More Cotton’s Library fans

I think the brief rainbow moment is now closed securely between the pages of history books. Back to real life, including the disheartening omnishambles known as the Greek Crisis.

But, as there is nothing particularly important for me to say about that, right now I’m going to extend the positive a bit longer, here.

The summer 2015 issue of The Quarterdeck newsletter has included Cotton’s Library in its book section; I thank them for the notice and endorsement. You can download the issue for free.

Meanwhile, on a personal level I am even more gratified that my younger brother has actually read both of my books and enjoyed them. Possessed of many good qualities including some keen perception, mah bro is not exactly a dedicated reader, all the same. Let alone a history nerd. So I’m touched that he has read through two nonfiction history works, one of them about long-dead English antiquaries and their obsessive documentary collecting. And enjoyed them.

For anyone who might be curious, I will have both books with me at Author Alley, Saturday the 11th. Stop by!

What next for the Democratic Party?

Let’s indulge hope, just for a moment, and play pretend. Let’s imagine possibilities, precisely because we’re pessimists and expect that even an illusion of encouraging circumstances is usually short lived, and so one might as well daydream when one gets the chance.

Along these lines, then, let’s ask what liberals/Democrats should do next?

The prompting for this bit of whimsy is, obviously, the Affordable Care Act’s most recent Houdini Act. Plus a couple of recent articles that more directly considered the idea that the Democratic Party might be about due for a new project.

This is, on a basic level, not actually all that fanciful. It does seem possible that the years-long effort to implement and defend the Affordable Care Act is, at least, ready to shift from war-of-survival to maintenance-program. I think it isn’t completely delusional to suggest, as Vox has, that Republicans are just running out of ideas to disembowel the ACA with one stroke. More importantly, perhaps, I suspect that they may also just be running out of steam a little bit. At some level. Certainly the fact that, by the time the Supreme Court finally ruled on King v Burwell, many many elected Republicans were actually quietly relieved that they didn’t have to deal with the consequences of a “victory” suggests that they may be ready to redirect resources to some other issue.

So perhaps the Democratic Party ought to be thinking the same thing. Significantly, and strange as it is to suggest, “Obamacare” arguably completes the several-decades-long project of safety net programs. Compared with e.g. a European welfare state, America’s redistributive social programs are still a net, indeed, i.e. full of holes. But as a skeleton, an outline, they do seem basically complete: old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, disability payments, and, finally, a program that at least aspires toward universal health care access (however short it falls at present). There is no longer any obvious, complete void to demand patching over as priority one.

At the same time, I might add, it looks (from my point of admitted privilege) like social equality is making reasonable progress. Racism, sexism, homophobia etc. still certainly exist, but the space in which it’s okay to be noticed practicing these -isms seems to get narrower every year. Maybe, as I will speculate with some other issues as well, progress from the bottom up is now self-sustaining here without top-down pressure. Perhaps.

All of this suggests both an opportunity and a challenge. A once-in-a-generation chance to think big and dream of something more than just building a floor is kind of exciting, in theory. At the same time, however, a description I read a few years back of legislative reform in America having “limited bandwidth” has only seemed more and more apt with time. It seems likely that Democrats will mark eight years in the White House with precisely one major legislative achievement to show for them (health care reform). It seems just about as likely that accomplishing even that much in the next decade will be a tall order. Yet that’s all the more reason to prioritize. Chance is always a factor, but for the most part this generation shouldn’t expect much further in the way of big, national progressive reform without a sustained, focused campaign for it. Plus, a party ought to have some national agenda to run on in a national election, however dim that agenda’s prospects, right?

So: what to place first in that low-bandwidth download queue? (Note: as this is primarily a look at what should be done, even if there is limited support, it won’t be constrained by present congressional malapportionment, etc., because what do several more years of locked-in gerrymandering matter when it may take 10, 15 or more years to build your case for action anyway? That said, I am going to “score” each issue and will examine political prospects therein, briefly.) Read More →

Ten years in exile

The other day, I recalled that this spring I passed the one-decade mark since moving to Ohio, and have made no real comment. Honestly, I suppose that I really have little of great interest to say.

I have spent a large part of my life here, at this point. More than I spent in central Iowa, even if one rolls together the years in Des Moines and the schoolyear residencies in Ames that preceded them. More than half my adult life, even if one starts that clock at 18.

Yet my living here is really still the product of a random life accident. (So long as I remain, people are never going to stop asking “how ever did you end up here?”) I found myself here largely by chance, and have remained because… Let me put it this way:

Cleveland is okay, but it’s just a place. Lakewood is a comfortable corner, but it too is ultimately just a place. I recall the final issue of the 1990s Starman series, when Jack Knight is heartbroken about parting from his beloved Opal City; if any character’s Opal fetish surpassed Jack’s it was the Shade’s, and yet the Shade offers a reality check to Jack’s handwringing: “Opal is a city. Beautiful, but in the end just a city.” That’s about where I am, at this point in life, not just with Cleveland but anywhere else.

The starry-eyed dreams of my 20s are put away. I realize that some people’s lives really do change dramatically as the result of a change of address, whether because a community offers these or those particular advantages, or because they simply fall in love with it. I’m happy for those people. But I’m not one of them and don’t expect to become one. Falling in love is not my strong suit; buy-in is not my strong suit. I always see the flaws. This goes for Cleveland—the decay, the corruption, the incompetence, the hang-ups, the disgraceful senescence of the local media—but it goes for the alternatives as well.

I know that utopia means “no place,” now. I know that incompetence and corruption flourish in most communities. Meanwhile, potentially offsetting advantages are usually offset, themselves, by other drawbacks. Appalling climate. Too far from my family, commercial and social ties. Expense; most cities are too expensive compared with Cleveland, and local wages are unlikely to affect my remote-working freelance income. I keep an eye on things, and some day circumstances may change. I have lots of boxes ready to go should that happen.

Meanwhile, here I am, and I really have no deep observations about Cleveland or Ohio. The closest I can come is to explain that in a lot of ways I have never really left the place I grew up in; a lot of America and indeed the modern world is increasingly generic, these days, but within the prairie core of the Midwest the differences are vanishingly small from one end to the other. There is variation, I’m sure, but I don’t think it has much to do with which region you’re in, within the Midwest. Having lived in all three, I can say with some confidence that the difference between life in a small Iowa city and a large Iowa city is much greater than the difference between a large Iowa city and a large Ohio city.

I do prefer the city, and I think I prefer a city on the scale of Cleveland a bit over the scale of Des Moines (though the difference is shrinking year by year). Otherwise, one Midwestern city (or inner suburb thereof, for the pedantic) is much like another for my purposes, just now. I live in one, it’s okay, and such things as I want to change about my life seem unlikely to be furthered much by exchanging this city for any other within reach.

Unless anyone has an artist-in-residency program, or some other grant incentive they want to talk about. No? Right-o, then.

The Economic Puzzles of Dwayne Wade

Conversations about professional athletes’ salaries hold a strange fascination for me. Probably because they are, fundamentally, strange; where else in our society do we have anything like this? When else do Americans discuss money and merit, ownership and labor, “fairness,” and the limitations of income-maximization as motive, in contexts that are frank, detailed, personal and public? Wrangling to assemble an elite team in leagues with both free agency and a salary cap has become a completely ordinary part of sports comment, no different from starting lineups or officiating. Then there’s the odd fact that one of the most vibrant and assertive examples of organized labor pressure left in America involves wealthy athletes, many of them multimillionaires, as its worker side of class struggle.

Of course this is interesting. Sometimes disgusting, and still interesting anyway.

Recently, one particular salary storyline has been nagging at me; I believe I have finally teased out an insight or two worth recording. In recent weeks Miami Heat guard Dwayne Wade has been signaling dissatisfaction with Heat owner Pat Riley’s salary offering. One can read further detail elsewhere, but basically I feel like a reader comment on one story summed things up best. After Dave Hyde referred to Wade’s “sacrifices” over his Heat career, erikszpyra asked “What past sacrifices really? The man has made over $100 million in contracts and endorsements from basketball, along with 5 trips to the Finals with 3 rings. What did Wade give up that warrants crippling the Heats [sic] chance to rebuild?”

Now, this situation by itself is just par for the course with pro sports coverage. Few phenomena have ever provided more perfect or obvious demonstrations of the obnoxious remark that, once one is securely rich, “money is just how you keep score.” Still, I can’t help marveling at what seems like a massive instance of missing the whole point. Dwayne Wade certainly has “fuck-you money” many times over, and from a working class perspective it seems like he should be long past the point of spending even a second caring about more money, and simply doing whatever he wants with his life. I’m familiar with the “hierarchy of needs,” yet I still can’t help asking, why is he expending effort on this? Why not just forget it, and live life on his terms? He’s competitive and likes to win, fine, great; consider what really constitutes winning in life. If he wants to play basketball, just play basketball.

It’s possible to think of reasons why Wade might want something that even his current wealth can’t purchase. That’s always possible. Absent any information to this effect, though, I will presume that he is not driven by aspirations to build the world’s largest pyramid or start his own space program. Likewise, it’s possible that Wade is fanatically dedicated to some charitable or activist cause, and eager to wrench as much money as possible away from less selfless rich people so that he can direct it to a disadvantaged population instead. If so, I submit that we definitely ought to read more about this, as such an example is at the very least worthy of popular discussion. Nonetheless, absent evidence, I presume that this does not explain Wade’s anxiety about getting more money while financially able to satisfy most personal needs for many lifetimes.

My impression is that, basically, getting more money is a significant part of what Dwayne Wade wants to do with his life right now.

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Trade treaty arguments’ conspicuous omission

In the wake of yesterday’s extensive coverage of the latest development (whatever it was) in the Obama administration’s quest to enact new “free-trade agreements” like the Trans Pacific Partnership, I realized there’s something notable about the associated arguments that I had not noticed before.

Sherlock Holmes memorably observed once, of the non-reaction of a dog at night, “that was the curious incident.” Even with this model before me, it has taken quite some time, but today I finally picked up on a similar absence from advocacy of new trade treaties:

Proponents aren’t promising jobs.

On the surface, this is easy to overlook because “jobs” are still part of the arguments. Mostly, however, in the form of opponents warning that these treaties will result in loss of many Americans’ jobs. Treaty proponents mostly, so far as I can tell, tut-tut and then attempt to change the subject to rosy forecasts for “growth,” or to disingenuous scoldings about protectionism, or to booga-booga-China-scary xenophobic jingo.

What I realized today is notable, however, is that not only are proponents saying little to refute directly the claims of job losses, they aren’t promising job creation. In 2015 American politics this is almost like not including an appeal for money. It’s so strange you might not even notice its absence at once but when you do it’s simply shocking.

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Sequels to The Time Machine

Alongside my collection of Sherlock Holmes works, I have a similar if smaller “project” in progress with one of Holmes’ literary contemporaries, The Time Traveler.

I presume that most literate readers will have at least some vague awareness of H.G. Wells’s classic story “The Time Machine.” It has been adapted into film a few times, and I think one or two of the concepts have even taken on a life of their own. (I don’t recall when I first read the original story, but during my adolescence I was probably much more familiar with “Morlocks” as an X-Men concept.) In any event it’s something of an ur-time-travel story, almost consciously so. Its protagonist is, in fact, identified only as “The Time Traveler.”

I highly recommend this story to those who may not have read it. For those who have, and might be interested in various authors’ sequels, I offer a few notes on my readings thus far in this submicrogenre.

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Requiem for young adulthood

As I approach age 37, it feels like an era in life is closing.

Both “young” and “old” are relative, at least for a big middle portion of life; I got used to being solidly in the overlap some time ago. The college seniors I interview at AIGA’s portfolio review, in recent years, have mostly been born since I started high school.

In Seth’s magnificent George Sprott: 1894-1975, much of the story consists of other figures from the titles character’s life summoning up memories of him. One revisits his adolescence, when an elderly Sprott occasionally dispensed observations about life. One in particular has stuck with me:

…one day, I looked around and there were all these “new” young people everywhere, and I wasn’t one of them. Once that happens, it all speeds up… One day you’re 30 years old, and the next, you look up and there’s an old man in the mirror.

I’ve sensed the truth of this for some time. But turning 37 feels a bit different. For several years I have been aware of the “new” young people and my exclusion from them. I suppose for a while it feels like they exist alongside rather than in place of one’s own youth. Now, however, I’m at the point where I’m not really part of any “young people” except by the broadest of relative definitions.

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Ireland fine with gay marriage

I have had relatively little to say as America has, in 15 years, gone from “don’t ask don’t tell” to legal gay weddings in however many states it is at the moment. That’s hardly a credit to me; the best I can say for myself is that

  1. I’ve never had real opposition to marriage equality
  2. I recognized my lack of close investment in the issue, and generally stood aside trusting advocates to present their case best; and
  3. I have consistently voted for candidates either supportive or at least acquiescent, rather than those peddling repression and bigotry.

I am prompted to post now by the recent referendum in Ireland recognizing gay marriage (as marriage, i.e., not just civil partnerships). This is notable in itself, for a solidly Catholic country in which the church strongly opposed this result. In detail, it also underscores something that I recently concluded about why segregating marriage from same-sex relationships was probably not just wrongheaded but impossible, at least in any society where equality is taken seriously.

This took me way too long to realize, and it can hardly be regarded a great insight given the advantages of hindsight. Still, for what it’s worth…

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Cleveland: population reduced, leadership absent

Cleveland, and Cuyahoga County, continue to hemorrhage population. Nothing new here, right?

But wait, what about the Cleveland Comeback™? As this editorial board “roundtable” from The Plain Dealer* sets out, “The Cavs are in the playoffs, Cleveland is on travel writers’ must-visit lists for 2015 [no idea] and the Republican National Convention is about to bust down the doors in 2016 [whatever that means].” The absurd Opportunity Corridor is being built, too. The dreams of this very editorial board are coming true!

But the population is still shrinking?

Yeah. Still. Which juxtaposition, never quite explicitly confronted but at least presented openly, is the closest that the board comes to saying anything useful on this topic.

Reading between the lines, this is basically a confession of intellectual bankruptcy by Cleveland’s leadership. They hem and haw, but the reality is, the agenda that they advocate has largely been driving planning in Cleveland and it doesn’t seem to be producing a meaningful turnaround. Yes, this is nice and that’s big and shiny, but the reality is that downtown and University Circle are small islands in a sea of rusty decline. In the decade I’ve spent living in this region, this editorial board and most other local “leaders” have had no real ideas besides reinforcing those successes. Clearly, though, something more is needed. Just as clearly, it won’t come from the top down.

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Lego Dimensions: 1) cute, 2) duh?

At risk of starting a habit of posting dorky and nostalgic video clips, I want to leave a brief comment about this promotion for “Lego Dimensions.” (Thanks to The Outhouse for the pointer.)

This is a hoot, obviously. Doc Brown doesn’t seem exactly as I remember him, but 1) neither does 2015, 2) a whole lot of fun is had here, all the same.*

Watching for a second time today, though, I gave a bit more attention to the 20 seconds or so of super-quick-cuts near the end which promote “Lego Dimensions” more directly. For the video-allergic, this is basically a CGI visit to Mashup City, featuring Batman, Gandalf, Sauron, the Old West and, naturally, Dr. Brown, among others. And it occurred to me: isn’t this, at a basic level, much of the point of playing with Legos?

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