What I want you to know. Which is everything.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by the Increadible's Daughter

I am currently reading The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowel. It is a collection of essays that are about Sarah's life as a lover of things American. I was initially interested in Sarah because she has made guest appearances on Conan O'Brian and The Daily Show. With enough energy and spunk to keep up with O'Brian, and wit to floor John Stewart I knew that I would enjoy anything she had to say on just about any subject. Add to this that she is a contributor on NPR's This American Life along with David Sedaris, whose book Dress Your Family in Corderoy and Denim I loved, and you have a very interested Kyle. Like Sedaris's book The Partly Cloudy appeals to me because I don't have a very long attention span. Both books are collections of essays that can be read in a short period and then picked up again to read the next story. While there is a common element in the stories, there is no through line with pesky plot devices to be remembered, and what happened in chapter 3. I'm already in Chapter 10, for Pete's sake. Like I remember Chapter 3...

Sarah Vowell is a politics hound, a history nut, and a devout Democrat. A capital "D" democrat as she put it. In one of her best essays, thus far, she describes her pilgrimage from New York, where she lives, to Washington, D.C. to witness the President's inaguration. She began weeping as Dubya finished his oath of office. She held no picket sign, did not yell obsenities or throw fruit, she simply "burst into tears....Alas, my tears are my picket sign," she claims. Now those of you who don't know Sarah's work may think this is lame and overly sentimental and dramatic. If you already know Sarah, or have read her work, or have heard her on NPR, then you know that she is the epidemy of the dorky, self-depricating but laughing about it, loner, witty, funny, artsy New York writer type. What I like the most about Vowell is that she is not unfairly partisan. She has her opinions and values and the candidate that she feels is most inclined to run the country well is the one that she supports, but she will admit that Bush isn't evil, wants what's best for the country, and while mistaken, is well-meaning (of course the book is written pre-9/11). Like myself, I imagine that it would be very hard for her to vote for a Republican, regardless of the candidate simply based on the overall Republican platform. It is my believe that you don't vote for the candidate, you vote for the candidate's platform, which is generally in line with their party, and if it's not, you have to wonder why that candidate is a member of that party to begin with (Can I get a Zell Miller?) Sarah is surprisingly fair about the President-elect, Bush. She even quotes a part of his speech she appreciates and admits that she'd have been willing to cut him more slack if he wasn't so gosh darn arrogant (my words). I am most impressed with how prophetic she is with many of her reservations about Dubya. She complains that Bush doesn't seem to care about the more than half of the country that didn't vote for him, which he completely alienated in his first years and after 9/11. She also aludes to the lack of foreign diplomacy contained with the new administration. This is has been, in my humble opinion, (and that of many experts, of which I am not) the greatest mistake of the Bush presidency. You, and America are not an island. In the physical or global sense. Bush seems to me to suffer from the very same problem that most Americans do: The pittley problems of Americans are more important than the tragic problems of other countries.

The essay in The Partly Cloudy Patriot that has gotten me particularly inspired today is the two part, "The Nerd Voice." The first part, "Nerd Israel" is the one where she recounts her trip to the inaguration. She makes the trip with some friends of hers who had been following the campaign and discussing it over email. They were all staunch Kerry supporters and brought along with them picket signs and a heart full of "boos." Sarah considers this little email club "the all-time nerdiest thing I've been involved in, and I say that as a person who has been involved in public radio and marching band." "The Nerd Israel" title is a reference to the movie Revenge of the Nerds III: The Next Generation when one of the nerds describes Adams College as "the Promised Land. Kind of like a nerd Israel."

Part 2 is entitled "Nerds v. Jocks" and it describes the election and inaguration of Bush from the perspective of Al Gore, the uber-geek elect of the Nerd Nation, according to Vowell. She draws the comparison of Gore as the dork and Bush as the jock. She reals at how America electing Bush over Gore would have been like the student body of a high school electing the quarterback of the football team over someone who actually cared about the job. All the football player has to do is stand up in front of the student body, with a smirk and make empty claims like off-campus lunch, better food in the cafeteria, and how the football team is going to crush North-side next year. "They're going down!" A kid who would actually be a good choice and cares enough to find out what programs could be accomplished by a strong student presence would get booed off the stage. But we don't live in a high school. There is a reason you have to be of a certain age to vote. It shouldn't be a popularity contest but a contest of who would make the better president. By all accounts Gore should have crushed Bush, who had so little experience, virtually no knowlege and still has trouble pronouncing words.

But, Gore did not win the election. Bush did. And then, as we all know, Bush won again. This time fairly. And this time it makes sense. I can certainly see why America would not want to switch president's right now, especially without a clearly better alternative. Well, to me Kerry was clearly better, but it makes sense that most people would have their reservations about him. "He flip-flops!" Oh, no! He flip-flops...flip-flop, flop-flip, flippity-flop, flippity-flop....ooohh, that's so bad. "Oh, and he doesn't support the military!" What? My second cousin is over there! That bastard! At this point you could basically say that Kerry kills puppies. Sometimes I'm surprised that the election was as close as it was. As much harm as Rush Limbaugh does to this country he nailed it. On the day that Howard Dean (whoohah!) dropped out of the race, Rush pointed out, "There goes any chance for the Democrats to win. Howard Dean was the passion of the Democratic party, and now he's history" or something like that. I had to agree.

Back to the subject at hand, I began thinking of Nerds and Jocks. Nerds skate by on what they know. According to Vowell, a nerd is simply someone who cares way too much about a subject. The more I read this essay, the more I realized, "I'm kind of a nerd." My wife's voice keeps ringing in my head. "Kyle, you care way too much about this." I'm guessing that we are all nerds about something. After all, without passion a person is just a sad stone. Living life for nothing and in the end having nothing to show for their life. A true nerd, however, is passionate about something odd. For instance, grass. Grass seems like such a nerdy thing to be completely strung out over, but I'm sure there's some geek out there who loves grass. He/she knows the different variety of grass, they can tell you the names of all the parts, the way it grows, and in which part of the world it originated. But no one else gives a rip. This person is a nerd. According to Vowell, Gore is a huge nerd because he has expertise on a multitude of these types of subjects that no one else cares about. Gore is a foreign policy, environmental issues, energy, military technology, and digital communications* nerd, which all happen to be qualities that would make a really good president, by the way. But people don't want to elect the guy who reminds the teacher to take up homework. Like Vowell mentions, Gore should have killed Bush in 2000 but only slightly won (giving Bush and the Supreme Court the window to slip through the legal mumbo-jumbo) because Gore pissed people off and made them feel stupid for not knowing as much. Like Jimmy Fallon's "Nick, the Company Computer Guy" sketch on Saturday Night Live, we want nerds around to help fix our problems, but we're generally glad when they're gone to annoy someone else. Vowell says on page 104:

"Clearly [the reason why Gore lost] has something to do with who he is as aa person, and who he is as a person is a big honking nerd. Nobody minds this in a vice president. The vice president is actually a nerd's perfect job. A sidekick is supposed to be a bigger geek than the star."

And now with a solid 4 1/2 years of George W. Bush in the white house I feel like a new trend has been set. We now expect those people around the president to do the real thinking and for the Prez himself to show up, say something like, "Smoke 'em out!" and leave the real desicion making to the slimy, unelectable, unlikable, squinty eyed people with brains and heart problems.

*[This is according to Sarah Vowell in her book The Partly Cloudy Patriot. Maybe you've heard of it.]


Darek said...

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Jason said...

OK. I couldn't read that whole thing, but I skimmed most of it.

I love Sarah Vowell. I've never read her books, but I've seen her on TV occasionally and think she is very funny. I don't know if I would like this book, though, because I have tired of these "essay books". I read Dress Your Family in Corderoy and Denim last summer on the drive to and from Toronto, and I wasn't that impressed. It was funny, but not very coherent. I know many people, however, who fawn over David Sedaris like he's Xavier Cugat, or somebody. I think he's a great humorist, but I don't get what the big deal is with his books.

Actually, I just finished a book that a couple of friends of mine wrote (It wasn't bad.), and now I'm reading a book about potty training. (I am DETERMINED to get Aidan out of diapers before we move.) Next week, the new Harry Potter book comes out, and I plan to start that book then.

Nellie said...

Kyle, I don't agree with a lot of your political opinions, (that means I do agree with some of them) but I'm certainly glad we live in a country where we can express our opinions as openly as we do. (See your mom's blog for my response.)

Love you!

Kyle said...

Gee, how did my opinions slip in there? It was supposed to be a book report. Well, Nell, I do feel emmensely blessed to live in the kind of prosperity that I do. I read what you posted over at my mom's site and here's how I'll respond. The U.S. does do what it can when it comes to global catastrophies. In fact, I am speaking more in terms of the American people than the government. How often is there a snippet on the news about bombings or genocide in some third world country, and we just shake our heads and return to our dinner or change it to Friends. We've gotten ssoooooo much better at this since 9/11 (not always in a manner that I agree with, but I'm no expert), but I guess the additude that I'm referring to can be best described in the movie Hotel Rwanda. My post from June 26 describes my feelings about the subject in greater detail.

Nellie said...

I certainly agree with your take on how we, as Americans, tend to shake our heads and say, "isn't that a shame?" But we don't do it just for events outside our own country. Unfortunately, we do it about events right in our own backyards.

The only way any of that is going to change is for each and every one of us to be more aware of the small and simple ways we can make our world a better place. The old saying "think big and start small" comes to mind.

We are so often lulled into a sense of security because of our own prosperity that we don't even see the difficulties our own neighbors have.

I still have not seen Hotel Rwanda, but based on your review, I know I would like to see it. I'm waiting until I have some time to watch it when I won't be interrupted.

We all just need to be a little more diligent about being less self-absorbed and more others aware. Agree?

Chad said...

Thanks for the report. I might just have to check out Sarah Vowell. Certainly gives me something to think about.