In college, a friend of mine (still a friend, I'd like to think, but we haven't spoken in a while) talked to me about the Gospel of John and had an interesting problem with the story of Lazarus. Lazarus was a dead man that Jesus told to get out of his tomb, then he was a live man who came out of the tomb. My friend asked, in effect, so, what did Lazarus say? Did he know he was dead? Did he see heaven? Why wasn't this played up more in the story? He thought, as far as I can recall, that this kind of thing made the story inconsistent.
What I failed to consider at the time is that good stories have certain qualities that reality does not. A story has a beginning, middle, and an end (more or less). A story has narrative impact. A story has unity of plot, character, and theme. A story doesn't have loose ends. A story skips the boring parts.
So what's interesting about the Lazarus story is that it serves a purpose in the gospel narrative (among other things, it explains why large crowds followed Jesus into Jerusalem for his Passion: because they'd heard about Lazarus), but for my friend it constituted a loose end. But loose ends don't belong in stories: they are the stuff of reality. If anything, and sure, maybe it's not that important in the long run, if the Lazarus story has a loose end, that militates toward its authenticity rather than against it.
A similar argument is sometimes made about the story (here paraphrased) when a crowd brings an adulterous woman to see Jesus (also in John's gospel). The crowd asks if they should stone the woman. Jesus writes in the dust with his finger, then says, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." This sucks all the hot air out of the angry mob and they leave the woman with Jesus. He says, "Does no one condemn you?" to the woman. She shakes her head, so he says, "Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more."
The interesting thing about this story is that there is a loose end. Never before or since has anyone determined what Jesus was doing writing in the dust with his finger. As the story stands, it has this detail that doesn't contribute to the unity. (As CS Lewis says, fulsome details used for added realism in fiction did not exist until the 19th century.) So, the argument goes, this isn't a story at all. It's just reality.
I was thinking about this on Christmas Eve. We went to a service where the infancy gospel narrative of Matthew and Luke was fleshed out in little family details. I thought to myself, we don't have this little stuff, whether Joseph said he loves Jesus so much. We don't have blow-by-blow accounts of the Creator of the Universe in Earthly Form messing himself. There are missing hours, days, months, and then most famously, a gap that is basically decades long in Jesus' life story. Talk about a loose end we would be keenly interested in!
But, and here is the trick, this is just like a conventional biography. Details are always chosen carefully for their importance, whether the story is fiction or nonfiction. Incidents are omitted or concentrated on based on the unity of the story of a person's life. Every once in a while, though, the story ends and reality peeks through a meaningless little detail.
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
In college, a friend of mine (still a friend, I'd like to think, but we haven't spoken in a while) talked to me about the Gospel of John and had an interesting problem with the story of Lazarus. Lazarus was a dead man that Jesus told to get out of his tomb, then he was a live man who came out of the tomb. My friend asked, in effect, so, what did Lazarus say? Did he know he was dead? Did he see heaven? Why wasn't this played up more in the story? He thought, as far as I can recall, that this kind of thing made the story inconsistent.
Hi people. I missed Christmas with all of you, so I hope you had a good holiday with family. Not to discriminate against people who had other holidays or gathering demographics; I am just projecting my experience onto yours.
We've had a great Christmastime with my wife's side of the family and I couldn't be happier. My chewy noels came out a little strong (maybe I need to replace some of the sugar (sugar:flour::3:1) with liquor or something) but I love them. They are brown-sugary/salty/nutty/powdered sugar bombs of pure addiction.
This year the family decided to get me a supergift instead of just one little gift, so this is it. It's an acoustic-electric guitar (that is, it has built-in electronics) and is vintage sunburst rather than plain pine or whatever color is in the picture. Needless to say, I am overwhelmed at everyone's coordination and generosity. I love you all. It is awesome.
Sarah kept the whole thing under wraps until Christmas morning, when I received very few individual gifts and began to think that something might be up, but I had to wait until about 5:00 for the big surprise. Sarah always got nervous, the past few months, when I'd talk about wanting an electric guitar. "Wouldn't you like to replace that worn-out acoustic guitar first? Wouldn't you?" she would say. "Okay, okay," I would say, a bit sullenly, and secretly, I would dare to dream for a moment. But honestly, I never really believed the family would do it, so I'd just plan on going to the pawn shop with a few Christmas bucks, and play George Harrison songs on the sad-looking electric guitar at Sam's Club, with its missing strings and wussy practice amp. Now I'll get to plug in with a really nice guitar at home and church. You all knew me better than I knew myself. Well done.
I've begun to think about separating out my posts by subjects so they are a little less large and more focused. So, next down the pipe, a little Christmas reflection about stories and real life.
Merry Christmas to all of you!
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
I swear, not one of us was drunk at the time.
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
What Child Is This
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
1. Play Christmas carols at Hastings
2. Post videos to YouTube
3. ... ???
We played for about an hour, so these are just the highlights (although I thought I'll Be Home for Christmas and O Holy Night were also highlights). We have the whole thing on DVD, so if you want a copy, email me or Sarah.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Last night Stacy, Tom, Suzy, Sarah, and I went to Stacy's workplace, Hastings, which is a cafe/(video/music/book) (renter/seller) to play Christmas tunes. Suzy plays a mean hand drum, Tom was on mandolin, shaker, and harmonica, I had the guitar, and everyone sang. Some people from our church showed up and listened. We got a little applause from passers-through, too. Sarah made a video and we should be putting clips on YouTube any day now. It's starting to sound like we'll go to Hastings next year about once a month, and play U2 or the Beatles or Nickel Creek or whatever.
I recently catalogued most of my book collection on Library Thing, a brilliant site that links up your books to everyone else's collections and finds interesting patterns, such as who owns the most books in common with you, suggestions for books that are similar to one you enter, unsuggestions for books (given that you own a book, what's the book it is most unlikely that you also own?). Very fun, interesting stuff.
We'll fall off the earth this weekend, but I should post again before then.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
That brings an end to my best semester in the Master's program yet. I finished my thesis proposal, and made two programs that actually do something interesting.
One is a web crawler that many computers can contribute to at once. The more computers you put on (and it works over the internet, so that could be any number), the faster it will run. The major bottlenecks left are the bandwidth and storage of the central server.
The other one is a hierarchy browser that uses speech recognition, mouse, and ten-key for controls (specifically, to construct a grocery list by selecting items from this household products database). Thus, it is accessible to the blind and the paraplegic as well as to handed and sighted people. This project came together a lot in the last week, when I finally had major time to work on it. I was amazed that it worked the first time, practically the way I wanted to.
Also interesting to me is the fact that both of these programs are in Java. If you have well-documented, intuitive libraries to work with, it's a real snap to start making something interesting. I am also getting better at the Java GUI model, which makes at least a good deal of sense to me.
Once I can figure out how, I'll post the programs for public consumption. They both rely on the user's ability to install PostgreSQL (a database program), which is not all cream soda and sunshine, if you know what I mean. But they really are cool.
I'm considering something I haven't ever done before: paying money for a developer tool. The speech-recognition library I used was put together by some company. I'm about a week into the 30-day trial. It would be $16 to get a personal license, which I could use for research. Or, I can suck it up and learn Windows MFC, ATL, COM, and MS SAPI.
I also finished The Genesee Diary. One of the things that interested me most was the epilogue. After 7 months among the monks, where Henri Nouwen's world was beginning to quiet down a bit and he was getting serene, he returned to a hectic schedule as a teacher, writer, and priest. Six months later, he wrote this epilogue, that he had been hoping that the monastery would change him forever, that he would finally be single-minded, committed, wholly devoted to Christ. That's not what happened. Instead, he saw his time out of the world as something to look back on, to strengthen him with hope for a better life, and also to humble him in comparison with his life out in the real world. He quoted Jesus in a disturbing moment, where Jesus says that you can clean yourself out for a moment, but your demons will come back to haunt you worse than before.
I empathize completely. Not only does his experience remind me a lot of my summer among the Christians in Lake Tahoe, I also long for wholeness with God, that final inch where I tip over into unassuming love for him and the people close to me and the world in general. But I never do quite tip over. I feel the need to live on the edge of the religion and the world, touching both, as I was reminded by rereading a journal recently.
In a way, it was shocking when Nouwen wrote about this cold douse of reality, so different was the style from journal to epilogue. But in a way, it was gratifying and comforting. Not, that is, to think that mountaintop experiences are illusory or failures or impossibly idealistic. Plainly, I think there is more to idealism than meets the eye. Instead, to know that he walked the same road I am walking and felt like me, that it's all right to be out in the world and not feel satisfied with yourself or the world. We don't need to fit because we don't quite fit. We are citizens of another country. The question, of whether that country is the material world of the unconscious animals, the absurd world of existence, nonexistence, and death, or the strange world of the spiritual, is left as an exercise for the reader.
Knowing where you belong doesn't help you fit back into the world. Humans will never fit back into the world. But it can relieve the pressure of worry about not being able to fit, even at your best, into that which you long for desperately, or belong to deeply.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
I'm falling off the face of the earth until Thursday. One distributed web-crawler and one speech-enabled grocery list coming up.
I finished Slaughterhouse Five. It's a book about fatalism, about a man who has come unstuck in time and continually revisits and relives his life, out of order. But since he's already done everything he's about to relive, he is a little helpless against his circumstances. As aliens from Tralfamadore explain to him, events are as they are out of mechanical necessity, not by choice. (In a way, Heroes is also about this issue.) Billy, the man, is a prisoner of war when Dresden is firebombed. Was that, too, a product of environmental conditions and robotic performance? Should those deaths be shrugged off, like so many others in the book, with another "So it goes"? No, no, never. I can't live like that.
So I give you dueling poems. They can be reconciled if you believe in a fixed past, but a wide-open future. Like many issues in philosophy, such a belief may be a question of thinkers justifying something people have long intuited. Good luck with life for the next few days.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it
Say not the struggle naught availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.
If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke conceal'd,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward, look, the land is bright!
Friday, December 08, 2006
We're back! I had a rough time deciding how to write about this next section. But a passage from The Genesee Diary showed me the way. Like I said earlier, it's an account of a Dutch Catholic writer and priest who goes to spend seven months in a Trappist monastery, living as a monk.
Here's the passage:
Contemplative life is a human response to the fundamental fact that the central things in life, although spiritually perceptible, remain invisible in large measure and can very easily be overlooked by the inattentive, busy, distracted person that each of us can so readily become. The contemplative looks not so much around things but through them into their center. Through their center he discovers the world of spiritual beauty that is more real, has more density, more mass, more energy, and greater intensity than physical matter. In effect, the beauty of physical matter is a reflection of its inner content. Contemplation is a response to the world that is built in this fashion. That is why the Greek fathers, who were great contemplatives, are known as the dioretic fathers. [not diuretic - ed.] Diorao means to see into, to see through. In celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, we celebrate the presence of the risen Christ among us, at the center of our lives, at the center of our very being, at the heart of our community, at the heart of the creation...
Keep this in mind as we talk.
Mountaintop At The Garden. Levin meeting Kitty at the ice skating rink might be described best as a mountaintop experience.* In the full flush of his yearning to be joined to Kitty, he uses language that is religious in its fervor to praise her: "Everything became bright in her presence. ... The spot where she stood seemed to him an unapproachable sanctuary... He went down, trying not to look long at her, as though she were the sun, but he saw her, as one sees the sun, without looking." And like someone who looks too long at the sun, he is blinded.
Here's a poem I wrote way back when. If I explain much about what it means, it'll be obvious who it was about. The title is the name of a place on the moon, originally thought to be a sea, and thus called Sea of Tears. One night I looked into the sky, which was quite clear, and saw an enormous silver ring around the moon. Think of it, if you like, as another take on Levin.
Your halo crowning the dark skies
You're too far above me
I sought the sun and I found you
I stared so long my eyes hurt
When I looked around, your image
Was reflected in all I saw
You were imprinted in my brain
I staggered blindly and still your face
Stared back at me endlessly
Maybe you didn't know, when I went into orbit
Circling around, in empty space
Pulled by an irresistible force
I was not an immovable stone
I hate to think you ignored it.
You'll remain pristine forever in my memory
That is what you deserve-
You never attacked
But maybe I did
And I burned out my own eyes
For sight of you
It's a little hard for me to write about this particular chapter, Chapter 9, because of stuff like this. Not God's gift to poetry. I see several changes to make ten-ish years later, including some ghastly punctuation, some clunky phrases. But I was idealistic enough then to believe that Levin was piercing the mystical veil and seeing Kitty as she is. I thought you could have "childlike serenity and goodness," "gentle, calm, and truthful eyes," "an enchanted world," if you only went on a quest for this perfect woman. This attitude spills from the margin, from my high school attitude, into my reading.
Only lately have I seen Levin's attitude being portrayed here as quixotic and a bit unreliable. I transcribed that passage on contemplation, though, because perhaps I have this exactly upside down. It's hard to tell whether visionaries are mad or geniuses. We could all be wrong. Even Tolstoy could be wrong, in a sense, about Levin. Maybe we have only the common sort of sight and he sees the things that are really important.
Faith is the belief in things unseen. That's the common point of view, straight from a quotable Bible verse. The spiritual realm that lies behind or permeates the physical realm is not accessible to our senses. But faith is also the seeing of things believed. Sometimes when I am in the church building, I imagine to myself, what if we could see through this physical thing to the spiritual thing behind it: a pristine church as beautiful as a Monet painting, angels singing in the rafters along with the congregation, the radiance of God shining in every person and from every corner. Sure, there are these brown wooden pews, and the water damage, and the PA is a little too loud this morning and they're out of stubby pencils. And now we must decide which view, which vision of the church is more essential. My instinct is to say that the first one is more real, even though it is, from the common point of view, wholly imaginary.
Once Levin's head floats off its shoulders, action that is altogether prosaic becomes gold-leafed. "Skate together?" Levin asks himself. "Is that possible?" The undercurrent of this action is not Levin's epic romantic destiny, though. Back on the ground, Kitty is frowning and turning things over in her mind. When Levin lets slip his intentions, saying to Kitty regarding the length of his stay in Moscow, "It all depends on you," she is shocked and runs away from him.
We are thus not surprised that she thinks of him as "her favorite brother", and says "I know that I don't love him." On this paragraph, the story pivots, and we grimly anticipate the failure of Levin's marriage proposals, and understand how loosely he is anchored to reality. To his credit, Levin is at least by turns hopeful and hopeless about his prospects. But again, this has more to do with his uncertain view of himself than anything Kitty might have said or done, which he might have paid attention to.
It's a pitiable situation; Tolstoy skillfully sets it up so we tensely await the reveal throughout the following action, until Levin asks Kitty, as he's come to Moscow to do, to fulfill his destiny, to be complete, to find Jesus and God and heaven and be burned up in the sun. Then, presumably, she will say no.
Coming Down The Mountain. Once the radiance of Kitty fades away, Levin finds himself down in the twilight of a dinner with Oblonsky. Quickly, he feels like he and his idealistic thoughts of beauty and truth and Kitty do not belong in this sybarite's world. A woman wearing makeup is the first target of his ire, but more follow over the course of their luxurious meal. "He was afraid of besmirching that which filled his soul." And if there's one thing that really smirches the place up, it's Flensburg oysters.
Levin can't tell Oblonsky all that, so he channels his discomfort into classic town mouse, country mouse talk:
O: "Well, naturally. But that's the whole aim of civilization: to make everything a source of enjoyment."
L: "Well, if that is so, I'd rather be a savage."
The friendly banter starts to unravel as Oblonsky brings the conversation back around to the Shcherbatskys, though. It's hard not to hear Oblonsky dragging a source of holiness for Levin down into a source of enjoyment for himself. Levin reaffirms, once more in religious language, both what this love means to him ("It is not mere feeling, but a sort of force outside me which has taken possession of me") and why he feels unworthy of it ("that we--who are no longer young and have pasts... er... not of love but of sins--that we find ourselves drawn close suddenly to a pure, innocent being!").
But in this affirmation we can hear Levin's confession that all the disgust he had directed outward at the evening, the tarted-up woman, the luxuries, and Oblonsky, the paunchy nobleman, also convicts him. I am tempted to say that Levin's opinion of himself is just as valid as his opinion of Kitty. Another phrase springs to mind: "in humility, consider others better than yourselves." Is Levin's attitude humility, or do we need a more destructive word?
As If. As if the night couldn't get any worse, Oblonsky talks about one of Kitty's suitors, the handsome, intelligent, young Vronsky, then forces Levin to talk about adultery. I have wondered for a while whether there is a subtext here that Levin is too old for Kitty. No one really comes right out and says it. It's all couched in terms of experience.
I'll leave the talk of Vronsky for another night. As for the talk on adultery, it's fairly predictable when you think about where they're both coming from, but it's fun to read. There are some great lines and moments in this chapter, and this is already getting long, so I'm going to cut this thing short.
I really like the moment when Levin is talking about how pure love should be, but all of a sudden he realizes that he is not so pure and becomes confused: "However, perhaps you're right. Yes, perhaps you are. ... But I don't know. I really don't know." This is the culmination of Levin's being pulled between the two versions of his love all day long, masterfully depicted by Tolstoy. Oblonsky has a great line in response: "You want the activity of every single man always to have an aim, and love and family life always to be one and the same thing. But that doesn't happen either. All the diversity, all the charm, and all the beauty of life are made up of light and shade."
Finally done! Hopefully the next installment won't take so long to get out.
* The reference is to the Transfiguration, a story in the Gospels where Jesus takes John, Peter, and James up on a peak, where they see him transformed and conversing with Moses and Elijah. (Incidentally, Wikipedia informs me that the Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican churches celebrate this event on August 6, a day I have always firmly associated with the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima.)
I had a mountaintop experience in the summer of 2000, when I spent several weeks in South Lake Tahoe with Campus Crusade for Christ among adults in ministry and 80 like-minded students on a mission. I don't regret the weeks. They rank with some of the best I've ever had, and that's where I met Sarah Conrad from Utah. There was even a literal, yet symbolic mountain to climb where you could see for miles into the blue, Mount Tallac. I picked wildflowers to give to Sarah. I had a two-liter bottle full of them before Matt Stumbaugh educated me about zero-impact principles.
It was a perfect environment for living as a Christian and being close to God. There are all kinds of things I could say from here, like "too perfect...?" and "for that reason, to be mistrusted" but they're not quite true. The mountain is real, and the valley and the flatland are real too. What you learn on the mountain is for the rest of your life, but it requires a bit of translation to the rest of your life first.
And how did I forget finishing The Visual Display of Quantitative Information? It's a beautifully designed history and primer-by example of on how to visualize data (the medium is the message; it's a beautiful book), especially useful for scientists, but useful for anyone who wants to use graphics to explore data. You can read more about it here.
The guy who wrote it is Edward Tufte, a pioneer in visualization. He has a website.
I also recently happened across a site called Information Aesthetics, which showcases the creative display of data in the news and on the net. It's fascinating stuff; bookmark it, subscribe to it. Here's an example: the flow of user traffic through various pages on a single web site is visualized as a circle, with heavy lines for the most common pathways through. Sure, they're gorgeous, but they also show how people tend to use the website, which can provide insights to the site designer.
The post title is almost my favorite "visualize X" bumper sticker. One day I thought of one I liked better, and I told Sarah, and it cracked us up. If it doesn't crack you up, you obviously have an impaired humor system and you should get it checked out:
Visualize Using Your Turn Signal
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
NBC has a great show running called Heroes. I read somewhere that if Buffy the Vampire Slayer (one of the best shows) is like a comic book guy (Joss Whedon) doing a TV show, then Heroes is like a TV guy (Tim Kring) doing a comic book. It's layered and intricate, thoughtful and exciting, full of the surprises and connections that made Buffy so great, and it has a warm human heart at the center of a very intellectual, meta take on heroism and courage. Do not miss it!
Sarah saw a few episodes of Heroes out of order, then came back when I watched them all in order (I am a stickler about this kind of thing). She was constantly saying, Oh, I totally didn't get that before but now it all makes perfect sense. The order is important, and there's actual integrity that should be observed.
So, friends, welcome to the future of TV and the internet:
There won't be a new Heroes episode on until January 1, so NBC decided to stream every episode online. Take my strong advice and watch them immediately. You have a few weeks to get through them.
To my mind, this solves the major problem until now with primetime serial adventures and dramas. There are a lot of these twisty shows now, like 24 and Lost. I watched 24's first 7 or 8 episodes, then I missed one, and I didn't want to pick up with a missing episode because the whole thing seemed so integrated and full, like a novel. You wouldn't read a novel with a few chapters missing out of the center, and however many years later, I haven't seen any more 24. The networks are obviously picking up on this, and they don't want to lose me for another five years by these little accidents of scheduling.
I felt the same way about it as NBC, but I didn't know they were doing this (up to now, I think they were only doing "this week's episode" for free online), so I downloaded about 7 using BitTorrent and taped two more on Scifi (which has a syndication deal or something) so Sarah and I could catch up. Is it that much different from what NBC did? If I had a TiVo, I'd just tape them anyway. The sooner the networks embrace time-shifting and file-sharing, the better off they'll be. There's a real sea change going on right now as primetime TV struggles to come to terms with the internet. I personally don't think they'll ever catch up, but it'll work.
And the last thing: if you watch Heroes online, you'll be watching (or ignoring) ads at the beginning of each segment (six per hour). NBC has found out how to make money on the internet, and it's uncanny how similar it is to how you do it with television sets.
And one more. There's an amazing Beatles album out there called Love. I'd only seen prancy, goofy commercials full of clowns noting the fact that the Cirque de Soleil is using it as a soundtrack for one of their shows. Here's what it really is: an authorized remix (or mashup, if you will) of the Beatles catalog by Sir George Martin and his son. Here's the site, where you can hear samples and interviews with Mr. Martin, Paul, and Ringo explaining why and how they made the album. Every song is full of cuts and quotations and pieces of other songs. The version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps is just beautiful.
Posted by Dan Lewis at 12/06/2006 05:58:00 PM
I don't think I wrote about this at the time, but I finished Secrets and Lies by Bruce Schneier recently. It is a layman's introduction to the security technologies that underlie just about everything we do on the Internet, along with pluses and minuses. A major takeaway for me was that technology is the strong point, but deploying it and handing it over to people to use is the weak point. Security policies are only as good as the people who are implementing them. It's a little out of date now, but in some sense its philosophy on security is timeless.
I zipped through Salem's Lot, like I said earlier. I actually tried to read it once, maybe a year or so ago, but one early scene was so frightening (when Ben gets the globe from the house) that I couldn't read any more. Recently we got our tires rotated, which was sort of an excuse to buy a book for while I was waiting. Every time I read a Stephen King book, I'm like, "Where have you been all my life?" This one was an homage to Bram Stoker, but it was also a skillful multiple-person narrative about a small town. Sometimes his word choices are a little dubious, but I can't fault him for great, moving stories. He definitely deserves his bucks.
And of course, the list of his books that I've read is slowly growing... The Eyes of the Dragon, The Dead Zone, Misery, Carrie, the early four Bachman books (The Long Walk, Rage, which I think is also called Getting It On, Roadwork, and The Running Man). If I'm going chronologically, I think The Shining is up next. I've never read The Stand, but it's on my bookshelf too. Its size is a little intimidating.
I started Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and let me just say, Kurt Vonnegut, where have you been all my life? So it goes.
I have the 7th book in the Foreigner series by CJ Cherryh, Destroyer. The stories are about a human colony that has crash-landed, helpless and unable to return to the rest of civilization on an alien planet. The main character is a sort of linguist-diplomat who mediates between the remnant of humanity and the alien race that dominates the planet. The stories are sort of about language, about anthropology, about communication and the difficulties we face in seeing from someone else's perspective. They're very sophisticated, but magically, they're still engrossing, addictive, page-turning adventures. My mom put me onto these a long time ago. Thanks, Mom. The first one is Foreigner. I have several of them if you want to borrow them.
Sunday, December 03, 2006
I miss Peanuts. They're such classics.
We had a bangin December worship service today. It was all Christmas songs (except for Let Us Break Bread Together for communion). In fact, I think everything we played was a hymn. Tom, our mandolin/harmonicist/hand drum player said our beats were rocking. I thought to myself, "Beats?", but I suppose we did throw a few changeups on a swing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, We Three Kings of Orient Are ("Steve, play the drums like a camel walking through the desert" "Think caravan"), and a song about Mary sung to the tune of Good King Wenceslas.
We were going to end with Go Tell It On The Mountain, but as it turned out, we had something different today. We did communion at the end of the service, then our pastor, Don Emerson, read a statement to the church. It turns out that it was a long time coming, but he is resigning as pastor effective two or three weeks from today. He is in his 70s, so it's not so much surprising as shocking. This is, after all, the man that presided over my wedding, that I've worked with in Men's classes and financial classes and running the service and just life in general. When Sarah and I reached out for help, he was always there for us with a good word, faithfulness in prayer, and love. We'll miss him terribly.
As he put it, he's retiring for health reasons. He and his wife Carol spent the last several years (decades?) caring for Carol's parents, who were in their 90s by the end. They're moving down south to a warmer, dryer climate like Arizona or Texas. It sounds to me like a last grand adventure with his wife Carol. I wonder how I would live in a situation like that, what I would do to redeem the time.
It's a happy parting in some ways. He's not dying, but this enormous part of his life is ending. He's probably been a pastor for more than 50 years. We can all rejoice in the new things God will do in his life.
I don't know what the transition will be like at Maranatha. It's a strong community with many natural leaders, so I don't doubt we will sail ok. At the same time, it will feel a little funny because in all likelihood, Sarah and I and Alex will leave the valley this spring too. First the pastor, then us, and that means the worship teams will get reconfigured as one goes headless. And there's a pastoral search process, and maybe guest speakers delivering the sermons.
I wonder what it will be like to say goodbye. It might be a last goodbye.
I guess if you're reading this and you used to go to Maranatha, if possible you should come up to Logan for his send-offs. I think his last Sunday will be the 24th, if I heard right, but it might be the 17th. And no doubt there will be a bon voyage sometime soon. I will post more details as I become aware of them.
Posted by Dan Lewis at 12/03/2006 02:51:00 PM
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Did I really live my life or was it lived for me? Did I really make the decisions that led me to this place at this time, or was I simply carried along by the stream, by sad as well as happy events? I do not want to live it all again, but I would like to remember more, so that my own little history could be a book to reflect on and learn from. I don't believe that my life is a long row of randomly chained incidents and accidents of which I am not much more than a passive victim. No, I think that nothing is accidental but that God molded me through the events of my life and that I am called to recognize his molding hand and praise him in gratitude for the great things he has done to me.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
I've been working hard and reading a lot. I bought Salem's Lot to read while our tires got rotated and balanced and ended up gulping it down. And one of our tires was way out of balance.
A blast from my childhood: Scorched 3D, a fully-3D, beautiful, fun remake of Scorched Earth, perhaps the quintessential old-school tank deathmatch game. It is internet ready, so get out your funky bombs and hot napalm and blast away.
Thanksgiving was good for our family. I made mashed potatoes with Boursin, a soft cheese with garlic and herbs (instructions: mash a thing or two of Boursin into your potatoes). Sarah's grandmother made most of the dishes, but we all contributed a little. Sarah made a chocolate trifle (a word which will probably always make me think "beef, sauteed with peas and onions"); I crushed the Heath bars in their wrappers with the back of a spoon while our son slept upstairs.
I've been feeling really exhausted lately, but I'm still going to finish the next installment on Anna Karenina if it kills me. Coming soon!
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Hi everyone. We've been a little sick with a nasty cold around here. Not the best week for it.
Yesterday, Sarah and I got to go out for a movie date. We get about two of these a year, so it was an event. If you ever want to just see and enjoy a movie in the theater, go to the late afternoon matinee on Wednesday (and avoid the kid movies and that crowd). Sarah and I practically had the theater to ourselves. Another couple came in after us during the previews, but the projector people still turned on the lights in the first few minutes of the movie, presumably to see if they needed to continue showing it.
The movie was Stranger than Fiction. As an aside, "Two thumbs way up" will always get me to a movie. I pay close attention to Ebert [spoiler alert!] and friends because they aren't afraid to give thumbs down to crappy or even dull, marginal movies, and because they at least have some editorial point of view. And they were right this time, this movie rules my world. I would see it again today if I could.
The acting was great. Will Ferrell, in particular, is just perfect. It's well-written and honest, and smart.
Unfortunately, everything else I want to say about this awesome movie would require me to spoil the ending. So go see the movie a few times, then hover over the following series of asterisks, full of spoilers, to see what I think. I had to use short sentences so the hovering works in Firefox, but be assured that there are a few paragraphs behind all these thoughts.
* * * * *
Sunday, November 12, 2006
I've had a strange week. I feel unmotivated, but excited for the future. I feel full of malaise, but not depressed. I think Amelie (real title: Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain) was the right movie to see under the circumstances. It was fabulously French and weird and just note perfect.
I looked up tonight from Workout Mode and found I'd been dancing on a pad for about forty minutes. Those are 500 calories I'll never see again. According to Workout Mode.
Today I sang Alex songs about koalas and gorillas from his Baby Einstein picture books. They didn't actually come with music. That was all up to me. I have more songs going too. I got the good idea to just play and play and tape myself onto the computer with Audacity. Maybe those tunes that always bump around in my head will never get lost now.
Now that you've read this post, I assign you the task of auditing my papers after I die. Only you and the whole internet will know that there are secret songs on my hard drive. Plus all the flotsam and jetsam I wrote down lo these many years. It's in my will, you're legally bound now.
I've had pentameter lines running around as well. Here is one from a couple weeks back, when I took Alex and Sarah to his language giddyup class, then walked to the USU student center on a clear winter morning:
A sky so blue the towering mountains bow
It was really like that. And here's a quatrain from a sonnet yet to be completed, yet to be called "Hearing Things." I thought it up while I was walking to the grocery store and Subway for lunch, after listening to the song "Lullaby" on the new Dixie Chicks album while driving. [If you've known me for a long time, you might know that I used to describe my taste in music as "everything", with these two exceptions: "country" and "opera". Happily, I came around on the opera and I especially like the ones where people sing ordinary things in these opera voices. Like "Hooooney... Wherrre Is my Brrrrrrush?" "Wherrreverr you Left! It!" And I have heard that this Dixie Chicks album is "crossover" so I can still hate on the "country".]
I am not sure exactly which quatrain of the three in the nascent sonnet the following should be:
It's been a while since I have lived and breathed
A hearing thing within a world of sound
I feel the voices rumble underground
I feel them, though I never once believe
That third line isn't quite right, is it? I tried it as "I feel vibrations rumbling underground". I think a lot will depend on the other ten lines, and maybe that's why it doesn't fit yet. That, and the word "believe" is bothering me too. But I'll never change the first two lines, even if I live to fifty.
Posted by Dan Lewis at 11/12/2006 11:37:00 PM
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
It's just a few more hours until the election returns start coming in. I'm nervous for our country, as you could find out by reading a few of the posts I've tagged with "politics". I'm nervous that when the dust settles, we won't get accountability for the executive, the torture policies, the war profiteering in Iraq, the illegal spying on the phones and the Internet (and targeted surveillance of left and antiwar groups!), the signing statements, the run-up to the Iraq war, the loss of practical governance and good government, the wildly careening budget deficit, the corruption at the highest levels, the collapse of our foreign policy, and the abolition of habeas corpus and fair trials for the usual suspects in our forgotten terrorist prison cells.
This is a housecleaning moment for the United States. Vote for answers. The Republican Congress hasn't asked the tough questions. Vote for a Congress that will. The President has made clear his intention to stay the course in Iraq. Vote for a Congress that will make him change the course.
Friday, November 03, 2006
I worked all evening on an assignment that was due yesterday. I had the day wrong. And the teacher doesn't accept late work.
My consolation is that I did a good job, and it would've been on time.
Also, I had a positive meeting on my research, so that softens the blow. But I wanted my 5 points.
I've been working hard on Anna Karenina, Part I, Chapters 9 through 11. Should be ready soon.
Posted by Dan Lewis at 11/03/2006 10:54:00 PM
I've been pretty busy with school.
I saw the first episode of Firefly the other night. It was rather good.
I made a nuclear pumpkin for Halloween. Sarah took a picture of it. (I did the yield sign too, but I wasn't as pleased with the results.) It is competing with the Batman pumpkin I did last year for my all-time favorite.
The discussion about Christianity in the last post continued.
I guess I should also say that I've been going back and tagging earlier posts that seem to fit into broad categories. So you could have all the Anna Karenina posts on one page, if you like. I've picked a few like books, movies, religion, politics. I'm not sure how to expose these labels to you the reader yet, nor if there's any way you could skip posts you didn't care about (like the Anna Karenina ones). But it's there if you can use it.
I am exhausted.
Posted by Dan Lewis at 11/03/2006 10:54:00 AM
Monday, October 30, 2006
[I posted this to a discussion that criticized a liberal writer named Amy Sullivan. I don't really agree with Sullivan's arguments in general, but the post, by Matthew Yglesias, seemed to have grasped the wrong end of the problem of interfaith dialogue, to say the least. Read on for a discussion of minority status, worldview confusion, and hell.]
Following MQ's 1:02 comment, it is very different on my side of the fence. I'm a Protestant in Utah, surrounded by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I and people like me have experienced intolerance based on religion in America, the real kind, not the whiny "War on Christmas" stuff. For example, my relatives have been screened, obliquely but obviously, for their LDS religion or lack thereof in job interviews. At the same time, I recognize the earnest desire of my neighbors to be close to God.
One thing living here has taught me is that there is no dividend in criticizing people based on how wacky you think their beliefs are. As an example of a belief that was foreign to me, roughly, Mormons believe that eternal godhood, eternal family, and eternal procreation await in the best of three heavens for families who are faithful to the church's teachings in their lifetime.
But these beliefs don't seem wacky to them at all: they suffuse the air the Mormons breathe, or if you like, they are shot through the lenses through which Mormons see the world. It all seems very natural to them. If I tried to criticize their belief starting from Protestant premises, my argument would come across as nonsense to them.
And unfortunately, that's the way the post's argument comes across to me.
On the other hand, the evangelical view of this matter is, in fact, completely absurd. ... On this view, a person who led an entirely exemplary life in terms of his impact on the world (would an example help? Gandhi, maybe?) but who didn't accept Jesus as his personal savior would be subjected to a life of eternal torment after his death and we're supposed to understand that as a right and just outcome. That, I think, is seriously messed up. [excerpt from original post]
I bolded the key phrase. You are not supposed to understand. The believers are supposed to understand. Their belief coheres, has its own internal consistency and logic. It all seems absurd to you. It all seems very natural to them.
In fact, this very issue of damnation is taken up early in church history in a notoriously difficult passage in the letter to the Romans (chapters 9 through 11). It takes the view, first, that if God wanted to, he probably could have made a world where some people can not make it to heaven, in order to provide object lessons to the people who can. And, the argument goes, if you think that's unfair, tough, that would just be how it is. "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?" You criticize what you do not understand. Put another way, given a prior assumption that Christianity is broadly true, your argument is arrogantly presumptive about the way God must work.
The second part of the passage is about what actually happened: God's careful plan, through the history of Israel and the action of Jesus, to instead offer mercy to all: "For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all." This is close to my view of the matter. How "mercy on them all" plays out in the real world is an exercise for the reader.
The meaning of hell in Christianity is not cut and dried. It has been controversial and difficult for 2000 years. But it will only be a confused muddle if you come at it from secular assumptions and ethical systems and presume to judge it from the outside.
In fact, it is the same muddle, in reverse, when Christians try to persuade you that you are in danger of hellfire because "the Bible says so". From their point of view, the argument is practically over. From your point of view, it has barely begun.
Saturday, October 28, 2006
I subscribe to this blog's RSS feed, so I am aware that several recent posts may have been reposted to your reader. Blogger is in the middle of an upgrade and I finally got on the bandwagon. I am going to change the site's template shortly too, so I hope for your sakes that my posts don't start clogging your reader like a broken copy machine.
Halloween always brings out the crazies, but now you can strike back: why not do something crazy and write a novel? November is National Novel Writing Month, and believe it or not, there is a community of hundreds or even thousands who plan to do just that.
If anyone knows how to cook with shiitake mushrooms, please tell me. I cut some up into a New Orleans pilaf along with some chicken, but I'm at a real loss as to where to go from here. Sarah said they made the kitchen smell like I was cooking diapers, and I thought they came out pretty well.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
Sarah and I watched two great animated movies yesterday and today: Over the Hedge and Monster House. The voice talent in these things is unbelievable. If I had to pick, I would recommend Monster House first. It is genuinely fear-inducing and funny, and doesn't talk down to you. I almost want to say it wasn't aimed at kids. The animations of humans (I guess this one was mostly motion-capture like Polar Express) were pretty amazing too. Over the Hedge is pretty funny, if not as ingenious.
We just finished the first season (six episodes) of 30 Days. It's by Morgan Spurlock, who did Super Size Me, where he spent a whole month eating nothing but McDonald's: experience a lifestyle foreign to you for 30 days. He lived on the minimum wage for a month, then did shows on a Christian dude who lives as a Muslim in Dearborn, a concerned mom who spends a month binge drinking like her coed daughter, DJs who live as hippies in an eco-friendly commune, and so on. They are thought-provoking and eye-opening shows, more so than their cousins, like Wife Swap. One interesting thing I didn't expect was that the thirty-day length of the experience really gives the subjects time to settle in and for the situation to evolve. These fantasy camp visits to another life turn into something else by the end.
I bought a book at the USU library along the same lines: it's called The Genesee Diary, by Henri Nouwen. It's an account of the 7 months he spent as a Trappist monk. I've never read a Henri Nouwen book all the way through, but I have wanted to for some time now. Cost to me: 25 cents. At the same stock-retirement sale, I bought a hardcover copy of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (I read and liked his Foucault's Pendulum a while back). Cost to me: $1.
There was a Tech Expo at the university today. I got a few leads, but the most positive one was the guy from the NSA. There were two guys at the booth, so I picked the scruffy one instead of the one in the suit. His name was Jack. His last name began with a J too, I think. One of those nondescript names They want you to forget.
The first words out of my mouth were name, degree (MS in Computer Science), and thesis topic (image steganography). He was surprised. He looked over my resume and said I would be a great fit. We talked about the unlimited resources of the agency, its ability to do blue-sky research because it's not in the private sector, the large number of research groups, and so on. He looked over my resume and recommended I get it online immediately, concentrating on expanding my list of computer skills so I pop up right away in their resume search engines. The background checks take 8 months, so I'd better saddle up if I want a job for next year.
As I explained to a friend later, it sounds like an ideal job for me, as long as I'm not spying on Americans.
I've followed that FISA stuff pretty closely, and I'm as sure as a lay person can be that the President essentially ordered the NSA to break the law with fig-leaf legal justifications, and then they did it. Not everyone at NSA, but enough of them, in collusion with AT&T and other carriers, to spy on ungodly amounts of internet and telephone traffic that should have been hands-off according to our surveillance laws.
I didn't bring all this up in my short conversation with Jack. It didn't seem polite. But I'm sure if I apply and they do background checks on me, it'll be pretty easy for them to find all the stuff I've written about them on this blog. Like I told my friend, I hardly know whether to teach people to hide from the NSA and encrypt their email, or to help the NSA spy on America's very real enemies (with proper legal safeguards, like warrants, firmly in place). My hope is that I can make a more informed opinion as I move through the hiring process (or get turned down early, whichever).
Research appeals to me more than software development. I'm not sure yet if a PhD is for me, but I am definitely looking at the companies like IBM, MS, and Google that have a place for research. My thesis process has been frustrating at times, but fabulous when it's working. I enjoy taking the problems one step deeper and gaining insight.
Vote on November 7.
Monday, October 23, 2006
Sorry for the long delay in posting. The Playstation finally arrived. I gave some dude neutral feedback on eBay because I paid on Tuesday and then the guy said he lost the tracking information. Well, I found it on the label when it got here, buddy, and that UPS shipment was initiated Friday. Anyhow, my journey to the DDR side is complete. I am better with the controller than my feet, obviously. I did have some fun trying to do doubles on one controller. The only hard part is hitting two directions at once on the D-pad. That and blowing your mind.
We finished a season of Angel, the Buffy spinoff. Angel is a vampire and sometimes he kills people who are evil. He's out for justice for the downtrodden, and that makes the moral center of the show a bit more gooey and interesting than in Buffy. On the other hand, a lot of the fun tricks and running jokes from Buffy would have been too derivative, so the show feels a little less well-rounded.
It's been an exciting week for school, work, and the future. On Thursday is a Tech Career get-together. Micron, Dell, Novell, the FBI, and some of the other usual suspects are going to be there. I've been trying to think about the kind of job I want to get. Do I want to write software or research algorithms? And if it is research, do I need to go on for a PhD? And would I work for MS? If anyone is interested in sorting me out, or giving me some helpful advice, let me know. And my research is going better. We actually seem to be making well-defined improvements over our competitors. I may be able to write a thesis proposal and graduate on time.
I'll be back on Anna Karenina soon.
November 7 is fast approaching, so register to vote, and then vote. It's time to change the course in Iraq, and in America.
Monday, October 16, 2006
I'm reading for chunks. Maybe two or three chapters will turn out to be more appropriate than four or five.
Meet Kozneyshev. Yes, yes, every single heading I've used so far has said "Meet X". It's like there's a party in my book, and everyone's invited. Things are going to start happening soon, I promise.
For some reason now unfathomable to me, after the better part of a decade reading this book, I never picked up on the fact that these chapters with Levin's brother are a flashback, which occur in the morning before Levin goes to see Oblonsky. At the end of the Chapter 5, Levin bounded off to find Kitty at the skating rink. Along with Chapter 6, the backstory on Levin and Kitty, these chapters interrupt the action to characterize Levin and his brother Koznyshev, and to introduce Levin's other brother, Nikolai.
This kind of interruption would be a no-no on the airport rack. The exciting narrative is put on hold for these expository lumps. The fact that I didn't notice for years probably means it's no big deal. Maybe it also shows that the exposition is interesting enough in its own right.
Levin's brother Sergey is renowned as a thinker, a member of the intelligentsia who enjoys nothing more than seeing around all sides of an issue and arguing articulately about it. I understand why; just this was my favorite thing for a long time.
When I was in high school, I was a policy debater. It's an intellectual game where the object is to score points in an argument game. A resolution, chosen at the beginning of the year (actually, before the summer break preceding), delineates the sides of the debate. One team, the Affirmative, must argue in favor of the resolution (e.g., "The US should change its foreign policy towards Iraq"), and they essentially set the ground for the hour of debate that follows; the other team, the Negative, explains why the Affirmative is totally wrong, even if the Affirmative plan is to give everyone a pony and live happily ever after. In the course of a typical tournament, you might take the Affirmative 3 times and the Negative 3 times. You might say things that you don't believe, or further, things that contradict the statements you made to win the last debate.
For me, the system started breaking down in my senior year. People started making philosophical arguments about the way people talked in the debates, essentially playing the Race card or the Class card or the Patriarchy card or the Sins of the State card. Environmental debates lend themselves to this kind of indictment of how you speak rather than what you're saying, owing to the variety of philosophical takes on the environment. All of a sudden, you're a misogynist who wants to oppress people because you're interested in funding the ethanol industry. The debates could get pretty ugly. Once, a team brought up suicide during a critique of Western morality. Not in a good way. It was me and Geraldine, and we were both friends of Chris. That one was ugly.
Words do matter. They can kill and heal, build up and tear down, just like in the poem. They cut you, you bleed. They lift you, you fly. But Koznyshev doesn't treat words like that anymore. He refuses to take them seriously. That's why it says in the first paragraph of Chapter 7, first, that the professor came to talk about "a very important philosophical question", and second, that their discussion is a "fashionable question." These two opposed views brought me up short. Is it more irony? Is there just irony on every page of this book now that I am 26? Am I ironic?
Here's another explanation. For Koznyshev, there has long ceased to be a distinction between what is very important and what is fashionable. He doesn't take a position because he has no positions. He understands everything except for himself. Levin, on the other hand, feels forced by a kind of innate honesty or maybe courage, to take stands that he must later retract. He is interested in questions as Koznyshev never can be, because he sees the mystery of himself at the heart of all of life's questions.
This is why Kozneyshev and the professor dance around questions of sensation, being, and death. It takes a man who looks like a barge hauler, like the man who sings "Old Man River", to bring them face to face with the very real implications of the ideas they toss around like coins. They are good at the debate game, but no one gets good at death. Koznyshev is a great debater, and saves the game by pointing out that there is no data beyond death; only theory remains.
The next chapter has more of the same, as Koznyshev dispassionately chats about things that he has no personal stake in. Even the news that his brother Nikolai is back in town does not sway him. When Koznyshev pays a debt for Nikolai and sends him the receipt, Nikolai responds with a sarcastic note asking to be left alone. Then Koznyshev makes a very telling statement: "'He obviously wants to insult me,' Koznyshev went on, 'but he can't do that.'" That's because Koznyshev isn't enough of a person to be insulted. He doesn't take any stands worth fighting about, or even worth some mild indignation. Nikolai can't hurt what he can't touch. Nikolai, can, however, inspire Koznyshev to soar to new heights of personal moral rectitude by his example. In theory, Koznyshev is a towering intellect, a respected moralist and thinker; in reality, he is a ghost.
One thing to keep in mind as you read about Nikolai, Levin, and Sergey is to remember that they are brothers, and in some way may represent a kind of continuum. Sergey and Nikolai are estranged, and Levin travels between them. Sergey is well-respected, Nikolai is reviled, and again Levin is about halfway between. I'll revisit this idea when we meet Nikolai.
Levin decides that letters and paid-off IOUs aren't enough, even for a wastrel like Nikolai, and wants to go see his brother. He is tempted to blow it off because his mind is full of Kitty and his plans to propose, but he still decides to go that evening. The flashback ends as Levin sets out for Oblonsky's office.
These two chapters aren't very far out of order, so why do it as a flashback at all? Consider where Tolstoy had to begin the novel. The precipitating event for all the action that follows, one way or another, is the Oblonsky crisis. Levin is also introduced from Oblonsky's point of view, rather than appearing first waiting around in his brother's office. Instead our first impression of Levin is as an impulsive man of action. The Oblonsky crisis is more interesting, and provides some unresolved tension to carry us through the first chapters of the book. It also drops the name of the main character, Anna, who we don't see for a while yet.
Why have the two chapters at all? We could just go straight from Oblonsky's office to the rink. I think it was important to get Nikolai into the backstory quickly, and perhaps to characterize Koznyshev. These things set up the promised scenes with Nikolai in the evening.
Friday, October 13, 2006
I'm having a busy week for school. Next up: Levin and Koznyshev, Levin and Kitty at the skating rink, and Levin and Oblonsky on the town.
I am pleased to announce that on Google's blogsearch, I am now the number 1 hit for dan lewis. USA! USA! USA!
My DDR pads arrived today. New vinyl smell.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Hi all. I know a few of you out there read me via RSS syndication. I've decided to change the feed slightly.
The new URL is: http://feeds.feedburner.com/LettersPapers
As far as I know, the old one will keep working, but I'm switching the link on the front page to this new one.
If you don't know what RSS is, or why it might be cool to subscribe to your favorite blogs and news services, read this. And here is a fine blog reader.
Those epidemiologists are at it again.
Before the United States invaded Iraq, the death toll was 5.5 per 1000 per year; after, the death toll went to 13.3 per 1000 per year.
That translates to 655,000 civilian deaths, the number the scientists are reporting.
According to this death figure, that's 220 9/11 attacks, or about 1 per week.
On the other hand, if Iraq were the size of America, the number of deaths would be about 7.5 million. Roughly, this is like killing every last person inside the city limits of Los Angeles, Houston, and Philadelphia (the metro areas are obviously larger). Or it's like the number of casualties the United States suffered in Vietnam, 100 times.
But these are only numbers. They're huge, and there's a human life behind every tally mark, but they just don't convey what is going on in Iraq, what we hath wrought. So here's a journalist in Iraq explaining where we are now.
Some readers and viewers think we journalists are exaggerating about the situation in Iraq. I can almost understand that because who would want to believe that things are this bad? Particularly when so many people here started out with such good intentions.
I'm more puzzled by comments that the violence isn't any worse than any American city. Really? In which American city do 60 bullet-riddled bodies turn up on a given day? In which city do the headless bodies of ordinary citizens turn up every single day? In which city would it not be news if neighborhood school children were blown up? In which neighborhood would you look the other way if gunmen came into restaurants and shot dead the customers?
Day-to-day life here for Iraqis is so far removed from the comfortable existence we live in the United States that it is almost literally unimaginable.
It's almost impossible to describe what it feels like being stalled in traffic, your heart pounding, wondering if the vehicle in front of you is one of the three or four car bombs that will go off that day. Or seeing your husband show up at the door covered in blood after he was kidnapped and beaten.
I don't know a single family here that hasn't had a relative, neighbor or friend die violently. In places where there's been all-out fighting going on, I've interviewed parents who buried their dead child in the yard because it was too dangerous to go to the morgue.
Imagine the worst day you've ever had in your life, add a regular dose of terror and you'll begin to get an idea of what it's like every day for a lot of people here.
So what do we do? Well, the executive is committed to a failed policy. Bush has said that he won't leave Iraq even if the only people supporting him are his wife and his dog. The strategic vision is over. The Republican Congress refuses to hold the President accountable, for lying to us about the reasons for going to war, screwing up the post-war occupation completely, putting our soldiers into the meat grinder without adequate safeguards, and finally for spinning and covering up for all the failures and their consequent violence.
So it's time for a Congress that will hold Bush accountable. Make sure you're registered, and vote in November.
You have lots of excuses if the Iraq war doesn't suit you: an obvious cover-up by the Republican House leadership of a child sex predator in order to retain political power, the atrocious Medicare Part D, the sale of Iraq war reconstruction to private companies, the bill codifying the President's right to torture prisoners and suspend habeas corpus, the illegal wiretapping of American citizens by the NSA, the foreign policy failure that is the North Korean nuclear weapons program, the signing statements that purport to allow the executive to ignore laws, the anemic response to Hurricane Katrina and the still-worse failure to rebuild New Orleans... the list is definitely not complete yet.
The Congress isn't directly responsible for all of these decisions; a lot of them are on the President. But the Congress has oversight power (at least in theory, if not in current events). If you want investigations and accountability, you need a Congress willing to stand up to the President. Could that be a Republican Congress? All signs point to no.
Don't we need to stand up to this President? (funny)
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Monday, October 09, 2006
Side note. My son Alexander turned two on Saturday. He is a wonderful boy. We took him to the doctor today for a scheduled checkup. He's growing well and all. Our pediatrician noticed my battered copy of Anna Karenina, and asked me how far I was into it. I explained that I was reading it once again, and he said he recognized it because of the front cover, which is a painting called "The Spinet". Spinet means upright piano, as opposed to grand piano, and the picture shows a lady playing the piano. (Spinet is also a term for harpsichord-like keyboard instruments (presumably popular in the 19th century) that pluck strings rather than hammering them like the piano does.) Anyhow, the doctor too has the Magarshack.
Meet Dolly. Chapter 4 introduces Oblonsky's wife, Dolly. She was once beautiful, but the strains of seven pregnancies in nine years, raising five children, and running a house on nothing while Oblonsky fritters away his living and her fortune have aged her prematurely. When she discovered Oblonsky's betrayal, it probably should have been the final straw. As the chapter opens, we hear Dolly's indecision as she tries to pack up the children's things. She has been on the verge of leaving Oblonsky for days, but can't quite cross the threshold.
Here are a few interesting verbal coincidences that explain why, at least to me. At the end of Chapter 3, Oblonsky says, "it can't be left as it is," then marches into Dolly's bedroom to have it out. A mirror image at the beginning of Chapter 4 reads, "[Dolly] kept saying to herself that it could not go on like that, that she had to do something to punish and humiliate him." Notice how Oblonsky thinks the status quo is too harsh, but Dolly thinks that the pain hasn't even begun to touch him. But it's essentially the same language, the same phrase. Another one says that Dolly "could not break herself of the habit of looking upon him as a husband and loving him." Compare to the first three chapters, which repeat almost obnoxiously that Oblonsky is a creature of habit. Finally, there's the last line in the chapter, which explains how Dolly's reflection on the tragic state of her marriage is interrupted by another household crisis: "And Dolly, absorbed in her daily cares, drowned her grief in them for a while." This reminded me very strongly of the "dream of life" image used for Oblonsky. Again, the mirror: life is what happens to Oblonsky while he's waiting for his dreams of decanter girls and sybaritic pleasures to start up again, but Dolly uses life as a soporific against her deep sense of despair for her family and her situation. Oblonsky escapes from life, Dolly escapes to life.
Why are husband and wife described with such similar language? I started to get the feeling that Oblonsky and Dolly fit together, or deserve each other somehow. They float along on the sea of their quotidian arrangement. She bails water and he fiddles. Neither one of them is willing to make a real break, a big change. They've been doing it for so long that they forget why they're doing it.
The quarrel scene is quite tragic to me. Oblonsky is not moved, in the end, by Dolly's hatred. She says, "I loathe you. I hate you. You're a stranger to me, yes, a perfect stranger!" He says, "And the maids may have heard! Terribly unladylike, terribly." But the most tragic thing of all is that Dolly still loves this boob.
Ellipsis is used to hint at things the characters don't want to say out loud. In one of the first chapters, Oblonsky almost says that the situation has gone from bad to worse because he's gotten his mistress pregnant. In this chapter, Dolly says last, "How I loved! And don't I love him even now? Don't I love him even more than ever now? What's so dreadful is that..." I think the end of this sentence is that Oblonsky doesn't love her anymore. Dolly can't say it out loud. The very idea deprives her of oxygen.
Meet Levin. Konstantin Levin is a mass of contradictions, like most of the characters in this novel. Levin runs onto the stage as a strong, broad-shouldered man climbing the steps to Oblonsky's office "swiftly and lightly". He feels out of place and shy in Oblonsky's office, but also feels contempt for Oblonsky's meaningless sinecure and government jobs in general. He detests the town and he detests the rural council, but he especially hates Grinyevich's well-manicured fingers.
Levin and Oblonsky are unlikely friends. "Each believed that the life he himself led was the only real life and the life led by his friends was nothing but an illusion." Oblonsky is the ambassador of the world, reflexive smile firmly and involuntarily in place, stranger to none and making no distinctions of place or status. Levin, on the other hand, is a man of ideas, popping up with a frown and "some totally new and unexpected views on things in general."
That is, Oblonsky and Levin reflect another great division, between what you might call the physical life and the spiritual life. Levin thinks that Oblonsky's hedonism, for lack of a better word, is worthless, and ignores questions of meaning. Oblonsky thinks that big ideas are a big waste of time, and that a world beyond the material doesn't even exist.
Along this line, here's a short passage from Kierkegaard's The Single Individual (from a page of Kierkegaard commentaries and translations):
There is a view of life which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side. There is another view of life; which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that "the crowd" received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in.
"Oblonsky, doing the same things as everyone else, laughed confidently and good-humoredly, whereas Levin laughed not so confidently and sometimes angrily." Levin is the great individual, but he often stands alone, unsupported by his culture or even universal ethical principles. His ideas are always earnest, but are not always grounded and consistent, as is evident when Levin and Oblonsky talk about the rural council. Oblonsky needles Levin, "I can see that you've now entered a new phase, a conservative one this time." Levin blushes at this kind of talk like a schoolboy. He knows that Oblonsky thinks he's naive and that he looks like a wild man to the worldly set, but he can't bring himself to give up his quixotic quest for meaning.
Oblonsky's last word on the subject reminds me of Re-Neducation, and of course of the last line of 1984: "But even you will come over to us in the end." One of us! One of us!
Meet Levin's Kitty. Kitty Shcherbatsky (not a typo) is Dolly's sister. We meet her in Chapter 6 as the object of Levin's affection. The Shcherbatskys were a surrogate family for Levin, his father and mother being dead and his only sister older than him. He idealized the women: "he imagined... the most elevated sentiments and every conceivable perfection." Shopping, piano, French literature, dancing lessons, might very well seem mysterious and opaque to Levin. There's nothing mysterious, though, about why Levin admires Kitty's legs in their tight red stockings. Meow. The paragraph concludes, "it was with this aura of mystery that he was in love." Along with the obvious reasons, Levin is a man searching for meaning, and that makes him a mystery-lover.
The paragraph on how Levin fell in love with Dolly and Natalie, the older sisters, before Kitty is quite funny. I've mentioned before that my love-dar was quite unmanageable in high school, but this reminded me of another pertinent high school memory, one of those poetic coincidences that explains everything, but goes unnoticed at the time you're living it.
I was in drama for a while. I wasn't very good at it, I think, because I never thought of how I appeared to the audience, or even about being a character instead of just a version of myself saying some words. Anyway, we played this drama game for most of a year, improvising scenes in an elevator as delightfully wacky characters. Eventually, the drama advisor (Tristan and Jessica Devin's mom, Lynne Devin-Smith (spelled right?)) wrote up our scenes into a play called Ups and Downs. It was me, Heather Moon, Nate Todd, Deanna Gauthier, and Amber Anderson.
Here's Heather, Amber, and Deanna, as a runner, deaf girl, and bug lady respectively, encountering me in the elevator (slightly changed my name in the script to keep alive the surprise, and a few stage directions for clarity):
BUG LADY enters elevator, searching for bugs. RUNNER enters jogging, and sees BUG LADY catching bugs [perhaps nonexistent]. DAN enters from SR, gets on elevator, notices RUNNER. He gradually moves next to her.
DAN: You know, you might think this is a bit... well, odd, but I think... well, I have the feeling that we know each other.
RUNNER: ... uh... I don't think so - no, you don't look familiar...
DAN: Well, I have a very strong feeling about you... I think... well, I think we're probably soul mates...
RUNNER: Excuse me?
DAN: I think we're destined for each other - destined to be together.
BANKER [Nate] gets on. RUNNER jogs off. DEAF GIRL gets on.
DAN [to DEAF GIRL]: You know, you might think this is a bit... well, odd, but I think... well, I have the feeling that we know each other.
DEAF GIRL [signing]: Excuse me?
DAN: I have a very strong feeling about you... I think... well, I think we're probably soul mates...
DEAF GIRL [signing]: I don't think so...
DAN: I think we're destined for each other - destined to be together.
DEAF GIRL [signing and exiting]: This guy is really off his rocker...
DAN notices BUG LADY.
DAN: You know, you might think this is a bit... well, odd, but I think... well, I have the feeling that we know each other.
BUG LADY doesn't acknowledge him, but finds a bug on his jacket. ...
Pretty much says it all, huh? I invented "everyone's soul mate" and didn't even realize it was me. I can laugh about it now.
That's why Levin is so funny here: "He seemed to feel that he had to fall in love with one of the sisters, only he could not make up his mind with which." He falls in love with Dolly, but she marries Oblonsky; then he falls in love with Natalie, but she marries Lvov. Levin doesn't see them for a while, but after visiting them again, "he realized which of the three sisters he was really destined to fall in love with." And of course, it was the one who wasn't married yet. Of course. I feel like I'm noticing the irony more on this read through.
Levin's been shy about popping the question, though. One reason, that he was worried about what people would think of him, a landowner without a profession, dovetails with the stuff above where he is embarrassed by his individuality and his difference from the crowd, like a schoolboy. But the more intriguing reason is that he sees himself as flawed and dirty, but if he were the girl, he would only pick someone handsome and remarkable. Levin judges by himself, and what he's looking for is perfection. Not just in love, but in his search for the answers to life's persistent questions, he isn't going to settle. Feels like a setup for a rude awakening, doesn't it?
Twice in the last paragraph in Chapter 6, this love is linked ominously with death. He realizes that "he could not live without having settled the question whether or not she would be his wife," and "he could not imagine what would become of him if she were to refuse him." Without getting too far ahead of the story, the meaning of life and the meaning of death bring continual pressure on Levin's self-image. So we might ask ourselves, is Levin planning to propose out of love, out of fear, out of his personal quest for answers? We don't actually know fact two about Kitty (fact one: Meow) because Levin idealizes her so completely. She could be anyone once you get her down from the pedestal, out of the heavenly lighting. So who does Levin think he's marrying, anyway?
Sunday, October 08, 2006
[Note: Yesterday, I really should have given a quick shout-out to Mount Rainier High School's Class of 1998 IB English 12 class, where I first read this novel, to Mr. Mac Willems who taught the class and led the reading, and to all my classmates who loved or hated it along with me. This live reading of Anna Karenina is dedicated to all of you.]
Congratulations. You're the proud reader of an immense 19th century Russian novel. Here are a few things to be prepared for as you read.
Omniscient Point of View. Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina as an all-knowing storyteller. This is in marked contrast to the modern airport bookstore thriller, which generally uses what you might call a chase camera focused on one character at a time, reporting events from their viewpoint only. Tolstoy feels free to editorialize about the action, comment on characters with a God's eye view, use more than one perspective in a scene, and even tell you his own judgments of the characters rather than show you the characters and imply what he thinks of them.
For Joe Author, this is a really difficult trick to pull off. It breaks a cardinal rule of modern storytelling: "Show, don't tell." The idea is that actions speak louder than words, or that really great details speak for themselves. Tolstoy doesn't go this way. Instead, think of the narrator in AK as another character, a very observant character with a particular slant on life.
You can see this quite clearly in the opening two paragraphs of the novel:
All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky household. The wife had found out that the husband had had an affair with their French governess and had told him that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This situation had now gone on for three days and was felt acutely by the husband and wife themselves, by all the members of the family, and by their servants. ...
Interesting information, but it's telling, not showing.
Wordiness. Just as the narrator's judgment is explicit, a lot more of the action and motivation is explicit in AK than your modern novel. There's a lot of repetition of concepts that are redundant in context, a lot of explanations where a few words would suffice. Or would they? Well, here's the next part of the second paragraph:
... All the members of the family and the servants felt that there was no sense in their living together under the same roof and that people who happened to meet at any country inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the Oblonsky family and their servants.
What I find is that when I'm looking for the wordiness, it's everywhere, but I don't really notice it when I'm not.
Detailed Observation. In the modern novel, the depth and detail of the writing is often determined by the importance of the scene. For instance, one sentence can be used to describe a trip from Los Angeles to Boston, but a whole chapter can focus intently on fifteen minutes of story-changing dialogue in a kitchen. These can give the action in the story some ebb and flow, a chance for the reader to calm down after a particularly harrowing scene, or reflect on the future course of the story.
For Tolstoy, it is all details, all the time. That's an exaggeration, but even in a low-key, unimportant scene, the action is described carefully. Here's a bit of the fourth paragraph.
[Oblonsky] turned his plump, well-cared-for body on the well-sprung sofa, as though intending to go to sleep for a long time, hugged the pillow on the other side, and pressed his cheek against it; suddenly he jumped up, sat down on the sofa, and opened his eyes.
If you think that's detailed, wait until something actually happens. Here's the sixth and seventh paragraphs, after Oblonsky has woken up and recalled his dream. There's a very long chain of cause and effect, and the details are very specific.
Oblonsky's eyes sparkled gaily and he smiled as he sank into thought. "Yes, it was nice, very nice. There was a lot that was excellent there, but it can't be put into words, or expressed in thoughts, now that I am awake." Then, noticing the shaft of light coming through the side of one of the holland blinds, he briskly thrust his feet down from the sofa to feel for the slippers his wife had given him as a birthday present the year before and which she had worked in gold morocco and, as had been his custom during the last nine years, stretched out his hand without getting up for the place where his dressing gown hung in the bedroom. It was then that he suddenly remembered how and why it was that he was sleeping not in his wife's bedroom but in his own study. The smile vanished from his face and he wrinkled his forehead.
"Dear, oh dear!" he groaned, remembering what had happened. And in his mind's eye he saw again all the details of the quarrel with his wife; he realized the utter hopelessness of his position and, most tormenting fact of all, that it was all his own fault.
What follows after this is Oblonsky's memory of the quarrel (not a scene, just a moment from a scene). A little shaft of light got the ball rolling. The first real dialogue isn't until Chapter 2.
Last warning: everything in the reading is fair game for me to write about. I won't cheat by talking about future action (say, the thing in a later chapter that may have something to do with the current chapter), but I will mention events and my personal judgments as I go. If you want to read these little thoughts without spoilers, stay four chapters ahead of me.
Meet Oblonsky. Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky (Oblonsky to us, Stiva to his friends) is the quintessential inertial man; I wrote about this a while back. That is, he tends to remain as he is unless acted upon by an outside force, and act the forces do, blowing him around like a weathervane. Although Oblonsky is an aristocrat and has more freedom of action than most people in his country, he abdicates his power in favor of the whims of the crowd. This is clear in the section of I.3 describing Oblonsky's newspaper: he belongs to a certain worldview not because it is right, but "because it corresponded more closely to his way of life."
Because Oblonsky has given up his free will, he has trouble accepting that anything is his responsibility. It's obvious throughout I.1, where Oblonsky says, tellingly, "It is my own fault and yet I'm not to blame. That's the tragedy of it." When Dolly, his wife, discovers the affair, Oblonsky's involuntary "reflexes of the brain" cause him to smile foolishly. "It's all the fault of that stupid smile," he decides. Of course, it is his smile, and his affair, and his callousness masquerading as bonhomie.
[Digression: you might make an interesting comparison between Oblonsky and Angel, a character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer who eventually spawned his own spin-off series. Angel is a vampire who murdered his way around the world for hundreds of years. In the early 20th century, he killed a Romany girl. The gypsies cursed him by returning his human soul to his vampire body. He acquired a conscience and became deeply remorseful for his limitless cruelty, perversion, and wickedness. In a way, Angel is at fault, but not to blame.]
Another aspect of Oblonsky's inertia is his default to routine behavior. These opening chapters contain numerous references to Oblonsky's behavior as customary: "woke up at his usual time"; "as had been his custom during the last nine years"; "smiled its usual kind and, for that reason, rather foolish smile". In fact, this is why Oblonsky gets up out of bed at all: "There was no answer except the usual answer life gives to the most complicated and insoluble questions. This answer is: carry on with your everyday affairs, that is to say, put it out of your mind." It should be clear, though, that just because this is the usual answer or Oblonsky's answer, that doesn't make it the right answer.
Matvey is the Evil Jeeves to Oblonsky's Evil Wooster. Instead of caring for Oblonsky and getting him out of jams in ways that reflect good will for the innocent parties, Matvey is Oblonsky's partner in crime. By turns sympathetic and sly, Matvey is entertained by the spectacle of Oblonsky's family trouble, but not interested in doing the right thing. "Don't worry, sir," he says. "It'll all come right." Oblonsky, though, has cause for his worry and even regret, and Matvey is his enabler when he tells Oblonsky to do nothing until the situation sorts itself out.
Oblonsky's attitude toward his marriage can be called the way of the world: marriage is when two people fall in love, have kids, tire of each other, and begin to commit adultery. This happens to the "handsome and susceptible" man when the woman gets used up and unattractive. The woman should see it coming and accept it as inevitable. Oblonsky internalizes this attitude so deeply that "It was clear that he had never thought the matter out..." After nine years of marriage and seven kids (two dead!), Oblonsky is an absentee husband, making sure not to interfere with his wife, as he puts it. In fact, he wants nothing more than to be out of the house, away from the kids. It is ironic that Oblonsky, who stuck Dolly with all the child-rearing responsibility, should betray Dolly with the person he hired to help her out, the governess.
Finally, is Oblonsky deluded, but otherwise honest? A couple of passages speak to this. In the first, a deeply ironic section on his opinions and liberalism, Oblonsky agrees that marriage is an obsolete institution because "family life gave Oblonsky very little pleasure and forced him to tell lies and dissemble, which was so contrary to his nature." Again, Oblonsky doesn't own up to his actions, but feels oppressed by his marriage vow. In the second, Oblonsky feels like he can't put their relationship right because he can't make Dolly beautiful or overcome his desire for passionate affairs with beautiful women: "Nothing could come of it now except lies and hypocrisy; and lies and hypocrisy were contrary to his nature." After these first three chapters, you have to wonder if Oblonsky is anything but lies and hypocrisy. But you could also say Oblonsky has no depth. He isn't able to see himself from a neutral position. He only sees himself from the point of view of the various masks he puts on to work, to play, to make love to a woman. He never recognizes what he's doing, never examines his life. From that point of view, Oblonsky is worthless, as "the unexamined life is not worth living", but not exactly malevolent.
Here are some random highlights from the first three chapters, the leftovers. "... he therefore had to put it out of his mind by the dream of life" is an especially poignant and well-turned line. Watch the trains closely; Oblonsky's kids are playing with one in I.3. And why did Oblonsky have a good dream after three days of estrangement, anyway?
Saturday, October 07, 2006
Next obsession. There are 239 chapters in my edition of Anna Karenina. Here it is on Amazon. For at least sentimental reasons, I'm sticking with the David Magarshack translation.
You might consider "A favorite book" a short introduction to the power and relevance of this book. Let me just add a few bullet points about its significance. It's written in fulsome, astounding detail, with great realism. The main characters are a kind of cross-section of the Russian upper class of the time, and their relationships are complex. The plot has dizzying continuity (the book is 800 pages in paperback, or even 960 if you followed that link above). The meaning of life, death, marriage, and family are tackled in all their human squishiness. It also "provides a key to understanding the Russian revolution" in the early 20th century by exposing the inward rot of the aristocratic social system.
I'm going to read the whole thing and write about it here. If you want to follow along, buy the book. It's cheap and you can get it anywhere. At four chapters a day, five days a week, it'd take about three months to read it. I don't know what pace I'll be able to keep, but I plan to write something about every chunk of the story. Whether that means a close reading or a reflection spawned by a single line will just have to be up to me.
Feel free to contribute your own comments. Disagree with me, bring up something I don't talk about, write about a moment that touches you. It's a huge book, full of material for reflection. I hope you enjoy it as much as I undoubtedly will.
I'm going to label these posts "AK: ", so those who don't want to read about this great old book don't have to.
Thursday, October 05, 2006
So, we did it. We finished Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It took us about three months from start to finish, so we got to do it about thirty times as fast as someone who saw it once a week in real time. (Of course, there's still Angel to get to, the five-season spinoff...) I can't imagine what it would have been like to see it as it came out. We were amazed at the intricacy of it all, and we got to go from a season finale to a season premiere in minutes. The original fans got to chew over the action for weeks and months at a time.
There's a reason this thing is a cult television show. It is the total cat's pajamas, people. It's wicked clever, epic, and demanding. Fall in love with it now.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
We figured out recently that we've seen more than a hundred episodes of Buffy now. Like Sarah said last night, it's one of the most well-thought-out shows we've ever seen. It really has it all: continuity, self-reference, complex relationships, hilarity, even allegory. And to top it off, the lead character is a strong woman destroying the undead.
But last night went way over the top for us. We finally saw "Once More, With Feeling". There's a fan site for this one episode.
The episode is a musical.
What's even more amazing is that it actually advances the plot.
It wouldn't make much sense to watch it without seeing the first hundred episodes. The references to earlier action come too fast and furious. It's in Season 6, so get cracking.
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Between the rapid-fire installments of Buffy (Season 5 is going down by tomorrow at the latest), the football (don't tell me the Seahawks score! I taped it), and a total lack of fitness for quotidian tasks (e.g., shaving), all due to the three-person epidemic spreading virulently through my house, I've been away from the blog.
Tune in soon for something interesting from my personal life, TBD.
In other news, the right wing (e.g., the executive branch) and the moderates (e.g., Sens. McCain, Graham) of the Republican party reached an agreement last week to allow the CIA to torture prisoners suspected of being terrorists, who are also losing their habeas corpus right to protest their innocence before a judge. Needless to say, when you are the one suspected of being a terrorist, it changes your whole view on the issue.
If our society is to be judged by its prisons, we are living in Hell. It's not for nothing that Jesus damned those who failed to visit people in prison (much less those who torture them), saying, "Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me." Terrorist serial killers may be the least of us; you could call them close to the bottom of the scale of personal worthiness on the world stage.
But we can go lower than even them: we can become the devils.