on digital books, a lime green glass, and d’Artagnan

From some indeterminate point in May to an equally vague point in September, I drink cold brew coffee in the morning. I drink it from a lime green plastic glass — because something about that color appeals to me in a summer sort of way, and because I like the clicky sound made by the iced tea spoon when I stir it. In September — at the end of this week, in fact — I’ll shift back to hot coffee, which I drink in a brown metal insulated mug.

I could, of course, drink the coffee in any sort of container and it would taste as good, but I choose those two because they please me. They’re a part of my morning ritual. Greet the cat, check the perimeter (with the cat, of course), feed the cat, get my coffee, read the news. I live a fairly irregular and unscheduled life, so that morning ritual provides a sort of ground-level continuity — a semi-stable foundation to begin the day.

What does that have to do with digital books? Nothing, in a material way — but they’re related in a sort of philosophical way. Recently a friend mentioned they couldn’t bring themselves to buy an e-book reader, and asked me how I could bring myself to abandon physical books. This is my answer.

A lot of people have a relationship with books that’s similar to my relationship with my lime green plastic glass. The thing is, physical objects can develop a certain presence that stems from the object’s personal history with the user. We’ve all experienced this. Maybe you have a favorite shirt — something faded and worn and not suitable to wear in public, but imbued with memories and a weird sort of affection that makes it impossible to discard. Maybe you have a screwdriver or soup ladle inherited from a grandparent, or a some old work gloves loaned to you by a friend who moved away before you could return them, or an early Baywatch poster that’s sort of embarrassing now but still un-throw-awayable — something (some thing) that has a personal meaning to you and only you.

So, how could I abandon physical books? How could I give up that tactile experience of holding a book in my hand? How could I shift away from the sound and feel of turning a physical page? Didn’t I miss the particular smell of a book? How could I reduce a great novel to nothing more than a collection of digitized ones and zeros?

I get that notion. I totally do. There are absolutely some physical experiences that clearly lose something important when they’re de-objectified, when objects are turned into information. The ringing of a church-bell, for example; we can digitally reproduce that sound, but we can’t reproduce the experience, the physicality of a ringing bell, the way the sound waves impact our bodies.

But for me, the impact of a book — and especially of a novel — isn’t in the substance of the paper and the binding, it’s in the ideas generated by the story. It’s in the unique and intensely personal interpretation of what’s written. For me, it’s the writing that matters more than the way it’s presented; it doesn’t matter to me if the words are printed on a physical page or digitally reproduced on a screen.

Originally, I thought it would matter. In fact, I refused to buy an e-book reader because I was concerned it would degrade the experience of reading. But then, back in 2010, I was given a Nook, an e-reader developed by and for Barnes & Noble booksellers. It came with a couple of classic novels already loaded — both of which I’d read and re-read several times. Pride and Prejudice and The Three Musketeers. Because it was a gift, I felt obligated to at least try using the Nook. So I started to re-read the story of Charles de Batz de Castelmore d’Artagnan and his ridiculous quest to become a musketeer — and by the time I finished the third paragraph, I was caught up in the narrative.

Imagine to yourself a Don Quixote of eighteen; a Don Quixote without his corselet, without his coat of mail, without his cuisses; a Don Quixote clothed in a woolen doublet, the blue color of which had faded into a nameless shade between lees of wine and a heavenly azure; face long and brown; high cheek bones, a sign of sagacity; the maxillary muscles enormously developed, an infallible sign by which a Gascon may always be detected, even without his cap—and our young man wore a cap set off with a sort of feather; the eye open and intelligent; the nose hooked, but finely chiseled. Too big for a youth, too small for a grown man, an experienced eye might have taken him for a farmer’s son upon a journey had it not been for the long sword which, dangling from a leather baldric, hit against the calves of its owner as he walked, and against the rough side of his steed when he was on horseback.

That pair of sentences would make any modern editor have a seizure, but they set the tone for this particular novel. More importantly, they create an image in my mind of the character d’Artagnan. Reading it digitized — like it is here — creates the same image in my mind as reading it on a printed page. That mental image has nothing to do with the medium that created it, paper or digital. It’s unique to me; your mental image of young d’Artagnan is probably different, because…well, fuck. I have to go off on a tangent here. I’ve been trying to reduce the number of tangents in these blog posts, but damn it, here we go.

That’s d’Artagnan, right there.

I think we can all agree that with very few exceptions, books are better than the movies made from those books. One reason for that is because the characters in movies rarely resemble the characters we create in our mind when we read a novel. But on occasion, a character is so perfectly cast that we impose that actor’s face on the character in the novel. And the 1973 film adaptation directed by Richard Lester has permanently imprinted the face of Michael York on my personal interpretation of d’Artagnan. Now and for the rest of my life, when I read The Three Musketeers, I see Michael York.

Right, tangent over, and back to my point, which is as follows: some physical objects, though routine contact with people, develop an almost mystical connection to the person who possesses them. I have a relationship with my lime green glass, for example. My cold brew coffee would taste as good in a ceramic mug, but the glass means something to me. But my relationship with books, and particularly novels, is different. That relationship is grounded in the ideas created through the writing, not in the device that contains them.

When it comes to books, my interest is in the cold brew, not the lime green plastic glass.

slay the big bad, return to the prom

There were many days during the Trump Dark Nightmare Interval when I felt like we were living out an episode–hell, an entire season–of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One of the many messages hard-wired into BtVS was that the Slayer was…wait. Okay, there may be some folks who aren’t familiar with this television show. I mean, BtVS ended in 2003, almost two decades ago, so I suppose I should recap the…no, never mind. You either know about BtVS or you don’t. If you don’t, then I advise you to correct that failure.

Anyway, one of the many things I liked about Buffy is the way the show ended. Instead of…okay, damn it, I guess I do need to explain a little bit about the show. Bear with me a moment. The premise of BtVS is that 1) there are vampires, 2) there is a vampire Slayer, and 3) the Slayer is always female. Got that? Lots of vampires, one female Slayer. Not just vampires, mind you; there are lots of other forces of…well, wait. Here’s the show’s intro:

Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer.

So, again, lots of vampires, one Slayer* (yes, there’s an asterisk to appease BtVS fans who know better, but y’all don’t need to fret about it–just accept one Slayer-many vampires). If you do the math, you’ll see the shelf life of a Slayer is generally pretty brief. But when one gets killed, another is ‘chosen’. Don’t ask about the selection process; it doesn’t matter. Just accept it. A Slayer dies, all her power and abilities get transferred to some other poor girl. And yes, they say ‘girl’ because the new Slayer is always a teenager. Again, don’t ask why; it just is what it is. What matters is that this girl/young woman is then stuck with the thankless job of killing vampires. There’s a large pool of ‘potential’ Slayers out in the world–girls and young women all over the globe who are unaware and unsuspecting, but standing in an apparently arbitrary queue to become the next Slayer.

Them’s the rules. Buffy had no choice; some Slayer died, and she got drafted into a career she didn’t really want–and tried to avoid. Who could blame her? One day she’s picking out what to wear to prom, then next she’s supposed to fight demons? And eventually be killed by them? Who’d sign up for that? Wait, here, watch this. It’s a scene in which Buffy learns about a prophesy that she’s going to die.

“I’m sixteen years old,” she says. “I don’t want to die.” Doesn’t matter that another Slayer will be born; she’s sixteen and she’s going to be killed (and don’t forget, there’s a HUGE difference between ‘dying’ and ‘being killed’) just because she won a lottery she hadn’t even bought a ticket for. “They say how he’s gonna kill me? Do you think it’ll hurt?” She just wanted to go the fucking prom like a normal person.

Okay, now back to the point I wanted to make at the beginning. We’re closing in on what we hope is the season finale of the Trump story arc. He’s been sidelined, but he’s still a threat. So are all the lesser marauding TrumpDemons out there in the community, spreading Covid and insurrection. I find myself thinking about the way BtVS ended. Until Buffy, every other television/movie superhero story in the world ended in pretty much the same way: the superhero finds a way to stop the Big Bad (whatever it happens to be) by being a superhero–by using superpowers in an heroic way.

But not Buffy. She stops the Big Bad largely by changing the rules–by ending that “one girl in all the world, a chosen one” business. Buffy stops the Big Bad by giving up the very thing that makes her special. She finds a way to make ALL the potential Slayers into actual Slayers. Teen-aged girls all over the world can now do what Buffy does.

And they need to. Because the Big Bad–in whatever form it takes–can be stopped, but it never dies. It always keeps coming back. Which, obviously, is why Slayers have to keep showing up and kicking its ass. Which is why Buffy’s prom keeps being interrupted.

Slay the Big Bad, return to the prom.

My point–my goofy, sappy, obvious point–is that even though the current Hellmouth has collapsed in on itself, there’s still a LOT of ugly shit in the world and the threat is still active. So it’s up to all of us, to each of us, to step up and be as strong and determined as teen-aged girls. So to speak.

We don’t have to stake anybody (and really, we shouldn’t, even if we want to); but we DO have to put in a little effort. Vote, of course. But also call your members of Congress. Donate (if you can afford it) to candidates who share your values. Attend a demonstration. Buy and wear a t-shirt proclaiming your views. Seriously, wear a t-shirt. Being public about your opinions is not only empowering for you, but also encourages other folks to be public. It’s a way of recognizing and supporting other vampire slayers.

It’s okay to be scared–even by little things, like making a phone call or wearing a t-shirt in public. Ask yourself, “What would Buffy do?” Then put on your t-shirt or prom dress and don’t let your fear make you silent. Go to the prom, dance and have fun, slay a monster or two while the band is on break, and return to the prom. Keep dancing. Make your voice heard.

Make your voice heard.

a slightly faster way of walking

I swear, every couple of weeks I come across another article about electric bikes and ‘cheating’. This one was on the Electrek website. Are electric bikes cheating? If you google ‘ebike cheating‘ you’ll get a cascade of results, and every single one debunks the idea that riding an ebike is cheating.

I’ve never quite understood the question. How can riding a bike–any sort of bike–be considered cheating? Cheating at what? Cheating against whom? That question led me to understand my personal approach to cycling is something of an aberration. The fact that the question persists–the fact that the question even exists and that it gets asked so often–is, in my opinion, evidence of a deep problem in the cycling culture of the United States.

I believe the problem evolved from the way cycling has been marketed. In the US, it’s almost always promoted as a ‘fun’ form of exercise. Exercise is basically a form of self-competition. Exercise isn’t supposed to be easy. Push yourself, work hard, work a little harder, sweat a bit more, feel the burn, ignore the pain, keep going, do better than you did the last time, meet or exceed your personal best. Exercise is a constant measuring of yourself now against yourself before. Are you getting better? Are you maintaining? Or are you fading?

Row upon row of road bikes.

There’s nothing wrong with exercise, of course. It IS actually good for you. But there’s a lot more to cycling than a good workout, and that’s generally ignored when cycling is being marketed or advertised. In the US cycling is rarely presented as an alternate form of transportation–as a way to commute to work or a way to run short errands. It’s never marketed as a source of joy or delight or pleasure.

I’ve been cycling most of my life–never for physical fitness, sometimes as a mode of transportation, but always because it makes me happy, because it brings me joy and delight. I didn’t realize that approach to cycling was an aberration until recently. Part of that realization came about because of the ebike-cheating question. But it was driven home this year after joining a few organized bike rides.

Rows of road bikes outside a pub.

I’m basically a solitary cyclist. The idea of riding in a large group of people never appealed to me. I like to ride at my own pace, take my own path, stop when I want, go faster or slower as my mood takes me. You lose that independence in a group. But this year my charming sister (and her equally charming husband) have invited me along on a few organized bike rides–and because she’s my sister and because she’s charming, I’ve gone along.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the rides, in part because they always start at some bike pub and end at some bike pub, often with a couple of stops at bike pubs along the way. Bikes and beer have a long, happy history together. But because almost all of my professional training has taught me to pay attention to social behavior, I noticed this very obvious fact: aside from me on my ebike, almost everybody rode a road bike. There’d be an occasional mountain bike, a couple of fat tire bikes, maybe a recumbent bike, and one or two other ebikes–but the the vast majority of cyclists were on road bikes.

Why?

Dozens of road bikes.

A road bike is built to be ridden almost exclusively on hard surfaces. They’re designed to be fast. Essentially, they’re designed for racing, even if racing isn’t the cyclist’s intent. Because of that, road bikes are the least versatile type of bike, the most finicky, the least forgiving, the most expensive, the least comfortable. But they’re fast. They have thin, high pressure tires to minimize surface friction on the road, and that makes them faster. They lack any sort of suspension because the flex of suspension reduces the efficiency of the pedaling, and that makes them faster. The riding position is aerodynamic (which makes them faster), but it’s also unnatural and puts a lot of stress on joints and nerves.

Because road bikes are fast, and because their design makes them more vulnerable to road conditions, and because of the unnatural riding position, cyclists on road bikes need to focus their attention on the road in front of them. A lapse in attention can result in a crash. The result is folks on road bikes aren’t devoting much attention to the general environment they’re riding through.

Road bikes outside a former train depot.

At the halfway point of a recent organized ride, while having a beer, I discovered that my sister and her husband simply didn’t see most of the cool stuff we rode by. A group of turkeys along the bike path, the dappled horses watching us ride by, a ring-necked pheasant that flew across the bike path about ten feet high directly in front of them, the turtle on a log in a pond, the fat groundhog. They didn’t see any of that, and it made me sort of sad.

Why, I asked myself, were all these people riding road bikes? Because in the US, a road bike is the mark of a ‘serious’ cyclist. Because if you want a good workout–if you’re primary goal for cycling is exercise–you want a machine designed for competition, even if you’re only competing with yourself.

An electric bike can make cycling easier. This is where the ‘cheating’ notion comes in. Electric bikes can be fast–but with less physical effort. They can be fast with seatpost and tire suspension, which makes them more comfortable to ride. They can be fast with the rider in a more natural and comfortable riding position, with less neck and joint strain. They can be fast while allowing the rider to look around and enjoy the scenery.

Road bikes.

And that’s ‘cheating’. Cyclists on electric bikes are cheating because they can go fast without having to suffer as much as regular bike riders. They’re cheating because they haven’t ‘earned’ the speed. They’re cheating ONLY IF you accept the notion that the primary purpose of a bike is sport or exercise or physical fitness. They’re cheating ONLY IF you buy into the way cycling is marketed.

Earlier I mentioned googling ‘ebike cheating’ and getting a flood of articles debunking the notion of cheating. Each of those articles base their ‘not cheating’ conclusion on the fact that ebike riders are still getting a good workout. They’ll tell you how ebikes still require physical effort–though the rider has more control over how much effort is expended. They’ll tell you ebike riders tend to ride more often than riders on regular bikes, and they tend to ride further–all of which increases the ebike rider’s fitness.

Road bikes on the Moonlight Classic.

Do you see the problem there? All of those articles accept the marketing premise–that the primary reason for cycling is fitness and exercise–as a given. None of them consider that there are other reasons for cycling. None of them consider that riding an ebike makes cycling more pleasurable, more joyous.

The problem is NOT road bikes. Road bikes are incredibly efficient machines. I’ve owned road bikes (though mine were all geared for touring rather than racing) and I’ve ridden them hundreds of miles. The problem (and I admit, this may only be a problem from my personal perspective) is that the marketing emphasis on physical fitness in cycling has turned it into a narrow form of self-competition that detaches riders from a richer experience. There’s nothing wrong with riding for exercise, but neither is there anything wrong with riding because it’s just fucking fun. I have never had as much simple joy and delight in riding a bike as I have this past year. Never.

For a lot of the riders in these organized cycling events, a beer at the end (or the halfway point) is seen as a reward–a sort of liquid recompense for the labor of cycling. I’m of the opinion that a beer is–or should be–just another pleasant facet of an already pleasant experience. It’s as integral to the experience as seeing a turtle on a log. You don’t have to have a beer or see a turtle on a log to enjoy a bike ride, but both enhance the ride in the same way.

I once read an article about the Dutch approach to cycling. It described cycling as a slightly faster way of walking. That fits perfectly with the way I ride. It’s just a pleasant way of getting around, quickly and easily, arriving at your destination (if you have one) without too much fuss, without being weary or sweaty (unless you want to be), and allowing you to enjoy and appreciate the world around you as you go.

tables of nazis

Sometimes you see a political statement on Facebook that you sorta kinda want to agree with, but then you think about it (and that’s the key phrase here — think about it) and you realize you not only can’t agree with it, you actively oppose it.

This is what I mean:

On the surface, this sounds perfectly reasonable. If you freely associate with Nazis–if Nazis are part of your social circle–you’re a Nazi. Or, at the very least, you’re Nazi-tolerant.

I can agree with that. I’ve a cousin who is an ardent Trump supporter. We’ve always been friends, though we’ve always had radically different political views. But his embrace of Trump was too much for me to tolerate. I no longer associate with him. I still love him like a brother; if he needed a kidney, I’d pony up one of mine. But I won’t hang out with him. I can’t be friends with people who support authoritarian regimes.

But then there’s this part of that FB political statement:

When you break bread with a Nazi, you tell them that they’re a member of society. They’re not. They don’t deserve to be. And they should know their hatreds make them unfit to be around decent people

And that, in my opinion, is just flat out wrong. First off, ain’t nobody got the right to decide for me who is and who isn’t ‘decent’ people. That’s something I’ll decide for myself. As far as that goes, I don’t want to limit my friendships solely to ‘decent’ people. I like and enjoy people whose thoughts and actions aren’t always constrained by bland notions of ‘decency.’ Weirdos, fuck-ups, deviants, freaks, eccentrics, perverts–folks who diverge from the norm, that’s my tribe, and they’re decent enough for me.

Second, of course Nazis are members of society. Maybe not welcome members, but members all the same. As are Jews and New York Yankees fans and people who collect Barbie dolls and women who think it’s fucking stupid to shave their legs and Buddhists and folks who watch reality television and people who love stock car racing and fans of Ru Paul’s Drag Race and long distance runners and method actors and men who wear porkpie hats and assholes who shoot off fireworks and even Comrade Donald fucking Trump.

Obviously I’m NOT comparing those folks to Nazis. I’m just saying that a healthy society is large and elastic. I’m just saying they’re all members of society. Doesn’t mean you have to associate with them, or agree with them, or understand them. Doesn’t mean you have to collect Barbie dolls or wear a porkpie hat. It just means you need to acknowledge they exist in your society, whether you like it or not. The same is true of Nazis.

Third, you can exclude people from your personal circle of friends and acquaintances, but you don’t get to decide who does and who doesn’t deserve to be a member of society. And you certainly don’t get to decide that based on whether or not you agree with them or are uncomfortable around them. You know what sort of people DO think they have the right to choose who does and doesn’t deserve to be a member of decent society? Nazis, that’s who. Fucking Nazis.

Seriously, you can’t get rid of Nazis by becoming a Nazi yourself.

So let me just say this: fuck Nazis. Fuck them in the neck. But grow the fuck up and accept the fact even people you despise are still a part of society. And as such, they have rights. That includes the right to exist.

If there’s a Nazi at the table and ten people are sitting there talking to him, you’ve got a table of eleven Nazis. As a general approach, I’m okay with that. It may not always be true, but it’s probably a fairly reliable metric. Here’s another; if you’re sitting at a table with friends and you decide that a table with eleven Nazis doesn’t deserve to exist, then there are two tables of Nazis.

Don’t be a Nazi.

john kenna and three spoilers

Yesterday the House of Representatives passed legislation to remove the statues of leaders and soldiers of the Confederate States of America from the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol. The vote was 285 to 120. The 120 members of Congress who voted to keep the statues of Confederates were all Republicans.

(SPOILER #1: The Confederate States of America was an illegal and unrecognized breakaway entity of eleven US states that, from February 8, 1861, to May 9, 1865, fought in a bloody, armed rebellion against the legitimate government of the United States of America in an effort to maintain an economic system grounded in human bondage.)

The statues include:

CSA President Jefferson Davis — owned 113 slaves; believed the right to own black slaves created the foundation for white equality (I’m not making that up).
CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens — owned at least 30 slaves; said the Confederacy was built upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
CSA Gen. Joseph Wheeler — owned as many as 300 slaves; in Dec. of 1864, when hundreds of liberated slaves followed Union Gen. Sherman’s forces on their ‘March to the Sea’, Wheeler’s troops came across app. 600 former slaves stranded by US forces on the banks of the Ebenezer Creek — they killed and drowned many, captured and resold the rest back into slavery.
CSA Gen. James Z. George — owned app. 30 slaves; believed African slaves should be treated ‘fairly’ but weren’t capable of ‘responsible citizenship’; changed Mississippi’s post-war constitution to enable illiterate white men to vote while excluding illiterate blacks.
CSA Gen. Wade Hampton III — owned app. 3000 slaves; post-war he was elected governor of South Carolina with help of the Red Shirts militia, which used violence to suppress black voting; an estimated 150 black freedmen were murdered during the campaign.
CSA Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith — owned an unknown number of slaves, one of whom (likely his half-brother) accompanied him as a servant during the Civil War (and later became Jacksonville, Florida’s first black doctor); Smith was the last CSA general to surrender.
CSA Col. Zebulon Baird Vance — owned 18 slaves; believed emancipation of black slaves was a threat to white purity; said the mind “recoils in disgust and loathing from the prospect of intermingling the quick blood of the European with the putrid stream of African barbarism.”
CSA soldier John E. Kenna — owned 0 slaves; joined the Confederate Army at age 16, after the war became a politician noted for improving the Kanawha River navigation system and defending the president’s power to fire executive branch officials.
CSA soldier Edward Douglass White — owned app. 60 slaves; after the war he took part in the Battle of Liberty Place–an attempted insurrection against the Reconstruction state government of Louisiana by the Crescent City White League, a paramilitary terrorist organization made up largely of Confederate veterans; they occupied the statehouse, armory, and downtown for three days before arrival of Federal troops that restored the elected government; he was eventually appointed to the SCOTUS, where he voted to uphold Jim Crow laws stripping black Americans of civil rights.

You may be wondering 1) why the National Statuary Hall even has statues of men who betrayed their nation in the defense of slavery, and 2) why anybody would support keeping the statues of traitors in the Capitol Building (especially after that building had been assaulted by an insurrectionist mob attempting to disrupt the legitimate election of a new president). The answer to both of those questions is as follows: a lot of Republican politicians are massive assholes and/or racists who are okay with folks overthrowing the legitimate government if it will put Republicans in charge.

(SPOILER #2: 121 Republicans in the House voted also against certifying Arizona’s electoral outcome and 138 House Republicans voted against certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral outcome even though both states certified their election results as legitimate.)

I’m glad the statues are being removed…but I’m also a tad troubled by the inclusion of John Kenna. The resolution pertains to statues of “any individual who served voluntarily at any time as a member of the Armed Forces of the Confederate States of America or of the military of a State while the State was in open rebellion against the United States.” And yeah, that’s John Kenna, right there.

John E. Kenna

Here’s why I’m troubled. Kenna was just a grunt. An enlisted soldier. But his statue is being treated as equally offensive as that of the president of the Confederacy and the military leaders of the CSA. Kenna was only 16 and had little education when he joined the CSA, he never held any high military rank, neither he nor any of his family owned slaves, there’s no written record of him promoting slavery or white supremacy before or after the war. But his statue is being given the same treatment as the statue of Jefferson Davis.

Did Kenna fight on the wrong side of the war? Absolutely. But he was just a kid. Did he fight against the legitimate government of the United States? Yep, he did. But he was just a kid. Did he fight in favor of an economic system that dehumanized black people? Yes, he surely did. But he was just a kid. Did he believe slavery was right? I don’t know…maybe. Probably, since he grew up with it and didn’t know any better because he was just a kid. My guess–and I admit I have nothing at all to base this on–is that Kenna had no more sense of what he was fighting for or against than the kids who fought in Vietnam. My guess is John Kenna went where he was told to go, shot who he was told to shoot at, and did what he thought was his duty.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it. You make choices, even as a kid. And you own those choices, even if you were acting out of ignorance. John Kenna volunteered to put on the uniform and fight for the Confederacy. So his statue has to go. Has to.

John E. Kenna

But we don’t have cheer for it. We can celebrate the removal of the leaders of the Confederacy, the men who knew what they were doing and why. But when we remove Kenna’s statue, we need to remember the reality that enlisted personnel are tools that our leaders use for their own purposes.

(SPOILER #3: Think about John Kenna when you hear that South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has authorized a Republican billionaire to fund the deployment of her National Guard troops to the Mexican border at the request of Texas Republican Gov. Gregg Abbott.)

curiosity and ragnar the cheesemaker

I have a morning routine, which rarely changes (because, you know, it’s in the morning and I’ve just awakened and and any activity that requires actual thought is probably beyond my capabilities). Greet the cat, check the perimeter (with the cat), feed the cat, ingest some form of caffeine, pet the damned cat, read the news, read more news, continue to pet and feed the fucking cat, consider reading email, decide against reading email, check Twitter, check Facebook.

By the time I reach the ‘read more news’ point, I’m moderately awake, properly caffeinated, and curiosity has kicked in. That generally results in me doing some level of research about what I’m reading. For example, this morning I saw something about ‘cult’ television shows. Not shows about cults; shows with cult audiences. No, wait…that sounds like the audience members are in a cult. Like everybody in the Order of the Solar Temple gathers around the television in the afternoon to watch Jeopardy. I’m talking about television shows that are obscure or generally unpopular with mainstream audiences, but still attract a devoted fan base. Somebody mentioned a British show called The Strange World of Gurney Slade. Which sounded weird and interesting, so I did some research and learned…well, that it was weird and interesting.

My point, if you can call it that, is that at some point in the morning, my need to read the news gets hijacked by my need to know and understand random stuff. This morning it was a few minutes of Gurney Slade. Then, on Twitter, I came across this simple question: Did Vikings make cheese? And my morning was gloriously ruined.

First, the question itself is wonderfully weird. You have to wonder what sparked the question. I assume it wasn’t just an idle thought; something caused this person to wonder if Vikings made cheese. Maybe they wanted to know what foods Vikings packed for a long voyage, maybe they were curious about Vikings and lactose intolerance–I don’t know. But it was an interesting question. But my immediate response was delight at the notion of a Viking cheesemaker. Some hirsute guy who, instead of setting off with the crew to raid the coast of Britain, decided, “Naw, I’m going to hang here and make a cheese.” Ragnar the Cheesemaker.

That led me to wonder how the process of making cheese was discovered, which eventually led me to read a sentence that not only took up much of my morning, but will likely haunt me for the rest of my life.

Cheese may have been discovered accidentally by the practice of storing milk in containers made from the stomachs of animals.

Okay, if you’re anything like me, you immediately started asking critically important questions. Who the fuck thought it was a good idea to store milk in the stomach of an animal? Who first said, “Dude, we got all this milk and we got no place to store it. Fetch me the stomach of an animal, please.” Who thought it was a good idea to store anything at all in the stomach of a dead animal? Who conceived of animal stomachs as prehistoric Tupperware containers? Somebody, while gutting an animal, must have had the idea, “Hey, let’s hang on to this stomach…we can clean it out and store stuff in it!”? Where would you keep the empty animal stomachs you plan to use later to store milk? And who, having left that first batch of milk in an animal stomach long enough for it to curdle and separate into curds and whey, thought, “Fuck it, I’m eating it anyway.”?

Medieval cheesemakers

My research also brought me to an article entitled Make Butter Viking Style, but I had to stop reading almost immediately, because of this:

Step One: Bring the crème fraîche up to room temperature and whisk it as if making whipped cream.

I am not convinced this is how Vikings made butter. I could go on (and believe me, I did), but you get my point. This has been my morning. Cat, Miami condo collapse, infrastructure agreement, some GOP bullshit about the military, cult television shows, Vikings, cheesemaking, animal stomachs, butter production. Every morning is like this for me. I’m completely fucking worthless from about 0700 to maybe 1000 hours, because of stuff like this.

And the worst thing about this? I have absolutely no use at all for what I’ve learned this morning. The odds of Gurney Slade or the history of cheesemaking (or, lawdy, the evolution of storage containers) ever coming up in conversation are astronomical. But this stuff will rattle around in my head for hours (or days or decades) and possibly spill out at some wildly inappropriate moment.

forget it joe, it’s afghanistan

There are things you can fix, and things you can’t. There are things you have a moral obligation to try to fix even if you can’t possibly fix them. There are things you believe need to be fixed, but aren’t actually broken. There are fixable things you believe you understand, but you’re wrong. There are fixable things that are none of your fucking business regardless of what you think about them. And when you’re in the middle of things, it’s hard–probably impossible–to know which things are which.

There’s a movie about that. Chinatown. Released in 1974. (I’m going to ignore the legitimate issues about the director, Roman Polanski, because for once I’m going to try to stay tangent-free.) Here’s the backstory of one of the main characters, and a short precis of the film’s plot (and yes, that means there are spoilers).

The backstory–Jake Gittes has a small private investigator business in Los Angeles. He’s a former police detective who worked in the notoriously corrupt Chinatown neighborhood. He became disillusioned (all movie PIs are disillusioned; it’s the law) partly because he was working in a culture whose norms and rules he didn’t understand, partly because of the endemic corruption, and partly because the actions and motivations of the Powers That Be (in both the Chinese and political communities) were concealed from him and inscrutable to him. When his client, Evelyn Mulwray learns he’d been a detective in Chinatown, she asks:

Evelyn Mulwray: What were you doing there?
Jake Gittes: Working for the District Attorney.
Evelyn: Doing what?
Jake: As little as possible.
Evelyn: The District Attorney gives his men advice like that?
Jake: They do in Chinatown.

As little as possible. Jake’s disillusionment was compounded when he attempted to help a Chinese woman. He says, “I thought I was keeping someone from being hurt and actually I ended up making sure she was hurt.” That same scenario plays out in the main plot, much of which is taken up with a long, brilliant McGuffin. It draws Jake into a situation in which he feels an obligation to rescue his client, Evelyn, and her daughter from an ugly situation involving Evelyn’s father–a multimillionaire developer. Once again, Jake finds himself in a situation in which the rules/laws aren’t clear to him, in which he doesn’t understand the motives or actions of the people involved, and where his attempts to help result in more harm. Had he done ‘as little as possible’ things may have worked out better, even if the situation itself remained awful.

In the final scene, his client is dead, the bad guys win, and Jake is not only helpless, he’s also partly responsible. He sees her body, mutters “…as little as possible” and is ordered away from the scene by his former Chinatown detective partner. As he’s being led away, one of Jake’s current employees tells him, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

This scenario is being played out with President Uncle Joe and the decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. It’s a culture–actually, a number of inter-related ancient tribal cultures–we don’t understand, cultures that operate on traditional rules and norms unknown to us, with values and ethics that are often alien to us, with goals that are foreign to us. The US and our Western allies have been attempting to resolve our involvement relying on OUR cultural norms and OUR values to achieve OUR goals. Forget it, Joe. It’s Afghanistan.

We had a valid reason (at least in my opinion) to intrude militarily in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda had used that nation as a training ground and recruitment center for the 9/11 attacks. We had a legit reason to go after al Qaeda. After that, things got…loose.

The fact is, no foreign adventure has ever succeeded in Afghanistan. Alexander the Great, whose Macedonian army basically walked over every army they’d fought, got caught up in a long guerrilla-style war in Afghanistan. He never fully succeeded in pacifying the various Afghan tribes. Before he died, Alexander said, “May God keep you away from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger, and the revenge of the Afghans.” Various Muslim invasions succeeded in converting most Afghan tribes to Islam, but never completely controlled the area. The Mongols, under Genghis Khan, occupied much of the area for quite a long time, but their empire also fell apart. Nobody held the area as long as Timur the Great–but it’s worth noting that Timur was known as Timur the Lame (or ‘Tamerlane’ as he was called by Europeans) because of wounds he received fighting Afghan tribes. After Timur’s empire failed, the Sikhs attempt to invade Afghan territories several times without much success. The British invaded three times in the 19th and early 20th centuries–and got their asses kicked each time. Russia invaded three times–in 1929, 1930, and finally in 1979–and got their asses kicked each time.

And, of course, the US (and NATO) invaded in 2001. We know how that worked out.

But here’s the thing the Afghan tribes have always known and the thing foreign invaders never seem to figure out: the Afghans don’t have to win any wars; they only have to keep fighting at some level, and eventually the invaders–no matter who they are, or where they’re from, and how powerful they are–will leave. The various Afghan tribes are unconcerned about foreign military deadlines or the domestic political necessities of foreign powers or the costs those powers incur; they’re operating on God’s time, and they measure cost on a different scale.

President Uncle Joe’s decision to pull out troops is just an acknowledgment that Afghanistan is Chinatown. Doesn’t matter if we had a legit reason for being there, doesn’t matter if our long low-level war of occupation was a genuine attempt to help the Afghan peoples (and I’m not convinced it was), doesn’t matter what our motives were. Like every other invasion force in Afghan history, we’ve almost certainly done more harm than good.

There’s a scene in Chinatown in which Jake Gittes speaks with Noah Cross, the millionaire developer behind all the misery that’s taking place. Cross inhabits a world where laws and rules of ordinary decency don’t seem to apply–a world that’s as ambiguous and perplexing to Jake as that of Chinatown, a world that’s just as baffling and complex as our involvement in Afghanistan.

Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?
Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?
Jake: I just wanna know what you’re worth. More than 10 million?
Noah: Oh my, yes!
Jake: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?
Noah: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.

That’s why we’re in Afghanistan. The future. Their future, our future–we think we can make it better. We think we have the means and the power and the right to make it better. We think we know what ‘better’ means.

We don’t. We just don’t.

Forget it, Joe. It’s Afghanistan.

3 television shows i’d watch

I like television. I don’t watch a lot of it, but I like it. I watch probably a couple of hours of television a day. Wait, not true. I usually watch the local news and the network news. That’s an hour right there. Then I’ll watch an episode of some show over a meal. Later I’ll usually watch an episode of a different show. So let’s say a couple of hours of entertainment television, and a hour of news.

With so many streaming services available, there’s always something to watch. That said, I don’t generally watch US network television shows. Not because of any anti-American bias, but because they all seem too slick and indistinguishable. Most of the actors–especially the women actors–tend to look like models rather than real people. The storylines often feel familiar and predictable. They don’t require anything from the viewer but passive engagement.

Since I complain about them, somebody asked me what I’d like to see US television production companies release. And because I’d rather think about that than what I’m supposed to be doing, I came up with three ideas for television shows I’d watch. I was just amusing myself, of course, and being a bit ridiculous–but I think I’d actually watch television shows like this.

Here we go:

Welcome to Ballachulish: Two assassins–one an official CIA wetwork specialist on a gov’t pension, one a Belgian freelancer who has made enough money to get out of the game–coincidentally choose to retire to the same small out-of-the-way village in Scotland. Although they each remain suspicious that the other is there to kill them, they semi-bond together as they interact with the quirky locals–an irascible veterinarian, a lesbian couple who operate a pub/B&B, an irascible postmaster, the local constable (a wanna-be spy novelist), an irascible shopkeeper, the local laird and his extended family, an irascible Korean owner of a Mexican restaurant, a standard attractive single woman school teacher, an irascible ironmonger/blacksmith/interior designer.

The Bookstore: A small, dusty used bookstore in Brooklyn that somehow attracts all sorts of customers–lawyers, immigrant taxi drivers, soccer moms, art students, police officers, actor/waiters, college professors, professional dancers, auto mechanics, bicycle messengers, etc. Occasionally some ask the bookseller for a recommendation. Bookseller encourages them to browse, take their time, find a book themselves. If they insist on a recommendation the bookseller will agree, saying “I’ll recommend a book for you just this once. One time, and that’s it. And all sales are final. Are you sure you want me to recommend a book?” If they still insist, the bookseller will charge them US$14.75 in advance, study their face for a while, then say “I know exactly what you’re looking for” and send them to a back room.

As they pass through the door, they enter a story. Might be a romance, might be a murder mystery, might be a heist story, might be a pirate story, might be science fiction or fantasy, might be a story set in a Russian gulag or a French Foreign Legion post in north Africa–but it’s rarely what the customer thinks they want. Most have happy–or at least satisfactory–endings. Some don’t. The story resolves, the customer finds themselves back in the bookstore.

Ol’ Man River: Guy (or woman, doesn’t matter–let’s say a woman, what the hell) wins the lottery. She leaves her old life behind (whatever that includes). Buys a houseboat. Travels up and down the Mississippi River mostly by herself. Stuff happens. She meets people, she has visits from family and friends, she deals with animals and boat problems and bad weather, she stops at various river towns, she learns some local history, she changes in ways she doesn’t expect. Lots of pretty scenery.

I considered suggesting a series in which two retired assassins buy a houseboat and travel up and down the Mississippi stopping at bookstores in river towns, but that seemed a bit over the top.