Saturday, October 25, 2008

canto i

Probably one of the most important things to remember as we started reading "Inferno" is that it's about a man who is going through a mid-life crisis.

The first canto of "Inferno" sets the story at halfway through Dante's life, roughly around the time he was 35. Dante's family were associated with the White Guelfs, which political alliance had fallen out of favor with the ruling class in Florence, forcing him into exile away from his wife and children. To some extent, though the poem is thoroughly imbued with religious meaning, the despair that marks this first canto reflects the sense of grievous wrong Dante feels he has suffered and his hopes that justice one day will prevail, both spiritually and politically.

The canto begins in a dark wood, where Dante has been suffering deeply, and where he encounters a brace of wild animals. First, a beautiful leopard blocks his way for all that it is enchanting to look at; secondly, a fierce lion; and lastly a terrifying she-wolf also oppose him. The animals all keep Dante from mounting the hill that he is trying to climb, presumably to escape the fearsome woods and gain some perspective on where he is.

It's a common device to use animals to represent either an attitude that matches that animal's demeanor, or at least a person who possesses that attitude. The notes in my copy of "Infero" mention that these animals all represent political powers -- the leopard, Florence; the lion, the royal house of France; and the wolf, no less than the papal see. Yet the same three also correspond to mortal vices: worldly pleasure, ambition, and avarice.

At this point, Virgil arrives and explains to Dante that he can never make it up the hill, because the she-wolf (Rome and avarice) eats all who pass that way and becomes only the hungrier for having eaten. Dante's only escape is downward, through the depths of hell, where he will witness the torments of those confined to eternal fire; but of greater importance to the poet Dante, it seems, is the coming of the Greyhound that will destroy the she-wolf and return her to hell from whence she was set loose, and that will deliver Italy.

The writing about this Greyhound is decidedly messianic in style, to the point that the greyhound feeds on virtues like wisdom, love and "manfulness," which fits the other apocalyptic imagery of the canto. But it also works on a political level, apparently, since it may refer to any number of other political figures from Dante's life, especially given the rather limited range of the Greyhound's dominion.

I've always found Dante's choice of Virgil for his guide to be interesting, but in many regards it makes sense. Dante was Italian, and Virgil himself was an Italian, from the Golden Age of the Roman Empire. As a scholar, Dante doubtless had studied Virgil's "Aeneied" extensively, and in any event, he refers to himself as Virgil's disciple and student.

One thing that is mildly worth noting: Virgil's epic "Aeneid" also depicted a trip to the Underworld, as Aeneas sought counsel from the shade his father Anchises, as the Greek hero Odysseus also once had done. Anchises spoke of a coming golden age for Aeneas' descendants. The terms of Virgil's prophecy were clearly intended to describe Augustus Caesar, but some people have tried to interpret them around Christ.

Which of course is only fitting. The messianic expectation is archetypal, common to all people; just as we all believe that things used to better Once Upon a Time, we all have the hope that One Day Things Will Be Better Again.

And I suppose, when we're in a situation where our hopes and dreams have been thwarted by political machinations and bad luck, as many of Dante's had been, such an expectation and hope only makes sense.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

blogging through 'inferno'

If you read back over the past few years that I've been blogging, you're quickly going to reach a few conclusions:
  1. I write a lot.
  2. I write about a lot of things.
  3. Some of the things that I write about, I write about a lot, like a man picking at a sore, or like a man who is hopelessly in love. (Sometimes even like a man hopelessly in love with picking at a sore.)
  4. If something about my writing has struck your fancy, it can be hard to deal with all the other crap on the blog to follow the thread all the way through.
I decided tonight that I want to try something different. Starting tomorrow, I want to blog exclusively about Dante's "Inferno," one canto a night, until I have finished. Then, perhaps, I will continue through the rest of "The Divine Comedy," although the last time I tried reading Dante's masterpiece, I never made it more than halfway through "Paradiso."

Dante's epic poem is a phenomenal piece of literature. Although he did not invent the doctrine of hell, nor even create the doctrines and images expressed in it, there can be no doubt that it is his vision of hell; his beautifully haunting pictures of the circles and cornices of hell, filled with the damned who are buffeted by gale-force winds, submerged in muck, burned in fire or frozen in ice; that has defined hell in popular understanding for all the centuries since.

Some of the details are changed -- Satan is more commonly seen as king in hell, rather than a prisoner there, each of his three mouths chewing on a different traitor -- but our grotesquely exaggerated sense of elaborate punishments, too ironically chosen for the person's defining sins, has its deepest root in Dante's poem. The Wood of Suicides appears in "Sandman"; Dr. Strange once led Marvel's band of mutants through the Nine Circles in the pages of "Uncanny X-men," and authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle were once inspired to journey through hell themselves, in their own "Inferno."

Starting tomorrow, I'm going to hell. I hope you come with me.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

the big easy

Finishing up here in New Orleans tonight. The city has been absolutely amazing, and I've loved how relaxed a lot of the city is where music and entertainers are concerned. Even now, months from Carnival and Mardi Gras, you can't go anywhere without encountering live jazz music, often from amateur musicians playing for tips.

It's been tremendous. We've loved pretty much every minute of it.

Of course, tonight we visited Bourbon Street for dinner with the extended family. Probably a place I would have enjoyed more if I were 14 years younger and didn't have impressionable young girls with me.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

waiting for hammerfall

The Dow is around 8500 now. So I think it's a fair question; what do we do for work, if layoffs happen?

Me, I'm simultaneously looking for work and trying to build my free-lance client base so I can have the bases covered either way. And if my clientele builds, theoretically I can recommend friends for other work, like web design, photography or illustration that are related to what I do but outside my ability set.

And because Natasha and I own our own house, live in a city with a high demand for rental property, and still are making our mortgage payments, we've talked briefly about letting the spare room or -- if we can find a way to make it work -- potentially the entire house, though I'd prefer to avoid that alternative if we can.

The big thing right now is to reduce expenses however we can. We make our own bread, and as many of our meals from scratch as we can, which has kept our food bill fairly steady the past year, particularly with the garden providing beans, tomatoes, and some other vegetables. I've been relying on the library more than ever for books and movies, and expect that if it comes to it during the winter, I'll probably spend most of the day there as well, using the WiFi connection to get my work done in a building where I don't have to foot the heating bill myself.

Some friends of ours came up with a great way to reduce their expenses, by sharing a house with another family. It gives them all full access to an entire house (for the most part), for half the price. Utilities are cut in two, food becomes cheaper per person because of the economies of scale, and the hosting family gets extra money for their mortgage while the second family is saving on their rent.

One perspective that I have found helps is to consider that everything you buy assumes the intrinsic value of the money you spent buying it. Thus, if I spend $14 on a pair of pants, those pants are worth $14 even if I can't wear them anymore. So, rather than throwing them out (and tossing my money into a landfill) or simply recycling them (thereby tossing my money into a recycling bin), I find some other use for the material, to get more bang for my buck.

Thus I have a rug made of old jeans; a tote bag also made from denim that saves me 2 cents every time I use it at the supermarket; a blanket-in-progress made from socks and other clothes too worn out to be useful as clothes, but quite warm as a blanket.

Our trash output has dropped to one garbage can every month, or less; we spend no money on fertilizer, because we compost so much; and I'm in the process of turning an old vanity sink into a game cabinet because I saw a new use for the wood and basic structure, with a few alterations.

If more of us had this attitude, and for a longer time -- it used to be standard practice for Americans, as in the rest of the world as well -- we probably wouldn't be in quite the dire straits that we're in now.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

there's no one as irish ...

... as Barack O'Bama


I just realized yesterday that when I applied for a certain position at the university, I attached a cover letter for a different position I was applying for elsewhere at the university.

Somehow, I don't think I'm going to get the interview.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

random memory

Back in 1987, I attended the former Edmund Ignatius Rice College in Rotorua, New Zealand, while I was living there as an exchange student with AFS.

I have a lot of memories of the place, from David Baines beating up two of the fourth-formers who had been giving me a hard time; and Mark Wirihana teaching me how to use a taiaha; down to learning the Hail Mary, despite being Protestant and saying "mumble mumble mumble" during chapel whenever we were called upon to pray in unison. But one memory stands out right now, for whatever reason.

My sixth-form homeroom teacher was Brother Philip, a decent enough guy, all things considered. He was long on patience, which you had to be at an all-boys high school that was about to merge with an all-girls high school and your job was one that probably would face the ax when the music stopped. Actually, you had to be long on patience in being a teacher at an all-boys high school.

One fine afternoon, at the end of the school day, I took it upon myself to stack all the desks in Brother Philip's room. I would pick up one, and lay it flat atop another. I would then pick up a third, and carefully balance its feet atop the feet of the upended desk. After that came a fourth desk, which also would be placed, upside-down, so that in short order there were four desks stacked together, nearly touching the ceiling.

Now repeat the process until every last desk in the room has been placed into these rather awkward arrangements.

Just as I began to survey my work, it suddenly hit me: School wasn't over, and it was time for maths class. So I grabbed my bookbag, exited through the door and went down the hallway into Ms. Gosnell's class, where we were about to have a test. It didn't even occur to me to go through the door that joined the two rooms, which is probably just as well, considering what happened next.

About ten minutes into the test, Brother Philip entered the room, looking slightly aggrieved. He walked over to Ms. Goswell, spoke to her in hushed tones for a minute, and after she shook her head in dismay, left the room as quietly as he had entered.

A day or two later it hit me that he had been trying to figure out who had left him with such a mess to straighten out. At the time, I was hard at work on surds or the Pythagorean theorem or some other bit of math that I had mastered a year or two earlier back in the States, so while I registered his presence in the room, it never occurred to me to snicker or giggle, which surely would have given me away.

If they were asked, none of my classmates ratted me out. And I never told a soul that it had been me. Until now.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, October 06, 2008

small acts of decency

Next month my friend Shelly is turning 40.

She's going through a difficult time right now, separated from her wife, marginalized by her own parents, and feeling at times quite alone in the world. She's my best friend; I've known her for 20 years, more than half my lifetime. So I sent her a note and asked her if she wanted to get together next month to celebrate her birthday.

You would have thought from her reaction that I had just paid off her mortgage.

My friend Walks in the Rain, who I am sure will keep me from ever getting conceited or feeling special about myself, recently told me, "Congratulations, you're a decent human being. which makes you above average." It calls to mind the many times I have failed even these basic acts of decency, and how far below the standard I really am.

How can we stand to live like this, where a simple kindness is above average? How can we bear to look at ourselves in the mirror?


A friend of mine is planning to get married next year, and not surprisingly, she's getting some pressure from family to keep it traditional.

Well, bollocks to that. Couples should do what works for them, and never mind what their parents think. Wear a purple wedding dress, wear ripped or stone-washed jeans, or wear red-orange fezes. Whatever you like, whatever works for you, it's all fine. It's your wedding day, and you should enjoy yourselves.

We kept our own wedding pretty simple -- six groomsmen and a groomsmaid, plus five bridesmaids and two bridesmen -- but I wish in many ways it had been even simpler. By the time the wedding rolled around, I would have been more than happy to drop at least one of my groomsmen. My brother and his wife kept their wedding party to just themselves, and their guests strictly to family.

I'd also have settled for more unusual. Some couples get married in an underground chapel in the Crystal Cave, just outside Hellertown, Pa., on Halloween. That would be amazing, though the wedding party would be small.

One of the traditional items is the Unity candle, where the parents of the bride and groom light candles to represent their grown children, which the children bring together to light one large candle to symbolize their new life together. We didn't do that. Instead we celebrated Communion together, just the two of us. We also took our marriage vows from the issue of the Fantastic Four where John Storm and Alicia Masters got married.

Another friend of mine, when he got married, he and his wife did air Communion. Ken's explanation was that he and his wife had planned to take Communion together. Unfortunately, the person in charge of Communion had forgotten to place either element in the appropriate place, with the result that they had to "fake it." They went through the motions of taking Communion, drinking nonexistent juice from empty cups, and eating nonexistent bread from empty trays.

Do whatever works for you, even if it means you have to fake it.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

a chain letter for good luck

Do not throw this letter away. It has the power to bring you good luck and prosperity; failing to follow its directions could lead to disaster. This letter has been around the world nineteen times and has been translated into twenty-three languages.

It began in late 1864, when it was dictated to Mary Todd Lincoln, U.S. President Lincoln's wife, through a medium, by the spirit of her late son Tadd Lincoln. Despite Mary Lincoln's great belief in the spiritual world, her husband would not let her follow its instructions, and early in 1865, President Lincoln was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth. Mary Lincoln went mad with grief and eventually was consigned to an asylum.

After President Lincoln's assassination, the letter was discovered by his vice president and successor, President Andrew Johnson. President Johnson neglected the letter and was impeached, but at the last moment he remembered the letter, and sent out 10 copies to various heads of state and childhood friends, and he was acquitted by one vote.

This is not a hoax; the chain letter has power from the spirit world. Hundreds of people have ignored it and suffered the consequences. In 1892, Pierre Jean Hugo received a copy of the French version of the letter and threw it out, and broke his leg the next day after falling down the stairs. A neighbor of his, Francois Duchatellier, also received a copy. Monsieur Duchatellier sent out ten copies and a week later inherited a chicken farm outside Digne. His great-grandson later sold the chicken farm for $10 million to Frank Perdue of Perdue Chickens.

In the early twentieth century, the archbishop of Sarajevo received a copy of the letter, and thinking himself immune to such letters, rejected it. Six months later, he was assassinated and Europe was plunged into World War I, perhaps the bloodiest conflagration the world has ever seen. But when Jafar Abu-Shabazz in Kenya received a Swahili version of the letter in 1938 and sent out ten copies, he not only married his childhood sweetheart, but he escaped World War II when several of his friends and neighbors were conscripted and died in the military.

Send no money; money has no place in spiritual matters. Simply make ten copies of this letter and send them to friends, relatives or strangers via e-mail or a regular postal service within one week, then sit back and wait for your luck to change. U.S. President George Bush didn't believe in chain letters, but when he mailed ten copies in early 1991, he was able to defeat Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War with minimal casualties. President Bush sent a copy to Ted Turner, and as a result of his own diligence, Ted Turner was able to establish CNN as a credible news organization with its spot coverage of the Gulf War.

Ten copies are all that is needed to bring good fortune. Don't be like Northwood High junior Michael Rogerstein who failed to copy the letter in 1963. He broke his leg two weeks later and was unable to attend the prom with his girlfriend. Instead, she went with Virgil Forrest and married him instead, and didn't even invite Michael to the wedding. Gillian Anderson sent out copies and as a result has become a famous actress for her performance as Dana Scully on the X-Files.

Just send out ten copies. It works!

Saturday, October 04, 2008

romans 14

In this chapter, Paul frames the issue of acceptance in terms of our appetites, focusing on meat and vegetables.

I've heard that the issue here is that the meat had been offered as a sacrifice to idols, and now was being sold in the market for people to eat. (I seem to recall that the Greek word translated as "unclean" in the latter half of chapter 14 is different from the Greek word used elsewhere with regards to kosher law, but I won't swear to it, and my concordance is buried somewhere right now, out of reach.)

Some Christians regarded the meat as spiritually polluted, tainted from its association with pagan deities. Others saw it quite sensibly as meat that they could buy more cheaply than the best cuts the supermarket offered. (I may be conflating this with 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul also talks about such matters.)

There are plenty of parallels I can think of in contemporary Christian circles today: music, movies, TV, liturgical and worship styles, and just about everything else. I've heard Christians wax eloquent about the spiritual taint of secular worship (or rock music), of secular movies and programs, and of church services that remind them negatively of churches they used to attend.

Getting personal, to this day, organ music at church kills any interest I have in the service. Acoustic guitar ramps me right up, although electric guitars kill it off again because of the volume and the shrill tone.

What I find interesting is that while most preachers I've heard have indicated that the people who wouldn't eat the meat were the ones with "weak faith," Paul never says so. Maybe those who refused to eat meat had weak faith because they feared defiling themselves with meat sacrificed to idols; but maybe those who ate the meat had weak faith, because they took too much license and supported a pagan temple system.

Paul frames the issue of weakness and strength in terms of appetites, specifically an appetite for food. Food is one of those basic drives in all of us, more fundamental than enjoyment of beauty, more primal than the sex drive. Leave a person without food and she becomes grumpy and irritable, but once you give her something to eat, it's amazing how high those gustatory sensations can take you.

Food is one of the basic identifying things of a culture, along with dress and language. American food is high in meats and starches; Mexican food is high on peppers, corn and beans. We'll eat foods that feel relatively familiar to us, such as Chinese or Italian foods; but if it gets too unfamiliar, we want nothing to do with it. Food is one of the ways we can judge who is "in" and who is "out."

And Paul is saying that whatever you think about your food, be firmly convinced in your own mind, but give a break to your neighbor who just doesn't get it as well as you do. Eat their meat to avoid causing them to stumble; don't eat your meat so that you don't offend them needlessly. (And don't you love that he prefaces this whole weak-and-strong-faith discussion with the counsel to love one another?)

I'm also struck by the placement he gives this along with the Sabbath, and the issue of holy days. Whether it's your base appetite, or the loftier matters of holy days and religious observance, his message is the same: Work with one another, and don't be quick to beat your breast and wail over your brother's sinfulness in not getting it as well as you do, since Christ has accepted each of you.

That would, conceivably, mean breaking one of your religious rules -- or following one of somebody else's -- to avoid causing difficulty for them.

I believe C.S. Lewis wrote about this in "The Screwtape Letters," about how, but for careful work and planning, the Church of England might have become a hotbed of charity, goodwill, and understanding.




I remember a brief conversation a couple months ago, where the Bible study leader asked us what made us disinclined to like another person, and it played into the issue of clean and unclean. Paul is making the same argument here, or at least a rather related one, that we have no right to shrink away or look down on other people because of those little things that seem so important to us. (Tattoos, preferring Pete Seeger to Tammy Trent, or actually enjoying listening to Jerry Decker on the Christian radio.)

Another example is one of dress. I remember hearing criticism when I was younger about the way "young people" dressed so inappropriately. Paul essentially would be saying here, "Don't sweat it so much. It's not a case of what is inappropriate to you must also be considered inappropriate for her. Each age group has its own standards of modesty and propriety."

In my experience, this sort of thing often has been central to discussions of  how to tell if someone is "really" a Christian. There are behaviors and attitudes people exhibit that cause others to suspect that they are only culturally or nominally a Christian, and not as committed or as legitimate a follower as those observing the behavior.

I have a few friends who are staunchly conservative. One in particular talks about Patriarchy Done Right, the way God wants it; he supports the government's use of torture as an interrogation technique; and regularly talks about culture wars, and how God has chosen to bless the Republican Party because it has a culture of life. He also has no problem with the government's rescue plan giving $700 billion to wealthy corporations and their heads, because "that's how the world works."

Meanwhile, I see patriarchy as fundamentally at odds with the Kingdom of God, believe that anyone who tortures another person for any reason effectively is torturing Christ, believe the Republican Party's policies often are at odds with Scripture and the priorities of God. Also, giving tax breaks to the wealthy and powerful is an act of oppression to the weak and powerless.

I'm sure we both regularly shake our heads in disbelief at each other. That in no way render the faith either of us professes as illegitimate.

There's also the issue of the Tyranny of the Easily Offended. I'm sure you're familiar with it; it's the sort of thing that makes it difficult to say even "damn" or "hell" in a room of adults, because of a misapplication of Ephesians 5:4; or the discomfort that ensues when grown men have long hair or earrings; or when respectable people have piercings or tattoos.

For that matter, there's also the issue of how this affects how we approach sharing our faith. What parts of our lives should we be willing to adjust in order to include others outside of our faith. What is not negotiable? I'd say issues of justice, but that's about it.

My best friend of 20 years is transgendered. His parents have disowned him, his mother claiming a spiritual obligation to do so; and his wife has pushed him out of the house and done a lot to cut him out of her life, to the point that she didn't want to do anything with him for her birthday, but went out with his parents. Earlier, she and his sister planned an entire family visit without telling him about it or involving him at all.

I don't fault my friend's wife, entirely. It's a difficult situation she's in, and very painful for her. But there's more moralizing and judgment going on here than an attempt to embrace him as he is and seek a solution together. It's more of a parting of the ways, breaking into two camps and disavowing the legitimacy of the other, and failing to seek a resolution that is not in line with her (and her mother- and sister-in-law's) understanding of what proper Christian behavior from him should entail.

I had a friend in college who on principle wouldn't congratulate someone on having a baby out of wedlock, because they had been sinning. I didn't even think about it. I congratulated this person at once. I also read the names of AIDS victims when the AIDS quilt came to town, because people had died, leaving holes in the communities where they had lived, and it made sense to grieve with them that grieve. Same reaction when a friend was decloseted to her parents before she was ready, and her life became a living hell while they all reeled at her perceived immorality.

Justice, we can't be silent on. "Justice, justice you shall pursue," the rabbis conclude is the message of the Torah, and it makes sense to me. Writing a column for the newspaper, you get a feel after a while for what makes people stand up and take notice. I discovered that you can talk frankly about your faith, and people will react in a positive way if you're saying something meaningful. You can even talk about the True Meaning of Christmas and call people to repentance, and people not only listen, they'll respect what you have to say.

To an extent, though, how much does this matter in our church? It's like a sermon series I heard on the book of Galatians two years ago. I don't recall seeing that much of a works theology at work in our church, nor such rampant legalism. I'm not cognizant of any real dissonance over doctrine, not like I saw back in college, where every little thing is a matter of Absolute Truth. Or maybe I'm just projecting, because it doesn't matter to me for the most part, so I don't notice when it matters to others until they make it matter to me.

And I'm sufficiently disengaged from evangelical culture to know if doctrinal matters like eternal security, glossolalia, prelapsarianism, and dispensational theology really command people's attention like they did when I was in college and people considered me unteachable and unspiritual because I rejected hardline Calvinist thinking. At least I never hear people talking about these things after the service. (Maybe they do in other settings,)

The closest I've come is finding some people uncomfortable over my views on biblical inspiration and literalism because they're not properly evangelical, and far as that goes, Matt Nolan got a kick out of seeing how much he and I agreed on such issues.

Friday, October 03, 2008

faith at a child's level

God shows up in some astonishing ways when we're opening to seeing him.

Like many children, my daughter Evangeline has plenty of stuffed animals, none of which has mattered much at all to her. That changed when her grandmother died. Suddenly, Evangeline bonded with a handmade stuffed rabbit that she has had since she was born, which she calls Cinderabbit. Evangeline has slept with Cinderabbit every night since Grandma's funeral, and for a while took her everywhere she went as well.

As my friend Rykie once observed about the divine love that shone through her own imaginary friends, so I have seen with Evangeline and Cinderabbit. Cinderabbit demands nothing in return from Evangeline for the comfort she gives. She stays as close as Evangeline wants, loves her unconditionally, and listens to the moans and sighs Evangeline doesn't know the words to express.

She is the very expression of God's love in my daughter's life, and couldn't be any more real if her coat were made of velveteen.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

veep debate

Sarah Palin did surprisingly well in the vice presidential debate with Joe Biden

I was struck by a few jabs Gov. Palin not only managed to get in, but also to twist about. She correctly pointed out that Sen. Biden had criticized Barack Obama on several points and now was professing agreement with him; as well as another point or two that my mind is blanking on right now.

But by and large, Palin succeeded primarily in the sense that she did not ever become totally incomprehensible, and never had to use a lifeline. For the most part, she stuck to campaign talking points, and I was disappointed to hear her repeat things that Sen. John McCain had argued in his debate with Sen. Obama, and things that Sen. Obama had deflected satisfactorily at the time. (Voting against funding the war, for instance.)

The gap between Sen. Obama and Sen. John McCain is widening, and in Sen. Obama's favor. If this continues, I've little doubt that he's going to win the popular vote. Whether that carries into winning the election as well may be another matter.

Let's hope it is. We don't want a repeat of that again.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

'old yeller' and grief

"Your mother told me about the dog" remains one of the best understated lines I've ever come across in a children's book.

The line comes of course from "Old Yeller," one of the best stories ever told in the English language about a boy and his dog. The book is set in Texas, not long after the Civil War. The boy's name is Travis, his little brother's name is Arliss; and the dog comes into their lives while the father is on a cattle drive up north. Even if you've never read the book, you probably know what happens to the dog, and what Travis' mother told his father once he returned from the cattle drive.

My daughter Evangeline didn't cry when Old Yeller died,* but then she didn't cry over "The Bridge to Terabithia" either.

It was something of a surprise to me that she didn't cry when Travis had to shoot the dog, but then she does internalize a lot of her grief and then express it through other ways, particularly in art.

When we lost Isaac, she took to drawing with a passion she hadn't shown in months. When we attended her grandmother's funeral, Evangeline merely grew very quiet when it was time to scatter her ashes, and said nothing at all on the subject until a few hours later, when she finally broached the subject with me in private.

She has inadvertently reminded me of something a friend had said once, about God reaching out to children through their imaginary friends.

Until her grandmother died, none of Evangeline's stuffed animals mattered much at all to her. Then, suddenly, she bonded to a handmade stuffed rabbit she had had since she was born, which she calls Cinderabbit. Evangeline has slept with Cinderabbit every night since Grandma's funeral, and for a while took her everywhere she went as well.

As Rykie observed with her imaginary friends, so I have seen with Evangeline and Cinderabbit. Cinderabbit demands nothing in return from Evangeline for the comfort she gives. She stays as close as Evangeline wants, loves her unconditionally, and listens to the moans and sighs Evangeline doesn't know the words to express. She couldn't be any more real if her coat were made of velveteen.

* She isn't a John Wayne fan, either.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

dear governor

It's new-CLEAR, not new-KEW-ler.

Thank you for your attention in this matter.

We now return to the debate, coming live over NPR.

books to ban

I was perusing the list of most commonly challenged books in the U.S. on Wikipedia and noted that "James and the Giant Peach" was number 56 on the American Library Association's list of most challenged books of the 1990s.

I'm sorry, but did I miss something when I read that book? It's like any number of other children's books, particularly by Roald Dahl. Boy has a miserable life. Someone intervenes, and the boy is able to escape his misery. He goes on an adventure, where there are dangers, but his quick mind and resourcefulness save both him and his companions. What's wrong with that?

Perhaps it is the anti-rhino views expressed by the author.

Hemingway made the list three times, and Mark Twain twice. I could be mistaken, but I expect that's because Twain uses the N-word, which use has overshadowed the remarkably nonracist sentiments expressed in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" particularly; and because Hemingway often writes about wounded men unable to have sex.

What I did find striking is the books that didn't show up, at least when I casually skimmed the list. "Mein Kampf," for instance.

It floors me when people want to ban books. I haven't read all the books on that list, but I've read a good deal of them, and none of them seemed remotely worthy of being banned. I can't even see them as objectionable. Many of these are books that I would consider "must-reads." Many others fall under "Yeah, I really ought to read that."

I read "Old Yeller" to Evangeline when she was in first or second grade; and this past summer we were cracking up together over "The Canterbury Tales." "All's Quiet on the Western Front" might be a little heavy for her as a bedtime story, but that's more of an age-appropriate issue, sort of like not letting her watch "Blazing Saddles" or read "Lord of the Flies" until she's older.

Maybe part of the issue is ambiguity in what the ALA means by "banned books." There's banning in the sense that firemen come to your house and douse your private library with kerosense, and there's banning in the sense of "I don't want that in my house" or "You shouldn't read that." Perhaps "banning" is too strong a word for that sense, but in any event I can't see telling people not to read most of these books either.

I don't think there's a book in existence that deserves to be destroyed, with the possible exception of "Jane Eyre."

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

who'll stop the rain (new lyrics)

Long as I remember, rain's been coming down.
Clouds of mystery throwing confusion on the ground
Must be ten years gone now, trying to find the sun,
And I wonder, still I wonder, who'll stop the rain.

I went to Virginia, seeking shelter from the storm.
Caught up in the fable, I watched the tower burn.
Broken vows and new starts never loose the chains,
And I wonder, still I wonder, who'll stop the rain.

Heard the children singing, how we cheered for more.
We huddled close together, trying to keep warm.
Still the rain kept falling, pouring on our ears,
And I wonder, still I wonder, how to stop the rain.

lightsabers and adamantium

What the world needs is a discussion of whether lightsabers can cut through adamantium. And thank goodness, Fark is there to provide us with that discussion.

As every Star Wars fan knows, lightsabers can cut through everything. And as every comics fanboy knows, adamantium is the nearly indestructible metal used in Marvel Comics. Ultron the genocidal robot has been made of it since the alloy was first discovered. Wolverine's skeleton is laced with it, which makes him even tougher. Just about anyone whom the writers and editors at Marvel want to make more dangerous, has access to it.

Still, while adamantium is nearly indestructible, the key word is "nearly." The metallurgist who created it did so in an attempt to recreate the unique alloy in Captain America's shield. He failed. In the Marvel Universe, the shield remains the strongest alloy in existence.

The shield has been broken only once that I'm aware of. At the conclusion of the 11th issue of the Secret Wars miniseries back in the 1984, Doctor Doom killed Spider-man, the Hulk, and those members of the Fantastic Four, X-men and Avengers who were present with a single bolt from the blue. When they were all restored to life in issue 12, Captain America's shield had a long shard missing.

Doom succeeded in breaking the shield only because he had stolen the power of the Beyonder, a being so powerful that Marvel editors at the time equated him with God himself. Captain America was able to restore it at the conclusion of the issue, owing to residual omnipotence in the air following Doom's defeat.

So the real question isn't whether a lightsaber can cut through adamantium. It's whether it can cut through a metal so tough that only God can break a piece off.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

bailout blues

I'm not opposed to the government stepping in and bailing out some of the financial giants that have gone down the past week. When your patient has gone into cardiac arrest, you need to keep the heart functioning. The financial sector is the heart of our economy.

What I object to is that there has been little effort made to provide support for Joe and Jane America who have lost their homes in this bubble burst. The benefit they will receive from this will amount to the "trickle down," which is to say that it does not exist. Those who do stand to benefit are the power brokers and uberwealthy whose decisions and actions put the economy into this mess. This is the government once more taking the side of the wealthy.

The economic effect of the bailout would have the same effect by bailing out homeowners, with the additional benefit of allowing working class homeowners to remain in their homes. This has been rejected for reasons that elude me. Discussions instead center on allowing homeowners to be thrown out of their homes, and protecting the brokers whose irresponsibility created the market crash.

From what I understand of the bailout that was rejected Monday -- and I can't imagine the one being considered now differs much in this regard -- is that it would have allowed no golden parachutes for CEO's hired after the bailout. Those who presided over the worse financial collapse in 70 years, however, still get theirs.

In other words, it still protects the wealthy malefactors while managing to screw over the little guy. What a country.

This may be how the world works, and how it always has worked, but I see no reason why we should tolerate or accept it, nor that we should facilitate it. Our government was founded to protect the people from tyranny, and that includes economic and financial tyranny as well as political. It is within the purview of the government, in granting the emergency aid, to lay down stipulations for receiving that aid. That includes "No bonus for failing."

The people who have presided over the crash of WaMu, Lehman Bros., AIG and the others are not entitled to turn a hefty profit over their greed and incompetence. The U.S. Government was, the last I knew, planning a rescue operation that would reward them personally for their failure, and then close the barn door after all the horses had left, so there would be no more golden parachutes for later failures.

I call that wrong. Anyone with me?

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.