Thursday, August 21, 2008

5 Thoughts on a Thursday

1) Coraline - the cat - and I have been spending a lot of time together lately. Is it mentally healthy for me? Probably not. But it has made me aware of those instances that account for a cat's "moral dilemmas." For example, she loves having her belly rubbed. But what makes having her belly rubbed even more splendid is biting, literally, the hand that rubs her. In order to stop her from doing this, I sternly say "no biting", and, strangely enough, it works. The best part, though, is that I can see on her face the turmoil within her tiny walnut brain as she weighs the consequences of continuing her biting. I mean, she definitely wants to bite me; but she also doesn't like it when I make that horrid "no" sound. So what ends up happening is that she stops herself right before her teeth dig into my fingers, her fangy mouth wide open and drooling, and her eyes moving back and forth in her head as she does the closest thing that a cat can do to making an ethical decision.

2) R.A. says that I should mention that we just finished an inebriated conversation about how if she ever left me I would most likely go crazy and become an old cat-lady and collect an entire army of cats and pretend that they constituted a tiny cat parliament, with the black cats being the communists and the calicos having a staunchly anti-immigrant platform. Also, it should be noted that this entire conversation was conducted in French.

3) Football season is coming up. I'm not too excited about professional football, but the college version definitely gets me going. I'm not exactly positive why - it might have something to do with the copious amounts of co-eds in the stands, and the merciful lack of bare-chested Buffaloans with beer helmet on. Maybe it's because Oregon has a college football team (two!) but no professional team. R.A. thinks I don't like pro football because it is "boring and stupid." But really, college football is superior because of its incredibly archaic and overly complicated ranking system. All of my friends complain endlessly about the need for college football to instigate some kind of playoff system in order to determine a champion, and to that I say: Balderdash! For someone who loves statistics and spreadsheets as much as I do, I would be lost without the end of season excitement of counting out all of the possible BCS match-ups, and of figuring out the odds of the Fiesta Bowl picking the WAC champion over the second-place Big 12 team because the Big 12 champ finished second in the national rankings and has to go to the national championship game, and what implications that would have for the Sugar Bowl and their burning desire for an Oklahoma-LSU match-up, and so on, and so forth, et cetera, et cetera...

4) Book club, anyone? Like I said, I am currently slogging through Henry James' "The Golden Bowl" right now, and am playing with the notion of maybe picking up a copy of "The Ambassadors" when I am finished, although that may be a while at this rate. R.A., meanwhile, is revisiting Jane Austen. She just finished "Sense and Sensibility," and is now moving on to "Emma." So you happen to be itching to read some 19th English novels, we are your man. And woman. (P.S. - I have been noticing some of James' bad habits creeping into my writing, like an overabundance of semi-colons and one rambling, run-on sentence after another.)

5) From a Pew Research Center poll released today:

Some Americans are having a change of heart about mixing religion and politics. A new survey finds a narrow majority of the public saying that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters and not express their views on day-to-day social and political matters. For a decade, majorities of Americans had voiced support for religious institutions speaking out on such issues

Basically, the report found that in 2004, 51% of Americans thought that churches should express their views on social and political matters, and in 2008 that number has dropped to 45%, with the most radical change in amongst registered Republicans. So... does this mean anything to someone like Rev. Warren? Or even someone like John McCain?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Never Mix Religion and Politics

Is it possible to ever really separate Church and State?

This weekend, Obama and McCain both appeared on a "Presidential Forum " at the mega-Saddleback Church in Orange County. This wasn't a debate, as forum moderator and pastor of Saddleback Rick Warren made clear. Rather, it was a platform from which the audience could get a better idea of each candidate's "worldview." In his introduction, Rev. Warren said: "We believe in the separation of church and state, but we do not believe in the separation of faith and politics. Because faith is just a worldview, and everybody has some kind of worldview. And it's important to know what they are."

I'm not too interested in the actual Q&A process that each candidate went through with Rev. Warren. I was pleasantly surprised at what I saw as the relative height of the discourse, but I didn't see either candidate say anything particularly enlightening. (Although Billy Kristol, unsurprisingly, thinks that it was McCain's night. Do you ever wonder why some people can just get under your skin in everything they ever do or say? Especially when they make such asinine statements as, "Perhaps the most revealing moment was the two candidates’ response to a question about evil. Yes, evil — that negation of the good that, Friedrich Nietzsche to the contrary notwithstanding, we seem not to have moved beyond." What a dick.) Instead, I thought that the most interesting part of the discussion was Rev. Warren's statement of the forum's raison d'etre, that "We believe in the separation of church and state, but we do not believe in the separation of faith and politics."

The problem with this statement is that what is asserted in the first clause is undercut by the second; if you believe that your politics ought to be informed by your faith, then it is impossible for you to honestly say that you believe in the separation of church and state. Now, I am personally (as opposed to politically?) willing to entertain the notion that no one can ever not allow their faith to influence their political beliefs - that that is just part of what it means to have faith, that it influences your actions and beliefs in such a way as to have sway over your publicly held positions. (Especially if you ascribe to something like a social gospel - although I suppose that even an ascetic, retreat-from-the-world kind of belief system is still a political stance that concerns the world.)

So, in at least one sense, Warren is advocating the uniting of Church and State... I mean, why else have a church host a Presidential Forum? This, in a way, is a substantial paradox at the center of the history of American politics - that we assert out loud again and again that our government is free of the influences of religion (or of a particular set of religious beliefs) and is independent of the power that religion has over our individual existences, and yet we insist on that government being always in accord with that very same set of ideals and principles.

I am not sure if there is a larger point to be made here, but I just wanted to point out that there is something contradictory about having such a forum as the kind that Rev. Warren held, and that what his foray into the political sphere brings to the fore a form of what philosophers call Euthyphro's Dilemma - the problem of knowing whether the gods (or in our case, Jesus) love what is good (or what is the right thing to do) because it is good, or whether what is good is good (or morally right) because the gods/ Jesus loves it. John McCain presented this dilemma nicely during the interview when he said: "Our Judeo-Christian principles dictate that we do what we can to help people who are oppressed throughout the world." The word "dictate" here presents a problem. Is helping other people the right thing to do because it is a Judeo-Christian principle, or is it a Judeo-Christian principle because it is the right thing to do? (Or both? Or neither?)

This problem showed up repeatedly throughout the telecast, albeit in many different forms. For example, Warren said at one point, "The Bible says that integrity and love arethe basis of leadership." But this assumes that integrity and love really are the bases of leadership. After all, I think that one could argue (quite convincingly) that integrity and love are two qualities that provide for bad leadership. I speculate that Warren would say, in this instance, that integrity and love are the basis of leadership because the Bible says so. But this line would lead us into a different briar patch of Biblical interpretation - after all, I know of at least one beloved leader from the Bible who led not by integrity and love but by having his stupid son get caught by his flowing locks and then having his men decapitate him in truly awesome hardcore Godfather style.

You can see how this discussion can go on and on and on, for, like, 2,500 years. But it is obviously still relevant to be asking how much authority something like faith - whatever it is that faith is - has or should have (if we can use the word "should" in a way that is separate from our use of the word "faith") in determining the morally right thing to do. You can also see why it gets a little controversial sometimes, especially when your gods start telling you to put to death adulterers or homosexuals or Sharon Tate. Or when they start telling you to fly a plane into a building.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Camp Chicago, Part Two

Like I said, I love having old friends come and visit us. And now, after the third or fourth or fifth time, I feel like we are finally getting the hang of this whole "playing hosts" thing. Even after having lived here for almost a year now, I still feel largely at sea when it comes to taking visitors to the really hip and happening hot spots around town. Instead, we take them to the standard tourist stops, such as:O

U.S. Cellular Field - Apparently named after the famous Ulysses Stanton Cellular, we visited the White Sox home field not once but twice this week. Unfortunately, they lost to the Red Sox on the first go-around, but manged to bounce back and beat Kansas City on Wednesday. My surprise? Well, merely that the Wednesday night game - against Kansas City, mind you, - was sold out. Yes, that's right - we had to buy tickets from a scalper even to get in. (They was good seats, though.) The good news, though? That people are starting to whisper about a Windy City World Series - about as cautiously as talking about a no-hitter - but, still, the phantom of such a series haunts MLB.

Walking With Dinosaurs - What little kid doesn't automatically love dinosaurs? And, therefore, what 24-year old man doesn't love dinosaurs also? Of course, the only problem was that we seemed to be the only folks there without anyone among us under the age of 12... but still, I hold that dinosaurs are awesome, regardless of age.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Camp Chicago, Part One

Some friends from New Hampshire are visiting us this week. Right now we're sitting in the living room, drinking coffee, commiserating on the difficulties of applying to graduate school and of getting a job after leaving graduate school.

Last night, we went to the White Sox/ Red Sox game. Of course, the wrong Sox won. But I was consoled by the sight of watching one of our friend's finish his sentence that begun with, "I think that Kant doesn't say enough about the immortality of the soul..." with, "YEAH J.D.! YEAH! HIT THAT! YOU GO, YEAH!"

Really, it's the little things in life that count.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Gordon Smith Has a Boring Name

I've been trying hard lately to avoid writing about politics. It isn't proper, you know? One's opinions, generally, are dreadful things to converse about, and to talk openly about them shows a definite lack of good breeding.

Furthermore - at least as far as the presidential election goes - all of the states from which I'm from (Oregon, New York, and Illinois) are all pretty securely in the Obama column. This takes a little bit of the urgency out of getting out the vote. But this was all before I listened to this piece last night on NPR. It discusses our dear Senator Gordon Smith's (R-OR) attempts to distance himself from President Bush and to aggressively court what the reporter calls potential "Obama-Smith voters." In order to do so, Sen. Smith is spending a lot of time talking up his moderate credentials as being bi-partisan and supporting health care and immigration reform.

Is there any credibility to Smith's claims to be such a friendly, cooperative, "I like hope and change too" kind of guy? Yes, kind of. According to the Washington Post, Smith has voted with the Republican Party 72% of the time. However, over the last year and a half, he has broke with the GOP and has supported a phased withdrawal from Iraq (on 3/15/07), has sought to censure Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez (6/11/07), and voted to expand children's health insurance (8/2/07).

On the other hand, Smith has been predictably pro-Bush on several other key issues: In 2007, he worked to prevent affordable access to birth control, and has voted to cut funding to organizations that provide abortions. He has been one of the most steadfast supporters of repealing the estate tax and for making Bush's tax cuts permanent. He also supports the Federal Marriage Amendment, which aims to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

So what does this all mean, Mr. Natural? Well, that Smith isn't as conservative as some members of Congress, but also that he definitely is not the buddy-buddy kind of guy with Kerry or Obama that he is trying to project in his recent ads. Most importantly, though, is that:

Smith is described as a rank-and-file Republican by,[16] and throughout 2006 Smith voted with Republican leader Bill Frist (TN) on 82% of contentious bills, in contrast to predecessor Mark Hatfield's 55% record of agreement with party leader Trent Lott (MS) in 1996.[17] Based on five senate votes in 2006, the abortion rights advocacy group NARAL gave Smith a score of 15% on abortion rights (100% being a complete pro-choice score.)[18] For votes cast in 2006, Smith received a 14% rating from the League of Conservation Voters (out of a possible 100%).[19] Smith's votes have run contrary to widespread public sentiment on several issues, notably minimum wage[20][21][22][23] and the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.[24]
(That's all from Smith's Wikipedia page.) Basically, the truth is that, when the chips are down, Smith can be depended upon to be right there at his party's side. The way I see it is that President Obama (go ahead... say it to yourself a few times) is going to need exactly the same thing. More specifically, he is going to need as large of a Democratic majority in congress as possible in order to be able to avoid filibusters whenever possible and to make it as easy as possible for him to enact real change, such as tax reform, or appointing pro-choice judges to the Supreme Court, or say, raising the minimum wage.

So, yes, Obama has a 9-point lead over McCain in Oregon, making it definitely not a swing state this year. But that is even more reason for those who believe in Obama's agenda to get to the voting booths in November and to give him the support that he is going to need. And even though my pick this year for Senate - Steve "I-Have-A-Hook-For-A-Hand" Novick - isn't the Democratic nominee, I am sure that President Obama (see? feels good, right?) wouldn't mind having a pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-workers politician in the Senate like Jeff Merkley, (who also supports ending the war in Iraq and providing universal health care) who is less likely to, say, block re-negotiating free trade agreements then Obama's fair-weather friend Gordon Smith is.

Plus, Smith is getting a little desperate in his advertising:

Ooooh!! I just hate that annual Senate Leather Sofa Tax, don't you? On the other hand, maybe Smith believes that he can trick some viewers into thinking that, if they vote for him,
they too can win this fabulous living room set!

Post-Script: Of course, my entire argument here is based on the assumption that Obama
doesn't lose the election to Paris Hilton:

Monday, August 4, 2008

My Summer Reading List

Before I begin, yes, I know it's August already. In fact, I am painfully aware that it is August already. But that shouldn't change the fact that it is never, never too late to put together your Summer reading list. Even if it means that your reading list is going to stretch into November, I still think that it is a healthy exercise in self discipline and goal setting. (As if I know anything about self discipline or goal setting...)

For as long as I can remember, which actually is not that very long, the magazines and news papers that I read have always had their ceremonial "Summer Books" issue, where someone who is (hopefully) literate and of good taste makes her or his recommendations about what it is that you should be reading during your dream Summer vacation. Of course, this all just makes me want to ask exactly why it is that Summer is the designated season for reading (just as it is also the designated season for going to the movies) and what, exactly, it is that we're all supposed to be doing during the Fall, Winter, and Spring. (Working?)
Nevertheless, countless publishers and publications continue to churn out various "must-read" lists for your beach-towel pleasure. And although it isn't exactly a "Summertime" kind of list - given that it doesn't have that "little light read" feel that I think your classic beach-read list is supposed to have - one of the most famous and consistently controversial of these lists is the Modern Library's Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century. I remember when this list first came out, and also remember the heat that it took for being too conservative, favoring those novels written by dead white guys that you had to read in your English 101 class a little too heavily.

Two things struck me rather quickly upon re-reading this list: First, that it much, much better than the "Reader's List" submitted by the Modern Library's audience, and is displayed prominently next to the Board's List. Seriously, are these people for real?? L. Ron Hubbard and Ayn Rand account for seven of the top ten English novels of the 20th Century? Who on Earth gave the keys of the Asylum to the inmates? The second recognition is that I am not nearly well-read as I like to think of myself being. Of the Board's 100 novels, I have finished 12. Perhaps even more telling, I have started (but not finished) an additional 10.

So part of my Summer resolution is to knock a couple more of these novels off of my "to-read" list. I'm reading "The Golden Bowl" right now. Of course, there is a lot out there to read other than 20th Century English language novels. This is the first time in five years that I haven't picked out a Dostoevsky novel to read over the course of the entire Summer. I have fond memories of those midsummer reads; it's a very interesting thing to be reading about Raskolnikov freezing to death in his St. Petersburg apartment when it's ninety degrees outside and you're sipping an ice-cold Mirror Pond Pale Ale out on the deck.

In the same vein, R.A. has this list of "the very long book list" on her blog. The rules are simple: Bold means you've finished the book. Italicized means you started it but not finished it. You can strike through a book, if you think it doesn't belong on the list, although the only books that I feel that way about are ones that I haven't yet opened, so I guess I'll reserve judgment for now.

The Aeneid
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
American Gods
Anansi Boys
Angela’s Ashes : A Memoir
Angels & Demons
Anna Karenina
Atlas Shrugged
The Blind Assassin
Brave New World
The Brothers Karamazov
The Canterbury Tales
The Catcher in the Rye
A Clockwork Orange
Cloud Atlas
Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
A Confederacy of Dunces
The Confusion
The Corrections
The Count of Monte Cristo
Crime and Punishment
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
David Copperfield
Don Quixote
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Foucault’s Pendulum
The Fountainhead
Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
The God of Small Things
The Grapes of Wrath
Gravity’s Rainbow
Great Expectations
Gulliver’s Travels
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
The Historian : A Novel
The Hobbit
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Iliad
In Cold Blood : A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences
The Inferno
Jane Eyre
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
The Kite Runner
Les Misérables
Life of Pi : A Novel
Love in the Time of Cholera
Madame Bovary
Mansfield Park
Memoirs of a Geisha
The Mists of Avalon
Moby Dick
Mrs. Dalloway
The Name of the Rose
Northanger Abbey
The Odyssey
Oliver Twist
On the Road
The Once and Future King
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Oryx and Crake : A Novel
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Poisonwood Bible : A Novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Pride and Prejudice
The Prince
Reading Lolita in Tehran : A Memoir in Books
The Satanic Verses
The Scarlet Letter
Sense and Sensibility
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Silmarillion
The Sound and the Fury
The Tale of Two Cities
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
The Three Musketeers
The Time Traveler’s Wife
To the Lighthouse
Treasure Island
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Vanity Fair
War and Peace
Watership Down
White Teeth
Wicked : The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
Wuthering Heights
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : An Inquiry Into Values

On a strangely related note, the Chicago Summer rain is now falling so hard that it is coming through our windows and causing some pretty serious water damage to some of our books, including the Aeneid and the Brothers Karamazov. I better get reading before the flood comes...

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Summer in the City

Whew! So much has happened over the last couple of days, I positively don't know where to begin! First off, yes, I am psyched that the White Sox traded for Ken Griffey, Jr. Do I think that he's going to make them a better team? Not really. Do I think that he's going to end up hurting their chances of making the playoffs? Probably. But do I think that he's going to raise attendance (and, hence, revenue) at U.S. Cellular Field? Absolutely. Plus, the guy is a living legend. I mean, I was 5 years old when he started playing for the Seattle Mariners. And I have very fond memories of him being the only baseball player that I knew at that time.

In other news, R.A. and I have been doing our best to take advantage of the city in the summertime. There has been a glut of music festivals recently; Lollapalooza is going on this weekend downtown, and a friend of R.A.'s drove all the way from New Hampshire to sleep on our broken futon and to see Radiohead and Wilco. We're not going to be partaking in those festivities (we're trying to stay on budget this month), but we are planning on going up north to Roscoe Village to check out our new neighborhood and attend a little music festival there that is exclusively oldies and classic rock cover bands. I suspect that those genres kind of reflect the sensibilities of Roscoe Village in general; there are lots of young couples living there, with their dogs/ small children, and there are a lot of sushi bars and vaguely European sounding restaurants. Plus, in the Fall they have a Harvest Fest. What it is that they're "harvesting" in this neighborhood, I'm still not sure. (There could be a dark side to this neighborhood that I'm not aware of.) But I bet that there will be lots of gourds and apple cider for sale and several face-painting booths.

By contrast, last weekend we hung out in Wicker Park and took in the sights and sounds of the local hipster/ bohemian crowd. It was kind of surreal being amongst my own demographic for a change, meaning that we were surrounded by mostly young, middle-class white kids. It felt a little weird being marketed to so directly. It seemed like every vendor, from the micro-brewery to the novelty t-shirt maker to the indie music booth was specifically fashioned to my tastes. I was pretty proud of myself for resisting, though. Sometimes poverty begets its own virtues. All in all, though, I think that I'm glad that we're not going to be living in Wicker Park or the Ukrainian Village or any of those hipper neighborhoods. It's fun and novel to go visit them, for sure, but I think that it could get pretty tedious pretty quickly if we had to deal with gangs of drunken indie-rockers or gaggles of teeny-boppers outside of our front porch on a regular basis.

To complete the triumvirate of social groups, last night I went to a party that my friend John described as, "fratastic." It was held in an apartment in Bucktown that had an absolutely stunning view of the Chicago skyline from the northwest. I didn't know any one at this party, so I figured that I would just sit and quietly drink their keg beer while I enjoyed the view until it was time to go home. However, at some point I must have gotten either bored or drunk enough to start a conversation with a local law school student who was also a practicing Catholic. One thing led to another, and before long we got into a heated debate about the validity of the doctrine of transubstantiation. (It's insane! Bread isn't Jesus! Jesus isn't bread!) It was at this point that John called me a cab, even over my protests and incessant criticisms of the theology of the Trinity and of the concept of divine sacrifice. (For some reason, this seems to happen to me at parties quite often.)