Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Update on Stuff

A friend recently wrote to me: "Your blog seems to have become a site for book reviews rather than detailing the everyday life of Joel Swagman. Sure, I know which books to read and which ones to avoid but the voyeurism factor has dropped significantly."

I can't claim I haven't been blogging much, but obviously the focus of this blog has been changing. Well, what can I say? Now that I'm back in the US, I'm running out of interesting stories in my everyday life.

.....Then again, some of the stuff I blogged about whilst in Japan wasn't all that interesting. Like just writing down conversations from a BBQ, or a night in a video arcade. Or several other posts I could probably mention. If I chose to write down every night out or every conversation like I did in Japan, I could probably come up with just as much material back here.

But I don't feel the need to. Part of it is now that I'm back in the US and speak English all the time I don't feel as much of a need to seek avenues of self expression as I did in Japan. And also since I don't have free time to kill at work on this blog, I no longer blog as a way to kill time. Now I only blog when I feel like I have something to say.
(By the way, blogging just to kill time at work explains several posts over the past couple years. I'm thinking especially of that series on past Chimes articles, but several other posts apply.)

If it weren't for the book reviews, I guess this blog would have been very bare the past few months. The book review project has admittedly taken over the blog a bit. I didn't expect that when I started this. Who knew I read so much?

Although I didn't anticipate so many book reviews, I do like the idea of this project. When you read something the information is only going one way, so its nice to have a feeling of interaction with the book. Plus, when you are reading a book, you tend to want to talk about it with other people. And usually other people couldn't care less. So having this alternative outlet is a good way of saving the people around me from having to hear me talk all the time about what I'm reading at the moment.
(I should also mention that I originally got the idea from Phil and Peter, who announced similar projects on their blogs, although I didn't give them their full credit when I first started).

So, other than books, what has been going on lately? Well, I've enjoyed getting in touch with a lot of you. Getting together for coffee isn't the kind of thing that makes a good blog entry, but in the last month I've really enjoyed hanging out with Brett and Sarah, Phil, Bork, Peter (and meeting his lovely wife. Congratulations Peter) Dean, Guam, Tex Bruiny, my brother and his family, and even those of you without blogs.

Speaking of which, my Brother and his family were just up last week. Damn good to see them again. I don't have any exciting stories, and besides my sister already covered it on her blog (briefly here, and then in more detail here. I can only hope someone was in good shape to make that drive home after all the imbibing of spirits).

Bork is back from Russia and we got together the other night to watch "Why We Fight" which is an excellent documentary. I was nitpicking at some of it when Bork and I watched it, but over all it is much better than the much hyped "Fahrenheit 9-11". Bork and I lamented why "Fahrenheit 9-11" got so much more press, and in the end concluded it was because of the culture of celebrity obsession and the fame of Michael Moore. Two years ago in my review of "Fahrenheit 9-11" I said that despite the flaws of this movie, people needed to see it anyways just to expose themselves to the costs of this war. But I take that all back. Forget "Fahrenheit 9-11". The movie you need to see is "Why We Fight." You might not agree with it, but you owe it to yourself and to your country to at least expose yourself to this point of view before you start yelling obscenities at peace protesters.

Work has been going okay. I'm now in the last week before I switch over to the Fall job of teaching English to migrant workers. Now that the summer is almost over, in retrospect I might have been a bit whiny and spoiled before when I complained about how boring this job was. I mean it was only for 5 weeks. On the other hand, a really boring 8 hour shift is a real downer when you're in the middle of it. It's hard to focus on the big picture all the time.

Brett mentioned to me a couple times that interesting things always happen at these types of low level service industry type jobs, and that I should get a lot of good stories and blogging material. But thus far no luck. I work 3rd shift (11 PM-7 AM), and no one is really in the store during that time. Some friends have asked me what kind of people usually shop at 4 in the morning, and the answer is no one does. Until maybe 1 or 2 there are a few college age kids floating around (maybe) and about 5 some of the early rising old people start showing up, but most of the night the store is completely dead.

A week into the job I was transferred into the "Health and Beauty Care" Department. So I've been learning a lot about different kinds of shampoos and soaps. You would be amazed if you actually thought about how many different kinds of shampoo there are out there. I'm not sure what that says about our society. Sure people need to wash their hair, but who takes the time to shift through all these bottles of shampoo deciding which one is ideal for their hairstyle? Not me, that's for sure.

So that's my life at work, stocking shampoo and soap and wondering if handling feminine hygiene products makes me any less of a man. One more week left.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Continuing the Captain Marvel theme (the most famous Superhero you never heard of)
Did you know that...
Captain Marvel was, based on sales, the most popular superhero of the 1940s, since the Captain Marvel Adventures comic book series sold more copies than Superman and other competing superhero books during the mid-1940s.

Captain Marvel the first comic book superhero to be depicted in film.

Captain Marvel introduced the phrase "Holy Moley" into the English language.

Captain Marvel was the first major comic book hero to have a young alter ego. Although kid superheroes had generally been neglected before Marvel's introduction, kid sidekicks soon became commonplace shortly after Marvel's success: Robin was paired with Batman in May 1940, and Captain America was introduced with sidekick Bucky in March 1941.

Even more than ten years after the character first disappeared, the superhero was still used for allusions and jokes, in films such as West Side Story, TV shows such as The Monkees, M*A*S*H, and American Dad!, and songs such as "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" (1968) by The Beatles and "Shazam" (1960) by Duane Eddy. Elvis Presley was a fan of Captain Marvel, Jr. comic books as a child, and later styled his hair to look like Freddy Freeman's and based his stage jumpsuits and TCB lightning logo on Captain Marvel Junior's costume and lightning-bolt insignia.

Link of the Day
Want to feel intellectual? Check out this debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, and feel smug the rest of the day.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Aug. 9, 2001 E-mail from Japan

(Retrospection)

Continuing on a theme from a previous retrospection, I thought I’d reproduce more of my e-mails from Japan. By the time I started this blog up, it was my 3rd year in Japan and I was passed the wide eyed stage of wonder that filled my early e-mails, so I thought it might be interesting to reproduce them here.
Most of the e-mails are part of a correspondence and contain a lot of references to things outside of general interest to a 3rd party (discussions of movies and politics, references to questions and mutual friends, etc), so I’ve gone through and clipped different parts from different e-mails and tried to make it into one piece.

8/9/01...I live in a one room apartment, not much bigger than a dorm room, but it suits my needs just fine. And it’s furnished very nicely. My predecessor left several things behind that were above and beyond what we agreed upon. I imagine it was because he didn’t have room to pack it, but it works out nice for me. He left a stereo, several CDs, a play station and games, books, videos for the VCR, and even a bag of small change (small coins and stuff mostly, but I think it adds up to the yen equivalent of a few dollars).
[Editors note: Much later, in a couple years, I would discover my predecessor wasn’t quite as generous as he first appeared to be. I had paid him $300 for the furniture and TV in the room, only to discover it belonged to the Board of Education, and wasn’t his to sell...But that’s another story]

I don’t know when school starts yet. Right now is still summer break. I have to come into the office everyday, even though there is nothing for me to do. The Japanese place a high value on team play, and such, so it is important that I show up even with nothing to do. I imagine this could get boring if extended for a few weeks (which hopefully it won’t be) but right now I don’t mind too much. I just do e-mail or practice my Japanese.

My co-workers are pretty cool. No one speaks very good English, but a couple of them speak broken English. Most of them are a bit older, but one of the guys is just a few years older than me. He took me out last night with his friends. It was a lot of fun. Nobody’s English was very good, and my Japanese is pretty much non-existent, but we still managed to have a few laughs. I tried to pronounce everybody’s names, and they laughed at my inability to do it.

I got introduced to the everyone in the town hall yesterday. It was kind of weird, and very formal. We’d go into a room, and everyone would stand up, and the director would rattle off an introduction about me in Japanese, which I didn’t understand. I kept hearing the word “Protest” being used in reference to me, and I thought, “Boy, they’ve really got my number. How in the world did they know that?” But then I finally figured out they were talking about my religion, and introducing me as a Protestant. Language can be a funny thing.

About the British friends: I haven’t been to Europe as of yet, so this is really my first introduction to British culture. I have a hard time taking anything they say seriously with that accent. I just kept thinking of Monty Python. Did you have that when you went to England? Does that feeling go away after a semester?

Useless Wikipedia Fact
National Comics Publications v. Fawcett Publications, (1952), was a twelve-year legal battle between DC Comics (then known as National Comics) and the Fawcett Comics division of Fawcett Publications, concerning Fawcett's Captain Marvel character being an infringement on the copyright of DC's Superman comic book character. It is notable as one of the longest running legal battles in comic book publication history.
In 1980, DC bought the rights to the Fawcett characters outright, and in 1987 relaunched the character in a miniseries, Shazam!: The New Beginning. Captain Marvel has not proven to be a modern-day success for DC to the degree it had been for Fawcett. As a recurring inside-joke, DC often writes Captain Marvel and Superman as battling opponents.

Link of the Day
Mary Hulst has a post on what the typical Calvin student is like. Sound famalier to anyone?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

 (Book Review)

This is the 5th book I’ve read by Terry Pratchett since I discovered him this winter (after Going Postal, Monstrous Regiment, Interesting Times, and Night Watch) and I’m running out of complementary things to say about him without repeating myself.

Undoubtably Terry Pratchett is one of the most talented writers alive today. He’s incredibly prolific, but lots of writers are prolific. But it’s one thing to crank out action/adventure stories. Humor is much more difficult. It’s really amazing that Pratchett can write as much as he does and still be funny. And with so much philosophy woven into his stories. And his stories are well-plotted as well. There are lots of different plot threads always coming together nicely at the end.

Earlier I compared Terry Pratchett to Douglas Adams, and this book reminded me again of that comparison. “Thief of Time” is a book about the nature of time, but in a silly way with a lot of silly philosophy that almost kind of makes sense if you think about it too long. For instance, “What if Yesterday doesn't really exist?”

Another theme of the book is the Greek idea of deities with human characteristics. In this book the world is about to end, and Death must find the other 3 horsemen to ride out for the apocalypse, but it turns out the other 3 horsemen can’t be bothered. And the mysterious 5th horseman of the apocalypse has gotten a job as a dairy deliveryman. Good general silliness all around.

I wouldn’t say this was my favorite Pratchett book so far. I enjoyed “Night Watch” and “Interesting Times” much more. But Pratchett is like Mark Twain. You can never really go wrong with him.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
It has been reported by Rolling Stone that a small Christian-right group in America is encouraging people to wear a masturband to indicate a commitment to abstinence from masturbation.

Link of the Day
Interview with Activate about their Counter-Recruitment Work

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

 (Book Review)

I decided to take a stab at another John Updike book. As I mentioned before, the last one was hard for me to identify with. This one is about a guy around my age, so I thought I’d identify with it a lot more. But I was wrong.

The great thing about books is that they act as a miniature time machine. They let us see what people were like in previous ages. And most of the time we find that people stay the same more often than they change.

I think every generation on some subconscious level, at the point where feeling is stronger than thought, believe that they were the first generation to ever truly be young, and every older person sprung out of the womb as fully formed adults. Which is why books act as a great window on the past. For example, the book that I thought best described high school life or a boys dormitory was “A Separate Peace”, which was written during my grandparent’s time.

But then every once and a while you run across a book that reminds you of how much things have changed. Like this book, “Rabbit, Run”, about a 26 year old man who is having a mid-life crisis. He is stuck in a job he doesn’t like, with a wife he’s sick of and a kid he’s indifferent to. And he gets the urge to just run away from it all.

On the other hand.....Brett and I have observed that most of our Calvin friends get what we call the “3 year itch.” Most people we know graduate from college, get a job, and then after 3 years begin to get sick of it and want to move on. I’m a perfect example. I spent 3 years in Oita, and then decided I wanted to move to another part of Japan, spent another 2 years and then decided I was sick of Japan and couldn’t wait to get back home.

Of course, being single and without any family to support I could just pick up and move when I felt like it. And I think generally people are getting married and having children later than in the 1950s (when “Rabbit, Run” was written), but there are plenty of young parents still around. In fact my brother’s one of them. And if I had gone right when I went left I might have ended up in the same situation myself.

So, does the “3 year itch” still apply when you’ve got a wife and kid? Do you get the urge to leave them all behind and just go somewhere new? I certainly hope not, but I guess it wouldn’t surprise me if it was true for some people.

Phil and I recently discussed this book when he was visiting a couple weeks ago. Phil believes that John Updike in general, and this book in particular, is responsible for some of the worst sex scenes in English literature. I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. It would have been terrible if John Updike’s purpose was to arouse, but I think his purpose is a much more cynical view of sex. I don’t think any of the characters ever engage in sex for the sake of sex in this book. They always have an ulterior agenda they are trying to work out.

And while I’m on the subject...I think Tom Wolfe was unfairly maligned for “the worst sex scene” in “I am Charlotte Simmons.” That was obviously not supposed to be a piece of erotica either. It read terrible because it was supposed to convey a terrible experience.

Addendum: A few further thoughts...
One thing I really liked about this book was the full characters. Every character in this book, even the supporting characters, are fully developed and 3-dimensional. During the course of the story we get to see things from everyone's perspective, and sympathize with all the characters. I particularly liked the portrayal of Reverand Eccles, who has the thankless job of trying to bring Rabbit back into the fold. He's a full character with struggles and problems of his own, not simply a plot device.
Also looks like I'm not the only one reading this book. Navis recently posted the same book on his book reviews. How's that for coincidence?

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Lyndon Johnson, while using the White House bathroom, was known to insist that others accompany him and continue to discuss official matters or take dictation. At other times Johnson relieved himself in the White House garden. Johnson was known to habitually relieve himself outdoors

Link of the Day
Dean put up his own post on the couch burning, complete with a history of the couch, and pictures (including one of yours truly)

Saturday, August 12, 2006

DC Universe: Inheritance by Devin Grayson

(Book Review)
Not all, but most boys go through a comic book stage at some point. And most of us grow out of it eventually. In my case the last comic book I bought was when I was 17.

But once you get the comic bug, you never really kick it completely. It’s like a soap opera for men. You have to keep track of super-hero romances, who is still alive, who’s dead, and who’s come back from the dead.

(I’m being slightly sexist now, because the author of this book, Devin Grayson, is a woman and self-confessed comic addict. Not to mention my friend Elizabethian).

Even though I’ve been out of comics for 10 years, when I’m in a big bookstore I still find myself wandering over to the comic book section to see what my favorite heroes are up to now. (I wrote about this addiction in a previous entry). Recently keeping track of comic book heroes has gotten easier thanks to wikipedia (unfortunately for my productivity).

Now that DC comics has expanded their market into paperback novels, I thought this would be a great excuse to spend some time with my favorite super-heroes, while at the same time fulfilling my new commitment to read more books.

In this novel based on the DC Universe, an attempted assassination of a foreign dignitary brings together Batman, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Nightwing, Arsenal, and Tempest.

If you follow comics, you already know why this is a unique team up. It brings together 3 great heroes from comics, Batman, Green Arrow, and Aquaman, with their former teen age sidekicks.

Nightwing, aka Dick Grayson, is the former Robin.
Arsenal, aka Roy Harper, is the former Speedy.
And Tempest, aka Garth, is the former Aqualad.
(Although I'm guessing that if you didn't already know that, you probably don't care).

In the comic books of the 80s and 90s, all 3 of these former sidekicks established their own independent identities and began solo careers apart from their mentors. This book reunites them with their former mentors for one more adventure together.

Bork and I recently had a conversation about Batman and Robin. Bork contends that Batman is a really cool super-hero when solo, but the addition of Robin threatens to take the dark edge off of the series and bring it back to the campiness of the sixties.

This is a popular view among many comic book fans, but I guess there are two kinds of kids growing up. There’s the Bork view, “Man, Batman would be such a cool hero if it weren’t for that dorky Robin following him around.”
And then there are kids like me who think, “Hey, I’m a kid, and Robins a kid. I can identify with Robin. A point of entry into the series, if you will.”

In fact, of the 300 or so comic books I have left over from my teenage years, over half are of the “Teen Titans”, the supergroup formed by the teenage sidekicks Robin, Speedy, and Aqualad (plus Wondergirl and Kid Flash, but they’re a different story). So this book was right up my alley.

“Inheritance”, as the title suggests, is primarily about how these former teenage sidekicks deal with having grown up in the shadow of their mentors.

Ever since Dick Grayson shed his Robin mantle and became Nightwing in 1984, Dick’s angst about struggling to become independent from the Batman has been a theme DC comics has milked for over 20 years now. But then, the Superman-Lois Lane relationship has been going on for 70 years. I suppose, like the Superman romance, people never become tired of these themes because it resonates with them in some way, even through the fictional world of flying men and super-villains. We all push and pull against our parents in our adolescence in the struggle to create our own identity. Given the age of the target audience, it should be no surprise these themes have been popular in comic books for the last 22 years.

And speaking of comic book history....
One of the things I’ve always found fascinating about comic books is their rich history. This is one reason I was so attracted to comics when I was younger. When you step into them, you are stepping into a much longer story that has been going on for decades. Considering the average age of a comic book reader is probably around 15 (or younger), comic books require them to keep track of a lot of information that happened before they were even born. And yet the kids manage to do it.

“Inheritance” is a good example of this. In order to keep the story straight, you have to know about the death of Dick Grayson’s parents and his origins as Robin (from the 1940s), the origins of Speedy and Green Arrow (from the 1950s), the road trip across America that Green Arrow and Green Lantern took (in the 1960s), Speedy/ Roy Harper’s addiction to drugs (early 70s), Roy Harper’s romance with the supervillain Cheshire (mid 80s), Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Death of Aquagirl (1986) Titans Hunt and the death of Joseph Wilson (1990)....
I could go on but I think I’ve made my point and I don’t want to give everything away.

If you don’t know any or all of that, don’t worry because the novel retells most of it. If, like me, you pretty much knew all of that already (sigh, another wasted youth), then you’re in for a lot of review. And that’s my single biggest complaint about this book. No forward momentum. Any time you get sucked into the story and wonder what is going to happen next, the action breaks for another flashback.

Perhaps this is just a necessary evil of the comic world; the necessity of playing both to the hard core fans and the newcomers. And thematically Grayson uses all the flashbacks to tie together the story of the former Teen Titans with the adults they have become today. But I still found it a bit jarring. Over half the book is in the form of Flashback. In fact there’s not much of a forward story at all. The main story is essentially just a shell that acts as a way to bring the characters together and provide a framework for flashbacks.

Addendum: Further Thoughts
It looks like I'm not the only comic book fan who reviewed this book on their blog. If you search the blogs, you can find a lot more reviews of this book. If you're really interested you can do your own search, but I like the thoughts of Shelley's Comics (another woman comic book fan) who reviews this book as she reads it in 3 parts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, with a bonus entry picking on some of the more egregious examples of bad writing here.

Shelley's literary eye is a bit sharper than mine. I didn't pick out these specific examples when reading, but I did have the sense of swimming upstream against clunky prose. I was so happy just for an excuse to spend time with superheroes in a novel format that I forgave everything, but I do have to agree with Shelley: Where were the editors? I'm sure Devin Grayson wasn't trying to write bad prose on purpose, but don't they have people at publishing houses whose job it is to try and catch this kind of redundant writing? What were they thinking? "Batman? Green Arrow? Sure the kids will buy it. Just crank it out. Don't worry about editing."

There's a lot written about the homosexual innuendoes in the book. An interview with the author here says she was just joking with the reader, and that was the sense I got reading the book. Everyone knows about the jokes made about Batman and Robin, and Grayson has the characters themselves comment on the rumors, and occasionally uses phrases with potential double meanings. I thought it was harmless enough, but I guess I can see why it would anger some fans.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
"They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Last words of General John Sedgwick, before being hit by an enemy bullet.

Link of the Day
DeVos team: Race-baiters, Women-haters This article may be a bit inflamatory, but I did get an automated call telling me not to vote for Granholm because she opposed English as the official language (a tactic which I view as race-baiting). Although in this day and age of dirty trick politics, I guess there's no garuntee that call even came from Devos's team.

Friday, August 11, 2006

5th Grade Essay: Middle School

(Retrospection)

An short essay I wrote in 5th grade detailing my thoughts on going into Middle school next year. I don't think I was quite as neurotic as this implies. It has the overly melodramatic quality common to all middle school essays, and I was also trying to stretch this out to fill the alloted space by listing everything I could think of. And yet I can't help but think of how this fits the pattern of my life of never wanting to advance to the next stage.

I dread middle school. I will get lots more homework and I will have less free time at home and I like my free time. I will only have one recess. I won't be able to go to the same rollerskating parties as the rest of my family. Math will probably be more boring than ever. I really, really, dread six grade.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Essex girl jokes, which consisted primarily of variations of the dumb blonde gag, became popular in the United Kingdom during the autumn of 1991. The jokes' derogatory nature and persistence caused some commentators to speak out publicly against them. This is something that was completely off my radar until I went to Japan and interacted with Brits, and learned what a big deal it was if someone happened to be from Essex. Anyone else encountered this?

Link of the Day
From Media Mouse: Grand Rapids Press Article on Costs of Air Conditioning Ignores Most Important Cost of All
And Via Bierma: The deluded world of air conditioning
(I've been accused, by those who know me well, of being more talk than action on enviromental issues. But I did go without air-conditioning for two years in Japan in the hottest part of the country. The first couple days were hell, but you do adjust. It is possible.)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Conservative Logic

A while back a blogger named evangelicalperspective took issue with my review of Al Franken’s book. I followed the comment link back to his blog, and read some of his thoughts on Franken:

He [Franken] got on the air and complained that evangelicals are not talking about Saipan and forced abortion.....
It seems that the situation in Saipan is related to sweat-shop laborers. Funny we don't hear him complaining about the same thing in PROC (Communist China). Could it be because someone is making money off the women in Saipan and the China situation is simply their form of "contraception", so to speak.


Now, the difference to me seems obvious. Saipan is a US protectorate under US jurisdiction. China is a hostile foreign government. We have control over what we do. We have no control over what a foreign government does.

This seems to be a concept Right wingers have a hard time grasping. Another example was in the GR Press tonight under an editorial by Cal Thomas. You can go read the whole thing here, but here’s some quotes:

Taking note of the differences between the way the United States and terrorists fight, Rumsfeld said, "…one side puts their men and women at risk in uniform and obeys the laws of war, while the other side uses them against us." We have seen that in the world's reaction to Guantanamo Bay prison and Abu Ghraib. Terrorists use torture and murder and no court of public opinion or judicial entity holds them accountable. The rare instance of abuse by American soldiers is punished.

Rumsfeld elaborated on the difference between the two sides: "One side does all it can to avoid civilian casualties, while the other side uses civilians as shields, and then skillfully orchestrates a public outcry when the other side accidentally kills civilians in their midst. One side is held to exacting standards of near perfection; the other side is held to no standards and no accountability at all."


If you follow right wing pundits, you can see this over and over again: “Everyone’s complaining about abuse by US prison guards in Abu Ghraib. Where’s the outrage over Saddam Hussein and his rape rooms?” “Why isn’t the press condemning Al-Quada instead of the civilian massacres by US soldiers?”

Remember this quote by Senator John Inofe? "I'm probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment"and then later
"I am also outraged that we have so many humanitarian do-gooders right now crawling all over these prisons looking for human rights violations while our troops, our heroes, are fighting and dying."

Or in the current Israel-Lebanon conflict: “Why do liberals expect the United States to intervene here, but they didn’t want us to get involved in the Iraq War?” Or, "Why is everyone condemning Israel? How come no one condemns the terrorist organizations?" Um...first of all everyone condemns the terrorist organizations. In fact it's ridiculous that we even need to say it. Secondly the United States supplies Israel with most of their weapons, and so the opinion of the US President carries a lot of weight.

If the religious right seriously followed their own ideology, you would think they would remove the plank from their own eye first. But instead the attitude seems to be the opposite. “America. Hey, if some other country or terrorist organization somewhere is worse than us, then just shut up!” Or, "America! Just be thankful we aren't like the terrorists!" Ah, those conservatives. Creating a country we can really be proud of.

Lets try this attitude out on key conservative issues, and see how it sounds.

Taxes: Conservatives are always complaining about high taxes. But don’t they know the taxes are much higher in Canada? And you never hear them complaining about that, do you? Why is that? Is it just because Conservatives hate America?

Abortion: The per capita abortion rate in Japan is much higher than in the US. But how come anti-abortion protesters never picket the Japanese embassy? When you see them, they are always protesting US abortion clinics? Is it that they don’t really object to abortion, they just don’t want American woman to have choices?

Sex on TV: Conservatives always complain about sex and violence on American TV, but its much worse in Europe. How come you never hear them complain about sex and violence on European TV?

........You see how stupid that is? Knock it off guys.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The following have been specifically stated as being no longer eligible for a Darwin Award, as they are too common:
Smoking in an oxygen tent
Being hit by a train or automobile
Climbing into zoo cages
Falling off a precipice while posing or urinating (spitting is perilously close to being added to this list)
Urinating onto electrified wires, subway rails, etc.
Certain forms of carelessness with flammable liquids
Plain alcohol poisoning. Alcohol consumption, on the other hand, plays a key role in many Darwin Awards.
Deliberate and willful acts; doing it on purpose steps from Darwin Award to insanity or plain suicide.
Mobile phone accidents in general (although there are exceptions to this rule)


Link of the Day
Through my surfing of the web, I've discovered another Boer Bennink blogger:
http://mariandenver.blogspot.com/ Who's, uh, apparently in Denver.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

(Book Review)

In 2000, The Banner published this letter by me (in response to their hatchet job on Emma Goldman):

Goldman’s quotation was taken completely out of context. It should be noted that her article was written in 1934. During that same year Goldman gave a series of talks about conditions in Nazi Germany. She was also active in rasing money to get anarchists out of Germany. In Quebec, Goldman was told she could not sell or distribute literature at her meetings unless the police first approved it. Goldman was also told her chance of obtaining a visa back to the United States were unlikely because of the hostility against all radicals in the government. And all this happened after Goldman left Stalinist Russia because she was disgusted at what that oppressive government was doing.
Therefore to take Goldman’s quote about government oppression in a period when government oppression was a horrific reality worldwide and compare it to a parent-child relationship is some of the worst writing I have ever seen
.”


...Perhaps you can guess where I’m going with this.
I wanted to read “The Fountainhead” because its one of those books that keeps popping up in discussion. But I had heard enough bad things about it to know beforehand that I probably wasn’t going to like it. And with good reason. This is in many respects an awful book. But before I start ripping into it, I want to try and be fair. I’m sure the 30s and 40s, when all of Europe was squeezed between Fascism on one hand and Stalinism on the other, were a frightening time to be alive.

George Orwell was at his most prolific during this period as well, and “1984" was written only a few years after “The Fountainhead”. In fact there are a lot of similarities between the two books. The villain of “The Fountainhead”, Ellsworth Toohey, is a dead ringer for O’Brien from “1984". Not only their characteristics, but the didactic speeches they give are so similar you could practically switch the characters and not notice any difference. Were it not for the fact that “The Fountainhead” was published first, I’d be tempted to accuse Rand of ripping off Orwell.

There’s a lot of important stuff in this book about the rights of individuals, and the importance of keeping your own identity in the face of the pressure to conform. Arguable the same material has been handled better by other authors, but like all great themes it can never be emphasized enough.

Where Rand goes off the rails is when she asserts that any philosophy that seeks to help others, whether socialism or Christianity, is really just an attempt to enslave humanity. And that the people who preach such philosophies are at best a bunch of dumb old cows (like the society ladies in “The Fountainhead”) or at worst actively plotting the downfall of humanity (like Ellsworth Toohey). This is why people say they wouldn’t want to live next door to someone who takes Rand’s work too seriously.

Also, if one were to take seriously Rand’s belief about throwing off societies conventions and establishing your own morality, than you would assume Rand would be in sympathy with the 60s counter-culture and the New Left. But she wasn’t at all. If you read Rand’s book on the New Left (Calvin’s library has a copy), you can see the bitterness dripping from her pen. Like many ideologues, Rand only idolizes the rebel when he throws off societies conventions to conform to her expectations. If the rebel goes in another direction, then the printed page can’t hold enough epithets.

As to the literary content of the book itself...
Someone in my blogging circle (I think it was Phil, but I can’t find the link) recently said of this book something to the effect of, “My God, it was even worse than I thought it would be. The characters aren’t real people, they’re just cardboard cut outs representing ideals.”

And this is really true. The book resembles a medieval morality play. The only thing lacking is if the characters had introduced themselves as ideals instead of people. “Hello, I will be representing the common man.” “And I will be playing the ideal man.” “And I will be playing the evil altruist who is trying to actively destroy humanity.”

There are a lot of people who believe that morality plays have rightly ended up on the dustbin of literary genres. And there might be something to this. But if morality plays can still meet any human needs at all, I think they at least need to at least conform to some criteria.

1). They need to be short. I could have forgiven a lot if this book was 500 pages shorter. There is absolutely no excuse for this book to be so long. Orwell was able to make his point in a lot less pages. And 800 pages is way too long to spend with cardboard cut-out characters.

2). A morality play must affirm what we already feel to be true. Its not a genre suited to making new arguments. If you already believe in what Ayn Rand is saying, you’ll find yourself nodding along to the book. If you disagree, there’s not a lot of character development or transformation that will help you along the path to see the light.

This is why you never ever hear people say, “I disagree with Ayn Rand’s politics, but I admire her talent as a writer.” People might say that about Orwell, Updike, or Ezra Pound, but unless you’re already onboard with her philosophy, Rand’s novel offers very little in terms of literary value.

The glowing description’s of Howard Roark as the ideal capitalist man remind me somewhat of the description of Ernest Everhard as the ideal socialist man in Jack London’s “The Iron Heel”. But more than anything this book reminds me of “What is to be Done”, the 19th century socialist novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. From a literary perspective both novels suffer from many of the same flaws in terms of characterization and plot. But from an ideological perspective as well both deal with characters who have discovered the perfect system which enables them to live perfect lives removed from the foolishness of normal people.

Dostoevsky spent much of his literary energy writing in response to “What is to be Done”, and I believe his work stands as an effective rebuttle to “The Fountainhead” as well. Dostoevsky’s books aren’t filled with supermen who rise above the struggles of ordinary people, but with broken human beings. Take Raskolnikov the student from “Crime and Punishment” who believes he has discovered a new system of morality which justifies killing the old woman. Or the drunk Marmeladov who, despite his best intentions, always ends up repeating his mistakes.

I don’t agree with Dostoevsky entirely on everything. (He believed that the best form of government was the dictatorship of the Czar.) But I don’t want to get into all that right now. All I’m saying for the moment is that I find his portrayal of humanity a lot more convincing than Rand’s. There’s not a lot of point in debating it since Rand never really offers any sort of proof for her systems. She just says, “This is the way the world is. This is what humans are really like if they can only rise to their potential.”

My own experience in life makes me more inclined to agree with the words of the Apostle Paul: “I do not understand what I do. The good I wish to do I don’t do, and the evil I do not wish to do, I do.” But I can’t prove this any more than Rand can prove her thesis. Its just where my gut tells me humanity is at.

In closing: I can’t really say I recommend this book. But if you haven’t read it already, I imagine you’ll probably be tempted to read it for the same reasons I did. It's one of those books that pops up in discussion every now and then, and you want to be able to discuss it intelligently. And that’s as good a reason as any to read a book I suppose. But at the very least, if you haven’t read “1984" or “Crime and Punishment” yet, put those at the top of your list instead. “The Fountainhead” can wait.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Richard Nixon on Jews: "You know, it's a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana are Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them? I suppose it is because most of them are psychiatrists." 26th May 1971

Link of the Day
Media Mouse has compiled links to its own coverage of the August 8 elections as well as the corporate media's coverage in a modest attempt to increase the access voters have to information needed to make an informed decision in Tuesday's election

Friday, August 04, 2006

Thoughts on the New Job

Now that I’ve been doing this stocking job for almost a week, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts.

Things I like
* We don’t take a lunch break and just take off a half hour early instead.
At my previous jobs, I always thought a 30 minute unpaid lunch was really stupid. Its not enough time to go home, and too long to sit and stare at the break room walls. If I’m going to be stuck on the premises, I want to be paid for that time. Otherwise two 15 minute breaks are plenty to get me through the day.

* They actually play real music.
No Muzak. No orchestral instrumental covers of pop songs. Actual music. And they don’t reply the same play list every day either. At my previous jobs I wanted to take a hatchet to the store intercom system. Now I actually kind of enjoy listening to the music.
One thing I really missed in Japan was western music, especially oldies. With the exception of the Carpenters and the Beatles, you just never heard a lot of oldies in Japan. We had CDs, sure, but after a while you kind of miss all the AM music “Momma’s and the Papas” type bubble gum pop. After 5 years I’d always get real nostalgic when I’d hear an old song on the radio somewhere.

*Working 3rd shift makes my days very flexible.
I can sleep days, go out evenings or sleep evenings, go out days.

* Everybody is really friendly so far.
Usually at a crap job like this there are a lot of people who are real bitter about their life and try and take it out on the new guy. We’ve all worked those kind of jobs at one point or another I’m sure. So far no problems here though. Everyone's been really friendly.

Things I Don’t Really Like
* Having to go into work at the end of the day
It feels more rewarding to work first and play later. There’s something to be said for finishing work at 3, and then having the whole afternoon without worries. When I have to go into work at 11, I have that hanging over my head for the whole day.

* Feeling Nickled and Dimed by the employer
Its not bad enough that we get paid minimum, the snacks and drinks in the break room have to be overpriced. And we can’t punch in until 2 minutes before the shift begins. Given the variables of traveling, its impossible to consistently arrive at work within a two minute window everyday. Which means you either risk being late, or you show up 10-5 minutes early and then just sit around waiting for the clock to turn. More unpaid time. I had this at my previous grocery job also and I think it’s the most miserly thing ever. Just let us clock in 5 minutes early and give us the extra 10 cents.

*The way time passes
You don’t realize how long 8 hours is until you work a job like this. I had learned this years ago, but forgotten. In Japan I was putting in 8 hours a day, but it never really seemed like I was working (probably because most of the time I wasn’t). And back in dorm cleaning days, we watched the clock a lot but it still always felt like the day went by fairly quickly.
The day really passes slowly here. And the next night always comes again way too soon.

* The mind numbingness
Stocking shelves gives you a lot of time alone with your thoughts. And that can be depressing sometimes. I mostly think about all my friends and the exciting and interesting jobs they’re doing right now, most of which don’t involve stocking shelves. Even though this job is only temporary, midway through an 8 hour shift sometimes it's hard to see the big picture.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Joel (יוֹאֵל "Yahweh is El", usually interpreted as meaning Yahweh is God or Jehovah is God.

Link of the Day
The gang at Media Mouse went to Jackson this past Sunday to protest the Council of Conservative Citizens (the new name of the White Citizens Council, which itself is an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan).
After a bit of soul searching, I ended up sitting this one out. First of all, I believe in their freedom of association even if I don't agree with them. Secondly, at this stage of the game, I don't think people who wear their racism on their sleeve are the problem. The real danger is the more subtle racists. And I think that creating a media circus around these kind of groups gives them more attention than they deserve.
Nevertheless Media mouse gave the protest report a decent write up here. Including this disturbing information about the CCC's ties with mainstream Republican politicians.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Working Man

Well, after complaining about having no work, I finally got a job. Two of them in fact. Now I don’t know which is worse, not having a job, or having a job. (BA DA DA TA DA DA DUM).

First off, I got hired by a well known supermarket that you probably know of. I mentioned I had an interview with them a month ago, but now they finally had a position open up.

As Brett would say, “Working this job sucks but...Well working this job sucks.” It’s a stocking job; nothing exciting. And legally they couldn’t possibly pay me any less. But at the same time it won’t kill me. I’ve done this kind of thing before during summer vacation when I was 18 and 19, before I discovered the wonderful world of dorm cleaning. And I survived alright then.

Although at the time you do tell yourself, “I’m never doing this again once I get my college degree.” And then here I am. Well, after 5 years overseas you can’t just drop right into a great job, right? And I figure its good to be doing something well I look for that better job. In that respect it would have been good if I got this job a couple months ago, but there’s still one more month of summer.

Actually I shouldn’t rip on this job too much, because most of the people I work with are a lot older than me and have been doing it for a long time. For me to think that this job is somehow below me is probably a very ugly form of elitism. I feel like I have to be making excuses for doing this kind of job because I get a lot of flack from people, especially my sister (actually just my sister), but there’s nothing that really makes me any better than the people who have been doing this for 10 years.

Still, I wouldn’t want to support a family on what they’re paying me. Hell, I wouldn’t even want to move out from the parents on what they’re paying me.

Also the job is 3rd shift, which I’m thinking will work out pretty nice because I’ll have both my days and evenings free. People have been telling me recently, “You have to sleep sometime,” (as if I hadn’t thought of that), but I figure at least I can choose when I sleep and that way keep a flexible schedule. But we’ll see how well I make the transition. I had fun last week training myself by staying up as late as I could watching movies, and then trying to sleep in as late as I could.

The other job which I start in the fall I’m a lot more excited about. It is teaching English to migrant workers. This is an example of why its good to apply for jobs you don’t think you’re qualified for because you never know. Ordinarily they like people who speak Spanish and have a ESL degree, but I got hired on the strength of my ESL experience in Japan and my history teaching license (I guess any licensed teacher works).

I’m really excited about this not only because it is a “real job” where I’m using my degree (kind of) but also because I think it would be a great experience. When I did my teacher-aiding at Pathfinder’s School for Immigrants and Refugees I really enjoyed working with the kids there. People who don’t speak English are the most disenfranchised people in America and I really felt that I was doing some good working with them. Plus it was something they could immediately apply to their daily life, so they were really eager to learn. (A contrast to many of my junior high students in Japan).

(I’m not sure what is going to happen to the supermarket job once teaching starts. Teaching is only 4 hours a day, so I might be able to juggle both, depending on how much work lesson planning requires. But if I have to drop the supermarket, I won’t be shedding a lot of tears).

The dark cloud at the end of this silver lining, however, is this migrant program is only for two months, and then I’m back to square one. And my provisional teaching license expires next summer, after which I’ll need to take something like 18 higher education credit hours to keep it valid. So depending on what happens this time next year I might not be qualified to do the same job.

Shoko has been talking about staying in Japan until December 2007. Previously we had agreed she would come to America in July 2007, but she wants to stay a little bit longer. I don’t think it would be healthy to continue an overseas relationship for that long, so there is a strong possibility that starting this winter I'll head to Japan for one last year. But we’ll blog that bridge when we come to it.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
In the Bible Slaves are allowed to be beaten, so long as they are alive a couple days after their beating. The punishment for striking a free man, on the other hand, was quite severe.
"He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:12)
"And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property." (Exodus 21:20-21) (Newer translations like the New Living Translation, New International Version, New Century Version, etc. show verse 21 to mean "if the slave lives and returns to health in a day or two, then the owner is not to be punished.)


Link of the Day
I tracked down another 2nd Boer boy who's got a blog. Nectar's blog (I'm trying to bring back the old nicknames) can be found here.