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Drowning in Narrative

July 19, 2010 Leave a comment

[Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images]

I like sports. If you’ve read much of my blog, you’ll have figured that out. I’ve noted several times recently that my sports calendar peaks this time of year. The three weeks of the Tour de France would be reason enough for this to be the peak, what with daily races exciting in their own right, combined with the over-arching narrative of the battle for overall Tour lead. In addition, the Wimbledon tennis finals occur on the Tour’s opening weekend (two weeks ago) and the British Open golf championship runs from Thursday to Saturday of the Tour’s second week (this past weekend). If that weren’t enough, this year we had to make room for the World Cup, with its semi-finals and finals during the middle and end of the Tour’s opening week.

What is it that fascinates me about sports? Perhaps the key word is one I used just above: narrative. A major sporting event takes place within the context of the sport’s history and the biographies of the participants. With each development, we watch the narrative line take a different turn, imagine the new possibilities, re-write the story in our heads. Perhaps what I especially enjoy about golf’s four majors is that on the last day, so many players have their narratives change with each stroke. This contrasts, for instance, with tennis, whose major championships by the final day have reduced the competitors to two. At Wimbledon two years ago, during the extraordinary final between Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, we were kept in suspense about what the final story would be, but there were essentially two possibilities. As the players make the turn on Sunday for the final nine holes of a golf championship, there may be three or four or even as many as seven or eight still in reach. I could give many examples of this — though not from yesterday’s concluding act at St. Andrews of the British Open.

I wish, however, to make a different point. Namely, much as I love narrative, I’m drowning! It’s just too much. The confluence of events this last month is pushing me to my limit.

I first thought about this two weeks ago, reading Wyatt Mason’s review in the July 15 issue of The New York Review of Books of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace . In the review, Mason quotes from an early essay of Wallace’s:

Human beings are narrative animals: every culture countenances itself as culture via a story, whether mythopoeic or politico-economic; every whole person understands his lifetime as an organized, recountable series of events and changes with at least a beginning and middle. We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing….

I think this is the appeal of sports: they feed our appetite for narrative. There may be more nutritious sources of narrative, but I cannot think of any with greater immediacy. The narrative is written as we watch. And the more we bring to it, in terms of our own understanding of the narrative to this point, the more we are drawn in. In the recent World Cup, for example, one need merely say the names of the great soccer powers — Brazil say, or Italy, or Germany, or Argentina — and hundreds of millions of people around the world could fill in the back story instantly. And then we could watch the narrative unfold: France’s shame, Italy’s lackluster play, the Germans’ brilliance, Uruguay’s unexpected return to soccer’s elite, England’s falling flat. And on and on, until there were just two stories left to be written, Holland’s and Spain’s.

Thrilling, yes. But perhaps too much. I may be ready for a break.

Not yet though. Give me until Sunday. Please. Have you been following the Tour these last two days in the Pyrenées? Mon Dieu! How will Schleck respond tomorrow after Contador took the lead away today when Schleck’s chain came off on the final climb just as he was attacking? And will one of them ride away from the other on Thursday, the final mountain day, in the closing ascent of the Col du Tourmalet. Then there’s Friday’s drama, as the sprinters come to the fore. Can Mark Cavendish win another stage? How will Petacchi do? What about the green jersey competition? Saturday brings the individual time trial. Ooh la la! One last battle for Schleck and Contador. They’ll coast in Sunday, but the sprinters will have one more chance to strut.

Five more great days. I’m not done with sporting narratives just yet.

Categories: Life, Sports, Writing

Family Organizational Charts

July 19, 2010 Leave a comment

A month ago, I wrote at length about my list-making evolution, starting with Arnold Lobel’s marvelous children’s book character Toad and ending with my discovery of The Omni Group‘s organizational programs for the Mac, OmniFocus and OmniOutliner.

In the weeks since, I have continued to work daily with both Omni programs and learned a lot — about the programs themselves and, I dare say, about myself. Plus, I’ve had a lot of fun reading the comments on the OmniGroup-moderated OmniFocus forums. The passion people have for this program is quite astonishing. You wouldn’t believe how desperately people have been waiting for the release of the iPad version of OmniFocus, a desperation I have come to understand, if not share.

But I’m not here to tell you about the surprising complexities of OmniFocus, and the questions it raises about how to live a life. Rather, I just want to say a few words about a third Omni Group program, OmniGraffle.

Given my new-found admiration for Omni Group, I spent some time last month reviewing their other programs — OmniGraffle, OmniGraphSketcher, and OmniPlan — in order to determine if I had any use for them. Omni Group lets you download any of their programs for the Mac desktop for a 14-day trial before you have to pay for it. I’ve been sufficiently busy that I knew I wouldn’t have much time to try them out, but OmniGraffle looked so cool that I couldn’t resist. I downloaded it three weeks ago and immediately began playing with it.

The problem was, I really did have no use for it. One thing it does is make organizational charts. I decided I would make a chart of our family organization. At first I did so manually, creating boxes, putting names in them, connecting them. Then I realized this was dumb. I wasn’t taking advantage of OmniGraffle’s power. One can simply make a text outline — outlines being OmniGroup’s specialty — and OmniGraffle will chart it automatically. One can then customize the chart, in terms of shapes or colors or sizes, or apply styles used before.

Here’s the first outline that I tried:

Ron
…Gail
…Joel
…….Emma

You can see at the top the chart OmniGraffle made of it, with some minor customization of size and color on my part. It’s that easy. (I have mentioned all these residents of our house before. Let me remind you that Emma is our cat.)

I’m not claiming this chart is accurate. It’s at least a little fanciful, and may reveal something about my fantasies. I stopped my experimenting after making this chart because it was dinner time. After dinner, I decided to construct an alternative. Again, it’s simple. Just type an outline and let OmniGraffle do the rest. You can even have OmniGraffle flip it upside-down. I made the following outline and flipped it:

Ron
Gail
….Joel
….Emma

The result, below, may align more closely with reality.

What next? I don’t know. Truth is, I haven’t used OmniGraffle since. I wish I had a need for it, but I don’t. I’m tempted to buy the iPad version (no free trials there) so that I could play with a sophisticated program that makes good use of its capabilities. Maybe I will one day. For now, I content myself with pining for OmniFocus on the iPad. It’s gonna be great.

Categories: Computing, Family

No Breaks for Poor Bastards

July 19, 2010 Leave a comment

David Obey

David Obey’s interview with The Fiscal Times’ Washington editor Eric Pianin last Tuesday got well-deserved attention when it appeared on Friday. Obey, the third most senior member of the House, having represented a district in northwest Wisconsin since 1969 (when he succeeded Melvin Laird after Laird became Nixon’s Secretary of Defense), announced in May that he will not run for re-election. He is the outgoing chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Obey is not happy with some decisions of the Obama administration. On the size of the economic stimulus package:

The problem for Obama, he wasn’t as lucky as Roosevelt, because when Obama took over we were still in the middle of a free fall. So his Treasury people came in and his other economic people came in and said “Hey, we need a package of $1.4 trillion.” We started sending suggestions down to OMB waiting for a call back. After two and a half weeks, we started getting feedback. We put together a package that by then the target had been trimmed to $1.2 trillion. And then [White House Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel said to me, “Geez, do you really think we can afford to come in with a package that big, isn’t it going to scare people?” I said, “Rahm, you will need that shock value so that people understand just how serious this problem is.” They wanted to hold it to less than $1 trillion. Then [Pennsylvania Senator Arlen] Specter and the two crown princesses from Maine [Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins] took it down to less than $800 billion. Spread over two and a half years, that’s a hell of a lot of money, but spread over two and a half years in an economy this large, it doesn’t have a lot of fiscal power.

We’re in danger of [throttling back on government spending too soon, as Franklin Roosevelt did during the Depression].

And on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

The secretary of Education is whining about the fact he only got 85 percent of the money he wanted .… So, when we needed money, we committed the cardinal sin of treating him like any other mere mortal. We were giving them over $10 billion in money to help keep teachers on the job, plus another $5 billion for Pell, so he was getting $15 billion for the programs he says he cares about, and it was costing him $500 million [in reductions to the Race to the Top program]. Now that’s a pretty damn good deal.

So as far as I’m concerned, the secretary of Education should have been happy as hell. He should have taken that deal and smiled like a Cheshire cat. He’s got more walking around money than every other cabinet secretary put together.

It blows my mind that the White House would even notice the fight [over Race to the Top]. I would have expected the president to say to the secretary, “look, you’re getting a good deal, for God’s sake, what this really does is guarantee that the rest of the money isn’t going to be touched.”

We gave [Duncan] $4.3 billion in the stimulus package, no questions asked. He could spend it any way he wants. … I trusted the secretary, so I gave him a hell of a lot more money than I should have.

My point is that I have been working for school reform long before I ever heard of the secretary of education, and long before I ever heard of Obama. And I’m happy to welcome them on the reform road, but I’ll be damned if I think the only road to reform lies in the head of the Secretary of Education.

We were told we have to offset every damn dime of [new teacher spending]. Well, it ain’t easy to find offsets, and with all due respect to the administration their first suggestion for offsets was to cut food stamps. Now they were careful not to make an official budget request, because they didn’t want to take the political heat for it, but that was the first trial balloon they sent down here. … Their line of argument was, well, the cost of food relative to what we thought it would be has come down, so people on food stamps are getting a pretty good deal in comparison to what we thought they were going to get. Well isn’t that nice. Some poor bastard is going to get a break for a change.

This is in the context of the supplemental budget for war funding. As emptywheel summarizes, “we were, as a country, really considering cutting the food allowance to those suffering in this recession in order to keep some teachers on the job, all while we appropriate $33 billion to fight around 350 al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” (The 350 figure is a reference to the remarks a couple of weeks ago of CIA director Leon Panetta.)

Obama a socialist, not supportive of America’s continuing wars abroad, favoring too much domestic spending? Why are those who make such statements taken seriously? How can an entire party’s candidates run on such arguments? In reality, the financial, health care, and defense industries have much to be happy about. But let’s not help the unemployed or those whose houses are being foreclosed. We don’t want to increase the deficit! At least not for them. We’d rather increase the deficit for our wars.

Categories: Politics

Pasta, Peas, Prosciutto: Pleasure

July 18, 2010 Leave a comment

[Evan Sung for The New York Times]

There was a period when I would make it a point to catch Mark Bittman’s weekly food video at the NYT website, but some time in the last year, I got out of the habit. Then, a month ago, the title of his newest video — Pasta With Peas, Prosciutto and Lettuce — got my attention. That sure sounded good. I watched. Then I got Gail and had her watch it too. After which I forgot about it. Until yesterday, when we were talking about dinner and Gail suggested that we have try the dish.

We found the Bittman article for which the video was an accompaniment, reviewed the recipe, and bought the ingredients. This afternoon, Gail prepared the dish.

You may be familiar with Bittman’s 2008 book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More Than 75 Recipes, in which he describes the healthy diet that he adopted and offers recipes to fit the diet. The pasta dish I’m discussing fits into this diet, as Bittman explains in the article:

Since I began eating more plants and less meat, I’ve experimented with using small amounts of meat in ways that exploit its flavor without making it central to the dish. In this recipe — pasta with spring vegetables — the meat is literally a garnish, but one with huge impact.

That meat is prosciutto, and it’s briefly cooked in a bit of oil, which accomplishes two things: It intensifies the ham’s salty, meaty flavor, and it makes the prosciutto crisp, turning it into a nice textural foil for the tender pasta, peas and lettuce.

. . . Even staunch meat eaters will enjoy this dish. But conveniently, if you’re serving vegetarians, you can just leave off the garnish.

Bittman’s right about how the crisp prosciutto makes it a great foil for the pasta, peas, and lettuce. I loved the dish. It had a great mix of textures, flavors, and colors.

Gail and Joel were less enthusiastic. I don’t understand why. Gail suggested it might be better with a different green in place of lettuce, such as chard. Maybe. We can try that next time. But I’m quite happy with it as is, and look forward to the leftovers for lunch tomorrow. Or maybe breakfast. Why wait?

Categories: Food

Nine Lives

July 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Tomorrow’s NYT has a review of William Dalrymple’s new* book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. Having read some other favorable reviews in recent weeks, I decided after reading this one that I should get the book. Thanks to the wonders of electronic books, I downloaded it from Amazon’s Kindle store tonight and was reading it outside on my iPad five minutes later.

I’ve hardly read enough to say anything meaningful. Perhaps later. At the least, it’s a welcome change from the spy thriller I finished last night (and wrote about earlier today). Let me quote a short passage from Colin Thubron’s NYT review to give a sense of what the book is about:

At a time when religion is becoming ever more conformist and intolerant, the diverse and syncretic world of the Indian subcontinent offers a stupefying spectrum of surviving sects and practices. These are the phenomena that slip between the cracks of an increasingly militant Hinduism in India and an extremist Islam in Pakistan. They are survivors from a more seductively various world: ascetics and mystics, mendicant singers and dancers, yogic initiates and outcasts.

From this multitude Dalrymple interviews nine very different individuals, four of them women, and sets their life stories in social and historical context.

*The book came out in the US last month, but it was published in the UK last fall, so it’s not entirely new.

Categories: Books, Religion, Travel

Thinking of Nantucket

July 17, 2010 Leave a comment

As has been our custom in recent years, we’ll be heading off to Nantucket on Labor Day. We have enough to focus on between now and then that I haven’t given the trip much thought, but I got excited earlier this evening when I saw at the NYT website that this week’s “36 Hours in — ” feature in the Sunday travel section is 36 Hours in Nantucket.

Perhaps we’ll follow Sarah Gold’s advice and eat at Angela and Seth Raynor’s newest restaurant, Corazón del Mar. We loved our meal last September at the Boarding House. One problem is that we’re always torn between returning to familiar restaurants and trying others. At least with our Labor Day arrival, we can generally get into any of them.

I’ve said more than enough about Nantucket in previous posts. Let me just draw your attention to the slide show that accompanies tomorrow’s article. It gives some sense of what we love about being there.

Categories: Restaurants, Travel

Rules of Betrayal

July 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Rules of Betrayal, the third in Christopher Reich’s absorbing (but not all that beautifully written) series of espionage novels, came out on Tuesday. I had pre-ordered it on Amazon, received it Wednesday, and finished it last night. I wanted to say a few things about it, but on re-reading my post from last August about the second volume, Rules of Vengeance, I realize that most of what I would have said is already there. I note that I read the first one, Rules of Deception, two summers ago because of a good review in the NYT by Janet Maslin. I then quote my brief description of the first one in a blog post from two Decembers ago: “Hardly a great book, but I liked it enough that I’ll probably read his next one when it comes out.” And finally I add, having read the second one, “My impression is that Christopher Reich is not particularly strong in the prose stylist department — I prefer Lee Child — but he certainly knows how to create plots with lots of unexpected turns.”

The newest addition to the series elicited the same response — not so strong as a prose stylist, but great plots with lots of unexpected turns. The books are both fun to read and completely silly. I had some specific complaints about the prose in my volume-two post from a year ago. This time let me add a complaint about accuracy.

One of the characters Reich introduces, for just a single scene, is a member of the House of Representatives who is needed because of his role as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Intelligence. He is described as “representative of the eleventh district of Nebraska.” This one stopped me in my tracks. Um, the eleventh district? I had to think for a moment about when the events of this novel are taking place. Had I missed something? Is the story a futuristic fantasy, set at a time when Nebraska has become one of the larger states in the union? No. So what gives?

I don’t have an answer. It does make me wonder how much I should trust Reich’s descriptions of various locales around the world. Has he not noticed that Nebraska is relatively empty?

Here are the facts. There are 435 members of the House, the number of members from each state being assigned proportionally to the state’s population. Every ten years, following the census, the apportionment of representatives to states is re-calculated, with each state then re-drawing its congressional districts. You can find the numbers here.

Starting in 1890, Nebraska had 6 representatives, but it dropped to 5 in 1930, 4 in 1940, and 3 in 1960. Since then, the number hasn’t changed.

What states have 11 or more representatives? At the high end, there are California with 53, Texas with 32, New York with 29, and Florida with 25. Illinois and Pennsylvania have 19, Ohio 18, Michigan 15. New Jersey, North Carolina, and Georgia have 13. Virginia has 11. Maybe I missed one, but I think that’s it. Massachusetts has 10. Washington, Indiana, and Missouri have 9. The count continues downward from there, Nebraska sharing its 3-district status with Utah, New Mexico, and West Virginia. (This is all based on the 2000 census and took effect with the 2002 election. The next change will occur in time for the 2012 election.)

Maybe Mr. Reich had some other meaning in mind when placing his character in Nebraska’s eleventh district. I would be happy to be told I misunderstood. Regardless, as long as one doesn’t take the book too seriously, it’s a welcome addition to the series. No doubt I will read the next one the moment it comes out.

Categories: Books