Archive for November, 2007

I’ve been thinking alot about my parents lately – maybe it’s the holidays. In any event, it made sense for my sister and I to take a ride down to Philadelphia today, where a painting that once belonged to my parents now graces the corner of one wall in the Philadelphia Museum of Art‘s American Art Collection. The painting is “Doorway in Tangier” by the artist Henry O. Tanner, an internationally acclaimed African American painter active in the late 19th century and into the early part of the twentieth. While in Paris, Tanner apparently befriended my grandfather’s cousin Philip Miller, a talented but less well-known painter who later became a newspaper cartoonist. Tanner gifted the painting to Philip, who in turn presented it to my parents as a wedding present. My father took delight in its historical provenance; my mother, an aspiring artist, in Tanner’s evocative use of light and color. It held a cherished place in our living room and when my parents passed on, we called around to see which museum might appreciate its significance and similarly honor it. The folks at PMA were and continue to be most gracious, welcoming us during our now annual pilgrimage. No question that the very best legacy is one in which certain values and attributes are passed down from generation to generation. Still, it’s a bit of a thrill to know that a work by such a culturally important artist lives on through a remarkable “regifting” process and at the same time to see a familiar fixture of our childhood hanging so importantly next to a plaque bearing my folks’ names.

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Today’s highly touted Mideast peace conference in Annapolis ended with a pledge amongst the designated representatives. Since said representatives have pledged before, cynics might argue that the announcement was hardly what you’d call a breakthrough on the order of, say, creating stem cells from adult human skin instead of human embryos. Even the most dedicated optimist might have winced to watch the lame-duck, heretofore uninvolved U.S. President presiding over a handshake between the scandal-ridden Israeli Prime Minister and the politically diminished Palestinian leader. As one of my friends remarked dismissively, “Like that’s ever gonna happen.” 

It’s pretty hard not to view today’s conference as just another photo-op.  For one thing, there have been agreements before. For another, a number of experienced and well-intentioned people put forward their thoughts, suggestions and advice prior to this gathering and its not clear that any of those were incorporated, considered or even advanced. Of course, both sides balked at specifics. The “joint understanding” between the Israelis and the Palestinians appears as fragile as a spider’s web – and just as treacherous. It falls short of the detailed document put forth by Palestinians yet feels pushy to a highly suspicious Israel.  The two sides, or their leaders, have agreed to “engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations,”  which is as vague as it gets.

One wonders how many issues can one conflict contain? Land, power, pride, jobs, security, ancient grievances and religious beliefs all play a role. Are these issues addressed by settling borders, moving settlers, dividing Jerusalem, or by making promises as to security, autonomy and the right of two distinct states to exist? Are they addressed by agreeing first to try and address them?

So maybe it’s different this time. Maybe President Bush, finally goaded by his Secretary of State, sees this as an opportunity for a legacy and maybe he’ll push, really push, for progress towards a treaty. Maybe Saudi Arabia finally sees that conflict in the region is not to their advantage. Maybe Olmert and Abbas can enhance their political capital by reaching for peace while remaining firmly committed to addressing their constituents’ concerns. Maybe Iran’s foray into nuclear power and/or weapons development gives everyone pause.

Maybe the players know, even in the deepest corners of their hearts and souls far away from political calculations, that the people they purport to represent are weary unto death of terror, destruction, despair, uncertainty and hate. Maybe. But I’m not that much of an optimist.

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I approach most holidays with an anthropologist’s mindset. I like to know the history of the holiday, I’m interested in the customs and rituals and I enjoy watching other people celebrate. Sometimes I even participate; yet most holidays don’t engage me.  For starters, there are too many of them; worse, they have mostly fallen prey to our relentless need to “retail-ize” our holidays, so that every celebration, however solemn or sacred, seems to come with its own sales and marketing plan.

However, I confess to having a weakness when it comes to Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s because Thanksgiving is about food – or rather, about the preparing and partaking of a meal together, which is the penultimate social experience. Then there’s the Macy’s parade, which, yes,  I watch every Thanksgiving morning. Most significantly, I like sitting down and giving thanks.

Cynics may point out that family gatherings can bring out the worst in people; that the Macy’s parade doesn’t always benefit from the kind of perfect weather we had this morning; and that selecting one day a year to be thankful is ridiculous,  especially when gratitude competes with turkey, cranberry sauce and Aunt Deb’s stuffing.

But taking stock of one’s good fortune is a useful exercise and we need to start somewhere. So I say, go ahead and give thanks for friends, family, health, your spouse, kids or pet, or even the kindness of strangers during difficult times. Tip your hat to silly things that make you smile, like cheesy TV shows, take-out food, unexpectedly balmy skies or even a pair of comfortatble shoes. And spend a moment thanking others who are working on your behalf around the world. Wish them well and safe journey home in time for Thanksgiving next year. 

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I love to read – always have – and so my eye was caught by the announcement of a recent study about Americans and reading. The report, issued by the National Endowment for the Arts, found that young Americans are not reading for fun as much as they used to. The study, ominously if cleverly entitled “To Read or Not To Read” is a followup to one in 2004 which discovered that more than half of all Americans don’t read novels, short stories, plays or poetry. Fearing perhaps that focusing on such effete intellectual pastimes as literary reading would draw further ire from Congressmen who have no use for the endowment, the NEA expanded its scope to include all reading, including nonfiction. What the research indicates is that there is an link between falling test scores and less recreational or “voluntary” reading among middle school and high school students (frequent readers do better on tests, obviously).

What occured to me to ask (and many others, according to an article in the paper) is whether either the researchers or the respondants are factoring in online reading.  True, the democracy of the Internet guarantees a high amount of purile drivel, particularly if you are driven to read the rant that passes for dialogue on most discussion boards. But there’s a surprising amount of decent reading available – original fiction from unpublished writers, online magazines with articles by thoughtful scribes, websites that bring together relevant articles from print magazines you might have forgotten to buy. I’m discomforted by the idea that reading comprehension scores have dropped and I hope educators can come up with creative ways to address that problem.  Most important to me, however, is not what people read or in what form they read it but that they are able to get beyond reading words to understanding fully how – and why – those words are being used.

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It really does seem as if the definition of “newsworthy” has been blurred beyond recognition…or perhaps simply swallowed whole by the insatiable beast that is today’s insta-news. Really, how do you fill all that cyber-space and give all those talking heads something to say? You create stories out of nothing or do what my dad used to refer to as “making a mountain out of a molehill.” Take the story that circulated last week about Candidate Clinton’s Cough. Breaking news story, complete with portentious music lead-in. Puleeze, it wasn’t consequential enough to warrant the effort. Then there are the stories that feel recylced; indeed they are, with minor revisions.  My favorite? “Winter Heating Costs Could Rise As Much As 10.5 Percent.” Maybe the numbers have changed but I could swear we’ve seen that story every winter for decades.  Then there are the stories that trumpet the results of some study or other. After awhile, even media outlets get a little skeptical about whether a study that shows eating high-fat foods can lead to weight increase or children who exercise are healthier is news. I mean, duh. Sometimes you get stories that seem like retreads, even if they aren’t precisely. Headlines about Iraq and Pakistan begin to feel that way; someone even said to me about the latest natural disaster in Bangladesh – “again?” 

Yesterday’s news about Barry Bonds’ indictment  felt like an old, tired, unsurprising and even recylced story. Whether you think it’s consequential, i.e. newsworthy, probably depends on whether you see it as a cautionary tale of one man’s pursuit of a coveted record or our pursuit of an umblemished hero.

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As everyone knows, news is not really new. That is to say, in our 24/7 environment, we get information immediately, which is then overtaken by other information even more immediate. Not only are stories instantly distributed, they are also instantly dissected, analyzed, reworked and commented upon, all of which impact how we receive the news or perhaps even what we consider to be newsworthy.

With so many things happening in the world and so many outlets competing for attention and market share, it’s distressing to find that the most lead Internet news sites appear to run virtually identical stories hour after hour. That strikes me as singularly lacking in creativity; I’m not even sure it’s smart marketing.  Why wouldn’t MSN offer a different take on what is newsworthy (okay, beyond certain monumentous events) than, say, Yahoo? Do they assume the same customer demographic? And if so, why? The short answer is that the outlets are all interdependant, what with this network owning that cable company or this conglomerate producing that news show. Nevertheless, it’s boring to see the same things repeated over and over again.  But then, on a rainy, gloomy day, comparing top stories becomes the Internet equivalent of a parlor game for the temporarily uninspired scribe. To spot a unique story is to imagine some likewise uninspired drone sitting at his or her cubicle and deciding which stories we millions will read.  Of course, it’s probably all electronic and random at that, but it’s fun to think about the possibility of a deviant human touch. Herewith, a list of top stories spotted on various sites at around 1 PM:

MSN listed the Chilean earthquake, a story about foreclosures, the FBI report on Blackwater’s role in Iraq, NY Governor Elliot Spitzer’s dropping of the controversial immigrant drivers’ licensing plan and Pakistan President Mushariff’s alleged intention to resign as army chief at the end of this month. 

Yahoo featured  the Mushariff and Chilean earthquake stories as well as one on Catholic Bishops instructing voters to follow church doctrine, and Chevron’s being required to pay for its part in the Iraq oil-for-food scheme. You gotta love Yahoo for  highlighting a study on why some species eat their newborn – I might need that information – and for considering the upcoming nuptials of Google co-founder Larry Page a top story.

Google has quite a comprehensive news site but the earthquake in Chile and the FBI report on Blackwater dominated.  Surprisingly, no mention of Larry Page’s engagement.

Comcast led with the Mushariff, Spitzer and earthquake stories also seemed to find Matt’s ascention important, along with some news about Microsoft fixing a bug (yawn), President Bush promising to rebuild the Justice Department (yawn), the possibility that O.J. Simpson hearing may end today (thank god!) and that Matt Damon was named People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” (well good for him!)

And AOL, home of the free, the brave and some of the nuttiest, looniest and downright most insane posts I’ve ever seen, pretty much went its own way with its top stories.  ·   Texas Border Mayors Want Wider, Deeper River ·   Democrats’ Report Details ‘Hidden’ War Costs ·   Four Get AIDS Virus From Organ Donor ·   Georgia’s Governor Leads Prayer for Rain ·   Alligator Kills Fleeing Burglary Suspect .

Now this is what I’m talking about!

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My high school English teacher detested the “passive voice,” viewing it as a weak and even cowardly form of expression. Although I’ve never been able to muster her level of outrage at a sentence that reads, say, “There were seventy people present” instead of “Seventy people attended,” I prefer my nouns clear and my verbs active, the better to know who did what to whom. Which is why I’m tempted to tear my hair out whenever I hear the phrase “mistakes were made.”

You’d think a sentence that is fast becoming a parody of itself would have the good grace to retire but no, the damn thing seems determined to stay the course. Even the Coast Guard threw out those passively potent words in addressing accusations that it was slow to respond to the recent and potentially catastrophic oil spill in San Francisco Bay.  The phrase seems to have originated, at least in its present almost aggressively passive incarnation, with none other than Richard Nixon (more on that later). You’ll find it in Ronald Reagan’s address to the joint session of Congress in 1987 in regard to the Iran arms-for-hostages situation, and even earlier as an all-purpose explanation for the ethical imbroglios that plagued Bill Clinton’s first term. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales relied on it to explain away the firings of eight U.S attorneys. Several members of the current Administration use the phrase regularly as a way of talking about the process by which the U.S government has, um, er, processed the war in Iraq.

Author Charles Baxter, writing about recent influences on fiction in his book “Burning Down the House” contends that Richard Nixon is “the inventor, for our purposes and for our time, of the concept of deniability. Deniability is the almost complete disavowal of intention in relation to bad consequences.” Baxter’s thesis is that fiction is more challenged because, in the public arena, politicians and leaders feel free to alter their “narratives” to be misleading or confusing or vague.

Actually, public confidence is what is challenged. Whenever a prominent figure in a position of importance says “mistakes were made,” you can be sure that responsibility is evaded, accountability is denied and the buck is passed.

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The ancient proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has long been considered of Arab provinance, although there is some evidence that it is also a Chinese maxim. Regardless, it has been a foreign policy staple for as long as there has been foreign policy or war or, for that matter, entities arguing over who gets to own a particular piece of land. Maybe it made sense once in the days when you found yourself swinging sabers alongside your enemy, both of you battling for survival against a larger invading army. If your comrade in arms then turned around and swung the sword in your direction, you could respond in kind or hightail it out of there. On the other hand, if you found that working together produced satisfactory results, you might decide to forgo your petty quarrels, forge an alliance, prepare a feast and call it a day.

Nowadays, it feels like a perilous and naive way to conduct foreign affairs. Yet the United States appears to have been picking its allies based on a sort of “lesser of two evils” rationale since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, as is pointed out in “Thank God, They’re On Our Side” by David Schmitz. Actually, his book tracks the relationships between the U.S. and dictatorships between 1921 and 1965. After that you’re on your own but here’s a partial list: Pinochet, Suharto, Noriega and yes, Saddam Hussein.

We need to improve our taste in BFFs. Are these really the guys we want to have our backs when the chips are down? These enemies of democracy and liberty – these are our friends?

As we are all hyper-aware, our current “frienemy” is supposed to be Pervez Musharraf, whose latest forays into democracy involve declaring a state of emergency in Pakistan, a nation that actually has weapons of mass destruction. The hard-line Islamists hate him, and U.S. support just adds to that tinderbox. The lawyers, teachers and other advocates of democracy also oppose him. It is the second group he has moved to jail, which should terrify us, but since his promise to fight terrorism is what binds him to us, all we seem to be able to do is warn, scold, and continue to send money.

History is full of shifting alliances and sometimes you just have to throw your lot in with the least bad and hope that was your best choice. However, as the world gets more complicated, we might want to rethink the impetus behind a century of foreign policy decisions. For starters, we need new friends.

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I was mugged last week. I never saw it coming.

My attacker, I should point out, was not human or animal but rather viral in nature. It delivered a one-two punch to the lower abdoman while I sat in a coffee shop working, on this very blog and sipping a large cup of decaf. “Ah-ha,” I thought, “this coffee’s too strong.” That was my last clear memory before doubling over as the blows from the unseen assailant kept coming. Staggering out of cafe, I made it to my car and drove home, where I washed down a Zantac with some of that stuff that’s supposed to coat your stomach. I managed to get a leash on the dog and get out, wherupon I doubled over again, causing my neighbor, also out walking her dog, to ask if she could help. “Gas,” I gasped and stumbled back to the house with the puzzled pooch.

The next 24 hours were a blur but I know they involved a couch, a bed, a blanket, an anxious dog, the kind ministrations of a family member and frequent visits to the bathroom.  What they did not involve were food or rest. My stomach, a sensitive sort on the best of occasions, took the worst of it. My throat didn’t do so well and I actually bruised a rib, thanks to…oh, I think you can figure it out. Clearly, this had been a particularly viscious assault.

There are lots of tips about surviving flu season although apparently none of them include warnings about when the damn thing starts. While it’s true I procrastinate every year, I generally end up getting a flu shot sometime in mid-November. The shots do not prevent flu but they soften the blow. At least they have in years past, where I remember mild discomfort if anything at all but nothing like this.

The flu is going around, my friends have told me. Why so many incidents so early is probably the subject of a separate debate. Was the unusually warm autumn – a breeding ground for viruses and how does global warming factor in? Are there new drug-resistant strains out there entering the US along with all sorts of tainted products and people that make it past porous ports, bungling bureacracies and bantamweight border patrols? Could this all be part of a plot to weaken us, foisted upon a complacent populace by this or that organization or cell or nepharious group bent on world domination? See, lots to think about it, once you get past the nausea and pain. But since it’s impossible to think when you feel like utter crap, my advice is to turn off the news, turn down the light and go with the flow because, for a brief period of time, you are at the mercy of a tiny terror.

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