Monday, January 25, 2010

Game Change: I read, so you don't have to.*

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime

by John Heileman and Mark Halperin

I try to stay away from political drama. This takes quite an effort, in San Francisco. 
Even when benign, political passions waste valuable energies, treasures better spent in areas where we have some control. The fact that we have the vote feeds our natural fascination with our own opinions, no matter how impotent or ill-founded they are. I get wrought up over a politician or issue just like anyone else, but let's get real, folks: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Neither does 99.9% of the American electorate. 
I suspect that most of the people paid to comment on politics are equally clueless. They aren't much closer to the action than we are.

Heileman and Halperin's book is a fascinating education in the reality of politics. They do know what they're talking about. The authors focus on the actual players. The first thing I noticed in their narrative was the absence of policy talk. The voters care about policies. Their rulers—both current and aspiring—care about power. Who's got it? How can I get it? How can I keep it? They think about power the way misers think about money. Power is an end in itself; what they'll do with it is a secondary concern for them.

Of course, the candidate must pretend to live in the voters' world and share their concerns. This is especially difficult in primary races. Imagine being Barack Obama and debating Hillary Clinton. You must convince the audience that your proposal for subsidized health care is completely different—and better—than hers. Ditto your proposed withdrawal from Iraq. You must serve them the exact same meal, on slightly different dishes, and say, "You'll like mine much better!"

Difficult as this dance is, we're watching professionals here. Most of the actors are so skillful, the only real excitement occurs on those rare occasions when they fall down, or forget their lines. This is the reason we loved watching Sarah Palin. She was not an actress, and couldn't become one overnight, despite the McCain team's best efforts. Forced onstage anyway, she had a crack-up almost every day. It was like watching a motor track race with a big smash-up in each lap.

Game Change is a riveting story. The authors end the book with an account of President-elect Obama's pleading with Hillary Clinton, to serve as his Secretary of State. Obama comes off pragmatic and stylish as usual. 

With the drama of Game Change fresh in my mind, I wondered how much will actually change during Obama's administration. Before the US economy slid into a ditch, the issue Obama raised highest, the one he counted on to elevate him above Clinton and McCain, was Iraq and the larger war on terror. Obama would bring a bold, new approach to these efforts, reversing President Bush's grave errors in judgment.

Today there are more American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than there were at any time in Bush's administration—thousands more. Osama Bin Laden is still alive. Will US involvement in either country end, anytime soon? If anyone thinks this, I've yet to hear from them. Perhaps a president's options are fewer than we mere mortals imagine. Perhaps putting a new man at the desk does not necessarily expand those options.

* I listened to the audiobook, obtainable on

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Beach in Winter, and Leaving the Wall

The ocean near my house throws up debris in winter: tons of driftwood and a dead sea mammal or two. The scene reminds me of T.S. Eliot's poem, The Dry Salvages.

The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses

Its hints of earlier and other creation.

Arty San Franciscans assemble sculpture from found objects on the beach. 

Last night I took Max for his first ice-skating session. I'd only skated once in the last thirty years, myself. Max did well; he didn't get discouraged when he fell down. Both of us noted an important rule: You must resist the urge to put a hand on the outside wall, for balance. When I pulled him far away from the wall, Max skated 800% further without falling. 

Many people have observed this principle. It is expressed masterfully by Robert Greene in his book, The 33 Strategies of War:

In the back of your mind, you keep an escape route, a crutch, something to turn to if things go bad. . . . you may see the fallback as a blessing — but in fact it is a curse. It divides you. Because you think you have options, you never involve yourself deeply enough in one thing to do it thoroughly, and you never quite get what you want. . . .
A sense of urgency comes from a powerful connection to the present. Instead of dreaming of rescue or hoping for a better future, you have to face the issue at hand. Fail and you perish. People who involve themselves completely in the immediate problem are intimidating; because they are focusing so intensely, they seem more powerful than they are. Their sense of urgency multiplies their strength and gives them momentum. 

This is the kind of error that's easy to recognize in others, but difficult to acknowledge in ourselves. We think we are exceptions, that we have enough discipline to skate and hold onto a rail. Even if this tactic worked, it wouldn't be much fun. True satisfaction can only come from complete engagement with the present. Whether we succeed or fail, we'll want to know we've put all our attention into the effort. 

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey To The End Of The Night: I read, so you don't have to

In my early twenties, I lived with a voracious reader. He infected me with his serial passions. First came Henry Miller, then Charles Bukowski, then John Fante, then Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Céline is that exceedingly rare writer whose work is exquisite in whole AND in part.

Céline's hero begins his adventures by joining the army in France, during World War I. From there he works in the African jungle and Detroit, Michigan before returning to France. Along his way, in circumstances mundane and terrifying, he maintains both openness to experience and detachment from it, a god-like clarity.

The passages below are quoted from Ralph Manheim's translation from the french.

San Francisco, 1992

I never saw Princhard again. He had the same trouble as all intellectuals—he was ineffectual. He knew too many things, and they confused him. He needed all sorts of gimmicks to steam him up, help make up his mind.

Tokyo, 2007

"You're already far away, Ferdinand. You're doing exactly what you want, aren't you? That's the main thing. It's the only thing that counts . . ."

The train pulled in. I wasn't so sure of my plans once I saw the engine. I kissed Molly with all the spirit I had left . . . I was sad for once, really sad, for everybody, for myself, for her, for everybody.
Maybe that’s what we look for all our lives, the worst possible grief, to make us truly ourselves before we die.

Tokyo, 2007

The worst part is wondering how you’ll find the strength tomorrow to go on doing what you did today and have been doing for much too long, where you’ll find the strength for all that stupid running around, those projects that come to nothing, those attempts to escape from crushing necessity, which always founder and serve only to convince you one more time that destiny is implacable, that every night will find you down and out, crushed by the dread of more and more sordid and insecure tomorrows.

San Francisco, 2003

I thought being in love with somebody as adorable as Musyne would give me every kind of strength and virtue, especially the courage I lacked, just because she was so pretty and such a gifted musician. Love is like liquor, the drunker and more impotent you are, the stronger and smarter you think yourself and the surer you are of your rights.

New York, 1986

Just plain living, what a drag! Life is a classroom, and boredom is the monitor, always keeping an eye on you, you have to look busy at all costs, busy with something fascinating, otherwise he comes and corrodes your brain. A day that’s nothing more than a lapse of twenty-four hours is intolerable. Like it or not, a day should be one long, almost unbearable pleasure, one long coitus.

Disgusting thoughts of this kind come to you when you’re crazed by necessity, when a desire for a thousand other things and places is squeezed into each one of your seconds.

Canadian, Texas 1987

A room changes in a few months, even if you don’t move anything. Old and rundown as things may be, they still find the strength, the Lord knows where, to get older. Everything had changed around us. Not that anything had moved, no, of course not, the things themselves had actually, changed, in depth. Things are different when you go back to them, they seem to have more power to enter into us more sadly, more deeply, more gently than before, to merge with the death which is slowly, pleasantly, sneakily growing inside us, and which we train ourselves to resist a little less each day. From moment to moment, we see life languishing, shriveling inside us, and with it the things and people who may have been commonplace or precious or imposing when we last left them. Fear of the end has marked all that with its wrinkles, while we were chasing around town in search of pleasure or bread.

Soon our past will be attended only by inoffensive, pathetic, disarmed things and people, mistakes with nothing to say for themselves.

Philadelphia, 1982

Speaking of the past, what I remembered best when I was in good spirits was Molly, like the echo of a clock striking in the distance. When something pleasant popped into my mind, I always thought of her.

After all, when our egoism lets us go for a while, when it comes time to throw it off, the only women whose memory you cherish in your hearts are the ones who really loved men a little, not just one man, even if it was you, but the whole lot.

San Francisco, 2003

When you’re not used to the comfort and luxuries of the table, they go to your head in no time. Truth is always glad to leave you. With next to no encouragement it will set you free. And we manage very nicely without it. Amid this sudden plethora of comforts a fine meglomaniacal delirium finds no difficulty in overwhelming you.

New York, 1984

Far in the distance the tugboat whistled; its call passed the bridge, one more arch, then another, the lock, another bridge, farther and farther . . . It was summoning all the barges on the river, every last one, and the whole city and the sky and the countryside and ourselves, to carry us all away, the Seine too—and that would be the end of us.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Max's Camera Work

Happy 2010 everyone. 

Max took a normal trip with Mommy to JapanTown this week. He took a camera with him, and brought back these photos. Max makes many art projects. At present, his drawing is no better than his class mates'. Probably his photographs are similar to other 5-year-olds' as well. I post them here because I like to see the world from his vantage point.

The view from the back seat. I told Max he's treated like a king now, being driven around town by a beautiful woman. Sadly, he's too young to appreciate it. I told him that life is all down hill from here.

At the grocery store, Max shot whatever looked good to him. About this photo, he said, "I like sugar." 

It's refreshing to see things from Max's lower eye-level, although he is gaining on me every day. If he stays interested in photography when he's a teenager, perhaps I'll receive aerial views.

You may recognize this Mommy face. It's the one Mommy makes while hearing, "Buy it, buy it, please!"