Friday, December 29, 2006

Brett comes to Japan

(Retrospection)
A while back, I posted some pictures from Brett's visit to Japan and the Harajiri waterfall. Here are some more pictures from that week. Although it was Brett's visit, these pictures tend to be mostly of me because Brett was behind the camera. But I'm a good looking guy so I trust there are no objections.

You can see me sporting my 100 yen ($1) sunglasses in many of these pictures. My West Michigan eyes aren't used to the bright sun of Kyushu, so I always wear sunglasses in the spring and summer, even though the locals never do. Because I tend to be the kind of person who always breaks or accidentally steps on his sunglasses, I started getting all my sunglasses from the 100 yen store. At least until someone told me that not all the cheap sunglasses are UV protected, and therefore actually worse for your eyes because they cause the pupil to open up more without protecting it from UV rays. But these pictures were before I knew that, so you can see me still modelling the stylish 100 yen sunglasses.

All of these pictures were taken in my town in Ajimu. Pretty beautiful place, huh?








I still have no idea how Brett talked me into taking this picture. Especially since at the time I was sure he wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to ring the bell once I was inside. Fortunately he only took the picture, and I escaped with my ear drums intact.




















Video playlist HERE:



Useless Wikipedia Fact
McCartney was inspired to write the song "Helter Skelter" after reading a newspaper review of The Who's latest single, most likely "I Can See For Miles". The review described the single as the loudest, wildest song ever recorded, with distorted guitars, reverb, and screaming. McCartney took this as a challenge to write something louder and "Helter Skelter" was the result. Some historians of popular music believe that this song was a key influence on the development of heavy metal.

Link of the Day
Gerald Ford: The Conflicted President on Civil Rights
and
President Gerald Ford Dies at 93; Supported Indonesian Invasion of East Timor that Killed 1/3 of Population
and
Investigative Journalist Robert Parry on Gerald Ford's Legacy and the Bush Administration's Roots in the Ford White House
and
Did Gerald Ford Agree to Nixon Pardon Before Taking Office? The Nation's Victor Navasky on Ford's Memoirs and the Lawsuit that Followed

I should make it clear I don't have a Vendetta against Ford. He wasn't our worst President by far. But I do want to provide a counter-perspective to the love orgasm going on in the Grand Rapids Press this week. The GR Press has yet to mention one word of the Genocide in East Timor that Ford supported.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

(Book Review)

Since I began my commitment to read more fiction, I’ve made a point of asking people for their top 5 book recommendations. (I’m still taking recommendations if anyone has any good suggestions).

“The Remains of the Day” was at the top of the list from not just one, but two good friends. And since they were both people whose opinions and tastes I respected, I decided to give this book a try.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, although it took me a while to get into it. Because the book starts out a little slow, I had a couple false starts before I finally settled down and read the whole thing. At 20 pages in this book may seem a little dry, but if you can make it to page 75, you’ll be hooked.

Before I started this book I noticed that my friends, although they recommended it highly, were not able to tell me what it was about. The only thing I could get one of my friends to say was, “I read it when I was 25, and recognized in it all the mistakes I had made it in my own life. I re-read it at 30, and saw even more mistakes.”

And when I looked at professional reviews, I noticed the same pattern. Now that I’ve finished the book, I find myself in the same position. Because of the structure of the book, and the many themes it juggles, it doesn’t lend itself well to summary.

The book is about an English butler who takes a road trip. While encountering the various sites on the road, he spends most of the time reminiscing about his life of service to his master, Lord Darlington.

Although it is not for me to say whether or not this book will be a classic in 100 years time, it did remind me a lot of the classic books that we discussed in my high school and college literature classes. It is a very short book, and yet it manages to touch on many different themes, and is able to interweave all of these themes seamlessly into on story. If one were to use this book in a literature class, there would be no shortage of topics to discuss. The book deals with class culture in England, inter-war politics and the tendency of the British upper class to sympathize with Nazi Germany, the nature of dignity, the importance of one’s life work, the nature of relationships, and how one evaluates one's life at the end of it.

The book also manages to touch many different emotions flawlessly. There are a lot of really funny parts in this book. My personal favorite was when the Butler was given the job of explaining the birds and the bees to his employer’s 23 year old godson. But there are also a lot of sad parts in this book, and the ending is absolutely devastating. Salman Rushdie is supposed to have said of this book “A story both beautiful and cruel”, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

Definitely worth reading.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Originally titled "Maharishi", The Beatles changed the title to "Sexy Sadie" to avoid possible litigation as the song's lyrics portray the Maharishi in a less than favorable light. John Lennon became discouraged after the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had allegedly made a pass at one of the female members of their entourage. John Lennon once said about this song: "That was inspired by Maharishi. I just called him, 'Sexy Sadie,' instead of (sings) 'Maharishi what have you done, you made a fool...' I was just using the situation to write a song, rather calculatingly but also to express what I felt.

Link of the Day
Sanitizing the Death of Ford, What the Media isn't telling us

Friday, December 22, 2006

Crash by J.G. Ballard

(Book Review)

Definitely one of the more bizarre things I’ve read recently, this book deals with people who become sexually aroused by car accidents.

In describing human sexuality, a friend of mine once said: “Any possible pervasion you can possibly imagine, you can bet that there are some people somewhere who have a fetish for it and that there is an industry that caters to it.” That caveat aside, to the best of my knowledge, this car accident fetish doesn’t actually exist in reality. It is created in this book as a metaphor for the role of cars in modern life.

Ever since this book was first released in 1973,people have debated whether it is pornography or art. (According to Wikipedia one publisher's reader returned the verdict "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish.") The graphic descriptions of sex and car accidents indicate that, if nothing else, the author is trying to push the boundaries.

However beneath all of this there is a larger point. Why are we so in love with cars when they crush and maim our bodies? And when we all know someone who has been killed in a car accident, why do we keep getting back into cars?

I’m not doing a good job of conveying the feeling of the book, but like all good books this needs to be read to be truly experienced. I can’t do it justice in a summary. But after reading repeated descriptions of mangled flesh and automobile described in sexual terms, you do start do wonder: “Yeah, what is it with Americans and their cars? Is it a sexual thing?” (Technically it’s a British book, but I think it applies just as much to us Americans).

The whole book reads like Freud on steroids. It’s not subtle, but you get the point. The only thing I wonder though is did it need to be a whole book? Could not the same objective have been achieved in a short story? At 224 pages, it’s hardly a long book, and yet I felt like I got the point after the first 50, and am not sure what further benefit I got by reading all the way to the end. I also felt many of the images got repetitive.

Stylistically this book was a struggle for me. The prose was very thick (for lack of more insightful literary criticism.) Lots of unusual sentence structures, and possible overuse of the author’s thesaurus. Or, as another friend of mine observed, “He writes in that weird experimental 70s fashion.” Personally I have my doubts as to whether this was typical of the 70s or not, but you get the idea. Despite the voyeuristic content of the subject material, I had a hard time keeping my mind on the book as I struggled through. But ultimately I think a lot of this comes down to personal preference. If you enjoy these experimental type books, you’ll probably have an easier time with this than I did.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
On "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey" Musicologist, Alan W. Pollack, commented: "The shaken (cow?) bell only seems to be incessant. If you manage to track it (come on, you can do it yourself this time), you'll note how neatly it is dropped out and back in over the course of the song; typical Beatlesque attention to detail."

Link of the Day
Via Tom Tomorrow: This is what can happen to American citizens in the post 9/11 world:
Former U.S. Detainee in Iraq Recalls Torment

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Perelandra by C.S. Lewis

(Book Review)

Continuing on through Lewis’s “Space Trilogy”, this is now the second book in the series.

As Phil points out, this book is in many ways superior to its predecessor “Out of the Silent Planet”. The first book didn’t really have much of a plot other than “Man travels to new planet and encounters many strange things.” In this book, now that the set-up has been established, the story line starts to pick up a little. It does take place on a completely different planet, but many of the characters are the same: the unlikely hero Dr. Ransom, the evil Dr. Weston, and C.S. Lewis himself, who continues the conceit he established in the first book of writing himself as a minor character into his own series.

The religious themes are also a lot stronger in this book. In the previous book, only slight references are made to God or Dr. Ransom’s religious faith. The Christian overtones were there, but it was possible to ignore them and still enjoy the book, just like the Narnia Chronicles. This book, on the other hand, is very blatantly and very explicitly about spiritual warfare on another planet.

If you go into any Christian bookstore, there is a lot of Christian fiction dealing with spiritual warfare. Most of it absolute crap. (I had to read “This Present Darkness” by Frank Peretti in high school, and absolutely hated it. Also reference the “Left Behind” Series). I think spiritual warfare might be to Christian writing what sex scenes are to secular books: it’s something everyone wants to write about, but almost no one can do well.

Lewis seems to be one of the few who can do it well. Partly by keeping it simple. (There’s only one demon to keep track of here, as opposed to a whole hierarchy as in Peretti’s book). But also because Lewis has pioneered his own genre which might be labeled “Theological Science Fiction”. Lewis takes well known parts of the Christian doctrine, and uses the medium of Science Fiction to play the “what if” game with them.

In the previous book, Lewis explored a world and civilization which predated the creation and fall of man. This time it is the opposite. The world of Perelandra is younger than Earth, and asks the question: if God created again after the fall on Earth, how would his new creation be different? In this new world the story of the Garden of Eden and the temptation is reenacted, but in a different setting and with different results.

I didn’t agree with everything in this book, but I found it possible to look over what I disagreed with and still enjoy the book. In particular, Lewis has gotten a lot of criticism for his portrayal of gender roles in this book. At various points he seems to implying that God has assigned women the role of housekeeper and child bearer, and the temptation to expand from these roles is the Devil’s handiwork. But all of this is very slight, and I suspect that it wouldn’t be such a big deal if Lewis wasn’t already under fire for his portrayal of women in his other books. It's about what I expected from a book written in the 1940s. I’m sure it would be different if it were written today.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The lecture by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that inspired "Mother Nature's Son" also inspired John Lennon's unreleased song "Child of Nature," the tune of which he later re-used to completely different effect in "Jealous Guy."

Link of the Day (slash mini-rant)
U.S. first ladies to be honored on coins: Not to be outdone by their husbands, the first ladies are getting their chance to shine on the nation's coins. Starting next year, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams and all the rest will begin appearing on a new series of gold coins.
It will be the first time in history that the U.S. Mint has produced a series featuring women.

Does anyone else think this is the lamest idea ever? The US mint wants to create some diversity, and the best idea they can think of is a series of women famous for being good wives to the Presidents?
And what is this obsession with the President's and their family? Are they our royal family? Are we going to have a mint next with the daughter's of Presidents? Personally I like the idea of Japan and other countries which have artist and authors on their currency instead of politicians. Elected officials? Okay, I can live with that. The wives of elected officials? Come on!
The sad thing is, if the US mint wanted to do a series of women, there is no shortage of brave women activists in US history. I guess some of them might have been controversial, but you can't tell me anyone is rushing out to get the new Abigail Adams coin.

Message to the next generation of American Girls: Work hard, and you too might someday marry someone famous.

Friday, December 15, 2006

E-mail: August 13, 2001

(Retrospection)

Dear Bear,
I haven’t heard about Cowboy Bebop yet. Last night people were telling me about an animated Children’s show that is quite popular among Japanese children, called An Pan Man, or something like that, which apparently translates into Bread Face Man. It sounded quite strange to me, but perhaps you’ve heard something about it or other.

Yes, I am in the land of Anime I suppose. And yet I think it will be difficult to find any Anime in English, so I might have to wait until I get back to the U.S. before I start watching any of it.

The town is pretty small, about 8,000 people, and not too many people my age (although I have met a few). And I have one other Jet here too, who is a New Zealand fellow, and we’ve hung out a bit. I’ve discovered my Americanness makes me pretty popular among the locals here. For instance, last night me and Ryan (the New Zealand guy) went into a supermarket, and the owner was so happy to see us in her store that she invited us to dinner later that week. So, it’s pretty easy to keep occupied. And when I don’t have anything to do, my apartment is only about an hour’s walk away from some great hiking.

****************************************************************

Thanks for the heads up. I checked out CNN’s website after reading your e-mail. [Story relating to protests in Tokyo over controversial new Japanese text book. Also bomb went off in author’s office. Left Wing Japanese group claimed responsibility].

Funny thing, I was in Tokyo when that bomb went off and when they were having those protests. And I was completely oblivious to it. Of course, Tokyo is a huge city. Even bigger than New York. On the last night we were there we went out for food. We got on a train in Downtown Tokyo, rode for 15 minutes, go off, and we were still in the middle of Down town Tokyo.

My apartment is pretty nice actually. About as big as Rob’s current place back home. For some reason though, my predecessor absolutely hated the place. He kept telling me how small it was over the telephone. And I guess he did a lot of complaining while he was here, because everyone was afraid I would hate my apartment before I even got here. My supervisor kept asking if it was alright and apologizing for it, saying it was hard to get a bigger apartment for a single guy in the country side. The New Zealand Fellow had heard from his predecessor that “The American guy is going to be really cheezed off when he sees how small his apartment is” so even he was worried I wouldn’t like the place. In fact even the Mayor of Ajimu asked if my place was alright.

Living by myself is a bit lonely. So far I’ve been keeping busy though. I get a lot of invitations to places.

***********************************************


Dear Rob,

Yes, it is quite humid over here too. It’s probably no worse than a hot summer day in Michigan. (That is, a really hot 90 degree day). But the killer is that it is like this every day, instead of in Michigan where we might have one 90 degree day only once in a while. Fortunately my work and apartment are air-conditioned. (My apartment is actually very much like yours in terms of the way it’s laid out).

I’m in my little mountain town right now. I only spent a couple days in Tokyo actually. Tell Brett it is absolutely gorgeous over here. Be sure and rub it in a lot. Seriously though, I’m right next to a bunch of mountains, and I’m only an hour’s walk away from the top. But these mountains aren’t like Colorado or the Smokey’s or anything like that. They’re covered in bamboo plants, and have tons of weird insects and spiders. (Actually the spiders are a bit creepy).

I haven’t heard any Aerosmith since I got here, but the Beatles are quite popular. In fact the Beatles are more popular in Japan than they are in the US. I think that might be partly because of the whole thing with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, because everyone talks about John Lennon a lot. I see his picture all over the place, and I learned that John Lennon’s favorite food is Miso soup. It almost seems to be common knowledge over here. I used to read about the Beatles all the time, and I never found out Miso Soup was John Lennon’s favorite food.
[Ed. Note: Actually this e-mail is a classic case of speaking (or writing) too soon. It turns out Aerosmith is also very popular in Japan, and I would hear a lot of Aerosmith as well over my Japan time.]

I haven’t started teaching yet. It’s kind of a weird system. They don’t have anything for me to do right now, but I show up everyday to show I’m a team player (which apparently is very important in Japan). The office just lets me read or do e-mail (which is where I’m e-mailing you from right now).

******************************************************************

Dear Mom,
In regards to my mail, please save the letters from the War Resisters League. None of it is particularly important, and you certainly don’t need to forward it to me here in Japan, but it would be nice to read when I return home. As for the Sports Illustrated: Butterball signed me up for a subscription over the internet as a joke, along with Cigar Monthly, National Geographic, etc. (I think Butterball has a lot of time on his hands). Anyway, I’ve just been ignoring it, and most of the magazines gradually stop coming. Sports Illustrated is more persistent than the others, but everything is being sent to the Camelot address, so I don’t think they’ll be able to send me anything once the forwarding stops.

Things are good here. This is a brief description of what I’ve been up to since I arrived in Ajimu:
Wednesday: I actually just spent this night by myself, because the office assumed I would be tired and would want to sleep. I did some unpacking, and took a walk through the town, but it gets dark here so early that I couldn’t see much. (There’s no daylight savings time in Japan, plus the surrounding mountains block the sun earlier).

Thursday: First day of work. They don’t have anything for me to do yet, (summer vacation) but it is important that I show up because of the emphasis here on team. I just do e-mail or study Japanese. I was also introduced to everyone in the town hall. At night Issei (one of the younger guys in the office) took me out on the town with his friends.

Friday: Work, and then at night I had nothing to do, so I just went hiking in the hills around here (although again it gets dark early so I had to cut it short).

Saturday and Sunday: My supervisor had his family in town (they are usually studying in Tokyo, but he has two sons, 17 and 23–the same ages as me and Kyle). He invited me over and took me sight seeing with his family to all the scenic spots in Ajimu. Lots of Buddhist temples, much like our trip to Korea. But there are also beautiful mountain views and waterfalls. We spent all day Saturday sight seeing, but Sunday afternoon he dropped me back home early, so I just went hiking around town again. I met some Japanese college students up in the trails, and they took me around and showed the safe hiking areas. Then I hung out with Ryan (the other New Zealand Jet in my town. I had been unable to get a hold of him before then, but a 3rd year Jet from the neighboring town of Innai came over to visit, and showed me where Ryan lived).

Monday: went to work, and then hung out with Ryan in the evening. At night, Issei took me to O-bon festival (Shinto festival for the dead, lots of dancing and thinking. Even though I think most Japanese are not religious, they like the old festivals. Afterwards we had a party in the temple.)

Things are going good over here. I’m certainly getting a lot of special attention where ever I go. Last night Ryan and I just walked into a grocery store, and the owner invited us for dinner, so that’s what we’re doing Thursday. Tonight and tomorrow there is a coming of Age Ceremony, and Ryan and I are supposed to say a few words or something. To be honest I’m not really sure what we’re doing, but I’m sure it will be interesting.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Lennon apparently intended the song "Yer Blues" as a parody of British blues, but it was delivered with such spirit that it has been hard for some listeners not to take it seriously. The lyrics are extremely suicidal, and include references to Bob Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man as well as cosmology.

Link of the Day
Last night I went to the screening for Jeff Smith's new documentary. His corresponding book: " Sembramos, Comemos, Sembramos: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time" can be read on the Media Mouse site here.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Imperium by Robert Harris

(Book Review)
Now that I’ve finally finished off the last two books in McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series, I am beginning to remember why I used to be so interested in this period of history, particularly the last 100 years of the Roman Republic. With my interest officially rekindled, I began to wonder if there were any other good historical novels that dealt with the same period of time.

And then, (what perfect timing), a new historical novel “Imperium”, which chronicles the life of Cicero, just came out this fall. I don’t often like paying hardcover prices for new books, but I figured in this instance it was worth it.

This book is the life of Cicero as told from the perspective of his secretary Tiro. (According to the author’s end note, the actual Tiro really did write a biography of Cicero, but it was lost with the collapse of the Roman Empire.) At only 300 pages, this book is significantly shorter than McCullough’s books, but then it only covers a short part of Cicero’s life. Although the author does not explicitly say so, I can only assume that this is to be the first book of a larger series, because it ends before most of the major events in Cicero’s life.

The book itself has a number of serious flaws. I guess I feel about this book the same way I feel about the comic book novels I’ve recently reviewed on this blog. I was so enamored with the subject material, that I enjoyed the book in spite of its literary shortcomings. (And I will probably buy and read the sequels when they come out.) But there are a lot of serious problems with this book.

For reasons that are mystifying to me, this book got a lot of very good reviews. I think that is because the life of Cicero isn’t generally known to the average person, and I think a lot of reviewers were just really excited to be able to put some sort of story in connection with all those stuffy Cicero Latin quotes which have survived the ages.

In comparison with McCullough’s series, however, this book is definitely the poorer of the two. I will try and keep the comparisons to McCullough to a minimum, because I realize that it would only be of interest to someone like me who had read both books recently. But I got a much better picture of Cicero from her books, and her books weren’t even about Cicero. In her books, Cicero is just a supporting character in a story about Julius Caesar.

In McCullough’s books, we first meet Cicero as a 17 year old youth serving an internship in Pompey Strabo’s army. We then follow him as he makes his first appearances in Rome, takes his first court case, and meets his friend Atticus for the first time.

In Robert Harris’s book, we start when Cicero is 30, despite the fact that the narrator, Tiro, has known Cicero since childhood. All of Cicero’s life up to that point is covered in a few paragraphs, and his time in the army and his famous case defending a client accused of Patricide are virtually ignored. A great opportunity to add some depth and interest to the characters is lost.

There are several supporting characters in “Imperium” who help Cicero in his political career. His friend Atticus, his younger brother Quintus, his cousin Lucius, his protege Frugi, etc. These characters are present in most scenes (apparently they have nothing better to do but follow Cicero around) but none of them are developed at all. They’re nothing more to the reader than a bunch of names to keep track of. And what little characterization we do get is done in the worst way possible: by the narrator simply telling the reader. (Didn’t Robert Harris ever take “Creative Writing 101"? Isn’t that the cardinal sin for fiction writers?) For instance, we know Atticus was an Epicurean because the narrator states: “Atticus was an Epicurean.” Otherwise we would have no way of knowing from the story. In the same way we know Quintus Cicero is not as clever as his older brother, but more militarily inclined. It is told to us directly by the narrator, not shown in the story. And despite Quintus being in almost every scene, that’s as much characterization as he gets in the whole book.

As for the history parts:
This book ends with the election of Cicero as consul, so it doesn’t get into the Catiline conspiracy. But it does lay the ground work for it, and sets up Catiline as a pretty nasty villain. In my high school paper, I argued that Cicero exaggerated or made up many of Catiline’s crimes for his own political purposes, and that they were afterwards recorded into history. (Or rather, Lester Hutchinson argued that point, and I plagiarized him for my paper). Robert Harris seems to be taking Cicero’s allegations against Catiline at face value. Which I guess is the difference between a serious history and a historical novel. In a serious history you spend a lot of time analyzing conflicting accounts to get to the truth. In a historical novel, you are free to use which ever account best serves your dramatic purposes. And having Catiline as a great villain and, by correlation, Cicero as a great hero, definitely makes the story more exciting.

The big problem though, as Hutchinson points out, is that if all those awful allegations about Catiline were true, how in the world did he manage to stay in good graces with the aristocratic Roman Senate? And this seems to be the 500 pound Gorilla in Robert Harris’s novel. How does this psychotic, murdering, incestuous sex fiend keep moving in the snobbiest circles of the Roman aristocracy?

Also, in order to preserve the hero-villain dichotomy of the novel, Harris presents a view of history in which all of Cicero’s enemies are in conspiracy together. For example when Clodius prosecutes Catiline, Harris’s takes the unlikely explanation that both Clodius and Catiline engineered a show trial to boost their respective reputations. That’s right, Catiline arranged to have himself prosecuted, because he thought it would increase his popularity. Would it have been too much complexity to admit the possibility that Clodius could hate Cicero and also hate Catiline? Would that have been too confusing for the readers?

And then it gets worse. Harris takes the (I believe almost universally disregarded) view that Caesar and Crassus were secretly funding the Catiline conspiracy. By the time you get to the end of this book, it’s like reading the “Conspiracy Nut's Guide to Ancient Roman History”. I suppose some of this (and the discussion it generates) is all part of the fun of historical novels. But to me, it just seemed too ridiculous. All that being said, I’m still looking forward to the next volume in this series, just to see what Robert Harris’s take on events will be.

One last addendum: Robert Harris takes advantage of the post 9-11 world to draw some parrallels between ancient and modern history. The Pirate attacks, and the resulting panic in Rome and Pompey's power grab are retold in terms very reminiscent of the 9-11 terrorist attack and the resulting expansion of government power. This makes the book feel a bit more relevant to today's world. It will also date the book in 20 years time, but then I severely doubt anyone will still be reading this book in 20 years.
Update: Interview with the Robert Harris on NPR here confirms that this is indeed intentional. Not that there is much of a chance of people missing it.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
"Birthday" begins with a blues progression in A (in the form of a guitar riff doubled by the bass) with Paul singing at the top of his chest voice, "They say it's your birthday/ Well it's my birthday too, yeah!" Afterwards, a drum break lasting eight measures brings the song into Lennon's section, which rests entirely on the dominant before returning to a third section, sung by McCartney. It is among the latter's most intense vocal performances due to the range in which he sings during the blues run. The female backing vocals that sing the "birthday" were performed by Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman and Patti Harrison.

Link of the Day
What the media aren't telling you about the Iraq Study Group report

And, via Phil's Blog:
From This Month's Harper's Index"Amount a 2006 defense bill authorized for a daylong "celebration" of "success" in Iraq and Afghanistan: $20,000,000""Date on which the authorization was extended to 2007: 9/30/06"
I wonder how many teachers we could've afforded with that 20 mill alotted for propaganda. Not very convincing propaganda, most likely.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The October Horse by Colleen McCullough


(Book Review)
Now that I’ve read the last book in McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series, I first want to say how much I’ve enjoyed this series. In my review of the previous book, I mentioned several quibbles I had, and I stand by those, but they are after all only quibbles. On the whole this is a fantastic series.

Granted it’s not for everyone. Hard as it may be to believe, there are some people who have no interest in history, and I imagine they would lose interest in this very fast. But if you have even the slightest interest in history, if you’ve ever enjoyed a good historical novel, I can’t recommend these books enough. They’re well written with vivid characters. You’ll learn a ton about Roman history, and you’ll have fun doing it. They are long books, but you don’t have to read them all at once. I took a 10 year break in between books 4 and 5 in the series, and had very little problem getting right back into it. Because these are historical novels, and not straight histories, the characters and events of the previous books remained vivid enough in my mind even after 10 years. Which is the beauty of learning history through novels. It sticks in your mind a lot longer.

My only complaint is that McCullough has ended the series here with the formation of the second Triumvirate. The true end of the Republic wasn’t until Augustus defeated Antony and assumed power. It would have been nice if she would have continued just a little farther to bring closure to her series on the fall of the Roman Republic. But I guess if we want to get technical about it, she really should have started the series 50 years earlier with the Gracchi brothers. (Actually according to Wikipedia, McCullough has relented to fan pressure, and is currently writing one last book in this series. So at least I have that to look forward to.)

Now onto the specifics of this particular volume:
Because this book deals with the assassination of Julius Caesar and the love life of Cleopatra, more so than any previous book in the series it deals with events already very familiar through Shakespeare and Hollywood. McCullough presents a different view of these events than the one we are accustomed to. She defends some of her choices in the afterward to her book.

For instance, Julius Caesar never utters the words “Et Tu, Brute?” According to ancient sources, Caesar was silent at his death. Cleopatra is not the exotic beauty she is often portrayed as in Hollywood, but an awkward gangly teenage girl. Marc Antony is depicted as originally being in on the plot to assassinate Caesar. Brutus and Cassius are not the charming men they appear as in Shakespeare, but men who are perfectly content to loot, pillage and burn Greece and Asia Minor in order to fund their war against Marc Antony.

I remember one of my Latin professors at Calvin once made a big deal of the fact that, contrary to popular conception, Brutus and Cassius were not in fact killed in retaliation for the murder of Julius Caesar. Rather after the assassination, a general amnesty was offered to all the conspirators. It was for other reasons that the uneasy peace collapsed and civil war began. The reasons for the collapse of peace can be pretty confusing, but McCullough does a good job of thoroughly covering this step by step in her book.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
"Julia" was written for John's mother Julia Lennon, who was struck by a car driven by a drunk policeman in 1958. It was also written for his wife Yoko Ono, whose first name, which literally means "child of the sea" in Japanese (洋子), is echoed in lyrics such as "Oceanchild, calls me."

Link of the Day
Antiwar Vietnam Vets Mentor Next Generation of Resisters
About 8,000 soldiers have gone AWOL since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and many of them are looking to their predecessors for support.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Revolutionary by Hans Koningsberg


(Book Review)

This book is an attempt to capture the psych of the typical revolutionary. It is often compared to Camus’s “The Rebel” and Malraux’s “Man’s Fate.”

I’ve not yet read “The Rebel” (add that to my reading list), “Man’s Fate” is one of my favorite books of all time. It is about the Chinese Communist’s defeat in Shanghai 1927. (I first read it as part of my “Western Perceptions of China” class, the same class in which I was first exposed to Fu-Manchu.)

Like “The Revolutionary”, “Man’s Fate” attempts to capture the confusion and disillusions of the revolutionary. But much of the genius of “Man’s Fate” is that it is attached to a real historical event. By contrast, “The Revolutionary” occurs no where. It takes place in an unnamed country, at an unspecified time, in an unknown city. The political parties are referred to simply as “The Radical Party” or “The Reds” and the main character is known simply as “A.” The idea is that it can be taken to refer to any revolutionary at any given time.

I’m told (although some of you literary types might be able to correct me on this) that at one time it used to be stylish for writers to write novels without any specific setting. Personally I think this book would have been a lot better if, life “Man’s Fate” it had been connected to an actual historical event. But that being said, this book is not as bad as it sounds. A good writer can draw the reader into even a non-existent world, and I think Koningsberger does a good job of making “A.” seem like a real person.

The book deals a lot with the disconnect between the romantic dreams of revolution, and the day to day drudgery of working late in a print shop or waiting in the freezing cold at a rendevous point. Although I would be flattering myself to claim the title of a revolutionary, I think everyone who has been involved in activism can identify with this to some extent. As A. Explains near the end of the book,
“You mustn’t be disappointed. I know this is not the way you’d expect things to be. Me neither. It’s hard to explain...from a distance, when you’re sort of floating above it all, it seems so simple, just a matter of being determined. But then the closer you are, the more complicated it is. You get lost in details.”

This book was made into a film in 1970, starring Jon Voight and Robert Duvall. I've never seen the film, but appearently it made Roger Ebert's top 10 list for that year.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The recording session for the song "I Will" turned into a jam session, producing the short "Can you take me back"-segment that introduces "Revolution 9" on most versions of the album, as well as "Los Paranoias" (released on Anthology 3). This quiet song required 67 takes

Link of the Day
More Japanese Music.

君といつまでも--This is one of my favorite Japanese songs, although I didn't care for it the first time I heard it. Maybe it's one of those songs that has to grow on you. I put it on my mixed cassette tape just to fill up space, but then one night when I took a wrong turn in the country side and was driving around at night surrounded by just empty rice fields, this song came on. I think to fully appreciate it you have to listen to it with that kind of atmosphere in mind.
A couple notes about this video: first of all it has a long introduction, so you can just skip 2:10 minutes into it to hear the actual song if you're impatient.
Secondly, obviously this is a later performance when the singers are a bit older. But the song sounds almost exactly the same as on the original recording.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis


(Book Review)

Yet another book which has been on my list for a long time, I’m finally getting around to reading C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy.

Interestingly enough, C.S. Lewis begins this book by acknowledging his debt to H.G. Wells. H.G. Wells was one of my favorite science fiction authors as a child, but one does not often associate the socialist, atheist Wells with C.S. Lewis. However if nothing else the styles of both authors are very similar. In both of their writings, the voice of the narrator is very strong.

Obviously the nature of popular fiction has changed over the years. Most contemporary fiction relies heavily on dialogue and the voice of the characters to further the plot. Lewis and Wells instead rely much more on the voice of the narrator (as some of you may remember from childhood and the Narnia books). Since it was a long time since I read Narnia, I found this style a bit jarring at first, but it grew on me as I stuck with the book.

Like many children, I grew up with Lewis’s Narnia series, and only afterwards realized the religious symbolism in the books. As an adult, I catch onto it much more quickly, and there are a lot of religious themes in Lewis’s books (to state the obvious). I wouldn’t call Lewis’s religious themes subtle, but it wasn’t overbearing either. It’s definitely a lot better than the “Left Behind” series. Lewis avoids a lot of sermonizing and preaching in his books.

Instead, the philosopher theologian in Lewis explores a lot of interesting questions. Like, how do Angels talk without physical bodies? I mean how do they manipulate sound waves without a physical device?

Or, if you grew up in the church, and if you were a science fiction fan, perhaps you used to wonder, “If there is life on other planets, did they experience sin like we on earth did, or are they still in the Garden of Eden pre-fall stage. And if so, what would happen if they ever interacted with our earth?” I know I used to ask that question a lot in Sunday School. I never did get a good answer back then, but Lewis posits one possibility in this book about what might occur.

There's not much of a plot to this book. A man goes to Mars, he sees many interesting things and learns about an alien race, and he comes back. There is a certain wonder at a new world lived through the eyes of the main character, but it's nothing science fiction fans haven't already seen many times before. I'm assuming this book is mainly just the set up for the rest of the books in the trilogy. In fact in the afterward, Lewis pretty much says as much.

On a side note: Phil once said in his blog, “When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, I argued endlessly (and predictably) with my parents about what's appropriate to describe: Should characters be depicted in the act of cussing? violence? sex? Since I was raised fundamentalist I actually felt like I had to expend energy defending the position that not every character in a work of fiction needs to talk and act like a nun.

Since I had a similar background, I thought it was interesting that Lewis used the words: "damn", "hell", "God", and "Lord" as exclamations in this book. Nothing compared to the latest rap albums I’ll grant you, but it would have been more than enough to get me disciplined at the Christian Middle school I attended.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
"Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" is a simple twelve-bar blues song, featuring a constant hammering on the piano topped by McCartney's increasingly histrionic singing. It may be an attempt by McCartney to imitate or parody John Lennon's raw, stripped-down songs such as "Yer Blues" or "Don't Let Me Down." Paul played all the instruments himself (except for the drums, performed by Ringo Starr), and recorded the song without the other Beatles. John was upset that Paul would do a song as controversial as this without him, and most likely this contributed to growing tensions within the band. It is rumored that this sparked his interest to produce Revolution 9 with Yoko.
Lennon was said to have been fond of sarcastically citing "Why Don't We Do it in the Road" as the "best song Paul ever wrote."


Link of the Day
More Japanese Music.
あの人の手紙 "The letter from that Guy". From 1972 during the new folk music revival in Japan. Check it out here. I think you'll agree it's pretty catchy. The guy on the left is actually from Oita Prefecture.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Sept. 5, 1990 "What I did this summer"

(Retrospection)

Yet another "What I did this summer" essay in which I was really struggling to find something to write. (I must have led a boring life as a middle school student).
The highlight of my summers was always when my cousins came up to visit, so I usually tried to work that into these essays (as with the previous example).
My family had the habit of going up every summer for one week to "Portage Lake Family Bible Camp". This summer (1990) my cousins and their parents joined us for the week.

There was also a 3rd family, with whom we always did our vacations together. They had 3 kids, including two little girls about the age of my youngest sister.


The playful wrestling of pre-teen boys, like sarcasm over e-mail, is something that can be easily misinterpreted when written down. Or in other words, even though I wrote this down in dramatic language, everyone was only playing here. Even the little girls, who acted a bit like the ball is to a football game for our purposes, were having a lot of fun. If they stopped having fun at any point, they could always leave and go find an adult to tattle on us, a tactic that they had absolutely no qualms about resorting to.


This summer my family and I went to a family camp called Portage Lake Covenant Bible camp. My cousins came there also, and our two familys shared a cabin together with a third family. My cousins are named Brian and Jeff.

Jeff is ten years old and Brian beats him up all the time. I don't know how he gets away with it. His parents don't even seem to mind. I wish my parents would let me do that to my sister sometimes.

Brian is twelve years old and is older than me by a week and a half. But he is a lot stronger than I am.

One day my sister, Jessica, who is 5, and her friend Kathryn, who is 6, were playing on the camp swing set. Brian, Jeff, and I were walking around and talking. Brian decided to chase Jessica and Kathryn. He sneeked up behind them and started chasing them. Jeff and I went on talking. As Brian chased the two girls, two boys, about 5 or 6, watched with interested. They cheered for and occasionally helped Brian.

Soon, Brian caught Kathryn and put her in "the closet". "The closet" is a small room that is part of the playground, next to the swing set and right below the slide. It has only one exit, which is a door. Brian closed the door, and leaned against it so that Kathryn could not get out.

"Joel, help!" she yelled. I thought it would be funny if I let her out. I went up to the door, and tugged on the handle to open it as Brian pushed to keep it closed. We struggled for a bit, but eventually I was able to get the door opened just enough for Kathryn to squeeze out. She ran as fast as she could back to the cabin.

Brian of course knew that I had only done this to bug him. He said that because I had let her out, I had to go catch her again. Fair enough, I thought. So I ran after her. Brian, meanwhile, continued chasing Jessica around the swing set.

Jeff also ran after Kathryn. But Jeff was trying to protect the girls from Brian. I thought that I would join Jeff and help the girls. As soon as we got out of Brian's line of vision, I called out to Kathryn to wait up. She had heard Brian tell me to catch her, so she didn't trust me and kept running. Just as I was about to catch up to her, she got inside the cabin and locked herself inside.

Through the screen window, I told her I was on her side. Jeff, who had also decided to help the girls, was right next to me at this point, but he didn't believe me either because he had also heard Brian tell me to get Kathryn. Jeff told Kathryn not to believe me. The only way I could make either of them believe me was by reminding them that I was the one who had freed Kathryn in the first place.

Jeff and I told her that we were going to rescue Jessica and to keep the door unlocked so Jessica could get in. Brian wouldn't have been allowed in the other girl's cabin without permission, so we didn't need to worry about that.

Jeff and I ran back to Brian. The two little boys had now joined Brian's team, and became his helpers. Brian had just caught Jessica
"Did you catch Kathryn?" asked Brian.
"She got away," I said. Then I jumped at Brian and pried his hands of off Jessica. Then Jeff, Jessica and I ran off with Brian right behind us.

Jeff and I had to go at Jessica's pace, while Brian ran as fast as he could. So when we reached Kathryn's cabin, we had just enough time to push Jessica in but not enough time to get in ourselves. Brian grabbed hold of me and, try as I might, I could not get free. I heard Kathryn lock the door, which I didn't like because now even if I did free myself from Brian, I wouldn't be able to get to the safety of the cabin. Brian knew what I was thinking, and he laughed.

"Unlock the door," I called out. Immediately someon did. Brian's two little helpers had caught up to us by this time. Jeff rammed himself into Brian. Brian let go of me and grabbed Jeff, and I was able to run inside the cabin.

Kathryn and Jessica were sitting on the bed and as Jeff was struggling to get free Kathryn yelled at Brian, "Let him go! You let him go!"

I led both girls around to the back of the cabin where Brian couldn't see us, and snuck them out the back door, and then into the back door of our cabin.

"Stay there!" I told them. "I'll be back in a minute," and I ran to where Brian was and charged at him. I got Jeff free, and we both ran to were Jessica and Kathryn where. I told them that I had freed Jeff and to stay where they were until further notice.

Then one of Brian's helpers saw us talking to her. "She's in there!" he said to Brian, pointing at the cabin. Brian and the other helper appeared. I sent Jeff in with the girls and told them to get away from the doors. Jeff left and ran towards the front. Briant ran towards the front too. "Keep them away from the front," I yelled. "That's where Brian is."

I ran to the front and found Brian had captured both girls. He took them back to his the prison and and didn't let them out. Me and Jeff got tired of playing, and the girls were on their own.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
"Don't Pass Me By" was Ringo Starr's first solo composition and he sang lead on this song, which apparently became a #1 hit in Sweden. Its earliest mention seems to be off a BBC chatter session introducing "And I Love Her" on the Top Gear program in 1964. In the conversation, Starr is asked if he wrote a song and McCartney proceeded to mock it soon after, but the song is unmistakably Don't Pass Me By with very slightly different lyrics. The song has a very predictable 3-chord blues structure, of the root, fourth, and fifth, with the chorus having the same chords and rhythm as the verse, apparently leading McCartney to mock it. The fact that it wasn't recorded until 1968 contributed to Starr temporarily quitting The Beatles during the White Album sessions. Ringo Starr refused to do more than one take on this song, thus getting all the mess ups on the album itself.

Link of the Day
An Article in USA Today on the Quran controversy:
The decision by incoming Rep. Keith Ellison -- who will be the first Muslim member of Congress -- to be sworn in on a Quran has lit up the blogosphere since radio talk show host Dennis Prager wrote in his Townhall.com blog Tuesday that the Minnesota Democrat "should not be allowed to do so -- not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization."
conservative bloggers jumped on the story this week with both feet, prompted in part by an "ActionAlert" from the American Family Association calling on them to "send an email asking your U.S. Representative and Senators to pass a law making the Bible the book used in the swearing-in ceremony of representatives and senators."

Also a previous article below
He should not be allowed to do so," Prager wrote, "not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American culture."
He said Ellison, a convert from Catholicism, should swear on a Christian Bible -- which "America holds as its holiest book. … If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress."
The post generated nearly 800 comments on Townhall.com and sparked a tempest in the conservative blogosphere. Many who posted comments called the United States a Christian country and said Muslims are beginning to gain too much influence
.

This is part of the duel strategy of the Religious right. On one hand they complain that Christians are the most made fun of and persecuted religion in the US. On the other hand, they try and force their way religion down everyone else's throats. And then they claim persecution when someone (Simpsons, South Park, Sunset Boulevard) satirizes them for persecuting others.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy


(Book Review)

Yet another infamous epic Russian novel. I suppose like most people, I tend to group all these long 19th Century Russian novels together. For me, “Anna Karenina” falls in the same category as “Crime and Punishment”. I don’t know if that’s fair or not. Perhaps its just my ignorant American bias. I know Tolstoy and Dostoevsky differed politically, but the structures of their novel seem similar. And my reaction to their novels is pretty similar as well.

“Anna Karenina” is often described as the story of a married woman caught in an adulterous affair. Just like the plot of “Crime and Punishment” is often described simply as a young student who commits murder. I think the initial reaction of most people is, “Wow, these books must be pretty boring? How can so many pages be devoted to such a simple plot.”

But once you start reading both books, you find that there are a lot of subplots. You also find that, despite occurring over 100 years ago in another continent, both books seem to accurately capture a number of facets of human nature. You find yourself thinking that characters in the book sound like people you know in real life. And that the thought processes of the characters sound a lot like your own thought processes.

And just when you’re starting to enjoy these books, and think, “Hey, these epic Russian classics aren’t so bad after all,” then about 200 or 300 pages into the book, you realize that all the set up for the plot is complete, and the story isn’t moving forward anymore. Instead, what you have for another 400 or 500 pages is just the situation slowly simmering as the characters think over what to do, or discuss with each other.

And if you’re like me, somewhere along the line you begin to loose your patience and say, “Oh for the love of Pete, will you just get to the end already?”

But that’s just me. Maybe you’re a little more sophisticated. I guess the thing with these kind of Russian novels is that you don’t read them for their plot. You read them for the philosophy contained inside. And if you’re a deep thinker or have an appreciation for philosophy, you’ll do fine. If you’re like me, and get antsy when 100 pages go by without some sort of train crash or explosion, then this isn’t the book for you.
As most people already know, this is the story of a married woman who falls in love with another man and has an affair. Although there are several sub-plots, as mentioned above. Thematically Tolstoy uses some of these to set up alternative examples of marriage. But he also uses these various sub-plots to show how one adultrous affair between two people has ripple effects outwards into the lives of many others.

The affair results in multiple tragedies, although it is unclear (or at least unclear to me) if Tolstoy is criticizing the selfishness of the adultrous couple, or if he is criticizing the strict social customs and rules at the time which make this affair into such a big deal. Maybe a little bit of both.

Since this novel was written in the 19th century, during a period of upheavel in Russia and European history, there is also a lot of questions about class and the relationship of the landowners to the peasants. These must have been burning questions at the time, because every 19th Century Russian novel I've read so far has dealt with these issues. From a contemporary standpoint, much of this is now just historical interest. If you're a history geek like me, you might find this the most interesting part of the book.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Some claim that the song "Rocky Racoon" is a parody of a Bob Dylan ballad, much like "Back in the USSR" is a parody of The Beach Boys. The Old West-style honky-tonk piano was played by producer George Martin.

Link of the Day
I haven't been watching the Simpsons the past couple weeks, but according to this video clip here, and the article following, it looks like they've been taking on the Iraq War and Army Recruiting

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Part 2: The Reunion Itself

I think most of us go into high school reunions with an agenda. “I’m going to show everyone that I’m no longer this way,” or “I’m going to show them that I’ve become this.” I had a bunch of conflicting agendas running through my brain, but the moment I walked in the door I forgot everything as I was warmly greeted, and at once began the handshaking, the backslapping, the bear hugs, and the How the hell are you’s.

Rereading over the previous post, I hope I didn’t come off as bitter. Like I said, it was an endeavor doomed to failure to write up a summary of high school. What I was trying to get across was that, yes, I was shy and socially awkward and high school was a difficult time, but that wasn’t the fault of my classmates. In fact I always felt that given my extreme shyness, I was treated with more kindness than I had any right to expect.

In fact one of the main reasons I went to Calvin was to keep in touch with my former high school classmates, as silly as that sounds now. It’s well known that every year Calvin takes 50% or so of every graduating class from Grand Rapids Christian. Once I actually got to Calvin, I found that within a few months I was identifying much stronger with the people in my dorm than the people from my high school, but I still saw the old gang around everywhere I went. As someone said at the reunion, “It’s a good thing nobody organized a 5 year reunion. There would have been no point. It would have been like, ‘So what are you doing? Oh, that’s right, you were in my religion class last semester.’”

Then again, 50% is only 50%. There’s another half of the class that mostly dropped off the face of the earth after graduation. And it was really good to see a lot of them again.

High school angst or post-high school angst aside, the biggest problem of a high school reunion is the politics of cocktail parties. How to be able to work the room, talk to everyone you want to talk to, have meaningful yet short conversations with several people, don’t overstay your welcome in any one conversation, and when the time comes be able to break off smoothly and go to the next conversation. Not my strong points any of them. I did my best, but there were several moments that felt a bit awkward or could have been smoother. On one hand, I felt like there were several people I would have liked to talk to, but never found the opportunity. On the other, there were a few moments when I felt like I was awkwardly standing with my drink in hand trying to force my way into a group that really didn’t want me there. High school all over again.

Certainly I think we were all really sick of repeating the same conversation over and over again by the time the night was over. And the acoustics of the room required me to raise my voice to be heard each time.

I’ve mentioned this before, but often I find that other people find my experience of teaching in Japan more impressive than it really is. It’s a cush job that requires virtually no talent other than being a native English speaker and a college graduate. Most people do it because they don’t know what else to do with their life and it’s a way to put off the real world for a year. And often with JET or English teaching communities in Japan, the longer you stay, the more of a loser you are.

And yet to the layman, not only does teaching in Japan sound really impressive, but the longer you’ve been there, the more impressive it sounds. I’m certainly not the only one of my classmates whose traveled over the past 10 years, but I’m the only one who put in 5 years in the same country. So a lot of people were really impressed. In fact my name was the answer to one of the questions in the ice-breaking game. (“Which one of our classmates spent 5 years in Japan?”)

I was also of course famous for the fake update I sent in to the alumni magazine a couple years ago. (The sequel, unfortunately, never got printed). Most people realized it was a joke. A few had been genuinely concerned about me (which I felt slightly guilty about). Of course, when you think about it the amazing thing is that I was the only one who had a little fun with the alumni magazine. Doesn’t it seem like the kind of thing more people would be trying to pull?

In addition to having a bunch of short conversations with people I wanted to talk longer too, I had a couple of long conversations with people I barely knew in high school. It felt a bit strange maybe, but it was really good.

There were also two people from my high school class who had died since graduation. They were too young to die, but I could list a lot more people I know who were too young to die, and I’m sure you can too. What really shocked me is the fact that a high school classmate can die, and I can go for a year and a half without hearing about it. I guess that’s what happens when you lose touch, but after spending 4 years seeing these people every day, it just seems weird.

All in all, I’m very glad I went. Some of these people I might not see again for another 10 years, but it was good to reconnect.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Though Harrison intended the song "Piggies" as social commentary, it was often misinterpreted as an anti-police anthem. Charles Manson, who misinterpreted many of songs from The White Album to justify his murders, took the phrase, "what they need's a damn good whacking", to mean that he should attack the American police. During the murders of Sharon Tate, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca and others, knives and forks were used to stab them because these utensils were mentioned in the song. The words "pig and piggy," were written with the victims' blood on the walls. Harrison was horrified when he learned his song took on another meaning

Link of the Day
Here's a clip of youtube clip from the infamous "Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus". This was a 1968 television special with the who, Rolling Stones, John Lennon, and Eric Clapton that was never aired because the Rolling Stones thought "The Who" had outperformed them. (wikipedia article here) This particle clip is an interview between John Lennon and Mick Jagger, plus "Yer Blues" song by the supergroup consisting of John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell and Yoko Ono. How cool is that? (Same video also on Google, if that works better for you)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

High School Reunion

It feels like my life is devolving into cliches. I mean a high school reunion is a pretty standard cultural cliche isn’t it? If my life was a sitcom, this would be a standard episode (probably somewhere around the 6th season when the writers were beginning to run out of ideas).

It’s not hard to see why high school reunions have become standard fodder for sitcoms and movies. There’s a lot of emotions present and a lot of different ways you could go with this. You could go the old, “Has it really been 10 years already? Where has time gone? I feel like I’m still 18 at heart,” option.
Or you could go for the classic “What have I done with my life? I was supposed to have everything all sorted out by now and be rich and famous and show up all those people who wouldn’t talk to me in high school.”
Or you could just relive high school angst. High school is a pretty sucky time of life, and I think most of us spend the rest of our lives trying to recover in one way or another from high school.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the first few options because they popped up on this blog before in various incarnations. And from reading your blogs I know I’m in good company on most of this. I guess it’s all something we’re dealing with as we go through our 20s.

I once read in a psychology textbook that time does actually go faster as you get older. The reasoning being that when you’re young you’ve got less time behind you and so a year is a comparatively long part of your life. The more years you’ve lived, the less of a percent each year becomes, and the years seem like they go by faster.

In addition to this, let me add my own personal theory that life starts to go faster because you have less milestones to mark it by. When you’re in high school, every year is distinct. Freshman year is different that Sophomore year, and Junior year when you get the driving license is certainly a lot more different than both. Whereas the 5 years I spent in Japan all kind of run together in my memory as one lump. This is why, for example, the 3 years I spent in middle school from 6th through 8th grade seemed like a mini-eternity for me, but the 3 years in which I watched my Japanese students make the same journey just flew by.

Also in addition to the outer milestones, we develop inwardly as well. When you’re 17, you listen to different music and have different tastes than when you’re 14.
But when I think of my 18 year old self, that is more or less who I am today. Sure I’ve refined a bit, smoothed out a few rough edges, and hopefully added some new levels of my sophistication to my thinking, but at the base level that is when I first started to emerge as the person I am today.

I think part of being in our 20s is that for the first time we realize that time is now passing faster than it used to, and we have to make our peace with it. Which is why the blogosphere is filled with 20 somethings writing on this exact same topic. Search “Quarter-Life Crisis” on blogger and see how many thousands of entries you get. (41,140 the last time I checked).

Okay, that angle put to bed, let me see if I can tackle the high school angst one. Accurately summing up high school experience is an endeavor always doomed to failure, but I’ll have a crack at it anyway.

Phil Christman had a blog entry this summer about the invitation he received to his high school reunion, and the emotions it provoked. I could really identify with a lot of it.

Although if I’m honest with myself, most of my own high school angst was not the result of being tormented by philistine classmates, but because of my own social awkwardness. Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone (we all know some people were actively persecuted in high school) but I think for many of us there is a danger of projecting the blame for a less than perfect high school experience outward onto former classmates.

And for that matter, I think most of my high school angst is actually post high school angst that I’ve retrospectively put into my memories. I mean, sure, I was a huge geek in high school. I was shy, I couldn’t talk to girls, and I spent my weekends watching “Star Trek”, reading comic books, and listening to The Beatles. But you know at the time I was perfectly happy being a geek, reading comic books, and listening to The Beatles. These were activities I did because I enjoyed them. I may have wished that I could be more popular, etc, but I had the natural optimism of all teenagers that eventually everything was just going to work out perfect, and by the time I was a little bit older I’d have life all figured out.

Later on I realized that while I had been huddled away in my room reading comic books, many of my classmates had been out partying and having various “Dazed and Confused” style adventures. And if not that, at least most of them had been having some social life in some form. And then I felt a tremendous sense of having missed out.

(This is a large reason why in college I was so concerned about not wasting any time by not watching any TV, not reading any books that weren’t for class, and in general not doing any passive activities at all. I guess I have a tendency to go from one extreme to the other. I know this rigidness drove a lot of you crazy back at Calvin, so sorry about that. )

Geography and private schools were also a factor in my feeling of isolation. My siblings and I all grew up in the private Christian schools. When each of us reached middle school, I think we all complained at one time or another that everyone at school knows each other from the Christian Reformed Church, and everyone at the Covenant Church we attended knows each other from the local public schools.

The same complaint was true to a lesser degree in high school, although once we moved on from the local Christian middle school to the big Christian high school, geography also became a factor. Where we lived, in the suburbs of Cascade, was considered the boondocks from the perspective of Grand Rapids Christian High. I got the sense (true or not) that everyone lived in the same neighborhood except for the 30 of us who came from Cascade/Ada.

(While I was in Japan, I really started to envy the neighborhood schools that my students had. They would walk home from school with their friends, and if they wanted to visit a friend’s house, they didn’t have to ask for a ride from their parents, they could just bike over. Even now that I’m back in my old neighborhood, I feel jealous when I see kids all walking home from school in a group. Or biking to each others house. Or running into each other at the local library or supermarket.)

Freshman year was really rough for me, as I guess it is for a lot of people. My little group from middle school didn’t stay together, and I was without any friends. While I was perfectly happy to stay home and watch “Star Trek” on Friday nights, the big problem was where to stand during noon break. Real friends would have been nice, but when everyone was hanging around I just wanted a group I could be part of to stand in. There’s nothing more awkward than standing alone.

For whatever reason (I’d try to theorize a reason, but I still don’t know why) things started to get better as I moved through the grades. By Junior year I noticed people were willing to tolerate me standing in their group. By Senior year I even started to get invitations to parties and stuff on the weekends. Some of this was because people found the quirks in my personality funny, but it seemed in a benign way and I felt they were laughing with me instead of at me. I even started to play up some of these quirks and make a bit of clown out of myself.

I even voted on the homecoming court senior year (which is one of those meaningless honors which somehow means so much at the time), at the end of the year I was selected to represent my class by speaking at the Senior Chapel, and I was voted by my classmates the friendliest person in the class of 96. But for all that, I didn’t have a single good friend in high school, or anyone I’ve kept in touch with in the years following.

I don’t know if Jared English remembers this, but he once quizzed a former high school classmate of mine, (or actually she was a year below me) what I was like in high school. She responded, “Oh, we all thought Joel was so funny. He actually thought he was popular by his senior year.” When Jared reported this back to me, any embarrassment or hurt I might have felt by this were vastly outweighed by the pride that a girl I didn’t even know existed in high school had been paying attention to what I had been doing. (You could argue this is negative attention, but then if you attempt to make that distinction, you obviously don’t understand the male mind).

Joking aside, there is probably a lot of truth in her assessment. Once I discovered I was socially climbing, I tried too hard to work my way into what I thought were the popular cliques. As much as I might like to make myself out as the good guy, I played the game as much as anyone in high school: try to be one of the popular and attractive people, and if that doesn’t work, than try to always stand next to them so that you can at least fool other people.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
McCartney revealed on PBS's Great Performances (Paul McCartney: Chaos and Creation at Abbey Road), aired in 2006, that the guitar accompaniment for Blackbird was inspired by Bach's Bouree, a well known classical guitar piece. As kids, he and George Harrison tried to learn Bouree as a "show off " piece. Bouree is distinguished by melody and bass notes played simutaneously on the upper and lower strings. McCartney adapted a segment of Bouree as the opening of Blackbird, and carried the musical idea throughout the song.

Link of the Day
Bill Threatens Public Access and Net Neutrality in Michigan

Monday, November 27, 2006

Thanksgiving Day Weekend

This past weekend has been very busy around here to say the least. I had my first American Thanksgiving in 5 years, we met with not one, but both sides of the family, I saw some cousins who I had not seen in 5 and 10 years respectively, and met some new members of the extended family for the first time. Plus I had the infamous 10 year high school reunion on Saturday.

In order to give all of these developments full space, and develop the long winded posts for which this blog is famous, I’ve decided to break these up into separate entries and post over the next couple days.

To begin with, it is nice to finally be back in the US for Thanksgiving Day holiday. (After my entry on the 4th of July, I guess I’m gradually working my way through the Calender of all the holidays I haven’t been around for during the past 5 years). However us ex-patriots always did what we could to celebrate in Japan. It was tough being away from friends and family back home, but on the other hand there is a strong sense of comradery with the other ex-pats that makes the experience enjoyable. I’m sure many of you who have been away from home during the holidays can identify with this. (Rob Patton, who lived too far away to make it home, used to always talk about all the fun he had bonding with the other Boer-Bennick people stuck in the dorms during Thanksgiving Weekend.) The Thanksgiving Dinners in Japan, and for that matter the couple of Christmases I spent in Japan, are among my best memories.

In fact among the various English speaking JETs we found excuses to celebrate several times once we added in the Canadian Thanksgiving and Guy Fawkes Day. American turkey and pumpkin pie were always hard to find in Japan, but last year in particular someone had connections and was able to pull it off....

....Which actually was the cause of severe disagreement after some British JETs insisted that this thing we Americans call pumpkin pie is actually pumpkin mousse. This touched off a long and heated discussion over exactly what the definition of a pie is. The British insisted that a proper pie had to have crust on both the bottom and the top. Several dictionaries were consulted, and in the end everyone finally agreed that at least some definitions of pie only have crust on the bottom.

This year back in America such heated debates were absent from the dinner table. Instead the relatives came over, and the usual old stories were rehashed.

Maybe this is a sign that I’m getting old, but I’m starting to actually look forward to family gatherings. The cousins who used to be annoying little kids are now all pleasant young people in their 20s. And the older adults are starting to seem more like real people to me, and less like, well, adults.

In particular, I was glad to see my cousins Brian and Jeff, who I have not seen for many years. Growing up, they were the only cousins who lived out of state, so I would see them maybe twice a year in a good year. I’ve always thought that if it wasn’t for the geographical distance, they would have been my best friends growing up. (On the other hand, maybe the novelty is what made them appealing. If I had seen them all the time, maybe we would have gotten sick of each other and started quarreling. You never know. )

At any rate, after they moved to North Carolina, and I went to Japan, I haven’t seen them years. (5 years in the case of Brian, 10 years in the case of Jeff.) Nor had I meant Jeff’s wife, or Brian’s kid.

Jeff actually spent a year in Japan overlapping the time I was there. In retrospect I can’t believe we never got together during that time, but we didn’t. I sent a few e-mails, and once I got a hold of his phone number left a few messages with his roommate. When I didn’t get a response I just thought, “Well, screw it, I tried.” If I had known it would be another 5 years before I got an opportunity to see him, I would have tried harder.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The song "I'm So Tired" was recorded at three in the morning, which enhances the sentiment.
The song also mentions famed English author and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh by name, calling him a "stupid git" for bringing the tobacco plant to England.


Link of the Day
From Media Mouse:
The news media has been framing the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as a “sea of change” in Washington. However, all the coverage of Rumsfeld’s announcement omitted any serious review or investigation of his role in War Crimes during his tenure as head of the Department of Defense (DoD). On November 14, the Center for Constitutional Rights will file a War Crimes Complaint against Donald Rumsfeld in a German court. The complaint is brought on behalf of 12 torture victims consisting of 11 Iraqi citizens who were held at Abu Ghraib prison and one Guantánamo detainee and charges numerous high ranking US officials for “authorizing war crimes.” This effort is part of a growing campaign by groups like Human Rights First and War Crimes Watch (a new website devoted to educating people on war crimes and holding those responsible accountable) to hold Rumsfeld accountable for his actions. (complete article here)

Friday, November 24, 2006

The U.S. Vs John Lennon


I went down to the UICA last Monday to see the new John Lennon documentary. (If you still haven't seen the trailer yet, you can watch it here.)

Being a big Beatles fan, you can guess that this would be right up my alley. However by the same token being a big Beatles fan, and a self-admitted geek, I also felt it didn’t tell me a lot of new stuff. Even most of the old footage I felt I had seen before, between the ABC Beatles’ Anthology series, the “Imagine” documentary movie from the 80s, the Dick Cavett interview, and the infamous week co-hosting the Mike Douglas show during which Lennon and Ono brought in Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale. The latter two shows are frequently re-run on VH1's rock classic series, or at least they were back when I was in high school.

Nevertheless, it was a very well done documentary, and very entertaining. And I figure entertaining is really all you can ask from a documentary. Being informative is a plus, but if you’re really concerned about the information aspect, you learn a lot more sitting down with a book than you would from a 2 hour documentary. And there are actually a number of books dealing with John Lennon’s political activities, if you look in the right place. The Calvin library has a couple of them, and I recall spending a couple Friday evening’s curled up with these books back in the day. (I know, geek, geek). There’s also a recent book, “Gimmie some Truth” on which this documentary was partly based. The NPR interview with the author can be heard here.
The movie didn’t have much of a thesis other than to recount the events of John’s political activity, and the US governments reaction to them. It shows Nixon and the FBI doing some not-nice things, but I trust that’s not new information at this point.

However the story of John Lennon does present an interesting case study on the intersection of music and pop culture with politics. When you talk about star power, it’s hard to get much bigger than a member of the Beatles during their heyday. Remember the Beatles were (or at least started out as) a bubble gum rock band. It would be equivalent perhaps to Elvis, or today’s Brittany Spears or Justin Timberlake, becoming heavily involved in radical politics.

And for that matter, it’s hard to get more radical than John Lennon was. When you start hanging out with Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin, and Tariq Ali (who, according to his autobiography was a close personal friend of John Lennon ), it’s hard to move further out to the left.

There was a time around when I was 17, 18, and 19, when I considered John Lennon, and more recent bands like “Rage Against the Machine” the height of political sophistication. I suppose that’s right around the age where that is common (maybe I was a late bloomer by a couple years). And I can still remember one day around when I was 19 listening to a “Rage Against the Machine” song, and thinking, “Wait a minute, these guys aren’t any more politically sophisticated than I am. The only difference is they have the ability to put their message to music. But the lyrics themselves are really not that deep.”

There is a danger when rock stars become the most visible parts of the American Left. I think this is a danger that is often courted by revisionist histories of the 1960s, which focus on the era as the hey day of Woodstock, the Rolling Stones, and the Grateful Dead, instead of the real story of the civil rights and anti war movements, which is grassroots organizing at the local level.

To be fair, I think this particularly documentary did a good job of walking that line. They portrayed Lennon as responding to what was already happening in the streets, instead of being a superstar who creates movements. But still, I wince a little bit when I watch a documentary that has Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal as supporting analysts for a movie about John Lennon. It makes me worry a little about where our culture is focused.

On the other hand, the older I get, the more I realize that not everyone’s brain is wired the same as mine. People like my youngest sister have a very hard time absorbing a tract by Noam Chomsky, but could easily understand the simple message in Lennon’s songs of giving peace a chance. And this point was made in the documentary. John and Yoko both said that they were trying to use their celebrity power to get people involved in the movement who wouldn’t otherwise be involved.

But here’s what has me worried: when I go through East town I see all sorts of progressive bumper stickers on cars or progressive buttons on people at the coffee houses. But when we meet for Media Mouse meetings or IGE meetings, it is rare we have more than 10 people. I don’t think our generation is apathetic politically, but I think people sometimes put bumper stickers on their car, or listen to folk music (or punk music, or Rage against the Machine, or whatever radical music you happen to like) and think they are doing their part. And actual organizing and political participation is falling by the wayside.

There is a line to walk between being able to use star power to attract people to the movement, and becoming too dependent on it. I’m not sure what the exact answer is, but I fear we have fallen too far to the latter.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Despite sounding like a traditional love song, "Martha My Dear" was in fact inspired by Paul McCartney's Old English Sheepdog, Martha. Said McCartney, "Whereas it would appear to anybody else to be a song to a girl called Martha, it's actually a dog, and our relationship was platonic, believe me."

Link of the Day
More Japanese music. Usually I link to the oldies, but just for the sake of variety here's a more recent song. "Shanghai Honey" by Orange Range. This song was very popular with my junior high school students about 2 years ago. In fact they used parts of it for their team chant during "Sports Day." It's not great music, but it's kind of catchy. The Band Orange Range is originally from Okinawa, and you can hear Okinawain influences in the song during the chants inbetween verses.