Friday, December 31, 2004

Blame Cathy

She asked for it.

to Emily Dickinson

a gap yawns sudden wide --
open breaks the world --
the blue air floods inside
the silk-spun dam -- and hurls
the Wind the timbred songs
of leaves -- wings still furled
now twitch, begin to long
to stretch out, ride the light --
breathe, O Wind -- wide-flung
kindred ride the light,
from isles of brilliance call --
drying wings taste flight
in Sun-Wind -- rise and fall,
flutter -- rhythm more
than magic -- Lord of all
breathes again -- soar!

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

It's an attempt to answer, but it's the wrong question

The friendly folks at the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement have attempted to answer a question that I've been wondering about for a long time.

Just for some background, I once saw a bumper sticker that said, "Save the planet. Kill yourself." It seemed like the end (telos) of the radical environmental movement, and I've found it alternatively amusing and disturbing, as well as memorable.

Well, today I ran across the VHEMT website (h/t: James Taranto), with its frequently asked questions.

PHILOSOPHY & RELIGION: Q: What good is a healthy biosphere if there are no humans around to enjoy it?

The same good it was before we furless beach apes came along.

A human-centered world view only values other species by what they can do for us, or for "our children's children." We're collectively so centered on our own species that nothing matters except in relation to ourselves.

It's like our ancient view of the universe with Earth at the center: it took a long time for people to accept that our planet is just one of many orbiting a star, which is also just one of many in a galaxy, which is also just one of many in the universe.

An Earth-centered world view sees Homo sapiens as one of tens of millions of species in Earth's biosphere. We are exceptional in many ways, and so are the other life forms we share this rare and wonderful place with.

By envisioning Earth's entire biosphere, acknowledging the intrinsic value of every life form, our voluntary extinction begins to make sense.
Unfortunately, the question that VHEMT still didn't answer is this: If there's no consciousness (they don't believe in God, obviously, and they've declared humans including the VHEMT FAQ answerers better extinguished), then what is the "intrinsic value of every life form"? Value to whom? or to what? Why is this place wonderful? On what basis is a biosphere superior to an empty rock floating in space, or, for that matter, no rock at all?

And if the VHEMT people don't have an answer to that question, then there's no reason not to try to solve our environmental problems instead of voluntarily extinguishing human life.

Which brings us back to the bumper sticker.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

A brief note to American retailers

Dear Retailers --

For the past few weeks I've heard again and again that you've become afraid of Christmas. Lileks calls it "the holiday that dare not speak its name." Schools have outlawed red and green decorations; the Post Office issues stamps for Hannukah, Kwanzaa, and Eid and "Traditional Holiday" (h/t: Lileks), Target has chased off the Salvation Army bell-ringers, Macy's has forbidden its clerks to mention the dreaded "C" word, and the Nordstrom's Winter Holiday windows downtown look like something out of a 19th-century bordello.

You owe Christmas. When your " holiday shopping season" isn't stellar, then your bottom line sinks. The other winter holidays are not inherently gift-giving events, are only gift seasons in reaction to Christmas.

We've suffered through your three months of holly and greenery, two months of overplayed and irreverent "Winter Holiday" music, your clueless advertising and your advocacy of debt, debt, debt. We can even find meaning in the new clothes, the gifts, and even Santa Claus.

The truth is, you need Christmas, but Christmas doesn't need you.

A lot of what we buy during this the run-up to the "Winter Holiday" is stuff that we would buy anyway -- necessities that coincide with Christmas and end up under the tree. But a lot of it is crap that no one would ever miss--white elephant gifts, ties that the recipient doesn't like and never wears, that exotic little useless object for the person who has everything. When these things are given with true Christmas spirit, they are a physical incarnation of our love, and even useless objects can carry a great weight of love.

We get that from the story of Christmas -- about God becoming a helpless baby in a family needing shelter, by his birth uniting divinity and mortality and by his death uniting sinful man with holy God.

But your Winter Holiday carries no such story. It carries no consciously developed story at all, unless it's a fat jolly man borrowed from Christianity and put in charge of a toy factory. Divide that man from the Christmas story, and he becomes a marketing tool, one more long line to stand in with the kids, and finally just a Grumpy Santa.

The Winter Holiday story, as far as I can glean it from the advertisements, the "Winter Holiday" songs, the cultural paraphernalia that replaces Christmas, is this: "I am special. I deserve to have what I want. The Holidays are coming, a time when all the other people in my life want what they want. Also the office has a party that I have to attend. And my family gets together for the holidays, and we re-experience the trauma of growing up dysfunctionally. Other people have wonderful, meaningful holidays, but I never do. I have to send out Winter Holiday cards and attend Winter Holiday school pageants and decorate my home for Winter Holiday. And I have to buy stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. I have to drive to the mall and face the crowds and get what my friends and family want so they'll get what I want, or at least so I can take it back afterwards and get what I want. And afterward, I can shop the after-Winter Holiday sales and rest until next year."

There is nothing compelling about this story. All the elements, when contained within the Christmas story, are capable of profound depths. Divorced from Christmas, they are C.S. Lewis's X-mas rush without the "-mas." Rushing for the sake of rushing. How long till people say, "Fine, whatever. I think I'll skip the Winter Holidays."

In the meantime, people who celebrate Christmas don't need the retail "Holiday Season." We got along just fine without it for the better part of 2,000 years, We can give simple gifts, necessities, charitable donations, gift cards that support our local Christmas-celebrating schools. So cancel the office Winter Holiday party; that'll free up more time to focus on Advent. If the schools don't like red and green or the Christmas songs, then they have have a first-semester concert in late January. It will be more appropriate to sing about Frosty the Snowperson and Winter Wonderland later in the winter anyway.

You can throw out Christmas, but you have nothing to replace it. We Christmas-celebrators haven't lost anything.

But you have.

Oh, and by the way, Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

What element are you?

No, it's not one of those nifty quizzes. At a writers' workshop a while back, the leader, Cricket Pechstein, gave us an exercise, asking to classify ourselves accordiwg to the four elements--earth air, fire, and water. Well, different people took it different ways, and none were wrong, of course, but I landed on a scheme that made sense to me then and still does.
  • Earth--concrete detail

  • Water--"flow" of language, line, melody; what's aesthetically pleasing, easy on the eye or ear, pleasurable to behold

  • Fire--emotion

  • Air--philosophy, ideology--the "ethereal"
A successful work of art will contain these elenents in a balance appropriate to itself. Different artists will to emphasize one element or another.

James Joyce is water; Dostoevsky is fire; Faulkner is fire and water; Henry James is fire; Steinbeck is earth; Tolstoy is air. Feel free to argue this list or add to it. I am mostly earth. I have a deep hunch that truth shines through the details.

What brought this to mind was a chat with a woman the other day. She told me she was an artist. When I asked what kind of art, she said, "Feminist. I read a lot of philosophy, and my paintings are about the fragmentation of modern life." Earth, meet air. I was asking about the medium.

Reminds me of a poem I wrote once, "To emily dickinson." I showed it to an English professor. He read it and asked what it was about. It was about three feet wide and sixteen lines long.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Getting in touch with my inner geek

The New York Times has an article about how the Mozilla Firefox browser is eating into MS Explorer's market share. Scott Ott at Scrappleface has hit on the same theme.

From the NYT:
With Firefox, open-source software moves from back-office obscurity to your home, and to your parents', too. (Your children in college are already using it.) It is polished, as easy to use as Internet Explorer and, most compelling, much better defended against viruses, worms and snoops.
I even turned away from Safari, which comes loaded on the Mac OS X and whose brain is similar to Firefox's, for the extensions and add-ons that are available for Firefox.

Ironically, at the top of the NYT article in my Firefox window is the following message:
Firefox prevented this site from opening a popup window. Click here for options...
That's my doggie.

UPDATE: In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably tell you that I got Firefox for free.

H/T: Topic Drift

Friday, December 17, 2004

Random ramblings

War stories are the best part of learning a new job. We had our Christmas party at school last evening, and after a half-hour of jollity went back to our workstations to continue learning the theory of realtime transcription (it's hard to express that without any brand names). As frequently happens at such events, we had a hard time actually getting back to work, and some of the more advanced students sidetracked our teacher into the sort of job knowledge you don't get from books.

Like the time the reporter, an attorney and the witness in a phone-conferenced deposition were all named Dave, and so every time someone on the other end of the wire said, "Hey, Dave," three people answered.

Like the time a deposition question about the witness's adult beverage of choice veered into a social discussion of, "So, what do you like to drink?" After a couple of minutes of this, the reporter reminded them all that they were still on the record and wondered if that was OK with them. With the approval of both attorneys (either one could veto the decision), he backed up to the original question and answer and deleted the chitchat.

Like the fact that some court reporters have declared themselves offended by the language and subject matter that goes into depositions and refused to record it. To tell the truth, suspecting that I would be likely to be offended by the subject matter of TV is one reason that closed captioning is low on my list of applications for my new skill. What happens in court proceedings is real life. It somehow falls under the "I'm just repeating what so-and-so said" exclusion I learned in grade school.

One thing I was concerned about, going into this, was that a lot of depositions would be blah, blah, blah, 47%, $50,000, blah, blah, party of the first part, etc. But our teacher says that most depositions bring something new every day. Some people are jerks, he says, which, to my mind, makes them blog material. But by and large the conversations are educational and surprising ("Divorces are fun," he said, which makes me think he must be a writer at heart).

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Highway people -- the hawk

The red-tailed hawk sits on a tall light pole overlooking I-84 in east Portland. Beneath him, a stream of cars creeps along a maze of over- and underpasses through a district of light industrial, warehouses and railroad tracks.

The hawk sits tall and dignified, with his wings folded. Maybe he's watching for prey or maybe he's only gazing sleepily at the dirty metal river that flows beneath him.

I've seen him before--or one like him--a few miles south, hunting on the median strip of I-205. He hovered as if frozen in mid-air, talons extended. I didn't see his prey, but he saw it. Suddenly as I watched, he dropped like a stone. The river carried me away before I knew what he hunted or whether he caught it.

These creatures are a doorway into another world, where life and death are exchanged minute by minute. No wonder he watches us so smugly: we are encased in metallic bubbles, bobbing along the current, inured and blind to the predation and rapture around us. Does he know that we are dangerous, both for him and for each other? I fear the day I see him lying dead beside the road.

I don't think he nurses any such fear for me.

UPDATE: Maybe I should point out the irony that I did my first draft of this post on a Palm handheld, steering with my knee, as I negotiated the traffic.

Monday, December 13, 2004

The Real St. Nicholas

If scientists in Manchester, England, are correct, Arius may have hit back.

The reporter calls Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop of Myra in Lycia (now a pile of rubble in Turkey), "saint with a broken nose":
An anatomist was given access to his tomb by the Vatican half a century ago when repairs were being carried out to the crypt in the church at Bari, southern Italy, where his remains are kept.

Computer technology was used to build the image of the saint’s face. Experts then studied paintings of religious leaders on Orthodox icons and decided to add a white beard trimmed to 4th century fashion. What emerges is the face of a man aged 60, 5ft 6in tall and with a heavy jaw.
A very good read, but ignore the advice in the lead:
BEHOLD the olive-skinned man with the broken nose and shock of white hair. Find him in your front room at 4 am in 13 days’ time and you might be forgiven for hitting him over the head with the sherry bottle.

Don’t. It is Father Christmas as you have never seen him before.
Actually, go ahead and hit him with the sherry bottle. If he's in your house on Christmas morning, it's probably a heavy-jawed burglar. Everybody knows that St. Nicholas comes Dec. 5-6 (18-19).

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Bus people 10, Singing with the Rainbow Man

It was a long ride in to work this morning; traffic was bumper to bumper, and my bus ride that normally takes an hour was more like an hour and a half. It was OK: I polished my weather post and started next week's Onion Dome piece as the skies cleared and the sun came out and the bus rumbled past cars that had overheated in the stop-and-go traffic.

Nonetheless, when I arrived downtown for the bus switch, my mind had turned to Songs about Schedules:
This old engine makes it on time,
Leaves central station ’bout a quarter to nine,
Hits river junction at seventeen to,
At a quarter to ten you know it’s travlin’ again.

Driving that train, high on cocaine,
Casey jones is ready, watch your speed.
Trouble ahead, trouble behind,
And you know that notion just crossed my mind.
At the last stop before leaving the downtown Fareless Square, a remarkably dressed man got on the bus -- 300 pounds or so, wearing rainbow-hued, tie-dyed T-shirt, leggings and Birkenstock clogs, with his modesty preserved by a pair of black shorts. He wore a gold necklace with a glass bauble around his forehead like Zona, Princess of Venus, and many rings on his fingers and the last two fingers of both hands painted metallic pink. His hair, dyed blond, had a pink forelock.

He saw me singing and advised me to sing louder. "You should always let your voice be heard," he said.

Nah. I'm not going to inflict the music flowing through my brain on a captive audience, who might be processing their own reality with their own tunes. But I have to hand it to the Rainbow Man that he practices what he preaches.

What we do when we're not up to politics

Everybody go over to StephenEsque right now. Baldwin is blogging the alphabet.


He got on the elevator wearing Oregon business casual, which is not the chinos and polo shirts of other places' business casual, but blue jeans, nice shirt, denim jacket. He had the tan face and wide jaw and high cheekbones of someone who might be an Indian, and his wavy hair, pure white, had been pulled back into a pony tail.

"How do you like this weather?" he asked.

Now most people consider that an easy question. It was a December evening, pitch black at 6 p.m., temperature in the mid-40s, and raining. Most people have an opinion about weather like that, and it's not positive.

But the question stumped me. I have trouble having opinions about weather. It's like having an opinion about gravity. It shapes me more than I can shape it, and whether it's at any given moment convenient or inconvenient for me is of no consequence in the grand scheme of things.

The other thing, and this is perhaps a dirty little secret, is that I like rain. Western Oregon is a green place, and the rains are the life-giving nurturers of our evergreens and spring flowers, the moss that grows on the trunks of trees and the roofs of houses, the ferns and lichens and ivy, the fruits and vegetables that we'll enjoy next summer. Against a gray sky, the greens are brilliant and many-hued.

I also don't mind being in rain. I don't like water splashing my face, but when my glasses are protected from the raindrops making little plock! sounds as they hit the brim of my rain hat, I notice how remarkable it is that water falls from the sky.

When my Southern California nephews (now adults) were small boys, they came to visit, and on a rainy day, they ran to a puddle and shouted, "Circles!" Those young men may have forgotten circles (I haven't asked them recently), but I still see the circle, because children pointed them out.

So the man got on the elevator and asked me my opinion of the weather, and I couldn't think of anything to say. He looked at me as if I'd driven an SUV into the building and said he'd been out in it all day. The door opened, and he got off.

I left class at 10 p.m. and drove through the rain-washed streets of downtown Portland, which reflected the Christmas lights as bright as day, ablaze with the promise of the Incarnation.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Highway people

A 1970s-vintage Honda Civic (they looked a little like Gremlins, only smaller) preceded me off the I-205 exit yesterday. As we slowed to the left turn, I noticed something odd about the car (yes, beyond its being 25 years old with an aluminum engine block). It had hay scattered on its bumper, hay that wasn't going anywhere, even though the car was just exiting a 55 MPH speed limit highway. You don't see hay on the backs of tiny hatchbacks, even in Oregon City -- pickups maybe, but hatchbacks no.

Looking closer, I saw a bale of hay stashed in the back.

I wonder about that. Why would someone carry a bale of hay in the back of a 1970s-vintage Honda Civic? Does he haul really tiny horses? Is he taking the hay from the farm to the house's house in Gladstone (local reference: Gladstone is a middle-class residential area, pretty tightly settled)? If not horses, then what?

I never saw the driver in more detail than a silhouette against the front windshield, but I have to admit now that highway people can be every bit as perplexing as bus people; we just can't see them as well.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Bus people 9

The Loud Family gets on at a bus stop in West Linn where we usually pick up zero to one person: 11 people with the gross mass of about 18 and with a combined IQ of about 900. They carry on their conversations, about Mom's shoes, Sis's socks, marriage regulations in Utah (whether or not Mormons are permitted polygamy), and other disconnected family concerns (Gasp! "We left the phone off the hook!"), while the other big sis sings "Silent Night " off-key to a babe in arms.

The two who sat further back in the bus carry on a loud conversation about the Star Trek multi-racial world.

Their garrulous volubility raises such an intrusive hubbub that I can focus on nothing but them.

The big sis with purple toe socks sitting in front of me lifts her arm to stretch it across the seat back, and I have to open a window to let in some fresh air.

Sometimes blogging is the best revenge.


After finishing the post, I gladly and quickly got off my bus downtown to wait for my next ride out to work, and who should come lumbering up the street but the Loud family again.

Now I've learned about Mom's springy shoes and her diabetic condition and the gun and combination bow collection of the one who carries all the bus passes for the whole family. Also about their dolls and their early life in a cabin with no indoor plumbing and fire-powered irons.

When I got to work, I learned that a man had called from England, hopping mad because he gets wrongly addressed e-mail. My work website is one letter different from his website, and therefore, it's our fault if he gets mail addressed to him that is not intended for him.

He's been mad at us for two years about this, mad enough to phone from England.

I need a button that says, "I've had my daily allocation of crazies. You take the next one."

A psychiatrist explains BDS

Dr. Sanity explains Bush Derangement Syndrome:
This psychological defense mechanism is referred to as 'displacement'. One way you can usually tell that an individual is using displacement is that the emotion being displaced (e.g., anger) is all out of proportion to the reality of the situation. The purpose of displacement is to avoid having to cope with the actual reality. Instead, by using displacement, an individual is able to still experience his or her anger, but it is directed at a less threatening target than the real cause.

H/T: Blue Goldfish

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Tracking the wily Evangelicals

Portland's alternative weekly ran a feature story on Evangelicals this week. Its slant was "They're here, they're having an effect, and we'd better get to know them."

The writer, Zach Dundas, came across like an anthropologist studying a strange and foreign race, but at least he accepted them as being of the same species as himself. (This is not entirely usual among practitioners of the "a secularist introduces the evangelicals" genre.) By and large, it was a good and fair piece of writing. The writer didn't claim to be exhaustive; he acknowledged the diversity within the Evangelical community and within the Christian community at large. He didn't demonize or marginalize or criticize or harmonize (sorry, I got to channeling Bob Dylan for a second). Anyway, he treated it as a foreign culture, which it is for many people, but as a culture worth considering. He kept the snark level to a minimum.

He even started with a definition of Evangelicalism -- a good, if difficult place to start in such an effort. He failed to distinguish among Evangelicals, Fundamentalists and "born-agains," but I don't want to be like the guy in the Gary Larson cartoon who looks out at his dog, pushing the lawnmower in crazy lines around the grass, and shouts, "Bad dog, Rex! You call that mowing the lawn?"

An unfortunate association

What do you get when you drag $165 million through a trailer park?

A new presidential library that looks like an enormous single-wide mobile home on stilts.