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.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Other and animal cruelty

I saw Blackfish the other day.

A blackfish is another name for a killer whale, and the film concerns itself with captive whales held at theme parks. The thesis of the film, in short, is that keeping killer whales in captivity is cruel.  I think the film makes its case well, but the nature of the argument shows the difficulty of getting a general audience to care about animal cruelty. There are two main avenues the film takes in arguing against captivity for killer whales:

(1) Killer whales are extremely intelligent animals with highly developed emotional lives, local culture (!), and familial bonds. When taken from the wild, whales are separated from their pods and families, and are placed into unfamiliar social groups which can be dangerous and threatening. Whales are stored in small tanks that cannot hope to approximate the open ocean, and not given near as much attention or stimulation as they would have in the wild. Captive whale life expectancy past infancy is much lower than for wild whales.

(2) Captive killer whales put humans at risk. There is imminent danger to human trainers of killer whales, and many trainers have been injured (and some killed) by aggressive or unpredictable whale behavior. In addition, humans are brutalized by the cruelty they must do to whales to keep them in captivity and ready to perform.

Number (1) focuses on animal cost of animal cruelty. It suggests that animals cruelty is bad because cruelty is, independent of circumstances, bad. Number (2) focuses on the human cost of animal cruelty. It suggests that animal cruelty is bad because is it cruel and dangerous to humans. 

Both (1) and (2) are good reasons for ending whale captivity, but, for me, number (1) is enough. I think it's wrong to inflict suffering and death on animals for our pleasure. I think cruelty is bad, should be avoided wherever possible, and should definitely be avoided when cruelty occurs in the name of entertainment. Reason (1) is given a fair amount of screen time, and it's clear the film-makers care about the cruelty done to the whales. But reason number (2) dominates the narrative of the film, which is structured around the death of a SeaWorld trainer in 2010. Much of the film plays like a story of a faceless, greedy corporation tricking eager trainers who love animals into risking their lives for corporate profit. It's compelling, and the obvious disillusionment of the interviewed trainers is heartbreaking and sometimes hard to watch. The film shows that the deaths and injuries suffered by trainers could have been avoided, because the dangers of working with killer whales in captivity were well-known. The risk was kept obscure from trainers and the general public. Blackfish ends on a triumphant, if somber, note: OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), following a lawsuit brought against SeaWorld after a trainer was killed by a whale in 2010, has forbidden whale trainers from entering the water with captive whales (SeaWorld is appealing). 

But what if there was no risk to humans in keeping captive whales? What if trainers had always been fully advised of the risks posed by captive whales, and never swam with them? In all likelihood, the movie would not have been made. Blackfish's wikipedia page notes that the filmmakers' interest in captive whales stemmed from the trainer's death in 2010. The cruelty and violence done to that trainer is what made the animal cruelty visible to the filmmakers, and, ultimately, visible to the film's audience. 

Animal cruelty arguments are in a difficult spot: where animal cruelty coincides with cruelty or violence done to humans, arguments against animal cruelty are often made, and heard. Otherwise...?

The fact remains that animals--their bodies, their minds, their lives--are so different as to make their suffering nearly incomprehensible to us: animals are the Other. Historically, the Other has taken many forms, depending on who and when you asked, and Others have suffered always cruelty because they were other. Cruelty is almost always done for expediency as well as xenophobia, which is why it seems like a good idea at the time, but cruelty never looks good with enough historical distance. Because animals are so different from us (as opposed to people qualifying as Other, who at least are regarded [though not always] as part of the "human race," which implies some commonality), the empathetic effort to care about animal suffering and life is greater. A killer whale might be "intelligent," but what does intelligence even mean if it doesn't refer to a human?

This has turned a little rambling, so let me get to the point: to end animal cruelty, people must take an empathetic leap. Blackfish shows how cruelty and violence have been done to people in the name of corporate profit.  But that's not a reason to end killer whale captivity. For that, people have to consider the film's other argument: consider the mind and body of the whale. To end whale suffering at human hands, the whale has to become something other than Other in human minds.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Books I read in July

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin. I began reading these books after the third season of Game of Thrones on HBO, and somewhere in the middle part of A Storm of Swords I zoomed right by the show, plotwise. The Red Wedding was one of the most brutal scenes of fiction I've ever read. While the show uses the RW as the climax of its third season, in the novel its the beginning of a devastating sequence of events that wipes out or changes the fortunes of virtually every POV character we have. The genius of the novel is its willingness to alter or destroy characters to force them (and others around them) to surprise themselves (and us) by reacting in fresh ways.

Danerys is no exception to the last, but she's separated from all other characters, and her problems are different. There are certainly problematic aspects to the way her Breaker of Chains aspirations are written. Take, for example, this line, appearing after Danerys declares the slaves freed in one of the cities she takes:
"Mhysa!" a brown-skinned man shouted out at her.
Mhysa means mother. Martin walks the dangerous line of turning Danerys--with white skin, and plantinum blonde hair--into the easy savior of thousands (millions?) of brown people, who have no POV characters, and virtually no agency. But there's something more complicated going on here, too:
"Your Grace, the slavers brought their doom on themselves," said Daario Naharis.
"You have brought freedom as well," MIssandei pointed out.
"Freedom to starve?" asked Dany sharply. "Freedom to die?"
By the end of the novel, Dany resolves to stay in Meereen after freeing its slaves, determined to reconstruct and rule the city. I'm eager to see how she handles it, and how much autonomy and thought Martin gives the freedpeople of Meereen (and Astapoor, and Yunkai). At first blush, Mhysa sounds bad. But freedmen in America commonly referred to Lincoln as Father Abraham

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Romeo and Juliet at Cal Shakes

I am not the biggest Shakespeare fan. I think I understand his charms as a poet, but the poetry doesn't translate well to stage, for me. I find many of the words too obscure to process quickly, so while I'm puzzling out what a line means, three more have gone by. For me, seeing one of Shakespeare's plays is doing battle with sometimes impenetrable language. So much of the meaning has to come through the actors--when I don't understand a word, or a phrase, or even an entire paragraph of dialogue, I have to rely on body language, gesture, and blocking to help me understand what's going on. Obviously, those things are always a part of communication, and in every play the way characters act clues you in to the meaning of their dialogue. But when I hear Shakespeare, the meaning the actors imbue to a line with their acting is often completely divorced from the words themselves, because I have no idea what the words mean.

I went to Romeo and Juliet at Cal Shakes on Saturday night.

The production was great. I loved the cast, especially Juliet and Mercutio. The two of them blew me away with energy and wit, which fit the production's aesthetic perfectly. The scenes and the characters felt important and vital, and the set design (minimalist) coupled with the costuming (generally simple, modern garb) focused attention on the acting. That worked, because the acting was great. The play itself was not what I expected.

I had not seen Romeo and Juliet before, and knew about the play only what I'd picked up through high school and cultural osmosis (the outline of the plot, several famous phrases). The thing that struck me about the play was just how young its central characters are. In the CalShakes production, Mercutio and Benvolio dial up the crass action pretty high (at one point, Mercutio moons the audience), and their characters are certainly written as some crude dudes. Juliet can hardly stop thinking about sex long enough to fall in love with Romeo. Romeo falls in love with Juliet after spending the first scenes of the play crippled by love for another girl. All these characters are children, which--to me--was the great tragedy of the play. The tragedy was not that Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers, could not be together. The tragedy was that none of the adults in the play payed enough attention to the children to prevent them from making some very stupid decisions. I left wondering why these children felt they had to kill themselves for love.

Is the love between Romeo and Juliet "true" love? What does that even mean? Romeo is obviously infatuated with Juliet, and Juliet with Romeo. They pledge love to each other, then decide to marry less than 24 hours after meeting, mostly, it seems, so that they can have sex without pissing off God (or a devout audience?). What are their parents doing????

To return to my first paragraph, complaining about obscure language: the language doesn't just obscure the immediate meaning of words, but also Romeo and Juliet's youth. Their language--measured, careful, beautiful, mature--connotes a capability for serious thought which I doubt Romeo or Juliet could really have at their age. It leads us to trust their judgment more than if they spoke in uncertain sentences broken with awkward pauses as they picked at pimple scabs on their foreheads.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A few scattered thoughts from the last few days

I flew back to San Diego from New York yesterday, and tomorrow I leave for San Francisco. Tomorrow's my birthday. A week and a day from tomorrow is my wedding. Things are speeding up. Here are a few assorted links, and thoughts, from the last few days.

1) I watched Retreat, starring Cilian Murphy, Thandie Newton, and Jamie Bell, a few nights ago. It was a disaster, and I wouldn't recommend it, but it had a good premise: a couple (Murphy and Newton), their marriage foundering, take a vacation to save their relationship on an isolated island on which they are the only people. After a few days on the island, an unknown, wounded man (Bell) turns up. He tells the couple that a global pandemic has hit, and everyone on the mainland is infected. Their only chance is to board up the house and refuse entry to anyone finding a way to the island. The couple distrusts him, which makes some amount of sense, given that his story is fantastic and the couple can't even trust each other. The movie had the chance to have its theme (distrust and poor communication in marriage is toxic) align perfectly with its larger story, but it overthought itself. Retreat could have ended with the stranger's story proved true just as the couple's distrust consumes them all, so the audience can see how the couple's personal flaws doomed them. This would make something of a classical tragedy. Instead, the film provides a twist ending, in which the stranger has been lying the entire time, but the truth is much less plausible than the lie. The plot and thematic resonance is destroyed, and the movie is ruined. Blech. The lesson? Twists suck.

2) On the plane home I read "How Junk Food Can End Obesity," the cover story in this month's Atlantic. The piece suggests that the obesity epidemic is much more likely to be solved by reducing the calorie counts of McDonald's sandwiches (and other junk food items) than by anything else. Instead of expecting people to change where and how they eat, the author thinks it much more practical to make minor, calorie-conscious changes to what people are always going to eat. This strikes me as, well, sorta plausible, and not a bad idea. It doesn't require any major cultural shift to achieve, even on the part of fast food restaurants. The author already reports on some of lower-calorie options (which are still savory, meaty, cheesy, and sometimes eggy) that McDonald's already offers. But none of the suggestions are actually about nutrition, although the article expends many words talking about nutrition. The suggestions are simply about scale. Less calories means less obese people. Unhealthy people who are not obese are beyond the scope of the article.

3) I read an item in New York magazine about "The Boxer at Rest," the sculpture currently on display at the Met. The boxer is, above all, vulnerable. He's wounded; he's suffered cuts and bruises in the fight, yes, but his body also bears the marks and wounds of his occupation. He has cauliflower ears, a smashed nose, and his foreskin has been sewed shut. The sculpture fits right into a contemporary conversation about sports (especially violent sports) and exploitation. The boxer has suffered wounds and mutilations for his sport. In the moment captured here, after the fight, does he seem to believe it was worth it? It's rare to have a dialogue about sports entirely concerned with something other than the Big Game. Here, we see pain and vulnerability divorced from glory. It makes glory look different.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Hello, No Irony

When I was in D.C., about three months ago, I went to see Hello Dolly at Ford's Theater. I like musical theater, though I'd never seen Hello Dolly before. It was jarring. The musical was first produced on Broadway in 1964, and the story is set around the turn of the 20th century. The society portrayed in the show is not modern--it reflects the prejudices of the time the show was written--and the show is a comedy, whose premise and jokes are generally anti-feminist. That the show was anti-feminist is not particularly interesting--I imagine that Hello Dolly isn't much worse on that score than the rest of America's pop-cultural output in 1964. But it's not 1964 anymore.

The production at Ford's presented the show without irony, or cynicism. The laugh lines were delivered as written, told without comment from the director or actors: punchlines were directed at women, instead of at those who would seek to curtail women's freedom. Watching the play was strange, as though I had been transported to 1964, when these jokes were funny (most of the crowd was laughing along. The actors sold the jokes well.).

I get why the show might still be produced in 2013: the music. People love the music. And the music is good, I guess. But does a modern production need to mimic the historical context of the original production just to showcase its music?

Performing Hello Dolly might always be problematic, no matter what sort of direction is given. But a healthy dose of irony couldn't hurt. It was deeply strange to be audience to a show unabashedly asking me to laugh at jokes with women as the punchline. With irony, the punchlines might sound different, and the object of all those problematic jokes might change enough to make them palatable. This, of course, means modernizing the show. It means updating the show to appeal to a modern audience, and changing the way the play comes across--contravening the intent of its authors. Doing this adds a directorial meta-comment about the show's worldview.

I love history and, in a sense, what I saw was history. I saw a production as it might have been given in 1964--a sort of reenactment of a musical in an earlier time. But why? Reproducing Hello Dolly this way is sort of like remaking any movie from 1964 shot-for-shot and line-by-line. Why do that?

The production, otherwise, was mostly good--great acting, awesome costuming, though there were a few moments of incoherent blocking near the end. Still, despite the quality of the production, I'm not sure why it was done. Was the music and the costuming enough to justify a production selling retrograde society?

Friday, July 12, 2013

This is it

This is it: the beginning of a month of traveling. First a bachelor party in New York, then a few weeks in San Francisco for my wedding (!), then a slow, week long drive up the coast before stopping at Portland for another wedding.

I don't intent to neglect the blog. I've got some posts queued, and I'll find time in the coming weeks to write some stuff about marriage and the wedding, I'm sure. For today, I'll just say: I'm excited. I'm excited to travel, excited to see family and friends, excited to celebrate my wedding, and, most of all, I'm excited to be married. I feel very lucky to have my partner.

A note on the programming: I'm going to post regularly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday every week. (Unless I don't feel like it.) So, see you Monday. Here's a cat picture.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


I'm working on an essay about Calvary Cemetery of San Diego. I won't say too much about it yet, except that I'll have a lot to say about it later. For now, a brief item. I've found a lot of great data that I couldn't help sharing here.

The first burial at Calvary, a Catholic cemetery located in what is now the Mission Hills neighborhood (just a few blocks from my place), was in 1873. The last burial was in 1960. Above is the graph of burials vs. time*, which shows increasing use of Calvary until 1918, followed by a precipitous decline in new interments. Calvary's story is about decline, neglect, decay, and forgetting. The decline is right there in the graph. To know that there was neglect, you need the above data and the knowledge that Calvary had no endowment for perpetual care. Decay followed neglect; forgetting followed decay. The cemetery was converted into a public park in 1970. 

That the cemetery was converted into a park is not necessarily evidence of forgetting. Today, the park contains a few headstones from the old cemetery, and a small memorial to those interred within the park. The story of how the cemetery became a park, however, is not pretty, and has been willfully forgotten. 

Ok. That's my Calvary teaser. I'll post more about the cemetery in the coming weeks.

*Data collated from the rootsweb online database dedicated to Calvary burials, which can be found by clicking here. The total number of burials recorded in the graph is 4,001, though I don't know whether the database is comprehensive. Certainly, the trend of the graph reflects the qualitative analysis I'd found from many sources. For years before 1884, and after 1918, the graphed data reflects all Calvary burials recorded in the database. For the period 1884-1918, I'd estimate uncertainty up to 5% in the graphed burial values.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A quick thought on American middle-class individualism

I finished A Storm of Swords a few days ago. Yeesh. It's nuts. Emily and I have plans to read the last two books together, which will slow them down considerably, reducing the amount of time we will have no new A Song of Ice and Fire content to consume, a consumption which has become something of a compulsion. This means I have time to read something else when I read on my own. I've started West from Appomattox, Heather Cox Richardson's history of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. I haven't read much, but was struck by a passage in the introduction about the rise of an American middle-class after the Civil War:
Middle-class ideology was both the greatest triumph and the greatest tragedy of reconstruction. It was an astonishingly inclusive way to run a country, making certain former slaves and impoverished immigrants welcomed participants in middle-class America, offering to them opportunities they could not have imagined in other countries, and it advanced women's position in a dramatically short time. But this ideology also rendered Americans unable to recognize systematic inequalities in American society. Anyone who embraced the mainstream vision came to believe he or she was on the road to a middle-class life, no matter what the reality of his or her position actually was. When things went wrong, individuals had no one but themselves to blame for failure, even if its causes lay outside their control. A man unemployed during a recession or a woman beaten by her husband could find little sympathy in the middle-class worldview. More strikingly, though, this mindset deliberately repressed anyone who called for government action to level the American economic, social, or political playing field. If a group as a whole came to be perceived as looking for government handouts its members were aggressively prohibited from participating equally in American society, and all of the self-help in the world wasn't going to change that.
I think this is a really well-observed interpretation of the way a normative class justifies its own privilege without necessarily recognizing that its privilege exists. She continues:
The powerful new American identity permitted many individuals to succeed far beyond what they might have achieved elsewhere, but that exceptional openness depended on class, gender, and racial bias.
And that's the rub. The inconsistency in what Richardson calls the "middle-class ideology"--complete individual responsibility coupled with a desire for increased federal involvement in everyday life--was only possible because it had a scapegoat. If it wasn't for Those Other People, everything would be perfect. Therefore, all problems could be blamed on Them, a strategy that enables Us to move forward without considering Our own complicity in said problems. If this sounds familiar and contemporary, that's because it is, and Richardson knows this. Her interpretation holds that the America made during Reconstruction is the one we inherited.

I tend to agree with that interpretation, insofar as the story of modern America cannot be told without an explanation of Reconstruction's various ambitions and failings, but I'm interested in how she goes about proving it.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Why I stopped eating meat

I've always considered meat an essential part of my diet, and meat-eating an important part of who I am. I have a great carnitas recipe, l love beef stew, and I have lots of opinions about hamburgers. For years, I scarcely went a day without meat in my diet. I learned to cook making meat dishes, and wooed my partner cooking meat. Meat is, and has always been, important to me.

And yet: I'm a vegetarian.

A few months ago, I changed my diet. Due to my aforementioned affinity for meat, I was eating too much of it. I decided to scale back my meat consumption. I didn't do this to remedy any acute health concerns--the choice was more about avoiding acute health concerns in the future. I made a rule: no meat during the week. During the week, I ate vegetarian. On the weekends, I ate what I liked. The rule worked, and I ate much less meat as a weekday vegetarian. That was good.

As I managed my cravings and held out for the weekend, I began to wonder if I should eat meat at all. Meat had always been a huge part of my diet. Then, it wasn't, and I felt about the same. Most of the time, my body felt better without meat. After a month or two, I still ate meat, but I no longer considered myself a meat-eater; that wasn't an important part of "me", anymore. For the first time, I questioned my decision to eat meat.

Scrutinizing my choice to eat meat was humiliating, in a way, because I confronted an unseemly lack of self-awareness about my eating habits, and a much broader lack of awareness about the consequences of my food choices. Food is such an important part of any life, and an especially important part of mine, but I had never thought about the ethics of eating before. I had, until recently, ignored them--willfully so.  Almost immediately, upon serious consideration of my eating habits, I realized that--for me--meat-eating was completely indefensible. The argument for this is very simple--humiliatingly simple:

(1) Animals are alive, know they're alive, and want to be alive.
(2) Any being satisfying criteria (1) has a right to life--just as I have a right to mine.

If other beings have a right to life, it is wrong to kill them just to eat them. A caveat: if I could not feed myself, for whatever reason, except with meat, I would do it. I don't believe that an animal's life is more important than mine, but this is more than killing an animal for the pleasure of eating it--it's killing an animal to live. In that case, killing an animal for food is justified, but I've always eaten meat for pleasure, not necessity. I've always been able to feed myself without eating meat, though I've never eaten vegetarian until now. When I consider the reason behind my desire to eat meat--meat tastes good--against the death that made my meat-eating possible, my reason stands out as terrible: frivolous, capricious, and cruel.

I haven't made mention of the suffering of farmed and slaughtered animals, though this is another reason to avoid meat (especially factory farmed meat). Animal suffering is another horrible consequence of a frivolous choice. Meat tastes good. But is that reason enough to torture and kill animals? Any arguments which answer "yes" resolve to the same thing: power justifies itself. Because animals are weak, and we can eat them, eating them is not wrong. This sort of argument, which is not an argument at all, is not just profoundly unsatisfying. It's dangerous. I'm thinking of all arguments of the same ilk which, historically, have been used to justify the exploitation of the vulnerable or weak--few have held up well over time.

I realize that this is radical. For someone who believes that animals do not have a right to live, none of what I've argued makes any sense. However, I would urge anyone who cares about their food, and who chooses to eat meat, to scrutinize that choice. For me, it was difficult, but worth it. In any case, it's good to think hard about eating, perhaps the most important (and most frequent) thing any of us ever do to affect our health and well-being.

Monday, July 1, 2013

What I read in June

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. I love lore, which is one reason I love history. The primary challenge of history is to synthesize lore into a story about the past. Speculative fiction and history, I would argue, face some of the same challenges to achieve authenticity, but fiction can avoid lore if it wants to. History cannot. Fiction, like history, must establish historical context to tell a coherent story--without a sense of time and place, a reader can't understand the stakes for a protagonist--but history is built of lore, while fiction can get away with conjuring historical context from symbols, images, finely observed detail, and passing references. I'm thinking of something like Doctorow's The March, a work that conjures the atmosphere of the Carolinas of 1864 to tell its story, but features less information about the events of the march than you could find in a few minutes skimming Wikipedia.

What does this have to do with A Game of Thrones? I decided to read the A Song of Ice and Fire novels after watching the first three seasons of the HBO adaptation, which frustrated me with its pointed lack of lore. The show conjures its historical context with imagery, atmosphere, and reluctant scenes of exposition, which, especially in the first season, tend to be very bad. A Game of Thrones has no end of lore. It's primary purpose, at times, is to deliver lore for lore's sake. The whole thing is a joyous gush of lore. The total lore I learned from reading the novel was vastly more than I learned in the first season of the show, and the lore per hour was greater as well. The whole thing was one long loregasm.

So it occurred to me, not long after beginning A Game of Thrones, that the novel (and the series) were one long history of Westeros. The histories of this world are told primarily through songs--its people are generally illiterate--and the series is called A Song of Ice and Fire. The first novel is the history of Ned Stark, the tragic, honorable Lord of Winterfell, and his family. To properly convey context, there is tons and tons of lore. It's great.

The story itself is quite gripping. One of the things I loved about the show, and enjoyed more in the books, was the handling of honor. Honor is valuable in Westeros, though not as valuable as shrewd practicality. The novel shows quite clearly how honor leads Ned Stark to destruction, endangering his family and bannermen. The novel shows that its characters care about honor, though many of them only pay it lip service. In Westeros, honor has value, but how much? That's one of the big questions of the novel.

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin. The second novel of A Song of Ice and Fire, and no less chock full of lore than the first. The story seemed less focused than in A Game of Thrones. A few characters spend the whole book wandering around, pretty much: Arya wanders with Yoren, then with Gendry and Hot Pie, then stops for a breath in Harrenhall, then escapes to wander again; Daenerys wanders the Red Waste, then wanders in Qarth; Bran does nothing, and ends up wandering north to the wall with Rickon. But there's so much good in all these scenes of wandering. Through Arya's eyes we see the desolation and horror of war for smallfolk. As Daenerys wanders, she matures into a leader. With Bran--well, I'm not quite sure what Bran's good for. Warg lore?

Though Sansa isn't my favorite character, her chapters became my favorites in this novel. In the first novel, Sansa believed in the existence of a world that never was: the world told in the songs, a just world of honor and beauty. After the execution of her father, she finally sees the world for what it is, but doesn't want to believe it. She still wants to believe in honor and beauty. Her chapters are haunted with the horror of realizing the world is much different than she thought it was, and much worse. Joffrey forcing Sansa to look at her father's head, spiked to the top of a wall of the Red Keep, was the most brutal thing to happen to any character in the whole book.

Friday, June 28, 2013

We moved

Emily and I moved to a new place at the beginning of June. We didn't go too far--only about 2.5 miles--but we're much closer to the ocean, and the weather is much cooler. Naturally, we were worried that the cat would freak out. (We have decided to keep the cat, by the way, after my allergies became manageable with antihistamines and a few cat-free zones in the house.) The cat has not freaked out. Our new yard doesn't have grasshoppers or butterflies, which he liked to hunt in our old backyard, but he finds ways to keep himself entertained.

At our old place, I didn't have any stuff up on the living room walls. Since I moved in after Emily and Robin had lived there for almost a year, all the common room wall space was already taken. Here, though, about half of the stuff in the common rooms is mine, and half is Emily's. Part of my half is this:

It's a collage of maps and brochures from historical sites (mostly Civil War stuff), a tiny slice of all the junk I accumulated during my trip in 2011.

I've taken a few long walks around the new place, and there's some cool stuff nearby. We're at the west end of the mesa, and the canyons around us carve the streets into weird shapes and sizes. I've already learned some amazing local history involving an old graveyard and its forsaken headstones. Yikes! I'll post something detailed about that next week.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Looking Backwards at the Civil War

Tony Horwitz had an article in The Atlantic last week. I'd recommend it for anyone looking for a quick, entry-level primer into both the Civil War and one of the persistent difficulties of history: reading the past with knowledge of the present, it's easy to use the present to justify the past. In other words, it's easy to break causality when telling a history.
Gary Gallagher, a leading Civil War historian at the University of Virginia, argues that the long-reigning emphasis on slavery and liberation distorts our understanding of the war and of how Americans thought in the 1860s. "There's an Appomattox syndrome--we look at Northern victory and emancipation and read the evidence backward," Gallagher says.
Can a war be called "good" or "bad," judging results alone? In the case of the American Civil War, very few might have predicted that the conflict would end slavery. The casus belli of the ACW was the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter (though some might place the beginning of the war later), a reaction to the stress of a secession brought about by a southern desire to protect the continued expansion of American slavery into new territory. Did contemporary southern whites (and black slaves) believe the ACW was a war to decide the ultimate fate of slavery? Maybe. But northerners did not. The North went to war because it had been attacked, to quell a rebellion, and restore the Union. Emancipation came later, and the abolition of slavery later after that. Shouldn't the "goodness" or "badness" of the war for each belligerent be measured by the quality of their goals versus the potential cost in lives and property value?

Horwitz makes another excellent point at the end of the article.
Looking backwards, and hitting the pause button at the Gettysburg Address or the passage of the 13th amendment, we see a "good" and successful war for freedom. If we focus instead on the run-up to war, when Lincoln pledged to not interfere with slavery in the South, or pan out to include the 1870s, when the nation abandoned Reconstruction, the story of the Civil War isn't quite so uplifting.
Horwitz hints here at the real trouble with most stories about the Civil War: they end when the war does. In truth, the Civil War is somewhere in the middle of larger story about racial justice. The Emancipation Proclamation is a beginning. There are hundreds of historical sites and museums dedicated to the Civil War. Where are the sites and museums for Reconstruction?

A highly recommended article. It's a big topic, but Horwitz manages to cover a lot of ground with few words.

Monday, June 24, 2013

What I read in May

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Non-fiction, on the morality and practicalities of raising, killing, and eating animals. The book is primarily an argument against factory farming, and in that capacity it succeeds. I think this is less because the book is well-argued and more because factory farming is such an easy target. There are some striking passages, however. For example: Foer relates the (near science-fictional) account of his night break-in to a turkey farm to provide the chicks--which are only fed, watered, and medicated only enough to prevent general death--with food and water. He finds that the farm is a locked warehouse, the floor covered with densely-packed chickens suffering from all manner of deformities and ailments. His partner, the animal activist who let him tag along, mercy-kills a chick she finds which is beyond help.

In the end Foer concludes that eating animals can be moral, so long as the animals we kill and eat have good and happy lives. Note that this standard, that the lives of eaten animals be good and happy, is a step beyond the criteria that their lives not be inhumane.

I read the book because I thought I'd find something about the philosophy of eating animals, but I didn't. What I found was more about the morality of raising animals, and a call to action for people to stop purchasing factory farmed meat. Even so, I found myself agreeing with the general bent of the ideas in the book, which, generally, spring from a desire to treat animals compassionately.

Jagannath by Karen Tidbeck. A collection of very weird short stories. I felt the stories were kind of slight after reading my first few of them--that there wasn't enough in them to really make them worth my while. By the time I'd finished all of them, I felt differently. The stories have stuck with me, especially their settings, and their feel. Tidbeck is really good at evoking the feeling that something strange and wonderful and frightening is happening, just beyond knowing, especially in stories like "Pyret", "Brita's Holiday Village", and "Reindeer Mountain".

I think I missed how good the first few stories were because of the prose. The prose is clear and simple; something like the opposite of Cathrynne M. Valente. Even though I know better, sometimes I get caught up in how complicated the prose is as a measure of how good the writing is, when I know that (usually) the opposite is true--complicated writing makes stories worse, not better. Really, Tidbeck's prose is one of Jagannath's best attributes. The tones, settings, and characters of the stories are never obscured by overwriting.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

I was robbed

I was robbed a little more than a week ago. The burglar(s) tore off a screen, came in through an unlocked window, made a mess, tossed our laptops in a backpack, and took off. No one was hurt, including Halloween, because no one was home. I came home by myself about half an hour after dark. It's likely that the burglar left only a few minutes before I arrived, based on talks with our neighbors and the likelihood that it happened after sunset. Emily and I had a rough few days after that. We felt insecure at home, insecure when we left home, and, since we (mostly me) are addicted to our laptops, at loose ends.

The most meaningful casualty of the robbery was, of course, this blog. I haven't posted since it happened (to be honest, since about a week before. A bad omen?). Time to get back on track.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A few more thoughts on Oblivion (and Homeland, too)

Oblivion reminds me of Homeland. Jack Harper is a lot like Nick Brody, the marine held captive for several years during the Iraq War before being freed. Each man is captured by his enemy. Each man is shown kindness by the leader of his enemies, whom eventually becomes his trusted adviser and/or guide. Each man become a suicide bomber (though, ultimately, Brody decides to abandon his plan). Oblivion and Homeland both strive to create characters whom an audience will empathize and sympathize with. Both face the challenge of making a terrorist sympathetic to their audiences. The two stories do this is slightly different ways. 

First, consider Nick Brody. Homeland humanizes him and, at least by the end of season 1, empathize with him. The show achieves this, even as Brody seems committed to terrorism against America, by divorcing Brody's motivations from the ideological. Brody never self-identifies as a terrorist. He becomes a bomber to kill one man (not incidentally, the Vice President of the United States) who orchestrated the drone strike which killed Brody's sort-of-adoptive son* (not coincidentally, the son of Abu Nasir, terrorist mastermind). Killing the VP has political implications, obviously, but manipulating politics isn't Brody's goal--this opens the door for us to understand and sympathize with him, and helps us categorize him as something other than "terrorist". If he were at all motivated by ideology, instead of revenge, it seems unlikely than American audiences could stomach his character--if he we committed to destroying America, Americans would have a hard time empathizing with him.

Now consider Jack Harper. Jack's motivations are entirely political by the end of the film: he wants the occupying aliens to leave Earth. The best way to do this, in his estimation, is to pilot a spaceship carrying a nuclear bomb into an alien control center. The goal is totally ideological. In fact, this final, ideological goal is at odds with Harper's goal for the rest of the film, which is to be reunited with his former wife. By killing himself, he makes that impossible, obviously**.

What allows Oblivion's protagonist to be a sympathetic suicide bomber is its remove from reality. The film's world, in 2077, is sufficiently different from our own, and Jack Harper's cause is sufficiently well motivated, that an (American) audience never parses him as a terrorist. Jack Harper is one of the good guys. He does what he needs to do to promote the good guy cause. And he's played by Tom Cruise. For all that Tom Cruise is, he's no terrorist. This is why the movie can tell its story. It's what makes the movie watchable.

But what makes the movie valuable, beyond its visuals, is its commitment to showing how its protagonist is radicalized and decides to become a martyr in a context not (totally) unlike our modern world. Oblivion shows us a character who chooses to kill himself for a political cause, using the methods of modern terrorism.

Why is this valuable? If a legitimate goal of art is to create characters and make us understand who they are, both Oblivion and Homeland have tried, in some small way, to help us understand our (America's) enemies. Both the film and the TV series chicken out from providing us with true enemies of America to grapple with--Oblivion is set in another, post-national time, and Homeland's bomber denies terrorist ideology. But, because both of them went halfway there, we might be able to imagine the rest.

*The tragedy--the death of a young boy in an U.S. drone strike--is incredibly simple to understand. The U.S. has done something wrong--they've bombed a school in the hope that Abu Nasir will be there. He isn't, and the bomb kills dozens of children. The scenario has so little nuance that it feels manipulative.

**The movie is clever about this bit by having a final scene of reconciliation between a clone of Jack Harper (not our hero, the martyr) and his wife. A bit of manipulation to make us feel better about his suicide.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

I came home last Sunday to find...

this note on my welcome mat. From one of the little girls who lives next door.

Monday, May 6, 2013

So, I'm allergic to my cat

I'm allergic to this cute little guy (but not allergic to asparagus, thank goodness).

Having an allergy has been, so far, a lot worse than a normal sickness. It's not so much the symptoms, though the symptoms (which, for me, involve a lot of lower respiratory trouble) are worse. It's the idea that my environment--specifically, my home--makes me sick.

I am also allergic to mold. I know this because I slept in a car with moldy food in it and suffered the same symptoms I now suffer from the cat. At the time I experienced those symptoms, I felt scared and disoriented. I didn't know why I felt so bad. It took several nights of chest pain and labored breath (while sleeping in the car) and several days of relatively easy breathing with no pain (while out of the car) for me to connect the dots, search through the stuff in my car, discover the mold, and remove it from my environment. Once the mold was removed, all my symptoms disappeared. The Mold Saga wasn't a lot of fun, but it was pretty simple: I felt sick, recognized my environment was toxic, removed the toxin, and felt better.

This is why the cat allergy is so much worse. I want to keep the cat. This means that the third step in the above progression--remove the toxin--isn't so easy. I never had much of an emotional attachment to the mold I removed from my car, but I'm attached to Halloween.

Since learning I'm allergic to the cat I've started taking an anti-histamine and limiting my exposure to him while at home. So far, it's been ok--I've felt a lot better. But I'm not sure it's sustainable. A home is a place to feel safe, secure, and relaxed. If I worry about interacting with the cat too much while at home, or worry about being home at all, home stops being a place of relaxation. And if I still experience symptoms, even while minding my relationship to the cat, my home isn't really safe, either. In that case, the house would just be some place that makes me anxious and sick.

I don't want to give up the cat, and I don't want to jeopardize my health. So far, I've resisted the fact that those two things may be mutually exclusive.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Books I read in April

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. I'm not sure where it's coming from, but I have the feeling that if I were better read, I wouldn't have liked this book so much. Maybe it's because, after reading Rahul Kanakia's review for Strange Horizons, I get the sense that Kanakia's unhappiness with the structure and atmosphere of the book stems more from how widely read he is in the pre-apocalyptic asteroid and/or police procedural genres. Luckily for me, I'm not well read. It's got a nice story, a nice setting, a nice tone, and enough lightness to avoid collapsing into something horribly depressing. The central character's relentless enthusiasm for his work helps the novel keep its shape, too.

The premise is this: in sixth months, an asteroid will hit Earth and likely end human life. Detective Hank Palace finds a hanger (a death by hanging, and a likely suicide) that doesn't sit right with him. For some reason, he thinks it's a murder. And off we go.

Part of what I liked about the book is how readable it is, while at the same time not throwing away its sentences. A few months ago, I read The Black Box, the Michael Connelly police prodecural mystery novel. That's a very readable novel because only every tenth sentence is important to read. Not so with The Last Policeman, which is super readable because its sentences are so well constructed. A sequel to this novel comes out in July. I'm looking forward to it.

About Writing by Samuel R. Delany. Wow. What a book. Samuel R. Delany is so obviously smart, and has so obvious a mastery of his subject, that useful information oozes out of this book. It would be hard to read it without getting some of that good ooze all over you. That sounds weird. Maybe I should move on from this analogy.

Writing advice is addictive. It's easy to get lost in the internet reading articles about "how to improve your writing" or "how to get an editor's attention." This bad advice is so addictive because: 1) it's related to writing, so you can convince yourself you're working on your writing without actually, you know, writing anything, and; 2) it's so easy to digest. Typical advice is stuff like this:
5 Techniques for Good Craftsmanship
  1. Proceed slowly and take care.
  2. To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand.
  3. Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you.
  4. Develop craftsmanship through years of wide reading.
  5. Rewrite and edit until you achieve the most felicitous phrase/sentence/paragraph/page/story/chapter.
Sounds great, right? The only problem is it's vague, and writer-specific. Using the advice is hard, because there's so little actual advice there to take. It's just cliche and preference.

Here's a passage from About Writing:
Any two facts clustered around a single pronoun begin to generate a character in the reader's mind: "She was sixteen years old, and already five-foot eleven." Though only a ghost, she is already more or less vivid depending on the reader's experience. As soon as we get ready to add a third fact, however, we encounter the problem of psychological veracity. All subsequent information about our character (let's call her Sam) has to be more of less congruent with what already exists in the gap between these two facts.
This is so clear, and so useful. The point is so clearly made that it seems obvious once you've read it, but this is non-trivial information to an unpracticed writer like me. The theoretical jargon ("the problem of psychological veracity") is rooted to a specific writerly problem: that of making a character seem real with words. I can apply this knowledge: I have a character who is x and y; can she also be z? Only maybe.

Delany's practical advice is well grounded in theory, and he explains clearly what to do, if not always how to do it. That's another strength of Delany's book: he acknowledges that there's not always a "how to" in fiction. Some things the artist can only figure out for herself. Delany emphasizes again and again how difficult it is to succeed as a writer. The reminder is included, like most else in the book, because it's true and useful.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


[Note: If you don't want Oblivion spoiled, you probably shouldn't read this. However: knowing the movie's plot beforehand probably won't diminish the experience of seeing the movie--it might enhance it, really, because you won't have to wonder what the hell is going on the whole way through.]

It's something of a spoiler to call Oblivion post-colonial sci-fi. We don't learn until the last 30 minutes of the film that aliens (or maybe an AI?) have colonized and almost completely depopulated Earth. The last dregs of humanity cling tenuously to life below the planet's surface. The movie's narrative twists and turns and strains credulity, but the setting can be easily understood: a powerful space-faring society has taken control of Earth for its resources, driven a small resistance force of humans underground, and turned the surface of the planet to desert.

Almost nothing in Oblivion is new. The post-colonial setting I described has been explored in science fiction over and over again. The plot points and the images the film employs have often been yanked whole from other, better movies*. Jack Harper, played by Tom Cruise, is a lot like Wall-E--though less lifelike. Yet, hidden in the pastiche, there's something unsettling about Oblivion. Here it is: Oblivion is a movie about how Jack Harper becomes a suicide bomber.

"Terrorist" is a difficult word, but its the best one I have to describe Jack Harper, who employs the tactics of modern terrorism. At the end of the film, Harper pilots a vessel into a strategic location and detonates a nuclear bomb, martyring himself in the hope of shocking the aliens into leaving--in other words, martyring himself to achieve a political objective.  The specifics of the scenario hit pretty close to home, too: a great military power wages a drone campaign against a technologically inferior enemy, which spawns a resistance. The big difference between Oblivion and America in 2013 is, in Oblivion, the good guys are the terrorists, and the bad guys have the drones. Is Oblivion a criticism of U.S. foreign policy? Of drone strikes? Is it a pre-emptive criticism of the police state the world might become?

I'm not so sure the film wants to be any of those things. This is a summer blockbuster, after all. But at its heart, Oblivion is a story about a martyr. It's a story about how people become martyrs and, if they're good guys, why martyrs are heroes.

*Oblivion's drones quite resemble machines from The Matrix; the film's use of cloning was stolen from Moon; Tom Cruise's pastoral getaway on Earth reminds strongly of the pre-mission setting in Solaris; rebel heroes wear black, villains wear white, a la Star Wars; the movie's climax is taken from "Battlestar Galactica," or, more likely, the climax of Independence Day, or, still more likely, the destruction of the Death Star; etc, etc, etc.