Molly Ivins, a unique voice in Texas, passed away today. It's probably most appropriate to link to the news in a Texas source, like this obituary from the Houston Chronicle, but it's hard to resist this detail from the New York Times:
In 1976, her writing, which she said was often fueled by “truly impressive amounts of beer,” landed her a job at The New York Times. She cut an unusual figure in The Times newsroom, wearing blue jeans, going barefoot and bringing in her dog, whose name was an expletive.
I like Bill Gates. He's charitable. He remains a 100% genuine nerd, despite his money and fame. But when he appeared on The Daily Show the other night, he said something truly chilling. It's not a revolutionary thought, given where the nexus of technology and individual control has been taking us (in fact, it's already here in the way we use the Internet and TiVo), but to hear it uttered so nonchalantly by someone with as much power as Gates has...
It comes at the 7:27 mark of this clip, when Gates is discussing the interactive potential of television. He told Stewart (italics mine, obviously):
Say you're watching the news...it would spend more time on the topics that you're interested in, and spend little or no time on the things you don't care about.
Great. Plenty of newscasts already spend very little time on complicated or depressing issues. One day we'll just be able to skip past those parts! Ah, the manifest destiny that is our collective ignorance.
Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan have been exchanging posts about religion. You can see their first exchange here and follow links to the second, third, etc.
Harris has now posted his fourth missive, and it's full of arguments (not new to me or any other atheist/agnostic -- and probably not new to many religious people, either, for that matter -- but well articulated here) that leave me very curious as to how Sullivan (a trained debater and all-around smart guy) will respond. Here's a bit of Harris:
It is the willingness of scientists to say "I don't know" -- to really integrate doubt into their view of the world -- that constitutes their privileged position with respect to truth. As you know, there are an uncountable number of questions upon which religion once offered a faith-based answer, which have now been ceded to the care of science. Indeed, the process of scientific conquest and religious forfeiture is relentless, unidirectional, and highly predictable. Some smart person begins to doubt received opinion -- about the causes of illness, the movement of celestial bodies, the nature of sensory perception, etc. -- he or she then observes the world more closely (often making shrewd use of technology and/or mathematics) and makes predictions that can be verified by others. What we see, time and again, is a general unwillingness for religious people to seriously interact with this discourse (and even an eagerness to subjugate or murder its perpetrators) whenever it challenges doctrines to which they are emotionally attached. Eventually, however, the power that comes with actually understanding the world becomes too seductive to ignore, and even the clerics give in. In this way, real knowledge, being truly universal, erodes the basis for religious discord. Muslims and Christians cannot disagree about the causes of cholera, for instance, because whatever their holy books might say about infectious disease, a genuine understanding of cholera has arrived from another quarter. Epidemiology trumps religion (or it should), especially when people are watching their children die. This is where our hope for a truly nonsectarian future lies: when things matter, people tend to want to understand what is actually going on in the world. Science (and rational discourse generally) delivers this understanding and offers a very frank appraisal of its current limitations; Religion fails on both counts.
I think the disconnect between the two writers exists almost entirely because of organized religion. I'm almost certain Sullivan would deny this, but to him and other intellectually rigorous believers, the doctrines of Christianity seem less important as Truth than as symbol. The reason I respect Sullivan's religion is that I honestly believe the crucial thing to him is not dogma but simply the exercise of faith, the almost romantic embrace of mystery and the belief that there are some mysteries we will never solve through science (a belief I share). But I think he's far from wedded to defending everything that a literal reading of the Bible would yield. It's why he's perfectly capable of respecting the religious views of others (including atheists) in a way that an argument about truth rarely, if ever, allows. (If someone told him that they earnestly believed, with all their heart and mind, that 3 and 4 totaled 8, or that cancer was caused by thinking too long about television while jogging, I doubt Sullivan would respect that in any meaningful way.) The fact is that many of the details in religion's stories stretch rational belief past its breaking point, never mind the additional fact that many of those details and stories contradict each other, something that competing claims for the truth can do only if one of them isn't really the truth.
But while Sullivan smartly and compassionately writes about his belief (and doubt), and there are undoubtedly many who share his temperament, millions don't. Check this out, and then come back to me:
The narrow focus of that clip might make it a cheap shot in a broader debate, but if that statistic of 54 million American adults not believing in evolution is even close to accurate, that's plenty broad. And Sullivan most certainly doesn't deserve to have to tackle the impulses in that clip, but given the terms of the debate, I think he must. Considering religious faith as broadly as possible, someone of Sullivan's deep intelligence has to confront the unique ways in which that faith can license certain types of ignorance and intolerance. (Sorry for all the italics. I'm used to talking about things like this -- a former debater myself -- and I miss spoken emphasis sometimes.)
Harris, like so many rational atheists before him, is having a field day because of this gap, between the ineradicable, beautiful (in my opinion, despite even that clip) human impulse to believe in something grand, mysterious, and organizing, and the unfortunate impulse to codify that imagined thing until it becomes shabby, baseless, and arrogant -- far less grand and not at all mysterious. In short, because of humanity's stubborn, misguided insistence that our deepest, most meaningful searches lead to math, not metaphor.
A commenter on Pajiba the other day linked to this short, Death to the Tinman, which was shown at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Go to the link and press the play button on the screen-within-a-screen that comes up. (I know, but hey, some people are less technologically savvy than others.) The ending has an unfortunate undergraduate feeling to it, but there are some pretty funny moments throughout. It’s filled with amateur actors and the story could be sillier in different hands, so it shows how far style can take a filmmaker.
It also proves for the millionth time that the indisputable reigning influence in young and hip Hollywood (and off-Hollywood) is Wes Anderson. His fingerprints are all over this. If you need further proof of his sway, check out the “episodes” at clearification.com, where Demetri Martin is slyly pitching for Microsoft.
Katherine Boo had an often very good but also seemingly interminable article about Denver's public education system, as seen through the prism of one particular school, in the January 15 issue of The New Yorker. Here, for your convenience, is its essence in three sentences taken from different sections of the piece:
The teen-agers' educational deficiencies would not be easily corrected; to judge by state assessments through the years, many hadn't had a decent year of schooling in their lives.
To some of Bennet's aides, the rancor in the community seemed incoherent: the man was trying, after all, to help their children.
One of the graduation speakers cried out, to bedlam, "We're the future, like it or not!"
I very randomly selected these five songs (the equivalent of dragging your finger down a page in the phone book and then suddenly stopping), because trying to come up with some more conscious method seemed too taxing. But it's telling that this was the first one I landed on. "So say goodbye to all that you love best and hope we find it all again somewhere out west" or "If we had a car, I think I could still drive / From here to the Berlin Wall, at the bottom of the ocean" or "And it's late, but it's not too late / We can still make our escape / And though it's sad, it's not that sad / 'Cause soon the memories of the hard times that we've had will be like city lights all fading." Hmm. Somehow I don't think it's that easy, but it's a damn nice sentiment.
"The Falls" by Hudson Bell
OK, forget the random choices. I think I've picked up on a theme. Speaking of driving, though not at the bottom of the ocean (that's just not safe), this song starts noodly and builds to a moment where the guitars grow louder and tighten up while Bell sings "You're driving through the mountains, listening to a song." At this moment, not driving through the mountains becomes quite a painful experience. Put another way, I'm convinced "The Falls" is not ideally heard in a studio apartment in Brooklyn. But alas, there aren't any mountains very close to here and I really like the song.
"Warmest Part of the Winter" by Voxtrot
I've been listening to this a lot the past few days, including on a bus trip today from the Philly area back to New York. In addition to its other fine qualities, I'm here to report that it makes for a damn fine soundtrack for looking out the window of a Greyhound on the Jersey Turnpike. I don't know if it's going to be on the full-length they're releasing this year or not, but right now it's available on some compilation that iTunes has. My favorite song of theirs, I think (Voxtrot, not iTunes), and at 99 cents for more than six minutes of goodness, it's well worth it.
"Underground" by Ben Folds Five
Being the type of young man I was, ha ha, I would often spend my long drives in Texas listening to pretty maudlin stuff. But one time, driving back to Dallas from Austin after covering some sporting event or other down there (I think it was a high school baseball game; it was a glamorous life), I realized how this band's giddy debut was a much more spirit-lifting choice at 75 miles per hour. Also, I think that was the drive during which I first noticed this priceless lyric in this song: "And we'll be decked in all black, slamming the pit fantastic / Officer Friendly's little boy has got a mohawk and he knows just where we're coming from."
"Car" by Built to Spill
Because it's one of my favorite songs of theirs, and because the title, at least, reflects the theme.
But miraculously, despite its numerous red flags, Catch and Release more or less lives up to its title. Sure, it hooks you in a way that makes you bleed all over and scream for mercy, and there are moments when you feel sure the encounter will leave you dead, but as the credits roll, you walk away feeling mostly unscathed and relieved.
“Oh, why did nobody warn me?” cried Grimes in his agony. “I should have been told. They should have told me in so many words. They should have warned me about Flossie, not about the fires of hell. I’ve risked them, and I don’t mind risking them again, but they should have told me about marriage. They should have told me that at the end of that gay journey and flower-strewn path were the hideous lights of home and the voices of children. I should have been warned of the great lavender-scented bed that was laid out for me, of the wisteria at the windows, of all intimacy and confidence of family life. But I daresay I shouldn’t have listened. Our life is lived between two homes. We emerge for a little into the light, and then the front door closes. The chintz curtains shut out the sun, and the hearth glows with the fire of home, while upstairs, above our heads, are enacted again the awful accidents of adolescence. There’s a home and family waiting for every one of us. We can’t escape, try how we may. It’s the seed of life we carry about with us like our skeletons, each one of us unconsciously pregnant with desirable villa residences. There’s no escape. As individuals we simply do not exist. We are just potential home builders, beavers and ants. How do we come into being? What is birth?”
“I’ve often wondered,” said Mr. Prendergast.
“What is this impulse of two people to build their beastly home? It’s you and me, unborn, asserting our presence. All we are is a manifestation of the impulse of family life, and if by chance we have escaped the itch ourselves, Nature forces it upon us another way. Flossie’s got that itch enough for two. I just haven’t. I’m one of the blind alleys off the main road of procreation, but it doesn’t matter. Nature always wins. Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord! Why didn’t I die in that first awful home? Why did I ever hope I could escape?”
Captain Grimes continued his lament for some time in deep bitterness of heart. Presently he became silent and stared at his glass.
“I wonder,” said Mr. Prendergast, “I wonder whether I could have just a little more of this very excellent pheasant?”
“Anyway,” said Grimes, “there shan’t be any children; I’ll see to that.”
Illness has kept me quiet the past couple of days. Here's hoping it abates soon.
For now, I was overjoyed to find this quotation the other day. I had written it out years ago, but lost it. It comes from Antonin Artaud, the French playwright and poet. I really might stick this on my computer for inspiration. I believe this from time to time, and yet I want to write. That should tell you all you need to know about my psychology. Here it is:
"All writing is garbage. People who come out of nowhere to try to put into words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs."
Sloane Crosley is a friend of this blogger, and my respect for her only grew when I recently learned she is obsessed with one of my favorite movies, Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming. In this week's New York Observer, she discusses that obsession in funny detail. Be sure to read the whole thing, but I found this insight particularly profound. I think it's true that the movie formally alerted us to the potential art in unplanned eavesdropping:
The Web site Overheard in New York arguably owes its existence to Kicking and Screaming. In fact, the first real line of the movie takes place at the graduation party, when someone practically off-camera says, "I think violence is always justified some of the time." The closest I ever got to something that good was walking up Sixth Avenue past St. Vincent’s one night: "And I said, 'I don’t know what that thing is, but it's not touching my head unless you unplug it.'"
At lunch yesterday, a friend said, "I forget sometimes how conservative you are." This came after I had voiced a very general, not incredibly hawkish support of Israel. Such is "how conservative" you can be in New York.
Most of my friends in both Texas and New York are moderate people, including the one mentioned above. Being a natural contrarian who's bounced from north-to-south-to-north, I feel like I've been able to maintain some kind of centrist politics of my own while ridiculing the extremists on either side of me. You could call this a position with some integrity, or you could call it a cheap way to avoid adopting a strong position. Your call.
This is a roundabout way of getting to another critique of Borat, this one from Armond White. I agree with the blogger at Quiet Bubble (where I found White's piece, and which seems like a smart place to visit, run by someone in Jackson, Miss.) that White goes a bit too far in his anti-Borat argumentation. But on his travels to "too far," he does get at something important. I think Sacha Baron Cohen is a funny guy, but I also think too deep a political defense of his humor's value is a really bad idea. I'm still not convinced he really cares who he ridicules (look at Ali G's interview with leftist deity Noam Chomsky). But many people have praised Borat because they see it as politically adroit, and if you see it this way, I think you have to agree that Cohen's politics, like Michael Moore's, all but force him in to very narrow, carefully chosen attacks. White writes:
In one of the film’s silliest sequences, Borat appears at a rodeo and sings the U.S. national anthem using jokey lyrics. Director Larry Charles chooses reaction shots of beefy, disapproving white folks. Surely Mets and Lakers fans would have felt the same insult (ask Roseanne Barr), but Cohen doesn’t dare risk offending the markets where his checks are signed.
I'm all for critiquing the cultural assumptions of rodeo denizens (and the assumptions of Upper West Side cocktail partygoers, though their assumptions are presented with a higher sheen and more annotations, of course), but said denizens getting upset at someone botching the national anthem (especially when they're not in on the joke) is hardly incomprehensible, and I would think it's obvious that that reaction alone doesn't make them xenophobic. To stack the deck in favor of your own piety like that is just cheap, whether you're Borat or Rush Limbaugh.
(Speaking of the national anthem, check out the Mavericks' Jerry Stackhouse singing it before a game recently. Making Dallas -- and Chapel Hill -- proud.)
This is "Happiest Moment" by Lydia Davis, which Jonathan Franzen read at the New York Festival of International Literature last year. I found it when it was reproduced in a journal published by PEN America, which held the event:
If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then say it may be this story that she read in a book once: An English-language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said his wife had gone to Beijing and had eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck.
Sanctuary veterinarian David Hale said it has about a 75 percent chance of survival, but probably won't ever be well enough to be released back into the wild.
He said the duck, which has a low metabolism, could have survived in a big enough refrigerator, especially if the door was opened and closed several times. And he said he understands how the hunter thought the duck was dead.
I've been linking to an awful lot, but I'm working on a slightly longer, more personal post for tonight or tomorrow. In the meantime, I've polished up the blogroll a bit, creating a couple of new subject headings and adding a few recent and not-so-recent favorites. And now I've got to do some real work, the kind you get paid for. More soon...
Some will rejoice at this person's appearance on the blog (hi, Dad), and others will cringe (you know who you are), but Joe Queenan has an entertaining piece in tomorrow's New York Times Book Review (already online) about his book-buying habits:
Several years ago, overwhelmed by the flood of material unleashed annually by the publishing industry, I decided to establish a screening program by purchasing only books that at least one reviewer had described as “astonishing.”
Previously, I had limited my purchases to merchandise deemed “luminous” or “incandescent,” but this meant I ended up with an awful lot of novels about bees, Provence or Vermeer.
But let me stress that while I buy only books that have been designated “astonishing,” I do not buy every single “astonishing” book. For instance, Kurt Eichenwald’s “Serpent on the Rock” may very well be the “astonishing inside story of a blue-chip Wall Street firm whose massive securities fraud decimated the savings of a half a million people,” but that wording was supplied by the author’s publisher, not by some amazingly sophisticated person at O or Entertainment Weekly. So it could be a case of an entry-level cheerleader in the publicity department choosing the word “astonishing” when “hair-raising” or “jaw-dropping” might have been more appropriate.
The guys at Pajiba, myself included, recently posted the (Sh)It List, an answer to all the annual, fawning "It" lists in magazines like Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. (Warning to mother of ASWOBA and others: Pajiba's not shy about the obscenities, especially when angry.) I aimed my disdain at Julianne Moore and trailer editors, while the rest of the crew targeted Scarlett Johansson, remakes, and "torture porn," among other subjects. My favorite entry, though, was probably by Seth, who, inspired by Time's ridiculous naming of "You" as person of the year, decided to focus on the other You. The bad You:
Despite my previous comments to the contrary, You do not live solely in the middle of the country — You abound throughout this nation of ours, in numbers too great (unfortunately) to be ignored. You are the loud, obnoxious sons of bitches surrounding me in every movie theater, laughing at the inane bits, talking out of turn, loudly chewing your cud, and just generally making moviegoing an almost entirely miserable experience. You are responsible for network television being littered with crappy procedurals, crappier reality shows, and crappiest game shows. You are responsible for Titanic being the all-time number-one box-office hit. You are responsible for Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay. You are responsible for the cancellation of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Arrested Development.” You are responsible for the Santa Clause trilogy. You are directly responsible for “Two and a Half Men” winning a Peoples’ Choice Award for best comedy. You are responsible for movie studios and television networks having increasingly little faith, patience or willingness to stand behind good art. You are responsible for the Hollywood complex choosing to serve to the lowest common denominator. You are responsible for the suck.
Granted, this essay comes from the UK (wow, that really is a theme tonight), but I thought the content of at least this excerpt was provocative. The commenters on the site where I found it -- Althouse -- were pretty uniformly snarky about the whole thing, but I figured I'd throw it out there:
Many of the propositions that fundamentalists are keen to sell the public are oft-repeated corner-stones of the media atheist's philosophy of religion.
Both partners in this unholy alliance agree that fundamentalist religion is the real thing and that more reflective and socially progressive versions of faith are pale imitations, counterfeits even. This endorsement is of enormous help to fundamentalists. What they are really threatened by is not aggressive atheism - indeed that helps secure a sense of persecution that is essential to group solidarity - but the sort of robustly self-critical faith that knows the Bible and the church's traditions, and can challenge bad religion on its own terms. Fundamentalists hate what they see as the enemy within. And by refusing to acknowledge any variegation in Christian thought, media atheists play right into their hands.
Remember when I praised ye olde blogosphere(e) just a few seconds ago? Well, at first I was going to retract that praise when I found this, but after spending several gleeful minutes there, I think this might be my favorite new site. Might have to add it to the blogroll. I love these shots.
The rules are simple: I put the self-timer on 2 seconds, push the button and try to get as far from the camera as I can.
This is why the whole blog business deserves some credit, because a blog called "Wife in the North," written by a woman who has moved from London to far northern England with her husband, might be assumed to be a diaristic bore, but it's not; it's a reliable source of goodness. And perhaps she's not easy to find (until Andrew Sullivan links to her, which he did today), but its author is writing more entertaining (and insightful) fare than you'll find in most newspapers, to choose one medium, and she's doing it, almost certainly, for nothing.
Here's a sample:
To continue the political theme of this blog, the children have apparently been learning about special people -- like the Queen. This has involved drawing the Queen's jaggedy-toothed head on a stamp, making a corrugated cardboard crown, and a consequent lecture from mummy explaining that the Queen is not actually a special person (apologies to the royalists out there). She is in fact an ordinary person just like you and me who only got the job because she was born into a particular family and actually Helen Mirren could do it just as well.
If you cannot brainwash your own children, what is the point of having them?
And here she is accompanying her boys to a friend's birthday party:
As for sexual stereotyping, do not get me started on why all the boys were dressed as superheros while all the girls were in pink and mauve tuile with tiaras and glittery slippers.
"You know," I whispered to one Cinderella in a quiet corner. "You could be a superhero too next time."
She moved away to stand with Sleeping Beauty. They regarded me silently, holding hands and plucking at their opalescent sequinned trim.
"You don't have to be a princess, you know. You could fight for truth and goodness."
"But we look pretty," Sleeping Beauty told me and they skipped away.
This space was meant to be occupied by a YouTube clip of Hugh Laurie's acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. Since the post before this one (and the post that will follow) are both about Brits, I was going to use Laurie's endearing and funny speech to comment on how it's very possible that, as one friend of mine continually states, "They're just better than us."
But alas, the clip has been removed from YouTube. And that makes sense, because some short-sighted, techno-phobic, penny-pinching copyright holders will always do their best to delay the arrival of that glorious/hideous epoch when even the healthiest and most talented of us sit around in our pajamas all day watching 45-second clips of old sitcoms, collecting welfare checks, trying not to stain our mouse too badly with Cheetos dust. That's fine. But here's my problem: Seven or eight clips of the Laurie speech had been posted, every one of them still teased on the main page. And each time you click on one, you're taken to an infuriating screen that says:
This video has been removed at the request of copyright owner Dick Clark Productions, Inc. because its content was used without permission
Why doesn't YouTube just remove any trace of such videos? Does Dick Clark Productions really need the additional advertising? Is it just a punishment that allows DCP to publicly shame YouTube for the transgression, like when Larry David had to wear the sandwich board outside the restaurant after stealing the silverware on "Curb Your Enthusiasm"? Any lawyers care to enlighten us? Anyone still reading?
Friend JF pointed me to this priceless interview of sorts, wherein Martin Amis answers questions from readers of the Independent. I agree with JF that Amis' literary taste lacks spark (asked about the greatest living American novelist, he answers Updike, Roth, and DeLillo, which is about the safest -- no, dullest -- possible answer). But more often than not, he's blunt and funny. Asked if he worries that he inherited some of his father Kingsley's misogyny, he replies: "To spell this out: I am not only a feminist -- I am a gynocrat. That is to say, I believe in rule by chicks."
Then there's this exchange:
The phrase "horrorism", which you invented to describe 9/11, is unintentionally hilarious. Have you got any more? --JONATHAN BROOKS, by email
Yes, I have. Here's a good one (though I can hardly claim it as my own): the phrase is "fuck off".
We'll see how this goes, but I've been so entertained by some of the Google searches that have brought people to the site that I'm going to occasionally change the subtitle to a recent good one -- thus the phrase above. God bless the Internet.
Courtesy of the Comish (and every time I mention the Comish, I have to urge him to start his own blog, so: Comish, start your own blog) comes this story from The Washington Post in which many people, including a successful author, claim that the government is beaming voices into their heads to drive them crazy. (Subscription is required to read the story, but it's free and it's the Washington Post -- you should subscribe.)
The callers frequently refer to themselves as TIs, which is short for Targeted Individuals, and talk about V2K -- the official military abbreviation stands for "voice to skull" and denotes weapons that beam voices or sounds into the head. In their esoteric lexicon, "gang stalking" refers to the belief that they are being followed and harassed: by neighbors, strangers or colleagues who are agents for the government. ...
Until recently, people who believe the government is beaming voices into their heads would have added social isolation to their catalogue of woes. But now, many have discovered hundreds, possibly thousands, of others just like them all over the world. Web sites dedicated to electronic harassment and gang stalking have popped up in India, China, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Russia and elsewhere. Victims have begun to host support meetings in major cities, including Washington. Favorite topics at the meetings include lessons on how to build shields (the proverbial tinfoil hats), media and PR training, and possible legal strategies for outlawing mind control.
The piece makes it clear that the Pentagon has worked on technology in this vein that is plenty creepy, but it doesn't seem to be capable of transmitting actual voices. Besides, some of these "TI"s were complaining as far back as 40 years ago, and the science was only picked back up a few short years ago.
So, where do the people claiming this abuse turn for help? Why, American politicians, of course:
The biggest hurdle for TIs is getting people to take their concerns seriously. A proposal made in 2001 by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) to ban "psychotronic weapons" (another common term for mind-control technology) was hailed by TIs as a great step forward. But the bill was widely derided by bloggers and columnists and quickly dropped.
Doug Gordon, Kucinich's spokesman, would not discuss mind control other than to say the proposal was part of broader legislation outlawing weapons in space. The bill was later reintroduced, minus the mind control. "It was not the concentration of the legislation, which is why it was tightened up and redrafted," was all Gordon would say.
And now, to come full circle, back to the Comish: "Thank you, Dennis Kucinich. You’ve restored my humility and sense of proportion. While my job requires me to work long and late hours to draft a 15-page motion on some esoteric point of law, at least it doesn’t require me to pander to the victims of government mind control rays beamed from space."
I've always thought that people who believe in revealed religions, those that feature direct communications from deities, have to deal with stories like this one involving a woman who threw her three young children into San Francisco Bay and "claimed she was sacrificing her young sons for God." Granted, in this case, the woman asked the court to consider her insane. But what if she had asked for her story to excuse her actions? What if she claimed God had told her to murder her children? Would any otherwise sane modern-day believers stand by her? And how much different would her story be from that of Abraham and Isaac?
I'm increasingly open to the possibilities of religion's metaphorical power, and even in the possibility that the metaphor persists because it does correspond, however roughly, to some larger truth that we will, alas, never have the capacity to fully know. But I've always been disturbed by the disjunction between what the most literalist of religious people claim they believe about the deep past and what they would be willing to believe in the present day.
My colleague at the Olive Reader already pointed it out, but it deserves all the pointing out it can get. The Guardian ran a long piece by Zadie Smith this past weekend about, among other things, the connection of a writer's character to the quality of his or her novels and the duties that fiction writers and readers have to one another. Here's a taste, but read the whole thing ("Clive" is a fictional aspiring author who Smith introduces in the beginning of the essay):
Writers know that between the platonic ideal of the novel and the actual novel there is always the pesky self -- vain, deluded, myopic, cowardly, compromised. That's why writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship: craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great. This is hard for young writers, like Clive, to grasp at first. A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets, and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes, but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost never write great ones. There is a rogue element somewhere -- for convenience's sake we'll call it the self, although, in less metaphysically challenged times, the "soul" would have done just as well. In our public literary conversations we are squeamish about the connection between selves and novels.
OK, this post itself has changed from when I first published it about 30 minutes ago. Blogger has some cool layout changes, which I instituted, but now I've reverted back, because the block quotes were all screwy, and the whole thing looked harder to read. What I have done is added labels to many posts. One of the things I like about the new template is that it lists the labels on the right-hand side of the screen, so you can browse more easily by subject, but for now it's not worth the ugliness caused by the block quotes issue.
Assigning the labels was kind of fun, actually (thus the one on this post below). One day I hope to label all the AP headlines and archives of the day, but that's going to take a lot more time and, I'm not going to lie, maybe some meth.
I wish I could say the label "Favorites" was based on an extensive nationwide poll, but those are just the posts I like most. I spared you all the label that would have had the most entries: "Random, forgettable crap."
I knew going into Children of Men that I wouldn't love it as much as its biggest fans, because futuristic, dystopian movies tend to leave me a little cold. For starters, though they're not technically sci-fi movies, they often share with that genre the creation of a hypothetical world that doesn't hold up well to scrutiny. Children of Men mostly gets around this problem by not getting into much specific detail -- it's essentially one long chase, with a few very well executed getaway scenes. Clive Owen is great, as he always is, and so is Michael Caine. Julianne Moore's role, mercifully, is very limited. (Spoiler immediately ahead: To put a blunt, impolite point on it, I've never been more relieved to have a character killed early on in a movie. With the knowledge that she wouldn't be on screen anymore, I felt freed up to enjoy the rest.)
In short, I think it's definitely worth seeing, even if my genre prejudices keep me from hailing it as one of the year's very best. But for an alternate take, I thought I'd turn things over to my dad, who makes me look like an unapologetic freak for all things sci-fi/dystopia. He wrote the following to me during an e-mail exchange about the movie last week:
I will give you points for the first street explosion but the rest of the fighting was boilerplate stuff and the car chases, in my opinion, are kid stuff compared to The French Connection, Bullitt, and any Bond flick. The escape from the farmhouse challenged my Hall-of-Fame suspension of disbelief when Clive (who I agree is great in anything) starts pushing the car uphill in mud. Critics are awed by the soldiers gaping at the squalling baby, but what would they expect? The first kid born in 18 years!! Why wouldn't they gape? And how about the gender issue? No one mentions the disappointment when the bad guy finds out it is a girl. He wanted A.P. Indy, but he got Ruffian instead. He should have been tracking down the father of the baby ... now there is a key guy, given the movie’s circumstances. Anyway, I think it’s weird -- the kind of flick where everyone feels like they need to find something profound rather than simply standing back for a minute and saying "this is really a bunch of crap." The photography was excellent in keeping with the dreary and hopeless state of the world. The one shot of the barren field with the sludge pouring out of the pipe was terrific, but to what end other than to further depress the viewer? Come to think of it, that is the point...
One commenter asked me to post again if and when I finished Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which I did this weekend. It immediately joined a list of my very favorite novels -- at least top 10, probably better, for those of you who only understand things in list form.
Stick with me while I try to describe part of its appeal... This weekend, a friend reminded me of a very funny excerpt in Sasha Frere-Jones' review of Justin Timberlake's latest album in The New Yorker. He wrote:
Justin Timberlake is under an equally strange impression on "SexyBack," the first single from his modest but satisfying new album, "FutureSex/LoveSounds," where he bafflingly claims to be "bringing sexy back." Does anything need bringing back less than sexy? It's like proposing to bring back petroleum, or the N.F.L.
Well, in Gilead (and in her previous novel, Housekeeping), Robinson is bringing back a few things that need reviving -- considered prose, humble reflection, focus on religious thought for its potential use in an individual's life rather than in a politician's office. Gilead is not flawless, but it's a stunningly beautiful book. Its pace and tone will be considered glacial by even some serious readers, much less those whose brains marinate only in celebrity-gossip blogs. But I can't recommend it highly enough. I think it's that rare thing: an enjoyable work of art that might also actually make you, in however small a way, a better person.
Here's another excerpt to try to convince you to pick it up, if you haven't already:
Your mother came up the road to tell us our supper was ready. It was a cold supper, she said, so there was no hurry. She agreed to sit with us for a few minutes. She always has to be coaxed to stay in company even a little while, and then it's all I can do to get a word from her. I believe she worries about the way she talks, or the way she talked when I first knew her. "It don't matter," she would say, in that low, soft voice of hers. That was what she said when she meant she forgave someone, but it had a sound of deeper, sadder resignation, as if she were forgiving the whole of the created order, forgiving the Lord Himself. It grieves me that I may never hear just those words spoken by her again. I believe Boughton made her self-conscious with that little trick of his of correcting people. Not that he ever corrected her.
"It don't matter." It was as if she were renouncing the world itself just in order to make nothing of some offense to her.
Wednesday is my birthday. I'm a big winter person, and this one has been really mild in these parts. The weather for the next five days is supposed to hover in the 40s and 50s, still unseasonably warm. But Wednesday shows a forecasted high of 28. Happy birthday to me.
So Blogger has switched to a Google-based system that allows me to do some fancier things. For instance, I can label things now. Everytime I write a "five songs" post, I can label it that way, and then you can click on the label and find all the previous posts on that theme. It can be random, too. As an example, I'm labeling this post "rabies," even though it has nothing to do with that disease. But now, if I ever write about rabies in the future -- and rest assured I will, and at great length -- this post will be included on the master list. See how useless but fun that is? I'm going to phase in the labeling slowly, because it seems clear it could get out of hand.
I think I can spruce up the look of the site, too, but one useless thing at a time, eh? I'm off to bed.
Evidently, it's "de-lurking week," which I didn't know. And here it is almost over. I feel like such a jackass.
Anyway, I don't imagine I have many lurkers, which I would define as someone who regularly visits a site and never comments. What I imagine I have is a decent number of devoted readers who comment from time to time. I do have a lot more visitors than I thought I would when I started tracking such things, but I think a lot of them are of the variety who find the site through some random Google search and only stick around for however many seconds it takes to determine that Google has badly misled them. (Recent phrases searched on Google that led here include the rather poetic "what might be the cost of not being afraid," the rather mangled "was there any famous people on the titanic," the pretty much inexplicable "what does the board game that john is playing with martin symbolize," and my favorite, "I'm afraid of the gym.")
If you care to prove me wrong about my lurker population, here's a chance. Below are five books I plan on reading this year, come hell or high water (both of which seem likely to arrive soon, given the 73-degree temperature in Brooklyn last Saturday). Visit the comments and leave the name of one book you want to read this year. If you don't plan on reading any books, name one anyway. No one's going to fact-check this exercise. Anonymous comments are welcome, too. Let's just try to get more than five -- you know, for self-esteem reasons. Thanks.
Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life by Andrew Motion Nonzero by Robert Wright The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford The Gambler by Dostoevsky Secretariat by William Nack
I don't watch "Extras," partly because I don't see how it could possibly live up to "The Office," but a friend sent along this clip, which is very funny once Bowie starts singing and features an almost subliminal appearance by the brilliant Stephen Merchant at the 4:00 mark.
I started reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson during the holidays (after a previous false start many months ago), which ended up being a mistake. It's phenomenal (there are different levels of Good Writer, and I'm starting to think Robinson is on the level that would inspire you to name a daughter after her), but it's also deliberate and requires careful reading. Once work started up again, my rhythm got busted. But I'm getting back on track, and every other page there's a passage that jumps out as worthy of remembering. Here's one of them:
I believe I have tried never to say anything Edward would have found callow or naive. That constraint has been useful to me, in my opinion. It may be a form of defensiveness, but I hope it has at least been useful on balance. There is a tendency among some religious people even to invite ridicule and to bring down on themselves an intellectual contempt which seems to me in some cases justified. Nevertheless, I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith. As I have said, the worst eventualities can have great value as experience. And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer. I know this, I have seen the truth of it with my own eyes, though I have not myself always managed to live by it, the Good Lord knows. I truly doubt I would know how to live by it for even a day, or an hour. That is a remarkable thing to consider.
I didn't catch this article in last Sunday's NY Times Magazine, and I've only read about a fifth of it now, but I'm eager to finish it. I remember reading something about positive psychology around a year ago and being intrigued. I might have even bought a book (I sometimes lose track of the books I buy, unfortunately). The whole thing could be hogwash (probably is; its truest observations seem like plain common sense, and some of what it recommends reeks of New Age silliness), but there are elements that seem worth considering. An excerpt:
Positive psychology brings the same attention to positive emotions (happiness, pleasure, well-being) that clinical psychology has always paid to the negative ones (depression, anger, resentment). Psychoanalysis once promised to turn acute human misery into ordinary suffering; positive psychology promises to take mild human pleasure and turn it into a profound state of well-being. “Under certain circumstances, people — they’re not desperate or in misery — they start to wonder what’s the best thing life can offer,” says Martin Seligman, one of the field’s founders, who heads the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Thus positive psychology is not only about maximizing personal happiness but also about embracing civic engagement and spiritual connectedness, hope and charity. “Aristotle taught us virtue isn’t virtue unless you choose it,” Seligman says.
So, Florida dismantled Ohio State tonight. And by the lights of the current "system," they fully deserve the national championship. But the way I see it, you now have one undefeated team from a weaker conference, at least four very good teams with one loss, at least three very good teams with two losses, and no structure that would allow those teams to, you know, play any meaningful games against each other. In other words, Division I college football remains what it's been for a long time: the most expensive joke ever told.
Another friend (here's to friends) pointed me in the direction of James Wood's recent review of the new Thomas Hardy biography by Claire Tomalin (subscription required), which includes this lovely (if somewhat dispiriting) paragraph:
Has anyone described the way light changes during the morning better than Hardy does, in his poem 'The Going': 'while I / Saw morning harden upon the wall.' One can see, with the help of these lines, the light becoming more solid, more densely itself; and of course our mornings harden in a different way, too: our days tend to begin loose with possibility, and then harden around us as the lost hours progress and we feel their unfreedom accrete.
A friend makes the point that New Jersey might be trying to wrestle away the most-liberal-state-in-the-nation award from Massachussets. While Mass. moves to ban gay marriage, Jersey recently passed laws supporting civil unions, and now it's debating the abolishment of the death penalty (a subject that's fairly complex, philosophically, in my opinion, though I tend to oppose it for all but the most extreme cases).
Anyway, that's your civics update for today. Meanwhile, in my state this morning, there's a twist on a common story, which is people trying to figure out why NYC smells funny.
Not sure I get the appeal of classic Pogues stuff, so even though it’s probably heretical to say it, this is my favorite song of theirs.
“Borderline” by Madonna
I was driving with some friends to D.C. last year, and I was playing DJ with the iPod of one of the friends. She had several Madonna songs on it. I played this, and she said, “Why do guys always like Borderline most of all Madonna songs? It never fails.” I can’t answer that question (the lab results aren’t back yet), but figured I would mention the exchange. It's true that it's my favorite song of hers, and that I can only stand about four others.
“Rock Me On the Water” by Linda Ronstadt
Filled with 1970s goodness.
“Acoustic Guitar” by Magnetic Fields
Love the whole song, but particularly the line “Acoustic guitar, if you think I play hard, well, you could have belonged to Steve Earle.”
“Hard-core Troubadour” by Steve Earle
Yeah, this could be you, acoustic guitar. So shut up and be grateful.
I have big reading plans for 2007, though we'll see how capable I am of executing them. My eyes hurt a lot these days.
One of the shorter, more doable items on my list is P.J. O'Rourke's new book about The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith.
It gets an interesting review in this Sunday's Times. The reviewer, Allan Sloan, recommends the book and makes an admission:
Before we proceed, a confession. I’ve been a business writer since 1969, I specialize in unearthing journalistic nuggets buried in lengthy financial documents that even lawyers find dull — and I’ve never been able to get more than 50 pages into Adam Smith. For several years, I took “The Wealth of Nations” with me on summer vacation, vowing that this time I’d finish it. Alas, I never came close.
But over the years, I’ve read introductions to the book and commentaries about it, listened to discussions of its principles and have even cited some of its points in my own articles. As with the Bible or “Moby-Dick,” you don’t have to be familiar with the entire work in order to grasp its essence.
That last point is a good one, and I think I understand the essence of Smith. Still, I'm eager to dive in because, as Sloan says, "...O’Rourke is a wonderful stylist. Even if you disagree with his conservative political and economic views, as I sometimes do, you’ve got to admire his facility with words."
Good God, I hadn't seen this skyscraper that's going to be up in 2010. I imagine it will be the domino that sends Louisville on either the path toward increased hipsterism and gentrification or toward becoming the world's most architecturally notable ghost town. It looks like a Tetris board about to go bad. In any case, I have a friend whose list of favorite books includes this one, and I'm eager to hear her thoughts.
It was Michael Stipe's birthday yesterday, and Filter Magazine celebrated by linking to a bunch of videos (via Pop Candy). As you may have guessed from occasional posts, I'm a pretty big fan of the guy. Plus, we share a name (he's John Michael, too) and an astrological sign (Capricorns in the house). So, here's my belated notice of the big day, and to celebrate, enjoy him and the boys tearing through a classic:
On a related note, I found a site that lists the following likes and dislikes of Capricorns:
Reliability Professionalism Knowing what you discuss Firm Foundations Purpose
Wild Schemes Fantasies Go-nowhere jobs Ignominy Ridicule
And I suppose this leads to the obvious question: Is there a sign that likes go-nowhere jobs and ignominy? Because if so, that's a sad-ass sign.
Father with the Ben Shahn drawings, and the really, y'know, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper, stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself.
Andrew Sullivan linked to this political questionnaire yesterday. It's dated (from about 10 years ago), but most of the questions still broadly apply. It tells you where you fall on the liberal-conservative spectrum, from 0-40, and it provides a handy guide for interpreting your score, from Ronald Reagan at 40 (yikes) to Jesse Jackson at 0 (double yikes). I scored a 19, which marks me as pretty centrist, I guess.
This doesn't answer my burning question, though, which is where I stand relative to Jack Kemp on the haircut spectrum:
Feel free to share your score, or just round up or down and tell us your closest Love Connection on their chart.
If anyone has had the chance to read Adam Gopnik's piece about football in this week's New Yorker, can you answer a question that I ask in earnest: What the hell is he going on about?
I'm used to them giving Roger Angell several pages to pleasingly ramble about baseball at the end of each season, but this Gopnik effort is something else entirely. It seems like 489 separate thoughts about football (two and a half of them original) glued together for no particular purpose. I guess if I had to summarize it, it would go something like this:
"I got to stand near Joe Namath with a notepad. I like the Jets. Football's complicated. Watching on TV is OK, but different than watching in person. Other people like baseball. Sports are different than they used to be, but I'm not sure how. Oh, I recently read Michael Lewis' book. Some football players make more money than others. Life after football can be hard. Stadiums represent something about the human condition. Most people root for a specific team. Sports can be seen as an analogy for life. The end."
Yes, Harrision Ford is 64. And in relating the news that the fourth Indiana Jones movie is set to start filming this spring, Pajiba's Dustin Rowles notes (wisely) that Sean Connery, who plays Indy's dad, "looks 10 years younger than Harrison Ford now." Indeed.
He also offers a working title for the project:
Geriatric Jones and the Search for Depends (with the Occasional Nap)
A reader follows that with:
Indiana Jones and the Search for Someone Who Still Gives a Rat's Ass
I pride myself on having funny readers. (Well, a few of you, anyway. I won't say which ones.) So, fire away. Any good ideas for a title? Here, I'll get you started with mine:
Indiana Jones and the Search for...What Did He Come In Here For, Again?
My friend, college mentor, and occasional bodyguard Jason has an illness that requires him to be in front of projected flickering images for at least a few hours a day. Because of this, he sees enough movies to kill lesser men. And at the end of each calendar year, he grades all those he saw for the first time (including older movies that he rented or caught on cable). It used to be that he would send out an Excel spreadsheet with the grades to a few select friends. But now, thanks to the power of the Interwebs, he blogs it. And as always, it's a treat, as is his analysis:
My goal set last year was to view 300 new movies, and while that was in jeopardy for a while, I hit the 300 mark before Thanksgiving and strode right up to 330 on the last day of the year (one new movie every 1.11 days) which is my highest total ever. Never has meeting one of my goals made me feel so utterly useless and pathetic.
As far as goals for next year (which will be my 10th Anniversary of the list), 330 will be a mark that will be hard to beat without beginning divorce proceedings and having child protection services called upon me, thus I will not, at this time, be attempting to hit a certain number.
Sounds like he's becoming reasonable, right? Well, after listing a few modest goals for 2007, he writes:
Lastly, the words 200 movies in 20 days keeps popping up over and over in my head so I will be toying with that idea at least through January. As soon as I make a decision, you'll be the first to know.
Anyone know a good divorce lawyer?
I urge you to read the list, at least for the sheer marvel of it. It seems likely that he spent more time formatting this post than most of us spent at cinemas all of last year. But he's also asking for feedback, and despite his generally good taste (and admirable stinginess -- only two pure A's out of 330 movies), there's always a choice or two worth teasing him about. For instance, he gives Clerks 2 a B+. Kevin Smith could remake Citizen Kane frame for frame, and I would give it a D.
And then there's his least favorites, which are always fun, partly to see the mainstream releases he hated and partly to wonder where he's finding some of this stuff. This year's roll call of "F" students includes Babel, Marie Antoinette, and Running with Scissors, but it also features things called It Waits, The Hillz, and Substitute 3: The Winner Takes All.
The holiday season took it out of me. Do you notice anything strange about this picture?
That's a shot I took yesterday of the area leading up to the tree at Rockefeller Center, and I can tell you what's strange (and beautiful) about it -- it isn't crammed to every edge of its frame with families from Des Moines, Orlando, and Tokyo doing their creative best to place their corn-fed, camera-toting, neck-craning selves in my way.
The point is, I'm glad it's done. This city is packed and irritating enough, thank you very much.
What I started out meaning to say is that this week will probably be a bit slow on ye olde blogge as I regain my senses and, with some luck, a few of the lower-level functions of my liver.
Joel Stein, who evidently still exists, loses it here at the many readers who e-mail him. It's not a policy I can sympathize with -- having only the occasional comment around here -- but Stein gets points for honesty. He might think he's being sarcastic, but these two passages are a pretty accurate reflection of the writerly id:
Here's what my Internet-fearing editors have failed to understand: I don't want to talk to you; I want to talk at you. A column is not my attempt to engage in a conversation with you. I have more than enough people to converse with. And I don't listen to them either.
A lot of e-mail screeds argue that, in return for the privilege of broadcasting my opinion, I have the responsibility to listen to you. I don't. No more than you have a responsibility to read me. I'm not an elected servant. I'm an arrogant, solipsistic, attention-needy freak who pretends to have an opinion about everything.
Josh Friedman is a screenwriter who blogs once every six months or so, and seems to take some kind of sadistic pleasure in how long his minions have to wait for each new crumb. Still, when he gets around to posting them, the crumbs are always entertaining:
I haven't slept in three months and I'm living on whatever's inside the tortilla and any drink they refill except water. I found a free Chipotle Buck in my desk last week and made a special trip to the Grove for carnitas with my Ipod and a seven hundred page Alistair Reynolds novel. I wondered if this is how Mark Twain would have written Huckleberry Finn and pretty much decided he would not consider eating the same as writing.
Robert Wright recently interviewed Andrew Sullivan in a split-screen webcam format that is being called, distressingly, a "diavlog." Ridiculous name aside, it's worth the 48 minutes it takes to watch it. The second part deals with current politics, but the first part, which can be found here (it requires a program that I seem to have at work, but not at home), centers on Sullivan's faith. I found almost all of it compelling, particularly from about the 37-minute mark on. (If you're doing something else, it's easy enough to just minimize the window and listen to it like it's the radio. Apologies for the obvious tip.)