Sunday, January 30, 2005

To the people of Iraq

I wish you a long and prosperous democracy. I hope you will quickly become comfortable enough in your freedom that you take the vote for granted. I hope you are able to laugh at your adversaries and vigorously advocate for your allies.

I hope that one day a statue of a woman with a purple finger will replace the statue of Saddam fallen from the pedestal in Baghdad.

You are an inspiration to free people everywhere (though some may not yet have noticed it).

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Great point, Basil

Basil makes such a good point in answer to yesterday's Shameless Plug that I want to pull it out and answer it here.
A great discussion aired several years ago on Mars Hill Radio about sentimentality. The Bridges of Madison County was preparing to open in theaters, and the book had already been selling like hotcakes on Fat Tuesday. The host and his guest (a literature professor, probably from Wheaton or one of the other members of CCCU) discussed Bridges in comparison to A Love Story from twenty or so years earlier. As I recall, the main point was essentially that sentimentality is manipulation of the reader's emotions, sweeping them away like a river overflowing its banks, without forcing the reader to ask, 'Is this the way life really is? Can people really do that without any consequences?'

I was just wondering if you had any thoughts relating your understanding of sentimentaility to the focus of this workshop?

The difference between melodrama and drama is not the amount of emotion, but whether the emotions are sufficiently grounded in the story.

When Snidely Whiplash ties Pauline to the railroad track while the train is coming, it's laughable, because that's not how a rational landlord would respond to recalcitrant renters. (Comedy, in fact, can consist of just this kind of disjuncture between cause and effect.) If the writer had made Whiplash a psychopath, it might have come closer, but, of course, by now, fictional psychopaths are a so common that their copy-of-a-copy conventions have become themselves laughable.

A dramatic story (leaving out the experimental fictional forms, to which this may or may not apply) requires emotion for the characters' (and thus the readers') investment in the outcome. If the character doesn't care what will happen, the reader or viewer has no reason to, either. It can be a matter of a glass necklace or a life-or-death struggle with a tiger against the sea, but it's emotion that makes the story compelling.

Almost anything can be well enough told to overcome objections to its reality. Don't believe that a virtuous woman with consumption would bow down in homage to a prostitute? Once Dostoevsky tells you how they get there, it's inevitable.

That's craft.

But beyond craft is the theme -- the place where artists have the responsibility to tell the truth as best they know it. Any theme -- evil or good, right triumphs or murder has no consequences, the universe is oriented on an axis of right and wrong or ruled by chaos -- can be presented with enough craft to persuade.

I didn't read The Bridges of Madison County, so I can't say anything first-hand about it, but it does seem useful to distinguish between discussing theme and discussing craft.

The workshop is about craft.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Shameless Plug

If you're in the Portland, Ore., area and interested in writing, you might like an upcoming workshop:
Saturday, March 5, in Portland, "Emotion-Driven Fiction" by Eric Witchey. This award-winning short-story writer will teach participants to make emotion drive the plot and to display emotion in text. He will also teach a tool called ED ACE for emotional, dramatic action and character transformation.

The workshop happens at the American Plaza Towers on SW First Avenue in Portland. Convenient parking available.

The fee for the workshop is $80 for members, $115 for non-members. (The non-member price includes a one-year membership in Oregon Writers Colony.) Witchey is a popular teacher, and space is limited. For information, contact Martha Miller. Registration forms are available on the OWC website.

I met Eric at a workshop a few months ago, and he struck me as someone who would be a good teacher, which was why I was excited to sign up to coordinate this workshop. It runs from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with an hour off for lunch.

And just for my own curiosity, if you decide to attend and read about it first on my blog, please let me know. I hope to see you there.

Parody Ad

OK. I'm evil. But I thought this was funny.

Especially since VW is hopping mad about it.

h/t: Jeff Jarvis, who draws some useful conclusions about Cluetrain marketing from the kerfluffle.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

He's got the right idea, but he missed his own point

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Paul Starr shows that he at least partly understands the cause of the recent Democratic train wreck:
And liberal Democrats, in particular, have been inviting political oblivion -- not by advocating the wrong causes, but by letting their political instincts atrophy and relying on the legal system.
In other words, by using the judiciary to get their policies enacted instead of going through the legislatures or Congress, they have bypassed the dialogue and compromise that would promote their case and make it stronger. Of course, when you go the route of debate and leglislation, you have the possibility of losing -- or waiting 32 years before you begin to see the payoff of your efforts.

But in the next paragraph, Starr shows that he doesn't quite get it at all:
To be sure, Democrats were right to challenge segregation and racism, support the revolution in women's roles in society, to protect rights to abortion and to back the civil rights of gays.
Segregation was upheld by the Supreme Court, then only later struck down by the Court and by the 1964 Civil Rights Act (legislation, supported more by Republicans than Democrats); the "revolution in women's roles in society" happened partly because of social changes outside the realm of any courts -- reduced rates of infant mortality, urbanization, the trend toward work that doesn't depend on sex characteristics -- and "support" for that revolution has brought its own set of issues and discrimination, the "right" to abortion was invented from the "emanations of the penumbra" of the shadows Supreme Court's mind, and the "civil rights" of gays have never been overturned (voting, freedom of speech and assembly, etc. Having everyone approve of your lifestyle is not a civil right). Presuming that he is speaking to a sympathetic audience of the Enlightened, he glides over these points ("to be sure") as if the arguments have been made and won.

They haven't.

In fact, the old media, such as the New York Times itself, are part of the crippling of the Democratic Party. Not knowing any Republicans and rarely hearing arguments against their unquestioned stances, they don't even know that their arguments haven't persuaded. When they do find someone from "the other side" to quote as "balance," it's frequently some looney who only "proves" how slack-jawed and uncultured we are. Our arguments may not persuade either, but often our opponents don't even know what they are.

Then their protesters tell us that Republicans are simply ignorant of the arguments in favor of Democrats' agenda. Their arguments assail us from every media outlet, and we have to dig a little deeper to get the other side.

That, too, teaches us something.

I think 50 years ago the situation was reversed: it was those with an affinity for tradition who fell into complacency. They didn't have to make the arguments, because "everyone knew" they were correct. I think they largely were correct, but my point is ultimately the same as Paul Starr's: If you don't have to make your case, then you may lose by default.

There's nothing, except laziness perhaps, to prevent both sides from making a vigorous argument, which is not the same as presuming one's moral and intellectual superiority.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

How are the kids?

We've all heard the complaints about the perfunctory How-are-you?s, the What-do-you-think-about-the-weather?s, the How-about-them-Yanks?es.

Well, give me the meaningless inquiries about my health (which is fine, thanks), the weather (which I never quite know how to answer), or sports (which I don't follow) over the bright, cheery, quick and indifferent "How are the kids?"

The requisite answer is "Fine. How are yours?" But what if the true answer is, "Breaking my heart, thank you very much"? If all the asker wants to do is show that she remembers that I have kids, then she might just point and wink and say, "Kids." I'll point and wink back, and we'll be on our way.

But if we're in the midst of a crowd and someone looks at me with bright, expectant eyes and says, "How are the girls?" what am I supposed to answer. (One is fine, thank God.) The other night I came up with a glib, slick short version for someone I had just met and with whom I was exchanging the requisite family structure pleasantries, but the short, slick version doesn't get past that initial acquaintance.

But the long version has pain on many sides, fear, sadness, love and lies, anger and guilt, and tears embedded in it. I don't know how long it is, because I haven't told it. I don't know how it ends. I don't know if this is the belly of the whale or merely a pinch point. I don't know where the inciting incident's change of paradigm fell. It's a story to explore with one person, such as the matushka at my church, who is one of the best listeners I've ever met, but it's not a story to dump carelessly on anyone.

Maybe it's a story best written, so that only those prepared for the journey take it.

But the writer herself must prepare for the journey.

But don't ask me when you're on the way out one door, and I'm on the way out the other.

(I must be the most difficult conversationalist in the world.)

Saturday, January 22, 2005

A daring question from Lawrence Summers

Andrew Sullivan puts into the context the flap over Harvard President Larry Summers' improvident remarks about the differences between men and women.

Summers had the temerity to ask whether proclivities to subject matter might be genetic.
Then he made the mistake of pointing to some interesting research by the University of Michigan sociologist Yu Xie and his University of California-Davis colleague Kimberlee A Shauman. Their hypothesis was that in science tests the median score for men and women was roughly the same. But for some reason men were disproportionately represented at the very bottom and the very top of the table.

Or, as the Harvard Crimson reported: “There are more men who are at the top and more men who are utter failures.”

One possible explanation for this is genetics. Summers raised the possibility that this might have something to do with male preponderance at the very top of research science. And he immediately added: “I’d like to be proven wrong on this one.”

Proving that women academics are always rational and professional in their bearing and demeanor, Prof. Nancy Hopkins had to leave the meeting. “When he started talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women, I just couldn’t breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill.” Get the woman some smelling salts. I think she has the vapors.

Even Christian bloggers, though, such as John Mark Reynolds have piled on, as if Summers had used the "N" word or something. Reynolds is right that there's a double standard; Summers may escape the lynching because he is not a conservative or traditionalist Christian, but that doesn't mean he deserves to be lynched any more than the next person who has a thought that gives the world's Prof. Hopkinses the vapors.

Sullivan's conclusion is that in an academic or scientific setting, it ought to be possible to float and test a hypothesis without being slapped with a fish. And so it should. Many in academia have become afraid of questions, and the world of scholarship is the poorer for it.

Friday, January 21, 2005

An Olympic prankster defrocked

An Irish priest who changed the outcome of the 2004 Olympic marathon was defrocked. At first I was going to blog this little gem of a quote for its overwhelming clericalism:
I now cannot preach, I cannot give out communion -- I am little more than a pagan.

After all, if not being able to preach or give out Communion makes him a pagan, what does that do to the 99.95 percent of Christians around the world, whatever our faith expression?

But then there was this:
The Roman Catholic priest claimed that he was highlighting the "second coming" of Jesus Christ.

I can't speak for his bishop(s), naturally, but if this is accurate, he's got bigger problems than being an "Olympic prankster."

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Update: Where I've been

I haven't forgotten my blog, but my regular computer is in the shop (I'm using my irregular computer now), and I've been running from work to school and back, and . . . . Isn't that enough? Can I say my dog ate my blog?

Guess not.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who's added advice about outing myself as a Republican--both the comfort and the challenges have been much appreciated and have helped put the situation into context. I've got a couple of weeks before I see those folks again, so I've got time to cogitate on it.

In the meantime, it's bedtime, and the puppy is tired. (Me, too.)

Sunday, January 16, 2005

A Daring Daylight Rescue, Not

It was a quiet day in the Appalachians (?) when our intrepid hero, attorney/seminarian/cassock wearer, came upon a roadside disturbance:
In any event, I was moseying along when I noticed a crowd -- 10 or 12 people -- standing on the side of the road looking into the river. Among the on-lookers were at least two sheriff's deputies and a Highway Patrolman. Hmmmm, I thought, must be a jail break.

It's thrilling, it's heroic (or at least it offers thoughts about heroism), it's educational, and it'll have you laughing your boots off.

Go there right now.

Friday, January 14, 2005

An ethical dilemma

I mentioned the other day that most of my fellow writers are on the left of me. Well, I was with a group the other evening and am wondering if I violated some standards of civility or courage. Here's what's happened.

We finished our meeting, and the talk turned to other topics, namely politics. Stupid Bush. Not stupid but flawed. Bad Republicans, except one (unnamed, probably RINO). No bad Democrats. Republicans hateful. Democrats good. Etc. You know the drill.

My bad? I didn't say anything. I smiled politely and thought of it as an opportunity to gain a perspective I wouldn't get otherwise. I felt like a spy. If anyone had asked my opinion, I'd have answered the question honestly, but no one did, and everyone presumed that we were all at the same end of the political spectrum.

The teams were six on one side, one (me) on the other. I couldn't out-argue them, even if I were good at arguing. I made my case for Pres. Bush in this space in the run-up to the election, and I still think he's a decent man and possibly a great president, but I don't have any illusion that I could change anyone's political opinions, especially not those so deeply entrenched. I'd like to keep up a relationship with these people, something I'm not sure would happen if they knew my dirty little secret.

So tell me, my friends and fellow wanderers in the blogosphere, do I owe it to my friendly acquaintances to correct their presumption? In honest discourse, is one required to correct every (perceived) "error" of political analysis, especially when that's only a side topic -- or even to announce "I'm one of Them"?

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Blogroll is back: Bastet's Lair

Just about all the writers I know are to my left -- people who prove that political agreement is not necessarily the only or even best basis for friendship, people who are smart, funny, generous with their time and talent. A mixed bag like everyone else, but people who enrich my life.

Lynn from Chicago is like that. She's a journalist who frequently blogs about her fiction writing, and she also adds a different perspective on my political comments. Check her out within the next day or two, because she's promised a political post of her own.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Terrorists and 'torture'

Heather Mac Donald puts the Gonzales hearings into context with a long piece about U.S. post-9/11 interrogation techniques.

The bottom line is what should have been expected: U.S. military policy never countenanced what any of us would qualify as "torture." On the other hand, Islamofascist terrorists do not respect or respond to polite requests for information.

I'm reminded of the classic movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, in which, in an attempt to gain information from murderous revolutionaries, government agents take a blindfolded captive up into a helicopter. It rises a few feet off the ground and hangs there for a little while, as officers interrogate the captive. When he refuses to talk, they push him out of the helicopter. He falls only a few feet and lands uninjured, but the push brings him face to face with his mortality, and he tells everything. Cruel and inhumane person that I am, I thought it was funny. The Red Cross would beg to differ, and apparently such techniques are no longer permitted to U.S. military in use with people who would fly airliners into office buildings.

Sec. Rumsfeld even has to give personal approval for the terrifying chocolate torture.

I'm glad somebody's civilized on this mad planet.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Google Search: Dan Rather nose

OK, so what's the deal with Dan Rather's nose?

Over the past few days, I've gotten hits from three Google searches on "Dan Rather nose."

It's not me they're looking for -- my "nose" post and "Rather" post are a couple of days apart, but there are 331,000 to choose from.

Is a meme developing out there?

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Don't do it!

A woman I know (and respect) has a teen-aged daughter in her senior year of high school.

The girl is beautiful in ways that only a 17-year-old can be. She's also smart, thoughtful and a delight to be around. And she inherited her nose from her father, a Jew.

Now I've heard that the mother wants to give her daughter a nose job for a graduation present.

Well, it's none of my business, and nobody asked me, but they don't read the blogs, and so I'm going to tell everybody in my little corner of the world (who also haven't asked), what I would tell this girl if she asked me.

Don't do it! Take the money to buy a car, travel to Europe -- or Israel, for that matter, put a down payment on real estate, invest it to start a business when you get out of college.

You've got a great nose. It's not a little Barbie nose; it's a nose with strength, character. Your new cookie-cutter nose may serve you through your twenties, but you won't be in your twenties very long. Later, you'll want respect, rather than cuteness, but you'll have sacrificed your face to the whims of a decade. Look at the majestic women of history and today: do they have cute little noses? No, they do not.

And don't cut off this link to your father's people, who have given so much to the world and probably contributed to your genetic disposition to a powerful intellect.

You don't need a button nose. The world needs you as you are: beautiful as a young girl today, beautiful as an indomitable matriarch tomorrow.

CBS tries to be No. 4

Sorry, but all my preposterous belief slots are taken.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward has told the White House that "neither CBS News nor Rather had a vendetta against the White House [in using forged documents during the runup to the election], and from here on out would do everything it could to be fair and balanced."

Monday, January 03, 2005

I might argue with the order . . .

but here's why '04 could go into the record books as having some of the looniest quotes of all time.

U.S. adoption trauma

Like Jeff Jacoby, we adopted our daughters from overseas, and at least partly for the same reason he points out: that it would be a lot harder for the biological mother to come back and reclaim them if she changed her mind later.

Jacoby relates another travesty of U.S. justice, as a court removes a three-year old child from her adoptive parents and gives her back to the unstable mother, with liberal visitation from her drug-abusing, anger-challenged convict of a sperm donor.

Jacoby says, "This is what comes of attaching more importance to DNA than to years of devoted parenting."

But I wonder if it might be more the result of the concept of mother's ownership of the child. She, after all, has entire say over the child's fate up until the day it is declared a "baby" by a shifting legal definition. After that, she can do just about anything she wants with it, provided that it doesn't lead to the child's actual death.

Obviously, that's not the whole story, and events like the judicial betrayal of Evan Parker Scott are more an exception than a rule, but the fact that they happen at all, the fact that the judge is so concerned about mother's "rights" and so indifferent to the child's welfare, says a lot about our society and the way we view children.

Mostly as chattel, apparently.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

A Modest Resolution

I already quit smoking and my other bad habits I still like too much to quit, but my friend inspired me to a higher goal.

I vow to believe three preposterous things this year. I don't want to overestimate my abilities and try for the White Queen's six before breakfast. A simple three for 2005 seems like a sufficiently ambitious goal. Here they are, with thanks to my friend Geri for the suggestion of the third:
  1. Dan Rather is a journalist.

  2. Michael Moore is a documentary filmmaker.

  3. Dan Brown is a writer.
There. That should keep me occupied through 2005, and if Dan Rather actually retires, then one will open up.