Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Wound That Would Not Heal

By Drew

In the first chapter of his book Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art, Fr. M. Owen Lee relates the story of the Greek hero Philoctetes. As told by Sophocles, Philoctetes is the model of the tragic hero: a warrior blessed with a bow that would always shoot straight and true to the mark (a gift to him by the god Heracles). Considering how much warfare there was in the time of ancient Greece, one can see how indispensible a man with such a weapon would be.

So far, so good. But now tragedy sets in. On the way to the siege of Troy, Philoctetes suffers a grievous wound to the heel, a wound that will not heal. (No pun intended.) The wound festers and emits a stench so horrible that, combined with Philoctetes' cries of agony, the Greeks can no longer put up with him. Led by the ship's captain, Odysseus, the Greeks strand Philoctetes on the isle of Lemnos and sail on, abandoning him to a future of utter isolation and loneliness. Philoctetes, understandably, is a bit put off by all this, and for the next ten years he remains alone on Lemnos, his hatred of the Greeks who betrayed him welling up inside him and festering every bit as much as his wound. Philoctetes, once the great hero of Greece, is now an embittered and wounded man, consumed by his hatred.

Finally, after ten years, the Greeks return to Lemnos. It's not from any new-found sense of shame, though; rather, they've discovered through a prophesy that they will not win the Trojan War without Philoctetes and his bow. No problem, says Odysseus; we'll just go back and get him. Granted, after ten years it might be hard to convince him to come and fight for the people who abandoned him, but Odysseus has a plan for this as well. He proposes to use a young, idealistic soldier, Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. Neoptolemus is to approach Philoctetes and gain his confidence, telling him that the ship has come to take him home. Once Philoctetes is safely on board, the ship will sail instead for Troy, where Philoctetes can apply his trade.

When Philoctetes discovers the deceit he is outraged and aims his bow straight at Odysseus. Given the track record of the bow, we pretty much know this is more than just a threat. But just when all seems to be lost, the god Heracles intervenes. He tells Philoctetes that "his hatred is self-defeating, that his suffering has had a purpose, that if he goes with his fellow Greeks to Troy, he will be cured of his wound and win imperishable glory."

For Wagner, a student of the Greek classics, the effect of this story is clear; we can see it most obviously in Parsifal, with the ruler Amfortas who bears a spear wound that will not heal. Other artists were influenced by it as well; André Gide, in his 1899 novel Philoctète, provides an autobiographical Philoctetes, a writer who suffers in in an island exile. In Gide's story it is the writer Philoctète himself who speaks the words of Heracles, telling the solider who comes to take him home that "his suffering there has taught him more of the secrets of life than he could possibly have learned had he been a normal man functioning in and accepted by society.

And now you can see the direction in which this is heading, what Sophocles and Gide might call "self-improvement through suffering." Christians would think of it as the redemptive power of suffering, but the message remains the same. It's a message that Sophocles gets, and there is an implicit Christian subtext in the words he gives Heracles: suffering has a purpose. The man who accepts his suffering and allows it to shape his character without resentment or bitterness will emerge from it a different - and better - man. There is in this a prefigurement of the opening words of James: "Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. [James 1:2-4]"

To understand and apprciate Wagner, one must appreciate the extent to which he he saw himself as Philoctetes, the artist suffering for the sake of his art and the truth it conveyed. However, as Christians, let's take this one step further - to our understanding of the purpose of suffering. In Parsifal, for example. The aforementioned Amfortas is not made strong and steadfast by his unhealing wound; rather, he is rendered weak, ineffective, willing to let the Knights of the Grail fade to obsecurity through his lack of leadership, until Parsifal himself returns (having received the grace of Good Friday) to heal Amfortas and assume leadership of the Knights.

In Rienzi, Wagner tells the story of the rise and fall of Rienzi, a populist leader who is at first hailed by the masses as a savior, but who eventually becomes a victim of the fickle nature of popular opinion. He is betrayed by those who helped him come to power, turned upon by the very masses for whom he fought in ending the oppression of the nobles. In the end the people violently rise up against him and the mobs burn the capitol; Rienzi, defiant to the last, dies in the fire, refusing to compromise his principles, seeing himself as a martyr for the truth. There is, one might suggest, more than a suggestion of self-pity in Rienzi's defiance, that of one who wears the cloak of the "prophet without honor," suffering for the truth that the masses refuse to appreciate. The analogy is that not of the humble man who suffers for the sake of Christ; it is, rather, the suffering of Christ Himself. It should come as no surprise, then, that Wagner saw himself as Rienzi - the misunderstood genius, the suffering artist, the intellect not fully appreciated.

As one might suggest, there is a dramatic difference in the two types of suffering, the difference coming in the perception of the ego, the contrast between the selfless, humbling sacrifice that comes from a clensing suffering, and the essentially ego-driven suffering of the great man who simply isn't appreciated by the public - a suffering that, frankly, carries more than a hint of the "you'll all be sorry!" attitude about it. (We speak, of course, excluding the entirely selfless suffering of Christ.) If one can draw conclusions from this at all, it might be that in Wagner's self-portrayal of Philoctetes we see as an end result of the suffering not self-improvement, but the improvement of society through the wisdom of the artist.

And so where does that leave us, on the eve of Lent? Perhaps in a mood to consider the mystery, and the purpose, of suffering. Perhaps to understand the role it has played in our own lives, and to look for the beneficial ways in which it has shaped our character. In learning to accept suffering in this manner (as in, for example, the manner of a man who suffers through constant temptations of one sort or another and, through it, learns compassion and patience for others who face the same suffering) we come to understand more fully the mystery of God Himself, Who constantly reassures us that with Him, nothing is impossible.

It is something for us to contemplate, and the right time of the year for us to do so. There is much more in Wagner's life and music that will allow us to examine the relationships between art and truth, between the artist and his creation; it's a discussion we've had often in this space, and will continue to have in the future.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Poetry Wednesday

By Judith

The hallmark of a lyric poem is its inherent musicality. Whether it was written to be set to music or not, the lyric sounds as if it should be sung. A lyric poem such as Jonson's "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes" (which we mentioned during our poetry quiz a few weeks ago) or Burns' "Auld Lang Syne" are examples of words that sing just by saying them out loud, although they are associated with music that makes them soar when sung.

Lyricists in the genre of the American Popular Song or American Standards (High Standards to XM radio - and I agree) wrote poems that sang even on paper. George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers may have written music without their famous counterparts (Ira and Lorenz Hart, respectively) but, oh, those lyrics. Cole Porter did both jobs and did them brilliantly. The line "When they begin the beguine" had people swaying to the rhythm, even though nobody knew what a "beguine" was. (Defined as a "spirited ballroom dance", although I've heard the story that Porter made up the word and the dance was created after that.)

From the romantic (Night and day you are the one/Only you beneath the moon or under the sun) to the slightly naughty (Some Argentines without means do it/I hear in Boston even beans do it/Let's do it, let's fall in love), Porter was clever, witty and even sentimental, without being saccharine.

This lyric is again full of one of my favorite poetic devices, internal rhyme. Like several of Porter's songs the tune has a slightly Latin beat that emerges even when the lyric is recited. In just a few short lines, a picture is painted and the universal emotion that a good poet can capture evokes the feeling that makes you want to draw your wrap around you a little tighter because of the "still, chill of the night."

In the Still of the Night

In the still of the night
As I gaze from my window
At the moon in its flight
My thoughts all stray to you

In the still of the night
While the world is in slumber
All the times without number
Darling when I say to you

Do you love me, as I love you
Are you my life to be, my dream come true
Or will this dream of mine fade out of sight
Like the moon growing dim,
On the rim of the hill
In the chill, still, of the night

Is Perfection Perfect?

By Kristin

A fantastic bit of programming on MN Public Radio are the broadcasts of live opera performances aired on Sunday afternoons. Unfortunately, it is not often that I find myself in a place listening to the radio on a Sunday afternoon. This past Sunday, however, I found myself driving down Highway 55 listening to a beautiful opera. Which opera was it? I do not know. Who was the singer? I can not remember. Composer? Not a clue. What I do remember occurred about ten minutes into my drive; the sound of a cough echoing over the quiet song. I smiled. Not because it was funny, but because I could picture in my head a middle aged man sitting about 10 rows back, trying to hold in a cough and in a moment of weakens, allowing the disturbance to fly out. Why was I so taken by this imperfection in the recording? It has taken a few days, but I believe I have come to a semi-satisfactory explanation. I believe it was in the imperfection that I found a deep connection listening to the music, not in the perfect pitch of the singers.

This realization brought back a similar memory from my childhood. In seventh grade a friend copied for me a recording of the musical Les Miserables. As an adult, I remember one bit of the recording so vividly, as if I am listening to it now. The tape was made from a CD of a live performance of the original cast. During one of the songs sung by the young Cosette, there is a loud crash, as if a large 2x4 fell from the rafters onto the stage. The young singer wavered, but only for a moment then continued singing. Moments later, a member of the audience coughs a few times and is silenced by what I can only assume would be a cough drop. After nearly 13 years, these mistakes are the sounds I remember most clearly.

What is it about these mishaps that creates the lasting memories? For that split second when the error occurs, I felt the recording had new life. It was not a radio station number, or a bit of plastic tape but a three dimensional being with. In music, we all strive towards perfection. Few of us ever reach virtuoso status. But when we hear something slightly off, I feel that it makes the performance more human, establishes a bond between the music and the listener, more accurately reflecting life with all its imperfections. These disturbances in the musical world are what I will now be looking for a little more closely. Not to point out errors and assert my own superiority, but to find the human element in the live performance.

In closing I challance you to listen for the sneeze, watch for the wrong bowing and find the perfection in the imperfect.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Stupid Is as Stupid Does

By Drew

There are many things that drive me crazy. This doesn't exactly come as a revelation to those who know me, but there you have it. Some things just defy explanation - you get so exasperated by them, words fail you. I'd like to think that's one reason why so many ridiculous statements go unchallenged - they're so breathtakingly insipid, it's not possible to articulate an argument against them. At least one that's cogent, that doesn't consist of words spelled like retching sounds.

At any rate, I repeat that there are a lot of things that drive me crazy. One of them is P.C.-thought. For me, this surpasses adequate description - it falls into one of those as-yet unnamed categories. At least, until today. For today I found an article that has come up with the word that almost perfectly describes my feelings for Political Correctness.

And that word is: stupid.

Not just that Political Correctness itself is stupid, although it is. Not just that the things the P.C. Police obsess over are stupid, although they are. No, it's that the people who fall for this garbage are, themselves, stupid.

Writing last week at Armavirumque, the blog of the excellent New Criterion, Kenneth Minogue describes the same feelings that come over me every time I read in the paper or hear on the tube about one of these insane cases:

They are generally about the extreme cases, known in the trade as “political correctness gone mad.” The question raised is thus: when was it ever sane? These cases constitute a large and fascinating body of data making the case that we are in modern societies surrounded by a great deal of alarming stupidity, especially at lower levels of responsibility.

Don't you love that? We're "surrounded by a great deal of alarming stupidity." Yes! The old joke in one unnamed Southern state was that voters had turned against a candidate because his sister had gone to New York and become a "thespian." We laugh at that because it sounds ridiculous - as, indeed, it is. And yet Minogue speaks of a case in Britain where "a paediatrician was nearly run out of town because a vigilante mob thought a paediatrician was a paedophile." He goes on to cite a disgusting incident at Barclay’s Bank that I'm not even going to try and describe, mostly because I don't want to break my fingers pounding them on the keyboard. Just read about it in his article. Suffice it to say that Barclay's, and their smug management, don't come out of it very well. (And if this quote: "We have a robust approach to equality and diversity and do not tolerate discrimination" doesn't make you wretch, you've a stronger stomach than I, Gunga Din.) As Minogue says in conclusion,

This is a stupidity story, not a victimisation one. The executive in question was making a lot of money and can no doubt look after himself. But it is I think important that we should all know about corporate cowardice and about the companies who indulge in it.

Corporate cowardice, indeed. (Although this description could be extended to cover places like schools, which are really just government-run corporations anyway.)

And Minogue is absolutely spot-on in saying that these exercises in irresponsibility by people who choose of their own free will to be offended need to be held up to the light and exposed for what they are. It is not that the comments that offend them are insensitive (although, undoubtedly, a few of them are); it is rather that these people, in demonstrating their outrage over such comments, show themselves for what they are: stupid. (This is not to say, by the way, that the people making these supposedly offensive comments in the first place aren't stupid as well, since stupidity doesn't appear to be a zero-sum game. But stupidity, as we all know, isn't automatically the same thing as insensitivity. It also isn't a crime, for which we can all be grateful.)

Take the Tiger Woods flap, for instance. Now, Al Sharpton, whatever else he might be, is not stupid. He's a rabble-rouser and a demagogue and a number of other things, but he's definitely not stupid; he knows exactly what he's doing. It's the people who fall for his shtick who are stupid. What is particularly despicible about the whole thing is that there are things that are offensive and need to be condemned. (Piss Christ, for example) And yet people like Sharpton agitate on things that are completely unimportant, purely for their own gain. Their cast of hangers-on enable them, and the stupid legions out there fall right into line, parroting Sharpton's blather - just as he knew they would. So words become crimes, thoughts become suspect, anyone with a mind to think and a mouth with which to express those thoughts becomes a potential fugitive from the Thought Police. Think that's an exaggeration? Ask Mark Steyn.

Minogue entitled his article, "Freedom's Collapse," and I agree. As much as I worry about hte loss of freedom, however, I'm equally concerned about the loss of the ability to think. There are plenty of people out there with whom I disagree, but I respect their intelligence and enjoy their company because they're smart people (who just happen to be wrong). But there's just no way you can respect the kind of stupidity that emerges from this morass. It signals an end not only to freedom of speech, but intelligent discourse as well.

We should take Minogue's advice and point out these incidents whenever and wherever they occur, and do it fearlessly. You know, it might even be fun - just think of it as a game, like Pin the Tail on the Donkey. And why not? There is, after all, no shortage of asses out there.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Wish I'd Written That

By Mitchell

"Mrs. Rollins, I wouldn't be usin' that word 'why' quite so often if I was you. . . 'Why' is a nasty little Protestant word. We Catholics say Credo - 'I believe' - to whatever the Pope says. If you have to ask why, then I think you should go along to the Anglican vicar and let him instruct you in unbelief. He'll let you 'why, why, why' to your heart's content."

Peter De Rosa, dialog from Bless Me, Father

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Back in the Day

By Mitchell

It's been awhile since we've taken a look back through the pages of TV Guide, and since there's not much else going on right now why don't we open one up and see what's inside?

The latest addition to the Hadley collection is this issue from December 28, 1963, covering New Year's Day, 1964. On the cover you see the 17-year-old Patty Duke, star of The Patty Duke Show, in which she plays twin cousins Patty and Cathy Lane. This show was a modest success, running for three seasons and producing a memorable theme song. The article itself (written by an unbylined author) wasn't particularly flattering, commenting on Duke's lack of personality; one might say, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, that there was no there there. Of course, given what we know about Duke's difficult childhood, it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that she came across as little more than a programmed robot with no independent thoughts of her own.

It's interesting, however, to see the different attitude TV Guide had about it's subjects. Back in the day, TV Guide wasn't merely a shill for the stars' publicity machines; at the same time, the writers often appeared to go out of their way to take shots at those whom they profiled, either outright or through snide insinuation.

Take, for instance, Richard Gehman's piece on Joey Bishop, whose sitcom was entering its third season. Bishop had by that time garnered a reputation as being difficult to work with, a trait which Gehman is eagar to analyze. Speaking of the two major influences on Bishop's career - Frank Sinatra and Jack Paar - Gehman comments, "Some of their arrogance - the necesary cockiness of deep insecurity - has rubbed off on him." I'm sure Bishop appreciated the free psychoanalysis. Again, while Gehman may be making an astute observation on Bishop, with comments such as this peppered throughout the article, it appears as if he takes particular pleasure in doing so.

Here's another article on an actress named Katherine Crawford. Only 19, her television career has just started, with appearances on programs such as Kraft Suspense Theatre and Alfred Hitchcock. She's cute enough, and apparently had talent, but her major advantage was that she was the daughter of Roy Huggins, creator of The Fugitive, The Invaders, and other TV hits. In the title of the article (also anonymously authoried), Crawford proclaims, "I'll be acting till I'm 70." As you can see from her IMDB profile, her last credit was in the series Gemini Man in 1976. Well, she made it to 32, anyway. And by the way, I don't mean for that comment to be snarky - she could well have gone on to a life more productive and more fulfilling than most of us. It's just that it never ceases to be fascinating how short the lifespan of "the next big thing" can sometimes be.

There is, for example, a program ABC broadcast on Saturday, December 28 entitled "Hollywood Deb Star Ball 1964," in which we meet "the lovely Deb [for debutante] Stars, slated for future stardom by major Hollywood studios." Well, let's take a look. There's Meredith MacRae, daughter of Gordon and Sheila MacRae, who just happened to be the hosts of the show. She did pretty well for herself. There's the aforementioned Katherine Crawford. There's Susan Seaforth, who as Susan Seaforth Hayes became a huge soap opera star. One of her Days of Our Lives co-stars, Brenda Benet, who was perhaps as well known for being Bill Bixby's ex-wife, was there as well. Linda Evans, star of Dynasty, was one of the Deb Stars, as was Chris Noel, whose remarkable life led her from a modest Hollywood career to her vocation as a radio host and entertainer stationed in Vietnam for the Armed Forces Network, travelling to locations considered too dangerous for Bob Hope and other celebrities. Claudia Martin, Deano's daughter, was one of the ten starlets, and I think it's safe to say that her bloodlines were her biggest claim to Hollywood fame. And then there were Shelly Ames, Anna Capri and Amadee Chabot, who scored minor successes at best. Why do some careers take off while others flounder? Who knows.

Remember Guy Lombardo? He was on hand, as usual, on New Year's Eve, entertaining with his Royal Canadians from Grand Central Station in New York City. Remember when football bowl games were all played in the daytime? Back in 1964 they were, as the Orange (Auburn vs. Nebraska), Sugar (Alabama vs. Mississippi) and Cotton (#1 Texas vs. #2 Navy) were all played at the same time, acting as joint opening acts for the Rose (Illinois vs. Washington), which started at 3:45 Central time and ended the college football season. And what about all those other bowl games that came before New Year's Day? Well, during this week there was only one - the Gator (Air Force vs. North Carolina), on Saturday afternoon. As you can see, service academy football was still big back in the early 60s.

On Sunday, December 29, it's the television premiere on ABC of the documentary "The Making of the President 1960," based on the Pulitzer winner by Theodore White. And speaking of which, it was only a little more than a month since JFK's assassination, and a letter writer notes her appreciation for the television industry's "finest hour" of broadcasting coverage. I would imagine the holiday season might have been a little more somber that year than in years past.

As I have said often, TV Guide is - or was - one of the prime cultural indicators of the past. For the cultural archaeologist, it's like opening a treasure chest. It reminds us not only of days gone by, the things that were, but, as in the case of the Deb Ball, some of the things - or careers - that never were. And it is nice, isn't it, to sometimes be able to look to the future in blissful ignorance of what we know is to come? A pity that we can't be more optimistic like that all the time, but then, times have changed. And not always for the best.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Rest of the Story

By Drew

Appropos of Mitchell's post yesterday, it is impossible to talk about abortion without bringing up the subject of eugenics. Just as Cormac McCarthy's quote shows that the discussion of abortion invariably brings you to euthenasia, Ron Radosh's New York Sun review of Jonah Goldberg's new book Liberal Fascism demonstrates that no analysis of abortion can be complete without understanding the barbaric - and essentially racist - topic of eugenics. Here's an excerpt of Radosh's review:

Turning to what he calls liberal racism, Mr. Goldberg offers readers his finest chapter. It is a devastating picture of how liberals adopted eugenics — a basic part of Nazi doctrine — which was not, as some liberal intellectuals have argued, an outgrowth of conservative thought. Fans of Margaret Sanger, perhaps the single most important feminist hero of the 20th century, will never be able to think of her in the same way. Mr. Goldberg dissects her hidden views of eugenics. A socialist and birth-control martyr, she favored banning reproduction of the "unfit" and regulation of everyone else's reproduction. She wrote, "More children from the fit, less from the unfit — that is the chief issue of birth control." She opposed the birth of "ill-bred, ill-trained swarms of inferior citizens." Her words reveal her motive in advocacy of birth control. She sought to remove "inferior" people from being born to poor people, whose mothers by definition were "unfit." Sanger's partisans in Planned Parenthood, the group that stemmed from her work, will be shocked to learn that her publication endorsed the Nazi eugenics program, and that Sanger herself "proudly gave a speech to a KKK rally." That was not surprising, since she clearly viewed blacks as inferior. Hence her "Negro Project," in which she sought to urge blacks to adopt birth control.

This isn't a secret, mind you. Or, rather, it's the dirty little secret of the "pro-choice" movement. But Santayana once pointed out what happened to those who don't remember history, so it might be a good thing to remind people of it. Remind them the next time someone refers to Planned Parenthood as a "women's health clinic." Remind them when the breast cancer Race for the Cure comes around in May, sponsored by the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and remember that the Komen Foundation contributes to Planned Parenthood. Remind the supporters of Planned Parenthood and the Komen Foundation (and other organizations supporting PP) of this inconvenient little truth, and ask them to defend it.

If they can.

Poetry Wednesday

By Judith

Many people think of Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886) as a small, quiet, reclusive lady who sat at home all her life and wrote nice little poems about daisies and bees. Well, sort of.

She may have been small of stature (she described herself as "small, like the wren"), but there was nothing little about her imagination or her favorite themes of life, death and eternity. She wrote 1,775 poems, approximately 2/3 of them before 1866. Less than a dozen were published during her lifetime. It wasn't exactly for want of trying. In 1862 she sent four poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an essayist and reformer, to see whether he deemed them worthy of publication (although she had been previously published, albeit anonymously). He advised her to wait.

Most people who read her work didn't know what to make of it, for it didn't follow conventions of the day. Her use of unorthodox punctuation, capitalization and rhyming scheme was so unlike most other poets of her day (except, perhaps for that free spirit, Whitman). The poems didn't have titles, being known by their first lines. A rhyme scheme she often used was "slant rhyme", meaning that words might have different vowel or different consonant sounds, but still had a nearly-close rhyme sound. The sound was more jarring than pleasing, but this dissonance was a useful tool in conveying her thoughts on death and the hereafter. (A further force of life/Developed from within - /When Death lit all the shortness up/It made the hurry plain- )

After Emily Dickinson's death her sister found her vast store of poems and worked at getting them published. The first volume came out in 1890. In 1955 Thomas Johnson edited a complete edition of her poetry, numbered the poems, and, most importantly, presented them as the author had written them, without reformatting them with conventional rhyme and punctuation. His numbers are shown here.

1540 - written @ 1865

As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away -
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy -
A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
Sequestered Afternoon -
The Dusk drew earlier in -
The Morning foreign shone -
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone -
And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful.

1176 - written @ 1870

We never know how high we are
Till we are asked to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies -

The Heroism we recite
Would be a normal thing
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King -

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Thought for the Day

By Mitchell

"Here a year or two back me and Loretta went to a conference in Corpus Christi and I got set next to this woman, she was the wife of somebody or other. And she kept talking about the right wing this and the right wing that. I ain't even sure what she meant by it. The people I know are mostly just common people. Common as dirt, as the sayin goes. I told her that and she looked at me funny. She thought I was sayin somethin bad about em, but of course that's a high compliment in my part of the world. She kept on, kept on. Finally told me, said: I don't like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. And I said well mam I don't think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it goin I don't have much doubt but what she'll be able to have an abortion. I'm going to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she'll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation."

Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

Sunday, January 20, 2008


By Mitchell

Don Wittman

Don Wittman was Canada's Curt Gowdy, Jim McKay, Chris Schenkel, Keith Jackson. For over 40 years, he was "the soundtrack of Canadian sports" - the CFL, the NHL, the Olympics, golf, curling, and everything in-between. I've written often of the "big-game announcer" - the moment you heard his voice, you knew it was a big game. Don Wittman, who died Saturday of cancer at age 71, had that kind of voice, and was that kind of announcer.

To every event he broadcast, he lent a note of authority, a dash of gravitas, and more than a hint of drama. He called 37 Grey Cups 28 Stanley Cups, 18 Olympic Games, always underplaying the event, letting the action on television speak for itself. It wasn't easy to hear him here in the States, but invariably when you caught the broadcast of a Canadian sporting event - the Grey Cup, the Stanley Cup - you heard Wittman's voice, without the self-hype and malarky that typifies most of what passes for sports broadcasting today. He was a member of the CBC Hall of Fame, to be sure, but also the CFL Hall of Fame, and once drank from the Grey Cup in a memorable post-game broadcast. With his death and that of Don Chevrier in December, Canada has now lost two of its great announcers, and great gentlemen.

Suzanne Pleshette

Suzanne Pleshette was the perfect TV wife. She was smart, sexy, sassy, but also genuine. In her most famous role, that of Bob Newhart's wife Emily on the original Bob Newhart Show, she gave us that television rarety - someone who was a real character, not just a caricature of one.

One of the reasons for the show's success was that it dared to portray its leads as adults rather than children (they even slept in the same bed!) - and that was something, in a medium in which husbands are often shown to be clueless fools and weaklings, the wives empty-headed sexpots or shrews. What made her character so real was the chemistry with her TV husband, a formula consisting in equal parts of love, respect, passion, exasperation, and resignation - in other words, the stuff of all successful marriages. She may have been Bob's foil, as one obit described her, but she was not a fool, nor did she suffer them gladly. But you could see how a man with a sense of humor would appeal to her, how a babe like her could fall for a nerd like Bob and stay together for so many years. Her surprise cameo at the end of Newhart's 80s sitcom, reprising Emily in a scene revealing that the entire series had been a dream and Bob was in fact still in his old show, was one of the great moments in TV history.

It would be a mistake to think that the show was all there was to Suzanne Pleshette - she appeared on the big screen and was a staple in television dramas of the 60s, and appeared in more recent sitcoms such as Will & Grace and 8 Simple Rules - but it was as Emily Hartley that we knew and loved her best; and that, it would seem, is not a bad way to be remembered, on the day she died of cancer at 70.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Bobby Fischer, R.I.P.

By Mitchell

Back in the day, when I was in school, the chess players were the nerds, the bookworms, the boys wearing the horn-rimmed glasses. There was something about them that was, well, a little different.

But there was a time in the early 70s when chess became kind of cool, even sexy. It was a time when chess even became a televised sport. (Don't laugh - if people will actually watch poker on TV, then anything's possible.) Chess was another weapon of the Cold War, wedged somewhere in between the space race and the Olympic hockey team; and chess players were the new scientists or classical musicians, so square they were hip. One man was primarily responsible for that transformation: Bobby Fischer.

When he defeated the evil Boris Spassky (he was a Russian, after all; he had to be evil, if not a Commie) in 1972 to become world chess championship, he also became an American hero, albeit for a very short time. About the time it took to go from an eccentric chess master to a full-blown nutjob.

He was an American champion at 14, a grand master at 15, and world champion at 29. He was tall, youthful and good-looking, the latest matinee idol. His magnetism positioned him to capture the sports spotlight. But, like those chess players we knew in school, Fischer was always a bit odd, seeing conspiracies behind every tree, under every bed. He was always storming out of matches, seeing photographers, journalists, foreign officials (he once referred to the Soviets as "Commie cheats," which endeared him even more to America) and even the lighting guy as potential adversaries. Was it gamesmanship or were we seeing the "idiosyncrasies" of a true paranoid? Were the symptoms there in the young Fischer; was there something in his drive for chess success at such a young age that left him scarred forever? We may never know, although his life should be a harsh lesson for any parents who have seen their children come to great success (athletic or otherwise) at an early stage of life, a time when it is far better to be just a kid.

Fischer gave up his title without ever having defended it, refusing to play Anatoly Karpov. As his grew, his star faded, a comet flaring out, until he was a mostly forgotten champion. He became a ravenous anti-American and anti-Semite - he said 9/11 was a good thing and that America should be "wiped out," and called Jews "thieving, lying bastards." Not only had his elevator ceased going to the top floors, it seldom seemed to emerge from the basement. He renounced his American citizenship and spent the last years of his life in Iceland, where he was still remembered for what he had been, rather than what he had become.

Garry Kasparov, the great Russian champion and anti-Communist, was quoted today as saying, "The tragedy is that he left this world too early, and his extravagant life and scandalous statements did not contribute to the popularity of chess." And that is probably about the best way to put it. Bobby Fischer, who died today of kidney failure at 64, was an icon of the 70s, a mad genius, a great chess player who threw it all away, a victim of his own mind, and he died a mere characture of his former greatness.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Writers' Strike and the Month of Money

By Bobby

In a form of automobile racing held primarily in the Midwest known as sprint cars (not to be confused with NASCAR Sprint Cup), a series of races in July and August collectively have the title of the Month of Money. These races, which include the King's Royal (where the winner of the Eldora Speedway (Rossburg, OH) event receives a lavish coronation ceremony, complete with crown, a royal seat, and a robe) and the Super Clean Knoxville Nationals in Iowa, are regarded as the highest-paying races on the schedule and are regarded as the most prestigious races on the schedule.

Television traditionally has its "Month of Money," where networks and affiliates usually aim for the biggest events on television in a span of six to seven weeks, when most major events air during that span. The Month of Money events on television are the Golden Globe Awards (NBC), Super Bowl (Fox, NBC, CBS rotation), Grammy Awards (CBS), Daytona 500 (Fox), and Academy Awards (ABC), all of which air on Sunday nights during the Month of Money. These five events are regarded as highly-rated events that bring in huge revenues for the networks fortunate to air them; all four major networks have at least one Month of Money event, and three (NBC, CBS, Fox) of them can have two if the rotation allows them to have two. Advertising revenues for the networks and their affiliates could make or break the year if they perform well during the Month of Money; a network without a major event could be down millions, and lose precious affiliates. Such was the case after CBS was relegated to minor network status in 1994 following the loss of the NFL, and prestigious affiliates, a situation from which they have never recovered, as they were pushed into lower-power minor stations in major markets (Detroit, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Austin), which have cost them ratings power nationally.

With the Writers Guild of America strike, Fox is sitting pretty in the catbird's seat for winning the Month of Money as NBC lost the Golden Globe Awards to the strike, and ABC may be on the verge of losing the Academy Awards because of the strike, as the support of the Screen Actors Guild of the strike (note United Artists (Tom Cruise) and Worldwide Pants (David Letterman) have made independent collective bargaining agreements with the WGA) leads to boycotts of both entertainment-themed awards shows. CBS has the Grammy Awards, and the status of that awards show is currently in the fate of the union (it will go up against the Pro Bowl two out of every three years; during CBS' turn at the Pro Bowl, they will have the game moved to Saturday). Fox has the Super Bowl and Daytona 500, and both events are live sporting events, so neither event can be stopped by the strike.

The fact the Super Bowl traditionally wins that network the week is important; only a bad game with low appeal will cost the network the week. The Daytona 500 is growing into that level, as the final laps of the race are now held in prime-time, as the 2007 race ended after 7 PM.

Does the announcement of the cancellation of the Golden Globes and potential loss of the Grammys and Oscars mean Fox is home-free in the Month of Money with the Super Bowl and the Daytona 500?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Wish I'd Written That

By Mitchell

To the Frenchman, nothing counts, by and large, except what is French. No other culture, language, or heritage isas fine. This narrow patriotism fuses into fierce national pride and, to a great extent, excludes interest in any other culture, language, or heritage.

If France loses, the French tend to belittle the winner, put forth a dozen alibis for their own defeat, and intimate that the prize wasn't worth winning anyway.

If France wins, the instrument of victory is likely to be applauded beyond all proportion, to be hoisted to giddy heights in the popular imagination - and to be a flop all the rest of his life as a result.

Robert Daley, Cars at Speed

Poetry Wednesday

By Judith

The two song lyrics we're going to look at today were written by different people, but what brings them together is the composer, Bert Kaempfert, who recorded these and many other songs he wrote with his orchestra in the 1960s. And - this one's for you Badda - I'm going to tie him in to Frank Sinatra (of course) at the end.

I find these lyrics interesting because of their internal rhythm and rhyme scheme. Even without the music they move along with an infectious beat. The first, written by Kaempfert with Milt Gabler, was penned for Nat King Cole's last album in 1965. Notice the device of using the same word at the end of one line and the beginning of the next that provides emphasis and a strong push-off for the following line (" for two, two in love...") and the repeated, internal rhyme of "...make it, Take my heart and please don't break it". Not to mention the correct usage of "me and you", not "I and you" or "myself and you" as is so often used by people who have been scared into never using "me". (Actually, you and me flows better, but then doesn't rhyme. Oh well. Poetic license.)


L is for the way you look at me
O is for the only one I see
V is very, very extraordinary
E is even more than anyone that you adore.

Love is all that I can give to you
Love is more than just a game for two
Two in love can make it
Take my heart and please don't break it
Love was made for me and you

The second song was written by Kurt Schwabach (with additional lyric by Milt Gabler) with Kaempfert and recorded in 1962. As with many of Kaempfert's songs, someone else made it famous. Remember 1963 when Wayne Newton was just a kid? Now the interesting thing about this is the mispronunciation of the German word "Schoen" (sounds like shern, not shane) in order to force the rhyme for "pain", "explain", "lane" and "again". To be fair, this isn't the first time it was done; the Andrews Sisters recorded a song called "Bei Mir Bist du Schoen" and also rhymed the last word with "explain".

This one is chock-full of internal rhyme and gives the impression that the singer (or speaker) is trotting down a staircase or skipping a stone on water. You want to move, even while reading it sitting down.

Danke Schoen

Danke Schoen, Darling, Danke Schoen.
Thank you for all the joy and pain.
Picture shows, second balcony, was the place we'd meet,
Second seat, go Dutch treat, you were sweet.

Danke Schoen, Darling, Danke Schoen.
Save those lies, Darling don't explain.
I recall, Central Park in fall.
How you tore your dress, what a mess, I confess. That's not all.

Danke Schoen, Darling, Danke Schoen.
Thank you for walks down Lover's Lane.
I can see, hearts carved on a tree.
Letters inter-twined, for all time, yours and mine, that was fine.

Danke Schoen, Darling, Danke Schoen.
Thank you for seeing me again.
Though we go on our seperate ways,
Still the memory stays, for always, my heart says, Danke Schoen.

Danke Schoen, Oh Darling, Danke Schoen.
I said, Thank you for seeing me again.
Though we go- on our seperate ways,
Still the memory stays, for always, my heart says, Danke Schoen.
Danke Schoen, Auf Wiedersehen, Danke Schoen.

Kaempfert wrote a number of other songs that ended up big hits for other people. "Moon Over Naples" became "Spanish Eyes", recorded by Al Martino and "A Swingin' Safari" reached # 13 on the charts as recorded by Billy Vaughn in 1962. Later that year the song gained even more fame when it became the theme for the game show "The Match Game". When the Beatles were performing and recording in Hamburg in the early 60s, a Croat singer named Ivo Robic convinced Kaempfert to hire them to be back-up for a singer named Tony Sheridan in a recording session. Ivo Robic also co-authored a famous song to be used as part of the score Kaempfert wrote for a movie in 1965 A Man Could Get Killed.

So where does Frank Sinatra come in? That song in the film was "Strangers in the Night", a # 1 hit for ol' blue eyes.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

When Men Were Men - and Conventions Were Conventions

By Mitchell

Donald at 2Blowhards has a nicely evocative article on a time for which all political junkies hearken: the era of the contested political convention.

There hasn’t really been one since the 1976 Republican convention, in which neither Gerald Ford, the incumbent, nor Ronald Reagan, the challenger, arrived in Kansas City with enough committed delegates to capture the nomination. Ford had the lead going into the convention, however, and barring a procedural vote going in Reagan’s favor (it didn’t, and in the process indicated to the convention the relative delegate strength of each candidate), he was still the solid favorite to win – which he did, on the first ballot.

The Democrats almost had one, in 1980. Again it was the case of a challenger taking on an incumbent. In this case, the challenger was Ted Kennedy, making his one and only run at the presidency; the incumbent was Jimmy Carter. Again there was a procedural vote, on which Kennedy had laid all his chips; again the party machine, arrayed (for better or worse) behind Carter, held the line; again the challenger fell. Carter won the nomination only, as had Ford four years earlier, to lose the general election. (However, for Kennedy, unlike Reagan, there would be no second act on the presidential stage.) And with that, for better or worse. the last excitement that anyone would ever see at a political convention had come to an end.

(And, by the way, doesn’t it really say something about the uselessness of Kennedy’s political career that he wasn’t even able to wrest the nomination away from Carter, perhaps the weakest president of the latter part of the 20th Century? If this doesn’t prove the power of the incumbency, nothing does.)

As Donald points out, 1952 was the last time either national party had a presidential nominating battle go to multiple ballots. (A slight correction on Donald’s post: while the Democrats did indeed go to three ballots before nominating Adlai Stevenson, the GOP convention liked Ike on the first ballot – with Eisenhower only five votes short of the nomination after initial voting, a series of switches in state voting wound up giving him a decisive victory. Then, as now, everyone wants to be seen going with the winner.) In fact, the last time there was a multiple-ballot vote on anything was, of all things, the 1956 Democratic vice-presidential contest. Stevenson, having once again won the presidential nomination, decided to allow the convention to choose his running mate. Stevenson’s rival, Estes Kefauver, bested the young John F. Kennedy on the second ballot to capture the nomination.

Back in those days, political conventions were once the occasion for excitement, anticipation, drama. They represented the climax of a campaign season that wasn't dominated by "Super Tuesday," a time when most candidates didn't announce until early in the same year of the election, when the New Hampshire primary wasn't held until March, for heaven's sake. Take a look at TV Guide in July of 1964 for example, when the Republicans were preparing for one of the most tumultuous conventions they'd had in years. NBC provided live daily coverage of platform and credentials committee hearings. CBS aired a one-hour documentary showing highlights of "Great Conventions" of the past. Both networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage than ran well past midnight. They actually expected people would want to watch this kind of coverage. And many did.

Today, of course, the national political conventions have less excitement than a cow-milking contest. Why is that? For one thing, as far as political conventions go, excitement usually means controversy, dissention, fighting. All of it in front of the cameras. (Recall 1976, when Vice President Nelson Rockefeller became involved in a brawl on the convention floor that resulted in him ripping out a telephone that connected one of the delegations to the podium.) And while all that makes for riviting TV, it doesn't always translate into effective politics, especially for the party in question. Heck, the role call of the states - the "Mr. Chairman" moment about which Donald writes fondly - is now spread over two or three days. Nobody even bothers to watch it.

2Blowhards commentor Annette mentions the 1972 Democratic convention as a turning point, with George McGovern delivering his acceptance speech at around 3:00 in the morning. She's correct, because after that debacle things do change. But to understand the nature of the change, it's necessary to go back to the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. You could write a book about that one, but the image one should keep in mind is that of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (no, not the current one - his legendary father), his iron-fisted response to anti-war demonstrators, and his role in delivering the old-line establishment machine behind Hubert Humphrey. The reformers didn't forget that in 1972, and at the Miami Beach convention they sought to break the hold of the establishment, beginning with their successful challenge that ousted the Daley-controlled Illinois delegation. The result of all this reform was a tyranny of the minority.

Now, I don't use that phrase perjoratively, for in fact we're talking about factions that in and of themselves were true minorities in the political system prior to that time - blacks and women, abortion rights advocates, anti-war protestors, along with the anti-establishment reformers. Put together they made a majority of the delegates in Miami, enough to get George McGovern the presidential nominaiton, but their collective power was somewhat diminished because of their factionalism. Theodore White's The Making of the President 1972 provides a marvelous description of the pinnacle of this disorganization - the chaos surrouding the choice of McGovern's running mate Thomas Eagleton, and the subsequent floor fight over his nomination. It was the voting on that nomination - three other candidates were nominated, and over 70 received votes (including 30 votes for the unknown Georgia governor Jimmy Carter) that pushed McGovern's acceptance speech out of prime time and into a political Twilight Zone.

It must be said that the Democrats learned well from that lesson. Watching the fiasco in Miami Beach - and remembering it four years later - was the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Robert Strauss. Strauss was determined not to repeat the mistakes of 1972, and created an ironclad agenda written months in advance of the convention, which included a prime-time acceptance speech. He even specified the exact time, to the minute. The model has been followed ever since.

There's another byproduct of that 1972 convention however, one that tells us a great deal more about our modern politics. Having ruefully discovered the inherent drawbacks to the populist, power-to-the-people movement spearheaded by the McGovern reformers, the Dems took a step back. Oh, the minority - some might say fringe - elements continued to control the party machinery, as they do to this day. But whereas the message of 1972 was "Let Everyone Speak," the message of 2008 has become "Speak Only If You Agree With Us." By allowing the tyranny of the minority to become an ideological dictatorship, the Democrats have essentially stamped out any form of dramatic dissent from the party line, at least at the national level. Pro-life Democrats? Not on the podium at the national convention. Pro-war Democrats? Ask Joe Lieberman. The voiceless elements do indeed have a voice in the Democratic party - the only voice, as it happens, that counts. Even some traditional elements of the Democratic coalition made the switch - unions, which had been staunchly anti-Communist throughout the Cold War, moved steadily to the left. Catholics, long a staple of the party, no longer cast their votes reflexively for the Democrats - and those Catholics left in the Democratic Party tended to be liberal, heterodox ones, now challenging the Church's leadership rather than the party's.

This is only a theory, I admit, but I think it's a useful one. Anyone reading the evolution of the Democratic Party, from Kennedy's 1960 victory through the chaos of 1968 and 1972, to the Strauss-mandated order of 1976, to the monochromatic liberalism of today, would share at least some of these conclusions.

What about the Republicans, you say? Well, they've had their own hierarchical pattern throughout the years, usually bestowing their presidential nomination on candidates who've "earned" it through long years of service. For further examples, see "Nixon, Richard," (although in that case they were right), "Ford, Gerald," "Dole, Robert," and "Bush, George W." The best you can say about them is that the winner usually bears the establishment seal of approval, which puts the same kind of damper on genuine debate and disagreement at the convention as the one-note politics of the Democrats. There's some hope that this year's GOP covention, to be held across the river from us in St. Paul, might be different. I share that hope, but not the optimism that it will actually happen.

At any rate, we didn't set out to discuss ideology or current politics as much as to cast an appreciative, nostalgic eye back in time, to an era when political conventions really meant something, when the smoke-filled rooms and the backstage deals and the packed galleries created their own share of drama and helped write the history of America. It was messy, often unfair, autocratic, splattered with mud - and I miss it tremendously.

What Music Means

By Drew

I meant to write about this a while ago, back when it was more topical. I suppose other things got in the way, and now I'm just coming back to it. I'm glad I waited though, because I've come up with another angle to it.

It starts with this comment by Ray from MN on a previous post. In respose to one of Mitchell's pieces on opera, Ray wrote:

You write on opera and music in a way that stings in that I have ignored it for most of my life. I've missed out on a lot of what it is to be human. [Emphasis added]

Undeniably, there is something in music that touches us in that way, that issues a subtle comment on "what it is to be human."

And so we come to the death, early in December, of the contemporary classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany. Alex Ross describes Stockhausen as 'a giant of late-twentieth-century music," a composer who "released sounds of mind-opening and mind-bending power." Andrew Clements, writing in the Guardian, says that Stockhausen "was part of the generation of composers who had seen the old order in Europe come to catastrophe in the chaos of the second world war, and had determined that artistically they had to begin again." Ivan Hewett, also in the Guardian, says that Stockhausen "was one of the great visionaries of 20th-century music." The conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen called Stockhausen "the rock star of my youth." Stockhausen's influence was said to stretch from the Beatles to the avant-garde composer and conductor Pierre Boulez.

Amidst all this praise for Stockhausen, David Pryce-Jones, writing at NRO, comes to a completely different conclusion:

[Stockhausen] preferred not to communicate, to ignore melody and rhythm, and simply to ambush his audience with strangeness and discord. His work is a gigantic gimmick. Much of it is electronic, or consists of the abuse of instruments and people. Players are often left free to begin or to stop, interpreting as they choose. Players are advised in one instance to “Live completely alone for four days, without food in complete silence.” One of his pieces lasts for an hour with six vocalists “meditating” on a single note. In another piece, the members of a string quartet played from an airborne helicopter, their sounds relayed through screens and loudspeakers. It is the musical equivalent of conceptual art. The degradation of the man’s character was shown when he described 9/11 as “a work of art.”


Egomaniacs like Stockhausen are meat and drink to promoters and sensation-mongers, and nothing much can be done about it except to endure and wait for them to be gone. Unfortunately he and so many like him pass as “artists,” when they are nothing of the kind, but only destroyers of the culture they inherited.

So which is it? The weight of truth seems, to me, to side with Pryce-Jones. I say this not only because of Stockhausen's excreble comments on 9/11, but because so much of Pryce-Jones' charges against Stockhausen's legacy speak to my own opinion on the meaning of music. As Pyrce-Jones says, music "is perhaps the most direct and beautiful of the possible means of communication. Pretty well all of us recognise melody and rhythm, and these correspond to something deep in our common humanity."

In that sense, Stockhausen's music appears to fly in the face of the relationship between music and nature. Rather than harmonizing with our natural rhythms, it would seem to contradict it, and with that our humanity as well. It is destructive, driving apart rather than synthesizing. Hewett himself, in his obit of Stockhausen, is completed to mention "the accusation levelled at Stockhausen's music as a whole, that the vast ideas it contains often sound chaotic or merely ugly."

And there, I think, are the key words: chaos and ugly. Does it not say much about the way we view humanity, and life? There is our constant struggle against the order of natural law, the order given us by God. In place of that order we seek to insert chaos - or, if you will, relativity. Chaos, as seen through its struggle against nature, is not a good thing.

Nor can it be said that there is anything naturally ugly about humanity, although many aspects of it may be thought ugly; just as there is nothing ugly about human beings, even though many of them appear to us that way. In fact, nothing which is created in the image of God can be said to be ugly, except through self-choice. Choices, perhaps, that Stockhausen reflects through his music, fighting the natural instinct toward beauty that exists in the human soul and manifests itself through human creativity.

I don't want to go too far down that road however, because I don't want to fully pass that kind of personal judgement on Stockhausen. He was said to be a man of God, who said that God gave birth to him and called him home. And so perhaps, in his own way, Stockhausen meant to explore some of that mystical relationship through his music. But there have certainly been many ugly explorations of religion in contemporary art; we are constantly exposed to the ugly: ugly churches, ugly religious music, ugly theology.

And so we're left with a continuing plea to remember the relatonship that is supposed to exist between art and beauty. For if, as we've written before, there is an element of truth essential to art, then also there must be that relationship between truth and beauty. Stockhausen's music has been called many things; I'm not aware that beautiful was one of them. And, as Ray reminded us in the quote that began this peace, true beauty is a lot of what it is to be human.

Monday, January 14, 2008

What Not to Write

By Mitchell

As read in The Corner at the end of last week, a wise person writes Jonah Goldberg as follows:

Hello [writes Jonah's correspondent] , I wonder if you could help me save my sanity. The use of periods in the middle of sentences in order to emphasize the gravity of a statement has to be absolutely the most annoying online cliche I have ever seen. [Jonah had described something as the "Most. Painful. Thing. Ever."] Everyone does it. Everyone. It was interesting maybe two years ago when whoever it was (you? I wouldnt be surprised) started this stampede, but I cannot take it anymore. Every blog, every commenter, every diarist, does it and thinks they're being clever.
Well, it isnt clever anymore. Now it's like the visual equivalent of the sound of a broken whiskey bottle being dragged across a chalk board. Please spread the word to your brethren that many of us toiling out here in Readership Land are about to snap. Much obliged!

[Jonah replies]: Noted! Actually, my pet online peeve are people who use the phrase "Just sayin'" as a cutesy way of saying something barbed. I've done it a couple times without catching myself. But I really can't stand it.

Both Jonah and his correspondent are right here. We try very hard at this site to be analytical, concise, and (on rare occasion) profound. What we don't go for is clever or cute, especially when it borders on snarky. To the items listed above I'd add, "Umm," which is almost always both cutesy and snarky. Forget about the broken whiskey bottle and the chalk board; it's a sure inducer of projectile vomiting. As anyone who reads our Rules of the Road knows, something like that'll get you booted right off this site, unless you're willing to pay an exorbident ransom to the Managing Editors.

There's nothing wrong with irony, as long as you don't allow it to become your world-view. It might have been fresh when it started, but by the time I wrote this description in my as-yet unpublished novel, the ironic lifestyle had already become a parody of itself:

In one of the front rows, I recognized Mark Westerman, the beat reporter from the Troyville Sun, Moon and Star, who’d been covering the campaign. Westerman was one of those smart-ass punks who figured that he’d do some time in journalism before writing the great American novel, wowing us all with his hip post-modern observations on the irony of life. In reality, the irony was that he didn’t get it, not at all, so busy was he trying to apply that post-modern spin of his to the political scene. He figured he was too cool, too preoccupied with being hip, to be seen talking to mere politicians; but he also knew that lowering himself to speak with them gave him the opportunity to talk down his nose to them in his articles, which would be even more ironic, and in an ironic kind of way this actually made him more diligent than most local reporters.

Life is rich enough in irony without having to pose for it, but the danger is that when you see life as being too ironic, you lose sight of most of what life is all about, especially meaning. And if you're trying to advocate a particular point of view, you're almost sure to find yourself preaching to the choir and turning everyone else away. And I think most of us are capable of better than that. Aren't we?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Pearls of Wisdom

By Judith

Here are another batch of our cosmic quotes.

1. The best things in life...are better than one.

2. What's good for the goose...doesn't pay.

3. An apple a day...flies when you're having fun.

Think about it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Poetry Wednesday

By Judith

No more calls, we have a winner! Yes, Cathy of Alex indeed answered each question in last week's poetry quiz correctly. Cudos to Cathy.

Now, here are the poets and the titles of the poems from which the quotes came.

1. Ben Jonson "To Celia"

2. Robert Herrick "Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May"

3. William Blake "The Tiger"

4. Edgar Allen Poe "To Helen"

5. Percy Bysshe Shelley "Ode to the West Wind"

6. Robert Browning "Home-Thoughts, From Abroad"

7. Robert Browning "song from Pippa Passes"

8. Robert Louis Stevenson "Requiem"

9. John Donne "from Holy Sonnets"

10. Robert Frost "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening"

As I mentioned in one of my comments to last week's post, perhaps the next contest will be "Bible, Shakespeare, Cervantes". No, it's not anything like Rock, Paper, Scissors. These three sources are responsible for a tremendous number of quotes found in every day conversation. I'll work on it.

Beginning next week, we'll move from 20th century poets to survey poems from all different eras and genres.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Rat Pack in Heaven

By Mitchell

A few days before Christmas, I was walking home from work. My regular route takes me past one of those establishments which is often euphemistically referred to as a “gentleman’s club,” the term “gentleman” being applied to various degrees depending on its degree of appeal to the hoi polloi (i.e. truck drivers or professional athletes).

At any rate, what caught my eye was a sign in the window featuring a portrait of what looked to be a Vargas girl dressed up in a Santa suit (or, at least, what Santa would wear if he were in fact a Vargas girl), with an appeal for “Toys for Tots.”

OK, I thought. I suppose even in a place like this people aren’t immune to the spirit of the season and the desire to help out the less fortunate, especially children. If their appeal brings a little happiness to some poor kids at Christmas who don’t have much, then bless their hearts, even if they are a little degenerate.

Upon closer inspection (yes, the things I do for my readers), the sign turned out to be for something that wasn’t quite “Toys for Tots,” although it was close. (I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what it really said although, as they say, consider the source.) But as I continued home, I wasn’t quite able to shake off this thought of strippers colleting toys for kids, and what it all meant.

Most of us believe, to one degree or another, that there is an innate desire within everyone toward goodness. We think, or like to think, that even the meanest, the most irascible, the least pleasant people we know, are all capable of unexpected acts of kindness, even if they’re few and far between. Why these acts of kindness should have to struggle to emerge is just one of those mysteries of life.

In Harlan Ellison’s original script for the classic Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” we are presented with a Spock whose logic is at a loss to explain why a character who is “amoral, evil, a killer. Selfish and capable of anything,” would still risk his own life to save the life of another. Kirk, who understands humanity in a way that Spock cannot, can only offer a philosophical reply:

We look at our race, this parade of men and women, and the unbelievable harm and cruelty they do. And we sigh and we say, “Perhaps our time is past, let the sharks or the cockroaches take over.” And then, without knowing why, without even thinking of it, the worst among us does the great thing, the noble deed, that spark of impossible human godliness. And we say, “Perhaps the human race is entitled to a little more sufferance. Let them keep trying to reach the dream.”

Spock, understanding, sums it up: “Evil can come from Good, and Good from Evil.”

It’s not logical, the thought that a fundamentally bad person can still be capable of selflessness, any more so than why a fundamentally good person can still commit acts of coldness. But then, there are many things about humans that are not completely logical.


Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the title of this piece. Ah, The Rat Pack - Frank, Dean, Sammy, Joey and Peter (the one everyone forgets). The other night I was watching an old Frank Sinatra TV special from the mid 60s. What a talented man, I thought: charasmatic, confident, able to phrase a lyric like nobody's business. Great actor. Generous, both with his talent and with his money. And, as many people have written, a pretty nasty guy as well: abusive, domineering, thin-skinned, four-times married, a brawler, a dropper of friends at the smallest provocation.

Yeah, Frank was a very tough, very complex guy. The rest of the Pack, though perhaps not as flamboyant as Sinatra, had their own share of flaws - infidelity and divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, arrogance and distain, selfishness and cold-blooded business dealings. Sammy converts to Judaism, and you have to wonder about that. Heaven knows I'm not trying to point fingers here; we all have our own share of flaws, and in proportion ours could well be even worse that that. But it goes to show, as I mentioned earlier, that the human animal is not only a very complex one, but most illogical as well. You look at a celebrity - a movie star, an athlete, a politician, or Frank Sinatra - and you struggle to reconcile their feats and their flaws, their tenderness and their cruelty. On the one hand you marvel at the gift, on the other you despair at the waste. Maybe you feel guilty for liking them so, knowing what you do about them; maybe you make excuses or try to understand, but you can't stop liking them anyway.

Flaunting many of the rules of common decency, treating several of the Commandments with distain - truly, you worry about someone's mortal soul in a case like this. But, you think, there must be some kind of trade-off here. How can someone cause such pain, hurt, humiliation - and at the same time touch you in such a way that produces delight and wonder? There must be something about the charity, the generosity, the simple pleasure and entertainment that they provided for people - that couldn't all be for naught, could it? It has to count for something, you think.

And so you resort to the great bastion of Christianity - hope. You dare to hope that God, in His infinite wisdom and justice, will temper His justice with mercy. You think of the joy you experienced, the memories you have, you recall the generosity you received - and you hope. You trust, because you know that God's judgement is perfect, but you still hope.

Avery Cardinal Dulles writes at length on the population of Hell, addressing the question as to whether or not we can dare to hope that all will be saved. Salvation, we know, is offered to all, even though not all will choose it. As Paul writes, the gospel contains “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom. 1:16). So we look at The Rat Pack, we love them for the pleasure they gave us, how we laughed at their jokes and thrilled at their talent, how we listened to their music and for a while felt young again. And we hope.

Ultimately, as it should be, salvation remains a mystery of God's province. And while mystery often causes doubt, it also creates hope. As Cardinal Dulles writes,

Paul, without denying the likelihood that some sinners will die without sufficient repentance, teaches that the grace of Christ is more powerful than sin: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). Passages such as these permit us to hope that very many, if not all, will be saved.

That, indeed, is hopeful. So do we dare to hope that The Rat Pack, for all their flaws and imperfections, are there with the rest of the saints, playing their heavenly music even if their halos might be a bit tarnished? Such a hope might seem to some to be most illogical. But humans, as Spock found out, are most illogical beings.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Wish I'd Written That

By Mitchell

"There's some people who say you shouldn't have no weaknesses at all... no vices. But, if a man has no vices he's in great danger of making vices out of his virtues."

- Dialogue written by John Michael Hayes for The Matchmaker

The Moment of Truth

By Drew

By tomorrow night we should know a great deal more about the shape of the presidential race, and it's possible that we may look back someday on the last couple of weeks and see that it was all quite inevitable. On the other hand, we might find ourselves asking how in the world we ever could have thought such ridiculous things as we did. Such is the nature of politics.

There's a great deal being written about the two front-runners, Huckabee and Obama. Some still think of their campaigns as long-shots (Huckabee's in particular), but unquestionably they're being taken more seriously than they were a few months ago. With each man, his primary strength - that he's not a Washington insider - mirrors his primary weakness - his lack of experience in a dangerous world. It's a nice snapshot of life in general, where our strengths and weaknesses tend to be flip sides of the same coin.

I can't say much about Obama since my politics don't swing that way, but Huckabee remains an intriguing figure. It's not that I'm supporting Huckabee; I admit that I don't really care for the man either personally or politically, but every time I try to dismiss him there's something that causes me to come up short. It's an angle that I don't think you see discussed in conventional political circles, and that's why we're going to discuss it here right now. Let's call it the "God Bless America" angle, and as we discuss it understand that there's no irony or cynicism intended in that statement.

Huckabee is the rare Republican, socially conservative and economically moderate (or liberal, if you will). Contrast that with the man who remains the GOP favorite, Rudy Giuliani. Again, flip sides of the coin: Rudy is the social liberal, the economic conservative (or so the perception remains). Huckabee's major weakness - the lack of experience - is Giuliani's strength. (Witness his "Tested. Ready. Now" theme.) To those who value national sercurity as the premier issue in the campaign, Giuliani's strength in this area outweighs all his other faults.

But let's return to that "God Bless America" idea. It's pretty much an ingrained part of our cultural thought through the generations that America has a special relationship with God. Washington's belief in "Providence," Lincoln asking if "we are on God's side," Reagan's "shining city on a hill," all point to this belief. Whether you're for it or against it, there's no denying the belief is there.

Now, if you grant that this special relationship does exist, you also have to think that we've been trying His patience mightily for the last few decades. Again, regardless of your own personal beliefs, you can't really challenge the fact that America is a much different country than she was fifty years ago, or even fifteen.

This said, let's return to the question of Huckabee and Giuliani. If that special relationship between God and America still exists, what would the election of either of these men mean? And here is the point to which I've been building: if Huckabee, the social conservative, the believer in family values, is truly the man who best exemplifies that relationship, would it not be reasonable to conclude that he might receive some kind of Divine Guidance regarding those areas in which he lacks experience? He may well be naïve in the extreme when it comes to foreign policy, dealing with international crisis, defending the country from terrorism - but would it really matter? If God is truly active in the lives of men, could not one assume that He would be particularly active in the administration of a man who most closely reflects His desires?

Conversely, one looks at Giuliani - his tattered personal life, his support for abortion rights, his acceptance of what some would consider torture - and the same question arises. Would God go out of His way to provide that Divine Guidance? We all know of situations where a plan is worked to perfection, is implimented flawlessly, and yet for some reason still fails. Accepting this line of thinking, isn't it reasonable to assume that Giuliani's perceived strengths could turn out to be merely that - a perception, and nothing more?

Again, I want to stress that this shouldn't be seen as any kind of advocacy. I'm no fan of Huckabee, and Guiliani isn't about to see my vote either. But the question is still worth asking, and pondering. What if there really is a special relationship between God and America? What if God's blessing is still there, waiting to be reaffirmed or withdrawn? If this is true, is it not also true that the next president's beliefs may well have something to do with the success of his (or her) policies? This is something you don't see discussed much in the conventional world of politics. Perhaps it's time you should.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Pearls of Wisdom

By Judith

Pearls of Wisdom is a new department here at Our Word. We're going to tap into the cosmic consciousness in search of great universal truths.

For Christmas we received one of those magnetic word/phrase kits that you put on your refrigerator. You can write messages or poems or anything that strikes your fancy. Well, we thought it would be interesting to take the beginning of a phrase (the ones that start with capital letters) and randomly match it up with another phrase (the ones without capitals) to make a complete thought. We figure that there are great cliches just waiting to be found and, by some mysterious guidance, we might stumble upon the words the world is waiting for. Or not.

Anyway, here are the first four. Feel free to use them in your conversations.

1. Birds of a feather...should not throw stones.
2. Dead men...can't be choosers.
3. the best medicine.
4. Cleanliness...sweeps clean.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Poetry Wednesday

By Judith

Happy New Year to all!

We're going to start out the new year with a little fun. Get out your pencils and close your books; it's time for a poetry quiz. I'll give you a line or phrase from a poem and you have to come up with the author. For extra credit, name the poem from which it comes. They sound so familiar, but... (Hint, two of these are by the same poet.)

Answers will be given next week. Good luck!

1. Drink to me only with thine eyes,/And I will pledge with mine;

2. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may

3. Tiger! tiger! burning bright/In the forests of the night

4. To the glory that was Greece,/And the grandeur that was Rome

5. If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

6. Oh, to be in England/Now that April's there

7. God's in his heaven-/All's right with the world!

8. Home is the sailor, home from sea,/And the hunter home from the hill.

9. Death be not proud

10. But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep

8-10 Wow, you should be writing this column.
5-7 Pretty good. You must have paid attention in English Lit. class.
2-4 Turn off the television and pick up a book.
0-1 You probably shouldn't have played hooky so often.

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