We would sit down fifteen, sometimes twenty, to the table on seder nights: my parents; the maiden aunts -- Birdie, Len, and before the war, Dora, sometimes Annie; cousins of varying degree, visiting from France or Switzerland; and always a stranger or two who would come. There was a beautiful, embroidered tablecloth that Annie had brought us from Jerusalem, gleaming white and gold on the table. My mother, knowing that sooner or later there would be accidents, always had a preemptive "spill" herself -- she would manage, somehow, to tip a bottle of red wine onto the tablecloth, and thereafter no guest would be embarrassed if they knocked over a glass. Though I knew she did this deliberately, I could never predict how or when the "accident" would occur; it always looked absolutely spontaneous and authentic. (She would immediately spread salt on the wine stain, and it became much paler, almost disappearing; I wondered why salt had this power.)

-- Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (New York: Knopf, 2001), 174-75.

Yoke Your Paranoia to Your Technical Knowledge

Common wisdom holds that 140,000 generally churchgoing Americans in Iraq are locked in mortal combat with some of the world’s most serious monotheists. To me, a new, less orthodox faith seems to have arisen, something far more personal and circumstantial. You could see it every time you watched a grunt throw away a box of Charms candies that came in the field rations (bad luck) or toss rounds that had been dropped (no matter how much you cleaned them, bullets that had been dropped always jammed). Like so many others, I had been inclined to believe in the bromide "There are no atheists in foxholes," but based upon my admittedly less-than-systematic observations, there were at least as many blessed lance corporals, lucky ladybugs, stuffed giraffes, coins, and saved M16 rounds as there were rosary beads. The marines I lived with seemed to have moved on from the Twenty-third Psalm and were now deep into One Hundred Years of Solitude.

One afternoon I was watching tv at an Iraqi house that some Marine advisors had commandeered. It was a lazy afternoon, not much going on in-sector. We were all sitting around watching The Breakfast Club on a wide-screen. On the floor in front of us a lieutenant was cleaning a .50-caliber machine gun with what looked like Victorian surgical instruments. As Molly Ringwald declaimed her particular strain of late-eighties suburban anomie, the lieutenant's hands flashed over the weapon in practiced, weirdly maternal gestures. A microwave oven buzzed in the background. The echoes of domesticity were unignorable: We were like a deranged, unexplainably well-armed family. An artillery forward observer who was new to the team said, "Man, we haven't gotten IED'd in awhile." The team's executive officer, a
high-strung captain who'd been a logistics officer back in the States stomped into the living room and yelled, "God damn it, dude, I know you didn't just say that." He craned over melodramatically to some plywood shelves near the corporal's head and knocked on one of them. Guys were always doing this sort of thing. Anytime somebody started talking about how much time they had left or the fact that recently they'd had a run of good luck, eyes began to search frantically for a horizontal surface to knock on.

A couple of weeks later I read in the New York Times that one of the team's Humvees had struck an enormous IED, killing two marines. After I returned to the States, I received an e-mail from the team leader saying that the Times report had been in error, but this welcome correction failed to fully erase the causal chain that had haunted my mind in the interregnum. A corporal had given voice to an idle observation about not having been IED'd in a while and some of his comrades had been killed. And, even now, this is the memory trace, the psychological residue that remains: in Iraq thinking the wrong thoughts can kill you.

The trick was to focus your mind, to yoke your paranoia to your technical knowledge. One master sergeant I met in Al Qa'im told me that sometimes he could sense muj attacks before they came. I was skeptical until the day I saw him do it. We were in a convoy of six Humvees doing a standard security patrol when he picked up a radio handset and said, "We're gonna get hit today, I can feel it." When a small plume of dust arched in the sky ahead of us -- the shock wave from the IED hitting us a few seconds later -- he just shook his head. He didn't consider himself a metaphysician or anything; the skill was just something he'd developed over time in the field, the ability to interpolate between thousands of seemingly arbitrary micro-events and anticipate the narrative, to see the dance in the data. Scientists who study this sort of phenomenon refer to it as apophenia -- a handy piece of nomenclature to be sure, but to my haunted mind, the master sergeant was nothing less than a wizard, and I tried to stay as close to him as I could.

-- David J. Morris, "The Big Suck: Notes from the Jarhead Underground," Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2007.

The Death of Abner


During the afternoon Toby had worried less about Abner than on any day since he had been sick; he had felt that his friend's recovery was certain, and a load was lifted from his shoulders when he and Joe had decided regarding the circus; for, that out of the way, he could devote all his attention to his sick friend. Surely, with the ponies and the monkey they could have a great deal of sport during the two weeks that yet remained before school would begin, and Toby felt thoroughly happy.

But his happiness was changed to alarm very soon after he entered the house, for the doctor was there again, and from the look on the faces of Uncle Daniel and Aunt Olive, he knew Abner must be worse.

"What is it, Uncle Dan'l? Is Abner any sicker?" he asked, with quivering lip, as he looked up at the wrinkled face that ever wore a kindly look for him.

Uncle Daniel laid his hand affectionately on the head of the boy, whom he had cared for with the tenderness of a father since the day he repented and asaked forgiveness for having run away, and his voice trembled as he said:

"It is very likely that the good God will take the crippled boy to Himself to-night, Toby, and there in the heavenly mansions will he find relief from all his pain and infirmities. The the poor farm boy will no longer be an orphan or deformed, but, with his Almighty Father, will enter into such joys as we can have no conception of."

"Oh, Uncle Dan'l! Must Abner really die?" cried Toby, while the great tears chased each other down his cheeks, and he hid his face on Uncle Daniel's knee.

"He will die here, Toby boy, but it is simply an awakening into a perfect, glorious life, to which I pray that both you and I may be prepared to go when our Farmer calls us."

For some time there was silence in the room, broken only by Toby's sobs; and, while Uncle Daniel stroked the weeping boy's head, the great white-winged messenger of God came into the chamber above, bearing away with him the spirit of the poor farm boy.

-- James Otis, Mr. Stubbs's Brother (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1910), 279-83.


I think it’s important for me to be thoughtful and sensitive to those who have got something to say. But I think it’s also important for me to go on with my life, to keep a balanced life . . . I think the people want the president to be in a position to make good, crisp decisions and to stay healthy. And part of my being is to be outside exercising. So I’m mindful of what goes on around me. On the other hand, I’m also mindful that I’ve got a life to live and will do so.

American Patriotism

Welcome to this section of my site honoring America the beautiful.
Sheri’s Patriot Website.This salute to President George W. Bush will remain here until the Iraq conflict is over. This reflects the promise of young conservatives across the U.S.A. to stand by our Commander in Chief!” Godd Bless America and is great because of Jesus Christ, and if we lose Christ we lose our greatness.” America Triumphant, the movie, and America We Stand as One.

Certain Phenomena

“When you come across something like this, it is hard to remain clam and refrain from contemplating people’s ignorance”: Woman pregnant for forty-six years. Woman with fetus in heart forever. “Indeed, circular patterns of concentrated light have been seen to glow on buildings across the northeastern United States and beyond.” “Please Click On His Payment to visit my other pages” (like The Jesus Slide Show). “Without presenting any evidence whatsoever that what he says is correct, Volpe has informed his students that . . . evolution is a fact.”

Charming Superstition

"X = Not a Whole Lot"
-- John Allen Paulos in The Guardian, 11/18/04:

Excuse my mathematician's obsession with coin flips, but consider this. There is a large bloc of people who will vote for the Republican candidate no matter what, and a similarly reliable Democratic bloc of roughly the same size. There is also a smaller group of voters who either do not have fixed opinions or are otherwise open to changing their vote.

To an extent, these latter people's votes (and thus elections themselves) are determined by chance (external events, campaign gaffes, etc).

So what conclusion would we draw about a coin that landed heads two or three times out of four flips (or about a sequence of two or three Democratic victories in the last four elections)? The answer, of course, is that we would draw no conclusions at all.

One reason we tend to draw far-reaching conclusions about elections is the charming superstition that significant events must be the consequence of significant events.

This psychological foible is illustrated by an experiment in which a group of subjects is told that a man parked his car on a hill. It then rolled into a fire hydrant. A second group is told that the car rolled into a pedestrian.

The members of the first group generally view the event as an accident; the members of the second generally hold the driver responsible. People are more likely to attribute an event to an agent than to chance if it has momentous or emotional implications. Likewise with elections.


“Philosophy is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat. Metaphysics is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there. Theology is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there and shouting ‘I found it!’” — Atheists of Silicon Valley. Inevitably, The Church of Euthanasia and Landover Baptist Church. Free deliverance at An appearance of the Holy Spirit at a Citgo station in Clarksville, Arkansas. Perhaps Ashtar Sheran has the answer. Christian gifts. A miracle arrangement consultancy. The Official God FAQ. Important information about Hell. Jesus revealed in the clouds.’s directory of personal Christian websites — see also The Jesus Picture. The Jesus Nebula. The Cavalcade of Bad Nativities. Jesus of the Week. Johnny the Baptist,