Science, Fiction, Life

Month: August 2017

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

For the majority of popular authors out there, especially in genres like sci-fi and fantasy, it’s all about the plot. Prose exists to tell you what’s going on and otherwise its job is to get out of the way and try to be as “invisible” as possible. That’s why it was so refreshing to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The prose in this book is the opposite of that bland “invisible” utilitarian prose that is so common. It’s so good that it is hard to even find the words to convey it. The difference between other authors’ writing and the writing on display in Kavalier and Clay is like the difference between those sleepy ponies that give kids a nice safe ride at the state fair and a thoroughbred racehorse on a straightaway. You get so used to safe, easy, invisible prose that when a book comes along that really shows you what the English language can do, its power is breathtaking and exhilarating. Seeing it used to its full potential relieves a tension you didn’t even know was there.

There’s so much to gush about when it comes to Chabon’s writing, but one of the most noticeable things for me was the skill with which characters are introduced. Even for minor characters who are present for a scene or two, he somehow manages to deploy the perfect metaphor, the perfect few details of their appearance and demeanor, so that in a paragraph you not only know what the person looks like, but you know their backstory, their motivation, their family life, their aspirations and disappointments in life. You feel like you know the person, like you’re pretty sure you’ve met the person in real life.

It’s not just the descriptions of people, it’s all the descriptions. Chabon manages to find the perfect words every time so that it’s not just a description, it’s a visceral feeling. It’s familiar even if there’s no reason it should be. And somehow this is done without feeling like the prose is bloated. The only complaint I have is that he does have a tendency to use an unusual word when a more common one would do fine. It’s a fine line to walk: sometimes the less common word has shades of meaning that are missing from the everyday one. But sometimes it just sounds pretentious. And I’ll admit, there were a couple of times, for some reason both involving violent events, that the word choices and figurative language was so unusual I didn’t actually understand what happened except by context clues. But for the most part, I think the writing falls on the correct side of the fine line.

So what’s the book about? It is nominally about two Jewish cousins, one from New York, one a WWII refugee from Czechoslovakia, who team up to create a superhero comic. I was never much of a fan of comics, but I am enough of a SFF fan that I have absorbed some comics knowledge through osmosis. One of the coolest things about Kavalier and Clay was seeing Chabon use the strength of his prose to convey the power of the story being told by the comics in such a way that an adult reader gets the same feelings as a kid reading the comic.

But comics are just the surface veneer. The main theme of the story is “Escape” and whether it’s a good thing or not, ranging from the escapism of comic books, to escaping the War, to escaping the city to settle for living the American dream in the suburbs, to escaping from that sterile and boring suburban life to be who you really are, etc. I’m not doing it justice of course: it is very well done, perfectly walking the line between ham-fisted and too subtle.

I also found it interesting to see many familiar threads appear in Kavalier and Clay that I recognized from Chabon’s collection of personal essays “Manhood for Amateurs.” Comic books and magic tricks, of course. But also a lot of melancholy and wistful reflections on growing up and nostalgia for childhood, fraternal (or in this case, cousinly) bonds, and the relationship between father and son.

It’s not a perfect book. I found the first half to be much more engaging than the second, as if once he was done introducing new characters, the writing lost some of its initial spark. That said, it was still excellent. The prose in Kavalier and Clay makes you feel things in a way that very few other authors are capable of, and it certainly cements Chabon’s place among my favorite authors.

 

I’m volunteering for the Democratic party, and you should be too.

I don’t know the original source for this image. If you do, please let me know.

The Republican party has gone off the rails.

In just the last week, the Republican president threatened nuclear war with North Korea, military action against Venezuela for no apparent reason, thanked Russia for expelling American diplomats, and failed to immediately denounce Nazis and white supremacists even after they murdered a woman and assaulted many others. Before that, Republicans came within a hair’s breadth of passing a law, drafted in secret at the last minute, that would dismantle the Affordable Care Act (which is based on conservative ideas) and strip health insurance from millions of people. Our attorney general is a man who was deemed, in 1986, in Alabama, to be too racist to serve on the district court. Our Secretary of Education is a billionaire who has openly said that it is her goal to use education reform to “advance the kingdom of God” in direct opposition to the separation of church and state. The Republican party is systematically making it harder for minorities and the poor to vote, and has gerrymandered legislative districts in many states so that even if the GOP gets fewer votes, it gets more representatives. They reject the fact that humans are causing climate change, even as its effects become more obvious every year. They stole a seat on the supreme court.

It’s easy to point the finger at the Republican voters who got us here, and they absolutely deserve that blame. Many of them will claim that they just want smaller government and lower taxes and that they don’t support Nazis or racism or taking healthcare from poor children. But it was obvious what they were getting when they voted for Trump and Ryan and McConnell and other Republicans. If you are willing to ignore racism and misogyny and contempt for reality itself in order to get lower taxes for the rich, then guess what? The blood is on your hands when Nazis, encouraged by the people you elected, openly murder people on the streets.

That said, Republican voters are not the only ones to blame for the rise of Trump and the Republican party’s insanity. You and I are responsible for it too. We are complicit because we took for granted that facts and human decency should win out over lies and hatred. We sat by and watched while Republicans organized and voted and methodically took over every level of government. We saw Obama elected and thought that the country had turned a corner and that our work was done, when in reality the work was just beginning. We bickered among ourselves instead of working together to defeat one of the greatest threats that our democracy has ever faced. So now we have white nationalists in the streets and in the White House, a know-nothing president condoning their behavior and casually threatening nuclear war, and people having to call to beg their senators not to let them or their loved ones die for lack of health care.

This last election was a wake-up call for many of us, and I know that many of you have been participating in the resistance: marching and making calls, writing your representatives, going to town halls, donating to worthy causes, and all the rest. I know you’re tired, and I know you’re stretched thin, but there’s something else that I encourage you to do: Get involved with your local Democratic party as a Precinct Committee person (PC).

PCs are volunteers for the party who work at the most local level, usually within their own neighborhood. They help to get people registered to vote, to find out what issues matter most to their neighbors, and help get out the vote when election season comes around. PCs also play an important role in getting their county’s voice heard at the state level. For every three Elected PCs from a county, the country gets one additional representative at the state level.

The time commitment is not very large: occasional meetings and events that you attend as you are able. It is incredibly gratifying to get involved with a group of like-minded people from your county who are getting out there and doing something to turn the tide in 2018 and beyond. It’s also a great way to learn about local and state candidates so that you can make an informed decision for the primary election and help make sure the party puts forward candidates whose views reflect your own. As a PC, I’ve already gotten to meet multiple candidates for state and national office, as well as our representative in the U.S. House.

Becoming an active part of the party also lets you influence the party directly, outside of the primary election. If there is an issue that you think the Democrats aren’t emphasizing enough, or that you disagree with, then the best way to fix that is to get involved. Meet the people in your local party who can communicate that sentiment to those higher up in the party, or tell your representatives and candidates directly when you meet with them as a PC.  I’ve been a PC for a few months now, and at least for my county, I have noticed that most PCs are older retired people. There is a lack of people from my generation and younger, meaning that the younger perspective is missing from the grassroots foundation of the party.

And lest you think that the Democrats are just taking the place of Republicans as the “Party of No” without any policy to back up our resistance, I encourage you to take a look at the Democratic party platform. I think you’ll like what you see there. We are fighting against racism and white nationalism. We are fighting to ensure that every person has access to affordable health care. We are fighting to ensure that every citizen can vote, and that every vote counts. We believe that everyone deserves a good education, not just those who can afford to pay for private schools and expensive colleges. We believe in science, and that something must be done to slow climate change.

It really boils down to this: the only way to stop the Republican party’s madness is for Democrats to start winning elections at all levels. Republicans have taken over our government because they are organized and they vote. If you want to resist them, then the best thing you can do is help the Democrats do the same. Get involved. Help make the Democratic party what you want it to be. Only then will we be able set our country back on the right track.

My Experience as a Stay-at-home Dad

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been taking time off of work and spending it at home with our 7.5 month old baby. I’ll continue to be mostly off for another couple of weeks (more on that “mostly” caveat later), but I have enough under my belt at this point that I thought it would be worth writing down some thoughts.

Most people, if they’re going to take time off, take it right after the baby is born, and I did take some time off then as well. But we decided early on that it made more sense for me to postpone some of my paternity leave until now. Erin was lucky enough to be able to be off work from when Shane was born in December until the end of July, so the idea is for me to take this time off now to ease the transition as she returns to work.

The fact that I’m able to take this much time off at all is pretty great. The family medical leave act (FMLA) requires employers to allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of leave in the 12 month period following the birth of a child, but it doesn’t require that leave to be paid which is absurd. The only other nations in the world that don’t provide any paid family leave at all are Suriname and Papua New Guinea. Thankfully, I have accumulated enough sick leave and vacation time that I am able to take this time off without missing a paycheck, and my job is flexible enough that I can do this without causing major problems.

What I am doing is pretty unusual though. In the workaholic culture of the United States, and particularly the culture of science, it is not common for dads to take this much time off. Everyone I have told about this plan to take time off has been supportive, sometimes with with hints of jealousy, but I still feel the need to explain myself to everyone (including writing this blog post).

I hate that I feel guilty for taking this time, and that in explaining it, I feel the instinctive need to promise that I’m actually going to use this time to get some work done. Because heaven forbid that I would be so decadent as to take a month off for the sole purpose of spending time with my baby.

So, with that, let’s turn to the question of how my decadent month of child care is going.

First, the obvious: it’s great. Instead of just seeing my baby first thing in the morning, and then in the evening when both of us are tired and fussy, I get to spend all day with him. That’s interspersed with nap times when I can read a book, or get a little work done, or make dinner, or whatever else I want/need to do. We can go on little adventures, like taking the running stroller to Buffalo Park and going for a jog, or walking to the grocery store to get some ingredients for dinner. As a homebody who is content to just hang out in my house most of the time, this works well for me.

One thing I have noticed is how quickly I lose all track of time. Not that I don’t know what day it is, but at the end of the day it’s very hard to say what I actually did when. When did he last eat? How long were his naps? Did he go to sleep nicely last time or was it 45 minutes of screaming and crying? It all blurs together, making these questions surprisingly hard for me to answer. I actually went so far as to install a phone app to track feeding and nap times just so that I could verify that, yes, it has been 4 hours since the last bottle so that’s why he’s fussy. Taking care of a baby this age is repetitive: He is generally awake for about two hours, followed by a nap ranging from 45 minutes to a couple hours. In between naps, there are bottles, diaper changes, eating solid food, maybe a bath, and play time. When you add in at least 15 minutes (and sometimes much, much more) time spent getting him to calm down in preparation for nap time, you end up with a nearly endless cycle that blurs together.

I have also learned that I’m not very good at playing with babies this age. I’m probably not supposed to say this, but babies are pretty boring. I’ve always thought of myself as being good with kids, but babies are different. My go-to way of entertaining a baby is to read board books, but unlike younger babies who don’t really do much (and therefore make a fine book reading audience), 7 month old babies are interested in everything. This also means they aren’t generally interested in a single thing for very long. We’ll sit down to read some books, and after a couple pages, he’s fussing, wanting to gnaw the book or reaching for the dog, or looking at the colorful toy on the table. Also, this may come as a surprise to you, but books written for infants and toddlers are not particularly interesting for adults.

When books fail, there are always other toys. Dangling toys are always a hit, and things that crinkle or that feel nice to chew are also good. There’s peekaboo, or bouncing on my knee, and when in doubt I can usually make him crack up with tickles or a kiss-attack. My problem is that is seems like we can go through all of these options and then I check the time and only a few minutes have passed.

I’ve found that the best entertainment for everyone involved is actually food. We’re working on learning to eat finger foods, and putting Shane in his chair and placing a slice of peach or a stick of roasted sweet potato or a piece of banana on his tray to play with will keep him happy and entertained for quite a while. Meanwhile I get to play goalie, keeping him from sending his food off the edge of the tray, or retrieving fragments of food that have managed to bypass the bib and end up in his lap.

The hardest part about this has been self-inflicted and I knew it was going to happen, but that didn’t stop it. I built up this time off as this mythical gap in my calendar during which I hoped to get all manner of things done, ranging from work that I haven’t had time to get to, to writing, to exercise, to home improvement projects. Of course, it turns out most of the day is taken up with caring for my baby (shocker, I know), leaving just nap time for all of this stuff to happen. By not fully disconnecting from work, I have lost quite a bit of that “free” time during naps to answering emails, or helping my summer student finish up her presentation and paper, or doing some work (but not enough to feel satisfied). I am ashamed to find myself impatient for the baby to go down for another nap so I can get more stuff done, but then when nap times come, I never get done what I want to, and so I end up frustrated.

If I was truly off of work, with no responsibilities that kept drawing me back in, I think this month would be more enjoyable. Instead, I have been trying to exist as some sort of Schrodinger’s dad, in a bizarre superposition of working and not working, which turns out to just make both the time off and the small amount of work accomplished feel less satisfying. I think next week I am going to try to do a better job of actually being “off” so that I can enjoy this time. The week after, Shane starts half-day daycare, and I can ease back into working.

I want to make it clear that I recognize how fortunate I am in having this time off to spend with my son. I always feel guilty and self-indulgent when I write blog posts like this, because I know that many people only wish they had lives easy enough to have the “problems” I write about on this blog. I don’t mean to be overly negative, but I think it is worthwhile to talk about parenting honestly, and I use writing here on the blog as a way to process thoughts that otherwise would just rattle around in my head. So, thanks for indulging me and reading this far.

Now, the baby is waking up from his morning nap, so I am off to have a fun day with my son!

 

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