March 31, 2005

Trends in Kids' Soccer Team Names

Hybrid animals are popular this year in the 5-6 and 7-9 yrs groups: the Ligers, the Scorpion Sharks, and the Tiger Monkeys.

Then we have the Powerpuff-type names: the Fuschia Doughnuts, the Pink Icing, and the just plain The Pink.

In the older (10-13 yrs) division, we have the American Idiots and -- the winner! in my estimation -- the Traffic Cones.

Definitely a step up in sophistication for those 10-13ers.

Lamest Luxury Car Purchases?

1. The Porsche Cayenne. Come on, man, you can finally afford a Porsche and you get the SUV version? There's a wife lurking somewhere in the background of this compromise, I guarantee.

2. The Cadillac Escalade pickup truck. As if it's not lame enough to buy a Cadillac SUV, you also had to have it expanded with a pickup bed. The only conceivable use for this is to drive at 10 mph down the paved lanes of your ranch, checking to see whether the bailiff is properly overseeing the peons.

After Rain

wet night—bright porch light—
I step out when the rain stops—
my shoes crunching snails

hand–lettered on the notebook
left on the wet bench

the movie was bad
and now it all looks like that—
lurid, jangly, fake

The Arrogance of Faith

It seems to me a form of grandiosity to claim to know whether God exists or not. The believer says, in essence, “I say that God exists, therefore he does.” The atheist says the same thing: “I say that God does not exist, therefore he does not.” Both are putting themselves in the place of God as determiners of God’s existence. “Let there be God, and there was God.” Or not.

Primitive peoples believed that whether they performed the rites correctly or not would affect the health of the gods. The belief that our belief or disbelief affects God is a form of idolatry.

Only an omniscient being could know whether God exists or not. It is a piece of information beyond the human intellect.

The believer replies, “We know God not with the mind but with the heart.” (Or, “God himself is the one who reveals himself to us,” which is only another way of saying the same thing, since the human heart is the sense organ.) But the heart is wrong at least as often as the mind. People whose hearts have deceived them time after time in love and hate, in judging their fellow humans, in deciding what job to take or what house to buy or who to marry, suddenly become emotionally infallible on the most difficult question of all.

Who are we, who am I, to determine God’s existence? Uncertainty is more suited to our station—and to the evidence. Jesus did not condemn Thomas to hell for doubting, and Thomas was on the scene, able to see and touch him. We aren’t.

March 30, 2005

Only Small Mysteries Get Solved

A few weeks ago I wrote about seeing a license plate in Austin with the name--that is, the number--of my Bronx elementary school on it: PS 105. Was there someone here who’d gone to my old school?

This morning as I drove my kids to school I noticed the license plate of the car in front of me and there it was: PS 105. I followed the car through the slow side streets, wondering what I would do if it turned in a direction I wasn’t going in. Honk my horn at it? Race in front of it and stop and confront the driver? I was so excited, I don’t even remember what kind of car it was, or what color: some kind of small, light–colored sedan, I think.

It kept going, and led me on exactly the route I had been going to take to school. When it reached the school block, I dreaded what might happen if it drove past while I had to stop to let off the kids. But PS 105 stopped and parked in front of the school just before I did, and I slipped into the parking place behind it. Fellow students at one elementary school, now fellow parents at another?

“Go! Good–bye!” I shouted to the kids, and shooed them up the school steps. “I have to go talk to this parent!”

I’d told them, as we drove, what the license plate meant to me, but I don’t know if they absorbed the information.

I ran up to the other car, knocked on the driver’s window, and smiled. The woman inside rolled down her window.

“Hi, excuse me, did you go to PS 105?”

She looked at me as if she didn’t know what I was talking about.

“I noticed your license plate. That was my elementary school, PS 105 Bronx.”

“No,” she said pleasantly, as if correcting me. “It’s for Psalm 105. The first line of Psalm 105.”

I nodded, smiling, and assured her I would look it up. You’re not in the Bronx anymore, Richie, you’re in America.

“Give the Lord thanks and invoke him by name, make his deeds known in the world around.” (New English Bible)

So am I to think that the Lord led me on a merry chase in order to convince me of his wonders? The psalm in fact is relevant to me: it retells the story of Israel in Egypt, and the Exodus. Passover is coming soon, it’s a story I’m traditionally obligated to remember and hand down to my progeny.

But I’d be more impressed if the Lord got his priorities straight. All that plotting and scheming, all that moving of cars around on the streets of Austin like a kid playing Hot Wheels, just to lay a faith–snare for someone like me, and just so I could glorify him? It seems like fiddling while Rome burns.

March 29, 2005

I See You, You See Me

Here's ambivablog on why everyone thinks that everyone else has it more together than they do:

We can see other people. They have a bright, bounded solidity we don't have to ourselves.... We perceive ourselves as dark and treacherous oceans rife with downdrafts, riptides, boiling volcanoes and blank spots. We know how far an empathetic remark, good thought or witty joke has to travel, out of what mists and across what abysses, to reach our lips (or fingertips) at the right moment. And so we're startled to discover that other people think we have it all together.

There's a lot more in her long and thoughtful post connecting this idea to the culture of blogging and the decision on what to put in one's blog.

Old Longing

The old monk takes his morning walk, leaning on the arm of a young monk. The young monk’s head is smoothly shaved, his robes clean and crisp. The old monk’s robes are rumpled, and weeks of stray white whiskers flutter unmowed on his bald head.

“Everything nowadays reminds me of something else,” the old man says. “These roadside marigolds remind me of the flowers in my mother’s garden. The thin smoke from that chimney reminds me of a place I used to live. The things don’t have to resemble each other. A forest path can remind me of the city where I spent my youth. And I welcome reminders of unhappiness just as much. This hill we’re climbing reminds me of a place where was robbed and beaten. Nor do the places have to be taken from my real life. There’s a turn in our walk that reminds me of America, a place I longed to visit and never did. Mostly the places on my walk remind me of longing. When I was your age, I used to smash down longing whenever I felt it. Now I’m feeling longing again and I’m not sorry.”

With a ferocious grimace the young monk jumps into the air, and stomps down with a high–pitched growl. “You are just trying to confuse me! This is just one of your tests!”

The old monk smiles faintly through him. “I remember that too.”

March 28, 2005

Too Weird Not To Post

The fans of a Dutch soccer team identify with the Jewish people and wear Jewish insignia though there is no connection between the team and Jews. Fans of opposing teams chant anti-Semitic slogans, give "Heil Hitler" salutes, etc., at their games. Via NYT.

Should I Get a Blogectomy?

An emailer suggests that I start a second, pseudonymous, blog with a distinctly different voice from this one, so that the second blog's personality could show up here with irreverent bantering comments undercutting my serious and lofty tone. A sort of ex-wifely voice, if you know what I mean.

That's all I need, a second blog--another online child, taking as much time as the first.

I'm thinking of getting a blogectomy to make it impossible for me to generate more blogs. What do you think?

March 27, 2005

Easter Dinner

On the good china in the formal dining room the family passes serving bowls and spoons out portions. The two preteen boys, cousins who live far apart, have been seated across from each other, but there’s a vase of flowers in their way and they don’t say much. The grownups talk about the housing market. The older cousin, by six months, gnaws on celery and carrot sticks and radish halves, rushes down a few bites of smoked ham, then asks to be excused, forgoing not only the gratineed potatoes as predicted, but also the homemade rolls and cranberry–marshmallow jello.

“I thought you used to like that,” his grandmother says.

“’Used to’ is the key word, Grandma.” A few seconds later his younger cousin follows.

The grownups talk about their diets, their doctors, the health problems of a missing relative. Dinner is punctuated by the sounds of a basketball hitting driveway pavement and glass backboard, sneakers pounding, yelled–out scores and cheers and protests.

The grandmother opens the driveway door. “Want dessert, boys? Ice cream!”

“No thanks, Gran,” the older says for both, without interrupting the rhythm of the ball on the pavement.

At some point later the cousins must have re–entered the house, because the sounds of a loud movie come from the closed door of the TV room.

The grownups move to the formal living room. They discuss their accountants, their vacations, and their cemetery plots.

At evening’s end, the two cousins slip through the vestibule into the fresh air before their grandparents can kiss them.

The grandmother presses her two daughters’ hands simultaneously. “It was so lovely to see the boys again!” she says, and means it.

March 26, 2005


Good Friday night. Warm and partly cloudy, with a big waxing moon rising orange above the houses, shrinking and hardening to white as it climbs. Over a late dinner we talk about whether tomorrow will be warm enough for swimming. Well, I say, they forecast possible thundershowers and cooler.

Within five minutes a hard rain comes drumming straight down in big, fast, separate drops, louder and louder, and then we realize it’s hail. Cold wind blows through the open windows. The children press hands to ears: the clatter on the skylight sounds like the kind of machine gun fire that used to drive men crazy in the trenches. I zip through the house closing windows, getting towels to sop up the water on the floors. The kids ask if they can sleep in our bed tonight.

We turn on the outside lights to look at the hail in the darkness. Pellets of ice the size of olive pits are spreading over the driveway, covering it in a minute, mixed with downed green leaves. It’s splattering the cars—we hope it’s not big enough to crack windshields. We open the veranda door and step out, and horizontal wind and hail lash us back, the wind blowing under the veranda roof and through the latticework. When we scoot inside we find hail pellets on the carpet.

When we’re resettled at the dinner table, my wife rushes out again and brings us a double handful of hail, mixed with grass and leaves and grains of soil, for us to examine. It’s the only time we ever get to scoop up solid precipitation around here.

This morning the driveway and the cars are matted with downed green leaves and stems. The bare patches on the lawn are filled in with downed leaves—they’re greener than before.

I can't find anything on the local newspaper's website about the hailstorm, though Burnt Orange Report has a post abouit it and so does Austin The weather channel online gives yesterday’s precipitation total for Austin as 0”. Bloggers report golf–ball–sized hail in some places.

Was it an omen, a burst of community chi, a lancing of a psychic boil? As I wake up in bed in the morning, remembering the storm and thinking of how to describe it, gusts of dream mix with the hail. The rapidfire downpour of white pellets becomes a children’s choir. An encyclopedia article about hail metamorphoses into one on Kiri Te Kanawa.

How hard it is to see hail just as water freezing and melting and refreezing repeatedly in cold–front clouds!

CODA: Yesterday afternoon for the first time in my life I tried throwing the I Ching. I used a very ignorant method, only one coin instead of three, but what I came up with was Lake as the lower trigram leading to Water as the upper trigram. I interpreted it metaphorically to mean that something apparently stable would disintegrate into its elements and re–form; that something small (the lake) would disperse and join something larger, more oceanic. If the hailstorm was a fulfillment of the reading, it was a lot more literal than I expected!

March 25, 2005

A Yin Day

As a non-Christian, I've wondered a fair amount in my lifetime about the meaning of Good Friday but have not felt much affected personally by its tragic emotions. (One reason may be that the contemporary American world around me doesn't seem much affected by them either.)

This Good Friday seems different, though. Maybe it's because I just had a birthday, venturing reluctantly one step closer to death. (This year's early Easter causes a conjunction with my individual lifecourse.) But it feels like more than that. All this week the news has been preoccupied with death watches--one for an innocent young brain-damaged woman, one for a deeply aged, brave religious leader. And with an acute outbreak of youth crime amid poverty and oppression. And with the chronic disorder of our body politic.

It's also Purim, a Jewish holiday that's joyous in tone but that reminds us of the cyclic upwelling of genocide in this world. It's a holiday of victory but also of vigilance. In any generation, the wicked Haman may rise up against us, and we all need to be potential Esthers to defeat him.

It's been a bright sunny spring week here, but the streets are eerily quiet, maybe because lots of people have a day off from work. It's as if a filter has been placed over the bright blue sky and the sunlit green trees.

It's a yin day, a yin week: low energy, negativity, contraction, pessimism. It feels as if the whole world is waiting for the other shoe to drop. What's going to happen next?

Thankfully we know that "at the extreme of yin, yang is ready to emerge." A cycle of bleakness, fatigue, and dread will give way to a cycle of joy, vigor, and hope. Whether it's a resurrection after a crucifixion, or the recovery of a people slated for extermination, or the mere turning of the wheel of yin and yang.

The world is blessed. Perhaps days like these are incentives to concentrate harder on that truth.

Nader, Schiavo, and Compassion

Great post today from Althouse cutting through the partisan debate about Ralph Nader's support of Terry Schiavo's parents' rights to legal guardianship. The key question: Why are both sides of our political spectrum selectively compassionate?

Ambivablog discusses the Nader viewpoint here, and brings in a sobering insight from Jewish law, about the nature of responsibility, here.

March 24, 2005

What Kids Talk About

A mom is driving her fourth–grade son and his best friend home from school. The two boys begin discussing the books on puberty that their parents have given them to stave off uncomfortable conversations—I mean, to answer their questions fully and expertly. Which book has better answers? Which book is more fun? What do the pictures show? They chat away as if the mom isn’t there.

“Mine’s better,” the best friend says, “because it calls it ‘having sex,’ not ‘having intercourse.’ And it has color pictures.” Pausing to consider, he sums up, “Sex is gross.”

“I don’t know,” says the mom’s son. “I’ve heard that sex can be joyful and beautiful.”

All right! thinks the mom. We’ve done something right!

And after a moment of tangled silence, the boys turn to the eternal subject: Pokemon.

The Couple in the RV

When they were younger they traveled from continent to continent by boat and plane and jeep. They did missionary work, they helped build native houses, he taught irrigation, she taught sanitation. During furloughs they explored the deep bush and the seashore, until their child drowned in an undertow. Then they flew straight back to Denver.

They stopped traveling. He took an office job with a church group, she stayed home with no child to care for. For five years she never left the house.

After a while he had to get back on the road. He took a few solo trips with just the car and a sleeping bag and one propane burner. But who would get her prescriptions at the pharmacy? Who would do the grocery shopping?

Finally he bought an RV and said he was going to travel the whole U.S. Was she coming or staying?

She packed their things and arranged the interior of the RV just the way she wanted it. She climbed inside and stayed in the living quarters, and he did all the driving. They drove through forty–nine states and Canada.

She cooks, makes the beds, and keeps the place spotless while he hikes. He tells her all the things he sees on the trail, so it’s just like she’d been there.

At the gas stations he buys supplies. When he grills outdoors, he makes a plate for her and climbs into the RV to serve it. She spends most of the day in a housecoat, but changes into slacks and a sweater at about four. He trims her hair with a scissors every other month. He bought a manicure/pedicure kit online and has learned to use it. Evenings they spend watching TV inside. Later, when she’s asleep, he steps out quietly and watches the stars.

They have never talked about it. He does what he has to, and she does what she can. If they get angry at each other, they never let it show.

He thinks he does it because he likes to travel. If you told him he does it out of love, he would stop and try to think about it, but give up and go on.

March 23, 2005

Creative Writing: Man Sitting Under a Tree

Let’s say I want to write a novel about a man sitting under a tree. For two hundred pages that’s all he does. But of course that is not the action of the novel. The action is what happens in his mind as he sits under the tree. He goes back into memory and forward into anticipation. Regret, longing, and distracting fantasy propel scenes and interior monolog, while recurring descriptions of his sitting under the tree provide a repeating bass line. He may think he is moving toward some kind of enlightenment, but the novel subsumes that into its many–stranded weave. The character is not aware that his enlightenment consists of being a character in a novel.

I think about this, and I like it, but something’s not clicking. There’s a lack of dramatic necessity here. Given the premise of a novel about a man sitting under a tree, the specifics of his life could be anything. Why this man and not some other man or woman? Why are his memories and anticipations about Texas rather than Greenland, love lost rather than love found and struggled through, ambitions rewarded rather than ambitions foiled?

The answer of course is that the man is a version of me—not the everyday me, but some homunculus that springs from somewhere inside me, intersecting with who I appear, to myself and others, to be. A cartoon self–portrait, perhaps, or an unexpressed second self, or a wish to become acceptable—who knows? And that doesn’t seem enough to justify dwelling on a character for two hundred pages in the hope of developing ideas of deep interest to thousands of readers.

So I think of a way to overcome this limitation, to transcend the arbitrary individual particulars, the local color of my personality. This character is not going to be me with a stable identity, he’s going to be me in all my unexpressed potential, all my unlived lives, all my untaken chances and untrod paths, and all the unforeseen consequences. The facts of his life will shift from scene to scene; his experiences will cover a wider swath than any single living person’s could. We will see who he became on one path and who he became on another path. It will be a vision of an unfolded self, a tesseract personality. At the end, he is just a figure sitting under a tree—all of them, and none.

I like that too, but there’s still something bothering me: this inability to get away from my stubbornly persistent self. If I’m going to write about a wide field of characters, why must they all be me?

So the man under the tree changes once again. He is not going to just be one man magnified, one personality budding into a cauliflower cluster of related personalities, one character fermenting into transmutations like Joycean fermented words. The character under the tree is going to be a population: thousands of unrelated people arising from one serenely active mind, each living its own paths, most of them unaware of the others, some of them connected by genes or friendship or work or neighborhood. The man keeps sitting under the tree as a city rises around him. Is he even aware of the mass life springing from his brain, crowding the landscape beyond his lidded eyes, rushing, striving, hurrying, planning, seeking, scheming, hoping, planning, cheating, building? At the end, it doesn’t even matter whether he is or not.

This is the one I like. And what I like best is that I don’t have to write it. It’s already being written, it’s always being written, all around me as I sit under this tree.

The Plant that Repairs its Own Genome

This could be a revolutionary discovery in genetics, and the NYT article also contains a cute setup for a joke about not having had sex in millions of years.

March 22, 2005

Horses in the World

Four horses grazing by the fence: three brown, one white, but the number and colors don’t matter. What matters is the life flaming inside them. I focus on them for the time it takes to pass them in a car, and I can feel how they open their nostrils wide to take in grass scent and pollen grains, and how the dusty soil tickles behind their hooves. And how it feels for them to be close to one another in the sun, the warmth twitching like an electric current from flank to flank in the scent of each other’s hide, and how their tails seek the flies, and the flies, just a little annoyed, rise back and lose no time returning to the game. Big wet mammal eyes taking in the scrub pasture, their angle of vision a foot higher than mine, ears listening to each car.

I feel how they live, and how short a time it is, and I know that I’m an animal like them living under the same rules. I can feel the pulsing in me, the blood flashing, the steady cell–flame, wanting to be here always. Even though I can think and talk and write and drive, we’re cousins, on the same planet, descended from the same dim ancestors who’d never recognize us. And the flowers, too, the violet–blue and yellow carpet they’re nibbling at, they’re part of the family. Cousin Bluebonnet and Cousin Baileya.

(Do the flowers know they’re beautiful? I don’t think so—and what don’t I know about what I am?)

Wouldn’t it be better if these horses were here forever? I don’t know, would it? They’re here for exactly as long as they should be, it seems to me. Why would we want them forever? Isn’t there something just as good that could take their place?

And when one of them dies, does that make the scene worse? Horses–in–world are still here.

We want to think that we’re special, that it won’t be that way for us. We want to think that the flaring, pulsing life in us is not our real life, but there’s something more, some higher essence not dependent on oxygen and carbon and water, which, when we burn to ashes, will go somewhere else and be welcomed.

Why? Who would want to preserve us everlastingly, and for what? It seems to me the height of impudence to think that God made us for some purpose other than exactly what we see here: to live on this planet and metabolize our bodies and act our dramas. If he hadn’t wanted us for that, he might as well have created us as angels, nor not created us at all, since he already had angels.

The only thing an infinite being can’t do is be finite. He needed to create us to find out what finitude looked like, felt like. He loves finitude–so much, we are told, that he came down here at least once to be among us.

Our finitude is exactly what is precious to God. If we were eternal, we’d just be pointless low–grade angel wannabes.

What do we expect? Is God going to summon Shakespeare and Mozart and Einstein and Newton unto himself and invite them to seats around the table? He doesn’t need Einstein and Newton to explain the universe to him, or Shakespeare and Mozart to suggest what to create next. He might smile indulgently at how much they figured out, but that’s all. Thinking we’re more than that is like a child, when the house has been burglarized, thinking that the police are going to ask him to join in solving the case. It’s like the flowers on the dinner table thinking that they’re going to be invited to take a seat and join the conversation, rather than be enjoyed for a day or two and then tossed out.

The great thing about our beauty is that there’s always more of it coming along from someone else. No one of us is needed for very long.

Thinking like that can send shivers of terror through me, and maybe you. We want to be comforted, to be told it isn’t so. But we know it’s most likely that it is so. We want to be told a story to make it better. But maybe best would be just to sit it through until we don’t need a story.

We hope to find, at the end of it all, that there’s a higher existence and we’re eligible for it (two things that are not necessarily the same, by the way). But look at the horses. No life is higher than theirs, and no life is lower. It completely fulfills its purpose here in the world of sky and sun and soil and water. Blood, bone, skin, muscle, nerve, and marrow are the height of existence.

The only purpose we can be sure we were created for is to live rightly in this world. That’s why my ancestors never bothered much about an afterlife. They knew that all God wanted of them was to be human. To ask for more is greed.

If there were heavenly beings, ours is the life they would long for. They’d be lining up for a chance at it, no matter how short—especially if short, maybe. If one of the horses were lame or were having labor pains or were crazy, do you think the celestial beings would hesitate? “Let me be that lame horse, that horse in labor, that crazy horse!” They never have such great times up there.

As Marilynne Robinson says in GILEAD, p. 57: “In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”

And from an old American folk song, “This Old World,” my motto since I first heard a folksinger—David Bromberg? Steve Goodman?—sing it at the Ark coffeehouse in Ann Arbor, c.1970:

I’d rather walk down to the corner store
Than sing hosannas on your golden shore—
This old world, this old world.

March 21, 2005

Travel Notes: Big Bend

When you cross the Pecos River you feel like you’re leaving the shelter of civilization that you’ve been under all your life. In the old days “west of the Pecos” meant that you were beyond the reach of human law, except the law of saloonkeeper Judge Roy Bean. (At Langtry, the town he named after his idol Lily Langtry, you can visit the restored Jersey Lily Saloon where he dispensed justice.) On I-10 it’s 86 miles between rest stops—just a couple of blinks, out here. When you see the sign “El Paso 311,” you think unironically, “Is that all?”

We pass prairie dog towns and wind farms, the three–bladed high–tech windmills lined up by the dozen atop a series of ridges, all turning together. The roadsides are lined with bluebonnets and yellow desert baileya and white blackfoot daisies. On the KGSR BROADCASTS CD, John Hiatt is singing, “Across the plains of Kansas/ To the Colorado line.” But the song isn’t about escaping a posse—he’s singing about driving his daughter to college.

Then we’re in Big Bend Country. On the map of Texas, there’s a big southward–hanging lobe in the lower left corner, where the Rio Grande takes a big bend, hence the name. This is the part of Texas where you really feel like you’re in a John Ford movie. Mesas and buttes—vast open sky—snaggletoothed mountains banded red and light gray—low rolling lands covered with creosote bushes, yucca, ocotillo stalks, century plants, and the relatively unimposing lechuguilla, a succulent that’s the type species of the Chihuahuan Desert. In this season the desert is flowering gorgeously, purple and yellow and white everywhere among the grayish green of thorny stalks.

Big Bend National Park is a treasure of the national park system, 1,200 square miles and less than one–tenth as many visitors as Yosemite. Its sister park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, is more remote and even less used, only 25,000 visitors a year. The ranger there tells me the campsites have never been full in his fifteen years at the park.

We camp in a cottonwood grove in the national park, where the white fur of the trees’ seeds lines the dirt road. It’s colder than we prepared for—all I have is one sweater and one L. L. Bean River Driver’s Shirt. Next morning there’s frost on the car and the picnic table. Was it worth it to get the worst night’s sleep of my life in exchange for the clearest, starriest sky I’ve ever seen? During the night itself I swore it wasn’t, but come morning it’s already seeming like a fond memory. It’s worth it for the perfect breakfast of fried eggs on top of my own chili, and the memory of reading aloud to the kids in a body–warmed tent while sipping Maker’s Mark from the bottle.

We spend most of the daytime hiking canyons. Most spectacular is Santa Elena Canyon, a 1,500–foot cliff of sand–colored limestone littered with huge fallen boulders, eight miles long and only 30 feet wide at its narrowest point. One side of the cliff is the US, the other is Mexico. In 1852 the first survey team, as a scouting technique, sent an empty wooden boat down the canyon, and it emerged at the other end in the form of splinters. The trail climbs up into desert hills in full bloom—yuccas topped by pinkish white clusters of blossoms the size and shape of giant pineapples—Chisos prickly poppies with parchmenty white petals and yellow centers, so delicate–looking you want to stay with them and learn all their secrets—and ocotillo whose long, thorny tendrils end in red spearpoints made of clusters of berrylike buds, which D. H. Lawrence would have loved to describe.

Along the river we’re walking on cracked dry mud overhung with bamboo and desert willow. There’s a house–sized square boulder tipped onto its edge, like the cubical sculpture in Federal Plaza in Manhattan. The kids are climbing around it in one direction and I go in the other to meet them, and on the far side I hear a low, soft growl.

There it is, crouching under a rock ledge at floor level, orange–tan and white with dark gray rings: an ocelot. It’s bigger than the half–tame bobcat who walked with us a few months ago on our last trip here, and the body shape and coloring are nothing like. I stop, look, and pick up two nice–size rocks, planning on using Brush Knee Push if it attacks. Then I turn and walk away. And then we’re racing around the boulder in the other direction, calling the kids back, setting our voices at urgency–without–alarm. Kids are ocelot–size prey, but on the other hand, ours are so noisy that no level–headed ocelot would hang around as they were approaching. Having been rescued, the kids returned without comment to their eternal discussion of Pokemon cards. (There’s been at least one case in the past decade of a child being killed by a mountain lion in Big Bend. Last year we hiked in the very streambed where it happened. But I figure the victim must have been a quiet, docile child.)

Ever since, the kids have referred to my ocelot as “the ocelot that Dad took on single–handed and left a bloody mess.” It reminds me of the folktale “Seven at One Blow.”

Further note: on the trail we met a mom with two boys about our boys’ age, told her about the ocelot, and she said to them, “That sounds neat. Want to go see an ocelot?” And they rushed forward. I assume they’re all right since they didn’t show up in the news afterward.

Further further note: Ocelots have been sighted on the Mexican side of the canyon but not the US side, though the guidebook says it would be perfectly possible for them to cross. (And be deported, presumably.) But the volunteer at the park station didn’t believe it was an ocelot, even though I identified it in a wildlife handbook.

We drove into the state park to hike a slot canyon, where you can slide down slick white pouroffs or climb down a rope. (The kids did the rope; the adults stopped and declared it the end of the trail.) Yellow rocknettle grew high on the cliff wall in isolated single–plant clumps: long, trumpetshaped blossoms with long stamens, brave and isolated, how did they ever take root there? State road 170 is a beauty, winding along the Rio Grande for about 50 miles. Road signs tell of “Rock Slides” and “Loose Livestock.” There are places to camp right on the river, and if you wade 30 feet or so you’re in another country, but then you have to place yourself under arrest when you return.

Further in, we have to unlock a gate that crosses the dirt road, using the combination the park ranger gave us. We hike through desert hills where claret–cup cactus blooms in tight orange–red clusters, and feather dalea bushes show off: each tiny arrowhead flower has four purple petals and one yellow. We’re on our way into a streambed between narrow cliffs, a green patch of cottonwood and willow and mesquite, when we notice very long horns rising about the plants: a black bull. We walk quietly on our way, and when we return, it hasn’t moved.

In the closed canyon, my wife and I both imagine we hear human voices. When there are wasps humming, and a spring bubbling too far away to be identifiable, and a breeze in the cottonwoods, and branches bouncing and bark dropping when canyon wrens take off, it’s easy to see how people started believing in ghosts.

We drive back through tiny towns—Lajitas, Terlingua, Study Butte—Lajitas being revived as an upscale retreat with a salon hotel; Terlingua, a mercury mining town till the 1940s, then briefly a ghost town, then a hippie discovery in the 1960s–1970s, and now mainly a road construction site; Study Butte, the most practical of the three for motels, RV parks, groceries, and a gas station café with really good food (pork asado chili, catfish, malts). If you want to guarantee your family downward mobility, my advice is to decide you’re an artist and settle in a remote spot like Terlingua. Your daughters will get pregnant in high school, your sons will pull petty crimes with the local hooligans, and on a weekday afternoon in the convenience store, with your unemployed son–in–law drinking a beer and your three pretty granddaughters spilling food, you’ll dangle cigarette ash onto your Ace bandaged ankle and complain that your shipment of yarn from San Angelo is late.

The next night, our last in camp, I’m sitting in the car at 5am reading GILEAD, a book that is humbling for a writer to read. Marilynne Robinson's narrator is describing staying up with sick kids at the exact moment that we finish doing so. Then my wife knocks on the car window and tells me to come out and listen: it’s the mating call of two great horned owls, a rare sound to witness. The man in the next campsite, a birder, is taping it. A soft, deep, crooning whistle, four or five syllables on one steady note, first the male in a higher voice and then the female lower. It goes on a long time, and eases down into contentment.

Soon the sun rises over the butte, and we pack up our tent. At the park station I buy a book of photorealist paintings of Big Bend. A couple of us are sick, throwing up or threatening to, but it’s just a 24–hour virus. “We’ll all be glad to be home,” my wife says as we drive through the hill country toward Austin, but I’m not sure. A shower and shave will be great after three nights, and maybe we can get a cooked fresh vegetable, but I’ll be looking at those paintings a lot. I’ll be needing to.

March 20, 2005

Travel Notes: San Angelo, Texas

Out here a dry creek bed is called a “draw” and a dry waterfall is called a “pouroff” and either of them can kill you in flash flood season. This is the land of prickly pear growing in the meadows and among the juniper hills--of self–domesticated deer grazing with the goats--of wild turkeys bobbing along the roadside--of a ewe and her lamb nuzzling an oil well pipe. It’s fossil country, too, with hobbyists’ cars stopped along the roadway cuts where layers of limestone are exposed from the prehistoric inland sea that also made this oil country.

You know you’re in deepest America when a flat, vacancy–plagued town called Eldorado tries to cheer itself up with satirical public events: the Elgoatarod--a parody of Alaska’s dogsled Iditarod--and a sign announcing meetings of the Eldorado Olympic Bid Organizing Committee. (Scroll down to Jan. 2005 if you click that Elgoatarod link.) But things are livening up because a polygamous, fundamentalist splinter group of Mormons is moving there. The Elgoatarodians are hoping the media attention will help their race.

The next town down the road is called Eden. I wonder what’s going on there? But we didn’t feel motivated to go and see.

Instead we went to the Caverns of Sonora, which uses for publicity a quote from a great speleologist that they’re “the most indescribably beautiful caverns in the world—their beauty can’t possibly be exaggerated—even by Texans.” Well, guess what, folks—it’s an exaggeration. The supposed beauty (which I have to admit many people do perceive) consists of chamber after chamber lined with thick yellowish translucent incrustations deposited by mineral–laden water. It's like walking through a cheesecake that has been tunneled by mice. The formations take various shapes, from the familiar stalactites and stalagmites to a whitish slide that looks like frozen milk. Of course people keep finding real–world shapes in them, so the guided tour consists mainly of looking hard to try to recognize a butterfly, a teacher’s finger pointing at the butterfly, a pineapple, E.T., the Statue of Liberty, and so forth, among the rocks. It almost goes without saying there’s one that supposedly looks like the Virgin Mary—why her and not any other human being, I don’t know--and the tour guide expresses wonder at how nature unaided could possibly have created such a shape without miraculous intervention. It reminded me of the Virgin Mary on the grilled cheese sandwich, which brought $28,000 last year.

Independently, I discovered the following formations: a Giacometti sculpture of a walking man, a dirty mop, and a fist with its middle finger upraised. I didn’t bother pointing them out to the tour guide.

I much preferred the short stretch at the end of the tunnel where the incrustations had been stripped away. The walls were clean bare limestone arches like Greek catacombs.

After spending most of the warm, humid tour trying to keep children from touching the rocks, going off the trail, sitting down in the trail, or running ahead, we sat gratefully on a bench in the cool breeze outside. Ads on the bench advised us to call for fence repair, dirt construction, well digging, and bail bonds--“fast, friendly, and confidential.”

Next day we drove north to San Angelo because the guidebook said there’s a downhome restaurant with great pie there. And it was true, and 65 miles is not too far to drive for a great slice of $1.50 pie when there’s nothing else of interest for a handful of counties around. The restaurant was even signless, adding to its cachet.

San Angelo looks like the set of the beginning of a slasher movie, before anything has happened or anyone suspects. It’s loaded with civic improvements that no one uses: sculpture in the park; a riverside walk where you can watch herons nesting in the trees; a pedestrian bridge with commemorative tiles. It’s the wool and mohair capital of the U.S. and the home of the nation’s last windmill manufacturer (one of three in the world). It’s got a bordello museum in what was a real bordello till 1946, and a military intelligence training center at Goodfellow AFB, and one of its best Mexican restaurants is called Mejor que Nada—“Better than Nothing.” As we walked through the park, an ice cream truck was maddeningly repeating “Turkey in the Straw”—a great touch for the soundtrack. On the main street, upgraded with antique stores and boutiques, several merchants proved to be more interested in denying the existence of their bathrooms than in attracting possible customers, of whom they were obviously in need. The unfriendliest storekeepers we’ve met in eight years in Texas. Almost the only unfriendly storekeepers we’ve met in eight years in Texas.

The guidebook says that San Angelo is much more livable than Midland, Odessa, Wichita Falls, or Abilene, because of its diversified, non–oil–based economy. The awful thing is, I believe it.

That was the motel part of our trip, the first two days, and from then on it was tent camping and a lot more fun. I’ll tell you tomorrow!

March 14, 2005

Well, I'm going on spring break for a week. I've written five reading and writing textbooks in the past seven months, a total of about 1,200 pages of elementary-level stories, articles, playlets, tests, questions, assessments, etc. I guess you could say I got greedy. Now I think I'll ease up a bit.

We're packing our camping gear and going someplace where there's no running water and no electricity. We may stick a computer in the trunk of the car at the last minute and see if we find a place en route that has wireless access, and if we find one I'll drop y'all a line during the week sometime. If not, I'll be back next Monday, March 21.

Warm affection in the meantime to all my blogospheric friends.

March 13, 2005

Welcoming the Push

Today was the second day of the weekend tai chi workshop, and it more than redeemed the first day. I’m glad to report that it goes into the category of great experiences--Christophe said it was the best workshop he’d ever given, largely because of the good spirit at our school and the welcoming, brotherly response of our teacher, Tom Gohring. I’m sure all of us thought, in response, that the workshop succeeded mainly because of the warmth and humanity of Christophe himself.

Today was all push hands for five hours. As I’ve mentioned, push hands is a gentle sparring game in which two partners try to push (or pull) each other off balance using only minimal force. It works, by the way. I routinely push over a classmate who outweighs me by 100 pounds (and he, of course, routinely pushes me over). In today’s session one of the most adept learners was a very petite 50–something female botany professor who tossed over a tough–looking young man, about five nine and 165 pounds, with virtually no exertion.

We learned some nifty new techniques for tossing people around, and that’s fun, but what will stick with me longer are the insights associated with this practice. Tai chi is a worldview, an attitude that, to be called successful, must be used in life, not just in a training school. As Cheng Man–Ching, perhaps the greatest tai chi master of the twentieth century, said, the most important step in the form is the first step you take after completing the form.

The tai chi attitude is very much like a matador’s attitude. Something big and overwhelmingly powerful is coming at you, fast and furious, and it would folly for you to try to stand in its way or fight it head to toe. But all you have to do is turn slightly. Take a little step aside and let it go by.

All the movements we did today were very slow, at least when we were doing them correctly. (It’s hard for students not to get overexcited and try to speed up and strengthen their pushes.) “Five miles an hour,” Christophe told us, both for offense and for defense. Why? Partly to minimize injuries, but more deeply because if you do something like this fast, it’s harder to know what you’re doing. If your fast shove pushes someone over, it’s probably by accident, and it probably happened so suddenly that a student can’t analyze what was done right and what was done wrong. If you push someone off balance in slow motion, with a soft movement, you probably did it on purpose, and you can study it.

Christophe imposed another condition on us: we were only allowed to push using moves from the tai chi form. People who do martial arts will understand when I say that there’s an endemic problem in these sports, a problem in translating the skills from a graceful choreographed form into a freestyle fighting situation. In karate and tae kwan do, students learn complex katas, but when they enter the sparring ring they just bash and kick at each other--form and technique go out the window, and sophisticated movement deteriorates into primitive kickboxing, usually with the brawnier one winning. The tai chi form is soft and slow and elegant, but push hands competitions usually turn into wrestling matches.

Christophe wants to change that, and he did it with us today by showing us that using the elegant move from the form is actually an easier way to take someone down than trying to muscle them down. Time and again we discovered that doing the move right took less effort and less motion than doing it wrong. After huffing and puffing got nowhere, a simple turn or a well–timed lift of the hands would have an instant effect. It wasn’t magic, it was simple physics of leverage.

That too is something to apply outside the school. It may be something that a lot of people know already in theory, but when you practice it day after day and see it having immediate physical results, the lesson takes root deeper.

And repeatedly, the key to taking someone down was to let them attack, let them get close and think that they had you where they wanted you. Tai chi is close–in fighting, and it’s often paradoxical: it’s often an advantage to be shorter, for example. Christophe says that push hands is not the art of pushing--it’s the art of being pushed. If someone grabs you, that person is giving you something to work with. If someone’s hands are on you, you know where that person is, and the hands that are ineffectively touching you cannot be used for an effective touch elsewhere. But you can use the opponent’s hands to throw him off balance. It’s as if your opponent is giving you the weapons to defeat him. So you should welcome the push. And this makes the other person not an opponent but a partner. It doesn’t really matter who pushed who on any given try. Both are learning the same skill together.

Doing push hands requires and creates an attitude change. Most people, when pushed, tighten up. They get alarmed, they resist. Thus they lose. If you can welcome a push and stay relaxed and unresisting, and move with it so that it goes by you like the bull going past the matador, then you will not be hurt. It’s as simple as that, and it takes years, decades, to make it part of one’s inner being. But anyone can, with enough patience.

And the result, if you learn this well enough, will be that you never have to fight. You can disarm people before they strike. You can view them as partners in learning, not as opponents.

In push hands, one of the great keys to learning is to stop thinking about whether you are going to win or lose. In fact you learn more by losing. We call this “investing in loss.” This truism becomes immediately, physically obvious to everyone who practices this art. Of course it’s still nice to win, but you can change your definition of winning, too. You may find that you get less out of scoring points in a loud, misguided arena than by studying deeply something quiet and obscure, and telling others about it.

For any readers out there who find this appealing, I want to make a final point: tai chi is not just for old people. That’s a widespread misconception, common in China as well as here. Tai chi can be done by old people because it’s a gentle exercise, but people do it from about 13 years of age, sometimes younger. (Children, in the US anyway, usually shouldn’t do it because they can’t stand still for long.) The earlier you start, the better, because mastery takes a long time, and because this study is infinitely deep: the more you know, the more you realize there is to know. As Christophe reminded us, we are all beginners, seedlings. We should count the length of our tai chi experience not in the numbers of years we’ve been involved but in the number of hours we’ve actually trained—and how many 24–hour days would those hours add up to? Someone who’s supposedly been studying for five years may only have been training for a month of hours. And how much better they would have gotten if that one month had been two!

I wish I’d started at 15 the way Christophe did.

March 12, 2005

Are Amazing Things Happening?

I just got back from the first day of an intensive two–day workshop in aspects of tai chi chuan*, given by Christophe Clarke, a 46–year old Jamaican–born American who lives and teaches in Colorado. He’s been practicing kung fu since he was 7 and tai chi since he was 15, and he can do amazing things like break a stack of seven cinderblocks with a barely visible motion of one hand. I’ve been practicing tai chi since I was 47, and I hope to gain physical benefits such as balance, coordination, flexibility, and overall wellbeing, and mental benefits such as serenity, alertness, and poise.

Today’s focus was on the spiritual and perhaps even telepathic aspects of tai chi, and since I’m a skeptic by nature, some parts of it worked better for me than other parts. Great stretching, for starters. And the discovery that by holding a motionless, relaxed, spine–straightening posture for a long time, one will generate a physiological and mental response that includes some or all of the following: profuse sweating, intense pain in the thighs, uncontrollable shaking or swaying, and overwhelming emotions to the point of weeping or wanting to weep. After such an exercise, ten minutes to an hour long, one may also feel an overwhelming sense of release of stress that some have called “divine.”

Best of all, for me, was the exercise in trusting others to catch one’s fall. I don’t think of myself as a trusting person, and whenever I’d heard or read about that kind of exercise in the past I’d flinched from it mentally, assuming I could never do it. Today, because I was in a class of people I know and like--and I’m regarded as something of a leader there--I volunteered to be the first to demonstrate this skill, and I did wonderfully. That alone would have been worth the price of the workshop.

Then there were the mystical parts. Christophe claims that he can push people from a distance, without physically touching them. He demonstrated it with a child who is a moderately advanced kung fu student. Did it work? Or was it the context, and her knowledge of what was supposed to happen, and normal suggestibility, that pushed her backward? I don’t know. But Christophe says he has done it with adults in controlled situations and freaked those adults out.

Then we were supposed to generate chi--the Chinese term that means energy or life force and is ancestral to George Lucas’ “The Force”--between our palms and keep the heat flowing there while we separated our palms to wider distances, and work this palm chi upon a partner who was standing across the room. Did that work? No, but maybe it’s because I haven’t been practicing it for 30 years. Christophe claims that prehistoric people developed advanced skills along these lines, which we have largely forgotten.

Then we were supposed to project thoughts of a blinding color, from among five possible colors, at our partner and see if our partner could guess the color. Did it work? Not for me. In a group of ten pairs, it worked for five pairs in the first round, which seems statistically significant to me. But in the second round only two pairs transmitted their colors correctly, which is exactly what probability would have predicted.

I try to be open–minded in all things, but I always have to overcome the doubting stance bred into me by generations of my forebears. The upshot is that during a workshop like this, which is intended to stretch our minds as well as our bodies, I worry about whether I’m getting it or not. Christophe showed us how to do our slow tai chi movements so that the twisting of our torso muscles massaged our internal organs. Done consistently over decades, this is supposed to conduce to longevity. All around me, students were exclaiming that they felt the muscle contractions in precisely the spots Christophe designated. (Some of them were the ones who were shaking most in the long motionless posture.) Meanwhile I was wondering, “Do I feel it or not? Am I doing it right?” And I was a more advanced student, supposedly, than they were.

We live in a culture of exclamation, it seems to me, and I’m not the exclamatory type--or maybe I would like to be, and was trained out of it a long time ago. As a reader and writer of realistic fiction I delight in the ordinary, the everyday--I do find wonder there. But I’m not the type of person who effuses over every little thing, who gives gold stars to myself or others for every little effort. When I hear someone talking about an acquaintance who is an “amazing” cook or an “extremely brilliant” scholar--you know the way people talk nowadays--I assume they’re referring to a pretty decent cook and a competent scholar. So when I twist my torso in a prescribed way, I don’t automatically agree that it’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever felt just because there’s someone at the front of the room who wants me to say it and a bunch of other people around me who are complying in saying it.

I often think I’m missing something because of this.

Tomorrow’s workshop is more practical: it’s on push hands, the gentle tai chi form of sparring. In push hands you and a partner face each other wrist to wrist and try to throw each other off balance without using excessive effort. (Ideally it should be effortless.) This exemplifies and develops the tai chi principle of “four ounces of effort defeats a thousand pounds of strength.” It doesn’t look like it could do you any good in a fight--it looks like a slow dance, halfway between fighting and making love--but in my opinion it’s more effective than sparring in the “hard” martial arts (karate, tae kwan do, kung fu, etc.) for developing a sense of how to respond to an opponent, how to remain calm and rooted in the face of an attack, how to move spontaneously within a stable framework, and how to turn an attack against itself. “Wait till your opponent starts to move, and then anticipate it,” is the paradoxical but surprisingly accurate push hands slogan.

Christophe is a longtime national heavyweight push hands champion and today he promised me some great tips. I’ll tell you more tomorrow.

* Chuan means “fist” in Chinese. When you see the phrase tai chi chuan, it means that tai chi is being taught as a martial art, not just a New Age movement exercise. Of all the martial arts, it’s considered the most difficult and time–consuming to learn to use for practical self–defense. Few students can rely on it for that purpose. But as practiced by masters, it trumps all other martial arts for fighting effectiveness.

March 11, 2005

Real Life Unfunnies

Through the open screened window, with the smell of eggs and bacon, comes the sound of a woman sobbing, weirdly musical and wobbly, turning upward at the ends of phrases. Though she’s my next–door neighbor, I don’t know her, have never even seen her to smile hello—she must be one of those student renters who dot our neighborhood, or a young office worker. My fictionalizing mind immediately goes into action: has someone died?

Then a voice answers her, a young man’s voice, polite and not unfriendly: “Goodbye.”

So it’s that.

A car door opens and shuts in their driveway, and the man’s voice is not heard again. But the woman’s voice grows louder, and it’s not musical anymore, it crescendos quickly and snaps off the ends of phrases with choked breaths. So that’s why it sounded almost musical–comical before: she was pleading with someone.

I’m eating a cheese sandwich for breakfast. The smell of bacon comes in stronger, and the scene is playing out in my mind: what if I went out as if to water the lawn, noticed her, asked what was wrong, comforted her…

I don’t even consider, at this point, that whatever strife she had with her boyfriend she might have with me. Or that I’m old enough to be her father, or that my life is full without her. The Play button gets hit automatically. My wife is out of town today—that must be nourishing the fantasy—but my life is still all here, as if she were just in a different room of our house. I’m taking the kids to school in a few minutes.

The sobbing stops after a while, perhaps only because sobbing must stop. The audience leaves the theater. For a few seconds there’s the afterglow when real–life scenery looks filmed, but that, too, quickly fades. I need to remind them to brush their teeth.

March 10, 2005

Evangelical Environmentalists

NYT reports that an influential core group of evangelical Christians may be about to move bigtime into the fight against global warming. They see environmentalism as part of their duty of stewardship of the earth.

If this works, it could be one of the biggest boosts ever to the environmental cause. And it should mess with a lot of people's prejudices--including mine.

It's the #1 most emailed article in the Times today, which means that either I shouldn't bother posting it or -- oh well, why not add my own little link?

Austin Notes: What Decadence!

What do you demand from your grocery store? Do you demand a 1,000-space, four-level parking lot with specially designed escalators that your shopping cart can go on? Do you demand your choice of five separately themed cafes, one for salads, one for meat, one for pasta, one for pizza and charcuterie, and one for seafood with your choice of any fresh catch, your choice of cooking method, and your choice of sauce? How about a four-tiered fountain of liquid chocolate the size of a large wedding cake, into which an artsy young woman continually dips strawberries and cookies. Oh, that doesn’t appeal to you? How about grinding your own nut butter (honey-roasted cashew?) and eating it at an outdoor plaza on any kind of bread you can imagine, from blueberry pecan to hempseed to striata? I think you should also demand a walk-in beer cooler with an attendant in a ski parka, and a glass–fronted meat aging room, and a coffee roasting machine roasting varietal beans from 8 am to 10 pm seven days a week, and a cheese counter where you can taste any of 600 kinds of cheese and get a friendly, well–informed lecture on the rind–washing process or the strains of blue–veining bacteria. Do you demand chipotle–marinated buffalo kebabs, or lime–and–basil–marinated tilapia filets, or a smoked salmon sandwich as big as a softball? If you’re tired of tasting samples of mountain–grown South American papaya preserves (as distinct from mere lowland–grown Central American), do you demand a Putumayo Records listening station decked out as a red London bus? Or perhaps a natural cosmetics section that could swallow up several Body Shops. And of course you must demand a Willy Wonka–style candy factory where the kids can watch their own candy being made before they pop it into their gaping, quivering mouths. Are these among your needs?

Well, they will be, because they’re now at the 80,000–square–foot flagship store of Whole Foods on Sixth and Lamar, which opened March 3 at the base of the company’s future world headquarters building. I went there yesterday for the first time, the crowds having thinned out a little, and I’m as boggled as I expected to be. We’ve long had a flagship Whole Foods branch—plus a bigger, better, friendlier store than that, the HEB chain’s Cental Market—but this new one is the 650–pound sumo wrestler of gourmet supermarkets. It’s got the familiar Whole Foods sanitized ambience and the familiar Whole Foods prices ($7.99 for standard farm–raised catfish filets, $3.99–4.99 at ordinary stores). The parking lot traffic was brisk and well–mannered, and the store aisles were full of tan middle–aged blondes and their manicured husbands carrying baskets in an edenic daze. I didn’t notice that the cash registers were all that busy—I didn’t see any throngs pushing loaded carts out of the store, and I didn’t buy anything myself—but I’m sure that the prices and the café sales will keep the numbers up in the event of low grocery volume.

What it reminds me of is the 1984 Robin Williams movie Moscow on the Hudson, in which a Soviet circus troupe visits Manhattan. All during their journey, their loyal Communist overseer warns them not to succumb to Western decadence. Then they get a special tour of Bloomingdale’s, which opens early just for them. As the doors open, they rush forward in disbelief and wonder, and the Communist overseer pushes ahead of them all, shouting ecstatically, “What decadence!”

(And I haven’t even mentioned the new branch of Half Price Books that just opened in a defunct supermarket building down the road—a gourmet supermarket of used books, with a separate Rare Book room inside, and checkout lines an hour long on opening day last week.)

March 09, 2005

Happy Friendship Week

This week is National Friendship Week and I received the following in an email. I don't think I should blog it -- it's too sappy. Really this is most unlike me... I just want you to know this is not my doing...

True Friend
> A girl asked a guy if he thought she was pretty,
> He
> She asked him if he would want to be with her forever...
> and he said no.
> She then asked him if she were to leave would he cry,
> and once again he replied with a no.
> She had heard enough.
> As she walked away, tears streaming down her face
> The boy grabbed her arm and said....
> You're not pretty you're beautiful.
> I don't want to be with you forever.
> I NEED to be with you forever.
> And I wouldn't cry if you walked away...
> I'd die...
> I like you because of who you are to me...
> A true friend and if I don't get this back I'll take the hint.
> Tonight at midnight your true love will realize they like you.
> Something good will happen to you at 1:00-4:00 PM tomorrow. It could
> be anywhere AOL, yahoo, outside of school, anywhere. Get ready for the

> biggest shock of your
> life. Please send to 15 people in 15 minutes.
> __________________________________________________
> Proud to be your Friend!
> Make sure you read all the way down to the last sentence, and don't
> skip ahead.
> Things I've learned...
> ... life is like a roll of toilet paper.
> The closer it gets to the end, the faster it goes.
> ... we should be glad God doesn't give us everything we ask for
> ...That money doesn't buy class.
> ... it's those small daily happenings that make life so spectacular.
> ... under everyone's hard shell is someone who wants to be appreciated

> and loved.
> ... the Lord didn't do it all in one day. What makes me think I can?
> ... to ignore the facts does not change the facts.
> ... when you plan to get even with someone,
> you are only letting that person continue to hurt you.
> ... love, not time, heals all wounds.
> ... the easiest way for me to grow as a person
> is to surround myself with people smarter than I am.
> ... everyone you meet deserves to be greeted with a smile.
> ... there's nothing sweeter than sleeping with your babies and feeling

> their breath on your cheeks.
> ... no one is perfect until you fall in love with them.
> ... life is tough, but I'm tougher.
> ... opportunities are never lost;
> someone will take the ones you miss.
> ... when you harbor bitterness,
> happiness will dock elsewhere.
> ... I wish I could have told those I cared about
> that I love them one more time before they passed away.
> ... one should keep his words both soft and tender,
> because tomorrow he may have to eat them.
> ... a smile is an inexpensive way to improve your looks.
> ... I can't choose how I feel,
> but I can choose what I do about it.
> ... when your newly born child holds your little finger
> in his little fist, that you're hooked for life.
> ... everyone wants to live on top of the mountain,
> but all the happiness, and growth occurs while you're climbing it.
> ... the less time I have to work, the more things I get done.
> To all of you ... read all the way down to the last sentence. It's
> National Friendship Week. Show your friends how much you care. Send
> this to everyone you consider a FRIEND, even if it means sending it
> back to the person who sent it to you. If it comes back to you, then

> you'll know you have a circle of friends.

Look Out, Sushi!

And forget about it, tapas.

Chaat are coming—Indian street snacks, "'a steeplechase for your mouth,' with different sensations galloping by faster than you can track them." They're the latest craze from Jackson Heights to Jersey City, and have just been transplanted to Manhattan.

Prepare, O America, for the mushroom field of franchises that will be springing up along your interstates by about 2006.

I can just imagine the names. Mumbai's. Vishnu's. The Chaat House. Bombay Frankie's. The Delhi.

Breakfast Discoveries

pop bottle fish tank—
the boy’s interest fades when the
guppies start dying

pancakes with syrup—
I’m ready for the day’s load—
don’t make it too sweet!

“Hi, Dad.”
How long that’s been
my name!
And this numb
it fills the

March 08, 2005

Austin Notes: A Spring Miscellany

1. Overheard in an outdoor café: “Austin’s the only town where people sit around talking about how great the town is and how lucky they are to live there.”

Sorry, Bubba. In Portland people say, “Portland’s the only town…” In Seattle people say, “Seattle’s the only town…” In Vancouver people say, “Vancouver’s the only town…” Etc etc etc. Even in Asheville NC they probably say it. Not to mention Ithaca.

2. You know how panhandlers stand at intersections with brown cardboard signs? “Dreaming of a Cheeseburger.” “Anything Will Help Have a Nice Day God Bless You.” Even one burly, cleancut, able–bodied–looking Mexican guy, stoically glowering, whose sign in big block capitals says bluntly, “I NEED HELP.”

Well, here’s a guy at Lamar and 12th holding a cardboard sign that’s blank. He’s staggering and reeling back and forth with a grin only he understands, zooming the brown rectangle forward into drivers’ faces, turning it upside down, dancing with it like a ballroom partner, facing it toward him and pretending to read it with a “Eureka!” look. Winking and waving to the drivers stopped at the light. I hope someone gives him some money, but it ain’t gonna be me.

(In fact, I’ve long suspected that these guys with the cardboard signs are organized. I imagine a black limousine dropping them off every sunrise and picking them up at night, taking a cut of the money. Otherwise how do they get to all their farflung street corners, and how do they arrange how to distribute themselves through the city, and where do they get the cardboard and the markers?)

3. The bicycle cops are wearing shorts. This one shows a tattooed calf as he tickets a cigarette–smoking trophy wife high up in a Hummer.

4. I’ve been paying attention to the bumper stickers, and I’m completely appalled at the number of them that say, “If you aren’t completely appalled, then you haven’t been paying attention.” Four in one day.

March 07, 2005

Talking About Women

“…always telling us they want us to express our feelings? Don’t believe it, dude. Only two feelings they want to hear us express: one, how much we love them, two, how right they are about everything. Try to express anything else to them, they don’t want to hear it. Be sleeping on the couch. Ever hear two of them talking when one’s got a problem? Honest with each other? All they ever do is say, ‘Oh, you’re right, you’re right, you’re so wonderful …’ No wonder they don’t get anywhere. They got a problem, they don’t want to hear how to solve it. They just want to hear how perfect they are and it’s everybody else’s fault. Dude, you can’t solve a problem that way. You gotta face reality, and they don’t want to come anywhere near it.”

She enters the room. “Hi, what are you guys talking about?”

“About you. How great you are, how much I love you.”

“You were not. Cut it out.”

“He was,” the friend says. “He can’t live without you. I know him.”

She comes up and kisses her guy.

“Sweet,” the friend says. “Dude, you are lucky.”

When she’s gone, they sneak a quiet high five.

March 06, 2005

Stop Me from Metablogging!

Meta blogging--blogging about blogging--is dead, says gapingvoid.


(Via Good and Happy)

The Country Without Ruins

We like to visit countries that have ruins. Mexico and Guatemala have Mayan ruins and the Andean nations have Inca ruins. Italy has Roman ruins and so do England and Morocco and Tunisia and Spain—those Romans put ruins everywhere. Greece has Greek ruins. Israel and Egypt have ruins. China has ruins, India and Thailand have ruins. Some countries have more than one kind of ruin—for example, England also has ancient British ruins, and I’ve read that until very recently there were even some vacant lots and melted railings left from the blitz.

This year we want to travel to Costa Rica. It has everything: swimming, snorkeling, rain forest, dolphins, fish, monkeys, a nice little city, lovely weather, pleasant people, low cost of living, democratic government, and peace. It doesn’t have any ruins, though. No conqueror has ever razed Costa Rica. No horde has ever swept through it, burning and pillaging. Drought or plague have never caused its people to flee, leaving their homes and temples to rot. It’s too bad, because we like to see ruins.

Slavery Today

The West African nation of Niger has cancelled at the last minute a ceremony that would have freed "at least 7,000 slaves," according to the BBC News World Edition. There are an estimated 43,000 or more slaves in Niger. A new law punishes slaveowners with up to 30 years in jail, hence the planned local ceremony in a place called In Ates near the Mail border. Slavery in Niger was offiocially banned in 2003, under international pressure.

The national government co-sponsored the ceremony. However, a spokesman for the government's human rights organization said that the ceremony was cancelled because slavery does not exist in Niger.

Slaves in Niger are subject to rape, torture, and abuse, according to the BBC. Male slaves work in the fields or tend cattle; female slaves perform domestic duties.

Via blogdex.

A search of the New York Times archive finds nothing relevant in the past eight years.

March 05, 2005

The Best Blade

A man loaded a new blade onto his razor and upon starting to shave, found that it was sharper than any blade he had used for a long time. His average blade lasted four or five shaves; this one promised to last ten, fifteen, or even more.

Immediately after finishing the first shave, he threw the blade in the garbage.

On being asked why, he explained, “No matter how many shaves I got with this blade, I would still have to throw it out eventually. And afterwards, every time I shaved with another blade, I’d remember this one and think that the new blade couldn’t compare to it, and I’d wish I had this blade back and I’d know I never could, and each time I loaded a new blade I’d feel a quickening of hope followed by a lasting disappointment. I’d feel my face after shaving and think about how much smoother it would have felt with this blade. I know this was a great blade, and I honor it. But better to get rid of it before it causes all that trouble.”

March 04, 2005

Stop Him Before He Invents Again

What if, when you picked up a book in a bookstore, your cell phone rang with a message containing your friends' opinions of the book?

What if, when you shook hands with a stranger at a party, sensory devices told both of you about your shared interests, likes, and dislikes?

It's on its way, folks. It's Ambient Semantics, currfently being developed by MIT Media Lab grad student Hugo Liu and wittily torn to shreds on Language Log, an erudite and entertaining blog about linguistics and related fields.

I Just Got My Poetic License

Old poet: “Plangent,
luminous, susurration

Why can’t I get it?”

seventeen pigeons
wheeling up, left, right, down, back—
bearing my message

while I’m counting syl—
while I’m counting syllables—
the whole world goes by

March 03, 2005

Protest Against Immigrant Hunt Succeeds

At the risk of becoming repetitious, I think this is worth noting, from the Austin American–Statesman:

Protesters confront UT conservative group
Mock roundup of illegal immigrants doesn't materialize

Protesters gathered at the UT West Mall to protest a planned mock roundup of illegal immigrants held by the Young Conservatives of Texas UT Chapter Wednesday. The roundup did not take place. A similar event was held last month at the University of North Texas. YCT said that the demonstration was intended to call attention to the problems of illegal immigration and not an attack on race.

Some 250 to 300 people, including University of Texas freshman Ryan Miller, 18, protested what they had heard were plans by UT's Young Conservatives of Texas to hold a mock roundup of illegal immigrants similar to one staged at the University of North Texas. The UT chapter said it never had planned such a demonstration. Protesters said they still wanted to show their outrage at the North Texas chapter's event.

You can find a fuller article here, including comments by conservative student leaders.

And a video from the American-Statesman here.

An observer, admittedly not impartial, says in an email that the protest crowd was larger, "at least 500."

The Quick 'N Easy Route to Poetry

two birds on one rock—
one pond, one sun, one walker
looking for someone

singing to blossoms—
cutleaf daisy, meadow pink—
and they’re singing back

unlit beauty shop—
I peek into the window—
two people inside!

rain shaking the trees—
inside, we’re reading about
how to live longer

Well, I’m no poet.
A haiku is my limit.
How many syllables?

March 02, 2005

Immigrant Hunt: Followup

The facts are blurred and the tracks seem to have been covered up, but here is my provisional interpretation. Others may disagree, and more information may still surface.

It is established fact that an “illegal immigrant hunt” was staged by the Denton branch of the YCT at the North Texas U. campus in January. To my knowledge, other branches of the YCT did not express disapproval of the North Texas hunt.

The Austin branch has denied scheduling a hunt on the UT campus, but their statements to the press and on the Internet have been notably lacking in forthright information and in repudiations of the idea of such a hunt. They have not shown any understanding of the unspeakable grotesquerie of the Denton event.

At least one commenter on a YCT forum has said that the Austin hunt had been listed on a YCT schedule of events and had then been deleted. See this link. (Thanks to my commenter Susan E. for the link.)

The YCT may have preserved deniability in the viewpoint of its supporters, but not in that of reasonable onlookers. The Denton branch let its guard slip, and although the Austin branch lifted its guard at the last minute, the real question is what is behind that guard.

These young people have not learned that those who are different from them, those who are of other colors or from other countries, those who are poor and desperate, those who are on the other side of a conflict, are as fully human as they are and are not to be “hunted” as if they were less so. This cognitive error is responsible for much of the evil that human beings have inflicted on each other throughout history.

It seems to me that some opponents of the hunt prematurely accepted the claim that the rumor was a hoax. If indeed it was a hoax, who would have initiated it? It is illogical to suppose that the opponents of the hunt were the ones perpetrating the hoax. If they perpetrated the hoax, that would imply that they knew the hunt was not going to take place. Why would a group of organizations join together to stage a protest against an event they knew was not going to take place? They would have nothing to gain, and they would inevitably be unmasked. So if there was a hoax, the opponents of the hunt were its victims as well as, presumably, the YCT.

Lest anyone think that this is too much attention paid to some adolescent foolishness in an out-of-the-way place, remember that Karl Rove started that way.

Austin Notes: Students Hunt Immigrants

Austin readers heading toward campus this morning may want to avoid the West Mall—or make a beeline for it, depending on their reaction to displays of barbarism and bigotry. Members of the Young Conservatives of Texas will be staging a simulated “Immigrant Hunt” there between the hours of 11:00 and 1:00. The enterprising students will be wearing color–coded shirts branding them as various kinds of immigrants: brown for Latinos, yellow for Asians, and so forth. Rewards will be offered to those who catch these make–believe specimens of the most dangerous game.

The YCT held a similar hunt recently at North Texas University.

A counter–demonstration will of course be launched, with students from a coalition of organizations “linking hands in silent protest,” holding up signs, and being “vocal,” according to the email I received.

Judging from the photos on the YCT site the valiant young hunters should welcome the protest, since it will give them the illusion of a) a turnout, and b) importance.

If you have ever wondered how people can proudly circulate photos of themselves abusing prisoners or performing other shameful acts, take a look—here they are in training.


As of 7:15 am the YCT was backing off from the hunt and declaring that they were holding a Texas Independence Day celebration instead. (Oh, so that's why they scheduled the hunt for today. I suppose none of these boys' Texas ancestors ever came from anywhere else.)

I've been told that the link to the YCT photo page doesn't work. Here is the overall link to the YCT site at You can go from there to the specific page at Who knows, maybe they've already scrambled to take that page down. There's a lovely photo of a pudgy, meanly squinty-smiling white college boy wearing an orange tee shirt with the slogan "Illegal Immigrant."


The Austin branch of the YCT claims they never scheduled an immigrant hunt, and that the shameful event was solely the work of the Denton (i.e. North Texas U.) branch. They are calling the rumor of the Austin immigrant hunt a hoax and assailing their opposition for not checking more thoroughly before writing about it. Whatever the Austin situation, I am currently looking at a YCT page that proudly proclaims "Denton, Texas -- January 26, 2005 -- Capture an Illegal Immigrant Day," with accompanying photos. If the Austin branch is dissociating itself from that disgrace, they're showing good sense.

Here are a couple of interesting links to bloggers who checked on the Austin situation more thoroughly than I did:


roman candles


I have now, I hope, repaired problems with the above two links as well as the earlier link to the YCT Immigrant hunt page. Sorry.

March 01, 2005

My Secret Vice

Doctor, you’re the first one I’ve ever told this. When I’m alone I sometimes—I like to—I like to read conservative blogs. Not the really way–out ones, of course—just softcore.

Perverse, I know. Why do I do it? Well, I guess I’ve always been a contrarian. I enjoy doing the opposite of what people want or expect me to do. And I like to hang around with people who are different from me. If I want to know the thoughts of someone like me, I’ll write them myself. (“When I have the urge to read a good book, I write one” – Disraeli.)

Also, it pains me more to read the fatuities of people I could be mistaken for than of those I couldn’t. So I like to hang out on the other side of the street once in a while. Doesn’t that make me heteroblogual?

If you want the full confession, here are the conservatives I’ve been indulging in lately:

Peggy Noonan. Until January 20 she was just a name to me, a notorious speechwriter for the other side. But on Inauguration Day she wrote a column crying out “Whoa!” to the more messianic aspects of Bush’s speech. A person in a highly visible position with an independent mind! A rare and valuable thing in America today. Since then I’ve agreed with her views on Hunter Thompson and some other topics. Her column appears online in the Wall Street Journal every Thursday.

Sisu. An art lover and cat lover whose blog shows both interests prominently. A visually attractive layout with lots of well-chosen and varied photographs, recently including a drawing of a duck, a 1960s movie poster, a graph of a social network, a pile of National Geographics, and a fresco of St. Jerome in his study. Lots of good links from this site, too. Recent posts draw justifiable attention to things going the way of the Bush administration, but she has a tendency, in my view, to view politics too much as an our-team-versus-their-team contest. Sisu, it’s not high school football, it’s the fate of our planet!

Hog on Ice. This southern lawyer and Columbia University graduate has perfected a genially disputatious good-ol’-boy persona. Posts about his BBQ smoker, his dry rub, and his fry batter are interspersed among perceptive comments on politics, race, etc. His opinions on Hunter Thompson’s suicide were the most forceful and right-on I’ve read. Reading him is like being invited for a ride by the owner of the biggest motorboat on the lake, who affably hands you beer after beer as he weaves one-handed among the smaller boats, rocking them with his wake. He’s highly intelligent, witty, and glib, and will doubtless never succumb to excessive self-questioning.

G as in Good H as in Happy. The proprietor of this site writes under the nom de blog of Dilys. She was the first blogger not personally known to me who took up my site as a favorite, and she has remained one of mine ever since for reasons that go well beyond mutual backscratching. Of all the blogs I regularly consult, hers is the one I count on for the highest percentage of intriguing links that I would not have found elsewhere. She’s an impressively well-read lawyer, life coach, and marketing maven, and recently she’s linked on Georg Cantor’s Law of the Conservation of Ignorance; how marketing messages show up in brain imaging; exorcism and the archangel Michael; ringtones; the reconvening of the Sanhedrin after 1,600 years; and an antifeminist essay by an obscure Swedish clergyman. Dilys, whose religious affiliation I’m not sure of (and I gather neither is she), champions what I affectionately think of as Anglican virtues: decency, civility, a love of British and Celtic landscapes and culture, a calmly cheerful belief in the improvement of humankind, and a quietly puckish sense of humor. Her interests are probably too esoteric to make her blog widely popular, but that makes it just right for me.

Althouse. Many readers consider her a conservative but she claims to be an independent, above labels. I doubted that during the election and the inaugural season, but her recent posts include praise of Hillary Clinton, so I’m starting to take her at her word. In her year of blogging she has mastered an appealing voice and has gained the marketing savvy to make her blog one of the most deservedly popular and respected in her niche, which combines the political, the legal, and the diaristic. Her continuing generosity toward me from when I first began thinking of blogging has earned my lasting gratitude. Perhaps the most unpredictable thing in our long and checkered association has been that we’ve ended up as firm webfriends. (Perhaps one day we’ll finally meet in real life.) Ann has one of the two keenest logical minds I’ve ever known personally, the other being our elder son who is now in his first year of law school. When other commentators try to take her on, I just laugh. You do not want to argue with this woman, you will lose. Take it from the horse’s mouth—I argued with her for seventeen years.

So Doctor, tell me the truth—am I sick?

Austin Notes: Rear Ends

1. A generation–old Toyota Corolla in metallic chartreuse, with a bashed-in trunk whose dents look ripened with age—in the middle of the biggest dent, the bumper sticker MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU.

2. Vanity license plate: PS 105. Holy Pelham Parkway, Batman, I went to PS 105, Bronx, about a hundred years ago! Is there someone commuting on Lamar who may have had Mrs. Martinson or Mrs. Eakley for teachers? Anyone with knowledge of this matter, please inform this site.