Friday, February 23, 2007

Buy the Book, Kid: Remembering America

Dear Richard N. Goodwin, author of Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties,

We’ll begin with the butter up: I have recently finished reading your memoir, Remembering America -- your passionate and introspective account of your early participation in the Quiz Show Hearings (on a side note: were you happy with Rob Morrow’s depiction of you in the movie Quiz Show?) and your experiences clerking, writing speeches, and advocating policies for the great leaders of a bygone era – Justice Frankfurter, John Kennedy, LBJ, Eugene McCarthy and RFK. Allow me a moment of giddy appreciation for the power of your prose. Few works of non-fiction have forced me to cease my reading and marvel at statements such as:

"Democracy is not an artifact but a process, not a form of power -- like dictatorship or monarchy -- but a continual, unresolvable struggle against the restraints that make men free."

Now to carry out my purposes: In this book, you say that “the sixties have passed into history, but the animating spirit of that time is not dead.” You wrote that in 1988 and I hope that in the intervening years, particularly in the most recent few, the young generation of Americans -- my generation -- has rekindled this hope within that part of you that you left behind in 1968. I hold onto this desire, for it has become inexorably tied to my hopes for Senator Barack Obama. I believe that with your help, with your triumphant return to politics, you could assist with and bear witness to the Senator’s ascension to the order of leaders you once so loyally served.

Of great leadership you wrote: “If we believed in our leaders, it was because we believed in ourselves. If we felt a sense of high possibilities, it was because the possibilities were real. If our expectations of achievement were great, it was because we understood the fullness of our own powers and the greatness of our country.”

Surely you must sense this potential -- to galvanize the hopeful spirit of a nation -- in Senator Obama, Mr. Goodwin. Just envision your collaboration – you and the Senator together on the campaign jet, just like on the Caroline with the then Senator Kennedy – both of them young, both possessing idealist, grandiose dreams and the capacity by which to make them manifest. It would be more than just a trip down memory lane. Much more! You would not be old Nestor in this epic battle to rebuild America, providing occasional counsel and long-winded anecdotes. No, you could be wise and crafty Odysseus, channeling the spirit of the sixties and imbuing the campaign with your transcendent prose and your recaptured energies.

And now for a little reverse psychology: Of course we would understand, Mr. Goodwin, if you believe yourself to be too old for the political fray or if your heart has hardened to our current public discourse. If this be the case, then I say to you, to a man whose story (like Senator Obama’s) has inspired my own pursuits, that “youth,” as you once wrote, “[is] not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. They cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that come with even the most peaceful progress.”

This is the flavor of rhetoric and passion now long forgotten in our political discourse and public debate. Don’t you see? The Senator needs you – we the people need you, dammit. If your answer remains no, however, then at the very least I ask you to write to Senator Obama and instruct him to “buy the book, kid.”

Conservatives' Defense is Their Worst Offense

In an earlier post on this blog, "Behind Every Great Show is a Huge Schmuk", I discussed the baseless arguments of "24" co-creator, Joel Surnow. In passing, I mentioned that he is also the brain behind the abysmal "Half-Hour News Hour" which aired this past week on Fox News as a right-leaning response to "The Daily Show". And, as reported by Shelley Lewis on The Huffington Post, it seems as though we have now been graced with Conservapedia. Yes, this is the right-wing answer to the pinko e-rag that is Wikipedia. In my previous post, I flippantly remarked, "And they call Democrats the party of reaction," and now I would like to retract it because the premise of my comment is false. I'll explain:

My comment served little purpose except to be cute and get me to the next paragraph, but I now see that the Democrats have ever been on the defensive, would assume that the Republicans or mainly the conservative Republicans have been on the offensive. As I read the word Conservapedia and thought about Joel Surnow's ambition to produce a film that portrays McCarthy as an "American hero", it dawned on me (and I'm sure I'm not discovering the New World here) that the very nature of conservatism rests on their being defensive and figuring out what they are on the defensive from -- a party whose history has been steered by isolationism and xenophobia, Red Scares and protection of the American family -- it is not enough merely to say that conservatives run on a platform of fear, for they don't just instill fear in the populous; they are afraid, themselves. Honestly, I don't know how they sleep at night (lack of conscience).

Here's what it says on the Conservapedia homepage: "Conservapedia is a much-needed alternative to Wikipedia, which is increasingly anti-Christian and anti-American. On Wikipedia, many of the dates are provided in the anti-Christian "C.E." instead of "A.D.", which Conservapedia uses."

That's a load off, I'll tell ya. Cause with all this "C.E." talk, I almost forgot who Jesus Christ was. In all seriousness though, I've always had difficulty grasping the root cause of such anxiety that fundamentalist Christians, and I believe they are a very vocal minority of all Christians, express. Perhaps such uneasiness stems from the tenets of Christianity, but compared to the God's wrathful violences in the Torah, Jesus was a fairly mild mannered and peaceful divinity. A more psychological approach (though of course we all know that this will be anti-Christian because I read that they used to call that a "Jewish Science") might attribute their self-propelling paranoia and neuroses to their continuously powerful presence in America. I had hoped to look up some of Freud's theories on the matter, but Conservapedia only offered a 6 sentence article on Sigmund Freud, and the last 2 sentences didn't shed much light on his theories:

"Critics of Freud point out that he fabricated some of his data in order to make some of his claims. Late in life, Freud asked his doctor to kill him, which his doctor did."

I would keep going, but I've been digesting the existence of Conservapedia, and excavating a rational thought from the many layers of hypocrisy takes its toll. I'm honestly in disbelief (a heathen) after having previously understood their site to be a response to something "anti-American", only to find, in my first search, what was at best shoddy research and at worst pure, unilateral, and ideological propaganda aimed to conceal vast swaths of information and to discredit someone with whom they don't agree. When fundamentalist Christian conservatives react in their own defense or in America's defense, they serve only to discredit themselves and exemplify the type of intolerance that American immigrants came here to escape.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Rights of Habe[You and Me]

As reported on Daily Kos and in the lead editorial of today's New York Times, The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled 2 to 1 "on Tuesday that detainees held at the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, do not have the right to be heard in court." The courts decision marks the most recent step in a long series, since September 11, 2001, that encroach upon basic human rights and further sully our image around the world. Much has been said and written during these past years denouncing American detainment centers, and most of it has been for the good. Yet, I tend to get a little lost when the discussion turns to invocations of the Magna Carta and the sacred rights of man, and let me tell you, I enjoy Magna Carta references as much as the next 13th Century English baron. This is sometimes the case for me -- when heated debate fills the highest chambers only to arrive piecemeal in our newspapers, I find difficulty in my attempt to weigh the sides of the argument.

Having been born and raised in America, instilled with deep reverence for our almost mythic Founding Fathers and their sacred documents, I can easily grasp the argument put forth by the ACLU or the CCR or the countless human rights lawyers fighting for the rights of detainees. Actually, I didn't have to be schooled in American history to understand that human beings should be treated fairly -- even young children quickly grasp the basic indecency of something like slavery. The problem, for me, seems to reside on the other side of a barrier between humanity and policy -- between what we were taught as Americans and what we still fail to overcome.

To appeal to the courts with vague notions such as "humanity" or 800 year old documents, however, will not steer their decision in your favor, because this issue is about Law, about power and those who wield it. Though, watching Attorney General Gonzales speak at the Senate Judiciary hearings, it doesn't actually seem to be about the law either. So I have to ask, "What or whose purpose does it serve to pass the Military Commissions Act into law and not only dispose of the rights of foreign citizens, but also clearly set a pernicious precedent concerning the rights of American citizens?"

Because I continuously fail to comprehend the answers to this question -- and I don't think I'm alone here -- there remain few options for me to continue forward; so, instead, I recently went back and read the U.S. Constitution and The Bill of Rights, along with the latter day amendments. And since a link to the Constitution recently sat on the front page of, it appears as though other people are taking this route. The reading is a bit dry, and yet, as cliche as it may sound, it was worthwhile. Though some debates, such as gun owners' citing the 2nd Amendment to fend off laws against machine guns and waiting periods, still escape me, the experience was illuminating.

Back in my salad years, while visiting a buddy in Upstate New York, I engaged in a spirited discussion with a local police officer. It was 3 AM and I, my buddy and about 20 other guys were on our way home from the local bars, when we decided, in our mob wisdom, to pause in front of my friend's rival fraternity house so that we could better contemplate our options. It only took seconds for a cop car to arrive and the officer to approach the group, instructing us to disband, and in a regrettable moment of dissent, I queried, "Like, you know, what about the right of freedom of assembly?" Thinking back to how I must have looked to this officer -- glassy-eyed, most likely unshaved, oozing the odors of a night out -- only adds to by regret. I then yielded the floor to the officer who took a moment to formulate his rebuttal. This moment lasted no more than a nanosecond and the expression on his face told me that he had been waiting for some college punk to say something like this.

With his finger jabbing my chest and our faces uncomfortably close, he said, "Don't you tell me about the Constitution of the United States of America!" While my actions did not prove it, I held nothing but respect for this guy, if only for the fact that he had to put up with idiots like me every weekend. Partly out of this respect, I did not, in fact, tell him about the Constitution that night, but mainly because I didn't know a damn thing about it. I must have seen a thousand cop shows over the years in which some suspect (normally the guilty ones) thinks he'll outsmart the cops with a line like, "Hey man, I know my rights." That never seems to work, however, though not always because the cops are not infringing upon his rights, but because it's a wise-ass line to say and it only gets Sipowicz fired up. It doesn't matter if you're a First Amendment scholar, you don't get Detective Sipowicz mad.

In an era such as we are in, it isn't a bad idea to know your rights. Sadly, this knowledge will not help you if you are detained in Guantanamo, or even if you're tipsy and mouthing off in Upstate New York, but there still remains a cause for concern, and the court's decision last Tuesday was only the most recent proof of this.

Political Discourse and My Discontents

Recently I wrote about Maureen Dowd and her nonsense style of side-line reporting. It didn't take her more than 24 hours to substantiate my criticism (read Eric Boehlert's "Dissecting Maureen Dowd" for more detailed proof). Dowd has recently stirred up a nice little controversy, after chatting with Hollywood mogul, David Geffen, who supplied her with some choice quotes attacking Senator Clinton's honesty, while also offering an astute political assessment of why he won't support Clinton:

"I don’t think that another incredibly polarizing figure, no matter how smart she is and no matter how ambitious she is — and God knows, is there anybody more ambitious than Hillary Clinton? — can bring the country together."

It seems to me as if Dowd has continued on her downward spiral, reminiscent of an aging former prom queen, with no marriage prospects and bad skin (recommend the Vague Nihilism blog for a good characterization of Dowd.) It's kinda sad, but nevertheless she has managed in what I hope are the last throws of her career to force both Obama and Clinton to pay attention. You gotta give Dowd some credit, cause the Clinton campaign took the bait, garbled the argument and ran with it.

The basic situation: Geffen (former Clinton loyalist) sways large donors to Obama and insults Clinton publicly.

Rational response: To either disregard Geffen's comments and possibly try to salvage the friendship privately, or, if you gotta say something, offer your regrets for Geffen's changed attitude, continue to campaign on the issues and smile until this blows over. There are plenty of rich people in L.A.

Clinton response: To shift the burden onto Senator Obama, whose only role in this has been to accept a check from a guy who likes to talk to Maureen Dowd (see Clinton's communications director on Hardball). Clinton bizarrely (though not really; it's politics today) believes that it is incumbent upon Obama to publicly disavow Geffen's comments and give back the money, because Obama's campaign promises to change the public discourse.

Sour grapes, Senator Clinton. You didn't get Geffen's money and connections, big deal. I'm sure that if the press could remember how to investigate they could find a tactless donor of yours. Would you give their money back? Also, why do you incorrectly refer to Geffen as Obama's campaign finance chief. That's just a falsehood.

On a personal note, I actually believe that Senator Clinton would make a fine president. I don't buy into the Lady Macbeth characterization, nor do I feel emasculated by a strong, intelligent and highly capable woman. Her recent controversy with Geffen and subsequent shifting of the burden onto Senator Obama is what is wrong with politics, and just makes her look bad, like the nerdy girl who blossomed into a successful woman but is still vulnerable to the bitter attacks from the aging prom queen (Dowd).

Geffen spoke it, Dowd wrote it, and it should have stopped there. Instead, Clinton was duped into taking the hot potato and tried to pass it to Obama, who remains the one figure in this sordid story who knows when to shut up:

"You know, it's not clear to me," said Obama. "Why would I be apologizing for someone else's remarks?"

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Take this Steve Jobs and Shove It

Two of Steve Jobs’ major points in his recent speech about education were technology, not surprisingly, and the issue of unions. The (oversimplified) comment about unions was that they were detrimental to schools because administrators (read: CEOs) were unable to fire underperforming teachers (read: employees.) The major attack on Jobs is that companies exist to make money, and that schools exist to educate everyone. There are plenty of students that are a bad investment, but they cannot be dropped the way a poorly selling product might.

There have been a great number of opinions offered about this diagnosis. Here’s mine.

I teach at a small private school, I attended a small private school and I spent my four years of undergrad at an Ivy League school. That alone disqualifies me in the eyes of many from commenting on the issue. What blows me away is that a number of the people who would call me unequipped to have this conversation are parents of students in public schools. As a teacher, I can tell you that the least informed group of people in the high school G4 are the parents. They are followed closely by the administrators, who are followed by the teachers, and then the students, who are far, far from uninformed. These positions are generalizations, obviously, and the best administrators in the country are those who are so good at their job that they are at the head of this race.

If those fantastic administrators were able to hire and fire all of the teachers they wanted, as Jobs suggests they should, the problem would not be solved. That’s because the best teachers in the country do not want to work in the atmosphere that exists in the worst schools in the country. However, in order to put the best teachers in the areas that need them most (or even put adequate teachers in these situations) the administration must be able to hire and fire their employees. That’s what teachers are, employees. Don’t try to tell one of them that, because teachers believe that they should be entirely autonomous and free from someone suggesting that they are not doing a good job.

High school teachers are one of the most arrogant groups of professionals around, largely because they need something to go home with in place of a paycheck. Many of us choose “feeling better than everyone else” paired with a side of “I’m underpaid, too, in case you were curious.”

The best way to change the problem of bad teachers in bad schools is to find the best teachers, and offer them higher salaries than they would receive in the suburban schools supplemented with achievement based financial rewards in underperforming schools.

2 problems:

a) Financial: Yeah, I’m a democrat. Raise taxes or quit bitching about the public schools.

b) Achievement based: Standardized testing doesn’t suggest that the teacher is actually better, just that they can get their kids to pass standardized tests. I have no problem with this. When people complain about schools, they often forget about the absolute bottom. When schools with fewer than 10% of their students are passing standardized tests exist, the goal should be to get them to the point where 70% or 80% are passing, and then worry about whether or not the students are fully able to analyze literature through their “own lens.”

Everyone jumps all over Jobs because he’s commenting from his ivory tower of free market business, and is not thinking about the worst kids. Most of those who complain about schools aren’t thinking about the worst kids either. They’re thinking about their kids. The reason parents shouldn’t control schools is the same reason that a product designer shouldn’t make a company’s final decision on what goes on sale. Just because you’ve put in a lot of time doesn’t mean that your product is worth more than all the others. The goal must be to have as much success possible with as many students as possible. If that means your student succeeds less than he or she could, in order that four or five other students can succeed more, refer to John Stuart Mill.

Buy the Book, Kid: Finn

The deluge from CapeTown is beginning to make us all look bad, so I figured I’d comment on a book I just read. Of course, the most recent book posts have been charmingly introduced with a Henny Youngman story that introduces a catchphrase for writing about literature. Now I’m left choosing to ride the coattails of the aforementioned story or to try and compete with Henny Youngman. My only brush with comedic fame involves Captain Morgan and Andy Dick, and ends not with an autograph but with a harrowing tale of attempted molestation.

I think I’ll go with “Buy the book, kid.”

I just finished the book Finn, by John Clinch. This is one of those rare occasions where an online review is far better than one in the paper, by the way, because Clinch has done what he can to provide online resources for his fans. These resources include an Amazon blog and a website full of related information.

I started and finished Finn on the 16th. The release date wasn’t until the 20th, but I knew someone at Barnes and Noble would screw it up. I preordered, and got a call on the 16th that it was in. The clerk took it off of a pile of other books, near an email taped to the desk describing just how important it was to not sell Harry Potter early. It’s nice to know that under no circumstances can a tale of wizardry escape a minute early, (it literally spelled out the minute) but a significant step forward with some of American literature’s most enduring characters drops four days ahead of schedule.

Pap Finn’s death (unbeknownst to Huck, he was the dead man in the floating house) in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a striking scene. Clinch has decided that the circumstances surrounding his death are deserving of their own story. In a way, Finn gives more of a look into Pap’s head than Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer does to their protagonists.

The story does not spare any details in its description of one of the most pitiless characters ever created. Murder, battery, accessory to cannibalism, etc. It also covers Pap's childhood. One of the risks of providing a backstory to such an unlikable person is the temptation of providing a childhood that absolves the sins of adulthood. While the semi-shadowy figure of Huck’s grandfather provides little in the way of nurturing, though, Clinch avoids granting remission.

The most interesting part of Pap Finn is the way in which he professes racism while finding black women irresistible. In fact, Clinch follows the school of thought that claims Huck is light skinned, but part black. Racism of this type has always been fascinating to me. I grew up in a place where plenty of my white friends would not hesitate to tell a few racist jokes (when in all white company)on the same night that they would have a black student crash at their house.

I’ve always been shocked by people who claim that they don't like blacks, but that their black friend is "one of the good ones.”

Can someone have a black friend / partner and still hate blacks?

Behind Every Great Show is a Huge Schmuk

(On a side note: I hate myself for the opening of my first sentence and swear that I do not start conversations this way. Alright. Proceed.)

A recent article in the New Yorker discussed “The politics of the man behind ‘24’.” In my opinion, the man, co-creator and executive producer of “24”, Joel Surnow, is a bit of a schmuk. Politically, I don’t really care where you stand as long as you form your opinions with some semblance of reason and factual knowledge. I admit that there have been times that Pat Buchanan has swayed me a bit on some issues. Buchanan, after-all is not an idiot by any means, whereas Surnow acts like he is.

Recently added to Keith Olbermann's list of "Worst Person in the World", Surnow has jokingly referred to himself as a “right-wing nut job.” Hahaha – Surnow is smarmy to boot. What a guy! The article describes a man who takes sickening delight in his radical conservatism: when he’s not eating dinner with Justice Clarence Thomas at Rush Limbaugh’s house, he is planning projects such as “The Half-Hour News Hour”, a conservative version of The Daily Show to be aired on Fox News, as well as a film aimed as a response to Good Night and Good Luck, a collaboration with a fellow purveyor of misinformed and irrational politics, Ann Coulter. Why? “I thought it would really provoke people to do a movie that depicted Joe McCarthy as an American hero or, maybe, someone with a good cause who maybe went too far,” says Surnow. And people call Democrats the party of reaction.

The main discussion of the article revolves around his show’s predilection for depicting torture scenes – often gratuitous displays of barbaric coercive tactics resulting in Jack Bauer’s getting the goods on the bad guys -- which if you have ever seen the show, are friggen awesome. The author cites statistics demonstrating the increase of torture scenes on television since September 11, 2001 (from four each year to over a hundred), and how these scenes increasingly portray the “good guys” as the torturers. While describing a meeting the executives from “24” (Surnow conspicuously absent) and U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, Dean of USMA at West Point, in which his concern for the show’s promotion of such tactics fell on deaf ears, the article also demonstrates expert opinion and official policy that prove the ineffectiveness of torture for interrogation.

I am digressing from my purpose here – the show itself, of which I have watched the first five seasons in a two week period, is great television, and at the end of the day, it remains just that. While it may have a slight influence on impressionable cadets at West Point, I do not believe that it will actually affect procedure. Also, watching Jack Bauer, for many Americans, is catharsis during this age of anti-American terrorism.

My beef is with Surnow and those, both liberal and conservative, that argue and aim to proselytize their political agendas with subjective belief and in the face of logic, facts, and objective proof. I’ll just let Surnow show you what I mean, and notice how he quickly reframes the discussion from the effectiveness of torture to what a brave man like him would do in a hypothetical and highly improbable situation:

“They say torture doesn’t work. But I don’t believe that. I don’t think it’s honest to say that if someone you love was being held, and you had five minutes to save them, you wouldn’t do it. Tell me, what would you do? If someone had one of my children, or my wife, I would hope I’d do it. There is nothing – nothing – I wouldn’t do.”

(For a response to this quote, please see Al Pacino's Soundboard and click on "Bah, what a big man you are...", fourth down in the right hand column)

Also, the companion video from The New Yorker:

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Two Comedians, a Senator, and an Aging Institution

As a presidential candidate, Senator Obama, like Robert Kennedy before him, stands apart from the field of hopefuls by his easy and sincere ability to connect with young America. It only takes a moment to compare his campaign website, complete with social networking and a blog, to that of Senator Clinton or of Senator Edwards; Senator Obama mixes effortlessly with the Web 2.0 crowd, and more conspicuously, he seems equally at ease on the cover of fashion magazines (Men's Vogue) and the couches of our late night talk shows (Conan and The Daily Show). It is this natural ease that inspires both overblown praise and masked and bitter skepticism from the journalistic establishment (see Dowd below), as well as bewilderment, envy and careful praise from his fellow politicians.

Much in the same vein, the mainstream media display a similar uneasiness regarding Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. It’s getting hard to listen to NPR (for some of us, it has always been difficult) without hearing one of its many deadpan hosts invoke a quotation or clip from a recent Daily Show or Colbert Report. Whatever keeps “Fresh Air” fresh, I guess. Their forced and awkward (the type of awkwardness found only in the slew of movies depicting old white women dancing and/or rapping)deference toward Stewart and Colbert only betrays their total cluelessness for whatever it is that the kids are listening to these days. You know, they’re like totally clueless, dude, and so un-rad, man. Like whatever, Pops.

For simplicity’s sake and for that of my argument, let’s narrow the aging mainstream media and their frustration for their own ineptitudes to one journalist, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times. Dowd was given the recent cover story in Rolling Stone, featuring an interview with Stewart and Colbert. And it may just be that I was not picking up on her deft ironic tone or her comedic wit, but her opening lines are retarded:

"I thought Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert might be a little nervous to meet with me. I was the real news commentator, after all, and they were the mock. They threw spitballs at presidents; I interviewed presidents before throwing spitballs at them. I had crisscrossed the globe to cover news stories, while these guys just put on dark suits and threw up imported backgrounds on a green screen."

Yeah, I guess, Maureen.

Again, if you, the reader, are trying to grasp the moment that you felt such a similar sense of uneasy embarrassment for another person, please see photo above. Dowd follows this with what is either a carefully thought out and philosophically taut opening question, a joke that falls painfully on its face, or just a bad question:

Dowd: A fake news show, "The Daily Show," spawned a fake commentator, Colbert, who makes his own fake reality defending the fake reality of a real president, and has government officials on who know the joke but are still willing to be mocked by someone fake. Your shows are like mirrors within mirrors, using a cycle of fakery to get to the truth. You've tapped into a sense in society that nothing, from reality shows to Bushworld, is real anymore. Do you guys ever get confused by your hall of mirrors?

Stewart: I didn't know we were going to have to be high to do this interview.

Her interview style, which seems ripped from the stuffy 1960’s journalists who used to ask Bob Dylan what his message is. She ranges from broad personal opinion, “Do you think the country would be better off if the Republicans or the Democrats were running it?”, to moments that reveal her deeper anxieties as a journalist: “Is there any way to bring young people, or all people, back to news?”. Dowd displays a similar approach to her Times column when, as she often does, she discusses Barack Obama – both condescending and awed at once – clearly fixated, but still able to bestow upon him such nicknames as “Obambi” and “Legally Blonde.” How cute! You really tapped into some happening pop culture puns there, Ms. Dowd. Maybe next time you could go with Ally McBama or wait, wait, wait…90210bama; that’ll sure grab the youth’s attention.

The walls are closing in for Dowd – the next two years she will be forced into writing about the Senator’s campaign while she and her colleagues pay increasing homage to Stewart and Colbert. In a moment that must have been both sheer terror and masochistic ecstasy for Dowd, these three figures that light the way to her oblivion are discussed at once during the Rolling Stone interview, when she asks, “But wouldn’t, say, a President Obama be harder to make fun of than these guys [the Bush administration]?” Luckily, we have Jon Stewart to return the question with the one I would like to ask her: “Are you kidding?”

Monday, February 19, 2007

It's Just the Cerebellum

One time, some years ago, I was a freshman in college, new to The City, and I remember taking a bus from Morningside Heights to the Bronx to watch a football game. Not knowing many people, and not feeling up to grand social efforts, I sat next to a bright and serious boy from my home town. The excitement of discovering New York had inclined my young mind towards grandiosity, and at some point on the ride I gestured out the window towards the shining lights to the west and remarked to the boy "that's why I came to New York." Being not too sure what I meant, the boy looked quizzically at me and said "to be near Jersey?"

That's a story that, for some reason, I often come back to- maybe because so many people priced out of Manhattan real estate do in fact move to Jersey. But recently I have developed another theory.

Last week I took a plane ride from New York to Denver and on the plane I suffered three little bottles of the worst white wine I ever tasted. When I asked for a fourth the elderly stewardess mercifully cut me off and in so doing afforded me the chance to reflect without the chore of forcing a miserable Chardonnay over my gums. I took my temples between my thumb and index finger and quietly cursed my misfortune, but slowly came to this: I exist in these six inches between my temples. That is- in this small, graspable space, easily spanned by a single hand, rests the seat of my consciousness, in essence, me. That is a metaphysically blasphemous thought, the kind that might have appealed to my youthful college intellect and one I have since forbidden myself to indulge. But at thirty-five thousand feet, it's the kind of thought that can captivate and enchant an inebriated and increasingly romantic mind. At that height, when distance seems a salient feature of the world, it felt vastly important that when I put a hand to my forehead, I come daringly close to touching the exact place where consciousness resides- to bridging the distance between mind and body and encountering the mystery of existence. What do you think about in the window seat?

Luckily, the impulse to that confused and sordid thought passed and I remembered that uncovering the mystery of self is no more a matter of bridging distance than is discovering the the Great Meaning of New York City. Nor for that matter, discovering the meaning or value of anything. On no peg does meaning hang its hat. If I should finally arrive at the fragile and holy ground where consciousness springs forth, I'm sure some bright and serious boy would catch my meaningful glance and say "what's the big deal? It's just the Cerebellum."

Buy the Book, Kid: A Man Without a Country

Kurt Vonnegut, literary scion of Mark Twain, as the book jackets like to say, had once promised to never write another book, but sullied his word in 2005 with the publication of his satiric collection of musings called A Man Without a Country. Steering clear of the professional approach to book reviews -- those aspiring to Lionel Trilling, et. al., from which you will tell you that reading this book is “like sitting down on the couch for a long chat with an old friend” – I will first say/brag that I read this book in just one sitting and I am by no means a fast reader.

If you have ever read anything by Vonnegut then I see no need and much futility in attempting to describe his style, which has not waned in satirical bite or humor. A Man Without a Country is neither a magnum opus, nor a manifesto for our country’s future (please refer to our manifesto post), but a grouping of short essays, silk screenings and anecdotes (about such topics as story-telling, the Bush administration, and Humanism) linked by the persona of their author, a man who has survived his Winter years and still has a lot on his mind.

To the manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, which have failed to kill him: “I am now eighty-two. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats. The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon.”

On the difference between Vietnam and the Iraq War: “[Vietnam] only made billionaires out of millionaires. Today’s war is making trillionaires out of billionaires. Now I call that progress.”

To a degree, these quotes may form a portrait in your mind of a crotchety old fart, banging away at his outdated typewriter in disgust. And to a degree, that’s exactly what this book amounts to, except that this old fart is still funny as hell and it wouldn’t hurt us youngsters to sit down “on the couch for a long chat with an old [fart]”. You know what, I’ll just let Vonnegut end this for me:

“Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess. But it has always been a mess. There have never been any ‘Good Old Days,’ there have just been days. And as I sy to my grandchildren, ‘Don’t look at me. I just got here’.”

As Vonnegut’s contemporary, Henny Youngman, would say, “Buy the book, Kid.”

Here are some other blogs about A Man Without a Country, all of which are better than mine.


Rick Librarian's

A Common Reader's

"Buy the Book, Kid"

When I was no more than five years old, I accompanied my parents and a family friend to a small comedy show, headlined by none other than my father’s favorite comedian, The King of the One-Liners, Henny Youngman. It was some minor club – I remember it incorrectly as an airport lounge, near Worchester, Mass. The man was deep into his eighties, donning a snappy suit and accompanied by his ubiquitous violin (which he played intermittently and badly. For comic effect?). I’m not, as a 24 year old, actually about to say this, but you may be too young to remember him. You may recognize Henny when he appears like a glass of aged wine at the end of the famous Copa Cabana shot in Goodfellas. He was the man who coined the phrase: “Take my wife…Please!” My father loved this man and therefore I loved him too.

After the show, Henny was seated at a cluster of tables – a makeshift dais – signing books for the small crowd that had gathered. I waited in line, my new book, 500 One-Liners, held out in my shaky young hands, and when I was granted an audience with one my father’s comedic hero, I poured out my admiration with five-year-old sincerity. Henny, with infinite wit -- possessed only by those who have spent a life honing their comedic skills in countless supper clubs, tv specials, and Borscht Belt Resorts – looked up at me with those Blood Hound eyes showing no emotion but exhaustion and said, “Buy the book, kid.” I loved Henny Youngman.

On my bookshelf today sits this book with Henny’s autograph.

This post is merely an explanation of a series of posts to follow: my humble book recommendations.