I was young, I inserted myself at an oblique angle from the very safe perch of being a music critic. But eventually, I got to the point where I wanted to alter the terms of that relationship.”

After reading of her struggles on her blog, a former colleague at the Globe contacted her on the possibility of forming a band together. Anderman balked at first, but the co-worker persisted and she finally began playing with him. They now perform in clubs and other venues as Field Day.

“I was so sick of my fear,” she said. “There was a lot of fear of being judged. It was very strange going from being a critic to a novice musician, and it continues to be. But my mantra, my guiding light has always been the idea that if I can just do this with sincerity and courage, and to talk about it with honesty and transparency, then that’s what I have to do.”

At the “Middle Mojo” workshop, Anderman will share her narrative and lead discussions on the challenges of finding new creative outlets in middle age. She will guide participants through visualizations and other exercises to help people better identify possibilities for their lives.

“I’m not expecting people to come to this workshop ready to quit their jobs like I did,” she said. “That’s just not practical for a lot of people. But I know you can have a busy life without making that radical change, and still find the time in your day and the place in yourself to live a more artful life.”

Joan Anderman’s ‘Middle Mojo’ creativity workshop takes place May 15-17 at the Wellstone Center for the Redwoods, 858 Amigo Road, Soquel. Fee is $400, which includes meals and accommodations. Details here.


Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s audacious move to gender equity

April 30, 2015


As presumptuous as it might sound, you can now draw a straight line between William Shakespeare and what will happen this summer in Santa Cruz, and call it a historic landmark in social progress.

Consider that when Shakespeare was drawing breath 400 years ago, he watched his plays performed on stage by companies consisting entirely of male actors. Even the female roles – from Juliet to Ophelia to Lady Macbeth – were commonly played by boys. Call it perfect gender inequity.

Fast forward to 2015, and the new season of Santa Cruz Shakespeare, the still new theater company stitched together from the remnants of the now defunct Shakespeare Santa Cruz. SCS artistic director Mike Ryan, in his first season as sole artistic director, is instituting a new policy in which the acting company of the new summer season will consist of an equal number of male and female actors. Call it perfect gender equity.

Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s summer season kicks off June 30 at the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen with three new productions – two Shakespeare plays, “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Macbeth,” and a new adaptation of the 17th-century French farce “The Liar.”

The result of Ryan’s new policy is that SCS will subtly adapt Shakespeare’s plays to accommodate female actors in traditionally male roles. That doesn’t mean female actors pretending to be men; it means specific male roles re-imagined as women.

“Shakespeare was writing for an all-male company,” said Ryan, who ran the company alongside co-artistic director Marco Barricelli in SCS’s first season. “He didn’t write a lot of women’s roles because he knew they would be played by boys anyway. But there’s no reason to think that he wouldn’t have (written more women’s roles) if he were, say, writing during the Restoration when women were on stage.”

Ryan stressed that the new policy does not mean a casting free-for-all in which a character’s gender is entirely disregarded. In the new season, selected roles cast cross-gender include the warrior Banquo, the prince Malcolm and the lord Ross in “Macbeth.” The supporting characters in “Much Ado” will have more a female tilt as well. In a small way, by changing gender pronouns and other gender references, the new policy is a break from Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s long commitment to keep Shakespeare’s words inviolate.

But, said Ryan, adapting Shakespeare to modern audiences means reflecting modern values. “There’s no reason we need to reflect a world whose power structure was very different than our own. What we’re doing is plays in the 21st century for a 21st-century audience, and those stories should be inclusive as possible.”

The new gender policy obscures other significant changes in the new season at Santa Cruz Shakespeare. The company, for instance, returns for its three-play format for the first time since the heyday of Shakespeare Santa Cruz. But, for the first time, all three of those plays will be presented in repertory in the Glen (the previous company used the indoors Mainstage Theater for a third play).

Ryan will take the stage this summer as Benedict, the lead romantic male in the comedy “Much Ado,” opposite 2014 returnee Greta Wohlrabe as Beatrice. The acting company will be split evenly between “Much Ado” and “The Liar,” said Ryan, but the whole company will be part of “Macbeth.”

“Much Ado” is being set in a California winery in the days just following World War II. Ryan said “Macbeth” is being re-imagined in a kind of fantasy realm, reminiscent of “Game of Thrones.”

The season’s one non-Shakespeare entry, “The Liar,” is a romantic farce written by Pierre Corneille a generation after Shakespeare’s death. SCS presents a recent adaptation by Chicago-born playwright David Ives. The play centers on a man whose lies gets him in hot water as he attempts to woo a woman who strikes his fancy.

“It’s a period play, and it’s very sexy,” said Ryan. “You’re talking about four really hot young people going at it for two hours on stage. It fits well with the other Shakespeare plays because it has all the great hallmarks of Shakespearean comedy, deceit, mistaken identity. There’s a servant who can only tell the truth. It plays beautifully with ‘Much Ado’ and ‘Macbeth,’ because those plays are about deception too. You can call this our season of deception.”

SCS will also continue the tradition of a fourth “fringe” production, put on by the company’s interns. This year, that’s the comedy “The Rover.”

Also, in an effort to cultivate younger audiences, Santa Cruz Shakespeare will be offering free tickets to “Much Ado” to anyone 18 and under, who is accompanied by a paying adult. The free ticket policy fits with the gender-equity policy in a way that Ryan hopes might spark the audience’s imagination.

“Think of a little girl going to see, say, ‘Hamlet,’” he said. “Her only two points of entry into the play are a woman who drowns herself when her boyfriend leaves her, or a woman who gets passed from brother to brother in marriage. That’s terrible. Why shouldn’t she also get to imagine herself as a prince, or a soldier, or anyone else?”






Baine Street

Is your brain getting flabby?

April 10, 2015


(Originally published July 17, 2011)

Today’s subject is the human brain. And, contrary to the opinion of several of my regular e-mailers – a couple of whom I’m related to – I do have one.

Scientists agree that the brain is the most complex thing we’ve ever encountered in the known universe, with the possible exception of some college-admission forms. Of course, when you get down to it, that assertion is really the brain judging itself. It is, in fact, the most grandiose and yet the most disguised form of narcissism ever – kind of like Woody Allen declaring that the highest form of artistic expression known to humankind are the films of Woody Allen, all while wearing a fake noses and glasses.

We are now learning something about the brain that we figured out about the body a long time ago – that it needs “exercise” to hold off decrepitude, that brains can get flabby just like bodies if we get lazy.

It’s true, folks. There are mental and psychological equivalents to love handles, beer guts, crotch biscuits [a Tina Fey coinage, blame her, not me] cottage-cheese thighs, muffin tops, jello arms – hey, anybody other than me getting hungry?

That means, of course, that on top of all the time you’re spending at the gym – or all the time you’re spending loathing your worthless love-handled hide for not going to the gym – you have to pay attention to brain fitness as well. Oh, joy.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – because I just downloaded that new clairvoyance app for my brain. You’re thinking, “Oh, yeah. I’m already ahead of you there, annoying newspaper guy. I always do a Soduku before I go to bed at night.”

Ha! That’s the sound of me scoffing at your Soduku. You know that guy who looks like a hot water heater in a Harley vest who claims he gets his upper-body strength from lifting cases of Old Milwaukee into the bed of his Dodge Ram pick-up? [No? Your family must be different from mine]. Anyway, that guy is you and your Soduku, OK?

To whip that old brain into shape, you gotta reach higher. The key is to tackle some kind of mental challenge that – and this is important – your brain isn’t already inclined to do. Examples: getting straight all the “begats” in the Bible [non-rabbis only]; memorizing every starting line-up for the Pittsburgh Pirates [non-basement-dwelling, girlfriendless, mouth-breathing sports nerds only]; or understanding the rational business model of the derivatives market [non-greed-consumed, remorseless, slimeball Wall Street traders who are ruining America only].

Yes, you also have to take it slowly. I overdid it a bit last spring when my daughter took honors physics in high school and I offered to serve as her study buddy. I would have been better off signing us both up for an Ironman triathalon in the Himalayas.

People tend to get cocky when it comes to mental fitness. You have to respect your stupidity, just as you do your physical limits. When you see someone by the road with a flat tire, you wouldn’t pull over and offer to lift the car by the front bumper and jog it the mile or two to the person’s home, would you? Yet, you think your liberal-arts degree is sufficient to tackle honors physics? You know that phrase “My momma didn’t raise no fool”? Well, I never say that.

Youth is, of course, the mightiest asset when it comes both to body and brain fitness. My daughter, the same girl who took honors physics last year, is tackling Mandarin Chinese at Cabrillo in the fall [while still in high school, I might add]. With her young, pliable brain, that’s possible. For me, that would be like saying “I’m going to learn how to grow a third arm out from the middle of my chest.” Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

Still, even if you’ve hit mid-life or slightly beyond, you still have plenty to gain. No, you’re not going to impress Stephen Hawking at dinner. But if you push your brain out of the long-established patterns that aren’t serving you anymore – like the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song, your ex’s Facebook posts, paying attention to Dr. Phil – then you may have room to develop new neural pathways that could ward off … uh, I can’t remember what you call it.

Which leads me to my great business idea: a brain-fitness gym. You pay us a monthly fee and come on down to our fun little meeting place and we’ll give your old coconut a good work-out with puzzles, games, memorization tests, etc. If you want to start slowly, we can do that – women’s dress sizes [for men only]; figuring out Earned Run Average [for women only]; pig-Latin classes.

But soon, you’ll want to get out of the kiddie pool, and swim with the grown-ups: how to rebuild the engine of a Ford Mustang [those with uncallused hands only]; how to jailbreak an iPhone [those who never heard of an iPhone only]; how to communicate with a teenager or a rock critic [those over 40 only].

Any potential partners with several million dollars getting in the way at home can contact me pronto.

I will admit that this is a big risk. What physical fitness has going for it that mental fitness does not is, of course, sex. You punish yourself in the gym and you get rewarded with a hot bod that will get attention from similarly foxy potential mates, along with various pervs and philanderers. There is no mental equivalent to rocking a new string bikini at the beach, unless you’re a “Jeopardy” fetishist, and I think there are support groups for that kind of thing.

So, unless you’re doing it blindfolded, underwater or suspended upside down – or, preferably, all three – put down the Sudoku and embrace some real challenges. Get in mental shape because people consistently find intelligence sexy. Those people are liars, but sometimes, delusion is your friend.




The price of public shaming

April 8, 2015


A little more than a year ago, a New York woman named Justine Sacco tweeted a very unfunny joke about AIDS and Africa just before she was to board a plane from London to Cape Town, South Africa. When the plane took off, Sacco was just another nobody with 170 Twitter followers.

While she dozed at 30,000 feet, she was blissfully unaware that her ugly joke was metastasizing on Twitter, creating a backlash of hurricane fury. Her obliviousness to what was happening created a real-time drama on the ground, a sense of anticipation fueled by schadenfreude captured in the trending hashtag #hasjustinelanded.

By the time the plane landed 11 hours later, she had become a pariah around the world.

What happened to Justine Sacco is chronicled in Jon Ronson’s new book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” (Riverhead), which offers up compelling stories of public shaming in the era of social media. Another such story involved another woman named Lindsey Stone who, as a misbegotten joke, posted a photo of herself on Facebook doing something vulgar at Arlington National Cemetery.

No one argues that what Sacco and Stone did were not offensive. But the proportionality of their respective punishments was, Ronson believes, way out of kilter. Each woman lost her job and each was wracked with depression and anxiety in response to the public furor of her thoughtless transgression.

Who destroyed the lives of these two women? It wasn’t trolls, said Ronson. It was people like you and me.

“There is a meaningful distinction to make here,” said Ronson, who comes to Bookshop Santa Cruz Friday. “Trolls have malicious intent. We have good intent. People like us are doing this stuff with positive, empathetic intentions. And yet, the destruction is more profound than that of trolls. I find that really interesting.”

Online public shaming is a regular feature of the news cycle these days. Some arise from allegations of serious crime – Bill Cosby’s career has been ruined by multiple accusations of rape and sexual harassment. Some, like those of Sacco and Stone, are triggered by unfortunate remarks meant as humor; Jon Stewart’s would-be replacement on “The Daily Show,” Trevor Noah, is now weathering a backlash against offensive jokes.

In medieval times, transgressors were put into a pillory, a giant wooden frame locked around the neck and wrists, and displayed in the town square. We don’t do that anymore. But Ronson tells a story that illustrates the contemporary version of that kind of punishment.

The book chronicles the story of Jonah Lehrer, a celebrated young writer, who was caught fabricating quotes in his bestseller “Imagine.” Lehrer resigned from his coveted perch at the New Yorker. That book, and another of Lehrer’s previous bestsellers, was pulled from circulation by its publisher and pulped.

Lehrer’s career was in tatters when he decided to publicly apologize at a journalism conference. Beside him as he spoke was a monitor on which was a giant live Twitter feed reacting to his speech as he gave it, and though the early tweets were positive, as Lehrer digressed, they become more and more nasty and dismissive.

As Ronson writes in “Shamed”: “… by mid-apology, it seemed irrelevant whether the criticisms had legitimacy. They were cascading into his sightline in a torrent. Jonah was being told in the most visceral, instantaneous way that there was no forgiveness for him, no possibility for reentry.”

Ronson points to the Lehrer situation as an example of “punching up,” that is, heaping criticism on someone of high status who is misusing his/her privilege. “It really is appropriate to punch up,” he said. “That’s the appropriate sort of shaming. But we use that punching-up defense to justify every single shaming incident there is. And that’s just wrong. It’s not true.”

Ronson characterizes our relationship to social media as “a toddler crawling toward a gun.” Twitter especially creates an environment for piling on strangers for perceived sins. It’s a vast Greek chorus of commenters who all have their two cents to contribute. Many feel the compulsion to outdo the last commenter in cleverness or vehemence.

It’s all entertaining, said Ronson, but it comes with a real cost to those on the other end.

“In this book, I want to present a fuller picture of what’s going on,” he said. “I’m not about to start telling people what they can and cannot do. But I do want to say, if you do this, you should know what could happen. Some people are ruined by these shaming campaigns. Some people’s punishments are disproportionate to their crimes. It feels horrific to be at the end of a mass shaming campaign. Once you learn about these repercussions, you can make a more reasoned decision on how to behave.”





America’s companion: A visit with Garrison Keillor

April 7, 2015


There are many other novelists, other storytellers, other radio hosts. There are other monologuists, other humorists, other champions of poetry, other crooning Midwestern baritones.

But the space that Garrison Keillor occupies in American literary culture, he occupies alone.

In fact, you’d have to survey the dead to find someone of Keillor’s unique stature in America. And he’s been around so long now – Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Compaion” celebrated its 40th anniversary last year – that comparisons to figures such as Will Rogers and Mark Twain have now become hackneyed.

The 72-year-old writer and radio icon comes to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium for a performance on April 15 to do what he does best – regaling audiences with stories of wistful irony and gentle, oh-so-self-deprecating satire.

To mark the occasion of Keillor’s visit to Santa Cruz, we had a chance to pose a few questions to America’s most famous Minnesotan:

Wallace Baine: First off, those of us from California tend to defer with great respect to folks from Minnesota on the subject of winter. Given that it’s beginning to appear that California may never again experience anything remotely resembling winter while the rest of the country is just now emerging from another rough one, do you have any tales that might disabuse us Californians of our sudden and quaint nostalgia for winter?

Garrison Keillor: Winter is sheer stunning beauty and the finest poem Kenneth Rexroth of San Francisco ever wrote was about camping in the Sierras and awakening to the vast hush of snowfall. I don’t remember any of “Howl” except the famous first line but I remember Rexroth and his lover waking up in that tent and the snow descending, a silent world blessed by snow. I don’t know what might be “rough” about winter other than some catastrophic event that could happen as easily in spring or summer. Winter offers many privileges, such as walking across a frozen lake in the moonlight or running out of a sauna and rolling in snow. I am sorry for anyone who doesn’t get to experience those.

WB: It seems that more and more writers these days are having to concentrate on presenting their work in live settings either through readings or TED-style talks in front of audience. Perhaps no one living person has more experience in this realm than you. Do you have any insights on the “secret sauce” that separates a writer from a performer? What can the former do to be better at the latter?

GK: For a writer, performing is extracurricular, and some wonderful writers pass up the sport entirely and are the better for it. Edward Hoagland, the great American essayist, for example. I got into it by accident, by way of radio, and now I do it for the thrill of it, the way some people go snorkeling or hike the Iditarod trail, but I don’t recommend it. A writer ought to apply himself to the great work of creating something worth reading and not go parading around in his underwear with a toilet plunger on his head.

WB: Santa Cruz has for generations been a hot spot for poetry — it’s the hometown of the late great Adrienne Rich and Ellen Bass, who’s been featured on “A Writer’s Almanac” a few times, among others. How do you feel about the durability of poetry in today’s technological world? Are you optimistic for its future in a culture of Twitter, YouTube and video games?

GK: If you want to know what other people feel about what it’s like to be alive in 2015, you don’t go to Twitter or YouTube, you find a poet who speaks to you and you listen. Twitter is for graffiti. YouTube is for looking at old clips of the Mills Brothers and Jerry Garcia and the Beatles. Poetry is for real.

WB: Fairly or not, you’re often seen as a kind of exemplar of the unique character of American small-time life, and the glory of traveling across the country has always been about discovering that uniqueness. Are you worried that America’s small towns are becoming franchised and interchangeable? Does Lake Woebegone have a Wal-Mart, and how would the folks at Ralph’s Pretty Good Groceries adapt to such a thing?

GK: Life is a struggle, whether you live in Lake Wobegon or on the South Side of Chicago. You look for love, you look for work that means something, you acquire responsibilities and you try to meet them, and meanwhile you maintain your spirit of fun, you sing, you tell jokes, you pull quarters out of people’s ears, you put a whoopee cushion on the principal’s chair. This is more visible in a small town, but it’s not so different from city life. I don’t see anything interchangeable about small towns — suburbs, yes, but every small town is distinctive, depending on what drives the economy. Resort towns, college towns, factory towns, farm towns, railroad towns, all different.




‘The Georgetown Set’ a profile of Washington’s Cold War elites

April 6, 2015


For those who feel the 2014 mid-term election was another confirmation of ever deepening dysfunction in the federal government, Gregg Herken’s new book “The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington” (Knopf) might read like a fantasy novel.

It’s nothing of the kind. It’s a comprehensive view of a small circle of political elites that, more or less, established policy consensus in the years between World War II and Watergate.

But the title of the book’s prologue hints at how that world is so fundamentally different from the one in which we live – “When Washington Worked.”

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Karen Armstrong ponders the link between religion and violence

April 5, 2015


In October 2014, one of the most bedeviling questions of civilized society erupted again into the cultural mainstream, but only because it was the subject of a televised argument between a stand-up comedian and an A-list movie star.

That question – what is the link between religion and violence? – has been a sore point for centuries and was at the center of the flare-up between Bill Maher and Ben Affleck on the nature of Islam. (You have to wonder if a debate between, say, Lady Gaga and Leonardo DiCaprio on the existence of anti-matter would be taken as seriously).

In a stroke of serendipity, those interested in the thread that Maher and Affleck started can now follow it directly to Karen Armstrong, one of the English-speaking world’s most prominent scholars on religion, whose new book is titled “Fields of Blood: Religion and History of Violence” (Knopf).

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Baine Street

Two creative spirits are better than one

April 5, 2015


One of the greatest frustrations of my life is my repeated failure to find a partner.

Oh, wait, I don’t mean a “life partner,” the most important kind. I got that covered. What I’m talking about is something even more rare. You might call it a “career partner.”

I had been stumbling along for years, more or less unconsciously, on this quest to find some ambiguous, indistinct person to collaborate with on some ambiguous, unnamed project. Then, I read a book called “The Powers of Two” by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Then, the unconscious became conscious.

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Matt Richtel’s crusade to stop texting while driving

April 5, 2015


On an early Friday morning in September 2006, a young man named Reggie Shaw climbed into his Chevy Tahoe for his long commute to work in Logan, Utah. Somewhere on a highway east of Logan, with the sky just beginning to lighten, Reggie veered over the yellow line and sideswiped a Saturn coming from the opposite direction. The Saturn spun out and was “T-boned” by a Ford pick-up, killing the two men riding in the Saturn.

From that tragic event comes the story at the center of Matt Richtel’s new book “A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention” (Wm. Morrow).

Reggie Shaw, it was later determined, was texting on his flip phone at the time of the accident, which he initially denied. What followed was the seminal legal case that defined the debate about texting and driving.

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