Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Hannah's Moon

Yesterday I mailed out a new idea for a children’s book. Titled “Hannah’s Moon,” I think it’s the most complete artistic statement I have ever made. It can, of course, still use some tweaks, but overall it is not bad.

This is the text:
Her room softly darkening with sunset, Hannah shines a flashlight. She calls the circle of light on the ceiling, “Hannah’s Moon.”

Hannah’s Moon glows one-two-three on the ceiling, the wall, and the floor.

Hannah’s Moon beams out the window and into the autumn winds.

On her hand, Hannah and her moon are one. In her room, Hannah and her moon are one.

Hannah turns the flashlight off, then on, then off. She loves the light and the time just after dark.

An autumn wind rushes across the window; Hannah’s Moon cannot catch it.

Hannah’s Moon slides around her feet, like a dancer.

Hannah knows a tune; Hannah’s Moon lines and shapes it.

Hannah’s Moon darts and flits everywhere in Hannah’s room. Glittering traces mark the path.

Hannah’s Moon washes the purple and the stitches of her blanket.

Hannah says “Oh!” when a teddy bear in the corner casts a wide shadow, because of Hannah’s Moon.

Hannah’s Moon stays very still. Hannah must be sleeping.

Hannah’s Moon is put away gently, gently. All through the night, the autumn wind promises that snow will fall soon.
I also sent the publisher what I hope is an effective cover letter:
Please consider the attached manuscript, titled “Hannah’s Moon,” in which a young girl transforms a flashlight spot into a cosmic lullaby of sight, sound, and imagination.

Evocative, rich, and serene, “Hannah’s Moon” will touch children and parents alike. A talented illustrator will be inspired and challenged by the two bound narratives of play and autumn nightfall. Together, text and images will create a cherished work for all ages and many years.

The text came about after my two-year-old daughter, Hannah, actually shined a flashlight onto the ceiling of our living room. “Hannah’s moon!” was what she called the spot of light. I loved her phrase and that special moment, so I went about trying to fashion verbal images around both. When by chance I came across “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens, I used the poem’s world as a palette for bringing out the world of my story.

Currently, I have a children’s story called “Uncle Josh and His Shmate” being considered by Hachai Publishing. I have also published several academic papers, book reviews, business white papers, and web log articles. Having interned at Perseus Books, I understand something of the publishing business. I assure you of my personal commitment to the total success of “Hannah’s Moon” in the market.

If “Hannah’s Moon” does not meet your publishing needs at this time, please return the manuscript in the self-addressed, stamped envelope I have enclosed.

Thanks very much for your consideration.

Larry Tanner
One thing I didn't mention to them is that the last statement of "Hannah's Moon" is derived obliquely from the end of James Joyce's "The Dead." Not that it matters, but it's interesting.

Before I submitted the manuscript to this publisher, I had emailed an inquiry to Ms. Dar Hosta, who does a collage art that reminds some of Eric Carle. Her work seems a little too light for my taste, but that’s why I thought she might find the darker hues of “Hannah’s Moon” intriguing. This was Dar’s reply to my inquiry:
Hi Larry,

Yes, I get a good many inquiries like yours. Unfortunately, I am in the business of being both an author and an illustrator myself and also work as an editor, a separate responsibility, for an Italian children's book festival publication. This doesn't leave me much time for other projects and Brown Dog Books remains as it was originally intended--a platform for my own work.

I am thrilled you and your family enjoy my books. It makes what I do clearly the right choice. I don't usually give personal replies for manuscript inquiries, but maybe it's the moon in your book any case, I wish you the best of luck with your project and have included my form reply below because it has some of my typical advice for people such as yourself, interested in joining the world of children's picture books.

Thanks for writing.

Dar Hosta
I have high hopes for “Hannah’s Moon.” There has been no word yet on “Uncle Josh.” I wonder if this is a good sign. The waiting is difficult for me.

I discovered yesterday that “Uncle Josh” uses almost exactly the same narrative pattern as a short story I had written in college. I forget the name of the story, but I remember it won second prize in a school contest. Both stories have a sensitive protagonist who makes choices based on instantly gratifying sudden desires. Both have a victim that the protagonist actually cares for. Both have this kind of shadowy id character who helps precipitate the bad moral decision of the protagonist. I was stunned to realize the similarities between the two stories and wonder if I have some psychic baggage I need to unload.

I am maintaining 176 pounds these days. Need to lose half a pound. The road race is on Sunday, but it looks like it will be a rainy one.

Monday, April 25, 2005

A Wicked Cancer in the Passover Seder

In every Passover Seder, my family has debated that part of the service concerning the four different types of child. This is where we consider how to teach the meaning of Passover and its Seder to each type: wise, wicked, simple, and the one who does not know how to ask.

Each type is identified by the manner in which the child queries the leader about the Seder's meaning. The wise child asks, "What is the meaning of the testimonies, statutes and judgments commanded by G-d?" In contrast, the wicked child asks, "What is the meaning of this service to you?" Because the wicked child distances himself from the service, the leader's reply excludes him: "Because of what G-d did for me, in taking me out of Egypt."

My two brothers, it seems to me, dislike that one of the sons is called “wicked.” To get even a little more particular about it, they feel that the so-called “wicked child” is unfairly labeled and challenge whether he has truly done anything to merit such a strong condemnation as “wicked.” Again as it seems to me, they view him as a potentially spiritual individual whose inquiry from a place of independent thought brings down a harsh anti-intellectualism upon him.

There is much to admire in my brothers’ defense of the wicked child. If I have characterized their sentiments correctly, I share many impulses and thoughts with them. For example, we all understand that it is a disturbing and terrible thing to call a child “wicked.” At one time or another, all children behave wickedly, but this does not make them through-and-through wicked. It is hard to imagine any child as an essentially wicked being – as if a child were born evil, independent of his education and environment. In fact, this is such a strain on the imagination that I think my brothers and I agree that no child is born evil or wicked.

However, my brothers and I begin to part ways sharply when we consider a second point, whether the so-called wicked son’s behavior warrants being identified as wicked. What is the behavior that offends? It is a question, and it is question phrased in a way that communicates condescension and trivialization. In cruder, more colloquial terms, the child has stood up and asked the room, “What the hell are you all doing?” The form of the question implies the child’s ideas that the Seder ritual is beneath him and silly.

Is this behavior wicked? Certainly. To disdain and disrespect people, and to make them and their practices out to be inferior – these are evil acts because they attempt verbally to destroy the Seder, its origins, the current and past events that have made it possible, and the spirit of its participants.

However, if in his question the child has performed an act of profound wickedness, can it be said that the child himself is wicked? After all, we might resent the behavior but still be able to excuse the child. “He was just trying to be funny,” we might reason. “It was just an error of judgment,” we might conclude.

But at this point it’s critical to remember that “the wicked child” is not an actual child and does not refer to a particular person. The wicked child represents a personality type, just as the wise child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask are personality types identified by the sages. At different points in a life, in different contexts, each one of us approaches a situation from the standpoint of wisdom, wickedness, simplemindedness or dumb silence. From earliest childhood and into adulthood, we hope to establish wisdom's standpoint as our default approach to the Seder, and also to Torah, Judaism, and living generally.

This is partly why it is misguided to defend the wicked child. To advocate for the wicked child is not to protect a vulnerable innocent, it is to justify wicked deeds themselves. It is to legitimize and intellectually permit behavior that degrades other people and defiles their customs. It is to rationalize destructive actions and to refuse to take any kind of stand against them or their perpetrators.

So also is it misguided to suggest that the rebuke of the wicked child’s question intends to quell dissent and suppress a healthy community dialogue on different spiritual points of view. The response to the wicked child’s question makes explicit just what he had implied: the child implicitly removes himself from the Seder in the question, and the child is explicitly removed from the Seder in the response. The obvious intent in responding this way is to help the child realize on his own that the Seder does apply to him, but the application is not a mere given. It is fulfilled by one’s meeting the obligation to study the Seder and its "testimonies, statutes and judgments commanded by G-d."

What about multiple, different, and even conflicting spiritual views? If the wicked child or his question represents some alternative spiritual view, I do not see it. It certainly is not expressed in any positive sense. But make no mistake, the Seder – and Judaism too, I believe – fully supports inquiries, disagreements, and theories on "the testimonies, statutes and judgments commanded by G-d."

I fear that ideas that this is not so are becoming irrevocably entrenched in my brothers' hearts and minds. What's more, I detect a cancer in their offered and implied positions on the wicked child, a serious philosophical and spiritual issue that is turning them against Jewish observances, history and texts.

I fear also that this stance is becoming more pervasive in Jewish families across America, and I believe that it is not a good thing. If my fears are true and this cancer is real, Seders of the future will be conducted without decent and intelligent Jews, those who passed over Judaism without recognizing that it always already explored and expressed their humanist ideals.

My brothers have a wisdom that makes them deserving of an appropriate reply to their questions. Have I given this reply? I don't know, but perhaps this, my expression of what I desire to understand, will help all of us have a new Seder next year. The Seder itself can be seen as wisdom asking a question. My family, and perhaps many Jewish families in America, can benefit from examining how we have responded to this question.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Personal "Exodus"

Passover, Pesach, begins tomorrow evening. It is truly one of the great celebrations of the world. Or, perhaps "commemoration" is a more apt word than "celebration."

One must always rememember that G-d led the Hebrew slaves, the nation of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt. Part of the Exodus story, however, is the visitation of plagues upon the Egyptians. These plagues include G-d causing the deaths of the first-born in Egypt. What's more, the Exodus story also encompasses the drowning of the Egyptian military in the un-parting Red Sea.

These last two events are difficult but important to deal with. I think many of us, myself included, would have preferred that the liberation of the three million Hebrew slaves without any harm befalling the Egyptians. Pharoah, of course, was a man of a hard heart. He was stubborn, vindictive, and mean. His death would have saddened no slave, but he lived. Who were those who died? Egyptian children, in the case of the tenth plague, and Egyptian soldiers. Innocents and pawns.

One must think carefully about these deaths and make sure that they are included and addressed in the annual Passover experience.

To deal with these deaths, we might consider first the easier case, that of the Egyptian soldiers. They were hand-picked by Pharoah and sent by him to attack the emigrating Israelites. These warriors were going out to make war, and soldiering is a high-risk enterprise. They were going out to kill or be killed. We can respectfully be relieved that our lives were spared and the lives of those coming to attack us were not. There's no rejoicing in the loss of life, but the situation created by Pharoah's sending out the troops was one in which someone was going to die. Regarding the tenth plague, though, I think the critical context is truly the fact that Pharoah himself had previously ordered the killing of the Israelites' first-born male children. Pharoah, it seems, determined the specific affliction across his own land.

In both cases, we have a turnaround or transformation. The attacking soldiers become the victms. Pharoah's command becomes visited upon his own house and people. Action begets circumstance begets reversal.

For me, then, Passover means something like this: As motion and transformation, G-d creates the events determined by our actions. Pharoah's order of infanticide is transformed and set in motion against him and all of Egypt. The leadership and strength of Moses are transformed into the physical exodus from Egypt and inscribed in the miracles that become revealed to all of Israel.

During Pesach, we remember that we ourselves were lifted from bondage by G-d. We remember that the unjust and cruel actions of some created death and misery for others. We finally acknowledge again that each of us performs actions that G-d inscribes in the universe and transforms into the events we witness.

At the seder table we have the opportunity to make a personal exodus. The non-Hebrew term "Exodus" typically refers to a mass of people. Each of us is mutli-dimensional and a composite of many people: Jewish man, Father, Husband, Son, Brother, American, Russian descendant, English descendant, Employee, Manager, Volunteer, and so on many times over.

The Passover commemoration is a time for all of these people to recognize and follow a leader -- maybe it's an outside person, an internal yearning or a guiding principle. It is a chance for these multitudes to be brought into a world of transformation. They will come to liberation if the actions that bring them into the world are neighborly and constructive. They will be undercut and utterly shattered if the actions embodying them are hurtful and vicious.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Coasting and Brewing

I am at 177.5 this morning. I am looking for 177 even, which I hit on Tuesday, but I am thrilled that my pants fit more loosely and that I am showing signs of increasing strength. I went through nearly the entire abs workout without stopping. I also upped the dumbell weights for the arms workout.

In nutrition, I have experimented with substituting fruits, veggies and nuts for snacks instead of breakfast bars. This is fine with me, and probably a cost saver. I plan on sticking with it.

I wonder if I can improve things on both the wellness and savings fronts by reducing my daily coffee production. I now make 24 ounces of coffee every morning -- that's five (5) tablespoons. I think I can go down to 16 ounces, since I usually have coffee leftover during the day.

This would be the second time I have made a coffee change. I used to have six (6) tablespoons of coffee, always Dunkin' Donuts hazelnut. Besides reducing the number of tablespoons and amount of water, I started to make one scoop a hazelnut coffee from an el cheapo brand. Very cost clever, no?

I figure with the extra money saved from my new coffee and snack plans, I could work towards a decent weight bench and more equipment. Eventually, I will outgrow the tape-worlout routines. I'll need equipment to help me keep going. A gym still isn't really in the cards.

Spiritually, I have kind of let things slide. Passover is coming soon, though. I want to have a nice seder at home and start over again, as it were.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Nourishing My Life, One 12-Minute Mile at a Time

Had a busy time at the end of the week, and a busy weekend as well.

I currently weigh in at 178 pounds, My goal this week is 177, which has been kind of a barrier for me in the past. If I can get to and stay at 177 for a few days, I'll be very happy.

I continue to learn about nutrition and about the foods I have been putting into my body. The low-cal breakfast bars have been OK, but I have switched this week to dried apricots and almonds.

As I go along, I find that nutrition is much more important than I ever imagined. Healthy eating more and more seems to be at the center of a fit life -- and I mean "fit" in a number of senses -- and yet, this fact also seems to be a bit of a secret. It's not the kind of point that's really stressed in advertising, media, entertainment, and so on.

It's funny. We get these fad diets that target one thing (e.g., carbs or fat). We also get pummeled with exercise routines, methods and equipment (e.g., Pilates, Tae Bo, Bowflex). But generally, healthy eating really seems to be more fundamental and important. Maybe it's the fundamentality that keeps it under wraps in our daily lives; it's just not that sexy.

Having registered for the Westford 5K race, I went out on Sunday to train. I did "run" three miles, but my first mile was almost 12 minutes, and my second was only about 10 seconds faster. I walked the third mile and had a 15 minute split.

I was absolutely shocked. Somehow, I imagined that I did an 8-10 minute mile. On the positive side, for the second mile, I incorporated four 100-yard dashes. With each one, I tried to increase my speed.

My children's story, UJAHS, will probably arrive to the second publisher today. I feel confident that this time will work out. We'll see, though.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

Yesterday, I said that I hoped the publisher rejected my children's story manuscript. They did. I know it's what I truly wanted, but it still hurts a little.

No crying here, though. I have readied materials for the next publisher, and I think this one has a much better chance of success. The books they publish are more in line with the story I have. Their art is better. I have "proposalized" the manuscript submission in order to make more of an impression. And lastly, I have made another few modifications and tweaks to the story. So, I feel confident about this submission.

I weighed in at 178 even this morning. Pretty good! I did decent 8-minute Abs and Arms workouts this morning. My abs are still weak, but I am making improvement. I have decided to do the 8-minute Abs every day.

Lots going on at work today, so I can't stay and tell the interesting story about being cut off by a truck yesterday evening on my way home from work. Naturally, it's a story with absolutely profound moral implications and resonances, but it will have to wait for another time.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Halfway Point

Weighed in at 177.5 this morning! I worked darn hard yesterday to get there, too. It makes me worried that I am going to jump back up one or two pounds too easily.

OK,OK. I will not worry about it. My goal this week is 178.5. I will just keep focusing on eating right and getting in better shape. I am really not in very good shape at all. I am not even sure that I have made much improvemrnt over the past week or so.

Again, I am not going to worry about it. I know that the activity and the eating are right for me, so I will simply stay the course and continue to visualize my goal.

Nor much sleep last night. And not a very good sleep, anyway. Very stressed yesterday and today. Work has got me down.

Regarding my children's book venture: I took a good look at the publisher's Web site. I don't think it's the right place for UJAHS. I have a better publisher in mind. I hope this first round, I get a rejection letter.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Forty-Seven Percent

Very happy this morning to weigh in at 178 pounds. My target this week is 178.5, so I am ahead of the game. This puts me at nearly 47% of the way to my weight goal of 170 pounds.

With my diet getting stabilized, it's becoming more and more important to step up the intensity and duration of my workouts. While I have not figured out all of the details, I know I want to do abs every day. During the week, I want to focus on arms, legs, back and cardio. Weekends might be freewheeling time; I’ll do anything that comes to mind, or nothing.

One small setback: my back has been sore since Saturday. It started bothering me when I tried to force my daughter's new jogging stroller into the trunk of the Corolla. Stupid of me to jostle it aggressively like I did. I was overconfident in the toning that I had been doing. It’s almost fortunate that I have had a bit of a chest cold as well. Not working out yesterday was probably beneficial.

Time to get to work. I have a busy, stressful day ahead of me. Still, I fully intend to walk for 30 minutes in the afternoon. At almost halfway to my goal of 170 pounds by June 5, I expect the last 8 pounds to be tougher, especially the final 3.

Still anticipating April 29: the 3 week mark for when I sent out UJAHS to the publisher.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Common Sense Nonsense, Part 2

One of the more disturbing elements of the media-government partnership discussed in Part 1 is that media commentators and/or political pundits are working together to attack intellectuals.

What's most objectionable is that the attacks are made as these zero-sum arguments that champion the attacking speaker rather than the ideas/position. Many of these attacks seem based on nothing more than 1) a dislike of the intellectual posture/image and, more fundamentally, 2) an unwillingness to acknowledge ideas that cannot easily be translated into sound bites, buzz words or catch phrases.

As a case in point, read below how Jonathan Gurwitz just gets Derrida and so-called “Deconstruction” wrong:

Jacques Derrida is dead — maybe
By Jonathan Gurwitz
‘Deconstruction’ and the death of common sense The protagonist of Friedrich Nietzsche's seminal work "Thus Spake Zarathustra" declares, "G-d is dead." But it was G-d, or at least nature, that had the final say in the matter.

A clever epigram puts the issue in stark relief.

Nietzsche: "G-d is dead."
G-d: "Nietzsche is dead."

Nietzsche predicted that the decline in traditional beliefs, such as the belief in G-d, would undermine the cultural foundations of morality and set mankind on an inevitable journey toward relativism and nihilism.

After Nietzsche's death, one of the great captains of that journey was Jacques Derrida, an Algerian-born French philosopher whose signal contribution to the relativistic effort was deconstruction, the theory that no ultimate truth or meaning can be found in a text or work of art.

Jacques Derrida is dead. Maybe.

The object here is not to make light of Derrida's death from a painful disease. Rather, it is to demonstrate how such transcendent events can be rendered meaningless by his own theory.

News reports suggest that Derrida succumbed to cancer this month in Paris. Yet those reports may have multiple meanings. Our traditional way of understanding an obituary may be based on false assumptions. The fact that reporters have declared Derrida to be dead may not mean that Derrida is, in fact, dead.

All this may sound like a nonsensical game of semantics to the average person. Which only demonstrates that the average person has more common sense than the great minds of academia seized by the whimsical notion that, for instance, when Thomas Jefferson wrote, "all men are created equal," he quite probably meant precisely the opposite.

Deconstruction has led to some fanciful efforts, stripping meaning from the likes of Plato and Shakespeare and adding it to indolent streams of free verse consciousness.

The prospect that one's own words could be meaningless was of particular interest to Paul de Man, a Yale University professor who was deconstruction's most ardent advocate in the United States. In 1987, four years after de Man's death, the rediscovery of pro-Nazi, pro-collaborationist and anti-Semitic articles de Man had written as a young man in Nazi-occupied Belgium created a deconstructive scandal.

That's the attraction, and the artifice, of deconstruction. On the one hand, it turns literature — and literary criticism — into an intellectual free-for-all where any notion, no matter how outlandish, has merit. In fact, the more outlandish, and the more peppered with sexual references and progressive political causes, the better.

On the other hand, it means — as Derrida demonstrated in his defense of de Man — that what you write or say ultimately has no meaning.

In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal set out to demonstrate the intellectual vacuousness of deconstruction by submitting an article intentionally devoid of any meaning to the journal Social Text. In writing "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," he sought to test whether a serious academic journal would "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions."

Sokal's opus sparkled with deconstructive-sounding gems: "These criteria, admirable as they are, are insufficient for a liberatory postmodern science: they liberate human beings from the tyranny of 'absolute truth' and 'objective reality,' but not necessarily from the tyranny of other human beings."

The editors of Social Text couldn't help themselves. "Transgressing the Boundaries" went to print in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue. Course descriptions in the humanities, literature and sociology — to say nothing of gender and race studies — at almost any university reveal the extent to which such deconstructive language is ascendant in academia.

Few intellectual movements have done more to unhinge words from meaning, ideas from philosophical foundations and art from artistry than Derrida's ghastly creation. In 1992, Cambridge University proposed giving Derrida an honorary degree. Twenty professors of philosophy objected that "semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship is not, we submit, sufficient grounds for the awarding of an honorary degree in a distinguished university." In a vote of the full faculty, Derrida's supporters prevailed, 336-204.

Even Sigmund Freud, another contributor to the relativistic cause, is attributed with saying, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

Jacques Derrida is dead. Deconstruction, however, lives on, carrying forward the insidious tendency toward relativism and nihilism that Nietzsche presaged more than a century ago.
Make no mistake, Gurwitz has a political agenda, and his commentary springs from it. You'll recognize the agenda, it's couched as quasi-moral indignation.

Now, I am no expert in post-structuralism or in Derrida, but I have read enough Derrida to believe strongly that so-called “Deconstruction" is certainly not “the theory that no ultimate truth or meaning can be found in a text or work of art.” This is a conclusion that many try to support using so-called “Deconstruction,” but Derrida's theories really do not lead to such a conclusion, especially as it is formulated by Gurwitz.

Derrida’s theories, as I remember, assert that a text allows many meanings, sometimes conflicting meanings, to be generated. But a text is also self-enclosed. For example, a novel contains the characters “Ronald Reagan” and “Bill Clinton.” The Derridean point is that there is no necessary tie to the real 40th and 42nd U.S. presidents. In other words, the novel's Reagan and Clinton are not the real Reagan and Clinton; what's more, the novel's "Reagan" and "Clinton" do not necessarily refer to the real Reagan and Clinton. The novel's characters are not obligated to be anything like what we may call their "real-world counterparts."

A text allows one great liberty in constructing the identity tied to a name. In the novel, there’s a lot I can do with the identities of “Ronald Reagan” and “Bill Clinton”: manipulate, re-create, re-invent, distort, and so on. Gurwitz' twisting of so-called "Deconstruction" is precisely the kind of textual appropriation that Derrida theorized. But Derrida's ideas go further in suggesting that from the standpoint of my novel’s world, there are no real “Ronald Reagan” and “Bill Clinton” in another world outside. The world of the text is the world, and there is no outside-text. Gurwitz' "Deconstruction" is, within the confines of his article, so-called "Deconstruction." The use of the name is self-serving, ideological and masturbatory.

Gurwitz, I suppose, believes that we find ultimate truths and meanings in works of literature and art. At least, the Gurwitz that emerges in his article seems to have these beliefs. Personally, I think it would be more than great if we could read a book, or view a painting, or inspect a sculpture, and determine from that a final, unchanging truth or meaning that was the same for everyone in every time. But I also think that whenever we look closely at what someone calls an ultimate truth, we invariably find that this truth is a constructed thing – a manipulation, re-creation, re-invention, distortion, of something else. In other words, the ultimate truth may just be that the truth is a fiction borne of another fiction, a manufactured product of an inherited product (that was itself manufactured).

So-called “Deconstruction” did not “unhinge words from meaning.” The nature of language is to hinge words to meaning. It’s why languages are organic. So-called “Deconstruction” is not “the death of common sense.” Indeed, a little understanding of so-called “Deconstruction” helps one to see the manipulation in hinging Hannity to a U.S. flag backdrop and in hinging the secular humanist to a background of the scholar’s bookshelf. We can see the media-driven fabrication of identities, and we can see how the actual topics/issues being discussed are made to be irrelevant next to the conflict-mongering. We are being incited to pick sides, to argue only ad hominem, and to refrain from ever considering the substance of issues. There’s the death of common sense.

Common Sense Nonsense, Part 1

I caught a brief glimpse on the television of Sean Hannity conducting an interview with someone identified as a secular humanist. It was a remote interview, so a split screen was used: Hannity on the left side, the interviewee on the right.

One look at the screen told a viewer all that needed to be known about the interview: Hannity’s full background was an image of an American flag, possibly a waving flag. Behind the secular humanist was a dark wood bookcase filled with impressive-looking books.

This was no interview. It was a conflict of agendas and ideologies made to look like an interview. It was a wrestling match. On one contender's uniform, in glittering gold sequins, we saw the phrase "Common Sense." The costume of the other contender announced the name, "Intellectual." Or maybe "Secularist." Or maybe "Liberal." They're all the same, right?

In most wrestling matches, it's easy to pick the winner before the match even starts: the name-brand wrestler will prevail. Same thing with the Hannity-Secular Humanist match. Hannity was scripted to win. No need to see or hear the interview. The interviewer always wins, partly because the person asking the questions always has an advantage in knowing both the questions and answers beforehand.

The cartoonish nature of this interview just reminded me again what a strange state our country is in right now. Something is definitely rotten, and if the rot can't be spotted directly in the government, it can in the popular media. The news programs -- TV and newspaper -- give us more circus than soleil: just a bunch of vivid images, icons and postures being used to forward vague agendas.

For example, from today’s Boston Globe, here's a story involving media, government, and the trendy collusion of the two:

State employs a Herald columnist
By Raphael Lewis, Globe Staff April 8, 2005

Governor Mitt Romney's administration has awarded a $10,000 contract to a Boston Herald op-ed columnist to promote the governor's environmental policies.

The columnist, Charles D. Chieppo, started working yesterday with the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

His job calls for writing op-ed pieces and internal documents ''to support the efforts of senior management to promote education, awareness, and acceptance of major policy initiatives" on the environment.

Chieppo will work two days a week until at least June 30. He also plans to continue writing op-ed columns for the Herald, where he is paid for each article.

Chieppo, who signed his pact on April 2, declined to comment yesterday. In January, he left a six-figure job in the Executive Office of Administration and Finance to start a private consulting business and to write the weekly Herald column.

Joe O'Keefe, Romney's assistant environmental secretary for public affairs, said in an interview yesterday that Chieppo has ''fully vetted" the consultancy with the state Ethics Commission and that ''he can't have any contact with Herald reporters or columnists or write anything that would be published in the Herald on our behalf."

Chieppo was awarded the contract over another bidder when his Herald columns were highly supportive of Romney's policies. His March 21 column, which appeared three days after Chieppo submitted his bid for the state contract, praised the Romney mass-transit plan that was largely authored by Douglas Foy, the secretary of Commonwealth development and the person who oversees the Environmental Affairs office that now employs Chieppo.

Bob Zelnick, who chairs Boston University's journalism department, said in an interview yesterday that the Chieppo contract raised ethical questions.

''I think it is inappropriate, bordering on improper, for a person to be writing a column one day and consulting actively in a paid position for the administration the same day or even the next day," Zelnick said. ''I think that blurs the lines between legitimate journalism and politics [in a way] that serves neither the administration nor the public and certainly not the newspaper."

The White House has recently been under fire for paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to columnists and journalists to tout Bush administration policies across a wide array of topics. The most prominent example was nationally syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams, whom the administration paid $240,000. He touted the No Child Left Behind law.

Late last month, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune wrote that Governor Jeb Bush of Florida and several of his subordinate offices have paid more than $100,000 to a Tallahassee production company owned by a veteran television reporter who regularly reports on the administration.

Bob Steele -- a senior faculty member in ethics at The Poynter Institute in Florida, a think tank and journalism school -- said the Chieppo contract is a cousin of those other controversial examples.

''Are his observations and is his writing on the issues and events in any way influenced in reality or perception by those government contract connections?" Steele asked. ''It is a matter of credibility that could be reasonably challenged. And he could argue from sunset to sunrise and back that he is uninfluenced by the contract, but you can't prove that. This intersection [where] he's driven his journalistic vehicle is dangerous at best."

The Boston Globe has four regular contributors who are paid by the piece, said Renee Loth, editor of the Globe's editorial page. Loth said the Globe would not have a regular contributor who was under contract to promote a point of view. ''We want our regular contributors to be offering their own independent opinions," she said.

Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's communications director, said yesterday that neither he nor the governor was aware that Chieppo was brought on by the Environmental Affairs Office. He referred questions to the Environmental Affairs Office.

Gwen Gage, a spokeswoman for the Boston Herald, said that Chieppo has disclosed his new state contract to the paper's editorial page editor, Rachelle Cohen, who decided to allow him to continue writing his weekly column as long as he refrains from writing about ''those topics he's consulting on."

''We have an agreement that he'll stay clear of that stuff," Gage said.

It's not unusual for reporters to move to government jobs and sometimes back into journalism. In the past month, Herald political reporter David Guarino left the paper to become communications director for Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly.

But Zelnick said that situation is different from being paid by the government while remaining a paid op-ed writer.

''I think we've become accepting of the existence of a revolving door between the political and journalistic communities, so when an individual goes from a position in the administration to writing a column of opinion, most people take it for what it's worth," Zelnick said. ''They can discount the opinion if they wish. There's a difference between a revolving door and a newsman who wears two hats simultaneously."

Chieppo's contract calls on him to work with staff of the Environmental Affairs Office ''to develop and coordinate strategy and messaging," as well as ''engage external stakeholders" and ''provide writing and editing support" to staff members writing op-ed pieces on pending legislation and other policy areas.

O'Keefe said that op-ed pieces will not take up the majority of Chieppo's commitment to the administration, two days per week.

''We have a significant amount of technical writing that needs to get done internally, so we expect most of his work to be focused on internal reports and documentation," O'Keefe said. ''There will be a component that will be op-ed pieces on behalf of certain pieces of legislation of interest to us, but it would not be allowed to be run in the Herald. He would assist in the writing."
It's just remarkable to me how cozy together media, government and business are. Is this not the relativism and nihilism that the so-called pundits lament?

More on this in Part 2.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Blogging On

Sometimes this blog really irritates me. Or maybe it’s my computer.

In either case, I had a beautiful, insightful, lucid post on my weight – 180 – again, my fitness regimen, and my delusions of grandeur related to “Uncle Josh and His Shmate.” I pressed the publish button and got an error message. Result – post gone!

Alright, here’s the condensed version: goody for me, not great, move on.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Anticipation and Revision

I have already made several minor changes to "Uncle Josh and His Shmate" since this morning's post.

Revising is no surprise except I had already printed the cover letter to the publisher and a "final" version of the text.

I can't help revising, though. There's always a little tweak or modification to make. I am going to try like heck to leave the text alone. I know that the publisher will make suggestions, regardless of whether the text is accepted or not. I just need to trust that I have roughly the text I want and let the editor do her/his job.

Gosh, though, I really think the story will be accepted. I mean there's so much crap in children's books and other books. I think this is a fairly original and charming story. I just have to believe that the publisher will see its potential.

Of course, what will be more interesting than the text are the illustrations. I am very curious about how that process might work. Will they consult me? Will I work directly with an illustrator?

If I have my way, this is what I am thinking right now about the pictures:
1) Soft, dreamy figures
2) Plenty of color, especially earth tones
3) Peaceful, but tinged with an ever-so-slight sadness
What books am I thinking about that might approximate this threefold description? I don't know, maybe Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, for one. I don't want the pictures to be cartoonish. I prefer them to lean toward the impressionistic, and I want them saturated, populated. I want it to feel like we're in lovely woods, dark and deep. I want a more-real-than-reality version of a Jewish family kitchen. I want the unnamed boy's home to be simple yet impressive.

If I have the power to reject the art until I get what I am imagining, I'll do it. Not that I am a hard case. With me there are plenty of ways to succeed. I can offer lots of latitude and I see quickly when someone's come up with a better idea than I had. But I also know what I don't want, and I won't tolerate it -- insofar as my tolerance counts!

I am ready to mail out the work and see what the next stage is. Just gotta keep myself together!

Uncle Josh and His Shmate

Well, this is it. I have finally jotted down "Uncle Josh and His Shmate," a story that started out as a way to get my daughter rested and ready to go to sleep at night.

I hope to mail it out to a publisher tonight, but this is the current version:

When your uncle Josh was a little boy, he loved his shmate more than almost anything else in the world.

What’s a shmate? A shmate is a blanket. At least, “shmate” is what Bubbe called Uncle Josh’s blanket. And even way back when Uncle Josh was a little boy, we always listened to Bubbe. So if Bubbe called it a shmate, it was a shmate.

Uncle Josh took his shmate with him everywhere. He never went anywhere without it. One clear summer morning while Uncle Josh and his shmate were playing together in the woods, very close to his house, a boy who was just a little older came by and asked Uncle Josh to come over and play.

Uncle Josh said, “Yes, I’ll play.” When he started to run after the boy, though, the boy stopped and said “You can come to my house, but not your blanket. I am too big to have blankets around while I play.”

Uncle Josh did not know what to do; no one had ever told him before that he couldn’t bring his shmate. But he very much wanted to play over the boy’s house because he had watched as the boy moved into the neighborhood just a short time ago. The boy’s house seemed so interesting, and his toys seemed as though they would be a lot of fun. The house was big and long, with giant windows and a great green yard, just perfect for running. The toys included balls, bats, boats, bubble makers, books, blocks, baskets, and big boots.

Uncle Josh thought for a moment. Then he had and idea: he would place his shmate very carefully under a rock, by a tree, in the woods. This way, the shmate would stay in its place until he returned for it. So this is exactly what he did, and off through the woods he ran with the boy to the big, long, interesting house with the fun toys.

Josh stayed and played all day. He had a wonderful time, even if he did feel a little sad that his shmate wasn’t there with him. The boy and he chased each other around and around the big yard. They used the bats to hit the balls. They played pretend with the boats – and they could have played and played much longer.

It was starting to get late, so Uncle Josh went back through the woods toward his house. He couldn’t wait to have his shmate with him again. He looked very carefully and found exactly the tree where he had left his shmate. He looked down and found exactly the rock he had placed on his shmate. He lifted up the rock and found – the shmate was not there!

He looked on the ground, and at all the other rocks, and at all the other trees. He looked up and all around the woods, but he could not see the shmate anywhere. Uncle Josh began to get very sad and worried that he would never see and hold his shmate again, but he heard Bubbe calling his name and he knew he needed to go home.

When he came to the door, Bubbe saw how sad and worried he looked and said to him, “Why are you so sad, Uncle Josh? What is the matter?”

Uncle Josh cried, “I left my shmate in the woods, by a tree, under rock, and now it’s gone!”

Bubbe led Uncle Josh into the kitchen and had him sit down. “Stay right here,” she said. “I think I have something that will make you feel much better.” Bubbe walked out of the kitchen and down the stairs.

“I don’t think so,” said Uncle Josh softly, as he sat at the table and slumped cheeks in his hands.

When Bubbe returned, however, she had something in her hands. “Look,” she calmly said to Uncle Josh. Uncle Josh slowly lifted his head, and what do you think he saw? His shmate!

Bubbe explained: “I saw you leave the shmate behind when you ran off with the new boy in the neighborhood. I went outside and picked it up. I washed it and dried it and folded it all nicely for you, for when you came home.”

Uncle Josh hardly heard a word of what Bubbe was saying. That’s how happy he was to see the shmate again. He said “Thank you” to Bubbe many times for taking care of the shmate. And later that night, he held the shmate tight as he drifted off into a nice, peaceful, easy sleep.

The end

Postscript: Some grandmothers are called “Bubbe” (alt. “Bobe”), which is a Yiddish word for “grandmother.” Maybe “Bubbe” seems a strange word, but really it’s no stranger than someone being called a “grand mother.”

In Yiddish, a “shmate” is a rag. Most people consider rags to be tattered, threadbare scraps of cloth, but Uncle Josh’s shmate was not called “shmate” out of meanness. Just the opposite: by this name, we understood that the shmate was special and appreciated, even if its wonder and uncommon charm were not obvious at first glance.

In this world everyone and everything has a name. There are so many people and things around that we tend to say names without also recognizing that which is truly unique and individual about what’s been named.

Yet, some names remind us of the deep, loving connections we have with special people and things. “Bubbe,” “shmate,” and “Uncle Josh” are very meaningful names for me.

What are the names that have special meaning for you?
Comments and critique are welcome!

Monday, April 04, 2005

Getting Strong Now

Still at 181 pounds. Alright, I confess: 181.5. Still, I am OK here ... for now.

Actually, I am going for 180 flat this week. I'll need to step up my exercise and watch my diet. Part of my problem last week, I think, was that I actually ate too little. Not enough calories can impede weight loss, so I have gathered. I continue to do a little working out in the mornings and sometimes even at night. Mornings are easy to do, since I just wake up and get to it. Evenings are a little more frantic because I have to get ready for the next day, help put the baby to bed, finish up household chores, and so on. Nevertheless, I have managed to jump rope, punch and kick the standing bag, and use my dumbells.

This morning, I did my arm workout with weights. I needed to stop and rest at some points, but overall, my arms and shoulders remain (almost) strong. My abdomen and back, however, are in really sad condition. I was really surprised at how weak both were. It's no wonder I have had backaches and sudden, incapacitating back pain at various times over the past three years or more. I feel like a complete jerk for getting this way. At least when I was fat before I still had some athletic juice going in me.

Bygones, though. I am excited that maybe by the time I go to Arizona in June, I'll be under 170, pretty fit, and nutritionally sound -- not to mention a father to be for the second time! That's my weight goal, 170 or under by the time I travel to Phoenix. I think it's definitely do-able, but exercise and diet will really be the keys. I know that it's hardly bold to list exercise and diet, but I mean that I realy need to focus on good cardio stuff -- activities that burn calories. In terms of my eating, I need to know what my calorie zone is and to make sure that I stay within it, every day.

Of course, I must concentrate on what I am doing today and not think too much about the future. Yes, I have that short-term goal, and I have goals for the time after that, but my job is to take everything one step at a time, stay relaxed, and let whatever happens happen. My belief is that this "in the moment" approach will help me to succeed where I have not before. Heck, this is the best start I have ever had.

Friday, April 01, 2005

A Little Gushing

Well, I have to gush just a little bit. I am thrilled to have stayed three consecutive days at 181 pounds. After hovering around 184-185 for weeks, it's a nice change. And I do feel lighter. At least my tummy isn't constantly stretching the waistband of my pants. I have no intention of buying larger size pants, so I need to lose weight or else.

Unbelievable how hard it is to lose weight, though. The diet's been a surprisingly good part of the challenge. I have been eating small portions of healthy, healthy food -- fiber, fruit, whole grains, greens, and lean meats. Avoiding junk food and late night snacks takes constant vigilance. I have even started to exercise. This morning I did my 8-minute arms and tonight I'll do some 8-minute stretching. So, I know that I haven't done or lost anything just yet, but I am still motivated, so for that I'll give a big "Hullah!"

The motivation does not stop there, however. Because of the forecasted downpours this weekend, it might just be a good time to draft the children's books I have had rattling around. "Uncle Josh and the Schmata" and "Grammy, Grandad, and the Billy Goat" could some day appear on a Scholastic Book Club flier. Why not?

And then of course there is my self-help book, "Do What You Want." Not a great title, I know, but it's a start. Starts are always exciting and interesting. I personally have started many things and finished few. I ain't afraid to walk on after the honeymoon's over, that's for sure. It's also not a kind or helpful trait.

Speaking of kind, I was thinking about another book: "Profiles in Kindness." Yes, it's meant as a nod to Kennedy's (et al.) "Profiles in Courage," but with more emphasis on doing good things for people. Someone should write a book like this -- why not me?

While no one would mistake me for a kid anymore, I still generate the ideas and get the passions of my younger self. Even if I cannot shed weight, run around, or indulge in slightly-less-than-kind mischief as I once did, I can still muster up the better part of my youth and strength. Only on occasion, though.

That's cool with me. One thing I don't now do too much of is dwell on the negative aspects of things. I am a pessimistic optimist -- which still ain't a realist -- so keeping my life moderately light at all times is what I am after. Consciously and subconsciously, this is what I do, I think. Perhaps it has taken awhile, but I have realized and accepted it. Whoever or whatever I once thought I was, the truth of the moment is winning out in me.

Started out gushing, wound up reflecting. Same as ever.