June 30, 2005

Happy Birthday, Agent 95!

That would be his tenth.

And a more delightful, clever, individualistic, engaging, resourceful, imaginative, inspiring, life–enhancing ten-year-old I can't imagine.

He's at day camp now and they're going to have a pizza party for him at lunch. Meanwhile, we're going to the bicycle shop to pick up his new bike -- don't tell him!

One of his uncles and aunts and two of his cousins are visiting for the long weekend. Later we'll all drive out to Driftwood to sit down to some great barbecue (scroll down to "Regional Variations: Texas" in an unbeatable setting: the Salt Lick.

That's all for today, folks!

June 29, 2005

The Jennifer Aniston Cell

Scientists have found that individual brain cells can recognize celebrities.

Read this great post by Danny Miller and this AP article Danny links to.

I'd rather have a Lisa Kudrow cell than a Jennifer Aniston cell. But they say that drinking kills brain cells, so ... Bartender, another martini!

The Talent of a Great Nation Flies out the Window

Somewhere in America, two guys pseudonymed Thomcat 13 and Bsoholic are pretending to slave away in office cubicles while turning out the funniest blog I've ever read. It's called Fifth Circle of Cubicle Hell and I just learned about it from True Ancestor, who calls it "Hallmark for slackers." I'm blogrolling it immediately.

Several times a week they post lists of 13 neologisms, ranging from mildly amusing to hilarious. (Yesterday's consisted of 13 new terms for a cubicle, including Slack-in-a-Box, Liberal Arts Majors Entry Point, Yuppie Terrarium, Luxury Manhattan Apartment, and Wraparound Turbo Demoralizer 2000.) They also put up engineering jokes, funny graphics ridiculing computer technology, and uncategorized lists and comic routines, often with a mock-theological slant. My favorites include Where Deleted Characters Go (which includes Catholic, Buddhist, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals interpretations, among others), Theological Questions for a Computer Programmer, Answer Machine Messages for a Mental Health Hotline, and an amazing piece of wordplay called Dejobbed?

Thomcat 13 does most of the words and bsoholic most of the images.

Go there if you'd rather laugh than work.

June 28, 2005

The Preacher's Comeback

Once there was a wonderful preacher. He came from a poor family and no one knew much about his early life, so he must have had some kind of special gift to do the things he did. Some people said he’d spent his young manhood in the desert with the holy men, learning their visions and their healing arts.

He had a cousin who was a preacher too. This cousin was loud and flashy. He went around shouting to crowds about how they had to change their ways before the end of the world came. He told them they’d better get ready. Meanwhile he himself was looking around for the thing he was ready for.

The cousin talked to the young man. Told him, You’ve got something special. Come on the road with me. But they must have had some kind of fight or something, or else the cousin got jealous, because the young man decided to go on the road by himself.

Right away he found that he was good at it. It wasn’t like he’d never had any practice – speaking to the elders and the holy men and their students – but this was something new. He would come into a town and start talking quietly to anyone who was there. No flashy style like his cousin. And people started following him. Not many, but those who did follow him thought he was the greatest. They couldn’t bear to be out of his sight.

It was like he was picking up strays: tramps male and female, loafers in bars, tax collectors. They all of a sudden started acting good.

He would talk to people and lay his hands on them and they would feel better. They would feed him and his followers. Man, did those guys like to eat and drink, and then they were off to the next town.

There were lots of preachers and healers wandering around in those days. It was a regular industry. Everyone was expecting something really special to happen, something to shake things up. This guy healed too: someone even said he’d brought a guy back from the dead. But that wasn’t the main thing.

There was something about his voice and his looks and the way he acted, always so calm and with a little smile, but distant, like he really belonged somewhere else. And he said things that went right into you. Some of them were things you’d never heard before, so you’d turn to your neighbor and say, “Where’d he get this stuff?” Even the things that had been said before, he said better than anyone else, so simply that you could remember it. When he spoke, it was like you’d cupped your hands and pure, clean, sunlit water was poured into them.

When he went into the big town with his little group of followers, no one much noticed at first. Then he started making trouble at the temple and getting wise with the authorities. They checked him out, put him through the usual questioning, and he just shrugged them off, gave them doubletalk. It was bound to raise their suspicions. It was like he was asking for trouble.

A rumor went around that they wanted to arrest him, so he and his group melted into the populace for a little while. But a guy like that can’t hide forever. It’s like trying to hide a box that’s got the sun inside it.

Finally one of his own followers turned him in for a little cash. Who knows, maybe this creep had been looking for some other kind of leader. Just goes to show, the preacher didn’t choose his followers all that well.

The poor guy. Here he was, going around preaching goodness, and the next thing he knows he’s whisked up by soldiers, jailed, scourged – you don’t want to know the details. Got more than he bargained for.

The government back then was stringing up anyone they didn’t like the looks of. This guy got the full treatment, nails and all. The word must have come down from somewhere.

His followers were in shock. They couldn’t believe it. Hung up there with common criminals, and helpless -- they’d expected him to fly off the cross or something, to save himself. Afterwards, they scattered so the same thing wouldn’t happen to them. It was dicey: people pointing them out along the way, and they having to deny it.

They went back to their safe house and just sat their stunned. They didn’t know what to say, what to do. It was all over. All that preaching for nothing. He wasn’t the real thing after all. They felt deceived -- betrayed not only by that little creep they thought was their friend, but by their leader. They’d given up their old lives for him, and now he was gone, thrown away like a dirty rag by authorities who didn’t even waste a second thought on him.

Utter despair. They started making their separate private plans to go back to their old lives, their taverns and doorways.

Then one of them came in from outside and said that the preacher’s body was gone from the tomb. Later, another one came in and said that people had been seeing the preacher. That’s right, seeing him like he was alive. Like he’d brought himself back from the dead.

The stories spread like wildfire. Soon, people who’d never seen or heard the preacher were talking about how he’d come back from the dead and was going to come back still another time to make everything perfect. There are lots of stories around -- people love rumors -- but this one didn’t die, it kept spreading, and people kept adding to it. People who’d never heard of the guy while he was alive started become his most devoted followers. They were so convinced of it, they convinced others and it never stopped.

They talked about his resurrection. But what really got resurrected was their movement. His teachings could have died with him on the cross, but they came back to life stronger than ever. No one would ever have expected it. One of the strangest things that ever happened. A real rebirth, as plain as day. The church they made around him: that was his real resurrection.

June 27, 2005

New Blog: Mr. Gobley

When I started this blog six months ago, my intention was to put up a lot of very terse writings on so-called spiritual matters from a sort of Americanized Taoist or Buddhist perspective. Brief stories, parables, challenging observations, questions, that would be entertaining and provocative.

I've strayed from that for the simple reason that I don't know enough to put up that kind of post every day or every other day. I still hope to put up that kind of post whenever I have an idea worth exposing to others.

In the meantime, a guy named Mr. Gobley has recently started a blog with very much the kind of approach and content I initially aimed for, except that he writes free verse rather than fiction. (He's also got cute lists and observations and so forth, which I like very much.) I like his June 20 prose piece on "Why We Toil" and his June 17 bulleted list "Mr. Gobley Sez" and his June 22 poem "Prayer for the Moment" and his June 25 poem "What Do You Care?", which is addressed to an atheist.

Mr. Gobley seems to know Buddhism better than I do, but to be open to Western religions as well, and he has an endearing faux-naif humorous style. I'll be reading him often. Shouldn't you??

PS, I first learned about him from links on AmbivaBlog.

Sunday Evening at the Dell Diamond

A friend of the family generously gave us tickets from a block her corporation had bought to see the Round Rock Express, a Triple-A farm team of the Houston Astros, last night at the Dell Diamond, a pretty, well–equipped, spanking clean ball park named for local magnate and philanthropist Michael Dell. It was my first visit to a ballpark in many years. Our seats were seven rows behind the first–base dugout – great seats. And it was good to see a baseball diamond from close up again, the butch–cut grass watered green, and the red sand neatly combed, waiting to be exuberantly mussed. The players warmed up lazily in the outfield, just as in the old days, tossing balls around, stretching, chewing.

The electronic scoreboard was small by major–league standards, but its video screen was blaring from the moment we arrived. Interviews with team members and fans told us how great an experience it was to play for, and watch, the Express. A commercial for Blockbuster Video showed a trailer for some appalling formula movie -- the one about the tough guy who meets his match when forced to take care of children. I’ve seen the same trailer many times with different movie titles, but I’ve never seen one of those movies.

To get us pumped up for the game, the loudspeaker played Susan Sarandon’s speech on “the church of baseball” from the great baseball movie BULL DURHAM. She’s tried other churches – worshipped Krishna, worshipped Buddha, worshipped trees – but none satisfies like the church of baseball. A medley of songs began to play – songs about Sunday, since it was a Sunday game, such as “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” I wondered how many people in the stands realized that “Pleasant Valley Sunday” derides people just like them. I wondered how many of them were offended by the idea of worshipping a ball game. But the words don’t matter, only the tone: that is the new American epistemology.

The game began, and there were sound effects for every occurrence. There was an animation when the batter walked and an animation when the batter struck out. When a foul ball hit the plate glass front of the upper–tier boxes, the loudspeaker was ready with sound effects of shattering glass. The opposing team’s foul balls were greeted, for some reason, with sound effects of barnyard animals. Snippets of appropriate clichéd rock songs prompted us to jeer at the opposing pitcher’s wild pitch or to cheer when we had two runners on base. A “noise meter” flashed periodically on the screen, egging us on to cheer louder. People dutifully cheered louder for five seconds or so, then lapsed into silence.

Between innings, there were the games and contests that have become obligatory. A woman representing a local emporium stood on the dugout, microphone in hand, and sang “You Are My Sunshine” with a volunteer from the crowd, until they were gonged by the public address announcer. The team mascot danced, and tossed team tee shirts into the stands. The announcer -- he actually was much more like a radio disc jockey than a stadium announcer, he sounded like he was auditioning for a morning show -- called out the identifying numbers of seats whose occupants had won, for example, a tanning session (in Texas in June?) or a discount at an auto parts store.

So much more noise than in stadiums of the past, and yet so much less participation. I spent a good deal of my childhood at temples of baseball: Yankee Stadium and Shea, and once even the Polo Grounds. We didn’t think of ourselves as worshipping baseball, but we knew how to watch a game. We knew who the players were and when to cheer and when to boo and why. We called out to the players, we razzed the umpires, we argued with fellow fans, we commented on every play, all while keeping score with the arcane notation of the scorecard, learned not much later than the letters of the alphabet. In contrast, underneath the obnoxious noise of the scoreboard and the loudspeaker, the fans at this game were oddly quiet. They responded when the scoreboard told them to, and then they stopped.

I think a big part of it is that people don’t know baseball as well as they used to. At my youngest son’s age, eight, I knew every player and identified passionately with many of them. My sons are good athletes -- swimmers and divers, and the youngest loves to play soccer and basketball -- but I wonder if they could name a single major league baseball player. My ten–year–old got into a debate with a kid sitting next to him about how many innings a baseball game has, based on the fact that the scoreboard shows a tenth inning. Fortunately, my son at least got that one right.

Why do they go, if they don’t know the game and don’t care enough to watch the plays? I think it’s gotten to the point where all entertainment is interchangeable. A baseball game might as well be a basketball game which might as well be a reality TV show which might as well be the evening news. The singers standing on the dugout could have been at a karaoke bar for all the difference it made. The noisy animations could have taken place in a living room or a movie theater. People come to fulfill their cultural duty of spending money on unhealthy snacks.

During the games I went to as a child, it was quiet enough so that you could hear the ballplayers calling to each other. At this game, I didn’t hear any sound coming from the players themselves. I didn’t see a single individual gesture or change of facial expression on a player. They went about their task grimly, as if blocking out all the distractions around them. On the other hand, the pitched ball slamming into the catcher’s glove was as loud as dolbyized sound in a special effects movie: it must have been miked.

This wasn’t a baseball game, it was a reality show in which a few chosen winners would get to go to the big leagues. Just as the fan standing on the dugout was willing to humiliate himself before a crowd on the off–chance of winning a trumpery prize, the players were exposing their talent to an uncaring public on the off–chance of a million–collar contract.

Love this game? Worship this game? When you really love doing something, you don’t need a loudspeaker telling you that you do. Corporate America has come to seem like an anxious, oversolicitous parent, throwing every possible game and toy and overblown enrichment at its children in the desperate hope that they won’t get bored and rebel. But kids don’t need that stuff. They’d rather just be let out into the park to find other kids, and make up their own games. And unlike parents, corporate sponsors don't have our betterment in view.

It was a pretty good game on the field, if you cared to notice. Our pitcher was rocky in the first inning -- hit the first batter, allowed a walk and a hit and a run -- but then settled down and gave up only two more hits and no runs until he was relieved before the ninth. He might get that contract.

Meanwhile, earlier in the day, another local team the University of Texas Longhorns, won the College World Series for the sixth time in their history. They have a lovely ballpark with few electronic distractions. From now on, if I want to go to a baseball stadium, I think I’ll go there.

UPDATE: Dean, over at the excellent libcon blog Dean's World, has a link to a delightful Dallas Observer article about how Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter while tripping on acid in 1970. Ellis is a prison drug counselor now and still a larger-than-life character.

June 26, 2005

A Sunday Post

Every day I toss a sheet of paper into the well of the past. Every day I pour a glass of water into the surf.

It’s good clean water, too, and some of the things scribbled on the paper are worth catching and reading on their way down.

Blogging is the best training in awareness of evanescence. I work on every post with as much sincerity as I would put into the same number of words in a novel. And there it goes.

Of course I’m doing the same thing when I write a novel, but a book is heavier to throw down the well than a single sheet. And I don’t have a new book to throw every day.

I have my archive, though. That’s my last resistance. I rarely enter my archive, but if it were lost I’d be heartbroken.

My hope is that one of my biological descendants will discover it and be inspired. It will help him or her do something really good, something that will really last. This great–grandchild will look back and send me a message of thanks.

Or there will be scholars who study the blogging phenomenon of the early twenty–first century. They may not even be human -- they may be artificial intelligences. Somehow they will hit upon my archive and include it among their sources, helping them learn what life here was like. So while I will never be widely known, I will always be known to about six readers.

This is my hope of resurrection.

June 25, 2005

Literary Rivalry, Part 2

“I write every day whether I feel like it or not,” a writer tells me. “Doing something when you don’t feel like it is the sign of professionalism. I wrote 587 words yesterday, down from my average of 624. Today I hope to achieve at least 700. I write in a sub–basement bunker with foot–thick concrete walls and daylight–mimicking lamps, lined with editions of my books in every language. My wife sends coffee and sandwiches through a dumbwaiter.”

“I only write when I feel like it,” I tell him. “When I get an idea, I try my best to shirk writing it down. If it presses through all my laziness, I know it’s worth putting on paper. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a prose poem, ‘The Blue Flower.’ That’s enough for a while. I need to loaf around and look around before I can be ready for another such effort. Anyway, it’ll take some time to find a calligrapher and a framer for ‘The Blue Flower.’ Yes, your wife described your bunker to me. It was fun helping make the sandwiches.”

June 24, 2005

Literary Rivalry

“I’ve been to the Himalayas for my books,” a writer tells me. “I’ve been to the cloud forests and the deserts, to the famine lands and the killing fields, I’ve gone to sea for my books and I’ve gone to war for my books.”

“I’ve gone to the café for my books,” I tell him. “I’ve gone to the restaurants and the bars, to the library and the street. I’ve stayed in my house for my books and I’ve gone to your house -- when you were gone, my friend, I’ve gone to your house for my books.”

June 23, 2005

Evening Ritual

In the still summer twilight he steps out in the scent of magnolia and honeysuckle and chooses which streets, which turnings. He loves when the light falls in the evenings and he is alone in the shadows. There is a held moment when the light inside the houses balances the light outside. And then the darkness comes on and the lights brighten to surpass it.

Hardly aware of what is in front of him, he is looking from side to side at the lit windows. Here is a lonely yellow lamp on an end table, warding off burglars. Here is a computer screen: someone who was sitting at it has just gotten up. In another house a television is on, the television characters acting as if they own the living room. In another living room people stand holding drinks, their talk and laughter spilling into the street. And here are two people at a table under a chandelier, eating together.

He has always felt this way about them, the people he will never know. They have lives, they have one another, and he is outside in the dark wondering. His childhood memories are of this: walking past a classmate’s lit windows and wondering what the mother was cooking for dinner; walking past a girl’s porch light and wanting to ring the bell. Why is he always out here? Why is he not in there with them?

He turns onto another street, then the next, and closing the loop he reaches a street where there is only one light on, toward the end of the block. An uncovered bulb floods the porch, and behind it there are bright ceiling lights in unshuttered windows. He quickens toward that house. He climbs the porch steps. Should he ring the bell? No, he has the key.

He walks in, and children rush toward him, grabbing him, shouting, “Daddy!” And his legs drag them forward with him, toward a woman who says his name.

“Did you have a nice walk? Where did you go? What did you see?”

“Nothing special,” he says, and looks into a cooking pot, smelling the food, and sits at a table under a chandelier. Now he can face it.

June 21, 2005

My Mother Has Cancer

I sent the following email to my two grown sons and their mother last night. (Hyperlinks added.)


A couple of weeks ago (some time after my June 2 blog post about her health) my mother was taken to the emergency room with vomiting and other messy problems, and a workup showed that she had severe anemia. We were surprised, since a checkup less than a month before had shown only the beginnings of anemia. She also turned out to have an enlarged spleen, and I think the doctors immediately suspected she had some kind of lymphoma or leukemia. I think it must have flared up quite fast. She had a transfusion last week that effectively overcame the anemia, but a bone marrow transplant showed that she had mantle cell lymphoma (MCL), a relatively uncommon type of non-Hogkins lymphoma. This is a type of lymphoma with a poor prognosis; in fact it's considered incurable by current methods. In younger patients, aggressive chemotherapy can prolong life somewhat, but the average survival span is still only 3 years. My mother at 84 is far too frail to undergo chemotherapy. The treatment would kill her more quickly than the disease, and more painfully.

She's being looked after by a hematologist at Yale Medical Center, and today the doctor told her the news. My brothers and I knew about it a few days ago, but we wanted the doctor to be there when Mom heard about it -- both because he could answer questions, and because he could probably break the news more gently, more skillfully, than we could. (Andy tells me he seems like a good doctor and a decent person.) So we arranged the consultation for today when he was available. And I didn't want to tell people until my mother herself knew, so although I prepared John for it last night over the phone, I didn't tell all I knew.

As it turns out, the situation is a bit more hopeful than I would have said last night. For one thing, this is not a painful form of cancer. The major symptom as it progresses is fatigue due to anemia, and for a time -- probably some months -- periodic transfusions can again overcome that. She also may be receiving treatment with ritumixab, a monoclonal antibody that fights antigens found on the malignant cells. This could help prolong her useful life, and its side effects are usually minor.

The doctor didn't mention a time estimate today and Mom didn't ask, but last week the doctor told Andy that it might be a year or less. Given Mom's age, I think it might be less.

The good and surprising thing, though, is that her spirits are good, her attiitude is calm and accepting. She's always prided herself on being a good patient. She's been talking about getting her affairs together, and my brothers have had good, loving conversations with her. I'm going to fly out there in about three weeks to spend a few days with her.

Before she got the news, she was notably optimistic and looking forward to doing whatever had to be done to fight the disease. In fact, in her lifetime of negativism, I'd never known her to be so optimistic about anything. I was afraid she'd be devastated to learn that nothing can really be done. But she's remained as optimistic as can be under the circumstances. In her family, I think people have always responded better to bad news than to good. That has it uses.

She's at a rehab center now. She was getting exercises to strengthen her legs and arms in preparation for a hoped-for return to her assisted living center. We're not clear what's going to happen now as far as care. We may find her a private apartment with 24-hour care. At some point, when medicine and transfusions lose their effect and she grows weaker, she'll probably go to a hospice. That was explained to her, and according to Andy, she seemed to accept it -- possibly by blocking it out to some extent.

Her phone number at the rehab center is [deleted]. It's best to call her in the afternoon. She should be there a few more days. I'm sure she would love to hear from you.

A few facts about MCL:

• It represents about 0.24% of all cancers
• It strikes men much more than women, and usually people over 50
• It can remain dormant for an undetermined time before diagnosis, and is often discovered by accident
• No cause is known, but it's related to a chromosomal translocation -- a sort of mutation, but one that isn't inherited. There's speculation that this genetic problem is caused by exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, hair dye (my mother didn't dye her hair), etc.
• The diagnostic category of MCL is new, and still not universally established throughout the world

For more, see:
Lymphoma Information Network

I'll keep you informed as time goes on -- let you know her new addresses and phone numbers and how she's doing.


June 20, 2005

Midland, Texas: The He Brew Cafe

If I ever pass through Midland, Texas, I’m going to stop by the He Brew for a cup of coffee. This donation–based Christian coffeehouse on Illinois Avenue serves latte, cappuccino, pastries, and more, in four large, pleasant wood–floored rooms. It caters to “a spectrum of age ranges, a bouquet of denominations and a rainbow of personalities,” according to the Odessa American’s religion page. (Odessa is the more blue–collar sister city of white–collar Midland.) Christians ranging from Catholics to Presbyterians go there for a laidback, loving atmosphere. Owner Regina Kuethe opened the place in order to spread the love of God. And the customers respond by donating not only money for their food and drink, but paintings for the walls, books for the shelves, and ingredients for baking.

“People feel a part of the place,” Kuethe said. “They feel drawn to give to it. Like the Israelites, they each give according to their talents.”

I like the idea of this every bit as much as I’d like the idea of the latest Hindu or Rastafarian or orthodox Jewish hangout in Brooklyn. I heard about it from my friend the liberal San Francisco educational reformer, previously introduced in my recent PC Hotel post. She was in Midland on a mission to spread the gospel of progressive education to the unbelievers. What she found were kind hosts, an audience with an open mind, and a surprisingly diverse population. (We looked up the county’s 2004 election statistics and found that over 40% had voted for Kerry rather than native son George.) She was talking to an Asian traveler who is familiar with the University of Texas of the Permian Basin (a college named for an oil field from a prehistoric time which many of the local residents believe never happened). “They are simple people,” the man said and spoke admiringly of Midlanders’ love of family and of the land.

Was I upset by the name of the cafe, my friend inquired? Not at all. I’m not one of these contemporary professional ethnics who gets offended at a well–intentioned acknowledgment of my people. I know the difference between hostility and friendship. Sure, they’d like to convert me, but I can take care of myself, and if they ever succeeded -- well, there would have to be a pretty good reason for it, I’ll tell you that.

The New Brooklyn

Brooklyn, NY is the fourth largest city in the US, bigger than San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, and St. Louis combined. It has always been a wildly colorful and diverse place, and is more so now, evolving rapidly and beautifully into a cornucopia of new immigrant cultures. My old stomping ground of the early 1980s, Park Slope, would be out of my price range now but is more than ever a mecca for writers.

Read this excellent NYT feature story by Suketu Mehta. He knows whereof he speaks: he's not only a Brooklynite, but the author of MAXIMUM CITY: BOMBAY LOST AND FOUND.

It makes me want to go back.

June 19, 2005

D________ A________ D________

My young sons, Agents 95 and 97, made Father's Day cards for me this morning, drawing in multimedia on construction paper. Agent 95 made an acrostic. He wrote the letters of "DAD" in large captials vertically:




And then he filled in a word beginning with each of those three letters. He's been working on his vocabulary this summer and apparently chose the first three words he found:




Remarkably apt, I thought.

Austin Notes: The PC Hotel

A friend of ours is visiting Austin on business this week, and since the friend is a liberal educational reformer from San Francisco, we had the bright idea of recommending that she stay at the environmentally progressive Habitat Suites hotel. We’d never stayed there ourselves, but Habitat Suites boasts of its “commitment to creating an environmentally sustainable future for us all.” Its special features include:

• Grounds maintained with the use of natural, nontoxic fertilizers and pesticides
• Nontoxic, phosphate-free, natural cleansers used in cleaning
• Air ozonators/ionizers used for clean air quality in suites
• Biodegradable, recycled, unbleached paper products/recycling program
• Ladybugs populate the grounds, fostering healthy plants the natural, chemical-free way

Energy efficiency and water and air quality are top priorities. There are rooms for chemically sensitive guests. Air conditioning costs are decreased (a nice stroke of environmentalist capitalism) through window tinting, radiant barriers, shade trees, and high efficiency AC units. There are water–saving showerheads, toilets, and sprinklers, a waterless urinal in the guest house, and the option of reusing towels. Coreless toilet paper made of 100% recycled content; individual recycling bins in each suite; an employee incentive program for “green” innovations. A planned rainwater catchment system will irrigate 2.5 acres of “densely planted vegetable gardens.” In 1999, 2001, 2003, and 205 the hotel won this, that, and the other prestigious awards, nominations, and recognitions from city, state, and business groups.

“Although all people and businesses could take similar actions, few in fact, have done so,” the hotel website modestly states. “These actions are what make us different. Our guests appreciate these efforts. Habitat Suites enjoys a loyalty almost unheard of in the transient hospitality industry. We have been actively working to make our hotel a model of environmental stewardship.”

Okay, so she goes to the hotel, and it’s physically pleasant enough, but what she mainly notices are the prohibitions posted everywhere. You can’t take food from the restaurant onto the patio directly outside, where there are tables that seem suspiciously well–suited to food placement. There is a $125 fee for any guest caught smoking. There is “quiet time” from 9 pm to 9 am every day: guests who feel that their quiet has been interrupted are urged to call the desk.

At the breakfast buffet, there are some traditional dishes like biscuits and gravy, but a prominent sign urges the guest to make the healthy choice of chilled groats.

In the bathroom, the towels have been environmentally correctly laundered with some unidentified cleaner that, according to our friend, smells like cat pee.

Oh, well. Our friend is tired from traveling, and settles into bed for a needed night’s rest. In the middle of the night, the bedside phone rings, awakening her from deep sleep. It is a male guest at the hotel, unidentified.

“You’re bouncing,” the man says irritably. “There is a quiet time policy at this hotel and your bouncing is keeping me awake.”

Confused and still half–asleep, our friend tries to tell this loyal Habitat Suites guest that his call woke her from sleep rather than catching her bouncing. In reply, he hangs up without a word.

In the morning our friend switched to a good chain hotel.

June 18, 2005

Lucy in the Sky is Dead

Lucy Richardson, 47, was a British movie art director and the probable inspiration for John Lennon's song LUCY IN THE SDKY WITH DIAMONDS. She died on June 1 after a two-year battle with breast cancer. Read more about her in this Entertainment News story.

Via novelist/blogger Bill Crider of Alvin TX.

Via Texas observer-at-large Brazosport News.

June 17, 2005

Europe in Decline

I'm always skeptical when I see a title with the formula, "The End of _________."the end of history, the end of religion, the end of American dominance -- all those claims and more have been obviously way premature.

But here's a WP column by Robert Samuelson that cogently sums up reasons why Western Europe may be on its way out as a global power. And it succinctly relates this to European anti-Americanism:

It isn't a strong American ally, not simply because it disagrees with some U.S. policies but also because it doesn't want to make the commitments required of a strong ally. Unwilling to address their genuine problems, Europeans become more reflexively critical of America. This gives the impression that they're active on the world stage, even as they're quietly acquiescing in their own decline.

Nothing all that original here, but a concise restatement of what many others have pointed out. The article is currently tied for #5 on Blogdex.

Potential Teenage Bomber

If Tashnuba Hayder wasn't one before the FBI got to her, she's more likely to be one now.

Given the trouble the US Army is having recruiting teenagers, the government would have been better off giving her the traditional choice for young criminal suspects: military service.

June 16, 2005

Slow Days

Even The Glittering Eye, yesterday, said that he was glazing over on "an incredibly quiet, dull day in the blogosphere." And no one even bothered to comment on his post! Today he's directing us to the Carnival of the Vanities, which appears to be relatively uninteresting this week -- mostly the predictable politics.

Ann is guestblogging for Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) at msnbc.com this week -- she doesn't have anything up there yet this morning -- but on her own site she has an adorable picture of our son Chris -- otherwise known as Agent 83 -- as a child. Chris looks like me but handsomer, by the way. You can link from there (or here) to a lot of other photos on our son John's (Agent 81's) site. A couple of old pictures of me appear on page 4.

Best thing I've read in the blogosphere this morning is Ambivablog's latest essay on Intelligent Design, quoting extensively from a writer named Fred Reed who asks sharp and witty questins about evolutionary theory as faith. Excellent comment section too. I'm not an Intelligent Design fan -- I accept the theory of evolution and consider it to be the mechanism by which an unknown, probably unknowable god created our universe. I do think evolutionary theory has difficulty explaining certain things and, just as psychology has advanced away from Freud, evolutionary theory will progressively advance away from pure Darwinism.

Fred Reed's essay, in turn, appears on the site of a guy named Lew Rockwell whom I haven't heard of before. Rockwell advertises himself as being "anti-state, anti-war, pro-market," and gives space to a variety of writers on various topics, as well as having a blog of his own.

And Dilys, who is always worth checking, links today to Be via me, on the Japanese composer Takemitsu and on math education (which happens to be my wife Agent 61's professional field, but I'll leave it to her if she ever wants to set foot in that blogomorass).

Now go out there and browse!

June 15, 2005

Youth Wants to Know

With the perfect logic of almost ten years, Agent 95 asks, "If people didn't wear clothes, would they put clothes on to have sex?"

June 14, 2005

Movie Meme

Nappy40 has received and responded to a movie meme and put out a general challenge to her blogfriends to respond to it. It’s a hard one for me because it asks what movies mean the most to you, and to tell you the truth, movies don’t mean that much to me anymore. I still see as many movies as ever, but I watch them purely for entertainment and mostly I forget about them afterward, even the foreign ones that are supposedly artistically meritorious. Few movies in recent years have made a lasting impression on me, much less affected the way I see the world or the way I want to see myself. The movie in recent years that made the most lasting impression on me was the Danish import THE CELEBRATION, not because it has any personal meaning for me but because I simply thought it was a great and harrowing piece of work. Also I’ll see anything written by Charlie Kaufman: ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, ADAPTATION, and BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. There are directors whose names will draw me into the theater, because I trust their talent to create something enjoyable: Ridley Scott, for one. But it’s not that those films live in me the way, for instance, Chekhov lives in me.

In order to say what movies mean the most to me, I’ll have to send myself back in time and say which ones would have meant most to me twenty years ago. Back then I would have said ANNIE HALL and SEVEN SAMURAI and THE SEARCHERS. I would have picked a Truffaut for the list, probably THE 400 BLOWS, and Herzog’s AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD. A couple of screwball comedies, most likely BRINGING UP BABY and HIS GIRL FRIDAY – and a hilarious one, DESIGN FOR LIVING, with Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, and Frederic March, which I've never found on video. A couple of quirky personal choices: JEREMIAH JOHNSON, because it’s both a beautifully done piece of work and it has a hero I can admire unreservedly; ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, because it’s both an epic of Jewish gangsters and a truly strange film. And the first TERMINATOR, because Arnold is better as the villain than as the hero and because it shelters a moving love story inside a futuristic shoot-‘emup. More sf: the first two ALIEN/ALIENS movies, and the 1970s remake of THE FLY with Jeff Goldblum, and both remakes of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. All of them are scary and near-perfect, and several of them are funny. (Not the first INVASION, because I don’t like camp.)

Going further back in time, I can find at least one movie that meant a lot to me as boy: THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG–DISTANCE RUNNER, with Tom Courtenay. No big mystery why -- the title tells you. And there are many British black-and-white movies from the old days that have charmed and delighted me.

I still like all those movies, but I don’t have much desire to see any of them again, except for DESIGN FOR LIVING because it’s been so long since I have. I’ve seen all of them at least three times apiece (except ONCE UPON A TIME -- it’s too long to see often), but what do they mean to me, how are they part of me? I just don’t know. None of the ones I’ve become acquainted with in adulthood has gone as deep into me as the books that have shaped me. I think making a movie takes at least as much talent as writing a book, but the talent is dispersed among many people; I don’t believe that a movie director is as much an author as cineastes claim. In many excellent films, the art director and the editor are as much responsible for the look of the film as the director is. I think I need to fasten onto an author, identify with an author, in order to be deeply affected by a work of art. I’m too old to fasten onto a movie character that way.

As for what movies I own, they’re all kids’ movies. The ones I like best are the Miyazaki animations, KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. Delightful, beautifully done fantasies.

What was the last movie I saw? Some expensive piece of crap -- it doesn’t even matter.

June 13, 2005

Highway 16 Revisited

The test of how much you like a place is to revisit it after a short time and see if its charms survive. I took the kids back to the Kerrville Folk Festival this weekend, my wife being at a conference in Washington DC. Two main reasons to return: to have a chance to camp overnight, which we hadn’t done last week, and more importantly to continue a philosophical conversation with my friend Randy that demanded something more than email.

When did this visit’s disenchantments begin? Maybe it was the discovery that our intended campsite had been taken by strangers the night before our arrival, so that we had to cram our tent between others with so little room that the result was a tent slum. Maybe it was a performer’s political joke that got the audience laughing uproariously at the idea of harm to an elected official -- in the same state where their oilmen enemies once toasted the death of John F. Kennedy. Maybe it was the way a hippie can become simultaneously authoritarian and lazy when you give him the awesome power of a parking attendant.

Or maybe it’s that I’m getting old enough to prefer a thick mattress in a quiet room to a sleeping bag on uneven ground, with the neighbors playing music till sunup.

Oh well, it was a mixed pleasure but there was real pleasure in it too: a remote creek where you could ride a small waterfall and get poured into a bubbly swimming hole better than any whirlpool bath; a country store where a sign threatened to fine any customer $10 who was “grumpy, irritable or just plain mean”; the chance to meet a gifted songwriter who is an environmental activist in his native Appalachia, an abrasive, funny guy who makes $10,000 in a good year and sometimes gets jailed for his efforts and who prefers Rotary/Kiwanis audiences to Unitarians; the chance for the kids to make a new friend, a Winnipeg boy named Sage.

But what really ticked me off was the way one of my new camping acquaintances asked me if I would take some of her belongings back to Austin in my car because there wasn’t enough room in hers. Okay, no problem, an easy favor, right? Later that night she got a film–can stash from one of those bins and rolled a couple of joints to pass around. It dawned on me that she was in all likelihood asking me to transport dope for her, in a state where possession penalties can be very severe.

And she hadn’t even offered me a toke! I would have passed it on unpuffed -- haven’t smoked since college -- but still, there is such a thing as good manners.

Fortunately, when we packed up and left the next day she was off hula-hooping to folk music down by the stage and had seemingly forgotten her request.

And so we left Kerrville, driving past all the little landmarks on State Highways 16 and 290 that have become as familiar as faces you pass in a school hallway, faces of kids in other classes, other cliques. The power lines over the dip of Turtle Creek that tell you when you’re almost at the festival site; the overhead walkway at the hospital; the donut shop and the barbecue place that we always pass at inconvenient times; the cancerous horror of chain motels and big–box stores that used to be the lovely little boutique town of Fredericksburg; the wildflower farm with its contrasting fields of yellow and purple; the rainwater farm, home of the nation’s first commercial enterprise for bottling rainwater, with its cluster of rain–catching vats, each a different chalky color; the sign for a store called Althaus Acres (what?); the impossibly small and rickety town of Hye, which seems to exist mainly so that someone can keep the job of postmaster; the town of Blumenthal, where a friend of mine with that name once stayed at the Blumenthal Farms B & B so his family could have their picture taken under its sign…

And back to Austin, a place that, like New York, faithfully renews its charms with each return.

June 11, 2005

Gone Camping

I'l be away for the weekend. See you Monday!

June 10, 2005

The Place

He’s only been there once, when he was twenty–five. It’s not a geographical place, it’s the place where songs come from. When he got there, he happened to be standing at a hotel room window in New Orleans, looking out at a lightning storm, a loud gale pelting the shiny black street and whipping the flags above the hotel awning. The scattered lights on in the windows across the alley, and the person trotting hunched under a poncho against the wall, and the car splashing up a chest–high wake of flood water.

That was the moment when his great song came to him -- the one about rain and wind and the city -- you know it. He had been singing it in a dream, and if the thunder hadn’t wakened him he wouldn’t have remembered it.

He pulled his guitar from under the bed and worked out the chords in two minutes and scribbled the words of the chorus and the first verse on hotel note paper. The rest he filled out after sunrise, when The Place was already receding like something seen from the back of a train.

That song paid for him to stay on the road for a generation and more. It paid for his house and his kids’ schooling.

He’s written a lot of songs since. He’s had to, to fill out albums and set lists. But none of them came from The Place. They were just pieces of craft, carefully constructed and reworked, the products of skill and experience. Even his two smaller hits, the one about loving forever and the one about the big blue sky, didn’t really come from there, though he tried to force them to. From the foothills of The Place, maybe -- from canyon cul de sacs. He doesn’t like playing them anymore, though he has to play them every night. But he never gets tired of playing his one true song.

Countless times he’s tried to figure out how to get back to The Place. He’s returned to the same hotel room. He’s stayed up through lightning and thunder. He’s had people wake him in the middle of the night during rapid eye movement -- he’s even paid for an overnight sleep study in a clinic, instructing the techs to wake him up when he was dreaming.

He knows now that he won’t reach it again by trying. He’s got to just keep living and playing the way he always does -- and keep playing all those other songs -- and hope.

Sometimes he imagines songwriter heaven. They’ll all be there, the ones who could get to The Place just by sitting down at the piano, the ones who got to it five times, ten times, twenty times or more, the ones who lived there all the time and never had to touch down in this world at all. Anyone who’s ever been to The Place is admitted there. Even he, who was only there for a few minutes. They’ll stretch their arms wide and smile when he comes, and say Welcome.

June 09, 2005

When a Nerd Has No Problems...

My favorite proverb is a Russian proverb: “When a peasant has no problems, he buys a pig.”

Here you have your fortunate peasant. He’s been able to buy a small, productive plot of land over the years – he has a good family, strong sons to work the fields, a few chickens, a roof that doesn’t leak – he has time in the evening to smoke his pipe and look at the stars – a few kopecks saved up in a knotted handkerchief buried in the dirt floor. He’s sitting around thinking, “This is a good life, how can I make it better, what should I do now?”

“The Ivanovs bought a pig,” his wife says.

So he walks to market with his knotted handkerchief, and comes back leading a healthy young sow. A promise of ham and bacon, a roast at Christmas, and little piglets who will grow up to enrich him further. Plus a living fourlegged garbage recycler.

And the sow gives him something to do every day. She’s breaking down the fence, she’s fighting with the dog, she’s biting the grandchildren, she’s terrorizing the hens, she’s invading the house, she’s trespassing on the neighbors, she’s spilling garbage all over the ground. He bought all the problems of prosperity.

When a nerd has no problems, he starts a blog. Here it is, after nine o’clock, and I’ve done nothing for two and a half hours but wonder what to post, read other blogs, touch base at metablogs, pore through comment threads, get my thoughts and emotions stirred up about issues I don’t care about in the slightest. If British football (soccer) fans chant derisively “USA! USA!”: at their opponents, is it a sign of Anti–Americanism? Can a computer program tell your racial characteristics and personality by analyzing your photograph? Who were the twenty greatest philosophers of all time?


June 08, 2005

In and out of Holes

Here's a little story I got from Tamar's blog today. She in turn heard it from a professor -- a statistics professor who was also a grief counselor. I don't know where it originated. Enjoy! And may you use it to stay out of holes.

A Story in Five Chapters

Chapter 1. I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost. I am helpless. It isn't my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don't see it. I fall in, again. I can't believe I am in this same place. But it isn't my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I fall in ... it's a habit ... but, my eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter 4. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

Chapter 5. I walk down a different street.

Anne Bancroft

One of the most telling things about Anne Bancroft, who died yesterday at age 73, is that she was only 36 when she played Mrs. Robinson, the sexually avid, drooping–breasted, forty–something adulteress in THE GRADUATE -- only six years older than costar Dustin Hoffman, who played her 21–year–old lover. In taking the role, she put a claim on a classic performance, but she also helped age herself prematurely out of the category of Hollywood sex objects. Not that she ever really belonged in that category -- at 31, in THE MIRACLE WORKER, she triumphed in a role that was singularly starchy and unsexually fierce. Though sultrily attractive, she was the kind of actress you'd want to talk with and laugh with for a long time, not just go to bed with.

And it was perhaps that very quality which made her so tantalizing as Mrs. Robinson. The character utterly refuses to share herself with her lover Benjamin in any way beyond having sex. She prohibits conversation, when there is so obviously so much inside her worth sharing and aching to share. She leaves Benjamin and the audience fascinated and starved, wanting more.

Even the shape of Bancroft's career seems to fit that kind of avoidant appeal. She was a star who appeared only sporadically on the screen, and every time she had a well–publicized role, you said to yourself admiringly, "Look who it is! Where has she been?" This was true even in 1967, five relatively obscure years after THE MIRACLE WORKER.

She exerted an oedipal attraction over me as she did for Benjamin, a character with whom I identified. Bancroft grew up as Anna Maria Italiano in the Bronx, just across the parkway from me (though a generation earlier), and she graduated from my neighborhood high school, Christopher Columbus. (I attended a magnet school instead, and didn't like it.) That makes me think I know a little bit about what she was like -- how she was witty and how she was smart. I think it's part of why she was sharp enough to take a role many successful 36–year–old actresses would have spurned, and take it for the odd reason that it was a good role in a good script with a good director. And I imagine that I know what it was like for her and Mel Brooks for forty years, laughing and talking together and doing nothing to either hide or advertise the fact.

June 07, 2005

The Necessities

He hocked his guitar for gasoline a hundred miles ago. Far from the first time he’s had to do that. It used to bother him a lot -- he’s loved every guitar he’s ever held -- but now he thinks of it as like sending his kids off to college. Some local boy will pick up a Guild twelve–string he couldn’t otherwise afford and play it for pretty girls on the lawn of a dorm building. Meanwhile, the songwriter will still play tonight. The coffeehouse manager will have a cheap but trusty Yamaha in the back room, or as a last resort a plea will go out to the audience and someone will rush off and come back ten minutes later with a new Martin in hand.

Gasoline and other necessities. He’s been able to cut down a lot on overhead since he quit his day job and started living in his car. Just couldn’t see putting up drywall for another month when there were songs to write, people to sing for. Lowering the back seat and putting down two blankets you can make a cozy bed. He used to be a vegetarian but it’s hard to keep that up on the road. Nowadays he eats at McDonald’s at least three times a week -- Wendy’s when he’s got the cash. For three bucks, three double cheeseburgers will keep you going from dinner time all through the show and into the early morning hours, when you’ll crash on the couch of some new acquaintance who’s got stacks of great old vinyl records and some bread and peanut butter in the cupboard. Two meals a day makes most sense, it burns your fuel at an even rate. He can usually scrounge some stale pastry at a coffeehouse, too, and if he’s playing a church on a Saturday night, the next morning he can get coffee and sweet rolls at fellowship. Soup kitchens and community pantries are gold mines of material: at least once a month some new character steps up to him and tells a songworthy life story. There are people who’d pay to hear that kind of thing, and he gets it for free.

Tonight it’s a coffeehouse named for an early socialist heroine, a storefront with drawn–back thin red curtains, yard sale sofas and chairs, vegan scones and cookies (not bad), a glass gallon jar one–third filling with dollar bills. The crowd is small at first but people keep coming; by ten pm it’s standing room, and people are smiling, and there’s just enough cross–chatter to stimulate him to try to overcome it. He sings them all his best ones, saving nothing. He sings the one about the giving mountains, and the one about the oyster and the pearl, and the one about how love is always simple. That one was put on a CD by a singer he knows in Oregon; he once got a royalty check for $15.83. The check made the whole folkie circuit of the central Midwest -- there were postmarks on it from Champaign, Bloomington, West Lafayette, Kalamazoo -- before finally catching up to him in Columbus.

The coffeehouse closes at midnight. The usual types come up and shake his hand -- alas, no lingering girl–hands tonight -- while he’s eyeing the bagel shelf. Someone says he’s going to look up the songwriter’s CD online, but doesn’t actually buy a physical copy from the carton lugged from the trunk of the car.

There’s this one guy who’s hanging around longer, and he’s well dressed and groomed: Polo jeans, a stylish, longish, graying haircut. Talks about the bands he used to play in, the songs he used to play, before he quit to make money.

“Look, come over to my place, we can have a drink, maybe play something,” the guy says, and when the songwriter gives him a suspicious look, quickly adds, “No, not that.” So they drive for a few miles and it’s a McMansion -- a word he’s used in a song, rhyming it with “ranchin’” -- although it looks enough like a real mansion to the songwriter. They sit in big chairs on opposite sides of a fireplace, cognac in snifters on end tables, and the guy hands him an old Gibson Dove, with that blond cowgirl body and soft deep prairie–sky twang, and they play Jimmie Rodgers and Fred Neil and Ewan McColl and Townes, and the next day when the songwriter is waking up on the couch the rich guy calls him to scrambled eggs and espresso and the Dove is standing upright at the kitchen island, and the rich guy lifts it toward him and says, “I never play it anymore. Take it with you, it needs to be played.”

He doesn’t get too upset anymore when he gets a guitar stolen or has to hock it en route. A guitar will always come along. Some people have a word for that, but he tries not to use it since he’s not sure about it. All he’s sure about are the words in his songs, words like railroad and tumbling and home.

June 06, 2005

Reading Meme #2

Rach from Derby, UK, has asked me to fill in a second version of a reading meme, and I’m glad to do it and will try to avoid any books I mentioned the first time.

Here are the categories:

1. Total Number of Books I’ve Owned:

Gee, a couple of thousand? I’ve sold a good many over the years as I’ve moved from place to place, and I’ve always been as much a library borrower as a book buyer. What surprises me, though, is that the total number of books I’ve read in my lifetime probably isn’t as large as I would have thought. Reading a book a week for fifty years gets you a grand total of 2,600 books – hardly a scratch on the surface of what’s available. In the US alone, 10,000 novels are published every year. One per week sounds like a pretty realistic estimate for me, though there have probably been periods, especially in my youth, when I read more.

2. Last Book I Bought:

THE LATHE OF HEAVEN by Ursula K. Le Guin, on the recommendation of Amba. I liked it pretty well – it’s my kind of science fiction, the kind where the nature of the universe changes every few chapters. This time it’s a protagonist whose dreams have the power to change reality. What especially interested me was that this early Le Guin novel lacked this author’s usual preciosity of prose style, and, a possible reason for this, that she was apparently trying to write a Philip K. Dick novel and succeeded. (The ending is a bit weak after the earlier mindblowing, but that’s also true in some of PKD’s novels.)

3. Last Book I Read: That would be the above, and also I’m still reading Patrick O’Brian’s H.M.S. SURPRISE and Pema Chodron’s WHEN THINGS FALL APART as I was a month ago.

4. Five Books That Mean a Lot to Me:
a. THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway. This is the book I turn to when I can’t read anything else, when every other prose style seems turgid and pretentious, when I’m sick of people showing off how deeply they think and how cleverly they put words together. (I've read it five times.) For me, this book is the baseline of narrative prose, so clean and pure it excites me to read almost any random sentence. Hemingway achieved a psychological depth in this book that he never did again, and it’s all between the lines. The suffering that Jake goes through is never directly expressed, but by the time Lady Brett tells him, “Don’t get drunk, Jake,” on the next-to-last page, it is overwhelming. A FAREWELL TO ARMS has lovelier landscape descriptions, but the love story is a cartoon and the war scenes are out of Tolstoy and others. I’ve never cried at Catherine Barkley’s death in A FAREWELL, but I have cried at that line of Lady Brett’s. And the last line of the novel -- “Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” -- seems to me to sum up at least half of all human wisdom.

b. HOW TO SURVIVE THE LOSS OF A LOVE by Melba Colgrove, Harold H. Bloomfield, and Peter McWilliams. This book helped keep me alive and sane when I lost a love a long time ago. It has 120 pages divided into 58 chapters. Each chapter represents a stage in the recovery process, from “One: Recognize the Loss” to “Fifty–Eight: A Pat on the Back for a Job Well Done.” It is extremely simple. You read the introductory chapter, then you read as much as you can of the fifty-eight numbered chapters. At the point where you either stop identifying with the experiences described, or you can’t keep reading, period, you know where you are in the process. Over months or years, you keep rereading the chapters and finding where you are on the stock–exchage graph of your emotional survival. Two notable details: 1) the loss of a love can be broadly interpreted to many any painful loss, such as the loss of a job, a home, a longtime goal, etc; 2) the chapters alternate with New Age doggerel poems by one of the three authors; these are skippable, often embarrassing, but once you’ve reread the book enough times they may come to seem surprisingly worthwhile.

c. GREEK ISLANDS by Dana Facaros. This is a volume in the Cadogan Guides series, a British travel series that in the US has been lost underneath such series as the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet. I like the Cadogans best of all: they’re well written, very knowledgeable, more detailed than most other guidebooks, and several of their authors have distinctive personal views and styles, notably Facaros (who also did Spain) and Barnaby Rogerson (who did Morocco, an even better guidebook but a country I don’t care as much about). I bought this book in the late 1980s and kept underlining it in red -- every island and island town, every beach, every good taverna, every Byzantine church or ancient ruin -- until finally I got to the land of my dreams in 1993 and started adding my own notes in pen. A sample of Facaros’ work: “Coca Cola or retsina cuts down the oil in Greek foods. Lemon juice can also help stomach upsets. The sea quickly cures cuts and abrasions. If anything else goes wrong, the Greek villagers will advise you to pee on it.” 8th edition was published in 2002.

d. SELECTED LETTERS OF JOHN KEATS, (I own the Signet edition edited by Robert Pack, but that's out of print). Keats’ standing among letter writers in English equals his standing among poets in English. These letters are the autobiography of a great soul who observed his own soul–making with unprecedented (and probably unsubsequented) insight. The style is sweet and readable, often humorous; many of Keats’ poems in rough draft are included in letters to his friends and relatives; you get a likable impression of Romantic social life; and you may unexpectedly come upon something like this from 1817: “The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream -- he awoke and found it truth,” or this from February 1820, written to Fanny Brawne: “’If I should die,’ I said to myself, ‘I have left no immortal work behind me -- nothing to make my friends proud of my memory -- but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remembered.’”

e. HEALING THE SHAME THAT BINDS YOU by John Bradshaw. Bradshaw is a famous self-help counselor who has been through the things he writes about, including alcoholism and mental hospitalization, and has healed himself and many others. Although I was well–schooled in psychology from childhood, and quite adept at analyzing myself from a psychoanalytic perspective, it wasn’t until my late forties, when I came upon this book by chance, that I recognized the role of toxic shame in my own life and started being able to undo the damage. Bradshaw lists many varieties of shame, and by the end of the book you may think they all apply to you. But some will register more deeply than others -- you’ll be able to tell by the feeling in your gut -- and Bradshaw’s discussion will help you face those. Along with HOW TO SURVIVE THE LOSS OF A LOVE this is by far the most useful self–help book I have ever read. I also recommend Bradshaw’s BRADSHAW ON: THE FAMILY, which analyzes a number of types of toxic families.

5: Tag five people and have them do this on their blogs:

Anyone who wants to!

June 05, 2005

Kerrville, Texas: It Can’t Be Like This Always

When you first drive into the Kerrville Folk Festival, you see a handlettered sign saying, “WELCOME HOME,” and a sign saying “IT CAN BE LIKE THIS ALWAYS.” My reaction when I read the second sign is always, I hope not.

The Kerrville Folk Festival takes place for three weeks every spring, starting Memorial Day weekend, at Quiet Valley Ranch, fifty hilly acres crisscrossed by dirt roads and generously sprinkled with octajohns: octagonally shaped structures of dark green wood, eight pit toilets per building, with a male and a female building at each site, all sixteen carrying downwind to those who have chosen to camp nearby. There are also a main stage and a secondary stage, a big grassy parking lot, showers, dishwashing sinks, several concession stands, a kids’ arts and crafts center called Kidsville, and a long line of booths selling all your needs from face painting to handmade knives to temporary tattoos to painting and sculptures to handmade sandals and, most of all, long flowing tie–dyed garments in the style of yesteryear.

Most of all, though, what you see at Kerrville is tents -- thousands of them, from single–person jobs made for high–altitude cliffsides, to elaborate pavilions into which the owners have moved beds, rocking chairs, and gourmet kitchen setups. Many of the tents are staked out of the first day, Land Rush day, and many of the campers return to the same site year after year. It’s customary to name your campsite. For example, the place across the road from us is Camp Nekkid, so christened because the occupants like to go around -- well, you can guess how they like to go around. We are Camp Slightly More Modest: we are all above forty, except for the kids. Camp Duct Tape is a sister campsite down the hill, with which Camp Nekkid has instituted an exchange program: one night all the Nekkids go down to Duct Tape to play and listen to music, another night all the Duct Tapes come up to Nekkid (do they come nekkid, or wearing duct tape? I forgot to ask) and play theirs in return.

The campsite next to us is a bunch of our old friends, the White Trash Sociologists. They are a cadre of sociologists -- including a father-and-son sociologist pair -- who are of white trash origin and who study white trash professionally. Their leader, Charlie, is a serious outdoor chef and makes a bangup mass meal every year for anyone who stops by: this year it was Cornish hens and gumbo. Unfortunately, one of the sociologists couldn’t attend this year, as he has come down with cirrhosis. His mates talk about him quietly in tones of nonjudgmental concern, one of them observing that if he doesn’t change his ways, by next year’s festival he won’t be anywhere at all.

Kerrville is a laidback scene, as we used to say, and it’s the most Woodstocklike affair I’ve seen since August 1969. (I’ve never been to the Rainbow Gathering, but I’ve heard that that’s still more so.) The crowd is at least 95% white, undoubtedly because of musical taste. In other ways the population is surprisingly diverse: there are hippies of all ages, from white–haired couples who have apparently dug their fringed buckskins out of the depths of their attics, to golden–dreadlocked couples and shaven–headed acid punks, to little kids who will someday reminisce to their friends, “My parents were…weird.”

Nonstandard people come here, and I like nonstandard people best because all people, underneath, are. There’s a tall, lean Western type guy wearing a cowboy hat, a yellow rain slicker, and purple clogs. There’s an old guy with the thickset body of a retired longshoreman wearing a sleeveless tie–dyed T–shirt and a raspberry beret. There’s a young man gyrating in a solo dance with a straw hat on his head, straw fringes entirely hiding his face. There’s a hippie in laceless boots and dirty cutoffs walking around with a pail, picking up rubber bands and cigarette butts from the ground, considering each one carefully before adding it to his collection.

You can see lots of anti–Bush bumper stickers, of course, on the vehicles unloading at the campsites, but I also see a dusty blue van with an NRA decal and a sticker saying, CHARLTON HESTON IS MY PRESIDENT. And one little campsite annually hangs the Stars and Bars from a laundry line. People don’t get on each other’s cases. At night there are campfires and some people get whooping drunk and a familiar tangy scent drifts on the air. Inebriated software engineers dance in the nude at dawn, singing “The Bare Necessities” from Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK. But all the rebellious energy is released in singing and dancing, not in fighting.

Considering how many people are here and in what condition some of them are in, the campgrounds are remarkably serene, befitting the ranch’s name. No drums are allowed, and no CD players (though almost all the performers sell CD’s for their audience to take home). And unlike most other music festivals, the real action at Kerrville is not onstage. The action consists of songwriters visiting one another’s camps, playing new songs with old and new friends, with nonmusicians like us listening. Hooking up for impromptu duets and trios, sharing tips on good places to play throughout North America, setting up house visits to keep them sheltered on their ever–hopeful travels from coffeehouse to convention to elementary school to Renaissance Fair. Songwriting is the main business at Kerrville. There are workshops and a competition and endless sharing of songs–in–progress at all stages of doneness and at all levels of proficiency. Peter, Paul, and Mary were here last year (Peter and Paul, whose real name is Noel, are major patrons of the festival), but even that rare reunion took second place to the campsite socializing.

The unofficial mayor of the festival is Hippie Karl, a trim middleaged man with Custer–length blond hair and beard who is an ordained Baptist minister, a graduate of a Bible seminary long, long ago. He occasionally performs weddings at the festival, and he keeps an organic garden, and he visits campsites tirelessly -- in part to arrange that leftover food find its way to hungry hippies who have traveled here on slim resources -- and he greets every newcomer with a hug. He has, in fact, hugged me, and I him. Our friend Randy, who is Camp Slightly More Modest’s prime mover, tells me that Hippie Karl’s speaking voice has three discernible levels of severity. At the lowest level, he simply tells you his request: “Could you dump those coffee grounds in the compost heap instead of on the trail?” The intermediate level is the “man” level: “Man, could you dump those coffee grounds in the compost heap instead of on the trail?” But when he gets really serious, “man” turns to “dude”: “Dude, could you dump those coffee grounds in the compost heap instead of on the trail?” The authority in Hippie Karl’s voice at the dude level is practically patriarchal.

In the afternoon we go to the small stage and hear a pretty good fiftyish singer–guitarist with a voice straight out of Bonnie Raitt, accompanied as a matter of fact by Bonnie’s longtime bass player, Freebo. It’s a pocket–size amphitheater with a trap covering -- last night’s puddled rain dripping through the gaps -- and a small kingfisher flying to and fro inside. The hundred or so listeners look as if the kids from a socialist summer camp in the Catskills, circa 1969, had been suddenly zapped with an instant aging ray. “We are such a beautiful family,” the performer says, thanking them for their applause, “and there are so many of us throughout the world, and we are so powerful.” And they look pleased to hear it once again.

Back at the camp, Randy is working at his laptop. (I’m glad I didn’t know in advance that the festival has wireless access this year. I would have felt obliged to bring mine.) Randy is a philosophy professor with shoulder–length hair, and a prolific singer–songwriter and the host of a folk music radio show in Carbondale, Illinois. (His show, “Folk Fiasco,” is on WDBX 91.1 on Wednesays, 10 am till noon, and you can live–stream it at www.wdbx.org, but unfortunately they don’t yet have archiving.) He is writing a chapter for a new volume in the Philosophy and Culture book series, the series that is probably best–known for THE SIMPSONS AND PHILOSOPHY and SEINFELD AND PHILOSOPHY. He already has a chapter in the forthcoming THE ATKINS DIET AND PHILOSOPHY; this new chapter is for HARLEY-DAVIDSON and philosophy. (They’re digging deep into the well of American popular iconology.) Randy’s chapter is called “The Biker Bar and the Coffee House, With an Ontology of Suicide Machines.” I read the chapter sitting on a folding chair under the campsite awning. It’s good! Four classical schools of thought -- the epicurean, the skeptic, the cynic, and the stoic -- are exemplified by composite characters Randy knew in a past life playing rock music at biker bars. In addition, the question, “Would Bruce Springsteen ride a Harley or a Honda?” is examined ontologically. Randy, who admits out front that he is a Honda rider and knows his place as such, concludes that the iconic Boss definitely rides a Harley, and that it doesn’t matter what the real live Boss rides or would ride. (Randy also concludes that Jesus would ride a Harley, and in fact the whole thing is a little too St. Paulish for me, dismissing historical human reality in favor of mythmaking.)

We’ve been going to the festival for three years now, the same amount of time I’ve known Randy and his wife Gaye and his brother–in–law Bruce, and each year there’s at least one powerful, unexpected interaction we take away with us. The first year it was a lovely song called "Beneath My Quilt" played at our campsite by a woman named Karen Mal. The second year it was a hilarious satirical song called “Jesus Was an American” -- you can imagine what kind of American viewpoint it satirized -- in fact you could probably write the lyrics for yourself, based on the title alone, but they wouldn’t be half as funny -- played by a retired professor who writes one song each year just for Kerrville and never records it or hands out sheet music. This year, it is the fact that I’ll always remember the Greek philosophies by their matching bikers: epicureanism is Cowboy, skepticism is Bear, cynicism is Happy Jack, and stoicism is Gary. And me? Randy tells me I’d be in a coffeehouse, but I think I’m a walking epicurean.

No, I wouldn’t want it to be this way always. But a world in which such things could never be, a world without room for Hippie Karl and his thousands of hugged friends, would be even worse.

June 03, 2005

Yes, We Are

It's going to be basically a nonblogging day for me today. We're off to the Kerrville Folk Festival, an annual hippie-dippie tent gathering in the Texas hill country, where we go not for the music or the Woodstock-like communal squalor but to see old friends who live far away.

Usually we camp out there for two or three nights, but this year the pressure of our work schedules limits us to a weekend day trip.

I'll post a report this weekend. Meanwhile, for those of you searching for something provocative to read, check out this NYT article about a medical research report speculating that the genetic diseases to which Ashkenazic Jews are prone are a side effect of natural selection for high intelligence. As one of the Utah researchers says, "It would be hard to overstate how politically incorrect this paper is."

I don't have the gene for Tay-Sachs disease (you have to get tested when you get married) and I don't know whether I have any of the other disease genes, but if you ask me my opinion about Jews and intelligence and all, I'll smugly point you to the title of this post.

June 02, 2005

It's Starting

My mother is 84, which isn’t so very old nowadays, and has no major illnesses and comes from a long–lived family. (Her older sister is 90 with no dementia.) But gradually during the past decade she has become crippled – literally – by the effects of a negativistic attitude. She has lived a life of physical inertia and of querulousness, bitterness, hostility, defeatism, learned helplessness, and envy. Because of lack of exercise her legs have become weakened and her spine twisted to the point where shed can no longer even negotiate her way around with a walker. (During a hospital visit for self–induced dehydration, a handful of years ago, she received, as usual a clean bill of health for all her systems, but I saw the diagnosis “disuse myopathy of the legs” written on her chart.) Minor falls over the years have led to a broken wrist and numerous bruises and lacerations, which have made her more anxious about falling, and thus more inactive, and thus more debilitated. Habitual attempts, by my brothers and me and by physical therapists, to get her to exercise have been fruitless: she always has an excuse. Her attitude toward her neighbors in the old–age apartment community is so distrusting that, despite a basically vivacious and interesting personality, she has become isolated and friendless.

From most of my life, I have consciously used my parents as negative models.

In the past three weeks she’s suffered a noticeable, rapid decline. A minor fall in the dining room of her old–age community, causing bleeding from a small scrape on the scalp but no other damage, led to an overnight hospital stay and an intensive series of tests (CT scan, EEG, EKG, etc.) that as usual led to a clean bill of health but traumatized her psychologically.

At some point, we believe, she probably has had a series of transient ischemic attacks – small strokes – that have begun to impair her cognition. My youngest brother, who lives in the same town as my mother, has over the years been patient and responsive to her, and extremely helpful in finding good care for her, in the midst of pursuing a busy life and career. This week, she began calling him approximately fifteen times a day with trivial complaints and questions. As the week went on, these progressed from being silly annoyances to being disturbing warning signs. The other day, sitting on her couch a few feet away from her dinner tray (she is no longer mobile enough to go downstairs to the community dining room), she called him because she was unable to lift herself from the couch to get to her dinner. Later that evening, an aide called him on my mother’s behalf because my mother could no longer remember his phone number – a number she had called approximately fifteen times that same day, and thousands of times over the years.

Although she has no major ailments, she can no longer walk, feed herself, bathe herself, dress herself, or toilet herself. In the past few weeks, she has had episodes of incoherence for the first time. She is still lucid and intelligent when discussing external, objective issues in person, but when discussing her own situation, especially over the phone, she sounds pathetically feeble and digresses relentlessly as if to avoid the fear and humiliation she must be feeling. She is receiving the highest level of care her community offers; the next stop will probably be a 24-hour aide in an apartment outside the community, and after that, a nursing home.

June 01, 2005

You Can Find ANYTHING on the Internet

You can find a pattern for knitting a uterus.

You can find an arcane mathematical discussion of the game Mastermind, including a strategy table for every possible Mastermind setup.

You can type in the names of any two rock bands and find out how they are connected through members in common.

If we weren't all fed up with the meme game, I'd be tempted to call this one. What's the most ridiculous website you can find on the Internet?

(Hat tip: Agent 81)

Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries

Did you know that the Kinsey Report was the fourth most harmful book of the past two centuries? And that John Dewey's DEMOCRACY AND EDUCATION was close on its heels at #5? Betty Friedan's THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE is at #7.

Honorable Mentions go to Rachel Carlson for THE SILENT SPRING, Ralph Nader's UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED, and Paul Ehrlich's THE POPULATION BOMB, among others. Apparently for the authors' unwillingness to lie down and let unhampered greed destroy our home planet.

And John Stuart Mill's ON LIBERTY is there too.

The list comes from a panel of 15 "conservative scholars and public policy leaders" gathered by HUMAN EVENTS, the conservative weekly.

Actually there are also some choices on the list that I, or any sane person, would agree with: the first three are THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, MEIN KAMPF, and THE QUOTATIONS OF CHAIRMAN MAO. (Although the placing of Hitler at #2 instead of #1 is a tipoff.)

But Kinsey right behind Mao?

Taken as a whole, the list, as reader Charles Martin says in sending it to me, does an "excellent job of proving these people are nuts."

UPDATE: Immediately after posting this I went to Althouse's blog, where I found that she had posted about the same list an hour earlier, unbeknownst to me. She adds a great riff on lists, focusing on THE BOOK OF LISTS from 1977.