Sunday, September 28, 2008

Human Highlights - Team Litter

I shared a nice moment with a stranger on a subway.

There was an empty plastic Coca-Cola bottle rattling and rolling on the floor. It rolled toward me and I stopped it with my foot. But I did it in the coolest way possible. I didn't even look at it. I was reading a book (The Reason Why) and I saw it in my peripheral vision. I simply raised my foot to pin it against the floor. I held it there, planning to throw it in the recycle when I got off. Then, five stops later, some other guy picked up the bottle from beneath my foot. "Nice catch." He smiled.

I pick up litter when it's convenient. If I know there's a garbage between me and my destination then I pick it up. Otherwise, I don't sweat it because other travelers will be thinking the same way. I like imagining that I'm on the same team as these strangers.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

try not to die or you lose all your weapons

When we were younger and I was starting the study of history my brother asked me the two great historical questions.
1) Why didn't all of the slaves revolt (specifically in the Southern US)?

2) Why did so many soldiers volunteer to fight in war (specifically the European Wars)?

I know the common answers.
1) Why didn't all of the slaves revolt (specifically in the Southern US)?
-most people cannot move against the current of their culture
-slaves did revolt in small pockets, lacking the resources to unite their struggles

2) Why did so many soldiers volunteer to fight in war (specifically the European Wars)?
-Romantic perceptions of war

I still don't find them satisfactory.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

I Lack Depth? Three Levels of Analysis

When I teach, I'm constantly experimenting with new approaches. Occasionally, I surprise myself with something that really works. In a literature class, a student asked me a very straightforward question:
"what do teachers mean when they say that my essay needs 'more depth'?
Usually, 'your essay needs more depth' is a euphemism that teachers use for 'you didn't read the book'. But this student knew the material very well and it was clear that they were looking for a definition of 'depth'. My answer led to this simple and powerful thinking tool. The "three levels of analysis" approach to reading.

Level 1 - The Story
Level 2 - The Author
Level 3 - Critical Analysis

Saturday, September 6, 2008

What is the What (33%)

I'm a very severe critic and few books that I read receive a passing grade. Recently, I've been thinking about my harsh review of Dave Eggers' book What is the What. It's hard to accuse the talented Eggers of taking a thoughtless, imperial approach but here I am.

The story is roughly based on Valentino Achak Deng's life and provides Western readers a way to learn about Sudan without reading Wikipedia. I find it hilarious (in a sad way) that both Eggers and Deng are clearly used to explaining that the book is not about 'Darfur'. My great great grand, Darfur is a region in Sudan where the media lets us know that there is authentic African "ethnic conflict" and "genocide". It is a catchphrase amoung wealthy white people who seek to create meaning in their own lives by toying with the idea of being the saviour of a distant, exotic 'other'. At one point in their life every wealthy white person imagines traveling to a far off land to save the Wretched of the Earth. This is an echo from the age of imperialism when Europeans cast themselves in a morality play as the rescuers of inferior Africans.

There's nothing wrong with caring about strangers but do we have to play make believe? Let's take a look at how What is the What was created.

The book is based on interviews with Deng combined with Eggers' research about the Lost Boys. It's a tough sell since it's a fictionlized memoir. Eggers constructs a character but keeps Deng's real name. What? Why not simply write a truthful biography? Well, in the introduction, Deng claims they turned to fiction because he couldn't faithfully reconstruct his childhood conversations. Smoke and mirrors. Don't trust Deng, he'll say anything to get you to donate to his fund and raise awareness about the plight of his loved ones in Sudan.

And rightfully so. There's something f*cked up going on here. The fact is, Deng's real story wasn't tragic enough. There's a real undercurrent in this novel that Eggers and Deng are selling tragedy. The more horrendous the better. The story is about Deng's difficult life. He experienced terrible things as an adult and as a child. But what's more tragic than him having to watch a childhood friend being eaten by a lion? What if it happens two or three times? The book becomes a sensational highlight reel.
"Sometimes I’d [Eggers] read a human rights report about a certain incident during the civil war, and would ask Val if he knew someone who had experienced that incident, or something like it. Sometimes he did know someone, and we could go from there, but other times I had to imagine it on my own. Some of these scenes were necessary to include, even if Val didn’t have personal experience with them." (see interview)
I think there's a more interesting story about how someone who survives an experience that is clearly traumatic and tragic would have to dress it up to sell it. I'm surprised Eggers wasn't tuned to that frequency. The book sacrifices sincerity for sensationalism. In the end, it encourages us to play imperialist make believe by encouraging us to gawk at tragedy.

*I was moved by the scene with Noriaki Takada's family.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Cool War

My brother proposed a video game in which you play as a mage who works a desk job to pay his mortgage. I added that the purpose of the game should be for the mage to purchase a video game so that they can play as a mage struggling to pay his mortgage within the game. He accused me of not knowing what's cool. What followed was a battle of images where I sought to use my knowledge of cool to attack his stronghold and push him off of cool hill. Little did I know that he was prepared to parry each attack. Who has won the battle of the cool (or are we all losers in this crazy thing called war)?

Round 1
My attack
His parry

Round 2
My attack
His parry

Round 3
My attack
His parry

Round 4
My attack
His parry

Round 5
My attack
His parry

So, who is the king of cool hill?