Thursday, January 29, 2009


Interested in the stimulus just passed by the House? check it out here:

Okay, so I've only made it through the first 150 pages so far--500 more to go. But in the meantime, some preliminary points of interest:

- p. 12, lines 1-5: "Section 1109. Prohibited Uses. None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available in this Act may by used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, or swimming pool." Seriously, no zoos?

- p. 14, lines 1-9: "Section 1112. Additional Assurance of Appropriate Use of Funds. None of the funds provided by this Act may be made available to the State of Illinois, or any agency of the State, unless (1) the use of such funds by the State is approved in legislation enacted by the State after the date of the enactment of this Act, or (2) Rod R. Blagojevich no longer holds the office of Governor of the State of Illinois." Of course Blago found a way to get himself immortalized.

- All plans for use of the funds will be accessible to public viewing at, a site to be set up and maintained by the newly named Accountability and Transparency Board for the bill.

- $18,500,000,000 for energy efficiency and renewable energy!!!

So far, so good, imho.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Remembering, and Calling

In his short story "Pigeon Feathers," John Updike's fourteen-year-old character David is terrified of death: "a long hole in the ground, no wider than your body, down which you are drawn while the white faces above recede. You try to reach them but your arms are pinned. Shovels pour dirt into your face. There you will be forever...and in time no one will remember you, and you will never be called."

The story is about faltering faith in God, and its desperate ending does nothing to convince us that Updike disagrees with his young mouthpiece's doubt. David has just cruelly shot a handful of pesky albeit beautiful pigeons when the story concludes abruptly: "He was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever."

Compared with this ugly brashness, David's earlier description of human death is much more palatable. And while it is true that every poet and perhaps every human legitimately fears being eventually forgotten in death, in pronouncing this fear, Updike also announces its remedy: the remembrance and "calling" of the living. Just as Wordsworth pleaded with his sister to "remember me and these my exhortations," I think that what Updike does here in effect is to remind us of what makes us most human (and least pigeonly): that we care about and can remember each other, even across the bridge of death.

Updike suggests that those actions are meaningful not just to ourselves, but perhaps (we can only imagine) to the dead as well. And so it is a human strength, and not a weakness, that when we gather around the "long hole" of a loved one, we choose to overcome the ugly brashness of death by engaging in the acts of remembering, and of calling.

My experiences of the last year have certainly informed my re-reading of Updike here, as those of you who know me probably suspect. But it is two deaths in the past week which have brought me specifically to put pen to paper (or fingertip to keyboard, I suppose), as friends, acquaintances, journalists, and I remember a coworker's father, and Updike himself.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Lives of Others

Just watched "The Lives of Others."[*Spoiler alert! If you just want my recommendation, you have it--go put this on your Netflix queue.] I spent the film dreading the ending more and more; while I couldn't help but hope for some sense of human, concrete closure, I feared it too: how could it not be contrived, set against the gritty randomness, the blindness, the cold East-German reality of the rest of the film?

But instead of being incompatably precious, the end of the movie forcefully served as an appropriately nagging reminder of the other lives lost throughout, in the twin senses of those who were killed, and those whose lives in the end belonged to the East German state and not to themselves.

It's a movie about one-way surveillance, and in the final minutes the tables turn: Georg is following his one-time Stasi surveillance man Wiesler, but, like Wiesler, he cannot bring himself to actually meet the man. And so the two are left to "meet" only in the dedication of Georg's new book as Wiesler's eyes read the note of thanks to his code name. The dedication reminds us of Wiesler's failures as much as his strengths; it stands in the place where a dedication to Christa-Maria should have been had things not gone so horribly wrong; and above all, like the surveillance that dominates the film as a whole, it is at the same time intensely impersonal and intensely personal.

It's a great ending that can simultaneously fulfill the hopeful human need of the watcher, and yet exist in harmony with the realism that leads up to it. It's optimistic without being trite: it suggests that there is, after all, some hope to life, in whatever strange and demeaned form it may take--from the colorful graffiti on the now-open Brandenburg Gate to the obsessive actions of a grey operative watching and being touched by the lives of others.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Immediate Impressions of the Inauguration

There are no words to capture the experiences of the last few days. But you know me--I'll try.

Masses of tourists descending on the city; whole streets cut off to cars for the pedestrians to take over; taking in history through a new lens at the Newseum; helping a gay couple from LA take their Christmas card in front of the Capitol ("Aren't you guys excited?! Tomorrow's the first day of a new world!"); traipsing down the Mall in the gathering dusk and cold; everyone happy; the surge of enthusiasm and engagement among the African-American community; the calls of the kitsch-salesmen--"Obama! get your buttons! hand warmers! t-shirts!"; the bedazzled everything; the foam fingers--with two fingers up for peace; the lights of MSNBC, of ABC, of CBS; the lights of the Capitol; the Washington memorial fading into evening mist; a delicious dinner thanks to our hosts; a beer out on the town with crowds of friends meeting faraway friends; getting up early early early in the dark, with cries already ringing out in the streets; a free Obama donut on the way to the Metro; the "Obama" chant ringing through the halls of Union Station as we headed to the Capitol; the people, people, people everywhere; people streaming in every gate, walking on every closed street and onramp; the sense of looming hopelessness among folks who couldn't make it onto the Mall before the gates closed; standing in the back of the room as we watched the ceremony, able to watch everyone's faces and hear the cheers on the Mall at the same time; the tears on everyone's faces during the swearing-in and the speech; the chopper lifting Bush up over the Capitol to cheers and waves of (mostly-)good-natured good riddance; the frigid march back to Dupont up Mass Ave. through the throngs; swapping stories with Jacob and Heather; the sun-filled and quietly happy and tired bus on the way home; that sense of cold and tired and happy that settles on you after a day of skiing--and apparently after a day of inauguration.