Tuesday, April 27, 2010

An Epistolary Essay



Dear Readers:

I'm crafting this post as a letter in order to keep up with the format of the two pieces I'll be discussing and citing. While this does function as one of my standard review/response pieces, I'll be sharing some of my personal beliefs, ranging from the religious to the political. I do my best to keep Chicago Ex-Patriate away from strictly opinionated tones, but the nature of this piece requires some personal statements. In the past month, a lot of media attention was devoted to the Texas Board of Education's revisions to textbook content, with a majority vote calling for a more Christian and conservative point of view of history. If my recent readings are still correct, the final approval will be ratified in May. Dr. Don McLeroy, the conservative leader of the Texas school board, was the face of this controversy, and his re-appointment was recently voted down by the Texas State Senate. However, the uproar over the curriculum dominated the news, in both liberal and conservative mediums. The separation of church and state (Dr. McLeroy is a Creationist Christian) seems to be continually undermined, and led to my reading of the 2006 work Letter To a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris.

Harris poses his work in the literal sense, crafting a slim letter aimed at Christians in the United States (and, by extension, any religious fundamentalists). Personally, I'm an atheist, and having recently finished Harris' work, I've completed the "big three" of atheist bestsellers, including Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great. I've never been ashamed of my beliefs, but I've also never been one to trumpet them avidly; a self-righteous non-believer can be just as insufferable as a self-righteous religious person. Letter To a Christian Nation reads like an edited version of The God Delusion, both in size and vitriol. Harris doesn't sugarcoat any of his assertions, but compared to Hitchens, he's a lot more tactful. For the purposes of this essay, I'm focusing on select passages, ones that reiterate the intermingling between church and state.

"The Ten Commandments are also worthy of some reflection in this context, as most Americans seem to think them both morally and legally indispensable. While the U.S. Constitution does not contain a single mention of God, and was widely decried at the time of its composition as an irreligious document, many Christians believe that our nation was founded on 'Judeo-Christian principles.' Strangely, the Ten Commandments are often cited as incontestable proof of this fact (Harris 19)."

Christians are a majority in this country, and President Obama's mention of "non-believers" in his Inaugural Address would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. I have no problem with people using religion personally, for personal guidance or stability. But when it becomes a supplement for public policy, medicine, and science, then it becomes problematic. The Bible was a text written by men, and has had amazing influence on the history of literature. This has been said thousands of times in much more expanded manners than this, but it's not an infallable text. Morality, goodness, and respect are inborn traits, just like hatred, evil, and disrespect.

"While we do not have anything like a final, scientific understanding of human morality, it seems safe to say that raping and killing our neighbors is not one of its primary constituents. Everything about human experience suggests that love is more conducive to happiness than hate is. This is an objective claim about the human mind, about the dynamics of social relations, and about the moral order of our world. It is clearly possible to say that someone like Hitler was wrong in moral terms without reference to scripture (Harris 24)."

Letter To a Christian Nation is timely in regards to the Texas debacle, but a recent article, from an unlikely source and author, works as a terrific companion to Harris' work. In the May 2010 issue of GQ, editor-in-chief Jim Nelson devotes his monthly letter to Dr. McLeroy and the Texas school board. Before I continue, I want to stress that I'm not assuming that Harris and Nelson share the same beliefs down the line. Nelson heavily advocates the separation of church and state and critiques McLeroy's creationist views. However, in his letter, he makes no assertions that he's an atheist. I'm linking the two writers on the basis of subject, not on the basis of personal beliefs.

(Jim Nelson, GQ Editor)

"Last year, [McLeroy] tried to get his creationist theories put into science books, based on his firm belief that God created the earth in six days, not that long ago--somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 B.R. (Before Reagan). You can argue with this guy if you want, but you will be on the wrong side of history. He'll make sure of that.
So what's American history gonna look like? Whatever Dr. McLeroy and his devout following think it should look like. Which is to say, very Christian. In an interview with the Times, McLeroy summed up his view of history this way: 'There are two basic facts about man. He was created in the image of God, and he's fallen.'
Any questions (Nelson)?"

The difference between Harris and Nelson is obviously the tone--Nelson gets his points across directly and eloquently, but dashed with humor. These are serious issues--the Christian right believes that ancient doctrines are facts--, but like a lot of somber events in this country, sometimes it helps to sit back and laugh at the incredulous happens, even if the Texas school board's rulings will branch out to textbooks across the country (the state, being the largest buyer of schoolbooks, has the strongest say in what (and how) information is presented).

"And poor Jefferson? The school board doesn't much like him. He loved his country, but apparently he didn't love God enough. Old Commie Jefferson got written out of study of the great Enlightenment philosophers, because, well, he argued for the separation of church and state, and according to the new dental view of history, that wasn't very American of him (Nelson)."

Another angle is that the debate is an insult to intelligence as well as secularism. Scienctific discoveries are still being questioned in the face of religious dogma. Throughout history, science has had its share of missteps (phrenology, scientists associated with Big Tobacco), but to disclaim evolution and world history, and by extension using the same principles as the foundation for education, is as big a travesty. During the 2008 Presidential race, John McCain was criticized for stating that the United States is a Christian nation. Sadly, he was right. Religion and science aside, it's still shocking that intellectualism is often viewed as a problem instead of a solution. I'll close with Nelson's closing statement, which sums up an opinion that should be the norm in the United States, but will probably never be in some areas.

"No thanks. I'll stick with the eggheads and Enlighteners of the world. In fact, I wish they'd get more riled up--that the smarty-pants and Darwinian geeks and wise separators of church and state would rise up in Texas and take control of history. Jam it down their throats!"

Works Cited:

Harris, Sam. Letter To a Christian Nation. Copyright 2008 by Sam Harris.

Nelson, Jim. "No President Left Behind." GQ Magazine. May 2010.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Musical Feast



The April release of Feast Of the Hunter's Moon, from the Portland band Black Prairie, has been getting curiously little fanfare as of late, and I mean this in terms of review quantities, rather than qualities. I bought the album on its release day without any hesitation, since it includes three members of The Decemberists: Jenny Conlee, Nate Query, and Chris Funk. Before even getting into the music itself, the album represents a lot of positives in music and artistry, even if this initial assumption is done superficially. Three member of a major label (Capitol) band have, for creative purposes, created a work for a smaller label (Sugar Hill--not that small, but when compared to Capitol, the designation is apt). These musicians have employed the help of a gifted Portland violinist (Annalisa Tornfelt) and Jon Neufeld. The final result is a compelling mash of folk, Americana, and bluegrass acoustics, yet another highlight of the brilliance of the Pacific Northwest's music scene, and a curious hint to what these people have done in the past.

"Across the Black Prairie" is a beautiful opening track, immediately leading the listener into the overall vibe of the album. It's four minutes of accordion and violin heavy jaunt, starting off eerily quiet before rising into an almost calming (yet vibrant) melody that would be at home on any Americana mix or soundtrack to American roots music. This leads into "Red Rocking Chair," a more somber piece featuring minimal vocals, which almost work as a distraction. The vocals are shadowy and beautiful, but for a primarily acoustic album, the attention is taken away from the instrumentals. But after this, we're treated to more classic-sounding riffs, a rollicking string-themed "Back Alley," which serves as an emotional pick-me-up following the darker preceding track.



The previous mention of "soundtrack" becomes much more prevalent beginning with "Ostinato Del Caminto." The middle tracks of the album, at least to me, almost work perfectly as an homage to silent-film scores. Instead of singular tracks working as complete emotive pieces, the middle of Feast Of the Hunter's Moon combines highs and lows together, and can be easily imagined as compliments to suspenseful, climatic film scenes. The founding members of The Decemberists actually did score films in Portland prior to their band work, and while Black Prairie is a completely original outfit, separate from Colin Meloy's project, these influences are hard to miss.

The vocals on "Crooked Little Heart" work much better than the one's on the album's beginning, showing the multi-instrumental talents of Tornfelt. Conlee provides her own soft backing vocals, and the effect is extremely beautiful. I've been awfully harsh on Conlee's vocals on certain Decemberists tracks, and I've been quick to balance these critiques with intense praise for her musical talents, since her vocal contributions have been minimal. Tornfelt has her own weaknesses as a vocalist, so this album won't serve as any major debut or discovery; however, she holds her own extremely well, and reminds me of an early Decemberists contributor, Petra Haden. She's at her best when playing the violin, but when the vocals are needed, the effect is extremely pleasant.

Nate Query and Chris Funk have performed admirably in The Decemberists, but Feast Of the Hunter's Moon and the Black Prairie outfit give them a much deserved spotlight. These men are terrifically skilled, and have added amazing touches to Meloy's lyrical storytelling. However, this new album is a new avenue for them, showing that they're capable of holding their own as the leaders. In reading the intial reviews of this album, the formation of Black Prairie was done because some of their songs worked better when separated from the usual Decemberists canon. However, I often wonder what playing with Colin Meloy is like for his supporting musicians. Side groups, collaborations, and solo projects have produced some phenomenal albums this century (Autumn Defense and the Postal Service's Give Up are two examples), but on the other side, some of today's greatest artists are notoriously difficult to work with at times. Meloy usually isn't included with the likes of Jeff Tweedy, but there's never been any denying that he's the main face of the Decemberists.

Overall, Feast Of the Hunter's Moon is a worthy addition to the recent surge in alternative/contemporary folk and bluegrass music. The album is a seamless combination of classic influences and modern, creative touches. I found it odd that NPR hailed the work as "a sound which defies any kind of genre characterization." While it's not a work that can be pigeon-holed, the genres are generally explicit, but elevated by the modern touches. However, the songs are terrific, and a little hyperbole from a respected media source can be forgiven because of the beautiful music.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Answers In Questions



I first read a review of Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood a few months ago, and, while said review was very favorable, my initial reaction to the idea of the novel was skeptical. No essay, analysis, or standard review can begin without acknowledging the format--it's a novel composed entirely of questions, whether compact or of a run-on variety. I would guess that part of my wariness (and admitting this shows that the true fault lies with me, not the author) was my unfamiliarity with Powell as an author. Had one of my favorite, more familiar writers attempted such a piece, I might have been more immediately drawn to the notion. One of literature's greatest feats, dating back centuries, is the attempt to break free from standard molds. This can take many forms, from surrealism (William S. Burrough's Naked Lunch) to complete reworkings of language (Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange). Other attempts, while exceedingly difficult, can sometimes come across as gimmicks as opposed to literature at its core. Lipograms are more rare examples. As a child, I clearly remember one of my fact books including a passage on Gadsby, a work written entirely without the letter 'e.' Other examples are plentiful, but I've found that some of the most radical changes in format can be surprisingly fluid, and can house stunning writing. Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler is one of my favorite examples; and now, The Interrogative Mood has placed itself in that company.

"Can you cook? Can you fight? Can you lie? Can you do anything well? Have you acquired a sufficient stock of clothes from a mail-order seller that you can, if you want to, flip through the catalog to decide what to wear that day? Do you know a peony from a petunia? What exactly does 'Standard & Poor' mean to you? Can you hang ten? Do you dance? Do you view extreme sports as legitimate enterprises or are they just imprudent fucking around until you get hurt (Powell 108-109)?"

This is a random selection of the text, and is a great introduction to the mood and evocations of the writing style. The idea of randomness is, at first glance, the second major theme after the formatting. Powell's questions span almost every area of interrogation imaginable: curious musings, moral tests, private sexual wonderment, theological pondering, everyday "whys?", and sometimes hilarious "what ifs?" It's a very quick read, but a lot of the passages prove difficult in that it's hard to not stop and actually question yourself on some of the heavier queries. The full title of the book is The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, which works as an excellent double definition. One, it acknowledges the style immediately, but also hints at the potential criticisms that it's not a "novel" in the strictest sense, if a reader must abide by the standard elements of plot, characters, and climaxes. With this idea in mind, Powell carefully repeats some of the questions in random sections of the novel, and occasionally acknowledges this literally:

"If everybody is back now, may I ask if your predilection to order chocolate or vanilla over time has changed or have you remained more or less constant? Would you rather be in the hospital or in jail? Why do Americans use the article before hospital and not before jail? Would you rather be in hospital or in the jail? What is the best meal you have ever had (and forgive me if I have asked this before; if I have, do not feel compelled to give me the same answer) (75-76)?"

But in a few of the passages, themes are repeated without explicit reminders, thus adding a novelistic feel to a work that a lot of people might classify as just a philosophical experiment. Powell asks a few questions regarding firearms, creating hints of violence, and therefore an object that, in a "standard" novel, would have plentiful meanings. The old theatrical/cinematic notion of "if you show a gun in the first act, it must be fired by the third" comes to mind, even if the weapon isn't mentioned in a usual sense. As varied as the text is, Powell chooses his words very carefully, so there are meanings in even the most casual questions.

"Is your appreciation of a good material thing--let us say that pearl-handed revolver there--influenced by having worked hard to get it, or are you as likely to value a good thing having come by it easily (5)?"

There is also a constant mention of blue jays, creatures that, if they appeared more than once in another text, would be begging for further analysis. Powell is making the reader think in terms of standard literary criticism, even in the face of a non-standard text. This is an almost scientific proof that The Interrogative Mood is truly a novel in the classic sense, a juxtaposition of two warring styles blending seamlessly together. In the below passage, the blue jay is mentioned before jumping into an entirely different set of questions.

"Do you know that since I last asked you about the disappearance of the blue jay--I meant to, if I did not--that I have found one blue jay feather under my house? Would a complete familiarization with the military campaigns of Napoleon provide the modern-day general with much of value, or little of value, or a medium quantity of value in terms of what is called the necessary skill set for a general today (110)?"

I'm sure that, with more readings of the text, I could find some critiques to make of the novel, but going on my single reading, it's hard to find fault in a work that does exactly what it sets out to do--Powell asks questions, hundreds of them, each one resulting in at least a moment of reflection. In my introduction above, I use the word radical, and that may be a slight stretch in describing The Interrogative Mood. Once one gets over the quiet understanding of the format, the text moves fluidly from one idea to the next, and upon later reflection, it stands as a great example of what Calvino championed during his life: the idea that a novel can evolve and still adhere to literary principles. Powell works in vastly differing subjects, but creates a volume that challenges, reflects, educates, and moves, and uses language in carefully constructed ways. Simply put, those are elements of consistently successful fiction.

Work Cited:
Powell, Padgett. The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? Copyright 2009 by Padgett Powell.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Star and Strikes



The fact that I was going to write a piece to coincide with the start of the 2010 Major League Baseball season has been a given since the close of the 2009 season. However, the topic itself has gone through a few changes in the past month. At first, I was going to go the usual route with a light preview of the upcoming season (much like when I picked the Kansas City Royals to compete for the American League Wild Card. Ouch.) After I scratched that idea, I was pretty set on writing Chicago-only previews for the Cubs and White Sox, partly as a homage to the title of this blog, despite the fact that the title arose as a tribute itself to my home city when I lived in Seattle. Now, the piece you're reading concerns a player on a team, the Washington Nationals, that's almost guaranteed to finish in last place, even among the not-so-vocal fans of the D.C. region. The player, right-handed pitcher Stephen Strasburg, isn't even on the Opening Day roster, and was largely unknown outside of baseball circles a year ago. A few nights ago, his story and hype popped into my head, and the postives and negatives of his emergence seem to be struggling for dominance.

At first glance, the onslaught of attention for Strasburg is great for the game. As the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, he was heralded as one of the best college pitchers to ever emerge, receiving attention usually reserved for college football or basketball picks. He was undrafted out of high school, but dominated as a pitcher for San Diego State, registering an astonishing 1.57 ERA during his 2008 season. His draft position made headlines on ESPN and dominated the sports journalism world, a tremendous feat considering that critics claim that baseball keeps losing ground to the popularity of basketball and football, and even in the face of a rapidly advancing technological world (this was the theme of a recent column by Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times). As is the case with a lot of baseball (or football, for that matter) draft picks, he held out after being drafted by the Nationals, signing almost literally at the last minute for a record four-year, $15.1 million dollar contract. But this is just a business aspect, right? Possibly, but this also drew headlines because Strasburg is represented by agent Scott Boras.

One of the chic things to do in baseball is to bemoan the effects of the "superagents," the people behind the scenes that negotiate the mega-million dollar contracts for elite Major League players. However, this bemoaning goes far beyond the chatter heard in pregame discussions over beer. It can be easy to complain about the lucrative contracts, especially in an age when most people are struggling. However, the problem with agents like Boras is the air of "making sure said player is paid what he is worth," when it's obvious that the bigger the contract, the bigger the cut for Boras, et. al. I'll get to the Boras effect later; let's start with the immediate possibilities.



Strasburg is starting the 2010 season in the minor leagues to get some more low-pressure experience under his belt, despite the assumption among scouts and fans that he's ready for Major League action. Depending on who's asked, he'll be called up in June or July, but in reality, if the Nationals struggle early (as they almost definitely will), he could be with the team by early May. When this happens, it will be a major event, the game will likely be televised nationally, and this is good for baseball in Washington. They relocated from Montreal thanks to an indifferent fan base, and while the D.C. area has somewhat embraced them, the novelty has worn off. Their best pitcher is left-hander John Lannan, who would likely be a middle rotation player for a contending team. Their best position players are Adam Dunn (great power, but seriously prone to striking out), and Ryan Zimmerman. After that, the team is a collection of young, unproven players and veterans past their primes. While this could make for a great movie script, the reality is that the Nationals don't look like contenders this year or next year. How will that effect the most heralded pitcher in Washington, D.C. since (and this is no embellishment) Walter Johnson?

The pressure will be great, but exciting. If Strasburg struggles (but stays healthy), the hype will die down, and he'll work towards a stronger full season in 2011. But let's assume that he dominates immediately, going, for argument's sake, 10-2 with a 2.90 ERA. Given his already famous stature, and assuming that he keeps up his performances, he'll be one of the most feared pitchers in baseball. However, as is the beauty of baseball, he's only one man, and as brilliant as he can be, he can't carry the entire team (look at his division rival, Roy Halladay--he dominated the American League but never made the playoffs with the Toronto Blue Jays). The Nationals' farm system isn't the greatest, and unlike the Cleveland Cavaliers and Lebron James in the NBA, the organization doesn't have the resources to sign free agents to compliment their star (assuming Strasburg is as consistent as advertised when he's finally called up). His contract will be up in 2013. And this is where Boras could factor in negatively.

Unless they become playoff contenders in the next few years, it would be hard to imagine Strasburg staying in the D.C. area, playing for a mid-market team. A year or two before the end of his contract, the media would begin to whisper about his potential signing with another team--and being that his agent would demand a large contract, the list of potential teams would be whittled down to the usual suspects: the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and the New York Mets. This is the business of baseball, as negative as it is at times. But the reality is always there, and that was out in the open last night as I watched the opening game between the Yankees and Red Sox. One of the announcers casually mentioned Boston's Adrian Beltre signing a 1-year contract, with the hopes of putting up big numbers and demanding a longer, more lucrative deal after the season. Beltre's agent? Scott Boras.

But with the new season beginning, there's always optimism. The atmosphere of this post may be negative, but the fact that Strasburg has created so much press as someone who hasn't thrown a single Major League pitch is good for baseball, showing that young players can create excitement, even for struggling teams. However, Strasburg should do his best to avoid the hype and focus on improving himself, whether that be in his early start in the minors, or during his starts when he's called up to the parent club. I've never been one for sports cliches, and as I've mentioned numerous times, baseball seems to received the bulk of grand pronouncements. But then again, as a baseball fan, it's hard not to get caught up in the adrenaline rush of a new season. Players like Strasburg should revel in the clean slate, and in reality, baseball is enjoying increasing popularity, even, as Morrissey states, in our fast-paced era. But nothing is guaranteed. Strasburg has to perform, and hopefully, he'll become an adopted son of the region, much like catcher Joe Mauer, the first overall pick of the Minnesota Twins in 2001, and the current American League MVP.

But, to reiterate an important point, nothing is guaranteed. Just ask David Clyde or Kris Benson.