Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike (1932 - 2009)

The man who was, in all likelihood, the greatest writer of English prose sentences of our time (whatever the faults in some of his larger structures of paragraph, chapter or book, he was the master of the sentence) has died at the age of 76.

Rest in peace.

...I suddenly got a glimpse of how disassembled and undirected and simply bereft I would feel if I were to learn suddenly through the Associated Press of Updike's death. All I wanted, all I counted on, was Updike's immortality: his open-ended stream of books, reviews, even poems, and especially responses to pert queries from Mademoiselle and The New York Times Book Review.... I wanted more of these monocellular living appearances. More awards-acceptance speeches! He was, I felt, the model of the twentieth-century American man of letters: for him to die would be for my generation's personal connection with literature to die, and for us all to be confronted at last with the terrifying unmediated enormity of the cast-concrete university library, whose antitheft gates go click-click-click-click as we leave, dry laughter at how few books we can carry home with us.

-- Nicholson Baker, U and I

Do I really want it, this self, these scattered fingerprints on the air, to persist forever, to outlast the atomic universe? Those who scoff at the Christian hope of an afterlife have on their side not only a mass of biological evidence knitting the self-conscious mind tight to the perishing body but a certain moral superiority as well: isn't it terribly, well, selfish, and grotesquely egocentric, to hope for more than our animal walk in the sun, from eager blind infancy through the productive and procreative years into a senescence that, by the laws of biological instinct as well as by the premeditated precepts of stoic virtue, will submit to eternal sleep gracefully? Where, indeed, in the vast spaces disclosed by modern astronomy, would our disembodied spirit go, and, once there, what would it do?

-- John Updike, "On Being a Self Forever", Self-Consciousness

Thursday, January 22, 2009

It Pays To Consider All Sides of These Questions

"What if the mightiest word is love?"

-- Elizabeth Alexander, 20 January 2009
Inaugural Poem, "Praise Song for the Day"


What if the mightiest word is indigestion?
What if the mightiest word is doorknob?
What if the mightiest word is synteresis?
What if the mightiest word is metempsychosis?
What if the mightiest word is polychromatic?
What if the mightiest word is oxidize?
What if the mightiest word is hebetude?
What if the mightiest word is fluoridation?
What if the mightiest word is aardvark?
What if the mightiest word is dysentery?
What if the mightiest word is glue?
What if the mightiest word is zygomatic?
What if the mightiest word is antepenultimate?
What if the mightiest word is anapestic?

And last but not least...

What if the mightiest word is trite?

Inquiring minds, as the saying goes, want to know.

File Under "Real Life is Plagiarizing The Onion Again"

"Former French President Chirac hospitalised after mauling by his clinically depressed poodle" (via)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Post-Game Blather on the Inauguration...

A few random thoughts right after:

* Reverend Lowery totally stole the show.

* Given that that speech was watched by more people than any he's ever made, that was a distinctly mediocre performance by Obama. Not anywhere near his 2004 convention speech, or his Iowa speech, or his race speech, or any of his other many speeches.

* I did, however, like his method of rebuking Bush, talking about returning to our values against expediency. And I thought that buried under a mass of cliche and a few unfortunate shout-outs to a pernicious right-wing ideology, there was a decent defense of liberalism.

* [Right-wing wingnut]Obama isn't really president because he flubbed the oath!![/wingnut]

* Shorter Dianne Feinstein: OMG he's black!!

* Rick Warren made it very specifically Christian, a nice fuck you to all the non-Christians in the country. But then, you invite a man like that to do the invocation, what do you expect?

* Elizabeth Anderson seemed to serve as the processional music to let people leave. About right given the place of poetry in our culture.

* [Right-wing wingnut]Hey, Obama hasn't fixed the economy yet!! He's a failure!!![/wingnut]

* Overall, quite anti-climactic. I felt a lot more moved by Pete Seeger & Bruce.

* I note with pleasure that Google has gotten around to adding "Obama" to the blogger spell-checker... but that the one that the Mac uses to check as you type hasn't.

Update, minutes later:

* I wrote all that without looking at other people's reactions. But Lowery is getting praise all over the place. Well deserved!

* One thing I've yet to see anyone note: When Obama said "Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath", he was, of course, wrong. Only 43 have. He's the 44th President because of the genuinely idiotic practice of counting Grover Cleveland twice. (You can't even say, "43 took it, one took it twice", because every President who was re-elected took it twice. (FDR took it four times.) It's just wrong, and dumb.)

Next-day Update:

I see I wasn't the only person to catch the error in Obama's claim that "Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath", although I've seen less note of it than I might have thought. Interestingly, that blog-post contains an (admittedly third-hand) claim that "the Obama folks... knew of the discrepancy and that it was less confusing to get it wrong and say 44". Which may be, in itself, the best argument I've heard yet against the truly silly double-counting of Grover Cleveland.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Perhaps the Greatest Song Ever Written About Our Home

Performed by two of the greatest musicians to come from it -- and a vast chorus of its citizens, come to celebrate the renewal of that home in an hour of great peril:

(via, and also, and also... (& here's context for one bit))

It feels like a national holiday Tuesday, a renewal, a solstice after eight years of darkness. Indeed, I suspect that it is not just parochialism speaking if I say that it is probably not just a national holiday: given the role America plays on the world stage, given the inspiration we can be at our best and the horror we can commit at our worst, I bet that there are people around the world who feels like it is almost a world holiday. (Bono captured this aspect -- Digby has the video -- when he declared that Martin Luther King's dream was also an Irish dream, a European dream, an African dream, an Israeli dream and a Palestinian dream.) At any rate, for us here, it is a festival.

A day of independence. The fourth of July in midwinter.

I have said many times that Obama will disappoint me (and us, for any us) bitterly, and often -- in some instances he already has. But he also embodies hope -- hope of the America that has never been, and yet will be: the America that stands for the self-evident truths that all people are created equal, that governments are meant to be of the people, by the people, for the people. The America not only of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but of Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, too.

Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking that freedom highway
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

He is hope after eight years of leadership that could hardly have done worse for our country if they had set out deliberately to destroy it; and he is hope for a part of our people who have ever been cut out of the American dream, the people for whom -- as the new saying goes -- Rosa sat and Martin walked.

Obama is a politician: but he is also a symbol. Politicians are always corrupted, flawed, imperfect, disappointing. But symbols are always perfect.

He is a symbol of the best of our country -- our home. Of the land that really is made for you and me. A symbol of what we want our country to be, and what we want it to mean.

Obama has inherited Pandora's mantle: all the troubles in a bitterly troubled world, with only the small thread of hope to keep him going. I hope it's enough for him: more could not be riding on a single man.

The forces that tore our country down for eight years, domestic and foreign, political and economic and natural and human, will be at him from 12:01 tomorrow, and will do their best to strangle the hope he represents in its crib. We will have to fight the politician Obama in order to keep faith with the symbol. It is not a prospect that is aided by romanticism.

But for tomorrow, I'm going to let myself smile.

And hope.

Yes we can.

Friday, January 16, 2009


I've been following with horror the news from Gaza (at least as much as my current personal preoccupations will allow, which isn't nearly as much as I would normally focus on an issue such as this.) I haven't blogged about it because I don't really have anything all that original to say about it. And on issues involving the Middle East, one always has to be extremely careful, since so many basic facts (e.g. in the current situation, who broke the cease-fire?) are disputed by the partisans on both sides.

But two American Jews -- Richard Silverstein and an American-born Israeli who writes pseudonymously under the nom de plume of the Magnes Zionist -- have put together a statement, intended to be from American Jewish progressives speaking as such, in protest of Israel's current actions (and our own government's role in supporting those actions). I just signed it, and thought I would urge my readers to consider doing so too.

I will admit I hesitated before signing it. These things are never quite phrased as one would phrase them oneself -- and in particular I found this one to be rather showy and silly in its invocation of (the biblical) Jacob and various Talmudic figures. But whatever. It's basic thrust -- that what Israel is doing (regardless of whether or not one finds the ultimate cause to be an example of jus ad bellum) is criminal in its disregard for civilian lives (i.e. is a terrible violation of jus in bello) -- is clear, is right, and is important to say.

If you consider yourself an American Jewish progressive (I suppose all three of those words are disputable in various cases), then I urge you to consider signing the statement yourself.

(Also, both the blogs of the statement's creators -- Silverstein's Tikkun Olam and the pseudonymous blog of the Magnes Zionist are good places to read articulations about why this war is, in fact, so terribly wrong, and to get links to further information and points of view. I recommend them to those who would agree with the statement linked above -- and recommend them doubly to those who do not.)

Apart from this, I am unlikely to have time to write about the current situation further. But several of my posts from the time of Israel's last war, which also involved disproportionate force resulting in many civilian casualties, are, I think, relevant, so I'll link to them here:

The Problem with Disproportionate Response
The Enemy of My Enemy is Not Necessarily My Friend
Lo Tirtsach

In particular, any potential commentators who want to reply with some variant of "what's wrong with disproportionate force?" are urged to read the first piece prior to commenting, and any commentator who wish to point out that Hamas does evil things too is urged to read the second.

Update: The list of signatories has now been posted here. (I don't know if this means it's too late to sign, or if additional signatures are still being accepted.)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Why I've Not Posted in a While

...non baby posts to resume soon. Maybe.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Where We're At Right Now

(I should note my wife thought of posting this; I just stole the idea.)

Link to the original.