Wednesday, August 31, 2005

I Like This

By Leonard Cohen:

Sit down, Master, on this rude chair of praises, and rule my nervous heart with your great decrees of freedom. Out of time you have taken me to do my daily task. Out of mist and dust you have fashioned me to know the numberless worlds between the crown and the kingdom. In utter defeat I came to you and you received me with a sweetness I had not dared to remember. Tonight, I come to you again, soiled by strategies and trapped in the loneliness of my tiny domain. Establish your law in this walled place. Let nine men come to lift me into their prayer so that I may whisper with them: Blessed be the name of the glory of the kingdom forever and ever.
- from Book of Mercy (1984)

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Thinking: Explanation vs. Justification

It's a commonplace that folks who tend to the left want to understand the "root causes" of behavior, while folks more to right want to focus only on the effects of a particular behavior or events. Even though neither characterization is really true, people tend to believe things like this without thinking too much, and this commonplace enables people like Karl Rove to accuse liberals of wanting to "offer therapy and understanding to the attackers" after 9/11.

An excellent discussion has broken out among the people I read over the question of whether "explaining" a bad act, like 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombings, ends being a kind of "justification" of the act. I wondered the same thing about Ted Haggard's explanation of Pat Robertson's "take him out" comment earlier.

The discussion starts with Brad DeLong, an economics professor at Cal, posting his exchange with his former teacher Jeff Weintraub. This prompted a reflection by Hilzoy and this response from her blogging partner Sebastian Holsclaw, both at Obsidian Wings.

These are long posts, and the discussion is very wide-ranging, but I recommend them for two reasons. First, they are examples of how to have a good discussion, and of how the internet can be used for something more than commerce, porn, and PM's. Second, I think this discussion can give us insight into "how" we talk about issues, and "how" we understand our own viewpoint within a discussion. The better we understand both, the better off we will all be.

(Note: Edited because some of the orignial sentences were badly written. 11:37 am 8/30/05)

Linkage IV

Fear of Death? As it happens, blogs by economists have become part of my regular reading. Marginal Revolution, by two George Mason University professors usually has something amazing every day. The latest is by Tyler Cowan on "The Fear of Death". Cowan cites several papers (all worth a look) which attempt to analyze the evidence for and effects of people fearing death. Brilliant and enlightening stuff.

USA! USA! USA! Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber is just back from Munich and he says the Germans are... badly dressed. He says: "Admittedly, the competition is stiff from us British and from the Americans, but I think the Germans may win on grounds of sheer uniformity." I had no idea, but good for America! We need more good press, whatever the source.

Wait, There's More I've wasted more time than I care to admit, (even though I'm admitting it here, which makes you wonder about the utility of that particular figure of speech) watching Ron Pupeil's infomericials and earlier Ronco commercials. Now, upon turning seventy, Ron is cashing out - to the tune of $56.5 million! Read all about it here (not available in any store!) (Via LA Observed)

Bananas, Going... I didn't realize it at the time, but the banana I ate last night is the Cavendish variety, as are virtually every one of the typical yellow bananas grown all over the world. Unfortunately, this one variety is now the victim of a fungus, (follow the link, at least for the photo) which has already wiped out plantations in Asia. If it reaches Central America, the banana as we know it will disappear. (Via Michael Froomkin).

Tipping Point? Also at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowan reports that "A top New York restaurant is replacing tipping with a mandatory twenty percent service charge." Be sure to take a look at this, and follow the links if you have a few minutes. I think this discussion gives insight into way more about our culture than just what we tip - I do 17.5% at nicer places, btw, but it's easy for me to do math in my head.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Adventures in Cool

Yesterday, we began the week and ended the camping weekend by going home via Santa Barbara, making the two mandatory stops: the Territory Ahead outlet store on State Street, and a meal at La Super Rica, where we had an actual star sighting! Oh. My. Goodness! I'm sitting there plowing through my Super Rica Especial when in walks Janel Maloney, who plays Donna Moss on The West Wing. I love The West Wing. I'd love to work in the Bartlett White House! I'd love for Jed Bartlett to be my President. I have seriously spent time wondering if I'm more like Josh, Toby or Sam.

Any way, I was able to shush Wendy when she started to rubberneck, but then while I was sitting there feeling superior, ("At least I know how to handle myself around a star") I didn't realize that Ms. Maloney had sat down right behind me. Without this knowledge, I continued to talk about her and her work, all within her earshot. Oh, my, goodness - I am so embarrassed.

Too Abstract?

I'm going through email today and I came across one called "Abstract Writers Wanted", and I thought, "That's for me, but do they really want people to write abstractly?" Then I remembered what that actually meant. Funny how the mind works. OK, maybe just my mind.

Actually, the solicitation was for the Center for Process Studies, which means that even the abstracts will be very abstract. I think my eye was drawn to this because abstraction has been on my mind lately. I've begun preaching again on a regular basis, and I've had to constantly discipline myself away from the acceptable abstractions of the classroom and academia to focus on the tangible priorities of good preaching, but still staying well away from being like this.

Put Me in Coach (Dad)

Josh Levin at Slate, in an article about coaches' sons on their Dad's teams, tells us this:
My favorite coach's son story happened in an Indiana high-school basketball game last year. Moments after the team's star forward/coach's son set the county scoring record, one of his teammates passed him the ball— while he was sitting on the bench. Dear old dad had been a bit too vocal about passing to sonny boy, it seems, and some adults bribed a kid $45 to mock the father-son duo by taking the instructions a bit too literally.
Here a link to the original story from 1994. I was surprised to read that the officials at the Indiana school thought this was a horrible thing to do - no, not hogging the spotlight for the coach's son - but for showing up the coach.

Today, I begin another season coaching my son in soccer. He'll probably play forward and may end up being our leading scorer. Hmm.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Ted Haggard Goes to Mexico

I don't want this to be a Ted Haggard blog, but I go where my readers take me. So I'm happy to say that Ted Haggard has followed through in his efforts to mend rift between Evangelicals and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez over Pat Robertson's remarks.

According to this report from the Rocky Mountain News, Haggard flew today to Mexico City to meet with a friend of Chavez and to attempt to set up a meeting with President Chavez.

Several interesting angles on this. The AP report focuses on apologizing and the potential threat to missionaries. The BBC points to the possible embarrassment a meeting with Chavez would create for the Bush Administration. Haggard's home town Colorado Springs Gazette, in an article that is very sympathetic to Robertson, reports that Haggard hopes the conversation will go beyond an apology to the concerns of Venezuela's Evangelical community.

There is still no reference to the Robertson/Chavez affair on the National Association of Evangelicals website, but this report from a local television station quotes a Haggard spokesperson saying, "The purpose of the meeting in Mexico City is to talk about Evangelicals in the United States and well as recent economic and political positions of the Chavez administration". (Here's a video link to the broadcast report, but the ellipsis is also in visual part of the report but not in the reporter's reading).

I couldn't find any other reference to this last statement from Haggard's spokesperson, and I would really like to see the full context. The final half of that quote leaves me very concerned.

Nevertheless, I am glad that Mr. Haggard is doing this much.

More on Ted Haggard

All of my commenters, which are still only one person, have continued to discuss my posts on the response of the NAE's Ted Haggard to Pat Robertson's call for Hugo Chavez to be assassinated. Here's Andrew's latest response to my last post:
That's the problem with looking at an interview second-hand. You miss so much. Jesse Jackson brought up Janet and Justin. Not Ted. Ted was saying exactly what you're saying: "Why are you bringing this up in the Robertson context?" It really didn't make any sense.

When Lou Dobbs asked him point-blank if he condemned the assassination call, Haggard said, "Absolutely." It was only when Lou was asking questions trying to understand why Robertson would say such a thing that Ted offered the explanations you posted. Any time he got the chance, he emphatically stated that Pat's position is not representative of evangelicals.

Here's a nifty one-liner from Knight Ridder (It's listed on the page you link to citing your incomplete transcript from CNN...You seem to have missed it...):

"Pat doesn't speak for evangelicals any more than Dr. Phil speaks for mental health professionals." - Ted Haggard

The reason Ted is minimizing the statement is that he is not out for Pat's head on a platter. Shooting a guy when he's down is no more Christian than the foolish remark Pat made. Ted's trying to strongly condemn the sin while loving the sinner--isn't that what we all try to do as Christians?

By the way, Pastor Ted is meeting with Hugo Chavez' people tomorrow in Mexico to help smooth things over and clarify Evangelicals' position. I really think he's doing as much as he can to do the right thing here...

And, for the record, I do work at New Life Church. I happen to like Pastor Ted (shock!) and when I notice a site like yours which writes only part of the story, I like to help the whole picture be seen. Sorry if I have bothered you by it...

A couple of things:
  • I really appreciate the tone of Andrew's response. Even though I'm trying to say something serious, I have said it in a somewhat flippant manner, and Andrew has remained courteous and irenic. His response is a good example of how to conduct an online discussion, and I thank him for it.
  • I'm glad for the context and clarification of the references to Janice Jackson. Context matters, which is why, btw, I didn't include Haggard's one-liner about Robertson - I didn't know the context.
  • I'm glad that Mr. Haggard will be or has been by now personally meeting with representatives of President Chavez.

But, a couple of other things remain, and these points are not necessisarily aimed at Andrew, but he's welcome (as are others) to continue if he likes:
  • Just what is "Evangelicals' position" on Venezuela? As far as I am aware, Mr. Haggard has been supportive of the Bush administration's approach to international issues, and the Administration, as I noted in another post, seems to have been actively involved in trying to overthrow Chavez, and certainly continues to see him as an enemy.
  • So is the "Evangelical position" that we support our government's attempts to undermine Mr. Chavez' regime? Or is our position the more easily biblically defensible position that we pray for God's blessing on him and his country and that we humbly urge him to work for greater freedom and justice for his people?
  • I'll accept that "The reason Ted is minimizing the statement is that he is not out for Pat's head on a platter. Shooting a guy when he's down is no more Christian than the foolish remark Pat made." I don't question Mr. Haggard's intent, but there is a point where minimizing or contextualizing turns into excusing, and the Lou Dobbs interview comes at best very close to that point. When someone really blows it, you can't say, "Yes, xyz was really bad, but..." You have to stop before the "but", and it seems to me that Mr. Haggard didn't do that.

That's It

This morning, I have officially and emotionally given up on the Dodgers.

Following their 5-4 loss to Rockies, I now concede that they have no chance to win their division. I say this knowing full well that if they should somehow win the division and make the playoffs that I have forfeited my fan rights and I will be prohibited from climbing onto the band wagon.

The guys just aren't good enough. As bad as the NL West is - it may take only 80 wins to take the title - I don't think the Dodgers have a chance of reaching even that. If they had more to offer and had been playing below their level, I could still hold out hope. But playing .450 ball is their level.

Last night's loss, their 70th - one more than they lost all last year, seems like a sign, and so, that's it. I give up. My heart and I are waiting 'til next year.

Weekly Diary

A day early this week...

This week got going with a bang! The Galaxy, finally, finally, FINALLY won an away match, 3-2 on Saturday over DC United. Prior to this, the Galaxy had not beaten any as the visitors (excepting Chivas, but they don't count) since June, 2004. And then on Wednesday, the Galaxy did it again by defeating San Jose 2-1 in the Quarter-finals of the US Open Cup. HOORAY.

Party Like It's 1999! I am something of a Luddite, and we don't have a bunch of money laying around, so we don't always have the latest technology. (My I-Pod birthday present is still sitting in the box). But this week we upgraded to two new cell phones for our family. Whoopee! Now we can be like everyone else and have conversations while we're driving or standing in public places. Then we won't have to talk to each other at home, freeing up more time for watching TV and wasting time on the Internet.

Reeling in the Years Chris went to the High School this week to pick up his books and his class schedule. I can't believe how old the other parents of high schoolers look.

And We're Outta Here The family is off to our annual camping event at McGrath State Beach in Ventura with a bunch of people from our church. This has always been a wonderful time. The family Thursday and I go today, delayed by our youth soccer league's seemingly annual postponement of the coaches' meeting from last week to this.

Somos Galacticos Got our team assignments and rosters for our youth soccer teams. Katie will be able to play - there was some doubt of getting enough coaches for her division. I hope to be able to be an assistant on her team. I will be coaching Chris's team, and we will be Real Madrid. I am stoked. But...

Our league is a classic example of American Exceptionalism when it comes to soccer. We mess with the Laws of the game in silly ways, and only the teams in the top boys division are named for soccer teams - some of the lower divisions even use professional names from other sports! But even in our division we don't get things right. The schedule listed Ajax, which they pronounce like the cleaner, as being Danish (they're Dutch), and Celtic, which they usually say in the plural, as Irish when they're Scottish. And none of the colors are right. Real Madrid, which is perhaps even more well known for wearing all-white than the Yankees are for pin stripes, will be wearing... maroon shirts and socks with yellow shorts. Sigh. But the ball is still round, and the game is 70 minutes, so on we go.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Linkage III

A.J. Schwanz, who is the friend of a friend, and who is also a Friend, as is my friend, as am I, has an interesting take on church Youth Groups, and why so few of those kids remain an active part of their church, or any church, once they get out of High School. She uses the phrase "false communities" and I think she's onto something.

When I leave the soul sucking suburb in which I live, it is usually to get something to eat, and on these journies Jonathan Gold is my Virgil. His book Counter Intelligence approaches scriptural status at our house. This week in the LA Weekly he covers Pann's, an amazing old skool coffee shop near LAX which has been restored to its former glory. (Via Kevin Roderick at the wonderful L.A. Observed)

Marc Cooper uses poker tells to figure out when Donald Rumsfeld is lying. So when does he lie? Pretty much all the time. (Via Kevin Drum)

In this summer of the Wedding Crashers, Tyler Cowan of Marginal Revolution points to this article about a company in India which hires out wedding guests, thereby helping families avoid the embarrassment of having a poorly attended event. Cowan comments, "Funny thing is, I would pay people to stay away from my wedding..."

I'm not sure how I found this, but take a look at Wordcount. This nifty website lists words in English by their frequency, creating interesting (at least to me!) juxtapositions. For instance, a search of some of my more recent preoccupations reveals that "assassination" is the 10330th most frequently used word in English, preceded fittingly by "predator" and followed by "moist". More happily, "soccer" is the 5839th most frequent word, preceded by "striker" ("Figures!" grumble mid-fielders and defenders) and followed by "Vienna". Hmm.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

And Now to Haggard

I turned on my computer tonight to find a very nice comment on my post calling out Ted Haggard from Andrew, who writes:
Maybe you missed it, but Haggard was on CNN, ABC, and radio several times yesterday doing exactly what you asked for. He said plainly that Robertson doesn't speak for evangelicals and that, though Robertson has a right to free speech, his suggestion of assassination is illegal and ill-advised.

I agree completely.
Since I have so few readers, (this is still an unannounced blog, all of my readers except for my wife and one friend, who is on vacation this week and so not reading, stumble here), I always check to see who is looking at the blog and especially who the commenters are. I found it interesting that Andrew was posting from a ISP address registered to New Life Church, perhaps not coincidentally the place where Ted Haggard is the pastor. Nice to see you have your pastor's (boss's?) back, Andrew.

Wanting to honor Andrew's comment, I took a look at what Haggard had to say. In the LA Times article quoted in the earlier post he said:
"if this dictator starts to think of evangelicals as people who are gunning for him, that could be difficult for missionaries there."
This is not exactly what Andrew said he said, and somewhat, uh, beside the point, so I looked further and came across a great article from Ted Olsen at Christianity Today, in which he covers the responses (and press coverage) of many Evangelical leaders. Olsen quotes from Ted Haggard's appearance on CNN at length, and I'll give it to you here:
I think you have to understand the context of it. You know his program has one section of it that's a Christian exhortation, and then another section where he's a political pundit. And I think what he was saying was, we have a looming problem down south, and there are several bad options there. And he's saying maybe the least of the bad options is to do something about the dictator. Â… The First Amendment is wonderful. People have free speech privileges. He wasn't writing a memo to the White House recommending a public policy decision. He was not recommending something to the State Department. He was not exposing himself sexually on the platform the way Janet Jackson did. Instead, he was having a political discussion, where they were randomly working with some ideas. For Jesse Jackson [who called for the FCC to investigate the remarks] to exaggerate it this way is just as appalling as what Pat Robertson said, I think. Â… We're addressing it, we're not taking it lightly. Nobody is taking it seriously as a policy issue. So the system is working. Everything is fine. Nobody's going to assassinate this man. But we do realize he is a major problem. Â… Pat Robertson was wrong in recommending this. He was wrong in saying it. But he was not wrong in being able to just openly discuss it the way political pundits do all the time. Now, if you take his words as from a religious Christian leader, as a recommendation, then we have a problem. But I don't think that's what he did And so you have to sort through that just a little bit, but I think what he was saying was, if our choice is a major war or the some way to deal with this military dictator, then we need to deal with the military dictator rather than have another Islam on our hands. Â… What [Robertson] said was not illegal. What he recommended was illegal.
Oh Ted, this is not good. I have trouble with a number of things you said:
  • You can't have it both ways, saying at this moment Pat's a commentator and this moment he's a minister. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise, and I'm not sure even Robertson makes this distinction.
  • Why bring up Jesse Jackson and Janet Jackson in this? Do you really think Janet's momentary exposure is worse than this? Really?
  • Chavez is not a "military dictator". He would have liked to have been, but his coup failed, and after several years in jail, he went on to be elected President. Elected is the key word here. Yes, he's a clown, and maybe a threat to the US, but he was elected, twice. He is not a dictator.
  • Why do you feel you have to minimize what Robertson said? Isn't minimizing just a slightly nicer form of excusing?
  • Which political pundits, especially political pundits who have run for President themselves and who have access to the current President, "openly discuss" politiacal ssassinationtion "all the time"? I know that people like Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly call for the death of political opponents from time to time, is that what you mean?
So Andrew, thanks for commenting, but after reading this, I'm sorry to say that Ted Haggard didn't do what I was hoping he would. I wish he'd just said what Al Mohler, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said (also in Olsen's article):
"He has brought embarrassment upon us all. With so much at stake, Pat Robertson bears responsibility to retract, rethink, repent, and restate his position on this issue. Otherwise, what could have been a temporary lapse of judgment can become an enduring obstacle to the Gospel."

See Ted, it's not that hard.

Robertson Repudiations (and not)

I've found the government's response to be rather tepid, but that is no surprise.

I've been pleasantly surprised by the level of response from many Evangelicals, but sadly, not all. I got off to a nice start this morning with this quote from APU's (holla!) own Kevin Mannoia in the LA Times:
"We complain about the Islamic fanatics making statements like that."...He (then) called Robertson's statement "an extreme, fanatical reaction that is not representative of the Christian faith in general and the evangelical movement in particular. It's out of line and inappropriate and should not be made by a serious person in a serious forum."
The New York Times noted:

The Rev. Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals said he and "most evangelical leaders" would disassociate themselves from such "unfortunate and particularly irresponsible" comments.

"It complicates circumstances for foreign missionaries and Christian aid workers overseas who are already perceived, wrongly, especially by leftists and other leaders, as collaborators with U.S. intelligence agencies," Mr. Cizik added.

But sadly, the Times went on to observe:

But other conservative Christian organizations remained silent, with leaders at the Traditional Values Coalition, the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition saying they were too busy to comment.
That's more like it fellas! Way to confirm my suspicions!

Robertson Bobs and Weaves

Given the surprising level of response to his comment's on Monday that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez should be assassinated, Pat Robertson made two attempts today to repair the damage.

First, he initially denied saying Chavez should be assassinated by saying:
Wait a minute, I didn't say 'assassination.' I said our special forces should, quote, "take him out," and "take him out" can be a number of things including kidnapping. There are a number of ways to take out a dictator from power besides killing him. I was misinterpreted by the AP, but that happens all the time.
Except he wasn't "misinterpreted". Here's what Robertson originally said:
You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. ...We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.
Seems pretty clear to me.

Then, when that didn't work because, you know, people have VCR's and computers with internet access and check things like that, according to Media Matters:
On the afternoon of August 24, Robertson issued a press release in which he claimed that his assassination comments were "adlibbed" out of frustration, suggesting they were not representative of his true thinking.
Read the whole Press Release here, in which Robertson amazingly tries to wrap himself in the mantle of German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer!

Put a fork in him, he's done. But then again, maybe not. If you follow the link to Robertson's site, you'll find links to "Pat's Age-Defying Antioxidants", "Pat Robertson's Age-Defying Shake", and "Pat's Age-Defying Protein Pancakes". And I swear, or rather, I affirm, since I'm a Quaker, that I am not making this up!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Denounce Robertson, Now

Pat Robertson is a kook.

I don't have a fast enough connection to track the links, but all you have to do is run a search with the words "Robertson" and "hurricane", "dictator", "gold", or "judges" and you'll get plenty of examples.

But yesterday he reached a new level, calling for the assassination of the (elected) President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. He has not been quoted out of context. In fact viewing the quote in context makes it even worse by making it clear this was not merely a throw away line.

I don't expect any response from our government, since the Bush Administration apparently supported a coup attempt against Chavez in 2002. (And this failed coup was a partial source of Robertson's tirade). They are not going to denounce Robertson for asking them to do something they wish they could do.

But I should be able to expect a response from the "leaders" of the Evangelical community. And I'm looking at you, Ted Haggard, President of the National Association of Evangelicals. Haggard has spoken on a broad number of issues, but only to turn the NAE into a reliable voice in support of this Administration, so I can't imagine anything will be forthcoming, but it should.

Christian leaders should denounce Robertson, clearly, without any qualification. But they won't. This will cause hardly a ripple. And the fact that there are many Christians who would want to argue that assassinating democratically elected leaders of neighboring countries might be OK just shows how captive we have become to our culture.

But at least I can say it. "I denounce Pat Robertson for calling for the assassination of Hugo Chavez. He does not speak for me and vigorously reject any assertion that he may be speaking for the Church and for the Gospel of Jesus".

Well, at least I feel better.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Linkage II

After the elections, San Francisco free-lance journalist Rose Aguilar decided " leave my liberal bubble and travel to the so-called "Red States" to find out why people vote the way they do and what they think about politics." She hit the road in April, and has been blogging her encounters at Stories in America. She has a nice way with her conversation and is only occasionally (and probably unintentionally) condescending. It's fascinating stuff. (Via Digby's Hullabaloo)

The year's decision by the Kansas Board of Education to give "equal consideration" to Intelligent Design alongside evolution spawned the creation of another religion demanding equal consideration: Pastafarianism, a religion dedicated to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. One of their more novel beliefs or insights is to link the rise in global temperature to the worldwide decline in the number of pirates. Take a look at this droll article in the Guardian, too. (Via Michael Froomkin at Discourse.Net)

I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who wonders about things like this. At the economics focused website Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowan tries to figure out why there are so many framing shops, and why frames are so expensive.

I attend LA Galaxy matches with the LA Riot Squad, a supporter group which sometimes uses "strong language". Within the group, I've been an advocate of having at least some limits. But as a group, we've received static for violating the "family atmosphere" of the stadium, "ruining" the experience for all those AYSO teams who come once and miss most of the match running up and down the aisles and standing in concession stands. I've often wondered where we got the idea that a professional sporting event is meant to be just another place to take the kids once they've outgrown Chuck E. Cheese. In this article, Washington based writer Ian Penderleith makes my point better than I could.

A little bit of unintended irony: seems a "female dancer" (stripper?) was involved in a Miami Dolphins rookie hazing event. Seems somebody told the press, and that somebody mentioned that the dancer took special interest in Dolphin coach Lou Sabin. Sabin responded that things like this were "family matters" and that he will cut whomever told the press. Interesting definition of "family matter".

Friday, August 19, 2005

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Chris is too old for me to have an excuse anymore to stand in line to get the books at midnight, so we've relied on Amazon for the last two. But last year, while we were waiting for the FedEx truck to bring our book, my Dad called...
Dad: "Do you have the Harry Potter book yet?"
Me: "No, we're waiting for FedEx. We got it from Amazon so we could have it today and not stand in line at the book stores". (I'm feeling pretty slick at this point)

Dad: "Well, they've got them at Albertsons".
Me: "Albertsons! How can that be?
And so, I walk over to Albertsons, and there they were. But this leaves me with somewhat mixed feelings. One of the secret joys of being a reader (at least for me) is pretentiousness. You know that when you're reading you're doing something superior to watching reality TV or eating at Applebee's. But it's hard to maintain this pretense when you are buying your book along with a bag of giant Cheeto's.

This year, I dispensed with Amazon, and planned on Albertsons, but their delivery was late, so we had to wait to the evening. Chris raced through and finished on Monday, while I didn't get to start until Monday and so took until Tuesday, my latest finishing point for the last three books.

And so, to the review.

The broad hints about the story were true. The story does become "darker" and a significant character dies. Compared to previous books, not a lot of new ground is covered. Obviously, the story advances, but each of the previous books has expanded our knowledge of the wizarding world, and the kids have grown rapidly. This time, as happens in real life at this point of adolescence (they're sixteen turning seventeen), the kids maturation has slowed, and the plot mainly fills in the broad canvas created by the first five books.

One of the things I’ve really liked about the more recent books is the way Rowling gives complex and even contradictory motivations to her characters. In books aimed at kids (and works aimed at that level, like TV shows and most popular cinema) the characters are very flat. Rowling has trusted her readers enough to make her characters more and more rounded as the story progresses, while at the same time keeping them believable as kids. (Although I do think she stumbles a bit with the “relationship stuff”). Her portrayal of the adults is just as sharp. I really appreciated her somewhat unsympathetic portrayal of Harry's godfather Sirius Black in book V. In this book, the adults become even more complicated, and in a very satisfying way, she shows the kids moving into more of a peer relationship with their parents and teachers.

Rowling also has a keen eye for the "ways of the world". I thought her portrayal of the wizarding government's response to the return of Voldemort at the end of book IV and throughout book V was very smart. Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic and their head of government, senses deep down that he is not equipped to handle the likes of Voldemort, and so he refuses to admit that it is possible for him to have returned. While I have seen this response to trouble many times in real life and note that it is a very frequent cause of grief, we rarely see this portrayed as a motivation in film, and so I thank Rowling for it. At the beginning of this book, Voldemort goes on a rampage, leading to the sacking of Fudge and his predictable replacement by a "man of action". Rowling also gets in a few wry comments on "the war on terrah" in connection with this.

And yes, the themes of the book are "darker". Perhaps a better way to put it is that the moral boundaries of the characters become wider and blurrier. Rowling had pointed us in this direction at the end of book IV, when, upon his return, Voldemort kills one of Harry's classmates like a bug. Now, this casual disregard for life, or perhaps better, avid regard for gaining and keeping power, is full-blown. This left Chris kind of troubled.

Rowling also seems to be aware of some of her own literary patterns from the previous books. There is a hard to see but essential difference between having a style and self-plagiarism, Rowling understands this, and plays off of it brilliantly. Through most of the book, it appeared to me that Rowling had fallen into a rut with one of the subplots Harry faces, and I was thinking, “Doesn’t she realize she always has Harry focused on this?”. But as it turns out, Rowling was fully aware, and uses and breaks this pattern to great effect at the end of the book.

But I do have a few small quibbles. First, despite Rowling's frequent references to the power of love being greater than all other powers, this time she seems to suggest that Harry's fundamental motivation towards Voldemort is, and should be, revenge. She does little to reconcile the incompatibility of these two powers, and I suspect it is because she doesn't realize that they are incompatible. Second, Rowling seems to think that some people are "killers" and some are not. She does a great job of portraying how killing can rob one of his or her soul, but just the stories of Rwanda, Bosnia, and Dafur from recent years show that given the right circumstances and motivations, we can all be killers.

That aside, these books are brilliant. If you have kids, read them along with them. These stories provide you with a common set of experiences and stories which can be invaluable in talking to your kids about life. (And despite a great deal of ink and venom over the "danger" of these stories for Christian kids, fuggeddaboutit. The themes and worldview of these books fit well with Christian thinking and priorities, much more so even than, say, the Left Behind books. Trust me on this, I'm a professional). And even if you don't have kids, read these books. At best, you'll learn something about life, and at worst, we all can at least develop a set of common cultural referents beyond the Simpsons and South Park.

Other Stuff: the Internets are populated with people who are even more obsessive and with greater motivation to waste time than I. Here are two really amazing reflections by garlandgraves and Brad Plumer on the events at the end of the book where the story may be going in the next and final book. I felt a lot better after reading them.


The blogosphere has been buzzing over Roger Ebert's amazing smack down of Rob Schneider. Seems Schneider took issue with comments from the LA Times' Patrick Goldstien (whom I like a lot) about his latest film: Deuce Bigalo - European Gigalo and took out ads in the trade papers to say so. Goldstien has ignored him, but Ebert has risen to Goldstein's defense. Go read it now, along with able comments from Patrick Nielson Hayden at Making Light.

Nielson Hayden also links to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune which suggest that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, may not be growing as quickly as commonly believed, or as asserted by LDS officials. Hmm.

Fascinating post from Mark Kleiman. He offers a contrafactual historical proposal - "What would the religious map of Europe look like today if the English Civil War had taken place a decade earlier, putting well-disciplined English troops into the field on the Protestant side of the Thirty Years' War?" This post has a number of fascinating responses.

Eszter at Crooked Timber gives a shout out to blogger (and sociologist!) Jeremy Freese (and sociologist!) who is was having trouble getting his sofa into a new apartment, and then goes on to sharing and soliciting bad moving stories.

I'm not sure how I found her (could be Susan Kitchens) but I love mimi smartypants. (The penguins are not new. In fact, given the tone of the site, I suspect she may be thinking about losing the penguins now that that movie is so popular). This a typical entry:

Here is another thing that was much, much funnier in my brain than it was in real life:

Coworker: What does it mean when your cat starts pooping a lot?
Me: What does it mean?
Coworker: Yeah.
Me: Are you thinking symptom or omen?

And then I got the big snorting giggles while she stood there waiting for me to stop and engage in friendly workplace pet-discussion. Maybe I have just been damaged from my Classics major, but I love picturing some haruspex of excrement shouting, "Sire! The cat poop bodes ill today!"

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Babbling in Public

So we're walking back to our car after a lovely al fresco lunch at CostCo, when a woman passes us, gesturing and talking to herself. My first thought was, "Wow, that woman has lost it. I hope she's gonna be OK. What should I do for her?"

Except she wasn't mentally ill - she was talking on her "hands free" cell phone. How long it will take for me to change my frame of reference so that the first thing I'll think of in this kind of situation will be "She must be on the phone"?

Review: Reservoir Dogs

Many of the young men (and some of the young women) I teach admire Quentin Tarantino's films. I think Pulp Fiction is brilliant, but I could only watch a few minutes of Kill Bill before giving up, and until recently, I hadn't seen Reservoir Dogs nor Jackie Brown.

So in order to better understand the narrative world and sensibilities of my students (I say this partially tongue in cheek), I rented Reservoir Dogs the other day.

It was a terrible experience. I was OK with and kinda liked the opening breakfast table scene. The dialog lacked the snap that Tarantino shows in Pulp Fiction, but you could see how the first leads to the second. But it was all down hill after that. I was ready to give up after about forty minutes, but I kept on, thinking that the film maker would redeem all that he was putting me through, but he didn't. I don't think I've ever regretted seeing a movie more. (Except for maybe all three of the new Star Wars films, but that's for another time).

I understand what Tarantino was trying to do - he pushes boundaries in multiple directions. But I don't understand why so many people feel so passionate about this film. What is the point of the movie? What's it about, other than transgressing boundaries?

But it also occurs to me that this film belongs, broadly, to the same transgressive category as The Bad News Bears which I affirm in another post. So, am I saying that this kind of thing is OK in it's milder forms but not at full strength? Hmm.

Review: The Bad News Bears

I remember reading a review sometime last winter which brilliantly dismissed a trite sentimental movie as "...the kind of movie that was meant for people for whom the highest praise they can give to a film is to say, 'That was a nice movie'".

I was thinking about this while watching The Bad News Bears the other day. This remake of the 1976 classic has Billy Bob Thornton in the Walter Matthau role, and one could probably write an entire dissertation about what the differences between their personae say about how our culture has shifted over the last generation. I don't remember the first film very well, but this one is clearly not a "nice movie", at least in the conventional sense.

But interestingly, the basic structure of the film is classic "nice movie" - a drunken, down on his luck former ball player takes on a team of misfits. The kids learn how to play, have success and grow in self-confidence, and the coach becomes a better man in the process. But the surface of the movie is decidedly and profoundly "not nice". There is lots of profanity and harsh, harsh dialog, and the coach behaves like one would expect a drunken, down on his luck former ball player to behave. This juxtiposition left me a little unsettled.

Aside from that essential question, the movie has a number of nice touches. The strong team in the kids' league wears lots of Under Armour gear, a trend I've noticed among the "I value my kids by spending gratuitously silly amounts of money on my kids' sports" parents in our community. The kids that are supposed to be good ball players are. The boy who plays Kelly Leak, the bad boy athlete who joins the Bears late in the season, has a really nice swing. And I really liked it that when the boys were describing Kelly's legendary feats and characteristics to the coach, one kid said, "He's in sixth grade but he's dating an eighth grader!" while one of the Spanish speaking kids described him as "...un vero Chupacabra".

But I'm still not sure about the movie. I wasn't bothered by the language. Kids talk like this, and I don't see much value in projecting an innocence onto children that they don't possess. On the other hand, I did find the shift of the team's sponsor to a strip club to be another regrettable example of the "mainstreaming" of the "adult" entertainment industry. But then again, the movie is set in the San Fernando Valley. (Giggle)

Most of the laughs in the film are in the "Oh ho ho - that's baaaaad" variety. And that's not very nice. I spend a lot time telling my students that "nice" and "good" are not the same thing, but this film has me wondering about the value of that distinction. In the end, I liked it, but I'm not entirely comfortable that I liked it, you know?

Adventures in Parenting

Last week, Chris returned from his summer church camp at Quaker Meadow. We picked him up from the bus and, of course, made the ritual post-camp visits to In-n-Out and Donut Man (the one Glendora landmark!) on the way home.

Sitting together over burgers and fries, we had a brilliant discussion ranging from evolution, to the nature of truth, to how thoughtfulness is often an unwelcome trait among Christians to what it means to "act like a Christian". I was amazed and honored to have this kind of discussion with my son.

And I was thankful to the the two guys who served as Chris's counselors. They both did a great job of guiding Chris and framing the camp experience for them. I especially appreciated their approach of telling the boys to "make sure you do and say all of the obvious Christian things so we'll look good as counselors". If you've been around Christian groups much, or any group for that matter, you know every group has characteristic ways of talking and acting that serve as kind of a short hand for who's in and who's out. These things are not bad, but they often count for way too much.

Chris is already the kind of kid who sees through this kind of thing, and so his counselors' ironically angled request affirmed his sensibilities. But it also had the affect of getting him to focus on what a Christian is really supposed to be like, and he has returned home a kinder and better focused person.

Near the end of the conversation, I told Chris that I thought he would especially like getting to know his counselor Robert, along with Aaron whom he already knew well and thinks is great. Chris gets along well with me and I told him, "Robert and I have similar sensibilities, but he's not as grouchy as I am".

Chris responded enthusiastically: "Yeah, Robert is like a happier, younger and cooler version of you".

I don't know how this would make Robert feel, but it made me feel, well, I don't know how it made me feel. But I'm glad to have him back and glad for what Aaron and Robert were able to give him.

Iraq: Much Worse Than You Think

Supporters of the war in Iraq frequently argue that the "successes" of Iraq are underreported, and hint darkly at a media conspiracy. Their arguments rarely include any evidence of those "good things", but they continue to believe that they're there.

But today, via the indispensable Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, I read this - Iraq: What the Media Won't Tell Us. As they say on the Internets, read the whole thing, but the short version of this horrifying story is this: in Baghdad alone, a city ostensibly controlled and liberated by the US, nearly 1000 people are being killed every month, some by torture, most execution style, and this is simply not being reported.

If "freedom is on the march" in Iraq, as the President likes to tell us, if "progress" is being made, I'd hate to see what "problems" would be.

I wonder how the "media conspiracy" types will account for this?

Oh, What the Heck

I'm going to start up again, but I still won't officially tell anybody. If you stumble here, this is still a work in progress.

My wife is going through a tough patch (at least we hope it's just a "patch" and not a permanent change) and so, strangely enough, she doesn't have much energy to hear me rant about these things. But with the way my mind works, I've gotta have some outlet, otherwise these things bounce around my brain at greater and greater speed until... well, I don't want to find out.

So, there you have it.