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Friday Night Meatballs: How to Change Your Life With Pasta

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Transform your life by gathering for meatballs. [Photographs: Carina Romano]

Friday, 7 p.m. I light the candles.

For the last two hours I have been rushing: cleaning up toys and clutter, vacuuming, dusting. Now the table is set with my great-grandmother's good china. My four-year-old daughter Lucia is busily folding paper napkins and placing them next to each of ten plates. Between the candlesticks are a plate of sliced bread, a dish of olive oil, a small bowl of grated fresh Parmesan. My husband Joe bends over a pot of simmering sauce. A pot of salted water rests on the stovetop, ready to be boiled when the guests arrive. I've changed into a clean T-shirt and cotton skirt. My feet are bare. After I light the candles I stop cleaning, dim the lights, put my phone away, and pour two glasses of wine.

It isn't long before our little rowhouse on the far northern edge of Philadelphia's Fishtown section is full. My friend Stephanie, a massage therapist and space designer, brings her husband Joe and their daughter, five-year-old Olivia, who shows Lucia her new toy pony. The girls rush to the toy corner. Steph presents us with a salad loaded with goat cheese, walnuts, and fresh strawberries.

Brian and Carina arrive from down the street with two bottles of wine. Lily and Nico tease us about the unusually clean house. Peter, Catherine, and Catherine's mother Diane, visiting from Connecticut, arrive laden with diaper bags and car seats. We drink wine and take turns bouncing baby Rosie on our knees while Joe boils the big pot of pasta. The room feels changed somehow, smaller and brighter and warmer.

When the table is laden with platters of pasta and steaming bowls of meatballs, we sit and raise our glasses:

"To Friday Night Meatballs!"

Breaking Out of Busy


Joe and I have been doing this every Friday, give or take a few, for nine months. They have been extraordinary months.

We had a few simple problems to solve. Working from home (as a freelance writer and editor) can be incredibly isolating, and we'd spent most of the year so busy with work and other obligations that we had almost no time for a social life. People were always inviting us out, but by the time we factored in the cost of babysitting and the loss of what precious time we get, as working parents, with our daughter, we rarely said yes.

We had no idea how much the simple act of gathering for dinner would transform our family's life.

Joe grew up in a traditionally minded Italian-American family in Long Branch, New Jersey, where they call red sauce "gravy." On Sundays, his father Alfonso got up early to start the sauce before Mass. Sunday dinner was spaghetti and meatballs. Joe hasn't been to Mass in thirty years, but he has always expressed love through cooking—and his meatballs are to die for. He's a talented home chef with an eye for R&D: he's worked hard on his father's recipe to achieve just the right tenderness, the perfect amount of sauce saturation. Lucia often stands on a stepstool to watch him roll the meat and bread in his hands: she is squeamish about meat (except for bacon) but asks question after question as he works.

My household in the suburbs of Pittsburgh was less traditional, but it too was suffused with the sense-memory of meatballs and sauce. Once a week my father, who had joint custody, picked up me and took me out for spaghetti and meatballs at Hoffstot's in Oakmont. I was the world's pickiest eater and mealtimes were often battles, but at Hoffstot's I was always happy.

When we started hosting family dinners, then, meatballs were the obvious choice. We'd noticed that visiting friends often requested them; they seemed to us too pedestrian for guests, but our friends from other food cultures—Indian, Jewish, West African—adored them. So meatballs it was.

On my thirty-third birthday, I took to Facebook:

So here's what Joe and I have decided to do, in my 33rd year, to make our lives happier: we are instituting a new tradition we call Friday Night Meatballs. Starting next Friday, we're cooking up a pot of spaghetti and meatballs every Friday night and sitting down at the dining room table as a family—along with anyone else who'd like to join us. Friends, neighbors, relatives, clients, Facebook friends who'd like to hang out in real life, travelers passing through: you are welcome at our table. We'll just ask folks to let us know by Thursday night so we know how many meatballs to make. You can bring something, but you don't have to. Kids, vegetarians, gluten-free types, etc. will all be taken care of. The house will be messy. There might be card and/or board games. There might be good Scotch. You might be asked to read picture books. You might make new friends. We'll just have to find out. This is our little attempt to spend more time with our village. You're invited.

The response was immediate: I was inundated with 'likes' and comments from down the street and across oceans. I showed Joe and he raised an eyebrow: "We're going to need more chairs."

In the weeks that followed, we got used to hosting. It became less of an ordeal. We got more chairs. More wine glasses, too. We began making meatballs ahead of time and freezing them. We capped the guest list at ten adults and as many children as can play well together without too much supervision. And we stopped worrying about making everything perfect. Our parents and grandparents, we realized, hadn't made a big deal about hosting family dinners; it was just something they did. It was normal. After a few weeks it started to feel normal for us, too. I jettisoned any visions I might have had about cloth napkins and Pinterest crafts and began to relax.


Those problems we'd set out to solve? It wasn't long before we realized our solution was working. Little Lucia began looking forward to Friday Night Meatballs as a weekly playdate. She was learning how to interact with adults, too: she took on the job of dishing the correct number of meatballs onto guests' plates. Joe and I saw more of our friends and strengthened our social networks as word began to spread. And my isolation? Well, this was the winter we learned the term "polar vortex." Philadelphia had record-breaking snow, bitter cold, and no less than nine canceled school days. I spent the endless blizzards trying desperately to meet deadlines while entertaining my child. There were entire weeks when I barely left the house. For this hardcore extrovert, Friday Night Meatballs became a lifeline. And things started to happen.

Coming Together

Part of the fun of hosting a weekly dinner is the rotating cast of characters. We have our beloved regulars, but the mix is always different. Seinfeld's George Costanza famously flipped over his "worlds colliding"—friends from one sphere of life mixing with friends from another—but today, social media has our worlds colliding on a regular basis as coworkers, college friends, and conservative uncles argue politics on Facebook threads.

At Friday Night Meatballs, bringing together those disparate groups can yield all sorts of connections. One friend asked me to let her know any time I got an RSVP from a cute single guy. I did, and soon found myself following the dating drama via text message. Professional connections happen too: one recently laid-off guest found herself passing the bread to someone who was hiring in her field. Chef and food blogger Nancy found an agent for her cookbook over dessert. (I suspect the perfect crust on her blueberry-lemon pie was what won him over.) Filmmaker Matt Pillischer, who was promoting a screening of his documentary about the criminal justice system, found a table full of activists eager to help spread the word.

There's something about the mix of candlelight and comfort food (okay, and wine) that encourages people to relax and share their stories. I've always found hosting parties to be stressful, but Friday Night Meatballs has become a relaxing escape at the end of the week. In his book The Sabbath, rabbi and civil rights activist Abraham Heschel observes that "there is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord." This, he says, is the point of taking a day off for rest and reflection and the company of loved ones: it's when we manage to stop worrying about making a living that we start actually living.

Perhaps that's why Friday Night Meatballs has struck such a chord. When we hosted a Friday Night Meatballs at my mother's house in Pittsburgh over the holidays, we lifted the limit on guests—and thirty people came out. All of them said the same things: We love the idea. There's something perfect about it. Why don't we get together like this more often?


This isn't a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, of course; Shabbat dinners, Sunday suppers, Ramadan iftars, and the like are cherished all over the world. But in late-capitalist America, it can be hard to find community. The institutions that used to provide communal social life, like churches and unions, have long been in decline. People work long hours, often with long commutes or multiple jobs. An increasing number of us are freelancers, working from home without company. Social events aren't always hospitable for families with young children, and those who don't have kids can go years without even interacting with them. And with an economy that's really only recovered for a wealthy few, many Americans are more likely to down a burger in the drive-thru on the way to a second job than to sit down around a family table.

Friday Night Meatballs is intergenerational, kid-friendly, low-key, and cheap. You don't have to join anything: the biggest obligation it asks you to shoulder is showing up with a dessert or a bottle of wine. And it even has a hashtag.

If you'd like to give it a try, here are a few things I've learned along the way.

Hosting Without Stress

1. Use tech tools to take control of the guest list.

The first rule we made for Friday Night Meatballs was that our table would be open. We would welcome old friends, new acquaintances, Internet friends, and friends of friends, with no set guest list. This has worked well, though we often have to explain to surprised new friends that, yes, we really are inviting you to a family dinner like you used to have at Grandma's house.

But since it caught on quickly, we discovered early on that we needed to limit our head count. Our narrow Philadelphia rowhouse can fit about ten people before things get a little too cozy. We also began enforcing a 24-hour RSVP rule, which helps us avoid running out of meatballs. Facebook and Twitter are great for getting the word out; if you like to know what to expect, a shared Google Drive spreadsheet with ten numbered slots lets you track RSVPs. You can also add a column for people to tell you what they're bringing, which is a nice way to avoid winding up with three salads and no wine. Sites like Perfect Potluck and Punchbowl also let you track guests and will even send out automatic reminder emails. Just remember not to overthink things too much!

2. Don't sweat the housework.

Women are often taught from childhood that the state of one's home is a matter for pride or shame, but I've found that hours spent writing or spending time with my kid are far more valuable than hours spent scrubbing things that will be dirty again in two hours. I'm also just really not very good at organizing or decorating. Our house is more or less permanently disheveled. Cleaning seemed like it would be the most daunting part of hosting Friday Night Meatballs, but I've discovered two secrets.

The first: set aside one hour on Friday afternoon to do a speed-clean: whatever you can get done in an hour is what gets done. You'll be amazed at how much you accomplish.

The second secret is even simpler: stop giving a shit. Really. Your family and friends want to see you, relax, and eat meatballs. They do not care if your apartment is small or there is dust on the mantlepiece. They might not even see the dust: that's what the candlelight's for! And if they do, screw 'em. (Or draft them to wash the dishes.) I'd rather spend my life eating with friends in a messy house than refusing to have anyone over because the place isn't nice enough for guests.

3. Specialize.


When you host a traditional dinner party, there are usually multiple courses involved: hors d'oeuvres, entree, dessert, etc. You find recipes that are a little more special than usual. You pray that the souffle rises. It's stressful. You do not want to do that every week. That's why it's better to pick one relatively simple dish and stick to it. Let your guests bring the salads and side dishes. Not only will you save money and time, you'll also get really, really good at that one dish. Have you seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi? That's sort of what Joe is like with meatballs.

4. Your freezer is your friend.

There's another benefit to specializing, which is that you can make components of your dish ahead of time and freeze them. Hosting is a lot easier when you're not tied up in the kitchen all night. We make meatballs early in the week, then let them spend all day Friday in the slow cooker, soaking up sauce. Your freezer is also a handy place to store alternatives for guests with dietary restrictions. If you make vegan or gluten-free meatballs, freeze them individually on a cookie sheet covered with wax paper, so they won't stick together, then store them in portion-sized bags so they'll be ready when guests need them.

5. Unplug.

One of the most magical things about Friday Night Meatballs is that people put their phones away. We don't make this a rule, though you certainly could, but most of the time everyone is so busy eating and talking that phones just get in the way. I'm notorious for constantly snapping photos, but I've taken very few during Friday Night Meatballs. My theory is that the desperate need to stay connected that keeps us tethered to our phones melts away when we're all sitting around a table sharing a meal, actually connected. Once your candles are lit, put your phone away and just be there. You'll be amazed at how renewed you feel once the last guest has left.

In the past nine months, friends who've been inspired by Friday Night Meatballs have told me about slow cookers full of meatballs in hotel rooms at conferences. There's a Taco Tuesday in Minneapolis and a Brisket Brunch in Austin. Many others have shared their favorite low-stress ways to bring people together: game nights, "bring a weird snack" night, bad movie night, Sunday brunch club, even a backyard fried-chicken competition. It doesn't matter what dish you serve or what idea brings you together: the point is simply to break bread.

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1 day ago
I love this. Maybe I'll steal the idea.
San Francisco, CA
1 day ago
oof. yes. maybe not every week, though.
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Truth We Won’t Admit: Drinking Is Healthy

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Bob Welch, former star Dodgers pitcher, died in June from a heart attack at age 57. In 1981, Welch published (with George Vecsey) Five O’Clock Comes Early: A Cy Young Award-Winner Recounts His Greatest Victory, in which he detailed how he became an alcoholic at age 16: “I would get a buzz on and I would stop being afraid of girls. I was shy, but with a couple of beers in me, it was all right.”

In his early 20s, he recognized his “disease” and quit drinking. But I wonder if, like most 20-something problem drinkers (as shown by all epidemiological research), he would otherwise have outgrown his excessive drinking and drunk moderately?

If he had, he might still be alive. At least, that’s what the odds say.

Had Welch smoked, his obituaries would have mentioned it by way of explaining how a world-class athlete might have died prematurely of heart disease. But no one would dare suggest that quitting drinking might be responsible for his heart attack.

Even drinking more than is recommended, without displaying clinical symptoms of problem drinking or alcohol dependence (and these are not subtle), is generally better for you than drinking nothing.

In fact, the evidence that abstinence from alcohol is a cause of heart disease and early death is irrefutable—yet this is almost unmentionable in the United States. Even as health bodies like the CDC and Dietary Guidelines for Americans (prepared by Health and Human Services) now recognize the decisive benefits from moderate drinking, each such announcement is met by an onslaught of opposition and criticism, and is always at risk of being reversed.

Noting that even drinking at non-pathological levels above recommended moderate limits gives you a better chance of a longer life than abstaining draws louder protests still. Yet that’s exactly what the evidence tells us.

Driven by the cultural residue of Temperance, most Americans still view drinking as unhealthy; many call alcohol toxic. Yet, despite drinking far less than many European nations, Americans have significantly worse health outcomes than heavier-drinking countries. (For example, despite being heavily out-drunk by the English, we have almost exactly twice their levels of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.)

After David Letterman underwent quintuple bypass surgery in 2000, he had Bryant Gumbel on his show. Letterman exercises maniacally, is resultingly skinny and long ago gave up cigars and alcohol. Confronting the slightly doughy Gumbel, Letterman bemoaned, “How come I do everything healthy and you smoke cigars and drink and I end up on the surgery table?”

The real mystery is why an intelligent man receiving the best health care advice money can buy thinks that not drinking makes it less likely he will succumb to coronary artery disease (which also includes strokes and dementia).

Someone else who required bypass surgery (although I don’t know his drinking habits) was Larry King, who underwent the procedure in 1987 following a heart attack. In 2007, King hosted a two-hour PBS special, The Hidden Epidemic: Heart Disease in America, about the pioneering Framingham Heart Study. King led a panel of five experts in a discussion of diet, sex, exercise, smoking—just about everything that people do that impacts the health of their hearts. Everything, that is, except that beverage alcohol conveys heart health advantages, and that abstinence from alcohol is among the major risk factors for heart disease.

Not discussing the beneficial impact of alcohol on heart disease has been a systematic policy of the U.S. public health establishment, one example of which is the Framingham Study. The National Institutes of Health, which funded the Framingham research, forbad Harvard epidemiologist Carl Seltzer from publishing this finding, he later revealed. Why? NIH’s reasoning, published in a 1972 memo, still pervades American thinking:

The encouragement of undertaking drinking with the implication of prevention of coronary heart disease would be scientifically misleading and socially undesirable in view of the major health problem of alcoholism that already exists in the country.

Flash forward to 2011, when the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were finally released by the Department of Agriculture and HHS. One reason for their delayed publication was the uproar raised by public health organizations to the Guidelines’ alcohol committee’s report of “strong evidence” that moderate drinking prevents heart disease, and the “moderate evidence” that it prevents dementia. Such battles are old hat: Similar campaigns against mentioning alcohol’s health benefits are mounted every five years when the Guidelines threaten to include them, starting with South Carolina senator and teetotaler Strom Thurmond’s strenuous objections to the 1995 edition.

Epidemiological study after study (that is, research tracing drinkers, their consumption, and their life outcomes) produces consistent findings—there are now hundreds of such studies. But whenever any sort of research can be teased out to suggest drinking is bad for you, it will be put on full display to confuse the picture.

Thus, when people with a gene associated with less alcohol consumption (including less binge drinking), as well as other effects, were found to have better outcomes, this highly indirect evidence—as opposed to research measuring actual drinking and heart disease—was cited to prove “alcohol does not benefit the heart.”

Given the multitude of studies of the effects of alcohol on mortality (since heart disease is the leading killer of men and women, drinking reduces overall mortality significantly), meta-analyses combining the results of the best-designed such studies can be generated. In 2006, the Archives of Internal Medicine, an American Medical Association journal, published an analysis based on 34 well-designed prospective studies—that is, research which follows subjects for years, even decades. This meta-analysis, incorporating a million subjects, found that “1 to 2 drinks per day for women and 2 to 4 drinks per day for men are inversely associated with total mortality.”

The more alcohol a society consumes, the fewer alcohol-related problems and alcohol-related deaths (including cirrhosis) it has.

So the more you drink—up to two drinks a day for woman, and four for men—the less likely you are to die. You may have heard that before, and you may have heard it doubted. But the consensus of the science is overwhelming: It is true.

Although I dispute many of the caveats offered against the life-saving benefits of alcohol, I will endorse two. First, these outcome data do not apply to women with the “breast-cancer gene” mutations (BRCA 1 or 2) or a first-degree (mother, sister) relation who has had breast cancer, for whom alcohol consumption is far riskier. Second, drinking 10 drinks Friday and Saturday nights does not convey the benefits of two or three drinks daily, even though your weekly totals would be the same: Frequent, heavy binge drinking is unhealthy. But then you knew that already, didn’t you? If you don’t distinguish binge drinking from daily moderate drinking, that would be due to Americans’ addiction-phobia, which causes them to interpret any daily drinking as addictive.

The global summary of alcohol’s benefits raises a key question: How much do you have to drink regularly before you become as likely to die as an abstainer? We’ll see below.

First, let’s address some typical objections to these findings. Of course, abstainers may not drink because they are already ill. Thus the meta-analysis relied on studies that eliminated subjects who are abstaining due to illness, or else contrast drinkers with lifetime abstainers. Additionally, objectors note, drinkers showing such longevity may be wine-sniffling, upper-middle-class professionals (virtually no study has ever found that the type of alcohol consumed impacts these results), people who exercise, eat right, and don’t smoke. To counter this argument, researchers from the prestigious Harvard Health Professionals Study published a paper which found that even men with four healthy life factors (diet, weight, non-smoking, exercise) had one-third to one-half the risk of suffering a heart attack if they had one to two drinks daily, relative to comparable men in each category who abstained.

Now let’s turn quickly to four special topics—biological mechanisms; cognitive benefits of drinking; the resveratrol myth; and the answer to our key question: If you drink just a little too much alcohol, doesn’t your death rate shoot up way over that of abstainers? (This is the so-called “J–shaped curve.”)

BIOLOGICAL MECHANISMS: The Research Society on Alcoholism—as its name suggests, not a group predisposed to say good things about alcohol—published a review in 2008 concluding “A considerable body of epidemiology associates moderate alcohol consumption with significantly reduced risks of coronary heart disease and, albeit currently a less robust relationship, cerebrovascular (ischemic) stroke.” It went further, reviewing a range of biological “evidence that moderate alcohol levels can exert direct neuroprotective actions.”

COGNITIVE BENEFITS: The RSA review also noted: “In over half of nearly 45 reports since the early 1990s, significantly reduced risks of cognitive loss or dementia in moderate, nonbinge consumers of alcohol (wine, beer, liquor) have been observed.” This finding has been affirmed numerous times, for example in this article based on the Whitehall Study, the British equivalent of Framingham. (Predictably, this result will be confused with headlines like the following widely publicized finding: “Problem Drinking in Middle Age Doubles the Risk of Memory Loss in Later Life.” You see the bait-and-switch, right?) And, even in the Whitehall study, in which “The authors concluded that for middle-aged subjects, increasing levels of alcohol consumption were associated with better function regarding some aspects of cognition,” the researchers cautioned, “it is not proposed that these findings be used to encourage increased alcohol consumption.” What about encouraging moderate alcohol consumption?

RESVERATROL: Don’t get me started on resveratrol, a supplement based on an antioxidant found in the skin of red grapes which, in early studies done in test tubes and with animals, was proposed to account for the heart-healthy benefits of wine. I identified this claim as bullshit from the start. It was simply a way to avoid recognizing that alcohol is good for you by claiming instead that alcohol’s benefits are due to some other ingredient. I was thus beside myself when research conducted at Johns Hopkins finding that resveratrol has no significant impact on lifespan or heart disease, led to non-sequitur headlines like this one: “Sorry! Red Wine Isn’t Good for You After All.” (It was never red wine to start with, but beverage alcohol.)

THE J-SHAPED CURVE: The chief way in which drinking is discouraged is by claiming that, if you drink an iota too much, you are doomed. This is the so-called J–shaped curve, where abstainers have worse outcomes than the nadir for deaths at some low level of drinking, but then supposedly shoot up exponentially for those who drink more. This curve does not exist in nature. Studies that have found it tend to be of small subgroups of drinkers. But in the largest epidemiological surveys the drinking curve struggles gradually to make it up to a “U.”

In the largest prospective study ever conducted for alcohol, involving nearly a half million subjects, sponsored by the American Cancer Society (need I say, an organization not regarded as an alcohol industry stooge), Michael Thun (famed for his anti-smoking investigations) and colleagues examined all causes of death related to drinking among middle-age and elderly subjects. As in all such similar studies, this research is the best available to us other than controlled, randomized studies—it follows people forward in time and statistically controls for all identifiable confounding variables. Here is Thun et al.’s summary of their findings:

The overall death rates were lowest among men and women reporting about one drink daily. Mortality from all causes increased with heavier drinking, particularly among adults under age 60 with lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

This seems to say, “Never have more than a drink a day—or you’re doomed!”

But the value of this study’s huge number of subjects is that it is possible to reliably identify death rates during follow-up for people drinking up to six or more drinks daily. These results are laid out by this graphic in the New England Journal of Medicine:


For all levels of drinking, including the highest one, for both men and women, death rates did not reach those for abstainers. How would you describe the shape displayed above? It is not a J. (This group is mainly heavier, but nonetheless normal—along with some pathological—drinkers, middle-age and older.)

While we’re at it, let’s do some more headline-hunting. Time magazine published an article titled “Why Do Heavy Drinkers Outlive Nondrinkers?” while one in the Daily Mail was headlined “Heavy Drinking Kills You Quicker Than Smoking.” So why the difference? It’s no surprise to learn that the study on which the Daily Mail article was based was titled, “Excess Mortality of Alcohol-Dependent Individuals…,” while the research referred to in Time identified heavy drinkers as those who had 21 or more drinks per week. You see by now, I hope, our tendency to compare a clinical sample of apples with a group of robust-drinking oranges.

Alcohol is that happy combination: a pleasurable substance that also conveys health benefits. Those benefits are greatest if you drink moderately. But even drinking more than is “perfectly” recommended, without displaying clinical symptoms of problem drinking or alcohol dependence (and these are not subtle), is generally better for you than drinking nothing.

I hasten to add that any human being has the right to drink or abstain, for brief or longer periods, for any reason, personal or social. I never tell my clinical clients that they should try moderate drinking. What I tell clients who wish to attempt such a goal is that it can be done—and to pay close attention to whether they are in fact achieving this goal.

But I don’t shy away from letting people know that drinking is among a list of health behaviors. We don’t all exercise as much as we should, or eat the best diets, and perhaps we may not drink, yet many of us still live long, healthy lives. But this is one piece of information you should have on which to base your decision-making—not something to be squirreled away by public health advocates for their own delectation (for the record, I can’t think of a public health professional I have known who doesn’t drink).

If you still ask why I, an addiction/public health specialist, feel it necessary to point out alcohol’s benefits, recall some facts reviewed here:

  • Well-informed Americans are often remarkably ignorant about the benefits of moderate drinking and think that abstinence is better for them.
  • The U.S. is not a heavy-drinking nation, yet its health outcomes are poor compared with other economically-advanced nations.
  • The worst drinking pattern is frequent binge-drinking, yet many Americans engage in such drinking (certainly young Americans), while thinking daily-but-moderate drinking is a sign of addiction.
  • In treatment and prevention, the American abstinence/just-say-no fixation can lead to tenuous, unrealistic efforts to abstain, efforts at which people frequently fail, only to engage in the highest-risk forms of binge consumption.

A society best handles its available intoxicants by regarding them calmly and rationally, and by understanding that people have the capacity (and the responsibility) to consume them in sensible, even life-enhancing ways. As formerly illegal drugs are decriminalized, as new “designer” substances are regularly introduced, as performance-enhancing drugs and quite powerful psychiatric drugs are more and more commonly used, there is really no other option for navigating substance use in the 21st century.

Human beings have grown up alongside alcohol: Beverage alcohol has been found at the site of every early center of civilization. The more alcohol a society consumes, the fewer alcohol-related problems and alcohol-related deaths (including cirrhosis) it has, since these societies, such as those in Southern Europe, integrate drinking with social life. And alcohol conveys health benefits. If you cannot drink (or believe that you cannot), you probably increase your likelihood of early death. If so, I am truly sorry for you.

This post originally appeared on Substance, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “The Truth We Won’t Admit: Drinking Is Healthy.”

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6 days ago
This makes me very happy.
San Francisco, CA
4 days ago
I wish there was a graph of overall health. There are a number of debilitating disease associated with alcohol. Sent for second opinion to my anti-alcohol family.
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How to Be Polite — The Message — Medium

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Most people don’t notice I’m polite, which is sort of the point. I don’t look polite. I am big and droopy and need a haircut. No soul would associate me with watercress sandwiches. Still, every year or so someone takes me aside and says, you actually are weirdly polite, aren’t you? And I always thrill. They noticed.

The complimenters don’t always formulate it so gently. For example, after two years ago at the end of an arduous corporate project, slowly turning a thousand red squares in a spreadsheet to yellow, then green, my officemate turned to me and said: “I thought you were a terrible ass-kisser when we started working together.”

She paused and frowned. “But it actually helped get things done. It was a strategy.” (That is how an impolite person gives a compliment. Which I gladly accepted.)

She was surprised to see the stubborn power of politeness over time. Over time. That’s the thing. Mostly we talk about politeness in the moment. Please, thank you, no go ahead, I like your hat, cool shoes, you look nice today, please take my seat, sir, ma’am, etc. All good, but fleeting.

Etiquette Manuals

When I was in high school I used to read etiquette manuals. Emily Post and so forth. I found the manuals interesting and pretty funny. There was good stuff about how to write a note of condolence, and ridiculous stuff about how to behave on boats or at the White House.

I didn’t expect to apply my findings to my daily adolescent life. I was peripheral in high school — uncool but also untortured, voted “most scholarly” of my class, roughly equivalent to “least likely to have sex.” In high school no one noticed my politeness except for one kid. He yelled at me about it. “Why you always so polite, man?” he asked. “It’s weird.” I took it as praise and made a note to hide it further, to be more profane. Real politeness, I reasoned, was invisible. It adapted itself to the situation. Later, that same kid stole my cassette copy of Aqualung.

But no matter. What I found most appealing was the way that the practice of etiquette let you draw a protective circle around yourself and your emotions. By following the strictures in the book, you could drag yourself through a terrible situation and when it was all over, you could throw your white gloves in the dirty laundry hamper and move on with your life. I figured there was a big world out there and etiquette was going to come in handy along the way.

It didn’t at first. No one needs visiting cards in college (although I’m surprised that they haven’t made a comeback among drama students). And in my twenties I found that I could score points with my elders by showing up and speaking respectfully. But then, suddenly — it mattered. My ability to go to a party and speak to anyone about anything, to natter and ask questions, to turn the conversation relentlessly towards the speaker, meant that I was gathering huge amounts of information about other people.

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.

A friend and I came up with a game called Raconteur. You pair up with another Raconteur at a party and talk to everyone you can. You score points by getting people to disclose something about their lives. If you dominate the conversation, you lose a point. The two raconteurs communicate using hand signals and keep a tally on a sheet of paper or in their minds. You’d think people would notice but they are so amused by the attention that the fact you’re playing Raconteur escapes their attention.

Hair Touching

One way to be polite is by not touching people unless they specifically invite it. You’d be amazed at how often people screw this up; just search the Internet for “touch black woman hair” and marvel at the number of articles, posts, and guides. Here’s the New York Times journalist Jenna Wortham, in an interview at The Awl, on hair-touching:

I realize that it might sound like an overstatement to some people, but having someone touch me without my permission just fucks with my day and sense of privacy and personal space and sends me into a k-hole spiral of wondering what unconscious signal I may have given to indicate that it would be OK, even though I know there isn’t one.

I’ve read many narratives about white people just touching black hair and I read them with my mouth open. Not because of the racism, even. Just because as a polite person the idea of just reaching out and touching anyone’s hair makes my eye twitch. When would it be appropriate? If there was a very large poisonous spider in their hair. If I was doing a magic trick. Or after six or more years of marriage.

There are exceptions. I pat the heads of toddlers I’ve known for more than six months. If tiny children volunteer to sit on my lap or ask to ride around on my back while I make horse noises, I make eye contact with their parents first and then comply. Afterwards I might skritch their toddler heads a little. I am not opposed to tousling in certain defined and appropriate circumstances.

But a whole class of problems goes away from my life because I see people as having around them a two or three foot invisible buffer. If there is a stray hair on their jacket I ask them if I can pluck it from them. If they don’t want that, they’ll do it themselves. If their name is now Susan, it’s Susan. Whatever happens inside that buffer is entirely up to them. It has nothing to do with me.

Now, even though I prepped and studied etiquette books, I learned all this the regular way, by screwing it up terribly and having to send emails of apology the next day. The apology emails are pretty embarrassing to mention. They are excruciating to send. I get too drunk and hold forth in a stream of vulgarity. Or say something stupid. And then I wake up and sigh. “I realized,” I’ll write, “that I might have been a truly insufferable person last night.” I’ve never touched anyone’s hair, I don’t think. But of course I could. One thing about being polite is that you know that within you there lurks an incredibly impolite person.

Maybe twenty years ago I read a ’zine interview with a prostitute in which she put down her rules for her johns. Most of the rules were common sense about condoms, showing up on time, and so forth, but the one rule that stuck with me was, “don’t take a shit in my toilet!” It was in bold and underlined with exclamation points (it was a ’zine, remember).

Whenever I read about sex workers—which is often, because our culture is obsessed—this rule pops into my mind. I’ve never had reason to test it. But I like to think that, if my circumstances ever aligned so that I hired a sex worker, I would know how to handle myself in regards to this rule. For example, if it was necessary I’d make a quick stop at Starbucks before heading up to her apartment. And since I was already at Starbucks I should offer to bring coffee. “At Starbucks,” I’d text. “Want anything?” Per her request I’d buy a Caramel Flan Frappuccino® Light Blended Beverage and maybe a Chonga bagel. And yes, I know, it’s immoral for a woman in New York City to want a bagel from Starbucks. But who am I to judge?

That’s where the fantasy ends. It’s just a little rule nestled in my brain, filed under Prostitutes. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of similar just-in-case rules. What if I had to meet the mayor tomorrow? What if I had to go to an expensive restaurant? What if I needed to interview a homeless person for a story? Emily Post couldn’t cover everything, so I have to make do. I am, admittedly, a deeply anxious person. But also a polite one.


Politeness buys you time. It leaves doors open. I’ve met so many people whom, if I had trusted my first impressions, I would never have wanted to meet again. And yet — many of them are now great friends. I have only very rarely touched their hair.

One of those people is my wife. On our first date, we went to a nice bar with blue tables and, in the regular course of conversation she told me at length about the removal of a dermoid teratoma from her ovaries. This is a cyst with teeth (not a metaphor). I had gone in expecting to flirt but instead I learned about the surgical removal of a fist-sized mutant mass of hair and teeth from her sexual parts. This killed the chemistry. I walked her home, told her I had a great time, and went home and looked up cysts on the Internet, always a nice end to an evening. We talked a little after that. I kept everything pleasant and brief. A year later I ran into her on the train and we got another drink. Much later I learned that she’d been having a very bad day in a very bad year.

Sometimes I’ll get a call or email from someone five years after the last contact and I’ll think, oh right, I hated that person. But they would never have known, of course. Let’s see if I still hate them. Very often I find that I don’t. Or that I hated them for a dumb reason. Or that they were having a bad day. Or much more likely, that I had been having a bad day.

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing. The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is. Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.

There is one other aspect of my politeness that I am reluctant to mention. But I will. I am often consumed with a sense of overwhelming love and empathy. I look at the other person and am overwhelmed with joy. For all of my irony I really do want to know about the process of hanging jewelry from celebrities. What does the jewelry feel like in your hand? What do the celebrities feel like in your hand? Which one is more smooth?

This is not a world where you can simply express love for other people, where you can praise them. Perhaps it should be. But it’s not. I’ve found that people will fear your enthusiasm and warmth, and wait to hear the price. Which is fair. We’ve all been drawn into someone’s love only to find out that we couldn’t afford it. A little distance buys everyone time.

Last week my wife came back from the playground. She told me that my two-year-old, three-foot-tall son, Abraham, walked up to a woman in hijab and asked “What’s your name?” The woman told him her name. Then he put out his little hand and said, “Nice to meet you!” Everyone laughed, and he smiled. He shared with her his firmest handshake, like I taught him.

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7 days ago
San Francisco, CA
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On Being Stalked · LRB 21 August 2014

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I write this with a baseball bat by the bed. A weapon that will do more damage than you can bring yourself to inflict is useless; last time I made the wrong choice. (Could I hit someone with a baseball bat? Perhaps.)

This may be completely unnecessary. Or it might not. The Women’s Freedom Center of Brattleboro, Vermont has advised me to leave at once for my mother’s home in DC: ‘We don’t know what’s going on in his head.’ The director of victim services at the Vermont Department of Corrections says: ‘Oh, the Women’s Freedom Center … people imagine that someone getting out of jail has been ruminating all this time; most of the time the last thing they want is to see the victim again.’ My village takes a vigilantist line. One neighbour says if she saw him by the road at night she would run him down. Others tell me to get a gun and shoot on sight. Look at it this way: if there were a high risk of attack I wouldn’t be staying in a cottage in 11 acres of woods, scene of the ‘reckless endangerment’ which sent him to jail in the first place, half an hour from the state police. The problem isn’t really that we don’t know what’s going on in his head.

I’d stayed in the family cottage half a dozen times since I was a child. It wasn’t secure, but it didn’t need to be. There was one other house on the road, deserted for years. In 2010 my eldest uncle, sole surviving owner, rushed in where banks fear to tread: he offered me a mortgage to buy the place. The cottage had a wood stove, one insulated room, no running water once the ground froze, but also no phone, no internet access. With this glorious isolation I might finish the works-in-regress on my hard drive. I came in September 2011 before the launch of a new book to sign contracts, write cheques. Someone was mowing the lawn of the house up the road.

To the untutored eye E was a lackadaisical perfectionist with an amiable labrador and a taste for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. He had a horror of shoddy workmanship; what he did, he did well – in his own good time. My caretaker told me to be on my guard. The house’s owner was letting him stay rent-free in return for work; she’d advised him not to. An acquaintance at the State’s Attorney’s Office said he was bad news. But he seemed harmless enough. One day he came drifting down the road with his dog and stopped to talk. A stream of inconsequential anecdotes threw light on his latest windfall.

He came from an old New England family, distantly related to the dukes of A––. He had been to an expensive prep school from which he made forays to Boston, where Chinese grocers sold alcohol and cigarettes to 12-year-olds. He had dropped out of college after a year, gone to Aspen for the snow. Loose-limbed, dark-haired, clean-shaven, grey-eyed, he had parlayed boyish good looks in their prime into jobs for which he was totally unqualified, picking up skills as he went along: he could learn to use any tool by watching what other people did. Now forty-odd, still boyish, less pretty, he had gone through most of his money but had an armoury of skills and the art of blagging his way into grey market deals. The aimless socialising was as much a stock-in-trade as the skills. E’s landlord was a highly paid geek at an electronics company; they bonded because he could come for weekends, sink beers, fell trees. E could live the outdoor life full-time, without the petty inconvenience of an office job.

The one-size-fits-all friendliness of the roadshow was already in place; I made friendly noises. I gave him a copy of my first book, because he asked; fine, fine, fine. I left for New York. I went back to Berlin. There were emails: his dog said hello from Vermont.

In late September 2012 I sublet my apartment in Berlin. I was making minimum payments on five credit cards, but my agent thought he could get a six-figure deal for a new book ‘bundled’ with the American reissue of my first book. If I could finish a book in two months, before winter set in, it wasn’t absolutely insane not to make a bolt for an office job. E came over the day I arrived. I said I had come to work. He said he understood. He would not come uninvited.

And immediately came drifting down the road looking for odd jobs, a loan, cigarettes, a hot shower. He brought a paraffin lamp before Hurricane Sandy. He showed me how to use my chainsaw, cut up a fallen tree, brought a splitter for the logs. He made a sawhorse for chainsaw work adapted to my height. He stayed to talk. And talk. And talk. It was the conversational equivalent of the labrador waving its good-natured tail. Words poured in at the ear, displacing the book in my head.

I explained that I faced financial disaster if I didn’t finish a book. He said he understood. And he came apologetically down the road. If I stayed up till two he came because the light was on. (‘If you want me to go I’ll go.’ ‘Could you go home?’ ‘Not just yet.’) If I got up at five to light the wood stove he came because his fire had gone out. The single insulated room had a window/wall ratio of 3:4; there was nowhere to hide.

It seems gauche to put raw desperation on display, but failure to provide this sort of evidence seems to have alienated the prosecutor. Here’s an extract from a diary about six weeks into the saga:

13 Nov 2012

Desperate plans for escape. Solution probably found. Ideally wd get taxi for 7 a.m. & clear out but I think it’s too complicated. Best plan, ride bike to B’b, collect things later. Perhaps in disguise.

First thing, to get away.

I will get to a place of safety.

Not thinking of work, only of disguise & whether possible.

This may not be entirely sane.

15 Nov 2012

The boy who was to deliver wood didn’t come yesterday. I could not go through another of these days. I saw that I must leave very early on Thursday & reschedule the delivery.

I got up at 5. It was necessary to have a light. E had started to come over v early b/c he had seen a light, & there was a light on at his place. I remembered that he kept one light on at night. I put a few tools in the garage, E’s things on the porch, the chainsaw on the landing of the stairs. I put a sock over the rear reflector of my bike in case E came w/ a flashlight. I said to myself: you have only one chance to get away. It was too dangerous to go by E’s house. I put my gym bag w/ clothes on the back rack, & my backpack on my back. I looked toward E’s house & saw no sign of a flashlight approaching. I walked into the dark road, using the little flashlight & front bike light to light the way. When I got to Route 30 I turned left, heading for B’boro.

It was dark a long time, presently a little lighter.


Lying in bed in hotel room which I cleverly booked several days ago. Such a glorious glorious day – the unutterable pleasure of not talking to E.

It is now 1 a.m. All day I have done nothing that I did not want to do. Now I sit in my hotel room. It is quite silent. There is the absolute certainty that no one will come to the door. The luxury. The extraordinary luxury.

22 Nov 2012

If someone leaves you fantasising about buying a wig & living in your home pretending to be someone else that’s a bad sign. (It’s not too late.)

Be sane

Be sane

Be sane

wig – curly

diff glasses or contacts

bright colours

tight-fitting trousers

boots headscarf

new puffer vest

bright make-up


It’s so common these days to crawl away in exhaustion, to barricade oneself behind autoreply. ‘So-and-so can reach me in case of emergency’: there’s always someone deaf to polite requests, someone who doesn’t get that the well has run dry. One’s horror at appeals for interaction is clearly the consequence of the hundreds of preceding interactions rather than anything specific to the latecomer. And it’s not clear that the implacable deafness is pathological. William Gibson said the future is already with us, it’s just not very evenly distributed: someone who indefatigably comes to your house when you have crawled away in exhaustion is a social monstrosity but also, quite possibly, simply caught in a wrinkle in time.

So – was E a stalker? Was it possible to know, based on the evidence available? I didn’t then know that there are states where he could have been charged with stalking. There are states where obsessive behaviour causing severe emotional distress makes the grade; states where causing enforced relocation makes the grade; states where causing professional damage makes the grade; states where I could have called the police in November 2012. And there are states like Vermont, which confine stalking to a course of conduct representing a credible threat. (E made no threats until the very end.) The Colorado law on stalking states:

A stalker will often maintain strong, unshakeable and irrational emotional feelings for his or her victim, and may likewise believe that the victim either returns these feelings of affection or will do so if the stalker is persistent enough. Further, the stalker often maintains this belief, despite a trivial or nonexistent basis for it and despite rejection, lack of reciprocation, efforts to restrict or avoid the stalker, and other facts that conflict with this belief.

This captures E (and there was worse to come), but also rather a lot of people with whom I do business. (To what extent is the offender being penalised, demonised for being late to the parade?)

But wait. Wait. Putting down a deposit and taking out a mortgage is a familiar social ritual. It comes with the right of occupancy, and in Anglophone countries women can exercise this right without wearing a burka. Here I stood on solid ground.

E sent an email saying he would respect my privacy. I returned. It started again. I left for a local B&B and wrote to his landlord, who drove up from Boston. E, he said, was lonely, alcoholic, obsessed. We met. E: ‘You know I love her.’ Landlord: ‘It’s understandable. She’s attractive, you’re both intelligent. She needs to work on her book.’ E promised to stay away. His landlord left at 4 p.m. E came down the road at 4.05 p.m. (‘This is between you and me. You didn’t have to tell him. You almost got me evicted.’)

E turned up next morning at six because his fire had gone out. I said I had to go for my walk. He went home. When I got back I found a pane of glass on the dresser; there was a gap in its normal home in the side door. E: ‘I was cold and you weren’t there. But yeah, yeah, I know that was wrong. Don’t worry, I’ll fix it.’

This was clearly something I could report to the police. It seemed harsh to lock someone up for social cluelessness, but I was spooked. I packed my bags and left for a motel within the hour. Then I found a room on Craigslist that was available until the end of January. I was desperate to finish a book.

E’s landlord: ‘You’re a very attractive woman. He can’t help himself. I’m sorry you can’t live on your property.’

It’s a big leap from ‘you know I love her’ to baseball bat by the bed. I read the Vermont law on trespass on 28 December 2012 and it appeared to confirm my sense of the social norm. Entering a property when forbidden to do so, or remaining on a property after being asked to leave, carries a maximum sentence of three months and/or a $500 fine. It’s not a heavy sentence, but the law is beautifully genderblind: I have the same right to occupy my property undisturbed as my uncle the ex-marine. I believed I could exercise this right and attempted to do so. This was the first step on the slippery slope to the baseball bat.

I sent an email issuing a formal notice against trespass and returned to the snowbound cottage on 31 December. (Its wood stove made it warmer than my rented room.) The next morning I passed E on the road. He said: ‘I took the liberty of leaving two pails of water on your porch.’ He came that afternoon to explain that he would stay away. He came the next day to leave another pail of water on the porch. He came bleeding, covered in snow, wearing slippers, a sweater with no shirt underneath, no coat.

Escalating neediness may or may not be stalking; it’s a professional catastrophe for a writer who needs Woolf’s room of one’s own. I asked the Sheriff’s Department to explain the process for invoking the law. Five weeks later E was still gaming both his landlord and the police. I left for a residency on 6 February. On 1 May I went back to Vermont.

E turned up at night when the lights were out on my first day back, knocking softly at the door, calling ‘Helen! Helen!’ I waited for him to leave then called 911. (I had had the phone connected for the sole purpose of calling 911.) A state trooper came forty minutes later and asked if I had seen him. I pointed out that I would have had to turn on a light to do so and was trying to avoid confrontation. He said voice recognition was poor ID. He talked to E, who denied everything, and came back. ‘I think you’d feel more secure if you had motion-sensitive lights and pepper spray.’

E turned up in broad daylight two days later, asking to use the phone. I walked him back down the road. I talked to a second state trooper. E wasn’t the harmless drunk dismissed by the Sheriff’s Department: he had a 27-page criminal record with incidents of domestic and other violence. State Trooper B said I must see the thing through or he would be back. He advised me to leave, again, at once. ‘He’s evil. I’ve seen what he can do’: he had once been called to the scene by a battered victim. The legal process for trespass (citation, arraignment, pretrial conference, maybe trial) took months, perhaps a year; the defendant remained at large throughout. If I stayed there was risk of reprisals.

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If I can be driven out by any man in the grip of unrequited attachment, if I can be driven out again for seeking legal redress, equality under the law is a fiction: I may need to pay twice for housing and lose a year’s income, maybe more, at any time. At eight stone, I can even the odds only if I can come to the door with a gun and say, ‘Make my day.’ The crippling cost could have been managed if I’d set the legal machinery in motion before I spent three months out of the state, but the police had seen no need to tell me what I needed to know.

I left for a motel, then an artists’ colony. I found a sublet for four months.

E was arraigned in July and released on conditions which included no contact, no proximity, no entry to property: my victim advocate said it was ‘probably safe to return’ but if I had problems I should call the police. I ventured back cautiously, creeping in through the woods behind the house to avoid the road. Six weeks later I had a meeting with a new victim advocate and the prosecutor. I was told if there were violations ‘on a daily basis’ it would give leverage to the prosecution; even minor violations must be reported because they would strengthen the case. E might violate his conditions repeatedly and be released (it was up to the judge).

In other words, while the ostensible purpose of the conditions was to protect the victim’s safety, their real purpose was to make life easy for the prosecutor. I didn’t play this game well.

At the end of August 2013 E came down the road in the middle of the night. I heard glass smashing downstairs and knew who it was. I picked up the weed slasher I kept by the bed and went to the head of the stairs. The door at the foot of the stairs opened. E headed up the stairs, saying: ‘I’m going to shoot you.’ He was carrying something with a long narrow barrel. Obviously I had to do something. But I could not bring a heavy serrated iron blade down on a man’s head.

Being at the head of the stairs gave me a tactical advantage – this was why I was sleeping upstairs. I stood in batting position, weed slasher above my right shoulder, poised to strike.

I couldn’t do it.

So I stood there laughing. He might be about to blow my head off. And there was nothing I could do. Hysterical.

‘Are you?’ I said. ‘Really? Are you really going to shoot me with that?’

He laughed.

He said something. I thought he said, ‘It’s just a .22’ and ‘It’s just a BB gun,’ but someone told me later these were different things. (I was out of my depth.)

My social repertoire didn’t include a response to this sort of situation. That is, hitting him over the head would have been a socially appropriate response, but there didn’t seem to be any other obviously suitable response.

I asked if he would like a cigarette.

He said he would like a cigarette.

E had now done something that uncontrovertibly warranted arrest. He knew it. I knew it. ‘If you call 911 they will send a squad car and take me to jail.’ (Yes. At last.) ‘There’s broken glass, there’s evidence.’ (Exactly.) We talked for five hours, smoking, drinking coffee, while E tried to persuade me not to call the police. ‘Just give me two months to get away and I’ll leave. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Just give me a month. Two weeks. A week.’ ‘Look, Helen, there’s no reason you can’t feel safe in your home. You know I wouldn’t hurt you, don’t you?’ (Erm.)

Around 5 a.m. I got my hands on a flashlight, slipped out the door, and ran down the road through the woods.

I got up the hill to a neighbour’s house: she called 911.

The state police caught him a few days later.

If someone profoundly unstable is incandescent with rage, you can’t count on him to aim at the knees. You can’t count on him not to wrest your weed slasher from your hands and slash away. But if you can get him to talk, he is likely to be only too happy to talk. So the pattern of escalation has not come to an end, and there are scarier things than this stage of the pattern of behaviour. The source of terror was different. Each attempt to claim what I thought was a basic right had met muddle, misinformation and wildly haphazard enforcement. Money melted away, debt mounted, work was disrupted – and there was always some new game to be played that provoked someone profoundly unstable.

Breaking in and threatening to shoot showed that E was more unstable than I had realised, but it did at least promise an end to second-guessing the law. If I could get to a phone, the police, clearly, would take him into custody if they found him, and the prosecutor, clearly, would take measures to put a stop to the pattern.

On 3 September E was charged with reckless endangerment, unlawful restraint, stalking, obstruction of justice and felonious trespass. The prosecutor asked for a sentence of ‘from two to four or five years’. I suggested a brief stint in jail followed by extended probation, excluding access to my private road: what mattered was the long-term ability to use the place for work. I was told E was adamant in rejecting probation as part of the sentence. (Probation seems to be like the conditions of release game: it sets the offender up to fail, criminalising behaviour that is normally legal. E had told me alcohol would be off-limits, so there was no way he could get through it. That is, one could not place a restriction on his entering the road, because this would entail also criminalising his having a beer. This sort of offence seems to have contributed to the length of his criminal record.)

On 16 October I got a call from my victim advocate. The prosecutor thought my deposition had weakened the case, showing ‘absence of fear’. She’d reached a plea bargain slashing the sentence to 14 months, with no restrictions after release, and dropped a slew of charges leaving obstruction of justice and reckless endangerment.

I did not understand: the months of disruption counted for nothing. The only crime which merited a penalty was that of breaking in on a single occasion; the penalty offered no long-term control of the behaviour from which relief had been sought. Evidence counted for nothing. State of mind was not relevant to trespass: there was physical evidence for that. State of mind was relevant to stalking; evidence in the form of diaries, receipts, correspondence, testimony of neighbours was available in abundance – but had not been asked for.

My victim advocate insisted that financial and professional catastrophe were obviously not devastating because trespass was not a serious crime. A man breaking in and waving a weapon is the kind of thing that should be devastating; I had failed to convince as damsel in distress.

Winter was coming. I left for North Carolina. In February I was told E had been moved to a work camp. In early May I was told he was up for parole. I returned to Vermont to request a restriction on access to my road, and to organise notices against trespass and a stalking order. I went into the Sheriff’s Department on 20 May and was told it was too late to serve the papers: he was being released the next day – five months early.

The director of victim services explained: each day in work camp automatically earned an extra day off the sentence; he had also served ‘good time’ in state prison. The system was not set up to give victims these details. In short: official misinformation had actually brought me back at the time of greatest risk. Wonderful. I might think I’d have been better off in a state with a broader stalking law, or fiercer law on trespass. But if the police, prosecutor and department of corrections can all subvert the law at will, comparing legislation doesn’t help; the required reading is Rory Miller’s Scaling Force: Dynamic Decision-Making under Threat of Violence.

So here I am with a baseball bat. A gun might be a better bet. Who knows?

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16 days ago
This is completely fucked up.
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The Abortion Ministry of Dr. Willie Parker

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In light of Tuesday's court ruling against a Mississippi law that would close the last abortion clinic in the state, we are releasing a profile of a doctor who works there from our next issue, which has yet to appear on newsstands. For more stories like this one, subscribe to Esquire here.

Perfectly bald, with a salt-and-pepper goatee, a small gold hoop gleaming in his left ear, and a warm smile on his dark brown face, Dr. Willie Parker enters the waiting room. Eleven young women and one tired forty-three-year-old mother sit in a circle of chairs, regarding him with somber expressions. Eight are black. Four are white. One has jittery legs that never stop moving. Another has giant false eyelashes in constant motion. The rest are absolutely still, sitting with straight backs, like good students or condemned prisoners. One has her hair in a tight bun, another wears a Nefertiti head wrap, another wears a baseball hat that says LOVE and a T-shirt that says SOUTHERN GIRLS KNOW HOW TO PINCH A TAIL. Some have freckles, some wear glasses. One looks like a Botticelli painting, with skin so luminous it seems to shimmer. They are nurses and college students, clerks and saleswomen. One is in high school. One dances in a strip club. Another just got out of the Army.

"Good morning," Parker begins, launching into a spiel he will repeat four times that day, "I am one of two doctors who travel to Mississippi to provide abortion care."

This is because no doctor in Mississippi is willing to provide such a service. Although the state already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, including a twenty-four-hour waiting period, parental consent, face-to-face counseling with the physician, and a ban on the use of Medicaid funding (except in extraordinary cases), it is going all out to close this clinic, the last abortion provider in Mississippi, known as the Pink House because the defiant woman who owns it painted it pink to make it stand out, bold and unashamed. The latest fight is over whether abortion doctors should be required to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital in the event of a complication, an irrelevant requirement since a hospital's emergency-room staff usually does the admitting. It's a practice no other specialty is required to observe. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposes the state law that makes this a requirement. But a similar law may soon leave the state of Texas—home to twenty-seven million people—with just six abortion clinics. It is already law in North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah and looms over Alabama, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Louisiana and is likely to spread to other states, pressed by a nationwide conservative movement that uses regulation to force a result democratic votes cannot achieve. So Parker flies down from his home in Chicago for several days twice a month to perform the service so few other doctors are willing to provide.

"As you know," he continues, "there's been a lot of press recently about the efforts that the state is making to close this clinic. And we're fighting that. Just Monday, we were in New Orleans at the federal-court hearing. Right now we are waiting for them to rule on the changes in the law that would make us close. It might be a few weeks, might be a few months. But the bottom line is today the clinic is still open, so we can provide care for you. And that's what we're going to do."

Many of these women come from hours away, one from a little town on the Kentucky border that's a seven-hour drive. They don't know much about Dr. Parker. They don't know that he grew up a few hours away in Birmingham, the second youngest son of a single mother who raised six children on food stamps and welfare, so poor that he taught himself to read by a kerosene lamp and went to the bathroom in an outhouse; that he was born again in his teenage years and did a stint as a boy preacher in Baptist churches; that he became the first black student-body president of a mostly white high school, went on to Harvard and a distinguished career as a college professor and obstetrician who delivered thousands of babies and refused to do abortions. They certainly don't know about the "come to Jesus" moment, as he pointedly describes it, when he decided to give up his fancy career to become an abortion provider. Or that, at fifty-one, having resigned a prestigious job as medical director of Planned Parenthood, he's preparing to move back south and take over a circuit roughly similar—for safety reasons, he won't be more specific—to the one traveled by Dr. David Gunn before an antiabortion fanatic assassinated him in 1993. Or that his name and home address have been published by an antiabortion Web site with the unmistakable intent of terrorizing doctors like him. Or that he receives threats that say, "You've been warned." Or that he refuses to wear a bulletproof vest, because he doesn't want to live in fear—"if I'm that anxious, they've already taken my life"—but owns a stun gun because a practical man has to take precautions. What they do know is this:

He is the doctor who is going to stop them from being pregnant.

Today Parker is wearing green medical scrubs, and tomorrow he'll be wearing an orange T-shirt that says VOTING IS SEXY. His authority is in his manner, warm but always scientific. "There's some things that the state requires me to tell you," he begins. "Some of the information I'm required to give you is designed to discourage you or to scare you about the decision you're making, so I'm going to tell you the things that I have to tell you by law, but I'm also going to tell you what in my best medical opinion is more important for you to know."

In an almost priestly cadence, he builds a sermon around the word required. The first thing he's required by state law to explain is the possibility of complications. He could poke a hole in a uterus. There could be a life-threatening hemorrhage or infection, or damage to the bowel, fallopian tubes, ovaries, or bladder. There's also a possibility that their womb could be so severely injured a hysterectomy would be required, which would mean they couldn't have babies in the future.

With this news, the faces of the women become even more somber. The still ones remain completely still; the jittery ones get more jittery.

"But guess what?" he continues with another reassuring smile. "Those are all the exact same risks that go with having a baby. In fact, they're more likely to happen giving birth than they are with an abortion; a woman is ten times more likely to die in childbirth than she is having an abortion."

The women's faces show relief. Some of the motionless ones finally shift position.

"The second thing that I'm required to tell you is that if the reason you are having an abortion is financial, then the person you are pregnant by could be required to provide you with financial assistance."

One of the women laughs.

"The third thing is that the state requires us to give this brochure," he says, pointing to a stack of pamphlets. "It has information about adoption and other things that you might find useful. We're required to offer it to you, but you don't have to take it."

Nobody reaches for the brochure.

"And the final thing I'm required to tell you is the thing that I object to the most as a scientist and as a doctor. I'm required by law to tell you that having an abortion increases your risk for breast cancer. There is no scientific or medical evidence that supports that. The people against abortion outside yell that at women all the time. But the overwhelming majority of the studies show that that's not the case. Abortions actually protect your health."

With that, Parker finally moves on to the medical details they really want to hear. They will be given antibiotics and pain medicine, the women who are less than nine weeks can choose to have surgery or take abortifacient pills, which now account for 23 percent of American abortions. The pluses and minuses are a small pinch versus heavy bleeding, instant results versus a return visit in two weeks. But the decision is up to them. "I've never had one," he says.

As a group, the women laugh.

Now it's time for questions. One woman asks if the large cysts in her womb will be a problem. Another asks if she has to go to a pharmacy for the abortion pills. Another complains that her doctor refused to treat her vaginal infection because the drugs could cause a birth defect, even though she told him she was planning to end the pregnancy. Another asks how long they'll have to wait. Parker answers all their questions in generous detail, explaining the science and making jokes wherever he can. The relief the women feel is visible in their bodies. The jittering slows. The rigid postures relax.

"The last thing I want to say is a lot of times when you come, there might be protesters. There are people that are going to be telling you that what you're doing is wrong. It's immoral. That you can't be a Christian. That you're going to hell. And a lot of women that bothers. Because there are women here who also have a religious belief, who also feel like they're Christians."

A black woman nods.

"I see women who are crying because they are Christians," he continues, "and they are torn up by the fact that they don't believe in abortion but they're about to have one. What I tell them is that doesn't make you a hypocrite. You can never say what you will do until you're in the situation, and Christians get in jacked-up situations, too."

The woman nods again, twice.

"And I address this because if those people are getting inside your head and you're feeling conflicted, if you are not comfortable with what you're doing, you may be processing this far longer than you need to. There's nothing immoral about taking care of your health. There's nothing immoral about making the decision to not become a parent before you want to become one. There's more than one way to understand religion and spirituality and God. I do have belief in God. That's why I do this work. My belief in God tells me that the most important thing you can do for another human being is help them in their time of need."

At this, the women exchange glances.

Parker continues, spending more time on this issue than on anything else. One in three women will have an abortion by the time she's forty-five, he tells them. "Y'all talk about your shoes, you talk about where you work, where you bought your dress, but y'all ain't going to say, 'Oh girl, when did you have your abortion?' So I'm saying that if you are sitting in a room full of women, the only person you can really be sure about having an abortion is you. And you got to be comfortable with you."

So this is between you and your conscience, he tells them. "If you are comfortable with your decision, ignore everything from everybody else."

By this time, something unexpected has happened. This disparate group of a dozen women, who walked into this room not knowing who they would meet or what they would find, having only crisis in common, has become united, a team. A slender young white woman wearing Dickies work pants—the one who was recently in the Army—speaks up as if she's speaking for all of them: "Doing this as a group helps us to see that we are not the only one. Being able to speak to each other about a decision we are about to make, even if it's not close friends and family, it's very helpful."

"I'm happy to hear that," Parker says. "Because part of the suffering is when people feel like they are on their own. And that's why we have to keep it safe and legal."

The Pink House, so named by a defiant owner who wanted it to stand out on its street, does about 2,000 abortions a year, out of a total of 6,000 performed on women who live in the state of Mississippi. The “Antis” use this as evidence that women could go outside the state for abortions. Parker says this is true for women with the time and money. For that matter, women with means are often treated quietly by their own doctors. “It’s the poor women who have to come here, who have to do the perp walk.”

In fact, the Army veteran adds, she'd like to get involved with the clinic—to contribute somehow.

Parker beams and tells her to talk to him later.

He's ready to stop now—in the next step he will be doing private consultations with each of them—but the women don't want to let him go. What birth control should they take? Are the abortion pills or surgery more likely to preserve their ability to have babies in the future? Can they follow up with their regular doctors, or will they refuse even that? He answers all their questions and moves on to another room and another group of women, giving the same speech almost word for word.

This time, during the question session, a young white woman asks what happens in surgery when you're fourteen weeks pregnant. She has hair the color of straw, and she's wearing a college sweatshirt.

Parker starts to give a technical answer but stops when the woman starts to cry. "Is your concern also what it means for the fetus?" he asks.

She wipes away her tears. "I'm in a bad situation and I just can't have the baby right now—it's just a bad time."

Parker tries to soothe her, but this makes her weeping only more intense. She's scared, she says. "And I don't want to take any risks that could cause other people to know about it."

Parker nods and continues in a softer voice: "I can tell you that in the last four years, we have not transferred one patient to the hospital. The likelihood of being transferred to the hospital after an abortion is 0.3 percent."

Her tears slow down as he continues at length, applying a treatment method he calls "verbicaine." She's in college trying to get a degree, she got dumped by her boyfriend, her parents are very conservative, her hometown is the tiny place near the Kentucky border, seven hours away. But she didn't want to do this anywhere near there.

"Well, that just kind of shows what the reality is for women in this state," Parker says to her. "We've got one clinic and they're trying to close it."

When Parker was ten, his mother moved from the house with no electricity and plumbing into his grandfather's place. To get to that neighborhood, you drive past a gravel plant. Here, the world is coated with gray dust. Parker's youngest brother points out the sights: "They call that the lie tree, because everybody set up under that tree and drink and tell lies."

Their grandfather's house is simple, square, made of weathered boards that were never painted. The house that didn't have plumbing is a few streets over, abandoned now, a lone shoe left behind on the porch.

One street over is an area they called the "White Quarter." Its backyards adjoined the Parker yard, but the blacks were never supposed to cross the line, much less drive down the white street. Naturally, the boys took this as a challenge. "It was a thrill to get on your bike and go down that hill. Three or four of us would get at the top and yell Go! and we just shoot down the road. Next thing you know, the dogs all come out running at you—or somebody shoot at you."

When he went off to college, Parker was still wearing a Jesus pin in his lapel every day and devoted his Saturday mornings to knocking on dorm-room doors to spread the Word. But that was the fall of 1981, when Reagan was funding the contras in Nicaragua and apartheid in South Africa was making the news, and his professors threw out one moral challenge after another. "Now it's not just about Jesus gets you to heaven and you live fine with pie in the sky by and by but what is your role as a Christian in the modern world?"

One professor even asked him to write a paper on abortion. His answer was rooted in "Thou shalt not kill," but he was already reluctant to judge. "My hope was that women would approach the question prayerfully," he remembers.

After medical school, he bought a big house and a nice car and overstuffed his refrigerator the way people from poverty do, but those satisfactions soon seemed empty. He dated but never quite settled down. Inspired by Gandhi's idea that the Gospel should appear to a hungry man in the form of bread, he went to work in a food pantry. But gradually, the steady stream of women with reproductive issues in his practice focused his mind. He thought about his mother and sisters and the grandmother who died in childbirth and began to read widely in the literature of civil rights and feminism. Eventually he came across the concept of "reproductive justice," developed by black feminists who argued that the best way to raise women out of poverty is to give them control of their reproductive decisions. Finally, he had his "come to Jesus" moment and the bell rang. This would be his civil-rights struggle. He would serve women in their darkest moment of need. "The protesters say they're opposed to abortion because they're Christian," Parker says. "It's hard for them to accept that I do abortions because I'm a Christian." He gave up obstetrics to become a full-time abortionist on the day, five years ago, that George Tiller was murdered in church.

Now he rushes around all the time, flying from Chicago to Philadelphia to Birmingham, where he picks up a car at his brother's house and drives to the pink building in the artsy district of Jackson, where he proceeds down a hall lined with women waiting on plastic chairs to the saddest little desk you've ever seen—actually part of a hutch ripped from its base and turned to the middle of the room, raw wallboard showing. The women now come in one by one, asking questions they didn't want to ask in the group.

"Can I call and change my mind?"

"Can I go back to work the next day?"

"Can my mom be in the room with me?"

The oldest woman of the group says she has a son who's nineteen and a daughter who's seventeen, and she just had a baby two years ago who died of a heart defect. "She came home and everything," she says in a mournful voice. Plus she's anemic but not taking drugs for it. And she has asthma. And possibly a touch of bronchitis.

Another woman asks how long it will take before she can wear tampons again. "I know this sounds so selfish and everything, but I'm going to the beach next week—don't think I'm a selfish person!"

Several women say they've always been against abortion, but they're not emotionally or financially ready to have a baby. "I just wish that people that are so against it could understand," one says. "These old men out here protesting do not have vaginas or uteruses."

"Preach," Parker says.

"It just makes me so mad!"

Parker's beaming again, grinning wide. If this happened to men, he says, abortion would be free and they'd pass out free Super Bowl tickets and have public ceremonies to celebrate our brothers who went through the tough decision. He wishes more women had her righteous indignation instead of shame.

When the skinny Army veteran comes in, Parker tells her she made his day with her offer to contribute. Most women are just relieved to get it over with. They never want to see this place again.

"Actually, I want to apply for a job," she says.

"You should," he says.

"I will," she replies. "Even if I don't get a job, I'll still come back and volunteer. I just want to be a part of this."

The next woman, the one with the giant eyelashes, is worried about how taking the abortion pills will affect her work. "I dance," she says.

"You can dance."

"Not with a pad on."

Another woman is already sixteen weeks, and he tells her she has to come tomorrow or she'll be too far.

"Too far for what?"

"To have an abortion in Mississippi."


"Really. Your last day to have an abortion in Mississippi will be Monday, and we're not going to be open on Monday."

"So I have to come tomorrow?" She repeats it as if she can't believe it. "Next week I'll be too far? I have to come tomorrow?"

Correct, he says.

She takes out her cell phone and presses the buttons. When someone answers, she tells him next week will be too late. She listens for a moment, then interrupts. "You not getting it—by Monday it will be too late for me to have an abortion in Mississippi period. You got the money?"

Finally, the sad college student comes in. They talk for a while about her tiny hometown, where she goes to college, an impending visit from her parents. After they discuss her concerns about cramping and bleeding and whether it will be so bad her parents will notice, Parker asks what she's studying.

"Forensic science," she says.

What exactly? he asks.

"Fingerprint analysis, DNA analysis, and stuff like that. They make you take chemistry and biology and stuff like that."

He teases her about getting on one of those CSI shows and finally gets a laugh out of her.

In all these interactions, even if it has nothing to do with abortion, Parker never misses a chance to offer comfort. This seems to be his version of absolution, often delivered with a moral. There's no reason to be ashamed of being a dancer, he tells the dancer. "That's how you make your living." And asking about tampons and the beach is not a selfish question. "Part of the reason women feel judged is they're made to feel selfish." And yes, if you must, you can probably go to work the next day. "Black women used to give birth to babies and keep picking cotton, you know, so maybe it's in your legacy to be strong."

Each time, he asks when they want to get it done.



"As soon as possible."

When one woman leaves, she thanks him three times. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

He tells her to take care.

After she leaves, he takes a moment. "Sometimes women have that look in their eyes—Whatever you do, don't say no to me. That's … you know … I think that's too much power for anybody to have over somebody's life."

On that day, the women come, one after another after another. Parker is down here only twice a month, and as the need is great, the cases get backed up, forcing him sometimes to see as many as forty-five women in a single day. A Cajun from New Orleans says she's got finals next week, she's studying health science on scholarship, was thinking of going to nursing school. She also runs track.

"What is your event?" he asks.

"I do the 200, the 4x100, 4x400—do it all."

"Did you qualify for nationals?"

"No," she says.

"Maybe next year," he says.

The next woman is in school, too, and she already has one daughter.

The next woman is eight weeks and two days. She has to work tomorrow. "Can I go to work?"

The next woman is six weeks and one day, and she's in school, too. "I want to be a physical therapist. I plan to go to the university medical school."

He says he'll take care of her.

The next woman wants to know if she'll see anything.

"Right now there's not a whole lot there," he assures her. "That little sac is about the size of my pinkie now. It's not like the pictures of the baby parts that the antiabortion people show you."

She wants him to know she's opposed to abortion, at least in principle. "I don't believe in it. If I caught it later and it was just like a whole little person … but I know I can't be the parent I want to be for my child."

Another patient is in high school, a sweet-looking blond. She comes in with her mother. Parker asks the mother to step out for a moment. When she's gone, he tells the daughter that sometimes the parent is the one who is pushing the idea. "Is this your idea to have an abortion? Do you feel comfortable with your decision?"

She says she's fine with it.

The next woman, the forty-three-year-old, already has two kids, plus she's recovering from thyroid cancer. "Actually, my tubes are tied," she tells him. "I really don't want any more kids."

"I hear you," he says.

She works at a religious hospital, she adds. "They don't know I'm doing this. That's why I want to do the pill. I just want to make it seem like I had a miscarriage."

In an ideal world, he tells her, her doctor could have done her abortion and fixed her tubes at the same time so she wouldn't have to go through the risk of two procedures. "But in Mississippi," he says, "you're getting the best you can get."

Another woman comes, and then another and another—and this one, slender and very beautiful, says it's impossible she's six weeks pregnant because she hasn't had sex but one time, four weeks ago.

"I don't know what to tell you, my sister," he says with a laugh. "All I can tell you is that there's something in your uterus."

"We gotta get it out of there," she says.

He can help with that, he assures her.

"I'm just going to go lesbian," she says.

"I've done abortions on three lesbians," he tells her.

She gasps. "Lesbians fucking?"

"Yeah, they do. Every now and then someone falls off the wagon."

"I'm, like, in total dismay," she says.

"How you get down is nobody's business," he tells her, "but you don't have to switch your diet up like that."

She laughs. "Look at you defending me."

"That's part of the issue. People don't think women are supposed to enjoy sex. So when you enjoy sex—

"It's like, 'Oh, you whore!' "

"Owning your sexuality and making good choices about it—that's the thing I endorse. Run it; don't let it run you."

She nods. "Okay, I feel better."

The next woman is fifteen weeks and two days and can't take time off from work this week. He tells her that if she doesn't come tomorrow, she won't be able to have an abortion in Mississippi.

She gasps. "Oh no!"

"You are going to slip and break your leg just for a day," he says. "And we'll give you a note that won't say abortion clinic on it."

Another woman comes in. Her question is simple: "How much is it?"

When the consultations are over, Parker vents. These poor women have to come through all those verbal assaults from the "Antis," as he calls them, the taunting and the judgment and the cloying malice of their prayers. But the Antis never ask the hardest question: If they really think abortion is murder, how long should a woman be in prison? Instead, they go after the doctors. And other doctors will say, Bless you, you're so brave, but they turn women away and often don't even refer them to someone who will help them. And some will say smugly, We don't do that here, failing to recognize that what he does allows them to make that smug declaration, allows them to present themselves as noble caregivers while they send their most desperate patients out to fend for themselves.

And don't get him started on the state's fight for admitting privileges. The Pink House does about two thousand abortions a year, and CDC records say that Mississippi residents get six thousand abortions a year. The state used this as evidence that women could always go outside the state, making it fine to shut down the Pink House—the exact same argument, as it happens, that segregationists once used to keep Mississippi colleges white. But the reality is women with money will do what they did pre-Roe: Their expensive private doctors will counsel them on exactly the right words to use about mental trauma and suicidal tendencies so that the hospital board will rule the termination of their pregnancy a medical necessity. But the women who come to this clinic are often poor women of color who can't afford to go outside the state and who can't afford the expensive consultations on just the right words to say. "They're the ones who have to do the perp walk," Parker says. The Antis, who call themselves pro-life, don't seem to care that before Roe v. Wade, hundreds of women a year died trying to terminate their own pregnancy or from an illegal abortion, a disproportionate number of them minorities. "We know what happens when abortion is illegal," Parker says. "Women suffer and they die. But when abortion is safe and legal, patient mortality goes virtually to zero."

And now the famously conservative Fifth Circuit court, the same court that upheld a similar restrictive law in Texas, has the fate of these women in its hands. The federal district court overruled Mississippi on the basis that the law would leave the state without a single abortion clinic. But Governor Phil Bryant, who has promised to make Mississippi "an abortion-free zone," is confident that the appellate court will see things his way. After all, he has said that he is now simply trying to protect women's health. But women haven't been showing up in the emergency room with injuries or complications, he says. There's never been a report from the Mississippi Department of Health suggesting that complications from abortion are high. The law seeks to solve a problem that does not exist, and its regulations are completely arbitrary, an abuse of regulatory authority. And it all comes back to the early Judeo-Christian narratives that say the fall of man was caused by a woman, Parker says. "That's woven into our culture, and it has to be deconstructed at every level."

One result: In 2012, America's teenage girls had an average of thirty-one births per one thousand. In Canada, the number was fourteen. In France, six. In Sweden, seven. The difference is that those countries promote contraception without shame. "So it seems like if they want to reduce abortion, the best thing to do would be to support contraception—but they're against contraception, too, because contraception and abortion decouple sexuality from procreation. That's why I think religious preoccupation with abortion is largely about controlling the sexuality of women."

But what bothers him the most, he continues, is the argument that abortion is a secret plot to kill black babies. At a time when African Americans are suffering tremendous amounts of economic disparity and human suffering, the Antis want to compound the suffering by making people feel conflicted about controlling the size of their families—like that nursing student this morning who had to juggle her abortion with her finals next week. "The people who talk about black genocide are the same people who defund Head Start and food stamps and are now trying to dismantle public education by encouraging voucher systems—all of the systems that need to be in place to take care of those black babies. It's diabolical."

A clinic aide interrupts. Two more groups of women are ready for the orientation.

The next day, Parker does abortions. By the entrance to the parking lot, beside walls decorated with defiant signs that say JESUS DIDN'T SHAME WOMEN, PRAY TO END SIDEWALK BULLYING, JUDGE NOT LEST YOU BE JUDGED, and DR. PARKER IS A HERO, two patient escorts stand beside a portable boom box playing defiant songs, like Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down." Across the driveway stand four protesters with signs about murder and dead babies. At the sight of an unfamiliar face, one of them takes out a camera and snaps a picture.

When the high school girl and her mom arrive, one of the escorts tells them to park down the hill and she'll walk them back up, steering them past the protesters.

The escort's name is Michelle Colon. She's been doing this for ten years, and she has her own abortion story about herbs from an elder and the emergency room. Things are quiet today because there's a lull while they wait for the Fifth Circuit's decision, but she's seen fifty protesters out here screaming at women as they enter or emerge from the clinic. Sometimes they surround a car and shove their pamphlets through the window, shouting "Mommy, don't kill me." To patients of color, they say, "You're going to kill the next Obama, you're going to kill the next Martin Luther King." They call Colon the "deathscort."

On the patio nearby, the high school girl's mother waits. She doesn't want to give her name, because she doesn't want her husband to know they're here. "He would just be shitty about it," she says. "He comes from one of those really strict Catholic backgrounds."

Sitting under the awning, they gripe about Mississippi. Although it has the highest obesity rate, the highest rate of gonorrhea, the highest child-mortality rate, and one of the highest teenage-pregnancy rates, the governor turned down Obamacare's Medicaid expansion. But they're number one in religion.

While they talk, women come out of the clinic one by one. Some breeze out, some look shaken. One clutches her belly. Now it's the former soldier coming out, head held high and shoulders back. She's a nurse, twenty-five. She says the protesters were very intimidating when she came in and that helped spark her desire to work here. "I'm a Christian. I go to church every Sunday. I believe Jesus Christ is the one true savior of the world. But the way they're going about this is not going to bring people to Christ. They're not doing it with dignity and respect and compassion."

And what brought her here?

As she answers, her voice begins to shake: "Um, my husband passed away—he committed suicide. He committed suicide in front of his family. I already have one son with him, and I just feel very alone. I don't have the means—the financial means—to raise another child."

She presses on, fighting back tears. "Also, right now my mental state is not … appropriate for a young child. So I would like to address my mental health and seek out therapy and counseling before I bring another life into this world."

Behind her, the escorts are wiping away tears, and the protesters shout their imprecations. Colon goes to the boom box and cranks it up:

In a world that keeps on pushing me around, but I'll stand my ground.

That night, Dr. Parker drives his old Volkswagen to Montgomery, Alabama. He's due at the clinic there at 6:15 in the morning.

Driving in the dark, Parker gets reflective. He remembers leaving for college thirty years ago, when he didn't want to stop in Mississippi because the state's ugly racial history made the trees seem taller and the skies seem darker. Now we're driving the Freedom Trail in reverse, heading toward the turnout where the bus got firebombed and the spot where a lone white protest marcher was shot dead and black protesters picked up his sign and continued on. In an hour or two, we'll get to Selma and the famous bridge where the Alabama police launched their savage attack on civil-rights marchers.

Parker's mind spins back to childhood. His mother was a very kind woman but a disciplinarian from the old school—if somebody took your bike, she'd send you to get it back. She had her first baby at seventeen and died at fifty-three, worn out by six children and a life of manual labor, but she was trying to get her GED when she died and she took them to the Faith Chapel Christian Center three days a week. They never knew they were poor. "We had penny candy, we played hopscotch, we had all these simple pleasures."

Being bullied had an impact, definitely. He remembers what it's like to be terrorized. That fueled the search for social justice that led him, eventually, to theologians like Paul Tillich, Dr. King, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who wrestled with "Thou shalt not kill" before joining a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. "He said the kind of Christianity that does not radicalize you with regard to human suffering is inauthentic—cheap and easy grace."

His "come to Jesus" moment occurred in Hawaii. He was teaching at the university when a fundamentalist administrator began trying to ban abortions in the school clinic, throwing students with an unwanted pregnancy into a panic. One day, he was listening to a sermon by Dr. King on the theme of what made the Good Samaritan good. A member of his own community passed the injured traveler by, King said, because they asked, "What would happen to me if I stopped to help this guy?" The Good Samaritan was good because he reversed the question: "What would happen to this guy if I don't stop to help him?" So Parker looked in his soul and asked himself, "What happens to these women when abortion is not available?"

He knew the answer.

At midnight, he arrives at a modest hotel called the SpringHill Suites—with five hours to sleep before he rises for his next shift.

At the Montgomery clinic, one of the last three abortion clinics in Alabama, Parker gives a quick tour of things that violate his sense of justice. At the cost of $40,000, the state required the owner to move the air conditioners into a fireproof closet with reinforced doors in addition to adding new alarms and lights—all completely unnecessary. "They don't have anything to do with safety. It's about consumption of your resources." He chats with the clinic owner, a woman named June Ayres, who hobbles badly from bone cancer but, after thirty-six years at the clinic, won't give up working all day, every day, trading stories about the many forms of harassment they've experienced—the plastic fetuses in the mail; the packages of fake anthrax; the glue in their locks; the Operation Rescue era, when sixty or seventy protesters would block their doors; the clinic bombing in Birmingham that killed a policeman and severely injured a nurse; the murder of Dr. Gunn; and the former policeman, recently on Nightline, who once said he thought he should have the right to shoot abortion doctors in the head. The last doctor here quit when all the personal information she gave to state officials suddenly appeared on, Ayres says. "It terrified her. She felt she had a target on her back and she just quit."

In this clinic, Parker's office is a storeroom filled with old chairs and traffic cones. He puts down his bag, abandons a plate of half-eaten eggs, and launches into a series of ultrasounds he feels are unnecessary—another mandate from the state. Each time, he begins with the same line: "The state requires me to repeat your ultrasound, so I'm going to do that."

In Mississippi, he says, they don't make you redo the ultrasound. In other states, they make you point out the fetal parts to the patient. It's pure harassment. The purpose is to "heighten the dilemma."

And so it does. The very first patient wants to know how far along she is.

"It is very small. Less than six weeks."

"Is there a fetal pole?" the patient asks.

"Are you a health-care professional?"

She's a nurse on a surgical-trauma team. She's here for officer's school.

"So you are Air Force?"

"Yes, sir."

When he tells her about the medication options, she shakes her head. "I am choosing to do it

without the sedative," she says.

"That's fine. I'll be your sedative."

Patient after patient follows, thirty-four in all because the clinic hasn't had a doctor present for two weeks. Most of them have the same questions—how old the fetus is and whether they can have children in the future.

A woman named Monique asks if she gets a wish. Sure, Parker says.

"Please tell me that you can't find it."

"If only we could wish it away," he says.

Another woman tries to explain—she just got a promotion; she can't have a baby now.

"I hear ya. Life is full of those kinds of decisions."

One scan causes him to pause. "Do you want to know if there is more than one?" he asks.

The woman starts to cry. "No." She wipes away tears with both hands.

When she leaves, he points to the screen. Triplets. He's seen lots of twins but never triplets. Some women think multiples are more special, so they get more upset.

After another scan, he points at the tiny blob on the screen. Eighty-nine percent of pregnancies are that small or smaller at termination. "That's what we're fighting about. To people against abortion, that's a person. And that's more important than the woman."

When it's all over, he goes back to his storage closet and scoops down his cold eggs, then proceeds to a surgery room. The woman puts her feet in the stirrups and says, "I'm ready," and the door closes.

Right across is the recovery room, empty now. An elderly black woman named Callie Chatman sits waiting for the women to emerge from surgery. She's a youth minister at a local Baptist church, where her husband is the pastor. She serves here as an exit counselor. "You know, preacher been teaching that the wages of sin is death," she says. "Not many of them know that God is a forgiving God. So if they ask me if I think they'll go to hell, I tell them what Jesus say: 'I do not condemn thee. Go and sin no more.' I tell them not to make the same mistake—and how not to make the same mistake."

Not one woman has told her that she thought abortion was okay, she adds. "What they have told me is it's the last resort. And I am here to let them know that God will meet you right where you are. And then I ask them to accept Christ as their lord and savior."

A couple women have accepted, she says, right here in the recovery room.

Now we arrive at the heart of the process, the focus of so much controversy and rage. In the surgical room, Dr. Parker softens each woman's cervix and uses a vacuum extractor to remove her pregnancy. The entire process takes five minutes. After each procedure, he carries the large glass vacuum bottle into an adjoining room. There he pours the fetal tissue from the bottle into an ordinary kitchen strainer and runs tap water over it, then empties the strainer into a clear Pyrex dish and examines the tissue on a light table.

Bending over the glass dish, he stares with the blank expression of a scientist at work. Come closer, he says. Have a look. These are blood clots and this is the decidual tissue, the stuff that looks like feathery coral. That supports the embryo, sloughing off monthly if a pregnancy doesn't develop.

This one is six weeks. It's just lumps of red tissue floating in water.

When the triplets arrive, he points out one sac, two sacs, three sacs.

But then he brings in one that's nine weeks and there's a fetus. He points out the scattered parts. "There's the skull, what is going to be the fetal skull. And there are the eye sockets."

Floating near the top of the dish are two tiny arms with two tiny hands.

Parker continues to examine the tissue. He points to a black spot the size of a pencil tip. "That's an eye."

"That black spot?"

"That black spot is an eye. And here's the umbilical cord."

The fetal pole has just begun to differentiate into a spine, but it still has a fishy tail of some kind of feathery material.

Very few outsiders are invited into this room, and rare is the doctor who would show this to a reporter. But today he made a conscious decision not to hide the truth. "At some point, we have to trust that people can deal with the reality of what this is," he says. "And keeping it hidden only enhances the stigma."

Growing reflective, he continues to study the parts. "The reality is we've disrupted a life process. There are recognizable fetal parts, right? The capacity for this development is always there. After five weeks, you just have the sac. At six weeks, you have a fetal pole with cardiac activity. At seven to eight weeks, it's just a larger fetal pole. By nine, it's differentiated."

But here's the vital question: Is it a person? Not by the standards of the law, he says. Is it viable outside the womb? It is not. So this piece of life—and remember, sperm is alive, eggs are alive, it's all life—is still totally dependent on a woman. And that dependence puts it in the domain of her choice. "That's what I embrace," he says.

But it's hard not to look at those tiny fingers, no bigger than the tip of a toothpick.

Does that ever disturb him?

"When I recognize whole fetal parts? No. Because I'm not deluded about what this whole process is."

And what does examining this tissue tell him? Does this satisfy another state regulation?

"It tells me her uterus is empty and she is no longer pregnant."

With that, Dr. Parker goes back into the operating room to give the woman who can now become an Air Force officer the sad good news.

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17 days ago
Outstanding. This man is a hero.
San Francisco, CA
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Bud and Miller Are Trying to Hijack Craft Beer—and It’s Totally Backfiring

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InBev and MillerCoors loom over the US beer landscape like…well, like one of those monstrous inflatable Bud Light bottles that spring up at certain football tailgate parties and outdoor concerts. Together, the two global giants own nearly 80 percent of the US beer market. InBev alone, corporate owner of Budweiser, spends a staggering $449 million on US advertising.

But also like those vast blow-up beer bottles, their presence is not-so-faintly ridiculous and always teetering. The industry's signature light beers are suffering a "slow, watery death," BusinessWeek recently reported, their sales declining steadily.

Meanwhile, independent breweries cranking out distinctive product—known as craft breweries—are undergoing an accelerating renaissance. "Sales of craft beers grew 16 percent in volume over the past year versus a 1.7 percent decline for the biggest U.S. beer brands," Bloomberg reported in January. And new craft breweries are budding like hop flowers in spring. Here are the latest numbers, just out from the Brewer's Association. Note that that the number of US craft brewers has nearly doubled since 2010, and grew 20 percent in the past year alone.

Chart: The Brewers Association

Now, here's an historical look at the situation, a chart that I also included the last time I looked at the craft-beer revival, back in 2011. Note that the number of breweries plunged with the coming of Prohibition, surged with the onset of legalization in the 1930s, and then began a long, slow decline as the beer industry consolidated into the hands of giants like Budweiser, Coors, and Miller. By the end of the 1970s, the entire US beer market was being satisfied, if that's the word, by fewer than 100 large brewing facilities.

And then, starting in the early '80s—with the gradual demise of Prohibition-era restrictions like the one that kept breweries from selling beer directly to the public, as well as people's growing distaste for watered-down swill—the craft-brew revival, the one reaching full flower today, emerged.

Chart: Biodesic

For its part, Big Beer has responded to the declining popularity of its goods in two ways. The first is relentless cost cutting. When Belgian mega-brewer InBev bought US corporate beer giant Bud in 2008, it very quickly slashed 1,400 jobs, about 6 percent of its US workforce. And the laser-like focus on slashing costs has continued, as this aptly titled 2012 BusinessWeek piece, "The Plot to Destroy America's Beer," shows.

Ersatz "craft" beers include Shock Top, Blue Moon, Leinenkugel, Killian's, Batch 19, and Third Shift.

The second is to roll out phony craft beers—brands like ShockTop and Blue Moon—and buy up legit craft brewers like Chicago's Goose Island, which InBev did in 2011. Other ersatz "craft" beers include Leinenkugel, Killian's, Batch 19, and Third Shift. The strategy has been successful, to a point. Bloomberg reports that InBev has seen its Goose Island and Shock Top sales surge.

But there's a catch: These stealth Big Beer brands aren't "putting the microbrewers who started the movement out of business," Bloomberg reports. Rather, "the new labels are taking sales from already-troubled mass-market brands owned by the industry giants peddling these crafty brews." In other words, consumers aren't dropping Sierra Nevada or Dogfish Head and reaching for the Shocktop. Rather, ShockTop sales are being propped up by refugees from Bud Light and the like.

Meanwhile, the beer world is buzzing about what would be the granddaddy of all mergers: rumors are swirling that InBev is preparing a bid to takeover SABMiller, a move that would give the combined company 30 percent of the globe's beer market. The motivation, reports the St. Louis Post Dispatch: "A-B InBev could reap $2 billion in cost-savings through an acquisition of their largest rival, through global procurement and shared services, and eliminating job redundancies."

While Big Beer attempts to solve its problems with crafty marketing and yet more giantism, US craft brewers are trying out innovative business models. Big-name craft brewers Full Sail (Oregon), New Belgium (Colorado), and Harpoon (Boston) are all fully employee-owned. Here in Austin, Black Star Brewery and Pub is cooperatively owned by 3,000 community members and managed by a "workers assembly" as a "democratic self-managed workplace." It may sound like it should be a cluster, but the place is always packed, the service is brisk, the food is good, and the beer is excellent. And the employees proudly refuse tips, citing their living wage as the reason. Meanwhile, a forthcoming worker-owned project, 4thTap Brewing Co-op, is creating excitement among Austin beer nerds with its promise to "bring radical brewing to the forefront of the Texas craft beer scene."

For me, all of this ferment underlines an important point about the US food scene: It may be dominated by a few massive, heavily marketed companies at the top, but that doesn't stop viable alternatives from bubbling from below.

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17 days ago
New York, NY
17 days ago
I have real hope that the good guys are gonna win this one.
San Francisco, CA
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Mother Hydra
1 day ago
Austin, seriously? Houston has, last I counted, 8 awesome craft breweries including the venerable Karbach. How is Austin worth mentioning in this article versus Houston. The marginalization of Houston marches on.
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