Archive for January, 2007

The Quarterly Book Report: In Which I Don’t Spend Much Time Talking About the Book I’m Talking About — Which is Michael Lewis’s "The Blind Side"

January 30, 2007

A couple of disclaimers. I usually don’t like reading books about sports. I have no idea why; I just don’t enjoy them (and I love sports). And for reasons which are probably unfair (although I’ll explain them in a moment), I don’t like it when writers spend their careers writing books which seem formulaic. For example, John Berendt writes books about cities rich in history that have fallen on hard times but still possess a lot of odd characters that end up involved in some sort of dramatic event (see Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; The City of Falling Angels). Mark Kurlansky writes books about seemingly mundane things (Cod, Salt) and then shows us how these seemingly mundane things did nothing less than change the world. Simon Winchester (The Professor and the Madman, A Crack in the Edge of the World) finds either an eccentric and forgotten person or a catastrophic and forgotten event and tells us how this person or event changed life as we know it.*

I didn’t mean to read Michael Lewis’s latest book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. I didn’t mean to read it for a couple of reasons. It’s a book about how football was revolutionized by a specific position in football, the Left Tackle, a player whose job, if done correctly, no one ever notices. So it was a sports book. And then there was the whole writer-using a-formula thing. This looked like the same book Lewis wrote a couple of years ago about baseball, Moneyball – a book about how one baseball GM used statistics and other such things to rethink how baseball teams spend their money.

My problem with what I’m calling formula books is that it seems like the writers are mailing it in. They write a best-selling book and try to capture that magic again. But what the subsequent books lack is the sense of discovery the first book contained. Berendt’s first book, about Savannah, GA, kept me interested because it seemed as though everything kept surprising Berendt. He didn’t know what he was going to find, so he was continually discovering something he seemingly couldn’t wait to tell readers about. His book on Venice, Italy, however, lacked that same sense of discovery, of I-can’t-wait-to-tell-you-about-this-ness. He seemed to be looking for the same sorts of things he’d seen in Savannah. He didn’t allow himself to be surprised. Kurlansky’s book Cod was an interesting history because it was quirky and as you read the book, you can feel Kurlansky’s excitement as he learns something new about a fish (A FISH!). He can’t wait to tell people about it. But by the time he got to writing about salt? He wasn’t expecting to be surprised by salt.

Etc.

So what I’m saying is – the writers I’ve mentioned can come up with interesting subjects, but what they often fail to do is capture their initial sense of excitement at discovery. The later books read as though the writers sat down with a specific outline, an outline of what worked so well in the first book, and then followed that outline rather than allowing themselves to be surprised by their subject. It’s as though they knew the ending before they began the first page.

So a bit of backstory on Michael Lewis and why I thought The Blind Side would be yet another boring sports / formula book. Lewis’s Moneyball contained three major characters. A statistician, Bill James – a guy who labored away unknown for years crunching away at seemingly useless baseball numbers to try to make sense of the game from a semi-scientific perspective. There was the “baseball maverick” – the GM of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, who was trying to come up with a way, statistically, to put the best team on the field for the least amount of money. And then there were a few players I’ll call the third character – players on whom Beane conducted his economical / statistical experiments.

Lewis’s football book seemed like it would do the same thing. There was a nerdy guy who watched thousands of hours of high school football game-tapes in an attempt to rate them for college scouts. There was a “football maverick” – Bill Walsh – who tried to come up with a more efficient way to run an offense. The third character, though.

My guess is that Lewis probably envisioned several players to serve as the third character in this book. But when he ran across the story of Michael Oher, his book was no longer about football. His outline was wadded up and thrown away. He couldn’t wait to tell readers the story of Michael Oher.

The story of Michael Oher really is an incredible one. By the time the nerdy game-tape watching man saw Oher on film, he was a 6’ 5”, 350 lb. junior in high school. No one had ever heard of Michael Oher because, for all practical purposes, he hadn’t existed until he was 15. Up until then, he’d been more or less homeless, fending for himself on the streets of Memphis. The Memphis public school system, which he’d attended off and on, didn’t have records for him. He couldn’t read or write to speak of. He lived in the worst public housing project in Memphis.

Through a chain of fairy-tale-like events, Michael one day finds himself at Briarcrest Christian High School. One out of only you-can-count-‘em-on-both-hands black students at a school that was created as a way to ensure that white students wouldn’t have to learn alongside black students in the ‘60s. No one really knew what to do. He didn’t. Teachers didn’t. Coaches didn’t. Then in steps Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. Sean is an announcer for the Memphis Grizzlies and a volunteer coach at Briarcrest. He goes home one day and tells his wife about this HUGE kid he’d seen at school.

Through more fairy-tale-like events, Michael begins to live with the Touhy family (they eventually adopt him).

For the most part, Lewis doesn’t provide critiques of what he sees. He tries to just tell a story. There is some critique, but he leaves most of that up to readers. But this book, with a title that makes a football reference the casual fan might not understand, with a dust jacket displaying the x’s and o’s of a football play, is, dare I say, an important book. But it is not an important book because it describes how a game evolved (I’m guessing that only a third of the book, or less, is actually about football). I think it’s important because it raises questions that we don’t like to ask about race, about drugs, about high school athletics, about meritocracy, about education, about an economic system that is oppressive to certain groups, about people allowing themselves to be victims of this system. It raises these questions about the Heartland of America in 2007. Lewis raises all of these questions through the story of Michael Oher and the Touhy family. All of whom refused to ignore the problems of race, drugs, meritocracy, etc.

This story – the one Lewis can’t wait to tell us – leads him places he probably never wanted to go. It takes him to the heart of the projects in Memphis. It takes him into the foster-care system. It takes him into both the public and private school systems in Memphis. He learns things he didn’t know he wanted to know, but now he can’t wait to tell you about them.

*I’m picking on writers I actually like – these are all good writers, and I’m probably not being fair to them, but whatever.

Blogging the Bible

January 28, 2007

Interesting.

Was Jesus Smart?

January 26, 2007

Another interesting section of The Divine Conspiracy reads:

“If you play a game of word association today, in almost any setting, you will collect some familiar names around words such as smart, knowledgeable, intelligent, and so forth. Einstein, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and the obligatory rocket scientists, will stand out. But one person who pretty certainly will not come up in this connection is Jesus.

“Here is a profoundly significant fact: In our culture, among Christians and non-Christians alike, Jesus Christ is automatically disassociated from brilliance or intellectual capacity. Not one in a thousand will spontaneously think of him in conjunction with words such as well-informed, brilliant, or smart.

“Far too often he is regarded as hardly conscious. He is looked on as a mere icon, a wraithlike semblance of a man, fit for the role of sacrificial lamb or alienated social critic, perhaps, but little more.

“A well-known ‘scholarly’ picture has him wandering the hills of Palestine, deeply confused about who he was and even about crucial points in his basic topic, the kingdom of the heavens. From time to time he perhaps utters disconnected though profound and vaguely radical irrelevancies, now obscurely preserved in our Gospels.

“Would you be able to trust your life to such a person? If this is how he seems to you, are you going to be inclined to become his student? Of course not. We all know that action must be based on knowledge, and we grant the right to lead and teach only to those we believe to know what is real and what is best.”

[The author of these paragraphs obviously believes otherwise. What do you think?]

And That’s Why the Greeks Invented the Q-Tip

January 19, 2007

www.newscientist.com

Because deep down, you’ve always wanted to know.

Great Teachers

January 18, 2007

I’ve got the impression from several sources that The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard is the end-all to religious books. And I’m not saying it isn’t. I am saying, from my vantage point half-way through, I’m not convinced.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of really good stuff I’ve discovered so far, and I’m underlining quite a few things, but the overall thesis he seems to be trying to connect hasn’t grabbed me yet. Then again, I’m an idiot, so what do I know? In the meanwhile, I may throw a provocative thought or two out from this book for your viewing pleasure.

One of the interesting sections dealt with “how” Jesus taught, and as a teacher, I find this to be a most interesting topic. Everyone on this blog has their experiences of good and bad teachers, and I think his thoughts will resonate with everyone:

We must recognize, first of all, that the aim of the popular teacher in Jesus’ time was not to impart information, but to make a significant change in the lives of the hearers. Of course that may require an information transfer, but it is a peculiarly modern notion that the aim of teaching is to bring people to know things that may have no effect at all on their lives… [Today] [t]he teacher must get the information into them. We then “test” the patients to see if they “got it” by checking whether they can reproduce it in language rather than watching how they live. Thus if we today were invited to hear the Sermon on the Mount – or, more likely now, the “Seminar at the Sheraton” – we would show up with notebooks, pens, and tape recorders. We would be astonished to find the disciples “just listening” to Jesus and would look around to see if someone was taping it… Working our way through the crowd to the right-hand man, Peter, we might ask where the conference notebooks and other material were and be further astonished when he only says, “Just listen!” The teacher in Jesus’ time – and especially the religious teacher – taught in such a way that he would impact the life flow of the hearer, leaving a lasting impression without benefit of notes, recorders, or even memorization. Whatever did not make a difference in that way just made no difference. Period… We automatically remember what makes a real difference in our life. The secret of the great teacher is to speak words, to foster experiences, that impact the active flow of the hearer’s life. That is what Jesus did by the way he taught. He tied his teachings to concrete events that make up the hearers’ lives… Now, Jesus not only taught in this manner; he also taught us, his students in the kingdom, to teach in the same way… By showing to others the presence of the kingdom in the concrete details of our shared existence, we impact the lives and hearts of our hearers, not just their heads. And they won’t have to write it down to hold onto it.

#1: Do you agree with Willard’s analysis of a “great” teacher?

#2: Have you ever had a “great” teacher? If so, what seemed to be her or his secrets?

London Calling

January 18, 2007

I’ve got a golden opportunity, and I don’t want to blow it. Therefore, I need a little help from my friends.

Today I put down my first payment on a study abroad opportunity in Europe. While I haven’t seen the itinerary, the focus of the trip is a European perspective on broadcast news. We’ll visit the BBC, and SKY, and also venture over to Paris for a peep at Canal Plus. (I believe we’ll only spend a day or two in Paris.)

The profs will arrange the itinerary from May 15 to June 1. And while that will all be enjoyable, I want to take in all I can. Therefore, I plan to arrive a few days early or stay a few days later.

Here’s where the vast knowledge of the Houseflies applies. I’m considering a six-day itinerary. Not sure if I should just see the sights of London or take the rail to Manchester, Edinburgh, or over to Ireland.

As an aside, I don’t want to be the typical American tourists taking a glance at some of the world’s most treasured sites just to check them of my list of things to do.

If you’ve been (or are dying to go), what things in Great Britain must be done/seen/tried/experienced?

BONUS:
The person with the most helpful comment might receive a cheap tourist shirt upon my return!

Miss Brooke and the Meaning of Life

January 17, 2007

Since we haven’t had a book review in a while, ahem, here’s a couple I’ve recently enjoyed.

George Eliot, Middlemarch

Don’t think of it as an impossibly long, 19th-century British novel. Think of it as a remarkably short, 19th-century British novel — given that it’s about everything. Virginia Woolf said about Proust’s multi-volume In Search of Lost Time that there was nothing left for novelists to write about, as Proust had covered it all. I think Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) accomplished the same thing, and look how much more briefly she did it than Proust did.

It really is a terrific book. You just have to be patient with it at first, while you cross the cultural distance between you and 19th-century England, and adjust to that culture’s rhythm and pace.

Nick Lane, Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life

I realize it’s probable that I’m not only the only person here who’s dorky enough to find a book about mitochondria interesting, but also the only one sufficiently lacking in what’s commonly known as “a life” to have the time to read a book about mitochondria, but I’m recommending a book about mitochondria, nonetheless. Mitochondria, it turns out, aren’t just the dull little worker-bee organelles you learned about in biology class — “the powerhouse of the cell.” They’re at the center of a host of fascinating biological processes, from evolution to cancer to sexual reproduction to aging. The book does get rather technical in places, but not overly so for any of the Houseflies, who, like the residents of Lake Wobegon, are all above average.

So there you have it. My attempt at a book-related Houseflies post. I’m going to stop now, before I violate the genre by making a point.

Embryos For Sale

January 16, 2007

I feel superstitious about doing it, but I guess it’s time to tell you folks that David and I will welcome a new member of our family in June, assuming all continues to go well — knock wood, cross myself. And now on to a post about reproduction! (Do I get free rein to talk about this and not foreign policy now that I have a hormonal excuse for not being interested in war?)

So there was this article on Slate that I read today about the Abraham Center of Life, the first human embryo bank in the world. As are most innovations that remove elements of chance from an individual’s reproductive life (birth control, IVF, genetic embryo screening, and the like), this one is already controversial. There is of course the specter of human life being bought and sold for profit … it’s interesting that in a capitalist society people have as much of a problem with this as they seem to, since it seems an only logical outcome to me (but then I’m not a big fan of capitalism).

But despite knee-jerk reservations, I have to say that some of the points covered in the Slate article made sense to me. When I was considering what I would do if I could not have biological children, I developed a real aversion to the adoption process for precisely the reasons Ryan discusses. Why should I have to prove myself to someone just because of bad biological luck? The risks of the birth mother backing out and of not knowing what kind of prenatal care the baby was getting were also distasteful to me. And like most other people, I’m selfish — I wanted an infant who looked somewhat like me, not an older child who had already been mistreated and developed emotional and behavioral problems. (If anyone’s going to f**k up my child, it will be me, thank you very much). I know I’m wrong to feel this way and it probably speaks volumes about my lack of character, but there it is.

The embryo donation model using donors that don’t know each other makes sense — neither has a sense of ownership of the embryos, which is the main problem with the Snowflake model of donation of leftover embryos from IVF procedures. It sounds like a great idea in theory, but in truth, most people can’t bear to go through with it. As long as neither of the donors are being coerced, I’m not sure I see many problems with it within the context of a capitalist system.

I’m tired and not thinking completely straight right now, so I’m sure others can identify problems with this business that I have overlooked. FWIW, I don’t think that the “what if two biologically related children later unknowingly marry each other?” concern is that big a deal given the statistically small likelihood of this occurring (and in any case this possibility has been around as long as sperm donation has existed). More interesting are the educational and racial/ethnic characteristics of the donors. Do we buy the Center’s explanation that these simply reflect the demand rather than anything more sinister on their part? And in a more general way, why are we so squeamish about the use of technology to help bring children into the world? It seems to me that children who are wanted this much are more likely to be well cared for and become productive citizens than children conceived by people whose only qualification is fertility. Why should those people get a free pass just because their reproductive systems work when that says nothing about their willingness or ability to take on the responsibilities of parenting?

”The saints are coming" Its been a long time sinc…

January 16, 2007

”The saints are coming”

Its been a long time since I’ve been as emotionally invested in a sporting event as much as I am this Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.

The Houseflies first video is my new rally cry. (It does give me an Oprah moment every time I watch it.)

But here’s the deal. I need a reality check. I could be swept up in my own frustrated Saints fandom. Or am I less crazy than I suspect? Is this team one of the more transcendent sports phenomenon in American history?

I vote yes.

Whether the Saints win or lose I know there will still be plenty of suffering on the Gulf Coast.

But I really enjoy considering how those people, bruised and broken by the storm and the broken system, will feel when our New Orleans Saints win in Chicago.

It may not take away all of their pain. But I hope the team gives them a feeling of satisfaction — even if it is a bit superficial. If just for a moment, I hope they get to feel victorious.

For all of this I dedicate this space for future discussion of Saints Football and how great it will be to celebrate an NFC (and soon a Super Bowl…) Championship!

A Glimmer in the Middle East

January 12, 2007

I don’t know how closely everyone is following the bouncing ball of our Middle East policy, but President Bush made some unsettling remarks about Iran (and Syria) in his speech about Iraq, Wednesday night. I was, therefore, happy to have run across this article, which suggests somebody in the administration knows how to apply pressure to other nations without using the military, and is doing so rather effectively.

Aside from that detail, here’s a spot for general discussion of the president’s new policies on Iraq (and Iran and Syria), and where everybody thinks this train is headed. Do you feel hopeful? Is there another direction you’d prefer? Do you think the Iraqi government can/will deliver on its promises? Should Congress step in, and if so, how? And what are the politics, present and future?