Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"It's Time for Change"

I drive an old 1995 Honda Passport with a bumper sticker on the back window. Up until a few months ago, it was "Save the Planet: Gore 2008", but when it became apparent that Al was not going to run, I chipped it off and replaced it with one that says, "It's Time for Change: Barack Obama 2008".

During my drive home this evening, traffic was backed up at a four-way stop sign. As I waited to go through, a gentleman in a brand-new, mother of pearl-colored Cadillac Escalade rolled past me on the right. To me, nothing screams "I'm an asshole" louder than a Cadillac Escalade, especially one with that perverse milky paint job.

As he went by, he put his arm out the window in a thumbs-down gesture. At first I was confused. Was he commenting on my driving? But then it occurred to me that he was making a non-verbal comment about my bumper sticker. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, I guess. I smiled and flipped him the bird.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Today is the sixth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. I remember that morning clearly. I was getting ready to leave for work; Nan was already gone. I was surprised when the phone rang since it was still very early. It was Nan. She told me to turn on the TV; a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. When the TV came on, it was tuned to The Today Show. The picture showed one of the towers smoking, and I thought, "How could a plane have flown into the World Trade Center on such a perfectly clear morning?" Then Katie Couric's voice said something like, "All right. Now let's back that up and look at it again in slow motion." I expected to see the jet that had caused the smoking tower, but instead I saw a second jet slowly enter the picture from the right and slam into the other tower, creating a huge ball of fire and debris. "Holy shit!" I thought. "What are the chances of THAT happening? Two planes in one day?!" And then it dawned on me that this was no accident, that people had done this intentionally. I stared in utter disbelief for several minutes as the scene replayed over and over again. Finally, I turned it off and went off late to work, thinking, "Everything has changed."

As I watched the news reports play out over the next several days and weeks, I kept waiting for someone to comment on the irony of the date. September 11. Nine-eleven. Nine-one-one: the number we call when there is an emergency. Was it just a coincidence that Osama bin Laden would choose this date for the attacks? Or was it intentional, either to send a warning--like the attacks themselves weren't enough of a warning--or to make an extremely dark joke, something like, "Hey, America, better call 9-1-1!"

In his infrequent videotapes, like the one released last week, bin Laden doesn't appear to have much of a sense of humor, unless you count telling us that the war in Iraq would end if we would all just convert to Islam. That made me smile. But he delivered it in such a deadpan manner that you had to think he was serious, not only about that but also about everything else he has done, including the attacks six years ago. Deadly serious. So why is he still alive and threatening us? Maybe it's like a button I saw a few years ago: "Osama bin Forgotten."

Sunday, September 9, 2007


It took more than a few months, but I finally finished reading Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. It was very different from what I expected. Everyone knows the story of Captain Ahab's quest for revenge against the white whale responsible for taking his leg, but there is much more to it than that.

Many scholars have concentrated on the insanity of Ahab's obsession. To me, that was merely the device that drove the plot. The greater story is the one of man's place in the universe and his perception of that place. The whalers are routinely successful in their hunt until they finally encounter Moby-Dick at the book's climax. Their incredible hubris is revealed in the absolute destruction the whale wreaks upon their world, killing everyone but Ishmael, the narrator who survives to tell the tale.

The message is that man is but a small component in this universe and that the universe, despite man's feelings to the contrary, is largely indifferent to him. Much of this message is contained within the following paragraph, about two-thirds of the way through the book, when one of the cabin boys, who has joined the chase with the whalers for just his second time, jumps out of the boat in fear:

But it so happened, that those boats, without seeing Pip, suddenly spying whales close to them on one side, turned, and gave chase; and Stubb's boat was now so far away, and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that Pip's ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably. By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels them uncompromised, indifferent as his God.
Pip's brush with death exposed to him the truth of man's situation and changed him forever in the eyes of his shipmates. "Insane" is the label others place upon those whose perception does not match their own.

It is apparent why this book created such a sensation when it was published more than 150 years ago. The language and imagery are advanced, even by modern standards. It is a difficult but rewarding book and well worth the time it takes to work through it.