Pink Martini for the holidays

Wonderful news, chil­dren! Pink Martini—the irre­press­ibly cre­ative, lounge-​​y band from Portland—has released a new hol­i­day album, Joy to the World. From NPR:

As a group who “vowed never to do a hol­i­day album,” says [pianist Thomas] Lauderdale, inter­est from Starbucks helped con­vince the band otherwise.

Everyone sat down and wrote a list of their favorite Christmas songs,” [vocal­ist China] Forbes says, “It was a fun process, because it wasn’t like the pres­sure of writ­ing an album full of songs. It was like culling from your child­hood favorites.”

A num­ber of songs on the holiday-​​themed album are taken from other coun­tries or are sung in lan­guages other than English. Some come entirely from dif­fer­ent cul­tures, includ­ing a Ukrainian bell choir, a Chinese New Year song and one track spo­ken in Ladino, an ancient lan­guage used by Sephardic Jews in the 15th century.

My favorite songs on the album are “We Three Kings” (I’m a sucker for the line that goes “Oh, star of won­der, star of light, star of royal beauty bright”)and the Ladino song “Ocho Kandelikas,” (sung by NPR’s Ari Shapiro). Also, the last song on the album, “Auld Lang Syne” done samba–style. It’s awfully catchy, with the cho­rus sung in English, French, and Arabic. It’s a good bet you’ll have heard it a hun­dred times before New Year’s Day arrives (espe­cially if you ever stop in Starbucks). Go get it (at Amazon, or iTunes) and start your count­down now.

Hunkering down

The Obama admin­is­tra­tion appears to be hun­ker­ing down for a long fight to defend its health care law. The fight will sap the administration’s energy just as it pre­pares for a reelec­tion campaign.

A pair of fed­eral judges are hint­ing that they may strike down part of the 900-plus–page law. Earlier this week, the admin­is­tra­tion reminded one of the judges he only had to strike down part of the law if he ruled that some por­tion of the law was uncon­sti­tu­tional. The administration’s lawyers help­fully sug­gested that if the mandatory-​​coverage pro­vi­sion had to go, the guaranteed-​​issue and community-​​rating pro­vi­sions would too, but not the pro­vi­sions like those for “improv­ing women’s health” and “improv[ing] demen­tia and abuse pre­ven­tion train­ing.” (More on that later.)

The health-​​care law has proved unpop­u­lar. Republicans and Democrats both think that it was key in the GOP’s vic­tory in the House and win­ning a larger pres­ence in the Senate. That’s why Republicans are falling over them­selves to repeal some or all of the act when the new mem­bers take their seats in January.

Facing down law­suits from 20 states—plus more when newly-​​elected offi­cials opposed to the health-​​care law are sworn in—can’t be an excit­ing prospect for the admin­is­tra­tion. Although it will surely empha­size the law’s more-​​popular pro­vi­sions, this is not a sub­ject that the admin­is­tra­tion needs in the head­lines as it crafts its argu­ment that it deserves another 4 years.

Seniors or sensibility

For all the Tea Party’s earnest hopes about reduc­ing the deficit and achiev­ing a low-​​tax bal­anced bud­get, the Republican Party can’t sur­vive with­out seniors’ votes. But any respon­si­ble plan for cor­rect­ing the government’s bud­get future must change seniors’ enti­tle­ments. Which makes it hard to see how Republicans can please seniors, their most loyal sup­port­ers, and Tea Partiers, the the newest mem­bers of the GOP coali­tion and the ones that put the party over the top in this month’s election.

David Frum points out that the deficit com­mis­sion pro­posal is already fac­ing bit­ter oppo­si­tion from the likes of Sean Hannity, who summed up the proposal:

First, they want to increase the Federal Gas Tax rate start­ing in 2013 by 15 cents per gal­lon. Next they pro­pose increas­ing the Social Security retire­ment age. Now third, the com­mis­sion is call­ing for cuts in both Social Security and Medicare ben­e­fits. . . . And we’re going to means test [Social Security ben­e­fits] so you’ve got to pay your whole life, and if you paid your whole life, you’re going to—we’re going to con­fis­cate it basically.

As Frum explains,

What we see in today’s GOP is a party whose ide­ol­ogy (lim­ited gov­ern­ment) and whose con­stituency (the biggest recip­i­ents of domes­tic gov­ern­ment spend­ing) are sharply at vari­ance. That vari­ance is not a sus­tain­able sit­u­a­tion. In fact, it’s not sustained.

Cracking the nut of seniors’ oppo­si­tion to key changes is dif­fi­cult,  but absolutely nec­es­sary. Part of the solu­tion is already in the com­mis­sion chairmen’s pro­posal: make the changes grad­ual, so that peo­ple at or near retire­ment don’t get the rug pulled out from beneath them. For exam­ple, the chair­men pro­pose to raise the retire­ment age, but only by one month every two years, and only after the retire­ment age is sched­uled to increase to 67 (in about 2025). If seniors can be con­vinced that the bud­get will not be bal­anced on their backs, then they can help fix the fis­cal cri­sis that looms over the country.

Edmund White’s My Lives

Edmund White is gay. If you’re not famil­iar with him—and I wasn’t until recently—this is the first thing you’ll notice about him in his mem­oir My Lives. You’ll notice other things, too: his name-​​dropping, over-​​sharing, and devout hedo­nism. These traits are unavoid­able in the con­text of White’s inter­est­ing life, described in vivid, con­ver­sa­tional prose.

Rather than walk­ing through his life from birth to present, White gives us the­matic chap­ters. This for­mat gives us more insight into White’s view of him­self than a timeline-​​bound for­mat. For exam­ple, the first chap­ter  con­cerns his shrinks from child­hood through adult­hood. The chapter’s promi­nence sug­gests that he learned intro­spec­tion early and kept up the prac­tice. His par­tic­u­lar intro­spec­tion was closely tied to his own homo­sex­u­al­ity, which his ther­a­pists saw as sick. Though he would later embrace “the gay,” he agreed with his ther­a­pists then, and his strongly self-​​critical streak shows itself through White’s book and life.

And just as with the first chap­ter, the sec­ond (“My Father”) and third (“My Mother”) out­line patterns—difficulty with ’50s-​​style mas­culin­ity and more-​​friendly-​​than-​​maternal inter­ac­tions with women—that per­sist through later chap­ters. These themes build upon each other, cul­mi­nat­ing in the much-​​foreshadowed final chap­ter, “My Friends,” where White waxes about a series of more and less famous friends, rep­re­sent­ing the cap­stone of life lived by a boy who just wants to be noticed, irre­spec­tive of love or hate.

White does man­age to elide por­tions of his life that he would rather not share, but he doesn’t appear to be hold­ing much back. He goes into very pre­cise detail about gay expe­ri­ences. From sexually-​​charged child­hood games to pay­ing for tricks (and being paid for being one), the reader gets an awful lot of dirt on the author. (Depending on one’s curios­ity, pro­cliv­ity, or dig­nity, the chap­ter on White’s year-​​long rela­tion­ship with a much younger S&M mas­ter should be either devoured or avoided with relish.)

My Lives depicts the absorb­ing path of a gay man who lived through the clos­eted 1950s, the free-​​spirited but bour­geois mod­ern gay life, and every libidi­nous period in between. If that’s the sort of thing that inter­ests you, then White’s book is for you.

Pro-​​life and pro–gay-marriage?

Eve Tushnet, a celi­bate, les­bian Catholic, points out that “there are strong indi­ca­tions that young adults increas­ingly sup­port gay mar­riage, and weaker indi­ca­tions that they are increas­ingly pro-​​life.” She says the (slight) increase in pro-​​life sup­port comes from see­ing fetuses in sono­grams. Similarly, gay mar­riage sup­port comes from know­ing gay peo­ple. Familiarly leads young adults view the issues as ques­tions of fair­ness. Young adults can see them­selves in the fetus or the gay per­son, so they don’t want to treat them differently.

But, Tushnet argues, the sup­port for these “con­tra­dic­tory” posi­tions has a weak basis. Pro-​​life posi­tions are only safe when Roe v. Wade keeps abor­tion restric­tions to things like parental noti­fi­ca­tion and wait­ing peri­ods. Take away Roe, and hor­ror sto­ries about ille­gal abor­tions win.

Gay-​​marriage sup­port is shal­low for a dif­fer­ent rea­son. That sup­port comes from the idea that gays are the same as straights, but

[t]he norms and cul­ture of mar­riage arose to meet the needs of het­ero­sex­ual cou­ples: to min­i­mize the dam­age of unreg­u­lated inter­course and max­i­mize the great social good of chil­drea­r­ing within the nat­ural family.

I have to dis­agree. Marriage has been many dif­fer­ent things. Stephanie Coontz’ Marriage, a History, showed that prop­erty and power were the main ratio­nales for mar­riage for most of his­tory. It was only a cou­ple cen­turies ago that love became impor­tant for mar­riage. Now, love has elim­i­nated the other ratio­nales for mar­riage. You can argue whether that’s good or bad—I think it’s bad or maybe neu­tral, Coontz thinks it’s good. But it means that today peo­ple don’t get mar­ried to reg­u­late inter­course (Let’s just call it sex?) or to ensure chil­drea­r­ing within a nat­ural fam­ily. Expanding mar­riage to include lov­ing gay cou­ples makes sense when gay love is equal to straight love. If that’s the equa­tion, gay mar­riage should win. (And that’s why it is winning.)

But that doesn’t mean I think Tushnet is all wrong. To the con­trary: it’s dandy for love to be such an impor­tant thing in mar­riage, but that means that the sex-​​regulation and the chil­drea­r­ing get shoved out to No Man’s Land. There’s no short­age of advice on sex or chil­drea­r­ing, but we no longer have an insti­tu­tion that auto­mat­i­cally trig­gers new sets of oblig­a­tions and respon­si­bil­i­ties. Maybe it’s time for a new insti­tu­tion? But of course, new soci­etal insti­tu­tions develop organ­i­cally, so you can’t just order one up on your Social Planning App.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

The Road is Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-​​winning 2006 novel about a man and his son sur­viv­ing in a post-​​apocalyptic dystopia. A spare, nerve-​​wracking, often fright­en­ing tale, it’s the sort of book you can’t put down but want to, lest the images invade your night­mares. But in the end, though the plot is relent­lessly bleak, McCarthy is telling a valu­able story about the power of moral stead­fast­ness in the face of dan­ger and starvation.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthyI didn’t choose to read The Road. That is, some­one else in my book club chose it, and I went along with the choice because That’s What You Do in Book Club. McCarthy has a rep­u­ta­tion for grip­ping, vio­lent works, not nor­mally Yours Truly’s cup of tea. (He wrote No Country for Old Men, the book that inspired the 2007 movie—I haven’t par­taken of either of those.) I warned my fel­low book-​​clubbers that I was liable to stop the book if it got too gory. I was ready to stop halfway. But after I looked up the syn­op­sis on Wikipedia, I was sat­is­fied that I wouldn’t totally hate the rest of the book, so I fin­ished it, and I’m glad I did.

The novel’s name­less pro­tag­o­nists jour­ney along a road in an unrec­og­niz­able America where noth­ing lives or grows. Nothing, that is, except for the humans who can get to the dwin­dling food stores left behind in aban­doned homes and the occa­sional fall­out shel­ter. And the heinous gangs of brig­ands who sur­vive through cannibalism.

One reviewer believed that The Road was “the most impor­tant envi­ron­men­tal book ever,” because its bleak vision of the future could stir read­ers to avoid eco­log­i­cal holo­caust. That’s good and well, and per­haps even true, but to me it misses the point. The ashen set­ting that McCarthy so aptly por­trayed is just that, a set­ting. The man and boy’s resolve to sur­vive, and to sur­vive with­out eat­ing other humans—the barest min­i­mum of civ­i­liza­tion, and prob­a­bly the most essen­tial instance of the golden rule—are more pow­er­ful “teach­ing moments.” In his review, Ron Charles sug­gested that, despite a McCarthy’s weak­ness in depict­ing women (“Most middle-​​school boys have a more nuanced under­stand­ing of the oppo­site sex than McCarthy demon­strates in his fic­tion, and he does noth­ing to alter that impres­sion here.”), the novel’s lessons about “innate good­ness” and the “sim­ple beauty of this hero’s love for his son” are “profound.”

I agree. The book engaged me and pro­voked deep thoughts about liv­ing in extremis. Is sur­vival worth­while when the world is bar­ren and most evey­one you meet is a sav­age bar­bar­ians? Are any prin­ci­ples bind­ing when sur­vival is on the line? Do prin­ci­ples mat­ter when there is no soci­ety to speak of? McCarthy implies his own answers to these ques­tions through the pro­tag­o­nists, while show­ing that the cal­cu­lus of prin­ci­pled sur­vival can be harsh and unpleas­ant. If you have a strong-​​enough stom­ach for that sort of book, I rec­om­mend The Road.