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Archive for July, 2010

I was traveling abroad this week. I was at a conference in Jerusalem, which is a place that I’ve spent some significant time earlier in my life, but I had not been there for about 10 years. I know my way around that city as well as any other city in which I’ve ever lived and I speak Hebrew well enough to get around. and while now there are roads and tunnels and buildings that weren’t there when I was last there, and there’s a cement wall snaking it’s way across the eastern horizon, the basic landmarks of the city that I know remain, mostly, in place.

But I don’t really feel “at home” here, and I found myself pawing through my bag at various points, in search of my iPod. I wasnt trying to block out the Language or the ubiquitous sounds of construction that comprise the crowded city’s soundtrack. I was trying to find my own aural bearings, and they – for better and for worse – live in the little iPod that lives in my iphone. And this week, “home” came in the sounds of the Modern Lovers, Aimee Mann, and the Clash, whose songs helped me hear my way through this city.

I realize that I’m not the first to comment on the confluence of travel and mobile music, but for the first time, I think, the precise irony of this situation weighed upon me: I am more at home i my ears, and in songs that I have not known for all that long, than I am in a city in which I’ve lived.

I can’t tell if this is a sign of the apocalypse, or if I should just settle in to the unsettling intersection of technology, place, and identity. But while it’s not quite dancing about architecture, wandering around jerusalem this time is closest I’ve ever come to doing so.

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(photo: Modesto Bee)


FAMOUS QUOTE

Double Rainbow Guy:

“Whoa, that’s a full rainbow.  All the way.  Double Rainbow.  All the way.  It’s a double rainbow all the way.  Whoa.  So intense.  Whoa.  Man.  Whoa.  Whoa.  Whoa!!! My God!!!  Oh my God!  Oh my God!  Woooo!  Oh Wow!  Woooo!  Yeah!!!  Oh my, oh my, oh my God look at that.  It’s starting to look like a triple rainbow.  Oh my God.  It’s full.  Double rainbow all the way across the sky.  Oh my God.  (audible sobs).  Oh God.  What does this mean?  Oh my God.  It’s so bright.  Oh my God it’s so bright and vivid.  Oh.  Oh.  Oh.  It’s so beautiful.  (audible sobs).  Oh my God.  Oh my God.  Oh my God.  Double complete rainbow.  Right in my front yard.  Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!!!  Oh my God.  What does this mean?  Tell me!  It’s too much.  I don’t know what it means.  Oh my God.  It’s so intense.  (big sigh).  Oh my God.”

–3-minute YouTube video, recorded January 2010

Henry David Thoreau:

“I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me.  I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one… but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them.  What is this Titan that has possession of me?  Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come into contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!  The solid earth!  The actual world!  The common sense!  Contact!  Contact!  Who are we?  Where are we?”

–“Ktaadn and the Maine Woods,” 1848, from The Maine Woods

VITAL STATISTICS

DRG: Organic farmer; divorced; two children; currently has girlfriend; 265 pounds (was 465)

HDT: Transcendentalist; proposed marriage to Ellen Sewall in 1840 but was rejected; never dated again; generally considered homely

FORMER CAREER

DRG: Cagefighter, dog breeder, firefighter, long-haul truck driver

HDT: Schoolteacher, pencil manufacturer

NICKNAMES

DRG: Born Paul Vasquez, known as Hungry Bear and Yosemite Bear

HDT: Born David Henry Thoreau; went by Henry David after college

CULTURAL INFLUENCES

DRG: Participates in Native American ceremonies

HDT: Read East Asian philosophy

FACIAL HAIR?

DRG: Yes

HDT: For many years; thought women found it attractive

PRIMARY GEOGRAPHIC LOCATION

DRG: Yosemite National Park

HDT: New England

UNDER THE INFLUENCE?

DRG: For this video, no, but admittedly yes for others he has posted

HDT: “I would fain keep sober always… who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes?”

FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES

DRG: Jimmy Kimmel

HDT: Ralph Waldo Emerson

MEANS OF SELF-REFLECTION

DRG: 250 videos uploaded to YouTube documenting his experiences near Yosemite

HDT: 40 journals covering twenty-four years of his life, running nearly two million words

POPULARITY

DRG: Over 3 million views on YouTube

HDT: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849): 100 sold, 75 given away; Walden (1854): 2,000 copies sold over the course of five years; The Maine Woods (1864), published posthumously

FAMOUS MORAL STANCE

DRG: Purist who will not accept ad revenue for YouTube video: “I’m not opposed to making money, I just don’t want to degrade it or disrespect it.”

HDT: Abolitionist who would not pay poll tax.  Did not recognize authority of a government “which buys and sells, men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house.”

ON WHY HE HAS SUBLIME EXPERIENCES

DRG: “It’s not about me.  I’ve always told people that the universe flows through me.  I’m just a vessel.”

HDT: “Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they.”

LEGACY

DRG: Has spawned numerous mash-ups on YouTube, including “The Autotune Double Rainbow Song” and “Double Rainbow Connection Remix” featuring Kermit the Frog

HDT: His writings influenced Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, B.F. Skinner, Willa Cather, Edward Abbey, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many others.

Happy Birthday, David Henry, born July 12, 1817.

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I’ve watched far more soccer this summer than ever before, and have been fascinated, as a sports fan, by the game, for its elegance, its awkwardness, its futility and beauty and drama. As a cultural observer, I have marveled at the torrent of commentary generated by this global spectacle, and especially—here comes the American studies—commentary about the place of soccer in the United States, and the United States in soccer. Here’s my small contribution to the conversation.

I’ll start with the simple observation that soccer is a perfectly good term for this global sport. I have noticed a trend among sophisticates to call the game football, as nearly all the rest of the world does. I find this silly. There is nothing wrong with a mild case of American linguistic exceptionalism in this matter. After all, language is one of the most parochial of human activities, as even a global tongue like English enjoys endless local variations. And who wants a bland, globalized, and homogenized language anyway? Not me. In this instance, our local terminology is actually more cosmopolitan than one might imagine, since, as Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker points out this week, the word “soccer” is in fact a mid-nineteenth century nickname for the game, coined with upper-class cheekiness at Cambridge and Oxford. In England. This irony has apparently escaped the cultured Anglophiles in the US who call soccer “football” and, even worse, call football “American football.” I see no need to be ashamed of our language—it’s as good as any other, and it’s ours.

Watching the World Cup, then, has led me to a renewed appreciation for American linguistic nationalism, and my second soccer-inspired observation regards the many virtues of nationalism more generally. The event, even more than the Olympics, rests fundamentally on its invocation of primal nationalistic passions (our TV-generated Olympics narratives focus so much more on individuals than on nations, expect in the superfluous medal counts). And I have come to see this quadrennial exercise in national pride as worthwhile in the main. Certainly nationalism has its vicious sides, in xenophobia and violence; we know that story well. But the nationalism of the World Cup inspires a pride in community rather than in race or tribe. Most of the powerful teams are multi-ethnic and multi-racial, and yet fans powerfully identity with their team and its players all the same.

We in the US have long suffered from a dearth of national pride, as fractured as we have been by race and region, and real good can come from identification with the nation. For all the darkness of twentieth-century European nationalism, it allowed for the development of robust social democracies because of the sense of the nation as a real “we.” We need various forms of “we”—from family to neighborhood to city, state, and nation—in order to develop the bonds that inspire self-sacrifice and mutual care. The racism that inflects many forms of anti-government rhetoric in the US is rooted in a version of “we” that regards fellow citizens as “them” and recoils from contributing to “their” stake in the common welfare. If soccer can help us see ourselves as Americans (or Germans or Ghanaians or Brazilians), and therefore as part of an extended family, that seems healthy to me. So I say let’s have more flag waving, by Americans liberal and conservative, black and white, Northern and Southern, religious and secular. War, of course, serves the same purpose, and many of the great social reforms in history have come after the trauma of war, such as the building of the European welfare states after World War II. I prefer soccer to war.

Finally, we hear every four years that Americans don’t really love soccer the way the rest of the world does, and I have come to regard this as both false and pernicious. Some, like Glenn Beck, respond to this with jingoistic pride (“I hate it so much, probably because the rest of the world likes it so much”) while others react with a world-weary resignation, as if our purported lack of interest in the world’s game were akin to our shamefully high rates of incarceration or infant mortality. Depending on one’s temperament and politics, it seems, our moderation in all things soccer becomes a chance to proclaim either a mean-spirited superiority or a sniveling inferiority.  In this back-and-forth we hear echoes of the debate on immigration, since immigrant communities in the United States, especially those from Africa and Latin America, bring with them a natal passion for the game, and this passion symbolizes wider cultural changes that frighten reactionaries like Beck.

Yet the strange truth is that our current national non-passion for soccer is precisely what makes us un-exceptional. Sure, vast numbers of non-immigrant Americans like the game—millions and millions play soccer, and the World Cup this year received very solid TV ratings. If my Facebook is any indication, lots of us are paying attention. We just don’t suffer the way Europeans and Latin Americans do. Instead, we care with roughly the same harmlessness as do fans in India, China, Russia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Japan and the rest of the majority of humanity.  When it comes to soccer, apparently, we are stuck in the cultural sensibilities of the nineteenth century, measuring ourselves against our betters in Europe and our neighbors in the New World. We need to stand up and realize this is the twenty-first century, the century of India and China, where Americans can continue enjoying the game of soccer, as I and millions of others have this summer, with a guilt-free indifference. Our moderation may not make sense to Italians or Brits or Argentines, but their ferocity is the exception, and our pleasant amusement the rule.

After all this, Spain won. I would have preferred the Dutch, but no matter. It was fun, even for nearly two goalless hours. Now back to baseball!

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In his essay, “The End of Solitude,” recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, William Deresiewicz argues that we are undergoing a historical shift in the social significance of solitude.  Once viewed as a necessary means to better connect with God, or with Nature, or with the fraught Self, solitude has now become synonymous with loneliness in our contemporary culture.  Deresiewicz makes the case that those of the web generation, particularly young people today, are increasingly unable to be alone without the fear of feeling lonely or, perhaps worse, feeling bored.  Technology has weakened our concentration, our privacy, and most significantly, our propensity for solitude.  According to Deresiewicz, our sense of self today is enhanced not by solitary communion but by communal validation: our worth is measured by numbers of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, our identity is only reaffirmed by constant public visibility and validation by others.

Agree or disagree with Deresiewicz, his argument is undeniably provocative, as it forces us to at least contemplate—either alone or in the company of others—the role of solitude in our own lives.  His essay certainly got me thinking about solitude.  Solitude is something I have always valued.  I have always made a space for solitude in my life.  But why?  Where did I learn to value solitude?  Books played a role, this much I know.  Books I read when I was younger modeled the idea of standing alone without being lonely.  From books I learned not to fear solitude.  From books I learned the difference between loneliness and solitude.  And the first book to teach me this was a novel published in 1959 called My Side of the Mountain, by Jean George.

George’s book tells the tale of a teenage boy who leaves home in New York City to live in his family’s abandoned old farmland in the Catskills.  At the book’s outset, Sam Gribley tells his father he is running away to live in the woods, and his father casually replies, “Sure, go try it.  Every boy should try it” (probably not something parents would say in 2010, but this was the fifties).  He leaves with only a penknife, a ball of cord, an ax, a flint and steel, and $40.  After hitching rides and arriving in the Catskills, Sam finds an isolated part of a mountain where he hollows out a tree and calls it his new home.  During the year he spends in the woods, Sam learns how to hunt, fish, whittle, and collect berries and food.  Some of these skills he learns on his own, some with the help of books he reads at the closest library he occasionally wanders into town to visit.  George’s book includes illustrations teaching the reader such things as how to build shelters, make willow flutes, set snares, and identify wild onions.

Reading this book as a—what, ten or eleven-year-old?—I was entranced.  Sam was not scared, not lonely, not in danger.  He was communing with animals, with the changing seasons, with the challenging weather, with the complex relationships he observed all around him in nature.  During the course of his self-imposed walkabout, Sam embraced solitude as both a rite of passage and an antidote to city life.

My Side of the Mountain both romanticized and validated solitude for me.  Its lingering impression was reinforced by other books I read as I grew older.  Thoreau’s On Walden Pond.  Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays.  Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. These were my literary models of solitude, models that showed me what solitude looked like, showed me what it could produce, showed me why it was important.  And there were others: Barry Lopez’s reflections on the revitalizing power of being alone in the wilderness in Crossing Open Ground.  Elise Boulding’s beautiful essay on the importance of solitude in the life of a child from her book One Small Plot of Heaven.  Annie Dillard’s solitary meditations on God and Nature in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  Diana Michener’s “Catching the Sun,” a refreshingly honest essay on the complicated relationship between work, art, solitude, and the self.  And Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s teeming, breathing, vibrant love letter to America that was, to me, so clearly the product of his own solitary reflection.

At the same time, literature contrasted these images of solitude with images of loneliness, helping me understand the difference between the two.  There was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, drinking sloe gin fizz and listening to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” in his underground hole, isolated and terribly lonely.  In John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, there was Dr. Wilbur Larch, ether addict and secret abortionist, inhaling the anesthetic at the end of the day in his office, revisiting past anguish, doing good works in his orphanage yet so heartbreakingly alone.  In novels by J.M. Coetzee and Milan Kundera and Philip Roth, I found protagonists who claimed to be living voluntarily in solitude, but their loneliness was always palpable to me.  Reading James Dickey’s poem, “Hospital Window,” with its image of a dying father waving back to his departing son, I was haunted not by the depiction of the old man strangely grinning from his window, but by the looming loneliness trailing his grown child in the street below.

If we have indeed lost sight of the importance of solitude today, perhaps literature can remind us why we must make space for it.  If we have come to conflate solitude with loneliness, then perhaps literature can clarify the difference for us.  Deresiewicz concludes his essay by asserting, “Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.” For me, books have always suggested ways to stand alone without being lonely.  Deresiewicz’s essay prompted me to reflect on this truth, in solitude.

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