Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Holy Week


Quote of the day:
"Americans have no real identity. We're all ... uprooted people who come from elsewhere."
--Leslie Fiedler

Holy Week is upon us. The week leading to Easter is the most important week on the Christian calendar. If you consider Jesus divine, prophetic or even just somewhat interesting, the week holds much food for thought. The story goes like this.

Preparing to confront his destiny, Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days. During that time he encounters every reason and excuse to avoid confrontation. He is reminded that there are better opportunities. For example, he could get by just fine if he withdraws into himself, or if he does what the world wants him to do.

The arguments are compelling, yet he comes out of the wilderness and goes into Jerusalem and his future. Churches usually celebrate the entry on Palm Sunday as almost triumphal--sort of like a first century ticker-tape parade with palm branches instead of confetti.

While this all may seem noble and heroic, Jesus is aware that, to really live, he must face the reality of his future. Every step brings him closer.

He is arrested and charged with inciting the crowds. Again, he is given every chance to walk away from his situation, but he doesn’t. He knows that the only way to authentic life is to follow his heart. So he is sentenced to die, and he is executed.

From his willingness to die to all the corruption, deceit and betrayal of the world, new life comes.

There’s a lot to think about here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

An Iraq Veteran Speaks


Quote of the day:
“Montreal is having problems disposing of the snow. One massive mound is around 80-feet high and officials told reporters that unless steps were taken to dismantle the pile, much of it would still be there when next winter started.”
--David Ljunggren, at reuters.com

A few weeks ago, I went to see Hillary Clinton speak at San Diego State. Actually, I was a volunteer, doing crowd control.

I got to talking with a fellow volunteer, who said this would be her first time voting, and her mother’s first time voting. Her mother had just become a citizen and was very interested in politics.

She was about 30 and had just left the military after eight years of service. She’d been to Iraq twice. It really sticks with me how gently and matter-of-factly she said, “we need to get out of there and never do this again. It’s a mess.”

She was looking forward to going to college with the help of the GI Bill, but lamented how little help the GI Bill is these days. Many of her fellow veterans were also having trouble getting the care and the help they needed.

This was not a wild-eyed, fanatic person. She struck me as someone who simply was trying to live a good life and do her part.

Monday, February 25, 2008

See America's Future, Look West


Quote of the day:
“Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong?’ Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.’"
--Charles M. Schulz

Quote of the day no. 2:
“In California, we’re the precursor of what’s projected to be happening for the rest of the country for the next half century.”
--John Weeks, director of San Diego State University’s International Population Center

On February 12, the San Diego Union Tribune reported on a forecast by Pew Research Center that, by 2050, America will “look much like California does today as it morphs into a far more racially and ethnically diverse nation....” The U-T said that “most of its population growth [will come from] immigrants and their offspring.”

I have been maintaining since just after I moved here in 1978 that for America to see its future, all it had to do was look at California. This is true for all kinds of trends, including population makeup.

This is why it always seems so ill-informed and snooty to hear the rest of the country dismiss this state as everything from a collection of fruits and nuts to a bastion of sodomites and immoral Hollywood liberals.

What is most curious to me is how such statements combine good-natured teasing with both envy and genuine loathing. I think many people realize perfectly well that California is a vision of their future, and they don’t like what they see.

All I can say is, too bad. Like it or not, this is your future. Get used to it. Better yet, begin to appreciate that California, while it has its problems, is a vibrant, widely diverse, very interesting and innovative place.

Isn’t that what America is supposed to be?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Both Spitzer and Reason Have Left Us


Quote of the day:
“Torture, unlike paid sex, doesn't have legs as a news story.”
--Robert Scheer, referring to the Eliot Spitzer story, at thenation.com

Another week, another wacko feeding frenzy. Target: Eliot Spitzer.

Yes, what he did was tawdry, hypocritical and wrong. But why exactly has every sense of scale and proportion left the building?

It’s easy to blame the media, as Scheer does in his excellent piece quoted above. He’s right.

I’ve always defended the news industry, saying that media were just telling the story, and giving the public what it wants.

What it wants is defined very simply as what it always pays lots of attention to. Sex. Especially when it is combined with bringing the powerful down to our level.

Challenge of the day: click on this link to one of the BBC’s news sites. Spend five minutes looking at some news stories.

Question of the day: aren’t a few of these stories significantly more important than what Eliot Spitzer has done?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

It Changed Everything


Quote of the day:
“In Mainz, Germany, on this day in 1455 began the mass printing of the Gutenberg Bible, the first manuscript in Europe to be printed by movable type. About 180 copies were produced, the Bible contained more than 1,280 pages, and on each page the text was laid out in two 42-line columns. Up until that time, manuscripts were usually copied by scribes, and a handwritten Bible could take one scribe more than a year to prepare. Sometimes woodblock printing was used, but it was also an expensive and time-consuming process. The movable type printing press featured individual blocks with a single character that could be rearranged endlessly. Passages of text would be covered in ink and used to make repeated impressions on paper. The printing press that Johann Gutenberg built was based on the design of presses for wine and paper. It's estimated that more books were produced in the 50 years after the movable type printing press was built than in the 1,000 years before it. Gutenberg's invention is credited with making the Renaissance possible: it allowed classical Greek and Latin texts to be distributed widely. It also made books affordable to lower classes.”
--The Writer’s Almanac

A strong candidate for biggest understatement of all time is that the printing press changed everything.

Until then, writing and reading was mostly for ceremonial recording, recollecting and passing along tradition. These tasks were done by learned clerics. Essentially, almost no one on earth could read beyond a few symbols.

Before Gutenberg, we lived in stratified oral cultures in which information, knowledge and tradition were passed along in groups through speeches, recitations and storytelling.

With the printing press came the gradual shift to an individualistic culture, as ordinary people learned to read and began to learn about the world through internal one-on-one communication with authors and writers.

Simultaneously with the settlement of Jamestown came the King James bible in 1611. As the immigrant population in America grew over the next 200+ years, this book was a fixture in almost every American home.

Its ubiquity made it a sort of early American equivalent to TV.

Speaking of which, the next tectonic communications/culture shift occurred in the 20th century with the advent of broadcast radio and TV. Broadcast radio initially resembled pre-Gutenberg oral culture, except that listening was done primarily individually and within families. Also, there was no interaction.

TV added passivity to individualism as we began to fixate on flickering images transmitted to our homes. Our eyes and ears became fully engaged, if not always our minds.

Then, of course, in the 1990s there’s the spread of the internet....

Friday, February 22, 2008

There's More to George Washington Than Wooden Teeth


Presidential fact of the day:
“George Washington had a speech impediment and was not good at spelling. He would often mix up i's and e's when speaking and in writing.”
--The Writers’ Almanac

Many of our past presidents positively glow in the aura of history. Actually, it’s more in the aura of legend than of history.

For example, most of us now know that George Washington didn’t really chop down his father’s cherry tree. It’s a very good anecdote, but it’s not history.

We don’t like to hear too much about the real history of our legendary presidents because we think the aura we love gets diminished.

Our “forefathers” had their brave and brilliant moments, but they were also political calculators. If we were to watch the Declaration of Independence being ratified, and certainly if we were to watch the real constitutional convention, we would witness many not-so-noble and even ugly moments.

The thing is, we can’t watch either of these things. And so the legend grows and history fades. A few of these men we have made into our heroes.

That’s rightly because of their accomplishments. It’s not because of how they got to their accomplishments.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

American Idol


Quote of the day:
“Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum (I think that I think, therefore I think that I am.)”
--Ambrose Bierce

“American Idol” is by far the highest-rated show on TV. It really is quite entertaining this season.

Merrie and I skipped many of the early weeks but have been regularly watching the trip from 24 down to 12. It’s true what everyone says that the talent this year is on a higher level. There also are more contestants who seem to be authentically likeable.

There’s a folky singer-songwriter who resembles Joni Mitchell. There’s a boyish 17-year-old singer who combines a terrific voice with genuine down-to-earthness. And there are two woman rockers.

There ARE a few contestants who seem uncomfortable or forced, or who clearly don’t have the strongest voices. The only “country” contestant doesn’t seem to be on the level of most of the others. A couple performers display nervousness on stage, and thus seem out of place.

But these are the exceptions. Many more contestants than usual combine personality and expressiveness with significant vocal talent. It’s sort of like an old-fashioned variety show. And we get to vote for our favorite performer.

Remember “Ed Sullivan”? Would you vote for Topo Gigio? Or the guy with the spinning plates?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Year Ago


Quote of the day:
“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes."
--Erasmus

This time last year, Merrie was in the hospital.

Those days seem very far removed from us, and I guess that’s a good thing. She still takes lots of medication daily. But she is not just stable, she is healthy.

We are enjoying life a lot more this year than last. We’re also enjoying this year a lot more than 2006. That may seem obvious, but for us, enjoying life doesn’t seem to come naturally. We often are preoccupied by something that needs to be done.

Of course, there’s always lots to be done, even for those of us without jobs. The key for us has been learning to be ok with letting go of that once in a while.

So the opportunity has been for us to view life and live life in a more authentic way. It’s taken some trial and error, and a bit of work to figure it out. Or not figure it out, if you know what I mean.

Right now, things are very good. And we are grateful.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Yummy Orange Sweetness


Quote of the day:
“When Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai, he may have been high on a hallucinogenic plant, according to a new study by an Israeli psychology professor. Writing in the British philosophy journal Time and Mind, Benny Shanon of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University said two plants in the Sinai desert contain the same psychoactive molecules as those found in plants from which the powerful Amazonian hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca is prepared.”
--MSNBC

Today we celebrate the orange.

A neighbor is regularly giving us oranges from his tree. They don’t look as sparkly as the ones you see in the grocery store.

But put a quarter in your mouth, and man is it good! Juicy juicy, soft, no seeds.

Maybe because the oranges are very local, we are helping the planet. I suppose that would need a full evaluation.

The important thing is that they’re a joy to see, smell and taste in the morning.

And it’s also somewhat important to have the opportunity to behave like an eight year old and jam the orange quarter in your mouth and look at your spouse.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Profile of an Obamamama


Statistic of the day:
Number of terrrorist attacks worldwide:
2001: 1,732
2005: 4,995
2006: 6,659
--Rand Corp. and the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism

In connection with the last two posts, I want to pass along this column by the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Logan Jenkins:

Marriage to an obsessive Obamamama poses a number of challenges to a journalist who aspires to objectivity as if it were a state of grace. Here are just a few of the domestic discords my wife's partisanship presents:

Public signs of affection – For as long as I've practiced this often maligned profession, I've never once applied a political (or any other) bumper sticker on a family car. I'd rather plunge a wooden stake into my breast than plant a stake sign in my front yard. (Not really, but it sure sounds noble.)

A month before Super Tuesday, my wife announced that she was not only decorating her rear bumper with a Barack Obama sticker, she was also placing a big Obama sign in a side window.

“But what if I have to drive your car?” I asked.

“You can take down the sign if you want,” she said. “But don't mess with the sticker.”

Polar mood swings –We survived menopause without too much sweat (at least in the daytime). Raised a child, too. But nothing in our 30-plus years of marriage prepared us for the emotional roller coaster of the past year, culminating in the screaming Matterhorns of the past couple of months.

After the Iowa primary, she was swooning with bliss as Obama gave his victory speech; after New Hampshire, she was in the depths of despond as the jubilant Comeback Kid crowed to supporters.

South Carolina restored her faith in Obama's transcendence while confirming her contempt for trash-talkin' Bill Clinton, the hectoring presence that, in her biased view, rules out Hillary as an admirable feminist role model for young girls.

Then came Super Tuesday, when California surely would deal the knockout blow to the Clintons, whom she has sort of disliked from, well, Day One. Though the results of the national primary were mixed, she was devastated by the Golden State's betrayal, only to be resurrected by the 11-state winning streak, only to be decked again by Ohio and Texas.

Crossed signals: A couple of weeks before the California primary, she drove with a similarly smitten friend to Obama headquarters in downtown San Diego, joining a team of idealistic youngsters in their 20s. She has never even come close to volunteering in any political campaign before. She made hundreds of phone calls to former Edwards supporters. She knocked on doors in sketchy neighborhoods. One night, she had to take an hour off and was looking for a replacement.

“You keep calling the names on the computer screen,” she told me.

I told her no.

“You don't have to give your name,” she said.

That's not the point, I said. I don't work for campaigns.

“Oh, get over it,” she said. “You're working for me.”

Junk TV day and night: Time was, we watched the tube judiciously. But ever since Iowa, it's nonstop CNN, MSNBC or, in a dry spell, C-SPAN. On Sundays, we tape five or six political talk shows, skipping over everything but presidential primary news and commentary. All the pundits – many of whom appear to be too young to even remember the Clinton administration – have become her best friends or her arch enemies.

A couple of restless days before the Texas primary, I woke up about 3 a.m. The TV was on.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“There may be new polling,” she said.

Unbalanced debate: In truth, there is no debate. If I say something positive about the Clintons, she'll bring up the lying and parsing over Monica Lewinsky and remind me that I had my (nuanced) doubts that the sordid affair was an impeachable offense.

As for Obama, his stumbles don't matter because he has the right face, the right body, the right voice, the right experience, the right intellect, the right wife, the cool style. My wife grew up in Montreal and hasn't loved any politician since Pierre Trudeau. Debate over.

Oh, the horror: Just below a family health problem – thank God we have insurance – her biggest night terror is that the Clinton machine, short on delegates, will hijack the nomination out of sheer will. It's a fatalism all Obamamamas share, I suspect, now more than ever. Another panic point is that Obama will settle for vice president.

“Go negative on her!” my wife counsels via the TV screen.

He can't really do that, I tell her. His princely image will be shattered. She'll play the damsel in distress.

“She'll play that card no matter what he does,” she laments.

After the primaries in Ohio and Texas, I tried to explain that Obama is still very likely to win the delegate race. Still, she was inconsolable.

She had been praying for a final exorcism expelling the Clintonian demons once and for all from the possessed body politic. At last, the spinning heads and projectile talking points would stop.

“I'm just getting warmed up,” Hillary Clinton told her ecstatic followers.

My dejected wife, huddled in a dark blanket, looked like death warmed over.

The bottom line: The next day, she drove to sunny Mexico for a brief respite from the campaign. That night, she telephoned to declare, “I'm going to send money to Obama.”

Oh, God. The last fire wall has been breached. For almost 30 years, I have not contributed a penny to a politician or a political cause. My journalistic ethics and natural parsimony have been in balance. But no more.

Though it's a sensitive subject, I've asked what she'll do if Hillary wins the nomination. That's easy, she said. She'll vote for McCain and, if the Clintons end up driving their U-Haul to the White House, she'll never watch the news again. Either that or move to Italy.

After what we've been through already – and what we stand to endure as this infernal primary plays out – I could live with either of those results.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

All the Candidates are Good


Quote of the day:
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
--George Orwell

For the sake of sanity and perspective, I want to just make a quick list of positive attributes of each of the presidential candidates. This is not about issues or politics, but rather my judgment of the two unique qualities of each of them. You may have a very different list.

Barack Obama
Very articulate, eloquent and charismatic.
Delivers a healing message of the vital need for unity.

Hillary Clinton
Very hard worker and detail oriented.
Deeply passionate about improving people’s lives, and that government can be a powerful force for good.

John McCain
Has coauthored and cosponsored with Democrats several important and controversial pieces of legislation.
Is gregarious, open and speaks his mind, especially with the press.

As I say, you may have a very different list. But the point is that each of the three candidates brings something very important and very positive to the presidency.

I agree with and relate to one of them more than the other two, and I sometimes find myself feeling very strongly about it.

But when I step back a bit and really think about the realities of our world right now, I begin to realize that each of them has a good shot at being an effective president.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Rise of Anonymous Abuse


Quote of the day:
“Do you know what condescending means?”
--Unknown

This is the political season of passion. I admit that I’ve gotten out of hand.

I don’t know exactly why I feel so strongly about my candidate in this presidential election year. But I do.

I was brought down to earth about a week ago when reading comments on the New York Times Caucus blog. Many of them were downright nasty. And that’s putting it nicely.

People were saying all kinds of insulting, rude and angry things about whichever candidate was opposing theirs. Over the years I’ve come across all kinds of flaming on the internet, of course. In this case I guess I was surprised at both the intensity of feeling and that so many participants think it’s perfectly fine to slur and malign the accomplished and ambitious people who have chosen to run for president.

This is one of the downsides of the internet. Because people can remain anonymous, and the person they’re talking about is distant from them, they give themselves permission and license to blast whoever they feel like blasting.

This is going to sound fogey-like, but my mother taught me years ago to never say something in a letter that I wouldn’t say to someone in person. And, if I was going to express my opinion in writing, to have the courage to sign it--that is, to own it. That’s why I sign this blog.

Question: why should anyone pay attention to someone who does not even own their opinions and ideas?

Usually, when folks get worked up in online forums, chat rooms or blog comments, the subject matter is pedestrian or arcane. In the audio world, for example, folks get heated about whether or not using different kinds of connection cables affects the sound of a stereo or home theatre.

But this is on a different level. To me, it goes way too far to unfairly label or grossly insult anyone who might be our president. After all, these are all essentially good and decent people. Call me old-fashioned. And proud of it.

All of this was an in-my-face reminder that, in the presidential campaign, those like me who have gotten deeply involved or invested can use some perspective. More about that tomorrow.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

In Treatment


Quote of the day:
"Just the knowledge that a good book is awaiting me at the end of a long day makes that day happier."
--Kathleen Norris

The HBO series “In Treatment” is unusual in many ways.

First, it is on every weeknight. Other than an occasional 3-part miniseries, I can’t think of another drama series airing every night.

Second, each night of the week is a different storyline. All are linked by Paul the therapist, played by Gabriel Byrne. There are four different patients, and Paul himself talks with a therapist on Friday nights.

Third, HBO has a canny programming strategy. It is running two episodes each weeknight. At 9 p.m. is a replay of last week’s episode, followed by the new episode.

This might sound like a convenient way to avoid missing an episode. And it is. But Merrie and I find ourselves watching the whole hour every week. This show is so good it deserves two viewings.

The most important way this show is different is that each episode features two people in conversation. That’s it. Storylines do unfold, but there is no action, and the setting is always Paul’s office.

“In Treatment” is not for everyone. People who have a hard time with the idea of psychotherapy will have a hard time with this show.

To make matters worse, in early episodes Byrne is so passive that he seems to be uninterested and underacting. What happens as the series develops, however, is really something to behold.

This is an extraordinary and addictive series. It is by far the best thing on television.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Best Informed, Worst Informed


Quote of the day:
“I intend to live forever. So far, so good.”
--Steven Wright

Here are a couple of thought-provoking excerpts from a recent column by the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland.

“Access to the internet gives the generations living today the choice to be the best informed, or the worst informed, human beings in the history of the world--but we will never be able to claim that we were the least informed. Celebrity, slime and crude polemics pour from the electronic faucets as easily as high-minded exegeses.”

Referring to HBO’s “The Wire”:

“This magnificent dramatization of life in Baltimore’s violent ghettoes has systematically shown the failure of the city’s police, schools, unions and politicians to deal with a modern urban crisis.

“This final season focuses on a newsroom in turmoil and the broad failure of the city’s media to reflect the corruption of the institutions they are supposed to cover. The grim results of that inattention show how power unused by the media is just as destructive as its misuse.”

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What Happens After November?


Quote of the day:
‘If you’re in a bad situation, don’t worry; it’ll change. If you’re in a good situation, don’t worry; it’ll change.”
--John A. Simone Sr.

It’s looking like the Democratic presidential candidate will be determined shortly. Reports are universal and pervasive that Obama will have this thing wrapped up soon.

His campaign has really hit a resonant chord. Many of his supporters may not have realized how resigned they had become to the international embarrassment that George W. Bush has become. The nation had begun to feel that these years would never end.

And now they’re not only ending, but there is a candidate who eloquently speaks words of hope, inspiration and the possibility of real change. We so thirst for this message after seven years of inarticulateness and questionable competence, combined with a significant decline in respect for Americans abroad.

We have repeated to ourselves over and over that people in other countries don’t dislike us, they just dislike our government right now. They was true for a while, but was called into serious question when we reelected Bush in 2004. Now many of our friends question our sanity at best and our friendship at worst.

Of course whoever is president will seek to repair relationships and rebuild trust internationally. The question is not whether to do this or not. The choice is not strengthen diplomacy or not. That will happen whoever is elected--even Ralph Nader.

The fact is that the Bush administration has gotten serious about diplomacy over the last 12 months. Instead of seeing it as a form of weakness or capitulation, they finally realized that if we’re going to carry Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick, we must also speak softly.

The questions before us over the next couple of years are: Can real change happen? If so, how exactly, with 99.9% of the Washington cast of characters (elected officials and bureaucrats) still in place?

Most important, if we really want change, what exactly are we going to do about it beyond simply voting?

Monday, February 11, 2008

The San Diego Zoo


Quote of the day:
“Eagles may soar, but weasels don't get sucked into jet engines.”
--John Benfield

Merrie and I had a delightful afternoon at the zoo the other day.

I was surprised at the large number of tourists at the zoo on a February weekday. Schoolchildren on field trips I can understand. But there sure were a lot of rental cars in the parking lot. Of course, it IS the most-popular tourist attraction in the city.

It was a little cool and around lunchtime, and I think many of the animals were being tended to. There was much more animal activity than usual.

Exotic lorikeets were exploring their cages. A bird of paradise bellowed at the top of his lungs. Mongeese nuzzled in together for a nap. An anteater carried two babies on her back.

The meercats pictured above were just inches from the edge of their enclosure. They were behaving like pampered celebrities. Which they are, of course. They have their own TV show.

There was a stunning black and brown squirrel, although I don’t think it was called a squirrel. Elsewhere there was a neighborhood ground squirrel jumping into a cage to steal some veggies.

We spent some time watching a pair of exotic grey pigeons the size of turkeys with Phyllis Diller feathers on their heads.

As I say, not a bad afternoon.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sherman, Sophie, Junior and Rocco


Quote of the day:
“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.”
--GK Chesterton

These days, neither Merrie nor I can do much around the house without having four eyes trained on us. Such is life with German Shepherds.

They’re herding dogs. They have a job to do, and they intend to do it. We get rounded up. The cats get rounded up. Guests get rounded up. There’s a lot of herding going on.

Sherman the puppy is now three months old. His ears and feet make up about a third of his body mass. He eats like you wouldn’t believe. And he grows every day.

Just today, he has gotten taller, after spending the previous several days getting longer.

He and Sophie, our four year old German Shepherd mix, are getting along well. There are lots of impromptu wrestling matches, and lots of small dog following big dog around the house.

As for the cats let’s say we’re learning about limits. It’s pretty much business as usual for Junior, our black-and-white 12 year-old. He brooks no nonsense from any dog. He could care less about being barked at, and if Sherman gets too close he delivers a one-two punch. I think Sherman is getting the message.

Rocco, our four-year-old Tonkinese, is particular about who he associates with, and he’s finding the puppy rather obnoxious. Rocco and Sophie are pals, and often accompany each other around the house.

When Sherman sees him and goes into a fit, Rocco growls and hisses and retreats to a high place. If Sherman doesn’t get the message, it’s flying claw time. Wham! Followed by a surprised puppy yelp.

As I say, we’re all learning.

If you want excitement in your life, adopt a puppy.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

William F. Buckley


Quote of the day:
“When I was born I was so surprised I didn't talk for a year and a half.”
--Gracie Allen

Daily Observations returns after a brief interregnum. Now that William F. Buckley is gone, someone has to use the word. And it might as well be me.

I think his public TV show was on Thursday nights. Somehow, I got hooked. Usually I found myself disagreeing with what he was saying, but “Firing Line” was entertaining, informative and substantial.

It might be hard to imagine William F. Buckley as entertaining, but he was, in so many ways. He was loaded with idiosyncrasies, including the tendency to lean back in his chair at an angle that was mighty odd to see on TV. No interviewer before or since has been as unconcerned with how he looked on camera.

I remember many times being absorbed in his conversation and then suddenly realizing that he might at any moment fall out of his chair if he leaned just a little more.

He always used notes and had a pen in hand throughout the show. His eyebrows were fascinating to watch. And the sound of the carefully-measured, long words drawling out of his mouth always had me coming back for more.

Most important was the meticulous and intellectually rigorous way he handled every subject. Buckley was always well prepared. More important, he always understood current issues in the context of history.

It was extraordinarily refreshing. It’s too bad that this kind of conversation is completely missing on TV or radio. Instead, conservative radio and TV political conversation has become, at its best, character assassination. At its worst it’s some variation of “moronic and immoral liberals pddgghh ditto ditto ditto.”

Friday, February 8, 2008

This Time It's Not Different


Quote of the day:
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”
--Ecclesiastes 1:9

I want to spend another moment considering Alfred North Whitehead’s quote from yesterday.

To paraphrase a cliche, when you live long enough, you see almost everything. Actually, it goes further than that. If you live long enough, you see many things repeat themselves over and over.

This applies especially to bad decisions resulting from delusional thinking, be it mild, moderate or severe. The delusions are more important than just about anything, and we will not let them go. Thus the same bad decisions, over and over and over again.

We all carry around delusions of some sort, often relating to our self-image. Some get us into trouble, but most are benign, the worst consequence being foisting ridiculous arguments and opinions on the people around us.

Two areas that seem especially susceptible to delusional thinking are money and politics. These can be personal and relate to our daily lives, or they can be part of group-think and relate to larger issues.

Two cliches apply:

“The definition of insanity is repeating the same actions over and over, expecting a different result.”
--Source unknown

“Those who don’t understand history are condemned to repeat it.”
--Benjamin Disraeli

Unfortunately, the cliche we often live by, even passionately swear by is:

“This time it’s different.”

Whatever the case, I gotta tell you, it is almost certain that this time it’s not different. Sorry.

I used to think it was charming to say “there’s nothing new under the sun.” But there is much more to it than charm. Maybe even a profound truth.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Please Quote Me


Quote of the day:
“Everything of importance has been said before by somebody who did not discover it.”
--Alfred North Whitehead

Whitehead’s statement resonates with me. It’s why I enjoy coming across quotable material in my daily reading, viewing and listening.

It’s fashionable to look down on quotes, as if they are some form of microscopic literature for dummies. But I think excellent insight can be found in a well-formed, pithy sentence or two.

Quotes are criticized for the very thing that makes them work: brevity--sometimes extreme brevity. I think there is great value, and maybe even virtue, in getting across a vital idea in just a few words.

There are many people in our culture who seem to think that the longer a statement is, the more intellectual and erudite it is.

I’ve got news for those people. Windiness is just windiness. The best writers happen also to be the best editors (or to have the best editors). Length does not equal greatness.

Naturally, it’s just as possible to be stupid and irrelevant in a short quote as in a half-hour speech. But at least the dumb short quote doesn’t take a half hour.

As you can tell, I’m a huge fan of pith. Except the helmet kind.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ash Wednesday


Quote of the day:
“I'm as pure as the driven slush.”
--Tallulah Bankhead

Today is Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar. It’s the day we’re explicitly reminded that we’re human and that our lives will end one day.

As a minister, I would usually stress that today is the beginning of Lent. I did that because the whole thing about mortality can be quite upsetting for people. And there’s really no need to deliberately upset anyone. It serves no purpose.

Nonetheless, today is about our mortality. And Lent is about our lives. What we are doing with them, and what we want to be doing with them.

Lent is the season for some deliberate thought and reflection about who we are, and whether that matches up with who we want to be. More specifically, Lent gives time to examine our priorities--honestly, even ruthlessly.

The questions are: What are the priorities of my life? Are they what they should be? If they are, am I living them or just saying them?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Buffling Off to Shuffalo


Quote of the day:
“Silly is you in a natural state, and serious is something you have to do until you can get silly again.”
--Mike Myers

I’ve noted before that Merrie and I listen to music every morning. These days we’re sticking mostly to fairly mellow stuff. We need the calming, what with the tornado of a German Shepherd puppy surrounding us so much of the time.

I’ve listened to classical music for most of my life. We had just a few classical records when I was growing up, but they were played a great deal. My father loved Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and his Symphony No. 6, so I practically know those works by heart.

I began playing classical records on the radio when I was in college, first on the campus station (“Welcome to Classical Showcase...”), and then on three public stations in Baltimore, Birmingham and San Diego.

What is this, my resume?

Anyway, we usually play classical music in the mornings. I’ve put most of our CDs on our iMac, and I’ve gotten to like putting them on “shuffle” and listening for hours. It’s like having our own radio station.

There are often some strange juxtapositions, especially since individual cuts from CDs are shuffled. That means there will be a movement from a Schubert string quartet followed by an aria from Puccini’s “La Boheme,” followed by something by John Adams.

I know I will now get hate mail from musicians and classical purists, who emit an odd combination of sobbing and retching when they think of anyone listening to single movements out of the context of the larger work.

But I find it illuminating. We often discover buried treasures in the form of music deep inside an album we haven’t listened to much.

Or it might be a work we have heard a lot, but hearing a piece of it out of context gives it a whole new meaning.

It’s kind of like sitting down, putting on just one song and listening attentively to it. Who knows what we might discover?

Monday, February 4, 2008

Video Pilot

video
I've been considering several ideas for a weekly video feed. This was supposed to be the pilot for one of them. It's also available on YouTube.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Ideas and Responsibility


Quote of the day:
“Diversity in friendships serves the exact same purpose as diversity in investments--to keep one blip from upending your entire world.”
--Carolyn Hax

Columnist William Kristol recently wrote about the difference between discussing ideas and proposals and actually governing. He suggested that Democrats are good at the former, while Republicans are good at the latter.

While I don’t agree with the party distinction, I think Kristol makes an important point.

It is far easier to criticize and make supremely reasonable proposals from outside any organization that it is from inside. This is especially true for government and other highly political organizations.

I’ve worked at several levels inside two such organizations. That experience leads me to question the sanity of those who run for public office.

Public officials at every level are blasted by someone no matter what they do or don’t do. There are critics everywhere with different points of view, and many of them let their thoughts be known, sometimes in impolite ways.

Those who don’t have to deal with this relentless criticism--from within the organization and well as without--have no problem joining the chorus on one side or the other. Those who don’t have to face near-impossible budget decisions--such as whether to layoff teachers or police, or whether to raise taxes--have no problem making the decisions, often with just their own interests in mind.

Things are always easier to run from the outside. From there the answers are clear. Maybe if we say them or shout them enough, the boneheaded mayor/president/leader/manager will finally do something, we say.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Whither Quaintness?


Quote of the day:
“No matter what side of the argument you are on, you always find people on your side that you wish were on the other.”
--Jascha Heifetz

Yesterday I was folding clothes when this tune came into my head:
“I’m a little hunk of tin
Nobody knows where I have been
Got four wheels and a running board,
I’m a Ford, a Ford, a Ford.
Honk, honk, rattle, rattle, rattle, crash, beep-beep,
Honk, honk, rattle, rattle, rattle, crash, beep-beep,
Honk, honk.”

I learned this song when I was ten years old at summer camp. It’s one of those ridiculous but fun-to-sing-in-spite-of-myself camp songs.

Until yesterday, I never thought about the words much, except to realize it was about an old car.

It occurred to me that this song was about the very popular Model T, produced by Ford between 1909 and 1927. This car is legendary for being the first produced using assembly-line technology.

In spite of its mythic status, Time magazine voted it one of the 50 worst cars of all time.

When I considered the fact that the Model T was a piece of junk, and that they were ubiquitous in America for 20 years, the song made sense.

I have never driven or ridden in a Model T, though I have seen one in a car museum and at an antique-car rally.

At what age is something or someone considered “quaint”? I admit I feel quaint even thinking about the silly song, the melody and words of which are branded on my brain.

The car was on the road more than fifty years before I sang the song at camp. I think that disqualifies me from quaintness. At least for a while.

Do they still sing this song at camp?

Friday, February 1, 2008

Gandhi and Lord Mountbatten


Quote of the day:
“[RNC Chairman Mike] Duncan and his aides want to be ready to go on the offensive against the Democratic nominee presumptive in an effort to define the opposition candidate on GOP terms. Opposition research is already well along, and the plan is for surrogates to talk to the media around the country while a TV ad campaign in key states and media markets as soon as the Democratic nominee is determined.”
--US News and World Report

I saw the 1982 movie “Gandhi” the other day. I remember seeing it when it was first released, and later watching director David Attenborough accept the Academy award for best picture.

It must’ve been daunting for Ben Kingsley to think of playing the most-influential moral leader of the 20th century. It seems a little odd to say that he does a good job, because his portrayal is so authentic I found myself thinking I was watching Gandhi himself.

After thoroughly enjoying this film, Merrie and I decided to rent the British series “Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy,” which appeared on public television in the 1980s. We had enjoyed it more than the very popular “Jewel in the Crown” series which ran at about the same time.

It’s interesting that both TV series and the movie came out within a few years of each other. They all tell the story surrounding the end of British rule in India in 1947.

Its worth seeing any or all of these productions again in 2008, just because they are all excellent. But there’s another reason.

They all provide valuable perspective on the current situation in Iraq, and in other areas of the world.

When India began planning its independence, violence broke out among its three major population groups: the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. The battles between Hindus and Muslims intensified to the point where there was a real fear of civil war.

Thus the decision was made to partition two parts of the country, creating the Muslim states of east and west Pakistan. The plan for partition created serious new problems as a major Sikh population center was divided.

Also, there were mass migrations of people into and out of the areas to become Pakistan. Violence often broke out between these two columns of refugees, moving in opposite directions.

The leadership of Pakistan was threatened by radical Muslims who claimed they were not getting enough from India. And India’s leaders were threatened by radical Hindus who thought they were giving too much away to the Muslims.

The violence continued for some time after the two nations became independent. About a year later, Gandhi was assassinated by a radical Hindu.