Crisis, Collapse, and Bailout

In an effort to help restore confidence in financial markets and heal our ailing economy, I think it's well past time that I came clean about my role in the global collapse of the BRLP (Brian Re-Literacy Project).

At the start of summer, I inveiled myself on the arduous, nigh-impossible project of reading one book a week (from the libary system's 7-day loan shelves) through summer, all while working full time, raising two toddlers, attending to household responsibilities, and becoming increasingly obsessed with electoral politics. Some will say that the project was doomed to failure from the start, and my response to such critics is: Spot-on prediction! Have you considered sending your resume to Lehman Brothers? They could probably use an insightful, forward-looking analyst like you.

The last update on the BRLP concerned a faltering attempt at getting through a book on the Works Progress Administration, along with a renewed effort that would begin with Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives. While certainly compelling and innovative in it's oral history-like style, it soon became clear that I wasn't going to finish the book within a week, or even two. We took a trip to Boston in early August, and I worried that I might lose or damage the book so -- since it belonged to the library and not to me -- I set the book aside to read up on some of Barack Obama's policy positions in The Audacity of Hope.
After returning home, I passed the halfway mark in Savage Detectives, but a weekend visit from my English Composition posse meant setting the book aside again to make way for certain hangovers. That Sunday afternoon, with a bloody mary in one hand and four aspirin winding their way through my bloodstream, I aimed to take up the book again. I didn't find it on my nightstand, nor in the office or the living room. It was not under the couch or under the kids' cribs, or anywhere in the house. The Savage Detectives was missing.

Monday, I found that the book was not on or in my desk at work, not left by the printer or the photocopier, not filed away with the spare pound of coffee beans or cough drops, not even in the drawer that houses a few remaining thank you cards that I never sent following my March 2005 wedding.

It was not in the car. It was not at the Student Union lost and found.

I thought for sure it would turn up. I avoided talking about the book, or saying anything more about it. I tried visualization exercises, trying to imagine where I was on Wednesday, August 13th, the last day I spent with the book. I read other things, including some stories by Samantha Clarke, the second half of David Mitchell's excellent Cloud Atlas, and The Essential Groucho.

Today, my long-suffering and put-upon wife finally took it upon herself to call up the library and arrange to pay late fines and the cost of replacing the book. So, you know, thanks for the bailout! I promise to be more fiscally responsible in the future, and only borrow what I know I'm able to give back.

(Meanwhile, I've taken full financial ownership of a copy of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, which so far seems like a much more profluent and readable version of the last third of Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost. It includes the idea -- one I will fully support -- that men who wear mustaches ought to have some sort of special talent, like archery, card tricks, or palindromes. Seems to have merited it's National Book Award on that observation alone, if you ask me.)


P.S. I presume that the Shorewood Public Library's copy of The Savage Detectives is either hanging out in Mexico City cafes (as in the first third of the novel), backpacking around Europe (as in the second third), or on the run from a murderous pimp in the Sonoran desert (third third). If anyone should happen upon this book, please know that I'd be grateful for the opportunity to finish reading the book. Also note that it no longer belongs to the Shorewood Public libary, but instead to American taxpayers. And, more specifically, my wife.


Watch the Monkey Get Hurt, Monkey

I don't presume to know much about economics.  To say that I skipped that class in college would be a huge understatement -- I skipped the whole department.  Didn't even go in the building.

But it's an interesting time to be reading  Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein's insight into "disaster capitalism," whereby radical free-marketeers such as those currently in power seek to use moments of disaster and crisis to implement economic changes that serve their interests.

Here's some text from page 174:
It was in 1982 that Milton Friedman wrote the highly influential passage that best summarizes the shock doctrine: "Only a crisis -- actual or perceived -- produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable."

And from page 175:
The kind of crisis Friedman had in mind was not military but economic. What he understood was that in normal circumstances, economic decisions are made based on the push and pull of competing interests -- workers want jobs and raises, owners want low taxes and relaxed regulation, and politicians have to strike a balance between these competing forces. However, if an economic crisis hits and is severe enough -- a currency meltdown, a market crash, a major recession -- it blows everything else out of the water, and leaders are liberated to do whatever is necessary (or said to be necessary) in the name of responding to a national emergency. Crises are, in a way, democracy-free zones -- gaps in politics as usual when the need for consent and consensus do not seem to apply.

Note that in Bush's speech to the nation tonight, he suggested that -- as Washington hurries to repair a crisis long felt by middle America, but only recently affecting corporations -- there should be no immediate changes to the lax or absent regulations that allowed such circumstances to come about in the first place.

From Page 200: 

Friedman's crisis theory became self-reinforcing. The more the global economy followed his prescriptions, with floating interest rates, deregulated prices and export-oriented economies, the more crisis-prone the system became, producing more and more of precisely the types of meltdowns he had identified as the only circumstances under which governments would take more of his advice.

Vote Barack Obama: He Probably Knows Who John Maynard Keynes Is.


The Struggle Itself Is Enough To Fill A Man's Heart

In his excellent The Art of Fiction, John Gardner makes the argument that:

“To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying, or have some loved one dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.”

I first read Gardner's book in my very-early twenties when I first started trying seriously to write, and that particular passage -- and its argument about one's moral obligation to humankind -- became incredibly important to me. I take Gardner to mean that one has a moral duty to be life-affirming, to suggest ways out of darkness, and to generally echo Albert Camus' solution to the "one truly serious philosophical problem." (This is not to say that art can't be dark, pessimistic, or immoral, or that it can't suggest that evil often wins or that darkness can overcome, only that art -- or in Gardner's rendering, art "with taste" -- ought not leave someone in greater pain or despair. Vonnegut, for example, was no cheerleader for the human condition, but his bleak humor and rationality were fireflies in the gloom.)

David Foster Wallace was a writer who had some impact on me in my Boston years and his death this past weekend has stuck with me. My initial response -- having heard of Wallace's death from a friend's e-mail on Sunday morning -- was probably too crass and dismissive, and tied into the problems I'd developed with Wallace's writing style. An incredibly smart and exacting writer, Wallace was also interested in formal and stylistic innovation which -- at times -- seemed a bit too clever for my tastes. There's a lot of Wallace that's worth reading-- particularly in Girl With Curious Hair and A Supposedly Fun Thing... -- but the cleverness, the syntactic exercises, and his headiness eventually wore out on me. Infinite Jest, while a book I thoroughly enjoyed reading while in the act of reading it, sort of lives up to its title too exactingly.

Since Sunday, though, I've been thinking a lot about Wallace's story "The Depressed Person" , which I read in Harper's Magazine when it was published in 1998 (strangely, it seems a lot fresher in my mind than that -- I would have guessed it appeared in this decade). While not a very dramatic story, Wallace establishes and cements a mindset of a depressed woman; all of the action of the story takes place in its footnotes. Depression, as the story presents it, is a kind of extreme self-centeredness, an obsession with self that washes out the rest of the world (including, within the story, the illness and death by cancer of the depressed person's closest friend). Wallace's story -- and the idea that depression is a malady of solipsism -- drew some heat in Harper's letters pages, but I think it ultimately adheres to Gardner's definition of writing with taste. It's idea is one that has helped me out of a dark spot or two, now somewhat complicated by Wallace's apparent suicide.

At an important time in my life, the right person gave me the right book. That book says:

At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which become his fate, created by him, combined under his memory's eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.

As Lou Reed said, my life was saved by rock and roll.


A Word From Day Care

Incident Report
Child's Name:  Sam H_______
Date: 9/15/08
Occurred: Outside
Time of Incident: 3:30pm
Description of Injury:  We were going outside and Sam put his jacket over his head.  With his jacket over his head, he ran into a pole.  He has a small bump on the middle of his forehead.
First Aid Applied:  Ice Pack

Daddy:  You ran into a pole?
Sam: Yeah.
Daddy:  Was it funny or did it hurt?
Sam: Hurt.
Daddy:  How's the pole?
Sam: Good.


I Saw A Deadhead Sticker On A Cadillac

We're taking a break from being far too wrapped up in this election for our own mental well-being to remind ourselves why we are against building debt, destroying the planet, fostering enemies, and perpetuating a culture of cynicism and spin.

Caleb at his most Webster-y.
When's the last time you ran down the sidewalk with a balloon trailing behind you?

"Reckon winter's comin', Sam."

"Reckon so, Caleb."

Running With The Cheetahs.

Handsome Boy Modeling School, or what?


We've Got To Get Out While We're Young

Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention -- along with an attendant speech by "America's Mayor" Rudy Giuliani -- had me up late thinking about cynicism, sarcasm, and cowardice.

In our media-saturated age, we tend to put idealism and earnestness in the same bag as naiveté and gullibility. It's risky to seem to believe too fervently, feel too deeply, to be genuine or unguarded, to show one's hand before the game is called. But it is no virtue to harden oneself against ideals and lofty goals.

The cynic has it easy, as he discounts sincerity and goodness in humans, and thereby saves himself from ever being let down. The cynic does not risk being wrong or embarrassed or fooled. A cynic does not play because she feels the game is rigged, and so she does not win or lose, and she also does not expose the rigging to which she is still exposed. (Everyone knows, watching the magician, that he is dependant on tricks and gimmics, but we still want to know how it all works -- we are still left with wonder.)

The vocubulary of the cynic is sarcasm and sneers. Sarcasm says to you, "Nice socks!" while meaning the opposite, except that there's no actual qualitative information about what isn't nice about your socks and there's a whole lot of room to back off from the original assertion. Just kidding. No, really, they are nice socks. Not for everyone, maybe, but they look good on you.

Rudy Giuliani can allege that Barack Obama's done nothing aside from write memoirs, and then -- having walked off the stage -- is insulated from having to deal with evidence to the contrary. Another example: on Wednesday night, Newt Gingrich asked an MSNBC reporter if he could name one thing that Barack Obama had done aside from talking and writing (as if government required action beyond argument -- say, shooting a moose.)

Like characters on 90's era-sitcoms, asking "Could you be any more (whatever)," the cynic appoints himself smarter, superior to the rest of us, privileging themselves with a smug sofa seat above the teeming and idiodic masses. (Sarcasm is often employed by people who mistake it for irony, which is ironic because actual irony requires wit and sophistication. Like rain on your wedding day.)

H.L. Menken famously said that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people, but this is clearly not the case. Marchel Duchamp (as "R. Mutt") installed a urinal in the Armory show, but I'd bet few people think of that urinal when they ponder art and beauty. P.T. Barnum was probably underestimating when he said there's a sucker born every minute, but this does not absolve the huckster, the manipulator, or the marketing major.

Everything about Sarah Palin smacks of cynicism -- her selection as veepal candidate not least of all -- but her speech on Wednesday night was so full of sarcasm that I kept having to check if it was being delivered by a late 90's Matthew Perry. The idea that a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago hasn't done anything of value is an out-of-hand discounting of the kind of help and assistance needed by real people with real problems. It is a suggestion -- by the party of supposed small government -- that only government counts. I find her suggestion that any interest in Barrack Obama is due only to pretty words and staging incredibly short-sighted and offensive, and I think it won't play well to people who honestly see in him the hope he champions.

I'm heartened, somewhat, by the comments relating to Palin attached to the New York Times article about her speech. While the Times is no GOP newsletter, it is the paper of record, and I'm having fun surfing the backlash. Or is that cynical?

BONUS: Michael Chabon on Sarah Palin


Eat Every Carrot and Pea On Your Plate

Sam collects green beans.

The ladies that hang out by the pool say that Caleb will be our next Michael Phelps.  OK, sure, but check out those Spider-Man floaties! 

Caleb in mid-leap.  If they were Superman floaties, I might say he was flying...

Sam has something he'd like to show you.


Free to Joe Biden, for use in the Oct. 2nd debate, should she last that long:

"Madame Governor, I know Hillary Rodham Clinton.  I've worked with Hillary Rodham Clinton.  You, ma'am, are no Hillary Rodham Clinton."

Singles Remind Me of Kisses, Albums Remind Me of Plans

There are two kinds of people -- there are those who think that everything fits into two categories, and then everybody else. We of that first set ike to sort information into simple binaries -- zero or one, on or off, good or bad, Democrat or Republican -- because it makes things so simple and easy to process. When something falls outside of one or the other, we say we are of two minds (or, as Al says, we feel very strongly both ways). That is, rather than locating ourselves outside of the binary system, we divide ourselves into both camps. So here are some things I feel two ways about:

1. There are people who raise doubts about whether Sarah Palin can handle the vice presidency with an infant (with Down Syndrome, though I don't feel that's a significant element to this argument) and a pregnant 17-year old. This is a valid concern, and one that may lead people to favor my preferred candidates, but at the same time I doubt the same thing would be said of a male candidate in a similar situation.

2. I feel, as my party does, that four years of a John McCain presidency is more than this country can afford but at the same time I think he's a decent, honorable, and well-intentioned politician. I disagree with many of his policies and I wonder about his intent to willfullly oppose the first viable African-American presidential candidate this country has produced, but I don't feel he should be attacked or lampooned in order to achieve an Obama presidency.

3. When I have an opportunity to enjoy a sandwich cookie -- whether Oreo, Hydrox, Nutter Butter, or what-have-you -- I like to deconstruct it into its various components, sometimes just to enjoy the inner bits separate from the outer bits, and sometimes to reconstruct a kind of hyper-cookie containing, say, three or four inner bits and two to three outter bits. At the same time, I recognize that the cookie is designed to be enjoyed at it is, and that one misses an essential kind of cookie experience when one messes about with its creators' intentions.
Last Thursday evening, we attended a Convention Watching Party at the Pabst Theatre that was so powerful and moving to me that I still have a hard time describing it or writing about it. The crowd there was predominantly African-American and incredibly active, and there was definitely a sense of being a part of the Mile High Stadium experience (while also observing the experience.) In the video biography, there was a photograph of a very young Barack Obama sitting between his white grandparents, and it occured to me that, holy sh*t, that's our life, too. I've thought this and even argued it before, but these occurences were in the realm of the theoretical. But the picture hit home that my children -- for reals -- could become president. And then I thought about all the African-Americans sitting around me, and how for them this nomination might just indicate the same thing times 143 years (or 232 years, or even longer).
Obama has seemed to strategically avoid discussions of race in this election -- my wife even pointed out that, in the same biographic film I mention above, there were few pictures of blacks aside from those of the candidate and his wife -- so one wonders when, if ever, these kinds of moments might be legitimately recognized as being as monumental as they really are. I definitely take Obama's assertion that we (his supporters) are "on the right side of history," as being one of those codified recognitions that this is a crucial American moment.