Monday, June 30, 2008
It's not just the standard "How could I be so old?" or "How could he have been so young?" though it's a little of both of those. It's also about memory, and my kids.
I graduated from high school when my father was 44. That means that every childhood memory I have of him--every growing-up memory--everything before I left home and went to college--happened when he was younger than I am now. It's a lifetime of memories.
I try to think back and picture him, and of course, in my mind he appears Old at all times, because to me, as a child, he was always Old, as all grown-ups are Old.
Do I look that old to my boys?
Then I think way back, to second grade--to the age of my own Thing 1. What do I remember from birth to age 8, from my own life? I have to say: not much. Hints and glimpses of things, here and there. Fragments.
And it makes me wonder: of all the things I have done with my sons up to this point--the walks in parks, the carousel rides, the zoos and museums, the trips to Mystic, or Stockbridge, or Hawaii...what of all this will he remember? To me it seems a lifetime packed full of events, but I wonder--for him, will it all be lost, rendered down into hints and glimpses--pushed aside by more pressing things as he grows up? How much of the time we have spent together--the time I have loved, and relished--will he remember?
If I knew I was going to live forever, I suppose it wouldn't be as big a deal. There's always time to make new memories. But who knows how long we've really got? Who knows? If I died tomorrow, what memories of their father would either of my boys be able to hold onto, as the years went on? By the time they graduated high school, would I be anything more than a glimmer? If my own father had died when I was in second grade, what would I have remembered by the time I left high school?
Grim ponderings for a bright and sunny Monday morning.
Bah--enough of that. Get back to work.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Peter Sagal claims on his blog that during his interview, he spoke of more than his baldness, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. But it's a good segment, anyway.
Saturday, June 28, 2008
While in Portland, I had dinner with my cousin and his wife in a funky old neighborhood that reminded me so strongly of the artsy Atlanta neighborhoods where I used to live back in those days. Old houses painted funky colors, with wind chimes hanging everywhere and comfortable old furniture crowding dilapidated porches. Even the weather was conducive to moody reminiscence--grey, cool, and cloudy.
There I was, a man in his mid forties, with a wife and children at home, feeling the stirrings of an entirely different person inside of me--an alien life form. Because I'm not that person now, and yet I was that person once.
After dinner, walking back to my rental car, I peered into the windows of the funky old houses and imagined the people who lived there--people like my bike-riding, environment-protecting young cousin and his friends--people like the writers and actors and artists I once knew--people like the me I once was and thought I would continue to be. Maybe, in some alternate universe, Younger Me continued on the same path and wound up in a house just like these. With every life-altering choice we make, perhaps some part of us, in some dimension of thought, continues on and grows along the path we had been on.
Frost reminds us how way leads on to way, making it impossible to go back to the forks in the road where we once made choices, and it's true. There are so many forks, and so many ways--so many earlier selves we leave behind when we set off on new roads. And yet we carry those earlier selves along with us, as well. They are part of who we are, and are no longer who we are, both at the same time.
I'm not saying I regret any of the choices that led me from way to way. You can only be who you are at any given point in your life, and you make the best decisions you can. Some of them are wise and some of them are stupid, but, you know...c'est la vie. The idea of "if I could just go back and do it all again" is nonsense. You'd do all the same things--because those are the things that you did, and you cannot be anyone other than you. You do what you do. You did what you did. And "if I could go back and do it all again, knowing what I know now" is even worse. If you knew then what you know now, you wouldn't actually be you, then. You'd be some different person, who knew different things. Part of what makes you you is the choices you make, day to day. What you do makes you who you are.
But that doesn't mean I don't gaze back over my shoulder from time to time and feel the tug of a past life stirring inside me, pulling me back into memory and wonder. There's a whole crowd in there, which is kind of nice. It makes the internal dialogue more interesting. I'm glad I was each of those people in turn, and not one unchanging, monotonous drone from cradle to grave. And I'm glad to know that the people I have been do not really disappear--that they're all still along for the ride.
Friday, June 27, 2008
PRESIDENT BUSH: Madam President, it is a pleasure to welcome you back to the Oval Office. We have just had a very constructive dialogue. First, I want to tell you how proud I am to be the President of a nation that -- in which there's a lot of Philippine-Americans. They love America and they love their heritage. And I reminded the President that I am reminded of the great talent of the -- of our Philippine-Americans when I eat dinner at the White House. (Laughter.)
PRESIDENT ARROYO: Yes.
PRESIDENT BUSH: And the chef is a great person and a really good cook, by the way, Madam President.
Isn't it January yet?
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
None of this matters. Time after time (and I fly Southwest a lot), people simply refuse to figure it out.
There are varieties of stupidity on display. There are the Hopelessly Stupid, who seem to be lovely people but who just can't seem to figure out where to stand. If you tell them they're in the wrong line, they smile and act embarrassed and move. And one can't help but feel sorry for them. After all, it's just letters and numbers. If the sign says that you should stand here if you are holding A5 to A15, and you're holding C53, and you're still standing there, well...what, really, can be done for you?
There are the Aggressively Stupid, who can't seem to figure out where to stand, but who lash out at you with hostility if you dare to point out that they're in the wrong place. I've seen a few of them, but not so many.
More in evidence are the Aggressive Jackasses, who are not exactly stupid--they understand how the sytem works--but who simply don't care. Tell them that they should be standing behind you, and be prepared for a sarcastic lecture about how stupid the system is, and how petty and small-minded you are for abiding by it, and how they'll stand wherever they damn well please. I don't know why these people insist on flying this particular airline, given their feelings, but they do. In droves.
Then, tonight, I witnessed a new one. Standing in the A line in front of me was a morbidly obsese man who, it turned out, was holding either a B or C boarding pass, and who flat-out refused to move his carcass to let the rest of us pass by when the A line was called to board. 50 people had to walk around him.
It's letters and numbers, folks. It's not rocket science. Between the nice but sad people who can't understand it all and the jackasses who think they're above the world's petty rules, I'm left trying to be polite and friendly, but--far too often--seething.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Unfortunately, they're surrounded by hacks.
Well, anyway, McCain is.
Here's his advisor, Charlie Black:
On national security McCain wins. We saw how that might play out early in the campaign, when one good scare, one timely reminder of the chaos lurking in the world, probably saved McCain in New Hampshire, a state he had to win to save his candidacy - this according to McCain's chief strategist, Charlie Black. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December was an "unfortunate event," says Black. "But his knowledge and ability to talk about it reemphasized that this is the guy who's ready to be Commander-in-Chief. And it helped us." As would, Black concedes with startling candor after we raise the issue, another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. "Certainly it would be a big advantage to him," says Black.
And here's our dear friend, Karl Rove:
"Even if you never met [Obama], you know this guy," Rove said, per Christianne Klein. "He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by."
Friday, June 20, 2008
In thinking about modernity and modern capitalism, Max Weber spoke a century ago about an iron cage. Consumerism brings to mind a different cage. There is a fiendishly simple method of trapping monkeys in Africa that suggests the paradoxes which confront liberty in this era of consumerism. A small box containing a large nut is affixed to a well-anchored post. The nut can be accessed only through a single, small hole in the box designed to accommodate an outstretched monkey’s grasping paw. Easy to reach in, but when the monkey clasps the nut, impossible to get out. Of course, it is immediately evident to everyone (except the monkey) that all the monkey must do to free itself is let go of its prize. Clever hunters have discovered, however, that they can secure their prey hours or even days later because the monkey—driven by desire—will not release the nut, even until death. Is the monkey free or not?
Is the monkey free or not? There's a question to keep you up at night. One of my older Passover haggadahs has a section in it detailing the ways in which we are still not free, even millenia after the exodus from Egypt--how we can be enslaved by hatred, or by fear, or by envy. And I think the monkey anecdote fits nicely here. Is the monkey free? No. The monkey is a slave to his desire, a slave to appetite. In refusing to let go of the nut, I don't think he can be said to be a rational actor--to whatever extent a monkey is a rational actor in the first place. Even if we give him no credit for thinking, his survival instinct should tell him to let go of the damned thing when a hunter is approaching with a net. But he doesn't. And that's horrifying.
I've seen stories about research studies on young children and delayed gratification: you can have one cookie now or three cookies if you wait fifteen minutes, or something like that. Invariably, the children take the immediate cookie. Because they're children. But we're no better, are we? We buy things we probably don't need and can't afford, using credit cards that we know damned well will make things more expensive in the long run. We could wait till we had the cash for the things we're craving--but we just can't. Because we crave. And what's the pain of more cash down the road compared to the joy of whatever piece of crap you think you need RIGHT NOW?
And worse--what's the pain of you not getting what you need compared to the joy of me getting what I want? What's the pain of toxic sludge poisoning a river compared to the joy of me getting what I want?
As our happy author puts it:
Consumer capitalism does not operate by fielding self-conscious advocates of duplicity. Rather, it generates thinking on the model of the narcissistic child, infantilizing consumers to the point where puerility is not simply an option; it is a mandate.If the attitudes and behaviors that result turn out to undermine cultural values extraneous to capitalism’s concerns—however deeply relevant they may be to moral and spiritual frameworks and to the shape of an ideal public culture—that is too bad. This ethos does not disdain civilization; it is merely indifferent to it.
Merely indifferent. That's important. Not immoral, simply amoral. So we have a cultural heritage--a number of cultural heritages, actually, from Protestant work ethic to immigrant striver--all of which are undermined by the larger economic structure in which we live, which pushes us to act in ways that the rest of our culture finds abhorrent.
And this shouldn't be news. I don't think this is one of those "capitalism is evil" arguments. This goes way back. We don't establish cultural norms and rules and ethics to describe what we would already do if left to our own devices. Who would need them? We establish those things to make clear to ourselves and to our neighbors what we think is right and necessary, in spite of what we might prefer to do if left to our own devices. We delay gratification not only to get something better, later, for ourselves, but also (or instead), in many cases, for our children. Our immigrant grandparents worked like dogs in menial jobs so that our parents could go to college and never have to work like dogs in menial jobs. That is what culture gives us. It helps us think about others instead of only ourselves. That is why, in our modern religiouns, serving God always manages to be about serving our fellow people. But we don't serve God, anymore. We ask God to serve us. We are entitled. We are owed.
So this isn't about abolishing captilism, or any other kind of ism. It's about remembering that we create culture for ourselves to fight against our appetites and instincts, so that we can build something greater than our own selves, and our own little horde of goods.
When push comes to shove, what are we going to hold onto? The culture or the stuff? The monkey cannot let go of the nut to save his life. Can we?
And if we can't, and we know we should...what do we do?
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Monday, June 16, 2008
"The Talking Jesus Doll is a religious treasure that recites key verses from the Bible aloud. Just press the button and the Talking Jesus Doll speaks to your child. It’s a great way to create a personal connection between God’s word and your child."And just in case you’re worried about that pesky Commandment about idolatry…
"You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."Not to worry! You'll notice it says nothing about molded plastic. So go ahead. Buy two. Buy three. Nothing says deep spirituality like mass-produced action figures.
So, when last seen on this page, Rosie the Dog had been returned home after an amazing and unbelievable trek of at least 17 miles through the desert. She was tired and sore-pawed, but otherwise fine. I reinforced our fence, we brought in a house-sitter to look after her, and off we went to New York City, for a bat mitzvah, a Buddhist wedding, and a memorial gathering in Central Park for my grandmother.
In the middle of this memorial, while standing around a newly-dedicated park bench in the middle of the park (in 97-degree, high-humidity swelter), the Wife started getting text messages from our house-sitter, informing us that Rosie had run away again. Seems the idiot neighbor child had invited himself over, looking for Thing 1, and had left the gate wide open.
That was last Saturday. We did what we could over the phone, but we couldn't hang up signs or go looking for her until Wednesday, when we returned home. No sign of the dog.
Well, now we were in trouble. Thing 1's birthday was Friday, and the dog had been the Only Gift He Wanted for close to a year. And I had no confidence that we'd ever see her again. It was now five days since she had run, and no one had seen her.
So, the Wife and I went back to the Humane Society and found another perfectly lovely mutt--happy and friendly and sweet as could be. Her owners had given up on her because she had a nasty habit of murdering cats. But other than that, she was a sweetheart. We returned later in the day with kids in tow, to see how they responded to her. It was an instant love-fest. And so, just in time for the birthday, Amber the Dog came home with us.
And all was well until the day after Thing 1's birthday, when we got a call from the nice lady to whom Rosie had run the first time--Rosie's erstwhile neighbor. Hi, yes, Rosie's here again. I would have called sooner but I've been sick...
Well, as far as I was concerned, this was the hand of destiny, and Rosie clearly belonged with this nice lady. But she already had too many dogs (although she did admit that, if it happened again, she'd take it as a Sign From Above and keep the dog).
The Wife, who, you may remember, was never a dog person to begin with, had no problem with the idea of keeping both dogs, on the theory that Rosie was running away because she missed her doggie friends back in her old neighborhood. And, in fact, she seems much happier now that she has Amber to play with.
The skink, however, is not amused.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
When he boarded the plane, stone cold sober, he tried to engage me in conversation, but his opening gambit freaked me out enough that I shut down. His first question to me was, "Are you a religious man?" Later, I found out it was because of the New Yorker article title he saw in front of me, "Faith and Doubt." But as a member of a minority religion, I get wary and defensive around conversational ice-breakers like that one. I've had too many people try to introduce me to Jesus and save my soul. When I feel it coming, I tend to duck.
Anyway, I had a lot of work to do. I had intended to catch up on my gradual school reading during the first and longer leg of my flight, but had instead succombed to watching the free movie, which I never got to finish due to technical difficulties (and even though it was kind of crappy, I'm now enraged that I missed the end of it).
Fortunately, he discovered that his across-the-aisle neighbor was in the financial business, and latched onto him for at least an hour. Eventually, though, the neighbor must have tired of him and cut him off, because I felt a sharp finger jabbing at my arm.
"Can I ask you a personal question?" he said, his voice a bit slurred from the multiple vodkas. "Maybe it's a cultural thing, I don't know. I'm just a dumb redneck from Alabama, so I don't know. And you can tell me to shut up if you want to--I won't take it personally. But I would think, you know, you're on the plane, you're next to a guy...maybe he has something to share, maybe he has stories to tell and things you could learn from. But you don't want to talk."
I apologized--told him I was heading to a very brief vacation and needed to get this work done before I met up with the rest of my family. In his solopsistic drunkenness, he didn't hear or didn't care, or both. And so, regardless of what I wanted or needed, I ended up in conversation with him.
He turned out to be a decent guy, and even an interesting guy. His wife had died years ago, leaving him with two small children to raise alone. He had left his high-paying job to be around the kids more, coaching teams and so on. He had a teenaged son with learning difficulties, who had only been diagnosed in 10th grade. Of course, it's hard to have an actual conversation with a drunk. What we had was him talking, occasionally jabbing me in the arm for emphasis, and me nodding, smiling, and throwing in the occasional comment to let him know I was listening.
But I'm glad I listened. Because he was a good man, working hard to be a good father in difficult circumstances and trying to help a teenaged son in need--a son who didn't fit into the neat little boxes arrayed before him by the public schools. "Categories!" he yelled at one point. "Why is it so important for them to figure out what category he's in? Why can't they just deal with who he is and teach him the way he needs to learn? I mean, I'm just a dumb redneck from Alabama, but I don't understand why it took so long to figure out what was getting in his way, and why it's still taking so long to help him."
Which was, coincidentally (or not), exactly what I was trying to read about for gradual school.
I've been here before. I'm basically a shy and introverted person--someone who keeps to himself and would rather watch and listen than talk, when among strangers...the boy with the beard in the corner, as my wife likes to misquote The Roches (I think it's really "the boy with the beer in the corner," and anyway, for me, it was usually a bourbon, not beer). And this makes me an easy target for blowhards, sad-sacks, and alcoholics looking for a sympathetic ear. I always find myself torn between the part of me that feels caught in a web and wants nothing more than to escape and be left alone and the part of me that knows I should be Open To New Experience and Open To New People. When I've pulled away from people, I've always regretted it later, and when I've engaged with strangers with stories to tell, I have never regretted it. So it's clear which side of me I should be listening to.
And yet, I really did have work to do, and I really didn't want to have to do it once I join up with the Wife and Things 1 and 2. And don't I have the right to make that choice? Or am I obligated to listen to every loon who want to bend my ear?
Answer--obviously: Of course you have the right to make that choice. Just be sure you're making the right choice. Because a stranger, even a loony one (maybe especially a loony one) can be an angel in disguise, with a message you were meant to hear--a message you need--a message which, if you miss it, if you walk away from it without hearing it, you will be diminished.
"Are you a religious man?" he asked.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
We always knew cubicles weren't good for our health.
http://view.break.com/513310 - Watch more free videos
Monday, June 2, 2008
Surely there's a fraternity out there capable of turning this speech into a drinking game. You know, the kind where you have to down a shot every time Our Dear Leader says something that history has proven to be a bald-faced lie.
Tonight I chose to speak from the chamber of the Texas House of Representatives because it has been a home to bipartisan cooperation. Here in a place where Democrats have the majority, Republicans and Democrats have worked together to do what is right for the people we represent. We've had spirited disagreements. And in the end, we found constructive consensus. It is an experience I will always carry with me, an example I will always follow….
The spirit of cooperation I have seen in this hall is what is needed in Washington, D.C. It is the challenge of our moment. After a difficult election, we must put politics behind us and work together to make the promise of America available for every one of our citizens.
I am optimistic that we can change the tone in Washington, D.C. I believe things happen for a reason, and I hope the long wait of the last five weeks will heighten a desire to move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past. Our nation must rise above a house divided. Americans share hopes and goals and values far more important than any political disagreements.
Republicans want the best for our nation, and so do Democrats. Our votes may differ, but not our hopes.
I know America wants reconciliation and unity. I know Americans want progress. And we must seize this moment and deliver. Together, guided by a spirit of common sense, common courtesy and common goals, we can unite and inspire the American citizens.
Together, we will work to make all our public schools excellent, teaching every student of every background and every accent, so that no child is left behind. Together we will save Social Security and renew its promise of a secure retirement for generations to come. Together we will strengthen Medicare and offer prescription drug coverage to all of our seniors. Together we will give Americans the broad, fair and fiscally responsible tax relief they deserve. Together we'll have a bipartisan foreign policy true to our values and true to our friends, and we will have a military equal to every challenge and superior to every adversary. Together we will address some of society's deepest problems one person at a time, by encouraging and empowering the good hearts and good works of the American people.
This is the essence of compassionate conservatism and it will be a foundation of my administration.
These priorities are not merely Republican concerns or Democratic concerns; they are American responsibilities…
We have discussed our differences. Now it is time to find common ground and build consensus to make America a beacon of opportunity in the 21st century…
I have faith that with God's help we as a nation will move forward together as one nation, indivisible. And together we will create an America that is open, so every citizen has access to the American dream; an America that is educated, so every child has the keys to realize that dream; and an America that is united in our diversity and our shared American values that are larger than race or party.
I was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation.
Or maybe they weren't lies. Maybe he's just always had his own, unique definitions of words, a Bush Dictionary that the rest of us weren't given back in 2000. Like how "bipartisan consensus" in Bushspeak has turned out to mean, "Do what I say and nobody gets hurt." And how "a foreign policy true to our values" has turned out to mean, "Do what I say and nobody gets hurt." And how "addressing society's deepest problems" has turned out to mean, "Do what I say and nobody gets hurt."
Okay, so it's a remarkably slim dictionary. But it's his.
We should add to the mix more recent secular apocalyptic beliefs - the certainty that the world is inevitably doomed through nuclear exchange, viral epidemics, meteorites, population growth or environmental degradation. Where these calamities are posed as mere possibilities in an open-ended future that might be headed off by wise human agency, we cannot consider them as apocalyptic. They are minatory, they are calls to action. But when they are presented as unavoidable outcomes driven by ineluctable forces of history or innate human failings, they share much with their religious counterparts - though they lack the demonising, cleansing, redemptive aspects, and are without the kind of supervision of a supernatural entity that might give benign meaning and purpose to a mass extinction.
The boy can write.
I think the essay is worth reading and pondering, because we really shouldn't dismiss such thinking as merely "wacko." It's important to face our various crises and challenges as "mere possibilities in an open-ended future that might be headed off by wise human agency." If you don't approach things this way, then everything--everything--becomes a sign and signifier of The End. And if The End means a return to God, or a return of God to earth, or whatever the case may be, why fight it? In fact, it's heresy to fight it--we should be doing all we can to hasten it. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And if that's the way you see the world, gentle reader, then it's certainly your right to do so. But I do not. I do not believe that some intelligent force placed me upon this earth and set a timer running, with certain moral and ethical and spiritual expectations I had to meet before the timer ran out, in order to merit the Big Prize of heaven. That's not life; that's a game show.
And here's the problem. Game shows are fun. Can our favorite contestant make it through the obstacle course, fill the water buckets, swing over the muddy pond, and ring the bell before the timer buzzes? It's suspenseful! We love it. And I have no problem enjoying that set of rules in my entertainment. I like action and adventure movies too. That doesn't mean I'm going to feel unfulfilled as a human being unless I can get chased through the jungle by Cate Blanchett (well, hold on a minute...if it's Cate Blanchett...).
Storytelling was supposed to be a diverting and momentary escape from life, not a substitute for it. Life itself was not supposed to be a story--everything leading to a climax, a denouement, and a happy ending. Life is just life.
But for some people, a life that is not plot-able on a grid that leads inexorably towards a happy ending is a Bad Life. Sugar-Candy Mountain is not simply the childlike Happy Place we hope for; it becomes the sole reason for living . If we aren't going to make it to Sugar-Candy Mountain--or, worse, if there is no Sugar-Candy Mountain, then what's the point of anything? Why wake up? Why go to work? Why love your wife? Why raise your children? None of these things has any value or joy in themselves unless they are steps along the way to Glory.
And what makes all of this dangerous today, in ways that were never truly dangerous before, is that people now have the ability to force the climax--to impose the ending. If they can't stand the day-to-day, for-it's-own-sake living, if they don't like the storytelling in their lives, or the lack thereof, they can damned well make the ending come and retroactively justify the drudgery of their days.
Because, to people who must have some kind of cosmic and explosive resolution to justify their little and limited works and days, any ending becomes a happy ending. And those people scare me.