Tuesday, December 27, 2005

New England

There's nothing quite like migrating north in the winter. Since the weather was supposed to be relatively clear (benign), I hopped on JetBlue to Boston.

Presents were exchaged. This was a novelty for my niece, who really wasn't paying a whole lot of attention on her previous (first-ever) Christmas. This time, she was more aware of what was going on and was delighted with her own gifts as well as others' gifts. She particularly enjoyed a set of 12 tea candles I gave to her mom (my sister-in-law) -- endless opportunities to open and close the tin, remove and arrange the tea candles by color or otherwise, remove and replace the clear plastic covers, etc.

Oddly, the most popular gift among the grown-ups was also given to my sister-in-law: the game UpWords (a 3-D Scrabble-type thing, where both the board and the individual letters have been freed from particularized point values). UpWords rewards a different strategy, and a different skill set, than Scrabble -- you have to be able to see not just how to use the words that have been placed on the board, but how to overwrite them and transmogrify them into new words (leaving at least one letter from the original word). That was a blast. Unfortunately, my sister-in-law remembered to take it home with her. So I may have to get my own set.

I had a nice time up north, but there was something funny about the whole scene. See if you can spot what is wrong with this picture:

No, it is not the three starfish over the door (although they are pretty cool). Look carefully -- you will note that there is some snow on the front steps. But the window sills and greenery (green in December, in New England?!) are completely free of snow.

It was well above freezing, and in fact we got a fair amount of rain each night while I was there. A few intrepid folks were even out sailing:

This state of affairs has apparently confused the ducks, who are likewise paddling about as if they thought it was October.

Some of the local birds are made of metal, so they never migrate. The ducks have no such excuse.Even Santa got a little disoriented, and stopped to rest on this bench.

Despite the unseasonably mild weather, however, the Piscataqua Cafe is not open. Then again, it is no longer a cafe or hotel, but an unheated guest cottage to a private home. I hear a rumor that they do have indoor plumbing now, unlike the bad old days when they took in paying guests....All in all, it was a peaceful and serene time. I really liked this typical rocky New England coast line, complete with lighthouse.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Holiday Lights

Skip the crowds at Rockefeller Center. Just go look at the Astronomy Picture of the Day. (Yes, there's a new one every day, with a short paragraph explaining exactly what the heck you are looking at.)

Here's the one for today (Andromeda Island Universe):

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

What's Wrong With This Picture?

From the illustrious pages of the New York Times (reporting by Peter Thompson in Chicago):
GEORGE SANTIAGO, a 23-year-old nightclub promoter, wanted to impress Danielle DiCantz, 22, whom he had met at a club, on their first date. So on a recent Thursday night he took her to Reserve, a lounge and dance club that is a favorite of the trend-setting crowd here.

To break the ice, Mr. Santiago ordered a $350 bottle of Dom Pérignon. After they had swilled the Champagne dry, Mr. Santiago returned to the bar. This time he ordered her an exotic concoction called the Reserve Ruby Red.

Served in a traditional martini glass, the cocktail is made with super-premium Grey Goose L'Orange vodka, Hypnotiq liqueur, orange and pomegranate juices and topped off with Dom Pérignon. The coup de grâce: a one-carat ruby affixed to the stirrer. And the bar tab for a Ruby Red? An eye-popping $950.

Was she impressed?

"It was the best 950 bucks I ever spent," Mr. Santiago said. "Let's put it that way."

* * *

If Mr. Santiago spent $950 for a cocktail on a first date, how much would he pay for a drink on a second or third date, or even for his engagement? "You can't put a price on love," Mr. Santiago said. "I'd spend countless."

David Bernstein, "Hey, Bartender, Can You Break $1,000?" published in The New York Times (12/18/05).

My initial reaction to this article, and particularly the story of Mr. Santiago and Ms. DiCantz excerpted above, was intensely negative. As I sketched out the logical grounds for my instinctive skepticism and cynicism (much of it focused on the way people can be beguiled by money), I became very unhappy. So I began again, this time looking for a more innocent interpretation, and my mood lightened. A series of short meditations follows.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Negativity - Glass Half Empty

Okay. If it is love that Mr. Santiago is looking for, I'm not sure he is going to find it by buying $950 cocktails.

But he is clearly satisfied with what he did get for his money.

So the question is whether Ms. DiCantz, if and when she reads about herself in The New York Times (or possibly her local rag, The Chicago Tribune), will be comfortable with this statement.

And - assuming she still harbors warm feelings toward Mr. Santiago as of December 18, 2005 (apparently not long after the "recent Thursday" in question) - I wonder whether those warm feelings will survive Mr. Santiago's decision not only to divulge details of their first date, but also to give her name to a journalist for an internationally known newspaper.

I'm feeling a little cynical and sad, I suppose. They are both quite young, and there is time for their values to deepen and mature.

Uplift - Glass Half Full

In a more optimistic mood, I suppose a $950 cocktail is a way for a man to stand out from the crowd and demonstrate the strength of his interest; after all, he is investing a sizeable sum on his date's pleasure - with no certainty of return.

And in turn, his willingness to spend extravagantly on her signals a number of things, many of them potentially positive (including some hope of financial security in a future with him). The most powerfully optimistic view is that he has, um, "put his money where his heart is". That is, if his largesse is interpreted as an expression of his strong and genuine interest in her, she may well find herself more readily opening her heart to him.

Unquestionably, the opening of one heart to another, that is, emotional intimacy - however it can be achieved - is the necessary precondition for love.

Bliss - There Is No Glass

In any event, I wish them well.

The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe (2005)

Since LWW brings us into the realm of fantasy (i.e., the land of Narnia, populated with talking horses and beavers, etc.), I thought I'd start with horses on Park Avenue in Manhattan....

Just as with the Harry Potter movie adaptations, people have been saying that LWW is very faithful (or perhaps "too faithful") to the original source material.

Me, I spot a lot of differences -- most of them appropriate to fill out the screen, but some changing the message in significant ways.

To those who think LWW can be enjoyed without awareness of the Christian allegory, I agree on one level (after all, I was entirely unaware of it the first time I read the book), but I wonder: What would someone who was entirely unfamiliar with the Christ story make of the fact that a big lion gets killed and then comes back to life, and this somehow saves the life of an undeserving boy and brings an end to a grim 100 years of winter? In a cultural vacuum, I'd think that particular plot development would seem a bizarre detour away from the narrative thread. LWW is by no means a perfect allegory, but it was clearly intended to soften kids up for the underlying concept behind Christianity.

(Speaking which, here are some Christmas carolers on the steps of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. We are renowned for our energy and enthusiasm, if not for our vocal range. The crowd favorite this year was "Frosty the Snowman.")

That said, LWW was really cute and a lot of fun. Some nice touches -- for instance, starting in London during the Blitz (where Edmund risks everyone's life in a mad dash back into the house to retrieve a picture of his dad ... a point which is echoed nicely when Edmund & Co. visit Mr. Tumnus's ransacked home, and Edmund's eyes are drawn to the portrait of Mr. Tumnus's father - on the floor, cracked).

Saturday, December 17, 2005


To what extent is it the job that is soul-sucking, as opposed to the attitude one brings to the job? And when is the sensation of deadening properly diagnosed as a form of protective fear (e.g., protection from the fear of not being up to the challenges ahead ... or the fear of infusing a job one does not care about with things one does care about)?

We moved overseas when I was almost 12, and had begun to experience gnawing adolescent self-doubt. So I leaped at the chance to start over in a new place. But these new anxieties and doubts were not (as I thought) connected with my external circumstances; they were not in any way emanating from my close-knit group of elementary school friends. Because these worries were generated from within, they proved to be entirely portable. They followed me across the Atlantic and back again, more powerful than before because I dared not name them or confront them. (After all, if you have some deep failing or inadequacy, or some undefined and imperceptible rottenness in the core, your only hope is to conceal it and hope no one catches on...right?)

There are times when the discrepancy between self-perception and objective reality is so strong that an outsider cannot really believe it. The only answer, the only solution has to be what Tim Keller referred to as "blessed self-forgetfulness". And the question has to be how, or perhaps the question is what must one focus on to put everything else (including one's goodself, as the Trinidadians say) in proper perspective?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Defending the Neighborhood

There are surprisingly more defenses to Prospect Park (the "526-acre urban oasis located in the heart of Brooklyn, New York City's most populous borough") than you might otherwise imagine.

Invaders from Manhattan must first cross Grand Army Plaza. (One of two Grand Army Plazas in the city, oddly enough. The other is at the southeastern corner of Central Park. Those copycats!) Darkening your path is a menacing arch overlooking the northern end of the Park, adorned with "heroic Civil War battle scenes attended by Greco-Roman mythological figures".

Seven stories above street level, the lady Columbia (representing the United States) rides in a war chariot with winged Victory figures trumpeting her arrival. She is flanked by "The Spirit of the Army" and "The Spirit of the Navy", which "depict frenzied scenes of soldiers amid unwavering officers charging through the chaos". Intimidating indeed (at least when there's not a farmers' market set up at their feet).

As you cross in front of the arch with its chariots of war, the entrance to the Park is flanked by urns with snakes on the handles. So if you are affiliated with Gryffondor or Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw -- rather than Slytherin -- watch out.

I suppose the more optimistic interpretation would be that in this Eden, we keep the snakes on the outside of the Park.

(If the reference to Hufflepuff baffles you, check out JK Rowling's web site. It's pretty cool, with fun facts, and interactive hidden clues and puzzles that give you access to some of her early drafts and drawings. Plus there is a mysterious door which opens at times to reveal hints about what's in store for Harry, a matter of great debate on mugglenet.com and other fan sites.)

There is also a cool guard tower, although I have yet to find any name or description of it anywhere.

So why all the security? Clearly to protect treasures such as Harmony Playground, and to defend Prospect Park's skating rink, zoo, chess & checkers area, carousel, and other delights (which I fear may have been shamelessly copied off of Central Park by the omnipresent Olmstead) from hordes of barbarians from the other boroughs.

Those leaving Grand Army Plaza, however, travel peacefully under the benevolent gaze of the angel of the IRT. (She is blowing her trumpet in the direction that subway-goers must travel as they descend to the tracks.)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Reflections on "Prisoner of Narnia"

The 11/21/05 issue of The New Yorker includes an essay by Adam Gopnik entitled "Prisoner of Narnia" (pp. 88-93). It's an interesting piece -- the arguments are largely made by means of derogatory adjectives rather than by logic, reason, or evidence.

For me, the general tenor of the essay is shown by Gopnik's choice of analogies. I noticed two in the essay. He compares Oxford dons to "girls in a lap-dance club" (p. 90) ... because both allegedly adopt personas that are caricatures of themselves to help them deal with other people. And he compares Christians to "chronic sinus sufferers" (p. 92) ... because both allegedly compare notes on the state of something that interests them. I have stated these propositions as neutrally as I can so that readers may judge for themselves the usefulness of the analogies. It looks to me like the analogies were chosen mostly as a means to associate Oxford dons with sleaziness and Christians with sick people, but perhaps they were chosen just to show Gopnik's cleverness in finding similarities between wildly dissimilar groups.

After carefully reading the essay, I believe many of Gopnik's claims are unsupported, or miss the point entirely, or are just plain wrong. (Some of this is fairly subtle - Gopnik is right, of course, that C.S. Lewis was never a saint; but the point he is trying to make would be a hell of a lot more persuasive if he showed that C.S. Lewis's behavior stayed the same or got worse after his conversion.)

In this post, I will address a few of Gopnik's claims.

"Keep your belief going, no matter what it takes" (p. 92)

Gopnik states: "A startling thing in Lewis's letters to other believers is how much energy and practical advice is dispensed about how to keep your [sic] belief going.... Keep your belief going, no matter what it takes -- the thought not occurring that a belief that needs this much work to believe in isn't really a belief but a very strong desire to believe." (p. 92)

There is no need to be "startled" by Lewis's emphasis on the importance of maintaining one's faith, as Lewis's point is rather more nuanced than Gopnik lets on. In fact, Chapter 11 of Lewis's book Mere Christianity addresses this point directly.

Lewis did not take the position that one must maintain one's belief "no matter what" -- to the contrary, he expressly recognized that "if [a person] thought the evidence bad but forced himself to believe in spite of it, that would be merely stupid." And a person whose "reason once decide[d] that the weight of the evidence is for [Christianity]" must reconsider the evidence if "any real new reasons against Christianity turn up." Contrary and inconvenient evidence cannot be ignored, but "ha[s] to be faced."

So what must a believer's faith be defended against? Lewis's answer may be a bit shocking to people who have accepted a cartoonish version of Christianity (equally prevalent in children's Sunday school classes and in the media): Lewis states that "The battle is between faith and reason on the one side and emotion and imagination on the other." I find two of Lewis's examples intriguing.
"For example, my reason is perfectly convinced by good evidence that anaesthetics do not smother me and that properly trained surgeons do not start operating until I am unconscious. But that does not alter the fact that when they have me down on the table and clap their horrible mask over my face, a mere childish panic begins inside me. I start thinking I am going to choke, and I am afraid they will start cutting me up before I am properly under. In other words, I lose my faith in anaesthetics. It is not reason that is taking away my faith: to the contrary, my faith is based on reason."
"Or take a boy learning to swim. His reason knows perfectly well that an unsupported human body will not necessarily sink in water: he has seen dozens of people float and swim. But the whole question is whether he will be able to go on believing this when the instructor takes away his hand and leaves him unsupported in the water -- or whether he will suddenly cease to believe it and get in a fright and go down."
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Chapter 11.

Lewis is not the only one to have noticed this phenomenon, either. Phil Keoghan (the force behind the television show The Amazing Race) describes his experience finding himself lost and alone in a shipwreck when scuba diving at 19 (with another scuba diver and a camera crew nearby who knew he was somewhere in the wreck):
I was riding a kind of emotional seesaw: One moment I was up high, reassuring myself that "it's okay, someone will show up soon, just stay calm." The next moment, I felt myself descending to the bottom of the seesaw, the dark side where reason gives way to panic, and where doubt ("How do you know anyone's coming back?") overrides faith.

Phil Keoghan, No Opportunity Wasted, Chapter 1. (Keoghan notes that doubt and panic ultimately triumphed in his case - ironically, that stresses the air respirator system and depletes one's air supply more rapidly - and that he soon slipped into unconsciousness. He was nonetheless rescued and returned with a new zest for life, a drive to make every moment count.)

"Aslan the lion, the Christ symbol, ... is ... in many ways an anti-Christian figure" (p. 92)

Gopnik does raise an interesting point about differences between Aslan and Jesus Christ. He notes, correctly, that Aslan comes in power and glory as the king of the beasts and "the top of the food chain" rather than in humility. (p. 92) He further posits that "[i]f we had, say, a donkey ... rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean aminmals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible -- a donkey who reemerges, to the shock even of his disciples and devotees, as the king of all creation, now that would be a Christian allegory." (Id. (emphasis in original))

This argument proves too much. Obviously any comparison (including Gopnik's own colorful analogies as well as Lewis's Christian allegory) contains points of similarity but also points of difference -- otherwise it would not be a comparison but a mere reiteration.

The redemption scenario in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is not directly parallel to the Christian story. It is not meant to be. For instance, Aslan dies for just one sinner (Edmund) rather than for the whole world, and Aslan's sacrifice is apparently a secret (it is not clear that Edmund ever learns of it; only Lucy and Susan see Aslan's humiliation, suffering and death, and Susan's view that "[i]t would be too awful for [Edmund]" if he were told of it prevails). (ch. 17) I am not sure why Lewis made these choices, except that it may be easier for children to grasp the concept of Christian sacrifice writ small (for one person who has clearly done something terribly wrong) rather than going into the more complex Christian concept that all of us -- even "good" people -- are sinners desperately in need of redemption.

So, why did Lewis make Aslan a powerful lion rather than a humble donkey? Well, why stop there? If we take Gopnik's argument a little further, perhaps Lewis should have made Aslan a mouse, or a cockroach, or a speck of dust? By exaggerating (and yes, mocking) Gopnik's point we can see some of the reasons why Lewis chose a lion.

For instance, making Alsan a lion emphasizes the extent of the sacrifice Aslan made for Edmund: the humiliation of a proud and powerful lion is more likely to evoke pity and horror in children than the humiliation of a donkey (or a mouse or cockroach, for that matter). Presumably Lewis wanted children to like and admire Aslan so that his death would have more impact.

There is perhaps a more subtle point here as well. A typically Christian view is that (i) God is the rightful sovereign of the universe and (ii) the entire trinity (father, son and holy spirit) consitutes just one God (not three separate gods). So it makes sense to make the Christ figure a lion -- widely considered the "king of the beasts" -- in order to emphasize that he is the rightful sovereign of Narnia ... even though the evil one has claimed the crown. Lewis chose to emphasize the glory of God; as Kathy Keller has noted, there is certainly biblical precedent for this. [Updated 3/8/2015 to remove non-functional link.  Her article is currently available at http://www.redeemer.com/redeemer-report/archive-pdfs, go to "2005 Newsletters" and select "December 2005."]

The Narnia stories are racist (p. 88)

With apparent approval, Gopnik notes in passing that "the wonderful British fantasist Philip Pullman has excorciated [the Narnia stories'] racism (the ogres are dark-skinned and almond-eyed)". (p. 88) Gopnik does not marshal any further evidence for or against this point in the rest of the article, leaving Pullman's charge to dangle before the reader without analysis.

If it is evidence of racial bias that the evil ogres are "dark-skinned and almond-eyed" (there is no citation for this point, but we will assume for the moment that this description is actually found somewhere in the Chronicles of Narnia), then it can surely be disproved by a showing either that (i) some dark-skinned characters in the Narnia stories are good or (ii) some light-skinned characters are evil.

As it turns out, we need look no further than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to disprove the charge:
  • The most evil character in the book (the devil figure, if you will) is the person who has set herself up as "Queen of Narnia" in Aslan's absence. Here is how she is described: "Her face was white -- not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth." (ch. 3) So the race of the most evil character is unmistakably Caucasian.
  • And what of the other side -- what does good look like in Narnia? Well, Aslan is (like all lions) "golden" in color (e.g., ch. 12), which somewhat defies categorization in terms of human racial characteristics. But it is perhaps worth noting that as good starts to triumph over evil, "[i]nstead of all that deadly white the courtyard was now a blaze of colors; glossy chestnut sides of centaurs, indigo horns of unicorns, dazzling plumage of birds, reddy-brown of foxes, dogs and satyrs, yellow stockings and crimson hoods of dwarfs; and the birch-girls in silver, and the beech-girls in fresh, transparent green, and the larch-girls in green so bright that it was almost yellow." (ch. 16)
In fact, when good is ascendant in Narnia, there is tremendous, jubilant diversity, a veritable riot of both color and sound (like a Gay Pride parade without the eroticism). The Narnians, once liberated, are running, dancing, cavorting, shouting, singing, and laughing with joy. (ch. 16)

I fear it is not Narnia that is "nasty" and "narrow-hearted" in this regard (p. 88), but rather our friend Pullman.