The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Friday, January 01, 2010
Just In Case...
Just in case I counted incorrectly somewhere along the way, I managed to finish a 101st book in the waning hours of 2009.

The Worst Noel: Hellish Holiday Tales - Like Christmas Sucks, this collection of essays had a lot of potential and failed to deliver. My biggest complaint is that it seems like half the essays are written by Jews, which is just weird for a book about Christmas experiences. The conflict between celebrating secular Christmas while religiously respecting Hanukkah is so obvious that including more than one or two takes on that angle is overkill. Alas, most of the Christian writers don't contribute memorable tales either. A few of the essays aren't bad, and most have an amusing moment or two, but this book is not really worth buying or even borrowing. I only paid $4 at Half Price Books, but I wish I had checked the reviews first. I'm glad the Ditka book was number 100, not this waste of time and paper.

Final tally: 101 books finished, 96 books acquired

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Scurlock & Spurlock
One benefit of having a huge backlog of books to read is that I can group my selections by theme. My first two books of June are companions to documentary films by rhyming author-directors James Scurlock and Morgan Spurlock. I also rented the movies from Netflix for a multimedia experience. I have included Amazon links to the books and DVDs below.

Maxed Out: Hard Times in the Age of Easy Credit by James Scurlock - This book was a steal at the Borders outlet in Gurnee Mills last year -- only $1.98 -- which I finally got around to reading. The book and movie are a good pair for anyone interested in abusive financial practices and the roots of the current economic malaise. My wife was fascinated by Maxed Out -- she had no idea of how banks target consumers -- and she's probably the ideal reader/viewer. As someone more familiar with devious bank tactics, I found the book and movie interesting but not shocking. The greatest shortcoming of both, especially the movie, is that they are largely anecdotal. As such, they do a better job of illustrating the problems than offering solutions or explaining how we got here (though the book provides a bit of credit card history). There are other problems. The national debt is covered so briefly that it might as well have been excluded. Also, almost everyone is portrayed as an innocent victim, as if there is no personal responsibility in the act of acquiring and using a credit card. Scurlock's effort to draw attention to the credit card problem is commendable, but clearly not enough people got the message before the financial meltdown of late 2008.

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? by Morgan Spurlock - In contrast to Maxed Out, Spurlock uses a humorous perspective on an even more serious subject. Under the guise of looking for the Al Qaeda leader, Spurlock travels the world and examines terrorism, Islam, the Israeli-Palistinean conflict, and U.S. involvement in all of the above. I suppose it's no secret that Bin Laden remains unfound, but Spurlock discovers much about the cultures and religions of the Middle East. He talks to people in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East including a former IRA terrorist, Muslims in the slums outside Paris, Egyptian radicals, a Moroccan publisher, Palestinian refugees, Saudi women, U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and Shimon Peres, former prime minister and current president of Israel (the movie omits the European portion of Spurlock's journey except in the bonus material). This book exceeded my expectations; I thought it would be merely entertaining, but it is also thoughtful and informative. One of our country's greatest failures in the "Global War On Terror" is in misunderstanding or not knowing anything about the people, religion, and conflicts of the Middle East. For that reason, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? should be required viewing/reading for all Americans.

Current tally: 46 books finished, 40 books acquired

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009
The Year of Living Biblically
Jen Garrett indirectly encouraged me to read this book. She recently purchased a book by A.J. Jacobs called The Know-It-All. I commented that I own two books by Jacobs but haven't read either of them. So when it was time to choose another adventure from the stacks, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible became the obvious choice.

Jacobs sets out to follow the Bible, particularly the odd, outdated, or weird edicts, literally. Had he stuck to this narrow perspective (a joke that would have been beaten to death in 100 pages), the book would not have been nearly as enjoyable. Throughout the year, he discovers a lot about religion, the Bible, and the meaning and purpose behind them. It's more of an experiment in spirituality rather than a spiritual journey. Although he remains basically agnostic (saying, "I'm officially Jewish, but I'm Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant"), he gains a certain respect for sacredness and structure.

The Year of Living Biblically straddles an interesting line: it contains enough earnest religious material to merit back cover blurbs from religious men, and yet it is entertaining enough that one needn't be religious to enjoy it (though a Jewish or Christian background helps make the references more familiar). I think Jacobs went a little half-assed on the New Testament (I guess he's Jewish enough that he couldn't quite embrace Jesus), but I still liked the book a lot. It strikes the right mix of humor, religion, skepticism, and memoir.

This book also inspired another project. Because some parts of the Bible seem to promote slavery, Jacobs did the next best thing: he acquired an intern. While serving Jacobs, intern/slave Kevin Roose got the idea of transferring from ultra-liberal Brown University to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University for a semester. The result is The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University. I haven't looked at it yet, but it's been positively reviewed at Amazon.

Current tally: 37 books finished, 31 books acquired

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Thursday, January 29, 2009
Easy for Him to Say
In today's news:
Pope Benedict XVI decried what he called a spreading pessimism about marriage, saying Thursday it is not the impossible undertaking many make it out to be.
Sure, take marital advice from the world's most famous bachelor!

My favorite thing about this story is that it comes on the eve of our tenth wedding anniversary. Do I agree with Il Papa? Well, I'd say it helps to have a spouse who puts up with a lot.


Saturday, August 09, 2008
The Trouble With Hell
The trouble with Hell isn't the eternal damnation... It's all the assholes you'd have to live with.


Thursday, June 12, 2008
Bicycle Funeral
I had a dream last night. My mom took me to a bicyclist's funeral Mass. It wasn't anyone I knew personally, but that didn't matter. Several men in suits wheeled a riderless bike covered with white flowers down the aisle of the church to the altar. The priest gave some sort of blessing over the bicycle and said a few words about the cyclist. Then the men solemnly wheeled the bike back up the aisle and out of the church. I cried through the whole thing.

Afterward, we went back to, um, somewhere -- it wasn't my house, and it wasn't my parents' house. Then Jennifer came over to mourn with me (though we have never met face-to-face). I recounted the Mass I had attended in vivid detail and began sobbing again. By the end of my description, Jennifer was crying with me.

Then Gracie jumped on the bed and barked in my ear, so I woke up.

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Monday, March 24, 2008
Bastard of the Day
I've been against the Iraq War since before it started, and I have always supported free speech, even when it nearly got me booted out of high school. But Catholic Schoolgirls Against the War, the group who squirted fake blood on parishioners at Holy Name Cathedral during Easter mass, win the Bastards of the Day award.

My ire stems from one paragraph deep within the Chicago Tribune's story:
Catholic Schoolgirls Against the War, however, may have been preaching to the choir—literally. Both Pope Benedict XVI and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have opposed the war since its inception, with the pope using his own Easter homily Sunday to renew calls for an Iraq resolution that would "safeguard peace and the common good." After the service, the cardinal reiterated the Catholic Church's opposition to the war, but he said mass is not the place to protest the U.S.-led invasion.
The Catholic Church does not support this war, so why disturb an Easter mass? That's like protesting at the French embassy. If the Schoolgirls (who aren't all female, btw) had any guts, they'd be squirting blood on Bush and Cheney, or at least squirting blood in those bastards' churches (aside from the issue of whether to politely respect religious gatherings in general). Or maybe they should have protested in the giant evangelical Christian churches -- those worshippers helped reelect Bush/Cheney, implicitly supporting the war. I have a hunch that most Chicago Catholics vote Democratic.

While Sunday's action succeeded as a publicity stunt, I can't imagine it helped the Schoolgirls' cause much. Naturally, they issued a statement that perfectly illustrated the ridiculousness of the protest:
The statement lauded protesters' efforts to remind the churchgoers that George and Daley met two months ago with the president, described as the "principal public figure responsible for initiating the carnage in Iraq."
So they protested at Holy Name because Cardinal George and Mayor Daley met with President Bush? Do they have any idea how many people meet with the president? Why don't they go squirt blood on the championship sports teams that get invited to the White House? Also, do they know what George or Daley might have said to Bush when they met? I sincerely doubt that Cardinal George gave Bush a big thumbs-up on Iraq. I can't imagine Bush cares how a cardinal and a mayor feel about the war, anyway.

For that matter, why didn't the Schoolgirls go squirt blood on Mayor Daley? I know why -- because he has police security, whereas Holy Name is an easy target. Sheesh, all they had to do was push past a 70-year-old usher with cancer! Wow, those Schoolgirl bastards sure are brave!

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Friday, February 22, 2008
This is What We're Up Against
From Crooks and Liars, here's a little video showing multiple generations of ill-informed Christian fanatics who vote Republican and why. Ugh.

Hat tip to Freewheeling Spirit.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007
Just in Time for Christmas: Wacky Christians
This story from Dallas is just too strange:

Campaign linking Bible, I-35 takes on sin with prayer marathon

From Duluth, Minn., to Laredo, Texas, houses of prayer are opening their doors around the clock to welcome those who have taken up the call to Light the Highway, a movement started by international ministry leader Cindy Jacobs. The idea for the Light the Highway movement began two years ago with Mrs. Jacobs – a self-proclaimed charismatic prophet and founder of the evangelical ministry General International, based in Red Oak. Mrs. Jacobs believes there's a correlation between Interstate 35 and the Bible verse Isaiah 35:8 (New International Version):

"And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it."
As a result, there's a 35-day prayer marathon going on now that is intended to shine light on vice and sin – such as pornography, abortion, drug abuse, government corruption and workplace injustices – that participants believe are corrupting today's society, said Ryan Hennesy, the project's coordinator.
Actually, this story is a few weeks old; the marathon ended December 1. A few thoughts:

Many Protestants criticize the Roman Catholic Church for insisting on certain interpretations of Bible scripture. I think Mrs. Jacobs is a good example of why the Vatican believes such guidance is necessary.

UPDATE 12/23/2007 - Here is another story from the northern end of the "Holy Highway":

Many believers are convinced that the collapse of the bridge on Interstate 35W was a sign from God that more prayer is needed across the nation.

Of course, the bridge collapse was a sign from above. It was God's way of telling us the bridge was structurally deficient! I love the way people turn any old event into "prophesy" and use it to further their objectives. This article reminded me of something I read in The Onion's year-end issue last week: "Nation's Crumbling Infrastructure Probably Some Sort Of Metaphor."

Roadgeek trivia: What makes I-35 different from any other interstate? Answer posted in first comment.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007
Interesting New Books
I have a bunch of reviews to write, but first, here are a couple of new books I found on AlterNet that I haven't read yet.

I'll probably put The Year of Living Biblically on my Christmas list. I expect it to be entertaining along the lines of Joe Queenan's My Goodness. On the other hand, although I agree with the premise of Shopping Our Way to Safety, I don't feel a need to read about it in depth.

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Monday, September 24, 2007
Questions for Atheists
Do atheists ever say, "God damn it?"

If someone says, "God damn it," at a gathering of atheists, do they make fun of that person for calling upon a nonexistent deity?

Or do atheists say, "God damn it," all the time and then cite God's failure to damn anything as proof that there is no God?


Saturday, April 22, 2006
Cardinal Condones Condoms
Cynics say the Roman Catholic Church opposes birth control because they want more Catholics in the world. They might consider these statements from a prominent cardinal in that same vein:
"We must do everything to fight AIDS," said Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the retired archbishop of Milan, in Italy's L'Espresso newsweekly. "Certainly, the use of condoms can constitute in certain situations a lesser evil."
The Church knows that AIDS, if allowed to continue unabated, is going to wipe out the population of Africa. Africa is one of the few places where the Church still has the potential to save a lot of souls. Alas, AIDS is probably killing Africans faster than the missionaries can convert them. Once again, that might be a cynic's viewpoint. I'd prefer to believe the Church is simply looking out for all of humankind, albeit addressing the AIDS crisis a little late.

Allowing condom use is a pragmatic solution, but the cardinal's comments must be kept in context. This is not a statement in favor of birth control, as the TV news tried to spin it last night. Lest we get the impression that we can wear condoms and fornicate with wanton abandon, the cardinal carefully pointed out that he was speaking specifically of married couples where one spouse is HIV-positive. Even then, one cardinal, no matter how senior, does not necessarily speak for the whole Church. So the folks at Trojan had better hold off on affixing those "Catholic approved" labels.


Thursday, April 13, 2006
Smells Like Week-Old Sushi
As soon as I read the first sentence of Eric Zorn's blog entry yesterday about the Chicago Tribune's investigative piece on Sun Myung Moon's control over the sushi industry, I could sense that he had really "stepped in it." It's a sort of sixth sense that bloggers develop -- a way of knowing that a certain piece is going to incite a shitstorm of critical comments. My most recent example was an entry about Brokeback Mountain that drew more comments in a few hours than my entire blog gets in several weeks (and I wasn't even criticizing the movie or gays).

First of all, I agree with Zorn's position here. I have never desired to even try sushi. Heck, I don't even like cooked fish much, and with all the toxins in the water that fish soak up, that isn't necessarily a bad thing these days (I know there are health benefits, but even nutritionists warn about eating more than a couple servings a week). A friend of mine once said, "People always act shocked that I don't eat sushi, but what shocks me is that anyone would be shocked that someone wouldn't want to eat raw fish."

I have also never had a positive impression of Moon or his Unification Church. I first heard of him as a kid when they showed one of those mass weddings (not be to confused with Mass weddings) on the TV news. He always seemed like a nut (that isn't really an educated opinion, just a hunch). More recently, I have become aware of his power and influence in the American conservative movement. He owns the Washington Times and other conservative media outlets, and GOP pols regularly kiss his heinie. In that sense, he's every bit as repulsive to me as Richard Mellon Scaife, bankroller of the "vast right wing conspiracy" against the Clintons that his minions ironically claim did not exist. At least Scaife keeps a low profile, though.

At first, the response to Zorn's criticism of Moon and sushi was mixed. Some people thought it was petty to avoid sushi because of Moon. Others spoke out vociferously against Moon and his church. Some accused Zorn of being a bigot, and this sentiment magically swelled overnight to epic proportions. Yep, Eric stepped in it, all right, and the Moonies were mobilizing!

While I read those comments this morning, the title of Zorn's blog mysteriously morphed from "Change of Subject" to "Change of Shorts" as I nearly wet myself laughing so hard at the ridiculous accusations and threats leveled against him and his newspaper.

One of the best was a comment from "Joseph" of Nigeria as news of Zorn's blog piece spread around the globe: "I will mobilize Nigerian online community to disregard this piece and also stop reading the Chicago Tribune." Now I may be going to go out on a limb here, but I have a feeling that the Nigerian readership of is not exactly a key demographic. I can't imagine the head honchos saying, "We've got to get Zorn to tone it down -- we can't afford to lose the Nigerians to the Chicago Sun-Times!" Hey, maybe now the Trib won't get as many Nigerian money laundering E-mails as the rest of us do.

Zorn stuck to his guns despite the looming threat of a Nigerian boycott and wrote a column in today's paper unrepentantly reiterating his disdain for sushi, Moon, and any combination thereof. Now some commenters attempt to draw analogies between Zorn not eating Moonie sushi and Nazis exterminating the Jews. When you step in it online, the only question is how low your critics will go.

UPDATE 04/14/2006 - Well, Eric Zorn has reached his limit with the Moonies. He cut off comments this afternoon. I'm a little disappointed because I thought maybe this could break the comment record set by his "gone but not forgotten" entry (inspired by the announcement that Field's would become Macy's). On the other hand, I can see how this was becoming tedious, especially as the demographic shifted from devout sushi lovers to devout Moon defenders. I got to the point where I just skimmed for his responses and skipped over the Moonie apologia altogether. I give Zorn credit for staying reasonable in the face of religious zealotry, which can be hard to do. I can't wait for him to blog about $cientology!

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005
You've gotta love these "Christians:"

A college professor whose planned course on creationism and intelligent design was canceled after he derided Christian conservatives said he was beaten by two men along a rural road early Monday.

University of Kansas religious studies professor Paul Mirecki said the men referred to the class when they beat him on the head, shoulders and back with their fists, and possibly a metal object, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.

Mirecki was going to teach a course in the spring called "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies," but he recently asked the university to cancel it. Maybe those two thugs should take a remedial course in Christianity. I don't remember that part of the Bible where Jesus beat up people who didn't agree with him.

As the legendary comedian Bill Hicks said when confronted by some Christians in the South who didn't like his show: "You're Christians? ... Then forgive me!"


Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Extending The "Silent Birth" Concept
Today I was thinking about $cientology, and it didn’t even involve mean thoughts about Tom Cruise. With the adorable Katie Holmes, who once vowed chastity until marriage, carrying his demon spawn (oops, so much for being nice), there has been a lot of talk about “silent birth,” a recommended practice for $cientologists (church officials “say silent birth is practiced at the discretion of the parents and their doctor”). The idea is that birth is a traumatic experience for the baby (not that it’s any picnic for the mom), and being quiet during the birthing process is supposed to make it a little less so.

So why in the world was I thinking about this? Well, today we gave our dog Rosco a bath, and he did not look pleased (I was thrilled because in less than fifteen minutes I saved $40 that my wife would have spent on a groomer). Since getting a bath is clearly a traumatic experience for Rosco, I wonder if we should do it quietly. Could reassuring words like “it’s okay…you’re a good boy” actually do terrible harm to his fragile psyche? And will it cost us thousands of dollars in
$cientological “therapy” to repair the damage? I don’t know, but I’m going to trademark “silent bath” before Tom and Katie steal my idea.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2005
And You Thought Battlefield Earth Was Bad...
Okay, I'll confess that I didn't actually see that movie, but since I don't even like a lot of good movies, I can't imagine liking Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000. I just learned that this John Travolta flop was not the first time that celebrity followers of Mr. Hubbard's wacky "religion" tried to interpret his work. The Church of Critical Thinking just reviewed The Road To Freedom, a Hubbard-penned album that makes the worst record you've ever heard suddenly sound a whole lot better.

It's "craptacular" (the Church of CT's word), with convoluted, obfuscatory lyrics sung over music that was dated and cheesy even when it was released in 1986. How bad are Hubbard's lyrics? "Death is only an invention to rid the universe of life. It hasn't and is a failed device" (from "Why Worship Death"). The Church of CT even includes mercifully brief samples of each song for your listening pleasure. Musically, it ranges from uninspired dance to summer camp sing-a-long to bad jazz (even Chick Corea can't rise above the swill). The last song features L. Ron himself, and should not be missed! And yes, Travolta sings on a couple of songs, as do Frank Stallone (Sylvester's brother) and Leif Garrett.

And if that's not enough $cien+ology for you, check out the Church of CT's review of the book Understanding the E-Meter. It gets a lot deeper into the nuts and bolts of the "religion" than The Road To Freedom, making even less sense.


Sunday, August 29, 2004
Faux Mitzvahs
Like Joe Jackson, I always learn something in the Sunday paper. In today's Tribune, I read about "faux mitzvahs." Apparently Gentile kids in areas with large Jewish populations feel left out when their friends are having bar and bat mitzvahs, so their parents throw elaborate parties for them. Of course, they strip out all the religious elements.

Americans have bastardized most Christian celebrations already; it's all market-driven rather than spiritual. Heck, it was a big revelation for me to figure out that Easter is actually more important than Christmas, as far as spiritual significance goes. Since I got a lot more gifts for Christmas than Easter, I grew up with the opposite impression.

Now it is Judaism's turn to be fully assimilated by the American marketing juggernaut, which is creating a new pseudo-religion that keeps the fun stuff and downplays the serious, religious, moral, historical, and spiritual aspects. For another example, look at all of the Buddha statues that adorn American gardens (a friend says people only get away with that because Buddhists are non-violent). I think this makes a mockery of religion. On the other hand, one could argue that this sort of religious evolution has been happening forever, just not at hyper-speed.


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