Wednesday, November 10, 2010

An Old-Fashioned Read -- I Thnk

Some of the most pleasant memories I have and will ever have are of browsing in bookstores. I don’t mind the the big chains, I understand why they exist and why the small independent stores, most of them, are fewer and number and don’t live long when they pop up hopefully in artsy neighborhoods. So I cherish those small ones all the more when I find one.

On our family vacation in Estes Park a couple of years ago I happened on the Macdonald Book Shop on Elkhorn, the village’s main drag. I bought Jayne Anne Phillips’s most recent novel (which I really must get to sometime) and struck up a conversation with the proprietor. I don’t often ask for recommendations, but I wanted to spend more money there and didn’t see how I could go wrong.

At this point, my dreamy recollection from the musty stacks takes a left turn, because one of the books she recommended was one of the very worst books I have ever read, and I warned you about it here. So I was not particularly looking forward to reading the other one she recommended, So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger.

Yet I found myself quickly charmed. Turning the pages to find out what happened next took very little effort. This struck me almost from the outset as a very old fashioned novel in the former sense of the word – a novelty, an unusual tale, something that transports us into a new (that is, novel) world. I won’t be giving anything away to tell you that the novel is narrated by Monte Becket, a man living in Minnesota with his lovely wife and lively adolescent son in the mid-1920s. He wrote one successful novel and found himself unable to finish another one. He encounters an enigmatic stranger, Glendon Hale, who, after initial reticence, becomes friends with the family. Hale, who has skill as a boatmaker, plans to set off to find his first wife he calls Blue, a Mexican woman he left many years earlier, to apologize to her. Becket decides to join him, and the book is about their journey and what happens to them along the way. There are two other major characters, a young buck who is magic with horses and engines – the automobile is still in its preadolescence – and the real-life character Charlie Siringo, a former Pinkerton detective. About the plot I will say no more.

I read this book quickly to its conclusion (285 pages) and when I was done, I thought my, what a fine book. And then I thought: but what was the point? Was there a catharsis? Did the characters change? What explains its unexpected conclusion, and how does it illuminate the darker corners of the human condition? Was it intended to do so, or was I just tricked into reading something that was just a plot, a coupla guys who started out here, to whom stuff happened as they moved along, and ended up there, the end?

No, I don’t think I was duped. I felt enriched, as I do when I feel like I’ve ingested something of value and I think I will remember this book. But I will tell you that it perplexed me, and it perplexes me as I write these lines. This is one of those books that has a study guide in the back with a bunch of questions designed to guide the discussions of book clubs. I looked through them and as I did, I thought yeah, I should have noticed that.

Which makes me think that this is one of those books with hidden riches that are so skillfully hidden that I – who must read quickly and perhaps less reflectively than I should properly to honor the author’s art – would not experience them unless I worked at it. That’s not a criticism. I felt the book’s value as I read it, but I knew just as certainly that I wasn’t going to be able to articulate its lessons. But I feel that those lessons are there.

Perhaps you can experience them. But even if you don’t, it’s a fine read, and I commend it to you.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Two Years Gone: An Election Punditry Checklist

In the coming days I’ll have some original thoughts on what’s coming up in the next two years and beyond. Mark your calendars.

Right now, though, I think it’s worthwhile to look back on one of the most rapid political collapses in anyone’s memory. This went far beyond the usual mid-term corrections in legislative balance. This election meant something. Something good, in my opinion, but if you don’t think so, OK. You’ve got a couple of years to see whether the voters like what they’ve wrought, or not.

What follows is not particularly original. One pundit or another (including Your Cool Hot Center) has said one or more of these things at one time or another. I’m in agreement with most of the conventional wisdom on the reasons for the spanking the Dems took on November 2. With so many plausible explanations, it is small wonder that they summed to nudge the pendulum so far from where it was in November 2008.

Think back to the avalanche of goodwill that accompanied President Obama into office. A lot of that goodwill was from folks like me who didn’t vote for him, but who admired him in many respects and hoped – maybe even assumed – that he was shrewd enough not to attempt to govern from the far left where he had resided throughout his legislative career and before.

And a lot of that goodwill came from – yep, the mainstream media.

Two years later, his coalition has evaporated, he is personally unpopular, his legislative majorities are gone (I know, the Dems still have a tiny majority, but if you were a Democratic senator up for election two or four years from now, how would you be voting?), employers won’t hire, Afghanistan festers.

How did it go so wrong so fast for this brilliant, charismatic figure of true historical significance?

Oh, it’s not so hard to figure, really.

          -- The President and Congress began immediately to promote and enact a well left-of-center, big-government, union-gaga, tax-and-spend, redistributionist Euro-model agenda. The public perceived it clearly and rejected it.  Check. The President has already rejected this explanation, stating instead that there was a failure of communication. I hope he keeps on thinking this, because it’s risible nonsense. The guy was on the teevee almost every day. It became a joke at our office; we have CNN on in the lobby and every time I’d walk through, there he’d be, promoting his agenda to one friendly audience or another.

It was just a real damned bad message. And, of course, you have Nancy Pelosi saying that the contents of the healthcare act could not be disclosed and that it had to be enacted before people would see what’s in it. Well, this might be a failure of communication – only problem is, the more people found out about what was really in the thing – that is, the more accurate communication the public received -- the less they liked it. Nope, there was no failure either (i) of communication other than a failure to tell the truth about the programs, or (ii) of voter understanding.

Which reminds me: I would ask those who believe that voters were misinformed or underinformed, or who misunderstood the information they received either because they’re dumb or because they got their news from Fox News or the Drudge Report – what is your view of the status of their intelligence, information, and understanding at such time as they handed the Democrats an very impressive victory a mere two years previously? Was the uncritical and even fawning Obama coverage by the mainstream media during the election (and don’t you dare try to deny it if you hope to maintain a molecule of credibility) your idea of accurate informing of the public? They were informed and smart two years ago but ignorant and dumb now? (And by the way, Fox News and Drudge were as popular then as they are now.) I need to write about this foxnewsphobia some day, but surely it must be clear at this point that Fox News whips the daylights out of its competitors (and the Drudge Report whips the daylights out of Huffington Post and and the like) because their reportage corresponds more closely with what their viewers perceive as reality than does the output of the now-suspended Keith Olberman, the clownish Chris Matthews, NPR, Katie Couric, David Gregory, the New York Times, and so on ad infinitim? (And I’m not a big fan of O’Reilly/Hannity/Fox & Friends.)

          -- The Democrats misunderstood their 2008 election victory as a rejection of conservatism, when it was actually (i) a rejection of Bush for his own abandonment of conservative principles (like GHW Bush before him), combined with (ii) some Bushy personality and communications deficiencies, (iii) a very weak Republican ticket, and especially (iv) a misleading media and self-portrayal of a charismatic, eloquent, historically-inevitable black guy.  Check.

          -- Voters felt betrayed; Obama ran as a bipartisan moderate but was neither from the get-go.  Check. He and his acolytes were so impressed by his margin and the tsunami of praise that swept him into office that he figured voters weren’t interested in him compromising the left agenda he’d coyly concealed during the campaign. This was error.

          -- The President fibs. He is mendacious about many things, including (probably) his personal composition of Dreams of My Father, but most vividly about the health care bill and the existence of “shovel-ready jobs” ready to be stimulated by the stimulus.  Check.

          -- The Democrats were thuggish in enacting their unpopular stuff, strongarming it through Congress using legislative logrolling that crossed the line into spectacularly brazen bribery.   Check. Special provisions favoring five states, unions, trial (plaintiffs’) lawyers. Obama was elected to change the way Washington did business, but his allies put on the most astoundingly craven display of legislative corruption in recent memory to enact the healthcare bill.

          -- Joe Biden.   Check. The gift that keeps on giving, although Nancy Pelosi is giving him a run for his money. Tell me true: Hypothetical: Big-time terrorist attack on the US. President drops dead of a heart attack. You would prefer the vice-president be: (a) Joe Biden or (b) Dick Cheney. Mm-hmm.

          -- The President’s overseas apology/bowing tours exhibited his discomfort with the idea of American exceptionalism that most voters rightly embrace.   Check.

          -- The President doesn’t believe strongly in the international Islamist terror threat.   Check.

          -- The President doesn’t believe strongly in the dangers represented by illegal immigration from Mexico. Check and double-check. With Mexico dissolving into criminal anarchy, and with that culture osmotically creeping into the American border states, the Obama administration sues Arizona for its efforts to do something about it. Nice.

          -- This historic black racial-healer president tolerated, if not promoted, a racist Justice Department under Eric Holder, and appointed a self-racially-identified candidate, and a mediocre one at that (Sonia Sotomayor), to the Supreme Court.   Check. The Republicans will continue to press for an investigation of Holder’s disgraceful stewardship of Justice. And now we’re stuck with Sotomayor. Just this week a memorandum to the President from constitutional and Supreme Court expert Laurence Tribe (a liberal, by the way, who has long hoped for an appointment to the High Court himself) surfaced in which he advised his former student Obama respecting this self-proclaimed “wise Latina”: “Bluntly put," Tribe wrote the President, "she's not nearly as smart as she seems to think she is[.]”  But nothing was going to stop POTUS from appointing a Hispanic judge.

          -- The President dithered for months over what to do in Afghanistan, and ended up neither getting out nor giving his generals what they wanted.  Check. In fairness, no one is entirely sure what to do in Afghanistan at this point. But Obama, after having identified this as Job One during the campaign, seems to have lost interest.

          -- Voters did not like it when the President, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, John Kerry, and other Democrats repeatedly talked down to them, accusing them of narrow-mindedness, misunderstanding, misperception of their own interests, ignorance, fearfulness, rejecting of science (!), and the like.   Check. This is a variation of “we didn’t communicate our programs well enough.” What they really want to say is – hell, what they actually did say was, in one form or another -- “the American voter has not understood our communications – or has unreasonably declined to accept our assurances – on the benefits of government takeover of healthcare, bailouts, cap-and-trade, increased regulation, promotion of trade unionism, etc.”   Unstated finish:  because they're too dumb, afraid, etc.  Well, sure, sometimes people are dumb.  But they almost always know when they're being insulted.

          -- The President vacationed and golfed even more frequently than recent presidential champs in this regard.  Check. The President and FLOTUS definitely love to party and vacation. Can’t blame them for that, really. But in the midst of an economic downturn, it just doesn’t play well.

          -- Barack Obama isn’t all that. Charm and eloquence emanating largely from those twin slanty transparent screens that seem always to show up at his public appearances.   Sorry, no check. The President remains a very impressive man in many respects.

And I’ll pick up with this thought in the next article.

Overall, however, not so terribly surprising that the electorate got out the brooms.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Consider the Buckeye

One of the benefits of a childhood spent reading everything that was remotely within my reach is that I can now dazzle (and bore, and annoy) my grandchildren with my knowledge of the natural world. I bring them what we call “treasures” – fossils, minerals, shark jaws, stuff I find on the ground.

So I was thinking of them when on a downtown Dallas sidewalk, I spied what looked like a leaf, but which I knew was not. It was a butterfly with its wings folded up, only its dull brown underwings visible. It was not dead, but it was not at all well. I was able to pick it up by its wings, and was rewarded with the sight of the beautiful wings of a buckeye – my favorite butterfly from all those years ago, narrowly edging out the mourning cloak. 

Buckeyes are not extremely rare, but they are hard for casual strollers to notice because they’re usually on the fly, and they’re mostly brown – they’re not distinctive, and barely visible, when they’re on the move.  One of my childhood recollections is being amazed by its beauty in my triple-digit rereadings of Herbert S. Zim's Golden Nature Guide for "Insects," and one day seeing a nondescript brown butterfly whiz by.  I stuck out my net and -- I couldn't believe it -- a buckeye.  It was like accidentally bumping into a celebrity in line at the grocery store.

I didn’t have any way to transport the buckeye, but I decided if it were still there when I came back from where I was going, I would take it back to the office.  Turns out, it was, so I put it in the bag with my purchase. I wasn’t seriously impacting biodiversity here. The insect was obviously in distress – I suspect it was hit by a car and simply stunned beyond recovery. It wasn’t going to last long on that sidewalk. It would either roast, or a bird would get it. It flapped when I picked up, but showed no interest in flying away. I took it back and put it on an Aeron side chair, pretty confident that it would not fly away, and it didn’t. I sent out an email to the firm for people to come see, and it had a number of curious admirers. It expired about a day later. I kept it and brought it home for the grandboys, who were politely impressed. Here it is:

This little shot doesn’t do justice to its beauty. I have a point I want to make about the buckeye and about the world, but I need to show you a more accurate portrait of the creature.

Look at those colors. Even this better shot doesn’t do justice to the depth of the midnight blues and purples, the cocoa brown, and those amazing burnt orange sergeant’s stripes.  Look at this remarkable combination:

So I wonder whether you have the same thought about them that I do: They’re perfect. They don’t offend the eye, just the opposite – they’re delightful, they’re in harmony, they’re not fighting with one another despite their distance from one another on the spectrum.

And that got me to thinking, so let me invite you to consider along with me: Think of the most colorful, wildly piebald living thing you can imagine. I’m thinking of the wildest koi I’ve seen in my recent koi education. I think of the coral reef creatures I watch on those documentaries on the teevee. Any number of blooms. Jungle birds. Can you think of a single one that leaves you with the same impression you get when you see someone wearing mismatched colors? Some of us have better color sense than others, and I am sadly among the others (although I’m getting better under The Memsahib’s tutelage).   So I address some of the more discerning among you:  Have you ever seen a color scheme in nature that displeased your eye?

I suggest to you that this is not a result of sentimentality about nature – the feeling that if it’s “natural,” it must be beautiful – but because we connect instinctively with the world around us. That is, what our senses collect from the natural world define for us what “works” when we judge beauty that we have tried to create for ourselves.

It’s just a little buckeye, only a little more than an inch across. It met with some misfortune that put it in my path, unable to fly. Perhaps it doesn’t bear the weight of my mullings. But I thank it nonetheless; would like to assure it that its life acquired meaning as people who would never ever see a buckeye paused to admire it; and hope that it finds a place with the boys’ other treasures, at least until its colors fade and its scales slough away and it crumbles utterly, all as must come to pass in the natural world.

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