Frank McCourt died on Sunday.

He was best known as the author of Angela's Ashes. But in everything that he did--teaching, writing, reciting limericks--he was a wonderfully delightful entertainer. I was fortunate to spend a week on a cruise ship with him a few years ago. I don't think I ever laughed so hard. It was a pleasure to listen to him tell tales for as long as he could. One amusing anecdote involved the time he met the Pope. Despite his best efforts to not be overwhelmed, McCourt reverted to a slobbering Catholic schoolboy and kissed the ring. He told me that he had a whole collection of obscene lullabies but said he had stopped reciting them ever since he had given up drinking. (Darn, I thought.)

But the funniest story was about the time McCourt, who had been a much-celebrated creative writing teacher at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, ran into a past student of his. I'm blanking on the student's name (so I'll make one up), and it went something like this:

One day I was walking down Second Avenue, and this young man stopped me. "Mr. McCourt, Mr. McCourt," he said excitedly. "It's me, Rocky Malone."

"Yes, hello, Rocky."

"Rocky Malone. Do you remember me, Mr. McCourt?"

"I do, Rocky. I do."

"Do you remember I was in your class, Mr. McCourt?"

"I do, Rocky, I do."

"Do you remember I was in your class?"

"Yes, Yes, Rocky. I remember."

"Do you remember that I wrote poetry in that class? Do you, Mr. McCourt?

"Yes, I do, Rocky."

"And you liked the poetry, Mr. McCourt. You liked it."

"Yes, I remember that, Rocky. It was very good."

"And you told me I'd make a good poet. Do you remember that, Mr. McCourt?"

"I do, Rocky. Yes, I do."

"Well, because of you I went on to become a poet, Mr. McCourt....And now I have no money, Mr. McCourt. No money. So, fuck you, Mr. McCourt! Fuck you!"

And Rocky stormed off.

McCourt laughed deeply when he told that anecdote, and he flashed his mischievous smile. He loved his stories. He really did.

This was first posted at www.davidcorn.com. You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Hey, it's Laura. Kevin was oddly optimistic on health care reform in this week's podcast, and for David Corn's reaction alone I hope you'll listen. Also, Kevin chuckled twice. About Cheney and Canada, of all things.

Listen to Kevin and David also talk Friday about Sonia Sotomayor's excellent deadpan, secret vs. not-so-secret CIA assassinations, and the two most undercovered stories this week.

For more free Mother Jones podcasts, subscribe here, or in our iTunes store.

Laura McClure hosts podcasts, writes the MoJo Mix, and is the new media editor at Mother Jones. Read her investigative feature on lifehacking gurus in the latest issue of Mother Jones.

I confess. When the seventh and final Harry Potter book was released I donned a Gryffindor scarf and was in line to get my copy at midnight. Any book that can move readers of all ages to devour tomes 600-800 pages long gets my respect. But, it seems the Harry Potter series has spurred fans to do more than organize wizarding conventions and start wrock bands (aka: "wizard rock"). The books have also inspired a philanthropic organization, The Harry Potter Alliance.
 
With over 100,000 members world wide, The Harry Potter Alliance models itself on the themes of human rights (and that of house-elves and warewolves) and social justice within the series, asking "What would Dumbledore do?" Chapters across the globe raise funds for aid in Darfur and Burma, book drives, voter registration and other "magical acts of kindness."

The organization's founder, 29-year-old Andrew Slack, began the registered nonprofit because he believes that, just as in the Harry Potter world, we are living in "dark and dangerous times."  The organization seeks to overcome the "Muggle" mindset by working to fight genocide, poverty, torture, global warming, and discrimination, including marriage inequality—and not just because (spoiler alert?) Dumbledore is gay.

The HP Alliance also asserts that just as the wizarding media and government ignored the return of Lord Voldemort in the books, our institutions choose to ignore the existence of the Dark Arts in our world. Hopefully they think Mother Jones is doing better than the rest of the Muggle media.

Listen to Kevin and David talk Friday about Sonia Sotomayor's excellent deadpan, secret vs. not-so-secret CIA assassinations, and the two most undercovered stories this week.

For more free Mother Jones podcasts, subscribe here, or in our iTunes store.

Laura McClure hosts podcasts, writes the MoJo Mix, and is the new media editor at Mother Jones. Read her investigative feature on lifehacking gurus in the latest issue of Mother Jones.

The world of journalism takes another hit. Walter Cronkite was the voice of a generation, maybe not mine, but he shaped media for decades, not in the anchor chair necessarily, but in people's living rooms. From what I remember, and from what my grandfather would tell me (he just passed away at the age of nearly 101), Cronkite made people feel a part of the news as it unfolded. "He was right there," he'd say, "giving you the straight scoop!"
 
Cronikite shaped what people cared about at a time when there weren't the Twittering masses to do the telling. And he knew what he was talking about, all the time. Not that we necessarily want to return to such a narrow sieve through which we hear the day's truths, but he did a fine job with such a weighty task.
 
And that's the way it was.

The Case for a Water Tax

Despite the summertime fun that ensues when a burst pipe transforms a neighborhood street into a water park, the problem has gotten a bit out of hand. Last year alone, America experienced 240,000 water main breaks, resulting in the loss of billions of gallons of water. And it's only going to get worse. In the next 20 years, the EPA predicts a shortfall of more than $500 billion in needed drinking and wastewater infrastructure investments. We're headed towards a future of sputtering faucets and overflowing sewage plants.

This week, Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) proposed an interesting solution: funding the repair of America's water works with a tax on products that burden it. He'd extract funds from cosmetics, toothpaste, and pharmaceuticals--they're often difficult to remove in wastewater plants and can harm the environment--and bottled beverages, which have a carbon and water footprint that goes far beyond the liquids that they contain.

The tax might be a tough sell in Congress (see the gas tax), but it begins to lay the groundwork for a more logical approach to regulating water. Scientists now have the tools to calculate the water footprints of a wide range of businesses and products. I explore how crunching those numbers could help solve the water crisis in our current issue.

 

In an attempt to scare the public regarding the Dem's health reform bill, Republican leaders have been pushing this chart. (That's not all they've released. Oh, and remember Harry and Louse? They're baaaack!)

Liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America struck back yesterday with this attempt to scare the public regarding the GOP's easy media manipulation.

So who wins? Gotta say, my money is on the GOP. It's easy to sit back and do nothing except scare people about changing our current healthcare system, which, by god, is the thing people need to be scared of.

As far as the media is concerned, well, I'd say the public is already pretty jaded.

Follow Michael Mechanic on Twitter.

The McDonald's Happy Meal turned 30 today. As a lover of food that is horrible for me, I am willing to admit that the Happy Meal proves that delicious ≠ good. In fact, since the Happy Meal was introduced and started luring children like a creepy stranger promising toys, childhood obesity has quadrupled to 17 percent.

David Knowles highlights the unhappy stain that the golden arches have left on our health and environment in the past three decades. An excerpt:

Hugely successful, every one of McDonald’s competitors followed the chain’s PR brainstorm, linking food with cheap toys, and it didn’t take long for corporations to see the inherent marketing opportunity. Before long, all that disposable plastic crap inside the bag alongside the high-fat, high carbohydrate meals was hawking Hollywood movies, tv shows, and the like.

And the plastic! Think of the number of discarded crappy toys that end up as trash in our oceans. Every few months, it seems, I’ll find a good half-dozen of the things collected in some drawer or other of my kids’ rooms, and we don’t even eat fast food (barring the occasional road trip). The ubiquity of figurines from the latest animated film is an undeniable fact. Kids play with them for an afternoon, maybe a week later, and then they’re trash.

Yes, I know full well that kids love “Happy Meals” and the Pavlovian promise of a free toy. But these meals should be viewed as nothing less than plague on our society, making kids fatter and the oceans more polluted. Their predatory marketing strategy has kids (and their parent’s wallets) right in their greedy sights. So, happy birthday, “Happy Meal”. Here’s hoping against hope that you’ll be discontinued before you hit 31.

Think of it as the Red Scare in reverse: Worrying whether the hipster at the cafe is secretly a communist is about to be replaced with worrying whether the hipster cafe is secretly a Starbucks. Yesterday, the chain revealed that it's dropping its name from a location in Seattle's trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood and replacing it with "15th Avenue Coffee and Tea." That's right, the people's coffee provider is going underground.

At least two other local stores will follow suit, Kiera notes on the Riff, as the chain tests out marketing coffee with neighborhood-specific names rather than a slutty mermaid, who is getting blown towards the rocky shore of the recession by competition from the Golden Arches.

That Starbucks is making the name switch in Seattle's Capitol Hill rather than a truck stop in Alabama is telling. It suggests that the chain may be most concerned with countering the hipster and anti-corporate backlash, which has kept the store out of trendy neighborhoods in some cities. San Francisco, for example, has blocked Starbucks and even American Apparel stores over concerns about neighborhood character.

The new stores will also sell alcohol, and Starbucks may want to draw a firm line between "wet" and "dry" outlets. Yet sometimes that line is already blurred. In 2004, I interviewed John Winter Smith, a man on Sisyphean mission to visit every Starbucks in the world, who told me that a store in Plano, Texas served him cocktails from a secret mini bar. "They had a couple of bottles in a back room and were mixing up stuff," he said. Now that's what I call neighborhood character.

With the help of $44 million from the US government, Rwanda decided last week to extend its multi-layered judicial system for another year. The system is comprised of an international criminal tribunal for the most heinous criminals associated with the 1994 genocide, and the semi-traditional gacaca courts, which practice restorative justice on the community level. The extension has been praised because it gives the government a chance to determine the innocence or guilt of many of the alleged criminals that remain untried. But Hutus claim that the Rwandan government is partial to the country's Tutsi minority—largely the victims of the 1994 genocide—and that the process is fueled by revenge, not justice. Is the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government manipulating the courts for its own political and ethnic gain with US dollars?

(Check out Mother Jones' fantastic photo essay on Rwanda: "Can You Love a Child of Rape?")

Gacaca, literally “on the grass,” is a restorative system which allows perpetrators responsible for crimes including isolated murder and destruction of property during the genocide to decrease their prison sentences if they plead guilty, apologize, and agree to supplement their shortened jail time with community service. But the gacaca courts have been instructed by the RPF to focus only on crimes that occurred during a limited timeframe, most of which were committed by Hutus. During the protracted civil war that preceded the genocide, though, The Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Army was also responsible for murder, rape, and destruction of Hutu property. Also, gacaca judges are untrained and elected by the community, which raises concerns about international standards of due process and impartiality.

While it's important that the major perpetrators of the genocide be held accountable for their crimes, without fair trials that cut across ethnic groups, these supposedly restorative courts could perpetuate, not end, Rwanda's horrific cycle of violence that has plagued Hutu and Tutsi controlled governments for the past half-century.