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Saturday, June 21, 2008


One year ago, Isaiah John Woodlief came into the world, which is better for it. Today he will have presents, and Daddy's homemade spaghetti, and an ice cream cake, with which is brothers are eager to help him. Happy Birthday, little squawker.

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Friday, June 20, 2008

Wanted: Lazy Politicians

Modern politicians talk a lot about working. We must "work together" to build a future for our children. Elect me and I'll "work tirelessly" to give you this or that good thing. Here is the lawyer Obama, newly minted expert on energy economics, arguing that we need to work with a range of favored scientific companies to develop viable alternatives to oil. And likely as not, there is your city or county official, talking about working with businesses to develop your local economy.

The thing about politicians, of course, is that most of them don't know much at all about work. Sure, they spend a lot of energy talking, and meeting people, and raising money, so that they are tired and feel as if they have been working, but most of us understand that none of that makes an engine run, or pulls food out of the ground, or generates a medicine that heals, or a suit that fits, or a book worth reading. If Obama knew the first thing about how to develop viable alternatives to oil, he would be far wealthier than he is now, just as your local politicians would be millionaires if they knew anything about venture capital.

This reality won't stop any of them from confidently investing your money in "economic development" as if they have some window into the future of American prosperity, of course, but let's not kid ourselves about what's really going on. While people who work for a living tend to understand that the future is messy and unpredictable (which is why most of us choose to work for large, stable companies rather than risk venturing out on our own), to politicians the future is a term paper problem. Economy in a funk? No problem, says Obama. I covered that at Columbia.

Your local politicos have a similar conceit, which can be summed up in the political canard that is some variant of the tiresome campaign slogan: New Solutions — as if there are such things, and as if Congressman Blowhard, who is only successful by dint of talking far more than he listens, has somehow divined what they are.

So all this talk of politicians rolling up their sleeves to work for the rest of us evokes the image of a drunken uncle insisting that he be allowed a turn at the wheel on the family vacation. You have to let him stay in the station wagon because he is your uncle, but he ought to sit in the very back, away from the children, where he can stare out the rear window and offer bold pronouncements about where you have been, and pretend that he had some part in getting you there.

The real problem, I suppose, is that too many of us have gotten into the habit of thinking that the jabbering drunk ought to be the one at the wheel, that there really is a road to a painless future up ahead somewhere, and only he can find it. Which is why I think we ought not let anyone vote until he has mastered three books: Bastiat's The Law, Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson, and Seuss's I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew. Which is one reason why, further, I will never be a viable candidate for public office.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

"Any Stigma Will Beat a Dogma"

Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: To be a good boy.

Part of my extension of Dorothy Sayers's tongue-in-cheek exploration of the average man's theological knowledge, over at World on the Web.

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

The End Times

Occasionally I'll see a woman driving with her rear-view mirror turned cockeyed, so she can do her make-up, or generally just keep an eye on the Wonder of Herself. But today I saw a guy (I'll not apply the word man to this creature) driving with his mirror twisted leftward. He was working on his eyebrows with one of those personal trimmers.

I am not making this up.

I almost dragged him out of his car at the stoplight and beat him to death with my Johnny Cash CD case. Then I remembered that on my better days I aspire to be something approximating a Christian. Only later did I recall that there is something, I am almost certain, in Leviticus that would have condoned my impulse.

But the point is, this is what we have come to: a grown man, grooming his eyebrows in traffic, using his rear-view mirror. In Wichita. Lord, have mercy.

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Father's Creed

"Dad," Eli asks me in a whisper, "why did Abraham kill Isaac?" We are in his bed, looking out at the darkening sky and listening to crickets. In his bed across the room, our Isaac is already asleep, a lamb clutched to his chest, his mouth agape.

"He didn't kill Isaac, remember?" I kiss Eli on the head. "God sent a ram to be sacrificed in his place."

"I thought Abraham killed him."


"But why did God tell him to kill Isaac?"

It's more complicated to explain than some might think. As I explain how God wanted to stretch Abraham's faith, and how Abraham thought God would bring Isaac back to life, and how God was even then writing the story of Jesus, I feel myself coming to that place where I am struggling: the doctrine of propitiation, of score settling, of wrath. In my mind I can hear the fussy answers from self-satisfied types who take a masochistic delight in the Angry God. I hear a string of preachers from my own childhood, warning me to be a good boy or go to hell. I remember the nightmares I still have, of demons coming to take me there.

"Why did Jesus have to die?" Eli asks.

A good Presbyterian would tell him the wages of sin is death, and that a price had to be paid, a sentence served. Instead I tell him that when sin came into the world, it made all of us sick. "Do you know how when you do something bad, it makes you feel bad inside?" Eli nods. "The blood of Jesus will make all of us well," I tell him. "It works slower on some than others, but it's the medicine we need. And one day he will come back, with all his angels, and then all the evil things in the world will try to fight them, but they will lose, and then none of God's children will be sick any more."

Eli lays his head down on my arm. He asks me why we can't see God, and why God made the Devil, and when Jesus will come. I tell him about heaven, and how all things will be made right one day, and that Jesus will never let him go. I put my head next to his, and breathe in his scent of wet puppies and toothpaste. "I will always love you," I tell him, "no matter what."

"I know."

Somewhere beyond the crickets and our line of hedge trees is the world into which one day he will venture. Maybe he will have a more accurate understanding of whether the blood is a cure, or a debt paid, or both. Years ago the answers seemed more certain to me.

I think sometimes my children will leave me with more questions than answers. But they will go knowing that they are loved by their God, and by their father. If you ask me what is my creed, this is what I will tell you: that I am selfish through and through, but for them to know those two things I will lay down my life, walking all the chastened paths along which a parent must stumble.

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Not Happening

Wife and I saw M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening last night, which when you factor in the price of gas and babysitting and popcorn, makes us more investors in Shyamalan's flick than viewers. Without giving anything away, I can tell you the movie continues Shyamalan's trend of coming up with fascinating ideas, drawing us in with haunting early scenes, and then dissipating our goodwill with clunky dialogue, moments that earnestly strive for importance only to yield inadvertent comedy, and, in an unfortunate twist for Shyamalan, violence that is frequently grotesque without being convincing. This movie is, in short, very much like pro wrestling.

He's made some stinkers before, but he also made The Sixth Sense, to which I'm sure he's tired of having his other films compared, but which remains the primary reason many of us keep coming, in hope, to his offerings. If you're wondering where this movie fits on the Shyamalan Scale of one to five, where The Sixth Sense is a seven and Lady in the Water is the cube root of pi, The Happening is a solid three. Not as good as Signs or even The Village, but better than Unbreakable, which itself was mostly forgiveable, except for Samuel L. Jackson's unfortunate hairdo.

Despite my disappointment, I keep rooting for Shyamalan. While the major motion picture studios seem at a loss to produce anything but big-budget interpretations of comic books, remakes of movies that were second-rate the first time around, gross-out vehicles posing as comedy, and the occasional quasi-indie film whose merit stands in inverse proportion to their influence over its production, Shyamalan is a visionary. He just can't seem to execute — on dialogue, plot, or direction (how does anyone make Zooey Deschanel irrelevant in nearly every scene but her last???), which means that ultimately his vision disappears.

I hope he continues making films, though. I'll keep coming to see them, plunking down my money and hoping that his vision, once again, is supported by his craftwork, rather than undone by it.

And now, my one-line take on the film, for those of you who want a good quip to explain it to your friends. This probably qualifies as a spoiler, however, so consider this your SPOILER ALERT, and avert your eyes if you want absolutely no hints about the movie's content.

The Happening is Maximum Overdrive with hydrangeas. You heard it here first.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Last night I read Dorothy Sayers's essay, "Why Work?", and came across this thought, which puts me in mind of the recent federal Economic Stimulus Payment (which, if anyone from the IRS is reading, I still have yet to receive):

A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand.

Or you could consider Dave Barry's assessment of the situation. (HT: Lori M.)

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Monday, June 16, 2008

Muddle-headed: The Good Kind

I've had to travel four of the last five weeks, so that by Friday I was feeling thin, as Bilbo Baggins claimed, like butter stretched over too much toast. Traveling like that leaves me muddle-headed, and not in the good way. Some of you know what I mean about a good muddle-headedness — you get it when your thoughts are focused on a project, or a dream you have had, or a beautiful scene in the novel you are writing. People speak but you only partly hear them, bugs bite but you don't notice, you forget what speed you are traveling on the highway. I didn't say that good muddle-headedness wasn't dangerous, did I? But so are most things worth experiencing.

Then there is the bad muddle-headedness, which is what I get sometimes when I travel. It's the feeling of being shot out of a cannon, so that every field you darken and every cloud you scatter on your journey is a physical reminder that you are out of place, that it is only your thin skin that holds everything inside you. It's lying exhausted on a hotel bed unable to sleep, and the nightmares that come when you do sleep, and the feeling, when that alien sun penetrates your eyelids, that your soul has gone slantways, and won't ever be right again.

Or maybe it's just me.

I always feel like the prodigal son when I come home, welcomed though I don't deserve it, and amazed that I could ever have felt disconnected from the earth when I have this woman and these little ones waiting for me there. It reminds me that I am just water and faint breath and the thinnest spirit, even though to them I am Husband, and Daddy.

And so yesterday we celebrated Father's Day. They gave me (in no particular order, though you can probably guess which I liked the most):

Augustine's Confessions (Everyman's Library edition, of course)
a Library of America edition of James Agee's film criticism
Sufjan Stevens's Christmas CD collection
the Twister DVD
a cowboy hat
chocolate pudding

To top it off, a good friend loaned me his 20 hp Kubota tractor, replete with belly deck, tiller, and grader, until I get my feet wet (metaphorically speaking — if I actually get them wet it means I took the tractor on too step an angle near the creek, in which case stop reading this and come get me out). This involved borrowing another friend's trailer, which was located at a third friend's spread, and then maneuvering the whole 4,000 pound rig on back country roads, on account of our not exactly being street legal, what with the lack of lights and chains on the hitch and so on.

And this is how you know God has a sense of humor. We moved all this heavy equipment without so much as a scratch to my truck, and then, as an afterthought, my friend suggested I take an old dead Christmas tree for my pond (it gives shelter to the smaller fish). I strapped it in, but botched the job. Halfway home it flipped over the back before the straps locked it tight, so that its trunk pressed a three-foot dent into my tailgate, mangling the latch.

The thing is, though, I'll take a busted tailgate over leaving home any day of the week, and twice, as it turns out, on Sundays. I used to feel guilty over never having slouched around Paris, or speared fish in Fiji. I suppose those things will be nice should they come my way. But for now, there's plenty of adventure right here on the home spread. And from the way I feel when these babies and this woman crowd onto our big bed and burrow themselves into my chest, as if I am the Christmas tree and they the little fish, I can't imagine any place more suited to who I am, or more importantly, who I am supposed to be.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Some of you might enjoy my father's day essay (of sorts) over at World on the Web.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0) comments