Archive for January, 2009

Fortune Cookie Messages

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

There is only one superstitious practice I engage in:  Erasing the bad luck of spilt salt by tossing some grains over my left shoulder.  If the predicament arises in a public setting — a restaurant, say — the ritual must be accomplished quickly and discreetly, lest my rationalist bona fides go kaput.

Another public practice not easily accomplished without embarrassment is my habit of picking up orphaned pennies from the sidewalk or street.  Unlike familiar pennies warm in your pocket, found pennies, I was taught as a child, are precious.   They possessed special significance, meaning, power.   I understand and accept this.

Before you scoff, remember children are wildly happy to believe certain persons, just like certain things, have extra-ordinary powers — powers beyond everyday reckoning.  This belief, after all, is the lifeblood of the comic book industry, not to mention an engine behind many a summer blockbuster movie.

If found pennies possess an aura, it’s not too big a stretch to believe a similar power haunts fortune cookie messages.  We’re all tempted to believe this, right?

Years ago I began to save those tiny slips of paper pulled from cracked, dry, misshapened cookies, on which are found orotund and suspiciously upbeat pronouncements from anonymous authors.  One by one I’ve brought the scraps home, tossing each into an ever-fattening envelope, stuffed into a desk drawer.  Below are the seven most recent additions to that collection.  Frankly, now that I consider their words carefully, the messages have no unique attachment to me or my fate.  Maybe the magic’s gone:

–  Great thoughts come from the heart.

–  You will soon be involved in many gatherings and parties.

–  Your life’s foundation is becoming quite strong.

–  You are appreciated by your company.

–  Your example will inspire others.

–  You are the center of every group’s attention.

–  Treat others as you would treat yourself.

“Welcome to the Family”

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

My PC days are over.  Today I bought an iMac.  As I left the Apple Store with my new toy, one of the managers shook my hand and said, “Welcome to the Family!”  I was taken aback. 

Have I joined a cult?

Photos from the day after the Inaugural Parade

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

These folks are photographing the President’s Reviewing Stand, a temporary structure built on the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk in front of the White House.  The Reviewing Stand, topped with a huge Presidential Seal, is now being dismantled.

The day after the Inauguration


This sign greeted marching bands at the end of the Inaugural Parade route, which started at the Capital and ended just past the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.  In the background is Blair House.


So I’d like to know where you got “the notion”

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

We await the President’s Inaugural Address at noon. 

Today’s Washington Post has an article by the great Henry Allen examining the strengths of Barack Obama’s oratorical style.  Sunday’s edition included an article by Prof. Michael Eric Dyson tracing Obama’s techniques to the modes of African-American preachers

On a related note, I’ve been wondering what is the source for Obama’s routine use of the phrase, “The notion that … “.  Throughout the campaign he would use that formulation, rather than the more common and expected “The idea that …” or “The belief that …”, especially when he was about to explain an idea, belief or rumor that he wanted gently but firmly to rebut.  For example, “The notion that I should not mention President Reagan’s strengths because he was a Republican is something I reject.” 

What accounts for his instinctive preference for the word “notion” ?  Well, I don’t know for sure, but here is my speculation.  First, it is his personal debating and expository style to be calm in the set-up, gently laying the predicate, but then forceful in the follow-through, driving home the argument.   Now, to suggest that your opponent’s “ideas” are faulty (that her mind is weak), or your critic’s “beliefs” are suspect (that his morals are weak), does not show civility or good manners on the part of the speaker.  It leans toward a personal diversion (what, after all, is more personal than casting aspersions on the other person’s mind and morals?) inimical to consensus building.  Obama is nothing if not goal-oriented.  Better to wrap the other person’s views in the amorphous swaddling of a “notion” — something that then can be replaced, painlessly, with a stronger, reality-based idea or belief.  What survives this soft confrontation is a pragmatic solution. 

The second and less conscious reason Obama gravitates toward the word “notion” is, I believe, his liking of the word’s sound.  It’s been said that for every person the most beautiful sounding word is their own name.  If that’s true, then notice how the soft open vowels of bah-rahk-oh-bah-ma are shared with the word, noh-shahn.

P.S.  If you paused at the title of this post, because something about it resonated with you, and you’re not sure why, go to this video for instant relief.

To be or not to be

Friday, January 16th, 2009

“Hey, maybe I can room with someone who’s going to be a proofreader?”


Hitchens on Lincoln in Newsweek

Friday, January 16th, 2009

I’ve been reading Newsweek  regularly for over four decades.  Nowadays the magazine is a shadow of its best period, the 60’s and 70’s.  In recent years, its editors, when choosing cover subjects, grabbed at any excuse  to resurrect halcyon days.  Even now I half expect to see in the next few weeks a cover nostalgically featuring Twiggy, somehow linking the 60’s waif to our slim new President.  For long-time readers such as myself who prefer a true news weekly, the decline of Newsweek recalls John’s post-breakup put-down of Paul:  The only thing you done was yesterday. 

Did I mention the magazine is getting slimmer and slimmer?  It’s become a combination of poor quality and small portions.  This too is an echo of  what we first heard decades ago.

Sometimes the editors simply defy the weekly news wrapper and give us alternative fare of high readability.  An example is the January 19, 2009 issue, whose otherwise desultory pages contain a small gem of an essay by Christopher Hitchens, entitled, “The Man Who Made Us Whole“.  Whether the title was chosen by the author or a Newsweek editor I know not;  its rightness suggests it’s Hitchens’ design.  The piece is an admiring portrait of Abraham Lincoln, filled with wit, wordplay, and revelatory thinking typical of the author at his best.  When Hitchens pops up on television (usually on cable; the old networks are too cowardly) he ofttimes comes across as dyspeptic,  prone to mumbling, and of ramshackle demeanor.  But the mind, the words:  he remains a man who should be listened to.

As his followers know, Hitchens, in the last year or two, has been a pugnacious defender of  in-your-face atheism, railing against religious belief of any sort.  In all times and places belief in God has worked a baleful effect, and so let’s acknowledge God is Not Great  — such has been his non-stop refrain, and the title of a book he’s hawked.  So it was a bit of a surprise to encounter the following sentiments flowing from the closing paragraph of his Lincoln essay:

“I would myself love to claim Lincoln as an atheist ancestor, but I must confess myself beaten.  He was emphatically not a Christian — the name of Jesus never seems to have escaped his lips in spite of many beseeching requests that he accept the savior — but he referred too often to a supervising and presiding deity for one to be able to allege that he did so only to obtain votes or approval.  … [H]e could not imagine that mere mortals were the sole measure of all things.  We may chose to think that we know better.”

[We may chose to think  we know better??] 

Then comes this tender denouement:

“[H]ow impossible it is to forget this craggy and wretched and haunted man, invoking  of all things our “better angels.”

Is this just Hitchens being respectful (if not sentimental) in the face of the savior-category accomplishments of a great man?  Or is there a shift of perspective, some beginning acceptance on his part that believers may indeed beneficially tread the earth, and do good not in spite of but because of their belief?

[Update: For an analysis of Newsweek and Time‘s current straits, check out this article.]

Just caught this guy hiding out at the CVS close to the White House

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

And close by the cigarettes!


Here are three reasons

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Imagine, if you will, a fleet of spacecraft from a distant galaxy hovering with menace over the earth.  Then suppose the space aliens’ commander broadcasts a curt demand: 

“Give us three reasons why earthlings deserve to escape total annihilation!”

Hmmm . . . (I’m thinking) . . .

One – this guy

Two – this woman

Three – this fellow

Charlie Rose, Charlie Rose, Dick Cavett, Camille Paglia

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

No, they’re not assembling to play a doubles match.

Before 2008 is consigned to deep confinement (with instructions to double lock the door and throw away the keys, please), consider spending three minutes with two Charlie Roses in one of last year’s best YouTube videos, found here.

Have you ever noticed how even Charlie Rose sometimes fails to listen to, or at least fully process, his guest’s answers, because he’s formulating the next question or his own bon mot ?  Among the talk show host elite, the most watchable interviewers are the ones who consistently elicit memorable guest talk while sparingly injecting just the right measure of their own personal seasoning.  It’s a fiendishly difficult balancing act.  For my money, no one has done it better than Dick Cavett.  My favorite “wow” moment is available here

Ask me to draw up a list of Persons I Wouldn’t Mind Sitting Next To On A Coast-to-Coast Flight Even Though They Want To Talk The Entire Flight (PIWMSNTOACTCFETTWTTTEF for short), and Mr. Cavett’s on the list.  Although his public output is now sparse (occasional pieces in the NY Times), he recently reminded us of how easily his Nebraska wits win the day, this time hosing down a dust-up with a temporarily tone-deaf Camille Paglia (they were fighting over Sarah Palin). 

Reading and watching Ms. Paglia has been a guilty pleasure of mine ever since I sat slack-jawed for three uninterrupted hours a few years ago watching her energize an amazing Book TV (C-SPAN2) “In Depth”  interview.  That entire program is available online now, here.  My advice: take a bathroom break before  you launch into what’s best experienced as a non-stop roller coaster ride.  Unfortunately, I’m finding that her current crop of monthly Salon  columns is suffering from a temporary decline in quality.  Too often the ricocheting ideas she’s usually able to juggle into jazzy coherence lay inert instead.  Some arguments are recyclings and some new ones are goofily off-kilter.  Then again I may just be reacting adversely to some of her recent political likes and dislikes.  There’s no denying hers is a high-wire act not to be missed, so I’m not about to give up my seat.

Metaphorically speaking, America is . . .

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

Are you looking forward to the onslaught of articles and books announcing that “America Is A Sinking Ship [or other metaphor of bloat and decline]” ?  

On Saturday the theme popped up in The Times (U.K), where British columnist Matthew Parris wrote that Barack Obama will be the first President to manage an empire in decline.  Emblematic of the decline, in Mr. Parris’ view, is the sorry condition of Detroit automakers. While most observers point to the Big Three’s recent mistakes, Parris claims the problem dates back to over half a century ago:

As a keen amateur car mechanic I have, since the age of 16, been puzzled by something about America. Here was a nation crazy about automobiles and held out to me as the last word in modernity, innovation, capitalist dynamism and go-ahead technology in all that it did. But its cars weren’t any good. I say “weren’t” – we’re talking 1965 here – because some commentary about the current woes of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler has suggested that it is in recent years that the US automotive industry has slipped behind; and it’s certainly only quite recently that they’ve started losing a lot of money.

But the product, though always flashy, has been technologically inferior since the end of Second World War. While European carmakers were pioneering front-wheel drive, independent suspension, small diesel engines and efficient automatic gearboxes, the Americans kept churning out big, thirsty, fast-rusting, primitively engineered behemoths. Partly this was because fuel was cheap, but the oversprung American limo, loose-handling and imprecise, was always a pig to drive, too. At root the problem was lack of competition.

Yes, lack of competition allowed the problem to fester, but also to blame is a consuming public who accepted flash and preferred big over small.   I remember, during the sixties and seventies, how Detroit responsibly, if grudgingly, introduced a batch of compact car designs, but buyers treated each new model as a child they couldn’t wait to fatten up.  After the first year’s introduction as a genuine small and relatively efficient vehicle, the car would grow in length, breadth and weight, and most importantly in strength (greater horse power!).  A good example is the Chevy Nova.  And talk about fast-rusting: my brother’s Nova rusted so thoroughly you could see the road beneath your driving feet. 

Creeping giganticism is characteristic of our national culture.  We see it in carsMcMansions, language (the neologism “ginormous” is now in the Meriam-Webster dictionary), our bodies and body parts.  Is there any wonder why American kids have an enduring love of T-Rex and her pals?  

All of which leads to the question, so is America a Giganotosaurus?

No, I’m not ready to embrace the coming doom and gloom scenarios.  I would rather steer the subject back home, and note that it is a shame book titles are not copyrightable, because I’d like to lay claim to this one:

“America and the Failure of Undercoating.”