Thursday, November 24, 2011

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On Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving, which means that in between the Macy's parade and the football and the turkey dinners, there will be a fair amount of talk about supporting our troops and thanking them for their service.

But since platitudes and yellow ribbons don't really mean anything, probably least of all to the troops, consider a harder truth: on November 22nd, the Department of Defense reported that the numbers of Americans killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to date totaled 4,984. This figure went almost entirely unnoticed.

Less importantly, but still troubling, a Brown University study released last summer concluded that the wars have cost American taxpayers around $4 trillion.

I point these things out not to be an annoying gadfly, willfully provocative on this day of gratitude, but rather because it is important to remember that American policy bears costs; that we have been at war for a decade; that we have spent that decade evading our responsibility to think about those wars by wearing flag pins and singing "God Bless America" at baseball games and producing feel-good beer commercials; that I am not sure what good it would do us as a nation to think about the costs of war; that I am sure thinking about them is preferable to ignoring them; that young men my age and below have been dying in anonymity for more than ten years; that I had little say in this fact, yet am somehow complicit in it; and that as a citizen, the least I can do is think about why this has happened and whether it has been worth it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

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Sing to me Muse, of Boredom




The Iliad was one of the first texts I was made to read in college, and it seemed a propitious assignment. Four autumns earlier, I'd begun high school with The Odyssey, and had loved it. As the leaves turned outside classroom M101's windows, I followed the shallow track of my expectations, deepening the footprints in the snow left mostly by the old PBS show Wishbone. Thanks to the greatest literary dog to ever grace children's television, I knew the broad outlines of Odysseus's trek, but not the particulars. With joy, I corrected my assumptions, deepened my understandings, and sat forward in my desk each day to hear my teacher nudge our class towards some kind of wisdom. As a group, our previous literary education consisted mostly of the kind found in Catholic grade schools, where words like "interpretation" never appear; and so, to have an adult male stand in front of us and offer up Homer's poem as one of the good things in life, ripe with scenes of food and drink and community and yes—we could hardly believe it—sex, was to begin to see how one might live one's life by books, much as sailors once lived theirs by stars.

The next four years consisted in large part of that realization's unfolding, and so as I began the next phase in my education, I took Homer's reappearance as a sign of riches to come. I was quickly disappointed. For one thing, I expected my reading of The Iliad, like my journey through The Odyssey, to be guided by the pleasant recognition of famous characters and events. In The Odyssey, these had included the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, Penelope's tapestry, the slaying of the suitors. No such luck with The Iliad: Achilles and Agamemnon were there, as expected, but there was no Trojan Horse, no arrow in Achilles' heel, no Cassandra wandering through the pillaged Troy.

But more simply—and, to my mind, more unnervingly—I found The Iliad boring. Friends in my dorm would ask me, the English major, why they should bother to read the long catalog of ships that comprises the work's second book? I was at a loss to respond. Same for the endless descriptions of man-to-man duels, which proceeded with the wearying grisliness of a Call of Duty video game; same for the gods' oscillating opinions. With a few exceptions—the description of Achilles' shield in book 18, for instance—my experience of reading The Iliad was of wanting to enjoy it, of feeling deeply that I ought to enjoy it, and simply being unable to do so. In this way, The Iliad did indeed turn out to be a portent of the way college would proceed.

After carrying around this opinion of The Iliad for three years, I found it shaken by an appreciation of the poem in the November 7th New Yorker by the Bard classicist Daniel Mendelsohn. For Mendelsohn, there is nothing boring about the poem. The catalog of ships, for instance, "is a prodigious history lesson" and "must have been an astonishing tour de force" when performed aloud. The poem's narrow focus allows it "to suggest the whole range of human action and emotion—of an existence that, unlike that of the gods, has meaning precisely because we, like Achilles, know it will end." Referring to a new translation of the poem, Mendelsohn writes, "The Iliad doesn't need to be modernized, because the question it raises is a modern—indeed, existentialist—one: how do we fill our short lives with meaning?"

Mendelsohn's appreciation for the poem is deep and admirable; his piece made me eager to pull The Iliad from the shelf and wade into the fray anew. But I then realized that over the last few years, I've done just that: on odd summer weekends, during Christmas vacations, I've paged through the poem in search of the engagement that eluded me the first time. I've largely failed to find it, and my old dormmates' questions come flowing back. Mendelsohn's piece, for instance, concludes by arguing that The Iliad's relevance is eternal, because so is mankind's predilection for warfare. Do I really need to slog through the warriors' proclamations of lineage, the catalogs of the ways you can fillet a man with a spear, the comparisons of colliding armies and restless seas, to know that human beings are fond of war?

The answer to this question would appear to be no; this same answer would seem to challenge one of the main reasons I read. I don't need to read The Odyssey to fully appreciate what it is to have a home, or The Corrections to better understand being part of a family, or Moby-Dick to uncover an essential truth of being American—but these are large parts of what I loved about these works. And their fundamental uselessness, paradoxically, makes me value them more.Some literature speaks to us, and some does not. My indifference to The Iliad doesn't make the work bad; it simply makes it all the more wonderful when a work arrests my attention and moves me towards something like wisdom.

That doesn't mean I've abandoned The Iliad. Despite the subject matter, Mendelsohn's prose wove its own spell over me, convincing me that I ought to try again. After reading the essay, the Internet funneled me to an obituary of Robert Fagles, the great modern translator of Homer. The piece recounted Fagles' response to being asked whether he preferred The Odyssey to The Iliad. He couldn't decide; some days, he said, smacked of The Iliad—you feel you are at war. Other days are more like The Odyssey; all you want to do is go home. So it's been with college; so it is with reading. Someday soon, feeling belligerent, my fingers will hover over my bookshelf, hesitating in indecsion, and then they'll pause above The Iliad.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

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When the Bills go marching in


SLUH and CBC are playing for the right to go to the Missouri state football championship Friday night, and I'd love to be there. While I grapple with a forthcoming post about The Iliad, enjoy a piece I wrote almost exactly six years ago for SLUH's Prep News about the years when the SLUH-CBC rivalry unfolded beneath the bright lights of Busch Stadium. It's held up pretty well. To find it, click here, download the PDF for Issue 12 (11/18/2005), and scroll to page seven.

Go SLUH!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

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Autumn Leaves



It seems to me that we've only had one day of autumn this year, and that day happens to be the one on which we buried my grandfather. As a strictly factual matter, I know this is incorrect, but nevertheless in my mind there is me lying in my bed in Philadelphia sweating, and then there is the bugler playing taps in the cemetery, and then there is me in Philadelphia again, ordering a space heater for my frigid room.

This is not how autumn used to work. Autumn used to be Peanuts strips and long evenings and my mother standing over a steaming pot of stew in the warmly-lit kitchen and the haze trapped by the football stadium lights. But in college, autumn has been a brief intermission between summers made hotter and winters made colder by my faulty memory. This year, it's a season about which I have no particular feeling either way. It's characterized by a sort of manic numbness that seems associated with how much time I spend in front of a computer screen, a real indifference to schoolwork, and the way my ass hurts after my three-hour Wednesday-night jazz class, whose chairs are of such Spanish-Inquisition rigidity that I dread it a little more each week.

These things—along with the Cardinals' World Series triumph, my senior thesis, the 2012 elections, my romantic failings, the rudeness that seems to be infecting people this season—are on my mind, but they are not in it. Here is what is:

First, a line from Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, which has been chosen as Chicago's citywide reading book this fall, a choice whose main effect (at least to the eye of a faraway monitor) appears to be an increase in complaints on the book's Amazon page by disgruntled Chicago readers, annoyed by their city choosing such a strange and difficult book as the cornerstone of a literary commonweal. This is a shame, because they're missing lines like this: "The thing I began to learn from her was of the utmost importance; namely, that everyone sees to it his fate is shared."

Second, a quote from Evan Thomas's biography of Robert Kennedy:

"It surprised Kennedy that women found him appealing. 'Dave Powers, [JFK's former personal aide] described Bobby dancing with Marilyn Monroe, like he couldn't believe his good fortune,' said [Dick] Goodwin. 'When he was a kid girls would pay no attention. Now he had the girl in his arms.'"

Robert Kennedy was Attorney General of the United States when the incident here described occurred. His brother was president of the United States. This passage strikes me as reason enough to like the man, even love him, though I don't expect many to agree with me on this point.

Finally, Haruki Murakami. I have read exactly two pieces of writing by Murakami; a short story that appeared in The New Yorker, "The Year of Spaghetti," and a brief appreciation of Ella Fitzgerald from The Believer. I have almost no recollection of the second piece, but the first has remained in my memory so well that I hadn't read it in almost six years until looking at it tonight. It was as perfect as I remembered. There, Murakami writes, "As a rule, I cooked spaghetti, and ate it by myself. I was convinced that spaghetti was a dish best enjoyed alone. I can't really explain why I felt that way, but there it is." This is the kind of sentence that presents an appealing alternative to my life of Facebook and deadlines and aimless late nights, and for that reason, I love it.

Murakami, of course, is in my mind because he's just released 1Q84, a 900-page book that everyone is unsurprisingly calling some kind of genius. Reading the reviews and interviews and profiles, I recall why I've read so little Murakami, because in a very real way, I'm afraid of him, afraid of his towering imagination, afraid of his rigid schedule of writing and running, afraid of that famous story of him deciding to be a writer as he watched a baseball player hit a double. He is too perfectly the thing I want to be, and so I avoid him.

These are the things that are in my mind, and I'll be the first to admit that they don't make a lot of sense, but there it is.

As for the space heater, Amazon sent me the wrong one, so while I wait for its replacement to show up, I'll continue to shiver in bed each night before falling asleep.