Monday, June 30, 2003

The big long complicated book I was reading the last two weeks turns out to have been Michel Foucault's The Order of Things. This is an ass-kicking book--in the sense that it kicks one's ass, rather than that it kicks ass. Twenty pages at a time is a rough way to read this sort of thing. Foucault is one of those guys who wrote books so smart that you just stand in awe in front of the work they must have taken, but on the other hand you don't really want to do that kind of work, or even the work it takes to really understand it.
The premise here is that two fundamental changes in Western thought occurred around 1600 and again around 1800, give or take 25 years either way. Even a true synopsis would take pages, but suffice it to say he traces the histories of natural philosophy/biology, the study of wealth/economics, and semiotics/linguistics. I don't want to think about how long he spent in the archives. If you can trudge through it the case is convincing, but more than anything else it convinced me that I just don't want to read books this hard right now.

On a totally different note, after spotting the Myrtle Beach Stingrays ("Word up!") 10 points, your Ohio Valley Greyhounds came back with a vengeance--to win 56-24 and run their record to 13-0--led as always by the "Big Uglies". The Greyhounds (my suggested slogan: "Go Greyhounds, and leave the scoring to us!") have clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs, and go into this week's season finale against the lowly Tupelo Fire Ants with a chance to become the 1972 Miami Dolphins of the NIFL.

Friday, June 27, 2003

Shame on me--I somehow forgot to mention that the obvious but necessary joke of the NBA draft was that the Trailblazers took the best available Outlaw. You can't make this stuff up sometimes.

So little time, so many items of interest can only mean...RETURN OF THE DOT COLUMN!!

  • Today marks the one-year anniversary of me leaving California, and the minus-six week anniversary of me leaving Pennsylvania. I hereby declare that whenever I am being overly melodramatic about this period of my life, I shall refer to this year and six weeks as the "Beallsvonian Captivity".
  • I watched about a round and a quarter of the NBA draft last night before falling asleep. (No causation should be implied there, 'Burghers.) The highlight of the telecast was definitely the Knick fans chanting "over-rated" at every player drafted until their pick, and then again when the Knick fans went ballistic at the top of the second round over the Polish dude none of them had heard of a week ago. The other highlight was my brother and I making a "foreign invasion" joke pick after pick during the top 15 when college player after college player was taken.
  • Speaking of draft highlights, there are two great ones for me in this article about Cleveland taking Lebron James. One is the pullout quote; for some reason "Mr. Boozer" just strikes me as hilarious. The second is the bit about Darius Miles--my question being, who the hell let Darius into the draft room?!
  • Is any song of the Rock Era more dated than Kung Fu Fighting?
  • The big news of the day is yesterday's Supreme Court ruling overturning state bans on gay sex. There are basically three decision in the case: a majority opinion by five justices, a concurring opinion by Sandra Day O'Connor, and the dissenting opinion. They can all be found here (Via GreenGourd).
    I have enough thoughts about this to write a whole long entry, but I'll stick to a few here. One is that, combined with the pro-AA decision of a few days ago, I am starting to feel a little less glum about the culture war. While the Religious Wrong and others of their ilk seem to be ascendant electorially, I take heart that socially we may be progressing in ways of which I approve; I don't mean to relish the death of others, but the deaths of segregationists Lester Maddox and Strom Thurmond seem at least symbolic in this regard.
    Secondly, I was encouraged by the reference to serious historical scholarship in the majority decision. It is widely accepted in gender history that the "homosexual" is an invention of the late 19th century, and that the idea of two distinct sexual identities is at best a little over a century old. By looking this evidence, the majority realized that the idea of specifically punishing homosexual sex (as opposed to all non-procreative sex) is a very modern idea and not an age-old phenomenon. When historians actually succeed at getting across the news that the seemingly timeless is actually very historically specific--and especially when people actually take that to heart and affect positive change as a results--it makes all historians and lapsed historians happy.
    Finally, in reading the opinions, it struck me that no one is actually wrong here. The majority opinion uses the evidence of history to draw a logical conclusion. The concurring opinion comes to the same decision on apprently more narrow grounds, but which (as the dissenting opinion rightly argues) have the potential for far greater consequences--both by suggesting that "homosexual" is an identity with similar protections as a racial or gender identity, but also but suggesting that the sex of one's partner (in addition to oneself) cannot be the subject of discrimination. The dissenting opinion is also right, though, in stating that in the strictest terms, it can be reasonably argued that the majority made an overly activist decision in pure legal terms. It all comes down not to which side is right, but to what you value more. I was also heartened by something else in the dissent: one sound bite I heard had said that the dissent claimed the majority had acceded to the "homosexual agenda". This is actually in there, but the dissent goes on to say that of course it is perfectly reasonable and even expected for homosexuals (like any social group) to pursue their agenda--why would they do otherwise?
    The dissent is also right in suggesting that, taken to its logical extremes, this decision will overturn a wide variety of morality laws and will pave the way for gay marriage. This is true--but it doesn't follow that this decision will be taken to its logical extremes. I would like to hope it will go much further, but when you start talking about incest, child porn, etc., the consequences of not legislating morality become more problematic.
  • Speaking of which, in a theoretical Craig Barker-style tournament of the best songs about people who, in the words of one of the contestants, "always get it up for the touch of the younger kind," my quarterfinalists would be:
    1. Into The Night by Benny Mardones ("She's just 16 years old, leave her alone they said...")
    2. My Sharona by The Knack (see above)
    3. She's Sexy + 17 by The Stray Cats (self-explanatory)
    4. You're Sixteen by Ringo Starr (again, self-explanatory)
    5. Sweet Little Sixteen by Chuck Berry (self-explanatory, and especially creepy given Chuck's, um, proclivities)
    6. Does Your Mother Know? by ABBA ("Now you're so cute, I like your style and I know what you mean when you give me a flash of that smile (smile), but girl you're only a child"; also notable as the rare ABBA song where the men sing lead)
    7. Young Girl by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap ("My love for you is way out of line")
    8. I Love Rock 'n' Roll by Joan Jett ("I knew he must've been about 17... and I could tell it wouldn't be long until he was with me.")

  • If Dave Letterman had been hosting the NBA draft, the running joke last night would've definitely been, "Darko, Zarko; Zarko, Darko."
  • What I remember most of all about June 27, 2002, is driving through Needles, California, in a U-Haul whose air conditioning wasn't fixed until the next day. With my window open and 110-degree air pouring in, I remember finding the town's name particularly apt, as it felt as if a hundred small needles of pure heat were smacking my face every second. This was, oddly, not as unpleasant as it sounds.
  • The most disappointing song for those "touch of the younger kind" folks (whose collective label I don't want affecting my banner ads), based purely on the title, would have to be Janis Ian's At Seventeen.
  • DEK and I will be going to our second Myrtle Beach Stingrays game of the year tomorrow night. More to the point, we will watch Wheeling's beloved Ohio Valley Greyhounds on their penultimate step toward an undefeated regular season in the NIFL, which is most emphatically not at The mind boggles.

Until next time...

Thursday, June 26, 2003

I haven't had any book reviews lately because I've been working myself through something dense and kind of big, which I will hopefully finish sometime this weekend. However, I did take a break from it to read Patricia Limerick's collection of essays Something In the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West. For those of you who don't know, Limerick is one of the people at the forefront of New Western History, which is a 15ish-year-old academic movement to rethinking the American West. Some of the key issues around this rethinking are as follows: what does "frontier" actually mean, if anything?; borderlands, usually with Mexico, occasionally with Canada; urbanization, as the West is the most urbanized region in the country; the role of the federal government, from Lewis and Clark, to Army forts, to Teapot Dome, to Nevada nuclear testing, to contemporary national park management, etc.; Asian and Chicano/a migration (and Chicano/a persistence post-Guadalupe Hidalgo; Mormon history; myths of the "Wild West"; and scores of others.
Limerick's first book, Legacy of Conquest, helped set the tone for New Western History by positing that Manifest Destiny or Westward Expansion should be re-thought as imperial conquest, with all that would imply. It's a deliberately provocative argument, and she makes it in an intelligent, passionate manner.
This book deals with several issues. One is coming to terms with the strengths, weaknesses, and the pure legacy of Legacy, a book which created a professional and public identity for its author that is sometimes at odds with reality. Watching an author grapple with this in print is an interesting exercise in self-reflection. She admits some of the first book's weaknesses--most notably, inattention to the urban West--but more interesting is watching her deal with people thinking she will be a dour, miserable person because she wrote a pessimistic book. Second, Limerick presents some new material in the field, including thinkpieces on Mormonism, John Sutter, and what it means to be a "real Californian". This material attempts to be a bit more synthetic, stressing themes rather than detail, which makes sense since several of these essays are adapted from speeches.
This leads into the third, and arguably most important theme of the book--Limerick continually pleads for academics to engage with "real world" audiences, and in addition to making this plea, she offers her book and its contents as a model for how to do so, and also has a few essays that specifically address the "how to?" question. This aspect takes the book out of its somewhat narrow field and makes it a relevant read for all intellectuals--self-styled and otherwise. Limerick understands the problems here--not the least of which is that academia attracts many people who intentionally retreat from the "real world"--but she presses forward nonetheless, and her advice is practical and provides a guide for both baby steps and giant leaps.
Overall, I'd say that if you're interested in learning what New Western History is all about, read Legacy of Conquest, warts and all. If that doesn't float your boat, but the question of intellectuals "going public" does, then read Something in the Soil. If you're just a fan of good historical writing, read both.

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Another shoe dropped at work on Monday, and we now have 2 attorneys and 3 litigation assistants, down from 6 and 4, and attorneys actually peaked at 11. Does this mean our work is finished or getting any lighter? No. It is just a by-product of one curious aspect of corporate legal culture that I am rapidly learning--delay, delay, delay, and then ask for an extension. The irony is that our side would prefer to wrap the case up faster, but apparently if we don't play the game it will look as if we lack long-term resolve--or possibly we just can't get our act together. Or some combination of the two. The practical upshot is that we sent lawyers we wanted to keep home on what will allegedly be a two-week hiatus--but which could expand--and so if they find another gig in that time we will have lost accumulated knowledge and have to train new people from scratch when we enter the next phase.

None of this should affect me, I should add, as even with a break in the legal work there is still no end of administrative work to be done. So I guess I'd better go do some.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

I put a big flag of Sudan on my blog, just asking for John Ashcroft to come knocking at my door, and I can't even get a comment out of you people?!

Anyway, after Monday's major Lloss, and with several successful French Open types going down today, I hold out hope that real Wimbledon will be back this year, after last year's tournament looked like everyone was playing on green clay. My God, there were 20-shot rallies in the finals, for Pete's sake. I'm not a big Andy Roddick fan, but at this point I'm willing to get behind anyone who's willing to do some serving and volleying--even if there's too much emphasis on the former and not enough on the latter in the modern men's game for my tastes.

Monday, June 23, 2003

I took the country quiz. My disturbing results are as follows:

You're Sudan!

Every time you get a headache, you reach for some aspirin, only to
realize that someone destroyed it.  That's just how things are going for you right
now... it's hard to eat, hard to sleep, hard to not have a headache.  You try to
relax, but people always jump on you about something that doesn't make sense.  If
you were a goat, you'd be a Nubian.

Take the Country Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid


Thursday, June 19, 2003

Please sign this petition to save the important historical site where our only Rosicrucian president lost his life.

OK, I suppose I've got some 'splainin' to do there. Kinzua Bridge is an important historical site that you should help save, but Calvin Coolidge did not commit suicide by jumping off of it. And no one has ever linked Rosicrucianism to the U.S. presidency. OK, except this guy. Oh, and this guy. Oh, him too. But I'd better get off that topic before my banner ads get truly screwy.

Anyway, the story is that a number of years ago, Paul Harm and I discussed a quiz-bowl thought experiment. The idea was to track how quickly a piece of information would enter the canon of quiz-bowl knowledge, disseminate, and go from being the hardest clue in a question to the giveaway clue. We figured out that in order to try this experiment, however, the piece of information would have to be untrue; otherwise, the factoid could have entered the realm of quiz-bowl knowledge at other points and diffused separately. We decided that our factoid should be that Calvin Coolidge was our only Rosicrucian president--absurd and totally false, but enough people would not know how absurd that they might just take it in, accept it, and reuse it. We never actually tried the experiment, but it did become a running gag in Pitt quiz-bowl.

A year or so later, we decided to take a scenic route on the way home from a Cornell tournament, and we ended up stopping at Kinzua Bridge. While there, Paul temporarily convinced at least one freshman that the bridge was noteworthy because Calvin Coolidge had committed suicide by jumping off of it. My only other memory of that stop was walking a third of the way across the bridge, suddenly realizing how high up I was and how precarious the bridge's railroad ties seemed, and then cowering my way back across in practically Jerry Connell in Stand By Me fashion. Not good times. But it is awe-inspiring enough that it should be saved, to terrify future generations of wusses like myself. has some interesting stuff today on the NBA Draft, most interestingly in my mind some discussion of the idea of an age limit for the league. The figure most commonly thrown around is 20 years old. I have very mixed feelings about this issue, but ultimately I would like to see the age limit enacted.
The argument that the other major team sports don't have a draft limit is a red herring--the NHL and MLB do not draft players right into the league (with very rare exceptions), and the NFL has a de facto age limit of 21 due to the nature of the game favoring people who have attained their full body size. Equally dubious is the idea that taking out the teens will lead to a diluted draft--pointing to the idea that in this year's draft the top pick would be T.J. Ford, who is projected to go 4th or 5th now. That would be true if a limit were suddenly imposed today; however, if a limit had been put in place in 2000, this year's draft would also include Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Gerald Wallace, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, DaJuan Wagner, Nene Hilario, and Amare Stoudamire. So the draft would be weakened by an age limit, but only for 1-2 years in which the best of the 20 year olds had been drafted at 18 or 19.
There are two good arguments against the age limit. One is that the age limit idea is the product of subterranean racism. I think there's some truth to that, as part of the support for an age limit comes from people who are uncomfortable with making millionaires out of black teenagers. I won't elaborate, as it's something of which I'm convinced and which I'm not going to convince anyone who doesn't already buy into it. Second is the legal argument that we shouldn't prevent adults from earning a living. I agree with this, and I make this argument all the time in sports arguments. For example, I can understand that some people were upset about the A-Rod contract, but I can't understand why any of that would be directed at him personally. He was offered a $25 million contract. What's he supposed to say--no thanks, that's too much?! (And don't give me any garbage that it's a $250 million contract; if people ask you what you make, do you give them the annual number or the per decade number?)
Conversely, though, the NBA has a compelling interest in protecting its product, and that overrides the individual interest of a handful of people capable of playing at 18 or 19. The problem with 18 and 19 year olds is that they are projects. They are drafted to be good in 2-4 years, but they must be kept on the roster and given minutes in the meantime. Is this the single factor causing games to be so plodding that teams in the finals barely combine for 150 points? No. But is it an important factor? I think it is. Carrying dead weight for two or three years is bad enough, but dead weight whose development and contract demand minutes? That's worse yet. Some of the best players in the league are alleged success stories of the current system, but were KG and Kobe successes before they were 20? Not really. And note that Stoudamire--the first true rookie success story among straight out of high school players--turned 20 less than a month into his rookie season.
I don't believe every player needs to go through college, and I don't care at all about the college game being diminished by great players skipping it or leaving early; the idea that the college game has some sort of right to 3 or 4 years from every decent basketball player is patently absurd. But I would like to see a true minor league develop with an allocation system so that teams could draft players with immense potential without being saddled with them before they are ready for the league.

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

The good folk over at GreenGourd's Garden have a little blurb on a Louisiana state controversy over whether mayhaw or cane should be the official state jelly. I don't have much to add, except for a couple of comments on the links provided therein. On the newspaper link, the first line of the article reads as follows:

Not since the argument over whether the strawberry or the watermelon should be the state fruit has an issue like the official state jelly divided Louisiana lawmakers.

Now maybe it's just me, but if a civil war erupts in your state every time you try to name an official state foodstuff, shouldn't you maybe stop doing it?!
My other comment relates to the wording of the law. Each paragraph names one of the jellies an official state jelly, and then proclaims the following:
Its use on official documents of the state and with the insignia of the state is hereby authorized.

If only I were a member of the Louisiana state legislature, the bill would have this rider attached:
"Its use on rye toast is also hereby authorized."
(Alternate punchline: With mayhaw and cane jelly on all the state's official documents, legislation becomes increasingly hard to pass, as the pages keep sticking together.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

I recently finished the Ivan Doig novel The Sea Runners. The plot here is that four Swedes have ended up for various reasons in New Archangel in Russian America (today's Sitka, Alaska) in 1853. All fettered with seven-year indentures, they plot to escape by taking a canoe down the Pacific coast to Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River. The novel works as a historical adventure and as the type of story where very different people come together to work on a common task, but Doig was clearly a more developed writer by the time he wrote the Montana trilogy books recently reviewed here. Unless you have a specific interest in the subject matter, I'd pass this one up in favor of the Montana books.

In case you were wondering (and I know many of you were) if there are any high-quality blogs out there that cover tennis and New Zealand legal issues as well as other miscellaneous topics (though, frankly, it doesn't get much more miscellaneous than that), and which have linked to The Beallsvonian on multiple occasions for no obvious reason--but for which we here are nevertheless grateful--the answer is: yes.

Monday, June 16, 2003

I can't tell you exactly why it was that the NBA approached, passed, and then blew the doors off the NHL in my interest. I will say that it's unfortunate that it didn't happen ten years earlier, so I could've seen the NBA in its prime, instead of picking up on the Association just as the Rockets and Knicks were teaching us how to bumble through a final series. (The young Nets and Spurs must've been taking notes.) But the transformation is all the more startling due to the fact that my NBA affinity has grown even as the product itself has fallen off.

I think in part this is a reaction against my hometown. (Warning: self- and city-wide- pop psychology to follow.) In Pittsburgh it is practically an act of civil disobedience to follow the NBA, especially as a white guy. The Association is not even a blip on the city's radar screen--so much so that I was surprised to see the result of last night's finale on the news this morning, though I was not surprised not to get any highlights. It is no coincidence that the NBA is the only major sport not represented in the city. (To my mind, major sports in America are: MLB, NFL, NBA, college football, college men's basketball, and begrudgingly the NHL.) The question in my mind, though, is whether lack of interest causes lack of team, or vice versa.

My assumption is that lack of team causes lack of interest, which leads me to my almost-sacriligeous point and conclusion: Pittsburgh is a bad sports town. Now, I can already feel the glare of the Steeler Nation and the people who still have 1979 City of Champions memorabilia, but I will elaborate. Pittsburgh is a great Pittsburgh sports town. Though my alma mater has been much-maligned for the move, it definitely had its finger on the pulse of the city when it asked for its teams to be referred to as "Pittsburgh" instead of "Pitt". If there's a Pittsburgh team involved in the highest level of competition, people will get behind it here like nobody's business.

BUT, this is not, in my mind, a good sports town otherwise. There can be a great game on, but if it doesn't involve a local team it's just not going to do well here. As someone who can watch anyone, anywhere play football for big stakes or no stakes, this has always bugged me. And the second part of the equation is the part about "highest level". Pittsburgh had a very entertaining CBA team in 1994-95, but it didn't even register on the radar screen. I don't think this is because Pittsburgh can't be a basketball town; the crowds at the Petersen Center this season attests to the fact that it can. It's just that Pittsburghers can't stand the thought of this being a minor-league town (even to the extent that it's true). We can farm hockey players out to Cleveland, but we'd never stand for that relationship working the other way.

So I think perhaps that part of why I enjoy the NBA so much is that it allows me to distance myself from what I see as very parochial, limited fans.

It's certainly not because of the halftime entertainment. Good Lord and butter did that suck during the finals. Two games stand out. Game 3 featured Jewel apparently repackaged as a Spearsesque teen idol instead of an alterna/hippy chick with a guitar. This was especially apparent when she performed one of her old songs, which seemed 100% out of place with the new persona.

But that wasn't nearly as brutal as last night. If the game six halftime show were a movie, Mr. Cranky would give it the mushroom cloud. The idea was to bring Joel Siegel out for a summer movie preview--never mind that half the summer movies are already out. Instead of previewing the movies, though, it was just one massive commercial for several of them. The second most blatant plug was for Pirates of the Caribbean by (according to Mike Tirico) the "master of the action movie" Jerry Bruckheimer. In addition to massive enthusiasm, we also got the full length trailer here. But again, nothing compared to the horror of the night, the culmination of the advertising synergy between the NBA and The Hulk. During the whole preview we kept hearing about "the biggest star of the summer", who is of course the 15-foot-tall poorly animated Hulkster. After the actual clip segment of the plug, though, we were treated to one of the most ridiculous sights in TV history:

Joel Siegel and Mike Tirico. Wearing giant Hulk fists.

I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried, folks; my only solace is that, if these ratings are any indication, I was apparently the only witness to this monstrosity.

If I had a nickel for every time I've read about water polo sparking an international diplomatic incident......I'd finally have five cents.

And don't those senior citizens just get all the best discounts? My favorite line here: "Mr Campbell added that all his staff were trained in first aid and resuscitation techniques."

Saturday, June 14, 2003

I've had my laziest day in a long time today. Given the regular six-day weeks combined with a search for recreation that takes me on relatively long drives on the 7th day most weeks, I have been pretty constantly on the go. Even my recent vacation involved cramming in two trips with two long drives, two days with a lot of flying, two days of volunteering, etc. I'm not complaining--God knows this beats last September when I was sitting around the house waiting for the phone to ring all day and watching an unhealthy amount of FX--but it did mean I was ready for a day that was mostly collapse.
Here is a rough synopsis: midnight-9 a.m.: sleep; 9-11 a.m.: MST3K ("Prince of Space"--probably the best SciFi Channel episode); 11 a.m.-2 p.m.: Boggle and cards with my mom and aunt; 2-4:30 p.m.: light nap/watch VH1 "I Love The '80s" episodes for roughly the 114th time; 4:30-8: Saw Italian Job with dad/Ate $6 Burger at Hardee's; 8 p.m.-present: pretty much this.
The Italian Job was one of the better movies I've seen in a long time. It may not be a classic in the making, but it is a great summer action movie, and after A Fish Called Wanda it may be my second-favorite heist film ever. I thought the writing was about as sophisticated and clever as you can get without dragging down an action film, and the action itself was very well done. Charlize Theron actually seemed like someone who can act her way out of a paper bag for once, and Wahlberg, Green, and Norton contributed their usual high-quality performances. I don't know that an understanding of Los Angeles geography is central to understanding or liking the climactic scene, but it certainly helps; when they turned onto Highland, for instance, I knew exactly where they were going and why. I'd recommend it to most anyone,

Thursday, June 12, 2003


  • DEK and I went to the Washington Wild Things game last night. "What is a Washington Wild Thing?" you might ask. Well, the team is a Frontier League baseball squad that is disturbingly popular for independent baseball. The mascot/logo is some strange semi-bear, semi-cat thing (the logo more cat, the mascot more bear), basically from the same marketing people who brought you Poochie. Sadly, we missed by one night "clubhouse attendant get to play" night. But we were there for Bill Mazeroski signs every damn thing in sight night.
  • Context (part 1 of 2): Funnel cakes are wonderful outdoor activity snack food and are sadly not as widespread as other types. I enjoy them immensely. I pointed out in a private email to Mr. Kidder on Monday that even though I had eaten a funnel cake at the "Arts" Festival on Sunday, I did not mention it in my blog entry because, "I don't mock funnel cakes." Funnel cakes were available at the Wild Things game.
  • Since he's the Director of Baseball Operations and apparently pitching coach, every night is Kent Tekulve signs every damn thing in sight night. And for the right price, you can have the excitement of a Kent Tekulve personal appearance at your own event, gathering, or presumably just hanging around your rumpus room. You can also pay the Wild Things to have hitting coach Joe Charbonneau not show up at your gathering.
  • Random, Out-of-Context Quote of the Evening: What if Phoebe Cates were making the funnel cakes?
  • Yesterday I finished reading Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden, which was a strange read in many ways. First off, it's a 40-year-old academic book, and those never age well without showing a lot of warts. In this case, for instance, Marx was a scholar out of the early days of the American Studies movement. After World War II, American Studies started growing as a discipline to study "American exceptionalism" (generally framed as a parallel to my mock CBI intramural question: Why is the U.S. the best damn country in the world?)--a fairly dubious scholarly and intellectual enterprise, but one that sparked some interesting debates anyway. By the late '60s American Studies was morphing into what it remains today--an interrogation of the idea of American exceptionalism that focuses on the big sociocultural categories: race, gender, class, sexuality, etc. Depending on your point-of-view, then, American Studies has largely evolved or devolved into ethnic and gender studies.
    But back to Marx, this book represents an attempt to understand American culture--and, more directly, to interpret American literature--through the dual metaphors of "machine" and "garden" and through the concept of the "pastoral" Starting with Shakespeare's The Tempest and going through early (1707) histories of Virginia, Jefferson's Notes on Virginia, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Twain and finally Fitzgerald, he develops the running theme of America as a new Eden embraced as an agrarian paradise, but constantly under siege from technological progress destroying the pastoral dream. The tricky part, however, is that the garden itself is already a developed place--it is not undeveloped wilderness, but rather cultivated, managed land--and development and progress are also built into American ideals and literature as positive values. The machine (often in literature the railroad or the steamboat) intrudes upon the pastoral, but this intrusion is an ambivalent development because it signals progress and destiny even as it undermines the Edenic dream.
    Marx sees most Americans, and most of his authors, advocating some sort of "middle course" where technology prospers but in harmony with the garden or in some way removed from it. This is paradoxical, however, in part because the garden itself is a representation of progress over the wilderness, but also because the ideal of progress does not allow for a cut-off point--i.e., if one believes in progress, there is no point where one can say, "OK, that's enough progress." According to Marx, then, the endings of many of our greatest books (Huck Finn, Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby) are unsatisfactory because they fail to resolve the machine/garden dilemma they posit, but in a sense they are necessarily so because there is no real resolution possible.
    I picked up this book because I have been thinking a lot about the tensions in American culture in terms of "culture wars" as substantially based around a dualism of the urban/cosmopolitan and the rural/pastoral. I am emphatically on the side of the cosmopolitan, and so I'm trying to understand the power of the pastoral myth. One way to frame this is I'm trying to figure out why it seems that I am increasingly on the opposite side of the cultural divide from both major political parties, instead of just one and a half.
    Did this book help? Well, it did give me some context for how we can simultaneously fetishize "progress" and rural life. It also showed me why gender and ethnic studies happened; it's kind of appalling that as late as 1964 a serious scholar could write a book that talks about "our greatest writers" and "serious writers" without asking any questions at all about what those concepts mean and why they matter, and why they're all white guys from Virginia and New England. In the end, though, I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone who didn't need to put it in a footnote of something, unless they had a direct intellectual interest in the issues at play here.
  • Context (part 2 of 2): The Washington Wild Things have a player named Zach Cates, who I speculated might be the horrible combination of Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates. I wondered if the bright light would affect his play, and hoped team meals don't occur after midnight. DEK asked if it were possible for anything involving Phoebe Cates to be a horrible combination. I said that anything can be made horrible in the wrong combination: peanut butter and chocolate, good; peanut butter and botulism, bad. DEK asked, what about Phoebe Cates and peanut butter, to which I replied that I was going to the men's room and would see him in two innings, as I was channeling Judge Reinhold.
  • I'm cheering pretty hard for the Nets, only because I would like to see the crashing down of the East/West power imbalance in the NBA. So go New Jersey--be ept, and do a full-assed job.

Monday, June 09, 2003

Random question for Beallsvonian readers: what is your favorite word to use that may or may not be a real word, created by removing the negative aspect of a more common word? For instance, Tim and Kristan tend to refer to a competent person as "ept". I often like to think of well-dressed people as "sheveled", when I'm happy I consider myself "gruntled", and I once won a game of Balderdash in part by recognizing that someone with scruples has "ruth". Does anybody else enjoy these constructions, and do you actually use them in conversation, or just use them to amuse yourself?

I thought we'd seen the last of these folks here at The Beallsvonian, but DEK brought news of a coup attempt to my attention.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

I'm working today, but I thought I would stroll around the Three Rivers Arts Festival at lunchtime. Here are some of the art installations I saw:

  • The first installation was a metaphorical space where teenagers were performing an optimistic piece designed apparently to present a positive image of contemporary youth. Encased in a small booth, they had a pile of lemons, and they used them to make lemonade. This played on linguistic convention by literalizing a metaphor in order to show us how language can construct our reality, and it also struck an ironic note, as the making of lemonade did not seem to make them (the youths) significantly happier, as the traditional saying might suggest. People viewing this installation were encouraged to participate by taking some of the lemonade, in return for what seemed to be a mandatory two-dollar donation.
  • Another installation in the same area featured a similarly performative/interactive motif, as several slightly older artists performed a piece they called "Polish sausages", creating a post-modern punning verbal interplay requiring viewers to understand the dual meaning of "Polish"--playing on questions of ethnic identity, while simultaneously reflecting notions of giving a "polish-ed" performance. The performance demonstrated a Brecht-ian dissonance, as the "polish-ed" acting out of "Polish-ness" was actually performed by people who seemed ethnically Asian. (The meaning of the "sausage" in the title and the performance eluded me, though it may have been a veiled reference to the axiom that "Those who love sausage and the law should never watch either one being made," thus suggesting the complications and occasional horrors of producing culture and of identity politics.)
    As in the previous installation, performers at this booth also produced actual consumable goods, allowing viewers to participate, again for a mandatory donation.
  • Farther down toward Point State Park was a particularly avant garde booth. Artists at this booth portrayed representatives of a credit card company, soliciting passers-by to fill out paperwork to sign up for a credit card in order to receive a free gift in return. This installation resonated deeply, as it commented on the proliferation of such transactions in our culture, as if to suggest that not even a festival dedicated to artistic endeavor could be free of such rampant commercial activity. Patrons also participated gleefully here, although in this case no up-front donation seemed to be necessary. I chose simply to watch.
  • I continued my stroll with a trip into the Fort Pitt Museum. I would strongly recommend this museum to all fans of dioramas and exhibits written before modern trends in historiography, such as treating Indians as if they were actually people.

After leaving the park area proper, I returned to the "Polish sausage" installation, and this time I actually chose to participate in the interactive aspect of the exhibit. Feeling that I had done my part to encourage the local arts community, I returned to work, my appetite for artistic expression and my appetite for meat equally sated.

Friday, June 06, 2003

No, seriously, at this point does anybody else get the impression that at this point, NBC is the woman who psychologically needs for some reason to keep going back to the bad boyfriend who mentally and physically abuses her, and the French Open is the guy in the wife-beater T-shirt with the mullet? Every year the French Open comes up with new tortures--hey, let's have two Spaniards in the final, or two Belgians, or no Americans past the third round, or Iva Majoli as the champion, or a string of champions as likable as Muster and Kafelnikov (non-tennis fans: think Albert Belle and Latrell Sprewell, but foreign), or two Spaniards in the final yet again, or the guy who'd never won a Grand Slam match before in the finals--and every year NBC comes back to take its ratings bitch-slapping like a pre-buff Tina Turner. When your Saturday opening voice-over touts the battle of the Walloons versus the Flemish, and your Sunday voice-over includes Bud Collins saying "What's the tall guy's name again?," chances are you're not drawing in a whole lot of casual fans.

In other news, I went to the Pirates game last night. Since the Red Sox are in town for the first time since the first World Series, it was Turn Back the Clock Night. The players wore 1903 uniforms, the scoreboard showed only an image of an old-fashioned hand-kept scoreboard, there were no replays or musical interludes, the PA announcer stood on the dugout with a (n amplified) megaphone, and there was no pierogi race. The promotion was not totally authentic, however: concessions saw no throwback to old-time pricing, and they let the black guys play. Jeff Reboulet even stole a base and scored the winning run, which was appropriate since he was the only guy on the field who was actually playing professional baseball in 1903.

Oh yes, and as part of the promotion, everyone was handed some literature on baseball in 1903 on the way into the park, with a full recap of the '03 Series and a lot of Did You Know type of information. I know this would have been timelier last week, but I noted that one of the people listed as born in 1903 was Bob Hope. Two of the others: George Orwell and Lou Gehrig. That put Mr. Hope's longevity into perspective for me real quick.

Finally, we fired two more people at work today, which meant one more day of walking on eggshells. At least my boss decided that I didn't need to go through the whole drama scene again, and told me to go home at 4 before the actual calls were made. There's nothing like a lot of firings to keep up employee morale, and I think I speak for everyone this Monday when I quietly whisper, "Who's next?" Of course, as long as we can hold out for seven more weeks, it won't be me...

Thursday, June 05, 2003

I started writing about the John Wayne book yesterday before I was interrupted by the chance to go home, which was a good thing. I'd never read anything by Garry Wills before, but just based on his extensive list of books I assumed he's the type of quasi-historian I really don't like--very prolific, which means probably not a very in-depth researcher, which can lead to things such as the Stephen Ambrose fiasco. But I will say that clearly some extensive research went into this book, so maybe I am wrong about Mr. Wills in general.

What drew me to this book was that, rather than a celebrity biography of Marion Morrison/John Wayne, it claimed to be a biography of the concept or cultural figure of "John Wayne". To do that, Wills focuses on the key Wayne films, especially the ones directed by John Ford or Howard Hawkes, to show how Wayne's characters worked narratively and how they contributed to the Wayne image. This book succeeds as an in-depth analysis of key films such as Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (a great film), and The Searchers, without being very jargony or, conversely, overly concerned with off-screen gossip. It also proves a corrective to the error of thinking of Westerns in general or Wayne's Westerns in particularly as all being the same. I would make a case that the Western has produced some of our most interesting films and filmic themes, and Wills pretty much agrees.

What I didn't feel this book ultimately did, however, was answer the greater questions it posed about how and why John Wayne has become such an imposing figure in our culture, such that even 24 years after his death everyone knows what kind of rugged masculinity and "American-ness" Wayne represents. Instead, Wills gets caught up in being a film buff--an interesting, thoughtful one, but not one who spends much time breaking out of the material and drawing larger conclusions. The concluding remarks about Wayne as Adam figure and his rehashing of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier mythos could have come in an essay totally removed from the rest of the book. This is a cool book for Western fans to read, but not one with the ultimate meaning I was hoping for.

In other news, what the hell is up with the French Open. On the women's side, Saturday will be the happiest day in Belgian history regardless of the outcome. On the men's side, one semifinal rehashes last year's final, but the other one is just weird. I had never heard of Guillermo Coria before, and he's the 7 seed! I guess the Argentine invasion we were promised a few years ago has come to pass. And on the other side we've got Dutchman Martin Verkerk, whose career record coming into the tournament was 22-28. And it's not like he's a newcomer (turned pro in 1996) or a doubles specialist (career high doubles rank: 102). This is his third Grand Slam tourney ever. Bizarro.

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

I've had a lot of free time over the past week and a half, so it's probably time to combine two major recurring themes, review and dots:

  • I saw Bruce Almighty while I was in Jersey. I have often been told that I over-analyze movies, which in my experience is what many people tell you if you think about them at all. While I was in California, thanks to Tim, Kristan, and Dana I saw a lot of big-budget Hollywood fare, a lot of lower-budget Hollywood fare, and just a lot of Hollywood fare in general. I'd like to think that I got better at just sitting back and enjoying relatively dumb films for what they are, especially big summer action movies and comedies. But I couldn't do that here for one simple reason: what's an agnostic supposed to do with a movie that is all about prayer and Godstuff? Touched by an Angel spent less time talking about God than this movie does. Of course, it's a watered-down Hollywood version of religion that's all about self-actualization, "helping others", and making people feel good in the most generic sense--this is not the nasty Old Testament, smiting type of Bruce/God by any stretch. But if you can shut your brain off better than I can and enjoy Jim Carrey's antics even if you've seen them 20 times in the commercials, then by all means go see this movie. At least Stephen Carrell was kind of funny in very limited screen time, most of which you've also seen in the commercials.
  • I also finally got around to seeing Chicago last Thursday. This was a lot of fun for a couple of reasons. One is that as much as I usually fight watching them, I almost inevitably really enjoy movie musicals. (This, by the way, is just one more piece of evidence that--barring the part about sleeping with men instead of women--I'm basically gay.) Secondly, this was the first time I'd ever been the only patron for a movie in the theater. I'd always wonder how that worked; it turns out that, since I was late, I found out--as soon as I bought my ticket, the person at the front counter radioed the people in back to tell them to start the program, since someone had in fact shown up.
  • Right before I left for Jersey I cleaned up the last of my "run through The List by picking out the really short ones" books, John Fante's Ask The Dust. Fante is the stylistic forefather of Charles Bukowski, who ended up championing Fante's writings later in his life. This is a slim but vivid story about Arturo Bandini, a poor young writer whose modest successes and larger failures, both as a writer and as a lover, send him back and forth from excruciating agony to dizzying heights. Fante seems to be making fun of his own emotional excesses, and the effect makes for a sympathetic and memorable character once you are sure that he is truly over the top. Mostly, though, this is just a story of bumming around cheap Los Angeles hotels, streets, and dives in the 1930s. The book is accessible and easily readable and is a lesson in writing with a highly emotional style, even if the story doesn't amount to much.
  • Ride With Me, Mariah Montana is the final book in Ivan Doig's Montana trilogy, including the previously reviewed English Creek. Doig brings protagonist forward from the 14-year-old on the verge of adulthood and World War II, to a 64-year-old on the verge of old age and Montana's Centennial, an occasion for both celebration and consternation about the future of rural America. Doig is a new favorite of mine, and this book did little to change that. Jick, daughter Mariah, and her ex-husband Riley travel around 1989 Montana covering the Centennial for a Missoula newspaper--Riley as the columnist and Mariah as the photographer. Jick provides and drives the Winnebago. Family and state history interweave as we learn the dynamics of each, and as layer after layer falls into place the tale becomes richer and richer as a story and as a history lesson. One gripe is that much of the information from English Creek needs to be re-presented, but that's unavoidable in a book such as this one, because not everyone will have read the original. I highly recommend both.
  • James Hunter's Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America was a disappointment to me. I do believe in the concept of a quasi-war between rural and cosmopolitan, conservative and (for lack of a better term) "progressive" America, but certainly not in the simplistic and basically religious terms presented by Hunter. Hunter focuses on religion--not that different religions are on different sides, but the orthodox and progressive factions in a variety of churches (Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish). He also denies class any important role in this struggle. I have been thinking a lot about the concept of culture wars as I try to position myself intellectually, as a lefty, urban-oriented po-mo type who often feels like no one out there is really speaking for me. This book, sadly, wasn't much help.
  • I also just read Garry Wills' John Wayne's America, but the workday is pretty much over, so more on that later.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

This news has just been passed on to me, and sadly the world just got a bit safer for pencil-neck geeks.

Oh yes, thanks to JQ's willingness to take the rental car on a 50-mile round trip, I have now been to 44 out of the 50 states. The outliers: Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Dakota, Oregon, and Hawaii. North Carolina, Rhode Island, Alabama, and Washington are the most dubious claims of these, but in each case I have either set foot in the state or have driven across the length of it. South Dakota may fall in August, if I can figure out a reasonably sensible route through it.

I'm back from vacation/the HSCT, and of course the weather continues to be dreary and miserable here in Pittsburgh. Myrtle Beach, on the other hand, was sunny, the temperatures hovered around 80, and it was less humid than I expected. If sociologists have any question about why Americans are moving southward and westward, they should really spend some time outdoors. Naturally I did get some sunburn, but for once it looks worse than it feels rather than vice versa. Several people have mentioned that I "got some color", kindly neglecting to specify that the color is a deep scarlet.

Some of the weekend's misadventures have already been described nicely elsewhere. I was part of the fivesome that went to a Myrtle Beach Pelicans Single-A baseball game. I was also part of the nineteensome that went to the NIFL game, as described by fellow shocked onlookers Mark, JQ, Craig, and possibly others to come.

If not for the three hours of surreal that was the NIFL, the wackiness highlight of the trip would have been Mt. Atlanticus. Mt. Atlanticus is a place where one can play Minotaur Goff. That's not a typo. Neither is that. Eighteen holes of monster, demon, and of course minotaur themed miniature golfing--including (it goes without saying) a labyrinth hole. This part of the trip included all of the following:

  1. DEK unwisely taking someone in the previous foursome's advice that you could get a hole in one by hitting it in the water; all he actually got was a ball in the water, and more disturbingly, the ball we pulled out of the water was a different color than the one that went in. We hope it was a different ball, but the unnatural blue of the water made us wary of leaping to that conclusion.
  2. The last several holes involved climbing up into what looked like the kind of treetop shelters that, say, Tarzan or perhaps a Monchichi would live in. This was not problematic in and of itself (except that several of us, um, larger guys commented along the lines of: "Stairs, my mortal enemy"); however, the higher we climbed, the less stable these structures seemed, until the 18th hole actually seemed as if it could plunge 4 stories to a very campy but painful death for 8 quiz-bowlers.
  3. A long walk down the main drag of the city, where even late Sunday afternoon there was a Mardi Gras/Girls Gone Wild type atmosphere (and us, sadly, without our beads). We as a group seemed to be getting heckled at various times, presumably for not being (pick one or more of the following: cool, young, attractive, drunk) enough. In a related story, this walk also took us past the place where we, as quiz-bowl types, clearly should have been staying.
  4. Yummy Indian food on the way back, and a disturbing amount of confusion how to get there, given that we had passed the place two hours earlier.
  5. Miniature golf (sorry, minotaur goff) holes that actually had three or four potential pin placements; on several of the holes where a difficult location was in play that day, we correctly referred to them as "Sunday pin placements".

Miniature golf was played on Monday afternoon as well, after a trip to Shoney's breakfast (in this case, brunch) buffet, and that is where I acquired most of my "color".

All things considered, it was a truly excellent weekend. I hope NAQT continues to run their HSCT at convention centers in resort towns rather than in college towns emptied for the summer, and I hope they continue to invite people such as myself to come and lend a hand. And I wish gatherings with old quiz-bowl friends were not so few and far between for me nowadays, as this one reminded me that I started playing for the game, but I stayed for the fellowship with smart and interesting people.