Saturday, May 18, 2013

Good intentions

Most often, when you see one person writing about another person's book, they're trying to tell you why you should or should not buy/read the book. Well, you already know what I think of should, and I'm not telling you you shouldn't buy, or like, Eric Greitens' The Heart and the Fist. I do, however, regret buying it. It was an Audible credit too, and those are precious to me. Still, it's an instructive regret.

Eric Greitens is, I am sure, an admirable human being. If you ever find yourself behind enemy lines, you'd want him to come and get you, all that Navy SEAL and boxing moxie. I'm sure he's perfectly good at what he does. Not altogether clear on what that is, these days, between the Navy and the non-profit, but the fault is in me, rather than the internet.

You see, I got a little disgusted. It is so far one of only two audiobooks ever that have irked me so profoundly that I cannot finish them. First of all, there's the reading. I know that there is a strange misunderstanding that says that authors make the best readers for their books. This clearly does not relate to reality very well; or rather, it only works if the author is, by some gracious accident, actually a good reader (hello Stephen Fry!) or knows better (Terry Pratchett maybe? His books always have the best readers). Many are fine, but unexciting (sorry Neil Gaiman. You are good at a great many others things, including, oddly enough, doing cameos in other people's audiobooks). Some are outright bad. Greitens has a cadence to his reading which may be a side effect of the unaccustomed adventure of being audio talent; to me, it is reminiscent of both JFK and, at times, William Shatner. The pauses! The emphasis! It may do well enough for a speech or an episode, worthy only of a gentle ribbing; but four hours in, I start to get more than a little antagonistic every time I hear him insert Capital for Extra Emphasis. It grates on the nerves, grates like cheese grates that I keep cutting myself with for some reason.

Let my hypothesize that I had bought the paperback instead. That is best. Would that be better? Well, it would. The voice in my head would be better. My real disappointment is not, alas, confined to the narration. That would be lovely, and easily remedied. The narration is not why I wanted to read this book.  I wanted to read it because I thought that it would be interesting to hear what someone who'd been trained as a Duke graduate and Rhodes scholar to be a critical thinker, and who wanted to help in the broadest sense, would give as his reasoning for giving up his individual power to decide to join the Navy. I really have a great respect for people who can be a part of such a non-individual, hierarchical effort and yet not lose their individuality or their capacity for critical thinking. I respect people who are willing to compromise and fight for a good cause imperfectly. One of the things I like best about Orwell is that he had the courage of his opinions and actually fought in a fight he believed in, even if "his" camp was disorganised and, to some extent, corrupt. I respect people who trust themselves to assess the situation and be able to know when the corruption/chaos outstrip the good being done. This is where Greitens really lets me down.

He isn't a great writer. That's not, in itself, so insurmountable; but it results in him using a lot of cliches. The book, the part of it I could bring myself to read, reads like a movie novelisation. The boxing, the tests of endurance, the high-minded yet ill-defined philosophy, it is all very Karate Kid. The dismissal of academia and a career as somehow not active enough is vague and unsatisfying. There is no reasoning that I could find, nothing tangible. The stints of volunteering abroad that he describes don't betray a deeper knowledge. Maybe he has that knowledge of Bosnia and its history, or of Colombia; I just don't see it in the book. I don't even necessarily want to fault him for not having that deeper knowledge, though I have many doubts about being a foreigner trying to help in a culture that he/she understands poorly; but that's the part I'm interested in. I want to know - why Bosnia? Why Rwanda? There is suffering in many places. Why pick this one?

What finally turned me away from this book was this: he writes about his Navy SEAL training. This is where I really want to hear about what it is like to be a thinker, a humanist, a humanitarian in a military machine. Instead, what I get is a pep talk about how incredibly hardy and select Navy SEALs are.

I knew that already.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013


Oh America, I love you, but you're so strange sometimes. Let me explain. Some time ago I got a ticket for speeding in Georgia. This will not surprise anyone who has travelled down the I-95 corridor. Anyway, I got it, I paid it, because it wasn't really worth contesting out of state. The stated speed seemed a tad high, but I was definitely speeding.

I know why one might round up now. There was a second "special" fine for being extra super fast. O...K. I called about this strange thing, and clearly I was not the first person to be upset by this rather predatory set up. It's smart, I admit - get someone to admit to speeding on a ticket people from out of state are not likely to contest, and when they have implicitly admitted, hit them with with a second fine which will now be hard to contest. Easy out of state cash! Because you're totally not the same country.

Well, I'm from a heavily federalised country, so such practices are not entirely foreign (ha!) to me. It gets better though. I start to worry about points, and whether this impacts my naturalization application and alll that. I find out that the two states do, in fact, have an agreement about this, but only for the serious stuff. So if you get a DUI or the like, that costs you points. If you speed, it goes into you record but doesn't cost you points. It's like someone said "you know, that's going to be an awful lot of paperwork, and, you know, it's only speeding, and who knows what that lot in Georgia is up to. Maybe they have different measurements? Anyone know if they use miles? Anyway, not worth the bother, is it?"

So strange.

Monday, May 06, 2013


Here's one I made earlier:

Neil Gaiman's talk about books and the future of writing and publishing - that's the catalyst. I link it because it is great food for thought.

I talked about it with the Spouse, and then with my Honourable Colleague, and between all of those an interesting conversation developed. I will pen this (ha! not literally) and then invite feedback from Said Colleague, because dialogue is what makes life worth living. You may or may not hear from her.

I love books. I love honest-to-goodness hardcopy books. I love their bookness in my hands. This is reading. I have discarded books before for being ugly or having the wrong font. Digital books? All ugly books, aren't they? I own no Kindle, or Nook, or any such thing.

I am no laudator temporis acti (praiser of things past; a classical debating position). Digital books are the future. I don't hate them. They're just not good at being print to me, even the prettiest formats. I might argue for a reasonable debate on the topic but why? It is reading. Emotion is part of the picture. Here's how I see it: Gaiman is right that flexibility is what makes digital books great. The Kindle, by the way, isn't it. You think this is about fonts? It isn't, of course. It is about getting a book any which way. You want print, because you're off to hike the 100 Mile Wilderness, or because you're not on a (reliable) power grid? Here you go. Print on demand in your chosen size? Can do. You want a signed first edition with gold leaf for your bookcase? You can have that. Want it in audio? Human read read for entertainment, text to speech for your textbooks? All of this exists. I think (and hope) that all of these will continue to exist, perhaps in greater abundance, side by side.

Great flexibility is not the problem. Change is not the problem. It is a lack of flexibility that really holds us up, and bothers me. That book you buy on your Kindle, is that really yours? My wonderful stacks of Audible audiobooks, are they mine? What happens if I close my account, or they do?

This deserves a ponderous silence.

Because if this is a long-term loan, if I can't give it to a friend or bequeath it to my children, then they've no business taking so much of my money. If access is at the sellers behest, then I don't truly own any of it. Publishers and content distributors rightly get into hot water for not being flexible enough, for having DRM (which doesn't work, and does not deter piracy) and for moderating access (Kindle just a day or two ago finally made their iOS app accessible to blind and sort of to deaf-blind users; how many years did those folks wait for it?).

Access without gate keepers? I wish I could be as sure as Gaiman is. I wonder if we're not just swapping out the old gate keepers for new ones, and stricter ones.

Friday, May 03, 2013

In which I forego the use of "should" except in the strictest didactical use cases

My current exercise of mind is this: I am giving up should.

Should, the dictionary tells us, is the past tense of shall, but really, it is so much more than that. It is forever the favoured tool of torment of the Supposed Moral Imperative. I demonstrate:

"I really should get the camera fixed"
"You should really lose some weight"
"He should have ordered pizza"

Most common usage:
"I should get more exercise"

Consider this for a moment. Should assumes that there is a correct way of going through life and you, my dear, are not doing it right. A thousand cats on the internet tell you


Moreover, should is vague. Is it necessary? Is it desirable? If so, why not say so? There is also an implied third person here. Whether that is a super ego, your internalised 3rd grade English teacher, or the internet, the implication here is someone out there is judging you. While they may indeed be judging you, there is surely no need to ventriloquise?

In truth, if I am in charge of my own actions, there are only two options: I either want to do something, or need to do it. If neither, why do it? If both, well yathzee! I surely can bloody well take responsibility for what I do, or can't do?

So here goes, try it out:

"I don't want to get the camera fixed, but I need it for panoramic dog photography. So, hello obnoxious quest for service!"

And better still:

"The hell with gyms. I'm going for a walk. And then I am going to write."

Best of all:
"Who the hell are you to tell me how I should look. Am I to be weighed in a sling? Also, pizza makes me bloated. LONG LIVE INDIAN FOOD."

Well, no. The best of all, I find, is that now I have to figure out what is enjoyable, what is critical, and what is not. I want to learn how to touch type (embarrassing, I know). I want to learn archery! I need to get the car fixed (atually in the shop now!).

It's taking me a while to switch, but I swear it makes me consider what I do and why for all the right reasons.

You may still use shall. It so brightly imperious.

Is this it?

Is this it?

Today is the future I promised myself, the time when I would live up to my expectations, hopes and aspirations, when I will live life the way I wanted.

Is this it?

This is where I am in the world, and I do smell the lilacs (have you smelled the lilacs recently? best smell in the world) and know what I have. I enjoy what I have. I read books. I stop to look around (before I go back to Twitter). I tell my loved ones that I love them. I love nothing more than hugs.

Is that all?

These things I love and have learned to enjoy so much over the last three years - my Quiet Quest - is that not enough. Is that not what I wanted?

Not exactly.

No. No, I wanted something more, something bigger, something more aspirational. I wanted - I want - to be good. You know they say it takes 10,000 hours to learn a skill? I wanted to put in those hours and be actually, truly good. Then, when I'm good, I can wield my skills for good, not evil.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

A few notes

1. It's Crucible time, the only time I ever think "Man, I wish I were in Sheffield"

2. I am currently reading Queen Victoria's Book of Spells, a collection of gaslamp fantasy stories. I was a little worried that it would be either cutesie or nostalgic. It is instead dark and well-researched, and reminds me most of my days reading The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

3. I finished that mindfulness book. It is, in spite of its inauspicious beginning and its self-help label, a book that is pragmatic, clear, and actually helpful. Don't buy the hype, friends, insanity is overrated.

4. I am also reading The Heart and the Fist. I am sure Eric Greitens is a great human being. His prose, on the other hand, laced as it is with cliches on every page, with his Emphatic Narration Full of Ponderous Pauses, makes me want to hide under a dictionary. It makes me want run in the fields shouting avant garde poetry just to cleanse my palate. This saddens me. I had high hopes.

5. Calming Manatees make everything better.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A marriage of sorts

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove"

Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

Lately, I have been thinking about taking the American nationality. This is not an easy decision and it is not born of pragmatism. I think of it as a marriage; not engaged in for practical reasons, but with many real, practical consequences.

I love living in the U.S. The fact that I married into it - that other momentous choice - only makes me delight more in it. I love the grandness of it, a grand design of a country full of grand spaces and grand thoughts. Coming from a little country as I do I appreciate it all the more. I love the aspirations this country has and its optimism. It has taught me to appreciate some things that looked unlikely - the military, long drives, even, at times, American football. So when I contemplate becoming a citizen, that's why; it is because I love it here. It is because this is where I am, not just geographically, but emotionally. This is home. I want it to be my home, well, maybe forever.

I am a commitment phobe, and that does not apply any less here. I am scared of throwing my lot in with America's. It does so many things I disagree with. It scares me, here in this country, to speak my mind. I am scared of what is being done with those drones, and when it will come home to roost; I am scared of what goes on Guantanamo, I am scared of what torture happened, of what rights of privacy are being quietly filched from American citizens, never mind dem furriners.

It is not that I believe that Belgium is better. It is only smaller, with a smaller capacity for both good and evil. Witness Congo and the long bloody struggle there; with more territory Belgium committed atrocities worthy of a larger country. In a short while, with a little power, Belgium did so much damage. The United States is so much bigger, so much more powerful, and I only one small foreign person. Like Piglet, I stand here trembling, a little worried that I will get blown away.

What to do? 

Hitchens says, in his Letters to a Young Contrarian, "The more fallible the mammal, the truer the example." What he means by that, is that, not only are all heroes flawed, the fact that they are flawed shows all of us (who are flawed) that people with their shortcomings can do their small, good thing in this hurricane. America is both heroic and flawed. It's strange that I should get my news from the BBC because I find so many of the American news outlets too partisan, yet buy into a partisan concept of the United States in my fear of committing. I will correct myself. Any country is a conversation (albeit a little one-sided in some countries), this one more so than most. The conversation changes as different people speak up; it is a dialogue, even at its most strident. This cannot be taken for granted. Country of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Allen Ginsberg*, Hitchens**, Greenwald, and they are not alone, not silenced or forgotten. I will do my best to join that great America, that long dialogue.

The papers are in the mail. Wish me luck.

* "America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956. 

It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again."

**After I wrote this, I played a game of What Would Hitchens Say, expecting to find some well-reasoned essay on why he became an American. I am touched by what I found instead; it is closer, in the end, to my own motivation than I had expected.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Shame, victory, and Margaret Thatcher

Today, I will be talking to you only in other people:

On shame, pretty and bewildering:

On victory, dubious and upbeat:

On Margaret Thatcher:
"Mark the sequel: Not long afterwards, I was at a reception in the Rosebery Room of the House of Lords. She came. (I'll try and keep this brief.) A mutual Tory friend offered to introduce us. I agreed with some alacrity. The subject of the moment was Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. I held one view on this. She held another. The introduction was effected. Did I imagine it, or did she recognize the name of the scribe who had hymned her feminine allure? At once we were embroiled in an argument on the subject of racism and decolonization. I was (I only mention it) correct on my facts as well as my principles. She was lousy on both. But what a bonny fighter! She wouldn't give an inch. I found myself conceding her a trivial point, and bowing as I did so. She smiled.
"Bow lower," she said.
Suddenly robbed of volition, I complied.
"No -- much lower."
By now near to drowning in complicity and subjection, I obeyed. She withdrew from behind her back a rolled-up copy of the Parliamentary orders of the day, and she gave me a sound smack before I could --how does one put this? -- straighten up. I regained the perpendicular in some blushful confusion and difficulty, to see her swing away and look over her shoulder, the words "naughty boy" floating over me in my near trance-like state, as the journo witnesses closed in to say, "What was that all about?" I told them they would never understand, and -- what do you know -- they never did."

The grandiloquent loses his tongue:

The quieter man waxes eloquent: