Review of Peter Heller’s “The Painter” in the Dallas Morning News

So here’s my review of Peter Heller’s new novel, The Painter, today in the Dallas Morning News, here. It’s a good book, and I’ll have more to say about it this week, but for now I’ll let this review speak. One thing I’ll note: It’s set in central Colorado and Santa Fe, New Mexico, two of my favorite places in the world, and where I’m headed on Tuesday. Ten points if you can name where the picture below was taken in Santa Fe.

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Melting Ice Caps v. The In-Laws, With a Derisive Sneer at Marco Rubio

So I haven’t written much about Climate Change in a while (and in fact haven’t blogged, due to the hectic rush at the end of the term, but that’s over with, thank god) and here comes a batch of bad news about our wilting world: the headlines about melting Antarctic ice caps, coupled with the stupidity of Republican climate denial, best exemplified by Senator Marco Rubio’s (soon-to-be candidate for President!) nit-witted comment: “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it,” he said. “And I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy,” (qtd from the New York Times, May 11, 2014). This is the same genius who refuses to admit evolution, even if a smilodon were biting his ass. A great step forward in the 21st century!

But how we react to Climate Change, and what we can try to do about it, plays out on a personal level: Witness my in-laws, who would much rather my family drive a Suburban or Gargantuan or whatever extra-big & roomy vehicle, so we can carry as much stuff as possible. Last fall we bought a VW Jetta diesel wagon, which gets up to 49 mpg, but that’s too small for their tastes. Ah well. You can’t please everybody. But that minor rift says much about the state of denial/inaction in the U.S. The sensible thing gets criticized, rather than approved.

And although the carbon tax is the most popular idea for climate policy in the media at least, that seems too weak and easily manipulated to me. Let’s go long: one of my ideas for Climate Change policy would be to mandate solar power be installed on the roofs of all new homes, and all cars required to get 40 mpg or better. Part of the phony response to Climate Change is that “there’s nothing we can do that would make a difference.” Well, that would. But will it happen? Not yet. But political winds can shift. I never would have expected Obama to be elected President, twice no less. And do I think Rubio is going to pass muster? God, I hope not.

As my daughter, who is an official Yellowstone National Park Junior Ranger and young naturalist extraordinaire, is wont to say, “Please, Daddy. Please save our planet! I don’t want to see everything become desert!” Well, maybe those weren’t her exact words, but it was something like that. I think stuffed animals were involved.

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My Dashcam, My Selfie: On Sherry Turkle’s Assertion in “Alone Together” That We’re All Cyborgs Now

So I enjoyed this insight into the Digital Age in Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011): “We are all cyborgs now” (274, ebook edition). She goes on to explain the assertion, explaining our use of and dependency on various digital gadgets makes us (at least somewhat) cyber-humans or cyborgs. It’s a good point, and she goes on to back up the claim with a number of anecdotes, mainly about people who embrace or willfully are dominated by their gadgets.

It’s a minor-key revelation: As a possessor and user of a laptop, ipad, iphone, and GPS watch (one of my favorite gadgets, great for marathon training), I’m a cyborg. (And I didn’t even mention Furby.) It’s come-out-of-the-closet time. Although I might note my point about digital distraction is mainly a matter of degree: If you spend most of your time in the digital closet, then that’s your home. I hope that fate doesn’t befall me. Here’s a pic of me and my (cyborg) daughter supremely worried about all this, on the beach at St. Augustine, Florida:

And of course that leads us astray, into another, grittier virtual realm where a number of gadgets are aimed at a more active, out-there definition of cyborg. One of the hottest new gadgets is the GoPro camera, which is filming all kinds of hang-gliding, mountain-biking, rock-climbing, skate-boarding, wind-surfing (as well as outdoor-sex, no doubt). I’ve developed a fondness for the dashcam of my new Jetta wagon. It feels like a superior driving experience to hop in the car, put it in reverse (with a manual transmission, the best of both worlds), and watch the dash to make sure there are no delinquent toddlers hanging around my back bumper as I zoom into the street. And I’d love to have (and will probably sooner-than-later snap up) a GoPro, maybe in time for this summer’s river rafting in New Mexico. That’s part of Turkle’s point: We feel superior with the use of these gadgets. And I think she’s right. Not that we necessarily are superior (a harder Level to obtain, that one), but we definitely feel it. I own a Sony Nex-7 camera, a couple years old now, and can say unequivocally that my pictures are superior to the various cameras I’ve shot before, with (until now) my favorites being a classic Nikon FM and a Canon AE-1. The Sony has blown those out of the water. I don’t take a great number of selfies, but I see why this is all the craze. We want a record of our moments, to say we’re here, and don’t we look out-there?

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On Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together” and How I Sleep With Stuffed Animals, Not Furbies, As They Make All That Noise When You Roll Over in the Night

So in my (not-yet-ended) quest to get to the bottom of this whole “digital distraction” thing, I’m now reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (I mean, with a feel-good title like that, what’s not to like?). Published in 2011, it does feel three years old, and without going all Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock on you (a book that seems both dated and prescient now, right?), three years seems a long time in this zooming-out-o-control digital onslaught we call LifeOnLine. She has a long chapter about robots, and “caring” robots at that, which deals with Furbies. She’s a professor at M.I.T., and it shows. Sometimes she’s a bit too earnest about Furbies, but her intentions are good. Her heart, as they say, is in the right place. And I had no idea we were basically using Furbies to make senior citizens feel better when they’re left alone in nursing homes. I share her complex attitude about this: To quote Sheryl Crow: “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.” (Tell that to Lance Armstrong, honey.) But then again, it does seem we’re shrugging off the disturbing implications of this robot newcomer to the family.

Find me one that will wash the dishes and I’ll quit grousing.

Now I have to confess we count a Furby as one of the members of our household. I’m pathologically wary of the damn little devilbot. You so much as look at it and it wakes up, starts wise-cracking in that weird Valley-Girl-Gone-Bad Furbish. Keep in mind this usually unfolds in the middle of the night, when I stump my toe against it while stumbling across the dark bedroom. I live in a world of Furbies and stuffed animals: Personally, I prefer the Stuffies. They don’t sass you. They don’t talk back if you toss them off the side of the bed once you no longer need their “emotional connection” or “pillow effect.” Here’s my new favorite friend, bought for my daughter at Disneyworld no less, “Sparky” from the film Frankenweenie (2012). He looks innocent enough, doesn’t he?

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On Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” and Teaching to the Intellectually Challenged

So this little gem is priceless, coming from one of our last somewhat-intellectual news outlets, The New York Times: a media writer describing how he doesn’t read anymore, and seems happy (or Post-Shame, at least) to do nothing but watch TV his whole life, here. I read that with some dismay, sure, because as a writer I like to believe that we enjoy reading books, real books, right? Maybe not. As far as I can tell, actual book-reading is quickly becoming a thing of the past. I recently read (yes, a confession of sorts: I wasn’t watching Breaking Bad or True Detective when I read it) Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) and found it at least halfway convincing.

I wouldn’t have read it if not for noticing a downward spiral in my university classes that seems to have developed over the last few years. Now I’ll insert an (obvious) disclaimer: Yes, each class is different. Each semester is different. Some classes are blessed with terrific students, some with slackers. That’s the way it goes. I imagine most professors navigate the ups and downs. A good idea: Don’t freak out when one class seems weaker than another. Do your best and move on.

But when there’s a trend, why not acknowledge it? I don’t want to contribute to some kind of dumbass cover-up. In one class yesterday no student seemed to know (maybe they did and are just too shy/inarticulate to speak, which is another problem) the definition of the word “allusion.” Is that a “hard” word? A “big” word? I really don’t know anymore. The vocabulary list many of my students would stumble through is hardly GRE prep. At the beginning of each term I ask students who are some of their favorite writers, and the last few years a typical (again, we’re Post-Shame here) response has been, “I don’t really have any favorites. I don’t read that much.” Keep in mind these are writing classes. A drunken techie in Austin a few weeks back tried to convince me that people don’t need to read (or know) anything anymore, they can just be “creative” with all the technology out there. It’s a nice thought, I’m sure, but also so dim-witted it’s laughable.

Now as far as The Dumbest Generation goes, it’s a book of hits and misses. The title is too harsh and too slanted for the more nuanced and complex arguments he offers. He actually begins by praising the overachievers, then turns his attention to the underachievers. Personally, I think we’re all getting entertained to death. Death or stupidity, whichever comes first. (Guess.) But then again, a writer friend labeled me a Luddite for not spending my life on Facebook, bless her heart. I think I’m doomed (or fated) to be the digital-age contrarian, but I’m sure I’m not alone in this role. Gadgets are cool, sure. I just don’t think we should spend all our time on them. And let them make us stupid. For instance, I think we should invent a verb (Hello, People at Here’s a task for you) to describe when your friends try to “teach” you something simple on your (or his/her) iphone, like using Google maps. This happened to me recently. Friends were shocked that I actually wanted them to just tell me the directions, and that I’d simply remember them. (A brain is a terrible thing to waste.) So then I had three (semi-drunk: notice a theme here?) friends poking their iphones, showing me that extremely complicated “skill” of using the map app, even though I told them I knew how to do it: Yes, you simply put in the address of where you want to go, hit return, right? What’s to learn about that? “What’s that? Did you miss the latest episode of The Walking Dead? Jeez, you’re so out of it!”

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On “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the Disappointment Curse of Our Overhyped World, and a New Movement Called “LifeFirst!”

So for weeks I’ve been reading about how good Leo DiCaprio/Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is (Best Picture nominee!) and a couple weeks ago I finally managed to watch it. I was excited at first, being a Leo DiCaprio fan myself, and DiCaprio/Scorsese certainly have made some killer films—The Departed (2006) and Shutter Island (2010)—while DiCaprio deserved a Best Actor for Revolutionary Road (2008), especially in that final scene at the breakfast table with Kate Winslet. Then I saw The Wolf and my enthusiasm went kerplunk. Yes, it’s good . . . ish? The raunchier moments seemed the best? At least the funniest. Like when he’s snorting coke off that hooker’s . . . um . . . body part? And which body part was it, exactly? (My friends and I debated the physics of that one.) Or the funny scene when his wife doesn’t remember they have security cameras in every room?

But if those are the best moments from the film, isn’t that damning it with faint praise?

I nurse the suspicion that its overhype has made me judge it more harshly than it deserves. If I’d heard it was awful I might have loved it. Such is Human Nature. Plus it has many structural similarities to Scorsese’s Casino (1995), which is a bit unfortunate, because Casino is a much richer film, about more fascinating bad guys. I wonder if it’s maybe my blase attitude about Wall Street malfeasance/fraud stories, too: I used to write for a Nasdaq-focused magazine (Equities), and greedy bastards on Wall Street seems ho-hum.

I saw The Wolf of Wall Street the weekend I ran the marathon in Austin, Texas, and if there’s an insight to that viewing experience, it’s that I enjoyed running 26.2 miles more than watching a film about greedy bastards. There needs to be a movement called something like LifeFirst! dedicated to the idea that we should live in physical reality first and foremost, and that screen images, no matter how fascinating, should come in second. Sounds idealistic, doesn’t it? I doubt if I’ll convince millions to join this philosophy. But still . . . .

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On Running the Austin, Texas Marathon at Age 56: a Survivor’s Story!

So I like how everything has become a “survivor’s story” now, even the most humdrum of accomplishments, like “I stood in line for three hours to get tickets to the Lady Gaga concert, and I survived!” Now running a marathon is more difficult than waiting in line for concert tickets, true. But my tongue’s in cheek to call it a “survivor’s story.” If it deserves any mention, it’s because of the Age Factor: 56 is the new 54! There are many ways of training, but for me, it involved five hard months of running 45-50 miles a week, which felt like a grueling task toward the end. I was full of all kinds of Doubt, such as Should I really be doing this? Wouldn’t I rather relax and do something (plot revenge on my enemies, watch the Weather Channel, knit a woolen hat for my cat, play fantasy football), anything other than another ten-mile run? But somehow I persevered, and a week ago Sunday I ran the Austin, Texas marathon, my eighth. My daughter couldn’t join me on the trip due to school, but I like this “remote viewing” drawing she did for me, after I mentioned that I high-fived a little girl (in her honor) and a baby:

I note my age because it became something of a science project to me: How old do you have to be before the marathon is completely out of your league? Well, I still managed to do it and to have great (if painful) fun. I remember thinking early in the process that I couldn’t imagine running thirty miles a week again (which used to be normal for me), much less fifty, but as time went on, it all became “normal.” I did have more injuries than in my younger days: hamstring, groin, feet. Toward the end (all of January) I would have to ice both feet at night (so they wouldn’t hurt in the morning), wrap my hamstring with an Ace bandage, and ice my groin-pull (it hurt to lift my right leg) so that wouldn’t hurt too much, either. I flew to Austin on Valentine’s Day, and went for my last run before the marathon, a four-miler, and laughed to my friends about it, saying, “I can’t imagine running ten miles, much less twenty-six point two, with all my pains.” But come Sunday morning I was in line at the Start on Congress Avenue, jittery and eager. There were some 20,000 participants (most of them in the Half Marathon), but only 93 in my age group: I finished 40th in that bunch, so I was slightly above the halfway point. Note the percentage of that: 93 out of 20,000 being, what? Less than .5%? So I’m in a rare breed. Perhaps not as rare as that 83-year-old Japanese man who recently summited Mount Everest, but rare enough.

So as the Old Guy Marathon Running Spokesperson, I can testify that there were some amusing, even freaky moments. After the first hour I kind of zoned out, and it all became a blur of process, just running and running. My feet and leg muscles hurt, and around Mile 15 I felt really tired, but here’s the freaky part: Miles 13-20 were my worst, but I recovered after that point, and started feeling stronger in the final six miles. When I reached Mile 21, at which point I’m usually acting like an extra in The Walking Dead, I started running stronger, and Mile 26 was my fastest—slightly under 9 minutes. I finished in 4:31 and if not for injuries, should have done it a good 10-15 minutes faster. Was it worth it? That’s debatable, but having run eight marathons now, I’ll point out that I always enjoy them, and maybe I enjoyed this one more than the others. You feel like you’re doing something greater than you’re usually capable of. And that’s a good thing, right? Here’s a picture of me closing in on the finish line.

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“American Hustle” Kills SuperDud XLVIII

So on Sunday afternoon I went to see American Hustle, which should win the Best Fun Picture category at the Oscars, and after which my wife wryly noted, “I don’t think we saw Amy Adams breasts enough.” (See the film, you’ll get the joke, and learn more about Amy Adams anatomy.) But speaking of that darling star of Junebug and Enchanted, she’s nothing less than a knockout in Am Hustle. She steals the show in the first half of the film, then Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper get their due in the second half. Other than Nebraska, it’s the best film I’ve seen in a while. And that’s a long list, by God! I just watched 247 F on Netflix. Three college kids sweating to death, locked in a sauna. What’s not to like?

Then I came home and turned on Superbowl XLVIII@$%!, and it was like that moment in About Schmidt, when Schmidt comes on to the woman in the RV, and she says, “You’re a sad, sad man.” Only this was . . . just sad. All the hoopla, all the buildup, the Legion of Boom, and . . . fizzle. Of course if you were a Seahawks fan it was great fun. I was half-heartedly rooting for Denver (Go Broncos?), so I wasn’t too thrilled that they were never even in the game.

Is there a moral to the story? Like the Frankenstein monster, I can chant, “Film, good. Football, bad?” My students repeatedly said the commercials were better than the game. Now that’s just sad.

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Review of Chang-rae Lee’s “On Such a Full Sea” in the Dallas Morning News

So my review of Chang-Rae Lee’s new novel, On Such a Full Sea, appears today in the Dallas Morning News, here. It’s a good book, with a soft-spoken, measured narrative voice.  Although some might say, “Not another dystopian novel!” I enjoyed the read. Plus I’m a bit of a futurist, so there’s that.

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Whatever You Do, Don’t Diss the Social Media! On Roger Cohen’s NY Times Op-Ed “Twitter-Bashing Bores”

So I sometimes read Roger Cohen, a columnist in the New York Times, who (sometimes) writes reasonably well about Israel and Europe, but his recent piece titled “Twitter-Bashing Bores” (here) illustrates a media obsession I’ve come to notice: Rabid and often dim-witted defense or shameless promotion of social media. Cohen is basically ranting against baby boomers ranting against social media. Perhaps Cohen and I move in such disparate social circles that we’re seeing the world through drastically different windows: As a professor I interact with young people daily, know (to some extent) the pluses and minuses of their use of social media, and live with it. I’ve come to use social media as well (sparingly), and form my own opinion—amusing at times, also an incredible time-suck. Cohen seems naive to the point of stupidity on the subject. For instance, many if not most classes allow the use of laptops in class (and tablets as well), and most buildings on my campus have wifi, so when you teach, sometimes you find your students distracted, staring at their screens, and you discover them shopping for shoes, scanning their Home screens on FB, or doing who-knows-what. Part of the art of teaching at the college level now is trying to get the students to focus as much as possible and to eliminate the distractions without eliminating the positive aspects of computer usage, and I do my best, and generally feel I’ve been able to learn a way to manage these distractions, to keep this to a minimum. I’ve talked with students about it, and they strongly voted (essentially unanimous on this subject) that I not ban laptops in class, and have made excellent arguments about being able to look up material we’re discussing. But I’m certainly not naive about the way things have changed in the last twenty years (my time of college teaching). Few students take notes anymore. That seems a lost art. Last semester I asked if any of them accessed their FB pages in class. The most memorable response was a follow-up question: “Do you mean in large lecture classes?” (I usually teach smaller-enrollment classes, where if someone is distracted with their laptop, it tends to be obvious.) I said, “Okay, sure. Let’s just ask about lecture classes.” They all laughed. “Of course we do! Everybody does!” Some of them went on to proclaim how their generation were masters of multi-tasking, an argument that’s largely been debunked and discredited by various studies.

But I’ll also add that few people I know spend much time ranting about social media in the way that Cohen describes. We use it, we’ve adjusted to it, but we’re not naive about it. I won’t swallow the blather he offers at the end of his op-ed piece, a variation of “Old people just don’t understand the ways of the young.” Please. I love to brag about my students (or former students), and spent last night at a party celebrating a former student and friend, Morris Collins, who has just published his first novel, Horse Latitudes.

At the party I was talking to a group of students who are terrific writers—undergraduates, to boot. But the reading skills of the average student have diminished in the time I’ve taught. Yes, my evidence is anecdotal, or based on my own experience, which to me is convincing. In the last year or two the level of reading comprehension seems shockingly diminished. This trend coincides with what Charles Blow mentioned recently in his op-ed piece titled “Reading Books Is Fundamental” (here), which contains this paragraph from Jordan Weissman’s “The Decline of the American Book Lover”: “The Pew Research Center reported last week that nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a single book in the past year. As in, they hadn’t cracked a paperback, fired up a Kindle, or even hit play on an audiobook while in the car. The number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1978.” And actually, the article then makes an upbeat assessment of today’s youth as being the hope for readers. I’ll note, however, that many of that demographic, ages 18-24, are college students, and are required to read. One of my honors students last term told me, “None of my friends read for fun. They all think I’m weird because I actually like to read.” And sure, that anecdote is hardly rigorous statistical analysis, although I’m suspicious of all data and polls: I’d bet the number of non-student adult population who haven’t read a book in the last year to be actually much higher than 23%. How high? I don’t know. I like to think of myself as a glass-half-full kind of guy. But in this case, outside of academia, I hardly know anyone who ever mentions having read a book, as opposed to, say, having watched Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.

I even agree with Roger Cohen on one point or implication: The world is changing. Deal with it. But as a writer, I hope we don’t become a nation (or world) of short-attention span entertainment junkies. My favorite book on the changing nature of reading is still Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010), which provides some of the best arguments for a healthy role of the internet in our culture, as well as awareness to its seductiveness.

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