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Book: A Partly Cloudly Patriot

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I've been blazing through the humor essay books because their fairly ideal for airline travel -- small, consumable during a brief layover or allowing you the victory of completing an essay before being overcome by the need to pass-out.

I've been blazing through Sarah Vowell's This American Life shows after having listened to her talking about her father's homemade cannon. The shows are a good preface to the book, as they give a good ear from her pacing and style.

Given my recent trips in and out of Pittsburg, I'll share this one quote, with the rest of the quotes in the extended entry:

I remember how at home I felt, the first time I left. The gallery sent me east to learn from the master at Graham Arader's Pennsylvania headquarters. Getting off the plane from San Francisco at the Philadelphia airport, I was taken aback. I realized I had been living under quarantine in some euthanized, J. Crew catalog parallel universe of healthy good looks. Because, in Philadelphia, I was pleasantly suprised to see old people, average people, even ugly people, ambling around in dumb T-shirts and home perms. And if that wasn't relief enough, the weather was terrible and the coffee was dreck. The nice thing about Philadelphia is that no one has moved there to find the good life for over two hundred years. I went home to California feeling like the prettiest, most upbeat overachiever in the world.

p. 8

I glance at the kid with envy. He's at that first, great, artsy-crafty age when Americans learn about Abraham Lincoln. How many of us drew his beard in crayon? We built models of his boyhood cabin wiht Elmer's glue and toothpicks. We memorized his Gettysburg Address, reciting its ten sentence in stovepipe hats stapled out of black construction paper. The teachers taught us to like Washington and to respect Jefferson. But Lincoln -- him they taught us to love.

p. 14

When people ask me if I'm the black sheep of the family I always say that, no, we're all black sheep. Every few hours they're here, I look over at my dad, nervously crunching his fingers together. If he were at home for Thanksgiving, he'd be ignoring us and spending all his time in his shop. I watch him move his fingers in the air and realize he's turning some hunk of metal on an imaginary lathe.

The thing that unites us is that all four of us are homebody claustrophobes who prefer to be alone and are suspicious of other people. So the trait that binds us together as a family -- preferring to keep to ourselves -- makes it difficult to be together as a family. Paradoxically, it's at these times that I feel closest to them, that I understand them best, that I love them most. It's just surprising we ever breed.

p. 26 (on Bill Clinton)

Perhaps your exhibition designers can do something with a line or two from "Song of Myself." No, not "Smile, for your lover comes." The best description of you I've ever read was published in 1855.

Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

p. 33

In between the RUE and the SEVERIN is this rough indentation. A hole. Englishwoman, who heretofore hasn't been that dramatic, which is puzzling considering what's more dramatic than the French Revolution, what with guillotines and let-them-eat-cake (brioche, actually, I was informed). She flourishes at the scratchy hole thing and says that the word saint was gouged out during the revolution because the revolutionairies were running around destroying references to the church and the monarchy. It was a big rut in the stone where the Christianity used to be. Have you ever heard of anything so beautiful or perfect? A better picture of history itself, a kind of erasing and revamping with fresh new signs hanging below th telltale gaping holes, holes made with meaning and purpose and no small amount of glee? Well, right before some nice old priest got his head lopped off, but still.

p. 40

... In my self-help universe, when things go wrong I whisper mantras to myself, mantras like "Andersonville" or "Texas School Board Depository." "Andersonville" is a code word for "You could be one of the prisoners of war dying of disease and malnutrition in the worst Confederate prison, so just calm down about the movie you wanted to go to being sold out." "Texas School Book Depository" means that having the delivery guy forget the guacamole isn't nearly as bad as being assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald as the blood from your head stains your wife's pink suit. Though, ever since I went to Salem, I'm keen on "Gallows Hill." As in, Being stuck in the Boise airport for ten hours while getting hit on by a divored man with "major financial problems" on his way to his twentieth high school reunion is irksome, but not as dire as swinging by the neck on Salem's Gallows Hill.

p. 41

On the first day of school when I was a kid, the guy teaching history -- and it was almost always a guy, wearing a lot of brown -- would cough up the pompous same old about ow if we kids failed to learn the lessons of history then we would be doomed to repeat them. Which is true if you're one of the people who grow up to run things, but not as practical if your destiny is a nice small life. For example, thanks to my tenth-grade world history textbook's chapter on the Napoleonic Wars, I know not to invade Russia in the wintertime. This information would have been good for an I-told-you-so-toast at Hitler's New Year's party in 1943, but for me, knowing not to trudge my troops through the snow to Moscow is not so handy day-to-day.

p. 42

The more history I learn, the more the world fills up with stories. Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks, waiting for the post office to open. I was enjoying a chocolatey caffe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle's Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bitter-sweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism served with whipped cream on top. No wonder it costs so much. And, thanks to Sophie and Michale Coe's book The True History of Chocolate, I rememberd that cacao beans were used as currency at the moment of European contact. When Christopher Columbus's son Ferdinand captured a Mayan canoe in 1503, he noticed that whenever one of the natives dropped a cacao bean, "they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen." When you know such trivia, an act as mundance as having an overpriced breakfast drink becomes imbued with meaning, even poetry. Plus, I read a women's magazine article called "5 Fabulous Morning Rituals," and it said that after you "bask in bed" and "walk in nature" you're supposed to "ponder the sins of the conquistadors."

p. 45

The New German cinema craze started in the mid-eighties thanks to the head of the local college's film school. I took this class once. It was called something innocuous like Introduction to Cinema, so a lot of frat guys and cowboys signed up, thinking they'd fulfill humanities requirements by watching "movies." You should have seen the looks on their faces the day we saw the black-and-white film where a teenage girl gets her period on camera. Or the day we screen Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? In it, a humdrum businessman goes about his humdrum business -- listening to his harpy wife, helping his son with his homework, talking to his visiting parents -- for what seems like hours, until the last five minutes, when he goes beserk and blugeons his family to death. Afterward, we were supposed to discuss existentialism. The professor asked if anyone had read Camus. I, of course, had read L'Etranger in the original French, and raised my hand. I mentioned the protagonist who doesn't care about his mother's death. Then I said that I often washed dishes with my mom. When she'd hand me a knife to dry, I would have the fleeting thought that it would be pretty easy to kill her if I wanted. I should mention that I usually sat in the back, so when I said this about a hundred heads whipped around to stare at me. What I should have said was, "But I don't want to kill her!" What I actually said was, "Oh, like you never thought about killing your mom." It was at that moment I realized how small the New German Cinema community really was.

p. 68

I was miserable, but I had been miserable before. All three years of junior high school spring to mind. But I had never had the privilege of unhappiness in Happy Vlley. California is about the good life. So a bad life there seems so much worse than a bad life anywhere else. Quality is an obsessioni there -- good food, good wine, good movies, music, weather, cars. Those sound like the right things to shoot for, but the neverending quality quest is a lot of pressure when you're uncertain and disorganized and, not least, broker than broke. Some afternoons a person just wants to rent Die Hard, close the curtains, and have Cheerios for lunch.

p. 69

I remember how at home I felt, the first time I left. The gallery sent me east to learn from the master at Graham Arader's Pennsylvania headquarters. Getting off the plane from San Francisco at the Philadelphia airport, I was taken aback. I realized I had been living under quarantine in some euthanized, J. Crew catalog parallel universe of healthy good looks. Because, in Philadelphia, I was pleasantly suprised to see old people, average people, even ugly people, ambling around in dumb T-shirts and home perms. And if that wasn't relief enough, the weather was terrible and the coffee was dreck. The nice thing about Philadelphia is that no one has moved there to find the good life for over two hundred years. I went home to California feeling like the prettiest, most upbeat overachiever in the world.

p. 69

...I became enamored of a period in European cartography in which California was depicted as an island. The gallery had quite a few of these maps, published in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Paris, London, and Amsterdam. I hung them so I could see them from my desk. The idea of California as an island was a lie and a myth, but from where I was sitting, it seemed true enough. The gallery's girl Friday, I was stranded on it. There might as well have been a little red arrow at every one of those Californias next to the words "You Are Here."

p. 90 (quote from Slashdot)

Geeks tend to be focused on very narrow fields of endeavor. The modern geek has been generally dismissed by society because their passions are viewed as trivial by those people who "see the big picture." Geeks understand that the big picture is pixelatd and their high level of contribution in small areas grows the picture. They don't need to see what everyone else is doing to make their part better.

p. 91

Being a nerd, which is to say going too far and caring too much about a subject, is the best way to make friend I know. For me, the spark that turns an acquaintance into a friend has usually been kindled by some shared enthuisiasm like detective novels or Ulysses S. Grant

p. 96

In my preelection daydream of what a Bush presidency might be like, I imagined that I would criticize his policies and lambaste his statements with a civic-minded nobility. All my venom, spite, and, as long as we're dreaming, impeccable logic, would be directed at our president. As in "Look how our president is wrecking our country."

Making my pompous little fantasy come true, however, hinged on one thing -- a majority of people voting for Bush. Not only did he lose the popular vote by more than half a million ballots but he essentially won the electoral college by a single vote -- that of the fifth Supreme Court justice who decided to halt the Florida recounts. So now what?

p. 106

In Al Gore's first presidentiall run, in 1988, he knew so much abou the greenhouse effect that one of his opponents accused him of "running for national scientist." But in the beginning of George W. Bush's term, I couldn't help but wonder if he were running for national gym teacher. He should just go through life with a whistle around his neck. A couple of weeks into his administration, a gunman from Indiana took a shot at the White House. However, Bush was not in danger, beacuse the would-be assassin assumed Bush was working in the middle of his workday. Bush was in the gym of the White House residence, excercising.

p. 109

High school is the most appropriate metaphor for the 2000 presidential campaign, since high school is the most appropriate metaphor for life in a democratic republic. Because democracy is an idealistic attempt to make life fair. And while high school is the place where you read about the democratic ideal of fairness, it is also theplace most of us learn how unfair life really is. Who you are now is informed by who you were then. And every nerd has an anecdote or two to tell about how Nerd versus Jocks is not just some epic mythological struggle but a pesky if normal way of life.

p. 111

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is uniquely useful for nerd studies in general and the Gore problem in particular because it includes two nerd characters. Testing any hypothesis requires a control group. Here, the "before" nerd is Giles, Buffy's "watcher" -- her protector, teacher, and guide in the ways of demon fighting. He's the school librarian and very, very British. When we meet Willow, Buffy's best friend, she's an A student, a tutor, and a computer whiz. During the show's high school years, the library was the center of Buffy and her friends' social universe. Vampire slayng requires an astonishing amount of research. And since Buffy is more of a kick-boxing Valley Girl, Willow handles the necessary Web searches while Giles always has his nose in a moldy old demonology book. Willow is nerd future; Giles is the ghost of nerd past. ... In the presidential campaign, the way Gore tried to feign shallow and professional normalcy was by denying his innate nerdiness. Remember all the "alpha male" shenanigans, in wich Gore hired a feminists who told him voters would think he was less of a wimp if he wore cowboy boots and khakis? If there's one thing non-nerds hate more than a nerd, it's a nerd pretending to be more virile than he is. Kevin thinks that Gore "should have just made a virtue out of being square. I remember thinking about Dukakis, who came off very well in Massachusetts when he was just the nerdy guy who got things done. The minute he decided to get in the tank with Snoopy headgear, he was done."

So how could Gore have become more likable and yet remained true to his wonky self? By taking a cue fro the Willow character on Buffy. Willow is not a self-hating nerd. She is a self-deprecating nerd. While Gore, like Giles, is the butt of other people's dork jokes, Willow, a postmodern nerd, peppers her cerebral monologues with one-liners tha make light of her own book learning. For instance, substitute-teaching a computer science class she said, "For next time read the chapter on information grouping and binary coding. I bet you'll think coding is pretty cool. If you find two-digit multi-stacked conversations and primary number clusters a big hoot." See what she did there? She neither hid her knowledge nor annoyed anyone. She made knowing arcance specifics seem funny and fun.

p. 117

... After all, the United States is the greatest country on earth dealing with the most complicated problems in the history of the world -- poverty, pollution, justice, Jerusalem. What we need is a president who is at least twelve kinds of nerd, a nerd messiah to coome along every four years, acquire the Secret Service code name Poindexter, install a Revenge of the Nerds screen saver on the Oval Office computre, and one by one decrypt our woes.

p. 123 (Rosa Parks essay)

In defense of Ted Nugent, the street performer, the mayor, the dairy farmer, the lap dancers, the Naderites, and a fictional sportscaster, I will point out that Katherine Harris is the only person on my list of people lamely compared to a civicl rights icon who, at the very moment she was being compared to a civil rights icon, was actually being sued for "massive voter disenfranchisement of people of color during the presidential campaign" -- by the NAACP.

p. 137

The National Park Service is obeying the will of Congress, but you don't get the feeling they're all that happy about it. If the Park Service were a person, the Underground Lunchroom would be one of the dumb mistakes it made as a kid. It's like Congress is telling it not only can it not remove the tattoo it got one drunken night in the twenties but it has to invite 300,000 people a year to look at it. And that's how a lot of employees think about it too, as a youthful gaffe.

p. 148

Achieving its independence from Britain gradually and cordially, through polite meetings taking place in nice rooms, Canada took a path to sovereignty that is one of the most hilariously boring stories in the world. One Canadian history textbook I have describes it thus, "British North Americans moved through the 1850s and early sixties towards a modestly spectacular resolution of their various ambitions and problems." Modestly spectacular. Isn't that adorable?

p. 149

No cowboys for Canada. Canada got Mounties instead -- Dudley Do-Right, not John Wayne. It's a mind-set of "Here I come to save the day" versus "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker." Or maybe its chicken and egg: The very idea that the Canadian head of state would come to the conclusion that establishing law and order before large numbers of people migrated west, to have rules and procedures and authorities waiting for them, is anathema to the American way.

p. 152

"I revere the Bill of Rights, but at the same time I believe that anyone who's using three or more of them at a time is hogging them too much."

p. 159

The flags, according to a tag, were underwritten by a local real estate agency and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I marched into the house, yanked out the phone book, found the real estate office in the yellow pages, and phoned them up immediately, demanding that they come and take their fucking flag off my lawn, screaming into the phone, "The whole point of that goddamn flag is that people don't stick flags in my yard without asking me!"

p. 182

First, I like to get the straight news before The New York Times contaminates my brain. And, second, I adore AOL headlines. "Bush Reminds Parents to Love Kids," said one. A story about the heavyweight champ-convicted rapist was titled "Tyson: Women Don't Like Me." Though my personal favorite remains "Still No New Gun Control Laws."

p. 183

A Montanan is capable of making up North Dakota jokes on the spot. My parents, for example, were having a garage sale at their Bozeman home. My father hoped to sell a wheelbarrow he bought at someone else's garage sale the previous summer. He bought it for ten bucks, he tells a potential buyer, so he's selling it for five, because, he quips, "I attended the North Dakota School of Business."

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This page contains a single entry from kwc blog posted on January 13, 2005 6:51 PM.

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