Friday, September 26, 2008

T. S. Eliot at Starbucks

Today is Thomas Stearns Eliot's birthday. Does he care? No idea, but I sure do. That's why I'm taking "The Wasteland" to work with me tonight. I'll read passages to our customers and note how it affects their beverage selections. This should be interesting in Pensacola. Look for my report in a later post.

Bentley on modern historiography

This piece is obviously dated - indeed, the first half feels almost redundant from a post-9/11 perspective - but Bentley proves prescient. He provides a very insightful introduction to the shape of 21st-century historiography as it stands thus far.

"Postmodernism as an intellectual form is already provoking a backlash. The consequences for the writing of history of the crash of communism in 1989 have not yet begun to work themselves out, though we can certainly remain sceptical in face of arguments about the End of Ideology, the End of History and the Beginning of Post-History. The discipline has survived several political revolutions and two world wars: it ought to be able to cope with Mr Gorbachev. National identities still inform all versions of historiography, sometimes in indirect ways. Indeed we seem still to be using history as the early nineteenth century did, as a vehicle for locating groups and peoples and giving them a past that suits their present or encourages their sense of a future. All of these things may alter. But one development in the history of the present looks likely to be both permanent and valuable. Historians have never been so aware of what they are attempting as they have become over the past two decades. Always a reflective form of writing, history has become (as they say) 'reflexive': it is self-conscious to a degree and to a level of sophistication that no previous generation can match... Possibly historians will become morbid and self-destructive as a result. Not a few have already become self-important. Yet the move towards a deliberately constructed history gives critics of all persuasions the opportunity and the duty to keep their swords sharp against a moment when contingencies may threaten to destroy the discipline or subvert an interest in the past at all. We shall do well to remember that historiography forms the stone that whets the blade."

-Michael Bentley, "Introduction: Approaches to Modernity," Companion to Historiography (Routledge, 1997)

Bentley on modern historiography

"Historians have never been so aware of what they are attempting as they have become over the past two decades. Always a reflective form of writing, history has become (as they say) 'reflexive': it is self-conscious to a degree and to a level of sophistication that no previous generation can match... Possibly historians will become morbid and self-destructive as a result. Not a few have already become self-important. Yet the move towards a deliberately constructed history gives critics of all persuasions the opportunity and the duty to keep their swords sharp against a moment when contingencies may threaten to destroy the discipline or subvert an interest in the past at all. We shall do well to remember that historiography forms the stone that whets the blade."

-Michael Bentley, "Introduction: Approaches to Modernity," Companion to Historiography (Routledge, 1997)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Writer's Almanac: literary culture in the mobile home

Half of me is utterly opposed to mornings. That's the sleeping half, of course. The half that is quickly becoming conscious looks forward a collection of delights that the morning brings: waking next to my wife Wendy, watching the sunlight filter through the remaining trees in our backyard and hearing birds sing, drinking strong coffee, making Wendy coffee, eating breakfast, and listening to Garrison Keillor describe the lives of writers famous and obscure on the morning NPR show "Writer's Almanac."

About 8:55am every weekday morning, the sparse piano tune announces the show. Keillor lives in Minnesota, or at least he used to (I don't keep up that well), and I always feel as though he is reading his script inside an iced-over hovel on a farm in the country. That's obviously not the case, of course, but Keillor crafts his cultural declamations in such an intimate fashion that I feel as though he, too, abides within and against a cultural wasteland. It's like an oasis in a desert. It's as if he is talking to me.

Keillor begins with a birthday or two of literary or otherwise notable figures. He shares facts about the birthday celebrant's life. Today is F. Scott Fitzgerald's birthday. He was born in St. Paul (very near to Keillor's heart) in 1896. Keillor often shares a pithy quotation from the writer, though I can't remember Fitzgerald's quote. Ah, Fitzgerald. It has been a long time. I read The Great Gatsby in high school (11th grade, 1992 - egads!), and I have not touched him since. I suppose it's high time I do. Oh, the ever-expanding reading list. But I will appreciate Fitzgerald so much more now that I am more thoroughly acquainted with the time period.

Our host then shares other significant events that occurred on each day. This week, however, is a little different. This week, Keillor is reflecting upon the Norman invasion of England in 1066. William the Conqueror, my namesake... I mean, via my grandpa, Bill Clifton, sort of. Today, Keillor talked about ways in which Normans impacted our language. They hailed from the northern French coast, of course, though I remember learning somewhere along the line that the Normans were actually of Viking descent (is that true?). The Normans, in good French fashion, particularly affected the language of food. They introduced the words gourmet, supper, and dinner. They also added beef and mutton, although we continued to use the Old English words cow and sheep. Food and philology, two worthy subjects close to my heart.

Keillor also closes each program with a poem or two. Today, he read Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "The Pennycandystore Beyond the El." I think this is correct. My attention trailed off a bit here. Ferlinghetti was a leading Beat poet. He opened City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, which I had the pleasure to visit ten years ago. It was like a pilgrimage. The other day, Keillor read a fantastic poem about coffeehouses in Seattle. I don't remember the name. I was driving.

It is such a brief program - five minutes? - like a shot in the arm to bolster our defenses against the soul-deadening effects of our modern world on the go, careless. Keillor ends with these famous words, "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch." I stay mostly well, and I'm told I do good work. I guess I should write him.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Kierkegaard on ideas for sale

"Not just in commerce but in the world of ideas too our age is putting on a veritable clearance sale."

- Soren Kierkegaard, Provocations

Monday, September 22, 2008

Kamikaze hawk strikes the Trailer of Paradise

Wendy and I were treated to a spectacle of nature as we hurriedly got ready this morning. As we both walked through the living room in transit between the bedroom and the kitchen (the two poles of existence at the ToP), we heard a loud thud somewhere to the right of the backyard windows. My first thought was that a large book had fallen from some high place, which is always a distinct possibility in our abode. Falling books create an especially booming resonance, given the mobile home's infrastructure (or lack thereof). My second thought was that a loose tree limb fell onto our roof. Also always a distinct possibility, one that makes hurricane season particularly fraught with worry.

Wendy peered out the back windows onto our backyard and the large clearing that was once a magnificent wilderness beyond our back fence. I glanced that way as well when an immense flurry of wings suddenly darted into view from the side of the trailer, encompassing a large portion of the view from the window, and swiftly heaved itself to the top of the fence! There perched a hawk that had to be a foot long from head to tail. I've included a photo of it below, but I'm afraid it does not do the majestic creature justice. Nevertheless, there it is.

Evidently, this large aerial predator decided to fly smack into the side of the ToP. It seemed to have narrowly missed the window. If it had, would it have crashed through the glass? Imagine the chaos! That would be a story to tell. Well, the hawk perched on the fence long enough to have a good look around and for me to take the photo. Suddenly, it leapt up into a tree above, where, lo and behold, another hawk of the same size appeared out of nowhere. The first hawk chased the second one across the canopy of trees in our backyard and out of our view. What a rare glimpse! What a morning! On a cool, dark, and windy September morning that threatens rain and possibly storm, could one be tempted to perceive it as an omen? If so, what sort of omen would a kamikaze hawk be? And who could blame it for wanting to join Wendy and me for coffee? But we were on the run. Sorry, hawk.

This was my second glimpse of hawks at the ToP. The first occurred a couple months ago. One of the hawks perched majestically atop a wire across our neighbor's driveway. It was also about a foot tall. Same hawk? Who knows? To put it's size into perspective, here's a photo of a cardinal on our back porch:

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Lewis on the reading of old books

Here begins a new series of provocative quotations from various readings.

"It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period."

- C. S. Lewis, "On the Reading of Old Books," God in the Dock

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sickness and suffragettes (this week has flown)

It has been such a while since I last wrote, or at least it seems so. I feel like a bad parent (in which case my other two blogs are red-headed stepchildren). So it goes in the age of instant technology and increased expectations.

Has it only been a week? What a week! It has been both a ridiculous and a resounding week. The great shining moment came this past Tuesday, the 16th, when Dr. Patricia Harrison, chair of history at Spring Hill College in Mobile, visited the University of West Florida and presented a lecture at the Pensacola Historical Society. I led a group of students in coordinating this event, which consumed a lot of time and effort. However, it was a clear success. Dr. Harrison is a wonderfully pleasant woman, and it was a pleasure to show her around town and to arrange the event for her.

It was a very rewarding experience, but this shining moment was punctuated by clouds of gloom, particularly in the form of utter, miserable congestion. I was struck down by the back-to-school bug last Tuesday, the 9th, and I am still battling it. Sickness has a way of slowing down time and everyday reality into a fuzzy, dreamlike vision. The Nyquil doesn't help. My waking moments were largely gobbled up by my barista duties at Starbucks (if only those only consisted of making drinks, but the cleaning and maintenance of store and stock fill most of my time), and I devoted what little time was left over to tidying up all the last details of Dr. Harrison's visit.

Yes, a dark and crazy week, but Dr. Harrison's visit went wonderfully, and all's well that ends well. By the way, you'll notice the flyer at the beginning of this post. That is a Tim Roberts special. He designed most of the flyers for Phi Alpha Theta during my stint as president and beyond. Tuesday's lecture was my last hurrah. Now to focus on actually graduating.

Did I mention that last Wednesday was my birthday? I spent the majority of the day in bed, attempting to ward off the evil spirits that clogged my respiratory system (little success), but it was still a fine day filled with cards and gifts from family members and reminders of the love we have for each other. Wendy bought me two especially wonderful gifts: Criterion Collection's edition of Withnail and I, the cult classic 80's British film of two down-and-out actors in late 60's Britain who try to escape from it all (with hilarious results), and one of my favorite novels (in my favorite edition, the Modern Library), The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton. I will read it again soon.

Yesterday was the first cool day of the autumn season in Pensacola. Correction: it was the first cool morning and evening. That's close enough for us denizens of this sultry swampland. Shusaku Endo describes 16th-century Japan in his novel Silence as a spiritual swamp in which Christianity simply cannot take root. I wonder if northwest Florida constitutes a similarly swampy spiritual landscape, for though there exists a church on nearly every corner, the waters have long lain stagnant. A pervasive attitude of atrophy seems to blanket this place, but perhaps I am merely being negative. Perhaps Pensacola will see its day yet.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Book #9: Guards! Guards!

Guards! Guards! is the second Terry Pratchett Discworld novel to land on this blog. In this story, Pratchett introduces Sam Vimes and the rest of the intrepid Ankh-Morpork City Watch to readers. Those who have read other Discworld stories featuring Watch Commander Vimes, may be surprised at first by Vimes' trepidation. The Watch has fallen on hard times. It has been made nearly redundant by the regulation of crime through the creation of the Thieves Guild, and its few remaining watchmen are bullied by the city's tough residents. However, the arrival of Carrot, the 6'6" man raised by dwarves whose unswerving dedication to uphold the law and a madman's cunning plot to overthrow the city government by summoning a dragon bring the Vimes' latent heroism to the fore.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Beer #1: Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron

This is not my first beer, of course, but the first I will chronicle on my blog. Of all my little hobbies, I probably know least about beer. I really cannot tell you anything about the Palo Santo Marron that is not on the Dogfish Head website except that it is really, really good. It goes well with sirloin steak soup and an episode of Three Sheets.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Book #8: Prince Caspian

I actually finished Prince Caspian about three months ago, just in time for the baleful movie adaptation. I attempted to write a withering comparative analysis of the book and the film to demonstrate the poverty of the film version, snatching what time I could on breaks at Starbucks and so forth, but other responsibilities claimed my time, and I never finished. Now that the film is all but forgotten, it seems rather silly to proceed with such an invective. So I will leave a quick post on the book itself.

Unfortunately, I don't have the time to give the book form of Prince Caspian its full due in this post. I hope it will suffice to make one small but crucial point. This book is about war. According to Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia, its theme and mood are governed by the characteristics of Mars, the god of war, in accordance with medieval cosmology (another example of the subtle and erudite genius of Lewis). The Telmarines oppress the Narnians, and the Narnians rise up to cast off their oppression through force. However, such a reading (which is the version presented in the film) ignores Lewis' powerful subtext and the most important point in this book: it is not through force, power, and war that we are truly liberated, but through joy. A close reading of the story reveals that the Narnians are fighting for survival, not out of some sort of nationalistic or revolutionary fervor. However, as the battle rages, Aslan and the girls accompany Greek mythological figures Bacchus and Silenus, who represent joy, as they engage in a campaign of true liberation against the superstition, fear, and hatred which grip both the Telmarines and the Narnians, ultimately uniting both groups under a truce of love.

It is joy, not war, that truly liberates. Lewis, a wounded veteran of the trenches of World War I and witness to the ensuing spiritual atrophy across Europe, knew this lesson well.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A wedding and a hurricane

It has been a whirlwind two weeks, almost literally!

Wendy and I left for the flatlands of Oklahoma City at 12:30am two Thursdays ago. Yes, it was a bit early. Wendy had to close her store at 10pm the night before. Of course, the idea was that I would get plenty of sleep in the early evening in order to be fit to drive the rest of the night and early morning. I ended up staring at the ceiling for several hours, and I drove out from Pensacola on three hours of sleep earlier that day with Wendy snoozing in the passenger seat. However, I was fueled by Whataburger's tasty breakfast menu and a bountiful supply of coffee (not from Whataburger, but from yours truly). Lack of sleep didn't really become a problem until about an hour before Jackson (or an hour after?), when I had to sing along to the Rushmore soundtrack to stay awake. I replaced "Yoko" with "Wendy."

We rolled into Jackson by dawn, where I doubled my weight with a Whataburger patty melt, and Wendy and I made a Starbucks stop in Ridgeland - my third visit to that store, trusty ol' Ridgeland Starbucks. I succumbed somewhere past Memphis, and Wendy drove through most of Arkansas. Then I took the wheel again, refreshed, taking us to Edmond, OK. No rest for the weary, though. We arrived at the rehearsal dinner, quite hungry, just in time to find everyone leaving (curses!), and we followed the caravan to the Tres Suenos vineyard for the wedding rehearsal.

I made a curious discovery on this latest trip to my Oklahoma homeland (from which I've lived nearly my entire life in exile), that there seem to be as many vineyards now in the former Indian Territory as there are oil fields. How unexpected! The 21st century sees the state entering a new era of sophistication, or so it seems.

Christa and Joe's wedding was the next day, of course. The wedding was marvelous! It took place outside in perfect weather, and only one giant hornet attempted to take my head off. We stood in the dusk amidst a small grove of pines. The vineyard contained a great hall with pleasant south-midwestern decor for the reception, where we enjoyed a fantastic dinner and an amazing array of cheeses that my parents brought from Germany. The greatest part of it all, of course, was seeing my sister enter into holy matrimony, but seeing family and old friends was a close second. All in all, a most pleasant experience. I'm sure the toxic train wreck that occurred in the vicinity the day before was a complete coincidence.

Tres Suenos sits a little north of Luther, Oklahoma, a historic town straddling Route 66. Just west of Luther, one encounters the Valhalla of rest stops: Pops! The weary traveler first spies - could it be? - an immense soda bottle promising limitless refreshment! A bottle that lights up like Joseph's resplendent coat in the night! To the right of this monument to quenching thirst, one sees a crystalline, strangely modern steel, glass, and stone building housing several gas pumps and a gleaming white restaurant and convenience store that makes you wonder if you're not actually on the Starship Enterprises' holodeck. But this is no mere convenience store. Oh no. This is soda pop heaven. It contains soda drinks from all over the world, including my favorite, Manhattan Special's Pure Espresso Coffee Soda. Yum! The pizza place on Palafox in downtown Pensacola also serves this drink of the gods, thankfully.

Wendy had difficulty parting ways with Pops. Don't worry, honey, we'll return someday.

Wendy and I loved spending time with family and friends of family, and we had a hard time leaving. Alas, Pensacola called. We set out the following Tuesday, exploring the fabled Route 66 to Chandler. We headed south to the I-40, encountering several vineyards on the way (though we did not stop to taste their fruits - maybe next time), drove east on 40 (a bumpy ride), took the Indian Nations Turnpike south from Henryetta (beautiful country with the worst rest stops ever), enjoyed a peak around Paris, TX (with the nicest Methodist church I've ever seen), drove east to Texarkana (not terribly exciting, but the R.E.M. connection was irresistable - but no Braum's!), south to Shreveport, and across Louisiana on the dreary I-49 to Lafayette, where we turned east and spent the night outside Hammond.

The next day, Wendy and I enjoyed coffee and breakfast at St. John's Coffeehouse in Covington, Louisiana. I wanted to introduce Wendy to this neat little town, home to Walker Percy, one of my favorite authors. Cafes, art galleries, English tea shop - the works. We walked down to the landing. It was a refreshing stop.

We arrived back at the Trailer of Former Paradise last Wednesday morning just in time to go to work. Reality strikes. Then came Gustav, making landfall on Monday, our one year anniversary. Inauspicious? Mais non! Wendy and I spent the day watching the extended versions of The Lord of the Rings and enjoyed a nice quiet day at home. Our cake tasted as soft and fresh as it did one year ago. Gustav was kind to us as well as the rest of the Gulf Coast. It could have been much, much worse.