Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Consolation of Philosophy

If you wish to know a subject well, undertake to teach it. Until I taught an Introduction to Philosophy class to high school seniors this fall, my knowledge of the history of philosophy was somewhat scattered and unsystematic. Now I think I have a firm grasp of it. It's as if I was taking my own course, and I think it was a pretty good one - probably the best I've taught since a class on Nevada History at Las Vegas College in the spring of 2000 (which I also had to work up from scratch).

I had read D.W. Hamlyn's excellent A History of Western Philosophy and primary texts such as Plato's Republic, but a long while ago. I didn't have the Hamlyn volume at hand as I prepared this course, so I relied instead on Bryan Magee's The Story of Philosophy and Brooke Noel Moore's and Kenneth Bruder's Philosophy: The Power of Ideas (6th Edition). William James Earle's Introduction to Philosophy and Pierre Hadot's What Is Ancient Philosophy?, both of which I read cover-to-cover, were invaluable, and of course I did a lot of digging around on the Web. One of my side-projects was to create two chronological lists, one of philosophers and thinkers at least mentioned in the course, another of background figures in the history of thought (including not just philosophy, but also science, mathematics, psychology, sociology, theology, etc.). The first list includes about a hundred names, the second is now well over 900. I haven't done much work on integrating non-Western traditions yet - the existing design of the course only included one class on Eastern philosophy and religion - but I hope to do more.

My teaching notes, which I revised at the end of the semesters, now take up more than 200 pages in a binder. I used video a lot in the course - there is more philosophy on YouTube than you might imagine - and I have complete details of all those supporting materials.

Toward the end of the course, I had a lot of students missing classes because of end-of-term projects, academic trips, and so on, so I hit on the idea of turning my class presentations into podcasts which the absentees could listen to, which I did for the last six of about 45 classes. Those podcasts are here for anyone who is interested:

I enjoyed doing these and may eventually make the whole course available in this format. If you should happen to listen to the "Eastern Philosophy and Religion" podcast, the section on Taoism is weak, but will be improved. Otherwise, I'm reasonably pleased with the results.

Now that I have the entire course constructed, it will be a pleasure to continue to tweak it in the future. Certainly I will have more time to read primary texts, a number of which I'm already working on. There is always the danger of over-enriching the course past its status as an introduction, and I've probably already done that to some extent. It's a characteristic of mine as a teacher - to leap up in level. On the other hand, I can only stand so much over-simplification, and I'm painfully aware of how much of that there has to be in any introductory course. I always tell my students in such courses that they are getting a 1.0 version of the subject because it's what they can grasp initially; the 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0 versions can come for them later, and they may look back and say, "My intro teacher had it wrong!" But their intro teacher knew it. You can't start with nuance; you have to start with the broad strokes.

Commonplace Book: Satisfaction

There is no "having it all." The choices we make require sacrifices. Whatever we do, we're always missing something. The key to not feeling cheated is to settle for less than everything while making the most of what's in front of us. This may be what the much-divorced Saul Bellow meant when he wrote, in The Adventures of Augie March, of "the refusal to live a disappointed life."

Stephen Kessler

Friday, December 30, 2011

Frida and Remedios

At one point during my stay in Korea, I had four pets. My older Birman cat, Claire, had come with me from America (and traveled and re-acclimated very well). A few months after I arrived, I succumbed to the charms of a Korean department store bunny whom I named Benjamin; he was with me for only a few months before dying quite suddenly of what seems to have been rabbit hemorrhagic disease, which is borne by insects and can take a healthy rabbit off in a day. That was the case with Benjamin; he was a fireball of energy on a Thursday night, a little mopey and uninterested in food at mid-day on Friday, and when I came back from work on Friday evening, he was gone. I had planned to take him to the vet on Saturday morning if he didn't look any better, but the illness worked too quickly.

In the meantime, I had added first a hedgehog, Tugger, and then a cockatiel, Wordsworth, to the family, both quite charming. When I realized that I would not be staying in Korea for a second year (which had been my plan, to work at a Korean university), but instead would be relocating to Mexico, I did a heavy amount of research on how to bring the animals with me from one country to the other. Unfortunately, Mexican animal import regulations had recently changed to make it exceptionally difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to get any species besides dogs and cats into the country. Only those were considered pets; the rest were all categorized as livestock or zoo animals. So transporting Claire was not going to be a problem, but bringing the others proved to be beyond my ability. In the case of the cockatiel, perhaps this was just as well; birds are pretty delicate, and I would have hated for Wordsworth to be hurt during the travel - breaking a wing in panic or something like that. Tugger, though, was a hardy little guy who was perfectly capable of making the trip, and I deeply regret not being able to get him into Mexico.

Luckily, I was able to re-home Wordsworth and Tugger successfully, so it was down to Claire and me. But then my sweet cat took ill about a month before our flight, her renal system starting to shut down. Perhaps it was her way of telling me that she was not up for one more adventure. I had to have the vet put her down, but that was preferable to her suffering or dying en route.

So, from four pets to none! - it was all sort of weird and distressing. Knowing I would have a nice two-bedroom apartment in Mexico, I began to think about adopting a pair of kittens or young cats, preferably girls from the same litter - and wouldn't you know, a little contact with the local adoption agencies in Culiacan and Mazatlan in the month after I arrived turned up just such a pair. I named them Frida (Kahlo) and Remedios (Varo), after the great Mexican painters.



Remedios, the slightly larger of the two (but neither is very big), is the high-energy cat, somewhat prone to mischief and knocking stuff down. Frida is more relaxed. They are very good together and love to play with each other. They are incredibly gratifying to buy things for: they love every single toy - they go crazy for their new toys, but never stop loving their old toys - they love their cat beds, their climbing tower, their balls, their plush mice, all of it. They are not finicky eaters either. Life seems to be pure pleasure for them, and naturally that makes them a total joy to be around; they are both very affectionate with me besides.

It is amusing that Remedios is the musical cat, who will plop down in front of the speakers whenever I play a Mozart CD, while Frida is the cineaste, who is always up for watching a movie with me (and who looks straight at the screen). As felines, they naturally both have an affinity for books. I couldn't ask for better companions.


Over the past couple of nights I watched Alexander Payne's Sideways for the first time (a recent DVD pick-up; all my viewing now is DVD-based, as streaming video doesn't work too well with the spotty Internet service here in Mexico). Of course, this is a charming, well-written, beautifully acted film, which I truly enjoyed, but something about it was a little depressing, too (as is often the case when I watch Woody Allen dramedies, as well). I guess it comes down to the fact that, Virginia Madsen's Maya aside, I wouldn't want to know or hang out with any of those people. I looked up my friend Robert Kennedy's review at his Cranes Are Flying site (distinct from his Cranes Are Flying blog):

SIDEWAYS (B+) (90)
USA (124 mi) 2004

Breezy, mostly feel-good, relatively mainstream American comedy that parallels the excruciating care needed to produce great wine with the foibles of being human, requiring a bit of the same tender loving care, with moments of hilarity alongside slow moments of isolated anguish, much of it in recovery from the resulting hangovers from nights of excessive drinking. The story follows two single guys, one recently divorced, Paul Giamatti, who is something of a loner, a failed would-be writer, probably a better wine connoisseur, and his former college roommate, Thomas Haden Church, who is about to get married over the weekend and wants one final fling before he loses his bachelorhood. While they couldn’t be more opposite, they have an amazing antagonism, which is brilliantly funny, largely due to the appealing, easy-going manner of Church, whose performance is simply magnificent.

The film turns into a buddy movie where the two visit the California wine country, visit a few vineyards, and due to Church’s incessant charm, pick up a couple of wine savvy girls, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh (at that time, Payne’s real-life wife), who they take for a ride, never realizing that by withholding the inevitable about the impending marriage, they were only fooling themselves. With bits of slapstick thrown against a quiet realism, it’s an effective film style, and has a fairly seamless feel to it until the abrupt end, which reminded me of the dilemma Tom Hanks faced at the end of CAST AWAY. The constant indulgence of food and wine, and who, might I ask, is paying for all this, mixed with the constant unfulfilled needs of the two guys leads to a middle class void that suggests nothing but trouble ahead. The boyish charm of Church and the meticulous pessimism of Giamatti makes for some scintillating dialogue in their scenes together, however, this seems overly pointed towards people with the economic means to indulge themselves like this. Most of us still have to work for a living. The concept of responsibility was nearly completely absent in this American middle class portrait. While this is a critically acclaimed and much awarded film, I’m not sure it shares international themes, as it seems overly concerned with strictly American consumerism and our own shallow values. And to make matters worse, as if relating to those suffering with a hangover, the over-indulgent musical score sounds very much like some piano-led classic light station, just one step up from Kenny G

The comment "who, I might ask, is paying for all of this" is telling, because it certainly looks as if the men are blowing a lot of money in this pre-wedding week, but maybe Thomas Haden Church's Jack is picking up most of the tab. The film does not avoid economic realities, actually is rather attuned to them, so that most of the characters live in apartments (unusually for an American film) and Giamatti's Miles talks about his life specifically in terms of economic failure ("By my age, if you don't have money, you're nothing"). Although that observation could be made anywhere in America, I think it's telling that the movie takes place in Southern California, where residents' judgments of each other on economic grounds are particularly acute. (It's also delicious that Jack is marrying into a Kardashian-style Armenian family, years before the Kardashians took America by storm.)

It is funny that, since the movie was shot on location in the Santa Ynez Valley and used actual locations - the Hitching Post is a real restaurant - there are now Sideways tours like the Vertigo tours in Northern California:

The 2004 film Sideways was set (and shot on location) in the Santa Ynez Valley. Since then, visits from tourists looking to recreate the experiences of the fictional characters Miles and Jack, have become common. Fans of the movie can often be seen making a pilgrimage from the Buellton Days Inn to the Hitching Post restaurant.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reading about Mexico

Living in a new country, I of course want to learn everything I can about it. Just before I came to Mexico, one of my ESL colleagues in Korea gave me Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory as a gift - I read it immediately and naturally was very impressed. The other Greene novels I've read are Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Matter. Greene is a very appealing figure to me; in an email to a friend, I spoke of "channeling my inner Graham Greene" as I adjusted to living internationally.

After I arrived, I wanted to get a handle on the wave of drug trafficking violence that has bedeviled Mexico for a number of years - especially since the city I live in, Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, is one of the centers of that traffic and that violence. So I ordered Elijah Wald's Narcocorrido, about the genre of Mexican popular music that chronicles the exploits of the traffickers; John Gibler's To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War; and Charles Bowden's Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields. Locally, I also picked up Javier Valdez Cardenas's Los morros del narco: Historias reales de ninos y jovenes en el narcotrafico mexicano and Sergio Ortega Noriega's Sinaloa: Historia breve; my reading Spanish is not quite up to getting through full-length books at any kind of speed yet, but with grammars and dictionaries, I'm pushing it along.

I finished Narcocorrido the other day, and recommend it highly; Elijah Wald's adventures in pursuit of corridos, which took him all over Mexico and the southwestern United States, are entertaining and informative. He wisely doesn't bother with any kind of moralistic tone, which would have been worse than useless in dealing with his subject. Going back to medieval times and probably well before, criminals have been celebrated in songs (sometimes because they commissioned them); there is a natural historical affinity there that is highly worthy of investigation.

I've started on Gibler's sharp To Die in Mexico, and on Ortega Noriega's history of Sinaloa as well. Gibler has already proven very helpful with subjects such as "la nota roja, the crime beat or blood news," which is very noticeable here; both the serious and the more scandalous newspapers run tons of coverage of drug crime, including all the gory and gruesome photographs a crime ghoul could demand.

Of course there is (thankfully) a much more pleasant side to Mexico too - the landscape, the biodiversity, the fascinating history, the colonial architecture, the good spirits of the people. A couple of years ago, I read Joseph Wood Krutch's excellent book about Baja California, The Forgotten Peninsula, which was published back in 1961 when that beautiful area was a good deal less developed than it is today.

One of the items in my new blogroll, Jim & Carole's Mexico Adventure, is a delightful photo-blog that captures much of the enchantment of the country, which given all the current difficulties, it is very good to be reminded of:

I have scarcely started on Mexican film, either contemporary or classic, although I am on the lookout for DVDs of those movies that have English subtitles, and I have found a few.

Latin American fiction in general is a terrible weak spot of mine, so I need to start taking care of that.

Mexico is a huge subject that I will continue to make notes on here.

Classic British Fiction

For the past few years, one of my projects has been to read or re-read classic British novels of the 1775-1925 period. I would consider it an impertinence to "review" these books; the acknowledged classics are pretty obviously great - which is partly to say, within 20 pages I usually know exactly why they are classics - and even the lesser volumes are cherishable. I concentrate on these books as experiences, not as objects to be assessed (with new books, both those dimensions are in play). It is especially good to encounter them now, in my fifties, when the life-adventures they describe are all much clearer to me than they could have been in high school or college. My early readings of some of these novels were not without value, but the later readings are incomparably richer.

Here is a list of the completed volumes in the current project, in the order read:

Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit
Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her?
George Eliot, Middlemarch
William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair
Jane Austen, Emma
Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native
Charles Reade, It Is Never Too Late to Mend
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
Charlotte Bronte, Shirley
Sir Walter Scott, The Antiquary
Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White
James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
George Gissing, The Whirlpool
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage
Bram Stoker, Dracula
George Meredith, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel
H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Currently I have two more books in progress in this project, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, which I am about to finish, and James Joyce's Ulysses.

There are all too many novelists I have not covered yet, but intend to. Some of the biggest names on that list are R.D. Blackmore, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Samuel Butler, William Carleton, Benjamin Disraeli, Maria Edgeworth, John Galt, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Kingsley, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Charles Lever, Frederick Marryat, George Moore, Margaret Oliphant, Thomas Love Peacock, Mark Rutherford, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Smith Surtees. It's not as if one could ever run out - it's an abundant period.

Thai Film

Wise Kwai blogs on Thai film at Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal (now in the blogroll):

He writes about his favorite Thai films of 20ll, including Pek-ek Ratanaruang's neo-noir Headshot, here:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Diablo Cody

I am not knowledgeable about the work of Diablo Cody beyond hearsay, having seen neither Juno nor Young Adult. But I found Jeffrey Sconce's blog post about the "Codyverse" of interest:

Sconce suggests that "three basic questions...inform the narrative progression of both films" I mentioned above:

1. Why are there no "normal adults" anymore?
2. What is the proper relationship for a "normal adult" to have with popular culture?
3. Who shall and shall not be granted proximity to a precious, precious baby?

Of course, the territory of the first two questions was staked out a long time ago by Nick Hornby and cannot be considered fresh, so it's the third that provides the twist, "how profoundly invested the Codyverse is in maintaining rigorous moral parameters related to proper suburban breeding." It wouldn't be the first time a hip surface has masked an underlying conservatism.

POSTSCRIPT: I have no yearning toward babies myself, and I'm very glad that I have never been responsible for one (in any sense). But I should check out some of the works related to that yearning, such as Henry Jaglom's film Babyfever and John Sayles's film Casa de los Babys. I will admit that I have tended to shy away from those, as well as all comedies in the Three Men and a Baby tradition.

Back from Hiatus

The blog is back from a seven-month hiatus during which I relocated from Korea, where I was teaching ESL at a private adult academy, to Mexico, where I'm teaching in the humanities department at a subsidiary campus of a major university, mainly in the "prepa," or university high school. Before I left Korea, my beautiful 15-year-old Birman cat Claire passed on - what adventures we had together! - and when I arrived in Mexico, I adopted a pair of beautiful shorthair female cats from the same litter, whom I named Frida (Kahlo) and Remedios (Varo) after the great Mexican painters.

My living arrangement in Mexico, a spacious two-bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood, is very much more comfortable than my tiny square one-room provided apartment in Korea, and I am grateful for that.

I shut the blog down for a while in part because I was spooked by what is happening with blogs in general - more and more of them are moving to commenting systems that do not allow people to comment unless they have and are willing to be identified by a Facebook account. Since (paranoia alert!) I consider Facebook to be a surveillance tool pure and simple, I find this unacceptable, and I have stopped commenting on those blogs.

I have never been active at Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter, and I got off LinkedIn (although that is a much better service). I don't much want to be found by the people who might find me at those sites. Even this blog is under my Web pseudonym (and always has been). About the only "social networking" site where I am active, and I really use it more for cataloguing, is LibraryThing, also under the pseudonym:

So why have I revived the blog? Mainly as an overflow space for material that I don't mind sharing with my correspondents, but don't want to inundate them with, either. I have made the blog unsearchable by Webcrawlers, so it should hardly ever show up in search engines. I'm not interested in a wider readership, but rather in communicating with those whom I already trust, who include old friends and the members of the three web discussion groups I participate in regularly: the private Yahoo Group I founded, Confabulation; 19thCenturyLit, also at Yahoo Groups; and the erudite film noir board, The Blackboard. Visitors from LibraryThing are welcome as well - book people are great!

This blog has consistently morphed and changed its approach over the years, since I'm kind of a restless guy. The first big change I have made this time is to add a blogroll that consists of all the blogs whose feeds I receive in my Google Reader, and I will keep this up-to-date, which means that blogs will frequently come and go. I'm constantly trying out new blogfeeds to see how much useful information I get from them, but there are also old stand-bys that are consistently terrific and that I would never abandon unless they stop publishing.

The blogroll is not a perfect picture of my interests by any means - ideally there would (and probably will) be more art, architecture, music, history, philosophy, beer, and clothing blogs. Literature and film blogs dominate because there are so many of them generally, and therefore inevitably more good ones too. Lord knows I've tried hundreds!

It's good to be back, and I look forward once again to posting material that captures my interest. Some of it may be meaningful primarily to me, but you never know, which I why I want it all to be available to the few dozen people I am interested in communicating with. I am definitely not trying to be a commentator who has a broader influence; whatever ambitions (and delusions!) I have ever had of that kind are hopefully behind me. The competition for attention is too fierce, and I don't want to be a politician-type spending my life pointing at myself; we live in a world where far too many people are doing that already.