Thursday, March 31, 2005


The future doesn't ever turn out like we imagined it; that's what makes it so interesting. Sure, we've got iPods and iMacs and iBooks that look very much like someone in the 50s would have pictured. But we're not wearing jumpsuits or driving rocketships to the office — or to a moon colony, for that matter.

The future has turned out to be far less and far more interesting than that. What would our great-grandparents have thought if they could see us still schlubbing to work in combustion engine automobiles, and wearing suits and ties, and watering the lawn?

On the other hand, what would they have thought of the microwave oven in your kitchen, or your $350 tickets to London? Or the library of Alexandria on the desk in your office, a huge flickering chunk of human knowledge, updated constantly? We do live in an age of wonders.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

rules of debate

I was just thinking about the debate team at my high school. Didn't it seem like they always got away with everything? They just kind of farted around in the library and then went to Las Palapas, and never got in trouble at all. Of course I did the same thing, so please don't think I'm griping. I even wore a tie.

I always thought I would have been a great debater, but one day in about 10th grade I found out what high school debates are like. The judges judge not on how persuasive you are, nor on how informed or powerful your argument is. No, no: they judge based on how quickly you can say a lot of stuff. One kid with a single powerful argument (like, "we shouldn't kill all the students with pimples because killing is wrong") would lose to a kid who spoke 500 words a minute about dermatology.

Why is this? My guess is that debate tourneys didn't start out this way, but evolved bit by bit over the years, till they were at this ridiculous place. But how on earth did it even start?

Monday, March 28, 2005

escherriffic games

We just got back from an Easter weekend trip to Houston, to be with Catherine's family and friends for their annual seder and weekend festivities. At two different points during the weekend, I sat down with two different groups of people and played two different card games, with one important thing in common: they were both postmodern, in that in each case the rules of the game had to do with the rules of the game. As you played, you found out more and more rules, and you got to add or subtract more and more rules, all the while actually playing the game.

How odd, that these people would be so like-minded as to be drawn to this sort of thing not once but twice. The first was with a couple of guys Catherine's age; the second was with several people in their teens and early 20s. And again the games weren't related at all; it's just that they had that self-referential quality. Ah, memes!

Friday, March 25, 2005

salisbury easter sermon

This being Easter weekend, I thought I'd share a remarkable sermon that I happened to hear exactly ten years ago.

I was traveling through England, and thought it would be good to spend Palm Sunday at St Paul's Cathedral, with all its glorious museumlike pageantry, then spend Easter at Salisbury, the living breathing cathedral that is my favorite in all the world. They have ancient art, modern art, and bulletins for next week's youth picnic. It's a real parish.

Salisbury is also the place where these people's great-great-great-etc grandfolks erected Stonehenge. They've been celebrating Easter since before it happened. No surprise then, that the Dean of the cathedral would come up with some insights into the universality of the Christ event. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

the cars, considered

It's fashionable now to despise the corrupting, homogenizing influence of big record labels on young bands: your cool new sound gets you a contract, the contract gets you in way over your head, some balding producer comes in during the studio recording and takes you in a "new direction;" your cool new sound gets left in the suburbs, and you're just another ho-hum band.

One advertisement for the success of bringing in the big guns, though, is the Cars. I was just listening to them yesterday, and marvelling at that huge sound. The label had brought in Roy Thomas Baker, a big-name big-hit guy ("more cowbell!"), and he didn't touch their weird sound but he brought in his trademark ways of turning the volume up to eleven. He was the producer for several Queen albums, and he persuaded the Cars to do 400 tons of backing vocals like Queen did. "Let the Good Times Roll" has 72 backing vocals; when they first come in, it slams you in the face (and, now that I mention it, reminds you a lot of Queen). Same with all of them: "Best Friend's Girl," "You're All I've Got Tonight."

It's so interesting to me that the overwrought sound that helped Queen define the 70s lent so much to the Cars, who, after all, set the agenda for the 80s. Their 1979 debut had it all: the gadgety fascination with electronic drums and weird tech sounds, the spiffy guitar riffs, the enigmatic lyrics, the loopy voice quality, the mix of AM cheese with Warhol erudition. And, on a separate topic entirely, their music is pure joy. What would we do without them?

Monday, March 21, 2005

rocks cry out

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, the service included Jesus's phrase that if his followers were silenced then the rocks would cry out. This set me to thinking about rocks and frequencies.

I'll never forget the day I learned that everything vibrates: rocks, metal, every inanimate thing has a natural vibrative property, based on the motion of its molecules. Crystals in particular have a strong property because of the way their molecules are lined up: crystals aren't just rocks, they're Rockettes.

This is why quartz is used in watches. We can use the minuscule vibrations of a quartz crystal to help us tell time. And of course every musician knows that vibrations cause compressions and rarefactions of air, which then get sent out like ripples in a pond, creating sound. It's only the thickness of air and the capabilities of our ears that make it so that we cannot hear the faint but constant cry of the rocks.

What a mind-blowing experiment, to sit back and revel in imagining the squealing, tearing, booming praise of all creation, from the zizzing of crystals to the very harmony of the spheres.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

names of days

Interesting, that we call this day Saturday. Saturn is the only Roman god honored by our day-names. The others are Nordic or English.

What's weird to me is the extent, wherever you go, to which days are named after the same person. Tyr, the god of war, is the same fellow as Mars, for whom Latin speakers name Tuesday: Martes. Same with Friday, Freia being the goddess of love and beauty, equivalent to Venus, for whom Viernes is named.

One of these days I'll talk about the Sephardic influence in our culture. Especially in Hispanic culture, where Jews have had an amazing and amazingly unnoticed presence. Witness the word Sabado, making Spanish the only language besides Hebrew that calls Saturday the Sabbath.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

a new chocolate drink

I've discovered a new drink.

Catherine and I were watching the movie Chocolat, in which Juliette Binoche serves chocolate to a bunch of uptight villagers and teaches them to live — a sort of dessert for Babette's Feast. Her pick for the peppery Judy Dench is a hot chocolate with ground chili peppers in it, which she says is a 2000-year-old recipe.

So, what else? We figured we'd try it. I promptly started mixing and experimenting. By the 3rd attempt I'd reached a pretty good balance, and we had a new favorite drink. It has precisely the same effect on us that Dench characterized: it peppers the mouth and gets into the throat and belly with an unexpected liveliness.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

can you covet a prayer?

I was already out of college the first time I heard someone say "I covet your prayers." I knew exactly what they meant, but wondered how they could be so blind to the actual meaning of the word. To covet, after all, is to do something wrong, to want something in a wrong way.

But the phrase caught on, and it's now difficult to go through a Sunday or a weeknight prayer meeting without someone coveting your prayer. One friend did that so much that one time when he asked for my prayers that way I said I'd "lust after God's will for him." His response? "Oh thank you, man."

Friday, March 11, 2005


When did people start thinking that making the s sound into a z would be nice? I think they do it because it seems aristocratic or erudite. "Cashmere" became "cazhmere" years ago, maybe even in the 80s — but back then it was only done by upward strivers mistakenly trying to sound classy. These days, it almost doesn't matter; so many people pronounce it with the voiced zh that soon that will be standard.

"Discern," however, is a different issue. I've now heard several people say "dizzern" or "dizzernment" or some variant. Why? It's not sloppiness: they're quite obviously doing it on purpose. And "rezource" is rampant. Some guy will say something about "checking our rezources," and no one blanches. Have you noticed this? What's going on?

Tomorrow's topic: people who covet your prayers.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Bering's closes, an era ends

Today, we're baking cookies and taking them over to all the ladies at Bering's, which is, alas, closing its doors soon. What a stupid shame! The owners, who are from Houston and don't know much about life here, got an offer on their property that they couldn't refuse — it's prime real estate. They then looked around, halfway, for a similar spot in Alamo Heights. But since they don't know this town, they don't know that they could have looked in Terrell Hills and Olmos Park, both of which have some really great spots available. So instead they're just closing abruptly.

We did make out like bandits there, though, the other day, spending money from our bridal registry. And what a great experience that registration was! It was the way things were everywhere a generation ago — or, now, two generations ago — but aren't anymore. The ladies all know us by name and know our tastes, and know taste, and helped us pick out stuff, giving us gentle guidance when our instincts faltered, and in general sharing in our joy.

Naturally, they're left out in the cold a bit. And so are all of us. This is exactly what's meant by the Tragedy of the Uncommons. Pretty soon the cool, funky, genteel, unique store with a little of everything, including a tearoom where you'll see everyone's mom you ever knew, will be replaced by a Gap with a Starbucks in it. Remind me not to go there.

***UPDATE***: it's a Chili's. Yawwn.

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

things i did in 04

Yesterday I sent out my annual summary of the year's events: "things i did in 04." It's a satisfying list to compile, going through the previous 12 months of my life and seeing what all is worthy of remark.

But maybe the most satisfying aspect of it is what comes now. My inbox is filled with returns, filling me in on the lives of friends far and near. Can't wait to read them.

Thursday, March 3, 2005

paul and kathy at the gates

Paul and Kathy just went up to New York for the express purpose of seeing Christo's "The Gates." I've always felt ambivalent about Christo, because the jive art-talk he spews is borderline comical, while the actual artworks are fascinating.

The Gates are a series of wooden frames draped in yellow-orange cloth, in Central Park. They were only up for a couple of weeks, so if you missed them you missed them.

Kathy's pictures:

Tuesday, March 1, 2005

20th century style

The last couple of weeks when I stayed at Baylor, I stayed with a guy who lives in a house that lives in 1955. Long, low, flat, slate, and filled with gorgeous examples of American De Stijl, from elliptical tables to weirdly low chairs, and a kitchen to die for: all brushed metal and blond wood, with severe stemware and flatware. What a way to live. And the light in the place was fantastic.

It reminded me very much of how I would have wanted to live when I was a Baylor student. We were all into that style, and had all reverently read Harriet and Vetta Goldstein, and loved the idea that everything in your life, even the objects, even the ceiling, could have integrity. We didn't just agree with the idea, we didn't just love it: we were turned on by it.

Still are. That same group of friends is still together, our ideals unchanged, our passions undimmed. How fun, to have real life answer to our idealism in spite of all those smirking grown-ups!