Monday, October 30, 2006

Putting God to Bed, For Now

OK, this will be the last post about this subject, at least as inspired by Dawkins' book.


There are two things I want to point out. The first is a clarification, given the state of plagiarism today. When I posted portions of Terry Eagleton's review of Dawkins' book a couple of weeks ago, I hadn't read the whole thing yet -- I had just posted the excerpts I found on another blog. Anyway, he wrote this: " claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it." And I hadn't read that when I wrote my own fumbling distinction between love and a curveball, which you can find somewhere below. They're not even that similar as sentences go, but wanted to mention it.

The second thing is more important. I now have read Eagleton's full review and while it's quite eloquent, it's true that I wondered where to find all these hyper-intellectual believers he seems to be writing about. And I figured it was worth giving some space to someone who defends the idea of a Godless universe, since that's an idea I believe much more easily than the opposite. Here's a long but very good piece worth reading. Some highlights (even the highlights are long, but listen to me, your blogmaster -- they are worth reading):
The previous excerpt (of Eagleton's review), which defined God as "the condition of possibility," seemed to be warning against the dangers of anthropomorphizing the deity, ascribing to it features that we would normally associate with conscious individual beings such as ourselves. A question like "Does 'the condition of possibility' exist?" would never set off innumerable overheated arguments, even in a notoriously contentious blogosphere. If that were really what people meant by "God," nobody would much care. It doesn't really mean anything — like Spinoza's pantheism, identifying God with the natural world, it's just a set of words designed to give people a warm and fuzzy feeling. As a pragmatist, I might quibble that such a formulation has no operational consequences, as it doesn't affect anything relevant about how we think about the world or act within it; but if you would like to posit the existence of a category called "the condition of possibility," knock yourself out.


Once you start attributing to God the possibility of being interested in some way about the world and the people in it, you open the door to all of the nonsensical rules and regulations governing real human behavior that tend to accompany any particular manifestation of religious belief, from criminalizing abortion to hiding women’s faces to closing down the liquor stores on Sunday.

The problematic nature of this transition —- from God as ineffable, essentially static and completely harmless abstract concept, to God as a kind of being that, in some sense that is perpetually up for grabs, cares about us down here on Earth — is not just a minor bump in the otherwise smooth road to a fully plausible conception of the divine. It is the profound unsolvable dilemma of “sophisticated theology.” It’s a millenia-old problem, inherited from the very earliest attempts to reconcile two fundamentally distinct notions of monotheism: the Unmoved Mover of ancient Greek philosophy, and the personal/tribal God of Biblical Judaism. Attempts to fit this square peg into a manifestly round hole lead us smack into all of the classical theological dilemmas: “Can God microwave a burrito so hot that He Himself cannot eat it?” The reason why problems such as this are so vexing is not because our limited human capacities fail to measure up when confronted with the divine; it’s because they are legitimately unanswerable questions, arising from a set of mutually inconsistent assumptions.


We are left with fundamentally incoherent descriptions of what God is, which deny that he “exists” in the same sense that hummingbirds and saxophones do, but nevertheless attribute to him qualities of “love” and “creativity” that conventionally belong to conscious individual beings. One might argue that it’s simply a hard problem, and our understanding is incomplete; after all, we haven’t come up with a fully satisfactory way to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics, either. But there is a more likely possibility: there simply is no reconciliation to be had. The reason why it’s difficult to imagine how God can be eternally perfect and also occasionally wistful is that God doesn’t exist.


...for the most part, theologians have basically abandoned the project of “proving” God’s existence, which is probably a good move.

But they haven’t given up on believing in God’s existence (suitably defined), which is what drives atheists like Dawkins (and me) a little crazy. Two thousand years ago, believing in God made perfect sense; there was so much that we didn’t understand about the world, and an appeal to the divine seemed to help explain the otherwise inexplicable. Those original motivations have long since evaporated. In response, theologians have continued to alter what they mean by “God,” and struggled to reconcile the notion’s apparent internal contradictions — unwilling to take those contradictions as a signal of the fundamental incoherence of the idea.

To be fair, much of Dawkins’s book does indeed take aim at a rather unsophisticated form of belief, one that holds a much more literal (and wholly implausible, not to mention deeply distasteful) notion of what God means. That’s not a completely unwarranted focus, even if it does annoy the well-educated Terry Eagletons of the world; after all, that kind of naive theology is a guiding force among a very large and demonstrably influential fraction of the population. The reality of a religion is manifested in the actions of its adherents. But even an appeal to more nuanced thinking doesn’t save God from the dustbin of intellectual history.
I really do recommend reading the whole thing, and the comments below it, where you'll find people, among other things, defending Spinoza with links to math-philosophy.

And where people are leaving notes like this one:
in your last sentence you write
"The universe [..] peacefully solving its equations of motion [..]"

Is this not the same anthropomorphizing you critize (sic) in Eagleton's point of view?
And does it not somehow reveal that even an atheist is longing for a 'peaceful' universe in which 'we want to find meaning'?
And would this help explain your question 3, why people are religious?
Good times.

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If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is good for nothing else, eligibility for it is a reliable sign that a band is, if not done, nearly damn done. And so it is, officially, with REM. . . . Lorrie Moore has a story in The New Yorker this week. Haven't read it, but I'll go ahead and guess it's worth a link. She always is. . . . And a sentence from a story I've been working on, just because I've got nothing else for you: "The green and red lights strung on the mirror behind the bar made the place feel, at all times, like Christmas Eve for people who had no one and liked it that way."

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Oh, I Have an Idea of Where They Can Go

This Park Slope couple is looking to move, and they've set up a web site where people can vote for a town. First town that gets a million votes will be their new home for a year, and they will (lucky us) update their site to tell of life there.

Danny's "favorite frosty treat" is mango water ice. They have a cat named Snuffleupagus.

Do I even need to say that I'm glad they'll be leaving the neighborhood?

Anyway, it turns out their comeuppance is going to be sweet. Thanks, bizarrely, to a German TV program that recommended this choice, the town leading the pack is none other than Plano, Texas, former home of ASWOBA. Plano is a town with many conveniences, but for someone like Danny, who loves indie pop and thai food, well, it might as well be the Gulag.

Given that other towns receiving a healthy number of votes include Arlington (Texas), Akron (Ohio) and Fort Wayne (Indiana), one can only deduce that the vast majority of people who visit Danny and Nina's site quickly develop disdain for them. There's really no other explanation for those choices.

(Via FrinkTank, which gets much respect for its headline.)

Friday, October 27, 2006

On the Origins and Purposes of the Universe. You Know, For Fun.

Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion, which I've posted about recently, is getting the widespread review attention I figured it would. Dawkins is, to use a scientific term, a smart and respected dude. It's not easy for me to criticize details without having read the book, but I do feel quite familiar with its core argument, having read many philosophical arguments against God when I was forming my own atheistic stance. But I've become more comfortable as an agnostic, and since I'm unsatisfied with the idea that science can tell us everything we need to know about how and why to live, I have a feeling Dawkins goes too far for my taste. Jim Holt reviewed the book last weekend in the New York Times Book Review, and Marilynne Robinson has a review in the new issue of Harper's. (Both have their criticisms of the book, but Robinson's title and subtitle, "Hysterical Scientism: The ecstasy of Richard Dawkins," betrays her stronger take.)

I thought I'd share a few excerpts from each, and since this is my blog, they're the excerpts to which I found myself nodding most vigorously. First, Holt:
It is far from clear which explanatory model makes sense for the deepest question, the one that, Dawkins complains, his theologian friends keep harping on: why does the universe exist at all? Darwinian processes can take you from simple to complex, but they can’t take you from Nothing to Something. If there is an ultimate explanation for our contingent and perishable world, it would seemingly have to appeal to something that is both necessary and imperishable, which one might label “God.” Of course, it can’t be known for sure that there is such an explanation. Perhaps, as Russell thought, “the universe is just there, and that’s all.”


But the objectivity of ethics is undermined by Dawkins’s logic just as surely as religion is. The evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson, in a 1985 paper written with the philosopher Michael Ruse, put the point starkly: ethics “is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate,” and “the way our biology enforces its ends is by making us think that there is an objective higher code to which we are all subject.” In reducing ideas to “memes” that propagate by various kinds of “misfiring,” Dawkins is, willy-nilly, courting what some have called Darwinian nihilism.


Despite the many flashes of brilliance in this book, Dawkins’s failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be makes reading it an intellectually frustrating experience. As long as there are no decisive arguments for or against the existence of God, a certain number of smart people will go on believing in him, just as smart people reflexively believe in other things for which they have no knock-down philosophical arguments, like free will, or objective values, or the existence of other minds.
Robinson makes an obvious point, but makes it well, which is that Dawkins is pitting religion against science without allowing himself to acknowledge science's capacity to do harm:
...we know the terrors of all-out conflict between civilizations would include innovations, notably those dread weapons of mass destruction, being made by scientists for any country with access to their skills. Granting for the purposes of argument that Dawkins is correct in the view that the majority of great scientists are atheists, we may then exclude religion from among the factors that recruit them to this somber work. We are left with nationalism, steady employment, good pay, the chance to do research that is lavishly funded and, by definition, cutting edge -- familiar motives of a kind fully capable of disarming moral doubt.
I think it's brilliant the way she stresses that Dawkins himself would agree that religion plays no role in most scientists' motivations. Thus, it's easy to set up a dichotomy to prove a point, even if that point is that science is capable of bad results, too. That alone doesn't make a case for religion, but such a case doesn't seem to be Robinson's ultimate goal. She appears content to point out the most glaring contradictions and omissions in Dawkins' argument. She continues:
That both (religion and science) can do damage on a huge scale is clear. ... To Dawkins’ objection that Nazi science was not authentic science I would reply, first, that neither Nazis nor Germans had any monopoly on these theories, which were influential throughout the Western world, and second, that the research on human subjects carried out by those holding such assumptions was good enough science to appear in medical texts for fully half a century. This is not to single out science as exceptionally inclined to do harm, though its capacity for doing harm is by now unequaled.
And two more passages that develop different arguments, because they're too good not to cite. (A friend of mine likely edited this review by Robinson, and I can only hope she isn’t going to sue me for violating fair use. JS, remember, ASWOBA is a not-for-profit venture...solidarity!!)
Dawkins cannot concede, even hypothetically, a reality that is not time-bound, that does not conform to Darwinism as he understands it. Yet in an earlier book, Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins remarks that “further developments of the (big bang) theory, supported by all available evidence, suggest that time itself began in this mother of all cataclysms. You probably don’t understand, and I certainly don’t, what it can possibly mean to say that time itself began at a particular moment. But once again that is a limitation of our minds...” That God exists outside time as its creator is an ancient given of theology. The faithful are accustomed to expressions like “from everlasting to everlasting” in reference to God, language that the positivists would surely have considered nonsense but that does indeed express the intuition that time is an aspect of the created order. Again, I do not wish to abuse either theology or scientific theory by implying that either can be used as evidence in support of the other; I mean only that the big bang in fact provides a metaphor that might help Dawkins understand why his grand assault on the “God Hypothesis” has failed to impress the theists.
The importance of doubt seems to enter the picture here, to my mind. For quite a while now, Andrew Sullivan has been trumping for doubt as an essential part of any religious vision that won’t become dangerously fundamentalist. In order to avoid life-or-death struggles with those who believe otherwise, one has to be willing to grant the possibility that a belief is not unassailable Truth. So perhaps doubt isn’t the right word; it’s humility. It would seem to apply equally here to religion and science. Creationists should have the humility (not to mention common sense) to see that in the face of certain scientific facts we can conclude that some key parts of religious texts are to be read, at most, as metaphorical. This shouldn't have to destroy the value, or even truth, of those texts, unless one thinks that literal facts are the only way to express value and truth (which would mean that any fiction created is useless in terms of its potential to enrich or explain the human experience; a stance that I don't think any of us can comprehend, much less endorse).

But like Robinson, I don't see why science should be allowed off the same humility hook. The brightest thinkers alive can never return to the universe's origins, nor can they posit theories other than those like the Big Bang, which even if completely accurate are 1) essentially metaphorical given what we can conceive of, as Robinson points out, 2) still not adequate to allow even someone as smart as Dawkins to explain how time was "created" (see again Holt's reference above to Nothing into Something) and most importantly 3) not automatically incompatible with religious faith. Just because I "believe" in the Big Bang doesn't mean I can't be philosophically interested in (and undecided about) the notion of a god.

I've come to believe that science and art are both limited enterprises with the same essential goal, which is to help us think as ambitiously as we can in spite of the inherent "limitation of our minds" that Dawkins concedes above. As far as I can see, physicists are asking me to believe that the creation of the universe was "like," say, the arc of a curveball thrown in certain conditions, in the sense that its properties alone explain it. The less bombastic among the spiritual, though, might argue that the same creation was "like" falling in love, in the sense that its properties don't fully account for its significance.

I'll end on this next point, because I'm tired and almost certainly talking to myself by this time. Being a Militant Non-Believer for a long time (and still able to get awfully red-faced about it when I'm talking to an aggressive Bible-beater), I know that the mindset of the MNB's can create just as much arrogant (and dangerous) certainty as the mindset of the fundamentalist-religious. That, in short, where God is not allowed, powerful people will rush in to fill the void. But unsurprisingly, Robinson is more eloquent than I am about this, so I'll let her bring us home:
Finally, there is the matter of atheism itself. Dawkins finds it incapable of belligerent intent -- "why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?" It is a peculiarity of our language that by war we generally mean a conflict between nations, or at least one in which both sides are armed. There has been persistent violence against religion -- in the French Revolution, in the Spanish Civil War, in the Soviet Union, in China. In three of these instances the extirpation of religion was part of a program to reshape society by excluding certain forms of thought, by creating an absence of belief. Neither sanity nor happiness appears to have been served by these efforts. The kindest conclusion one can draw is that Dawkins has not acquainted himself with the history of modern authoritarianism.

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AP Headline of the Day

Russian Governor Denies King Shot Bear


Movie Review, Elsewhere

Last week, I linked to a new find -- Pajiba, a site devoted to irreverent, insightful film reviews. Considering myself irreverent without a doubt, and insightful from time to time, I got in touch with the site's publisher to ask if I could review something for them. He was kind enough to offer me an audition, and the result can be found here.

Working on this review is one of the many reasons the blog has been quiet(ish) this week. Other reasons include a fearsome workload and a busy social schedule. New York, New York, it's a hell of a town.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Local News: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Watching local newscasts (and even national ones, really) is not depressing, as is popularly believed, due to the nature of the news being dispensed, but because of the utter stupidity with which it's being dispensed. In other words, it's not that the massive traffic accident or the tornado-through-downtown is depressing, because that's expected -- it's that the reporter is on the scene fake-emoting all over the place, as if death and destruction are just an excuse for him or her to show off a new hairstyle and whatever acting chops were developed (i.e. none) before they changed their major from theater to broadcasting.

Of course, if you're in the right mindset -- the non-homicidal one -- then local news is fodder for the best laughs around. Deep belly laughs. Life-affirming laughs. I'm writing to you in the wake of such a moment.

Tonight, after the World Series game ended, and before I could reach the remote to change the channel, I caught the opening of New York's Fox News. The lead story (the lead story!) was an all-timer, and as I said above, the actual basis for the content (the recent plane crash that killed Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle) was not funny. But what Fox did with it should guarantee the network a Pulitzer, if only the Pulitzers added a So Dumb We Pity You category.

Keep in mind as you read this that not only is everything I'm recounting accurate, but it was the LEAD STORY.

They fade in talking about how the Yankees are creating a stir with a distasteful gift item. Sounds bad. Turns out the gift in question is a Santa Claus figurine sitting in a small toy airplane festooned with Yankees logos. The hilarity begins with a still shot of the gift, accompanied by Fox's headline: "Plane Distasteful?"

Yes, they were kicking off a discussion of someone else's insensitivity with a horrific pun (horrific, but of course perfectly in keeping with the network's journalistic quality).

It gets better, though if you had seen the Santa plane and the headline across it, you wouldn't believe that possible.

They admit as they go to their "man on the street" that the item is a regular seasonal offering, has nothing to with Lidle (duh), and was created way before the tragedy happened. Cue the man on the street.

He's standing outside a Yankees merchandise shop, and immediately says that, while the item is "not in the store" (naturally), it IS in a catalog, and is causing a hot debate among fans. Cut to interviews of fans with "hot" opinions, which clearly must have been formed after being told of the toy by the reporter, since it wasn't in the store.

The first of the hotly opinionated is a cranky older guy who says such a gift is "off-color" and has "no place at Christmas time."

The second is a younger guy -- and this is where my laughter reached its satisfying peak -- who says, more or less, "It can go either way. On the one hand, it might be meant to, like, honor him (Lidle). (Insert peak laughter here.) But I can see how it would upset some people."

I won't go on about this. I trust that all of you understand how incredible this is, and on how many levels, and why I needed to share it with you in the absence of someone watching it with me. Thanks for listening.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

"Nathan needs some Huggies."

I wrote briefly about Raising Arizona yesterday, and then I saw a bit of it on cable today, so I think the universe is telling me to share this with you -- one of the funniest sequences ever put on film:

Cartoons, Because Life is Hard

While my neighbor upstairs continues to, evidently, drum on his floor (I'm not kidding), I figure I'll distract myself (and you) with fun. (What I really should be doing is taking a walk, to get away from the drumming, and doing some work; those activities will follow shortly.)

Anyway, this site, which I found through FrinkTank, is entertaining me. It's called XKCD, a title which the proprietor -- someone in Virginia with a degree in physics -- says is nonsensical. I believe him.

I found the site last week, when I silently included a link to it in my year-anniversary wrap-up extravaganza post. But now I'm searching through the archives. It seems the earlier comics were pretty straightforwardly absurd (if that makes sense), and they've become a bit more ornate since. This one's great, but beware the language (Mom).

I also like this and this and this:

AP Headline of the Day

Research Mice Leaving NYC for Suburbs

Saturday, October 21, 2006


I love Norm Geras' blog, but he's off the mark here. Fargo is beautifully made, but Raising Arizona will always be the Coen brothers' masterpiece. How does it not make the top three, Norm?? . . . A blog friendly to this one is sporting a new look. Snazzy. . . . The wisdom of crowds: The readers of an international literature blog recently predicted the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Orhan Pamuk. I see that one reader voted for/predicted William Trevor. I hope he wins it someday. The guy's a genius. . . . And since some of you are personal friends presumably interested in such things, here's a look at my increasingly cute and imminently ambulatory nephew, who's six weeks or so from his first birthday:

Mike Tyson: A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma Wrapped in a Boxing Robe

Mike Tyson has to be one of the most intriguing public figures of the past 25 years, inside or outside of sports. I’ve never been a big fan of boxing, partly because I don’t like physical violence and partly because I’ve lived through the sport's most ridiculous phases. It’s a game with a silly present and a dismal future, but it has a rich history, and chances are that Tyson will be the last-ever heavyweight champ who was arguably the most famous athlete in the country at his peak. His first loss, to unheralded Buster Douglas on February 11, 1990, in Tokyo, is still the most stunning upset I can remember happening in any sport.

Of course, since then, Tyson, who grew up without a father in a tough part of Brooklyn, has gotten into all kinds of trouble, and his boxing career has become the kind of toothless joke that would have been inconceivable sixteen years ago.

Last night, he fought an exhibition match in a less-than-grand setting:
Tyson entered the ring at 12:23 a.m. to a rousing ovation from about 4,000 fans in the 6,000-seat Chevrolet Centre, home of the Youngstown (Ohio) SteelHounds, a minor league hockey team.
But as is so often the case with Tyson, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of, and deep respect for, boxing’s history, the ridiculous is joined by a bizarre thoughtfulness:
(Tyson) and the tour's promoter, Sterling McPherson, selected this blue-collar town to launch the tour partly because of the area's rich boxing history. Gene Tunney, Ezzard Charles and Primo Carnera were among the sport's greats who fought exhibitions in the area...
The only reason Tyson is on my mind for more than two seconds today is because a friend sent me this link to a storehouse of Tyson quotes. And it would be difficult to find a scarier, unintentionally funnier, more poignant collection of thoughts. “Iron Mike,” with his gentle, lisping voice, frequently undisguised ferocity, wounded past, and mangled-but-kind-of-high-level vocabulary, has always seemed like the world’s largest eight-year-old, accountable for what he does but essentially child-like in disposition.

Many of the quotes are the brief, scary kind that Tyson was so good at dispensing, like these:
My main objective is to be professional but to kill him.

I could have knocked him out in the third round but I wanted to do it slowly, so he would remember this night for a long time.
But some of them are just plain incisive:
Everyone in boxing probably makes out well except for the fighter. He's the only one that's on Skid Row most of the time; he's the only one that everybody just leaves when he loses his mind. He sometimes goes insane, he sometimes goes on the bottle, because it's a highly intensive pressure sport that allows people to just lose it [their self-control].
Then the next three combine to show how complex he can be in his expression, veering in these first two from flat-out offensive to disingenuously self-analytical for the sake of apology:
[To a female reporter] It's no doubt I am going to win this fight and I feel confident about winning this fight. I normally don't do interviews with women unless I fornicate with them. So you shouldn't talk anymore... Unless you want to, you know.

People [are] going to say what they say. It has to be for a reason. It's just for a reason. I know sometimes I say things; I offend people. I ask this lady a lewd question because I'm in a lot of pain, too. I have some pain I'm gonna have for the rest of my life. And Lewis, I'm trying to give some of that pain to y’all.
(If you were Lewis about to fight Tyson in his prime, how terrifying would that last sentence be, on a scale of 1 to 10? I’d give it a solid 29.)

But then there’s this, about his mother, who died in 1982, when Tyson was a teenager:
I never saw my mother happy with me and proud of me for doing something: She only knew me as being a wild kid running the streets, coming home with new clothes that she knew I didn't pay for. I never got a chance to talk to her or know about her. Professionally, it has no effect, but it's crushing emotionally and personally.
But really, and mostly, you can’t beat this hilarious, frightening quote to sum up a guy who was routinely bullied as a child and became an unhinged bully himself:
I paid a worker at New York's zoo to re-open it just for me and (wife) Robin (Givens). When we got to the gorilla cage there was one big silverback gorilla there just bullying all the other gorillas. They were so powerful but their eyes were like an innocent infant. I offered the attendant $10,000 to open the cage and let me smash that silverback's snotbox! He declined.

Cards 1, Know-It-Alls 0

I think you know how I feel about the "experts" in the baseball community. Which is why, even though I'm (tepidly) rooting for the Tigers in the World Series, I was happy to see them get trounced by the Cardinals in Game 1 tonight. The experts have been out in full force saying the Cards don't stand a chance. What silliness.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Finally, a Respectable Journalistic Home for Lushes

I really can't thank my friend JF enough for pointing me in the direction of Modern Drunkard Magazine. It seems there's a print edition, but I've only visited the online home. The most entertaining thing I've come across in my (so far) brief time there is this interview with novelist Gary Shteyngart.

Shteyngart provides a...vivid...description of beer in the former USSR:
MDM: How is the Russian beer?
GS: It’s not bad. There’s Baltika, which is great. There are different versions, rated one through nine by strength. One is semi-alcoholic, three is what most people drink, and nine—you might as well be drinking vodka. It’s like the armpit of some kind of bear.
The Modern Drunkard interviewer then uncorks an admirable story of relocation:
MDM: It’s great when you find that bar. A place where you’d rather go, at any hour, than any other place in the world. When I was passing through Denver I found a bar like that, which is why I moved to Denver.
GS: Because of that bar?
MDM: Yes. After getting drunk there I woke up in my car. I walked in concentric circles until I found a place for rent.
And as the interview progresses, its tone is closely tied to the fact that the participants are increasingly hammered:
MDM: I imagine we should have another shot of vodka.
GS: You’re right.
Bartender: Do you want more pickles?
GS: Yes. Pickles are essential.

New York, Sky Country

(The last shot here was taken on Long Island, which kind of is sky country, at least compared to the city, so I know that's cheating.)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Oh, my.

Non-baseball stuff soon, I promise, but oh lord -- Endy Chavez of the Mets just made the best defensive play I've ever seen in the playoffs, and I've been watching them since I was around eight years old. You'll see it on the news about a thousand times. If the Mets go on to win this game, you'll see it a million times. And you should.

Choose Your Own Reliever

Speaking of "via Deadspin," this choose-your-own-adventure take on tonight's Mets game is hilarious. Enjoy it, and the game -- if this was a sports site, I'd live-blog it. But I don't want to alienate any of you.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

This is Why

This video comes via Deadspin. I'm reading Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, and it has too many smart things to say about why people follow sports, and particularly why people attend sporting events. He makes the point that it's not entertainment (and I'm paraphrasing here), so much as a "different version of life." And as in life, indifference and sadness probably combine to make up 80% of the bag. Then there are the small joys. And then, a handful of times, if you're lucky, there are the big joys. This clip is from the outfield seats in Detroit at the moment that Magglio Ordonez hit the home run that put Detroit into the World Series (opponent TBD). Anyway, seconds 10 through 30 comprise the relevant stretch for me. Where else in the world are you allowed to do this -- to ask nothing of where you would be inspired to do this. Keep in mind, lots of the people high-fiving and hugging each other are complete strangers.


OK, Class, What Was the Mailman's Motivation?

When I was a teenager, I would occasionally peruse a book on how to write a short story or novel. Ninety-nine percent of these books are utterly useless, of course, and one recommendation that always struck me as amateurish and silly was to draw inspiration from real-life stories in the papers. But I'll be damned if this guy doesn't strike me as a potentially rich subject:
The postal service said Tuesday that Mr. Gagne had tucked away thousands of circulars and hundreds of letters in drawers and closets in his apartment.

The authorities found the mail on Friday, when a supervisor worried when Mr. Gagne did not show up for work found him dead in his apartment on the same street where he made his rounds in this affluent suburb of Boston. The police said he died of natural causes.

Some of the mail dates from the 1980’s, said Robert Cannon, a spokesman for the postal service, and about 90 percent of it was circulars flagged as undeliverable because of an address change. The postal service is trying to deliver the first-class letters and cards, none of which were opened, to their rightful recipients, but is having trouble because the letters are so old.

A Little Less Elbow Room

It's been in the news this week that we now have 300 million people in this country. I could've sworn there were at least that many on the D train this morning, but I'll take the experts' word for it:
At the Census Bureau headquarters in Suitland, Md., a crowd broke into cheers at 7:46 when the digital population clock — calculating that an American is born every 7 seconds, one dies every 13 seconds and the nation gains an immigrant from abroad every 31 seconds — flashed 300,000,000.
The pathetic thing is the rush to label someone in particular the 300 millionth, which, predictably, isn't all that possible and leads to many claims. Refreshing in all of this is a young father from Queens, who reacts with dignity to ridiculous questions from our ever-ridiculous media:
Asked by reporters whether he considered himself lucky to be the father of a celebrity, Mr. Jimenez replied: "My baby is healthy. My wife is fine. What more luck do I want?"

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

365 Days Put to Excellent Use. OK, Pretty Good Use. Oh, All Right, It's Kept Me Off the Streets.

So, as of tomorrow, it will be a year since I first wasted your precious time. (Wasted it with the blog, anyway; if you’ve known me for years, I’ve wasted it in various bars, on various road trips, in various romantic relationships, etc.)

One person who will go unnamed (OK, it’s my sister) said that I shouldn’t mark the anniversary by posting about it, because that would be “self-referential and lame.” I stood there for a good hour, in vain, waiting for her to explain how it’s any more self-referential or lame than just having the blog.

Besides, it’s not like I’m proposing a toast or anything. Mostly, I’ve spent the past year trying to ensure that this enterprise didn’t turn my life into the sort of sad venture represented by this cartoon.

I’m somewhat amazed I’ve kept updating it with such regularity, being a bit on the lazy side, but I guess I underestimated both my megalomania and the grip of my obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Both come in very handy for this. In fact, I’d say they’re essential.)

One of the reasons I started blogging was to increase my writing discipline, hoping to then apply that discipline to more traditional projects. And my discipline for such projects has developed, however glacially. But I haven’t given in to the temptation to believe that maintaining the blog somehow means I’m capable of writing a worthwhile short story, or a novel that wouldn’t send readers into septic shock. I maintain, along with the site, a healthy disdain for my abilities. (That said, I have printed out the contents of the blog, and they form a fairly towering stack of paper. They would make a good book, if good books were composed of intense, digression-peppered navel-gazing, and hastily -- sometimes drunkenly -- composed thoughts about REM songs.)

I thought about marking the year with something specific, but figured I’d just go with the equivalent of a TV “clip show.”

The last few days -- to the great detriment of my already jittery eyeballs -- I combed through what I’ve tossed at you around here.

I probably enjoyed writing these three posts the most, so I hope you liked 'em.

I learned that I either look a lot different than I think or I may have a case against mirror manufacturers in the same spirit in which smokers sue tobacco companies.

I gave it to New Jersey's plans for self-promotion but good.

I practiced my dream job of film critic. Speaking of film (kind of), the most fun I had might have been live-blogging the Oscars, though not everyone agreed with the excellence of that idea.

Once upon a time, for some reason I can’t remember, I recommended that you make certain CD mixes for yourself. Then I contented myself, for only slightly clearer reasons, with randomly writing about five songs at a time.

I survived a New York City subway strike, and lived to write one of my favorite posts about it.

I used the age-old trick of making myself look funny by just posting funny headlines written by AP staffers, and also dissected the occasional wire story at greater length (something I hope to do more of again soon).

I talked to my future self and, as I’m known to do from time to time, I made fun of Lee Siegel.

This is to say nothing of my frequent posts about New York, Texas, science, God, politics, and the state of my health, examples of which can be found under the "self-love" tab to the right. (When someone recently asked what would differentiate this "clip show" post from the "self-love" section, aside from some different links, I stammered and stared, answerless. But an unimpeachable response just came to me: You can never have too much self-love.)

My only disappointment is that the comments section has become quieter lately. I chalk that up to the rather sudden non-involvement of “dezmond” -- the handle used by my friend Ray, who has a semi-respectable job, but no kids (yet), and certainly no humility, and so no excuses for vanishing. His antagonistic presence once guaranteed a certain level of action around here, if only in the form of battles between him and my sister, LFW. Where have you gone, dezmond? A blog’s readers turn their lonely eyes to you.

I’d like to thank the number of you who have hung around this whole time. And to anyone I’ve picked up along the way, I hope you still click over when you're bored at work. I’m still having fun with it, so I don’t imagine I’ll stop anytime soon. A promise or a threat -- you decide.

Same Game?

Both King Kaufman of Salon and Gregg Easterbrook of ESPN watched last night's bizarre football game, in which the heavily favored Bears, trailing 20-0 and then 23-10 at the start of the fourth quarter, came back to beat the Arizona Cardinals 24-23. And they have hilariously divergent opinions of what caused the collapse.

Here's Kaufman:
...the Cardinals handed the game to the Bears by turning ultraconservative when they got a lead.

And then coach Denny Green followed his gutless performance by screaming at the media ... and denigrating the Bears, yelling, "...we let them off the hook."

What a clown. And who's this "we," Run-up-the-middle-for-no-gain Man? Your team played well enough to win. You lost for them.

...with about five and a half minutes to go in the third, leading 20-3, to the first time they got the ball after falling behind 24-23 with 2:58 to go in the game, the Cardinals had first-and-10 11 times.

Eleven times, they handed the ball to Edgerrin James for a run between the tackles.

When the Cardinals had (the ball), they looked scared to death, like a team trying not to lose, hoping the clock would move faster than the Bears' ability to score three touchdowns.

It was pathetic. And it was the coach's fault.
Ready for Easterbrook? This is almost too good (italics near the end are mine):
Consider the situation at the start of the fourth quarter. At this point, the clock -- not the Bears -- is the opponent; just keep those numerals on the scoreboard declining and victory is likely. Yet after the first play of the fourth quarter, Arizona called timeout. On the possession, (quarterback) Matt Leinart threw incomplete twice, stopping the clock twice more. On its next possession, still leading 23-10 and now with 10:53 remaining, Arizona went run, incompletion, incompletion, stopping the clock two more times before punting. (My) Immutable Law of Doing the Obvious holds: Sometimes all a team needs to do is run the ball up the middle for no gain, and everything will be fine. Had Arizona not called a timeout in a clock-killer situation, and had the team simply run up the middle for no gain on these four plays Leinart threw incomplete, probably there never would have been a winning 83-yard Chicago punt return with 2:58 to play. The clock would have expired and the contest would have ended with Arizona leading.
(For what it's worth, I'm with Kaufman on this one.)

The Opposite of Shutting Up

The Guardian in the UK has this compelling piece about (and interview with) Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home. The book is a graphic novel-memoir about growing up with a closeted father who ran a funeral parlor:
The acknowledgments at the back of Fun Home thank her family for "not trying to stop me from writing this book", but Bechdel says she didn't ask their permission, either. "Somehow I assumed I had their tacit permission ... but that wasn't true. You can't get someone's permission if you don't ask for it, and I didn't want to ask for it because I was afraid they wouldn't give it." For a moment she looks absolutely downcast. "My mother comes from a different generation. She really believes that people should shut up."

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Bunny Cinema

Sometimes the funniest ideas are the ones that make absolutely no sense on paper. So it is with the 30-second re-enactment of famous movies using cartoon bunnies. Angry Alien is not a new site, but I hadn't visited in a couple of years. I didn't even know it was still going. Last time I saw it, they had done The Shining, which I love, and just a few others. Now, they've bunny-fied Brokeback Mountain, which may be the most fully realized masterpiece to date.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Well-Used Tunes

Not to lean too hard on the newly found (for me) Pajiba for material, but I can’t ignore that what I originally wanted to post was something about this, a list (along with helpful YouTube clips) of great uses of music in TV shows and movies.

Yes, he includes something from the train wreck that was Vanilla Sky, and a clip from Magnolia that almost perfectly sums up everything I hated about that movie. But I like most of his choices and, more importantly, they give me an excuse to foist mine on you and solicit your faves.

I couldn’t find clips of these online, so you’ll have to picture them in that helpful head of yours.

I love the use of the Proclaimers’ "Over and Done With" in Bottle Rocket when Dignan takes the white car.... the use of Dean Martin’s "You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" over the opening credits and still photos in Swingers.... "Born Slippy" by Underworld, in Trainspotting -- I believe in a scene where Ewan McGregor is creeping into a room of sleeping people to steal something, but it’s been a long, long time since I saw it.... Elliott Smith’s "Miss Misery" at the end of Good Will Hunting, with the aerial view of his car (Will’s, not Elliott’s) driving along the highway.... Jack Black singing "Let’s Get It On" at the end of High Fidelity.

I must be missing a thousand or so, but those come to me first. As for TV, I mostly (and pathetically) remember a scene in "Family Ties" when Michael J.Fox meets his love interest at a train station to the strains of "At This Moment" by Billy Vera and the Beaters. That was a signal event of my youth. My youth, needless to say, was misspent.

And finally, there’s "The Office" (UK), which is brilliant about everything else, so why not music? I remember during the Christmas special, they used "Back for Good" by Take That and "Only You" by Yaz in a way that made me want to listen to both songs. Now, that’s genius. And of course, they used the Bee Gees and some unaccompanied grunting to masterful effect here (watch the whole thing):

This Means I Shouldn't See It, Right?

From Pajiba's review of the just-released Man of the Year:
But somebody made an observation about Robin Williams in our comments section a month or two ago that has really stuck with me: “Imagine how it must feel to hear every day of your life that you were funnier when you were on blow?” And in the context of the newfound sense of sympathy this elicited, I suppose I began to see Robin Williams differently, to view his hyper-maniacal behavior as a sort of insecurity. Indeed, if you can overlook the often repetitive and unnecessary Ethel Merman impersonations during his interviews, it’s not hard to see a soft, almost heartbreaking, vulnerability in his eyes. And I think that’s what makes Williams a relatively remarkable dramatic actor in movies like Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, and Awakenings —- the man has a tremendous deal of baggage beneath his mania, only he tries too f***ing hard to keep it hidden instead of outright owning his insecurities. I dunno; maybe I’m reading too much into him, and I suspect that if I spent too much time trying to empathize with celebrities, I’d end up balled up in a corner weeping.

Of course, that’s probably a quicker, less painful route to suicidal ideation than actually sitting through Man of the Year, which is about as amusing and insightful as the illiterate excremental graffiti of an 11-year-old in the bathroom stall of a Pensacola Chuck E. Cheese.

The Certainty of Dawkinsism

Richard Dawkins’ views on religion are almost exactly as unapologetic and sure as mine were when I was 17 (and 21, and 26), and in this interview on Salon, he doesn’t pull any punches in defining them:
Well, technically, you cannot be any more than an agnostic. But I am as agnostic about God as I am about fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot actually disprove the existence of God. Therefore, to be a positive atheist is not technically possible. But you can be as atheist about God as you can be atheist about Thor or Apollo. Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.
Faced with a fundamentalist monotheist today, I’d say pretty much the same thing, being essentially, still, an atheist. But Dawkins also says this in the interview, when asked if his atheism stemmed from intellectual problems with religion:
Yes, purely intellectually. I was never much bothered about moral questions like, how could there be a good God when there's so much evil in the world? For me, it was always an intellectual thing. I wanted to know the explanation for the existence of all things. I was particularly fascinated by living things. And when I discovered the Darwinian explanation, which is so stunningly elegant and powerful, I realized that you really don't need any kind of supernatural force to explain it.
I’ve never understood this notion that evidence refuting some specific explanatory element of one specific religion’s dogma somehow eliminates the individual need to grapple with larger spiritually philosophical issues. Maybe it’s because, looking back, even as a child I instinctively thought religion was at least partly metaphorical (not a popular stance with zealots, I know). As a non-believer, I suppose this only matters in a thought-experiment kind of way, but I for one don’t find that the truth of biological evolution, which I accept, does a single thing to assuage my curiosity about the broader existential issues raised by, in no particular order: the complexities of human consciousness, the beginnings of the universe, and basically any issue on which I don’t trust that Richard Dawkins has every scrap of information that I need.

(This reminds me of an absolutely classic Dave Chappelle stand-up moment, when he’s dissecting the cult of celebrity and says that MTV was interviewing rapper Ja Rule in the days after 9/11. Chappelle recalls his reaction: “Who gives a f*** what Ja Rule thinks at a time like this? I don't wanna dance, I'm scared to death. I want some answers that Ja Rule might not have right now.” Well, there are times when I’m looking for answers that Richard Dawkins might not have -- and I’m a hardcore agnostic when I’m not feeling like an atheist. I can only imagine that Dawkins’ stridency isn’t going to win over many people who actually believe.)

Dawkins’ new book, The God Delusion, is stirring up some strong feelings. Norman Geras, another non-believer (if I may call him that; I think I can) recently posted about Terry Eagleton’s take in the London Review of Books. I share Norm’s feeling when he says: “Not that I agree with all of what Terry says, but some of it is spot on.” Here’s some of it:
Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.


Such is Dawkins's unruffled scientific impartiality that in a book of almost four hundred pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false. The countless millions who have devoted their lives selflessly to the service of others in the name of Christ or Buddha or Allah are wiped from human history -- and this by a self-appointed crusader against bigotry.
I think there’s relevance in this last point. It's obvious that far too many people -- many of them consistently making headlines for the past few years -- attach their worst, most ignorant and violent impulses to religion. They act badly under the cover of their faith. But as one Salon reader responding to the Dawkins interview put it:
I enjoy Dawkins ... but the one thing I can never get past, in him or thousands of others who haven't nearly his acuity, is the notion that religion causes bad stuff, like war and violence. I'm the farthest thing from an evolutionary biologist (my doctorate's in the humanities, so what would I know about people, right?), but even I can see this: The impulses and tendencies that have caused people to kill in the name of one deity or another for millennia are much, much more deeply-rooted than any given sect could ever hope to be. We fight and kill for land; we fight and kill for power; we fight and kill for resources; we fight and kill because we're human. It doesn't matter what patina of cause we put on it. It's something that, under certain circumstances--or sometimes for no discernible "reason" at all--we do. If getting rid of concepts of God could get rid of this . . . if only, as the saying goes, it were that easy.
If it’s true -- and mystifying, to me -- that people are deeply influenced by religion in negative ways, it’s equally true (and mystifying) that others access their best natures through the same inspiration. It might not be true that every soup-kitchen worker who ladles in the name of the lord, or every criminal who corrects his path to please Jesus, or every family that adopts disadvantaged children because of religious impulses would turn into an unmotivated, uncaring couch potato or recidivist criminal if the convincing notion of God disappeared from their minds, but I’m unwilling to just cast out the many good results that come from religion. And I’m unwilling not because of my own beliefs -- I find the notion of explanatory religions silly, and their certain, detailed stories completely uninspiring and even at odds with the idea of spiritual mystery and “faith” -- but just because it’s fair. If, when debating, I’m going to use the evils abetted by religion -- which I do, and fairly often -- it would be stacking the deck if I ignored the good done in its name.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

TGIF, For Real

This is brilliant. I'm just glad I read it at 4:40 on a Friday. Any earlier in the week, and its effect might have been too devastating to recover from.

Archive of the Day

From Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby:
I regretted our defeat against Derby, of course, although not as much as I regretted being dumped by Carol Blackburn. But what I regretted most of all -- and this regret came to me much, much later on -- was the wedge that had been driven between me and the club. Between 1968 and 1973, Saturdays were the whole point of my entire week, and whatever happened at school or at home was just so much fluff, the adverts in between the two halves of the Big Match. In that time football was life, and I am not speaking metaphorically: I experienced the big things -- the pain of loss (Wembley ‘68 and ‘72), joy (the Double year), thwarted ambition (the European Cup quarter-final against Ajax), love (Charlie George) and ennui (most Saturdays, really) -- only at Highbury. I even made new friends, through the youth team or the transfer market. What Carol Blackburn did was to give me another sort of life, the real, untransposed kind in which things happened to me rather than to the club, and as we all know, that is a rum sort of a gift.

"Anticipated Impressions": Part Two of an International Travel Diary From a Guest Blogger

(The finale of Jim Rutman's reflections about a fairly recent trip to Kiev. Read Part One not too far below.)
Of course, visiting any part of the former Soviet Union, for any casual newspaper reader, causes the involuntary dredging up of the ossified journalistic tropes and observational tics that have been so ruthlessly assigned to the bewildered populace and city-and-landscape of the major cities. Even the most practiced appraisers of place tend to run up against the irresistible temptations of photographic and sociological clichés, as if their visa validations (no longer required in Ukraine for Americans, by the way) depended on it. And so even the sullen inside-outsider runs face-first into anticipated impressions: of the challenging, workaday meanness of the average worker or pedestrian; the parade-accommodatingly wide avenues and the atmospherically overstuffed underground passages that connect them; the misleading plaster pastels of older structures attempting to defray the cost of the heavy tolls collected by the institutional giganticism of Stalin’s planners; the rich, oozing, health-code-defying local foodstuffs and omnipresent vendors of street-legal alcohol; the sartorial injustices visited upon the good, sweatily sexy citizens of this vast region: blotchy denim and form-hugging rayon for the boys, revelatory, stiletto-accompanied non-outfits for the fearsomely frank girls; the preponderance of glossy European sedans cruising past unbearably despondent babushkas trying to compensate for invisible pensions at every corrupt public corner in unconscionable demonstrations of the divide between wealth and destitution, the swift and the still. They're all there, evocations of the charter characteristics of the big-boned Russian Soul, waiting to be noticed, debated and puzzled over.

And I was no better than dispensers of such judgmental shorthand, and likely worse, since I compulsively unloaded my biting observational barbs on my far more generous family members.

Kiev is a city devoted to panorama. City parks and their bench culture are pleasingly rampant. And as you negotiate the inclines and declines of this river-bisected metropolis (Kiev is Europe’s third largest city in terms of area, I read) you invariably run into vista. The overlooks on the older, more venerable West bank of the city police that entire fringe and give a determined walker countless markers to aim for and notice through the lush greenery that so prettily suffuses the more heavily trafficked and central precincts.

But in a place that briefly but prominently attracted the world’s political attention, it’s difficult not to feel keenly disappointed and confused. The courageous, frost-bitten, text-messaging youth who willed the Orange Revolution into existence are well hidden in summertime Kiev less than two years after their stint as marshals of the Democracy’s Progress parade. And if you happen to be Semitic in origin, and are unable to find the determined, rosy faces who led that progressive charge, you start to glean a worrisome nationalistic uniformity in the Ukrainian (and historically Semite-loathing) faces of the unhappy passerby. And you feel justifiably bad for failing to understand the scope of the problems that have led to such deflating and numerous backward steps as political stalemate cascades into conflict, strategically expedient re-alignment and fatal compromise. Unavoidable growing pains or more distressing evidence of Soul in conflict with itself? A battery of governmental skirmishes and reversals took place while we toured the city. But I couldn’t read the Ukrainian papers, and so repeatedly returned to my unimpeachable ignorance, an easy place to rest and take in the view.


Thursday, October 12, 2006


I didn't say it. Professor Rushton did. . . . Art can bring in a lot (a lot) of cash, and chances are you think you can paint as well as Jackson Pollock did. So, why not try?. . . . And just in case you were wondering (and exhibit A in refuting Professor Rushton's theory, to boot), humanity still sucks.

Blogroll Addition: Pajiba

I keep the blogroll manageable here, I hope, and the latest addition (under "high-quality daily reads") is Pajiba, a site devoted to reviews of current movies, news about upcoming movies, and lists of movies (like this one, a collection of films set in Texas).

The site is run by a handful of friends, and while the intent is clearly to be funny (the subtitle is "Scathing Reviews for Bitchy People"), it’s also really smart. And it has one of the best comments boards around. I was particularly wowed by this remark that someone made about Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State:
I don't care if the poor girl has epilepsy and can't figure skate anymore: She's still one of the most irritating, ridiculous, contrived characters I have seen on film. She's the indie Jar-Jar Binks. Oh, how I hated her.
Any site with readers that throw out "the indie Jar-Jar Binks" -- at the perfect target, no less -- is OK with me. Go there regularly.

"Because I know them."

Andrew Sullivan recently posted an exchange between Tucker Carlson and Chris Matthews, in which Carlson points out a fairly obvious truth that's still worth expressing in this simple, direct way:
CARLSON: It goes deeper than that though. The deep truth is that the elites in the Republican Party have pure contempt for the evangelicals who put their party in power. Everybody in...

MATTHEWS: How do you know that? How do you know that?

CARLSON: Because I know them. Because I grew up with them. Because I live with them. They live on my street. Because I live in Washington, and I know that everybody in our world has contempt for the evangelicals. And the evangelicals know that, and they're beginning to learn that their own leaders sort of look askance at them and don't share their values.

MATTHEWS: So this gay marriage issue and other issues related to the gay lifestyle are simply tools to get elected?

CARLSON: That's exactly right. It's pandering to the base in the most cynical way, and the base is beginning to figure it out.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

"A Credentialed Tourist": Part One of an International Travel Diary From a Guest Blogger

Keeping a blog is partly a way to let people know what you're up to, so it helps if you're up to interesting things, which mostly I'm not. Mostly I'm watching DVDs, listening to music, and staving off the problems that attend constant low-level anxiety. I do know people who are up to interesting things, though, and that's why, a while back, I promised to have guests post something from time to time. It even happened once. Every four months isn't quite what I had in mind, but here we are again. This is the first of a two-part post (the other will follow before too long) by Jim Rutman, a friend of mine, an Eastern European raconteur and, despite his deep humility about it, a hell of a basketball player. This past summer, for the first time since leaving as a six-year-old, Jim traveled to his birthplace, Kiev, with his family:
The (re)discovering of family roots and the places that sit atop them has become a wholesomely middle class enterprise –- a moveable thanksgiving writ a little larger than the confines of the familiar hearth will allow; a commendable adventure on behalf of (or in defense of) the beleaguered family unit.

My own family unit (parents, sister, me) undertook such a trip to Kiev this past summer, bringing along couriered gifts and packed tightly ourselves with the anxiety and circumscribed wonder that naturally accompanies an unexpected return to a far off, carefully preserved Home.

The loving upkeep of nostalgic nuances is a rite linked closely to the Russian soul (with italics, caps or quotes generally accompanying that last, signal word).

Equal parts nationalistic inheritance, family obligation/burden and social tool, the appreciation and careful wielding of sentiment is a cultural must. When my parents bundled our modest hopes and possessions in the now familiar manner of many other Russian-Jewish refuseniks in the fall of ’79, they did so with the understanding that the Kiev they knew exclusively for the first forty years of their lives was to be legally renounced, reflected upon but never revisited. Even after restrictions on returning were lifted after the dissolution of the USSR in ’91, we had never seriously contemplated a visit. At first, we wanted to requite the Soviet system’s disdain for refugees like us with our own, secure in the belief that the decision to leave was profoundly right. But after independence, and the passage of sufficient time, the poetic separation of a distant, cordoned off existence felt dramatically appropriate and soothing against our always tentative new identities.

And yet there we were, standing shoulder to sentimentally illuminated shoulder with a pessimistic but hopeful throng of beery Ukrainian futbal fans shoved into Independence Square, nervously eyeing the under-sized JumboTron broadcasting a heavily pixelated image of the improbable World Cup quarterfinal meeting between Italy and Ukraine (making its first tournament appearance). As we emerged from the cozy basement of a local "traditional" fast-food chain and into the energized night, the opportunities to create new and vital sentiments were immediately and undeniably apparent. And so my father vigorously videotaped, and my sister photographed, and my mother patiently scanned the masses and we knew, beyond all question, that we were on vacation back where we’d started.

From the unprepossessing airport to the unremarkable but somewhat despairing route into Kiev, the urge to record living family history was great. We were back in a place we’d conclusively left nearly 27 years ago, in circumstances so different from the present that even a formidable passage of time failed to convincingly account for the changes. Being on high alert for Significance at all times is taxing. But my family was up for the challenge.

Of course there were qualitative differences in our dispositions and expectations as we were guided by a distant cousin to her perfectly western Volkswagen in the dusty, irregular and miniscule parking lot at Boryspil Intl. Airport. My parents were returning to a receded but profoundly familiar past, in a drastically altered present, ready to compare and contrast with the resiliently fond and forgiving attitude that had been nurtured in the suburbs of Northeast Ohio. Their initial adult identities had been forged in this vast, under-regarded capital, and they seemed prepared to reserve judgment during a re-encounter with streets and friends who had been relegated to photo albums.

My sister had nine years to make and store impressions of our birthplace, so she arrived on a sunny June day with a far more refined perspective than a mere six years permitted me. I was a credentialed tourist, hoping to sniff out a few landmark particulars from what I accurately expected would be a sea of newness.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

New York, Sky Country

I warned you this might become a thing.

Five Songs, Chapter Thirteen

Some songs hot off the presses, so you know I’m not just listening to records from 1991. I’m mostly doing that, but I’m not just doing that. (A bonus sixth song this time as well, because I love you. Never forget that.)

“Beanbag Chair” by Yo La Tengo

I sometimes think this band is loved more for its cred than its actual music, but then I listen to a song like this and think maybe I’m wrong.

“Somerville” by The Pernice Brothers

Joe Pernice’s best songs are really, really good, and this is one of them. The new album’s pretty uneven, but this is worth snagging. Not impossibly catchy, but testing the boundaries of what's possible vis a vis catchiness.

“Hot Soft Light” by The Hold Steady

This band created a small but noticeable buzz in the press a while back, maybe a year ago, and whatever I read at the time made me think I wouldn’t like them. The references to vocals that were spoken more than sung couldn’t have helped -- I’m not a big fan of that. It was also the kind of buzz that sounds like New York media people just talking to each other, loudly enough to make it seem national, which always gives me pause. But on the new release, Boys and Girls in America, leader Craig Finn is mostly singing, albeit not particularly well. He writes great lyrics, though, and the guys backing him just throw together a ridiculous stew of guilty-pleasure riffs, drawing on everything from AC/DC to Springsteen to the J. Geils Band to early Bon Jovi to Rush. And a lot more. Basically, the band sounds like a million things you’ve drummed along with on the steering wheel, but the first few songs, more than anything, are dead ringers for early Springsteen. Like, to the point where Bruce should be getting a few cents every time they’re played anywhere, not that he needs it. “Hot Soft Light” is my favorite based on the first few listens, but it has a lot of competition.

I’m not kidding about the lyrics. Here’s a passage from the first track, “Stuck Between Stations”:

The devil and John Berryman
Took a walk together.
They ended up on Washington
Talking to the river.
He said “I’ve surrounded myself with doctors
And deep thinkers.
But big heads with soft bodies
Make for lousy lovers.”
There was that night that we thought John Berryman could fly.
But he didn’t
So he died.
She said “You’re pretty good with words
But words won’t save your life.”
And they didn’t.
So he died.

“Penny on the Train Track” by Ben Kweller

I think I was in college when Kweller was the very young (15?) leader of a Dallas-area grunge-ish band called Radish that was getting earnestly profiled in places like The New Yorker because people had an appetite for such things and bands like Silverchair were being taken pseudo-seriously. Amazing. Anyway, Kweller turned out to be much, much more Ben Folds than Chris Cornell at heart, and his three solo albums prove it. This is off the latest, and it’s got the kind of melody that, when it comes over the headphones on the subway, makes you want to peel apart the doors and start running through the tunnels toward daylight.

“Become the Enemy” by The Lemonheads

No, the new record isn’t the most consistent thing. I didn’t download the whole shebang. But yes, it’s mostly a return to form. Start here if you doubt me.

“Out of Control” by Mindy Smith

I listened to Smith’s first album, One Moment More, quite a bit when it appeared a couple of years ago, and this is off the just-out follow-up, Long Island Shores. Not sure the whole thing is as strong as the debut, but that’s a common story. Anyway, she sings in a vague, humanistic way about god and heaven and such (but not exclusively), and her clear voice is so divine that you might end up believing. Heathens (like me), proceed with caution.


Monday, October 09, 2006

AP Dispiriting Military Headlines of the Day

Lower Standards Help Army Recruit More

Mom Accused of Swinging Baby As Weapon

A Baseball Rant

I keep my sports geek on a short leash around here, because I think most of my regular readers -- somewhat miraculously -- don't really care. But occasionally I have something to say, damn it. It's easy enough to skip the post if you'd like. For those who can stomach it:

The Detroit Tigers finished the 2006 regular season 95-67, a pretty impressive record by any measure and a remarkable turnaround for a franchise that went 43-119 three years ago. The Yankees finished 97-65. For the non-mathematicians among you, that means that over the course of 162 games, a pretty good sample size, the Yankees proved that they could be relied on to win .006 percent more of the time than the Tigers. (I think that's what it means; I'm not a mathematician myself.) Moreover, the Tigers had built their record (the fourth-best in baseball) with the help of very good pitching, the one element that every expert, barstool manager, and recently dead person agrees is essential for postseason success.

Yet, as the playoffs started -- because Detroit played poorly down the stretch and their young starting pitchers had shouldered the heaviest workloads of their careers -- the media took it for granted that the Yankees would win this series. Mike Francesa, a figure on New York radio and TV for whom the title of “talking head” would be much too dignified, said he thought this was the easiest matchup the Yankees had gotten in their last several years in the playoffs. Granted, they’ve had some tough slogs, particularly in 2001, when they had to beat the A’s and Mariners to reach the World Series -- those two opponents had combined for 216 wins in the regular season. Yikes. But the Twins of ‘03 and ‘04, and the Angels of last year, these were significantly better teams than Detroit and its league-leading team ERA? To quote Nigel Tufnel: Is that a joke?

People I know gripe about the Yankees “buying the championship” every year, which would make perfect sense as a complaint if they won the championship, which they haven’t done in six years. I guess "buying their way into the eight-team playoff bracket" doesn't have the same rage-against-the-machine ring to it. With all their high-priced talent, the Yankees are rarely more than two or three games better than their next closest rival over the season. Every year, there are teams like this one in Detroit, who succeed with good young players that don't yet cost a king’s ransom. (In the Tigers' case, most notably, pitchers Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya.) And all money issues aside, once you get to five- and seven-game series -- anyone who thinks those can't be toss-ups doesn’t follow the sport on any meaningful level. Even the Royals, who often look like they should be sponsored by a local dry cleaner, can be reasonably expected to win two out of five games against just about anybody. That’s baseball.

Did I think the Yankees would advance? Yeah. They’re more experienced, they knock in a lot more runs when they’re hitting, and they had the home field advantage. But I was worried beforehand, and the result hasn't shaken my belief in conventional physics. Any sane general manager would have taken the Detroit pitching staff over New York’s going into that series. (No one could have predicted the gutless Kenny Rogers suddenly turning into a bulldog, but other than that...) The Yankees gave up nearly a hundred more runs than Detroit did this year. For those of you new to the game, giving up runs is the opposite of the goal. You can't even really call the Tigers' win an upset if that word is to retain its clarity.

Now Steinbrenner, that model of calm reason, will probably fire Joe Torre. And others are floating even crazier notions, like “trade Jeter instead of A-Rod.” Say wha?? This jewel from the suggestion box comes from Jim Caple, the same professional scribe who predicted the first round exactly wrong. I’ll tell you what -- trade Jeter, keep A-Rod, and let me know if that Bronx crowd sounds grumpy on opening day next year. Caple and others keep insisting that A-Rod is the best player on this team, as if his inability to hit in big spots (not just during the playoffs) is somehow unimportant in the grand scheme of things. There’s a number of managers who would take A-Rod over Jeter on a playoff roster, and I’m pretty sure that number starts with the letter z.

Sorry to go on and on. The point is, it’s bad enough being a Yankees fan when they outspend everyone and are considered the bullies on the block. But I also have to deal with the media-created stupidity of people who claim to know the sport acting like Michael Jordan just lost a one-on-one game to Emmanuel Lewis. The Tigers are really good. And Detroit’s a great baseball city that’s been dormant for too long. I’ll be rooting for them against the attendance-challenged A’s.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Varieties of Religious Experience

Last week, Adam Kirsch wrote a pretty scathing review of Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation. (The nature of the "letter" being, as far as I can tell, "Dear Christian America, You're all idiots. Love, Sam.") The full review is here. Kirsch really gets at something I've come to believe when he writes this, after pointing out that both the religious and anti-religious are penning books bemoaning how the American deck is stacked against them:
Atheists and believers cannot, of course, both be under siege. The truth is that America is probably much the same as it has ever been: both worldly and pious, secular and churchgoing, thanks to a benign cognitive dissonance. The polls cited by Mr. Harris, which show that "forty-four percent of the American population is convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years," tell us less about the American character —- which remains deeply materialistic, optimistic, and self-centered -— than about the idleness of asking people to define their religious beliefs in a telephone poll. The uses people make of religion are very various, and have less to do with subscription to a set of dogmas than with intuitions and aspirations. Mr. Harris is right that, for each of us, intellectual honesty demands a full reckoning with the claims of religion; and he is right that a life without religion is not a life without meaning and moral purpose. But such a reckoning is difficult and often painful, and Mr. Harris's deliberately obnoxious book can make no contribution to it.


Where Does the Time Go?

Here's a clever video covering eight years of a young man's life in about a minute and a half. He doesn't seem to age all that much, but toward the end it does look like he may be entering a Unabomber phase.

(Via Pop Candy)

Archive of the Day

From Nothing but Blue Skies by Thomas McGuane:
But out there, all around, was his god of handsome land. As it leveled off before the car, other country flowed into it from his past: the cedar breaks and cotton fields of Texas, the big sun there and softer clouds, cotton wagons behind tractors, little caliche roads, senderos, heading off to pumping stations in the distance . . . twenty-four-year-old Gracie next to him, trying to find something good on the radio. The old man in the service station looked affectionately at the two of them and said, as a kind of invitation, "If you ever wear out a pair of boots in west Texas, you'll never leave." Now Frank's tear ducts clamped like little fists and tears poured down his cheeks. He rested his teeth on the steering wheel and tried to see the road through swimming eyes. It had been so good.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

New York, Sky Country

One thing I miss about Texas is the visible sky. But it's not like there's no sky in New York (uh, right), it's just harder to focus on. So in my new role as clumsy amateur photographer, I've been trying to focus on it. I like the results below. If I can get more that I like, perhaps I'll make this a series.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

AP "Don't Worry, Experts Are on the Case" Headline of the Day

Experts: Nuke Test Holds Radiation Risk


Monday, October 02, 2006


Today's reason to be depressed about New York real estate (this one in Chicago). . . . Scientists have discovered that men and women reach “maximum sexual arousal” in roughly the same amount of time -- 664 seconds for men to 743 for women. Still, I think they’d have to account for the relative duration of those final 79 seconds. In any case, nothing says foreplay like having your body temperature monitored from a computer in another room. . . . Andrew Sullivan promotes his forthcoming book with a solid excerpt, including this: "The alternative to the secular-fundamentalist death spiral is something called spiritual humility and sincere religious doubt. Fundamentalism is not the only valid form of faith, and to say it is, is the great lie of our time."

Video Killed the Blogging Star

The YouTube clips are fun, but I feel like I've relied on them too much lately. If a man can't fill his blog with thoughts of his own, what good is he? (That might be the first question I've ever posed that would have made no sense in 1996.)

I'm hoping to have a longer post ready soon about the experience of moving. I might even share a short story before long, though that's probably the (very limited amount of) wine talking. The point is, the video clips aren't going away, but they may be thinned.

As you were.

Crystal Ball, However Cloudy

Indulge me a brief post predicting the results of the baseball playoffs. I'm excited about them. I'm also terrible at predicting them (in the early days of this blog last year, I predicted that the Astros would beat the White Sox, right before the White Sox swept them) and I like using the blog for things I'm terrible at, hoping that will somehow keep them from leaking into the rest of my life. What happens at ASWOBA stays at ASWOBA.

Anyway, here's another shot at this thing:

American League:
Yankees over Tigers in 4, Twins over A's in 5; Yankees over Twins in 7.

National League: Mets over Dodgers in 3, Cardinals over Padres in 5; Mets over Cardinals in 5.

World Series: Yankees over Mets in 6.

(I'm a Yankee fan, so this might make the crystal ball even cloudier than usual. So let me say this -- if the Twins get by the Yankees, I think they'll take the series over the Mets in 6 or 7.)

OK, non-baseball lovers -- I'm done. Please continue enjoying your time here. Of course, if you share my geekery, please leave your own forecast in the comments section.

First Impression: Studio 60

I saw about seven minutes of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” tonight, and I don’t think I’m going to be a big fan, even though I loved Aaron Sorkin’s last two shows, “Sports Night” and “The West Wing.” First of all, it’s filmed almost exactly like “The West Wing,” from the camera movement to the lighting to the tenor of the actors’ interactions. I know it was a successful formula, but come on. Throw in a small difference, just to humor us. (The similarities between “Sports Night” and “The West Wing,” while definitely present, didn’t seem nearly as exact.)

More importantly, though, the very first scene I saw involved a writer on the fictional show (modeled after “Saturday Night Live,” for those of you reading this from under various rocks) defending the removal of a joke because of the way it unnecessarily demeans hardworking middle Americans. And I realized two things: 1. That Sorkin was going to awkwardly airlift some of the earnest political discussion from his previous project into the new one; and 2. That “Studio 60” is probably going to be 20 times better than “Saturday Night Live,” and therefore kind of absurd. In other words, if I thought for a second that the folks at SNL were taking their job as seriously as Sorkin is taking it, I’d have an easier time keeping a straight face while watching “Studio 60.”

That’s just an initial take.

AP Keep the Government Out of Our Bedrooms Headline of the Day

Woman Accused of Swinging Axe at Husband

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Subway Station, 12:45 a.m.

Goats on the Bowery

You might remember me going on at length about the Mountain Goats a while back. There are very few bands/singers that I like a great deal who I haven't seen live, and after tonight, there's even one fewer. Saw the Goats tonight at the Bowery Ballroom, my favorite venue in the city.

This picture taken with my phone makes it seem like we were far(-ish) from the band, but we weren't. We were very close. It's just that camera phones, while pretty great, also kind of suck.

As you can gather from the band's discography, there isn't really a dearth of material from which to choose when they're on stage. But the set focused mostly on newer stuff, including a few songs from the very recently released (and very quiet) Get Lonely. Luckily, the crowd was respectful. You could hear a pin drop most of the night, which was necessary, because a few numbers were significantly quieter than a pin hitting the floor would have been. It's not a carpeted floor.

The band is mostly one guy, John Darnielle, and he's both a dynamic performer and a complete goofball. As Wikipedia puts it: "Since starting the band in 1991, (Darnielle) has gained a cult following despite the initial low quality of his recordings, his nasal voice, and primitive guitar playing. His popularity is often attributed to his prolific output and literary lyrics that many believe are matched by few other songwriters."

Those lyrics -- which are pretty impressive, by and large -- are held dear by the fans. The encore included "No Children," and with Darnielle's urging, everyone sang along. It wasn't quite as lopsided in the crowd's favor as this recent rendition in San Francisco, when Darnielle was running a fever and basically strummed the guitar while everyone else carried the song home, but it was fun to play our part.

And before I'm too hard on the phone camera, here's a shot I like more, taken outside the club right after the show: