Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Thought Thinking Itself

As I have mentioned, I am taking a philosophy class this semester with my favoritest Philo professor. Right now, we're just wrapping up Aristotle's Physics, which is wonderful in its own right, but when paired with this particular professor (Artistotle is really her bailiwick), is also understandable and really exciting. Last week we talked about something that I just thought was so terrific that I want to share it here.

So, Aristotle has this idea about natural things all having potency and motion. This is like kinetic and potential energy in high school physics (yeah, Tahanto Physics Club REPRESENT). Potency is having the potential to do or become any number of things, and motion is...trickier. Aristotle has one of those intense philosophical definitions for it, but in plain English, it's what an object is doing when it's realizing a potency.

Now, time for Aristotle, is a property of motion. Time is simply what happens as a motion is going on. You can divide time into an endless series of "nows," but no matter how small you divide those nows - hours, minutes, seconds, nanoseconds - there still has to be a before and an after, which means time is eternal. It's always been going on, and it always will go on. Since time is based on motion, then motion must also be eternal, because you need something to mark time by. Plus, you need a physical thing to DO the moving, so material must be eternal also.

Now, motion is basically a long string of chain reactions...something moves, and moves other things in response. But Aristotle reasons that there must be an unmoved thing that moves all this other stuff. For Aristotle, the cosmos has Earth at its center, and radiating out from there are the elements, in this order: earth, water, air, fire. Then, you reach a band of "roaming stars," stars that move in several ways (i.e. in orbit, but also spinning, etc.), and then beyond those stars are fixed stars that stay put and don't bother anybody. All these things act on one another, moving each other around and moving other things in response, but there is something else, too. That something else is the concept of God.

So what is Aristotle's God? Well, he can't be physical, because if he was physical, then he would have motion, and if he had motion, he would also have potency. Potency is a state of incompletion - the object in question could be this or could be that - and if this God is incomplete, how can it be higher than any other common earthly object? Okay, so God is non-physical. Fine. Well, he also has to exist outside of time, because time is a property of motion, and non-physical things can't have motion because there's nothing TO move, so God is now a non-physical, timeless something. If he's not physical and he is timeless, he also can't move stuff, because motion creates other motion, and we've already talked about motion, so...he could think. But if he's non-physical and timeless, what is he, exactly? Basically, he is a thought, an idea. God, to Aristotle, is a thought, thinking itself, eternally and perfectly. His perfection is so complete that all the other objects in the world are inspired to move by it, and strive to be like him. That is what moves the universe...the stars, the elements, the earth, the rocks, the trees, you and I and all our families and friends and pets...all constantly inspired by the love of God and his perfection.

Moreover, since God is simply a thought thinking itself and generally being wonderful and simple, the closest we humans can come to God is to spend time thinking deeply, as you would when meditating. How fucking great is that?

The basic reality is that Aristotle's got some significant stuff wrong here...the Earth is not the center of the universe, there are no fixed stars, the elements do not get down the way he thought they did, and even if they did, not everything in the world is comprised of earth, air, water and fire (Captain Planet, however, is). Despite the inaccuracies, I still love the idea of Aristotle's God, apart from the unmoved mover business...a thought thinking itself. A thought thinking itself that is so beloved that everything is influenced by it and is motivated by it. This really taps into my own faith, where we believe that everyone has an Inner Light to guide them. God, for Quakers, is accessible to everyone, and we strive to tune in to that Divine guidance to live the best life possible. We spend Meeting quietly reflecting - thinking deeply - on God, and speaking only occasionally to move each other as best we can towards that ideal. I don't care if you did not have the benefit of modern technology, Aristotle, I still love you!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Lucy Has A Blog!

I know there are people reading along here who enjoy the Project Runway recaps, and if you are one of those people, you will be thrilled to discover that....THE LUCY HAS A BLOG!

It's called Scrittore Creativo and it is made out of awesome and puppies, so go check it out.

The Lucy at the Muppet Factory, and also one of the more fantastic pictures on the planet. Basically, the blog is made out of this.

Cannonball Read #7: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Travelling is tricky for me, because I need to strike the balance between bringing enough reading material to keep me entertained and choosing reading material that doesn't require a pallet jack to transport. Sometimes this means bringing eight small books, and sometimes it means bringing one or two industrial strength books. Luckily, this often means I snap and buy ponderous tomes that I spend whole minutes staring at in bookstores while arguing with myself about whether or not I'll actually read the whole book and if that means I am willing to accept carpal tunnel syndrome as a result. I bought the giant and wonderful Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, by Susannah Clarke in Rome when confronted with a dearth of books and an eight hour flight. When I was out in Washington for the Columbus Day weekend to visit my friend C and her family, I ripped through several books, then, because we're both readers, had The Historian pressed on me for the return trip (I still had some Nabokov and an Arkady Renko book to go through, but there's something about Russian writing that just does not jive with red-eye flights).

Oh mylanta, what a kickass book.

Part of what I liked about Strange & Norell was the intricate half-myth, half-historical world that it took place in, and there's a similarity there to The Historian. Kostova has produced an obseesively researched book, and skillfully weaves together history and the myth of Dracula, as well as a sweet look at a family thriving in spite of near-perpetual crisis. And by crisis, I mean "being chased by a centuries-old individual we all know and love as Dracula."

Let's be real about this: I love this in large part because I am an academic. This is an adventure driven by intelligence, one of those stories about defeating evil with sheer brainpower. The story goes as follows, with extremely minor spoilers. One night in a library, a grad student finds a book that's wholly blank except for a distinctive woodcut of a dragon and the word "Drakulya." He shows his advisor the weird little thing, and the advisor reacts dramatically...he, too, once found one of these books. The advisor presses the research he himself did on the provenance of his book, and less than an hour later, the advisor has disappeared. Driven now not only by the mystery of the book but also by the disappearance of his cherished advisor, the grad student begins research in true earnest. Along the way to Dracula, he eventually teams up with his advisor's bastard daughter, who is also an academic, and several other people, and his close circle of cohorts is constantly beseiged and threatened by the forces of darkness that unfortunately he is pursuing. Oops. The pursuit of Dracula takes them through Bulgaria, Romania, Istanbul, France and many other locations, and throughout this travel, they constantly run into dead ends and coded language.

That's about all I can tell you without getting too much into detail...the book has a wonderful way of continually folding over and weaving through itself, and I want you to go out and buy this book, so do yourself - and me - a favor and hie thee to thy nearest independent bookstore. The whole story is related by the grad student's daughter, who has in turn discovered her father's notes and notebooks, and winds up waist-deep in the journey.

Celia mentioned to me that the scariest parts of the book were the true ones, and I heartily concur. As I mentioned before, this book draws heavily on history, and Vlad the Impaler was a seriously horrifying individual. When we were in Volterra, Italy, Mom, Dad, Sarah and I went to a torture museum to pass some time...we thought this was a Special Volterra Thing, judging from the advertising we saw on the drive in, but then for the rest of the trip, we kept seeing torture museums everywhere. I wasn't aware of this being a big thing in Italy, but I assume that Franco had something to do with it. In any case, I often think about the moral value of being able to kill people from way far off, without having to look them in the eye, etc., etc., and it always seems so horrifically dispassionate to me, like it completely reduces casualties to numbers. That being said, some of the shit people have come up with to torture other people through history...Jesus. Great example, actually...when you're crucified, you suffocate. Did you know this? I did not. And now I can't un-know it. Same for any number of the things in that torture museum...I came out of there clenching parts of my body I didn't know I COULD clench. Same for some of Dracula's chosen methods...flaying alive, impaling, etc. I don't know if people just used to be way more fucked up or what, but good God, this shit is traumatic. There's not all that much in the way of super-gory detail, but some of these things are mentioned, and that's what made me need to read it with the lights on, just like Celia said she had.

642 pages

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wa Aleykum As-Salaam.

Last week, I flew with my Mom and Dad up to Burlington, VT, to see my friend Frankie and his team leader, Dr. Akbar Ahmed, talk about Islam in America. Islam and I are in the throes of a somewhat tumultuous relationship right now, so it was wonderful to hear some reasoned perspective on the topic.

First of all, the talk was at St. Michael's College, which I had never visited and found absolutely charming. I met Frankie at their lovely Hoehl Welcome Center, where they graciously invited my totally unexpected self to a pre-lecture dinner. The dinner was wonderful, and was spent in the company of the Still100% Made of Excellent Frankie and several members of the St. Michael's faculty, all of whom were wonderfully eloquent and completely fascinating. I also had the priviledge of meeting President John Neuhauser, who just oozed compassion and friendliness; I obviously know little about his policies and the like, but just from his demeanor, it seems that the students, staff and faculty in Burlington are lucky to have him. We then all went en masse to the lecture hall, where we watched a short piece of the documentary being filmed along the Journey to American trip, then listened to a lecture by Dr. Ahmed.

Throughout his lecture, Prof. Ahmed emphasized the importance of dialogue, something regular readers will recognize as a topic I routinely bitch about. What kills me is the state of discussion in the US and the world today...when we're not being so politically correct we can't even talk about the topic at hand, we're being such extremist ideologues we can't find any middle ground. All of this is exacerbated by the capitalist bent of the media, who - intelligently, since they have bills to pay - lead with whatever is scariest, bloodiest, or most radical, and have begun sacrificing accuracy for the sake of shock tactics that get people talking and tuning in. Once you can get rid of all these hangups, you usually find that people are reasonable and willing to actually talk, but sometimes people are simply too far gone to break down those barriers. When you've built up such intense ideological concepts, breaking them down can mean restructuring your whole worldview, and that's a horrifying thing to consider.

Plus...the world is big. I know this is kind of a No Shit statement, but it is, and it's impossible to have a truly in depth understanding of what's going on out there from watching CNN or Fox for half an hour a day. There are also a lot of people in the world, and it's impossible to hear all those voices without actively seeking them out. This is particularly present for me during this campaign season. People have been dancing around the race issue, and the conclusions that other people are drawing from that have been various and weird. A couple of my friends have expressed confusion over the talk about whether white people are saying they'll vote Obama, but will actually vote McCain. From where I stand, in a blue state up North in a patch of suburbia where my small-public-school self attends college and comes from a middle-class household with two Bachelor's degrees and a Master's, race doesn't seem like a huge issue to me. BUT, I know it is. Living in DC showed me that, and working grassroots and formal stuff with folks from red states showed me that. Sarah Bunting gave a GREAT example of this when she was talking about Barry Bonds a while back:
"...they both had some good insights into why players take steroids and how we should think about Bonds. Joe Morgan is not known for making any damn sense at all, much less putting a fine point on an issue, but when Costas asked, "Is this about race?", Morgan responded, "It's always about race." He didn't follow up on that comment, and I wish he had, because…well, I don't think our issues with Bonds have to do with race....But it always comes down to the fact that a white lady like myself doesn't have to give a shit about race, which is why I wish the panel had dealt with that question in more depth. I would like to think that Bonds's race is not in play here, and for me, it isn't — what's in play for me is stuff like Bonds showing up for the 2006 season grossly overweight (and then every story is about his shitty knees…hello?). But if Joe Morgan can talk about how racial issues feed into our perceptions of Bonds, I want to hear it. If Joe Morgan can speak to a double standard when it comes to how white athletes act versus black athletes, he should. If Joe Morgan feels that black players are expected to be "nicer" than white players so that everyone is okay with having them around, he should say that, because I think that, for some people, without their even knowing it, that is true."

This is kind of the crux of both US politics and the Islamic/Western relationship. There is too much to know, and too much to figure out, and oh PS, one half of that has some pretty significant religious stuff to wrap the Western, Judeo-Christian brain around. We don't really understand the foreign mindsets involved - and in the case of the West, sometimes we don't even understand our own - and we don't acknowledge that there are divisions within those mindsets. There is more in play than the Cliff Notes, and we haven't even all picked the CLIFF NOTES up yet.

Islam is complicated for the West right now. The very day that I went to Burlington to see Frankie, I had a stressful morning. In one of my classes (not my Terrorism class, which would seem the obvious choice, because...jihad), we were discussing how the easiest way to understand how your small-p-political environment shapes all aspects of your life is to go somewhere really different from your home country. My trip to Egypt in 2000 came up, and I was asked to explain the Egyptians. It eventually came around to religious influence, and I agreed that they were certainly not a secular society. About thirty seconds later, I was listening to the professor explain that when Egyptians have a religious issue, they have "no problem with killing a couple hundred people to resolve it." What...the hell. Would you take kamikaze pilots as representative of the entire Japanese culture? How about the Crusades as examples of all Christians? Hey, if we're talking about Christians, how about the whackjobs who kill abortion doctors? Do they represent Christianity? The thing one even batted an eye at that comment, and as someone later pointed out, in this post-9/11 universe, they probably didn't even see anything wrong with it, because we've been hearing, both sincerely and through clumsy language, that Muslims = jihadists. This is simply not so.

The problem, of course, is exactly that of the Crusaders and the kamikazes...they are parts of an enormous population. There are about 1.5 BILLION Muslims in the world, and I don't know about you, but I haven't had anyone come up to me all "so, are you a Muslim?" and then shank me when I say I'm not. Weird, since according to some, all Muslims are just roaming around waiting to kill non-Muslims. It does not help that I am in this Terrorism course right now, because as I have mentioned, all the books are called things like Future Jihad, and detail the horrors of the jihadist movements and the scariness of what's out there. And yeah, it is scary. These people are insane. But "these people" are also not "all Muslims." The truth of it is somewhere between the extremes of "Muslims are jihadists" and "Islam is a religion of peace."

The Koran is a giant, dense work, just as the Bible is. There's a lot going on there, and the Koran is also not supposed to be up to interpretation the way the Bible is...the Koran was supposedly handed to Mohammed from Allah himself. None of this "God told me and then I wrote it down" business...the Koran is the word of God, directly and specifically. Now, the worrying thing for me is what we were talking about yesterday in Terrorism class...the references that concern jihad are open-ended to a degree simply not found in the Bible OR in interpretations thereof, as seen in analyses of the Just War Theory. There's a lot of bad stuff in the Bible, as well, but it tends to be specific (as my Terrorism professor put it: "You don't read that today and say 'I'm gonna go find me an Ammonite to kill.'"). The dumbness found in the Bible is maybe best highlighted by the West Wing:

President Josiah Bartlet: ...I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I wanted to sell my youngest daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown Sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself? Or is it okay to call the police? Here’s one that’s really important, because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you?

I mean...all kinds of trouble in there. Stonings, slavery, dumb rules about textiles. That being said, when it gets right down to war, the Bible tends to include a specific target and a specific time frame - not that this makes war awesome or anything - while the Koran often does not, to wit: "...and kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers." That's all the time, everywhere, constantly...oh, and by the way, murder <>

So, there's scary, open ended call for jihad in the Koran. Okay. But just like not many Christians are strictly abiding by the rules laid down in Leviticus, not many Muslims are abiding by the more alarming passages in the Koran. In fact, Osama bin Laden and his ilk have made public statements about Muslims who are not fully following the rules of Islam, and have even begun killing Muslims who eschew the more violent requirements of the Koran. THESE TERRORIST LEADERS ARE NOT REPRESENTATIVE OF THE MUSLIM WORLD POPULATION. THEY ARE EVIL PEOPLE WHO HAPPEN TO BE MUSLIM.

So where do we end up?

I guess ideally we wind up in St. Michael's College lecture hall, listening to Dr. Ahmed tell us to talk and to listen to each other. We have to acknowledge that there are bad people out there, and that they can easily twist the documents of faith that we live by to perverted purposes. We have to acknowledge that the only way to defend against them is to be clear about why we are in the right, and to talk with each other so that we can one day shame and crush these vocal and violent minorities into nothing. But we can't do it the way things are going now. We can't do it with these pundits throwing horror stories at us and building walls of conjecture and extremism right through our common ground. We have to know what's out there, and find both the knights in shining armor AND the things that go bump in the night. We have to stop putting monetary gain above sociopolitical health and be realistic about the people and nations we deal with. We have to read each other's writings and listen to each others words.

And that will be a start.

Who Smells So Good? Hey...I Smell That Good!

Thank you, Burberry for a nice winter perfume that's not too dark or flat out depressing.
And thank you, Kitsap Navy Exchange, for helping me not pay $62 for it at Sephora!

And I guess thanks TSA for not stealing my shit on the way home.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Rock, Paper, Scissors, Shoe.

One of my professors is very into his ties. He often comes in and asks for feedback on the tie of the day, and has a couple that he has described as being "really too good to wear to class." Today he came in and asked what we thought of the tie, because he wasn't sure that it jived with the whole outfit (it did), but since his daughters picked the ensemble out, he couldn't change it. He then explained that the girls get to choose different aspects of his outfit, and that the method they use to resolve disputes is "rock, paper, scissors, shoe." Needless to say, someone asked how the last one worked, at which point the professor explained, "um...they kick each other. 'Rock beats scissors!' 'Shoe! *kicking motion*'"

This appears to be THE year for revamping my conflict resolution methodology. First, People's Court RAW comes into existance, allowing the petty bickerers of the world to squabble on the Internet about the dumbest shit imaginable while the delighted viewers of the world (read: me and that one nursing home with Internet access) vote on which petty bickerer is right. And now I am given the magnificence of Rock, Paper, Scissors, Shoe.
From this point forward, all my social interaction will be governed by the noble principles of Rock, Paper, Scissors, Shoe and People's Court Raw.

PS - I was catching up on my DVRed People's Court episodes (I am 100 years old), and the most awesome thing maybe ever happened. On Monday, an episode aired featuring a dispute about a car which the plaintiff was a girl I lived next door to when I was at AU! HOW INSANE IS THAT? Of course, I think I only saw her three times the whole year because a.) she never came out, starting a somewhat thrilling era during which we thought maybe her insane roommate had killed her and hidden the body and b.) I spent a lot of time hating living on an all-female floor and thus was distracted, but the one time I actually talked to her for an extended period of time, she was super nice, if a little quiet. Also, her skin looked amazing on the People's Court and I want to know her secrets.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ahh Decision Making By Committee

Thanks to the joys of Facebook/the internet/magic, I was able to put my head together with my bridesmaids in Washington state, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Norway to finally make a decision on bridesmaid dresses. I am aware that I am kind of crappy at being a bride because I don't really give a rip about the fouffy details and thus forget that others are interested in them, so I am sharing this little nugget of successful collaboration with you now. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cannonball Read #6: City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

There are four books that I have read so often that I have actually worn the bindings out to the point that they had to be replaced. Those books are:
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  • Four Letters of Love, Niall Williams (I killed TWO copies of this one.)
  • I'm a Stranger Here Myself, Bill Bryson
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a book that just felt amazing. Berendt created this stunning portrait of Savannah, awash in spanish moss and shadowed by stately homes, populated by eccentrics and intellectuals, and as you read, you could actually see what he was talking about and smell the Georgian air. The image of the American South has come to be wrapped up in a sort of cocoon of grossness - the stereotype of idiocy, the racist aspect of the whole Confederate Pride situation - but Midnight shucked off all of that discordant junk and held up to the light all the reasons that the South was and is worth fighting for. The characters in the book are wonderfully rendered, and all of them display in different ways that certain gentility that's so revered in the South, along with the sharp edges that make navigating Southern society such a trick. And of course, there is Savannah. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a love letter to the city, pure and simple, and anyone who has ever visited Savannah knows that it is completely justified. The book is a stunning rookie effort, and I've dragged my copies all over creation, unwilling to let them go.

Obviously, then, it was with high hopes that I started Berendt's second book, City of Falling Angels. I actually swiped it from my Dad, who has taken to buying interesting looking books in duplicate (and occasionally triplicate) with a mind towards sharing the love - friends and loved ones take note: this is my future - along with one of my next books, Grand Avenues (about city planning in DC). I was disappointed, but weirdly.

The writing is still stunning, and you couldn't ask for more in a scenic location than Venice. The characters are fully formed and fascinating as always...but in a way, that's sort of the problem. City of Falling Angels is probably excellent in its own right, but having read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, it seemed like a retread, and the story somewhat beyond the pale. There are a lot of fasincating people out there in the world, but it seems strange that John Berendt is ostensibly some kind of human magnet for the most interesting and unique people in ANY city. Let me see if I can explain this better.

Midnight in the Garden of Evil...Berendt decides to stay in Savannah after a chance visit, and while he is there, a notable society member is murdered. The city is pitched into an uproar as the victim's thorny personality and questionable relationships come to light, and all of this is surrounded by eccentrics and high society...a man who keeps flies tethered to his lapel, a transvestite who crashes a debutante ball, a woman who dresses all in green and rarely gets out of bed, a couple including a man who came from the North and never left, several society couples in fierce competition for societal dominance. Berendt winds up strangely wrapped up in the whole thing, attending glamorous parties thrown by all and sundry, and ingratiating himself into Savannah society as an observer.

City of Falling Angels...Berendt arrives in Venice hot on the heels of a fire that destroyed one of Venice's most famous and elegant theatres to find accusations of arson, wrongdoing, and corruption. All of this is surrounded by eccentrics and high society...a man who imitates various uniformed officials, Ezra Pound's mysterious mistress and her daughter, a woman who dresses all in white whose familial struggles threaten to destroy their stately mansion, a pair of UK ex-pats who came to Venice and never left, several society couples who constantly fight for societal dominance. Berendt winds up strangely wrapped up in the whole thing, attending glamorous parties thrown by all and sundry, and ingratiating himself into Venitian society as an observer.

Even from these brief synopses, you can see how similar the stories are, and you'll just have to take my word that they feel even more similar. It's not that the people aren't interesting or that they aren't's their parallel juxtaposition between the two books that makes them ring somewhat false. I also have a hard time believing that Berendt so easily ingratiates himself into rather high society with such ease, particularly in the case of societies that apparently (according to Berendt himself, which of course raises questions about the veracity of these statements) are quite insular and reluctant to admit outsiders. Look, I travel, and wherever I go, I have no problem meeting interesting people, but I also don't immediately get taken by the hand and hauled into insular society festivities, especially in areas where people who live in the cities all their lives are not admitted to the same degree. Berendt still describes himself as an outsider, but in both these books, he is embraced as a confidant and partner in crime. Really? That's how your travel goes, John Berendt? Hmm.

Bottom line is that both these books are worth your time. The writing is far above the average and the stories are engaging. That being said, I recommend picking one or the other (go by your level of interest in either Savannah or Venice) and forgetting the other exists.

Also, skip the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil movie. I love me some John Cusack but UGH what a mess. Actually, I retract that. Rent the movie, fast forward to the part where you see Chablis (you'll know what I mean if you read Midnight), drop jaw accordingly, and then take that sucker back to wherever you got it. She plays herself in the movie and it's cool as hell to see, since her character was so fascinating in the book.

398 pages

Cannonball Read #5: Parliament of Whores by PJ O'Rourke

This is another one of those books that's long overdue, though this is overdue in the Political Science department. Political science can get kind of depressing sometimes, what with the need to look at wars and fighting and dumb politicians and all that stuff, so sometimes it helps to have someone funny to lob some cherry bombs into the US political system's toilet bowl and then scamper off with to hang out under the bleachers in the gym and talk shit. This is that shit talking book.

Then you wind up talking about Nazis again. GO POLI SCI!!!

Parliament is a fairly brisk, informal read, but it's developed a certain cachet over the course of its publication. I generally get pissy when confronted with political comedic writing, because I frequently find it to be misinformed...I like my funny factual, thank you very much. (Yes, for those of you wondering, I DO gross myself out sometimes.) O'Rourke is a conservative, and enjoys swiping at the liberal side of the aisle, but he doesn't say much that any thinking liberal would admit. His most scathing jabs are directed at the Democrat party, which is appreciated and accurate...the sad part is that it's stuff I still bitch about now, and the book came out in 1991. The book is remarkably thorough despite its brevity, hitting all major branches and departments of government as well as a broad swath of Big Issues, gleefully pointing out the stupid running rampant throughout. The "hahaha...oh" moment comes in his reminders that it is the general public that tolerates and allows this kind of inspired lunacy from its political and governmental leadership (NANCY. HARRY. It's never a bad time for a swipe at Pelosi and Reid. HOWARD.), and that's kind of depressing, particularly under the light of this election.

I not only appreciate the reminder that the success or epic failure of the government depends on the citizenry's capacity for care, but I also like that he drops the point in at the very beginning and then not again until 223 pages later, when you've spent the past hours chuckling quietly to yourself about the dumbness of it all.

This may be somewhat dorky, but one of the more interesting aspects of the books was the little window into pre-hyper-political-correctness political discussion. Of course, O'Rourke is a comedian, and thus has no constituency to keep happy or client's reputation to keep unbesmirched, but some of his commentary would be somewhat startling even in casual conversation. The sad thing is that these surprising comments aren't untrue or even all that's just that we've neutered our political discourse to the point that even some aspects of reality have been placed off limits. Talking about the idiotic tendencies of either party and the vagaries of race's impact on our politics shouldn't be taboo, but it seems like all anyone wants to do today is pull punches and dance around these things like they don't matter. To my mind, that's the unhealthiest thing in politics.

233 pages

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cannonball Read #4: As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

There are a lot of books I simply have not gotten around to, and the worst parts of these books are the few pages at the back that list all the other books put out by the publisher. By the time I get to these pages, I always flip through them, and always get all depressed because there are now another 200 books I have to read before dying in order to be an accomplished human being, and then I get depressed in a happy way because I love to read even though there are a bazilliion books in the world that I want to read all the time.

Question: is there a job that will allow me to read all the time without particular direction, and yet still continue with my master plan of Fixing Politics and the World?

In any case, this is my first run in with Faulkner, and I have mixed feelings about it. The book is an account of a family taking their dead mother to the place where she wants to be buried, set in post-Civil War America. The story is told through short bursts of various vantage points, which I am of two minds about....I'll just admit now that I had a bit of a hard time reading this book. There is a generous handful of characters, and most of them share the same dialect and same kind of thought process, so it could be a little hard for me to keep track of who was talking at a given point. As a result, I often had to turn back to the start of the chapter to check the speaker's name; listing the speaker's name somewhere on the top of the page would have been helpful. That being said, the story itself is terrific and the writing is excellent. The imagery on both a broad and a minute scale is simply stunning. These aspects of the book are all the more impressive when you consider that he wrote this in one shot, without much editing or other general tinkering.

The story is in its simplest form about a family trying to do well by one of their family members in spite of their complicated relationship with her. To me, the family featured was of the type that usually gets all its rough edges buffed off before being committed to paper. It seems that the bookshelves of the world are full of two types of families - disgusting, warped, deeply fucked-up families who dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to abusing each other, or sickie-sweet, airbrushed dream families who do nothing but sit at home on weekend nights saying nice things about each other. The family in As I Lay Dying is just weird, but a normal kind of weird. They're not educated, and in the case of the children appear to have little but their own common sense to help them develop any kind of moral compass, and it's this latter quality that I find most interesting, because the results are so disparate between them. Cash, for instance, obsessively dedicates himself to perfecting his mother's coffin without considering the negative consequences of building it right outside her window. The others draw some guidance from religion and neighbors, but the common theme amongst them all is their rudderless development.

The most important thing about all of these people is that they do the best they can, no matter the circumstance, and no matter the nuttiness of their chosen path. At one point, Cash's leg gets broken, and they decide that to deal with that serious-due-to-lack-of-modernity problem by...setting it with CONCRETE. There are also numerous incidents where they encounter challenges posed by nature (since Murphy's Law basically stalks this crew around, there is a massive rainstorm and corresponding flooding as they start on their trip) and fail on an epic scale. Throughout the journey, the family's genuine attempts to adhere to the best moral code possible keeps them together, even though they often float over the trip with their own thoughts and considerations...their basic desire for goodness ties them together.

I do have one complaint, that being *SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER* the random meeting with Addie's mother after they finally reach their destination *END* at the end of the story. I often worry about missing nuance in great writers' works, and maybe I'm just being oblivious to some crazy full circle situation here, since Addie was the mother of the family and there was a frought relationship between the sides of the family (to say nothing of the state of things inside the nuclear family), but I just felt like it was a random, almost throwaway addition and did not care much for it. Maybe some Faulkner scholar can help me out here, but I didn't like the addition and thought it was incoherent.

288 pages

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

This Is Why.

I am going to vote for Barack Obama, even though he is not perfect.

This is why.

I agree with a lot of his policy. I disagree with a fair amount of it too. I'm a social liberal and an economic conservative, which can be paired effectively - this is a whole other essay - but the process requires some testicular fortitude that I am not sure the current political climate has. Obama's a touch liberal for me, but where he is more liberal than I would like, I feel that either he will be tempered (or blocked altogether) by Congress and the Supreme Court, or that the process of enacting the legislation will simply take too long to be realized.

I like that Obama thinks. This is also his greatest liability. In a recent class, we discussed the debate and Obama's remarkable EIGHT instances of saying something to the effect of "I agree with you, John." On the one hand, this is a horrid move for a Presidential candidate. On the other, wouldn't it be fantastic if politicians could fess up to that more often in the course of Congressional life? Productivity would shoot through the roof. I worry, though, that Obama's reasoned consideration of issues will make him seem weak, much as we saw with Jimmy Carter, who was often too busy overthinking issues to act in a timely manner.

On a similar note...I realize that no one has been talking about this, but the next President could potentially nominate four Supreme Court Justices. Obama taught Constitutional Law for 12 years. I know that people who aren't academics often have a hard time understanding how academics actually work, but you can't teach ConLaw without considering all angles and formulating your own reasoned opinions about what you think best suits the intent of the Constitution. It just doesn't work. I would like to think that Obama will bring a more considered, apolitical approach to Supreme Court nominations. While I'm not fool enough to think that politics won't factor in, but I do feel confident that Obama will come to the table with a better informed sensibility.

I appreciate Obama's willingness to go across the aisle and across borders to from policy. I hope that by example, he can remove some of the more vicious partisanship from US politics. There will always be partisanship, and that's not inherently bad. A lot of innovative policy and forward thinking has stemmed from partisan bickering, but the current version of partisanship is so extreme that the positive benefits have long since waned. I believe John McCain when he says he wants to collaborate with people regardless of political stripe, but his behavior over the past 8 years or so has painted a picture of a man lacking the patience and willingness to actually work through difficult issues and engage with opposing viewpoints. He's become noted for his quick temper and somewhat surly demeanor, and that's not what we need right now. We're in the shit, people. Clear communication and compromise are essential to getting out of it.

I have numerous concerns with McCain, and that's really kind of upsetting for me, because there was a time when I would have been delighted to have voted for him. Let's have it said...the man is a remarkable human being. He has done some straight-up AMAZING things in his life, and has been an agent of change in his career. That all being said, I believe that he has lost some of his confidence in his relationship with the electorate, and has reacted in a worrisome way. Over this period of decreasing confidence, he's begun to hew closer and closer to the Bush Administration's policies, even as the rest of the country has started to come around to see the failures of those same policies. Much of this newfound agreement is based in policy on the Iraq War, and I think that it's here that you find the biggest problem with the idea of a McCain Presidency.

To go to war and fight, you need to be assured of two things at an absolute minimum...that the battle is winnable, and that the fight is justified. It doesn't really matter HOW you come to these two conclusions, simply that you do. Our military academies and training facilities are built to help foster these attitudes, and the reason is simple...when your job is to kill people, directly or indirectly, you need to be able to sleep at night. You also need to be able to go all in, without feeling like maybe it's all an exercise in futility. McCain not only served this country admirably - holding out for the release of your comrades-in-arms when you're staring freedom in the face? - but has allowed his military accomplishments to play a pivotal role in his political life as well. The problem arises in the disparity between political and military approaches to war. Politicians and military liasons to the government need to go beyond the approach of the executive side of the military and consider things like exit strategy and development of war plans. Politics approaches war from a completely different standpoint than the military, and it rightfully should. Now, does this mean that politics should be engaged in warfare to the point of the shenanigans that have gone on throughout this particularly war? Hell to the no. But a President must be able to go beyond the mentality of the on-the-ground military and officers concerned with carrying out and directing the realization of military policy developed by the civilian military leadership. The President has be BE the civilian military leadership, and inject other non-military concerns into the discussion.

I find that as McCain loses his confidence in his ability to relate to the electorate, he's fallen back on what he knows is true and what he knows resonates with voters, and that truth for him is his service. He goes back to the mentalities so essential to active military personnel, and this is why he's made statements about staying in the war for a hundred years if that's what it takes. You'll notice that when he made that statement, he was speaking off the cuff, and edited his statements as soon as his campaign (or someone...I am reluctant to give the campaign credit since it's been SO poorly run) got ahold of him and had him scale it back. I don't have any inside track on this, but this is the impression I get of McCain, from his public statements and general behavior. Obama has no such interfering military mindset, but as an active member of the Senate, he has been involved and up to date on the conflict in Iraq from the word go, so he's not going in blind, either. If you don't understand how dangerous a mismanaged Iraq can be, you...need to stay home on November 4th. There is scary, scary shit out there, and an out-of-control Iraq will be like a black hole for the Arab World as a whole and more specifically for the ascendant jihadist terrorists. We cannot afford for this to go wrong.

Finally, somewhere, deep in the recesses of my heart, I am yearning for a President who can successfully use and pronounce words with more than three syllables. McCain is nowhere near the level of Bush's inarticulate babbling (though Palin certainly is), but there is a lyricism to Obama's speeches and statements that better befits the dignity the Office of the President is meant to hold. International relations cannot happen if there is no respect between the parties involved, and like it or not, love America or not, the world has been laughing at us for years at this point. With increasing globalization upon us, there is no room for isolationist policy anymore, and we can't afford a bad reputation. Our reputation is essential, arguably more so than any economic clout we have or any force of arms. I believe that Obama - reasoned, eloquent Obama - can restore that reputation to its former status, and I think it's absolutely essential that we start on that road now.

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