Friday, January 26, 2007

Sheer Genius

Among the many things I learned as a musician is an appreciation of talent. Hard work is indispensable for success, but it’s not enough. People who are inordinately successful have talent.

Pete Rose probably worked harder than any baseball player ever. He still didn’t hit .303 without eye-hand coordination most of us can only imagine. Doc Severinsen will be 80 in July. The amount of time he’s had a mouthpiece actually touching his lips can probably be measured in decades. He was also the trumpet champion of Oregon when he was nine years old.

I envy those who have a talent I’d like, but lack. (Pete Rose and Doc Severinsen come to mind.) I try to make the most of the talents I have, and have little regard for those who waste their own gifts. This is why I stand in awe of Virginia Delegate Frank Hargrove.

Insulting people isn’t as easy as it looks. I’ve written and said quite a few things that pissed people off, but rarely has anyone felt truly insulted, even when I make an effort. That takes true insensitivity. Delegate Hargrove managed to offend and insult two diverse groups of people in virtually consecutive sentences last week. (Three groups, if you count people with a brain in their heads.)

Virginia’s history of sensitivity toward those unlike themselves (read: not white Protestants) is distinctive. Shamed into making the third Monday in January a holiday to coincide with the Federal Martin Luther King Day, Virginia created the Lee-Jackson-King holiday so two Confederate icons wouldn’t feel left out while those boys celebrated that Nigruh’s birthday. (The holidays were finally split in 2000.)

Before the Virginia Legislature is a bill that, if passed, would officially apologize to blacks for Virginia’s two hundred plus years of slavery. Common sense dictates any comments be kept innocuous, especially for Republicans fresh off of George Allen’s “macaca” gaffe. Delegate Hargrove apparently has his own definition of innocuous.

“I personally think that our black citizens should get over it,” Hargrove said of slavery. “Are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?”

Oh, baby. A two-bagger. Regardless of your sentiments on either comment, I think we can all agree that for an elected official to say that, on the record, is bad taste at a Bushian level. As an outright display of public stupidity, it’s absolutely Sharpton-esque.

I bow to a master. This grasshopper has so much to learn, and so little time.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Eyes of the Beholder

The Outfit – A Collective of Chicago Crime Writers is an informative and entertaining blog co-written by seven crime fiction writers. Each has a unique perspective and writing style. The posts come in an essentially random progression as each writer latches onto a topic of interest. The end result is an potpourri of everything from fiction to writing analysis to home improvement tips.

Earlier this week, Kevin Guilfoile wrote this thought-provoking piece on how all writing is subject to interpretation. The post itself invites interpretation, and the odds are excellent what I took away from it is not what Guilfoile intended. Still, he touched on a couple of pet peeves that limbered up my fingers for the keyboard.

During Guilfoile’s recent publicity tour, an interviewer started riffing on the intricate and detailed Biblical references in his book. Guilfoile was impressed with her perspicacity and insight, not to mention her knowledge of arcane Biblical references. (Arcane to me; they might be common knowledge to someone of less heretical bent.) He admitted that she was absolutely right, with one caveat: he hadn’t been thinking of any of that when he wrote it.

This episode points out an old gripe of mine that kept me from reading fiction for twenty years. I still bear scars from a seventh-grade English class, where I was tasked with finding the “theme” of a Sherlock Holmes story. “Why did Doyle write this story?” the teacher asked. “What is he trying to say?” I gave her the standard twelve-year-old’s tripe along the lines of “crime doesn’t pay.” Subsequent (and shallow) scholarship taught me what I should have written: Doyle wrote the story for money. At some deep, possibly subconscious level, he was saying he needed – or wanted – more money than he had. Sherlock was a purely commercial enterprise to Doyle; he didn’t like his greatest creation much. While all good commercial fiction has depth to it, implying too much profundity does a disservice to both writer and audience. Sometimes a cigar is just a smoke.

Guilfoile later discusses a review of a book by an unnamed author. The critic (thankfully, also unnamed) unleashes this burst of literary opulence as part of his praise:

To read this book with anything like comprehension, a person has to be, like its polymath author, both intellectual and hip, a person mature and profoundly well read and yet something of a true marginal, a word-nerd with the patience of Job. In my charitable estimate that would describe about five out of 500 people that I know.

Guilfoile himself likes the book, and its author, so don’t be too put off by the critic’s snobbery. The example does bring us to the second of my vexations: the idea that great literature can only be appreciated by at best one percent of the reading population. (I’m no Stephen Hawking, but five divided by 500 is one percent.) Since I’m sure the critic only knows people already in the upper strata of intellectual accomplishment, we’re talking maybe the top one percent of that one percent.

How does that make it great? It can be argued for literature to be great, its message should resonate with more than a handful of people out of a full Airbus, or it becomes somewhat of a masturbatory exercise for intellectuals to trade snarky comments to each other about how dumb everyone else is. Writing to be understood by a small, self-defining group is more likely to make a good textbook than great literature.

This phenomenon is not confined to writing. I have a Masters degree in music, and it used to put me off when people unaware of my education would comment on a piece of music I didn’t care for in such a manner as to imply I just wasn’t elevated enough to get it. Now I think it’s funny, their way of self-perpetuating a sense of being better than someone else, or being smarter, or hipper. It ignores a simple fact: anyone can write a book that no one understands. Writing doesn’t become art because you have to think to read it, but because you’ll think about it.

Thanks to Mr. Guilfoile for writing something that passed that test. I don’t know if these are the thoughts he had in mind, and I hope he doesn’t think I missed the boat altogether. But, as his post so eloquently states, that’s the chance he takes when he lets others read his stuff.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Clueless Near Seattle

It is often said that small business is the bulwark of the American economy. If that is true, this post falls under the category Good News/Bad News.

The following quote was attributed to Idaho restaurant owner Rob Elder in the current issue of Newsweek:

"At $5.15 an hour, I get zero applicants-or maybe a guy with one leg who wouldn't pass a drug test."

Rob is lamenting the fact that neighboring Washington state’s minimum wage is $7.98/hour, the highest in the nation. It is implied that he welcomes the prospect of Congress increasing the minimum wage nationally, allowing him to better compete with Washington business for qualified employees.

The good news is that Rob proves not all small business owners have a knee-jerk reaction against raising the minimum wage.

The bad news is that it has obviously never occurred to him that the minimum wage is just that: a minimum. There’s nothing to prevent him from paying more. It looks like Rob considers his employees to minimum wage earners – whatever the minimum wage might be – and unfit to be paid any more than he absolutely has to.

Maybe that’s another part of the reason people aren’t lined up around the block to work for him.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Older Than Dirt. Dumber, Too.

Lost in the current Iraq turmoil is the Bush Administration’s perverse lack of honesty, intellectual or otherwise, in every facet of government. Take the National Park Service. “What possible pervasive disingenuousness could hinder the Park Service?” might be among the questions that spring to mind. Just don’t ask who old the Grand Canyon is, or how it was created.

Those not asking can currently buy Grand Canyon: A Different View, by Tom Vail, at any of the park’s book stores. The book explains how the canyon was created by the great flood. You remember, the one where Noah saved two of each living creature, including, apparently, all 900,000 species of insects. Poor Noah must have got them all, since nothing has evolved and God quit Creating after the first Saturday.

Aside from foisting a book of such dubious scholarship (read: none) on the public, park rangers current labor under a gag order much stronger than anything Scooter Libby’s grand jury heard of. The official response of all National Park Service employees to questions about the Grand Canyon’s age is, “No comment.”

An e-mail recently circulated, allegedly written by well-known social commentator Ben Stein. (Stein was the boring science teacher in The Wonder Years, and had a highly entertaining game show on Comedy Central for several years.) In the e-mail, Stein laments how those who believe in God in America are under daily assault from the forces of Evil.

Which America is he living in? Certainly not the one where right-wing religious zealots control government policy on matters ranging from the age of the Grand Canyon to Shrub’s Messianic insistence on his right to wage war against any Muslims, wherever he finds them.

The relative triviality of the Grand Canyon controversy is more than valid. Here’s the equation it represents: science has a pile of evidence as high as the Grand Canyon is deep, and fundamentalist Christians have the Bible.

The Bible failure to mention the creation of the Grand Canyon is damning in itself. You’d think God would be all over getting credit for that one. It’s a keeper, much better work than His work on leeches, or New Jersey.

Here’s something to ponder for those who assert the Bible’s infallibility: God didn’t write it. Each book was passed down for hundreds of years by word of mouth and translated God knows how many times. Even if we concede it was originally passed from God’s lips to Moses’ (Abraham’s, Noah’s, take your pick’s) ears, can anyone look you in the eye and say nothing got changed? Books that used to be in the Bible are no longer there. Were they no less the Word of God in their time?

Translation is a whole other issue, as so much of translation is in the mind of the translator. Translating anything word-by-word rarely, if ever, gives the true meaning of what was intended. Interpretations have to be made, and anything subject to interpretation is open to argument. Witness figure skating judges. Or Hall of Fame voters.

Even punctuation comes into play. Punctuation is a relatively recent invention; early Bibles had none. Observe the difference the placement of a simple comma can have, from Lynne Truss’ excellent book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves:

“Verily, I say unto thee, This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”
“Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”
Now, huge doctrinal differences hang on the placing of this comma. The first version, which is how Protestants interpret the passage (Luke, xxiii, 43), lightly skips over the whole unpleasant business of Purgatory and takes the crucified thief straight to Heaven with Our Lord. The second promises Paradise at some later date (to be confirmed, as it were) and leaves Purgatory nicely in the picture for Catholics, who believe in it.

So enough about the absolute infallibility of the Bible. Christians themselves can’t even agree on what’s in it.

Don’t confuse a belief in the Higher Power of your choice with religion. Religion is a set of arbitrary rules, created by humans, primarily to keep other humans in line. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that Christianity is fraught with rules laid down by a relatively few educated, powerful, and wealthy men, most of which involve telling people living in shit up to their necks that when they die everything gets better, and those living the lives of luxury (and keeping the losers in shit up to their neck) will get their come-uppance in the end? Considering the general state of ignorance and poverty in what the heyday of religion (now known as The Dark Ages), how hard a sell do you think that was?

“But it’s faith,” they argue. “You have to believe.” Faith, as practiced by contemporary religious types (Christian, Muslim, take your pick), consists of being confronted with the pile of evidence mentioned above and saying, “Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?” True Believers argue for the fallibility of science by pointing out how scientific ideas change (evolve) over time, asking how anyone can be sure they’re right this time. Asking is the whole point of science.
Knowledge is an elusive quarry; every incremental step just brings us closer. To accept things on faith alone would have us still believing the Universe rotates around the Earth.

Faith is the final refuge of those who don’t want to think anymore. Life is often a confounding series of seemingly random events where the good guys don’t always win. Good people get sick and die; bad guys prosper. It can be difficult to accept all of this without wanting to think there’s a greater plan that we can’t begin to grasp from our remote perspective. Believe what you want; it’s still a (relatively) free country. Just don’t make it public policy that yours is the only “right” way. Don’t even think about compelling me to think, act, or believe like you.

There’s no need to step away from the lightning bolt I have earned by my blasphemy. There’s no blasphemy here. Heresy, sure. I can live with heresy. A little heresy is a good thing. No man is infallible. Every authority could use some constructive questioning from time to time.

The Grand Canyon is as old as dirt. Those who would argue it’s not are as dumb.

Friday, January 05, 2007

January Faces Both Ways

The news has picked up after the holidays, and the primary question for any blogger is, “Where to start?”

The now-minority Republicans are whining about the trampling of their rights by the big, mean Democrats. A few Republican pipsqueaks even re-submitted the Minority Bill of Rights, first circulated by then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in 2004, when she was trying to get then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay's cowboy boot off her throat. That request was laughed aside. Now the Prada pump is on the other foot, and the GOP (which now stands for Grumpy Old Pussies) want the same treatment they denied Democrats.

What's fair? Pelosi and her peers promised bipartisanship, so some accommodation is in order. Worse things could happen than for the rule changes to be delayed a few weeks, if only to show Doughboy Denny Hastert and his merry band of midgets how the other half lives, and that the status quo ante could be revived by a 233-202 vote any time the Republicans become too obstructionist.

Shrub took his turn at disingenuous behavior by calling for Congress to cut spending and balance the budget by 2012. This tasks the new majority party (not his) with the Herculean task of cleaning up his party’s mess, while ensuring not much can happen until his successor is stuck with the heavy lifting. Conveniently overlooked is the fact that the budget is whacked in the first place because the Republicans simultaneously cut taxes, increased spending, and started a war. This trifecta had never been attempted in American history. Now we know why.

Speaking of American history, Keith Ellison was sworn in as the nation’s first Muslim lawmaker. His decision to take his oath on the Koran sparked an outburst of conservative indignity unseen since the advent of Freedom Fries in the congressional cafeteria.

Those who so staunchly (and irrationally) protest any perceived affront to either the Declaration of Independence or our “Christian Values” consistently forget one thing: the man who wrote the Declaration wasn’t a Christian. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who sees the wide divergence between the wish for religious freedom expressed in the Declaration and its current state of practice. In a rare example of justice, Ellison was sworn in with his left hand resting on Jefferson’s personal copy of the Koran.

Shrub also continued his unconstitutional practice of nullifying duly-passed statutes with signing statements. This time he “amended” a law prohibiting the government from opening private mail to read, “Unless I want to.” (Silly me, I thought this kind of thing was already covered by the Fourth Amendment.) Almost as bad, no one in the “watchdog” media noticed this for over two weeks, as the journalist who usually reads them is off writing a book. Hopefully it’s on the constitutionality of signing statements.

After a week like that, George F. Will advocating a minimum wage of $0.00 barely rates any space at all. Will is one of those columnists with whom I rarely agree, but often makes me think, and sometimes even changes my mind. Occasionally he writes something so dumb, it’s not worthy of comment. This is one of those times.

2007 is off and running. Let’s hope it’s not just a matter of “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”