Sunday, January 19, 2003

I had dinner last night with the Infield-Harms who were in town for a long weekend from Madison, Wisconsin, where they report it has been consistently warmer and less snowy than here. Grrr. But it was a very nice time, over quality Mexican food. Most of my conversations of the "intellectual community" type nature lately have been online or via phone, so it was very nice to have one face-to-face with dear friends. I was also reminded of my rule of Mexican food, how you can tell something with some level of authenticity from something utterly devoid of it. (Yes, I'm looking at you Taco Bell and Chi-Chi's, and yes I also realize that post-modern and post-colonial theory teaches us that "cutural authenticity" is a highly problematic concept, and yes I still realize that grad school ruins you for real life.) It comes down to one thing--pork. If you can order pork (pork barbecue does not count), then it is a real Mexican restaurant. My carnitas burrito was very tasty.

While I'm on Mexico and authenticity and intellectual community and whatnot, my latest read is Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr. The backstory to this book may be as interesting as the book itself--heiress to the enormous Huntington railroad fortune goes back to school to get a writing degree from Stanford as a senior citizen and publishes a first novel in her 70s to wide acclaim. The book itself is about a middle-aged California couple who decide fairly abruptly to move to rural Mexico and try to re-open the husband's grandfather's old copper mining concern. We are told right from the start (page one, in fact) what is going to happen--the business proposition will be successful, but the husband will be given six years to live and will prove that prognosis to be accurate. So the book's quality will rest not on plot and suspense, but on character and style.

While I've talked before here about how my thinking is heavily influenced by post-modernism and thus a recognition of multiple epistemologies, when it really comes down to it it turns out I'm very much a rationalist--tolerant of other ways of thought and critical in many ways of unbridled rationalism, but ultimately choosing the rational most of the time. Given that, I tend to be annoyed by a particular literary device prevalent in a lot of writing by white people about white people in Third World countries. That is, the writing wherein the locals' customs and beliefs never succeed in influencing the white (usually American) outsiders, but we as readers see the uncanny mystical forces looming constantly and ultimately, inevitably, winning. The "gypsy curse" is a common way this plays out--authors don't include gypsy curses that ultimately prove completely wrong. I like this kind of writing when it delves into the beliefs and (especially) practices of the locals to show that they aren't just mystical, pre-modern savants but are actually people living in the real world whose apparent mysticism is at least partly a cover for closely guarded local knowledges that do make sense if you know how to interpret them. Perhaps another way to think about this is in terms of this question: Are the locals fully developed characters, or are they just local flavor?

When it came down to it, I felt like this was really Sara's (the wife's) story and the locals by and large were just local flavor. I don't want to say they were pure stereotypes or to put a racist reading on the Mexican characters, because I think Doerr presents them as a wide range of human character archetypes; but I do ultimately fell as if they were archetypes without much depth. Sara is a solid and somewhat memorable character, the book is breezy and the prose flows, and I give Doerr credit for not making Americans good guys and Mexicans bad guys or vice versa. But ultimately I was hoping for a bit more--maybe in particular something about the ways that having foreigners living among them changed the local villagers and changed the foreigners as well; instead I felt that they lived side by side and had contact, but didn't really affect one another on a meaningful level.

On today's games, it seems that Oakland and Philly are almost universal consensus picks, but it's worth noting that it's been six years since both home teams won the conference championship game, and it's been 9-10 years (I'm not sure about Dallas/Buffalo II) since both number one seeds advanced to the Super Bowl. Just something to think about, in case you have any inkling that Philly might suddenly get cold or Oakland might suddenly get old.

And if the Eagles and Raiders do have a Super Bowl XV rematch next weekend, maybe we can finally get Harold Carmichael on the cover of ESPN The Magazine...

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