Thursday, January 30, 2014

What I've read in the last, oh, four months?

Let's catch up.

The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero and Mark Bissell. I am a huge fan of The Room, Tommy Wiseau's accidental masterpiece. Accidental is perhaps too weak of a word. Providential? The Room is one of those movies that ends up on lists of the Worst Movies of All Time, but such things really undersell the movie. It's not that the movie is bad. It's that it's so bad, in every way possible, that every moment of the film is a perfect crystal of badness. It's perfectly bad, and the product of one man: Tommy Wiseau. Tommy directed, produced, executive produced, wrote, and starred in the film. He's also famously enigmatic--no one knows much about him--which has built the legend of the film. Who is Tommy? Where did he come from? How did he make this

Greg Sestero played the role of Mark in The Room, and The Disaster Artist is a joint autobiography/biography of Tommy Wiseau/tell-all story of The Room's production. Some of the early sections of the book, about Greg's life as a struggling actor, are tedious, but his interactions and observations about Tommy are always fascinating. Tommy is a paranoid, a recluse, and desperate for attention. He's terrified that anyone will learn about his past, but desperate for friends. Greg, who believes he's Tommy's closest friend for several years, never learns even the basics of Tommy's personal history. Greg has no idea where Tommy was born (not anywhere in the US--Greg surmises his Tommy's birthplace as somewhere in Soviet-bloc Eastern Europe), and doesn't even know how old Tommy is.

The Room is very easy to ridicule, and it's even easier to ridicule Tommy, the film's strange auteur. It might be reasonable to expect Greg's book to feature a series of anecdotes in which Tommy is the butt of a joke. That The Disaster Artist avoids this is its greatest strength. Greg is frequently amused by Tommy, but that amusement is always tempered with more complicated feelings: sympathy, confusion, terror, or empathy. More than anything else, Tommy comes off as a tragic hero--someone who came from nothing to create something meaningful and achieve a dream, but is too haunted by his past to ever truly share the meaning of his accomplishment with anyone else. Highly, highly recommended for anyone who's seen The Room, or is interested in the movie's odd notoriety.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders. Short stories. Saunders is awesome. He's a science fiction writer who has managed to transcend whatever that label signifies--the Kirkus review for this collection notes that "no science-fictional bombast weighs down these skilled narratives." Whatever. He's writing science fiction here. Near-future America, mostly, in which the souls (and minds, and bodies) of the vast unprivileged masses are ground into dust. I liked Tenth of December better, because of the characters. The characters were vivid, and complicated. The stories were crazily empathetic. Not to say that the characters in CWL aren't interesting. But, if you were to read only one Saunders collection, I'd recommend Tenth of December over CWL.

A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan by Michael Kazin. An excellent biography. Kazin makes a compelling case for WJB's historical importance as one of the fathers of the Democratic party's progressivism, the first practitioner of the modern Presidential campaign, and one of the most important figures of the American progressive movement. WJB is often remembered by contemporary liberalism as the idiot who prosecuted Scopes and defended creationism at the Scopes monkey trial. Like all good works of history, A Godly Hero complicates the oversimple narratives of poplar memory by deepening the traditional Scopes trial narrative. Kazin argues that WJB opposed Darwinism not, primarily, because he disagreed with Darwin's theory of evolution, but because he feared how Social Darwinism (popular and considered scientifically valid at the time) could be used to create public policy harmful to the poor and vulnerable. In the Scopes trial, this was not an academic concern; the textbook Scopes was brought to trial for teaching contained "a vigorous endorsement of eugenics."

Kazin has mixed thoughts about Bryan as a public figure. He regards WJB's brief time in public office as a failure, but Kazin labors to give some sense of what made Bryan who he was: his voice. Few recordings of Bryan exist (you can hear him in this studio recording of the famous "Cross of Gold" speech, which won him the Democratic nomination for President in 1896), but by all accounts his speech-making ability was unmatched. Kazin quotes several contemporaries who regard WJB with awe, including a few cynical journalists sent to profile him who express bewilderment at the hypnotic power of his oratory.

I decided to read this book originally because I was interested in reading about a progressive populist, when our contemporary populists are mostly conservative. There's not much interesting to say about how WJB is/isn't similar to your average tea party politician, but, as (I think?) with the tea party, religion was central to WJB's rhetoric and appeal to his supporters. The difference is in their interpretations of the Bible. WJB was all about the Social Gospel--interpreting the Bible as a call to action to help the poor, vulnerable, and unfortunate. Obviously, the evangelical Christians who make up the core of the Republican base (and the tea party base?) have different ideas about the meaning of the New Testament.

Anyway. The book is a really interesting read. Recommended.

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin. I just love this crap. After finishing the book I read several reviews, most of which made reference to how long the novel is and how little happens. I found myself agreeing, but I still totally loved the book. I can't help myself. I love the lore. The only thing I didn't like about the novel was where it ended, at the beginning of a few major events that that novel had spent the majority of its length setting up. Though the epilogue was great, and made me think about how smart A Song and Ice and Fire is about its system of power. People (and families) who overreach their power expose themselves, and die. It happened to the Starks in A Game of Thrones and A Storm of Swords, and its happened to the Lannisters in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. 

Danaerys' chapters, largely about the difficulties of reconstructing Meereen after emancipation, were of particular interest. Danaerys manages the exchange of power, after emancipating Meereen's slaves, conservatively. She lets the erstwhile leaders of Meereen keep their wealth and their lives, and even includes some of them in the management of the city. Perhaps inevitably, the freedmen of the city suffer murderous nightly reprisals by a secretive insurgency, presumably financed by the Meereenese old guard. Why does she tolerate it? In war, Danaerys has shown that she's capable of quick, smart decisions, but in peace, she seems lost. The only time she seems herself is when she's in immediate danger. This doesn't bode well for her prospects of ruling Westeros, if she still aspires to that.

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. The first published Culture novel. There was a lot of interesting stuff here--I thought the Culture (a post-scarcity interplanetary society) was a cool idea, and the universe of the novel had a lot of compelling depth--but I wasn't all that into the story itself. For all the depth of the lore, the hero of the story, Horza, isn't all that interesting, and the book, when focused on him, wasn't much more than a sequence of linked action scenes. Most of the novel is written from his perspective, but the end, in which the point of view jumps around to various other characters, made me wish that the rest of the story had been told that way. With all that said: I enjoyed the book. I like a good action-adventure story. But I thought that Consider Phlebas could've been more.

Most of what makes Horza uninteresting is his refusal to interrogate his own opinions; he never changes over the course of the novel. He adapts to certain exigencies of his environment, of course, but those adaptations are just changes in tactics. His worldview never changes: he begins the story as an anti-Culture partisan fighter, and ends the story as an anti-Culture partisan fighter, with little introspection in between.

Gardens Of The Moon by Steven Erikson. I read this book. I read the whole thing. I read the whole book even though it took about 400 pages for me to get an idea of what was happening. Not why things were happening. That, I still don't know. But, around page 400 of a 500 page book, I understood most of the things that had happened in the parts of the book I had read. After a day of reading, when I was thoroughly confused by the plot and characters of this novel, I read some amazon reviews which claimed that confusion was normal. I just needed to stick with it--Gardens Of The Moon is the first of a ten novel series called The Malazan Book of the Fallen--and I would be rewarded with immersion in a world of incomparable depth. I just needed to get through book 2. Maybe book 3. Oh, ok. Great.

The descriptions of the world are generally good, but I found Erikson's dialogue terrible. Like, really, really bad. Characters frequently talk to themselves. Characters frequently talk like they are reading an essay out loud. Only a very few characters ever make jokes. None of the characters are funny. One of the strengths of George R. R. Martin's writing is the way he builds real characters and real camaraderie through humor. His characters make jokes, and Martin has a good enough mind for wit and humor that the jokes usually work. But Erikson...yikes. There's no humor here. The book is a real slog to work through, in no small part because no characters ever seem to have an honest laugh.

As far as I could tell, the plot makes no sense. The action that precipitates much of the novel--an act of intentional friendly fire during an epic battle--belies a lack of subtlety on the behalf of the perpetrators (the leaders of a intercontinential empire) which calls the intelligence of the book into question. Furthermore: the prologue, in which hundreds of Imperial Soldiers are slaughtered by Dogs Which Are Gods, or DWAGs (they are not called this in the book, unfortunately), and a young woman from a fishing village is possessed by an Assassin-God, never amounts to anything. Why did it happen? Apparently for no reason. Maybe the DWAGs were bored?

Old Man's War by John Scalzi. Another action-adventure sci-fi story, with a universe that seems significantly less original than Banks', but with a smart, compelling protagonist named John Perry. Perry thinks. The premise is this: humanity has expanded, colonizing new planets, and consequently fighting over these planets with many other intelligent alien species. In order to fight its wars, the human colonial authority recruits aged residents of Earth, who assume that by enlisting they will somehow be made young again. This is true, in a way: their consciousnesses are transferred into younger, stronger bodies. These colonial wars are dangerous--most recruits die before their enlistment terms end.

In some ways, this novel reminded me of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, in which society forces children to undergo plastic surgery at age 16. But while Westerfeld dumbs down his characters, making it impossible for them to understand the costs associated with their "improvements," Scalzi leaves his characters intelligent and active, free to explore the pros and cons of their new bodies and lives.

Solid military sci-fi.

Wool by Hugh Howey. A nice set of related stories set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic America that could have benefited--a lot--from some editing before being collected as a novel. There are several POV characters, all of whom live in a subterranean silo just outside the ruins of Atlanta, and who have no contact with the world beyond the silo. In fact, it is forbidden to think or speak of the world outside the silo. To voice a desire to see what's outside it to be sentenced to go outside--and to die in the toxic air. There is, nominally, a government, led by an elected mayor and elected sheriff, but the real power in the silo is wielded by the IT people, who control the electronic communication in the silo and are responsible for constructing the hazard suits that those condemned to die are sent off in. Why are they given suits if they're condemned to die? Because there are cameras on top of the silo, pointed at Atlanta, and those cameras require cleaning. Those condemned are given wool pads, cleaning solutions, and given the chance to claim some honor by fulfilling their "duty" to scrub the lenses.

This is where editing would have helped. The first story, originally published on its own, introduces the silo and one of its persistent mysteries--why do the condemned always clean? And they always do. None have failed to clean. This mystery is solved at the end of the story, when our POV character, the erstwhile sheriff of the silo recently condemned to die, leaves the silo. He cleans. Later stories, which again take place in the silo, are largely told from the perspective of characters who have no idea why cleaners clean, and who actively wonder about it. Much of the tension and mystery in these stories is undercut by what we already know. It's tedious to read about characters searching for answers we, as readers, already have.

The characters are really strong. The story's villain, Bernard (the head of IT), borders on cartoonish, but his motivations are suitably complex to make up for a lot of his evil mustache twirling (note: he does not actually have an evil mustache). I believed all the other characters and their motivations. There are two more books in this series, which I think are structured the same way as Wool. I liked Wool, but I'm not sure I'll read the next book. Maybe when the movie comes out. Given how many reviews Wool has on Amazon, it probably won't be long.

I Had Rather Die by Kim Murphy. Historical monograph on rape in the American Civil War. The book speaks briefly to the limited historiography of rape in the CW--unsurprisingly, historians have traditionally dismissed the CW as a "low-rape" war because of the low number of soldiers convicted for rape during the war. Murphy does an excellent job proving those "low-rape" claims flippant and baseless. Her work suggests that those would regard the CW as somehow exceptional from other wars, in which rape is rampant and frequently unpunished, are complicit in the silencing of rape victims during wartime.

As you might imagine, this is a difficult book to read. The middle chapters of the book recount case after case of rape, replete will the victim-blaming and disrespect endemic to rape trials (especially those in the 19th century). Still, for as many cases as she's found, these were likely only the smallest fraction of the actual rapes committed during the war--only those cases with the bravest victims in the exceptional circumstances needed for a rape accusation to be heard and taken seriously. In the 19th century, victims needed to report to someone immediately after they were raped--preferably a white man--who could make an examination to ascertain the extent of their injuries. Obviously, the victim would need to be brave to report such a crime in a world in which a women's virtue was paramount, and the very act of reporting a rape called a victim's virtue into question--wouldn't a virtuous woman keep silent to hide her shame? Furthermore, whoever she reported to would need to take her seriously, regard rape as a serious crime, and be more interested in bringing her rapist to justice than protecting her virtuous image. Then, whoever in the military received the accusation would need to care, and whoever was in charge of military justice would have to care, and the victim would need to identify the rapist. This assumes, of course, that the army hadn't marched on in the time between the rape and its report.

Though I think I Had Rather Die is an important work of CW history, it doesn't produce much of a coherent thesis. Its value is in its existence as a repository of court-martial transcripts, newspaper accounts, and diary entries related to rape in the CW. Apart from the brief introductory chapter and even briefer concluding one, there is basically no synthesis here. Murphy, as far as I can tell, has no training as an historian. Perhaps she wasn't able to turn her research into a coherent whole. But the sense of dislocation produced by all the chapters of unrelated rape cases, summarized one after another in sequence, makes it seem like, maybe, synthesis wasn't the goal--maybe Murphy's goal was to emphasize that so much information has been lost through the silence of victims, or their silencing by others, that synthesis is impossible.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Democracy and the Indispensable Person

Earlier this week was the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln's dedicatory remarks at Gettysburg National Cemetery. It's worth re-reading. Here's the complete text, taken from wikipedia:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
To me, the speech is an exhortation to a war-weary nation that the Cause--representative government--is worth the hundreds of thousands of casualties already suffered, and the unknown deaths to come. It's also a deft, eloquent pivot to the new meaning for victory; victory means union, yes, but also a "new birth of freedom" for four million slaves.

The speech is a statement of democracy's worth. It's also a work of Lincoln's genius. One could argue that Lincoln's genius is pretty un-democratic stuff--it's his genius; he was born with it, or worked for it. And I think, to a large extent, genius isn't democratic at all--genius belongs to individuals. But in order for a democracy to thrive, genius must be used in the service of democracy. Perhaps the most dramatic example in American history is how Lincoln used his political genius to save democracy (and his genius with language to help give the war meaning), but it isn't hard to think of other ways the products and talents of geniuses have been harvested to protect or promote democratic growth.

This is something I've only begun to wrap my head around, and I'm still struggling with it. During the Civil War, Lincoln frequently employed means of dubious legality to achieve what he believed was a more important democratic end--victory. He's frequently criticized for this, along the lines of: how can one save democracy by ignoring democratic laws? I tend to sympathize with that reasoning, but it's clear that Lincoln made unilateral, deeply undemocratic decisions out of necessity, without a desire for un- or anti-democratic power. He was successful because out of his genius. And Lincoln's genius was indispensable to the Union cause.

I'm not sure exactly what it all means, but I think history makes the point obvious: democracy cannot survive or prosper without singularly talented people who want democracy to succeed. Is that a contradiction? I don't know, but Gettysburg Address is amazing.

Monday, November 18, 2013

DKG reviewed in the NY Times Book Review

In Bill Keller's review of Doris Kearns Goodwin's new history, The Bully Puplit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, the politics of the past become a nostalgic pleasure, contrasted with the "grubby spectacle of today's Washington." Of DKG, Keller writes:
Let her transport you back to the turn of the 20th century, to a time when this country had politicians of stature and conscience, when the public believed that government could right great wrongs, when, before truncated attention spans, a 50,000-word expose of corruption could sell out magazines and galvanize a reluctant Congress.
Let her transport you back, in other words, to the romance and honesty of a bygone time. Is this much different from the Lost Causer raving about the romance and honor of the world in Gone With the Wind?

I haven't read The Bully Pulpit, but I'm a fan of Team of Rivals, DKG's last history, a joint biography of Lincoln and his most prominent cabinet members. Part of what makes DKG such a compelling historian is her skill as a writer. She's expert at synthesizing the disparate documents of a historical record into a story that appeals to a modern reader in the same way a good novel might*. But Keller has been seduced by DKG's story into losing the long view of history. He seems to believe that the past, vividly rendered by DKG's, is somehow more important--more real--than the present. Keller has fallen into this trap, probably, because he's unsatisfied with the "grubby spectacle" of his own world**.

Keller writes:
Much of the pleasure of this book--besides recalling for us that once, leaders stood tall, our government didn't seem to be in a state of constant stalemate and journalism got results--is the re-creation of a day when life moved at a statelier pace.
There's a lot of unexamined nostalgia in that sentence. Almost everyone thinks Teddy Roosevelt was a great President (anti-imperalists aside), but what about Taft, about whom even Keller writes "his single-term presidency is generally counted a failure." The phrase about journalism getting "results" sounds like the assessment of a jaded journalist. And the last clause, referencing the pleasure of reading about the "statelier pace" of life, is absurd***, ignoring all the quantifiable improvements technology has made in almost every aspect of life for all Americans (not to mention the problematic nature of fetishizing the turn of the 20th century while ignoring the political, social, and economic gains made by women, African Americans, and most other marginalized minority groups since then). It's strange that such a regressive statement could be made in the context of this review, focused on the the lives of two major progressives who worked to use the "bully pulpit" to improve the lives of the poor.

I doubt that DKG is guilty of the historical romanticism that infects Keller's review of her work. I'm sure the depth of the historical America she builds, the vitality of the characters she revives, and the quality of her research are excellent. I look forward the reading the book. But Keller's review points to the trouble that even the best works of history run into: readers eager to bend history to suit some entrenched vision of the past.

*I don't believe it's strange, or wrong, to compare a history to fiction. Both can be graded as stories. Some novels, like some histories, fail to hold readers' attentions. But for a history, the story is not all. The storytelling aspect of history is (should be?) inseparable from a history's ability to justify its synthetic view of historical documents.

**This is not a problem unique to history. Remember this reaction to the film Avatar?

***At least baby boomers longing for the "simpler" 1950s lived through that decade as children.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Books I read in August

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin. In some obvious ways, a let down. The let down has nothing to do with the novel itself, which, not unlike A Clash of Kings, expertly tracks the fallout following a devastating assassination. ACoK shows Westeros' response to Ned Stark's beheading; in AFfC, Tywin Lannister's death precipitates the action. The disappointment, instead, was of my readerly expectations: I expected to read about Daenerys, Tyrion, Jon, Bran, etc, etc, and I didn't. What I got was great, but it wasn't what I expected. I (well, actually, we, since Emily and I read it together) spent the novel thinking: yes, great, but what about Tyrion??!!??

Apart from that, I loved the novel, which was dominated by Cersei, Jaime, and Brienne. Brienne's chapters filled the role Arya's did in the second novel--both characters moved through the Westerosi countryside, surveying the terror the war brought to smallfolk. But, somehow, Brienne seems more aware of her vulnerability than Arya ever did, even if Arya was usually in greater danger. Arya, perhaps too young to realize that she was always on the verge of a grizzly death, generated a grim confidence in her own ability to roll with the punches, escape whatever horror she was living, and kill everyone on her hit list. Brienne, ever a punchline and outcast, seems hyper-aware that everything is out to get her. Her chapter with Nimble Dick at the Whispers is a masterpiece of creeping dread and isolation.

I loved hate-reading Cersei's chapters. She's such a despicable character. Even though the chapters are good, in that they provide a rationale for Cersei's paranoia/shortsightedness/general incompetence, she is totally hate-able. But it's fun to hate her. Every chapter she makes some new disastrous decision that she thinks is a big win for her.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. A masterpiece of empathy. I loved this book. It's a really fun, heartfelt, beautiful, frequently harrowing thought experiment. There are two planets: Urras, and Anarres. Urras is a planet not unlike our own (in 1970ish). It has two major nations: one like the US, one like the USSR. 170 years before the events of the novel, a philosopher named Odo started an anarchic movement on Urras, and Urras, instead of interfacing with the anarchists' politcal ideas, sent the anarchists to settle Anarres, where they establish a working anarchic society.

The anarchic society is really interesting. In principle, it operates without a government, and without any organized leadership structure. In practice, quasi-centralized organizations exist to mediate housing and job assignments. The society functions only because its people want it to function: there's no police, no justice system, and no one takes a job posting unless they want to. What makes the book great is that Anarres is no utopia. It's just a society with another set of cultural assumptions about what is right and wrong. These assumptions provide a strong collective identity, but have other limitations. LeGuin clearly sympathizes with the Anarresti, but she doesn't make things any easier for them. They're extremely poor (though poverty, of course, has a different meaning on Anarres), and a sustained drought for a few years nearly kills everyone on the planet.

The protagonist of the noval is the Anarresti physicist Shevek, who rebels against what he views as the bureaucracy and insularity of Anarresti science and communication. He becomes the first Anarresti to travel to Urras, and the novel is largely about the culture shock he experiences when he arrives.

There were a few interesting pedagogical ideas in the novel, which show up when Shevek contrasts education on Urras (instructors provide questions, students provide answers, instructors grade students) with education on Anarres (instructors lecture, students do self-guided study of their interests, there is no grading or ranking of students). Obviously, for a society that wants to educate its students in a particular way, or for a society which does not engender natural curiosity in students, or for a society in which students do not trust the education system, posing questions and demanding answers in exchange for grades is the only way to teach. But, in general, wouldn't good students get a lot more from their education if they were allowed to study what they wanted?

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin. I liked this novel (novella?), though it's a little slighter than The Dispossessed. It challenges colonialism, paternalism, racism and racist scapegoating, and the distinction between civilized and uncivilized, but does so in a way that's not facile. Here, as in the other stuff of her's I've read, she writes strong characters who, taken together, articulate a compelling and coherent moral philosophy. Because her characters are round, instead of cardboard polemicists, her morality is a lot more convincing.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. A collection of essays/reviews, all previous published in magazines. His essays are really readable, even when he's writing about a subject I don't have a lot of interest in, because he has an amazing ability to discover the fundamental tensions that complicate life in whatever he's writing about. So many of his essays reduce to a question deeply underlying his subject. He's really concerned about cynicism vs. idealism, for instance, and about irony vs. earnestness.

The title essay is ostensibly about the Maine Lobster Festival, but is about one-third description of how strange the festival is, and two-thirds discussion of the ethics of consuming lobster. DFW's thought process and arguments for/against eating lobster (and, generally, meat) are almost identically my own, and the uncomfortable trepidation with which he hashes all this out mirrors my own state of mine when I was deciding whether or not to give up meat.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Day 2: Bears Are Everywhere

In the morning, as we were getting in our car to leave, a middle-aged woman walked her dog by our campsite and stopped to chat. This is something that happens, camping. People just talk to you. You talk to them. It all seems quite natural, even though you would never in a million years talk to this very same person, apropos of nothing, had you met in the middle of a big city. It came up that Emily and I were on a honeymoon. The woman congratulated us on our new marriage, but seemed a little confused. Why hadn't we gone to some resort to lounge on a beach?  She was surprised we'd want the hassle of camping on our honeymoon.

This made me think: what's a honeymoon for? If we're not being cynical*, a honeymoon is for the couple; it affords newlyweds their first opportunity to be alone with each other. Sans parents, sans chaperones, sans social expectation for sexless courtship (though with new expectations to have sex and make babies), a honeymoon is when a couple gets a chance at sustained intimacy for the first time. There's only one problem, in the case of Emily and I: none of this stuff actually applies to us. So what does "honeymoon" mean, for us? We're using the concept of a "honeymoon" as an excuse to travel, because it's typical that newlyweds vacation together.

Off the top of my head, I don't know (personally) anyone married or soon-to-be married for whom the original honeymoon concept might apply. But this only means that the honeymoon fits in with a set of wedding rituals which have largely lost their meaning, like the bride in a white dress, or the bride given away by her father. These are vestigial symbols to represent values that used to matter**. So. I guess, in sum, we're on vacation.

That's all very general. The more specific question is: what's our honeymoon for? I'm still not totally sure why we're camping, other than it sounded like fun when we planned it all, but now that we're doing this I'm glad we did. Our camping honeymoon is a little more do-it-ourselves than going to a resort would have been (though proportionately less comfortable). I think there's some thematic resonance in a DIY honeymoon. Marriage is DIY. No one else is going to do it for us. We're figuring it out on our own.

We drove inland from the coast to Santa Rosa to find the nearest WalMart. We needed chairs and a bigger tarp. While at the store, Emily came into possession of a free Razor Sharp Paring Knife, which knife, so far, has earned all its modifiers. I mention this because it's the most exciting thing we did for about 3 hours, until we passed through Piercy, CA, where 101 parallels the Eel River, to come upon a massive crowd of people in the floodplain below the highway at a reggae festival--Reggae on the River--known locally as Reggae, and found an attendant crush of cars and people suffocating the somewhat larger town (though "large" here means 1,000 people, instead of 100) of Garberville, where we stopped for gas and coffee. We drove through small town after small town on the lightly trafficked 101, wondering if northern California had been deserted. When we found Reggae, and then Garberville, we had the answer. No, it wasn't deserted. Everyone was in Garberville, gearing up for Reggae.

We arrived at Humboldt Redwoods SP in the late afternoon. Our camp loop was reasonably small, and reasonably compact--seeming more compact because the loop is located at the edge of a meadow (once a fruit orchard, where a few plum and apple trees survive) and the forest grows sparsely through the loop, providing unobstructed views of most of the rest of camp, creating a sense that many people share the same space. Fifty yards past the short bridge spanning a dry ravine, we pulled up to the ranger station (a kiosk on our right). The road for the loop was paved, and fed into a dirt walking path through the meadow 10 yards to the left of our left headlight. A dozen people stood at the edge of the meadow, holding cameras, while small children stood on top of a few small boulders placed along the boundary between the paved road and the meadow.

Emily was already out of the car.

"Do you see the bears?" she asked.

She pointed at the plum tree 20 yards past the edge of the meadow that the group of people was looking at. Oh, no. No. A mama bear and her two cubs had climbed into the tree, shaking branches and eating plums.  But no one ran. People just stood there. My head clouded over, and I don't remember saying anything. I'd entered some bizarro world where humans could stand 20 yards from a mama bear and cubs without putting themselves in extreme danger. The rangers took the bears in the plum tree as a matter of course.

"Don't get closer than 30 feet," one shouted, not unhappily, as a little girl took a few tentative steps past a boulder.

It's hard to describe the disorientation I felt in the moment, though the source of the feeling was the juxtaposition of what I knew to be true--that bears, especially bears with cubs, are extremely dangerous--with what was actually, really, currently true--that no one acted as if the bears were very dangerous, and the bears displayed no interest in anything but plums. I experienced the disorientation of a deeply felt Truth crashing into a wall of contravening lived experience. I wanted to get away from the bears as soon as possible, even as I realized that the impulse to do so was silly, and when we arrived at our campsite, we discovered that we'd only traveled another 100 yards from the plum tree, whose branches we could still see shaking past the line of onlookers.

Emily was ecstatic. I, meanwhile, moved through the motions of setting up camp and preparing dinner in a mental fog. By the time it burned off, I'd realized something important. I'm not afraid of bears. I'm not sure I ever was. Today's bears were the first I'd ever seen out of captivity. Before this, I'd never seen a bear to be afraid of. So why had I been so afraid of bears?

It took a little uncomfortable introspection to find the answer. This much is true: until today, a fear of "bears" often ruined my camping experiences. But a "bear" is not a bear. A "bear" is a flexible signifier for any and all of my neurotic fears surrounding 1) camping and 2) all interactions with humans or animals while in the woods. A "bear" is anything I need it to be so that I can say, "I'm just worried about bears," instead of saying the much less rational and much more unhinged sounding, "I'm just worried that if we start a fire and cook dinner, angry locals with greasy hair and tank top shirts (even though they have deep red farmer burns on their forearms and untanned upper arms) will find us and subject us to awful hazing/torture because we're not from around here***." Having seen real bears, I think I've pulled back the veil to get at exactly what my fear of "bears" is. This is a good thing. I've started to unravel some of my own irrational fear. Bears really aren't that scary. They're powerful animals, but only dangerous in very limited circumstances. Bears are everywhere, but it's ok.

I returned to normal in a few hours. After the bears left, but before dark, deer came to graze beneath the plum tree where the bears had shaken fruit onto the ground.  We set up our tent in the center of a ring of redwoods, so we can see the forest canopy and patches of sky when we lie down. We ate dinner and read out loud by the fire. Then we went to sleep. The whole place has a sharp, clean smell, except for my clothes, which smell like wood fire.

*Everyone knows that the most important function of a honeymoon is to provide the junction where the travel industry can tap into the Wedding-Industrial Complex cash pipe.

**These examples are pretty gross from a feminist perspective, and a honeymoon isn't really gross or problematic in the same way, but you get the idea.

***Not that, you know, I've ever actually thought that, or anything.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Day 1: There Are No Bears

[Note: Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be posting what are basically journal entries from my road-trip-honeymoon with Emily. This series is tentatively titled "Notes on a Honeymoon; or, Notes on Marriage From a Dude Who Got Married About A Month Ago." Enjoy.]

I need to preface this first entry: I am afraid of bears. Two years ago, Emily and I camped in a forest in Florida. The campsite was what they call "primitive": a semi-cleared patch of dirt around a stone fire-pit. No running water, no toilets. It was wet--rainy and foggy and damp--and we couldn't get a fire going. By nightfall, I was so scared of bears that I made us eat dinner in the car, then change our clothes before entering the tent so the dinner-smell wouldn't come with us and attract unwanted attention from animals. I know this sounds insane. It was. I knew it was insane at the time, and I know it now, but it happened. It could happen again.

It's only a few miles drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge before northern California looks like any other rural place in middle America--only the crops are different. Here, people grow wine, and apples. They graze cows. Elsewhere, they grow corn, or cotton, but the land looks basically the same from a car: cleared space and a few trees to mark property lines, a winding two lane road ahead, intermittent service on my phone. For each mile we drove away from San Francisco I felt remoteness gathering around us, like fog, or darkness, which sounds scary, and is not the way a camping vacation is usually conceptualized by anyone sane, but, as I explained earlier, I am afraid of bears. Somewhere in the remoteness, there are always bears.

Over drinks on Friday, John told me that couples sometimes experience a let-down after their marriage. The marriage (and associated receptions, parties, etc) is so intensely euphoric that returning to real life causes minor depression. But, he said, a honeymoon can help as a kind of buffer between the overwhelming happiness of the marriage party and real life. Let's hope so. The party on Saturday after the wedding was surreal, something like the best case scenario of a paranoid dream: everyone is watching you, everyone is talking about you, but it's ok--really, it's unbelievably great--because everyone is saying something earnest and heartfelt and nice about you.

On the drive, we talked. We agreed that Saturday night was the best night of our lives. I commented that the surreal elation of the party had mostly subsided, and that I felt pride in its place. Not just pride to be married to Emily, who is amazing, but pride that I'd made a choice, fully conscious of its difficulties and potential rewards. I felt proud because I knew I was in charge of my own life, and I'd chosen something really exciting. And, of course, Emily chose the same thing.

The campsite tonight was at Sonoma Coast State Beach, snuggled in the sand next to Bodega Bay a few hours north of San Francisco. We took a hike around the bay to find the ocean, but our shoes filled up with sand before we got all the way out to the beach. We only spent a few minutes at the end leaning into the wind, squinting into the sun, absorbing the shining sliver of ocean below the horizon and above the last mile of dunes and shrubs.

We returned to camp. I wondered if I should worry about bears as the scent from the food in our open trunk wafted elsewhere and we pitched the tent in the wind. We had an animal box for our food, but it was secured only with a thin piece of bark through two metal rings; designed to keep out raccoons, obviously, and certainly not sturdy enough to keep out a bear. So, no, I didn't worry about bears. I chose not to worry about bears, because there were no bears.

The night was cold, and windy, but we had a fire. Emily and I took turns reading while we cooked dinner. There were a lot of people staying the night in the camping loop we'd chosen, but our site was isolated. We couldn't see anyone else. The place was ours. Just us; nobody else, and no bears.