Saturday, November 29, 2008

Books I Read in October and November 2008

For days after our return from Scotland, I tried to divine meaning from the things I lost on the way home. By the time we'd cleared customs and another security checkpoint in Newark, I realized my camera, a copy of Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum and my Kindle were gone. It's still hard to fathom how I could have left the the paperback tucked into the seat pocket, the Kindle wedged between the seats, or let the camera slide out of my open bag on the floor or how I could have gotten off the plane without noticing. After ten days without my laptop, internet, television, telephone or newspapers, I interpreted the careless losses as a final departure from technology. Maybe I lost them because I felt too connected to the grid. I'm still not sure, but I haven't replaced anything.

I have a suspicion I've lost track of a book or two I may have read these weeks, but here are all of them that I remember. The list is dominated by works of non-fiction, a direct result of my near obsession with the election and questions it created in my mind about who we are in America.

Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama. This story of race and inheritance came about after Obama was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and was offered a book deal. It was finished when he was 33, prior to his real entree to politics and so is a much more revealing view into Barack Obama than The Audacity of Hope. The book is beautifully written and makes me believe that had he not taken the path he had, Obama could have been a novelist. I see that quality of watching, listening and interpreting the world that is a common trait of the writer. The focus is race in America, but as the world has discovered, Obama's own lineage as the son of an absentee Kenyan father and an independent white mother from the middle west are not a typical American story. As ludicrous as it seems to express this thought, I believe that his circumstances and lifelong journey to discover where he fits, what our collective history means and how we can continue to grow and evolve resonates with my own feelings of never quite fitting in. I don't think I've met a thinking person, especially among writers who has not lived with a feeling of separateness for as long as he or she can remember. As different as our backgrounds and lives have been, there is something in this book that made me frequently feel a kinship with the main character.

Matrimony, by Joshua Henkin. I intend to write a separate post and a contest/give-away on this lovely novel. I was fortunate enough to have won my copy at author Leslie Pietrzyk's excellent blog, Work in Progress at the end of September and I read this wonderful story that begins with a couple that meet in college and follows them through the next fifteen years. Lots more to say about this notable book and I promise it will be forthcoming.

The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton was the perfect collection of travel essays to take on the long trip. I became enchanted with de Botton when I read his novel, On Love and became a devotee of his works when I read How Proust Can Change Your Life. Alain de Botton is as much a philosopher as he is an artful essayist who helps us to examine those aspects and feelings about travel that are not what we typically think of or anticipate.

The Nine, by Jeffrey Toobin is a brilliant and even handed journey into the inner workings of the Supreme Court. Toobin provides us with fascinating characterizations of justices who served from the Reagan Administration through the summer recess of 2007 and behind the scenes insight into how several historical decisions came about. The book is a great primer for those of us who understand that the ability to nominate justices to the Supreme Court is perhaps the most important legacy a President can leave, but don't have an in-depth understanding of the machinations of the court and the significance of the differences in each justice's philosophy toward the interpretation of the Constitution.

The Conscience of a Liberal, by Paul Krugman provides an excellent history of the politics and the economy in the United States, beginning in the Gilded Age and provides a compelling argument for narrowing the wide gap in income inequality that we're currently experiencing. Krugman is the 2008 Nobel prize winner for Economic Sciences, a columnist for the New York Times and a professor at Princeton.

The GOD Delusion, by Richard Dawkins sat on my TBR pile for quite a few months before I finally picked it up. Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and he's written many books, most related to the science of evolution. I believe this book and Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything were both released the same year and my reluctance to jump into the Dawkins book was initially tied to the public personas of both Dawkins and Hitchens. Just as I can't bear to listen to a fundamentalist televangelist (although I've done it), the activist atheist is just as obnoxious to me; however, in light of how frequently religion popped into conversation during the election season, the time was right to read the book. Dawkins makes rational arguments against the likelihood of God's existence, discusses the global roots for religion and morality and presents the case that non-believers need to speak out against religion. While I can concur with his rationale for the scientific arguments about the likelihood of the existence of a God and even about the apparent human need to believe in a supreme being, I'm personally uncomfortable with the idea that atheists and agnostics need to become vocal in the political arena. Fundamentalists are often dangerous, but are in the minority of believers. I don't believe that intelligent human beings leave their intellect at the door of religion and I don't believe that most people who ascribe to the notion of a deity of some sort are dangerous. What does concern me is the influence religious groups are able to exert within government in order to insert church into state. The vast amount of money and influence the Church of the Latter Day Saints was recently able to bring to bear in the State of California with the passage of Proposition 8 is a good example of this. He makes some interesting observations about the way society views its non-believers and it's interesting to note that at the national level, there is only one self-proclaimed atheist in Congress. We are a religious nation and I believe the majority would feel more comfortable electing a Muslim than an atheist to national office. The Libby Dole negative ad and response in North Carolina made it clear that calling someone "Godless" was perhaps the worst thing one could ever do. His statistics about the number of Americans who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible were quite staggering to me, as were the statistics on the number of people who believe in creationism as science as opposed to evolution. America is unique in the western world in its religiosity. There were some interesting things in the book, but in the small world where I prefer to live and let others live and believe what they will (as long as they don't try to force their beliefs on me) it was a little too snarky and sarcastic at times.

Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of it Back, by Frank Schaeffer is a fascinating memoir. It was the second part of the book's title that caught my attention. This book provided an interesting behind the scenes view of fundamentalist Christian history in America and some frank truths about the influence of evangelists in government. The author grew up in Switzerland, the child of missionaries and although they were fundamentalists, they believed in secular education, had a love of literature and artwork and they practiced a tolerant and a compassionate ministering style. They were somewhat embarrassed of a certain uneducated, intolerant brand of proselytizing preacher, although it would be years before they moved back to America and had to deal with it. When they did move back, they became part of the Christian Coalition that mobilized such a large part of the Republican base and they did it via the pro-life movement. The author never strays from his pro-life position, but concedes that the tactics used and the movement itself took advantage of a group of people based on a flawed position. In fairness, he also points out the the extremists on the pro-choice side of the issue present unsupportable, flawed logic as well.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter was the winner of the 1964 Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction and I discovered it when I did an on-line search on "anti-intellectualism". Once again, the election pushed me toward this search. As I observed the appeals to "Joe Six-Pack" and "hockey moms" and the denigration of higher education and intellect, I was mesmerized. It was fascinating to me that there was a case being made that not only were average, uneducated working people capable of running the free world, but that they were preferable to those who'd pursued a specialized higher education and who valued intellectual curiosity and an interest in the world. Although there are a handful of books newer than this one on the subject, Hofstadter's 1964 title is still viewed as the seminal work on this subject. To my surprise, anti-intellectualism has been a part of American culture and politics since the days of the Puritans. Despite the fact that this book is nearly a half century old, it is entirely relevant and readable. I will say that it has been a very long time since I've read a book this heavily foot-noted. The research that went into this was extensive. It was a fascinating read.

* * *

The length of time since my last post and my reading diet over the last couple of months are symptoms of a strange state of mind that's inhabited me since the election. I came too far out of my tiny world and I am having a hard time finding my way back. I've got more non-fiction books in my TBR stack and it's hard to let go of the big picture issues related to social justice, the environment, the economy and global foreign policy to focus all my attention back on the imaginary people in the tiny fictional world I've created or to jump into reading novels again and hide out there. It's impractical to worry about the real world so much, but having poked my head out of this cozy cocoon where I spend most of my time, it's hard not to view what I'm doing and think, so what?

It's the curse of the overly curious, I suppose. I still read all of the blogs I love every day and I check into Twitter to see what people are doing, but there's a paralyzing force that freezes my fingers in place over the keyboard and taunts me whenever I'm about to "speak".

What could you possibly say that will make any difference at all?

Obviously, none of us would ever tap out a word, if making a difference was the sole criteria for doing so. I will find my way back sooner or later. I've stopped watching the cable news, unsubscribed to all the news and political blogs in Google Reader (I miss you Andrew and Ezra) and sometimes it's true, I literally sit at my desk, stare at the screen and lose time, waiting to figure out what it is I'm supposed to do.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Guy Playing the Bagpipes Near Edinburgh Castle

It seems like it was ages ago that we were in Scotland and in reality, I suppose it was. The trip was relaxing and fun, we met some great people, saw some beautiful places and stayed in some unique and historic locations, including an inn that was literally fifty yards from Rosslyn Chapel (you can actually see Rosslyn Chapel and the inn where we stayed at the end of the movie, The DaVinci Code).

The trip was arranged by the owner of one of the galleries where Scott exhibits his work and he was one of several artists on the trip. There was a couple from Dallas, a couple from New Mexico, Brian (the gallery owner) and John, a Scottish painter who joined us there. Brian arranged for our accommodation through an organization that has bought up historic properties throughout the UK that range from small cottages to castles. Scott and I stayed in hotels in Edinburgh for a night on either end of the trip and then with the group in the inn at Rosslyn for several nights and in a huge manor house in another part of Scotland for several more.

Not only was there no internet access, there was no phone, television or newspaper anywhere we stayed and considering the distraction the election had created in our lives before we left, it was a terrific break from everything.

A few random thoughts on the trip:

1. International air travel was much more fun when I was younger, less creaky and the planes were never full. In the old days, there were always empty seats and I was much more bendy and able to sleep no matter where I sat. I never sleep on flights now and I feel like I'm 90 when I get off.

2. Driving on the left side of the road is terrifying for the first half hour or so. I lived in England in the early 80's and I was in Australia for ten days in 1990, so this wasn't the first time I'd done it, but it might as well have been. The anxiety never really went away, but I'm a nervous driver anyway. I don't even like driving here. Nevertheless, I did all the driving and once we were out of Edinburgh on the second day and we got into the country, I was fine. A word to the wise international traveler: Whenever possible, always rent a car with a navigation system in it. It made all the difference in the world and it had a lovely accent. We called her Emma.

3. Haggis isn't bad, as long as you block what's in it completely out of your mind. I consider it to be in the same category as raw oysters. It was something to try so I could say I ate it.

4. I don't think I've ever visited a country so uncluttered by reminders of the century we're in. There was very little in Edinburgh that seemed out of place with the centuries old buildings and the countryside was uncluttered by billboards or signs of modern life of any type. If not for the occasional petrol station (and they were not a common sight), it might have been 1908, not 2008.

5. Edinburgh is a cosmopolitan city and despite being aware of that, it was still a charming surprise to be served by a waitress with Asian features, speaking in a heavy Scottish accent.

6. The first night I plugged in my laptop and got on line for about 45 minutes. And then my power supply blew up. I didn't get any writing done at all.

Despite the break from the day to day news about the election, there was some talk about politics, but not much. One couple was very conservative and two couples were not. Since we were in a place with such a rich history, I couldn't help thinking about what it all meant relative to what was happening back home. No matter where I've been there seem to be two kinds of people. There are those who are very invested in history, and in particular, their own history and those who just aren't that connected to it. Scotland is full of reminders of the bloody battles the Scottish fought against the English for centuries and it's clear to anyone who has ever met a citizen from the UK that people there are generally proud of and tied to their country and city of origin.

One of the couples had been to Scotland several times and they were gathering information on their ancestors. She talked quite a bit about her family's history in America and how her great-grandfather had traveled west and staked a claim on a homestead and how it had been in her family for many generations.

It made me wonder how best to live with the legacy of the past. There are always two sides to history and there are winners and losers. They say those who forget the past are destined to repeat it but I wonder how we ought to remember it and what we should feel about it.

To forget all of it would be to ignore the achievements of those who came before us and it would negate the suffering of those unjustly treated, often by those we admire. Overzealous pride seems misplaced and in often (to me) insensitive. I've always considered Southern pride and the display of the Confederate flag to be racist gestures. On the other hand, I'm not sure that the legacy of slavery should mean that southerners shouldn't and don't have things to be proud of.

But that pride or shame about the past (and I know I'm a little odd when it comes to this) is something I've never understood. After all, what my great-great-grandparents did, whether good or bad really has nothing to do with me, does it? If he was a genius, it doesn't make me any smarter and if he was a murderer, it doesn't make me a criminal. Yet people do feel very personal connections to distant relatives or to the history of their particular region or ancestral country of origin. It seems to me not unlike the way sports fanatics talk about their teams. When someone who has just watched a football game on television says, "we won" or "I hate the [insert name of team or city here] " I've always been puzzled at what the people on TV have to do with the guy in the chair.

On the other hand, identifying too closely with the victims of the past, whether they were slaves, Native Americans or European immigrants doesn't seem to benefit anyone either. Many people feel a lingering guilt by association for things that happened in the past, whether our ancestors could have been involved or not. Maybe it's because people "like us" did them. And yet it seems wrong to put these events too far behind us because although many of the worst wrongs have been righted, the long term impact of injustice is still with us in very real ways. Since a great deal of racial injustice and oppression is relatively recent, when I see people of a certain age I can't help wondering what they've seen, done or suffered.

Perhaps we haven't yet learned to recognize and identify with both historical sides of the coin.

Maybe I'd feel differently if I knew anything about my ancestors. As far as I know, most or all of my great-grandparents came to this country in the late 19th or early 20th century and they were all ordinary working people. I don't know anything about their English and Irish ancestors and I've never been curious enough to look into it. I was born in Boston and lived in New England until I was nineteen. I confess an affinity and perhaps a certain pride in that area, but I'm sure it has more to do with familiarity and spending my formative years there than anything else.

I love and appreciate being an American because of the freedoms we have, the opportunities we have and because of the unique diversity of culture here. There's nowhere I'd rather live.

America is not a perfect place and there are dark chapters in our history that most of us don't like to think about. In that, we're no different than our neighbors around the globe. Just as there have been amazing achievements from every culture, throughout history all cultures have found ways to treat other human beings terribly.

I admire the many accomplishments that have come from Americans and there is a part of me that feels a certain warm emotion about the great things our nation has done, but I've never been able to relate to the the phrase, "I'm proud to be an American" because I see my place of birth as a happy accident. When I consider how differently my life might have been had I been born elsewhere, I feel very lucky to be an American. My views on sports and ancestors probably make that a predictable sentiment. My pride is limited to only those things I've personally done.

There have been many times I've envied those who feel that strong connection. At times I do feel like an outsider. There is no ethnic or regional identity I strongly associate myself with and the number of living relatives I have is small and somewhat scattered. I'm probably in a minority with my feelings of rootlessness, but the world has become much more mobile and transient, so I have to believe people like me are growing in number.

What about you? Do you identify strongly with your ancestors? Your ethnic identity? The place you're from? If you do feel proud to be an American or a Texan or a New Yorker, where does that emotion come from? What about shame? Do you ever have a sense of guilt over things done before you were born? Why do some of us feel that? If we don't, should we?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Have You Ever...

Over at From Skilled Hands, Debra asks,
“Have you ever…?”

Bold the things you’ve done and will admit to.

1. Started your own blog
2. Slept under the stars

3. Played in a band
4. Visited Hawaii
5. Watched a meteor shower
6. Given more than you can afford to charity
(not sure what counts here)
7. Been to Disneyland/world
8. Climbed a mountain
9. Held a praying mantis

10. Sang a solo
11. Bungee jumped
12. Visited Paris
13. Watched a lightning storm at sea
14. Taught yourself an art from scratch
15. Adopted a child
16. Had food poisoning
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty
18. Grown your own vegetables
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France
20. Slept on an overnight train
21. Had a pillow fight
22. Hitch hiked
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill
24. Built a snow fort

25. Held a lamb
26. Gone skinny dipping

27. Run a Marathon
28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice
29. Seen a total eclipse
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset
31. Hit a home run
32. Been on a cruise
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person
34. Visited the birthplace of your ancestors
35. Seen an Amish community (I'm not counting seeing them downtown shopping)
36. Taught yourself a new language (do video courses count?)
37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied
38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person
39. Gone rock climbing
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David
41. Sung karaoke
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
43. Bought a stranger a meal in a restaurant

44. Visited Africa
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight
46. Been transported in an ambulance

47. Had your portrait painted (sort of)
48. Gone deep sea fishing
49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling
52. Kissed in the rain
53. Played in the mud
54. Gone to a drive-in theater

55. Been in a movie
56. Visited the Great Wall of China
57. Started a business
58. Taken a martial arts class

59. Visited Russia
60. Served at a soup kitchen
61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies
62. Gone whale watching
63. Gotten flowers for no reason
64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma

65. Gone sky diving
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp
67. Bounced a check
68. Flown in a helicopter
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial

71. Eaten Caviar
72. Pieced a quilt
73. Stood in Times Square
74. Toured the Everglades
75. Been fired from a job
76. Seen the Changing of the Guards in London
77. Broken a bone (I'm not counting my nose)
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle
79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person
80. Published a book
81. Visited the Vatican
82. Bought a brand new car
83. Walked in Jerusalem
84. Had your picture in the newspaper
85. Read the entire Bible
86. Visited the White House
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating
88. Had chickenpox
89. Saved someone’s life
90. Sat on a jury
91. Met someone famous
92. Joined a book club
93. Lost a loved one
94. Had a baby

95. Seen the Alamo in person
96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake
97. Been involved in a law suit
98. Owned a cell phone
99. Been stung by a bee

How about you?

Just One More Day

I was reading a post that Elizabeth at A moon, worn as if it had been a shell wrote today about getting into an online Facebook tiff and I thought about how today I didn't want any negativity.

I intentionally shied away from blogs with any kind of sour grapes about the election. On Tuesday as we watched the returns come in, Scott and I drank champagne and I cried and then cried some more as we watched history happening and people celebrating all over the world and I didn't want anything to rain on that feeling. Every time I saw a clip of people in another country celebrating with us, I had that crazy Sally Field at the Oscars sensation of "they like us! they really like us!", unlike that uncomfortable -- I think I'll pretend I'm Canadian when I'm in Europe -- feeling I've had since 2003.

Paul Begala on CNN made a funny comment a few days ago as the McCain campaign seemed to be crumbling before our eyes. He said something to the effect that when liberals lose, they go off to a yurt somewhere, smoke a bunch of dope and ponder what went wrong. Conservatives get into a knife fight.

He's right. I can remember sort of quietly going off to a corner and licking my wounds when Bush won the last two elections and I don't remember lashing out. I think most of us just sighed, shrugged our shoulders and got on with it.

There has never been an election where the people -- we the people -- felt so empowered and celebrated the election of a leader the way we did Tuesday night. For each snarky comment I glimpsed and then refused to read or acknowledge on Wednesday, I had the image of that crabby old man at the end of every episode of Scooby Doo who'd shake his fist in angry frustration -- if it wasn't for those meddling kids!

People are bound to be disappointed as we enter this new and difficult era and mistakes are bound to be made, but I have faith unlike any I've ever had before and for the first time in my life as an American I feel like I'm finally part of a "we". An unprecedented number of us made this happen. I hope the people who are unhappy about the election results will eventually understand that they are a part of "us" and our collective arms are wide open.

Yeah, I sound pretty sappy right now, which isn't like me, but I'm going with it. It feels good to shed eight years of cynicism.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Times They Are A Changin

I love Tracy Chapman's version of this song. Scott and I are drinking champagne, and I have a feeling the rest of the world just might see us in a different way already.

I think we already see us differently.

There is much to do and it's going to be a rough road. Plenty of people are bound to be disappointed that things don't all turn out the way they'd like, but tonight it feels like anything is possible.

Yes We Can

When I first saw this video I cried. In the weeks that followed, I saw the snark and the ugliness on the political blogs and the conservative cable news channels. Their message was that those of us who felt inspired by and who supported Barack Obama were naive and under some kind of mass delusion. They negated the power of his message of uniting the country, as if the words weren't something most of us have hungered for our whole lives.

I focused on the issues when I talked about Obama. I shied away from talking about the hope I had, after so many years of feeling betrayed and cynical about the things my government has done.

But I want to post this video now and proclaim my hope and my belief that we really can heal our nation.

Yes we can.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ten Years Ago, I Wouldn't Have Believed You

I've always had a low tolerance for conspiracy theories, wild internet rumors and the idea that anyone would intentionally disrupt our democratic process. I didn't pay enough attention to what really happened after the 2000 election. This year, I've been following everything and there is no doubt in my mind that the record efforts to register new voters and to encourage maximum participation in this election are aggressively being countered by attempts to disenfranchise voters and purge the rolls.

It happened here in Colorado and it's happening in other battleground states.

Please vote and please be vigilant. Know your rights and understand that there are people out there who are working around the clock to impede our voting rights. This isn't paranoia, it's real.

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf