Thursday, December 20, 2018

there once was a reader in texas

I always thought Edward Lear cheated by essentially recapping the final line — not really writing a fifth line at all:
A very old lady from Stockton
Kept acting like she was from Brockton.
She ate almond chews
And cried in her shoes,
That desperate old lady from Stockton.
I mean, come on. The whole point of a limerick is to punch you with the surprise of the last line. It's especially great when you hear the setup and wonder how they're going to arrive at the punch. A favorite:
A student from dear old Bryn Mawr
Committed a dreadful faux pas:
She loosened a stay
On her décolleté
Thus exposing her je ne sais quoi.

As for Lear, I understand that he was trying to write *anti*limericks (at least arguably). The nerd-cool comic strip Bloom County often did this too, putting the punchline in the penultimate position, and then a deflating comment, to great comic effect.

Still, in Lear's case, it ends up sounding lazy to my ears.

Here: I'll do my own. How's this, Lear fans?
There was an old man from Peru
Who simply did not like Peru.
He hated Peru
Though he lived in Peru,
That bumptious old man from Peru.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

eighty percent hemingway

It's said that 80% of the King James Bible is the same as the Geneva Bible. When people say that, they usually mean this: it's overblown to claim the uniqueness and glory of the King James, when it's obviously not all that original.

That kind of counting dictates a certain kind of conclusion. Part of the value of the KJV is in its magical rhythms and phrasing. Those differences, few as they are, aren't inconsequential. Most people's experience of the Bible in England in the 1500s and 1600s was to hear it read aloud, whether in a church or at home. Again and again, the King James gets it right.

Maybe we need a reminder of what 80% looks like. Here's a passage from Hemingway, followed by my version with 80% retained.

They walked up the road together to the old man’s shack and went in through its open door. The old man leaned the mast with its wrapped sail against the wall and the boy put the box and the other gear beside it. The mast was nearly as long as the one room of the shack. The shack was made of the tough budshields of the royal palm which are called guano and in it there was a bed, a table, one chair, and a place on the dirt floor to cook with charcoal. On the brown walls of the flattened, overlapping leaves of the sturdy fibered guano there was a picture in color of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and another of the Virgin of Cobre. These were relics of his wife. Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it.

80% Hemingway
They galloped up the road, wearily, to the old fellow’s shack, and proceeded in through its majestic door. The old man meticulously balanced the mast with its sail against the wall, while the boy handily put the box and other accoutrements beside it. The splendid mast was as long as the solitary room of the shack, which was made of the tough budshields of the palm, which in turn are called guano, and in this abode there was a bed, a table, one chair, and a place on the dirt floor to prepare with charcoal. On the unprepossessing walls of the flattened, overlapping fronds of the sturdy fibered guano there was a picture, in Kodachrome, of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and another of the Virgin of Cobre — tacky, maudlin relics of his wife. Once there had been a winsome photograph of her on the mantelpiece but he had removed it because it made him too bummed-out to contemplate it.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

a fashion message in orpen's treaty of versailles

William Orpen's painting The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28 June 1919 struck me the other day with something I'd never put together.

Look at the incredible variety of neckwear, especially against the ages of the men wearing it. 1919 was one of those weird times in fashion when things were a bit up in the air.

Lots and lots of high, starched Eton collars, practically up to the chin, with the tie tied at the bottom of the collar rather than at the button as we now do it. Several wing collars A few bows done in the style of the late 19th century. A few modern bows. The occasional 'modern' cravat. A sprinkling of perennial military styles, never really in or out of fashion.

At least one cross tie:

And what do you call this? It's something Nat Cole or Dion would have worn on a TV special in 1961.

Then there's this straight, colored tie, one of the two in the painting, but tied and worn in the old style:

But there's one — count 'em, one — modern, patterned straight tie, worn with a straight collar.

Woodrow Wilson, ladies and gentlemen.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

guest post at sachartermoms

Cool! Inga at sachartermoms asked me to do this guest post about my presentation before the Texas State Board of Education.

Thanks for having me!

Monday, November 12, 2018

eleven eleven eighteen

One hundred years ago, the reality of the world was that a guy like me would have seen war — possibly not lived past 25, possibly lived, but with broken body or mind.

How the world has changed! Real change, friends! The war that ended a century ago may not have been the War to End All War, but it was the beginning of a drastic shift from swords to plowshares. Sure, war is still with us, but incredibly diminished compared to other ages.

It's amazing and humbling that a citizen would be called to lay down his or her life; it's amazing and humbling that so many citizens now live without ever getting that call.

Thank a veteran for serving. Thank God and humanity that so few have to.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

early voting

Ten years ago today, Oct 24, 2008: I set foot on US soil after 6 months in China.

Six months is not a long time. And I had a blast over there, meeting wonderful folks in a wonderful place. But even then I felt overwhelmed when I walked out into the Land of the Free.

I still feel overwhelmed.

I'd watched our two political conventions, which outlined what seemed to many like a stark choice between two diametrical opposites. But, from a small apartment in a Communist country, over an illegal internet connection, I saw two very close siblings. Speaker after speaker told proudly of great-grandparents who had come to this country, and, with hard work and determination, made a better life for their children — and vowed to remove whatever roadblocks we've placed in the way of that happening now. Speaker after speaker spoke freely and openly, without fear of imprisonment or disappearance.

Today, ten years later, Oct 24, 2018, I voted. Friends and neighbors were ahead of and behind me, standing in the rain to cast their vote. Friends and neighbors were on the ballot.

Three hundred eighty years ago, Thomas Hooker and the founders of Connecticut read from Deuteronomy chapter 1, and concluded this: "The foundation of authority is laid, firstly, in the free consent of the people."

I agree.

Monday, September 17, 2018

signs of the times

Here's a snapshot of where we are. I picked a news story from a few weeks back, from the New York Times.

I'll start off with the actual facts of the story, which the Times does get to:
The company will no longer serve red meat, pork or poultry at company functions, and it will not reimburse employees who want to order a hamburger during a lunch meeting.

Now keep that in mind as you read the headline, and the article.
Clickbait. Right? The company in no way is declaring that its employees are to be vegetarians. They're just saying the company won't pay for meat. But millions of people will see this headline and assume it means what it says. Guaranteed to raise ire about power-hungry political correctness. Except that's not what's happening.

These days we might say, "Hey, lazybones! Read the actual article before making up your mind!" Wrong. This is a swerve from journalistic standards, in which a person should be able to read *just* the headline. By reading it you should get an accurate picture. Then you might decide to read the rest — to fill in details, not to correct the deceptive headline.

Now for the article.
WeWork is no longer a safe space for carnivores.

In too many newspaper articles today, you can completely cross out the opening short paragraph. It's a pox on the land. Apparently the theatrical temptations are just too strong. This one isn't just unnecessary, though. It's wrong. WeWork is a perfectly safe space for carnivores.

Earlier this month, the co-working juggernaut announced that it was essentially going vegetarian.

Not *quite* right, but it could be excused as colorful, as long as there's an explanation, which there is.
The company will no longer serve red meat, pork or poultry at company functions, and it will not reimburse employees who want to order a hamburger during a lunch meeting.
In a memo to employees announcing the new policy, Miguel McKelvey, WeWork's co-founder and chief culture officer, said the decision was driven largely by concerns for the environment, and, to a lesser extent, animal welfare.
"New research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact — even more than switching to a hybrid car," he wrote. Additionally, WeWork could save "over 15 million animals by 2023 by eliminating meat at our events."
Mr. McKelvey, in his first interview since the decision was announced, said the policy was also aimed at raising consciousness among the company's nearly 6,000 employees.
"It's multidimensional," he said. "We're coming at it from an awareness and a mindfulness perspective. The headline has been 'meat-free,' but this is a much larger effort to develop personal accountability in our team."
WeWork's enforced vegetarianism

Beeeeeep! Try again. This isn't enforced vegetarianism. Again, it's the company just deciding not to pay for your lunch if it's meat.

WeWork's enforced vegetarianism could easily be dismissed as just another whimsical human resources directive from a high-flying technology start-up with an inflated sense of self-importance.

Again: they're not saying you have to be vegetarian. They're just trying to be more responsible, and amending an optional measure to do it.

But the move also represents a more substantial development that is reshaping workplaces around the country: In ways large and small, companies are imposing corporate values on the personal lives of their employees.

"Imposing corporate values on the personal lives of their employees?" Maybe some companies are, but this one isn't.

Hobby Lobby has refused to pay for birth control for its employees, citing the owner's Christian values. And the chief executives of companies including Koch Industries and Westgate Resorts have sent memos and informational packets to employees suggesting how they vote.

Does the writer here, David Gelles, really think that refusing to cover birth control as part of an employee insurance plan and suggesting how employees vote are comparable? And that they are equal examples of imposing corporate values on their employees' personal lives?

Other companies have tried to prevent employees from using everything from Uber to cigarettes.

Meaning that they refuse to *pay* for Uber or cigarettes at company functions?

In 2015, IBM banned employees from using ride-sharing apps, citing safety and liability concerns.

I didn't think so. IBM is an example of a company really overstepping its bounds by literally banning its employees from spending their consumer money how they wish.

That is, if Gelles can be trusted. Do we really know from reading this article that IBM's "ban" was really a ban? Or at least an attempt at one? Alas, given his track record, we can't be sure that it wasn't just a suggestion.

(Employees rebelled, and the company did a U-turn a day later.)

Aha. So that's one good sign of how a new measure is being received. So far in the article, we haven't heard of any comparable employee outrage over the measure in question.

And several big employers, including General Electric, have successfully paid employees to quit smoking. Scotts Miracle-Gro even has a policy of not hiring smokers, a move it says helps keep health care costs down.

Now *that's* interesting. I'd be interested in hearing, even briefly, about the legal implications of hiring on that basis. Nope: cul-de-sac. As for GE, that's interesting too, but hardly an example of imposing corporate values on private lives. It's likely more a matter of the bottom line than of ideology or political correctness.

In some of these cases, the values of a few executives are imposed on workers who must adhere to their employers' worldview, often relating to issues with scant connection to the business.

In which of these cases? I mean I can look at it and tell the difference, but I've been given no indication that this journalist can. For instance:
But WeWork appears to be the first big company to tell its employees what they can and can't eat.

No, WeWork doesn't appear to be that. It isn't that. It's not telling its employees what they can and can't eat. It's telling its employees what it will and will not exercise the option to pay for.

"Human beings really don't like when you take choice away from them," said Laszlo Bock, the former senior vice president of people operations at Google and the author of "Work Rules!"

No doubt the humans at WeWork would not like that either. We'll never know, though, unless WeWork introduces a new policy that takes choice away. This one doesn't.

"What people are much more amenable to is nudges," he said. "How can you change the environment that doesn't remove choice, but sends a signal for people to make a good decision?"

Hm. Let's see if we can think of something. How about this: don't remove someone's freedom of choice about what food to buy, but do a nudge by serving them veggie dishes at the annual banquet. Someone should write an article about that kind of amenable nudge.

Mr. Bock has personal experience with vegetarianism. While he was at Google, two of the many cafes at company headquarters tried out "meatless Mondays," going vegetarian for just one day a week. Employees rebelled, throwing away silverware and staging a protest barbecue.

Just like the rebellion that's brewing at WeWork, that is no doubt going to be mentioned in an upcoming paragraph? Or is Gelles going to mention the *lack* of such a rebellion? Dream on. In an article in which it would be news if there were an employee rebellion and news if there weren’t, Gelles withholds any information he may — may — have bothered to get.

Meatless Mondays didn't last at Google. But in time, the company made changes to the cafeterias — like offering smaller plates and making salad bars more prominent — that improved employees' eating habits.

Oops! Let me fix that for you: "But in time, the company forced employees to eat off tiny plates, and shoved salad bars into their private lives."

"When you exercise this level of control over employees, even with good intentions, it often backfires," said Heather Bussing, an employment lawyer in Northern California." Just because you really believe this is the right thing to do, not everyone will agree with you."

For instance, these employees of WeWork: _____________________.

At WeWork, a company led by idealistic co-founders who got their start with an eco-friendly co-working space in Brooklyn, the move to vegetarianism is a reflection of their unconventional personalities.
"I don't eat meat, but I don't consider myself a vegetarian," Mr. McKelvey said. "I consider myself to be a 'reducetarian.' I try to consume less and be aware of the decisions I'm making. Not just food, but single-use plastics, and fossil fuels and energy."
As Mr. McKelvey sees it, imposing his values on his employees is a natural part of being a corporate leader today.

There's that "imposing" again. Notice the difference between imposing and nudging?

"Companies have greater responsibility to their team members and to the world these days," he said. "We're the ones with the power. Large employers are the ones that can move the needle on issues."
There is little question that WeWork has the legal right to withhold meat from its employees.

Withhold? Withhold?

Companies have no obligation to feed their workers, much less offer steak and lamb on the menu.

Exactly! Exactly!!

(And, of course, none of this applies to companies or individuals who rent space from WeWork.)

Yes, thank you for that bit of forthrightness.

"Companies are free to make rules about the things they reimburse or don't reimburse for," Ms. Bussing said.

Wow! So much straight talk all at once! True. They *are* free to do that. And that is the issue, reimbursing employees for stuff, which your company makes decisions about too.

"But usually they have to do with adult movies at hotels and alcohol, rather than what you're ordering at dinner."

I think you mean, "Memo from the Boss: 'Murder She Wrote' and Iced Tea For You, Buster! Companies are Intruding On Their Employees' TV and Drink Preferences."

And even if WeWork does succeed in using vegetarianism to reduce its carbon impact, it isn't a given that the decision will make its employees healthier.
"Animals have a place in the human diet," said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "There's plenty of evidence that eating less meat is good for one's health and the planet. But to abolish it completely sounds ideological."

Ideological, and not what's happening. I feel the absurd need to point out here, again and again, that the company isn't abolishing meat completely. Or even abolishing meat partially. They're just going to stop paying for yours and you'll have to buy it yourself, like you always did before getting expensed at WeWork.

Echoing Mr. Bock, Ms. Nestle said a more effective way to promote healthy eating was to offer employees a variety of options. "Most companies that are trying to promote healthy diets among employees are doing it in ways that are less coercive," Ms. Nestle said. "Here you don't have any choice."

Yes, you do have a choice. You can have a ribeye for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day.

There will be some wiggle room at WeWork. Seafood will still be permitted on company menus and expense accounts. And employees who "require a medical or religious accommodation" can request an exemption from the enforced vegetarianism.

"Enforced vegetarianism" being the fancy term for "buy your own meat."

(Mr. Bock was not convinced this would work. "Even then, you have to self-identify and let somebody know about it," he said. "Then you'll be the person eating carne asada while everyone else is eating the lettuce bowl.")

Now, I do fully concede this. At the company banquet, we might have a Dear Prudie situation.

Uncomfortable as the new dietary policy may be, Mr. McKelvey said WeWork is only just getting started. The company is phasing out leather furniture, single-use plastics and is going carbon neutral.

I know it weakens my point to mention the bad sentence here. But my overall point has to do with standards at the New York frickin' Times. "The company is phasing out leather furniture and single-use plastics, and is going carbon neutral."
In time, he said, the company will evaluate its consumption of seafood, eggs, dairy and alcohol.
"We could have introduced a series of nudges, but then we wouldn't be having this conversation," Mr. McKelvey said. "And awkward conversations are how we learn."

I wonder if McKelvey is aware that at least some of the awkwardness of the conversations will stem from misinformation.

David Gelles is the Corner Office columnist and a business reporter. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter @dgelles. A version of this article appears in print on July 21, 2018, on Page BU3 of the New York edition with the headline: Memo From the Boss: Meat Is Not an Option.

A nice reminder that writers often don't write their own headlines. So the headline may have more to do with the editors than with the writer. (And the other headline is just as cutely misleading.) On the other hand, the article says what it says, in paragraph after aching paragraph. And, further, part of the problem here is that this writer doesn't seem to have had any wide-awake editors to answer to.


I've gone into some detail here, on an issue that's not likely to be a hot-button topic, for a reason. I want to point out what our choices are, what this article could have been.

Just a little more length and scope, and you could ask whether this is the best way for a huge company to pull back its environmental impact. A brief bit of information on the buildings they choose for office space, or the way their executives travel, would fill in some blanks.

But if that's asking too much, then fine: an article of similar length and scope could still have presented things very differently, and far more accurately. It could have quoted a few employees' various reactions, or even one anonymous employee yea or nay. It could have characterized the company's problem as "cutting back on a perk," which does indeed sound problematic and worthy of mention, but which has the benefit of giving you a truer picture.

It could have talked more about the role of taking out prospective WeWork clients for dinner — does that happen often? we'll never know from reading this article — and how this policy might therefore limit them in new markets.

Instead, this, from the New York Times.

Mr. Gelles, I could have clicked, clucked, and moved on. But I read the whole thing, and bothered to really look at it. Your editors should have, too. They can do better. You can do better.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

guessing at motives

I will always be more willing to criticize someone's thinking or actions or words than speculate on what their inner thoughts or motives are.

When people have speculated on that about me, it's incredible how off they are. Catherine will say, "It was obvious that you wanted ....", and I'll say, "You thought I *what*?"

And that's from people who love each other and are committed and often see the best in each other and think the best of each other. So even in an ideal situation, imputing thoughts to someone is tricky.

Most situations, though, aren't ideal. Maybe you're dealing with a person you don't know as closely. You may not be as ready to give them the benefit of a doubt.

If there is any one thing I could sweep away from Facebook, it would be the tendency of people to guess at another person's motives. Those guesses bring mischief 90% of the time. To sweep it all away may cost some but would buy much.

Saturday, July 21, 2018


Is any song more derided than "Kumbaya?" At the moment, "We Built This City" can only be called a close second.

"Kumbaya" is almost never mentioned in an approving way. It's nearing a Godwin's-Law-like status in online argumentation: in any discussion that goes on long enough, the less liberal person will deploy it against the more liberal one. (And always with a message: "You don't know the real world. I do.")

But there's something odd, and important, about that derision.

Anyone who's never heard the song could be forgiven for thinking it's a hippie-happy song of naïve optimism. Bland. Denatured piety, cheap heaven stripped of sin, sacrifice, and redemption. An unrealistic hope for togetherness.

Of course, anyone who has heard the Gullah folk song, actually heard it, knows that it's very nearly the opposite of all that. It's a wail. A keening call for God to appear in the midst of a fallen, broken world.

To hear this song with such deaf ears, then ridicule it — to characterize it so wrongly only to spend 40 years sneering at it for being exactly what it isn't!

What a perfect picture of our moment.

Monday, July 16, 2018


The centuries criticize the moment.

Monday, May 28, 2018

a memorial salute

Paul Begay
Johnson Housewood
Jimmie Kelly King, Sr
Paul Kinlahcheeny
Leo Kirk
Ralph Morgan
Willie A. Notah
Tom Singer
Alfred Tsosie
Harry Tsosie
Howard Tsosie

You eleven I'm thinking of: so few know your names. In the 30s and 40s, many of you were in school. By 1945, you were dead. Your countrymen were celebrating victory. None knew your role in it.

When you were a child, many Americans thought you should lose the language you were born with. That's the best way to fit in and assimilate, they said: it's the American way. Our government took you away from your families and put you into boarding schools, where you were forbidden to speak your own native tongue. You were abused severely if caught: beaten, and worse.

But that didn't silence you. You still whispered Navajo to each other, keeping the language alive. That is the American way.

Your secret rebellion led to secret victory. The US Marines deployed 381 of your brethren to the Pacific theater. Your language formed the basis of the only unbroken oral code in modern warfare. The Navajo Code Talkers took part in every Marine assault in the Pacific war, flawlessly. 370 returned. You never did.

Many soldiers returned as heroes in 1945, but since your mission was secret, when your fellow Navajo returned to their families, no one knew what they (and you) had done. The secret remained for over two decades. But in 1968 the truth came out. Over two decades later, an outgoing president awarded you the Congressional Gold Medal as one of his last gestures. Only 5 were still living.

How many saluted you in life — how many who knew why you were there and what you did? Too few. Today let us, at last, salute you.


Monday, May 14, 2018


I just ended up reading a long passage from Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." I recall reading it the first (and only) time many years ago — and, oddly, the word is "galvanized." I was and am galvanized by her writing, her ideas, and the book's real story (which has never once been put to screen).

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

mscl's finest-ish moment

Spurred on by the brand-new My So-Called Podcast, we've been watching My So-Called Life. It's that show that kind-of Started The 90s for many people. Only one season, in 94–95, but it galvanized a generation, and gave voice to what oft was thought but never so well expressed about American teenagehood.

Like so many works that have a devoted cult following, it's a powerful work of the second order. There are so many bad moments. But there are soooo many good moments, and a few miraculous ones, that the show is forgiven.

The dreamy-but-unavailable (and-kind-of-a-loser) Jordan Catalano (who was recently referenced as a teen crush by Peggy Olson in The Handmaid's Tale) has finally paid attention to Angela Chase. They find themselves in a car together. He leans in for a kiss, which she's been fantasizing about for days, but is such a big gropy jerk about it that she spurns him. Her odd response: "I was talking." He then lunges again, and she admirably lets him have it, and gets out of the car. In 2018, when we're awakening to women's experiences, it's even worse than in 1994. But it was unacceptable then.

A few weeks later, they find themselves in his car again, and this time they've had some time to connect and he's gotten to know her a bit. There's that awful (and hilarious) moment when words fail but keep coming, and then they kiss. This time it's everything a 15-year-old girl could want. When she gets out and goes to her door, after Jordan's pulls away, Angela does an impromptu courtly dance. It's MSCL on all cylinders: great writing, superb cinematography, perfect music, a great actress (who's obviously trained) going into fearless territory. It all coalesces into one of the most perfect scenes in television.

The musical score here is brilliant: during the kiss, we hear no music at all. An incredible restraint, because a lesser team would have put in a big romantic swell. But the kiss stays musicless and fragile.

Then Jordan apologizes for interrupting (calling back his attack on her in the earlier episode), and when she gets it and says "Thanks," the music starts — the show's main theme, played on acoustic guitar, with some sparse twinkly synth and conga.

As she gets out of the car, the music gives us a dominant chord (that is, the chord that's often next-to-last, 'asking' for resolution), but then instead of just a plain resolution, it whooshes into a new thing.

Now there's no percussion beating the time. The guitar has been replaced by bell-like synth sounds that recall the ballerina/princess/music boxes of girlhood. (Note that the music and instrumentation call back that first car scene as well, so that their second kiss, romantic and respectful, redeems the first.) All this as the camera literally leaves the ground and floats in the air.

Angela's moment of entry into the Real Life of young womanhood is expressed in the musical language of fairy tale.

Then, the final touch: the main melody stays unresolved, on what's called a suspension. If you listen and try to sing along with what would come next, you'd go down a note and it would feel like a 'the end' moment. But nope, it stays in that unresolved place and leaves you there.

It's masterful. It socks me every time.

The more I think about it, the more I think that this scene utilizes two senses of time really well: chronos and kairos. Chronos is clock-time (as in chrono-); Kairos is perfect-moment-time. Chronos is quantity and kairos is quality.

So: the conversation stutters, slows, stops, and the kiss — unaccompanied by a musical score — exists in timelessness.

Then, when Jordan and Angela exchange words that, possibly for the first time, indicate real mutual regard as humans, chronos begins. The hand drums begin literally beating out time.

Then, when she's alone again and reflecting on it, free to be herself with no one watching, chronos stops again — no drums — and kairos enters, in the dreamy music of fable and fantasy.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

kierkegaard and chase scenes

Watching a car chase in the superb 2002 show "Boomtown," I suddenly go back to something that struck me the summer after my 8th-grade year: Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Fear and Trembling. Can you ever be justified in violating a principle of good? Even if the very violation of that principle is in the service of a greater good? (Think of Jesus breaking the Sabbath to heal the blind.)

Kierkegaard laid the philosophical groundwork for the Crashed Vegetable Cart Rule of Movie Pursuit. Even at this late date, it's fun to watch someone with an excuse for shoving kind old ladies and crashing into storefronts.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

we built this city

It's one of the most maligned pop songs in our lifetime.

Part of the reason, I think, is the video. It's awful. I just now watched it, and I confess I'd forgotten how awful it is. I really think the awfulness of the video is behind the near-universal consensus that the song is terrible.

But the song itself does have several things going for it. Mickey Thomas's piping, spot-on voice (and remember this is before autotune; AND remember he was in his late thirties); the brand-new-sounding Fairlight synth textures; the propulsive beat and overall mix — simply brilliant jigsaw-puzzle mixing job there — and a terrific crackling arrangement. Plus slightly vague 80s lyrics by the great 70s lyricist Bernie Taupin.

That's right, Bernie Taupin, the lyricist for Elton John's biggest hits.

He's the writer of "Bennie and the Jets," a song about a band but with only one mention of "solid walls of sound" but much mention of the band's spaced-out glam style — "She's got electric boots; A mohair suit; You know I read it in a magazine" — making a nice critique of the way people had come to talk about rock music. (Can you think of a Rolling Stone article that actually talked about the music?)

He's also the writer of "Crocodile Rock," which is all about the music and the good times blazed with it: "I remember when rock was young; Me and Suzie had so much fun" ; "But the biggest kick I ever got; Was doing a thing called the Crocodile Rock; While the other kids were rocking round the clock; We were hopping and bopping to the Crocodile Rock" ; "...When your feet just can't keep still; I never knew me a better time and I guess I never will." And there's an elegaic tone: "But the years went by and the rock just died" ; "We really thought the Crocodile Rock would last."

Interesting, right? He's then the writer of the ur-slick corporatized 80s rock song that's all about how terrible the slick corporatized 80s rock landscape is. Again, he calls back to an idealized origin: "Marconi plays the mamba" — a brilliant line, in my opinion. It just sounds great, and the correct "mambo" would have killed it. "Mamba" can refer to a generic American orientalist strain that runs through every generation. (It's what your Hawaiian-shirted grand-uncle would have called the mambo, anyway.) "Mamba" sounds great coming out of the mouth, and works with the notes and rhythms of the song. What an ear this lyricist had.

He looks around: this city's scene (LA? somewhere) was forged with an authentic song of the people, as American and as grassroots as jeans. (Whether that's actually true is, of course, irrelevant!) And now look at us.

There's much old Bernie in the new Bernie, right?

This puts me in mind of the 19th-century 20th-century Puccini.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

make no mistake

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

"Seven Stanzas At Easter," John Updike, 1960

Thursday, March 29, 2018

africa explained

A friend, who loves the Toto song "Africa," asked the other day, "can someone please tell me what on earth the song is saying, exactly? My brain is treating it like it's a Rubik's cube."

I'll give it a shot.

DISCLAIMER: This song is an 80s pop song, from an era in which ambiguity in lyrics was considered a universalizing element, a blank screen onto which we can each project our own meaning.

A man, now somewhere on the vast continent of Africa (following the great Anglo-American songwriting tradition of not bothering to distinguish between any of its 50 countries) is waiting for his woman to come to him, and he's thinking about their relationship and how it fits into his life. Some kind of reckoning is coming when she lands.

He's going to the airport to pick her up. Her plane arrives at midnight; he imagines the wings reflecting the night sky, whose stars have guided him in his treks through the wilderness. In the same way, those same stars now may be guiding him out of his personal wilderness. He sees an old man and hopes to hear some word of eloquence from him, but that hope is both violated and validated by a simple "go to her" in the man's look.

He thinks about her, and talks to her in his mind about how nothing and no one could tear him from her. Perhaps it's a rainy season where they are ("Africa!") and he's prevented from his usual wanderings, so they will be able to take time to build life together this time around.

He hears wild dogs howling, and imagines that they're longing for the kind of "solitary company," being alone together, that he desires for this relationship. His certainty solidifies: he must do the right thing, to correct this warped version of himself that he has become over the years. The implication is possibly that her return will be the beginning of a new step, a step *back* in a way, to where they need to be.

Musical high points:

The slight chorus effect that gives David Paich's voice an unusual presence. It's a kind of trademark for this song.

Switching to another singer for the chorus: Bobby Kimball. His hard edge contrasts nicely against Paich's mellow voice. It's one of the great virtues of having a band with many vocalists rather than just a single one, or an act built around a soloist. Several bands used this to advantage: The Cars, Styx, Yes. Great way to get variety in a band's sound, even within one song.

The thoroughly infectious drum groove. Word is that the guys sat around and did this for 30 minutes or something, and then went and found the best 2 measures to use as a loop. It worked: simultaneously relaxed and propulsive.

The flutelike synth duet. It's hip and pretty, and so melodic.

The superb production values, from the mix to the mastering. It's deep but not muddy, clear but never brittle. Amazing, especially in those days of live mixing boards, when the mix was a kind of performance in itself, sometimes with 2 or 3 engineers riding all the tracks.

The chorus's chord structure, vi - IV - I - V, which is notable in being the first instance I can think of of this progression in a popular song. It has become nearly universal: it has carried hundreds of popular songs now. (Its staggered version, I - V - vi - IV, is equally universal.)

Meanwhile, if you can write the line "Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti," and it becomes a number one hit, and then a perennial standard, you've got something going on.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

the salmanticenses

I just now found out that Bartolomé de las Casas was a Salmanticensian. Crazy. The only thing I knew about the Salmanticenses was that they (like many of us) thought Jesus was the perfect man to the extent that he was not only the ultimate carpenter but the ultimate computer programmer, the ultimate French poet, the ultimate anything-you-can-think-of — that if you could time-travel back to him he could understand you and speak to you in modern English. (Not many of us articulate this belief to its extreme, but countless modern Christians have something like that assumption deep down.)

But, looking further into their thoughts, the School of Salamanca spent a great deal more time thinking about capitalism: as it emerged, they articulated something more nuanced than the Church's ban on usury. They began pointing and clicking on capitalist practices and winding up with guidelines that recognize money as a good: the concept of opportunity cost, the concept of interest being of value to the borrower, and so on.

They were also pioneers in thinking about the rights of people — specifically, the idea that there could be a universal right to freedom that makes colonialism (as practiced by Spain and others) wrong on its face. There was much internal disagreement, but the result is a series of fascinating discussions that are relevant to this day, and are our civilization's first in-depth conversations about human rights, international relations, and colonialism — coming at a time and place where most scholars were apologists for power rather than critics of it, and where it was dangerous to question the legitimacy of what your crown was doing.

It's also vital to *continue* questioning and examining. As we do, las Casas appears again and again as a counter to Columbus and company, a superb replacement statue on the plinths of our admiration, and an intelligent, grounded way forward.

Friday, March 2, 2018

moses and the founders

What influence did Moses have on America's Founders?

A heated discussion has been happening for some years now around what we should put in textbooks about American history, and in particular about the role of Moses.

I asked my social media friends to hit me with their best Moses shot. I'm flattered to have so many intelligent, well-read, interested friends, and was not at all surprised to see a snapshot of current thinking:
· "People usually point to Moses as the central figure in the development of our laws and legal system, but conveniently leave out all the others."
· "Moses and the story of the Exodus had influence at several critical points in the development of the nation — on the pilgrims fleeing religious persecution, the patriots seeking political freedom, and the African Americans seeking freedom."
· "This doesn't truck with me given what I remember about Madison and Jefferson and freedom from religion, the Greek and Roman roots of democracy and republicanism, etc."
· "John Locke, and the Enlightenment, yes. Moses, and the biblical tradition, only very tangentially."
· "Moses was the beginning of the concept of individual responsibility as well as community standards...not that his example was perfect, but he was pivotal in my view."
· "The books of Moses outline a legalistic approach to organizing a society."
· "Ben Franklin compared the American Revolution to The Exodus from Egypt and wanted it on our currency."
· "My impression is that Moses had more influence on medieval forms of government, in that they assumed divine authority. Our constitution was more influenced by the Enlightenment, in that its checks and balances were designed to counteract human tendencies to use power unjustly."
· "I think that the inclusion of an individual in a state adopted textbook on history should, at the very least, be questioned, when the historicity of that individual is suspect at best."
· "For textbook standards, I'd be careful about how influences are talked about unless the writings of the Founders mention particular influences."
· "The Mosaic tradition was: a nation that needed to be formed, a Divine source of theological, social, and political guidance, and a leader (Moses) or set of leaders (founding fathers and Congress) that would be the [imperfect] instrument to execute the plan."
· "The torso of America rests on two legs: one is the classical Greco-Roman tradition and the other is the Judeo-Christian tradition. Without one or the other you just don't get to America. Without Moses you don't get to Christianity."
· "The Hebrews gave us the idea of a purposeful moral existence under God."
· "The Decalogue is fundamental to the Western understanding of law as an objective feature of the world, inscribed in clay and on the heart. Moses is a part of that tradition, regardless of whether you subscribe to the articles of the Christian faith."
· "Undergirding our law is the Judeo-Christian idea of God as the source of not only good but justice and ultimately law. So, while not a direct line, it's a more genealogical relationship."
Awesomest internet thread ever!! And — sheesh — all over the map! But not one mention of what I consider the single most important element in early American views of Moses. More on that in a moment. Meanwhile, these views aren't out of whack with what scholars, pundits, journalists, politicians, historians, and religious figures are saying.

Zack Kopplin in the Atlantic tests Betteridge's Law by asking in a headline "Was Moses a Founding Father?." Talking about how textbooks mislead students, his article mentions "crediting Moses with inspiring the American Constitution." And he quotes a professor as saying that these textbooks "would cause students to believe 'that Moses was the first American.' "

Kopplin also quotes someone in favor of including Moses:
    She insisted, "Mosaic law influenced English Common Law, English Common Law influenced American law." (Mosaic law includes prohibitions on things like consuming grape skins and was intended for a theocracy with a monarch, none of which is part of our system of government.)
Kopplin's parenthetical correction is mistaken: Mosaic law strongly warns against monarchy, though accepts it as a likely fate. His article concludes by saying that other states are considering this stuff, too. "That means Texas might no longer be the only state where kids learn that Moses was the first American."

This NPR story quotes a UT professor as saying, "I think for many of us who are academic historians, it's a very ahistorical connection to make. Moses is not someone who is quoted in the founding documents."

Scathing satire.

Articles in The Christian Century and We're History say things like "Moses was not the primary political influence on the founders," and "In no way does it make sense to say that the Constitution is grounded on Biblical precedents."

In a nice overview of the issue, Valerie Strauss compiles in the Washington Post a breakdown of some of the problems that critics have with these textbook standards.

Then there's this guy.

Here's something more detailed: the Texas Freedom Network published a lengthy account of the problems with several textbooks Texas was considering. It appears to be one of Strauss's main sources. It was written by Emile Lester, a much-published professor at the University of Mary Washington.

The paper is worth reading in full. I'll excerpt from it liberally here, though. He begins by saying "A full understanding of the historical roots and principles of United States government is impossible without an understanding of religion's influence on our Founders." He goes on:
    High school textbooks about U.S. government offer a wonderful opportunity for students and teachers alike to explore the religious roots of our government through an appropriate, accurate, and balanced discussion of important elements of the Jewish and Christian religious traditions. Unfortunately, five of the seven textbooks under review did not take advantage of this opportunity. These textbooks too often focused on controversial and vague claims backed by little or no discussion of evidence concerning the religious influences on the Founders.
You might think, "Ah! Excellent! Finally someone will take these textbooks to task for ignoring colonial views of Moses's democratic design!" Nope. No mention of it. Continuing in his introduction, he writes:
    The Pearson text claims, for instance, that the "roots of democratic government" can be found in "Judeo-Christian philosophy" but does not identify specific models or examples of democratic government in the Bible that influenced the Founders. . . . The McGraw-Hill textbook contends that the "biblical idea of a covenant . . . contributed to our constitutional structure" without acknowledging that the social contract idea the Founders derived from John Locke was in part a reaction against the biblical idea of a covenant. The Social Studies School Service textbook claims that "much of the Founders' commitment to liberty and individual rights" was influenced by "Christian teachings" without acknowledging the fundamental ways in which the Founders' conception of liberty differed from the Christian conception of liberty preached in the Bible and practiced by historical Christians such as the American Puritans.
      Several of these texts are also misleading because they fail to distinguish the relative influence that different ideas and historical figures had on the Founders. The Perfection textbook, for instance, has a box focusing on "a few of the people whose words influenced the content of" the Constitution that devotes a paragraph to Moses, John Locke, Charles de Montesquieu, and William Blackstone. The text is problematic not only because its claim that Moses influenced the Constitution is vague, but because it misleadingly suggests to students that these individuals exercised *equal* influence on the thought behind the Constitution. Montesquieu and Blackstone are mentioned several times in The Federalist Papers, for instance, but Moses is not mentioned once.
Going into more detail about the McGraw-Hill discussion of "covenant," he says that the American (Lockean) idea was more about people's natural rights than about accomplishing God's will. He devastatingly concludes, in italics, "The passage thus provides the student with more or less the opposite of the historical truth."

McGraw also says, "The Ten Commandments' emphasis on social justice and individual and communal responsibility has become a model for ethical laws. These ideals have been adopted in the United States and much of the world." Lester says that's less bad but still "problematic" because the text seems to use glowing terms of praise for only the Bible and is more just-the-facts about laws of Babylon, Rome, and England.

In the Perfection Learning text, a section called "Where did the Founders get their ideas?" names Moses, Locke, Montesquieu, and Blackstone. What "concept" did Moses give us? The concept that "A nation needs a written code of behavior." Lester, remarkably, doesn't offer a word of argument here, but instead focuses on the textbook's uncritical treatment of the Bible as a historical document on par with other, less contested documents. He has a point, but one wishes he'd bothered with the "concept" claim.

The Houghton textbook talks about the Founders' "Judeo-Christian influences," for both religions' claim of a divine source for law and rights, and the Protestant Reformation, for its ideas on the individual and self-government. Lester responds, rightly, that the text "gives no example of a law or set of laws in the Bible that influenced the Founders and no example of a Founder or a founding document that was influenced by the 'Judeo-Christian' concept of law. This makes it impossible to evaluate the legitimacy of the text's claim about law." And then he goes in for the kill: history *does* give an example of colonists looking to the Bible for a specific model for their government! And here's where! . . . just kidding. Nope. He doesn't say that.

He goes on to commend the Edmentum textbook because it "successfully avoids making vague, controversial, and unsubstantiated statements," and does make "specific and well-documented claims about the religious roots of our form of government": the Mayflower Compact. That's it.

Pearson Education says our democratic roots "include elements related to Judeo-Christian philosophy, dating back thousands of years to Old Testament texts and Biblical figures such as Moses and Solomon." Solomon?!

"I'm a man of the people. My tweets are the goodest."

Lester is similarly puzzled, but is at his most far-off here.
    The forms of government mentioned in the Old Testament are theocracy and monarchy. Prominent figures in the Old Testament are occasionally critical of monarchy including the prophet Samuel and Gideon.... Still, those critical of monarchy or monarchs did not advocate democracy as an alternative, and the limited monarchy occasionally practiced in ancient Israel seems to bear little resemblance to American democracy. Even if it is accurate that government in the Old Testament had democratic features, the text never tells us how these democratic features directly influenced the Founders. It is similarly difficult to make sense of the text's claim that Moses or Solomon governed in a democratic way. Since the text here does not provide additional elaboration of its claims about Moses or Solomon or the roots of democracy in "Judeo-Christian philosophy," it is impossible to assess these claims.
Lester neglects to mention one figure who was also occasionally critical of monarchy: a fellow whose name begins with M, and whose only mention of monarchy is a diatribe about the horrible time Israel will have if it ever clamors for a king.

Lester's claim that those critical of monarchy "did not advocate democracy as an alternative" raises a red flag. Although the Book of Judges (likely written by a royal scribe with a royal viewpoint) is scornful of Israel's 3-to-4–century representative citizen government, lamenting that "In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes," he doesn't put together that Samuel, Gideon, and Moses were all judges of Israel who spoke their anti-monarchy diatribes to people who had elected their own leaders for centuries. (Arguably. Bear with me.) It's a huge miss.

I'm especially intrigued by his "Even if it is accurate that government in the Old Testament had democratic features…." Aha, let's hear it, Lester! Come on! Maybe he *does* really know something. If so, he isn't saying so here. He's content to call the governments of the Old Testament either monarchy (Saul, David, Solomon, and the others) or theocracy, which must mean the judges from Moses to Samuel.

Now, it's for sure that all this is contested. We don't know much that's confirmed in a historical way about the messy federation of tribes known as Israel, or about exactly what role a shofat ("judge") played. They didn't have our three branches of government. These "judges" seemed to hear cases and disputes like our judges, but also served as military and political leaders and also had figurehead roles like our president, and legislated like our congress. Whether this really was anything we'd call "democracy" is kind of a crapshoot.

But that's not the question. The question is what Americans in the colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries thought. What did they *think* Moses did, and how did it affect them? Where, as Texas asks, did they get their ideas? Lester is right. These texts never tell us.

One place was the governments they grew up in. The colonies had charters and constitutions, which were the legal air that most Founders breathed. One of the earliest was Connecticut. Even now, Connecticuters will proudly tell you their state was the first place ever to have a written democratic constitution establishing a representative government. Their license plates say "Constitution State." That claim is disputed, and the whole thing winds up retreating into bickering. But, again, the question here isn't who was factually first. The question is about what was happening on this soil.

And what was happening was that the good people of Connecticut looked to the Bible, among other places, not for some vague idea of heritage, or the summum bonum, but for a concrete example of governance.

In chapter 18 of Exodus, Moses's father-in-law Jethro (played by Danny Glover) comes to visit and sees Moses doing his daily thing for the first time:
13 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people: and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening.
14 And when Moses' father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even?
15 And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to enquire of God:
16 When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws.
17 And Moses' father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good.
18 Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.
19 Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee: Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God:
20 And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.
21 Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens:
22 And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee.
23 If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace.
24 So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father in law, and did all that he had said.
But not quite *all* that Jethro had said. Jethro had advised Moses to choose leaders from the tribes, and indeed the Genesis account says he did. Later, though, in the first chapter of Deuteronomy, it becomes clear how exactly these leaders were chosen. Moses is recounting this story to the Israelites:
13 Take you wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you.
14 And ye answered me, and said, The thing which thou hast spoken is good for us to do.
15 So I took the chief of your tribes, wise men, and known, and made them heads over you, captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, and captains over fifties, and captains over tens, and officers among your tribes.
16 And I charged your judges at that time, saying, Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between every man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him.
17 Ye shall not respect persons in judgment; but ye shall hear the small as well as the great; ye shall not be afraid of the face of man; for the judgment is God's: and the cause that is too hard for you, bring it unto me, and I will hear it.
Bam! This, ladies and gentlemen, is a pattern for representative government. Moses tells his people to choose leaders from among themselves, to represent them and address their needs at local, tribal, and national levels.

Back in 1638, just as Connecticut was preparing its Fundamental Orders (its constitution), one of the key figures in their politics at the time, the Rev Thomas Hooker, gave a sermon on the text of Deuteronomy 1:13. The sermon notes survive. Read them and be galvanized:
I. That the choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God's own allowance.
II. The privilege of election which belongs unto the people therefore, must not be exercised according to their humors, but according to the blessed will and law of God.
III. They who have power to appoint officers and magistrates, it is their power, also, to set the bounds of the power and place unto which they call them.

I. Because the foundation of authority is laid, firstly, in the free consent of the people.
II. Because, by a free choice the hearts of the people will be more inclined to the love of the persons [chosen], and more ready to yield [obedience].
III. Because of that duty and engagement of the people.
The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut are a cornerstone of American democracy and thought. Virtually all the colonial charters that came after were aware of that document, and reflected it in some measure. It's a stretch to say that it was "based on" or "inspired by" this one sermon by Hooker, but he was active in politics and a founder of the colony, and it's no stretch at all to say this reading of the Pentateuch was instrumental for them.

It was certainly shared. The Reverend John Cotton, another towering colonial figure, wrote a thing called "Moses His Judicials," that interprets the passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy the same way, as an example of people choosing their leaders from among themselves.

And let's not forget John Calvin. He was a huge influence on life and thought in the colonies. (The Calvinist-published Geneva Bible was their bible, far more than the King James. Its anti-monarchical notes helped fertilize our soil.) Here's Calvin on Moses:
    Hence it more plainly appears that those who were to preside in judgment were not appointed only by the will of Moses, but elected by the votes of the people. And this is the most desirable kind of liberty, that we should not be compelled to obey every person who may be tyrannically put over our heads; but which allows of election, so that no one should rule except he be approved of by us. And this is further confirmed in the next verse, wherein Moses recounts that he awaited the consent of the people, and that nothing was attempted which did not please them all.
That's in the 1550s. And our incredibly Biblically-literate forebears knew Calvin nearly as well as they knew the Scripture.

Flashing forward to the 1760s, Benjamin Franklin talks about the people of Connecticut deciding to "be governed by the Law of Moses, as contained in the Old Testament." A modern reader might just think "Moses: aha, the Ten Commandments!" and be done with it. But Franklin isn't talking about outlawing graven images or dishonoring your parents. He's talking about self-governance. His comment comes in a set of notes in which he argues against a royalist pamphlet. (It's highly entertaining, calling to mind a vicious but erudite Facebook argument.)

We got the word "democracy" from Greek. We got the word "Senate" from the Roman Republic. And we got plenty of ideas from ancient Greek and Roman government. And let us please insist that textbooks educate our kids on Native American government, specifically the Iroquois Confederacy, whom Franklin and others observed with fascination and drew liberally from. But let's not write off old Moses.

No, he's not mentioned by name in the Federalist Papers. No, he's not a Founding Father, or "the first American." No, our laws don't very much resemble the Ten Commandments.

But the Founders bore the political DNA of those who saw in his words a tested pattern for self-government. That's plenty. You don't have to believe in God, or even that Moses existed. But you do have to know that these people opened this book, and understood it this way. Historians, journalists, legislators, pastors, and teachers who vaguely pedestal Moses or sweep him away are simply not digging deeply enough.

The Bible and the Founders are both more brandished than sought. We talk about what we want our kids to know: what do *we* know? Both the pro-Moses and anti-Moses teams seem to be unaware of an important fact of how earlier Americans saw him. We can do better at remembrancing an exhilarating chapter in human history.

A final detail: rank-and-file believers of the time thought of Moses as the deliverer of *God's* law, not a human scheme. They believed he bore the commandments from the mountain; they didn't think he came up with them. But, though Moses claims God spoke to him, he never claims this particular idea — "Take you wise men" — came from God. He's careful in what he attributes to divine inspiration and what comes from himself. This one comes from him. (And Jethro, exquisitely voiced by Danny Glover.)

The Ten Commandments aren't the basis of our law except in the vaguest way. Moses didn't invent the rule of law. God's covenants in the books of Moses aren't any kind of pattern for our government.

But our Founders and their forebears did credit him with something substantial and specific: a clear pattern for choosing leaders in a representative democracy. For that, he deserves mention, in our books and conversations. Not voodooistic handwaving or cursory acknowledgment, but actual credit for a good idea.

Monday, February 12, 2018

more benemendacia

I've mentioned before that there are lies and then there are lies.

If you're at work (as a waiter or CEO or secretary or doctor or whatever) and visibly down, and someone asks if everything's OK, then it might be inappropriate to unload about your non-work problems, or even your work problems for that matter. The message, "yeah, everything's OK" communicates something like, "You can see I'm down about something, but I'm going to be just fine and I won't let it affect my performance."

Now. Let's make the same inquiry about a relationship: friend to friend, or boyfriend to girlfriend, wife to husband. And let's have the question "Is everything OK?" mean something like, "are you upset with me or about something involving our relationship, or something we need to discuss and confront?"

Then what?

I'd say in that situation it really is a lie to say everything's OK when there's something a friend/spouse/SO needs to communicate about. Simply denying it is unfair to the other person.

In such a case, if you don't want to go into it you can say, "No, everything's not OK, and we need to talk, but I'm not ready to yet."

Even in that case, I'd say the clock starts, and you shouldn't wait more than 24 hours.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018


The girls and I were discussing the fact that there are 7 days in a week.

What if there were 8? But, what if that extra day were already here, only being lived by some people?

And what would it be called? You should probably name it after some Greek or Roman or Norse god — but whichever ones don't seem taken probably are taken after all, because they're all sort of mapped onto each other. (You can't have a Zeus- or Jupiter-named day, for instance, because the king of the gods already has Wednesday, Wodin's Day, also called Jueves after Jove.)

One that seems to be left is Poseidon, or Neptune. How about Neptday?

And then, as for who the people are who are living that extra day, it becomes obvious: mermaids!

So, we decided that between the moment just before sundown and the moment of sundown Monday evening, we experience it as a single fleeting moment, but the mermaids have lived an entire secret day.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

things i've learned

Things I've learned:

1. Sweeping characterizations of entire groups are usually inaccurate and always unhelpful. ("Those millennials!")

2. Speculating on someone's inner state or intelligence is unhelpful. (Bad: "You're a bigot." "She's jealous." "He's stupid." Better: "That's inaccurate." Bad: "People who think that are selfish/ignorant/_____." Better: "The result of that thinking is_____.")

3. Variety is key. (Bad: 50 posts in a row about veganism. Better: your kid's trophy, connecting with an old friend, funny observation, serious prayer request, political stuff, arts stuff, books, movies,....)

4. Rule Of Four: after four disagreeing exchanges, neither person will really get anywhere. Find something to harmonize on and leave it.

5. Starting and ending on common ground is often effective, and more often leads away from "me vs you" and toward "us".

6. Rule of Six: if you don't know the person personally (test: if you saw each other in the shop, could you call each other by name?), cut your response threshold by a factor of 6.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

secrets saveth

In Gmail, the sender line and the subject line are all on the same line in your inbox, with as many characters as can fit in the allotted space. This is fine most of the time. Sometimes, there are odd results.

For instance, every time I get an email from this friend, whose sender line includes his name and the tag "savethereds," from his campaign to pray for the souls of Russians during the Communist era, I see this oddly messianic proclamation:

Just today, I got an email from this friend, whose sender line includes her title as the parish secretary. I thought I had become privy to a very special report, or at least the report of a very special service:

Ooohhh!! This is all much less interesting than it seems.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

night cometh

I bought the materials for this very personal clock a few weeks ago, following through on something I've wanted to do for some time now.

Last night, it was time. With screwdrivers, glue, cardstock, and patience, I put it all together, mounted the phrase, and got the thing on the wall. Only afterward did I realize this was on the day my friend Randy Thomas died.

To the unsuspecting eye, it looks like a standard "the end is near," which is odd enough to have on a clock. (One friend, unnamed here, thought it was something from "Game of Thrones.") But it's really a reference to something Jesus of Nazareth said, and it matters when and how.

On encountering a blind man, He said, "I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work." Then He went to the great lengths of spitting on the ground to make clay (spit-clay!), put it on the man's eyes, then have the man go wash it off, upon which the man was healed. Just a couple of pages before, Jesus had healed a kid who wasn't even there — wasn't even in the same town — by snapping a finger. Why on earth do it this way?

Subsequent events show why: the religious leaders were scandalized, and criticized Jesus for "working on the Sabbath."

It is unavoidable to conclude that Jesus went out of His way to do this deed in just the manner that would vex the rule-followers who couldn't see past their rules. Even if you don't believe this happened in real life, you have to admit it's a powerful, subversive message for any religious text to be sending.

Fitting tribute, then, to a guy who spent so much of his life doing the right thing no matter whether it ran crossways with the rules of man. And he did it because, folks, there's only so much time. I'm glad this clock — squarely part of a long Baptist tradition — will always be a prosopikon for me tied to this friend, now asleep, his work done.

Monday, November 6, 2017

the bowl test and the messier test

I told my girls two stories.

One is about bowls: the wise man said that the only reason you should be looking to the other person's bowl is to see whether *they* have *enough*. Asking if they have more than you (then calling it 'unfair'), especially when you both have plenty, is destructive.

The other isn't about being messy. (Each girl manages to be messier than the other, a paradox I haven't gotten to the bottom of, possibly because I myself am messy.) It's about Messier (French: mes-si-ay) Objects: I only recently discovered that these exist. Somehow I'd never heard of them! One friend reacted with scorn that I was ignorant of something so commonly known even to idiots; another friend got all excited for me because he knew I'd be on a path of discovery. The excited friend was the one being the true friend — and refining his own soul in the process. The other was fruitlessly putting me down — and himself in the process.

The Bowl Test and the Messier Test. They boil down to abundance: of physical provision, of information, of space and time and goods. They ask what we will do with that abundance, and how we will treat each other.

The challenges they present are different: one native to older sisters and one native to younger ones. But life gives each of my girls both of these tests on a nearly hourly basis. So I've named them. We'll be discussing each test and how to pass it. Maybe I'll do better along the way.

Friday, October 20, 2017

two wildernesses, same wilderness

I sat in on an American Lit class today, and came to a realization. Here in our country's twenty-third decade, there seem to be two trains of thought about where we've come from and where we're going.

One train of thought says the land we've left is Eden. We're in the wilderness, and must go back.

The other says the land we've left is Egypt. We're in the wilderness, and must go forward.

Make America great for once? Make it great again? Most of our rhetoric, posturing, and genuine disagreement can be traced back to this vital difference in view.

Our dialogue, then, if it could ever get so plain, would look like this:
"Your promised land looks like it's going to be my hell."
"Your Eden *was* my hell."

The thing is, these two views catch on for a reason. They're deeply implanted. We have a very real memory of a Lost Eden, and a very real anticipation of a New Jerusalem.

So each of these narratives resonates chimingly with something central to our cosmic story. But we distort when we try to apply the narratives to our human nations, so fallible and so momentary.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

science kids and blue mountains

The Landa Library had their 70th birthday shindig Saturday. At the book sale, I spotted this gem, a well-worn edition of one of the Danny Dunn books. I gasped aloud.

Landa (and bookmobile) librarian Carl Bernal, whom we considered our family librarian for decades, turned me onto Danny Dunn, a series of slightly plausible science-fiction adventures (no Cat Women of the Moon but lots of tech that could theoretically happen, including, now that I think about it, virtual-reality drones).

Years later, Carl heard me on the radio and called the station. I told him Catherine and I were getting married soon, and invited him on the spot. On hearing we were going to Thailand for the honeymoon, he got excited because he'd been recently and loved it. He also immediately began recommending Thailand books. True to form.

At the reception, along with a more standard wedding gift, he passed me an envelope. Thai currency! Arriving in Bangkok at midnight, we were grateful not to have to deal with exchange. And there was enough to pay for the cab and our first hotel night, with a little left over.

Throughout our stay, I looked for some cool little thing to spend the last of Carl's money on. One day, down south, we were at a coffee place that had Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. I'd never had it, but recognized it as the first better-than-Maxwell-House coffee I remember hearing about, well before the era of boutique coffee, back when i was 9 or 10. Where did I hear about it, you ask? The Danny Dunn books! (His mom and Professor Bullfinch liked it.) And it cost exactly the amount of Carl's money we'd had left over. I thoroughly enjoyed the excellent coffee, the superb coincidence, and the reminder, in this faraway land, of a dear friend, a guide to life well lived, then and now.

A lady who had heard my gasp came and found me on the grounds later, wondering what on earth could have produced it. I recounted the whole story to her and her young family, who were, or pretended to be, enchanted. I'd decided not to buy the book, even though it benefitted the library, so I was glad to see later that her husband had nabbed it. He said the whole thing was too good to resist. Just think: years from now his grandkids may remember, in their middle age, those great old 20th-century books he had lying around when they were kids.

So. I'm brewing some coffee (Yirgacheffe, if you must know). If you're drinking one, join me in a toast! to Carl, to the Landa, and to the many people who opened my first glimpses of faraway lands through books.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

happy and unhappy families in art

Watching a "This Is Us," I come to a realization: the big difference between scripted drama and unscripted (reality shows, daytime talk shows, all that) hinges on a false but compelling observation by Tolstoy.

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Scripted drama still adheres to this. ("This Is Us" does so with just the right recipe of grandeur and detail and tenderness and severity.) Time after time, we're presented with people who are lovable but flawed and whose flaws create the germ of the drama, always threatening to capsize things and sometimes succeeding.

Reality TV, though, has shattered this cozy illusion. We now know that Tolstoy had it wrong (in a way, if you squint): unhappy people and families are leadenly, stultifyingly, numbingly alike. Happy people and families are quirky, odd, a delicious blast in their uniqueness.

Monday, October 9, 2017

the metonymy of attraction

I had a funny conversation recently. Try it on yourself.

It was not about politics, but rather about the metonymic nature of attraction. (I've talked about this before, from the opposite direction.) My observation was that, if you dislike someone, you dislike how they look (and their stupid striped shirt too); if you love someone, you love how they look (and their cool striped shirt).

They try to get at this in the movies by frumping up the girl at the beginning and then dolling her up by the end as the guy begins to see what's good in her. (Of course, she's played by a glamorous actress.) But that's a kind of distrust of the audience. Better is the strategy of "Lost," which picked unlikely actors and then gazed at them up close as you the audience fell in love with them, with the result that you had the most compelling-looking ensemble cast there's ever been.

If you've spent years scoffing at Donald Trump, and a good solid year or more hating him, then you might not be *able* to see that he's a handsome guy. He is, and was, both in his younger years and now.

Similarly, if you've spent your entire adult life hating Hillary Clinton, then you might not be *able* to see that she's an attractive woman. In her younger years and now as well. She's got that Washington charisma — you can't get far in politics without it.

One friend said, "nope, he's an ugly man. Nasty." Another said, "Hillary? I don't see it. " Sure enough. You know who they voted for.

One of the greatest things you can do as a human is to remove the tinted glasses.

Thursday, October 5, 2017


This afternoon, a comment by a friend got me to watching "Frozen" in its entirety for only the second time. I'm sitting here undone by a superbly-told story. Once again, Disney, when they're on their game, taps into the mythos like no one can.

Again and again, they get it right: the way people can deceive and be deceived; the relationship of law (the parents' solution to Elsa) to love (Anna's solution), the use of gloves as metaphor for covering the true person. As Dennis Whittaker points out, aside from Elsa's gloved or bare hands, it's also how you know that the gloved prince is not to be believed. Only the touch of skin is truth.

The most arresting song, Elsa's stunning Byronic paean to Milton's Satan, is exposed in retrospect for the selfish ode that it is by a sister whose other-directedness winds up in a spectacular sacrifice.

The theme of fear is woven masterfully into the story from its first moments until the climax, when the visionary John's words "perfect love casteth out fear" become visual and musical and dramatic reality. What follows is an indelible image of the world being made over, a Northern New Jerusalem where brotherhood and sisterhood are finally possible, all our curses now tamed into powers.

The final musical motif, sounding as the camera retreats into the sky — should I spoil it by telling you? no! — is an affirmation of the film's highest principle.

Monday, October 2, 2017

today's etymology

Today's etymology:

Khwarezm: a region of central Asia.

Khwarizmi: a surname indicating origin there. (Like someone whose last name is Aleman probably came from a Spanish-speaking family that had immigrated from Germany)

Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi: a dude. Not just any dude; he was a mathemetician.

al-Khwarizmi: his 'last name,' again. Say it a few times.

Algoritmi: his Latin name. (Dudes went by their Latin names because Latin was the lingua ... uh, Latina.)

algorithm: the multi-step formula named after him

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

tramp stamps

Think about “tramp stamps.” The term, and the tattoo.

The term is sexist. The tattoos themselves are much-derided. Looking past all that, I often find them to be quite attractive.

In general, tattoos have a purpose: to decorate the human body. So it has to sit well there. Designs have to work in the place they're designed for. A picture meant to be on a square painting on a wall has different requirements than one on a cylindrical vase. Same goes for something you put on the front of a building. Or on a real human body.

See? That would have looked better on a vase.

The most successful tattoos are the ones that obey the human form. We're very attuned to the human form. It's one of the pillars of world art throughout history, and we know it well. A tattoo that interrupts that form may be trendy for a moment (like those geometric designs that crop up every generation or so in fashion, and don't last for the same reason), but it will ultimately look wrong.

This gent's admirable V-shaped form begged for a design just like this.

There's an exception: the tattoo that defies the form, which is another way of imposing the human will on nature. When done well it can look good too. But that's very rare.

Actual example of one that I think is really beautiful. Especially because the careful point-by-point tattooing process is contrasted here by the illusion of watercolor's spontaneity. 
I stress that this is the exception.

Mainly, you want to obey and honor the human form. A small horizontal design at the lumbar, or slightly above at the slimmest part of the waist, can act as a visual cinch. It accentuates the feminine form in a pleasing way.

No. No, not like that. Sorry, St. Paul.

Yes. Yes, just like that.

Maybe that's why those tattoos are so popular, even and especially among girls who are not typically inky girls. Ironically, it's the conservative choice! Conservative in the sense that a small design that accentuates the female form is a safer bet than, say,


So if you're not the sort of girl who gets a lot of tattoos you may still get one on your lower back. (This is also true of those tiny ankle tattoos, which share the lumbar tattoo's feature of being easily concealed in business settings.)

Thus, girls who get typical lower-back tattoos are scorned from both sides: from those who don't get tattoos at all, and from those who get more "tattoo-culture" tattoos.

It's like a person whose favorite singer is Kesha. People who don't like modern pop scorn you for being so pop, and people who do like modern pop scorn you for being so obvious.

Hey, I like Kesha's music.

Meanwhile, those tattoos might very well stick with us for a while. They'll look good as a woman ages. They're easy to conceal when necessary and pleasant to reveal when desired. And at this point they'll never really be in or out of fashion.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

grading syrup

Grade A maple syrup is not better than Grade B. Grade B syrup has a darker color and deeper flavor than grade A. The grades are indicators of color and flavor, not quality.

So the US Department of Agriculture decided to clear that up. How? By changing the labeling system, you ask? Yep:

    • Grade A Light Amber is now
Grade A Golden Color/Delicate Taste

    • Grade A Medium Amber is now
Grade A Amber Color/Rich Taste

    • Grade A Dark Amber is now
Grade A Dark Color/Robust Taste

    • Grade B is now
Grade A Very Dark Color/Strong Taste

So instead of just getting rid of the letter grade, they just call it *all* grade A.

That is as concise a summary of America, in science, commerce, character, and logic, as I could ever hope for.

Monday, September 11, 2017

september eleventh in history

If you think modern attacks from Muslims on September 11th are referring to 9-11-2001, you may not be looking back far enough.

1565 — The Ottoman Empire had been trying to invade the island of Malta, then held by the Knights Hospitaller. The Knights, with approximately 2,000 footsoldiers and 400 Maltese men, women and children, withstood the siege and repelled the invaders. Voltaire said, "Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta." It undoubtedly contributed to the eventual erosion of the European perception of Ottoman invincibility.
Their forces retreated on September 11, 1565.

[1609 – Henry Hudson discovers Manhattan Island]

1683 — The Battle of Vienna took place at Kahlenberg Mountain near Vienna after the city had been besieged by the Ottoman Empire for two months. The battle was fought by the Habsburg Monarchy, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire, under the command of King John III Sobieski against the Ottomans and their vassal and tributary states. This is the first time the Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire had cooperated militarily against the Ottomans. It began the Great Turkish War and it is often seen as a turning point; after this war the Ottoman Turks ceased to be a menace to the Christian world.
The battle took place on September 11, 1683.

1697 — The Battle of Zenta (or Senta, today in Serbia) was a major engagement in the Great Turkish War (1683–1699) and one of the most decisive defeats in Ottoman history. In a surprise attack, Habsburg Imperial forces routed the Ottoman army which was crossing the river. At the cost of a few hundred losses, the Habsburg forces inflicted thousands of casualties on the Ottomans, dispersed the remainder and captured the Ottoman treasure. As an immediate consequence, the Ottoman Empire lost control over Banat, while in the long run, the Habsburg victory at Zenta was the last decisive step to force the Ottoman Empire into the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699), ending the Ottoman control of large parts of Central Europe.
The battle took place on September 11, 1697.

info from Wikipedia