Friday, April 30, 2010

Aging doesn't change your attitude

This morning, I had an email from a friend of fifty years, one of my college roommates, who noted that:
One interesting thing is how old age impacts one's attitude towards religion. At [a recent] luncheon, someone reported on two former...executives who upon retirement had gone into the ministry. [A mutual friend of ours] and I have certainly become more active in terms of church groups. You on the other hand, have become a complete atheist. I am certainly not consistent in my beliefs because I belong to the Anglican Church of North America (which has split off from the Episcopal Church) although I have neither supported the secession nor the opposition to gay marriage. Religion as well as politics makes strange bedfellows.
    Hmm, I wonder whether aging per se is the operative factor in one's attitude toward religion. I'd say it's more a matter of whether and how a person spends his time thinking about it. There's the believing way of thinking and the skeptical way. As a teenager, I chose the latter, although I didn't come to a conclusion until many years later.

Another, very recent friend, also emailed me. He wrote:
A brief sidebar on religion—a line I've always considered one of the simplest and yet most humorous and profound thoughts on the subject: "If a baseball hitter thanks God when he hits a homerun, shouldn't he blame God when he strikes out?"
    The baseball example has occurred to me a number of times in listening to people thanking God for this and that. They choose not to condemn God (or come to doubt that He exists) for bad things that have happened to them, but they're quick to fall down and worship Him for the good things that happen. That is, they (1) chose up front to believe that God exists and (2) continually cherry-pick what to attend to in order to ensure that they don't begin to doubt that existence.
    This is a prime example of something I've surely said somewhere on this blog, if not more than once: For most people (and for all of us to some extent or other), thinking is mostly a matter of looking for reasons to "prove" what we have already chosen (on other than rational grounds) to believe.
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Thanks to Paul Ygartua for Wizened old man - Lithograph

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why commandments, anyway?

A reader's recent question about my "New Ten Commandments" occasioned my reading them afresh to reconsider doing something about the fact that several of them can be combined.1 The only reason for specifying precisely ten originally was of course an allusion to The Old Testament (ignoring Mel Brooks's suggestion, in his 1981 film, History of the World, Part I, that Moses had actually received three tablets from God, with fifteen commandments, but had clumsily dropped and shattered one of them). And, as I admitted on July 8, 2008, George Carlin did Moses, Dawkins, and me eight better by pretty cogently (for a stage entertainer) boiling the ten down to two. I don't propose to compete with Mr. Carlin, however.
    In fact, I'm still very much in cogitation mode about this. Why have commandments anyway (over against civil laws)? What purpose could such a list serve, if little general assent could ever be gained for them, in competition as they would be with a multitude of local customs variously at odds with one another, even if they shared some common evolutionary features? In what sense would they be commandments, anyway? I suspect that this whole business of Mel Brooks's and George Carlin's satires, as well as of Richard Dawkins's revisionist suggestion in The God Delusion [p. 263], is about coming to terms intellectually with human cultural history. We want to understand who we are, in the best (truest) terms we can. And we want to help by sweeping out discredited understandings and recommending progressive insights. (And, of course, the folks rabble-rousing for displaying The Ten Commandments in our court houses want to continue to rail against us progressive upstarts.)
    By the way, the accompanying pictures are of The Georgia Guidestones, a large granite monument in Elbert County, Georgia. Says Wikipedia:
A message comprising ten guides is inscribed on the structure in eight modern languages, and a shorter message is inscribed at the top of the structure in four ancient languages' scripts: Babylonian, Classical Greek, Sanskrit, and Egyptian hieroglyphs.
For example, Guide #4:"Rule passion – faith – tradition – and all things with tempered reason."
    The monument has been attacked by Christian fundamentalists as "The Ten Commandments of the Anti-Christ." Of course, a self-reinforcing principle of fundamentalist belief is that the less sense something makes, or the more difficult it is to believe it, then all the more glorious is the faith that it is true.

My Commandment #1, Imagine that "God" exists if doing so somehow comforts or inspires you, but don't fall down and worship it, was my wry, finger-in-your-eye take on belief in God, implying that nothing that followed emanated from "Him" because "He" didn't exist and so never issued any. That Book of Moses was brilliant creative writing, though.

My Commandment #2, In all things, try to do no harm, is suspect from the get-go with its "try," revealing that doing no harm is practically impossible. Even the Jains occasionally step on a bug, try as they might not to. Someone who trys to do utterly no harm surely harms himself occasionally in his attempts, if only in inner turmoil.

With #3, Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you, I was opting for the negative version of the Golden Rule, but I personally like the positive version better, with its call to take action (positive) rather than refrain from action (negative). I like to "do good," to help others, more than I like to simply avoid harming them. Obviously, both versions are worthy and have an august history (not that I'm intimately familiar with it). But it may make more sense to command avoidance than to command commission. I think that Jesus wasn't commanding people to do good (positive), but mainly trying to show them a way to live better, to realize "the Kingdom of Heaven" within. He didn't command anyone to love, he was giving them loving advice for personal betterment.

In the case of #4, Don't rush to judgment but give everyone the benefit of an open mind, I overlooked that mammals have evolved to act automatically, for self-preservation, to not give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I'm not sure I can advise anyone to try to reason with a desperate person who has dynamite strapped around his (or her) torso, whether for religious or other reasons. People do tend to be more closed-minded than they "ought" to be, however, for living harmoniously and progressively in civilized society.

About #5, though, Formulate laws as if you didn't know what your position in the pecking order would be, I cannot be too enthusiastic. Political philosopher John Rawls's principle of the "original position" was a brilliant concept for social justice. But who of us here on the street ever formulates a law?

My #6, Treat all living creatures humanely, is as noble a principle as there is and, in our age of caged animals raised for the commercial food industry, more dishonored than heeded. To stand on a corner with the principle lettered on one's sandwich boards would be a foolish use of one's time and energy. If "God" actually created the food chain (and was thus the first entity to dishonor this principle), then the captains of the food industry are his devoted disciples.

Ha, #7, Always be willing to revise your beliefs according to evidence and reason! Don't we wish! Few of us are able to cast the first stone. At sixty-seven, I've won my beliefs by effort and have waning energy and power to continue revising them, although I have read (in a science article in The New York Times) that "continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you 'bump up against people and ideas' that are different." Still, I hope I have the sense, until the minute of my death, to change my mind because of new evidence or consideration.

#8, Do not indoctrinate your children, but teach them how to think for themselves, is the chicken or the egg of significant cultural advance. If the huge majority of parents could and would stop indoctrinating their children against reason and evidence, religion could die a painless death in a generation or two. But what are the chances of that? Crying The Eighth New Commandment is pissing into the wind. No one is listening, no one will be commanded in this. Or few, anyway.

Speaking of pissing, #9, Support your country when it is right, oppose it when it is wrong, was another pee-pee of mine on the administration of George W. Bush. See my post of December 27, 2006, "Some Dogs I've Known."

And, finally, #10, Question authority; challenge authority that appears illegitimate, is just eighth-grade civics. Still, it's sad that so many downtrodden people (and peoples) of the earth haven't the power to challenge authority, they are so firmly under its boot.
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  1. The version currently displayed in my sidebar I formulated on December 29, 2007.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Students!

A problem for some university administrators is that "students almost never actually take the courses they agreed to on their official programs of study."
A finding of graduation audit
Is that students so often defraud it;
    The courses of study they swore for
    Are rarely the ones that they chore for,
And no one of us can applaud it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Nemerov's myth revised

World photographer Paul Calhoun recently said that he was "intrigued by [my] New Ten Commandments; do I detect a Wicca undercurrent there?"
    Ah, no, not intentionally anyway. I'm not that familiar with the nature religions. I had to research what a Wicca undercurrent might be. In the Wikipedia's entry for "Wicca," I learned that
Wicca (pronounced [ˈwɪkə]) is a Neopagan religion and a form of modern witchcraft....
    Wicca is typically a duotheistic religion, worshipping a Goddess and a God, who are traditionally viewed as the Triple Goddess and Horned God. These two deities are often viewed as being facets of a greater pantheistic Godhead....
Well, having read that, I'd now say there's not even any unintentional Wicca undercurrent here! Basically, I'm a scientific naturalist; the supernatural is a figment of the evolved brain's marvelous making. Or, as Howard Nemerov's "Creation Myth on a Moebius Band" puts it: "This world's just mad enough to have been made / By the Being his beings into Being prayed," where I understand "Being" to refer to the natural world, the natural cosmos.

My logic there, I see, is a bit convoluted (in suggesting that the world made itself, even in the beginning). Given the use to which I wish to put Nemerov's clever couplet, I see that it needs adjustment. How about:
This world's just mad enough to have done made1
The beings who their Maker-Being into being prayed.
That's how it stands at the moment. Thank you, Howard Nemerov.

Paul also asked whether I designed this blog myself ("it has a lush, professional texture to it," he said).
    No, it uses a template supplied by blogger.com. I did change the background color (borrowed from Brooklyn artist Matthew Moss's cover art for Jingle Jangle) and arranged the order of stuff in the right column. I put links in the masthead to the current post (for when people come to a specific post by way of its link address) and my sidebar table of contents. And I routinely use embedded styles in posts for certain modest effects (like the lead-in in bold lower caps).
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  1. "Done made" is a quotation of two titles: Alice Randall's 2001 novel, The Wind Done Gone (based on Margaret Mitchell's 1936 classic, Gone with the Wind), and Timothy B. Tyson's 2004 autobiographical work of history, Blood Done Sign My Name.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Walter Kirn up in the air!

I'm concurrently reading Walter Kirn's 2001 novel, Up in the Air, and enjoying it no less than I'm enjoying Ian McEwan's Solar. Up in the Air is a romp, though a story much different from that told by the George Clooney movie (much darker, yet funnier), and a novel much different from McEwan's (its dark action concentrated into a tiny fraction of the decade taken by the tragicomic action of Solar).
    With what dismay, then, did I read this morning, in this coming Sunday's New York Times Book Review, Kirn's front-page review of Solar, which is about as total a dump-on of another writer's work as a reviewer writes. It opens:
According to the perverse aesthetics of artistic guilty pleasure, certain books and movies are so bad—so crudely conceived, despicably motivated and atrociously executed—that they’re actually rather good. Solar, the new novel by Ian McEwan, is just the opposite: a book so good—so ingeniously designed, irreproachably high-minded and skillfully brought off—that it’s actually quite bad...There’s so little wrong with it that there’s nothing particularly right about it, either.
    Fortunately for the discerning reader, the illogic of "so good it's bad" undermines Kirn's position from the get-go. But Walter Kirn's standing, both as novelist and as "a regular contributor to the Book Review," will browbeat the unwary into thinking that there might be something to his quasi-logical argument, so maybe they should just skip Solar. So much the worse for them.
    Kirn more or less writes off the boot room, which I blogged about the other day: It
devolves [emphasis mine] into a model Hobbesian jungle as the supposedly liberal junket­eers steal the best gear for themselves, placing their own survival before the group’s and putting the lie to man’s altruistic posturing.
Why does it "devolve"? It doesn't. Kirn's just miffed. His underlying complaint about Solar may be that expressed in his paragraph:
There’s little that’s lifelike about Solar, despite its relentless pretensions to relevance. The story is structured like a crossword puzzle, in rows and columns of little empty boxes that McEwan helps us fill in by providing witty riddles whose solutions flatter our intelligence. The process feels pleasantly antic and cerebral, but in time its premeditated quality becomes preposterously artificial, as do its swerves into heady slapstick humor.
As a reader of the book, I find none of this justified. To say that Solar is "structured like a crossword puzzle" is just silly. "Premediated...preposterously artificial" suggests a formula for summing up Kirn's review: Preposterous! Whatever McEwan might have published, I suspect that Kirn had premeditated to put it down, however artificial the logic of his put-down would have to be.

I think there's a clue to Kirn's pique in his statement:
What makes Solar such a noble nullity is that it answers these challenges so easily, with such a quotient of stress-free mastery that they feel less like challenges than like problems in a literary exam the author has devised as a means of proving his own prowess. This may be Beard’s story, but it’s McEwan’s vehicle, constructed to let him pull all the showy turns of the major contemporary novelist and ambitious public intellectual: personalizing the political, politicizing the personal and poeticizing everything else.
    The clues, I mean, are so easily, major contemporary novelist, and ambitious public intellectual. Kirn appears to have been suffering a serious case of jealousy!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The boot room

In Ian McEwan's latest novel, Solar, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard is invited to the North Pole.
The party would comprise twenty artists and scientists concerned with climate change...There were no lecturing duties—Beard's presence would be sufficient—and the foundation would bear all his expenses, while the guilty discharge of carbon dioxide from twenty return flights and snowmobile rides and sixty hot meals a day served in polar conditions would be offset by planting three thousand trees in Venezuela as soon as a site could be identified and local officials bribed.
    ...
    It turned out that Beard was the only scientist among a committed band of artists. The entire world and all its follies, one of which was to warm up the planet, was to their south, which seemed to be in every direction....
    ...
    From the second day, the disorder in the boot room was noticeable, even to Beard. [pp. 46, 47, 62, 75]
This boot room, which McEwan introduces so innocently, so unremarkably, attracts more of a Nobel Prize winner's attention than we might expect:
    He suspected that he never wore the same boots on consecutive days. Even though he wrapped his goggles...in his inner balaclava on the third day, they were gone by the fourth, and the balaclava was on the floor, soaking up water...He was not a communally spirited person, but there were certain decencies he took for granted—in himself, and therefore in others. He always put his stuff on and below the same peg, number seventeen, and was disappointed to note that others had trouble observing such simple procedures. Gloves were a particular problem, for it was impossible to go outside without them. As a precaution, he stuffed his inside his boots, along with the glove liners. The next day the boots were gone. [p. 75]
    And the week long Beard observes the artists' idealistic
demonstrations, like prayers, like totem-pole dances...fashioned to deflect the course of catastrophe.
  Such was the music and magic of ship-bound climate-change talk. Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall we had learned to call a bulkhead, the boot room continued to deteriorate. By midweek four helmets were missing, along with three of the heavy snowmobile suits and many smaller items. It was no longer possible for more than two thirds of the company to be outside at the same time...Four days ago the room had started out in orderly condition, with all gear hanging on or stowed below the numbered pegs.
Then McEwan reveals his hand, why the boot room has been such a focus, to serve as a symbol:
Finite resources, equally shared, in the golden age of not so long ago. Now it was a ruin. Even harder to impose order once the room was strewn with backpacks and stuff bags and supermarket plastic bags half filled with extra gloves and scarves and chocolate bars. No one, he thought, admiring his own generosity, had behaved badly; everyone, in the immediate circumstances, wanting to get out on the ice, had been entirely rational in "discovering" his or her missing balaclava or glove in an unexpected spot. It was perverse or cynical of him to take pleasure in the thought, but he could not help himself. How were they to save the earth—assuming it needed saving, which he doubted—when it was so much larger than the boot room? [emphasis mine, pp. 79, 80]

Monday, April 12, 2010

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Up or not to expectation

As far as breakfast was concerned, I might as well have died during the night, after all.
    Last night I'd set out on the kitchen counter to thaw a Ziploc freezer bag of two of the croissants we'd bought at Costco the day before, and the small bowl (of the set of four we'd bought used in San Rafael when our son was a year old) in which I would stir two eggs the next morning for scrambling.
    I set the small skillet on the stove, put out a large plate and a knife and a fork, got down the French press and two coffee cups, and the jar of Tupelo honey and a spoon to ladle it out onto the croissants after I heated them in our new Cuisinart oven. I remember almost saying out loud as I left the kitchen on my way to the bedroom, Let me survive the night to be able to enjoy breakfast. Hope atavistically expressed, a moment of magical thinking? Or just a way of thinking (almost aloud)?
    But breakfast wasn't that enjoyable. Scrambled eggs just aren't as special to me anymore as they used to be. I think I'd have enjoyed more a large bowl of my more usual 5-minute oatmeal, with a handful of thawed-out Nature's Three Berries from Costco (raspberries, blueberries, and marionberries) and sweetened with a little brown sugar. And only a single croissant. The same French-pressed coffee, though. It's always good.
    Nevertheless, I'm glad I survived the night. Breakfast wasn't bad, just not as glorious as I'd imagined. And I don't think any breakfast could be bad enough to have died overnight to avoid.

And if I'd died, I wouldn't have gone on the walk with Siegfried and my wife his mama, or met the photographer who marveled at Siegfried and asked was the 1992 Volvo in the parking lot ours. He said he had a Volvo 240 also. "A 1981, four hundred and ten thousand miles on it, been to 40 states." We asked would we see it when we left. No, he'd driven his 1988 Pontiac Fiero. "It's a poor man's Porsche. Thirty-four miles per gallon."
    I asked about his last name, told him an old friend named that had retired back to Montgomery, Alabama from IBM. "He could be a distant relation," he said, "maybe as far back as when my people were Vikings and went over to Scotland from Normandy."
    I didn't tell him that the other fellow had been found dead in his home only a year or three after his homecoming, by a neighbor, I think. Apparent heart attack. More than twenty years ago....

And I wouldn't have been there along the trail when my wife discovered the beautiful fungus (?) on a little tree I now see I guessed wrong might become a Sweetgum.


Another good day to have survived the night for.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Press the temp button and the up arrow

I'd already packed up our new Cuisinart convection oven toaster broiler to return to Costco, but thought I'd first check the book for the instructions about setting temperature. My wife and I had tried this morning to set it at 350 to bake my Mary B's buttermilk biscuit. "Press the Temp button," she'd said, "and hold it down while you press the Up arrow." The starting temperature of 150 hadn't moved. We tried it several times. Once the temperature moved up to 175, another time to 175 then 200. But mostly it stayed stuck on 150. Twenty or thirty minutes later, the biscuit had come out a sodden lump of visually unappealing dough.
    I quickly found, on p. 3, under "Quick Reference Oven Operation," the instructions to:
•  Press Bake or Conv Bake
•  Press Temp
•  Press Up or Down arrow to enter temperature
•  Press Start/Stop to start oven
Hmm, nothing about continuing to hold "Temp"....
    I took the book to my wife. "Where did you read that about holding Temp down while pressing an arrow?"
    She took the book and said, "Right here, on. p. 6, under convection bake: 'Press the Temp button and the Up arrow to increase the temperature.'"
    "At the same time?"
    "Of course! It says, 'Press the Temp button and the Up arrow.'"
    I showed her p. 3 and said, "I think they probably should have said to press the Temp button, then press the Up arrow."
    "Okay," she allowed, "let's try it."
    I unpacked everything and she plugged it in. Then she pressed Bake, then Temp, then the Up arrow a few times.
    Voilà! The temperature read-out rose to 175, 200, 225, 250, 300, 325, 350.
    I said, "I bet the times the temperature moved up before, we weren't holding Temp down at the same time."

Siegfried and I didn't have to drive to Costco!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Suicide is painless

In my day job, I coordinate for North Carolina an arrangement involving all of the southeastern states by which they share "not commonly available" academic degree programs with each other's residents at in-state tuition rates.
    At least, I thought I did. For years I've quoted "not commonly available" thinking I was quoting from the regional guidelines governing all of the participating states. But yesterday I discovered that the guidelines don't even touch the topic. The arrangement actually permits participating states to share with each other any of their academic degree programs they want to share, however commonly or uncommonly available they may be. The word "common" or "uncommon" isn't even used in this context. The only regional restriction on sharing is that the states can't approve another state's degree program for their residents if they have a similar program.
    There is the proviso, though, that each state may have additional guidelines based on its own needs. And North Carolina does have an additional guideline, one that was written into the legislation that authorizes our participation in the arrangement. That is, it's the law. We may
select for participation only...programs that are likely to be unique or are not commonly available in other participating states.
    I'd always read the legislation as simply codifying for North Carolina the regional guideline affecting all of the participating states. And I'd always read the regional guidelines sure that they stated somewhere that the states could share only their "not commonly available" degree programs. But I recently became aware that another of the states doesn't consider uncommonness of availability, and I asked the state coordinator, "How can you just ignore the regional guideline?" She asked me to show her what in the guidelines I was referring to.
    I pored over their every line but couldn't find the phrase anywhere, nor any language remotely like it. It was all just in my mind.

Self-deception is so easy, at least as easy as suicide is painless, a clause from Robert Altman's 14-year-old son Mike's lyrics for the song from M*A*S*H:
Suicide is painless,
It brings on many changes,
And I can take or leave it if I please.
    Self-deception, though, isn't at all easy to take or leave. Several days of email exchanges were required to bring me to the definitive reading of the regional guidelines. Self-deception hides from us, even weaves a thick web of supporting deceptions to protect itself. That is, we hide the deception, we weave the web.
    I haven't been able to discover that I had any powerful motive for deceiving myself about "not commonly available." Somehow or other I got the idea that it was in the regional guidelines, which seemed eminently sensible. How could it be otherwise? All of the states were simply sharing their uncommon programs. That was what it was all about, that's how I'd explained the arrangement to hundreds of people.
    I must have heard dozens of clues, during email exchanges or conversations or at meetings of state coordinators, that it just wasn't so, but my woven web "protected" me from picking up on them, even enabled me to neutralize conflicting statements or simply reject them as uninformed. I understood it better than they did.

If we can do this in matters with little at stake, think how well we must be able to do it in matters of love, life, and death. We believe that we're loved when we're not (or that we're loved more or more often than we really are). We believe that someone is looking out for us when no one is. We even believe that the someone is the Best Someone There Could Be.
...Few people know that most airports have houses of worship: they tend to be white, high-ceilinged, scrubbed, and soundproof, imbued with a spirituality so general that even atheists can find refuge in them. They go unused, for the most part, except in times of emergency and terror—after a crash or when a war breaks out. They're eerie little niches but also restful and perfect for catching up on paperwork....[p. 103, Up in the Air, by Walter Kirn, 2001]
...[Owners] of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion they they are god...Religion, then, partakes of equal elements of the canine and the feline. It exacts maximum servility and abjection, requiring you to regard yourself as conceived and born in sin and owing a duty to a stern creator. But in return, it places you at the center of the universe and assures you that you are the personal object of a heavenly plan. Indeed, if you make the right propitiations you may even find that death has no sting, and that an exception to the rules of physical annihilation may be made in your own case....[p. xvi, Introduction to The Portable Atheist, by Christopher Hitchens, 2007]

Thursday, April 8, 2010

We've all been there, though some of us died in the crash

...Now the driver's line of gaze had to deviate a whole ninety degrees from the road to engage with his passenger, sometimes for seconds on end, during which time, by Beard's calculation, they traveled several hundred meters. You don't have to look at me to talk to me, he wanted to say as he watched the traffic ahead, trying to predict the moment when he might seize the wheel. But even Beard found it difficult to criticize a man who was giving him a lift—his host, in effect. Rather die or spend a life as a morose quadriplegic than be impolite. [p. 36, Solar, by Ian McEwan, 2010]
Beard is the same Michael Beard I introduced in my report of reading a short story, presumably from the novel, that appeared in the December 7 issue of The New Yorker Magazine.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Is love like water?

"Love," begins the title story of Chapel Hill author Samia Serageldin's collection,
..."is like water." It took me a long time, and much grief, to understand what she meant.
    ...
    "Love," she would say, "is like water," meaning that love flows from the older to the younger, and not vice versa, just as water flows downhill and not up....[pp. 23, 26-27]
Could that be true? I've felt it flowing the other way, many times.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Glorious Sunday

My body and spirit were still tingling with delight from watching Julie & Julia (the first entire movie I've watched on my computer—downloaded from Netflix) as I unloaded and selected the four photographs below from this morning.
    Uncharacteristically, I'd gotten up a little later than my wife, and when I arrived in the kitchen to put some water on for our coffee, she called in from the porch that mist was rising from the field out back. After a quick look, I rushed to get my camera.

The trees are Eastern Redbuds (Cercis canadensis), and they're blooming all over this part of North Carolina these days.

After breakfast I remembered that I wanted to photograph some of my wife's tulips from the ground up, and realized I hadn't made any photos of the ones in the front yard. Literally from the ground up proved impossible, for I wasn't willing to lie in the dew to look through the view finder.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Too lightweight for Sarah Palin jokes

On the strength of Hugh Grant's movie persona, we chose last night to watch Marc Lawrence's 2009 movie, Did You Hear about the Morgans? Grant plays Paul Morgan, who is separated from his wife Meryl, played by Sarah Jessica Parker. New Yorkers, he's a lawyer and she's the head of a real estate agency. Because they are seen by a murderer to have witnessed the act, they are co-opted into a witness protection program and end up in the very small town of Ray, Wyoming, guests of the Wheelers.
    The movie attempts to derive humor from contrasting their eastern values with those of the locals. For example, having seen Emma Wheeler purchasing guns at a big discount store before they know who she is, Meryl says upon being introduced, "I thought you were Sarah Palin." And when Emma offers them "bacon or sausage, or both" for breakfast, Meryl says she's a vegetarian, a member of P.E.T.A. "That stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals." Emma replies that she's a member of P.E.T.A. too. "I'm for People Eating Tasty Animals."

But these jokes just don't work. The movie is so lightweight that it can't supply the bite required by the rather serious material of Sarah Palin, guns, eating animals, walls lined with trophy heads, and smoking in restaurants.
    It's too lightweight, too, to justify an actor of Grant's ability to convince an audience that he's a real person, though it's about the right weight for the Sex in the City maven.
    The movie sorely disappoints, although I did enjoy its using Paul Morgan's having had sex with another woman in Los Angeles as the reason the Morgans were separated. This seemed a clear reference to Hugh Grant's having spoiled his relationship with supermodel Elizabeth Hurley by having a tryst with a black prostitute in that city in 1995. Paul's attempt to downplay the affair seemed reminiscent of Grant's real comments at the time. For example, "I think you know in life what's a good thing to do and what's a bad thing, and I did a bad thing. And there you have it."

Sarah Palin may be a lightweight herself, but her power to rouse destructive passions is no laughing matter. When otherwise intelligent people say that they all-caps LOVE her, you know that they're unconscious of something very wrong inside themselves, often a virulent racism that they suffer from but deny they do, not only to others but to themselves.

Tulips

Who plants a bulb
beneath the sod?

Answer: my wife. The question is a paraphrase of her needlepoint:

Who plants a seed
Beneath the sod
And waits to see
Believes in DNA

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Moby Dick

I recently read the opening pages of Herman Melville's great American novel, so I was delighted this morning to see in the March 28 New York Times Book Review a review of Philip Hoare's non-fiction book, The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea, which among much else apparently talks about Melville's novel at length.
    But what arrested me in the review (by Nathaniel Philbrick and titled "What Lies Beneath") was the paragraph that begins by talking about "whaling's 'historical crescendo' during the second half of the 20th century, when more than 72,000 whales were killed in a single year," then continues:
Elsewhere [Hoare] evokes a possible future in which the rising sea levels associated with global warming will allow the whale to become the planet's dominant species "with only distant memories of the time when they were persecuted by beings whose greed proved to be their downfall." As it turns out, whales have already ventured beyond this paltry planet. Unlike any other known substance, sperm whale oil works as a lubricant in the extraordinarily cold temperatures of outer space. "The Hubble space telescope is wheeling around the earth on spermaceti," Hoare writes, "seeing six billion years into the past." But that's not all. The scientists who fitted out the Voyager probe decided that the song of the humpback was the best way to greet any possible aliens. This means that long after all of us are gone, the call of the whale will be traveling out into the distant reaches of the universe. [p. 13]