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Reed-Turner Woodland

Posted in Culture, Stories by Alex L. on June 4, 2011

Close-up of nature photo courtesy of Dustin M. Ramsey (accessed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Morton_Arboretum_woodland.jpg)I have been watching reruns of Man vs. Wild lately. So when I saw the crumbling heap of a burned-down tree, my first reaction was to squirrel away some bits of its charcoal in my pockets. In a survival situation, these would be a valuable source of tinder to make a fire. But being twenty paces from my Ford Escort (and five minutes’ drive from the nearest Starbucks), I decided that I was not in a predicament to start hoarding the essentials.

Rather, I was in Reed-Turner Woodland, a small nature preserve in Long Grove, Illinois. It was early morning, and by whim I had turned into the woodland off of Old McHenry Road on my way to work. I parked my car in the empty gravel lot and decided to look around before resuming my commute.

Most of the forest preserves in this part of Illinois are bleak and dull. They usually occupy small plots. One gets the impression that there were no natural forests here before European settlement, or at least none worth saving. The trees leaf sparsely, and the new vegetation on the ground seems to struggle every spring and summer to overcome the decaying matter of the previous fall. If the municipal caretakers did not regularly remove dead trunks and carve channels into the riverbanks, then one can’t help but imagine that the streams would dry up and the forest itself would wither until the entire crumbling mass would finally be swept away in a prairie fire.

But Reed-Turner seemed different somehow. It was my first time there, and I decided that I had half an hour to explore the forest trails before continuing on my way to work. The trail started at the parking lot and sauntered along the edge of the woods. I hiked past the burnt-down tree – most likely culled by the village authorities because it grew too close to the road, I thought. Heading deeper into the small preserve, I heard occasional shuffling noises coming from left and right. This made me uneasy. The last time I hiked more than a day in real wilderness was five years ago. I was out of the habit and my mind feared the worst. Was that branch breaking a sure sign of a prowling coyote? Skunks and raccoons, too, would be unpleasant characters to encounter. (more…)

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Goal-oriented

Posted in Culture, Reading by Alex L. on March 30, 2011

(Image links to YouTube video) Screenshot from the Barats & Bereta comedic video, "To Do List"I used to get a lot more excited about goals that I set for myself than I do now. Now, I’ve grown to mistrust any kind of concrete goal to such an extent that, believe it or not, I still haven’t written down my New Years Resolutions for 2011 even though I fully intend to at some point (I like to tell myself).

This week, I’ve been reading Dave Goetz’s Death by Suburb, a study of how to improve a suburbanite’s “spirituality”. In his chapter titled “Inside Space”, Goetz discusses this idea of goal futility.

Not to echo here the disillusionment of Ecclesiastes (you know, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity”) but it seems impossibly hard to correlate happiness with goal achievement. The suburbs are a great illustration of this idea.

The suburban environment is one where individuals are cloistered into safe and sanitary housing units where each person creates goals, capitalizes on the abundant opportunities available, and then amasses the spoils of his labor in the form of goods or social status. It’s almost the epitome of “the good life”. And yet almost anyone who actually experiences this kind of lifestyle will feel some sort of dissatisfaction with goal achievement.

The new car just doesn’t seem so satisfying a few months after the purchase (but how much work went into affording it). The mansion seems a lot better as an idea than as a reality. Yes, the friends will be impressed, but why do I need to lord it (or anything) over them? And what do I admire about the thing itself – the spaciousness, the beauty of the woodwork and wall colors and flooring? The outdoors are spacious too and there are much more beautiful buildings to be seen in the city. I must just want to possess this immensity and this beauty as my own.

And yet these goals require so much – perhaps, all – of our work capacity to fulfill. For someone like me who always needs a plan to feel at ease with himself, it’s maddening that the things that really matter to us – love, vocation, relationships – we can’t really achieve by setting any kind of goals. Goetz thinks that relinquishing control and embracing silence can help a suburbanite find the peace of mind of which the achievement race robs us. I don’t know about this; I just think it’s maddening that we can’t goal-orient towards happiness.

Two-year anniversary

Posted in Blogs, Music, Poetry, Stories, Storytelling by Alex L. on March 10, 2011

History, slightly skewedOne way to measure the success of a blog is by how much spam its WordPress filters catch. Somehow, I think the bots that troll the blogosphere know which blogs get more traffic and target their “marketing” strategy at them. The blog that I keep at work, where keywords and headings are meticulously crafted to optimize hits from the search engines, is visited as often as Don Corleone on “this, the day of his daughter’s wedding” in comparison to this, my personal blog. Each day nets dozens of spam comments in my work blog’s filter. HistoryJournal.org, on the other hand, is lucky if the errant male-enhancement ad washes up on shore once or twice a week. I don’t care. Not search-engine-optimizing my <h2> tags on HistoryJournal.org is my rebellion against marketing, my current profession.

(Yes, folks. This is the one day of the year, my blog’s anniversary – it was technically on March 8 – where I blog about blogging. Feel free to turn away. There is not so much a sign of a blog’s decay, writer’s block, or an author’s sickness of the writing craft as when he or she begins to write about what it feels like to be writing. Like a historian writing about what good history should be written like instead of showing you by writing good history himself. Nevertheless, the historiography demons need to be exorcised at least once a year, so I’ll try to keep it as short and sweet as possible.)

An opportunity presented itself to me a year ago after I wrote the post, “History, the History Channel, and Dairy Queen”. I had been looking for a way to a way to write about history that would be fresh, interesting, and relevant to the living world. With that post, I hit upon a style or genre which I could develop upon in the future. I desperately wanted to avoid writing history in the dusty forms everyone is so used to, either ringing grandiose notes that always fall flat (“Since the dawn of man…”  or, “Our world would not be the same if it were not for…”) or delving into minutiae that interests nobody but the collector of such informational tidbits (“On this day in history…”). The style that I have tried to work on this past year (in between peddling my marketing skills, chasing various pet hobbies, and staving off spirit-sapping ennui which has been waging war against me since 2007) has been to present history in an extremely personal narrative. (more…)

Subtle intrusions of comfort

Posted in American, Asian, Culture, Reading by Alex L. on February 20, 2011

Mountains in AfghanistanI have recently been reading Pete Blaber’s memoir, The Mission, The Men, and Me: Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander, about his experiences during training and in combat around the world (including action in Iraq and Afghanistan). As may be gleamed from some of my previous posts, I have a high degree of admiration for battle-tested warriors such as this Chicago-born operative in the military’s perhaps most unconventional unit.

During late 2001 and early 2002, when Americans special forces were making their first incursions into Afghanistan, Pete Blaber was commanding a detachment of advanced force operations (AFO) soldiers. He describes this early phase of the war in Afghanistan as an uncharacteristic one.

The U.S. government, according to Blaber, knew very little about the country they were invading, and special forces were sent in to acquire contextual information and carry out the initial attacks on the enemy. Since the character of the war to come was still unknown, these various units were allowed to organize and operate in a way that did not necessarily reflect their usual departmental divisions. Combat teams were frequently formed and reformed around a mix of AFO, the Green Berets, and CIA agents as need dictated without a regard for traditional military structure. In true special forces fashion, the only thing that mattered was completing the mission no matter how unconventional the means.

Much like I am in awe of master craftsmen who restore old aircraft, I am stunned by the audacity of the challenges that such special forces troops undertake. My confusion about the morality of war aside, when viewed simply as a problem-solving endeavor, the task of entering a hostile country in small teams of a few dozen men to chase out the entire ruling class baffles the mind. Sure the U.S. soldiers were equipped with the latest supplies and technology to help them accomplish this mission (not to mention scores of Northern Alliance soldiers as allies), but as Blaber describes and the U.S. military had to learn the hard way, technology is never a substitute for one of the basic assets of warfare: contextual knowledge of the people, locations, customs, and ways of thinking of others, especially the enemy. (more…)

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.

‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ by Dave Eggers

Posted in American, Culture, Literature, Storytelling by Alex L. on May 23, 2010

I never thought of the Chicago suburbs as a place worthy of literature. Books, on the contrary, are something suburbanites use, like drugs, to escape the reality of their environment – a dull, slow, lonely locale, without the drama of a big city or even a small rural town. As Dave Eggers notes in his book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (hereafter referred to as AHWoSG), often under the veneer of a safe and calm neighborhood, the spirit of a suburbanite dies slowly.

I’ve had this book since high school, just sitting on my shelf. I began reading it when I was eighteen, but, coming off of English classes focusing on Faulkner, Camus, and Sartre, I was sick of authors who played fast and loose with the rules of language, especially to evoke depressing thoughts. I just graduated high school, was looking forward to college, and didn’t need these heavy stories. So I stopped reading after skimming the first few pages.

Six years later, I tried reading AHWoSG again, and finished it in the course of a week. I did not realize until this latest attempt to read AHWoSG that a good portion of the book takes place in Lake Forest, IL. In fact, the author grew up there. One of the most influential novels of the decade was written about one of the most boring places on earth.

I was inspired by this, this entering of the Chicago suburbs into literary history. There is some beauty here  after all, if one has the eyes to see. (more…)