Friday, February 26, 2010

"You know you better watch out"—A Feeble Tribute to Beautiful Ghosts

Prompted by a friend's thoughts on high school reunions, I got to thinking about my own high school experience and (as happens to me at least once a year) reliving parts of it via old music. That about sums up why I don't know anything about what the kids are playing on the gramophone these days: I'd rather just listen to Wu-Tang.

That is, rather than seeking a nostalgic link to the past, I really still love Wu-Tang's early material. If anything, I've grown to appreciate artists like the Wu-Tang Clan, Outkast, and Biggie more over time than I ever did in high school; while bands in which I was excessively emotionally invested at one point (I'm looking at you, Nirvana) now tend to bore me. Seriously, it's embarrassing.

This isn't a review of mid-nineties hip hop or an analysis of why for me it's so much more enduring than examples from other genres during that period, but a preface to an admission that for me one artist does have the power to evoke heart-wrenching nostalgia.

The chosen one is Lauryn Hill in 1998-99. I was a fan of the Fugees and had enjoyed Wyclef's The Carnival, but The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill just hit me in a really deep place. It was released a few weeks before the beginning of my senior year, and throughout the 1998/99 school year her music was everywhere. 1998 was a big year for "crossovers" in hip hop--it followed Sting's participation in a tribute to Biggie, it was the year of the ascendancy of Puff Daddy and Will Smith, the year that ODB made his way onto the soundtrack of a Warren Beatty film--but Hill managed to have virtually universal appeal without sacrificing quality or vision. It's just a gorgeous album, and I play it on a loop every time I return to it but it has yet to get old.

I've confirmed in many conversations that I'm not alone in this, nor am I alone in the main qualification of my devotion to the L-Boogie cult: the Lauryn Hill of Miseducation had ceased to exist by the year 2000. This nostalgia for music that absolutely saturated the air during the formal end of my childhood is only strengthened by the wistfulness that results from wondering what the fuck happened to this staggeringly beautiful and talented woman.

So let's chalk this nostalgia up to unrequited love and perennial disappointment as leitmotifs in adolescence, in the songs on this album, and in the life of its creator. I loved her, she was way out of my reach, but I secretly wished her well, and in the end she fell apart. Yes, I'm hokey and melodramatic. I still love The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and I'm still in love with Lauryn Hill in her 1998-99 incarnation.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"the real masters"

"The farmer imagines power and place are fine things. But the President has paid dear for his White House. It has commonly cost him all his peace, and the best of his manly attributes. To preserve for a short time so conspicuous an appearance before the world, he is content to eat dust before the real masters who stand erect behind the throne."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Compensation"

Cold, dead hands.

Fun fact of the day: national park rangers are the most frequently assaulted federal employees in the U.S. I'm guessing that this is because their job largely consists of playing buzzkill to prevent forest fires and other destruction resulting from douchebag revelry. They're also tasked with stopping poachers. They're also unarmed.

Those are just a few reasons why it made perfect sense to pass a law allowing people to carry guns into national parks, effective today, as part of HR 627, more popularly known as the Credit Cardholder's Bill of Rights.

Yeah. They did that.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Why I ♥ the internet.

The internet is useful. This is, I think, pretty generally accepted. Yet, despite my own dependence on the utility of this wondrous series of tubes for pretty much everything, I think I only really love the internet at its most useless. The frivolous internet has the capacity to delight me in three ways: by providing hilariously wrong information, by answering questions I would never care to ask, and by informing me of my membership in communities I would never seek on my own. Does any of this improve my work or my quality of life? No. But sometimes it improves my day.

Here's what I mean...

I found this gem of wikipedia vandalism a few days ago and captured it before the fact police got to it:
Jonathan Edwards (October 5, 1703 – March 22, 1758) was a preacher, theologian, and missionary to Native Americans. His sermons such as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" inspired his parishioners to coin what has now become an American colloquialism: "Ain't no sermon like a J. Edwards sermon, 'cause dem J. Edwards sermons don' stop."
I also found this blog, which is dedicated to a largely unpopular food which I've always quietly enjoyed:

And finally, did you know that Andy Griffith once played Sir Walter Raleigh in a film titled The Lost Colony? Neither did I, but I do now.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

An excerpt from "A Conversation with My Younger Brother, High School Counselor"

B. What are you up to?
K. Just left a trustee's luncheon. Basically listening to rich white people talk about educating poor brown people. What are you doing?
B. Reading about rich white people converting poor brown people to Christianity.
K. Same shit.
B. Yup.

Friday, February 5, 2010

"And love he loves..."

I'm currently teaching John Dryden's Marriage a la Mode as part of a literary drama survey course, and it's been about as much fun as I've ever had teaching anything. This stems largely from the play's incessant bawdiness, but it's also due to a really handy fusion of genres and forms that practically constitutes a survey on its own. It's rare that any work makes it easy to get students excited about the ways in which form and content complement one another, but Marriage a la Mode seems to pull it off.

Then there's the context of the play, which is just as entertaining. If work always consisted of teaching students about libertinism in King Charles II's court, my job satisfaction would be off the charts. Not only does it loosen things up a bit, but it allows for those intensely satisfying lessons in which you actually explode the myths to which your students want to remain loyal. Marriage a la Mode is about marriage. It was written in the seventeenth century. Given those two facts alone, some students try their damnedest to just sit on their hands and repeat platitudes about how things have changed, how marriage was "before" versus how it is "now," but Dryden doesn't let them.

But the greatest joy of all may be that the play is dedicated to John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, which gave me an excuse to have them read some of his poetry. If Dryden forces them to realize that society's views on marriage haven't deteriorated since the Restoration, then Rochester makes it clear that no 21st century rapper, reality star, or myspace celebrity can do filth like a libertine. We read the "Satyr on Charles II" and then discussed censorship, sex, and the evolution of swearing. It was a good day.

I' th' isle of Britain, long since famous grown
For breeding the best cunts in Christendom,
There reigns, and oh! long may he reign and thrive,
The easiest King and best-bred man alive.
Him no ambition moves to get renown
Like the French fool, that wanders up and down
Starving his people, hazarding his crown.
Peace is his aim, his gentleness is such,
And love he loves, for he loves fucking much.
---Nor are his high desires above his strength:
His scepter and his prick are of a length;
And she may sway the one who plays with th' other,
And make him little wiser than his brother.
Poor prince! thy prick, like thy buffoons at Court,
Will govern thee because it makes thee sport.
'Tis sure the sauciest prick that e'er did swive,
The proudest, peremptoriest prick alive.
Though safety, law, religion, life lay on 't,
'Twould break through all to make its way to cunt.
Restless he rolls about from whore to whore,
A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.
---To Carwell, the most dear of all his dears,
The best relief of his declining years,
Oft he bewails his fortune, and her fate:
To love so well, and be beloved so late.
For though in her he settles well his tarse,
Yet his dull, graceless ballocks hang an arse.
This you'd believe, had I but time to tell ye
The pains it costs to poor, laborious Nelly,
Whilst she employs hands, fingers, mouth, and thighs,
Ere she can raise the member she enjoys.
---All monarchs I hate, and the thrones they sit on,
---From the hector of France to the cully of Britain.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Wole Soyinka and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o at Loyola Marymount University

A good friend of mine is helping organize this talk, so I wanted to help spread the word. Apparently Ngũgĩ and Soyinka, despite a long friendship, have never actually participated in a public forum together. So if you're in L.A. on Monday, maybe you'd like to come check it out.

(click on image to see full-size flyer)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

You're welcome, Part II

"Among the islands of Polynesia, no sooner are the images overturned, the temples demolished, and the idolators converted into nominal Christians, than disease, vice, and premature death make their appearance. The depopulated land is then recruited from the rapacious hordes of enlightened individuals who settle themselves within its borders, and clamorously announce the progress of the Truth."  (Herman Melville, Typee)

"We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world." (Herman Melville, White Jacket)
 * * * * * * * * *

A group of American missionaries goes to Haiti in search of orphans to save (with every connotation that little verb can muster). They pick up thirty-three children and head to the Dominican Republic, but are arrested at the border for having taken the children without documentation or without verifying that the children were even orphans. Are these folks kidnappers? (see story here)

Well, to put it plainly, to evaluate the situation based on the act itself rather than on the internal world of these missionaries' thoughts, yes. Yes, they are kidnappers. But what of the world in which they fancy themselves God's elves? What of their belief that they were on a mission ordained by Christ, that they never had any intentions of trafficking children, that they were actually doing good? Must this be taken into account? Again, I say yes; but maybe not in the way Idaho's Central Valley Baptist Church would like.

For the record, I fully buy the story of the missionaries. I do believe that they acted with the best of intentions, and that their enthusiasm and naivete blinded them rather than that their Christian mission is a cover-up for some nefarious plot. And maybe the children had a darker future awaiting them in Haiti than they did in a Baptist-run orphanage in the Dominican Republic or in the custody of adoptive parents in the U.S. This viewpoint was partially validated when it emerged that some of the kids actually were not orphans, but were handed over to the missionaries by their own parents, who were promised that their children would be educated in America and placed in loving homes with swimming pools. So this will not be a commentary on if or how these people should be punished, because frankly I don't have an opinion. What they did was illegal, but was done with the best of intentions. You can't take children out of a country without proper documentation, but some of them were handed over by their own parents. So it's all criminal and beneficent and bad and good and on and on and on...we have courts to address those questions.

What bothers me is not the difficulty of finding an answer to these legal and ethical questions, but the mindset that would justify such actions in the first place. What bothers me is that the real problem resides in the very term thrown around in an attempt to exonerate these do-gooders for their do-gooding: Faith.

Understand, when I criticize faith I don't mean to criticize people of faith (though I think that label is unfortunate for reasons I'll soon disclose) or religion per se, but rather a particular brand of faith that subordinates ethical coexistence to unethical but well-intentioned behavior, and opens the door to a form of imperialism that can always revert back to an ethical standard derived from a plane unavailable for assessment by non-believers.

It's a deficient version of the paradoxical faith of Abraham as conceived by Kierkegaard. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard describes the faith paradox as being predicated on the "strength of the absurd." After decades of barrenness, God has not only granted Abraham a son, but promised that this seed shall give rise to a great nation. Since Abraham has absolute faith in the word of God, he doesn't question the order to kill his son, but, on the strength of the absurd, believes that he can both obey the order and get his son back in some undisclosed way. Furthermore, in obeying the word of God, Abraham here must disregard the ethical--he must reject the social world and exist only to obey God. He can't explain his actions, since they are justifiable only on the strength of the absurd and are simply unjustifiable to the world at large. To the earthly world beyond himself, Abraham is, at the moment he reaches the top of Mount Moriah, no more than a premeditated murderer. That God stops him at the last second does not justify the silent preparation and intended execution (for it had to be intended, otherwise it wouldn't constitute an act of faith and then Abraham would just be some guy).

Kierkegaard calls this rejection of ethics in the service of the absolute the "teleological suspension of the ethical," and if you don't have God whispering in your ear or thundering down at you from the mountaintops you can still teleologically suspend the ethical if you really think you're working toward a godly end. And therein lies the problem with those religious factions who value blind faith over less nihilistic versions of religious observance, like piety, for example. Any post-biblical version of blind faith must be deficient for two reasons: first, Abraham is an example that can't be emulated--otherwise, again, he wouldn't matter. Second, the "knight of faith" (as Kierkegaard refers to Abraham) is not viewed as such by his contemporaries, because of his suspension of the ethical--the very thing that makes him an exemplar of godly action would render him a criminal in his own age. To commend or excuse unethical behavior based on the faith of the transgressor makes no sense, since we don't have access to his revelation, and if we did, his actions wouldn't be exceptional.

So what does this have to do with these missionaries in Haiti? The problem is not that these individuals conceived of themselves as having received orders directly from God (although some have made statements eerily close to such a claim), but that the U.S. as a whole operates with this City on a Hill mentality that always justifies itself based on some hazy endpoint by which we consider ourselves essentially better than others. How is it even debatable that taking thirty-three children from their home country without documentation, without verifying whether they're all actually orphans, without getting permission from any of the three nations involved, would be a case of child trafficking? It's really only debatable if there's some essential difference between these kidnappers and real kidnappers. So when they say "we are not kidnappers," they can't possibly mean that they didn't take children without permission; what they can mean is that they aren't Ukrainian pornographers, Thai pimps, Mauritanian slave drivers, etc. What they mean is "we are Americans," and that's supposed to be a valid defense. Still, no one in their right mind would deny that such actions--even if committed with the best of intentions--have massive potential for now giving the green light to "real" traffickers. And yet every day on every channel defenders of these people's actions are taken seriously when they defend them not on the grounds that their violation of the law was a mistake, an idiotic and arrogant move that they regret, but that they didn't violate the law because they acted in good faith.
By this absurd logic a surgeon could retroactively excuse operating with blunt instruments if he just claimed belief that those instruments were somehow better than whatever else was available. And that's exactly the mentality with which we so often excuse our actions*. Take the horrors of Blackwater (whose CEO, by the way, saw himself as a Christian crusader) in Iraq and how they're so often handled by defenders of the Bush administration. They're not murderers, they just made some mistakes. That those mistakes actually include murder doesn't make them murderers. Why? Because they had the right idea, and so did we when we hired them. So although I'll reiterate that I believe the Central Valley Baptists acted with the best of intentions, I'd also add that those intentions are only any good within an all-too-prevalent ideology which dictates that the job of charitable Americans is not just to help the less fortunate survive and get back on their feet, but to save them from themselves and to do so by converting them to our clearly superior ways.

*Of course, this situation in Haiti is an isolated and highly unique incident; this kidnapping isn't part of American policy in that region, nor is it the modus operandi of the vast majority of Christian missionaries. However, it is indicative of an underlying sense of entitlement drawn from the popular (and almost exclusively Christian) notion of American exceptionalism. Would the conversation about this issue be so polite and receptive to their defenders if the missionaries had been Venezuelan? What if they represented a mosque instead of a church? I don't think it would.

IS IT SUMMER YET? (for grownups)

I don't think the bad impression of a children's book in my previous post gave me quite the ironic distance I had hoped it would, so I might as well admit a sappy affection for this little pile of basalt in the middle of the Atlantic. It's a beautiful place, and I still have lots of family there. There was a stretch of time when I visited almost every year, but I haven't been back since 2003 and I miss it terribly. This year my cousin is getting married, and I can't wait to get my ass on a plane to the islands.

But wait! There's more!

I'm taking a close friend of mine with me, and then after that we'll be visiting his family--in Egypt. We're trying to make this an overland trip and, although it's shaping up nicely, there have been some kinks in the planning process. So if you know anything about traveling in--or if you have any friends currently residing in--northern Portugal, southern Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, or Libya, I'd love your input.

Around late June or early July I guess this will become a temporary travel blog. Stay tuned.

IS IT SUMMER YET? (a children's book)

This is a bird's eye view of my family's hometown, the village of Altares, from atop the Pico Matias Simão...

...which looks like this from my cousin's house.

You can also see my cousin's house from Pico Matias Simão!

The center of Altares is this church...

..and it's located in the county of Angra do Heroismo, whose seat is a city of the same name. Isn't that neat?

This is all located on the island of Terceira...

...which has roads lined with hydrangeas...

...where sometimes herds of cows interrupt traffic...

...and summer festivals interrupt everything.

Next to Altares is the village of Biscoitos. That's "biscuits" in English!

In Biscoitos we like to swim in the Belo Abismo (that's "the beautiful abyss" in English!)...

...unless it's winter.

In fact, it's probably best to stay inside with some friends during the winter...

...but it can still be really pretty outside.

I think Terceira's my favorite place in the...




So why haven't I returned since 2003? Because, kids, I'm a graduate student. That means that I actually volunteered to not have any fun! Silly, isn't it? But guess where I'll be this summer?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Paying dues, eating cheese.

It may not be as apparent through this blog as it is to anyone with whom I hold a conversation of longer duration than five minutes, but I'm extremely fond of my hometown. Since I don't harbor the same affection (or any affection at all, really) for my current city of residence, and it's only about thirty miles away from home, I usually spend weekends at my parents' house.

My parents live across the street from the center of our little Portuguese enclave, a social club that was built in 1923 and has served the Portuguese (mainly Azorean) community in southern California in more ways than I can begin to explain here.

Though not technically the centerpiece of the club--which has two large dining halls, four bars, a courtyard with a large gazebo for concerts, a chapel, and an arena--and certainly not its raison d'être, the most frequently used part of the Portuguese hall (as we locals call the club) is the sports bar. It's not hyperbolic to say that I grew up in this bar, although I would quickly add that the images of dysfunction and misery likely evoked by the statement "I grew up in a dive bar" don't apply. Perhaps some other time I'll go into detail, but for now suffice it to say that I'm a better person for having spent my childhood there. On weekdays, though the rest of the club is closed, the sports bar is open from early morning until about noon, then opens again in the evening. Mostly middle-aged and old men go there to play cards and dominoes, to have a few drinks (in the morning it's usually coffee, as the place has a killer espresso machine, but some guys throw back a brandy or two on their way to work), and to catch up on the latest news. They argue about soccer, they find out who's died locally or back in the old country, they sell candies for their grandkids' school fundraisers and sometimes buy fresh fish if someone happened to get out on a boat that morning. The bar is also the club's de facto center of business. If you owe money, if you need a note passed to the management, if you have a complaint or need to rent one of the halls, there are people in charge of that stuff but many people go through the bartender first.

This weekend I had business to take care of. I haven't paid my membership dues for 2010 yet, so before coming home I wrote a check to take to the hall when I got in. Over the course of the weekend, I forgot to take the check over, and come Monday morning I found myself preparing to head back to my apartment without having paid my annual fee. So around 8:30 am, knowing the bar would be open, I walked across the street to drop off the check.

On my way in I nodded to the usual suspects crowded around a square table slapping dominoes and yelling, the usual guys smoking in the bar's doorway, and the same men standing at the bar as usual--one with an espresso, the other with a glass of wine. Behind the bar there was a sign that read "Queijo de Cabra: $3." That is, "Goat cheese: $3." The sign was probably part of a dinner event that had been held over the weekend and hadn't been taken down. That such a thing would be advertised on a Monday morning, for some reason, struck me as amusing. When the bartender asked what I wanted, I joked in Portuguese that I wanted goat cheese. A funny older man with impressive mutton chops, he wryly answered, "Just one?"
"No, no, I guess you better make it two," I chuckled.

Before I could change the subject and reach for my check, the phone rang. The bartender held up a finger for me to hold my thought, and ran to the other side of the bar to answer the phone. A friend of mine walked in for his morning coffee and we started up a conversation, which was interrupted shortly thereafter by the bartender. "Is that all?" he asked, gently setting down a styrafoam plate covered with plastic wrap. Underneath the wrap were two six-inch wide, one inch-thick, white disks of wet, delicate goat cheese.

For a second I thought about telling him that I was just playing, but on second thought it really wasn't a funny joke and I had six dollars in cash on me. Besides, I love that cheese. So instead I paid, thanked him, dropped off my membership check, and took my two little delectable disks home.