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Here lies the collected wisdom of the ages as filtered through the unsurpassed genius of two men and two women who have never been afraid to express themselves. Come, then, be ye pupil, interlocuter, or Inquisitor. Our insight, like all truths, is free of charge.
Aug. 17th, 2005 @ 02:09 am Mr. President
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naked truth
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Jul. 6th, 2005 @ 07:23 pm The Other Side of the Story
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You both know my adoration for Mr. Francis, IF High's greatest teacher.  As a result of that admiration, any historian who has Francis' backing is my kind of historian.  I've had my eye on Howard Zinn and A People's History of the United States for quite some time and I'm glad to have finally purchased and read the book.  This is a book worth waiting for.  No, let me amend that - this is a book NOT worth waiting for - you must read it immediately.  Don't dally - run to the bookstore, purchase and read it with fervor, and then join me in demanding that our nation's youth read it.  This book has done much to dispel the romantic myths about our forefathers and the reality of our history.

This is the history of a native genocide, a history of slavery, a history of labor, a history of war, a history of race and gender relations, and a history of social rebellion (and it is the latter that may be the magical key).  Zinn is methodical but pragmatic in tracing our nation's history from 1492 to the present.  Large historical dates we know by heart, like the signing of the constitution or the Battle of Gettysburg, are given the obligatory cursory glance; they are now contextualized through the voice and events of the people. Consequently, this isn't a book that rehashes everything we learned in k-12.  A People's History elaborates upon those history texts and shows us what happened behind the scenes...in those areas that major biographers weren't looking. 

Want to know about the life in the colonies?  Done.  Care to hear about the waves of social rebellion and voice during the 20th century?  Done.  Have an inclination to pry into our foreign affairs, including Panama, Cambodia, Latin America, and the decades-long Cold War?  Done, Done, Done.  This text has it all.       

Perhaps most refreshing about Zinn's work is that he doesn't approach it with a heavy theoretical bias like Marxism or socialism.  Granted, elements of those theories are there and he readily admits his leanings, but it's not the quagmire that most historians fall into.  This balance is interesting and admirable considering the amount of time that Zinn expends evaluating the systems of elaborate oppression that generations of wealth have developed.  No proletariats are squaring off against the burgeoisie in the march towards capitalism; rather, it's ordinary people encountering and grappling with the right for basic needs - sound living standards, livable wage, food, and the freedom to pursue happiness. 

It is in realizing that these systems of oppression have developed (and, dare I say, existed) since our foundation that is most difficult.  I  feel a bit foolhardy for so blindly idealizing our founding fathers and the principles articulated in the founding documents: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  The system uncovered by Zinn is a calculating one that preys on people's fears and their concern for and love of their families.  Wealth battles poverty or low income until, in moments of immense social unrest, one party compromises (usually the commoner's party), assuaged by access to property, to suffrage, or to the political party system.   Meanwhile, false hierarchy is created in society based on ethnicity, income, property, and gender.  Subsets of people are made superior; others inferior.  To quote Steinbeck, "Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution.  Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other" (Grapes of Wrath, p 206).

It's doubtful that Zinn intends to depress his readers with the revelation of widespread oppression.  Zinn devotes an entire chapter to the fight of the common person and the power of organized social movements.  I tend to question his optimism.  The 20th century was filled with seismic shifts that hovered on or created paradigmatic change - the labor movement, the Great Depression, the 60s and the revolt agains the Vietnam War - and these events still failed to stimulate large change in social and political structure.  I'm cynical of whether another event lies within our future, particularly since we've squandered the most recent.

Yet whether you agree with social movements, socialism, or a history of the people, you should read A People's History.  Trust me, you won't regret it. 

"I wanted, in writing this book, to awaken a greater consciousness of class conflict, racial injustice, sexual inequality, and national arrogance." ~ Howard Zinn, p. 686
Jul. 6th, 2005 @ 06:54 pm The Grapes of Wrath
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driving home today i realized that i've not yet felt true hunger, true desperation, or true poverty.  i learn of these tragedies through reading or testimony, relying on others' suffering for my information.  the grapes of wrath is my most recent informer.  i purchased it as a whim, as one of those "great American classics" everyone should read.  the back cover touts it as "a book that galvanized - and sometimes outraged - millions of readers."  it has certainly outraged me just as surely as it has disheartened me.  it is truly an amazing tribute to humanity's soul, both its illustrious and its deranged dimensions. 

steinbeck's protagonists are the Joad family, Oklahoma natives that travel westward to California once they've been removed from their land by the bank.  handbills call amd they each begin to cast their respective dreams - a small white house, a job in a garage, a correspondence course, babies, family, and land.  for this family and thousands others land is their end-all and be-all; it is their way of life.  the obvious antagonist in this epic tale about the Great Depression is corporate power.  sly and avarice, it mechanizes agriculture and distances itself from community.

it is in the midst of recounting the Joad's struggles that steinbeck becomes pedantic and captivating.   these are the chapters of the universal struggle - the situations and discriminations that most families encountered during the Depression: the rhythm of the writing slows, the use of one-dimensional and flat writing increases, and the reader the is left with a painfully clear vision.  as the chapter closes, you find yourself anxious and silently praying: what will happen to the Joads?  Will they share these pains? Will they find a way to sidestep them?  Are they one of the few lucky ones?

steinbeck senses the reader's nail-biting and delivers a storyline that falls just inside the line of the common but with just enough wiggle room to have sidestepped the worst.  it's the closing scene of the book that's the clincher:

"Ma's eyes passed Rose of Sharon's eyes, and then came back to them.  And the two women looked deep into each other.  The girl's breath came short and gasping.

She said 'Yes.'

Ma smiled.  "I knowed you would.  I knowed!"  She looked down at her hands, tight-locked in her lap.

Rose of Sharon whispered, "Will-will you all-go out?"  The rain whisked lightly on the roof."

i encourage you to read more for both the context and the conclusion.  it's shocking and it's amazing. 

this is a tale of the disintegration of family, the cruel deprivation found in poverty, the lust for profit at the cost of social justice, and the incredible charity that springs from a humanity that knows, has felt and experienced, hunger. it begs the question of whether government policy and corporations have really changed since the 1920s. Ultimately, i fear neither have. we continue to oppress our neighbors despite the number of years they've dwelt among us and despite our own knowledge of the oppression. it's just become more complex, more latent in the time since. poverty, hunger, homelessness are swallowed and accepted by a determined blindness of society; oppressive measures and policies have become more cruel and legalistic, ingrained in tax structures, public funding, and social welfare policy; and, perhaps more poignantly, we, as community members, allow ourselves to ignore the injustice that occurs right outside our doors. these ruminations and this book have illimunated a fact i've felt but forgotten - that money, ownership, and possession isolates the individual, stripping him or her of empathy, blinding him or her to the needs of others, and encasing him or her in a impoverished spirit of self-righteousness, indignation, and self-congratulations for a job well done.

May. 20th, 2005 @ 12:41 pm Book Review: Frank Delaney's Ireland
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Self Portrait

Title: Ireland
Author: Frank Delaney
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2005
Pages: 560

It takes a certain kind of moxie to title your book Ireland, especially with no subtitle. After all, this is an island with more than sixteen-hundred years of recorded history and an oral tradition that reaches even farther back. And then there is the distance covered by the Irish themselves, including the emigrants who have left the island over the centuries and their many descendents. Compared to the steady march of time, though, and even the great multitudes of the Irish, the magic of Ireland is even more overwhelming and difficult to capture, even in five-hundred-sixty pages. Frank Delaney does just that, though, and in surprising fashion.

Ireland is a novel and it has all the conventions that you would expect to find therein, including a collection of very good, if static, characters. As a novel, Delaney traces the life of Ronan O'Mara, a young man whose life changes radically at the tender age of nine with the unexpected arrival of the last of Ireland's traveling storytellers. From the moment Ronan meets the Storyteller, he is caught in the rushing currents of destiny, which take him into the study of Ireland's history, the secret past of his family, and on a personal quest to find the elusive Storyteller again. The plot is hurried along by a pair of fantastically surprising twists that push and pull the reader much as they do Ronan.

These elements aside, Ireland is anything but a typical novel. By and large, the narrative framework is used mainly as a skeleton, onto which Delaney hangs the real flesh of his book: short stories about the history of the Emerald Isle. The stories trace Ireland's history from the ice ages that formed the island, through Saint Patrick and the early Medieval kings, past the fateful arrival of the Normans in 1170, and winding through the whole troubled history of revolts and rebellions against the English, culminating in the story of 1916's Easter Rising which secured Irish independence.

Delaney insists on the importance of these stories and writes a book so that they, with all their imaginative details, might stand next to the more official histories of other books. Of the Irish, he says, "mere facts can never be enough; this is a country that reprocesses itself through the mills of its imagination." For him, the facts are of secondary concern, added to the feelings and the emotions of the people telling or retelling the story. This is surely an attitude that will rankle historians, but Irish folk will embrace it wholeheartedly. "Storytelling," says Delaney, "forms a layer in the foundation of the world." On account of their affinity for a good story, the Irish seem closer to these roots than many other people.

The stories Frank Delaney tells are fascinating. They hit just enough historical touchstones - dates, battlefields, famous figures, etc. - to feel like a true account of Ireland's history. All the while, elements of myth and emphasis on the imagined feelings and perceptions within the stories make for a lively read. Ireland is by no means a comprehensive history of the island - that task would take a good many more pages. However, in a uniquely Irish way, Delaney's book is just comprehensive enough to justify its title, and certainly good enough to pick up and read.
May. 10th, 2005 @ 07:36 pm Standing at Hope's Edge with a Growling Tummy & a Cooking Pot
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Current Mood: calmcalm
When I browsed bookshelves lined with cookbooks and guidebooks for vegetarians, I wasn't expecting to find an extraordinary look into the lives of ordinary people taking bold stands against poverty, hunger, and the global market. thankfully, i'd heard enough about frances moore lappe's first book, the new diet for a small planet, to know that she didn't author books on amazing diet trends promising to shed its readers (and dieters) of unwanted pounds. no, she examined hunger - its causes and its solutions. the contemporary in me refused to pick up the first book (it was written in 1970 and i wanted facts much more current than that); instead, i promised i'd pick it up at the library and grabbed the more enticing sequel, Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet.

Accompanied by her daughter, Francis hits the road, embarking on an international adventure to find the answer to the question, "how can we build communities in tune with nature's wisdom in which no one, anywhere, has to worry about putting food - safe, healthy food - on the table?" (17). to solve this riddle, the Lappe women travel to Berkely to see how urban gardens are transforming schools and prisons; to Brazil to look at the MST movement, which, in the process of securing land for landless families, cultivates community, better education, and civic involvement; to Bangladesh to view firsthand the power of microcredit; to India to examine their Navdanya movement; to Kenya and the Green Belt movement; to Holland, the birthplace of fair trade; to France to examine the GMO movement, the potentials of the Tobin tax, and the power of cultural choice; and lastly to Wisconsin to visit farm co-operatives and community supported agriculture. Each chapter concludes with a literal taste of that culture - recipes.

These stories, written with simplicity that stimulates immediate accessibility, draws the reader into the rich, complex, and ironic lives of its heroes. Personal testimonies are interspersed with scientific facts, creating a delicate balance between the face of the Other and the truth of current political, agricultural, and environmental conditions. In all this is a journey that not only calls us to hope's edge but provides insight that the edge is always being pushed - there is another horizon for being that begs to be developed through creativity and courage. Frances does an excellent job of pointing us towards innovation through the examination of hunger, poverty, and the community-edifying power of food.

Hope's Edge is not only an impressive foray into culture and hunger, but also an interesting examination of networks and webs. To talk about food - hunger - and to develop sustainable solutions is to introduce abstract topics like democracy, equality, education, and social justice. Brewing within the book's pages, you'll find possible solutions to the "Bowling Alone" tendencies of American culture. Food becomes a potent medium for community.

Frances wants us to move into that medium. She lays out the five "traps" that map our minds and block our path in the beginning and concludes with the five "liberating ideas." In addition, she's provided page after page of resources that let the individual, the family, and the community get involved in effective local and global movements. Frances calls for nothing less than a major paradigm shift (whether this can be achieved through the small indentations made by her heroes remains to be determined).

But don't let my summary cajole you into thinking this is a perfectly constructed book; it does has its faults. The daughter's contributions - set out in cumbersome text boxes - are woefully inadequate and seemingly inconsequential. At best, I found myself skimming them; at worse, skipping them entirely. Moreover, the reader is inundated by the personal perspective of Frances. Though this is to be expected by a first-person book, her consistent references to her own writings or her own past experiences muddled the clear lens I was hoping to have. Some may perceive this as intimate and refreshing; I view it as clunky and meddlesome.

All in all, Hope's Edge is an impressive, inspiring book that enlightens as much as it stimulates. I give it five stars and two thumbs up (I may even buy it for you for Christmas). So, I encourage you to put aside any fears you might have about being pigeonholed as a "granola" or "ideal hippie" and dive into some truly scintillating intellectual thought.
May. 3rd, 2005 @ 11:59 am Book Review: Clay Aiken's Learning to Sing
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Self Portrait

Title: Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life
Author: Clay Aiken with Allison Glock
Publisher: Random House, 2004
Pages: 258

There are many who scoff pop star Clay Aiken's music without even listening to it. Many more, surely, will reject his "inspirational memoir" Learning to Sing without so much as cracking its spine. In truth, Aiken is an easy figure to write off. (His youth, pop music career, and inimitable appearance make this an easy enough task.) Still, Aiken's book proves he is something different than your typical Hollywood icon. And with all the white space between the covers it's an easy enough read.

There is decidedly little to distinguish Clay Aiken's story from that of other famous personalities and their memoirs. The abusive father, the life of rural poverty, tenure as a social outcast in high school, shaking off stigmas as a young adult, followed by a meteoric rise to fame. We have come to expect these stories from our celebrities, much as we expect to find their books filled with the cliched lessons these tough experiences have taught them and not a little veiled preaching at the end. On this score, Mr. Aiken follows the standard celebrity memoir template established by ghost writers many years ago.

What separates the pop idol from his Hollywood neighbors, though, is his lingering outsider status, how foreign the L.A. scene is to him. In many ways, Aiken, beneath layer upon layer of fame and fortune, is still a special ed teacher and YMCA counselor from Raleigh, North Carolina - and deliberately so. His comparisons of the two cities are stark and certainly not designed to please the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. "It seems to me that L.A. is all about what someone else can do for you," he writes. "Nobody is out to get anything from anybody in Raleigh." This consciousness of his roots and desire to stay true to them frames Aiken's star status throughout the book. It shapes the price tags on his concert tickets, the (sometimes Christian) songs he sings, and even the smaller size of the venues he plays.

If you are part of Clay Aiken's wide and varied fan base - if you have "drunk the Kool-Aid" on this Carolinian crooner - you'll certainly enjoy the book. Those unfamiliar with the idol, though, will probably get their fill of enjoyment from scoffing at its place on the shelf at their local bookstore.
Apr. 28th, 2005 @ 11:08 am Book Review: Chris Duff's On Celtic Tides
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Self Portrait

Note: Erstwhile Roomies, as I inched closer and closer to my latest literary triumph, a bold new use for this our high-minded forum sprung to mind. As we all are accomplished scholars and avid readers, why not provide each other with reviews of books we finish, recommending those deemed worthy and warning each other of not-quite-page-turning pitfalls? I'll offer this entry as a model and hope y'all follow suit.

Title: On Celtic Tides: One Man's Journey Around Ireland by Sea Kayak
Author: Chris Duff
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 1999
Pages: 269

There really are only two ways into Chris Duff's On Celtic Tides. The first is if you are a sea kayaker yourself, in which case you will no doubt take great interest in Duff's exhaustive explanations of winds, tides and surfs he conquered and the techniques he used to do so. At times, this book reads like little more than a "How To" for sea kayaking, using - without accompanying layman's translation - all the special verbiage and vocabulary of that activity. It is clear Duff is an avid kayaker, one with whom seamen will surely sympathize.

The other point of entry is Celtic heritage. Irish citizens and descendants alike will much enjoy Duff's effusive praise of the Emerald Isle and its inhabitants. Time and again, Duff is treated to a brand of hospitality that is peculiar to the Irish. The people who call him "mad" to his face are the same people who then take him into their homes for tea and scones. Repeated experiences of this phenomenon leads the author to conclude, "if it's one thing the Irish are famous for, it's their hospitality - even to madmen."

Sprinkled intermittently throughout the account of his travels, Duff leaves refreshingly honest accounts of his own innermost emotions. Particularly moving are his accounts of the mixed feelings all adventurers feel when they are far from home: the desire to live a life long on good stories while short on regret and the ever-distressing pain caused by the separation from family and friends. The author documents his need to hear a familiar voice in the depths of his despair as well as "the rush that world travelers are familiar with as a stranger slips their mail through the clerk's grid at a post office." Duff is certainly aware of the decidedly mixed bag travel can be.

If you are not a kayaker and not a Celt, odds are you would have a hard time finishing this book. But for seamen, Irishmen, and - most of all - Irish seamen, there is much to discover in Chris Duff's traveling tales.
Apr. 26th, 2005 @ 02:02 pm Serving two Masters
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Self Portrait
Current Mood: chipperchipper

I made a grave error in judgment during my senior year at Seattle University. Come to think of it, I made a great many errors in judgment that year, as in the preceding years and those that have followed. The one that occurs to me now, though, was the sense I had that my efforts to be of assistance, to shape campus and world, to serve had been in vain, if only for one silly reason.

Sitting with Fr. Mike, who excelled both at letting me speak my piece and calling me to the carpet on my bull, I explained - carefully and with great philosophical percision - how I clearly was no good at serving others because I had never been in a committed romantic relationship. It is only now, some three years on, that the full foolishness and, even greater, irony of that moment have come home to roost. It's high time to recant, albeit with a few caveats.

The argument was deceivingly simple. If I was to claim that my defining characteristic was being of service to others, then it seemed clear this was a talent I had not sufficiently developed, seeing as I was single. Romantic relationships, I argued, were the ultimate test not only of one's willingness to serve, but also of one's ability to do so, as though college girls checked potential suitors giving prowess before electing to date them. That I was single proved that, for all the evidence to the contrary, I was still deficient as a servant and the girls around me knew this failing. In the often confusing recesses of my mind, I had somehow linked service, romance, and amateur baseball, coming to the conclusion that I hadn't gotten the call up to the "big leagues" of romance because I just wasn't talented enough. Oh, to be a young know-it-all college kid again!

Fr. Mike, bless his heart, did his best to dissuade me of this obvious fallacy. "You know you're being ridiculous, right?" is a good approximation of his words. They didn't sway me then, but there doing a number on me now.

Like all good fictions, my misguided belief was modeled on truth. Healthy relationships - romantic or otherwise - are excellent models of service to others. They mirror the compassion, the effort, the careful intentions and attentions that are required when one takes up the cause of social justice. That service and romance mirror each other does not in any way stratify them or construct some kind of hierarchy, though. Neither one is practice for the other.

Three years have passed, and this defining trait of mine has carried me from Seattle to Los Angeles, and from Los Angeles to Ramallah, and from Ramallah to who knows wear. Along the way, my desire for romance has not waned, nor do I expect to shed it anytime soon. What I have noticed, though, is just how difficult it is to be of authentic service. Difficulties, I imagine, that are also mirrored in relationships. It takes a lot of time, considerable effort, and not a negligible risk to serve. I didn't make it this far without taking on all these things and I am just as sure that they will be part of my mission "to save (at least) a small part of the world" in the future. No way this life could be misconstrued as AAA-ball!

The truth of things is that I was a capable servant then and I'm even better now. I was a sufficiently good catch, too, and I don't think that has changed either.

Apr. 25th, 2005 @ 10:18 pm a question about actions
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when asked how he can go home at the end of the day and look himself in the mirror, a corrupt lawyer made rich by his deals and steals answers:

i deem that i do more good than harm at the end of the day. what other standard do i have to judge by?

my dear erstwhile roomies, i pose a question to you. is this philosophy true?
Apr. 19th, 2005 @ 08:01 pm (no subject)
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naked truth
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