Monthly Archives: November 2010

The March – Slow or Fast? – of Time

I don’t know whether time is going fast or slow.

It seems like 9/11 was yesterday, still fresh in my mind. I vividly remember going home from work early and gluing myself to the TV for the rest of the day. That was just a couple years ago, right? Maybe it’s still fresh because the wars we started after 9/11 are ongoing.

But then I read that the iPod and Wikipedia were born in 2001, and it seems like they’ve been around forever. Yet George Bush became president that year, and that doesn’t seem so long ago. So what’s the deal?

Timothy McVeigh was executed in 2001, and the first Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films came out. Those don’t seem so long ago. But Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman split that year, the Ravens won the Super Bowl, and Andrea Yates drowned her children. Those events seem so, so long ago.

Mac OSX wasn’t released until March 2001. I can hardly remember using its comparatively clunky predecessor, OS9. Surely I must have been in my 20s back then, right? But no, I’ve been using OSX, through six versions, for less than 10 years.

And then:

  • Facebook started in 2004.
  • Youtube started in 2005.

They aren’t any older than that? Are you kidding?

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Books: “Sacrifice,” “Down in the Zero,” “Safehouse”

“Sacrifice” (1995) is the sixth book in Andrew Vachss’s urban survival series based around the guy named Burke. These books have a definite feel to them, and all deal in some way with child abuse. Burke takes a zero-tolerance attitude toward hurting kids. Child molesters are “freaks,” and he deals with them. Vachss, in real life, is an attorney who works exclusively with cases pertaining to children and youth.

The titles of the first five books reflect the major female character–Flood, Strega, Blue Belle, Hard Candy, Blossom. Here, “sacrifice” refers to a young boy around whom the plot revolves. This boy has been severely abused, tortured and sexually assaulted as part of a pedophile ring. To cope with it, he split into multiple personalities. Most of the time he is Luke. But there are also Toby, Baby Susie, and a very scary kid who calls himself “Satan’s Child.” In that personality, Luke has killed.

Burke, with the help of his rogue’s gallery of friends–Max, the Mole, the Prophet, newcomer Clarence, and Mama–tries to track down the people responsible for abusing Luke and others.

Andrew Vachss

If Vachss stuck to the plot, the book would be about two-thirds as long. But he meanders around, dealing with various things that come up. This does not detract from the book, not in Vachss’s skilled hands. It just provides more atmospherics, drawing you deeper into this New York City underworld.

Then I moved on to the next book in the series, “Down in the Zero” (1995) This book was set in a tony Connecticut neighborhood where a number of teens have been committing suicide. One teen suspects murder, and fears that he’ll be next, so he comes to Burke for help.

So Burke goes to that town and tries to unravel what’s happening. It’s perhaps my least favorite Burke book, with way too much sexual content and not much plot. Plus, as with “Blossom,” the story takes Burke away from New York City, and away from his urban crew. It makes the book much less interesting.

Next, I read “Safehouse” (1998), thinking it was the next book in the series, when in fact there are two books between “Safehouse” and “Down in the Zero.” Anyway, “Safehouse” is very good. The theme is stalking. Burke gets involved with Crystal Beth, who helps run a safehouse for abused women, many of whom are being stalked in some way. Vachss creates very interesting female characters, and Crystal Beth is in that tradition, somewhat reminiscent of Lizbeth Salander in Steig Larsson’s great books. Through her, Burke becomes enmeshed with a shadowy CIA-type named Pryce in a sting on a neo-Nazi ring intent on carrying out a terrorist plot. Since this was written prior to 9/11, but after the Oklahoma City bombing and the original World Trade Center bombing, it’s extra interesting.

Toward the latter part of the book, Crystal Beth takes Burke around to a number of women in the safehouse, and they tell their stories of being stalked in some way, and usually physically abused in terrible ways. These are engrossing stories in themselves. I’m guessing that they were adapted from actual cases Andrew Vachss or his wife worked with, or knew about, in their real-world work as victims advocates.

Again, there is plenty of sexual content, though not as graphic as what you’ll find in a Stuart Woods novel. But it’s all part of this urban world Vachss has constructed, a world I find fascinating. And his focus on victims–particularly children, but also women–gives it not only a redeeming quality, but a strong educational element.

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A Muslim Who Favors Profiling Muslims

Asra Q. Nomani (right), a Muslim woman, presents a strong case in “Airport Security: Let’s Profile Muslims,” an article on The Daily Beast.

As an American Muslim, I’ve come to recognize, sadly, that there is one common denominator defining those who’ve got their eyes trained on U.S. targets: MANY of them are Muslim….

We have to talk about the taboo topic of profiling because terrorism experts are increasingly recognizing that religious ideology makes terrorist organizations and terrorists more likely to commit heinous crimes against civilians….

I realize that in recent years, profiling has become a dirty word, synonymous with prejudice, racism, and bigotry. But while I believe our risk assessment should not end with religion, race and ethnicity, I believe that it should include these important elements, as part of a “triage” strategy….

Profiling doesn’t have to be about discrimination, persecution, or harassment….

In [a] debate, I said, “Profile me. Profile my family,” because, in my eyes, we in the Muslim community have failed to police ourselves….

To me, profiling isn’t about identity politics but about threat assessment….

Data in reports released over the past several months…reveal that over the past decade not only are many defendants in terrorism cases Muslim, but they trace their national or ethnic identity back to specific countries. According to the Rand study “Would-Be Warriors,” the national origins or ethnicities most defendants came from was Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt, with a handful from the Muslim areas of the Balkans….

I know this is an issue of great distress to many people. But I believe that we cannot bury our heads in the sand anymore. We have to choose pragmatism over political correctness, and allow U.S. airports and airlines to do religious and racial profiling.

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A Society Not Designed to Bring Happiness

Salon, an online magazine, has an advice column. I don’t read advice columns, since they are answered from a secular perspective and therefore miss the boat when it comes to problems with spiritual solutions. But the heading for this one read, “I have everything. My life is empty.” I just HAD to see how the columnist answered that one.

The person seeking advice wrote:

I have it all. Life has been good. Though by no means rich, I have money in the bank, a solid marriage and prospects for a comfortable future.
But I am happier when I have less.

The advice columnist wowed me with her wisdom. She really did. Particularly the first paragraph. I added some emphasis.

It is not hard to figure out why the life you have chosen does not make you happy. It was not designed to make you happy. It was designed to maximize your purchases….

Maximizing your purchases will not make you happy. The lifestyle of consumption is not designed to make you happy. It’s designed to make the people who sell you things happy. It’s designed to suck the maximum number of dollars out of you for the maximum number of years, maintaining you as a dependable, lifetime revenue source on the nearly infinite ledger of American capitalism….

In considering how to change your life, remember that you have enemies. Your enemies don’t want you to change. They want to keep you as a dependable revenue source….Your enemies prefer you to be constantly unhappy, constantly in search of things to buy. It is better for your enemies…if you know little of your true capacity for free action, for a relaxed, carefree life devoid of worry. It is better for them if you believe there is no alternative.”

There is much, much more, as the columnist talked about her own journey amidst American materialism. But I found these opening paragraphs to be very perceptive.

Our whole society is designed around materialism. We want to possess tings. We’re told that saving money is good, and yet our economy will collapse if people don’t spend. Buying stuff is partly what it means to be an American. It’s practically patriotic.

As a Christian, I know that I’m not made for this world. I’ve been “fearfully and wonderfully made” for something eternal–to love God and enjoy him forever, as the catechism says, and to make a difference in people’s lives while inhabiting earth. I’m not designed to be a consumer. Not designed to fit neatly into a man-made political category. Not even designed to be United Brethren, or Nazarene, or some other religious brand. I’m made for something not of this world.

The world’s systems won’t bring me happiness. I’ve got to remember that.

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Book: The Dawn Patrol

Don Winslow is becoming one of my favorite authors. “The Winter of Frankie Machine” is the best book I’ve read in 2010. “The Life and Death of Bobby Z” was pretty good. And now I’ve finished “The Dawn Patrol.” All are Vintage/Black Lizard imprints.

“The Dawn Patrol” (1978) centers around Boone Daniels, a well-known surfer in San Diego who works, when he feels like is, as a private investigator. He’s a former cop with an aversion to authority.

An insurance company hires him to investigate a possible insurance scam. The book meanders around with a laid back, southern California vibe. There is no hurry to anything. A woman is murdered, a child prostitution ring is unearthed, various criminals set their sites on Boone, and there’s lots of drama involving Boone, his old flame Summer, and Petra, the beautiful insurance company rep who tags along as he does his investigative thing.

The title “dawn patrol” consists of five surfers–four men (including Boone) and one woman (Summer, the best surfer of all). A distant tsunami is sending some big waves to San Diego, and none of them want to miss out. Boone fears that his PI gig will get in the way.

“The Dawn Patrol” is not nearly as good as “Frankie Machine,” but it was enjoyable. Maybe a bit too slow-moving for my tastes, but I do admire Winslow’s word-smithing capabilities.

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Michael Vick and Tiger Woods, Second Chances

Michael Vick is back. Although I find his dog-fighting activities despicable, as a Christian I do believe in redemption and life-change. In this case, the redemption and life-change may be totally secular in nature, devoid of a religious component (though when he came out of prison is said a lot of Christian stuff). But regardless, I’m happy to see him thriving.

And you must admit: the guy is electric to watch. And he seems to be a much better quarterback than before.

Tiger Woods, on the other hand, is still trying to come back. He gave an extended interview on Mike&Mike this morning on ESPN radio, most of which I listened to while driving to work. He’s humble and forthright. I hope his lifestyle truly lives up to his words. And I hope, along with TV executives everywhere, that he rises once again to be the dominant force in gold that he was until a year ago.

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Martyrs for Freedom

Traveling by air is a hassle. I was reminded of that once again when Pam and I flew to Texas in  October. Flying used to be easy, with minimal intrusions. But since 9/11, the airport screening has gone increasingly overboard. At least I think so. Most people probably accept it, willing to endure whatever inconveniences and indignities to ensure safety. But I can’t help thinking we’re going too far with our zeal for total security.

David Foster Wallace felt the same way, and wrote about it in a very short piece in The Atlantic which he called, “Just Asking.” He argues for preserving freedom at the expense of safety.

What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life–sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

We already accept other sacrifices as part of living in a free society:

  • Thousands of traffic deaths each year, so that people have mobility and autonomy.
  • Rampant deaths from alcohol and cigarettes, so that people can make personal choices.

Wallace refers to measures we’ve taken to makes ourselves secure in the wake of 9/11–Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, torture, warrantless surveillance. Yes, they may contribute to securing the homeland. But are they worth it?

Wallace makes this fascinating suggestion:

What if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

It’s worth thinking about.

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Book: The Bricklayer

“The Bricklayer” is Noah Boyd’s debut novel, and it’s a great one. Lee Child, James Patterson, and Patricia Cornwell all praise the book in cover tributes.

The title character is Steve Vail, a former FBI agent who can’t stomach incompetent persons in positions of authority, which is why he quit (or was fired from) the FBI a few years back. But he was a very good agent. Now, he’s a bricklayer in Chicago.

Now, the FBI is being totally stymied by a series of murders, accompanied by extortion demands, from what appears to be a gang of maybe five people (based on the name they go by). Vail is recruited to try to find the bad guys, using somewhat off-the-books methods (since nothing official is working).

The plot moves along at a good pace, with plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader off-balance. A variety of characters enter the picture, and you wonder if any of them are bad guys in disguise. Vail works alongside Kate, a senior FBI agent who is, of course, beautiful. They have some adventures together, following leads which the FBI brass have either written off or don’t know about.

I pretty much guessed how the book would end up, but it was a lucky guess. This is a very, very good book. You’ll enjoy it. He’s got another book about Steve Vail in the works, too.

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Atheists Vs. Atheists

A Los Angeles Times article tells about a huge conference of atheists/agnostics/skeptics in Los Angeles. It was the Council for Secular Humanism conference.
A division has arisen.

  • On one side are the “new atheists” (call them fundamentalists), who favor in-your-face confrontation with religious people.
  • On the other side are “accomodationists” (call them liberals) who prefer a “let’s-all-just-get-along” approach.

I find this very amusing. It’s like they are Southern Baptists or something.

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Books: The Enemy, Cross Country

enemy-crosscountry-300.jpgOn vacation, I read three books. Not a very impressive output, by my standards, and certainly fewer than I expected to read. But three it was. And here are two of them.

“The Enemy” is Lee Child’s 2004 book about Jack Reacher. Although it’s the 8th book in the series, it’s actually a prequel to all the other books. The story takes us back to Reacher’s days as an MP in the military. A general dies under suspicious circumstances, then his wife is killed, then a Delta soldier is killed, then the Delta commander is killed. Reacher and a woman MP fight through all kinds of institutional obstacles to try to solve the murders and figure out what in the world was happening.

Frankly, this was my least favorite Reacher book. It was very much a police procedural. The plot moved along slowly, without the “thriller” feel of his other books. I struggled to get through it. And when I got to the end, some things didn’t really add up for me. I think Lee Child needs to leave really intricate plotting to people like John Grisham, and just let Jack Reacher cause mayhem.

“Cross Country” is the 14th Alex Cross novel by James Patterson. I’ve read all 13 earlier novels, and as far as I can remember, they were all winners. “Cross Country” may be the first Alex Cross novel I didn’t really care for.

Patterson excels at creating villains. Here, it’s a hulking Nigerian named The Tiger who leads a band of killer kids in home invasions, massacring entire families. It’s all tied to things happening back in Nigeria. One of the victims is an old flame of Alex Cross.

Cross ends up traveling to Nigeria to catch The Tiger, and things immediately begin going badly. He also ends up in Sierra Leone, where we learn all about the civil war of the 1990s (though Patterson makes it sound almost like the rebel war is still going on), and then to Darfur, where we learn about the plight of refugees there. Then it’s back to Nigeria, where we learn more about the sad state of affairs in that country. In the process, he gets beat up more than Rocky.

It all felt unnecessary, especially the jaunts to Sierra Leone and Darfur. Neither trip furthered the plot. Patterson just wanted to inform readers about the situation in these places, and decided to do it very awkwardly. Philip Kerr’s “Berlin Noir” novels, set in Nazi Germany, provided a fascinating historical backdrop without sidetracking from his plots. A Michener novel educates you about times and places, without coming across as trying to “teach.” Patterson just didn’t do a good job with taking his story to a different country. He acquired some humanitarian conscience and wanted to spread it, and did it poorly.

A character as strong as Alex Cross does cry out for a TV series. Morgan Freeman played Alex Cross in a couple movies, but he was a bad choice–too old. A young Denzel would have been great.

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