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deepbackground
Date: 2008-07-13 23:41
Subject: I can blog again
Security: Public
I haven't really felt free to blog for about five months now. That's because there was one big thing gnawing away at me, and I couldn't write about it, and that made it nearly impossible to write about anything else. The big thing was that I was applying for a job at a large purveyor of sports-related clothing near Portland, Oregon whose name rhymes with Mikey (of Life Cereal fame). Now I've got the job, which I'll be starting roughly the second week of August. It's an extraordinary opportunity; in the next year, I'll have the chance to build my own team, travel several times to Europe, and get to know a whole new part of the country. But this was not an easy decision, even though the company I work for now is having all kinds of financial problems. So I have a number of observations, ruminations, and memories to catch up on in the next few weeks. I will try to be diligent.
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deepbackground
Date: 2008-04-23 13:43
Subject: Hyperlocal Food Production
Security: Public
I had a kind of a brainstorm today. I was listening to Fresh Air, and there was a guy on named Paul Polak who's worked to help poor farmers in places like Bangladesh and Nepal to figure out how to get more money out of their land. It got me thinking about how you can really grow quite a bit of food on a very small piece of land. Then I started thinking about a discussion Jen and I had with some friends recently about how we like the idea of growing our own food, but the reality of it is too much to handle (and, for us at least, not very much fun). It occurred to me that there may be an opportunity in an area like Ann Arbor for a company or organization that would actually come and build a vegetable garden in your backyard--plant it, tend it, harvest it, and prepare the soil for the following year--in the interest of stimulating hyperlocal food production.

I can imagine a few possible economic models that might work. For instance, the organization could charge people to do the gardening work (like a lawn care service), and then the homeowners would get to keep all the produce for themselves. (To handle the end-of-season glut, you could sell a canning service on top of the gardening service.) Or, better, it could be pitched as a way for people to use their yards to make money--the organization could grow the gardens and sell the produce to local restaurants and at the Farmer's Market, and part of the proceeds and a percentage of the produce could come back to the homeowners who loaned out the land. Or some hybrid--maybe the homeowner invests up front but sees a profit and/or part of the harvest at the end of the season, like in a crop share scenario, but in their own yards. This could play into the fantasy that a lot of folks have of being more self-sufficient, living off the land, etc. even though they don't have time to actually put in all that work. It would reclaim some of the agricultural land that's been given over to subdivisions. And it would offer a more radically decentralized alternative to our standard agribusiness model which has been the cause of so much debate in recent years.

I have no idea how viable something like this would be, but it's probably something I would pay money for myself. (Note that I am not suggesting I would want to actually do this sort of work ... I want to pay someone else to do it.)
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deepbackground
Date: 2008-03-24 13:55
Subject: New blog worth reading
Security: Public
If you are at all interested in what goes on in the mind of a chef-in-training and how a person learns to approach cooking as a combination of art and science, physical skill and intuitive vision, you can't do better than to read Yes Chef, No Chef. It's true that I'm biased--Greg's a friend of mine--but it's really extremely well-written, with his characteristic blend of personal anecdotes, well-considered opinions, and clear explanations of complex concepts. Whether or not he continues in the food business, I hope he keeps writing about it.
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deepbackground
Date: 2008-03-22 15:52
Subject: The Problem of Race in Esmeland
Security: Public
Recently, Esme and my mother were at Noodles & Co. having lunch, when Esme announced out of the blue, in a loud voice, that she didn't like the way people look who have dark skin, and she thinks they aren't nice. There were some African-Americans in the restaurant who very likely heard her, and Esme's outburst caused my mom quite a bit of embarrassment. Separately from the embarrassment, the remark also (understandably) upset her, and she let Esme know it. Among other things, she told Esme about a black friend she'd had when she was younger and living in New York City who was the most beautiful woman she has ever known in her life. "When you say something like that," my mom said, "you're saying that my friend wasn't beautiful, and that hurts my feelings." Esme got teary and said, "Grandma Ellen, don't worry. I would like whoever you liked."

I have full confidence that, as sensitive as she is to other people's feelings, Esme's views on this matter will change over time. I recently unearthed a class photo from my first school year, when I was exactly Esme's age, and was surprised to see how many of the kids were African-American; I remembered only one of them with any specificity, whereas most of the white kids in the class I could remember quite well. The fact that my brain erased the kids with dark skin from my memory makes me think that I must have harbored feelings similar to Esme's, although if so, I think I was far less conscious of them--certainly, I don't remember expressing anything along the lines of, "I don't like the way they look." But I gravitated to the kids who looked like me.

While I would never claim to have become color-blind in subsequent years, not by a long shot, I think I'm probably squarely in the mainstream of progressive America on race matters, which is to say I work hard to stay conscious of and overcome my own prejudices. Esme is growing up in an environment where she'll be continually prodded to do the same. I hope she learns to do a far better job of it than I do. In any event, if her family has anything to do with it, I think it's very unlikely we're going to wind up with a racist daughter on our hands. Besides, Ann Arbor is not exactly the kind of place that breeds racists.

But the question remains: where is her anti-black sentiment coming from?

Esme has a book called A Princess Primer which has a chapter featuring a good prince and a bad prince. The good prince is fair-haired and fair-skinned. The bad prince, while not black per se, has dark hair and what might be termed "swarthy" features. Could this be influencing her? Of course.

There are the Disney princesses as well. There isn't a princess with dark skin, at least not until The Frog Princess comes out in 2009. And it is clear in all the materials Disney produces that the blond princesses, Cinderella and Aurora/Sleeping Beauty, are, so to speak, more equal than the others; they are the only ones, for example, whose stories conform to the traditional princess fantasy (marry prince, live in castle, etc.). (Interesting, too, that the strawberry blond hair of the actual movie character of Cinderella is now golden.)

There are racial overtones in a lot of her favorite stories as well. Darth Vader wears all black, his mask scans as a grotesque parody of the African masks that inspired Picasso, and he's voiced by James Earl Jones. In "The Dark is Rising" series, the heroes are fair-complexioned or white-haired and the villains have dark features. Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series shies away from physical descriptions of villains that have racial overtones, but the main heroic characters are noted to be blond or red-haired and blue-eyed. We are in the midst of reading the Narnia series right now, and the traditional enemies of Narnia, the Calormen, are invariably and repeatedly described as dark-skinned (to the point where I have been skipping over physical descriptions of them wherever possible). The pattern is so deeply embedded in the contours of our popular mythology that it is hard to think of a single notable example of a story for kids where a dark-complexioned hero squares off against a fair-complexioned villain.

Oddly enough, I think it's possible that the Democratic presidential race has something to do with Esme's feelings as well. Esme has often lamented the fact that everyone in her family is for Obama except her. She does not like to see video of him speaking, and she gets angry when we talk about his charisma. Maybe her anger at us has fed her negative feelings about blacks, or maybe her resistance to Obama is another example of her prejudice. (Or maybe she just really, really wants there to be a woman president--I don't want to read too much into it.)

It's possible, too, that she's had some negative experiences with particular African-Americans, although if she has I don't know when it would have happened. The African-American girl she knows best--Tes at her nursery school--is just about the kindest and sunniest kid in the class.

For some months now, Esme has been working out the contours of a fantasy world called Esmeland in her mind. In Esmeland, Harper is the "Queen of the Baby Bo-bos", unicorns let princesses ride on their backs, and everyone lives in castles. I'm guessing there aren't a lot of dark-skinned people living in Esmeland right now. Thinking about this makes me realize that when Obama speaks of the difficulties of moving towards a post-racial world, he isn't just talking about America as a whole, and he isn't just talking about what he calls his "imperfect campaign"; he's talking about the obstacles inside each of us. He's offering us a personal challenge, one that I intend to take up. While America may or may not make collective progress towards breaking down racial boundaries in the coming year, rest assured that within the sovereign borders of Esmeland we will be addressing the matter of race head-on.
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deepbackground
Date: 2008-01-02 12:30
Subject: Obama for President
Security: Public
Barack Obama will not be on the ballot for the Michigan Democratic Primary on January 15th. He, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson all removed their names after Michigan moved its primary up before Feb. 5th, which violated national party rules. I'm bummed about this, because I fear it may be my only chance to vote for him. (Write-ins for any of those four candidates, under stupid state law, will not be counted, so the best bet for their supporters is to vote "Uncommitted".) Although he has surged in the polls in recent weeks, Obama really must win Iowa and New Hampshire to overcome the commanding lead Hillary Clinton has in national polls. If Iowa winds up going for Edwards or Clinton, I think Obama is probably toast, and Hillary will be the nominee.

Esme would much rather see me support Hillary. As she likes to say, "I'm going to be the second woman president, and Hillary Clinton's going to be the first." I wouldn't be a bit surprised if that became a literal statement of fact someday.

But, with all due respect to my very presidential daughter, Obama's my choice, mainly because of my perception of what makes a good president. Above all, I think it takes a particular kind of intelligence, the kind that can sort through a complex array of facts, theories and opinions, and come up with the best answer to a difficult problem. Presidents who take a reductionist approach can sometimes get lucky, but more often wind up mired in catastrophe. Our current president is an obvious example, but I fear John Edwards would have the same kind of problem; the language he uses is relentlessly reductionist, especially when he gets on the anti-corporate bandwagon. I'm not comfortable with big corporations, but my feelings about them are considerably more ambivalent than Edwards' are, and I suspect that's true for a very large number of Americans, most of whom are employed by big corporations.

There are also presidents who try to wrestle with the complexities but can't manage to see their way clear through them (I'm thinking here of someone like Lyndon Johnson, a smart man who just didn't have the right kind of smarts). I get the uneasy feeling that Hillary might be this sort of president. Her response to NY Gov. Spitzer's plan to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants was a case in point. She had several opportunities to lay out a clear point of view, but instead she kept giving an answer that amounted to little more than, "Well, it's complicated." Of course, she might have just been trying to avoid saying anything that would come back to haunt her later, in the hopes that the issue would just go away and everyone would forget it. But that in itself reveals a way of thinking that I'm not sure I want to see in a president. All the (viable) candidates, including Obama, tend to exhibit caution on touchy subjects, but when your cautiousness paralyzes you, it's hard to maintain the impression that you're in charge and you know what you're doing.

So what evidence do I have that Obama is the kind of person who can embrace complexity without being paralyzed by it? Partly, it's because of the kind of work he did in his younger days, working as a community organizer, which is the kind of work where you have to be continually creative with your solutions because you have to divide a very small pie amongst a large number of very deserving interests. By all accounts, he thrived in that kind of environment. I also like the way he's run his campaign, which despite hitting many rough patches has had no major upheavals, no personnel shifts, no wild swings in tone and message, no pointing the finger at staffers for his own mistakes. He's also been steady in his message, but has subtly adapted it as the months have gone on, which indicates that he's listening to what people are saying and responding to them.

I also like Obama's principles. Obama caught a lot of people's attention at the 2004 Democratic convention with a speech where he rejected the notion of separate red-state and blue-state cultures and insisted that it is precisely America's cacophony that is its strength. He reiterated that vision in a speech in Iowa several weeks ago. One of the most appealing things about Bill Clinton was the way he seemed to relish how different people were, yet still find common ground with them. Obama seems to see things in a similar way.

Furthermore, I like the fact that Obama's principles are grounded in an outlook rather than in some particular intellectual philosophy. Ron Paul's supporters like to tout the fact that he is remarkably consistent in his policy positions, which invariably follow rationally from his basic principles. But Paul's principles are rooted in a particularly hostile view of government, and many of his policy positions are untenable. Obama's policy positions, by comparison, are mostly fuzzy generalities. But where he has laid out specifics, he has shown a penchant for addressing the realities, and yes, the complexities of the problem at hand rather than promoting a particular intellectual framework. (See Timothy Noah's defense of Obama's health care plan, which unlike Clinton's and Edwards', does not mandate purchasing national health insurance.) This, it seems to me, is the recipe for success for a president, because it minimizes the chance of getting locked in to a particular direction even when it proves to be the wrong direction.

I do wish Obama had more executive experience than he does; that's his greatest weakness. He'll make political blunders and will probably have a terrible first year if he's elected, unlike Hillary, who would probably have some success from the get-go simply because she's already learned how to play the Washington game. But this campaign has demonstrated that he's a very quick learner; and in the long run (four years being a very long run nowadays), I think his approach to an increasingly interconnected and fractious world will be the winning one. I'll be fine with Clinton and even Edwards if one of them is the nominee. But our best choice, our best hope for repairing the damage done by the Bush administration, is Barack Obama.
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deepbackground
Date: 2007-12-19 11:43
Subject: Some great lyrics
Security: Public
For those who appreciate good writing, 2007 has been a great year for lyrics in pop music. Here are a few of my favorites.

First, from The National's Boxer is the chorus from "Mistaken For Strangers":

You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends
when you pass them at night under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights
arm in arm in arm and eyes and eyes glazing under
oh you wouldn’t want an angel watching over
surprise, surprise they wouldn’t wanna watch
another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults
And the entirety of "Apartment Story":

Be still for a second while I try and try to pin your flowers on la la la la
Can you carry my drink, I have everything else
I can tie my tie all by myself
I’m getting tied, I’m forgetting why

Oh we’re so disarming darling, everything we did believe
is diving diving diving diving off the balcony
Tired and wired we ruin too easy
sleep in our clothes and wait for winter to leave

Hold ourselves together with our arms around the stereo for hours, la la la la
While it sings to itself or whatever it does
when it sings to itself of its long lost loves
I’m getting tied, I’m forgetting why

Tired and wired we ruin too easy
sleep in our clothes and wait for winter to leave
but I’ll be with you behind the couch when they come
on a different day just like this one

We’ll stay inside til somebody finds us
do whatever the TV tells us
stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz for days
We’ll stay inside til somebody finds us
do whatever the TV tells us
stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz

so worry not
all things are well
we’ll be alright
we have our looks and perfume
There are plenty of bands who sing about alienation and the fact that coping with life sometimes feels impossible, but no one raises it to an art form quite like Matt Beringer of The National. Some of the more poetic phrases are just stunning: "eyes glazing under," "the unmagnificent lives of adults," "tired and wired we ruin too easy". But Beringer's trademark is the lyric that captures the contradictory jumble of overheard conversation: "Can you carry my drink, I have everything else / I can tie my tie all by myself". Boxer is shot through with these kinds of commonplace juxtapositions, as was their brilliant previous album, Alligator. I can't recommend them highly enough.

Okkervil River's The Stage Names is a more hit-or-miss affair as an album, but they also have a couple of lyrical stunners, including "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe", where lead singer and songwriter Will Sheff neatly deflates the sense of melodrama we attach to our own romantic crises:

It’s just a bad movie, where there’s no crying
handing the key to me in this Red Lion,
where the lock that you locked in the suite says there’s no prying.
When the breath that you breathed in the street screams there’s no science.
When you look how you looked then to me, then I cease lying and fall into silence.

It’s just a life story, so there’s no climax.
No more new territory, so pull away the IMAX.
In the slot that you sliced through the scene there was no shyness.
In the plot that you passed through your teeth there was no pity.
No fade in: film begins on a kid in the big city.
And no cut to a costly parade (that’s for him only!).
No dissolve to a sliver of grey (that’s his new lady!)
where she glows just like grain on the flickering pane of some great movie (hey, I'm watching!)

It’s just a house burning, but it’s not haunted.
It was your heart hurting, but not for long, kid.
In the socket you spin from with ease, there is no sticking.
From the speakers, your fake masterpiece is serenely dribbling.
When the air around your chair fills with heat, that’s the flames licking
beneath the clock on the clean mantelpiece. It’s got a calm clicking,
like a pro at his editing suite takes two weeks stitching up some bad movie.
The extended metaphor of the "bad movie" is more clever than it is brilliant, but Sheff makes the most of it. The video, by the way, seems to me one of those rare cases that actually amplifies and deepens the meaning of the song.

Iron & Wine's Sam Beam used to write songs that sounded like hushed hymns. Now that he's got a full band, he's incorporating elements from Southern boogie, Indian and West African music, and his songs have gotten both more gritty and more apocalyptic in tone. On his latest album, The Shepherd's Dog, Beam describes a burned-out world filled with detritus, both material and human, a place that God has left to the "pagan angels" (the first song of the album is called "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car"). It's all very Flannery O'Connor-ish, which is appropriate, because both O'Connor and Beam are from Georgia. I especially like the first verse of "Boy With a Coin", where the world is left to chance by an absent God, as typified by the "car that flipped" like a coin:

A boy with a coin he found in the weeds
With bullets and pages of trade magazines
Close to a car that flipped on the turn
When God left the ground to circle the world
Later in the song, the coin becomes something to wish upon, but there's nothing much left to wish for:

A boy with a coin he crammed in his jeans
Then making a wish he tossed in the sea
Walked to a town that all of us burned
When God left the ground to circle the world
Another sort of apocalyptic vision comes from the genius M.I.A., whose Kala has rightfully made it to the top of just about every music critic's best-of list for 2007. The album can be accurately described as the soundtrack of the triumph of the Third World over the First. The riotous, thrilling "Bird Flu" concludes with a characteristic promise of retribution from the far-flung places of the world:

The village got on the phone
said the street is comin’ to town
they wanna check my papers
see what I carry around
credentials are boring
I burnt them at the burial ground
don’t order me about
I’m an outlaw from the badland

put away shots for later
so I’m stable
live in trees, chew on feet
watch "lost" on cable
bird flu gonna get you
made it in my stable
from the crap you drop
on my crop when they pay you
M.I.A.'s world, like Sam Beam's, is torn by war--there are guns and bullets everywhere--but on The Shepherd's Dog the war is over, while on Kala it's at its raging peak; in "World Town", over the looped sound of a bullet sliding into the chamber of a rifle, she chants, "Hands up! / Guns out! / Represent the World Town!" Like punk at its best, the music is a direct challenge to its audience, both assaultive and exhilirating. Like all the great music I've mentioned here, it demands to be heard.

Finally, on a more lighthearted note, there's Jens Lekman, whom Jen has taken to calling my "friend" because I've taken to mentioning him so much. His latest album, Night Falls Over Kortedala, is a dozen little nuggets of Burt Bacharach-style rock candy. "The Opposite of Hallelujah", which to begin with is just a great title, humorously skewers the narrator's morose efforts to puncture his sister's unrelenting cheeriness:

I took my sister down to the ocean
But the ocean made me feel stupid
Those words of wisdom I had prepared
All seemed to vanish into thin air
Into the waves I stared

I picked up a seashell
To illustrate my homelessness
But a crab crawled out of it
Making it useless

And all my metaphors fell flat
Down on the rocks where we sat
She asked where are you at?

But sister, it's the opposite of hallelujah
It's the opposite of being you
You don't know 'cause it just passes right through you
You don't know what I'm going through

You don't know what I'm going through
You don't know what I'm going through
You don't know what I'm going through

We made our way home on the bikes we had borrowed
I still never told you about unstoppable sorrow
You still think I'm someone to look up to
I still don't know anything about you
Is it in you too?

You've got so much to live for, little sister
You've got so much to live for

But sister, it's the opposite of hallelujah
It's the opposite of being you
You don't know cause it just passes right through you
You don't know what I'm going through
After the likes of The National, Okkervil River, Iron & Wine, and M.I.A., it's nice to have something to listen to that just makes you smile.
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deepbackground
Date: 2007-11-30 23:01
Subject: On Correct Thinking
Security: Public
At the very end of October, a colleague of mine, whom I'll call P, traveled home to Pakistan to visit his aging, ailing parents. This was just a few days before Musharraf declared a state of emergency and started throwing the lawyers in jail. (To give you a sense of the kinds of folks who tend to work in this IT department, two of my co-workers separately joked with me that "Musharraf must be a Shakespeare fan," a reference to the line in King Henry VI, Part 2, "First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.") P made it back to North America safe and sound; apparently, the town where his family lives was completely unaffected by the situation, and his reaction to the whole affair was about as nonchalant as you can get. He put the full blame for the situation on the Supreme Court, not on Musharraf, which indicates to me that either we're not getting anything close to the whole story (actually, that's probably just a straight-up fact), or Musharraf's efforts to control the local media have been effective, at least in those areas of the country where people have not been personally affected by the state of emergency. Or maybe P doesn't see Musharraf's actions as such a big deal because, being a member of a persecuted Islamic sect, he has seen human rights abuses in his lifetime more serious than anything Musharraf may be perpetrating.

I had an eye-opening conversation with P a couple of days before he left. P had mentioned to me in the past that his sect, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, is roughly to Islam what Mormonism is to Christianity, inasmuch as both groups believe there were new revelations made to latter-day prophets in the 19th century and new canonical texts written that constitute extensions of the Koran and the Bible. Both the Ahmadiyyat and the Mormons have been persecuted as heretical. The city where P grew up was founded by members of his sect as a place where they would be able to practice their religion in peace, but under the civilian regime of Nawaz Sharif the city was renamed, and it is now largely controlled politically by the minority of orthodox Muslims who live there, mainly because in 1974 a provision was written into the Pakistani national constitution that rendered Ahmadis legally as non-Muslims. At one point during P's childhood, food supplies coming into the city were essentially cut off by the government; he remembers one stretch of some weeks when he ate nothing but squash because that's all that was left in the city. Anti-Ahmadi massacres have happened semi-regularly throughout Pakistani and Bangladeshi history. The first Pakistani Nobel Prize winner, Abdus Salam, actually had the word "Muslim" sandblasted off his gravestone by the government because he was an Ahmadi adherent; this happened in 2006. We hear a lot about the supposedly moderate and secular nature of Pakistani Muslim society, but then again America is supposedly moderate and secular as well, and we saw anti-gay marriage referenda win by 2-to-1 margins across the country in the last two national election cycles, so I suppose moderation and secularism have their limits wherever you go.

This conversation with P, and my subsequent reading on the treatment of the Ahmadiyya community, got me stewing. It seems to me that the Ahmadis are victims of the soft zealotry of Correct Thinking. I don't know whether or not most Pakistanis feel any real animus towards Ahmadis (do most Americans feel any real animus towards gays and lesbians?), but there is clearly a general, if tacit, acceptance, written into the state constitution no less, that Correct Thinking is a matter of national importance, and that the Ahmadiyya community, by not thinking Correctly, does not merit the respect of the nation or the security of its civil rights.

At the risk of letting loose my inner Christopher Hitchens, if there is one idea the West has given to the world that is really worth fighting for, it is that there is no person, sect, government, corporation, scientific body, religion, or other human organization that may rightfully lay claim to Correct Thinking. The harm Correct Thinking causes, running along a spectrum from self-loathing to ostracization, to persecution, and finally to bloodshed, continually makes the world a little bit worse place to live on a daily basis. It pops up everywhere: in the bluster of both right-wing and left-wing blogs; in laws like the one in Turkey that makes it a crime to insult the Turkish state (for instance, by mentioning the Armenian genocide); in corporations where "buying into the company agenda" supercedes all other concerns. My wife, who's a doula and childbirth educator, had a colleague who recently left her job because she believes the Ann Arbor Lamaze office does not Think Correctly about epidurals.

Along these lines, there is this headline today from the New York Times: Calls in Sudan for Execution of British Teacher. What is the crime of this nefarious woman, Gillian Gibbons? Apparently she allowed her class of 7-year-olds to name a class teddy bear Muhammad. She's already been convicted of "insulting the religion" (15 days in jail), and now protestors (mostly, as the article notes, "government employees ordered to demonstrate") want her head. The absurdity of this situation--it sounds like an Onion article--is exceeded only by its repugnance. I do not claim to be Thinking Correctly when I say that it is far, far too late in human history for so many millions of our species to still be living under systems of law that compel a particular set of beliefs, whether they be religious, political, economic, or otherwise. But I think the evidence is clear that prosecuting thought crimes is a loser's game, and the government that tries to dictate Correct Thinking is both morally bankrupt and setting itself up to fail. The Pakistani government has no business defining what a "true Muslim" is; the Sudanese government has no business jailing a woman for using a name in an unorthodox context; the Turkish government has no business persecuting writers for talking about massacres that happened nearly a century ago; Western European governments have no business jailing scholars for questioning facts and figures about the Holocaust; and the American government has no business investigating what books Americans are reading or indefinitely imprisoning human beings because of their beliefs.
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deepbackground
Date: 2007-11-08 02:40
Subject: haiku 1
Security: Public
live traps with seeds failed
mouse turds in the dog's food bowl
prepare to die, rat
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deepbackground
Date: 2007-11-07 22:38
Subject: The first half decade
Security: Public
Esme and I finished reading The Grey King tonight, the fourth book of Susan Cooper's five-volume The Dark Is Rising series of YA novels. For those out there who haven't read the series, these are grim and difficult books, written in a high literary style and filled with long paragraphs full of strange hallucinogenic imagery. The story, in its broad outlines, follows several tween-aged kids, some ordinary and some very much not ordinary, who are trying to complete a series of quests that will allow them to defeat the vicious magic of a cosmic Darkness that threatens to engulf the world (or at least England). The stories draw on disparate elements of the Arthurian mythos and ancient Welsh and Celtic legends, although they are set firmly within the world of the 1960s-70s when they were written. In other words, these are probably not the typical stories one would normally think to read to a five-year-old (Esme was still four when we started them in September, hot on the heels of the much-beloved Prydain Chronicles), and if anyone had predicted to me when she was born that I would be reading them to her now, I think I probably just would have expressed alarm.

In fact, I do feel some alarm when I think of how far Esme has come in five years. I have to remind myself that she's very much a five-year-old in so many ways. Her birthday party was a fancy pink princess-fest, and one of her abiding life ambitions is to marry a prince (good luck with that, kiddo). She has an attachment to television that earlier today drove her into outright deviousness. She spent the early part of the evening putting on a play with Barbie dolls, "Barbie's Big Finale", which unfortunately never got anywhere close to a finale, or even through the first scene, and which, it's worth noting, was preceded by a preview of a forthcoming play, starring "a different Barbie", called "Sleeping Beauty Is Asleep Again", wherein the Prince has gone on vacation and therefore can't kiss her awake; how will she be awakened? Be sure to tune in and find out.

Esme also wails at the slightest injury, completely lacks a sense of humor when teased, and spends much of her time mentally reviewing her notes on which kids at school are her friends and which ones are not, and why. Her diet consists mainly of chicken nuggets, lentil soup, and mac 'n' cheese, and the whining that ensues when these things are not made readily available has roughly the volume, pitch and insistency of a smoke alarm. She refuses to pick up a single thing she has left on the floor. She draws a dozen pictures in as many minutes, then painstakingly writes on each one, "To Taran, I Love You, From Eilonwy" (these are the lead characters in the Prydain books), and leaves them under the table or chair for me to find. So much adorability and so much obnoxiousness all wrapped up in a single pink package; she's an exhausting and neverending source of amazement.

She's also, well, complex. Over a year ago, I wrote about the leaps she sometimes makes that catch us off guard. I had a bit of that feeling again a couple of weeks ago, when she admitted to me unprompted that she "used to hate Harper when she was first born, really hate her, but I don't hate her any more." I asked her to elaborate, and she went into detail about how in the first few months she "had to pretend" she loved Harper when she really didn't, but that now she didn't have to pretend because she really does love her. What startled me was not the vehemence of her feeling, which was both normal and fairly obvious, but rather her ability to (a) recognize the feeling within herself and call it by its true name, (b) recognize that her feelings had evolved over the subsequent year, and (c) express all of this to me without any fear that I would reprove her for it, even though she had felt the need to "pretend" at the time. This particular combination of self-reflectiveness (especially looking back over such a long period of time) and self-confidence is something I don't think I came to until I was in my mid-20s. I know girls generally become emotionally mature more quickly than boys, but dang, five?

This brings me back to the books we've been reading. On the one hand, they're mostly classic tales of good and evil, light and dark, that fit neatly into the pattern burned into her brain by Star Wars. Except, when you look at them closely, they're really not. The Prydain series has a number of characters whose motives are decidedly mixed; the villain in The Black Cauldron, for example, winds up being the hero. The fourth book, Taran Wanderer, concerns itself mainly with Taran trying to figure out who he wants to be and what it means to live a good life; it's a tale not of heroic deeds but of disappointments and quiet triumphs. The Dark Is Rising series has an Obi-Wan Kenobi-type figure who is as much threatening as he is wise and helpful. The powers that the "unusual" children suddenly acquire are frightening to them and frequently regretted; their gifts make them outcasts. We see friends raging at each other; siblings being jealous of one another; adults who let the children and each other down. Another Esme favorite, The Spiderwick Chronicles, follows the adventures of a girl and two twin brothers who discover that the faerie world is literally infesting their house; it's got another "good vs. evil" scheme, but one of the brothers gets expelled from school over his uncontrollable explosions of anger, and it is the anger and distrust he feels towards his own father, when finally controlled and focused, that ultimately saves him, his sibilings, and his mother from death at the hands of a monster.

What all these stories have in common is that leading characters are forced at key points to closely examine how their emotions and motives drive their own sometimes reprehensible behavior. The greater struggle is never against the "evil" thing that needs to be defeated but rather the inner monsters--fear, despair, rage--that threaten to undermine whatever good the heroes may have hoped to achieve.

I can't help wondering if Esme's choice (and it's always her choice) of reading-aloud material may actually be having the effect on her that literature is supposed to have, but usually doesn't, on the rest of us. Watching her internalize these stories so deeply, in such fruitful ways, thrills me no end. But once again, I wonder what I'm missing. Was it something we read that gave her the idea to use the audio book as a decoy this morning so she could get her TV fix? If her understanding of a difficult story is imperfect, could it do more harm than good? I was expecting to be at this point when Esme was ten or twelve, not five. But here we are. What brave new world could have such a creature in it?
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deepbackground
Date: 2007-11-05 23:15
Subject: Coming out as an atheist
Security: Public
I have thought for most of my adult life that declaring myself an atheist would be just as silly as saying that I believed without a doubt in the existence of an omnipotent God. The fact is that we just don't know, and so agnosticism really is the only intellectually consistent and rational stance for me or any other hard-core skeptic to take. For all I know, we're Sims-like automatons in some great cosmic video game, or unwitting players in a morality play being performed for some alien intelligence, or maybe we're characters in someone's book, as in the classic YA survey of Western philosophy, Sophie's World.

But I have also written and talked before about the fact that I have never felt what other people describe as the "God-shaped hole" within myself. Simply put, I am not inclined in any way to be a religious believer; it's far easier for me not to believe than it is to believe. I'm frankly not interested in the notion that there may be a purpose or an existence beyond the one we have right in front of us, mainly because the world we live in is so rich with opportunities to live purposefully, and the question of what it means to live well in one's day-to-day life is a never-ending conundrum. I'm always disappointed when I see a title of a book like The Purpose-Driven Life, which seems like it might speak directly to someone like me who has a deep and abiding interest in finding ways to live more purposefully, and then discover it's really all about figuring out what "God's purpose" is (as if such a thing could possibly be comprehended by our puny brains). I should note that I admire many (although certainly not all) of the key philosophical, moral and ethical principles of the three Abrahamic religions, Buddhism, and Hinduism. But it's always been very easy for me to separate those moral precepts from their religious context. When Jesus says, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone," I'm fully capable of taking away the intended lesson without first believing that Jesus was anything more than an unusually smart and thoughtful guy.

We are living in a cultural moment when there's a great deal of pressure to come down on one side or the other of the most basic religious questions. Surely one of the more unexpected consequences of 9/11 has been the way that voices of secularism, humanism and atheism have been so emboldened in their rejection of not only "Islamist fascism" but also the surge of religiosity in early 21st-century America. Of course, for many people, especially on the right, reaffirming America's identity as a Judeo-Christian nation has become a matter of paramount importance. But for many others, most notably the Four Horsemen of Atheism--Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens--the attacks of 9/11 highlighted what they see as the dangerous and barbaric superstitions of the Abrahamic tradition. The success of the Four Horsemen's books has been astonishing; the large media retailer I work for was even emboldened to put up an atheism endcap featuring their books.

So it seems to me that declaring myself an atheist is a little bit like declaring myself a Democrat. I don't agree with many things the Four Horsemen say, just as I don't agree with some of the positions of the leading Democrats; I am reluctant to say that these cultural customs and codes, which have bound societies together for thousands of years, should be summarily tossed out, just as I am reluctant to dismiss all Republican ideas as stupid or evil simply because they were concocted by Republicans. But if I had a choice in the voting booth between the Atheist party and the "Believers" party, I'd go with the Atheists.

Admittedly, it's a big leap from saying, "I don't believe one way or the other," to saying, "I disbelieve," and I guess I'm still not ready (nor may ever be, inasmuch as I do strive for some degree of intellectual honesty) to embrace Atheism with a capital A, at least not without some qualifications. Here is what I definitively do not believe: I do not believe in a personal God; I do not believe in a God who has any regard for what happens on our little blue speck of dust; I do not believe in a God who listens to prayers or grants miracles; I do not believe there is a moral structure to the Universe; I do not believe in a soul distinct from the physical body; I do not believe in life or consciousness after death; I do not believe all the wrongs are righted, the wicked punished, the faithful forgiven; and I do not believe I will ever find anything comforting in a belief system that requires me to put my faith in any of these scurrilous notions.

On the other hand, I do not believe all religions are inherently or equally reprehensible; I do not believe religious teachings should be dismissed out of hand; I do not believe children should be insulated from religious ideas; I do not believe religion is a primary cause of violence in most cases; and I do not believe most human beings would be comfortable in a world without religion. I do believe we may be coming to the end of the latest so-called Great Awakening, which bodes well for the proponents of secular humanism in the next couple of decades. But I also believe that people of all backgrounds and philosophical outlooks will continue to find comfort in religious faith, and that's all right with me, just as long as they don't expect me to join them in the pews.
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