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The silence of the suburbs

Posted in Culture, Stories by Alex L. on January 30, 2011

A close-up of "levels", a painting by my friend on doodlemoose.com (click to see more)Although I wasn’t born anywhere near it, I grew up and live in the sleepy Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove. Located about 45-minutes’ drive from the center of the city, Buffalo Grove is a sort of stopping place to (hopefully) better things for a great portion of its residents. Tucked a dozen or so miles away from the elite club of prestigious suburbs such as Lake Forest, Highland Park, and Wilmette, whose private beaches hug the coast of Lake Michigan, Buffalo Grove is ever conscious of its not-quite-there-yet status. If it ever forgets, the sister-village of Long Grove, with its quaint antique shops, wooded estates, and 18-holed country clubs, is nestled right alongside it as a constant reminder of the truly refined suburban life.

I have never met anyone doggedly devoted to Buffalo Grove in the way some people are patriots of New York City or even of their small towns (which isn’t to say that such fans don’t exist, I just haven’t spoken to many of my neighbors). Needless to say, there are neither buffaloes nor groves left in Buffalo Grove, while some items like sidewalks and park benches are a mere formality in a place where anywhere worth going to for anyone is reached by means of motor transport.

There are almost never people walking about. One warm summer evening last year, when the weather was perfect and the air was almost fragrant, I was driving through my neighborhood and marveled at the half-dozen or so small groups of residents I saw promenading and enjoying nature’s graces. In the backyard of one house I saw a small crowd congregating around a campfire, and I think I even remember spotting a guitar in their midst. This was a rare sight indeed.

When one who has lived in this neighborhood of densely-packed quarter-acre properties stops and thinks about all of one’s neighbors and for how long one has gone to bed night after night, year after year, in a brick-and-drywall abode only yards away from their brick-and-drywall abodes, sat in the dark evenings by the flickering lights of a television only yards away from their solitary lights, when one considers that despite all of this proximity one knows neither the names of one’s neighbors nor even the sight of their faces, it seems like some marvelous aberration of  a yet-unknown law of nature. An impression then emerges that the silence of the suburbs is not akin to something like contentedness or calm, but is the stupefying experience of creation without a story, like the rippling of the face of the deep in Genesis before the spirit of God moves across the waters.

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On tricking ourselves

Posted in Greek, Reading, Stories by Alex L. on January 23, 2011

Pink elephantEven though I still read them once in a while, I am generally skeptical of self-help books. They are always incomplete, in my opinion, because they have to boil down scientific research (if they are even based on science) into easy-to-sell concepts and action steps. Getting Things Done is a good example. A recent classic in the “productivity” branch of self-help literature, GTD’s entire system is based on a ridiculous notion: to truly feel relaxed in the world, one must have all of one’s actionable  ideas “captured” into sorted lists. Can you really enjoy a casual walk with a friend, the argument goes, while not having a written account of all of your preferences and next-actions for all of your projects close at hand?

The answer is yes, in my opinion, yes you can enjoy your life without planning it every step of the way. The assumption the book makes becomes a personal-productivity tyrant: one can scarcely have an idea pass through one’s head without feeling an obsessive urge to write it down in one list or another.

Of course by “one”, I am referring to myself. That is not to say that I will credit the plethora of useful lists I keep for work-related tasks and the tickler file I employ in my office to none other than David Allen, the writer of Getting Things Done. I just realize that any self-help book is going to offer partial solutions to any problem, and one must have a healthy capacity for what Aristotle called “practical wisdom”, phronesis, to pick and choose what’s useful for one’s life.

So when I perused the Chicago Tribune’s weekly literary section – Printers Row – one day in early January, I read the article titled “Seven books to aid in your new year’s resolutions” with a large grain of salt. But one book did catch my eye, and with the glad-handed aid of Amazon’s cursed 1-click purchasing system, I ordered and downloaded Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard onto my e-reader device. (more…)

Mattie and Achilles

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Film, Greek by Alex L. on January 13, 2011

Mattie Ross from "True Grit"I hadn’t heard of the new movie “True Grit” until my friend Mike called me up to go to the theater a few days ago. Because I was vehemently uninterested in seeing “Tron”, the Coen brothers’ new movie seemed like a good alternative after glimpsing descriptions of shows playing in local theaters.

I saw “True Grit” that evening, and I can’t wait to watch it again while it’s playing on the big screen. The movie was fantastic. I hadn’t heard of the original “True Grit” with John Wayne, nor had I read the novel by Charles Portis on which both movies were based, but I think I appreciated the movie more for having known nothing about it beforehand. If you haven’t seen “True Grit” in theaters yet, I recommend you don’t read the rest of this article.

Stanley Fish of the New York Times has a high-quality article about the religious undertones that he perceives throughout the new “True Grit”. His point is that this movie avoids creating a two-dimensional picture of reality. This is what makes it different from (and perhaps better than) the John Wayne version. Protagonists suffer alongside antagonists, and all display traditional heroic qualities. Reward and punishment for any kind of virtue or immorality, respectively, is not meted out in the way everyone expects; if you have lived virtuously, it is no guarantee that something unspeakably horrible won’t befall you in this world.

And yet “True Grit” is different from the Coen brothers’ earlier Western-style film, “No Country for Old Men”. That film was thoroughly depressing. Evil, in the form of  the cattle-gun wielding character of Anton, stalks every good  person, eventually destroys them all, and leaves nothing redeeming in its wake. “True Grit” has brighter moments.

(more…)

Building aircraft out of ash wood and Irish linen

Posted in European, Just for Fun, Websites by Alex L. on January 9, 2011

SE.5a under construction at the Vintage Aviator shop. Image courtesy of The Vintage Aviator: http://thevintageaviator.co.nz/node/2784

If left to my own devices, without the influence of classes or teachers or scholarly communities, my interests will naturally gravitate and oscillate between two subjects: submarines and airplanes. It has been like this since I was in middle school, except now instead of scouring books for colorful pictures and playing computer simulations, I read memoirs and secondary sources about air wars and naval battles of the 20th century.

After a visitation from the Muse of U.S. Submarine Operations in the Second World War (which compelled me to dive deep into my long-shelved copy of Clay Blair’s classic, Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan) my tastes were swung upwards and backwards to the heights of the air war during World War I. What did it this time was a documentary I watched on YouTube one night about the British aces James McCudden and Edward Mannock, which described their struggles with the stresses of primitive air combat and their untimely deaths.

This led me to embark on an unsystematic perambulation through the history of air combat during World War I. Curse Amazon and their “1-Click Ordering”, but I impulsively bought James McCudden’s memoir, Flying Fury: Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps, for my Kindle and received instant gratification reading it at a local Starbucks. I am still working through it, but have also gone on to watch other documentaries freely accessed on YouTube on the subject (such as this hidden gem: “Aces: A Story of the First Air War”, the probably-fictional story of a Canadian pilot in the RFC as narrated to his grandson).

As part of this binge of media consumption, I stumbled upon (though not through StumbleUpon, which I tried as a novel way to browse the web but with which I was slightly disappointed) a site called The Vintage Aviator, which is the actual topic of this post. (more…)

I’m posting every week in 2011!

Posted in Blogs, Just for Fun by Alex L. on January 7, 2011

Image of soldiers doing push-upsI read about WordPress’s PostAWeek Challenge for 2011 today, and it made me think about how I have more articles sitting in my “Drafts” folder from the past six months than those that have actually been published. I think I have been leaning too heavily on the side of “literary-like” writing lately (and hence killing drafts with an overly-zealous editing standard) and less on the more informal style which is the hallmark of blogging.

So, at the risk of this blog degenerating into a collection of YouTube videos about my hauls, I will publish an article every week on this blog in 2011. The sample post suggested by WordPress, with such phrases as “[relying on] the community of other bloggers” and “asking for help when I need it” makes this challenge sound almost like a substance-abused support group. I guess one can “abuse” the instinct to edit to the point of crippling the writing process altogether. I’ve also been coming around to the realization that online communities are a legitimate way to connect with people (strangely enough, an article titled “Why I Hate Social Media” and its related commentary sparked this realization – perhaps more on this later), so WordPress may have a point there.

Since one of the reasons for this blog has been to train myself to write better (hence the push-ups image, in case you were wondering) and since that can’t be accomplished without me actually writing once in a while, look for at least a post a week on this blog in 2011 (I’m thinking Sundays).

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