Sickness was a major part of early American life. Many people suffered from poor health their whole lives.
But scientifically valid medical knowledge was limited. The world in 1820 was not a much more comfortable place to fall ill than it had been two hundred years earlier. No one knew about germs or the significance of human contact or insects in spreading disease. Medical theory of the time held that sickness resulted from a body out of balance. It was an idea that went back hundreds of years to Roman physician Galen in the 2nd century. To restore balance, mainstream doctors bled, blistered, and sweated patients to large and often painful degrees. They administered large doses of drugs like calomel, a form of mercury, to purge patients. Doctors chose treatments that caused quick and drastic changes in a patient’s condition, which could be interpreted as progress. Though well-intentioned, these mainstream treatments also caused as much, if not more, pain than the sickness itself. As a result, doctors could rarely offer sick Americans a medical means of getting better.
Taking inspiration from the 30 Days of Love campaign that we wrote about earlier this week, we're redefining love this year to mean something larger, more humanitarian, something that can encompass fellowship, art, justice, and beauty.
Sonia Sanchez has done just that in her collection Morning Haiku, a collection pulsing with life and music and raw humanity. And it is full of the simple wonderment of poetry, as she describes in the book's preface, meditating on the power of the haiku, “It's something to find yourself in a poem—to discover the beauty that i knew resided somewhere....” It might be tempting to focus on the aural similarity of “morning” to “mourning” in the title, and indeed several of the poems are tributes to departed friends, artists, and musicians. But Sanchez knows that real beauty is complex, deep enough to contain both loss and renewal, and that duality is where life, hence love, resides.
Recently, a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in northern Michigan selected Rabbi Chava Bahle to serve as their new leader. While other rabbis have worked in UU congregations before, this is apparently the first time a rabbi will lead a UU community. I knew that Rabbi Chava has been on the forefront of clergy working with interfaith families. And as the Jewish author of a book from a UU publisher, I was particularly interested in hearing about Rabbi Chava’s journey so far, and her thoughts on leading a UU community.
Susan Katz Miller:I know your selection did not come out of the blue. Tell us about your history with this particular UU congregation.
Rabbi Chava Bahle: For both the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse (UUCGT) and for me, this was a relationship-based process. They were not seeking a rabbi “in general.” I have lived in northern Michigan for just over 20 years. Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher, the UUCGT’s first minister, is my dear friend. I got to know her community and its deep commitment to social justice and interfaith welcoming. I would often “guest preach” when Rev. Belcher and her successors were away or on vacation. The local Jewish congregation I founded and the UUCGT often worked side by side on issues of social justice. Over the 20 years of guest preaching and partnering in social justice work, the UUCGT and I formed an ongoing bond with each other.
This week is the final week of this year's 30 Days of Love, a project sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association that aims to "harness love’s power to stop oppression" through a combination of community activism and outreach. The annual effort is an outgrowth of Standing on the Side of Love, a movement that began in the aftermath of a tragedy: In 2008, two Unitarian Universalists were killed and several more seriously injured in a church shooting in Knoxville, Tennessee. Targeted because of their "liberal" values of acceptance, the congregation was flooded with support and messages of love from the greater Knoxville community, cementing the movement's core idea that love is the key to overpowering oppression.
At Beacon Press, we make it our daily mission to publish books that explore deeply the complex issues of social justice, civil rights, equality, and other humanitarian causes. To that purpose we have published over the years a number of landmark titles by writers, thinkers, poets, activists, and historians who have collectively worked to reshape, to broaden and enrich what we consider to be Black History in America. For us as for them, Black History is more than an annual blip on the news cycle. But we do think of it as an opportunity to take stock of the tremendous achievements that have been made over time, as well as a reminder to contemplate the serious work still left to be done.
On November 26th, two trailblazing Beacon authors, Cornel West and Bill Ayers, stopped by our offices. Ayers' new book, Public Enemy: Confessions of An American Dissident, had recently been published and, although he was concluding a whirlwind 22 city tour, he was astonishingly energized.
I understand the United States is having one of those big sports moments when football fans come together to eat their favorite foods and see who will become champion. I believe it’s tradition that football and crunchy snacks go together. Why? That’s a question too big for an answer. Unfortunately, and especially when children are involved, the temptation is to get that satisfying crunch from chips, or some other form of convenience (i.e.: junk) food.
I admit I have been known to hover too eagerly over the potato chip bowl at children’s birthday parties and other events. But I like it when there’s a platter of something perhaps a little more wholesome available as an alternative or just in addition to all the other food.
So what if you like football, you like crunchy snacks, but you don’t really want junk food?
In his 2014 State of the Union address President Obama announced that that he will direct the Department of Treasury to create a new retirement savings plan for workers who do not have 401(k)s. Called My Retirement Account or MyRA, it will allow them to purchase savings bonds with guaranteed rates of interest through automatic payroll deductions. He introduced the program by enjoining, “let’s do more to help Americans save for retirement.”
Creation of the MyRAs is recognition of the growing retirement crisis facing Americans. But rather than delivering substantive relief, it is at best a token response and in doing so perpetuates the very myths and fallacies that caused the crisis.
For many of us, the State of the Union is more than just an opportunity for President Obama to publicly frame his policy priorities for the year. It's a moment when all the hopes, struggles, fears, and anticipation of the nation's citizenry crystallize, a moment of reflection and national self-reckoning. And coming after a year of unprecedented congressional gridlock, when continual attacks on the Affordable Care Act resulted in a shutdown of the federal government, and when Edward Snowden exposed the NSA's horrifying breach of public trust, there seems to be a particular urgency associated with this year's address among those who will feel most its repercussions. For those of us in such circumstances, tonight's address is anything more than just a speech.
To that end, we asked a few of our authors, engaged citizens themselves, to speak on behalf of those caught in the political crossfire. What follows is what we hope to hear from our President and what we are afraid we will not hear, both tonight and moving forward into the contested future.
During the early days of my life in Rome, before I had a child, when there was just my husband James and I getting to know our new home by walking all over the city, eating in little restaurants, learning to cook by shopping in our local market, among my first impressions of life in this city was the pleasure people seemed to take in the simplest of meals. The anxieties that I often felt about eating, about making healthy choices melted away in the presence of all this delight in food. Objectively, much of the food could be considered healthy—the bean soups, the bitter greens—but health wasn’t the objective. James observed that we as outsiders could never completely understand the deep joy the Italians around us experienced when presented with a plate of pasta. A good fresh plate of ravioli with sage and butter continually reminds them of their own lives, their own history; it is a part of who they are.
So when some friends suggested that we spend a Saturday cooking dinner together with our children, I felt it was a good opportunity for my son to see how this attitude toward food is passed to another generation.
“[Students] are in reality standing up for the best in the American dream. . . . One day historians will record this student movement as one of the most significant epics of our heritage.” —from “The Time for Freedom Has Come”
In the fall of 2011, some of our staff at Beacon, Random House, and the literary representative for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Estate brought together a blue-ribbon panel of educators, including teachers, librarians, and administrators to discuss how to better teach Dr. King in 21st century classrooms. The first question we asked was whether teachers wanted books, and their response surprised and gratified us. One by one, they responded with a unanimous yes. “Students respect books,” remarked one educator. Others lamented about the mass amounts of incorrect information and untrusted resources online. One teacher even brought in a mess of photocopied pages from various websites, frustrated that this was how she was forced to teach Dr. King’s work in her classes.
Members of the King Legacy Teachers Summit discussing ideas for bringing Dr. King to the classroom.
President Obama took the stage today to discuss the ongoing NSA scandal and call for broad reform and oversight of the NSA's phone data collection program exposed by the Edward Snowden leaks. During his address, we were again reminded of the fragile balance between national security and civil liberty that's played out in one form or another throughout the relatively short history of our country. While the current NSA revelations likely constitute the largest, most brazen incursion into the privacy of US citizens yet discovered, the justification behind many of the programs that Snowden exposed—justifications echoed yet again in Obama's speech today—are continuations of forces and motivations that began in the nascent days of the country and have changed very little throughout the years, despite explosive advances in communications technology.
Editor's Note: Jeannie Marshall's new book, The Lost Art of Feeding Kids, tells the lively story of raising a child to enjoy real food in a processed world, and shows the importance of maintaining healthy food culture. Available now from Beacon Press. See below for more information.
It’s winter in Rome. When I was growing up in Canada, winter was something you braced yourself for (and having just spent the holidays in Toronto, I remember why). But winter in Rome is a gentle season. There is a little rain, a little sun, and it gets just cold enough to make soup. In January when I ask people what they’re having for dinner, the answer most often is “a little minestra.” It’s a simple, warming, comforting, traditional vegetable soup that can include beans and pasta. I think it turns up on the table so often in January because it’s light fare after all the December excess, it’s economical because it uses up the vegetables in your fridge, and yet it’s still substantial and satisfying. While there is a method for making a good minestra, there isn’t an exact recipe. My son will tell you that it must include zucchini flowers because the first minestra he helped to make at his preschool included them. He still believes they are the secret ingredient in a superior soup. But the slow cooked soup blends the flavors of the vegetables, rather than singling out any individually, into something that is at once distinctly minestra and at the same time slightly different from every other minestra.
Minestra is a way to use up that last quarter of a cabbage, the last zucchini or two sitting in your crisper drawer, even the stems from swiss chard, the cauliflower core, the broccoli stalk, and certainly one of the many parmesan rinds that seem to breed in the tiny freezers of Italian refrigerators. I know some home cooks who save the less beautiful pieces of their vegetables during the week to make a minestra on the weekend.
In 1990, health researchers estimated that one in one hundred US women has done some form of sex work during her lifetime. And yet, despite sex work being legal in fifty nations including Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Macau, the Netherlands, Austria, New Zealand, Israel, France, Germany, and England, the United States continues to be one of the few industrialized nations to criminalize prostitution. More than that, the US has actively worked to keep sex workers marginalized, and these discriminatory practices have placed them in harm's way.
The dangers, unfortunately, are quite real. As gentrification pushed people in the sex trades and street economy out of city centers, zoning laws and “move along” ordinances have forced sex workers into isolated areas where they—and other marginalized people—are more susceptible to abuse by police and violent criminals. In the last four decades alone, more than 3,000 women who were or were perceived to be sex workers were killed by serial murderers. Criminologist Kenna Quinet identified 502 male serial murderers active in the United States between 1970 and 2009; she also identified 3,228 of their female victims. Nearly one-third (32 percent) had been engaged in sex work or street-based trades.
We've all heard the horror stories of early medicine, which seems to have taken cues from a Medieval torture how-to book: bloodletting (leeches, anyone?), trepanning, using mercury to treat anything...the list goes on. What you might not know is that many of our current medicinal practices derive from rather curious sources. Erika Janik's Markeplace of the Marvelous, which is now available, documents the strange, sometimes bizarre paths that contemporary medicine took on its way to becoming the modern scientific practice we know it to be today. Here are a few facts that might surprise you about the origins of modern medicine:
Unlike their counterparts in other industrialized countries, abortion providers in the United States don’t simply perform abortions. Because of all the ramifications of the abortion wars in this country—the restrictions on the use of public funds, the scarcity of facilities that are able (or, in the case of hospitals, willing) to perform abortions for sicker women, and, most crucially, the overrepresentation of the poorest women in America in the population of abortion recipients—U.S. providers have become de facto social workers, fundraisers, and travel agents, to name just a few of their ancillary roles.
Ask a publishing professional what they're currently reading and you'll often get one of those harried, annoyed-yet-apologetic looks that speaks to the great gap between ambition and actuality. The tragedy of publishing is that we're all drawn to the profession from an innate love of reading, yet have precious little time of our own to read as much as we'd like to. Or so the thinking goes.
To test the theory, we recently asked our colleagues for a list of their favorite reads from 2013, a kind of alternative to the definitiveness—and startling sameness—of the “Best of” lists that clutter our newsfeeds at the end of every year. Expecting apologies, we instead got a diverse, vibrant list of books that spans genres and sensibilities, and brings together the kind of richly imagined, evocative elements that remind us why we fell in love with reading to begin with: A professional cyclist kicked out of the sport, a cigar smoking dragon, a Greek chorus of gay men lost to AIDS, a boyhood marred by abuse, a bullying presidency, Albert Einstein, the poetry of quietude, and so much more. Who could argue with a list like that?
We hope you enjoy these highlights from our year in reading as much as we enjoyed reading the books they came from.
The War on Christmas has emerged once again as the right wing's favorite imaginary battle. Bill O'Reilly, the endlessly yammering Sarah Palin, and Fox news have rolled out the old "Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas" fight.
You might be interested to know that the John Birch Society was front and center in manufacturing the whole idea of this war on Christmas.
My parents were John Birch Society members #1 and #2 in Chicago and they'd embraced the new organization with everything they had—including their 13 year old daughter (me).
The snow burying my car this week had me dreaming of Miami, where I was lucky enough to spend four days late last month. I went for the 30th annual Miami Book Fair International, certainly the most exhilarating literary event of the year, and a rare opportunity for me to catch up with some of our own writers plus a few good friends I don’t see often enough. Beacon had four authors presenting this year, representing the range of our list and giving me the chance to hang out in the expansive author reception lounge, where chefs in toques offered breakfast, lunch, and endless tasty snacks.
Children sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890) by Jacob Riis
All last week, the New York Times ran a five-part series on homelessness focusing on an eleven-year-old African American girl named Dasani (after the water), who has lived almost a quarter of her life in a homeless shelter with her mother, stepfather, and seven brothers and sisters. In Hollywood versions of such stories focusing on poverty and homelessness, like the 2006 hit The Pursuit of Happyness staring Will Smith and his son Jaden, there is a family at the center of the film for whom we are rooting because they are good people with unquestionable values and strong family bonds. The father in the story is homeless, yes, and raising his son in a shelter, but he is smart, credentialed, hardworking, decent, and a creative and compassionate parent. He ends up charming his way into an executive training program and at the end of the film is rewarded with the financial security we are clear he worked for. He was poor but noble, educated and hard working.
Dasani and her family are not like this. Her mother is unemployed and doesn’t even have a GED, much less a college degree, and she isn’t going to be in anyone’s executive training program because she doesn’t know how to use a computer. She is prone to drug addiction and was raised in much the same situation as she is raising her children. Dasani’s father is an on-again, off-again drug addict who doesn’t work either, and together their parenting skills are the type that serially put social service agencies on alert. It’s not clear that these poor people didn’t mostly bring this circumstance on themselves.