Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #36: The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker

When I was learning how to drive, my Dad very nearly convinced me to just ride a bike for the rest of my life, because he was very intent on the Figure It Out For Yourself concept. This meant, amongst other things, trying to parallel park in downtown Worcester, failing, breaking out into panicky tears because I thought I was going to get hit by another car and die, and having my Dad sitting there going "just think about it, and you'll figure it out." This, somehow, was not that reassuring.

I did not die (surprise!) and now I can parallel park anywhere.

Gavin de Becker and my Dad would totally hang out and infuriate much of the world, but in the end, they would be wildly helpful and everyone would be able to appraise their fear and act on it effectively (and parallel park). De Becker's book, The Gift of Fear, banks on the idea that nature has given us everything we need to understand when we are in danger and how to act on it. I would like to admit here that I am fully in the "we are getting a very long way from nature and that is not great" camp, because it does make a difference in how I perceive the book. Humans didn't always live amongst cars and computers and phones, but we have always lived around other living things and hazards. Early on we evolved ways to cope with these hazards and other living creatures, evidenced by our, you know, being here. However, as we've progressed as a species, we've put more and more complications in our way, and begun to rely on reason more frequently.

All of us have done two things in our lives. First, we've gotten a bad, often scary feeling suddenly and for no immediately apparent reason. Second, we've talked ourselves out of a situation only to have it work out exactly how we KNEW it would. It's upon these two common events that de Becker bases his book and his life's work. He is in the business of threat assessment, taking him deep into the creepiest back rooms of the human psyche. In the book, he gives us a lot of advice on how to appraise situations and people, complete with helpful mnemonics and explanations, but I think the most essential part of what he's telling us is that we know this stuff already. There are several scenarios in the book that demonstrate this, and what makes them so powerful is their relatablity. He talks about those people who are a liiiiiiittle too helpful, the pushy ones who intrude on your personal space, the tiny outliers in typical behavior that set up the red flags. We have to relearn the messages that these signals are relaying to us, and being able to weigh those signals appropriately will save us worry about unnecessary junk and allow us to focus on true fear, which signals the need for action.

There is some really fascinating stuff in here. You can certainly fall victim to reading into his advice a bit further than you need to, but on the balance, I think de Becker has put together a really invaluable manual for appraising fear in a way that can relieve the aimless anxiety so many of us suffer from.

334 pages

Cannonball Read #35: Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

I have an old school copy of this thing. It's printed on what I suspect is Bible paper and is in like...size 2 font, and I have carpal tunnel now, but you know what, that is okay. I swiped this book from my parents' house several years back because I had heard about Ayn Rand and it seemed like A Book I Should Read. I promptly put it on my bookshelf for the better part of five years, until I was shopping on Shabby Apple and saw that they had a dress called Dagny Taggart, which needless to say I thought was a pairing of made up words. I thought the dresses were cute, so I linked Ashley to them because our friendship is based on enabling, at which point she got ALL excited and told me all about how I have to read Atlas Shrugged because I am Dagny Taggart and BOY HOWDY it's a super good book. So much of my life progresses because of shopping. It's odd, really.

In any case, I'm not really sure whether I should be offended or flattered by Ash's comparison to Dagny, because this book is a hell of a lot to digest. What I appreciate is that Rand manages to highlight the failures of both extremes of the capitalism/socialism debate. Her brother is a weak, inept man crippled by his constant bowing to the imagined greater good, while many of her corporate allies are completely apathetic to their "fellow man," giving themselves over wholly to the idea of the Rockefeller quote about his God-given right to make money, and to make more money, and to spend it as he sees fit. Dagny is torn between these extremes; she prioritizes her business above almost everything else in her life - in several scenes her expressions of humanity are presented as huge surprises to those around her - but she also has clear sympathy and concern for certain people along the way. She faces constant challenges to her business-centric attitude, but exercises Rand's objectivist philosophy along the way to hopefully come out on top.

I find this particularly relevant today...our political discourse seems to swing between people saying we should drop everyone's ass in the mud, and people who want to put everyone under the government's wing. There is middle ground, but it's being ignored by the Debate Makers of America, and that is a damn shame, because it's the only way to sensibly patch some of our current problems up (to say nothing of the fact that 95% of America falls in neither camp). Rand wants us to pursue our own happiness regardless of anything else, and to have a government that only defends our right to do so. I'm not totally on board with this, primarily because I think we do have a human obligation to ensure that our fellow man is not starving to death, freezing in winter, dying unnecessarily. We should make sure that there is a basic standard of existance; not a posh house with a yard and everyone driving a Porsche and getting free money every month, but a system ensuring that you have a fair shot at maximizing your own potential. We can't make up for natural, in-born inadequacies. However, if we make sure that people can get an education (an education, not babysitting services) and a basic ability to sustain their lives, that maximizes everyone's potential to follow their own happiness. If we maintain a baseline standard of living - a low one, not a free ticket - then we won't have to pay for things like lifetimes on welfare or skyrocketing healthcare for the uninsured or the general bullshit of dragging along people who exist on social services without ever lifting a finger to help themselves.

I think much of America's recent problems have come from a lack of courage in our convictions. We're capitalist, right? Capitalism rewards those who make a valuable, solid product (or at least who can sell it as such). This means that there is naturally an inferior product behind the leader. This is why I hate those GM commericals so much...don't spend your fucking ill-gotten gains on telling me how Totally Freaking Sweet the new GM is, how about making a better fucking product? Invest in your damn R&D and perhaps in asking people what they actually want to drive periodically. Notice what the Japanese carmakers did? People wanted to blow less on their gas, so the Japanese companies made smaller cars that were more efficient. American automakers made SUVs. What the hell? Let those companies die that can't survive. Instead, we've obligated ourselves to keeping these people on corporate welfare. They're going to die someday, guys. They haven't changed their business plan, they just upped their advertising budget. We can either blow a ton of money on prolonging the process, or we can let them fail, deal with the relatively short period of suck, and then rebuild something with the information we learned. I don't know about you all, but I'd rather just let them fail so someone who makes something useful that works can take the new place on top. If we believe in capitalism, we need to let it work. I believe in true capitalism. I think the problem is when we freak out and interfere with its natural progession. Make decisions and stick with them.

So, okay, it's a decent book. It's not the best written - it's pretty good, but it has a couple of my least favorite quirks, including some long ass speechifying (and from someone who just unleased a babble about Japanese and American car companies in a book review, I think you can figure out the level of speechifying we're dealing with here) and repetitive description - but it WILL make you think, and I think it directs your thoughts towards particularly relevant matters for this moment in history. However, get a newer version that has font bigger than "fine print usually reserved for legalese." And a wrist support.

1088 pages

Cannonball Read #34: The Culture of Fashion, by Christopher Breward

I have mentioned Harvey Mansfield a couple times in this space, particularly his essays on formalism, which as we know, Americans tend to hate with a burning passion. He explains that rather than being a cover up of some kind as we often think, our fashion highlights what we feel is important. Think about when you dress up...several events will be immediately clear - weddings, graduations, birthdays, Big Life Events. But even when you're getting dressed for a Friday night out, you pay attention to what you're wearing. You know that you're headed out into the world, where most of the people there are not likely to know you, so you dress in a way that projects what you'd like people to know about you. This same idea carries over into your facial expressions, gait, posture,'s all in the service of showing people how you feel about yourself.

Christopher Breward is an English fashion historian, and in this fairly slim book, he rips through about 600 years of fashion. He follows changing silhouettes, fabrics, aesthetics and trends, winding a thread through it all and landing us in modern times (in context, the 1990s). Of particular interest is his focus on men's clothing and on the recycling of forms and trends. As with so many other areas of our lives - art, music, literature - there is little that is truly new. The arts come from and connect with a certain basic humanity and from there it's mostly a matter of interpretation. Though the big design houses and labels would have you believe otherwise, fashion is one of the few arts left mostly to the layperson; though the runways of Milan and New York may purport to lead the way, it's the kids in the streets and the women sick of the same shapes and the men tired of the same damn tie that revolutionize fashion and keep it in perpetual motion.

Breward's book is truly a history and he doesn't address a lot of this more philosophical discussion, but if one is invested with a decent grasp of world history, it's easy to line up sea changes in fashion with major historical events and political shifts. I find it interesting to see how dramatically fashion has shifted while still remaining somewhat the same, but for me this book is more of a platform from which to consider some of these larger issues. If you need evidence that we use fashion to project political and social images, one need look no further than the American 60s, but you can also turn on the TV and watch the way Iranians have chosen to express their dawning political dissent - by protesting yes, but also by tying green bands around their arms and heads. This is fashion in its roughest form, but it is essential to our understanding of how image, clothing and presentation affect the way we approach the world.

Not a bad book, not a complete book, but worth your time and a fun way to kill a few hours.

244 pages

Cannonball Read #33: The Golden Compass, by Phillip Pullman

I don't really think of myself as a big fan of fantasy writing. I originally started out saying I am not a fan, period, but I think it's more of a ratio problem; in fantasy writing and romance novels there seems to be an abundance of godawful tripe. My best guess is that works based on events, time periods, etc., are beginning with a story interesting enough to make at least one person write about it, so the key is making it accessible and presenting it beautifully. Fantasy novels in particular often involve whole new worlds, so you're doubling your challenge - you have to make a coherent, well ordered world, social structure, etc., and THEN create a compelling story inside of whatever you've built.

The Golden Compass is a great read, and I like it so much because its universe is a sort of pivot table linked to our own. Much like the Harry Potter series, it simply puts a mystical overlay on our everyday environment, and this allows you to get into the world of the book quickly and thoroughly. You can easily picture the characters' surroundings and understand their social behaviors. The use of this tactic made it very easy for me to get right over my normal hangups about fantasy writing and into the story.

Lyra is the heroine of the book and is just as relatable as the know this kid. She's smart, feisty, stubborn and curious, and she finds herself at the center of a huge mystery that reaches far beyond her locale. In pursuit of the meaning of "Dust," a strange substance swirling around and particularly visible near the Aurora Borealis, there is all kinds of academic research and squabbling, some of which is a set of very scary experiments which separate children from their daemons (Pullman's literal interpretation of the soul). These daemons are humans' companions and compatriots, capable of real action but always tied to their human's thoughts and physical bodies. Children's daemons can change shape, but at a certain point, everyone's daemon loses this ability and assumes a permanent form. The academics and thugs engaged in these experiments think that this shapeshifting ability might have something to do with Dust.

Lyra teams up with a motley crew as she travels north to the site of these experiments. Along the way, she is menaced by various insidious characters and must face some troubling realities about what she thought she knew. Guided by the alethiometer - the golden compass of the title - she is able to see not just the future but the present. Her ability to do so hints at her personal significance, which does not escape the notice of her fellow travellers or their allies abroad.

You can't really talk about this book without mentioning the CS Lewis connection and the atheist angle. I think the greatest tribute you can pay to this book is to say that the atheist bent is certainly there, but that the story stands on its own as an enjoyable, well wrought piece of fiction. You can say the same about the Narnia books...I loved those books when I was growing up, and didn't know or care about the Christian message therein until I was much older. I should note, too, that I don't find the atheist bent nearly as strong nor as offensive as many critics have. That can probably be chalked up to a certain kind of religious person who is constantly looking for affronts to their faith (Secret: Your faith is your faith. If someone else doesn't believe the same thing, that does not hurt you.). That all being said, there are many supplementary books that have sprung up around The Golden Compass and the rest of the series, analysing the philosophy and religion of the books, and I plan to check them out. Pullman has produced an entertaining book that nonetheless is both broad and deep, and I'd be interested in exploring it further.

399 pages

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Housekeeping Notes: Hockey Season

Hey all,

I'm adding three links to the already ridiculous blogroll over there on the right. Hockey's over - go Pens - but this has been a phenomenal season for a variety of reasons. Let's just do a little recap.

1. Got to hit up the Sharks/Bruins game when San Jose came out to Boston this season. You don't get to see the Sharks and B's play very often since they're so far apart, and this game was even more exciting because at the time, the two opponents were number one in their respective conferences. We put up with a lot of trash talk from bandwagon fans, but were vindicated in a.) the fact that the Sharks beat the Bruins, and b.) the spectacle of a cop basically hurling one of said idiot fans into a wall for being obnoxious and bellowing "get outta here, go HOME" at him.
2. We also made it up to Montreal this year to see the Sharks play the Habs. There is nothing - NOTHING - like watching a game in the Bell Center, and being there in the Habs' 100th season was truly special. We had such an amazing time in Montreal...thumbs up for Hurley's, Sir Winston Churchill's, McLean's Pub, The Second Cup, Timmy Ho's, La Cage Aux Sports, La Maison VIP, McDonald's when McDonald's is giving out mini Carey Prices, crazy ass taxi drivers of Montreal and above all, Spa Eastman. I go to Spa Eastman whenever we go up north and they do such amazing work. Not only are their aestheticians phenomenal, but their location is on the sixteenth floor looking out over McGill University and is so unbelievably relaxing. Moreover, I was up there with Rich and a kickass woman I'm gonna talk to you about in a sec.3. The AHL All Star Classic was in Worcester this year.After a ton of work and coordination, the weekend finally rolled around about thirty seconds after I'd returned from the Inaguration in DC. We made a lot of new friends, particularly as we were picking the players, executives and mascots up at the area airports.Making important business contacts
It was a spectacular event brilliantly executed. The hockey season brings its stresses, but at the end of the day, we all know that the folks in the front office of the Worcester Sharks are super goddamn talented. It was a real treat to see that become apparent to the entire AHL. They had a great party after the Skills Competition at beautiful Mechanics Hall, which featured U2 cover band Joshua Tree and the NHL Skills Comp on the giant screen.Now, I don't mean to malign any of the people we picked up at the airport - they were all super friendly and fun to meet - but Rich and I got an even more exciting opportunity. We went to pick up the Stanley Cup and its escort, Mike Bolt, from Logan Airport.Saw Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard in bag claim along with San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson in bag claim; the Cup was coming back from the NHL All Star Classic in Montreal, so all these folks were coming from the same place.Here we are with the Stanley Cup in the back of the truck. Mike was a really interesting guy, even though he was completely exhausted. We can put the rumors that the Cup travels in its own seat to rest - it gets checked in a giant toughcase. I'm a little sad that all the pictures of me with the cup feature the most cracked out hair I've sported in the history of ever, but the fact remains that I'm right there with the Cup and that is the shit.
I loved the practice jerseys they worked up for the All Star season and of course I got Patrick Traverse's. Our friend and community liason dude Mike Myers designed that kickass logo - how cool is that? He is so talented. Besides doing a million things in the Sharks' front office, he also designs these freaking glorious goalie masks and bikes competitively. I don't think he sleeps. In any case, let's talk about the awesomeness on the loose that weekend, in the form of these fine bitches right here:That would be me, Trish (a school friend of whose awesomeness I was already aware) and Joanne. Rich kept running in to these two chicks from San Jose, and we finally all met up before the All Star Game itself at the hospitality room the Booster Club was running. Jenna and Joanne were out to cover the ASC for the San Jose community, and they were so goddamn fun it was hard to stand. Joanne might be my long lost sister, I'm not sure. So you've now got these two gorgeous babes on the loose, and even better, they're smart as hell and love hockey. They really made the weekend.

The additions I'm making to the blog roll are their blogs, plus a friend of theirs' who Joanne recommended. Joanne writes Ten Minute Missconduct and Jenna writes OverJennaRated. Check 'em out and give 'em some love.

Family Always Wins, Even When Things Are Great Already

Went in to work today, and it was hectic. We're moving around one section of the building and since I'm in facilities I get to be involved with all the organizing and shuffling. I love where I work, and even though it was chaotic, it was nice to be able to help the people I work with and be in the middle of everything. No one will be surprised to hear me say that a certain part of me loves a little bit of mayhem and thrives on it. Fun day, changed outfits in the bathroom like the classy babe I am and left a little early.

I went from work to a Jim McGovern fundraiser where Bill Clinton was speaking. I would actually stab someone to write for him. He has such wonderful wit and a fantastic ability to get intimate with his audience in a very short amount of time. I had a total blast.

Left the fundraiser to go to Michael's to watch game 7. Last year's Penguin loss in the final was heartbreaking; it's always tough to see grown men cry, but these guys didn't even seem like grown men. They'd wanted it so, so badly. Watching them win this year's Stanley Cup was supremely cathartic, and it was great to watch playoff hockey without the hair falling out of my hair in clumps from stressing. Well freaking done, boys, and congrats to Hershey as well. On our way out, we stopped to watch the Red Sox beat my Grandad's Phillies in extra innings with a couple of great plays.

I came home and there were a couple packages - it is wedding season indeed - one of which contained the garters that my Grandma wore at her wedding in 1944. Her mom, Pansy Blossom Logan Schmeck, made them for her for the occasion. Grandma included a note, which was 100% sweet and had some phenomenal passages, to wit:
Your Grand-dad and I were married July 29, 1944, in Sage Chapel, at Cornell University, up there in Ithaca, New York. He was a civilian teaching navy officers about engineering, and I was teaching in the College of Home Economics (now Human Ecology) in the Costume Shop, a wonderful place. I met him in January, and we were married in July. When he died, we had been married 62 years!!! It lasted.

With very much love, I now give you my wedding garters, made by your great grand-mother, Pansy Logan, from Kentucky.
"It lasted." I mean, really. Best day ever.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Our Intellectual Rigor Begins With the Cat

This is Cady.
A couple weeks ago, she started doing this weird thing pictured above. She just rolls over onto her back and stays there.
For a long ass time.
Just kind of hanging out, being fucking weird.

I think this is why I get tired.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

I Am Smashing Cancer With a Giant Beating Stick of Fury!

...that being said, some of my friends have informed me that cancer is something that happens on a cellular level and therefore blunt force trauma might not be as effective as one might hope. As a backup plan, I have decided to take part in this years Worcester Relay for Life at Burncoat High School on June 19th and 20th. All proceeds go to the American Cancer Society, and it's a totally awesome event. I know times are tough. It sucks out there. But look, I guarantee that no one reading this lacks a story about cancer...either a brave fight won or a brave fight lost. It's way more than just the people directly affected. I lost both grandfathers to cancer, and I'm not the only one.

So. If you can donate, please consider it. You can either donate to me or to my team online, or you can come by the event at Burncoat High on the 19th and 20th and check out the on-site raffles. We'll be raffling off some kickass Sharks gear and possibly a pair of Red Sox tickets! Thank you for your consideration. You rock my socks!