Year: 2013

The Cold Is A Sharpener

The cold is a sharpener. A whetstone on the world.

It makes the sky stronger, like marble, more vivid in its crepuscular color.

It makes the air thicker: the crunch of my boots on the sidewalk’s new coat of snow slices through it, so clean and clear.

It makes my body taut, every breath in and out a miracle of muscle and will. Even the golden porch-light is bolder in the cold.

It makes my mind work harder: with every blink I fight its paralyzing touch on my thoughts. Every thought is a thought of cold.

The cold makes us sharper. And that’s just the way I like it.

What Is This Feeling?

I made a goal to see more theater (musicals especially) and this year I’ve succeeded. The Book of Mormon, then Once, and now Wicked, which I saw on Thursday. I loved the music of Once in its own right, but it’s different from that of the others, which are more traditional showtunes. That said, there is something I love about showtunes I can’t easily describe. It’s almost entirely about the music itself, not the show’s plot or characters. I consider the people who write them to be craftsman of the highest order.

Consider “What Is This Feeling?” from Wicked (above). The first go of the chorus (which starts at 1:12 in the video) is a sparse iteration that builds to the second chorus, which adds the undulating strings beneath the backing band that’s punctuating the singers’ lines. The final two choruses are even bigger and better with the ensemble chiming in and the leads cranking up the melody. The chord structure of the orchestral undertow isn’t anything elaborate, nor are the sung melodies and harmonies; but when combined, it’s like beautiful musical alchemy.

That’s just one example of the many songs created for both the stage and screen that tap into the deep power of music. While I’m sure entire books and dissertations have been written on how music affects emotion, for me it’s not academic. I don’t know why the chorus of Anathallo’s “All the First Pages” gives me goosebumps. Or how the heroic strains of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” makes my heart soar. They just do. And the people who make that music get a standing ovation from me.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Chris Hadfield couldn’t just be a fighter pilot, engineer, astronaut, photographer, musician, or the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station; he just had to be a damn good writer too.

At one point in his superb memoir An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield describes what it’s like to exit the ISS into the vacuum of space for the first time:

What’s coming out of my mouth is a single word: Wow. Only, elongated: Wwwooooowww. … It’s like being engrossed in cleaning a pane of glass, then you look over your shoulder and realize you’re hanging off the side of the Empire State Building, Manhattan sprawled vividly beneath and around you. … It’s overpowering, visually, and no other senses warn you that you’re about to be attacked by raw beauty.

There was something similarly surreal and dreamlike about the sight in front of me now, which I couldn’t reconcile with my prosaic fumbling with the tether hook a moment before. Holding onto the side of a spaceship that’s moving around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour, I could truly see the astonishing beauty of our planet, the infinite textures and colors. On the other side of me, the black velvet bucket of space, brimming with stars. It’s vast and overwhelming, this visual immersion, and I could drink it in forever.

In addition to telling the story of his life’s journey to the ISS, Hadfield dispenses great life advice he’s learned over the years and dishes on the culture of NASA. Contrary to the view we have of astronauts as swashbuckling daredevils, Hadfield is humble and forthright about his failings. He’s also candid about the sacrifices he and his family has had to make for him to pursue his dream. Reading this along with Mary Roach’s Packing For Mars provides great insight into the weirdness and wonder of space travel, and the men and women who are just crazy enough to do it.

Ötzi: A Life

Radiolab has produced another winner in their “An Ice-Cold Case” episode, an illuminating portrait of Ötzi, a 5000-year-old natural mummy discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991. The details scientists have been able to ascertain about this mountain man are astounding. Radiolab, as usual, brings the story alive, telling what we know of Ötzi’s life and death, down to the meal he had before he died. I find it fascinating to imagine the life this mysterious “Iceman” lived before he died alone on a mountain and was mummified by the ebb and flow of ice and snow over millennia. That he didn’t decay like every other carcass, and instead lives among us now as an avatar for a primordial age, is a peculiar miracle that I’m glad to have heard from Radiolab — a crew that seems to delight in the many peculiar miracles around us.

A Novel Ninevember

Fiction usually isn’t my thing, but I want to get better at it. So I’m reading nine novels in November’s thirty days and writing about them here. I’ll update this post as I go along. Some spoilers, natch. Update: Just made it through the ninth book, with only hours to spare. I’m very glad to have deepened my exposure to and enjoyment of fiction in its many faces, but just a little bit gladder to be able to read nonfiction again. Thanks for joining me on this fictional escapade. 

Book 9 of 9: Fortunately, The Milk, Neil Gaiman

Reason number one I read yet another juvenile book: it was short and I was on a (self-enforced) deadline. Reason number two: ending my fictional month with the same author I started it seemed fitting. What a delightfully madcap yarn this one is. Beautifully illustrated too. I greatly appreciate in artists, specifically writers and filmmakers, the ability to tell different kinds of stories in different genres yet still retain their style throughout. That Gaiman can publish something as composed and heart-full as The Ocean at the End of the Lane (see Book 1 below) in the same year as something so zany as Fortunately, the Milk is a great testament to his durability and literary prowess. (Thanks to Jenny for loaning me the book.)

Book 8 of 9: The Giver, Lois Lowry

Continuing my accidental quest to read books most kids read in middle or high school, I was eager to pick this one up because I knew so little about it — the elderly bearded man on the cover being my only clue. (Bunny trail: I knew this was an unorthodox book choice for a twenty-something dude like me when a woman on the train asked me out of the blue why I was reading it. Turns out she was an eighth grade teacher who taught the book regularly to her students, so we got to talking about our love of dystopian stories and other great YA literature.) I was delighted to find in The Giver an excellent coming-of-age story sitting atop an undercurrent of dystopia and, as the book would call it, “stirrings.” While I’m not surprised it has been so frequently challenged in schools and libraries due to certain scenes, I’m glad adolescents are exposed to it because it meets them where they are in life. Like Jonas, tweens and teens approach junctions in their lives thinking they know everything, only to be challenged, sometimes painfully, when the curtain falls and real life reveals itself.

Book 7 of 9: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky

I’ve been searching, so far in vain, for a book or movie that accurately captures my high school experience. This isn’t it, but it’s closer than most other depictions I’ve seen. Where it diverges most distinctly is the protagonist; I don’t subscribe at all to the “real men don’t cry” machismo thing, but Charlie cries so much in this story, often for no discernible reason, that I started losing some sympathy for him. Pull it together! I often thought. The epistolary style was the right narrative choice, because it was refreshingly different, and the stream-of-consciousness diary-like model is an expository format that most teenagers can relate to.

Book 6 of 9: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

A decade later, I’m still getting around to reading books I didn’t get a chance to read in high school. I’m a much bigger fan of Nineteen Eighty-Four (which I did read back then) than this one, but its focus on books and literacy is especially relevant to me after having gone to library school. The central theme seems at once antiquated and prescient, given that it was written in 1953 in response to the rise of television and McCarthy-era threats of censorship but also rings true with today’s book burnings and the dumbification of news. While the amount of and access to knowledge has never been greater thanks to the Internet, we’re losing something important in the increasing obsolescence of physical books. Books in reality aren’t being cast off out of fear, but disinterest. It’s fitting that the group of vagabonds at the end of the novel became books themselves, stand-in vessels for the knowledge being willfully destroyed. We ought to preserve as much knowledge as we can of whatever we can in whatever ways possible — through oral tradition, manuscript, digitization, or other means — and not take for granted the privilege of such knowledge. To do otherwise is folly.

Book 5 of 9: Stargirl, Jerry Spinelli

This was like a fantasy thriller disguised as a high-school YA novel. Like the protagonist, I kept trying to figure out who, or what, Stargirl was, what she would do next, and why. Whether she had a grand life plan I can’t say, but what I did figure out pretty quickly was that she was a textbook example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, a proto-Zooey Deschanel for the adolescent crowd. The ukulele and friendship with a rat were especially in keeping with the MPDG’s propensity for quirk and kindness. While a little MPDG-ness goes a long way, the moral of Stargirl’s changing favors within her peer group is a good one for teens to hear: It’s hard to see it in the moment, but you’ll regret not being yourself. (Thanks to Jenny for the recommendation.)

Book 4 of 9: Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

I get a special thrill when a book I’m reading has a word in it that’s also on my cool-word list. (This time it was crepuscular.) While this book, perhaps purposely, meandered a bit, I found the diary narrative to be pleasant and redemptive. Ames was almost too likeable and saintly, and very self-aware. But perhaps the end-of-life letters he was writing to his son brought that out in him.

Book 3 of 9: The Alchemist, Paul Coelho

It felt like my opinion of this book changed every few pages. Just when its hippyish mysticism became too Oprah to be taken seriously, Coelho dropped a surprisingly deep thought nugget that kept me reading. For example, amid talk of “listening to your heart” and discovering the Soul of the World (eye roll), the titular character tells the boy on the quest that “the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.” A bit trite, yes, but it rings true. The central fable, though anchored by a few strong key points, seems overly simplistic and eager to fit into any and every spiritual worldview. Perhaps this is an effect of the language translation from the original Portuguese, in which no doubt the story would be more beautiful. (Thanks to Nainita for the recommendation.)

Book 2 of 9: Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

Read this as a youngster but didn’t remember it, so in anticipation of the movie I thought I’d revisit it. The boy in me enjoyed the zero-gravity battleroom scenes, which seem like high-tech laser tag. The biggest hurdle to clear for me was how well-spoken the kids were. I suppose that since it’s set in the future, Card made the choice to make kids sound more adult (though I thought kids are getting dumber thanks to the Internet, or “nets” as Ender’s Game calls it), but it’s jarring nevertheless. I never really grokked Ender himself, but I cheered for his struggle against The Man and was happy with how things ended.

Book 1 of 9: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

My entrance, beside seeing Coraline, into the Gaiman oeuvre. Since I’ve nothing to compare it to, I can only say that I really enjoyed this book’s lean, loving style and deep sense of wonder. A favorite passage:

“Do you still know everything, all the time?”
She shook her head. She didn’t smile. She said, “Be boring, knowing everything. You have to give all that stuff up if you’re going to muck about here.”
“So you used to know everything?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Everybody did. I told you. It’s nothing special, knowing how things work. And you really do have to give it all up if you want to play.”
“To play what?”
“This,” she said. She waved at the house and the sky and the impossible full moon and the skeins and shawls and clusters of bright stars.

The pièce de résistance was the view I had when I finished reading:

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Ru-thi-oooo!

My great friends Tone and Brian adopted a baby this weekend. Tone wrote about the process here, detailing the long, sometimes painful but ultimately fruitful journey they took from first beginning the process last year to finally holding their first baby, Ruth Marilyn, in their arms last Friday.

When I first saw the name they decided on, I immediately began thinking about an awesome nickname I could give her. Since they call me Chacho, a name-relic of the service trip we went on together to Colombia in 2010, I knew my fake-niece needed a nickname that would pair together with Chacho well — in case we’re in a sitcom together or become a crime-fighting duo. Naturally, I arrived at Ruthio (or Ruthia), in honor of Rufio from Hook. Though Ruth is only days old, I can already tell she’ll exemplify Rufio’s wild yet virtuous nature. The perfect mixture of badassery and femininity. That’s my kind of gal.

Area Man Sad

I could see it coming, but I read the news about The Onion ceasing all print publication with sadness. Growing up in Madison, the Onion‘s hometown, and now living in Chicago, its current headquarters, I’ve had easy access to the weekly editions. Lately my Onion diet has been exclusively online, so the print copy is hardly essential to the reading experience. But I’ve often grabbed a copy before hopping on the L or the bus, which allowed me to read through whole articles rather than simply skimming the headlines, and to enjoy the little bits you don’t get online.

To go tangential: Like most younger folks these days, I get pretty much all my non-satirical news online. Really, the only time I pick up a newspaper is at my parents’ house, and that’s usually for the crossword. If I’m at the doctor’s office or the bookstore I’ll eagerly devour a print magazine, if only because I’m less liable to become distracted than if I were to read it online, just a tab away from another distracting Internet nugget (Internugget?). But besides books (no thanks, e-readers) and the occasional magazine, I’m a largely paperless information consumer. I’m OK with that, but that doesn’t mean I won’t miss carrying The Onion with me.

I’ll have onion in my dinner tonight, in loving memory.

Information In The Little Way

Rod Dreher, in his new book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, writes about his sister Ruthie’s fight with lung cancer and about his complicated relationship with his family and small-town life in Louisiana. After her diagnosis, Ruthie told her doctors and loved ones not to tell her specifics about her condition, nor even how long she should expect to live. Dreher didn’t understand why:

If I had cancer, I’d demand to know everything at once, on the theory that information is power. And then, me being me, I would surely brood over it incessantly. Ruthie, on the other hand, figured that information would be disempowering. She understood that she was in some respects living an illusion, but if she was going to live at all, she had to be able to curtain off the terror of death.

Dreher later expands on how Ruthie’s way of dealing with information that collided with her worldview or pre-existing opinions was often handicapping to her and harmful to him, but this is an instance where it seems her ruthless resolve served her well. Like Dreher, I am someone who values information-gathering for a number of reasons: to expand my mind, to gain sympathy for the other side of an argument, to weigh all consequences of a decision or action. I’ve found this trait has served me well in a number of ways.

But I also get stuck in my own head, and the constant theorizing and hand-wringing and countering my own inner arguments gets very tiresome. In a situation like Ruthie’s, throwing on more hard truths wouldn’t have helped: “All the extra information could only sap her will to resist. The truth — the whole truth, that is — would not set her free, but would make her captive to anxiety, and tempt her to despair.”

Though I’m not battling cancer, I know that the more voices and information I add to my thought-stream, the more overwhelming it seems to get. (Maybe I’m the type of person Matthew 11:28-30 is talking to.) Sometimes I would love to be more like Ruthie Leming — sure of my life’s purpose, simple in my goals, and sacrificial above all. But I’m not. At least, not always. This has been Dreher’s discovery, documented in Little Way, and will continue to be part of mine. The book contemplates what made him eager to leave his hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana, and decades later what brought him back. Ruthie’s way is central to this story, and it’s one that will stick with me for a long time.

(Meanwhile, Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative has become essential reading.)

The Glass Cockpit

spiderman-wallpapers- (1)

Is the Internet making us smarter or stupider? It’s a question Q the Podcast recently tackled in a lively and in-depth debate between lots of smart and interesting people. There is enough evidence to support both sides of the debate. But what I concluded after listening to the show was that for all of the doomsday talk about the technologies and processes that have become embedded in our digitized culture within the last decade or so, how we use the Internet is ultimately not up to the Internet.

No matter how incentivizing are the apps and social networks we frequent; nor addicting the silly games we enjoy; nor efficient the tools we use, there is still a human being making decisions in front of a screen. So while I certainly sympathize with those who profess addiction (willing or otherwise) to Tweeting or checking Facebook, I remind everyone using technology of any kind of Uncle Ben’s famous maxim: “With great power comes great responsibility.” We as autonomous, advanced-brain human beings have the power to do or not to do things. It’s a great power to have, but it also requires perseverance. The allure of instant gratification the usual Internet suspects provide won’t be defeated easily. It takes a willpower heretofore unknown to modern peoples. It takes resolve to fight temptation that is equal or greater than the temptation itself.

Do you have what it takes? Do I? Eh, it’s day to day.

But flipping this entire argument on its head is Nicholas Carr’s recent article in The Atlantic called “All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines,” which delves into the burgeoning world of automation. He writes about how we’ve become increasingly reliant on computers to perform more elaborate and complicated tasks that had previously been done by humans. The benefit of this is that we’re able to get tasks done quicker and more efficiently. The downside is that some human services are no longer required, which means the skills needed to perform those services are eroding.

Carr uses the example of airplane pilots, who have been increasingly relegated to monitoring digital screens (the “glass cockpit”) as the computers do the heavy lifting and only sometimes take the plane’s reigns. While the usefulness of autopilot is obvious, when computers take away control of the primary functions of flying they are also taking away the neurological and physiological skills pilots have honed over years of flying.

This is a problem, says Carr, because “knowing demands doing”:

One of the most remarkable things about us is also one of the easiest to overlook: each time we collide with the real, we deepen our understanding of the world and become more fully a part of it. While we’re wrestling with a difficult task, we may be motivated by an anticipation of the ends of our labor, but it’s the work itself—the means—that makes us who we are.

Computer automation, he says, disconnects the ends from the means and thereby makes getting what we want easier without having to do the work of knowing. This just about nails social media, doesn’t it? It’s so easy to get what we want these days that the work we used to have to do no longer is required of us. To research a paper in college, one had to go to the physical library and pull out a physical book and transcribe quotes by hand; now a quick Google search and copy-paste will get that done in a jiff (or is it GIF?).

This isn’t a bad thing. I’m thankful that many tasks take eons less time than they used to. (I mean, typewriters are cool, but they’re not very amenable to formatting or mistakes.) My point is it’s important to understand how and why we use technology the way we do, and to acknowledge that we have agency over that use. To disregard that agency is to refuse to accept responsibility for our own power. And we know what happens then.

12 Years A Slave

12-years-a-slave-trailer

I was having a bad day. And then I saw 12 Years A Slave and regained some perspective.

Director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s incredible memoir was remarkable in its restraint. Though a strange thing to say about a film that has been lauded for depicting the horrors of slavery accurately and harrowingly, it’s not surprising given McQueen’s adeptness in showing versus telling, and capturing a moment’s deeper truth without resorting to platitudes or judgement.

An example (with spoilers): years after being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Northup meets a white man who is serving as an indentured field hand on the same plantation. Downtrodden after years of humiliation and forced labor, Northup finally works up the courage to ask the white man whether he would be willing to send a letter for Northup without telling his plantation master. The man agrees but quickly betrays Northup, which almost gets him killed by his sadistic, mercurial master if not for Northup’s quick wit and evasion. Nonetheless, McQueen shows Northup burning the letter, focusing on his face as the light from the alit letter — his desperate grasp at liberation — slowly extinguishes, along with his dwindling hope.

It’s a small moment, played beautifully by Chiwetel Ejiofor, that in other directorial hands could have been something lesser, like the protagonist shaking his fists at the sky or angrily monologuing. Instead, it was the perfect image of what slavery’s power did to beat down the slave’s hope and determination for freedom. Northup overcomes this oppression, but he was fortunate compared to his fellow slaves. The film is full of other subtly strong moments like this, driven by a cast of heavy-hitters. It also follows Northup’s memoir very well, though I hope viewers will be compelled to go back to the book to read the details of this story in Northup’s strong literary voice.