Thursday, September 30, 2004
Only the initiated few know about the dire strategems, along with a lonely protagonist who accidentally discovers and fights against the overwhelming evil.
These stories--or theories--have in common wide nets of "secret" correspondences (secret in the sense of hidden in plain sight, because the lonely protagonists we find ourselves sitting next to on the airplane are always asking, "Have you ever heard of the Masons?" while the Masons are driving their Winnebagoes around with bumper stickers that say, "2B1 ASK1") and, as Umberto Eco illustrates in Foucault's Pendulum, at the heart of the secret is another secret, which, once it is laid bare, becomes a nothing, laughable. In fact, nothing may be even better than a real secret, because whereas anything can be debunked, nothing can't.
In literature, the lonely protagonist occasionally defeats the conspiracy by exposing it, in which case it's a tepid conspiracy, good for a one-hour TV drama at best. For the blockbuster, the protagonist must win by eluding the evil--as in the Bourne Identity, with the hint that the conspiracy lives to rise another day.
Conspiracies make for high-stakes drama with great potential for action and conflict, but they're an odd social phenomenon, and I wondered where the idea came from, how long it's been around, and why it appeals to us so strongly.
Saturday evening, Carl Olson gave a brief talk about a book he co-authored, The DaVinci Hoax. He told a funny story that captures the "fact" of the book: he has some friends, a couple, who work in a university, one in the theology department, one in art history. The art historian's friends loved The DaVinci Code: Great story, they said, if you ignore the art parts. The theology faculty also loved the book: Great story, if you ignore the theology. But aside from the inaccurate art and wacky theology, aside from the astronomical promotional effort that would have made a bestseller out of the Bunkie, La., phone book, and aside from Dan Brown's mediocre writing, what's not to like?
Anyway, I asked Carl Olson where the conspiracy literature came from, and he said that the "conspiracy" groups came into their own in the Enlightenment--Masons, Illuminati, and so forth--extending up into the 19th century in America with the Transcendental movement, and obviously into the 20th century with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Hal Lindsey believers (not that the Lindseyites are anti-Semitic, only that both they and the anti-Semites are convinced of great conspiracies), and so forth. If anything, it seems, the appeal of conspiracy has become greater in the waning years of the 20th century, and now conspiracy theories have entered the mainstream of Left politics, with Michael Moore, Pres. Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy (scary photo warning), and the Democratic presidential contender.
Foucault's Pendulum posits that the competing conspiracies feed off each other, as their adherents make up lurid tales about the other groups, which connection-hungry individuals, looking for something bigger than themselves, then imitate. These are the people who don't have the psychological makeup to play the lonely protagonist, or they may see themselves as the lonely protagonists who must band together against an evil so great that they need to become part of "Them" to combat it. To what extent was the Nazi movement a matter of Hitler and his followers joining, becoming, "Them," and thus creating the next level of conspiracy mythology with its occult symbols and its aim at world domination?
The leader of the conspiracy in Pendulum is Count St-Germain, a mysterious character, suave, debonaire, rich, and persuasive, who purports to be immortal. (On another sidetrack, Count St-Germain may have been a model for the mysterious villain in Charles Williams' Shadows of Ecstasy, which sheds new light on the book.) The "count" doesn't, however, actually control anything--it takes all his energy to manage the other "diabolicals" (as Eco's protagonists call the conspirators). But for all the talk about managing the inner workings of the world, there was no sense that the diabolicals controlled--or even participated to any great extent--in anything outside their own conspiracies.
Eco's description of the world of the diabolicals fits the world as it actually works much better than the Da Vinci Code, The Book of Q, The Bourne Identity and their ilk. And the obligatory lecture at the center of it, in which a character explains how the world is actually organized, has the virtue of being both beautiful and short, unlike the head-banging tediousness of the "nonfiction" passages at the heart of The Da Vinci Code and The Book of Q.
Foucault's Pendulum turns the conspiracy genre inside out. It's the best and truest thing I've found on the paranoid conspiracy phenomenon and reinforces the "laughably pathetic" aspects of those who trust in the power of conspiracies--for good or ill.
Wednesday, September 29, 2004
He adds that Vladimir Putin was scheduled to be on the helicopter, but changed his plans so that the patriarch could fly to Mount Athos. Memory eternal.
Sunday, September 26, 2004
Words are not just the cosmetic clothing of some underlying integrity; they are the operational vehicles of that integrity, the visible manifestation of the character to which others respond. And if the words you use fall apart, ring hollow, trail off and sound as if they came from nowhere or anywhere (these are the same thing), the suspicion will grow that what they lack is what you lack, and no one will follow you.Candidates aside, he draws useful observations for writers.
And he's a Kerry supporter.
She names the blogs that broke the story (unlike a recent New York Times story that purports to talk about "Fear and Laptops on the Campaign Trail" and ends up focusing on the lefty bloggers who, at best, had nothing to do with identifying the forgeries), and she does it without a lot of impenetrable jargon.
Saturday, September 25, 2004
He sounds more and more like the chameleon-like title character from Woody Allen's 1983 movie who changes his character to match the people he's with and who manages to get himself photographed with important people and important events in history.
First it was the trip into Cambodia. He couldn't just tell Congress he thought sending secret missions into Cambodia was a bad idea. He had to have it "seared, seared" into his memory that Nixon sent him on a mission that no other swift boat went on when Nixon wasn't even president.
Now Captain's Quarters fact checks a 2001 claim that Kerry was in Iraq for the signing of the 1991 peace accords. Apparently, he did visit Iraq a couple of weeks later with a Congressional delegation, but that wasn't good enough to tell Bill O'Reilly (text of the interview is on the Captain's Quarters blog):
There's something deeply weird about this guy.
O'REILLY: Yes, that was a classic mistake. But if you arm the Kurds in the north of Iraq, you're going to alienate one of our most valuable --
KERRY: I didn't say necessarily the Kurds. There are other members of the opposition. There are people who are outside the country prepared to go in. There are others inside the country. And I believe -- I mean, I was in Safwan. I went there when the signing of the armistice took place at the end of the war.
And I remember seeing that land, which lent itself in my judgment, considerably to the creation of almost an enclave, which I thought we should have done then. And I think is one way to begin to approach things now, but there are other possibilities. The important thing is that Saddam Hussein and the world knows that we think Saddam Hussein is essentially out of sync with the times. He is and has acted like a terrorist. And he is engaged in activities that are unacceptable.
Thursday, September 23, 2004
Now, however, I've read Blair's comments on the mess, and he contributes some insights to the issue.
He makes an observation similar to what others have, but not quite frequently enough, which is that even if the forged documents had been real, the underlying story, which Rather keeps pointing to, amounts to a big "Who cares?":
You really have to step back and look at this from the outside. No. 1, it was not news that George Bush was wild as a young man. He has pretty much said that himself. No. 2, it was not news that George Bush came from a family that had influence. What would be shocking would be if he did not use that influence. He has three-and-one-half years and two wars as President and if can’t make a judgment on that, as opposed to his personal life three decades ago, then there might as well not be elections.
But teven more to the point is the fact that Blair's inventions added color; Rather's fabrications were the essence of the story:
I have a lot of sympathy for Dan Rather and CBS News with its storied history. Despite the comparisons, I see a lot of differences between my situation and the memo flap with Rather. Obviously, the stakes are much higher in this case. I lifted paragraphs and made up color. It is disconcerting that CBS could – best case scenario – was misled on a non-news story that theoretically would be embarrassing to the President in an election year.
In my situation, I was dealing with a serious undiagnosed mental illness – manic depressive illness – and was suffering from paranoid delusions that were divorced from realty. In my case, what I was trying to do was avoid going very far from home. In Rather’s case, I think what’s really unfortunate is that a guy with a tremendous reputation may have been abused by his source and fallen victim to bad staff work. It’s not implausible because often television anchormen do not do the reporting for the stories they front. And probably no one in the television news business has more responsibilities than Dan Rather as managing editor of CBS News and his responsibilities for “60 Minutes” Junior.
I've heard Blair on the radio before and was impressed at his willingness to take responsibility for himself and his decisions. After reading his response, I'm still impressed:
My first reaction when a friend asked about the Dan Rather memo flap was to ponder whether anyone learned anything from the mess I got myself into. Nobody knows the value of credibility better than I do. I’d give up the book royalties if I could get my credibility and career back.
Blair is out of the news business, but there's every reason to give him a chance to show what he's learned. But if Rather doesn't take a similar fall, then the journalism establishment owes an apology to Jayson Blair.
Wednesday, September 22, 2004
Indeed, religious belief transcends human experience. Religious people, reinforced by shared values and faith that cannot be reduced to scientific analysis and analytic propositions, try but usually fail to co-opt language in expressing the inexpressible. The religious notions of the supernatural, for example, have no analog in a mathematical proof. Either you believe or you don't.
If you haven't seen the ideas of Tertullian and Aristotle applied to 2004 politics recently, it's worth a read.
Tuesday, September 21, 2004
In the past couple of days, there has been some actual debate about more than the direction of the next four years--about the overall philosophy of government and foreign policy. Bush's speech to the United Nations today and Kerry's speech on foreign policy at New York University yesterday form a sort of first debate, with planned texts instead of extemporaneous reactions--what the candidates want to say, not what they stumble into on the spot. (There's a place for the other kind of debate, too, but this is a good one.)
Kerry says: "Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell. But that was not, in itself, a reason to go to war. The satisfaction we take in his downfall does not hide this fact: we have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure."
Bush says: "For too long, many nations, including my own, tolerated, even excused, oppression in the Middle East in the name of stability. Oppression became common, but stability never arrived."
Kerry says: "The President's policy in Iraq precipitated the very problem he said he was trying to prevent. Secretary of State Powell admits that Iraq was not a magnet for international terrorists before the war. Now it is, and they are operating against our troops."
Bush says: "A democratic Iraq has ruthless enemies, because terrorists know the stakes in that country. They know that a free Iraq in the heart of the Middle East will be a decisive blow against their ambitions for that region. So a terrorists group associated with al Qaeda is now one of the main groups killing the innocent in Iraq today -- conducting a campaign of bombings against civilians, and the beheadings of bound men. Coalition forces now serving in Iraq are confronting the terrorists and foreign fighters, so peaceful nations around the world will never have to face them within our own borders."
We need to turn the page and make a fresh start in Iraq.
First, the President has to get the promised international support so our men and women in uniform don't have to go it alone. It is late; the President must respond by moving this week to gain and regain international support.
Last spring, after too many months of resistance and delay, the President finally went back to the U.N. which passed Resolution 1546. It was the right thing to do -- but it was late.
That resolution calls on U.N. members to help in Iraq by providing troops… trainers for Iraq's security forces… a special brigade to protect the U.N. mission… more financial assistance… and real debt relief.
Three months later, not a single country has answered that call. And the president acts as if it doesn't matter.
And of the $13 billion previously pledged to Iraq by other countries, only $1.2 billion has been delivered.
Kerry's blast against Bush turns into an indictment of the United Nations. It can pass a resolution, but it can't deliver on action. Bush presented the case in a more hopeful light, maybe because he was talking to the United Nations:
Let history also record that our generation of leaders followed through on these ideals, even in adversity. Let history show that in a decisive decade, members of the United Nations did not grow weary in our duties, or waver in meeting them. I'm confident that this young century will be liberty's century. I believe we will rise to this moment, because I know the character of so many nations and leaders represented here today. And I have faith in the transforming power of freedom.
Kerry says: "[B]illions of people around the world yearning for a better life are open to America's ideals. We must reach them." He never specifies those ideas; he only continues in the next sentence to say, "To win, America must be strong. And America must be smart." I hope strength and smarts aren't the best America has to offer.
Because we believe in human dignity, peaceful nations must stand for the advance of democracy. No other system of government has done more to protect minorities, to secure the rights of labor, to raise the status of women, or to channel human energy to the pursuits of peace. We've witnessed the rise of democratic governments in predominantly Hindu and Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian cultures. Democratic institutions have taken root in modern societies, and in traditional societies. When it comes to the desire for liberty and justice, there is no clash of civilizations. People everywhere are capable of freedom, and worthy of freedom.
Finding the full promise of representative government takes time, as America has found in two centuries of debate and struggle. Nor is there any -- only one form of representative government -- because democracies, by definition, take on the unique character of the peoples that create them. Yet this much we know with certainty: The desire for freedom resides in every human heart. And that desire cannot be contained forever by prison walls, or martial laws, or secret police. Over time, and across the Earth, freedom will find a way.
James Ridgeway at the Village Voice characterized Bush's speech as "the same old, same old." Even Seraphim Danckaert, an Orthoblogger I respect, sneers that "everything is going just fine in Iraq, and we better be pretty thankful that our Republican president is embarking on a Wilsonian crusade to make the world safe for democracy (Wilson, by the way, is probably my third least-favorite President)." Thus, because Bush has been called "Wilsonian," his vision is suspect. There is, however, a difference between making the world safe for democracy and making it safer through democracy. (Free nations by and large handle conflicts by renaming foods and not buying each other's goods; the bloodiest conflicts of the past 100 years or so have all involved one or more oppressive governments. I could speculate why, but it wouldn't be of much value.)
The greatest threat we face is the possibility Al Qaeda or other terrorists will get their hands on a nuclear weapon.
To prevent that from happening, we must call on the totality of America's strength. Strong alliances, to help us stop the world's most lethal weapons from falling into the most dangerous hands. A powerful military, transformed to meet the new threats of terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. And all of America's power -- our diplomacy, our intelligence system, our economic power, the appeal of our values -- each of which is critical to making America more secure and preventing a new generation of terrorists from emerging.
The Afghan people are showing extraordinary courage under difficult conditions. They're fighting to defend their nation from Taliban holdouts, and helping to strike against the terrorists killers. They're reviving their economy. They've adopted a constitution that protects the rights of all, while honoring their nation's most cherished traditions. More than 10 million Afghan citizens -- over 4 million of them women -- are now registered to vote in next month's presidential election. To any who still would question whether Muslim societies can be democratic societies, the Afghan people are giving their answer.
Call me crazy, call me a dreamer, call me "Wilsonian" if you must, but like Bush, I think even the brown people of the world are capable of livving in freedom. If it must come to a choice between chaos and the stability given by Saddam and his boys, I'll pick chaos. I believe that human beings are fallen, but I also believe that they are capable of governing themselves, even allowing for quirky experiments like Las Vegas, Nev., and Berkeley, Calif.
Monday, September 20, 2004
- You often get the sense that it's still the Sixties, driving the remaining stretches of the old Route 66 or driving the mile-long stretch of highway in Utah, stripped down to bare gravel.
- A rerouted highway in a canyon, with weeds growing through cracks in the paving, looks like a remnant of a lost civilization.
- A motel in Wellington, Utah, called the Pillow Talk.
- The person in the party who has the greatest fear of snakes is inevitably the one who will see one.
- A sign-writer in Arches National Park, Utah, manages a Shakespearean flavor in only a few words: "Gather no wood in park."
- A Japanese motor cycle gang in Arches -- riding Harley-Davidsons.
- A car with the Guam license plate wins the prize for the farthest-away-from-home (edging out second-place Hawaii).
- Mesa Verde shows the rise and fall and persistence of civilizations. The woman who sold us hamburgers in the diner could be a descendant of the people who built these majestic housing developments.
- Every road trip has an obligatory side track through country roads. In our case, we missed our turnoff and wandered through 50 miles or more of roads that showed up as light gray lines on our map of New Mexico. After driving a long stretch of gravel leading to the top of a mesa, we found a sign facing the other direction that said: "Warning: 18 miles of unimproved roadway. Impassible in bad weather." Even though the weather was fine, we would probably have turned back if we had seen the sign in time. We did not.
- Somewhere on these back roads of New Mexico is the town of Hassell, marked on the map, consisting of one farmhouse, one building of uncertain use, possibly public, and one cemetery, labeled "Hassell." I amused myself for a while imagining the politics for the mayoral election: Bud Hassell vs. Burt Hassell and a more bitter election than if it were Michael Moore vs. Ann Coulter.
- One homestead consisted of three furbished school buses with curtains in the windows, long ago painted blue and green, arranged in a U shape, with nice Japanese cars parked out front.
- Sudan, Texas, is home of the Hornets and Hornettes, 1A basketball champions.
- I met a woman named Jackal Barnes. I double checked the pronunciation and was told it wasn't a nickname; I'm not sure of the spelling.
- You know you've entered an alternative universe when the barristas at Starbucks have Texas accents.
- Speaking of Starbucks, the folks in the South and Southwest are waiting eagerly for the coffee shop Northwesterners love to hate (I complain about them when I'm in Portland; when I find one in Santa Fe, it's like being at home).
- I don't know if there's any diminution of tourism from France and Germany, due to the current little tiff between the USA and "Old Europe," but German and French accents were the most common in the Grand Canyon.
- The loneliest and most pathetic gambling is what happens at the slots and video poker machines. Poker is a game of interaction, one of the fundamental metaphors of human existence; even blackjack has some skill. But the machine is a whirling, blinking glimpse into the void, and the soul sitting in front of it stares blankly into the abyss. In one small-town casino, there was no live gambling, only banks and banks of the machines. I went into a quick market for a cup of coffee at 7:30 a.m. and found someone playing the machines. Depressing.
- I was a long way away from the hurricanes, in case you're wondering (people keep asking).
Sunday, September 19, 2004
For a number of reasons, the CBS memos were the blogosphere's perfect target: If any news story was going to be broken by bloggers, it was this. As with the Lott affair, "breaking" this story meant pointing attention to something that aired on television. (Lott's comments were broadcast on C-SPAN.) It was commentary on a news story, not a news story of its own. Leaving the house or making phone calls was not part of getting the scoop.
He is exactly right. What the bloggers do, mostly, is fact-checking and commentary. Bloggers' original reporting, the first draft of history, tends to be ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances--soldiers and civilians in war zones, for example. Otherwise, it's the people with the press passes and the contacts and, frankly, the full-time salary, to dig up the important news for the bloggers to fact-check and comment on. It takes Claudia Rosette to break the Oil for Food scandal; bloggers compile the information in a site for easy reference after the newspapers have lined the bird cage.
At best it can be a partnership. If it has to be adversarial, it may be. The face of the media will change, because pompous, self-aggrandizing bullies like Dan Rather will be untoothed. Real reporters will find the bloggers to be their allies and not their enemies.
Thursday, September 16, 2004
What story was that,Dan? From what I've heard (and I confess that I didn't see the original 60 Minues broadcast), the documents were the story. "We've been telling you that Bush was AWOL in the 1970s,that he used his connections to get and stay in the National Guard, that he was a lout and a roust about, and now we've got documents and witnesses to prove it." But the documents are forgeries and the witnesses are deceived, compromised or left out because they weren't on-message, so you're back to your original assertions, made every year or so since you discovered that Texas Gov. George W. Bush wanted to run for national office--and probably before that.
In truth, nobody cares about Bush's Air National Guard record, beyond the factthat he got that "honorable discharge" certificate. He's not claiming that he National Guard experience qualified him to be Commander in Chief ;he's not"reporting for duty" at the national convention; he's not claiming to be a hero; he didn't throw any medals over any fence,and he didn't sell out his fellow soldiers to advance his own political career.
What makes Democratic operatives, such as Rather, so obsessed with Bush's National Guard stint is that they think moderate and conservative voters are stupid. They can't imagine what we think qualifies Bush for office, and all Kerry can imagine is that it must be military experince. In reality, as the elder Bush once said, it's the vision thing.
And so,Dan Rather, with or without forged documents, Bush's National Guard experience is a non-story. There are no National Guard vets out there defending their honor from Bush distortions and slanders, so "rich young man goes into the National Guard and doesn't go to Vietnam" isn't ever going to play against the Swift Boat Vets for Truth. The problem, Dan, is that your man and your party are trying to be something--or several things--they're not.
Then again, so are you.
Tuesday, September 14, 2004
Howard Fineman and Michael Isikoff, also of Newsweek, also of the Gang, try to explain why it's "slime time" again in 2004.Bush primarily sells himself, rather than his policies (after attacking Kerry in $60 million worth of ads); Kerry defends in kind, turning the Democratic convention into the Biography Channel. Though voters face profound questions, the war on terror has engendered not a high-minded discussion of geopolitics but an obsession--even by American standards--with our would-be commander's character.
Yes, it would be nice to carry on a high-minded discussion of geopolitics. In fact, anyone who's been listening to Bush's speeches over the past three years has been getting a discussion of geopolitics. He believes that the people of the Middle East are capable of democracy, that free people are more likely to be contented and less likely to make war, that the United States may have to exercise its role as world hyperpower without waiting for our erstwhile allies to catch up with the program. Agree or disagree; support or criticize (or both) the execution, but there's the philosophy for all to see.
Kerry, however, instead of answering these philosophical points, can only say, "Anything George Bush has done is wrong," and "I can't tell you what I plan, because that would be tipping my hand."
John Kerry, a candidate who is behind, who has never come clearly into focus for most pundits let alone voters, who has been unable to explain his position on the war in Iraq, or define an approach to fighting terror, and who is still sketchily known to the American people... finds that no purpose is served by participating in the most elementary ritual there is in political journalism: answering reporters' questions.
If one candidate has a philosophy about the nature of human governments and where we are in history and the other candidate can only say, "Trust me," then character matters. To Bush, we say, "That's an inspiring vision. Do you believe it yourself? Does it hold water? Does it describe the world as we find it?" To Kerry, we say, "Whom are we trusting? And to do what?" Further, any time you are dealing with unknown future circumstances, more than a plan you need to know a philosphy. More than tactics, we need to know strategy. We're looking at a rough road over the next few years; how do the candidates define themselves and their fellow human beings? With those answers established, by whatever measure we can find, we'll know more about what to expect from their leadership.
If the candidate won't talk about philosophy, we'll have to discern it through the prism of history--which may ultimately be more reliable anyway.
He makes four interesting predictions:
- Dan Rather's staking his authority on the claim -- or staking the claim on his authority -- will raise the issue to the level of "cultural theatre."
- The timing of the documents' release will become part of the issue.
- "Right inside the door of the CBS scandal there is a Dirty Tricks scandal waiting to come to light." Who released the "documents" to CBS? Why now?
- Ordinary citizens "in pajamas" now have the ability to fact check the mainstream media.
I like type, and I've been fascinated at the "History of Typewriting" I've been learning from this. I was a typist in the mid-'70s, later learning word processing, later learning typesetting and now living in a font-intensive world. I don't claim to be an expert, but I've seen how fonts changed over the years. The overlay of the Times New Roman with the "30-year-old memo" persuades me that it's a forgery.
But even more significant than the development of Times New Roman is the development of the citizen media. Dan Rather can say, "You must trust me, because I'm Dan Rather," but people have other alternatives to "Trust [Dan Rather] and Obey." The elitist media say that the citizens have no ethics, no standards and no training, but the situation seems largely to be the opposite. The ethics are the basic ones of honesty and balance, and the standards are the logical fallacies that used to be part of Freshman Composition classes. As for the training, what does Dan Rather know about fonts? About Air National Guard formats? About the history of typewriters and typesetting?
The Internet-based citizen media gives freedom of the press to the one who can't afford one -- and even to people who don't have time to do more than drop a comment into someone else's "press." That's more different than Dan Rather could ever have imagined, and it couldn't have risen up to bite a more appropriate subject.
Monday, September 13, 2004
The church meets in a remodeled house trailer on a lot about a block off the Highway 34, behind the abandoned school. It's an old trailer, and in the bedrooms, Sunday school went on with three children and taped religious music played quietly. After Sunday school, we filled the twelve chairs set out, and the minister's wife, Neva, led the singing.
My mother's cousin Margie was there. We used to visit her and her husband Morton in Baton Rouge, where my parents played Rook with them ("Green, green, a sight to be seen," Moe used to say). One year, they gave me a Christmas present. I slowly tore off the wrapping to find an onion and an old fishing line spool. I guess I must have shown disappointment, because they quickly took it away and gave me something else. What I remember is that just as I had resolved to figure out how to play with the fishing spool and the onion, I lost them, and got something that was no fun to play with at all. I don't remember what it was.
Morton died years ago, and Margie, I hear, travels around the country in an old van, from which she has removed the back seats and has installed a bed. She sleeps in Walmart parking lots. I told her that I had heard about her travels, but she just looked sad and said it was a shame to grow old. It was as odd as the Christmas present, because traveling around the country in the back of a van is one of the youngest things I've heard of in a woman in her late 70s or early 80s.
My cousin Sandra was there, whom I haven't seen since my wedding on Aug. 18, 1973 (all-expense paid trip for two to Eros, La., for the first person who identifies that date from recent news stories). Sandra is a few years younger than I am, the daughter of Uncle Lawrence's twin sister, and with her brother Joe lived with my grandparents when I was a kid. Once I was visiting, and Sandra wanted to show me that she was learning to play the piano. I had actually been taking lessons for several years, but didn't have a real gift for it and was still a plunker. Sandra had started only recently, but was well on her way to being better at it than I was. She got only halfway through the song when my grandmother, whom everybody called Sissy, came in and told her to get up from there, because she couldn't play as well as I could.
That old piano, tinny and missing some keys and out of tune, was the same piano that my mother and sister had learned to play on, both well enough to play hymns for church services. I had a nice new, dry and well-tuned piano at home and never learned to make it sing, the way I took years of French and never had a conversation.
My grandparents lived a half mile up the road from Eros on 90 acres, with a white clapboard house with a front porch running across the width of the house. There was a porch swing, and on summer evenings the family would sit out on the porch, shelling peas or shucking corn and talking.
J.E. Phillips, my grandpa, was over 90 when he died and had served as a justice of the peace in that rural Louisiana parish (county) for more than 60 years. He loved Louis Lamour and TV westerns like Gunsmoke. When I was little and had first moved to Louisiana from Oregon, he used to pull me onto his lap and ask, "Do you like Grandpa?" A Southern grandpa is different from a Northern grandpa, and a grandpa who's a farmer in northern Louisiana is different from a grandpa who is a factory worker with a big garden in Oregon. He talked different, and I remember even at age 5 not knowing yet whether I liked grandpa or not. Finally, several or many visits later, I said, "You'll do in a pinch," and he laughed and laughed. After that, he asked, "Do you like Grandpa?" waiting for the delight of that answer, and I always answered, "You'll do in a pinch," meaning, "Yes, I really do like Grandpa."
The kitchen of that house took up about a quarter of the floor space, and after dinner on Sunday afternoons, people sat around the table telling stories, arguing, pointing at each other. I remember as a kid how the babble of voices would overwhelm me, and yet that's where the family secrets were hinted at and, rarely, told.
I didn't live there, only came back periodically for visits, and living in our small town (as opposed to country) isolation, I learned about family life from Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, which we watched in our living room, just the three of us, without the play by play.
In Eros, we were the family that moved away and got rich, though it didn't seem so back home.
We regathered for Sunday dinner in my uncle's "fine brick home," as my grandpa always characterized new housing construction throughout the parish. Sandra was there, and her two daughters and her husband from California. Sandra has published a book and is working on promotion. And we sat around the table for hours, telling stories and talking about dead relatives. Sandra has done some genealogy, and know about the Cherokee who married Samuel Phillips in the 1800s and became the grandmother of J.E. Phillips.
And just as my mother is out of contact with her sister, Lawrence's twin, Sandra is out of contact with Joe. I don't say they're wrong, but I can't imagine Beaver and Wally ever losing touch with each other.
Sandra turned to me during dinner and asked how we two turned out to be writers in a family where no one else was the least interested in writing. I said we come from a family of story-tellers, and I could have added deep and passionate conflicts.
Saturday, September 11, 2004
After September 11, many in the Muslim world chose denial and hallucination rather than face up to the sad fact that Muslims perpetrated the 9-11 terrorist acts and that we have an enormous problem with extremism and support for terrorism.
The people who launched this initiative weren't involved in 9/11, but they have the courage to say that many of their leaders "belong behind bars and not behind a pulpit." They add, "Simply put, not only do Muslims need to join the war against terror, we need to take the lead in this war."
This needed to be said, although Robert Spencer asks the pertinent question, "Why hasn't CAIR been saying this sort of thing for three years now?"
If these people are in the ascendent--and nothing is for certain--then we can work on a civil society of religious freedom.
Friday, September 10, 2004
The ancient cities of Mesa Verde and the ageless and yet changing hills of the Canyonlands and Arches national parks teach about what is fleeting or lasting or eternal.
Losing an election is not the end of civilization. Even losing the war against Islamic fascism isn't the end of the world. They are both more and less. More, because the end is final and requires nothing else of us. Living on requires work and sacrifice, fear and endurance. Less, because every person, group, government or cabal is limited in power, with only so much power as is given from above.
I'm in Louisiana for a few days, where the land writhes with ancient life--my daughter runs past the toads sitting on the sidewalk and won't go past the stinkbug in her path by the swimming pool.
Something profound and real about the lasting things puts into perspective the things that change day by day. The ephemera are important, too, but they're not all, and it's sometimes too easy for me, at least, for forget that.
Thursday, September 02, 2004
I am, on the other, philosophical. Maybe it's time for a fundamental re-evaluation.
I'll be out of town for two weeks, and I can't predict when or whether I'll blog.
On the verklempt hand, pen and paper seem much more secure.
On the philosophical hand, a character in my novel loses his computer in chapter 1. I don't think I captured the emotion of it, but perhaps in the revision it will be better.
Signing off for now, with my verklempt hand.
Wednesday, September 01, 2004
But tonight, it was dads all the way, and someone had a lickin' coming, and I'm glad it wasn't me.
Lileks saw it, too, at least in Zell Miller: "The angriest man at hte convention turns out to be a Democrat: who'd have thunk." But Lileks has spent the bulk of his life in the great Prairie North, and I doubt he knows that Southern Dad's-had-just-about-enough-of-this look, and it- won't- do- any- good- to- run,- because- he's- going- out- by- the- woodshed- to- cut- a- switch.
Cheney is your Wyoming rancher dad, who's got some serious life decisions to lay out for you, and you'd better listen up. His self-deprecating jibe at the better hair and sex-appeal of young Johnny Edwards only served to point up the deeper difference between them. You got the sense Edwards was like a young rake wanting to take Lady Liberty out on a date to a dangerous roadhouse.
I'm letting the metaphors run away with me. Both Miller and Cheney had substantial messages, and if you didn't hear it, go to the NPR or C-Span website and hear or read it for yourself.
But I still say it was Dads' night at the convention.