Friday, January 30, 2009

My Top 10 (Plus) Books.

So my writers group presented our top ten books this past week. This is, with one slight alteration, the list I submitted.

1. Crime & Punishment – This is my favorite book. Genius.

2. V. - This is the alteration. For my writer's group I suggested Against the Day. Both are Pynchon. Both are fantastic. It's been a long time since I've read V., but I remember loving it, and I'm gonna read it again once I'm done with the bar.

3. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – The best spy novel I’ve ever read. John Le Carre naturally. I’ve enjoyed many of his books, but this one was by far the most gripping.

4. The Master & Margarita – I’m going to steal (and thereby endorse) what Keith Law wrote about this book: “An absolute masterpiece, banned by the Soviets for decades for its subtle yet severe indictment of communism’s many, many failures. The Devil comes to Moscow and exposes its society for all its vapidity, running into the frustrated author The Master and his faithful girlfriend Margarita, a story intertwined with a dialogue between Pontius Pilate and Jesus, all stacked with allusions to the Bible and major works of 19th century Russian literature. It is a work of unbridled genius, of acrimonious dissent, and most of all, of hope and faith in humanity.”

5. The Things They Carried – This is a book that should be read by anyone who wants to use fiction as a tool for revealing things about the real world. A Vietnam war book by a vet. Really really powerful. Also gets bonus points because the author is a Minnesotan.

6. Egil’s Saga - Yeah, I know, an Icelandic saga? Seriously? Seriously. These are so much fun to read. This is probably the best of them.

7. Thus Spake Zarathustra – As far as prose goes, it isn’t the greatest. As far as ideas go… it’s easily among the best. Read this hand in hand with Crime & Punishment. Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche are a perfect complement to each other, though they both deserve to be read in their own right as well.

8. Remains of the Day – This might be the best first-person novel I’ve ever read. It’s at least among the best. It’s subtle and powerful. A Booker Prize winner in 1989. So not all that long ago, compared to the rest of my list.

9. The Great Gatsby – I don’t apologize for including an early-highschool book on this list. It’s just a fantastic read, with supremely compelling characters and wonderful pace. Also, bonus points b/c Fitzgerald was from Minny.

10. Demons – Pynchon almost deserved two places on this list. Dostoyevsky does. I had an awfully hard time deciding between The Brothers Karamozov and Demons, but went w/ Demons because it’s the lesser known work. Brother’s K might be the single greatest literary and philosophical/theological accomplishment in history (other than, I suppose, scripture), but you’ve gotta root for the underdog, and between the two, Demons is the underdog. It’s basically the story of the communist revolution. Only it was written years before the communist revolution ever happened. Anyway, read all the Dostoyevsky you can.

DQ’ed from list because they’re not novels:
The Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor – Perfection of the short story. They’re all complete little worlds, with very real and compelling characters. For short stories they can be quite profound, but more than anything, they’re fun to read.

The Areas of My Expertise – John Hodgman. A hilarious fake almanac of complete world knowledge. This is the book that launched him onto The Daily Show and Mac commercials.

He doesn't look a thing like Jesus
But he talks like a gentleman

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Roe v. Wade Day

I'd be remiss if I didn't post something here on Roe v. Wade Day, so here's an abortion post. As with most of my abortion posts, I'm going to link to something I wrote 4 years ago. It's a treatise on when life begins. Maybe it'll seem redundant, and I know a good number of people have read it before, but I really believe it's an important post, and well worth the read. If you've never made the time to read it, or if it's been a while, I'd strongly recommend you take a look.

I'm pretty busy with a bunch of other stuff right now (namely studying to take the bar again) so I'm only going to put up a limited set of original thoughts.

One of the ways in which my thoughts on abortion have nuanced since I put up that treatise is that I pretty much expect everyone to agree that life begins at conception. Because it's pretty much incontrovertible that some sort of new life has come into existence. The fetus, quite simply, is a life.

This opens up a new, more nuanced discussion, of when specifically that life deserves protection. I've found that this nuance makes for a more productive discussion between pro-life and pro-choice advocates. I suspect the reason has something to do with the fact that it seems like a new debate. Trying to debate the question of "is a fetus a life" left both sides entrenched. Pro-lifers couldn't budge from the position of "yes, it's a life", and pro-choice people generally refused to answer the question, and when they did it was with a staunch "no".

Now, instead of a yes/no question, you've got a spectrum. "When does a life deserve protection" is something that can be answered with any point on the spectrum from conception to never.

In more productive abortion debates we always seemed to get to this point anyway, but starting out by framing the question as "when does life deserve protection" offers a lot more room for advancement, and makes both sides feel like they can really participate.

It also helps set up a few solid points for pro-life advocates. First, if you've got a life then it's pretty hard to say there isn't something of value. The debate can still rage on about how much value that fetus has, but it takes a pretty unreasonable person to say that a life is devoid of worth. Second, you're making the question one of deliberate line drawing. And when you're talking about a fetus, there aren't too many clear lines. Pretty much you've got conception and (arguably) birth. Everything else in between is really quite gray. The pro-life advocate is drawing a clear line. People might disagree with its location, but at very least the line is clear.
--------------
This framing also helps set up an analogy I've grown kind of fond of. I haven't had great opportunity to use it, so I'm going to try it out here, to see what people think:

A caterpillar and a butterfly are the exact same thing. They seem like really different creatures, but actually they're the same. We wouldn't say that the butterfly is a life and the caterpillar is not. They're just lepidoptera at different stages of development. We might be a little more awed by the butterfly, but we know that ultimately there's no difference between the two. We know that killing a caterpillar is just as wrong as killing a butterfly.

Likewise, a fetus is just a person at a different stage of development. A lepidoptera goes through five caterpillar stages, to a pupa, to a butterfly. A human goes from a fetus, to an infant, to a toddler, etc., on up to adulthood. An infant is significantly different from an adult, and we give the adult more rights and responsibilities, but it would be just as wrong to kill both a baby and a grown-up. So too, with a fetus. Sure, it's quite different from an adult person. But so what? Babies are quite different from adults too. Isn't it all just another stage in human development? How can it be wrong to kill one, but ok to kill the other?

I'm sure there are responses to this analogy. I haven't run this out there much, so I haven't really heard them. But I'm intrigued by what pro-choice advocates might say.
--------------
Anyway, that's all I've got for now. I know back in October I promised I'd do a full abortion post sometime in 2009, and once I'm done with the bar, I'll get to it. But for now, this will have to do.

So, to sum it all up:

Because no one can reasonably dispute that some sort of life begins at conception, the question we've got to answer is: when does life deserve protecting?

Oh my baby don't be so distressed
Were done with politesse

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

One Last Inauguration Thought

Originally this was part of what I had below, but I felt it was worth it's own post:

One of the most striking things about this inauguration for me is the number of people who have said, "I never thought I'd see this happen." Because while this election is most certainly an historic event, and something to be celebrated, the idea of a minority president has been a possibility for quite some time.

I regularly read Howard Sinker's blog, on the Star Tribune website. Howard was writing about the historic nature of the day, and he wrote, of past discrimination, "many of you who are younger would be hard pressed to imagine such exclusion."

I decided to offer a response, and it's the same response I'd share with people who thought they'd never see this day:

"As one of a younger generation I’d offer a slightly altered assessment. It isn’t that we can’t imagine the discrimination, or have a lack of understanding. Rather, it’s that the generations before us resolved the intellectual questions of racism, such that for us it was never a question whether a minority would ascend to the Presidency, but only a question of when. Perhaps this has led to some lack of appreciation of the depth of struggle, but I’m inclined to think that this is less a failure of the younger generation, and more a testament to how absolutely the proposition of racism has been rejected."

Phickle Thoughts: Inauguration Edition

Mrs. Fickle and I decided to head down to the Mall today for inauguration. Metro opened at 4 a.m., running on a full rush-hour schedule with extra long trains. We decided to head out around 9, since we weren't really aiming to see Obama, but rather to see the crowds, and be a part of the historic moment.

When we got down to the metro we found it had actually been temporarily closed because it was just too busy. The guard told us that if we had been there 45 minutes earlier we would still be waiting to even get through the fare gates and onto the platform. A handful of people walked up the escalator as we were standing there, saying they'd waited too long.

So we decided to just walk. The Mount Vernon trail goes by our apartment, and so we set out on foot. It was cold. It was a long walk. And crossing the Potomac was long and painful. But it was totally worth it. We got down to the Mall, walked up to the Washington, caught some of the preliminary ceremonies, snapped some pictures, and took in the scene.

Then we walked back, grabbed some Caribou Coffee, and watched the actual swearing-in from the warmth and comfort of our own couch.
----------------------------
We walked at least 7 miles round trip, probably more.
----------------------------
One of the most remarkable parts of the experience was that we were able to just walk right up to the Washington Memorial. The west half of the mall was simply open, with no security checks. There were plenty of police and security personnel around, so it all seemed really safe, but it was really remarkable that we could get to the Washington without going through a metal detector/bag check. We couldn't even do that on the 4th of July.

It was really nice.
---------------------------
Another of the more remarkable elements was how wonderfully nice everyone on the Mall was. People were helping each other out, no one was in a rush, or pushing, or rude. In D.C., that's a rarity. It felt really cool.
--------------------------
The route to the Mall that we took was one of the lesser-traveled routes to get there. Pretty much it was only locals who went the way we did, and only those locals who didn't want to try to take metro and/or a bus. And who were willing to walk 3+ miles through the cold to get there.

We passed a bunch of unpopulated back streets. One of the neatest things was seeing a long line of police cars lined up on a back street. They were all just sitting there, ready to go if they were needed. There were tons of police patrolling the crowds, but there were also tons waiting in the wings if anything happened.
--------------------------
On the way back we saw a bunch of crows chase off a hawk. At one point they flew right at me, and just a few feet over my head. I was in a great spot to get a picture, but it all happened too fast for me to get my camera up and pointed in the right direction. Tragic really, since it would have been an awesome shot.
--------------------------
It was pretty awesome to be a part of this historic day. I'm super glad I got to be here for this.

Hail to the chief
He's the chief and he needs hailing

Openness

Watching the post-inauguration coverage I saw a report that mentioned how good natured all the people on the mall seemed to be, going through security and dealing with everyone else. The reporter mentioned that perhaps this was a real legacy to President Bush.

I think he might have a point. As he observed, after 9/11 D.C. essentially became a city of barricades. And today, when Bush leaves office, the city - security checks and all - feels open.

Mrs. Fickle and I walked down to the Mall this morning. We didn't even have to go through security to stand by the Washington, where we were. Even though things were unbelievably crowded, everything felt open and welcoming. We both commented on how easy it was to get around and how incredibly nice that was.

When I first came to D.C. in 2003, I definitely thought of this as a city of barriers. I'm happy to say that - for today at least - it was a city of openness.

The king's taken back the throne

Monday, January 19, 2009

For All Those New Visitors to D.C.:

Welcome.

Now please stop blocking the entire walkway.

And in a bathroom stall off the National Mall

Friday, January 16, 2009

Question:

My writers' group has decided to trade favorite/recommended book lists. We're going with top ten. I'm still working on making mine. I want it to be both representative and accurate. Which is tough, since I'd probably put 3 Dostoevsky books (Crime & Punishment, Brother's Karamazov, and Demons) in the top ten, but that would make the list far less representative of what I read and the books I consider great.

This prompts me to ask the, extremely straightforward question:

What are your top ten books? You can make the list however you want. And I promise not to judge too harshly, but listing Harry Potter will earn you a demerit (as will listing any series as if it were a single book, so two demerits if you list "Harry Potter").

It's based on a novel by a man named Lear

Sunday, January 11, 2009

It's About Time

This past Saturday, President Elect Obama visited Ben's Chili Bowl. It's about time.

For those who don't know, Ben's is a D.C. institution. In fact, I've often said that if you had to sum up D.C. with just one experience it wouldn't be a museum or a memorial, it would be Ben's Chili Bowl.

It's located in the U Street Corridor, a historically black neighborhood that has seen both boom and bust. There have been riots and celebrations, economic blight and gentrification. But through it all, there's been Ben's Chili Bowl (well, since 1958 at least). The walls of Ben's are lined with photos of celebrities and politicians who have dined there, the majority of them African American. Bill Cosby even honored Ben's by having a press conference there to celebrate the success of his sitcom.

And the food! Oh, the food! Chili half-smokes (their specialty), Chili cheese fries, Chili dogs, Chili burgers; it's all simply amazing.

So on the one hand you have this fantastic, D.C. institution, that's a pillar of the African-American community, where celebrities and politicians routinely eat, and on the other you have the nation's premier African-American politician. For Obama to stop in at Ben's and enjoy a half-smoke was such a no-brainer, the only real question is why it never happened before.

After all, Obama's been in D.C. for four years already. (I should know, we lived in the same building.) What the heck was keeping him away from Ben's?

Maybe he was just waiting for the opportune moment. After all, Ben's became even more enticing for the President-Elect after he won the election.

There used to be a sign saying something to the effect of:

The following people eat for free:
Bill Cosby.
All others must pay.

After the election the Obamas were added to that list.

It was good to see that Obama finally made it to Ben's. I'm sure it won't be his last visit.

When I sit alone come get a little known
But I need more than myself this time

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A Wonderful, Magical Animal

This might be the greatest thing ever.

Unless you're Jewish or Muslim I suppose...


And though neither should be hard, I'm giving bonus points for both the title reference and song.

It's made with figs
And bacon

Back In The Swing

It's taking me a real long time to get back into the swing of things. We got back from our Christmas vacation Sunday night, so I guess it's really only been two days, but I'm still feeling like I'm vacation.

Except for that going to work thing.

Work has actually been really good the last couple days, but I've been exhausted both days.

Ultimately though, I suppose it's kind of good that I'm not slipping back into routine yet. I'd like to make a few changes as I start back up. Falling into the same old rut wouldn't be conducive to that, so the more friction I build up against the ordinary, the better off I'll be.

Well, that's all I've got for tonight. Weak, I know. But, there are more important things to get to. Like sleep.

Every time I fell for you
I'm permanently black and blue

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

2008 went out in wonderful style, and 2009 is looking exciting. Happy New Year y'all.

Should old acquaintance be forgot