Thursday, October 29, 2009

Review: Son of a Witch, by Gregory Maguire

On the face of it, "The Wicked Years" series, which re-examines, of all things, L. Frank Baum's Oz to uncover all sorts the bitter political tension and personal injustice lurking beneath the children's narrative, is not high on the list of books that really needed to be written. Wicked only entered my consciousness because it was ubiquitous in the airports, and little did I realize that it'd already been adapted to a popular musical, and following that, Maguire was moved to write sequels. I could have bought a Wicked tote bag with my purchase if I wanted to, and the book came with a sheet of little promotional witchy stickers. Now that I'm into the series, it means that I'm in on the whole phenomenon, and I hate that! Thanks a lot, bright.

I liked how Wicked managed to carve out a complex and sympathetic individual out of what had heretofore been a cardboard evil, and Son of a Witch performs the same feat for what had been, until then, a non-character. I don't mean to say that Liir had been overlooked by the author, but rather that he was written as a Ralph Wiggum, an unwelcome tagalong of probable-but-unsure progeny, an uncomfortable little non-sequitur, a chubby blank slate of a kid that tended to gravitate toward authority only to get ignored or abused by it. [And why "Liir"? I'm pretty sure he's Maguire's creation, and it's a name with mountains of connotation for an English-language writer, approximately none of which is yet evident.]

The bulk of the second novel has Liir, older now, struggling to fill in the body of motivations and sympathies that drives ordinary people, and to get past his own burgeoning self-contempt at this apartness. Liir witnesses state-sanctioned horrors, but nonetheless gravitates to an anonymous military career as a means to keep himself fed, and because it relieves him of choosing his own path. The atrocities that he sees--and under orders, finally commits--eventually break through his rationalizations, and the plot is pieced together from that point, but I wouldn't call it an epiphany. The compelling part about the character is that there is no moral bluster about his conversion, and there's not really any forgiveness. Liir retains much of his fundamental weakness and bitterness, but (I don't think it's spoiling the novel to say), he manages to move history forward through what would only be called strength of character by an outside observer. It's a well-handled balance, and it is satisfying that Maguire had no obligation to topple the edifice of Liir's individuality to satisfy the source material, like he did with the original witch. The world of the sequel is, on the whole, better thought-out and fit-together than in Wicked, as the best middles often are.

The blurbs spin the series as an analysis of the subtleties of good and evil. I don't think that's accurate. Elphaba (the witch) and Liir have unlovable personality faults (a simmering misanthropy in the former, an uncentered character in the latter), but their sin is dissidence and their motivations for revolt are humanitarian (or rather, Animalitarian). It's certainly not malice. The evil in the book is the official sort, popular, codified and systemic, but it is not vague. If there is difficult nuance at work here, it comes from mapping this story onto the original Oz books, and onto our lives outside of the book.

Maguire doesn't quite cross the line into political and religious satire though, even if he gets close, and the story isn't exactly a "straight" version of fantasy either, as there is some typical magic-and-wonder stuff here, and things seem to behave, at least partly, by fairyland rules. Like many a good fantasy yarn, the whole thing is set in motion by an external cross-worlds plot device that unfolds like destiny, but played out by typical human motivations. Or maybe not typically human. The characters border on the archetypical, but don't quite get there either. Our Ozians seem to be, as a rule, more articulate, intelligent and self-aware than your normal Earthling (and to be more than they imagine themselves). Letting every character be a walking info-dump, even a coy one, can be annoyingly facile, but I found that I liked it here, found it organic to Maguire's not-quite-mythical Elsewhere. Early in the book, for example, Liir has a conversation with the Scarecrow (that one), who reveals himself as a political pawn, and gives the boy some advice. The wordplay on knowledge is entertaining, and it's clear that the Scarecrow is a canny but self-deprecating fellow, whose brains, or lack thereof, are more about ignorance than anything. What little we see of Dorothy, we find her more normal by human standards, which is to say direct, insipid, and loathed.

A land like Oz (which let's not forget, was originally written as a sort of escape from midwestern life of the Populist era) is ripe for this sort revisionism--the story of such a harmonious productive land really does have a resemblance to some bullshit political propaganda. The land is a little weird. It feels a little small and underpopulated (the approximate acrage of Kansas seems about the biggest it might be) to support that combination of diversity, technology, military and economy, and no one really marvels at these malevolent, intelligent dragons, which are dispatched from the plot far too easily and anticlimactically (even if teh circumstances worked well for the characters). The landscape seems artificial and staged compared to the reality of the characters, and I want to compare it to books that explore human nature honestly, but in odd microcosm, like, as I mentioned last time, The Iron Dragon's Daughter, or John Crowley's The Deep. But for all that, the Wicked years don't quite trip over into allegory either. If anything, Maguire twists this notion just a little more, intending that our world--Dorothy's world--imitates theirs as much as the reverse, where we are the alien.

So, it's a more interesting literary niche than the embossed, cut-out covers and the popularity would have you believe, but I seem to recall a saying about that. Strong in character and an intriguing setting. I bought the third one, but discreetly. I neglected the tote bag.

[As an aside: there was a musical instrument featured that had two sets of strings, one across the other at right angles. I took it that the second set wasn't fingered or plucked (although maybe they could be struck), and was meant to resonate with notes on the normal set. I thought it was a clever idea which may actually work. I'm not sure how much just-resonating strings would add, and if the thing wasn't perfectly tuned, I think they'd sound like total ass, but still. Is the instrument completely made up?]

Saturday, October 24, 2009


In the spirit of procrastination...

When I was in grad school, I drove a '87 Honda Accord, with the pop-up lights, burning oil, rusty rear end, and a prototypical "luxury" cockpit that pretty much all the fleets of all the makers have since adopted.  I am not a car lover, but I did really like that car.  I fixed a few vehicles in those years out of painful necessity, but most of those efforts were jury-rigging a couple of front ends thanks to my awful driving skills and occasional bad luck.  The only one I really wanted to repair was the Accord.  Biggest job I ever attempted. 

It was just about ten years ago that I had the top of the engine spread out all over the landlord's driveway.  One of the spark plugs had blown out--the threads just gave way and the the thing popped right off--and I had to take the head off and tap a new hole and rethread it with one of those heli-coil dealies.  Fun stuff.  you could really see the black gunk on top of the cylinders, and I suspected that the oil leak was from the rods above, which was I could address, having it all apart like that, but I was already out of money and in over my head in terms of capability.  The car had negligible value, and the repair got me a good extra year out of the vehicle.  I felt really good about that repair.  The car never stopped performing for me, but it did eventually fail emissons.  If it had been the burning oil or the rust, I might have tried to get even more driving out of it. 

I feel that this is how cars should be handled.  Serially buying new cars is absurd, and something well worth procrastinating.  Every mile that you can get free and clear of any lien, well, that's money in the bank as far as I'm concerned.  Cars should be driven until they're kaput--until the cost of maintaining them surpasses the cost of replacing them.  But when do you make the call?

I learned this morning that my Subaru ('02 Legacy) is suffering an oil leak, from the head gasket and possibly elsewhere.  I don't think I'm at a point in my life where I'll try and pull off a major and necessary repair myself (I don't even have a garage), but these guys are quoting me on the order of $2500 for all the gasket (guess)work they think it requires (might as well replace the timing belt too, etc.).  What's worse, since I've already been procrastinating so long on getting the exhaust replaced (gradually getting noiser and stinkier), the vehicle is looking at three thousand dollars in repairs.

I'm pretty upset.  This is the second car in a row that required major surgery at the 100000 mile mark, and I was hoping to get more than that out of a Subaru, get to that point of pure, delicious, economic gravy.  The car is allegedly worth $5k retail, so I'm not quite underwater yet, but I'm nagged with the question of how best to maintain this thing.  Do I pay for the head gasket (and other) repair, and will that get me to the fiscally pleasing ridiculously high mileage I'd prefer, or is it time start riding it into the ground?  If I do the exhaust, and then just pour oil into it until it just siezes, will that get me another year or two?  Anybody have experience with these cars?

There are a couple of complications, too.  Unfortunately, we have to get the exhaust fixed before it can even be tested for emissions in three months, and it's not a given that it will pass.  The second issue is that we kind of hate the car--the seats are incredibly uncomfortable, the doors are flimsy, and the wind whistles through the windows in a most annoying and constant way.  I'd still rather get another couple years out of it.

So, a decision on how long we should try to gimp this thing along has to be made by January.  We're saving up for whichever choice, which is a huge impediment to our general plans.  Which to choose?  Well, that's going to be put off a little longer.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Asses' Parliament

I suppose I should be careful about digging for relevance in books I read when I was still a teenager. I mean, provocative scenes often stick with me, but the context can disappear after a while. (One of the look-smarter-than-you-are tricks I've learned as an adult is to reconstruct context from a few mnemomic cues.) When it comes to anything I absorbed at nineteen years old, when I was still learning the basic anatomy of that sort of thing, it's a good bet that I missed all but the most obvious meanings in the first place. There is a scene, for example, in Zora Neale Hurston's vivid novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God that I've never gotten out of my head. An old mule, fattened and indolent and free, wanders off and dies. The locals perform an elaborate funeral ceremony, elevating the beast to the status of human and then some, imagining and celebrating a full mulish theology, which is followed by an equally formal, but more practical, sermon evaluated by the carrion birds. "What does this scene mean?" my young self reflected in the margins, in red ink (a short-lived habit born out of the novelty of buying my own literature), probably on assignment, but also genuinely struck with the imagery.

The novel was set in an all-black community in Florida (based on Hurston's home town, evidently, and set during her lifetime), at a time when it was filling itself out politically. The themes of the book include freedom, autonomy, and power relationships, and in a passage like that, the shift of perspective is both entertaining and a little unsettling. The uncomfortable observation is that free people didn't do much better than re-discover hierarchies, and that the citizens ultimately suffer the same practical morality as every other creature does. But there is also the excitement and humor that comes with the privelege of establishing a society of your own at long last. Tempting that sort of universality is one reason this novel gets treated as an important book today (or at least as one worthy of an introductory college course), and finding such evocative connections to a a poor southern black community of the last century, to women, are powerful tools to crack open anyone's parochial thinking, or they should be, and anyway they did that time.

So I hope that's enough apology for the segue into what I hope will be an entertaining post. I am not attempting to pretend, amid a period of comfort and privlege, that I was oppressed in any way (I hope I have a little more awareness than that), but I can share in the humor of our unfortunate human organizational tendencies, which copy themselves everywhere. I learned pretty much everything I needed to know about government by the time I was nineteen.

The truth is, we're awash in government and economic models, many of which even function. Take the corporation (please): it's like some modern version of feudalism, in which hordes of peasants labor with negligible representation in exchange for the protection of health plans and subsistence wages, and which suffer under the authority of middle-managing vassals, and from which the owners gather in the lion's share of the gain. ["But that's just capitalism," you say, and mutter "Marxist" under your breath, "and you're not defining feudalism accurately either there." There's all sorts of gray areas between the various socioeconomics brands though, and I reply that I'm merely talking about the inflexibility of the org chart, and the unequal distribution of the benefits. The difference between a dynamic, viable business structure and a peasant mentality is a matter degree and of attitude.]

Likewise, most of us have occupied long periods of lives in family units, which tend to be organized like a sort of authoritarian socialism. Benefits are distributed generously to everyone according to a central plan, but representation varies steeply with age. And the strict heirarchy dominates everyday affairs too, otherwise it'd take us a year to all get in the car. Primary school was like this too, but worse, probably because the scale gets a few more correlation lengths between the students, the authorities and the "owners".

Donkeys are a natural stand-in for college kids, if you ask me. Let loose from Mom and Dad's tyranny, but not yet under the iron heel of corporate overlords, those young people make a lot of noise, eat anything, cart around drunks, and act, well, asinine. When I was that age, I found direct democracy to be the hideous social experiment of choice. There were maybe twenty or thirty of us cohabitating that decrepit building, and the responsibilities included, more or less, keeping it clean (or at least keeping the smell down), some basic building management, keeping a non-threatening community presence (i.e., appointing someone to answer the door and look respectable if the authorities called), managing the cook, managing the budget, as well as a number of minor things like keeping the kegs working and making sure someone signed up the hockey team in time. The accounting was mostly the food- and maintenance-related budget, presumably some dues, and a couple of really irresponsible seasonal parties that are surely outlawed by now. Good times. To get the idea of the kind of tight ship we ran, one year, a recent house accountant started off the semester by pitching us a pyramid scheme.

Dennis would have been proud to know that all decisions were ratified in special biweekly (or something) meetings by a simple majority, etc., and were a fine outlet for sarcasm and mockery. They were generally kind of fun, but curiously, believers could sometimes emerge from the malcontents (I may have been guilty of it myself once in a while), who, from time to time, would start to treat the pretend formality like it meant something. Whenever the rare moral gesture was demanded, or some appeal to sentiment was made sincerely, you could be assured that the fucking meeting would extend approximately forever, and accomplish precisely nothing. There's no bigger waste of time than a public whine for dignity, and yet an open forum seems to engender such things. Another bizarre ethic that I recall evolving was the need to beat the working budget. "Hey, we can cut the dry ice out of the fall Bacchanal." "What do we do with the extra?" "Save it!" "Wait, what?" I mean, that sort of accounting doesn't make much sense when you're just balancing your outlays vs. your expenses. (No one suggested that we do something else with it, or cut the budget accordingly next semester.) In a less harmless legislative body, with less common interest, we'd have cutting corners for the purposes of graft and/or profit is what we'd have.

Of course, since the general assembly was so obviously ineffective, most of the actual decisions were made behind the scenes, by a steering committee, leaving the rest of us useless slackers to go on with what we were doing anyway. (I have no idea how the select meetings went, really.) It was great most of the time, but it's also a fine illustration of how power concentrates all by itself, in that case by nothing more evil than the perpetuation of presumed responsibility.

I hesitate to argue anecdotally, but I've gotten myself in the mood for universalizing. If I ever write a book, I hope it'll include such a section with a biting committee parody. In any case, I'm sure that equal collaboration within any group over a certain size is doomed. Yes, we accomplished more mischief collectively than was possible individually, but the tradeoff was the evolution of power structures, and the inevitable group uselessness. All of us together, as the adage goes, were stupider than any of us alone. Maybe a better group of Athenians could have managed a number greater than thirty, but all we had was our parliament of asses.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row was picked up on a recommendation from a year or two ago (See? I do follow through on those things once in a while), a comment on an old post of a fictional bash attended by us online types. An elaborate Goodbye Cruel World sort of thing, and, well, many of us have been there. The novel, I was told, was similar in spirit. It had a party, for one thing, and caught a similar theme. It was a good observation.

The story takes place in Monterey, CA in the early 1940s, during the peak of the fishing industry there, based, at least loosely, on real characters inhabiting an actual nook of its skid row. The novel focuses on the off hours, in dawn and in twilight, where transience is a palpable sensation, but which also reflects in the light a burnished, etched-in-stone quality, like a frozen memory, or a sepia-toned photograph, or, to dig into Steinbeck's preferred metaphor, as the earnest scurrying of the diverse marine animals that flourish for a few hours in tide pools between the ocean's inevitable scouring. I don't know if Steinbeck realized the sardine industry was as ephemeral as its population (possibly he did--he wrote this after a stint as an amateur marine biologist), but that fits in well enough. The industry that holds all these people in place isn't much confronted, nor is the war, but you can almost infer the brutal patterns of society from these large omissions. These inscrutable but measurable forces may have selected the population of this private ecosystem, but the novel concerns itself with what they do when confined to the same pool.

The storytelling is one of those wandering mosaics, a series of interconnected vignettes that focus on one or two characters at a time, letting them cross, and interact a moment before diverging off into another sequence, with another's point of view. I don't know if this is the best version of this technique I've come across--U.S.A., for a recent example, might come out ahead in overall points scored--but Steinbeck tours us through the lives of some colorful men and women, and finds in there some universal life truths, humor, misery, joy and passion, in an admirable economy of words. There's depth in there, or at least angles of light that imply depth. (I found the handful of authorial segues and introductions to be lovely enough to rob them of their running comparisons.) If, for example, his painter Henri lacks the genius to grasp the philosophical implications in art that he imagines he's after, then his existence itself comes together as a fine tableau to describe a certain balance between connection and the individual burden of holding against a hostile world and the inevitable unknown.

That sounds like the Steinbeck I remember, except rather than doubling as a painful object lesson, Henri is treated with a tender humor. I feel I must have read a dozen of his novels when I was young (it was closer to three). He gets assigned to students because the writing isn't difficult and the themes are impossible to miss, but Cannery Row, while taking the familiar ideas, feels like a different creature altogether. The humor is part of it, and there is gentle affection all around, but Steinbeck also makes a point to hold back on the judgment and observe the community. The soul-crushing hopelessness that was the finale of those other novels is only a prelude here, and the difference is huge. The life which follows, tough but dear, is allowed to be savored. Melancholy and joyfulness...where did I read that?

Another thing I liked about the novel was the diversity of its residents, ranging from Mack and the boys, the bums who have, after their fashion, mastered a life of complicated idleness, to Doc, the biologist shacked up in the lab supply business across the street. The rest of the characters radiate in connections to Mack and Doc, and occupy various social strata in between them. What's brilliant about the Cannery Row community is the lack of pretension that Steinbeck places between its members. They all live in their roles in the community hierarchy, but the author locates the common experience they share. Mack spars with the Chinese shopkeeper, and Doc reluctantly takes on his mantle as local wise man, but on the other hand, Lee Chong goes to Mack's parties, and gives in to his schemes even though he knows better, and Doc treats his neighbors with dignity and patience. Each individual is an indispensable cog in the community, and they have everything in common and yet they all have those unreachable places that shelter their own failures. Lonely in a crowd, geniuses and lunatics clinging together, less different than we want to admit, and yeah, point taken.

Monday, October 12, 2009

No Really, Red. Let's Go.

"Hello, Dr. H--?"

It is well understood that going through a doctoral program takes some combination of brains, motivation, and persistence. I'd tell you it's one of those "pick two" problems, but for my money, it's the last category that is really the indispensable one, especially considering that persistence can look like a lot like inertia or procrastination when you get down to it. A high tolerance for criticism (constructive or otherwise) is helpful too, and extremes of humility or arrogance can be fine defenses against this sort of thing, and are always essential traits in any field. Brains may or may not include any ability for life-planning ability or street smarts, depending on how the opportunity costs weigh against how well you expect to live afterward. As for me, I've been lucky that my scant brains have generally kept pace just barely ahead of my even more unassuming motivation, and I've managed to Peter-Principle my way farther in life than I ever had a right to expect. The gratuitous self-loathing that comes with all that high-level underachievement is just a bonus.

Anyway, what I'm getting at here is that I don't put very much stock in the honorific. I certainly don't use it outside of professional settings, where it might make a proposal or report an iota more professional-looking (and I'm suspicious of people who wave that crap around, including and maybe especially physicians), and no one calls me "Dr. H--" unless they're trying to sell me something. Of course this was no exception.

"Can I help you?"

In certain situations, I don't obligated to control my emotions with a great deal of maturity. This line was delivered with my best Squidward impression.

"Hi, this is Smiley McCutiepie, class of '11, calling from the RPI alumni association--"

Of course you are. "RPI" has been coming up on my caller ID for a month now, and the odds weren't good that they wanted to offer a paid interview for Rensselaer magazine. Incidentally, I don't know when they went back to going by their initials again, but I am glad that they have.

"--and if it's okay we'd just like to verify your contact information--"

Well, it gets me the aforementioned magazine, which indeed gives me some fine distraction as the girls pound on the door.

'--and if you are interested, I can tell you about some of the exciting things that are happening on campus."

RPI, which of course you know, is a small-ish, somewhat respected science and engineering school in a region that's only "upstate" New York if you live in the city. It was made famous by the accomplishments of its old, great civil engineers, and by opening up and expanding to engage a host of technically-awakened GIs after the war. I'd say the engineering programs are (or were) more academically oriented than comparable ones, sacrificing a little of the hands-on, and (I am sorry to say) a little of the graduate research effort. It has enough character of its own to avoid calling it a second-string MIT, but such a comparison is probably inevitable anyway. RPI students seem to maintain a sort of geeky joie de vivre that I'd seen stamped out of MIT students. (Of course i saw it stamped out of my fellow engineers too, in real time, but those guys were decent enough to still hang out and drink with us.) I was pretty happy there. If piling higher and deeper had to be in the cards, and given that I seemed in tune with some of the chemistry staff, I should have stuck around. (I just wasn't into the idea of hanging out with the faculty after avoiding them so successfully for four years.)

Smiley explained that the campus happenings of interest to alumni included (1) the gigantic new Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) building, and (2) a brand new athletic village.

As for EMPAC, I have to admit it sounds impressive in principle, and a performance center and huge panoramic displays are great assets, even if it lacks that charming shoestring nerdiness of showing recent movie hits in the big lecture hall. And there's never a bad excuse to buy a supercomputer. I'm biased that they sought to erect this behemoth on a piece of my own personal collegiate nostalgia--I used to like to read on that hillside when the weather was nice--and you know, I can't shake the feeling that it's such an obvious knockoff of MIT's Media Lab. Better than MIT's, the press releases argue, but to argue that admits the comparison. The building tempts ass-ugliness too, more because it actually has an ass (note the photo), than by dint of sheer garishness. (No, that honor also goes to MIT, for the famous Tim Burton Stata center, that is now getting Frank Gehry sued. Evidently the architect--not RPI trained, I'll add--thought long and hard about how to make that monstrosity stand up, but didn't account for where the water would go when it rained.) I also don't like that EMPAC fails to match the odd-but-functional marriage of nineteenth century brick-and-ivy and 1970s brutalism that makes up the central campus, and in all, it's just a damned expensive bit of prestige. Maybe those kids who study there, if any do, will all go on to be CGI animators. I think that's something America still produces.

RPI is also not an Ivy League school. It does have a sports tradition, with a hockey team that performs well above what you think a geek school should (some players were athletes and geeks--Joe Juneau, to take the best example, makes us all look bad), and in addition to the quality facilities, there's a whole slew of local rinks, and all the intramural games were even more fun for the general incompetence of the rest of us. Hockey's great. And the mixture of hockey and engineering has character. There are other sports of course, and in recent years, RPI has taken it on itself to become a football school as well, and for the life of me, I couldn't tell you why. Have the alumni been secretly jealous all these years of the gridiron programs in corn country? Of the elite rivalries among the august Northeast institutions? I'm going to go out on a limb here, but I suspect there is a sizable population of bright kids whose well-roundedness has been thwarted by football all through high school, which may even have steered them away from state school in the first place. I think the sport's okay, mind you, but I see the effort as another expensive proposition to loudly trumpet that the alma mater is trying to be just like all the other ones, only not as winningnessly. (We is enjineers; English was already a casualty.) Have they thought this through?

(Also, I'll add more unwarranted bias. I remember the football fraternity as a bunch of douchebags back in the day.)

"Uh, yeah, Smiley, when I think of RPI, I have always"

Less Squidward now, and more joking. I won't let her off too easy, but she seems so nice.

"Ha ha. Also, would you like to pledge--"


"Oh, I understand. But even if you just donate $20 a month..."

You know, I don't send money to NPR either, and I actually get a service, of sorts, out of those pitiable bozos.

What a harsh mistress is prestige! It cost a lot of money to send me to college, and now, with this not-entirely-convincing donor-baiting, it's going to cost the next group of kids that much more. Even with all the education, I'm not so steady on my feet that I can go and throw cash around to everyone who asks. Apparently some of the alumni contribution goes to scholarships (I was told--I never saw evidence of it when I went to school), and, what is supposed to convince someone of my meager status, the more donors a school receives, the better it looks when US News and World Report comes along and does the top 50. That's pretty amazing too, if you think about it. Here's a magazine that can't stand up to the journalistic might of Time or Newsweek--talk about your runners-up--almost single-handedly, through the tyranny of a scholastic rating system ungenerous enough to include an evaluation of the old-boys network in the university equation, driving up college costs for the masses, and directing generations of kids into a lifetime indebted servitude. For that sort of investment in the American Dream, I don't know why anyone would be foolish enough to become an engineer.

"We can give more information in email if you like. Would you be interested in that?"

"Oh, all right."

I've already gotten the electronic notice that I've "pledged," and I suppose that means I'll have to break my "word," but the reminder is easy to ignore. I'm hoping that the emails will at least get them to stop with the phone calls.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Review: Declarations of Independence, by Howard Zinn

Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology might be regarded as something of a modern anarchist manifesto, focusing on the problems with American government and society, and, taking some of his own lessons and views of history, how, optimistically, these might be counteracted. I have a difficult time getting what exactly Zinn means by "ideology." He describes it as the dominant pattern of ideas informing the country's policy, but he goes on to develop discussions of how American policy is a thing apart from its ideology, attacking a set of deducible ideas-beneath-the-ideas or criticizing what happens when those ideas are put in practice in a given power structure. Zinn isn't against free speech, for example, when it actually means free speech, and he convincingly discusses how it doesn't mean that, and for whom it means something else, but I'm not sure that contradicts the idea of free speech. The dominant pattern of ideas to which Zinn takes specific exception comprises what he calls Machiavellian realism, a framing that really annoyed me, as I've already gone into at tedious length. He's rejecting some of Machiavelli's conclusions and goals, but he's sticking to a similar evidence-based reasoning that Nicky Mack followed.

It's a fair project to investigate on what evidence we proclaim the world's ideologies to be successes or failures, however, and if we're in the business of cross-examination, I am more than ready to get Dr. Pangloss up under the hot lights for his statement on America® brand liberty-n-capitalism. Zinn's grilling is pretty good. The book is heavy with ideas, but it reads quickly, in easy language, and Zinn makes the sort of appeals to emotion and decency that illustrate and engage without feeling superficial and cheap. Since his goal is to convince, I'd have been happier if he avoided speaking in the universalist code of the American radical, and especially not so heavily in the introduction. An example: when someone advances health care as a "right" or as "free," or throws around scientific truisms, I want to stop and nitpick, even though I realize what he's getting at. I suspect other readers would stop entirely right there. And while I appreciate his honest subjectivity, I'm hesitant when he goes back to personal anecdote to enforce his point. Zinn is better at supporting with some difficult aphorisms with well-known but less-discussed facts. (Some of his own quips: "Historically, the most terrible things--war, genocide, and slavery--have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience." "[D]ependency on government has never been bad for the rich." "It seems the closer we get to matters of life and death--war and peace--the more undemocratic is our so-called democratic system." "If I can put in one word what has always infuriated me in any person, any group, any movement, or any nation, it is: bullying.") I've read a fair amount of criticism of The System by now, and it should be acknowledged that Howard Zinn is a modern father of it. The nearly 20 years that followed Declarations have not weakened his argument. His ultimate prescription, with the idealism shed away, is that we should evaluate what's worked for the human benefit over the years and what has not. How is that even controversial?

I agree with much of Zinn's criticism, but I don't really share his optimism. He gets positively hopeful when he highlights the few shining moments of historically successful anarchism, in the five minutes it took before it got hijacked by Leaders or before the tanks rolled in. I'm not convinced that if average citizens often prefer basic justice and morality, then their well-documented predilection for the alternative would allow a fair society to flourish. Racism, discrimination, and exclusion by belief have always been popular themes for us, and I don't believe democracy can come close to weeding them out, and if direct action, non-cooperation, and non-violent appeals to dignity have had their admirable and hard-fought successes--and may indeed be the only morally valid means of effecting mass change--there's still no reason they can't be employed by the monsters of our nature too (minus the non-violence, of course). I suppose it's Machiavellian to observe that the species is deeply susceptible to organizing itself in hierarchies.

Amusingly, and since I obviously can't leave it alone, I recently came across a TV Trope called "Machiavelli Was Wrong," which not only points out, in admirably few words, how the appeal to morality is usually played (the villainous prince underestimates human compassion) but also how it's played wrong (no one remembers that it's essential to avoid being hated most of all). Zinn's far smarter than your typical television writer, but searching for an optimistic conclusion, he's getting close to that rhetorical turnaround. And again, I don't think he's that far away from Machiavelli anyway:

And he who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it, for in rebellion it has always the watchword of liberty and its ancient privileges as a rallying point, which neither time nor benefits will ever cause it to forget. --from The Prince

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Practical Geezerometry

It's well understood that human beings endowed with the epochal and geographical good fortune to go through their lives on a fast arc of percieved progress and economic mobility make precisely two imprints of the technological universe. The first one occurs during those formative years of early childhood, consisting of the suite of toys, family cultural accoutrements, and oppressive "labor saving" devices that enslaved Mom and Dad. We savor these doodads and doohickii with the sweet tang of nostalgia (oh, how we gathered around the radio, as Mother flattened shirts in the background with her electric iron), and if you ever wondered why we gradually gentrifying Gen Xers are such insufferable little shits, it's because we still fantasize about those halcyon days of sitting around in our Underoos and flipping the score on the Atari Pac Man (bramp! bramp! bramp!) just like our lying young peers used to claim. We are the television-gorged children that an older generation realized could actually be consumers, and our fondest memories are of the marketing pitches for those endless acres of plastic or sugarized crap we somehow lived off of.

The second lasting impression of the gadgetary zeitgeist occurs when you are old enough to buy all this cool stuff on your own, and you fill your own space accordingly, before you have children to suck up your disposable income. If you take the internet as an indicator, you'll note that any identifiable generation of its communication technology has a dedicated age group of users, spread out like a neat bell-shaped curve. At a premature 36, I'm a painfully typical blogger, demographically speaking, but I text-message only with great reluctance. My parents, meanwhile, are only recently seeing any value whatsoever to this electronic mail dealie. (And no, don't ask me why your elderly grandmother is on Facebook. Generational trendwatching isn't even a science, never mind an exact one. It's bullshit all the way down.)

As with youth, we often try to unconvincingly stretch out our technological coolness. Sometimes it's a valid pursuit: for example, I don't know anyone who has an iPod (or equivalent) that doesn't love it, and those of us who use them are always happy when the computers go faster. But there does eventually come a point where we fail to be impressed with technical improvements, and that's precisely where geezerhood starts. And sometimes that's valid too. After all, how many times can Bill Gates fool us with a new version of the dancing fucking paper clip and other auto-formatting? (But then again, a geezer would say that!) It goes from there to caviling about the newfangled gimcracks the kids are bonding with, whatever they do exactly, and, if circumstances demand that we late-adopt the silly thingamabobs ourselves ("here's your Blackberry, Keifus") we do so with voluble unwillingness and feigned incapability (and occasionally secret eagerness). In advanced cases, we simply opt out of those improvements altogether, and no doubt some of you are dialing up now (twEEET-ksh-kshhhhhhhh) to read this, and it's got you pissing and moaning about the adequacy of good old WordPerfect to anyone who is unfortunate enough to listen. Yellow on blue was a superior viewing scheme, I'm telling you.

And really, you'd think some things should have basically peaked, with changes about as ornamental and useless as the constant updates afflicting toothbrush and razor technology. I was surprised recently, as I went to replace my old telephone, that I didn't recognize the things they were selling. I mean, advance the landline interface? Why would anyone bother? Well, they have developed phone systems that operate wirelessly through the house from that single pedestal, using only one jack, and obviating the need to run endless filaments through your home. (I still have a little crimper tool that I bought in the nineties to cleverly wire internet into my bedroom. Obsolete! As a matter of fact, the phone company took out the old copper landline coming down from the pole, no doubt to recover miniscule costs, when they installed the fiber, but I still have a phone jack running from the modem.) Modular handsets are not exactly an improvement that people couldn't have worked in earlier, and I suppose it's too bad that it wasn't done in time to be really innovative and useful. Maybe they sat on it too long. Needless to say, they all work like shit. Nothing like Mom's old rotary dial, let me tell you.

If you happen to be a traveling geezer, there is some solace for you in the places you stay. It's interesting to me that the hotel room interface is upgraded significantly less often than home, office, or coffee shop technology. You don't find HBO advertised too often on the sign anymore (at least not in the city), but there are plenty of hotels with horrible wired-in internet service, which they feel the need to embarrassingly advertise as productivity enhancer. And you know, in my day, I could get wireless service in any Starbucks, for free. If you're evil enough to charge $12.95 for this non-service on top of the $300 stay, then you deserve the flop sweat I'm going to soak into your sheets. (I am accessing the internet through my Blackberry now, and no doubt a self-respecting teenager would be aghast at this cobbled-together access, having already thumbed the age-appropriate version of this nonsense into a pithy 23-character tweet.) It's only in the last year or two that many of the residences have clumsily retrofitted above-desk electrical outlets to drive your business electronics. You can still find big touch-tone phones with complicated and expensive instructions on dialing out (and at which you can still dial 'O' for a wakeup call), and fat CRT televisions with a tenth of the useful services that digital subscribers have been enjoying for ten years outside of the bubble, with the occasional NES-vintage video gaming systems as a dubious bonus for us ever-aging youth. Nostalgia is no fun when it's forced on you. It just makes you feel old.

This has all got me very depressed. I'm going to snuff the candle, and make a point to go off and read a book. Are the kids still doing that these days?

[Note: Updated some of the less-pleasing typography]

Thursday, October 01, 2009

I'll go to hell, then

On one hand, I scored way better (over 20%) than usual for this sort of thing, but I'll be damned if I ever get so bored as to read Tom-not-Thomas Wolfe, or, god forbid, Ayn friggin' Rand. (And for that matter, you're On Notice, Updike.)

I too am impressed with the scope of the banning (if I am reading that list right? Surely Atlas Shrugged isn't on the hundred best, but if we're including banned books that just miss the century cut, then where the hell is Huck Finn?). I don't know if it counts that at least half of these were assigned reading at one point or another.

1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
5. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

6. Ulysses by James Joyce
7. Beloved by Toni Morrison
8. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
9. 1984 by George Orwell

10. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
11. Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov
12. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
13. Charlotte's Web by E. B. White

14. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
15. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
16. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
17. Animal Farm by George Orwell
18. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

19. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
20. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
21. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
22. Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
23. Their Eyes are Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

24. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
25. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
26. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
27. Native Son by Richard Wright
28. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
29. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
30. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
31. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
32. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
33. The Call of the Wild by Jack London

34. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
35. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
36. Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
37. The World According to Garp by John Irving
38. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
39. A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
40. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
41. Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally
42. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
43. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
44. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
45. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
46. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
47. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
48. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
49. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
50. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
51. My Antonia by Willa Cather
52. Howards End by E. M. Forster
53. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
54. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
55. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
56. Jazz by Toni Morrison
57. Sophie's Choice by William Styron
58. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
59. A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
60. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
61. A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor
62. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
63. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
64. Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence
65. Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
66. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
67. A Separate Peace by John Knowles

68. Light in August by William Faulkner
69. The Wings of the Dove by Henry James
70. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
71. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
72. A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
73. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
74. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
75. Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence
76. Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
77. In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway
78. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
79. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
80. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
81. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
82. White Noise by Don DeLillo
83. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
84. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
85. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
86. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
87. The Bostonians by Henry James
88. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
89. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
90. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
91. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
92. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
93. The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
94. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
95. Kim by Rudyard Kipling
96. The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
97. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
98. Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster
99. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
100. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie