Category Archives: my brain

My lack of education hasn’t hurt me none

I recently read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and it is just stunning. Amazing. Beautiful. I remember reading Housekeeping a long time ago and loving it, but I have had the opportunity recently to recommend books I read in my teens and twenties and have mostly regretted it. There was the time I chose Young Men and Fire for our book group and everyone wanted to kill me (we switched at the last minute to A River Runs Through It and those that read that instead I think forgave me). So I was prepared to be underwhelmed by her new book, but I needn’t have been. Gilead is only her second novel; Housekeeping was the first and it came out 24 years before Gilead. 24. All I can say is that woman must have thrown a lot out in the meantime. She only lets the masterpieces out of the house, apparently.

Plenty of people have written much better reviews of the book than I could so instead I want to write a little about Kansas and Iowa. So, as it turns out, all this stuff happened in Kansas in the 1850s that presaged the Civil War. From the Wikipedia article on History of Kansas:

The most controversial provision in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was the stipulation that settlers in Kansas Territory would decide whether to allow slavery within its borders. This provision repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery in any new states created north of latitude 36°30′. Predictably, it also led to violence between the Northerners and Southerners that rushed to settle there.

Within a few days after the passage of the Act, hundreds of pro-slavery Missourians crossed into the adjacent territory, selected an area of land, and then united with other Missourians in a meeting or meetings, intending to establish a pro-slavery preemption upon the entire region. As early as June 10, 1854, the Missourians held a meeting at Salt Creek Valley, a trading post three miles west of Fort Leavenworth, at which a “Squatter’s Claim Association” was organized. They said they were in favor of making Kansas a slave state, if it should require half the citizens of Missouri, musket in hand, to emigrate there, and even to sacrifice their lives in accomplishing this end.

To counter this action, the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company (and other smaller organizations) quickly arranged to send anti-slavery settlers (known as “Free-Staters”) into Kansas in 1854 and 1855….Several Free-State men also came to Kansas Territory from Ohio, Iowa, Illinois and other Midwestern states.

In case that was too abrupt a transition for you, the narrator in the book is the grandson of a Free-Stater and a major thread throughout the book the history of his family, especially the rift between his father and grandfather over the grandfather’s advocacy of violence in the pursuit of the abolition of slavery. The narrator alludes to all this stuff like Bleeding Kansas, John Brown, the Underground Railroad, and the fact that the whole town of Gilead, Iowa exists because “it was just a dogged little outpost in the sand hills, within striking distance of Kansas. It was a place John Brown and Jim Lane could fall back on when they needed to heal and rest.” He doesn’t really explain it but you can piece it together, and it helps if you look up a couple of articles on Wikipedia to help you understand the context of the story, or it would really help if you’d been, say, an American Studies major at a prestigious liberal arts university when you were younger.

Which I was. And yet, this largely news to me. Underground Railroad, sure, John Brown, yeah, vaguely, but I had no idea for instance what Bleeding Kansas referred to. Hello, I went to Yale! For Christsakes, Yale had a reputation at the time for focusing heavily on race and class issues, so that’s exactly the shit I was supposed to learn! I probably did learn it, but just forgot it. Maybe there was a lecture I skipped (well, there was more than one). Shouldn’t have been on a test at some point? Hell, I got As and Bs, at least in AmStud. I always knew I knew jack-all about European history or philosophy or even English literature (in which my father has a fucking PhD) or math or chemistry but I realize I don’t know anything about even the very few subjects I’m supposed to know anything about. Same is true of knowledge I’m supposed to have gathered since then. I’m a professional conference organizer, but people ask me things like “how big a ballroom do you need for a general session of 1000 attendees?” and I just kind of stare and drool. I worked in the video game industry for 8 years and I probably could not accurately describe the premise of many of the top selling games (ah, but I could tell you who developed and published them!) Now I’m dallying about in the Internet industry and seem to be moving along well enough with what I’m picking up, but I realize: I don’t actually KNOW ANYTHING.

It gets better. I have had the same ten CDs in the visor of my car for about the past eight years. I would say they are my favorites but it’s only because I happen to have them there and have listened to them seventy-four thousand times. One of them is The Damnations’ Half Moon Mad. Track 6 is Kansas, where the chorus lyric is “Kansas, Bleeding Kansas.” Did it never, ever, in the bazillion times I listened to this track, occur to me to figure out what the hell they were singing about?

So, sure, this could be driving towards that common argument about education teaching one how to learn rather than focusing on teaching specific facts and figures. Totally true, of course, and more so now with the Internet and all. But I feel like it would have be nice if I’d learned a little more actual history (or literature, or whatever) along the way. Oh, I’m not blaming. No one’s fault but mine, trust me. I’d like to go back and audit courses at Berkeley. But I’m a bit busy for that at the moment. I’ll probably have time to learn a bunch of interesting shit just before I die.

BTW, I had to look up those quotes in the book to write this and rereading parts of the book makes me realize I need to reread the whole thing. Such a great book.

Josh and Helen

Yay, the blog is un-broken. Chris moved all our stuff to some new hosting company where he has some giant account and broke the blog in the process. This was back in October. It’s not really an excuse, since I have not been blogging exactly regularly, but I was on a bit of a roll there (okay, it was only one post, but it was long) and I keep telling myself I need to write more for the good of my soul. It’s my New Year’s resolution. Seriously. I might write stuff not on the blog too (I have a secret writing project), so don’t judge me if this still more or less blank in June, but I have hopes. Dreams. We’ll see.

I some stuff I’ve wanted to write about over the last couple of months, but at the moment I am thinking about Josh and Helen. They are moving to Perth… that’s in Australia. And not the populated part of Australia, the other side, the Western side. Okay, to be fair, some wikipeeding turns up that the Perth metropolitan area has almost 1.5M people, so I’m grossly misrepresenting the place. I tend to make fun of Australia for having a total population the size of New York City (and just over half the size of Tokyo) but that’s out of defensiveness. I knew J & H were going to move there at some point so I felt the need to mock. Why fewer people is somehow embarrassing, I cannot tell you. The world needs fewer people. Chris and I are contributing by having only one child. We’ve actually been to Australia, well to Sydney and the Blue Mountains, the sort of A side of the country (before we had said child), and we thought it was beautiful and delightful. We hear that Perth is fabulous too. And with 7% of the country’s total population, there are probably some lovely people there. Hey, Oakland only has 411,000 people. Well, minus three soon. They’re taking Oscar with them!

Three very great people. That’s why my tone can’t seem to stay away from snarky. I will miss them A LOT. Helen is from Perth, and her wonderful parents are there, and Josh seemed to have some sort of accidental job interview with a Perth-based game company while they were there visiting, and now it’s all happening a little sooner than I expected. It is so like Josh to start a new job on the other side of the world while ostensibly on vacation. Seriously, he’s already working there. They haven’t even come back for the cat and he’s working there. They’ve probably bought a house there already and haven’t even told me. Maybe at least they’ll sell us their Prius and some good will come of this. Maybe they’ll rethink things and decide to leave Oscar with us for a couple of years. More dreams.

But as I was saying, despite evidence to the contrary, I am very happy for them, and I will miss them terribly. They do things like drop by unannounced. Often with food. Have parties with themes, and even games. Games that require sharing your inner child with other guests. They laugh at bad jokes. They tell you when you have something in your teeth, unless you’re having a really bad day, and they know you couldn’t handle it. They go to Burning Man, and they make it sound like a Tupperware party. They couldn’t be pretentious if they tried. They cook great curry. They always have an open bottle of wine. They have had, I believe, 5 or more cars at once, but they never drive them. They will come feed your cat while you are on vacation and not mind that your husband has _extremely_ specific instructions for them despite the fact that they have a cat and know pretty well how to feed it. They will lend you their decrepit truck dozens of times and not mind that you break it a little bit. They get you to play soccer on Sundays and then don’t make you feel too bad when you stop. They will forgive you when you forget to leave them the key to the car you told them you would leave for them, stranding them outside your house for hours. They will play the Ha game at their baby shower. Even better, they will let everyone do an OM circle at their baby shower. Helen did a triathalon less than a year after having a baby and kicked ass. Josh made a video out of it with Chariots of Fire as the soundtrack. They got married in a redwood grove, and I cried. They had the reception at our house, and I cried some more, but that was because of all the carved redwood sculptures they left here. Long story. This is all out of sequence; they got married before the baby and the triathalon—that’s one way they were conventional. But no one would have thought twice if they hadn’t. They are perfect for each other.

Anyway, I am thinking about them. They sent everyone they know some long email announcing their move but they left me off the distribution. Chris got it, hasn’t forwarded it to me. I think they can’t bear to officially inform me, knowing I will take it pretty hard. But I’m doing okay with it. Clem is pretty upset though. I told her earlier today and then tonight, when we were done with our book and turned out the light, she looked up at me and asked “What did you say about Josh and Helen?” She’s a big fan too.