Monday, December 31, 2007

Important People of 2008

Quote of the day:
"I opened the door for a lot of people, and they just ran through and left me holding the knob."
--Bo Diddley

The last days of the year bring lists of big events of the past year, and those who have died in the past year.

I’m gratified to see the variety in this latter list. Sure, there are some past mega-celebrities on it. But there are also people who were less known.

It’s apparent that there is no necessary relationship between how well known someone is and the extent of their lasting influence. Example: more Americans know Paris Hilton (even though she has been tragically missing from the news for ALMOST FOUR MONTHS!) than know Mother Theresa. ‘Nuff said.

By the way, quick, who came in second on last year’s “American Idol”? Time’s up.

Applicable truism of the day: “Fame is fleeting.”

Here’s an exercise. In one minute, name as many people as you can who lived (and died) in the 19th century. Even though he was born in 1890, Groucho Marx doesn’t count.

Interesting list, isn’t it? Our grandparents or great-grandparents could name dozens of famous people who are unknown to us now.

I don’t know about you, but my 19th-century list is a few former presidents, writers, composers and scientists. I was confused on some dates and had to look them up after my minute was up, thus shortening my list.

Mark Twain may be the best-known 19th-century non-politician (he died in 1910--we’re being a bit flexible). How many other non-politicians can you name?

Now let’s talk 18th century....

The whole point is that all these celebrities who we think are so influential and important are neither in the long run. One reason we think these people are so important is simply because they are known. Their real influence is completely separate from their fame.

And it’s the influence that lasts. When we look at our 19th-century lists we can begin to see what makes lasting influence.

On a personal level, we can think about our own lives and who we remember from the past. Why do we remember them?

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Best Music of 2007

Quote of the day:
“Put your money somewhere not idiotic and leave it alone as much as possible.”
--Ken Jennings, who won more than $3 million on Jeopardy in 2004, when asked for investment advice.

I’ve listened to a lot of music this year. Picking the best is therefore challenging.

As you likely know already, I can be a little slow to discover music, so my selections may have been released a few years ago. I don’t limit my listening to new stuff. This very short list might be entitled “Music I Stumbled on in 2008.”

First is Iron & Wine’s “Our Endless Numbered Days” which came out in 2004. It’s official genre is “alternative,” but I would classify the music as neo-folk. The compositions are mostly acoustic with a light seasoning of rock and roll.

This album is sophisticated, well performed and very well produced. Most important, the music is beautiful.

Second is “Hypnotica” by Benny Benassi and the Biz. I know this will please all the closet ravers out there. Just put this on and bounce in your living room with your arms in the air. Don’t laugh. You know you love it.

I really like the deceptive simplicity of this 2003 release. At first it seems like hundreds of other dance/electronica albums. But listen for a while (and dance, because it’s hard not to) and you’ll find sly, self-aware and surprisingly sophisticated music, very well-performed.

Third is Lise De La Salle’s recording of piano music by Mozart and Prokofiev. She’s 19 years old, and this is her fourth CD. Yes, she’s talented. I wish we’d hear more of her and less Britney Spears.

I usually favor music by more-seasoned performers because I find that experience almost always improves recorded performances. But when I listen to these CDs (it’s a 2-CD set), I am amazed at the sensitivity and insight with which De La Salle plays. Just listen to the last Mozart Variation. It’s extraordinary. And the production is excellent.

Fourth is a classical guitar album perfect for those who want to step beyond Bach transcriptions but stay in the Baroque. It’s a 2007 CD by William Carter called “La Guitarra Espanola.” It is truly stunning.

It’s all music by the Spanish composer Santiago de Murcia (1682-1732), exquisitely played in a state-of-the-art recording. This CD might be a little hard to find. But it’s worth finding.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Prediction for 2008

Quote of the day:
“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience.”
--George Bernard Shaw

We will soon turn the corner into 2008. A presidential election year.

I don’t know about you, but I’m already a bit weary of the presidential campaign.

I don’t think I’m risking too much by predicting that this will be the most-negative and nasty presidential campaign in modern history.

This isn’t because the people involved are especially negative or nasty. It is because negative campaigns are so incredibly effective.

They are so effective because we are human. And humans have a much stronger emotional reaction to negative statements than to positive ones.

The intensity of the reaction ensures two things. First, we will remember the negative statement much more readily than anything positive. Second, we will give it emotional credence, even if it turns out to be untrue or grossly exaggerated.

Due to the fact that the act of making an accusation is itself a negative, presidential candidates distance themselves from negative campaigning, especially if the charges are outrageous.

Also, to be really effective, a negative campaign takes a huge amount of money. So negative campaigns are conducted by well-heeled and firewalled surrogates--either individuals or organizations.

The best recent example of this is Richard Scaife’s 2004 Swift Boat smear of John Kerry. This campaign had no traceable connection to the Bush campaign. To say it had no actual connection to Bush’s campaign is, of course, laughable.

The Swift Boat campaign was ludicrous and simply wrong. But it had a strong effect on independent voters.

Those same independent or “swing” voters are in play in 2008. I know the Republican candidate will do the most-effective thing to send them his way. And that is negative campaigning.

I never thought I’d hope for more negative campaigning. But I hope the Democrats give as good as they get.

So it’ll be nasty.

And ultimately have little to do with actual governing.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Household Obedience

Quote of the day:
"We all have strength enough to endure the troubles of others."
--Francois VI, duke de la Rouchefoucauld (1655)

Some of us are much more obedient than others.

Witness: some of us meticulously follow operating instructions. Others skip instructions and just start assembling or using something, figuring it can’t be that hard. Besides, reading instructions takes time. And I don’t have time. I’m busy.

Sometimes skipping instructions turns out ok. Just as often, we have to start over with the instructions next to us.

Some folks carefully measure ingredients and otherwise follow recipes to the letter. Others take pride in putting together some of this, a little of that, and maybe some of that, too.

As always, most of us are somewhere between these extremes. We learn from experience that sometimes instructions leave steps out. I remember how amused my father was years ago when he was reading repair instructions in a service manual. The first step: “remove transmission from car.”

We learn also that things don’t always appear in real life the way they are described or depicted in an instruction book. So, using our experience, we adapt a little. Or a lot.

As for recipes, some adaptation is always required. How many times have you exactly followed a recipe and things didn’t turn out quite right?

Only we know the idiosyncracies of our oven or stove. We know our tastes and we suspect that is way too much or way too little garlic.

Also, recipes are usually written with the first objective of not over-preparing or over-cooking, so they deliberately underestimate preparation and cooking time. I guess the logic is that we can always stir, knead or roast a little more. But we can’t do these things a little less once we’ve done them.

Kind of like life.

Related applicable cliche: “You can’t unring a bell.”

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Device of the Year Two

Quote of the day:
“Are You Ready to Pay $4 a Gallon?”
--Headline from today’s Los Angeles Times

It turns out that I have three devices I’m impressed with this year. Today’s entry ain’t no iPhone, but it sure is one gratifying little gadget.

The days after Christmas are known as the worst time of year for household plumbing clogs. It makes sense, what with so many people at home so much.

There is more cooking going on for larger numbers of people. And there is a rise in the amount of experimental flushing by young children. Not of young children, but by young children.

Well far be it from us to eschew such an important holiday tradition.

So there I was, plunging and plunging, determined that I could loosen this clog. The longer I was at it the more irrational I became. I had no intention of calling a plumber. And clogs had virtually always responded to my plunging prowess. I was not giving up, thank you very much.

Plunging didn’t work. Clog 1, rubber plumbing device 0.

I know, I know. If YOU had the plunger and were therefore doing it RIGHT, the result would’ve been different. Too bad I didn’t have your phone number. I’d sure like to get you on video trying to free this drain.

On the other hand, if this has happened to you and you have the inspiring courage to admit it, you may have done next what I did.

I thought I’d go to Home Depot and buy an inexpensive snake (known by cognoscenti as an auger). So I went online to research.

I stumbled on the Kleer Drain. It cost $32 and looked like a short pogo stick.

The basic idea is that this thing shoots a very strong burst of air into the drain, pushing the clog out of the way.

Sounded like an interesting idea, so I read comments about it. While I’m always a bit skeptical about online product comments, they were overwhelmingly positive.

My favorite comment was the one where someone complained that the thing just wouldn’t work right. Until he read the instructions and followed them.

I decided to take the plunge. So to speak.

We brought the thing home and I read the instructions a couple times. It seemed simple enough, but I was still skeptical.

Words cannot describe the sense of triumph I felt when I used it and heard the water begin draining away. No clog is going to get the best of me. No sireeee.

The Kleer Drain is a keeper. I put it in a place of respect in our garage.

Sometimes in the face of insurmountable obstacles, life does work out.

Aren’t I philosophical?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Device of the Year

Quote of the day:
“When a person says his ‘x’ is just as good as a ‘y,’ he really wants a ‘y.’”
--Preston Creston

It’s the device of the year. In fact, it’s probably the device of the decade.

You know what I’m talking about. It’s the iPhone.

This year Apple will bring out a version that has 16 gigabytes of storage--and 32 gigabytes is not too far after that. They are pushing hard for more advances in flash-memory, for more music and video storage.

There’s also been much talk about the coming release of a new iPhone using fast 3G technology for internet access. We may see this in 2008.

Some people continue to express amazement at the popularity of the iPhone, since other devices can do what it does--sometimes faster or more cheaply.

Yet they continue to sell like crazy. When Merrie and I visited our Apple store last month, people on both sides of us in the checkout lines were buying iPhones, for themselves and their friends.

The thing is this. While Blackberrys or phones from Nokia or Samsung may have similar, even faster capabilities, they are nowhere near as easy to use.

Yes, I know. No one needs an iPhone. No one needs a television or a computer either.

But the iPhone is just fun. Send a text message, touch the screen to call a friend, look up something you're curious about, watch a podcast, sit back and listen to some music, check your calendar, read and respond to your e-mail, check the weather, read the news. All you have to do is get it out of your pocket or purse.

And, I repeat, it’s fun.

This is not a trivial or unnecessary doodad. We are way beyond doodad.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Silent Night

Quote of the day:
--J.O.E. (Jolly Old Elf)

One thing that impresses me every single Christmas is the quiet.

Last night we got home from church after midnight. We got out of the car in front of our house and it was oh so quiet.

This morning I went out to get the newspaper. Again, there was barely a sound, except for some finches chirping.

You’d think it’d be a little eerie, but I find it comforting.

A really great thing about Christmas is the way it gives everyone permission to stop. Maybe they can rest. Maybe they can enjoy the quiet.

Whatever the case, most everyone gets to simply stop for a while. And that’s a very good thing.

Monday, December 24, 2007

We're Shopping like Homer Simpson

Quote of the day:
"Be still when you have nothing to say; [but] when genuine passion moves you, say what you've got to say, and say it hot."
--D.H. Lawrence

Related to yesterday’s posting, Christopher Jencks wrote an excellent analysis of the immigration debate a few months ago.

The reason it’s excellent is that it’s not the usual clobber-you-on-the-head polemic that everything written about immigration seems to be. Among other things, he looks at the sources of various data that have been cited and waved around by various people with agendas.

By doing this, he makes an important and seemingly-obvious point. The results of surveys about American attitudes about immigration are mostly dependent on how questions are asked.

Two important variables are the words used in questions and the number of answers people have to choose from.

See Jencks’ piece here.

Perhaps “closer to home” in this busy shopping season, James Surowiecki makes a fascinating observation about how retailers use pricing as a marketing tool.

He notes that Homer Simpson’s wine-selection strategy is the way many of us choose what we buy. Homer always buys the second-cheapest wine on the menu.

For example, when choosing a microwave oven and given the choice between a $110 Emerson and a $180 Panasonic, most people will choose the Emerson. But if a $200 choice is added, most people choose the $180 Panasonic.

After all, we want a good deal but we don’t want to be cheap.

See Surowiecki’s piece here.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

Quote of the day:
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”
--Attributed to Mark Twain and sometimes to Benjamin Disraeli

“Lies, damn lies and statistics” is a comical way to dismiss survey results we don’t like. It’s also the title of a “West Wing” episode (which I haven’t seen), a book (which I haven’t read) and a blog (which hasn’t been updated in 3 years).

Most of us carry around a vague suspicion that this statement is true, though we’re not sure why. In spite of this, we still pay lots of attention to statistics, especially if there is some sort of contest involved. We like to see life as a horse race.

Also, in our drive to be rational, we put a positively irrational faith in numbers. We’d much rather believe the TV weatherperson telling us the temperature than step outside and feel the air.

Some statistics are aggregations of simple data. Yet bias can easily creep in as decisions are made about what data to aggregate. Should we stress changes in population makeup for the city, or the city plus suburbs? The data could be quite different.

Which brings me to one of the built-in problems with statistics. It is age-old. It is making use of selective data to support an argument that is already fully formed.

The “See I told you so!” phenomenon. We have trouble growing up and seeing the world the way it is. We'd rather see the world they way we've already decided it is.

In church work I regularly encountered this in a different way, not involving data but the bible. Often folks would “read back” into the bible. It’s known in academic circles as “proof-texting.”

You’ve seen it and heard it, probably today. It is using the bible (or any respected text, for that matter) to demonstrate the truth of a fully-formed point of view. When you hear a sermon that makes a point backed up by references to a variety of bible verses, this is what is happening. It’s backwards.

If we are trying to discern truth in statistics, the bible or anywhere, it doesn’t serve our purpose to inject truth into the data. The truth is already there.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Quote of the day:
"Everybody complains of his memory, but nobody of his judgment."
--Francois VI, duke de la Rouchefoucauld (1655)

We’ve been having a lot of fun this year feeding all our Christmas music into iTunes and letting it shuffle. Just like Apple says, it’s like having our own radio station.

We own a dozen CDs of Christmas music, and about 20 LPs. A few are quite good, some are so-so and one or two are highly questionable and rarely played.

Every year we play Vince Guaraldi’s “Charlie Brown Christmas.” It’s become a traditional part of our holiday.

A lot of people are like us, I guess. This Christmas album is one of iTunes’ most-downloaded.

The music is good, of course. But more important, it bonds us to the times we first saw “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

This is a Christmas tradition from the 20th century that will stick with us for quite a while. It’s like “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” and stockings from earlier eras. Do you think it’s joined the pantheon of most-important traditions?

I think so. The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is climbing the tradition charts, too.

The barking dogs are not climbing, though we will be complaining about them for another 30 years or so.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Quote of the day:
"Homo sapiens [are] a tiny twig on an improbable branch of a contingent limb on a fortunate tree."
--Stephen Jay Gould

My, my, my, there is such a buzz around the movie “Juno.” It is a veritable hive of bees everywhere we look. Buzz, buzz, buzz.

It’s quite an enjoyable film, and it’s true that 19-year-old actress Ellen Page is mighty entertaining and quite talented. It’s fun to see that most of the actors clearly relish their roles.

I think J. K. Simmons is especially good as Juno’s father. I hope he gets a supporting actor nomination from the Academy.

This film has been compared to “Little Miss Sunshine,” and it does have a similar tone to it.

“Juno” really is a very offbeat romantic comedy. This might seem weird, but it reminded me of Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” from 1934.

Of course, “Juno” has 2007 sensibilities, and it deals with a younger couple than Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. But both films share an endearing lightness and authenticity.

“Juno” is a good film for the holidays. Just watch out for the buzz.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Home Prices Tumble

Quote of the day:
“I am a writer. That’s it. No adjectives. The first thing is writing. Christianity is secondary.”
--Madeleine L’Engle, who died at age 88 on September 6.

The big, front-page headline in today’s “San Diego Union-Tribune” is “Home Prices Tumble.” It is the most e-mailed news story from today’s paper.

172,358 San Diego County households read this headline. In 171,231 of those households, at least one person said: “They’ll go up again in a few years.”

There is one perfect word to use in response to that. “Maybe.”

I’d say it’s 50-50. Maybe home prices will go up again in a few years, maybe they’ll stay the same or go down. How can anyone know?

And that’s why I bring this up. Home prices “going up again in a few years” seems to have attained the status of some sort of absolute truth. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking.

I sure hope no one is basing major life decisions on this. Why? Because no one knows. It’s in no way the sure thing so many people seem to think it is.

It’s not a “given” that prices behave this way. No matter how many people say it. No matter how many real estate agents say it. No matter how many economists who want to be celebrities say it.

Not only is it not a sure thing, it really is a tossup. Here’s a clue. Read real-estate news from one year ago and two years ago. What was being said then?

If you look at real-estate prices since the 1920s, there is no consistent trend that suggests that prices recover “in a few years” after a decline. The longest-term trend since the 1920s shows an average appreciation of 6% a year.

Maybe prices will go up again in a few years. Maybe they won’t. I sure don’t know. Over 15 to 20 years, I’d say your odds are pretty good, though also not certain.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Into the Wild

Quote of the day:
“Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.”
--Bertrand Russell

The movie “Into the Wild” is worth seeing. Sean Penn directed and wrote the screenplay, based on the book by Jon Krakauer

It’s the true story of Christopher McCandless, who graduates from Emory University in 1990 and then heads out on the road, eventually leaving behind all his possessions, money, credits cards and ID.

He is seeking freedom but, more than this, he is seeking life. There is a scene in the film in which he quotes a famous writer that the human soul can only live through new experiences.

McCandless interprets this two ways. First, it is necessary for him to not stay in one place or with the same people too long. Second, his relationships with other human beings are not as important as his relationship to unspoiled nature--to wildness.

The interesting thing about his interpretation is that many people share it. They may find this movie disturbing.

Some people live their lives on the basis of seeking new experiences and avoiding doing the same thing twice. This must be the origin of one of my very-least-favorite expressions of all time: “Been there, done that.”

To me, that statement says: “Nothing I have done or seen is worth doing or seeing again.” And its corollary: “No one I’ve ever met is worth meeting again.”

“Into the Wild” works on many levels. It is an excellent though awkwardly structured road film. It is a fascinating portrait of family dynamics and how they influence our worldview.

I especially enjoyed the wide variety of people McCandless meets along the way. These are some very well-drawn character studies, with top-notch acting. Honestly, sometimes I found these people more interesting than McCandless.

The journey this film takes is deep into the reality of living transiently and living outside of human relationships.

And the question that comes up is: Where do we find true meaning in this life?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Survivor: China: Lying and Betrayal

Quote of the day:
"We are, perhaps, uniquely among the earth's creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still."
--Lewis Thomas

I think the TV show “Survivor” has something to teach us about presidential elections.

The message is simple. The person who plays the game best wins. Honesty, integrity, talent, goodness and responsibility do not matter in determining the winner.

Skills or experience do not matter. The only skill that is measured is the ability to play the game.

The honest person with integrity cannot win, because the game is played using lying, deceit and betrayal.

The final program of “Survivor: China” had two parts. The first part had the three finalists making their case before the jury.

The seven people on the jury were the last seven people voted off the show. Every jury member had been lied to or betrayed by at least one of the finalists.

The process became choosing the “least bad” person as the winner. Sound familiar?

As they were questioning the finalists, several of the jury got quite angry and hurt in describing how they had been deceived or betrayed. These feelings seemed very real. Of course, everyone had been in the wilderness for 39 days, so emotions were understandably raw.

But those emotions were also quite true to the situation.

The second part of the show shifted to a live broadcast from a Hollywood TV studio to reveal who got the most votes from the jury to win the game. The mood of the jury was suddenly very, very different.

A few months had gone by. Everyone had gone home and discovered what celebrities they had become. They had lots of food and sleep and hot showers.

In the studio, the jury was happy, and very forgiving. When asked how they felt being betrayed, everyone smiled and said, “that’s just how the game is played.”

Soon, another “Survivor” will begin. So will the lying, deceit, betrayal, hurt and pain.

But it’s ok. It’s just how the game is played.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


Quote of the day:
“When wealth and the wealthy are valued in the city, virtue and good men are less valued. What is valued is practiced, what is not valued is not practiced.”

We don’t understand sharing. We think the word belongs either in kindergarten or as a label for a computer process.

Some people loathe the word. Indeed, some hate it so much that if the word is spoken in their presence, they will run you over with their Hummer.

Speaking of kindergarten, Robert Fulghum, in his well-known book, called sharing one of the things about life that we learned in kindergarten.

But, of course, we didn’t learn it. Not really.

The core of the problem is, as I said before, that we have trouble doing it because we don’t understand it. We don’t understand sharing because there are so few opportunities to learn about it in our daily lives.

Sharing is not supported in our culture, except at miscellaneous times of crisis, when the news is overrun with stories of what we see as sharing. I say it that way because so often people mean well and view themselves as generous, but they are just giving away things they don’t want.

Sharing involves sharing things that you value--your stuff and your time. More than this, sharing involves giving yourself, and allowing those with whom you are sharing to also share with you.

It’s a two-way street. It’s integral to the value of sharing.

Question: can we open ourselves to another to allow them to share with us, as well as us sharing with them?

This is, after all, how life gets better.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Purity Delusion

Quote of the day:
“You’ve got the whole world waiting for your birth.”
--Indigo Girls

The purity delusion is interesting at any time of year. In this season it takes on an especially fervent patina.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “what the hell is he talking about?”

I’m sure you’ve seen or experienced the purity delusion, but you may not have recognized it.

The purity delusion is the conviction that we will somehow be tainted if we come into contact with something impure. This is part of what drives people into the supposedly safe, squeaky-clean suburbs from the supposedly dirty, crime-ridden city.

This delusion happens in politics, as those with strong opinions about an issue avoid contact with those with equally strong opposite opinions.

It happens with “big” business and “big” government. To some, it is the mere fact that an organization is big that makes it grossly “impure” and to be avoided.

I often hear people complain about how the world is being ruined by “big” business as they leave on their bicycles to hunt for their dinner, pick their wild coffee beans or gather cotton or shear sheep for their clothes.

The purity delusion is especially obvious in matters of religion. That’s why we see pointed expressions of it at this time of year.

There are those who think contact with anything religious will somehow taint them. And there are those who think contact with anything non-religious will taint them.

Both groups operate under the purity delusion, which states “I can remain pure, untouched and unaffected by alien influences if I constantly reject all contact with them.”

Why is this a delusion? Simply because such contact can’t be avoided. It happens in the realm of thought, so physical contact with people or things is not necessary.

If you think such contact can be avoided, I suggest you try the age-old experiment of trying to not think of a pink elephant.


Friday, December 14, 2007

Dead Shrub in the House

Quote of the day:
“How can I compromise when she doesn’t do what I say?”
--Rene Balcer and Eddie Feddiman, from a script for “Law & Order.”

We had a lot of fun getting a Christmas tree yesterday.

It was 60 degrees--a little nippy for San Diego (get out the ear muffs)--and a crisp, clear, sunny day. There were a few other shoppers at the tree farm, but it was far from overrun. And there were a few requisite barnyard animals in attendance.

After about 30 seconds of becoming overwhelmed at having to choose among so many trees, Merrie said, “Let’s get this one!” And we did.

The helper was right there to carry it to the shaker (a mighty fine invention), the bundler, the sawer, the cashier, the car.

Then there was putting into the Scion hatchback, which happens to be one of the very smallest cars on the road.

But there we were, driving home with 7 feet of tree in the car, with the hatchback closed. The tippy-top of the tree separated Merrie and I in the front seat. It smelled good.

Then out of the car and into the living room, in almost one continuous motion. The animals were fascinated. Translation from kittyspeak: “For ME?”

It’s Christmas, I guess.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Into Great Silence

Quote of the day:
“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”
--Soren Kierkegaard

When we received “Into Great Silence” from Netflix, I wondered when I’d be in the mood to watch it. I knew it had very little dialog, and I expected to fall asleep about 10 minutes in.

So we planned to watch it as early in the evening as we could.

But then many evenings went by. Although this movie has been critically praised, I secretly expected to bored out of my ever-loving skull.

I mean, c’mon, a movie about a silent order of monks in the French mountains? To top it off, I read the Netflix envelope. It’s two hours and forty minutes long.

Is there a rerun of “Beverly Hills Cop” on cable tonight?

But sometimes things don’t turn out the way I expect them to.

This is a captivating and involving film, from the start. Its authenticity has something to do with this. There’s nothing like being in a cell with a monk in prayer. Or in the very old chapel with a single candle burning and chant rising and falling.

Filmmaker Philip Groning became part of the life of the Grand Chartreuse monastery for a few hours each day for many months. He filmed unobtrusively, using only natural light.

We are privileged to witness silent daily activities--sewing, cooking, gardening, eating, ringing bells, bookkeeping and attending to resident animals. We don’t get to witness the making of Chartreuse liqueur.

This is not a “Christian” film, or an explicitly religious one. It is about as close as anyone can get to a pure documentary. We see and hear what goes on--nothing more, nothing less.

I was sorry to see it end. I wanted more.

“Into Great Silence” is an excellent movie to make time for right now--if you are hungry for some counterbalance to the near-frenzied consumption of the holiday season.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Rampant Consumerism Can Begin as Generosity

Quote of the day:
“To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation.”
--Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

I don’t usually quote huge chunks of text, but today I’m making an exception. This December 6th column by the Wall Street Journal’s Terri Cullen is something special.

It’s an excellent portrait of misguided good intentions and generosity run amok at Christmastime. It’s called “Gifted Child: When Loved Ones Swamp Your Kid With Presents”:

“It's the time of year when calls and emails pour in from our family and close friends, all asking the same question: ‘What would Gerald like for Christmas?’

“It's not always an easy question to answer, despite our 8-year-old son's ever-growing wish list. When Gerald was much younger, I balked at making suggestions. I thought it was tasteless to compile the equivalent of a virtual bridal registry for our son's Christmas gifts. But I've since discovered that helping others choose Gerald's gifts helps me keep family and friends from going overboard with their generosity -- and overwhelming our home with toys.

“The gift suggestions I make consider a number of factors, including our relationship to the gift giver and, often, the current state of their finances. I have an extremely large extended family, most of whom gather each year to exchange gifts. (This year, we'll get together at our house -- on my wish list is a cleaning-service gift certificate.)

“In years past, when I didn't specify inexpensive gifts Gerald might like, I was dismayed to find that some family members generously bought things that probably taxed their budget. This year doing so could prove even more taxing, as a few of our friends and family members are caught in the mortgage crisis that's put the squeeze on so many homeowners. And with such a big family, simply saying ‘Gerald likes anything Nerf or Star Wars,’ inevitably leads to duplicate gifts and disappointed gift givers.

“My husband Gerry's family is very small, but somehow we wind up with the same gift-giving dilemma: Unless I specify an inexpensive game or toy, Gerald often is overwhelmed with gifts. I fear Gerry's brother and aunts and uncles feel obligated to lavish expensive gifts on the few children in the family. Then there are my own divorced parents, who insist on buying large, expensive toys and bikes, no matter how much I urge them to show restraint. In the past I've tried to suggest accessories to the more-expensive toys or games that ‘Santa’ brings, but often that means the gift-giver arrives with the accessory as well as a more-expensive present.

“Gerry and I are blessed with many close friends. With them, giving and getting gifts for our kids is an excuse to get together -- the fact that more stuff winds up in our already overcrowded homes is an unfortunate side effect. Because there are so many children to buy for, it's generally accepted that extremely inexpensive gifts are the way to go. (I reserve gift suggestions to those who have no kids -- I remember how helpful that was for me when I was childless and clueless about what a preteen boy or girl would like to have.)

“Before I make suggestions I spend time on toy retailers' Web sites, looking for little presents that would please Gerald just as much as big toys. For example, a $6.99 packet of five Matchbox cars will elicit the same yelp of pleasure as a $69.99 remote-control car. Last year Gerald had just as much fun playing with a $10.99 Star Wars Legos V-wing fighter as he did his $99.99 Legos Classic Imperial Star Destroyer. With the benefit of hindsight, Santa could have substituted the $125 robotic dinosaur he ignores for a $2.99 Spalding Hi-Bounce ball he plays with endlessly.

“One gift suggestion I won't be making this year: gift cards. I used to urge out-of-state friends and family to consider them, so they wouldn't have to wait in line at the post office to mail bulky toys. I also suggested gift cards when I simply couldn't think of anything else Gerald might want. And I hoped gift cards would help moderate the inundation of stuff by allowing us to spread the purchases out over the year. By doing so, I reasoned, Gerald would appreciate the gifts more. In theory, a sound idea. In practice, after two years Gerald has nearly $500 in gift cards still unspent -- this year I'm planning on ‘regifting’ the cards by using them to buy gifts for others.

“Add up all these people, and Gerald winds up inundated with gifts around the holidays. I used to worry that the annual onslaught was desensitizing him to the loving sentiment behind the gifts. So when he was 5, we established a rule that he couldn't open his next gift until he'd hugged the person whose gift he'd just opened. The affectionate gesture is appreciated by family and friends, and the momentary breather seems to help him better appreciate his bounty. We also put away a lot of his toy gifts, and bring them out later in the year when he's grown tired of the other toys. Gifts that he clearly wouldn't enjoy are donated to our church charity.

“Speaking of charity, I can hear column hecklers standing ready to berate me for not suggesting the most-thoughtful gift: a charitable donation in Gerald's name. Don't think I haven't tried. Gerald's cousin, Rylina, is autistic, and last year we worked hard to raise money for Autism Speaks, which is his favorite charity. Since he participated so enthusiastically, I figured many of our family and friends would feel such a donation would be meaningful for Gerald. Some did welcome the suggestion, but most said they'd feel bad if ‘all the other kids were unwrapping toys while he unwrapped a charitable-gift tax receipt.’

“Point taken. If Gerald got a ‘thank you’ note for a donation as a gift, it would be up to Gerry and me to make him understand the true value of the gift -- although that feeling could last after the exuberance of the annual toy orgy has subsided. But charitable gifts could be made so much more meaningful with a little creativity: attach a thank-you note for a donation to a local pet shelter to the collar of a small stuffed kitten, or a note about a gift to an environmental group to a mini-polar bear. With Gerald, for example, the meaning of a donation in his name could be driven home by including a photo of him hugging Rylina.

“I'll try suggesting a donation again this year, concentrating on family and friends who would otherwise be stuck mailing Gerald's holiday gifts. For the rest, I'll compile Gerald's virtual gift registry. Then I'll call friends and family and ask for gift suggestions for their kids, so I can get started with my own gift shopping.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Rampant Consumerism

Quote of the day:
“You know of the disease called ‘sleeping sickness.’ There also exists a sleeping sickness of the soul. Its most dangerous aspect is that one is unaware of its coming. That is why you have to be careful. As soon as you notice the slightest sign of indifference, the moment you become aware of the loss of a certain seriousness, of longing, of enthusiasm and zest, take it as a warning. Your soul suffers if you live superficially.”
--Albert Schweitzer

There is much lamenting about “rampant consumerism.” It’s on the verge of becoming a new cultural mantra, right up there with “real estate prices will be higher in three years.”

We also are hearing the predictable gnashing of teeth about the commercialization of Christmas. Gnash, gnash, gnash.

Sales of books about simple living continue to grow. Let’s buy something that will instruct us how not to buy so much. Let’s have a drink to deal with our alcoholism.

As much talk and complaining as there is, we do nothing about it. In fact, consumption--conspicuous and otherwise--gets more rampant each passing year.

Question: who, exactly, is supposed to do something about “rampant consumerism” or Christmas commercialism?

These things don’t result from evil or bad intentions. Far from it. They are rather the result of very good intentions and generosity.

A specific portrait of this at work was published in the “Wall Street Journal” last week. It’s an extraordinary column, in the guise of every day. I’ll have it here tomorrow.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Non-Fundamentalists Unite

Quote of the day:
“You can run your whole life and not get anywhere.”
--Social Distortion

This is the time of year that religion is very present in the news.

It’s a source of perpetual annoyance to me that conversations about religion these days either begin as or devolve into screaming matches between religious fundamentalists and non-religious fundamentalists. These conversations accomplish nothing except to reinforce the self-righteousness of each side.

The truth is that most people--religious or not--are not fundamentalists and wish these people would restrain themselves.

In the spirit of this time of year, and in the interest of rationality, I offer the following to both religious and non-religious people. It’s a bit of explanation of where the stories about Jesus came from.

The first stories recorded were not about the birth of Jesus. Rather, they were about experiences of him after he died.

People began sharing these experiences. That’s what the Pauline letters focus on. And Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospels.

The gospels, written later, talk about the life of Jesus, and his death. The first gospel written was Mark, which begins with John the baptist and the initiation of Jesus’ ministry, which lasts through the final three years of his life.

The next gospels written were Matthew and Luke (for two very different communities), which add the birth narratives.

The last written--significantly later--was John, which begins with a non-historical but deeply theological interpretation of Jesus’ life. The rest of the gospel elaborates on this theological interpretation.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Shepherds Never Met the Wise Men

Quote of the day:
"Most of us are much more acquainted with losing than we are with winning. Winning is great, but it isn't funny."
--Charles Schulz

The Christmas stories are the best-known part of Christianity. I say “stories” because there are two of them. One is in Matthew, the other in Luke.

Neither Mark nor John have stories about the birth of Jesus. If the birth stories are removed, and if John loses its theological prologue, all four gospels would start in exactly the same way, with John the Baptist.

Though the Matthew and Luke birth stories are separate, distinct and different from each other, they are usually mingled together at this time of year, and we are accustomed to hearing them this way.

One story talks about shepherds, the other about the magi (wise men). But we don’t like to think of the shepherds without the wise men. Or vice-versa.

One story has Jesus born in a manger, the other has him born in a house. What? Everyone knows Jesus was born in a stable and slept in a manger. But Matthew says nothing about a stable, and has the magi visiting Jesus in a house.

One story mentions the star, the other does not. One story has Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem for a census. In the other, they’re already there.

The vast majority of biblical scholars agree that there are significant issues about the historicity of the birth narratives. It’s likely that they are the least historical part of the gospels.

It makes sense, when you think about it. Who was there to witness the birth and then write about it later?

The intention of of the birth stories is not to tell history. That’s just not the point.

The point is to announce something equally ineffable and joyous.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Writers' Strike is Important

Quote of the day:
"I was inspired by the marvelous example of Giacometti, the great sculptor. He always said that his dream was to do a bust so small that it could enter a matchbook, but so heavy that no one could lift it. That's what a good book should be."
--Elie Wiesel, talking about his memoir “Night.”

The Hollywood writers’ strike has gone on for a month, and the world has not stopped. Yet. If the production of “Friday Night Lights” is held up, I am going to be annoyed.

With the level of money so many of these writers make, it’s hard to feel much sympathy. But the strike rests on an important principle, which is that creative control should be in the hands of those with creative talent, not in the hands of those with no creative talent.

The writer and producer Marshall Herskovitz made this point very well in a Los Angeles Times column on November 8th. He says the current problem started when the Federal Communications Commission abolished the financial interest and syndication rules.

These were classic anti-trust regulations that prohibited networks from owning the programs they broadcast. Under these regulations, dozens of independent production companies thrived.

Since the repeal of the regulations, all of these companies have been forced out of business. The four networks essentially have a stranglehold on all production.

Just as in so many other industries, production (and writing) are now consolidated. Most everything we see and hear is coming from four huge and growing companies.

And there is much, much more meddling in the creative side by people who simply don’t know what they’re doing--that’s why they’re managers, accountants or lawyers instead of writers, actors, producers or directors.

This is not a black or white situation. Some managers and executives came up through the creative ranks.

But just like in most businesses, the people in charge came most often from sales. And the operations people came from CPA or business-school backgrounds.

Since when do these people know how to put together a TV show or movie? But now many of them have their red pencils out, marking up scripts.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Product of Pearl Harbor

Quote of the day:
“Not everybody has the mental elasticity to be a fideist, believe in Genesis and Galileo at the same time. There is always a conservative party, and by a kind of Newtonian law of the mind, action is matched by an equal reaction; one branch of the conservative party turns reactionary and clings more intensely to the old convictions.”
--Jacques Barzun

Today is Pearl Harbor Day. 66 years ago on Sunday morning, December 7th, our parents/grandparents heard the news that our naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was under attack.

Everyone who was more than five years old at the time bore the imprint of December 7th, 1941 for the rest of their lives. The attack continues to affect how some people think about America and the rest of the world.

This was so much more than a sepia-toned movie starring Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra. Though I do love “From Here to Eternity.”

We can watch film of the actual bombing, and we can hear FDR’s voice as he declares war on Japan. But it’s hard to imagine reading about the attack in the next day’s paper, or hearing events unfold on the radio in real time. The shock, bewilderment and fear must have been enormous.

I remember my parents often talking about Pearl Harbor through the 1960s. My father joined the Army during the war, and met my mother at a USO event.

So I guess, in a way, I am a product of Pearl Harbor.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Rain, Rain, Go Away. Not.

Quote of the day:
“If you can’t tolerate your worst, at least once in a while, how true to yourself can you be?”
--Benedict Carey

It’s been raining in San Diego, and more is to come in the next few days. I haven’t heard anyone complaining. Seeds are germinating all over, as in the photo.

It seems that people here are very aware of and serious about our drought--and the ongoing fire hazard.

Every time it rains, there is a predictably large number of freeway accidents. The Highway Patrol invariably makes the announcement that it cannot respond to all the bent metal and scattered plastic. If you have an accident, you have to fender for yourself.

I don’t know about other cities, but accidents in the rain in San Diego are usually caused by those who assume the laws of nature don’t apply to them, especially when they’re in a hurry.

At 60 miles per hour on a wet road, your car is officially classified as a hydroplane. There is water between your tire and the road. As oil gets mixed with the water, things get interesting.

With average freeway speed being 80 mph, it’s sort of amazing that more people aren’t killed. If they were, at least the person on the other end of the cell-phone conversation would know something was wrong. Isn’t the modern world wonderful?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Bladerunner: The Final Cut

Quote of the day:
“Creativity is the ability to see old things in a new way.”
--Carolyn Hax

We saw the “final cut” of “Bladerunner” today. I suspect that most folks in the theatre with us were diehard fans of the film, Phillip K. Dick, Ridley Scott, or sci-fi. We are none of these things.

But we enjoyed the movie. The beginning is both surprisingly subtle and stunning--it’s a vision of Los Angeles in 2017, originally produced in 1982.

The reputation of this film is well-deserved. It’s a unique vision, and this restoration brings it to the big screen with clarity and simmering power.

There are several chase sequences, but this movie is much more about mood and setting. It’s like “2001” in that respect.

It resembles a classic noir detective drama from the 1940s. Most of the scenes are quite dark, with sharply-angled lighting.

“Bladerunner” also has a significant dose of Poe-like gothic drama. I guess it will always be unlike most other sci-fi films.

A lot of sci-fi deals with the relationship of humans to technology. “Bladerunner” goes further than this, bringing up two questions:

What does it mean to be human?

What is the end of life?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Quote of the day:
"The great secret of doctors, known only to their wives, but still hidden from the public, is that most things get better by themselves; most things, in fact, are better in the morning."
--Lewis Thomas

Reality TV ranges from the insightful to the insipid. I’m watching across this spectrum--from “Intervention” to “House Hunters” to “Kitchen Nightmares” all the way down to “Survivor.”

“Intervention” has just begun a new season. It's an excellent show, though it’s very easy to dismiss it as “depressing.” It’s about addiction. More precisely, it’s about addicts and their families and friends.

Each show ends with an intervention involving the addict, family and friends, guided by a trained professional. Just before the credits, there is a moment where a slide explains what happened in the weeks or months after the intervention.

But the show is really about what addiction is, and how it happens within loving, normal families. By “normal,” I mean families with problems. All families have problems. Some show them, most don’t.

One of the reasons this show is so good is that addiction is so pervasive through our society. When our culture’s predisposition to pleasure-seeking, quick gratification and control meets the psychological and biological needs of an addict, it’s like a spark hitting gunpowder.

“Intervention” is done in a very straightforward documentary style. There is no narration. We simply see all the participants either living their lives or talking into the camera.

I don’t know exactly how it’s done, but the producers have full access to the lives of its subjects. We see as matter-of-fact the usually-concealed daily habits of alcoholics, drug addicts, anorexics and gambling addicts.

It’s not always pretty, but it is very insightful. Most of the people portrayed are normal people who live and work among us. We see how easily their lives have gone wrong.

And we see how mostly well-meaning friends and family members are almost always part of the addict’s problem. And they need to change their self-destructive expectations just as the addict needs to change her self-destructive habits.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Life-Giving Calendars

Quote of the day:
“We used to be a nation of bakers and candlestick makers. Now we're a nation of hedge fund managers and croupiers raking poker chips.”
--William Baldwin in the December 10th “Forbes.”

Say what you will about religion, it has given us some very good calendars.

Our 12-month calendar is surpassingly boring. It’s mechanical--just an extension of the clock.

By the way, if your goal in life is to live completely without irrational religious superstition, it’d be a good idea to shred all the calendars in your house. They are based on ancient numerology, which revered the numbers 7 and 12. (4 represented the earth, 3 was the heavens; 4+3 and 4x3 were therefore considered “complete” or “perfect” numbers.)

We have become accustomed to the artificial rhythms of the 12-month calendar. But virtually all the religious calendars support the natural rhythm of life.

This time of year the natural cycle is cold, dormancy and darkness, followed by increasing light, warmth and new life. All these things have symbols or celebrations in the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Wiccan, Buddhist and Hindu calendars.

Remembering that our lives exist among these cycles--that we are part of them--is a comforting, renewing and fulfilling exercise.

On the Christian calendar we have just begun a new year in darkness, moving to anticipation. It’s the season of Advent.

This is the season of declining light (in the Northern Hemisphere), ending with the winter solstice on December 20th. Then begins the journey back to light, warmth and new life.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Quote of the day:
"What goes on in your heart?
What goes on in your mind?"
--The Beatles

Quote of the day no. 2:
“Criticism is tradition defending itself against the three armies of the Goddess Stupidity: the army of amateurs who are ignorant of tradition; the army of conceited eccentrics who believe tradition should be suppressed by a stroke of the pen in order that true art may begin with them; and the army of academicians who believe they maintain tradition by a servile imitation of the past.”
--W.H. Auden

Movie making is seen as mostly a business of trying to reach those from 12 to 25 years old, who go to movies much more than the rest of us. In spite of this, the number of adult-themed films we see each year seems to grow. This is a good thing.

“Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” really stands out as an adult film, because it is so emotionally intense you can almost taste it. It reminded me of “Secrets and Lies,” “In the Bedroom” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Excellent movies all.

Emotional intensity is the last thing a lot of people want when they go to the movies. especially during the holidays, when we get enough of that from our own families. Nonetheless, there was a good crowd when we went to see it the other night.

The plot is fairly straightforward. A crime is planned, and it goes terribly wrong. The negative consequences slowly unfold, and we watch as all the participants have to deal with them.

Sidney Lumet is the most-veteran American director still at work, and he has structured this movie in an unusual way. It jumps around in time and among character points of view.

As I watched, the story seemed to be unfolding in a certain way and then it would switch to a different time period and a different character.

It might seem that this would be disruptive and disconcerting, and it was a bit the first two or three times it happened. But I didn’t much notice it after that. I became very interested in the people on the screen.

There is a powerfully contemporary thread that holds this movie together, and that thread is woven through all the characters.

Every single actor is excellent. These are the best performances I’ve ever seen from Ethan Hawke and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Albert Finney is worth the price of admission.

Do yourself a favor. See “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Why People Behave Funny

Quote of the day:
“Life is difficult.”
--Scott Peck

Quote of the day no. 2:
"This just might be the biggest auction of anything anyone has ever held, with the potential to change the course of history for every player inn the communications-services business."
--Eric J. Savitz in today's "Barron's," referring to the FCC's upcoming auction of broadband spectrum.

If you're like me, during the holidays you are especially concerned about unusual patterns of behavior among co-workers, friends and family.

If you'd like to to find a way to label such behavior, there's an interesting Wikipedia entry called "List of Cognitive Biases." It sounds scientific, but it's actually rather entertaining to see people you know (and maybe yourself) described with such clinical precision. And, as I say, this entertainment might come as a needed relief during the holidays.

Imagine how "irrational escalation," "hyperbolic discounting" and "post-purchase rationalization" come into play during shopping.

Wikipedia itself is a fascinating phenomenon. Earlier I was doing research for an upcoming class and I read the entry on Raymond Brown, who was a Catholic priest and renowned biblical scholar. He wrote a definitive and exhaustive book on the birth stories in Matthew and Luke.

His Wikipedia entry (in which he did not participate, because he died in 1998) does not talk about his work as much as it describes the Catholic doctrine he may or may not have violated by publishing this and other books.

Like many Wikipedia entries, people writing and contributing to it have their own strong agenda. See "Confirmation Bias" in the "List of Cognitive Biases."

Friday, November 30, 2007

Gone Baby Gone

Quote for the day:
“As much as we complain about having too much to do, most of us harbor some pride that we are in such demand.”
--Barbara Brown Taylor

Quote for the day no. 2:
“Perhaps because sci-fi has become an excuse for wretched excess and bombast in today’s movie culture, ‘Blade Runner: The Final Cut’ plays better now than ever.”
--Terry Lawson, today’s “Detroit Free Press”

Much more than other films, “Gone Baby Gone” bears the distinct imprint of its maker’s personality. It was directed and co-written by Ben Affleck.

Of course, every film is somehow a reflection of its writer’s and director’s personality. But in “Gone Baby Gone,” it seemed to me that Affleck was about as close to being onscreen as he could be without actually being there.

I don’t think it was because the star is his brother, Casey. I do think it is because Ben Affleck is so intense, opinionated and hyper.

Also, the very sensitive subject matter of the film would naturally bring emotions to the surface. When this happens outside of a filmmaking environment, there is usually someone in the room who reacts and speaks with passion and sincere “righteousness.” He or she may even begin to “preach” to everyone else.

In the making of this film, I suspect that Affleck was that person in the room, and he was the guy in charge.

I generally enjoyed “Gone Baby Gone,” and there are many fine scenes and performances in it. But I found it a bit heavy-handed.

At the movie’s core is a moral decision. The intent seems to be to paint the decision as coming from a grey area--the situations presented are neither pure good nor pure evil.

To make this work calls for some significant nuance. For whatever reason, Affleck simply has not brought that nuance to the screen.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

1937, 2007, 2077

Quote of the day:
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
--Max Planck

I can’t tell you how relieved I was to read this statement from the great physicist Max Planck.

There are times I find it nothing short of exasperating to read statistics that say things like the majority of Americans believe that the creation of the earth happened 6000 years ago, literally according to the Genesis story. No matter what data is laid out, or what careful, rational argument is made, this statistic is unshakeable.

Until some of these people start dying off. I think that’s how the world began seeing that Galileo and Copernicus were right, that the earth revolved around the sun. Over dozens of years, the opponents just slowly died off.

That’s what’s going to happen with creation and the age of the earth, too.

I expect Planck’s statement applies to other kinds of truth, also.

It reminds me of an inside joke I heard just after I was ordained. After being appointed to a congregation for a few months, a minister is asked how things are going. He says, “there’s nothing wrong with this church that a few well-placed funerals couldn’t cure.”

We are indelibly shaped by the culture in which we grow up. Our opinions and beliefs are more part of us and therefore more resistant to change than we think they are.

Think of how you are different from your parents, and how they were different from their parents.

While much about the world is the same, our cultural outlook today is quite different than that of our grandparents. This is largely because of what we have learned in the intervening years. We have come to accept new truths that have emerged.

70 years ago women had had the right to vote for just 17 years. Significant parts of the United States were clearly segregated by race, and would stay that way for years.

There was no television. Major cities each had a few daily newspapers. Air travel was for very rich people, and you there were no commercial flights over the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean. There were no malls, McDonald’s or Starbucks. If you wanted to go shopping, you went downtown. Life expectancy was 63.

In 2007, we live differently. Mostly better.

And we believe differently.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Driving in China

Quote of the day:
“Hatred is an affair of the heart; contempt that of the head.”
--Arthur Schopenhauer

These days we are alternately fascinated by and scared of China. It seems clear that the country is in the process of becoming an economic and political superpower, and we don’t know whether to cheer them on or be very frightened.

The photo above is a bridge in a Chinese city, choked by smog. What goes on inside China is a big mystery to most of us. We see pictures, we read news reports. But it can be very hard to learn what everyday life is like.

This makes Peter Hessler’s “Letter From China” in the November 26th “New Yorker” very rewarding reading. It’s an entertaining romp through what it’s like to rent a car and drive in China. He did both over several years.

What makes driving in China such an adventure is that most people are new to it. On top of this, everyone knows a little bit about driving--literally, just enough to be dangerous.

Car ownership is becoming more and more common, and everyone seems to think he’s a good driver. China has 28 cars per every thousand people, which is where the U.S. was in 1915. They have three percent of the world’s cars but twenty-one percent of its traffic fatalities.

Windshield wipers are considered a distraction, as are headlights. The use of headlights was banned in Beijing until the mid-1980s.

One question on the driving exam is “During the evening, a driver should a) turn on the brights, b) turn on the normal lights, c) turn off the lights.”

Another question: “True or False: In a taxi, it’s fine to carry a small amount of explosive material.”

And this: “When overtaking another car, a driver should pass a) on the left, b) on the right, c) wherever, depending on the situation.”

And this: “If, while preparing to pass a car, you notice that it is turing left, making a U-turn, or passing another vehicle, you should a) pass on the right, b) not pass, c) honk, accelerate, and pass on the left.”

And this: “When driving through a residential area,, you should a) honk like normal, b) honk more than normal, to alert residents, c) avoid honking, in order to avoid disturbing residents.”

Honking is essential, according to Hessler, who describes the horn code: “A solid hooooonnnnnk is intended to attracted attention.

"A double sound--hooooonnnnnk, hooooonnnnnk--indicates irritation. There’s a particularly long hooooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnk that means a driver is stuck in traffic, has exhausted curb-sneaking options, and would like everyone else on the road to disappear.

“A responding hooooooooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnk proves they aren’t going anywhere.”

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

My Ride is Tougher than Yours

Quote of the day:
"Both the cockroach and the bird could get along very well without us, although the cockroach would miss us most."
--Joseph Wood Krutch

Yesterday Ford announced it is manufacturing a new limited edition of the Shelby-modified Mustang that Steve McQueen drove in “Bullitt.” They are calling it the "Bullitt."

As much as I love the amazing chase scene in that movie, I will not be buying one of the cars. Thank you very much.

Ford is burnishing its cool-muscle-car image with baby boomers, and I guess it expects that image to bleed over into other products and age groups. Dodge will soon do the same with a nostalgia-inducing Challenger.

In the 1980s I owned a 1965 Mustang for a while. I loved the way it looked, but it drove like a tank and could be loosely classified as a piece of junk. It was a very good day when I traded it in for a small fun-driving Nissan with AC and a radio that worked.

“Mustang” is a terrific car name. So are “Barracuda” and “Cougar.”

These days, non-alphanumeric car names can be a tad ridiculous (so can the letters and numbers, but that’s a different story). I especially love the “biggest and strongest” names that car makers give their vehicles: “Armada,” “Titan,” “Avenger,” “Magnum,” “Nitro,” “Avalanche,” “Tundra,” and “Sequoia.”

Now, that’s what I want. To drive a large tree. Or a vast frozen wilderness.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Cyber Monday

Quote of the day:
"A wide awake lad has no patience with that which is namby-pamby. ... He demands real flesh and blood heroes who do something."
--Edward L. Stratemeyer, who created The Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew series.

Alright already.

First it was “Black Friday.” Now it’s “Cyber Monday.”

Today is imagined as the post-Thanksgiving pre-Christmas day when Americans across the land unite and buy things online. Preferably at work.

Online shopping is a major pastime at workplaces everywhere. That’s why no one wants his computer screen visible from his office door. It’s annoying to have to navigate away from Ebay when you hear someone walking by.

This goes on everywhere, but don’t ever ask anyone about it, because it’s a secret.

So I’m not sure we need Cyber Monday. Unless we’re going to permanently modify the workweek. As we did with Casual Friday.

In any case, I sure am glad that we’re naming all these days. Otherwise they wouldn’t mean anything. They’d all be just ordinary days of life.

Not ranked in any way. Not labeled in any way. Except Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, ….

Ordinary days. How unimaginably boring.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

No Country for Old Men

Quote of the day:
"One should either be sad or joyful. Contentment is a warm sty for eaters and sleepers."
--Eugene O'Neill

Neither Merrie nor I fell asleep during “No Country for Old Men.” I don’t think it’s possible.

It’s definitely a Coen brpthers film, with echoes of “Fargo” and “Miller’s Crossing,” and it often feels very similar to “Blood Simple.” The major characters are very closely followed, and sometimes there is a minutely-observed moment. Kinda like real life.

But this is their most-substantial movie so far.

The plot is almost-Hitchcockian in its building suspense. A man (Josh Brolin) stumbles on a drug deal gone bad and takes a suitcase full of money. People on both sides of the deal give chase, as does a timeworn sheriff, played in great glory by Tommy Lee Jones.

As involving as this story is, it is just a piece of what is going on. This is also a rich portrait of a time and place, and a careful study of how human beings deal with circumstances.

Most curiously, it’s also an in-your-face meditation on good and evil. I guarantee it’s unlike any such mediation you’ve ever encountered.

Jones will likely get an Oscar nomination for his role here, as will Javier Bardem, who is truly extraordinary. I will be thinking about his performance for a long, long time.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

What All of Us Eat

Quote of the day:
“People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’--that is, to pull in like a turtle.”
--Robert Putnam, who has conducted a massive new study on the relationship between diversity and civic engagement.

Statistic of the day:
40% of North Korean children are chronically malnourished.

In the wake of Thanksgiving, here’s a website worth a few minutes of your time.

It shows how much families pay for food in a week in nations around the world. It’s not a surprise that there’s big difference from most to least, but seeing it in color brings it home.

The food choices are quite interesting, too. What we eat is strongly related to our culture. No surprise. It may be a surprise how strongly we expect certain foods at certain times of day.

For some of us, eggs in the morning. Or cereal. Or steamed milk and coffee (as in Starbucks). Cheeseburger or turkey sandwich for lunch. Dinner has more variation, but often it is pizza, pasta, roast chicken, burritos or salad.

Sometimes, what we eat is also related to what is grown and easily attainable near us. From the website, some cultures are much more dependent on this than others.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Black Friday

Quote of the day:
"I am constantly struck by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed--personally and intimately--to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago."
--Stephen Greenblatt

Why is this being called “Black Friday”?

Maybe it’s because so many people get up in the dark to wait in line at Wal-Mart to achieve life-changing bargains.

I suppose we have to call it something. It used to be the “busiest shopping day of the year,” but it’s not anymore.

“Almost the busiest shopping day of the year” doesn’t have that necessary hard-charging reportorial punch that post-Thanksgiving news stories demand. “Black Friday” is much better.

Isn’t it interesting that we have one day of gratitude for all we have, followed by a day of serious competition to get more stuff?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Quote of the day:
“I don’t need none of these things I’ve been handed.”
--Patty Griffin, from the song “No Bad News.”

I hope this day is very good for you.

Thanksgiving is such a gift. It’s an explicit opportunity to slow down, even stop for a little while.

And after we’re stopped, the invitation is to think of the presence of good in our lives, and to be grateful for the gifts of this life. Whatever our economic circumstance, and whether we are alone or with loved ones.

It’s a blessed day to step out of the place where we obsess about what is wrong with ourselves or our families or friends, or what is missing from our lives.

It’s a blessed day also because it seems to be getting more popular each year.

We need Thanksgiving.

Have a happy one!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

John McCain, Shame on You

Quote of the day:
“If you can’t remember anything, you’re not there.”
--Anonymous, from radioio

“How do we beat the (insert sexist epithet)?

At a campaign event, a woman asked John McCain this question, referring to Hillary Clinton. He laughed it off.

Two ugly points about this.

1. Americans, especially women, do not like strong women--that is, women who demonstrate leadership qualities that are never questioned in men. We reserve a special loathing for women who have these qualities and have succeeded.

2. It is appalling that so many of us dismiss this as no big deal. Some say that the word is not that bad. Well, they’re wrong. It is every bit as bad as any racial or ethnic slur.

Columnist Leonard Pitts is no Hillary Clinton fan, but he has an excellent commentary on this here.

This should be a source of reflection for all of us. And a source of shame for many of us. Who are we?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Abuse of Marketing

Quote of the day:
"An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all."
--Oscar Wilde

Here’s a follow-up to my screeds on marketing and conformity.

It seems that everyone knows something about marketing. Example: does anyone not know what a focus group is?

The use of focus groups used to be part of the mysterious and revealing magic of marketing. Now everyone has one or is in one.

Some people have boasted of being able to tip the process toward their point of view, which would defeat the purpose of market research.

Focus groups and research techniques have certainly been abused. Sometimes it is by companies trying to selling us something.

Most notoriously it is by unscrupulous political campaigns who conduct seemingly-benign surveys or assemble seemingly normal focus groups, for the purpose of deceitfully pushing a candidate or point of view.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Reason to Celebrate Today

Quote of the day:
“...government of the people, by the people and for the people....”
--Abraham Lincoln

I think this day on the calendar should be celebrated each year.

On this day 144 years ago, Abraham Lincoln delivered the most-important speech in American history. It became known as the Gettysburg Address.

The huge historical influence of this speech is well known. However, the reason I think we should commemorate its anniversary is only indirectly related to its historical impact.

This reason has to do with the nature of the speech, including how it was prepared and delivered.

It was four minutes long--just 10 sentences.

When was the last time we heard any politician give a four-minute speech, except when they were in trouble and avoiding the press?

When was the last time we heard ANYONE give a four-minute speech? How about never?

That Lincoln could change the course of American history and create a statement imprinted for eternity in our memories in four minutes is extraordinary and worthy of extended celebration.

Especially in our world where the ability to not shut up has become a an absolutely necessary characteristic in the careers of pundits and celebrities. Yak, yak, yak. Or, if you prefer: yack, yack, yack. (Both spellings are acceptable.)

In Lincoln’s day, political speeches were measured in hours, not minutes. In fact, his speech at Gettysburg followed a two-hour oration that has long been forgotten.

Lincoln’s speech did not get that way by some kind of accident or serendipity. He planned it very carefully and deliberately, spending hours over each word and phrase.

This is also unique in today’s world. What we see in the political arena is almost always just the stringing together of market-driven phrases and sentences.

Lincoln’s concisely constructed sentences are also the opposite of what we hear from anyone giving a speech--at work, or in our volunteer or leisure activities. In these cases, if there is any preparation at all, it is a few scribbled notes on a yellow pad.

For these reasons as well as the world-changing effect of the Gettysburg Address, its anniversary should be celebrated.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The 1960s Are Not What You Think

Quote of the day:
“Contrary to the usual understanding, the baby boomers didn’t create the culture of the sixties; they didn’t even inspire it. They consumed it. In 1968, the climax of the decade politically, the oldest baby boomer in America was just turning twenty-two. To the extent that baby boomers participated in protests, took drugs, and practiced ‘free love,’ they were responding to slogans, tastes, and fads dreamed up and promulgated by people much older than they were.”

--Louis Menand

It is common wisdom that the 1960s was a decade of revolution in many ways, including in movies and music. Neither were the same afterward.

Sometimes so much emphasis is put on the 1960s that we forget that what happened then didn’t just drop from the sky.

The amazing change in music and movies also was not the pure result of political rebellion. The much more vital factor in this was the rise, undetected by all except practitioners, of other creative forms.

For example, blues came to prominence in the 20s and 30s. Musicians growing up in the 40s and 50s were invariably exposed to it. And many incorporated it in very creative ways. Some of those efforts became rock and roll.

Experimental film grew into a serious movement in Europe and elsewhere in the 40s and 50s. Great filmmakers coming to maturity in the 1960s were heavily influenced by this.

So most of what we see as a cultural overthrow, a disrespect of authority and established forms, and a general rise in bad behavior caused by long hair and “liberalism,” is really simply the creative combination and alteration of forms that already existed.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Conformity and Marketing, Part Three

Quote of the day:
“A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours.”
--Milton Berle

The growth in emphasis on the precision science of marketing has made it increasingly difficult for those who are eccentric, even if only slightly.

With conformity becoming both more necessary and more difficult, and these people unable or unwilling to keep up, they have become outcasts.

To manage in our world, the eccentric person must either tolerate lots of misery, put their loved ones through constant misery, or submit to isolation or, in extreme cases, institutionalization or medication.

In a way, this is what Thoreau meant by “lives of quiet desperation.” It is a sort of grinding unhappiness that tears at one’s humanity and neutralizes the best characteristics of human nature.

These characteristics include intense longing, the creative impulse, and openness to joy and pain. They enable us to know real fulfillment and realize that life is very, very good indeed.

It is through these characteristics that we rise to our fullest and best selves.