Saturday, July 23, 2011

Book Review: The City & The City

In The City & The City, China Miéville gives us a murder-mystery that gets shelved under "Fantasy" only because of its location: the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, which occupy the same space and yet exist as foreign entities to one another. Heck, maybe it's not even fantasy, per se: the mechanism of this divide is never really explained and may simply be a distinction that the citizens of each city make in their minds. In an almost Orwellian act of double-think, the citizens of each city must, from a young age, learn to ignore the other city and its citizens, to simultaneously see them (for instance, to avoid car accidents or tripping over homeless people) and un-see them. It's an interesting premise with, of course, real-world application. After all, even if the training isn't so formal, aren't we all conditioned to see certain aspects of our own world, our own culture, and of the cultures of others, and to be almost unable to see other aspects? 

The action centers around Tyador Borlú, the Besźel Extreme Crime Squad detective who ends up investigating the murder of a graduate student who was apparently murdered in Ul Qoma and dumped in Besźel. Ordinarily, such a crime would fall under the purview of Breach, the name for both the laws against Besźel and Ul Qoma interacting and for the secret police who enforce those laws, but it happens that for technical reasons the crime does not, in fact, involve Breach, so Borlú finds himself working with his counterparts in Ul Qoma and on the edges of his city's laws to try to find justice for the murdered girl and to find out the truth that she died for--truths that are at the heart of the workings of Miéville's fictional world and which could threaten the status quo in a number of ways.

Overall, I found the novel to be an enjoyable read, a mystery that kept me in suspense well into the novel, in part because it's not a simple "whodunit" sort of mystery but instead involves a fairly complex skein of interests and motivations that illuminate the whole of this society. At the same time that I enjoyed the novel, I also felt like it could have gone deeper than it did, could have explored its own premise more deeply than it did. Perhaps that perception on my part is symptomatic of the fact that I listened to it as an audiobook, thus letting it pass through me more easily than it might have if it had been fully masticated and digested in dead tree format. If so, I would love to read a brilliant essay or review showing me my own shortcomings in this regard, because the novel did seem to have, philosophically speaking, more potential than payoff.

Food Friday: Kafta Casserole

In a mad rush to make just that much more space in our freezer(s) to receive a split side of beef and ten chickens, I decided that I needed to use some packs of hamburger. I've also been experimenting with the so-called "Slow Carb Diet," though I've been better at adhering to the binge day than to the other days. In brief, though, the Slow-Carb Diet would mean a daily diet made up only of meats, legumes, and vegetables. Like I said, I haven't really been adhering to it, but I've been using it as a sort of compass. That and a couple internet searches comprised the inspiration for this recipe. I would like to tinker further with some parts of this recipe, but it makes an awful lot, so I'll probably have to wait on that.

This is pretty good as is, but even better with some Tzatziki, which you should prepare in advance so the flavors have time to blend.

2 onions, chopped
2 1/2 lbs lean, grass-fed hamburger
3 cloves garlic
2 cups prepared pinto beans
10 oz frozen (or fresh) spinach
1 zucchini, chopped into smallish pieces
1 squash, chopped into smallish pieces
2 bell peppers of various colors
1/4 c fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp coriander
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp chili powder
salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet, cook the onions, hamburger, and garlic, adding the last when the rest is just about finished. Add the beans and the spinach (you can add it still frozen). Add the various vegetables (fell free to add others!) and cook 5-10 minutes, until the veggies are tender. Add all seasonings, cook just a bit longer. Turn off heat and let sit for 5 minutes.

As for changes, I would add more of all the spices, maybe up the measures to 3/4 tsp each or even double them. I would go ahead and add more vegetables and more beans as well. Even as it is, you can feed a small army--presuming the army has a taste for food inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine--or have quite a few leftovers.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Anniversary Trip: A Comedy of Errors

In a blissful state of ignorance, I woke up Friday morning at 6 am and almost put off going to the gym because I thought I would have plenty of time as the morning went on to exercise. But I did get up, I did go exercise, and it wasn't long before I found out just how full my morning and afternoon would be.

You see, Friday afternoon Lauren and I planned to head out on our anniversary trip to Indianapolis. If twice can be considered a tradition, then our tradition is to spend our anniversary--or thereabouts--in Indianapolis. Or thereabouts. I mean, we've never gone anywhere else, so it must be our anniversary place.

Some weeks ago, Lauren went on Priceline and reserved up a hotel... except that she only booked one night and they wanted some ridiculous sum to add a second night--something like twice what the other night was costing us. So it was back to the Priceline Negotiator, which shunted us off to another hotel for our other night. One could see that as an inconvenience or an opportunity--hey! we get to see a different part of Indianapolis and gain a valuable basis for comparison as to the quality of our hotel stay. Aren't we lucky?

So, besides the packing that I had to do--and the dishes and the childcare and all that--I sat down at some point Friday morning to map out where our hotels were and how to get from one to the other. I'd planned on figuring out where other places were as well until I ran into a snag. Well, the first snag was finding both of the reservations, because they were sent to different e-mail accounts (something to do with how many offers Priceline allows). That was a minor snag. A bigger snag was the fact that we had two hotels reserved for Saturday and none for Friday.

I called Lauren, who was not at all happy with herself. But what help was there for it now? She set about finding us a place to stay some few hours hence and I went back to doing the dishes. Doing the dishes is actually a very good place to do some thinking. Your hands occupied, your mind mostly free, the repetitive motions can sometimes knock something loose in the brain that needs to be jiggled a little bit, to put two and two together in a subconscious process much like that which sometimes happen while we sleep and then wake the next morning with the answer to some ticklish problem. As the plates and silverware jangled off one another, a few things jangled together in my head: 1) I hadn't been able to find the car key when I'd looked for it this morning, nor when I'd looked last night; 2) we only have one car key now; 3) Lauren was the last person to drive the car and, presumably still had the key; 4) the lone remaining key to our car was almost certainly in South Bend, an hour away. I called Lauren, and while "shit" is not a direct answer to "Do you know where the car key is?"--well, it's direct enough.

She didn't feel like she could borrow her colleague's car to bring the key to me, even if she could leave the work she was supposed to be doing. I didn't see how I could take two hours out of my schedule and still pack everything and rendezvous in a timely fashion with my in-laws who were taking both our 2-legged and our 4-legged children off our hands for the weekend. And, of course, I didn't think I could take that time even if it was somehow possible to take Thea with me, which it wasn't, since her car seat was neatly locked in the car. We have a truck and we're constantly talking about "what a big girl" our daughter is, but she's not that big, not yet.

Lauren suggested calling our new friend Allison, one of her new colleagues in the science department. We me Allison, her husband, and their daughter earlier in the summer, taking her out to dinner once to welcome her to town and having them all over for dinner on Independence Day. Nice folks, and their daughter is just a few months older than Thea. Maybe, suggested Lauren, they could watch our girl while I made the trip up. Well, it wasn't the worst plan we had.

So Lauren gave me Allison's number and I called it. A man answer it. Her husband? Her husband... her husband... oh hell. What was his name? I am lousy with names, and his wasn't on the back of my tongue, much less the tip. "Hi." A solid opening. "This is John Sherck." In the silence that ensued, he was no doubt going through his own mental rolodex. "Lauren and I" (I offer some contextual reminder of who I am) "were wondering if you and Allison could do us a huge favor." Clever, eh? Confirm I have the right number by throwing out the name I do remember. "Okay," he says. I explain our situation and he tells me that they have nanny interviews scheduled for the whole day... but they do have an extra car seat that I could borrow to use in the truck. Great. He--Brian, Lauren later reminded me--came over and it turned out that after some small discussion they didn't think another toddler underfoot would be any great impediment to their interviews--anyway, our kids get along fabulously--so I packed her into their back seat and sent her on her way.

Which, of course, wouldn't be the last time I would abandon her that day. But anyway, I spent a little over two hours just getting the car key, then grabbed a quick bite to eat, threw random baby items into random bags, since I wasn't quite certain what Lauren had and hadn't already packed for the trip over the river and through the woods. With baby packed in her car seat and dog packed in hers--that is, sitting on my lap Britney-style--we started our two-and-a-half hour drive to meet my in-laws. Then I detoured into the South Bend / Mishawaka area to pick up our farm share vegetables before coming home, where Lauren has returned once she realized that it made absolutely no sense to wait at Notre Dame for me.

Hours driven to this point: roughly 7 1/2.
Hours left to drive that day: 2

And so anxious was Lauren to finally get underway that she wouldn't even give me time to heat up something to eat, so I had to manage this leg on a more or less empty stomach. Let me tell you: Lauren is lucky to have a husband with such a good sense of humor, otherwise we might very well have needed both of those hotels for Saturday night and yet another on Friday besides!

As it was, we had a very nice, if unnecessarily expensive, trip to Indianapolis this past weekend, and our anniversary should consider itself well and truly celebrated. We saw HP7 pt 2, visited a yurt factory and decided we could probably stand to live in a yurt for a decade or more, ate at some very good restaurants, and visited more malls in one weekend than we have in the past year. But all that is a story for another post.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Thursday Think 'n' Share 3.7

As I mentioned the first time around, this is a sort of "getting to know you" game that I hope my readers  will join me in playing each week. The short of it is that I pull three random question from one of various decks of The Ungame and answer them. Readers are encouraged to post their own answers either in the comment box or on their own blog (or Facebook page). If you're not doing it in the comment box, do let me know where I can find them, because I'd like to get to know my readers better at the same time they're getting to know me. You can be as serious or as silly as you feel like being on any given day for any particular question.

If you could have been someone in history, whom would you have been?

I guess the version of this question we usually get asked is about meeting someone, because that's the way my mind tends to go with this question. In fact, I'm pretty sure that a lot of the historical figures I'd like to meet I would not want to have been--they had a tendency to die young and/or live unhappy lives. I guess that should make us appreciate better the times we live in, when life expectancy and standard of living are so high, from a historical perspective. At this precise moment, with A Dance With Dragons sitting near me waiting to be cracked, I might like to be George R.R. Martin, just to know how the series will end, but I'm not sure that's a good enough reason to be somebody (but hey, he's also a pretty brilliant, successful guy too, and those aren't bad reasons, right?).

When you feel sad, what is the best thing someone can do for you?

I guess that depends on the kind of sadness it is: sometimes I would want someone to listen, sometimes I would want to be left alone, sometimes I would just want someone to be there, available, but not necessarily needing to say or do anything. Doesn't it depend on the source of the sadness, too? I guess all three of those things I listed are assuming that I've got something to be sad about, but if I'm blowing something out of proportion, say, then maybe what I need is someone to pull me up and distract me, take me out and do something to get my mind out of the rut it's gotten itself into.

If you could have a motto or saying in every home in the world, what would it be?

How about "Live and Let Live"? We could do with a little more acceptance of others, so if we're going to impose one motto on everyone, I guess that would do. "Carpe diem" is pretty good advice for everyone as well, which of course is why it's the theme of so many poems, movies, etc. Or maybe we could borrow from Thoreau and encourage everyone to "Live Deliberately." We're all human, so we all need to be reminded of the same pitfalls, no?

Well, what about you?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Rural Third Places

A friend of mine recently post an article on Facebook about why "third places" are particularly important in rural communities.

For those who haven’t heard of them before, third places are where people meet and socialize outside of their homes (first places) and their work (second places). Sociologist Ray Oldenburg is credited with drawing attention to third places through his influential book, The Great Good Place.
 These are important places both for the ways they bring people together and the way that they foster a sense of community. Third places also serve to introduce newcomers to a community. The entry linked above got me to thinking about third places in communities I've lived in.

When I moved to middle-of-nowhere western Pennsylvania, I had friends who weren't afraid to become regulars at the local hole-in-the wall, a shabby-looking bar owned and run by an old biker and his wife. The main draws were $.70 drafts and cheap but tasty wings (only one variety, the kind with a spice rub). But it was also one of the finer third places I've known. I don't think this is true of all bars--most aren't Cheers. But this place, where the owner once plunked down a large handgun in front of me, I saw a patron in the process of being ejected fling a shot glass at the woman behind the bar, and there was a sign on the door disallowing spitting out the door, this seedy little place was well laid out to be an effective third place.

Why? The place was dominated by a U-shaped bar in the middle of the room, with just a few tables off to one side (plus a pool table and some ancient mechanical game involved metal discs that you'd slide from one end of a lane to another (think table-top shuffle board or curling). But the bar was the thing. Everyone sat around the bar, almost by necessity. So everyone was, more or less, looking at everyone else. It was easy to strike up conversations with complete strangers--and with the bartender too, as she was always in front of everyone. We more or less became regulars and we got to know a lot of the locals that we never would have gotten to know any other way. We taught at a boarding school--an institution of privilege--in a down-on-its-luck community, and that had led to a fairly sharp town-gown divide. Nonetheless, by making ourselves part of this third place, we bridged that divide in our own small way.

Where we live now, the third place that comes most easily to mind is our local coffee shop. Coffee shops seem like natural third places, because people often come to "hang out" there, but there's something about the atmosphere that also makes it easy to strike up conversations with other people there, even strangers. There are also special events there, such as musicians, which serve to draw people there.

Restaurants--and most bars that are set up like restaurants--do not function this way. In a restaurant, we tend to be more isolated. I'm at my table/booth, you're at yours, and we're unlikely to speak to one another. Even with people you know, you often won't speak to them, except maybe a quick hello as you or they leave. Perhaps it's because we go to restaurants for meals, which have a certain formality to them (as opposed to "grabbing coffee"); perhaps it's because of the set-up, with so many discrete tables and booths separated from one another. Whatever the reason, restaurants--nice as they are--tend not to make good third places. I'm sure there are exceptions, but that's how it seems to me.

What are some of your third places, and how do they work?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Happy Anniversary!

In so many ways, I can't believe it's been three years since, in the eyes of the law and our families and friends, we married. The years have flown by, yet it seems like we've always been married. We had a nice, relaxed day--Lauren skipped her work commitments (she had an appointment with her doctor anyway, plus a school meeting), and we just spent some time walking downtown, having lunch at a place we've never eaten before (so far, we like it; we may even make it "our" new place), and then going to the coffee shop to just hang out and play a board game (Ascension). We're planning a trip to Indianapolis this weekend to continue the revelries.

In honor of our anniversary, I'm migrating from my old blog to this one the text of our wedding ceremony. As I said then, very little of it is "original," as we shamelessly cribbed from various internet sources. However, the way it came together is ours, and it said what we wanted to say. It's wholly secular and it was admirably brief. We got a lot of compliments on it at the time, mostly, I suspect, because of the latter quality. Our friend Kapoo officiated the wedding for us and largely wrote his portions (he was excellent in the role of officiant and solemnizer!). Without further ado, I take you back three years to a wedding ceremony in central Ohio...

Call to Order
Kapoo: Welcome to all friends and family on this beautiful and joyful day, Lauren and John have asked me to extend a very warm welcome to you on this their wedding day, and to call upon all of you gathered here to be fellow witnesses with me in their marriage.  You were each invited to join us today so that you may share in the joy that Lauren and John are feeling as they pledge their love and commitment to each other.
John and Lauren believe marriage is founded on that sort of sincerity and understanding, which leads to tolerance, confi­dence and trust.  They feel it involves respect for each other's individuality and that most difficult of tasks, the acceptance of each other's weaknesses, prejudices and faults.  They believe too that those qualities, which have attracted each to the other and brought them here today, can obviously be best developed during a life spent together.  A happy marriage, they both know, will enable them to establish a home where there will be love and stability, where you, their family and also their friends will find welcome, peace, harmony and support, and which will be a base from which the influence of their shared, and we hope strengthened life today by this wedding ceremony, can extend.

Declaration of Consent:
Kapoo:  John, will you tell your family and friends why you are here today?”
John:  I am here today to tell you that Lauren is the person with whom I desire to share my life and my love; a person with whom I want to build a home and start a family.”
Kapoo:  Lauren, will you tell your family and friends why you are here today?”
Lauren:  I am here today to tell you that John is the person with whom I desire to share my life and my love; a person with whom I want to build a home and start a family.”
 Charge to the Couple
 Kapoo: Before you are joined in marriage in my presence and the presence of these your family, friends and witnesses, I am to remind you of the serious and binding nature of the relationship you are now about to enter.
Marriage is a commitment to life, to the best that two people can find and bring out in each other. It offers opportunities for sharing and growth that no other human relationship can equal, a joining that is promised for a lifetime.
You have known each other from the first glance of acquaintance to this point of commitment. At some point, you decided to marry. From that moment of yes to this moment of yes, indeed, you have been making promises and agreements in an informal way. All those conversations that were held riding in a car or over a meal or during long walks - all those sentences that began with “When we’re married” and continued with “I will and you will and we will”- those late night talks that included “someday” and “somehow” and “maybe”- and all those promises that are unspoken matters of the heart. All these common things, and more, are the real process of a wedding. The symbolic vows that you are about to make are a way of saying to one another, “ You know all those things we’ve promised and hoped and dreamed- well, I meant it all, every word.” Look at one another and remember this moment in time. Before this moment you have been many things to one another- acquaintance, friend, companion, lover, dancing partner, and even teacher, for you have learned much from one another in these last few years. Now you shall say a few words that take you across a threshold of life, and things will never quite be the same between you. For after these vows, you shall say to the world, this- is my husband, this- is my wife.

from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
It is good to love: because love is difficult.  For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.  Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances.”
Reading 2
from Owlsight by Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon
This bond, this joining, is not meant to be a fetter. A joining is a partnership, not two people becoming one. Two minds cannot fuse, two souls cannot merge, two hearts cannot keep to the same time. If two are foolish enough to try this, one must overwhelm the other, and that is not love, nor is it compassion, nor responsibility. You are two who choose to walk the same path, to bridge the differences between you with love. You must remember and respect those differences and learn to understand them, for they are part of what made you come to love in the first place. Love is patient, love is willing to compromise—love is willing to admit it is wrong. There will be hard times; you must face them as bound warriors do, side by side, not using the weapon of your knowledge to tear at each other. There will be sadness as well as joy, and must support one another through the grief and sorrow. There will be pain—but pain shared is pain halved, as joy shared is joy doubled, and you each must sacrifice your own comfort to share the pain of the other. And yet, you must do all this and manage to keep each other from wrong actions, for a joining means that you also pledge to help one another at all times. You must lead each other by example. Guide and be willing to be guided. Being joined does not mean that you accept what is truly wrong, being joined means that you must strive that you both remain in the light and the right. You must not pledge yourselves thinking that there will be no strife between you. That is fantasy, for you are two and not one, and there will inevitably come conflict that it will be up to you to resolve. You must not pledge yourselves thinking that all will be well from this moment on. That is a dream, and dreamers must eventually wake. You must come to this joining fully ready, fully committed, and fully respectful of each other. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side by side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.
Kapoo:  Marriage is not a legal document. No pastor or priest or justice of the peace [or drama teacher] can create a marriage because a marriage, truly, is nothing except the promises made and kept by two individuals.  Today John and Lauren stand before us to publicly declare their love and to share with us their marriage promises.
Lauren, what promises do you make?
Lauren: I, Lauren, ask you, John, to be my husband, my companion, my partner in life. I will love you, honor you, and see you for the extraordinary person that you are.
I acknowledge that I am whole and complete as I am, and that all the love, the wisdom, the nurturing, and the strength that I need reside within me.
I am marrying you not in the hope of getting these things, but with the promise of sharing these gifts with you so that you may have them in even greater abundance.
I want us to make a home together, grow old together, and during this life make a difference in our world, living consciously and deliberately, surrounded by those we love.
John, you are my friend, my lover, my teacher, and my reminder of the beauty in life. In all that life brings us, my love and friendship are yours.

Kapoo: John, what promises do you make?
John: I choose you to be no other than yourself, loving what I know of you and trusting what I do not yet know. I will respect you as an individual, a partner, and an equal. I promise to learn from you, to communicate openly, to honor our differences, and never to become a stranger to you. I want us to make a home together, grow old together, and together make better the lives of our families, friends, communities, and world, living consciously and deliberately, surrounded by those we love.
I promise to always work with you and never against you, to nurture your best self as you grow, trusting that you will do the same for me. I promise to love you like family, like a friend, and like a lover.
I will love you when love is simple and I will love you when love is complex. I promise to listen and share, to be truthful, respectful, faithful, and always to be kind.
We stand united, joining our lives that we may be strong as individuals, and stronger yet together.
Ring Vows
Kapoo: Lauren and John have brought rings to present to one another as a symbol of their marriage vows today.  Although there is no precise evidence to explain the origin of the tradition of exchanging wedding rings, the more ancient and widely accepted explanation, refers to the early Egyptian’s belief that a circle was the symbol of eternity--a sign that life, happiness, and love have no beginning and no end.  A wedding ring, or circle, was placed on the third finger of the left hand, the ring finger, because it was traditionally believed that this finger was a direct connection to the heart -- the perfect spot to place a symbol, representing eternal love and commitment.  The vena amoris, that is, the vein of love, runs directly from the “ring finger” to the heart.
John and Lauren: (repeating after Officiant) This ring I give you in token of my devotion and love, and with my heart I pledge to you all that I am.  With this ring I marry you and join my life to yours.
Kapoo: No one but you can declare yourselves married. You have begun it here today in speaking your vows before this company, and you will do it again and again in the days to come, standing by each other, sharing all the sweet and the bitter of life. Each tender act, each loving word will be the declaration of what was marked here today.

Begin it now then, with a kiss.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Food Friday (more or less): Blueberry Cafoutis

Okay, so I'm a day late for alliteration, but whatever.

Way back at Easter, some friends of ours had us over for dinner, and among the delicious things we had was a fruit clafoutis. She blogged about it (including a picture), and tonight when I decided to make my own, I looked it up and found her original source.

And then I modified liberally. So liberally, in fact, that it would be hard for you (or me) to exactly recreate what we ate tonight unless you first made pancakes according to the Nourishing Traditions recipe found here. And then you would have to eat just over half of the pancakes and save the rest of the batter for later. Got it? (You might be able to re-create the experience by soaking 2/3 c. whole wheat or spelt flourin 1 c. butter milk and adding 1/4 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp baking soda, and an egg).

Okay, from there: take 1/4 c. honey and heat it up, then take a package of blueberries and rinse them, then mix the blueberries with the honey. Let them sit for about 15 minutes. They might give up some of their juice or do something else arcane. Or it could be completely useless because it's meant for different sorts of fruits. Anyway... now you'll preheat the oven to 375 and prepare a baking pan with butter or spray oil (I used a casserole dish).

At this point I added a few peaches that we had on hand into the dish before adding the blueberries to the dish as well. I scraped the rest of the honey/blueberry essence into the batter, while also adding 2 more beaten eggs, a tsp of vanilla, and 5 T of sugar.

From there, it's just a matter of pouring the batter over the fruit and baking it for approximately 40 minutes, until it's starting to brown on top. This was so incredibly delicious that mere words can't do it justice. I swear the blueberries almost melted into the cakiness of the clafoutis. Fantastic.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


"Of course, you're a jock," said a colleague of mine, a man in his fifties, like me working out in the gym around 8 am.

What part of this statement, I wondered, was most absurd? The classification as a jock, the certainty of that "of course," or the fact that this was evidence of a further assumption that my over-indulgence on the 4th of July surely would not be any concern to me, jock that I am and, therefore, easily shedding pounds with all my athletic endeavors--if such things as calories could even stick to such things as me.

Would anyone who knew me from elementary school through my freshman year of high school have put me down as a jock? That pudgy kid whose central competitive endeavor in all athletic occurences was vying to not be the last one chosen? Oh wait, I forgot desultory jogs with the junior high track team before going over with the shot and discus kids--where I was also hopeless (I was only in track because my friends were--I was never in danger of scoring even a single point for the team).

Or in high school, the skinny, nerdy kid who did band, choir, drama and--for crying out loud--quiz bowl? Who didn't take up a sport until his junior year and then took up tennis, the sport that at most public schools--and mine was no exception--contains the lowest concentration of actual athletes? Would any of my classmates have dreamed that I might ever be "a jock," much less classify me as such back then?

Nor was I ever, in college, mistaken for such a creature. Nor in graduate school. When I finally put on muscle in my mid-to-late 20s, I sheathed it in sufficient fat that I still wasn't likely to fool any jocks into accepting me into their fraternity, not even as a has-been.

And so it was faintly astounding to hear myself proclaimed a jock with such certainty. But then, I was talking to this man in the weight room, where he's seen me before, and it just so happened that after completing that workout (chest and back, plus abs), I would come back later in the day for a second workout (plyometrics), and then spend over 2 hours on the tennis courts later that night.

Maybe the idea wasn't as crazy as I thought.

Part of it, no doubt, is that thanks to diet and exercise I am leaner now than I have been at any time in the past decade. I'm not prepared to say "stronger," but I'm probably at least close on that score. Around the first of the year, I was at my heaviest ever, at 200 pounds, but since then I've dropped 30 (give or take, depending on the day).

Perhaps it's the weight of the years upon me, yet even though I can see how someone attach that label to me, I have a hard time fitting my mind into that role, fraught as it is with so many other assumptions: a "dumb jock," a big, insensitive brute, a physical presence with little intellect or depth. I know, of course, that those stereotypes aren't true--in fact, despite not being one, I was friends with a number of people who would naturally have drawn the label jock and even embraced it, while still being good students and decent people. Well, at least one or the other. But my point is that I might suddenly be in serious danger of being stereotyped. I will henceforth be unlikely to get any respect for my opinions unless the conversation is about protein, creatine, l-glutamine, or another non-rhyming sports supplement, or about the proper way to perform a squat or deadlift.

Or, as the colleague who sparked this blog entry did, people may assume that I will be competing in such things as the triathlon that's coming up next summer. Which means I have to either come up with a good lie ("I lost my left kidney in a triathlon once and vowed never to do another. Even though, naturally, I won, even as I left one of my kidneys somewhere on the course.") or admit that my 25-pound dog who's a little nervous around water--and won't go in for anything less than chasing a duck--is a far better swimmer than I am.Seriously: if there was a club swim team for adults, I wouldn't be on it; a club drowning team, I could probably captain it. For one meet, anyway.

And if I admit things like that very many times, I will--you understand--lose all credibility as a jock.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Patriotism, etc.

The 4th of July holiday in America seems rooted in ideas of "God and country," and that same soil is where I put down my own roots and started to grow. Although I gather that he hated every minute of it, my father served in the military, and so did many of the adult men that I respected most when I was growing up. I proudly wore an American flag lapel pin whenever I had a lapel, proudly raised the flag at my school for a year while a cub scout, proudly sang the Star Spangled Banner whenever it was being played, and proudly won an American Legion essay contest when I was in high school with a sincere speech that I wrote--and later read at a Memorial Day parade--praising America and the flag and patriotism.

And yet, in the meantime, my ideas about patriotism have changed radically, as I've grown beyond my roots and branched out. Really, I have a hard time calling myself patriotic anymore--and certainly most "traditional patriots" might not call me so. Allow me to explain.

History teaches us several lessons about patriotism. On the on hand, there's the standard lesson of the importance of being willing to die for one's country and what all the great patriots of the past have done. Honoring our history, our ideals, our own sense of our country's greatness. We know that story well, I think.

Our concept of patriotism derives almost entirely from a movement which really gained speed in the 19th century: the idea of nationalism. And history clearly shows us that nationalism accomplished roughly two things: the unification of countries like Germany and Italy that hadn't been unified before, and strong feelings of loyalty to the idea of one's "nation." Which, of course, made people more willing to kill and die for their countries, leading to the killing fields of WWI and perhaps even more so to WWII. You want to see flag waving? Check out Nazi Germany or fascist Italy. Most of the countries of western Europe that I've traveled in feel a deep aversion now to this kind of flag waving, because they've seen where it leads. A British friend of mine visiting America was bemused and a bit uneasy by all of our flag waving on this side of the pond. As someone--it's hard to pin down just who--once said, "When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in an American flag and carrying a cross."

The danger of nationalism or patriotism is not in loyalty as much as it is in blind loyalty, the too-often-advocated "my country, right or wrong." And that's one of the things that become harder and harder about patriotism, that my country--despite all the rhetoric--has been wrong quite a bit more than we would like to acknowledge. There is another lesson of history.

Don't get me wrong: we've advocated high ideals since the earlist days of the republic. We've been all about freedom and equality. Kind of. Sort of. Except that we've never wholly lived up to those ideals.  For almost half of our history, we enslaved other human beings, even after all of our European peers had ended it. The rhetoric of accepting immigrants has always thinly concealed a good deal of racism and ethnic bias. Our country and its government has, since the beginning, favored the interests of the rich. That's not something new--indeed, it has been ever thus. And let us not forget sexism, which also puts the lie to our ideals.

Yet, we might say, history shows us a trajectory of progress. Don't we do better than we used to? Fair enough, but it's essential to remember that none of these things happened inevitably. Nowhere was it written that things had to get better, and in few cases did it come from the top down. If "we the people" had not fought to make things better, it's almost certain that they wouldn't have gotten better, because our leaders have consistently been the representatives more of the status quo than of a progressive, better future. To say this another way: things haven't gotten better in our country because of blind patriotism or "my country, right or wrong" attitudes. Things have gotten better because people were willing to question the state of things and work to change them. So it has been and so is it likely to be as long as our nation endures.

And always high in our consciousness on Independence Day are the men and now women who've served our country. Is there something noble in risking one's life for our country? I would say yes. However, because these citizens are risking themselves for the rest of us, we have a duty to work to ensure that their lives are risked only in military endeavors which actually further the interests of the nation and not simply those of some minority of our citizens. Far too often, the military actions of our country have been been dishonest and/or hypocritical. The instances in which our leaders have lied to us or manipulated us have been too many for a short book, much less for my little blog. The times that our leaders have initiated military operations which put our soldiers in harm's way and killed the citizens of other nations in causes directly against our ideas of freedom, equality, and democracy have been, sadly, numerous. These, too, are the lessons of history. We have overthrown democracies in favor of dictatorships in order to further the economic interests of our elites as well as to further dubious, vague goals of "security." The military actions in the middle east following 9/11 are only the latest in a long line of American actions in which the citizens of our free democracy have been deceived about the aims and objectives of the war. My country, right or wrong? That's an easy way to brush aside such questions--and an easy way to ensure we get more of the same.

For that matter, should we look at our democracy? Our "true/false" democracy where we can choose a Democrat or choose a Republican, but don't have any other real options? And let's not forget the whole system of the electoral college rather than  a more democratic, truly popular election. If real democracy is our goal--though it probably never has been--we could be doing a lot better.

And yet, I'm raising all of these points not to argue that America is a terrible place and not to argue that we don't also have a lot to be proud of as Americans. Our people are basically good-hearted and well-meaning. Our ideals of freedom and equality are noble ones. Even the execution of them haven't been terrible. When compared with the vast majority of all governments in the history of humanity, we have it pretty damn good here. Even compared to much of our contemporary world we're doing awfully well. But let's not go too far: we're not, in every way, "the best." And we're not--when measured against our own ideals--as great as we could be. And yet, there's the thing: we can be, but only if we are not complacent, only if we are not smugly self-satisfied with our country and blindly patriotic.

And this, to me, is true patriotism. Loving your country, respecting what it stands for, and being loyal to it, but ultimately being more loyal to the ideals than to the government (any government), more loyal to what is best about the country than simply to what is. True patriotism is being willing to make our country great, not quacking on and on about how great our country is, not excusing its failures or condemning those who criticize us.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Come sit by the window with me

Being a true son of these United States, having absorbed the vocabulary appropriate to an American, there are few words in the entire English language more dear to my ear than "free." When, almost a month ago, the mother of one of my graduating seniors offered to leave with me her son's footlocker, I said yes even before I had any thought of a purpose for it--indeed, before I had any notion of its size. Even acknowledging that for three summers it carried the burden of an adolescent's life away from home, to say that it is a large footlocker seems not to be an adequate description. If, as the saying has it, "A friend will hide you; a true friend will help you hide the body," then this footlocker is roughly four true friends.

Naturally enough, I used it for some portion--probably less than half--of my board game collection. Which was good, because those games had to go somewhere.

Lauren, however, was tepid at best about having this monstrous chest just sitting around in any room of our apartment, so I set before myself a bit of a woodworking task that I was able to complete on some of our rainy days. I built--you might say overbuilt--this window seat, painted it, and then left the addition of cushions to Lauren and her sewing machine, to say nothing of her better taste for color and decoration.

The body pillow along the back was something we already had, and happily it matches the paint that we got for free--there's that word again!--from our local recycling depot.

The basic design is like this: I made three rectangles out of 2x4s, then used two 2x4s with dado joints to connect the three rectangles on the bottom and also provide something like a pair of skids to slide the footlocker in and out. I used 3/4" hardwood plywood to join the rectangles on the top and provide the sitting surface, then the thinnest (i.e. cheapest) hardwood plywood I could find for the side (only the one side visible is actually covered, since one opening is needed for the footlocker and the other sides are against walls). Then I used furring strips to dress it up a bit as well as to echo the look of the storage bed that Lauren built for the same room last year.

Mickey Mouse seems to like it well enough, as did our daughter:

The little bookworm seen here sits atop the pillows we first used on it, which were re-purposed from my original use of them to turn a twin bed into something resembling a couch.