Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cannonball Read #32: Grand Avenues, by Scott W. Berg

I love well-researched historical works about how tweaky the people who put this country together were. These were men destined to be lionized, and of course they have been -again, they made a country from scratch in a way almost no other nation has had the opportunity to do - but I think it's a wonderful reminder that in the end, they were men. Brave men, rigorous men, brilliant men, but also flawed and confused men in an alien situation. I think it's a shame that we don't talk more about the humanity and the foibles of the Founding Fathers. To me, the idea that anyone can aspire to be as great as these people is nice, but it's even more wonderful that in this country, the common man can become the new generation of these great men through bravery, rigor and attentiveness. They weren't perfect, nor are the rest of us, and that's what makes achievement possible.

Grand Avenues is the story of one of these slightly whacked, incredibly dedicated and absolutely brilliant men, who is probably less well known to those living outside the Beltway. Peter - or Pierre, or some other random manifestation of the name he chose - L'Enfant appeared in Washington, DC ready to create the most glorious city the world had ever seen...starting with the streets. He envisioned city planning that would display the full weight of Washington's importance, with great rolling streets intersecting at circles holding monuments to American achievements. He brought with him visions of Paris and a wildly stubborn dedication to his dreams.

It's unusual to have a completely clean slate for these kinds of endeavors. In many of the large cities in America, particularly on the East Coast, you see the kind of deranged road design that can only be attributed to growing pains over a very long period - cow paths that became dirt roads that became paved streets that became that super weird side street that weaves in and out of the highways built decades later. The ten mile by ten mile expanse of farmland bought and designated for the Capitol, however, was so young by the time that L'Enfant appeared in town that he had a shot at that rare clean sheet to start with. In the end his work was wildly successful - not always easy to navigate, perhaps, but it produces a perfect blend of the avenues of the South and the efficiency of the North, all held together with the dynamic monuments that pepper the city.

When you go to DC, it can be hard to navigate, but that confusion is largely a product of modern demands on the infrastructure - motorcades, barriers, additions to L'Enfant's plan. The city is set out in a grid of numbered and alphabetical streets with the city quartered into northwest, southwest, northeast and southeast sections. Over all of this, Avenues named after States cut diagonally throughout (NB: New York Avenue is wherever you are when it's rush hour or after midnight and you want to be on Massachusetts Avenue. This is just fact.), and rotaries with statuary mark each intersection of these avenues. Once you get outside of the main grid, you can figure out how far you are by the number of syllables and alphabetical order in the street name, and occasionally by certain name clusters, like the use of tree names in Northwest. Sounds complicated, but once you're there it's remarkably simple. It's an intiutive system and gets you where you need to go. The greatest achievement of L'Enfant's is his ability to develop a system that would allow nearly unlimited growth in the area without cramping the streets.

I love the blend of politics and niche topic in this book. There's just enough of the day's politics on the fringes of the story to keep me interested, but the spotlight is on L'Enfant and the epic scale of the project he somehow managed to plan and execute in spite of a somewhat ornery personality and a bevy of quirks and odd habits. Really interesting guy, really interesting project, well researched and well presented.

282 pages

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Cannonball Read #31: Blinded by the Right, by David Brock

A while back, I posted a fairly broad post on some recent comments from Michael Steele, and amongst my other gripes with Steele's specific topic, I also mentioned that the GOP has deviated from its early-90s era strategy. Regardless of your political affiliation, it's easy to see the power of the Gingrich led strategy, which demanded that members of the party adhere to certain key principles in public discourse, leaving more individual initiatives for behind the scenes development. This presented a clear image of the party to the public and allowed the GOP to define their political agenda in a more coherent way than really had been done before in any party.

David Brock came to conservatism as this GOP revolution picked up speed. Having spent much of his formative political life either somewhat disconnected from the prevailing drift of his environment or immersed in the drippy hyperliberalism of certain sections of academia, conservatism seemed to be the answer to many political questions Brock wanted to answer. His fearless approach to political discourse and willingness to push the boundaries served him well, and he became a key party player. However, he eventually became uncomfortable with the GOPs direction through a series of events and a shift in tone, and fell away from the party somewhat dramatically.

This is an interesting look into modern party politics, consulting, lobbying and...politicking, really. You should check it out, because from the outside, it's very hard to understand how politics happens in this country. There are just so many moving parts; this allows people to see a little bit of how it all comes together. I think it's particularly helpful to see one individual's path from burgeoning political awareness to active participation in the system to the need for change once involved. It's very easy to discount political actors as being hopeless ideologues, but Brock's account of his political life shows that there is consideration and evolution in thought for many people in politics, particularly when a party undergoes a seismic shift. It will be interesting to see how the Republican party - and the Democrat party - changes in this new political landscape. I expect the combination of Michael Steele's leadership at the GOP and Obama's new vision of the Democrat party to be extremely interesting in the years to come.

I think Brock's story speaks to a very common modern dilemma - the tendency to inaccurately explain and understand conservatism and liberalism. I don't know that Brock is truly an ex-conservative. I think he's probably an ex-NeoCon or an ex-GOP-Member, but his values as he explains them still trend towards the conservative. The problem with aligning our political parties with longstanding political ideologies is that it eventually becomes impossible to separate the two Many of my friends who would rather wind up naked at a public, televised speaking event than call themselves liberals, but they cling tightly to a fairly large selection of classical liberal ideals. Same thing with liberal friends and conservatism. We're really at a strange point in political discourse and to a certain extent it does worry me - if we can't separate pop liberalism from classical liberalism, how can we hope to discuss either, much less contrast them?

352 pages

Makeup and The Stuff That Lurks in Your Sinuses

It's been a while since I have gone on about various stuff I have found that I like, so here's a little run down of recent things that rock my socks.

1. I made Dean's List for the second semester in a row, and this time I had been taking six classes. Having made the List again means I can once again take a sixth class for free. My reflexive response to this is to say "I am NEVER taking six classes again, that was like death," but I think a more accurate response would be "I am NEVER taking six classes, writing, working a day job, sitting as a Board Member on the Booster Club, planning a wedding, working out and taking voice lessons again." Luckily, I don't need to decide until the semester starts, so I'll at least get clear of the wedding and then figure out what I'm doing. Oh, did I mention I also need to take the GREs this summer?

2. Poor Cindy is going to be all "Oh my freaking God Josie please stop" because she is in that part of my life where there are a LOT of friend intersections, so she's heard me refer people to this thing about nine million times, BUT the thing is, she just doesn't understand the epic magic of the one, the only, the Neti Pot.
I had the sinus infection from hell a while back, and sometime in the middle of my pathetic suffering, The Lucy emailed me and was like "dude. Get a neti pot." I checked it out with Google Magic and immediately made fun of it, because it's basically a little teapot you use to run salt water through your sinuses while looking like an idiot. However, it is the absolute shit. As Luce explained, you get lots of junk out of your sinuses, which is not always gross, but it's there. I started using it on the heels of my sinus infection and it did a world of good in clearing out my breathing and getting me on track to singing again. I have been using it ever since, and I am never going back.

My allergies showed up this week, and the amount of junk I've been able to clean out with the neti pot in the morning has made such a huge difference. That's huge for me because I find I get used to allergy medication really quickly, so being able to take less of it is a huge benefit. I described the grossness level as being on par with a Biore's gross in kind of an amazing way. "That came out of WHERE?" I found my neti pot for about $15 at RiteAid.

3. A while back, I got an invite to this site called Ideeli and I have really been loving it. It's a members-only designer sale site, so every so often there's a selection of items from a designer on amazing markdown for a set period of time (a couple days). It's got a very cool choice of items and designers, and they have everything from home decor to jewelry to dresses to handbags to watches. I'm not really in a position right now to be spending a ton of money on designer gear and what have you, but I was able to buy these Marc Jacobs flats for $45, marked down from $160. Some of the deals are even more insane, but I thought the springy yellow color was just too fab to pass up. You need an invitation to sign up, so just shoot me an email if you'd like to give it a whirl...membership is free!

4. Lucy is a wonderful woman and I love her but seriously the wench needs to stop pointing me to glorious, glorious makeup. Her latest recommendation not related to nasal irrigation is The She Space, a shop full of fantastic mineral makeup. Lucy has been a long time Bare Escentuals advocate, but she says once she happened upon The She Space, she was hooked. The color is AMAZING...all of the colors are complex and somehow manage to be about nineteen colors at once. Still, they can be completely subtle or wild and dramatic. I ordered the following four colors and I love them:
I actually got a little out of control on a recent dinner date because I'd received the package the day before and couldn't resist doing some serious high art style eyeshadow. I can't really be trusted with makeup, let's have it said. Anyway, the site is a little ghetto but the makeup is phenomenal and you will not be sorry. It's a HUGE value for the price - how many people haven't made the Bare Escentuals leap because of the money factor? - and there are colors you won't find anywhere in a skin friendly mineral formula.

5. I love Lush's products. They're earth friendly but don't all smell like hemp and other unidentifiable but worrying organic things, and they do what they say they'll do. I really recommend their face and hair products. I use their Ocean Salt facial scrub and Porridge soap, and my face is so happy and glowy all the time. It prepares my skin perfectly for makeup and keeps it moisturized and fabulous. So here's what I got this time around (clockwise from top left): Sandstone soap, which advises me to "follow the Brazilians and exfoliate with sand," a Sicilian bath bomb, the Sweet Japanese Girl facial cleansing bar which is actually quite creepy looking (seriously, it looks like a face) but works wonderfully, Whoosh shower jelly which is really refreshing and adds an element of fun to the shower because it's basically soap in Jello Jiggler form, The Blonde solid shampoo (more on that in a moment) and two Stardust bath bombs which not only smell fabulous but are based on the fabulous Neil Gaiman book.

Lush's bath bombs are the shit. I know not everyone takes time to take a bath, but if you had these, you would. You toss one in the shower and is goes absolutely nuts with fizzing and wonderful smells. Find one you think smells good and give it a shot. I promise you'll thank me later.

Now, the shampoo. I have to admit that I have avoided Lush's solid shampoos because they seemed gimmicky, but they sent me a sample of this The Blonde one and I have to say that I am very impressed. It lathers up really well and gets your hair squeaky clean. I don't know that I'd get The Blonde again, because, you know, I'm a brunette, but I have certainly accepted that I should have trusted the geniuses at Lush and tried their solid shampoos sooner.

6. Sephora's did a big push for Givenchy's new Phenomen'Eyes mascara a little while ago, and I had resisted trying it...I mean, it looks like you're applying mascara with a teeny hedgehog, right?
Well, hedgehog or not, this stuff rocks. I have stubbornly un-curlable eyelashes...they'll curl for the 15 seconds following their release from an eyelash curler, and then promptly go stick-straight again. My hair does the same thing, incidentally. But with this stuff, it doesn't matter, because the mascara makes my eyelashes ten feet long and just curled enough. I don't know how. I assume magic is in play. But whatever the reason, it gets EVERY little tiny mini-lash and it rocks. The brush takes a little bit of getting used to, but once you figure out how to use it in a way that works for you, the payoff is huge. I personally look up and sort of pull my eyelid up from the orbital bone area, which gives me the most access to the lashes from underneath.

7. I was looking for a cute present for Mom for her birthday and came across Cynthia Vardhan Ceramics on Etsy. I bought Mom a seriously cute vase, but I also got this for myself:
Need I say more? Her worksmanship is phenomenal and she clearly has a wonderful feel for delicate pottery. I love the delicate striping and dots, and the funky ruffly saucer. Check her out, you're sure to find something you love! PS...Etsy is awesome, and if you want to be the Gift Master and always be that person with the perfect gift, make sure you go right over there and take advantage of the stunning artistic work these people do.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

No Time Like the Present: Barack Obama's Inauguration

About thirty seconds after the outcome of the 2008 Presidential election became clear, my friend, bridesmaid and former college roommate Ashley texted me and said "we're going, right?" Thus began a frantic run of organization in preparation for a trip to the Inauguration. I was to stay with Ashley's sister and generally have a glorious time. So on January 15th, I got in my car and headed south with my Obama Riding A Unicorn Shirt and some good sturdy boots.

Just as I got out of Connecticut, Ash texted me to tell me that she'd had a family emergency and the whole family - including Ashley and the sister we were going to stay with - were headed to where her parents were staying in Florida. My first thought was "oh, I'll just call that nice Courtyard Marriott in Dupont that I liked," followed closely by a realization of just how freaking nuts that idea was. I drove on to my planned visit with my sister in Philly, planning to regroup there. I had a great time with her and her friends, and while I was in Philadelphia, I got in touch with my Dad's business partner, Mary, who had an apartment in Arlington. I decided to stay over night with Sarah and get going again in the morning. This is how it went:
I keed, I keed. Well, it's how part of it went, but the other parts involved great hangout time with Sarah, a kicky haircut and a pedicure. Sarah lent me her GPS (thanks Sarie!) so I could redirect to Mary's and off I went. It took forever, frankly, and by the time I got to Arlington, I had to run back out the door to meet Avi, Shubes, Kiersten, Miguel and all the Sri Lankans at Old Glory in Georgetown to celebrate Avi's birthday. I did a lot of wandering and happy grinning in Georgetown before everyone got there, then had a total blast with everyone at Old Glory and then Mr. Smith's down the street.

I did a lot of wandering and people watching...I'm going to comment on things I found interesting, and you should assume that any time I wasn't doing something specific, I was just watching the humanity and taking all the pictures I should have taken when I lived there. Here's a selection of shots.

There was a lot of interesting "Welcome to Washington, Mr. President!" stuff around, like this Metro poster and this sign on the American Red Cross building downtown.
Also, lots of flags, like these on the Willard Intercontinental...I just loved how this looked!

On Saturday, I spent some hangout time on the Mall just absorbing the scenery and getting in some people watching. While I was skulking around the White House, Marine One came in.
I was standing near a very nice Parks Service dude who was keeping people out of a random patch of grass and I asked him if having Marine One fly over was still cool for him. He said it definitely was and then we had a nice conversation about how he's lived in DC for three years but he still makes a point of going past the White House every morning on his run just because he can and that's cool. I like talking to strangers when I'm on vacation.
This was the view looking away from where I was hanging out with my new Parks Service friend. There were lots of people milling around and exploring. I was very impressed with the crowd management throughout...there were a LOT of people in DC all weekend, and I didn't see one crowd freakout incident. There were lines, but even the lines weren't bad. Metro employees were helping at the farecard machines by watching for confused people and swooping in to assist them, or by helping them with what train they needed to catch to where. There were just enough police on hand to keep things in check and moving slowly, but not enough to quash the general good mood. Well done, DC!

On Saturday night, Kiersten, Shubin and I had the brilliant idea to go to Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street. Unfortunately, pretty much everyone else on the planet had the same idea. It was like a street fair down on U Street, and it was a complete blast. I particularly liked that exactly none of it made any sense. The one connective thread was Obama-thusiasm, but you had everything from seemingly homeless people skipping down the streets to people in full on fur coats walking along down the sidewalk. It was fucking cool. For those of you who may not be familiar, U Street has long been a cultural center for the black community in DC, so it wasn't a huge surprise that there would be such intense joy in the neighborhood. We wound up going to the Ulah Bistro, which I thought was called the Utah Bistro until literally about thirty seconds ago when I googled for a link to it. It was a wonderful surprise...the decor was comfy but chic, and we sat on the second floor, which had lovely big windows in it. I took the above picture out of one of said windows. The food was great, too.

The We Are One concert was the next day and I got down there early to peoplewatch some more and take pictures. One of my greatest regrets about this trip was that I didn't buy more offensively tacky junk. This day featured some of the most hardcore tackiness, thanks to the ever industrious street vendors. There were buttons the size of dinner plates, you guys. I am also confident that I can declare this the sparkliest Inauguration ever. Every other thing was covered in rhinestones or fake rhinestones or...some kind of sparkly glue. It was magnificent. So anyway, here are a lot of people, glistening in the sun outside of the Corcoran Gallery of Art on their way to the Mall (which you're looking towards in this picture).
I finally decided to take the plunge and head in to the viewing area, and when I got there, this is what it looked like.
Obviously, I can't see shit, but on the upside, I wound up in front of this trio of amazingly flametastic gay men, who reacted with outright glee to everyone who came on the stage and/or loudspeaker and to any mention of Obama. Now, because there were so many people and the program kept changing, there were no programs or anything, so everything that came on was a surprise. This was very exciting in the company of my cohorts. Whoever came out would either get trash-talked ("Look like Martin Luther King the third, fourth AND fifth, damn") or welcomed wholeheartedly ("OH MAH GOOOOOD I LOVE DENZEL!") and sometimes both trash-talked AND welcomed ("That outfit looks drug through hell backwards, but I love you anyway girl!"). The attendance was unbelievable and at one point one of my neighbors turned around and said "it's only Sunday, guys." True story...there were TONS of people and the ostensible big event hadn't even started.
I was between the Washington Monument grounds and the World War Two Memorial, which is about a third of a mile. From the Monument all the way to the Lincoln Memorial is about a mile, and it was completely packed, as you can see below.
Here's an interesting thing. I complain sometimes about how people up north here just aren't as well dressed as people were in DC (NB: This is separate from my "Americans do not dress as well as Europeans" issue.), but I guess I hadn't really actualized this knowledge. I have this houndstooth coat which sticks out like crazy up here, and I don't usually see people with similar outerwear. Apparently I'd been banking on this as a unique item a little too hard, because I kept explaining the whole "I will be the one in the houndstooth coat" concept to people and then finding myself surrounded by other houndstooth coat wearers. Damn you, DC, and your stylish inhabitants! Naturally, I wound up right next to one of them at the concert.
Her companion was apparently not that impressed by the proceedings. You can't please everyone.

I can't remember what day this was, but I'm pretty sure it was on Sunday. I was wandering around the Mall and was confronted with this as I tried to cross the street.

Anyone who saw that and thought "I'm trapped in a glass case of emotion," raise your hands. Thank you. Put 'em down. Just checking. Anyway, some nice gentleman who watches more (read: any) MSNBC than I do informed me that it was Andrea Mitchell in the glass case of emotion. I thought it was kind of a fun, if deranged and inconveniently located mobile studio project.

I managed to get the Inauguration Ticket Hook Up from Jim McGovern. His office called me the day before I left for DC to tell me the good news. The guy who called me asked if I could come down on Monday to the Cannon House Office Building, so I said sure, thinking that this was the day that disorganized losers like myself could come down and pick up tickets. I was wrong. Monday was when ANYONE who got a ticket from Congress came to pick them up. I had been thinking I'd be able to get out at Cap South (a block below Cannon), grab my ticket and then breeze on to my care-package-stuffing volunteer event at RFK. I was incorrect.

I resigned myself to walking around to the end of the line, but as luck would have it, I ran in to Jim outside, and he pulled me ahead of the line and into the HOB to get my ticket. He had been outside trying to find his people and ferry their tickets out to them. He is the best. For those that may be curious, this is what the tickets looked like.
This got me right up to the Capitol Reflecting Pool on the day. This was all I needed to bring with me. It travelled stuck in a copy of The Master and Margarita because like a crazy person I expected to read while I was waiting. More on that later.

Here's the formal invite, wherein we all pretend that the President, Vice President and the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies know who I am and want me to attend.

There were also two pictures, one of Obama and one of Biden. I didn't include those because you know what they look like, but I will note that there were signatures under each picture and those were very cool. I like Obama's because it's very loopy and I am weird.
Schedule of events...there were also preliminary things while we were all waiting, so every time there was noise, basically, we'd all start getting all "IS THAT ARETHA? I THINK IT'S ARETHA" because after a certain amount of time in the cold, it turns out you get a little loopy and weird and can start confusing childrens' choirs with Aretha Franklin?
Lincoln EVERYWHERE. Nice little story about Lincoln and why he was awesome.
Story continued...
...and finally complete.

On the actual day of, I got up at 3am. I called a taxi, then hopped in the shower...said taxi did not arrive until 4am, but once he was there, he was extremely helpful and managed to wheedle his way in a little closer than he was supposed to get to the Mall. I wound up getting about half a mile behind the Lincoln Memorial by 4:20 or so. By that time, people were streaming onto the Mall...not as in "there was this one other dude," but as in actual streams of people. I made my first set of Inauguration Buddies on the way in, and they were very impressed that I had come down by myself and was nuts enough to walk in the cold alone at 4am. We broke off just before the Washington Monument grounds, where I took this picture.

I walked up to the general vicinity of where the Silver Ticket Gates were supposed to be. There were so many damn people you really couldn't figure out who was in line and who wasn't. This is the only time I had an issue with crowd control...there were lots of out-of-state cops to help, but they didn't know much beyond "you can go in here but absolutely not there" so when I asked where the hell the line was, they had no idea and told me to find Secret Service and ask them. I will note that they were very courteous and it wasn't really their fault. One nice policewoman from Philly was VERY concerned about letting me go out into the main crowd on Independence Ave. (it was pretty insane), but she did in the end. Everyone was looking out for everyone else, even if no one knew what the hell was going on.

I finally just decided to head towards the line and see what happened. This was when I met up with Inauguration Buddies v2.0, Rhonda and Ebony. We jumped the line together and stuck together all the way through, finding stuff to stand on and kind of wiggling together to try and maintain some semblance of body heat. It was unbelievably cold. When I was walking, it was tolerable, but once you stopped it was just awful. Still, people took care of each other. Some people were sharing coffee or making coffee runs, and others were letting each other hop on their backs to get their feet off the ground. We found out fast that as cold as the air was, it was standing on the cold concrete that really did you in.

Finally, we saw a horde of TSA officials coming in to start security, which elicited a big cheer of the type you only get from really cold, really bored people. Once the line started moving, you basically walked up to the TSA people with your arms in the air, holding your ticket, and they patted you down as you passed through to...another area where you had to stand around for a while. There was a little bit of scary big crowd action at this point, because people REALLY wanted to get good vantage points. I could have picked my feet up off the ground at one point and still gotten wherever the crowd was going. Once we got to the Silver area, though, this is the sight that met us. Ebony, Rhonda and I went and sat under a tree. Somehow we figured out that the ground was warmer near the tree, so we parked there and refused to move.
In retrospect I'm not really sure how I came to this conclusion, but apparently I decided that the best possible way to dress for this event was to wrap my head like a particularly colorful HAMAS militant. I probably decided this around the same time I decided I'd be able to get in a little Bulgakov before the ceremony started.

After a while, people got antsy. At some point the plastic snow-fence-like-thing fell down, and this allowed us all to get right up to the Reflecting Pool. People were being kind of amazingly dumb about this, climbing on porta potties and onto the FROZEN POND and all this crazy shit. Good times. Rhonda, Ebony and I decided that we would take the path less crazy and stayed put. We spent some time dancing and goofing around, which helped us all stay warm(er).
Finally, the show started. There's nothing I can really say to explain why I cried so much or why I was so happy, or even how good it felt to be amidst so much positive energy. Most of the emotion had less to do with political affiliation and more to do with who we are as a country. I know there are some that would say how you feel about Obama's Inauguration is inextricably tied to politics, but I disagree. That we can peacefully change power in this country is so goddamn cool. That we've come far enough that color no longer bars you from the highest office in the land is goddamn cool.

I've said many times since I returned from DC that what I hope will come of this Presidency is a sort of contagion of happiness. While I was there, people were just straight up happy, not about Obama necessarily, but about the idea that we - not the government, not some external entity - can make our own differences and kick ass all on our own. But more than just feeling empowered, people were friendly. Riding the Metro, walking around downtown...people were talking to strangers, holding doors, complimenting each other on outfits, just being open and engaged with the community around them. It might sound hokey, but I think that kind of friendliness can be the start of a new era in American life, and one we desperately need. Friendliness doesn't need to be paired with oblivion or naivite and I don't think we can afford to go back to the blindness we had before September 11th, but being friends to one another is the start of a cooperative project to rebuild and strengthen America in a way that can endure and face the new world unafraid and with confidence.

Michael Steele and Why We Need the GOP Back

(NB: This is basically a cut and paste from my Facebook, but I think it's important and I haven't babbled on about politics for a while, so here it is.)

Justin linked me to this article about Michael Steele. Read it for yourself, it's short.

First of all - and forEVER - this is another problem of language. Having empathy does not mean "doing what everyone says, without contemplation." It has to do with understanding others' emotions and opinions, and I think any Supreme Court Justice should have that quality. There is precisely one solid and inarguable fact about the US Constitution - that it was created to govern and serve the citizens of the United States. The rest of it has been the source of endless debate since its adoption. To marry the Constitution with its primary purpose, a Supreme Court Justice need to be a wicked smart individual with a true sense of empathy. Steele either doesn't understand or is ignoring the fact that empathy means something completely different from what he's attacking.

Secondly, he's addressing the NRA. The NRA's wackier membership is maintained by fearmongering in the direction of the
Second Amendment, which I think is dishonest at best. For the NRA, the left is always trying to take their guns and in Obama's case, he apparently sat on a board that tried to lobby for a pretty outrageous gun ban. Now, regardless of this board membership - which frankly I discount because I don't know what his role was on the board nor how the corporation was structured - he's had a pretty middle of the road record on gun rights. A very small percentage of liberals actually want guns, period, banned...most people just want to make sure they're sold to people who can handle them and use them wisely. Steele is appealing to the typical, boring Lefty Gun Hate boogeyman that politicians have been waving in the NRA folks' faces for years.

Third, that memo about right wing extremists was some bush league, Bush-style horseshit and I don't really mind people saying it. That was a clear fuckup.

Fourth, that being said, I don't know what the hell restricting gun ownership has to do with
bringing Guantanamo detainees to US prisons or where the irony is. Both of these endeavors involve a noninterpretivist reading of the Constitution.

Finally, and I cannot say enough about this...Steele is an idiot. The GOP has fallen so far from the Republican revolution of '92, it's almost sad to see. They have allowed their party to be ... Read Moreinvaded by ideological zealots completely disconnected from prevailing public opinion and sometimes from reality. What the Republicans have done SO WELL in the recent past is to choose a select few opinions that You, A Republican must toe the line one, producing a unified front in which they could consolidate power. I think that the GOP realized that their previous strength had become a liability once it failed to adapt to the shifting political landscape, and they kind of freaked out. They then lunged towards a sort of pop neo-conism, which lead them to put people like Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber at the fore of their public image, when their greatest assets ARE people like John McCain, who are able to hold fast to their beliefs while still compromising and working effectively where necessary. It's a little depressing...the GOP's willingness to let Rush Limbaugh be any kind of mouthpiece for them is just ridiculous. Yeah, he's got a huge audience, but he's simply an angry, ... Read Morevitriolic jerk with a huge hypocrisy problem. That's not the way to get back in black. It's this kind of panicky rush to regain footing in the new, modern politics that has lead to the appointment of Steele, and it's a huge mistake. Particularly when contrasted with Obama, he comes off as a vaguely goofy, inept Johnny-Come-Lately who's trying to be hipper than he is.

I believe part of what keeps our politics vibrant - and what will save it from the hot mess that it currently is - is the two party system, so I do hope the GOP can get back to basics and fix these weaknesses, but Steele is not the man to do it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #30: Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt wrote what is pretty well accepted as the most soul-crushing and most uplifting book in the history of life when he published Angela's Ashes. For those who haven't read it, it's an account of his completely gut-wrenching childhood in Ireland and let me tell is crushing. McCourt's childhood is the kind of stuff very few make it out of.

This is not Angela's Ashes. It's a solid book, but it doesn't reach the heights of his previous work. He has gotten free of his hellish upbringing and is beginning to strike out towards a new life in America. Obviously, his childhood still resonates through his adult life, but there is a different tone to this story of McCourt's life teaching in New York.

Frank McCourt is clearly the teacher that you remember on your wedding day and your graduation and the days your children are born. He doesn't just teach a subject, he teaches you about how life is and should be. He clearly understands that his teaching methods are unconventional (and largely improvised) but it's equally clear that he is able to connect with a huge variety of kids, which is extremely difficult. He tells stories of his children in Teacher Man and these stories let you in on how many different people he was able to reach, even if he chooses those stories because they resonated with HIM.

When I was reading this book, I was strongly reminded of a professor who I have taken several courses with at Assumption. I love all of my professors in the political science department, but there are two who stand out as polarizing characters. One is a taskmaster - he expects you to show up with your shit in order, papers produced with perfect grammar, and produces blue-book exams that strike fear in to the hearts of the bravest political science wonks. The other is a somewhat looser individual - I have yet to write a paper longer than 2 pages for him (font size your choice) and his finals are always optional. The latter professor is somewhat confounding - I once informed him that I thought he was great when I didn't want to slap him in the head - but once you figure out the differences between the two it becomes clear. Professor Number One is there to relay the wisdom of the ages, to forcefeed you information that he believes vitally important to your life. Professor Number Two wants to teach you how life works so you can figure out the important stuff yourself, and most of all to always question what's presented to you. They're both wonderful teachers, from different points. My collegiate life wouldn't be the same without them.

This is a brilliant book for reminding you of the best teachers you've ever had. It's a spectacular book for future teachers - it reminds you that it's not all nobility and praise from thankful parents. McCourt reminds you that it's a tough slog to teaching, and that even once you get there, it's tough work for a very small percentage of reward.

272 pages

Friday, May 8, 2009

How Not To Study

Dear Guy Sitting in Charlie's Laughing His Ass Off at Some Movie Amidst People Doing Nothign but Studying, Who Has a Star Wars Ringtone and Yesterday Explained to Our Study Group that One of the Problems with British Civic Nationalism Was that "They Keep Invading My Country,"

Stop that.



Monday, May 4, 2009

Over Hill and Veil

On my Mom's side of the family, there is a family veil. You would think that this would be something people would want to keep fairly close track of, but apparently, you would be wrong. The various matriarchs of the family have been looking for it amongst the most recently married Gustafson women, but so far no luck, so I called my grandmother on my DAD'S side to see if she could help with the "something old" factor. Grandma Brown has an epic historical fashion collection, which she lends out to museums and exhibits and colleges and travels all over the place talking about, so I thought she might have something that fit the bill.

Grandma has mastered exactly one piece of technology from the modern age and that piece of technology is the fax machine, so I got a fax with several pictures of a beautiful veil with some gorgeous floral embroidery on the edges. When it's not on grainy fax paper, this is what it looks like.
Totally love it. I was planning in the absence of the family veil to wear a birdcage veil, but I love the look of this one and think it's just perfect for an outdoor wedding. For those who don't know, this is the style of dress I'm wearing (don't worry, I already showed Rich this picture, he's safe):
Had my first fitting on Wednesday and it was sooooooo easy, which seriously thank god because we all know I don't deal with the aggravation of these things well. Just needed it bustled and the straps adjusted so they didn't stick out like mutant wings.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Cannonball Read #29: The Future of Freedom, by Fareed Zakaria

Before we begin, I would like to have a brief word with the publishers of books about freedom, liberty, and other such thrilling concepts in political science.

Seriously, you guys, if you do not stop slapping Delacroix's "La Liberté Guidant le Peuple (Liberty Leading the People)" over every goddamn cover of every book that even tangentially references the concept of freedom, I am going to come to your offices and whomp you to death with the heaviest of the nine thousand books I now own with the work on the cover. I had two books assigned with good ole France leading the way on the cover this semester alone. I am sick of it. DELACROIX is sick of it, and he's dead. Expand your horizons and find some other freaking art to put on your books. Thank you.

All right, with that aside (and I am not even kidding a little bit about the frequency of that painting's use), I'd like to call Fareed Zakaria's fence-sitting ass out. I know he's a super nice guy and he's a huge boon for CNN and media in general because he's an articulate Indian dude, but I insist that we stop looking at him as a political theorist rather than a really good researcher. He just will NOT take a stand on anything, and this drives me nuts. I went to see him speak alongside the excellent Niall Ferguson at Harvard last year when his latest exercise in noncommittal writing, The Post-America World came out and it's the same shit in person. While it's interesting to see the desire to sell books fight with an absolute lack of innovative angle. That book was about how various foreign entities were outstripping America in various social and economic arenas.

POP QUIZ! Name three of the countries Zakaria was talking about in that book. Don't use the Internet, just write down three random countries that are outpacing the US in...let's say technology, just to keep it narrow.

Did that take you more than 30 seconds?

When questioned about whether or not this meant that America was going to fall off the Superpower pedestal, suffer a drastic fall economically or lose the ability to compete, Zakaria dropped back ten and punted. I remember this because it was the exact point where my brain went "why aren't we somewhere else, drinking gin?" Zakaria proceeded to explain that the actual freaking title of his book didn't fortell any doom for America (...The Post-America World? No way for that to be interpreted as doom-y, eh?) but rather that the book gave a thorough accounting of various nations whipping our asses economically, which may or may not have any kind of effect on the US's stature in the world.

In any case, The Future of Freedom can be summed up thus: "Liberal democracy is good, but you can't force it on people, because that tends to be when the machetes come out."

I don't mean to say that Zakaria is a useless jerk who deserves to be drawn and quartered in the public square. He's a very intelligent man who excels at making political history accessible to the layperson. However, the portrayal of his works as political theory is dangerously misguided, because it promotes the kind of stagnation that cripples discourse and keeps us all bickering about minutae when we should be acting. Were his thoughts promoted as historical or analytical works, it wouldn't bother me so much, but as it is, I feel like he feeds into the laissez-faire observer culture that seems to be developing. It's fine to comment on history! It's actually IMPORTANT to reflect on the history of politics! But to do so and call it something else is a mistake.

The key concept here is that liberal democracy may not be an assumed universal end a la Francis Fukuyama's The End of History, but rather that there's a lot that goes into making a stable, solid liberal democracy. If the creation process doesn't check off all of its necessary items, you run the risk of developing a very fighty, unstable nation instead. This also means that you can't export democracy. I doubt any modern person who's been awake during the past couple years needs much explanation on this point; our foray into Iraq without considering that perhaps a tribal culture used to conflict between all sizes of groups might not have the right mindset for American democracy is a pretty clear example. This is not to say Iraq can and will never be a democracy, merely that our political planning missed this crucial point and the result backs up what Zakaria's saying.

This is worth reading, I just wasn't that satisfied by it. I also cannot stand the disparity between Zakaria's grand titles and the relatively innocuous material between the pages.

304 pages