29 October 2006

Calamity Blue

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The “problem” of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics is likely not the equation the author set out to solve – even if the cutesy faux-mathematical riddle on the book’s back cover does not disappoint, in as much as the book itself is as representative of the author’s Intellectual Strivery as that equation. Is strivery even a word? My spell-checker says no, but who cares. We’re striving here; who can be bothered with such details?

Pessl’s protagonist, the young (sixteen by the end of the book) Blue Van Meer, is a caricature of the valedictorian of our nightmares, earnestly well-read and scholarly while clueless about what her peers would call “life.” She barely gives in to peer pressure to drink, while somehow not quite acknowledging that eventual failed resistance or the apparent evolution towards alcohol-for-comfort. Towards the end of the book, when Blue drinks from a liquor bottle [“...I slipped downstairs to the library, uncapped Dad’s fifteen-year-old George T. Stagg bourbon, took a swig straight from the bottle (I wasn’t completely at ease with the shamus work, not yet, and what detective didn’t dip the bill?) and returned to my room, taking a few moments to collect myself.”; page 428] it came as more of a shock to me, the reader, than it seems to have to Blue’s young throat. When, exactly, did Blue learn to brace herself with bourbon? A hastily-arranged make-out scene serves a up similar lightning bolt; sure, Blue had previously admitted to a crush on Milton, her new kissing partner, but Calamity Physics is so very not a novel of teenage torpidity that the incident feels out of place. That it serves as a set-up for a later insult of the typical adolescent kind does not protect the absurdity of its insertion into the story.

Oh, right: the story. Blue and her father Gareth star as itinerant intellectuals who have, for a year, decided to settle down in a small southern town while Blue finishes high school and paves her (apparently assured) entry into Harvard. When modern-day, bourgeois hobos stake their tents, they have to adjust: their most constant companions and friends are no longer just those within the group, but must by necessity expand to include the regular folks around them, people with more rooted, theoretically normal lives. Thus Blue’s friends, a group known (for other reasons) as the Bluebloods, represent variations on the theme of typical private school spoilers, like the well-dressed, well-sexed, Mercedes-driving Jade, or the handsome, blond, Charles (who, of course, goes by Charles, un-nicknamed). A quirky teacher brings them all together, and then her death splits them apart (or at least, splits Blue from her Bluebloods), while also providing the spark that sets Blue investigating and piecing together disparate strands of what she thinks she knows of her own life, her deceased teacher, her friends, her father, and bits of pieces of other people’s lives, too. Along the way, Pessl fills Blue’s mind and mouth with lots of Capitalized Ideas, references to Big Thinkers and Major Books, drawing on references from philosophy, literature, film, and more to help Establish Blue’s Place In The World, connect her to the verbal extremes of her father, and give her an Identity. And perhaps also to try to connect Pessl to a literary world she rightly and very clearly admires?

Back in the 1990s (when Blue was just a child), there was another book filled with Capital Letters, along with lots of unheard-of and slightly absurd Proper Nouns, and characters moving through a privileged private school landscape: it was David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. But where Foster Wallace managed to make all his self-conscious references to fake products and the like serve as a critique on our society (and not just that of his characters) – while also supporting the absurd beauty of his story – Special Topics in Calamity Physics seems much more about the author than her story or her character(s). We are supposed to admire, humor, and detest Blue all at the same time; the same qualities that Pessl hopes will pull us in – Blue’s intellectualism, her insightfulness – are also (of course) the same ones that push us away. For example, Blue’s savant-like recitation and annotation of wide-ranging facts and figures to support her (and her father’s) conclusions about life and the world (or, Life and The World, as Pessl would probably render them) are presumably intended to evoke these kinds of reader-to-protagonist feelings. Instead, they seem more like a reflection on the author, intended to make us feel the awesome power of her Creative Prowess in re-imagining and reinventing a world where fact and fiction are mixed together in one large literary jumble.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics was fun to read, and is certainly an achievement – a long, intricately woven story that ends by poking a finger (or maybe by giving the finger) to the same standard American responses to the world of literature and thought that Blue and her father both expound against repeatedly. It’s just that Pessl’s novel may be too smart for its own good; trying a little less hard to place Gareth and Blue Van Meer in the rarefied world of the intellectually powerful might have added – certainly in Blue’s case – to the echt quality of her character and thus the emotional coming-of-age Blue does manage to achieve in the end.

26 October 2006

Trends, Stats, & More

An article I wrote, looking at how one can use new tools like Google Trends to evaluate one's place in the world, has been published here. Enjoy!

16 October 2006

Cool! A Survey!

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I recently renewed my subscription to The Economist. As usual, the notices began arriving about six months before the subscription actually ended, but I waited until about six weeks prior to the end before sending in my renewal -- for $119 for the year. A week later, wouldn't you know it, I received yet another mailing offering me a chance to renew for $99. Believe me when I say that I don't need either The Economist or an economist to tell me I clearly should have waited longer to renew and saved another $20.

The magazine publishing business is an odd one. But before I get into all that, I want to inquire about the habits and experiences of my readers. I have created an online survey with10 questions, available by clicking here. I will leave the survey up for two weeks before reviewing and reporting on the results (although the data will all be publicly available for the curious to review on their own). As always with such surveys, a disclaimer is needed: this is highly unscientific. But that doesn't mean we cannot have a little fun...

Please fill out the survey -- and we'll take things from there.

12 October 2006

When Tragedy Strikes

The terrible attack by an armed man on an Amish schoolhouse last week is about as close to the definition of senseless as I can imagine. However, the reactions of the Amish and Mennonite community seem to be the very opposite: in the face of this tragedy, they have been sensible and sensitive despite, or perhaps because of, their grief.

Below is the statement that the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee released, which is stunning for its openness and inherent warmth, and seems to me to offer an opportunity for the rest of us, Christian and non-Christian, to reflect on our own values, our community's values, and on how we as a nation choose to respond when attacked. The statement reads as follows:

On Oct. 2, seven Amish families in our community experienced the unimaginable - 10 of their young daughters were shot, five fatally, by a gunman who invaded the Amish school where their children attended. The whole community, Amish and others, were horrified and shocked that such evil could be done to the most innocent members of our peaceful community.

Messages of condolence and care, financial contributions, and offers of all kinds of assistance began to pour into the community almost immediately from the local community and from around the world.

We, the people of the Nickel Mines community, are humbled and deeply thankful for this outpouring of love. Each act of kindness, the prayers and every gift, small or large, comfort us and assure us that our spirits will heal even though the painful loss will always be with us.

Thank you for your generous kindness and for walking with us in this "valley of death." We wish we could thank each of you personally.

In those first hours and days we experienced, personally, the love and care of our neighbors and the public and private service providers as they responded tirelessly and selflessly.

Specifically, we acknowledge and thank the following: volunteer fire companies, especially the Bart Township fire company; fire police; Lancaster County Sheriff's Department; Pennsylvania State Police and local law enforcement people; ambulance and emergency response teams; hospitals and all the related medical providers; coroners; churches; community volunteer groups; transportation providers; and the Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, the Anabaptist Foundation and the numerous banks and businesses that are collecting funds.

To all those we failed to mention, thank you and apologies for not naming you.

We thank people from the news media who sensitively reported our tragedy to the world, and in many cases wrote thoughtful commentary that helped the world grapple with values that are dear to us - forgiveness, non-violence, mutual caring, simplicity and life in a community of faith.

Above all, thank you for the acts of kindness you showed us even while you were doing your reporting work.

The Roberts family is also suffering. Please join us in showering care on them, praying for them and in assisting them with financial needs that they face.

We have organized the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee to receive contributions and apply them to the needs that resulted from the shootings: medical and counseling services, transportation for victims, transportation and extra living expenses for family members attending to the victims, rehabilitation, long-term disability care, modifications to homes or schools if needed to make facilities handicap accessible, and any other expenses resulting from the event.

If adequate funds are received, contributions may be made to charity funds of health-service providers and to volunteer public service entities that responded to this event without charging for their services.

Funds received in excess of what is needed to respond to the Nickel Mines Amish School tragedy will be contributed, as the committee deems appropriate, to needs arising from other tragic events within or outside the Amish community.

Thank you and God bless you.

Copies of this statement can be found online here and here (among other places). Readers may also be interested in the op-ed by by Donald B. Kraybill about the Amish response, published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

09 October 2006

The Limits of Schadenfreude

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The story of now-former Congressman Mark Foley should have a limited range to it as soon as we remind ourselves of what allegedly happened here: a man clearly unable to control himself took advantage of his position and power to abuse kids. No, he didn’t touch them, and no, they aren’t young kids. Nonetheless, these were teenagers whose sense of the world is still developing, who had come to Washington to learn about the workings of our government, and for whom Foley was implicitly an authority figure and a role model. Foley abused that authority, to his and their collective damage.

The damage is ours, too, as Americans, because neither the scandal nor the fall-out serve us well. The Foley scandal comes on the heels of the GOP-staged Senate coup: protests against legislation proposed by President Bush to determine how the United States handles detainees, and whether the President has the authority he claims to wiretap within the U.S. without a warrant and in contravention of both the Constitution and prior law. The coup, however, was largely one of theatrics, for political – not ideological – reasons. Yes, Senators McCain, Graham, Warner, and Specter undoubtedly believe that President Bush was pushing for changes to our laws that would be damaging to this country. That is hardly new: Bush and Cheney have engaged in a lot of activities that many citizens consider seriously damaging to the country, expanding the “authority” of the Executive branch with little more than a peep out of the Congress.

Which means we have to ask ourselves: why a Congressional rebellion now? One possibility is that, with mid-term elections in sight at a time when Bush’s popularity is low, giving the public the impression of some Congressional independence could prove valuable. Another possibility is that in securing concessions from President Bush, this little Senate Republican clique may have attempted to make Bush look reasonable. Still more plausibly is an even more sinister notion: that by engaging in a high-profile public fight, other members of Congress are less likely to argue over the resulting “compromise” bills, for fear of damaging their party. (Then there is the ultimate, obvious answer: this visibility helps both McCain’s and Graham’s future careers in politics.) As usual in these situations, it is the American people who lose the most, as we enter further into gray areas that allow infringements on our basic civil rights and leave too many opportunities for the continued abuse of (executive) power.

The loyal opposition has not been much better. In the face of this issue, the Democrats have been cowards: here, as with other current events, they have been content to sit back and watch the Republican implosion from the sidelines. Democrats (and others) may be right in fueling the idea that House Speaker Dennis Hastert should resign, they may be right that this is another example of the Republicans’ inability to police their own (bad) behavior (especially when viewed in relation to such things as the Jack Abramoff scandal), or that the failure-to-act on information about Foley is similar to the failure of this GOP-lead Congress to restrain President Bush. Such political opportunism – watching while the other guy stumbles – in this case only further reveals the weaknesses within the Democratic Party: a failure of ideas on issues from the Iraq war to Social Security and health care, and a bizarre sense of the inevitability of their leading lady’s rise to power despite her national unelectibility.

And so, to schadenfreude. I am all in favor of enjoying the muck the Republicans appear to be in at this moment, tremendous trouble of their own making, and I certainly hope that it does negatively affect their Congressional elections on November 7th. But let’s enjoy this schadenfreude while reminding ourselves that all this GOP-lead (and Democrat-ignored) trouble has very real consequences. As we now know, Congressional pages have been verbally abused. As a result of the misguided Iraq war, thousands are dead – both American and Iraqi. Despite big words, the genocidal crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan continues (and with our military stretched thing, we have little muscle with which to interfere). Our government, under the leadership of Bush and Cheney, has created a society fixated on fear-driven irrelevancies, such as the Transportation Safety Administration’s insistence that one’s toiletries fit into a one-quart bag – as if the greater volume of the one gallon bag represents a more significant danger than the contents of the bags themselves. Our nation is off-track, and the Foley scandal is just one small part. Thus, taking pleasure in the pain of the GOP or the pathetic nature of the Democrats is also, to an unfortunate degree, taking pleasure in our own pain, too. And that is not schadenfreude, it’s just masochism.

01 October 2006

A Guilty Pleasure

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The guilt is relative, of course. As a fan of the now-concluded television series The West Wing, I welcome the vibrant return of producer-writer Aaron Sorkin, and director Thomas Schlamme, with the new show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Two episodes in, this new series has much of the wit, sparkle, and rapid pacing that made The West Wing so engaging, and the adoption of actor Bradley Whitford, along with Friends’ Matthew Perry, contributes to the mixture. There is also the Saturday Night Live element – the series is about producing a similar kind of weekly comedy show – which works both as an over-arching theme (the rumors about the antics of the actual NBC show having contributed greatly to its reputation during its almost-three-decades on the air) and as a play-within-a-play conceit. The conclusion of the second Studio 60 episode gave viewers the dual pleasures of a Gilbert & Sullivan send-up and a feeling of connection to the skit’s creation.

The guilt comes in the form of a small tug at the conscience that all this talent and energy should be expended on something as un-serious as a television show about the making of a television show. Like it or not, what passionate feelings The West Wing aroused came because of its intelligence, its elegant capturing of the Baby Boomer generation’s political aspirations – the bungling youthfulness and over-achieving Rhodes scholarship combining in a world reviled by conservatives and reflecting many (though by no means all) of the lefty disappointments and successes of the Clintonian era. Sorkin left The West Wing before it concluded its run, and his creation suffered as a result, though it isn’t hard to see why investing in that show would be psychologically draining at a time when the (then new) Bush administration was working hard to bury the memory of the 42nd President under an even-larger mountain if President Bush’s own mistakes.

If one can judge by the first two episodes, Sorkin seems aware of the importance of politics to his creative mix. Studio 60 has folded in bits and pieces, from FCC-issue politics to a Network-style rant that raised critical questions about the dance that Hollywood does with its audiences, and our responsiveness to such lobotomized spoon feeding. I have the sense that the continuation of these themes will be critical to keeping viewers like me engaged. Mind you, I am not criticizing Sorkin, or anyone else involved in Studio 60. So far, it is what is supposed to be: good entertainment, great television. Maybe it’s just the time of year, when I am supposed to be thinking about my wrong-doings, and not necessarily focused on entertainment. On the other hand, if I can get both the laughter and the reflection together, so much the better. Thus far, Studio 60 is making me laugh and making me think, and that’s a combination about which I cannot complain.