Saturday, December 30, 2006

Hey, my textured background worked this time!

The other day, when I tried to specify in my blog template a 12px-by-12px background image and have it repeated horizontally and vertically, I did something wrong and couldn't get it to work. But I tried again and did it successfully. It looked sort of neat (especially with the new masthead photo, as the few who saw it when I displayed it briefly can attest), but the text was less legible than with the dark slate gray background.

If you want to learn more about using a background image, let me know. It's a very simple matter of CSS coding (cascading style sheets, which blogspot uses). In fact, here's the code, for specifying the <body> tag, that invoked the background image:
background-image: url(
background-repeat: repeat;
The URL is just what blogspot told me after I uploaded the background image (C49645B.gif) to a temporary post.

Serendipitous Movie Sequence

Thursday night I watched D.J. Caruso's movie, "Two for the Money," with Al Pacino, Matthew McConaughey, and Rene Russo (whose husband, Dan Gilroy, wrote the screenplay). It's a riveting film based on Brandon Link's experience in the world of sports gambling. I loved it, but my wife doesn't like Matthew McConaughey (go figure) and wouldn't watch it. Pacino's performance as an almost reformed gambling addict is awesome.

Then last night we both watched Gillian Armstrong's "Oscar and Lucinda," Cate Blanchett's first film—and with Ralph Fiennes, no less. (And Tom Wilkinson and Ciaron Hinds.) Only partway through watching it, I was already convinced that this had to be one of my favorite films ever. And then, come to find out: the title characters are compulsive gamblers!

I mean, can a movie viewer hit on a more wonderful one-two combination!

Friday, December 29, 2006

Broken Bench Press web site nearly ready

This week I finally cut over the Broken Bench Press web site from old HTML to XHTML/CSS. I invite you to check it out and, if you would be so kind as to do so, give me some feedback.

My connection to the press? Jim Rix, the author of Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out, is a friend of fifty years (since we were freshmen in high school). I've followed the story of his cousin Ray Krone's false conviction for murder since about 1994, and I became the manuscript's editor immediately after becoming its biggest fan about four years ago. One thing led to another, including the web site.

You ask: "Is Jim self-publishing Jingle Jangle?" Well, let's put it this way, he owns Broken Bench Press.

Note: the web site is still a bit touchy when browsed with Microsoft's noncompliant Internet Explorer. I'm still putting in hacks to try to get around IE's problems. And I've now learned from a friend that Apple's Apache browser doesn't render the site as I intended. I think that truly professional web designers deserve whatever big bucks they make creating web pages that all browsers can render more or less as intended. I'm not confident that I'm young enough or strong enough to do it.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Sadness of the Food Chain

My "dogs" post of yesterday can be interpreted as expressing a great sadness. And I have to admit I wrote it in a solemn mood. But meditating on the food chain (how animals are violently killed and eaten by bigger or stronger ones) can bring on sadness. Every time I eat flesh I feel sad for the mammal, fowl, or fish that was once alive to enjoy being alive—or not to enjoy it much, if it was raised in a cage only to be slaughtered. In fact, I guess, we are in a sense all in a cage by virtue of the apparent fact that being alive today means we will die tomorrow.

"Creation" includes both pain, violence, suffering, death...and pleasure, gentleness, joy, life, however brief. I don't mind being sad about this, actually. I think that's preferable to a careless quest for laughs, thrills, distractions.

Good on all who read this, to overrunning cup.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Some Dogs I've Known

My wife and Wally and I went for a walk in the woods this morning. On a couple of long stretches of incline, my wife told us to go on ahead, she'd catch up. When we would get fairly far ahead, I was struck by how Wally would stop and turn back to wait for "Mama." I marveled, as I had many times before, at Wally's conscious presence.

Wally, happy on New Year's Day 2005

Wally, happy on New Year's Day 2005I was reminded of that profound observation by someone long ago: dog spelled backwards is god. And if I thought of God as, say, the sum total of consciousness, I could believe in that, something manifestly existing not only in humans, but also in all such living creatures and maybe even in those rooted to the ground, for who was I to say that God as a tree was not experiencing the wind, the rain, the sun, squirrels, frogs, owls? I reminded myself to consult Rilke when we got home. From the ninth of his Duino Elegies:
Sind wir vielleicht h i e r, um zu sagen: Haus,
Brücke, Brunnen, Tor, Krug, Obstbaum, Fenster,—
höchstens: Säule, Turm . . . aber zu s a g e n, verstehs,
oh zu sagen s o, wie selber die Dinge niemals
innig meinten zu sein....

[Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House,
Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Olive tree, Window,—
possibly: Pillar, Tower? . . . but for saying, remember,
oh, for such saying as never the things themselves
hoped so intensely to be....
          J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender translation]
And waiting for Mama there with Wally, I remembered other dogs, other presences of God.

The first dog I can remember was Poncho, a collie mixture my parents had when we lived on a Petaluma chicken ranch around 1950. I remember once, when I was desperately sad—why specifically I can't recall, but it could have been after a fight between my parents, or after I'd run away home from school because my feelings had been hurt—sitting on the porch steps weeping and holding Poncho for comfort. Sometime later, my dad had to kill Poncho (a .22 shot to the head) because he bit my niece Stormy on the face and neck after she reached for his food bowl. And thus for the billion billionth time was God experiencing violent killing and being killed, as though God hadn't experienced it enough times already in the constant uproar of the food chain.

Twenty-five years later, my wife and I bought a springer spaniel for our children. I can't remember whether they named him Dale, or he was already named that, but "Dale" he was, a nervous dog who shed copious amounts of long, silky hair. He was permitted in the house, but he mainly lived outside. We had a plastic "sky kennel" for him, situated in the narrow space between our house and the redwood fence separating our seventh-of-an-acre tract lot from our neighbor's, there in San Jose.

When we migrated from California to North Carolina in 1983, Dale rode in the sky kennel in our airplane's luggage hold. Spiritually, Dale was mostly our son's dog. Our daughter didn't seem that attached to him. But of course my wife and I did most of the chores of caring for him, and we did all of them after August 1984, when our son, who had been playing the cello since fourth grade, went away to complete high school and take his bachelor's degree in music at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Dale seemed very unhappy living outside. We didn't have a fence, so he was continually hooked to a long lead attached to a line stretched between two oak trees. He wasn't welcome inside for long because he shed so much.

One of the very worst things I have ever done in my life was taking Dale to "be put down," with the concurrence of my wife and daughter, but without having consulted our son. When he came home and found out, he immediately took off for a long walk and wouldn't say anything about it afterwards. Nor has he ever been willing to talk about it, even on the several occasions when I have brought it up, hoping each time to be forgiven. But even more than that, I remember the vet asking me just before he injected Dale, "Did he bite someone?" And I said, as I held Dale in my arms, probably to comfort myself more than him, "No, Dale never bit anybody." During that moment I wanted to call the whole thing off, doubting that I could decide for Dale that it was better for him to die than to go on living unhappily. God experiencing both innocent death and remorse at once.

Ten years later, my wife wanted a dog and chose another long-haired shedder, a ten-year-old golden retriever named Ruffy.

Ruffy, August 1995

Ruff, August 1985But by this time she'd ceased to care whether a dog shed or not, so Ruffy lived inside and was welcome to spend part of each night on our bed. Ruffy was the dog I was taking out for a walk on that blizzardy evening of January 10, 1996 when my feet flew out from under me on a frozen step and I landed so hard on my butt that the brain tumor I didn't know I had started to bleed. When I was in rehab after surgery, my wife brought Ruffy to see me. I came to regard Ruffy as "my angel in disguise" for occasioning the tumor's discovery. He and I were photographed for a newspaper article about it.

My wife wanted another dog, a young one who she hoped would learn from Ruffy's calm, gentle ways. She'd learned about poodles' not shedding and we bought a pup from a neighbor who bred poodles. We chose "Little Blue Spot," the one marked to distinguish him from his cream colored twin. That of course was our Sir Walter Raleigh, or "Wally."

Wally almost still Little Blue Spot

Wally almost still Little Blue Spot

Wally at about 3-4 months old

Wally at about 3-4 months oldHe was of no mind to learn from Ruffy, however, bossing his appointed "mentor" around from the very first day.

Ruffy, always patient with his "mentee"

Ruffy suffering Wally's rough-housing

Ruffy suffering Wally's rough-housingI wonder how much Wally missed Ruffy after he died. Not so much, I think, as my wife and I did.

And, besides Wally and God, another dog I'm still getting to know:

A dog named SpikeI did liken myself to a dog, after all, in a comment to Tom Sheepandgoats the other day:

Most of my posts since I started blogging back in the spring seem to have been motivated by a dog's desire to pee on a post, the post being George W. Bush. Me saying, "I've not been taken in by the man. And I'm here again to say so."
I had already written (in my "Youie" journals of 1989, I think) that when a dog marks a spot he's saying "I AM" (as the burning bush characterized Yahweh to Moses).

Monday, December 25, 2006

L'Étranger Skipping Christmas

"Aujourd'hui maman est morte," says Meursault in the opening line of Albert Camus's 1942 novel, L'Étranger. Other people find Mersault's inability or unwillingness to cry at his mother's funeral odd. He doesn't fit in.

Mersault came to mind this season as I tried to opt out of Christmas. Opting out doesn't fit in. It's awkward. It interrupts the customary rituals of exchange. The ethos of Christmas in our culture is strong and pervasive, absorbing almost everything: religious celebration of the birth of Christ, putting up lights, trimming trees, exchanging gifts, sending greeting cards, wishing others to be merry, joyous, and peaceful. And shopping, shopping, shopping—even, for the fourth year, for items to counter the supposed liberal war on Christmas. (See "'War on Christmas' has a new jingle: money," in the Los Angeles Times.)

To find out how powerful the Christmas ethos is, try opposing it. It will seem to pull all the more sharply and often, manifest in scores of formulaic greetings in the office, in the neighborhood, in shopping malls, at parties and other gatherings. It is inescapable. You are called upon, expected, to respond appropriately. They say, "Merry Christmas," you say, "Merry Christmas." Or not, but if you don't, note the momentary confusion.

I too, finally and inexorably, got absorbed into Christmas, even while remaining detached and reflective. We attended three holiday parties, the third of which, last Tuesday evening, was thrown by a colleague at work. I enjoyed it, enjoyed the friends, enjoyed my wife enjoying it, enjoyed the food, enjoyed my detachment. We probably even seemed to others to fit in—until the moment, perhaps, of our early departure. And my wife, as she loves to do, hung wreaths on gates and walls and doors and put lights on the mantle and on several camellia bushes. Colleagues at work brought gifts around to my office, one neighbor left a nice loaf of bread in our mailbox yesterday, another brought a tin of chocolate chip cookies by last night, my wife served stollen for our "Christmas breakfast," we exchanged a few gifts this morning, even gave gifts to our poodle. We plan to go to a movie this afternoon. I'm even writing this.

Mersault was sentenced to death by an Algerian court and executed. I fall on the mercy of our local court and, somewhat belatedly perhaps, I wish you a merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Guest "Pome of the Season"

The 2006 Christmas Pome

By Bill Keene
©Copyright 2006

A lot of folks don't know that Santa only has one eye.
The other is a glass replacement through which he can spy
all the little boys and girls, moms and daddies, too.
At any time of year he could be looking right at you.

I only mention this because it changed ol' Santa's life,
by being instrumental in the meeting of his wife.
In early days, the eye was loose, it didn't really fit,
and now and then would just fall out, and roll around a bit.

It was a nuisance, that's for sure, and quite a bit of trouble.
More than one went missing, or smashed itself to rubble.
One day at a bus stop underneath the pouring rain
with no hint of a warning, the eye popped out again.

Before it hit the ground or even had a chance to fall,
a pretty girl reached out and snatched it like it was a ball.
A grateful Santa smiled at her, and soon they started dating.
'Til finally it led up to the royal North Pole mating.

And though it may seem foolish to the cynics who ask why,
Santa went and married the first girl to catch his eye.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Some demographics relative to religion

I like to read a thoughful book slowly. I've been reading Sam Harris's thin Letter to a Christian Nation for several days but am only halfway through it. I just came across this passage, with some demographics relative to religion:
While you [the committed Christian whom the "letter" addresses] believe that bringing an end to religion is an impossible goal, it is important to realize that much of the developed world has nearly accomplished it. Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom are among the least religious societies on earth. According to the United Nations' Human Development Report (2005) they are also the healthiest, as indicated by life expectancy, adult literacy, per capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate, and infant mortality. Insofar as there is a crime problem in Western Europe, it is largely the product of immigration. Seventy percent of the inmates of France's jails, for instance, are Muslim. The Muslims of Western Europe are generally not atheists. Conversely, the fifty nations now ranked lowest in terms of the United Nations' human development index are unwaveringly religious.

Other analyses paint the same picture: the United States is unique among wealthy democracies in its levels of religious adherence; it is also uniquely beleagured by high rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and infant mortality. The same comparison holds true within the United States itself: Southern and Midwestern states, characterized by the highest levels of religious literalism, are especially plagued by the above indicators of societal dysfunction, while the comparatively secular states of the Northeast conform to European norms.

While political party affiliation in the United States is not a perfect indicator of religiosity, it is no secret that the "red states" are primarily red because of the overwhelming political influence of conservative Christians. If there were a strong correlation between Christian conservatism and societal health, we might expect to see some sign of it in red-state America. We don't. Of the twenty-five cities with the lowest rates of violent crime, 62 percent are in "blue" states and 38 percent are in "red" states. Of the twenty-five most dangerous cities, 76 percent are in red states, 24 percent in blue states. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the United States are in the pious state of Texas. The twelve states with the highest rates of burglary are red. Twenty-four of the twenty-nine states with the highest rates of theft are red. Of the twenty-two states with the highest rates of murder, seventeen are red...

Countries with high levels of atheism are also the most charitable in terms both of the percentage of their wealth they devote to social welfare programs and of the percentage they give in aid to the developing world. The dubious link between Christian literalism and Christian values is belied by other indices of social equality. Consider the ratio of salaries paid to top-tier CEOs and those paid to the same firms' average employees: in Britain it is 24:1; in France, 15:1; in Sweden, 13:1; in the United States, where 80 percent of the population expects to be called before God on Judgment Day, it is 475:1. Many a camel, it would seem, expects to pass easily through the eye of a needle.

Of course, correlational data of this sort do not resolve questions of causality—belief in God may lead to societal dysfunction; societal dysfunction may foster a belief in God; each factor may enable the other; or both may spring from some deeper source of mischief. Leaving aside the issue of cause and effect, however, these statistics prove that atheism is compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society; they also prove, conclusively, that widespread belief in God does not ensure a society's health.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

December 17, 1903

A visit to the Wright Brothers memorial at Kitty Hawk in October 1986 unexpectedly provoked me to write a poem, and the arrival of December 17 again renews the thrill of the remembered occasion.
Oh, calm brothers, a thousand glides
off Kill Devil Hill and you know
your Flyer's cambered wings can catch enough

of wind to lift machine and man.
You've patented inventions for
control of deadly pitch and yaw and roll.

You've proved that you can steady pitch
by inclining the elevators
to bring horizon up or down again.

And yaw you know is nothing now;
the Flyer's tail by turning round
can stop a spin and steady course ahead.

And roll you rule, prostrate pilot,
keeping horizon flat in front
by twisting and throwing a hip against

the yoke to warp the dipping wing,
to bank it up and turn the tail
to slow the higher, faster-moving wing.

And you believe your little engine
can agitate those narrow blades
to thrust the Flyer winging through the air.

To Kitty Hawk then! Cold December.
Langley's had his fling and it seems
to you two now to be your turn to throw.

Tuesday the eighth and Langley fails
again. Prepare the Flyer, men!
Saturday the wind's too slight to ascend.

Sunday, devout sons, how like you
not to disdain your father's calling
by working at flying. And so you rest.

Monday the fourteenth. Did you toss
a coin, did you draw straws, or how
did you decide Wilbur would get first whack?

Wilbur doesn't loosen his tie,
doesn't take off his vest or collar,
exchanges only hat for cap to fly.

Oh, but look! he's turned up too soon
after leaving the track—is he
okay, Orville? You take two days to fix

the spars. Wednesday night the grounds freeze
and Thursday's wind is twice as strong
as you would like to try the Flyer in.

But Dayton and the bike shop call,
time gnaws you at Kill Devil Hill,
and it is your day, your time, you feel it.

So go now, Orville, it's your turn.
But first, show Mr. Daniels where
to stand to take the picture of the flight.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Witholding yourself

In Colm Tóibín's novel, The Master, Henry James is visiting his old friend, the wealthy Paul Bourget, an "unpleasantly rigid and authoritarian" anti-Semite:
Henry did everything he could, in the early days of his stay, not to discuss Zola or the Dreyfus case with Paul or Minnie Bourget or their guest, feeling that his own views on the matter would diverge from those of his hosts. His support for Zola and, indeed, for Dreyfus was sufficiently strong not to wish to hear the Bourgets' prejudices on the matter.
Note that Henry is confident that his "sufficiently strong" views are more or less the true ones, for the contrary views of the Bourgets he regards as "prejudices." Aren't we all like that? We think we know what's true about religion, or politics, or marriage, and the people whose views we don't "wish to hear" are bigots.

But Henry, his judgment of Bourget aside, seems to like the man well enough.
[Henry] knew Bourget, he felt, as though he had made him. He knew his nature and his culture, his race and his type, his vanity and his snobbery, his interest in ideas and his ambition. But these were small matters compared to the overall effect of the man, and the core of selfhood which he so easily revealed. This was richer and more likable and more complicated than anyone supposed.
I recognize that there's a lesson for me here. Over the past dozen years of partisan politics in this country (I'm going all the way back to the 1994 mid-term election), I've observed my tendency to write bigots off and grant them no hope of reprieve in my estimation. Fortunately, I have a few counterexamples of bigots with whom I have, for various reasons, nevertheless maintained friendships. The fact that I have been able to do that gives me hope to believe that I may grow past this shortsighted intolerance.

Tóibín continues:
In return for all Henry's attention, he knew, Bourget noticed nothing [emphasis mine]. His list of Henry's attributes, were he to make one, would be simple and clear and innacurate. He did not observe the concealed self, nor, Henry imagined, did the idea interest him. And this, as his stay with the Bourgets came to an end, pleased him. Remaining invisible, becoming skilled in the art of self-effacement, even to someone whom he had known so long, gave him satisfaction. It was not a deliberate strategy, but it was central to his very presence in a room or at a table. Those in his company could enjoy what he said, but most of the time they found a polite and polished blankness. He was ready to listen, always ready to do that, but not prepared to reveal the mind at work, the imagination, or the depth of feeling.
I much admire Henry's reserve, his ability to hang back in the shadows and observe without revealing himself.

Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I went to the first of the remaining two holiday parties I mentioned in a comment on my post on "holiday frivolity." While I did get into the "holiday spirit" at this one (and even had a quantity of the delicious food served there—too much for my gastro-intestinal comfort in the early hours this morning), I intentionally held back from expressing myself in a few instances. It wasn't that hard when I actually entertained the possibility of holding back, but for the most part I simply let myself go and be my usual spontaneous self. (Over the years I've tended to be a "life of the party" type.)

As for withholding myself in other things, no doubt it would be prudent, as well as respectful, if I didn't respond to even the most "evangelical" of Christmas greetings by saying something like:
I haven't celebrated Christmas or enjoyed the season for some years and have decided to quit pretending that I do. But to you who do truly celebrate it, I hope that you have a good one.
However, I've already responded this way to one person who came on strong with the "Jesus is our Savior" approach. Maybe I'll learn something from it.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Second thoughts about blogging

As some of you know, I occasionally post political items on my Democratic Party blog. Well, as I wrote to a friend this morning:
Damn, but my post on Bill Moyers's remarks at West Point continues (at this hour, at any rate) to be listed among the top five "highest rated posts" on the Democratic Party blog. Can you believe that? I find it hard to, although I of course do much appreciate it.
Light-heartedly, my friend responded:
Guess it doesn't hurt that your friends and workmates vote for you. Ha, just kidding. You have a rising future in the party.
And this gave rise to some reflections.

His mention of friends reminded me that I have received a couple of invitations from other Democratic bloggers requesting that I become their "friend" (each blogger can have a "friends list," although I'm not quite sure what that entails). I've noticed that some of the bloggers have a very long list of "friends."

While my ego likes the stroke of my having a post listed as highly rated, I am ambivalent about the accompanying pressure to put more time and energy into political blogging. I do need to concentrate on other things....At times, I even fantasize giving up blogging. Habitual blogging is like a millstone around my neck. Unfortunately it is also a lot of fun. I mean writing the items and "being published," at least in the evanescent web way. Still, all things considered, I mostly think that I need to step back and "simplify my life."

I wonder if any of you ever have such second thoughts?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Holiday frivolity

My wife and I went to a party last weekend. The neighbors in a house behind ours (visible only during the defoliated time of the year) were throwing their annual "Holiday Party." The dining room table was groaning with plates piled high with food. Every wall and mantle on the first floor of their huge house (the house's floor space probably approaching 4,000 square feet) were decorated with ornaments of the season, whether the pagan Yuletide or Christmas, or even of Eid or Hanukka or Kwanzaa. I couldn't help but wonder where all of this stuff got stored the rest of the year.

Because we were among the first of scores of people eventually to arrive, we were able to hear and be heard by our hosts when they greeted us upon our arrival. But as the house filled up, conversation became less and less possible. Not that it mattered that much, in my opinion, so little of consequence that I could actually hear was uttered by anybody. We'd already had dinner and I avoid alcohol in the evening because it aggravates my acid reflux, so I didn't eat or drink anything. However, to keep it simple when we were leaving and our hostess asked me whether I'd had some food, I said, "Oh, yes, thanks!"

My sense of a wasted evening came back to me when I read the following passage in Colm Tóibín's novel, The Master. It's New Year's Day 1900. Henry James has as guests at Lamb House his brother William, William's wife Alice, and their daughter Peggy. Edmund Gosse, the English poet, author, and critic, comes to lunch.
Gosse arrived with small presents from London, and immediately declared that he was the happiest man in England now that he had quit the city, that it was a hateful place during the festive season, with far too frivolous a social life and an unspeakable fog, some of which had entered into the crania of the very best minds of his generation. [emphases mine]
Gosse's criticism of London is significant, for as Henry has already told Peggy, preparatory to the man's visit,
the main fact about Gosse is that he loves London more than he loves life. So when your father mentions the quiet intellectual life in Boston, he will not understand. The man who is tired of London is tired of life, that is his motto. So you, my dear girl, had better find a subject on which your father and our guest can agree.
I trust that my failure to appreciate the party in my neighborhood doesn't indicate that I'm "tired of life," but rather simply that I'm averse to a certain kind of mentally foggy frivolity. I guess it wouldn't be too unfair to refer to my attitude as, "Bah, humbug!"

Hmm, I wrote all that a couple of hours ago. Since then I've thought about it and just had a conversation with a colleague (in connection with another holiday party, next week) about how neither of us can remember people's names (or faces) as well anymore. "It's embarrassing." I'm wondering whether my growing disinclination to attend parties is a function of aging as much as of anything. I mean, maybe I used to be able to hear a conversation conducted in the middle of a frivolous party.

I'm sure that has something to do with it. Maybe aging even influences my tolerance for chit-chat (including chit-chat that I can hear perfectly well). Time speeds up as we get older (it really does seem to), so maybe we feel the need to use our time more wisely or productively than we would if were standing around listening to things we've already heard a million times...and saying things we've already said a few times too....

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Moyers on Freedom

I just finished reading Bill Moyers's "Message to West Point," published by on November 29, and I am so moved by what I just read that I feel I must feature it here and urgently recommend it to you to read. The piece contains substantial excerpts from Moyers's November 15 "Sol Feinstone Lecture on The Meaning of Freedom" delivered at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

As a comment I read somewhere put it, it's amazing that Moyers was allowed to give the lecture at West Point, he was so critical of the way the "bargain between the civilian authorties and the armed services" has been kept. He contends
that the army has, for the most part, kept its part of the bargain and that, at this moment, the civilian authorities whom you loyally obey, are shirking theirs.
"The last time Congress declared war," he said,
was in 1941. Since then presidents of the United States, including the one I served [Lyndon B. Johnson], have gotten Congress, occasionally under demonstrably false pretenses, to suspend Constitutional provisions that required them to get the consent of the people's representatives in order to conduct a war. They have been handed a blank check to send the armed forces into action at their personal discretion and on dubious Constitutional grounds.

Furthermore, the current President has made extra-Constitutional claims of authority by repeatedly acting as if he were Commander-in-Chief of the entire nation and not merely of the armed forces. Most dangerously to our moral honor and to your own welfare in the event of capture, he has likewise ordered the armed forces to violate clear mandates of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions by claiming a right to interpret them at his pleasure, so as to allow indefinite and secret detentions and torture. These claims contravene a basic principle usually made clear to recruits from their first day in service—that they may not obey an unlawful order. The President is attempting to have them violate that longstanding rule by personal definitions of what the law says and means.
I was particularly moved by Moyers's earlier description in the piece of the role of Thaddeus Kosciuszko in the American War of Independence. I'd forgotten most of what I'd learned about Kosciuszko in history classes, including his having been commissioned by General George Washington "to build the original fortifications for West Point." Moyers writes that
One historian called him "a mystical visionary of human rights." Thomas Jefferson wrote that Kosciuszko was "as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known." That phrase of Jefferson is often quoted, but if you read the actual letter, Jefferson goes on to say: "And of that liberty which is to go to all, and not to the few and the rich alone."
Go to the web page and read the excerpts from Moyers's lecture. It is one of the most passionate statements I've ever read, and made with Moyers's usual clarity and elegance.

Don't miss it!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Signs of the times

A friend of a friend has compiled the following list of contemporary bumper stickers. They tell a coherent tale of the times.
Bush: End of an Error
That's OK, I Wasn't Using My Civil Liberties Anyway
Let's Fix Democracy in This Country First
If You Want a Nation Ruled by Religion, Move to Iran
Bush. Like a Rock. Only Dumber.
If You Can Read This, You're Not Our President
Of Course It Hurts: You're Getting Screwed by an Elephant
Hey, Bush Supporters: Embarrassed Yet?
George Bush: Creating the Terrorists Our Kids Will Have to Fight
Impeachment: It's Not Just for Blowjobs Anymore
America: One Nation, Under Surveillance
They Call Him "W" So He Can Spell It
Whose God Do You Kill For?
Cheney/Satan '08
Jail to the Chief
No, Seriously, Why Did We Invade Iraq?
Bush: God's Way of Proving Intelligent Design is Full of Crap
Bad President! No Banana
We Need a President Who's Fluent in at Least One Language
We're Making Enemies Faster Than We Can Kill Them
Is It Vietnam Yet?!
Bush Doesn't Care about White People, Either
Where Are We Going? And Why Are We in This Handbasket?
You Elected Him. You Deserve Him.
Impeach Cheney First
Dubya, Your Dad Shoulda Pulled Out, Too
When Bush Took Office, Gas Was $1.46
Pray for Impeachment
The Republican Party: Our Bridge to the 11th Century
What Part of "Bush Lied" Don't You Understand?
One Nation Under Clod
2004: Embarrassed     2005: Horrified     2006: Terrified
Bush Never Exhaled
At Least Nixon Resigned

Monday, December 11, 2006

Self-Portrait in a Fun House Mirror

The psychopathology of George W.
Bush should disturb and everyday trouble you;
    Believe him a leader a while,
    Credit the office and his guile,
But believe it now and still'bble* you. [* gullible]
The Baker-Hamilton Iraq study group found that the lead Iraqi Army units
lack leadership...lack equipment...[and] lack logistics and support...Soldiers are given leave liberally and face no penalties for absence without leave...They lack the ability to sustain their operations, the capability to transport supplies and troops, and the capacity to provide their own indirect fire support, close-air support, technical intelligence, and medical evacuation.
"Other than that," writes Bob Herbert in today's New York Times, "they're fine."
What is needed now are leaders with the courage to insist, perhaps at the risk of their reputations and careers, that it is wrong to continue sending fresh bodies after those already lost, to continue asking young, healthy American troops to head into the combat zone, perhaps for their third or fourth tour, to fight in a way the public no longer supports. ["The Time Is Now"]
Why, then, can't George W. Bush so insist?

In lieu of our having a Sigmund Freud to answer that by writing up a psychoanalytic report on Bush, I'll hazard a few guesses myself as to Bush's psychology.

First, remember, he's obviously a "true believer." He even seems to relish being "faith-based" rather than "reality-based." He has a strong drive to continue believing in things purely on faith that they are so, despite any contrary "fact-based" evidence—like the people Leon Festinger wrote about in the fifties, who, after the failure of their leader's prediction that the world was coming to an end, redoubled their belief that it would...but not just yet. Bush's own true belief is manifested preeminently in his persistent predictions of our future victory in Iraq. That is, when something you really, really believe seems not to be so, believe it all the harder. ("Absolutely, we're winning," Bush recently said about Iraq.)

Second, Bush seems to have a compulsion to lie to himself (which, of course, comes in very handy in lying to everyone else). For example, according to Paul Krugman in today's New York Times (reporting what he'd read in U.S. News & World Report),
President Bush has told aides that he won't respond in detail to the Iraq Study Group's report because he doesn't want to "outsource" the role of commander in chief.

That's pretty ironic. You see, outsourcing of the government's responsibilities—not to panels of supposed wise men, but to private companies with the right connections—has been one of the hallmarks of his administration. And privatization through outsourcing is one reason the administration has failed on so many fronts. ["Outsourcer in Chief"]
This example is about as good as it gets for illustrating either Bush's gargantuan ability to fool himself or the level of his conscious duplicity. But the latter alternative isn't credible because, if he were that conscious and intelligent, he'd have to realize that his deceit is no longer working and should be abandoned. It is more reasonable to conclude that he just doesn't know how far out in la-la land he is.

Third, his self-image seems to be grandiose on a historic scale, ranking right up there with the Roman emperor Caligula, who nominated a horse for the Senate. Bush has pronounced himself "the Decider." Walter Kerr said of someone, "He had delusions of adequacy." Bush's delusions go way past adequacy. How many times has he said "I understand" this, that, and the other thing? He has called himself "the War President," "the Commander in Chief," "the Education President." He hailed himself the glorious "Mission Accomplisher," landing on an aircraft carrier in a scenario worthy of a Leni Riefenstahl extravaganza. And who else could give a trusted adviser the nickname "Turd Blossom"? Bush even seems to fancy himself some sort of reincarnation of Harry S. Truman, believing that history will ultimately prove him right about Iraq. And wasn't Truman the president who had the sign on his desk, "The buck stops here"? As already mentioned, Bush is "the Decider." And, oh yes, he talks to God.

The self-image thing may be the kicker. I suspect that Bush's personality, for all his look of affable self-assurance in public, is quite fragile. After all, he's the perennial C student, the failed baseball club owner and oilman, the son less expected by his parents (than Jeb, "the smart one") to amount to anything. To paraphrase what Winston Churchill said about Clement Attlee, Bush is an immodest little person, with much to be modest about. At his core he may be perilously vulnerable, his self-portrait a desperate device constructed of exaggeration upon exaggeration to fortify and protect him—an instance of the classic Freudian "mechanism of ego defense," the reaction formation: adopting an untrue, opposite belief to avoid the anxiety of seeing the true one.

The result is that Bush uses his true belief and his self-deceit as indispensable tools for maintaining his fictional self-portrait.

If he starts to crack, we may be in for a spectacle not seen since the year 41 in Rome (or at least since Masterpiece Theater produced a dramatization of Robert Graves's classic novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which featured John Hurt's inspired performance as the title character's nephew.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

To paraphrase Groucho Marx...

...We've had a perfectly lovely six years of national politics. But this wasn't it.

Groucho is said to have said the same thing about a perfectly lovely evening.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

To paraphrase Moses Hadas...

...Bush might have said to James A. Baker III and Lee Hamilton after receiving a copy of their report on what to do about Iraq:
Thanks for sending me a copy of this; I'll waste no time reading it.
Moses Hadas is said to have written such a reply to an author who sent him a copy of his book.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Repartees you might like to have made

George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill were not the best of friends. The following interchange may be apocryphal, but Churchill's repartee is the sort of thing you might wish you could think of on occasion.

GBS is said to have written to Churchill:
I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new Play. Bring a friend...if you have one.
And Churchill is reported to have responded:
Cannot possibly attend first night. Will attend second...if there is one.
That repartee reminds me of another attributed to Churchill. To quote from The Churchill Center:
Lady Astor: "Winston, if I were your wife I'd put poison in your coffee."

Winston: "Nancy, if I were your husband I'd drink it."

This exchange is sometimes attributed to Winston's good friend F.E. Smith, but in Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan's The Glitter and the Gold she writes that the exchange occurred at Blenheim when her son was host. See also the American edition of Martin Gilbert's In Search of Churchill (not in the British edition). In Nancy: The Life of Lady Astor, Christopher Sykes confirms Consuelo Balsan's account.
It sounds like an invention but is well authenticated. [Churchill] and the Astors were staying with Churchill's cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, at Blenheim Palace. Nancy and Churchill argued ferociously throughout the weekend.
I like to think that both interchanges are reported accurately.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Who does care what it's called?

On Sunday, Frank Rich wrote about whether the conflicts in Iraq should be called "civil war" ("Has He Started Talking to the Walls?" The New York Times). His concluding statement was:
Civil war? Sectarian violence? A phase? This much is certain: The dead in Iraq don't give a damn what we call it.
On the way to that conclusion, Rich had remarked:
Whatever you want to label what's happening in Iraq, it has never impeded our freedom to dote on the Olsen twins.
I don't know who "the Olsen twins" are, but I understand Rich to be referring to Americans' absorption in their popular culture and their own lives, despite what might be going on in Iraq. I don't think that they give a damn what the conflicts are called either.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The Official Line

Maureen Dowd's op-ed piece in today's New York Times ("Goodness Gracious! The Truth!"), she writes (about Secretary of Defense nominee Robert Gates's Senate hearing):
After lunch the nominee clarified his remarks, saying he had not meant to criticize the troops, that the reversals in Iraq were not their fault. They don’t lose battles in Iraq because there are no battles. There’s just a counterinsurgency that they can’t see and that they weren’t prepared or equipped to fight.
My friend Keith S (who emphasizes the phrase in italics) comments:
[Gates's remark is] pure administration bull. Everyone but the twig and his neocon twigistas knew a counterinsurgency was coming. The generals saw it, so did the troops. The twig wouldn't provide the personnel, materiel, or training that our troops needed because it would make it look like "mission ain't accomplished." It would also require raising taxes on his wealthy cronies. So, our troops, our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our moms and dads, our aunts and uncles, our nieces and nephews, as well as the kid next door, are stuck in a horrible situation where the best euphemism for them is "target."
I myself am struck, in reading Colm Tóibín's novel about Henry James (The Master), how Henry James Sr. and Mrs. James didn't approve of their son Bob's cynical letters from his encampments during the U.S. Civil War. His mother wouldn't even open some of his letters after he became critical of the generals' poor planning, which ended up, Bob thought, in many needless deaths. Or she would open them, but regard only the "positive" remarks here and there, ignoring everything else. The James parents wanted to believe in their family's glorious participation in a glorious national endeavor. Mr. James chose to see the maiming of his son Wilkie as having the positive outcome of uniting the family and, no doubt, causing Wilkie to live a more uplifting moral life (should he survive his injuries and the woeful state of nineteenth century medical treatment for infection).

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

If we've forgotten a book...

In a New York Times Magazine piece by Daphne Merkin about the playwright Tom Stoppard:
...Stoppard posed the quandary: "One of the questions that haunts me—it's a question for philosophers and brain science—is, if you've forgotten a book, is that the same as never having read it?" With a slight twist, you could put the question another way and it would contain all the intrigue and wily psychic machinations that have accompanied Stoppard throughout his blazing achievements and rich personal life: if you forget the unpleasant experiences you've once lived through—if you choose to begin the tape at 1946 instead of 1937—does that mean they never happened? ["Playing with Ideas," November 26, 2006]
The question, of course, is whether we've really forgotten that book. And whether experience of which we can't recall a memory is really gone and can have no effect on us. I don't think so.

Not only does Stoppard's question seem to ignore a hundred years of thinking about the unconscious, I think I have a recent counterexample from my own experience. In October, I wrote a post (footnote 2) in which I referred to revelation made to someone else and recommended to us as authoritative (because "it's in the Bible") as being merely "hearsay" as far as we're concerned. Then, a few weeks later, I discovered that that is how Thomas Paine also referred to it in a book that I had read 50 years ago...and "forgotten"—not forgotten that I'd read it, but forgotten precisely what Paine had said.


Monday, December 4, 2006

"I don't believe that x" ≠ "I believe that not-x"

Last night I sliced open that one Fuyu persimmon from this year's harvest, preparing twenty or thirty thin slices for our dessert. (There was only the one fruit because, after last year's Fuyu harvest of over 300,
2005 Fuyu bounty after leaf fallI apparently pruned the tree more severely than I should have. I won't go into the theory of persimmon cultivation; anyway, my imperfect practice of it tends to disqualify me from stating it.)

The slices were delectable! "How can a persimmon get so sweet," my wife asked in awe.

This morning, as I was walking our poodle Wally around our cul-de-sac, I remembered the Fuyu slices and felt a rush of gratitude that we had had them to enjoy. My natural impulse was to thank God. But then I remembered: I don't know that God exists. My next thought was that I don't know, either, that God doesn't exist. I believe neither that God exists nor that God does not exist, which is not equivalent to believing that God does not exist. The former is a statement of agnosticism, the latter of atheism.

But I realized that, when gratitude rushes over me so strongly that I want to express it, I prefer to say thank you to God who may or may not exist than to have the feeling stifled in what would amount to the solipsism of atheism.

At any rate, that's how I feel this morning. This is how far my thinking has so far brought me.

a portion of the 2005 Fuyu harvest

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Each, Our Private World

Sometimes, when I look at another person—usually a stranger I've never seen before but whose substantiality at that moment for some reason strikes me—I think about the fact that he too has a vast past, a whole other world from mine that has shaped him, educated him, hurt him, pleasured him, sometimes rewarded, but maybe mostly disappointed him, and that has deposited and formed the substantial weight and depth I'm struck by now, even though I am not acquainted with its mysterious otherness. And not only is it unknown to me, but much of that stranger's private world is hidden even from his intimates, just as much of mine is hidden from the people who think they know me.

I was prompted to reflect on this again yesterday, when I read the following passage from Colm Tóibín's novel, The Master:
It struck [Henry James] all these years later that he had been thinking something which he could not tell [John] Gray or [Oliver Wendell] Holmes or even Minny [Temple], that his mind during these few minutes had wandered over a scene whose meaning would have to remain secret to him...He thought about the result if he spoke his mind out, told his companions as truthfully as he could what the name Gus Barker had provoked in his memory. He wondered at how, every day, as they moved around each other, each of them had stored away an entirely private world to which they could return at the sound of a name, or for no reason at all [emphasis mine]. For a second as he thought about this, he caught Holmes's eye, and he found that he had not been able to disguise himself fully, that Holmes had seen through his social mask to the mind which had strayed into realms which could not be shared. Both of them shared something now, tacitly, momentarily, which the others did not even notice. [pp. 99-100, Scribner edition, 2004]
And I am prompted to share it here because of a comment I made on another blog the other day, about how I dislike polite banter but dearly love significant disclosure. Unless we are as observant as Henry James, we need to disclose ourselves significantly to others in order to disclose ourselves significantly to ourselves.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Could this happen? Yes, theoretically...

The following letter, written by Gary Livacari—and appearing on on December 1, 2006—posits a remarkable and "impossible" (but nevertheless intriguing) set of circumstances:
Re: Iraq’s Reality Bandwagon

In all sincerity, the only way out of this mess is if, in the face of continuing calls for Bush and Cheney's impeachment, they are convinced to resign for the good of the nation by the republican hierarchy. This would make Pelosi president and she would be under immense pressure from the left wing of her party to withdraw the troops immediately.
Obviously, this calls for a limerick. Give me a few minutes. I'll compose one while I'm installing a bathroom exhaust fan.

Ah! Better yet, you compose one. I'll insert it into this post later, along with the one (or more) I come up with.

12/7/2006. Inspired by Southern Writer (serving, I guess, as a sort of muse), I just wrote:
Hey now, wouldn't it be preziosi
If both Bush and his Bela Lugosi
    Resigned their post
    Or gave up the ghost
And the presidency fell to Pelosi?
And, now that I've gotten off the dime, Serena Joy has written:
It is a limerick, for true,
Bush and Cheny, Moristotle does rue.
    If they gave up the ghost,
    I'd propose a toast
To a whole new motley crew.
And I say:
Thanks, Serena, for the valiant entry,
To my own verse apt and complementary.
    May Bush and his pawn
    Forever be gone
And nevermore claim they're landed gentry.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Alice James on meeting family members after death

Alice James was the invalid sister of the American philosopher William James and the "Anglo-American" writer Henry James. Apropos my post on the belief that we might be reunited with our relatives in the sweet by and by, Alice is represented in Colm Tóibín's novel about Henry, The Master, as having reservations about such a reunion:
[Henry] remembered a scene when Alice must have been sixteen. It was one of those long dinners with one or two guests, he remembered, and someone was talking about life after death, and meeting members of their family after death, or hoping to, or believing they might. Then one of the guests, or Aunt Kate, had suggested praying to meet the loved ones in the next life, when suddenly Alice's voice rose above all the others and everyone stopped and looked at her.

"One need pray for nothing," she said. "Reference to those whom we should meet again makes me shiver. It is an invasion of their sanctity. it is the sort of personal claim to which I am deeply opposed." [p. 49, Scribner edition, 2004]