Friday, October 25, 2002


Of course I should have known that the one time I promised someone that a particular essay would appear on this web page at a particular time would be the one time that something much more interesting (to me, anyway) would come up.

So... those of you who surfed over to L.I.A.N.T. today looking for my review/essay/response/whatever of Sam Western’s book are in for a slight disappointment. I haven’t dropped this project, of course, but, well, important as that book and its implications for my home state and my own life and stuff are, well... well...

This is going to be much more fun. For my local readers, anyway. Out of towners, well, you might want to rethink where you’re going for Thanksgiving, or something, because you might just want to make a little pilgrimage to Saratoga during National Novel Writing Month (formerly known as November).

That’s right, folks. Not only am I finally going to write a novel (how tiresome, how cliche, doesn’t every poseur wordsmith make that announcement at some time in his or her banal little cookie cutter of a life?), but I’m going to write, specifically, a 50,000 word novel, and I’m going to do it in 30 days.

And as a participant in this program (my username, for those who want to look me up at, is qatesiurade - click to see my profile there), I’m going to do it in spectacularly public fashion.

Starting at midnight on November 1, I’ll be visible in various locales – the Lazy River Cantina, the Hotel Wolf porch (or bar), Lollypop’s, my office, town hall, wherever I happen to have an idea and a fully-charged battery in my laptop – sucking down coffee (or maybe Red Bull. Red Bull seems to be the national drink of NaNoWriMo, and I’m nothing if not a bandwagon jumper, right?), typing, scowling, smoking fearfully stinky cigars and calling random strangers assholes for interrupting me.

This process due to go on until midnight on November 30 or whenever I finish, whichever comes first. At which point I’ll have a few hundred steaming pages of novel, dark and smelly and squishing between my toes. It’s not going to be good or publishable or even coherent; that’s not, precisely, the point of NaNoWriMo. The point is to get us weirdos who’ve always believed or hoped or wondered if maybe we could actually be novelists to stop believing or hoping or wondering and start writing, for crying out loud. NaNoWriMo’s motto is “No plot? No problem!” Write! Write! Don’t stop to worry about plot structure or motivation or if your sentences are maybe a bit too baroque – that can all be fixed later, if you want to. The important thing is to write! Write, dammit, write!

I think I can do this, I really do. This web page, after all, has proven to me that yes, I can in fact crank out 1500 or so words a day that someone wants to read (I guess... since, well, here you are, aren’t you?). The challenge is just cranking out 1500 words a day about the same thing that someone will want to read.

It’s going to be interesting. Transformative, even, maybe. Fun, I hope. For me if not for all of you.

As founder Chris Baty observed in a newspaper interview about the phenomenon, upon completion of a NaNoWriMo novel, "A lot of people come away from it feeling like capable artistic individuals for the first time in their adult life."

Here's hopin'!

Apologies in advance to the people who are going to have to deal with this whole new level of frantic foolishness out of me from up close: my own dear personal parents, my enabling assistant, my two best friends on the entire planet, those being Buzzmo and the Sewer King, the Collie of Folly, Secular Johnson, and, well, all of my coffee buddies and all of my drinking buddies and, oh, everybody. I’m sorry, sorry, sorry, from the very depths of my liver (where the Greeks thought was the true seat of emotion and feeling. This heart stuff is modish nonsense, really), for every stupid or mean or annoying or idiotic or baffling or unintentionally surreal or barbaric or wildly inaccurate thing I say, do, or think in the month of November. You are each one of you candidates for sainthood (well, except, perhaps, for Secular Johnson, all of whom are going straight to hell for all that crap about Jesus's brother), and I’m not fit even to grind your coffee beans.


Wednesday, October 23, 2002


SARATOGA, Wyo. -- In a surprise announcement this afternoon, Life in a Northern Town founder and publisher Kate Sherrod announced that she will temporarily suspend publication of new entries on the website.

Sherrod said she is "pretty much putting a halt to everything" until she finishes reading the copy of Samuel Western's Pushed off the Mountain, Sold Down the River: Wyoming's Search for Its Soul that she finally managed to acquire today.

"I have been eagerly awaiting this book since long before it was published, have fielded innumberable inquiries about what I think about it, and need a break from Edmund "Meister Metaphor" Morris anyway," Sherrod said.

Fortunately for L.I.A.N.T. fans, the text, which purports to analyze the relationship between the mythologies the people and government of Wyoming cherish about the place and the realities of its colonial economy, is only 128 pages long (bibliography included), and Sherrod is known to be a very fast reader, especially when she is motivated.

The website, Sherrod said, may resume publication as early as tomorrow, or even this evening if Western's long-awaited opus is as interesting as she has hoped it to be.

"With all the hoopla, the difficulty my friends and I have experienced in acquiring it, and whatnot, this had better be a damned good book, is all I can say," Sherrod said.

She added praise for Saratoga's local bookstore, Cover to Cover, which suceeded in being the first outlet of any kind to get a copy of the book into her hands.

"I had placed orders for this thing everywhere, and had decided that whoever got it to me first got my money. And just look who had the goods," she said.

"Now my readers are just going to have to wait a bit while I get this thang read," she added.

Sam Western could not be reached for comment on the impact his book was already having on the popular rural weblog by press time.

I just read in SALON that Newsweek has published excerpts from Kurt Cobain's
journals, and that a full edition of them is to be published as a book sometime soon.

Do I want to read them?

I do.

Do I feel like a tool for wanting to read them?

I do.

Am I disgusted at this obvious ploy to make more money off the poor guy?

Yes I am.

Am I going to reward this ploy with some of my hard-earned money?



My heart goes out anew to biography writers and to writers of popular history. To keep people reading, such writers frequently have to resort to the techniques of other genres, usually to those of the novel, the one kind of book that only the truly illiterate will never pick up.

Sometimes, though, it would really be better for the book overall if the writer resisted the urge so to resort.

Case in point: once again, I'm going to talk a bit about Edmund Morris's Theodore Rex.

I don't mean to thump on this Morris guy, I really don't. But he's produced this imposing and popular doorstop of a biography about a man I truly admire, so in a sense he asked for it, didn't he?

Part of what, I suspect, has made this book seem so "readable" to so many is this novelizing tendency Morris has. But let's be honest; sometimes it leads him to some truly absurd places, two examples being the narratives surrounding the creation of the Panama Canal, and Roosevelt's re-election campaign in 1904.

Morris's amusing attempts to generate suspense on these topics would, I grant, be very effective in each case, but for the unavoidable fact that renders these attempts absurd: everyone, I mean everyone with enough interest to actually heft this tome and endure the cramp it assures one of developing from carrying it around, already knows where the transcontinental canal was built, and whether or not Theodore Roosevelt was re-elected in 1904.

I'll go out on a limb and say that even many who do not have enough interest to actually heft this tome know that no one ever built a Nicaraguan Canal. Am I right?

So doesn't that kind of render all of these ominous forshadowings, these narrative feints, these pale pink herrings Morris has written everywhere more than a little ridiculous? Especially sentences like this (P. 303):

Should either of these confrontations embarrass the Administration, Roosevelt's hopes of another term could crash.

Now I will say this: in and of themselves, were these accounts being read in a complete vaccuum, they would be very effective, I think. I can't make a more definite assertion than that because I read these accounts in full knowledge of how they end and so find it difficult to really imagine the experience of reading them otherwise, but, on those occasions when I can put on my lit crit specs from my college days and remove myself sufficiently from the world I know into the world I have to pretend I don't know to read this book ("suspension of disbelief" is the term that was fashionable in my day; god knows what literary theorists are saying now; I chucked them out even before I'd finished my sophomore year at Bard), I can sort of see where these accounts have been crafted in a matter of which Tom Clancy would be proud. All the good suspense-generating devices are there, from the subtlest to the broadest hints of what is and may be to come.

What a pity they're wasted on this!

As I observed in my last stab at writing about this book, though, Morris does a great job in producing this suspense where it does belong, too, at least. I don't know of too many people who aren't serious Roosevelt scholars or the like who approached this book fully informed on the Germany/Venezuela crisis of 1902. The only hint I had of the outcome of this particular story element was the knowledge I have (scanty at best; history was not a well-taught subject at Saratoga High School, and I was a language/literature/biology/computer science major in college, so only got the bare minimum there) that the United States and Germany did not find themselves at war until the U.S. entered World War I some 12 years later, and some remarks to the effect that Roosevelt avoided a war at this time made in the dust jacket copy of Theodore Rex.

So this crisis is a good test case for whether or not Morris is any good at creating suspense, and for this reader at least, he passed. Bully for him, his subject would possibly say. Bully!

As I said, though, my heart goes out to him and all of his ilk (not only because I might find myself among them someday), because I know from my days as a journalist that it can be damned difficult to make things like dry diplomatic negotiations or delegate manoeuvering interesting enough to keep the reader from skipping over to the funny pages. Were I faced with the same task Morris set himself here, would I have been able to resist the obvious ease of creating this kind of false suspense?

Good question!

Even with that sympathy, though, slogging through page after page of mock suspense over whether or not there would be a Panama Canal is just plain funny. Unintentionally funny, I am sure, but funny.

I'm sure Morris did not intend it to be funny, poor blighter, but there it is.

And by the way, yes, yes indeed, I write this in full knowledge that maybe someday I'll publish something somewhere outside of this here website, and that some snotnosed ass in some equally unheard-of locale will get his or her rocks off picking my work apart and making fun of my own tics and tendencies. I'm sure Morris did this to someone once upon a time, too, maybe even still does. We writers and writer wannabes are a bitchy, kitschy, unforgiving lot, seeing in our own work unforgivable, unforgettable flaws that we naturally expect those who have published before us to have the superhuman power to avoid, so we heap unheard of volumes of contumely upon them just for failing to live up to our own unrealistic expectations.

Yeah, if you ever wanted to know why most aspiring writers are pretty much assholes, there you go. Check me out, baby. Without provocation and for no particularly good reason, I've just ripped this Morris dude to shreds, all because he didn't write this book the way I would have liked to have seen it written.

In my defense, though, I have read probably more biographies than anyone you are likely to know, have taken a stab or two at writing them myself, and so I do have a pretty good idea of the expected standards, the likelihood of achieving veracity they establish, and the temptations to cheat and to take shortcuts and to show off that face every biographer – every writer for that matter. Morris has, in this book, broken a lot of rules that were there for very good reasons, and so he does deserve a bit of abuse, abuse that I, schmuck though I am, may not strike many as being qualified to deliver to him, but abuse that no one else seems to have had the guts to send his way.

Somebody had to do it.

I still think you should read the book, though. Just be sure to read it with a shaker or two of salt handy.

Or just wait for the movie that is so very obviously in the offing.

Don't laugh at me for being such a bitter oddball as to predict a film version of Theodore Rex, by the way. I do not claim to be a psychic (except maybe at Halloween), but I was the very first professional journalist in the United States to go on the record as predicting that Martin Landau would get the best supporting actor Oscar for his role as Bela Lugosi in the film Ed Wood. And at the time, that was pretty far out, too.

Oh, by the way – add two more books to my ghostly list: 9) Nostromo by Joseph Conrad and 10) Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson.

Tuesday, October 22, 2002


If I happened to see Doonesbury yesterday.

A lot.

As in, really very often.

It’s starting to creep me out, actually.

The short answer is, yes, yes I have seen it, thank you.

The long answer is... is...

Well, before I get into that, I suppose I should give those of you who are not regular readers of the perhaps-misnamed “funny pages” in the newspaper (I would have to count myself among that number, actually. My idea of good comics and the idea of what constitutes same held by most newspaper editors is kind of radically different. I like stuff like Tony Millionaire’s Maakies, for instance) an idea of what yesterday’s Doonesbury had to say.

The setting: Some blond surfer dude is standing behind a darker-haired, vaguely hacker-ish looking dude, who is typing away on his hip new Macintosh pod-thing.

Blond surfer dude: What's that?

Dark-haired hacker dude: Today's blog entry (!)

BSD: Get out - you have a web log?

DHHD: Yup. My daily take on what's going on in the world.

BSD: Wow, that's impressive, dude. I had no idea.

Wait? Don't you have to have something to say?

DHHD: A common misconception.

So yes, yes I did see yesterday’s Doonesbury and no, no I didn’t find it funny, not at all, and thank you VERY much for bringing it up, everybody, because... because... it’s not easy coming up with something new to babble about every day, dammit, and... and... sometimes, yes, all right, I do have to turn to things like 800 page presidential biographies or obscure books of stoic philosophy or the lyrics to half-forgotten Dead Milkmen songs for inspiration when my friends, Romans, coffee buddies fail to provide me with sufficient material, but... but... but... well, I’d like to see you try this sometime, pal!




Now I can’t think of anything to say. And I don’t want to perpetuate any misconceptions, so... so... so...

So I’m just going to go off to Kate’s Landing, sit in the corner and pout for a while, I think.

Great, now I’m all choked up and I’m going to be all kinds of no good for choir practice tonight.


But yes, I did see yesterday’s Doonesbury. And I hope you’re happy!

Theodore Rex
by Edmund Morris
(New York: Random House Books, 2001)

It is not my habit to start writing about a book before I'm done reading it, and I'm only about 1/3 of the way through Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris's tightly focused second volume of his eventual trilogy examining the life of Theodore Roosevelt, but my experience of reading this so far has been so unusual that it at least as blogworthy as my entire takes on the other selections in the LIANT Book Club.

I.E. While this is the first time I've written about this tome, which has not yet been in my hands for a week, it's probably not going to be my last. There's just too much to this book and to the man whose story it tells, to write about just once, and I already have too much on my mind from my reading to let it wait.

Other reviews of Theodore Rex have focused on its "graceful prose" or its "eerie relevance" to the issues that arose right around the time of its original publication (the autumn of 2001) or its ability to make what Russell Baker described as a remote and uninteresting time lively and immediate. I'm afraid that most of these reviews have been largely balderdash. I shall explain to you why I think they're balderdash, but then, as you might predict, I'm going to go on from there to tell you why this book is remarkable anyway.

First, the graceful prose. Um... no. I think what those reviewers have been swayed by is exactly what I hate about Theodore Rex: its very, very writerly writing. Somewhere along the line, some professor or editor or close friend or cocksucker told Morris that he was a magnificent stylist and he not only did not let his natural modesty convince him otherwise, but agreed with that person or persons and went wild with his tendency to go absolutely banantas with his metaphors and his weird narrative points of view and his poorly attributed editorializing to a degree that somewhat ruins Theodore Rex as the kind of read that I, at least, cherish.

Confession time: I am an enthusiastic student of biography, from the work of Plutarch onward. My senior thesis was on Edmund Gosse's influence on the development of English biography as a literary field in its own right (in a nutshell, Gosse introduced the vignette-laden, somewhat gossipy, tightly focused style that Morris himself played with in TR. I won't bother you with the rest of my thesis assertions, since the thing itself was a piece of shite of the nastiest caliber). Rather a large percentage of my personal library is biography in one fashion or another.* I am, in other words, particularly critical on the subject of biographies, and expect rather a lot of them, especially when they get the kind of attention this book has gotten.

I also ask a lot in general of the experience of reading, especially when I'm reading a life of someone that I already admire. What I've loved most about the biographies I've listed at the end of this entry (see the footnote) is the sense of immersion in the subject's word they bring, not just because of the author's evocation of detail or attitudes but because the author is not trying to draw too much attention to how good a writer he or she is. The flow of the read is interrupted only by outside matters, a dog that needs fed or an alarm clock announcing that it's time to go to work, or the telephone ringing, or a visitor at the door. Otherwise, as one settles into the book, one's sense that one is reading a book recedes to the very back of his mind; he is thinking the thoughts of the writer and the subject. Even the kind of necessary connective tissue of attribution, "in a letter to Emil Schnellnock, Miller said..." maintains the smooth flow of ideas and events and of my act of reading, naturally and satisfyingly.

I will venture to say this is what most people want when we pick up a book. We do not, as a rule, read to admire the prose style, do we?

And this is one reason why TR has thus far bugged me immensely. Morris seems to have written the thing with one finger permanently wedged to hold his place in George Orwell's essay on "Politics and the English Language," with jarring results.

Look, Orwell's essay is an important guide for me, too; I try really hard not to commit the kind of sins in my own writing that Orwell rightly mocks in it (dead metaphors, absurd constructions like "not unlike" [which I try only to use for satirical effect, at least when I'm paying attention], and euphemism, among others). Morris, though, seems to have gotten overly hung up on Orwell's admonition to avoid metaphors unless they are fresh and original.

Morris's metaphors are indeed fresh and original, but so belabored that they completely trash the rhythm of the story he is telling, yanking the reader's attention right away from Roosevelt and all but yelling "Look at me! I made a fresh and original metaphor!" The effect is also to shout out to the reader "I, Edmund Morris, really am a frustrated poet who discovered he could make more money as a presidential biographer!"

Not only that, but at times he seems to be going for some kind of record on how many of these fabulously fresh and original metaphors he can cram onto one page, though to his credit, he doesn't mix them, exactly.

Here are some of my personal favorites, metaphors pounded into my poor reader's head so heavily that I'm sure the figurative lumps actually show:

P. 74 "No matter how raw the data – ore piles of statistics, a rubble of currency regulations – he processed them with the silent efficiency of a kiln."

This is OK so far, and is kind of a nice sentence, but oh god he hasn't stopped there's more of it, thump, thump, thump! Just two paragraphs down, we go from a kiln to this:

"As far as Aldrich was concerned, news was noise, an intrusive bedlam that disturbed the quiet condominium of government and economy."

From kiln to condominium! Algernon Charles Swinburne couldn't have done it better! Aie!

But they get even... is "better" the word?

P. 77 "Aldrich, Allison, Spooner, and Platt emerged from the chamber smiling like Wagnerites after a slow performance of Siegfried.

What? What in the world? I'm a Wagner fan (maybe not a Wagnerite), but let me tell you something: much as I like Siegfried, like the whole Ring cycle, I would never leave a slow performance of any of it smiling at all. Yes, of the four Ring operas this one is the only one with a conceivably happy ending (Siegfried gets to sleep with a Valkyrie, after all) but any real Wagnerite would see it as only temporary and know that these knuckleheads are doomed, doomed, doomed, that not only is he going to cheat on her but he's also going to try to marry her off to the brother of the woman he's ditched her for and Brunnhilde is going to betray him to his death, etc.

This particular metaphor also illustrates another little problem this biography has, that of Morris's odd techniques for attributing statements and his tendency to novelize. This is a very specific image he is creating, and it's not created out of any eyewitness account. The scene described is of these men emerging from the reading of Roosevelt's first message to Congress in 1901, and while since, as Morris says "its caveats and circumlocutions had been dictated by themselves" and while the next sentence in the description, which lists the words of praise Aldrich, Allison, Spooner and Platt had for the president, is attributed to the New York World and New York Herald, there is no attribution for this Wagner wackiness. So I guess we are to take it as Morris' own creation... but this is a very specific image for something that Morris did not himself witness.

But back, for a bit, to the metaphors, because I've made a big assertion that I can't support with just two pages of examples. I'm trying for at least a bit of rigor here, because despite the fun I'm poking at it right now, this book deserves rigor.

On p. 241, Morris does it again talking about William Nelson Cromwell:

"The glossy little lawyer had made himself indispensable in all canal matters, darting with bright-eyed, bumblebee quickness among every possible source of pollen. Cromwell had spies in Bogota, paid agents in Colon and Panama City, political supporters in Washington, and financial backers in Paris and New York. Every infusion of news, every fresh pledge of funds, was more honey in his hive. Roosevelt's stiff petals yielded to his fervor."

Uncle! Uncle! Especially as an entomologist I have to cry, Uncle!

I'm sure Cromwell would, too.

Morris at some point may have noticed that he was doing this, on at least an unconscious level, as this next (and last) bit I'm going to share suggests:

Quoting a newspaper account by Henry Watterson in 1902 ("For the first time these thirty years, it is the Republicans who are at sea") on P. 95, Morris produces for us this stunning paragraph:

"Rival hands were tugging at the wheel of the ship of state. One pair belonged to President Roosevelt, who was responsible for last month's violent tack to port; the other to Senator Hanna, who wanted to resume the course set by President McKinley. 'Both compass and rudder are still intact,' wrote Watterson, enjoying his metaphor, 'But there are two pilots aboard, and rocks ahead." (boldface emphasis mine).

Hoo hoo who's enjoying the metaphors here?

Back, now, to attribution, a necessity in non-fiction. As the third person narrator of a novel might, Morris gives, over and over, the impression of his own omniscience as to his subjects' state of mind, interpretation of facts, motives, and knowledge of given situations. Sometimes this is done through indirect quotations of documentary evidence, yes, but even when that is the case, the fact that it is drawn from a secondary source is not made clear within the text itself, is not even footnoted or end noted (there are extensive notes at the end of the book, but time and time again Morris makes an extraordinary statement that sounds like it must be pulled from a personal letter, a diary entry, a newspaper account, or something of some substance, but, when one flips back to the notes at the end, is not attributed to anything!) (and there is no way of looking at the actual book text and knowing what does and does not have an accompanying note in the back!).

This is especially weird when, at other times, Morris adopts an exceedingly queer narrative perspective, as he does during the presidential conference with George Baer and John Mitchell during the famous anthracite workers strike of 1902, when suddenly we are treated to descriptions of the scene from the extreme outside – from the street looking in on the inadequate windows of the conference room in which the negotiators sat.

Maddeningly, Morris does not simply state, as other biographers or historians might, that "According to onlookers" the scene looked thus and the men going in looked so. He starts it off with "Curious onlookers began congregating outside number 22 Jackson Place" and then drifts into a riff concocted from some newspaper and other reports on the exterior of the conference before shifting into a convincing but back-constructed blow-by-blow of the conference itself.

Something about all of this suggests to me that Morris already had a film script of this whole text in mind while he wrote this, which is a common tic among modern writers who try to jump the gun by writing cinematically instead of just writing. I fully stipulate that this is just a pet peeve of mine, and for all I know, may really be why most people have received this book so very warmly.

But it ain't why I like it, kids.

What I like is probably more to do with the subject matter itself than anything else: this period of American history has always fascinated me, in part because my formal education neglected it completely (my high school and college American History class stopped at the Reconstruction because that's when the textbooks stopped; on everything past that period, I'm pretty much self-educated) and in part because a lot of novels and biographies I happen to enjoy very much take place in or have as their immediate historical background this very period.

Even stipulating that, though, this book has, for all its' "check me out, I went to college" flaws, merits of its very own, quite apart from its choice of subject, that are making my experience of reading it stunning and memorable.

First of all, it is often rip-snortingly FUNNY, partly because Roosevelt himself was such an immensely entertaining man, the sort of man I would definitely want to have around me and whom I would be "dee-lighted" to have as my president (though we'll get more into that in a bit), but also because Morris, when he's not showing off his prose style, has an excellent touch with deadpan humor and the placement of fun anecdotes.

Again, I'm going to present some examples that have not only made me laugh out loud upon reading them, but have kept me chuckling to myself at odd moments like in the middle of board meetings or over lunch with people who care much less than you would appear to do (since you're still reading this minor epic of a blog entry) about what I think about what I'm reading:

P. 99, on TR's vexation with an army general: "Perhaps, after all, he should be allowed to visit the Phillipines. The thought of Miles having to endure a forty-nine-day ocean voyage was pleasing, and with luck his visit would coincide with the mosquito season."

(Again, though, this is presented as some kind of insight into TR's own thoughts, and the student of biography would naturally assume this came from a diary entry or a personal letter or some such thing, but when she turns to the notes for page 99 there is no such thing listed! But it's harmless and funny, so this student, at least, let it slide, apart from this here comment.)

P. 109, after TR has cleared a rail on the back of his leaping horse, Bleistein: "Hay, who as Secretary of State stood next in line to succeed Roosevelt, pretended to be annoyed at Bleistein's easy clearance of the rails. 'Nothing ever happens,' he complained."

OK, so they're not complete thigh-slappers, but somewhat unexpected in what, let's face it, at times seems almost a hagiography.

Two other things that are remarkable about my experience, at least, of reading Theodore Rex are the ghosts of other books that seem to haunt it and the parallels it prevents the intelligent reader from drawing between TR's world and our own.

As I've devoured the first third of TR, not just faint suggestions, references, allusions, but complete, beginning to end memories of at least eight books (and the list tries to grow all the time) dog me as I turn every page. While many books remind one briefly of others, as I've read this one I've almost felt as though I had these others open alongside it, their pages turning along with its pages. So far, along with Theodore Rex, I've also felt like I was reading (in no particular order):

1. The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams

(nota bene: perhaps the least odd book to be thinking of alongside a bio of TR, since Adams and Roosevelt were lifelong pals. Still, making it even weirder for me, and probably for me alone in all the world, is the stuff that THIS connection is dredging up for me during this read, that being:

2. The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot

because my junior year at Beaudacious Bard College was largely taken up with a "proseminar" on Henry Adams and T.S. Eliot, in which we studied their lives and works largely in tandem even though the parallels between them... really weren't all that profound. Still these two men are now deeply linked in me widdle head. )

3. The Alienist by Caleb Carr

4. Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller

5. Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

6. To Sail Beyond the Sunset by Robert A. Heinlein

7. Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner

8. The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia, by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi

A weird assortment indeed. I'll spare you a big fat excursis on why each of these books is running through my mind as I page through Theodore Rex; those of you who know these books will already probably see it, and those of you who haven't, well, I just don't know what to do with you!

As to any connections or parallels with the kind of things America is dealing with now, I still have to say phooey to those reviewers who tried to call attention to how Roosevelt's initial remarks to Congress and the nation after the assassination of his predecessor, McKinley are in any way applicable to what happened last year on Sept. 11. That's enough of a stretch to stink of marketing gimmickry. What a look at Roosevelt's presidency is best for is to draw attention to how very different our world is from his.

I'm going to look particularly at the brinkmanship of 1902 that could have led to war with Germany over the Monroe Doctrine 12 years before the outbreak of World War I. As I read the amazing account of it in Theodore Rex, I am most stricken by the effect that technology has had on our ways of dealing with each other, to wit, big, big, irrevocable changes.

At times in reading TR I have gotten carried away enjoying the bombastic language and the incredible assurance and the sheer power of this man and the men around him, their ability to be so very direct and confrontational, their unabashed forcefulness. I catch myself comparing TR and Kaiser Wilhelm to their modern, comparatively milquetoast, counterparts and I sigh at the differences I see. Now there is so much more of a cringing politeness, a commitment to never give offense, a fussing over trivialities and a muddy approach to everything.

It would be easy to look at this and to conclude that the difference lies in TR's superiority in every way to the ding-a-ling we currently call our president, but then I remember this: had it come to war in 1902, TR and the Kaiser would have squared off with ships and guns and soldiers and sailors. People would have died, yes, but mostly non-civilians. Bush and Schroeder (or more germanely, Bush and pick your actual scary enemy type person here) would be squaring off with much more terrible things and we'd all be at risk – which, incidentally, is why the old argument that war is a part of man's nature is no longer as acceptable as it once might have been.

(If you can't tell, I'm still not convinced that attacking Iraq is a very good idea).

Another thing to think about: Now that the true nature of the US/German/British conflict over Venezuela's indebtedness is somewhat generally known (it was until recently rather a well-kept secret), we also know important things about how it was avoided, the key issue being TR was able to keep things quiet so the Kaiser and his diplomats could save face and back down easily, something that, in our age of instant communications, internet access, weblogs, satellite uplinks, every man a reporter, every kid an eyewitness or a source, would probably be impossible even if W. were a gentleman of TR's caliber.

Of course, the slower flow of information worldwide and the lack of even the greatest media outlets' ability to watch everything in the world as it happened worked against TR, too, as one can see all over the problem with General Smith in the Philippines, who basically called upon his troops to "kill and burn" even women and children in the native population there without Roosevelt's direct knowledge until well after things had escalated. Certainly that couldn't have gone on nowadays; even if communications between W. and his general was nonexistent, the press or agencies like Amnesty International would have told everyone all over the world about it before the coals were cooled.

As I've emphasized, I'm only 1/3 of my way through this book, but this is what I think so far. As I type this, it is now well past my bedtime, so I shan't get through any more of this tonight, but I will probably, knowing me, finish it in a few days.

And if I have any further insights from it, I will share them here.

You have been warned!

*For those who care, my favorite examples therein are: 1) Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman by physicist Richard P. Feynman, 2) The Happiest Man Alive (a bio of Henry Miller) by Mary V. Dearborn, 3) What Mad Pursuit by bio-physicist Francis Crick (co-discoverer with James Watson of the structure of DNA), 4) Don't Look Round, an autobiography by Violet Trefusis, and 5) Father and Son by Edmund Gosse. Quite a hodgepodge, and it's not an accident that two of these are autobiographical works by scientists, who are, when examining their own lives and works, the most honest, original, and entertaining biographers I've found. Incidentally, I've confined myself to five, that being considered a logical, easy, round, magical number because it is the number of fingers on one hand, etc., but a sixth autobiographical work (not in a true sense an autobiography because it is a collection of essays more than a full narrative) that goes on the list is Freeman Dyson's Disturbing the Universe – one of my ten favorite books, period.

Monday, October 21, 2002


It's probably another pie-in-the-sky rumor perpetuated by the lawn and garden industry, but I have a new folk belief to which to cling at least until next spring.

Word going around town is that deer don't eat daffodils, you see.

So this afternoon, begrudging those long-legged rats every morsel of food that keeps them spooking my dog and pooping in my yard all year 'round, I moseyed over to the Empire of Hardware and bought a big bag of daffodil and narcissus bulbs.

I probably should have stuck to daffodils, but the mixture looked so pretty on the packaging. Yes, even I am occasionally a sucker for marketing gimmicks.

I am having to root around through my big box o'outdoor tools and gear to find my trowel (alas, I cannot use the same one with which I lay on these blog entries) before I can plant them, though; they have to be buried at least eight inches deep, and the ground is already trying to freeze.

My own dear personal mom got blisters on her own dear personal hands planting hers the other day. I did my best to feign sympathy for her, but she would keep talking about the whole process during the Bronco game.

Though this odd coincidence just gave me a bit of an idea: was Rod Smith maybe planting daffodils last week?

At any rate, her efforts seemed risible... until I got to thinking about how much time and money I blew at the beginning of this summer, planting up pots and pots of pansies and dahlias and moss roses, ostiospermum, nasturtium (good in salads!), violas, snapdragons... all in the effort to brighten up the drab side of the Unabomber Cabin at Kate's Landing.

What I had really done, of course, was to create the most convenient ungulate smorgasbord in the entire town, outstripping even the efforts of those ninnies up on Country Club heights who put out half-spoiled lettuce and other treats to keep the deer a-comin'.

The death toll was immediate. Within a week, some 20 pots had all been stripped bare of blossoms. Within two weeks, many of same had not a stalk left in them.

But I can't help it, I really can't. Every spring I have this uncontrollable urge to plant something. When I lived back in Maine (which also has lots of deer, but none of the urban variety that are such a plague here) my housemates and I had an entire organic garden flourishing right in our backyard (hardly surprising: to a man we were either ag majors or entomologists and while by some fluke none of us were vegetarians or food freaks of any kind, holding a dinner party without at least one person who insisted, e.g. that the coffee be made with bottled spring water and that the eggs in the omlettes had to come from free-range chickens, etc.), and even when I lived in semi-urban Western Massachusetts, my home was in the middle of a squash field.

Don't get me started on my grandfather and his horseradish crop.

Ever since I returned to Wyoming, however, nothing I plant has a chance. Nothing. Not tomatoes, not garlic plants (garlic! Deer supposedly hate garlic! Oh wait, that's vampires. Then again... to-may-to, to-mot-o...), not broccoli, nothing.

And that is why today when the Minister of Fun, my roommate from across the street, informed me that he did, indeed, bag his elk for the season, I wept tears of real joy. It's perhaps an imperfect connection - elk are related to deer, but no elk has ever gnawed on my nasturtiums - but it's still comforting to know that in some small way I am completing a cycle begun back in May when my mother and I singlehandedly paid Doggett Greenhouse's mortgage for at least six months...

I am bound and determined, though, that this is the last time I'm going to do this. I'll suffer trying to hack my way through semi-frozen soil to bury these little bulbs in the ground tomorrow and then spend the next eight months trying not to think about them so that IF they survive the winter and IF they make it to the surface and IF they grow into viable plants and IF they bloom, maybe, just maybe, the deer will leave them alone and I'll have a bit of color about the place.

If this doesn't work, next year I'm going to take a page out of my father's book and just decorate with antlers.

Maybe I'll paint flowers on them.

Wish me luck!