January 28, 2014

Good tidings and great joy:I like Sarah Palin more than I thought I did.

I am pretty close to the militant secular atheist that the Governor speaks of in this book.  

From the media portrayal of her in 2008 and beyond, I have had a pretty low opinion of her.  I even had a  “Palin 2012” shirt made up as a joke.  I may have been a little too hasty in judging her.  I watched the documentary featuring her, “The Undefeated,” and realized that someone who had been elected to the city council and to the mayoralty of a city is not someone to be ridiculed.  

In this vein, I thought I would look at her most recent work, “Good Tidings and Great Joy”.  It is nominally an argument to reclaim Christmas from the creeping secular atheists, but sometimes it diverges from that argument, and uses straw men to attack the author’s ideological opponents. For example, in three different places she lapses into fiction to draw a hypothetical which exaggerates what she sees as the worst aspects of her opponents.  

I, for one, though an atheist believe that some of the organized atheist groups go too far in limiting people’s celebration of holidays.  Where I agree with the atheists is that celebrations shouldn’t be exclusionary for people of other faiths or of no faith.  It is in the public sphere where this is most contentious, and I think there can be pluralism.  It was here where I was surprised that Ms. Palin and I are in agreement.  One of her bits of advice to keep the celebration of Christmas was to bring in the secular totems of the holiday, such as snowmen and Santa Claus. 

Where I think Ms Palin errs though is that there are basically three separate realms she covers where Christmas is under attack, but she conflates all three into one unified front against Christmas.  There is the previously identified sphere.  There is also the private realm: as far as I know, no one is trying to limit the celebration of anyone’s holiday in their churches and homes.  This is the section of the book that really helped me feel sympathy towards the Governor. Her family’s traditions are nice and familiar and fine with me.  

The last section is the public realm.  Ms. Palin doesn’t like the pluralism of some companies, where they have made their employees substitute “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas.” She even celebrates occasions where those companies  have relented and brought back Christmas.  Again, that is fine.  There is a marketplace where companies avoid controversy.  In the system we have, that is understandable.

So basically, I can agree with here on two out of three realms, which is two more than I was suspecting that I would find. I thought that reading this book would be one of those gleeful-hate reads, but it was nothing of the sort.  I like Sarah Palin more than I thought I did. 

One Summer: Bryson as Storyteller

I first came across Bryson when I was trying to refresh my scientific knowledge, and used his short history of (nearly) everything to bring back those bits of knowledge that had receded into the brain.  I have since read several of his books, and I have found out that he is one of the better storytellers working in the English language.  My own knowledge of what he covers – science and this history of the English language -- let me know that Bryson knows what he is talking about.  No wooden nickels here. 

So when I came across this new title, a work of history, my interest was piqued even though it is not my normal fun reading.  It was a good read, covering a lot of things that will make this a great father’s day book or Christmas gift for the middle-age man in your life: there are the  1927 Yankee;  the race to fly across the Atlantic won by Charles Lindbergh; and there is even the president wearing a cowboy outfit.

Any Empire by Powell: Quick Thought

Here’s the thing about “Any Empire”: I had no idea what was going on. I read the first third of the book; set it down; picked it up three days later; and I still had no idea what was going on. It was intriguing enough that I restarted it, trying to pick up the thread. There was some coherence, but I sat it down at the end without any great sense of loss from being pulled out of the character’s world.  The story is basically about a young boy growing up.  His best friend is some sort of bullying sociopath.  They live in the south.  A girl comes into play, as does the later life of the children.  There’s not much dialogue, instead the pictures exist to pull the story along (the art is great).  I just wasn’t into it, and I will assume that here it is my fault. 

Praise for Bo Burnham's "Egghead"

Here’s the thing about Bo Burnham.  

He’s smart.

I pride myself on my intellectual abilities.  I was always top of my class; I graduated with honors; I never had to worry about doing well on standardized tests.

But Bo is scary smart.  My wife and I have watched both of his specials, and one of the things we have talked about after watching and laughing at his performances is this premature intelligence  that is blended with an emotional self-knowledge that is rare in someone so young.  I know I didn’t have it when I was his age.  I doubt I have it now.

He has time to grow into it, and I think this book of poems, “Egghead,” may be showing some of what he may look like as a mature artist.  

Egghead intersperses poems that are on the surface easy – meter, unchallenging rhyme schemes, with fun pictures that tend towards the dirty.  The poems tend that way too.  One included in the volume, which was read in the special, extol the virtues of women with little virtue.  I can’t print the title here.

He stands poems like that – sophomoric, juvenile, what have you – with some deep and wise ones.  There is a poem about women’s body images that knocked me flat.  I won’t quote it here because it is short and you need to take that journey yourself.

I can’t wait for whatever Bo has in store for us next, no matter what the medium.

January 8, 2014

Quiz Show: The Most Interesting Thing About Me

Online test is like 30 questions in 15 minutes.  You don't get to know your score.

You do well enough, you get invited to an in-person try out.  They hold those in various cities, and you have to get to the one closest to you.  I was luck I just had to jump on the train to get to mine.  (There are like 12 cities they go to, and I don't know how many people are invited.  I was in a classroom sized group of about 30, but there were groups before and after my tryout of the same size.) At the tryout, you take another test, and then you play a mock game -- this was 4 years ago, so the process may have changed some since then.

Even after all that, they  tell everyone in the room that they may be eligible for a taping, so wait for a call sometime in the next 18 months.

Then if you get the call, you have to make your way out to California, and pay for your hotel.  They had a discounted rate where they had a partner with the hotel, and they ran shuttles from there, but it still cost me about 1000 bucks just in travel and lodging (I was unemployed at the time so that was huge).

Then you go to the taping -- they do a week's worth of shows in a day, and I think a whole month's worth over the week.  Even there, you are not guaranteed being on the show.  they had an alternate come when I was there, but they let California people be the alternates so that when they were called back the trip wasn't too bad.

You play some practice games to get used to the board and the stage and the buzzer, and so that they can get your mark with the camera.  Then you go back and names are drawn for the games.  I was drawn first, and never got into a groove.  Got second, but nailed the final answer.

Prior to the taping, they ask you for a lot of prompts for the contestant interview.  No one is interesting in 20 seconds, especially when the most interesting thing about you now is that you were on a major television quiz show.

I got second and won 2K.  It was nice, but I hated the time frames.  The initial test was in January, then the call for the second test was in like April for a May test.  Then I was called the next February for filming about a month later.  The episode didn't air until late July, and then I didn't get the money until that November.

It was worth it, but it is one of those things that a lot of people are interested about but I have over-told the story.  It makes me feel like a band with one hit song.  

January 7, 2014

Reading the collection of "Hyperbole and a Half"

Hold on.  Is this just the blog, but put in book form?

I have no idea.  My wife saw that her friends had a copy of this, and then she needed to have a copy of it.  It might have some new stuff though, since my wife, as she read it would comment about how she hadn’t read a section.  And she laughed.

I have only read one of the blog-stories that are included in this book, and that was the cartoon about the author’s fight with depression.  I haven’t faced what she has faced, but the way she described it helped me understand some people I know in a better way.  That was worth the money alone, you know, paying for something you can get free on the internet (support your local artists in the global village, etc).

I  then read them in one sitting and laughed and laughed. 

I have a feeling that Brosh can actually draw, but her style is deliberately primitive.  The way she illustrates the weird hatted-tadpole that is the authorial stand-in in these comics shows she understands the human  body.  Don’t let the “bad” drawing of the occasional nasty language dissuade you from reading these tales. Brosh is a keen observer of the human condition, and is someone to keep an eye on (in the anticipatory sort of way, though perhaps in the not trusting with the glassware sort of way as well).