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I love Sunday mornings, which I ritually begin with a trip outside with the dog and return with the Sunday Chicago Tribune. Then I plop down on the couch with a cup of coffee and tackle the crossword puzzle. After that’s out of the way, I read the paper nearly cover to cover. Imagine my surprise and confusion yesterday morning when the Parade magazine (a tabloid-style rag with celebrity news, no-brainer, recycled tips on staying healthy and fit, and an inspirational celebrity cover story) slipped out from the plastic-sleeved advertising packet. On the cover was a picture of Benazir Bhutto with the headline, “I Am What The Terrorists Most Fear” and the question, “Is Benazir Bhutto America’s best hope against al-Qaeda?”

My first reaction was one of confusion. I mean, hadn’t she been assassinated more than a week before? Had there been some kind of mistake? With a furrowed brow I flipped to the story and scanned it for some kind of explanation. Nothing. The writer of the piece, Gail Sheehy, refers to Bhutto as a “riddle of a woman” who is “brilliant, beautiful, fearless [and] also ruthlessly ambitious, devious and corrupt” (never mind that those who accused her of corruption were likely corrupt themselves). When Sheehy feels that Bhutto is seeking pity, she states that she “moans” and “whimpers…As if on cue, tears fall.” Bhutto isn’t surprised by the author’s suggestion of corruption; according to Sheehy, she “feigns surprise.” A big, blown-up quote states, “‘She will work with anyone to get back into power,’ says her own niece” (she’s the daughter of Bhutto’s slain brother, and she blames Bhutto for his death). Sheehy explains that “Bhutto’s own family dismisses her little-girl lost script. ‘Her father’s death was enormously convenient for her politically,’ her American-educated niece, Fatima Bhutto, tells me. ‘She has no legacy of her own so she rests on her father’s laurels.'”

The article goes on and on with disparaging and highly subjective remarks (Bhutto’s supposed manipulation of Musharraf was “true to form,” as if Sheehy knows her well enough to judge such a thing) and repeatedly uses her obviously hostile niece as a source of slanderous quotes. I was floored by the article’s lack of journalistic integrity. The entire piece was condescending, judgmental and only addressed its stated question at the very end, when Sheehy explained that Bhutto might be a more effective partner than Musharraf in cooperating with the U.S. and NATO on the war on terror. The rest was subjective fluff, never giving the reader any meaningful insight into her life (other than mentioning her father’s execution), what led her to her place in it, or any sense of what she represented in the minds of the Pakistani people.

By this point I had assumed that Parade magazine goes to press long in advance of the 400 papers it supplements, and that it made the editorial decision to distribute the magazine anyway. This assumption proved to be correct and very troubling. On NPR, Parade’s publisher Randy Siegel said that getting Parade out is “not like publishing a daily newspaper. It’s simply different.” While noting that pulling the magazine would have cost millions of dollars, he said the primary motivation for going ahead with distributing the unchanged issue was that, “what Benazir Bhutto had to say should be heard, and this story deserved to be told.”

This raises two issues. First, if publishing Parade magazine is “simply different,” in terms of quick and timely publication, then it should not cover stories that could be time-sensitive. Benazir Bhutto was the victim of numerous assassination attempts, and it was well known that she traveled in the open with woefully inadequate security. A lot could, and obviously did, happen in the week leading up to the elections in Pakistan. Second, the article was not about what Benazir Bhutto had to say so much as it was what Gail Sheehy had to say about Bhutto. Siegel’s explanation rings false to me.

With a ten day lead time, the article should have been edited to reflect her death, her legacy and her impact on Pakistan and the world. I’d love to have been a fly on the boardroom wall when Parade was making its decision not to pull the magazine, to pretend that it was about anything other than money. I deeply suspect, however, that if the article had been about John F. Kennedy or an as-yet assassination of a prominent American politician, Parade would not have dreamed of publishing a similar and unedited cover story.

Besides the obvious disrespect for Bhutto and her family, and for accurate and timely journalism, the article confused many, many people. The tiny editor’s note on the second page corner of the newspaper (not Parade magazine – it was the newspaper editors who took on the onus of informing their readers that something was amiss with a magazine they did not publish) did nothing to mitigate the initial shock of seeing Bhutto referred to in the present tense. The article was not flattering, and was not an appropriate posthumous commentary on an assassinated political leader. She likely was corrupt and she likely was devious. She was also seen as the best hope for the future by many Pakistanis. There is no way that this can be justified. If Parade magazine is not prepared to edit and redistribute in a timely fashion, it should stay away from time-sensitive topics, or even topics that could potentially be time-sensitive. In this day and age, there are plenty of outfits that can pick up the slack, and do a much better job to boot.

Parade magazine has received many critical comments on its website. Curiously, and as a side note, when people type the word ‘Pakistan’ it appears as ‘****stan’ in the final comment. I’m sure there’s some security-related reason for the censorship, but it’s a little weird.

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When the big grocery store chains first opened up their self-serve lanes, I raised an eyebrow and waited in the real person checker line. The reason was simple – I was afraid of being embarrassed if I screwed up. I figured that, klutz that I am, I’d wind up setting off some kind of alarm, hold up the line behind me and force an exasperated employee over to my lane to punch in some code to fix the mess I made. I didn’t have the courage to try it until I was shopping with my sister who marched right up with me and walked me through it (probably thinking to herself what a silly ninny I am).

Then I got pretty confident. Why wait in line when you can play checkout-girl yourself and breeze through in half the time? Although I always prefer human interaction, if the store was busy and the self-serve lanes were moving fast, I’d opt for self-checkout. Then I encountered a problem: alcohol. When you go through the self-checkout lane and you are purchasing, say, a bottle of wine, you have to go up to the self-checkout supervisor person and present your ID. You have to do this even if you are sixty-five, because the computer automatically demands ID since of course it cannot (yet) distinguish between a stammering 19-year-old with a case of Bud and a 31-year-old with a bottle of Merlot.

So today I stopped at the local big chain grocery store for dinner ingredients and a bottle of wine. I surveyed the express lane and the self-serve lane, and decided in the interest of human interaction to use the express lane, manned by an actual person. Then I noticed something. Most of the people in the express lane were purchasing alcohol. There was the twenty-something with a case of Miller Lite (cans) and a bag of chips, the distinguished gentleman with a bottle of cognac, and a youngish yuppie with top-shelf vodka and a couple of mixers. It immediately became apparent, however, that this express lane was anything but “express.” It was absolutely crawling. As I got closer, the reason became clear: the checker was underage. Every time someone in his lane purchased alcohol, the checker had to call an of-age person over to scan the booze. This, in my mind at least, led to a painfully obvious question: on a Saturday evening, why for the sake of Pete would you have an underage person manning the only express lane? Ok, so that’s point number one.

Number two (I had plenty of time to think about this while in line): what genius figured out that grocery stores can coax consumers (citizens) to perform the job of checkout persons, without even having to pay them? My local chain grocery store now has four self-checkout lanes. That’s four hourly wages that the store doesn’t have to pay, because the consumers are willing to essentially work for the store, for the sake of saving time. Do they get a discount on their food? Of course not. They just get a couple more seconds to spend with their families or loved ones at the end of a long day. I suppose this kind of sentiment was relevant back in the days of full-service gasoline stations when you just pulled up, told the attendant how much gas you wanted, and sat in the happy warmth of your auto-car. Then one day, you could pull up, pump your own gas, pay the lone attendant (who was warm inside the cozy kiosk while you, dear customer, froze you arse off), and motor on you merry way.

Next we just might be using our fingerprints to buy everything. Cameras and scales will make sure you don’t get away with stealing anything, and we’ll all be so smug in our high-tech efficiency. Never mind the value of a little human interaction and part-time jobs for high schoolers, parolees and moms.

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In line at the grocery store. Big sign in my lane says “EXPRESS LANE. TEN ITEMS OR LESS.”

Cashier: Sir, just so you know for next time, this lane is for ten items or less.

(I’m behind Sir, attempting to purchase a single item)

Sir (in line with eight year old girl): Hmph. Ten items. Fuck ten items.

Cashier: I mean, just so you know for next time.

Sir (looking rather intoxicated on closer inspection): I don’t give a…ten items…well I don’t give a…

Cashier: You know, so it’s fair for the person behind you who has only one item.

Me: Blushes, shrugs.

Sir: Whaddayou give a shit. Ten items. Fuck you. Fine then. Fuck.

(cashier rings up 20+ items and Sir swipes card)

Cashier: Um. Could you try your card one more time, sir? For some reason it didn’t go through.

Sir: Fuck. (Swipes again, swoons a little and jabs at the numbers on the punch pad).

Cashier: Thank you sir.

Sir: Mumble, mumble. Fuck. Mumble mumble (walks away with purchases and young girl).

Cashier: (Exhausted look) Sorry ma’am.

Me: I just feel so sorry for that little girl. And you.

Cashier: Sigh. Nod.

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People are funny creatures. At a time when the right wing is warning us that we need to keep vigilant lest we find ourselves wearing burqas here in the good ol’ U.S. of A, it is apparently failing to take a peek at itself in the mirror. It just might find a teenage girl who has embraced the “modesty” movement and has officially “devoted her virginity” to her father before God and her peers.

During the Cold War, the United States inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. The idea was that we wanted to show the world that it was our national spirit, not our bombs, that made us an invincible nation. A godly nation. We needed to prove to the Soviet Union that our people had superior moral and spiritual fortitude, that our hearts and minds were united and pure. We wanted to look, feel and behave differently, to make a moral case for ourselves in our quest to come out as the government truly by the people, for the people. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, was doing basically the exact same thing.

Since our focus has shifted to the Middle East, we hear daily reports of human rights abuses in the Muslim world. Young girls being murdered by their brothers, uncles and fathers in honor killings. Women being tortured and killed for allegedly not wearing their burqas correctly, or for being in the presence of an unrelated male. Even in India we hear about bride killings, where a new wife dies in a mysterious house fire, leaving the husband free to remarry and obtain a second dowry. And anywhere male sons are prized (because they are their parents’ retirement plan, whereas daughters are a financial and social liability), female infanticide and abortions of female fetuses remain a tragic human rights failure. The World Health Organization estimates that about three million girls, mainly in Africa and the Middle East, are subjected to genital mutilation each year. There is one cultural tenet that unites all of these practices: women’s bodies are not their own. They are property.

Now there is a new and growing trend in America. Christian teenage girls and their fathers are attending “Purity Dances,” which look and sound a lot like wedding ceremonies. Father and daughter walk down an aisle, daughter vows to remain chaste until marriage and father vows to “protect” his daughter’s virginity. Father gives daughter a ring. Daughter gives father a key (the key to her vagina, apparently), and father keeps the key until daughter’s wedding day, when he hands it over to the groom. According to the Chicago Tribune, one in six teen girls are signing virginity pledges. Also according to the Tribune, 88% of them will wind up having premarital sex.

American Christians are also embracing a move toward more modest dress. This I can truly get behind, as long as it is voluntary and falls into the parameters of what I would consider reasonable. Butt cracks and exposed pierced navels just aren’t what I’d consider to be attractive, and I think that women and girls (and men, for that matter) who don’t leave a single thing to the imagination are doing themselves a disservice. However, the advertising can go the other way. Girls are now announcing their chastity, with t-shirts that read “Abstinence Ave. Exit When Married,” and, even more creepy, underwear that states, “Notice: No trespassing on this property. My father is watching.” Whose property is it? The daughter’s or the father’s?

The idea of a father “owning” his daughter’s virginity is fraught with problems. What does this say about the relationship in terms of sexuality? What happens when daughters break their vows (as, apparently, 88% of them do)? Do they tell their fathers and face the possibility of being disowned? Or do they feel guilty and ashamed, in silent anguish when their fathers fork over their virginity key to their new husband, who is not their first lover? Do they feel they betrayed God and their fathers when, at as young an age as ten, they were asked to promise to remain virgins until their wedding night? Is this a fair thing to ask of such young girls? Would we even dream of asking boys to do the same?

Back to my original thoughts. We are told we have a new enemy now, an enemy that doesn’t treat its women so well. An enemy that holds double (and triple) standards, where girls are property but boys will be boys (with girls held responsible for their irresistibility). An enemy that condemns our fast and easy western lifestyle, yet when the cat’s away will often attempt to emulate it with a singular fervor.

So the Christians are buckling down and waging their reactionary cultural war. They are dressing more modestly, covering themselves up more, if you will. They are advertising their virginity with as much zeal as a prostitute advertises her lack thereof. They are conducting ceremonies wherein daughters embrace their status as sexual property in a patriarchal religious system. They are beginning to exhibit a similar world view to the very people they feel most threatened by, and they are too myopic to even realize it. Different war, same old human nature.

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The short answer is that I didn’t know why, exactly. It did not begin as some sort of ideological stand, and it didn’t have to do with the ‘God’ thing, at least not directly.

It began with a conference with a family before the start of the school year. Their daughter had been homeschooled, but she was expressing interest in attending public school for third grade. They came to see my classroom, to get a feel for me and what my teaching style might be, and to find out how accepting and accommodating I would be of their religion. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mother explained, and did I plan on on reciting the Pledge, and singing the National Anthem each day? I have quite a bit of firsthand knowledge regarding that particular faith (maybe someday I’ll explain), so I already understood that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not recite the Pledge, sing patriotic songs, or celebrate holidays or birthdays. If I had truly planned on reciting the Pledge each day, I would have said so. But I had been thinking about it, and I wasn’t sure. I explained this to the mother, and, thinking on my feet, said that I didn’t have any plans to, but I would reassess that if I had students or parents who requested otherwise. The mom seemed satisfied and enrolled her daughter in my class.

So the year began and we established our classroom routines. We had our quiet work period first thing in the morning and then began our lessons. Surprisingly, after four or five years in the public school system, none of my students asked me why we didn’t recite the Pledge, the National Anthem, or the school song. It was a total non-issue. Then toward the end of the year, with the sounds of the Pledge wafting in from the next door classroom, one of my “why” students asked me. I told him that we just get busy doing other things, but did he want us to start? He just shrugged indifferently and went back to his work.

Despite the fact that my class did not do it on a daily basis, I don’t mind reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (although I do think it’s a little weird to pledge allegiance to an inanimate object and then to the actual country it represents), and I actually enjoy singing the National Anthem. I like hearing it at the ballpark and at school assemblies. But I don’t like doing either every single day. It just sounds so, well, institutionalized when it is recited each day without fail. It sounds robotic, unemotional and uninspiring. I think that when it is reserved for special events such as assemblies, it takes on more meaning – it becomes special to recite the Pledge, and special to sing our National Anthem. Besides schools, I can’t think of any institution that recites either or both on a daily basis.

I’ve never been comfortable with conformity, and as a teacher I tried to celebrate (or, on bad days, at least tolerate) my students’ quirks and oddities and different ways of learning. I tried to limit the amount of time that we all spent doing the same thing. Even though as Americans we pride ourselves on our relative freedom, a classroom full of children, hands on hearts and reciting a patriotic oath, looks to me too much like indoctrination. How easy would it be to get them to raise a hand (as one did while reciting the Pledge until WWII) and pledge allegiance to a different sort of flag?

Maybe it’s a silly thing. Maybe I look too deeply into one of the standard ingredients of an American childhood. But I’d like to think that my former students, now that they are a year older and undoubtedly reciting the Pledge every day, might actually wonder, or even ask aloud, why. That, after all, is an exercise in freedom.

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Did you know that there is a washing machine out there that can actually supply drinking water? I didn’t think so either until I saw this advertisement in the Chicago Tribune:

“A Bosch washer could supply a lifetime of drinking water for 67 million people.”

This kind of advertising drives me nuts. It is more than a little insulting that the marketing people at Bosch think that American citizens consumers are too ignorant to know the difference between water supply and water consumption. A washing machine does not supply water. A washing machine uses water. What they could have said was, “A Bosch washer could save a lifetime of drinking water for 67 million people compared to less efficient models.”

Of course the ad was all in the context of touting the company’s environmental friendliness, and that is my larger point. Manufactured products are not generally “environmentally friendly.” Products that are efficient compared to other products are less environmentally damaging, but they still have an impact – they are still using nonrenewable resources, both in their manufacture and in their operation. Now that it is cool to be “green” I’ve noticed a lot of false and misleading advertising that basically wants the consumer to believe that their product is not just more efficient, but is in fact friendly to the environment. I like my washing machine as much as the next person, but I’m not going to fool myself into believing that dumping in a load of dirty laundry and a capful of detergent, and turning on a machine that uses hot water and electricity (and then dumps the used detergent and dirty water down the drain), is friendly to the environment. Even the energy star washers still work in the same way, even if they use a little less of everything.

Companies will naturally take any marketing angle and run with it, including jumping on the “green” bandwagon. But wild claims of machines actually being suppliers of natural resources? That’s low.

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Several months ago the National Geographic featured a picture from photographer Edward Burtynsky’s project titled, succinctly enough, “China.” It was of the inside of a poultry processing plant – hundreds of workers, all in pink scrubs, blue aprons, shower caps, plastic gloves and masks, each working over a plastic tub of chicken parts. At the time I felt a little guilty about all the times I ever felt sorry for myself – even though I didn’t like my job, or my car was on the fritz, at least I didn’t have to do that for a living. For some reason the image has stayed with me, and I’ve often consoled myself with the thought, “at least you’re not a Chinese poultry worker.”

Then the other day I was reading a little blurb in the November/December Orion magazine about the typical journey of a Chinook salmon, from the cold north Atlantic waters to your dinner plate. When the salmon is caught, it is frozen and loaded onto a ship waiting in a Norwegian harbor. The ship then sails, er, motors, to either Rotterdam or Hamburg where the fish is loaded onto a huge international container ship, which then sets off for China. About a month later, the frozen salmon arrives in China, most likely the northeast coast, home to most of China’s fish processing plants. The fish is trucked to one of these plants, is defrosted and on a large industrial floor, is skinned, boned, filleted and refrozen. Then it is loaded back onto a ship, destined for a U.S. or European supermarket. “Fresh” salmon, anyone?

The reason for this very long, very circuitous route is this: salmon have tiny little bones, called “pin bones” that the big filleting machines miss. They have to be plucked by hand using pliers or tweezers. Apparently labor costs make this too expensive/not profitable enough in the U.S. and Europe, so we ship the fish to China, where labor is cheap and productivity is high.

While I was reading this story, the first image that popped into my mind was the photograph of the Chinese poultry workers (you can see it here). The Orion article described the fish workers in basically the same way:

“In a large, neon-lit industrial space are ranks of tables, each with dozens of brightly colored plastic trays on top of them. Standing at the tables, dressed in white coats and caps and wearing latex gloves and cotton masks, are hundreds of factory workers – most of them young women from rural villages.”

If you were to tell this story to someone who was unfamiliar with the concept of global economies, he’d probably shake his head in disbelief. I mean, it just sounds so incredibly inefficient. How on earth can it be cheaper to send a fish around the world to have its bones plucked, when for a few dollars more an hour, you can have somebody do it right here? Or, conversely, how much can the Chinese factory workers possibly be making if it is cheaper to send it around the world than to do it ourselves? A dollar an hour? A dollar a day?

Give me a salmon fillet with pin bones, please. I will happily fetch my little pair of pliers (to hell with the apron and gloves) and pluck them out myself. For free.

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