Tuesday, July 31, 2007

frontyard gardens

CNN has the second article I have seen in the past two weeks about people who have planted their gardens in their front yards.

Leigh Anders, who tore up about half her front lawn four years ago and planted vegetables, said her garden sends a message that anyone can grow at least some of their food. That task should shift from agribusiness back to individuals and their communities, said Anders, of Viroqua, Wisconsin.
Read the whole article

I wish I could have a bigger garden in my front yard; unfortunately, the yard is too small and too shady for such a garden to succeed. The sidewalk is little more than twelve feet from the front of the house, and the yard is dominated by a maple tree we planted in the front yard the summer we moved in. Additionally, the yard frequently is shaded by the house next door -- we have small lots -- and by our house as well.

I have been able to grow several things in the front yard, including strawberries, lettuce, sunflowers, hot peppers, and sunflowers. This year we also are growing green beans and wax beans there as well, with two tomato plants doing quite nicely in containers. I wouldn't mind eventually eliminating the rest of the sod we have in our front yard and replacing it with a combination of flowers and herbs.

The bulk of our garden is in the back yard, but it's plagued by a groundhog that has killed my cucumber, zucchini and squash plants. Eventually I hope to raise the beds enough to keep it safe from the groundhog, but I'm not sure how likely that is in the foreseeable future.

jane helps out

Jane was walking past an old man on a street corner, when he said, "Miss, if it is not too much trouble, can you see me across the street?"

Jane said, "Just a minute." She walked across the street, looked back and yelled, "Yes, I can see you!"

jane goes to the doctor

Not long after the sheep incident, Jane went to the doctor's office to complain that her body hurt wherever she touched it.

"Impossible," said the doctor. "Show me."

So Jane took her finger and pushed her elbow, and screamed in agony. She pushed her knee and screamed, pushed her ankle and screamed. Everywhere she touched made her scream.

The doctor said, "You have a broken finger."

jane dyes her hair

One day after dyeing her hair brown to avoid hearing blonde jokes, Jane was driving a pickup along a country road when she came upon a large flock of sheep blocking the way. She came to a stop and got out to survey the situation. She realized that there was no way around or through and was wondering what to do when the shepherd came into view.

As a way of being friendly and also passing the time, she remarked to the shepherd that he had a rather large flock of sheep. "Yep, sure is, replied the shepherd."

Then she asked the shepherd, "If I can guess how many sheep you have, may I have one of them?"

The shepherd, figuring that there was no way in the world she could guess, replied, "Sure. Have at it."

"Five hundred ninety-three," she quickly responded.

The shepherd, totally dumbfounded, said, "Ma'am, I don't know how you did it, but you're right. Choose your sheep and I'll help you load it into your truck."

After her choice was loaded into the truck and safely secured, the shepherd asked Jane, "Lady, if I guess the true color of your hair, can I have my dog back?"

jane looks for a new job

Jane was a hard-working reporter with long blond hair. She had made a name for herself with her hard-hitting stories, but she was getting tired of hearing jokes about how dumb blondes were. So one day she decided to show her co-workers how smart she was by getting a better-paying job elsewhere. When she got home that night, she e-mailed more than a dozen cover letters to prospective employers, taking care to attach her resume as a Word file.

A week went by and no one contacted her. After the second week, she was starting to get worried, but at the start of the third week, she received an e-mail from the human resources director at an area magazine.

"I just wanted to let you know that I received your cover letter," the H.R. director wrote. "I tried the recipe for roast chicken that you attached, and thought it was delicious. Do you have any other recipes you can send?"

'i am your father'

Evangeline and Rachel just saw the Star Wars trilogy for the first time last week. When we reached the famous scene when Darth Vader tells Luke that he is Luke's father, Evangeline burst into laughter. She suddenly understood the joke in Toy Story 2 when Zurg and Buzz are facing off on the elevator.

In some ways, I feel my daughters have missed something by seeing Star Wars at their age, or perhaps even in seeing it in the context where they know the joke first and foremost. There is no way they can appreciate what a shock it was to viewers who saw that movie for the first time and heard Darth drop that particular bombshell. I remember that even back then it was primetime grounds for debate and discussion. We had back-and-forth discussion for years about whether it was true, with people pulling out one bit of evidence or another to support their position. For my girls, there is no way the mystery ever could reach that level of suspense.

I rather feel they will have the same problem with "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." Too much of the ending will be known to them, because so many of their friends already will have read it.

Monday, July 30, 2007

banana nose

I've had a copy of this ever since my college freshman year, in 1988. It's stuck with me through a series of e-mail accounts, floppy disks and disks not-so-floppy, and through at least three computers. I have no idea who wrote it, but I post it here for everyone else to appreciate it as I have:
 

Buzz off, Banana Nose; Relieve mine eyes
Of hateful soreness, purge mine ears of corn.
Less dear than army ants in apple pies
Art thou, old prune-face, with thy chestnuts worn,
Dropt from thy peeling lips like lousy fruit.
Like honeybees upon the perfum'd rose
They suck, and like the double-breasted suit
Are out of date; therefore, Banana Nose,
Go fly a kite, thy welcome's overstayed.
And stem the produce of thy waspish wits:
Thy logick, like thy locks, is disarrayed.
Thy cheer, like thy complexion, is the pits.
Be off, I say; go bug somebody new,
Scram, beat it, get thee hence, and nuts to you.

beckett

I found "Beckett" surprisingly boring for a movie with 12 Academy Award nominations.
 
A 1964 film, based on a play of the same name and starring Peter O'Toole (King Henry II) and Richard Burton (Thomas Beckett), the movie tells the classic story of Henry's attempt to increase his power base by appointing his close friend and chancellor to the post of archbishop of Canterbury. The move backfired as Beckett displayed unanticipated religious devotion and openly opposed the king's efforts to extend his control to include the church as well as the state.
 
I first encountered the story of Thomas Beckett in any significant length when I was in college and one of the student acting groups put on a performance of T.S. Elliot's "Murder in the Cathedral" in the college chapel. It's a great story, and of particular relevance today as it deals with the uneasy co-existence of church and state and what happens when they clash ... but I really couldn't get into this movie.
 
Without a doubt the main problem is the age of the film. Production values and our expectations of movies have changed considerably in the 43 years since "Beckett" first showed on the silver screen. Some movies -- like "The Ten Commandments," "Ben-Hur" and "Spartacus" -- have held up, but even they show their age. The spectacle and pagaentry that used to be a mainstay of these old movies, with thousands of extras and elaborate sets, have fallen by the wayside and contemporary audiences prefer movies with less spectacle and faster action.
 
And by faster action I don't mean car chases and gunfights. In "Beckett" the long pauses were excruciatingly painful, extended camera pans that consisted of nothing but people walking across the room, or boats crossing the English Channel while the music played and tried to seranade us to sleep.
 
All that said, there are many things I did enjoy about the movie. Peter O'Toole gave a command performance as Henry II as a perennially adolescent king, incapable of controlling his urges or exercising any manner of self-restraint. He yells at his wife, bullies his children, and when he discovers that his old drinking buddy won't go along with him is brutally torn between love for his friend and anger over what he sees as betrayal. This internal divide dogs him until finally, in a drunken fit that has involved yelling at his wife and mother and humiliating his son Henry III, he asks "Who will rid me of this troublesome archbishop?" -- which of course three knights overhear and take to interpret as a royal order.
 
The story, as always, was excellent. I'd be interested in seeing the play at some point.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

the legend of heyward

One of my children's favorite stories concerns when their Uncle Brian was trying to study in his bedroom and our youngest brother decided it would be fun to start bothering him, and to keep going.

Brian left his room by crawling through the window onto the roof of the front porch, whereupon Ward locked it -- and proceeded to make faces at him until Brian finally lost it, and smashed the window with his fist.

Ward and Brian had a special relationship like that when they were children. Their exploits together are the stuff of legend.

kennywood, here i come

We're planning to go to Pittsburgh in a little over a week. The big must-see is Kennywood.

There is no way in the world I would miss it. I grew up outside Pittsburgh, and we went to Kennywood every summer at least twice, probably three times most summers.

I remember each year we would try to figure out in the last few days of class which ride they had replaced, and what it would be replaced with. I don't remember what it was the year they installed the Laser Loop, but I remember being disappointed, because the Laser Loop was such a disappointing roller coaster to go on. I understand that it was one of the rides they took out the year they added the Steel Phantom, so I guess I'm not the only one to find it a disappointment.

And now here I am, ready to return to a place of a lot of happy memories. Even the rides that didn't seem that interesting when I was a kid, like Noah's Ark, are something I'm looking back with a strong air of nostalgia, and I'm looking forward to sharing the experience with my girls.

The last time I went there was shortly after I got married, so I'm looking forward to seeing if I'm still young enough to handle rides like the Thunderbolt ... though realistically I'll probably spend most of my time on rides my kids can handle, which fortunately include the Jackrabbit.

anachronisms

Several weeks ago I had to come to the rescue of our pastor, who was trying to explain record players to a college student. She would not believe anything he said about 33s, 45s, or the way you had to twist the knobby thing in the middle of the turntable so it could play the other sort of record. Even with two of us insisting that this was how it had been when we were children, she remained skeptical.

Similarly, at the preschool Rachel attended, her classroom had a record player that the teachers used for some of the activities. I once asked the teacher if she explained it to the kids as "This is what an iPod looked like when your parents were your age."

ugly suit

When the store manager returned from lunch, he noticed his clerk Ivan MacGregor's hand was bandaged. Before he could ask what had happened, the clerk had some very good news for him.

"Guess what, sir?" Ivan said. "I finally sold that terrible, ugly suit we've had so long!"

"Do you mean that repulsive pink-and-blue double-breasted thing?!" the manager asked.

"That's the one!"

"That's great!" the manager cried, "I thought we'd never get rid of that monstrosity! That had to be the ugliest suit we've ever had! But tell me, why is your hand bandaged?"

"Oh," Ivan replied, "after I sold the guy that suit, his seeing-eye dog bit me.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

breaking the recruits

This is from "Lone Survivor" by Marcus Lattrell, which a friend of mine has just read. It's the story of an American SEAL, and describes some of his training. This passage stuck out to me:

"Coronado, like New York, is a city that never sleeps. those instructors are out there patroling the corridors of our barracks by night into the small hours. One of them once came into my room after I'd hot mopped it and high polished the floor till you could almost see your face in it. He dropped a trickle of sand onto the floor and chewed me out for living in a dust bowl! Then he sent me down to the Pacific, in the company of my swim buddy and of course himself, to "get wet and sandy" (a punishment, and not a nice one). Then we had to go through the decontamination unit, and the shrieking of those cold hydraulic pipes and the ferocious jets of water awakened half the barracks and nearly sent us into shock. Never mind the fact that was 0200 and we were due back under those showers again in another couple of hours. ...

"My roommate quit that night. He went weak at the knees just watching what was happening to me. I don't how how ... he thought I felt.

"One time during Indoc while we were out on night run, one of the instructors actually climbed up the outside of a building, came through an open window, and absolutely trashed a guy's room, threw everything everywhere, emptied detergent onto his bed gear. He went back out the way he'd come in, and then tapped on the poor guy's door and demanded a room inspection. The guy couldn't work out whether to be furious or heartbroken, but he spent most of the night cleaning up and still had to be in the showers at 0430 like the rest of us.

"I asked Reno about this weeks later, and he told me, 'Marcus, the body can take damn near anything. It's the mind that needs training. The question that guy was being asked involved mental strength. Can you handle such injustice? Can you cope with that kind of unfairness, that much of a setback? And still come back with your jaw set, still determined, swearing to God you will never quit? That's what we're looking for."


My friend is impressed and sees spiritual allegory here, but I have to admit that I'm not impressed. I'm disgusted. He's outlining the chief objection I have to the military. The boot camp experience, particularly for elite forces, is just cruel, sadistic and inhuman. I understand the point: to "break" the individual's spirit, to condition soldiers to follow orders, and to think of the unit before self ... but this is flat-out inexcusable. It the Marines who lost an entire platoon during training in 1942 because they were ordered to march into quicksand and, to a man, they did? This is why I hold a deep-seated objection to war and militarism in general. After you break someone like that, how do you put them back together? You can't.

Two years ago, I was in a Bible study with an Army captain who talked about how he enjoyed this sort of work, breaking the new recruits, and how in tougher cases he would even call them in to his office and call their parents in front of them to say it wasn't working out, just to humiliate them that final degree.

It's sick to take pleasure in breaking another person like that, and I told him so. And reading this description of SEAL training, I'm more convinced than ever that it's fundamentally wrong, no matter how it gets rationalized.

Does God teach us through things that are unjust? Absolutely. I've heard it referred to as "being ruined for life," and I can agree to that phrase wholeheartedly. But you'll never convince me he gets the sadistic thrill out of it that you see in an officer climbing in through an open window and trashing an inductee's quarters to the extent described in this book. That's just sick.

Friday, July 27, 2007

authority

There are three things we sometimes lump under that one umbrella we call authority. There's actual authority, which God gives according to his pleasure; there's respect, which people give to one another; and there's power, which people take for themselves.
 
Sometimes these line up, but not always. You'll remember that Jesus but lacked earthly power and often missed the respect of people around him. It did nothing to affect his authority to perform miracles, forgive sin, or speak the truth with power. Similarly, men like Al Capone have had a great deal of power, but they were pretending to authority that had never been given them and, in the end, they often discover that they really don't have the respect they think they do.

Pat Robertson has the respect of many evangelicals and Pentecostals because of the man he was and the things he has done in the past -- though you'll note that this has been eroded greatly in the last several years -- but he lacks any substantial authority.

evangelical illiteracy

With the latest Harry Potter book now out and enjoying tremendous success -- big shock, that -- once again the Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy are making an effort to save us from its insidious satanic message.

Wow, two big shocks in the same week.

I must admit I'm weary of the anti-Potter brigade. The illiteracy among American Christians, particularly evangelicals, is appalling. And not just in terms of snap judgments about pop lit like Harry Potter; American evangelicals are woefully underread when it comes to classics of American, British, continental and other world literature, ignorant of the very foundations of our culture, and blissfully unaware of what the Bible says that doesn't fit onto a bumper sticker or a Hallmark card.

And it's not just literature, it's everything: the philosophy is shallow, the music is flat and uninspired, and art is viewed through narrowed eyes, with suspicion. Generally speaking, the most popular stuff is the art and writing that's created with a specific message in mind, rather than the art that explores, asks questions and leaves things unanswered. It's easier to react to the fantastical elements of Harry Potter and deride it all as a satanic subterfuge to lead the innocent astray than it is to approach it with honesty and wonder and discover the truths that it conveys -- even though the Bible is replete with examples great truth contained within extrabiblical and even pagan sources.

My disgust with the contemporary American church on this score is pretty great. The church historically has produced or influenced great works of literature, from "Crime and Punishment" and "Paradise Lost" to "Les Miserables" and "A Christmas Carol"; nowadays, evangelicals typically prefer to bowlderize these into effete and insipid salvation screes or to outright reject the works for imagined heresies or faults of the stories or their creators. (I've seen the work of Dostoevsky, for example, rejected out of hand because he struggled with depression his entire life and therefore couldn't have been a real Christian because he "lacked the peace that passes all understanding.")

Ultimately, though, the essential question is whether to curse the darkness or to light a candle, to borrow a really stupid cliche. I love great literature and art, and I love Harry Potter. I'm teaching my kids to enjoy great literature, and I'm shameless about loving books even when other people hate them. If that means I'm less of a Christian in someone's eyes because of Harry Potter, that's OK. I already get that for being a Democrat.

Sooner or later, I figure the freedom and grace that I'm walking in is going to attract other people. Lord knows, I hope it does, because the alternative seems so bad that it's unthinkable.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

chess club

In perhaps a fit of madness, I agreed last month to start and lead a chess club at Nova Bastille Free Public Library.
 
Chess is one of those games I wish more people played. One of the reasons we had children is so we could have new people to play, ourselves. So when I was asked if I would consider running such a club, I knew I was going to say yes even though I asked for time to think about it.
 
We had our second session today, and it went well overall, I think. I am a little stymied by Rachel's attendance, as she is convinced that she can do anything her older sister can, even when it's patently obvious that she is hopelessly out of her depth, such as when she insists she can play chess without knowing even how to move the pieces correctly. I'm trying to teach her, but it takes time and she's only 4½.
 
It was a bit hectic for a while because I had three other small kids who wanted to learn to play, and one of the tenets of the club is that anyone who doesn't know how to play can be taught. I walked them through a few of the pieces -- the pawns, the bishops and the rooks -- and was relieved when they decided to play checkers instead.
 
I'm hoping to build the club up into some sort of tournament arrangement, where the kids can play one another and jockey for position on a pyramid, but so far that's largely imaginary because only five kids have shown up both weeks, and the range of skills isn't that wide. Two of them basically have no idea what they're doing, and all of them keep forgetting that you don't actually capture the king -- you have to announce when the king is in check and force the other person to get the king to safety.
 
Today we actually had a game where one of the players had three queens on the board at a time, had his opponent on the ropes, and then she managed to take out all his queens in less than four moves -- including one she eliminated with a pawn and another she captured with her king (!) -- and then had no idea how to get him in checkmate with two queens of her own. The game actually ended in a stalemate, with his king not in check but unable to move anywhere. As I wryly remarked afterward, they each managed to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.
 
I matched Evangeline up with a much older boy, and she nearly beat him. He remarked afterward that if she hadn't started to lose interest in the game and let her attention wander, he would have lost. So I was duly impressed with her, and very proud.
 
I have to figure out how to make this work better, though. The less skilled players need some coaching to help them get better, yet it's hard to give them that coaching if all my effort is spent working with kids who are too young to learn to play the game in a library setting.
 

harbinger of death

If you need better proof that cats are evil, this is it.
 
A cat at a hospice in Providence, Rhode Island, reportedly has a knack for knowing when a patient is about to die. He enters the room, sniffs at them, and if he curls up on them, doctors there know to call the resident's family, because the patient in question usually has about four hours to live.
 
The MSNBC article on Oscar the cat talks about relatives of patients appreciate the advance warning his visits have afforded them, and it notes that nurses at the hospite have dedicated a plaque to the cat for his compassionate care.
 
Bullocks, I say. The cat is either in league with the Angel of Death, marking unfortunate souls for collection, or he's doing the dirty deed himself, going in and killing patients in an as-yet-undetected manner.
 
Betcha they have cat allergies.

the deathly hallows (spoilers)

I'm about two-thirds of the way through the newest Harry Potter book, and it's been even better than I expected.
 
(I'm making the rest of this post invisible, to avoid spoiling anything. If you want to read it, use your mouse to highlight it.)
 
Before we started the book Saturday morning, my wife and I thought we had worked out some of the things that were going to happen. We reckoned that Dumbledore would assist Harry, Ron and Hermione from beyond the grave; we were confident that the mysterious R.A.B. would prove to be Regulus Black, and that the Horcrux he had taken was the locket that Mundungus Fletcher had stolen from Grimmauld Place; we believed that Snape was fairly rotten but still on the right side; and we were pretty sure that this book was going to be worth the wait.
 
So far, we've been right on all those counts, mostly. We had thought from Rowling's description of Dumbledore's funeral, and from his close association with the phoenix, that Dumbledore had been resurrected as a phoenix, and that he would be guiding the triad along their quest. That hasn't happened yet, but Harry has seen Dumbledore's eye in the broken shard of mirror that Sirius gave him, and the second time Dobby showed up inexplicably just after Harry asked the eye for help escaping the Malfoys.
 
R.A.B. has indeed been revealed to be Regulus, and that locket was the Horcrux, but so far we haven't seen any sign of him still alive. I can't see how he could have escaped the Inferi after sending Kreacher away with the Horcrux, but the note he left Voldemort indicated that he was going to do all he could to bring him down. That's hard to do if you let Inferi drown you.
 
Snape's been a puzzle. He's definitely an foul, twisted being, and rather cold, which makes it hard to tell what side he's really going to end up on, or fall down with in the end. No one in the Order of the Phoenix believes he's still with them, from what I can tell, which makes sense, since he killed Dumbledore at the end of "Half Blood Prince." And when Voldemort killed the Muggle studies professor, Snape played it so cool it was unsettling.
 
But we keep coming back to the fact that Dumbledore trusted Snape, for reasons he never expressed, and (I have to believe) part of Dumbledore's plan invovled having Snape kill him. Snape after all had sworn the Unbreakable Oath to assist Draco in his mission to kill Dumbledore, and later we overheard the two of them arguing, because Snape didn't want to go through with something, and Dumbledore told him it was too late, he had sworn an oath, and so on. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out, because whatever side he's on, Snape remains an evil and contemptible being.
 
Natasha and I also expected that Wormtail would save Harry's life somehow -- which he did, ironically, at the cost of his own -- thus fulfilling the debt he had owed since the end of "Prisoner of Azkaban. More recently, as I was re-reading part of "The Sorcerer's Stone," I started to wonder if Draco and Harry were going to save one another's lives, in a parallel of the Snape-James relationship. In the chapter we just finished, Draco didn't save Harry's life, but he wasn't in any hurry to identify him to Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange.
 
This is probably pretty boring the way I'm writing it.
 
All right, let me say this: We are wondering if Dumbledore is related to Harry, whether he is Lily and Petunia's uncle or grandfather; and if they are descended from Godric Gryffindor. We are wondering if the Deathstick is a real wand, or just a metaphor for the sort of power that wizards amass perhaps once every generation; and as a corollary, we are wondering how much of that fairy tale told by Beedle the Bard is actual history and how much of it is a story that simply masks greater truths without relying on crass literalism for meaning, as the best stories do.
 
We are about two-thirds of the way through the book, and we are amazed at the twists and turns the story has taken, and the edge-of-your-seat close calls the triad have had, with Nagini at Godric's Hollow, with the ministry officials at Xenophilius Lovegood's house, and with the Death Eaters at Malfoy Manor.
 
I've loved the depiction of Voldemort and the way he rules his roost by setting one Death Eater against another, keeping them in line through fear and humiliation, trying to rattle Snape by killing a Hogwarts professor in front of him, and the abject fear he has of death and weakness. I was especially intrigued by the moment at Godric's Hollow where Harry and Voldemort started seeing themselves and one another through each other's eyes, because of the scar Voldemort gave Harry.
 
I'm curious about the doe Patronus that led Harry and Ron to the sword of Godric Gryffindor, and I wonder whose it was. The white stag is a recurring motif in Medieval and Arthurian literature, usually symbolic of Christ in its purity, but so far, its nature here is unclear.
 
It does seem clear at this point that one of the missing Horcruxes is in Bellatrix Lestrange's vault at Gringott's. So far they've destroyed Riddle's diary and the locket; and Dumbledore himself destroyed Slytherin's ring, which Harry now thinks is the Resurrection stone. That seems doubtful to me, since it's (again) requiring a story to be literally true rather than literarily so. Kind of like some people's approach to Bible interpretation. Anyway, that's three Horcruxes down, a fourth in Gringott's, and Nagini the snake probably representing a fifth.
 
That means the sixth is probably at Hogwart's, or possibly even in Harry himself. Personally, I'd like to think that Harry can use the scar in reverse direction, to show Voldemort what his actions have cost other people, and make him feel remorse for what he has done, an action that Hermione has said would cause the sundry pieces of Voldemort's sundered soul to reunite, killing him in the process. The best victories always lie through the path of defeat, but that may not be the way Rowling has chosen to go. We'll have to see.
 
In any event, we're enjoying the back. Nice work, Joanne.

new rules to live by

Taken and adapted from CHRefugee:
  1. Stop giving me that pop-up ad for Classmates.com. I'm not in touch with my high school classmates 20 after graduation, because high school sucked and the people who made it suck were my classmates. Why would I want to reconnect with them -- so they can make middle age suck too?
  2. Don't eat anything that's served to you out a window unless you're a seagull. People acted all shocked that a human finger was found in a bowl of Wendy's chili last summer. The chili cost less than a dollar. What did you expect it to contain, trout?
  3. Don't complain about high gas prices. There's an easy way to deal with it: Drive less, and do it in a car with better mileage than a minivan or sport utility vehicle. And don't tell me that corn-based ethanol is going to save us all. Corn is for food, not for putting into our gas tanks.
  4. Stop saying that teenage boys who have sex with their hot, blonde teachers are permanently damaged. There isn't a man alive today who didn't want that same thing when he was a teenager. Try sending the message to teenage boys that women are people, not sexual encounters.
  5. If you need to shave and you still collect baseball cards, you're a dope. If you're a kid, the cards are keepsakes of your idols. If you're a grown man, they're pictures of men.
  6. Ladies, leave your eyebrows alone. Here's how much men care about your eyebrows: Do you have two of them? Okay, we're done.
  7. There's no such thing as flavored water. Flavored water is called a soft drink. You want flavored water? Pour some scotch over ice and let it melt. That's your flavored water.
  8. Stop screwing with old people. Target is introducing a redesigned pill bottle that's square, with a bigger label. And the top is now the bottom. And by the time grandpa gets it open, he will be in the morgue. Congratulations, Target, you just solved the Social Security crisis.
  9. The more complicated the Starbucks order, the bigger the jerk. If you walk into a Starbucks and order a "decaf grande half-soy, half-low fat, iced vanilla, double-shot, gingerbread cappuccino, extra dry, light ice, with one Sweet-n'-Low, and one NutraSweet," your picture deserves to be in the dictionary, next to the word jerk.
  10. I'm not the cashier. If I'm spending my money at your store, is it too much to ask to have one of your employees run my purchases across the scanner, ring me up, and tell me how much my bill comes to? No one has complained, "Stores are getting too personal and friendly. They should lay off some cashiers and replace them with Do-It-Yourself express lanes."
  11. A tattoo with Chinese characters it doesn't make you spiritual. It's right above your butt crack, and it means "beef with broccoli." The last time you did anything spiritual, you were praying to God you weren't pregnant. You're not spiritual. You're just high.
  12. Competitive eating isn't a sport. It's one of the seven deadly sins, and it's gross. ESPN recently televised the U.S. Open of Competitive Eating, because watching those athletes at the poker table was just too damn exciting. What's next, competitive farting? They already do that. It's called "The Howard Stern Show."
  13. I don't need a bigger mega M&Ms. If I'm extra hungry for M&Ms, I'll go nuts and eat two.
  14. If you're going to insist on making movies based on old TV shows, then you have to give everyone in the theater a remote so we can see what's playing on the other screens. These things were TV shows in the first place because the idea wasn't good enough to be a movie.
  15. No more gift registries. You know, it used to be just for weddings. Now it's for babies and new homes and honeymoons and graduations from rehab. Picking out the stuff you want and having other people buy it for you isn't gift giving, it's just a lazy way to go looting and pillaging.
  16. If you ever hope to be a credible adult and want a job that pays better than minimum wage, then for God's sake don't pierce or tattoo every available piece of flesh. If you do, then plan your future around saying "Do you want fries with that?"

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

whack-a-kid

Evangeline and I had a great time Monday night before dinner, whacking each other with rolled-up newspapers.
 
I think I started it, when I called her out to the kitchen to set the table. There was an article in the arts section about a museum exhibit on comic books qua Americana that I knew she would want to read, so I went to hand it to her. And then, of course, I jerked it away just as she reached for it, a classic game that I think fathers everywhere have used to torture their children and drive them to madness.
 
After three or four times of pulling it away, I rolled it into a tube and started smacking her with it while she tried to grab it. I don't know how long we kept that up, both of us laughing like mad, until she got a hold of it and started whacking me back. I reached up on top of the refrigerator, grabbed another section, rolled it up, and returned her fire.
 
We must have done this for about fifteen minutes or more. By the time we were done, she had rolled there sections of the paper into one big weapon to smack me with, while I brandished one section in each hand and alternated which one I used.
 
I never knew the Classifieds section could be so much fun.

Monday, July 16, 2007

good samaritan

Two things keep hitting me in the face wrt to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The first is that the context of the parable is a discussion about receiving eternal life, down to the teacher of the law trying to justify himself; i.e., to show that he had the eternal life he was talking about.

The person Jesus held forth had a deeply flawed understanding of God's nature, yet his understanding of God's heart was such that Jesus is indicating that he had eternal life. (This is reflected in other parables, like the Sheep and the Goats, where the group that thought they hadn't known the Son of Man discovered that they did.)

The second thing is that Jesus took a familiar story, about a highly respectable Pharisee stopping to help a wounded man, and subverted its whole meaning by presenting the hated, unclean, and despicable Samaritan as a hero and role model.

It'd be as shocking as if someone like James Dobson went on the air with an openly gay guest and presented him as a role model of fatherhood and manliness; or if an evangelical leader encouraged people to follow the example of one Muslim or another in charitable giving or making peace. Shocking, but wholly needed, and ultimately healing.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

dear god: church sucks

Dear God:

The question I've been coming back to for the last few weeks is this: If our curent approach to church is flawed and useless for me to draw near to you in worship, then what does work?

I'm willing to accept the notion of a Creator, even willing to accept the story of Jesus as a true one, but much else seems questionable.

God draws near to us. What then? What sort of response does worship require?

It's so easy to pass on the church right now, but I need to remember that the church is God's bride. It is not enough merely to say, "She's an ignoramus," unless we can see our own ignorance reflected in her, and to realize that the fault lies first with us and that we bring it to her.

Why is God so silent? How does he expect us to know his will when he does nothing to tell us?

Seriously, though, what does church look like for me? Small, cozy. Worship is impassioned and real -- probably on an acoustic guitar or some sort of keyboard. We explore Truth together in a variety of formats -- story, music, art, study.

What do I need to do to bring that about?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

woody guthrie tribute

From the day they started singing, I've encouraged my girls to think of whatever songs they sing as theirs. They have liberty to add verses, change lyrics, and even alter the tune if they think it appropriate. Cleaning up the study, I just found this new verse to "This Land is Your Land," scribbled out by Evangeline:
As I was walking, and the world was waking,
My legs were tired, and my back was aching.
Yet all around me, a voice was chanting,
"This land was made for you and me."

judas

The thing that makes Judas so interesting to me is that the gospels give absolutely no motive for his actions. We're left to fill in the blanks for ourselves.
 
We can do that, as some have, by simply saying "He betrayed Jesus because he was evil," but falling back on a Saturday morning morality tale on good and evil does nothing to further our understanding of why a man would betray someone he has known and admired for at least three years.
 
The gospel of John says that Satan had entered Judas' heart, but even that's an overly simplistic understanding of things. Ha-Satan isn't even necessarily an evil being in the Bible, as much as he is an accuser or prosecuting attorney fulfilling an essential function in God's court.
 
I rather fear that Judas had what he believed were good reasons for doing what he had done, as we usually do when we do something wrong. Afterward, when he saw what had happened to Jesus, he was struck with remorse, saw his action for the evil it was, and hanged himself.
 
Motives I've thought of for betraying Jesus:
 
1) He was trying to force Jesus to act by making it so he had no choice but to rally the people and overthrow the Romans.
 
2) He had decided that Jesus was not the messiah after all, and so he betrayed him rather than see the Jewish people led astray.
 
3) He was afraid that Jesus was going to be a militaristic messiah, and realized the Romans would destroy the nation if he led an uprising. Similar to Caiaphas' prophecy, "Do you not know that it is better for one man to die than for a whole nation to perish?"
 
4) I wrote a drama once where Judas saw that everything had slipped out of control, and that Jesus was no longer atop the wave but about to be swept under it. Rather than see him go the same way as a dozen other messiahs, he chose to betray him so he would be martyred and people would remember him at his height, and hold up his teachings for an age to come.
 
5) A pettier reason might be found in the gospel of John: Judas was a thief. It's possible that he feared that Jesus was going to kick him off the team -- Jesus did identify him as the betrayer during the seder meal -- and so he saw this as a chance to spare himself the blow to his pride, and get 30 talents of silver, to boot.
 
I do think the "He did it because people are evil" sentiment is a grievous mistake in hermeneutics, however common a reason it may be. It robs us of any chance to learn from the story, because in identifying Judas as evil, we simultaneously disavow any connection between ourselves and him, as no one outside superhero cartoons ever views herself as evil. We all view our crimes, misdemeanors and sins as perfectly justifiable, because of the exigencies of the situation. Falling back on theology to defend such a position is to misappropriate doctrine for evaluating interpersonal relationships.

coke addict

My name is David Learn, and I am an addict.
 
It's taken me some time to admit that I have a problem, but the symptoms are there. Spending money I can't afford to fuel my habit, I make one excuse after another to indulge. I'm facing the middle-of-the-day hump, and it'll give me the boost I need to get through; I'm tired, and this will give me the energy to get by. I lie to myself about my addiction, and I try to cover up from my wife just how bad it is. It's just one more, that's all. No one will notice.
 
I promise myself regularly that I'm going to stop soon, but soon never comes. There's always another hump to climb over, another spell of fatigue to overcome, another excuse to justify what has become an increasingly expensive and destructive habit to indulge.
 
I'm an addict. The evidence is insurmountable: the recycling bin full of plastic bottles and aluminum cans, the tooth decay, the weight problem, the cans that rattle around the floor of the car, the brown tongue, the increased urination. I'm addicted to Coke.
 
This past Monday, I faced up to my problem, and I called it quits. The effect was noticeable almost immediately. As I began filtering the caffeine out from my system, I bottomed out especially low around three o'clock. Those first few days marked the return of Mr. Grumpy Pants to my home. My children have been relieved, I think, to see him showing up less as the day has gone on.
 
How much sleep has drinking Coke kept me from getting the full benefit of? I don't know, but I've been making up for it the past few days. I've been turning in by 11 o'clock and struggling to get up at 8 or 9. Taking a meal in the early evening today nearly flattened me, as my systemic nervous system diverts energy to my digestive system.
 
I've already lost one molar to my addiction, and I'm determined to stay stopped now, before any other teeth join it. The high levels of sugar in Coke make a tremendous meal for the bacteria behind tooth decay, and as their digestive juices get flowing, the tooth enamel starts flying apart. My wife, in her typically picturesque vocabulary, describes it as "teeth rotting in your head."
 
And I admit, I'm concerned about the effect all this Coke has had on my pancreas. More than twenty years ago, the Coca-Cola Co. made its signature drink with real sugar. It was high in calories, and it was still bad for your teeth, but it was a natural sugar and it was something the body could process naturally, with no ill effects beyond hyperactivity and the potential for tooth decay.
 
As lobbyists worked their weal upon the federal government, though, corn prices dropped low, and stayed there: low enough that corn syrup became cheaper to feed cattle than cattle feed, and a cheaper sweetener than sugar. The result has been cattle that are unable to digest their food properly, and people who are unable to process the non-natural sweeteners in more and more of their foods and beverages.
 
As people consume greater quantities of high fructose corn syrup -- and we consume it in record amounts, in the United States -- it plays cruel games with our blood sugar levels. Keep it up long enough, and the pancreas -- the organ designed to regulate levels of blood sugar -- burns out and becomes incapable of regulating blood sugar at all. If you want to find a reason for the epidemic of diabetes and obesity in the United States, you don't need to look much further than corn syrup and those subsidies for agribusiness.
 
I don't have any of the common symptoms of diabetes -- I'm not incessantly thirsty, my blood pressure is fine, I heal at a normal rate, and my vision hasn't begun to blur -- but I know better than to push my luck. I've sworn off Coke, and I hope to stay clean.
 
Trouble is, this isn't my first time quitting. I've realized before that I was drinking too much of the stuff, and I kicked the habit cold-turkey, for a week, two weeks, or even more than a month at one point. But the stuff is so ubiquitous, especially in the summer. Go to a barbecue, attend a party, or visit a relative, and chances are good there's going to be a Coke handy, ready to drink, just waiting.
 
After all, there's nothing wrong with just one, right? Moderation is everything.
 
Maybe for others, but not for me. My name is David Learn, and I am an addict.

Friday, July 13, 2007

in poor taste

I recently saw this promo for a discussion on Delphi Forums:
 
 
I've heard of sevearl ways to deal with morning sickness, but I must confess that eating winter babies is none of them. I wonder how they would react if people responded to this promo with suggestions for recipes.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

rejection

Alas, a piece I wrote for the Wittenburg Door did not get the reception I had hoped. I just received this in my e-mail:
I must confess I really wanted to like this one, David, but I struggled with it. I wasn't really sure of the point you were making and it felt like it ping-ponged between a couple of good (but competing) ideas. So, alas, I guess I'll reluctantly pass on it.
 
Thanks for letting us see it and I hope you'll continue to send us stuff!
Rats. This isn't the first rejection letter I've received, nor even the first from The Door. But it's still disappointing.
 
And, in all honesty, I must admit that I'd rather be rejected by The Door than published by several other magazines I can think of. Must try again.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

hail the tripods

One of the joys of having children is introducing them to things that you enjoyed when you were their age.
 
When I was younger, Boys Life magazine carried a serial comic based on "The White Mountains" and the other Tripod books by John Christopher. The story didn't translate well, mostly because of the format they published it in. Each issue contained a single page of the comic, drawn on a grid of nine or twelve panels. A lot of the material that Christopher created to establish the characters, the setting, and even the nature of the alien rule over the earth, went right out the window. There just wasn't space.
 
In 1987, when I was an exchange student living in New Zealand, one of the channels showed "The Tripods," a BBC miniseries based on Christopher's books. I saw part of the first episode, and part of one that came nearer the end of the series. In that segment, Will the main character had just discovered that the alien masters were planning in a few years' time to eradicate all terrestrial life, I presume to make the planet more suitable for themselves.
 
I hadn't read the books yet, but I was pretty sure the Beeb had taken a few liberties with its adaptation. In the comic the only alien race on the planet was the Masters, a race that looked something like giant turds with faces and tentacles, but here in the series he was talking with some other alien that appeared as a green triangle and that also was appalled by the Masters' plans for the planet ... but which was unwilling to stop them, since he saw humanity's survival as humanity's business.
 
Fast forward to around 2000. I had bought the entire series from Amazon and was zipping through them with the speed of an arrow. Somewhere inside me a Cub Scout was in heaven.
 
The books are a nice, easy read; in fact, Evangeline just finished reading the entire series herself about a week ago, even though there are no girls worth mentioning in the books. They're set roughly a hundred years in the future, after an alien race has fully domesticated the human race through a mind-control technique that involves affixing a metal cap to the heads of children when they turn 13. The cap removes the aggression that humans have, purges their curiosity about the world around them, and makes them the happy, docile servants of the Tripods and the aliens behind them.
 
The main characters in the trilogy are three boys, named Will, Henry and Jean-Paul, who learn about feral humans -- free men who have never been capped, and who are learning all they can from their base in a mouintain hideaway about the alien conquerors so they can liberate the earth and the human race.
 
The books were published in 1970, I think, and some aspects of the writing definitely reflect that period. The people of the earth are docile, uninquisitive about the world around them, and really not all that bright -- the classic depiction of stoners. And yet the Tripods also are linked to God, through the juxtaposition of an image of a Tripod at the Dome of the Rock, and the great awe and generally religious reverence which humans hold the Tripods in.
 
My best guess, without having done any formal research into the matter, is that Christopher is urging people to think for themselves and try to save the world, without the limits imposed by religion or by the "tune out and drop out" culture of the sixties. A prequel to the series, published in the 1980s, shows the Tripods gaining control over more and more people by subverting television broadcasts, a more contemporary "think for yourself" sort of message.
 
I had told Evangeline about the BBC series, and I told her that if she were interested, we could try to watch it once she had finished the books. I was disappointed to find that the BBC show ran for two series -- the first following "The White Mountains" fairly faithfully, and the second taking tremendous liberties with "The City of Gold and Lead," not just with the glowy green pyramids, but also by making the masters a friendly and congenial sort of master race who even have given their slaves a nightclub of their very own so they can relax and feel at home. (Christopher had depicted life in the masters' cities as hellish, with ovenlike temperatures, leaden poisonous air, and abusive masters. The average lifespan of a slave was about three years, tops.)
 
Bad enough that the second series isn't available on DVD or video at all. Worse still is that the BBC never filmed a series based on "The Pool of Fire," with the result that the free humans discover they have only a few years to drive the masters off the planet or perish, and we never get to see them make an attempt.
 
We've been watching the show in eight- or nine-minute segments, courtesy of the high speed Internet access we have at the university and one or two other places we go with the laptop. So far we've watched the entire first episode, and not only has Evangeline enjoyed it, so has my inner Cub Scout, and so has my 4-year-old.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

cortés

Evangeline doesn’t like Cortés very much.

 

With a trip to Mexico in the offing to attend their uncle’s wedding in September, we decided it would be a good idea to expose the girls to Mexican history and culture. So on a recent trip to the library, I checked out a couple history books about Cortés and a couple books of Mexican fairy tales and prepared for a summer of low-intensity homeschooling.

 

The main thing I remember about Hernando Cortés is that he was the conquistador who toppled Aztec civilization and led to the Spanish colonization of Mexico. I remember a few other bits, like the Aztecs cautiously welcoming him because they though he might be their god Queztlcoatl, but that’s about it. When we studied Cortés in sixth grade, my general impression was that he was a pretty great person because he had destroyed an evil empire and brought European civilization to the Americas.

 

Perhaps Evangeline is more sensitive to genocide than I was in sixth grade, or perhaps history has changed a bit, but she was upset to discover what he did. Though I’m sure she shares his disgust at human sacrifice, she was repulsed at the way he and his army carried off Aztec art to turn it into gold. She was appalled at his willingness to taking human life to save his skin, even the lives of his allies. And she was aghast at what he did to the Aztec civilization.

 

During the reign of Montezuma, Aztec civilization had reached a peak higher than anything in the Old World. Tenochtitlan had 150,000 people, making it more populous than any city in Europe. The priests had charted and knew the path of every star and planet in the night sky, could predict solar and lunar eclipses to the minute well in advance of when they came. The Aztecs had built themselves up from an alien tribe in the middle of Mexico into the most powerful empire in Central America. They had buildings of phenomenal beauty, had established their city on a swamp through a rather innovative form of architecture, and ― this was news to me ― actually had made public education compulsory, not just for boys but for girls as well.

 

So they were a prosperous people, at the top of their game, and then Cortés and his crew came in like a flight of miniature dragons, took the gold, smashed the Aztec gods and forced the people to convert to Christianity, allied themselves with the Tlaxacans, another warlike tribe the Aztecs had never conquered, and decimated Tenochtitlan.

 

And, of course, the Spaniards unwittingly introduced the smallpox virus to the Aztecs, which probably killed far more people than the big guns Cortés had brought.

 

Evangeline’s a sensitive and imaginative soul. I rather imagine she was able to picture quite well the fear, and the despair, that went through the Aztec people as their civilization came crashing down. I was going to let her read my copy of a book that presents the whole story in Aztec terms, but I think I’m going to pass on that after all. She needs a happier story instead.

hoodwinked

The Nova Bastille library showed “Hoodwinked” Monday afternoon as the first installment of its summer movie program.

 

Rachel was a little disappointed they had picked it for their first movie, since they had showed it last summer too, but it’s a good movie. It gives a humorous treatment to the popular Red Riding Hood fairy tale, by telling and retelling the story from the point of view of each major character: Red herself, the Big Bad Wolf, Granny, and even the woodcutter.

 

As a bonus, none of the characters is quite what you’d expect from the fairy tale as the Brothers Grimm popularized it, and the entire story takes place against the backdrop of corporate espionage under investigation by both the police and an investigate journalist who is played by one of the main characters.

 

Natasha saw a preview for the movie and disparaged it as something that wanted to be “Shrek” but couldn’t manage it. For myself, I loved the movie both times. I thought it was witty in the extreme, presents a strong female character in Red Riding Hood, and manages to go the entire movie without relying on potty humor or pretending to be deep, like “Shrek” did.

 

I also recognized the voices of John Belushi and Anne Hathaway ― not marquee stars, I suppose, but still fairly impressive for what I believe was an independent film effort.

 

Evangeline also was disappointed that they showed “Hoodwinked” again this year. She was at art camp, and would have loved to have seen the movie a second time. She immediately got on my case to buy a copy so she can watch it “lots of times.”

 

And that, of course, is why the good Lord invented allowance.

encore

My children love to sing, and I couldn’t be prouder of them for it.

We played a game of Encore on Sunday night with a friend of ours and her son, and my girls performed in style. They knew theme songs from TV shows that were canceled decades before they were born (Schlemiel! Schlimazel!), they knew songs about folk heroes like John Henry and Casey Jones, they knew songs about their country, and they knew songs from Broadway.

I’ve lost track of how many songs my girls know. Even though she won’t be five until this fall, Rachel has amazed me by knowing the words to “Blowin’ in the Wind” and by singing show tunes from “Les Misérables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and even “Man of La Mancha.” Evangeline’s pretty much the same.

Music, I have come to realize, is as fundamentally a part of being human as speech itself is. We tap our heels, we whistle, we clap our hands, we snap our fingers and we stomp our feet. And we sing.

Or at least we used to. Anymore these days, music is a spectator thing. We listen to iPods and radio stations, but if someone starts to sing along, we usually tell them to shut up, because they’re ruining the song.

It used to be at a ballgame that everyone would rise to her feet and sing the national anthem before the game would start. It was a communal effort, a joint profession of allegiance to something bigger than ourselves, something that united us all under one flag, no matter our race, heritage or class. Nowadays we all shuffle our feet and listen as one person sings it over the intercom, or (what’s worse) we stand patiently as a recording plays.

When I was younger, my parents’ church sung hymns that had been around since before the English language. I wouldn’t have complained if the organ had caught fire, and I wouldn’t have minded something more interesting than “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations,” but even if the songs were dull and the organ was uninspiring, worship was something everyone took part in. If you had been around long enough, you didn’t even need to look at the hymnal to know the words.

Good luck finding a similar experience today. It’s true the music is a little fresher than “Nearer my God to Thee,” and the electric guitars and drum sets are guaranteed to wake you up rather than lull you into a coma, but something’s been lost. Watch the congregation, and you’ll find that more and more people are listening to the worship team, and if anyone’s singing, it’s often a half-hearted thing done through half-shut mouths. The music is louder than when I was a boy, but fewer people are joining in.

It’s not quite the same thing, is it?

As a culture, we are losing something important. When songs attain that coveted nirvana where children learn them from their parents, without benefit of music or lyrics sheet, they create a solid anchor in the past for each generation that comes. They become a medium for passing knowledge, sharing history, and creating identity.

My girls have laughed to some of the same songs that entertained a young Laura Ingalls Wilder on the frontier a hundred fifty years ago, and they’ve sung some of the same tunes that John Lennon and Pete Seeger used to protest the Vietnam War when I was still learning to crawl. These songs are part of their heritage, and they’re part of what makes them American.

They’re a part of our identity, and we’re letting it slip a way.

Monday, July 09, 2007

put on a happy face

I had the weirdest dream last night.
 
As everyone knows, I have psoriasis over a good portion of my body. It's on my scalp, my arms, my legs, my back, and a few places on my belly. It's actually clearing up -- slowly -- with a topical lotion I've been applying, but it remains highly visible on parts of my body not covered by clothes.
 
In any event, lsat night I dreamed that I was a doctor. I suspect I was some sort of dermatologist, since the people who kept coming to me for medical help were all suffering from some sort of skin condition like mine.
 
For reasons that remain unclear to me, my reaction to every patient was to draw a smiley face on their psoriasis patches with a magic marker. Everyone thought it was hilarious, except for my supervisor. (The principal at my daughter's school.)

'follow me'

When Jesus called his disciples, he told them "Follow me." Given that he was physically present, there was an immediate and obvious sense to that command that his disciples would have had no problem understanding: Go where he goes, listen to him, see what his priorities are, and make them your own. What exactly does it mean for believers today?

Seeking justice for the weak, caring for orphans and widows, opposing the proud, serving the meek and lowly, and so on, are all major parts of gospel, much moreso than they are given credit for in today's evangelical churches. Jesus indicates that the Samaritan of the parable has eternal life because of things like caring for the wounded man on the road to Jericho; he warns that even religious people who do not clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, and so on will be cast into the darkness, and so on.

The major mistake of the social gospel of the early 20th century was that it stressed the moral duties of a Christian, sometimes to the exclusion of the faith's supernatural aspect, reducing Christianity to a system of ethics. On the other hand, one of the major failings of evangelical/fundamentalist/Pentecostal thinking of the last century or so has been its Gnostic emphasis on saving people's souls and placing too little regard on more earthly matters like those listed above.

The failing of the much-maligned social gospel, at least as I see it, is that it comes across as an ethical or moral system of values, rather than as a relationship with people; i.e., it becomes a condescending sort of piety based on what we do to help "those poor people" rather than the true gospel of Christ, which sees other people -- even "sinners" -- as Christ, and exalts the weak and lowly as people we can learn great things from, like when Jesus upholds the poor woman who offered two copper coins as an example of generosity, commends a professional killer and various lepers for their faith, compares a socially outcast shepherd to God himself, and so on.

The big thing in evangelical and Pentecostal circles is the "personal relationship" with Jesus. Perhaps I'm being difficult, but what exactly is a "personal relationship" with God like? God never writes, he never calls, and he never sends me flowers. For all I know, he's seeing someone else on the side, broken off our relationship, and decided we're through.

I'm supposed to see him as some sort of role model for relationships, but the truth is that I hear more regularly from my younger brother in Indiana than I hear from God. My brother at least makes the effort to call me once a month or so, or to send me weird e-mails that only he and I think are funny. The whole idea of a "personal relationship" with God is something that doesn't really make sense to me, at least as I understand the concept of a relationship. At times I'm sure the application of that concept in the Western church has become downright chummy if not irreverent in the way its abandoned any sort of reverence and awe for the Almighty.

ups unfair to same-sex couples

When New Jersey recognized same-sex civil unions, the language of the law specified that couples in a civil union had all the same rights and privileges of married couples. All that was different is the term. Pretty clear, right?

Not to UPS. The delivery service has decided that it is not going to extend health benefits to couples in civil unions, because the law doesn't require it. Any such policy, it argues, would require concessions at the collective bargaining table.

So let's get this straight: The law doesn't apply if we don't want it to, and even if the law didn't say point-blank what it says in black and white, we still can use the letter of the law to disregard its spirit, and save money by not doing the right thing.

I'm done with UPS until they set things right.

america-hating liberals

I can't believe the rank negativity I keep hearing from some liberals in regards to the war in Iraq.

In the years since the Bush administration began its initiative to remove Saddam Hussein from power, we've seen the emergence of a healthy, democratic society in Iraq with deep respect for personal freedoms and artistic expression. The Islamofascist groups like al Qaeda that practically ran the place under Saddam have disappeared, creating a largely secular society with tolerance for other belief systems. (And do you think it's any coincidence that more than half the boys born in Iraq since the invastion have been named "George?")

Iraq has become our nearest and dearest ally in the Mideast, second only to Israel, and the peace and prosperity it's enjoying have led to democratic elecitons in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Khazakstan, just to name a few. The proliferation of democracy and Western values in the Mideast also has encouraged Hamas to lay down arms and seek a peaceful relationship with Israel; and the few Taliban who didn't disappear after the invasion of Afghanistan have emerged, shamefaced, from hiding, and joined the initiatives in that country to bring lasting stability.

Honestly, we all know how much liberals hate America, but they shouldn't let that blind them to all the good things our current president has done for the world.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

defeaning silence of outrage

There is a deafening silence of outrage over Libby's sentence commutation from some of the same voices that screamed (with some justification) over the pardon Clinton gave convicted financier Marc Richard in 2000. And I expect that many of the people outraged with the charge and conviction of perjury against Libby are some of the same people who defended the perjury charge and impeachment proceedings against Clinton during Zippergate -- and vice-versa.

John Farmer, a former New Jersey state attorney general and now a political columnist for the Star-Ledger, has a fairly good analysis of the Libby situation, I think. (And he does it without resorting to demeaning polemic or character assassination, no less.)

First he notes that the other aspects of Libby's sentence stand, including a quarter-million dollar fine, which he already has paid and no doubt will be reimbursed for by one fund-raiser or another, a book deal, or something else.

At the conclusion of the trial, Fitzgerald noted that Libby met with NY Times reporter Judith Miller at the behest of Dick Cheney. Cheney's involvement in the incident was obscured by Libby's perjury. So what did Fitzgerald do? He did what any sensible prosecutor would do -- and as Bush himself reportedly said, Fitzgerald is a first-rate prosecutor -- he went after the small fry, so that the small fry would in turn provide the evidence for an investigation of the bigger fish, Cheney.

Cheney's invovlement in the effort remains speculation in part, of course, although Libby indicated that he his meeting with reporters to out Valerie Plame may have received the personal sanction of Cheney. And Cheney had some reason to out Plame, since her husband had written an op-ed piece in the NYT that discredited the administration's claim that Saddam Hussein had been trying to buy yellowcake from Nigeria, a claim that the administration had been using to justify the war in Iraq, a war that Cheney had been pushing from the get-go.

So it makes sense, if Fitzgerald has reason to suspect Cheney is behind the outting, to get Libby on a smaller charge, in order to get information on Cheney. And it makes sense in turn for Bush to commute Libby's sentence (if not ultimately to pardon it) in exchange for Libby's continued silence.

Even if no law technically was broken in outting Plame as a formerly undercover intelligence agent, as opposed to an active one, it was still a stupid thing to do. First, it ends her effectiveness for any future operations; secondly, it exposes other agents she worked with, the place she worked, and the techniques used to greater scrutiny, and limits their effectiveness; and thirdly, it's just plain petty and should be beneath the office of the vice president.

For balance' sake, a friend of mine refers me to the American Spectator, which has a mouthful to say on the subject, from a conservative viewpoint. For my part, I always taught my students that if they couldn't make an argument without personal attacks and juvenile behavior, then they didn't have one. I think that's a standard we need to enforce more vigorously in the public sphere as well.

Given the ad hominen attacks -- like "publicity-mad demoness Valerie Plame" and "full on publicity hound Mr. Fitzgerald" -- this article has no bearing on intelligent and reasoned discussion. Comments from "The American Spectator" are hereby stricken from the record.

 

that 10 percent

Essentially I reached the conclusion about four to six weeks ago that Christianity is about 99 percent bullshit -- not just how it is practiced today, by prosperity gospel charlatans and Prayer of Jabez nonsense, but the very thing itself. Our doctrines, our mythology, our concepts of God and sin, our attitudes toward the Bible, and so on, by and large would make an excellent fertilizer if someone could figure out how to bag it.
 
That one percent, though, not only is impossible to let go of, I find that it won't let go of me.
 
What's in that 1 percent is Christ, and his resurrection. It's been said with some truth that if God didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him. I don't believe anyone could invent Jesus. I've seen some attempts, and they're always pathetic. They make no sense, or they represent perfectly one philosophy, one viewpoint, one nation, or one ideology. The Jesus depicted in the gospels is impossible to pigeonhole on politics, economics, taxes, education, environmental policy, or anything. He is so freaking subversive, so determined to embrace all people yet still managing to offend everyone he shouldn't, that he defies the ability of humanity to imagine.
 
As for his Resurrection ... well, Occam's Razor suggests that the simpler explanation is probably the true one. And so we ask ourselves, which is more likely: that this group of incessantly bickering and fighting disciples willfully perpetrated a fraud of unprecedented scale on the world, gave their lives in some of the most horrible ways imaginable, and no one brought out a body to confound the fraud ... or that Jesus actually rose from the dead?
 
My money's on the Resurrection because, quite frankly, it's simpler and less miraculous.
 
But none of that is entirely germaine to the discussion of church. I know the standard explanations given for the expectation of church attendance, and I'm really not interested in rehashing them. I'm trying to take a step back and ask what it is that I really want from church, if that's a reasonable expectation, and if so, how I can go about realizing those goals in church; and I'm trying to find my way to offering what I have to offer in a way that works with this church and its structure.
 
Does that make sense?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

keeping it kosher

I knew a Jewish woman in college who was very critical of our meal plan for not having more kosher options, and yet who thought nothing of eating pork chow mein when we were at a Chinese restaurant. Her explanation -- in total seriousness -- was that everyone knows that pork is kosher when it's at a Chinese restaurant. Perhaps there is a similar exemption for hot dogs; i.e., they're always kosher at a Fourth of July barbecue.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

time to face facts

I might as well face it. I can't worship in church. The dynamic is all wrong for me, and always has been. I worship much better in a small, intimate group, and worship best of all when I'm being the creator God made to be, putting words to paper and crafting new stories, new characters, and new ideas.
 
I might as well face it. There is almost no sense of belonging for me in church. The size of the congregation is so large, the busyness is so acute that I have as much sense of connection with others as Tom Hanks stranded on a desert island. Except he had a volleyball.
 
I might as well face it. I haven't heard one thing in a sermon in church that's stuck with me, for about fourteen years now. I've heard great speakers, lousy speakers and speakers who fell somewhere in-between, but even the great speakers haven't given me much to think about once the service is over. It all gets swept aside in the announcements and the post-service isolation. Talking to people nonstop for thirty to forty minutes at a time is the worst way imagineable to teach, and yet churches nationwide at least swear by it. I learn more about God, about myself, about my fellow wanderers, pilgrims and sinners, in sixty minutes of reading a good book than I learn in sixty weeks of sermons.
 
So why do I bother going?
 
 

child time redux

My heart broke Sunday for a girl I don't know at a park in Linwood, N.J.
 
I was at the park with the girls while we were visiting Natasha's Aunt Beatrice for the Fourth of July weekend. I had been pushing the girls on a spinning tire swing, after running around the playground roaring and being monsterish so they could scream with delight and run away from me.
 
I was taking a break, watching them play pirates on a playset they had coverted into a pirate ship, when a woman and her daughter got out of their sport-utility vehicle. The girl ran to the tire swing, and promptly was rebuffed by her mother. "Go play somewhere else. I'm not going to push you."
 
Ouch.
 
I'd like to think that the woman had some hand injury that kept her from pushing the swing, but her hands worked just fine. I saw her text-messaging on her cell phone the whole time they were at the park. I wanted to shake her, to scream, "She's not going to want your attention forever, go play with her now while she still wants you!" but I didn't.
 
Instead, I went over to my girls, the good pirates who make breakfast for other people and don't plunder other vessels, and became a bad pirate to chase them around. They laughed, they screamed with delight, and they ran away and around the playground for a good twenty minutes or more. I was a bad pirate in many ways, avasting and shiver-me-timbersing with the worst of them in accent and in behavior, but I had a great time, and my kids did too.
 
I just hope the woman I saw realizes what she's missing before it's too late. Her cell phone is something she'll probably replace in another year or so, especially now that the iPhone has arrived with even more useless bells and whistles, but time with a child is something no one can upgrade or replace. Once it's gone, it's lost forever.

child time

The girls saw their Uncle Kevin this weekend, a first for Rachel and an effective first for her sister.

Evangeline first met Uncle Kevin a little more than five years ago, when he married his first wife. She was about two years old and went to New Orleans for the wedding with her mother, staying with my aunt and uncle and giving my mother a good reason to visit her older sister for the first time in years.
 
I was, I admit, a little uncertain how well the girls would hit it off with their uncle. The last time I saw Kevin was in 1998, at my own wedding, and I had seen him only once before then. I had no idea how he would react to having kids around, and I know from experience that the girls, particularly Evangeline, can be shy around new people.
 
Things got off slowly at first. We arrived at the house of Natasha's Aunt Beatrice a little past noon, and were joined an hour or so later by Uncle Kevin and his fiancee, and Natasha's grandmother and greatgrandmother. The girls, particularly Evangeline, played games by themselves and did little to socialize with their relatives, however we urged them.
 
Around four o'clock, the water pistols came out, and that's when things started to get better.
 
I'm not sure who started it -- I know I had a role in it -- but before long, the girls had taken a liking to shooting Uncle Kevin and Aunt B, and their father. And Uncle Kevin grabbed a gallon jug full of tap water, and started throwing it at people, particularly at Aunt B, although he threw smaller amounts at the girls. The wall had been broken.
 
It came tumbling down the rest of the way the next morning, when the girls got into a knock-down, no holds barred pillow fight with their uncle. I wondered from time to time if the air mattress would burst, or if the pillows would, but everything held together the entire time, including Uncle Kevin, despite cries of "Sit on him, Rachel!" and everything else.
 
The momentum of the pillow fight carried over to Tuesday morning, when the girls ganged up on me. Somehow I became Bizarro, Rachel became Wonder Woman, and Evangeline became Jump Girl, with the two superheroines determined to bring me to justice, even when I stole the Tinkerbell pillow Magic Lasso of Truth.
 
Lots of fun. I wish every parent and uncle could know the selfless wonder of whalloping young children with pillows.

atlantic city

This Monday just past marked my first visit ever to the Atlantic City casinos. To borrow a phrase from Alan Quartermain, I'm waiting to be impressed.


I wasn't there to gamble. In fact, about ten minutes after we entered the casino where my mother-in-law was staying, I realized that I had a pocketful of change that I had left back at the house when I knew we were going to a casino with hordes of hungry slot machines. It had never occurred to me to bring the coins.

But walking into the casino, I was struck, well, by everything. The place was one vast assault on the senses. There was loud music playing overhead, bright lights coming from the gambling areas, a man walking around on stilts and greeting people as they came into the hotel, garishly colored carpet and walls, and of course the auditory onslaught of the slot machines themselves.

Later I saw a woman dressed as a statue and a man carrying a fishing rod and wearing fuzzy slippers, with a plastic shark affixed to his rear end. As I said to Evangeline, the whole thing is designed to ravish your senses and keep you off balance so you don't keep enough of your wits about you to do the math and save your money.

On the other side of the casinos was the beach, which I must confess was much more to my liking than the twenty-story monstrosities that loomed over it in a never-ending row.

I don't get the appeal to gambling. I understand the allure of easy money, and I understand why a number of cities see legalized gambling as a cure for high property taxes. Amid all the lights and the glow and the simulated ringing of slot machines, it seems glamorous and it holds money just out of reach like grapes before Tantalos. But I don't get the appeal personally.

Evangeline wanted to know what was going on, and why she wasn't allowed into the gambling areas, so I explained how casinos essentially offer a chance at easy money but always rake in far more than they give out, that gambling is an essentially predatory industry that taps the elderly, the needy and the desparate for its wealth, and that it's a fairly common (though not standard, by any means) for people to lose their houses to cover their gambling debts, and that for all the purported good the casinos have done for Atlantic City, they've also fed the underside of the city, with increased drug and alcohol abuse, increases in poverty, and so on.

And because I wanted to paint a more balanced picture than just the one side, I tried to point out that legalized gambling has helped Atlantic City relieve the tax burden on its populace, although that only works because it's a destination gambling resort.

As more places try to tap into the perceived lucrative market of legalized gambling, all they'll end up doing is redistributing the burden within their own areas. (After all, who's going to drive somewhere to lose their money if they can do it at home?)

And I told Evangeline that casinos have a list of people who they must escort off the premises if they are found gambling, because of a registered gambling problem.

Still, as she considered all this, Evangeline said gravely that she would put an end to gambling, if she could. (Great. I've created a moralist.) Alas, child, it is not that easy. Once something becomes legal, it is virtually impossible to make it illegal without considerable opposition, and even making it illegal usually just means driving it underground.

This struggle between finding the world as it is and working toward what we believe it should be is something that should occupy us for the whole of our lives.



Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.


knees

I took Evangeline for a bike ride this evening after dinner. With my bike still out of commission, this meant my usual trick of walking and sometimes running after her.
 
Two years ago, when Evangeline was in kindergarten, I gave myself bursitis by giving her a piggyback ride up a steep hill while visiting a Revolutionary encampment in Jockey Hollow. Since then, my right knee has been more inclined than before toward objecting some efforts to walk. In the past few weeks, it's twice nearly thrown me to the ground, once walking down the street when I stepped wrong on the sidewalk, and the second time when I tried to do the chicken dance.
 
Today, I was chasing her across the street, not one but both knees acted as though someone had just kicked me in the kneecaps. It was all I could do to stop from falling down in the crosswalk, and I walked funny for several minutes afterward. Even now, five hours later, they still hurt a little.
 
What's up with that?

no longer young, still stupid

On Monday this week, I was reminded once again that my youth is beating a hasty retreat before the advancing forces of middle age.
 
When I was growing up in Saunders Station, Pa., one of the highlights of the year was the annual pilgrimage to Kennywood Park, the self-professed roller coaster capital of the world. With perennial favorites like the Jackrabbit, the Thunderbolt, and the Racer, it was the place to go. Even all-out losers like Melvin Fenwick, the boy who got his underpants caught in the Velcro of his shoes in sixth grade and whom it took three teachers seven minutes to set him loose -- yes, even he went to Kennywood.
 
I haven't been to Kennywood since perhaps the first year I was married to Natasha, but I still have fond memories of the many summer hours I spent there, including on rides like the Enterprise, which turned me upside-down and relied on centrifugal force to keep me there. Just reminiscing about these rides has me looking forward to this August, when we hope to make the journey from Iowa to Pittsburgh and I expect to initiate Evangeline and possibly Rachel into these sacred mysteries.
 
Alas, the events of Monday suggest that I may not handle them as well as I once did.
 
On Monday, Natasha's Aunt Beatrice took the four of us on a visit to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, N.J. There she treated the girls to a ride on a helicopter, and bought $100 worth of tickets for the rides, which included a carousel, a roller coaster or two, and the other sort of Tilt-and-Whirl amusements you would expect to find at a tourist trap marring an otherwise pleasant beach. (Though to be honest, the casinos were far worse.)
 
The four of us -- Aunt B sat this one out, having fared poorly with the kiddie roller coaster she went on with Rachel -- went on a ride that goes along a circular track, spinning the cars wildly in one direction and then another. I've been on many such rides in my youth, and always enjoyed it.
 
The first time the car changed its spin, I felt my stomach heave viciously. The soft pretzel I had eaten a piece of an hour earlier began to clamor for fresh air. I closed my eyes, shutting out all sight of the wildly careening landscape, and tried to imagine myself astride a giant snail, sitting on a lawnchair reading the newspaper, stuck at a traffic light -- anything that didn't involve motion. I imagined that this exercise would help, and I suppose it did, marginally.
 
When the ride finished, I climbed out of the car, and took hold of the railing to steady myself. The world was still, and so was I, and all was well. The pretzel repeated its request for fresh air and a view of the outside world, but my resolve held. I walked with my family to a three-dimensional maze of tunnels, steps and slides, a giant Habitrail for children who think they are hamsters, and watched my children disappear into its labyrinthine corridors. All was steady.
 
And then, five minutes later, Aunt B clapped her hands and walked toward the maze. The pretzel made its request, the motion carried, and the unprecedented happened: I threw up after an amusement park ride.
 
I haven't given up hope for a Kennywood visit this August, but I will say this: When the girls finished off the evening with a ride on the carousel, I stood on the ground and watched.

uniter in chief

I recently was told that President Bush has been trying to unite the different factions in the country, and not just in hating him. He also has worked with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) on the recently failed immigration reform initiative.

Doubtless I'll be stomped to death for this if I'm incorrect, but I believe this is the first major initiative of the president's where he has reached across the aisle and worked with members of the other party. Six-and-a-half years into your presidency is a little late to start uniting.

Given the tone of his primary campaign in 2000, given the scorched-earth tone of the presidential election of 2004, and given his go-it-alone attitude on everything from backing out of the Kyoto Accords to deposing a foreign government against the express wishes of the international community and the United Nations (and given his oft-demonstrated willingness to shut out advisers who disagree with him or who offer advice he doesn't want to hear) ... you can count me among those who say he's not a uniter. I'll go a step further and say he's a lousy president too, all things considered.

I'll give the president credit, and say that (by and large) he is trying to do what he thinks is right. The problem is that too often, he's come at things with a with-me-or-against-me attitude, has not put forth a convincing case for his beliefs or attitudes, and still has expected people to see the perceived innate rightness of his actions. You can't govern like that, at least not in a democratically elected government like ours, where you need to build consensus, and persuade both allies and opponents, and yet that is how he consistently has tried to govern.

His presidency did get off to a good start, I suppose, with solid support for initiatives like No Child Left Behind and some of the other changes he made. Whatever capital he started out with, and it apparently included enough that some Democrats crossed the aisle to work with on those aforementioned efforts early in his first term, he's had one series of one high-profile mistep after another, not just with the war but domestically as well: the Miers appointment, the Gonzales appointment, and the recent immigration fiasco.

Of course, this is nothing new. If you look at Bush's record prior to the presidency, you'll see a man who consistently just squeaked by. Take someone like that and give him the most powerful office in the world, and he'll still just barely squeak by. The difference is that it's a much more spectacular squeak.

Bush had more clout on Capitol Hill early in his presidency and could get more accomplished because the GOP controlled both houses of Congress, and things were running in a more or less parliamentarian manner; i.e., the Legislative Branch backed many of the initiatives of the Executive Branch rather than Checks-and-Balance'ing them.

With the unpopularity of this war growing out of control and the lack of strategy beyond the "Depose Saddam" stage becoming clearer day by day, his rank-and-file support has been disappearing like rats from a sinking ship.

I'm hoping our next president is someone who really is going to unite us, someone who's going to be able to wave a banner and get the nation to rally together -- someone who won't fabricate a common bogeyman, someone who won't play to the lowest common denominator, and someone who takes a stand for something positive instead of standing against other things.