Archive for the ‘Readings’ Category

There is a quote from H. L. Mencken that reads, “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.” Since first reading it, I’ve been struck by those words and have remembered them. Every normal man must sometimes want to throw caution to the wind and be a pirate, it says, to slit throats with abandon and claim the spoils regardless of consequence. It is tempting. But I also read a deeper meaning in it. A rallying cry, a warning, a call-to-arms. There comes a time, these words say, when every man will have to take action, make a stand, and risk everything to fight for what they value or else lose it to another’s plundering.

I’ve never read that line in its original context. Those sentiments may not be remotely near what the author intended when writing it. But a learned man once told me that what we see on our own is more important than what we are told to see. You can be taught to see more, to see better, he said, but never fully trust what you are told. So Mr. Mencken will have to pardon my conclusions; they are mine alone.

Hoist the black flag, he said. Slit throats. To war, then, and to the victor goes the spoils. It strikes me that much of American society is already busy at pirating, or was until the Big Bust of 2008. Wanting a large payoff from a smaller, somewhat riskier investment seemed to be the prevailing modus operandi. Flip houses. Flip cars. Flip companies. Trust Bernie with your money. Cheat (but slyly) on your taxes. In fact, cheat at anything if you think you won’t get caught. Score as much credit as possible. Buy things you can’t afford with someone else’s money. Lie and steal from your government, your employer, your family, your fellow man. Anything for the almighty dollar.

If you were in construction, you threw together as many buildings as possible and waited for fat profits to roll in, and who cares about the structural integrity of those houses and business spaces. So what if the floor joists won’t last five years, and the basement leaks if so much as a dog takes a whizz two doors down, and the wallboard emits poisonous gas? Sorry, buddy, you were dumb enough to sail into my harbor and your throat just got slit. Thanks for the booty. Besides, that’s what homeowner’s insurance is for.

If you were in insurance you issued thousands of policies that were useless and refused to pay claims, slitting more throats and raking in treasure chests of booty. Your house burnt? Oh, so sorry, we won’t pay for anything damaged by smoke or water or heat or any wall left standing. Tell you what, we’ll give you this month’s mortgage payment plus an extra $50. We’re feeling very generous today. A hurricane you say? Your house flooded? Oh how awful. But no, sorry, we don’t pay off on damages from storm surge. Nope, it’s not a flood, it’s a wave, and we don’t cover that. Sorry. Don’t forget, your next payment is due in two weeks. Bye bye now.

And of course there were still the usual rackets of car sales, internet companies, Wall Street, and, well, anything run by the government. Anything to make another dollar, and the less honest the better. Hey, that’s the new American Dream: getting something for nothing. From the world’s largest corporation to grade schoolers, everyone’s playing pirate.

But someone somewhere is losing. Someone is watching their house or car or savings or future circle the drain when that newest chest is drug on board the winning ship and its golden contents are revealed. With a pirate on every side wondering how they can get their hands on it next.

So what does this have to do with Mencken’s quote? I think the deeper meaning behind it says you have to be your own pirate, be prepared to fight for anything you want, and if you really want it you can’t let others stand in your way. If keeping your job means someone else goes unemployed, so be it. If keeping your house means another family goes homeless, that’s something you’ll just have to face. It is, in a way, Darwin’s evolution in action. No one ever wrote a treatise on the survival of the nicest.

The sad fact of life on this planet is that not everyone will have what they want, and many will not have what they need. And to have anything at all, you will have to fight for it. We do not live in a global utopian society, and if you do not take it you will likely die waiting for it to be given to you.

That goes for liberty as much as for anything else. If you do not fight for your freedoms, you can hardly expect anyone to grace you with them out of the goodness of their heart. Governments, for instance, were not constructed out of goodness but out of fear and desire … even our own illustrious “city on a hill.” It’s nice to stand safely on the sidelines and speak of pacifism and conscientious objections, but in reality they don’t work. At some point, the theory breaks down. Even one man sitting alone in the middle of a garden will have to fight if he wants to eat, fight weeds and animals and drought and frost. Idealism has yet to feed a hungry belly.

I think Mencken’s words reveal that life is simply one fight after another, and if you want to do more than simply survive, you’ll have to do so at someone else’s expense. Is your life more important than someone else’s? Is someone else’s life more important than yours? How can anyone possibly know? So hoist your flag, brandish your sword and pistol, and let the blood run.

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Very few people haven’t heard of S. E. Hinton, a young adult genre author who makes the required reading list in most if not all English classrooms. She is famous for having penned the new-classic short novel The Outsiders as well as Tex, Rumble Fish, and That Was Then This Is Now. All were written from the perspective of young adults and were/are very popular among that crowd.

Now that the history lesson is covered, I’ll get down to business. Hinton didn’t publish anything for many years after Taming the Star Runner and rumors circulated that she had essentially retired after her short but glorious run. (Dropping off the page for 16 years can do that.) Then in 2005 came the dark and wholly unexpected Hawke’s Harbor, the newest spine on my bookshelf.

I’ll make no bones about it, I loved S. E. Hinton and, as a child and young adult, read everything of her hand I could find. I scanned the pages of The Outsiders more times than I can remember and even voluntarily wrote an essay on the book in middle school. But then came Hawke’s Harbor, and I was unsure. I passed it by on Amazon and in the local bookstore, wary of her new work, suspicious that it would be yet another dreadful “comeback novel” and could never live up to my old favorites. But like nearly every book published, a few copies of it eventually wound up in the bookstore’s bargain bin. And I, desperate for new reading material (as usual), could not resist the temptation of a bargain.

My worries firmly in place, I began to read … and found out that I could not have been more wrong. Hawke’s Harbor is a gorgeous, touching story. It quickly found its way into my cubby of favorites on the bookshelf and slid its hooks deftly into my heart. But it is totally unlike her earlier works. Had I not known, her name would never have entered my mind on a list of possible authors. Perhaps the greatest shock was the inclusion of a vampire in the plot, which could not be more removed from what she wrote about in the 1970’s and 1980’s. This bit of supernatural did not sit well with many of her former fans but, in all honesty, it was so well wrought I didn’t mind. That’s not to say I wasn’t surprised, and still a bit disappointed; and I seriously questioned whether or not I’d made a mistake picking this dark story from the bargain bin. Apparently this also threw a lot of other readers who were expecting another Tex or Rumble Fish. Because serious readers – we minority of dedicated, avid consumers of words, we Constant Readers – treasure our books like great friends, and treasure the authors of those books like loved ones. So when someone drops off the publishing map for a decade and a half and re-emerges with a totally different and unexpected voice, it can be very personal.

Think of it as if a loved one were in a bad accident and fell into a coma. And at first the doctors were very optimistic for a full recovery … but as the months and then years wore on, a darker prognosis appeared. And you resigned yourself to losing this loved one. You wanted the coma to break and for that person to open their eyes and be every bit the person they were before … but you understood the chances of that were infintesimal. Then one fine day that loved one stirred and opened their eyes. And the doctors cried, “Come quick!” And you rushed to their bedside with a great wild hope galloping through your veins … only to find that this loved one didn’t remember you. Or themselves. And watching them recover is like watching a stranger, and that it is somehow worse than losing them to a coma, or even to death. Because there they are, right there, you can reach out and touch them … but it isn’t the person you knew.

That probably sounds ridiculous. And of course not everyone is so effected, but many are. And it is so personal to them that it feels like a betrayal, willful or not. Authors who publish fairly regularly and whose voices change slowly over time have a much greater advantage. S. E. Hinton did most certainly not have that advantage and the reviews of this book prove it. So, just for the record, let me state that this is nothing like her earlier work … except that it is still a striking, moving story. Despite my misgivings, I loved it. It is hard to explain but the vampire thread did not discredit the story or the characters, who practically breathe and move on the page (and this from a reader who has avoided every other vampire story I have ever come across because I simply detest them). I loved it.

In closing, I offer a word of advice: If you pick this book up expecting it to be anything like her other books, you will be disappointed. Because Hinton has a new voice. It is still unerringly beautiful and wrenching but in a very different way. She has changed, as have we all.

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Okay, I know I’ve posted nothing since coming back but I have to re-visit a recent topic before I can in good conscience move on to post anything new.

In my travels I picked up a newspaper which had been discarded in a hotel lobby. You may ask why, when it would normally be more suitable for the bottom of a birdcage, but en route I had already devoured the voluminous novel I was hoping to ration out while away from home. And being a cheap word-oholic, I detest buying reading material on the road. So I snagged the paper free and clear. It turned out to be an issue of the Herald, based in Everett, Washington, with coverage centering on Snohomish County. If you’ve never heard of Everett, or Snohomish County, here’s a short geography lesson: Everett is a city of roughly 100,000 people about 25 miles north of Seattle; it is the only city of size within Snohomish County, which extends from the edge of Puget Sound into the mountains of Washington state’s impressive Mt. Baker/Snoqualmie National Forest. Now, back to the point I am slowly homing in on …

Buried on page B7 of the Local section, nestled somewhere between the obituaries and a piece on English ivy, lay an opinion column headlined with ‘Extremism’ report and Homeland insecurity. Written by Debra J. Saunders, a columnist for the San Fransisco Chronicle, it made some interesting notes about a report circulated by the Department of Homeland Security regarding extremism and terrorism. (It was also the first I’d heard of such a report.) The nine-page assessment (which can be read in full at the bottom of this post) is entitled Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment and was purportedly released to help educate law enforcement officials in recognizing home-grown terrorism through the extremist influence of militias. Sounds reasonable. It’s no secret that some militias condone violence and that some militia members/supporters have been directly involved in violent attacks. The percentages are very small, of course, and I think you’d find as much (if not more) political dissent in the streets of Washington, D.C., but when has the government ever let facts stand in the way of federal actions? At any rate, is it just me or … does all this seem eerily familiar?

Hmmmm, seems to me I mentioned a very similar report in my recent (if ill-titled) post Crackers Beware. Remember that one, about a young guy in Missouri being detained at the airport for carrying some cash and political paraphenalia in support of two non-violent entities denounced by an 8-page law enforcement report handed down from a state and federal level organization? I do. So now we have another report, which is clearly federal and supports the idea that this was federal from the start, and nationwide. As I suspected, and just as Chuck Baldwin supposed in his article Missouri State Police Think You And I Are Terrorists.

And just as in the Missouri report, this newer DHS assessment – distributed April 7, 2009, the same date of my little Crackers Beware post – points its militant-wary fingers at people who oppose abortion, free trade, gun control, and same-sex marriages. It also earmarks recent veterans, Christians, and those who dare “bemoan the decline of U.S. stature.”

Now, this report is better written and less blatently biased than the one from Missouri, and makes a political step forward in noting that “law-abiding Americans” can take the same actions, with no harm intended, as the possibly dangerous “lone wolves,” “small terrorist cells,” and militia members (i.e. “suspicious” actions do not necessarily equate to dire motives). But that’s where the good news ends (if you wish to be so bold as to call that less-dreary sludge “good news”). Aside from improved grammar and more palatable profiling, this is the same document that Missouri rescinded a couple weeks ago. It’s tantamount to slapping a nice suit on a sewer rat; at the end of the day, no matter how you dress it up, its still just a stinking rat.

Debra Saunders was equally unimpressed. “The assessment reads like a sophomore’s bad political science essay,” she shares bitingly in the Herald column. “That career officials would write such tripe should scare you.” On the subject of targeting veterans and right-leaning groups as possible dangers, she write, “Thanks for your service, vets, but Homeland Security is stuck on Oklahoma City bomber and Persian Gulf War vet Timothy McVeigh.” In the next paragraph: “Many Democrats have opposed illegal immigration and NAFTA, too. And what business is that of Homeland Security, unless the individuals broke federal law?”

And to add confusion to the mix, a sub-section at the bottom of page 7 notes that white supremacists acting as “lone wolves” are the greatest threats … but are nearly impossible to identify “because of their low profile and autonomy – separate from any formalized group.” And if they are the greatest threats, but do not belong to any formalized groups, why is the government releasing all these reports and assessments on militias?

Does anyone have any idea what’s going on here? Because I’m lost.

Let me state for the record I am not a militia member. I do not agree with many of the basic ideals militias are founded on and believe most of them to be more fear-mongers than anything else. And while they have on very rare occasions spawned (or at least been associated with) real acts of violence and destruction, such acts are much the exception. Due to their nature, I would expect a government to keep an eye toward such groups, in case one indeed turned criminally ugly, but I do not understand the current push for law enforcement across the country to identify, monitor, or otherwise track possible militia members or recruits without provocation. They aren’t pinpointing criminals on the lam, they are lumping terrorists in with a Sunday school teacher (who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage) and a soldier back from war (who was held over four months beyond the original length of his or her tour) and a trucker (who thinks free trade has too many Canadian rigs on the road). Perhaps it’s just me, but this doesn’t make a lot of sense.

And for a report regarding militias, there seems to be very little militia activity to report. Of the various violent acts, or conspiracies to commit them, that are listed in the assessment, not one involved more than six suspects. That seems quite the paltry militia if you ask me, which only seems to deepen the rift between the report and what it purportedly seeks to accomplish. The DHS report seems to focus on recruitment of new members into extremist groups as the mark of evil, but if the reportedly growing ranks of these “formalized” groups are breaking no laws and are not among the leading parties for terrorist activities, what is the motive?

“The DHS/Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) has no specific information that domestic rightwing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence…”

“Threats from white supremacist and violent antigovernment groups during 2009 have been largely rhetorical and have not indicated plans to carry out violent acts.”

Call me what you may, but I think these reports have a great deal more to do with keeping an eye on average Americans who happen to be conservative and lean a bit to the right.

I don’t know what else to say. I don’t like that concept, at all, but that’s the picture I see being drawn out. And if someone in a uniform starts asking questions, I’m going to do my best to be vague, short-winded, and moderate.

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Touched by An Angel

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

– Maya Angelou

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Anyone with more than a cursory glance at the history of this blog may have noticed several book-based posts. See, I like books. I like readings stories of peoples and places and things; whether or not they are true makes little difference. An author (Stephen King, I think?) once described fiction as the “truth inside the lie,” a sentiment with which I agree whole-heartedly. Chances are that someone somewhere at some time has experienced, to some degree, anything that the human mind can conjure on paper. In some dark corner, it is all real and true, if only in the reader’s mind.

In celebration of the written word, I joined a great little website called Good Reads which, you may have gleaned from the title, is all about books. There is a small but lively discussion board and neato widgets galore (though most don’t work in WordPress, sadly) but the site is primarily for book-lovers and books. Once joined you can review any book you’ve ever read (unless it hapens to be a quite obscure tome that even Amazon and Ex Libris have never heard of), read other people’s reviews, track what books or authors interest you, check out up-and-coming publications, even enter to win free copies of new books as they hit the shelves. I’m not big on places like MySpace or Facebook or Twitter, or whatever holds the honor of latest flash-in-the-pan, but if you enjoy reading, this is an excellent community to join. Period.

And if you enjoy writing, it’s even better. Discussions are littered with published authors offering tips and advice and opportunities. As with any writing site, a fair amount of bad poetry leaks into the threads but don’t think this is merely a group of mediocre writers with less talent than a junior high poetry class. A lot of these people are truly gifted writers and are sharing relevant information, not just the common vagueries of so many sites. I promise, you won’t find a single post or poem along the lines of

Roses are red
Violets are blue,
Gucci is cool
And so is Jimmy Choo.

On my mother’s eyes, I swear. I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of this place earlier but it’s quickly becoming a favorite.

So grab your latest literary conquest, write a scathing review or two, and drop into the discussions to see who’s accepting entries. Honestly, it’s worth a look. And in case you missed it the first time, here it is again: Good Reads.

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I have returned.

Now how about a bit of literature? I recently finished Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient. It’s set primarily in Italy against the backdrop of WWII though very little of the story includes battle. The main characters include a nurse who remains nameless for the first 30 pages, a patient who remains nameless nearly the length of the book, an English-trained Indian sapper who defuses bombs, and an ex-intelligence officer and thief … Hana, Almasy, Kip, and Caravaggio. Between these four and a handful of secondary players who enter and exit, Ondaatje weaves interesting tales with language and imagery that is often quite beautiful. It’s not a terribly recent book (the ones I read rarely are…a symptom of the bargain bin) but I remember advertising surrounding the publication and it being well-received by the general public. It might possibly have become a movie…or I might have gotten it mixed up with something else. With this mind, it’s hard to tell. At any rate, it’s a pretty good novel.

Hana is emotionally withdrawn and somewhat shell-shocked from her role in the war when Almasy enters her story, a man burned terribly and without hope of recovery. She vows that he will be her last patient, and they both refuse to leave their makeshift hospital in a ravaged Italian villa when the rest of the staff and patients move on. Caravaggio hears about Hana, an old family friend, while being treated in another hospital and goes to her. Not long thereafter Kip arrives, lured by the notes of a piano and the possibility of clever bombs. And an interesting love…square…develops. Though several years her senior, Caravaggio has always loved her; she loves the mystery and familiarity of the patient; and she loves the quiet presence of the sapper Kip. They are all emotionally and psychologically vulnerable, which manifests itself in different ways at different stages of the story, culminating in Kip’s unexpected explosion (emotionally, not physically; pardon the pun). At times, it’s difficult to follow the storyline, decipher who is speaking, understand how certain pieces fit together, but as a whole it’s interesting, beautiful, and certainly worth a read.

My favorite pieces come from the desert descriptions and stories from the burned patient (the “English” patient). They are really, extraordinarily beautiful.

Some of my favorite passages:

“Gradually we became nationless. I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states. … The desert could not be claimed or owned – it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East. … It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape. Fire and sand. … Ain, Bir, Wadi, Foggara, Khottara, Shaduf. I didn’t want my name against such beautiful names. Erase the family name! Erase nations! … Still, some wanted their mark there. On that dry watercourse, on this shingled knoll. Small vanities … But I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from. … It was easy for me to slip across borders, not to belong to anyone …”

“… They are wakened by the three minarets of the city beginning their prayers before dawn. … The beautiful songs of faith enter the air like arrows.”

“A man in a desert can hold absence in his cupped hands knowing it is something that feeds him more than water. There is a plant he knows near El Taj, whose heart, if one cuts it out, is replaced with a fluid containing herbal goodness. Every morning one can drink the liquid the amount of a missing heart. The plant continues to flourish for a year before it dies from some lack or other.”

There are other great passages but these remain among my favorites. If you have a rainy afternoon and hanker for something a bit foreign, this would make a nice read.

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This is part of a letter from Jeff Clark, an author and economic advisor. I thought it most befitting. Enjoy.

“The CEOs of our nation’s largest banks were ‘invited’ to impersonate a bunch of piñatas before Congress yesterday and testify about how they’ve been spending the government’s money. Unlike the auto company CEOs, who must have a combined IQ of something like 12, the bank executives had the good sense to fly commercial. … But none of them had the guts – or any other body part – to call out the condescending hypocrites on Capitol Hill.

‘How do you justify,’ asked one of our esteemed elected officials, ‘taking a million-dollar salary when your company is operating at a loss?’

The ideal response would have been, ‘Because I spent that much on booze after you passed a law forcing my company to give home loans to people who couldn’t pay me back.’

But the CEO’s were silent… And they were silent when Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California, complained the banks were too slow in renegotiating the terms of the loans her constituents had agreed to and were now unable to fulfill. They were silent when they were asked if they had increased credit-card interest rates on cardholders who were delinquent in paying their debts.

Here’s what I would have said if I had been in their shoes…

My dear partners in crime, our generation-long scam is coming to an end. Yes it has been a good run. As bank executives, we’ve been able to line our pockets with generous stock options and golden parachutes that ensure we’ll live like kings from now until eternity. And as elected officials, you’ve been able to cater to the lowest instinct of your constituents, ensure your reelection, and fill your bank accounts with an eternal stream of campaign contributions. Bravo to all of us.

Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme is nothing more than a zit on the big old butt we’ve put together here. By working together, we’ve fleeced the American taxpayer for trillions of dollars. Bank executives have lived high off the hog for years. We have mansions in the Hamptons, 60-foot yachts, private jets, and personal chefs.

As elected officials, you have all of those benefits, plus the ability to vote yourselves a pay raise, increase your petty cash expense fund by $93,000 – as you did so recently – and grandstand in front of the television cameras even though you’re guilty of the same abhorrent behavior you accuse us of.

With any luck, we’ll have a few more years to suck off the teat of the American taxpayer. But beware. If we go down, then you’ll go down, too.

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Warning!! This post contains graphic language. PG-13 or worse; consider yourself warned.

I recently picked up my copy of J. D. Salinger’s infamous little tome Catcher in the Rye.  Hailed as the definitive coming-of-age story, especially for the male gender, I bought it for next to nothing months ago – maybe even last year – but had yet to sit down and read it.  And let me preface everything else I’m about to say with a very important statement:  I don’t know anything about J. D. Salinger.  I’ve never read any summaries of his work, or personal profiles, biographies, not even so much as a synopsis … zilch, zero, nada.  And while I’m sure his work has been picked and poked and prodded to reveal all manner of insights, I probably missed most of them.  Don’t be surprised if they fail to appear below; this is starting from square one.

It wasn’t the story I expected.  There was a lot of movement, some very moving scenes, but very little happened.  (Not that a good book is by definition an action-adventure, just that I suppose I expected something different.)  Once I kind of figured out that nothing big was going to happen, I settled in for an enjoyable ride.  It was like climbing into what you thought was a Mustang GT, only to find that in reality it was a Model T.  But you see more from a ride in a Model T, just bumping along, able to take in the scenery and notice detail, where in a Mustang it’s all about speed and force.  Salinger isn’t about force in this story.  Or speed.  We follow the main character for a few days, experience essentially everything he experiences during that time, and then he leaves us at a point that feels almost pre-climactic.  On closer inspection we find a subtler denouement than in your average coming-of-age tale, and an ending that means a good deal more after re-reading the opening page or two.

I am left with striking images – Phoebe on the carousel; Allie’s baseball mitt; Selma Thurmer’s falsies; a tear on a chessboard; James Castle’s step into air; dreams of disappearing to a ranch out west, or a cabin in Massachusetts, Vermont…  There’s a lot of beauty in Catcher in the Rye if you look closely for it.  Behind the lousy suitemates, the insistent pimp, the swears and mundane, there lurks a greater storyline and gorgeous little gems scattered throughout.  Of the many passages I thoroughly enjoyed, the following really struck a note with me.

“I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue…  Then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening.  Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddamn curb, I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street.  I thought I’d just go down, down, down, and nobody’d ever see me again.”

Been there, Holden me lad.  Oh have I ever.  And another bit I really enjoyed…

“…I saw another “Fuck you” on the wall.  I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something.  It wouldn’t come off. It’s hopeless, anyway.  If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half of the “Fuck you” signs in the world.”

“…I was the only one left…it was so nice and peaceful.  Then, all of a sudden, you’d never guess what I saw on the wall.  Another “Fuck you.”  It was written with a red crayon or something, right under the glass part of the wall, under the stones.
“That’s the whole trouble.  You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any.  You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose.”

That, I think, is as much the heart of this book as anything.  It’s about Holden Caulfield finding out that 90% of the time, life sucks ass.  And if you’re lucky, most of the remaining 10% is only mildly disappointing.  That plans go awry, that your best ideas are sometimes also your worst, that some things are never lost, that some things are lost forever, and that sometimes the most important thing you can do is just keep going.  Dig a little and there is quite a bit of beauty.  Which I also didn’t really expect.

Good thing life is full of surprises.

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Just before I pulled a Houdini and neatly disappeared from under your very fingertips, I finished a book.  Reading one, that is, not writing one (unfortunately).  The interesting part in that statement is the fact that I was actually re-reading the book … a very rare occurrence for this word-addict.  Even rarer yet, I was re-reading it immediately after finishing it the first time.  After reading the last line and letting the whole of the volume sink in, only two other books in this world have prompted me to turn back to the first page and begin again.  In the same order in which they were read, the three books were as follows:  1) Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith (fiction, young adult), my favorite book in grade school; 2) The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger (non-fiction), my favorite book in college; and 3) The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche (non-fiction), an amazing book I just discovered.

Actually, I “discovered” it in a discount bin at a local bookstore late last winter.  I muddled through a few other tomes before his turn came round and actually skipped ahead to him because I had tired of a procession of mediocre novels.  I needed something to sink my teeth into, something interesting and intelligently written and real.  And I certainly found it in William Langewiesche’s latest work.  The subtitle on his book reads “A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime” and he bares it all in six chapters spanning 239 pages.

The first line, an inestimably important introduction to the myriad paragraphs to follow, pushes off with a statement almost reproachful, or perhaps merely lamenting, that we are so ill-educated on our own world.  “Since we live on land, and are usually beyond sight of the sea, it is easy to forget that our world is an ocean world, and to ignore what in practice that means.”  It is an astute observation – and an accurate one – that, for all the beach fanfare and ocean-view palaver, we pay very little heed to what is actually taking place in, on, and around the ocean.  Of course we watch the weather to see if that tropical depression off Jamaica will turn into a hurricane and head in our direction, and some even worry about the future of the whales and fishes (as we rightly should) … but who stops to think about constant parade of great ships into and out of our ports every hour of the day and night?

A few years ago there was some attention paid to national security when ownership of several large ports changed hands to a middle-eastern company but I’ve heard little since.  An occasional newscaster mentions something of the contents of containers arriving from overseas and the impossible duty of trying to secure them, but most often it is mentioned in passing only.  Coast Guard commercials – and a vast majority of other government-funded propaganda – try to assure the American public that all is well on the high seas and we are well-protected by our trillion-dollar defense budgets.  Langewiesche offers another perspective.

“ … The ocean is a realm that remains radically free.  Expressing that freedom are more than forty thousand large merchant ships that wander the world with little or no regulation… ”  Not quite so quaint and peaceful a picture as Washington paints.  And it gets a whole lot worse.  Bidding wars between poor nations to draw in shipping business.  Ships with fresh paint and regular third-party inspections rusting away beneath their paperwork and sinking in light weather.  Pollution, politics, and piracy; regulations, reality, and recklessness; profit, panic, and poverty … Langewiesche neglects nothing.  The result is a fascinating peek at a whole other world.  With beautiful language and amazing objectivity, William Langewiesche serves as interpreter and guide to this strange new dimension parallel to the one we currently live in.

Toward the end of the book, he makes another observation that has rung in my thoughts since my first reading:  “In practice, the world is as much a human construct as a natural one.  The people who inhabit it have such radically different experiences in life that it can be almost surprising that they share the same air.”

For instance, I felt very small compared to the desperate plight of the crew of the tanker Kristal, which broke in two in a storm off Spain in 2001.  A third of the crew died while trying to escape the slowly foundering ship as I sat warm and safe and dry in my room.

Similarly remote to my patch of air was the disaster of the Estonia in the Baltic Sea.  In late September of 1994, the Estonia began a journey across the sea it would never complete, loaded not with oil or containers or even molasses as the Kristal had been but with people.  Langewiesche describes the ship as “ …a massive vessel, 510 feet long and nine decks high, with accommodations for up to two thousand people… ”  Well into its voyage, the ferry started to list.  In roughly fifteen minutes time it became an inescapable deathtrap.  It rolled, inverted, and sank shortly thereafter.  Of the approximately 1000 people on board, only 137 survived.  “Something had gone monstrously wrong,” Langewiesche wrote.

I find it equally incredible that I share the same air as the shipbreakers in India and Bangladesh who work days much longer than mine for next to nothing, surrounded by dangers I cannot even imagine.  I bitch about gas and taxes and the scrapes, bruises, bloodlettings of everyday life while they live in poisoned slums and breathe filthy air and risk their lives every day to earn a few coins.   Amazing indeed.

And while these may seem bleak overtures to a book, make no mistake that it is an extraordinary book nonetheless.  It is full of real people, glimpses of real lives we too often do not see.  I strongly recommend this book, even to those without an interest in shipping or things maritime.  Excellence transcends genre.  If you can’t find it at a local library, buy it.  And the next time you visit the ocean or try on a pair of imported shoes you’ll see them in a very different light.

“At the torn bow [of a ship in the process of being scrapped], I climbed through the broken bilge into the huge forward cargo hold, now open to the sky.  The ship was mine to wander…  I felt a sort of awe…  It was eerie and dim on the inside, an immense man-made cavern…  Toward the stern, where sunlight streamed through rough-cut ventilation holes and struck the oil-blackened walls, the towering engine room had the Gothic beauty of a cathedral – a monument to the forces of a new world.”     — William Langewiesche, The Outlaw Sea

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I hadn’t been reading too much for a while but the title of this book was too good to pass up  –  Logs of the Dead Pirates Society:  A Schooner Adventure Around Buzzards Bay.  Written by Randall S. Peffer, this book follows a boat captain (the author), his wife, and groups of students on a summer project sailing around the “other” Massachusetts bay area.  (Sure, Cape Cod Bay gets all the attention, but it’s not the only bay out there…)  The title is derived from a club the students may join, if they have the strength of will and inclination.  Peffer explains, “About ten years ago one of the crews aboard… decided they needed something like the teenagers had in the movie The Dead Poets Society to bind them together, a secret society to celebrate their gusto…” 

Peffer mixes great historic facts and bits into the larger stories of the summer cruise and though the trip itself centers on the students, they remain mostly obscured.  His often prosaic descriptions of the bay and its islands make me wish I could be there and it seems I can nearly see them through his eyes.  One of my favorite parts comes early on, when he relates the original legends and peoples that Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick was based on, a tale involving a giant, his best friend, and a tribe he doted on. 

Peffer writes:

“Fearing that [the giant] Maushop would spoil the [Native American] Aquinnah, the Creator told Maushop he would turn the friendly giant into a white whale.  At Gay Head cliffs, where all the Aquinnah and every creature came to say goodbye, Maushop’s best friend, a giant toad, was so overcome with grief that the Creator turned him into a huge rock.  Later, the Creator turned Maushop into a white whale, called Mocha Dick.  During the mid-nineteenth century, this great white whale was killed by Amos Smalley, a harpooner on a New Bedford whaler and one of the last Aquinnah.”

First, I find that line about the giant toad’s grief oddly touching.  Second, it makes me wonder what mental processes went about in Melville’s brain that changed “Mocha” to “Moby,” or if indeed he never knew the whale’s true first name.  And is it just me or does it seem almost ironic that the “friendly giant” was punished for befriending the Aquinnah and sent from them only to be killed by a member of that same tribe years later.  Perhaps cruelty from gods is not limited to their human subjects after all.

But back to Mr. Peffer…   I love the way his passages lead from fact to myth and back to reality so easily while maintaining their entertainment value.  After a page of quiet melancholy surrounding people and deeds and the bay, Peffer ends with,

“Saudade was a feeling that a person could never quite put into words…like the feeling of missing someone or something you did not even know that you had lost.  According to legend, saudade was a common malady among mariners and explorers like Vasco da Gama and Juan Ponce de Leon…  But so was sun poisoning and indigestion.  Liabilities of the trade.” 

 Which made me laugh out loud over my coffee and scone one morning as I sat reading in the stillness of a deserted parking lot overlooking the marina.  (I’m not sure why, perhaps just the suddenness and surprise of the shift…)  So all in all I give the book a good rating.  Its main detractors:  it seemed to meander a bit at times (though not without pleasing result on many occasions) and the culmination lacked … oomph.  It started so strongly I really hoped it would carry all the way through, but the very basis of the book seemed to hold it back in the latter half.  As the students’ summer projects ended, so did the foundation of the book.  I suppose the good news is that it left me wanting more, where a poorer book would leave me glad it had finished, no matter the circumstances.  But if you get a free weekend, or want something decent that doesn’t require much effort, this is a really good option.  A good beach book, or even airport/airplane read, and since it involves students, perhaps it would appeal even more so to them (common experience and all that).   

Just my two cents on it.

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