December 31, 2012

A Few Resolutions

It's sad but I tend to be more consistent in making resolutions than in actually following through with them. As a quick recap from last year, I accomplished a meager 6 of the 14 goals I set last January:

Wins: 1) confirmed in the Episcopal Church, 2) memorized the Nicene Creed, 3) finished Ten Book Reviews, 4) finished my dissertation, 5) moved back to Oklahoma, 6) found gainful employment - more on this later.

Losses: 1) failed to read the Bible in one year, 2) failed to blog four times per week, 3) failed to ride my bike twice per week, 4) failed to drink less alcohol, 5) failed to reclaim my high school weight, 6) failed to finish War and Peace, 7) failed to finish The Brothers Karamazov, 8) failed to take a celebratory vacation - but for a good reason.

Naturally, the tally isn't exactly an inspiring reason to set goals for the new year. But they say misery loves company and, indeed, research shows that my failure puts me in the good company of four-fifths of all people who make resolutions.

For 2013, my list and motivations are a little different. Most of my resolutions are fairly specific but I feel what was lacking this year was an aspirational goal to motivate me at points in the year when life seemed flat. To correct this, I've added a theme for the year summarized by the phrase, "Do good. Keep it simple."

What makes this year's theme exciting to me is that it combines service aspects of my faith that are important to me with the zen concept of living minimalism. Life is challenging enough without my adding any unnecessary complications to the mix and I feel this theme is already reflected in a number of the goals I've set for this year:

1. Faith. Get back to the basics. Focus less on theological problems and look for ways to obey God by serving others. Application not theory.

2. Drink less alcohol. This is starting to sound like a broken record. I managed to cut back since Clark was born, so really I just need to carry this momentum into 2013.

3. Fitness. My goal is to lose 30lbs. No excuses. Play like a champion.

4. Kindness. Surprise. I'm an extremely sarcastic person. I think I could be a lot kinder to people if I weren't such a smartass all the time.

5. Writing. I am the biggest obstacle to my creative writing outlet. My creative writing goal is to write one page per day.

6. Bible. My goal is to read the Book of Common Prayer's Daily Office readings each day.

7. Blogging. As my grandfather might say, my goal of four posts per week went over like a lead balloon. I'm reducing that wayward aim to twice per week with hope for more.

8. Time. For reasons associated with my new position, a point requiring its own post, time management is going to be crucial skill for me to continue to develop. I'd like to set aside at least one hour per day for family time every day. I realize this number sounds slight and I expect the balance to be much larger, but for those days where time is scarce, this will be a fine goal to keep in mind.

9. Cycling. I plan to ride my bike regularly as circumstances allow.

10. Finances. My goal for the year, in keeping with the idea of minimalism, is to purchase less things and to spend my money on memories and things of lasting value. I do not know how this will work out in practice, but God knows we don't need any more 'stuff'.

And that, friends and fiends, is my list of new year's resolutions. May the worst of your 2013 be better than the best of your 2012.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

December 27, 2012

The Ghosts Of Christmas Past


Christmas has come and gone here in the 'ole Fodder Family boarding house. The home place was filled with presents and people, making it difficult to imagine that not so very long ago we celebrated with only six members in our immediate family (In order of age: Grandpa, Dad, Mom, Me, Andrea and Chelsey). This year our ranks ballooned to ten (Grandpa, Dad, Mom, my wife Gwyn, Me, Andrea's husband Jacob, Andrea, Chelsey, our nephew Garrett, and our son Clark). 

Despite the blessing, in the weeks preceding Christmas, I found myself more disposed to reside on Mt. Crumpit than Whoville. For those who know me, this is an odd departure from the natural state of things. I wouldn't fancy myself a Buddy the Elf. But insofar as elves have counterparts in their human cousins, well, I'm at least a George Bailey after his brush with Clarence the Angel. 

I think what changed for me this year, aside from the obvious pitfalls of relocating to a new state and welcoming a newborn into the world, was the added pressure I felt to make Christmas as idyllic for Baby Clark as I remembered it being as a child. I realize now how irrational this was. Even if all were calm and bright, Clark wouldn't have remembered it anyway. He snoozed soundly through most of our gift giving.

Still, as a new father, I thought a lot about what I needed to do to make Clark's Christmas extra special. From balancing our finances, to selecting the perfect Christmas music (Bing Crosby and Michael Bublé), to purchasing the appropriate "Baby's First Christmas" ornament (Baby Block ornament), I tried and failed to plan every detail of the holiday. And when plans went awry, as they inevitably do with my family, my nerves quickly followed suit. 

I think my efforts to micromanage Christmas stemmed from an idealized memory of Christmases past - a strange specter of all of the best Christmases lumped into one. The result was that I tried to impose a litany of unrealistic expectations on my son and everyone else. See below:

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As the unfortunate photo above shows, no self-respecting dog should ever have to wear a Santa hat. And no one should have Christmas dictated to them. 

In retrospect, my shenanigans aside, we had a grand Christmas.

Our family was together. We are all in good health. We celebrated the Lord's birth with our perfect baby boy and my rambunctious, smiling nephew. Even materially, I can't complain about my new Keurig Coffee Maker

Next year, I will aim to put the Ghosts of Christmas Past to rest. 

November 25, 2012

Book Review: The Stockholm Octavo

The Stockholm OctavoThe best novels are the ones that keep you up until 4AM, wearily turning page after page, too enthralled to sleep. The best of the best transport readers into a new reality crafted by the author and demand that readers consider something bigger than the plot itself. The truly exceptional test one's understanding of the novel as a work of art, using mere words to touch the elusive realm of beauty. It is rare that any author is able to pull off such a feat and rarer still when a first-time author pulls it off so convincingly. But Ms. Karen Engelmann's debut novel, The Stockholm Octavo (Publisher: Ecco; On Sale: Oct. 23, 2012 ; Cost: $26.99), is a true gem that manages to accomplish all of the above through a compelling storyline, simple yet beautiful prose, and a thought-provoking exploration of the Divine. 

By way of plot, Engelmann's novel follows the exploits of middling bureaucrat Emil Larsson, an ambitious customs agent, stalking the ports of Stockholm during the age of monarchial revolution in the late 18th Century. Despite being of marriageable age, Mr. Larsson's will to wed is limited by his penchant for booze, women and cards. While indulging lady luck amid the dank card rooms of Gray Friars Alley, Emil becomes well acquainted with the establishment's proprietress, and soon receives an unsolicited offer from Mrs. Sparrow to read his cards in a special ritual called the octavo.

The eight card affair aims to disclose the eight individuals who will become central to Emil's quest for "love and connection." Rather than being a simple search for love like so many novels, Engelmann's work combines the mystery of the card reading tradition with the political intrigue of the times, introducing readers to a host of memorable characters ranging from scheming aristocratic ladies, to wily peasant girls, to the King of Sweden himself, Gustav III.

The diverse gaggle of characters make the story memorable in its own right, though the plot is admittedly somewhat complex. Throughout the story, Emil is obliged to find his love only by delving into the political and social intrigue besetting the Swedish Court. This makes for numerous plot twists and character nuances that require paying careful attention to each member of Emil's octavo - in addition to the numerous minor characters associated with the crème de la creme of Swedish society as portrayed in the novel. Ultimately, the book deftly incorporates the assassination of King Gustav III with Emil's quest for love rather seamlessly, making it a story that can appeal to both male and female readers. In fact, so broad is the appeal that I would be shocked if the story doesn't hit the silver screen in the near future (a real home run for Harper Collins imprimatur, Ecco).  

While the story itself is fantastic, happily, there are many more reasons to pick up Ms. Engelmann's book, not the least of which include the beauty with which she spins her lengthy yarn. One pitfall of many first-time authors (and writers in general) is the unfortunate penchant of writing in a style far too rococo to be engaging. The borderline between beautiful writing and the kitsch is quite fine, indeed. Ms. Engelmann seems to intuitively understand this and avoids crossing the threshold of the melodramatic. This allows her simply exquisite writing to capture the description of scenes without being overly floral.

Consider this brief excerpt describing an evening Emil spends with Christian and Margo Nordén, an important husband/wife duo who operate an upscale, French boutique dedicated to the craft of producing women's fans. Emil notes:

I treasure that exact moment: the scent of lemon oil, the warmth of the yellow-striped room in the candlelight, the delicious wine, lovely manners, and image of the two of them that pointed to a deep connection to the world and everything, everyone in it - the Octavo grown infinite. It made me both lighthearted and sorrowful. p.199.

At risk of overusing the word, what makes Engelmann's writing beautiful is its ability to relate the thoughts and experiences of the novel's characters in such a way that readers immediately understand the unwritten and unspoken thoughts being communicated within the story. The excerpt above demonstrates an obvious closeness between the characters, typified by Engelmann's description of the room, the lighting, and even the taste of the wine being served. But these details, indeed the entire scene, is only intended to buttress a readers' understanding of the Nordéns' relationship as a foil for the same sort of connection being sought by Emil in the novel. The result is that the audience understands what Emil is looking for without the need of the author to coarsely state the obvious. In Engelmann's case, beauty is subtlety. 

The gift of expression within The Stockholm Octavo actually speaks to the greater philosophy of relationship residing at the core of the novel - a discussion spanning the entire length of the book. At the core of Emil Larsson's search for love is his search for connection with other people. The magic of Mrs. Sparrow's octavo is that it is supposed to reveal those people who can further this end. But the ultimate lesson of the octavo is very different from early perceptions of its powers. At the end of the work, long after the plot has been more or less resolved, Emil frames his understanding of events as follows: 

I think the Octavo exists in a dimension all its own: defining the here and now, reaching back into the past, and influencing the future - like some great edifice eternally rising. If you decide to enter, you will indeed be reborn. The Octavo is the architecture of relationships that we build ourselves, and with which we build the world. p.409.

Engelmann's philosophy of relationship is best defined as the courage to allow others into our lives. While Emil is searching for love, he is obliged to entertain the graces and schemes of a number of people with whom he never would have otherwise engaged. He is repeatedly described as a loner, who must venture beyond the comforts of his lodgings in order to fulfill his octavo's quest. Along the way, he develops an "architecture of relationships" beginning with the owner of Gray Friars Alley, Mrs. Sparrow, and encompassing individuals at various levels of Swedish society. To state matters tritely, Emil exits his comfort zone and becomes embroiled in a matter of state that fills his life with excitement, adventure and perhaps love. In this way, Engelmann reminds readers of how utterly dependent we are upon those in our lives to add to its quality. And while the benefits of relationship are seldom amorous, relationships defined by philia and agape are just as important.

On the matter of theology, Engelmann presents a view of faith that is both unorthodox and skeptical of so-called, organized religions. Of God, Mrs. Sparrow notes: 

I believe that God is no father, but an infinite cipher, and that is best expressed in the eight. Eight is the ancient symbol of eternity. p.14

This strikes me as a fair enough point to contest - although envisioning God as a symbol for the infinite, an abstract mathematical notation, isn't quite as warm as thinking about God as a loving Father. Similarly, Engelmann presents key, female protagonist Johanna Grey as the victim of a mother given over to religious fervor:

Johanna's mother, exceptionally devout, declared that adorning oneself in garments of color was an affront to the Almighty. Human beings were born colorless, meant to spend their lives in prayer until crossing the bridge of death into a brilliant Paradise. p.63

In contrast to the bright colors of avarice found in the Nordéns shop and the tempting quarters of the villainess Uzanne, oozing with sensuality and treachery, Johanna's Mother viewed a life void of color as the true mark of the consecrated. With all due respect to Apple's wonderful exploration into the realm of minimalist design, Engelmann's point is that the monochromatic life seldom begets true happiness. Life requires a certain hue that is found outside the moral artifices of black and white. Sometimes the deep red of a dress, or the blue eyes of a lover are necessary to make the daily grind worthwhile. 

And so we are left with a novel that brings description to life through a rich, thoroughly original plot\ that is coupled with both a profound rumination on life and musings about humanity's relationship with itself and the divine.

Not a bad run at all for a novice author. 

November 20, 2012

Tales from the Road

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Today finds me encamped at the local Denny's here in Joplin, MO. My wife and I are en route to Bloomington, IN for Thanksgiving with her family. The place is filled with travelers taking a break from the grind along I-44, hailing from all walks of life.

Our waitress is a friendly sort, coming from good, Midwestern stock. She's friendly but not overly so and seems to execute her job with a refreshing efficiency.

There's an interesting gaggle of locals perched at the bar watching TV, sipping coffee without a care in the world. It's a bit like a throwback to the cafes of old, when the coffee was strong and the people were stronger. The men wear blue jeans and baseball caps while the lone woman dons a Sons of Anarchy t-shirt. I can't comment on their sartorial choices but the camaraderie is impressive. They clearly all know each other and the scene I am witnessing has repeated itself numerous times before.

Our son Clark was hungry and angry a bit earlier. As my wife rose to make a hasty retreat for the baby changing station in the adjacent Flying J Truck stop, we received a number of sympathetic nods from our fellow customers. We replied with appreciative smiles.

When I looked at Clark's empty carseat, I couldn't help but appreciate such a place that brings so many disparate people together. How strange to find community while randomly traveling down the road.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

November 3, 2012

Book Review: The Accomplice

One of my many, minor vices is the thriller/mystery novel genre. Turning the dial back to the 5th grade, I remember reading the complete works of Sherlock Holmes and shattering the "Book It" records for my classroom. If memory serves me correctly, this also sparked a lifelong fascination with Pizza Hut pizzas.

More recently, the works of Brad Metzler and to a lesser extent Elizabeth Kostova, Dan Brown, and Ken Follett, have all captured some of my early forays into reading. Each author spins a yarn that can rival the latest blockbuster movie, while most importantly leaving me unable to put the book down. Having read Charles Robbins' debut novel The Accomplice (Publisher: St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books; On Sale: Sept. 4, 2012 ; Cost: $24.99), I'm pleased to have discovered an author with a similar gift.

For those outside the I-495 Beltway (that is to say the honest people of our great and blessed land), Charles Robbins is a former Congressional staffer and communications director for the late Sen. Arlen Specter's ill-fated 1996 Presidential bid. His novel explores "what happens when ambition and power meet in the midst of a world filled with ruthless characters willing to do whatever it takes to win" - which basically means sex scandals, corrupt politicians, and backstabbing campaign operatives. Hope and change, indeed.

Being somewhat of a very minor, ex-politico, the subject matter was intriguing from my first glance at the press release. Political types tend to be a fairly incestuous brood, and no matter what one's scruples, it seems that everyone loves a good political sex scandal. Just ask Mark Sanford.

Robbins captures this appeal to the prurient interest in a way that is eminently consistent with good storytelling and political intrigue. From clandestine meetings with vulnerable campaign volunteers (p.113), to cozy luncheons with the candidate's wife (p.241) (Which, incidentally, takes place at Piccola Italia restaurant in downtown Manchester, NH - home to the best broccoli, chicken and penne I've ever eaten), Robbins takes readers into the seedy underbelly of major political campaigns where ethics and idealism meet realpolitick.

The plot is, of course, much more interesting than salaciousness for its own sake. Drawing from his political background and his bygone days as a print newsman, Robbins' tale is also rich in the details of internal, campaign subterfuge, pitting the objectives of campaign bosses against the pseudo-power of local party elites (p.259). By the time Robbins winds up his thriller, a murder and a financial scandal have embroiled the once idealistic staffer who serves as the novel's the main character.

Naturally, I realize that the plot summary above (which purposefully tries to obscure anything that might give away the ending and any important subplots) does a supreme injustice to the actual writing and the work itself. This highlights, I think, a basic tension in the mystery/thriller genre itself - whether a work is defined by its plot or by its pace. The former requires a great deal of focus on the events of the novel and the characters that appear front and center throughout. Novels defined by their pace, on the other hand, tend to move confidently ahead, pulling readers to the next line, paragraph, and page almost involuntarily. These are the kinds of books that you can read into the wee small hours of the morning and never miss that the world has long been fast asleep.

It should be obvious that Robbins' work hails from the clan of books defined by their pace. Those seeking exquisite prose would do well never to open any book in this genre but this is particularly true of Robbins' debut piece. The language is coarse yet purposeful. Almost utilitarian. As if the words themselves are a hinderance to the story being told in the mind's eye.

Robbins' idea is not to wow readers with his doubtless, ample Princeton vocabulary. The goal is to suck readers into the abyss of campaign life and the ethical dilemmas, or lack thereof, facing all those who dare to enter Roosevelt's arena. This makes it very easy to become absorbed in the story and to stalk the dank hotel rooms of the campaign trail along with Henry Hatten.

In all, the novel is a timely release, particularly with the election taking place today. For the political junkies and mystery enthusiasts among us, Robbins' tale will fit nicely into a fall reading list. My view from the cheap seats is that it's an excellent read from an engaging, new author. Here's hoping Mr. Robbins' first work is not his last.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

October 24, 2012

Book Review: The Book of Neil

The Book of Neil

But for the kindness of my friend Meryl Zagarek (, it's quite likely that I would have missed the release of Frank Turner Hollon's latest novel, The Book of Neil (Publisher: MacAdam/Cage; On Sale: Nov. 16, 2012 ; Cost: $20.00). As a bit of reference, Mr. Hollon is a prolific author of children's books and short stories, but one who also boasts two novels that have been turned into films (Barry Munday; and Blood and Circumstances, which is currently in production). I think it's safe to say that Hollon's novel will not be remembered for its prose, which is at times repetitive and understated. But the novel's staying power is its exploration of a complex theological question, using an extremely minimalist writing style.

The theme of Hollon's novel centers on the proposition of Christ's return to earth in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Here's how the press release describes Mr. Hollon's work:

In The Book of Neil we are asked to consider what would happen if Jesus returned to earth in 2012, at a time when people are driven by consumption, self-indulgence, and a preoccupation with social media. Are we so cynical that Jesus would be dismissed as just another mentally ill street-preacher?

The idea is striking because the return of Jesus to Earth is one of the few aspects of Christian theology that mainstream Christianity tends not to debate. These days, our theological and moral disputes tend to include issues like determinism, theodicy, Biblical inerrancy, literalism, gay marriage, abortion and once upon a time questions about stem cell research and the like. But these issues are more on the periphery and clearly not central to the tenants of Christian faith itself (viz., Christ's return to Earth).

So, what would it look like if Jesus came back to Earth, say, today? How would the event unfold? What would the reaction of believers be as opposed to the reaction of non-believers? Hollon's novel offers readers his interpretation of the answer.

What's obvious from the first page is that the work is no typical novel. Hollon's writing style is minimalist to the point of distraction (more on this later). His characters are sketches of what characters should be. The details Hollon provides are sparse. Days bleed into one another without paying heed to the logical progression of time. In this way, Hollon's work is not a cheap knock off from Joyce, focusing on the minutia of the day to day. Instead Hollon's style keeps the focus on life's panorama of the forest. The big picture accented by big themes. 

The first theme readers encounter is Hollon's embrace of absurdism, which not only provides the justification for Hollon's experiment but also paves the way for some of the other ideas explored in the work. Absurdism suggests that human efforts to divine meaning are absurd on their face because the exercise is impossible and doomed to fail. Absurdism's implausibility of truth justifies the minimalist introduction to the work beginning on page 1 of the novel. There, Neil casually meets Jesus on the 14th hole of the local country club. After exchanging pleasantries, Jesus notes, "You're probably wondering what I'm doing here." Without waiting for an answer, Jesus replies:

"I'm playing golf," He said. "A frustrating game. I don't really have the patience for it, but I enjoy playing anyway." p.11.

Aside from being a bit presumptuous, Jesus' opening line in the work is rife with absurdity because of how mundane the introduction actually is. It's a bit like an off-Broadway production of Seinfeld, a scene about nothing using next to nothing to make the point. Hollon's early pages make the search for meaning futile because they take place on the blandest of all locales to which the Son of God could possibly return. To make the point even more pronounced, Hollon fills the mouth of God Incarnate with the same, tired clichés about golf uttered by every other hack with a set of clubs.

This absurdist framework creates a justification for everything that follows. Specifically, Hollon can continue his experiment because it is not a search for meaning. Rather it is an exercise in potentiality, an experiment illustrating what could be. There is no deeper truth to Hollon's work because it is a hypothetical, and searching for the Truth in a hypothetical is folly because hypotheticals are by definition works of fiction. 

Of course, the book would be relatively short and uninteresting if page after page of the work recounted the folly of man's search for meaning set amid scenarios and scenes that have never happened. Almost of necessity, Hollon's embrace of the absurd requires him to explore the implications of his premise which is by far the more interesting exercise of the novel. This analysis begins with the simple observation that a world void of meaning presents a rather large opening for individuals (and ultimately society) to descend into nihilism. 

The book's eponymous anti-hero Neil describes the matter as follows:  

It's the never ending balance. On one side is the absolute knowledge that nothing whatsoever matters. There's nothing any of us can do, nothing, that makes any difference at all. The world will continue to spin, time will continue to run, and each of us, every single one of us, will die, go back into the earth one way or another, and be forgotten in the blink of an eye.

On the other side, we wake up every morning and convince ourselves how important it is to provide for our children, bring the dog inside when it's cold, mow the grass, pay the electric bill. And we ignore the irreconcilable differences between the two, the dichotomy. How can we not? Utter hopelessness is only a thought away, and the dogs are at the door. p.123

If we grant Hollon his absurdist introduction, then Neil's summary of the matter is the natural result. Throughout the novel, various characters struggle to make sense of Jesus' return, and invariably this forces them to evaluate the mundane and traumatic in their lives vis-à-vis the hope that life itself is not absurd and void of meaning. Much like he does in the New Testament, the figure of Jesus brings hope to individuals that takes them beyond the nihilistic conclusions of absurdism, and beyond the empty existentialism of crafting a subjective meaning from life's routine.

Hollon uses this otherness of Jesus to advance the majority of his novel's plot. Readers see stories of individuals demonstrating the effects of Jesus' return on the micro-level. As the scenarios play out in the characters' lives, this has the effect of rescuing hope from the clutches of the absurd in the novel. Some of the characters find hope and inspiration through Jesus' return. Others are forced to confront whether they believe in an alternative to nihilism and the existential routine of truth as subjectivity. 

While the novel is rich in major themes and presents nearly all of them in a sophisticated manner, the emphasis on big picture has the effect of diminishing Hollon's prose. This is not a novel to read if you long for the descriptions of Tolstoy or the punch of Hemingway. Hollon does not pretend to be anything other than what he is: a thoughtful writer, intrigued by the ideas of his work. But as a result some of his prose suffers. Portions of the novel are repetitive. Phrases, jokes, witticisms all make more appearances than necessary. And to be fair, most of the characters lack depth. We learn little of their backgrounds, aspirations, and even motivations in some instances. But this is deliberate. Prose, character development, and style are all sacrificed for Hollon's experiment with big concepts. The novel is bold in this regard even though this quality could easily be off-putting to the casual reader. 

Still, it is Hollon's boldness that makes the work a success. For all of its faults stylistically, Hollon's insistence upon exploring big ideas more than makes up for the novel's ultra-minimalist style. The question going forward will be whether Hollon's hard work and focus on the forest will find success in a culture and readership that is increasingly more interested in the trees. 

October 21, 2012

Fatherhood: First Impressions

Baby Clark

This past Monday, on October 15, 2012, after a protracted, thirty-hour labor, Gwyn and I welcomed our first-born son into the world. Clark William Fodder was born at 9:52 AM here in Tucson, weighing in at 7 lbs on the nose. It's strange to think of instantly loving a child, but the parenting instincts really kicked in without a problem. A few years ago, I called children parasites, as of Monday I called this one my "little buddy" and my Son. Naturally, much has changed in the past week. 

As a quick example, it's about 12:30AM on Sunday night as I sit down to write this. Clark is snoozing in his bassinet, a structure I am very much tempted to call a crate à la our Pooch Alexas. Though the hour draws late, it's really only the beginning of my night. In a surprise to no one but me, late nights over the past week have delayed my ability to do much of anything. So many friends and family had warned us about the coming dearth of sleep but I stubbornly assumed that any spawn of mine would prove the exception rather than the rule. The result of tempting these fates is that Baby Clark seems to have inherited, in manifold, my penchant for late nights. This party is just getting started.

Clark's typical "night" includes waking up around 11PM/12AM for dinner. After 10 to 15 minutes of feeding, he falls back asleep for an hour or so, before waking up for yet another meal. The scenario repeats itself until around 7AM when he finally drifts off for good until breakfast around 10AM. Sleep for me and Gwyn occurs between feedings, leaving us in a zomboid trance most of the day, mindlessly wandering between Clark's crate and the kitchen in search of coffee (brains!). 

The Mayo Clinic actually offers a number of helpful tips to soothe the disconsolate newborn, but at 4AM our ability to think rationally is usually fairly well gone. I find that I've developed a number of superstitions to help me cope with the uncertainty. My ritual when putting Clark to bed includes gently placing him in the bassinet and gingerly walking backwards as if the slightest wrong move might trigger the baby bomb's explosive mechanism. And when Clark successfully remains asleep, James Bond has nothing on this sleep deprived father. 

I'm not sure that my rituals help but like so many tricks of parenting, they impose a bit of order on what is in reality a muddled process, adding structure to something that is utterly beyond my control anyway. This is the hardest part of being a parent really. Nothing and everything is simultaneously within my control. As first-time parents, there are any number of things that could go wrong at any point and none of these exigencies are within my ambit of control (illness, acts of god, diapers that don't quite keeping exterior clothing dry, etc.). And yet all of the choices related to Clark's rearing are within my control (selecting a pediatrician, purchasing a safe car seat, buying a different brand of diaper, etc.). It's really a maddening dichotomy when you think about it.  

The crux of what I've learned in the past week is that the only way to navigate the contrariety of Fatherhood is give it the old college try. Do the best you can. Give it a go. "Keep Calm and Carry On" as the meme says. But don't get caught in the lie of believing that there's a best or even better way of doing things. For every opinion given, there are completely different schools of thought that say the opposite. So, just pick one. Everyone who has ever parented a kid and whole segments of the population who haven't, seem to have theories about the best way to swaddle a newborn. Accordingly, there are no less than ten different websites selling wares meant for swaddling newborns, with each company claiming to sell the best product for swaddling (and let's be honest, the Miracle Blanket is really the best product on the market). Yet, the same act can be accomplished by a bit of folding trickery with a receiving blanket, $10 for a pack of 4 at Target. There's no right way. Just your way. 

Anyway, in case you missed the lead I just buried, the point is just that there's really no right, better or best way to rear a kid. This realization makes me appreciate the decisions that my own parents faced when I was a child. And in retrospect, I have to say that most parents (mine included) end up doing a pretty good job - even when they've had to turn chicken shit into chicken salad.  

And so, with already 6 days on the job and roughly 6,564 days until Clark turns 18, as the hymn says, time is now fleeting, the moments are passing. Here's hoping that when the bell tolls, we'll have done a pretty good job too.

October 12, 2012

Thoughts of an Anxious Father

An Anxious Father

"The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them."

- Ecclesiastes 1.11

We had our weekly doctor's appointment today. I'll do my best not to reveal too much information although this is surprisingly difficult to do when discussing a pregnancy. In brief, Gwyn is progressing quite well and is nearing the stages of early delivery. In terms of timeframe, Baby Clark could arrive any day now. 

Being the eternal ray of sunshine that I am, his birth triggers a lot of conflicting thoughts for me. Naturally, I'll start with the more melancholic.

I suppose I turned to the passage above from Ecclesiastes because it reminds me of our collective lot, set amid the vast pantheon of begins who have lived and died on this terrestrial plane, and are now forgotten. Thinking of my son, I want him to exceed this very low bar set by Ecclesiastes. I want his life to have meaning. I don't want his name relegated to the dusty annals of history. I want him to be…great!

Of course, greatness, by definition, is rare. When I think of the great men of history, I think of Jesus. Thomas Jefferson. John Locke. Bing Crosby. William F. Buckley. Henry Ford. Steve Jobs and even Ernest Hemingway. Just a few names. But all men who lived lives of consequence. Hoping that Clark will assume a post among the great men of time is surely the blind ambitions of a joyful father. Yes, I know that the humble, appropriate thing to do is to pray that he lives a life of character - and I will pray for that. But just for good measure, I'll tack on a prayer that he live a life of consequence. However that is defined.

I suspect such prayers are what most parents want for their children. Given my present station in life, I feel that this is a bit like the blind leading the blind. But the arrival of children does a strange thing to us parents to be. My life has become less important to me than the reality of my child having a better future. This sentiment so often struck me as a cliché. I'm amazed to know this is what parents really feel. For myself, I merely pray for the vision to help make these things a reality for Clark, even as he charts his own course. 

Not all of my thoughts are so morose. The second section of Ecclesiastes takes what has become a circumspect, existential view of life. For me, this means that the best I can do is live in the present - not in hopes of what things might come. The present reality is that my son will be here very, very soon. 

As the sun streams through my kitchen window, I have to smile when I think about his tiny feet. Feet that have yet to set foot on this ancient sphere. I think of his tiny fists - fists not clenched in anger but in warmth and love. I can imagine his tiny eyes, not yet fully able to take in his surroundings. Sleepy eyes that have never seen the evil and sorrows of this world.

Simply put, he is pure. Pure in every conceivable, normative sense of the word. An angel. Better still, a son.  

One day, we will throw passes in the yard, just as my Father and Grandfather did with me. Perhaps when he's able to, we'll read a book together, or settle in for a game of Call of Duty. Maybe when he's much older we'll have cigars and scotch on the porch. I hope he likes that sort of thing. For that matter, I hope he will like our pooch, Alexas. She can be rambunctious. Unrelated, I also hope he is a Republican so that we can complain to one another between election cycles. And I hope that I don't drive him away. But when I do, because it's inevitable that I will, I hope that he will come back.

So many hopes. So many joys. So many worries.

But for now, we wait. 

Take your time, Dear Son. Enjoy the love of your Mother's belly. We'll be waiting to care for you when you come into our World. 

October 5, 2012

October Skies

Autumn Skies

With Baby Clark's birth so near, today seemed like as good a day as any to give a quick update on life, as opposed to the book reviews I've lately been posting.

I suppose this is true of any couple, but Gwyn and I have spent much time preparing for our Son's arrival. We obviously have a name picked out but we didn't do a big announcement - at least until he actually comes into the world. I don't much believe in Karma but better not to take any chances. One of the more interesting aspects of our preparations (besides nearly weekly trips to Babies "R" Us) has been coordinating travel plans with our respective families. Gwyn's family has plans to depart from Indianapolis, while my family will make the trek from Southwest Oklahoma. Given that the baby is not nearly so interested in advance planning as we are, coordinating things has been quite the feat. We've more or less accepted the fact that it's entirely possible no one will be here when he's born, except for me and Gwyn - unless, of course, the stars align, itineraries converge, and Baby Fodder proves to be every bit the Type-A planner his father is. And really, no one would wish that on him at all. 

On my afternoon bike rides, I find my mind wandering more and more toward the type of world our Baby Boy will soon enter. As an erstwhile political junkie, given that we are in the midst of the Presidential Election, it's impossible not to think about the type of country my Son will grow up in. By any fair measure, the political/economic/social state of our union is at a crucial juncture. With my generation facing massive debt, fewer financial opportunities than the generation before us, and a stagnant political system that has offered no solutions, I am convinced that this election will have tremendous ramifications for our Nation going forward. And as a partisan, I'm also quite convinced that the Nation needs a new vision other than the one offered by the current Administration. Naturally, I was quite pleased with Gov. Romney's performance during the first debate on Wednesday. I think the AP Photo here, more or less sums up the feelings of both sides following the 90 minute skirmish.

But setting aside partisanship for a moment, it's interesting for me to think about this election in terms of how it will affect my very near-future offspring. I've heard politicians and wannabe politicians clamor for years and years about how elections are all about the kind of future we want to leave for our children. More often than not, I wrote off the remark as that of an older generation trying to kiss up to a younger generation. Maybe a lame attempt to keep granny out of the home for a couple of years, who knows? But as a soon-to-be Father, I find myself asking, "Who would run our ship of state better? Who can I trust to steer us in a direction that will allow my Son to have opportunities that I could not, say 18 - 20 years from now?" Having never really done it before, it's a strange thing to think with the mind of a parent. 

And of course, I've had many thoughts about the greater world - mostly at night while having a cigar on the porch. Overseas, the war drums beat, though perhaps not quite so loudly, between Israel and Iran. The world watches to see what position, if any, the U.S. will take. Meanwhile, the American embassy in Lybia burns and our FBI teams have only just entered the country, some three weeks after the assassination of our Ambassador by terrorists. The latest question to arise over the incident this week is whether our government actually ordered a cover-up of the whole thing.   

To be sure, our Son will be born during a critical hour in history. As a captive of my moment, I would like to think that these challenges are unique but if I give my parents' generation and my grandparents' generation any credit, it's clear that each has faced its own critical moments. But as a future parent, the status quo simply isn't acceptable to me. I actually want my Son to grow up in a peaceful world. Strange, isn't it? I'd like him to travel and explore other cultures that are currently restricted by the tensions of world powers (e.g., Egypt, Venezuela, even Iran). Of course, there's actually a self-interested element in all of this as well - for all I know, my Son could pursue a career in the armed forces; he could command a fighter jet over the Pacific (although with his mother's eyesight, I highly doubt this). He might even join the special ops, and genuinely mean that he would have to kill me if he told me what he actually did. Suffice it to say, if I were a military parent, I'd rather my Son serve during a time of peace with his missions more akin to Johnny English than Jason Bourne

As a fall air gradually begins to blow across Tucson's alluvial plain, the only certainty I have of late is the blue, October sky above. As a would be parent, this leaves me extremely unsettled. So much is out of my control and I can't help but think that I know so little about life. And yet this little life, due in two weeks or so, needs me to help him make it make sense. 

And so I do the only thing I can: I pray that my Son might flourish, even in the desert of our age. 

September 26, 2012

Book Review: Judging a Book by Its Lover

Judging a Book by Its Lover

The press release billed Lauren Leto's latest book Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere (Publisher: Harper Perennial; On Sale: October 2, 2012; Cost: $14.99) as a "hilarious and insightful take on contemporary book culture that both celebrates and mock's literature's biggest names and the people who read them." Not being one too shy to mock the inane, I couldn't help having my interest piqued by Ms. Leto's work. 

The only problem was that I had never heard of Lauren Leto.

A search of the interwebs revealed that she is the co-founder of a website called, which (surprise!) publishes the unfortunate text you wish you had never sent. Besides this, it is worth noting that Leto is also a recovering law student, having dropped out of Wayne State Law School to launch her much more successful ventures on the web. Given this background I couldn't fault Leto for her life choices but I still didn't understand what made her particularly qualified to offer "snarky but spot-on observations about books and the passionate conversations they generate," let alone why the "memorable moments from her own adventures in reading" should be interesting enough to merit a book deal.

Alas, the press release and author bio offered no answers to my questions. Still, I soldiered on. Intrepid.

Judging a Book by Its Lover reads like a book title in want of content. To fill the void, Ms. Leto's every musing about the world of books seems to make it into the text. Early in the book, Leto inevitably describes readers of Ayn Rand novels as "old-money preps" (p.17), while reducing readers of Che Guevara biographies as "quirky hipsters" (which actually sounds about right). I suppose this is an example of Leto's "distinctive voice" and "sparkling wit" but really it seemed more like an exercise in cliché. Similar misfortunes occur in the chapters titled "Fan Letters" (p.66), where Leto "berates" fans of various authors for their fandom, and "Stereotyping People by Favorite Author" (p.112), where Leto describes, quite pithily, the type of people who read the authors she lists.

The remainder of the text includes cheeky vignettes on everything from the influence of children's books on childhood development (Reading Green Eggs and Ham = awesome kids) (p.106), to the surprisingly moving account of the relationship Leto developed with her grandmother, which centered on a common love of the written word (p.262).  

Despite the relative non-sequitur nature of the essays, the best chapter of the book also comes from its longest chapter titled "How to Fake It." Readers can be forgiven if the provocative title disappoints. The chapter actually outlines how to "casually discuss some of the most well-known classic and contemporary authors" without having read them (p.127).

For each author discussed, Leto provides a brief summary of the author's life and influence, a description of the author's major works, and a few points of detail about the author's themes, writing style, etc. Of Dostoyevsky, Leto notes, "Dostoyevsky was exiled to Siberia by the czar because he's a badass motherfucker." She then recounts how Dostoyevsky was famously, nearly put to death by firing squad, only to receive a commuted sentence just before the execution was carried out. 

While I don't think it's possible to actually pull off the fake Leto describes, this chapter is interesting because it outlines the style, plots, influences and legacy of a number of well-known authors. Leto's author summaries, list of major works, and details are all extremely useful for anyone looking to begin exploring a new author, or for anyone in need of a quick-and-dirty book summary. And in all due credit, the sheer number of authors Leto discusses is fairly exhaustive, certifying her as either a true bibliophile or a demented mooch of Wikipedia.

In fact, Leto's summaries created a bit of a "To Be Read" (p.259) list for yours truly. Her descriptions of Charles Bukowski's work sound tempting, particularly when she notes early on that "drinking while reading Bukowski is actually a requirement." (p.33). Also, her chapter "Infinite Lies" (p.91) actually sparked an interest for me in the works of David Foster Wallace, specifically his book Infinite Jest. This is admittedly, in part, because Leto did not finish it. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.  

It's not lost on me that I am being a bit hard on Lauren Leto, though no harder than she was on fans of Ayn Rand (p.66). But to set the record straight, Leto states forthrightly from the very beginning of the book, her admiration for the authors mentioned, and I have to return the same admiration for her. It's easy to heckle creators from the cheap seats. It's much more difficult to actually create something that others will want to read. 

It's also not lost on me that I'm cracking wise about Leto in much the same way that she snarks about the authors discussed in her book. Of course, I do so with much less panache, much less fame, and a much smaller book deal (viz. none). Though I questioned her authority to opine, I can't help but admit that I'm in a similar place - with even less authority to criticize books seeing as I've never written one. 

But as Leto notes, this is the essence of what reading inspires. We read to discuss, to connect with others, and to engage those who have read the same story, chapter and words as us. And once we begin this process we all become critics. Some readers are simply better at making their criticisms witty, and compiling enough of them together to make a book. And with that, here's a hearty congrats to Lauren Leto. 

Judging a Book by Its Lover will be available to the public beginning October 2, 2012. Pre-order on Amazon here

September 17, 2012

Book Review: The Song of Achilles

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While I have not read The Iliad, I would like to think that Madeline Miller has done a great service to those like me, yearning for culture on a time crunch. Miller's New York Times bestseller The Song of Achilles, recounts the tale of the Trojan Wars from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles' closest friend, rumored lover, perhaps both. Miller's work has been praised as "wildly romantic," "timeless," and simply "beautiful," among many other accolades. Not a bad go of things for a first novel.

When I began Ms. Miller's work, I was skeptical at best. My studies of classical works were more or less relegated to the Bible as authorized by God and King James himself. The only classical literature I encountered during my college days was the Cohen brothers retelling of The Odyssey via the bard George Clooney.

My relative ignorance notwithstanding, I came away from Ms. Miller's novel with a new appreciation for the ancient themes that make the novel an enduring part of our artistic and cultural fabric. In particular, Miller's skillful treatment of love and loyalty both merit a brief mention, for these are the things that make merely another retelling of the Iliad a truly memorable event. 

The key theme that makes the novel work is the relationship Ms. Miller develops between Achilles and Patroclus. From the press release and a few of Patroclus' descriptions early in the work, it was clear that the relationship would be a sexual one, rather than simply a deep platonic friendship. Typically, I recoil against such reinterpretations of ancient tales. Of late, society's joie de vivre is to reinterpret nearly every literary relationships between men as gay. From David and Jonathan, to Achilles and Patroclus, to poor Bert and Ernie, men cannot simply be good friends these days. 

But in The Song of Achilles, Miller makes the schtick work. In fact, were it not for the same-sex relationship, the novel would lose a part of what makes it so compelling - the theme of love. Miller develops the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus quite true to life, in a way that any adolescent relationship develops, awkwardly. From Patroclus' somewhat creepy leering at Achilles early in the novel (p.26), to the gratuitous comparisons that boys sometimes make in assessing how they have grown (p.94), to the couple's clumsy first kiss (p.63), Miller finds a way to turn youthful innocence into budding desire without sacrificing the story's progression.

To be clear, this is not an easy task. Contrast Miller's skill with E.I. James's Fifty Shades of Grey, which is so outlandishly sensual that it makes the plot almost moot. Ms. Miller's same-sex relationship works, because the novel is about much more than a physical relationship between two men. But the relationship is still essential because it establishes why these two characters' devotion to one another seems to transcend the rational. 

In this way, the relationship in the novel must be sexual because love makes us do strange things out of loyalty toward those we love. We see this theme in the novel again and again. The first instance is actually a stirring example of disloyalty on the part of Patroclus' father. Early in the novel, Patroclus accidentally kills a bully resulting in his prompt exile to Achilles' Phthia. What's telling about the father's act of disloyalty is that rather than explore the facts of his son's transgression, ensure him a fair trial, let alone show his son any compassion, Patroclus' father sends him away without a thought. 

The second important act of loyalty comes when Achilles is sent on a sort of exile himself to train in the arts of war and life with the Centaur King Chiron (p.65). Despite the consequences of leaving the place of his exile, lacking in athletic prowess, and without appropriate equipment for the long trek to Mount Pelion, Patroclus departs the relative comforts of Phthia to join Achilles (p.68). Miller describes Patroclus' devotion to Achilles as follows:

I could leave. The thought was sudden, arresting. I had come to the road meaning only to escape to the sea. But the path lay before me, and the mountains. And Achilles. My chest rose and fell rapidly, as if trying to keep pace with my thoughts. I had nothing that belonged to me, not a tunic, not a sandal; they were Peleus' [Achilles' father] all. I do not need to pack, even. (p.68).

And so, Patroclus leaves to find Achilles in the mountains without even a walking stick. I love my wife. I'm devoted and loyal to her. But given my penchant for climate control and wi-fi, I've never left our abode to go backpacking in the wilderness on her behalf. The simple lesson of Patroclus' devotion is that Love begets loyalty and loyalty makes us do strange things. 

There are, of course, many more examples, but I would rather not spoil Ms. Miller's retelling of them. The novel reads well, as all good novels should, and these two, enormous themes anchor the book in innumerable, infinitesimal ways, helping to bring the Greek myth back to the present.

It's easy to think of acts of love. It is easy to think of acts of loyalty and disloyalty and to recall these thoughts from the annals of our mind. The memories are not always pleasant but they are there. What Ms. Miller does is to help us recall these themes that have helped to forge a civilization, thereby allowing us to reinterpret them in a manner that is as diverse and as subjective as the reader. A tremendous accomplishment. 

September 14, 2012

The Fall

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Today was the first day of fall here in Tucson. I'm not sure what the calendar actually marks as the first day of fall but it was the first day where a distinct northerly breeze came rolling off the Catalina Mountains with a hint of crispness to it. 

I'm sure everyone has their favorite season. But as a Scorpio I have always been partial to the turning of leaves and weather just cold enough to require a sweater.

It's interesting to think that my son will be here in a few weeks and the he too will be a son of the fall. I wonder if he will enjoy tossing around the football during these months, and whether he will prefer a light jacket over the hot sun of summer.

I wonder about a lot of things as his due date approaches. Mostly, I question how in the world I can share with him everything I want for him in a single lifetime.

Does the wisdom of the ages come in a Reader's Digest version?

Funny how these timeless questions seem to flow with the cold air of a new season.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

August 24, 2012

Book Review Coming Soon

Once again, I am indebted to my friends at HarperCollins for forwarding an interesting novel my way. I hope to have a review posted within the next week or so. 

Madeline Miller is a debut author and recent winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction (an award celebrating "excellence, originality and accessibility in women's writing from throughout the world"). Not a bad go for a first time novelist.

To students of Greek Mythology (Anyone? Anyone?), Miller's yarn will be a familiar one. The book, titled The Song of Achilles, is a retelling of the Iliad, which places a special emphasis on the relationship between Patroclus and his Achilles.

Some may recall that Patroclus was the exiled son of Menoetius. During his exile, Patroclus was raised by Chiron, King of the Centaurs - a king of savages according to Greek Mythology.  By contrast, Achilles was the "golden son" of King Peleus, his mother the Sea Goddess Thetis. The specific element Miller explores is how a relatively awkward "nobody" can strike up such a beautiful friendship with the "best of all the Greeks."

In her own words, Miller writes:

I was fascinated by this man [Patroclus] whose loss had so devastated the great Achilles. I wanted to understand their connection, and why such an "ordinary" man matter so much.

Seeing as yours truly is perhaps the epitome of ordinary - the Joe Sixpack of Joe Sixpacks - I too am quite curious to see what conclusions Miller draws. As always, more to come.  

For those interested, The Song of Achilles is available in hardback on Amazon here. It will be released to the public in paperback form by Ecco/HarperCollins on August 28, 2012. 

August 7, 2012

Reconsidering Paris's Judgment

The Judgment of Paris - Gore Vidal.jpg

I never knew much about Gore Vidal, spare his notable row at the 1968 Democratic National Convention with William F. Buckley, Jr., where Buckley threatened to "sock [Vidal] in the goddamn face."

Here's a moment of silence for the death of live TV

Naturally, when I heard that Mr. Vidal had himself gone the way of live television a few days ago, I was a bit ashamed that I had not read any of his works, although Buckley dismissed them forthrightly as "perverted, Hollywood-minded prose." Even so, I decided to rectify the situation by making my way down to the local book seller where I found Mr. Vidal's "The Judgment of Paris" above. 

Now, the premise of the book is intriguing in its own right. Vidal sought to add a personal take on the eponymous Greek myth - as opposed to, say, the eponymous website extolling the virtues of plus-sized models. At risk of boring you with too many details, the myth finds Paris judging a celestial beauty pageant between Hera (Queen of the Gods), Athena (Goddess of Wisdom), and Aphrodite (Goddess of Love/Pleasure). Each goddess employs her wiles upon young Paris, making the contest quite fierce indeed. The ultimate winner is Aphrodite who gifts Paris (a mere mortal Trojan) the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. The rest, as they say, is mythology. Helen of Sparta assumes the much more well-known name, Helen of Troy. Thus, begins the Trojan War. Homer writes The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Western Civilization is born. Of course, Western Civilization is subsequently destroyed by the Cohn Brothers' retelling of The Odyssey in O Brother, Where Art Thou? but that's a different matter. Call me the man of constant sorrow.

Anyway, in Vidal's novel, young Philip Warren is similarly positioned to choose between three women, each of whom in some way mirrors the virtues of the Greek goddesses above. The task proves to be quite the embarrassment of riches for so young a man. First, he is seduced by Regina the arm candy of a major politician who offers him a career in politics and the promise of power. His next encounter is with Sophia a burgeoning academic who catches Warren's eye but never his lust, as wisdom herself has suffered at the hand of many a man throughout the ages. Finally, Warren meets Anna, yet another married woman, with whom he begins a smoldering affair. 

Vidal's resolution of the myth is much less clear than the Greeks' myth. But the one bit of writing that struck me was the quote from Warren toward the end of the novel as he grapples with the choices he has made over the past year: 

I find it demoralizing to realize that there is no such thing as future, only a long present…that all acts are essentially meaningless, except of course to one's self. p.203.

It may seem strange but I find the obvious nihilism of Vidal's character to be mildly comforting. To accept life's transience is really a means by which one may simply live. And perhaps that's Vidal's point. Like Paris, we mortals have only this long present, so the best we can do is make a go of things incrementally. Long planning is a farce for there's no guarantee of a tomorrow let alone tomorrows many years hence. Or as the Greek Goddess Nike might say, "just do it."

In all, the story was an interesting spin on an ancient tale that all but solidified Vidal's stature in my mind as a truly entertaining writer - his political views and literary predilections notwithstanding. 

July 28, 2012

Learning Zen, The Hard Way

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Apologies readers for a long delay in posting. I'm glad to say that while I may not have built Pax Plena, and though I may have left it in a somewhat derelict state, the site is, indeed, not dead.

My lack of posts can best be summed up as having an over abundance of time. With Tucson's sultry monsoon season upon us, I've spent a great deal of time enjoying the climate control of our casita, enjoying a glass of bourbon, and reading Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. While such ventures tend to be more rooted in the introspective rather than the productive, according to Pirsig's Zen principles, the act of doing nothing is as much a virtue as a vice. 

Pirsig ultimately sums up our state of existence as follows: 

The past cannot remember the past. The future can't generate the future. The cutting edge of this instant right here and now is always nothing less than the totality of everything there is. p.289. 

In other words, this moment is all there is. We can no more plan for our future with any measurable certainty than we can rectify the past through our actions in the future. The best we can do, according to Pirsig, is to appreciate "the totality of everything there is," and presumably take measures to enjoy it a lot more. This has been my personal challenge this summer. Being one who would much rather be active and about the work of some project, having completed my education and being in between jobs, this summer I have had little alternative than to attempt to purposefully structure my time. For example, in order to pass the evenings, I typically sit on my porch to smoke a cigar. Cigars of the corona variety, take about 30 minutes or so to smoke - assuming one draws-in and exhales, as opposed to merely huffing and puffing. 

In honesty, the results have been mixed. I find my mind wanders a great deal when I attempt to set aside time for my zen aspirations. I'm sure a better Buddhist would tell me that "I'm doing it wrong." Still, I find the time is relaxing even if it has not been overly productive in a typical sense. It's nice to consider all the things going on in our world, to consider the structural challenges to progress that our lot faces, and even to consider the immediate future, to appreciate my wife, our soon-to-be-born son, family, friends, and of course our Pooch.

I can't say that this has been an altogether bad summer. I suppose my reticence to enjoy the here and now as Pirsig would have me do is really a reflection of my own soul and personality. Bertrand Russell struck a similar tone in his essay, In Praise of Idleness. My own autobiography might be better titled, Idly Praising, at least so far as this summer is concerned. The notion of idleness is not something I have come to find comfortable, my study of Pirsig notwithstanding.  

Still, change comes as it invariably must. Fall will be here soon. In the coming weeks, we have a number of major, life events looming on the horizon including deciding my professional next steps, the prospect of relocation from Tucson, and, of course, the joyful arrival or our son in October - to say nothing of the start of Football season, which is one of the ways God shares his love with us. 

While I have not learned Pirsig's lessons about living in the now, it would be amiss to say that I've learned nothing. I am gradually coming to terms with the unknown. By this point, the unknown is more like an old friend than an apparition. And like the fisherman in my Bonsai above, I'm content to enjoy my shade, and let time work its transition from a future of possibility into the certitude of the past. 

July 1, 2012

New Scholarship: "A Libertarian Framework for Indian Rights"

This site is long overdue for an update. For now, I'm pleased to share the above post about my work from the Indian Law blog Turtle Talk run by Prof. Matthew Fletcher at Michigan State University Law School.

Prof. Fletcher's website posted a link to my SSRN profile and shared the abstract of my dissertation with the Turtle Talk community.

Many thanks to Turtle Talk! Looking forward to having new conversations with friends and colleagues about the libertarian framework for Indian rights.

June 23, 2012

Book Review: Malarky

Book Review  Malarky

The subject matter of Anakana Schofield's Malarky is one that appeals to a very specific subset of readers. The novel presents an Irish farmwife's perspective of marital infidelity and her struggle to accept her son's homosexuality. Being neither an Irish farmwife, nor (thankfully) having ever been in a situation to deal with marital infidelity, suffice it to say, empathy was not something that abounded within me as I read the work. 

But what I can appreciate about Schofield's novel is how her writing style adds structure and definition to the lead character's stream of consciousness. The book itself is written non-linearly, in a series of twenty episodes. That is to say, each episode (or chapter) reads like an individual short story, as opposed to each chapter advancing a greater narrative. The disjointed nature of the book places even greater emphasis on Ms. Schofield's writing abilities. A lesser writer would not hold a reader's attention for long, but Schofield's running narration of "Our Woman's" thoughts makes for an entertaining, thought-provoking read that surpasses the novel's lack of constancy. 

Regarding her peculiar format, Ms. Schofield explains away the method as an attempt at being truer to life: 

This structure serves to reflect the nature of a whole life and the act of remembering and to record the fact that we do not remember chronologically. We do not recall necessarily "in sequence," so I find the chronological unrolling narrative to be a falsehood.

Anakana Schofield, Press Release: Malarky - A Novel in Episodes

Given the author's caveat, it strikes me as misguided to attempt to analyze the work chronologically, as a book review typically would. To summarize the book would to be to write twenty, separate summaries of each episode - a particularly harrowing prospect for my own readers, I'm sure. I suspect it is a better use of time to provide some thoughts about the work thematically. As I read the novel, three important themes emerged from the twenty episodes, all related to the modern notion of relationship. Specifically, Ms. Schofield seems to communicate that friendships are transient, romantic relationships are often rooted in the transactional, and familial relationships are never very far removed from the lurking specter of grief.

The Transience of Friendships

Regarding the first point, Our Woman lives a relatively atomized existence. Her social circle consists of four or five friends, her husband, and her son. From this network of relationships, the novel traces the breakdown of Our Woman's friendships following rumors of her husband's affair, through the actual details of how her marriage became so stagnate as to render the affair unsurprising, and ultimately through Our Woman's graphic discovery of her son's sexual orientation. 

The result is that her friends make only fleeting, shallow appearances in the novel's the episodes, rendering the characters less flesh and blood and more like the outlines and caricatures of people. It's probably giving Schofield too much credit, but the sketch characters remind me of the Bible's Book of Job where superficial friends berate Job only to lead him askance of God's purposes in suffering. Similarly, in Malarky, the friends serve as distractions that prevent Our Woman from actually dealing with the various griefs that beset her. Because the friendships aren't well-developed in the novel, Our Woman exists in a sort of void, forced to deal with her husband's infidelity and the shock of her son's sexual orientation without a support network. To wit, when she needs them most, her friends never appear.  

Romance as Transaction

The notion of relationship is further muddied in Malarky through Schofield's treatment of marriage and romantic attachments. Malarky approaches romantic attachment from a transactional perspective, not unlike many other contemporary works of literature and cinema. For example, E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey approaches the relationship between lead characters Christian and Anastasia as a literal contract of consent before the novel delves into the erotic content for which it has become so well-known (not that I would admit to reading it). Similarly, the PBS series Downton Abbey revolves entirely around the transactional nature of marriage and the question of arcane British inheritance rights. In the show, lovers and would-be lovers are constantly haunted by the question of whether they are genuinely interested in on another or simply 'in it' for the money.

Given the tired motif of romance as transaction, it was difficult to see what Schofield would add to our collective understanding of the concept in general. Rather than taking readers back into the actual process of relationship as transaction (à la Downton Abbey), Schofield's work offers a surprising glimpse into the analysis - viz., Schofield offers us a look inside the mind of a woman that is morally torn by the reality and prospect of marital infidelity.

At risk of giving too much away, readers learn early on that Our Woman's husband has had an affair. What boggles Our Woman's mind is less the affair itself, than what the proverbial other woman would possibly see in her husband. Schofield writes:

There's so little to recommend him. And yet a woman has taken him and he has taken this woman and there's nothing for it, she must investigate the very bones of this transaction. p.45

Our Woman's revelation is that her marriage had become so routine and lifeless that her husband's affair is more intriguing than disturbing. The conclusion is a sad one in many respects, but the lack of moral outrage presents an interesting dilemma as Our Woman weighs the actual costs and benefits of whether to have her own affair in return.  

Family and Grief

Finally, Ms. Schofield's work explores the concept of family through her relationships with her husband, and son. It is, of course, telling that both men die early on in the novel. In fact, page one communicates the fact that Our Woman is a widow. But the bigger point Schofield makes through the disclosure of infidelity and the details of Our Woman's marriage is that the familial bond between husband and wife and already expired for quite some time, long before infidelity was even entered into the equation. Schofield makes the point particularly well as she recounts a conversation between Our Woman and her husband before the two fall asleep: 

There was a brief lapse in time between them when she settled into bed that night beside Himself. He stared at the ceiling as thought his eyes are searching for a new planet to rest on, betraying an allergy to the current one. p.57.

The excerpt communicates the husband's (aka, Himself) obvious desire to be 'anywhere but here', as the saying goes. But Schofield's writing treats the moment as an instance of lament rather than anger. In this subtle way, she transforms one of the book's major ideas, viz., infidelity, into a synonym for grief. As readers continue in the story, the transition of infidelity into grief becomes even more stark. Schofield's bold point is that few things in life are more tragic than a couple sharing a bed, while being veritable light years apart. 

Schofield's exploration of Our Woman's son's death makes a similar point about grief but in a much more conventional manner. Toward the end of the work, Schofield describes conversations that Our Woman has with "Grief" regarding the death of her son Jimmy - from the inside of a mental ward, no less. Jimmy has long since passed away when Our Woman reveals to Grief that she has conversations with him on a regular basis: 

- Jimmy and I had an understanding. And in that understanding he wanted me to tell people only when I was ready. 

- And how did you know about this? 

- We've talked about it, I said. Defeated. 

- Do you talk to him regularly?

- As a Matter of fact I do…that was how my husband put me inside the hospital. p.151.

Schofield's wit makes it difficult not to laugh at Our Woman's conclusion, despite the gallows humor of the situation. But the not-so-subtle point Schofield makes about Jimmy's death is that Grief has become too difficult for Our Woman to bear. The remainder of the novel chronicles Our Woman's downward spiral, and the interesting gaggle of friends she seems to make during her stay in the mental hospital. This aspect of the novel isn't particularly original in form. Yet, Schofield's writing as excerpted above does an admirable job of rescuing it from the realm of cliché. To put matters differently, Schofield's writing is so entertaining as to beg one's pardon for the overdone theme. 

In all, I was pleasantly surprised by Ms. Schofield's work. The novel used fairly conventional topics to make relatively unique and modern points about our understanding of relationship. Though the structure was a bit difficult to follow, the format was effective in redirecting my attention to Schofield's writing. For those seeking a simple summer read, the work is certainly no beach read. But given the current state of trade fiction, that's definitely a good thing.

June 22, 2012

Coming Soon...

Book Review  Malarky

Apologies for a long delayed post. When my friends at Biblioasis first approached me about doing a review of Anakana Shofield's latest work Malarky, I had no idea that a busy travel schedule would suddenly bloom in the midst of my formerly uneventful summer. 

Not to worry though.

I am happy to say that the book review of Malarky is in the works, on pace for release over the weekend. If you are so inclined, please stay tuned for my thoughts on this unique bit of Canadian/Irish fiction.

June 14, 2012

Boston and Blue Skies, Smiling At Me


This post finds me sky high above the charming hamlet of Detroit, MI, which is yet further proof that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

As with most Southwest Airlines flights, the aisles run six across and passengers are stuffed into their seats like fat sardines. However, one of the saving graces of this flight is Southwest's relatively inexpensive access to the internet. Of course, at $5 per flight, the internet connection is maddeningly slow, prompting an unexpected yearning for the good old days of dial-up.

Chalk this one up to first world problems, I suppose. 

My travels today ultimately take me to Boston, a city that I have not visited since July 2007. What strikes me about my return to Beantown is how much life has changed. In the city I once called home, I now know almost no one. The friends who once feted my departure are now distant ghosts themselves, having long since moved on to warmer climes.

The thought reminds me of just how transient life is in one's twenties. At risk of extrapolating too much from my surroundings, one's twenties are a bit like all of the passengers stuffed together in this plane. Some people make the most out of a location by finding new friends. Others hunker down and get to work. Some keep to themselves. But the lone commonality that all share is the simple lack of attachment to the particular place. The landing of a five hour flight has a funny way of dispensing with sentimentalities. And that's how Boston was for me at age 24 - a lot of fun, but completely void of a reason to stay.

It's true that I'm not quite thirty. But being married with a dog and a child on the way, and grad school now well behind me, I can't help but feel a bit older than I am. To be clear, I would not reverse the clock. Living in "The Hub" made for a fun couple of years, but when I left it was more than time to put away childish things, as they say.

Still, reminiscing does make one appreciate the carefree days of youth - when my biggest concern was making weekend plans, and my most pressing dilemma was whether to visit the gym on my lunch break or not. If only I had made the visit more often... 

May 24, 2012

Book Review: The Cottage at Glass Beach

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Heather Barbieri's The Cottage at Glass Beach is admittedly not the typical book that makes it way on to my desk. Committing the unpardonable sin of judging a book by its cover, the dust jacket clearly shows a young woman traipsing along the beach, starfish well in hand. Given the title, it's easy to dismiss the work as a cliché and move on to other reads.

The book's description also doesn't help to pique the reader's interest. The opening lines read as follows:

Married to the youngest attorney general in Massachusetts State history, Nora Cunningham is a picture-perfect political wife and a doting mother. But her carefully constructed life falls to pieces when she, along with the rest of the world, learns of the infidelity of her husband, Malcom.

I'm sure that writing cover descriptions is a challenging gig, but the summary reads like the re-run of a Lifetime, made-for-TV movie. This does a serious disservice to the novel and what actually makes it special.

The real contribution makes Barbieri makes in her new book is the way she captures the relationship between mothers and daughters in clear, unvarnished prose. This honesty allows her to provide a modern insight into a particular dynamic of literature that has more or less lain dormant since the era of Victorian literature.

One example comes early in the novel, as main character Nora Cunningham evacuates her family to Glass Beach. Eldest daughter Ella is clearly a Daddy's girl who blames her mother for driving him away. Youngest daughter Annie is an open mind, as free of judgments as her sister is filled with them, and a bit too young to fully understand her parents' separation. As the three set out to explore the island, Ella scorns the main village Portakinny as "Portapotty," and repeatedly echoes her hopes to return to Boston. This makes Ella a constant source of negativity for Nora, yet it is easy to sympathize with the little girl's frustration. The scandal besetting her parents has had incalculable effects on Ella, both personally and socially, leaving her confused, not knowing whom to trust.

Ella's reticence to embrace the island and her parents' circumstance creates a palpable stress for her mother Nora who is genuinely torn about the future of her marriage. Whenever questions about the future arise, Nora's reply is the universally recognized phrase of non-commitment, "we'll see." But Barbieri's prose demonstrates that the answer is a pained utterance for Nora who acutely realizes how disingenuous the words are. The fact is, Nora is just as lost as Ella and the whole point of coming to Burke's Island is to discover some insight that will shed light on what is to come.

This notion of deliberate self discovery gives Nora a dimension of strength that makes her character extremely dynamic. The storyline is that Nora is lost, trying to make sense of her life, but the story itself is more about how Nora holds it together for her girls and learns about herself in the process.

Nora's love interest in the book makes this sense of strength even more pronounced. Even as she struggles to sort out her feelings toward her estranged husband, Nora is also left to grapple with how she feels toward a new man in her life. Again, this could easily become a cliché, but Barbieri's writing frames the situation as the simple reality that relationships are messy - particularly when a partner's infidelity is at issue. In Nora, readers see the concurrent facts that old habits of love die hard, while the human need for intimacy never completely vanishes.

The mother/daughter theme is further reflected in Nora's relationship with her Aunt Maire. Nora's own mother has passed away at some point in her early childhood, a matter that also becomes an integral aspect of the plot. But her aunt acts a subtle mother figure for Nora over the course of the novel. Over blueberry pie, wine, and walks in the garden, Aunt Maire provides arms-length advice to Nora about her situation and the mysterious death of her mother - all while commending a keen sense of love toward Nora when she sorely needs it.

I suppose the themes above may not resonate for all readers. This is true for any novel. But for those seeking to get lost this summer and reconsider life's priorities, Barbieri's voice is clear and inviting. Whatever the book lacks in plot, it makes up for in character development and introspection in spades.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

May 8, 2012

May Book Review: The Cottage at Glass Beach

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According to my friends at HarperCollins, Heather Barbieri's latest novel, The Cottage at Glass Beach is poised to become one of the sleeper hits of the summer.

The story chronicles the life of heroine Nora Cunningham, the spurned wife of a cheating Massachusetts Attorney General and the frazzled mother of two daughters. As Nora attempts to pick up the pieces of an otherwise broken existence, a mysterious, almost mythical being enters her life, providing both comfort and challenge as she confronts the demons of her past.

According to the author:

The overriding message is that it is possible to navigate life's uncharted waters and find our own happiness.

Barbieri's novel will be available beginning May 15th, 2012. Preorders can be made here. I hope to have my review posted some time before then.

As always, stay tuned...

May 3, 2012

Book Review: A Silence of Mockingbirds - The Memoir of a Murder


For reasons having nothing to do with the author's more than capable abilities, Karen Spears Zacharias' new book A Silence of Mockingbirds ($16.50, MacAdam/Cage Publishing 2012) was an extremely difficult book to read and an even more difficult book to review. Zacharias' work chronicles the true yet sordid tale of an innocent little girl named Karla "Karly" Sheehan.

Sadly, Karly Sheehan's tale would become the inspiration for Karly's Law in the State of Oregon, which requires mandatory medical intervention in suspected child abuse cases where victims exhibit signs of suspicious physical injury. Ultimately, this is the end of Zacharias' book. But this suggests that a tragedy had to occur before the powers that be reacted. And this reflection upon tragic events is what much of Zacharias' book consists of.

From the outset, the author is quick to note her own affiliation with the story. Ms. Zacharias' family at one point had a familial relationship with Karly's mother Sarah - a figure that comes across almost as much a villain in the tale as the actual villain who would abuse poor Karly to death. This relationship makes it quite impossible for Zacharias to be objective. But this misses the point of Zacharias' work. Her point is not to be objective, but to use the story to raise awareness about "the epidemic of child abuse in our nation." And on this score, the memoir could not have delivered better. I mention the point about objectivity, because it is important to remember that not all works of non-fiction need to be told through an objective lens. There is certainly a role for the objective eye, but when the point of a piece is to advocate, objectivity inevitably yields to the story being told.  

The bulk of the work can be glibly typified as "somber" in tenor, but only insofar as readers know the outcome. Each detail of Karly's life is lovingly presented. From Zacharias' writing, it is clear that there were many moments in Karly's life that were filled with love and with joy. Her account of Karly's trip to Ireland to visit her father's family comes readily to mind. But the final outcome of the account stalks even the happiest memories, ever lurking in the background of the book. Karly's own presence in the memoir reminds me a bit of a delicate glass set precariously on the edge of a table. For but a moment all seems safe as Zacharias describes Karly's sky blue eyes and whispy golden hair. Readers get every sense that she was a precious, perhaps precocious, little girl who was much beloved by the many people in her life. But knowing the outcome of the story, readers also understand that this cannot last. The glass on the edge of the table is doomed to shatter, and the result is that an innocent little girl must die. 

My choice of the word "must" is intentionally provocative. In addition to presenting the tragedy of Karly's death, Zacharias consistently explores the broader public policy implications, directly addressing the question of whether Karly's death was preventable. The villain in the book and the man ultimately convicted of Karly's murder was her mother's boyfriend Shawn Wesley Field. But equally complicit in the sad outcome is a system that failed to protect Karly at manifold turns. As Zacharias writes:

Karly's death is not simply a tragedy - it's an unforgivable shame.

It takes the complicity of a community, and a nation, to stand by in silence as a child is tortured to death. That ought to give us all nightmares of children weeping.

If there is a moral imperative to be gleaned from Zacharias' work, this is it. And as the tale proceeds, the root of Zacharias' anger becomes more clear. From a mother in denial, to the first child services inquiry filed by a worried daycare worker, to the shoddy follow-up investigation by Oregon's Department of Human Services, to the failure of the Corvallis Police Department to have Karly's physical symptoms examined by a doctor with expertise in child abuse cases, the list of should-haves in the book is depressingly long.

The trial of Shawn Wesley Field is also an interesting aspect of the story. While readers at this point will long for justice, what actually struck me most was the lack of state's evidence available to convict Field, despite the fact that Karly was abused for such an extended period of time. The trial turned on pictures that Field had taken of Karly that were timestamped only a few minutes before she died. The photographs showed Karly battered, yet clearly alive, leading prosecutors to conclude that the blow which ultimately took her life had to have happened while she was in the clutches of Shawn Wesley Field before the paramedics and officers arrived

The lawyer in me recoils at hearing how such circumstantial evidence can connect a defendant to a crime. But this is true of a number of cases, and the inference made between the timestamped photo and the time at which paramedics and police arrived at Field's house makes a lot of sense. What is most appalling is that in the two year span of abuse allegations, the best the State of Oregon had at trial were a few pictures. If there is a fortunate aspect of the tale, it may well be that so little evidence was sufficient to convince the jury of Shawn Wesley Field's guilt. 

Finally, it's worth mentioning that the outcome of the trial really only hints at the title of Zacharias' curiously titled book - although she addresses this directly toward the end. Mockingbirds are symbolic of people in society - we are a notoriously protective and obnoxious lot, always around, always causing some ruckus or another. Yet, in Karly's case, when their alarm was needed most, the gaggle of people around her went silent and a little girl died. The natural question is "why." Or whither the empty nest?

While it's true that we can address the public policy questions of Karly's case through changes in law, and we can encourage individuals to be more vigilant, particularly when it comes to the vulnerability of children, there are never answers to questions like these. We can no more "know" what drives individuals toward evil anymore than we can know what drives saints and martyrs toward the light. But I like the approach Zacharias suggests. We can cry together. We can learn together. And we can take every precaution to ensure that our children are protected.

I never knew Karly, but I have a hunch that protecting other kids would make her smile.

© Pax Plena
Maira Gall