25 Theses 25

Cross-posted from Facebook: "Once you've been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it's because I want to know more about you."

1. Parenting is the world’s longest and most engaging turn-based strategy game. There is high risk and high reward, a decision tree with endless branches, and fun for the whole family.

2. My favorite things are imperfect and problematic: London Calling, Lyndon Johnson, Hamlet, Groucho Marx, The Fortress of Solitude, our founding documents, The Muppet Show, Election Day.

3. Somewhere in the ancient mystic trinity, you get three as a magic number.

4. Within my dreams, Milwaukee and Boston become the same place. “What a wickid pissah,” says the Fonz.

5. If man is five, then the devil is six. If the devil is six, then God is seven.

6. I get the sense I’d like Nashville, though I’ve never been.

7. Good documentary films are like novels: shaped and edited, and revealing more than its makers or participants intend. Documentaries you should see include Vernon, Florida, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and Billy the Kid.

8. I forget what eight was for, but nine is my lost soul and ten is my everything, everything, everything.

9. I avoid talking on the telephone. I dislike having a piece of plastic pressed against my face. If I have a long phone conversation, I sometimes start to undress myself without knowing it, which is weird. (This does not happen at work.)

10. I did not believe in love at first sight until the day I met my children.

11. Another pet theory: true innovation comes from finding ways to work around limitations. Rene Magritte, it seems to me, was bad at painting faces, so he obscured them with apples. Punk musicians masked their lack of technical prowess with attitude and politics. I’ve yet to figure out how to turn an aversion to phones and motor vehicles into art.

12. I have a hard time seeing movies in the theatre, as I’m distracted and irritated by people eating popcorn too noisily. I really dislike crunching.

13. If I had any musical talent at all, I’d play mind-crazed banjo on the druggy-drag Ragtime U.S.A. I think it would be fun to create a jug band that played Old Timey versions of pop songs. I can totally hear the washboard version of “C’Mon Every Beatbox.”

14. The point of life is to investigate new ideas and pass them on. As a corollary, one should try each new flavor of ice cream as they emerge out of Vermont.

15. It would be great if we could, as a culture, dissociate our ideas about drama and suspense from our ideas about violence.

16. When I was single and childless, I listened to a lot more music and, for a time, bought a record per week. As awful as it could be at the time, I sometimes miss feeling lonely.

17. While in the early and shaky stages of adoption, I tried to guard my hopes and love against the prospect of loss, as I suppose I’d often done before. My wife taught me to recognize the futility and the cowardice in that.

18. I’m in the middle, the middle of life. I’m a boy and I’m a man. I’m eighteen and I like it.

19. What I have learned from Sam: Make your concerns known. Gather together the things you love and hold them tight in your tiny hands.

20. What I have learned from Caleb: Let the people know about it. Dance how you like. No one doesn’t like a sloppy kiss.

21. Once it’s daylight and you are sober, you will reconsider that gyro.

22. My wife, because she knows me well, asked if I had a celebrity crush on Zooey Deschanel and I answered her truthfully that I did not. Since then, I have come to feel differently.

23. Current other celebrity crush: Princeton University professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell.

24. The hardest thing about parenting is the lack of unstructured time. I would pay good money to sit in a café on a Saturday afternoon with nothing to do but fill a notebook or read a chapter. I would pay even more money to sit in a bar on a Sunday afternoon with nothing to do but finish the next Bloody Mary.

25. The last couple of years, as we move through hard times and cynicism and what let’s all hope is a rising light, it has been a blessing to have young children. Maybe this is mawkish, but it’s nice to be able to come home to kids who want only to eat, laugh, and be.


Your Shoe's Too Big To Kickbox God

With respect to Nicholson Baker's U and I, which presents a singular "reader response" critique of John Updike's works in which Updike is quoted only from Baker's memory without any reference back to the texts, here are a few thoughts on the life and work of Updike.

As with other "celebrity" deaths, my first response to Updike's death was rather bland. But then last night I happened upon the concert/biographic movie "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man," and found myself reflecting on the similarities between Cohen and Updike. They look somewhat alike, and -- to my ear -- have exactly the same voice. They both speak softly but commandingly, with an aura of wisdom and sly humor that -- in both cases -- seems well-crafted. One can imagine Cohen (a Canadian Jew and ordained Buddhist monk, 74) and Updike (King of all WASPs, 76) critiquing each other's poems. Cohen's songwriting is best approached through other voices, I find. Similarly, Updike may be more important to me for his influence on other writers than for his own work. While thinking about all this, I got a text message from Sullivan: why am I sad that updike died? Exactly.

I've never made it to the end of an Updike novel. I had to put Memories of the Ford Administration down because I found its' sex scenes to be rediculously implausible: the young co-ed's mother comes to visit the aging professor to take him to task for sleeping with her daughter, and then -- wacka-chick-wacka -- the mother and the aging professor start getting it on. Surely the daughter was about to discover them together, and then... Afficianados of Updike call this sort of thing "One-Handed Reading." Meanwhile, a UK literary magazine awarded Updike their 'Bad Sex in Fiction" lifetime achievement award.

As a teen I tried Witches of Eastwick and Couples or maybe S.?, but had trouble with their suburbanity. I discovered John Cheever, and read everything I could get my hands on, finding him far more accessible than Updike despite the author's shared crusty-Connecticut-ness.

I enjoyed Updike's speaking voice very much. I attended a reading by him in the UW-Milwaukee Ballroom in the early nineties and, aside from being charming and droll, he read a story about a divorced father helping his family clean out their house. "Still of Some Use," if I'm remembering correctly. I fondly recall the softening of his voice when he spoke as the man's son: "Daaad?" You got the sense he really felt his stories.

Also a favorite: his book of short stories titled Problems. Some of these are very experimental, in the vein of authors like Donald Barthleme or Robert Coover. There are stories in the form of meeting minutes, unsolveable mathematics problems, and other formal games that seemed to me to loosen up the whole white protestant New England male thing. I similarly admire, though have not looked into, Updike's willingness to explore territory beyond his own, such as magical realism in his novel Brazil or the romance of Hamlet's mom in Gertrude and Claudius. Even if they may not be great works, they strike me as interesting and courageous.

Updike was also a frustrated comic strip artist, so I always enjoyed reading his essays on comics, cartoons, and a particular fine piece on the evolution of Mickey Mouse which appeared, if I remember correctly, in Best American Essays 2002. It's also very possible that the essay I'm attributing to Updike was written by the science writer Stephen Jay Gould.

I once listened to Terry Gross, of NPR's Fresh Air, interview Updike before a live audience, probably at the 92nd St Y. Gross made Updike read some of his sex scenes aloud, explaining that if he wrote them he should be able to read them in public without embarassment. Updike did so, with some good humor and without complaint.

I also read "A&P" at least once in each instance of my education -- in high school English, in college lit, and in grad school deconstruction. If you want to demonstrate the epiphany in action, "A&P" is your short story.

Finally, it should be mentioned that Updike, for good or ill, is the man who murdered J.D. Salinger. At the height of Salinger's Glassian output, Updike wrote this review of Franny & Zooey, which remains one of the most elloquent and pointed hatchet jobs ever put to print, Dale Peck not excepted. Updike was 29 at the time, Salinger 42, and among the mid-20th century New Yorker set this must have been a betrayal equal to Lando Calrissian's. (Okay, so I labored over notable betrayals here for a while. Brutus and Caesar seemed too over-worn.)

I suppose it's a testament to Updike's output and prestige that, despite all of the interactions here described, I feel like I've never read him.


Run For The Shadows In These Golden Years

The Corner of Downer and Webster -- A Personal History

Ca. 1984 - Ca. 1987: Brewster's Cafe. As a teenager with nothing to do, I'd go to Brewster's most weekend nights to teach myself how to love coffee. I brought along notebooks to write short stories, most them a weird kind of wish fulfillment exercise concerning high school popularity and an imaginary rock band. I smoked cigarettes and chewed wintergreen gum, and the combined flavors of mint and coffee still bring me immediately back to a table by the window. I read Salinger and Hesse and Anne Tyler and John Irving. The owners were largely absent and the waitstaff was tolerant of teenagers who'd sit for hours on a $1.00 bottomless pot of coffee. Increasingly it became a place to be, with cars of cool kids coming in from Tosa East and Whitefish Bay. By the end of its run, you were expected to show up drunk. Once Trevor and I split a giant bottle of Gallo wine, drinking al fresco in the Downer Woods, then walked down to Brewster's. I sat next to Adam on the park bench out front and vomited my very soul. Dave gave me a ride home, but I got bedspins and more vomitting led me to be found out by my father, who got the whole story out of me as I gasped over the toilet bowl. At Sunday breakfast, Dad poured me a glass of red wine, which I didn't touch again until I toured France in 1995.

Ca. 1988 - 1994: Webster's Bookstore and Cafe. Webster's had long been next door, and they expanded to the corner. I got a job as a dishwasher in about 1990, and that still may rank as my favorite job ever. I couldn't stand the feel of the rubber gloves, so I washed dishes with bare hands. The harsh chemicals in the detergent would turn my hands brown, and then the skin would flake off, leaving me with stinging pink hands for a couple of days, a monthly cycle that I somehow didn't mind at all. I played C90 cassettes of Elvis Costello's Get Happy, the first two Ramones records, and The Clash on the rustic boom box in the dish room, and now and then the waitstaff would have to tell me to sing along a little quieter. One of the waitresses banned "Lose This Skin" off Sandinista, a song which featured the reedy voice of Tymon Dogg. I was promoted to the kitchen, but I couldn't take the pressure of timing everything just so, and asked to be put back in the dish room. I would borrow new hardcover fiction from the bookstore, and returned most of it. One night I locked myself in overnight to study for a Psych Statistics exam, but the illegally-employed third shift breadbakers showed up with sheaves of marijuana and things did not work out well for me. I passed Psych Stats on the curve, with a C-. Plagued by bad management, the store relocated to Prospect and Kennilworth, where it died a quick death. (I was a bookseller at that location, but it came to be that the owners were buying packaged bestsellers from Sam's Club and reselling them from our store. Their credit was just that bad.) I left for Boston and graduate school in the nick of time. Still, nothing beat the feeling of ending a night shift at the sink, then beating feet to meet friends at North Avenue bars, drinking cold beer in a smoky bar while dish suds dried on my shirt and the hard shell of my hands cracked apart. When I got breaks, I'd walk up the street for more coffee at the Cafe Demi in the back of the Coffee Trader, but that's a post for another day.

1997-2009: Schwartz's Bookstore and Starbucks. Having a Starbucks on that corner is sort of like the moment in Grosse Point Blank where John Cusack discovers that his childhood home has become a convenience store, but Schwartz's was the perfect fit. I browsed there on visits home from graduate school, and this was a link to my history that was sorely needed at the time. (Years before, when Schwartz's was preparing to open in Shorewood, I applied for a job there. The hiring manager handed me an orange Crayola marker and asked me to sell him the pen, and I lost out on the job. Never been one for the hard sell.) I love that bookstore enough to be able to envision the shelf location of a particular book I want to find, barring those times when they swap the location of the Schwartz 100 with the Social Criticism shelves, or reverse the orientation of the fiction shelves. In those times when I would imagine the cover of a book I haven't written yet, I imagined it on those shelves. It's a hard loss to look in the eye.

Godspeed to your eternal reward, HWS.


To Throw Thoreau and Rearrange

A Conversation With Sam
...some weeks ago, in the car, on the way to Lil' Athletes at the South Shore YMCA...

Sam: (noticing a passing ambulance) What's that?

Me: That's an ambulance.

Sam: What do?

Me: An ambulance helps people.

Sam: Yeah!

Me: Do you want to help people?

Sam: (Thinks about it) No.

Me: You don't?

Sam: (More confident) No.

Me: You want to be a rugged isolationist?

Sam: Yeah!

Me: Live out in the woods in a cabin you built yourself, like Thoreau?

Sam: Yeah!

Me: And did you know that Thoreau went home from Walden Pond on the weekends, and that his mother would do his laundry? Are you going to be that sort of rugged isolationist?

Sam: Yeah!


I've been reading John Hodgman's More Information Than You Require over the past couple weeks, in tandem with books by Steven Pinker and Roy Blount, Jr. I've finished the Hodgman and will probably put down the Blount for awhile. Hodgman is often very funny, but the fake trivia trope sort of wore me down. There's something about that McSweeney's absurdo-ironic humor that is starting to taste, to my tongue, a bit too precious and light. Maybe it was the right kind of literary entertainment for the Bush era, and maybe we're facing a return to earnestness now. Hard to say.

Years ago, as an undergraduate English major, I fell under the sway of late 20th century post-modernist meta-fictional stories by John Barth and Robert Coover and Donald Bartleme. Their sort of "The Emperor Has No Clothes!"-style attacks at fiction were fun, and seemed to break apart the form of fiction which is a useful thing to investigate. I read an interview once in which Barth complained that no one was writing like that anymore, but, having pronounced the death of the author and the artifice of narrative, what else is there to do but go on telling stories?

Roy Blount's book about words is a bit of hodge-podgey mess. While it contains some good examples of well-turned phrases and some solid writerly advice, it mostly consists of either admiring words that sound like the things they signify or decrying those that don't. The word "Kiss" for example -- Blount thinks it is too soft and breezy-sounding for the action it describes. Okay, sure. It's also too bad they don't show Lost on Tuesday nights.

Steven Pinker, meanwhile, has a whole f*cking chapter about swearing, and uses the following example to illustrate how we tend to use swear words for emphasis rather than as a word for the thing they technically describe: "I come home to my f*cking house after three f*cking years in the f*cking war, and what do I f*cking-well find? My wife in bed, engaging in illicit sexual relations with a male!"


So Many Songs We Forgot To Play

The internet confronted me with this today:

So Monday began a little wistfully, leading one to probe the starker questions of time and mortality, such as:

"Really? A bow tie?"


Na Na Na Na, Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey: Goodbye

Has there ever been a more cathartic moment in the history of the nation?

Do you suppose that people would have gathered in auditoriums to watch the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at Appamotox, had CNN been there to broadcast it?

When Nixon left Washington, was there the same sense of closure? Did the nation stand straighter with Gerald Ford taking the office?

We replaced that president with this one. How utterly fantastic.

As Dylan tells us in "Mississippi," once his ship has split to splinters: Things should start to get interesting right about now.

I expect that our collective national sigh of relief affected global wind patterns, knocking butterflies off course in the antipodes, which will -- eventually, and in due course -- bring the hint of spring to the prevailing westerlies. To bastardize Reagan (and who wouldn't love to do that): It is cocktail hour in America.


The Sun So Hot I Froze To Death

It has been a weekend of peaks and valleys, but tomorrow I hope to get to the mountaintop.

Sunday evening brought bad news from good friends -- all of the Harry W. Schwartz Bookstores are closing.  This is a crushing loss to the city, hard (if not entirely unexpected) news for friends who work there, and something akin to a death in the family for me personally.   Among Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief, I fall somewhere between bargaining and Haagen-Daaz.*

As a teenager, I used to take the city bus to the Harry W. Schwartz Bookstore on Wisconsin Avenue to look at books.  That sprawling location seemed to cram the books in, shelve them up to the ceilings, leading the browser around corners and tight doorways, surrounded -- nearly suffocated -- by them all.  Unlike the other bookstore I frequented -- the Waldenbooks at the nascent Bay Shore Mall -- this was a place that took books seriously, a place that dared you to reach for the upper shelves.  When I started to work seriously at writing short fiction, the downtown Schwartz store was the only place I knew of that sold the journals and "little magazines" that published new short stories.  In my senior year of high school, I saved up money to buy a hardcover "Novel and Short Story Writer's Market" from that downtown store.  I remember exactly where it was on the shelf, much the way you can recall where a favorite passage from a book falls on a page even if you can't remember the particular page itself.

That downtown store is long gone, but I wanted to tip my hat to it.  I have a deeper connection to the corner of Downer and Webster, both as a Schwartz location and in the years before. I intend to write about that corner relatively soon, but feel like I need some processing time and some watching-the-inauguration-with-some-hope-for-the-future time before I can get to it.

(*I totally copped this line from a short story in Lorrie Moore's Birds of America, a book that I almost assuredly bought at the Downer Schwartz.)


I know it's a National Day of Service today -- Martin Luther King Day -- and I wish I'd thought more about that in the last few weeks because it would have been nice to have volunteered for something today.  Instead, the Townblog family bought a mini-van.  This completes my metamorphosis from the socially awkward and sullen teenager described above into the socially awkward and sullen family man you're faced with here.  I went into the cocoon in a stained shirt and saggy trousers and emerged in a silvery-green Toyota Sienna, with room for eight and a six CD changer.  (Peer within, however, and you're still liable to see a stained shirt and saggy trousers.)

So, we didn't volunteer today but we did, you know, go shopping.  And the dealership can't cash the check until Obama's president, so the national economic uptick that will surely result from our purchase* won't be credited to the guy who, tonight, rests his dumb-ass head on the national pillow for the last time.

*As Al said, politely, at dinner, "Ever spit in Lake Michigan?"


Speaking of which, I'm going to a bar to watch the inauguration with a couple of friends tomorrow morning, and I'm taking along the Obama shot glass I received from the Shens at Christmas.  I'll use it to toast the new boss, and I'll use it again when the Marine One helicopter becomes the Nighthawk One helicopter.  Hey hey hey, goodbye.

And, as a personal message to the new guy on King's day and on the eve of a new era, here's a picture of two children asleep in their parents' bed:

They have dreams, too.


You Can Always Kiss Off Into the Air

Civics and Reading Comprehension. You have ten minutes to read the following passage and respond to the questions below. If you finish early, you may move on to the next section. No child will be left behind.

From a 1/12/09 press conference:

I view those who get angry and yell and say bad things and, you know, all that kind of stuff, it's just a very few people in the country. I don't know why they get angry. I don't know why they get hostile. It's not the first time, however, in history that people have expressed themselves in sometimes undignified ways. I've been reading, you know, a lot about Abraham Lincoln during my presidency, and there was some pretty harsh discord when it came to the 16th President, just like there's been harsh discord for the 43rd President.

1. TRUE or FALSE: A President should know why the people are angry and hostile, even if he chooses not to address the peoples' concerns.

2. President George W. Bush's comparison of his presidency to that of Abraham Lincoln is:
A. Specious
B. Wacky
C. Insulting
D. Damn near heretical, if you ask me.

3. Lincoln went to war to preserve the union, and -- as a byproduct of that effort -- signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In the space provided, explain to the best of your ability, the reason for war with Iraq, as well as the byproducts of that effort: _________________________.

4. Rank the following presidents from best ever to worst ever:
A. Abraham Lincoln
B. George W. Bush

5. In the interest of the war effort, Abraham Lincoln temporarily suspended the writ of habeas corpus. During his eight years in office, what has George W. Bush suspended?
A. Civil Liberties
B. Constraints on torture
C. America's good name
D. Credulity.
E. All of the above.

6. Let's imagine a hypothetical time traveller from the future, who might warn Mr. Lincoln to refrain from attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1965. What might a similar time traveller have to offer George W. Bush?
A. Pretzels.
B. A faster shoe.
C. A few dozen more Gore supporters in Florida in November, 2000.
D. Tickets to Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre, April 14, 1965.

As Gordon Gano said, "I hope you know this will go down on your permanent record."


Time Has Come Today

With Sarah Vowell still on my mind, I came across this in Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought:

Though the you-are-there illusion forced by the historical present can be an effective narrative device, it can also feel manipulative. Recently a Canadian columnist complained about a CBC Radio news program that seemed to him to overuse the present tense, as in "UN forces open fire on protesters." The director explained to him that the show is supposed to sound "less analytic, less reflective" and "more dynamic, more hot" than the flagship nightly news show.

It is reading this passage that leads me to realize why I grow to dislike the disaster coverage on NBC Nightly News.

Meanwhile, awaiting the next hurricane, Robert Hager enjoys semi-retirement.


Listen, Bub: He's Got Radioactive Blood

Just exactly how awesome is this presidency going to be?

Not only is President Obama guest-starring in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, the USA Today website article on this important cultural moment illustrates a Spidey/Barack "dap."


You Won't Fool The Children Of The Revoution

I know, I know: more books.

But baby, it's cold outside. And nothing's on television.

I'm going to proclaim that The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party is the Best Book I've Read This Year. (I recognize that this would have more weight had I so proclaimed a week or so distant, but one can't help but address circumstances as they are.)

In fact, Octavian Nothing is in the running for Best Book I've Read This Decade. It's so good that I'm having a lot of trouble figuring out how to communicate how good it is, because a lot of what I'll say about it below runs the risk of suggesting that this book is not, in fact, worth the time and money that it is so totally worth. I'll limit myself to ten points:

1. Octavian is a slave in late 18th century Boston, with the relationship between the American Colonies and their British rulers intensifying towards the eventual Revolution. He is indentured to philosophers who utilize Octavian as a test subject, to see whether "Homo Africanus" can be civilized in the manner of classical European education.

2. Though nominally a "slave," Octavian has a pretty cush life amid the opening chapters. Things get worse, in the manner of an adventure story or a Dickens novel, and yet as things get worse for Octavian, he learns more about himself, his own biography, and his lot in the world. Which means that you become increasingly invested in the story.

3. The book is largely narrated by Octavian in authoritative and neatly archaic 18th-Century American English, supported here and there by historical (but still, you know, fictional) documentation.

4. Somewhere after the mid-point of the novel -- a point that follows keen and alarming depictions of discrimination and torture (or what W. might call "Advanced Subjugation Techniques") -- something so devastating occurs to our narrator that he stops narrating his own book. And this is not done in a meta-textual Robert Coover/John Barth game-playing fashion, but seriously: your main character turns his back on his own story.

5. For a time, then, Octavian's story has to be taken up by someone else, and he appears for a while as an ancillary character in letters to home from a citizen-soldier in the burgeoning Revolutionary War. These letters are pitched perfectly into the florid and sentimental style common to American soldiers of the 18th and 19th centuries.

6. The writing, throughout, crackles with intelligence and a command of the era.

7. When you finish Vol. I, you'll want to have Vol. II on hand, which has just been released in hardcover. (In fact, it was a review of Vol. II in the New York Times Book Review that led me to discover Vol. I.)

8. You'll find both volumes in the "Young Adult" section of your local independently-owned bookstore. I'm not sure why this is a Young Adult book, as it as mature in its themes and concerns as any Old Adult book I've come across. I suspect it's marketed as YA because its author's previous books were YA, but this is about as far from Goosebumps and Judy Blume as I can imagine. (And the dated references to YA books of an earlier era should suggest to you my current ignorance of the genre. Perhaps descriptions of British Loyalists being tarred-and-feathered are common to those bookshelves nowadays, and perhaps I skipped the scenes in Harry Potter that deal with festering smallpox sores and the systematic debasement of human chattel.) In any event, the idea that this fantastic book is supposedly meant to be an adventure book for 8th graders makes it all the more astonishingly awesome.

9. If anything, upon reflection, strikes me as decidedly counter to the sort of literary fiction intended for old adults in this Young Adult book, it is the emergence of clear heroes. The villains, as one would expect in old adult books, are mostly complex -- they are villainous by aspect or intent. There is no Voldemort, only a backwards and immoral practice upheld by learned white men too eager for profit to recognize it's repugnance.

10. As Dr. Godsave once said to me about David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, you really should read this book so that you'll be the sort of person who has read The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.


C'mon Pilgrim

I was going to wait for the paperback version of Sarah Vowell's latest book, but then -- just about the time I was making my list for Santa Claus -- I read Virginia Heffernan's nasty review in the New York Times. The review seemed unfair and mean spirited, and raised in me feelings of protectiveness; some of my best friends are bookish brunettes.

Heffernan considers Vowell a problem ("like Sarah Palin"), due more to her hipster-nerd NPR credentials and "her Great Plains accent" than to anything in the book itself. Heffernan wonders whether we even need books like this, what with David McCullough and Ken Burns and their fellow "middlebrow historians making scholarly work perfectly accessible."

This misses the point by a mile, I think. Vowell is an engaging writer, and this book -- like Assassination Vacation and aspects of The Partly Cloudy Patriot before it -- is not so much history as an exploration of how history affects -- and is affected by -- contemporary American culture and politics. Rather than convey a history of Puritans in early America, The Wordy Shipmates attempts to make connections between the Puritans (and their writings) and modern day life. She elucidates the difference between Puritans of the olden days and the evangelicals of our modern era in a way that was surprising and educational to me, particularly as I might otherwise think the two movements as kissing cousins, if not partners in judgement and prudery. She uses examples of Pilgrim-themed episodes of the "Brady Bunch" and "Happy Days" not as "stand-up comedy," as Heffernan suggests, but as evidence of how wrong our conceptions are of these early colonists.

I would not be one who would ordinarily pick up a book concerning John Winthrop, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson, feeling as though I'd learned enough about their fire-and-brimstone from my high school American Lit 1 course and a once-upon-a-time visit to the Salem Witch Museum. I can trust Vowell, however, to not just present the history but to indicate to me why it should matter to me. And that she does, by connecting the words and lives of the Puritans to those of Ronald Reagan, Al Gore, the Sons of Liberty, and -- sure -- Fonzie.

I agree with Heffernan that the book suffers a little from issues of tense, particularly an over-use (to my ear) of the historical present: "In May of 1634, Winthrop writes in his journal..." The immediacy that the present tense conveys isn't quite needed, and sometimes that false urgency can be grating.

All in all, though, this is about a fun a book as you'll find on Congregationalist Puritans, and the book draws some distinction between those who travelled to this continent for the purposes of their own religious freedom and those who were able to see that value fostered in others. With a cast of severe and righteous characters, folks who cleave off ears and burn down Indian encampments, there are few heroes in the book, but Vowell spotlights the emerging ideas -- themselves heroic -- that will lead to revolution, liberty, and democracy.


Here Comes The Jackpot Question In Advance

Our New Year's vacation to the indoor waterpark in the Wisconsin Dells was a lot of fun for the kids, and a good deal of work for the parents.  Your correspondent, for example, was asleep by 9:30pm on New Year's Eve, so nary a drop of champagne was had.  (Thank goodness for the cabana drinks in the waterpark...)

Caleb in NYE garb provided by the hotel.  With the paper pork pie hat tipped back like that, he looks like a toaster for a toddler ska band.  (Mirror in the bathroom, please talk freely.)

A big ol' slab of cheese.

The serenity of our new year's eve dinner, pictured here, will last about 0.05 seconds longer.

Navigating the park.

Sam rides an alligator.

Caleb at the top of a slide.  As befits their personalities, Caleb took an immediate interest in the slides and water rides, while Sam pined for visits to the Jacuzzi-style "hot pool."

Lynn and baby Cannon visit.

Sam finds a place from which to survey his kingdom.

An action shot.

Driving home.

I told the boys that if they were good, and if the economy improves, we might visit again in 2013.