Literature

A word or two about distance

I’m reading a book called A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. I’m not too far into it yet, but so far I’m struck by a couple of things. First, he’s got a nice, easy-going style that manages to take complex thoughts, break them down into digestible pieces, and does so in a voice that’s both engaging and funny. I dig it.

The second thing is this: there’s a veritable ass-ton of things I don’t know.

Take the following excerpt from the chapter describing our Solar System:

Now the other thing you will notice as we speed past Pluto is that we are speeding past Pluto. If you check your itenerary, you will see that this is a trip to the edge of our solar system, and I’m afraid we’re not there yet. Pluto may be the last object marked on schoolroom charts, but the system doesn’t end there. In fact, it isn’t even close to ending there. We won’t get to the solar system’s edge until we have passed through the Oort cloud, a vast celestial realm of drifting comets, and we won’t reach the Oort cloud for another – I’m so sorry about this – ten thousand years. Far from marking the outer edge of the solar system, as those schoolroom maps so cavalierly imply, Pluto is barely one-fifty-thousandth of the way.

Balls.

More to come.

So pretty, so graceful. Right up until they tear a hole through your chest.

unicorn

I, like many in my generation, am a child of divorced parents.  They split for good the summer before my 5th grade, so I guess I was somewhere around 9 or 10 when they finally called it quits. My sister, Sarah Shay, was the ripe old age of 1. And out of that entire nasty business, one real, unexpected tragedy was that because I lived with our dad and Sarah lived with our mom, for many years ours was a relationship far closer to cousins than brother and sister.

That changed when she moved to Austin (awesome) but the the point is this: there weren’t a lot of fairies, ballet slippers, or tea parties growing up. Nor were there unicorns.

If you check the links to the right you’ll see, near the bottom, one titled Whatever. It’s a blog written by a gent named John Scalzi, and in addition to being just a great read, his blog also provides a platform for writers to introduce and talk about their books. Very cool. It’s called The Big Idea and you can find that particular section’s main page here.

Not long ago the featured book was about, you guessed it, unicorns. I’ve included the first paragraph of author Diana Peterfreund’s introduction below and after reading her big idea I’m definitely going to pick up a copy. You might want to do the same.

I feel sorry for unicorns. No other mythical monster has suffered such brand degradation. Nowadays, unicorns are synonymous with weak, childlike, unrealistic naivety. You don’t see folks dissing dragons the way they do unicorns. No one ever equates griffins with rainbows, glitter, and six year olds. The sphinx isn’t cheesy. But the unicorn? The symbol of kings, the darling of artists, the keeper of a magical horn whose rumored mystical properties once made it worth more than its weight in gold and almost drove a real species (the narwhal) to extinction? The unicorn has become laughable.

Photo by Snappa2006

 

Marketing, poetry, and a righteous Virgo

sculptureWhen it comes to music, over the years I’ve traditionally gravitated towards female artists. Not sure what it is. Of course there are the exceptions – I’m always up for a playlist of Iron and Wine, Depeche Mode, or Silversun Pickups – but for the most part women vocalists seem to resonate with me in a way I can’t quite explain.

Apparently, I like women writers, too.

There’s a site I try and visit a few times a week, especially on Thursday, under the handle of Communicatrix. The author of this blog is a lovely writer named Colleen Wainwright, and I very much encourage you to check her out if you get a few minutes. 

Okay, check her outmight be inappropriate, but you should at the very least read her blog. Seriously.

In addition to serving up thoughtful, funny, and relevant posts, she’s also a complete freakin’ joy to read. No kidding. Side note – jumping around her site this morning I stumbled across something (an older post that’s absolutely, serendipitously, perfect for a situation that’s going on right now in my life) that I imaigine I’ll be writing about soon. But that’s for later.

For now, know this: every Thursday she posts a poem. The topics vary, but the writing is ALWAYS well worth you time. Last week’s poem dealt with Marketing (what pays my bills) and one verse had me nodding my head and smiling. And even though we markters aren’t always successfull at this, her message was right on point.

Marketing
is the truth of you,
translated
into the language of them:
in the room
on the page
over the air.

You see, it’s when the truth shifts to messages or ads filled with what we marketers think you want the truth to be that we find ourselves in trouble. And it happens all too often.

Photo by Peter Rivera

Another example of just how small the world really is

Blue Like JazzWhat are the odds?

A while back I wrote my first (and so far, only) post using a specific set of guidelines under the title of, “The random image project.” FYI, the basic idea for the series is to generate creativity within constraints. You can find the post here, but the reason I mention it is this:

In the post I reference a book called Blue Like Jazz, written by Donald Miller. It’s a great book with an interesting point of view, and one I encourage anyone to read if you get the chance. What I didn’t know when it was given to me, or when I read it, or even the years that have followed, is that I went to school with the author.

My memory from those days is a little fuzzy, but I remember him as being a genuinely nice guy. So, as a shout-out to Donald, take some time and check out either this book or the others that follow. I think you’ll enjoy what you find.

Stephen King, art, and discovery

It’s been a while since I’ve read anything by Stephen King. In truth, other than gobbling down the first two novels in the Master and Commander series while traveling last year, it’s been a while since I’ve had time to read anything, but that’s not the point. Opinions vary about the conclusion of Roland’s quest in his search for the Tower and the Rose, but for me the last couple of books of Stephen King’s Gunslinger series were awful – I’m talking Pirates of the Caribbean 2 awful – and I was so angry and disappointed, with so many things, I swore-off King for good.

Until a couple of months ago. An old friend (also a huge Gunslinger fan, and also well-aware of the bile that hit the back of my throat any time King’s name was mentioned) told me in no-uncertain terms I needed to take a pill and then pick up King’s newest novel, Duma Key.

He was right. I’m only about two-thirds of the way through, but so far it’s wonderful. Duma Key is the story of Edgar Freemantle; a contractor who comes face-to-face with the business end of a crane and loses his arm, his marriage, and ultimately that entire life, because of the accident. In an attempt to start over, Edgar moves to Florida and takes up an old hobby – art. That’s where things, in typical King style, go south.

pencilsAt any rate, it got me thinking about my own work. And while I’m no Rembrandt, I wasn’t completely awful with a set of pencils. The medium I had the most fun with, however, was charcoal. You cover the page using sticks and then slowly pull out highlights with an eraser. Darken up, erase. Smudge. Erase some more. Add charcoal. Repeat until the image you have in your mind starts peaking through. Sometimes it’s an entirely new image; something hiding under the blacks and grays and what starts out as two people dancing is actually a woman kneeling at a temple. I’d come away after a few hours with my hands looking like I’d dug my way through a mine looking for conflict diamonds. I loved it.

I’ve often thought about picking up my pencils and sketch pad again, only to get hung-up on things far less important, or things far more important, and it just doesn’t seem to happen. Call it a character flaw.

But that’s not what this post is about. What I’m really thinking about is the process of creation, specifically in the medium of charcoal, and wondering about parallels.

Sure, it’s a cliché, but life is a canvass. Or a sketchpad. Or a new Word doc, for that matter. We all have cursors floating in emptiness, just waiting for us to bring pressure to the keys. And we do. We fill the page with lines, or paragraphs, or even varying hues of dark and light, and the result is our lives.

But what images lie underneath all those letters and smudges? What can you strip away? What parts of your life you can you simply let go because they don’t belong, or you’re ready for a change, or there’s only so much canvass and you’d like to try something new?

And what are you going to find when you do?

Photo by Kabils

What do AIG and Darfur have in common?

Efforts to save them might be misguided…

Most weekdays I spend my drive to and from work listening to NPR. I’ve written about it before, but I can’t say it enough – I loves me some NPR. The exceptions are those times when the state of things, for whatever reason, is just a bit too much; when every story seems to do little more than make me sad, tired, or frustrated.

Those times I think, I swear to God, if I have to listen to any more political bickering or depressing world affairs I’m just going to turn around, go back home, and crawl into bed until Friday. Then take a vacation day and crack open a cold one* to celebrate a three day weekend. That’ll teach ’em.

As you can imagine, that doesn’t happen too often.

A program a couple of weeks ago featured a story about Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (the same gent who has an arrest warrant for him issued by the International Criminal Court, by the bye). Because this post has taken far longer to write than I anticipated, you’ve probably heard about it by now. But, on the off-chance you haven’t, the skinny is this: Sudan’s president has directed all foreign aid groups leave the country within one year. This mandate comes not long after the government had the good sense to kick out about two dozen other groups.

According to President al-Bashir, the goal of removing international aid is to “Sudanese” relief efforts. What that means is anyone’s guess, but given this guy’s history I have trouble seeing that as anything close to a good thing for the population.

But he’s a tyrant. And as a concept, murdering, bloodthirsty tyrants wanting absolute control isn’t all that surprising, right? It was the next story, and concept underneath, that really got my wheels turning.

Economist Dambisa Moyo recently released a book called Dead Aid. It posits that assistance, both monetary and general humanitarian efforts, has actually hurt Africa. Think about that – that’s 23 billion dollars in federal aid from the US (available 2006 numbers) – that she believes has done more harm than good.

Far better, she says, is the type of aid China provides – investments in the economy in the form of factories and other businesses that lead to jobs, new sources of tax income for the state, and the general economic growth that not only builds a community’s economy but also its sense of self-worth.

Click here for a review of her book by Paul Collier.

While researching this post I came across the quote below from another gent in an article from the Washington Post. The article is a few years old, but his point of view is interesting and worth the read if you have a few minutes.

“There is no African, myself included, who does not appreciate the help of the wider world, but we do question whether aid is genuine or given in the spirit of affirming one’s cultural superiority. My mood is dampened …because Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West’s fantasy of itself. And not only do such depictions tend to ignore the West’s prominent role in creating many of the unfortunate situations on the continent, they also ignore the incredible work Africans have done and continue to do to fix those problems.”

So I have to wonder: are they right? Has assistance from the West hindered growth, innovation, and self-reliance in Africa? The (very, very small) conservative part of me appreciates the logic. Arguments have been made asserting blank checks can discourage entrepreneurship, make the government unaccountable, and foster an environment rich with the potential for corruption. And there’s clearly some truth to those ideas.

But the majority of my mind and heart say it’s hard for a society to open small businesses when their children are dying from horrifying, pandemic illnesses. You know, like a cold. And how does a government that can’t seem to provide something as basic as a clean water supply hope to change the tide? “Sudanese efforts,” indeed.

cash1

Now apply that thinking to our own economic issues. Is a blank check, read DART, a help or a hindrance to AIG, Fanny Mae, and the rest of their ilk? Two weeks ago purse strings were still pulled tight and the dial that measured bank lending hadn’t seen a twitch in the needle. In fact, small businesses with years of impeccable credit history have been unable to secure loans they’ve received, year after year, critical to operations. And because of that lack of capital they’ve now shut their doors. Add to that many bank’s hesitance to sell off “toxic” loans because they’re not being offered the price they now think those loans are worth and I’m having quite a few WTF moments.

But I’m not an economist. I thank the Maker I’m married to a woman far, far smarter than I am every time I envision helping Ellie with her algebra. But I am a taxpayer. And it’s my money, and yours, that’s seemingly been hurled into the ether from Washington the last six months and all I know for certain is that while I’m lucky and grateful to have a job that I love, unemployment rate at as of April 3rd is 8.5%.

So, is Ms Moyo right? Is the blank check we’ve written to the banking system, Wall Street (and Detroit, for that matter) part of the problem? And, if so, what’s the better plan? Let me know what you think…

*Full disclosure – because I’m a girly-man and don’t drink beer, a “cold one” is actually a Smirnoff Ice. Don’t laugh – they’re yummy.

photo by Amagil