Sometimes, One Can Only Watch


By Photograph taken by Official War Photographer at an Australian Advanced Dressing Station near Ypres in 1917.

He experienced neither joy at having escaped nor remorse. War made everything one could say or think about it simultaneously true and false, and there was too much evil and too much good mixed up in every moment for one to be able to judge. One could only hold one’s peace and watch. Beside the window a young soldier was learning how to light a cigarette, clasping it between the remaining stumps of his hands.

—Andrei Makine, Requiem for a Lost Empire

The Requisite Power for a Functional Goverment


A government ought to contain in itself every power requisite to the full accomplishment of the objects committed to its care, and to the complete execution of the trusts for which it is responsible, free from every other control but a regard to the public good and to the sense of the people.

–Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 31

My Review of Hunger Games

I wrote this review on The Hunger Games on Goodreads back in April, 2012, and just happened to be scanning through my reviews recently—thought it was worth sharing.

When my wife first read The Hunger Games a while back, I read the first paragraph over her shoulder and couldn’t resist making fun of it. That term, “the reaping,” smacked of cheap sci-fi melodrama. Later, after The Hunger Games blew up and everyone was hysterical over the movie, I tried reading the book again, but again couldn’t get past a few pages. The sentences were too short, lifeless, devoid of meaning.

When I discussed this with my wife, she advocated for the “truncated” sentences as having more power due to the circumstances of the character in the story. This idea of the power of truncated sentences made me think immediately of Hemingway. And that’s when I found out that she had never read Hemingway!

So I made her a deal. I would read this pop culture phenomenon of a book if she would read A Farewell to Arms*.

I finished reading the first book of The Hunger Games this morning, and I admit to enjoying it much more than I thought I would, given my initial reaction. Sticking militantly to her short sentences, the author creates a fantasy world of warfare, romance, and survival that reads like an updated, media-driven cross between “The Most Dangerous Game” and The Lord of the Flies. The fact that Collins’ sentences are short and slick ends up contributing to the overall theme of all actions and words being tuned to the everpresent eye of the camera and an audience hungry for cheap action and thrills. The story is thus imbued with some sense of self-awareness and deeper critique of human society, though I do wonder whether the book thus ends up falling under it’s own subversive critique.

In other words, it may be just a little too action driven and slick for its own good. I understand that it is a book marketed, ostensibly, for teen girls, and I also get that the entire realm of deeper thought and critique of society is left up to the reader to develop. And I do appreciate that the main character is a girl who is strong and who resonates with values of the working class and the poor. But I wonder about the shallow world, lacking any sense of real history, that Collins has created, and about the true powerlessness that her characters have if that world is taken as one of reality. There is no hope in such a world, no matter the outcome. Such worlds can indeed be effective settings for deeper explorations of humanity, such as Cormac McCarthy weaves in The Road and Blood Meridian.

I question whether the depth of feeling we are ultimately made to feel for Katniss, Peeta, and Rue is fully earned, and furthermore, the critique that then comes as a result of that questioning must be confined to pointless comparisons of our own society. I say pointless, because beyond some obvious parallels to the patrician society of Rome, there’s nothing enough to add up as a substantial critique, beyond our own infatuation with sensationalist media and our own ease in being led towards projecting emotion for characters that stand unmoored from any history or depth of context and relationships.

It either speaks to the power of the author that this is indeed her very point, or it speaks to our credulousness as consumers. I guess I’ll just have to let you be the ultimate judge on that point.

At the end of the day, the most we can say, perhaps, is that we enjoyed the experience.

*My wife, by the way, never has yet been able to finish a Hemingway book. I also tried to get her to read A Sun Also Rises, but to no avail. You win some, you lose some . . .

Negative and Positive Freedom

I’m reading James McPherson’s book The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Mattersand it presents interesting context that connects to our explorations of The Federalist Papers.

McPherson notes in the first chapter that the word “liberty” has assumed multiple meanings throughout American history, and that the Civil War marked a paradigm shift from one dominant meaning to another. “The tragic irony of the Civil War is that both sides professed to fight for the heritage of liberty bequeathed to them by the Founding Fathers.”

To help us understand this divide in the American definition of liberty, McPherson turns to “famous twentieth British philosopher Isiah Berlin in an essay titled ‘Two Concepts of Liberty.'” In this essay, Berlin delineates the concepts of positive liberty and negative liberty.

Negative liberty is freedom from. As defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints.” McPherson states that “Traditionally in American ideology . . . power was the enemy of liberty. . . ‘There is a tendency in all Governments to an augmentation of power at the expense of liberty,’ wrote James Madison. . . . Madison also drafted the first ten amendments to the Constitution as a Bill of Rights that limited the powers of the national government in the name of liberty. Nearly all of these amendments apply some form of the phrase ‘shall not’ to the federal government.”

This concept of liberty remains alive, even resurgent, today. As McPherson notes, “In recent years, with the rise of small-government or antigovernment movements in our politics, there has been a revival of negative liberty.”

But the Civil War marked a transition from a primarily negative conception of liberty to that of a positive one.

Positive liberty is freedom to. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that “positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.”

McPherson notes that “The change from all those ‘shall nots’ in the first ten amendments to the Constitution to the phrase ‘Congress shall have the power to enforce’ this provision in most post-Civil War amendments is indicative of this shift—especially the Thirteenth Amendment, which liberated four million slaves, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth, which guaranteed them equal civil and political rights.”

McPherson also notes another interesting shift in language and ideology during the Civil War—the transition from a description of the United States as a union to that of a nation. “In the process of preserving the Union of 1776 while purging it of slavery, the Civil War also transformed it. Before 1861 ‘United States’ was a plural noun . . . Since 1865 ‘United States’ is a singular noun. . . This transformation can be traced in Lincoln’s most important wartime addresses.”

Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War was critical to forging the conception of a unitary nation. If the primary goal of the Civil War was to preserve the union, the secondary one became the abolition of slavery, and those two goals symbiotically evolved during the war to become one and the same. McPherson articulates, later in Chapter 8, Lincoln’s critical role in defining this new nation in terms of a positive freedom. He uses James Oakes’s study The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, to compare Lincoln with Frederick Douglass in terms of their impact on our nation’s definition of liberty and freedom.

The difference between the two men was one of position and tactics, not conviction. Douglass was a radical reformer whose mission was to proclaim principles and to demand that the people and their leaders live up to those principles. Lincoln was a politician, a practitioner of the art of the possible, a pragmatist who subscribed to the same principles but recognized that they could only be achieved in gradual step-by-step fashion through compromise and negotiation, in pace with progressive changes in public opinion and political realities.

In other words, Lincoln and Douglass both served a critical and complementary purpose in carrying our democracy forward.

Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War, through McPherson’s retelling, stands up well to the critical eye of history. Though Lincoln was necessarily a man of his time, he also seemed to possess a foresight that enabled him to understand the ultimate purpose of the Civil War, and to strategically steer a divided union through the devastatingly disruptive shifts that it took to forge one nation (did you know that 750,000 soldiers died during this war?!). Lincoln was playing the long game. He told Congress in the winter of 1861 that “this struggle to preserve the Union ‘is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also.'”

The tension between a positive and negative conception of liberty continues as a source of faction in our nation today. I think we would do well to remember the Civil War, and heed the lessons learned from the great sacrifice that was made to create a more sophisticated nation in which liberty meant equality for all, rather than the mere autonomy from tyranny that first created our nation.

The Civil War taught us that establishing a meaningful definition of national liberty means sacrificing some individuality for the betterment of a collective good. This is a sacrifice that many of us today seem unwilling to make. And it makes one wonder—what will be the next divisive battle that we will need to fight to transform our democratic republic into a nation that will be worthy of our grandchildren?


By jwalsh (Flickr: IMG_6501.JPG) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Achieving the perfect balance in a baked good is a difficult task. We all know the “perfect balance” when we taste it and look at it — that harmonious juxtaposition of a firm, textured glaze on the exterior, coupled with a moist, warm, chewy interior.

Yet it seems all too rare that we encounter such gloriously balanced baked products. This is due, perhaps, to the machine-like, yet artful, process of hands-on baking.

Baking is quite distinct from the art of cooking. Cooking is remarkably forgiving–chefs often seem to operate as much on spontaneity and intuition as procedure, adding a pinch of this, a dash of that, experimenting with a new ingredient.

You can frequently witness professional chefs brazenly pouring out litres of wine into a dish or hacking off giant swathes of butter into their sautees. Their talent is based less on precision and more on artistry and taste.

A baker, on the other hand, cannot get away with such wanton displays of creative abandon. If a measurement of any given ingredient is off, or if the oven heat is altered in any way, their final product may be unsalvagable. They must be precise in their measurement and procedures, much like a scientist in a laboratory.

However, this is not to suggest that there is no art nor creativity in baking. But this art is more subtle, more controlled. The art lies in creatively condensing a surprising mix of tastes and textures into a final product that is consistent and balanced in the manner aforementioned.

This may explain, then, the rarity in coming across a truly balanced baked good. Humans are by nature fallible–our measurements by hand will always be slightly different each time. Yet it must now be noted that wholly machine-generated baked products–while consistent and often quite tasty–are lacking in a quality that suggests that it is this very human individuation that lends the utmost quality.

The Tragedy of the Unsaid

One of the few luxuries and small indulgences my wife and I treat ourselves to is eating out every now and then. Like every week. It forces us to twist away from bright screens and talk to one another. Someone else handles the cutting and dicing of the foodstuff and brings it out all arrayed nicely and places it before us on a real table. We can then walk home overstuffed and feel like we accomplished something more than the usual. We went out into the world and ate things.

Our neighborhood, Inwood, is “up and coming,” it seems. There’s a snazzy row of trendy restaurants with seating ringside to the intermittent spewing of A-train riders coming home and motorcyclists gratuitously revving their engines and too-loud music and look-at-me-looking-at-you patrons along Dyckman. There’s a new Starbucks on the corner. But the options for a consistently pleasurable dining experience remain few. For some reason, even in places that charge upwards of $20 a plate, the service tends to be lackluster and the food sometimes good but mostly uninspired.

We have a few spots we like to attend, but even in those joints we rarely stray far from the two or three dishes we know we enjoy. When we do, we regret it.

Tonight we opted to try an old place we had stopped going to again (we’d forgotten why we’d stopped. Oh, yeah, know we remember). It started off right. Outdoor open area with a cool breeze, early evening, only one other person. An IPA delivered promptly by the waiter, our order swiftly decided and taken. A waft of fresh pesto from the kitchen as we walked in caused me to spontaneously order the pesto chicken linguini. What could go wrong?

I’m not the type of person to send a dish back. I hate confrontation and challenging conversations when roles aren’t clear. I can have them at work, but not in situations where I am the customer. I don’t feel like it’s my place. I’ve served a lot of people and I’ve always hated customers who are entitled a-holes, and I never want to give even the slightest hint of being one of them. I always tip 20% (still did tonight, BTW).

But as soon as the dish came out 30 minutes later, something was off. I’m sensitive to smell, and there was a faint off-odor to the linguini, hidden beneath the pesto. Something like dirty water or spoiled food. Maybe the dish hadn’t been cleaned well. I don’t know. But as soon as I smelled it, I could taste it underlying the pasta. And the chicken was overcooked. And it was already lukewarm. And it was $16.50. And my wife’s dish was similarly weak, and her fries were cold.

I agonized about what to do. Should I send it back? But what if I was just imagining things? My wife tried it and said it seemed fine. Was I just inventing the offending smell and taste? Had I been primed by the loogie we could hear being hacked by a kitchen worker right before the dish came out?

I asked for another beer and didn’t say anything to the waiter when he delivered it. I looked around for a hot sauce and grabbed a Tabasco from the other table and dunked it all over it. I thought, maybe I can work with this. I took several more bites. I stopped eating and sat back. I couldn’t do it. I had completely lost my appetite, and it was 6:00 after a long day of work. I get up at 5:00 in the morning and had only had a sandwich and a granola bar.

But I could keep smelling it and tasting it. The slight eau de rancidness. Even beyond that fundamental evil, there was nothing redemptive about the dish in any way. It was bland.

“I’ll just box it up and take it home,” I informed my wife. I envisioned myself dunking the meal in the extremely hot hot sauce I had at home, the kind where merely a drop was sufficient to completely overwhelm a dish with burning.

“Are you really going to eat it?” she asked. I took another meek bite and smelled sewage. I realized I wasn’t. That I had no desire to ever smell or taste it ever again. That I wanted to get up and walk away from this place of quiet torture and never look back.

A dark pool of negativity settled around my shoulders. My wife and I stopped conversating, and the only things that arose between us were dark noticings. We realized there had been warning signs since the moment we’d arrived. The unswept leaves. The extended length of time between waitery visits. The holes in the plastic windows of the awning.

Finally, my wife caught the waiter’s attention after he eventually ventured back to the back area another half hour later.

I apologized profusely and told him I couldn’t possibly fathom eating my dish. He took it away with vagueness, then I heard words between the kitchen staff and him. Then another guy came back out, ostensibly some form of manager. He didn’t look me in the eye. He hovered near and awkwardly gestured at his managerial duty, but didn’t seem to know what to say. He seemed to want us to simply go away.

I apologized again. Told him I never do this sort of thing. I wasn’t this sort of person. But something was off. I couldn’t really say what it was. But I felt really bad.

He walked away. Brought back the bill with the offending dish stricken.

I realized that I had missed an opportunity to level with him. That instead of saying what was on my heart to say, I white lied and pretended it was kind of my fault.

What I should have done is laid into him, like I was his manager. What kind of place are you running here, this managerial me would have said, quietly fuming, sweeping my hand magisterially. We come here. This looks less inviting than my parents’ front yard. Why isn’t this swept? We made a choice to attend your establishment. Why doesn’t your wait staff come out to check on your all of 3 patrons? My dish sucked. It wasn’t just that something undefinable was off. It was simply bad. There was nothing good about it, other than its existence as food. Why would anyone pay $16.50 for this? I could go home and microwave a better meal. Her fries were cold. Why did it take so long for uninspired food to arrive on my table? Why am I hearing your kitchen staff loogeying while I’m sitting here waiting for my food?

The experience of calculating the check, then finishing my beer, was agonizing. The manager guy kept coming out and passively aggressively half-approaching our table, then walking away. I could hear the kitchen staff complaining. The burden of negative unsaid energy was tearing my soul apart.

It took 2 hours at home to dispel. It weighed upon my heart. So much I now write about it. This is ridiculous.

The moral of the story is, sometimes it’s better to be an asshole. Sometimes it’s better to say what you fucking feel directly to people you don’t know because they need to hear your honest opinion. The agony of leaving what I really needed to say unsaid wears upon me. My mealy-mouthed inability to be an asshole in that moment delimited my usefulness to humanity right then. That restaurant won’t know what it did wrong. That cook won’t know why he’s getting in trouble. And I will never go back to that restaurant again.