Posts tagged ‘America’

December 13, 2013

#66) Embracing the Suck

Nancy Pelosi may be smarter than she looks.  In response to the latest federal government budget deal, the House Minority Leader encouraged her Democratic colleagues to “embrace the suck.”

What exactly does it mean to “embrace the suck?”  In this context, it’s about accepting circumstances and moving forward, acknowledging that things won’t always work out as you want.  In the political world, it could be interpreted as recognizing that while there will always be partisan bickering (and intra-partisan bickering), the job of all elected officials is to make America better. It can also refer to non-politicians who don’t see eye to eye but must work together: corporations; sports teams; musical groups; even friendships and marriages.

The use of “suck” as a noun may have its origins in the Marines; the phrase “welcome to the suck” was used frequently in the film “Jarhead.”  The suck is a situation that, well, sucks, but can also bring people together, as in the Marines.  While the suck might not be enjoyable while it’s going on, surviving it creates a bond among those who have experienced it.

The suck can definitely create positive results.  The tensions between John Lennon and Paul McCartney produced some of the Beatles’ best music.    Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant may hate each other, but they each won more rings together than separately.  The suck can also create personal growth and often those who overcome it can inspire others with their story.  If there was no suck, we wouldn’t enjoy the great moments of our lives.

Will Pelosi and her colleagues on both sides of the aisle embrace the suck?  Will the two parties start working together more efficiently and amicably in 2014?  There’s no way to know for sure, but in its own way, Pelosi’s phrase is a small step in the right direction.   Hopefully the suck will become an obstacle which both parties will work together to vanquish and not remain a response to a less than perfect situation.  All of us have to deal with the suck, regardless of our background.  Help in handling the suck can sometimes come from unlikely places.

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January 23, 2013

#52) Book review: “Bad Land” by Jonathan Raban

If Stanley Kubrick were still alive, he’d probably consider making a film of “Bad Land.”  This story of early 20th century Montana homesteaders has several themes that appealed to Kubrick: history, isolation and survival.  More importantly, the slow pace–straddling the fence between tension and tedium–that Raban uses to lead the optimistic homesteaders to impending disaster parallels “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Shining.”

Raban, an Englishman now living in Seattle, describes his book as “An American Romance.”  The story is definitely American, although the only romance might be what the homesteaders felt when they were offered the “opportunity” to buy large tracts of land in what was then called the Great American Desert.  When the Milwaukee Road laid is tracks through eastern Montana, the railroad magnates lobbied Congress to pass the Enlarged Homestead Act, with hopes that immigrants from the east coast, the Midwest and even abroad would build new towns to support the line.  Led by science that may have been deliberately deceiving, and literature that definitely was, many people took the bait.  As Raban notes, after the majority of the homesteaders failed, many took the same railroad out of town that had taken them to eastern Montana, hoping for a fresh start farther west.  But a few of the homesteaders did stay, surviving the first few years of bad weather, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the war years and everything in between.  Visiting a corral where bull calves were being branded and neutered (“quite an experience for…one and a half minutes”), Raban notes, “One would never have guessed of the amount of ruination that would have gone into the making of this scene, of country neighbors, at ease with themselves and each other.”

There’s a clear intent to the slow pace Raban uses to tell the story.  The outcome of disaster is known from the beginning, evident as Raban (in 1995, when the book was written) travels through eastern Montana, picking through ruined homes and the abandoned schoolhouse.  Raban’s attention to detail, in the backgrounds of his characters, the description of the endless prairies, and the deft manipulation of the railroad literature, serves two purposes.  In addition to establishing the world of 1909 Montana for the readers, it also holds off the impending doom, almost like a literary version of a cat playing with a mouse.

This is successful in some ways; not in others.  For example, Raban devotes over 20 pages almost exclusively to Evelyn Cameron, a photographer who documented the landscape around the time of the Enlarged Homestead Act.  While the starkness of Cameron’s photos is important, providing a hard reality that contrasts the idealized version of the land painted by the railroaders, the reader (at least this reader) might be bogged down by this rather slow section of the book.  Similarly, Raban devotes over 50 pages to stories of the homesteaders’ lives after leaving eastern Montana: settling in the more fertile western end of the state; living as itinerant apple pickers in the valleys of Washington, or making it to the “Emerald City” of Seattle.  While these epilogues are interesting to a point, most of the dramatic arc of the story has already taken place; don’t be surprised if you’re reading the last few pages more to finish the book than out of real interest.  Perhaps Raban is trying to provide a reading experience that simulates, in a literary sort of way, the trials and challenges of his subjects.

To what kind of person would “Bad Land” appeal?  Certainly history buffs; people with an interest in agriculture (my dad, off of whose shelf I pinched this book, is both.)  It might have appealed to a certain film-maker whose subject matter included space travel, the Age of Enlightenment, the Vietnam war, and a comedy about nuclear destruction.

For my part, “Bad Land” was a book that took me almost two months to get through; I would read close to a hundred pages one day and nothing more for a week.   Having finally finished the book, I can say this: like a Kubrick film, it’s not always easy, and it doesn’t always work, but on the balance, it’s a positive experience.