Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Page Turner (2006)

Quote of the day:
“Man is not a creature of circumstances, circumstances are the creature of man.”
--Benjamin Disraeli

Are you looking for a good DVD rental? Here’s one: “The Page Turner.”

This excellent, taut, slyly suspenseful psychological drama will take twists and turns that you’ll never see coming. It is by no measure an action movie. Unless you count the action below the surface.

It’s in French with subtitles, but if you let that chase you away you are missing something unique. The dialog is spare, as is the film itself. It runs about an hour and 20 minutes.

The story is very hard to describe without ruining the movie, but the setup is this. A young woman goes to work as a nanny for a successful attorney. In Hollywood that might be the start of a horror film.

But “The Page Turner” is much more interesting than any horror film. It’s fun, diverting and thought-provoking all at once.

Rent it, and expect the unexpected.

(Be sure you’re getting the 2006 film, whose French title is “La Tourneuse de Pages.” There’s a 2007 short also called “The Page Turner.”)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Treat, Every Saturday Night

Quote of the day:
“My mother had morning sickness after I was born.”
--Rodney Dangerfield

There was a classic moment on “A Prairie Home Companion” this week. Martin Sheen (President Bartlett) made his singing debut. He sang an old hymn, and it was heartfelt and real and wonderful.

Do yourself a favor and hear it here. It’s in the second hour.

I love “A Prairie Home Companion.” I’ve sort of grown into it over the years.

When the program was first offered nationally it was so quirky that many stations did not carry it initially. At KPBS we decided to wait and see how the program did.

Sure enough, it quickly began to catch on and we added it to the schedule in 1980. For years it was our most-successful weekend program.

The program’s uniqueness springs from the extraordinary personality of Garrison Keillor. He has a special gift for gentle storytelling that is both funny and very resonant with contemporary life.

Attempts have been made to expand the show, which originates from St. Paul, Minnesota. It was renamed and moved to New York because of the misguided belief that this would broaden its appeal. It didn’t work.

A TV version of the show was produced for a while. It didn’t work.

Robert Altman made a movie based on the show. It was pleasant enough, but no match for the radio program.

Over the years Keillor has evolved into a sort of non-religious American preacher of the air. Every week he addresses contemporary events and issues in a non-challenging and entertaining way.

And he always manages to get across what it means to be alive at this time and in this place.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Exploding City of Dreams

Quote of the day:
“Look around you. Those are the people you are going through life with, like it or not. Be good to them. We’ll all be gone in 100 years.”
--Preston Creston

Las Vegas, the city of dreams. I had heard about how fast the city is growing, but I’m seeing it firsthand.

Construction is everywhere. There is a huge new casino going up on the strip. And that’s just a very small piece.

Merrie and I visited Red Rock Canyon. On our way back to the hotel we drove along the northern stretch of the city’s brand-new beltway, much of which is still being built. All along both sides for miles and miles there are developments planned or under construction. There are no visible signs of a housing slump.

It’s a regular population explosion. And it’s all because it is indeed the city of dreams. Dreams of good jobs. Dreams of starting businesses or investing in real estate. Dreams of hitting a jackpot.

Las Vegas is a regular meeting destination, and it is one of the few places that can host a very large convention--like the National Association of Broadcasters, for example.

It has always been a mecca for entertainment, gambling and partying. More recently it has become known for top-notch restaurants.

Our appetite for these things is insatiable. And so Las Vegas grows bigger and bigger--sprawling in every direction. It’s an amazing sight.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Rhymes With High Cone

Quote of the day:
"We are two different nations, an artificial state created as a buffer between big powers, and we have nothing in common except a king, chocolate and beer."
Filip DeWinter, the leader of a right-wing Flemish party, on Belgium’s ethnic tensions (thanks to Andy)

Ah yes, the iPhone. As you may remember, Merrie and I were early adopters. Read that: standing in line on the day they went on sale. (The June 29 post has the blow-by-blow.)

Yes, Steve Jobs announced a $200 price cut a while back. Some folks were wildly wacko about this. As in, “how COULD they?”

That so many people took it so personally is an indicator of the odd bond many Mac users feel with Apple. It didn’t especially bother me. The price you pay for being an early adopter is that you pay more. Whether it’s worth it is a matter of debate.

I am a believer in the iPhone, which I think of as a non-device device. It is a non-gadget-like gadget that will relieve you of the need for just plain gadgets.

I promise not to go on and on. But I gotta say it is so much fun to be able to pull it out of my pocket and get maps, news, weather, stock quotes, e-mail and my favorite music and podcasts (I carry last week’s “News From Lake Wobegon” wherever I go, and Merrie always has “Meet the Press.”)

And phone, text, notepad, calculator, camera, photos and YouTube.

It’s just cool. If you don’t think so, that’s ok.

But it is most coolness.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Truth About Hillary

Quote of the day:
“The concept of service has little political currency in Washington. Everybody is fair game, simply for being on the other side. Humiliating one’s prey, not merely defeating one’s foes, is central to the process. The press is hardly an impartial referee; rather, it is often caught up in a blundered game of chase.”
--Sidney Blumenthal, “The New Yorker,” August 16, 1993.

I’ve been reading Carl Bernstein’s very good book “A Woman in Charge.” It’s an unauthorized biography of Hillary Clinton. Neither she nor Bill would be interviewed for the book.

Virtually all the books about Clinton that have been published in the last ten years are either outright supporting her or are thinly-disguised hatchet jobs (especially “The Truth About Hillary Clinton,” which is anything but).

I was concerned that Bernstein’s book would fall on one side or the other. And I was relieved to find that his treatment is very even-handed.

This book is not speculative nor a polemic. It is very detailed reporting, by one of America’s legendary political reporters.

It’s clear that Bernstein interviewed hundreds of people and did painstaking research. “A Woman in Charge” is exhaustive in describing Hillary’s personal and political past. There are 50 pages of notes and sources at the back of the book.

In reading about the years when Bill was president, I was struck by the amount of vitriol and negative attention both of them had to deal with from the day they moved into the White House.

They brought some of this on themselves, of course. But what is apparent from this book is the way-out-of-proportion gargantuan negative reaction to them, which they had to deal with in some form just about all the time.

The portrait that is painted of Hillary Clinton is of a flawed, ambitious, very talented and growing person with extraordinarily worthy goals.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Quote of the day:
“I’ve never had much use for the concept of hell. But if there is one, I’m in it.”
--Dexter, from the TV show of the same name.

The series “Dexter,” just beginning its second season on Sunday nights on Showtime, is intriguing in many ways.

To me, this show started out with two strikes against it. First, it’s about a forensic investigator. That makes it the 4,828th show currently on the air about forensic investigators. How boring.

Second, it’s about a serial killer. And because it’s on pay cable, I expected some gruesome violence. Great, a boring show with violence.

Sure enough, Merrie and I tuned in at the start of the first season but were chased away by graphic scenes as the first show began. That was it for us.

But I stumbled on the show again near the end of the season and became quite captivated. There was little of the nasty violence that I remembered, and the characters and plot were unusual and intelligently written.

Dexter is played by Michael C. Hall from “Six Feet Under,” the won-der-ful HBO show set in a Los Angeles funeral home. This means Hall now has a career centering on dying and death.

He is excellent in his role. Or should I say roles--he plays the forensic investigator and the serial killer. Who are the same person. It’s a bit hard to imagine how an actor could be believable in such an outlandish combination, but he is.

And there are great performances throughout, as Dexter travels from the present to the past and from outer to inner reality and back again.

In addition to being entertaining, the show deals with significant issues, including how exactly a serial killer gets that way. There is a good subplot about police-department politics (which may be more nasty than anything Dexter does). And there are some fascinating relationships among the characters, romantic and otherwise.

We watched the whole first season in a few days via the in-demand channel, and now we’re on board for season two.

Monday, September 24, 2007

"In the Shadow of the Moon"

Quote of the day:
"America did not invent human rights. In a very real way, human rights invented America."
--Jimmy Carter

Quote of the day no. 2:
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
--Neil Armstrong

It was an electrifying moment worldwide in July 1969 as people everywhere watched a man step onto the surface of the moon.

The excellent documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon” tells the story of the Apollo space program and our flights to the moon in the 1960s and 70s.

The structure of the film is quite simple. Lots of historical footage (some never or rarely seen) is blended with contemporary interviews with several of the Apollo astronauts. I was fascinated with their stories of what went on behind the scenes as they prepared and undertook their missions.

The movie reminded me that our mission to land a man on the moon resulted in a singular achievement. And that spectacular, unifying accomplishment has yet to be matched.

As I watched the film, I also realized that many Americans were not even alive to see Armstrong’s historic step. It turns out that MOST Americans were not alive for it. The 2005 Census survey measured the median age as 36.4, which means that more than half of Americans were born in September 1970 or later.

If you were alive and can remember where you were when the first moon landing happened, this film will bring back wonderful memories, fill in some gaps and introduce you to the variety of personalities of the astronauts.

But the film is especially important for those who were not watching as this happened. The story of the Apollo space program is a vital and authentically inspirational part of our recent history. We need to remember that such things are possible.

It’s a good time at the movies.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Truth of Religion and Non-Religion

Quote of the day:
“Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion.... One of the most religious countries is also a nation of religious illiterates.”
--Dr. Stephen Prothero, chair of the religion department at Boston University.

Percentage of Americans who:
--Consider themselves Christian: 71%
--Believe the bible is the actual word of God: 31%
--Believe it’s the inspired word, not to be taken literally: 47%
--Believe it is legends and history: 22%
(from a Gallup poll and the American Religious Identification Survey)

It is a frustrating but unshakeable situation. Most religious people and non-religious people are ignorant about religion--its history, theology, and wide variety of practice.

Not just that, but people seem perfectly fine with being ignorant. They do nothing to change it. They’d much rather stereotype both individual religions and their adherents.

Then they wallow in the stereotype, relishing every minute of it. Or they are “above it” and take great delight in smugly sniggering at the unbelievable stupidity of it all.

There is no desire to learn more than a few narrow precepts, which are routinely taught to 7-year-olds.

This refusal to not be ignorant results in dozens of assumptions that are completely wrong. For example:

“Western religion is left-brained, eastern religion is right-brained.”

“Buddhism is contemplative, while Christianity is doctrinal.”

“Atheists are narrow-minded and evil.”

“Family was the most important thing to Jesus.”

“The most important thing in the bible is the ten commandments.”

“Religion is the same as superstition.”

“Religious people think they have the answers.”

The truth is that there is just as much variety of opinion, belief and knowledge among religious people as there is among non-religious people. We are all people who occasionally wonder if there is something going on that’s bigger than us.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Kingpin of Fracas Hits a Logjam

Quote of the day:
“Washington is largely indifferent to truth. Truth has been reduced to a conflict of press releases and a contest of handlers. Truth is judged not by evidence, but by theatrical performances. Truth is fear, fear of opinion polls, fear of special interests, fear of judging others for fear of being judged, fear of losing power and prestige. Truth has become the acceptance of untruths.”
--Leslie Gelb, “New York Times," October 27, 1991.

Continuing in the realm of mangling, yesterday John pointed out the ever-present new-cue-ler. I’m a bit of a pronunciation snob, and I blame it on my days as a classical-music announcer.

If you’re feeling lonely and want someone to call you, the very best thing you can do is mispronounce Mozart or Wagner on the air. You will hear from the language police. Four or five dozen of them.

Of course, I should talk about the language police. Here I am complaining about nuclear and realtor. And I’m not done.

The other day I mentioned a San Diego condo complex that was called “La Boheme.” Once I was auditioning an announcer for a classical-music program and he pronounced it “La Bo-hee-mee.” It was very hard not to grin.

On a related topic, when was the last time you used any of the following words in everyday conversation: “fracas,” “woes,” “logjam” or “kingpin”?

My guess is somewhere between never and 1981. And if you used “kingpin” in 1981, you were probably bowling at the time.

Even though we never use these words, I challenge you to get through a newspaper or newscast without hearing or reading at least one of them. They are examples of overused, cliched journalistic jargon.

I’ve touched on this before, and have also ranted at length about the three S’s and two P’s. In news coverage almost every up trend is called “soaring,” “skyrocketing,” or “spiking.” And downtrends are called “plummeting” or “plunging.”

If your child goes from a B to an A in a class, do you say his grade is “skyrocketing”? Or, if it goes from A to B, is it “plummeting”? Yet economic trends of similar magnitude are routinely labeled with these words.

If excess “quotation marks” bug you, there’s a fun blog at

Friday, September 21, 2007

Language Mangling

Quote of the day:
"I'll try to terrify you first, and if that doesn't work, I'll try to horrify you, and if I can't make it there, I'll try to gross you out. I'm not proud."
--Stephen King

It’s been awhile since I’ve vented about some peeves du pet. Today is a good time.

Why is it that most realtors on the real-estate TV shows can’t pronounce “realtor”? Get a clue, guys. It’s two syllables, not three. Real-tor. Not real-i-tor.


And furthermore, what’s all this I hear about “stepping foot”? I’ve heard this over and over again. Just the other day there was this: “Before you step foot into your flip, you must have a budget.”

Step on your own damn feet. As for me, I’m going to set foot in our TV room and turn the sound down when I hear you come on. And I will continue to set foot in the interesting places of my life. Just like normal people.

And don’t get me started on reticence and reluctance.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Funky Winkerbean

Quote of the day:
"The trouble with super heroes is what to do between phone booths."
--Ken Kesey

Have you been reading “Funky Winkerbean”? If you have, you probably know why I ask that question.

Funky’s wife Lisa was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. Now she is in the final stage. Hospice is visiting, and her bed is in their first-floor living room.

So many, many people have said to me that they go to the movies/watch TV/read the funnies to be entertained, not to be challenged or depressed. Often the reason given is something along the lines of “I work hard, and when I go to the movies/watch TV/read the funnies about the last thing I want is to see a downer. I don’t even want to think.”

I’m all for rest and recreation. We really don’t get enough of it. With traffic, work and family worries, becoming one with entertainment inertia can be wildly appealing.

But don’t we rob ourselves of a bit of life when we insist on not thinking or feeling when we encounter movies/TV shows/funnies? We might miss some good stuff.

And Funky Winkerbean is good stuff. The writer, Tom Batiuk, is not trying to be morbid or depressing or funny especially. He is simply trying to depict real, human characters. And the people he brings us are funny, sad, nostalgic and inspiring.

Seeing this strip is a good moment in my day.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The 5000-Year-Old Man

Quote of the day:
"The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good."
--Samuel Johnson

What may be the most extraordinary archeological discovery of our lifetimes was announced 16 years ago today.

A 5,300-year-old corpse was found frozen in a glacier in the Alps, between Austria and Italy, the most ancient human being ever found completely intact.

He was between 25 and 35 years old, about five feet, two inches tall. His hair was cut; he had several tattoos.

He wore a fur robe, whipstitched in a mosaic pattern, a woven grass cape, and size 6 shoes.

He carried a copper axe and a fur quiver for his arrows, which had sharp flint points and feathers to make the arrows spin in flight, and several mushrooms strung on leather cord, a mushroom known to fight infections. But the mushrooms didn't do him much good because he had an arrowhead in his back.

He was apparently murdered.

(Thanks to “The Writer’s Almanac” for this history item.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Power Before Civility

Quote of the day:
“Power is the very essence, the dynamo of life…. It is a world not of angels but of angles, where men speak of moral principles but act on power principles, a world where we are always moral and our enemies are always immoral; a world where ‘reconciliation’ means that when one side gets the power and the other side gets reconciled to it, then we have reconciliation.”
--Saul Alinsky

Quote of the day no. 2:
“Saying it’s ‘dog eat dog’ is an insult to dogs.”

Quote of the day no. 3:
“First, [civility] calls on us to sacrifice for others as we travel through life. And, second, it makes the ride tolerable.”
--Stephen L. Carter

Carter’s quote comes from his 1999 book Civility, which examined both the necessity of civility and its steady decline in the age of individualism.

It’s old news that rudeness is all around us. It has become okay with us, and there’s more of it than ever.

Sometimes it is astonishingly nasty. If you doubt that, tune to any right-wing call-in show. It will be just a matter of time before you hear someone who thinks the righteousness of his opinion justifies condescension, insults and even outright lying.

There are two unfortunate things behind this endemic behavior, which we most-frequently witness in our cars as we drive alone and see drivers react to violations of personal space.

One factor is that we now implicitly assume that we go through life alone. It’s me against the world, and there’s danger out there. Someone’s out to get us, rip us off. And it’s that guy in the Lexus trying to get into my lane.

We don’t think about the primacy of our competitive aloneness. We just live it.

The other factor is we seem to buy into “the ends justify the means” thinking (which is a fallacy). This leads to the assumption that the only thing that matters is our rightness, or our specialness. Nothing and no one else matters, so what happens to them is of little real consequence to us.

That we live this way seems a plain and straightforward truth. We know it’s not right, but we still live this way.



Monday, September 17, 2007

What Would Puccini Say?

Quote of the day:
“I’m a Republican, but I have to say he was an effective President.”
--Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, talking about President Clinton on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

North Park is a community of residences and businesses just north of San Diego’s Balboa Park. Housing there is a mix of apartments, condos, modest single-family homes and a few swaths of affluence--including a luxurious compound adjacent to the park where basketball legend Bill Walton lives.

It’s always been pleasantly diverse, with a very noticeable creative element in the population.

During our recent housing boom and condo-building mania, a high-end condo complex was planned and built right in the commercial heart of North Park. Construction is just now being completed.

I’m not sure how sales are going. The real-estate slump may have made it difficult.

The complex has a curious name. It’s called “La Boheme,” just like the Puccini opera. Merrie, who speaks French, reminds me that “La Boheme” means “the bohemian.”

There must be a resident bohemian. Or this complex is being marketed to bohemians who demand granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances.

What are bohemians coming to?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Very Challenging TV Series

“The use of solar energy has not been opened up because the oil industry does not own the sun.”
--Ralph Nader

HBO has begun a new series called “Tell Me You Love Me” in its marquee 9 p.m. Sunday slot. It’s a risk. Not just for HBO, but for viewers.

The premise of the show is simple. It follows four couples as they struggle with intimacy.

“Struggling with intimacy” is redundant because intimacy is always a struggle. It’s not necessarily hard to get close to another human being, but to stay close requires constantly being faced with things we don’t like that we see in the other person. Whether and how we can honestly come to terms with these things is the basis for intimacy.

The process of establishing or deepening intimacy is often not pretty. But it is the realest thing we go through in our lives. This is why the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich used intimacy as one of two ways of understanding God. (The other was ultimacy.)

In movies and TV shows, sex is used as an easy surrogate for intimacy. But it is unusual to find a story that focuses on the reality of long-term intimacy.

“Tell Me You Love Me” attempts to put the struggle for intimacy on the screen. In includes sex--some of it fairly graphic, even for HBO. But the sex is just an indicator of what is to come.

Because the subject matter is so difficult, watching can sometimes be an uncomfortable experience. It has been for me.

After a couple of episodes, though, I find it very rewarding indeed. And I find that I care about the characters, as unbelievably aggravating as some of them are.

It’s a very, very fine show. HBO has done it yet again.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A "Conservative Arts" Degree?

Quote of the day:
“Does ‘liberal thinking’ mean being so open minded that your brains have fallen out, to the extent that you no longer know what “right and wrong” mean, and have a tendency to invent Constitutional Rights [sic] that don’t exist”?
--Deidra Trinidad

Let’s talk polarization. You likely think either that this quote is inspired and witty or that it is lame and incomprehensible.

I believe the term “liberal thinking” means that the thinking is politically liberal as much as the term “liberal arts” means that the arts are politically liberal.

I may actually apply a slightly liberal quantity of thinking here. If that’s okay.

This quote came from someone who was frothing at the mouth, or on the verge of it. She is likely someone who thinks the world is getting more chaotic and descending into hell because so many people don’t follow the rules.

She may come from an extreme and hold a strict, literalist view of the Constitution, Bible or the IRS regulations. Well, probably not the last.

As always, most people of any quantity of thinking exist somewhere between the extremes of believing there are no rules and believing there is nothing but rules.

Speaking from the extremes might (MIGHT) be momentarily entertaining. But rarely is it elucidating.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Investing As Life

Quote of the day:
"I go about looking at horses and cattle. They eat grass, make love, work when they have to, bear their young. I am sick with envy of them."
--Sherwood Anderson

One of the first investments I made, some 26 years ago, was in the very successful Twentieth Century Growth mutual fund. Learning the investment philosophy of its founder, James Stowers, had a big effect on me.

Stowers said that to succeed as a stock-market investor you had to be in it. And stay in it. He wrote that the history of the stock market showed that most of the accumulated price increase came during a comparatively few, sometimes dramatic, trading sessions every year. And, despite endless prognostications from analysts, no one ever knew when these days would happen. No one. Ever.

Therefore, in order to capture this movement, he said, you had to be in the market, and stay in. If you attempted to time the market and buy low and sell high you’d wind up being out of the market for many of the “up” days.

If you think about it, this is why so many people make money in real estate. They buy a home and they stay in it. Or they sell one and immediately buy another. This is why they’re in the market for all of the “up” months or years. Because it’s not a liquid market, time is measured in months or years, rather than days or weeks.

All this is an intolerable big yawn to fast-money “I’m-smarter-than-everyone” types who think jumping in and out of investments indicates advanced intellect and superior manhood. They often tout some good results they or someone they know had recently. But how many of these people do you still read about 26 years later?

Note: Twentieth Century has changed its name (to American Century) and expanded its mutual-fund offerings from two to a few dozen. James Stowers retired long ago, a very wealthy man.

As is often the case with investing, this is a great metaphor for life. In order to appreciate life, you need to be “in” it--and stay in it.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Our Best-Known Politician?

Quote of the day:
"We plan, we toil, we suffer — in the hope of what? ... The title deeds of Radio City? ... A trip to the moon? No, no, no, no. Simply to wake just in time to smell coffee and bacon and eggs."
--JB Priestly

How’s this for a little-heralded event:
The second-best-known Republican in the world recently visited Europe. In a speech there, he said that it was time for the United States to recover the international prestige it has always had.

Just in case you don’t know who the second-best-known Republican in the world is, here’s a hint. Officials in Austria helped him celebrate his birthday.

Yes indeed, it’s Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He may be the BEST known Republican worldwide. When he wears his sunglasses.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Writing Music Without Hearing It

Quote of the day:
“Isn’t it interesting how human knowledge and wisdom seem to peak temporarily at age 16?”
--Tom Magliozzi

If you know anything about Beethoven, you likely know about his deafness. He wrote many of his best-known works without ever hearing them performed.

In the 1994 movie “Immortal Beloved,” Gary Oldman did a wonderful job portraying the moment when Beethoven continues to conduct the orchestra with his eyes closed after the musicians are finished playing. The concertmaster turned him around so he could see the appreciative applause of the audience.

In 1802, when he discovered he was deaf, Beethoven wrote that he was tempted to commit suicide. We can all be grateful that he didn’t.

Instead, he began to blaze a “new artistic path,” going beyond the forms of Mozart and Haydn. With ferocious commitment and tremendous energy, he wrote his ninth sonata for violin and piano.

He called it the “Kreutzer” sonata after a violinist whose playing he admired. As things turned out, Kreutzer didn’t care for the music. He called it “incomprehensible.” He never played it.

Bad call, Kreutzer. This sonata, named after you, was a groundbreaking achievement. And it’s now considered one of the best violin sonatas.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Six Years and Counting

Quote of the day:
“If we judge, we need to prepare to be judged.”
--Preston Creston

At 5:45 this morning in Cambria a small group of people gathered at the Veterans Hall for a minute of silence. Later, American flags were placed along Main Street.

I thought again about where I was when I heard the news. Like most Southern Californians at that early hour, Merrie and I were home. I learned by turning on my computer and going to my Yahoo home page.

On the top shelf of our closet is the “Wall Street Journal” from September 12, 2001. It’s just sitting there--it’s not specially preserved or in a plastic bag or anything. The Journal’s coverage was extraordinary because its editorial offices were adjacent to the World Trade Center.

“September 11th changed everything” has become both a mantra and a justification for political actions. However the statement is used, I’m not sure it’s true.

It might be true if we added the invisible clause “for me” or “for most Americans.” Through naivete or inertia we had come to complacently assume that the world loved us, or at least respected us.

Thus in the days after September 11, 2001 we repeatedly heard the plaintive question “why do they hate us?” As in, “we are so good, how could anyone do this to us?”

Then we had the distancing. The people who did this were evil. They were somewhere else. They were foreign. They used Islam as a justification.

This allowed us to still be good--to still call ourselves the greatest nation. The bad people were “out there” and “they” did this to us for an evil reason.

We learned that, whether we understand it or accept it or not, there are many people in the world who do not like us. And we learned that there are many, many more who do like America but strongly disapprove of our actions. And we learned that not all of these people are “evildoers.”

At least I hope we learned that.

Monday, September 10, 2007

TV: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Quote of the day:
“We’ve only got these times we’re livin’ in.”
--Kate Wolf

I take back everything I said about “Big Brother 8.” It’s a done deal. One of the Donatos will get head of household, and game over. They want it real bad. How annoying. Forget about it. Jeez.

But let’s talk about some excellent television. Some would call that an oxymoron. But I knew oxymoron. i worked with oxymoron. Oxymoron was my friend. And excellent television is no oxymoron.

“Damages” is an FX series that’s been on since August. I gotta hand it to Fox--this is one of the best dramas on TV this year. Glenn Close plays a morally questionable defense attorney. In her unbridled aggression and charm-coated manipulation, she is wonderful.

And there’s much more. The plot of the series involves a single criminal case and all the various people involved in it. In addition, there have been either one or two murders related to the case and trying to piece together what happened and why is quite tantalizing.

Ted Danson plays a rich bigwig who is the target of the lawsuit at the center of the show. This may be his best role. He is totally believable in his graciousness, sinisterness and explosiveness.

There are a few TV character actors, but I did not recognize most of the cast. The acting is uniformly very fine.

The series is nearing its end, but it’s still worth a look--Tuesday nights at 10 on FX. Or watch for it on DVD.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Birds and Birdbrains

Quote of the day:
"In America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it ... and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen."
--Jack Kerouac

Let’s talk birds and “Big Brother.”

There are lots of birds around here, in addition to the large number of acorn woodpeckers. A bunch of wild turkeys slowly crossed the road in front of us today. The jays, as usual, are quite vocal. We’ve seen a bevy of quail right next to the house. And there was a non-acorn woodpecker just down the street.

All of these natural creatures are at our house, while at CBS, some questionable creatures remain confined in the “Big Brother” house. It restored my faith in humanity when Zach nominated both Donatos for eviction.

Dick Donato has to be one of the most unpleasant people ever to appear on television. And his daughter Danielle is a tad on the pouty and whiny side.

Of course, who wouldn’t be, after living in that house for more than two months?

This will be a very interesting week on the show. If you don’t watch it, you are clearly culturally advanced. But you’re missing a lot of fun.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Where is God?

Quote of the day:
"I have had just about all I can take of myself."
--S.N. Behrman

A faithful reader passed along to me a story from the August 31, 2007 “Los Angeles Times” about Christian confession. As it has declined in the Catholic church, it has grown online via sites sponsored by Protestant mega-churches.

For a long time, confession has had a terrible reputation. Why would anyone want to admit something bad they had done? And who in their right mind would do it among other people?

While it has always been a central part of liturgy in mainline churches, many congregations had drifted away from it. The thought was that it made people feel bad, and people wouldn’t come to church if it made them feel bad.

At first look, it seems good that confession has come back in the mostly non-denominational mega-churches. But there is a rub. Actually, there are two rubs.

Nothing is wrong with inviting people to confess anonymously online. It can help them unburden themselves. For some, it may even begin the process of getting needed help. But it is an individual act, done outside of any community the confessor may be part of.

The second rub is that worship in mega-churches is almost always about feeling good and does not include a time for community confession. It’s too much of a downer and it scares people away.

The result of all this is that confession, online or otherwise, becomes just a marketing gimmick that church leaders hope will draw certain people into the community.

One doesn’t confess in a vacuum, just as one doesn’t worship in a vacuum. All of us live our lives not just in a relationship with ourselves, and the same is true for our spiritual lives. We are in this world with other people, and our lives are connected to them.

Nothing is wrong with private, personal prayer, meditation and reflection. In fact, it is a good thing. But it is not the beginning and end of our spiritual lives.

Sometimes I hear people talk as if their relationship with a vague, supernatural god means more than their relationship with the people around them. But I don’t think we can have any kind of real relationship with God outside of our relationship to our loved ones and our community.

That’s why, for confession to be meaningful, it must be done in the context of a community. And it really should always be part of weekly worship. Not as in telling the person next to you a bad thing you have done, but as in saying together that, individually and as a community, we have messed up.

And that we need each other’s help to do better.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Woodpeckers, Not Cardinals

Quote of the day:
“Cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists and a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.”
--Roland Barthes

This morning we woke up to a woodpecker pecking on the roof. It turns out that we are living among a community of acorn woodpeckers.

They are fairly large black-and-white birds with bright red skullcaps, like the Catholic church hierarchy. Our Sibley guide says acorn woodpeckers are common in oak forests. I’m not exactly sure what they’re doing here, because this is a pine forest. But who am I to pick such nits?

There are quite a few of them and they have clearly have an elaborate social structure. Certain birds belong on each tree, and a few are relegated to the nearby phone poll. They must have missed the housing boom.

They visit the gutters of our house for water from the morning dew. They warn each other when a hawk approaches. They gang up on invading jays.

In addition to finding tasty morsels when they peck, they also hide acorns in holes they find and enlarge. And they communicate with a wide vocabulary of squawks, chirrs, peeps and screams.

Clearly they were here first, and we can learn from them.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

And We're Off!

Quote of the day:
--Preston Creston

Yesterday we got the good news that Merrie had been cleared to travel. So off to Cambria we went!

For the drive up, we attempted to operate in the arena of rationality, which is nigh impossible considering Los Angles traffic. We left in the evening and planned to drive through LA at night.

I’m pleased to report that our attempt was successful. I gotta say it was surreal to drive the 405 between LAX and I-10 at full speed. Truly, truly amazing.

Nonetheless, there were quite a few people traveling through Orange County and LA at that late hour. And I keep thinking that it just continues to get worse. This is not pessimism. The population of Southern California continues to grow. And the population of cars grows even faster.

Households own more cars now than 20 years ago. That’s why three-car garages are demanded by so many home buyers.

But we made it to Camarillo in record time. After a night’s sleep and a leisurely breakfast, the drive north was relaxing and glorious.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Multi-Tasking, Schmulti-Tasking

Quote of the day:
“We would each like to be Tarzan. At least I would; I admit it."
--Edgar Rice Burroughs

I regularly see the current generation referred to as “different.” One way it is “different,” so it goes, it that it is a “multi-tasking” generation.

I have one word for this timorously trenchant cultural analysis. Bunk.

It is true that younger people are doing many things at once. This is obvious if you’ve watched anyone under 30 use a computer or a cell phone, or play a video game. Many of their brains have been trained from an early age to almost-instinctively use technology to search or explore.

But are they better able to handle multi-tasking than their parents or grandparents? Have they made a significant evolutionary step and become so advanced that they can talk on the phone, listen to music, check their e-mail, and drink Red Bull while driving a 7000-pound Excursion?

Have their brains become so multi-taskingly wired that they can process, absorb and analyze simultaneous streams of data from five or six different sources? No.

From an evolutionary standpoint, human beings have changed not one whit from the days before cars and TV. It is true that we are healthier and living longer. But our essential physiological and neurological makeup is unchanged.

It was a mere 110 years ago that our grandparents or great-grandparents or great-great grandparents were walking or relying on horses for transportation. To get information they relied on neighbors, bought a newspaper, or went to hear a speech in the evening. For entertainment they chatted, played games, read books, went visiting, or occasionally went out.

Multi-tasking has consequences beyond any real or imagined increase in productivity, and certainly beyond any notion that you are living a “full” life.

Most people will eventually discover that multi-tasking not only does not indicate a “full” life, but rather an empty one. The fullness of life is found in going deep and savoring, not in rapidly skimming everything everywhere.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

We Are Connected

Today we’re looking a bit to the future as we plan to leave for another jaunt to Cambria, one of earth’s great places. We’re looking forward to living for a little while without dust. And with a kitchen!

It’s possible that the cardiology nurse Merrie is seeing tomorrow will put a kibosh on the trip. If so, we’ll make the best of it. But we really, really, really want to go.

As a minister, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about our connections with each other, and our influence on each other. At first look these seem like straightforward and simple ideas. But they are neither.

Our connections go far beyond anything we regularly think about--even if we stop and think about them. They extend into the past and future, and cross boundaries beyond our awareness.

This poem by Carl Dennis is a terrific meditation on this:


If on your grandmother's birthday you burn a candle

To honor her memory, you might think of burning an extra 

To honor the memory of someone who never met her, 

A man who may have come to the town she lived in 

Looking for work and never found it.

Picture him taking a stroll one morning, 

After a month of grief with the want ads,

To refresh himself in the park before moving on.

Suppose he notices on the gravel path the shards

Of a green glass bottle that your grandmother,

Then still a girl, will be destined to step on

When she wanders barefoot away from her school picnic

If he doesn't stoop down and scoop the mess up

With the want-ad section and carry it to a trash can.

For you to burn a candle for him

You needn't suppose the cut would be a deep one,

Just deep enough to keep her at home

The night of the hay ride when she meets Helen, 

Who is soon to become her dearest friend, 

Whose brother George, thirty years later,

Helps your grandfather with a loan so his shoe store

Doesn't go under in the Great Depression

And his son, your father, is able to stay in school

Where his love of learning is fanned into flames,

A love he labors, later, to kindle in you.

How grateful you are for your father's efforts

Is shown by the candles you've burned for him.

But today, for a change, why not a candle

For the man whose name is unknown to you? 

Take a moment to wonder whether he died at home

With friends and family or alone on the road, 

On the look-out for no one to sit at his bedside

And hold his hand, the very hand

It's time for you to imagine holding.

(From “New and Selected Poems 1974-2004” by Carl Dennis. © Penguin Books, 2007. Reprinted with permission.)

Monday, September 3, 2007

I Like My Air Conditioned

Quote of the day:
"'Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, be it ever so humble, there's no place like home."
--John Howard Payne (b.1791)

Very hot and humid again today.

Merrie was concerned that she might be having a reaction to one of her new medications, so she called for a doctor’s appointment and I dropped her off at about 10:30. He treated her and made an adjustment in her medication.

The doctor’s office was busy and she wound up spending two hours there while I hung out at Starbucks observing Labor Day latte culture.

Someone was sitting at one of the outdoor tables. As I walked by, I overheard her say into her cell phone that she’s an “outdoor person.” Good for her.

As for me, when it’s 95 degrees with 80% humidity, I’m an “indoor person.” Standing tall and proud. Not sitting and sweating unnecessarily.

When I first moved to San Diego I often heard someone make the following statement: “You don’t need air conditioning here.” This would usually be followed by some explanation involving ocean breezes, dry heat or the clause “it’s only hot for two weeks each year.”

I didn’t think much of this at first. But after I lived here a while, I started to get annoyed when someone said this. Because it’s not true. Read my lips.

One day it dawned on me that this statement needed translation. Once I realized that, I was no longer annoyed. These days I am bemused when someone says it. Especially when he says it with an air of authority.

The statement “You don’t need air conditioning here” can be translated one of three ways: 1) “I don’t need air conditioning here”; 2) “You don’t need air conditioning here, if you don’t mind being hot”; 3) “I don’t need air conditioning here because I don’t mind being hot.”

The last two translations are examples of what I call the “invisible clause phenomenon.” This happens when someone makes a seemingly cogent, short, mantra-like statement the truth of which only comes out when the invisible clause is revealed.

My favorite example goes way back. It is “Question authority.” The invisible clause is “except if it’s me.”

Sunday, September 2, 2007


Quote of the day:
"I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults."
--Molly Ivins

It’s a blazing Saturday morning, and it’s getting hotter. Conditions are unusually tropical for San Diego, which is a desert.

Our poor indoor plants that we moved outside for the remodel are really suffering in the heat. They look how I feel--a little tired, wilted and brown.

We know we’re supposed to be conserving water, but we give our small yard and plants an extra drink. The insects, birds and animals enjoy it.

Sophie is doing amazingly well being cooped up, out of the heat. Maybe she’s just so pleased that Merrie’s home that nothing else matters. Except treats, of course. As a German Shepherd mix, I know my priorities.

She is positively glued to Merrie. There’s no separating them.

Junior, our 11-year-old black-and-white cat, is shedding prodigious amounts of his thick fur. I comb about a pound of it off him during the day.

Rocco, our 4-year-old Tonkinese, spends his usual 2 daily hours prowlin’ and yowlin’, 2 hours socializing with all of us other animals, and 20 hours in deep reclusive hibernation.

Merrie is up for an outing, so we head out for late-afternoon pancakes at IHOP. They’re vacuuming the floor when we get there. The whole-grain pancakes and egg-beater scramble taste great.

Energized, we head to Bed, Bath and Beyond to buy a small griddle to use while we’re kitchen-less. A trip like this is a big deal right now.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Getting Ready for Labor Day

Quote of the day:
"The life of the creative man is led directed and controlled by boredom. Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes."
--Saul Steinberg

Many people are traveling today, or preparing for big gatherings over this long Labor-Day weekend.

We are doing neither. It’s a day of lots of sleep for Merrie, in the quiet and air conditioning. At any one time, at least two of our three animals join her.

I get up and make coffee only for myself. I have the formula down from the days I’ve been here by myself. Now Merrie can’t have coffee and I feel a little guilty having it, or at least enjoying it. As in, maybe it’s okay to have it if I don’t enjoy it.

We read for a while, and then it’s time for Merrie to have a nap. I let an inspector in to check construction on our kitchen. Everything passes.

I watch a real-estate show on TV with headphones on. Then the drywall guy shows up to drop off supplies. I’m grateful that he’s not installing it today.

Merrie wakes from her nap and is feeling ok. It’s a good day.