Monday, April 30, 2007

Chanting and Ranting

Quote of the day:
"If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”
--René Descartes

Quote of the day no. 2:
“By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.”
--Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

We were probably the only people on our street to begin today by listening to chants from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. What can I say? We be odd and we be proud.

This is not your everyday, garden variety liturgical chant. It has a seriousness and mournfulness to it, yet paradoxically, it is uplifting.

After listening for a while, it’s hard to escape the sense that there is something fundamental and natural that is being expressed. This may sound trite, but it could be that underlying this music is the rhythm of the created order. Or at least someone’s inspired vision of it.

It’s Monday, the beginning of the week. There is life with all its complexities and crises all around us. And there is promise.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Music of Joy and Sadness

Quote of the day:
“Patriots always talk of dying for their country and never of killing for their country.”
--Bertrand Russell

Quote of the day no. 2:
"I never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with a lot of pleasure."
--Clarence Darrow

It’s been an all-piano-concerto day. We began the day with Mozart and enjoyed it so much that we kept putting on more concertos and different pianists. I think we listened to seven Mozart concertos before switching to Beethoven (no. 1), Rachmaninoff (no. 3) and Bartok (no. 1).

We have some of these works on CD, but all our listening today was to LPs, mostly from the 60s and 70s. Among the Mozart pianists were Rudolph Serkin and his son Peter, Lili Kraus, Alfred Brendel and Geza Anda.

The Beethoven First was a live performance by the reclusive pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, an LP I’ve always loved, released by Deutsche Gramophone in the 1970s.

A few years ago Merrie and I bought the now-famous CD of Martha Argerich playing the Rachmaninoff Third. It is a spectacularly maniacal and totally authentic performance and is incredibly enjoyable. Today though, we heard a performance of elegantly restrained passion and subtlety by Alicia de Larrocha.

You have to be in the right mood to listen to the Bartok First. It’s not for the faint of heart, and is therefore rarely played on the radio or on any of the digital services. It is propulsive, explosive and aggressive. And in the the DG recording with Maurizio Pollini, it’s extraordinary.

What a day! And this was just the beginning.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Selective Use of Intelligence

Quote of the day:
“If someone spends $500 for a television and $2500 for a refrigerator, does that mean they watch the refrigerator five times more than the TV?”
--Preston Creston

Quote of the day no. 2:
“There was precious little consideration, that I’m aware of, about the big picture of what would come next. While some policy makers were eager to say that we would be greeted as liberators, what they failed to mention is that the intelligence community told them that such a greeting would last only for a limited period.”
--George Tenet, former CIA director

That quote comes from Tenet’s book At The Center of the Storm, which is being released tomorrow. He scored an interview with 60 Minutes which will be on tomorrow night.

It looks like we’re hearing from a Bush administration insider about selective use of intelligence leading up to the Iraq war. There may be a theme developing here.

Former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke made pretty much the same point in his book Against All Enemies. He said that intelligence about al Qaeda activites and locations was simply being ignored in the months and weeks leading up to 9/11.

Clarke’s book came out three years ago, and his major premise has yet to be credibly refuted. Maybe we’re finally getting the message.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Vinyl is Alive and Well. Wow.

Quote of the day:
“Something psychological and spiritual happens in that vocal break. Maybe it has to do with oxygen added to the blood, but it’s a physical experience of joy, even when it’s melancholy.”
--Bart Plantenga, Dutch radio D.J., talking about yodeling.

I’ve spent the last couple days listening to tons of records. LPs, vinyl, the real thing.

It started after I did what’s called an audiophile “tweak” of the cartridge on my turntable. I constructed and added a little brass arm on the front of the cartridge.

I know this sounds silly to those of you who aren’t into audio. And most of the time I pay no attention to the unending teeny little tweaks people do to (allegedly) improve the sound of a stereo system. Most of these tweaks make no difference or make the system sound worse. Sometimes they’re expensive, like audio cables that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

There was a fad years ago to keep CDs in the freezer. Something about lower temperatures leading to a more sonically-worthy molecular structure. Bunk, of course. And people got all kinds of frost on their Blondie CDs.

But this brass arm (officially called a “longhorn”) actually has an engineering function--to reduce cartridge vibration. The only thing that’s supposed to vibrate is the stylus, which generates a teeny bit of electricity which is then amplified and sent to the speakers. If the cartridge also vibrates, it causes problems.

As you can tell, I’m not an engineer. I did read the engineering data as well as numerous comments from people who’ve done this over the last 25 years.

The result is a terrific full-range, dynamic sound that is realistic, fun and involving. And so we’ve been listening to a lot of the old tunes, including the Laurie Anderson album pictured above. And how about that Abbey Road? A little Mozart, a little Talking Heads, a little Duke Ellington. To me, it’s as good as CDs. And, believe me, I’m not a fanatic. Really.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Debates: Don't Believe Pundits

Quote of the day:
“Memories were made to fade. They were designed that way.”
--Joe Giella, in Mary Worth, April 25.

Quote of the day no. 2:
“If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.”
--John Lennon

It’s awfully, awfully early for a presidential debate. The election is more than a year and a half away. Jeez.

But I did watch tonight’s debate among the Democratic presidential candidates, and here’s what I learned: don’t believe the pundits who analyze, summarize and comment on the debate, especially those who appear right after it’s over.

My guess is that the in-studio pundits only watch half the debate or less. The rest of the time they are talking with their producer, talking with each other, having their makeup refreshed, calling their contacts, reading prep material and so on.

The advantage of watching a debate for yourself is that you see the candidates unedited and un-pundified. You see how they react to both what they expect and what they don’t expect. This is much more significant than reading the three or four highlighted quotes or moments from the debate, which is about all that’s reported when these things are finished.

Tonight’s debate really gave a sense of who these people are and how they go about figuring out problems, and how they might (or might not) work with others to get something done.  You don’t have to believe me either, but here’s my summary.

Dodd was interesting and was easy to imagine as president. Too bad he’s not on the radar screen at this point.  I'd have no problem voting for him. 

Biden knows the issues and had his moments. 

Kucinich was Kucinich (meaning that he has good ideas but clearly would instantly rankle anyone he had to work with).

Mike Gravel (former senator from Alaska) was a joke, but very entertaining in his attempt to say big, important things. 

Edwards was his usual nice, sweet, articulate, anecdotal ("let me tell you a story about my dad") self. 

Richardson scowled and had the annoying tic of answering every question by holding up fingers while listing points he was obviously extracting from a convenient bodily orifice.

I had high hopes for Obama, but to me he seemed unprepared and rather vexed by some of the questions.  Other than short news clips, I had never heard him speak before.  He tends to speak in wonderfully idealistic nugget-sized abstractions.

To me, Hilary clearly dominated the debate.  She was confident and clearly knew what she was talking about.  What I most appreciated was that, in her allotted two-minute chunks, she managed to not just say her ideas but lay out the beginnings of a clear, coherent and practical way to realistically achieve them. 

Did you watch the debate? Feel free to comment by clicking below.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Are We Thinking Long Term in Iraq?

Quote of the day:
“It’s great to think outside the box, but some people don’t know where the box is.”
--Preston Creston

Quote of the day no. 2:
“There have been 5,600 years of written history and 14,600 wars have been recorded.”
--James Hillman

Ted Koppel’s most recent documentary for the Discovery channel is called Our Children’s Children’s War. I tuned in, expecting a critique of our military involvement in Iraq. But that’s not what this program was about.

Koppel did some very interesting reporting about some of our long-term military efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. It actually was quite hopeful.

He showed how many small military units have established long-term projects to aid people across the region. One project involves digging wells so villages can begin around them.

The telling moment in the documentary was when an officer said how difficult it is to expand and even continue this effort with 140,000 troops assigned to combat operations in Iraq.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Good News for Merrie!

Quote of the day:
“Perhaps the most important thing that technology does is free the listener to participate in ways that in all previous periods of listening were governed by the performer.”
--Glenn Gould, pianist

Last week Merrie had an echo-cardiogram. It’s a sort of sonogram of the heart, showing how the heart is functioning. She spent the weekend waiting for the results, hoping that things hadn’t gotten worse.

Yesterday she got a call from the nurse practitioner in the cardiology department. She said that the pumping function of her heart is very strong. This was good news.

Even better was her evaluation of the condition of the mitral valve. In the hospital the damage there was characterized as “moderate-to-severe.” After examining the echo-cardiogram, the nurse practitioner said that the damage was actually “mild-to-moderate.”

We are very pleased but trying to restrain ourselves. The consultation with the cardiologist is coming soon. We’ll see what he has to say.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Reporters as Vampires

Quote of the day:
“Our dignity is not in what we do but what we understand. The whole world is doing things.”
--George Santayana

Quote of the day no. 2:
“This deranged young man had a maelstrom of demons swirling about him. But partisans want us to pick one all-explanatory demon.”
--Jonah Goldberg, in today’s Chicago Tribune.

Goldberg is referring to the man who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech last week. He also has a cogent criticism of press coverage of last week’s tragedy:

“It’s difficult to see the line between enough and too much [news coverage] when journalists go wild, competing for the slightest new morsel of information to put on a permanent TV loop until the next fragmentary detail is pried loose.

“Because there isn’t enough new information to fill the infinite void allotted to these stories, the press quickly succumbs to a kind of emotional vampirism, feeding off the grief, fear and anguish of victims clearly incapable of finding meaning in events that defy either understanding or meaning.”

This is an excellent summary of the both the basic problem facing cable news channels and the irksome way the problem is dealt with.

We’ve lived in the era of “events coverage” since the first Gulf war in 1991. People tuned in by the millions to check on the minute-by-minute progress of that war.

Since then, play-by-play “events” broadcasting has almost completely displaced news reporting and issues analysis. News stories that can be easily covered as “events” become the primary focus. We are seeing lots of coverage of police chases and crimes in progress.

And the play-by-play is exceedingly slow. Instead of facts gathered and assembled into a coherent report about a news event, we hear all kinds time-filler between small, new bits of information presented by sometimes barely articulate, ad-libbing anchors.

The time-filler takes the form of “expert” commentary when there is little to really comment on--so it becomes speculation. Or it takes the form of numbingly inconsequential interviews with people who are only remotely connected to the event. Or it takes the form of emotionally invasive questions asked of people in so much pain they can barely think clearly.

None of these time-fillers are especially helpful or informative. Like all good time-fillers, they are there (you guessed it) to fill time.

Goldberg also says this:

“We can be sure the media will continue to milk their role as remorse voluptuaries for as long as conceivably possible.”

I wish I could end on a hopeful note. But as Walter Cronkhite used to say, “That’s the way it is.”

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Will a U.S. City Be Nuked?

Follow-up to Goodbye, VCR:
“I remember what TV was like when it was black and white still. My kids can’t imagine it.”
--Marc Canter, California software developer

Quote of the day:
“The threat to the United States now of a 9/11 occurring with a group of terrorists armed not with airline tickets and box cutters, but with a nuclear weapon in the middle of one of our own cities, is the greatest threat we face.”
--Vice President Dick Cheney

I’m willing to believe that the explosion of a nuclear device in one of our cities is a significant threat. I’m not sure about it being “the greatest threat we face.” Just because the current vice president says it doesn’t make it so, for me.

There are two serious problems with this statement. First, the vice president said this in response to questions about the course of the war in Iraq. His assumption (and that of the current White House) is that Iraq is the key “front” in a global war on terrorism.

He responds to criticism of the war by linking Iraq with trafficking in nuclear material or technology. Am I supposed to accept that Iraq is the only or even the primary way that nuclear material can find its way into the wrong hands?

The second problem with the vice president’s statement is that it seeks to play on our fear--a fear that may be in our minds if we are watching the TV drama 24, in which terrorists explode a suitcase nuke in the Los Angeles area.

It’s wrong to simply dismiss the nuclear threat. But it is equally wrong to use our fear of that threat to justify continuation of a war in a country that plays a very small role at best in furthering such a threat.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Visiting Migrants

Quote of the day:
“I just can’t visualize the same government that has been at war against poverty for 43 years, at war against drugs for 36 years, and at war against terror for five years, having much success in a war against the weather.”
--Grant W. Kuhns

San Diego County has more varieties of birds than any other county in the U.S. So I hear. Many avid bird watchers come here from all over the world.

I wouldn’t call Merrie and me “avid bird watchers” exactly. We’re still figuring out our cheap binoculars, years after getting them. But Merrie is an avid bird feeder, and our indoor cats regularly respond to to the results.

We have both resident and migratory birds here. The other day there were three Hooded Grosbeaks crunching on the black sunflower seed. They are striking orange, black and white birds. Merrie tells me they are on their way from Mexico to Canada. They must like it here--they’re still hanging around.

A couple days ago a pair of Western Tanagers appeared. You can’t miss them. They’re yellow with orange hoods. They’re still here, too.

A while back I mentioned Sophie’s battle against our resident ground squirrel. Not only was she not successful in chasing the squirrel away, the other day I saw three in our yard. What a dog.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Mental Illness Among Us

Quote of the day:
“You question authority, eh?”
“No. I annoy authority. More effect, less effort.”
--Darby Conley in Get Fuzzy.

As a result of the Virginia Tech tragedy, we seem to have entered a debate about how to deal with mentally ill people.

The main issue with this kind of conversation is that “mental illness” is not a pure condition. Virtually all of those who have psychiatric problems do not have them 100% of the time. There are moments of clarity and lucidity mixed in.

And sometimes people with psychiatric problems have a charming, interesting, or at least somewhat normal side to their personalities.

When I was the program director of KPBS radio, we would often get letters from interesting people. One who was quite memorable was the correspondent we came to call “Dog Man.”

Dog Man would write to me once or twice a month, and his letters would always begin engagingly and thoughtfully, as he responded to a news or feature item we had aired. But somewhere midway through each letter he would change course, and begin talking about the problem of dogs defecating in local parks.

Every letter we received from him ultimately was about this issue. I would always write back, thanking him for his thoughtfulness, though it was clear there was something going on with Dog Man that needed some attention.

I have to confess that it became quite an event for us when a letter from Dog Man arrived. We became quite curious about exactly how he was going to tie together the subject of his letter and his real obsession--dog feces in local parks.

Unfortunately, one day Dog Man went too far. We received a letter that not only had his usual complaint but also threatened the mayor. We called the police. After that, we never heard from Dog Man again.

I sometimes wonder what happened to him.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Are We All Psychiatrists?

Quote of the day:
“Commuters run to their destinations and away from themselves.”
--Timothy “Speed” Levitch, New York tour guide

Quote of the day no. 2:
“It comes down to a balance between providing a platform to a madman and helping explain a riddle that has confounded many Americans.”
--Jon Klein, CNN president

Klein’s comment has become the standard response to those who have complained about the airing of videos, photos and writings of the man who killed 32 people last Monday at Virginia Tech. The way Klein frames it, I’m not sure it’s a true choice.

He says the good in airing it is “helping to explain a riddle.” To the extent the killer’s actions are a “riddle,” they will remain a “riddle” until all the evidence is thoroughly examined by experienced clinical psychiatrists.

I believe we already know the answer to the “riddle” as much as most of us ever will, or need to. Klein suggests it by using the archaic word “madman.”

Wasn’t it pretty clear before we all saw this stuff that there is no rational reason for this man’s actions? At best, any rational “cause” will wind up being just an irrational trigger for him to act on his delusions.

And “delusions” is the key word. Isn’t it also clear that this man was delusional? His thoughts and beliefs were disconnected from reality.

Of course there is a specific clinical diagnosis for what was wrong with him, and that diagnosis will likely be made sometime in coming days by people who know what they’re doing. Most likely that diagnosis is not going to add much to our understanding of why this happened.

For me, it’s enough to know that 1) he was seriously ill and 2) he was seriously delusional.

The really serious question is: what do we do now?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Hokie Grief, Hokie Hope

Quote of the day:
“We are not moving on. We are embracing our grief.”
--Nikki Giovanni, professor, Virginia Tech

Quote of the day no. 2:
“I remember thinking on Sept. 11th how I was so lucky to be where I was because it was possibly the safest place on earth.”
--Former student, Virginia Tech

My niece is a recent graduate of Virginia Tech. In an e-mail yesterday, she described her reaction to the shootings:

“It's really surreal right now.  Yesterday was a lot of shock and disbelief.  This is just not something that happens in Blacksburg.  The usual crimes are alcohol abuse, fraternity pranks or misbehaving football players.  There's just no frame of reference for violence like this.

“Clearly everyone I know is really upset.  As it sinks in it's been a lot of sadness and grief.  I was telling someone earlier that I've always thought of Blacksburg and Virginia Tech as a safe haven, this place that holds only good memories for me and my friends, and now I feel so violated.  How could someone ruin that peace? 

“I don't know how a person has the capacity to walk into classrooms and do that; much less someone I can see myself walking on campus with.  I remember thinking on Sept. 11th how I was so lucky to be where I was because it was possibly the safest place on earth.  It's been hard to have that feeling destroyed and seeing the VT logo displayed all over the news under the word ‘massacre.’
“There are a lot of rumors flying around the e-mail world right now.  But basically the general feeling is grief and loss.  People are pretty upset at the media for trying to blame the administration.  There's a lot of support for President Steger and how well he's handling it all despite the media questions on what he could have done differently in those two hours.  I think we're all hoping this doesn't tear the campus apart in debate.  That would be the only way to make this event sadder.
“Anyhow, I expect today and tomorrow to be pretty awful since they'll start releasing names and photos and interviewing families.  I'm sad, very sad.  But after some grieving I think the students, faculty and alumni will move forward together, and that's what I'm looking forward to right now.   
“I will be okay, I'm still sort of reeling from it all and processing it.  In true Hokie Spirit, my office-mate is wearing his ugly maroon and orange VT tie today.  That made me smile, because that's what VT is all about. 
“It really has been a trying week and I think there are some more tough times ahead before any healing can start.  I have an amazing support system, as well as fabulous Hokie friends, so everyone has really been pulling together and that is always a great comfort. 

“I think we all have a lot of grieving to do before we move forward, but the community spirit of VT and Blacksburg has always been what made it such a wonderful place, so I don't doubt that both grieving and moving on will happen together.  But right now there is just a lot of sadness.

“Keep sending good thoughts and prayers down to Blacksburg, they need it.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


In the interest of perspective and understanding, I offer two simple quotes.

“We’re trying to find someone who knew him. The university has been calling him a loner.”
--Amie Steele, editor of Collegiate Times, the campus newspaper at Virginia Tech

“In studying mass murderers over 25 years, my colleague, Jack Levin, and I have identified five factors that exist in virtually all cases.

“First. perpetrators have a long history of frustration and failure and a diminished ability to cope with life’s disappointments.

“Second, they externalize blame, frequently complaining that others didn’t give them a chance. Sometimes they argue that their ethnic or racial group or gender isn’t getting the breaks that others are.

“Third, these killers generally lack emotional support from friends or family. You’ve read the ‘he always seemed to be something of a loner’ quote? It has a grounding in reality.

“Fourth, they generally suffer a precipitating event they view as catastrophic. This is most often some sort of major disappointment: the loss of a job or the breakup of a relationship. In massacres at colleges and universities, it’s often about getting a grade the shooter feels he didn’t deserve.

“Fifth, they need access to a weapon powerful enough to satisfy their need for revenge.”

--James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University, in today’s Los Angeles Times.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Time to Restrain Our Opinions

When we see a tragic event such as this morning’s shootings at Virginia Tech, I think there is way too much talking about it.

There are maybe 10 or 12 salient facts about the event that are helpful for all of us to know. Beyond that, most is noisy yakking. Opinions, opinions, everywhere.

Everyone has plenty to say, but who is listening?

I vote for some quiet, reflection, and thought. And listening, especially to those directly devastated by this.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Toys as Cultural Markers

How’s Merrie doing? She’s feeling good, and looking good. And we’re thankful.

Quote of the day:
"I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred. That is what I am, and that is why I have written Les Misérables."
--Victor Hugo

In last Friday’s Life magazine, there was an fun look at the biggest toys of the last 70 years. Each became a cultural icon.

The View-Master, 1939. They’re still around. 1.5 billion reels have been produced.

Slinky, 1945. Did you know its original intent was to stabilize nautical equipment? More than 300 million have been sold.

Mr Potato Head, 1952. 75 million, many thanks to the movie Toy Story.

Frisbee, 1957. Original name? Pluto Platter. 200 million and going strong, many in the teeth of very fine dogs.

Hot Wheels, 1968. 60 million just last year. That’s five times the number of real cars sold in 2006.

Rubik’s Cube, 1980. 300 million, and currently enjoying a resurgence.

Cabbage Patch Kids, 1983. Came with a birth certificate. Now original buyers are getting them for their children.

Tickle Me Elmo, 1996. Last year an anniversary edition nearly sold out on the day it was released.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Morally Wrong, or Sick?

Quote of the day:
“Over the years, some convergence of gangsta rappers and shock jocks and bloggers have given more and more people license to use words that were once washed out with soap, or blocked with bleeps. Sex sells, hate sells and the combination is boffo biz.”
--Ellen Goodman in Friday’s Boston Globe.

Quote of the day no. 2:
“What is cheating? We need to forget about the past and let us play the game. We’re entertainers. Let us entertain.”
--Barry Bonds

Where is the line drawn between consciously bad (or criminal) behavior and mental illness? This question gets ready answers from extremists on each side. Some think all criminals should be locked up, period. On the other side, some think that bad behavior is always caused by mental illness.

As always, the truth exists somewhere in the large middle, and it can be hard to discern. Here is one observation, from Chip Ward, former assistant director of the Salt Lake City library (from

“Take the case of a young man who entered the library spouting racial and ethnic slurs. He loudly asked some Latino teenagers doing their homework when they had crossed the border, and they reported his rude behavior.

“When a security guard approached, the young man started yelling obscenities and then took a swing at him. The guard tried to calm him, but on the next lunge, the guard took him down, cuffed his hands behind his back and called the police. They recognized the man. He had been let out of jail just two days earlier.

“That man’s behavior, of course, was not a measure of his character but of his psychosis. He was sick, not bad.

“If we accept that schizophrenia, for instance, is not the result of a character flaw or personal failing but of some chemical imbalance in the brain--an imbalance that can strike a person regardless of his or her values, beliefs, upbringing, social standing or intent, just like any other disease might strike one--then why do we apply to mental illness a kind of moral judgment we wouldn’t use in other medical situations?

“We do not, for example, jail a diabetic who is acting drunk because his body chemistry has become so unbalanced that he is going into insulin shock.”

Friday, April 13, 2007

Goodbye, Radio Legend

Quote of the day:
"The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness."
--Michel de Montaigne

The Don Imus bonfire has about burned out, but I want to poke around a bit in the smoldering ashes.

A good thing to come out of this is the attention we have paid this week to the level of crude and rude coarseness that many of us have come to accept as “just one of those things.” There have also been constructive discussions about freedom of expression, where the line is drawn between art and journalism and what should be allowed on the public airwaves.

I wonder if it ever would’ve crossed Don Imus’ consciousness to say something outrageous, demeaning and insulting about a men’s college basketball team whose players were black? I doubt it. I’m not even sure the language exists to be equally insulting to men.

His comment was certainly racist, but it is even more sexist. And it certainly gives me pause that a broadcaster of Imus’ stature, in a moment of grasping for an audience-provoking and outrageous thing to say, would so easily let this specific statement fall out of his mouth.

It’s true that some hip-hop songs have used this language, and worse. But no one is forced to buy or listen to music that offends them. There is an issue here of freedom of expression--as long as it’s not inflicted on anyone.

But Imus was speaking to the public on the open airwaves, just like shouting it from a few hundred thousand street corners simultaneously. It’s insulting, demeaning and personal.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Fat Warrior

Quote of the day:
“Don’t be angry with the rain; it simply does not know how to fall upward.”
--Vladimir Nabokov

I am a fat warrior. Not a warrior who is fat, but a warrior against fat. Eating fat.

If you get annoyed when someone is constantly pointing out how much fat is in everything you’re eating, you do not want to be around me this week. This started when both my doctor and Merrie’s recommended that we take a nutrition class to lower our blood cholesterol.

There has been so much information in the press for so many years, I thought I knew most everything about saturated, unsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, cholesterol, and what foods to avoid. I was wrong.

Just like a financial planner will ask you to write down everything you spend in a week, our instructor has assigned us to write down everything we eat each day this week. Then we add the fat grams of all the items to see if we’re where we should be according to our risk factors for heart disease. My daily fat intake is supposed to be between 45 and 60 grams.

I thought I knew which foods had fat and which didn’t. But what I didn’t know was how wide a variation there is in fat levels. Did you know that a flour tortilla has 4 grams of fat, while a corn tortilla has 1? How about this: a croissant has 18 grams of fat, a slice of bread has 1. An 8 oz. glass of whole milk has 10 grams, 1% milk has 2, nonfat milk has zero.

If you’re not annoyed enough yet, try this: a bag of microwave popcorn has 32 grams of fat, air-popped popcorn has zero. For eating out, a caesar salad has 40 grams while a chicken fajita pita has 8. And a taco salad with tortilla shell has 55 grams of fat, a teriyaki bowl has 3.

As I said, I’m a food warrior. A somewhat insufferable, self-righteous food warrior. But don’t worry. I’ll get over it soon, and I hope to have better eating habits.

I’ll close with this favorite quote, which comes from Woody Allen’s movie Interiors: “You can live forever if you give up everything that makes you want to.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Monkeys Are Typing Shakespeare!

Quote of the day:
“If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day.”
--Leonard Cohen

Quote of the day no. 2:
“’If you put a bunch of monkeys in front of typewriters, how long would it take them to compose the works of Shakespeare?’ This question originated as part of the theory of probability, and it has been tested.

“According to Darren Wershler-Henry [author of Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting], the world record for Shakespeare-reinvention belongs to the virtual monkeys supervised by Dan Oliver, of Scottsdale, Arizona.

“On August 4, 2004, after the group had worked for 42,162,500,000 billion billion monkey years, one of Oliver’s monkey’s typed, ‘VALENTINE. Cease toIdor:FLP0FRjWK78aXzVOwm)-’;8.t...,’ the first nineteen characters of which can be found in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

“Runner-up teams have produced eighteen characters from ‘Timon of Athens, seventeen from Troilus and Cressida, and sixteen from Richard II.

“Did these monkeys get federal funding?”

--Joan Acocella in the April 9, 2007 New Yorker.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Little White Dimpled Ball

Quote of the day:
“Other than my acne, my need to work for a living would be the first thing I’d remove from my life.”
--Timothy “Speed” Levitch

Last Thursday I was idly surfing through a few TV channels and came upon the Masters golf tournament. I was taken by the beauty of the Augusta golf course and watched for a few minutes.

Then I saw that Tiger Woods was playing, so I watched him make a few shots. Then I noticed how good some of the other golfers were. Next thing I knew, I had seen the whole first round, and Merrie had gotten involved, too.

I wondered when the tournament would continue on Friday, so I checked the listings. Why not check it out when it comes on, I asked myself. I did.

You know, I tuned in again on Saturday and Sunday. I watched the whole Masters tournament. Why am I bringing this up? It’s the first time I’ve watched a golf tournament. I don’t play non-miniature golf. And I always thought people who watched this stuff had some sort of maladjustment.

The thing is, there was something affirming and restful about the Masters. Maybe the reason was that the visuals were extraordinary, Or maybe it was that golfers “compete” against themselves and the course, and not each other. It is extremely difficult to hit that little white ball 200 yards with precision. It’s almost as hard to hit it 2 yards across an unpredictable green.

As many folks have written over the years, the game of golf teaches us a variety of things. It’s clearly 95% a mind game. And one thing I noticed is that younger golfers tend to be better at long shots and older golfers tend to be better putters.

Monday, April 9, 2007

What Will We Look Like in 20 Years?

Quote of the day:
“In a big country, your dreams stay with you.”
--Big Country

Quote of the day no. 2:
“If someone is rebuked, does this mean they already have been buked?”
--Preston Creston

In previous posts, I’ve talked about how bad we are at recognizing trends. On top of this, most of us seem to be so busy or occupied that we don’t think much about the future.

When we do think of the future, we imagine advances in technology. Think of the last twenty years. In 1987 we didn’t have DVDs, high definition, cell phones or the worldwide web. There were even lots of TVs with no remote controls. It would make sense to think of similarly big changes over the next twenty years.

The movie Children of Men is set in 2027, yet there seems to be little in the way of technological advancement. In fact, it seems that almost everything in the film has simply aged over twenty years. The movie has a shabby look.

That shabbiness is an important part of Children of Men. The population of London, where the film is set, has other things on its mind. There have been no children born since 2008. During the film there are news reports of the death of the youngest person on earth, who was 19 years old.

This premise sets up the film’s story, which is startling in its projection of today’s prevalent attitudes and policies. I highly recommend renting the movie.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Bill Maher=Pat Robertson

Quote of the day:
“To me, locking oneself into a rigid belief system appears to be the greatest hindrance to humanity’s physical and spiritual evolution. It’s like deciding what the end of the story is after reading only two-thirds of the novel.”
--Michael White

It’s Easter. Happy Easter!

Merrie and I did celebrate the day by getting up very early (for us) and heading out to an 8 o’clock church service. After leading so many worship services myself, it is a blessed relief to participate from the pews.

On religious holidays like this I always get to thinking about how much religious debate and news is dominated by fundamentalists. And there are fundamentalists on both sides of every issue, including whether there is a god or not.

Two fundamentalists who get lots of attention are Pat Robertson and Bill Maher. Robertson seems to enjoy the spotlight so much that he deliberately makes obnoxious assertions about what God wants or is going to do. Either that or he really believes God is sending messages for him to send along to us. Either way, he has a problem.

Bill Maher is another perfect example of a self-righteous fundamentalist. The giveaway is the way he talks about religion on his HBO show with such foul, dripping loathing. You can hear it in the way he says the word “religion”: REEEE-LIH-JOHNNNN, drawn out with equal emphasis on each syllable.

Maher lumps all religious people together and effectively calls them deluded and stupid. Using hugely broad stereotypes is a classic characteristic of a fundamentalist. Maher has occasionally been rebuffed and criticized on his show, often by people whom he’d never expect to be religious. I have to give him credit because, after each of these incidents, he does seem to moderate himself for a while. Until something new sets him off.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

War Is No Longer a Last Resort

Quote of the day:
“Man is the only animal that laughs and has a state legislature.”
--Samuel Butler

Quote of the day no. 2:
“We should view violent Islamic radicals as an international criminal conspiracy. We should make common cause with other nations in destroying this conspiracy, using methods similar to those used against the mafia.”
--Andrew J. Bacevich

As important as it is that we step back from the mess in Iraq in order to gain some rational and historical perspective, we don’t seem to do it. It may be that the situation gets us so worked up that we can’t manage anything but anger, posturing and endlessly repeated catch phrases from all sides.

In his book The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War, Andrew Bacevich takes this step back. He looks at the development of our attitudes about American power and influence over the last hundred years, and his observations are worth a look.

He says this: “In former times American policymakers treated (or at least pretended to treat) the use of force as evidence that diplomacy had failed. In our own time they have concluded (in the words of Vice President Dick Cheney) that force ‘makes your diplomacy more effective going forward, dealing with other problems.’ Policymakers have come to see coercion as a sort of all-purpose tool.”

In an interview in the March 2007 Sun, Bacevich gives this explanation for why he thinks we cannot win in Iraq: “The leaders of the Arab world took several decades to realize they were not suited for Western-style war, with tanks, bombers, heavy artillery and so on.

“We now have a generation of Arab leaders--and perhaps Muslim leaders in general--who are choosing military techniques that play to the strengths of their people and their societies. They don’t need fighter-bombers; they don’t want tanks. As the resistance in Iraq continues to demonstrate on a daily basis, they have developed a strategy that we don’t know how to defeat. And any statesman with half a brain should know that if you can’t defeat your enemies militarily, then you need to rethink the war option.”

Why do we do this? It’s because “Politicians on both sides are wedded to what I call the ‘narrative of the American century.’ It goes like this: Beginning with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. finally broke away from its isolationist roots and recognized its responsibility as a world leader.

“From that day forward, according to the narrative, the U.S. has been engaged in a great campaign to spread freedom around the world. We did it to great effect in World War II. We did it again, albeit over a longer period and with some missteps, in the Cold War.

Bacevich says the narrative has continued: “Since September 11, 2001, we have recommitted ourselves to this campaign. Just as we brought freedom to Europe and East Asia and the old Soviet bloc, we are now engaged in an effort to bring freedom to the Muslim world.” That’s what our self-narrative says.

He goes on: “And so we have this catastrophic war in Iraq, which the president sees as the first step toward spreading freedom in the Muslim world. And the Democrats in Washington have trouble articulating a critique of the war because they are bound to the same narrative.

“Both Left and Right are attached to a concept of history that in some way served our purposes back in the forties and fifties, but today has become irrelevant and counterproductive.”

Friday, April 6, 2007

A Very, Very Large Tadpole

Quote of the day:
“Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them.”
--Albert Einstein

Quote of the day no. 2:
“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

We had another post-hospital first this evening--our first trip to a monster movie. We saw The Host, a South Korean film that’s a 2007 version of Them! which came out in 1954.

In Them!, a nuclear test causes a colony of ants in the desert to mutate to the size of hippopotami, and boy are they mad. Some of them wind up in the storm drains below Los Angeles, and they are fought back by Army troops led by James Arness.

Them! is fun for all the reasons any monster movie is fun. The ants, in spite of being crude by today’s standards, are actually a bit scary. They have a tendency to sneak up on unsuspecting people. And it takes a while to figure out exactly what variety of Raid (actually, fire) will bring the critters down. James Arness displays just the right amount of 1950s bravado.

In The Host, a chemical deliberately dumped into the river results in a giant, mutant, slobbering, human-chewing tadpole who can swim, walk and do Tarzan on bridges. While the film is set in South Korea, it is American authorities who both cause this mutation and make it difficult for the hero to deal with it. And these authorities are not so much nasty as goofy and simply wrong.

There are many parallels between the films. In various ways, The Host! seems to be Them! with the perspective of the enormous shift in culture and attitude that’s happened over the last 53 years.

But I was most interested in how American authority is viewed in these two films. In 1954’s Them!, authority is treated with respect, and the army can do no wrong. In 2007’s The Host, Korean authorities are treated as bullies and Americans are seen as obsessive buffoons.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Diet Shock

Quote of the day:
"Every so often, we pass laws repealing human nature."
--Howard Lindsay

Quote of the day no. 2:
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and expects what never was and never will be.”
--Thomas Jefferson

Expression of the day:
“Finger-spazzing.” As in “finger-spazzing” a Blackberry.

Maybe it’s just the programs I watch, but it seems that there are quite a few commercials around that feature extreme close-ups of things like bacon cheeseburgers, fried chicken and juicy ribs. I used to indulge the Pavlovian response--I’d salivate and get hungry. Now I find myself thinking how much fat, salt and refined carbohydrates are in everything.

For many years, we have heard warnings about eating foods high in fat and refined carbohydrates. Because of what Merrie has been through, heeding these warnings is no longer optional for us.

It shouldn’t be news to any mildly tuned-in person that we need to keep our consumption of these things as low as possible. Yet, inevitably when restaurants or ready-to-eat food are advertised, what we see is the juicy, high-fat bacon cheeseburger, french fries and dripping sundae.

This is not the fault of the restaurants. They are providing what people want. Several years ago, there were actually more healthy choices on restaurant menus. But they didn’t sell. It didn’t make business sense to keep healthful items on their menus, so they were dropped.

Due to our increasing weight, there will need to be more pallbearers at our funerals, which will occur much sooner than we expect. At the rate we’re going.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

What "American Idol" May Be Telling Us

Quote of the day:
"There is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham."
--Anna Sewell

OK, time to quit all the self-righteousness about American Idol. Of course, it is not a culturally uplifting nor musically serious program, so protesting or not watching on that basis is a bit silly. On the other hand, if you don’t watch it because it doesn’t interest you, good for you.

As you know, Merrie and I are unrepentant viewers of the show--see It’s Like Surfacing. I bring up the show again because it’s possible that something interesting is developing. It’s possible that someone with very limited singing ability will win the show.

If you watch, you know who Sanjaya is. If you don’t, he is a 17-year old who tends to sing softly, while having trouble carrying a tune. In spite of this, he was not even in the bottom three of the voting this week. The singer eliminated this week (Gina), was talented, personable and charismatic. While she was not the best singer on the planet, she was obviously much, much better than Sanjaya.

It seems two things are going on. First, there is an anti-American Idol movement that encourages voting for the worst person in the competition. Show producers say that these votes have only a slight effect on the outcome. However, this movement may be accumulating some influence after its three years or so of existence.

Second, Sanjaya comes across as sensitive, androgynous, smiling and charming. His natural appeal is to preteen girls--the same age group obsessed with marginally-talented teen idols of the past, such as David Cassidy.

Perhaps we have, simultaneously, a strong need for a teen idol and a lack of candidates at the moment. The preteen demographic (aged 8 to 12) is much more devoted than we realize. It may be that we are seeing their considerable influence.

Like it or not, American Idol may be telling us something about us.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The World in Black and White

Quote of the day:
"Passion destroys passion; we want what puts an end to wanting what we want."
--John Fowles

As human beings, we prefer to think of things broadly assigned to one side of the fence or the other--”us, them” and lots of varieties of “good, bad.” There are many examples, including big ones like “Christianity good, Islam bad,” “small business good, big business bad,” and “Democrats good, Republicans bad” (or “Republicans good, Democrats bad”).

Putting things on one side of the fence or the other is a way for us to deal with fear and to avoid the work and discomfort of understanding. We sometimes do this quite openly in areas related to entertainment and the arts.

Some statements I’ve heard are: “church good, movies bad” (and its variation “church good, movies after 1945 bad”), “books good, TV bad,” and “classical music good, contemporary music bad” (and many variations).

Because I regularly talked about movies in my church work, the first statement is my favorite, and it provides a perfect framework to counter this way of thinking (more correctly, this way of not thinking).

There are about 400 movies released each year.
Most of them are bad.
Some are good.
Some are very good.

There are about 65,000 sermons preached in American churches each week.
Most of them are bad.
Some are good.
Some are very good.

Monday, April 2, 2007

"The New World"

Quote of the day:
“Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness.”
--Ludwig Wittgenstein

Quote of the day no. 2:
"It was so lovely out in the country — it was summer! And the wheat was yellow, the oats were green, hay was stacked up in the green meadows, and the stork walked about on his long, red legs and spoke Egyptian, for he had learned the language from his mother."
--Hans Christian Andersen, from The Ugly Duckling.

Merrie is getting a little more active each day. It was a pleasantly slow day today. We walked to The Living Room for a couple hours this afternoon. It’s our favorite hangout, and it has wireless access.

We saw Terrence Malick’s 2005 film The New World the other day. It’s about the beginnings of Jamestown, the first English colony in America.

I’m always hesitant about period pieces, because so often they seem somehow affected or artificial. That is not the case with this film. Malick has done such a brilliant job with the look and all the details of the film it sometimes seems more like a documentary, filmed in 1607.

If you rent the DVD, I highly recommend the fascinating “making of” feature. When I saw it, I understood why the film seemed so authentic. Malick found a location just a few miles from the actual Jamestown settlement. He hired Indian actors and extras for all the Indian parts. They spent months together and they learned the Algonquin language and culture. He also secured the use of three period reproductions of the ships the English used.

Just like all his films, the visuals are amazing--stunning and real. The acting in the film is nuanced and sensitive. All the lead actors are well-cast, most especially Q’Orianka Kilcher, the 14-year-old who plays Pocahontas.

Terrence Malick is a bit of an acquired taste. People either find his films (such as Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line) glacially slow and ponderous, or poetic, memorable and inspiring. I’m in the latter group, and this film is a fine example of his best work.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

First Trip to the Beach

Quote of the day:
"Looking foolish does the spirit good."
--John Updike

It was one hyper-happy Sophie who bounded out of the car at the beach this afternoon. She immediately began doing her German Shepherd thing of running in circles to begin the round-up.

When she got to the water, she included the water in her running. She loves to splash. And she loves to retrieve the kong and then go running into the water with it. Sometimes she leaves it there. (Me to myself: “Can I beat this wave to go get it?”)

I’m not sure the water is part of the German Shepherd lineage. It must be somewhere in the “Mix,” as in “German Shepherd Mix,” which is what Sophie is.

It was Merrie’s first beach visit post-MI. There were lots of dogs and their owners enjoying the positively beautiful day. We both threw the kong to Sophie dozens of times. We all got wet. One of us rolled around in the sand a couple times.

There was another first for Merrie when we got home. The first bath for Sophie. What a dog. What a clean dog.