Tuesday, September 30, 2003

My latest Tribune story:
On sister cities exchange programs between Schaumburg, Ill. and Schaumburg, Germany.

-My Tribune archive

Monday, September 29, 2003

My latest Books&Culture Corner:
On Eugene Peterson's "The Contemplative Christian in America," a lecture hosted by The Christian Century which I attended last week:

My latest B&C blog:
A second look at the Wall Street Journal's "lucky duckies" editorial, with a detour into social pscyhology's Tragedy of the Commons scenario.

-My B&C blog archive

Friday, September 26, 2003

Today is my 24th birthday. I usually seize on such milestones to zoom out and reflect on life (as I did last year), and this seems especially appropriate at 24. I don't know why, but 24 seems like the age where you're supposed to think you have life figured out. In your teens you're clueless; 20-23, you're occupied by college and first-job worries. But 24, you're supposed to be going somewhere. I reflected earlier on my confusion about where I've been this past year (though I do feel contentment with life, which is more important than confidence). But today, in just about the best way to spend a birthday, I attended a series of seminars by the truly wise Eugene Peterson, with my report coming Monday at BooksandCulture.com. That piece will be the best way to sum up my thoughts on a day like this.

The second-best birthday present, meanwhile, are Cubs tickets on the last day of the season with everything on the line. My wife and parents and I will be at Wrigley on Sunday to see the Cubs make history.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

My latest B&C blog:
Thoughts on eyesight and how our senses can betray us (see this week's New Yorker for a piece on restoring the retinas of the blind). Plus, what's wrong with rhetoric about "educational proficiency," by the lucid Malcolm Gladwell.

-My B&C blog archive

Coming next week: my book review roundup.

Monday, September 15, 2003

My latest B&C blog:
The prison reading of ImClone's Sam Waskal, as related by Rebecca Mead, and some thoughts on Amazon Wish Lists. Plus: myths of September 11, the future of Hong Kong, Arabs in so-called Roman Europe, the overlap between economics and psychology, and the rare collective hope of fans of the Cubs, Red Sox, and White Sox.

-My B&C blog archive

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

My latest B&C blog:
August news in review and more:

-My B&C blog archive

Trimmed from my news in review:

- Sept. 11 to become volunteer day?

- Worm crawls Web

- Tickets nixed by bribed officer will be reinstated

- Pedophile priest kiled in prison

- Alcatraz anniversary (second item)

- 7-inch hailstone sets records

- First gay Episcopalian bishop confirmed

- 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand winds up in Japanese slaughterhouse

- First cloned horse created in Italy

- Record deficit forecasted

- Peddler of missile launcher parts arrested

- Chicago worker's shooting spree

- Madonna kisses Brittany

- American human shields in Iraq to face fine

- Columbia report released

- Peru report released

- Obit: Charles Bronson

Previous Timeline Extra

Chicago Beat
TIMELINE extra extra:
My inaugural Chicago sports month-in-review column, which may soon be picked up by the Chicago Sports Review:

Some eight hours after the first pitch, Aramis Ramirez slapped a single to score Sammy Sosa and the Cubs had a 4-3 win over Arizona. Their line was four runs, 13 hits, no errors, 14 innings, one three hour rain delay, one tying run scored from first by Aramis in the 11th inning, one bellyflop by a trespassing fan on the Wrigley tarp, and still three and half games behnd Houston.

And that was just the first day of August.

Sports, they always say, are a marathon, not a sprint. It's a cliche now, but no one was around to tell the original marathoner, Pheidippedes, who ran 26 miles to Marathonas to report Athens' upset of Persia, then dropped dead of exhaustion. At least he didn't have to endure a 162-game season.

But there was no slowing Mark Prior, who came back from injury last month in a furious chase for the Cy Young, winning five straight starts (including torchings of the Dodgers, Astros and Cards) with an E.R.A. at half the price of gas. Somebody tell him he has a whole career to collect a Cy or four. Would the formerly frenetic Kerry Wood have gotten to a thousand whiffs, as he did last month, without pacing himself?

The dog days of August, they call them, as a reminder that only idle days can bring about autumn. (Idle days? The Colts-Broncos preseason finale was the fourth-most watched television broadcast that week.) But the Sox weren't snoozing against the Yankees, roughing up the Rocket 13-2, following it up with an 11-spot the next day. (Then, putting the "dog" in "dog days," they lost in Detroit). You know, maybe it is a sprint. It was for that idiot father and son who charged the field at then-Comiskey last year (see, there is one way to get a decent view at that park); both were slapped on the wrist last month with probation.

Nah. It already looks like it's going to be a long season for the Bears, whose sluggish starters found but one sure way to get a first down in four desultory preseason games: kickoff returns. And for the Blackhawks, even though they finally signed Tuomo Ruutu. And for Maryland, toppled in Northern Illinois' third-ever victory over a ranked team.

Endurance? Who's hung in there more than Cubs fans, starved of glory for nearly a century now? We paid our respects last month to Claude Passeau, the Cubs pitcher who won Game 3 of the 1945 Series in Detroit, one night before William Sianis and his unwelcome Billy Goat put a hex on the team. But while you'll have to wait another 60,000 years for Mars to get as close to the Earth as it was in August, maybe you won't have to wait that long for the Cubs to get close to a championship. The way their team endured last month, Cubs fans started to hope that it would be Dusty Baker perched behind the postgame press conference mikes in November, rambling on in his trademark stream-of-consciousness, sound-bite defying replies. Just as well. If you're in for a marathon, it helps to be long-winded.

- Previous Chicago Beat
Thought of the Day: the worth of the examined life
Little girl likes her brain. What's your opinion?
-Kent Brockman, summing up guest commentary by Lisa Simpson

I may have some bad news. The vita contemplata, or contemplative life--which I've swooned over with the sort of dizzyness that makes you start speaking Latin like that--may be overrated. I'm still fond of contemplation itself, which is in short order in modern life. The unexamined life is not worth living, pleaded Socrates to an Athens jury. The actual quote is:
To let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others ... is really the very best thing that a man can do. ... Life without this sort of examination is not worth living." link

In college, as an aspiring writer, I idealized a peaceful, private life of reading and writing, and assumed that after a hectic reporting career, I might be able to withdraw to such serene solitude as a columnist or freelancer, perhaps as a stay-at-home dad. But just three months out of college, when my Tribune internship ran out, I was a full-time freelancer right off the bat. It's been one year now, and I'm trying to take measure of one of the strangest years of my life.

My setup sounds perfect, more so than I could have imagined in college: regularly contribute features to two respected publications, the Chicago Tribune and Books&Culture, live in downtown Chicago, my favorite place on the planet, compulsively follow the New Yorker and the Atlantic, with time on the side to delve into the theology and philosophy titles lining my shelf. "Beats working for a living," as John McEnroe summed up his life as a TV announcer to David Letterman a couple weeks ago. But at the one-year mark, just before my 24th birthday, I don't know how much more I can take of this "perfect" life, nor what I should do instead. It's not just the little practical headaches; some editors never return e-mail, some Tribune checks come one solstice after a story runs. (I may be the lone example of how marriage can keep people out of poverty, as George W. Bush envisions.) The uncertainty of routine--that by-product of flexibility and independence--means I have nothing to do some days, and five things to do for three different employers on others.

That's petty quibbling--of an especially whiny sort, given the number of unemployed and bored employed out there. The real test for me, I've been surprised to learn, is having to tolerate being with my own thoughts for so long, so often. This is what I thought would be the good part. But until you have the fortune or misfortune of as many days as I've had sitting at home, ruminating, writing, depending on my noodle for company, for recreation, and for a paycheck, it's hard to imagine how unhuman an existence it can seem. I say unhuman because we were created by God to interact with other people, to converse, to have relationships, to gather, to be social. To have peace and privacy at times, too, but as a break from normalcy, not normalcy itself. Other than the people I interview by phone (and occasionally in person), the couple friends we eat out with every week or so, and my wife, it's just me sitting here typing. And although I am an introvert, this can be absolutely mentally taxing. In part because I try to do mostly "serious" reading (as much as the New Yorker et al merit the word). In part because I'm interested in, and thus occupied with, just about everything; I'm a mile-wide-inch-deep type of person, and it's more comfortable (if not ultimately preferable) to specialize in something, to have a vocational focus. In part because the change from social life with college friends to a lonelier life, now that my three roomates and I live in two U.S. states, Canada, and Africa, was abrupt and caught me off guard. In part because my wife and I haven't really found a niche with a church community yet. In part because working from home is a challenging dynamic to introduce to a marriage.

I still think I'm better off being at home as an independent writer than I would be boxed in an office and sucked into corporate culture. I know I would miss my current life if I did take a "real" job. And although I wish I was flushing out brilliant books and essays that would justify this lifestyle, I'm reasonably satisfied with both the quantity and quality of my output. Still, I feel guilty; I have the nagging feeling that I'm not doing it right. The contemplative life is supposed to yield good contemplating, but I worry that the lifestyle is instead, at times, paralyzing me, jumbling and even stalling my thoughts. Maybe I'm doing it wrong. Annie Dillard is a writer's writer; she writes in rooms with bare walls and bad views, and says the writing life, properly done, should be "colorless to the point of sensory deprivation." The reason so many writers write about their childhoods, she says, is that "a writer's childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience." From then on, writers entertain the "ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper." In this stiffly enforced solitude, with its seemingly numbing tedium, Dillard chisels and polishes words and sentences, and the result is writing that bursts off the page and transforms the reader. Philip Yancey, in his chapter on Dillard in his collection Soul Survivor, says that "people have a glamorized image of a writer's life." The truth, he says, would disappoint them. "We work alone, rebuffing all distractions, and create our own private reality, exploring and domesticating it..."

The purpose of this monastic existence is that it yields wisdom of a richness that the frenetic pace of a normal life would render inaccessible. But I've found much truth in this quote from Nicholas Sebastien Chamfort: "The contemplative life is often miserable. You should do more, think less and not watch yourself living." A wise writer friend of mine talks about getting "lost in my interior universe." He says, "If I do write, there's a sense of isolation to contend with; if I don't, there's a self-hatred ... When I put it to myself that way, the choice is clear--isolation is easier to deal with and goes away faster than disappointment with myself." Earlier, I clipped "luftmensch" as a recent word of the day; it means "an impractical contemplative person having no definite business or income." And while "impractical" is too small a flaw to condemn contemplative pursuits, it does make me feel guilty (boy, do I live in an industrialized society or what), even though I believe that good writing can glorify God, as Dillard does. In my case, it might just be some mild depression brought on by a blend of the biochemical and the circumstantial, or the marital discord; but solitude does not seem a recipe for pure wisdom. I'm all for wisdom in a folly-filled world, but how much does writer's wisdom make the world a better place, and how much of it is selfish individual diversion?

"Man remains a mystery to himself, and to attempt to elucidate that mystery by delving into one's mind is merely to increase its perplexing obscurity." Paul Tournier, The Meaning of Persons

- Article from Books&Culture: Thomas Merton and the monastic life.
- Earlier Thought of the Day: Too much cynicism?
- Previous Thought of the Day: Poe and The Matrix

Saturday, September 06, 2003

Randomly Interesting (summaries from the NY Times)
- Che Guevera, marketing icon?

- Texas tourism: George W. Bush slept here

- Making witness protection a priority in justic-averse New Orleans

- Oregon's covered bridges

- Covered bridges in Oregon

- Russia's bubblegum duo all the rage in Russia (more from Sydney Morning Herald / NYT on feminism and female roles in Russia)

Previous Randomly Interesting
As a tree torn from its soil, as a river cut off from its source, the human soul wanes when detached from what is greater than itself. Without the holy, the good turns chaotic. Abraham Joshua Heschel
From the Chicago Sun-Times' Quick Takes:

News Item: "It was a stunning blow to producers who had counted on. . ."
News Item: "Turkey's parliament dealt a stunning blow to. . ."
News Item: "Key lawmakers on Capitol Hill hailed the arrest as a stunning blow. . ."
News Item: "The ruling was a stunning blow to. . ."
News Item: "The proposed layoffs would deliver a stunning blow. . ."
News Item: "But their efforts received a stunning blow last week when. . ."
News Item: "Kenyatta's defeat would be a stunning blow to. . ."
News Item: "The contract represented a stunning blow to. . ."
Anyone have an aspirin?
I almost never read Dear Abby, but I do care about dumb traditions thoughtlessly perpetuated at weddings. Here's a good idea from an Abby correspondent about what to do instead of throwing the bouquet and fishing for the garter:

Dear Abby: I have been a caterer for more than 20 years. A classy alternative is this one: The bridal couple asks all married guests to stand. Then, in multiples of five or 10 years, they are asked to sit down when asked the length of their marriage. The couple married the longest is awarded the bouquet and garter to the applause of everyone.
Brian Wren wrote this about the Middle East, but some of it may apply to the current chaos in Iraq:

Say no to peace
if what they mean by peace
is the quiet misery of hunger,
the frozen stillness of fear,
the silence of broken spirits,
the unborn hopes of the oppressed.

Tell them that peace
is the shouting of children at play,
the babble of tongues set free,
the thunder of dancing feet,
and a father's voice singing ...
Sorry, if anyone cares, about the light blogging here last month. I was concentrating on B&C work, and trying to rest my noodle when I wasn't. More stuff here this month.
Etymology Today from M-W: hoity-toity \hoy-tee-TOY-tee: thoughtlessly silly or frivolous : flighty
: marked by an air of assumed importance : highfalutin

Today we most often use "hoity-toity" as an adjective, but before it was an adjective it was a noun meaning "thoughtless giddy behavior." The noun, which first appeared in print in 1688, was probably created as a singsongy rhyme based on the dialectal English word "hoit," meaning "to play the fool." The adjective "hoity-toity" can stay close to its roots and mean "foolish" (". . . as though it were very hoity-toity of me not to know that royal personage."-W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge), but in current use it more often means "pretentious."

Also, from Slate: Where does the phrase "pie-in-the-sky" come from?
And from the London Guardian: OED editor John Simpson's favorite words with unusual origins

Previous E.T.