Archive for December, 2005

Homework for Monday

December 28, 2005

Hey gang. I know I’m out of turn and haven’t posted in a while. When you get 20 or so spare minutes in the next few days, take a look at this speech by Michael Crichton. I’ll write more about it on Monday.

P.S. It’s about 80 degrees and sunny outside right now. Happy Holidays from GTMO!

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“To Write or Not to Write,” or better, “To Be Right or Not to Be Right”

December 25, 2005

A caveat: What I say next is meant to challenge and I have wondered whether or not I should post something like this on Christmas Day. However, with the tone of Al’s post, I will continue along those lines, so if you don’t want to read from this point forward, here’s your chance to stop reading now.

I don’t necessarily remember a lot of Christmases growing up. There is one, though, that sticks out pretty clearly in my mind. I’ll just have to say I was in grade school because I don’t remember more specifically than that. We had gone to my grandparents’ double-wide trailer up in northern Arizona as was pretty common growing up. Back when all of my aunts and uncles were still living, we were all there from my mother’s side for the Christmas occasion. That would give us a total of about thirteen to fifteen, including five to seven kids, all in a two-bedroom, two-bath, double-wide trailer. I don’t know exactly what the argument was, but as I remember, it was Christmas Eve, after supper, and there was some dispute about who was sleeping where, as you might imagine. Our tradition was to open all of our presents on the night of Christmas Eve rather than in the morning of Christmas Day, and I think we might have already done that, but I’m not sure. What I do remember very clearly is that it was late in the evening, probably around eight o’clock, and my dad got so angry about trying to determine who would sleep where that he decided our family would just leave and drive the two hours back to our house on Christmas Eve night. I remember my grandparents trying to talk him out of it for maybe half an hour but to no avail. Before I knew it, we had everything loaded up and were on our way back to our house to spend the rest of the Christmas holiday. Such was part of my experience growing up. This was not an isolated event, but part of what life was like in my house. It did not make it any easier to swallow, though, and I don’t remember enjoying Christmas very much that year.

Oh, one last thing. I don’t remember my father ever telling anyone he was sorry for what he did. In fact, quite the opposite. I have never, ever heard my father apologize for anything he’s ever done. The words “I’m sorry” are not in his vocabulary. Why? He’s never wrong. At least from his point of view, that is. So there’s never any reason to say those words despite all the times when he was clearly in the wrong.

The reason I bring this up is not to shame my father, who would likely not read this anyway as I don’t think my parents have an internet connection. Nor is the reason because I need to vent and am having problems resolving issues in my past. That’s not it either. I bring it up as an illustration of the way many “Christians” behave when they are defending “the truth.” There’s no reason to apologize no matter how vitriolic your language gets because if you are right, anything you might say or do in defense of the truth is okay because you’re doing God’s work. (Note the sarcastic tone.)

What gives us the right to treat those with whom we disagree as less than human? Where does that come from? It certainly does not come from our Scripture, our holy book. When we do this, how does this make us different religious extremists such as those who happen to be Muslim? Terrorists believe that any activity is sanctioned to get rid of the infidel, even suicide bombing. Now, I know we don’t kill anyone necessarily, though there are those who kill doctors who perform abortions in the name of Jesus, but is enraged, demeaning, invective language any less damaging to the other person, or indeed, Christianity’s reputation as a whole? Is it?

Is this what our Lord did? Did he insist on being right on every occasion and use whatever means necessary to do so? Take a look at Jesus’ trial before the Pilate in Matthew 27:11-14:

11 Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. (NRSV)

All of these people were bringing false charges against Jesus. Why didn’t he speak up? They were not even telling the truth! The truth was at stake and yet Jesus said nothing! But, perhaps you might suggest that it was necessary for Jesus to die and so he did not stand up for the truth because there were extenuating circumstances. Okay, I’ll give you that one. But let’s take a look at another story. This time from Luke 7:36-50:

36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him– that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.””Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (NRSV)

What did Simon say that was wrong? Did he say anything wrong? Of course he didn’t. He was exactly right that this woman was a sinner, very likely a prostitute is what is intended, especially considering her sin is well known so that Simon knows of it. No matter the sin, which is not specified, Jesus says that he does not condemn her. What? He doesn’t condemn a sinner? What about the truth of how heinous her sin was? Is there no concern that he will be seen as condoning sinful behavior? What is Jesus doing? That and he doesn’t even tell her to stop sinning, he merely says, “go in peace.”

Okay, one last story, this time the famous one from John 7:53-8:11:

53 Then each of them went home, 8:1 while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (NRSV)

Now we like this story a bit more because in it, Jesus clearly does not condone sin. However, he does say once again that he does not condemn the one who was clearly a sinner. It was clear from the situation what was the “right” thing to do. The Law commanded stoning for one caught in adultery. The truth is at stake and God’s justice is at stake. How can Jesus take the Law’s stipulations so lightly? Didn’t God give the Law? Isn’t it important to stand up for what is right?

Something was more important and it had to do with loving one’s neighbor as oneself. It doesn’t mean to agree with one’s neighbor in all things; it means to love one’s neighbor on all occasions. But it goes beyond that to the point of loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44), whether they are right or not.

Coming back to the sinful woman at Simon’s house, Jesus shows that she loves so much, i.e. in what she does for Jesus, because she gets it. That’s right, she gets it. What does she get? She gets the love of God. She gets how much she was forgiven and so she lives out that forgiveness in the love she shows other people.

We love the book of Romans but we ignore what Paul says right after the verses about being a living sacrifice in Romans 12:1-2. Right before he talks about spiritual gifts and using them appropriately, he knows there might be some arrogance with those whose gift seems more important. So he says in 12:3, “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.” This is the same approach he takes in Philippians 2:5-11, when he talks about Christ emptying himself to become human to save us sinners. It is humility, not arrogance.

Coming back full circle, when we condemn others, use hateful language toward them, attack them, or however you want to put it, we are wrong. It does not matter how factually correct we might be. If we don’t treat people in a loving way, we are wrong. Dead wrong. No excuses. No loopholes.

In such cases we need to learn the words that my father still has not learned–“I’m sorry.” It is a sign of humility. It is recognizing that we don’t have everything right and that we are all still struggling sinners, trying to do what is right as we are traveling on the path of life. It doesn’t mean that you’re telling the person “You’re right.” It is saying “I was wrong, please forgive me.” Until we learn to do this, we show that we don’t really get God’s love and we don’t really get the attitude of Christ.

Sorry for the sermon, but I’m in a preachy mood.

WELCOME HOME AND MERRY CHRISTMAS (in sarcastic tone)

December 24, 2005

I left the Gulf Coast last Sunday for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. It wasn’t a retreat or anything like that… It’s just that time of year when we juggle family schedules and see everyone we’re expected to see. We’ve been doing just that until this morning.

On our trip home today, we witnessed a horrible automobile accident. A hundred yards ahead of us, we saw an Isuzu Rodeo skid off the road and turn three bumper-over-bumper flips, one completely airborne, before crashing to a stop upside down. My oldest daughter began crying hysterically, my wife started calling 9-1-1, my youngest daughter began crying, too, and I parked directly across from the vehicle and rushed over to help.

I was the first one to the vehicle, and I will never forget the bloody face of fourteen-year-old, Blake, screaming out the window in pain as the twisted car did it’s best to cut him in two at his waist. The other would-be Good Samaritan cut Blake out of his seatbelt while I went to the other side of the vehicle where Blake’s mom, Ann, lay semi-conscious. I got half-inside the vehicle with her and talked with her, doing my best to keep her awake and yet calm while we waited and waited for help to arrive. It did, and it seems as if both Blake and Ann will miraculously live to tell their version of the story.

So I’ll tell you right off that I’m a bit edgy.

When I finally made it home this evening and began to check my hundreds of emails, it seems that for all the excitement I experienced on the way home, I missed out on some this past week on the blog.

I’ve received a second resignation from a columnist tasked with the “liberal politics” aspect of Desperate Houseflies. I’m sensing a trend here.

Now we’ve had other resignations before in other areas. I’ve been told that the hours are long and the pay sucks, so resignations are to be expected. However, the writers of liberal politics have not cited these reasons (heck, they’re liberals, so long hours and low pay come with the territory). To run a risk by quoting a private email from Sandi, she stated, “I need to surround myself with people who are supportive of me and who love me, not people who want to attack me in the name of Jesus and beat me over the head with a Bible. If I have a story to tell, I should tell my friends or write in a journal. I cannot have a constructive discussion with people who make sniping comments rather than engaging the issues. I would be happy to discuss what I wrote, but not if people are going to be rude and judgmental.”

I’m kind of in a bad mood even with the Christmas lights on right now…

I had this little vision when beginning this blog of having a sort of forum where intelligent friends of mine could challenge the readers (but to admit my selfishness, mostly me) to think in some ways outside our personal comfort zone. I stinkin’ LOVE that sort of stuff. I could have envisioned a blog where we told each other why Churches of Christ had no flaws and why Democrats were going to hell. I could have called it “Personal Comfort Zone” and probably found plenty of contributors and readers given my personal background, but I don’t know why that would have been worth the energy. I’ve had those thoughts pounded in my head for a very long time without having to create a blog for them.

Instead, I’m fairly convinced that this world and its thoughts are a bit bigger than the part to which I have been assigned in my life so far. So I hoped to assemble a cast of characters that would keep our minds open, engage our intellects, and make us laugh. I could not imagine anything better than opening my mind to new and deep thoughts and laughing really hard, too. All in the same blog! Wasn’t this a great idea?!

I had to have my friend Juvenal involved when it all started because no one in my life has ever made me think outside the box like him. But he quit. At the outset, he claimed he would just write the articles and let us comment on them, but as the personal attacks on his thought processes came, he defended himself and went toe-to-toe with the comments, but he eventually grew frustrated with it all and gave it up.

Without Juvenal, I thought about shutting the blog down. Juvenal, to me, sort of typified the whole reason I had for the blog in the first place, but some others wanted to keep it alive, so we kept it going.

I was, however, VERY committed to keeping a day for liberal politics alive (the greatest comfort zone boogey-man in the thinking of the people I’m usually with), so I asked my fellow contributors about adding my good friend, Sandi, to the mix. Sandi is an atheist and witty and articulate and just an all-around great person. Her writing for this blog would not only add thoughts outside my personal comfort zone, but also hanging out with the Houseflies would be a rocket launch outside hers. A potential win-win. Now she can’t take it any longer either.

I didn’t even get a chance to read Sandi’s article this past week before she withdrew it. It seemed that it was something personal to her and that she felt her vulnerability was rewarded with a couple of folks circling up to throw stones.

That people throw stones at viewpoints they disagree with is not surprising. That people throw stones in particular at people espousing liberal viewpoints is especially not surprising – not too many conservative martyrs out there now, are there? That people throw stones in particular at people espousing liberal viewpoints in the name of Jesus… Well, that’s just downright ironic now, isn’t it?

Sandi is a friend of mine, and I love her. Period. No addendums.

On a separate track, Sandi is an atheist who does not share my belief in Jesus. If she were nothing but a category to me (which she is not) – if she were no more than the label of “atheist” to me, and if I were nothing more than the label, “Christian” – then it is my belief from Scripture that my job would be to show her grace.

(This last paragraph solely exists for those who can’t see a human being w/o theological underpinning.)

Funny, but Sandi and I share the same basic outlook on life, something stated by Jesus and popularly assigned the name, Golden Rule. And I learned from Juvenal once that the practice of this concept could also be defined as “basic human decency.” And it was also Juvenal who defined “love” to me better than anyone else ever has as “seeing God in every person you meet and acting accordingly.” I learned this valuable thought from him on this very blog.

I’ve learned a lot from both Sandi and Juvenal, and it just bothers me to no end that they don’t feel welcome in a blog that I created so I could learn more from people like them.

So I think I’m going to quit writing for the blog, too.

I own it, but I won’t delete it – so you guys keep writing as long as you want. I’m sure I’ll be a reader while it lasts. I learn a lot from every contributor on the blog. They are all, in fact, some of my very favorite people in the world.

And I’ll be happy to entertain and respond to any comments to this particular blog posting as well. I probably need to engage in a little dialogue. I am, as stated earlier, a bit edgy right now.

But if Desperate Houseflies is going to end up by natural selection as a blog for (with much apologies to Amy here) primarily conservative Caucasian Church-of-Christ males…

Well, my grand experiment in reaching outside my personal comfort zone has somehow gone awry…

Santa, here are a few last-minute wishes

December 23, 2005

OK, Santa, let’s see if I know where you’re coming from: Christmas is Sunday and by now you’ve made your list and checked it twice, and you’ve got it down pat who’s naughty and who’s nice. That’s the way it works, right? Well, I know you’re busy, but I have a few more names that are an absolute must for your list-all from the sports world. Yes, some of them naughty, some of them nice.

I know, I know, you’re already up to your beard with last-minute wishes. Sure, you may have to leave a little early Saturday night to get it all done. So put in for overtime, ‘cause these are important. OK, jolly ol’ elf, see what you can do for us. Here are my wishes for:

• Joe Paterno, another national championship before he has to turn to an assistant coach at the end of a game and say, “What’s that? It’s over? Well, how’d we do?”

• ESPN, for the sake of everyone else, the desire to end the USC lovefest. This incessant bootlicking and drivel about USC being the best team ever is enough to make me upchuck my Christmas turkey.

• Tom Benson, another football team in another state; and for the city of New Orleans, an owner who thinks like a saint — that is, someone who realizes how special the Crescent City really is and cares about the people there.

• The New Orleans Saints, a lesson in character, determination and strength. Actually, Santa the residents of the Gulf Coast have already proven experts on these topics. I’ll just ask you to give the Saints a clue.

• NCAA basketball, another Pistol Pete Maravich. Not even Michael Jordan was as much fun to watch.

• NASCAR, the good sense to revise its schedule so the stock car season ends with the biggest race instead of starting with it. Not even you, Santa, can fathom the NFL season opening with the Super Bowl.

• The NHL and the NBA, the wherewithal to pass a rule that forbids any team with a losing record from participating in the playoffs.

• Someone-anyone-to put boxing in the same category as cock fighting and ban it forever. You’ll have to admit, Saint Nick, boxing is the second-dumbest thing human beings do-two people beating on each other. By the way, war is No. 1.

• The city of Los Angeles, an NFL team. But first, Santa, you may want to remind them that the Rams aren’t there anymore.

• The LPGA, how about the greatest year in the history of women’s golf? The cast of characters is unmatched in LPGA history, with Annika, Paula, Christie, Natalie, Morgan, et al.

• Barry Bonds, a 185-pound body and 20 home runs in 2006. Oh, and don’t forget the asterisk by his name when he passes Babe Ruth.

• Me, the good sense to put $2 on every 50-1 shot in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes, just in case. I learned my lesson at the Derby last May.

• David Duval, the PGA Tour Comeback of the Year award. He deserves a great season and the recognition that comes with it after the class he has shown during his “slump.” He could’ve disappeared, hidden from the media and so on, but did none of that.

• Green Bay Packers, one more Super Bowl while Brett Favre is their quarterback. The Packers are 3-11 after Monday’s sad 48-3 loss to Baltimore and somewhere Vince Lombardi is throwing a temper tantrum.

• The NCAA and its members, the courage and honesty to admit that college sports is all about making money. Then, allow every college in the country to allow their athletes to pursue degrees in football, basketball, or whatever sport they play.

• Terrell Owens, eternal lyryngitis

• The rest of us, never have to hear the initials “T” and “O” in the same sentence unless they are uttered by Dick Vitale

• Tiger Woods, two or three more major championships and the self-control to omit the four-letter words from his poor-shot vocabulary.

• The Chicago Cubs, World Series rings. The Red Sox finally got theirs in 2004 and the White Sox this year. Now it’s the Cubbies’ turn. C’mon, Santa, you can do it!

My list could go on and on, Santa, but you already have a long, cold night ahead of you. However, if you can find the time and resources, you might throw in some stocking stuffers, such as a better golf swing for me; love, peace, health, happiness and prosperity to all my relatives and dear friends-in fact, for the whole world.

God’s Needs

December 22, 2005

Al is out of town, so he offered his blog day to me. I would like to thank him and say that the views I express today are not necessarily his views:).

I went home a couple of weeks ago to see my family, and I attended church with them, which I enjoy, because I get to visit with a lot of dear friends I don’t see often. Both sermons I heard that Sunday by the preacher (who I am sure is a wonderful man) were about his dissatisfaction with congregational attendance, contribution, public response, and attitude.

Now, I am guessing that he probably preaches this sermon once a year, because he feels obligated to do so. Churches like everything else, because of the way they are structured, can’t help but be worried about the bottom line. Bottom lines are filled with all kinds of quotas. I am not making light of the “Great Commission”—I am just trying to think about it from a different angle. An angle I decided to discuss with my mother soon after my visit. Again I say, the views I express today are not necessarily her views:).

I believe if a church is having trouble with congregational attendance, contribution, public response, and attitude, the church leaders should stop and say to themselves, “Obviously, we aren’t allowing enough of God’s presence and power into and through our church.”

I believe, God is omnipotent, all-powerful, of unlimited power. There is absolutely nothing we can give to God that God does not already have. God created us. We didn’t create God. God needs nothing from us.

We, on the other hand, need everything from God. God doesn’t need our attendance; we need God’s attendance. God doesn’t need our contribution; we need God’s contribution. God doesn’t need our public response; we need God’s public response. God doesn’t need our attitude; we need God’s attitude.

I believe, the message of the “Great Commission” is “Good News”, not a burden to be delivered to the masses about all of the things they must do for God, so that God will love them and deliver them from evil.

I believe, God wants us to tell people what God can do for them, not what they should do for God.

The message should be, “If you are struggling in life, give your struggles over to God in prayer, and God will help you.”

Not, “God realizes you are struggling in your life, but God still needs you to give, give, give to Him as well.”

We all do need to give, but God doesn’t need us to give to Him. He wants us to give to each other. How else do you think God will help you with your struggles when you pray to Him? He will use others to help you—the others who aren’t struggling as much as you currently, and then when you aren’t struggling so much, you can take your turn and help others, too.

From Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore:
“We read the story of Jesus in the river, whether we are Christian or not, and are inspired to make our own baptism. The Jordan is the archetype of our willingness to live fully, to have our own work and mission, and therefore to be blessed, as the Gospel story tells, by a higher father and a protecting spirit. The Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca painted this scene at the Jordan, showing Jesus standing straight in his full dignity, while in the background another man about to be baptized—any of us taking our turn—has his garment almost off, lifted over his head in a posture of exquisite ordinariness. It’s an inspiring image of the willingness to step courageously into the river of existence, instead of finding ways to remain safe, dry, and unaffected.”

John Berendt’s "The City of Falling Angels"

December 21, 2005

I thought John Berendt’s first book, Midnight in the Garden of Eden, was interesting, but I never quite understood why it was such a big deal. It did have several things going for it. The setting, the characters, the plot. Savannah, GA, is a seemingly imaginary place. It seems to represent, to many, the best of the Historical South. Families live there for generations. Land and houses stay in the family. The people are sophisticated, yet a little naughty. They have lots of parties and drink lots of bourbon.

Berendt dispelled with some of those images in Midnight. We got to see the seedy side of the town. We got to know people who weren’t born wealthy. We got to know the people that Savannah’d rather us not see: the African Americans who haven’t been able to penetrate an economic world where money seems to stay within a select group of families; the cross-dresser who charms all the men in town with his sweet, southern accent; the young man who prostituted himself to the rich men and women of the city; the crazy man walking around town square. We also got to know part of the history that we don’t know much about: for instance, the religious practices that slaves brought with them from Africa that are still practiced in some ways today.

Then there was the plot. A murder in a rich man’s home! A yankee reporter coming to town and getting to know the people, and despite himself, starting to like the people as more than just a circus show. There were parties at mansions, parties in bars, parties in the back alleys, parties in cemeteries. There was gossip and backbiting and heartbreak and fun. All of this was interesting, but it made for a fascinating book because it was held together by the story of a murder. It wasn’t just a book about an interesting town with interesting people who share an interesting past. It was a story that included all of those things.

Berendt’s new book, The City of Falling Angels, was begun shortly after he finished Midnight. Just as the first book began out of his visiting a place a few times and falling in love with it, so this one begins. He’s been to Venice a few times and thinks it holds the same type of intrigue as Savannah. And what do you know, a huge event happens just as he’s thinking of writing the book. He has the setting. You know there have to be some characters with history in a town like Venice. And now, he has the story to be the backbone of the book.

The problem is, well, the story Berendt tells isn’t all that interesting. The huge event, the backbone, is the burning of the city’s opera-house. This is a big event, and I’m not mocking the event in any way. I think it’s hard for me to understand what such a place means to a city like Venice. That isn’t my problem. My problem is what Berendt does with this event. Which is pretty much nothing.

It’s unfair to criticize a book because it’s not the book I wish the author had written, and that’s not what I intend to do. When I read the book, I wasn’t wanting, or even expecting, another Midnight. Even when Berendt early on tips readers off that he is more or less trying to write a Venetian version of his first book, I still didn’t expect it to follow the same sort of trajectory Midnight did. But I think the things that made Midnight interesting are important in understanding why City is not. Berendt is trying to do the same thing, but he didn’t pay attention to the recipe that led to success the first time around.

Berendt is well-read on classic books set in Venice: Wings of a Dove, Death in Venice, Across the River and Into the Trees. There seems to be something missing in those novels, Berendt thinks. They lack a Venetian perspective. They are all written from the standpoint of an outsider visiting or Venice: “The main characters in all these stories…were niether Venetians nor resident expatriats. They were transients. My view of Venice would focus on people who, for the most part, lived there.” This was when I got excited. The story of a city told through the story of the people living in the city. I love Venice and was eager to find out what Venetians are like.

I hope for Venice’s sake, Berendt didn’t capture the essence in the city. He talks to some very interesting people. They are smart, sophisticated, naughty, gossippy, have wonderful histories, and have a love for their city that is enviable. The problem is, Berendt only seems interested in the very rich citizens of Venice, the people with names. Midnight’s most redeeming quality seemed to be the interactions between the rich and the poor, the religious and the athiests, the cross-dressers and the stuffy old men. City has no such interactions. It’s the rich and the people with names, but apparently, there aren’t any other citizens worthy of talking to or about.

And then there’s the story-line that is supposed to be the centerpiece, the story that is supposed to hold everything together. It isn’t all that compelling. It has a nice history, and Berendt does try to add some controversy to the story, what with the corrupt nature of Venetian politics. What he doesn’t do is shed any new light on the city of Venice. He doesn’t do what he wants to do — show readers what it’s like to live in Venice. He provides a decent, if narrow, history, and we do meet some interesting people. Yet, I think readers will have a hard time imagining what it’s actually like to live in Venice — unless, of course, the reader has a few million dollars of disposable income to spend on an apartment with a big garden each year.

I’m not a fan of sequels, but sometimes they work, especially when they have an interesting subject (like Venice — how can you mess up Venice?). I just wish Berendt wouldn’t have tried to recreate the same once-in-a-lifetime events and places and characters he had converging in Savannah in the early 1990s onto a different place and time and on different characters. Rather than letting the events lead him, as he did in Midnight, he tries to create events in Venice. This leads to a forced feeling in the book, like it didn’t come naturally or easily or even enjoyably. Which leads to a disappointing book.

Jackson Square

December 18, 2005

I really liked this picture that I took in New Orleans last Wednesday. The beauty in Jackson Square isn’t indicative of the state of the city, but maybe it belies hope. Either way, I’ve set the picture as my background on my laptop!

SILVER LININGS

December 15, 2005

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

By romantic accident, a trip to New Orleans during the Christmas season became one of our few family traditions. My wife and I had sneaked away to a French Quarter hotel one particular year and found that Christmas, New Orleans-style, was downright cool. In addition to the mild weather and persistent energy of the city, New Orleans goes all out for Christmas. Reveillon dinners in many restaurants, appearances by Papa Noel, a celebration of lights in City Park, and nightly concerts in St. Louis Cathedral are just a few of the unique ways the “Big Easy” welcomes the holidays.

My family has made it a point to find a Saturday between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year to sneak over and enjoy the festivities. We do a little bit of Christmas shopping while we’re there, but we mostly go just for the fun. We enjoy wandering around Jackson Square looking at the beautiful works of the street artists, making a special point to say “hi” to Mr. Maurice, whose pencil drawing of our two daughters’ ranks as one of the first items to evacuate when hurricanes approach. We like to eat a meal at Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company and order the appetizer sampler platter, and if it’s not too cold, sit out on the deck over looking Decatur Street below. We’re a frequent guest in City Park at the Celebration in the Oaks where, in particular, my youngest daughter enjoys the carousel. It is simply a “must-do” on our family’s list of priorities.

Until this year, that is.

But today, December 14, I at least tried to check in on our behalf.

Kyle graduated from a long and adventurous eight-month school in the Air Force, and needed a ride to the airport in New Orleans to move on to the next stage in his life. I’ve wanted to go to New Orleans ever since the storm, so we made a perfect match. I met him at the front gate of the base at 4:52am this morning, and we made the trip over in the dark. Traffic was shockingly light all the way to the airport, with the only exception the condensing of interstate traffic into one lane to cross the open span over Lake Pontchatrain. Kyle had the airport to himself by 7am, and I headed toward the French Quarter.

The first sign that things were awry came when I got a good parking space for the day for just five bucks. This was very strange, but in a welcome sort of way. Then, like normal, I took off with my camera performing my best speed-walking impersonation. I don’t know why I do this, but I do it every time I go to the French Quarter. I hurriedly walked to all the typical tourist places: Washington Artillery Park, Jackson Square, the French Market, St. Louis Cathedral, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop and Bourbon Street, the wonderful used bookstores of the Quarter (Beckham’s Books my personal favorite), the boardwalk by the river, and beignets at the Café du Monde. All of these places looked the same as always, and with the temperature hovering around sixty, it was a delightful stroll. Most places weren’t open for business yet, which was odd, but they were still there. And I was happy to see it.

There were signs that there had been trouble. There were clean-up efforts going on all around, but I had to chuckle when I realized that even this didn’t seem strange. The French Quarter is always in need of being cleaned-up. There were sirens blaring from time to time, and I had this constant feeling of watching my back for some thug sneaking up on me from behind. In other words, nothing new.

But there was something new, something so different that it was almost eerie. There was much missing. Oh, the landmarks were all there, but there were other significant things missing, namely, people, and music, and the throbbing pulse that is New Orleans.

I sat down in the shade of the overhang of Washington Artillery Park with the breathtaking view of St. Louis Cathedral spread out in front of me. There was beauty and a blue sky like hardly anything else compares, but then again there were no horse-drawn carriages lined up across the street. There were no acrobats performing on the sidewalk in front of me, nor a crowd of people to watch even if there were. There were no street artists or psychics or any other vendors setting up their tables to peddle their wares. There were no clowns hocking balloon animals or motionless people attracting crowds. It was just quiet. And lonely.

As I sat, I tried to drink it in. I felt the cool breeze on my face, and watched several pigeons come close by, including a tiny little baby out on his own for the day. He looked at me like I didn’t belong, and in some ways I felt as if I didn’t. Like I was intruding on something. I watched a few cars pass, not enough to qualify for traffic, and a few pedestrians scattered few and far between.

And then I noticed, rather softly, music. It was nothing more than a simple, peaceful guitar melody, but it was there in the background of the loneliness. I sat in silence and let it sink down deep, adding a melody to the lonely memory recording itself in my mind. It was, for lack of a better word, nice.

Eventually, I got up to make one more trip around the Quarter. I walked toward the Café du Monde and suddenly saw the source of the gentle music. One man, maybe in his forties, in tennis shoes, jeans, and a cheap polo shirt, sat playing his guitar with a bucket at his side. As if often the case in New Orleans, the musician did not appear to be from the upper classes. Or the middle ones either. He was just some guy with a guitar, playing music for a buck or two, if you please.

I did please. I’m about as stingy as a guy gets when it comes to things like this, but not today. No street artists. No clowns. No motionless people. No psychics. But one man playing a tune for all of New Orleans. Just some regular guy. I walked by, made a point to make eye contact, dropped some money in the bucket and said, “Thanks.”

After a few hours of peaceful solitude in the French Quarter, strange as that even sounds to say, I started to leave. I made one final trip by my guitar-playing friend, who had been joined by a fellow with a trombone, engaged in a more lively tune. I took another picture, then I got in my car to leave. I made my few obligatory wrong turns in getting out and then headed over to the Garden District to have a look around. Overall, it appeared to me that the Garden District fared rather well in spite of some dramatic pictures I had seen in national publications. I stopped for lunch, chicken schwarma at a neat little Mediterranean place, and finally headed toward home.

It was then that I made my fatal mistake. Or maybe a fatal blessing. I exited in eastern New Orleans, away from the regular tourist attractions, and saw “the city.” The Lower Ninth Ward. It was awful. I was shocked beyond words when I turned down the side streets off Elysian Fields on the south side of the interstate. I recoiled at the sights of the homes and huge apartment complexes while driving down the service road off Crowder Boulevard. It was breathtaking in the most terrible of ways.

In some ways it wasn’t much different from my personal neighborhood, just much, much larger in scope. Countless street after countless street consisted of the horror of every single house busted open to the world while growing the worst possible cases of mold. Automobiles were everywhere, many with doors forced open, and all covered with thick layers of dirt. Some were covered with something white, like it was by some miracle snowing in New Orleans in time for Christmas, but it was not snow. Probably a layer of sheetrock dust from some of the numerous houses that had been stripped. Unfortunately, not all of the houses had been gutted. Actually, a lot of them hadn’t, and it didn’t take my sense of smell long to figure that out.

I drove slowly down street after street, stopping and rolling down my window to take pictures. No one cared. No one was around. No cars behind me. Just me, and thousands of broken pieces of the American dream. Ever so often I would stop and get out of my car in the middle of what used to be vibrant communities of poor people to try to get a better photograph, and the feeling was chilling. Doors were open all around me, in almost every house and in many cars, too. It felt as if someone was there, watching me from around a corner, like a bad dream where the video game comes to life, where snipers jump out of the house firing. But there was no one there, other than the ghosts of days before the levee broke. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I felt their presence nonetheless.

I drove home afterward deep in thought. Troubled. And somewhere on the drive the melody of that lone guitar player in the Quarter returned to me, at least in meaning. It dawned on me that my day had been spent witnessing a funeral in reverse. It was as if I had listened to the gentle, mournful funeral dirge first, only to go and discover the decomposing corpse later. Once straightened out, it made sense to me why the city was crying, and why one regular guy from among the people was most qualified to perform the song. That was what had died in New Orleans: Not its tourist attractions, but its common people.

What I saw today was a tale of two cities. Not the best of times and the worst of times (I saw only the worst). Instead, I witnessed a city that had died. The other city, the one vibrant with a kaleidoscope of people, I only saw in my heart.

Imagine: George Saunders’ "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil"

December 14, 2005

My dad doesn’t particularly enjoy reading fiction. Which is one of the reasons why I love talking about books with him. He’s actually well-read, and he remembers everything he’s ever read; he just doesn’t think it’s the best way to spend time. Which also makes it fun to talk fiction with him. He can break a book down to its essence in a sentence or two. He especially has no patience for allegory or moral stories. I remember his take on Lord of the Flies particuarly well. We we eating supper one night. I was home on break from grad school and probably spouting off a bunch of nonsense — probably even scolding him for not reading more fiction. He asked me what I had read recently, and I had just finished re-reading Lord. His summary was: those boys needed a good whipping.

Of course, that was the point, I went on to say, and readers of the story when it was written were the boys. Written just after WWII when there were a lot of powerful people making up arbitrary rules and killing people over these rules. It was easy to see the boys in Lord needed some discipline. Later that night (I’m really slow a lot of the time), it hit me that I was still one of the boys on the island — still arguing over things that shouldn’t matter as much to me as those I argue with.

So it is with allegories. It’s often easy to judge what is right or wrong within the story. It’s easy to see how other people fit into a story. And even if we know we should put ourselves in the story, that the story was written to make us think about something, well, it’s easy to just forget how we might fit into the scheme of things, how the actions of boys stranded on an island can relate to us.

(It’s also really hard, for me at least, to talk about an allegory without just giving everything away, so if you’re interested in the following book and/or don’t like having too much given away, you might wanna stop here.)

George Saunders latest book, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, is a good example of how I found myself thinking how nice it was that I wasn’t the target audience for this particular allegory. The setting for the story is a fictional country, Inner Horner, and it’s much smaller neighbor, Outer Horner. The President of Inner Horner is an old creature who is very forgetful and makes decisions based solely on what the citizens tell him to do. Phil, an ambitious citizen, takes advantage of the President’s forgetfulness and usurps the Presidency. He’s so ambitious, he takes over while sitting in the President’s office. While receiving a blessing from the President. The now-former President doesn’t even realize it has happened, as he has no memory of events more than 3 or 4 minutes ago.

The dispute between the Inner and Outer Hornerites has to do with residency. Outer Horner is too small for all of its citizens so they spill over into Inner Horner territory. Phil will have none of this. He places taxes on the Outers, taxes so high that they have to pay with their clothes and eventually by sacrificing themselves. Phil surrounds himself with people who do not, will not, disagree with him. The citizens of Inner Horner love him and his tyrranical ways. Things go well until a third country, a peaceful, fun-loving country with citizens much larger than Inner Hornerites, eventually decides to step in and put a stop to Phil’s reign.

The problem is: things have gone too far. Inners and Outers no longer remember how their hatred began, they just know they hate each other and want to keep fighting. Thy MUST pay the other back!

While reading the story, I found myself smirking a condescending smirk. Wow, wasn’t Phil an awful lot like President Bush? Didn’t Inner Horner’s policy regarding outsiders with different beliefs seem alot like our administration’s policies toward other nations? Weren’t those Inner-Hornerites a lot like conservatives who just follow Bush around and say, yeah, that’s a great idea!

But then the kicker. Saunders reminds readers that this isn’t just a silly parody of our current administration. It is a silly parody that calls for us to be better people. The Inners and Outers in the story couldn’t resolve their differences, even with the peaceful, fun-loving diplomats. Why? Because lines were drawn that kept the citizens from understanding life from a different perspective. Geographical lines, ideological lines, historically-rooted lines. Because the Inners and Outers saw nations and ideas rather than people (except they aren’t really people — I’m not sure what they are, but they aren’t people) living in a different country. So Saunders creates a huge event in the history of these two countries that erases the idea of competing nations, competing ideologies. Erases the history of bad blood between the citizens of different countries.

As touchy-feely as this is, as unrealistic, as “Imagine if you can…” as it seems, the moral of the story is solid. Regardless of political leanings, nationalistic loyalties, religious beliefs, etc., peace and understanding and plain old just getting along with each other is almost impossible as long as we insist on maintaining long-established boundaries. Until these come down, there will always be verbal disputes, which at a national level, often leads to war.

It would be easy to read this novel and simply take away from it that Saunders is out to make fun of President Bush. If you stop three-fourths of the way through, that’d be a decent conclusion. But toward the end, Saunders reminds those like me that Phil isn’t the only problem in the story. He’s just the easiest to see. If we truly want peace, it may take some sort of huge intervention such as happened in Inner/Outer Horner. Or we could re-think the boundaries we’ve created. The boundaries between Liberal and Conservative, the boundaries between Nations, the boundaries between Religions. These boundaries may manifest themselves most easily in the leaders of our countries, but that doesn’t mean all citizens have to follow along and just say yes. Saunders reminds us, or me at least, that we are still the boys on the island who need to find a way to survive together, that we all need to put people before ideologies or theoretical differences.

The Little Embryo That Couldn’t

December 13, 2005

A couple of months ago, a friend asked me, “is it really so crazy to believe that life begins at conception?” I could have given him a number of different responses, because I know and believe many different things about this subject. At the time, I had in my mind a Slate article by William Saletan, in which he argued that the next logical extension of the pro-life crusade will be to put severe restrictions on IVF because of the problem of leftover embryos. (These embryos are human beings, the argument goes, and so they must not be destroyed when a woman has completed her family and does not need them anymore). This seemed like such a hysterical overreach, even accepting people’s sincere feelings against abortion, that I emphatically told my friend that an unimplanted embryo is a limited form of life with no future on its own, and to contend otherwise is lunacy. The loss (I would say “death,” but that language seems too loaded) of unimplanted embryos is a phenomenon that occurs quite often in nature – an egg is fertilized, but does not implant in the uterus, and is flushed from the body through what seems like a menstrual period. Estimates of the percentage of all pregnancies lost this way range from 30% to a whopping 75%. (I posted an article a couple of weeks ago written by a woman who had just experienced one).

IVF (in vitro fertilization) success rates help to demonstrate the dramatic number of fertilized ova that do not get much past their first few days of life. In IVF, a woman is given medications that stimulate her ovaries to produce several eggs at a time. Those eggs are placed in a petri dish with the partner’s (or a donor’s) sperm, and the embryos that result are grown for three days. Typically, two or three of the best, most viable-appearing embryos are transferred into the uterus at a time in the hope that one of them will implant and survive to become a fetus and then, hopefully, a newborn. Of these types of transfers, success rates average about 30-40%. Success rates are slightly higher when the embryos are grown for five days instead of the traditional three, because the additional 48 hours gives doctors a better idea of which embryos are more likely to be viable. In any case, the IVF process inevitably involves the creation of embryos that are defective and will not implant or survive – which mimics nature’s high failure rate at this same enterprise. Not all eggs are high-quality, and not all sperm are either. Nature discards that which has no chance to live.

Clearly, then, an embryo, no matter how much we wish that it will become a baby, is not anywhere close to a sure thing. How much sense, then, does it make to treat these many millions of embryos that stop developing or that never implant as human beings with rights equal to our own? To treat them as though their brief formless existence was as precious and valuable as the children already born? To ban emergency contraception, or for heaven’s sake, the birth control pill, because they may prevent a fertilized egg from implanting? In my view, none.

Even after the embryo does implant, the risk of miscarriage is reasonably high, probably about 30% in the earliest days and decreasing over time. The journey from potential life to actual life is a continuum that is fraught with danger. It’s undoubtedly easier, then, to just say that “life begins at conception” and be done with it. No critical thinking required. But that this is factually misleading suggests that basing public policy on it is equally misguided. Reproduction is a process, not a one-moment event. Things can and do go wrong at any point in that process. Now, the further along the process gets, the less likely it is that something will go wrong. But at the very least, it is beyond question to me that the disruption of the process of creation of new life is not identical, ethically, morally, or physically, to the termination of a life that already exists. That doesn’t mean that there are not moral and ethical issues to ponder with respect to a disruption of the process. But simply saying “abortion is murder” with no qualifications is flat wrong.

I know whereof I speak in all of this, as I am currently having a miscarriage. It has been interesting to hear the different ways in which people express their sympathy to me. (Although I have not told very many people, just my parents and a few close friends). One friend who had a miscarriage a few years ago said she knew how difficult it was to lose a wanted pregnancy. This seemed an eminently reasonable thing to say. But another friend (and a medical student, at that!) said that he was sorry to hear about my baby. And I just crinkled my eyebrows, nonplussed, because there was no baby. There was (is) an embryo that was probably chromosomally abnormal and that stopped developing very early on. The ultrasound woman told me this morning that she could see nothing other than a sac. (The medical term for this is “blighted ovum,” and it accounts for 50-60% of all first-trimester miscarriages – it means that the gestational sac continues to develop for a while after the embryo stops). The sac is just sitting there in my uterus, until my body realizes that it is time to expel it. But it is not a baby, and I actually find it kind of offensive and stupid for someone to say it is.

I mean, if ever I was going to become sentimental about embryos, it would be now, when I desperately want to start my family. Instead, I am annoyed by the sentimentality of others toward something that should be more sacred to me than to anyone else. I feel strange and judgmental about feeling this way, since there are women all over the Internet who miscarried before ten weeks talking about burying the tissue they pass, naming the embryos, grieving for months before starting to try again. Many of them had a blighted ovum too, meaning that there was no fetus at all. But I know what they are really grieving, and it isn’t the loss of a baby. It’s the loss of the excitement and happiness and plans they made when they thought they were pregnant. This is a loss, no doubt. But the difference between grieving for plans that don’t come to fruition and grieving for a human being is, it seems to me, an important one.