Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Anti-Personnel Cat Mine Claims Victim

Notes From a Burning House has obtained harrowing photographs of an attack by an anti-personnel cat mine recently discovered in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Viewer advisory: these photographs include images that may be disturbing. For the education of the public, we are showing these pictures to demonstrate what happens when one disturbs an anti-personnel cat mine, by stepping on it or near it, or attempting to move it...

So, to repeat our warning: please exercise extreme caution whenever you encounter stray handbags, boxes, or other trash that might conceal an anti-personnel cat mine. It is a jungle out there, so take good care of yourselves.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Anti-Personnel Cat Mine

It appears to be a typical bit of trash, a discarded sack of some kind, laying innocently in the path of unwary human beings. The only telltale sign, if you know to watch for it, is a protruding tail. It may even twitch slightly.

Exercise extreme caution and give the package a wide berth if you can. If you suspect that it is, in fact, an Anti-Personnel Cat Mine, do NOT attempt to defuse the trap yourself. This is a job for trained people.

Anti-Personnel Cat Mines cause innumerable personal injuries and property damage year after year. The ones loaded with Siamese varieties can be especially dangerous. The best protection against the Anti-Personnel Cat Mine is to learn how to recognize one and avoid it, or call on a qualified professional to clear the area and defuse the bomb using tuna treats.

[Feel free to click and enlarge this photograph of an actual Anti-Personnel Cat Mine for further study.]

Friday, January 25, 2008

There Will Be Mud

The rain has been coming down for days. One could look to the dark skies and mope, but I prefer to shoot a glance out the kitchen window, to the gardens of our neighbors across the horizon to the treetops of Griffith Park, and what I see are some happy trees. Greenery open wide and if you can imagine blushing in green, that is what you see here.

This is our winter storm. In five days, downtown Los Angeles has seen 2.25 inches of rain. Long Beach has gotten even more. Up in the mountains, they have seen 18 inches of snow come down, and the Interstate 5 through the highly elevated El Tejon pass has been closed since Wednesday.

And even if it continues through the weekend, it won't budge our drought. Up in Fresno, there are farmers turning to water as a cash crop as supplies grow more scarce. Figuratively, all this water and snow won't bring the reservoirs up an inch.

It is pretty though. I cannot account for this, but somehow it has always been the rainy days that cheer me up. If it rains on my 37th birthday tomorrow, I will feel just fine about it, and so will Sarah's plants.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Your Clients Stink Worse Than Mine, Nyaah Nyaah Nyaah

The ugly moments of the Democrats' debate in Myrtle Beach were very ugly indeed, with Senators Clinton and Obama overtly attacking each other.

One detail of their squabble has not aroused much comment, so I will address it. It sticks in my craw because for me, the most important thing aside from specific policy objectives, is electing a President who "gets it." The next President must understand and respect the moral premises behind this republic. We need a President who will be ruled by the Constitution, and regards the office as something much much larger than the occupant - a sacred trust. The next President must like and respect Americans, and want to give them their due. Justice, liberty, and opportunity.

It struck me when Clinton and Obama, both of them lawyers, stooped to embarrassing one another by parading their former clients around.

Oh yeah? Hillary Clinton used to represent - Wal-Mart! (GASP!)

Oh yeah?? Well, Barack Obama once represented - a slumlord!! (HORROR!)

That's it? They provided legal representation to people who may or may not have been guilty of something? That isn't anything to be ashamed of. In the United States of America, everybody deserves legal representation.

Sure, the fact that Hillary Clinton also sat on Wal-Mart's board raises questions. But the fact that she was a working attorney providing legal advice to big corporations? Not a liability. Big corporations deserve legal representation.

And yes, there have been some persistent questions about Obama's ties to Mr. Tony Rezko. Obama worked for a law firm that claimed Rezko's company as a client; Rezko later helped the Obamas buy a house, and threw a huge fundraiser for Obama's Senate campaign. Obama got a little too close to a skeezy character here. But Clinton didn't go after that part of the relationship specifically. She went after him for representing the guy in court. Obama never did represent him in a court, but if he had there is no shame in it.

As lawyers and candidates for President, do Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama believe that everyone is entitled to legal counsel? Do they feel that this principle is degraded when they name each other's clients to shame them in an election campaign?

It was, for both of them, a supremely unclassy performance that deepens my concerns about both of them, and increases my despair over the 2008 general election.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

'Twas The Joker Killed Heath Ledger!

Portrait of the artist as - an actor named Heath Ledger!
For what reason did this morning's news provide regular updates on the preliminary autopsy of Heath Ledger?

The 28-year old actor, one of the finest working in popular films (far more versatile and imaginative than the other handsome movie stars), was found dead yesterday afternoon in New York City with a bottle of sleeping pills nearby.

This morning, KFWB was reporting on Ledger's autopsy (which was inconclusive, by the way) every five minutes. They do traffic reports that often. This is the news station that promises to give you the world in 22 minutes, and they wasted at least five of them telling us that they had no ghoulish details to relate - yet - on the death of Heath Ledger.

Was it an accidental overdose? "Ooops, I took fifteen pills?" Was the actor despondent over the rift in his family? Perhaps the pills were something else entirely. Or perhaps the pills are a red herring.

I don't know about you, dear reader, but - I can wait to hear about it. I might be able to wait a very long time before I hear it. It certainly does not require the kind of press coverage that would attend, say, open-heart surgery on the President of the United States. Does it?

Some commentators are already working on a narrative for Ledger's death that fills me with a familiar dread: the Tormented Actor. Ledger had recently completed work on his performance as The Joker in the new Batman movie, and around Hollywood it is being said, breathlessly behind sweaty palms, that Ledger grew so disturbed while working on the character that his sleep was disturbed, and this is why he turned to the pills.

Oh, no no no. Do. Not. GO. THERE. You unspeakable cretins, must we go over this again?

As romantic an archetype as it is - the Actor Haunted By His Demons! - let us reiterate that personality disorders and manic depression are not the tools with which a good actor pursues the work. Good actors do not lose touch with their "real" identity, they do not forget about reality, they do not so immerse themselves in a character that they may be lost, forever, in the labyrinthine confines of the character's soul. If they do, they have problems that will not help their art.

As with most bullshit, there is barely an ounce of truth that inspires the Myth. Personal example: The first time I played Shakespeare's Richard III, okay, I was trying really hard to prove myself and spent day and night breathing and eating the astonishing words and deeds of the cruelest villain in dramatic literature. I will grant you during that project, the days could feel pretty dark. At the curtain call, I usually felt ready to drop from exhaustion and perspiration. Could fatigue have played a role here, of equal or greater magnitude than some mystical communion with Shakespeare's id?

If we are going to dress up Ledger in the passion play of the Tortured Actor Whose Last Role Killed Him, how do we keep a straight face? He played the villain in a Hollywood action flick. You can blow this smoke when it's Shakespeare or Chekhov or writers shrouded in even greater mystique ("He lost himself in Becket!" "I TOLD him to stay away from Artaud!!"), but BATMAN for chrissakes??

Begone from my sight!

Irvine meditation class - CANCELLED

Sadly, the Introduction to Zen Meditation course at U.C. Irvine Extension - which was to begin this Saturday - has been cancelled due to low enrollment.

Since 2004, this has been a popular course. I think the drop in enrollment this time has to do with a shocking hike in the enrollment fee: from $180 to $250! Way too high, in my humblest of humbles.

I am told that for budgetary reasons, the price hike was deemed necessary. Consider, however, that the price hike may have reduced their income:

10 people x $180 (which is less than the course's typical enrollment) = $1,800

0 people at $250 = $0

Ah well. If anyone wants to sit on Saturday mornings, let me know. Post a comment. I won't publish the comment, so you can leave me your contact info and it won't be shared.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Undue Deference

Two seemingly unrelated books I read this month address a common problem: what happens when enough people defer to some perceived authority and stop thinking critically.

In John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience (2006), he examines the leadership of the conservative movement in American politics and how they have pushed conservatism to what Dean calls a "radical" and "revolutionary" movement, "co-opted by authoritarians." Dean, a self-described Goldwater conservative, makes extensive reference to psychological studies of authoritarian-follower personalities and social dominators by Professor Bob Altemeyer, comparing Altemeyer's findings to the evolution of the conservatism since the Nixon presidency. He also cites other psychological research, including the famous Milgram experiment.

In a republic whose populace thinks critically, one might expect social dominators of the machinating, dishonest, and unremorseful type to have a harder time achieving power. In theory, the voters serve a critical function as a check on their progress. Of course, in practice, voters are people with personalities - and a great many people are authoritarian-follower types, who will defer to social dominators and authority figures. If an authoritarian wears a suit and says the right things, many voters will ignore behavior that ought to be troubling.

They will even believe transparent lies. For instance, between 2004 and 2006, a depressing majority of participants in a poll believed that Saddam Hussein had strong links to Al Qaeda - 62-4% according to a Harris poll (the year this book was published), despite such a link being discredited long ago. Moreover, according to the same poll, the number of Americans believing Saddam had the imaginary weapons of mass destruction rose to 50%.

A similar play of deference and authority goes on in the realm of American letters, according to B.R. Myers. He argued this first in a 2001 article in The Atlantic, which he expanded into book form with A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack On The Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose (2002).

The authorities in this case, Myers argues, are the prominent book critics and panelists who award prestigious literary prizes. To put it almost as bluntly as Myers himself, it is argued that bad novels are being presented as good literature to a public who looks to literary prizes and critical praise for choosing what to read. Myers sees enormous injustice in this, as books with exciting stories are derided as mere "genre fiction" whereas boring books that exhibit trends fashionable with "literary critics" are dressed in the raiment of intellectual respectability.

Results? Myers argues the result is that people who defer to such authorities, but cannot slog through All The Pretty Horses (1993) (check out this passage, actually excerpted on the publisher's website to show you how good the writing is - eccccch), may well blame themselves for the book's faults. "It's too challenging," we might conclude, "I don't have a head for literature. I'm not smart enough to converse with this writer's work."

Myers suggests that this may be exactly what the literary elite wants people to think, and to maintain the cult, they have (1) elevated prose over content, and (2) learned to celebrate prose that is actually bad.

The conspiracy theory cannot be proven, and Myers treats this with a tongue-in-cheek crankish tone. The second point, however, Myers demonstrates by examing passages from the works of Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo, and David Guterson. To blunt charges that the prose looks worse out of context, Myers preferred excepts that had been singled out for praise by the high-status book critics. Myers identifies trends such as excessive archaism, kitschy syntax, "shopping lists," overloaded and contradictory imagery, and examines some exalted passages only to show the emperor is naked. He also provides contrasting examples of good prose, stating more than once that writing which would never be tolerated by a mere "genre" writer is exulted when presented by an established Guterson or McCarthy.

This is not, however, an assault on the writers' worth or their fans - the books are simply not to Myers's taste, a point lost among the outraged detractors of this mild-mannered polemic. In Myers's estimation, books are more important than the writers themselves. Good writers can write bad books, and Myers actually praises one of McCarthy's novels.

But who was this B.R. Myers, critics argued, this American literature professor living in South Korea for heaven's sake, to write from abroad and criticize these American writers? Who indeed! A reader, that's who. Myers never argues that other readers should emulate his taste. He merely questions the authority of the elite that defines "good literature" and thus influences the market of new books, urging readers to trust their own analysis and their own taste. One needn't wait for Oprah Winfrey or the New York Times to recommend a book and assume it must be good even when it isn't.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Dharma Drama (or, The Miracle of the Unbendable Arm)

In teaching the dharma, there are undeniably theatrical elements.

The meditation room looks a certain way, there might be an altar decked with iconic images, there may incense, perhaps some chanting of Buddhist things accompanied by a bell. Usually there are robes to wear, something to go over our street clothes. Anecdotes are used to illustrate Buddhist teachings or dramatize our observations about meditation and how it applies to life. Dharma teachers develop a storehouse of (1) Zen and Buddhist stories, (2) personal anecdotes, and (3) anecdotes about a contemporary Zen Master such as Seung Sahn.

These theatrics are not there to tell lies or mislead people. Like good theatre, the elements are there to bring attention to certain truths, and certain techniques for living effective lives. Paradoxically, it becomes necessary to aspire to perfect enlightenment without conceptualizing it or believing in it too much.

Teaching people that their experience of the world is created entirely by thinking is one of the most liberating things you can offer another person. That's why the Diamond Sutra makes such a huge deal about offering even a single word of clear teaching, declaring that it is greater than the merit of millions of lifetimes. And yet, to mistake this point and tell people that we can make decisions about what is true and what is not, that cause and effect is something for which we can buy a waiver, based on our self-obsessed desires, is to beckon people toward the dungeon of suffering.

When Theatre Dojo was active last year, Andrew used to do a wonderful demonstration with people. He called it the miracle of the unbendable arm. He would invite a volunteer to hold their arm out straight and prevent anyone from bending their arm upwards, at the elbow. They would try this by clenching their arm tightly and mustering brute force, and would always lose. Andrew would have them try again, and this time he invited them to keep the arm relaxed, to plant their feet and put their focus down into their center of gravity, breathing deeply, and visualizing their arm extending outwards, through the wall, across the street, some huge distance.

This, essentially, is meditation. The notion of relaxing, "dropping down," "extending" our "energy" across great distances, are useful stories we give the mind to access natural physical abilities. They are, in a way, theatrics - but again, the theatrics are not there to tell a lie.

This is demonstrated when someone tries to bend that volunteer's arm a second time, and often finds himself unable to bend the "relaxed" arm even with the help of another person. Andrew, with tongue in cheek, would call this a "miracle," and in a theatrical sense it is. And yet, it is a natural ability belonging to everyone, whether they know it or not. Using such visualizations helps us to relax and access aspects of our bodies that may elude conscious control. Obviously, we are not literally "dropping into the earth" or "sending chi out across the universe." The image of an "unbendable arm" is itself a visualization.

So is "dharma." So is "enlightenment." So is "fulfillment." So is "self-actualization." They are all constructs, yet they do not tell lies. You cannot literally reach across an entire city, but using that image as a direction can help us achieve wonderful things. The same applies for other images that seem impossible to fulfill literally, like "peace" and "justice" and "happiness." Walk in these directions fearlessly, and see what happens. The buddhas do not deceive - that is, not until we start to believe literally that "enlightenment" is something out there we need to find. Once we get attached to these concepts they become no better than food, money, sex, sleep - mental objects that keep us running on a treadmill.

Good dharma teachers are honest showmen, like my friend Rory. Rory calls himself a "mentalist." He is a showman giving demonstrations of magical and psychic tricks. He openly declares himself a fraud and a humbug, and yet he is very good at what he does. Most people don't really, literally believe he has access to another dimension of reality, and yet when we watch him, our mouths drop.

His tricks do not lie. They help us access another important part of ourselves that often eludes our wordly consciousness: genuine wonder.

* * *

As always, there are people who say this more succinctly and effectively than I have. Here is a very good talk by Seung Sahn.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Whatever It Takes To WIN! (UPDATED)

One of my very favorite political blogs recently contemplated Senator Clinton's campaign, and in the face of Bob Johnson's smarmy hit job on Barack Obama, Steve Benen wondered:

"...Is it possible the Clinton campaign is indirectly making a point about general-election toughness? This probably seems silly at first blush. Indeed, it probably is silly upon further examination. But one of the underlying criticisms of the Obama campaign is that Obama, to borrow John Edwards’ word, is 'nice.' Clinton, in contrast, is saying she knows the Republican Attack/Smear Machine all too well, and she’s willing to play rough with the GOP if she’s the nominee."

Lots of comments followed, many of them arguing, "Hell yes!" Give us a junkyard dog, they said, if that's what it takes to boot out their party and get ours back in. Whatever it takes, some say, to win. We have to be just as tough, dishonest, and smeary as they are. The ends justify the means. So some say.

As I urge people to participate in this election, I ask them to consider this question seriously: what do you want our country to stand for? Who are we?

If we feel there is no way to win an election except by embracing dishonesty and amorality, what kind of government do we expect to follow? If Hillary Clinton is willing to lie to me, distort issues, and destroy decent people so she can win the primary while hypocritically pretending to represent the politics of optimism as other people throw mud, for what reason should I expect the Clinton Administration to be any different?

Has winning become more important than honesty and decency? That reminds me too much of the authoritarian personalities who have come to dominate the Republican Party and defined the Bush Administration.

I harp on this because Hillary Clinton said this on national television on Sunday: "I think that we don't want anyone, any of our supporters, anyone -- and that's why in my campaign, anytime anybody has said in my campaign, anytime anybody has said anything that I thought was out of bounds, they're gone, you know? I have gotten rid of them; I have said that is not appropriate in this campaign." With the exception of Bob Johnson, I suppose, the man who opened up a campaign event with a rambling introduction in which he made a sly insinuation about Obama using drugs, only to cover it with a hilariously transparent lie.

Does this move us any further to reckoning with an economy that is entering a national recession? Does this move health care any closer to the 50 million Americans who lack coverage and pray they don't get sick? Does this move the ball on a solution to illegal immigration that is fair and effective? Does this point us toward a rational, productive policy in the middle east, where we are stuck in an incompetent military fiasco by a saber-rattling president hell-bent confronting one more country before he mercifully retires?

No, it accomplishes only one thing: getting "ME" elected president. By whatever means. No matter what it costs. Even if it costs us our very souls. For the last eight years, we have been governed by personalities who feel that winning is everything, that being on top is more important than being right, who are driven by their own appetite for power rather than a desire to vindicate justice and equality for all.

It occurs to me more and more often, that the United States I was told about as a child no longer exists except as it is rendered in pretty speeches. Revolting candidates parade in front of us year after year, behaving in revolting ways as candidates and being equally revolting after we honor them with public office. We voters, by and large, refuse to behave as if we deserve more and better choices. We continue to elect jerks and mediocrities, and rather than blame ourselves for giving idiots the job, we throw up our hands and say government doesn't work.

And so it makes perfect sense that some voters will pick Hillary Clinton because she is willing to ugly with the likes of Karl Rove. Myself, I'd rather leave that part of the ballot blank.
* * * UPDATE. . . * * *
Gee, maybe Senator Clinton reads my blog! :-)
Bob Johnson issued an apology for his remarks. A spokesman's reply from the Obama camp is classy: "Obama accepts the apology. We're going to leave it at that."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Encounter with a Celebrity Fitness Guru

Recently, a friend arranged an introduction to a Celebrity Fitness Guru.

Before I met her in person, I was directed to examine her website. The website plays eastern-influenced dance music and has many pictures of the Celebrity Fitness Guru wearing a lavalier microphone, leading marathon classes that combine dance, yoga, weightlifting, and aerobics. "Kickass" classes, she calls them. She had been sending out feelers for a meditation teacher to come and teach meditation classes in her place, hence our introduction.

After a few emails to break the ice, I paid a visit to her dojo. She has a nice little place in Studio City, decorated in bamboo trim, shelves loaded with t-shirts, books, and various merchandise. Sign-in sheet, loads of material about the classes here and the teacher. She charges a sturdy tuition for her classes, and she also has a private clientele - the Hollywood celebrity circuit, not bad. Celebrity Fitness Guru has a very good enterprise here.

Friend had intimated that he thought Celebrity Fitness Guru would charge a fee for use of her studio, but that I might be allowed to market to her mailing list so as to help the class succeed and provide her with extra revenue. Win-win.

After perusing t-shirts with slogans on them ("Peace!") and grooving to the fusion of Balinese gamelan with hip-hop drumbeats, I got around to discussing terms with the Celebrity Fitness Guru. The terms were a little surprising.

$50 an hour for use of her room. Just the room. Fuh-fuh-fifty dollars? Steep. I would have to charge accordingly. This would not be a meditation class for undergraduates surviving on work study and coffee. Okay, but at least I'd be able to send an announcement to her base, right?

Oh no, said the Celebrity Fitness Guru. I'm looking for someone to bring in their own following. Indeed, so somebody else's following can walk in and buy t-shirts and vitamin supplements and sign up for her "kickass" classes. Very enterprising indeed, this one. What she wants is for someone to pay her a high hourly rate to expand her customer base. Well, I cast no aspersions. It's a nice racket, if you can pull it off.

Besides which, she said, I do teach meditation as part of my classes. Indeed, she does - and nutritional counseling, and life coaching, and if you've got a musical instrument handy she'll probably give you lessons on that, too, shouting encouragement into her lavalier microphone while bench-pressing a mobile home. "Namaste, baby!"

And the kicker: By the way, I will need to see your liability insurance.

Liability insurance? For a sitting class? What exactly do I need to buy liability against - bed sores? Liability insurance for sitting on a pillow?

I, um, haven't called her back. But the Celebrity Fitness Guru is toning hard bodies in the Valley and kicking celebrity ass and doing very well indeed. I wonder if she sells liability insurance, too...

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Politics of Personal Destruction

When Hillary Clinton had that well-covered moment in New Hampshire, I thought it was wonderful. It seemed to open the door to more personal responses from Clinton, to connect with voters as a human being and show she is vulnerable and passionate as well as smart, experienced, and prepared.

She has continued, however, the strange approach of campaigning against idealism. It is not just that she argues she is the more experienced candidate, the candidate "who will be ready on day one." She and her campaign go further than this, to assert a clear divide between activists and officeholders, between dreamers and doers, between prophets and kings. This way, she can present herself as the able steward and Senator Obama as, at best, a well-meaning prophet.

In trying to make this distinction clear, she made a comment about Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Johnson that caused a little stir. Some folks weren't sure what she meant, and wondered if she was diminishing King's role in order to make her political point. The Obama campaign called the remark "ill advised" and left it that. Yet the Clinton campaign turned around and accused the Obama campaign of playing the race card.

Meanwhile, a prominent Clinton supporter, while sharing a stage with his candidate, gave a stinging speech alluding to Obama's drug use yet again. Only last month, Senator Clinton - who has often complained of "the politics of personal destruction," and has been a victim of it - was apologizing for mudslinging by her supporters. Yet the Senator stood there, passively allowing the politics of personal destruction to be wielded on her behalf without no protest.

And no doubt, she will continue to present - as she has been doing - her opponents as doing negative campaigns, while claiming she has been the positive one.

This looks to me like a good person making a devil's bargain with hypocrisy.

Friday, January 11, 2008

What Do You Want To Be Called By Your Son?





Father. "Father.... " Nah. Bless-me-father-for-I-have-sinned.

Pop! Papa? Pops. Pa.

Opah! Abbah?

He could call me Mu Mun? Mu Dad. Mu Pa.




My Liege. Your Majesty. Sire. Thay Algernon. Vater!


I could wait and see what the kid calls me, but then I'll be answering to something like Gaaaawwwwaaaaarrrrrllaaaaroooooo!

So, poppa? Dad?

Sigh. I don't know. Do you have any ideas? Reader participation officially open...

Thursday, January 10, 2008


The secret ballot has spoken, the results have been tabulated. It's a boy.

Gabriel Maheen D'Ammassa made no speech, and GIRL made no indication she would contest the results.

Shortly before the doctor came in to perform the sonogram, Gabriel became very active, squirming around in his mother's belly. By the time we caught him on camera, he had arranged himself upside down with his legs in the air. This made it quite easy to determine his sex. We also had a look at his spine and his heart.

BOY and GIRL congratulated each other on maintaining a civil campaign with no direct negative attacks and all parties immediately moved on to worrying about other things.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Girl or Boy? Exclusive Coverage!

Some time today, if all goes well, we'll post an announcement about the Lentil Sprout's sex.

In the spirit of the primaries, I have decided to blog it the way we've been following the democratic primaries.

First, I'll report an opinion poll so as to provide an illusion of content in the absence of actual news. Here goes:


A coast-to-coast opinion sample by the parents' families show this race to be neck and neck. In New Mexico, results indicate BOY is in a lead right at the margin of error at 45%, GIRL at 49%, and 6% for Dennis Kucinich.

In Rhode Island, undecided prevails at 90%, with hermaphrodite at less than 1% and Ron Paul pulling a surprising 3% despite being shut out of the debates. Other candidates showing negligible results here include "it's a cat!" and "I'm not old enough to be a grandparent."

The young parents will be leaving for the doctor's shortly, and as soon as the official results are announced, we'll be here providing exclusive analysis and interviews with the parents.



Monday, January 07, 2008

Baby Likes Zeppelin

Momma reports that the baby (due June 1) already has likes and dislikes around food: she loves spicy hot foods, and really can't get enough Mexican and Indian food. Chinese food, not so much.

The kid moves around now. There is a consistent response when Sarah plays Led Zeppelin in the car. So the kid grooves!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Two or Three Questions

No matter what role you cast Morgan Freeman in, he's God.

In The Bucket List, an aspartame-sweet buddy movie currently dispensing facile sentiments at a theatre near you, Morgan Freeman plays an auto mechanic with terminal cancer. His fellow cancer patient, a billionare Scrooge played by Jack Nicholson, takes him on a trip around the world so the two can experience things they have always dreamed of before they die.

This would be a turkey if it weren't for fine performances by Nicholson and Freeman both: the kind of performers that transcend bland material and contrived sentimentality, and create engaging and enjoyable characters. Thanks, guys - if it weren't for you, I'd want my money back.

Yet Morgan Freeman, gifted with enormous presence and a voice resonant of many civilizations, is an actor who all too easily becomes a divine presence - even the modest, quiz-show-addicted automobile mechanic from the Crenshaw district he portrays here. Soon, he and Nicholson are sitting on top of a pyamid in Giza, and Freeman is beaming numinously behind sunglasses asking the Two Great Questions that Egyptians gods ask you upon your death:

Did you find joy in your life?
Has your life brought joy to others?

Cue the Spielberg cloud formations and John Williams music.

These gateway questions pare things down quite a bit. It took four ghosts an entire evening to convey as much to Ebenezer Scrooge! Yet I thought of this scene immediately, and find I prefer these three questions (as well as its portrayal of the gateway to the final mysteries):

from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Remembering El Jarrito

It was one of the first places Mu Sang Sunim took me out to dinner when I arrived in Los Angeles in 2001. I had arrived from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Sunim wanted me to taste good local Mexican food. Down on Olympic Boulevard, in the heart of Koreatown, he brought me to this modest, family-run place with a deli display up front, friendly lighting, small booths, and delicious food.

The soda was sold in cans and you could watch the waitress fetch baskets of fresh hot chips from a steel drawer. They put most of their budget in the food, yet the waitresses were warm and matronly, describing unfamiliar dishes with a smile, in their uniform pink frocks and white aprons. It had been around since the 1950's, and this was one place Zen Master Dae Kwang (who spent much of his childhood visiting Los Angeles) always asks to go for dinner when he visits Los Angeles.

I remember leaving the restaurant once and noticing a small handwritten sign, in Spanish - a help wanted notice for servers, specifying female applicants only.

Last night, the fiance specifically wanted to eat there, as we had many times before but not in a while. In the pouring rain we drove into Koreatown only to find El Jarrito gone, and some Korean establishment in its place. (The sign was exclusively in Korean so it could have been a furniture gallery for all I know.)

We resorted to El Cholo Cafe down on Western, which has delicious food as well, and has been around even longer for that matter. Yet we felt rather sad and were given to memorializing one of 'the old places,' quietly vanished.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Bow Ties In The News:

Every once in a while I stumble across a news article about bow ties, and each story confirms that bow ties are out of vogue except among people who are wonky, obnoxious, stubborn, or all three.

Like your humble correspondent:

From Illinois, some reaction to an unscientific internet poll that found negative reactions to images of faceless people wearing bow ties.

We are considered "older, fidgety, and dull, as well as Republican, scientific and smart or brainy." But there's more bad news: "Among the findings was fewer respondents wanted the bow tie wearer in their neighborhood, as a friend or in the family. Based only on the faceless photo, more people would stay away from the bow tie man and fewer might like him." (The possibility that the lack of a face skewed the results is not considered. I don't trust anyone without a face.)

Hmmm. No one mentioned Pee Wee Herman? When I wear a tie that's usually what I get: Pee Wee Herman jokes.

Another story about the research indicates that respondents were less likely to want us as co-workers - which might be understandable, since we are "more likely to be employed as a store clerk." Gamely, both stories interview attorneys, judges, and doctors who favor the bow tie for reasons that range from aesthetic to practical.

The myth that we must be smart comes from the rumor that bow ties are hard to tie. They really aren't, as some discover when they participate in bow-tie themed charity events like this one.

It's pretty hard to find a bow tie in retail stores, especially a freehand tie that isn't pre-tied and glued to a clip; but there seems to be a thriving business on line.

Letter to Bob Kerrey

(Bob Kerrey served in the United States Senate representing Nebraska, 1989-2001. He ran for President in 1992 and became president of the New School University in New York City, where I went to college. To hear what he said, and his response to the controversy over what he said, visit here.)

Pres. Bob Kerrey
The New School
New York, NY

Dear Sir,

It gave me some pleasure to learn you would become president of my alma mater in 2001. I thought well of you as a Senator, and appreciated your presence on the 9/11 Commission. You struck me as a man of decency and frankness as well as experience.

My high estimation of you made it all the more surprising and disappointing to witness your transparent, if sly, effort to smear Senator Obama with seeming praise, connecting him to a religion that is not his own, in order to exploit islamophobia and hinder his candidacy. Having considered your remarks over time and your later clarification, the motive and method remain obvious.

I was a student at your university during the first Persian Gulf war, a period that witnessed a spike in anti-Islamic and anti-arabic attitudes. To encounter this behavior in the president of the university where, fifteen years ago, I studied Islamic history and sociology; where we protested incidents of scapgoating and bigotry; where I studied under faculty members from Iran and Syria - sir, it shames the university.

It shames your candidate, Senator Clinton, by associating her with slimy politicking.

Most of all, it shames you: appealing to the worst in us for some fleeting influence in a primary campaign. I expect this of people in politics who have proven they lack conscience. I expect this of Bill Bennett, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney. You had cut a very different figure with me; now I have to wonder.

As an alumnus of the New School and an American, I write you to express my revulsion. Muslims (and Barack Obama is in fact not a muslim, but a Christian) are not here to be used as boogeymen by national figures. You robbed one man of his dignity by perpetuating a myth about him, yet worse still, you robbed a great number of muslim citizens of their dignity.

I call that dismal.

Most Sincerely,


Eugene Lang College
Class of 1993

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Baby Is Moving!

A week from today, we should know whether this is a boy or a girl. That way we can stop referring to our child as "it."

This evening, as we settle into some Indian-style lentils and basmati rice, the kid is squirming around in Sarah's belly. She or he can now hear, so I speak to her regularly, pressing my face to Sarah's belly and saying Hello. This is your father. If you are bored, kick three times. We will have Sarah eat a rubik's cube or a book of sudoku or something. Soon enough you'll be out here wondering how the heck this all happened. Good night for now little one.

So far, nothing but squirming. Watch this space for updates.

Facing The Tank

In little more than a year, George Walker Bush will leave the White House after eight years that have badly rattled what faith I had in the United States of America. That is not an overstatement of my feeling.

Identifying my country with our Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, by centuries of historical tradition and legal precedent, by its separation of government powers and guarantee of justice and due process for all, I have watched aghast as a lethal authoritarian regime seized executive power, flouted U.S. and international law, imprisoned people illegally, shipped them to shadow prisons and tortured them, allowed a U.S. city to drown while they commended officials who had been fatally incompetent, faked press conferences and bribed journalists, spied on Americans, and much more.

As this unfolded, the institutions and the elected officials charged with containing such a threat, empowered to censure and even impeach, made excuses and did nothing meaningful to stop what was happening to my country.

In a year, George Walker Bush will wave triumphantly and fly home to Crawford, Texas, and never be held to account for what he has done, in all its horrible magnitude. History may judge him, we may hope God will judge him, but that does little for our politics now.

A new occupant will move in. There is a decent chance the new President will be a woman or a black man. Yet these seem like superficial concerns to me. Black, white, man, woman? I want to know the next President has a moral conscience. I want to know he or she understands and loves the words of our Declaration, and will uphold and defend the Constitution rather than work around it and re-interpret it to achieve authoritarian objectives.

I read the news for hints, but all I see are news stories about opinion polls. The news camera is turned on itself, instead of the fiber of the people who would lead our nation out of the Bush regime into something new. No more stories about polls. We are allowed to object to this, and ought to do so loudly and obnoxiously.

Near as I can make out, none of the current Democrats or Republicans have distinguished themselves the way Boris Yeltsin did in 1991. Yeltsin climbed on top of a tank to defy a coup attempt in Russia. In a sense, I feel the Bush Administration amounts to something like a coup, drastically changing the meaning and direction of the U.S., and the next administration will reflect how successful was this coup. So far, no one clearly challenged this tank's progress.

Acknowledgment must be made of Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who made an effort and was laughed off the tank. Indeed, other Democrats who tried to jump the tank found themselves being yanked down by their own colleagues and even their leaders. In both houses.

Saddest of all is to see what Joe Liebermann has become. This Senator rose to national prominence by taking a brave stand of his own in 1998, when President Clinton was being embarrassed with unnecessary personal scandals. He dared to confront his President and his own party about morality, and this played very well with the public, as the press portrayed Joe Liebermann as a principled Democrat, a man who devoutly practices his religion and walks the walk, an independent man with a moral compass. The image stuck and Liebermann would become his party's vice-presidential candidate in the 2000 election.

Some time, not long after that election, Liebermann's compass became confused. He fails to see the amorality of the Bush Administration and how it operates, and became one of its most earnest supporters, covering for them, desperately defending its lies and promoting its aggressive and authoritarian view of the world, allowing himself to be co-opted and used by people who care not for his morality and do not answer to conscience. The tank rolled right over Joe Liebermann. Yet the Democrats cannot condemn Liebermann and fail to acknowledge the presence of the tank itself.

Hillary was for the war before she was against it, and she still isn't really against it so much as against doing it badly, now that they (and she) started it - in other words, I suppose, she is only for it because she is against it, or she's against it at heart but still is for doing it the right way. Didn't we have this president before?

While she spins around and around the tank and the other candidates just sort of stare at it, George Walker Bush looks forward to his post-presidential plans. He will issue a long list of pardons and say folksy things, wave to the cameras, and fly victoriously away on Air Force One, leaving behind a country drastically changed and still in denial about what has happened to us.

Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank, 1991