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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Every Man for Himself

A lousy buck is all that a short story collection goes for these days, I guess if your marketing strategy involves urinals in the cover art then you're probably not going to get much more than a buck.  A bargain shopper like myself is happy to throw out a buck and see if there's anything worth reading.

The book is billed as "ten short stories about being a guy".  Most of them qualified as very readable, I can't say that I'd call any of them masterpieces but yes readable.  There were two that rose to be what I would call memorable.  "Princes" by David Levithan  is the story of a teenage boy who loves to dance, of course he loves to dance because he's gay.  He comes out right before his brother's Bar Mitzvah and this is the story of how his brother fights to let his brother bring a date.  The other story I really liked was "Fear" by Terry Truman which is the story of a boy in a bad neighborhood who learns to stand up for himself against some home invaders.

This book also includes "The Unbeatable" by Mo Williams which I believe is the short story the movie Sky High was based on.  I love it when decent literature is the inspiration for film.  It's a nod to the fact that writers are still important and the driver of all the good media we can consume.  Even though you don't have a prayer of selling a book of short stories for more than a buck these days, those fine folks who are building castles in the air and sweating to put them on the page still matter.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Paul Hodes in Nashua

I attended my first town hall today in Nashua, Paul Hodes is running to be one of New Hampshire's senators.  I don't know how they got my name, I'm a registered Democrat and I contributed a small amount to the Obama campaign so it could have been from either of those sources.

It was a nice event, about fifty people turned up, the crowd skewed to the older side.  I decided to wear a shirt and tie and was pretty overdressed.  A couple of people asked if I worked for the campaign.  I sat in the back, which is my usual MO, especially in situations where I have no idea what I'm doing.  It was held at a local theater/restaurant/pub called Chunky's, they served drinks and spaghetti and salad.  I decided long ago that I hate Chunky's food but this is the best meal I've had there.

Congressman Hodes started out the event with a speech.  His main points were partisan standbys.  Now I'm about as liberal as they come  but I like to think I'm pretty well informed.  He discussed how the Republican Party wants to privatize social security, end medicare and extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich.  Partially true but two out of three are politically dead ideas and the tax cut extension is probably a no go unless Obama gets convinced to go along for some bizarre reason.  I personally would have liked to see something a little more nuanced but when I take a tour of the comments section of any Yahoo story on politics I understand what he's up against.

To be a political candidate in this day and age you have to tailor your message to the masses and the masses just aren't paying attention or taking that extra second to take a look on Snopes before they get outraged and pass along a completely false story.  Regardless it would be refreshing to have  a politician who feels free to be a little more subtle and thought provoking when they are talking to people outside of DC.  What is so impressive about Obama is that he was so popular and can still speak plainly and clearly about complex issues.  I wish the Democratic party would just adopt this as a universal campaign principal.  Unfortunately "well we tried to tell you" party probably isn't in America's future anytime soon.

The Q&A was fantastic, that was when you really got to see Congressman Hodes in action.  The crowd was pretty knowledgeable, I sat next to a teacher with two masters degrees.  Her main concern and question was about monitoring the mercenaries in Iraq.  There were other questions about jobs, health insurance and a little foreign policy.  One man was concerned about Israel's response to the Iranian nuclear program.  I asked about the economy, specifically what can be done to reduce structural unemployment.  Representative Hodes actually gave a pretty good answer, he talked about improving the educational system, reducing the cost of student loans and introducing more programs where public service would provide money for education.  I'm a big fan of programs like the Stafford Loan forgiveness program so I thought it was a decent answer.

I'd like to thank Congressman Hodes and his campaign for inviting me to the event today, I know he's polling well below his probable competitors but when a  botched Sarah Palin endorsement is on your likely opponent's resume how can you give up easily?  Seriously read that link, Sarah is God's gift to comedians.  So Paul, here's hoping that you win in November. At the end I asked his local campaign manager what kind of volunteer opportunities there are and he said "everything" so I'll see if there's anything I can do as we get closer to election day.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Kitchen Confidential

This is the must read for anyone that's worked in a restaurant.  Anthony Bourdain, also the host of the Travel Channel's show No Reservations writes a tell all about the restaurant industry.  It's not a tell in the style of an expose on what really happens to your food, it's a tell all about the characters who tend to inhabit restaurant jobs and end up making careers of it.

I loved this book because it echoes truth.  I worked in restaurants for about ten years after high school and the cast of characters that make up the core crew of any restaurant are some of the most interesting and most damaged people you're going to meet.  Of course there is a heavy contingent of folks just working their way through college but the ones that you see on your shift closing down at 1 AM and then back the next morning cutting lemons beside you at 8 in the morning are people you want to know.  Restaurants also contrast with the corporate environment in that the work is low paid, easy to find and in most cases temporary.  This allows people to behave in a more open and genuine manner, which for good or for ill allows you to get to know your coworkers much faster than you do in a more sterile environment.

I love the TV show The Office, breaking it down the basic premise is what would happen if people acted at work exactly like they do in their private lives but I've seen that show played out in every restaurant job I've had.  Anthony Bordain tells the stories of how he got into the restaurant industry and tells the stories of the characters he encountered in his journey from dishwasher to to chef.   I loved how realistic his description of the type of people who take each job in a restaurant, from the bartender to the sous chef to the expediter.  Also this is the first book that completely captures how when you work in a restaurant it becomes your whole world, your social life, your dining room, and the place you get paid all rolled into one.  Home is just a place where you sleep it off until it's time to do it again.

So if you've ever done a summer in a kitchen I would highly recommend this book.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

In Praise of Slowness

This book is about disconnecting from the fast pace of life that has taken over in modern times and taking control of how you spend your time.  Carl Honore is a journalist by trade and he writes in a journalistic style which I found disconcerting until I'd almost read the whole book.  The problem with a journalistic style is that you write as if you are presenting a group of facts to shed light on a topic that the reader may be unaware of or misinformed about.  The trap that Honore keeps falling into is that he presented each of his subjects as if he were exposing growing trends.  Looking back to 2004 when the book was published, life hasn't changed for most of us and in fact since the financial crisis most of us are more pressed for time than ever.  I thought this book deserved a harsh spanking by Jack Shaffer until I realized that Honore was writing an essay, an ode to a way of life and a way of seeing time that he found ideal.  Once I finally realized what he was doing I started to love this book.

For example, the first part of life that Honore explores is slow food.  He discusses eating fine meals at a European pace, interviewing chefs, foodies and some fine folks from a "slow food movement".  However since this story came out, fast food restaurants are slinging out more meals than ever, at least according to numbers I've read.  I'm sure that most of us would love to sit down and enjoy a fine meal but the pace of life just doesn't allow it all of the time as I will explain as I go more in depth into how I've explored this  set of essays.

One more word of caution for those of you who decide to give this book a peek, the slow lifestyle that Honore espouses in this book is mostly for the wealthy.  I know that there are hordes of people stuck in terrible abandoned manufacturing towns just trying to get by, there are others who are battling warlords and trying to pack out bags of selenium mud just to feed their family.  For those who share my liberal sensibilities the stark contrast of what's really going on in the world and the way Honore uses his style to show fast living as a problem make him look like an out of touch elitist.  I'm not so sure that allowing more people to work a French style workweek is the hot agenda item on most people's table and the fact that this book seems oblivious to that made it seem elitist to me.  It seems as if in every chapter Honore made a point to state that slow living is not just for the rich but it seems like all of his ideas would be far out of reach for the mass of desperate men who would be happy to have a bit of factory work and a couple of hot dogs.

The book is broken down into chapters of slow food, slow driving, slow neighborhoods, slow sex, slow child raising, slow working,slow exercise and slow leisure.  Whew, quite a heaping helping of ideas and ideals and I'm not sure you could do it all without a European style social net or an inherited couple of million dollars.  I've tried to apply many of the ideas into my life with mixed results.

For example I've made a serious effort to avoid restaurant food and take my time eating and paying attention to portion size.  I had a physical last month and a follow up this month, I've lost a bit of weight, not a significant amount but more than a rounding error and my blood pressure is significantly lower.  Maybe Mayor McCheese doesn't have my best interests in mind after all.  I've tried slow driving, that is driving defensively and at the speed limit.  I keep records on my gas mileage and honestly it's worse than ever.  This one is a hard one to guess on, is driving a bit faster and keeping up with the bulk of traffic actually faster and more fuel efficient?  It may be, after this tank I'm going to switch back to my old ways of driving the same speed as everyone else and see how the mileage holds up.  I know there may be a safety advantage to being a bit slower but it's really hard to tell if just blending in with traffic or putting the needle right at the limit is the safer strategy,  plus I'd need to drive for 10,000 years to see which way really made the difference.  For now I'm leaning away from the slow driving.

Slow sex?  Well I'll just keep that to myself except to say that it's different, and sometimes trying something different after you've been married for ten years is good.  I've also been trying the slow child raising and letting the kids have a bit more room, I actually think we're all getting along a bit better so this is another keeper.  I've been trying the slow exercise too, basically this is weightlifting and so forth going at a snails pace.  I haven't noticed a huge change in my fitness level but it does feel good.

The slow neighborhood idea is just out of reach, and probably out of reach for most everyone.  We all want a house with a big yard in a friendly walkable neighborhood.  Of course that is just an impossible dream because big yards just make that store or movie theater a couple of miles further than it would be in a city, and the other aspects of city living are about as opposite to a slow lifestyle as can be imagined.  As part of this section though he discusses a planned community called Kentlands in Maryland which he described as an idyllic break from urban sprawl that residents were loath to leave.  I have to admit after checking out a Google search that at this point home values and quality of life seem to have held up there.  I think our problem may be that cities in the East were built before people could plan for cars and cities in the west were built before people knew that they wanted to spend some time outside of the car.  For now though living in a walkable neighborhood with the advantages of suburban life is a rich man's pleasure, I doubt anyone is willing to bulldoze Nashua and start all over.

So the book had it's highs and lows, it's an passionate plea for a lifestyle that I'd love to implement.  Ultimately though I think that if improving the human condition is the goal, we should be looking elsewhere first.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Timequake

According to the foreword in Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a novel, and it was terrible.  So he decided to use what he could of the carcass and mix it in with some autobiography and the result is Timequake.

The premise of the timequake is that for some reason the universe contracted and everyone went back 10 years in time.  What makes this a particularly devastating event is that everyone is conscious, but unable to change anything about the events that they travel through.

Honestly I don't know how a novel like this could have ended up as anything less than spectacular, especially in the hands of a master like Vonnegut.  I guess some ideas just look good on the outline but fall flat on the page.  It's also possible that he was looking to wrap up a long career of writing, his next book, A Man Without a Country, was his last.  It's always possible that Vonnegut is having another joke with us by claiming that the timequake concept fell flat and spinning out a suitable autobiography.

Timequake is a story of free will and regrets.  We deal with out pasts by remembering the exciting parts and coloring the unpleasant parts until they are in a suitable form for our inner narrative.  In Memento the character Leonard says "Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts."  Dealing with events long put to bed and having to see them in vivid detail would be painful and maddening and living through the long boring stretches in between with nothing to do but reflect on them would only heighten the torture.  I suppose there are a rare few that have lived life to the fullest, learned from their mistakes and gathered their self worth from simply being, but that aspect of the human condition may simply be myth.

Here's the beautiful part of my reading of  Timequake.  I had actually read it 11 years ago, when I was single and living in an apartment in Salt Lake with my friends Dave and Jerus.  Even though I was in my older 20s at that time I just didn't have the concept of good art being a mirror and spent my whole time reading the book thinking about war, poverty and injustice rather than thinking of myself as an actor.  In my mind I was an impartial observer of the world stage.  Now that I've actually gathered a bit of ability to self reflect, it was like reading a whole different book.

I really can't imagine going through all the petty fights with family members, the foolish things I've said when I've dropped my guard more than I intended, the mistakes I've made.  Sometimes life deals you situations where you should have said or done something and didn't and I would not want to live through those again.  Dealing with time in a linear fashion the mistakes can be seen as learning opportunities but  I have no doubt that seeing them acted out in the world's more realistic puppet show would drive the most clear headed among us to insanity.

There would be joyful days too, like the days my children were born and the morning I was told my daughter would survive her meningitis.  I can't see what I would usually call a good day seeming anything but petty if I was put through 10 years full of time to just think, when all the doing is taken care of by my past self.  I suppose that's what Vonnegut was reaching for when he dreamed the book up.

Vonnegut walks the fine line between parody and satire and crosses over into cynicism.  For example one story meant to capture the death of eloquence in America uses Lincoln's speech as he leaves Illinois as an example of what great leadership and eloquence we used to celebrate.  The speech he uses as an example though is actually a mash-up of three Lincoln speeches.  How can you glory in the day to day when the memories you have of the past are larger than life?  I think that a timequake could also bring some peace to anyone who glories in a past time when things were better than they are now.

So if you read this book, I suggest you give it another turn in 10 years and see what your own timequake would feel like.  God willing I have another date with this book sometime around 2020.