11 March 2009

The Inferno

It took a bit of time to read through Dante's Inferno, but mainly because I was keeping busy at other things. This is a translation by John Ciardi, not the more famous one by Longfellow, but neither makes pretense of following Dante's rhyme scheme (which I've been told ruins any translation by requiring a fight for the rhyme). I found the translation very readable and enjoyable.

This book is only the Inferno, not the other two parts of the Divine Comedy. It was 99 cents at a thrift store if you're wondering why I didn't try to get all three in one volume.

I do not believe in hell. (I do believe in giving hell to people, such as in "Give 'Em Hell, Harry," but not in a specific place or even non-place to which the souls of the condemned are, well, condemned.) I found this poem fascinating for quite other reasons. I don't know anyone, even the Catholic Church, who abides by Dante's description of hell; that wasn't Dante's point, either. He writes as though he took a literal trip through the three layers of the afterlife, but certainly he didn't claim the trip literally took place or that his descriptions were literal and real. Dante was a papist and a good Catholic, and certainly he wanted to evoke the perfect justice of the afterlife; but to a large degree the Comedy was a forum for Dante to condemn (or praise) people he knew--some of whom weren't even dead yet when he was writing--for their actions. Dante found a way to use Christian allegory to write large the political and ecumenical debates that had riven Florence during his lifetime and were not yet settled at the writing (Dante died in exile from Florence). It is in that sense a very personal work, and a rather scathing political commentary.

That is not to take anything away from the work as a piece of literature; there hasn't been political (or religious) commentary like this since. As creative allegory the Inferno is a masterpiece; the way Dante punishes the damned in hell, each sin begetting its own perfect and perfectly just eternal punishment, is a feat few writers since have managed as convincingly and as beautifully.

I can't compare Ciardi's translation with others, since I haven't read any others (though at least Longfellow's is available on the web). I've been told that any translator who attempts to keep Dante's rhyme scheme and meter intact in the English is doing a massive disservice to the work, and that's probably true; Ciardi manages to keep an aba cdc fgf hih type of rhyme scheme throughout, which no doubt affected his word choice a great deal but the translation was still very readable (Longfellow's translation abandons rhyme for meter; I'd like to see a side-by-side comparison of the two, just for curiosity's sake).

What sets Ciardi apart is his voluminous notes at the end of every canto. You could read through the whole thing in an afternoon if you didn't bother to look at the notes, but the notes illuminate much of the allegory and much of the historical setting of the work to which any typical modern reader would be ignorant (this reviewer included). Setting the work in the Florence of c. 1310 helps understand much of what Dante is doing, who the wraiths are that he speaks to, and what their relationship to Dante was in life. I found it fun to read through all the notes, and I certainly discovered elements of Dante's genius I never would have seen without them. His assembly of this poem was as much a triumph of mechanics as of literature; he put the thing together almost as a watchmaker assembles a watch, and while a simple reading of the thing would be enjoyable, getting the nitty gritty of the notes really leaves the reader impressed at Dante's skill.

I am no Dante Alighieri. Neither, sadly, is anyone else I've read.

Animal Husbands

From the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Smitty's former employer, comes this little piece this morning. Seems Florida is one of 16 states that does not outlaw bestiality (which raises the following two questions: 1) what are the other 15, and 2) why not?), and one of our state senators feels now is the appropriate time to do so, what with economic collapse looming on the sunny Florida horizon. While I question the timing I won't argue about the decision to outlaw it.

But the bill had to include certain items so that, for example, artificially inseminating a cow (Florida has a large cattle industry) doesn't fall afoul of the law. Fair enough. In committee the clauses relating to such things were described as referring to "veterinary practices" and "animal husbandry." Nothing wrong with that.

Unless you're Senator Larcenia Bullard of Miami, who clearly never spent a weekend on the farm growing up.

Upon hearing that the law designed to prevent bestiality made allowance for the practices of animal husbandry, Bullard asked, "People are taking animals as their husbands?"

Your elected officials. Saving you from... um... we'll get back to you on that.

05 March 2009

Something Old

I was digging through my Giant File O' Crap (it's like a File-o-fax except not) for something specific today relating to Lauderdale. I did not find what I was looking for (did it ever exist? Good question), but as usually happens when I dig into the File O' Crap I found something amusing.

One of the great things about being a "writer" is that you have a tendency, because you think you can write, to write a lot. And save everything you write. Computers make this much easier than I'm sure it used to be. In any event from time to time it's fun to dig through the old files and look at what I was writing--and thus often what I was thinking--a few years ago. I thought I'd post one of those old bits here.

This came out of a larger project that was never finished--and that almost certainly never will be--called
This Fucking Town (I was probably going to change that title), subtitled "Observations on Life NOT in America." I wrote several pieces and stuck them in there under this heading, including a lengthy and philosophically contorted introduction that was actually difficult for me to follow and which I probably wrote while drunk. We'll skip that.

In any event, this piece would have been written in the summer of 2004, almost certainly in August. I enjoyed rereading and thought some reader somewhere might get a kick out of it.

I wonder how Burger King feels about themselves. At 0830 in the morning at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the only food available on base to the hungry young airman is a Whopper at the Burger King. The picture above the order window—and it is just a window, a window into what looks like a single-wide trailer—has an animated drill sergeant admonishing us to “Have a burger for breakfast!”

What the hell kind of dietary advice is that? Exactly why does the Air Force (and the Army) allow Burger King to propagate that kind of disinformation to all their young soldiers and airmen who may not know much about healthy eating and living? And why does Burger King feel it’s a good idea?

Certainly we all enjoy a fatty fast food burger now and then; they taste good after all. They taste good because they’re loaded with saturated fat in the form of beef fat, mayonnaise, ketchup, cheese, and the like. I love Whoppers. I also love KFC fried boneless chicken breasts, but I can eat one of those without having to pay penance for my sins. A Whopper is not the same.

I don’t blame fast food restaurants for making us all fat. For starters, although it may look that way when we go to Wal-Mart or Disney World, we aren’t all fat. Most of us feel fat. Hell, I’m definitely not fat, but when I look down I can see that I’m carrying a little bit of all that beer and vodka I drink around the midsection, enough to cover up the abs that I know used to be there. But I’m not fat. And neither are fully a third of the rest of us Americans. The ones who are fat, well, they can’t blame fast food either. Often, they can blame themselves.

Not that this will stop fat people from suing McDonald’s. At least the judge threw that case out. But if people would just not eat crap all the time, they wouldn’t have problems with their weight. Weight management is easy, at least if you’re reasonably smart. I blame fat people for ignorance more than anything else; it's not even laziness half the time. And they can’t possibly all be that stupid; the problem is, we don’t teach anything approaching healthy living in schools, and if we did, I can guarantee you we’d screw it up. It would all be government mandated and based on that stupid 7-level pyramid scheme they created to bolster the prices Midwestern farmers can get for their grain crops. And it wouldn’t work anyway. All Americans do not fit into the same peghole, though that is exactly what national health education in high school would try to do.

So we produce a bunch of 18-year-olds every year who join the military and go out to their friendly BX one morning and see a perky animated drill sergeant ordering them to have burgers for breakfast. Well shoot, the Army wouldn't tell me to do it if it wasn’t good. And then we wonder why we’re having problems with overweight troops.

This is of course a bigger problem in the Air Force than in the Army, since Army people stay more active with daily unit PT and the like. The Air Force has tried this in the past, but it always fails. I’ll admit that I’m part of the problem. I haven’t been to a unit PT day since December of 2003. I’m hoping to avoid them until I PCS in 2006. If I wanted to get up every morning at the ass crack of dawn and run myself silly and destroy my knees, by God I’d join the Army. I joined the Air Force because we take a more reasonable approach to such things—or at least we used to.

The Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. John Jumper, who is himself an avid runner (like many insane people), recently revamped our yearly physical fitness test. Now, instead of sitting on a bicycle peddling slowly until our hearts and lungs reach a certain mythical point of capacity defined by pencil-necked geeks in a laboratory in Washington, we actually have to go out and run, and do pushups and situps. I hate running and situps, but I still think the General has the right idea and support it. If you’re going to measure my fitness, why not do it by measuring what I can do? Lung capacity, which is what the bike test measured, was always four fifths genetic anyway.

But then there is that pesky fourth part of the equation, the tape test. Now, as a skinny little white boy, I don’t fear the tape test. The test is worth 30 points, and to get all 30 your waist measurement has to be under 32 ½ inches. Even when I was a drunk I had never had a waist that big. No problemo.

But I’m also all of 5’9” or so. A guy who’s as skinny as me but 6’3”, by nature he’s going to have about a 33 inch waist. Ergo he can’t max out the test, even if he’s in better shape than everybody else in his squadron. (Never mind that if your goal is to max out the annual fitness test, you need bigger goals.) Once again, it seems we’re trying force everybody in the Air Force into the same peghole. No problem for me, since I’m small and can fit most anywhere, but it’s a big problem for many of my colleagues. And what’s to say a person can’t be in decent shape and still carry a little bit extra around the gut? Hell, half the generals and chiefs in the AF today can balance their coffee cups on their beer guts. That’s just the way the Air Force is. I think Jumper doesn’t really like those guys and wants to be rid of them, which soon enough he will be.

But what does the Air Force do to help you out if you’re not passing the test? They tell you to figure it out yourself. You go on a mandatory visit to the health and wellness center, and they put you on a program, and hopefully it works. Meanwhile, there’s a Burger King on every Air Force base in the country, where people are being ordered to have burgers for breakfast.

I have nothing against Burger King. As I said, I enjoy a Whopper now and then because it tastes good. But I also exercise and ensure that 90% of my meals are prepared in my home with healthy fresh ingredients. Few if any of my colleagues can say that, and many of them will argue that it’s because they don’t have time. Well, maybe not, but if I have time I wonder how other young officers without much more responsibility don’t. It can’t be because I’m single; if anything, I have less spare time because I have to do everything myself (this of course only applies to the married and childless, since children really do take up all your time). Yet I’m capable of a reasonably healthy (barring the drinking and the high-stress job) lifestyle. The simple fact that I can do this makes me assume pretty much everyone else can, whether they do or not.

But I also know that most people don’t live healthy. Many may try, but they don’t succeed. This is a big part of why Gen. Jumper wanted to revamp the fitness program. He encouraged wing and squadron-level fitness activities, and ordered that all supervisors were to ensure that their people had an hour every workday for exercise—and he didn’t mean an hour before or after work or instead of lunch break, he meant one hour at any point during the workday. Jumper’s no fool; he doesn’t want his people working 9 and 10 hour days at home and then deploying for 179 days out of every year. Whether that’s what our squadron commander wants or not, it wasn’t Jumper’s intent, and he’d tell you that if you asked him. Jumper may work those kinds of hours, and I’ve no doubt that he does far more, but that’s the price of command and any intelligent commander accepts it as his burden. (This is also why I don’t seek any command.)

Still, that hour per day is hardly mandatory. One can argue that perhaps it should be, but I’d balk at the suggestion that I need to go to the gym every day for an hour. What would I do there? I’m trying to gain weight, not lose it; you can’t lift weights every day and get any results. But at least Jumper is trying, as few before him have. He’s made some rather questionable decisions, but this isn’t one of them.

So why then is there no place anywhere at Al Udeid to get a decent meal at 0830 in the morning, except at the Burger King, where all you can have is a Burger For Breakfast? How on Earth did the idea of promoting a new healthier lifestyle for Air Force personnel result in this situation?

I don’t like sounding provincial, but at least at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, where I’m supposed to be right now, the chow hall is open 24/7. They aren’t serving all 24 hours, just during the posted meal times, and the food is beyond awful. But if I wake up at 0800 and put some clothes on and go take a pee and then want something to eat, I can walk over to the chow hall and grab a bowl of Wheaties and some orange juice and canned pears and make a peanut-butter and banana sandwich, and now at least I’ve had a good breakfast. Here at Al Udeid, I have no choice but to eat a Burger for Breakfast. And I have to pay for that, which brings to mind the missed meals problem. But that’s another issue entirely.

04 March 2009

Lauderdale Update

I've been spending some time each day the last couple weeks working at Lauderdale. I say working at, not working on, because I haven't actually written any words for it. Shoot, half the thing is written, I figure, by the time I root through and take the good parts from the existing draft.

There were at least two directions I could take that book, and I've settled on the direction it's going--crime novel--which means I need to reorganize and perfect the crimes themselves, how they fit together, Hank's role in solving them, and what the more significant background crime is. Funny, but a simple murder or assault is not an independent crime in these books; the crime is some underlying (or overarching) conspiracy, and murders simply happen as the conspirators attempt to keep things hidden. This is almost universal in crime novels--bodies pile up, but that isn't the real crime. Which is, in a sense, a real crime.

Bodies piled up aplenty in the previous version of Lauderdale but, partly because I wasn't sure what the book actually was, they didn't do so to any pattern or for any larger purpose other than to offend and sicken the narrator. Who deserved it, frankly, but that wasn't the point. The question was, is this the narrator's coming-of-age story, or is it a crime novel? Of course there was far too much autobiographical content in the book as it stood to easily change things around to focus on the coming-of-age aspect, and I think I made the right call--certainly the easy call--in deciding to proceed with it as a crime novel. Our narrator, Hank Lauderdale, is a somewhat different man than he was in the earlier version, but he is a unique protagonist for this sort of book, and I don't want to change that. Of course he's still a reporter, which is more or less the opposite of unique (ubiquitous?) in crime stories, but he's not a real reporter, and more importantly he doesn't actually want to solve this puzzle. He really just wants to get paid to support his partying habit. And how many crime novels feature a half-drunk grad student as the protagonist?

Plus, keeping the setting in South Florida gives me an excuse to reread a few Florida crime novels I have (I'm going to reread a few; I have rather more than a few) with an eye to maintaining some of the main aspects of that genre (yes, Florida Crime is an established subgenre... at least in my opinion. And dammit if I don't care about my own opinions why should anyone else? Come to think of it, why should anyone else anyway?). So I've changed up the "up next" listing on the right there, but I may not necessarily review those books, at least not in-depth, not here anyway. I don't think.

01 March 2009

How to Meditate

This book is what it says: a guide on how to meditate. Starting from the absolute basics and moving into the more esoteric (and difficult) meditations, Kathleen McDonald leads readers step-by-step through what exactly meditation is, and how it's done.

The book is not meant to be read at a sitting and put back on the shelf. I went ahead and read the whole thing, but I'm still working at the most basic meditations, on the breath and on the clarity of the mind. It will take me some time be able to move past those meditations.

McDonald is a practicing Buddhist, and the book is written from the Mahayana perspective (Tibetan Buddhism). That doesn't mean it isn't accessible to anyone; McDonald even notes in later chapters describing meditation upon a particular Buddha that it's perfectly to meditate on Christ, for example. The point is not the specific belief structure behind meditation; the point is to meditate it all, to clarify the mind and permit the practitioner to live in the present and be more thoughtful and positive all the time, and one needn't be a Buddhist to benefit from meditation.

For myself, I would consider the book nearly indispensible, and it will be on my bookshelf to be reread, piece by piece, for a very long time.