Friday, February 27, 2009

Church Shopping

My new piece on church shopping is available at Slate. The practice is often dissed as an example of rampant spiritual consumerism, but I argue that there's a long history of fierce competition among churches for worshippers--and that the free market in faith is one of the good things about the way religion is practiced here. And right now even the president is looking for a new church.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Moviegoer

I just finished another of my annual readings--my 21st? 22nd? I’m not sure--of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, probably the greatest novel ever written about a stockbroker’s search for meaning during Mardi Gras. It’s not a crowded field, I know.

In honor of the occasion, I have a post at Notre Dame Magazine’s new site that tries to explain why I’ve been reading the same novel over and over for a couple decades now.

It’s weird the way readers can sometimes feel so proprietary and protective of the novels they love. Ever had the experience of recommending your favorite book to a good friend and being disappointed when they don’t love it quite as wildly as you hoped? On the other hand, it’s also strange when every once in a while I meet another fan of The Moviegoer. Yes, it’s nice to connect with another like-mind, to know that there are other members of the club out there. But there’s also a little undercurrent of rivalry, too, as if we're in competition to see who has a firmer claim of ownership on the book.

Anyway, here's a little of The Moviegoer, including my all-time favorite literary description of a gas station:
I awake with a start at three o'clock, put on a raincoat and go outside for a breath of air. The squall line has passed over. Elysian Fields is dripping and still, but there is a commotion of winds high in the air where the cool heavy front has shouldered up the last of the fretful ocean air. The wind veers around to the north and blows away the storm until the moon swims high, moored like a kite and darting against the fleeting shreds and ragtags of cloud. . . Across the boulevard, at the catercorner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants, is a vacant lot chest high in last summer's weeds. Some weeks ago, the idea came to me of buying the lot and building a service station. It is for sale, I learned, for twenty thousand dollars. What with the windfall from Mr. Sartalamaccia, it becomes possible to think seriously of the notion. It is easy to visualize the little tile cube of a building with far flung porches, its apron of silky concrete and, revolving on high, the immaculate bivalve glowing in every inch of its pretty sytrene. (I have already approached the Shell distributor.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

On the Trail

Because I’m always on the lookout for new ways to avoid work, I decided to kill part of the day walking a trail I had never tried before. It turned out to be a beautiful way to procrastinate. The landscape was so gorgeous—a twisting stream, a few hills, snowy woods, a fox—that it was almost ridiculous. I mean, who needs that much beauty?

I’ve read that Thoreau tried to walk four hours each day. He wrote that as soon as he began to move his legs, his thoughts would start to flow. I guess I know that feeling, but I’m more skeptical about my walk-generated thoughts. As long as I’m walking it’s possible to believe that I’m having all kinds of brilliant brainstorms, but by the time I get back home and put them down on paper they’ve usually stopped looking so brilliant. Walking and self-delusion must be connected, somehow.

It's not always easy walking in my neighborhood, partly because my neighbors are too neighborly. They pull alongside me in their cars and ask me if I want a lift. I have to explain that I want to walk, but thanks anyway. The assumption, I guess, is that if you're walking something must be wrong--you must have forgotten to check your gas gauge or something.

But on the trail it was all quiet. I stopped once and could hear nothing but a few birds and some ice shifting in the stream. I had to clap a few times, loudly, just to break the silence. The echo of it scared off a bird or two, and I got on my way, just so I could feel I was getting somewhere.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Take Their Advice

My problem with advice is that I listen to too much of it. And if you spend enough time online you get hit with a lot of advice. Yesterday, for example, Karl Lagerfeld, who writes an advice column for Harper’s Bazaar, suggested that I never wear stilettos while drinking. Thanks, Karl. Noted.

And today, there was some marriage advice from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who gave me a list of “ten cheap dates” that would see my marriage through tough economic times. My favorite: “Pick up the latest hot dance CD” and “plan your own party for later.” That’s probably excellent advice, but it does raise the question: Would a Catholic bishop really be the first person you would turn to for dating advice?

There are some good online sources for advice, like Kristen Hoggatt’s “Ask a Poet” column in the very fine journal The Smart Set. Sample question: “I’m pissed that I can’t play my Wii all day to make a living. I’m really good at it. Don’t you think my skills are valuable in the job market?”

I would love to offer some advice of my own on that question, but right now I have to run out and pick up the latest hot dance CD.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dept. of Public Shaming

Here’s a story of parents who, frustrated by their son’s chronically poor performance in school, had him stand on a busy street corner holding a sign listing his lousy grades and the words “My future = shaky.”

I’m just really glad my parents never thought of this.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Omelet Wars

An eerily exact blog/life convergence this afternoon. Getting ready to make myself an omelet for lunch, I came across this post, by Emily Weinstein on Mark Bittman’s New York Times food blog. The topic: Omelets.

Weinstein writes that she loves scrambled eggs, but has never been able to get with omelets. Then she dug into the 13 pages of omelet instruction in Julia Child’s "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and produced an omelet that was “creamy, flavorful and light. . . Now I get it.”

I don’t claim any kind of mastery in the kitchen, but I’m a student of the Jacques Pepin School of Omelet-Making, which calls for rapid stirring of the beaten eggs as they cook in the pan so that they form, as he likes to say on TV, “zee smallest possible curds.” You can compare the Child and Pepin omelet philosophies, which are displayed side-by-side in their co-authored cookbook “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home.”

I’m a big fan of Pepin and don’t have much use for all the competitive cooking shows and preening TV chefs out there. What I like about Pepin isn’t just his technique, but also that he manages to show how it might be fun to make something beautiful and tasty for people you like--as opposed to cooking to beat the other guy.

It may not be much, but it’s good to know that, thanks to Pepin, I can usually turn out a reliably good and good-looking heap of eggs when I need to.

Monday, February 16, 2009

(Not) Lost in Translation

A slap-down for all of us who haven't read Suite Francaise. Aviya Kushner, writing in The Wilson Quarterly, decries the lack of interest in translated literature.

"It's not that Americans aren't interested in the world at all," she argues. "It's just that we seem to want someone else to do the heavy lifting required to make a cultural connection." The Peruvian-born writer Daniel Alarcon tells her that too many of us would rather read stories by an American about Peru than the translated work of a Peruvian writer.

I like Kushner's essay, but it's not clear to me how reading work in translation is heavier lifting for Americans than reading work in English. And is Kushner arguing that there is something inherently valuable in literature translated from other languages? Is The Reader necessarily more eye-opening and world-expanding than On Beauty, because the first was written in German and the second in English?

And is there a difference between consuming world music and world literature? What about going out for dinner at that Afghan restaurant?

Any lovers of literature-in-translation out there? Fans of fado? Defend yourselves!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Stay-at-Home Nation

I've never lived more than about 50 miles from where I was born. Does that indicate some problematic lack of wanderlust? Or do I just really love Superdawg?

According to an official-looking color-coded map posted at recently, I'm not the only one who hasn't gone mobile. They say that more than two-thirds of Americans still live in their home states. For example, 82 percent of New York Staters were born in New York. But just 41.7 percent of Alaskans were born in Alaska. NewGeography's take: "I suppose if you are living in Alaska, you've come there for good reason."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincoln-Darwin Debates

One of my favorite things about Don DeLillo’s 1972 novel End Zone is the way the overweight and spiritually restless offensive lineman Anatole Bloomberg keeps sidling up to his teammates to pose not-so-answerable historico-philosophical questions like: “Who was the greater man? Sir Francis Drake or the prophet Isaiah? You get one try. Take your time answering.”

I thought of Anatole as I was reading some of the coverage of the Big Lincoln-Darwin Birthday Event. In all the tracing of the parallel threads in their lives, there seems to be the implicit, Anatolesque question: Who was the greater man? Abraham Lincoln or Charles Robert Darwin?

So which is it? As Great White Males go, they both seem likable, recognizably human. They both seem to have doted on their kids. Each had a sense of humor. But it’s on the indispensability scale that I think Lincoln might come out ahead. If I understand right, Darwin wasn’t the only one working out the details of evolution. Alfred Russel Wallace was on the trail, too, and even Darwin’s grandfather had figured out that species evolve. But who else besides Lincoln could have held the Union together? Plus, doesn't Lincoln get style points for the stovepipe hat?

So who was the greater man? As Anatole says, you get one try. Take your time answering

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

All the Rage: The Sequel

Time out from the raging debate on martini ecumenism for some rank self-promotion. My essay on anger, “All the Rage,” which was a cover story in the Utne Reader a year or so ago, is back. It’s been selected as one of the readings in the new edition of Annual Editions: Psychology, which I’m told is a pretty widely used college psych text.

And in other anger news: From America's Dairyland, comes this link to an hour-long interview I did recently on Wisconsin Public Radio, also all about the “All the Rage” piece. Who knew that Wisconsin was so into anger? Badgers, explain yourselves.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Shaken? All Over.

In honor of Martini History Week (alright, I made that up) Jason Wilson in the Washington Post explains the cocktail's evolution. No response yet from Martini creationists. Wilson rails against "nearly vermouth-free martinis" and the James Bond-style shaken martini. He offers a proposal: “Let’s put to rest both the Mid-20th-Century Very Dry Martini and the vodka martini.”

Saturday, February 7, 2009

J.S. Bach, Crimefighter

City Journal has found a use for Baroque music.
What I like is the barbarians-at-the-gate alarmism, something City Journal does really well.

Hitting Reset

At the urging of my many fans (pretty much just my wife, actually) I'm taking another heedless dive into blogging. It's been about 13 months since my last post, I've forgotten a lot about how this works, and the whole writing-of-sentences thing continues to mystify me. So my point is, keep reading--for unintentional comedy, if nothing else.