Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Come to the Basement: How to Thrive as a Pampered Chef Spouse by Jay Christopher

This isn’t even a book. It’s a pamphlet filled with propaganda. I was given it when my wife signed up for The Pampered Chef in 2003 and I’m just getting to read it now. It revealed to me The Big Three duties I had as a Pampered Chef spouse: carry the crates, do the dishes, and watch the children. Yeah, right. And if I’m really good at that my Consultant might put me on her order form so all the other women could order a husband just like me! The thing they don’t tell you about the Pampered Chef is that it’s not about moving product (i.e., sales), it’s about getting other women to sign up to be Consultants under you (i.e., a con). It’s a pyramid scheme and Holy Mother Doris at the top of the pyramid is cashing all the checks. You think you work for yourself? You work for Doris, baby.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams by Joseph J. Ellis

This was a great read, much more like his American Sphinx than that populist tripe Founding Brothers. What I like best, I think, is that it is about what goes on in people’s heads, not about what happened on such and such a date. I wonder if his new one about George Washington is like that? If what goes on between these covers is really what went on between Adams’ ears, then I think in a lot of ways Adams was my kind of guy. He was a consummate arguer, always ready to take the opposite point of view just for the sake of a good argument. He even argued with the books he read, scribbling contrarian notes in the margins till his words almost outnumbered the author’s. In one such example, after listening to an argument on behalf of the divinity of Jesus Christ that concluded with the unknowability of it all, Adams jotted down his own conclusion: “Thus Mystery is made a convenient Cover for absurdity.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting theses of the book is the idea that Adams faded so much from our public consciousness, especially when compared to the near deification of Thomas Jefferson, because his political ideology, so central to an understanding of the forces which built and shaped our nation, in time came to be seen as aristocratic and, frankly, un-American. The American dialogue originally symbolized by Adams and Jefferson was a debate over what kind of nation America would be and what kind of promise it would hold for its citizens. Jefferson’s vision won that argument, and ever since then the American dialogue has no longer been a discussion over what kind of country we will have, it has been an argument over how we will be able to bring that country about. In that debate, it is no longer Adams countering Jefferson and Jefferson countering Adams. In a very real sense, the debate is now between Jefferson and himself.

Today both sides of the political aisle invoke Jefferson’s words to justify and embolden their ideology, a trick they can accomplish both because of Jefferson’s insufferable fuzziness when it comes to political doctrine and because all political parties today are in essence unified by an American catechism dominated by references to “freedom,” “equality,” “democracy,” and “individualism,” words and concepts that come directly from the Jeffersonian tradition. Adams’ catechism is filled with references to “control,” “balance,” “aristocracy,” and “public responsibility,” words and concepts that are not today embraced as truly American ideas. Adams’ whole way of thinking about politics and society resisted the assumption that the individual was the sovereign unit in the social equation. He did not conceive of personal or private happiness as the ultimate goal for government. His ideological orientation was inherently social and collectivistic, driven by the assumption that individual strivings—what Jefferson had immortalized in the phrase “the pursuit of happiness”—must naturally and necessarily be subordinated to public imperatives if the human potential unleashed by the American Revolution were to achieve its fullest realization.

It makes me wonder if there is an explanation in there for my own disillusionment with the political parties of today. I've said before that if I ever joined a political party it would have to be one of my own creation. But after reading Ellis’ opinion that Adams would be troubled by today’s malls, outlet stores, and visible trappings of consumer culture, along with the widespread presumption of unbridled individual freedom, unencumbered by any internalized sense of social responsibility and even justified as a fulfillment of the Revolution he had fought and wrought, I wonder if I’m not in fact an Adamsonian Federalist, a member of a political party and ideology that no longer exists.

Adams believed that untethered individual freedom would inevitably lead to excess, decay and demise, and that the purpose of government was to regulate those forces so that they could flourish without falling in on themselves. America, like all great republics, would eventually fall, a victim of its own excess. There was nothing anyone could do that stop that. Good government, however, could slow the implosion down and delay it for as long as possible. If true, it sure makes it troubling that Adams lost that political argument to Jefferson so many years ago. Because now, instead of arguing over whether we should be one way or the other, we’re arguing about how much one way we should be. If we’re racing towards a cliff, today’s political parties want to either speed up or slow down. No one wants to turn around and go the other way.

Two miscellaneous quotes Ellis attributes to Adams:

During the Reformation the Catholics had the Pope, as well as Kings and emperors, on their side, and those poor Devils the Protestants, they had nothing on their side but God Almighty.

The Man who lives wholly to himself is of less worth than the Cattle in his Barn.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

An audiobook I bought because of a piece on the Santaland Diaries I heard on NPR. That’s one of the short stories in this compilation and probably the only one worth listening to again. It’s a diary the author kept while working as an elf in Santaland at Macy’s Department Store in New York. It is funny.

One busy day there was a long line for the women’s restroom and some lady asked me, “Where’s the line for the women’s restroom?” “Um,” I said, “I think it’s the one with all the women standing in it.” “I’m going to have you fired.” Oh yeah, do me a favor. Who did she think she was? What I wanted to say was, I’m going to have you killed.

Another mom was having trouble controlling her little boy and she said to me, “Mister Elf, tell little Tommy here that if he doesn’t behave Santa’s going to bring him nothing but coal.” “Actually,” I said, “Santa doesn’t deal in coal anymore. If you’re naughty he just comes into your house and takes things. He’s going to steal all your appliances, including your refrigerator, and all your food will go bad and stink up your house.” “Okay,” the mom said, “that’s enough.” “He’s going to take all your lamps and towels and blankets, Tommy, and leave you in the cold and dark with nothing. Boy, let me tell you, when he gets done with you, you’re going to wish you never even heard the name Santa.”

Funny stuff.

Monday, February 7, 2005

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

A friend and I were talking at work one day about religion and he mentioned this book. The next day, viola, it appeared on my desk. It was a decent read for someone like me who isn’t offended by stuff like this, but it must drive the Sean Hannitys of the world nuts.

This Gospel includes all the missing years of Jesus’ life, when he traveled the world looking for the three wise men who attended his birth, fighting demons in Arabia, learning kung fu in China, and rescuing child sacrifices in India. These experiences, along with the salad bar understanding he gains of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, inform and shape his philosophy and eventually lead him back home to bring a new kingdom to the Jews. The story is told by Levi who is known as Biff, who is resurrected 2,000 years later and charged with writing his own Gospel by the angel Raziel. I would have liked to have seen more of the interaction between Biff and Raziel, which was used only as kind of an introduction to some of the early chapters and then pretty much forgotten about until the end. The part of Jesus’ ministry among the Jews also seemed rushed when compared with the pacing in the rest of the book. One thing that is rare, however, is that the book actually made me laugh out loud a few times. Most of the fiction they call funny never really seems that way to me, but this one scored a few times on my laugh meter.

Friday, February 4, 2005

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Another audiobook from the library and a good one. It doesn’t make the ‘must get’ list, but still good and worth listening to. It’s more a collection of short stories than a novel and is, in my opinion, a perfect example of how science fiction, although often set in the future, is usually more about the present than the future.

This book was written in 1950 and you don’t need to look at the dust jacket to figure that out. The male characters are mostly stereotypical dunderheads straight out of the 1950s, the kind to shoot things they don’t understand and call their buddies “Mack” or “Rizzo.” Once guy, Sam Parkhill, opens a hot dog stand on Mars and is convinced he’s going to make a ton of money until a few Martians show up and he winds up killing one. One unstereotypical character is Spender, whom Parkhill in an earlier story hates and wants to shoot in the head, who discovers the lost knowledge and technology of the ancient Martians and decides to protect it by wiping out his human companions on this and all subsequent expeditions to Mars. The description of Spender meeting a Martian and surrendering his gun and clothes to him is quite unique, as it is actually describing the mental transformation that Spender undergoes, seeing himself in the end more as a Martian than an Earthman.

There are other stories direct from the 50s. There’s the hardware store owner who desperately tries to keep all the “niggers” in his town from getting on a rocket and going to Mars because if they go he won’t have them to boss around anymore, and there’s Walter Grip, the last man left on Mars after everyone runs back to Earth to fight a war, who finds himself stuck with the last woman, a fat, candy-sucking puppy of a woman, who springs a wedding dress on him and wants to get married.

But despite all this dated material, the prose is crisp and the themes are universal. Accept that we’re making social commentary from an Eisenhower perspective, and it’s a pretty good read.