Saturday, February 28, 2009

Christianity without God

This weeks Beliefs column in the NYT discusses Phil Zuckerman's new book on Danish and Swedish nonbelievers:

Anyone who has paid attention knows that Denmark and Sweden are among the least religious nations in the world. Polls asking about belief in God, the importance of religion in people’s lives, belief in life after death or church attendance consistently bear this out.

It is also well known that in various rankings of nations by life expectancy, child welfare, literacy, schooling, economic equality, standard of living and competitiveness, Denmark and Sweden stand in the first tier.

The upshot is that Scandinavians really don't think about religion much at all, though they tend to think of themselves as Christian. They believe in Christian principles, like "helping your neighbor," and they enjoy holiday rituals, which seem to serve a community-building function. They simply aren't interested in God, or in related questions of what life "means."

This strikes me as utterly sensible. Remove God from the equation, and you have a very "nice" (again, as interviewees put it) set of principles on which to build a just society. God would seem to get in the way of those principles. Say you have a workplace with a remote, mercurial, power-mad boss--along with a likeable but extremely co-dependent Vice President. There's a handful of people who'll try their mightiest to suck up to that boss, eagerly doing his dirty work and hurting their coworkers further in the process. Eliminate the boss, and all you have is you and your colleagues, doing the best you can together. And the VP is freed to be him(her?) self--a good person with good ideas you can use.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Dismay and Barthelme at Redwood City Honda

I took the car in this morning for an oil change. Still recovering from a cold, I decided I would tough out an hour in the customer waiting room, rather than walking several blocks down to Whole Foods and lumbering back with bags I can barely carry that far in the best of health.

Ah, but I had forgotten. The law dictates that any enclosed space shared by more than one member of the public must include a large, blaring, impossible-to-turn-off television. When I got there, President Obama was speaking about getting out of Iraq. So I at least had that moment of reassurance that, no, I didn't dream it; he is the President, and we maybe won't be in Iraq for thirty years after all. Then Charlie Gibson jumped in and cut off the rest of the speech (which was taped), summarizing briefly before turning it over to some blond woman who proclaimed the very idea of ever leaving Iraq total bullshit (She knew! She had talked to the troops!).

Then we were bounced back to Regularly Scheduled Programming, which was Regis and Kelly, only Regis was elsewhere so we had Anderson Cooper and Kelly. I had never seen this Kelly before; she is obviously insane. And wasn't Anderson Cooper supposed to be dignified or something? Well, forget about that! Anyway, first up was...

[Let me just point out here that I came prepared for the waiting room, or so I thought. I had brought Barthelme's Sixty Stories and was attempting to read "Paraguay," which is utterly brilliant; every story I read in this book--most of which I'm rereading--seems more brilliant than the last. Anyway, I did kind of read it, but this thing, this deranged televised festival of ding-dongery, kept intruding. BTW this is not going to be the post about Barthelme that I'm still planning. My point here is, once I realized my situation with the TV, I tried to put myself on the low-energy, just-get-through-it setting I use for plane rides and MRI machines. But I was overmatched. Of course, Barthelme's work is about various debased forms of language, like bad TV and instruction manuals and sanctimonious travel narratives, all slugging it out, so it was all kind of appropriate.]

...Tom Selleck! I kid you not. The man is alive, and doing some sort of "project" which is being filmed, and which he is getting paid to promote on Regis (Anderson) and Kelly. Kelly slobbered all over him about Magnum PI, and please, please, weren't they going to do a movie version of Magnum all these years after anyone has ceased to care, and Selleck said--well, I don't quite remember what he said, only that they might hire someone else to be Magnum because Selleck is now 100 years old. Kelly thought that was terrible, the possible hiring of someone else I mean. Then a chef came on and started frying bacon and dumping cream all over it. Then a guy in the waiting room got a call on his cell phone and stepped aside so as not to bother the rest of us--a full two steps away from the seating area--and hollered so loudly into his Bluetooth that he briefly drowned out the TV.

I tried listening to Beethoven on my MP3. Beethoven, Barthelme--I almost never pile the highbrow stuff quite so high, but this was my protest, except no one noticed or cared...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Daydreaming is work, dammit

I'm becoming less enamored of the school of thought that says writers must chain themselves to their desks, or laptops, fingers stuck gecko-like to their keyboards, typing constantly. The worst thing, as I understand this paradigm, is to not be typing. You must type nonsense, if need be, in order to produce a predetermined number of words or pages every day. Any failure to always be typing is strictly punishable by an immediate diminution of self-worth, accompanied by muttering. You know you're kidding yourself, sweetheart. You're not writing. Moreover, you are one of those people who claims to be a writer while not even doing it--a pretentious weenie of the worst sort!

So allow me to offer a defense of lying on the couch and staring into space instead of typing. Yes, helpful stuff does occasionally come out in the nonsense. There's pleasure in hearing your keys clack busily as your words darken the space before you, like a swarm of locusts. But I'm finding there's value in not chasing the story quite so urgently, and instead letting it come to me. I don't mean just sitting there waiting for inspiration, expecting lightning to strike and doing nothing to prepare for it. I mean letting the story turn quietly in my mind for days, even weeks or months, before writing a word--or maybe after I've written some words, but didn't get all the way to the end.

For me, even digital words have a kind of permanence that makes me feel slightly committed to them. I begin to feel the story is "taking shape," when, often, the shape itself needs to remain in question. Daydreaming allows me to play with the shape itself, even to see that shape, in a way. That is, I can envision that shape fluctuating; I see its openness, though not its actual form. I allow it to move in directions that the linear format of typing, even typing nonsense, already restricts. I also get a sense of how much the story really needs to be written. If I don't write it and it keeps coming back, and keeps moving, then I know I should do it. And at that point the writing is relatively easy.

I imagine this doesn't work for everybody; it's probably some manifestation of my particular learning style combined with my aesthetic ambitions. I want to experiment with structure, to let not only characters and events, but language itself shape the narrative. And I'm beginning to believe that typing too soon interferes with this process. I think the process is in part non-verbal or pre-verbal or extra-verbal. Words are only one part of writing.

To which I'll just add, in preparation for another post: Barthelme! Barthelme, Barthelme, Barthelme, Barthelme! Barthelme!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tearing Reagan down

Since I occasionally rant on this blog about Ronald Reagan and the general acceptance (even by our current president) that he was "great," I am heartened to learn of a new book, Tear This Myth Down, by Will Bunch. You can listen to Terry Gross's interview with him here, and then buy the book to help support NPR, which I would do if I wasn't so cheap. Anyway, Bunch's main point is this: during and especially after Reagan's presidency, the GOP frame factory went to work on building him up as a mythical figure. There is, in fact, an ongoing Reagan Legacy Project, and their methods are legion. For instance they continue to try to name as many buildings, hospitals, airports, etc. after Reagan as possible; the goal (though it has not yet been reached) is to have something named for him in every county in the US. You cannot drive down the Ronald Reagan Highway on a sunny day, as Bunch says, and not think, Wow, he must have been a great man--regardless of what you might remember, or what you might be too young to remember. His funeral was a critical moment in this process, planned with the legend specifically in mind.

The key reason for the mythmaking, Bunch points out, is to cover up for the fact that the Republican party has been out of ideas for some time. When asked about policy, they instead conjure Reagan and his golden aura, and everyone (the media) sighs and forgets what the question was in the first place. Witness, for instance, the Republican debates during the last election, Romney and McCain each trying to utter "Ronald Reagan" with more vibrato.

Naturally the legacy project dovetails with the current conservative mindset, which is authoritarian, always seeking a single, magical figure to worship. These guys often accuse liberals of "worshiping" Michael Moore, for instance, or Gloria Steinem, or Richard Dawkins, or some other bete noir of theirs. They also say we "worship" Obama. And the problem is not the worshiping, per se, but the falseness of our gods. But, to take the Obama example: no, we don't worship him; we like him. Some of us like him a whole lot, and most of us are just freaking relieved that he won. But the whole purpose of being liberal is not to subordinate yourself to any one authority. You examine, you compare. You gather from many sources, sift and weigh. Some of us even "worship" a god (although I don't), but I strongly suspect it's a very different kind of worship than the conservatives'. I'd think it would take forms like gratitude combined with questioning and--this is important--deep challenging. It would not be a substitute for hard thought.

Also, of course, Reagan was always already (thanks, Jacques D!) a myth in the making. His whole purpose in life was to mythologize himself--that was his way of serving his country and his party. In terms of his party, it worked, at least in the short term; but it deprived them of any need to challenge themselves morally or intellectually, so ultimately he hurt them. It was no accident that he was an actor. His most successful character was himself, and that character, like other fictions, knows no death.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Mercy

My friend Anita Feferman reviews Toni Morrison's new novel.

Monday, February 16, 2009


In this week's NYT Book Review, Jennifer Schuessler brings up a really interesting point made by Greil Marcus twenty years ago. Apparently I missed it the first time around, but it seems more true today than ever: the word "surviving" has come to mean the same thing as "living."
In his 1989 cult hit “Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century,” Greil Marcus uncorked a memorable riff about the obsession with surviving in ’70s pop hits like “I Will Survive,” “Soul Survivor” and “Staying Alive”: “Through the magic of ordinary language, ‘survival’ and its twin, ‘survivor,’ wrote the 1960s out of history as a mistake and translated the 1970s performance of any act of personal or professional stability (holding a job, remaining married, staying out of a mental hospital or simply not dying) into heroism. First corrupted as a reference to those ‘survivors’ of ‘the Sixties’ who were now engaged in ‘real life,’ the word contained an implacable equation: survival was real life.”
Schuessler goes on to note that the NYT archives show 134 occurrences of the word "survivor" in 1980 and 652 in 2008. She does not make any suggestions as to why this has happened, and since I haven't read Marcus, I can only venture what is probably a platitude about post-war generations who feel guilty about being too comfortable. With few exceptions, the privileged classes in this country have not been called upon to do much of anything, other than hold a job and--if it suits us, or is allowed to us in the first place--remain married.

It's one reason Bush's admonition to the nation after 9/11--Go shopping!--was profoundly disappointing to the point of ruin. We aren't capable of anything else, he seemed to be telling us; and worse, he said it with no sense of how little we'd all come to expect of ourselves. Again, I think it started with Reagan, who, with great rhetorical skill, turned selfishness into patriotism. Want to help your country? Call your congressman, he told us, and tell him you want lower taxes. Don't help the poor; don't volunteer for the Peace Corps or the military (it's the poor's job to get killed, and we'll be sure to praise them to the heavens for doing so). Don't plant those damn polluting trees. All these things are counterproductive. But sit on your growing ass and gloat about not toppling over--you're a patriot!

For a generation, we, the relatively well-off,* have had no expectations placed on us as citizens. So many of us have turned to asking things of ourselves for ourselves--overcoming addictions, real or perceived, for instance. As the flip side of what we now call survival, self-improvement is certainly not a bad thing. But it has become an end in itself. With no larger implications, all one's personal struggles and triumphs become magnified to epic scale.

People do want something to be asked of them. They want to struggle with inertia, to translate their personal success into lasting significance. It's clear that part of Obama's appeal is that he promised to ask us to sacrifice, though what that entails, none of us really knows yet. In any case, with this economic collapse, we will suffer more, whether we want to or not. I really hope Obama and our other leaders use this opportunity to reframe our self-image as Americans. What we ultimately must overcome is the stultifying mindset brought on by decades of globalized consumer capitalism.

*UPDATE: By "relatively well-off" I mean the various, always shifting levels of middle class and higher.** This brings to mind another point about "surviving," inherent in the original Marcus quote. Being a "survivor of the sixties" means, in general, crossing the gulf from dirty fucking hippie (DFH, a phrase I think Atrios coined) to Nixon's Silent Majority. Not that the former DFHs believe what the Silent Majority believed, exactly, but they started to resemble them for all intents and purposes, and that caused no end of anxiety.

I've been dipping into Rick Pearlstein's fascinating book Nixonland, which explains in great detail how Nixon, aided by Agnew, Saffire, and others, created the Silent (White) Majority specifically in contrast to the DFHs and Angry Scary Blacks. Those who played by society's rules--an act which by definition entailed silence--were explicitly elevated to hero status. So it seems like two strains of "survivors" actually come from this. The first, as Marcus suggests, is the former DFHs who may repudiate their former actions, while at the same time wishing they were still doing them, or at least hoping those acts had some value. The second is those who bought Nixon's line that ordinary life, i.e. compliance with the status quo, is heroic. Obviously these two strains are not mutually exclusive by any means. I'm sure I've taken comfort from time to time in the thought that I'm a good person for doing what I've been told--and it's an easy hop from "good" to "heroic." One needs such compensation especially when compliance does not seem to lead to any very compelling rewards. One gets to keep one's job and one's health insurance a little while longer, is all.

**Of course, the financial crisis also reveals that the "well off" are not so "well off" after all. Built on absurd mortages and credit-card debt, much of this well-off-ness was quite literally fiction. We can certainly expect a spate of memoirs about surviving foreclosure and so forth. But is it heroism or just regression to the mean?

I'll leave for another time my thoughts on this even-more-wonderful-than-usual Slacktivist post, detailing the shift from progressive optimism to apocalyptic vengefulness in American evangelical Christianity. But it definitely has something to do with this inwardly focused concept of surviving, and the idea that trying to improve life on earth (as opposed to one's own soul) is a waste of time. I'll just say that in sympathizing with this view, Reagan, that supposed relentless optimist, was a pessimist.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why we need Bigfoot hunters

From Amy, blogger-by-proxy, this Salon article explains why the crypto can't be completely cut off from zoology.

The hunt for cryptids isn't just quixotic. It's motivated by the same 
ambitions that have led to key zoological discoveries. You might even 
say cryptid hunters keep warm that place in science where
 anything is possible. And it's from that place where some of the 
most astounding advances in the sciences are derived.

At the turn of the 20th century, for instance, the Mountain Gorilla and the
 platypus were thought to be legend or hoax. Pearl fishermen of 
Indonesia told tales of enormous prehistoric-like creatures on a remote 
island; the stories turned out to be real and the animals were named 
Komodo dragons. (An animal, even today, has not been "discovered" 
until a bona fide scientist says so, no matter how many locals claim 
its existence.)

Similarly, I'm open to the possibility that there are moderate Republicans, but I'll only believe when I see one.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The geography of the middle-aged mind

Trev and I are having one of our recurrent discussions on buying a place "in the country." The immediate trigger this time is probably the economy. Since we're both currently working, we suddenly feel very rich, and inclined to prey upon desperate souls forced to give up their homes "in the country" for bargain prices. The discussion goes something like this. I'll leave you to guess the speakers' identities, although, to a large extent, they are interchangeable.

X (looking at This is a great deal. We should buy this (pointing to large, tilting structure with no windows on 30 acres outside of Susanville).
Y: Why aren't there windows?
X: Maybe that's not the actual house.
Y: Then why's there a picture of it?
X: We could put solar panels on it, and great big windows.
Y: But that would be hard.
X: True.
Y: What would we do for a living out there?
X: Grow quinoa on the 30 acres and sell it.
Y: But that would be hard.
X: True.
Y: Maybe we should live in the city.
X: That might be cool.
Y: Here's a great place right by 280.
X: That would be noisy.
Y: True.

And so here we stay, in a condo on the Peninsula, between house and apartment, between country and city, in one of a series of side-by-side towns that owe their existence to a railroad. Our walls are eggshell; our kitchen counters still covered in the fake butcher-block veneer that I vowed we would get rid of if we did absolutely nothing else to the place. The tiles in the bathroom remain old-lady pink. What's the point of remodeling? We won't be here forever, and the next owner will want to redo everything anyway. Why throw money literally down the drain? Or maybe we just don't care. Remodeling's not our thing. What is our thing? Do we have to have a thing? Is this it?

We have been here for almost exactly five years. Are all these signs of transition a smokescreen for permanence? Do we like it here? Are we stuck or settled? Are we ambivalent or content? Is happiness simply making peace with ambiguity? Or is that giving up?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009