April 30, 2005

The Blogfast

I went on a blogfast yesterday. Early in the morning I posted something I'd had in reserve for a while, and then I didn't read a single blog all day.

Why? Partly it was that I myself didn't have that much to say -- I was on the down side of one of those cycles that many of us must ride through, the creative thought cycle. My batteries need charging. I need to go outside, walk around, talk to people, eavesdrop, exercise my body, in order to find the next story, the next observation.

Perhaps even more, I've been spending so much time blogging lately -- not just writing my own posts, but reading others', commenting on their blogs, reading and responding to the comments on mine -- that I felt I was in danger of throwing away half of every work day, squeezing out the time when I needed to be taking the kids to soccer practice, attending International Fest at their school, making dinner, talking to my wife -- not to mention earning my living, which I do through the same physical process that I blog. (Every dollar I've earned as an adult has come from writing, except for one semester of teaching fiction writing at the University of Wisconsin and one mid-four-figure government grant. I mean not from being a writer -- no reading fees, no honoraria -- but from physically writing words or, at a few fortunate moments, earning royalties from books published.)

So, what was the result of my fast? Did it cleanse me, make me feel renewed and reawakened as fasts are supposed to?

Not on your life. I felt disconnected, out of touch, and a day behind the times. I missed you all.

And for some reason, some of the best personal bloggers I know chose that day -- or the previous day or two, when perhaps I'd been looking elsewhere in my reading rotation -- to write some of their best posts, going long and deep.

Tamar has been writing about the importance of strangers in boosting her through bad times, and about the importance of writing in her life -- and just today, coincidentally, about what to write on a "Nothing to Say Day."

True Ancestor has been writing about an uncle who died before he was born, and who remains eternally in his family's memory.

Danny Miller has been writing about coming to terms with his apparent need to feel bad in order to psyche himself up to do well -- in Jungian terms, it's about his struggle to incorporate his shadow into his psyche. Something I identify with and have also struggled with, as has True Ancestor, appparently.

All of it profoundly human, psychologically resonant, intelligently written.

And course, there's the usual catching-up I need to do with Dancing on Fly Ash and Ecks. Microscifi, micromacabre, microsurrealism, sometimes even microrealism -- entertaining, skillful, meaningful, new.

Not to mention the political blogs, the newsy blogs, the diaristic blogs, the scientific blogs, the legal blogs, the artsy blogs, the poetic blogs, and all the blogs I haven't discovered yet.

How could I have wanted to miss it? I'm so glad it's all -- you're all -- here.

I want to grow blogfat.

The Humor Taxonomy Gene

When Agent 81 was nine or ten years old, he discovered the Marx Brothers and became obsessed with them, watching their movies over and over, pretty much memorizing the screenplays. Not a comedian himself (though a gifted comic actor), as a teenager he began an intellectual inquiry into the sources and meaning of humor. With a couple of his friends – who have since gone on to become admirably–placed comedy writers – he drafted and refined a typology of jokes: an authoritative list of twenty–odd reasons something can be funny. Later in their educations, they found some of their explanations duplicated in classic writings on the philosophy and psychology of humor.

Yesterday his half–brother Agent 95 told me this joke:

“What do you call an abominable snowman who’s inside a block of ice?”

“I don’t know, what?”


I laughed. And then he elucidated: “That’s one of my favorite kinds of jokes. The punch line is so obvious it’s funny. It’s the same principle as ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’”

I looked at him carefully, and thoughtfully nodded.

April 29, 2005

Slack Time

Some workplace haiku for your Friday:

slow day at doctor’s
office—nurse and desk girl trade
salsa recipes

teacher’s handwriting:
she even makes two peaks in
the lower–case r

he’s a mean parent
but a friendly crossing guard—
we wave good morning

parking lot guy slides
his window open, spits out,
answers her question

counter help: three guys
chatting, ignoring their sole,
meek, mute customer

It’s hard work! Sitting
jotting café eavesdroppings
for no future book

April 28, 2005

I Couldn't Have Said It Better

I have a professional’s arrogance about my skill with words, and I’m ready to feel envy -- as well as admiration -- when faced with evidence that someone might be better at it than I am. (For an example, see the quotes from Mark Helprin in this recent AmbivaBlog post.) One of the healthy, surprising things the blogosphere has done for me has been to immunize me against the envy. There are too many skillful, insightful writers out there, sharing their thoughts freely without material reward, for me to have time anymore for that debilitating emotion. Good writing, like consciousness, is all around me, not just inside my head.

Since I have nothing special of my own to say this morning, I thought I might point you toward some examples of blog posts (and comments, too) that have made me think, “I couldn’t have said that particular thing any better than this writer has said it.” I haven’t ranged out of my way to find them – they’re all from people I read regularly – but that goes to show how much talent exists even in one tiny corner of the blogosphere.

Alicia Bourassa, at Behind Glass, has a wonderful story in 19 tiny chapters about the soul–making of an artist from childhood to maturity: HOW TO BE A SENSITIVE, TRAGICALLY MISUNDERSTOOD, POETRY-WRITING WOMAN-CHILD. I think this is a beautiful piece of work. Alicia says that unlike the pieces she struggles over, she just tossed this one off and wasn’t sure of it. That’s a sign of true inspiration.

Stepping Stone, a young schoolteacher from Amba’s family, has a funny and empathetic vignette about the Chicago water stain that was recently adored as a manifestation of the Virgin Mary: OUR LADY OF THE UNDERPASS.

In our British contingent, Jean at This Too writes a loving and lovely memoir of a healing vacation on a French dairy farm: LA LAITIERE.

One of my earliest and most frequent commenters was Jeffrey Hull, who put a series of well–crafted traditional poems on my posts. His poems can now be found on his self–named blog. One of my favorites among them is THE BEES. I think it’s a nearly perfect descriptive poem in an unabashedly old–fashioned style. It reminds me of Emerson’s statement, “Beauty is its own excuse for being.”

A new frequent commenter, Simon Kenton, put two comments on a recent post of mine about a toad: one in prose and one in verse. I want to call particular attention to the prose comment, a first–rate piece of nature writing in a highly compressed form. Scroll down to the comment beginning, “The little red–spotted toad (Bufo punctatus)...”

Nappy Forty, who used to be secretive, has decided from some inner or outer prompting to list 100 things about herself, counting down from 100. When she reached the 70s something funny happened: a list of personal traits turned into a numbered rant about a ruined duck dinner. Form and content work together perfectly here to create social comedy. And although SATURDAY NIGHT has the feel of a found poem, the fact that it’s been consciously crafted is shown by her remark (in the comments) that the dinner in reality wasn’t that bad.

Amba, at AmbivaBlog, is the ringer in the group: she’s a pro from way back. But what the heck, she’s a blogger too, and I get enormous pleasure and instruction from her posts on everything from how acupuncture works to what the latest photos from space look like. I especially admire her gift for metaphor. In TOO FAST, notice how many metaphors and similes she uses to describe the budding of trees in New York’s Washington Square Park. Every one of them is fresh and striking; every one of them adds meaning. Like most good descriptions, this one says as much about the describer as about the thing described.

Last but not least, there’s Althouse. I keep wondering how Ann got to be such a good writer. It certainly wasn’t any of my doing, except maybe as an inner antagonist, a nemesis to be overcome. Her writing isn’t “literary,” it combines the best qualities of a breezily serious newspaper column and of a superb professor’s classroom talk. Wit, ranging from the girlishly faux–flighty to the scalpel–keen, and intellectual rigor are blended perfectly as Ann strives to drag the blogosphere kicking and screaming into the realm of reason. I think she’s at her best when mocking the pretensions of pundits, celebrities, and mighty, or wannabe-mighty, institutions. In THE "RIGHT" TO CHANGE THE PLEDGE?, her thinking takes the form of a reverie about a Socratic classroom dialogue – a law professor’s reverie if there ever was one.

I hope you enjoy reading these! As with everything I do, there’s nothing systematic about the list I could have found a lot more, these are just the ones I happened to think of. For more well–written blog posts, check out Carnival of the Vanities #136, currently up at John C. A. Bambanek’s site. My post SLIDING DOOR MOMENTS: THE DEAD ON THE CORNER is there among many others, but you’ve already read that, haven’t you?

April 27, 2005

Matzoh Sandwich, World's Fair 1965

In 1964 and 1965 the World’s Fair was in New York. For kids in junior high school, taking the subway from the Bronx down to Manhattan and then across to Queens to see the General Motors and Ford and GE pavilions with their wholesome, button–down visions of the future – when we’d all be eating rehydrated meals and commanding positronic robots who did our household tasks – was a perfect day trip during Easter vacation. An early adventure in dependence, negotiating an unfamiliar, hour–plus subway ride at age twelve or thirteen, with a little spending money in our pockets and no adult telling us we couldn’t see the same exhibit twice.

Easter was also Passover, so there was the question of what to do about lunch. I came from a nonreligious background but a traditional social set. We didn’t keep kosher, but we observed the basic ceremonies because everyone around us did: matzoh on Passover, bar mitzvahs at age thirteen. My mother made me a brown bag lunch, partly because the sandwiches sold at the fair would be on leavened bread, but also because we didn’t have much money. She made me two delicious–looking sandwiches — on matzoh.

(By the way, in order to appreciate this story you have to accept the fact that, unlike most Americans, I was raised eating liver and love it. It’s my favorite food to this day. Especially chopped liver. As a puny, undersized kid, one of the few foods I could be counted on to gobble down heartily was a chopped liver sandwich. To see me through a long day’s travel – and for the sheer treat of having my favorite delicacy -- my mother lovingly packed me two.)

But the idea of eating sandwiches on matzoh in full public view made me writhe inwardly. All the crowds around me would be eating regular food, hamburgers on buns, bread sandwiches, while I’d be sitting in shame with a pseudosandwich made of hard, brittle cracker. They’d see it and they’d know. It would be like wearing a yellow star.

Even my two companions had been granted dispensation from Passover restrictions for the more joyous holiday of the World’s Fair. One of them had blithely brought a sandwich on bread. The other, whose family was a good deal more “religious” than mine, had been slipped a couple of dollars for lunch — tacitly, not a matzoh lunch.

All morning I carried the brown bag in my sweaty hands, sitting on the subway and walking around the fairgrounds. I could smell the pungent, oniony chopped liver inside. My mouth was watering, craving B vitamins and iron.

Then lunchtime came. We sped our walk toward an outdoor cafe where my friend with lunch money had decided to buy a couple of slices of tantalizingly normal, not–kosher–for–Passover pizza.

Walking fast toward that oasis, I stopped and looked into the bag. I knew what was in there, all too well. Two big, beautiful portions of chopped liver — between slabs of embarrassing matzoh. But how could I be the only person eating matzoh on the whole terrace of happy pizza–and–burger lovers?

Trotting up the small flight of terrace steps to catch up to my friends, I tossed the brown bag into a trash can.

“What happened to your lunch? You gonna buy something?”

I shrugged. “Nah, I’m not hungry.” I had money for exhibits, not for lunch.

Immediately, I had half–regretted throwing my lunch away. My mother had made it for me, my favorite food. It was like throwing away a favorite record album or an autographed baseball. A self–deprivation like refusing a free movie ticket or an ice cream soda. But I wasn’t about to be seen in public eating that weird ghetto food, that stingy bread of the oppressed. My stomach growled for the rest of the long day as I subsisted on cola and water.

I’ve never told anyone about it till today.

April 26, 2005

The Nicest Things Anyone Has Ever Said to Me

This is going to be so blatantly fishing for compliments that I have to apologize in advance.

I have a t-shirt, white with a cartoon drawn in sparse black lines: a picture of a road forking in the desert. The signpost pointing one way says, “Writers.” The signpost pointing in the other direction says, “Fun Times.”

I hardly ever wear it because I feel embarrassed wearing a shirt that says I’m a writer. When I first bought it – probably more than fifteen years ago – I wore it to a writers’ party in Madison where a lot of my friends were present. They all laughed appreciatively and asked where I got it. (I bought it in Minneapolis, at a store on Fourth Street in Dinkytown – Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street.” BTW this is the third time I’ve mentioned Dylan online this morning.) I think every one of us felt that the cartoon said something accurate about himself or herself – though not necessarily about our friends.

Yesterday afternoon I wore it and one of my sons, Agent 95, who can’t leave any printed item unread – especially a cartoon – read it and pondered. “Why are writers and fun times pointing in the opposite direction?”

I tactfully explained to him something about the stereotypical view of writers.

And he said, “Well, they obviously weren’t thinking of you when they wrote that.”

I was thunderstruck. People have said many nice things to me in my lifetime, but no one had ever accused me of being a fun guy before. I asked him if he meant it or if he was being ironic. With youthful insouciance he assured me he meant it, and then he went back to brushing his hair.

I kissed him on the head and went to another room to brood about it.

It reminded me – as things often do – of something that happened to me in an earlier life. I was at the playground in Madison with Agent 81. He must have been seven, or maybe a little younger. It was a modern playground with wood plank equipment and wood chips on the ground. Lots of things to test kids’ balance: a balance beam on springs, an arched plank bridge that shook when you walked on it.

Bouncing forward and back on the bridge, for some reason he started asking me about the afterlife. We had recently seen a rainbow – maybe that’s what set him thinking -- and indeed, as I watched him cross the arched bridge, it began to look like a rainbow to me.

I gave him the usual fumbling set of adult alternatives. Some people think there’s a heaven, some people think you come back in a different form, some people think you become part of the universe…

And he said, “I hope there’s a heaven, because then we can play together forever.”

I hope so too, Johnny.

April 25, 2005

Relatively Relativistic

So far on this blog I’ve made little effort to define myself politically. And in real life I don’t either. That’s because my political thinking is situational. I don’t align myself with one side in the debate and then adopt that side’s position on issue after issue. When I decide where I stand on an issue, I want to have thought it out on my own. That would take an immense amount of time if I felt duty-bound to take a position on every issue – there’s an understandable pragmatic reason for choosing Column A or Column B every time. But I don’t feel obliged to weigh in on most issues, because I’m not primarily a political being. I’m more interested in art and literature.

If I have any political axiom, it’s that no ideology has a monopoly on being right. (Other axioms would be a belief in individual freedom and in social fairness.) Even if I think that the best answer is to be found fifteen degrees left of center most of the time, I’m happy to admit that in some cases the best answer might be found twenty degree right of center. And the cases where my expectations are reversed might well be cases of particular importance where my usual perceptions and attitudes are overthrown by external events.

So, while I might not want Winston Churchill determining ordinary social policy for the world, I’m extremely grateful that he was in charge during the extraordinary crisis of 1940. While I, as a non-Catholic, did not agree with John Paul II on many matters of ordinary policy, I’m glad he was there to do the extraordinary job of helping topple the Soviet empire. As Ecclesiastes might have said, there’s a time to be liberal and a time to be conservative.

This in itself is a relativistic position and thus might be perceived as left of center. But to me it seems like common sense, and I don’t know why most people on both sides of the spectrum don’t think this way.

Relativism has been much talked about lately because of the words of Pope Benedict XVI. I greatly respect what I’ve heard from the new pope so far. He is defending Western civilization, a civilization I love and I find worth defending. But I’m also concerned that relativism is turning into the new anti-intellectual, anti-progressive code word. I’ve been asking myself to what extent I’m a relativist.

It turns out that I’m relatively relativistic, not absolutely relativistic. In the normal course of things, I’m eager to consider all points of view and welcome input from all cultures and groups. I support affirmative action even though it doesn’t serve my self–interest and may at times have worked against me. By temperament I prefer a diverse world. Although I go to a medical doctor, I’m open-minded enough to have tried acupuncture. You get the idea.

Where does my relativism stop? It stops at the absolute necessity of defending our civilization’s survival. Thus I supported the war in Afghanistan and was impatient with those who thought that this country had no right to shoot back against its real enemies. I opposed the war in Iraq because I did not feel that Saddam’s regime, however odious, represented an imminent threat against us.

I’m disgusted by those on the left whose cultural relativism consists of an absolute disapproval of the United States: those who gleefully point up every historical misdeed of this country while excusing the misdeeds of other countries as being results of different cultural values. Those who make cushy livings in the United States by vilifying the United States, biting the hand that feeds them. They belie their own claims to relativism. The historical misdeeds need to be brought up, faced honestly, and used as incentives to avoid similar wrongs in the future. But people who act as if the most important thing about George Washington was that he was a slaveowner are simply obtuse.

This issue is important today because Western civilization really is under an imminent threat, perhaps more in Europe than in this country. Islamic militants understand this and European leftists do not. In Holland and France recently the peace–loving liberal public has received some big shocks: the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh for making a film critical of Islam, and a number of violent attacks on French students by Muslim gangs shouting racial epithets. Such incidents have galvanized the right and split the left in those countries. The backlash does not promise to be edifying or thoughtful. The conflict is bound to increase.

The Islamicization of Europe is a real threat for the next generation. It shows an intent to take revenge not only for the Crusades but for the Battle of Tours. Meanwhile, relativist leftists are starting to look more and more like their liberal, well–bred counterparts in Chekhov’s plays: sitting around chatting amusingly about their own helplessness and the need to reform society. They don’t dare stand up in their own defense because it’s not the attractive thing to do.

No society, whether privileged or not, has an obligation to comply in its own demise. Liberalism does not mean permitting others to try to destroy you.

If I’m only relatively relativistic, then, does that actually make me more relativistic than the absolute relativists? Who knows? I’m not into solving paradoxes. I live comfortably with them.

But it means I’ll never be fully acceptable to the left. I saw an example of this about a decade ago when I was living in the doctrinairely leftist environment of Madison, Wisconsin. I had a friend who was a leftist activist – a nice, mild–mannered guy, and we had a lot of interests in common. He was going through a divorce, and I’d gone through one a few years earlier and could talk to him about it. We were at a social gathering one evening and there was some Indonesian gamelan music on the stereo. I like Indonesian gamelan music and had just enjoyed a concert of it at the university. So we were talking about how nice the music on the stereo was.

This gave my friend an opportunity to make a multiculturalist point. “How come Mozart is so much better known than Indonesian gamelan music?”

“Maybe because Mozart wrote better music?” I asked.

He looked at me with utter horror, as if the mask had been peeled from my face. “Better music?”

I had said the impermissible. And though the discussion ended there, after that evening he and I never got together socially again.

But you know, much as I can enjoy Indonesian gamelan music, Mozart is better. Tastes can vary. I may like Rembrandt and you may like Titian. But anyone who thinks Jeff Koons is an equally great artist is simply a fool.

April 24, 2005

Does God Want Me to Post Photos?

Walking in my neighborhood yesterday I saw something to which words can’t do justice. You just had to see it:

The flattened, desiccated body of a toad standing on its head in the middle of the street.

Dark brown with light brown spots. About four inches from snout to toes. About as thick as a sheet of cardboard. Its feet spread open like hands blessing me, and fluttering slightly in the mild breeze.

Holy Cartier-Bresson, I thought. If I had a camera with me I’d put this on my blog.

It must be a sign, I thought. Finally, after all these years of patient waiting, I’m getting a sign from God, and it’s that He wants me to put photos on my blog. I’d better give this due consideration. Maybe if it’s still there the next time I walk past, I’ll hurry to the house and borrow her camera.

Considering, I continued on my walk. When I looped back and returned to the toadsite, the toad was lying flat on the asphalt, just an ordinary run–over toad. I had missed my divine appointment.

But as I was squatting down to examine the toad, it occurred to me: This thing is ugly, dude! What kind of deity would use an ugly, squashed, inverted corpse as a sign? What if – what if it was a sign all right, but not from God at all? What if it was the other power tempting me, impersonating the good?

It was the devil, Satan himself, who had been tempting me to post photos on my blog!! The clue was the materials he had used. With no access to the beautiful, he had been forced to fall back on a parody made of the meretricious, ostentatious, and squalid.

Thankful to have saved myself once again, in the nick of time, through the use of human reason, I continued on my walk.

April 22, 2005

Elementary Morning

Walking to school this morning, certain fourth–graders are wearing pajamas and carrying blankets and stuffed animals. It’s Pajama Day: they’ll sit in a circle on the floor, have milk and cookies, and read aloud from their favorite books.

Yesterday was Game Day. You could see kids leaving school carrying sets of Monopoly and other board games they’d brought in to share.

The day before was Movie Day. They watched THE INCREDIBLES.

Ah, the cuddliness of the contemporary elementary school! The kids sit chatting at big tables and wander among the different learning areas – “centers” – of the room. When my fourth–grader is finished with an assignment, he’s allowed to open a book for recreational reading.

In my elementary school we sat at individual desks that were bolted to the floor in six rows of six. If we laughed or talked, we risked being sent to the corner – which we didn’t mind so much, because it was a way of getting out of our seats.

But on the other hand, we didn’t have to take fourteen standardized tests in one year as my fourth–grader is doing. That’s the reason for Pajama Day and Game Day: they’re rewards, recovery strategies, for having gotten through a big week of state standardized tests in reading, writing, and math,

Fourteen is not unusual nowadays. Our school is moderately well–rated, so it doesn’t have to monitor the kids’ progress with extra tests.

Of course, with all that time spent on taking tests, preparing tests, and recovering from tests, who’s got time for lessons anymore? No wonder there’s a nationwide rebellion, which has reached the stage of teachers’ unions and local school districts suing the federal government over unreasonable, unfunded accountability requirements. (My wife, who’s an educator, testified about this recently before the Austin school board.) And there’s an increasing movement among the students themselves to boycott the tests. (It’s perfectly legal.) Our fourth–grader was quite interested to heard about this concept, but then we asked him if, as the price of missing the test, he would be willing to miss THE INCREDIBLES.

Anyway, it’s Friday and the testing is over for this week. The principal, a short, frizzy–haired woman in jeans, is speaking intently to a parent in the hallway. Signs announce the impending visit of a children’s book author. A smiling father who is also a candidate for City Council is walking around with an armful of leaflets. He’s tall and trim and neatly groomed – silver hair and a blue pinstriped oxford shirt and a campaign button – I suspect him of being a Republican, though the information is not provided. Outside, his parked minivan is covered with stickers reminding him of his own name. I’ve often seen him asking other parents for their votes, but he’s never given me his spiel. It must be the DEFEND AMERICA – DEFEAT BUSH bumper sticker that my fourth–grader wears on his backpack.

Just outside the cafeteria, there’s a small crowd around the coat racks and bins that constitute the Lost and found. Today’s the day when the school will donate all remaining items to charity, so we’re picking through the sweatshirts and sweaters and windbreakers and lunch boxes to see if anything’s ours. It usually happens at year’s end, but this year the Lost and Found is so overflowing that the administration has decided to act early.

A big sister is trying to help her little brother find his jacket among all the forgotten garments. They’re carefully going over every item. No luck. They talk about it. They try again. Then their mother, who’s a cafeteria aide, comes out to intervene:

“Your jacket’s where it always is, hanging on the hook there. What are you looking in the Lost and Found for? You’re just trying not to go to class.”

Busted! So off they go to class without another word, secretly relieved that their mother understands them.

April 21, 2005

The Capital of Boys and Girls

1. There’s a fraternity house just north of the UT campus that looks like it must be the most gung-ho establishment around. They’ve got the usual American flags and pro–war signs; lots of the brothers wear butch crewcuts; and once a year they redecorate their exterior with camouflage scenery and create a recruiting pageant advertising their culture. Sometimes the pledges parade on their lawn in fatigue uniforms, carrying practice rifles. I assume they’re members of ROTC and aspire to military careers.

But it reminds me of when I was a child in the Fifties, and my friends and I would turn the cement railings in front of our apartment buildings into horses. Leaping on and straddling, jumping up and down on our motionless steeds and shouting, “Giddyap!” as we chased imaginary bad guys and Indians.

In the frat house parking lot yesterday I saw a pickup truck with this bumper sticker:


Son, I don’t object to any of your beliefs (although I’m no fan of this president). What worries me is the way you link the three together as if they were a holy trinity. God roots for your school team, and international relations are a matter of kicking the other guy’s ass and winning the championship.

A world run by boys playing soldier.

I hope they get back safely and honorably from wherever they’re going.

2. Austin is publicly known as the Live Music Capital of the World, but among the cognoscenti – that is, me, and now you – it’s called the Pretty Girl Capital of the World. We don’t have glum haughty fashionistas like Manhattan, or artificial women wearing $100,000 worth of plastic surgery like Los Angeles, or trophy wives with Martian hair and nails like Dallas – we have real girls who are pretty, and that’s the best thing in the world. Every height and shape and skin color, on this campus of 60,000 students. They’re streaming to class en masse in the sunlight. They’ve been to volleyball practice – they’ve been studying with their laptops at the café (fortunate laptops, to be on such laps!) – they’re relaying the latest gossip on their phones -- they’re ready for the test and they’re all getting A’s. They’re bright and healthy and confident. They’re calm and they can handle you. Each one has her own distinctive look, without seeming to care about it. They are the spring breeze.

What happens when those boys and those girls come together? It’s the mystery of the ages.

April 20, 2005

The External Authority is Reality

Starting out by pope-blogging, ambivablog makes a turn and finds herself at the heart of the matter. Read her quotation from, and razor-sharp response to, Dinesh D'Souza on reconciling premodern authority-based morality with modern self-directed morality.

I'm at Carnival of the Vanities #135

I just discovered that one of my posts,"The Death Watch Channel," has been put up on this week's Carnival of the Vanities, hosted by Conservative Dialysis. Go over there and read the other 61 entries. And submit your own work to future Carnivals. (Conservative Dialysis very helpfully provides a link-list to the entire schedule of hosts for the rest of 2005.)

Marriage Past and Present

In the middle of writing a comment on my first wife's blog, I pause to reply to an email from...my first wife.

Is this healthy? Is it wise?

Ah well, "The bodhisattva does not take sides."

And Agent 61, my -- what shall I call her? -- "second wife" sounds subordinate -- "current wife" sounds temporary -- I guess I'll just call her my wife -- accepts it in bodhisattvalike fashion.

April 19, 2005

Sliding Door Moments: The Dead on the Corner

None of us knows how many such moments we’ve had: moments when the course of our lives could have been shifted by a small decision or turn of chance, as in the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow movie SLIDING DOORS, where her romantic fate is decided by whether or not she catches a train before the doors close.

We all have the big, obvious decisions – should I take that job, should I go out with that person? – and then there are the countless little moments that we’re never aware of. Perhaps by driving through that yellow light, you alter your timetable so that you miss a fatal accident ten miles ahead. The Butterfly Effect.

Some people believe that these branchings of fate are infinitely many and that all of these alternative life–paths actually exist in different dimensions. The Many Worlds Hypothesis. (To me, it sounds exciting but implausible: too wasteful a way to arrange a universe.)

The most interesting sliding door moments, for me, are the ones that we hardly noticed at the time but that grow larger in memory. I think I’ve just recently identified one that happened to me when I was 16, in 1968.

I grew up in the Bronx, and my friends and I would take the subway down to Manhattan every chance we could to search for adventures, which we never found. One of those jaunts was made with a friend of mine whom I’ll call Turk, who was a year older and a fair amount hipper than I was. It was night, and we’d spent all day downtown wandering around – probably seeing a movie and eating cheap food, I don’t remember – and it was starting to rain hard. (I seem to recall it was late in the year, but it could have been almost any season. I can only be fairly confident it was 1968 and not 1967 by estimating the historical moment in retrospect.)

So there we were at Herald Square, across the street from Penn Station, about to descend into the subway, when Turk points to a bunch of grubby–looking hippies standing on the corner across the street and says, “Hey, I think that’s the Grateful Dead. Let’s go over and say hi. They look like they’re lost. Maybe we can help them.”

To which I immediately respond with a grumpy: “No, let’s go home, it’s pouring rain.”

Turk made a halfhearted effort to persuade me, but I stood firm – partly because of an ingrained Bronxite wariness of approaching a group of seven or eight rather menacing–looking strangers on a street corner – partly because at that age I was a negativistic, withdrawn, despairing, lonely soul and would say, “No, why should I?” to any suggestion of fun or profit.

And I had absolutely no subjective sense of being excitingly close to rock stars. Rather, they looked like a bunch of scruffy guys who might do you harm. (Which, with their merrily cruel hobbies of shooting off guns at their ranch, and dosing everyone they could with acid, they were.) In autumn 1968, the Dead were not famous except on the West Coast. They had just released their second album, ANTHEM OF THE SUN, but both that and their first album were commercially invisible. Their name, which sounded incredibly weird at the time, was known, but they were considered an ultra–underground band that no one really listened to. Jerry Garcia’s name was known only as that of someone credited as “musical and spiritual advisor” on the Jefferson Airplane’s SURREALISTIC PILLOW. Within a few months, Turk would lead me to my first Dead concert at the Fillmore East, and it would become psychologically necessary for me to listen to ANTHEM OF THE SUN at least once a day for several years, but at the time of this encounter, I had never seen the Dead’s picture or heard a note of their music.

So that was it. We went downstairs into the subway station, and the subject of that non–encounter was never raised again between us.

But recently, thinking back, I have come to believe that Turk was very likely right – I think it really was the Grateful Dead, standing around wondering what to do next after being deposited at Penn Station on a low–budget road trip. The only specific visual detail of their appearance that stands out clearly in my memory is that one of them was tall and had a shoulder–length blond perm. That would have been Phil Lesh, the bassist. A couple of the others looked pretty tough – one of them would have been Pigpen.

So I’ve been thinking, what would have happened if we’d gone up to the Dead and said hi? Well, if we’d spent any time at all with them, tagged along -- as a teenager could actually do with the Dead at that stage of the counterculture – we would soon feel the first rush of 500 micrograms of the purest sunshine, manufactured by their engineer Owsley, the gold–standard maker of LSD in the U.S. And from there, who knows what would have happened? I was fascinated, and still am, with the psychedelic era, but I never did take acid and probably wisely so, given my temperament. If I’d suddenly found myself tripping in the middle of chronic adolescent depression, at the very least I would have had trouble getting home that night, and probably I would have been shaken to the core. For the good or the bad? Would I have become a psychedelic washout – would I be dead today, or struggling back from decades of psychosis, mumbling the wisdom of ancient Egypt to the customers at my newsstand? Or would I have become an insider with the Dead – writing some of their lyrics, publishing my memoirs, seeing God through my liberated consciousness? Would I have come to know my true powers – for God’s sake, would I have finally been able to get a girlfriend, which would in itself have changed the future course of my life and severasl other people's? – or would I have retreated further into my room and not said another word for years?

In retrospect, I wonder why Turk complied. If he was so keen on saying hi to the Dead, why did he let me persuade him? It’s not as if I had such a forceful personality. He was older, bigger, the leader. But I think that inside the adventurous person, there’s sometimes an unadventurous person who wants to be led away from danger. Maybe my hippie friend, too, wanted to get home and out of the rain.

Maybe I’m thinking about this today because Phil Lesh’s autobiography, SEARCHING FOR THE SOUND: MY LIFE WITH THE GRATEFUL DEAD is just out (it’s #70 on amazon). And it’s the group’s fortieth anniversary.

I think back on myself and laugh: that sullen, distrusting, snide little Jewish kid from the Bronx. Why did he close doors rather than open them?

What are your sliding door moments?

April 18, 2005

What's Your Favorite Age?

The hot party game on the Internet this morning is, "List five things that people in your circle of friends or peer group are wild about, but you can’t really understand the fuss over," and I've found interesting answers at Ambivablog and Camassia, but I'm more interested in Sisu's implied question, "What's your ideal age?"

According to USA Today (featuring this Harris poll that's actually a couple of years old), 41 is the ideal age. In addition, each age group has its own favorite. Overall, people in their twenties and early thirties want to be a little older, and people in their late thirties and up want to be a little younger. Yep, that sounds right. The dream age for people in their thirties is 37; for people in their forties, a flat 40; for people in their fifties and early sixties, 44; and for people over 65, the ideal age is 59.

I'm glad to learn that last one, because it means that I still have years to go before I reach the ideal age, according to those who have seen the most of life.

Looking back, what do I think of the listed ideal ages?

37 was excellent for me. I was between marriages -- it was one of the three years of my adult life that I was actually a bachelor, and I was enjoying it immensely. I'd had a very well-received novel published the year before (it's called SAY YOU WANT ME, if you're interested, and you can find it on amazon, still in print, through my search button), and was feeling more optimistic about my careeer as a book writer than the future would turn out to warrant. I was having fun in Madison, WI, and seeing a lot of my boys, the splendid and legendary Agents 81 and 83, who were in elementary school.

40 was a transition I welcomed. I suspected I'd like being in my forties and it turned out to be true. We had a party for my birthday, the only real birthday party I've had as an adult. (That's by choice, by the way.) I was living with my future wife -- who asks to be called Agent 61, on principles established recently in these pages -- in a nice apartment on Lake Monona with our own dock, and lots of nearby friends. That was the year of our car trip across the top of the US and lower Canada to Vancouver Island, camping in the Canadian Rockies and the Cascades, and seeing the Badlands of South Dakota.

41 was even better: the year of my three-week solo to Greece, my spiritual homeland. I took ferries from island to island -- drove a rented car around Crete for a week, picking up hitchers from all over the world -- saw Knossos and Delphi -- ate taverna food and drank Greek coffee and ouzo -- and was so intoxicated by the beauty of the land, sea, and sky that I could drink a carafe of wine with dinner and not even feel it. I've wanted to go back ever since, next time with Agent 61, who so generously and sanely let me go by myself the first time.

(I'll just briefly mention that 42 was great too -- the year of my marriage, and a month-long honeymoon in Morocco, Agent 61's second home -- though it's not on the Harris list.)

44 Was a notable and progressive year, the year we moved to Austin, but transitions like that have never been my strong point and we had more arguments than we should have -- more than we've had since, I'm glad to say. We loved Austin from the start but didn't make many friends the first year: felt a little isolated. But Agent 95 was the handsomest, most exuberant, life-loving toddler on earth, and the widely adored Agent 97 was on his way.

Still and all, I like my present age best: recently turned 53. I'm liking my life and myself and the people around me more than I ever have. I think it's partly simple maturation. Also because a long span of self-help work -- thinking, reading, exercise, nutrition, tai chi, meditation -- has gradually borne fruit. But also, 52 was a crisis year for me, a year of major literary disappointment and of finally putting aside a lifelong ambition, and I got over it so well that I feel renewed in all aspects of life. Blogging has had much to do with that. Another important factor: I got successfully treated for a sleep disorder that had been dragging me down psychologically for many years.

This is my favorite age so far, and I hope my favorite age will always be whatever age I am.

The Dream Giver (for amba)

I lie awake, aching to go back to sleep but afraid of the dreamless blankness. How long has it been since I dreamed? The hard gray predawn light chills me with its rudimentary realities: lamp, clock, bed. It turns up the pain a photon at a time, a droplet at a time in an ancient torture.

I put on my nightgown and get a glass of water. I read three pages of a book. I pee. I return to bed.

Then the little impertinences of my body. My legs fidget and twitch, I can’t lie still. My hands and feet are cold, my skin itches, my throat swallows, my heart jumps. Saliva, mucus, a tickling cough.

I try to suppress it all, so as not to wake him. I try not to elbow or kick him accidentally. He needs his sleep. He’s so old, so frail inside that huge body.

Now I’ve done it, he’s stirring: was it my toenail against his shin? Caught in mid–dream, he gives a startled cry, and I hush him. All these years, in the back of my mind, there’s been some disbelief: how could I, little me, calm someone this big? And the knowledge that I have done so calms me in turn.

“What?” he moans out, from somewhere back in Europe long ago. That crazy gargly accent. The tough sergeant’s voice fractured by age. His face, in half–light, a cliff I have seen weathered through epochs.

“I can’t sleep.” I press close to him. “I can’t dream, I have no dreams in me anymore.”

Stiffly he lowers his heavy arm onto me. “Take mine.”

And we lie together through the dawn, temple to temple, his dreams pouring into me like daylight.

April 17, 2005

Pairs of Brothers

Agents 95 and 97 are in the back seat of the car, and we’re talking about how well they’re growing.

“I weight seventy–eight pounds,” Agent 95 says.

“So I weight sixty,” calculates Agent 97. “I always weigh eighteen pounds less than him.”

“Always?” I ask.

They assure me it’s true.

It reminds me of something that happened long ago, during the childhood of their role models, Agents 81 and 83. The two of them – they must have been five and three, something like that – had been playing for a long time in the backyard and on the sidewalk of the faculty housing development. The screen door clatters open and they storm in.

“Hey guys, want a drink of water?” I ask.

“We’re not thirsty,” says Agent 81 suavely as they sweep past, upstairs into their room. Agent 83 does not dissent.

We’re not thirsty! So close, they could speak for each other’s throat.

April 16, 2005

The Dream Store

The journey to the dream store is an almost endless slog uphill through boot–seizing mud, the little box clutched tight in your hand. “This is impossible,” you moan, and only with those secret words does the scene shift – you’re at the cashier’s station, trying to convince the store manager.

“This box is empty.” You shake it in his face. He takes it from your hand and leaves you alone, bereft.

You want to tell the others how badly the store has treated you – every disc defective – half the boxes empty – but no one pays attention. They’re all watching the dreams that shimmer on the walls.

Your tears dissolve the dreams, and the watchers turn to you crossly. “What are you doing to us?” The walls of the store itself begin to dissolve, until the manager returns with a new box for you, and the store returns to itself.

Smiling, the manager hands you the box. Your hand sags unexpectedly under the weight of what’s inside. Then you’re back at the bottom of the hill, lugging that heavy little box, too heavy for its size.

It will be an endless slog through mud just to show him that the box is empty. But you remember something: “He smiled kindly,” the muddy hill echoes.

You know that by the tenth step you will have forgotten this. But with each of the first nine steps you say to yourself, “This time I’ll remember…”

April 15, 2005

Annals of Bigotry: Bloomburg, Texas

This NYT story about the firing of a lesbian basketball coach is exceptionally rich in dramatic detail and soap opera implications. A portrait of life in a benighted, forsaken hamlet where if you didn't think you were God's anointed, you might have to either go crazy or leave.

Reading Log: John Berger

Apropos of our recent discussion about word pictures versus photographs.

John Berger is a British leftist art critic, essayist, and novelist, now in his 70s, who has lived in a rural French agricultural village for the past forty years. I admire him for being an early and passionate opponent of the commodification of human life, as well as for being a fine writer.

My favorite among his books is a short volume from the 1990s called PHOTOCOPIES. It’s a series of 29 very brief descriptive sketches, each the verbal equivalent of a snapshot preserving one of Berger’s memories. The first one actually includes a snapshot taken during the remembered incident, and gives the reader the opportunity to move back and forth between picture and words, each adding depth to the other. While reading the other 28, it’s fun to imagine what a photograph of the scene would look like, and how that photograph might compare with Berger’s text. But Berger’s descriptive comments go far beyond that in developing (to use a photographic pun) profound meaning from these small vignettes. That’s where his skill as art critic and novelist comes in. On the celebrity front, the sketches include portraits of Cartier-Bresson and Simone Weil, as well as several artists who are not named.

Among Berger’s many other works, I like A FORTUNATE MAN, an affectionate study of an English country doctor in the early 1960s, with documentary photos. His novels of French rural life – TO THE WEDDING and the INTO THEIR LABOURS trilogy — are ethnographically rich and very readable. His 1972 Booker-winning novel G. is an experimental work typical of that era, and I haven’t been able to enter it.

All these books, of course, are available at a touch of the amazon search button on my sidebar.

April 14, 2005

Dream Drought?

Are we having a natinal dream drought, perhaps because of chronic stress? Amba grieves that she's having a personal dream drought and wonders if others share it -- or if they have suggestions. Go here to participate in this lively tragicomic discussion.

Linguistic Senescence

If you live to a moderate span, you will one day find that the world you’re living in is not the world you’re comfortable with, not the world whose rules and mores you know, not the world you and your generation made.

You will find that you don’t even know how people talk anymore. The colloquialisms are different, even the hand gestures are different, even some of the pronunciations are different. You read a newspaper column and you don’t understand many of the references to well–known people, to institutions named by initials, to trends and ongoing stories mentioned as if everyone knows all about them.

This is the linguistic aging process.

Bad enough for a layperson, but for a writer it’s scary. For years I trained myself to write dialogue. I listened to conversations. I made conversations up in my head. I don’t eavesdrop as much anymore—partly because I have too many grownup things to do, partly because eavesdropping isn’t as good outside of New York, partly because, as with so much of life, repetition leads to a diminishing-returns effect.

I wonder if I would be able to write a convincing conversation between young lovers anymore. Or a gabfest among college students. How do they talk nowadays? I don’t know. Sometimes I ask my two grown sons for specific colloquialisms. “How would someone today say ‘trendy’ or ‘hip’?” They tell me “trendy” or “hip.” They must be hiding some secret esoteric knowledge from me!

To learn the new lingo I would probably have to watch TV, getting it from an artificially processed and presumably stale source rather than absorbing it from the air I breathe.

There’s hip–hop slang and there’s computerese and there’s something else, too, a pervasive cleverer-than-thou insiderism, uptodateism, that seems to turn every sentence in every “alternative” newspaper into a cartwheel—an intended cartwheel, anyway. I read the reviews and half the time I quit after a couple of paragraphs because the writer has not been able to make me understand what the movie was about, what kind of music the group plays, what the person being interviewed is famous for.

Entire generations of sports idols and pop stars have come and gone since the last time I paid much attention. People I think of as newcomers are retiring or staging comebacks.

In the blogosphere it’s especially noticeable. People use words like “Fisking” and “Godwining.” I have no idea who Fisk or Godwin are or what they represent. (But why do so many of these blog words seem to describe varieties of nastiness?) I have only a vague intuitive sense of what schwinging consists of or what it means to be snarky. I can decipher two or threes emoticons and an equal number of chatroom acronyms.

A few days ago there was a fascinating controversy on Sisu’s site when she showed photos of her cat killing a mouse. I saw nothing wrong with the practice, and they were good photos too. I thought I might write a comment. But people were talking about something called an InstaLanche and I felt completely at sea. InstaLanche -- Wha?

I tell myself it’s okay because the words will all change in five years anyway.

My defensive strategy is to write in standard English and avoid slang. It happens to be sound literary procedure, too—you’ll find very few topical references or slang words in Chekhov, Tolstoy, Austen, the Brontes, etc., and that’s one reason their work is still so readable. (In contrast, in American writing today topicality runs amok.) In my case, an artistic choice is also an adaptive necessity.

If it didn’t make me feel left behind, I’d think that this past decade’s ferment of slang and colloquialism is a good thing. Linguistic invention is a sign of cultural innovation, isn’t it?

Maybe. But what if it’s just a sign of people compulsively seeking new ways of saying the same old things -- “the all-old masquerading as the all-new,” as D. H. Lawrence once said? I get the feeling there are thousands of people out there racking their brains to think of new software names and straining to keep up with this minute’s stylish verbal aggression.

Like all oldsters, I compare this self–important linguistic busyness to what was happening in my youth. We had slang too, but we had something else: actual new things to describe, and not just new machines but new ways of being and perceiving.

I think back to a couplet from a Jefferson Airplane song, “Wild Thyme”:

It’s a wild time
I’m doing things that haven’t got a name yet.

Imagine doing something so new it doesn’t have a name yet. The first people to make fire must have felt that way. The first people to smear red clay on a cave wall and think it might represent something. They weren’t sitting around in meetings trying to think of names for it.

Those were the new times.

April 13, 2005

Take Your Supplements!

A new study shows that children with nutritional deficiencies were 41% more prone to violent and antisocial behavior at age 8, and 51% more prone at age 17.

The nutrients studied were zinc, iron, B vitamins, and protein.

And consider the many nutrients that weren't studied. Might magnesium, copper, chromium, manganese, etc., have some as-yet-unknown role in mood and behavior? Could they help make the difference between being able to cope constructively with failure, rejection, stress, loss, illness -- or falling apart?

Eat those nuts and greens and whole grains, people! (And a good steak too.)

Deranged by power, they gnaw at their own legs.

The Bush administration is launching a quiet assault on Title IX, the law that provides equal funding opportunities for women's collegiate sports.

The president of the NCAA worries that this "will likely stymie the growth of women's athletics and could reverse the progress made over the last three decades."

Doesn't that genius Karl Rove know how many Republican girls and women participate in school sports?

Too Old to Die Young

You measured your dwindling chances for glory by the great ones you’d outlived. First you outlived Keats, but almost everyone else had, too. Almost no one would have amounted to anything if they hadn’t outlived Keats. (That was the year you got your first promotion.) Then you outlived Jesus, then Byron and Pushkin and Dylan Thomas and Martin Luther King, but there were still plenty who wouldn’t have amounted to anything if they hadn’t survived their thirties. (That was the year you bought the country cottage.) Then came the big 44, by the end of which you’d outlived Chekhov and Stevenson and Lawrence and Fitzgerald. (That was the year your daughter starred in the school play.) Two Kennedys and a Kerouac before long. (That was the year you drove her off to college.)

And then came the day when you’d outlived Shakespeare, and when you’ve done that, there are no more excuses.

Life with an Asterisk

He did everything right. He studied hard and graduated with honors, married his teenage sweetheart and got a job in the biggest company in his hometown. Two kids later he was regional manager. He bought life insurance and a few conservative stocks, retired with a good pension, and moved to a place where it was always sunny and mild. He doted on his grandchildren when he saw them: tousled their hair, taught them to fish. Volunteered at the public television fundraiser and the library book sale.

There was just one thing. Every evening for five decades, beginning about six o’clock, he drank himself to a place where none of it could reach him. He hardly knew where he was or what people were saying.

He has to go into the record books with an asterisk.

April 12, 2005

I Am Not a Camera

Photos I would post from today’s lunchtime walk if, like some people I could name, I posted photos:

• a green and white Fuji Film blimp with red fins and logos flying low over the treetops--couldn’t have been more than 500 feet, probably less--with a loud whirring of its propeller as it slowly headed downtown

• the AMERICAN FOR PEACE sign in front of the ramshackle house, with the death total crossed out and updated daily, and the antiwar quotes and anti–Bush witticisms, and a paper sign taped to it: WE ARE MOVING AND TAKING OUR SIGN – PLEASE REMEMBER THE AMERICAN AND IRAQI SOLDIERS – MEDITATE FOR PEACE

• pink mallows popping up in everyone’s wildflower patches

* people sitting in the sun with cups of coffee outside the Dolce Vita café

• the sign for the Hyde Park Bar and Grille: a two–storey–high statue of an upright fork on which a container of French fries is impaled, the ketchup–tipped yellow fries doubling as anniversary candles for the restaurant’s 20th

But I don’t even own a camera, so you have to imagine them.


The wolverine, according to today's NYT, is small but phenomenally tough and determined, able to hold its own against much larger carnivores--but it rarely gets into fights because "it can probably bluff its way out of any confrontation." It roams as widely as the grizzly bear, which is ten times its size. It is intensely loyal to family -- males have been known to wait outside traps for their captured mates. And it is the only carnivore species in which fathers maintain contact with their young adult offspring.

Now I know why it's my mascot.

Go Blue!

The Savings Conundrum

Why aren't Americans saving more money toward retirement, NYT wonders, when we all know it's something we ought to do? The article summons forth the impressively up-to-date explanatory power of the loss aversion theory of economics (the idea that we value $100 we might lose more than $100 we might gain), the theory of hyperbolic discounting (the overweighting of immediate rewards and costs), and brain-scan studies on the divergent roles of the lateral prefrontal cortex and the limbic system in decisionmaking. It ends by considering "a neurochemical intervention mechanism" to help workers save money. A 401K pill?

But there's another, simpler answer, and it's right there in the headline of another article on the very same page of the online Times: Falling Fortunes of Wage Earners.

Not to mention the fact that we're all exposed to a continuous barrage of messages telling us to buy, to spend our money. What if all of us saw hundreds of advertisements per day telling us to save?

The Fan

All his life he rooted for a losing team. It wasn’t that they were a bad team—they had good players, some of the best now and then, but always something derailed their quest for the championship, a crucial player got injured, a reliable man made a flukey misplay, a touted newcomer didn’t pan out, and the newspapers grew nasty and the atmosphere in the locker room got ugly and they secretly began to play for their teammates’ undoing.

Still he was faithful. He watched every single game for forty years. He filled his home with pennants and autographs. Finally in the last year of his life, a roster that did not at first seem especially auspicious began to play better than any of its predecessors: they played as a unit, they played for each other, they had fun, they didn’t let losses upset them nor wins either. Lying on his deathbed he watched his last game, the game that won them the championship.

“My life has meant something,” he gasped victoriously, dying.

April 11, 2005

The Death Watch Channel

(Theme music: an uplifting passage from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony)

MALE ANCHOR: Welcome to the Death Watch Channel--all death watches, all the time. I’m Mort Stone. Coming up on the hour, death watches for an ex-president, the star of a 1960s sitcom, and an athlete known for a game-losing blooper. At twelve after--our Sudden Death segment--we’ll look back at the life and career of a Mafia member turned informer, killed today in an automobile accident in the city where he was living under FBI witness protection. Then, at a quarter after, we bring you your Regional Death Watches. For a preview, let’s go to Kali at the regional desk.

FEMALE ANCHOR: I’m Kali Shivananda with the regional death watch preview. We’ll have executions today in Texas and Florida. In the Northeast, we’ll chat with a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author who’ll give us his last words by live hookup. In the Midwest, our Real People segment will profile a mom of three in Dayton, who’s been battling cancer for--(improvising as teleprompter stalls)--well, for a really long time, bless her--we’ll have her story in depth for you, it makes me choke up every time I look at the tape. On the West Coast we’ll take an upclose look at the latest celebrity murder trial--will this one finally get the injection? Then a look back at deaths from this day in history--remember that school bus accident on the Coast Highway? All that and more coming up after these messages.

(Commercials for a life insurance company, a health care network, a prescription drug for Alzheimer’s, a reduced-fat line of fast food, and a diamond mining concern.)

MALE ANCHOR: We’re back, and we’re not going anywhere so don’t you either. Let’s take a look at today’s weather–related deaths in faraway places you’ve never heard of…

(Repeat every fifteen minutes for all eternity or until Western civilization collapses, whichever comes first.)

April 10, 2005

Extreme Extremism

Check this Washington Post article on how rightwing leaders are foaming at the mouth against the judiciary, threatening mass impeachments and coming winkingly near to advocating murder. Their current #1 target is Justice Kennedy of the US Supreme Court, a Reagan appointee. His greatest crime: voting to end the death penalty for minors.

Then read this Frank Rich column on the death-watch culture that has been growing up around us, and that fuels and is fueled by rightwing extremism.

There are well-groomed, smiling people in suits or dresses who seriously think that the Reagan Supreme Court is dominated by a cabal of leftist radicals inspired by "Marxist, Leninist, satanic principles drawn from foreign law". (Do they mean English common law?) Yet these people themselves quote Stalin as an inspiration: "[Stalin] had a slogan, and it worked very well for him, whenever he ran into difficulty: 'no man, no problem,' " [rightwing lawyer-scholar Edwin] Vieira said.

We're also an age of scandal, and we can only hope that scandal tarnishes some of these people effectively.

A Blog for Agent 95?

Agent 95, who has already posted comments on my posts about him and his partner Agent 97, now wants his own blog.

No -- not till he's older. (Parents love saying that.)

The Anchoress Moves Her Cell

The Anchoress is a conservative and Catholic blogger whose site is one of my guilty pleasures. (Actually she can get too far right for me, but she's a good writer, a forceful and often likable online presence, as this post on the stylistics of John Paul's funeral shows.)

She just moved from Blogger to Wordpress because of overwhelming Blogger problems -- not an uncommon story, alas. Her new anchoritic cell is here.

The Man Date Uproar

This absurd NYT article by the absurd Jennifer 8. Lee asks the absurd question, Can two straight men go out for dinner together as friends without being sexually suspect?

It's making a big buzz on metafilter -- 165 comments so far (one of the briefest of them by me) and going strong. Many of the comments are witty and on-target, although the thread tends to get bogged down in spots, in questions of shaving and in the insecurities of individual commenters.

April 09, 2005

Exasperating Service

They interrupt your conversation to ask, “Everything okay this evening?”

The neon sign says “Open 24 Hours,” but when you drive there in the middle of the night it’s closed, with a paper sign on the door: “New Hours…”

They tell you the wait is going to be forty–five minutes, so you put your name on the list and go for a walk. Forty minutes later you return: “Sorry, sir, we called your name a few minutes ago.”

They add a tip to the bill because you’re a large party, but they don’t tell you, in hopes you won’t notice and you’ll double it.

They don’t inform you about the daily specials. Getting up to leave at the end of your meal, you see a card at another table: “Ask your server about our daily specials.” There was no such card at your table.

They ignore you when you need more water, an extra roll, and some hot sauce, but they chat you up like a long–lost friend when they bring you the bill.

April 08, 2005

Althouse Turns on Comments

Ann is accepting comments again on her blog, following the opinion of Judge Posner. Go over there and say something nice!

The Dire Stravecchio

Dinner last night: I’ve made my famous spaghetti and meatballs. My tablemates, two young members of my retinue whom I shall call by their code names, Agent 95 and Agent 97. It’s just the three of us--my wife is at a conference--and I’ve put wine in the tomato sauce just like Agent 95 likes. I set the three plates in front of us, and Agent 97, who’s a parmesan cheese fan, immediately dumps half the serving bowl of grated cheese onto his spaghetti by accident.

No problem. I swiftly and competently improvise by spooning the extra from his bowl onto mine and Agent 95’s. Not a grain of cheese has been wasted: it is the exact amount the three of use would have used, total.

I dig in. Ah, at last I’ve done it: the perfect spaghetti and meatballs. Surely this is the best batch I’ve ever made. (I think this quite often when cooking.) The kids are tasting it.

Then Agent 95 asks with suspicion, “Dad, is this parmesan?”

“Well, yeah, no, actually, it’s just like parmesan, it’s just got a different name, stravecchio, it’s just from a different part of Italy, sort of like just down the block from parmesan. They taste almost exactly the same. Stravecchio’s a little more pungent, that means it has more flavor.”

Silently they continue tasting. Then Agent 97 moves lower in his chair, a telltale slump. “I’m not hungry.”

“Not hungry??”

“I don’t like the cheese.”

“You don’t like the cheese? The cheese you put so much of on?”

“I thought it was parmesan.”

“It is just like parmesan. Eat it,” I command him.

A minute later, Agent 95 puts in, “I don’t like this cheese either.”

“I should have never told you it was stravecchio. I should have told you it was parmesan.”

“Dad, we can taste the difference. This is more pungent.”

“Eat it anyway,” I command him. “It doesn’t have to be your favorite food in the world for you to eat it.” And, to make a further impression on them, I go on at some length about how I made spaghetti and meatballs just for them, which they usually like so much, and they’re getting too picky about food these days and their mother and I want them to cut it out, and so forth. Impression made.

“But Dad,” says Agent 95, “there are some foods that if I taste them, they make me have to barf.”

In an almost congratulatory voice I tell him that he has control over such bodily events and that this is an excellent opportunity for him to develop said control.

I am gobbling down my spaghetti and meatballs, grateful for each delicious forkful. They’re slumping in their chairs, starting diversionary conversations about imported fantasy creatures, and occasionally picking up a single strand of spaghetti and examining it, or nibbling the edge of a meatball as if it were a grenade that might detonate.

In the course of time Agent 97 actually finishes one of his two meatballs and about half his spaghetti. Agent 95, with more worldly experience, tries to negotiate with me about how much spaghetti he has to eat, but I refuse to meet him on that ground. He must eat a reasonable amount, I inform him. A reasonable amount to be determined by me—he knows that in our house we don’t insist they clean the plate. If they don’t both eat, I tell them, they may force me to say that they won’t get to watch the STAR TREK episodes we’ve rented for the evening. And, I remind them, I don’t like to threaten.

In slow motion, Agent 95 lifts one strand, then another, singly to his lips. If he takes too long, I announce, it will be too late to start watching TV. He begins to make pathetic barfing sounds but I glare him out of it. By this point I’m so fed up, I tell him he will be excused if he eats two more forkfuls.

He lifts a forkful of spaghetti and, with fiendish cunning, lets some of the strands slip off the fork before they reach his mouth.

No no, I tell him. He can’t play those games with me. Two full forkfuls and no less. The line has been drawn.

He puts his first forkful to his lips, but what do you know, several strands slither down his chin and into his lap.

I give him the final lecture. This is his last warning. Does he realize, I ask, how much easier it would have been for all of us if he had just eaten the goddamn spaghetti in the first place? And furthermore—this will do him good in later life—when there’s something you have to do and you don’t want to do it, the way to deal with it is just to face it, do it quickly and get it over with, and usually it isn’t so bad. Not to whine and try to get out of it—that just makes you feel worse and drags out the time of suffering.

At some point, anticlimactically, Agent 95 finishes his second forkful of spaghetti. A pyrrhic victory. I’m exhausted.

Can we see the STAR TREK episodes? Of course—they’re ones I haven’t seen yet.

I should have told them it was parmesan.

April 07, 2005

Latest Fad: Death

We’re in the car listening to a 1989 Terry Gross “Fresh Air” interview with Saul Bellow. Terry introduces it by saying that Bellow died the other day.

“Who are they talking about?” a fourth-grader in the back of the car immediately wants to know. I explain that it was a writer.

As we cross the intersection, the second-grader in the car notices a huge American flag at half-staff in front of a gas station. The flag looks almost as big as the gas station itself.

“Why’s the flag low?” he asks.

“For Saul Bellow,” the fourth-grader says.

No, I explain, for the Pope.

"A lot of people have been dying lately," the fourth-grader observes.

“Yeah, like that priest,” the second-grader says.

“The Pope,” I explain.

“It seems to be happening more and more,” the fourth grader says.

Self–Reliance: A Dialogue

JACK: “I’m sick of people saying no to me all the time. I’m just going to forget those people.”

JILL: “That’s right. You’re all you need.”

JACK: “People giving me no support, no emotional sustenance.”

JILL: “I know what you mean. I’m on your side.”

JACK: “Ignoring me when I talk to them.”

JILL: “I hear you.”

JACK: “Expecting me to do everything for them, clean up their messes.”

JILL: “Leave them be. Walk right by them.”

JACK: “As long as I shut up, they’re satisfied.”

JILL: “Keep talking. Say what’s on your mind.”

JACK: “When I do open my mouth, it’s like I’m not even there.”

JILL: “Tell it! I’m all ears.”

JACK: “Depriving me of my voice. Trying to stifle me, to silence me.”

JILL: “Yes, say it!”

JACK: “But their abuse has only strengthened me.”

JILL: “You’re the greatest.”

JACK: “I don’t need anyone holding my hand, making sweet talk.”

JILL: “Baby, that’s beautiful.”

JACK: “I walk my own path, alone.”

JILL: “I’m with you.”

JACK: “And when I return, give them a boon from my quest, will they be grateful? No.”

JILL: “I’m so glad you’re saying these things.”

JACK: “Not that it makes any difference. It’s like talking to myself. No one ever listens to me.”

Lifestyle Centers: Threat to Freedom?

In contrast to my praise yesterday of a shopping center cafe as a contemporary agora, Andrew Blum in Slate sounds an alarm about lifestyle centers--outdoor upscale theme malls--calling them "a bait-and-switch routine on the part of developers, one that exchanges the public realm for the commercial one."

At one such center in Phoenix, "[t]he list of forbidden activities includes 'non-commercial expressive activity'—not to mention 'excessive staring' and 'taking photos, video or audio recording of any store, product, employee, customer or officer.'"

Alarmism? Or justified concern about basic rights?

In accord with my recent decision that having an opinion is too difficult, I refrain from stating a view.

April 06, 2005

Where to Reincarnate Me

I’m sitting at the outdoor terrace of Central Market Café, one of the most pleasant of American agoras, with a mango tea and a blueberry spelt muffin, not minding the occasional crow who jabs at a crumb under the table. To guard against the fierce sunheat that will arrive in a month or two, umbrellas advertising Fiji water shade the tables. The umbrellas are painted sky blue with puffy clouds, but they pall by comparison with the newborn blue of the Texas spring sky, and their monochromatic shade is somehow less restful than that of the broad live oaks whose leaves and branches dapple the redwood platform. The store is selling perennials and herbs at curbside: plumbago and scabiosa, potted basil and peppers and tomatoes and eggplant. The foursome at the next table is speaking French animatedly, bemoaning the local provincialism no doubt. I’ve got my little notebook to record:

• an attractive blond with a white cane, wearing extra-dark wraparound glasses that block out all light, wearing a tense, game smile as she gingerly taps into table legs and the terrace railing and, helped by an aide standing behind her, maneuvers her way around. I think she’s either new at the blind game, or--what I’d bet on--she’s not blind at all: she’s a volunteer at the state school, being trained to understand her students.

• a nerdy male middleaged teacher--recessed chin, beak nose, unshaven--talking education with a nicelooking 40ish brunette--confirming that they both disapprove of the state standardized tests--admiring how much today’s kids can do computers--“Do you mind if I ask you your age? It’s only because I’m wondering which side of the cusp you’re on as far as learning computers in school”--then sharing his sensitive life experiences, telling her of his ex–mother–in–law’s brave battle with terminal illness--what a positive influence that woman was on his life--“I couldn’t possibly have a relationship with a subservient woman.” He’s pushing too hard, I want to tell him.

• a sipper of hill country chardonnay complaining to his tablemates that a Yahoo search didn’t list his website although a google search put it in the top ten for his type of product.

I’m reading Patrick O’Brian’s POST CAPTAIN, the second of the Aubrey-Maturin novels. The first, MASTER AND COMMANDER, was frankly not as exciting as the brilliant Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe movie--O’Brian can get bogged down in hyperprecise descriptions of exactly which of the brig’s two dozen sails were used under exactly what conditions of wind and current--but it was enough to get me to buy the whole series, 6,500 pages of it in five volumes. These are not only the ultimate grown-boys’ books, but also novels as skillfully crafted and beautifully written, as knowledgeable of their subject and observant of human nature, as anything I know of in the present age--and unlike any “literary” novel, they can keep you smiling continually as if you were Jerry Garcia playing “Dark Star.” I’ve only got 6,100 more pages of smiling to go.

In POST CAPTAIN, Jack and Stephen are ashore in England during a lull in the Napoleonic wars, fox-hunting and maiden-wooing, and O’Brian does it at least as well as Trollope ever did. In the space of a few pages, Jack says, “I do love being surrounded by girls--so very different from men,” and Stephen, in a different scene, says, “I am not in the least degree interested in women as such…. Only in persons,” and you know that O’Brian absolutely agrees with both.

If reincarnation exists, I want to be reincarnated in ancient Greece. (You didn’t know that you can be reincarnated in the past? Oh, yes, of course, since time is not a straight line but part of a complex spacetime manifold, possibly shaped like a donut--a torus. You can pick and choose from anything--and it’s funny how many souls choose to be perfectly ordinary people or animals, even suffering ones.) I’d like to find myself in the agora of Athens, catching sight of Socrates and Plato, maybe overhearing a snippet or two. If you’d like, you can meet me there--let’s say 458 BC, in the Theater of Dionysos, when Aeschylus is winning first prize for the ORESTEIA.

But now I’ve got a backup plan, too. I want to be reincarnated in the world of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Of course they’re fictional, but they’re made of information and so are we. They’re information in the form of words, and we’re information in the form of genetic code, and they and we alike are all information in some other, more abstruse form which have still have no understanding of, called existence. (Maybe we just seem more solid because there’s so much more information in even the poorest living organism than in even the greatest book.) So, yes, I’ll be a character there, maybe an eager midshipman or a grizzled ship’s carpenter--though best of all I’d like to be Maturin, the unassuming physician-naturalist-spy and awkward swain who always saves the fearless, open-hearted “Lucky Jack.”

And to tell you the truth, I’ve got a third plan, too. If I can’t make it to ancient Athens or the England of 1800, just put me at the Central Market Café in 2005. The healing rays pour down and the beverages burble from their bottles; in the playground kids laugh and squirrels skitter; and all three--Athens, England, America--are here inside me right now. I’d be one of these crows or these squirrels. And to be one of these laughing kids--how unutterably lucky!

Must I Have an Opinion?

Should the flags be lowered to half staff for Pope John Paul II? Sure, why not? Greatness comes in many forms, and we don’t have to like everything about a great man to honor him. And freedom of religion doesn’t mean that religion is a disqualification. Those who are objecting are making themselves seem odiously bigoted.

Should Ms. Wisconsin Wheelchair be allowed to keep her crown even though she stood up? Of course, dummies. She’s pretty, and a schoolteacher too. Come on, you rulebound Wisconsinites, try not to make yourselves a national laughingstock.

Saul Bellow is dead at 89. I’m sorry to hear it, though I prefer Malamud and Singer. I loved SEIZE THE DAY (his best novel is also his shortest, fortunately) and the first half of AUGIE MARCH, liked his other books from the Forties and Fifties, but couldn’t tolerate his later work except for HUMBOLDT’S GIFT. A generation of American writers is passing. Arthur Miller, Robert Creeley… In the wings are J. D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut… Who else? It seems that American literature itself is passing.

Along those lines, the ATLANTIC will no longer be publishing fiction on a regular basis, only an annual August fiction issue. Is this another nail in the coffin? You can bet your mint–condition 1955 deck of Authors playing cards on it. NYT describes that magazine as having given early publication to Mark Twain, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, and Sue Miller. Sue Miller?? Well, there you have it. If that’s all they could dig up from the second half of the twentieth century, they might as well pack it in.

I see where the paper says that Prince Rainier has died. Who was he, aside from a face on a gossip pages? I haven’t the slightest idea.

Man, this opinion–mongering is hard work. You have to be ready with a response to everything. It would take stronger shoulders than mine, I now realize, to carry this burden unprotestingly. So I leave the task to those Atlases of the opinion world. I need to get some exercise, and maybe try to think of a story to write.

April 05, 2005

My Secret Plan

I have a plan to make my blog stats go through the roof. All I have to do is announce my conversion to a) Christianity, b) conservatism, or c) both. I’ll become the darling of a huge section of the blogosphere.

It’s not as if I haven’t flirted with those views throughout my life. But let me think about the probabilities. Conservatism? Not bloody likely at a time when a Republican senator and an ethically tarnished reactionary congressman are making veiled threats against the lives of judges. Is it too obvious to point out that their vicious, antisocial, antilife attitudes are the exact opposite of conservative?

How about Christianity, then? That’s much more of a live possibility, as my readers may have gathered. I probably think about religious questions more than most signed-up believers. I think about them continually, in fact. William James has got nothing on me for religiosity. I revere Jesus as the greatest of holy men and prophets. But then there’s that little question of belief in a mythology I was not imprinted with at an early age. My brand of Christianity would have to be Tolstoyan and non-supernatural, a belief in Jesus’ teachings of love, forgiveness, humility, and the innerness of heaven, rather than in any church’s teachings about him. No glorying in blood sacrifice, no totemic feast, no loyalty oath as prerequisite to salvation. Certainly no internecine wars over hairsplitting interpretations of manmade doctrines.

If I had been raised in it--baptized in infancy as my children were--I could slide over such issues or leave them undecided. But as it stands, they bar my way.

And anyway, suppose I took a Jamesian leap of faith, casting rational doubts aside because doing so made me feel good. (See this interesting post by amba on the dangers of feelgood religion.) Wouldn’t that be rather cheap and self-serving of me? Signing up in the battle to save souls, when I don’t believe that any souls are lost? Would God accept such a gesture? Is getting one more recruit so important that He’ll even take someone who just wants to boost his blog stats?

April 04, 2005

Foucault on Blogging

As long as I'm sitting around not knowing what to write on a Monday morning...

True Ancestor relays this little discourse on the nature of books from French poststructuralist Michel Foucault. If you substitute the word "blog" for "book," the quote, which as it stands seems rather datedly pomo, takes on new life, seeming more true than before:

The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut; beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network. And this network of references is not the same in the case of a mathematical treatise, a textual commentary, a historical account, and an episode in a novel cycle; the unity of the book, even in the sense of a group of relations, cannot be regarded as identical in each case. The book is not simply the object that one holds in one's hands; and it cannot remain within the little parallelepiped that contains it: its unity is variable and relative. As soon as one questions that unity, it loses its self-evidence; it indicates itself, constructs itself, only on the basis of a complex field of discourse.

As T.A. comments, "you realize that the blog is both a step in literary evolution, and a reminder that all forms of self-expression are essentially the same."

T.A.'s post also entertains with his latest reflections on his recently completed trip to an upscale, all-inclusive resort in Mexico; and with a suggestion that the next pope's name be even more Beatlesque.

(Whatever name he picks, let it not be George Ringo. Too much of a decline from the heights.)

Lhombre Down

My friend the artist Dan Ramirez, known online as lhombre, had a blogging catastrophe last night--he accidentally deleted his entire blog, Luz, when he only intended to delete a single post. (Why blogger makes it so easy to delete an entire blog, I don't know.) He's gotten over the initial trauma and is laughing about it for lack of any other recourse, and if all else fails he'll be starting a new blog in the near future. Meanwhile he's trying to look into ways in which his deleted blog can be recaptured. (Title for an update on Proust: THE BLOG RECAPTURED?)

If you have any knowledge that might help him, email him: dramirez (at) facstaff (dot) wisc (dot) edu.

Opinion Journal on John Paul II

A very perceptive WSJ assessment of what made him extraordinary and why secularists in the West didn't get it. (Though those behind the Iron Curtain knew enough to be afraid of him.)

Via Sisu, wgho also has a fine post this morning on why democracy in Iraq is taking so long.

April 02, 2005

Poetry Blog: Like Waiting for April

Ann A. has recommended to me a poetry blog run by one of her readers which has postings only in April of each year -- National Poetry Month. Like Waiting for April is the name of the site, and the owner, "Be," takes requests and solicits comments on poetry. Her April 1 selection, offered by one of her readers, was John Donne's "The Annunciation and Passion." Today's poem is the Venerable Bede's death song—Be connects Bede to John Paul II as a historical figure and an inspiring character.

The site also provides links to major poetry sites such as the Academy of Americna Poets and the Favorite Poem Project.

Why not go there and offer Be a favorite poem?

Rest in Peace

Terrif Brit Blogs: This Too and Blaugustine

I become more and more an anglophile as I get older. Via Tamar, I've been introduced to a couple of British bloggers who are producing high-quality prose and visual art. This Too is a London woman named Jean who writes musing reminiscences of things like French dairy holidays, rosemary tea, and Midlands accents, along with good photos. Blaugustine is a talented and enterprising cartoonist/painter/graphic novelist, a widely traveled Brit/American who lives in London. Especially noteworthy are her Augustine Interviews God and her visual catalog of The Kinds of Thoughts We Have.

And now I must get back to my Patrick O'Brian novel....

April 01, 2005

Amba News Service

Ambivablog has been in especially good form lately, seeking and commenting upon unusual news items from around the world. Here she tells us about an appalling fad arising from modernization in China, and here she alerts to us a single, underrreported sentence, spoken by a diplomat, that could be a harbinger of Mideast peace. Check it out!

Memory: Things We Carried

Lately I’ve been remembering my school days, something I rarely do anymore. So apropos of nothing, here’s a list of phonograph albums it was prestigious to be seen carrying through the halls of the Bronx High School of Science circa 1966-1969. Yes, we used to carry 12-inch LPs in our arms along with our books during the school day, the cover art facing outward (this was before students carried backpacks). Why? To show we were hip, of course. There were a couple more defensible reasons too: we might be lending a record to a friend or returning one to him—or making a special trip to his house to play it under just the right conditions. Also, one of our classmates had an uncle/father/someone who owned a record distributorship, and we used to place orders with him for two dollars a record as opposed to the retail four. (I think I’m remembering those prices correctly, but they might have been a dollar or so higher.)

* = personally carried by me
+ = too advanced for me

Eric Andersen: ‘Bout Changes ‘n Things
Big Brother and the Holding Company: Cheap Thrills
Blues Project: Projections*; Live at the Café Au Go Go*
Tim Buckley: Goodbye and Hello; Happy/Sad
Buffalo Springfield: Again; Retrospective
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica+
Country Joe and the Fish: Electric Music for the Mind and Body*; I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die
Cream: Fresh Cream; Disraeli Gears
Doors: first album*; Strange Days*
Fugs: It Crawled into My Hands+
Grateful Dead: Anthem of the Sun*; Aoxomoxoa*
Richie Havens: Something Else Again; Electric Havens
Jimi Hendrix: Are You Experienced?; Axis: Bold as Love; Electric Ladyland
Jefferson Airplane: Surrealistic Pillow*; After Bathing at Baxter's (warning: their website bummed out my browser)
Charles Lloyd: Forest Flower*
Mothers of Invention: Freak Out!; Absolutely Free
Quicksilver Messenger Service: first album*; Happy Trails*
Velvet Underground and Nico: “banana” album+
Who: Sell Out; Tommy

The discerning eye will see that this was not the average American high school of the time. Though I had my quarrels with Bronx Science, one thing about it will always make me proud: by tradition, the prom was cancelled every year for lack of interest. And I hope that still holds true today.

ADDENDUM: The list isn't exhaustive, but it would have been more revealing if I'd added Moby Grape, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.