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A Voice in the Wilderness

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there's a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness. -- William O. Douglas

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mexico - by James A. Michener - My Review

I have never read any of Michener's books. I was also warned that Mexico is not one of his better books - not only by friends but from reviews I checked out here on Goodreads.

That said, I think this is a great book. Moreover, if this is one of his not-so-good reads then, I am definitely picking up "Alaska," "Texas," and "Hawaii."

Michener's depth of knowledge is incredible. I have never read anything like it. Since one of my degrees is History with an emphasis on border studies, I found this book completely engaging. It covers Mexican history from pre-columbian times to the early 1950's. To get that kind of historical perspective, you would have to read a history text like Meyer & Sherman's, "The Course of Mexican History."

One of the chief complaints regarding Michener's, "Mexico" was that there was a heavy emphasis on Bullfighting which was part of the main story. I do not particularly like anything relating to Bullfighting because the odds are stacked against the bull and regardless of how well he defends himself against the Matador and crew, his fate is sealed; he will die.

Regardless, I found the information interesting as it reflected much about the cultural perspectives of Mexico and yields a deeper contextual understanding of Latin American world view which often seems to get lost - especially nowadays as xenophobia abounds in the USA regarding Mexicans.

While Michener's scope of knowledge is staggering, I wish he had delved even farther back in history to yield a deeper understanding about bulls and their significance in pre-western culture. Nonetheless, it is beautifully written book. It reveals nuances of Mexican culture which I believe are absolutely essential for we as Norte Americanos to understand.

Why? Mexican's are the fastest growing population of American Citizens and their penchant for strong central government, their comparatively high religiosity and appreciation for strong - even dictatorial leaders will most definitely have bearing on future US Leaderships which they and their descendants will influence when they world view by plebiscite.

Example: Owing to Ronald Reagan's Amnesty program, there is no denying they helped to elect George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger into office because they shared political alignment and held loyalty to the Republican party. However, their shift in political allegiance has begun to move in the opposite direction owing to the increasing hostility toward Mexicans as isolationist sentiments are on the rise.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A New Gate

I just hung these gates last Wednesday. I originally was going to make them with the tops arched in reverse so that the peak was at the top, centered between the gates. However, after flipping the top rails on a whim, I liked the way they looked.

I decided to stain the gates in a puritain pine finish. I finished out the jambs by mixing some walnut with maple in order to approximate the finish on the railroad ties which used to be the borders for an old rose bed.
The jambs were necessary because the railroad ties were twisted and bent too much to accommodate the gates.

The oak railroad timbers were originally part of a landscaping feature where they were utilized as a border for a small rose garden. They are bent and weathered, so, I decided to plant them in the ground placing the most curved timber at the top, imparting an aged appearance. However, the gate's pronounced curvature, - the downward bend at the mid point of the top timber - is hardly noticeable. I decided I liked the way the timber looked overhanging the uprights so I didn't cut the excess that extends beyond the uprights.

My reason for deciding to invert the top rails of the gates is because the combo works well as gates and entry complement each other.
The combination has a zen quality to it. Additionally, since I love reading so much, I decided to make the middle rail arched as well in order to make the gates look like a book, laid open.

Finally, the arched rails make the gate look like it is sagging - reminiscent of those famous doors at Santuario de Chimayo located in Northern New Mexico. Unfortunately, the gates of that ancient church remain fixed because they long ago lost their functionality.

I tried to capture that aesthetic appeal but wanted mine to be functional as well.

I elected no to put speakeasy windows in the gates because I really don't need them.

The wood is seasoned #2 pine which means the wood has some knots. Additionally, the panels are 3/4" solid pine as well. I still have not decided what to do about a gate handle. I think I am going to make my own out of wrought iron. I have a friend who tinkers around on his spare time doing blacksmith work. It is something I have always wanted to learn. I am thinking about something rustic.

I'll be posting more pictures of the next set of gates currently being fabricated, to be installed this week once my customer decides on the final finish.

Monday, June 14, 2010

On Writing and Teaching Fiction - by Wallace Stegner - My Review

Wallace Stegner was a writer who hailed from the Western United States. He wrote novels, short stories and I came to know about him while watching Ken Burns' TV Series, "The National Parks" which aired on PBS earlier this year. Further research revealed he was a prolific writer and he wrote passionately about environmental preservation.

Educated in the Western US - receiving his Baccalaureate degree (University of Utah), to his Masters and PhD Degrees from Iowa where he also studied at the Iowa Writer's Workshop - he went on to teach at the University of Wisconsin, Harvard and Stanford University. His students included many famous American writers such as Edward Abbey, Thomas McGuane, Robert Stone, Ken Kesey, Gordon Lish, Ernest Gaines, and Larry McMurtry, Wallace Berry and the poet, N. Scott Momaday.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't offer so much background on Stegner but I believe knowing his background is important in setting the context for someone who had so much influence - not only on the environment but on contemporary American writing. I picked up several of his books and started "Crossing to Safety," "Beyond the Hundredth Meidian, "Angle of Repose," - which he won a Pulitzer prize for, "The Spectator Bird," - which he won a national Book award for, "Big Rock Candy Mountain," "Joe Hill," and "On teaching and Writing Fiction.

Stegner's style is easy and unpretentious and this particular book, "On Teaching and Writing Fiction" is one of the few books I will re-read in the future. While it is short, it is filled with useful pointers and advice for anyone who loves writing.
At points throughout the book, I found myself lamenting the fact that he had passed away and that I would never get to meet him. And yet, his words still live on so, not all is lost for me. I suppose that elusive quality of immortality is something that I enjoy so much about writing.

There are so many quotable thoughts Stegner offers in this book that I was tempted to write in the margins. I thought better about the sacrilege and instead began to hand copy the salient points. That proved to be comical because I was actually copying whole paragraphs and even sentences so, I finally began marking pages with post-it notes. That's when I decided maye I ought to just resign myself to re-reading the book again. That is a rarity for me. But, Wallace Stegner is that good.

Of the many quotes I enjoyed, I managed to distill this gem from the bunch;

"...The Big Rock Candy Mountain. It is not a story in the modern vein. I choose it not because it reveals the world to our suddenly unsealed eyes, or because it demonstrates anything about the changing form of the short story, or because I think it is the best thing I ever wrote, but because it is simple and undevious and unambiguous. I know what experience it comes from, I know what's in it, I know why I wrote it, I know what I got out of writing it. As well as any story I might have picked, it can be used to substantiate my faith that fictionizing is an essential function of the mind and emotions - that reality is not fully reality until it has been fictionized."

I am half way through, "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian," and a quarter through "Crossing to Safety." Both are very different and yet, there is a thread of continuity through them both that is unmistakably Wallace Stegner. My life is richer for having met him - if only through the written word.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Death of Ivan Illych - Leo Tolstoy - My Review

I have seldom read literature where authors can get into a person's head quite the way Leo Tolstoy does. I read, "The Death of Ivan Illych" with the ever present sense of dread. Even so, I could not put it down. I am amazed at the kind of detail Tolstoy delivered - even with such a short story.

I typically like longer novels but, "The Death of Ivan Illych" took only what was necessary to tell the story.

The great, Western American writer, Wallace Stegner, on discussing the craft of writing fiction stated that there are times when a writer may not have sufficient experience surrounding a topic. His advice was that such times call for improvisation.

Having read Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' "On Death and Dying,' I was impressed at how closely Tolstoy came to describing what Kübler-Ross discerned from her scientific research.

In the second half of the book, I couldn't help but think about my father who died nearly four years ago after his own three year long battle with Stomach Cancer. Ivan Illych conjured up difficult memories for me and, despite the pain, it was a touching reminder which caused me to contemplate the very real possibility that my Dad went through a similar experience as he dealt with his own mortality.

It is my understanding that Leo Tolstoy's own end of life story eerily reminisced what he wrote about 23 years before he actually died. I believe Ivan Illych turned out to be a gift - not only to the world - but to Tolstoy himself in that it afforded him an opportunity to explore the phenomena of Human Beings dealing with death. This lends support to my claim that what distinguishes great writers is their ability to tap into Humanity's collective consciousness.

In that way, Oscar Wilde had it right in his anti mimesis argument; Life really does imitate art. Moreover, the hallmark of great literature is that it offers something more than high-level entertainment. It dares to explore phenomena that are universal in nature, contextually accurate and even far ahead of the research only because the writers dare to imagine.

While it is a given that certain rules regarding mechanics, syntax, timing, voice and other issues of the craft associated with writing are essential, baseline requirements for effective communication, it is the art of applying scrutiny and inventiveness that impels gifted writers to do what they do best; they dare to imagine.

Injecting such nuance makes them capable of transcending both time and space. Such words, like launched arrows develop a trajectory independent of the archer - In Tolstoy's case, posterity has borne out the accuracy of his aim regarding the Human condition.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Semester One & Two of Spanish Love Songs

Semester One of Spanish Love Song

Semester Two of Spanish Love Song

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Like Water for Chocolate - My Review

I'm not really certain what all the rage was about regarding this book.

Esquivel is a brilliant writer and she definitely has a great idea in the magical references she makes over Tita's supernatural effect on the world around her as she prepares meals. I am a big fan of magical realism and I love cooking so, when the book opened, I was drawn in in very quickly.

The way I see it, the part of magical realism that works is when a story line carries a thread of believability. It is that ability to explain some phenomenon or event by extraordinary means. It is the ability to offer an alternative explanation for something which may or may not be true. It is the ability to tell a story and continue building on it to the point where the line between reality and fantasy are blurred. Laura Esquivel's story opened with a promising start but her character development fizzled into a world of the preposterous and therefore failed in its delivery.

Esquivel got the magical part down. However, where she fell short was on the realism.

The down side for me is that many of the characters are just plain unlikable. I hated Mama Elena for her selfish domineering nature, Rosario for her insipid nature, Pedro for his being a coward and Tita de la Garza for letting everything from family tradition to blind devotion to the spineless, confused Pedro dominate her life. On the one hand Tita has the ability to effect emotion over vast populations yet, despite such power, she has no power over her destiny.

Pedro is the jerk who didn't deserve to knock Tita's sexual socks off - not only because he 'settled' for her sister but because he he already had a lifetime liaison of sexual conveniences with Rosario that culminated in Esperanza's conception. In short, he got it all by default while good guys - like John who faithfully carried a torch for Tita the rest of his days - rounded out the story being another post-script entry under the category entitled, 'life's beautiful losers.'

Esquivel's magical realism sort of works but she seems to stray more toward magical thinking; a kind of storytelling so fantastic that it lays it self open to dismissal. While Esquivel's writing is reminiscent of Isabel Allende "Like Water for Chocolate" comes across as a pastiche of the genre. Esquivel is no Isabel Allende. I suppose it is because some of the events she describes are so over the top. How can someone knit a 3 hectare blanket?

If I could give half stars, this would be a 2 1/2 star rating. "Like water for Chocolate" didn't work for me because it just wasn't believable or perhaps I should say, it wasn't magical enough.

It was an entertaining story but it sure as hell wasn't uplifting.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Shop Class as Soul Craft - My Review

I grew up in a working class family. Throughout my childhood, Dad always had me working at his side completing various project and side-jobs. He saw the beauty in his children being to work with their hands and believed it was the best hedge against starving to death. He had a strong work ethic and loved to tinker around his shop. He also drew great satisfaction in seeing a job come to completion and admired ingenuity over wealth. There was a certain beauty attached to something that came out of the creative process arising out of some tangible need called for by the task at hand.

While I protested all the way and failed to appreciate the process, I do recall the sense of accomplishment that came at the completion of whatever job we were doing. I have come to appreciate the wisdom of my Dad's' unrelenting insistence that I learned how to work with my hands.

Matt Crawford makes some excellent arguments for earning a living with your hands. Crawford is an academic but he hasn't forgotten where he came from. He was an electrician who worked his way through university. His education culminated with a PhD after completing his baccalaureate studies in the hard science of Physics.

To some, his decision to step down from the pinnacle of working in a high powered think tank in order to pursue his love of tinkering with motorcycle repair, was sheer folly.

I disagree.

Crawford experienced the sense of accomplishment and
gratification associated with working with his hands. In this book, he honors people who earn a living by the sweat of their brow.

He makes a cogent argument that intelligence and vocation are not mutually exclusive. It is particularly impressive that he could be be so articulate in honoring the workers whose contributions are so necessary in any society. He doesn't dumb down the writing because he reflects what blue collar workers know; they are not dumb.

Unfortunately, social demands and value placed on 'brain powered' jobs tends to marginalize the people who are the back bone of this nation. It is no longer a commonplace notion that high merit should be placed on physical labor. The result for such convention is creation of a world where the predictable outcome is standardized and made ever more precise using measurable data, true craftsmanship and ingenuity are slowly being diminished in the interest of progress.

While I can proclaim my deep sense of satisfaction to be linked with creation, and working with my hands is an integral part of my life, I would be remiss if I did not add this caveat; we live in a mean world.

You see, banks don't give a damn about how good I feel about working with my hands. They tend to rank my credibility in the world according to whether I can pay my debts. That attendant value associated with work earned by sweat of the proverbial brow is substantially lower than say, work done by day traders, doctors, lawyers and actors.

I suppose the most frustrating issue for me is that - like most people who have traveled this road of subsistence versus the path lined with monetary success - is that it is tough to make a sour grapes argument. Plainly put; it sucks to be poor.

I want more and I want to enjoy a life where I am disencumbered enough to do what I really love and that is to be a writer. The upside is I have my dreams. The down side of it is that I have to pay my bills.

Dividing my time between what is necessary and what I desire is what life is all about. Meanwhile, I bust my butt every day in order to meet whatever demands I deemed important at some earlier time in life - important enough that I committed my name to dotted lines.

Undoubtedly, the sense of accomplishment I feel - whenever I create a piece of furniture, complete a remodel, build a beautiful door or gate or some stone structure like a fence or fireplace from scratch or even when I just figure out how to do something, that brings great satisfaction. Finding people who appreciate the same is becoming daily less common. Being a craftsman nowadays is tantamount to living a life of servitude and while I am not convinced that the future looks bright, I am nonetheless committed. I keep building and I keep paying my debts and I keep on dreaming of better days ahead.

Yes, working with my hands is a charmed life. Like it or not, I am committed and even if I could change things, I doubt that I would. Romantic inklings aside, here's hoping I don't end up living under a bridge any time soon.

Thanks Matt and Thanks Dad.

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