Saturday, June 30, 2007

iPhone in Actual Use

Quote of the day:
“I’m recording our history now on the bedroom wall,/ And when we leave the landlord will come and paint over it all.”
--Ani DiFranco

There has been so much said and written about the iPhone, but nothing replaces actually using one for a while. It’s incredible. Really.

It doesn’t do anything revolutionary, but the way it does what it does IS revolutionary. It combines cellphone, e-mail, calendar, notepad, photo albums, camera, internet access, video playback, audio playback and a reader for MS Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and pdf files in a small, sleek package that is both easy and fun to use.

You can just pick it up and get your current weather forecast or stock quotes with one tap. You can carry enough music and podcasts to listen for five days without repeating anything. You can download movies and TV shows.

All of this synchronizes completely with your computer. The synch begins when you drop the phone in its charging dock.

The video screen is sharp, crisp, vivid and easy to read. Navigating is all done by tapping and dragging a finger or two across the screen. After I did this for a couple of hours it started to become natural. The motions and process are intuitive.

It’s easy to learn on your own, but Apple is having free introductory classes for any questions.

The criticisms of the iPhone have mostly centered on technical aspects. I have not yet read a complaint that the phone is hard to use.

It is expensive, though my Palm Treo was, too. And please don’t compare this to the Treo (Palm organizer, e-mail, internet and phone). I know the Treo. The Treo was my friend. Believe me, the iPhone is no Treo.

Comparing the iPhone to the Treo, or any other high-end cell phone, is like comparing Paris, France to Toledo, Ohio.

Friday, June 29, 2007

iWait for iPhone

Quote of the day:
"You should never have your best trousers on when you go out to fight for freedom and truth."
--Henrik Ibsen

I have never been an early adopter. I’ve always been proud of my reasonable approach: to wait a few months or years for the kinks to be worked out and for the price to come down.

But I decided to use the gift card the kind people at Mission Hills United Methodist Church gave me to buy an iPhone at the Apple Store.

I thought I might have to wear a funny hat if I went to the store early to wait in line. But it turned out to be a lot of fun. We met some interesting people, young and old and in-between. Some folks recognized me from my KPBS days.

We were about 200th in a line that was calm and well-managed. The Apple folks came by regularly with updates and bottles of water (Smart Water, naturally).

A in-house video crew came by and asked to film an interview with us. I didn’t say “call now!” a single time. Merrie sparkled in her star turn.

At 3 minutes before the iPhone’s release at 6 o’clock, the entire store staff--about 50 of them--came running down the line, cheering and high-fiving everyone. Yeah, yeah, it’s a gimmick--but it was great!

At six, a roar went up as the doors opened. There was quite a crowd gathered just to watch. Merrie and I were inside making the purchase about a half hour later.

The iPhone is amazing, by the way.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The VP Should be Doing KP

Quote of the day:
“I want candy.”
--Bow Wow Wow

Quote of the day no. 2:
“James Gandolfini shot by closure-seeking fan.”
--Currently the number one e-mailed story on

Before the 2000 election, I watched the debate between the vice-presidential candidates. Both Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney seemed confident and on top of the issues. I remember thinking either of them would do a fine job. Boy, was I ever wrong.

For the record, here’s a bit of Eugene Robinson’s column from the June 27, 2007 Washington Post. Nothing more need be said.

“A remarkable series of stories in The Washington Post about Cheney’s unprecedented role [as vice president] began Sunday with the amazing tale of how, two months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Cheney got Bush to sign an order denying foreign terrorism suspects access to any court of law, military or civilian.

“Cheney presented Bush with the order, which had been written ‘in strict secrecy’ by Cheney’s lawyer, as the two had lunch.

“Within the hour, the document had been made official by Bush’s signature--and neither Secretary of State Colin Powell nor national security adviser Condoleeza Rice had been informed.

“Rice was ‘incensed,’ according to the Post, while Powell didn’t learn of the order--which had enormous implications for U.S. foreign policy--until he heard it announced that evening on CNN.”

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Rhymes With Dodgy

Quote of the day:
“It seems the vice president claims to exist in an alternative legal universe, where the law is whatever he says it is.”
--Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)

The other day I was having coffee at The Living Room and I noticed the title of the book someone at a nearby table was reading: The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. My first thought was a question. Do the oppressed know they have a pedagogy?

Personally, I find pedagogy itself rather oppressive. Like Houston in the summer.

I am not sure if oppression is pedagogical. It certainly has pedagogical characteristics. There are many ways to teach someone to stay away from Houston in the summer.

Mostly the words just sound interesting together. There’s a music to them.

Which reminds me: the guy reading the book eventually went outside and played his guitar. It was a pedagogical guitar. He sang about oppression.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Creation, Or Change?

Quote of the day:
"Of the needs a book has, the chief need is that it be readable."
--Anthony Trollope

Quote of the day no. 2:
“American literary authors have all but abandoned the general reading public, noses upturned.”
--Eric Miles Williamson in the June 4, 2007 Los Angeles Times.

Quote of the day no. 3:
“The more bleak a work of art is, the more hopeful it may actually be--serving as a caution, a warning that we’d better shape up.”

Communication is a two-way street. There is the communicator, and the communicatee. Both parties share both roles. Ideally it would be a 50-50 sharing. But the world is much too interesting a place for that.

At the extremes, some people never speak up and others never shut up. Most of us manage to squeeze in a little listening from time to time, so someone can give us some new material to talk about.

To me, the best preachers, writers and artists know who they are talking to. They see themselves as communicators, and therefore understand that there must be receivers for their transmissions.

Pure art operates on a very different principle. If I am a true artist, I create just according to my own inspiration and ideas. Whether anyone is paying attention does not enter into my act of creation.

If we operate on that pure principle we need to be ready to be ignored. We may publish and even sell books, but the books will wind up on shelves, unread. Or read and misunderstood or forgotten.

Meeting people where they are--speaking their language--is a tough task. But it’s the only way to begin to make a difference--to have a bit of influence on people’s thinking.

So I guess it comes down to the goal. Is it simply creation? Or do you hope to make a difference?

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Good German/Shepherd

Quote of the day:
"It's not a phone. It's not an iPod. It's a phenomenon. They don't even have to release the damn thing to consider it a success."
--David Chamberlain, Technology Industry Analyst

We found ourselves in an interesting position last week. Netflix sent us both The Good German and The Good Shepherd. We had both these movies in the house as well as an actual good German Shepherd. A harmonic convergence, perhaps?

I don’t know what’s gotten into Steven Soderbergh. His film (German) is very much like his Kafka of several years ago. That is, incomprehensible. Or pointless. Or both. The black-and-white cinematography is quite interesting but not enough to sustain this film, which has good actors and a strange plot that I ceased caring about after 20 minutes.

The Good Shepherd is much better. But then, so is Attack of the Crab Monsters.

Shepherd is Robert DeNiro’s first film as a director, and he clearly knows what he is doing. The problem is that he does it for so long. This 2 hour 40 minute movie could have been 90 minutes without losing a bit, extracto tediumis maximus.

Matt Damon puts in an excellent performance. Indeed, all the acting is quite good, including DeNiro’s. The film tells a fictionalized story of the formation and early days of the CIA.

It is quite interesting. Just not 2 hours and 40 minutes interesting. There’s just not enough character depth or plot to sustain it that long.

But I do hope DeNiro makes another film. It is beautifully shot and skillfully edited.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

History Was Real

Quote of the day:
“If I can’t count on myself for pity, who can I count on?”
--Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers, Crankshaft, June 23, 2007.

The other day I was reading a brief account of a major historical event--the first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

We all know that it was Charles Lindbergh who did this. And we may remember that it happened in 1927.

We may forget, however, that the flight took 33 1/2 hours. Can you imagine being in a plane for 33 1/2 hours? With no heat and no bathroom? And with just a few sandwiches to eat?

I had forgotten that Lindbergh took no radio on his flight, and he had no navigational equipment. Also, when he took off, the plane was so heavy with gasoline for the nonstop flight that it just barely got off the ground.

Making the flight took a lot of courage.

In our factoid-obsessed world we are often bumping into historical snippets. Reading about Lindbergh’s achievement reminded me that history is not an abstraction. It is made by very real human beings in very real circumstances.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Parents and Teens

Quote of the day:
“There’s an overwhelmingly positive relationship between parents and young people.”
--Radha Subramanyam, vice president for research and planning, MTV Networks Kids and Family Group.

Quote of the day no. 2:
“Well, it’s not so bad. After all, I did the same thing when I was his age.”
--An anonymous parent of a teenager using drugs.

The first statement comes out of a survey of 1,000 teens conducted by MTV (reported in today’s Barron’s). The poll showed that parents have the most influence of anyone in a teen’s choice of a cellphone, computer, internet provider and home-entertainment system.

Radha Subramanyam (quoted above) says that boomer’s kids see their parents as both role models and “best friends.”

Their teens rank them a close second to music in answer to the question “What most defines you?”

In the other direction, parents rely heavily on the advice of their 13-to-19-year-olds when they buy cars or pick where to travel.

The second statement above (“I did the same thing when I was his age”) belies a desire to hold a teenager to our lowest standard of behavior. That logic comes out of my own childhood. I used it when, to defend something I did, I said to my mother, “Well, Johnny did it.” My mother said, “If Johnny jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do that, too?”

In summary, just because you did something when you were his age, it is not automatically OK that your teenager does it.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Reason in the Health Care Debate

Quote of the day:
“Life in Lubbock, Texas taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love.”
--Butch Hancock

The health-insurance debate is back, thanks to the Democratic presidential candidates and Michael Moore’s movie Sicko, which is opening in a week. See the February 1 post How We Ration Doctor Visits.

Just like every issue debated and shouted about in the press, we hear a disproportionate amount from two extremes. It’s either

Let’s be reasonable, shall we? Is it possible for us to gradually acknowledge a few things? For example, that there is much good about our health-care system? And that there are way too many people who can’t get reasonable access to it?

We also need to recognize that, as businesses, the drug manufacturers, health insurers and for-profit hospitals have priorities that may not be in line with all of our goals as a nation. Any business, big or small, is always seeking primarily to lower costs and raise prices. It’s the nature of free enterprise.

If our goal is to make health care more-accessible for those who can’t afford it, it will increase costs. This goes directly against the highest priority of our health providers. This means that the government has to be involved, as it is with Medicare.

This does not mean that we are headed toward “socialized medicine.” It also does not necessarily mean that the system will be wildly inefficient.

But, if our goal is to provide health care access to those who need it but can’t afford it, we will need to deal with change and occasional inefficiency.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bleak Yet Uplifting Art

Quote of the day:
“You who must leave everything that you cannot control,
it begins with your family and soon it gets down to your soul.”
--Leonard Cohen

A production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf just ended at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. It is a searing and thought-provoking play, made into an extraordinary 1966 film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

As I read a glowing review of the play I thought of how unwilling so many people are to see “bleak,” “depressing” or “angry” plays, movies or TV shows.

The statement that instantly pops up is: “My life is hard and depressing enough. When I go to the movies I want to see something uplifting or cheerful.” Or we hear the related statement: “I go to the movies to be entertained, not to think or be challenged.”

These are totally logical and understandable statements. We all want an enjoyable time at movies, plays or in front of the TV. Nothing wrong with that.

However, it is unfortunate when we seek to separate the enjoyable from the challenging aspects of art and entertainment. It’s like trying to separate the tastiness from the nutritiousness of food. And then wanting to eat only the sweetness, saltiness or sourness.

I find that when I seek out challenge in movies, plays, TV shows and art, it is always bound inextricably with enjoyment. And the enjoyment can be especially profound and long-lasting.

This is what makes art and entertainment enriching, life-enhancing and life-affirming.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Helping the Homeless: Another Step

Quote of the day:
“You don’t exist until you’re on TV.”
--Wiley Miller in Non Sequitur, June 19, 2007.

Quote of the day no. 2 (a reprise from April 6, 2007):
“Cities that have tracked chronically homeless people estimate that a typical transient can cost taxpayers $20,000 to $150,000 a year. You could not design a more expensive, wasteful of ineffective way of providing healthcare to individuals who live on the street than by having librarians dispense it through paramedics and emergency rooms.”
--Chip Ward, former assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library, from

This quote came to mind as I read the AP story today about a “home for the homeless” in Seattle. It is far from a typical homeless shelter, most of which strictly prohibit use of alcohol or drugs.

There are some house rules to keep people safe and to keep the neighbors happy, but this Seattle facility is essentially apartments with very low rents. The idea is to keep alcoholics off the street, which will keep them safer and out of emergency rooms.

The estimated cost per resident per year is $11,000, financed with taxpayer money and private donations. There has been some objection to the public funding of this, even though taxpayers are already paying approximately $100,000 a year for each homeless person living on the street.

Kudos to officials in Seattle for an effort that is both very sensible and kind. The AP story said there is a similar program in Minneapolis. Hats off to them, too.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I-10 Economic Indicator

Quote of the day:
"The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will result in sudden death."
--Harry Houdini

Data tidbit of the day:
“One exit poll [from the 2006 election] indicated that voters think female lawmakers are three times more trustworthy than their male counterparts.”
--Washington Monthly, January/February 2007.

This week I’m in Redlands, California attending the Annual Conference of the United Methodist churches of our region. Redlands is 50 miles due east of Los Angeles and close to San Bernardino and Riverside.

There were times when I was driving east on interstate 10 when I wasn’t sure if I was on a highway or the railroad tracks. I estimate that one-third of the considerable number of vehicles on this road were tractor-trailers.

There were the expected moments when I felt a little intimidated among these huge vehicles. But what was truly breathtaking was simply the quantity of commercial traffic barreling east from L.A. And coming the other way, too.

Maybe it’s an economic indicator. If so, I would say our economy is quite robust, thank you very much.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Rights Under Siege

Quote of the day:
“Before I began watching this show, I had no strong opinion about illegal immigration. Now, I’m in favor of not only granting illegal immigrants citizenship, but also giving them each a fancy car and a semiautomatic weapon, if for no other reason than to watch ‘Lou Dobbs Tonight’ and see if a man can literally explode from bluster.”
--Gene Weingarten, San Diego Union-Tribune, June 17, 2007.

Yesterday I talked about privacy concerns that have been raised against Google. I said I was not especially concerned.

I am, however, very concerned about violations of privacy on the part of the government. And I am hugely concerned about the suspension of due process in criminal investigations. And furthermore, I am even more concerned about the real or implicit suspension of the Geneva Convention.

The same reason is given, mantra-like, for all three of these things. We hear it over and over and over again: “If it enables us to stop terrorists, it is worth this suspension of our rights.” More facilely, it’s referred to as giving up “a little bit” of freedom for increased security.

There is a fundamental flaw in this reasoning. The assumption is that “the ends justify the means.” We forget that this cliche is not supposed to be a statement, but rather a question. As in “Do the ends justify the means?”

This is meant as an open-ended, Socratic question, intended to stimulate thinking and conversation.

My view is that ends and means really cannot be separated. I agree with what Martin Luther King said in a 1964 San Diego speech. He was addressing those who argued that the way to achieve civil rights was through violence.

King said that it was impossible to use violent means to achieve non-violent ends. He said, “the means are the ends in process.”

So our goal is not to achieve the result of a peaceful, free and just country by whatever means we think will work. Instead, our goal is to simply be a peaceful, free and just country.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Googling and Gargling

Quote of the day:
“When we honestly ask ourselves which people in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
--Henri Nouwen

Google has become so significant that it is now a phenomenon. The internet has always held the promise of wide and relevant access to any information, anywhere. Over the last several years, Google has gradually been bringing that promise to reality. It is used and depended on daily by millions of people.

Google can track what each user searches for, and it can catalog and save search data, thereby creating user profiles. These profiles allow it to tailor advertisements that appear for specific users.

This ability has generated concerns about online privacy, and about the potential for theft or misuse of the data. The concerns are natural and understandable. They are the same concerns we have about misuse of any data that is kept about us--how we use our credit cards, who we talk to on the phone, what magazines we subscribe to, what organizations we belong to, and so forth.

The scale here is exponentially bigger, and that is what concerns (or scares) us. While Google will not have all data about everything, it can capture at least some of my business activities and personal interests. And do the same for billions of other people.

Although our fear of doing transactions on the internet has abated, there remains an undefined suspicion of technology. Over hundreds of years we have come to trust implicitly the process of sending slips of paper through the mail, or giving them to strangers at our local store, bank or organization. Yet many are still wildly suspicious of doing similar things on the internet.

I’m not all that worried. I admire Google’s incredibly audacious goal to be the worldwide database for all information. And I think the closer they get to that goal the easier and better all of our lives will be.

I like that it’s free, and if that means a couple of paid ads show up when I do a search, I prefer that they be ads for things that are interesting to me. Just imagine living in a time when I can answer any question by simply opening a small device on my coffee table.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Religious Conflict

Quote of the day:
“I have walked through picket lines in San Diego, California to deliver a lecture. I have endured a bomb threat at Catholic University in Brisbane, Queensland. I have been the recipient of sixteen death threats, all of which came from bible-quoting ‘true believers.’

“I am grateful for each of my critics. What they unwittingly did was identify me as a resource for the religious seekers of our world who yearn to believe in God but who are also repelled by the premodern literalizations that so frequently masquerade as Christianity.”
--Bishop John Shelby Spong

This passage comes from Spong’s book Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Published in 1998, it has become much more relevant in the nine years since.

Spong, who is a retired Episcopal bishop, is very concerned that the mainline church is shrinking. His thesis is that some of the central doctrines of the church are based on woefully outdated information and are thus incomprehensible to modern spiritual seekers.

Most “experts” on church growth attack the issue with a myriad of tactics to market, invite and welcome people to church. Instead of this “outside-in” approach, Spong advocates that the church move inside-out. And so he examines and critically questions the roots of doctrine.

Then he goes back further in an effort to discern what the life of Jesus and the earliest Jewish and Christian tradition has to say about the relationship between humans and the divine.

Jesus as “rescuer” has become an embedded part of Christianity, and has been proclaimed endlessly by conservative Christians. Because Spong has the audacity to remind us that this is but one of several interpretations of the life of Jesus (and is not the earliest), he continues to be vilified, attacked and threatened.

Friday, June 15, 2007

"Crazy Love"

Quote of the day:
“We confess our little faults to persuade people that we have no large ones.”
--Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Now here’s a documentary for people who don’t like documentaries as well as those who do. It’s Crazy Love.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more-appropriately titled movie. Though I suppose it could more-precisely have been called Crazy Insanely Wacko Love.

This is a compelling and very unusual story with multiple layers of fascination. While the plot of the film has been given away in many reviews, I’m not going to talk about it, because a big part of my enjoyment of the film was not knowing what would happen next.

I encourage you to not investigate the story line before you see it. But do see it.

Crazy Love is an incredible portrayal of the mores of the 1950s, the incomprehensible power of the human heart, and how wildly irrational our delusions can be.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Wonder, Part Two

Quote of the day:
“The difference between sex and love is that sex relieves tension and love causes it.”
--Woody Allen

Here is the second part of Marcia Alexander’s meditation on wonder:

I am full of holes.  I don't always know what to do with these holes.  I ruminate over the power of the holey.  Looking into the earth, I am fascinated by petrified wood.  Talk about holes.  You need three things for petrified wood:  wood, mud and minerals.  Oh, and plenty of time. 

First comes the tree.  Dying, the tree is covered by water and dirt.  Slowly decaying, minerals leach in to take the place of the organic matter.  The shape remains but the content is different.  The holes are filled and petrified. 

Human beings are holey creatures.  We spend our lives losing and gaining, emptying and filling up.  Everything seems to empty just to fill up again.  Like a filling station.  But our wonder is that we're not petrified.  We're permeable.  I think our permeable holes make us human.  That's our gift, permeable skin.
The wonder is that nature allows us to be open.  The instant we petrify, everything stops.  Holes allow us to wander from one culture to another, exploring, testing, tasting.  They allow us to wander from one homo sapien to another, loving, healing, encouraging.  We encounter the earth, each other and the universe knowing that we are cradled in the midst of a universe of holes waiting to be explored. 

Wonder connects us to our deepest dreams, points us to a future and reminds us that the whole earth, all life, is nurtured in the cradle of the holey.  So, the next time you feel empty, rejoice and accept the invitation to be in the deepest hole waiting and anticipating the unexplored reality coming to visit.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A Meditation on Wonder

Quote of the day:
“Taxpayers describe the very high cost of keeping Paris Hilton in jail as totally worth it.”
--Conan O’Brian

Today I’m sending along a wonder-ful contribution from my friend Marcia Alexander:

I love wonder.  When I was a child, I lost myself in fairy tales and Greek and Norse myths.  Even today, stories that take me to new worlds make this world bigger and I dare to dream of new realities. 

My childhood had dark places and Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty opened wonder filled windows to places rampant with unexpected possibilities.  I have never understood the need to relegate wonder to childhood as though it belongs only to Disney and not to science, politics, anthropology, geology, theology, botany etc.
When I step outside my own skin and look at the skin of the world around me, I see green, i.e. the wonder of what is.  Green is everywhere, in plant leaves, in grass, in desert oases, in green thumbs that urge plants to grow.  Plant greenness tells me that the plant is successfully using sunlight to change water and carbon dioxide into food and releasing a little byproduct called oxygen. 

What a fundamental connection between humans and green things.  Isn't it incredible that in the world's vast deserts, the sign of life is the green oasis where a thirsty life form can find water and green food.  It is galling to realize that I take such wonders for granted. 

I am knitted into the very fabric of the earth and yet I try so hard to separate myself from earth's wonders.  It is ironic.  I spend my life trying  to figure myself out and yet, if I sat still for a moment and looked into the earth's mirror, I might find a clue to my humanity and my role in this web of wonder.

To be continued.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Inside Tony's Skin

Quote of the day:
“An assumption deeply integral to capitalism ... [is that there’s] not enough to go around: not enough love, not enough time, not enough appointments at the food-stamps office, not enough food stamps, not enough money, not enough seats on the subway. It’s pervasive. We learn mistrust of each other, bone deep: everything is skin off somebody’s nose.”
--Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz

Ok. Have we all calmed down about how The Sopranos ended? Many people took the seemingly-abrupt ending very personally. The Los Angeles Times TV critic said that producer David Chase “owed” all of us a much tidier resolution.

Merrie and I were both a bit jarred when the screen went black. We digested it for a minute or two and then simply said, “well, it’s all over.”

I had a chance this evening to watch the last 15 minutes of the episode again. Knowing what was going to happen allowed me to watch objectively. And I was impressed at how well these few scenes--especially the last one--summed up the series.

Karla Peterson of the San Diego Union-Tribune pointed out that the final scene was both ambiguous and filled with dread--set in the midst of an ordinary dinner at a family restaurant.

What we experience while watching this is likely what Tony Soprano feels as he continues to live his life. And the ambiguity, anticipation and uncertainty is what we all feel as we live our lives.

It’s an unusual end for an unusual TV series. The Sopranos will be remembered for many years. It has marked and even defined the first decade of the century.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Original Dysfunction

Quote of the day:
“As my prayer became more attentive and inward, I had less and less to say. I finally became completely silent…. This is how it is. To pray does not mean to listen to oneself speaking. Prayer involves becoming silent, and being silent, and waiting until God is heard.”
--Soren Kierkegaard

Yesterday I mentioned the two creation stories. I want to touch on the second one again, because one doctrine that originates there has been intensely controversial for quite some time. You guessed it. We’re talking original sin.

The traditional Christian teaching is that human sin (that is, disconnection from the sacred) began with Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. The doctrine developed that this “sin” was part of each human being at birth.

One of the most vocal opponents of this teaching was Rev. Matthew Fox, who in the 1990s developed an alternate view he called “original blessing.” He based this on the first creation story (in which God calls all of creation including humans “very good”). Because this story precedes the Adam and Eve story, he considered it primary, and the most-basic view of essential human nature.

I have always found the source of the original sin idea a bit opaque. Saying that Adam was disobedient to God may or may not be true, but to me it is singularly unhelpful. What exactly does “disobedience to God” mean? How exactly does a person know if he is disobedient to God? There is a great deal of interpretation needed from various authority figures, some of whom may have their own disobedient-to-God agenda.

I prefer to think in terms of the original, and subsequently universal, human failing. It may be the root of all human suffering. It does not begin with an act of disobedience, but with what happens afterward.

The Adam and Eve story illustrates this perfectly. When God asks Adam if he ate the apple, Adam says yes he did, because Eve told him to do it. When God turns to Eve and asks her the same question she says yes, she did tell Adam to eat the apple, because the snake told her to.

This is called passing the buck. We all carry the impulse to do this. This failure to take responsibility causes pain, sadness, dysfunction and even violence. From this impulse all kinds of evil springs.

If there is original sin, this is it--alive and all around us.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Religious, Spiritual, Secular

Quote of the day:
“There are three kinds of people: those who can count and those who can’t.”
--Richard Lederer

Actually there are two kinds of people. Those who implicitly trust other people, and those who are implicitly suspicious of other people. If you’ve been around a few people at some time in your life, you probably have noticed this.

Of course, any individual may be “good” or “bad” at any particular moment in his life. What I’m talking about here is our assumption about the most-essential nature of human beings. Deep down, when everything is stripped away, are we essentially “good,” or essentially “bad”? I’m saying that all of us go through life consciously or unconsciously believing one or the other.

This is not necessarily a religious or spiritual belief, but there is a religious framework for it. Among Christians, Jews or Muslims, there are two kinds of people. Those who have an affinity with the first creation story (people are essentially “good”), and those who have an affinity with the second (people are essentially “bad”).

There are two separate and distinct creation stories in the bible. The first is the seven-day creation, which begins, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth...” For each of the first six days, Gods speaks, and something is created. When God is halfway done, God looks out and sees that creation is “good.” When God is completely done, God looks over all of creation, including humans, and sees that is is “very good.” On the seventh day, God rests.

As a religious person, if this story resonates with you, you believe that human nature is essentially good.

The second creation story is the one with Adam and Eve, and it comes from a different tradition than the first. We know this right away because the name of God becomes “Lord God.”

In this story God forms Adam from the dust of the ground, and then uses Adam’s rib to create Eve. Then the trouble starts when God tells Adam that he can eat from any tree except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The snake tells Eve that it’s really ok to eat from the tree, Eve tells Adam, who then has an apple. God gets mad and throws them both out of the garden.

If this story resonates with you, you likely are suspicious of human nature.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

An Unnamed Jailed Individual

Quote of the day:
“Keeping track of the latest in Paris Hilton incarceration news has been tricky these days. But not as tricky as figuring out why we care.”
--Karla Peterson and John Wilkens, San Diego Union-Tribune, today.

Quote of the day no. 2:
“[I]t’s not in her image to do anything socially useful. Paris has an image based on triviality and emptiness. How else could she have dealt with this?”
--Leo Braudy, professor of English at the University of Southern California. He’s written a book called The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History.

Is it the celebrity of fame, or the fame of celebrity? Has it always been that we value celebrity over everything else, including intelligence, integrity, talent and ability?

It’s useless to fret about our fascination with the above-named jailed individual (hereafter known as ANJI). We are fascinated and sometimes preoccupied.

If you are not fascinated, please don’t read any more. Just accept that you are one of the world’s select, creative, intelligent, successful, beautiful people, always focused on the most vital issues facing humanity: Iraq, real-estate prices and “these kids today.”

I am drawn to two things related to ANJI--one specific and one general.

First, I am interested in the personality characteristic that craves, seeks and generates continuous public attention. What is that characteristic, and where does it come from? In my professional life I have crossed paths with many pathological attention-seekers, and it has always baffled me. Especially when the need for attention seems somehow desperate.

Second, I am equally interested in the cultural characteristic that elevates celebrities--even if these celebrities have demonstrated no reason to be famous. Except that they are famous. What’s with that?

Is this something new in our age of all-media-everywhere? Or has it always been with us?

Friday, June 8, 2007

"Away From Her"

Quote of the day:
"Literature, like magic, has always been about the handling of secrets, about the pain, the destruction and the marvelous liberation that can result when they are revealed."
--Michael Chabon

Sarah Polley is a 28-year-old actress you likely have seen but don’t remember. She’s had roles in a variety of TV shows and films, including "The Sweet Hereafter," "Last Night" and "Dawn of the Dead."

Her first film as a director is called Away From Her, and it is very good indeed. I will be interested to see what she does next.

If you’ve heard about this film, you may be avoiding it because it features a character with Alzheimer’s Disease. It does. But this is no pity-party-movie-of-the-week, as in “terrible illness but the human spirit prevails.” Way far from it.

There are subtly powerful performances from Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent and Olympia Dukakis, all of whose depth of experience radiates from the screen. While the setting and situations are realistic and believable, the story is unusual and poignant.

"Away From Her" is a charming, moving and life-filled meditation on memories, meaning and moments that matter.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Republican Illumination

Quote of the day:
“Problems will always torment us, because all important problems are insoluble: that is why they are important. The good comes from the continuing struggle to try and solve them, not from the vain hope of their solution.”
--Arthur Schlesinger

CNN sponsored the debate among the Republican presidential candidates on Tuesday night. Viewership was low. This is too bad, not because it’s important to learn about the candidates at this very early date, but because the program was both oddly illuminating and entertaining.

The record of the current administration and Republican leadership in Congress wouldn’t exactly lead you to turn to the GOP for illumination. Yet this unexpectedness made it all the more interesting.

One such moment came when Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee responded to a question about abortion. He articulately, authentically and concisely laid out the case for supporting a “culture of life.” He said we must do more to care for and support all human life, especially children and older people in poor or compromised circumstances. Even though I disagree with his position on abortion, I admired him for making this clear and heartfelt statement.

Another moment was also illuminating because of its unexpected genuineness. It came just after various candidates had finished pelting each other about how high and thick to build the wall to keep all nasty immigrants out. (This is evidently the extent of the immigration debate among some Republicans.)

When the dust had settled from this, John McCain stood up and said in his low-key way that immigrants had always been the strength of this country, and that they will continue to be. He said that we should focus on supporting immigrants, not just limiting or regulating them.

Imagine that. A suggestion that we approach an issue reasonably rather than with fear. And during a Republican debate. I’d call that a moment of unexpected refreshment.

Most of the rest of the debate was made up of posturing, bloviating and grasping for far-right-wing votes. (Repeat after me: “I’m more conservative than you!”) This was so obvious that it became entertaining.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Keepin' It Real, Estate

Quote of the day:
“It's all about sex and territory, 
which are what will finish us off
in the long run.”
--Margaret Atwood, from her poem February

I’ve mentioned before how the daily press seems festooned with daily developments about real estate. The other day there was a story about the imminent expiration of “initial rate periods” for a significant number of adjustable rate mortgages. In other words, those who bought in 2005 with a low 2-year “initial” or “teaser” rate would soon find themselves with higher rates and higher monthly payments--in some cases, much higher.

Let me get this out of the way: You are a brilliant real estate investor. So am I. So is everyone. We’re all brilliant real estate investors. Now I can continue.

The mantra-like refrain we are repeatedly hearing is “I’m waiting until the market turns up.” For those who want to sell real estate (brilliant, all of them), this is a good strategy.

The market may “turn up” in a few months (who knows, really?), but it is much more likely that it will “turn up” in a few years or longer. All of us brilliant real estate investors seem to have temporarily forgotten that, historically, the market can be flat or choppy for many years at a time.

So, waiting for the upturn is good, and we need to be ready to wait a long time.

0-60 in 4.5 Seconds!!

Quote of the day:
"Here we have singing, dancing, laugh, and merriment. ... When our king goes out, they fall down and kiss the earth where he has trodden; and then they go on kissing one another. They have as much happiness in one year as an Englishman in ten."
--Thomas Jefferson, while in Paris as the Ambassador to France

Question of the day:
Whatever happened to the color-coded warning system?

A new-car review in the newspaper got me to thinking. Not about buying a car, but about how the cars we prefer tell us about ourselves.

The review was of a new Cadillac sports model with mucho macho horsepower. The reviewer made the observation that the Cadillac really took off from a standing start. In fact, it was faster out of the gate than the European sports models.

But the reviewer went on to say that in the upper RPMs--once the car was already moving--all the European cars outperformed this American model. The precise design and engineering of the European models made them better at cornering, acceleration, braking and all areas of handling once under way.

I guess what sells in the American market is a rocket takeoff from the stoplight. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.

Does this say anything about our culture, and our views of achievement, joy, and sustainability?

Monday, June 4, 2007

Joy On The Court

Quote of the day:
"A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules."
--Anthony Trollope

Joy has come to Mudville. The mistake on the lake is no fake. Or something like that.

How about those Cleveland Cavaliers! They came back from a 0-2 deficit in the NBA Eastern Conference finals and won the series over the mighty Detroit Pistons. Now they’re headed to the NBA finals against the San Antonio Spurs. the games begin on Thursday, and promise to be full of spirit and emotion.

The Cavaliers were legendary for having the worst team in the NBA, year after year. Things shifted a few years ago when the phenomenal LeBron James joined the team, and now the team seems to have blossomed.

James is extraordinary. Remember the video of him during practice last season making three or four full-court shots in a row? He seemed to do it with so little effort. He also seems to be a down-to-earth, nice guy. The photo of him jumping into the center’s arms at the end of the Detroit game is terrific.

I do hope they can mix it up with Tim Duncan and friends. They sure have momentum on their side. And Cleveland deserves a championship.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Anyone But

Quote of the day:
“Lots of people think they’re charitable if they give away their old clothes and things they don’t want. It isn’t charity to give away things you want to get rid of and it isn’t a sacrifice to do things you don’t mind doing.”
--Myrtle Reed

This afternoon (or evening in the east) was the second debate among the Democratic presidential candidates. Not a lot of news came out of it, but there are two things of note.

First, it is clear that John Edwards knows that the only chance he has is to aggressively take support from Hillary Clinton. Thus, during the debate he took every possible opportunity to challenge her and distinguish himself from her.

Second, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson are trying to stand out by being angry and insisting on competence (while pointing out their own competence) and practical good judgment in the White House.

Likely the most newsworthy thing about the presidential race is how support for each of the candidates in both parties has not changed during the last two months, in spite of a campaign that seems to be fully underway.

It’s not hard to conclude that an awful lot of people are looking across the field of candidates and saying that any of them would be better than Bush. We may not be ready to seriously think about which one would be best.

Saturday, June 2, 2007


Quote of the day:
"Lovers who love truly do not write down their happiness."
--Anatole France

Quote of the day no. 2:
“Love ... is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”
--Iris Murdoch

The new movie Once is a peek into what Iris Murdoch is talking about. It’s worth seeing.

Several things strike me about this film. It is quite naturalistic. The documentary-style scenes are shot in soft focus using only natural light. The actors are not slick--in fact, there is absolutely nothing contrived in the whole movie. And the “message” of the movie is carried in the music.

The story is very simple. It begins as, in the middle of one of his songs, a street musician meets an intriguing woman. The story line from there is mostly conventional, but the bits of character and setting we encounter along the way are both unexpected and quite appealing.

This is a film about the joy and complexity of emotion, and the filmmaker has used words and description very sparingly. Music and visuals are used poignantly, and you will remember this movie long after you see it.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Bad Rap For Conservative Christians

Quote of the day:
“Children unfamiliar with the world in time become easy marks for the dealers in fascist politics and quack religions.”
--Lewis Lapham

Quote of the day no. 2:
“I am talking about a distorted portrayal of conservative Christians as a detached and fanatic lot, who care only about a couple of free-floating issues, abortion and sexual behavior, and who could not care less about anything else going on in the country.”
--Star Parker, Scripps Howard, May 28, 2007.

I was surprised to read Parker’s comment. I thought the whole point of the conservative Christian attempt to influence the national agenda was to focus on personal behavior.

Am I wrong to observe that about 95% of what conservative Christian political leaders have focused on in the last six years have been issues of personal behavior and individual morality? How can we not conclude that they don’t care much about other issues?

This always seems backwards to me. Given the choice between personal, private behavior and public, institutional behavior, shouldn’t our government focus primarily on the latter? I’ve never understood the exclusive obsession with issues that concern consenting and individual adults.

Especially when there is so much serious work to be done in such areas as boosting corporate responsibility, preserving the environment, building international understanding and aiding the sick and the poor.