Saturday, April 21, 2018


After spending four years of college at an institution that teasingly encouraged me in my belief that life is a purely theoretical matter, I have been confronted at every turn since by the alternative dogma -- the cult of personal experience.

As soon as I came to divinity school, I was told that I actually would be learning nothing important in the classroom (a shame, since this was the only part I was looking forward to) -- and that the only real lessons would come from the aspects of ministerial training I most dreaded -- the ones that were "hands on." When I first started writing sermons, likewise, the first feedback I received was that they would be more interesting "if they came less from things you read and more from your life experience."

Sunday, April 8, 2018


I will not be the first to point out the eery similarities between the militarization of the U.S. southern border and that of Israel's various boundaries -- notably Trump himself made a similar point, though he of course intended something very different by it. However, in a week that began with Israeli troops firing live rounds on demonstrators in Gaza and killing fourteen people (who were either wholly defenseless or armed at the very most with rocks and implements that posed no serious threat to the heavily equipped IDF) --and which concluded with Trump ordering the National Guard to patrol the nation's boundary with Mexico-- the parallels are particularly hard to miss.

Saturday, March 31, 2018


After Robert Motherwell's Elegies for the Spanish Republic
So... I should explain -- how the above work of aesthetic genius, that is, came to be on my living room floor.

Due to a recent change of residence, as you know, I have had to spend an unusual percentage of my time the last few months on tasks that I find intrinsically boring. Like cleaning. Like moving. And like decorating.

In order to feel that my life still had meaning and volition, I decided that -- to the extent I could not absolutely avoid any of these activities -- I would at least insist upon doing them in a way that fed my core underlying obsessions.

When it came to unpacking or swiffering the floor, this was relatively easy to do -- one only had to put on a podcast or audiobook to feel that one was at least not squandering the youthful plasticity of one's brain by failing to spend a few waking hours dribbling new pieces of information into it.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Norman Mailer's "Harlot's Ghost" (1991): A Review

Imagine if you will a novel that's 1,300 pages long, with a killer set-up over the first hundred pages that makes you desperately long to hear the conclusion -- so much so that you are willing to brave all 1,200 pages that remain in order to reach it. Imagine next that this novel -- after all that time -- ends with the words "To be continued..." And imagine, finally, that you discover -- having gotten this far-- that in fact it never was continued. That the promised sequel was never written, and the author is now dead, so it never will be.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Harlot's Ghost, by reputedly great American novelist Norman Mailer. The novel does in fact weigh in at 1,300 pages, and ends in just this way. Brother. There is no excuse for this book, or for my having spent so many stretches of the last year and a half, off and on, gradually making my way through it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Every Single Use of the Phrase "Open Up" in this Season of the Bachelor

A couple years ago, a friend coaxed another friend and me into watching The Bachelorette. “It’s horrible,” she said. “But that’s the point.” As the three of us watched (this was Jo Jo’s season) we began to notice that there were certain phrases that were used time and again-- by nearly every contestant on the show. It was almost as if they had been handed a manual of clichés they would all be expected to memorize and repeat for the camera.

My friend pointed out that whenever anyone did something the other contestants disapproved of, it was agreed that he was “not here for the right reasons.” Everyone was forever waiting to see whether they might have any “chemistry" with the Bachelorette. There were stock compliments, as well as stock put-downs.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Random Literary References to the U of C and UUism

There are a handful of human institutions with which I have such a strong sense of personal identification that I seem to have an inner homing mechanism, the sole purpose of which is to seek out literary references to them. The University of Chicago is one. Unitarian Universalism is another. Whenever so much as a hint of a mention of either appears in something I am reading, it is as if the words were pre-highlighted, leaping off the page and demanding my attention. (It adds a certain pique too that the first word of each is so similar to start with -- leading to that microsecond's thrill in which my brain has processed the familiar and beloved shape of the word: Uni... but I haven't yet figured out which one it is. Unitarian? University? When, to my horror, it turns out to be something like, say, the University of Connecticut, the disappointment is keen).

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Ernie Advantage

... or, "Bert Like Me."


On a work trip to Washington, D.C. recently, I had one off night with nothing much to do, so I gratefully curled up in my hotel bed with a biography of the Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, written by Phoebe Hoban, and dug in. Hoban, you may recall, is the author of an aforementioned biography of Lucian Freud -- a similarly catastrophic individual who must have been a terror to know, but is a delight to read about.

Basquiat, like Freud the Younger, was one to rather burn his candle at both ends -- to such an extent in his case, however, that he tragically passed away from a heroin overdose at age 27 -- all-but-self-consciously modeling himself in so doing on Charlie Parker and other creative titans who guttered early, but who "gave" while they lasted "a lovely light." (Robert Hughes deemed him the Thomas Chatterton of the 80s art world -- albeit a comparison he did not intend flatteringly.)