Monthly Archives: March 2015

“Just One More Hand – Life in the Casino Economy” by Ellen Mutari and Deborah Figart

Some coincidences are really strange. Consider, for example, the timing of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident – March 28, 1979. That was just twelve days after Jane Fonda’s antinuclear movie The China Syndrome was released. (The expression refers to the fact that, in theory, an out-of-control nuclear core meltdown might progress indefinitely.) That was the public weirdness.

The private weirdness, for me, was that in March of 1979 I was teaching a college course on Environmental Issues! Nuclear power was among the “issues” on the agenda, and news reports superseded my teaching plans for weeks. (Younger readers may not realize how frightening the TMI accident was. Many people had their “escape” routes planned, in case a large region had to be evacuated.) I learned so much about radiation that I think I could have passed a licensing exam for Radiation Safety Officer. The timing was one of the strangest coincidences in my life.

And now… I have been reading Just One More Hand – Life in the Casino Economy by Ellen Mutari and Deborah Figart, and what happens? The casino industry implodes. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. The bold and (somewhat) controversial plan by Stockton University to establish a campus in the former Showboat Casino has been torpedoed by a casino industry mogul. The Press of Atlantic City has all the dirty details. A project that might have been a cornerstone of redevelopment for suffering Atlantic City has been delayed. Time is money, and the plan may be dropped entirely. Stockton University is in shock.

Mutari and Figart released their book Just One More Hand about six weeks ago. It focuses on the workers in the casino industry, featuring details about the lives of several dozen casino employees. The authors interviewed these people in their homes or on neutral territory, and protected their identities through the use of pseudonyms. This is really a book about the nature of work, and the impact of work on quality of life. It is both well documented and highly readable. I hope it reaches a wide audience.

Consider what the “casino industry” represents! An illegal activity considered a serious social problem has (over about 40 years) been

  • legalized
  • organized
  • regulated
  • cultivated
  • nurtured…

and transformed into an “industry”; a branch, in fact, of the “entertainment industry”. Early on, intense efforts were made to ensure that organized crime didn’t follow gambling into AC when the first casino opened in 1978.

I am well of an age to remember when gambling was illegal. A vice. A crime. I still question its morality. Is it okay to get something for nothing? Advocates point out that participation is voluntary. I choose not to gamble.

Mutari and Figart don’t delve into the question of what came along for the ride as Atlantic City rushed down the path to being a one industry, gambling town. I wonder about drugs. About fifteen years ago, I attended meetings of the “Family Life Committee” at my son’s public school. We dealt with issues like sex education, the level of racial tension, domestic violence, and DRUGS. All the fun stuff. One parent casually referred to gambling as Atlantic City’s number two industry. He was convinced more money was changing hands over drugs than through the legal channels of the gambling industry in Atlantic City. Is this true?

I found Mutari and Figart’s chapter on public investment and risk very interesting, especially the information about Revel, the immense casino that now stands dark and empty, next to the former Showboat which Stockton so optimistically tried to repurpose. Every day the news brings an update on Revel. Is there a buyer? What will happen to the tenants? And whoever thought the mega luxury resort was a good idea?? It’s quite clear that the casino industry, shiny and new in 1978, has matured, spread, and, in fact, reached a saturation point. There was no market for Revel. A shocking amount of tax money was sucked into that black hole. Some experts refer to this as a case of “economic predation”. The money is gone. Little benefit accrued to the taxpayers.

The future of Atlantic City is a mystery. You can understand it somewhat better if you read Mutari and Figart’s excellent book, but really, all we can do is wait and see.


Kundalini Yoga – Further Reflections

I’ve decided to write a bit more about the two barriers to my further progress along the path of Kundalini yoga. If you read my recent post (March 17), you know what they are – reincarnation and the role of the guru.

I don’t believe in reincarnation. Why? First, no evidence. Nothing has ever happened in my life that requires reincarnation in order to be explained. Second, it’s not the “simplest explanation”, and I operate on the general notion that the “simplest explanation” is often correct. To me, the “simplest explanation” is that consciousness resides in our bodies and disappears with the dissolution of the body. Not comforting, but simple.

That said, is there a problem with believing in reincarnation? Yes, and it shows up in the book Kundalini. The author repeatedly asserts that our current lives reflect the problems and errors of our past lives. So if, in your current life, you are subject to poverty, injustice, disease and misfortune, it’s because of prior sins. If you are good (charitable, devout, austere) you will be born into an advantaged, Brahmin family where you will get the spiritual training that may make it possible to step off the wheel of reincarnation and achieve enlightenment. So charity is a virtue, but the problems of the poor are really their own fault. Great argument for the status quo!

I had read of low caste Hindus converting to Buddhism because the (officially illegal) caste system caused them so much misery. It is no longer legal to discriminate against the Dalit caste labeled as “untouchable”, but old patterns of behavior die hard. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions – conversions on this basis continue. From a blog post (2010): “Buddhism means I can simply say I am not a Hindu. I do not have a caste.”

So to me, a fundamental belief in reincarnation is a problem. I’m well aware that “my” contemporary American culture has its heavy burden of prejudice and discrimination, and scores of serious social problems, but I don’t feel that I should go seeking enlightenment “elsewhere”.

And why is the need for a “guru” a problem? For me, it just isn’t going to happen! People my age just don’t become devotees. I’ve seen good teachers and leaders go bad. I’m not trusting. I don’t have a priest or minister or even an elder. I rely on relatives and friends, and the occasional carefully chosen professional.

One aspect of the guru/student relationship that might be a problem would be secrecy. If a teacher is imparting “higher knowledge”, are they asking you not to share it? I would find that unacceptable.

This does NOT mean that I don’t appreciate a good teacher! At this point, I have THREE yoga teachers. All women. Each is different – very different! I value those three relationships very much.

Terry Pratchett (1948 – 2015) Rest in Peace

I just checked my shelves to see how extensively Terry Pratchett was represented. I found six hard covered books and sixteen paperbacks. Two of my favorites are missing. They are The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (which might have been my very first Terry Pratchett book) and The Wee Free Men; loaned out, no doubt, to family and friends who also love Pratchett’s zany humor.

One Pratchett character who made his way into our ongoing family chit chat was CMOT Dibbler. Yes, Cut-me-own-throat Dibbler, seller of highly suspicious meat patties. When one of us gets something “odd” in a restaurant, CMOT is mentioned.

Considering our employment at a local college, references to the irresistibly whacky Unseen University are inevitable.

It’s sad that Pratchett died at the relatively young age of 66, but beyond sad that he died of Alzheimer’s disease. Its hard to say if it was better or worse that he suffered from a form of the disease that was diagnosed while he was still entirely able to understand his grim prognosis. Pratchett looked death in the eye for years, and did so with amazing composure and strength.

Pratchett moved the discussion of death with dignity and assisted suicide into new and difficult territory. Most “aid in dying” laws, like the law in the state of Oregon, are designed in support of people with relatively short expected survival horizons, like six months. I don’t think any physician will make predictions about Alzheimer’s, as patients may live many years with the disease. And if an assisted suicide decision must be made by a person “of sound mind”, at what stage does a sufferer of Alzheimer’s cease to qualify?

I ponder these questions with particular care, because my mother died of Alzheimer’s in 1983, the same year Pratchett wrote his first Discworld novel. My mother would have loved Pratchett’s books! The Wee Free Men would have delighted her! She actively encouraged us to play “make believe”. I think maybe she believed in fairies. She might have liked the term Pratchett coined to describe his Alzheimer’s diagnosis – he called it an “embuggerance”. Pure Pratchett – if there isn’t a word for something, make one up!

So rest in peace, Sir Terry Pratchett! Thanks for all the laughter.

“Kundalini” by Vibhakar Pandya

Publisher – Shree Siddhayog Sadhan Mandal. 148 pages.

It’s hard to figure out how to write about this book, because it is different from any other book I own. It was written in Gujarati, one of the languages of India, and evidently translated into English by someone whose English was very limited. Editing and proof reading would appear to have been minimal. It’s the publishing equivalent of “folk art”, which is defined as art produced by someone with no formal training in art.

My copy of Kundalini carries a publication date of 2003 and indicates 1000 copies were printed, so it is a rarity. There’s a recent sticker inside telling me how to find a local meditation group, with a phone number and (!) web site address. I’m very grateful for this contact information, as I am considering increasing my practice of meditation, now limited to whatever a yoga teacher directs in the two or three classes I attend each week.

Within the book is information about buying a mat to use for yoga or meditation, a long list of books for sale (most available only in Gujarati) and information about a magazine. Cassette tapes are also offered.

I’m sure I could track down this author on line (and lord knows what I will find!), but before doing this, here are my impressions: This book is foreign. It comes from an ancient culture so different from my own that I feel uncertain about every word I read. Even when I understand the words on the page, I’ve no confidence that they were translated accurately, or that they may not have, say, three alternate meanings to which I have no key. It is almost incomprehensible. “Kundalini” seems to be a form of energy (strong but dangerous?), a location in the body and also a goddess. In many (most?) people, it is latent, sleeping. If it wakes up without “guidance” it is dangerous. It can bring you to enlightenment.

The list of signs of awakening Kundalini (90 items) includes manifestations ranging from the trivial (yawning during meditation) to the alarming (the whole body starts flapping or fluttering). By western standards, much of this looks like bodily disease or mental illness.

There are several assumptions built into this book. One is the belief in reincarnation. Another is that spiritual growth is entirely dependent on having a devoted master/student relationship with a teacher or guru. Both of these are problematic for me, so my further growth in the path of Kundalini based meditation will be limited.

There’s another barrier between me and this spiritual path. I don’t wish to engage in cultural appropriation. This is a term used to describe a situation where someone borrows too extensively (and perhaps insensitively) from a culture not their own. For example, consider the middle class white American who participates in a few (Native American) sweat lodges and then starts to lead them. Native people may resent having their sacred ceremonials reduced to income producing workshops. I’ve heard both sides of these arguments, and I personally feel that my understanding of Hinduism will always be incomplete and my spiritual growth may best be served by staying closer to “home”, that is, somewhere within the Judeo-Christian tradition.

That said, I can hardly express how grateful I am to the Vaikunth Hindu Jain Temple, where I take yoga classes and have occasional opportunities to learn about Hinduism and eat wonderful food. I’ll never be a candidate for membership, but I’m honored to be a guest/participant in the life of a local cultural treasure!

“Plum Lucky” by Janet Evanovich

It’s almost St. Patrick’s Day, and Irish or not, you deserve a treat! So read Plum Lucky by Janet Evanovich. Read it even if you never heard of Evanovich. In my reading diet, she is a staple. I’ve got to read something of hers every few months, to keep my sense of humor alive. Anybody who can make a career of writing about Trenton, NJ, is very special. At least to me! Jersey girls have to stick together.

Plum Lucky resides on the “Mystery” shelf at the library, along with all the other Stepanie Plum novels. It’s part of Evanovich’s holiday series, which I discovered when I found a remaindered copy Visions of Sugar Plums, a Christmas story with a supernatural twist.

The holiday novels include Stephanie’s friend Diesel, whose supernatural skills include opening locks, teleportation and magical manipulation of playing cards. Taking these skills to Atlantic City makes it even funnier.

This book includes the usual cast of zany characters (Gramma Mazur gets kidnapped and burns down a house) and Stephanie hides a horse in her apartment. It’s all too silly for words, and it was just what I needed on a rainy weekend. Fans of the Stephanie Plum novels will be happy to learn that three cars exploded and Lula got her chance to fire a rocket launcher.

Go, Janet!

“Margaret Fuller – A New American Life” by Megan Marshall

It’s been suggested that I should consistently provide the following:

  • Published 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 375 pages (text) + 95 pages (contents, illustrations, prologue, epilogue, notes, index).

It’s been over a week since I posted about a book. That’s a long time for me! The reason is that I found a book that took some time to read, and it amply rewarded my effort.

Margaret Fuller was born in 1810 and died in 1850, living in and around Boston, then New York City and finally spending four years in Europe.

SPOILER ALERT! The circumstances of Margaret Fuller’s death in 1850 were shocking and very sad. If you want to read her life story in proper order, stop now, read the book and then come back and consider my reflections.

Margaret Fuller was born just over 200 years ago. A very bright first child, she was initially educated by her father, who intended to convey to her “everything” he had learned at Harvard. She soaked it up, and later, deprived of any opportunity for college, became her own teacher of classics and languages, setting very high expectations for herself.

At the age of 25, Margaret’s father died and she took responsibility for her mother and several younger siblings. Fear of poverty shadowed her life. But Boston was in a state of intellectual ferment (the so-called New England renaissance), and Margaret, both well educated and outspoken, found a place among the Transcendentalists and other writers and thinkers of the day.

Margaret edited the new journal called The Dial and published a book Woman in the Nineteenth Century which is considered the first classic of the American feminist movement. Working for the New York Tribune, she became the first American full time writer of book reviews.

Margaret’s burning wish to travel to Europe was finally fulfilled when, at the age of 36, she accepted the position of governess in a Quaker family that toured England, spent some time in Paris, and then went to Italy.

In Rome, Margaret’s life took a turn that her New England friends and family would not have expected, and, indeed, she told them nothing about it for many months. She fell in love, bore a child, and married. Before her infant was a year old, revolution broke out in Italy. Margaret was firmly on the side of change, hoping for democracy and reform. Her husband fought in the defense of “free” Rome and Margaret worked as a nursing volunteer in a makeshift hospital.

The revolution failed, and Margaret, with her husband and child, made plans to return to Massachusetts, where she expected to support her family by writing.

Unable to afford travel on a passenger liner, they embarked on a freighter that accommodated a few passengers. Bad luck plagued the trip. The ship’s captain died. In inexperienced hands, the ship ran aground near Long Island (NY). Some crew and passengers survived, but not Margaret, her husband or their child.

What impressed me about Margaret Fuller was the way she threw herself into the issues of her times. She wrote about race, prison reform and education among many other topics.

This book by Megan Marshall is right in the “sweet spot” between popular and academic writing. This is biography at its best. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in feminism and/or American intellectual history.

Book choices in the public schools AND ELSEWHERE – personal history (3)

Two people responded to my last post on this subject (March 10, 2015), using private channels by preference.

From a friend near my age:

“I read Night as a college Freshman in 1964 or 65.  It still haunts me.   It is totally inappropriate for young readers!  I was especially horrified by it because so many of my friends growing up were Jewish and I saw it all in relation to them and their families.   Even though the next generation needs to learn about man’s inhumanity to man in an effort to teach them “Never again”, it needs to be introduced slowly so they can digest the concept.  I still find the Holocaust so terrifying that I have to keep from thinking about it too much.  I often find myself wondering would I have the courage to shelter someone who was threatened by genocide or persecution. I hope I never have to find out.”

That’s FORTY YEARS – a long, long time to remember a book. Teachers and parents, be warned!

From a young adult a few years older than my son, who (if you did the math) was twelve when I questioned assignment of the books Night and Deathwatch.

“I remember reading Deathwatch and wondering why it was a kid’s book, but it didn’t particularly upset me, probably because the good guy won, and in fact he did it without killing the antagonist.  Mostly I remember the hero eating raw lizards.  Funnily enough, I just saw that this is being made into a movie, for the second time apparently. (Apparently Andy Griffith played the bad guy in the first movie, which seems weird to me.) I suppose Deathwatch could have disturbed me if the bad guy won, or succeeded in framing the good guy, as was briefly threatened.

And I guess that goes to your point, kids can be upset by what they read, and I don’t think it’s censorship to question whether a good plan for teaching something and dealing with that exists.  It’s hard to predict, too.  Some of the Greek myths used to scare the hell out of me.”

And a final memory while we are on the topic of who should read what:

I read To Kill a Mockingbird around 1964. I don’t remember whether it was assigned for school, or if my sister brought it home from college. What I remember is that my mother decided that my grandmother should not read it! Gramma was, indeed, a Victorian lady, and I can’t imagine how she would have reacted to it, both in terms of content (rape and racial violence) and in terms of my relative youth (age 14 or so). Gramma was a semi invalid, walking little and with great difficulty. She read everything she could get her hands on. My mother saw her with To Kill a Mockingbird and simply walked up and said “Sorry, I need that book. Alice has to have it for school.” And that was that. Poor Gramma! Back to the Reader’s Digest. The sad thing is that I don’t remember anyone, ever, asking Gramma’s opinion about what she read.

Book choices in the public schools – personal history (2)

Entirely by accident and quite to my surprise, I found (on my computer) the reply I received from my son’s teacher when I “intervened” in the matter of a book that my son was assigned to read for school. So now I know the details I left out of my post dated March 5, 2015.

Here’s some context: Due to a medical catastrophe, my son missed several months of school at the beginning of 7th grade. He resumed classes gradually, and I was at the school daily, since he couldn’t ride the bus. I was much more aware of his classroom experience than before. My heightened level of involvement continued for several years.

The book I challenged was Night by Elie Wiesel. I had not read it. I still have not read it.

It is described on as “a candid, horrific, and deeply poignant autobiographical account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps.” It includes “a litany of the daily terrors, everyday perversions, and rampant sadism at Auschwitz and Buchenwald”. There is nothing to suggest that this is a book for younger readers.

So… who decided this belonged in 7th grade, being read by 12 year olds? Is the average middle school teacher of language arts equipped to teach it? What kind of support does a 12 year old need when being introduced to the Holocaust? Any group of 12 year olds has vulnerable members, some not recognized as such. And, as I mentioned in my earlier post, local families were experiencing troop deployment, the early mobilization for the Iraq War.

My son’s teacher and her supervisor kindly substituted other reading matter for the class.

Another book had apparently triggered my watchful radar – Deathwatch by Robb White. At least it was intended for the Young Adult audience. It received an American Library Association award. Amazon describes it as “An exciting novel of suspense, based on a fight to the finish between an honest and courageous young man and a cynical business tycoon.” Even assuming that “finish” means death, at least the reader is spared perversion and sadism. It was selected for the Battle of the Books, an activity about which I remember nothing. Evidently I agreed my son could read the book, or perhaps he had already done so. I don’t recall any further discussion.

So… was I right to get involved when I did? I’m not big on censorship or banning books, but a 12 year old is not an adult. What do you think?

“The Sunday Philosophy Club” series by Alexander McCall Smith

It’s been two weeks since I posted about reading a book! What’s going on? There are books all over the house…

I went on an unusual (for me) binge of reading a single author, namely Alexander McCall Smith. I limited myself to the Sunday Philosophy Club series, aka the “Isabel Dalhousie” series. These books have charm! I enjoy them for several reasons.

Isabel Dalhousie is a delightful heroine – wealthy, scholarly, and kind. Her character flaw is a tendency to get involved in other people’s business. I’ve read six books in the eight book series. At this point, she feels like a distant relative, the kind that can be counted on to send a card every Christmas.

The library categorizes these books as mysteries, but Isabel is (usually) not out solving crimes. She deals in ethical dilemmas. What is one person’s obligation to another? How should neighbors and families live together? Fittingly, she is editor of a Journal of Applied Ethics.

The books are linked by the “super” plot of Isabel’s love life. Her sweetheart is a handsome young musician, fourteen years her junior. Initially, he dates Isabel’s niece, a young and restless woman who seems to have a new boyfriend every month. This family drama is in counterpoint to much of Isabel’s highly rational and organized life.

McCall Smith uses these books to offer his opinions about art, literature and culture in Scotland. I don’t, by any means, catch all his literary references, but I have fun trying. Maybe I’ll check out the poetry of W H Auden, whom Isabel quotes frequently. In one book, he takes a swipe at “the trolley problem”, an annoying preoccupation of certain academic philosophers.

Another point in favor of these books is that the series takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was fortunate enough to visit there almost 20 years ago. So much about the city appealed to me!

I’m saving the last two books in the series for my next train trip or serious head cold. Why take a chance on the unknown when I know exactly where to find a book that is both comfortable and intelligent?

McCall Smith has written dozens of books – several series of novels, children’s books and law textbooks. I’d like to look at some of his earliest work and the novels that aren’t in his series. Who knows what I’ll find?! I hope McCall Smith keeps on writing. I will certainly keep reading!

Book choices in the public schools – personal history

Writing about Divergent and my reservations about its use in schools made me remember the one and only time I contacted a local school about a book on the curriculum. The details aren’t all that clear. It would help if I could remember which son, which grade and which school!

I think the book was Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, which I admit to not having read. Holocaust fiction for Young Adults.

Part of the problem was timing – 2003. We had only begun to process September 11, 2001. The United States plunging into the Iraq war. A local National Guard unit was being deployed, and families were stressed. I couldn’t see trying to explain the Holocaust to early teens when they were also dealing with parents leaving to fight and newspaper reports about American casualties.

(So it must have been my younger son…)

The teacher I contacted accepted my logic. The curriculum allowed some choice on the part of teachers, and, in my son’s class, a collection of classical Greek myths (violent, some of them, but safely distant) was substituted.

I believe that “holocaust education” is required by the State of New Jersey, and some of this is accomplished through the use of fiction. This leads to my other problem with the Number the Stars.

WHY FICTION? Don’t the facts stand on their own? There is considerable documentation about the Holocaust. Couldn’t a true story be offered?

I’m a very literal person. Maybe too literal?

My advice to parents – read every book assigned to your child. You’ll find some to love, and maybe some to question. If you ever decided to attempt an intervention, I would really like to hear about it!