Saturday, June 30, 2007

"I'm testing the air. I like it, but it doesn't like me."

I've been deep in a week-long intensive training for my summer job this week, so posts have been a tad lighter. So, I wanted to weigh in this morning quickly. To unwind a bit last night, my betrothed and I watched one of my favorite movies of all time: The Philadelphia Story. It was at least the fifth time I've seen it (and there will be many more, assuming a reasonably lengthy life-expectancy), and it hasn't paled a bit. Some lines are only the better for knowing they're coming.

This would be my desert-island DVD (in the comedy category, at least). I could watch Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant crack each other up for the rest of my life.

And a special tip of the Thinkulous hat to Ruth Hussey, as Liz Imbrie. The towering talents of the big-name co-stars had overshadowed her considerable contributions before this viewing. She most certainly had knife-edge delivery and spot-on timing.

I'll have to go back to some of George Cukor's other movies, especially the Hepburn/Tracy ones. I've been thinking of renting one of those for a while now.

C. K. Dexter Haven: I'm sorry, but I thought I better hit you before he did. He's in better shape than I am.

Macaulay Connor: Well you'll do!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I Have Wandered to the Limits of my Understanding

"I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I've scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life. Night and light, silence and difficulty, it seemed to me always rigorous and good."

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

This paragraph pretty neatly outlines an essential aspect of my personality so I thought I'd lead with it, by way of illustrating Marylinne Robinson's considerable chops. The woman was undoubtedly called "good with words" by her high school classmates. Gilead is eminently quotable. Yet this kind of pronouncement is also thoroughly in character for the hero of the book, who lives and breathes theology and philosophy, and is, after all, a preacher.

I have to hand it to Robinson on the subject of voice. I have had to remind myself numerous times that Gilead was not written by an elderly gentleman. There have been a few times when her own world-view seems to peek through, but mostly, she nails the word-choice, thought processes, emotional responses, and personal interests with uncanny precision. I have the strong feeling that I know John Ames.

Of course, that kind of insight is at the heart of the book. It's a fairly psychological story. There are no chapters; as mentioned in a previous post, it's written as one long letter. And Robinson mostly makes that work very smoothly. Though she weaves in a pretty good plot element that definitely keeps me reading, Robinson seems most interested in slowly unveiling, in loving yet unflinching detail, the inner life of this thoughtful, ethically meticulous man as he prepares to die.

While Ames' letter ranges from earthy sadness to elegiac celebration, it never becomes hopeless or depressive. He leans toward stoic Midwestern understatement, which in itself comes under Robinson's finely-ground lens -- but never explicitly. Reading carefully, I am rewarded with layered insights into the man's strengths and challenges.

This is not to say it is a perfect book. But more on that anon. I should finish it before critiquing further.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Another View of the Apostle Paul

With his projection of Jesus as the literal son of God, Paul shattered the rabbinical monotheistic concept of God as the all-pervading presence of the universe. After the Jews had won their thousand-year-old battle against anthropomorphism and relegated such things to mythology, he revived not only God the physical father, but God the physical son. It is understandable that the rabbis turned against him with contempt and anger.

Howard Fast, The Jews, Story of a People

If you are at all stirred up by this short excerpt, I can only say: Read the book. Fast lays out a hair-raising picture of Paul as the father of institutionalized anti-semitism, laying the groundwork for 2,000 years of atrocities. I'm neither endorsing nor refuting his view here. I am, however, saying it is worth understanding. It's fascinating and challenging.
Here are the promised pics from last Friday's New Bedford jaunt. Check out the original post to understand the context!

Cheesy antique store with a name you have to love

The infamous ship-shape pulpit in the Seamen's Bethel (yes, the chapel really existed in Melville's time, though the pulpit did not -- see related post)

The pew Melville sat in before he undertook his whaling voyage. Also note the scary cenotaph (commemorating the deaths of men at sea) noted in the sermon described in the chapter called "The Chapel"

"Any Human Face is a Claim on You"

"They say an infant can't see when it is as young as your sister was, but she opened her eyes, and she looked at me. She was such a little bit of a thing. But while I was holding her, she opened her eyes. I know she didn't really study my face. Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I'm glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. Boughton and I have talked about that, too. It has something to do with incarnation.... Any human face is a claim on you, because you can't help but understand the singularity of it..."

Marylinne Robinson, Gilead: A Novel

Saturday, June 23, 2007

New Bedford: Was That Ishmael Across the Street?

My betrothed and I had the day off together yesterday (how nice), and decided to nip down-state a ways to visit New Bedford and see a bit of Melvilliana. Since I just finished Moby Dick a couple weeks ago (see all related posts here), I thought it would be fun.

The day turned out to be full of surprises, some great, some not. The first was that the famous Whaling Museum (located at 18 Johnny Cake Hill – top that address) was closed. It seems the president of Portugal was visiting the town this random Friday afternoon, and various worthy tourist sites were closed. (We checked the Web site before coming, but, sadly, missed the small warning text that was posted. The visit was likely an homage to the large population of Portuguese in New Bedford.) This was, without a doubt, a let-down. The museum looks to be very good. The visitor’s center did have a neat scale model of a whaling ship of nearly the same vintage as the Pequod, though, so all was not lost.

The town itself looks a bit depressed, like many functional seaport towns. If you’ve been to Gloucester, Mass., you have the general idea. Many empty storefronts, lackluster antiques stores with a few dusty baubles in the window, and a hundred convenience stores. There are some local employers, mostly branches of national concerns such as phone companies and banks. And your usual nicely renovated mill buildings, etc., two-thirds filled with professionals of various stripes. The whole thing has a certain down-at-heel charm, but you walk around feeling a bit concerned, as you would for an aging uncle who was an interesting conversationalist on certain topics, but generally seemed like he just might be going slowly to seed.

We stopped at the Seamen’s Bethel, where Father Mapple preached fire, brimstone and stormy seas in the famous chapter from Moby-Dick. It was interesting, humble and well-kept. The prow-shaped pulpit is right there at the front of the church, but we found out that it was not originally part of the building. That little feature sprang whole from Melville’s prodigious brow. However, visitors were so disappointed after traveling to New Bedford and not seeing the ship-shaped pulpit, that the church was basically forced to put one in. It works, in its own weird way. We also sat in Melville’s pew, and read some of the cenotaphs commemorating sailors who’d died at sea – also noted memorably in the book.

From there, we wandered down to a 19th Century schooner docked in the harbor. We were hoping to roam the deck a little, as we’d been told might be possible. We found the same bored police presence in front of the boat that we saw at the museum. Presumably, the officer was protecting the site for the absent foreign president (not due in town for two hours). He sullenly honked his horn and waved us off, without even opening the window of the car to speak to us. Does this town really rely on tourism for income?

The saving grace of the day was the Whaling Museum Research Library. This is housed in a separate building, a relatively easy walk from the other sites. The betrothed is a librarian, so, needless to say, we both have warm feelings toward such institutions. Our esteem was not wasted. Unlike most other places in town, they welcomed us, despite the fact that they were closing at 4:00, and it was 3:55. Lovely editions of Melville abounded, of course, along with antique ship’s logs, scrimshaw, and whatever other exhibits the small (but appealing) space would allow. I overheard two librarians discussing a 19th century ship’s log detailing a very successful voyage to Java, including entries for all kinds of quirky expenses.

Best of all, I waylaid a head librarian just at closing time and managed a short talk with him. I asked him if he had a background in maritime history before working there, and a wave of righteous anger rose to the surface. “No,” he replied, color rising in his face, “I had 24 years of schooling before I arrived here, and not one course of study on maritime history!” With his knitted brow and sharp tone of voice, at first I thought he was angry at me for some reason. But he was just extremely chagrined at the way that part of our history is ignored in the public curricula. "This was a maritime nation up until a certain point in the 19th Century!" he said. Walking to the car, the betrothed and I agreed that we had loved his passionate anger on behalf of quality education. Had the museum been open, we probably would have missed this little treasure of a library.

Later, we slid down to the spit of land just south of town and caught some sun for an hour on a small, pretty beach that was all but deserted (this was the other saving grace of the day). We had a decent seafood dinner, walked the pleasant, middle-class seaside neighborhood a bit, and pointed the car toward Boston.

I’ll post pictures as soon as we get them off the camera.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead

As promised, a report on the other non-work-related book I’m reading. I’ll try to keep this one brief, I promise.

In January, 2006, Marilynne Robinson published Gilead, only her second novel in 25 years. (She also produced two non-fiction books during that time.) The first, Housekeeping, won the PEN/Hemingway award. Not bad, but this one topped it; it won the Pulitzer.

Valerie Ryan, from, did a pretty good job laying out the premise:

The narrator, John Ames, is 76, a preacher who has lived almost all of his life in Gilead, Iowa. He is writing a letter to his almost seven-year-old son, the blessing of his second marriage. It is a summing-up, an apologia, a consideration of his life. Robinson takes the story away from being simply the reminiscences of one man and moves it into the realm of a meditation on fathers and children, particularly sons, on faith, and on the imperfectability of man. The reason for the letter is Ames's failing health. He wants to leave an account of himself for this son who will never really know him.

I’m on page 65 of 247. As I understand it, most of the plot is yet to come, but I really don't mind one bit. I read it before bed, and it’s well-suited to that. Robinson’s prose is simultaneously highly crafted and clear as a mountain stream. On the page, Publishers Weekly said “Many writers try to capture life's universals of strength, struggle, joy and forgiveness—but Robinson truly succeeds.” This is true. Robinson keeps away from sentiment. When Ames marvels at this mysterious world, he steers me right into his own sense of wonder and joy, and I have found myself with tears in my eyes a couple of times already.

There are various other themes woven in, including a lovely one on Ames’s grandfather, a larger-than-life abolitionist who fought in the Midwest during the Civil War. The history that’s revealed thereby is quite engaging.

Stay tuned for more on this rewarding book.

I Need Blogging Advice

Two things I’m finding difficult as I approach the start of my third month as a blogger. I wonder if all you blog-doggies have any tips you’d be willing to share?

  • Finding blogs I like: I did find a few, early on. (See my blogroll, to the right on this page). But I’m having trouble finding any more. Tried Technorati blog search, Google blog search,’s blog search. Each with many different search terms. Have tried the links on other folks’ blog rolls, but given that I only have a few faves, there’s not much there. With well over a million blogs out there, I know there are some I want to read. How should I go about finding them?
  • Generating audience: I have tried the basics: Dropping comments on blogs I like (this is limited because of the problem listed above). Registering with Technorati. Creating multiple tags for every post. What else should I do? Stuff that really works, not something you need to do a million times, and then you start to see results.

I know two months isn’t a very long time, and an audience grows slowly (and then all at once). I also am aware that I am still finding my focus for this blog, and upcoming life changes might create even more shifts. I’m just wondering if there’s anything I can be doing to help it along.

The Other Greatest Story Ever Told

In addition to the interesting reading I’m doing for my summer job (which starts next week), I’ve also got two very interesting books going on the side. I’ll write about the first today, and my next post will be about the second.

I’ve decided that it’s time for me to gain at least a working knowledge of the history of the roughly 150 or so generations of Jews before me. The political, religious, economic, and social forces that shaped them as a people.

I started somewhat randomly by going to my terrific little local library, and picking a history that seemed eminently readable. If I turn out to be very interested in the topic, I will turn to heftier tomes later.

I am about 70 pages into Howard Fast’s book, The Jews: Story of a People. It’s enjoyable, and moves relatively quickly. It’s fairly factual, reflecting Fast’s years of research on the topic. That’s not to say it isn’t biased. Any history will be. And Fast has his Leftist background, which bleeds through a bit here and there. If I stay on my toes, I can parse out the ideology.

I could write pages inspired by what I’ve learned so far, but perhaps I’ll just post a couple of early thoughts inspired by the story of the birth and rise of the only thing like a Jewish empire we’ve ever known – in the time of David and Solomon:

1) We did not start in luxury.

The very first members of my family line lived 24/7 in a barren, broiling desert, pushing a few bony goats around and eating nothing but their milk and cheese. They had, basically, nothing to their names. For a stretch of relief every few generations, they volunteered themselves into slavery for neighboring countries, which owned all the lush, perfumed hillsides laden with fruit that Jews could see but not touch.

2) Chosen, maybe. Hawkish, definitely.

Maybe it was the generations of slavery. Maybe it was the endless goat milk. But once Moses actually gathered and identified us as Jews, we rallied round the flag of Yahweh as a full-on standard of war. Oh sure, when all we had was our wooden shepherds’ crooks, we were very accepting of our fate. But the philosophical outlook went out the window the moment we laid eyes on the Hittites’ new horses, chariots and iron swords. We said to ourselves, “Hey, we may be goat drovers, but there’s a boat-load of us, and if we got us some of those serious weapons…”

Next thing you know, we were blasting up the hillside toward the Philistines and Jerusalem and anywhere else we could get our hands on. If you look at David and Solomon through the lens of realpolitik, you see foreshadows of land-grabbing Roman emperors. I mean, Solomon built whole cities just to store the grain needed to feed his armies of mercenaries.

I don’t condemn the empire. Those guys had the memory of utter poverty very recently in mind. I can understand the age-old desire for each generation to do better than the last. Furthermore, there's evidence that, in those days and that place, if you didn’t conquer, you were conquered – period. And, though recent evidence disproves some of Solomon’s vaunted wisdom, I’m sure the two rulers did some good for the people.

It’s just hard to be reminded yet again that things are never as simple as they seem in story-books. Like the Bible.

So, we were hawkish, much like the Israel of today. It's sobering to think that the much more familiar, heart-warming (and longer-lived) identity of Jews as a persecuted people who love justice, scholarship and a really well-turned joke came much later, when, perhaps after too much excess, the kingdom came crashing down around our ears, and the Diaspora was forced upon us.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Constraints and Creativity

This summer, my job will be helping to teach kids with Asperger's Syndrome social skills through the practice of theater games and projects. To prepare for this work, the director of the project assigned some very interesting reading, including Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin (got to love that name). While laying out a plan for teaching improvisation skills, she also manages to ladle in some pretty interesting comments on the nature of creativity and mental health. Like this one:

Abandoned to the whims of others, we must wander daily through the wish to be loved and the fear of rejection before we can be productive.... Having to thus look to others to tell us where we are, who we are, and what is happening results in a serious (almost total) loss of personal experiencing. We lose the ability to be organically involved in a problem.... We do not know our substance, and ...insight is lost to us.

Theatrical improv exercises, as Spolin lays them out, provide one great workshop for resolving this problem:

The energy released to solve the problem [of improvising a scene], being restricted by the rules of the game and bound by group decision, creates an explosion -- or spontaneity -- and, as is the nature of explosions, everything is torn apart, re-arranged, unblocked.

I haven't tried her method yet, of course, but in theory, I agree with her and am excited by the possibilities. As a life-long creative person, and as a student of counseling psychology, I am energized by the connections between solving creative problems in my work, and "solving" the "problem" of daily life. Her books hints, not so subtly, that these two dynamics are twin siblings.

She isn’t talking about psycho-drama (experiencing emotions based on my past, on-stage). She doesn’t think that’s what helps us in this way (it might help in another, more cathartic or insight-oriented way). The exercise of setting up a creative challenge is more like life itself, and, if properly harnessed, could be a more suitable way to build day-to-day efficacy and agency.

In both life and her exercises, one has the ever-exciting task of "making something from nothing." I feel that challenge upon sitting down to write an essay or song -- and upon waking up in the morning to face an average work-day. They two are not identical, granted, but the feeling of starting each them is somewhat the same, in my experience.

In creative work, Spolin argues that we work best when we dream up certain constraints upon the "something from nothing" challenge. If set up adroitly, the tension between the rules and the creative freedom creates energy that intensifies the creative flame. And, of course, the constraints are built right into daily life, as we know all too well. But how often am I able to see them as factors that can elicit and intensify my sense of personal power and wholeness, as can the constraints in a creative game?

Food for thought as I read on and prepare for the week-long training starting a week from today.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Revisiting Highway 61

So, I'm heading out the door last weekend to meet the betrothed, and I'm feeling a bit cranky and I need some feisty music for the car, to sort of synch up with my mood, and then point it in a happier direction. Quickly scanning my rapidly aging CD collection, I grabbed Highway 61 and hit the road.

Now, I'm not the world's biggest Dylan fan. Between his earliest and latest material, there are probably 20 songs I feel are stunning and critical moments in the history of popular music. The rest I don't even like that much. But those 20 are so precious, any one of them cements the man's throne firmly to the floor of my pantheon.

So, in the car, I listened to the first bunch of songs -- I have always loved Tombstone Blues because it's rockin' and nonsensical, but mainly because you can feel Dylan's undying love for traditional blues just oozing out of it. (At the time, he might have publicly spurned pure roots music, but it remained his favorite ingredient to cook up songs with.)

However, like a heat-seeking missile, I was headed for the title track, and it did not disappoint. It never does.

Is there a more insouciant, goofy, jaunty, witty, dangerous, fun song in the canon of Western music? The acidic, playful, hard-driving tone in Dylan's voice on this song takes lyrics that would otherwise be called "very clever," and drives them right up the scale into the range of "celestial." It sounds like he is trying to shout over the top of the band he's simultaneously inspiring to play so loudly. It sounds like he's having a scary amount of fun. Needless to say, I turned the volume up very, very high.

The first verse alone deserves to be chiseled into the foundation of the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame building:

Well, God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God said, "Out on Highway 61."

I spent 20 years trying to write a song as good as that one verse. How to begin telling you why I love it so?

How about with the fact that Dylan summed up one of the most famous, controversial and symbolic stories of the Bible in seven lines? He manages to be flip, funny and emotionally charged, all at the same time. How much ink has been spilled trying to penetrate the mystery of this story? I'll say it again: Dylan took seven lines.

How about that he seamlessly weaves two major themes of western civilization (the Bible and the storied history of the Blues) into one pitch-perfect Abbott and Costello routine? The warp and woof of Highway 61 are figures such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith and Howlin' Wolf. The link between that road and the history of the blues is as deep and wide as the Mississippi River it bestrides.

It would have been typical of Dylan's intuitive gift to have inwardly glimpsed the mythological threads running between the dark decision of Abraham binding his son up on the mountain, and the dark deal Robert Johnson is said to have struck with the devil, standing right on Highway 61 in Mississippi. Elvis, Ike Turner, and, later, Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was killed in a motel on 61) were all tied with the same road. Dylan instinctively lashed together these enormous themes bristling with symbolic power -- and then, typically, just cut loose and tossed playful pixie dust over the whole thing.

I mean, lest we take the whole thing too seriously, how about that whoopee whistle he can't stop wailing on?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Not the Top 10, but Definitely the First 10

Okay, so there's a cool meme going around, and I've been waiting for a chance to try one, and because I'm a music addict and maker from way back, I'll surely take this bait. The theme is, "What are the first 10 songs to emerge when you hit "shuffle" on your iPod?"
  1. Eisler on the Go - Billy Bragg and Wilco (Mermaid Avenue project: Unfinished lyrics of Woody Guthrie brought to life)
  2. Many Rivers to Cross - Blind Boys of Alabama
  3. Right Hand Man - Joan Osborne
  4. Marie - Randy Newman
  5. Yo Lé Lé - Youssou N'Dour
  6. Wicked Rain - Los Lobos
  7. A Prayer - Suzzy & Maggie Roach
  8. Akwaba - Angelique Kidjo
  9. Watermelon Song - Poi Dog Pondering
  10. Pangs of Love - Bruce Cockburn
I strongly commend just about all of the artists above to your discriminating ear.

Many thanks for the meme theme go to Muffy St. Bernard over at the fun and interesting blog, The Muffyblog.

Please feel free to pick up this meme, either in your own blog, or in the comments section for this post! Just leave a trail!

19th Century Weapon Found in Whale

Kudos to my betrothed for finding this perfect coda to my completion of the delectable Moby-Dick. It's a wonderful, short article:

19th-century weapon found in whale

Note that the weapon in question was manufactured in New Bedford, where Moby-Dick begins! How enchanting is that?

The weapon in the story dates to roughly 40 years after Melville's book (and the apex of whaling ships -- after the 1850s, the kerosene lamp put a permanent leak the demand for whale oil). However, think on this: the whale in this story was without doubt a contemporary of Melville, and might even have passed the author's ship on some silvery maritime midnight. (It would not have been hunted by the Pequod, as that ship's crew turned their noses up at all but the gold-standard sperm whale quarry).

I flatter myself that, if Melville were reading, he would comment with something to this effect: "O, deep, blubberous burial ground of harpoonish totems! Would but I had been buried there with you, in the heavenish flank of a worthy Leviathan, there to float past my mortal limits, and later to start the very eyes from the sockets of posterity!"

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Land-Ho! Finished Moby-Dick!

Summing up Moby-Dick -- now that's a poser.

I started out worried that I would regret buying the book. I figured it might end up on my shelf, another half-hearted attempt on a classic, aborted half-way through. Far from it. As anyone who has been reading here lately knows, I enjoyed it immensely. Who could imagine a book that crams in so many vast riches? Gorgeous, rolling paragraphs of prose poetry. Revery-provoking philosophy. Swashbuckling action, as in the whale-hunts. Comedy, both ribald and subtle. A replete understanding of what a sophisticated world-view looked like in 1851. Allusions to and emulation of Greek tragedy and mythology. I'm sure I'm missing at least a couple more key elements. (I don't mention the cetology because I have to admit I wasn't all that captivated after the first 20 or so pages of crushing detail on the inside of a sperm whale's head, or a bone-by-bone description of his skeleton.)

I was also a tad disappointed by the ending. The action itself was outstanding and very, very impressive. It was fully in keeping with all the foreshadowing in the plot up to that point. But Melville's voice disappeared for me in the crucial final 20 pages -- the confrontation with Moby Dick. (Note: following Melville's lead, I only hyphenate the whale's name when citing the book title.) I know there are those who say the change in voice reflects the book's main sub-textual point: Man foolishly projects his ills on nature, but nature is impersonal (hence, the cold, clinical voice at the end), and will crush man's foolishness to dust every time. Great point, made very well during the book in a completely different style. The total and quite unsettling abandonment of that style at the end didn't underscore that point, it distracted me from it. But this is a niggle, really.

I had a lot of fun writing those farcical posts last week, and the one that took a hard look at the length of the book. But in the end, I have no complaints on that subject. This weekend, I chatted with my dad about MD. He is a life-long English Lit buff, majored in it in school and has devoured towering stacks of books every year since. I think he got it right when he said, "The book is as long as it is. If it were that long and nobody was reading it anymore, you might criticize him for it -- but everyone still raves about it. So, it's as long as it needs to be."

That was something I'm not sure I got across in my post on the length of the book. The length itself has a purpose and an integrity, as my father was intimating. It lulls you, it befriends you; it tells you, by its very nature, "Sit back and relax: I'm going to immerse you in a new world, and spin you one whopper of a yarn."

I had the time and the patience this month to give in to such a lovely invitation. I sure am glad I did.

Monday, June 11, 2007

U.S. Pours Gasoline on the Iraq Fire

You know, there comes a time when events are so bizarre that the facts simply parody themselves.

Rather than get all wound up about the latest decision by the administration and their generals on the ground, attack my keyboard and produce 350 manic words dripping with withering sarcasm and then make you read it... I simply ask you to read the following, from the front page of the Times this morning, and tell me, please -- have I lost my mind, or is it just them?

U.S. Arming Sunnis in Iraq to Battle Old Qaeda Allies
BAGHDAD, June 10 — With the four-month-old increase in American troops showing only modest success in curbing insurgent attacks, American commanders are turning to another strategy that they acknowledge is fraught with risk: arming Sunni Arab groups that have promised to fight militants linked with Al Qaeda who have been their allies in the past.

American commanders say they have successfully tested the strategy in Anbar Province west of Baghdad and have held talks with Sunni groups in at least four areas of central and north-central Iraq where the insurgency has been strong. In some cases, the American commanders say, the Sunni groups are suspected of involvement in past attacks on American troops or of having links to such groups. Some of these groups, they say, have been provided, usually through Iraqi military units allied with the Americans, with arms, ammunition, cash, fuel and supplies.

American officers who have engaged in what they call outreach to the Sunni groups say many of them have had past links to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia but grew disillusioned with the Islamic militants’ extremist tactics, particularly suicide bombings that have killed thousands of Iraqi civilians. In exchange for American backing, these officials say, the Sunni groups have agreed to fight Al Qaeda and halt attacks on American units. Commanders who have undertaken these negotiations say that in some cases, Sunni groups have agreed to alert American troops to the location of roadside bombs and other lethal booby traps.

But critics of the strategy, including some American officers, say it could amount to the Americans’ arming both sides in a future civil war. The United States has spent more than $15 billion in building up Iraq’s army and police force, whose manpower of 350,000 is heavily Shiite. With an American troop drawdown increasingly likely in the next year, and little sign of a political accommodation between Shiite and Sunni politicians in Baghdad, the critics say, there is a risk that any weapons given to Sunni groups will eventually be used against Shiites. There is also the possibility the weapons could be used against the Americans themselves.

A powerful admixture of vitriol and disbelief sprang up in me unbidden after reading just the headline. I won't indulge that here. After four years, maybe you and I have both had enough of such stuff; what more can be said on that score?

But doesn't anyone in Washington remember that we armed what would later become the Taliban, with exactly the same motives in mind?

Explain it to me again: These guys are our allies?

The Sperm Whale Will Stand no Nonsense

Well, friends and Romans, it's time for another of what overbearing grande dames in black-and-white movies called "elevating conversations."

I'm about 60 pages from landfall in Moby Dick, and I think it's about time for a wrap-up of some of the beautiful words that Melville uses so copiously. Following are terms I'd known of for years, but which ole Herm inspired me to look up. I sort of knew what they meant, but Melville's obvious joy in words makes you want to know exactly:

- Effulgence: radiant splendor

- Execration: the act of cursing or denouncing; also : the curse so uttered

- Blandishment: something that tends to coax or cajole

- Recondite: 1: hidden from sight : concealed; 2: difficult or impossible for one of ordinary understanding or knowledge to comprehend : deep [a recondite subject]

- Antediluvian: 1: of or relating to the period before the flood described in the Bible 2 a: made, evolved, or developed a long time ago [an antediluvian automobile] b: extremely primitive or outmoded [an antediluvian prejudice]

- Spavined: Old and decrepit; over the hill

Source: Merriam Webster (Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition and Online Search )

Finally, I couldn't resist offering a tasty excerpt from the middle of the book. (If you love snappy writing, that alone would be a reason to read MD. It's liberally sprinkled with gems.) Here, Melville is recounting a meeting with a military Commodore who was breezily skeptical on the subject of the great strength of whales, and particularly whether one could manage to damage his sloop-of war "as to cause her to leak so much as a thimbleful." Melville goes on:

"Some weeks after, the Commodore set sail in this impregnable craft for Valparaiso. But he was stopped on the way by a portly sperm whale, that begged a few moments' confidential business with him. That business consisted in fetching the Commodore's craft such a thwack, that with all his pumps going he made straight for the nearest port to heave down and repair. I am not superstitious, but I consider the Commodore's interview with that whale as providential. Was not Saul of Tarsus converted from unbelief by a similar fright? I tell you, the sperm whale will stand no nonsense."

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Spider-man 3: Peee-yeew.

Prepare yourself, gentle reader, for a rant from an aging child...

When I was but a stripling of 10 and 12, I cared about superhero comics.

No -- I mean, I CARED.

I was a bronze-age fanatic. I had stacks of 'em, an entire milk crate packed to the gills and spilling over. I wasn't a collector -- I was a ravenous reader. This was before most people thought you could make money off these things. You didn't "bag and back" comic books; you read them. The only "industry" built up around them was bunches of 10-year-olds like me, salivating at the newsstand every week, waiting for the new releases ("Comic book stores?? We didn't have no steenking COMIC BOOK STORES!!")

Every day I passed by the newsstand on the way to school, anxiously scanning the new titles arrayed like glossy full-color mosaic tiles across the wire racks. And of all the heroes that really meant something to me, Spider-man was far, far up on the list (with maybe Kirby-era Captain America, Iron Man... oh, yes, the Avengers.... but I digress).

I was a Marvel boy through and through. I might have snuck a couple Mister Fantastics or Batmans home in my school bag, but I wouldn't have been seen in school with those. They were for private fascination, slumming, to see how the other half lived. The only thing that kept me from buying everything Marvel printed between 1974 and 1980 or so was limited funds. I had to budget for my favorites. If there was money left over, I might try an Iron Fist or a Dr. Strange, but you had to keep the big-picture: If the fat annual version of your favorite hero was due out in a few days, it was going to cost one whole dollar. Scrimp that coin, bucko.

(If you want to know more about what it was like growing up a Marvel boy in the Big Apple, I commend to your discriminating eye the very fine essay by Jonathan Lethem, "Identifying With Your Parents," in The Disappointment Artist.)

Needless to say, the comics world has changed radically since then. Major motion pictures. Specialty stores in every town. Everyone and his dog writing graphic novels (which is a good thing in my eyes, by the way). Comics are everywhere.

The way you could tag yourself as a hopeless geek in 1975 was to try to start a conversation about Little Nemo in Slumberland (the Edwardian-era Surrealist Sunday paper comic strip by Winsor McKay). Now? Shut up. Everybody knows that. In those days, you could only learn about the McKays and Herrimans of the world from odd older men who'd actually served in the field and cared enough to write books on such topics. These guys were not being featured on magazine covers or beating away rabid fans at book signings, let me assure you. But these days, it's a whole sub-culture, and there's probably a teen hanging out in my local library right now who could tell me more about McKay than I could tell her.

But I digress.

So: You know by now that I was what Stan Lee, Marvel founder and guiding light, always called a True Believer. You couldn't do wrong by me, Stan.

And today? What hath Marvel wrought?

I've seen the first and third Webslinger movies. All I can say is, "I knew Spider-man. I read Spider-man for years. Tobey Maguire, you're no Spider-man."

I mean, Peter Parker doing dancing sequences? Disco and ballroom?

Uh... No.

They somehow managed to create a movie that had no plot and almost no action. I've never seen so many people crying in a superhero story in my life. You would have thought they hired a writer from the old True Romance comic book line from the '50s. Break-ups. Betrayals. Talking, talking, talking -- which is fine, if the script were anything beyond trite, disconnected clichés.

I want my Spider-man back.

I'm going down to the basement. Where's that consarned milk crate?!

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Congress Says Having Peter Pace in the Military is "Immoral"

President Butch has got to be aggrieved that the Democrats (and ticked-off Republicans) have won again: Chairman of Joint Chiefs Peter Pace is out.

Poor Butchie will miss Peter as a play-mate. He was like the early-Cabinet-era Colin Powell: He drank the Kool-Aid. He stood with Bush on "Stay the Course," stood with Bush on "It's Not a Civil War, it's a Burgeoning Democracy, Thanks to Us," stood with Bush on "We Need a Surge," and then he went out and took the lumps for George. Even better, he took the initiative to stand in front of the listening world as the second-in-command of the United States military and call homosexuality "immoral." What a stand-up guy!

Sit down, Peter.

Friday, June 8, 2007

And, Yet Another Thread in the Literary Loom

As if the coincidences of happening upon the Michael Chabon and Goat Rope quotes and posts on Moby Dick weren't enough (see my previous posts this week), I just opened another of my favorite blogs, About Last Night, by Terry Teachout (Wall Street Journal arts critic). At the top level, I find a great Nabakov quote about the deceptive nature of simplicity, and how great writers are complex.

Who does he cite as one of two examples? Take thee a guess, my hearty!

And ahoy, Cabrero! The other example is Tolstoy. Not quite Fyodor, but practically his cousin, eh?

Talk about intertextuality... phew. Again -- everything's connected.

Now, before this blog gets so danged self-referential you can't read it, I better get to generating some real content.

Someone Else is Crazy Enough to do Moby Dick Farce

Cabrero, a new-found friend and apparent kindred soul, has a terrific farcical post on his blog, The Goat Rope, regarding Moby Dick. Those who've been enjoying my posts in a similar vein definitely need to check his out. I recommend the whole site -- it's hilarious, unique, informative, and slanted the right way politically and culturally (that is, of course, my way).

Cabrero also reminded me that,

"The thing about Moby Dick that many people miss is that it is laugh out loud funny, or at least parts of it are."

Quite right, my friend. I have laughed out loud at Starbucks during my daily reads there various times. Melville could range from gently, intellectually farcical to broadly humorous pretty much at will.

Off to Starbucks.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Michael Chabon and Moby Dick -- Again!

Holy cow!

I've been writing about both Michael Chabon and Moby Dick here -- and even the relationship between the two -- for about two weeks or so, and look what I just found! (Just enter "Chabon," or "Moby Dick," or both, into the search field at the top of this window to see previous posts on the subject.)

With a spontaneous search on Google for another purpose, I happened upon a quote from Chabon:

"Moby Dick - that book is so amazing. I just realized that it starts with two characters meeting in bed; that's how my book begins, too, but I hadn't noticed the parallel before, two characters forced to share a bed, reluctantly."

It's not made clear on the web page with the quote, but I'd guess he's referring to Joe Kavailer and Sam Clay, at the beginning of his book bearing their names.

As my mother and I like to say, "Everything's connected!"

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Pulitzer Syndrome

In a recent post, I made the case for the length of Moby Dick. It’s the first time I’ve done so, because I usually complain when a book runs over 300 pages. I am not endorsing length as a concept. At best, it usually bogs down and detracts from the book. At worst, it comes off self-indulgent or show-offy.

I’m a huge fan of Michael Chabon, and I tell everyone so. I love his new book, Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and still rave to people about it weeks after finishing it. But it is a bit tinged by this dynamic.

I have taken to calling this the Pulitzer Syndrome, and I’m curious to know if others have noticed it. It goes like this:

Author writes ambitious book. Author wins Pulitzer (or other popular acclaim). Author takes this as a mandate, and (perhaps semi-consciously) tries to make each successive book more ambitious. Editor quails at the idea of suggesting to a Pulitzer-winning author that perhaps 450 or 500 pages is more than is necessary to tell a story. Book is published. Reviewers swoon, partly because author is truly talented, partly based on previous success. Despite length, book does well enough. Add dollars; repeat.

I don’t know if this is the way it works, but the evidence is sure there. I’ve seen it happen with Barbara Kingsolver, who went from her delightful light trilogy, which ended with Pigs in Heaven, to gratingly pretentious essays and the ponderous Poisonwood Bible.

I’ve even seen it happen with George Lucas. Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace (the fourth movie in the series, the one that began the new trilogy) was bloated, wooden and plotless. Can you imagine one of Lucas’ assistants waiting for a private moment with the emperor, so s/he could say, “Uh, George, about that script…” Yeah. Right.

But it’s a pity they don’t.

Home is...

"Home is a place not only of strong affections, but of entire unreserve; it is life's undress rehearsal, its backroom, its dressing room..."

Harriet Beecher Stowe, quoted in Terry Teachout's excellent cultural blog. I recommend you go there, but only if you have at least 20 minutes to read backwards through various of his thoughtful, human, well-written posts.

Cheers, Terry!

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Moby-Dick and Yiddish Policemen's Union

Reading Moby-Dick (see many previous posts on Thinkulous by using the search field, above) has reminded me, in its marked flavor of uniqueness of thought and -- principally -- its ambition, of the work of one of my other favorite authors, also impressive for the volume of his output: Michael Chabon.

Chabon approaches most projects with Melville’s wild, voracious appetite gleaming in his eyes. He spends endless months at libraries, on-line and on the phone interviewing experts. I get the feeling that if he can’t learn, by heart and to the last detail, three or four complete and complex worlds before starting a book, it just doesn’t seem worth it to him to begin. And, like Melville, he writes long -- sometimes, a bit too long, but I forgive him because of the sheer joy of reading his language and plots.

In his latest, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union , he weaves in relatively seamlessly (and in that sense, he is very different from Melville) entire continents of secular Jewish history, sociology, linguistics and psychology; large swatches of Judaism both obscure and well-known; technical, historical and cultural perspectives on the game of chess; multiple themes of immigrant life and persecution; half the extant language of Yiddish, plus a bunch of Yiddish words he repurposed for the story… oh, yes, and a complete and self-contained film noir culture and plot. All while conjuring, to the minutest door-hinge, an alternate-Israel, surreally established in Alaska in the late 1940s and grown to fruition, and then spoliage, since then.

Try that, Melville!

Scooter Libby, Whipping Boy

All those who think Scooter Libby is going to jail for the sins of his superiors, raise your hands.

Don't get me wrong: Perjure yourself, obstruct justice, and you belong in jail. It was a stupid move.

But the guy is just one more of the many sacrificial lambs and red herrings that this administration has offered up on a silver platter once the heat gets a little too close to home.

As I wrote in a letter that was, by a stroke of luck, published in the Times back when Scooter's investigation started in the autumn of '05, this whole project has been a goose chase. C'mon, turn on your wayback machine: Trace it back through Scooter to Cheney okay-ing the outing of Valerie Plame. Don't forget the whole Judith Miller flap at the Times. But don't stop there, loyal Americans...

Please, please, leave us not forget that the whole thing started because Butch & Co. were ticked off at Plame's husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, for writing an op-ed in the Times telling what the entire world now knows is the truth: Saddam Hussein never bought a scintilla of uranium from Niger, and was not storing it for nefarious purposes. One of the various chimeras the administration was selling us in the fear-mongering days after September 11, to support the wind-up for war. Even stubborn George Bush later admitted it was false.

I exhort us all to keep our eyes on the prize. Maybe it's too late to impeach Bush (as I believe we should ASAP, for the sake of posterity alone, never mind justice). But let's remember that this slimy shell game is only the smallest example of the larger games Bush's administration has played with us all along.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Moby-Dick, or, The Slog

Well, friends, I passed a major literary landmark today.

No, no, I didn't actually finish Moby-Dick, the book I've been reading for days and days. (See previous posts, below.) That would call for fireworks and some kind of major purchase to reward myself. Like maybe a second car. Something sporty. In red.

But I did pass page 400. Only 255 left to go!

Yesterday, I felt so sick of the thing, I couldn't look at it. Today, I was laughing out loud at various cetological witticisms while at Starbucks during my late-afternoon reading jaunt (a lovely day for reading, low 60s and rainy as heck).

The whole experience is starting to remind me vividly of the feeling I used to get on extra-long hikes. There's the high of starting out, and then of reaching the half-way point or various lovely vistas. In between the highs come those sloggy "reconsideration" points. "Oh, brother. I've got hours of schlepping to go. What the devil was I thinking? Why did I ever start this? I'll never get there. Oh, yay, it's starting to rain."

By the end of the trail, not only do I have the benefit of all the little highs along the way; I also have bragging rights. Now, don't think there isn't a little pride when I slap that two-pound tome down on the table next to the comfy chair at the local café. "Yeah. That's right, baby. I'm reading... this."

'Course, that wears off pretty quick once I bog down at page 387 in a nine-page comparative dissection of the bodies of the sperm whale and the right whale.