Monday, December 17, 2012

Fiddling for the Lord

Since moving back to Eau Claire I've been participating in my church choir every week. There are a few reasons for this. First, I believe participating in a choir setting and learning how to properly sing will make me a better musician all around. I know this one to be true. Picking out and following one of four voice parts has already improved my ear. Secondly, I wanted to get more involved in my church community this time around and thought choir was a good start. Success on this one, too. I'm reliably attending services twice a week and have built strong relationships with people I've gone to church with for years but hardly spoken to until now. Lastly, I thought taking part in music making at church would aid me on my faith journey and my relationship with God. If I have to be honest, I'm still working on this one. I find myself more often than not focusing on how to properly sing the music instead of the meaning of the music itself. Focusing on how to pronounce the words (talking about consonants here, people) instead of focusing on the Word. But, hey, we're getting there.

This Advent season we had a few pieces come up featuring violin parts. Our church has no shortage of talented musicians, including wonderful violin players. We are a congregation serving students at a university with a strong music program. Normally we got this covered. But on Sunday the 23rd, the Sunday after Finals when everyone has already left, we're playing a version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” in the style of Hebrew folk music, with a rocking violin/fiddle part. We couldn't find anyone to play it and somehow I allowed myself to be volunteered to give it a try, with a big MAYBE stamped on the end. That is where this story begins.

I am a middle school orchestra teacher, so I know my way around a violin. I can tell you all the parts, I can tune it, I can fix it if ain't too broke. I can play anything a good but not exceptional 8th grader can play, but that by no means makes me a violin player. In fact, I'm a bass player, which on the small spectrum of string instruments is about as far away as you can get. I'm used to notes being inches away from each other, not millimeters. I'm used to strings being so far apart that string crossings are a challenge, not something you do accidentally when you're being careless. I'm used to strings tuned to fourths, not fifths. I'm used to my notes being so low and grumbly that they hardly have to be in tune. I don't really do solos.

And yet here I am. Practicing violin every night. Because I have to. For an accomplished adult violinist this piece would probably be a sightread. For me it's a project. I've put in a few weeks on this and it's only now getting there. Granted, I haven't been hitting it hard every night(I do have a job and other things to accomplish), but there have been times when I spend an hour or two straight practicing. It's hard work and even with me taking out a lot of ornamentation in the song I'm not sure it'll be ready by Sunday.

I love Christmas music, at least the good stuff. (I'll talk your ear off about what makes a Christmas song good and what makes one trash, but that will have to wait for another essay.) Since 2005 I've always reached a point somewhere in December where I switch over to only listening to Christmas tunes and never switch back. This year I switched pretty early, partially because of the December 10th snowfall, and partially because Sufjan Stevens released yet another brilliant Chirstmas album. Woe to my roommate for having to hear the same acoustic renditions of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on repeat.

One carol I've always had a complicated relationship with is “The Little Drummer Boy.” Musically I've never cared for it. The melody is pretty weak and the whole “pa-rum-pa-pum-pum” thing is pretty stupid. But the story, the message, is beautiful. It really deserves a better song than the one it has been given. A young boy hears about the birth of baby Jesus, the birth of a new King. He is ecstatic and excited and wants to honor the king, but he hears of wise men bringing extravagant gifts from far away lands and here he has nothing. Nothing but his drum and his song. But he goes anyway and gives what he has, his little song on his little drum. It's really kind of funny if you think about it. A newborn child, the tired parents who have traveled for miles on a donkey and are forced to sleep out in a barn. You know what they really need to help them rest right now? A freaking drum solo. But the drummer boy's bumbling cluelessness is part of what's so endearing and beautiful about the whole thing. What he has is imperfect but he gives it anyway.

I guess this is where I find myself in preparation for Sunday's service. Just trying to scrape together what I can as a gift to show my wonder to the newborn King. Sometimes I feel like that little drummer boy. I'm not poor by any means. I work hard for a comfortable but modest life that I'm thankful for every day. But after my few expenses (which are really just rent and groceries) I don't have much left for tithe. I try to give of myself, through volunteering, through making myself available to help, and now through working hard at learning violin. Of course it's not totally altruistic; as a teacher I will benefit from being better at one of the instruments I teach. But that was not my reason for taking up the song in the first place.

This weekend I played for the Chippewa Valley Symphony Orchestra holiday concert. For our second half we played selections from Handel's Messiah. I don't know how much you know about Baroque basso continuo, but you can probably figure it out from the name; the basses play continuously. Minute after painful minute of ceaseless eighth notes. As it goes on it starts to be like a physical activity, like a sport, where I am focusing on making it through the pain as much as I am focusing on playing the right notes. When the concert was done I was physically defeated and just sort of sat around for 15 minutes. It's a strange feeling creating such beautiful, sacred music but having such focus on just making it through. But it's satisfying giving completely of yourself, to the point of physical exhaustion. And it's gratifying to play with a large group of great musicians to a large group, glorious music that has been repeated for centuries.

Sunday will be very different. Not playing on an instrument that I have mastered in a group of professional musicians. We are a small choir at a small church. Most of us make music as a hobby, not a living. And it will not be a packed auditorium, it will be a small service, with a large part of the flock having already gone home to their families. But this excites me more than some large glorious concert. Just a few of us, trying our best to give what little we can. Quietly giving of ourselves in the best way we know how, hoping our gift will be acceptable.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Farewell, Summer

My favorite author died today. I had sort of forgotten that he held that distinction in my life. I had convinced myself for a while that it was now Michael Chabon, that I had grown beyond the days when Ray Bradbury was #1, but his death brought it all back. There is no author I have read more of. There is no author who has had a deeper impact on my emotions and on my development as a person. And while I've enjoyed everything I've read of his, no book has ever changed me as much as Dandelion Wine. So this will not be an obituary for Ray; this will be a celebration of what I believe to be his greatest work.

Dandelion Wine is the story of a summer, told through the eyes of Douglas Spaulding. Douglas is a boy about to hit adolescence and excited for the season ahead. It starts out as a celebration of the joys of boyhood and life, but as the summer goes on certain things start to fall apart. The trolley that the boys love closes down. Their favorite machine at the arcade breaks. Douglas' best friend moves away. Each individual moment is small, but as they pile on they build up to a breakdown, as Douglas comes to the realization that everything in life ends. And as Douglas works through that he begins the transition from boy to man.

I always thought my love of Dandelion Wine was a little obscure. When you think of Bradbury you think of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, in that order. But it turns out there is a strong following of passionate lovers of this book. It makes sense; I read it and it touched me deeply. Inspired by its tale of youth and life I've traveled to Chicago to see a children's theater adaptation of the story, road-tripped to Waukegan, Illinois to hunt down locations from the book, searched far and wide for the eponymous wine, and I even wrote a mediocre piece for piano and double bass based on an excerpt of the book in a 20th century music class. Turns out I'm not the only one. I found a tumblr today where people simply post their favorite quotes from the book. Reading through and seeing how many of these favorite quotes were my favorites as well, I was deeply moved by the way a story can affect so many different people. I'm not ashamed to admit that as I scrolled through I cried for about 20 minutes straight.

In my lifetime I've owned probably seven or eight copies of Dandelion Wine. At one point I envisioned myself forming a collection, one copy of every edition ever released. So I hunted through used book stores, always going immediately to the science fiction section (an incorrect classification that greatly frustrated both myself and Mr. Bradbury) with my fingers crossed that I'd have the chance to drop another 2.50 on some yellowed paperback. But they never stayed in my possession long. Whenever I found someone struggling in life, someone caught in the limbo between the joy and the despair, I gave them a copy and told them to read it. And when they tried to give it back, I told them to pass it on to someone else. Almost everyone who has made it through high school owns a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye; everyone should own a copy of Dandelion Wine. Because I honestly believe this book is - to steal a title from one of Bradbury's short story collections – a medicine for melancholy.

I have never found a better description of depression than Douglas' experience near the end of Dandelion Wine. He is running a very high fever, is deathly ill and – in the world before air conditioning – his family is forced to put his bed out on the front lawn to try and cool him and keep him alive. But it is not the fever that is killing him. It is his realization, moving out of childhood and into adolescence, of what life really is. Your friends move away. The toys you love break and the places you love close down. Your grandparents die. Your parents die. You die. Summer does not last, no matter how tight you hold on. Life is hard, and life is sad, and there is nothing you can do about it.

But every part of life is essential. You embrace the good with the bad. The sadness, the pain, it is just like the bitterness of the dandelion wine. But you drink it anyway, because it reminds you of summer, it reminds you of the joy and the power of life:
I want to feel all there is to feel, he thought. Let me feel tired, now, let me feel tired. I mustn't forget, I'm alive, I know I'm alive, I mustn't forget it tonight or tomorrow or the day after that.

Douglas is saved by the junkman, Mr. Jonas. who carries around a cart of oddities to trade and sell. He gives Douglas vials of air from exotic locations all over the world, to restore his life. But it is not the magical air that saves Douglas, it is Mr. Jonas' magical words. The wisdom that Douglas is not alone in feeling the crushing weight of the world. He tells him, in my absolute favorite quote from the book:

Some people turn sad awfully young. No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.

It is this knowledge that heals our protagonist. And it is this knowledge that has healed me, again and again and again. Thank you, Mr. Bradbury. Thank you for telling an adolescent, and for now reminding a man that, yes, it is okay to feel this way. It is okay to be this way. We can't have summer without fall. We can't have life without sadness. Everyone dies. But it still sucks that you had to. I'll be thinking of you this summer as I run and swim and jump and love and laugh and try my damnedest to stay a kid until I'm 91.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Conversation

Blogging is a new, strange experience for me, and not one that I'm fully comfortable with. I love to write, and long-form discussions come naturally to me. Those who know me well are aware I pass through short-term obsessions where I learn everything I can about a selected topic and go on and on about every fascinating aspect of it. Writing blog posts is the perfect outlet for that. I can sit down for a few hours and empty out my mind without talking anyone's ear off. That part comes naturally to me. But putting it up on the internet and telling people to read it is not my idea of a good time.

There's a certain weight placed on anything published, even if it's just put up on a free-to-use blogging website. If something's in print it takes on a different voice - for better or for worse - and I don't enjoy it much. It's too much pressure. When you're talking with your friends about your thoughts on life it's just a causal conversation. But put it in a blog and suddenly it's “Oh,look at you with all your big opinions.”

So why do I do it? To challenge myself. You can never grow unless you try new things, specifically those that frighten you. And I do it for practice. I see myself as a writer. I doubt I'd ever be good enough to do it professionally, but it's a skill I have and like any skill it can only be developed through practice. When I put it up for others to see it holds me accountable for quality. I'm aware exactly how cynical and nit-picky I am when reading what others write, so I know if others are reading what I write I can't half-ass it.

But the real reason I do it is to be part of the conversation. I am fascinated by media and politics and the clash of ideas that make up our culture. It's why I'm a news junkie. It's why I love opinion pieces.
I've spent a lot of time reading the ideas and opinions of others, keeping track of the twists and turns of public opinion, but I was never part of it until I started blogging. Now my small, quiet voice is part of the discussion. In my small way I am having an impact on things. I am participating, not just observing. And it's not just politics – in fact I rarely write about politics. I prefer writing about the arts and my progress in life. But whatever topic I choose to cover I am impacting the culture by putting my ideas out there to float around in the mix.

There is so much power in the way things are defined. One of my favorite examples is the 2009 health care debate in America. If you polled people on their support of “universal health care” it scored significantly higher than polls asking about “government takeover of health care.” Two names for the same policy, completely different reactions. Of course, I'm less interested in short, convenient labels than I am in the exchange of actual ideas. But it demonstrates how we are all battling for the way things are understood and defined.

This is why I love participating in political opinion polls. I was first called for one around the 2010 election and couldn't have been more excited. The constant state of campaigning and elections in Wisconsin right now has given me even more opportunities to answer these multiple choice questions about my political views. Because that is the real way to get your voice heard. Voting is the most important thing, but there are major limitations. There's no place on the ballot for “I don't think this guy can fix any of our problems but I trust him more than the other one.” There is simply yes or no. In a survey you can share your more nuanced stances. And despite what they'll tell you, these things effect the decisions politicians make. And they effect what gets discussed in the media and therefore among the public. It doesn't have the clear yes-or-no distinction of election results. Your ideas become part of the shifting, nebulous mass of public opinion and policy. The dirty process of democracy.

I believe in the popular modern philosophy that there are very few absolute truths. There are my ideas and there are your ideas and they are both right and they are both wrong. And when I hear your ideas they change mine, and when you hear mine they change yours. And the conversation is a journey to understand more and more, and move closer and closer to a truth that we will never actually reach. But if you talk and if you listen you will move yourself closer.

My goal as a writer is never to lecture to a captive audience. I don't mean my essays as definitive statements on the way things are. I consider myself most successful when an idea I muse about is filtered through the experiences of a reader and then comes back to me as a new idea. I realize that sounds like the kind of pretentious, convoluted and ultimately meaningless description you'd read in an avant garde literary zine, so I'll give some examples to try and clarify what I mean. I started this whole blogging experiment with a two-part exploration on independence and dependence. This was inspired by and centered around my experience working with people with disabilities. But upon reading it my able-bodied friend told me he reached some very important conclusions about his own life and his dependence on others. That hadn't been my intention, but the conclusions he reached were there in what I wrote. I laid out the dots, he connected them, and we both learned new things that we couldn't have individually.

My most recent and most successful post was about my idea that a major part of human behavior comes from the need to be understood. It spurred a few interesting dialogues. I had been serving as an apologist for young folks, explaining that their actions are a lot less selfish than older generations would assume. This got one of my friends, a choir teacher, to start a conversation about how difficult it is to teach something as long-term and patience-based as music to children who live in the instant. Another friend explained that, despite my stance suggesting it's not the main motivation of our generation, she indeed does want to be famous. And in discussing it I had to admit that I too have a secret desire for notoriety; it's another factor in why I write. Both of these conversations were branches off my original point, things I mentioned as minor details to get my point across in my essay. But seeing these connections made is what gets me to keep posting my writing for public scrutiny, despite the accompanying anxiety.

Let's be clear here. My blog is not going to change the world. I'm lucky if I get 30 views on a post. I've had this thing for four months and it has been viewed less than 700 times, which I think includes times I've signed in to edit things. But we can't ever really know what our full impact is. Everything we take in changes us, and everything we put out changes others. I know I inspired one of my friends to start writing himself, and that's pretty cool. And I think of all the fantastic articles I've read without ever giving notification to the author how their writing changed me. Maybe I've had that same impact on others. Maybe not. It's not important. It doesn't matter if I receive recognition or gratification for what I do. All that matters is that I am participating.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Need to be Understood

What's with all these tweets and twitters? These kids are just writing about what they had for lunch. Why do they think they're so important that everyone wants to know what they had for lunch?

There goes your crazy old uncle. Complaining about kids these days and how they're spending all their time on the internet trying to get a million hits on their viral video and get everyone to read about everything they know. It's a time-honored tradition. I don't presume to know how far back in history, but I know it goes back a long time. Each generation is baffled and confused by the generation that comes after them. We put minimum effort into making sense of their actions but are fast and loose with accusations and condemnations. In the 60's and 70's: all these kids care about is sex and drugs. In the 80's and 90's: these kids don't care about anything at all, except being different and feeling sorry for themselves. And the great misconception about my generation and even more so about the generation coming up after mine:

All these kids just want to be famous for doing nothing.

They just want to take pictures of themselves hanging out with friends or take videos of themselves doing something stupid and get a million people to look at it. It makes sense if you're looking for a quick and easy answer to behaviors you don't understand. We do spend an inordinate amount of time sharing information about ourselves on various forms of social networking. There was a study done recently (which I don't have a citation for and therefore can only use as an anecdotal reference) where people of varying ages were given cameras and told to start filming. Almost everyone over 30 filmed the world around them, while almost everyone under 30 filmed themselves. This is something that is very clearly happening, but the misconception is in the assumption of fame as a motive.

It would be presumptuous of me to try and speak for my whole generation, but I would like to suggest that our actions aim more to serve a basic human need: the need to be understood. It's not exclusive to my generation. Everyone is constantly seeking to be understood, whether they know it or not. It's one of the main purposes of any relationship. Think of your best friends. What do you like about them? They get you. You can talk to them about topics you can't discuss with others. You reveal more of yourself to them than you do to others, because they understand and relate. And that draws you to spend more time with them, and place a higher value on the time you spend.

Friendships are one way of being understood. These crazy internets that the kids are into are another way. Consider how much of time spent on the internet is spent on interacting with friends. You might dub this an inferior form of interaction, but that's a judgment call. But an equally important part of Facebook and Twitter and anything else in that vein is putting your ideas out there for scrutiny and (hopefully) affirmation.. You can create something and someone else can look at it, understand part of who you are, and give you a little thumbs up let you know that “hey, you're okay.”

You don't need to be an artist or a writer to find a means of expression. You don't have to create anything. When I hear a song that speaks to a deep or profound part of me, the first thing I want to do is find someone to share it with. I want someone else to hear it and confirm “Yes, Kevin, this song is as phenomenal as you think it is.” I want to find someone whose human experience is reflected through this song in the same way that mine is. And sometimes I'll do just that. I'll post a link to it on Twitter. And even if nobody acknowledges it, and even if I had no part in creating the message the song conveys, I'm putting a bit of myself out there.

I learned a new word today: grok. It's a verb and it's stupid. It sounds terrible (because it is comes from a Martian language in a science fiction novel, though it's now part of English and permissible in Scrabble) and doesn't match its meaning at all, which is to understand something profoundly and intuitively. It's a beautiful meaning; it's the way I feel about the song in the above example. I grok that hypothetical song. As true as that is, it sounds stupid and as a result I will never use it outside this essay. Yet I share it because it demonstrates something about me as a person. I'm a sucker for obscure new words; any words, really. I'm like the lady in the YouTube video who wants to hug every cat but she can't; I want to know every word but I can't. And I want to find ways to use those words. Not to make me sound more intelligent. Simply because words are fun. Words are toys that never break or run out of batteries and can be combined in endless combinations.

If you read that last paragraph and agreed with it you are helping me achieve my goal, and I am helping you with yours. You are validating part of my personality through understanding. You are confirming that the way I feel is not unusual or strange. I am not the only one who feels this way, and neither are you. Writing it out like this it sounds more desperate than it is; I didn't intend for it to sound that way. But we do all have a basic, unspoken need for someone to say “Yes, the way you feel is correct and I feel that way too.”

The original point of this was to explain why my generation does what it does. Our intention of being understood is no different from other generations, it's just expressed differently. In the past people relied more on direct person-to-person contact, building lasting relationships. We value that, too, but perhaps we're not as good at building them. So maybe our methods are less substantial and fleeting, but they work the same. I'll write this meandering, caffeine-fueled essay in my blog, then link to it on Facebook and hope it doesn't garner too much ridicule from people I know. You might post pictures of you and friends; I was here and I did this and this is who I am. You might write a song and post it on YouTube. Or write a song and sing it to yourself. Or call your mother and tell her about your long, tough day. All different means to the same end. All trying to prove that you are not the only one.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why I'm glad the mining bill failed

By the time I post this it will be almost a week since ­­­Gogebic announced they were dropping their plan to build a mine in northern Wisconsin because the State Senate had taken too long to pass the requested bill.  You could say I’m behind the times in writing this now, that I’ve missed out on the discussion.  Or you could say I’ve had enough time to maturely think and reflect on it all.

For those of you not fortunate enough to be living in the political dreamland that is Wisconsin, or for those who live here but don’t follow politics, I’ll break it down for you.  Deep beneath the surface of Wisconsin are large deposits of iron ore, mainly in the northwestern portions. For a long time it was mined and shipped through the Great Lakes.  It’s a huge part of Wisconsin and Minnesota culture: the creation of the Duluth-Superior area, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.  Even Wisconsin’s beloved Badgers are not named after the animal but after miners who lived their lives underground.  A Florida- based company, Gogebic (whose name sounds like the name of a mining civilization in a fantasy story) recently expressed interest in creating a new mine in northern Wisconsin, bringing along with it a promise of 600 to 700 new jobs.  There was a major stipulation, however.  The state government would have to reform its laws to make the process of gaining mining permits easier and reduce the power of the DNR to regulate mining.  A bill was crafted that gave Gogebic basically exactly what they wanted.  Now, in Wisconsin both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office are controlled by Republicans, giving them a free pass to do just about anything.  But after a round of recall elections the Republicans only have a one-vote majority in the Senate, making Sen. Dale Schultz (the one Republican senator who is willing to vote based on his convictions instead of party lines) the most powerful person in Wisconsin.  Schultz felt that the new bill was too lenient so he refused to sign it.  This led to negotiations where the bill’s authors tried to make changes that could win one vote, either from Schultz or a lone Democrat.  After protracted negotiations, Gogebic pulled out, saying that Wisconsin clearly wasn’t serious about getting a new mine.  Some believe that this is just a power play by Gogebic to get more of what they want, but as of this posting the bill is dead and the mine is dead.

As suggested in the title, I am pleased with this outcome.  I can think of better outcomes, but I can also surely think of worse outcomes, namely having the bill passed as originally written and having Gogebic run their mine the way they want.  I want mining to be a reality in Wisconsin, and I know that most people who live in the area where the mine would be want it to be a reality.  But it must be done correctly.  There is a desperate need for jobs, especially in Wisconsin which has been the only state to continue losing jobs as the rest of the state bounces back.  But there is also a need to protect the state’s beauty and natural resources.

Have you been to northern Wisconsin?  Maybe you haven’t but I hope for your sake you have.  It’s God’s country.  It’s a coniferous paradise.  Its wild, unchecked beauty is one of the great assets of our state.  We destroyed it once in the lumberjacking days but it has come back strong.  I would hope that this time along we would protect it, not exploit it.

An open pit mine wouldn’t be the end of the world.  The actual area covered by a mine would be small; if you lived in the area and thought it was an eyesore you could just drive around it.  Or maybe you’d like it.  On the way to work in Waukesha every day I pass by a quarry that is actually quite beautiful.  The tools of industry have their own artistic quality.  But the unseen impact would be huge.  Consider the air pollution, though I guess at this point we’re all just used to that and have no intentions of preventing it.  But the damage to the water table would have a lasting, powerful impact.  Water pollution would damage the ecosystem and reduce the quality of life.  This could in turn decrease tourism revenue in the state, as the north woods will quickly become a less desirable location to visit.  Those supporting the mining bill seem to think state regulations exist just to feed an ever-growing bureaucracy and create more desk jobs for greedy government workers.  But these are legitimate channels for us to protect the natural beauty of our state and for people to file grievances.  They protect our right to not have the damages and excesses of industry intrude on our lives.

The prevailing voice in the debate seems to be “jobs now.”  Not good jobs now, not safe jobs now.  Any jobs now.  So badly that the government tries to meet every beck and call of any company promising 600 jobs.  Never mind that we could look at Appalachia and see how little the mining industry actually improves the quality of life for its workers.  Never mind any long term decreases in the quality of our state and its other industries.  These guys are promising jobs, why aren’t we doing everything in our power to give them everything they want?

When Gogebic pulled out they didn’t take anything with them.  The iron ore, the resource that would produce those 600-700 jobs, is still buried here in Wisconsin.  The fact that we failed at allowing a Florida company to take and sell it is not a loss.  We still have the iron and the right to do with it as we please.  What our legislators need to remember is that we are in the driver’s seat.  This is not a new factory that can be planted anywhere with sufficient population and infrastructure.  This is a resource we have that others are trying to commercialize.  We have something they need.  In order to increase their profits they need to seek our permission to dig up and ship off chunks of our state.  We should be seeking to ensure we get the most possible benefit from this.  We should find a mining company that is looking to benefit Wisconsin as much as it profits from Wisconsin.  And if we can’t find one, someone should make one.  Don’t we have entrepreneurs here in the state?  By taking our time and making intelligent decisions we can make a plan that improves the long-term viability of the state instead of just taking whatever terrible offer gets thrown at us.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Zoom and Enhance: A murder in Dallas

I've been fascinated as of late with the Kennedy Assassination.  You could even say healthily obsessed; anyone who knows me is aware that I go through phases where I take one topic and learn everything I can about it for two weeks.  This phase started innocently enough.  I was engaging in one of my personal favorite activities: browsing the documentary section of my local library.  I spotted the famous/infamous The Men Who Killed Kennedy and realized that as much as I enjoy history and politics I knew very little about this specific event.  Anyone familiar with TMWKK is  probably shaking his head right now, knowing it's not necessarily the best source to learn about the investigation. It's a show from 1988, originally produced for England's ITV network, which popularized the Grassy Knoll conspiracy.  Over the years History Channel added episodes as more research was done, including a very controversial addition in 2003 implicating Vice President Johnson in the conspiracy.  So my first slice at it was from the naysayers and contrarians.  But rest assured that in the coming weeks I did plenty of research into the official viewpoint and those in between.

I'm not going to lay out what I think happened.  I'm not sure what happened.  It was almost as long before my birth as my entire life has yet lasted.  And both sides are so passionately entrenched in their view that you can't trust either.  You're either a conspiracy nut-job or a naive follower of a corrupt government; there is no room for in between.  So forming an idea this late after the fact is difficult.  But I'd like to write out some of my more interesting reflections on the event so I feel like all my research produced something more than a bunch of question marks.

Eyewitness Testimonies
The first thing that stands out to me in the conspiracy arguments is the heavy reliance on unverified eyewitness testimony.  So many accounts from people who came around fifteen or twenty years after the fact to say they had either heard shots from or seen a shooter on the grassy knoll.  Some of them claim that they had tried to testify at the time but the Warren Commission was not interested, and that's possible, but beyond that I feel some of these conspiracy theorists believe anyone who will come forth and claim to have been there.  Surely there must be more of a filter, or attempts to corroborate and verify this.  If everyone who claims to have been in Dealey Plaza that day was actually present, there wouldn't have been room for Lee Harvey Oswald.

But let's go ahead and assume everyone who claims to have been there was.  There's still this pattern or taking everything that's said at face value.  No adjustment for the fact that people were in a terrified panic with no context for what they were experiencing.  Conspiracy theorists believe everyone who heard shots must have heard correctly, even though they occurred nearly simultaneously with the shots from the book depository and could have easily been an echo.

I think of the 9/11 Truth movement and people citing testimonies the day of which suggested the planes had no windows.  We take everything that is recorded as fact.  If someone says something incorrect in the heat of the moment and it's recorded on film it is automatically afforded credence.  If a network doesn't air that footage in the future it's not because it was incorrect, it's because they are covering up THE TRUTH GULDANGIT.  Hearing some of the eyewitness testimony in these documentaries I had a clear image of how disappointed I would be if one day people started taking a serious look at 9/11 conspiracies based on incorrect testimony that was supposedly suppressed over time.

Now that I've spent sufficient time trashing the conspiracy movement, let's talk about some very legitimate points they make.  Even if you don't see dire motives, even if you're simply a student of history it's easy to be very disturbed by the way evidence was mishandled and destroyed in the time immediately following the assassination.  Why wasn't the limo treated as a crime scene?  Why did the Secret Service clean out the limo seat instead of photographing and analyzing the blood spatter?  Why was the Dallas coroner not allowed to perform an autopsy on site?  Why did the body have to be flown back to DC for a classified autopsy?  This all seem like the worst possible ways to handle a crime like this.  You would think the Secret Service would know to gather as much information as possible as quickly as possible, not wash it away.  And what exactly would be so wrong with allowing the local coroner, who is surely qualified if he works in a municipality like Dallas, to do a preliminary autopsy?  Secret Service could oversee the process and make sure everything was done by the book.  There is plenty that is suspicious about their actions.

And for that matter why was security decreased that day?  Why are there stories of Secret Service going out partying until 5am the night before?  Why the decision to remove the bubble-top from the limo (which, despite popular legend, was not decided by JFK)?  How did they so quickly implement and find Oswald?  And why would Jack Ruby, a seedy businessman with seemingly little moral compass and possible mob ties, feel it was his duty to take him out "for what he put Jacqueline Kennedy through"?

There is a lot to be questioned in the days surrounding the assassination.  A lot that was done poorly, on almost a shocking level.  The only reassuring aspect is that if it had indeed been an inside job the Secret Service surely would have done much better than the botch job they performed.

The Zapruder Film
Possibly one of the most important pieces of film ever recorded.  A defining image of the 20th century.  Deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and permanently preserved in the National Film Registry.  This is what people see in their heads when they think about the assassination.  People my age looking back might not realize that it wasn't seen by the public until over a decade after the event; it stayed safely locked in the Time-Life archives.  While conspiracy theorists could point at this as suspicious, the truth of the matter is that it was kept secret to protect the public.  No one wanted to see the president's head explode in a mist.  But now we have and our culture is forever changed.

I've read accounts that there is a marked change in what was deemed appropriate in American cinema before and after the Zapruder film's release in 1975.  After this aired on national TV the standards changed.  This was the film that desensitized America.  I'm fascinated by every aspect of this film.  It's the perfect length; just 30 seconds.  Starts out serene, ends horrific.  I'm amazed at the fact that Zapruder kept his camera relatively steady and fixed on the action as shots continued to ring out.  One man, just out to film a parade, who ends up creating one of history's most important documents.

Badge Man
Across the road from Abraham Zapruder was Mary Moorman.  Also just out to capture a memory of the President's visit, she happened to shoot a Polaroid almost immediately after the President's head blew out.
This image is historically significant in its own right.  The composition, the exact moment when it happened to be taken.  It's amazing.  Just like the Zapruder, it's a perfect example of being somewhere at the right place and the right time to capture a significant world event.  But the conspiracy theorists found something more.

If you zoom in on the area in the top center of the image, you find the following blur:
Realistically this image could be anything.  We are talking about taking a Polaroid picture (about 4" on each side) and then zeroing in on a very small portion of that already small photo.  This is a Rorschach test as much as it is conspiracy evidence.  But people look at it and see the head and torso of a man facing towards Kennedy with a bright white muzzle flash emanating from the area he would be holding a gun if he were shooting at the president.  He is known as Badge man.

I have a phobia.  It's not diagnosed or anything, I haven't even done any research into if it's a real phobia because it has such a small impact on my life.  I am disturbed by hidden images discovered in photographs, especially old ones.  It's a very time-specific phobia.  It's something that couldn't have existed 150 years ago and something that is disappearing now that more precise digital photography is replacing the grainy process of darkroom development.  But there is something oddly sinister and deeply unsettling about zooming on close on a picture and finding a nondescript blob onto which we can project any of our worst fears.

So you can imagine my discomfort as I was watching the conspiracy documentary and, with dramatic scary music playing in the background they revealed this colorized depiction of the badge man: 
"Nope, nope nope.  Do not like.  Take it away."  There is something so deeply unsettling to me about the idea that in this well-known image is an actual capture of the man shooting the president, hidden in plain sight all these years.  If there was actually a Grassy Knoll shooter and this was him, that makes this just a terrifying image.

Of course, the truth is usually simpler than the folks going over pictures with magnifying glasses would have you believe.  Most analysis and accounts say that the blob that some people identify as Badge man is too small to be an adult human.  Some suggest it is the light reflecting off of a Coke bottle left on the fence.  Like most things we will probably just never know, but I can tell you that I hate this picture.

Dale K Myers
You would expect as we move further away from the events the chance of learning anything new rapidly decreases.  Witnesses die, evidence deteriorates.  But technology improves.  Even though we are limited to the same film images taken back in 1963, our methods for gaining information from them improve.  As recently as 2003 new developments were being made in the investigation of what really happened.

There's a man named Dale K Myers.  He's a journalist, a radio and television man, who decided to pursue computer modeling to try and reconstruct the events and try to reach a conclusive decision as to what happened.  On his website he details the process; I can assure you it is some very dry and technical writing.  Basically he created a 3d model of Dealey Plaza and then used knowledge of objects involved (the limo, the people) and photographic evidence (mainly the Zapruder film) to try and recreate what happened.

Myers' analysis seems to confirm the original theory of a single shooter in the book depository.  He traces the trajectory to show how a single bullet (often referred to as the magic bullet) could have actually hit all the targets suggested by the Warren Commission.  He supports the claim that the "back and to the left" movement is misleading; Kennedy moves slightly forward when hit, then a muscle spasm from the damage to his brain causes him to lurch back.  

It's all very compelling stuff, and an interesting concept, but no more definitive than anything previously presented.  It's actually a little misleading.  It plays on our tendency to trust computers as a higher power, unfailingly objective in their analysis. But the computer construction made by Myers involved just as much speculation and opinion as seeking out gunmen in between the cracks of an old photograph.  Creating a 3d model from a 2d film is art, not science.  Myers doesn't prove anything to anyone who isn't already looking to approve the official story.

So what do I think happened?  Honestly I don't know.  At this point it doesn't matter; like many truths in our time it has become so fragmented that there is no longer truth.  There will never be evidence that convinces everyone.  And I feel too far removed from the events to be able to judge the trustworthiness of those speaking about it.  It doesn't really matter now.  America has moved on; time heals all wounds.

Sometimes the simplest explanation is the best one.  Yet here there is no simple explanation.  Even the easy explanation that Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy from the book depository has so many problems.  I listed above all the questions raised by the mishandling of the evidence.  But perhaps there is a simple answer there; incompetence.  Secret Service agents are trained to protect the President, not be detectives.  Maybe they didn't consider the importance of collecting evidence.  Either way it really doesn't matter now.  Another mystery lost to the passage of time.  The creation of an American myth.

Jackie Kennedy
A lot of this conspiracy talk gets to be very inhuman.  We talk about trajectories and locations and organizations.  Everything is an organization.  Either the mafia or the CIA or the Cubans; even Kennedy becomes more of a figure than a man who lost his life tragically.  We get lost in all the shadowy dealings and forget the real and imperfect human drama taking place.

I think Jackie Kennedy's role in all of this had the most impact on me.  Her story is just absolutely tragic.  I don't mourn for Jack; he got out while the getting was good.  He was on top of the world, riding in a parade in his honor with his beautiful wife by his side when he was taken out of this world.  He didn't have to deal with the craziness that came next, the cultural wars and that nation losing its mind.  But Jackie was there among it all.

She is sitting next to him when the shots are fired.  He is hit in the neck and she is seen leaning forward, asking is he's okay, most likely not realizing he's been shot.  She is right up close by him when he is hit in the head and his head explodes.  Immediately she goes back to get the Secret Service man but then she sits back down to tend to him.  She has him in her lap and she is bent over him to protect him.

It is a four mile ride to the hospital.  We know from seeing the film just how horrific his wound is.   A portion of his head is blown off.  And she is riding for four miles with her dead or nearly-dead's destroyed head in her lap.  I can't imagine the horror of that moment.  There are some accounts that say she tried collecting a bit of skull that had been blown off, saying "We have to make him whole again."  That line to me is just absolutely tragic.  "We have to make him whole again."

She refused to change her closes until the next day.  While she waited at the hospital, while Johnson was sworn in as president, while she disembarked in Washington, she wore her husband's blood throughout that day and night.  Finally at 5 am the next morning she bathed and changed.  God knows what she did during that sleepless night.

So there are my reflections on the JFK assassination.  I hope they aren't interpreted as expressing too much bias or viewpoint at all; I think I made it clear I don't have too many firm conclusions on any of it.  I just had a lot going through my mind as I finally at age 25 in the year 2012 learned the details of one of the most significant moments in American history.

I may do more posts like this.  I go through these phases where I research a topic intensely for a short period of time, and it does feel good to do something like this where I produce at least something concrete from it, even if it's as inconsequential as a blog post.  I guess I'll see how this is received and go from there.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The art of shoveling

This evening I had the distinct pleasure of being able to shovel a driveway.  You read that right: pleasure.  There are two yard work activities I will always have a fondness for: shoveling snow and raking leaves.  Mowing the lawn and whatever you do in springtime can shove it.  This year we were robbed of winter.  I got to do very few of the things I planned: sled in my backyard, ice skate on the pond nearby, bury my dog in snow and watch her shake it off.  But one thing I did end up doing multiple times was a good old fashioned shoveling, even though in almost every case if I had waited a day or two all the snow would have disappeared.

One of the many things I love about winter is the joy that comes in shared suffering.  The bitter winds blowing in your face and the icy sidewalk threatening to knock you off your feet are a reminder that we are all in this together.  We all face the same perils.  And when you make it safely home to curl up under a blanket with a steaming cup of cocoa (or better yet brandy and apple cider) you are reminded that we all enjoy the same comforts (the brandy thing may not be universal).  Winter brings us together.  It gives us something to gripe about and bond over.

And when the snow falls thick we all know what to do.  As the flakes quietly lay themselves down, we quietly lace up our boots, don our hats and gloves and grab that shovel.  There may be some grumbling, but otherwise nothing breaks the silence but the scraping of shovel on sidewalk (or the roar of a snow blower if that’s your thing).  It’s a duty.  Some folks may neglect to upkeep their homes, or take out their trash or what have you, but nobody neglects moving that snow.  When the snow comes we get the job done.

To me it’s therapeutic.  Everything is blanketed in snow, and I can restore order.  Clear out the sidewalks, clear out the path.   It’s one little thing I can control.  And it’s peaceful.  Something about the snow as it falls just deadens the air and kills all sound.  It’s so easy to feel when you’re shoveling that there is no place else in the world but the little bubble of snow you exist in.

And tonight nothing existed but snow.  It was the thick heavy wet kind that sticks to everything like glue.  Every branch fully frosted.  Every surface with an inch of the white stuff on it.  You look around and the world is mono-chromatic.  But it’s not a black and white photograph.  The white isn’t white, it’s that slight yellow of a streetlight’s illumination.  A little human intrusion as we try to clear out from winter's grasp the little surfaces that we consider our own.  That which we hold onto to make it through the cold.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Book Review: New Orleans AD by Josh Neufeld

Though I haven't yet reviewed any on this blog I spend a lot of time reading the form of literature I believe we have begrudgingly come to accept as being called graphic novels (I recently learned the term "comix" and though I can't wait to bust it out in a Scrabble game I don't plan to ever use it in polite conversation.)  The premise of my reviews in particular is the same as my blog in general: to challenge myself to write often and post it for public scrutiny.  This is why I have written reviews of books that came out before I was born.  I am not a reliable source of literature information, unless you want to know my thoughts on whichever book I last decided to read through my relatively aimless selection process.  Imagine how jumbled it would be if I included books that only take a few hours to read and that I read multiples of per week.  Chaos, surely.  But I've been reading some really quality work that deserves discussion and recognition, so I want to highlight one of them.

A week ago I read One Soul by Ray Fawkes, which wowed me more than anything in any format has in a long time.  I almost reviewed that but it's so particular and its narrative (if you can call it that) so unusual that it's difficult to review.  Really the only way to review it is to describe its premise and then write "READ IT!" like that, in all capital letters with an exclamation point.  I'll save you a step and cut out the synopsis.  Just go read this book as soon as you can.  If you don't want to drop $24, most libraries have a graphic novel section now.  If you read it and hate it call me and I will personally apologize for wasting your three hours but I really don't foresee that being a problem.

The next week I did finally discover a graphic novel that would be suitable for a written review: AD: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld.  Released in 2009, it's a published collection of Neufeld's webcomic which aimed to form a historical record of Hurricane Katrina.  It takes the lives of seven New Orleans residents (three individuals and two couplings) and follows their five storylines from hurricane prep to their living situations years after.  Neufeld mentions in the Acknowledgments section that he sought to represent all facets of the population, and he does so in a nuanced way.  He does not take the stereotypical groups you expect - one rich white protagonist, one poor black protagonist, etc.  This is not the movie "Crash."  You actually feel like you are getting a realistic cross-section of residents, and that is the first strength of this book.

The second and biggest strength of this book is in the visuals.  One important measure of the quality of a work of art is its use of the medium.  In comics this means telling a story that is best told as a comic or that can only be told as a comic.  This is so true of Neufeld's work.  Pages are fully saturated in one color, for example:
The only example I could conjure was a drawing of a radio.  Whoops.
You may say to me, "Well, Kevin that just seems like lazy illustration.  Like maybe he didn't want to hire a colorist."  Well you're wrong.  It's actually a very effective decision, in many ways.  It creates a feeling of unity or shared experience among all the characters, as they all seem to be drifting in the same colorless world.  It also helps emphasize certain moods with certain colors (no, it's not blue/green for the entire book).  Finally it comes in handy when Neufeld uses it to highlight important points or characters by putting them in white on a color background.

The first 20 pages of this book are fantastic and worth the price of admission alone.  You could click over to the webcomic version and read through to get a taste but it's not the same experience.  In the book version Neufeld really knows what he's doing with the power of page layouts, specifically in the massive 2 page spreads.  A series of wordless images sets up the story of the hurricane easier than any prose could.  I'll attempt to describe it, but it's something you can't really feel until you just read it.

Top half: A view of Earth from space
Bottom half: A closer view of Earth, emphasizing the Gulf of Mexico

A two page spread of the New Orleans skyline, with residential neighborhoods in the foreground.  All one color, the surest image of stillness and calm.  In the upper-right corner the sun beats hot on the world.

Page is divided into corners, showing aerial shots of various New Orleans neighborhoods.  Bourbon Street, a cathedral, a neighborhood, the levees.

Same as page 4 but set in Buloxi.

Top half: Gulf of Mexico.  Clouds swirl east of Florida.
Bottom half: Same frame, slightly zoomed in.  Storm has grown and moved west over the gulf

Top half left: Stream of cars lining the highways out of New Orleans
Top half right: Crowds of people filing into the Superdome
Bottom half: Same frame as page 7, the hurricane has grown to take up the entire frame.

PAGE 8-9
Two page spread of New Orleans, now with a massive swirling storm behind it.

The next pages or show the course of destruction, all wordless, all in one color, with very few humans afoot.  It is quiet and chilling and powerful and it could only be done in a comic.

So there you go.  Now I understand that this review is a bit bonkers.  It must be as difficult to visualize a comic by reading text descriptions of it as it is to write those text descriptions.  More reason to read it then, right?  If you want an accurate and human account of Hurricane Katrina, give a comic book a chance

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The State of American Discourse, pt 2. : "Crossing over" in primaries

Michigan primary today.  Big exciting stuff.  Neck and neck race, the media would have you believe.  It's times like these, when the system doesn't function as we expect it to (i.e. everyone just votes for the winner of New Hampshire and we phone it in for the rest of the primaries) that things start to get crazy.  Those of us who love the messy process of politics embrace and celebrate the chaos.  Some of us seek to create even more chaos.  You saw it in 2008 with Rush Limbaugh encouraging Republicans to vote for Clinton to prolong the primary process and you're seeing it today in Michigan going the other direction.

I should point out right away that this issue, like voter fraud, is something that can be used to easily rile people up but doesn't actually occur on a large enough scale to be significant.  Yes, there will be Democrats who vote for Santorum today to give Romney less time for his general campaign - or  better yet make the unelectable Santorum the Republican candidate - but most Democrats will stay home or cast a symbolic vote for Obama.  Which is why you won't hear any long-term talk about changing primary rules in states to prevent this, but it is fun to debate the ethics.

It's easy to see that this is weak politics, everybody knows that.  Attempting to influence politics by selecting a candidate in a primary that you would never dream of voting for in a general election, while perfectly legal in Michigan, is a weak political game.  It goes against the whole purpose of democracy, which is to allow people to select the leaders they desire.  If you are a Democrat and you vote for Santorum today, you are behaving wrongly.  This is the same to me as redistricting fights, or attempts to disenfranchise voters, neither of which I will ever understand.  Yes, I understand the desire to have your party stay in power, but you choose a party because you believe that their views are what's best for the area they represent.  If you believe so strongly in what they're doing, why not let the strength of their arguments influence the election instead of political trickery?

The question gets more complicated, though, when you get into this article I read today:
'Romney blasts Santorum for 'dirty trick' calls to Michigan Dems encouraging vote in GOP primary'
Two important notes first:
1) I don't normally get my coverage from Fox News (though I don't rule them out either - all voices are important) but this popped up on my Google News feed.
2) How have editors not figured out at this point to avoid phrases like "blasts Santorum"?  Come on, guys.  We know you know what it means.

So now Rick Santorum is (supposedly) sending robo-calls to Democrats, explicitly courting them to cross over.  His campaign is itself engaging in sabotage of the Republican primary.  And doing it in they shady political way of waiting until the night before so that there isn't time for your opponents to use this information against you.  Everything about it is easy to villianize, especially if you're in the Romney camp.  Yet if you think about it, if this is actually happening and not just a smear from the Romney folks, Santorum's not doing anything wrong.  Rick Santorum is asking people to vote for Rick Santorum.  Yes, he's asking people who wouldn't normally vote for him, but what's so wrong with that?  Americans are frustrated with the deadlock and have been since way before this past year; what's so bad about a Republican asking Democrats to engage in some bi-partisanship?  Of course, it should be noted that for the most part this is a political ploy to capitalize on the trickery of others.  Still I can't find any argument that would make it unethical for Santorum to court Democrats, even if their reasons for wanting him to win in Michigan are so vastly different.  Democrats shouldn't be crossing over in this primary, but why can't a guy ask for a little help wherever he can get it?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Book Review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Like many who have spent an extended time there I am in love with Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  I would like to consider it my hometown, not that I grew up there; I only spent the best six years of my life there.  It has had its modest place in the national spotlight recently with Bon Iver's success at the Grammys.  But Bon Iver is just one aspect of a thriving artistic community.  There are many other musicians, painters, artists of all kinds and in the woods not too far away, an author: Neil Gaiman.

Now Gaiman is not an actual Eau Claire resident, nor is he a native son.  He is a Brit who has taken up a second residence about half an hour from the city in a secret location, presumably to find peace and quiet.  I give you all this background not to try and claim his works as the product of my city but to explain how I came across this book.  Because the local cultural magazine, Volume One, does consider him part of the local culture and strives to keep us all informed of his activities.  Makes sense.  When a renowned author chooses to live in your part of the world that's exciting, even if his goal is to escape civilization.  So he comes up every few issues.

My best friend from college knows I love and miss Eau Claire, and he knows I love the essays the online editor writes in each issue so, being a great friend, he clips them out and sends them to me.  Well, a recent essay used Gaiman's Neverwhere to explain a point about the local cultural scene and my friend had a copy so he sent it along in the mail.  Like I said, great guy, and thanks to him I had a new book to read.

Neverwhere is about a secret underworld made of lost and forgotten bits of London from across the ages.  Our protagonist, Richard Mayhew, is your typical mild-mannered nobody who accidentally finds himself in London Below.  While trying to find his way home and get his life back to normal he becomes wrapped up in a major plot and ends up having to summon his courage and believe in himself to save the world.  If it sounds like a cliched action fantasy story that's because it is, but that doesn't make it a bad book outright.

I was skeptical going into this book for many reasons, the first of which was the predictability of fantasy stories.  I had never read anything by Gaiman before but I saw the movie Stardust - based on one of his books - and thought it was just completely terrible.  My friend who lent me the book has very similar tastes to me and recommends a lot of great stuff, but he also enjoys a lot of things that are, shall we say, less than great so the recommendation is not a guarantee.  And really I'm just not a fantasy guy.  There are a few devices in fantasy writing that just rub me the wrong way:
1) When authors describe someone performing an action, usually at the beginning of a story, without letting you know who the person is.  "The man walked down a dark alleyway, blood dripping from his hand..."  The idea of it is to draw in your interest but I think it's a very weak way of creating suspense.
2) When characters in a fantasy world explain things matter-of-factly as if they are obvious and then offer no explanation.  The newcomer asks how something works and the native of the fantasy world gives a one sentence explanation, always ending with "of course."  This is fine, because that which is fantastic to us is commonplace to them.  But I never understood why after this the explainer neither notices or cares that the other person is still visibly confused.

In Neverwhere, Gaiman is guilty of every fantasy cliche that bugs me.  And yet I found myself enjoying myself.  My skepticism was wrong; I liked the book.  There's a joy and a passion in the writing that is contagious.  Gaiman clearly loves his characters, and loves his city and loves playing with language.  Altogether it just makes for a fun read.

One of the reviews on the back of the book refers to it as a modern Alice in Wonderland.  This is a comparison that's made a lot but it's fitting here.  It's not like Alice in Wonderland in the way that so many have lazily taken old stories and made them "creepy."  You won't find specific characters or events that are analogues to, say, the white rabbit or caterpillar, though at one point Gaiman describing a character as "smiling like a cheshire cat."  What you will find is a completely original story written in the spirit of Alice in Wonderland.  There is a naive and innocent protagonist with a dull life who stumbles into adventure and finds he was a lot happier being bored.  There is a slew of creative characters and locations, and I really do mean creative.  I was delighted each time to see what we would be presented with next, and the new arrivals rarely disappointed.  But the feature of the book that most emulated Lewis Carroll was the experimentation and manipulation of the English language.  The only word I can find to accurately describe Gaiman's prose is exuberant.  Even though his story copies other fantasy stories, his language takes common fantasy phrases (i.e. "once upon a time") and turns them on their heads.  He seems to be making jokes with himself and sassing the audience half the time and it's really endearing.  You can tell he's having fun and as a result you start to have fun.  It's the strongest quality of the book.

I'm glad I gave Neil Gaiman a chance even though I hate his movies.  Because any adaptation of his work is doomed to fail; it can never capture what makes his work great.  The strength of his literature is not in what he writes but in the way he writes it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

I spent a lot of time on this book.  I got it from the library the same time I got the last book I read, Crumbtown, and ended up having to renew it and then three weeks later cram in the last 150 pages to avoid a late fee.  That last day was quite nice, though.  I ought to spend five or six hour chunks reading more often.  Good for the mind, good for the soul.

This is a roundabout, meandering way of explaning that this book is BIG.  In many ways.  Big in ambition, big in scope, big in number of pages; it comes with a substantial heft and would make a satisfactory projectile.  It aims to cover the lives of around a dozen characters while accurately representing a historical period little known by its audience all while keeping the reader engaged.  Does it succeed at all this?  Commence the review.

Summarizing the plot is a challenge because there is so much going on.  At its heart this is the tale of a trade dispute.  It takes place in 1838 Canton (now Ghangzou), the heart of the opium trade.  After years of unbalanced trade and societal issues the Chinese Emperor is trying to end once and for all the illegal opium trade in China.  The British and Indian merchants who benefit from the trade fight against this and a war of words and politics ensue.  Which sounds terribly boring but it's such a small portion of what is actually happening in the book.  Really we are intimately following the lives of the myriad foreigners living in Canton.  Some of them are merchants, yes, but most are artists and botanists and chefs and laborers, each on his or her own quest to take what China will give.

Each character is distinct in motivation and voice.  Part of this is because Ghosh pays particular attention to language.  Whenever possible he incorporates actual instances of Chinese or Bengali or the pidgin language that merchants developed for transactions between speakers of different languages.  This is offered with as translation as possible; the reader is expected to rely on context clues to decipher what is being said.  But even beyond which language is used, the way that it's being used differentiates each character.  You could go through each section having blacked out all the names and still know who is speaking.  It makes the balancing act of following a whole slew of characters much easier.

Reading this book I felt like I was a welcome intruder in a fully-formed and self-sustaining world, just watching people go about their business.  Ghosh gives unbelievably explicit detail about the smallest thing.  A character walks on a ship and we hear endless descriptions about the ship's floorboards and woodwork.  There's ship that is used specifically for transporting new plants from China to England and in one of the most fascinating passages of the book Ghosh devotes a few pages to the crew's practice of composting everything they eat at Sea.  I can't even fathom the amount of research that went into this book, but it pays off.  Everything is so clear; you form a picture in your mind and it stays with you.

And this is the beauty of the reading experience.  As a reader you just drift through this world, from character to character, concern to concern.  I don't want to call it directionless because that sounds negative.  Maybe free-flowing.  When I was getting close to the day I had to return it to the library but only found myself halfway through I didn't fret at all.  I figured I'd just inhabit this world as long as I could and then just move somewhere else.  I was actually a little disappointed when, about two thirds of the way in, the plot took off.  I understand the story has to go somewhere but I never wanted it to.  Still I was so enthralled I powered through to the end and I have no regrets.

I discussed this with a friend who read Ghosh's last book and hated it, seemingly for the same reason for I loved it.  I can understand, too.  This is a certain type of book for a certain type of person.  Maybe you don't want to hear about what different types of boats look like.  Maybe when language is given in the pidgin language with minimal translation you can frustrated.  If you are the type of person that needs to understand exactly what is happening in a book then this is the sort of book you'll have to read sitting by your computer, tuned in to a dictionary and Wikipedia at the same time.  But if you're looking for an atmosphere to float through and observe, pick this up and enjoy the ride.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The State of American Discourse, pt 1: Mitt Romney's Taxes

I'm not ashamed to admit that I love politics.  By this I mean actual politics (people sharing and debating ideas to determine which course of action best solves society's problems) not what passes for politics today (a bunch of people trying to yell louder than one another).  For this reason I, like many of you, am very disillusioned by the way politics is handled today, both in the media and by the politicians themselves.  But not disillusioned enough to turn away.  I have a curious fascination with it all.  In the same way that film buffs sometimes love bad movies most of all, I am obsessed with bad politics and bad journalism.  So I've decided to make a segment to discuss the many, MANY, MANY times that people remove political discourse from the realm of the useful and transplant it into the world of Shit That Does Not Matter At All, distracting you from what we should be discussing.  So, without further ado...

The Republican primary race.  Mitt Romney is in the lead, as he should be.  Being the most centrist candidate and therefore the most likely to attract independent voters, anyone with the most basic understanding of presidential politics can see why he would emerge as the front runner.  Anyone except Newt Gingrinch, who himself wants to be the front runner.  Unfortunately his stance on the issues and his winning personality have only brought him to third place and he needs an extra push forward to get to the lead.  Or instead of pushing to the lead he could just cut down everyone in front of him.  Let's go with that one.

So his plan has been to pressure Romney into releasing his income tax returns, saying that it's important for voters to not have to face any surprise revelations later in the year.  I love this tactic for its ridiculousness.  Firstly, Romney is a career politician.  He's held multiple elected positions over a long period of time; anything hiding in his tax returns would have come out by now.  Secondly, since when did the party of no taxes start judging a candidate's character off of what he pays in income taxes?  Best of all is just the process of watching a bunch of millionaires who spend most of their time defending millionaires suddenly spar over who is the biggest, elitist and therefore worst millionaire.

Mitt Romney will make his taxes public if he gets the nomination.  He has to; it's the law.  I can understand if Newt doesn't like this process, but it is the way it was before he started running for president.  He wasn't asking anyone to release their tax returns back in Iowa.  Why does he bring it up only when he's finding himself looking up the totem pole with precious little time?  The American primary system is unique.  It's downright bizarre.  But no one was complaining about that during the few months every four years when candidates pretend they care about Iowa.  No one complains as we dart from the Midwest to New England to the South weeding out potential candidates while a state like Hawaii, who is already basically left out of the presidential election by virtue of their late time zone, has no chance of impacting the race considering how late their primary is.

Newt Gingrich is painting this as a matter of integrity.  If Mitt Romney was only more honest, he'd tell us how much money he makes.  Yet Romney is the one behaving with dignity.  He committed to the electoral system we have, with its strengths and weaknesses, and is following its flawed rules.  He could even quell this whole thing by releasing his taxes, where he surely has nothing to hide, but that would be giving in to a bully.  Whereas Newt had no problem with a primary system that favors the voice of some Americans over others until he found a rule that makes it personally harder for him to become president.  Then it's an injustice.  Where's the integrity in that?