Wednesday, April 25, 2018

`Hie thee hither': Shakespeare's best onstage, not on the page -- April 26, 2018 column


Poet Ben Jonson wrote in his tribute to William Shakespeare: “He was not of an age but for all time!”

Lucky guess.   

More than 400 years later, we’re still reading, watching and arguing over Shakespeare. Most of us are, anyway.

High school students continue to struggle over the Bard, thanks to the Common Core standards, but most major universities long ago dropped the requirement that English majors take even a single Shakespeare course.

Two years ago, students at the University of Pennsylvania removed a large portrait of Shakespeare from the English Department and replaced it first with a picture of Audre Lorde, an African American writer, feminist and civil rights activist, and later with a collage of 88 writers and filmmakers.

Last June, a production of “Julius Caesar” in New York’s Central Park became a conservative cause célèbre when Caesar was depicted as a Trumpian with blond hair and a red tie, “whose bloody stabbing is seen as offensive and inappropriate to some who have seen it,” The New York Times reported. 

Defenders countered the tragedy shows the consequences of violence and its disastrous effects.

Shakespeare was born in April 1564, so before the month slips away, let’s give him props. Bob Dylan did. 

When the great Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, he asked Patti Smith to deliver his speech at the awards ceremony in Stockholm. Here's an excerpt:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure.

I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn't have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read.

When he was writing Hamlet, I'm sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: "Who're the right actors for these roles?" "How should this be staged?" "Do I really want to set this in Denmark?"

His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. "Is the financing in place?" "Are there enough good seats for my patrons?" "Where am I going to get a human skull?" I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare's mind was the question "Is this literature?"

Leave it to Dylan to imagine Shakespeare not as highfalutin artiste but a playwright juggling his words and picky details. Dylan has it right, of course. Shakespeare’s plays are meant for the stage, not the page.

I know this after seeing three Shakespeare plays in two weeks. It was the first time, but won’t be the last, I sorta-binge-watched the Bard.

First was “Romeo and Juliet” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, a good warmup for the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, where “Macbeth” played one evening and “The Taming of the Shrew” the next afternoon.

Shakespeare’s themes generally are timeless, though modern sensibilities do prickle occasionally. Juliet’s marrying at age 13 is disturbing, and so is Taming’s last scene when Kate, starved and sleep-deprived into submission, says: “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign . . .”

Despite such quibbles, I enjoyed the plays immensely.

There’s hardly a better place for Shakespeare than the 300-seat Blackfriars Theater at the ASC. Opened in 2001, it’s a recreation of the Jacobean playhouse in London’s Blackfriars neighborhood. Blackfriars was the indoor theater where Shakespeare put on his plays, the Globe his outdoor venue.

The ASC’s repertory company delivers three or four well-staged productions a week. The versatile actors also dance, sing and play instruments in acoustic musical performances before the shows and during intermission.

“We do it with the lights on,” the theater brags, because Shakespeare produced his plays in what’s called universal light. That means the audience and actors not only can see each other but also interact. You don’t need to understand every archaic word to follow and enjoy the plays.

It’s improbable to find a first-class Shakespeare theater in a small town in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, but like Shakespeare’s work, it’s an enchanting experience.

Take a cue from Lady Macbeth and “hie thee hither” to see Shakespeare onstage.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Fighting hunger or the poor? Political battle over SNAP resumes -- April 19, 2018 column


Long before President Donald Trump bestowed a lavish tax break on the rich and proposed “harvest baskets” for the poor, another president said:

“That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable.”

Name that president. Was it Democrat FDR, JFK or LBJ?

Guess again. Republican Richard Nixon sent Congress the optimistic message in May 1969 that “the most bounteous of nations” should expand food stamps as part of an array of approaches to beat hunger. The program grew dramatically in the 1970s.

Back then, fighting hunger – not the poor -- was a bipartisan cause.

Then, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan reaped political hay by demonizing “welfare queens.” In office, he slashed the social safety net, including food stamps.

When Republican Newt Gingrich ran for president, briefly, in 2012, he called President Barack Obama “the best food stamp president in American history.” It wasn’t a compliment.

More than 46 million people received food stamps that year. As the economy improved, food stamp rolls dropped. About 40 million participated in January 2018, the lowest level since 2010. 

But, to borrow a Reagan phrase, here we go again.

It’s an election year, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, as food stamps are officially called, is a political flash point.

Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee were in open revolt Wednesday over a bill by Chairman Mike Conaway, Republican of Texas, that cuts spending and imposes new work requirements for almost all SNAP participants.  

Conaway contended his bill provides participants “the hope of a job and a skill and a better future for themselves and their families.”   

But Democrats, while supporting current work requirements, condemned the new rules, which were formulated without their input.

“Let me be clear: This bill, as currently written, kicks people off the SNAP program,” said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the committee’s top Democrat, who called it an “ideological attack” on SNAP. It would create “giant, untested bureaucracies at the state level” lacking the money needed for meaningful job training, he said.

About 2 million people — particularly in low-income working families with children — would receive less or lose benefits altogether, the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said in an analysis. A few would receive higher benefits, due to changes in how earnings are counted, but the net effect would still be a significant cut overall.

At $70 billion a year, food stamps are about three-quarters of spending in the Farm Bill, which also pays for crop subsidies, farm credit and land conservation. The bill cuts food stamp spending by $17.1 billion over 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.

The committee approved the bill on a party line vote, but its future is murky. Even if the full House approves it, the Senate Agriculture Committee plans to write a bipartisan bill. In the past, an alliance of rural and urban lawmakers with different priorities has pushed the Farm Bill through Congress.

It’s worth remembering that 43 percent of SNAP participants live in a household where someone works. Rules already require participants to meet work requirements unless exempt because of age, disability or another reason. Able-bodied adults without dependents – ABAWDs in government jargon -- 18 to 49 can receive benefits for three months but after that must work or be in training. 

The House bill requires all work-capable adults aged 18 to 59 who are not disabled or caring for a child under 6 to demonstrate every month they are working or in job-training 20 hours a week.

Critics see punitive and racial overtones in the bill.

“The images of `able-bodied’ men not working are of African American men,” Rep. David Scott, Democrat of Georgia, said at the hearing.

“I guarantee you, if all the people who were on food stamps were white, there wouldn’t be this,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The House bill is an embarrassment, as was the Trump administration’s plan to begin distributing non-perishable items in “harvest boxes” to replace some food stamp benefits. That plan was widely panned as unworkable and seems to have been scrapped.   

The House bill should meet a similar end. In this “most bounteous of nations,” the Senate should start over with a bill Democrats and Republicans can support.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ryan's choice good for him -- and Democrats -- April 12, 2018 column

Normally, when a big-name public official announces he – it’s usually he -- is quitting his job to spend more time with his family, it’s a dodge.
Heads nod, knowing he’s in trouble and has no cushy job waiting on the outside. Few feel his pain.
For members of Congress, the family excuse often means the politician faces a tough re-election or must relinquish his committee chairman gavel because of House term limit rules. Or both.
Some go out complaining about the capital’s toxic atmosphere, the dysfunctional Congress and the never-ending quest for campaign cash.
A few members this year are also leaving Congress under the cloud of sexual harassment accusations.
In contrast, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s surprise announcement Wednesday he won’t seek another term in Congress was Dad of the Year material. He spoke about going home to Janesville, Wisconsin, to his wife Janna and children Liza, Sam and Charlie.
“This is my 20th year in Congress. My kids weren’t even born when I was first elected. Our oldest was 13 when I became speaker. Now all three of our kids are teenagers. And one thing I’ve learned about teenagers is their idea of an ideal weekend is not necessarily to spend all of the time with their parents,” Ryan told reporters.
And here’s the kicker: “What I realize is, if I’m here for one more term, my kids will only have ever known me as a weekend dad. I just can’t let that happen.”
You don’t have to be in Congress to know what Ryan is talking about. Many moms and dads in demanding careers have similar nagging guilt.
Perhaps more than most 48-year-olds, Ryan feels his own mortality. Both his father and grandfather died of heart attacks before they were 60. At just 16 and a high school sophomore, Ryan found his father, an attorney, dead in his bed at 55.
Ryan has always seemed apart from most ambitious politicians. After being GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, he was widely expected to run for president in 2016, but didn’t. He was drafted as Speaker, an increasingly thankless job, in 2015, after John Boehner resigned from Congress.
As Speaker, Ryan travels the country extensively, fundraising and campaigning for GOP candidates. He often sees his kids only on Sunday, he told Fox News.
But if Ryan’s choice is good for him, it’s also good for Democrats.
By retiring, he signals the House may be lost and Democrat Nancy Pelosi will return as Speaker next year. Naturally, Ryan insists the GOP is in great shape and he’ll still campaign for Republicans. But a lame duck can’t talk convincingly about the future.
The customary route would have been to run and then retire after the election. The former altar boy considered doing that.
“But just as my conscience is what got me to take this job in the first place, my conscience could not handle going out that way,” he said.
As it is, Ryan is the most prominent in an army of incumbent Republicans beating a retreat from Washington. More than 40 House Republicans are either retiring or running for another office.
In Virginia, Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte announced his retirement two days after a Democratic tide in last November’s state election swept many Republican incumbents from the legislature. Goodlatte is prohibited under House rules from staying on as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. 
Ryan wasn’t even the only Republican to announce his retirement Wednesday.
Rep. Dennis Ross, Republican of Florida, was announcing his when he looked at Fox News and saw Ryan was leaving, he told his local paper.
The filing deadline hasn’t passed in 19 states, so more retirements are possible.
As if the November election weren’t campaign enough, a battle now kicks off for Speaker, with Reps. Kevin McCarthy of California and Steve Scalise of Louisiana leading contenders.
Democrats, who need a net gain of two dozen seats for control of the House, were delighted by the unexpected turn of events.
“With his retirement announcement Speaker Paul Ryan becomes the first casualty of the 2018 midterm election,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, tweeted.
The Republicans’ nightmare in April seems like a dream come true for Democrats, but they shouldn’t celebrate just yet. 
It’s a long, long way to November – and victory has previously eluded their grasp.  
©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Coffee's not as scary as . . . -- April 5, 2018 column

President Donald Trump provokes a trade war with China and shakes the stock market and our retirement accounts like snowglobes.
He asks governors to send the National Guard to a purported “crisis” on the Mexican border while he rolls back the environmental rules that protect our air and water.
Scary times, indeed.
Sit back, relax, watch cute kitten videos on Facebook and savor a hot mug of coffee. Uh-oh.
Facebook isn’t a safe place, if it ever was. With the personal data of 87 million of us shared, we’re ripe for the picking on the dark web, if we weren’t already.
And that comforting cup of joe soon will come with a cancer warning label in California. What starts on the Left Coast often wafts east.
Wait a minute. Deep breaths. Should we be scared of our coffee, too?
Decades of medical research say no. A review in the British Medical Journal last November examined more than 200 studies and found that coffee consumption was more often associated with benefit than harm.
Drinking three cups of coffee a day was associated with the greatest benefit in terms of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and stroke, compared with not drinking coffee, researchers found.
Two studies reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine last year followed people of various ethnicities around the world for years and found “people who reported drinking more coffee tended to live longer than those who reported drinking less.”
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer removed coffee from its list of substances “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 2016, after it reviewed 1,000 studies and found “inadequate evidence” of a link to cancer.
So why the warning label? A chemical called acrylamide, produced during coffee roasting, may cause cancer. Emphasis on “may.”
A California judge wrote a preliminary ruling March 30 requiring Starbucks and dozens of other coffee purveyors in the state to warn customers about acrylamide. The chemical occurs naturally when some foods are cooked at high heat. It’s in french fries, potato chips, crackers, bread, cereal, prune juice and canned black olives.
Acrylamide is on California’s list of about 800 natural and man-made substances that are linked to cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. Under the state’s Prop. 65, which aims to alert consumers to health hazards so they can make smart decisions, businesses must notify customers if their products contain the chemicals. It’s why you see warnings on flashlights, Christmas tree lights and pesticides, among other items.
Lab studies have found acrylamide in high doses in drinking water increases the risk of cancer in rats and mice. But the doses have been “as much as 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the levels people might be exposed to in foods,” says the American Cancer Society, adding, “Based on the studies done so far, it is not clear if acrylamide affects cancer risk in people.”
A public interest law firm sued the coffee shops in a California court in 2010, saying they have a duty to warn consumers. A similar lawsuit led potato chip makers to reduce the amount of acrylamide in their products to avoid warning labels.  
But the National Coffee Association says acrylamide is in coffee at “miniscule” levels, occurs naturally and is not an additive. It’s weighing its legal actions.
“Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage,” said William “Bill” Murray, president and CEO of the coffee association. “This lawsuit has made a mockery of Prop. 65, has confused consumers and does nothing to improve public health.”
But the lawsuit and the warning labels do serve a purpose. They help us gain perspective. We don’t have to give up coffee.
As with most things, health officials advise moderation and they suggest watching what you put in your coffee. Sugar has replaced fat as a nutritional pariah.
The WHO’s cancer panel did advise caution on a related topic. 
“Drinking very hot beverages probably causes cancer of the esophagus in humans,” it said.
There you go. It wouldn’t hurt to let your coffee cool.
Sometimes we can control what scares us.   
©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.