Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Tiger in Your Tank

Exxon has just reported the highest profits in history. Today CNN Money estimates that the company earned $1485.55 a second from April through June of 2008. That’s clear profit, not gross income.

At this rate Exxon alone could pay the US President’s annual salary in roughly two and a quarter minutes. Two four-year terms could be bought in under 20 minutes.

In slightly over four days Exxon could match the campaign budgets of both Barack Obama and John McCain.

Even so, the same CNN report states that Exxon fell short of Wall Street’s expectations.

The obscenity of all this news is numbing.

More appalling yet is that, if Exxon could maintain this rate of profitability and contributed every cent of profit towards the US federal debt, we’d still be in debt twenty years from now, thanks to the Bush administration, who in 2001 inherited a surplus OVER TWENTY TIMES the amount of Exxon’s second quarter profits.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Follow the URLs to check my math:

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


My life is full of plot holes and continuity errors, probably why I have no problem with these things in movies and novels.

I have a problem with cause and effect. I’ve grown up, of course, educated in the high probability that actions have effects and that events do not occur without causes. It’s just difficult for me to recognize them in the real world, apart from fiction. (Novelist E.M. Forster demonstrated that causality is the very basis of fiction—“The king died and then the queen died” is no story; however, “The king died and then the queen died OF GRIEF” is a story.)

And given the exacting conditions of cause—that event X must precede event Y, that X and Y must be proximate, that X cannot occur without Y, and that Y cannot occur without X, it’s a wonder to me that anybody believes in causality.

Though I understand logic very well, I am not by nature a logical creature. I’m a thwarted intuitionist—“thwarted,” that is, by my education and a society that goes so far as to identify scapegoats—no problem if they’re innocent, in many cases—just to satisfy its craving for cause and effect.

I’m not denying that causes and effects exist. I’m just saying that they are a difficult concept for me to wrap my head around. However, the limits of language being what they are, I still use the language of causality, words like “therefore,” “so,” “because,” and “consequently.”

As I’ve gotten older, I am more skeptical about the efficacy of politics, expertise, even medicine—not just because they so seldom produce the effects they seem to promise but also because the so-called effects, when they are identified, are often matters of prior belief rather than open-minded observation.

I’m not holding my breath for science to tell me where my homosexuality came from or for politics to predict what’s going to happen in the Middle East—however much pundits and experts claim to base their positions on evidence.

I’m also a bit less curious now about what caused the world (God?) or what causes all the bad things in life (the devil?). To quote another favorite novelist, Joan Didion, I give you perhaps the most thrilling opening lines of any novel: “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.”

Friday, July 25, 2008

Anger Management

Impeach Bush. I know I'm not all by myself in thinking this imperative is sane and logical.

Today at a packed Judiciary Committee meeting Dennis Kucinich introduced articles of impeachment of President George W. Bush. Kucinich's rationale is that the President has usurped more power than granted the presidency in the Constitution and, in so doing, has violated essential principles of American democracy and law.

The CNN report on the meeting characterized it as "purely stagecraft," giving the final word to Republican Lamar Smith, who "dismissed the hearings as 'an anger management class.'"

Earlier this week, responding to Kucinich's announcement, a YouTube commentator complained that the government should spend money on reducing gas prices, rather than pursue a costly trial. The timing of the impeachment is also being criticized, since Bush has only six more months in office.

It won't be long before somebody starts to wail, "Hasn't the poor man suffered enough already?" (Not by a long shot.)

I can't understand why it was so easy to impeach Clinton for lying about a blowjob and so unthinkable to impeach Bush for lying about preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States.

And if it was worth billions of dollars to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, then surely we can cough up the comparable small change it would take to subject George Bush to some serious investigation for alleged wrongdoing in the most powerful position in the world. Leaving such a matter for the corporate-owned media or general public to theorize over and second-guess, without the authority of an official Congressional inquiry, is irresponsible. As for the timing, when might the President have been more conveniently impeached, without drawing criticisms of either "too early" or "too late"?

Frankly, all hope is lost for our country if Bush and his cohorts are not held to account for their reckless waste of human lives, money, infrastructure, and civil liberties. I don't think I'm overstating this issue's importance. And it's neither stagecraft nor a mere angry outburst to believe that presidents should be held legally accountable for more than their penises.

Friday, July 18, 2008


Is homosexuality a product of nature or nurture? Did I choose to be attracted to men? Is bisexuality the norm? Did my environment condition me to find the male physique a turn-on? Or was I born “that way”?

I don’t fucking know.

Not that I don’t think the questions are important. They are. For that matter, I’m curious why I prefer brunet to blond, tall to short, hairy to smooth, a bit of paunch, albeit firm, to washboard abs. Moreover, I’d like to understand why I can not develop a taste for Brussels sprouts.

I sympathize with many people’s reasoning that if somehow scientists could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that homosexuality is an acquired genetic trait, society would grow more tolerant of homosexual behavior. Perhaps, but I don’t particularly think so, because biological explanations didn’t do much to win equal rights for women or blacks, now did they? And, in the U.S., a large portion of the population can not digest Darwinism, so forget adding the arithmetic it takes to grasp Mendelian inheritance.

For what it’s worth, my position is that even if I chose to screw men purely on a whim, my right to do so is self-evident in my rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” provided I don’t step on other people’s rights to same.

If I can choose between Coke and Pepsi, the path is clear for me to choose between men and women, as well. What’s more, I don’t think I have to sign a binding contract to fuck one sex exclusively.

That said, it’s hard for me to believe that any man doesn’t believe his penis has a mind of its own. Can I remember ever instructing my penis to crave men? No, I do not. Quite the opposite. As a good born-again Christian for years and years I prayed that the stubborn little prick would wise up and accept the majority opinion in such matters. Neither it nor God responded to my attempts to negotiate.

When guys ask me how I decided to be gay, I ask them how they decided to be straight. Several have told me that they do in fact remember making such a decision, but most guys get my point right away.

Do I remember a point in my life when I said, “What the hell I guess I’m gay.” You bet. And what a relief! Since then it’s all been a matter of semantics: do I really think the word “gay” applies to me? hasn’t it come to be basically a marketing term for a target group of consumers? does it imply, as some would argue, a whole set of subcultural affects above and beyond homosexual attraction? Those questions still pop up from time to time.

But did I ever decide not to be ashamed of myself for my sexual inclinations and tastes? Most definitely, yes.

And do I believe that I’m entitled to equal rights with my heterosexual peers? Hell, yes.

But would I feel any better knowing I had no choice whatsoever in whom I’d like to sack? I’d have to say no. It would interest me theoretically, I guess, but it wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference to me.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Earlier this week somebody asked me whether people ever get offended at some of the things I say. “Sure, sometimes,” I said, and asked him whether he was offended by something I had said. “No, just wondering,” he said, “because of some of the things you say in class.”

I don’t set out to offend anybody. I have almost no compulsion to shock others. I have opinions, even entire worldviews, that are at odds with what people are used to hearing, but I don’t adopt them simply to be contrary.

In the classroom I rarely share my opinions, less out of timidity or prudence (I sometimes do express personal positions and see nothing wrong with teachers freely expressing their opinions) than out of a desire to get students to think for themselves, knowing, from experience, that students often grab hold of teachers’ opinions as substitutes for coming up with their own.

But I have no problem if my ideas offend others. It’s part of the learning process. A lot of people are offended by anything that doesn’t neatly fit into the order of things as they have come to understand it. I imagine Plato’s wanderer shocked some cavedwellers when he pointed out that the shadows on the wall are not the only reality there is. Any ideas to substantially improve society are at first going to sound shocking to those who have spent lifetimes nesting in the status quo.

I’m not running for office or selling anything, so, so what if something I say offends people? It’s something they have to learn to deal with in the same way that I have to deal with some of the strange, silly shit other people say—such as, in a current debate in the North Carolina legislature, that Jesus wants to exclude gay and lesbian kids from the protections granted in a proposed anti-bullying bill.

Furthermore, if you don’t offend people with your ideas sometimes, I have serious reservations about the value of your ideas. If what you have to say or write about is so obvious as to be anticipated, readily absorbed, or taken for granted, why bother communicating it all?


With six months left in office, the prez is inflicting as much damage as possible, heating up a new front for his war on (of?) terrorism in Iraq, while snuggling up to fellow antihumanists in the Chinese government, whom, he recently stated, he worries about offending if he took concerns over Tibet's sovereignty and China's myriad human-rights abuses so far as not to attend this summer's Olympics festivities. (Note: China is largely banking our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, increasing U.S. debt by billions.)

He's also pushing for off-shore drilling, probably less to lower gas prices for consumers (which it probably won't) than to deepen the pockets of his business interests in the oil industry. This from the candidate who wanted in 2000 to be remembered as the "Environmental President," an ambition all the more preposterous when you remember he was running against Al Gore at the time.

Now he's pushing the Dept of Health and Human Services to adopt and enforce new rules limiting federal funding for organizations (including counseling and other social services programs) who don't hire people who will refuse to pass on birth-control information because of their religious convictions. Perhaps he envisions a future when Planned Parenthood will be unable to ensure that parents seeking help will get any sort of "plan" at all.

The new rule also redefines oral contraception and other birth control techniques as abortion, thus radically redefining the word "abortion." (See Robert Pear, "Abortion Proposal Sets Condition on Aid," NY TIMES 07/15/08.)

You will also note that Bush the linguist has also struggled to limit the definition of the word "torture" to exclude water-boarding and other interrogation techniques traditionally viewed as torture. (On the other hand, he supports efforts to limit the word "marriage" to retain its traditional exclusion of same-sex couples.)

His No Child Left Behind initiative, along with his support of school vouchers, has crippled America's public school system. For the present administration, "education" now means teaching to standardized, multiple-choice tests, instead of challenging students to understand the world more clearly and to think for themselves.

(Right now I have no patience with supporters of vouchers benefiting parents who wish to send their children to private schools. If folks want to send their kids to private schools, fine, but public schools are "public" because the public [you, me, all of us] supposedly supports them. As a single man with no children, I get no tax considerations for keeping children out of the public school system either. Paying taxes is part of my responsibility as an American citizen these days; more importantly it's a contribution to the public good, even when my money goes to people and causes that have no personal interest to me individually.)

The innovative vocabulary of the present administration is an affront to logic and reason. Bush's scrambling of syntax has struck many as funny, embarrassing, or cute. But it is more disturbingly a direct attack on our abilities to communicate with each other with any definite meaning or understanding. Further, it's an attack on logic itself.

As Orwell warned in "Politics and the English Language," "A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Neighborhood kid comes up to me while I'm walking my dog. "What kind of dog is that?" he asks. "A whippet," I say, "like a small greyhound." The kid mumbles something I take to be "He's pretty." "Thanks," I say. "He's skinny," the kid repeats, with consonants this time. "Oh yes," I say, "really skinny." The kid is blunt and expressionless, almost like he's poking my dog or me with a stick when he talks, shows no interest in petting the dog or making further small talk with me. He has the head-shape and facial expressions of a cantaloupe. I think it's the same kid that came up to me a few weeks ago and asked whether my dog was peeing. "Yep." What more could I say? Hardly worth discussing the obvious. I'm not crazy about kids in general and tend to talk to them as if they're adults--small, dumb adults. Not that I hate them or anything. I just don't see the innate charm of being a kid--no more than I'm wowed by infants, teens, ingenues, young adults, the middle aged, or the elderly. What's so endearing about being a certain age? And this kid's an asshole. It's my intuition anyway. I don't have the evidence to prove it, but I'm starting to take notes.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Eat Your 50-in. 1080p LCD Hi-Def TV

1 tblspn olive oil
Cold-cathode fluorescent lamp
2 tspn grated ginger
2 tspn paprika
2 bay leaves crumbled
2 tspn minced garlic
1 large QAM digital TV tuner, minced
Parsley and cilantro, half cup each
Chicken stock
2 10-watt stereo speakers, hand-crushed
Julienned zest of chrome finish

Heat oven to 400.

Heat olive oil in large roasting pan, and place lamp, face down, in pan.

Combine ginger, paprika, bay leaves, garlic, tuner, parsley, and cilantro in bowl.

Spread mixture over lamp and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Add enough chicken stock to cover the lamp halfway.

Place over high heat and bring to a boil.

Remove pan from heat and place in oven.

Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Turn lamp over, and continue until plastic is tender and the fluorescent paste bubbly, about 30 minutes.

Transfer lamp to serving platter.

Place pan on stovetop and heat remaining juices to boiling.

Add crushed speakers and chrome zest.

Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

Spoon sauce over lamp, and serve.

Makes 8 servings.

Enjoy with the satisfaction that, while food and fuel supplies dwindle, you had a President who started a two-front war on terrorism, using borrowed money from China, and advised you to go about your daily life, “working and shopping and playing, worshiping at churches and synagogues and mosques, going to movies and to baseball games” (Atlanta, 11/08/01).

Bon appetit.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


I tell my writing students that thinking is not the same thing as having thoughts. The first is an action. The second is an acquisition.

The thoughts acquired through thinking are theirs. The rest are secondhand.

Somewhere in their education most students get the impression (perhaps because they have been taught to believe) the point of research is to gather a bunch of expert opinions and to string them together, stretched or shortened to fit whatever page count the assignment requires. I call this the Easter-egg or show-and-tell approach to research, and I spend a good part of any semester discouraging students en masse and individually from taking this approach.

Instead, I tell them, the point of research is to educate themselves about an issue, to be skeptical about what they find (look for the assumptions, verify the facts, weigh the conclusions), and ultimately, on the basis of their newly acquired knowledge, along with what they knew already or thought they knew, assert an opinion that can be supported by accepted facts and valid reasons. That opinion should be theirs, not what they think I want them to believe, not their sources' opinions. In my writing classes, students have the right to express any opinion they can back up for themselves--but only those opinions they can back up.

For me, the whole point of writing is thinking. Writing pushes me to think. Students sometimes complain that if the point of writing is thinking, why the emphasis on grammar and sentence structure? I get their point, but I don't accept their assumption that structure and content are unrelated. Sure, some grammar is just affectation, and I don't emphasize that sort of thing, but most grammar has to do with attention to detail and the more anomalous quality of "getting it right," both of which are essential to thinking.

Feeling, too, is important, but I have little to teach 18 year olds about feeling--except to introduce them to matters, ideas, and attitudes they have probably not encountered before--to show them how new feelings and new tastes may be acquired through curiosity and courage and how to shape their feelings into ideas--mainly through the acquisition of knowledge and the practice of communication.

Also, I'm convinced that sloppy thinking leads to inauthentic feeling--so thinking is a good way to put my feelings to the test.

I'm not sure how one goes about teaching people how to think. I'm successful with some students, unsuccessful with many more. Partly, I suppose, it's by being a thinking person oneself. Partly, it's demanding that people think and not letting them too easily off the hook when they substitute platitudes and bumper-sticker cliches for original thought. Partly, it's developing a curiosity about what other people think, really think, about matters of some importance to everybody. Partly, it's a matter of making oneself and others responsible--for things said as much as for things done--and expecting every opinion to have sound support, whether one approves or disapproves of the opinion.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Almost Is the Most All of All

Earlier this evening I voiced an opinion that perfectionists are just the manic side of slackers ... or something like that. That is, for perfectionists and slackers alike the choice is always between 100% and zero--if you can't be perfect, why bother at all?

Perfectionists drive themselves (and others) nuts, basically painting themselves into corners by cutting off all options that promise only a measure of success. Slackers see nothing worthy of an effort because the only reward to effort they can imagine as worthwhile is absolute perfection.

Realists will take a measure of success over nothing any day of the week ... and don't beat themselves for falling short of the highest conceivable attainment, often by recognizing that such an attainment is (almost by definition) a fiction.

Wisdom is realism plus the determination to improve. Life is a pilgrimage where the first step does not have to bring us all the way to our destination. Better is better than nothing, and better is best when there's no such thing as best.

Or something like that.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Wave of the Present

I got my first laptop just one year ago. It’s great and, next to my dog, it’s my most valued possession.

I don’t have a cell phone—about eight years ago, I had one for over a year that I used at most six times, for a total of perhaps eight minutes—not worth the expense.

I have a digital camera, which I love, but a part of me misses film—I even miss the 24-hour wait before finding out what the images look like—almost like carrying a pregnancy to full term. For some reason, I take fewer pictures with my digital camera than I did with my old chemo-mechanical cameras.

In some respects, I’m surprised to find myself saying these things, because you’d think modern communications are tailor-made for people like me. Frankly, I’m not particularly good in social situations even of the old-fashioned face-to-face variety. I’m introverted, blunt to the point of rudeness, self-absorbed, easily distracted, and often unmannerly.

In the hierarchy of media, though, I prefer face-to-face talk to the telephone, my least favorite communications tool—just slightly below billboards.

I enjoy e-mail, as a rule, but, next to face-to-face talking, my favorite means of communicating is the handwritten personal letter.


Letters have texture and scent.

I rather like the flavor of gummed envelopes and stamps.

Letters can be re-read, analyzed, and wrapped in ribbon for storage—and then …

You can unexpectedly come across old letters while you’re looking for something else.

Letters exist in time and space.

Letters are slow—e-mail is like drive-thru fast food compared to a letter’s homemade dinner.

Handwriting is more expressive than typeface. It indicates the personality and mood of the writer, so a handwritten letter displays an array of visual cues and thus offers a fuller communication experience.

Writing letters requires thought, the setting aside of time to do the task, alone. As a result, letters are essentially intimate—especially in contrast to calling somebody from the supermarket checkout.

Letters are not only written in private but also usually read in private.

Letters arrive in sealed envelopes, and opening them is like opening a small wrapped present.

Letters may contain money … or a strand of hair … or the imprint of a kiss … or fingerprints … or tear stains … or a self-addressed stamped envelope for reply.

Handwritten letters are still the preferred means of conveying our most personal sentiments—condolences, congratulations, thanks—which suggests that letters may be key to maintaining some measure of intimacy, respect, and humanity in a machine-driven world.

(For efficiency I can understand using machines in business. But in personal life? Isn’t it a bit like keeping a stapler as a pet? or clocking in and out of your own home? or treating your friends like clients? And is there even an equivalent e-mail term for “love letter”?)

Letters are mysterious, messy, flammable, discreet, material, surprising, impressive, suspenseful, satisfying, and human.

Despite emoticons, the day of the passionate e-mail has not yet arrived. In the meantime, we still have postage stamps, stationery, and ink.


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