Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Political Shibboleths

The man who sat on the mall bench next to me was in his late 70s, maybe, or early 80s, no doubt taking a break, as I was, after having been outshopped by his companion. I had taken Jayden out of the stroller to stretch his legs, and he sat on my lap behaving like an exceedingly cute 1-year-old.

So that was the scene when the man sat down and made conversation with Jayden, said he'd retired from the Air Force, mentioned his recent back surgery; we exchanged the names of our home towns; and casting about for another topic of conversation, he said that the government spends too much money.

I had turned Jayden around on the bench, and he was watching with fascination the people go by below. The man, thinking I had missed his topic, tried again: "Congress spends too much of our money."

Thinking about it later, I realized that there were many things I could have said: "Preach it, brother!" or "What programs do you disagree with?" or "It seems to be what the voters want them to do." Or even, "I don't talk politics [although it's not "politics," strictly speaking, but policy; anyway] with strangers; pick another." But what came out was, "..."

My first thought was why am I such a loghead? But if he had had a specific policy issue, we might have had a conversation. But too often, these entrees aren't about conversation; they're about finding out if the other person is one of us or one of them. I suspect that I might have been "us" to the man, but I hate being "us" that way even more than I hate being "them."

I know a man who plays this game with every person he meets -- and he meets a lot of people. I'm among "them" to him, and when he finds a kindred political soul, they ramp up the rhetoric together in a sort of bondng ritual. It's not persuasive -- there's no need to persuade, because the assumption is that being "us," we already agree; if we had to persuade each other, we wouldn't be "us."

I wonder how much the state of our political discourse comes back to the inanities people proclaim when they're trying to find fellow members of their political clans.

How much more appealing just to stare over the railing at the many fascinating people walking about below.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

We need a little (more) Christmas

"Happy Holidays!" the chirpy voice rang out the last weekend of November. "Welcome to McDonald's."

Well, happy holidays to you, too. Any particular holiday? Arbor Day? Third Finding of the Head of John the Baptist? Of course, I didn't say that, just gave my order and drove on through.

I sat out the Chrismas wars this year, though I saw with some gratification that the secularists made a few strategic retreats. I don't put much stock in corporate-designated holiday greetings; I'd rather hear what bubbles forth from the clerk's heart, whether it's Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, or Bah Humbug.

But it's been an interesting season. The late Oriana Fallaci declared herself a "Christian atheist." Dennis Prager, a Jew, gets himself lambasted for defending the civic and cultural importance of the Christian Bible. Seattle puts the Christmas trees back into the airport. "Tidings of comfort and joy" -- or are they?

I don't want to belittle any of the efforts and sacrifices of our fellow combatants for freedom of religion in the public square. But I think it's necessary to note that the Christmas of the public square -- with or without the permission of the ACLU -- is not all there is. And the fact that someone needs to note that shows how far, perhaps, the secularists have encroached on Christmas.

One example: Steve Ely of Escape Pod (an SF audio magazine that is a weekly favorite of mine) introduces the Christmas podcast -- a story about how Santa solves some management problems -- with a brief anecdote about how he's not religious but his son has shown him the value of Christmas. If I can give joy and fun and sparkly things to my son, he said -- not in those words, but that's the gist of it -- then why should I deny it to him because of my temptation to think of it as humbug. And by giving it to him, I get a little of it back myself. It's a wise and deeply true statement and yet it reveals the gap between Christmas revealed by angels on a night some 2,000 years ago and Christmas as it's come to be practiced some 2,000 years later.

We think of Christmas as a Hallmark special -- when wandering adults come home to aging parents, enemies reconcile, children get the miraculous gift that they most dearly need. And although all those things are good, and one can find scriptural bases for all those stories -- at the end the stories are too frequently cut off from their moorings, like buoys marking the location of sunken treasure whose ropes are cut, leaving searchers wandering dark waters to find bobbing indicators pointing to nothing.

"Peace!" "Joy!" and "Hope!" the Christmas cards say, and who can argue with peace, joy and hope? Except "peace" is defined as an absence of botherment; "joy" as the Christmas mood, manufactured by weeks of songs about snow and Christmas, some pine-scented candles and a lot of red and green decorations; "hope" as that present -- profound or trivial -- that Santa brings.

I don't mean to denigrate any of that. "Christmas is for children," the secular Christmas celebrators say, "and for the child in all of us," some of them add. And again, who can argue with such a profound truth? Except that, again, it's cut loose from the moorings. Yes, Christmas is about literal quiet, punctuated by songs, marked by the smells that hinge to memories in the human mind, the red and green colors pointing to life, and the gifts pointing to the gifts the Magi or the Gift that is Christ himself. Everything we do is for the kids -- to make clear to them what the holiday means and to remind ourselves year in and year out what the holiday means. God became incarnate -- God became meat (go 48 minutes into the linked podcast for a five-minute-long SF story that captures the wonder, the scandal of Christmas without apparently even being aware of it), with all the botherment, pain and suffering, and despair of earthly success that entailed for Him.

No wonder people get angry, frustrated, cynical, and depressed about Christmas. They go into the season expecting a Hallmark Christmas; they pull up the buoys and find nothing attached. The buoys aren't bad or wrong, but the ropes have been cut. If Santa represents neither the historical St. Nicholas nor the Gift of Love from God to us, then he easily becomes a Bad Santa, hating children and mocking everything good. If Christmas light isn't the Light that enlightens every human soul, then Christmas can become Black Christmas, a time of fear and death.

The old civil celebration used to help maintain the ropes -- the Nativity scenes, the old carols. They weren't enough alone, but combined with the religious practice of ordinary people they were a net benefit. But now we feel as if we've gotten away with something when a school choir gets to sing "We Need a Little Christmas," when we can put a Nativity scene in public, casting Santa Claus among the Wise Men, when the Salvation Army gets to ring bells outside a shopping mall. Again, not bad, not bad, not bad, but not enough. And not enough even to indicate that there's more.

In fact, that's the saddest part of it. Not that people hear and reject, but that they don't hear, that they think they comprehended Christmas when they were 8 years old and waiting for that special doll or baseball glove, that they don't understand that Christmas is a feast for the intellect as well as for the body and for the senses, and that the totality of it is a feast for the spirit.
Your Nativity, O Christ our God,
Has shown to the world the light of wisdom,
For by it those who worshiped the stars were taught by a star
To adore you, the Sun of righteousness,
and to know you, the Orient from on high.
O Lord, glory to you.
Today the Virgin gives birth to Him who is above all creation,
And the earth gives a cave to Him who is unapproachable,
Angel and shepherds sing Your glory,
And Wise Men journey with star,
Since for our sake, He has come as a newborn child, who from all eternity is God.

Merry Christmas to all.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Best-laid plans

So I get home from work Monday fully intending to be useful and productive the whole evening long. It's the first day of our Christmas vacation from court-reporting school, and so it's the first Monday evening I've been home in months.

I thought I'd cook a real dinner, do the Christmas cards, read a little bit, go to bed early.

Then I get a call from daughter No. 2, panicked and crying. She had been rear-ended at a red light in Oregon City, and she needed me to come and get her. So I turned off the burners on the stove and swung into action. Her back and neck hurt, and so we needed to go to the emergency room and have it checked out.

Four hours later the problem has been determined to be whiplash, and daughter No. 1 and grandson No. 1 are determined to be uninjured, and we're driving through McDonald's on the way home.

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to be of service, and I'm glad that everyone is well, and all that. But these events tempt me just to sit back wait for the next crisis, rather than attempt to do anything that will take thought and effort and concentration.

I've heard the old saying, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans," and I believe it, but if everyone put all their emphasis on that definition of "life," nobody would ever accomplish anything extraordinary. "Balance," of course -- as so often -- is the answer, which is a quick and easy way of saying, "negotiating hard decisions and coming up with unsatisfactory answers." Welcome to life, Jan.

And the folks who are waiting for our Christmas cards will probably get them in time for Old Calendar Christmas -- sooner if I drop the annual Christmas letter; later if not.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Schultze Gets the Blues

It's a little late for a relevant review, but I just watched the 2003 German movie Schultze Gets the Blues. If you're in the mood for a fast-paced action-adventure thriller, it's probably not the best time to watch it. But if you loved the slower-paced, blossoming (in the sense of layers unfolding and revealing themselves) movies, this is a good one.

I've told my friends that it's The Straight Story meets Babette's Feast.

Schultze is a German salt miner, forced into retirement and casting about for what to do with his life, who hears Louisiana zydeco music on the radio late one night. He pulls out his accordion and imitates the song, taking the simple folk melody he heard and playing it faster and faster until he's got the tempo but not quite the feel of what he heard. He shares the sound with his friends at a local concert with mixed results.

He sells everything he has and goes on a voyage, on a quest, for the music, taking a boat through the coastal waterways, canals, and bayous from Texas to Louisiana.

SPOILER ALERT: If you want to go rent the movie and come back, I'll wait. Take your time.

All right. Back now? Good.

So his quest takes him from German music in Texas, to Billy Jones and the Czech Boys to classic Cajun music to the zydeco he seeks. In fact, he ends up at a joint where he has an opportunity to dance to the same music he heard on the radio.

He has adventures and misunderstandings along the way -- I laughed out loud when the hunters landed a duck in his boat -- and the black woman at his last stop gives him water, a meal and the kindest of hospitality. We don't see her go through the process of figuring out about the music he was looking for; we only see him dancing at the joint. And then he goes short of breath and they take him home. He goes to sleep under a bright full moon, dreaming about Cajuns dancing to music he can't hear. And then a black cloud goes across the moon.

The next scene opens with a musical funeral procession moving through a graveyard. I had been wanting Schultze to triumph, to learn to play the music and to go home and share it with the people there. So I'm watching the procession, thinking, "Did he die? Can't be. Maybe he's visiting a Cajun funeral." And the procession takes its slow cinematic time arriving, so that the viewer can consider all the possibilities.

But the musicians in the procession are the people from Schultze's home town, and they've gathered with their accordions and brass instruments to give him a good sendoff -- something like a Cajun funeral.

So he has triumphed, and he has, in some small way, transformed his community.

Like the painter in Tolkein's Leaf by Niggle, Schultze has had a glimpse of the beauty of another world (in this case, a continent away), a beauty he can only barely capture and not replicate. He goes on a journey to acquire that beauty, and it's a journey that takes his entire life to comprehend. And yet, even in his seeming failure, his all is enough.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The end begins

I've got no blame, finger-pointing or recriminations. I think I'm going to continue what has become a step aside from politics, while I get other things done.

But the shadows lengthen at the end of what James Lileks called "the greatest summer ever" (it was in a bleat last August or September -- you'll just have to trust me -- but it was exactly the right mix of Minnesota fall and decline of Western civilization that captured the melancholy loveliness of the moment). Now it's November, and the likely chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has connections with militant Islamists. Sen. John Conyers, D-Mich., is from the heavily Islamic area of Dearborn, Mich., where a noise variance allows the Muslim prayer call to be amplified five times every day of the year.

But the bells-vs.-loudspeakers debate will seem quaint if he succeeds with his vow to make it illegal to consider religion and national origin in airport screening, if he and soon-to-be Speaker Nancy Pelosi succeed in their announced plan of gutting the Patriot Act, and if he keeps his vow of drawing up show trials to keep the Commander in Chief from operating the war.

November has its own beauty, though -- of a gray and austere kind. To the people who will die because of the inattentiveness and fecklessness of me and my fellow countrymen, I say I'm sorry. The light was already far slanting when we woke and began to stir, and maybe it was already too late. Or maybe there's time yet. It's always to hard to know, standing on the cusp of what was and what will be.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Montreal Shooter's Website?

It could be a coincidence, of course: 25-year-old Kimveer Gill of a suburb north of Montreal opens fire on college students in Montreal, killing several and wounding at least 12.

Police killed the shooter at the scene.

Spokespeople kept saying it wasn't a terrorist or racist killing, but I was skeptical, because it's never a terrorist or racist killing, even when the killer says it is, so I googled "Kimveer." Up pops "Fatality666" at, a 25-year-old male from Quebec, Canada, whose profile reads:
His name is Trench. You will come to know him as the Angel of Death . He is male. He is 25 years of age. He lives in Quebec. He finds that it is an O.K place to live. He is not a people person. He has met a handfull of people in his life who are decent. But he finds the vast majority to be worthless, no good, kniving, betraying, lieing, deceptive, motherfuckers.
So it looks like this one is not a terrorist or racist killing. Instead it's a hard-drinking, bored, angry, depressed, Marilyn Manson-fan, Goth-Satanist killing. So 20th century.

It's good to be wrong, but not much comfort for the dead or those who loved them. The dead, so far, are Anastasia DeSousa, 18, and a 20-year-old whose name hasn't been released. (I don't want to speak his name without theirs, because it raises him above them in importance.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Truth about Snapping Turtles

Controversy erupted on a recent comments page, as Fr. Joseph reported that in North Carolina he was told that snapping turtles hold on until the next thunderstorm, whereas I was told in Louisiana that they would hold on until sundown.

This is a matter of no small importance, especially since they inhabit streams and lakes east of the Rockies from southern Canada to Ecuador, not to mention reptile collections of people who think of cold-blooded animals as pets.

A woman in Manhattan, wearing sandals, was ruthlessly attacked by an ungrateful snapping turtle that she tried to rescue from a garbage can in Hell's Kitchen.

A criminal in Balch Springs, Texas, tried to use a snapping turtle to commit an armed robbery. He was later charged with assault with a reptile (I kid you not).

The snapping turtle has even played a part in American political history, as this early cartoon compares Pres. Jefferson's embargo to an "Ograbme" turtle. (Is that funny? I guess you had to be there.)

So, given all this danger, of being mugged, attacked on a city street, traumatized in your friend's kitchen, or assaulted by a presidential administration, you're probably wondering, when do they let go -- sundown or thunderstorm? Thunderstorm or sundown? Or does the Heisenberg principle apply, under which they both hold on and let go -- until you shove something in their nostrils.

That's the answer, friends, and a much more satisfactory answer than either the sundown (which could be a long way off) or a thunderstorm (which in Oregon practically never happens).

So now you can say you learned something new today. Or if you already knew all this stuff, you can say I learned something new today.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Stop Editing

Life lessons can come from surprising places.

Over the weekend, I was looking on the web for magic formulas to help me progress faster in my court reporting course. Actually, I ran across this article in some practice material, and it offered one of those lovely categorizations: If you can fix these problems, you will be assured of success. (Tell me, Doctor, what is wrong with me that I keep going into pursuits where success is an ever-receding horizon?)

Anyway, the article helpfully informs us that there are four classifications of problems: clarity, hesitation, carrying and editing. If you're overly persnickety, as I am, you will note that they overlap and and feed each other, but when I read the description of "editing," I realized I was nailed:
4) Writers who edit while writing:

A. This is the strangest group of all (I rest my case). This group looks backward to check the accuracy of previous strokes. This is not conducive to learning. It must be stopped.
This is the same reason that I'm writing my novel by hand (700 words today, by the way), because when I sit at a keyboard, I can't leave the prior paragraphs alone. It's not right; it's not colorful; it's got typos; it's stupid; it's boring. Anne Lamott's slogan, "I'll fix it later," doesn't work, because it's too easy to read the type above and see the errors and problems and fear that they won't get fixed before going public (and looking at yesterday's post, I see that that is a definite danger--and I won't fix it later). Handwriting is enough harder to read, and I know I have to type it anyway, so I can say, "I'll fix it later," and trust myself to do it.

And it's possible to live like that, too, second-guessing every decision, every move, until someone's afraid to do anything because it might be wrong, stupid, boring, not clever, etc.

It's not that editing shouldn't happen, but if it begins too soon -- whether in court reporting, writing or life -- it ties up the person so that forward motion is impossible. Martin Luther was getting near this idea in his oft-quoted "Be a sinner and sin boldly, but more strongly have faith and rejoice in Christ."

And the day job I'm trying to work myself out of? Editing. No wonder it makes me crazy.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

When I'm Not Blogging

Despite good intentions and not-as-good efforts, blogging has fallen off over the past couple of months. I'm pleased to report that there's a good reason.

I've gotten to the text phase of my novel.

It's been longer in production than I care to admit. I started writing it in the 1980s. It was going to be "Left Behind" before there was a market for "Left Behind."

Then I read The Gulag Archipelago (the whole thing--I was riding the bus to and from work every day and had lots of time), and the idea that American Evangelical Christians would get a free pass on persecution seemed empty. But I still had these characters and their experience seemed to have the capacity to go deeper, and so it changed and changed and changed, and I "finished" it. That was in the mid-90s, I think.

So I tried to market it. I got some "good" rejections (if you don't write, you probably don't know that there are levels of rejections, sort of like Dante's hell, but I'll spare you the misery; if you do write, you know the wailing and gnashing of teeth). But in the process of leaving no stone unturned, no agent unqueried, I collected 250 rejections (another embarrassing admission). But I wouldn't trade that binder of rejections for what I learned from the process: At some point they stopped being demoralizing; at 125, they started being funny. Did you know that some literary agents subscribe to a rejection service, the way some preachers subscribe to a sermon service? I made that up, but it sounds like it. You know you've gone around the bend when you're holding up your own query letter to the light to find out if the "Not for us" scrawled in the upper-right-hand corner is actual writing or a stamp.

The comedy lost its luster, and I desk-drawered the novel around 1999. In 2002, I pulled it out, queried it again (I don't recall why) and got at least one publisher writing back and telling me that if I had pitched it to them a year ago, they might have taken it. I thought about revising, but I didn't know how.

Disaster struck around 2003. An unbacked-up hard disk crash destroyed drafts 7-9 of the novel. After an appropriate time of wailing and gnashing of teeth (see above, multiply by 9), I decided to start again from scratch. I've read Robert McKee; I've taken excellent workshops from Larry Brooks, Candy Davis and recently Marc Acito. I've worked on plot structure, story arc, writing the novel from the bones outward. Each time I thought I had drawn near to actually writing text, I've learned something new that I wanted to incorporate into the entire draft. Sometime in August, I finished with the structure. I knew I was finished, even though I hadn't finalized the last chapter, because I felt that if I did one more thing, I'd be done, too done to finish it.

So I printed up the outline, put it into a three-ring notebook and haven't looked at it since. If I get lost in the swamp, I've got the map, but now I'm following the road where it leads. It's gritty and surprising, and I may have departed from the map already, but it's rolling along, and I keep reminding myself that I can fix it later.

And I'm writing it by hand, in those wonderful Mead composition books with the stitched binding and the wide-ruled sheets. The goal is to put down the pen and not lift it. To keep reminding myself that I can fix it later. To wander where my characters take me. Page by page it goes, about 100-150 words per page, 200 pages per book, five notebooks ready for the draft.

I hoped to get it done by next summer. I don't know if I'll be able to do it. If I get in 500 words per day, I should be able to do my 90,000-word first draft in about six months.

So if I'm not here, that's one of the places I am. I'm off to get my 500 words in for tonight.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

A Shameless Paschal Promotion

What it lacks in theological nuance it makes up in . . . pink.

H/T: Marie.

Friday, September 08, 2006

My Name, Too!

I went to the schoolyard to interview a teacher for a story. When I was done, I called to a few of the little girls playing nearby to have their picture taken with the teacher. I got three of them, about third grade, and they stood smiling in a cluster around Mr. G. They called to their friend to join them in the picture. She thought about it, but decided against it.

After I had snapped the photo, I stopped the girls in place to write down their names, and first in line suddenly was the girl who didn't want to be in the photo.

Some people are visual, and some are literary.

Dying for Christ vs. Showing What's Real

Christians are getting down to the discussion of the two reporters who decided to "convert" to Islam at the point of a gun.

Grace asks pertinently:
I’m not saying that the martyr’s crown is for everyone. If it was, there would be nothing exceptional about martyrs. But here we are, nearly 100 years later, and the radical Muslims are still fighting a religious war. Have they not noticed how much the Western world has changed? Do they know how many prisoners they would have to go through to find one that wouldn’t deny Christ to save his or her life?

Will they find any?
And GetReligion points out the double standard:
Try to picture an army of Ann Coulters — in black leather skirts, perhaps — forcing a pair of defenseless Muslims to convert, with swords at their throats and video cameras aimed at their faces. That would not happen, of course. At worse, Coulter would force them to listen to her do dramatic readings from her upcoming greatest hits collection. But you get the point. At Georgetown University, if would almost certainly be a thought crime to ask two Muslims to get a cup of coffee and discuss the Trinity.
And Rod Dreher agrees with David Warren that the freed reporters ought at least to have the decency to be ashamed of their cravenness.

And I don't dispute any of their points. But one of the commenters on Dreher's blog gets at the essential confusion about what it means to "die for Christ":
I would choose life. I would choose to carry my faith in my heart and lie through my teeth to survive the experience, because no matter what you say about faith, it dies when the body and mind dies, and there is little to depend on beyond that very faith for what comes after death.
But it's really not about "dying for Christ," so much as it's about not letting a little thing like death make someone lie about who he is or what's real. Or, more accurately, it's that death clarifies and reveals the essential reality at the base of who we are.

It's no benefit to Christ that people die, whether for Him or for Western civilization. The Christian martyr is not the master of his own death -- which is exactly the point.

The "witness" of the martyr is not that death is nothing, but that it's the final spotlight on who we are and what we care about. It's the Misfit saying, "She could have been a good woman if she had someone to kill her every minute" (quoted from memory, so not guaranteed for accuracy). It's St. Polycarp replying to the same offer the reporters had: "I have served Christ for six and eighty years, and never has he done me evil. How, then, can I blaspheme my King and Savior?"

Obviously, reporters Centanni and Wiig have not served Christ for 86 years (even together, they probably haven't lived that long), and when the bright light shone on their values, they revealed what they believed. They seem satisfied with what they found.

Like Dreher, Warren, Mattingly and Grace, I would be horrified and humiliated to discover that my reality was so small. I would come back, not bragging about it, but repenting of its paucity and working to enlarge it. In fact, as I type this post, I worry that my reality doesn't measure up to that of an 86-year-old (or older) man's (though my assumption that reality shrinks as we age is perhaps evidence of my own immaturity).

We all get that light shined on us sooner or later, though for most the decision isn't televised. I think I'm glad. It raises the concept of Survivor to a whole new level.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Same old playbook

Stella Jatras finds the parallels and the contrasts between the media front in the Hezbollah-Israel war and the one in the Balkans:
It appears that Hezbollah has taken a page out of the Bosnian Muslim playbook: Win the PR battle, and you win the war. What better example of media disinformation than the Bosnian War, where images of civilians 'slaughtered' at Sarajevo's Markale market place, allegedly by Serb forces, were so instrumental? If it worked for the Bosnian Muslims, why not for Hezbollah? Will Qana, Lebanon, become Israel's Markale market place?

If you want to know why we really attacked Serbia, she's got names, dates, places, documentation. And Hezbollah in the Balkans.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Blog blunder fells UA teacher

My schedule has become too intense to follow a lot of the big blog controversies, and this one has been going on so long that even a print newspaper takes notice. But if you want to see why people don't trust the daily papers, take a look at the story and then the first comment which gives the "rest of the story."

But that's not what this post is about. It's about a sidebar on the newspaper page, titled "Blogging Etiquette: How to Blog Safely."

Now remember, this is a sidebar to a story in which a college instructor loses her job because she made repeated death threats against a blogger's two-year-old. So here are the rules of blogging etiquette:
  • Blog anonymously. Preserve some privacy by shielding your IP address and registering your domain name anonymously.

  • Use a pseudonym and don't give away any identifying details, including where you're located, how many employees there are and what sort of business you do.

  • Do not blog while you're at work.

  • Limit your audience by only allowing a select group of people to read your blog.

Do you notice anything left out from that list? I'll give you a hint; how about "Don't say anything on the Internet that you wouldn't say to a person's face in the middle of a room full of people"? Then you wouldn't need to hide your IP address and comment anonymously.

In fact the first two rules are, generally speaking, made for people like Deb Frisch, who (presumably) can't take their (apparent) anger issues out in their everyday life. The third one is probably good employment advice, and the fourth runs counter to what most bloggers are trying to accomplish.

And given the "rules," the title "Blogging Etiquette: How to Blog Safely" is an oxymoron. Because the rules don't have to do with etiquette (manners, politeness, civility), but with how to get away with being a complete jerk.

So let me reiterate the one rule that should have been there but wasn't, that would have saved Frisch's job if she had followed it: The Internet is public. Don't say anything there that you wouldn't want published.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

A note to grocery clerks

Dear nice young lady who rang up my groceries this evening:

I suspect that your boss told you he wanted you to be "friendly," to "engage me in conversation" so that I would feel like I'm at a "hometown" grocery store, despite the fact that I shop here about three times a year because it's outside my neighborhood and despite the fact that there are tens of thousands of square feet of merchandise space and dozens of employees I've never seen before and possibly never will see again.

When I think of a "friendly" store, I think of a place where they do their jobs without acting as though I'm wasting their time, where they take my word for it if I come back the next day and report that my milk was sour, where, if I want to start a conversation, they go along with it, but not to the extent that they hold up the other customers behind me in line.

I don't really feel that it's "friendly" when I undergo a third-degree about the groceries I bought, what I plan to eat for dinner or how I plan to cook it. I also don't care very much if you approve my choice of grocery products or if you congratulate me on my money-saving shopping style.

In fact, I actually have enough of a life that you don't have to provide my sense of community or neighborhood.

I'll be nice to you and give one-word answers to your questions, just in care your manager is watching, but now you know that I know that it's a meaningless ruse. My question for you: Do you know it's a meaningless ruse?

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Oh, by the way

There a new Onion Dome posted.

I'd give it an "ehh"

We went to see Superman last evening. We started on a lark to see the new pirate movie, but once at the theatre, we realized that only the hardcore would be seeing the pirate movie last night.

So we and about five others watched Superman.

I'd been hearing all the hype leading up to it: Is Superman a Christ figure? or an Anti-Christ figure? Tales of English churchmen teaching their little Sunday school charges about the Bible through the Superman movie (I suspect their Sunday school charges are about as scarce as the moviegoers last night, but good luck to them.) You could see "Christ-image" dotting the film like refrigerator magnets -- but they never got to the essence of the story, and it was never quite clear what the essence of the story was, exactly.

What I loved about the old Superman movies with Christopher Reeve, may he rest in peace, was the sense of the romp, the big-screen comic book. This one seemed to be going for the big-screen TV show, down to including the TV theme as a motif in the opening music and Perry White's intonation on "Great Caesar's ghost!"

That would offer one possible explanation of why Superman/Clark Kent was so wooden. Brandon Routh is an appealing kid, but the Christopher Reeve legacy seemed to weigh heavy upon him. He seemed to be playing Christopher Reeve as Superman. And at times I'm not sure it actually was Brandon Routh. Some of the flight scenes looked like they had been staged by Pixar, and a CGI Brandon Routh was doing the flying. (And what's with that curl in the middle of Superman's forehead? It never moved in the wind.)

But there was a constant weight of ponderousness, as if the writers wanted us to be -- what? -- enlightened? There was no substance, just the voice of Marlon Brando uttering vaguely Biblish platitudes about human potential. We deserved Superman because we were so -- could be so -- good. Well, whatever. I liked the fact that people, with their inadequate medical facilities, did what they could to help Superman, and if they had wanted to wrap something profound in a Superman story, it might have been something more along the lines of "even Superman needs help sometimes" -- which, come to think of it, was a theme of the old Superman III.

Up next: Ingmar Bergman directs the next installment -- Three Scenes from Superman Eating Wild Strawberries.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Looking for love in all the wrong places

I was talking to a young friend recently and found myself saying about a certain kind of sinful behavior -- "What they want is real and good, and I believe there's a real need at its core, but the way they're going about it is out of harmony with the cosmos."

The reason the sentence struck me is that it's not the first time I've said that to her, and the prior time had to do with a different sinful behavior. Am I, I wondered, a stuck record blandly repeating an all-purpose platitude, or do I really believe that many -- if not most -- of the sins people commit are broken and counterproductive attempts to acquire a real good in their lives.

I suppose, if sin is distributed in a bell curve, as most things are, you would find a few saints at one end, more and more giving themselves to God's way of doing things at the expense of their own. At the other, you would find approximately the same percentage doing things against God's way, again at the expense of their own ("He'd cut off his nose to spite his face" is the way they would summarize that where I grew up).

And in the middle, you find the nice, the comfortable, the go-along-to-get-along, and somewhere on the one downslope or the other of that curve, you would find the "looking for love in all the wrong places."

I don't have anything profound to say about that bell curve. On the one hand, enlightened self-interest can add to social civility. "You treat other people well, and they'll treat you well," is not the Golden Rule, but if it's practiced, there's less chaos than if it's not.

On the other hand, in the Gospels, Christ always seems to show a special love for the "looking for love in all the wrong places" folks. As in the case of the Samaritan Woman, he pointed out the dead ends where they were searching for what they needed and where to find what would be real and deep and lasting. He was also quite impatient with those who were pleased and comfortable with themselves for following the rules (which may be another example of looking for love in all the wrong places), even over against the ones who participated in making the chaos (for example, the Publican and the Pharisee).

I've never quite gotten my mind wrapped around the notion that in Orthodoxy, sin is not transgressing a law but "missing the mark." But that's the key to it, isn't it? "Looking for love in all the wrong places." Looking for release from pain in addiction, looking for affirmation in illicit love affairs, looking for spiritual reality in fortune-telling and spiritualism, looking for recognition and respect in power games. In all those cases -- and more, more, more -- there is something real and important and needful at the core of it, but those pursuits can't fill the need and instead make the need harder to fill and bring their own next level of chaos, disharmony, anti-cosmos, in a downward spiral.

Or that downward spiral can make plain how false and hopeless is the attempt to fill the need outside God's providence. Hitting bottom (the sooner the better) is the place of spiritual poverty at which we receive the Kingdom of Heaven. Knowing to give up the ineffective treatments of both the woman caught in adultery and her captors can bring us to that place of emptiness where God can fill us.

And of course in true Christ-like fashion, He turns the whole bell curve inside out and upside down. Even as we pray several times a day for "calm and ordered lives," He proclaims disgust for the comfortable, the go-along-to-get-along, the lukewarm and states a preference for the hot or the cold. It's a paradox, not a contradiction, but it leaves us, once again, on the high wire with nothing to depend on but God's own guidance. And that tiny umbrella that the wire-walkers carry.

And the last shall be first, and the first last.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Creepy Dr. Kildare

I used to watch the Dr. Kildare television show back in the '60s when heartthrob Richard Chamberlain used all the latest technology to save (or not) the winsome patients who came his way.

This 1940s radio episode has the same basic plot, but hindsight has the amazing power to turn melodrama to horror.

It seems that an old friend of Dr. Kildare's, a talented pianist, has become increasingly erratic. She can't play in public, although her father wanted her to be a concert pianist (think Shine without the upbeat ending). But she's also exhibiting signs of paranoid schizophrenia -- thinking her hands are locked into playing a certain piece, and that her husband is trying to kill her when he's not.

Young Dr. Kildare diagnoses her problem as obsessive-compulsive disorder with paranoid delusions and prescribes a prefrontal lobotomy.

And so this young doctor, who apparently isn't necessarily a specialist in anything, much less in brain surgery (or every episode would be about a lobotomy) does the surgery. The sound of the power saw only goes for about a half second, which was merciful.

Three days later her husband goes for a visit, and she's just fine. A couple of weeks later, she throws a big party and sits down to play a little Chopin for everybody and announces that her hands are free.

What a long way from Dr. Kildare to Nurse Ratched.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

New Onion Dome up

We're not as regular as we used to be, so to the handful of people who still check out new posts on this blog (thanks for that, I mean it), there's a new issue of the Onion Dome for June, featuring a classic tribute to Prof. Penguin, an Orthodox protest about the Da Vinci code and Duwamish County Orthodox favorites.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Why Justin loves the New York Times

I've been hanging out with a different group of people lately. Frequently imaginary.

When I was a kid, I had imaginary friends. My mom and her fellow parents discussed it and interpreted it as loneliness, because I was an only child. Little did they know that even when I was much older and not at all lonely, a fictional person would wake me up at 5 in the morning to tell me why he loved the New York Times.

His name is Justin Lieberman, and I've told his story nine times now without getting it quite right, but this time, it's the definitive tale. Right or wrong, as good as Seth or as lame as Brown, whether I sell it or podcast it, it will be finished.

That's still down the road a bit. I'm working on my treatment, from which I'll write my draft, and I'll give updates. But for now I'll tell you what Justin told me, which he may or may not tell anybody else in the course of his story. But since he's fictional and in the dystopian future, he won't have a chance to read this blog, so I'll tell you.
It was the New York Times. If I couldn’t be part of the Times, I couldn’t imagine being anything else.

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the floor in my parents’ apartment with the Times spread out all around me, the smell and texture of the ink gradually modifying the chemistry of my brain. I couldn’t even read yet, but I stared at the pictures until they resolved into dots and back to pictures again. I looked at the stories until they resolved into letters and back into stories again. My parents carried on happy and rancorous debates about subjects I couldn't understand, pointed at the graphics to back up their arguments, all the while hinting to me, whom they had forgotten sitting in the midst of their cast-off sections, that there was knowledge, mystery, power of information, community, a shared world, in those pages, if I only knew how to interpret them.

I was still a kid when the scandals hit -- the plagiarism, the cooked stories, the revoked Pulitzers. I was angry, and my friends looked at me as if I had lost my grip on reality, but the scandals couldn’t break the spell. By then I was reading, and the world my parents had pointed to had opened out to me -- the ponderous editorials, fashion glitz, emaciated models, a ream of book reviews every Sunday. Even more, there was a vast army of reporters going out into all the world to find out what was happening and what it all meant, and even then, even then, I knew I wanted to be one of them. The Times was the paper its enemies cited to prove they had done their homework. It arrived with the morning coffee of every head of state on the planet.

In middle school, I would cut class and take the subway to the Times Building to watch the shifts change. It seemed to me that if you were a reporter for the Times your footprints must glow on the pavement under ultraviolet light.

I didn’t give it up. It was pulled from my cold, dead fingers.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Go, Ducks

Medford girl waddles with pet duck

So what I want to know is why she didn't get offered a scholarship to the University of Oregon.

Just asking.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

What is privacy?

NSA wiretaps and data mining, nanochips in cans of green beans, two-way GPS locators and cell phone tracking -- it's all a violation of privacy and that's a Bad Thing, right?


Well, what is privacy anyway? What's it for, and how do you know if you have it?

The "right to privacy" was invented, I believe, in 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court found it lurking in the moonshadows of the Bill of Rights. Women were guaranteed the right to walk in broad daylight into Feminist Women's Child Extraction Centers to preserve this "right to privacy." Oooooookay.

But of course the "right to privacy" goes back much further into American history. In his novel The Road to Ruin, Donald Westlake comments on the grand American tradition of "lighting out to the territories" when things got too hot at home. "Hot" as in "the sheriff's on my tail." Well, as Westlake's character -- who has just participated in a kidnaping -- points out, there aren't any territories anymore, and if there were (my observation now, not Westlake's), we'd want the sheriff to be able to find us so that he can send a search-and-rescue team if we get lost in a snowdrift.

I like privacy, too. If someone asks me an impertinent question, I like to be able to refuse to answer it. I appreciate laws that keep unfriendly observers out of my medical and financial records. And I wouldn't participate in a Big Brother TV show, where everything that happens in the house is viewed and commented upon.

So that's my definition of privacy -- to keep as much of my inner life as I choose, to have control to access to medical and financial matters, and to have personal alone space.

So I have a hard time getting exercised about a gadget that tells the company that owns the truck I'm renting that I've endangered its property by driving too fast on the highway. No one cares about my telephone calls to my friend. And blogs and e-mails -- they're public, get used to it.

Consumer Reports got excited about nanochips in products. It seems that if you buy a can with a nanochip instead of a bar code, everybody you drive past, if they have the correct scanner, will be able to tell you have a can of green beans in your car. (I remember when bar codes were the Mark of the Beast.)

Once upon a time, when everyone lived in small towns, everybody knew you bought green beans, too, and the neighbors could listen in on your phone calls, and everybody knew who everybody hung out with. It's the same information, but those days carry the golden light of nostalgia, and nobody now seems to be asking the essential question: Who cares?

The Seattle Times shows how difficult it is to get to an answer to that question:
Some labor unions and privacy experts have objected to the Big Brother implications of location tracking.

"One might think it does not matter if their employer knows that he goes to Starbucks every morning before work or that they spend Sundays at his girlfriend's house," the National Workforce Institute, a nonprofit training organization in Austin, Texas, said in a recent policy paper.

"If someone has the ability to know the real-time location of a person around the clock," the statement said, "they learn everything about that person, much of which is highly personal and private in nature."
Proving that if one asks a question of some people, they will give you an answer that is highly circular in nature. It's an invasion of privacy because it's an invasion of privacy.

However, some union members are also checking to see whether their fellow employees are wearing union-made uniforms. Car manufacturers make their employees park their foreign cars in off-company lots. This is about not privacy but control, and the answer to it is not to hide out under the same umbrella that protects thieves and murderers, but to stand up to the micromanagement.

What ever happened to courage?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

About "disrespect" and literature

When I told someone recently that I "hated" The Da Vinci Code, I had to clarify that I don't disrespect people who like it. I don't understand why people take their literary taste so seriously.

A couple of years ago, I went to a presentation on poetic language, and the speaker went out for coffee with a few of us later. I recognized Owen Barfield as an influence in his viewpoint, and we talked a little about that, then turned to Charles Williams, whom he didn't like. I said, "Well, as far as that goes, I don't like Walt Whitman either."

The people around the table said, "Ooooo," as if we were on a school ground and I'd just kicked dirt into his eyes.

I must be culturally tone deaf, but I was taken aback by the response. All I meant was something along the lines of, "It takes all kinds," and everybody else at the table took it as, "You don't like my writer, well, I don't like yours. So there!"

The truth is, I don't think Charles Williams is "great literature," though I have my reasons for enjoying him. And I do think Whitman is "great literature," though I have my reasons for not enjoying him. Why should that cause a problem for Whitman fans? When I say, "I don't like sushi," sushi fans say something like, "Not fond of raw fish, eh?"

I would phrase the thing differently -- or keep my mouth shut -- if I were talking to Whitman himself, but even there -- isn't it just a matter of reality that some people won't like our work? What is it to the author of hard space opera if Frannie Romannie says she doesn't like it?

This is an honest question, if anyone cares to speculate about the answer with me. I think it has something to do with how we view ourselves, and how we think our literary tastes mark us. But is that a valid perception? Am I really going to think less of my friend because she doesn't like Notes from Underground and I do? Or is our discussion of what we like and dislike about the book more likely to open aspects of the work we hadn't seen? As in the case of Frannie Romannie, the parts of the hard space opera she didn't like may be the parts that her friend Jeremy Rocketer likes the best. And the parts she manages to appreciate about it could help him to see aspects of the story he hadn't seen before. Or whatever.

Or is there some hierarchy of "right" vs. "wrong" literature, which one violates at one's peril? (And how come I never get those memos?)

Friday, March 31, 2006

Stephen King's Cell

Stephen King's new thriller, Cell, reminds me of how compelling King can be, in a way that leaves me feeling manipulated and used. He shows a deep-rooted "damned mass" view of human nature, even while he displays authorial hate for characters within the story who share a view that's perhaps not as extreme as his. And in an effort to raise his book from a beach read to something Socially Significant, he ends up spouting tin-hat political slogans that will be pathetically out of date after the 2008 elections (by which time, of course, he'll have earned more royalties on this book than I will in my entire life, just in case anyone thinks I don't know the "If you're so smart, how come you're not published" response).

My view of King's writings has swung between disdain at the goriness of it and at his gimmick of taking the friendly and familiar -- a car, a dog, a cat, a rambling lodge in the mountains -- and making something horrifying out of it -- and respect for real talents of storytelling and observation of human nature. His coming of age novel, The Body, surprised and delighted me with its look at the relationships among a group of schoolboys, and the 12-year-old storyteller character gave me a grounding in the adult author's boyish reveling in the "Oh gross!" After running across The Body, I counted myself a fan.

Cell brings me back to my weariness with the Kinginess of King. He goes back to his attacks on the familiar with the cell phone trick -- cell phones are ubiquitous, and a lot of people love them, and a vocal minority hate them, and King with his $80 kajillion in the bank proudly notes on the cover copy that he doesn't own one, thus showing how morally superior he is. (I know. There are people who are unmannerly about their cell phones. They are also frequently unmannerly about radios, loud conversation and chewing gum. Will King go after these menace also? Justin wondering.)

Even though I couldn't put the book down, at the end, I felt that I had -- in a literary sense -- wasted my time and attention. All the same, for a writer, there's much here to learn.

A certain element of the "page-turner" quality is important in a book. If a reader isn't curious about what happens next, he may very well put a bookmark in the page and look at the book six months later, thinking, "Maybe I'll get back to it sometime." At the other extreme, if the book is just a page turner, when I'm done, I feel as if I've just gone through a chocolate frenzy -- disoriented, guilty over the loss of time and nauseated.

But how does King pull off the page-turner quality that he does so well? Sharp detail and a lot of foreshadowing. He keeps revealing what will happen later, in terms that leave the outcome open to speculation but that, when fulfilled, leave the reader thinking, "Of course." King also imagines the situation so vividly that the reader never gets around to thinking, "Now just a gol-darned minute . . . ." For instance, what happens to the cell-phone users is that there's some kind of signal sent by satellite that fries their brains. So the hero uses a landline to call long distance. Well, aren't all long-distance calls sent by satellite? And all these people use their cell phones and get their brains wiped, so there's no alternative source of information? And nobody in the book has heard of the Internet. But he papers over these plotholes with breakneck pacing and one dire circumstance after another.

Dire circumstances bring me back to what I used to hate about King, before I became a fan. It's a weird thing about movies and literature that an author can commit all kinds of mayhem against people and readers nod and turn the page. When the villain kills a dog or a cat, readers write angry letters to the publisher. I don't understand it, but I feel it myself, and King shows a man in a business suit, under the influence of the pulse, bite the ear off a dog. King's POV character says he doesn't know anything about dogs, with an intimation that he doesn't care very much, and I wonder if that's the attitude of the author. Reading it, it comes across as "he doesn't stop at anything." Looking back, it seems more like a cheap trick.

The novel I finished before Cell was Notes from Underground. Dostoyevsky is an author who really doesn't turn back from anything. The speaker tells about a conversation with a prostitute, and the outcome of that conversation is as wrenching in its way -- in the destruction of the innocent -- as cruelty to an animal. The difference is that Dostoyevsky is saying something deep and heart-breaking about the state of a man's soul. With Cell, King is exposing readers to the torture of a dog just for effect.

Or maybe for King, it's slightly more than an effect. His characters later arrive at the conclusion that the cell wiped out people's minds, leaving the murder that lies at the base of the human mind (soul?). Well, I've heard that King was an Evangelical Christian (still don't know whether to believe it), but this would suggest that he's at least a one-point (total depravity) Calvinist. He expresses characters' hatred and author's hatred (by his one-sided, all ugly, bad, and unfashionable description) for a pushy end-times fundy creep -- whose kind apparently demonstrated at abortion clinics in one character's past -- but he never deals with the similarity between said creep, who assumes that the two men have taken the girl for immoral purposes, and the author's apparent view that if you strip away our self-knowledge and socialization, there's nothing left but the savagery of a rabid animal.

I tell myself it's a beach read, and I'm asking too much to expect him to deal with any bedrock issues. But if that's the case, why the political frippery? What does it add to the story to make a snarky comment about Bush's "inadequate plan" in Iraq (whether any given reader favors the war or not)? If I were reading a beach book from 1944, would it add to the effect or take away from it that the writer thinks Roosevelt's plan for the Pacific Theatre was crazy? Or from 1965 and Johnson's plan for Vietnam? Again, it's a pose of relevance that has nothing to do with the story and everything to do with an illusion that something Important is happening here.

If you're a writer, it's worth a read for King's techniques of detail and foreshadowing. If you're a reader, a Batman comic would be a more profound investment of time.

How Will Borders Celebrate Banned Books Week This Year?

After years of "edginess" and "speaking truth to power," Borders Bookstores (and its little brother Waldenbooks) has rolled over before the Islamist fringe.
Borders and Waldenbooks stores will not stock the April-May issue of Free Inquiry magazine because it contains cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that provoked deadly protests among Muslims in several countries.
And why is that?
"For us, the safety and security of our customers and employees is a top priority, and we believe that carrying this issue could challenge that priority," Borders Group Inc. spokeswoman Beth Bingham said Wednesday.
But wait. I thought Islam was a religion of peace. Is Borders saying that selling a magazine with the Danish cartoons could put customers in danger? From whom? Fundamentalist Christians?

Combine that with what seems to be a consensus if not a policy among stores in the chain: Borders has begun putting the Koran on top shelves -- "out of respect for the religion." Is this the same religion a chain spokeswoman has just accused of being out-of-control lunatics who have gone nuts over some cartoons? Upper-shelf Koran placement doesn't offend me, though. It's the stuff at eye level that sells.

But I think I'll be shopping Powell's or Barnes and Noble in the future.

H/T: My friend Susan, who doesn't have a blog but ought to.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Dangers of Political Correctness

J.R. Dunn, at American Thinker says that political correctness runs the risk of poisoning relations between moderate Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States and elsewhere.

He points to three recent, egregious instances of political correctness run riot -- Umar Abdul-Jalil, the New York prison chaplain, fired for making anti-Semitic comments and then reinstated; Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, the North Carolina SUV jihadist whose terroristic comments don't seem to merit anyone's notice; and of course Sayed Rahmatullah Hasemi, the Taliban jock at Yale.

Political correctness doesn't do anything for ordinary Muslims -- only raises people like those and groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations to the status of "ordinary Muslims," leaving the rest of us to say, "If that's normal, then these people are scary."

We have to keep turning away from the politically correct crowd, with their blinkers of denial, and acknowledge that some Muslims are our enemies so that we can see the ones who are friends of humanity. Dunn lists several -- "the Trainer," who brought down a terrorist group; Wafa Sultan, a psychologist and a woman, who argued an imam into a sputtering fit on Al-Jazeera; columnist Amir Taheri, and others I hadn't heard of (which backs up his point). He omitted the Saudi ex-pat blogger, the Religious Policeman, who is able to laugh at Muslim foibles -- and be outraged at cruelties passing for Muslim piety -- without denying his faith.

The elites pushing political correctness -- by their arrogant and elitist view that the mere mortals below them can't handle the truth -- make the danger larger in both perception and reality than if they dealt in truth and distinction.

Dunn finishes with a good point:
We have matured since WW II and the disgrace of the Nisei relocation. We are in some ways a better people than we were.

That may well have surprised our enemies – who can say that Osama bin Laden wasn’t counting on a domestic anti-Muslim backlash to turn the Islamic world further against the United States? A schism between American Muslims and the rest of the citizenry would be an answered prayer for Al-Queda. That’s something worth keeping in mind.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Fun find of the day

The George Mason University Speech Accent Archive.

Native and non-native English speakers from around the world read a short paragraph, giving a flavor of what makes their pronunciation different.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Europe, the wolf is not just at the door

He's on the dining room table eating your dinner and growling at you.

This symposium in Front Page Magazine explains what the cartoon fracas was really all about, in the context of increasing incidents of gang rape of non-veiled women:
The conduct towards these women is due to the new developments initiated by Salafists like Tariq Ramadan. He has invented and introduced a new definition for the Western countries: they should no longer be seen the traditional way as Dar ul-harb, the space of war, but as Dar el-dawaà, the invitation to Islam, or Dar ash-shahâda, the space of testimony.

While orthodox Sunni Muslims, stuck to the unchanged application of the tradition are not at all in line with this 'modern' interpretation, the 'scholar' Tariq Ramadan has paved a soft way for Muslims to taking possession of countries formerly belonging to the Dar ul-harb. When living in Dar ul-harb there are two alternatives for the Muslims: either conquer the land by force and rule it by Qur'anic law or, if not strong enough, keep quiet and wait, not touching the property of the enemy.

Dar el-dawaà and Dar ash-shahâda are two of the trickiest inventions ever to reach the goal of conquest: at a quick and superficial glance it means resigning from the conversion of the West to Islam, permitting everybody to keep on in his belief, but on closer examination that means what the French call 'l'entrisme', unnoticed penetration.

By its weakness and willingness to compromise, Europe has revealed itself to be no longer in the "House of War" but in the "House of Almost Muslim." I don't know if there are any alpha dogs left in Europe. It looks to me that anyone who stands up to the wolf there gets murdered, and all the beta dogs look at each other and shrug and say, "There, but for the curvature of my own spine, go I."

Now the wolf looks to tame the alpha bitch (I mean this in the most clinical metaphorical sense, but think about it). It's the independent woman who breaks down the Islamofascist social structure, at least as it's interpreted by the Tariq Ramadans of the world.

I acknowledge that there are Muslims who want to live at peace with their non-Muslim neighbors, but if the secularists and Christians aren't willing to stand up, why should they?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Positives of St. Ephrem

O Lord and Master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk,
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant.
Yea, Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not judge my brother,
For you are blessed unto ages of ages.

A while back, I wrote about the negative line of the Prayer of St. Ephrem, and my parish priest challenged me to get to the positives before Lent. I thought it was unlikely, given that I'd taken 15 years to learn the negatives, but I have collected a few thoughts.

Here's the line I'm referring to as the positives: "Give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant." I had expected to find that the positives filled slots left by departing negatives or that there would be some kind of neat parallel between the lines. Instead the reality is much richer and more complicated.

The word "chastity," in the way most people understand it, has come to be entirely sexual, and in the licentious general culture of our time, "chastity" even has a connotation of being unhealthy or ridiculous. But the Greek word is sofrosini, "wholeness."

To be whole is to "have it together," to be complete, integrated -- drawing on the related Latin root, to have integrity. St. Paul told the Corinthians that sexual promiscuity joins a person to various sexual partners, leaving him scattered, and we have a bit of understanding what that means when we say out our attention is scattered -- we're here and there, but not present where we are.

In this moment is the only place my life is happening, and I lose too much of my life by being elsewhere while appearing to be here. In Charles Williams' novel War in Heaven, there's a stone that gives its holder whatever he wishes for. One character thinks he can go into the future and make a killing at the stock market or something, and as a test, he wishes himself a half hour into the future. What really happens is that he moves his decision-making capacity out of the present time and spends the rest of his life reacting to what he's already done -- in this instance having killed a man. Williams' description of the character's vague memories of having done the murder exactly fits my vague memories when I've interacted inattentively.

Chastity is like being a grownup driving a school bus. In the back, feelings and passions, fears and wishes and expectations, nostalgia and regrets vie for the bus driver's attention. They want to stop here or go faster or change direction. There may be a reason to stop, speed up or change direction, but I need to keep my adult decision-making capacity, in harmony with the Holy Spirit, as the driver.

Humility makes its natural and sometimes painful appearance when I realize how often I've let the kids drive the bus. But beyond that, thinking through this line of the prayer, I made a list of the things that tempt me away from sofrosini. It was a short, unscientific survey, but I learned how often the voices in the back of the bus were saying, "I don't want to be [there]," or "I don't want to do [that]," or "I don't have time for [that]." Humility doesn't say, "I deserve better." Humility doesn't say a lot, in fact, except maybe to repeat St. Paul's description of love, "Love suffers long and is kind . . ." (1 Cor. 13:4-8). Humility doesn't keep us from working to improve our situation, but it begins here, in this moment, with the reality at hand.

Patience also follows sofrosini, and, oddly, not so painfully. Without sofrosini, the effort to be patient is a battle of will against hurry, a sort of teeth-gritting, watch-watching, "Will you hurry up?" on the inside and a tight smile on the outside. But when I do have the adult driving the bus, each moment has its own purpose, and having to slow down is a gift to at least one of the kids in the back of the bus -- so I can enjoy that short sense of leisure.

St. Paul's description of love is worth repeating here, because it captures the interplay of the positives in this line: "Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails."

Finally, a few words on the next line of St. Ephrem's prayer: "Grant me to see my own faults and not judge my brother." Seeing one's own faults is an aid to humility, but I've learned something new about judging.

I've always thought that warnings against judging one's neighbor have to do with negative judgments -- and misunderstanding the meaning and effect of "judgment," tended to narrow it to judging someone's eternal disposition. But my search for sofrosini has taught me that even positive or neutral judgments can damage a relationship. I heard a fairly famous author say, "You don't meet people at zero anymore. They think they know things about you, and they project things on you." This is not about the poor, misfortunate author -- she wasn't even complaining, just saying -- but an illustration of how even positive expectations can interfere with truly seeing a person.

In another example, I had classified a woman I know as "not very adept with mechanical things." I had put her in that box in order to overcome a tendency toward impatience with her mistakes with mechanical things, so it was well meant -- and possibly true -- but I was glad I happened to be working on sofrosini when she asked me a computer question one evening, because it reminded me to be still and listen to her question -- in other words, to open the box and see if she really fit in it. She didn't, actually, and the conversation was more interesting and profitable to both of us than it would have been if I hadn't bothered to open the box.

I suppose it's necessary to say that I'm confident that St. Paul and St. Ephrem are not asking us to deny history, to disregard proven dangers or to ignore the intuition that is one of the voices sofrosini should pay attention to in the back of the bus. But most of the time, what I'm afraid of is not actual danger, but rather discomfort or embarrassment or something that won't do me any lasting harm at all.

What I've learned from short forays into sofrosini is that it's not just a moral good -- "good for you," like some nasty medicine -- but an existential good -- adventurous, exciting, sometimes scary, and dotted with delightful surprises -- "life and more abundantly," as Christ said. Another thing is that it doesn't take years of disciplined practice; it takes only this moment and my undivided attention. I've been surprised to find that St. Ephrem's prayer -- rather than being something dour and self-flagellating -- can be a door into the richness and potential of the moment.

Friday, March 03, 2006

I never thought I'd say this

It's been a really bad week, and now, to top it all off, I find myself siding with Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown in a plagiarism lawsuit filed by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the 1982 work of "nonfiction" that provided the central conspiracy of the Code.

They're arguing that his plagiarism consisted not in copying their words -- which is what plagiarism is -- but by adapting their ideas, which is dangerous for every fiction writer.

The irony is that in order to make their case, they all but have to acknowledge that HBHG is a fake -- I can't be sued for asserting that Lincoln died in 1865 -- that's a fact -- but apparently, if I were to write an alernative history based on a Lincoln-assassination conspiracy theory, itself based on a hoax, I could be sued for plagiarism (provided I made a lot of money).

Another irony is that the Code has already, no doubt, been a sales boost for HBHG. No doubt it was languishing in warehouses, if it hadn't gone out of print, before Brown gave it cachet by casting it in the form of a thriller romance.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Fact-checker request

Writing about the cartoon brouhaha in today's Opinion Journal, Muslim (I think Persian) Amir Taheri writes:
There is no Quranic injunction against images, whether of Muhammad or anyone else. When it spread into the Levant, Islam came into contact with a version of Christianity that was militantly iconoclastic. As a result some Muslim theologians, at a time when Islam still had an organic theology, issued "fatwas" against any depiction of the Godhead.
I have no animosity toward Taheri, and I hope his assessment of Islam is true, but I've always heard the influence of iconoclasm as going from Islam to Christianity. Which is it? Could it be both? (I've observed these confluent streams in many areas, from philosophy to politics to baby names.) Can anyone suggest any good source material where I could look it up?

Sunday, February 05, 2006

I've been memed!

I've been memed! (First time ever -- I'm very honored)

4 jobs you have had in your life:
  • Telephone receptionist at car dealership (used a PBX system like Lily Tomlin's Ernestine character)

  • College English teacher (freshman composition)

  • Word processor (sounds like something that comes out of a squeeze tube, and sometimes felt like it, too)

  • News editor

4 Movies You Could Watch Over and Over:
  • Steel Magnolias

  • Fantasia

  • Shall We Dance (1937)

  • The Gods Must Be Crazy (and sequel)

4 Places You Have Lived:
  • Milwaukie, Ore.

  • St. Francisville and Baton Rouge, La.

  • Columbia, Mo.

  • Portland, Ore. ("And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.")

4 TV Shows You Love To Watch
  • Stargate SG-1

  • Dead Zone

  • Um

  • Uh

4 Places You Have Been On Vacation
  • Oregon (from Louisiana)

  • Louisiana (from Oregon)

  • Ozarks (from central Missouri)

  • San Juan Islands, Wash.

4 Websites You Visit Daily:

4 Of Your Favorite Foods
  • Anything Greek

  • Butter beans with bacon

  • My first four-napkin hamburger after Lent

  • Latte

4 Places You Would Rather Be Right Now

4 Bloggers You Are Tagging

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Dialects brown and pink

I'm listening to a murder mystery on CD by Walter Mosley, titled Fear Itself, set in the brown community of Los Angeles of the 1950s. The POV character is a very literate bookstore owner who grew up in New Iberia, La. His friend and fellow hero is a less-educated man whose point of origin I seem to have missed. The POV character runs across people who have moved to LA from Mississippi, Illinois, Tennesee, as well as pink people.

The reader, Don Cheadle, does a great job of all the dialects. The author mentions what a variety of colors "Negroes" have in the 1950s, and the reader captures those colors in his voice.

The odd thing is that he doesn't do pink people as well. When brown actors or comedians try to imitate pink people, they tend to overemphasize their Rs, and the rhythm is just a little too clipped. It's not that brown people can't speak in a way that's indistinguishable from pink people -- see Condoleeza Rice (no politics, please, I'm just talking about dialects here) -- but in my experience, when I've heard people deliberately trying to "talk white," they didn't quite pull it off -- in the same way that some northern actors have trouble talking "southern" and pinks don't do a convincing job of "talking black" (although since I'm not an aficionado of rap and hiphop, that may have changed without my knowing it).

Maybe the problem is that there is no one "white" dialect, just as there's no one "black" dialect or one "Southern" dialect or one "Northern" dialect. When I went to school in Baton Rouge, La., I could tell what high school kids went to after just a couple of minutes of hearing them talk.

But that's not a hit against this reading of Fear Itself. Readers have plenty of chances to hear various "white" dialects -- from Italian-influenced New Jersey accents to Hispanic-Southern Texas to whatever planet Valley Girls come from. But I've never heard anybody do the brown American voices as well as Cheadle does in this reading.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A mother's grief

The young mother sat on the floor beside the small white casket bedecked in white, pink and red flowers, and beside her sat a man in a dark suit and overcoat with a white scarf draped around his neck.

I had told her I planned to be here between 9 and 10 tonight, too late for the funeral vigil, which conflicted with school, and too early for the funeral Liturgy, which conflicted with work, but I wanted to spend a few minutes in prayer for this 12-year-old girl, whose suffering with leukemia was done, and her mother, father, grandmother and little brother, whose suffering was, if not beginning, then certainly intensifying.

I went to a chair as far away from them as I could and closed my eyes and tried to focus on the reason I had come. Before me, at the front of the church, an icon of Christ hung on a cross, his arms open in welcome and surrender. On the other side, the resurrected Christ pulls Adam and Eve from the place of the dead. On the iconostasis in front, he carries a book that reads, "You did not choose me. I chose you." Overhead a 12-foot-diameter Christ Pantocrator looks down, an icon that always makes me think of my childish view of God as someone who looks down on small creatures to see what they're up to now.

The voices came from the two sitting on the floor -- the child's parents, though I didn't know her dad. I couldn't hear the words, and was trying not to, but their quiet tones taunted my reluctant curiosity with the observation that the man was speaking English and the woman Russian. (In fact, she speaks excellent English with a Russian accent, but at that distance and volume, the Russian inflection, vowels and tone came across without the words.)

Above the altar, the Theotokos -- Virgin Mary -- sat enthroned with the child Christ on her lap. Mark Twain said that anyone over 40 is responsible for his own face, and it has to be part of the sorrow of losing a child never to know what sort of face she would create for herself. The Theotokos herself faced that specific sorrow (along with many others) -- her son was a young adult when he went to the cross and hadn't had time to "make" his own face in Twain's sense.

The dad collected himself, looked around the church, and left. The mother planned to spend the entire night there, alone if necessary. She began to read Psalms -- the same practice Orthodox Christians do from Holy Friday to the beginning of the Easter Vigil Liturgy on Holy Saturday -- we call it keeping watch at the tomb. I don't know if the funeral practice came first or the Paschal practice, but tying the two together, we experience it as a preparation for both separation and resurrection.

When parishioners pray the Psalms at the tomb of Christ, though, there's a sense of anticipation that none of us can avoid -- Pascha's coming; Pascha is almost here; soon we'll be crying, "Christ is risen!" and breaking eggs together and opening Pascha baskets and feasting.

But I heard the mother's voice, soft and yet clear, praying the anguish of David, and knew that Pascha is a very long way off for her, for she faces a seemingly endless Lent that she's aware hasn't really begun yet.

If you're praying people, please remember Irina, whose grief is unfathomable.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Schedules and change

First the good news. Our Intrepid Editor is back from Australia and running the Onion Dome again. He's planning to put it to a monthly schedule and invites all you Orthodox satirists (of which there seem to be many -- which probably says something, but I won't speculate exactly what, about the Orthodox Church) to contribute. Send Orthodox humor pieces to our Intrepid Editor.

Closer to home (if "close to home" means anything on the Internet, which now that I think of it probably doesn't), I haven't been exactly daily about updating this blog. I've had to change my focus for now. I've got three big pursuits going on -- day job, court reporting school, novel. I've got to get through court reporting school so that I can change the day job. And the novel is something that I really want to get done. Something has to give, and it's blogging.

I'll be updating it, but I won't be commenting on passing political events or news items for the time being. What I put here will be stuff I think is important enough that I want to store it on Blogger's servers (I'd better keep it backed up, too, though). For example, I'm still trying to get a handle on the positives in the Prayer of St. Ephrem, and I'm reading Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as a guide to character development. I'll post something on that when I get something to post.

Oh, and for a good read check out Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word -- a history of the rise and fall, the ebb and flow of languages.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The 'Liturgy' of Tookie Williams

Watching the brouhaha over the last days of Tookie Williams' life causes me to wonder how much the "liturgy" of death penalty opposition serves as an impetus to violent crime.

I mean "liturgy" in the sense of the structure of public spectacle, not the religious content -- though there certainly is a lot of that -- but what, say, an extraterrestrial might understand about our attitudes if he didn't understand our language at all.

Death penalty opponents refer to the liturgy of execution (though not in those words) when they talk about violence begetting violence, when they say it's equally barbaric to put murderers to death as for murderers to put their victims to death. We agree that pageants, spectacles and ceremonies matter, that these large public events communicate meaning and context beyond words, that they serve as a metamessage, in the sense that Deborah Tannen uses the word.

Now look at the metamessage of Tookie Williams, Mumia Abu-Jamal and any criminal you can think of on death row (and it seems that the more brutal the crime the more sympathetic the liturgy).

They become the center of attention for decades as their cases return again and again to the courts; Hollywood elites take up their cause; Williams gets books published under his name; there are Nobel Prize nominations; they are declared both innocent and repentant, sometimes by the same person and in the same breath. There are candlelight vigils, honorary citizenships in upscale countries. For the last few weeks of their lives, they dominate the media and are spoken of as if they have done some important benefit for society.

And their victims? Their names are scarcely mentioned, except in the context of their assailants. We know that Williams' first victim gurgled amusingly -- to Williams -- as he died. I saw a photo on the Internet of the young woman from Taiwan who was his fourth victim for which he was convicted -- half her face had been shot off. The reason for posting it was to build sympathy -- but as public spectacle, she looks pathetic; Tookie in his buff prison physique looks like a hero. Do we hear who loved the victims? Did any famous actors visit them? Did they get nominated for an award, even from the motel management association? Do we know who they loved, what they enjoyed, what they were good at?

It's as if the anti-death-penalty movement says of the murder victims, "Ah, well. Shit happens," and of the murderers, "This death is a inexcusable."

How can young people with a bent toward crime not look at that disparity and say they know who's powerful, who's got respect, who's the one to be reckoned with? Is it some guy who goes to work everyday in a gas station, or is it the one who kills him for $120 and kicks?

Here are a couple of ways to address the liturgy of the death penalty without sacrificing their principled stand against it.

First, show the same anguish over the death of every murder victim as for the murderers. It might take some effort -- a candlelight vigil after every local murder, for example, with mourners. Match candlelight vigils for the murderer on death row with give equal time to each and every victim. Make the speakers talk about the tragedy of the gas station attendant's death as well as the murderer's death. If there are prayer services for the murderer, then include the murder victims, by name. Nominate the victims for Nobel prizes. Split the murderer's legal defense fund equally with the families or favorite charities of all the victims. In other words, everything done for the murderer should be done equally or more so for each victim, by name.

Here's a coalition of churches in Oakland doing something similar. They wrapped a 700-person ring around a 10-mile section of the city where most of its murders happen. Rev. Keith Henderson of the True Fellowship Church started the event because, he says, he got tired of visiting morgues and doing funerals and decided to do something radical. The article doesn't say anything about capital punishment, but it would have been good for San Francisco's capital punishment opponents to swell the ranks.

Second, if the problem is really that the death penalty opponents feel squeamish about having the State end someone's life, consider this alternative. Call him dead, but don't kill him. Put him in a cell with no window, just one light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and leave him in solitary confinement until he dies of non-State-related causes. Give him food, water, and materials for basic sanitation. What he needs comes through a slot in the door, but he has no contact with anybody. If he kills himself, the state didn't do it. If he dies of a disease, the state didn't do it. If he lives to a ripe old age and then dies, the state didn't do it.

I would agree with death penalty opponents that a firing squad is more humane than that, but once, as a society, we've declared that killing is wrong, and true confinement is wrong, the next step is to abolish prisons entirely -- or to declare the prisoner's life sentence "served" after 20 years and release him.

Stephen Robinson, writing at the The Orthodox Way, presented the best case I've seen for capital punishment. If death penalty opponents want to see my reasons for supporting it, he captured them entirely. The purpose of this post is to ask death penalty opponents to look at what they're communicating by the tactics and techniques of their opposition.