Nooooo, Hilzoy! Don't Leave Us!

This is depressing news:

First, I’m going to Rwanda this weekend, on vacation. I’m looking forward to it immensely, especially since I discovered that the Bare-Faced Go-Away Bird, which topped my list of Best Bird Names Ever nearly five years ago, lives there. (And did you know that the name ‘Watusi’ comes from the Tutsi? I didn’t.) If anyone has any great suggestions for things I might not think to do, etc., please let me know.

Second, I’m taking this opportunity to retire from blogging. I’ll be here through Friday, but after that, I won’t. (I’ll still hang out in comments, though, after I get back.) I’m not sure it would be possible for me to stop if I weren’t going off to central Africa without my computer, but since I am, I will.


That said, it seems to me that the madness is over. There are lots of people I disagree with, and lots of things I really care about, and even some people who seem to me to have misplaced their sanity, but the country as a whole does not seem to me to be crazy any more. Also, it has been nearly five years since I started. And so it seems to me that it’s time for me to turn back into a pumpkin and twelve white mice.

Damn it, Hilzoy, you’re one of the best. I’m happy for you, believe me, but this is a huge loss for the liberal blogosphere. You’re one of the most insightful and incisive bloggers out there. Your perspective, not to mention your incredible knowledge, have been utterly invaluable. When it comes to the ethical and moral questions, I don’t think there’s anyone who’s done more to help us come to grips with the really tough issues, who’s really made us think. And you did it with a wicked sense of humor.

Good luck to you. And if the madness returns, I hope you will as well.

Hasta luego, amiga. Salud.

Nooooo, Hilzoy! Don't Leave Us!

Tears for Strangers

You know, the last thing I expected was a little jolt when I found out Michael Jackson died. I wasn’t a fan, didn’t like his music, and certainly didn’t like the man. But I can’t deny that it felt like there was suddenly a strange empty space in the world. A rather small one for me, huge for others. News of his death actually came close to crashing cell phone networks everywhere as people called or texted each other the news. A friend of a friend cried for three hours.

We get awfully close to people we don’t know.

Psychologists occasionally try to explain our tears for strangers. I didn’t find many research papers in my desultory search through the intertoobz, but found some quotes in various and sundry articles relating to other celeb deaths that attempt to shed some light:

Attempting to explain the phenomenon, clinical psychologist Fiona Cathcart says it is partly down to today’s less community-minded society.

“People overtake hearses these days,” she says, the point being that in modern communities, neighbours do not invest time in getting to know each other.

Instead, it is the rich and famous; the faces on television and in celebrity-focused magazines that command our attention.

“We know more about the details of their lives. The clothes they wear, their ambitions, where they last went on holiday than we do of the family next door.”

Yes, but, the same kind of mourning goes on in tight-knit communities, too. My old neighborhood in Flagstaff was about as intimate as it gets, positively incestuous at times, and yet we still chocked up at the deaths of strangers. Having friends I knew like family didn’t keep me from getting seriously emotionally involved with even fictional people. So we’re going to have to do better than “It’s because we’re all strangers” pap. Anyone else?

“People want to be close to major events, no matter how tragic,” said Stuart Fischoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology. “They want to feel like they are participating. They want to create that memory of ‘I was there when.’ People say, ‘I’m a fan and this is how I show my concern for him.'”

Eh. Don’t know about your mileage, but that doesn’t resonate for me. Some people I know are like that. Others are just about the opposite. And that doesn’t explain why a really good author can leave you sobbing your poor little heart out over somebody who never actually existed.

Part of it’s the knowing. Get to know somebody well enough, even if it’s not a two-way street, and you start to care. We can’t help that – we’re human. And whether it’s a celebrity or a great character, those people we’ve come to know give us something in turn for the time we bestow on them. They entertain us, sometimes enlighten us; they keep us company, help us dream, let us experience worlds we’re otherwise excluded from. We develop something of a relationship that has real meaning. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of symbols, or history – I may not even like Michael Jackson, but I did the Moonwalk with everyone else, and he was a part of my childhood. It’s tough to see pieces of your past go.

Sometimes, the tears come from what we know we’ll miss out on. Take Carl Sagan, whose death still chokes me up at times. He was a brilliant science popularizer whose books and teevee programs many of us adored, so is it any wonder we miss him? What else could he have done, had he not died so soon?

Some shrinks think it’s mostly the “could’a happened to any of us” factor, too:

Dr Oliver James, whose book Britain on the Couch examines psychological changes in the nation’s character since the 1950s, says Diana’s troubled life in some ways mirrored the difficult experiences of normal people.

Sure. And we want to see them succeed, survive and flourish, because that offers us some vicarious comfort. Not to mention, we were pulling for them. We really did care.

I know some people question that – can you really care for a stranger? Of course you can. Not in the same way you’d care for family or close friends, usually, but it’s a genuine caring nonetheless. Humans are like that.

And in some cases, perhaps, it’s a coping mechanism, a chance to get it right the second time, or practice for the inevitable:

Mourning the death of a celebrity retriggers suppressed feelings of loss for an actual loved one, said professor Sherri McCarthy, a psychologist and a grief counselor at Northern Arizona University.

“People are vulnerable because these events retrigger memories of losing someone else. If an individual has unresolved, suppressed feeling of grief they may use this opportunity to express those feelings. If a child didn’t grieve a parent properly, they can displace that grief on someone in the media.”

Probably all of the above speculations have some grain of truth, to varied degrees for varied people. But as a writer and a human being, I do think this is the paramount factor:

As Arthur Koestler put it: “Statistics don’t bleed; it is the detail which counts.”

The more detail we have, the more we’re able to care: the more we care, the more those strangers’ deaths affect us. Think of Neda, who’s become the symbol of Iran’s brutal repression of political dissenters. Others have been killed just as gruesomely – at least 25 are dead – but she’s the one who stands out. And part of that is because of the detail. The graphic images of her death, the few details of her young life, combine to turn statistics into a person we find it easy to care about, a memory we can rally round, an inspiration.

And the people who have inspired us deserve a tear or two whether or not we’ve ever had them over for tea, don’t you think?

Tears for Strangers

Buh-Bye, Blago

State Senate to Blagojavich: “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass:”

Rod Blagojevich spoke at some length to the Illinois Senate today, imploring state lawmakers not to remove him from office. He was not, apparently, persuasive.

The Illinois State Senate on Thursday convicted Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich on a sprawling article of impeachment that charged him with abusing his power. The vote prompted the governor’s immediate and permanent ouster, and ended nearly two months of political spectacle in which he sought unsuccessfully to salvage his reputation and career here and across the country. […]


The senators voted 59 to zero in favor of removing him after a four-day trial; a dramatic, 45-minute speech by Mr. Blagojevich in which he declared his innocence; and about two hours of deliberation.

Blagojevich was also barred from ever running for any public office in Illinois. Democrat Pat Quinn, up until a couple of hours ago the lieutenant governor, has already been sworn in as Illinois’ new governor.

And so, the sun sets on an era of political surrealistic entertainment.

You know, I’ll almost miss him. He was nearly as bountiful in his dumbfuckery as the Cons.

Buh-Bye, Blago

One More Night

Nightwish best expresses my sentiments tonight:

One more night to bear this nightmare.
What more do I have to say?

Ocean Soul – Nightwish

You know what nightmare I’m talking about.

Let no locked doors thwart George W. Bush as he gets the hell out of our White House. In fact, let’s make sure there’s doorkeepers standing by, just in case.

Thank you, President Obama, for ending the nightmare. Come on in.

You can laugh a lot
And bring out that smile

For now we’re hanging in
Even though we’re blessed with sin
You make my heart…
You make my tired heart sing

Tender Trip on Earth – Tristania

As ridiculous as it sounds, you do indeed make my tired heart sing. And judging from the evidence, I’m not the only one.

One More Night

Update on Bill Gwatney Shooting

Police have identified the man who shot the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party Bill Gwatney. Timothy Dale Johnson, 50, had been fired from his job at a Target store early Wednesday morning for writing graffiti on a wall. You’ll die of shock to learn he’s been described as an unmarried loner who was quiet but creepy.

No one’s got any word on a motive yet, but I imagine we’ll discover a man with an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. He’ll have some personal narrative blaming the Democrats for his woes, although it could just be politicians in general and the Democratic Party headquarters the nearest target when he snapped. His house will likely be full of ammo and guns. He’ll have spent the past few years getting weirder, more isolated, and more paranoid. About the only interesting thing to discover will be why he drove over to the Arkansas State Baptist Convention and aimed a gun at the building manager after killing Gwatney. The rest of it’s going to follow a depressing, predictable trajectory.

We’ve got a lot of very, very broken people in this world.

Someone emailed Michelle Malkin, right wing hatemonger extraordinaire, to tell her she’s responsible. That’s jumping the gun a bit. The man had a wide variety of deranged, hate-filled, kill-’em-all columnists, bloggers, radio hosts, and organizations to chose from. People who like to celebrate violence, dehumanize their enemies, and then play the outraged innocent when someone takes them seriously. We see most of it on the right, but there’s a smattering of it on the radical left as well, so let’s not go blaming the first vitriolic right-wing blogger that comes to mind until we discover who was on this loser’s reading list.

The Arkansas Republican Party’s showing a wonderful streak of humanity in all of this. They’ve responded with empathy and heartfelt kind words for Chairman Gwatney, which gives me a bit o’ hope that partisan acrimony hasn’t completely rotted the entirety of our political system. There’s even a wreath featuring a donkey and an elephant propped outside the Democratic party headquarters. This is the kind of spirit I want to see: the realization that even though we may not be able to stand each others’ political views, we’re all in this world together, and we can care for each other no matter how much we may disagree.

They’ve shown genuine class and decency. I hope others can follow their lead.

My thoughts are with the family, friends and colleagues of Bill Gwatney tonight. They’ve lost a great person, and things are never going to be the same for them. I extend my deepest sympathies, and the hope that memories of all that was wise and wonderful about Bill will eventually overshadow the way he died.

Update on Bill Gwatney Shooting

Another Good One Gone

Let’s raise our glasses to a man magnificent in his dissent:

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who has died at the age of 89, played a significant role in ending communism. His novels were beautifully crafted, damning indictments of the repressive Soviet regime.

The Russian novelists like Solzhenitsyn were tremendously courageous and inspired a generation to change their world. They broke the chains of tyranny. I hope others will take their example to heart.

Salud, Solzhenitsyn. Muchos gracias.

Update: I don’t ordinarily link to the AP anymore due to their recent fuckery, but this piece by Douglas Birch is worth breaking the rules for.

Another Good One Gone

Another Good One Gone, Legacy Lives On

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who delivered the stunning Last Lecture “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” died yesterday of pancreatic cancer.

And no, the world is not just. It’s not fair. It doesn’t care that a tremendous professor, a truly incredible human being, a husband and father died far too young. So let’s not focus on that. Randy wouldn’t.

People who live to be 100 don’t live as much as he did. It’s not the length of your life that matters so much as what you do with it. Randy proves that more than anyone else I’ve encountered.

I remember stumbling across his video several months ago, and not wanting to watch it. How morbid, the idea of a dying man giving a “Last Lecture.” I hit play thinking I’d shut it down after a few moments, because of course it would get saccharine and maudlin and have about the same profundity of a Hallmark greeting card.

It’s not the first time I’ve been wrong, not by far, but it’s certainly one of the more dramatic examples.

I didn’t expect to come away with sides aching from laughter. I never expected to come away renewed and inspired. Randy performed a vanishing on the last lingering fear of death I had. He was one of those extraordinary people who permeates every aspect of your being and makes you feel as if you’re exploding with potential. He made me want to be more and do more, but it wasn’t pressure – it was excitement.

I felt it again this morning, when I leaned over my coworker’s shoulder and read the news of his death. Right there beside the sadness and shock was the echo of that feeling that anything at all was possible. Life is a grand adventure, a gorgeous journey, even if we encounter a few bumps in the road: have fun. Courage, a sense of humor, and a sense of adventure are all you need to make life extraordinary.

Those lessons I’ll never forget. I doubt anyone who’s seen his Last Lecture ever will.

Muchos gracias, Randy. Salud.

Another Good One Gone, Legacy Lives On