Why?

I am usually not a follower of current events for a few reasons.  First, most news is bad news.  It’s depressing and enraging.  It frustrates me to watch the world beat people down yet again and be powerless to stop it.  Second, the stories don’t often change.  I can read a book written in 2003 and it tells last year’s story of a crisis in Burma.  I can read a book written in 1950 and it tells the story of the agony of African nations like Sudan.  Currently I’m reading The Map of Love, which is primarily about Egypt and was written in 1999.  it also was a Booker Prize finalist.  It’s totally applicable to the issues of the day – the hubris and double standards of the West, the Jewish stance on Palestine and Arab anger at it, our own interests in Iraq reflected somewhat in Egypt’s relationship with Britain.

It makes me wonder if we can ever make any progress forward at all.  I feel accountable.  Why can’t we commit to taking our troops out of Iraq.  Even if it’s slow, even if we need to be reasonable about this untenable situation we’ve gotten our country into, why can’t we at least offer an olive branch of not dominating the rest of the world?  I am proud to be an American, but at times I am also embarrassed to be one.  The fighting is getting heavier in Iraq, and now we’re withdrawing troops.  Why?  Because people are so angry here that they’re willing to overthrow their political leaders?  Because ‘progress has been made’, and by that nebulous definition of progress we can bow out without losing too much face?  Come on, smarmy politicians – you’ve already lost.

It’s just upsetting.  I would like to live in a world where we did not have to be surprised by the accepting Muslim fundamentalist or the broad-minded Christian or the honest politican.  IS that really so difficult to achieve?

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Dune

Last night, for our second-ever movie night, Gina, Mike and I watched the David Lynch original Dune version. Afterwards, Mike told me it had been one of the biggest box-office flops of all time. I was shocked and amazed. A flop? Dune? The wonder of Frank Herbert’s genius? No way! Of course, when I first saw it myself, I remember it being boring. Perhaps disturbing as well, but primarily boring. The director ended up hating it, and the cult crowd that loves it now I am totally unsure of. Why had I even suggested we watch this thing?

And then I realized that even the first time I’d seen the thing, I’d probably already read the book. Or else, more paradoxically, when thinking back to the original boring movie, I’d confused both the book and miniseries versions with the older David Lynch version. And besides David Lynch being disturbing and weird, the movie isn’t really bad, for what it is. It’s just so much less than the book, rather than more. Of course, the miniseries had 5+ hours to say what the Lynch movie had to do in 3, so of course there had to be some skimpings on things like character development. But the book – the book had everything. Politics, religion, business, biology, environmentalism, history, poetry, arts, morals, drug addiction, relationships, you name it, it was there. There was even some economics, though its outlines were vague. Pretty much every modern problem was allegorized in the book, and done well, and somehow all compiled into a master work. War in Iraq and Muslim extremism? It’s in the book. Human impact on the environment? It’s in the book. American supremacy? It’s in the book. Religious indoctrination? It’s in the book. Political and corporates maneuvering? It’s in the book. That’s why I love the book – it has everything.

People always say all kinds of things about The Martian Chronicles, and how they’re really about life in the 50s, and what that environment was like. Dune was written in 1965, just 15 years later. Of course the world had changed significantly in those years, but Frank Herbert was writing something more than a distillation of his time. He was writing a classic, because his work has become timeless, as the cycles of humanity make his work still applicable today (whereas I have difficulty relating to most of Bradbury’s stories). Yay Frank Herbert!

Book burning for all?

As I am a writer, and and avid reader (some people don’t suppose those things go together, but I’m not one of them) I’ve been more than a little hesitant about the Kindle. Mike has, of course, extolled the virtues of electronic paper multiple times. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, Wikipedia has an easy-to understand article that explains how it works. And the Kindle is supposed to be very flexible, very thought out, and about the same size and weight as a paperback. So especially for traveling, probably a good thing – store enough books for your whole trip in the size of something one book big. For me that’s a big issue, as I often take more books than clothes, especially on longer trips.

But I’m still not convinced. Yes, I read the reviews, and listened to all these tech guys and other avid readers extol the virtues and honestly address some of the hiccups. And I am genuinely impressed with the product. I may even buy one some day, even at the current high price. As I’ve said before, I’m sure it would be ideal for travel especially more travel. But still, something holds me back from totally confirming the advent of a new reading age. Is it my inner traditionalist coming out, the reactionary who knows the old ways were the best? Or is it something else?

It’s not that I haven’t done my share of electronic reading already – take a look at this post on Baen.  But that hasn’t made me a convert to only electronic reading by any means.  True, the Kindle won’t eventually hurt your eyes like a computer screen will.  And true, there are many functions that allow you to treat it as a normal book – bookmarking, notes making,, highlighting, all kinds of stuff.  And it might even be good that I wouldn’t be able to beat up a Kindle like I do a regular paperback, bending the pages and breaking bindings and covers.  But still, there’s something missing from an electronic device like that.

Maybe it’s all in my head, but I don’t think I could get into it in the same way.  I’m not sure I could allow the page to blur before my vision, forming only story, not words.  I’m not sure I could let my mind open up, and really inhabit the world of the characters.  Most certainly I couldn’t surround myself with the smell of the bindings’ glue and the ink on the pages.  Even though Amazon may one day also vend perfumes to mimic these smells, something would be missing.

And what of my library?  What of that little collection I’ve build up of physical objects that I can touch and see surrounding me?  What of the book spines I run my fingers over gently, knowing friends within?  It’s true, when e-book first got big, some predicted the end of fiction as we know it, and this is just another chapter in that book.  But really I can’t see Kindle as lighting a book-burning fire.  At least not yet.

There’s always something.

This is a repeated line from a series of lovely children’s books: A Series of Unfortunate Events.  For those of you who don’t know or haven’t read the books, a part of what makes them lovely is the fact that they most likely aren’t written for children.  A part of the delight that comes from reading them is in the literary quips and unlikely definitions that are liberally spread throughout the text.  The characters are interesting enough, and the plotlines are at least entertaining, but the substance of the books would never happily fill up 13 novels, with out a bit of something more.

True, by the thirteenth book the system of adding quips and delightfully amusing sidenotes has gotten a little redundant, but I still have an attraction to these books.  I want the entire set for myself.  I want to curl up with one of them again on a cold snowy night, or when I’m having trouble falling asleep, or when I’m feeling a little sick or a little worn.  I want to read these books to my children and draw them against their wills into the jokes as my father dragged me through puns and word plays in my childhood.  These are books that Italo Calvino would say are classics.  There’s something there, inside them, no matter how many times they are read.

Perhaps my own personal interest has something to do with the circumstances in which I first encountered them.  I was introduced to the first book in China, by a good friend who happened to know the author.  I ate it up.  Since I was in China, I know I wasn’t going to get to read the second one for at least a year – books being largely unavailable in English if new, and typically quite expensive.  But, to my surprise, one of my English teaching compatriots was being shipped each book by her mother as it came out.   Ah, fresh-off-the-presses books!  Just for me (after my friend had read each one, of course).

But despite the early encounters being weighted in favor of these books, I still believe they are generally enjoyable and of some worth.  Now that I have an Amazon gift card, they just might be shipped to an address near me.

Why I have the best boss in the world.

Does anyone remember the live-action movie of that children’s classic, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery? Besides being a wonderful story, it had great songs with extreme choreography such as “A Snake in the Grass” and “I’m on Your Side”. The one brought to mind today though is “Why Am I Happy? I’m Dying of Thirst,” or, in this case, ‘Why am I happy? My Job is the Most Boring On Earth.’
Granted, the job is not boring and stressful at the same time, like working in a bank or hospital where you can screw up someone’s finances or health. But still, it wears on me, the day after day slog of pointless activity – answering the phone, opening the mail, making some copies, scheduling some meetings and finally going home. It hurts my soul a little. However, every once and awhile there’s a little light that comes in. usually it’s in the form of actual research projects my boss gives me, data that I can be proud to find and quickly organize, getting to use that rotting organ, my brain.

Recently in my ceaseless mail opening there’s been quite a few holiday gifts to my boss from various companies and organizations he works with. Sometimes these will be food or tasty beverage items that he shares. Other times these will be more practical items, like office gadgets or a finance or investment related book. One of my favorites this year was Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. What does this book have to do with investing? My co-workers could not decide, and my boss playfully announced our office would now follow the Mongol model and proceed to take over the world. I was ready, just as soon as he gave us our ponies – Mongolian horde ponies, of course.

So he gave me my next research project – what is the proper weaponry of the Mongol Horde? What, exactly, would we need to advance our mission of taking over the world? Wikipedia, here I come!

In the end it’s not the fact that my boss is such a relaxed manager, or that he feels comfortable joking around with his staff that keeps me feeling good about my job. True, I work at a large institution where people might tend to be lost. But at the basic level, in the small moments like this, it’s when I really know that this institution truly values education and learning. It’s in one person saying to another ‘let’s find out’, that curiosity in our own history and the world around us that gives me a renewed sense of purpose. True, my phone answering and mail opening are very small in the scale of life, but at least I know they are menial tasks that support something meaningful, that are in some small way contributing to the larger world.

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