Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Useless Ride Stats for January 28, 2006

In the vein of Matt, useless route info (without benefit of a trip computer) (gmap):

Distance 19.7 mi
Max Speed unknown
Average speed 9.85 mph
Ride Time 132 minutes

The average speed doesn't do us justice, however. We stopped down by the stadia for a bit around milemarker 5, spent a while exploring SCI (State Correctional Institution) -- Pittsburgh (decommissioned) around milemarker 7, and spent ten-plus minutes helping a marooned cyclist around milemarker 13. Figure a minimum of 20 minutes of doing essentially nothing (and probably more), and our average comes out to a minimum of 10.65 mph. Even that, though, is conservative.

A nice ride. The Strip District was teeming with Pittsburghers buying black and gold parephernalia and enjoying the balmy 50-degree plus temps. Cyclists abounded. This city can be very beautiful, and as Dave has noted, the Super Bowl is really bringing out everyone's best.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Rule 11, Y'All

Following Emily's lead, I am F.R.C.P. 11. Take that, Throckmorton!


You were designed to make sure that attorneys in

federal cases make reasonable inquiries into

fact and law before submitting pleadings,

motions, or other papers. You were a real

hardass in 1983, when you snuffed out all

legal creativity from federal proceedings and

embarassed well-meaning but overzealous

attorneys. You loosened up a bit in 1993,

when you began allowing plaintiffs to make

allegations in their complaints that are

likely to have evidenciary support after

discovery, and when you allowed a 21 day

period for the erring attorney to withdraw

the errant motion. Sure, you certainly won't

get any brownie points for being outgoing,

but you keep things on the up and up. It's

pretty clear that the whole operation would

fall apart without you around.

Which Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Case in Point, My Wasted Time

Just for lawyers: Which Canon of Statutory Construction are You?
brought to you by Quizilla?

You are "Noscitur a socii"! You look to

neighboring words to shed light on the

meaning of ambiguous words. You're a

sociable canon, and always look at everything

in context. However, you're useless by


Hat tip to the Volokh Conspiracy (I'm flattered to learn that I am the same canon as his eminence Eugene Volokh; of course, so are 23% of quiz takers at last count). And I tag Emily, Michael, and the folks over at Bloodless (honorary Esquires).

What If? (Facing the Music)

What if you created a small, secret room, physical or spiritual, and you filled it with your ideas, evacuating it, as you went, of every unwanted intrusion? (You painted the walls a muted eggshell, hung curtains over the one window -- muslin perhaps, in two or three layers -- to admit the light only on your own terms, installed a small audio system, just adequate to the modern jazz and Beethoven sonatas -- all of them -- that you prefer when bent on an act of creation.) What if you didn't let it bother you, not really, that you hadn't yet found time to spend time in this room, but instead derived comfort from the thought that it was there, waiting, abiding, as you also waited, abided, resplendant in the faith that this room was inviolable, patient, welcoming, and that the purpose it served had no expiry? What if removing the distractions required months or years of burdensome effort, the labor more than once threatening to overcome you utterly, and still you persevered, sometimes moved near to weeping by your fatigue and lack of confidence in the wisdom of the endeavor, disinclined as you are to leaps of faith and recognizing in this enterprise the quintissential suspension of disbelief? And then what if you finally made the time to disappear into your little space, this shrine to your most heart-felt ambitions, and you felt nothing, no sense of triumph or satisaction, no inspiration, not even the backhanded compliment of disappointment, just . . . nothing.

On my little writing table, next to this computer, lie a legal pad and a steno pad, each documenting in sum several years of thoughts intended to move me toward any of a number of writing projects great and small. In a little blue paperweight my mother gave me, one with a diagonal slot for holding erect to view a small card or note, I have slid a scrap of paper from a pad that bears the name of my pre-law employer, making the pad (itself sitting on the farthest corner of the table hundreds of sheets unused) no fewer than four and a half years old. The idea it memorializes is younger. In full, in my near illegible script, I have written:

A guy keeps losing things -- wallet, keys, job? Why? We never find out but we find out other things.

Although I do not remember the impulse that led me to jot down those words, I can locate its origin at the nexus of two recent thoughts: first, that disturbing gaps in my memory have emerged of late, larger than those to which I've grown accustomed in my thirty-two years, lapses in background knowledge and failures of short-term retention so fundamental and inexplicable that it is physically painful when I discover another black hole where something I cared to revisit once had been stored; second, I seem to recall (or do I?), this was the first, and as it turned out last, story idea spawned by a sudden impulse to abandon the high arrogance of endeavoring to write something longer, a novel say, having written virtually no creditable short fiction, and nothing worth considering since college or soon thereafter, a decade ago.

There is no room, not really. But the impulse is real, and has been as palpable to me as a carrot before my nose as I've tried on three careers, excelled at one, and found only that one tolerable but still, somehow, unsatisfying, insufficiently romantic perhaps.

I eschew regret to the degree I can, usually with considerable success. Consequently, I have at great pains warded off the stray thoughts that sometimes incur that I may have made a grave mistake in acceding to my more practical side and my ever increasingly expensive tastes in choosing not simply to drop everything one day and say: I will write and I will make someone pay me to do so or I will starve. I will sing for my supper and someone somewhere is going to listen.

With the inception of this weblog, I thought to prod myself into action, my career fairly settled, my hours predictable, my life uncomplicated and comfortable, with the specter of more imminent unsatisfied expectations. I recognized -- self-knowledge being, quite possibly, the only perquisite of age, unfortunately offset by the countervailing stiffening of one's spine to the prospect of change in response to that knowledge -- that it would be enough for me to know that this site was out there, and that I had a few readers looking for my next post, to keep me showing up. This has proven true, with few infrequent exceptions. I misdiagnosed, however, my mind's capacity to skirt the rules, such as they are, and so it was only upon reflection that I realized that, far from spurring me to write in a way that moved me toward my familiar dream of Writing, this site instead moved me to talk.

Notwithstanding that there is no physical room, and futher notwithstanding the patent truth that one swallow does not make spring, there is a computer resting on a battered white table in the corner of my bedroom, and there has been a marathon push through closing on this house to moving in to settling into my new job and surviving the rigamarole of holiday obligations, all supposedly culminating in a night like last night, when my time was my own, nothing external called to me, and I could -- at last -- sit down to a white page in a quiet house and write.

Nothing came. Nothing at all. The few sentences I pecked out and summarily deleted were hollow, devoid of any visceral impulsion, dead on arrival. Years of aggregated ideas, which in certain whimsical moods seemed to coalesce into something grander, a major project of one sort or another, offered no counsel. I couldn't begin, not anywhere -- at the beginning, the middle. Indeed, to simply recite these various ideas inwardly to myself was to see them wither and collapse under their own weight. These were what I thought to comprise inspiration?

Of course, paradoxically, with greater self-knowledge comes greater compartmentalization, and with that a greater capacity for self-deception, one bureaucracy of thought burying another under red tape, phonecalls unreturned, a blizzard of forms designed only to guard jealously the issuing department's prerogatives. And it has occurred to me that perhaps that conditions under which I thought to write no longer obtain. Perhaps my mind is, indeed, stultified with law, crystallized like dried fruit. Perhaps I never had it, and have found sustenance only in an artfully preserved illusion, a fantasy that served me far more than its realization ever could.

I'm working on it. I'm having my people call their people. I am making discreet inquiries, invoking confidences and calling in favors hard-earned. This despot is not prepared to concede defeat to the functionaries he ought to have under his thumb.

But what if it's over, this idea of myself that's furnished the backdrop for so much of the action in my life? What if it's time to move on? How can I know?

Saturday, January 21, 2006


One Isabelita was kind enough to drop by and post a comment. After a few days, I found a moment to stop by her site. She is, it seems, a middle-aged climber of some substantial experience and skill. She writes most recently of a trip to Joshua Tree that sounds lovely. In my one non-climbing trip to Joshua Tree, I was captivated by its spare beauty. I wanted to return with climbing equipment and explore its classic climbing areas. I still haven't.

In any case, in commenting on one affecting post, the following rumination just sort of happened, and I decided to cross-post it.


I climbed with great dedication for five years, from one end of my time in law school to the other, through a relationship so powerful it made me feel immortal at its pinnacle and then almost ended me in its demise. I climbed sport on occasion, but over time focused ever more intently on bouldering. I loved its simplicity, the lack of equipment, the purity of its movement and the elegant singularity of its each new challenge. I used "project" as a transitive verb.

I never climbed trad, however, and still have not. My forays on TR and sport reminded me just how unreliable I feel in dealing with height. Familiarity breeds ease, but it always seemed all too imminent that I would freeze up on trad. My climbing friends are capable, experienced. Even were I to freeze utterly halfway up a second pitch in West Virginia, I know they'd find a safe way to bring me down. But I never wanted to be a burden in a setting so dangerous, and so I demurred countless times until my friends stopped asking and the jokes wore thin. I was a strong boulderer. My climbing in that context earned respect. That was enough.

Now after a climbing hiatus that has, with one brief month-long exception, lasted nearly two years, I contemplate returning for the spring bouldering season, resuming regular gym workouts in February until my skin thickens and my drive returns in time for March's beautiful climbing weather, the rock desiccate with winter's chill, the sky a shade of blue with a cutting edge. And at the mere hint of that, my friends have resumed the gentle chiding.

Maybe this year: One simple 5.4. No roof. A route I could climb in my current state of non-fitness. Something I can rationally believe I might climb without any protection at all.

Everything is a question of risk. The cliches about leaving the house don't even cut it. In some ways, staying home is the most dangerous thing of all.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Miscellany, Breaking My Vow & c.

So, not long ago I recanted my year-long ever-increasing fascination with law and policy on this site. Recently, however, I have collected a few things notable enough to warrant recordation, with brief attendant thoughts closely in tow. These are they.

First, plenty of people have talked about Al Gore's Martin Luther King Day speech, which evidently was quite the stemwinder. Bloodless provides a link on topic with an interesting thread, and the text of the remarks as prepared are posted here. I have only one question: what if a presidential candidate, any candidate spoke so candidly, so passionately, and so non-condescendingly to the country? Could we handle it, or are we too far gone? This is not the only powerful, eloquent, stemwinder Gore has delivered in the past few years. I really do wonder.

In law, there's Dahlia, in rare form with Please Don't Feed the Federalists, a series of myths debunked. The first is the most critical to those on the left, and is also the easiest to forget:

1.) Federalists are teeming with hate and rage: This is one of the most central, pervasive Democratic myths about federalists; particularly those who sit on the bench. It leads you Senate Democrats to believe that if you can just ask the right question of a federalist, he will erupt into a hissing, spitting parody of Bill O'Reilly and then try to strangle you with his bow tie on C-SPAN. As you observe the federalists here today, you will learn that they love their families and do not devote their careers to systematically holding back women, persecuting minorities, and stealing wheelchairs from the disabled. In their own offices, many of them have even worked to advance the careers of specific women and minorities. Attempts to tar the federalist as having dedicated his career to raging misogyny or racism will likely backfire. Most of them have better things to do.

Also, care of Publius (by way of Bloodless), one of the funniest parodies of Justice Scalie's jurisprudence I've ever read.

Article I, Section 8 grants Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. In recent years, the Court’s commerce clause analysis has been accused of being “unclear” and “results-driven.” See Bork, R., What the Fuck Is Up With Scalia in Raich?, 118 Harv. L. Rev 211, 213-14 (2005). Specifically, critics have pointed to the seeming inconsistency between the Court’s decision in Morrison and its decision in Raich (cases coincidentally involving similar facts at the case at issue here). Id. at 215. See also Aging Hippy Liberal Douche, A Post-Modernist Perspective on the Habermasian Dialectic Inherent in Scalia’s Commerce Clause Analysis, 98 Yale L.J. 1201, 1210-11 (2004).

The lower courts have also failed to find a meaningful distinction between the laws struck down by the Court and those upheld. See, e.g., Vedder v. Cobain, 321 F.3d 12, 15 (2004) (Posner, J., dissenting) (“What the fuck is up with Scalia in Raich?”).

In light of this criticism, the Court today announces a new clear standard to guide lower courts in their application of the commerce clause. This new standard will govern when a law exceeds Congress’s power under the commerce clause and when it does not. The new standard is this – a law passed pursuant to the commerce clause is constitutional if Justice Scalia likes the law and unconstitutional if he does not. Similarly, if the law is regulating things that Justice Scalia wants regulated, it is constitutional. If it does not, it is not.

Even in its silliness, and n.b. its impeccable bluebooking, I really think this mockery is onto something, and I definitely ought to read Law and Politics more often.

In non-law-related areas, there are also a couple of things. First, David has posted yet another brilliant little piece that suggests his almost freakish spelling incompetence belies his intrinsically British ability to craft a lovely, pitch-perfect vignette.

In other news, Pittsburgh is finally in the top 20 at something other than football: in meanness to the homeless. When I clicked on the headline, I thought I'd find us second only to, say, Salt Lake City and the like, and second to no cold-weather cities. So I guess I'm happy that we're not that bad. Even so, it's a pet peeve of mind, how insensitive we are in this country to our own untouchables, the couple of percent of the population the structure of capitalism pretty much guarantees will exist. A civilization's virtue is or ought to be measured by how it treats its meanest citizens. That we're in the top 20 crappiest cities to the homeless in a country that doesn't measure up especially well (among developed nations) in its treatment of the homeless generally is disappointing to say the least.

Still with me? Wow.

Okay, next up is a really disturbing story about immigrant mistreatment based on racial profiling. It's also really damned funny in a disheartening sort of way. And the story is all kinds of New York, which is part of why I like it. Posthumously Arrested for Assaulting Myself, and yes, that title is exactly what the post is about.

Also from 3QuarksDaily, a wonderful thought piece on the truly high stature the polymathic and brilliant author Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov achieved as a lepidopterist, a field to which Nabokov's substantial contribution is too often overlooked.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


It is naive of me to leave the office and ride the elevator down in the morning's tight and shorts get up, rain pants rolled neatly and still stuffed in my bag. All day I lurked in the windows in others' offices, a gulping air fish peering out from my aquarium, eyeing suspiciously the variable weather -- mostly cloudy to cloudy to rain, and back again. As the afternoon wore on, the increasingly dense wall of moisture off the Point told me all I needed to know, but still, in the comforting embrace of a lunch-time play break to the exclusion of all else, I believed.

It's just pouring.

In the garage, standing beside my bike, in the view of a parade of leased luxury cars and in sight of the two attendants manning the gates, I remove my shorts, feeling dirty notwithstanding my tights beneath. Something about unfastening a belt and unzipping a fly in public is taboo; I blush a little.

Preparing for a ride home in the rain involves a long sacrament: pull on rain pants and secure right cuff snugly with a velcro strap, pull on toe covers, fold shorts and situate them in the bag, unlock bike and slide U-lock into bag, fasten and check lights, zip jacket to the neck, pull down skull cap, check bag flap to ensure optimal closure, sling bag over shoulder and draw down helmet stretching the skullcap to hook under earlobes, check chain tension, adjust glasses, don gloves and struggle to slide them under the rain shell's tight elastic, activate lights front and back, adjust fenders to clear the wheels, wait for a lapse in the stream of exiting vehicles and slide out between the berm and the gate, nod to the attendant if he happens to be watching . . .

Outside, the road shines brilliantly with second-hand light; cars lurk more menacingly then usual. I force myself to imagine the drivers behind windshields drenched in a milky sodium reflection talking into their phones, fingering blackberries, looking at everything but the paltry ---- blink blink blink ---- blink blink blink ---- issuing from my silver-dollar-sized rear light. It is unwise to assume the best of any driver, less so at dusk, and even less so when dusk is pressed prematurely into the service of night by low clouds and driving rain. Pedestrians, as well, cannot be trusted.

Nor am I blameless. As soon as I clear the garage overhang, the lenses of my small glasses are spattered with hundreds of miniscule refracting lenses, each of which scatters photons like a chaos of laser beams; I must decode the dim interstices between brilliant gems, prove a negative armed only with gravity, vibration, muscle memory, and pattern recognition.

In adverse conditions speed pales in importance beside safety, and my my chess player's love for anticipating events one incident further than my adversary ascends. Shadows vie for my attention with dark figures wrapped in raincoats; the hissing white noise of traffic and the visual static of a thousand wet surfaces reduces the effectiveness of sight and sound; the ineffectiveness of skidding on a wet surface, my only emergency option in Susan's still-brakeless configuration, forces me to slow further away from hazards and limits my panic options to choosing whether I'd rather crash into a moving or a static target.

The rain on my cheeks, however, is refreshing, the swish of my pants against my left knee hypnotic as I reach Smithfield Street's obtuse end, free at last from the tangle of uncoordinated signals and pedestrian-choked intersections that run from Saks to Liberty, swinging at speed around the shallow corner and out into the left lane, setting up to make the left at Tonic. What I lack in visual acuity I compensate for in frequency of visual checks of the entire panorama around me.

I pass through downtown's northern edge uneventfully, turning right before the Convention Center's river ramp, decorated seductively by the brilliant blue Jenny Holzer installation, can lure me down to the water, turning left again along the Convention Center's eastern edge, and then right onto Smallman. I pass through the Strip District's handful of road hazards shrouded in darkness or obscured by their cupfulls' of rain like a soldier negotiating a minefield he has traversed before. Finally through the Strip's commercial visage and in its industrial viscera, Smallman narrow and fraying at the edges, I count my cadence and watch the shadows for things I cannot name but will know when I see them. Except for a dry sensation of cold across my upper arms and shoulders, a sensation that appears to arise from the cognitive dissonance of rain and cold temperatures and raindrops falling palpably against one's body without soaking through, I am warm, limber, feeling on this third day of riding like I never stopped. A quick check between my legs when no traffic lurks confirms that my taillight still blinks.

Somewhere around thirtieth street, I ease gingerly up the right side of a long line of cars waiting their turns at a four-way stop. I ease up to the intersection gently, and wait for the car beside me, which has neither signaled nor suggested a right turn, to accelerate through the intersection under the watchful stare of headlights from each of three directions.

Standing into the pedals, however, I hear a noise not unlike the grit I've been quietly ignoring in my drivetrain, only louder, and the resistance has intensified. It doesn't sound like either fender's gotten in the way, and when I look down at the ovals where the tires meet the pavement their black-on-black suggests nothing but darkness. I ease to the opposite corner and reach around behind me, however, suspecting the worst. My fingers meet little resistance when they squeeze the tire until they meet eachother through the sidewalls. For the first time in nearly a year, I've flatted, just about at the mathematical midpoint between work and home.

It's still pouring.

I have yet to make a complete roadside repair, and these are suboptimal conditions to say the least. Behind me, at the near corner, an awning beckons. The printing business whose entry it protects is closed; I have a shadow of rainlessness and one low concrete step on which to do what I must.

The ritual reverses itself: gloves and helmet off, bag off and open, tools and supplies (a new tube, CO2 canister and nozzle, tire wrenches, box wrench for the wheel) laid out like a surgeon's, fenders removed, bike inverted on the ground, and rear wheel removed.

I remove the tube and use the dregs of a previously opened CO2 cartridge to reinflate the tube. The sizzle of traffic makes it difficult to discern whether there's an identifiable leak, but when I remove the nozzle the tube immediately deflates. It dawns on me: last week, in refilling tires gone slack with disuse, I broke off the closure on my rear wheel's presta valve. The valve still held, however, and out of laziness I decided to chance it, promising that this week I would replace the tube in conjunction with some general bike maintenance including rotating my tires. Tonight was the night I designated for those tasks; indeed, I had been composing a list of bike-related tasks when the tire flatted. My reward for putting it off: a wet, roadside tire change, a not-so-quick fix, just to get home, and repeat the process twice more in the relative warmth of the basement.

Thankfully, the air is warm, and my fingers do not numb as they rote recite the verse of replacing the tube, reinflating it by touch (CO2 canisters are rather blunt instruments, and I am apprehensive with the knowledge that should I spend my only cartridge in overinflating the tube the night will quickly emerge an unmitigated disaster). Within perhaps ten minutes the tire is reassembled and reinflated, the wheel back in its fork, the chain readjusted, and the fenders remounted. Patiently, I use passing headlights to search the ground for any loose objects I might later miss, any trash I might later regret leaving behind, until I am satisfied that I will leave no mark. Once again, I upend the ritual.

I walk the bike to the middle of the walk, bestride her, and roll gently toward a nearby garage ramp down to the road surface. The tire holds. As I reenter traffic, I register a brief moment of indefensible surprise that the rain still falls, the traffic still lurks dangerously to my rear, and my glasses still glisten with a thousand raindrops' idle chatter. The night still is cold.

At home, in my basement, still dressed, as I am now, in the jerseys in which I rode (my jacket having kept them remarkably dry), but now in work jeans and slippers, I tend to Susan in mute apology, contritely wiping her down from top to toe, inch by inch, removing the wheels and cleaning in turn the chain, cog, and chainring. I remove and exchange the tires front to back, gently reusing their tubes, and inflate them in stages, jealously indulging the luxury of watching them stiffen in good light, guarding against a swelling aneurysm between bead and rim waiting to hemorrhage with an ear-ringing, heart-stopping clap.

Now, Susan is cleaner than I am, and poised in her appointed place by the front door, clean and dry and calibrated perfectly for the next ride, uncomplaining in her simple elegance. I am dry and warm and chastened. And while I welcome the next dry ride to and from work, I do not dread the next rainy night. Indeed, I look forward to it.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Impulse Buys, South Hills

Notwithstanding that I used Christmas book-shopping as a blanket excuse to buy books for myself, this afternoon I got a little lost in a Half-Priced Books and extended my to-read list considerably. In order of withdrawal from the bags, today's purchases included:

Douglas Coupland, Generation X ($2.98 -- I don't expect terribly to like this book, but since I've sort of made fun of this author via his archetype without actually having read anything he's written, I decided the intellectually responsible thing to do would be to read this book then make fun of him. Yes, I'm about ten years behind the zeitgeist he never quite managed to instantiate, but just the same, better late than never.)

Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before ($7.98 -- Because I like it when authors make me feel vaguely stupid and illiterate)

Tomas Transtromer, Selected Poems 1954-1986 ($6.48 -- Just because)

Jorie Graham, Never ($6.98 -- Same)

Paul Theroux, My Secret History ($3.98 -- I read his My Other Life (?), and since this is its intellectual antecedent, yet another better late than never selection)

Richard Russo, The Whore's Child and Other Stories ($4.98 -- I have liked everything of Russo's I've read (Straight Man, Empire Galls), and found most of it laugh-out-loud funny)

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex ($4.98 -- Sort of like the Coupland, except in this case I enter the reading with very high hopes, and hope it justifies all of the praise I've heard heaped on Eugenides)

Philip Roth, The Plot Against America ($5.98 -- Can't believe I found something this new in hardcover for this price. I love Roth generally, and have wanted to read this since I read the unequivocally positive reviews)

Mary McCarthy, Birds of America ($5.48 -- I adored The Company She Keeps, and intended when I read it years ago to follow up with more McCarthy; tying up a loose end)

Other impulse buys (at a Toys R Us next door): a leather and felt backgammon set and an old-fashioned wiffleball bat and ball. And an oversized Pez dispenser in the shape of Yoda, a future gift for someone who will love it.

None of these diversions bode well for the frequency of my posting, and I have some other poetry books I still intend to pick up, but more than damaging to my writing here, I hope these books will do far more harm to the time I spend in front of the TV.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Moon Over Lithia

Florida, that is.

I'm feeling strangely ambivalent about shrimp lately. Beginning with an Atlanta layover lunch at a green chain restaurant (can't keep them straight, but it was neither TGIFridays nor Bennigans, of that much I'm sure), and ending with some crisply seared shrimp last night at a local (Tampa area) chain variation on the Beni Hana theme (delivered, that is to say, with some deadpan witticism in unrecognizable pidgin English by a grinning Japanese chef, who kept calling me "Mr. Sarah's brother," identifying me as brother to my (here renamed) sister's husband), and I have to say, a propos shrimp, that I just don't know. Lately, eating them bothers me, everything about eating them, the sight of them raw or cooked, the thought of their former lives below the sea, their taste and texture. Oddly, last night at least, I did not have a similar ambivalence about my grilled calamari. Perhaps squid carries less suggestion in its prepped and cooked form of its former self than shrimp; perhaps that's the problem.

This morning, and a couple of days ago on the beach at Honeymoon Island, pinched between an offshoot of Tampa Bay and the Gulf, I had a sudden sympathy for the Intelligent Design crowd. Not because I think theology should be taught beside science; I most affirmatively do not, and I count ID squarely a mmatter of theology. Rather, in considering the alien flora in this place, spiky and rigid and determined, as against the northeastern flora of my childhood, equivocal and manifold and as transient as the seasons, I find my mind pitches and yaws in trying to imagine these deviations arising from some unlikely conspiracy of mutation and ecology. That is to say, for a few moments here and there, I have found myself contemplating the watchmaker idea: the implicit hallmarks of design even in unfamiliar things. Spiky leaves thrusting forth from white sand; palms pitched over muddy streams and flourishing; lizards and insects the size of my hands hopping about me; a fox chasing a cat across a busy thoroughfare in the Tampa exurbs; two overweight moms strolling five children, two pinkly indifferent newborns swaddled and sleeping, down an elevated wooden walkway in the shadow of prodigious palms and spanish moss.

Shrimp, too, like the proverbial springs and gears of a mechanical watch, suggest something of design in their ungainly curl. Perhaps it is the preserved crustacean comma, as real on the plate as in the tank as in the sea, that gives me pause before biting down.

I must have achieved the restfulness I sought in southern climes if my mind has turned in on itself in this way, in some metaphysical or epistemological facsimile of an autoimmune disorder, questions breeding questions and no hope of answer.

Tomorrow morning, I will drive my uncle's convertible back to the Gulf coast for a sail on his sloop and the flight home.

I will try not to think. Not hard. If possible, not at all.

But regular readers (and I) know just likely I am to achieve that end. Perhaps, then, I'll just think about my loving family and the wind in my hair. That, perhaps, I can do.

So long as I remember to apply sunblock liberally.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Commonplace, Swofford

Of late I've been reading, and growing ever more enamored of, the clipped, curt, sometimes adumbrated efficiency of Anthony Swofford's Jarhead. Notwithstanding I am reading the book after seeing -- and really quite liking -- Sam Mendes' movie based thereon, the prose is so vivid, so arresting, that I have given everyone new faces, recast and reconfigured those scenes plucked directly from the book and dropped into the movie, and just generally visited the book as though I encounter it entirely without foreknowledge or the taint of someone else's interpretation of the author's vision.

Speaking generally, I can't anticipate, or describe in advance, the sort of passages that appeal to me. While my own writing tends toward the florid and self-referential and discursive and my taste in authors reflects the same tendency, there are other things, unexpected things, that make my heart race and command rereading after rereading. I spent fully half of this morning's bus ride reading and rereading and pausing to reconsider and then rereading again one passage, a deceptively simple passage, trying to figure out why it so affected me.

Supposedly, and according to tradition and lore, the sniper needs only one bullet per kill. This is incorrect. The sniper requires thousands of bullets and thousands of hours of training per kill; he needs senior snipers on the deck beside him at the rifle range, telling him why he is not producing a dime group from a grand out. (A dime group is three shots that, when inspected on the target, can be covered with a dime.) There are reasons you're not hitting a dime group at a grand. Your spotter called the wind at five to eight but the wind is an eight to eleven. You hadn't completely expelled your breath when you shot. You are afraid of the rifle. Your spotter gave you the correct dope but you dialed the scope incorrectly. You are tired. You are stupid. You are bored. You are a bad shot. You drank the night before. You drank excessively the night before. You are worried about Suzi Rottencrotch and her man Jody back home, in the hay or in the alley or in a hotel bed. These are all unacceptable reasons for not achieving a dime group at a grand. A nickel group is occasionally acceptable. A quarter group and you are dead. You have missed the target but the target hasn't missed you. You must remember that you are always a target. Someone wants to kill you and their reasons are as sound as yours for killing them. This is why you must know the dime group like you once knew your mother's nipples. Quarters are cheap. On your corpse no one will check the group, not even your mother. Your enemy will be the last person to witness you as a living thing. He'll acquire you through his optics and he will not pause before pulling the trigger.

Where this book excels, I realize, is where the movie fails. The movie, resoundingly praised as capturing the hurry-up-and wait of war generally and the Gulf War in particular, doesn't really reflect (and in two hours, perhaps, could not reflect) the true beating heart of the book: its focus on what it is to be a marine, a jarhead, a single-minded human machine programmed to perform a relatively narrow array of tasks, and at that an elite marine, a scout/sniper, set apart by training and aptitude, drilled to work in murderous, self-reliant pairs.

Every word of this book is like a marine cadence, and its rhythm the synchronized thud of marines running in formation. I can never know what it is like to be a marine, no matter how many books I read. But to even offer a clear glass through which to view one marine, and that marine's value neutral but not unopinionated perspective on marine culture, is more than I ever expected, and precisely what Swofford provides.

In my many rereads of the excerpted passage, the only line that emerges as perhaps anchoring my attention so firmly to its page, was this: Someone wants to kill you and their reasons are as sound as yours for killing them. This is not a moral statement, not in the context of the passage or of the book in full. This is not a nihilistic rejection of all moral absolutes, or a comment on policy. This is the myopia of one soldier, one trained killer, the substance of a mantra designed to isolate and silence the critical faculties that one brings to bear on questions of morality and policy, to purify, render entirely amoral, transform flesh into machine.

In a million years I could never write that sentence or any like it. And if I accidentally happened upon a sentence so laced with potential, I could never set it in its due context. And perhaps more than any particular aesthetic predilection, that's what tends so to fix my attention on certain passages over others that seem like they ought to be more artistically pleasing: the appalling shock of an alien sentiment deftly communicated.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Professor Welsh White, 1940-2005

I would like to pause to note the passing of Welsh White, Bessie McKee Walthour Chair and Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. In addition to writing extensively on capital punishment and more recently on the fifth amendment, Professor White deftly taught generations of law students the law of evidence and criminal procedure. He brought humor and inventiveness to the classroom, not least when he bravely faced down the initially blank stares of a hundred students pondering the ineffable complications of concepts like hearsay and persevered until those stares gave way to nods of comprehension. It's rare that a day passes that I don't find myself faced with something I first learned from Professor White, and those of us who had the pleasure of learning from him could not have had a more inspired and able instructor.

Neither the University of Pittsburgh's statement nor the P-G's obituary really do the man justice. For that, try Emily, AML, and Perpetual Slacker, whose post includes a lovely photo.

Belated Happy New Year

And in honor of the occasion, I'm going to break with my recent commitment to stay away from policy and strongly urge you to take a look at an inventive and evocative post in which Driftglass reviews "that receding, centerpunching year just past and mourn[s] it for what it might have been." It's well worth your time. (Hat tip, Bloodless.)

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