Sunday, September 27, 2009

This Week's Book Recommedation

I'm most happy to heartily recommend Eric Weiner's book, "The Geography of Bliss," to all fellow travelers interested in the study of happiness.

A long-time foreign correspondent for NPR, Weiner's premise for the book is that he's grown weary of the the new-age approach to happiness--that it's holy grail to be found deep, deep within our selves--and decides instead to approach happiness as a place. He travels to various parts of the world where the populations rank high on the happiness scale (and a couple that rank very low) to see what he can learn about the condition of happiness.

The book reads like part travel writing, part depth psychology, part philosophy and part personal essay, and it is a wonderful read, front to back. It's sprinkled with juicy quotes from a variety of folks, and like all good books will give you dozens of additional books you want to read.

It's not too much of a surprise to find that Wiener, in his investigation of places, arrives at some qualities of happiness that actually speak to the soul. I kept a running list of some of the items he spots as elements of happiness in the various places he visits:

Low Expectations
Freedom of failure

There are interesting observations on American culture to be had here. Nowhere else in the world, Weiner points out, are people so intent on having their way that they would find it necessary to have automobiles where driver and passenger are entitled to separate climate controls, or beds in which each partner gets to choose their own firmness level. Oddly enough, such freedom seems to make no one happy, and in fact interferes with genuine relationship, one of the keys to happiness.

Particularly interesting is the chapter on Iceland. Perhaps is because of my own Scandinavian background, but there seemed much to be learned from the example of this small country, where people are not only allowed to fail, but cherished for it.

Good book, highly recommended.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Not Your Ordinary Map Quest

Late in the afternoon, several different trains of thought combined to create an amusing and odd diversion.

Today, I was considering the possible publication of a book that would require the use of GoogleEarth images. At the same time, I've recently been thinking about a short vacation to China in order to visit my daughter who is studying in Nanjing for the semester.

Studying GoogleEarth images while musing on the book, it occurred to me to wonder how an airplane flight to China would be routed from Minneapolis——would it go up over the polar region as the shortest distance between two points? Or would it go by the more expected route, to the west coast and then overseas?

So I typed in directions: Minneapolis to Nanjing.

What I got was wholly unexpected: Walking/driving directions to China, which you can follow along visually by clicking turn-by-turn buttons. Among the directions were several dozen traditional directions, but then in Seattle, the map tells you this:

"Kayak across Pacific Ocean. Go 3,879 miles."

This brings you to Hawaaii, where we "turn left at Kailima Dr. Go .5 mile."

And then:

"Kayak across Pacific Ocean. Go 2,756 miles."

At this point, the directions turn into Japanese, then Chinese characters. but clicking on the direction buttons produces a fascinating zoom in-zoom out journey from distant satellite views to street views, back and forth.

Don't really need to go to China anymore. Went there this afternoon.

By the way, if you haven't downloaded and played with Google Earth, you owe it to yourself.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I Wish There Was Another Explanation

When I was in graduate school, one professor told me two rules that are essential to a genuine critique of how literary art works on an audience.

1. Repetition is always meaningful. The first time an image appears in a novel, it might be random. But when it appears again, it begs to be examined as a metaphor.

2. When an author chooses a particular detail, it's always valid to ask "why this, and not that?" In other words, every choice is made for some reason.

I find some of this valid to the current political atmosphere, and the conclusions I come to aren't happy ones. 

Barrack Obama elicits a fearfulness that has never before been seen in politics, despite all the evidence that the man's nature is as genuinely hopeful as anyone ever seen in the office. When looking at the paranoid shrillness of the far right reaction to Obama's first year in office, the following questions come to mind.

1. Would anybody be worried about political indoctrination of children if John McCain had won the election and wanted to address school children on the first day of class?  Did anyone worry about this when George Bush I or George Bush 2 did it? Why Barrack Obama and no one else?

2. Had Hillary Clinton won the democratic nomination, would anyone have worried about her native born status?  Would any other candidate in the entire election have elicited this question? Why was this question asked of Obama only?

3. Would any other candidate winning the presidency have cause people to vehemently scream about "wanting their country back."? Why did the conservatives not holler this when Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter were elected?

Alas, there is really only one conclusion to draw, and it's not one I really want to accept, even of right wing nuts. 

It's the fact that Obama has African ancestors that is behind every bit of this nonsense.  Why does this fellow, and this fellow only,  draw this kind of response? you must ask. And, why do these ridiculous concerns keep being repeated, again and again, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary?

What these folks really want——no mistake about it——is to have their white domination back.  It's Obama's skin color that seems foreign to them——not his birth certificate.

Obama's birth certificate is indisputable, yet we keep hearing that he is alien. The President's  speech to school children has nothing whatsoever political in it, yet even after it aired, the conservative blogs were filled with venom about his attempt to steal their children.

I'd love to hear a genuine argument that all this is based on politics rather than racism.  I don't see how it can be done.  When I hear Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Bachmann make their arguments, I'm genuinely embarrassed for their lack of self-awareness.  

The KKK, at least, is honest about the nature of their hatred.