Saturday, December 31, 2005

Brian's Fantastic Fours

I succumb, at last, to the peer pressure.

Four jobs you've had in your life:
- Pigeon Babysitter
- IBM's Bureaucracy Implementor & Technical Call Handler
- Envelope Stuffer
- Guacamole Chef

Four places you've lived:
- Dallas, Texas
- New York City, New York
- New Haven, Connecticut
- In front of the computer

Four TV shows you love to watch:
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- Mystery Science Theater 3000
- Sopranos
- The Simpsons

Four places you've been on vacation:
- Sunnydale, CA
- Hogsmeade
- Nodnol
- Paradigm City

Four websites you visit daily:

Four of your favorite foods:
- nachos
- chicken tikka masala
- potatoes
- salsa

Four places you'd rather be:
- John Jay College of Criminal Justice
- In bed
- Bhutan
- Playing Civilization 4

Four movies you never get sick of watching:
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail
- Lawrence of Arabia
- Casablanca
- Spinal Tap

(Bonus) Four favorite silly Buffy lines:
- "I believe these chicken feet are mine!"
- "It's a doodle. I do doodle. You too, you do doodle too. "
- "Come on! Vampires! Grrr! Nasty! Let's annihilate them, for justice, and for... the safety of puppies... and Christmas, right?"
- "I think it's 'Mmm Fashnik', like 'Mmmm, cookies'."
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Laura's Fours

Four jobs you've had in your life: camp counselor, concert hall administrator, orchestra tour manager, teaching assistant.

Four movies you could watch over and over: Spinal Tap, The Sound of Music, Amadeus, Moulin Rouge

Four places you've lived: Bronx, NY, Morningside Heights, Manhattan, Queens, NY, Hamden, CT

Four TV shows you love to watch: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Sex and the City (we haven't had a TV for a few years...)

Four places you've been on vacation: Cape Cod, Maui, Dallas, Spain

Four websites you visit daily:, don't do much web surfing

Four of your favorite foods: My mother's paella, Chinese spare ribs, roasted potatoes, anything with chorizo in it

Four places you'd rather be: New York, Hawaii, lying in the hammock on a summer day with a book, having a picnic at the park with Brian and Leo.

Bonus Response:
Four musical groups I like: The Pixies, The Cure, Anonymous 4, Sonic Youth.
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War, Peace, and Democracy

In tomorrow's New York Times Magazine, Princeton professor Gary J. Bass asks, "Are Democracies Really More Peaceful?" The central thrust of his article is to summarize recent research by political scientists Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, who argue that "new democracies are often unstable and thus particularly warlike." Bass suggests that this undermines the Bush administration theory that bringing democracy to the Middle East (starting with Iraq) will improve the prospects for global peace and thereby enhance US security.

Forget the practical problems with implementing the Bush theory, like How the hell are we actually going to bring democracy to Iraq? and Are we prepared to pay the unspecified but evidently stratospheric price? There's another issue that I haven't yet seen the political scientists grapple with.

If it's true that, in general, democracies tend to be more peaceful than authoritarian regimes, why would that be true? Wouldn't it be because average citizens have less desire to spend money and shed blood on empire-building, wealth-securing, and honor-enhancing exercises than politicians? And in a democracy, average citizens have significant influence (even ultimate control via the ballot box) over national policy. Therefore, the theory goes, politicians in democratic countries will tend to shun bellicose policies lest they alienate the voters on whose support they rely.

Sounds good. Except that it is precisely around issues of war and peace that the United States is rapidly de-democratizing. Over the past two generations, we've seen presidents run for election on a peace platform, then plunge us into war (Johnson), cherry-pick intelligence and lie to justify unpopular wars (Johnson, Nixon, Bush), undermine constitutional protections of privacy, free speech, and free association to suppress antiwar sentiment (Johnson, Nixon, Bush), and use war-mongering demagoguery to smear political opponents, intimidate the press, confuse voters, and steal elections (Nixon and Bush).

It's pretty clear that if the US were still a vibrant democracy, in which government policies actually reflected the will of the people, we would not be at war today. Which makes it more than a little ironic that the Bush administration should be justifying an invasion of Iraq on the ground that bringing democracy there will promote peace.

The underlying connection between democracy and peace may actually be valid--but the process of democratization needs to start here, not in Iraq.

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Minstrel Camping and Actinium Messiah

Like most people, I get spam--lots of spam. Most of it is dreary, depressing nonsense: bogus stock tips, attempts to phish out my bank account numbers, and offers to meet lonely, sex-starved housewives right in my neighborhood. But lately I've been getting spam with a weird, almost poetic twist. The contents of the e-mails are ridiculous, as always--offers to buy viagra, cialis, and other drugs at a discount. But the subject lines are truly unique. They consist of two-word phrases apparently constructed by picking words at random from a dictionary.

Here are some of the subject lines that have landed in my in-box the last few days:

Re: forehand messieurs
Re: negotiate lagging
Re: minstrel camping
Re: footwork diminished
Re: slough outpost
Re: usable synonymous
Re: imbroglio typographer
Re: actinium messiah
Re: seasonable abolitionism
Re: deficit sling
Re: kinematics blubbered
Re: reformer milage
Re: naturalize seedsman

(A few footnotes: actinium is "a radioactive, silver-white, metallic element that glows blue in the dark, resembling the rare earths in chemical behavior and valence." Might be a nice substance for making a dramatic, glow-in-the-dark statue of Jesus--an actinium messiah. Kinematics is "the branch of mathematics that deals with pure motion, without reference to the masses or forces involved in it." And the word milage seems to be a misspelling; it should be mileage, of course.)

Is this weird or what? It reminds me of "found poetry," or of the esthetic of randomness once espoused by people like the Dadaists. Randomness was also an element in the pop culture of the 1960s and 70s, when there were singing groups with names like The Strawberry Alarm Clock and John Lennon was writing lyrics like "Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower." (A pilchard is "a small, S European marine fish, Sardina pilchardus, related to the herring but smaller and rounder.") By the way, try Googling "Semolina pilchard." I just did, and I'm stunned by the quantity of hits. Among many other things, "Semolina Pilchard" seems to be the name of a prolific blog commenter. Maybe she (he?) will read and react to this post . . .

In the same era, my friend Arthur Maisel named his "underground" newspaper The Rajpramukh Ballute. I can't find either of those words in the Random House College Dictionary I happen to have at my side as I write, and I'm feeling too lazy to go get the OED from downstairs. So as Robert Benchley once wrote in a similar context, "You should look it up yourself because then you will remember it better."

I'd love to understand the strategy behind these ridiculous email message lines. Are they supposed to provoke curiosity and stimulate reading? Or is the theory that random words will avoid triggering the spam recognition software that most people have in their email systems? (If the latter, it doesn't work. All of these messages were appropriately classified as spam by my AOL account.)

If anyone has the skinny on this, please inform the rest of us.

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Friday, December 30, 2005

The Death of the Album?

According to this data (linked via Eric Alterman's blog), CDs as a medium are continuing to decline in sales, while one-shot, single-song downloads skyrocket. My question: Does this mean that, eventually, the "album" as an art form (the thematic or linked collection of songs originally developed by people like the Beatles and the Beach Boys) is doomed? Will there be some other "long form" in which popular music can find broader, deeper expression than is possible in three to five minutes? If so, what is it and where is it emerging?

My point is just that this format question may be more than purely a matter of marketing and economic control. It may have esthetic implications, too. Assuming that such things still matter in pop music.

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Brian Lehrer Viciously Biased Against People From Chappaqua

I've always enjoyed Brian Lehrer's interview/call-in show on WNYC, the New York outlet of NPR. He's funny, smart, skeptical, and has a nice voice. But today I'm deeply bitter. I called in to participate in Brian's annual end-of-year news quiz and I'm appalled at the blatantly unfair treatment I received.

According to the rules, contestants had to correctly answer three consecutive questions (asked by Mark Halperin of ABC News) to win a coveted Brian Lehrer Show T-shirt. Now, I'll leave aside the fact that I instantly knew the answers to the first five or six questions (asked of other contestants)--I mean, like that (sound of snapping fingers)! "What was the real name of John Paul II?" (Karol Wojtyla, or some roughly similar collection of letters.) "What publication printed the story revealing the identity of Deep Throat?" (Vanity Fair.) "Who was the woman who finished fourth in the Indianapolis 500?" (Danica something. First name deemed sufficient by Brian.) So by rights I should have had a T-shirt in the bag as soon as they got me on the line. But nooo, I had to answer three more questions. So okay, here they were:

1. "Name three journalists who have been questioned in the Valerie Plame case." Got it! Brian had already established (with a previous contestant) that he would accept Robert Novak as an answer, even though Novak has never admitted being subpoenaed. And I knew two more: Tim Russert and Matt Cooper! Woo-hoo--one third of the way to a T-shirt!

2. "In what city does Plame investigator Patrick Fitzgerald serve as a prosecutor?" Got that one, too! Chicago! One more to go.

And here's where the bias against people from Chappaqua kicked in. (Or so I assume, since the only thing that Brian and his cruel lackeys on the production team knew about me is that I was "Karl from Chappaqua.") Here is the third and crucial question:

3. "Name the person who was rumored to be President's Bush's choice for the supreme court before he announced the selection of John Roberts. Hint: It's a woman."

What kind of a question is that?! Who has time to follow every furshlugginer rumor circulating on the right-wing blogs--let alone remember them months after they prove to be false?!

(The answer is Edith something-or-other. In fact, there were two right-wing judges named Edith that Bush was supposedly considering--both of whom got shafted in favor of white male frat boy Roberts. Wouldn't it be great if Bush somehow, someday, ends up on trial before one of those rejected Ediths? Don't count on leniency there, big guy! Hell hath no fury etc.)

So anyway I fell one question short of a T-shirt. Much as, years ago, I fell one question short of winning Jeopardy and ended up taking home a freezer instead of twenty thousand smackers. To this day I fume when the topic of John Paul Jones is mentioned (don't ask).

My only consolation is knowing that I would have won (and been officially declared a "Brian Lehrer 2005 News Junkie") if that third question had been anything reasonable--"Who plays left field for the New York Mets?" for example.

Oh well, maybe if I start listening to the news more carefully I'll have a better shot in 2006. Meantime, Happy New Year everybody.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Hot Stove Antics: Pass the Vino

So my teenage hero Tom Seaver (I was 16 in 1969 when he won his first Cy Young award and led the Mets to the world championship) is now a Napa Valley grandee and owner of his own microvineyard (three acres small). According to the Times, Tom Terrific has just harvested his first crop of cabernet grapes and plans to produce his first cases of wine three years hence. The wine will be called Seaver ("reluctantly," the vineyard owner claims) and should retail for around $60 a bottle, which means it will be served in the Weber household only on very special occasions--like the first game of the Mets' next World Series.

(By the way, Tom and Nancy's Napa Valley home is located on Diamond Mountain. Wouldn't that make a heck of a lot better baseball-themed name for his wine than "Seaver"?)

This whole story is vintage Seaver (sorry about that). Tom has always been slightly grandiose and self-satisfied (his commentary during TV broadcasts of Met games tends to be pompous) but often interesting and ultimately harmless. And anyway I will never find any serious fault with the man who (as his Hall of Fame plaque eloquently and alliteratively states) "transformed Mets from lovable losers into formidable foes"--and was a reasonably outspoken critic of the Vietnam War to boot.

At least Tom has never done anything to embarrass us fans, unlike Jeff Reardon (since when do antidepressants make you commit armed robbery?) or Anna Benson (Met wife, pinup floozie, and Ann-Coulter-wannabe). I'm happy to have Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner in the fold, but otherwise this has been one off-season I'll be happy to have in my rear view mirror.

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Republican Numbers Games

Talk about connecting the dots. Two recent news topics, when combined, help paint a vivid picture of the unprincipled way the Republican party is continuing its effort to build an election-proof political machine.

First, consider this story via Digby about how conservatives (abetted by members of the not-so-liberal media like Lou Dobbs) are pushing to eliminate non-citizens (such as recent immigrants) from the census. Hmmm . . . which states, which counties, and which political party do you suppose will lose Congressional seats if that happens?

Then compare this to a trend that, on the surface, runs in the opposite direction but actually helps produce the same political outcome, as described here: the growing Congressional clout given to some regions (mainly rural and southern) because prisoners incarcerated there are counted by the Census as part of the local population. Of course, most prisoners are not allowed to vote. But their numbers still help to boost the clout of the state in which they're held. With over two million prison inmates in the US today, the impact is significant.

Now, obviously, if the conservatives were genuinely concerned about underlying principles related to citizenship or democracy, they would want to be consistent about these two trends, and they'd be insistent about treating both non-citizens and prisoners alike for purposes of apportionment. In fact, they want to treat them in opposite ways that produce the same electoral outcome.

I guess it's okay or at least understandable if the Republicans want to fight ruthlessly for every scrap of political advantage. But please spare us the posturing about defending "American ideals" or "democratic values" when engaging in yet another pure and simple power grab.

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Monday, December 26, 2005

Two Cheers for Being Obsessed

Here's a pretty cool column by Sebastian Mallaby in WaPo about role-playing computer games. Turns out his eleven-year-old son is learning sophisticated economic and political lessons from games like Age of Empires and RuneScape. So I guess I don't need to worry about the zombie-like look grandson Jakob develops whenever his Game Boy is turned on.

I take this as evidence for my personal theory that virtually anything can become educational if pursued in a spirit of eclectic curiosity. When I was 13 and 14 I was pretty much obsessed with mythopoeic fantasy--Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, E.R. Eddison (The Worm Ouroboros), etc. etc. With gentle guidance from a couple of smart teachers this led me into all sorts of interesting related topics, from Norse mythology to languages to poetry to Christianity. I suspect a clever teacher or parent could do the same thing with any typical kid obsession--dinosaurs or hip-hop music or horseback riding or number puzzles (like the ones my eleven-year-old grandniece Sabrina likes to do). Which is why I firmly believe it's healthy for a kid to become obsessed with something--anything--during late childhood or early adolescence. When treated with respect, obsession can be a door into a wider world, and I think it's a much better psychological indicator than an attitude of indifference or boredom about everything.

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Sunday, December 25, 2005

My Fours

Four jobs you've had in your life: baby-sitter for various families in Chappaqua; camp counselor at a music camp in upstate NY; serial intern at various non-profits in NY; program assistant at the Open Society Institute

Four movies you could watch over and over: The Sound of Music; Annie Hall; I can't think of any others

Four places you've lived: Chappaqua, NY; Morningside Heights, Manhattan; St. Petersburg, Russia; Park Slope; Brooklyn

Four TV shows you love to watch: The Daily Show; Seinfeld; Arrested Development; The Office

Four places you've been on vacation: Cape Cod; Disney World; Santorini, Greece; cruise in the Caribbean

Four websites you visit daily:;;;

Four of your favorite foods: my mom’s paella; yellow tail sushi; steak; artichokes

Four places you'd rather be: London; Hawaii; Fiji; Paris

Bonus Response:

Four influential books: Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault; The Keys to Happiness: Sex and Modernity in fin-de-siecle Russia by Laura Engelstein; Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser; The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

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May the Fours Be With You

Picking up on a party game that has been sweeping the blogosphere (here, for example), these are my answers to the "meme of fours." Make of them what you will . . .

Four jobs you've had in your life: waiter/short order cook at Meyer & Blohm's ice cream parlor in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; data entry clerk in the group insurance department at New York Life Insurance Company; test prep teacher/researcher at Stanley H. Kaplan Educational Center; managing director, Times Books, Random House.

Four movies you could watch over and over: Duck Soup, Citizen Kane, Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Day's Night.

Four places you've lived: Brooklyn, NY; 204th Street and Broadway in Inwood, Manhattan; Astor Avenue in the Bronx; and Chappaqua, NY. (Yes, I'm an unrepentant New Yorker.)

Four TV shows you love to watch: The Odd Couple, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, any New York Mets game (three comedies and a tragedy).

Four places you've been on vacation: St. Petersburg, Russia; St. Martin; the Napa Valley; Cape Cod.

Four websites you visit daily: Daily Kos, Hullaballoo, Washington Monthly, TAPPED (The American Prospect).

Four of your favorite foods: nigiri sushi, kosher hot dogs, Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Mary-Jo's paiella (out of so many many choices I could name . . . )

Four places you'd rather be: Kauai, Paris, Florence, New York City in 1965.

Bonus question--Four works of art I'd like to steal so I could display them in my home: Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie-Woogie," Derain's "Thames at Tower Bridge," a Georgia O'Keefe cityscape, and Brueghel's " Young Folk at Play." All of which, now that I think about it, are pictures that depict or imply the vibrant energy of life in a town crowded with people.

If you're a World Wide Weber, you're invited to write a post with your lists. If you're a visitor, add yours as a comment.

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Saturday, December 24, 2005

By All Means Be Merry

One small benefit of this idiotic "war on Christmas" controversy is that I've been noticing the trite expression "Merry Christmas" much more than I used to, and I find myself feeling very appreciative of its quaint charm. Think about it--"merry" is one of those words that's almost never used any more except in an archaic context, like "Robin Hood and His Merry Men" for example. Try to use it in a sentence and you're practically forced to adopt a literary style redolent of some previous century ("It was a merry time, forsooth"). Yet unlike some other near-archaisms (such as its one-time synonym "gay"), the meaning of the word is still unchanged and unmistakeable. (We all know about the interesting direction the meaning of "gay" ended up taking.)

The best thing about "merry" is its frivolity. The right-wing-media crusade to force everyone to say "Merry Christmas" would be even worse if the idiomatic greeting were something like "Holy Nativity" or "Blessed Yuletide" or something equally solemn. The words "Merry Christmas" suggest laughter. They conjure up a Dickensian image of songs being sung loudly and not very well in a pub or parlor accompanied by plenty of adult beverages (preferably over-sweet ones not drunk at any other time of year), tables full of food, kids outdoors sledding, skating, and throwing snowballs at one another, and adults engaging in mild bawdry involving mistletoe and still more adult beverages.

"Making merry" isn't something you do in church, nor does it involve the paying of expensive tribute to the capitalist system by buying jewelry or Nintendo games or flat-screen TVs. It's about mindless, goofy, playful pleasures--the kind of thing modern Republicans normally have little use for. Which helps to explain why the Puritans hated Christmas and the "merriment" associated with it and actually outlawed Christmas celebrations in Boston and other places where they held sway. It's hard to picture that sourpuss Bill O'Reilly being merry, isn't it?

There's a saying attributed (perhaps inaccurately) to William Blake which goes, "Fun is good, but mirth is better, and better than both is joy." That seems to put mirth (which of course is a cognate of "merry" and equivalent to "merriment") in just about the right place: something more spontaneous and energetic than fun (which can be forced; hence the expression "Are we having fun yet?") but less exalted and spiritual than joy (which has transcendent implications, as in the title of C.S. Lewis's autobiography Surprised by Joy). There's a place for all three, but in our modern world mirth is the one that's most neglected.

So by all means have a merry Christmas. Live a little. Kick up your heels. Especially if you haven't done it in a year or more. After all, this is the time.

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Prairie Night in the Big City

If you enjoy Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion on NPR and get a chance to see a live performance, grab it. Mary-Jo and I attended the taping of his Christmas Eve show at New York's Town Hall last night, and it was one of the most enjoyable evenings we've had in a long time. It was a night of Christmas songs, including several from eastern Europe performed in their native languages by a charming pair of Ukrainian sisters in traditional red-and-white dresses, a Czech father-and-daughter team, and a dimunitive, barrel-chested, mustachioed tenor from Slovenia. Jennifer Rivera, a funny (and very pretty) mezzo-soprano from the New York City Opera sang and gamely mugged her way through Guy Noir, Private Detective. Best of all, the amazing Odetta sang several spirituals, creating a stunning volume of searing, evocative sound from that tiny, frail 75-year-old body.

It's lots of fun to watch the show take shape before your eyes--an efficient machine that Keillor and his staff have obviously honed to perfection over the years, with each new act being wheeled out before the previous act ends, eliminating dead air. (By comparison the performances of Saturday Night Live that I've attended courtesy of sister Ingrid were chaotic.) The sound effects guy (not sure his name, it's not listed by that title in the program) produces an amazing number of weird sounds with his voice alone (as well as many others using the traditional assortment of wood, wire, and metal gadgets), and the two actors who perform with Keillor on the various skits manage to sound like at least a dozen people each.

Personally I also marvel at the phenomenon of Garrison Keillor himself--a big, ungainly writer with a goofy-looking haircut who never smiles and can carry a tune but certainly is no great shakes as a singer, yet with all this has somehow become a star of sorts by dint of his wit and off-beat sensibility. More power to him.

Which leads me to my final observation. This was perhaps the most religious night I've ever spent at the theatre. Practically every song was about Jesus, the presence of God was repeatedly invoked (often humorously though never sarcastically and definitely never blasphemously), and the overarching theme that united the whole package, from the lonesome-cowboys-on-the-range skit to the fake radio ads to the patter song "We're spending Chanukah in Santa Monica" to the climactic Lake Wobegone monologue, was the spirit of Christmas--a time, in Keillor's ruefully tender vision, for celebrating love with people you may not be able to stand most of the rest of the year.

Talk about old-fashioned values. But here we were, a theaterful of New Yorkers, liberals, and NPR fans, lapping up an evening of it and singing along with "Adeste Fidelis" and "Silent Night," all led by a notorious East Coast elitist, New Yorker writer, and progressive columnist for Salon magazine.

You won't find anything like it on Fox.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

King George, Meet Queen Hillary

Here are some questions to ask your Republican friends when they try to defend the increasingly shamless dictatorial practices of King George:

If it's okay for the president to disregard the Constitution, break the laws, evade Congressional oversight, and lie to the public during wartime, then how do you define "wartime"? When exactly is the GWOT (against an undefined enemy that includes billions of people around the world) supposedly going to end? If there is no clear definition of our current "war," then are you suggesting that we give the president quasi-dictatorial powers indefinitely?

Do you expect Republicans to win every future election for the rest of our nation's history? If not, will you be happy to turn over the same powers you've given George (the power to spy on American citizens without a warrant, for example) to a Democratic president?

You say you trust George not to abuse his powers for political purposes. Do you feel the same about Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama? If not, why do you want to create legal and political precedents that will give future presidents of every party those powers?

George and his cronies defend their dictatorial practices (warrantless spying, detentions without trial, renditions for torture) by saying that "only those with known terrorist links" are subject to such treatment. Do you really believe that every person with military or law-enforcement powers in the US government is now infallible and therefore incapable of mistakenly arresting or otherwise interfering with an innocent person? Do you also believe that everyone in the Bush administration is so pure at heart that he or she is incapable of misusing absolute, unaccountable power? On what basis do you hold this belief? And will you feel the same way about the government ten years or fifty years from today?

Please, stop and think. Once we agree to trash the Constitution the way George is demanding, it's trashed for good--no use trying to duck behind it for cover when someone you didn't vote for has the power. I wouldn't want to give Queen Hillary or King Barack arbitrary power. For the exact same reason you shouldn't want to give it to King George.

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

It's Koufax Time

If you enjoy reading World Wide Webers, please take a moment to visit Wampum, where nominations for the 2005 Koufax Awards are now open. (As you may know, these are the world's leading, semi-prestigious awards for left-leaning blogs.) We'd appreciate your nominating us in any category you think appropriate, and in a few days, when the full list of nominees is posted, we'd appreciate your votes as well. But no matter whom you vote for, the Koufaxes are a good thing for the blogosphere and deserving of your support.
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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Power of Life and Death? No Thanks

In a post titled "Human Fallibility," that great blogger Kevin Drum on the Washington Monthly website links to this article to explain his opposition to the death penalty. Exactly . . . human fallibility: humility; readiness to repent; willingness to confess error; recognition of our flawed and sinful nature. Doesn't all that sound familiar? It sounds like a Christian perspective to me--or a much better approximation of one than the cocksure demands for judgment and vengeance that pass for Christianity in certain quarters.
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Check Out McImagine

No, it's not a John-Lennon-themed Happy Meal (Liverpool-style fish and chips with a slice of New York cheesecake?). It's Arthur Maisel's subtly rewritten version of "Imagine" as Paul McCartney might have composed it. Arthur created it to illustrate the stylistic differences between the two song writers (as discussed here), and it's a hoot. If you actually know something about music (unlike me), you'll truly appreciate it. Download the MP3 file here.

Back in my first childhood, I played drums in a band with Arthur. During Saturday rehearsal sessions when we didn't feel like working (which was most of the time), Arthur would entertain us with musical trivial, oddities, and novelties. We'd gather around him at the piano and toss out requests, the goofier the better: "Play something that sounds like hula music, only give it a bluesy feel!" "What would a Russian version of cowboy music sound like?" "Do a Looney Tunes sound track!" etc. etc. Arthur would comply, improvising and annotating as he played. It would have been a fine musical education (well, at least an unusual one) if I'd actually applied myself. Instead it's just one of my more cherished memories.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

Happy Holidays, Everyone

I was thinking about writing something about the so-called war on Christmas, but this letter from Peter Alaimo on Eric Alterman's blog says it all:

The solution to the Christmas wars is for Christians (of whom I am one) to realize that we celebrate the Incarnation by asking God to let Christ be born in our souls. We do not ask that he be born in department stores or any other public place. Winter Festivals are secular and can be celebrated by all in the public square. Religious holy days are for believers and belong in their souls, their churches, and their homes.

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Narnia: No Fundie Epic

There are a lot of reviews and blog postings about The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe today. The movie won the weekend box office race by a lot, so it has a chance to be one of the big hits of the holiday season. And because of its peculiar status in today's religious/cultural wars, I want to share some of my reactions after seeing the picture yesterday with Mary-Jo and our grandson Jakob (age six).

(1) I'm with the majority of reviewers in rating the movie "good but not great"--not on a level with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, to make the obvious comparison. The movie features excellent acting by the quartet of children who must carry most of the action. Its biggest flaw is the weakness of the presentation of Aslan. The animation is amazing--I thought Aslan was depicted in part by a real lion and was surprised to learn that he is totally computer-generated--and Liam Neeson's voice works very well. But the character doesn't get enough time on screen or enough powerful scenes early on to make believable the depth of grief suffered by the two human girls (Susan and Lucy) when he dies.

(2) The picture is remarkably close to C.S. Lewis's book, retaining both its flaws and its strengths. For example, the early scenes in Narnia featuring the faun Mr. Tumnus are too cutesy (more like The Wind in the Willows or even Peter Rabbit than Lord of the Rings), just as they are in the book. The character of the Professor is also very arch, just as he is in Lewis's treatment. But then, as in the book, the gradual deepening of tone as the conflict with the Witch is played out is handled well, though of course neither book nor movie ever attains the grandeur of LotR.

(3) I was pleased that the movie makers avoided some pitfalls that a Hollywood production might have been expected to fall into. For example, halfway through the book, the character of Father Christmas appears. He is a harbinger of the end of the Witch's reign (which has been characterized by a hundred years of winter with no Christmas), and he gives the four human children the weapons and tools they will use to help win the battle over evil. Now, in costuming Father Christmas, I imagine the film makers were tempted to pander to their US audience by decking him out in the snowy-white beard and red fur-trimmed suit worn by the American Santa Claus. They resisted this temptation, instead presenting him as the traditional English image of Father Christmas, with gray beard and brownish-gray suit. So I don't imagine our grandson Jakob knew who he was--but then, he didn’t appear troubled or puzzled, either.

(4) As for the religious iconography that has made the movie so contentious (and led the Disney marketers to dream of a Passion-like box office success among evangelical audiences), it was handled very much as C.S. Lewis handled it--carefully walking the line between being over-explicit and over-subtle. Anyone steeped in the Christian story can scarcely miss the Christ-parallels in the story of Aslan's death and resurrection. (Aslan even "harrows Hell," much as Christ did in medieval legend, by rescuing those who have been frozen into death-like statues in the Witch's castle.) On the other hand, after returning from the dead, Aslan becomes a warrior-king and leads the free Narnian army to victory in battle, which is very unlike the Christ of the the New Testament. And both C.S. Lewis and the film makers thankfully passed up the oppportunity to make the parallels too explicit, which would have ruined the tone of the fantasy. For example, there is no "last supper" sequence prior to the lion's killing, which would reduce the story to being merely a veiled retelling of the passion narrative rather than an independent story in its own right.

So I'm relieved to report that the movie makers (despite Disney's marketing ambitions) have not tried to transform Narnia into a fundamentalist epic. Instead they've remained true to Lewis's rather quirky, personal, donnish vision.

In both book and film, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe skirts but just avoids the flat and stilted effect of allegory (in which A = X, B = Y, C = Z in formulaic fashion). What Lewis intended, and largely achieved, is a story that suggests religious doctrine only by expressing truths about life itself that are naturally shared by Christianity. Thus, the story of Aslan deals with the nobility of sacrifice and the triumphant power of love over death—realities that Christianity (in Lewis's view, and mine) expresses more fully than any other world-view but that every mature world-view recognizes in some fashion. So, to the extent that the stories of Narnia are "true," they point toward Christianity much as Norse myth, the Bhagavad-Gita, Kafka, and Tolkien do.

I've been surprised to read over the past few weeks the comments of many people who read the Narnia stories in childhood or even as adults and never noticed any parallels to Christian scripture until they were recently pointed out in the press. Together with my viewing of the picture, these observations suggest that it's perfectly "safe" for anyone of any religious persuasion (or lack thereof) to watch The Chronicles of Narnia or take their kids to see it. The experience will not be like having fundamentalist dogma forced down your throat. The movie is a pretty good fantasy, which you'll like if you like that sort of thing. I do, and I did.

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

If You Want To Be A Hero Well Just Follow Me

Twenty-fifth anniversary of John Lennon's death . . . I could go on and on about how important a person he was for me and for so many despite his flaws, but I'll just make one observation. It does Lennon a real disservice to treat him as a fuzzy loveable mascot for every unobjectionable cause. That's not what he was, at all. For a reminder of the real cutting edge on his music and words, check out Eric Alterman's reprise of one of Lennon's best and bitterest lyrics, "Working Class Hero." And even the somewhat schlocky (yes, McCartney-esque) "Imagine" isn't nearly as harmless as most people seem to assume: "Imagine there's no countries . . . " "Imagine there's no heaven . . ." "Imagine no possessions . . ." I'm hearing anti-patriotism, atheism, socialism! The people who play this song as if it's some toothless anthem of vague unspecified idealism obviously haven't spent three seconds thinking about what it actually says.

Yes, Lennon was sometimes vain, silly, mean, and arrogant. But he was honest, his instincts were sound, he sang about things that mattered, and above all he had guts. We miss his voice.

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Hawaiian Roundup

My apologies for not blogging lately--reason to be explained shortly. By way of catch-up, a few notes from the rest of our week in the fiftieth state . . .

Monday 11/28: Ever wonder what a theme park created by Mormons would be like? Me neither. But if you ever get to wondering, head to The Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie on the north shore of Oahu. (These are just two of the many consonant-impaired proper names for which Hawaii is famous. In fact Mary-Jo and I heard a legend while touring one of the botanical gardens about a princess named O'o'a'a, which if the rules of Scrabble were a little more flexible would be a great way to unload some of those extra vowels one accumulates.)

Anyway, the Polynesian Cultural Center turns out to be a series of Disney-like "lands" (they call them "villages") each representing a different South Pacific culture--Fiji, the Marquesas, Tahiti, Hawaii, Aotearoa, and so on. (Stumped by Aotearoa? We imperialists call it New Zealand.)

In theory, I don't doubt that each of these islands (or archipelagos) does have a distinct culture, but you couldn't tell this by the dumbed-down version presented in Laie. In each "village" a show is offered, consisting primarily of ukulele tunes, lots of drumming, and many demands that the tourists show their enthusiasm with loud responses to questions like, "Are you having fun today?" Otherwise, the "cultures" were represented by basically identical thatched-roof huts, woven straw mats, and "educational" displays of framed two-dollar posters depicting local birds and fishes.

Our friendly hosts, performers, and culture-demonstrators were mostly students at the nearby Hawaii campus of Brigham Young University, for whose benefit the entire park was created--no kidding. In fact, brochures and signs around the park urge visitors to tour the Mormon college's campus (trams run frequently), during which "the basic beliefs of the religion will be explained." If this wasn't enough to make the whole experience feel a trifle creepy, there was the "missionary village" portion of the park, whose history display gave seemingly excessive prominence to the role of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in civilizing Oahu.

After two and a half shows (including Tonga and Samoa, as I recall), Mary-Jo and I made our escape, happy that we'd resisted the temptation to buy "V.I.P. (first-row) seating for the world famous night-show Horizons: Where the Sea Meets the Sky." That would have kept us in the park for another four hours and given our hosts that much longer to work on their plan for converting us.

Wednesday 11/30: From Oahu we flew to Kauai, an island we'd never visited before. What a change from bustling Honolulu. Kauai is only semi-developed, resembling (according to more experienced travelers) the Hawaii of forty years ago.

It's also wildly varied. Near its center is a jungle that gets more rainfall than any other spot on Earth (four hundred inches in an average year, fully seven hundred inches last year). Along the west shore is the famous Na Pali coast, where a long series of four-thousand-foot-high ridges cloaked in deep green foliage plunge straight down into the churning waters of the Pacific.

The north features Hanalei Bay, lush haunt of surfers, artists, former hippies ("Puff the Magic Dragon" and all that), and millionaires--its Princeville resort is one of the poshest I've ever seen, decorated with marble sculptures and tapestries seemingly designed to make the place look like a refurbished castle from medieval Avignon. (Mary-Jo and I scraped together our nickels to pay for lunch sitting beside the infinity pool.) The east coast is built up, with towns like Lihue and Kapa'a featuring one shopping center after another (and some mean traffic jams).

Mary-Jo and I stayed on the south shore, where the sun is most consistent and the beaches are most friendly. But we drove almost everywhere during our week on the island, and hiked and kayaked into some places cars can't reach. The most dramatic: Polihale State Park on the west coast. To get there, we drove past the end of Highway 50, down five miles of rutted bone-jarring dirt road (please don' t tell our car-rental company), to a tiny parking lot separated from the ocean by sandy shrubs and a high dune. Scale the dune and you find yourself sharing seventeen miles of wide, sun-hammered beach with half a dozen other humans, while some of the biggest and scariest waves you've ever seen batter the shore.

Feeling a little under the weather (made worse by the vertigo-inducing intensity of the sunlight) I laid face-down on a towel while Mary-Jo walked north along the sand until she began to shimmer like one of those bedouin warriors seen from miles away on the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. By the time she got back I was so dizzy I thought she was a mirage or a houri out of some mystic vision.

On a slightly different note, no account of Kauai would be complete without mentioning the wild chickens, who are almost everywhere--hanging out by every park, beach, shave-ice stand, and hidden waterfall in the friggin' island. Amazingly, we're told they are neither native birds nor descendants of the wildfowl first brought to Hawaii by sea-faring Polynesians 1,600 years ago but rather children of domestic chickens released from captivity when Hurricane Iniki ripped open their coops in September, 1992. (Our kayaking tour guide Bryson said he calls Iniki "Hurricane Freedom.") The other common bit of lore we heard is that Kauai chickens can't tell time--which is why the roosters crow not just at dawn but all day long.

For me and Mary-Jo, "Tiny Bubbles" and the roaring of the surf will always have to compete with Cock-a-doodle-do as the music of Hawaii.

Much more to be said about Kauai, but I'm running out of steam (still a bit jet-lagged). Oh, and why didn't I write while we were there? Because Internet access in our hotel room would have cost $14.95 per day. Somebody send Sheraton the memo about how information--like bloggers--wants to be free.

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