Friday, October 30, 2009

Paul Mathers on Hallowe'en

I wondered if I would ever really need to have this conversation. It is, on my end, a bit like having to explain to someone why I don't watch television. I simply cannot work up any care over it, so why would I want to then burn precious minutes of my life explaining said apathy. So hopefully I'm only going to have to do this once. There is any number of things I would think more important to talk about, but every stinking year we hear this sort of drivel.
This is the "yes, I am a Christian and no, I have no problem whatsoever with Hallowe'en" post. And then we can get on with our lives.

Much like my wife has written elsewhere, I hear this discussion every year and I am so sick and embarrassed of it. There are Christians (or at least church-attenders) who get very heated over this topic. More heated than they ever get over, say, doctrine or the Gospel. It strikes me that it isn't so much about the holiday as it's about feeling really good about getting really mean and self-righteously indignant on a subject. Really? We really need to talk about this? Because I'm still not sure we really even need to be talking about this. I shudder to think I'm actually about to address a topic generally only discussed by the sort who start conversations with "did you see that commercial where..."


Hallowe'en is everywhere in this country. Sales in decorations have surpassed those of Christmas decorations. It's a billion dollar a year industry in years when the global economy hasn't collapsed. Its history is long, verbose, not terribly exciting, meandering and long. It comes to us from a long history of time, different cultures, superstitions, wives' tales, genuine holy days, but mainly and above all from loads of advertising from Victorian times through today. It's a walking shadow, a poor player. It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing .

So often I hear Christians say "look at the history" and I do! I have! I know the history of the holiday pretty darn well. And what do I find? Muddled nonsense scraped together to reveal that the dad-blamed thing didn't really exist in any tangible way over 200 years ago. I find a folk tale here, a superstition there, and then a card company and candy company joining forces back before the American Dream was murdered. At this point let me point out that I am not talking about Samhain here. That is a holiday for some who I'm sure would agree with me at least on the point that what they are celebrating is not the same Hallowe'en that I am talking about here. I am talking about the thing you see when you walk into a drug store between now and Sunday morning. I am talking about an American tradition which has very little inherent meaning. Which means that, yes, one puts one's own meaning into Hallowe'en - just as we put our own meaning in December 25th when we borrowed the date from pagans to ease the transition into Christianity even though it's a 1 in 365 chance that Jesus was actually born on that particular day. These holidays did not exist without humans. We do make our own reality in this case. It's something we made up. Much like the likewise embarrassing "should we let our children read Harry Potter" discussion in Christian circles 1) it has jelly beans in it. If your faith is being shaken by it, you may want to look into the seriousness of your faith if your faith in a sovereign God and Christ's atonement for your sin can be shaken by something involving jelly beans and 2) it's really not all that good. If your faith is being shaken by a formulaic children's book series or a day to wear cheap plastic masks, you may want to look into how earnestly you delight in the things of the Lord.

I hear Christians say "you just say that to make excuses to do whatever you want." On this weekend I have carved a pumpkin and shall pass out candy to any child that comes to my door. And that is it. It's hardly a hill I would die on. Aside from the baked pumpkin seeds I doubt I would even miss it all that much were it no longer celebrated.

If Laurie and I had our hypothetical child, we would dress the child as an historical figure or literary figure and spend time learning about that particular figure (on Hallowe'en. And actually, upon reflection, probably throughout the year as well.) Then we would probably take the child in that costume out to a better neighborhood and let the residents shower candy upon our child. And then I would spend a week or two with the harsh temptation of eating my child's candy.

And, I know I'm lifting this aspect of my argument wholesale from Tim Challies, but what kind of a witness is it to be super-uptight about this? Who are you really going to have a productive ministry with if you're freaking out about these things? People have a lot more important things going on spiritually than Hallowe'en. Address those and don't blow your witness on the Vegas-era Elvis of holidays.

Now, what I do tend to wish to celebrate on the 31st and what I certainly celebrate in earnest on the Sunday nearest to it is Reformation Day. As you well know, I am a Reformed Baptist and as you also well know October 31st is the date in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel, citing the abuses of power and doctrinal errors of the Roman church, thereby inciting (unawares at the time) The Reformation. I could make a pompous statement about a meaningless holiday of wearing masks versus a holiday celebrating the ripping off of masks to reveal corrupt institutions. In fact, in days gone by I probably would have made some pompous statement like that. Now I take the time to remember where Protestantism came from, compared to where it is, and especially to reflect on Luther's Solas which are:
-Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone)
-Sola fide (by faith alone)
-Sola gratia (by grace alone)
-Solus Christus (through Christ alone)
-Soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone)
It was a significant day in Wittenberg because everyone was gathering for miles around in preparation for All Saints Day, the day when one honors the cloud of witness in the faith who have gone on before us (as you can see, a celebration of the dead is a bit of a perversion on this theme.) It was a Hallowed Eve that Luther chose to nail his 95 Theses to the door of the church. All Hallow's Eve was a high holy day in the Roman church at that time and earnest believers would have used it as a time of worship. I, for my part, look to the great cloud of witness who have run the race before me on this glorious weekend. Reformation Day is a holiday about truth whatever the cost and it is a holiday about glorifying God.

But that's just what I do.

I find I can work up a bit of railing on an aspect of Hallowe'en if I am called upon to do so. It's to the effect of something I think I've heard Laurie already say in a few conversations. Words to the effect of "no, we're not doing anything for Hallowe'en. We're grown ups."
Hey, look, no one who knows me is going to accuse me of being anti-fun. That's a large part of why I carved a Jack-o'-lantern. I don't even in concept have an ideological problem with adults who want to put on costumes. I will not, no matter how often I threaten to, dress as Martin Luther one of these years. It's a matter of taste (in snarky moments I might say that it's a matter of having some.) I don't even in concept have a problem with decorating one's yard for the little Trick Or Treaters (although I do take some issue with the "making light of death" themed decorations. First, as my wife also said elsewhere "It is the great enemy of man." Second, there's something kind of pathetic to me when people presume they can laugh in the face of death. They can't. Given enough time, death laughs last.)
Mainly it's that we live in a town whose population largely comprises college students but also with a thriving section of those who have chosen "substance abuser" as a career path. Tomorrow night I have every desire and intention of being in my home by nightfall. The whole culture of "cheap excuse to try once again to drink away the constant, maddening existential hum" and "dressing as a sexy something, doesn't really matter what" strikes me as kind of desperate, hollow and pathetic. I have no problem passing a sweeping judgment over that particular side of the holiday although I would also point out that the problem here has nothing whatsoever to do with Hallowe'en.

In short, I have no problem with Hallowe'en. As far as I can tell, it's a cultural, very American holiday (I know it's in Britain and Germany as well, but it's a very different beastie over there than it is over here. See below) that one cannot avoid without putting one's head in the sand. As usual, this does not mean it's good to blindly follow, but it also isn't necessarily evil in and of its self any more than, to risk wearing out an analogy, Twitter is vapid. The bulk of tweeters may be vapid, but it can also be a valuable tool and it is not the medium that produces the content. Yes, people may wear costumes of highly fictionalized versions of dark entities, but if a comical witch or devil is shaking you to your theological core, you may have a larger problem than Hallowe'en. You may want to turn to the Gospel instead of to the pointing, condemning finger and the fear. People love themselves some fear. In my experience, nothing makes people more angry than telling them that they don't need their precious fear.

I also have no great love for Hallowe'en. If it stopped happening this year I wouldn't miss it. As it stands it is a day when I will carve another pumpkin (or, rather, I am informed that I will scoop the innards out of Laurie's pumpkin so that she can carve hers without doing the grunt work); I will pass out cheap Trader Joe's chocolate bars. Going anywhere after 3pm will be a king sized pain; and I will go to bed early and enjoy an extra hour's sleep before church on Sunday.

And in conclusion and a weak attempt to diffuse the rising bile in the more legalistic readers of this blog (if any), here's British comics Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie telling the BBC audience how to properly treat Trick or Treaters.

Autumnal Update of the Paul Branch of Clan Mathers

"Oh!—fruit loved of boyhood!—the old days recalling,

When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!"


Well, the flash doesn't quite capture it, but there's the Guy Fawkes Jack-o'-Lantern. I sculpted it last night, blasting Camille Saint-Saens, and baked and then over-salted pumpkin seeds. Also, it would appear from this picture that I've been over-watering the toy pomegranate bush. Duly noted. In the end, I am both proud of my jack-o'-lantern and bracing for mentions of Col. Sanders.

My parents are coming up for a week. They should be here in a few hours. I think my Dad is going bear hunting and my mother will have a lot of time to spend with the family. Tony, my step-son, is coming up with them and it is our understanding that it is his intention to stay.

In other news, our church is moving. We found a space that is both better for our purposes and significantly cheaper. Just in time for Reformation Sunday, we'll now be meeting at the Seventh Day Adventist chapel (they're renting to us as, you know, they meet on Saturday and don't use it on Sunday.) Our Monday night men's study through the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith has quickly become one of my favorite parts of the week. Laurie's Jonathan Edwards study takes place across the street on Mondays. I'm in awe of the great work she's done on that study. It continues to be a seemingly endless conversation source in our house.

Also, Laurie and I are reconsidering home-ownership. Considering it enough for me to feel okay remarking on it on my blog. Options are being studied. Pros and cons listed. Much more on that soon I'm sure.

I am still unemployed, but we are still entirely above water, by the grace of God and the American Unemployment Insurance system which, like everything else, is in His Hand. I have at least two job plausibilities at present and they both would a) bring in adequate money and b) I think I would enjoy. I am endeavoring to avoid placing too many eggs in those mental baskets, but I hope at least one of them pans out (although I think I just mixed myself into a scrambled egg metaphor. What does this portend?) I also have a business venture I am actively putting into motion. Also more on that soon.

Other than that, I'm reading Alexander Woollcott and Evelyn Waugh. I've taken to having black tea in the afternoon and I've taken to milk and honey in my tea. I've also taken to afternoon walks up Park Avenue by our house toward Midway on the surprisingly under-used bike path through one of the most heavily industrial districts of Chico. Singulair seems to have my asthma entirely under control, almost undetectable in my day to day life.

Our cat Agnes has filled out and is looking much better than she's probably ever looked in her life. Her coat is thicker and her eyes brighter. She still has some sort of kitty asthma and, of course, her ears will always be mangled from the fights in her outdoor past. But she seems very happy with her life now. The other cats still haven't taken to her, but Ginger and her are fast friends. Ginger defends her and they take naps curled up together on the couch. Agnes is very sweet, but seems to take deep offense if one closes the blinds at night. She'll sit next to the offending window and beat at the blinds with her paw until one of us (usually Laurie) gets up and opens them. Afterward, her signature wheeze sounds suspiciously more like a chuckle.

So, all things considered, life is fair to middlin' for us right now. Laurie and I remain very happy. The near future is a bit uncertain for us, sure, but I would add that yours is too whether you know it or not. Ta!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thursday News In Review

State of the Union News:

It's been a busy week for America. Senator Harry Reid stood in front of a microphone a few days ago and shocked the nation when he said that the health care reform bill would include a public option after all. I don't know about you, but I thought the hope for a public option was long dead. So we were pretty jazzed and amazed by the news in our house. Since then we've heard weird rumblings about states being able to opt out of the public option, the public option operating much like an HMO and so forth. But we're ignoring those for now and trying very hard to live optimistically, especially since, as I've said before, the health care reform when it finally rolls off the factory floor will most likely look nothing like anything being bandied about right now.
Meanwhile in North Carolina, there's been a bit of an uproar over a grossly misguided move on the part of Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Right on the heels of the news of customer's rates being raised 11 percent next year, customers received a slick, glossy, expensive looking note from Blue Cross telling them to oppose the public option and mail the enclosed, postage paid letter to their senator. Paid for by, you guessed it, the rates that they just raised. So they raised their customers rates to campaign against the public option and had the unmitigated gall to beg the same customers to oppose the public option. It is backfiring tremendously.
Also in America this week, news came out today that the Recession is over as there has been a slight fluttering rise in the GDP. As one wag on Twitter (@badbanana) noted earlier, the 15 million unemployed probably have the time to set up balloons and streamers to celebrate.

Cutesy, old timey videos aside, this is a small bit of good news. Economists still expect unemployment to hit 10 percent. President Obama told business leaders today, “The benchmark I use to measure the strength of our economy is not just whether our GDP is growing, but whether we’re creating jobs, whether families are having an easier time paying their bills, whether our businesses are hiring and doing well.”
Which I suppose indicates that the economy is a sparrow being sucked into a jet engine.
I'm reminded of when I was working and in the mornings I would hear the news about the housing bubble bursting and the great wave of recession washing over American industry. I heard all of the possibilities explained and I remember thinking very often "I wonder when this is really going to effect me personally." The answer was about 6 months. Which makes me really want to move on to much happier news.

Space News:

NASA launched a new kind of shuttley rockety sort of space explorey thing today. It looks kind of like a Q-Tip with a needle sticking out the top of it. But as opposed to a Q-Tip with a needle sticking out of the top of it, turns out this is a very good thing. The Ares I-X is being tested as a viable replacement to the aged space shuttle design. This should serve to push space exploration (and space exploration safety) forward.

Now Who's The Dummy? News:

Disney announced this week that they will give refunds for the Baby Einstein series of videos (which include Baby Mozart, Baby Galileo and, my personal favorite, Baby Artaud.) This is an admission that the videos do not make babies smarter nor serve to educate them in any measurable way. In 2006, the people of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over claims that such videos were being marketed as "educational." As a result, the word "educational" was removed future advertising. Claiming that was not enough, the groups lawyers threatened a class action lawsuit. Disney will be offering full price refunds through March 10th on the products which do not make children smarter.

Classical Music News:

Michelle Obama will bring a classical concert to the East Room of the White House next week. superstar violinist Joshua Bell (who just returned from Warsaw after playing a benefit for a Polish Jewish Heritage Museum), guitarist Sharon Isbin, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Awadagin Pratt will play. The event is meant to highlight the importance of arts education and apparently to make me into a huge fan of Michelle Obama. In conjunction with the concert, over 120 music workshops will be sponsored by the White House at sundry junior high and high schools throughout the country.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dear Local Classical Music DJ John,

Readers of my Twitter know I occasionally throw a slightly jesting snarky comment toward our local classical music DJ. I thought I might take a few moments to explain myself, especially as I find myself washing dishes with the local classical music station playing in the background.
When I lived in Orange County, there was a jewel of a classical music station called KUSC. Through my years of experience and travel I think I can say without fear of contradiction that it is one of the finest classical music stations extant. If you are living in Orange County and not indulging in the vast riches of that station, truly you are letting a rare treasure go to waste. I would give special attention to Jim Svejda who is a walking, talking, broadcasting Music Appreciation Course of the highest caliber. So, please bear in mind that I come to this conversation very much spoiled.

I was a little surprised to recently discover that we have a few classical music DJs in town. I'd thought there was one. That's because they are both women (I think there are two) and both speak with the same tone and cadence, somewhere perched between a lullaby and hypnosis, each indiscernible in voice from the other, at least to the casual listener. I never felt any reason to pay that much attention until the recent pledge drive when local public radio personalities seem to feel a disproportionate need to identify themselves. Which is clue #1 to the type of classical music DJ I would seek (or, perhaps more to the point, be) would be somewhere between the mad emotional intensity of Klaus Kinski and the clipped, overly educated voice of John Hodgman or Ira Glass. This is symptomatic of a key difference in taste and philosophy between my local classical DJ and I. I think classical music is one of the most exciting things in the world. They seem to think it is mood music.
One of the DJs is fond of music that tells a story or, rather, is intended to tell a story. Think Carl Stalling, John Williams, Aaron Copland. The sort of thing that sounds like the score for a film.

"Oh, there's funny Billy Crystal in chaps trying to rope the cow. And there he goes with the lasso and, whoops, haha, he missed. And the cow is looking at him disapprovingly. And that sound means he's now climbing over the fence. And now he's thinking about doing it right this time for his son who looks up to him so now he's going back determined!"
That sort of music.

As a Wagnerite there ought to be a level where I can appreciate this in concept, but the Brahms in me rages against anyone who would ever play John Williams when they have the opportunity to play J.S. Bach. I understand that in our modern times a love of film score can lead to nascent higher aspirations in one's musical taste (and clearly it can also lead to some of the most pretentious and snobby statements in recorded history! Sometimes I even surprise myself, folks!) I myself confess to a rather embarrassing, in retrospect, over-excitement over the music of Philip Glass in my 20s (which is a bit like story music for a twenty second scene that is looped over and over. The old joke is "Philip Glass walks into a bar. Philip Glass walks into a bar. Philip Glass walks into a bar. Philip Glass walks into a bar...")
Surely music can tell a story, but that's not all it can do. It can also express things only expressible in that medium. To restrict one's self to "story music" is a bit like restricting one's self to a diet of chicken ONLY.

The other local DJ I know of is a bit difficult as well because it's one of those instances (and I will try to put this as delicately as I can) where one observes a professional whom you can easily tell with no little frustration (especially if you're unwillingly unemployed at the moment) that you are more knowledgeable than them in what they are being paid to do. This DJ leads to the bulk of my comments such as "That piece was not made famous by Looney Tunes!" or "Recordings of the music of Leopold Mozart exist mainly to illustrate why there are not more recordings of the music of Leopold Mozart!" or "You're playing Beethoven's Fifth again?"
I am ferociously passionate about classical music. I do not go a day without classical music. I think classical music can change lives and make people better humans to think more complexly, to feel more deeply, to observe more closely. I think classical music is one of the greatest things humans have come up with.
However, I try really hard not to talk too much about the local classical DJs anymore. First of all, I understand that my critiques are often born from envy of their position and that is a very ugly side of me that I do not wish to encourage. Second, I would be mortified if I learned that the local classical DJs read my critiques as they tend, as I said, to be a bit on the snarky side. So, in the interest of self-awareness and self-improvement, I am here today to bury my practice of short sharp comments about my local classical music DJs on Twitter. I don't want to be that guy. I would rather be marked as one who builds up rather than one who tears down and, following my own logic, time wasted on critiquing my local classical DJs is time I might have better spent on self-improvement.

So I am not going to critique my local classical music DJs anymore because I am going to die one day.

Except that I just spent about five paragraphs doing just that. But this is the last time. If you catch me doing it again, I owe you a lunch.

Anyway, in this glorious modern age of ceaseless wonder, I can turn off NPR after Talk of the Nation and fire up podcasts or live streams from one of the rare things I miss about Orange County.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Books That Changed My Life

C.S. Lewis is one of those authors that Christians like to cling to with all tenacity and ferocity (as well they probably should. Heaven knows there's a great mass of awful Christian writing out there. Although any opponents who might wish to gloat on that point, I would hastily point out the even greater mass of awful non-Christian writers currently in print.) We know that he was a great author, a great intellectual, and a great historian by any standard. However, often for me he brings to mind the old Mark Twain observation that a "Classic" is a book which people praise and don't read. Sure, everyone reads the Narnia books and some read The Screwtape Letters, both of which are awesome in their own right. But who reads, say, The Great Divorce aside from theology nerds like Laurie and I.

And speaking of that, one of the beautiful things I find about Lewis is that he is very much a unifying force (and we can use all of those we can get in the church.) I've heard the half dozen people I've met who've read The Great Divorce from various theological standpoints themselves all come away with kind of a "hm. As a thought experiment, kind of cool. As theology, pretty weird." Lewis did have some pretty quirky theology, but in my experience none but those on the more divisive end actually ever attack Lewis. There's that famous story of a baffled Bob Jones who, upon having met C.S. Lewis, was asked what he thought and replied with much confusion “That man smokes a pipe, and that man drinks liquor—but I do believe he is a Christian.”

I had a very difficult time with Mere Christianity about a year ago specifically his suppositions about free will (which would be laughed right out of any biology, physics or philosophy department building of a modern university. He's very much into free will through the eyes of thinkers of 70 years past), but I still think Lewis was a great Christian author. And let me tell you why.

Till We Have Faces is, in my opinion, if not his finest work very nearly so. It is by far my favorite work of his. Till We Have Faces is a retelling of a Greek myth but it is so much more than that. The first half of the book reads like a historically type novel. I was able to find myself totally bathed in the story by Part 2, I've talked to others who found it a bit on the yawny side until Part 2 which I don't get, but fair enough.

The second part completely destroyed me.

Lewis expresses the greatness of God in such a staggering way. It captures the reaction of Isaiah, or pretty much anyone who experiences a theophany, when they feel they are undone, when they realize and experience. I won't give away much because one really needs to read this book. Everyone should read this book.
This is where Lewis shines. When it comes to specific doctrines, Lewis and I have differences. Clearly I have no problem with the smoking and liquor thing. I personally feel that Lewis and scripture have some differences of universe views. But I wholeheartedly, without a moment's hesitation affirm once again that Lewis was a wonderful Christian and a jewel of a man. And while his intellect in, say, The Screwtape Letters is an absolute delight to read, I think the intellect really only serves as a support for Lewis' true gift which was expressing God's greatness, holiness and love in tangible, visceral terms that reach out of the pages and grab the reader by the lapel.

If you have not read this book, read it. I've had different eyes ever since I first read this book. It's that good.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

National Pit Bull Awareness Day

To the left is our dog Ginger with the kittens. Ginger was a wonderful mother to the cats. She was so gentle with them (and protective. She keeps Schubert away from any of the new cats. Which is probably a good thing!) Ginger is a pit bull and Ginger would lick the kittens and put their heads in her mouth without hurting them at all. She would curl up and sleep with them and play with them. I've never known a dog as gentle as Ginger.

Today we went to "Pit Bull Awareness Day" at the Butte Humane Society. I know this is one of those sort of "oh, well, good for you. Sounds like that was fun. Wish you would have told us about it beforehand and maybe some of us could have gone" sort of thing. Well observed, but first of all any opportunity to give press to the Butte Humane Society is a fine opportunity to seize in my opinion. They are a low kill shelter (which means they don't euthanize unless there are extreme health or behavioral problems. If you take an animal there, they will pretty much stay there until they find a good home.) They do cheap adoptions, fixings and they outsource affordable shots. Both of our dogs come from there. If I suddenly inherited millions I would dump a bunch of it on the Humane Society.

So, on top of this they do this Pit Bull awareness day. First of all, they have kind of a pet supply yard sale and we were able to get a covered cat box for six bucks. Then they have a pit bull puppy petting tent, a big information table, discounted adoptions, and a kissing booth with a very handsome pit bull there.

We don't have a television and we listen to NPR so we haven't been carefully taught the disinformation that flows freely out there about pit bulls. The television lies and sensationalizes for a living. It keeps people watching, keeps the bills paid. Of course, it's not good in any way. But it's easy. Fear is an easy response button to keep pushing. Some people make a living finding things to fear monger about every day. No matter who they destroy in the process.

Pit bulls are not naturally aggressive, they don't just one day turn on their owners, they aren't wicked and mean. In fact with responsible owners they are a very sweet and loving breed. They are very conscientious and they want their owner to be pleased with them. They are extremely loyal. They are highly trainable as well. They are very alert. These personality traits mixed with their strong jaws is part of why people who train them to fight are so evil. Such a betrayal and such a lack of any basic decency. They are no more aggressive than beagles or golden retrievers. I remember when I was younger, dobermans had the rap that pit bulls seem to have. Rottweilers had the same reputation for a while. This should send off a few red flags that you may be being fed a line of... bull.
Totally no pun intended there. I came to the end of the sentence and there it was.

Pit Bulls used to be the "All American Breed of Dog" around the first world war. You'll remember the one from the Little Rascals. Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt each had one as did Fred Astaire, Fatty Arbuckle, and Sir Walter Scott. They were the most decorated hero dog in WWI.

Ira Glass has one. Need I say more.

Having Ginger, my whole family are staunch pit bull supporters. I should probably warn you, we tend to get a little agitated when people spread the mis-informed fearspeak about pit bulls. Especially Gina.

People love themselves some fear though. In my experience, people grab into whatever fear possibility is fed them and lock their jaws onto it.

Pit bulls do not have locking jaws by the way. They have the same anatomy as other dogs. I only have to say "no" once to Ginger and she lets go of her chew toy when we are playing catch. She is trained and she is loved.

The truth is they are wonderful dogs and people are the monsters.

I would recommend getting a pit bull to anyone. Not only is Ginger the best dog I've ever owned (out of 2) she's the best dog I've ever met. This is a rare instance where I am not exaggerating. I think anyone who has been in our house ends up WAY more worried about Schubert than Ginger.

I'm sure with the cultural climate as it is there are violence pervs who may not admit it, but who on some level actually want to see a baby attacked by a vicious pit bull if for no other reason than to prove their fears right. Doubtless some knucklehead out there is going to feel the need to say "You know whut, you don't know nothin'. 'Cause I saw dis story on Inside Edition where they said pit bulls are bad!" To those, here you go. Here's a video:

To the left is a picture of Gina with a pit bull puppy.
Here's a good website with some more information.
If you're looking for a dog, think about a pit bull. They are wonderful dogs and they live in a time and place where they could use a lot more good homes, good owners, and rescuing.

Much like the grossly irresponsible anti-vaccine hysteria, part of the reason this is an important issue to me is that it is one of the issues where the culture of fear can actually kill. Much like refusing 'flu shots put severe asthmatics like me at risk in the world, the "monster breed" myth puts the lives of some very lovely dogs at risk for euthanization and for terrible people to continue the inhuman culture of dog fighting.

Wow, I meant to write an entry on our day at the humane society. I guess I had some things I wanted to get off my chest.

Book Review: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Chico is not a po-dunk little town. It's somewhere between a very large town and a very small city. Without the college we would be a lot more po-dunky. Thanks to the college, we get good shows coming through. We have a thriving arts and culture community. Our library is the most decent one between Sacramento and Redding. We have one decent NPR station, with the slight exception of extremely novice classical music DJs in the afternoon. We also have a hippie public radio station. We have an organic food co-op, pretty much any major store you'd like, a couple of book stores, and coffee places abound. Most people agree that if you are around here and don't want to live here, you at least want to live in short driving distance.

I was surprised at how much I identified with Hardy's description of Casterbridge in the mid-19th century. Although far less of an arts community, Casterbridge in the book seemed to me to be comparable with Chico in size, in surrounding communities and so forth. And having worked for a produce distribution company, I think I had a stronger grasp on some of the agricultural trade talk in the book, at least to the extent that I didn't feel the need to skip over anything. Many of the types of people in the book put me very much in mind of many of the types I see around Chico (especially living on this side of town. The drugs may change, but desperate people are a set human type that doesn't seem to change much over time.) But the more striking parallel I found was that in 1987 much, I am told, to the great chagrin of the serious students and the people who have to live in Chico, Playboy Magazine voted Chico the #1 party school in America. I am told that it was like cancer to a Christian Scientist. It was named and it was caught. Whether Chico State was a party school before that or not, it was carved in stone ever after. Thus spake Hef.

In recent years there has been a push to exorcise the image by the school (and a push to exercise the image by the students.) It hasn't worked. Almost every story you read about trying to polish the image of Chico State is followed within a few days by stories of kids burning couches in the street and throwing bottles at cops. I bring this up because in that regard Chico State is a bit like the main character in the book, in that he may have moments of repentance, but they are short lived. He is of a certain character and barring any true repentance, he will return to his behavior again and again. I don't think Hardy was making the argument that people cannot change. I think it was more of a cautionary tale directed especially to the type who have problems follow them throughout their life, but never grasp the one uniting factor to all of their problems (which is to say "them.")

The book begins with a man, wife, and child entering a tent at a fair in the countryside. The man gets rip-roaring drunk and vocal about how burdensome he finds his wife. He begins trying to auction her and the child off, and to everyone's shock someone takes him up on it. Twenty years later, the wife returns with a grown daughter and the man who sold his wife has risen in the world to become Mayor of Casterbridge. The story begins there and goes through many routes, plots and bi-ways. It is heartbreaking and it is beautiful. The story takes us through consequences of bad actions and people of poor character.

I had wondered why no one reads Thomas Hardy anymore. That's an overstatement. I'm sure there are thousands walking the Earth who have read Thomas Hardy and enjoyed his work. He really is a wonderful author. His descriptions are rich, his study of humanity is keen, and his plot twists, at least in my case, are totally unexpected and surprising. Laurie can confirm that I audibly gasped a few times while reading the book (although she probably thought it had to do with my ear problem.) However this is not a good era for morality tales. They are not terribly popular. People find relativism allows them to write off doing whatever they please, consequences be damned, and they are content to live blissfully and willfully ignorant of the concept of character. You probably anticipate my next statement, that this is precisely why authors like Hardy need to come into vogue.

I don't usually feel an urgency to write a review of 100+ year old classics. As Woollcott said when asked to endorse Thornton Wilder's Our Town, "It doesn't need it! You may as well ask me to endorse the 23rd Psalm!" But in this case I thought I'd post a little note saying, "Hey, this book is really awesome. Thomas Hardy is a remarkable author. If you have not yet, you really should check his work out."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Thursday News in Review

Violin News:

I thought this was a heartbreaking story, but also twinged with hope and sweetness. Violinist Aaron Rosand sold his Guarneri violin for a staggering $10 million this past week. It is the most a violin has sold for in recorded history. Rosand sold the violin because he is quite old and says that he is past his professional playing years. He wanted to make sure that the violin would be used by those who would cherish it. He also give $1.5 million to the Curtis Institute of Music. He left the London hotel room where the exchange took place in tears stating that it felt like he left part of his body behind.

Intergalactic News:

European Astronomers have discovered 32 new planets outside of our solar system. This increases the number of extra-solar system planets to 400 known and way ups the odds of there being other planets which could support life. They're saying that around 40% of sun systems have Earth sized planets.
I'm not saying there might be aliens. But the good news is I am saying that we might be able to find a new planet before we completely destroy this one. So there's kind of good and bad news on several levels.

Physics News:

Stephen Hawking's successor for Cambridge's Lucasian Professor of Mathematics position has been named. It's none other than Michael Green who you, of course, know is one of the great minds in modern string theory and the co-discoverer of the Green-Schwarz Mechanism.

Well, that's all I have this week folks. Yeah, that's all I got this week. I probably wouldn't have even bothered had it not been for that violin story. It's been a short two weeks for my News in Review mainly because I have no intention of writing about Balloon Boy and because I vowed not to write huge screeds about health care reform. Next week I'm sure we'll be back to somewhat normal. Until then, here's an article on how to extract DNA from a pumpkin.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Offense Through The Mailslot

I had a completely different topic to cover in today's blog post, but something came through our mail slot this morning that I thought might be worthwhile to reflect upon for a few moments. The item is a holiday season (although we might, I say "might" be safe to say Christmas in this instance) catalog from a popular Christian bookstore. It is tangible evidence I can point to for two statements my wife has heard me make countless times. "So often I feel like an alien in my own religion" and "If I did not believe the Gospel to be entirely true there would be nothing about Christianity that would make me a Christian."

I've heard many before me speak on the topic of "Jesus Junk," which is to say anything from pencils to paddle ball sets, to key chains, to breath mints "sanctified" by a little scripture inscription or at the very least a symbol, or that one painting of blond haired, blue eyed Jesus. Tom Waits even did a song about the phenomenon. So I know I'm not alone in these observations. So for some reason, probably born from the echos of Sacher-Masoch in my subconscious, I thought I might give a walking tour of this catalog. Clearly I am in the role of Virgil, not of Beatrice.

First, right on the front cover is the new Christmas themed video in the Veggietales series which I believe are about old enough to drink now. I'm hard pressed to think of another child focused cartoon to survive longer than one generation. I don't have much of a value judgment to make on the Veggietales series, although the bright shiny colors, the happy image, the tried and true marketability, and the total absence of anything apparent that would point an alien to the Gospel message sets the tone for what's within.

Within are greeting cards, pastoral and sedate art prints, a plush mountain goat or something like that holding a package that reads "Jesus is the gift." The sort of thing I remember from being an atheist as the sort of thing you go and buy for someone who you know is religious, because it's got Jesus written on it and because what the heck else do you know from what to get them. There are hoodies, a plate set, dozens of advent scenes, baseball caps, uh, let's see, there's a little Precious Moments figurine reaching for a snowflake to symbolize, uh, how we're all like God's little snowflakes or something. A clock! That's good and useful, right? I bet I could knock you over with a feather from surprise when I tell you it's a Kinkade scene on the clock face and that it plays an inspirational song on the hour and that it is 50% off. Necklaces. Oh, okay, 22 pages in we hit the first Bible. It is the Veggietales Bible. It is an NIV. It is also on sale. I think the one that scares me the most though is the American Patriot's Bible. It's a New King James Version, of course, and has a picture of a Puritan and one of Washington praying by his horse on the cover. It is also on sale.

There's the Fireproof movie page where you get a free "Covenant Marriage Certificate" with your purchase, suitable for framing, which you and your wife sign and then I guess you're even more committed than you were when you had a danged marriage ceremony before God, state and your core peer group. You got your Rick Warren, your Donald Miller, that dude that went to Heaven for an hour and did so well with his book that some other guy went to Hell for 23 minutes on Don Piper's coattails.

Then I got to the page that has two books which had me sputtering around the front room for a few minutes. They are books addressed to Christians who are entrenched in the Twilight series of books. No, I'm not kidding. There are, in fact, Twilight replacement books for Christians (I think the genre is Xian ParaRom which, translated, is Christian Paranormal Romance books) which are a bit like methadone for the heroin addict I suppose. This, rather, is... well, let's let the product description speak for its self:

"What can vampires teach us about God's plan for love? Two new books help you investigate the themes of the Twilight saga from a biblical perspective. Touched by a Vampire presents parents, teachers and others with a thoughtful, but cautionary overview of how the series' storylines portray love, sex and purpose. While Escaping the Vampire draws on themes that appeal to teen girls- romance, superhuman powers and adventure- to help them move beyond fantasy to discover the true Lover of their soul."
Oh, dear reader, I wish I were being satirical. It really really says that.

Are we really having this conversation? Is this really so big an issue that it warranted two books? We are talking about God's divine and sovereign plan throughout eternity, all of history and space unfolding to the great work of redemption and His perfect holiness, His glory, His infinite love! We're talking about the meaning of the existence of everything, the drama of cause and effect, sin and holiness! It's a catalog which claims its aim is toward people passionate about Christ, transformed into new creations, once dead in their sins and brought to life through the Holy Spirit's gift of faith in Jesus' perfect sacrifice and atonement for sins! And there's a page featuring books about pulpy pot-boiler checkout-counter books by a Mormon about teens who fall in love with glittery vampires?!!?

Oh, and two pages over is the steaming heap called The Shack. Near the end we have the "Guitar Praise" game which, you guessed it, is Guitar Hero with Praise Music. There's Ben Stein's movie being appropriated (or maybe quarantined might be more apropos) by the Christian catalog on grounds of some shared points of view. There are films with families standing on prairies. One with a talking dog. An auto-censoring DVD player so you can watch big Hollywood films instead of the crap in the catalog without the bits the DVD player thinks you might disapprove of.

We end in the music section. There's an album with a cover that shows that the band has seen, liked, and stolen the art style of artist Dave McKean (who is probably old enough to be the grandfather of the members of the band. Christianity does that. The cutting edge of Christianity tends to reflect the slightly edgy mainstream of a generation ago.) There's an album cover with a pug dog in comedic glasses. Most of the other album covers are great big pictures of the band. And the catalog ends with coupons.

I posted recently on righteous indignation to be used sparingly and in the appropriate context. I also talked about focusing on the good and avoiding giving too much press to the horrible. I find it appropriate for me to break both of those with this catalog. It's spitting in the face of all I hold most valuable. It is a book of vultures picking clean the corpses of the spiritually dead while giving the illusion of life. The catalog stinks of Hell. It reeks of the nominally Christian, the false conversion, the cultural Christian. I find myself at a loss to express how repugnant I find it, so I wrap my comments in sarcasm. Make no mistake, behind it is deep offense.

People die for the Gospel. The Cross is everything. As C.S. Lewis said,
"Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."
Needless to say, I'm trying to fit Lewis' quote into the box of Christian merchandising trifles. I would say the same goes for Guitar Praise. Also, there are people, many throughout the world, many even in America now, who are in dire need at the end of this year. And you're really hocking a system so people can watch National Treasure on their flat screens with the innuendos bleeped out?

Folks, we are all sinners. That is the natural condition of man to be separate from God in our sin. God, in His perfect grace and love, provided a Savior to atone for His lost sheep, to die in His perfection on the cross under God's wrath for all of our sin, to rise again victorious over death itself, to restore our relationship to Him and all those who have faith in Him.

This Christmas, give to those who are in need. There are a lot of them right now. Spend time with your loved ones. You only get so long with them in your life and you don't know how long that will be. Keep Christ in your mind. And if you're going to give gifts, like what you like. God made you the way you are for a reason. Don't let these hucksters try to pawn a bunch of cheap crap off on you because you're a believer and you have to take it.

This isn't meant to say that Christian bookstores are all bad to their core. I've been to the one in town franchised from this catalog's company. They have two or three titles by the always awesome John Piper right next to the gargantuan display of Don Piper's "Whut I Seen In Heaven That Time My Heart Gave Out." They have the ESV Study Bible available (which is probably the best study Bible I've found to date) next to the American Patriot Bible. My point is the tone and bulk of the offerings are SO far off base. It's not even cotton candy instead of steak. It's more like a picture of bubblegum cigarettes instead of a few lung fulls of clean, pure, mountain air.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

My Aural Cavaties Are Not Operating At Their Zenith

On Tuesdays we read from the Bible to a group at a convalescent hospital. I first noticed it there. It felt like when you come up from being underwater and your ears still have water in them - that closed up with liquid feeling. I came home and went online to seek answers, which was probably mistake #1.

I looked up home remedies for swimmer's ear. One of the home remedy websites suggested peroxide. Another solution was dripping white distilled vinegar in your ear. You're probably way ahead of me at this crucial part of my narrative, but for some reason it seemed like a good idea at the time. I can tell you that vinegar in your ear burns and hurts like pouring demons in your ear. I can also tell you that in my case pouring vinegar in the ear either causes the ear canal to swell shut for four days or, at the very least, doesn't prevent that if it was right on the verge of happening anyway (as I've said to Laurie, I'm not that kind of doctor and not qualified to speculate on cause and effect here.) I also tried peroxide and rubbing alcohol to relearn the age old lesson "Don't put things in your ear."

The effect is that I've only had about 1/3rd of my normal hearing over the past four days. It finally opened this afternoon and, while it is sore and raw, seems to be returning to what I've grown to consider normal.

There's a metaphor from the situation which I'll probably sit on for years until I find an application or proper place to bring up the anecdote. The situation called for maybe one thing (peroxide would be my guess but you see how good my guesses have been so far) but for the most part the situation really called for doing nothing and letting the ear heal. Instead I went a little mad with trying everything my fevered little brain could come up with to try to expedite the healing process. And in the end I had to return to doing nothing and letting the ear heal on its own. Which it did, and fairly quickly I might add, as soon as I stopped meddling with it. There's a lesson there somewhere although one cannot apply it across the board. It won't work so well, for example, in my employment search.

There's the obvious lesson, which is that there is so much I take for granted. A huge portion of my life has been spent completely ungrateful for my ear canal not being swollen shut. I would imagine within a few days I will probably return to that almost constant state of ingratitude.

My friend Mindy and I used to have a game we would play. It takes at least two players. Each player gets a bottle of Merlot. The player drinks their bottle of Merlot and lists things they are grateful for as they come into their head. It's best played under the stars.

We will not redeem every moment of our time for edifying purposes. We can always strive to up our averages, but the simple fact is no one gives 100% at all times. And that's okay. One strives to do one's best and one grows ever sleeker, wiser, catlike and beautiful.

When I turned 30, little things started going wrong with my body for no good reason at all and they would just as spontaneously end or heal. I'm told that that sort of thing really starts rolling once you hit 40. We have no guarantees and so often we forget that. I have no guarantee that I will have hearing for the rest of my life or even that my life will extend through the night. At any given moment we can drum up things to complain about. Also at any given moment, we have an infinite resource of things to be grateful for. I recommend the latter.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thursday News In Review

We're going to keep it light and easy this week as something has gone horribly wrong with my left ear. The ear canal swelled shut last night. I almost didn't do one of these News in Review posts today because of it but there's only so much laying around and remarking that your ear hurts that you can do before you have to just get on with things. Especially when you're home alone anyway.

Crackpot End of the World News:

And what a week it's been in crackpot end of the world theories! This week, physicists Holger Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya published suggesting that the reason the Large Hadron Collider didn't work was that the Universe or God or the Higgs Boson particle travelling through time wouldn't let the device work. Because we can't be allowed to know something like that. Not even kidding. I guess we must be careful not to sail too far into the depths of knowledge or we might fall of the edge of the science.
In all fairness, I should probably add that the theory seems to have been roundly guffawed and scoffed at.
Also this week, the first device to create a black hole for light only was created at Purdue University. The device, a tabletop black hole, mimics black holes and may be able to harvest solar energy in a very new and different way. So far time travellers have not shown up to stop that device.

Recanting News:

The Vatican announced that they are about to hold an exhibition of artifacts from the life of Galileo in celebration of the 400th anniversary of some portion of Galileo's life or other. Of course you'll remember that the Catholic church branded Galileo as a heretic in his own lifetime for proving that the Earth travels around the sun, building upon the theories of Copernicus and ultimately proving it with his instruments. In further embarrassment, it took until 1992 for Pope J2P2 to proclaim that the church had been in error.

Classical Music News:

Gustavo Dudamel, the classical music rock star and partial reason why the west coast of America seems to rule classical music at the moment, is accepting the the City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protege Prize. This is big news for me who has Dudamel at the top of my "what famous living person would you like to meet" winning a prize named in honor of a man who is my first choice of "what historical figure would you most like to have dinner with if there were brought back from the dead in a new or repaired body." One must be specific in those hypotheticals.
Dudamel, you will remember, is the brand new music director of the LA Philharmonic and one of the great contemporary hopes for making classical music cool without whoring it.

Late Burial News:

Also this week in taking a long time to right historical wrongs, Edgar Allan Poe will be given a proper funeral this weekend. About 160 years ago the funeral of Poe lasted 3 minutes, no one showed up and the pastor didn't think it was worthwhile to even give a sermon. This weekend, Baltimore will host a ceremony with hundreds in attendance to honor the great American author.

Wow, sorry kids. That's really all I can work up this week. I'm going to go ice my ear and take some Tylenol.
Also this week in news I didn't get to, a kid wasn't found in a balloon, Rush Limbaugh didn't buy into the St. Louis Rams, Italy claims it didn't give money to the Taliban, and music group A-Ha are finally breaking up after 25 years. There you go. You can look them up for yourself. Next week we should return to our normal News in Review provided I'm no longer in crippling pain.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Books That Changed My Life

When I was in high school, I had a tremendous crush on a goth girl named Michelle. This was back in the days before Marilyn Manson when goths dressed like mourning Victorians and there were only like 2 of them at each school and we had to listen to third generation tapes of Alien Sex Fiend three miles in the snow and we liked it. They weren't the type to play Doom and go on a shooting rampage. They were the type to be all gloomy about the inevitability of death. They were the type to have copies of Lord Byron in their backpack and write poems with words like "ponder" and "ethereal." It was a different time.

Anyway, so I was into jazz, David Lynch films, the Beat Generation, you know, so we had some common ground. But as is common with that age group, I soon began affecting things here and there to try to impress her. Nothing ever came of it, but I would sort of try to seek out things to impress her with. At that point in my life, I had the habit of making places I was in very loud. I would have music and the television on at the same time. I remember one day specifically looking for some background noise and flipping through cable movie channels I came upon a movie that was just starting called "Monster in a Box." It sounded right up my alley.

The next hour and a half I sat transfixed watching Spalding Gray give a monologue about writing his book Impossible Vacation (the manuscript of which was the "monster.") Almost immediately I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to perform one man shows.

If you've never seen Spalding Gray, you should check his work out. Here's a clip of him giving a history of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia:

So, I ran out and bought Impossible Vacation and, ironically, took it with me on vacation to New Orleans. It is a wonderful books about a young man who can never take a vacation and, in fact, can't really enjoy anything because early in his young adult life he took a vacation and while he was away his mother killed herself. It is an intense and brilliant work. It changed the way I look at the world forever. I would recommend it to anyone. It's also, in spite of what that description may suggest, uproariously funny. It is an excellent book.

In fact, I did recommend it to my step-daughter's boyfriend Stefan. I even gave him a copy of it. He said he loved it. I was a little worried after I gave it to him because I remembered it does get a bit wild at parts, but then I remembered that those kids are into Brett Easton Ellis. They can certainly handle Spalding Gray.

In college I did do a one-man show and it was very well received. In fact, it's something I would still like to do but, as so many dreams, there's not much of a buck in it, is there?

I met Mr. Gray once. He was very nice, but very distracted. He signed my copy of this book and a few others.

Unfortunately he was also a very troubled man and a few years ago he killed himself.

The beauty of his work, in my mind, is the assumption intrinsic in the telling of his stories that story telling can and does change lives. It's a basic human need and our brains feed on it. If it weren't for Spalding Gray, I would be a very different person. I'm not even sure how much of a writer I would be without his work.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Autumn's First Rustlings

While we slept the clouds rolled in. The front page of the local paper tells us that we're in for a very wet few days. They're saying two inches of rain tomorrow. It hasn't started yet, but our blankets are out, I lit the pilot light for the wall heaters, and I'm having a piping cup of Earl Grey. Deo Volente, I am planning on having a cup of hot chocolate later and maybe sitting on the porch if the rain starts.

I love this time of year. I love it when the weather changes to the colder months. I love being in cardigans and corduroy again. I love reading my "winter authors" like Dickens and Woollcott. Also those who I would consider in my mind "winter musicians" like Handel and Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.

I think the response is born solely from the tactile. I think one of the nicest feelings in the world is cozy. With the possible exception of sunbathing, I find it very hard to achieve "cozy" in the hot months.

Also, although a good portion of my wardrobe is black and grey, I look best in Autumn colors.

There's also the family events. As most of you know, I won the lottery when it comes to families. They are my dear friends as well as my relatives. There are great feasts including that most glorious of holidays, Christmas. I used to hate Christmas and all of its seemingly trite and worn out imagery. Then I got saved. Now it and Easter are my two favorite holidays, as they are holidays with a holiness attached to them. They aren't just meaningless days off in a life of meaninglessness used as cheap excuses to get tanked up to try in vain to forget the apparent meaninglessness of it all. Instead they are new and glorious morns. A celebration in the bleak mid-winter of the advent of our Savior who while we were dead in our sins, died to atone for our trespasses and raise His elect to eternal life. I eagerly look forward to Christmas.

And I guess there's a bit of hope for the future in winter for me. It might seem against nature as the weather can be harsh, but the winter reminds me of God's provision for me and His trustworthiness.

And it's so nice to be able to sit in silence with my wife, each of us reading in the warm house.

It's been about 9 months since I was last in snow. I recently mailed off a short story to a magazine about one day last winter when I was delivering in the snow in the mountains around Downieville. It was a day where any reasonable person would have put on snow chains, at the very least at the one point I remember. I didn't, and I made it through by the grace of God. I just risked it and somehow succeeded, adding a least an hour to my day. The silly part was that I'd taken great pains in the weeks prior to have one of the other drivers teach me to put on snow chains (bear in mind I grew up in Orange County.) So, I knew how to do it. I just didn't.

What I didn't include in the story was that early in the morning at the beginning of that day before the sun was up when I was driving in the snow, at one point I pulled over, stopped, turned the engine off and just felt the silence all around me. The beauty of that moment is beyond description. I was completely alone in that moment and I will carry it with me all of my days.

I used to say (and still think) it's much easier to be an atheist in the city. I think that's true of the times when cotton is high as well as when the natural world is outside everyday observation.

I'm full of the realization that all things are passing away in the fall. The good things too, sure, but the troubles you're experiencing now are only for a time. They will pass as everything must. If you're still walking the Earth five years from now you won't have these problems. You'll have a whole different set of problems.

And in all of that passing away, I really get a handle on the value of life.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Books That Changed My Life

Last week on This American Life the theme was "Books That Changed My Life." I thought about this blog, specifically the feature I do where I post about weird books that I own although don't always particularly recommend, and I thought it might be fun to do a feature on books that changed my life. There are a lot of them.

The first major one was Harpo Marx's autobiography. As you can see, I've read my copy many times. It's called Harpo Speaks and it's by Harpo Marx and Roland Barber (which I think means that Harpo told stories into Barber's tape recorder and Barber went and wrote the stories down.)

I'm starting with this because it's the first book where I fell in love with books. I'd read books as a younger child, but I think up to that point I could have gone either way. It is clear to me that without this book I would be a vastly different person than I am. I shudder to think of what I might have been like.

I was in 6th grade and was out at the video store with my Dad. I don't know what I was looking at, probably something clearly annoying to a grown person, and my Dad suggested instead that I rent a classic comedy. I think he directed me to them, and I picked Duck Soup, the old Marx Brothers war film.

I went absolutely wild over the film and instantly became an obsessive fan of the Marx Brothers, as only a sixth grader can. I watched all of their films. One day very soon after, I think within a week, I was at Brentano's, the bookstore at South Coast Plaza, and I found this book. I got my Mom to buy it for me and devoured it.

The book is tremendously charming. It's clear why Harpo was so beloved, and it's kind of heartwarming to see someone go so far in life by being big-hearted, funny, and loving. He was close friends with most of the major names, at least in America, in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. He knew Dorothy Parker, George Kaufman, the Gershwins, Fontanne and Lunt, Oscar Levant, Jack Benny, George and Gracie, Salvador Dali, G.B. Shaw, the Roosevelts and Truman and so many more. It's full of Harpo's misadventures, some gossip, lots of wonderful stories and, perhaps most attractive to me, archaic trivia for me to research.

But the most striking part for young Paul Mathers was the description of Harpo's closest friend Alexander Woollcott, the great critic, author and radio personality. To young Paul Mathers, who was by nature very bookish, shy and twee, Woollcott became an instant hero. He was imposingly literary, at times particular, at times bombastic, at times with the heart of a whale, very well spoken, and in spite of all appearances a very tough individual who had overcome experiences that others may have found unendurable - things that gave the perspective that what others thought of him was of very little consequence to him, and the freedom to aspire that comes from a break from fear of one's peers. Not to gloat, but I'm not sure how many other people walking the Earth today had their character shaped as much by Alexander Woollcott as I. When Woollcott came into my awareness, the Marx Brothers, and most everything else for a few years, took a back seat. In junior high I started collecting the works of Alexander Woollcott (which were, and are, completely out of print) and I would sit and read them with a dictionary at hand. Laurie says his writing reminds her of me, so I suppose some of it stuck.

I think what I got from this book was a taste of the richness available in life, while immersed in a very base time and place in my life. I was in Westminster, CA; so I was surrounded with children having sex, doing drugs, and beating up one another to gain initiation into gangs. I, on the other hand, spent every spare moment (often even when the teachers were talking) reading musty old copies of Evelyn Waugh or Somerset Maugham I'd hidden in my backpack. I listened to big band and jazz.

In a very real way, this book saved my life.

I haven't read the book in about a decade (although, after writing this I'm sure I will by the end of this year) but I can guarantee that it's a rollicking fun ride of a book. It's delightful and splendid and so forth. With the benefit of hindsight, I'm not sure I would say this is one of the finest books ever written or even one of the finest biographies. I can't guarantee that it will change your life or, if I'd come across it for the first time now, it would have the same effect on me. But to me, in my circumstances, at that crucial time in my development, it was essential. This was one of the key books in my life. I don't think it would be dishonest of me to trace my love of books back to this one.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Little Saturday Night Recanting

There was a short story by Ray Bradbury about a man who was a disgusting media whore, and in an attempt to get into the newspapers he goes and assassinates the animatronic Lincoln at the Hall of Presidents in Disneyland. The reporter assigned to the story meets the man, decides (as we, the readers do as well) that the man is disgusting, and then sentences him to the harshest judgment he could dish out. He refuses to write a story about him.

In the 24 hours since my admittedly hasty post on President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize, I've heard a lot of the Republican screaming heads mocking the President's receiving of that award. And the catalyst to this post was one screamer in particular we just heard in a Youtube clip, who said something very close to something I said in my post. I was stunned. And I was ashamed.

I still agree with most of what I had to say. Did the President earn that award at that time for what they awarded it to him for? No, clearly not. The Nobel is for achievement, not for plans. BUT, a great honor was bestowed upon the leader of our nation and we probably should be rejoicing with those who rejoice. The leader of America received a great honor. We are Americans. This is a good thing for us and for our relationship with the world (although there's a part of me that thinks it's a bit like when the rich parents buy their daughter a new car and then tell her she needs to break up with her rotten boyfriend. There's a lot of expectation on Obama. I don't envy him his position and that's part of why I'm posting this. The man is in a very difficult position. It seems bad form to come off too harshly over possibly not yet deserved honors.)

As I said before, I like Obama quite a bit, but I'm not entirely sure he can do everything he claims he can. However, the opposition he's facing is overwhelming in every step he takes.
Our political dialogue in this country has taken a very dangerous turn. It is polarized. There are two parties (and several more if you're willing to go fringey). They are not meant to be enemies. They are meant to balance and, ideally, help one another. The whole concept of being of one party and so anyone in the other party is your enemy is dangerous and wickedly prideful. It is dangerous to the health of our country and the state of our souls. And it keeps some possibly very good things for all from happening (public option, people!) One ought never to put obstacles in someone's way and then make fun of them for not being able to get over those obstacles.

I had an experience as a life long Democrat many years ago after 9/11 when I mentioned to a group of my friends that I thought President Bush had handled the immediate aftermath (I'm talking after the event, but before the wars) very well. I thought his speeches were very dignified and compassionate. My friends were livid and threw a fit that I could possibly ever say anything nice about that war mongering so-and-so. And that's a problem. Not only can you not like something the other side does without being accused of being one of the enemy, but you also cannot criticize something on your own side without being accused of being one of the enemy.

I would add that mockery is a horrible low. There is never a proper time to mock. When you mock and hate a political figure, you mock and hate your fellow citizens who voted for that figure. We've become a nation of mockers. The television and the radio told us to do it.

Now, I don't feel like I've mocked or hated anyone on this blog. I'm not actually recanting of anything I've said specifically. It's more of a tone recantation. I think a good deal of the time when I go to post about something, I think "Is this good or bad enough to post on?" When really what I ought to be asking is "Is this good?" "Is this life affirming?" "Is this helpful?"
I don't think it's wrong to be critical over issues that are really important. Another part of the problem is that there is a whole industry of political entertainment made up of people who have to work up, or at the very least work up the appearance of, righteous indignation every day over something. I don't think there's something to be righteously indignant about every single day. I want to build up and not tear down.

I think, also, that one ought to be the change they want to see in the world. I love my country and I have deep respect for our President. One of the things I said on the post about the Nobel to Obama was, "I would like to believe that Obama is going to usher in the Golden Age of America. I truly hope he does. I truly hope he turns out to have been the greatest President in American history." I can stand behind that. I can stand behind the tone and the sentiment of that.

I don't want to be the guy who talks about what's wrong all of the time. Not that I thought I was, but first of all I could see that direction opening up, and second of all, considering the tone of the times and the days in which we live, I think I want to look toward the hopeful. I think I want to direct people to wonderful things - and save my battles for the important things. Like that New York Metropolitan Opera production of Tosca. Sheesh!

Book Review: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

First of all, Neil Gaiman is a wonderful author. He was one who I bought everything he put out (which is quite a lot) up until about The Wolves in the Walls. I didn't stop out of disappointment with the quality of the work, but out of my life kicking in to the point where lack of time and money prohibit obsessive fan-hood. He has a wealth of great work out there for anyone who hasn't read him. He puts me in mind of Ray Bradbury a bit, but kind of more sleek and hip, more on the dark magical fantastical side.

So, I went to buy The Graveyard Book this last week, (Don't we have to tell on our blogs if we bought something or not now?) because it had been on the New York Times Bestseller Top Ten for a year, for 52 weeks exactly. Also last week saw the publication of the Sarah Palin flummery which rocketed to the top of the bestseller list for reasons I cannot even begin to grasp. Having intended to read Gaiman's latest for some time I decided it was time to take action and have the double benefit of casting my small economic vote for him, and against her book. Having limited knowledge of the material, I wasn't expecting to find it in the Children's books section. Now having finished it, I would say that it's probably perfect for a junior high aged child.

The book revolves around Nobody Owens, an orphan of a murdered family, who is reared by the deceased in a historic graveyard in England. The deceased are spirits or ghosts or something like that. He's not being brought up by corpses. I don't think that would go very well.
All of which sounds really grim, but it's not at all. In fact, it is a very lively and, I would say, life affirming book. I would give this book to my hypothetical junior high aged child without hesitation and with all speed. I'm fairly certain I can endorse everything said and every lesson implied in the book. Plus, without being overbearing, the book will probably send the child to the dictionary to find the meaning of words like "offal." What better gift can you give a junior higher? And it would do my heart a lot of good seeing a young person excited to find out more about Clytemnestra.

The book starts out a little on the episodic side and I kind of thought that it might just go on in that direction. I began expecting that the book might be a series of stories strung together by common characters, but it shifts about halfway and it turns out it was all building to something. Also on the subject of form, I thought that it was a little more cinematic at parts than I would have liked, you know, almost as if in preparation for a film adaptation (which I think is a terrible idea.) But I'm self-aware enough to know that that is probably me as a stuffy, snobby 32 year old classicist talking, and that a writer of fiction for the early teens in this particular period of history must needs have action sequences. Having said that, let me backpedal a bit and say that the ghoul section of the first half of the book was one of my favorite parts.

Also I wonder if there's a sequel in mind. I left the book with questions, not the kind that come from sloppy writing, but rather the kind that come from one's imagination being sparked. "Where did Silas go when he left? What exactly was Silas? What happened to all of the children mentioned in the book when they grew up having had the experiences that they had (especially the bullies)?" And so on. Most of them revolved around Silas. What a fascinating character!
All of the very small critiques I have, and they are very few, make me achingly aware of my own age. Much like the critiques I might have after observing a rave or a punk concert. This isn't Thomas Hardy or Marcel Proust. It did win the Newberry and it may very well be read 500 years from now.

Although this leads me to a whole other can of worms, which is the trend of adults reading children's fiction. I think we can all read and, in fact, benefit from great children's literature. Having said that, I'm a little unnerved when I meet someone my own age who exclusively reads children's literature. Or, perhaps to be more specific, I've put it like this before "There are two kinds of Harry Potter fans. Those who love Harry Potter books and those who love Harry Potter books as well as many other things in life."

In conclusion, I did enjoy the book tremendously. I would give it as a gift, and if I live a long life I am sure I will read it again someday. Having said that, to my fellow adults, I would recommend it, but I would recommend Neverwhere, American Gods (which I think might have been my favorite), Stardust and the Sandman series by Gaiman before this book. He is a deservedly treasured living writer and if you've never read him, indulge yourself. I hereby give you permission.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Because We Can

Well then, I guess my Thursday News In Review came a few hours before a very important and controversial story. President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (or, rather, he won the prize. He still has to go to Oslo to pick it up.)

Immediately the reactions/kneejerk opinions were flowing online and on NPR. Seeing as how haste seems to rule the day, I figured I ought to get right on a blog entry about it. One of the first opinions I got a kick out of was from Drew Carey, of all people (don't judge. I'm following him on Twitter because if he gets a million followers by the end of the year he will donate a million dollars to the Livestrong Foundation. See, now you feel all bad and you're going to go follow him now. Atta boy.) I thought Carey summed it up nicely when he said, "I can't believe I just won an OSCAR after only having a couple of pitch meetings! Thanks everyone!" I had a long moment of hesitation before quoting a game show host on this subject, but I decided that the nature of the story rather made it appropriate.

And let me just take a moment to say, "Way to go upstaging us bombing the moon, Mr. President."

Look, the Nobel Prize was not handed down from God. It's not given out by a great hoary, dry iced filled council room of The Three Most Important People In The World. It's the behest of the long dead inventor of dynamite, and a bunch of Swedish blokes decide who gets what. It's not canon. It's not a scientific equation, and if you have the money you can do whatever you want. I have every right to say that Murder of Angels by Caitlin R. Kiernan is one of the finest novels by a living author in print. I believe that to be the case. If I had a giant pool of money I might establish a literary award to slap on the cover of future editions of the book. The "Paul Mathers' Award of Literary Merit" or some such nonsense and maybe if I had enough money and I died and I left future decisions to a crusty panel of academics, people might actually start to feel that my award actually meant something aside from the personal taste of a small group. So you see, The Nobel Prize is sort of like the Oprah Book Club. A wealthy and influential name giving more money and more global prestige to slightly less wealthy and influential names. The only thing they succeed in doing by making poor choices is tarnishing their own reputation for the future.
So, that's my main reaction.

My secondary reaction is that the decision seems rather hasty (which is funny because I wrote that very line when I started writing this post this morning and as soon as I finished writing that line the power went out for three hours. It made me have to sit on the topic and think about it for a few hours before posting this.) It's not the first ghastly move made by the Nobel committee. I would remind everyone that Henry Kissinger of all people has a Nobel Peace Prize. As did Yasser Arafat. The Peace Prize!
Also, Al Gore won for his mad Powerpoint skills.

I've heard people already comment that Greg Mortenson, the Three Cups of Tea dude, was robbed. I am inclined to agree, although I would also point out that Gandhi was robbed five times. I've read several people pointing out that this announcement comes right on the heels of Obama calling for a step up of US military presence in Afghanistan. Personally, I'm a little more upset about the timing of the nomination which came right at the beginning of Obama's presidency before he'd even unpacked. The Nobel Committee, tellingly on the defensive even in announcing the winner, claims that they want to forward the mission of Obama and thank him for restoring the public face of America to the rest of the world (which is to say he wins for not being Bush.) So they straight up admit that it's based on an image and a plan rather than any actual achievement.

Again, as I've said before about Obama, I would like to believe all of the Hope hype. I would like to believe that Obama is going to usher in the Golden Age of America. I truly hope he does. I truly hope he turns out to have been the greatest president in American history. I genuinely think I would like the man in person. But here I sit almost six months after my lay-off. I've looked rabidly for work every day of those six months (except Sundays.) Really I think Job One for the president and all of America should be the creation of jobs, pressing the GDP to the metal, and replacing our current foundation on debt with a foundation on quality goods and services. The economy is so stinking bad, the jobless rate is so abysmal that it's hard to imagine the leader of a nation in such a state receiving such an award while we're still so sunk in it.
If the Nobel committee were time travelers I would feel a lot better about this but as you well know there are only 16 time travelers walking the Earth today and none of them are on the Nobel committee.

All of which is a long winded way of saying, yes, I agree with most people I've talked to, including a good portion who are otherwise Obama lovers, that the prize seems very hasty, very image based, and kind of embarrassing. That's the thing about money. When you have it, you can do whatever you want with it no matter how ill advised, tasteless or regrettable. If you don't believe me, Google Bellagio.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

And while I'm at it...

The big news of the day around our house is Agnes. Agnes was a stray cat who has been around our house since we moved in. The guy next door used to feed her but he's since moved away and died actually, so we've been taking care of her. We kind of thought taking her in might be in some cosmic way a sort of memorial to our old neighbor.
Clearly she's been homeless for a long time (at the very least for the 3 years we've lived here) but also clearly she's fixed as she's one of the few female stray cats in the neighborhood not shooting out kittens all the time. She's not wild at all. She's very meek, gentle and sweet to the point of seeming quite fragile.
Of course, having three indoor cats, we couldn't really bring another one in. Any more than three and I think it ceases to be a better life for everyone involved. I think three cats is cat capacity for our house.
So, when Mao Mao died we had an opening although we weren't sure if we were going to fill it. We decided if we did get another cat, the right thing to do would be to bring in Agnes although we would need to get her all of the appropriate medicine including tapeworm pills and earmite treatments. Agnes was old when we met her, she wheezes, she has parts of her ears missing, her fur is patchy, her eyes are sunken. And she doesn't meow so much as she makes little beeping sounds. We wanted to give her a good life.
So last night we finally got the last pill in her and brought her into the house. She adjusted almost immediately and seems to love it here. She seems very comfortable and at peace.

Also last night we had a massive power outage in our neighborhood. This is what I look like in a power outage. Yep, just as much of a dork as when not in a power outage.

The other recent feline addition to our lives is the decidedly outdoor cat we call Evil Tom. Evil is the father of Napoleon and Mao and thousands of other kittens in the neighborhood. We call him Evil Tom because he fights with pretty much everything that moves. Getting him fixed is our next philanthropic savings project. Lately he's finally come around to being friendly to us and we are feeding him and harboring him under our porch. The feeding came first and then he became very friendly to us, so we're under no illusions that he likes us for our winning personalities.
He's very skittish, but for some reason the power outage made him sociable enough to snap a few pictures of him.

Before the power outage, here's Laurie petting Evil Tom.

Yep. That's what we have for news in our lives. That's why I don't use this blog as a journal of my personal life very often.