Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- The Odyssey Part 2

Well, the Odyssey took kind of a back burner in my mind over the past week, sorry to say, but I did get through this week's reading. However, when Dawn with her rose-red fingers shown once more, I had a head cold, my phone and truck are broken, and, not to put too fine a point on it, but I'm amazed to find for the first time in my life I'm getting hate mail (not amazed that I'm receiving it, mind you, but that it took this long in the life that I've lead.)
Sorry to those who commented last week and I didn't respond (Sedge, you and I had the exact same experience with Librivox last week. Mom, that's hilarious that they cut like a fifth of the book for high school students!)

So, this week I took my old friend Charles Ardinger's very wise and helpful advice and took a trip to the library to find other translations of The Odyssey. Not that there was anything wrong with the Butler translation at all, but I thought that it would be interesting to find how other translations tell the story, what the differences are and so forth. It's turned into a very interesting experiment for me. Unfortunately, I could not find the Alexander Pope translation at my library (although they did have his Iliad.) What I came away with was the J.W. Mackail translation and the Robert Fagles translation. Mackail was a professor at Oxford in the 1930s, born in the mid-1800s and, not to cast aspersions (especially since he was also a fellow socialist), it reads more like a professor at Oxford who was born in the mid-1800s. Words like "aught" and "wiles." Painstakingly crafted verse. All of which is kind of neat, especially compared to Butler's prose translation, and certainly I will refer to it throughout to illuminate certain passages, but it's clearly not going to be my Odyssey of choice for personal reading. That distinction, my friends, goes to the Fagles translation, which reads like greased lightning. After Mackail and Butler, it reads like a Cadillac. It is modern English, verse, beautiful and flowing.
Just like I personally use the RSV when I read the Bible, I prefer how it reads, although for study, academic writing, and learning more about the layers of meaning of language in the text, it's always good to have several decent translations laying about.

You are not required to do this. This is me geeking out.

So, this week we start with the princess Nausicaa and her attending company of young, white-armed ladies happen upon naked Odysseus. I originally read this in the Butler, and then the Mackail, and it seems to me as if the Victorian editions constructed the language in this section in such a way that, to my modern eyes, it was simply that, they find Odysseus and he needs to bathe. In the Fagles version there is tremendous sexual tension in that scene, which makes perfect sense and, I might add, seems likely to be truer to the original text.
Odysseus goes to meet the parents. They talk a lot and listen to a man sing a song. Odysseus reveals his identity. All of which may not be in the high school edition.
Book IX is when it really starts cracking. Odysseus tells about being driven to the land of the Lotus Eaters who graze and eat the lotus all the live long day. Those of the men who try some of the lotus then lost their will do go home or really do anything but graze and eat lotus. My goodness, but that's a rich metaphor for so much of life and society! It's a short bit, but really a brilliant piece of literature!
Enter the cyclops or rather his goats or lambs. One of my favorite lines so far is when the men say "Let us make away with the cheeses." I'm having that printed as a bumper sticker.
The cyclops picks up men by the twos, bashes their brains out on the ground, and eats them. They were wearing red togas, worked in engineering and only appeared in this episode anyway. Presumably after the initial shock wears off, they get the cyclops drunk on wine. The cyclops falls asleep and Odysseus drives a giant stake through the eye of the cyclops. Then there's the "nobody's blinding me" joke.

My assessment of the Odyssey so far is that it's an exciting, epic adventure story with, like all ancient texts, some passages that kind of lag to the modern eye. Having an engaging translation helps immensely. I am really enjoying this book and I hope that you are as well.

Next week, we shall read through book 13, so we'll do a slightly shorter one again this week. Then I think we'll finish it in two bigger sections in the two following weeks. So, this next week we read through the section called (spoiler alert) Ithaca At Last!

Monday, February 22, 2010

In which I talk about the terrible event I mentioned 2 weeks ago

I wasn't sure if I would talk about this here. This blog is often kind of a vacation for me. And believe me, I would much rather be writing about something interesting I just read about John Keats, or Laurie and my love for the music of Erik Satie right now. But I have something else I have to write about tonight.

I mentioned about two weeks ago about a life changing and terrible event in our life. In brief, here's the background for newcomers to this story. Last year we had a delightful family come to our church for many months. Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz had a large family, 6 of their own kids and 3 adopted from Liberia, including 7 year old Lydia who shared a special mutual adoration with Laurie. Kevin and I would talk after church often. We went to dinner at their house, they showed us how to milk their goats; they gave us book cases. They were very kind and very sweet. We loved them all very much and still do. We will continue to love them no matter what happens, and no matter what happened. They left our church after about 8 months.

A little over two weeks ago I got a phone call from my pastor. Lydia is dead, her sister in the hospital, the rest of the kids in foster care, and Kevin and Elizabeth in jail. Soon after, Kevin and Elizabeth were charged with an open count of murder, torture and child abuse.

I will not go into the emotions here. I'm not sure I need to and I'm absolutely sure I don't want to. It is probably needless and the zenith in understatements to say that it has been a very rough two weeks. To see this happen to people you love is really beyond words.

The Schatzes followed, to a "t", a system of child rearing which came from Michael and Debi Pearl whose No Greater Joy "Ministry" is based in Tennessee and whose site I refuse to sully this blog by linking to. The Pearls are not professionally trained or educated in child development. They came up with this darkness out of the abundance of their hearts. The first time I pulled up their website about two weeks ago to learn more about this system which I'd only ever heard of in furtive whispers before, Laurie can testify, I literally left my office in tears after only a few minutes and did not want to go back into the room where that was on the screen. It is one of the most hate-filled, wicked and evil systems I've encountered in my life, all with a sheen of "Christian" and "happy families." For the past two weeks, information junkies that Laurie and I are, we waded through the Pearl system and it gets worse the more you dig.

Other people (my wife for one) have done much better jobs laying out the evils of the Pearl system. Generally, one of the major problems is the extremely dangerous and wildly unbiblical position that they preach of sinless perfection being achievable in this lifetime. Mix that with a strict discipline system with one's children and you can probably put together for yourself how something like this could happen. You expect sinless perfection and you will whip your child as often as needed if they fall short.

People, this is exactly why I am so focused on searching out and sticking to good, sound, biblical doctrine! This is why I beat that drum so much. This is why discernment is so vital to a Christian! Doctrine dictates lifestyle! The Pearls teach a system of salvation through obedience, which, as I've now said elsewhere, is about as anti-Christian a message as I can think of. The Pearls' theology is as anti-Christian as anything I've read in Nietzsche, and Nietzsche's philosophy does not endanger the physical lives of children. We are saved by faith alone in Christ alone, by His undeserved grace, by no work of our own lest we should boast. Along with that, we are called to love. Love is patient, kind, long-suffering. All of which are qualities that are considered parental weakness to the Pearls. Or, rather, they may pervert it in such a way that they may say words to the effect of "I am being patient, kind and longsuffering in diligently whipping my child at every hint of an offense."

Specifically, the Pearls suggest in their book the exact piece of plumbing tubing for whipping disobedient children that the Schatzes used when Lydia mispronounced a word when reading out loud from a Frog and Toad book (I grew up on those books. Their appearance in this story is just another in a seemingly endless line of heartbreaking detail.) The Pearls also suggest things like if your child tries to run when you're about to whip them, stalk them through the house slowly while laughing at their feeble attempts at escape. Also, wear the tube around your neck so that the child sees the weapon every time he or she looks at you. I think part of what strikes me so much about this is that it is a system meant for Christians, and many Christians are buying it while non-Christians I've spoken to have no problem immediately identifying this system as outrageously evil and, in my own words, "morally repugnant." As another has said, this is a major failing of the Christian church in America.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.
So, the Pearls have no legal responsibility. They're just making suggestions, of course, and we live in a society where we all enjoy free speech (look, I'm doing it right now!) And every time a child of a parent following their system dies at their parent's disciplining hand (as you can probably imagine, this is not the first time it's happened) the Pearls have no problem throwing the parents under the bus, washing their hands of it to the press. However, we, the people, can still see the blood on the Pearls' hands and this is where social responsibility comes in.
It is unacceptable that a system like this is socially acceptable in what is supposed to be the Christian church. We ought to have a culture where public opinion is so strong against such things that systems like these cannot exist. No Christian should entertain the idea of the Pearl system for a moment and certainly no one should be giving money to these people.

So, being anti-censorship, what can I do? Well, I wrote to Lynn Harris, the author of many books but also the journalist on, one of the internet's most major news sources, who in 2006 wrote an article on the death of another Pearl follower's child during discipline, and the subsequent murder charge. We wrote back and forth, spoke on the phone and she produced an article. Yes, the Laurie and Paul Mathers in the article are exactly who you think they are.

Speak out and speak up, Christians. Educate yourself in sound doctrine and let's move public opinion in the church to a place where this system can no longer survive.

If you call yourself a Christian and you don't immediately think it's a foul, unthinkable, disgusting suggestion to whip your child at least 10 times per offense (more "if needed"), wearing the weapon visibly at all times, having a weapon always at hand with which to whip your child, menacingly hunting down your child when they are fleeing punishment in terror like the villain in the Halloween movies, and even manufacturing occasions to whip in order to "train them", if you don't immediately recoil from such things, I would highly recommend you put down the plastic tubing and go pick up your Bible. You may have reason to be concerned about the state of your soul. If you think, as I keep hearing from Christians (and it makes me feel like vomiting every time) that "there's some good in the Pearl system" I would suggest that an apple dipped in cyanide also still contains vitamins. If you eat it, it will taste good, but it will kill you inside. There is not such a dearth of child rearing methods that you ever even need to pick up a system laced with violence, cold-heartedness, and fatal legalism to get "some good points" out of it.

And if you are a Christian, the state of your child's soul should be paramount (and, if you're a parent of any kind, the preservation of your child's life, health and well being should be paramount.) Sharing God's love for them and your own love for them should be at the top of the list. I have no idea why expedient means to get your child to obey is so important. Christ's love for us imperfect sinners is more important than anything! God's patience with our own disobedience is unfathomable.

Michael Pearl, after a tirade on his website about the "lesbians" who are persecuting him (yes, it's that level of rhetoric we're talking about here) does make a point that he doesn't see "the daddies" speaking out against him (yes, also probably not a big surprise, he also uses extremely socially awkward and highly archaic turns of phrase like "damsels", "porno", and "licks" as in "giving licks," as in whipping). He is correct in that I also am not seeing a lot of Christian men speaking out against this. Shame on Christian men. It may have to do with his power-mad system that revolves around constantly stroking the male ego. But it may also be that that day is over. I am one Christian man who will tell the world that the Pearl system is evil, anti-Christian, and it will not stand! The Pearls preach lies from the pit of Hell. I will not sit back and allow them to continue to drag the name of Christ through the mud.

I could go on. And I will elsewhere.

But do go and read the article. Also go read my wife's blog entry. It will break your heart. It broke mine all over again and I think we're both starting to realize we may live in that state for the rest of our lives.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- The Odyssey Part 1

I think one of the most immediately striking aspects of this text for me was that people don't write like this anymore. I think we may be the poorer for it. Parts that could have said "I cut down trees and built a boat" were about winning favor with the goddess who gives you an axe with which you use with great skill to fend off the hatred that Neptune has for you. I'm surprised someone like Allen Ginsberg didn't write an autobiography in that manner, elevating the mundane details of our lives and friends to such heroic levels. Maybe I should write my own autobiography in that manner.
Anyway, I also kept wondering how much of this is a mythologizing of fact.

This week's reading dealt largely with Telemachus having a devil of a time with the suitors who have come to woo his mother to try to get them to marry them and, possibly more to the point, to eat The Odysseus family's livestock and drink their wine. Odysseus is still on the back of the milk carton and the leeches have crept in. Telemachus makes a bunch of noises about it but nothing really seems to get them to go away. Yes, if only Odysseus would show up. Then they'd be sorry.

When Poseidon is away at a convention, Athene talks to Zeus and then goes and talks to Telemachus while disguised as King Mentes. The words of Mentes are very wise and encouraging.

Let me take a moment here to express how much I've been enjoying this translation by Samuel Butler. It's a testimony to a good translation when an ancient text breathes and lives with such electricity, flows so well. Ancient text, especially when they involve a lot of esoteric characters, can get a bit clunky to modern eyes if not handled properly. Especially with all of these long speeches, but in all honesty I've enjoyed every moment of it so far.

Telemachus goes to meet a few people who give him information. Nestor talks for a very long time. Then there's that wonderful scene with Menelaus and Proteus where they hold Proteus down and he turns into a dragon and a lion and fire and a Volkswagen and a fish to try to get away from them. Proteus reveals that Odysseus is being held captive by the nymph Calypso. Zeus sends Hermes to tell her to release Odysseus (and as much as I'm a dyed in the wool monotheist, I can definitely understand in experiencing life in this world how one could come to the conclusion of sometimes having some gods smiling on you while others hate you.) Calypso helps him build a boat. Poseidon attacks Odysseus with the sea and we end this week's reading with Odysseus asleep by some olive trees.

It is a rip-roaring good adventure story which I am enjoying tremendously. It is by no means too late to get on board with this one. We did read a little much this week, but I wanted to get through the "Telemachus talking to people" part in one go.

As a side note, I read ahead a while ago and to jog my memory before this post I listened to the Librivox recordings of this while walking over the past few days. It's a wonderful and free resource which I would recommend to anyone. Although there are varied qualities of people who read the text and sometimes they switch horses from one chapter to the next.

Next week we will read through book IX, which in my copy takes us up to page 99. We'll go a little lighter this next week and there's a rather dramatic story break at that point. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Some storms have such beautiful eyes

For the sake of clinging to optimism, I thought I would take a moment to post a few photos of a few nice things from the past few days:

We finally framed and hung art in our kitchen. Laurie and I have a tremendous amount of art to be framed. We're planning on buying thrift store frames in the right size for most of it, especially now that we're nearly finished painting the interior of our house, but this particular poster was a very odd size. We had to special order the frame and the glass (which ended up saving us almost $200 than if we'd just gone to the framing store.)
This is a print of an etching of the Sutro Baths in San Francisco. The baths were built in the late 1800s by Adolf Sutro, former SF mayor. It was horribly damaged in the 1906 Earthquake, fell into ruins, eventually burned down and became a municipal park. You can go there today and climb around the ruins of the old baths. In fact, I try to make it there every time I go to San Francisco. There are trails, cliffs, rocks, pools formed by the remaining foundation, all right on the beach. If we were in that picture, on the other side of the wall on the left would be the Pacific Ocean (I'm not an architect, but it occurs to me that that may have something to do with why the structure didn't hold up well to natural disasters. You'll remember Harry Belafonte's song about the building.)
Also, the color scheme of the poster worked very well with our kitchen.

In other news, Spring is creeping in. In fact, most of the past week it has seemed like Spring in Chico, but people who live in Chico for a few years learn that it's not time to pack up the Winter clothes until around May.
On my walks in the park I've happened upon some glorious almond blossoms. Also, the bees are back. We've already shaping up to have a good bee year, which means a good almond year.

Monday, February 15, 2010

It's a Bull Roaring Monday!

At last, more of my answers to questions submitted anonymously by readers of this blog! If you don't like how long it took for your question to get answered, ask more questions. In case you hadn't noticed, I don't post one of these until I get at least 3.
And remember, comrades, if you would like me to answer your questions, throw a question at me (gently) through this link! Ask early and ask often.

I'm wondering why every TV set, DVD and VCR, remote, and anything remotely connected (no pun intended) to video entertainment has to be constructed of black material with tiny black buttons. What's with all the black? And what about those of us who need glasses and bright light to read an ordinary book! How in the world can we remotely (again, none intended) connect with the TV news/movies if we can't see what we are doing! Aaargh!

There are a number of sources to blame. You could blame Stanley Kubrick and certainly every time I walk past our entertainment center I feel a strong inclination to evolve (which is largely achieved by not turning it on.) You could blame Tim Burton, specifically the stylistic sensibility that infected our culture through his awful Batman films, and you'll get little argument from me. In fact, I remember our family's old VHS players from the 1980s being boxy and grey. If one claimed that it was post Tim Burton's Batman that everything went black, shiny and inscrutable, I would probably believe them without question. My own beloved Karl Lagerfeld may have his hat in this circle of stylistic blame. But you might even trace it back to Franz Kafka who we just finished reading in our Reading the Classics Reading Group. So, you see, the sexy and hip association with things that look like cockroaches goes back a long way.
My advice: be one vote for breaking the cycle. Wear tie-dye.

What is your current read, your last read and the book you’ll read next?

In retrospect, I'm surprised it took this long for someone to ask this. I am currently reading a lot of Quakers for some reason. Specifically, I've found myself drawn heavily into the Journal of John Woolman which also includes his pamphlet "A Plea for the Poor." I am finding it edifying and it may very well change the course of my life. More on that soon, I'm sure.
I'm reading Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cure by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, which also is very edifying and may very well change the course of my life.
I haven't started Crazy Like Us by Ethan Watters yet, but it was at the top of my reading list before I fell in with John Woolman. I imagine I'll start it very soon and then I'll be reading, what, like five books at one time. And I've started Homer's Odyssey for our reading group.
Just before this I read The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, as you well know.
Next on the Reading the Classics I think is Jane Eyre.

Who is your favorite president?

Ooo, someone asking a question specific to the holiday. Well done! Also someone is drawing me out politically on my blog which is both exhilarating and frightening to me.
I'm assuming this is a historical question about presidents of the United States and not "who is my favorite president of a nation today." Because I'm not entirely sure how I would answer that.
Possibly not surprisingly, Franklin Roosevelt is up there. I like elements of the direction he was trying to steer the country's domestic economic policy. I love his idea for a Second Bill of Rights and feel cheated every time I think about how it didn't happen.
I also like elements of his cousin Theodore Roosevelt. I agree with Ken Burns that the national parks may very well have been one of America's best ideas. I'm not so sure about Teddy's foreign policy or his raging nationalism or what John Muir called (to his face) his infantile need to shoot the animals he saw in the wild. Incidentally, I like John Muir more than I like any US President. I wouldn't call either of the Roosevelts my favorite for a number of reasons, but Teddy might very well be one of my favorite presidents to read about or hear about.

For example:
When Teddy Roosevelt was campaigning for a 3rd term in 1912, he was having dinner at a hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin before a speech. A local saloon owner, who was apparently anti-Roosevelt, went into the hotel and shot Roosevelt in the chest. The bullet passed through Roosevelt's eyeglass case and his folded up copy of his 50 page speech before lodging into his chest. Roosevelt knew from his biology education that since he was not coughing blood, his lungs were not pierced and his wound was probably not life-threatening. SO HE WENT ON TO GIVE HIS 90 MINUTE SPEECH WHILE BLEEDING FROM THE BULLET WOUND IN HIS CHEST! He started his speech "Ladies and gentlemen, I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose." The bullet stayed in Roosevelt's chest for the rest of his life. Later in life he was asked about the bullet in his chest and said "I do not mind it anymore than if it were in my waistcoat pocket."

This is just one story in a life I am absolutely fascinated with.

Abraham Lincoln is also very high on my list of favorite presidents. I know it's the obvious answer, the easy answer. He was the president who finally had the good sense to emancipate the slaves (albeit late into the administration.) I have a picture of him up in our dining room, actually. I think he's also the only president I have books by and about in my personal library (although I guess that's not entirely true, glancing over at my bookshelf, I guess Hunter Thompson wrote about both Nixon and Clinton. But the nature of Thompson's books and the nature of the books I own by and about Lincoln are VASTLY different in tone and message.)
I must say, I don't so much hold them up to heroic status as I find the ones I'm mentioning fascinating stories. On the other hand, I also find Richard Nixon fascinating while at the same time I think he was one of the most wicked presidents we've ever had and an absolute failure. But a fascinating one.
So "fascinating" is not placing a moral value on the individual. I guess I'm not entirely sure how to define "favorite" here in reference to a US President. And I guess I'm avoiding the question too.
Part of the problem is that FDR and Lincoln were war-time presidents and I find war morally repugnant. Also, I'm a member of the Peace and Freedom party which pretty much means I'm never going to vote for someone who gets to be president of the United States.

But I think I'm going to go with Lincoln. Or Teddy Roosevelt. I don't know. You pick.

Hm. Reading over this I notice that there was a lot of name-dropping this time. Sorry about that.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Book Review- Essays by Wallace Shawn

First of all, Wallace Shawn is one of my favorite playwrights, very likely my favorite living one. I've appreciated everything I've ever read or watched by him, not always exactly enjoying it, but enjoying is not always the chief end of art. Certainly I've always come away from a work of his engaged with ideas. I think he's written a few scripts that will survive for a very long time and continue to challenge people (The Fever, The Designated Mourner, certainly My Dinner with Andre.) He is a very serious and challenging writer. I looked forward to this book with great anticipation. I was not disappointed. As usual, Shawn writes very intelligently but conversationally and his work questions many aspects of our daily consensus reality that many may have never questioned (including several that I take for granted as well.) His work never lets the reader/watcher off the hook. His work is always challenging in a way I like very much.

The book is split into two sections: Reality and Dream-World. The former deals with current events, things like American Foreign Policy, the wars, patriotism, Israel, the desire in one to be a responsible, compassionate global citizen and the inability to properly do so on account of the actions of the people who represent us to the rest of the world, all with Shawn's challenging eye. I appreciate in Shawn how we meet with worldviews in common and then he causes me to re-evaluate everything I think. This section includes an interview with Noam Chomsky.

I should probably mention that I come pre-equipped with what is largely an inclination in the direction of Shawn's political and economic worldview. Which is to say, yes, it's me reading something I agree with and Shawn to a large extent preaching to the choir in my case. Unfortunately I do think there is a danger of that being the case with this book, that the progressive pedigree being used to sell the book (endorsements by Howard Zinn and Michael Moore, being printed by a socialist leaning publisher, and even Shawn's own reputation) might keep it from being read by people who might most need to read it. But really the leftist political view isn't specifically why I think people would do well to read this book (and clocking in at 150 pages, one could probably do it in an afternoon or two) but rather that the book challenges our worldviews which I think is always a good thing (although I would add that Shawn seems, at least in the first section, to largely be speaking to Americans, I think that people elsewhere might find a good deal of what he's saying encouraging.) I think we should constantly be striving to understand and defend why we believe what we believe and, more importantly, if we find a good reason why we can no longer do so, we need to be able to mutate.

Part Two deals with art, the theater mainly, writing and poetry. It would be far too reductionist to say that there is a suggestion that Part Two contains a few solutions to Part One, but certainly there are nudges in that direction. Part Two also includes an interview with poet Mark Strand.

This second part I thought would be more problematic for me... and I guess in a way it was. The only major ideological difference I retained with Shawn after finishing his book was the part where, unless I completely misunderstood, he argues that there is not good and bad art, merely art that appeals to some and not to others. I could not disagree more. There are bad plays, poems, films, paintings, novels and any other form you can come up with. Thus spake Paul and so mote it be. No, but seriously, it's not just a matter of taste. Even if Shawn is talking about "in art of a fine skill," which is a distinction he doesn't make, certainly there is art that is not helpful or even destructive.

But that's just one idea in a sea of very valuable concepts. This is one of those books where, if I were a rich man I would buy a case of it and pass it out to everyone I know. But then, there are very good reasons why I am never going to be a rich man. This book talks a little about that as well.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

We hiked this afternoon

Today we went to one of my favorite places on Earth: Upper Bidwell Park. It's much more of a nature reserve than Lower Park. Lower Park is paved with playgrounds and pools. Which is nice if you're in that sort of a humor, but Upper Park is much more wild. The paths are unpaved, muddy and really easy to roll an ankle on. There are parts, if you hike a bit, where the trails are the only sign of human life.

Click on the pictures to make them HUGE!

When you arrive you have a choice of two paths. The lower one, the Maidu Trail (named for one of the local Native American tribes who, um, aren't there anymore. So I imagine it's a bit like calling a city Thousand Oaks where they cut down 1,000 oak trees to build the city), winds down the bottom of that ridge there by a small lake (which you can't see in the picture because I think the lake is actually higher than us in this picture. It's down around that white building toward the right which is actually the Chico Observatory where one can go on certain nights to look at stars through a huge telescope!) The upper trail is the North Rim Trail. The slope is fantastic and difficult. I used to practically live on that trail a few years ago. You can go down it for days and sometimes I would go around sunrise and return to my car at sunset. About an hour or so in, when you're in good shape, you stop seeing people or signs of civilization and can then indulge yourself in all kinds of "last human on Earth" fantasies if you are so inclined. I am so inclined, but we're hardly in shape to go on the North Rim Trail yet. Maybe by summer we'll be back in form enough for that.

Here's a picture of me at the lake.

And what it looked like from where I sat.

The lake has ducks.

Part of what we like about this area is how open it is as you can see from the other photos. But the few trees that are around are amazing. Especially in winter.

For size, here's Laurie next to that same tree.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Reading Group Reminder! The Odyssey by Homer

This week our Reading the Classics with Paul Reading Group begins our reading of The Odyssey by Homer. I am reading the Samuel Butler translation but you're welcome to read whatever version you'd like.
If you'd like to join the group in this reading, get a copy of Homer's Odyssey (which should be very easy to do) and read through Book V this week (the V stands for Vendetta for those of you who have forgotten your elementary school class on Roman Numerals.) In my edition, that's through page 58.

In my experience so far this is a very easy read and very enjoyable. I really think that everyone is going to like this one an awful lot (and maybe we can finally put Walden behind us, please?), so I highly encourage everyone to read along with this. I think we're going to break it up into 5 or 6 weeks so we aren't rushed in our weekly reading but, as always, you're welcome to read ahead. Next week, everyone in the reading group will post our thoughts on this week's reading here, on their own blogs, on Google Wave, and in various cross postings of all three.

As always with these reminder posts, I like to add a little fun or interesting song or video related to the work. This time I'm reaching a bit. The Odyssey has had a very long time to work its way into our culture. Film, song, poem, and play are all saturated in the work. It is the posterboy for a classic work of literature.
In the 1950s there was a Broadway musical, which didn't exactly survive or, at the very least, awaits a revival as of the time of my writing this. It was called The Golden Apple and it featured music by Jerome Moross and lyrics by John Treville Latouche, whose work I am sure you are all intimately familiar with. As far as I can tell, only one song from the show went on to have a life of its own as a hit separate from the original musical, which if I understand correctly was an adaptation of The Iliad and The Odyssey set in the turn of the 20th century. The song "Lazy Afternoon" came from the show which, yes, you know was made very famous by Barbara Streisand. No, I'm not posting the Streisand version on my blog.
Grant Green did a fantastic jazz version of Lazy Afternoon. So enjoy this and we'll see all of you next week for our thoughts on the first section of The Odyssey!

Crazy Like Us: the lecture

So, I was walking by Lyon Books on my way to the post office the other day and they had a poster in the window advertising a lecture and signing by author Ethan Watters for his new book "Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche." Readers of Laurie's blog know that she's recently posted about the book. She heard the author interviewed on Talk of the Nation and we'd both been looking forward to reading the book. We've had several great conversations about the topic in the days that followed. Little did we know that Ethan Watters (@ethanwatters1 on Twitter) came from Chico and was doing a signing here until Providence sent me by the bookstore window (and habit and predisposition had me looking in the window like the child in the candy store.)

Laurie and I are also eager to have breaks from the recent tragedy, so we were both very excited for this event. Now, I don't have a book review to give on it yet because we just bought it about 2 hours ago. The evening started with a lot of people filing into Lyon Books, all of whom seemed to know each other except for us. There were probably a couple dozen people there.

The topic of the book, as I understand it (again, I haven't read it yet) is that America seems to be exporting the manifestations of our versions of mental illness. For example there's a case in China of a girl who died from anorexia, but the Chinese version of the disorder did not include fat obsession or a few other things which I'm not remembering off the top of my head. China, in dealing with the rather dramatic news story which involved a 14 year old girl dropping dead in a public square, turned to the available information on the disorder which was studied most extensively in America. Chinese newspapers printed information of the illness and after that not only did anorexia skyrocket in China, but for the first time the manifestations included fat obsession and the other symptoms I'm not remembering off the top of my head.

There are stories in the book, I'm told, of drug companies referring to other nations as "10 year behind America" or "15 years behind America" as in how their mental illnesses are evolving toward our manifestations of those mental illnesses. Also there are accounts of importing illness in times of great tragedies like the tsunami and the Haitian earthquake (the latter was mentioned tonight but happened while the book was already at press.) Watters encouraged us to imagine a reversal and how bizarre that would seem to most Americans: if, for example, a shaman came to New York after 9/11, knocking on doors and telling people that they need to do a certain ritual to release the spirits of the dead. Another phenomenon mentioned was, how in Victorian England, hysterics manifested in women in a very specific (and dramatic) way.

Also in the book is mentioned the different grades and recovery rates of schizophrenics in other cultures, which I guess there are some in which schizophrenics do a lot better (the waggish cynic in me thought "Boy, you'd think schizophrenics would do best in a schizophrenic culture like ours.") But that got me wondering if it worked in reverse, if someone with, say, hysterical misery in America went to another culture and integrated, would that person then find their hysterical misery manifesting in the way that happens in that culture. Because, in the manner of the brutish capitalist culture I sprung forth from, I could instantly imagine a whole industry of relocating people with mental illness to places where the illness manifests differently, much like asthmatics moving to Arizona. Watters said he didn't know of many examples aside from a psychotic breakdown a lady from America had in a Mexican jungle where her hallucinations were distinctly religious in Mexican themes. Which suggests to me, my kneejerk diagnosis, that it may not work the other way. Which is a manifestation of our imperialistic culture. A rather ugly one at that.

So, he signed our book and we came home. It was a lovely evening out. I think both Laurie and I agree it would be nice to do things like this more often.

Monday, February 8, 2010

In which the course of our lives appears to have changed

A really horrible event has happened over the past few days to a family who are dear friends of ours. Really a terrible nightmare of a situation. This is why I've been incommunicado for the past few days (and, given the direction of events, probably will be for several more days.) There's been a lot to deal with. I'm not going to go into specifics at the moment because 1) I don't think it's appropriate for me to at this point and 2) we really don't know most of the details yet so it's highly unhelpful to speculate based upon scraps of information.

However, I mention it in a blog entry here for a few reasons, first as an explanation as to why I owe a lot of people phone calls right now. If you're one of them, I have not forgotten you. Please forgive me. Second, to ask all readers who are inclined toward prayer in any manifestation to please keep us, our families, our church and especially our friends' family in prayer. Third, and most specifically, to throw out a few quick reflections while they're in the front of my head this evening so that they don't disappear into the ether in the days to come...

The first is, as Christians, we are supposed to be vessels of mercy, not vessels of wrath and judgment. A saying that is repeated often around our house are words to the effect of "How you know that God is still extending grace to a someone is that they are still alive."
Or, as Laurie has written elsewhere recently, "Do you truly believe Christ came to save the WORST of sinners? If you don't, you have no hope. If you do, extend his grace to the guiltiest."
We are recipients of completely undeserved grace and need to proceed accordingly, treat others accordingly.

Also on my mind is the passage I read in my studies the other morning from the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus instructs His disciples to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (I think the version I was using said "harmless as doves.") This is a rough world and a rough life which, in my experience, can go from ecstatic joy to abysmal sorrow in moments without warning. One never knows when tragedy is going to come, so I think it's best to not be a person marked by levity, but one who is very much marked by tenderness. I know when the cotton is high people like to be around the joker, the mocker, the person who presents themselves as above others, but when everything goes wrong that is not the person you want to go to for comfort.

I'm reading a book by Martyn-Lloyd Jones where he talks about wearing despair as a Christian, being downcast and so forth. He is speaking against being like that. He mentions that when one does that it's a horrible testimony. It does not recommend the Gospel to anyone. I felt a little convicted by that, having indulged in my share of grim and depressed attitudes in the past. A Christian should be marked by grace and the joy that accompanies God's undeserved grace. There is a significant difference between crass levity and earnest joyfulness.

Finally, I want to encourage everyone to love one another. Be gracious and tender. Life is far too short to be contentious and certainly none of us are in a position to consider ourselves qualitatively better than anyone else. We never have a right to do that.
We are all sinners and all of us are capable of anything.

So, whoever you are, I love you. Please pray for me for strength, wisdom and peace (as well as for Laurie and pretty much all of my family and peer group as well.) More soon.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

One of the first aspects of this story that struck both Laurie and I (and I think was most likely the aspect of the book we talked about most) was metaphor. One could look at the story about a man who literally turns into an insect. More likely, it's metaphor to some form of human dread and misery. With all of the talk about money, work and provision, I was certainly reminded of unemployment, the sudden apparently uselessness of who was up until recently a provider. There's also the possibility of looking at it through the lens of one who becomes injured, disfigured, handicapped, insane beyond the ability to function in society or otherwise incapacitated. There's also the possibility of there really was no Gregor. The insect was the family's paralysis and inability to function or provide for themselves (although, again I seem to be slouching toward yet another economics and social justice lesson.) When the insect dies, while they mourn a bit, they move on with their lives. Leading up to the insect dying, the father finds work, they take in boarders, etc.

So, Gregor wakes up as a giant insect. In an absurd first act, he spends a lot of time concerned about missing his train, getting to work, keeping his position and spends very little time thinking about how and why he is now a giant insect. Gregor's superior arrives and this heightens the exchange, especially while his door is closed and his superior speaks to him through it. He is cumbersome. He finds movement and control of his new body difficult.

Gregor does what he can to please his family by keeping out of sight. His sister makes some efforts to care for him while obviously being revolted at the same time. There's the wonderfully subtle section where Gregor is recalling his he was going to try to help her go to the music conservatory to study, but then he turned into a giant insect. The best laid plans of mice and men gang oft agley. So often dreams are dashed by unforseeable circumstances. There's a lesson in impermanence here.

The family continues to worry about money, missing what was formerly taken for granted. The family rises to the occasion as best they can, but still there is resentment. So much so that they lash out at Gregor, the only visible target although an innocent. Which brings remorse.
The third act brings in the charwoman. We hate the charwoman although she is all of us whenever we mock and scorn, seek to place ourselves higher than others, and gleefully take out our frustrations on the less fortunate. The charwoman is the embodiment of a very ugly side of humanity, although a seemingly ubiquitous one.

And the third act brings in the lodgers, yet another sign of the family's desperation and a vaguely sinister force both in their presence and even more so at the threat of the loss of them. Also there is the shame and dread of the thing in the room that one does not talk about. The unloved and neglected thing whose very presence brings misery, but what can they do? It's their son, maybe. The sister gives voice to the frustration"When one has to work as hard as we do, all of us, one can't stand this continual torment at home on top of it."

So, there's an element of human compassion and tenderness, how we're all alone, people don't reach out to one another and the consequences of a culture like that. Perhaps this is the real "wound" that kills Gregor or, at the very least, the actual wound is borne from this homelife.

This was one of my favorite pieces in this series so far. It's a very straightforward narrative, which I appreciate on some levels (although it brings to mind some other writers to come in the time after Kafka whose language, rhetoric and word choices are so stripped down as to make them bleak, surgically removing all poetry from language. Although, in this case, I think that the comparison would be unfair, a bit like blaming Walt Whitman for bad modern free verse slam poetry. Kafka is an amazing writer regardless of what trends are yet to come in the modern era.

Well, I hope that all of you enjoyed reading this as much as I did. I know I look forward to hearing all of your thoughts on it.

Remember, next time is Homer's Odyssey part 1. We will be reading through page 58 in my edition or up through Book V. Get a copy and start reading. We're going to stretch this one over 5 weeks to keep from having super-long passages each week.

Paul Mathers on foot

I walk a lot. There's something meditative or pacific about it for me. Moving at a human pace, seeing what's going on around me, being in touch with my body and the Earth, and exercising while I'm transporting myself. I've always loved walking. I resisted getting my driver's license in my teens, but, in the end, relented because it was hard to get my friendbase in Huntington Beach to come all the way to Garden Grove to pick me up. I spent a lot of my teenage years sitting on the curb outside my parents house waiting for people who said that they were coming to pick me up.

If I had my way, in my perfect world, I would not drive and I would ride in automobiles only minimally. I have a strong inclination to trade my truck to my step-son for a new bicycle with a helmet and lock, but two things hold me back from doing that quite yet. One is that the truck comes in handy when Laurie's at a job and needs me to bring something to her, usually our home vacuum cleaner (it's amazing how many people buy bad vacuums or do things with vacuums that ought not be done.) The other is trying to be wise about future work situations. If I get a full time job on the other side of town, well, let's just say my love of walking is the inverse of my dislike for riding a bus.

But as for now, I walk a lot on my own. I do walk for errands (I'm about to walk to the post office when I finish this post.) But if errands do not present themselves, I walk for pleasure. I try to take Schubert on a walk every day because, let's face it, both of us could stand to drop a few sizes.
There are two places I walk with Schubert. The first is Bidwell Park which looks like this.

Very lovely and scenic as you can see. I've written about it before. Laurie prefers for me to walk in Lower Park because it's nicer, but more to the point, there's always someone in screaming distance. So I'm less likely to get mugged in Lower Park. There really isn't much in the way of cons about walking in Bidwell Park for walking except that 1) it's a place I have to drive to in order to walk there, which always seems a little absurd to me and 2) there are other people walking their dogs and Schubert isn't the best behaved little dog in the world.

So sometimes I will instead go walking down the bike path by our house. It's a horribly ugly walk. As you can see from the pictures, it's through an industrial area with chain linked lots with great stacks of broken pallets, battery stores, trucking yards, and power company towers flanked on one end by a greasy Asian buffet and on the other by an economy Mexican restaurant.

Billboards everywhere. All the benches had graffiti although I'm hard pressed to imagine why a young person would want their name associated with that place.

I'm a little surprised by these pictures that it doesn't look as bad as it does in person. But the positive side of this is that no one else goes walking on this bike bath. Occasionally a vagrant will ride by on a bicycle, but otherwise it's fairly secluded. For a reason. It's a Purgatorial road. So, there are not other people walking dogs. Also it's a walk I can take just by walking out my front door. Laurie likes it less when I walk here because there is never anyone in shouting distance. But I also like this one because there are often small signs of the wild reminding me of the impermanence of all of this. Some finches, some moss growing between the cracks in the asphalt, some poisonous berries on the decorative trees.

Of course, walking and preferring to walk does not make me a better person. Unlike Thoreau I am not going to say that the way I am is better than everyone else and everyone would be better if they were more like me. I mean, I certainly wouldn't recommend walking in my neighborhood after sunset to a 16 year old waifish girl.

There was an old man who ran a Friends of the Library bookstore back in Orange County who used to say "My motto is: If someone loves books, they can't be all that bad." Which was nice and sweet and home-spun and made one smile when the charming old man said it. Also there's an opera radio show host I know of who said in an interview that he thought people would be better in general, more respectable, better behaved, more decent and reverent, if they listened to opera. Both of which I really want to agree with because I love both and think both are valuable resources hopefully pointing humankind toward higher aspirations. But that doesn't change the fact that there are many historical examples of people who loved books or opera or both and were complete monsters! You can love opera and books and still be a terrible human being (It would be so easy for me to play the Hitler card here on the subject of opera, of which he was an avid fan, although his love of books seems to have been entirely over how well they burned.) Of course, you can also be a saint and love books and opera. And walking for that matter. Or anywhere else on the scale of human decency.

I notice other pedestrians, I would even go so far as to say the bulk of them, who are walking because of poor lifestyle choices they've made in their past or present. They may have been caught driving under the influence. Certainly some of them seem to have chosen a life where methamphetamine abuse is a higher priority than owning anything else or doing anything else that doesn't lead to abusing more methamphetamines. John Wayne Gacy was just as capable of walking as St. Francis of Assisi.

You could live your whole life devoted to walking, reading and being a patron of the arts while every thought that rattles around your mind is saturated with hate and fear. Or, perhaps to make things a little more uncomfortable, you could live an entirely unremarkable life of walking, reading and being a patron of the arts while you are living in a nation which destroys civilizations, murders innocents, rapes and pillages. All while you passively indulge yourself in morally neutral behavior, helping no one. History in general will probably not be terribly kind to you. Or, to take it to a religious area, you can walk all the way to Hell. Your salvation has nothing to do with your works.

Of course, walking is a good thing to do in the sense that you are not contributing to pollution, you are probably saving a lot of money (in the present with car and gas. In the future with medical bills.)

I had an English teacher once whose entirely adult life and career sort of revolved around asking, examining and re-asking the question "Is it possible to have morality without God?" I have a theater director friend whose life's question is "What is an action?" So, here's the big question in this instance that I certainly ask and re-ask myself: What makes a person, place or thing good?

What I find is that good is an internal condition and a work of the Holy Spirit. Certainly Christopher Hitchens donating blood would fall under the heading of "common grace." But all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God as an aspect of the human condition. It's only by Christ's atonement and effectual calling that one can have Christ's imputed righteousness before the face of God. Of course, out of the abundance of the heart will then come good works; and faith without works is clearly dead. But the reprobate are capable of doing helpful and friendly actions. It's not about works. It's about the condition of one's heart and most people are walking around dead. Only God can remove the dead heart and replace it with a living one.

Huh. I didn't mean to end up here at all. I meant to just write about my favorite places to walk. I guess I've got a lot on my mind lately. Sorry for the rambling post.

Which is another good thing about walking. I can listen to lectures or music or radio shows. I can also legally talk on the cell phone. But more importantly, I can think.

But that's just me.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Laurie had a birthday today

I kept meaning to post this picture of Agnes right after we brought her home from the vet. She was still all drugged up, the poor little dear. She still hasn't quite forgiven us for the ordeal, but she is visibly healthier and she is beginning to forgive. Baby steps.

But what I really wanted to post about was that today is the birthday of the love of my life, Laurie, my best friend and my wife. Here she is in her new hat.

Gina bought Laurie a rooster magnet for her birthday. My mom got her Luther's commentary on Galatians. Laurie and I went out for dinner. I got her new earphones, Agnes' trip to the vet (which broke the bank, but was well worth it), and a frame for the poster of the Sutro bath house which we're going to put in our kitchen. I'll post pictures when we assemble the frame. Also Gina bought Laurie a card with a guy holding a possum on it in honor of the possum who lives in our wall. On the outside it says "You're how old?" And on the inside it says "That's Im-possum-ble!"

Mango looks on.

Gina also brought over a cake.

I told Laurie I like this one because it looks like she's trying to yell the candles out.

One of my favorite new photos of myself.

Happy Birthday, Laurie.