Saturday, January 31, 2009

Programming Note

Just a quick announcement on this Saturday night: The Two Readers Project will return from its hiatus on Friday. Tim and I will be sharing our thoughts on the short story "Labor Day Dinner" by Alice Munro. It can be found in her Selected Stories, if you'd like to read along with us. (Or, if you happen to own her earlier collection, The Moons of Jupiter, I believe that's where it originally appeared.)

Friday, January 30, 2009

Three Snaps

It's been a while since I posted photos for no good reason -- something I like to do -- so here are three that I took in 2008. The first is at the harness racing track in Saratoga Springs, New York; the second is from a motel room in the Adirondacks; and the last was taken at the back of an office building in downtown Oklahoma City late one night, after a friend's wedding:


Ron Rosenbaum decides that Billy Joel is due for a fresh round of critical punishment. I think he's wrong, and I'll be responding at length here or elsewhere soon. . . . If there is a better combination of comical and sad than cemeteries that have been surrounded by parking lots, I'm not sure I want to know about it. . . . Mel Brooks famously said, "Tragedy is when I have a hangnail. Comedy is when you accidentally walk into an open sewer and die." Well, for a mercifully lighter version of that maxim in action, check out this series of photos. . . . Times are tough, but at least one blogger has a recipe for feeling better. (Hat tip: SD.)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

In the Year Two Thousaaaand...

Andrew Sullivan posted this news report from 1981, about the early (early) days of online newspapers. It starts with a rotary phone, and only gets better from there:

Sullivan highlighted the topical phrase about not expecting to make much money (gulp), but this is what stood out to me: "Of the estimated two to three thousand home computer owners in the Bay Area . . ." Wow.

Even more entertaining is this video, produced in the late '60s, about the futuristic notion of "fingertip shopping." It includes this priceless line: "What the wife selects on her console will be paid for by the husband at his counterpart console." (The look on the husband's face while perusing the electronic bill is hysterical.) It also informs us of e-mail -- "an electronic correspondence machine, or home post office." Enjoy:

A Tease

Earlier this week, the Washington Post announced that it's folding Book World, the paper's weekly stand-alone section of books coverage. I bring this up not to discuss the terrible condition of the newspaper business, which you can read about a hundred other places. I bring it up because I'll have my own announcement in the next few weeks, involving a new project, which will be intended as a step toward redress for the current state of books journalism.

AP Headline of the Day

Swiss Police Spy Marijuana Field With Google Earth

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mengele in Brazil

Your creepy story for the day:
For years scientists have failed to discover why as many as one in five pregnancies in a small Brazilian town have resulted in twins – most of them blond haired and blue eyed.

But residents of Candido Godoi now claim that Mengele made repeated visits there in the early 1960s, posing at first as a vet but then offering medical treatment to the women of the town.
(Hat tip to Nick)

Desperately Seeking Shicken B.

David Rose shares a few of his favorite personal ads from the London Review of Books. Five to get you started:
I celebrated my fortieth birthday last week by cataloguing my collection of bird feeders. Next year I'm hoping for sexual intercourse. And a cake. Join my invite mailing list at box no. 6831. Man

If intense, post-fight sex scares you, I'm not the woman for you (amateur big-boned cage wrestler, 62). Box no. 8744.

All humans are 99.9% genetically identical, so don't even think of ending any potential relationship begun here with 'I just don't think we have enough in common'. Science has long since proven that I am the man for you (41, likes to be referred to as 'Wing Commander' in the bedroom). Box no. 3501.

You're a brunette, 6', long legs, 25-30, intelligent, articulate and drop dead gorgeous. I, on the other hand, have the looks of Herve Villechaize and an odour of wheat. No returns and no refunds at box no. 3321.

God appeared to me in a dream last night and spoke your name in my ear. He gave me the winning lottery numbers, too, though, so you can understand where my priorities lay when I raced to grab a notebook and pen. Man, 37, living on hope and the next seven weeks' bonus balls seeks woman whose first name begins with S, or maybe F, and rhymes with chicken, and has a surname that's either a place in Shropshire or the title of a 1979 Earth, Wind and Fire track. Shicken Boogiewonderland, I know you're reading this. Write now to box no. 5729.
There's an entire book of these, if you're interested. Here's a bonus, from the excerpt on Amazon:
My finger on the pulse of culture, my ear to the ground of philosophy, my hip in the medical waste bin of Glasgow Royal Infirmary. 14% plastic and counting -- geriatric brainiac and compulsive NHS malingering fool (M, 81), looking for richer, older sex-starved woman on the brink of death to exploit and ruin every replacement operation I’ve had since 1974. Box no. 7648 (quickly, the clock’s ticking, and so is this pacemaker).
This evidence either proves that Brits are: a) as a friend of mine is always saying, "better than us," or b) simply, as one commenter about these ads put it, "witty and smart, but . . . completely unf***able." Maybe both.

(Via The Browser)

R-E-S....Well, You Know the Rest

After the inauguration, there were a lot of little snipes posted around the web about Aretha Franklin. Now, does Aretha sound like she used to? No. Does she have mainstream taste in hats? I guess not. That said, I'll accept a lot of things in these United States, but one thing I can't brook is a lack of respect for Aretha. So, for this Wednesday's song, here she is, singing "Don't Play That Song." Enjoy:


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Real Self-Help

A friend recently alerted me to a poignant review of The Secret on Amazon. It had been deleted by the time I got around to posting about it, but I've found it captured here. Enjoy.

The same reviewer has written persuasively about three other books. (Wait, no; two other books and one metal bucket.)

Sad Literary News

John Updike has died at age 76. Very sad -- and, to me, anyway -- very sudden. He had lung cancer, and I don't know whether it was kept a secret or I just wasn't following his life that closely. It seemed that he was vibrant and would go on writing forever.

I can't say his fictional sensibility was my favorite, but he was inarguably and widely brilliant, and it's hard to imagine a larger loss -- tangible or symbolic -- for American literature. Like Joyce Carol Oates, his pen was mind-bogglingly prolific. Last year, I posted this paragraph by Martin Amis, in which he compares Updike and Samuel Beckett:
Beckett was the headmaster of the Writing as Agony school. On a good day, he would stare at the wall for eighteen hours or so, feeling entirely terrible; and, if he was lucky, a few words like NEVER or END or NOTHING or NO WAY might brand themselves on his bleeding eyes. Whereas Updike, of course, is a psychotic Santa of volubility, emerging from one or another of his studies (he is said to have four of them) with his morning sackful of reviews, speeches, reminiscences, think-pieces, forewords, prefaces, introductions, stories, playlets and poems. Preparing his cup of Sanka over the singing kettle, he wears his usual expression: that of a man beset by an embarrassment of delicious drolleries. The telephone starts ringing. A science magazine wants something pithy on the philosophy of subatomic thermodynamics; a fashion magazine wants 10,000 words on his favorite color. No problem -- but can they hang on? Updike has to go upstairs again and blurt out a novel.


Gallery 23

Berlin vs. Budapest (ca. 1928) by Martin Munkacsi

(Via Pacific Standard)

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Monday, January 26, 2009


From Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre:
The bell of the Ciné-Eldorado resounded in the clear air. This is a familiar Sunday noise, this ringing in broad daylight. More than a hundred people were lined up along the green wall. They were greedily awaiting the hour of soft shadows, of relaxation, abandon, the hour when the screen, glowing like a white stone under water, would speak and dream for them. Vain desire: something would stay, taut in them: they were too afraid someone would spoil their lovely Sunday. Soon, as every Sunday, they would be disappointed: the film would be ridiculous, their neighbour would be smoking a pipe and spitting between his knees or else Lucien would be disagreeable, he wouldn't have a decent word to say, or else, as if on purpose, just for today, for the one time they went to the movies their intercostal neuralgia would start up again. Soon, as on every Sunday, small, mute rages would grow in the darkened hall.

On Solitude

After a false start last summer, I recently read (and finished) The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie, a look at four American Catholic writers in the middle of the 20th century: Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day.

I enjoyed the whole thing, but Merton's story was the most interesting to me, because he was a worldly person who forced himself into solitude, and I've often wondered to what degree genuine religion is an attempt to feel comfortable alone. This is just preface to a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education by William Deresiewicz, about technology, youth, and the nearly vestigial ability to be by ourselves. He writes:
Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone. As a result, we are losing both sides of the Romantic dialectic. What does friendship mean when you have 532 "friends"? How does it enhance my sense of closeness when my Facebook News Feed tells me that Sally Smith (whom I haven't seen since high school, and wasn't all that friendly with even then) "is making coffee and staring off into space"?
After writing about Romanticism and Modernism, he tackles current trends in psychology:
But we no longer believe in the solitary mind. If the Romantics had Hume and the modernists had Freud, the current psychological model — and this should come as no surprise — is that of the networked or social mind. Evolutionary psychology tells us that our brains developed to interpret complex social signals. According to David Brooks, that reliable index of the social-scientific zeitgeist, cognitive scientists tell us that "our decision-making is powerfully influenced by social context"; neuroscientists, that we have "permeable minds" that function in part through a process of "deep imitation"; psychologists, that "we are organized by our attachments"; sociologists, that our behavior is affected by "the power of social networks." The ultimate implication is that there is no mental space that is not social . . .
And he uses Virginia Woolf's work to illustrate the timeless truth that we're always, on some fundamental level, alone:
In the middle of Mrs. Dalloway, between her navigation of the streets and her orchestration of the party, between the urban jostle and the social bustle, Clarissa goes up, "like a nun withdrawing," to her attic room. Like a nun: She returns to a state that she herself thinks of as a kind of virginity. This does not mean she's a prude. Virginity is classically the outward sign of spiritual inviolability, of a self untouched by the world, a soul that has preserved its integrity by refusing to descend into the chaos and self-division of sexual and social relations. It is the mark of the saint and the monk, of Hippolytus and Antigone and Joan of Arc. Solitude is both the social image of that state and the means by which we can approximate it. And the supreme image in Mrs. Dalloway of the dignity of solitude itself is the old woman whom Clarissa catches sight of through her window. "Here was one room," she thinks, "there another." We are not merely social beings. We are each also separate, each solitary, each alone in our own room, each miraculously our unique selves and mysteriously enclosed in that selfhood.
(Via The Browser)

AP Headline of the Day

Boy, 14, Dupes Police, Patrols Chicago for 5 Hours

Lone Star Reading, Take Two

I recently pointed to a list of Texas-related books. Well, in her review of Bryan Burrough's new book, The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes, Mimi Swartz begins with this:
It may be hard for outsiders to accept, but there is, in fact, a Texas canon. Opinions vary, but my list would include T. R. Fehrenbach's "Lone Star," John Bainbridge's "Super Americans," John Graves's "Goodbye to a River," Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" and his nonfiction classic "In a Narrow Grave," certain Molly Ivins columns, the Texas portions of Willie Morris's "North Toward Home," Billy Lee Brammer's "Gay Place," Tommy Thompson’s vastly underrated "Blood and Money" and Edna Ferber's "Giant."

Friday, January 23, 2009


The "lefty smugfest," as one of my friends described it in the comments, is unpleasant. But the right isn't wasting any time peddling its own brand of idiocy in response. There's been a lot of heated rhetoric about Obama's (predictable) decision to begin the process of closing Gitmo and dealing with suspected terrorists domestically. One commentator, former Bush speechwriter and aide Marc Thiessen, claims that Obama is "the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office." Pretty impressive for less than a week's work!

(As always, I will look for opportunities to roast both sides and, as always, opportunities should be plentiful. I've never had any use for the "Bush=Hitler" brand of sloganeering, but you don't hear many actual insiders saying stuff like that. Bush's main speechwriter calling Obama "dangerous" on Day Three is perfectly in keeping with the past administration's tone. It's not a dangerous or misguided policy; he's a "dangerous man.")

The argument put forth by Thiessen and others is, in part, that bringing terrorists inside our borders for purposes of trying them places Americans in greater danger. As someone who supports Obama's policy, I obviously don't agree with this, and I recommend reading Glenn Greenwald's recent piece in its entirety. Excerpt:
All of this is pure fear-mongering . . . Both before and after 9/11, the U.S. has repeatedly and successfully tried alleged high-level Al Qaeda operatives and other accused Islamic Terrorists in our normal federal courts -- in fact, the record is far more successful than the series of debacles that has taken place in the military commissions system at Guantanamo. Moreover, those convicted Terrorists have been housed in U.S. prisons, inside the U.S., for years without a hint of a problem.
(Via Patrick Appel, sitting in for Andrew Sullivan)

Celebrities Inspiring (Hatred)

I pledge to differentiate between those who are silly and those who inspire silliness in others. And there is no question that Obama has inspired some nuclear-grade silliness. We can start (and please, let's end, too) with this video of celebrities doing what they seem most evolutionarily adapted to do -- make smug jackasses of themselves.

Unsurprisingly, the most annoying participants are Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Cameron Diaz, and Anthony Kiedis, but there's plenty of enmity to spread around. The only one who escapes with his dignity intact is the charming Jason Bateman. Everyone else gets an F, even my beloved Marisa Tomei. ("Integrate into my heart..."?? Come on, Marisa.)

Are these all terrible ideas? No. Could the good ones (like turning off the lights, or taking care of old people, or planting trees) just as easily have been trumpeted anytime over the past eight years, or the past 50? Of course. Will Demi Moore and Cameron Diaz pledging to "smile more at people" make a shred of difference to any problem, great or small, currently plaguing the world? I'll bet the under.

With the volume turned down, watching the parade of argyle pullovers and cotton button-ups, this would undoubtedly be confused for the world's longest Gap ad. If only.

A List of Lists

Have a few hours (or weeks) to kill? Scroll through the archives at The List Universe for a while. Here are a few to get you started:

Top 10 Lost Works of Literature

Top 10 Bizarre Disappearances

Top 10 Ugliest Creatures

10 Lesser Known Serial Killers (if you have the stomach for it)

Top 10 Discontinued Sodas (I shared a brief anecdote about #1 on this list here.)

And the Top 10 Amazing Streets in the World, which has some great entries, but also sadly led me to an explanation that debunks one of the creepier moments in my life.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Four Flicks

While we're on the subject of movies, I've been catching up on some oldies recently. In ascending order of enthusiasm:

I recommend My Favorite Wife, a 1940 screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. The plot involves a wife (Dunne) returning from a desert island after seven years presumed dead. The husband (Grant) has remarried the very morning she returns. Hijinks ensue. A lot of the action is corny -- in a Three's Company kind of way -- but there are some genuinely funny moments. And most of all, did I mention Grant and Dunne? They have more charm than 98% of today's actors combined. This isn't one of those classics that has aged very well, but it's a perfectly enjoyable treat. I fell madly in love with Dunne in this, but she's been dead for 18 years, so that's probably not going to work out.

I strongly recommend High Noon, which, like the next movie below, isn't exactly a trailblazing pick. Gary Cooper is a little dull for my taste, but Grace Kelly and a young Lloyd Bridges are both terrific. It's a simple story, but it generates a lot of drama by playing out in more or less real time.

And I don't have enough words to recommend His Girl Friday. No idea why it took me so long to see it, but Grant (again) and Rosalind Russell have insane chemistry. Like All About Eve, this is one in which dialogue hasn't really aged. The plot twists might be patently "zany" in a way that's extinct (in good movies, anyway), but the script is brilliant. I fell madly in love with Russell in this, but she's been dead for 32 years, so that's probably not going to work out.

What do these vintage movies have in common? Their running times are 88, 85, and 92 minutes, respectively. The Dukes of Hazzard was 106 minutes. I am here to tell you that, nine times out of 10, less is more. This is a lesson Hollywood hasn't just forgotten -- it's covered it in gasoline and set it aflame.

Lastly, there's Marty, also lean (91 minutes), and the 1955 Oscar winner for Best Picture, but not as essential. It stars Ernest Borgnine, who won Best Actor, as a lonely, good-natured 34-year-old bachelor living with his mother in the Bronx. When he meets Clara (Betsy Blair), a plain 29-year-old with equally few prospects, the two hit it off. Borgnine is perfect for the role, there are some charming black-and-white images, and Marty and his friends engage in a couple of funny, Diner-like conversations. But the story is so sweet that it's almost inert. It's not bad, but a little boring. Perhaps worth seeing in the long run, but no rush.

Marty did have striking posters in Russia and Poland:

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The Oscar Short List

Oh, the Academy. But before I get to roasting that venerable body, let's see how my dad did:

Pretty well, actually. He nailed Best Actor -- five for five -- and went 13 for 20 on the rest. I know that these days there's a lot of conjecture about the nominees beforehand, but unless it's on SportsCenter, I don't think Dad is catching most of it. So this was from his own noggin, and I'm impressed.

I'm less impressed, as ever, with the voters. Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky gets one measly nomination, for its screenplay. Leaving Sally Hawkins out of the Best Actress race is crazy. (I was much less certain about his chances, but see that movie and tell me Eddie Marsan didn't deserve a Supporting nomination.)

I also think The Wrestler got stiffed. Rourke and Tomei were no-brainers in the acting categories, but Best Picture was realistic (didn't happen), and something like Best Original Screenplay would have been warranted. (Its writer, Robert Siegel, used to work for The Onion. My favorite quote of his: "The idea that a person with a comedy background would do something dark should not come as a shock to people with any exposure to comedy or darkness.")

Let's face it, though, the Oscars aren't exactly the best gauge of quality. It's hardly embarrassing to be overlooked by such a blind crew. But I'm also mad at the Academy for not even being able to set up an interestingly stupid enterprise. This criticism focuses on Best Picture. This is the big one, and yet the Academy continues to make it as boring a race as humanly possible. Not one, not two, but three of the finalists are historical dramas -- Milk, Frost/Nixon, and The Reader. (Gay rights, taking down Nixon, and the Holocaust. Shock of shocks.) Benjamin Button is a huge-budget, mega-star . . . well, remake of Forrest Gump, perhaps the worst Best Picture winner in history. Then there's Slumdog Millionaire, which the Academy probably imagines is its gritty, underdog picture. Ahem. In addition to being a pretty silly, ham-fisted movie, Slumdog is moving up the box-office charts of its studio, Fox Searchlight, which has a pretty good record of getting Oscar's attention.

What about a comic-book movie? (The Dark Knight.) Or an animated movie? (Wall-E.) Or a documentary? (Man On Wire.) Or a movie that has grossed less than six million dollars? (The Wrestler.) Or, I don't know, the best movie of the year? (Happy-Go-Lucky.) None of those are exactly unknown films, but adding any one of them to the Picture race would have created some sense of contrast and drama. As it is, the only thing to watch for at the end of the night is which movie perfectly prepackaged to win an Oscar will . . . win an Oscar.

I would say the Oscars have lost their touch, but to paraphrase Dignan in Bottle Rocket, they never had a touch to lose.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Don't Wanna Stop Now

This Wednesday's song needs no fancy introduction:

Otis Redding.

"I've Been Loving You Too Long."




A stunning satellite photo of yesterday's inauguration. . . . Noam Scheiber on how Obama's experience at Harvard Law School may have shaped his governing style. . . . David Bernstein didn't like yesterday's (or any other inauguration's) pomp. . . . Will Wilkinson live-blogged the event, and he rightly complained about Rick Warren's "fake evangelical emotion." (I was imitating the way he said "Sasha" all night.) In an earlier post, Wilkinson bemoaned that the media believes its job is "mediating and engineering our emotional response." The media yesterday was awful. . . . Man alive, those Obama children are cute, eh? . . . Speaking of, let's get away from politics: an impossibly cute French kid makes up a story.

Oscar Predictions From a Guest

My dad has always loved the movies, and these days he gets to just about every one that's released. So, since Oscar nominations are revealed tomorrow morning, I thought I'd give him a shot at predicting the finalists in Best Picture and the acting categories. These are not his personal favorites, just the names he expects to see, with a bit of commentary. We'll give him a grade after the official announcement tomorrow...

Best Picture

The Wrestler, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, The Dark Knight

The Wrestler is at the top of my pyramid. Button wouldn’t make my top 5, but it’s ambitious, and that will count with voters. Slumdog has momentum on its side, politically topical films like Milk score well with the Academy, and Dark Knight is a long shot that I think will sneak in for having scored so big at the box office.

Best Actor

Mickey Rourke, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Frank Langella, Richard Jenkins

Rourke was mesmerizing in The Wrestler -- makes you realize what he could have been. I tend to dismiss roles, like Langella’s in Frost/Nixon, that are essentially imitations of well known figures, but his body of work earns him a nomination. And The Visitor isn’t on many radar screens, but Jenkins nailed it. I hope he's recognized.

Best Actress

Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sally Hawkins

For Winslet, take your pick between Revolutionary Road and The Reader. I preferred her in the latter, but her versatility marks her as the heiress apparent to Streep. Speaking of the perennial nominee, her crusty nun should earn her another shot, but I doubt she will need an acceptance speech. Hathaway’s neurotic and troubled turn as the monkey wrench in her sister's wedding weekend moves her several rungs up on the acting ladder. Thomas is a consummate pro and should be recognized for I’ve Loved You So Long. As the cockeyed optimist in Happy-Go-Lucky, Hawkins left an indelible impression, and she should battle Winslet for the statue.

Best Supporting Actor

Heath Ledger, Eddie Marsan, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Downey, Jr., Anil Kapoor

Ledger is a likely posthumous winner, and sentiment aside I think he deserves it. You wouldn’t want to take driving lessons from Marsan’s character in Happy-Go-Lucky, but he was perfect. Hoffman seems relegated to the supporting category for his portrayal of Streep's foil in Doubt, but his role was more nuanced and, as usual, he nailed it. Downey was the critics’ darling this year, and Kapoor may ride Slumdog’s coattails to a nomination.

Best Supporting Actress

Penelope Cruz, Viola Davis, Amy Adams, Marisa Tomei, Frances McDormand

Cruz is the likely winner for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but her standout performance of the year was in Elegy, which has fallen off the radar screen thanks to its midyear release. Viola Davis was only on screen for a few minutes in Doubt, but what a few minutes! Adams would be the fourth acting nominee from Doubt, but she’s terrific as the young nun who starts the ruckus. Tomei complements Rourke perfectly as the over-the-hill stripper he regards as the antidote for his loneliness in The Wrestler, and what are the Oscars without a mention of the Coen brothers -- McDormand’s effort in Burn After Reading was as good as any.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Finally, Day One

Like everyone else, I'm preparing to watch the inauguration, and it should be something special. There are things that disturb me about recent weeks, like the ubiquitous industry that Obama merchandise has become -- he's not a blockbuster movie; or, he shouldn't be -- but there's something undeniably momentous about this event, and for a few hours at least, it makes perfect sense to just celebrate. There's a lot of business and tough times ahead, but the fact is that the great-great-granddaughter of a slave is about to become our First Lady. If that's not reason to revel in symbolism and pride for a day, I don't know what is.

As for the incoming president, he wouldn't have more on his plate if he were entered in the Coney Island hot dog-eating contest. The real work starts now, but he handled the transition with the tone and seriousness that I had hoped for as a strong supporter. It doesn't surprise me at all that he offered Rick Warren a spot at the inauguration, or that he's been getting friendlier with Senator McCain. As Andrew Sullivan has written in recent days (this is a combination of lines from different posts):
(H)is great gift is showing that he does not expect people to change their convictions in order to find common areas of agreement. . . . (W)hat he has over Clinton is emotional intelligence to buttress his grasp of policy. What he gets, what he seems to intuit, is how to make others feel as if they are being heard. This is simple enough in theory but hard to pull off consistently in practice. . . . This is not typical for politicians in any climate and era. In the post-Clinton, post-Bush divide of the US, it’s a shock of sorts, and one most Washingtonians have yet to absorb. More shocks, I suspect, are to come, as people begin to realise that the new politics Obama promised is actually more than just a marketing device for a campaign.
One reason the hype doesn't bother me as much as it might is because Obama stands calmly in the middle of it. He might inspire silly expectations in some, but it doesn't seem that he buys into them for a minute. He remains inspirational, yes, but equally (or even more) pragmatic. I think that combination speaks to something very deeply rooted in this country, and it's why he'll enter office with the popular wind at his back.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Professorial Post

Just thought I would pop in mid-weekend to share two classic treats featuring one of my all-time favorite characters, Professor John Frink. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have three movies from Netflix and two championship football games that are demanding my attention... Enjoy:

Friday, January 16, 2009

Final Note For This Week

Tomorrow, Muhammad Ali turns 67, Benjamin Franklin would have turned 303, and I turn 35. So, happy birthday to all of us.

Enjoy the three-day weekend, everybody...

Lone Star Reading

A while back, I posted about the Amazon blog Omnivoracious, and its "electoral project." For each state, the site has posted a number of books that corresponds to that state's number of delegates in the electoral college. I've been sitting on this for too long, but Texas and its 34 books were written up in November. Lots of heavyweights on display: Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurty, Robert Caro, Katherine Anne Porter, Donald Barthelme.

One title I might add, off the top of my head, is The Loop by Joe Coomer. Its protagonist, Lyman, works for the highway department, driving around the Fort Worth "loop," maintaining the road and helping motorists. It involves his relationships with a parrot and a librarian who helps him decipher what the bird might be saying. I read it years ago, but enjoyed it. I would share a passage, but my copy is in storage.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hall Monitor

While I'm thinking about baseball, please allow me two more thoughts on this year's Hall of Fame voting:

1. Two people voted for Jay Bell, and these people should have their voting rights rescinded immediately. Yes, someone also voted for Jesse Orosco, but I can give that person a pass -- Orosco was involved in a few memorable moments, and he managed to pitch until he was 237 years old. But Jay Bell?

2. Players receiving less than 5% of the vote aren’t eligible to be considered again, and that’s the fate of pitcher David Cone. This surprises me. I’m not saying Cone is a Hall of Famer, but the way this silly system works, there’s a lesser honor in just hanging around for a few ballots. Cone's 2,668 strikeouts are good for 22nd all-time. He won a Cy Young Award, and finished in the top five in voting three other times. In League Championship Series, he was 5-1; in World Series, he was 5-0 with a 2.12. ERA. He pitched a perfect game, which has only happened 17 times in Major League history. As Wikipedia helpfully points out, “more people have orbited the moon than have pitched a Major League Baseball perfect game.” Granted, one of those perfect games was pitched by Len Barker, who belongs in the HOF as much as I do. But Cone was a big-game pitcher, and I think he deserves, at least, to linger.

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The Inimitable Rickey

Halls of Fame are inherently ridiculous. The more heated the debate about a certain player’s credentials, the more meaningless it is. The whole point is to enshrine greatness, and if we have to spend 10 years arguing about whether or not you were great, you probably weren’t.

Rickey Henderson was great. He will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame later this year. His combination of power and speed changed the way the game was played. Well, that might be too grand. But it certainly changed the way the games in which he participated were played. He’s the all-time leader in stolen bases, and his 1,406 swipes is currently the record in baseball hardest to imagine being approached, much less surpassed. The last time he led the league in the category he was pushing 40 years old.

His arrogance and difficult personality are as legendary as his talent. Roger Angell, who’s seen his share of baseball, recently wrote about Henderson on one of The New Yorker’s blogs:
Everything about him made you wince and gasp at the same time. How does a major-league ballplayer, for instance, end up playing for nine different teams, while also rejoining his first team, the Oakland Athletics, four times? Why would a major-league outfielder insist on grabbing oncoming flyballs with an angry-looking one-handed slicing motion, as if they were, well, horseflies? . . . It was all on purpose, of course. Rickey’s plan, from the first day, was to get into the minds of the other team’s pitcher and the other team’s manager and the other team’s infielders, and their fans, too, and get them thinking about Rickey instead of the business at hand. . . . This is still happening. Twenty-eight baseball writers voting in this year’s Hall of Fame election failed to put Rickey Henderson’s name in any of the ten available slots on their ballots. Thinking about Rickey again, they’d lost their minds.
Henderson is also -- and this counts in baseball maybe more than any other walk of life -- a character for the ages. This site lists 25 memorable non-playing moments from his career. It’s just a start, but a good one. It includes his infamous habit of referring to himself in the third person:
This wasn’t too long ago, I think it was the year he ended up playing with the Red Sox. Anyway, he called San Diego GM Kevin Towers and left the following message: “This is Rickey calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play baseball.”
His conversations with himself:
This one happened in Seattle. Rickey struck out and as the next batter was walking past him, he heard Henderson say, “Don’t worry, Rickey, you’re still the best.”
And his sense of humor (expressed, of course, in tandem with his arrogance):
During a contract holdout with Oakland in the early 1990s, Henderson said, “If they want to pay me like Mike Gallego, I’ll play like Gallego.”
Henderson is a world-class flake, no doubt, but I’ve always liked him. Among other things, he had a terribly hard time leaving the game, and I always find that poignant, especially when the game defines someone to themselves as much as it seemed to define Rickey. Along those lines, I highly recommend this New Yorker profile from three years ago, which followed Henderson during his time as a San Diego Surf Dawg, when, at 46, he was playing in the minor league for the minor leagues, hoping for one last shot at the bigs. It includes this detail, which immediately brought back a crystal-clear image of how he plied his craft:
He said that the final touch was the slide. Before Henderson, the great base stealers typically went feet first. Henderson decided that it would be faster—not to mention more daring and stylish—to go in head first, the way Pete Rose, who was never a major base stealer, occasionally did. Yet each time Henderson tried the head-first slide he would bounce violently, brutally pounding his body. Then, one day, while he was flying to a game, he noticed that the pilot landed the plane in turbulence without a single bump. Henderson recalled, “I asked the pilot, I said, ‘How the hell did you do that?’ He said the key is coming in low to the ground, rather than dropping suddenly. I was, like, ‘Dang. That’s it!’ ” After that, Henderson said, he lowered his body gradually to the ground, like an airplane.
(Via Miles)

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Perhaps proclamations about the death of literacy, like the one I pointed to earlier this week, are a bit hasty. We'll see. . . . Speaking of literacy, there's at least one really good reason to be excited about 2009: A forthcoming novel from Lorrie Moore. . . . This idea looks like the birth of real innovation, and a small glimpse of what the world might become, if we're lucky. . . . Lastly, if you ever need a pick-me-up, keep this link handy. I give you the Blue-footed Booby.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Lovely Lonesome

Just under the wire for Wednesday, here's a song. This time, you have to click on a link, because embedding is disabled. I know, life is hard. The song is "Lonesome Cities," a beauty that I recently discovered when I heard Frank Sinatra singing it on the radio (though I can't seem to find his recorded version of it anywhere). But it's no less beautiful when Nina Simone sings it, as she does here. Enjoy.


Mostly Work, But Some Play

For my money, The Shining is the best horror movie ever made. This behind-the-scenes footage is truly amazing. It was shot by Stanley Kubrick's daughter, Vivian, who was 17 at the time. I guess it's been around for a while as a bonus on the DVD, but I hadn't seen it. If you haven't, give yourself 35 minutes. That's how long it is, and I was transfixed the whole time. It begins with Jack Nicholson getting ready to report to the set, which is entertaining enough (choice line: "it's grueling enough without a face full of lamb cutlets."), but it quickly develops into an extraordinary look at the making of the film. Enjoy:

(Via Andrew Sullivan)

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The List Sticks the Landing: 3-1

3. Built to Spill -- Perfect From Now On (1997)

Just eight songs, but an epic nonetheless. The shortest clocks in at 4:52, and the two longest reach toward nine minutes. This allows for two things that are absent from many rock albums: patience and complexity. “Stop the Show” starts with nearly three minutes of gently meandering guitar, and then the same figure gets sped up into a catchy pop song. After four minutes, “I Would Hurt a Fly” transforms into a storm of guitar. Melodies float around the album in an orchestral way, sometimes making brief appearances on multiple songs. Doug Martsch is widely considered a “guitar god,” and that usually doesn’t do much for me, but he manages to make axe wonkery sound thoughtful instead of noodling and endless. His adenoidal voice isn’t for everybody, but I like the way it delivers his off-kilter and often clever lyrics. (A personal favorite: “that net does not make me feel safe / all those holes make me nervous.”)

2. R.E.M. -- Automatic for the People (1992)

The fifth R.E.M. album on my list falls just short of the top spot. Since this is clearly my favorite band, No. 2 seems lower than it should. “Drive” is hypnotic, “Try Not to Breathe” and “Sweetness Follows” are heartbreaking, and “Nightswimming” and “Find the River” are the best one-two closing punch that I’ve ever heard. What’s more, this album had to be initially judged against my immense expectations, the kind that are normally impossible to satisfy. In the year and a half after Out of Time was released, I became an R.E.M. obsessive, and the band’s music had provided the soundtrack to my life -- and I’m plenty sentimental. But even having memorized and loved the band’s seven other (very good to great) records, this one somehow knocked me over. Again.

So Automatic means a lot to me, but being coldly objective, it has faults. “Star Me Kitten” feels like a B-side. “Ignoreland” is fuzzed-out fun, but as an ’80s-inspired political rant, it feels out of place among the stately material that makes up most of the album. These are nitpicks simply to explain why it’s not at the very top.

Upon release, this was widely written about as an album by rockers trying (with success) to age gracefully. The fact that it appeared more than 16 years ago is mind-boggling.

1. Radiohead -- The Bends (1995)

The criteria for judging these albums was fairly simple: Thorough quality (as little filler as possible), personal affection (“in a This Is Your Life kind of way,” to quote myself), and respect for the music qua music. On all three counts, The Bends excels. From start to finish, every song earns its place on a record of this quality. There’s not one I would cut. On a personal level, it was a big part of the background for my mid-20s, a formative time for my late-blooming (always-blooming?) self. And while Radiohead would go on to make strong and more innovative albums, the music here is top-shelf rock. It’s no surprise that an R.E.M. fan would love the jangly “High and Dry” and the elegantly sad “Fake Plastic Trees.” “Just,” the title track, and the underrated “Black Star” are straightforward guitar-driven numbers that sound every bit as vital as they did 13 years ago. Most importantly, for my taste, the band’s concerns and tone, despite a strain of paranoia (especially in the creepy closer, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”), hadn’t yet reached their The Robots Are Coming phase. There’s a generous helping of (forgive me) premillennial tension on The Bends, but the sense of alienation it conveys is as personal as it is cultural.

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Film Police

The film site Reverse Shot lists the "11 Offenses of 2008." It rightfully tackles some of the most beloved movies of the year (The Dark Knight and Slumdog Millionaire). Then there's Lauren Kaminsky's take on Revolutionary Road, which perfectly sums up my fears about the movie:
Entire paragraphs of dialogue are lifted from the page and issued from Winslet's over-enunciating lips. Yet, sadly, only the characters' spoken words are transferred to the screen, leaving us entirely without the inner lives that flesh out Frank and April. Yates's unsparing novel compels the reader to see the lost souls behind all these empty words and false pretenses; Mendes's embarrassing film mistakes these pretenses for the point, wallowing in the stagy materialism that its characters despise.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Gallery 22

Postmen by Saul Leiter

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The Last Days of Literacy

In The New Atlantis, Christine Rosen has an essay worth reading about . . . reading. It begins with a fairly standard overview of the screen vs. the page, but it opens out into compelling discussions of educational and socioeconomic impacts:
A University of Michigan study published in the Harvard Educational Review in 2008 reported that the Web is now the primary source of reading material for low-income high school students in Detroit. And yet, the study notes, “only reading novels on a regular basis outside of school is shown to have a positive relationship to academic achievement.” . . . Despite the attention once paid to the so-called digital divide, the real gap isn’t between households with computers and households without them; it is the one developing between, on the one hand, households where parents teach their children the old-fashioned skill of reading and instill in them a love of books, and, on the other hand, households where parents don’t.
. . . positional differences between types of reading:
Screen reading allows you to read in a “strategic, targeted manner,” searching for particular pieces of information, he notes. And although this style of reading is admittedly empowering, Bell cautions, “You are the master, not some dead author. And that is precisely where the greatest dangers lie, because when reading, you should not be the master”; you should be the student. “Surrendering to the organizing logic of a book is, after all, the way one learns,” he observes.
. . . and even fun trivia:
In A.D. 1000, the Grand Vizier of Persia, an avid reader, faced a peculiar logistical challenge when he traveled. Unwilling to leave behind his precious collection of 117,000 books, as historian Alberto Manguel tells us, he hit upon a unique strategy for transporting them: four hundred camels trained to walk in an alphabetically-ordered caravan behind him on his journey.
(Via Andrew Sullivan)

No Cigar

I think the one thing we can all agree on, with regards to the list of my favorite 100 albums (excluding jazz and classical), is that the entire enterprise has gone on far too long. Well, tomorrow I’m sharing my top three, all at once, and that will be that. For now, a quick rundown of 25 honorable mentions (from an original list of about 70). Any or all of these could have made the cut (and not just near the bottom) if I had made it on a different day:

I Break Chairs -- Damien Jurado
Hotel Lights -- Hotel Lights
Sebastopol -- Jay Farrar
Hollywood Town Hall -- The Jayhawks
Under Cold Blue Stars -- Josh Rouse
What I Deserve -- Kelly Willis
Soma City -- Kevin Salem
Not the Tremblin’ Kind -- Laura Cantrell
What’s Going On -- Marvin Gaye
One Moment More -- Mindy Smith
Excuses for Travellers -- Mojave 3
Down the River of Golden Dreams -- Okkervil River
Slush -- OP8
Otis Blue -- Otis Redding
Hearts and Bones -- Paul Simon
Fables of the Reconstruction -- R.E.M.
Pablo Honey -- Radiohead
Look Now Look Again -- Rainer Maria
Ocean Beach -- Red House Painters
Are You Driving Me Crazy? -- Seam
Ágætis byrjun -- Sigur Ros
Innervisions -- Stevie Wonder
Copper Blue -- Sugar
Anodyne -- Uncle Tupelo
Summerteeth -- Wilco

Friday, January 09, 2009

A Satirical Gem

I leave you for the weekend with The Recently Deflowered Girl, an incredible book illustrated (and presumably written by) Edward Gorey. I believe this is out of print, so I leave it to our brilliant publishing community to do something about that.

One kind online citizen has posted the entire thing. Here's a sample. Click to enlarge:

(Via Pajiba)

Lewis On "Our Madness"

If you're looking for a well-written, clear, smart, witty take on our recent catastrophes, there can be no more welcome news than that "Michael Lewis . . . is writing a book about the collapse of Wall Street."

This is unsurprising.

Lewis recently co-wrote a two-part op-ed in the New York Times. Part one is here. Part two is here.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The List Returns From a Ridiculously Long and Unnecessary Hibernation: 4

4. The Innocence Mission -- Glow (1995)

You don’t always (or even often) choose the location where beautiful things happen to you, and thus unlikely places can be imbued with lasting affection. In 1995 or 1996, I was leaving the parking lot of a run-of-the-mill (read: pretty ugly) mall in the Dallas suburbs when the local NPR station played “That Was Another Country,” off Glow. It was early evening in the fall, and the sky was as visually striking as the mall was stultifying. The song begins with a few seconds of rumbling, almost tribal drums, unaccompanied. A distant, echoey voice makes cooing sounds in the background, not words. A chiming, crisp guitar enters the mix, and then a few lonely notes of stray piano. Then Karen Peris clearly sings, “Rowing out into the air.”

If you have a certain set of ears (e.g., mine), this opening is enough to hook you. But the song went on, with Peris singing enigmatic lyrics (like that opener) as well as more direct, emotional lines, like “he was fine / and what is more he was around / that was another country.” By the time she finished with, “are you all right? / you were my friend / are you all right? / you are still my friend / you didn’t go out of my life,” I was deeply in love.

Peris’ voice is fragile and childlike, but I don’t often find it precious. It’s a powerful instrument that can sound vulnerable, consternated, and soothed in turn, always with a common tone of undeniable spirituality.

The Innocence Mission is technically a “Christian band,” but don’t go thinking of Jars of Clay or, worse, Stryper. It took a while for me to catch on, but eventually I noticed lyrics like, “You go outside / You see the Holy Spirit burning in your trees / and walk on, glowing with the same glow.”

But the next line in that progression is, “Still you tremble out and in,” and the band is constantly mining this duality of recognizing and appreciating grace while admitting the difficulty and anxiety of life. In “Brave,” Peris sings:
Even if I'm shining, even if I'm shining here inside.
Even if I'm shouting do you see that I'm wanting,
And I always go to pieces.
And I have it in my mind
that the sky is tall and heavy,
when I could be brave

Oh I know it, I know it, here is God beside.
I meant it. I meant I'm sure of that.
But the sky is tall and heavy,
when I could be brave.
The band might or might not believe this, but I do think its explicit religious concerns are secondary to a kind of remystification of everyday life and domesticity. Glow is colored with moments of hearing talk “coming up over the stairs,” laying under the sky, “taking blankets to the bay,” sitting on a bridge, “crossing over to the tree side,” singing in the car, running across yards, walking home evenings over “a pale blue mile.” It’s also populated with people -- Junie, Aunt Ruthie, Mary (twice), Harry (twice), and Georgia.

I don’t listen to as much sad, gauzy music as I used to (this still leaves time to listen to it plenty). A lot of it -- even songs and bands I enjoy -- can be vague to the point of soporific. By contrast, Glow sounds like it was written about, and possibly recorded in, the house you grew up in. It pays attention to things.

It’s possible that Glow will always stand as the band’s peak. Their earlier records (despite some good material) are hampered by a certain, severely dated style of ’80s production. The two follow-ups -- Birds of My Neighborhood and Befriended -- are strong (the latter was No. 83 on this list) but increasingly quiet. The band’s drummer left after Glow, and its most recent work can verge on lifeless, with Peris whispering through songs that lack any rhythm. The warmly ringing guitars and mostly persistent beats of Glow, recorded in a tasteful way that accentuated Peris’ singular voice, represent a sound I’d love to hear them explore again.

I think of Glow as a collection of secular-inflected hymns, full of observance and consolation, typified in this line from “Go”: “you would think now hope would be tired, but it’s all right.”

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Sin, From Above

I've been trying to find out about this film ever since I saw it as a short before a feature at the IFC Center in New York a couple of years ago: Site Specific: Las Vegas is director Olivo Barbieri's aerial look at the city, using a technique he calls "selected focus" (which I've also seen called "tilt-shift"). The method makes things look more like toy models than real-life structures. I featured a photo shot in this way not too long ago.

I couldn't find a clip of Las Vegas to embed, but there's a preview available on the Sundance Channel's site. It seems that Sundance will be playing it Saturday, January 10 at 11:35 p.m. and Sunday, January 18 at midnight. If you have the channel (I don't), I recommend watching -- it's hypnotic. The whole thing is less than 10 minutes long.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A Song to Welcome '09

For the first weekly song of 2009, here are The Zombies (or the two most important original ones, anyway), with a few decades under their belt but still sounding terrific, with "This Will Be Our Year." Enjoy:


Hey, Get Your Own Coincidental, Cloying Anecdote!

In case you missed it, one of the first "literary" controversies of 2009 involves mega-bestselling author Neale Donald Walsch (Conversations With God, etc.), who published an essay online that was nearly identical to something previously written by a woman named Candy Chand. The essay was about a winter pageant at the kindergarten of Walsch's -- er, Chand's -- son:
During a dress rehearsal, he wrote, a group of children spelled out the title of a song, "Christmas Love," with each child holding up a letter. One girl held the "m" upside down, so that it appeared as a "w," and it looked as if the group was spelling "Christ Was Love."
Chand first published her story a decade ago, and it's been reprinted several times in various places. (Even from her, doesn't it sound a little...made-up?)

Walsch's explanations are hysterically strained:
"All I can say now — because I am truly mystified and taken aback by this — is that someone must have sent it to me over the Internet ten years or so ago . . . Finding it utterly charming and its message indelible, I must have clipped and pasted it into my file of 'stories to tell that have a message I want to share.' I have told the story verbally so many times over the years that I had it memorized . . . and then, somewhere along the way, internalized it as my own experience."
The same thing happened to me a few years ago, when I earnestly and unsuspectingly told people that I was raised by an aunt and uncle on the planet Tatooine.

Chand, not in the mood for turning the other cheek, says, "Quite frankly, I'm not buying it." And goes on to sarcastically ask if Walsch is familiar with God's commandments, which include, in Chand's calculation, "thou shalt not covet another author's property."

But by far the most entertaining part of this nonsense is Chand's claim that, "I have strong issue with anyone who would appear to plagiarize my work and pretend it is his own. That takes away from the truth of the material, it takes away from the miracle that occurred . . .”

The miracle that occurred?! Have I been under the wrong impression of what constitutes a miracle? Let's check the dictionary:
1. an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.
I'm pretty sure that a kindergartner holding a letter upside down doesn't count. Nor is it miraculous when I miss my exit on the highway.

As a friend of mine summed it up, "They both need to be struck by lightning, by a vengeful god."

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Time Capsule

Sometime last month, I watched The War Room, the 1993 documentary about Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. It's interesting as an artifact, but doesn't hold up all that well -- it seems like the innovative part of the campaign was...being around to respond to smears. I imagine the Internet has changed things exponentially, because watching this felt a bit like watching a campaign from the 1800s. As a visual time capsule, it's priceless, so I want to share a few stills.

The movie features a few scenes of Bill Clinton L.W.C. (Listening While Chewing), like so:

There's James Carville making silly faces, of course:

I think a lot of us in the '90s felt at the time like we wouldn't look as silly from the future as other generations did. Well, to that argument, I say, "This guy":

Weirdly, out of nowhere, and just for a moment, there's Tobey Maguire's doppelganger:

And then we have the runaway winner in the category of Person Most Likely To Spend The Rest Of Their Life Hunting Down And Burning Every Last Copy Of The War Room, Ms. Chelsea Clinton:



On his blog, Ecstatic Days, writer Jeff VanderMeer is making his way through all 60 of Penguin's lovely Great Ideas books in 60 days. (Via Omnivoracious) . . . Pajiba lists the 10 worst films of 2008, and I'm happy to say I didn't see a single one. . . . Comedian Patton Oswalt hilariously blogs about the action star Jason Statham, and reimagines blockbusters with his presence: "CHANGELING: Jason Statham plays the kidnapped boy, who immediately beats his kidnappers to death, then fights female assassins on top of a blimp; FROST/NIXON: Jason Statham pulls off David Frost's skin, drops him into a tank of sea salt, and then Statham and Nixon rent a limo and drive across country, shotgunning hippies." (Via The Comish) . . . Speaking (more seriously) of movies, I highly recommend The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which I watched last night. It begins with a 15-minute scene that doesn't make sense until closer to the end, but the whole thing is excellent.

Monday, January 05, 2009

A Sense of God

The Fall 2008 issue of The Paris Review featured an interview with Marilynne Robinson, whose Gilead is one of my favorite novels. Robinson is a Christian, and I found her thoughts on religion to be some of the most interesting in the interview. A sampling:
Calvin says that God takes an aesthetic pleasure in people. There’s no reason to imagine that God would choose to surround himself into infinite time with people whose only distinction is that they fail to transgress. . . . To think that only faultless people are worthwhile seems like an incredible exclusion of almost everything of deep value in the human saga. Sometimes I can’t believe the narrowness that has been attributed to God in terms of what he would approve and disapprove.
Faith always sounds like an act of will. Frankly, I don’t know what faith in God means. For me, the experience is much more a sense of God. Nothing could be more miraculous than the fact that we have a consciousness that makes the world intelligible to us and are moved by what is beautiful.
Religion . . . has presented itself in some extremely unattractive forms. . . . People seem to be profoundly disposed toward religion, yet they’re not terribly good at it.
Science is amazing. On a mote of celestial dust, we have figured out how to look to the edge of our universe. I feel instructed by everything I have read. Science has a lot of the satisfactions for me that good theology has.
As an achievement, science is itself a spectacular argument for the singularity of human beings among all things that exist. It has a prestige that comes with unambiguous changes in people’s experience -- space travel, immunizations. It has an authority that’s based on its demonstrable power. But in discussions of human beings it tends to compare downwards: we’re intelligent because hyenas are intelligent and we just took a few more leaps.

The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: Stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave consistently with our own dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this endlessly.

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b., d.

Every December, The New York Times Magazine publishes its "The Lives They Lived" issue, featuring pieces about several notable figures who passed away during the year. It's always an excellent collection, partly because, as the magazine's editors admit, it is "unabashedly idiosyncratic." Some of the notables who weren't written about in this year's issue include Paul Newman, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, William F. Buckley, Heath Ledger, and Michael Crichton. And when a boldface name does appear, the treatment is often just different enough to justify yet another piece about their passing -- in this vein this year, I particularly enjoyed Michael Paterniti's take on Bobby Fischer.

In case you missed the issue, it also included Peter Singer, whose views on disability and issues of life and death frequently generate controversy, writing about Harriet McBryde Johnson, a severely disabled woman who challenged those views; a remembrance of sportscaster Jim McKay and his work at the tragic Munich Olympics; and two eerie pieces, one about a murderer who disappeared and another about an adventurous aviator who did the same. I highly recommend reading all of them.

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The Vineyard

Time to get 2009 rolling around here. Thanks to very generous friends, I spent the week of New Year's on Martha's Vineyard, my first trip there. It's known as a summer retreat, but I don't see how it could be more beautiful than it is in winter. Not an easy place from which to return to the city: