Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Luisa says "Nose"

If Luisa says "nose" out of the blue, it means that she wants someone to get a handkerchief and blow her nose (or give her one, so she can do it herself).

The other day, I was home alone with her, and I had to go to the toilet. Seconds after I sat down, she called from her room: "Nose." I called to her and told her to come to where I was and I would give her a piece of toilet paper to wipe her nose. She came running, but when I held out some toilet paper to her, she shook her head, took the toilet paper, and went back to her room. (I had just enough time to notice that her nose was not running.)

I was quickly done on the toilet, and a few moments later I went into her room. She was standing by the couch, holding the toilet paper I had given her, and blowing the nose of the first wild thing in "Where the Wild Things Are," which is a sea monster that is exhaling a whole cloud of vapor (like a whale)!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Luisa and two sentences

a) Luisa, now twenty-two months old, was trying to turn the pages of my Rise Up Singing book. I was trying to play a song, and for once I did manage to keep her from turning the pages while still being able to finish the song. As I finished, I then let her turn the page. While doing so, she said, "I know what. I know what."

Which, of course, is what I say every time I finish a song and think of the next song I want to play!

b) That was a couple days ago. Yesterday, Miles was trying to hide under the coffee table. Luisa was standing beside him and said, "Hey, Miles, waddya doing?"

Surely another quotation from her father!

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Wrong Metaphor

In the February 13 & 20, 2006, issue of "The New Yorker," Hendrik Hertzberg touched on an issue that has bothered me since the days immediately after the events of September 11, 2001:

"In calling it a war, Bush emphasized its seriousness, but at the cost of granting its criminal perpetrators the dignity of warriors."

The metaphor of "war" has many problems, but what I immediately disliked about the phrase "war on terror" back in 2001 was that it seemed to eliminate the possibility of dealing with Al Qaeda as a criminal organization whose members should be put on trial in criminal courts. That dislike has been more than justified: the United States has put almost no-one on criminal trial for the September 11 events (or if it has, it has declared the results secret and hence eliminated any public effect that such trials might have, if only for the morale of Americans). In contrast, just to name two other countries, Spain has had criminal trials about the Madrid bombings, and Italy is also pressing criminal charges against "the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Madrid bombings."

I mentioned the problem of "war" as the central metaphor to an acquaintance in October, 2001. She happened to have once been George H.W. Bush's personal assistant (after he was no longer President). She said that starting a war against Afghanistan did not preclude judicial approaches to September 11. Unfortunately, it has.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Two poems by Geoffrey Brock

Two poems by my friend Geoff are on-line on Poetry Daily. They are from his wonderful collection "Weighing Light."

Friday, February 10, 2006

Verse Novels, part two

My friend Geoff reminded me of three other verse novels:

Vikram Seth, "The Golden Gate"
Anthony Burgess, "Byrne"
Alexander Pushkin, "Eugene Onegin"

I have never read Seth's book, although it came out in the 1980s when I lived in the San Francisco area -- and I should have read it then, because it is a novel in sonnets about Yuppies in the Bay Area in the 1980s!

I read Burgess's book when I stumbled on it in a bookstore in 1997. In fact, it was, in a sense, the first verse novel I ever read. It was published posthumously in 1995; it was the last book AB ever wrote. I don't remember much about it at all, actually. Time to re-read it!

I read Eugene Onegin last year in Tom Beck's wonderful 2004 translation. A must read for anyone who likes to read classics! And if you can't read it in Russian, then Beck's version is a great alternative. In fact, he was inspired to begin translating EO by a German translation of the book that Ulrich Busch published in 1981 (at least that's the publication date).

I also remembered two others that are on my shelf:

Fred D'Aguiar, "Bill of Rights"
Thylias Moss, "Slave Moth"

I read the D'Aguiar when it came out in 1998. The topic? The Jonestown massacre in Guyana! A potentially fascinating book that never quite worked, as I remember it.

The Moss was published in 2004. Again, I wish I had gotten more into it; it is a novel in the voice of a slave taught to read by her master. But I bogged down in it and have not finished it (yet).

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Verse novels

I was telling my Mom about what I have been reading lately, and I mentioned having re-read Glyn Maxwell's latest book, "The Sugar Mile," which is a verse novel. She asked me to suggest a few verse novels for "an avid reader". Here are my favorites among the contemporary verse novels I have read over the past seven or eight years:

Les Murray, Fredy Neptune
Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red
Brad Leithauser, Darlington's Fall
Glyn Maxwell, Time's Fool
Glyn Maxwell, The Sugar Mile
John Barr, Grace

The one that I do not recommend at all is W.S. Merwin's "The Folding Cliffs," which is dramatically weakened by Merwin's standard practice of using no punctuation at all! That may be okay in shorter poems, but it is exhausting over hundreds of pages.

Of the six listed above, I had an interesting experience regarding two of them: Fredy Neptune and Time's Fool. Both of these are hugely entertaining books, but when I thought about re-reading them, I found myself unable (in the case of FN) or unwilling (in the case of TF) to do so. They are long, rich books, but once felt like enough -- the thought of reading them again was exhausting!

It's possible that I made the mistake of re-reading Fredy Neptune with the idea of writing about it. That slowed the reading down enough that it dragged and I staggered to a halt. Also, as I am now re-reading a lot of Maxwell, I am getting more interested in the idea of re-reading TF.

If you read this and know of some other good verse novels, please list them in the comments! I love them!

Hitchens on Cartoons

Christopher Hitchens, in Slate:

As well as being a small masterpiece of inarticulacy and self-abnegation, the statement from the State Department about this week's international Muslim pogrom against the free press was also accidentally accurate.

"Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief."

Thus the hapless Sean McCormack, reading painfully slowly from what was reported as a prepared government statement.

(Christopher Hitchens)

Monday, February 06, 2006

Secular Christian, Militant Darwinist

Note: I wrote this last year before the judge in Dover, Pennsylvania, ruled against the teaching of "intelligent design" in biology classes in Dover. As he wrote:

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

The whole decision is at:



I was born once, but baptized twice, without ever becoming a believer. The doctor who delivered me had to perform emergency surgery, so, being a Catholic who believed unbaptized babies go to Limbo, he asked and received permission to christen me.
After two weeks in intensive care, I was taken home by my parents, who, in a sense, disregarded the fact that I had already been baptized and had me christened at the Episcopalian Church, in the usual rite with a minister rather than an emergency ceremony with only a doctor.
One might think two baptisms would be enough to make a Christian out of a baby, but in my case, they did not stick. My parents hardly ever went to church while I was growing up, and my only experience of churches for actual services was for the occasional wedding or funeral. In my last two years of high school, I began to be outspoken about not being a Christian, which for me was summed up in the rather trivial claim that I did not want to celebrate Christmas, preferring to celebrate Winter Solstice. The latter "holiday" seemed grounded in material reality, since it is clearly a significant day: the shortest day of the year. I went so far as to ask my future sister-in-law to improvise some "Winter Solstice songs" on the harpsichord for me, to counter all the Christmas carols. (As she is Jewish, she was not offended and came up with some lovely music.)
When I went to college, however, I began to be aware of a paradox in my rejection of Christianity as a religion: not only am I immersed in Christianity as a culture, I am also fascinated by its history. The cultural "world" I think in is permeated by the Old and New Testaments: paintings, music, poetry, novels, and simple everyday language are all unthinkable and often incomprehensible without their Christian background, and the history of North America and Europe (where I grew up and where I now live, respectively) is driven by the complex history of Christianity in all its promise and hair-splitting violence. From the moment when I read the Bible and Augustine in a "Western Culture" course in my freshman year in 1982, I was drawn into this cultural and historical context. In fact, several times over the years, I have had conversations about Christian history with ministers who were later surprised to hear that I was not a believer: they knew many professed Christians who were less informed about the Bible and the history of their religion.
Over the years, then, I found myself wondering what to call myself when people asked about my religious persuasion. While rare, this question did come up often enough for me to want to consider it. "Atheist," while an accurate description of my perspective, in both its etymology and its common usage (I do not believe in a deity or deities), seemed too harsh, but also misleading, given what amounted to my thorough immersion in Judeo-Christian monotheism. Despite its being coined by Thomas H. Huxley in the nineteenth century, an excellent source who felt like a a "man without a rag of a label to cover himself with," "agnostic" always seemed wimpy: "I do not know" may be modest, but since I thought I did know, why should I be modest (except to avoid sounding harsh)? Also, the term sets one up for discussions with those believers who take it as an invitation to proselytize! I would always just avoid nouns entirely and say, "I am not a believer." But I did not like the negation there. Perhaps the negation of a-theist and a-gnostic also bothered me.
I was delighted, then, when I came up with an expression that felt just right: Secular Christian. As my Jewish sister-in-law pointed out, a "Secular Jew" is someone who never goes to temple but still enjoys celebrating the major holidays. By now, my youthful rigor has given way to an enjoyment of Christmas as a cultural event, as it were, so my term "Secular Christian" covers that, while also doing two other things, one for me and one for others. For me, it involves the acceptance of my cultural immersion in Christian imagery and history. For others, it is a surprising enough expression that it generates interesting discussion and, I hope, thinking (something the well-worn "atheist" and "agnostic" do not do, since everyone thinks they know what those terms mean).
Since I came up with the expression several years ago, I have enjoyed using it, even or especially when people ask me for an explanation. But it has begun to seem a bit weak in its own right, not because my beliefs have changed, but because of the vehemence with which others assert the validity of their own beliefs. Fundamentalist Muslims, after all, are not wary of killing those whose beliefs they find unacceptable. But they are not the ones who irritate this "Secular Christian" enough to make me reconsider the term; it is the fundamentalist Christians, especially in the United States, who rub me the wrong way enough to make the expression "Secular Christian" too much of a concession to their all-too-sectarian Christianity.
The straw that broke this particular camel's back (or is it a sledgehammer?) was not the rise of the political fundamentalists or the hypocrisy of the recovering alcoholic they heaved into the White House. Nobody tried to proselytize me once too often; nobody told me I was going to burn in hell for my beliefs. What turned the tables for me was the concept of "intelligent design" (ID).
To be precise, it was the news that school boards in the United States are mandating the teaching of ID in biology classes as a supposedly legitimate challenge to the supposedly unproven theory of evolution. Culturally, I have realized, I may be a "secular Christian," but politically and "scientifically," I have to call myself something else. I am as fascinated by the theory of evolution as I am by the history of Christianity, and I do my best to keep abreast of developments and debates in contemporary biology (with its wonderful popularizers, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins being the most famous of them). And those developments make nonsense of two of the claims of intelligent design: "irreducible complexity" and ID's status as "science." The supposed "irreducible complexity" of the protein system involved in blood clotting, for example (take one protein away and it does not work, so it must have been designed, as it could not have evolved all at once) has already been explained in evolutionary terms without reference to "design." Beyond that, for intelligent design to be a science, it must produce testable hypotheses. (It was this lack that led me, after years of reading about psychoanalysis and applying it to the study of literature, to reject it.) Without such an experimental contribution coming from its supporters, it is best to apply Ockham's razor: take the simpler explanation — in this case, evolution.
"Secular Christian" no longer expresses what I want to be. Militancy on the part of others makes me want to be militant, too, but not with a negative term like "atheist." So now I am coming out of the closet as a "Militant Darwinist." I am happy to accept Christianity as a cultural phenomenon (and one that people should accept their immersion in if, like me, they grew up in such a context), but when good science is challenged by religion in disguise, then it is time to run for the school board.
I'm spared that, as I live in Switzerland, but if I lived in the United States now, I would be trying to form a coalition of Militant Darwinists to get pseudo-science out of biology classes. — Or, alternatively, I would allow intelligent design into biology classrooms. An academic confrontation with pseudoscience might well help the pupils understand science better. Sometimes negation is, after all, the best way to understand something, and explaining why ID is not worthy of being called "science" would not only make what science is clearer but also help those believers who feel threatened by evolution to understand what it is they actually believe in.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Miles and T-Rex

Miles: T-Rex was a bad guy.
Andrew: Why?
M: Because he ate meat.
A: But you eat meat. Are you a bad guy?
M: No, T-Rex *killed* its meat. We don't kill meat; we *buy* it.