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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

September 14, 2011

September in the Rain

The leaves of brown came tumbling down,
Remember, in September in the rain.
The sun went out just like a dying ember,
That September in the rain.

-Rod Stewart, September in the Rain

It's been a wet few days here in Tucson. But not even our Indian summer monsoons could compare to the tears that rained down from Congressional Democrats last night. At the end of an undoubtedly Bourbon-soaked evening, Democrats lost disgraced Rep. Anthony Weiner's solidly blue Congressional seat to Republican Robert Turner, 47% to 53%. The White House made an effort to put its spin on the results, but the point remains the same: if Brooklyn and Queens aren't safe for the Dems, what districts are?

Unlike the unreasonable folks over at HotAir, I won't read the results as anything other than what they are - an epic repudiation of President Obama's failed policies that all but portends a historic GOP victory in 2012 and beyond. Objectivity aside, it strikes me that when there is a Republican Congressman from New York City (New York City!?), it's either a sign of the apocalypse, or the sign of a burgeoning political tsunami. I'm hoping for the latter, but I think there's some evidence that it may be the former.

First, the New York Times, ran a reflective piece musing about the travails of living the authentic life. Alas, given that no one at the New York Times is actually authentic about anything, the article does little more than state the obvious. For the curious, the essay sagely observes that the image we project to others is little more than our perspective of how we want others to see us. Startling, I know. According to the NYT, this indicates that no matter how much we change our looks, or how ardently we attempt to conform to social mores, at the end of the day, we're all about as authentic as a James Frey autobiography. Somewhere in Hell, Michael Jackson is rolling over in his grave singing "Black or White."

I suppose matters could be worse. At least many of us have, or will have, the comfort of a stable relationship/marriage to fall back on when times get tough. Unless, of course, you reside in the 2/3s of the country typified by the American South and the American West. These decidedly red states, where God's faithful foot soldiers defend the citadel of marriage from the onslaughts of gay barbarians - these red states boast the highest divorce rates in the country. The hypocritical-evangelical-Christian meme is tired at this point, so I won't go there. But I recognize that, with the exception of Kim Kardashian, people aren't perfect. Still, maybe it's time to give the gays a chance at being miserable too? Fair is fair.

With New York turning red, marriages yielding to divorce, and weeks passing without a post, one might think your humble blogger has become more jaded than ever. This simply isn't true. I start my day with a cup of Joe (that's coffee, not Biden), and look for the good in the world.

One source of inspiration for me is the performance of the Oklahoma Sooners football team. OU was recently ranked the No. 1 team in the land for a record-setting 100th time, besting Notre Dame, Ohio State, and USC, coming in lightyears ahead of Texas. Second, returning to the topic of marriage marriage, I was also encouraged to see that roughly 86% of all Americans now approve of interracial marriage, or as they say in Tennessee, miscegenation. Should my wife and I ever decide to have spawn, they'll grow up in a much more tolerant society than the one Gary Coleman did, and that's a good thing.

But then I learn about products for children such as the Thudguard Infant Safety Helmet, and my hope for humanity languishes once again.

The aim of the Thudguard is to soften the blow, so to speak, while children are learning to walk. This, of course, begs the question, how in 7 million years of human evolution did we ever get by without the Thudguard? God only knows what the poor kids will do once they've out-grown their helmet. Walk without one? I realize if you're Rick Perry, the question may be a little different since the Earth is only slightly older than 5 thousand years. But even a creationist must consider how inexorably different history would have been. Imagine if Goliath was wearing a Thudguard when he fought lowly David? I'm not just saying, I'm just saying.

After reading about the Thudguard, I immediately recalled the poetics of former hip-hop sensation Aaliyah (RIP), and wondered how the lyrics of her song Try It Again might change given the advent of so ingenious a device. Perhaps we wouldn't encourage folks to try it again, so much as we would encourage them to be extremely careful while trying it the first time. Naturally, I promptly horrified myself by wondering whether Thudguard made an adult version of the helmet, and how much it might cost. If there's a moral to any of the above, it's probably that less is more.

For all my hemming and hawing, I don't think the apocalypse will be here any time soon. My Dallas Cowboys still haven't won a football game, meaning that Hell hasn't frozen over - unfortunately for the King of Pop. To celebrate the non-event, tonight, I will enjoy a quiet glass of wine with the wife who really is as close to perfect as anyone I actually know. I will be thankful that my marriage is well on the positive side of 50% of marriages in our great and blessed land. And I'll probably block http://babysfirstheadgear.com/ in my bank account's security settings.

But assuming my own happiness isn't enough to chase away your blues, as always, let not your heat be troubled. Things could always be worse. We could be living in Beijing.

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September 2, 2011

Book Review: Irma Voth

Irma Voth

The desert of Northern Mexico seems an unlikely place for religious dissidents to settle. Yet, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mennonite families exited Canada in droves, en route to Chihuahua, Mexico in hopes of finding freedom, cheap land, and the opportunity to maintain their religious and cultural practices - the most important of which included the right to speak the Low German language. Miriam Toews' latest novel, IRMA VOTH, (Harper; Sept. 6, 2011; $23.99), draws on the Mennonites' history to present a concept of language that is at times both humorous and haunting.

First, Toews uses language to fundamentally distinguish the Mennonite wayfarers of Chihuahua from the broader Mexican population. Early on, readers learn that the novel's eponymous, main character, Irma Voth has married a Mexican man named Jorge. The union creates a host of problems for Irma, not the least of which includes a strained relationship with her mercurial father - who would very much prefer that the Voths live "in" the world while doing all they can to avoid becoming "of" the world.

The clash between father and daughter results in Irma's painful exile from her immediate family to a second house on the Voth family property. It's unclear whether Irma's father reacts to her marriage angrily because of racial, cultural, or religious differences. All three justifications make an appearance, yet, all three are united by Toews' use of language as a differentiator. Race and cultural differences between Mexicans and Mennonites are typified in the novel by each group's embrace of its particular language - obviously, Spanish in the case of the former, and Low German for the latter. The same divisions are present when analyzed from the perspective of religion. Low German is venerated by Irma's father as the principle method of maintaining religious purity and social homogeneity among the Mennonite campos.

Second, shortly after Irma's banishment, Toews uses language in a markedly different way. Rather than using language as a tool for division, Toews uses language as a source of unity to develop the relationship between Irma and her sister Aggie. The entire Voth family has been instructed to avoid Irma. But Aggie is a fiery pre-teen and has absolutely no intention of avoiding her older sister. She mischievously begins a routine of making her way over to Irma's house. Although somewhat precarious, the clandestine visits restore a sense of family, and love missing from Irma's otherwise isolated existence. Irma and Aggie communicate in the hushed whispers of Low German to share news from home, and to share hopes for a brighter day.

In this way, Aggie's entry into the story presents language as a stark foil of the earlier scenes. Rather than using language to drive Irma away, Toews uses language to draw Irma and Aggie closer together. Language is used in a similar way when the novel's other gaggle of characters arrive. A ragtag group of Mexico City film makers have designs to shoot a movie about life in the rural campo. The bulk of the novel develops as a result of Irma's ability to communicate trilingually, landing her a gig as a translator for the film crew. This sets Irma up for exposure to a number of foreign, and secular ideas about life, culminating in a formative decision, that shakes the very foundations of existence as she knows it. But the point about language as it relates both to Aggie and the filmmakers is really the same: language is redemptive, wielding the ability recast a mechanism for dividing into a mechanism for uniting.

And this manipulation of language is the point of the novel in a macro sense. Toews uses language not only to advance her plot, but also to communicate ideas, thoughts, and emotions. This is true of any story, but what makes Toews' novel unique is its ability to immerse readers in the exercise of language manipulation from page one. Her prose has been called minimalist, but this is an understatement. The writing style is absolutely Spartan. This has the odd effect of causing readers to dive into her works not only for the sake of understanding the story, but also for the sake of carefully exploring each word for meaning.

This is largely how the novel reads in its entirety. Each page is a potential hiding place for beauty - whether it's a thought, a feeling, or an insight. And all the while, a reader's search for these gems inexplicably unveils the novel's plot.

I suppose in this way Toews' work mirrors life. In Irma Voth, she demonstrates life's complexity through language, underscoring that life is not often lived in the world of black and white envisioned by Irma's father. Rather, it is lived in the shades of gray where our ethical, moral, and religious suppositions are challenged by life itself - a world trafficked by Irma and Aggie, and all of the wonderful characters they meet.

Miriam Toews' Irma Voth is set for public release on September 6, 2011. It is available for pre-order here.

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September 1, 2011

Just a Typical, Tucson Bike Ride

Tucson had its first signs of fall today. Rather than topping out at 106 degrees, it was a balmy 103.

The weather seemed ripe for a bike ride since my trusty steed had sat dormant due to the extreme heat. I also needed to mail in the rent check, so a stop by the post office was on my to do list as well. As Uncle Dave Ramsey says, in a pinch, one can skimp on some payments, but rent should never be among them. I think his rationale is that it's a lot harder to do without shelter than it is to do without an iPhone. I'm not sure that he's entirely right. But it seems wise to pay rent all the same.

As I etched my name to the corner of the check, and sealed up the envelope, it occurred to me how antiquated the notion of check writing is. My landlord and I could easily set up a balance transfer, and she would have the money as soon as I authorized it. Yet, we opt to play the game of formalities once a month, and I write the check for her to cash.

I made my way out the door and realized that 103 degrees isn't terribly different from 106, so I rode my bike a little slower. The post office is located conveniently along the River Bike Path so I took my usual route through the foothills. As the sun beat down on my back, and the cacti and lizards greeted me along the way, I wondered whether my experience was similar to the pony express riders who carried mail through the desert west almost two centuries ago. It probably wasn't much similar at all, but it was a fun thought. After all, we have roads. And ponies smell.

In short order, I made my way out of the foothills, and headed toward the River Bike Path's entrance. Access to the path isn't direct for me, so I dutifully walk my bike along a twenty-yards stretch of sidewalk. It's quite illegal to ride a bike on the sidewalk, and nothing annoys me more than cyclists who break the law. While walking my bike, I noticed an oddly clad young man who was himself walking in the middle of River Road. He was asking cars that had pulled up to the stop light for a ride to Campbell Avenue. The request seemed a bit odd, seeing as Campbell Ave. is less than a mile away from this particular intersection. I don't think he was mentally stable. Still, I felt sorry for the man, until I re-remembered that it was a balmy 103 degrees. Of course, I then re-realized that 103 degrees isn't much different from 106, and I silently re-hoped that someone would give him a lift - even if it was less than a mile away. Much to my surprise, someone did. The good samaritan was a surly looking man, driving a mini-van in such a way that he he told the world how depressing his life was. Still, I was glad the somewhat unstable young man had found a ride, even if his benefactor did reminded me a bit of John Wayne Gacy.

After reaching the post office, I noticed a postal worker schlepping mail from the curb-side mailboxes. I quickly rode up to her, gave her a bright and friendly greeting, before asking her to include my envelope with the other items in her cart. After making this utterly reasonable request, one of Jane Austen's famous lines came to mind. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that an employee of the U.S. Postal Service is among the most miserable of human beings to walk this planet." Jane Austen didn't write that. But it's a universally acknowledge truth all the same. True to form, rather than addressing me, or otherwise acknowledging my existence she pushed her cart past me, grunting in a way that only female postal workers can, and indicated that I should put my envelope where the sun doesn't shine - presumably she meant in the mailbox, which as luck would have it had yet another pick up time at 5:00PM.

After dropping the check into the mail, I immediately felt lighter - around $850 lighter, in fact, and I quickly made my way to Gwyn. I rode quickly because I had a slight, nagging fear that Helga might come back with her Norsemen chums from the Post Office break room, and I didn't want to be anywhere near the vicinity when they returned.

In all, I made fairly decent time getting to my wife, arriving five minutes early. This earned me only about a ten minute wait in the sun, and a quarter-mile walk to the truck, but I still call that a win. At least I wasn't standing in the middle of the road asking errant motorists for rides.

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