Thursday, December 30, 2010

Back yard birds through a field scope

My wife received a Nikon Coolpix P100 for Christmas. One of her first photos is shown here, taken through my own Christmas present, a Nikon ED50 field scope (without benefit of a mounting device).
    Click on the photo to enlarge; click again to enlarge some more.

Religion stripped bare by the Coen Brothers

Stanley Fish’s December 27 review of Ethan and Joel Coen’s latest film (“Narrative and the Grace of God: The New ‘True Grit’”) ends with the startling observation that
The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie [emphasis mine].
Of course, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, Jesus Christ Superstar, or The Passion of the Christ it’s not.
    In the Coen Brothers’ movie, Fish points out, “the universe seems at best indifferent, and at worst hostile.” Narrator-heroine Mattie may say the words that appear in both Charles Portis’s novel and the original film, but in the Coen Brothers’ film, “There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace” seems to say that grace’s distribution exhibits no discernible pattern.
    Fish writes:
In the novel and in the Coens’ film it is always like that: things happen, usually bad things (people are hanged, robbed, cheated, shot, knifed, bashed over the head and bitten by snakes), but they don’t have any meaning, except the meaning that you had better not expect much in this life because the brute irrationality of it all is always waiting to smack you in the face. This is what happens to Mattie at the very instant of her apparent triumph as she shoots Tom Chaney, her father’s killer, in the head. The recoil of the gun propels her backwards and she falls into a snake-infested pit. Years later, as the narrator of the novel, she recalls the moment and says: “I had forgotten about the pit behind me.” There is always a pit behind you and in front of you and to the side of you. That’s just the way it is.
    For Fish, the religiousness of the Coens’ True Grit seems to inhere in Mattie’s heroic response to the indifferent universe. She “maintains the confidence of her convictions even when the world continues to provide no support for them.” And Fish takes at face-value the “message” of the movie’s closing song: “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms”:
Oh how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way
Leaning on the everlasting arms
Oh how bright the path goes from day to day
Leaning on the everlasting arms
What have I to dread what have I to fear
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
But I heard that song as pure, wry comedy, ironic through and through, the movie’s last laugh. I can agree with Fish’s “religious” label for True Grit only if I interpret his final sentence, “In this movie [religiosity] is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up,” as extolling a heroic acceptance of the material nature of a purposeless universe.
    While not the usual sense of “religious” and “religion,” which the dictionary says “esp.” consider the universe to be ”the creation of supernatural agency or agencies,” the terms are permitted to cover simply “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe,” even if those beliefs are literally naturalistic (stripped of the supernatural) and deny purpose.
    While I’d have to accept that use of “religious” as narrowly permissible for True Grit, I wouldn’t offer it myself, any more than I’d submit to having my own views of the universe and our place in it labeled “religious.” The term’s “esp. supernatural” connotation would misrepresent what I believe.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"Wings over water" update

Moristotle: Wings over water. Sorry for the long delay, but I finally posted more photos of our November 10 visit to Pea Island on the North Carolina coast.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Belated "Merry Christmas" to Ken

Well, Ken, I'll see what I can do about a few field observations in the persona you suggested of an anthropologist from an atheistic society:
I've spent a week in a little town in North Carolina called "Mebane." Quaint place, an interesting mixture of country and shopping malls and ubiquitous brick structures labeled "churches," with reports of "church activities" everyday in the local newspaper. Already, I have to tell you, I can't read the title of the paper's "Region" section without misreading it "Religion." The people here appear to be exceedingly superstitious.
    There have been many reports of locals' hoping for something they call a "white Christmas." In fact, there's a sappy song they listen to over and over on their radios, about someone dreaming of "a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know." There's some strong nostalgia going on here, or something.
    In fact, it snowed overnight here in Mebane. Over four inches of the white stuff, and still coming down. You'd think that the locals would be happy now, but I've heard quite a bit of bitching about road conditions. Either the bitchers weren't among those dreaming of a white Christmas, or there's some ambivalence going on too. I'll have to check this out.
    Everyone I've observed greets everyone else with the phrase, "Merry Christmas." It seems to refer to yesterday, though, for today I'm hearing, "I hope you had a merry Christmas."
    Not sure what "merry" means in this context. Most people look tired and unhappy, or worried. Perhaps because of another thing the paper has been reporting, something called "shopping." The "shoppers" may be worried about what'll happen when they can't pay their credit card bills?
    It isn't clear that Christmas has anything to do with religion, but the first syllable of the term seems to refer to someone called "Christ," and some of the greeting cards I've seen refer to "keeping Christ in Christmas." Maybe he's someone (a "god" to these people, apparently) who's supposed to help people be merry? Whatever, it doesn't seem to be working.
    Apparently, the religious don't expect their gods to actually be able to do anything. They presumably take some other comfort from religion, or get something else out of it, although I have so far been unable to discern what it might be. If it's simply a code of behavior for defining who's in and who's out, it's hard to say exactly what one is supposed to be in or out of.
    Christmas is a frenzied, ironically glum time, it appears.
    But I've only studied this for a week so far.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Our holiday dinner in pictures (with some recipes)

We enjoyed a quiet, peaceful day, most of it in the kitchen and the dining room...after opening our presents, including Siegfried's:

    He liked it.
My wife's traditional holiday salad (see recipe below):
Waiting for the oven to finish cooking:
Scalloped potatoes and carrots (see recipe below):
Savory dried cranberry sauce (see recipe below):
Slices of Virginia ham from Colonial Williamsburg:
Ace brand multigrain baguette:
Wine left for drinking after cooking (see cranberry sauce recipe):
Holiday flower arrangement (from Costco):
First plate full:
[Lenox "Eternal" china]
Chocolate pecan pie (see recipe below):
Cinnamon rolls from pie dough scraps:
First piece of chocolate pecan pie:
First piece taken of chocolate pecan pie:
First piece eaten of chocolate pecan pie:
[Lenox "Holiday" china]


Brussels Sprouts in Mustard-Herb Dressing
1-¼ lbs Brussels sprouts
2 cups cherry tomatoes cut in ½ lengthwise
½ cup thinly sliced green onions
Combine for the dressing:
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon dry basil
¼ teaspoon thyme leaves
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 cup salad oil

Cook Brussels sprouts: Trim off stem ends; rinse throughly; slice each in ½ lengthwise. In a 3 or 4-qt. pan, bring a large quantity of lightly salted water to boil. Add Brussels sprouts; when water returns to boiling, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 7 min. Drain.
Prepare dressing; pour it over warm Brussels sprouts. Cover and chill at least 4 hours or overnight.
Just before serving, add cherry tomatoes and green onions to the Brussels sprouts mixture; stir gently to coat vegetables with dressing. Then, using a slotted spoon, transfer the salad to a serving bowl. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Scalloped Potatoes and Carrots
2 cups thinly sliced white or red potatoes
2 cup thinly sliced carrots
2 tablespoons chipped green onions
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon seasoned salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1-¼ cups milk, scalded

Butter a 1-½-quart casserole. Layer half the potatoes, carrots, onion, flour, salt, pepper and butter in casserole; repeat with remaining ingredients. Pour scalded milk over all. Cover and bake in 350° F. oven for 1 hour. Remove cover about the last 20 minutes of baking.
    Makes 4 servings, approximately 150 calories, 4 grams protein, 9 grams fat, and 14 grams carbohydrate per serving.
Savory Dried Cranberry Sauce
¼ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup dry white wine
½ cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
½ cup dried cranberries (available at specialty foods shops)
1/8 teaspoon dried tarragon, crumbled
2 teaspoons minced fresh parsley leaves plus sprigs for garnish

In a small saucepan, whisk together the brown sugar and the cornstarch and add the wine and the broth, whisking until the mixture is smooth. Add the vinegar, the cranberries, the tarragon, and salt to taste and simmer the sauce, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Stir in the minced parsley and simmer the sauce for 1 minutes more. Serve the sauce hot, garnished with the parsley sprigs, with pork chops, ham or poultry.
Chocolate Pecan Pie with Brandied Whipped Cream
For the shell: 1 recipe pâte brisée
1-¼ cups all-purpose flour
¾ stick (6 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
2 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening
¼ teaspoon salt

For the filling
4 ounces milk chocolate, broken into pieces
1 cup light corn syrup
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3 large eggs
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1-½ teaspoons vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
For the brandied whipped cream
1 cup well-chilled heavy cream
¼ cup confectioner's sugar
4 tablespoons brandy, or to taste

Make the shell: In a large bowl blend the flour, the butter, the vegetable shortening, and the salt until the mixture resembles meal. Add 3 tablespoons ice water, toss the mixture until the water is incorporated, and form the dough into a ball. Knead the dough lightly with the heel of the hand against a smooth surface for a few seconds to distribute the fat evenly and re-form it into a ball. Dust the dough with flour and chill it, wrapped in wax paper, for 1 hour.
    Roll out the dough 1/8 inch thick onto a floured surface and fit it into a 9-inch (1-quart) pie plate. Crimp the edge decoratively and chill the shell for 30 minutes.

Make the filling: Arrange the chocolate pieces on the bottom of the pie shell. In a bowl, whisk together the syrup, the brown sugar, the eggs, the butter, the vanilla, and the salt, whisking until the mixture is combined well, and whisk in the pecans. Pour the filling over the chocolate.

Bake the pie in the middle of a preheated 350° F. oven for 45 to 55 minutes, or until the pie is pufed and golden brown. (The filling wil not be set completely but will set thoroughly as it cools.)

Make the brandied whipped cream: In a chilled bowl with the chilled beaters of an electric mixer beat the cream with the confectioner's sugar and a pinch of salt until the mixture holds soft peaks. Add the brandy a little at a time, beating, and beat the mixture until it forms stiff peaks.

Serve the pie with the whipped cream.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Prophecy of the Medallion now available as a Kindle book

Ten days ago, Prophecy of the Medallion got a new cover. Today it got published, in Kindle format at, for only $2.99! If you don't own a Kindle, no problem—there's free software for reading it on your computer. The Prophecy of the Medallion website tells you how to obtain it.
    Says the author of the software:
If you buy the book for Kindle, the cover is black and white (until Kindle is upgraded for color). If you buy it to read using the PC apps, which I downloaded (along with the eight sample chapters), you get the color cover. The PC apps work great.
[You use the "Available on these devices" button on the Amazon site to specify what version of the book you want. And you can get free sample chapters for a book after you put it in your shopping card (but before you actually buy it).]

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Happy Yuletie

At my office's party yesterday (in the same venue as last year's), someone complimented me on my tie. Without intending to pun, I said, "It's a Yule tie." I think her smile clued me that I'd made at least a sort of almost-homophonic pun.
    Yes, it's that time of year again, and we've received six or eight cards wishing us a few things from "Merry Christmas" and "Mele Kalikimaka" to a merry "Shakespeare Lover's Christmas" [in the shape of a pointed tree]:
A Bard in a Pear Tree
Two Star-Crossed Lovers
Three Friends, Romans, and Countrymen
Ten Lords a-Leaping
Eleven Ghosts a-Haunting
Twelfth Night Deceptions
[–from Allport Editions, Portland, Oregon])
    Even the unusual Shakespeare lover's Christmas card came in second, though, to a card whose commercial message is the generic "Happy Holidays" but whose personal note provokes serious thought:
Is it possible to request a blog entry, perhaps as a Christmas present to me? Imagine that you're an anthropologist from an atheistic society. You know nothing about Christmas. The blog entry is the field journal in which you record your observations.
    All I will tell Ken at this point is that I'm collecting notes in my field journal. (12/26: The field journal entry has been published.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pray more, prey less?

There was a break-in this week not far from where I live. The thieves took a TV and a gun and a few other things. Sentiments expressed over the burglary included sadness that some people prey on others and prayerfulness that the thieves will be caught and punished.

At our department luncheon on Monday, while waiting for our pasta to be brought by the single waiter serving our table of twenty-eight university staffers, someone wondered aloud at how much Legos had evolved. "So many more options for my grandchildren than I had."
    "I had Lincoln Logs," another luncheoner chimed in.
    I had to smile, imagining them and me playing with toys fifty, sixty years ago, and more. "I had clods," I said, barely able to suppress a laugh.
    "Clods?" the Lego guy asked.
    "Clods. Hard lumps of clayey earth." I could no longer suppress my laughter. I was remembering an incident when I was four or five. "My cousin DeWayne and his parents came over when I was taking a nap. I never knew they were there. But when I woke up and pulled out my box of clods from under the bed, a lot of them were broken or smashed. Loose dirt covered the bottom of the box. I was chagrined."
    "Is that what they mean by dirt poor?" the Lego guy said.
    "I guess," I said. "I said, 'DeWayne, you'll never play with my clods again!'"

Years later, I guess it was in 2004, before the national election, I got an email from DeWayne. It was sent to about twenty-five people, mostly friends of him and his wife, I learned later. His wife probably sent it, actually. The email reminded us to pray for President Bush and let God tell us whom to vote for.
    I resented this sanctimonious, wrong-headed admonition so much that I replied to say so, copying everyone on the distribution list, just so they'd all know that I wasn't a member of that crowd.
    Right, pray for Bush, the do-good predator, presuming to bring the God of Freedom to the Middle East, where the God of Complete and Utter Submission to the Will of Allah prevails.
    This time it was DeWayne, or rather his wife, who said she wasn't going to play with me anymore. She blocked email from me, and I haven't heard from DeWayne since.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Prophecy of the Medallion: New cover

"Prophecy of the Medallion has a new cover. Thanks to Moristotle. He’s not a professional graphic artist, but his work is outstanding and...."

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Protecting and defending the rights of women

From the back matter of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's 2010 memoir, Nomad: From Islam to America:
The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation was set up in 20081 as a charitable organization to help protect and defend the rights of women in the West, especially in the United States, against militant2 Islam and harmful tribal customs. Its aim is to investigate, inform, and influence against several types of crimes against women, including the denial of education for girls, genital mutilation, forced marriage, honor violence, and restrictions on girls' freedom of movement.
    The AHA Foundation seeks to raise awareness in America that some of these violent practices against women are increasingly carried out in the United States. The foundation also exists to provide girls and women in distress with information and assistance, by creating a database of people and institutions qualified to deal with cases of maltreatment and abuse. [p. 275]
  1. The AHA Foundation website gives 2007 as the year of foundation.
  2. The use of "militant" here might be an attempt by the AHA Foundation to avoid the appearance of indicting Islam generally, but the tenor of Ms. Hirsi Ali's writings is that Islam generally promulgates values detrimental to women and personal freedom, due primarily to Islam's teaching that the Quran rules in all matters and that "Allah's laws" (including laws based on the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, who she said, "measured by our western standards, [was] a pervert") override all man-made laws. In other words, Islam, her writings seem to assert, is essentially totalitarian and therefore inimical to democracy, which would seem to raise some provocative questions about "freedom of religion" in America when it comes to Islam.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

With respect to reflective belief

The second verse of Genesis puts being "in the same boat" in a mythically dramatic context; we're all "Afloat on the face of the deep."
    But I like to distinguish between people who come to believe in God in order to feel better about suffering and injustice (or to lessen their anxiety about dying1) and people who believe but don't think much about it, believing simply because they have been indoctrinated to do so (even possibly by rote, as in the case of Muslims as portrayed by Ayaan Hirsi Ali2).
    Most people who "believe" may do so from indoctrination. Remember, as Bertrand Russell pointed out in one of the essays in Why I Am Not a Christian, most people who are religious, are religious because they were taught to be so as children, and Muslims who as children could have been raised to be Christians instead would now be Christians rather than Muslims, and vice versa. (The few exceptions might be those who reflect. And some of those become atheists rather than switch religions.)

If I'm in the same boat as believers, I want it to be with believers who are aware of, and troubled by, suffering and injustice, not with people whose "belief" is essentially merely sentimental and unreflective. I can't say that I feel much compassion for the latter folks, or even much respect.
    And of course I condemn those among them who, in the face of reason and morality, take their "holy books" at their word and out gay people, murder physicians who perform abortions, say "bring it on" to Armageddon, behead unbelievers, stone to death women branded immoral for having been raped, murder daughters for "dishonoring" their families, beat "disobedient" wives, rape sexually unwilling ones3, go into marketplaces with a bomb strapped about their chest, fly airplanes into buildings, etc.
  1. I'm thinking of Tillich's characterization of existential anxiety as a person's awareness of his possible non-being.
  2. From Nomad, p. 20:
    Sahra [her half-sister who has lived in England for years but still wears "the jilbab, a long black robe that covers your hair and all your body past your ankles and wrists, but not your face"] may choose to enroll Sagal in a Muslim school, where she will be isolated from the values that underlie success in Britain. Most of her fellow students will come from homes where English is a second language. Some of her teachers will have been selected more for their piety than their ability as educators, others for their willingness to cooperate with the norms of the Muslim school. Some teachers will have applied out of a strong sense of idealism; others will have been motivated by a combination of some or all of these factors. Education will be by rote learning and submission, not inquiry and an open mind. [emphasis mine]
  3. All of these Islamic crimes against women are documented in Hirsi Ali's 2006 book, The Caged Virgin.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Mebane's first snow of coming winter

Afloat on the face of the deep

Writing yesterday's essay led me to the realization that, in a fundamental sense, believer and non-believer are in the same boat, their only essential difference being the paddle they use to stay afloat.
    "The long, distant cry" didn't initially end with "In my own way, I too am troubled by all this suffering. Its mewing and keening continually haunt my hearing." I added that paragraph (and continued to revise it) after realizing that my continual awareness of suffering and its profound unfairness seems to amount to my being one of those "troubled people" my friend referred to. I have to admit that for some time I have been aware of a sense of underlying existential pathos. A dissonant chord continually troubles the melodic line of my life and disturbs its harmony.
    And who can say that Castaneda was free of existential anxiety1 even when that "normal" photograph2 was made?

One person's response to suffering and injustice is to believe that God exists and will put it all right. And he prays continually that it be so. Amen, he says.
    Put it all right. That is, something is wrong for the believer too. For him too it's a dog eat dog world. He feels the world's suffering and is appalled and unsettled by it. He seeks an antidote for it (or for the fact of his own future annihilation) through believing that suffering (or his coming annihilation) is just an illusion or, if not an illusion, will nevertheless be righted in the hereafter.
    Yes, something is wrong, and the believer too is troubled and suffers, however able he usually is to plug his ears against the tragic discord that would otherwise trouble the harmony of his life too.

I want to remember this. I want to remember compassion for those who stoutly resist giving up the palliative paddle labeled "God." For I seem to have been clutching a sort of paddle myself. Rather than pray and shout amen, I beat the waters and decry. And my song lately has only repeated slight variations of the same lament.
  1. From Wikipedia's entry on existential anxiety:
    The theologian Paul Tillich characterized existential anxiety as "the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing" and he listed three categories for the nonbeing and resulting anxiety: ontic (fate and death), moral (guilt and condemnation), and spiritual (emptiness and meaninglessness). According to Tillich, the last of these three types of existential anxiety, i.e. spiritual anxiety, is predominant in modern times while the others were predominant in earlier periods. Tillich argues that this anxiety can be accepted as part of the human condition or it can be resisted but with negative consequences. In its pathological form, spiritual anxiety may tend to "drive the person toward the creation of certitude in systems of meaning which are supported by tradition and authority" even though such "undoubted certitude is not built on the rock of reality."
  2. My friend who read my paper on mentoring had said, "Carlos Castaneda's picture looks normal. Why did Thom Green say that he looked troubled?"

Friday, December 3, 2010

The long, distant cry

I have to admit, finally, that I've been continually fussing at something.
    Early this week I showed a friend something I published about twenty years ago, "The Mentor's Apprentice," about the way I went about mentoring technical writers. I was reminded how I'd come to title the paper.
    I asked my friend whether she'd ever heard of Carlos Castaneda. He wrote a number of books about a Yaqui Indian shaman whose apprentice he claimed to have become, and I think he used the phrase, "sorcerer's apprentice." (But, come to think of it, so did Walt Disney.)
    At any rate, I was thinking of Castaneda when I titled my paper. (Or my muse was thinking of him.)
    Castaneda was a student at UCLA in the sixties, and so was my old friend Thom Green (1937-2002). Thom told me many years ago that he once saw Castaneda in the graduate reading room. Thom said he looked deeply troubled, haunted.
    My friend who read my paper on mentoring said, "Carlos Castaneda's picture looks normal. Why did Thom Green say that he looked troubled?"
    I told her, "Remember, our spirits change from moment to moment. Castaneda would probably not have sat for an official photograph (such as that used in the Wikipedia article) when he was troubled. At the moment Thom Green sighted Castaneda in the reading room, he thought that Castaneda looked distracted and under intense internal pressure."
    "You're right, Morris. Our mood and spirit can change from moment to moment. It's harder for some people than others to maintain a normal or good mood and stay stable. I feel sorry for those who are troubled by things, people, thoughts, treatments...."

And then I started to itch.
    I told her that, yes, I feel sorry, too, for all the poor creatures of the Earth who, while they might not be eaten by a predator higher on the food chain, nevertheless have an unhappy life with much trouble and woe. The fact of all of this suffering is, to me, the primary "proof" that God does not exist. No God we'd want to imagine would create such a dog eat dog world1. No morally upright, self-respecting human being ever would, at any rate.
    In my own way, I too am troubled by all this suffering. Its mewing and keening continually haunt my hearing.
  1. From Wiktionary: "canis canem edit [Latin], 'dog eats dog,' refers to a situation where nobody is safe from anybody, each man for himself."