Irony on Yahoo! News

From this morning's article, entitled, "McCain takes aim at Obama's character":

Kathie Steigerwald, a Dearborn, Mich. businesswoman who said she voted for Hillary Clinton but now plans to support McCain, offered an especially succinct recital of a narrative on which other interviewees offered numerous variations:

"I feel John McCain is a true American and I want to support a true American," she said.

But isn't Obama a "true American?" she was asked.

"I don't know," she said after a measured pause. "I question it."


"I don't know — maybe because of his name?"

So, just to review.

Steigerwald = good, wholesome American name.

Obama = evil, sneaky foreign name.

If Obama loses this election, it will be because we insist on letting idiots vote.

(Steigerwald, needless to say, is a German surname. It translates to 'wooded hills.')

Do War Heroes Make Good Presidents?

In conservative political discourse, it is now taken for granted that John McCain is a "war hero" and that "war heroes" make good presidents; in this respect, therefore, McCain is preferable to his Democratic challenger. (One wonders how the Right managed to lose sight of this self-evident truth when decorated Vietnam veteran John Kerry was running for president against pseudo- air national guardsman George W. Bush. Perhaps it was important to establish, as the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" attempted to do, that Kerry was not, in fact, a war hero.) As good as it sounds, the conservative assumption raises two questions. First, what qualifies someone as a "war hero"? Second, what virtues of character may the war hero be supposed to possess that will qualify him or her for the office of president?

We should note at the outset that the phrase "war hero" itself signifies a semantic drift, even a degradation of the ideal of heroism. The use of the term "hero" to indicate great achievement in areas other than war dates only from the later seventeenth century; our tendency to refer to victims of tragedy or mischance as "heroes" is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. I would argue that John McCain has been a beneficiary of this semantic drift, this broadening or watering down of the hero concept. His claim to the status of "war hero" rests not upon achievement-- he was not a distinguished pilot-- but upon suffering. If his performance in combat qualifies McCain as a war hero, then all soldiers are heroes; if there is something special about McCain, then it must be due to his time as a prisoner of war, and he can be called a "hero" only in the modern, dissipated sense of the term.

What, then, are the irreducible virtues of the modern war hero? Not physical gifts, or martial skill, or knowledge of the arts of war, or tactical or strategic abilities, for these would all be supposed only of the ancient "hero" who had distinguished himself in battle. The modern hero has suffered nobly in the context of war, and his or her virtues would be those revealed through suffering: courage, certainly, to have taken the risks that might lead to imprisonment, injury or death; tenacity or strength of will, to have endured physical and mental pain as a victim of war's mischance.

We are left with the question of whether courage and tenacity are sufficient qualifications for the presidency. Here we cross over into matters of opinion, but I would submit that our current Iraq debacle would not be improved in any fashion by the application of more courage and tenacity. Indeed, it could be argued that the United States has been courageous and tenacious to a fault; we would have done better, we would do better now, if we could display more caution and more prudence.

Do Not Taunt Happy Fun Update

So what have I been doing with my life, you ask?

Not bloody much. But it's been more than two months, so I thought I should update. Danaan is still alive, which I consider a minor victory as I've been home with her all day during the week. I've been amusing myself with Guild Wars, to the point of writing much-neglected fan fiction on one of the fansites. I'm thinking about writing erotica again. (Have I mentioned that I write erotica?) I've just gotten back from a pleasant week with my parents down in Hilton Head. When the weather's nice, Kay and I have been taking walks with the kids in a local park.

Oh, and the year that I agreed to stay home and watch Danaan was up in July, so I've been thinking about what's next for me. I don't want to go back to adjunct teaching; if I'm going to be smart in front of people, I'd rather be paid more than a circus animal. What does that leave? Editing or proofreading, I suppose, but there aren't a whole lot of jobs in that area. I'm thinking seriously about studying paralegalism. That's solid work that I could do well, and the training wouldn't take long.

And that's all from here! We're happy and healthy; our lives are full of uncertainties, but after so many years, that's come to seem normal. Catch you all in another two months.

(no subject)

I read in Yahoo! News this morning that Paris Hilton has decided she'll no longer "act dumb."

Well, good. So that's all settled.

I finally watched A Scanner Darkly the other day. (By the other day, I mean maybe a month ago; I sit on things like an ostrich hen.) I was expecting it to be the usual experience in which Keanu Reeves does his pretty wooden puppet routine and ruins something dear to me-- see Johnny Mnemonic and Constantine. He wasn't bad, though. The rest of the cast-- Robert Downey Jr., Winona Rider, Woody Harrelson-- were good, too. What I discovered is that Philip K. Dick novels don't make good movies unless you adulterate them with lots of explosions and gratuitous technology and running about. His ideas will carry all of that, but try to reproduce his technique on film-- A Scanner Darkly is easily the most faithful of the Philip K. Dick movies-- and you get a wandering, confusing mess. Introspection does not a good movie make, and that's what Dick spends most of his time on. At base, his books are psychological; they're about consciousness. Movies aren't, particularly, or at least not in the same way.

So, let's get back to Total Recall and that sort of thing. Let's steal Philip K. Dick's ideas and add guns. I like a good movie as much as the next guy.


Today I’m thirty-five. I suppose that I’ve lived about half of my life.

I’d like to say that I’m a writer, but in reality I’m a housekeeper and a nanny. I muddle through these things, but I don’t have a gift for them. There are days, many days, when my head feels like a bowl of cold oatmeal. I try to stir my thoughts and they stick to the spoon.

I’ve made some big mistakes in my life. Not colorful, pyrotechnic mistakes, not firework mistakes that burst suddenly and then fade in a glitter of reminiscence and good old stories. I’m too careful for that. I make mistakes like cracks in a foundation stone: subtle, thoughtful mistakes, that ramify invisibly year in and year out. Most of the time you scarcely notice the whole edifice shifting above them, but one day you get a good, long view and you realize that it’ll never sit quite right.

I’ve also been very lucky. If I haven’t always been allowed to exercise my strengths, I’ve seldom had to suffer for my weaknesses. I’m comfortable. I have people who love me. Always a yeoman pilot when it comes to the coasts and harbors of life, I’ve steered clear of trouble. Perhaps I’ve done that too much. It’s hard to say.

I’m in a better place now than I was a couple of years ago. I love my family, even Danaan, who is not always easy to love. I’ve had a whiff of the life I want, which is more than most people can say. I’m gifted in several respects. I have treasures, and a legitimate future to look forward to.

It’s a bright, cool day; the fresh asphalt shines like oil and the roses are a godawful mess. Oh, and I’m still reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, because I’m a stubborn cuss and I’ll be damned if I’m going to leave any book unread just because it’s obstreperous.

That’s about it, from here, at thirty-five.

Henry and Me

For the second time in my life, I have tried and failed to read Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. Seldom have I been so well-disposed towards a book and yet so thoroughly unable to stomach it. I suspect, without being able to prove, that the book is unctuous in the manner of the worst sort of confessional writing. The author craves, even demands admiration merely for being willing to cop to his own wretchedness. It's a form of egotism. It aims only at self-aggrandizement.

Worse than that, I can't recall a book that is less concerned to be meaningful to anyone besides the author. Call me old-fashioned, but when I read, I begin with the assumption that the author wishes to communicate something to me through language. I understand the premise that capturing one's soul, or even one's life, in words, is a difficult challenge. If, however, you think that it's a hopeless quest, then please don't write at all. There's nothing to be gained from making a deliberate spectacle of your own failure to communicate.

(Edit: Oh, yes. And I feel a desire to dress up and drink cocktails while playing miniature golf on the gaudiest course I can find. No, that doesn't really have anything to do with Henry Miller. Just putting it out there.)

That Golden Compass Thing

I've never read the book upon which this movie is based, but I'm intrigued by the audience participation aspect of the meme. Have a look behind the cut and see if you think that this animal thingie is appropriate for me.

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Farewell to Ismail Ax

I read that you've likened yourself to Jesus Christ. Doesn't everyone?

In the end, it comes to this: mired in self-pity, you bought a gun with your parents' money and blew away a group of unarmed, unsuspecting, innocent children. And then-- too craven to face the consequences of your actions-- you crept into the hereafter by putting a bullet in your own head, too. Bravo.

Martyrs don't kill people. Disgruntled lunatics do. You will be neither famous nor infamous; you hadn't the strength of character for either one. Next month, your sound and fury will be merely curious. Next year they will be trivial.

Somewhere, someone has a line in an almanac for you. Good show, Ismail, and goodbye.

Notes on Edgar Allan Poe's "To Helen"

In Poe’s poem “To Helen,” we find the following verses:

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome.

Editors interpret the phrase “hyacinth hair” differently. R. S. Gwynn, in Poetry: An Anthology, explains that Helen’s hair is “reddish, like the flower of Greek myth.” The editors of The Norton Anthology of Poetry tell us that, “Presumably,” she has “hair like that of the slain youth Hyacinthus, beloved of Apollo.” (Why Helen would be attractive with hair resembling that of a young man is not explained.) However, Poe uses the same term to describe the Marchesa Aphrodite di Mentoni in his short story, “The Assignation”:

Her hair, not as yet more than half loosened for the night from its ball-room array, clustered, amid a shower of diamonds, round and round her classical head, in curls like those of the young hyacinth.

Thus it seems most likely that Poe is referring not to the color of Helen’s hair, or to its resemblance to that of Hyacinthus, but rather to its style or conformation. Poe imagines Helen with some sort of elaborate, curling bun, suggestive of the clustered flowers of a blooming hyacinth.

Bad Classics?

In his book on Ben Jonson, Algernon Charles Swinburne opines that the former's celebrated Cary-Morrison Ode-- in which Jonson mourns the death of Henry Morison and celebrates his former friendship with the poem's addressee, Lucius Cary-- is not "even a tolerably good" poem, and distinguishes one stanza in particular as "eccentrically execrable." Swinburne wrote in the latter half of the nineteenth century; we are not accustomed today to this treatment of revered authors, refreshing as it might be. Surprised, I looked for the stanza in question, and I must admit that Swinburne has a point. Here it is, with the preceding stanza:

Call, noble Lucius, then for wine,
And let thy looks with gladness shine;
Accept this garland, plant it on thy head,
And think, nay know, thy Morison's not dead.
He leaped the present age,
Possessed with holy rage
To see that bright eternal day
Of which we priests and poets say
Such truths, as we expect for happy men;
And there he lives with memory, and Ben

Jonson, who sung this of him, ere he went
Himself to rest,
Or taste a part of that full joy he meant
To have expressed
In this bright asterism,
Where it were friendship's schism,
Were not his Lucius long with us to tarry,
To separate these twi-
Lights, the Dioscuri,
And keep the one half from his Harry.
But fate doth so alternate the design,
Whilst that in heaven, this light on earth must shine.

Setting aside the questionable taste of inserting one's own name into a funerary ode-- Hey! I wrote this! Yeah, me, Ben Jonson!-- is there any good excuse for doing so across a stanza break? It's ugly verse. The logic of the second stanza is tortuous; Jonson both writes the ode and imagines himself in heaven after having written it, so that we must suppose either that the poem has no fixed situation, or that it is being penned by a ghost. Then there's the rhyming of "Dioscuri"-- the twin stars Castor and Pollux-- with the first syllable of "twilights," fracturing the word across two lines. Perhaps Jonson thought he was being clever, but if a high school student did this, you would wince.

It's not only Jonson who has his blemishes, though. Take the following description of Lucrece from Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece:

When at Collatium this false lord arrived,
Well was he welcomed by the Roman dame,
Within whose face beauty and virtue strived
Which of them both would underprop her fame.
When virtue bragged, beauty would blush for shame;
When beauty boasted blushes, in despite
Virtue woud stain that or with silver white.

Lucrece has white skin, symbolic of her virtue, and red cheeks, representative of her beauty, and both in such abundance that it's not clear which is uppermost. Very nice. But Shakespeare is just getting started:

But beauty, in that white entituled
From Venus' doves, doth challenge that fair field.
Then virtue claims from beauty beauty's red,
Which virtue gave the golden age to gild
Their silver cheeks, and called it then their shield,
Teaching them thus to use it in the fight:
When shame assailed, the red should fence the white.

Suddenly the Wars of the Roses are being fought across Lucrece's face. White skin is also a sign of beauty, and red (blushing) cheeks a sign of virtue, so each may rightly claim the other's color, and each signifies beauty and virtue at once. Clever enough, this, although we may wish here that Shakespeare would move on. Unfortunately, such is Shakespeare's enthusiasm for the language that he'll worry a metaphor like a terrier running down a weasel:

This heraldry in Lucrece' face was seen,
Argued by beauty's red and virtue's white.
Of either's colour was the other queen,
Proving from old minority their right.
Yet their ambition makes them still to fight,
The sovereignty of either being so great
That oft they interchange each other's seat.

Is this good poetry? Has the Bard not here vaulted beyond cleverness into obscure and outlandish conceit, the sort of verbal "clenches"-- to use Dryden's phrase-- of which he was repeatedly accused before his status as a linguistic icon set him beyond criticism? It's not that I don't respect Shakespeare's poetry-- I do, and Jonson's, too. But it's refreshing, I think, for us to remind ourselves that even the best English poets were not everywhere glowing, that they had their rough edges and their hobby horses. Swinburne wasn't afraid to call a spade a spade.