Monday, November 17, 2003

This week in my B&C blog:
How "brights" are becoming a religion of their own. Also: My postcard from Washington, D.C., the global roots of democracy, the history of the Serenity Prayer, the nickel gets a face-lift, and more... LINK/ARCHIVE

Related item: Speaking of the nickel, it will commemorate the expedition of Lewis and Clark. Last year, I linked to an item from Slate that questioned their place in history. It quoted one author as saying, "If Lewis and Clark had died on the trail, it wouldn't have mattered a bit." Here's a story on the explorers from last month's Common-Place.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Number of the Day: 308
National cable channels, up from 145 in 1996, according to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association
-USA Today

-Previous Number
Thought of the Day: chronology and personal narrative
Is narrative inherent or imposed on a person's life? Is a person's life a story? Or is story a device we place on someone's life to try to get a hold of it? I've been thinking about this as I do some personal profiles for the Trib: one on a rabbi who was a tour guide in Israel and whose parents were Holocaust survivors, another on a Filipino immigrant and his latest business venture here in Chicago. I introduce them by describing and quoting them, but you can't do an profile without the when and what of their lives. In the case of the rabbi story, this is especially true, since the theme of the story is how unexpected occurrences have strung her life together. But is life essentially a chronology, or is it not a temporally defined experience?

My questions of this were fleshed out by the profile of screenwriting workshop guru Robert McKee in the New Yorker's recent Making Movies issue. McKee is the guy portrayed in Adaptation, when Nicholas Cage is asking these kinds of questions--how life is like and unlike a story, why certain kinds of storytelling conventions resonate with audiences (according to Hollywood, anyway). How does life amount to what happens, and how does life transcend what happens?

Stories, McKee says in his seminars, are "metaphors for life." The New Yorker quotes Barbara Hardy as saying “we dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative.” The profile continues:

McKee seems persuaded that real life has the shape of a story-there are third acts, even if they may have a second-act air about them. “Yes, there are turning points, and points when the curtain comes down-ta-da!-then the thing starts again.” For all McKee’s gloom, and his love of stories in which grown men cry ... he is driven by a kind of melancholy optimism: “Hopefully, you can live in a way so that you can die with the notion that, on balance, the sense of achievement outweighs the regret.” ...

In McKee’s description, this is what a story is: a human being is living a life that is more or less in balance. Then comes the “inciting incident.” (McKee borrows the phrase from “Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting” which was written in the late forties by John Howard Lawson, the first president of the Screen Writers Guild, and an inspiration to McKee.) The protagonist reacts, his life falls out of balance, and he now has had aroused in him a conscious or unconscious desire for whatever it is that will restore balance-“launching him on a quest for his object of desire against the forces of antagonism.”

But is this really who we are, or who we are about? The sum of our "inciting incidents," our achievements and failures, our loves and partings? Or is the human person something else, someone whose essence these models only begin to explore? For example, you could say a person is defined by her relationships with other people and God, her personality traits, her thoughts, her emotions. When she dies, those are the most important measurements of what has been lost. And perhaps the elements of achievement and progression in McKee's story archetypes are empty exercises whose worth does not match dread of death. But as Adaptation asks, why do we need a story--why aren't those wondrous orchids compelling enough without some kind of progression, without a narrative arc?

McKee sketches out the “Classical Design” model--as the New Yorker describes: stories with causality, closed endings, linear time, an external conflict, a single, active protagonist. (He ignores a question from the audience that inquires about the meaning of the success of banal blockbusters, as the New Yorker summarizes: "are some resonant stories not metaphors for life? Or are the fans of 'Titanic' leading lives that make lousy metaphors?") The way he talks about himself suggests McKee's own fear of death shapes him the same way he says it shapes characters. The New Yorker piece ends with him talking to a friend about Adaptation ahead of time and saying, “I cannot be a character in a bad movie. I can’t be.” Of course, the New Yorker piece was itself a story about McKee--talking about where he got what degree and what accomplishments (and failures, including a long unfinished novel) compose his life. For a piece about story, it never suggests to us whether this story about McKee is how we should know him and understand him. After reading it, I feel like I've sat in on one of his seminars, but not that I know who he is. To know another person, story alone won't cut it.

Related: When writers turn their friends into characters, from the Sydney Morning Herald
Previous Thought: Does everyone keep to a comfort zone?
By my count, 2 of this week's 16 NFL games pitted winning teams against each other.
Recent New Yorker cartoons (more coming next week in my B&C blog):

-Husband giving gift to wife: “If you don’t like it you can always use it as another example of how I have no idea who you really are.”

-Wife to husband reading paper, You know, lately I’ve been fantasizing about having a twosome."

-Woman being proposed to: “I’m looking for a man who doesn’t want anything to do with the wedding planning."

-Sign in office: “14 Days Since The Last Inappropriate E-mail.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

When novacaine makes you bi-lingual: My mouth was half numb and full of instruments this morning when my dentist turned her head and sneezed. I'm not up on my etiquette, so I didn't know: was I supposed to try to offer a blessing under such conditions, even though it would have been less a "bless you" and more of a "bwah hoo"?
I was on hold with my credit card company yesterday for, as I was told, a customer satisfaction specialist. I thought those kind of people only worked for 900 numbers.
Nicholas Kristof's column this morning on ideology and vitriol is a relevant followup to my post last week on ambivalence. What he doesn't address, though, is the conventional wisdom that partisan loyalty is, overall, in decline among Americans. Is that still true? Or are moderates just more decisive now? Or are extremists just more outspoken? (And are liberals really getting more secular and conservatives more religious? I thought the heyday of the "Religious Right" had mostly waned, and more evangelicals voted for Gore than for Clinton.)

That ambivalence posting was prompted by a recent offer I got to write some newspaper op-eds. My problem with op-eds is that I hate the sanctimonious and presumptuous tone in which they're usually written, and which I struggle to avoid myself. Mostly, I hate trying to boil things down into overly simplistic terms. I was reading this interview with my brother-in-law, Stephen Henderson, by the Poynter Institute, which two years ago gave him an award for his editorial writing in the Baltimore Sun. The questioner asks if he's "opposed to editorials that say, 'On the one hand...' and 'On the other hand...'" Steve responds, "That's the kiss of death. ... You've got to get all that out of your mind before you sit down at the keyboard." His point is not that an argument should be boilerplate or take on straw men, just that it shouldn't be muddled. Still, in light of Kristof's column, I think that as long as opinion pieces end up at a solid conclusion, they should do a better job of illuminating the merit of two or three sides if they are to truly serve the public and not just rally an interest group.

Monday, November 10, 2003

This week in my B&C blog:
A look back at Take Back Your Time Day, and why our working lives are out of whack (and why more TV watching won't help). Plus: two banks' dubious plea to stop and smell the roses and not worry about money. Also: Shangai's sinking skyline; the Pope's legacy; Unmarried America by the numbers; the social effects of spam and phonecams; George W. Bush, member of Skull and Bones; stiff-arming asteroids, "Armageddon" style; how sonar kills whales; roundup of music and "Matrix Revolutions" reviews; and more ... LINK/ARCHIVE

More on my B&C items this week:
-Quote from the linked story on Skull and Bones:

“The preoccupation with bones, mortality, with coffins, lying in coffins, standing around coffins, all this sort of thing I think is designed to give them the sense that, and it's very true, life is short,” says Rosenbaum. “You can spend it, if you have a privileged background, enjoying yourself, contributing nothing, or you can spend it making a contribution.”

-Re: phonecams: A reminder of the ephemeral nature of gadgets.

-More Matrix: I should have added this Slate story on how the trilology lost its way:
Number of the Day: 2 million
Approximate number by which registered cell phones exceed residents in New York City.
-New Yorker

-Previous Number
Thought of the Day: Does everyone keep to a comfort zone?
Does everyone live in a small world? I'm not talking about the Six Degrees of Separation principle, interesting as that is--which says that everyone is linked by informal and remote relationships (see link below). Nor am I talking about the "global village" supposedly introduced by the Internet. I'm wondering if most people, wherever they live and whatever they do, remain mostly confined to their comfort zone--a well-worn routine of home, work, and back (and maybe a leisure spot or two). We tend to traverse typically narrow paths that cover little ground. Or so I've been thinking, in my first year living in a big city. Even though it's a far larger and more dynamic place than my mid-sized city hometown, with more things to do and better means of getting around, my wife and I tend to inhabit but a slice of it. We can list a respectable number of things we've done in the city--from sporting events to the theater to other cultural events--but for the most part we keep to our familiar patterns and routes of home to her work, home to church, and in my case, just home. I was reminded of this as we flew back from Baltimore after a couple days spent in an unfamiliar locale. As our plane glided over the northern reaches of Chicago, we stared down at the grid outlined by the orange specks of streetlights, and I noted the contrast between this vast tableau and the small beaten path we were searching for in vain; the former unfamiliar (at least from above) and threatening, the latter familiar and comforting. I've been thinking lately that this applies to most city-dwellers; we have our home, our work, our commute, and that is the extent of what we regularly experience of this massive metropolis. It's part of the reason I started my Chicago 101 collection, a photo tour of some of the city's historical spots, including some non-tourist destinations many Chicagoans don't know are there. This is also why I chose to go into journalism--to regularly meet people and go places I ordinarily wouldn't. I think this narrow periphery is also true, figuratively, of travelers--I wrote earlier about how business travelers are numbed by the monotony of airplane cabins and airports, and the same may go for truckers and highways. They cover geographical ground but stay stuck in a groove. Funny how this is true of so many people in so many walks of life even after the last century's revolutions in transportation, information "industries" (replacing manufacturing), and communication technology.

As I mentioned, for me, as I work from home, the boundaries of my periphery are immediate: my four walls. I do have a high-rise view of the city and the horizon, and, by writing about places and ideas, I do mentally connect with a broader world than I might in other professions. But the majority of my living happens in a very small space. I wonder how natural and healthy our patterns of narrow periphery are, and how much they are not. I also wonder about what my friend earlier called the "interior universe." As I read, or listen to the radio, I imagine the place or person being conveyed. As broad as I suppose my horizons are metaphorically, this nonetheless means that most of my engagement with reality happens in my apartment and in my head. Time to re-read what Walter Lippmann said about Plato's cave shadows, and then watch the Matrix again, in order to better worry about this.

Earlier Thought: The examined life
Previous Thought: The purpose of ambivalence

• Here's more on the Six Degrees principle from the NYTimes. I also talked about it in my B&C blog here.

Socially, it may be a small world, but it's hard to get from here to there. In the current issue of the journal Science, researchers at Columbia University report the first large-scale experiment that supports the notion of "six degrees of separation," that a short chain of acquaintances can be found between almost any two people in the world. But the same study finds that trying to contact a distant stranger via acquaintances is likely to fail. ... In this global study, more than 60,000 people tried to get in touch with one of 18 people in 13 countries. The targets included a professor at Cornell University, a veterinarian in the Norwegian army and a police officer in Australia. Despite the ease of sending e-mail, the failure rate turned out much higher than what Dr. Milgram had found, possibly because many of the recipients ignored the messages as drips in a daily deluge of spam. Of the 24,613 e-mail chains that were started, a mere 384, or fewer than 2 percent, reached their targets. The successful chains arrived quickly, requiring only four steps to get there. The rest foundered when someone in the middle did not forward the e-mail. As in most social networks, it is not just a question of who knows whom, but who is willing to help.
Etymology Today from M-W: accoutrement\uh-KOO-ter-munt\

1 : an accessory item of clothing or equipment — usually used in the plural
2 : an identifying characteristic

"Accoutrement" and its relative "accoutre," a verb meaning "to provide with equipment or furnishings" or "to outfit," have been appearing in English texts since the 16th century. Today both words have variant spellings — "accouterment" and "accouter." Their French ancestor, "accoutrer," descends from an Old French word meaning "seam" and ultimately traces to the Latin word "consuere," meaning "to sew together." You probably won't be too surprised to learn that "consuere" is also an ancestor of "couture," meaning "the business of designing fashionable custom-made women's clothing."
Previous E.T.
Excerpt of NY Times article for my B&C blog:
-Skip this entry

In recent weeks the devices have been banned from some federal buildings, Hollywood movie screenings, health club locker rooms and corporate offices. But the more potent threat posed by the phonecams, privacy experts say, may not be in the settings where people are already protective of their privacy but in those where they have never thought to care.

"Even simple things like your daily grooming habits around your nose and mouth can be embarrassing if captured by someone else," said James Katz, a professor of communication at Rutgers who says he has witnessed people being physically threatened for using their phone cameras. "We're moving into an era where there will be almost nothing that's not captured by somebody's camera, and that has dramatic implications for how people choose to live their lives in public."

Legally, the new generation of shutterbugs is probably safe for now. In a public place, the expectation of privacy, which American courts must weigh in evaluating whether a violation has occurred, is assumed to be negligible. News cameras can photograph people in public without their permission, and we have become accustomed to security cameras watching us in elevators, cabs and A.T.M.'s.But ethically, the new surveillance tools seem to puncture a long-held assumption that it is possible -- and often desirable -- to lose oneself in the crowd. And in an image-conscious culture, hidden cameras in the hands of fellow citizens with instant access to a global audience may provoke more outrage than government or corporate surveillance cameras whose images are not shared with the world. ... Camera phones have begun to outsell digital cameras. ...

The object of street photography, whose legacy dates to the invention of the Kodak camera in the 1890's, has always been to capture life as it is lived, and photographers have eagerly adopted technology that would allow them to record it more faithfully. In the mid-1930's, Helen Levitt famously attached a right-angle viewfinder to her 35-millimeter Leica so she could photograph children in New York City neighborhoods without pointing the camera at them directly. But even the most miniature digital cameras require holding the camera up to the eye, signaling that a photograph is being taken. It is the stealth capability of camera phones, combined with their ability to broadcast the image instantly, that some legal experts say may eventually call for a rethinking of privacy laws. ...

-Back to B&C blog

Saturday, November 08, 2003

Number of the Day: 3
Cups of sugar in the average child's stash of Halloween candy, which contains over 5,400 calories, according to the U.S. Department of Health.

-Previous Number
Thought of the Day: The purpose of ambivalence
"I'm ambivalent about everything," I told a friend a few weeks ago. I meant that lately, in my thinking about my faith, my marriage, and my political views, I find myself saying, "On the one hand, there's x, on the other hand, there's y, and I guess the truth lies somewhere between or beyond them." The tagline to this weblog says "ideological ambivalence." I've noticed how "ambivalence" is often used as a synonym for "ambiguous" and even "apathetic." If you say someone is ambivalent about something, you may mean she doesn't really know what to think, or she doesn't care. I tend to wince when I hear the word this way. To me, ambivalence is a powerful, profound human emotion. Experiencing tension in life, seeing the merit in two conflicting attitudes and points of view, is healthy and underrated in a culture that makes Ann Coulter and Michael Moore bestselling authors. So when I use "ambivalence" in my tagline, I mean that, unlike the majority of blogs, I try not to just rant from a predetermined point of view in a predictable way--I'm looking for merit promiscuously. I believe conservatives are capable of having some good ideas (well, at least a few), and so are liberals. This previous sentence is all but un-uttered in public life today. I called my news column in my high school paper "The Radical Moderate," because I disagree that one's enthusiasm and emotions about politics are reduced the closer you get to the middle and increase the farther away you go. I want to be outspoken, and yet not boxed in. So when I say "ideological ambivalence," I don't mean that nobody's perfect and why bother with arguments and issues--I mean instead, life is complicated, and why pretend that it's simple?

But then I looked "ambivalence" up this morning. The first definition is the one I like: "simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action." The second one, though, validates the usage I don't like: "continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite)" and "uncertainty as to which approach to follow." This is not a desirable state. Indeed, the objections I draw on a listserv of college friends tend to be along the lines of: it's nice to appreciate different points of view, but you can sit around deliberating until you're old and gray while other less conflicted people are out there getting things done. I'm sympathetic to that view (uh oh, does that make me ambivalent?). I guess the middle ground between what I would call "strong" ambivalence (active pursuit of truth through the exploration and appreciation of differing perspectives) and "weak" ambivalence (a limp mind and disillusioned or apathetic withdrawal from the search for truth) is being confident about your beliefs while respecting others' (although that sounds a little hokey).

I was thinking about this question of "strong" ambivalence on my trip to Washington D.C. this week, where my wife and I plunked down in the gallery of the House of Representatives. There, some Congressman was unburdening himself of his displeasure that a bill they just passed (increasing funding for veterans' benefits) hadn't been passed sooner. And I'm thinking: your job is to make laws, buddy, not waste our time complaining about a bill that just passed which you support anyway. But the real question is this, and this gets at the guts of the problem with political rhetoric: if your case is as patriotic and sensible and noble as your rhetoric suggests (and this guy's speech was gooped in patriotic slogans), then, unless you acknowledge the merit of your opposition, don't you leave it implicit that the only cause for opposition is the lack of patriotism and sense and nobility? Don't you imply that you are not just right, but you are righteous, since, if your case is as plain and grand as you say, only a dunce or a devil could thwart it? Would your opponents say, Yes, we agree our veterans have provided our nation a valuable sacrifice, but we have a different view about budget priorities or amendments tacked on to the bill or the administration of the funds it calls for--or would they not? I was sitting there feeling disheartened about just how boring and pointless this was to listen to; there was almost no chance of hearing anything meaningful. There was no suspense. And so almost no one in the mostly empty chamber was listening. Even the presiding officer was staring at the ceiling for much of this guy's speech.

This is my problem with 99 percent of rhetoric by politicians and columnists. They don't help us understand what the two (or three or five) sides are and how they compare with each other. Instead, they make it sound like the side they're promoting is so obvious that their opponents are either foolish or manipulative in opposing them. Every time I read an op-ed by Peggy Noonan or Kathleen Parker or Paul Krugman (and I seldom do anymore), I wish it were legally required for them to spend one paragraph on why people disagree with their position. They may just think it's because people are dumb, or they may see a better reason for disagreement, but either way, they should say it if they want an audience of anyone but the choir they preach to (and I see no indication that they do). This polemic thinking lies at the root of our culture wars: the pious Right says, those godless liberals wouldn't know goodness if it bit them in their fornicating behinds; the snooty Left says, how can we trust country bumpkins and this monosyllabic cowboy president they voted for to know anything? My pie-in-the-sky idea is that if politicians and pundits spent less time parading and more time helping us actually understand issues and options, people would be more engaged with politics. If independent swing voters really are becoming the majority in this country, it would seem this approach would be as effective as it is good.

- Related: the problem with issue-empty campaign coverage, from my B&C blog
- Previous thought: babies and idealism
Cheesy Jesus Marketing Watch: Jesus teething ring at "It gives other people a good visual about your beliefs and is a good testimonial as a gift to new parents." I think Mary herself would have rejected this kitsch were it presented to her at the manger. More from my B&C blog on tacky Christian marketing (second item)
Etymology Today from M-W: diluvial \duh-LOO-vee-ul
: of, relating to, or brought about by a flood

Late Latin "diluvialis" means "flood." It's from "diluere" ("to wash away") and ultimately from "lavere" ("to wash"). English "diluvial" and its variant "diluvian" initially referred to the Biblical Flood. Geologists, archaeologists, fossilists, and the like used the words, beginning back in the mid-1600s, to mark a distinct geological turning point associated with the Flood. They also used "antediluvian" and "postdiluvian" to describe the periods before and after the Flood. It wasn't until the 1800s that people started using "diluvial" for floods and flooding in general. American educator and essayist Caroline M. Kirkland, one early user of this sense, wrote, "Much of our soil is said to be diluvial — the wash of the great ocean lakes as they overflowed towards the south," in her essay Forest Life in 1850.

Previous E.T.

Friday, November 07, 2003

Number of the Day: 200,000
Average annual income, in dollars, of readers of the Wall Street Journal.
-New Yorker

-Previous number
Thought of the Day: babies and idealism
There's something about holding a newborn baby--not just seeing her picture or watching a Pampers ad, but actually holding a tiny human creature--that makes you less socially idealistic and more personally idealistic. They say anyone who isn't a Democrat at age 20 has no heart and anyone who isn't a Republican at age 40 has no brains, and now I understand that a little bit better. I held my new nephew this week (I'm his only uncle), fit his tiny form into my folded arms, felt his warmth, watched him squirm to get comfortable, considered the alternating traquility and turmoil of his face (depending on his wakefulness and gas). These are the moments in which the Questions of the World, urgent but abstract as a college student, suddenly fade, and the world seems more centered on this person, on your caretaking, and the house you now hope to be a sanctuary you both. You start thinking less about Solving the World's Problems and more about keeping those problems the hell away from this fragile young life. You're less worried about "changing things for the better" than changing diapers. Suddenly the bleeding heart liberal in me started acknowledging the allure of the rhetoric of the right, the get-tough-on-crime and get-government-off-your-back bumper stickers that place isolated survival and individual advancement over utpoian notions of a social, shared public life. You instantly care a little bit less about the inequalities of the education system and the lack of opportunities for the nation's disadvantaged youth than you do about this child's education and opportunities. I could imagine this already, and this was my nephew, not my son. I remember reading a Slate reporter a year or two ago who said that having a child made him borderline misanthropic--presuming the worst about strangers while out in public with his young son, not just protective but nearly paranoid. I'm still 24 and, down deep, fervently idealistic. I'm not saying I endorse all these thoughts. I'm just saying you're more prone to have them go through your head when you hold a baby, and I guess that says something about human nature, not to mention the success of the Republican Party.

Related: Why families are, economically speaking, good for society, from the New Yorker
Previous Thought: Free as a bird in flight?

Monday, November 03, 2003

This week in my B&C blog:
October news roundup: a month of spectacles, from the California recall to Siegfried and Roy's untamed tiger to the world record for M&M's eaten with chopsticks. Postcard from my friend Cathy Guiles in Huntsville. And my October book review roundup: titles on Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, Italy, Hawthorne, Toni Morrison, Samuel Morse, the Detroit auto industry, Gary Larson's "The Far Side," and more ... LINK/ARCHIVE
My latest Tribune story:
A sidebar for the Sunday Magazine on the endurance of mom-and-pop pharmacies in the age of Walgreens.,1,3810238.story

Every street does seem to sprout a new Walgreens, CVS or Osco. But it turns out that mom & pop pharmacies are hanging in there after bottoming out eight years ago, when only 20,000 U.S. indies remained of 40,000 in the 1970s. "Since the mid-1990s, the independent pharmacies that survived the shakeout have been pretty much holding their own," says Dr. David Zgarrick of Midwestern University's Chicago College of Pharmacy. "Their number has stayed constant or even increased slightly." Today, there are 230 indies in Chicago, 700 statewide. Compare to Walgreens' 122 in the city and 228 in the burbs (the Deerfield chain opens new stores around the U.S. at a rate of 8 to 9 a week) and CVS's 50. All are scrambling to meet spiraling demand for medications, double that of 1991. Boomers get more RX's, doctors are replacing hospital stays with meds and more folks seek "lifestyle drugs" for everything from allergy to sex. Most go to mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart, mail-order houses or the chains. But Michael Patton, of the Illinois Pharmacists' Assn., says indies still count: "An independent pharmacist fills a consultancy role--not just filling prescriptions, but talking about a drug regimen with a customer."

-My Tribune archive
Number of the Day: 500,000
Dollars spent per year by Shaquille O'Neal on private jet travel, necessitated by the inconvenience and crowds commercial flight would involve.
-USA Today

-Previous number
Thought of the Day: Free as a bird?
Is flying still synonymous with freedom? Through the ages, the poets and children inside us all have mused about "the tent of blue" (in Oscar Wilde's words), the celestial canvas draped over the world, and longed to join the birds and explore this majestic expanse. When the Wright Brothers first loosed humans' bonds to Earth, and when Apollo astronauts later linked us to the moon, flight still served as a waking dream, a living poem, an ethereal visit to the front lobby of God's throne room. Preparing for my first airplane flight today since September 11, 2001, I was reading this article from Wired yesterday in a Best Business Writing anthology, a fascinating feature on "200 day" people (indicating the number of days they fly per year) and other very-frequent fliers. (The story conspicuously predates September 11 and the apparently related decline in air travel.) These travelers are mostly ambitious and creative business people, but after a while most of them grow numb from so much time spent in airplanes and airports, in cramped cabins, breathing stale air, eating bland food, watching blander movies, suffering aching loneliness. One traveler identifies the surest signs of frequent fliers: "The pallid complexion, red watery eyes, deeply furrowed brow, the look of hunger for home, for edible food and a sleepable bed." As I read, I could feel the weariness in the joints of these travelers, and I was struck by the irony that this quasi-catatonic state couldn't be farther from the soul-liberating dream of flight as conceived by the poets, the Wright Brothers, and the rest. How is it that racing through the clouds in a massive machine has become such a tedious chore? We may look no farther than the soul-less environs of airports or the workaholism of frequent fliers, or at the less-examined factor how fit the human body is for conditions of flight. But tonight, this once-a-year flier will cherish the bird's-eye view of the skies and the world below.

Previous Thought: Are historians inherently nostalgic?
CBS.comI panicked when I realized I forgot to tape the CBS 75th anniversary special last night, then breathed a sigh of relief when my dad said he did. Caught the tail end of the special; not sure if it was an adequate historical record worth saving for posterity, or if the abbreviated, hyperbole-laced presentations of memorable programs are too superficial to merit museum piece status.
Etymology Today from M-W: impugn \im-PYOON\
: to assail by words or arguments
: oppose or attack as false or lacking integrity

When you impugn, you hazard repugnant pugnacity. More simply put, you risk insulting someone to the point where he or she wants to sock you. The belligerent implications of "impugn" are to be expected in a word that derives from the Latin verb "pugnare," which means "to fight." In its earliest known English uses in the 1300s, "impugn" could refer to a physical attack (as in "the troops impugned the city") as well as to figurative assaults involving verbal contradiction or dispute. Over time, though, the sense of physical battling has become obsolete and the "calling into question" sense has predominated. As you might expect, the ancestors of "impugn" also gave English other fighting words, including "repugnant" and "pugnacious."

Previous E.T.

Friday, October 31, 2003

Number of the Day: 47
Millions of U.S. residents who speak a language other than English in their home, as of the 2000 Census. 28 million speak Spanish, 2 million Chinese.
The Week

Previous Number
Thought of the Day: Are historians inherently nostalgic?
Is there a certain built-in nostalgia that comes with (or precedes) being a historian (an historian, for stuffier readers)? I was thinking about this while plowing through a dense 400-plus page analysis of the decentralization and suburbanization of New Haven, Connecticut. The author goes into meticulous detail while chronicling the midcentury decline of central New Haven, listing many of the businesses and social groups that disappeared as the highways were built and people migrated to the burbs. Pages and pages and charts and charts on who was there and what was lost. Implicit in them is dismay over their demise and disapproval of the privatization of life--the way cars, television, and other technology have replaced the former ways of face-to-face city living and isolate us. At one point the author acknowledges that, yes, the old city could be foul and noisy, so let's not get carried away (see the related Jonathan Franzen quote at my page on Chicago's Union Station, where I get rather nostalgic myself). But the thrust of his writing, as purely reportorial as it seems to aspire to be, is that "progress" isn't necessarily progress. I wondered how much this lament is fundamental to the writing of history. Do historians take an interest in studying the past not just because they think we can learn from it, but also because they are personally nostalgic for it? Are they especially prone to romanticizing history as they thumb through colorful portraits of historical battles or black-and-white television footage? (Black-and-white footage evokes a realm that is separate from our full-color--and increasingly sensory overloaded--present, and we may unconsciously forget that the referents of such images were full-color and as "normal" as anything we lay eyes on today.) This may be mostly true of liberal historians--who, like the author I'm reading, are dubious that the explosion of capitalism and technology has made the world substantially better and long for a simpler age--but also of conservatives--those who fondly recall the valor and honor of World War II soldiers (a glossy outlook deconstructed here) and bemoan the cultural subversion of the Sixties. Are all ideologues living in the past, or at least overeager for the present to conform to it? How much does this impair their analytical powers?

Previous Thought: illusory regret

Thursday, October 30, 2003

My B&C blog is idle this week. So here again is the summary for last week:

Reflections on sacred spaces: When my new home church, the gorgeous neo-Gothic Fourth Presbyterian, was invaded by Cameron Diaz, "pay-per-view" cathedrals in Italy, and more on how cultural values shaped the history of church architecture in America. Also, a postcard from Phil Christman in St. Paul; Wal-Mart goes to China (while store #3297 speaks out in The Onion); The Eighties are back (again); homeless hotels in New York City; the too-much-homework myth; The Vatican as "saint factory"; a roundup of the most well-written recent movie reviews; and more... link/archive

Or, some digest segments from the archive worth revisiting:

3/17 | 4/7 | 4/28 | 6/9 | 7/7 | 7/14
Number of the Day: 85,000
"Walk"/"Don't Walk" signs in New York City, which are being replaced by Hand/Person Walking signs at the cost of $28.2 million. (If you don't like the change, you can, presumably, talk to the hand.)
-New Yorker

-Previous Number
Thought of the Day: illusory regret
I started thinking about regret today. I have some mildly major decisions to make, and fear of regret is a by-product of the decision process, both before and after. What triggered my thinking initially was the sight of a graying businessman on the El today, and the weariness conveyed by his face. Writers always read too much into these things, and accordingly I pegged him as someone bearing the weight of former dreams that never flourished, the results of choices he made, consciously or unconciously. And the relevant regret. Pick your metaphor: regret pricks you as you trace your memory, or it aches somewhere inside you, an occasional nuisance. (See, this is reading far too much into the sigh of an old man.) I was thinking about how foolish regret is, despite its power over us, the part of us that dreams and aspires. Regret usually bears the implication that you could and should have done something differently to achieve a different result. I was thinking today, on the front end of these decisions I have hanging over me, how illusory this assumption is, that we can do things and decide things and get a certain direct result. Life is so full of unintended consequences and unexpected twists and turns as to render regret erroneous--who can say whether choice x would have yielded result y? Some regrets are important corrective measures--I shouldn't have wasted my money or time on such and such a class or job or person. But others are illusions: if only I had gone back to school, or not gone back to school, if only I had married younger, or married older... These are idle pursuits. Life is about making a choice, following your heart, taking a step, and then adjusting on the fly to whatever happens next.

-From my B&C blog: Regret 'lacks immediacy,' says William O'Rourke
-Earlier Thought: What does selfless ambition mean?
-Previous Thought: The problem with listening
Randomly Interesting

-Blackout prompted some New Yorkers to study insect sounds they heard, from the New Yorker

-Fireplace logs made of recycled coffee grounds burn brighter and hotter, from the New York Times.

-Colleges luring students with with hot tubs and other luxuries, from the NYT.

-Cliques and bullies in the blogosphere, from the Wash. Post.

-New York City mails letters to pedophiles telling them to mind their own business on Halloween, from the Wash. Post.

Previous R. I.
Etymology Today from M-W: brouhaha \BROO-hah-hah: hubbub, uproar

There is a bit of a brouhaha over the etymology of "brouhaha." Some etymologists think the word is onomatopoeic in origin, but others believe it comes from the Hebrew phrase "bârûkh habbâ’," meaning "blessed be he who enters" (Ps 118:26). Although we borrowed our spelling and meaning of "brouhaha" directly from French in the late 19th century, etymologists have connected the French derivation to that frequently-recited Hebrew phrase, distorted to something like "brouhaha" by worshippers whose knowledge of Hebrew was limited. Thus, once out of the synagogue, the word first meant "a noisy confusion of sound"-a sense that was later extended to refer to any tumultuous and confused situation.

Usage Nuances from M-W: salubrious \suh-LOO-bree-uss\
: favorable to or promoting health or well-being

"Salubrious" and its synonyms "healthful" and "wholesome" all mean favorable to the health of mind or body. "Healthful" implies a positive contribution to a healthy condition (as in French chef Jacques Pepin's Simple and Healthy Cooking, which features recipes using "more healthful ingredients"). "Wholesome" applies to something that benefits you, builds you up, or sustains you physically, mentally, or spiritually (as in centenarian Julia Bunch’s recipe for longevity: "hard work and wholesome country living" - Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 12, 1985). "Salubrious" is similar to the other two, but tends to apply chiefly to the helpful effects of climate or air.

Previous E.T.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

My latest Tribune story:
On Rockford College's response to Chris Hedges' controversial antiwar commencement address:,1,3015745.story

Incidentally, an early report on the speech in the Rockford Register-Star last May contained one of the worst sentences I've seen in a while:

[Hedges] criticized military heroic ideals that grow during war. The fervor sacrifices individual thought for temporarily belonging to something larger, he said.

Paging an editor, or an English teacher...

One of my professors responded to the story this way:

This shows outstanding leadership, taking a "bad" experience and elevating the experience of students and the role of the college as a
whole! I think that I learn from this that, every "crisis" situation presents a unique opportunity, and can be an opportunity for enlarged growth and development individually and collectively.

Which was--as you will not be shocked to learn--the angle of the story. But couldn't you spin this the other way, and ask, what good will endless high-minded deliberation by these ivory tower dwellers do to win back trust in their blue-collar town?

-My Tribune portfolio
Number of the Day: 2.9
Inches by which the average height of a seven-year-old in South Korea exceeds that of a seven-year-old in North Korea.
-Harpers Index

-Previous Number
Thought of the Day: The problem with listening
I finally pinpointed my problem with listening, as ungracious as it sounds. As I mentioned, I'm rereading Anna Deavere Smith's Talk To Me, a visionary work about communication in media and politics. In it, Smith eloquently talks about the importance of trying to hear people--not just listen to their words but try to hear what's happening behind them. (Funny, we usually talk about "hearing but not listening"--and yet I think the reversal in meaning in that sentence works.) As I noted earlier, Smith says that this sometimes happens when a speaker's syntax runs off the rails, and so she transcribes her various interviews verbatim, with all the um's and run-on sentences of some of the most articulate people in Washington captured on the page. I'd been thinking about this some more after hearing Mitch Albom speak at Borders here on Michigan Ave. on Monday. He steered my thinking away from the power structures of business and politics with which I am occupied as a journalist, and back toward the countless "ordinary people" who have fascinating stories to tell and whose insignificant (as it seems to them) lives go mostly unchronicled, while boring celebrities are amplified endlessly. (Albom's new novel is about one such person, based on his uncle, who felt his life didn't amount to much but goes to heaven and meets people who prove him wrong). It renewed my commitment to go out and tell unexpectedly interesting stories about unexpectedly interesting people. Which only happens by listening. A related idea still camping out in my brain was about technology, which, as Quentin Schultze points out, does nothing to improve our listening, only our "messaging." All the sales pitches about new communication gadgets entice us to express ourselves or to fiddle with buttons, at the expense (they don't mention) of becoming better listeners and consequently better people. And so the need is plain for patient, selfless, curious listening to people and the truth that lies in their stories.

But as I was thinking it over, I identified the cause of my minor discomfort with this mission to listen, which I felt guilty about but want to get down on paper (or in bytes). If you believe, as my fellow Calvinists (including Schultze) always have, that all humans are inherently corrupted by sin to some extent, what caveat does that add to our listening? How much does listening serve to facilitate another person's self-absorption? Because of our fall into sin, everyone is prone to deceit and distortion in our communication, whether out of pride, greed, ignorance, or carelessness. We miscommunicate to serve ourselves or out of oblivion to truth. Most of us do not do this to the grotesque degree of Ken Lay in the last year of Enron's existence, but at moments here and there in daily life, our communication can obscure as much as it enlightens. The optimistic humanism of Smith and Albom--who tend to believe that our better angels are what invariably shine through when the human spirit is allowed to come up for air in moments of connection between people, leaves little room for a caution about discernment when we listen, about how much to become absorbed in people's stories and how much to remain detached so as not to follow them when they stray from the truth. (This is why, as much as I am dubious about the notion of a journalist's "objectivity," it is a useful reminder not to speak too definitely from one point of view). The reason I feel guilty about saying this is that the message of Smith and Albom seems so pure and so righteous, and it mostly is: we must be listeners in life, living with patience, open-mindedness, and empathy in a fast-paced world. But at the risk of being too cynical, I'm going to keep reading their books with this grain of salt: humans are dually, maddeningly capable of communicating truth and of missing it.

-Previous Thought: As things get 'better,' empathy gets worse
-Earlier Thought: Are people basically good or evil?
-Earlier Thought: The difference between 'effective' and 'good' communication
To snooze or not to snooze: Reviews of Madeline Albright's memoir "Madame Secretary."

New York Times:
It is unlike any other by a secretary of state ... She writes, one of her goals was "to be sure the main character didn't bore people to death."

The Atlantic Monthly (2nd item):
Such books promise to be boring, for when a former Cabinet officer--unlike, say, a record producer--reminisces, she perforce adopts the sonorous and bloated tone of one writing A Work of History, as she chronicles, for example, her speech endorsing "intercultural communications." ... Madam Secretary ... is neither better nor worse than others of its ilk.
This Shouts & Murmurs (I was about to abbreviate that and then realized...) is a clever deconstruction of the self-righteous rhetoric of interest groups, playing with all the usual cliches about moral outrage over social wrongs. Plus, since its subject is the inevitability of death, it puts the outrage of those oh-so-urgent causes in perspective. This earlier Shouts was an even funnier spoof of Donald Rumsfeld ordering breakfast. And finally, just because I don't want to lose any links to anything by Anthony Lane, here's Lane on "Sylvia."

Major league, even if our baseball team is only Single A: My earlier disgust with my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has--upon moving from it--been replaced by fierce pride. So I was glad to see this surface on an e-mail list-serv I'm on:

According to official designations of metropolitan areas contained in the 2000 census, only ten states have larger second-largest cities than Michigan (Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, New York, Tennessee, and California). The greater Grand Rapids metro area has nearly twice the population of the entire state of Wyoming.
Mickey Kaus has the best take on the Gregg Easterbrook brouhaha. He's the hardest-hitting but most fair. The episode is a little worrisome after my earlier blog about Christians in the media. Instapundit was all over the frightening firing by ESPN.
Not to ruin the previous post, but Julia Keller's front page essay after Game 7 was poignant--and, Michael Miner reveals at the end of his column this week, written in 20 minutes.
Ten years later, the journey of the 1984 Cubs is completeThe Cubs open the 1994 World Series on my Super Nintendo against the Yankees in Wrigley Field, having won 92 regular season games to New York's 91. The Yankees ousted the team with the best record, the 102-win White Sox, in Game 7 of the ALCS, and thank goodness--the Sox' bats would have been far more terrifying to face after the Cubs edged the homer-happy Braves in the NLCS.
Game 1: Mike Morgan v. Jimmy Key. Morgan hangs a curve in front of Wade Boggs in the top of the 3rd and Boggs blasts it for a home run and a 1-0 Yankees lead. It stays that way until I pinch-hit Glenallen Hill for faltering leadoff hitter Dwight Smith in the bottom of the 6th; Hill sends one over the fence to tie it at 1. In the 7th, Sosa singles and then scores from first on a Rick Wilkins double to make it 2-1. Dan Plesac comes in to relieve Morgan in the 8th, puts the go-ahead run on base with two walks and one out, then gets Don Mattingly to hit into a double play. Scrub Eric Yelding hits for Plesac and gets a single, then scores on a Hill triple. Myers gets the save. Cubs win 3-1, lead the series 1-0.
Game 2: Greg Hibbard v. Jim Abbott. Steve Buchele, my best hitter in the postseason, strikes out with runners on first and second to end the 1st inning and keep the game scoreless. The Yankees load the bases in the top of the 2nd but I strike out the pitcher to get out of the inning. In the bottom half, Sammy Sosa leads off with a double and advances to third on a double by Wilkins. Then Wilkins is doubled up on a caught line drive and the pitcher strikes out to end the inning. Still scoreless. In the bottom of the 4th, Mark Grace skies one to the warning track but is retired. The next batter, Buchele cranks it over the wall and it's 1-0. I load the bases again in the 6th but fail to score. Hibbard strikes out the side in the 7th. Sosa triples with one out in the bottom half of the inning, but neither Wilkins nor Rey Sanchez can get the ball out of the infield. Still 1-0. But setup man Jose Bautista is dominant in the 8th, as is Randy Myers in the ninth, and the Cubs hang on. Cubs win 1-0, lead the series 2-0. On to the Bronx.
Game 3: Jose Guzman v. Scott Kamieniecki. Sosa's solo homer makes it 1-0 in the top of the 2nd. Jose Vizcaino gets on in the 3rd with an infield single, Dwight Smith bunts him over to second, and Karl Rhodes knocks him in on a triple to left. 2-0. Then Hill, in the lineup as a DH, blasts a 2-run shot to make it 4-0. Guzman is in command of the punchless Yankee lineup and has a one-hitter going. Sosa, who will go 4-4 on the night, gets on to lead off the 6th before another Wilkins homer makes it 6-0. Myers completes Guzman's one-hitter. The Yankees have 15 hits through three games to the Cubs' 29. Cubs win 6-0, and are one game away from a World Series sweep.
Game 4: Greg Hibbard v. Jimmy Key. Dwight Smith leads off the 1st with a triple and is tripled home by Rhodes, but no one can get Rhodes home. 1-0. Hibbard scatters five hits over eight innings on three days rest, but I can't get more than one baserunner on against Jimmy Key for the next six innings. Then Rhodes leads off the top of the 9th with a solo homer to make it 2-0, and we go to the bottom of the 9th. Myers allows a leadoff single but gets the next two batters. Danny Tartabull comes to the plate representing the tying run with two outs. Cubs' fans hearts leap to their throats as Tartabull launches one deep into center field, but Smith chases it back, camps under it, makes the catch, and delerium descends on Wrigleyville.

-Previous Summary
Etymology Today from M-W: maudlin \MAWD-lin\
1 : drunk enough to be emotionally silly
2 : weakly and effusively sentimental

The history of "maudlin" owes as much to the Bible as to the barroom. The biblical Mary Magdalene is often (though some say mistakenly) identified with the weeping sinner who washed Jesus' feet with her tears to repent for her sins. This association led to the frequent depiction of Mary Magdalene as a weeping penitent, and by the 16th century even the name "Magdalene" suggested teary emotion to many English speakers. It was then that "maudlin," an alteration of "Magdalene," appeared in the English phrase "maudlin drunk," which, as one Englishman explained in 1592, described a tearful drunken state whereby "a fellow wil weepe for kindnes in the midst of his Ale and kisse you."

Usage Nuances from M-W: beguile \bih-GHYLE\
1 : to deceive by cunning means
2 : to draw notice or interest by wiles or charm
3 : to cause (as time) to pass pleasantly

"Deceive," "mislead," "delude," and "beguile" all mean to lead astray or frustrate, usually by underhandedness. "Deceive" implies imposing a false idea or belief that causes ignorance, bewilderment, or helplessness (as in "they tried to deceive me about the cost"). "Mislead" implies a leading astray that may or may not be intentional (as in "I was misled by the confusing sign"). "Delude" implies deceiving so thoroughly as to obscure the truth (as in "we were deluded into thinking we were safe"). "Beguile" stresses the use of charm and persuasion in deceiving (as in "they were beguiled by false promises").

• Previous Usage Nuances here and here
Previous E.T.

Monday, October 20, 2003

This week in my B&C blog:
Reflections on sacred spaces: When my new home church, the gorgeous neo-Gothic Fourth Presbyterian, was invaded by Cameron Diaz, "pay-per-view" cathedrals in Italy, and more on how cultural values shaped the history of church architecture in America. Also, a postcard from Phil Christman in St. Paul; Wal-Mart goes to China (while store #3297 speaks out in The Onion); The Eighties are back (again); homeless hotels in New York City; the too-much-homework myth; The Vatican as "saint factory"; a roundup of the most well-written recent movie reviews; and more... link/archive
A soldier tells a reporter in the first frame of this editorial cartoon in the Indy Star: "Today we reopened a school in Baghdad and built a soccer field in Tikrit, but we still have a lot of work to do." The reporter turns to the camera: "Our soldiers are bogged down in a quagmire with no exit strategy." I identified this media reflex in this item in my B&C blog, but concluded that if both Friedman and the Weekly Standard say they have good reasons to criticize Bush about Iraq, that says something. But constant contrarian Jonathan Rauch makes the media-are-blowing-it-out-of-proportion case in the National Journal.
Cubs continue playoff charge on Super Nintendo MLBPA BaseballWrigley Field remains open for business on my Super Nintendo, where, at last report, the Cubs were even with the Braves, 2-2, in the 1994 NL Championship Series.
Game 5: In Atlanta, Sammy Sosa opens the scoring in the first inning with a bases loaded single to put the Cubs up 1-0. David Justice ties it with a homer in the second, followed by a 3-run blast by Steve Buchele
in the bottom of the inning to give the Cubs a commanding 4-1 lead. The score stays put until the eighth, when Justice strikes again with a 3-run shot of his own, and the game goes to extra innings. In the top of the tenth, backup shortstop and rarely used pinch hitter Rey Sanchez stands in with the bases loaded and slaps a single. Randy Myers comes on to close it out, and the Cubs head back to Wrigley with a 3-2 series lead.
Game 6: Jose Guzman opens the first inning with two strikeouts. A Ryne Sandberg RBI triple and Steve Buchele RBI single give the Cubs a 2-0 lead. Catcher Rick Wilkins adds a solo homer to make it 3-0 in the 4th. In the fifth, leading 3-1, with one Brave on base, I give Fred McGriff yet another intentional pass to get to Terry Pendleton, who punishes me with a three-run blast to make it 4-3 Braves, and they hang on to win and send the series to Game 7.
Game 7: Greg Hibbard (a 15-game winner in real life) is stellar, shutting out the Braves on four hits in 7 1/3 innings. Jose Vizcaino finally comes up with a huge hit, knocking in a run on a double in the 3rd, followed immediately by a Dwight Smith RBI single to make it 2-0. Hibbard hangs on, Shawn Boskie provides serviceable setup work, and Myers, after putting McGriff on base in the ninth, closes down the Braves to send the Cubs to the World Series. They face the Yankees, who beat the White Sox in Game 7 of the ALCS. A Cubs-Yankees World Series--what might have been this year; what will be in a virtual realm.

Previous Summary

Back to '04: We'll always have the NLDS, when Kerry was killer. More: The National Review on the logic of curses, Miami's Dan LeBatard on the marvel of the Marlins.
Etymology Today from M-W: sententious \sen-TEN-shuss\
: given to or abounding in aphoristic expression or excessive moralizing
: terse, aphoristic, or moralistic in expression

Nowadays, "sententious" is usually uncomplimentary, implying banality, oversimplification, and excessive moralizing. But that hasn't always been the case, nor is it universally so even now. The original Middle English sense of "sententious" was "full of meaning," a sense adopted from Latin "sententiosus" (from "sententia," meaning "sentence" or "maxim"). In Modern English, too, "sententious" has sometimes referred to what is full of significance and expressed tersely. Or sometimes "sententious" simply suggests an affinity for aphorisms, as when it refers to the likes of Ben Franklin's Poor Richard (of almanac fame), the homespun philosopher given to such statements as "early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."

Previous E.T.
Excerpt for my B&C blog from
"Too Much Homework? Too Little?"
Chicago Tribune editorial
October 12, 2003
original link

Discussions about the burdens of homework should include an acknowledgement of why it exists: to reinforce or expand upon material covered in class; to help students practice independently the skills they're learning at school; and to develop the study habits they'll need as their educations progress.

There are a few things schools can do to help balance the demands on their students. Some principals, for example, set specific days on which teachers of various subjects are asked to administer their tests: for example, English tests on Mondays, math on Tuesdays, social studies on Wednesdays, and so on. This isn't giving students an easy ride; it's allowing them to deploy their resources--their time, will power and energy--to maximize their chances of effectively demonstrating what they've learned.

When complaints about homework hit high decibel levels, there's a protocol parents can follow to evaluate, and maybe ease, the burden:

- Ask to see your child's daily assignments, and estimate how much time you think they should consume.

- Measure the time your child actually spends doing those assignments. Time spent on the phone, or instant messaging, or winding down from an after-school job, doesn't count.

- If your estimate and your child's work time are out of whack, speak with his or her teacher. One question to ask: Has my child learned how to study this material, how to do this kind of work?

Together, you'll probably find a solution. One rule of thumb--not that all educators agree on it--is that students should get 10 minutes of homework per grade per night: 30 minutes a night for third-graders, an hour for sixth-graders, two hours for high school seniors. For many kids, that would require the assignment of more homework than they currently receive.

Remember, though, that becoming an educated person involves learning not just the material presented in classes, but also learning about oneself. There's much to be said, students, for doing your best, for pushing yourselves to your limit. But if, in your zeal to succeed, you push too far beyond your personal limit, you're likely to wind up unhappy--and doing shoddy work.

So select a course load you can manage, dig into your homework--and unless there really is a problem, please hold your complaints until your assignments are finished and stowed in your backpack. Your parents will be glad to attest that they never, ever complained about homework--so why should you?link