Wish I Had a Camera

Election Day, 5 Days Early

I happened to be off work yesterday (here in Chicago) and decided to do a little early voting. I ran by my early voting place at about 10am, on a workday, and found the line out the door of my little neighborhood public library. Drove by around 1pm. The line was still there. At 2pm, I joined the line and waited 2.5 hours to vote. The line wrapped around my neighborhood branch, and inside the library the line snaked through all the stacks and around the entire inside of the library ending in a room where another 30 people waited in chairs for an electronic booth to open. There must have been at all times 200-300 people. When I left at about 4:30, the line outside was twice as long, all the way down the block. Probably 500 people. Polls were to close at 5pm.

As I was waiting outside, the energy buzzing around was palpable and electrifying. People driving by kept stopping and asking if this was a voting line. When someone answered yes, they almost always smiled this sort of fantastic, happy smile of wonderment and all-is-right-in-the-world-ishness. High school kids doing some sort of project for school where going up and down the line interviewing people. Dozens of people walking to the grocery store nearby stopped, pulled cell phones from pockets and took pictures. Some stopped to talk to people in line. It felt a bit like those moments after a catastrophe when there is no more Me as much as there is Us, except this was a joyful occasion, rather than a terrifying one. It felt appropriately historic.

My neighborhood is full of African immigrants, Muslims, and elderly Old World immigrants (along with your friendly mix of gentrifiers). It was so fantastic to see, especially among the African immigrants, the barely surpressed grins when people got to that final leg of the line, into that room where the voting booths surrounded us. I heard several people talking about getting tickets to the rally in Grank Park, which are much coveted. The seventy thousand that they put out seems at least 1/10th too small, and dozens of people talked about planning to go down there anyway.

Don't get me wrong, 2.5 hours is a long time to wait. Exhiliration gave way sometimes to annoyance, only to be perked back up to exhiliration by something else. There are 51 early voting locations in the city, and from what I've read in the papers, almost all of them have been similarly swamped for the 2 weeks or so that they have been open.

I know that Obama is much beloved here. I'm sure there is no city in this country that will probably vote more heavily for him. So it's not as if we were there to assure his victory in our city and state. And there really aren't any hotly contested legislative or local elections this year (Durbin is a shue-in; Schakowsky is shue-in). I think what really got me was that all of us were willing to put up with 2.5 hour waits in order to register our belief in this guy and in order to register our severe discontent with the current administration.

My reluctance to early vote was partly due to the fact that I've always enjoyed the euphoria I feel voting on Election Day. It was a treat to find that I didn't miss that one bit. Seems like that energy's been floating here for 2 weeks already.

I'm trying to reign in my optimism, but it's hard after yesterday: Tuesday is shaping up to be a good day.

The least scary Halloween in 12 years

For nervous pollwatchers... a simple equation remains:

Kerry states
+ Iowa
+ New Mexico
+ any other state
President Obama

He is comfortably ahead in every Kerry state. Here are Pollster.com's charts for Iowa and New Mexico:

What about that one last state? Well, Obama is also ahead or tied in Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, and North Carolina. McCain has to win ALL NINE of those. Obama has to win ONE.

As if that weren't enough, two additional Bush states seem to be in reach: Montana and Georgia.


DFW feature in Rolling Stone

David Lipsky's absolutely terrific piece on what happened to David Foster Wallace is available online, in case you haven't bought your souvenir Obama-on-the-cover copy. I bought it in the airport, read it, walked right back to the store and bought Infinite Jest (I had wanted to start with Broom of the System, but no dice).

Daughter of slave votes for Obama

Wow. Check out Amanda Jones.


Best political web video

Andrew Sullivan put up a list of 10 web videos for us to vote on for the best of the season.  You may have seen some already, but they're worth a look.  I personally enjoyed Palinex, The Vet Who Did Not Vet, and, of course, Wassup.


A question about election-night returns

I can't remember how 2004's election-night returns rolled out on TV.  Do the networks start showing returns as soon as each state's polls close, or do they wait until all the polls close everywhere to report on anything?  

I am assuming it is the former since the latter would have meant staying up very late, and everyone knows I don't like to stay up late.


When I took Ethan's novella class, at one point he described his theory about titles (that is, how to decide upon one for your own story).  It was a bullet-pointed list of things not to do, from what I recall.  One of the points was something like "Don't make your title half of a cliche" -- like don't title your story "Desperate Times" and then have it be all about desperate measures.

Does anyone else remember any others?  I ask because I was taking a revision class last weekend, and this question came up.  I think Ethan's list would be helpful to the other people in this class, but I cannot find my notes on the subject.

(Alternatively, please feel free to weigh in with your own philosophy of titling.)


Obama rally: Indianapolis

I didn't get many good pics. I arrived at 10 a.m. -- he was supposed to start at 11 but didn't arrive till almost noon. Just standing there in one spot for two hours played havoc with my lower back. Then a cheer went up ... but it was Evan Bayh. Who introduced ... some lady who had lost her health insurance. Finally Barack took the stage to wild cheering, but I must say the excitement had nearly worn off for me by then. His speech was a pretty harsh and political, not a lot of uplifting stuff, just the tit for tat argument of these final days.

What was uplifting was seeing 36,000 white people and black people in Indianapolis getting together, talking, laughing, dancing together to the nice selection of tunes. It's a pretty segregated city. You go a block here, a block there, and all of a sudden everyone is a different color. But not that morning. I hadn't seen such unified multiracial action here before. Hopefully that was just a taste of the cultural shift, the racial healing that's coming for the entire country. And Indiana is not used to mattering in elections. It's been 44 years since it has voted for a Dem for president, but polls here right now are tight as a tick. I asked my dad, a lifelong Republican, who was going to win Indiana. "Obama will," he said.


A proposal

Let's do a photo essay on Election Day here at Earth Goat.  Whether you're voting that day or, having responsibly voted early, just going about your daily business, post photos of what's going on where you are -- lines at the polls, people with their campaign buttons*, etc.  Goats are all over the place, and it would be nifty to pass the time until the polls close by seeing what's going on all around this beleaguered (but possibly hopeful) nation of ours.

In election-related news, my brother sussed out that my mother voted for Obama.  This was in question since she voted for McCain in Texas's open primary.  But, whoa, she HATES Sarah Palin.  And she claimed my father is sitting out this election -- he doesn't like McCain/Palin but can't bring himself to vote for a Democrat.  I consider that a victory.

*Apparently, wearing campaign-related garb and accessories counts as "electioneering" in some states, so put that button in your pocket or turn your shirt inside out when you go to the polls.


Home work?

On Nov. 3, Marilynne R. is reading here in IC, presumably from Home, and some of my students will be going. I want them to have read something from Marilynne's earlier work, even just 10-15 pages. Suggestions?

Early voting

I voted last week.  No small part of me wanted to go vote on Election Day and to enjoy what should, I hope, be a glorious and historic day.  But then my natural paranoia made me think: what if there are earthquakes in San Francisco and Los Angeles on November 4, and the Central Valley ends up deciding what happens with the presidential election and on odious proposition 8?  

And then the rational part of me also said that lines might be long, and the ballot here in San Francisco, particularly if you live in a district electing a supervisor (which I do), involves four separate ballots and takes a while to fill out.  It was decided: I would vote early.

So I went down to City Hall -- mind you, this was neither in the exuberant rush of people eager for the first day of early voting, nor was it close to Election Day itself, nor was it even at the lunch hour or some other busy moment -- and I had to wait 10 minutes to get a ballot.  And now come reports of long early-voting lines in many states, as well as surges of new voters registering at the deadlines, suggesting that there will indeed be long lines on Election Day.

My point is: why not go ahead and vote now if you can?  Or if you're not already doing absentee?  The Google has most of the answers about how to vote early if your state allows it.


Who Caused the Gigantic International Financial Krakatoa?

New York magazine has been hosting IM (in a loose sense) conversations for the last week or so on the election, the economy, and politics in general. None of them come close to the hilarity found in this conversation between Byron York of National Review and Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone.

It's worth reading the whole thing, but this portion of the exchange is one of the highlights:

M.T.: What a surprise that you mention Franklin Raines. Do you even know how a CDS works? Can you explain your conception of how these derivatives work? Because I get the feeling you don't understand. Or do you actually think that it was a few tiny homeowner defaults that sank gigantic companies like AIG and Lehman and Bear Stearns? Explain to me how these default swaps work, I'm interested to hear.

Because what we're talking about here is the difference between one homeowner defaulting and forty, four hundred, four thousand traders betting back and forth on the viability of his loan. Which do you think has a bigger effect on the economy?

B.Y.: Are you suggesting that critics of Fannie and Freddie are talking about the default of a single homeowner?

M.T.: No. That is what you call a figure of speech. I'm saying that you're talking about individual homeowners defaulting. But these massive companies aren't going under because of individual homeowner defaults. They're going under because of the myriad derivatives trades that go on in connection with each piece of debt, whether it be a homeowner loan or a corporate bond. I'm still waiting to hear what your idea is of how these trades work. I'm guessing you've never even heard of them.

I mean really. You honestly think a company like AIG tanks because a bunch of minorities couldn't pay off their mortgages?

B.Y.: When you refer to "Phil Gramm's Commodities Future Modernization Act," are you referring to S.3283, co-sponsored by Gramm, along with Senators Tom Harkin and Tim Johnson?

M.T.: In point of fact I'm talking about the 262-page amendment Gramm tacked on to that bill that deregulated the trade of credit default swaps.

Tick tick tick. Hilarious sitting here while you frantically search the Internet to learn about the cause of the financial crisis — in the middle of a live chat interview.

Candidate metaphors

You may have seen this elsewhere on the Web (created by some brilliant commmenter named Kdoug:

I started dicking around with Photoshop and came up with this:

I'm going to be doing more of these as the election approaches... I expect them to get weirder. Give me ideas in the comments!


Coolly named French fellow snags Nobel lit prize

I have to admit, I had never even heard of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Cl├ęzio until he won the coveted honor today. And I'm sure that says a hell of a lot more about me than it does him.

It seems he really likes deserts (he lives near your neck of the sands, dunkeys -- go interview him for Earth Goat).

Europeans, who account for 11% of the world's population, have grabbed 12 of the last 14 Nobel literature prizes (that's 85%). As Wikipedia notes, "The absolute majority of the laureates have been European, with Sweden itself receiving more prizes than all of Asia."

Maybe they should give out one per continent every year. Then all I'd have to do is move to Antarctica. And, you know, finish my novel. And publish it.

Donna Brazille puts down the talking points and grabs the country by the lapels

She goes on a beautiful four-minute unscripted tear re: progress, racism, sexism and the election.


Curtis Sittenfeld interview: American Wife

Curtis Sittenfeld is the New York Times bestselling author of the highly acclaimed Prep and The Man of My Dreams. Her third and latest novel, American Wife, chronicles the life of Alice Blackwell, First Lady -- a character inspired by Laura Bush. We were delighted when Curtis agreed to sit down with us for our third chat.

EG: I must admit, when I heard what your book was about, I was like, what the? The least-liked president ever, and Curtis has written a book about the one person who loves him the most? But then I started thinking ... yeah, but why does she love him? It suddenly seemed like a great idea for fiction to explore, and I started thinking of works like Autumn of the Patriarch, Primary Colors, Citizen Kane . Was it hard to sell the idea to your agent or publisher? Were there pitfalls you wanted to avoid?

CS: I was under contract with my publisher for a third novel, and the subject of it was up to me (or at least I had this illusion!). Basically, I did know that a novel loosely inspired by Laura Bush could turn out to be a disaster in any number of ways, so I started writing it as a secret experiment and didn't tell my editor until I was hundreds of pages in. My concern was not that the book wouldn't be sellable but more that even if it turned out to be really bad and cheesy, it had enough of a hook that it could probably still get published -- and I didn't want it to be published for the wrong reasons. But ultimately I was happy with it, and so was my editor -- all she saw before I finished the whole thing was a 30-page excerpt, but she was always enthusiastic. The most difficult thing to explain to people who hadn't read it was that even though I'm a Democrat, it's not a satire.

EG: In a 2004 Salon essay called "Why I Love Laura Bush", you wrote: "How can she really be a good person if she's married to him? How can she be married to him if she really is more liberal than he is? But ambiguities are the foundation of fiction; it is only in the world of politics that they're met with hostility." Did you write the book partly as a way to explain our recent history to yourself?

CS: I definitely think I wrote this book to try to examine some of those questions that most intrigued me about Laura Bush. I suppose I also wrote it to try to show that famous people don't exist just for us to judge and critique -- they have their own stories, experiences, private wishes and regrets.

EG: Alice says her life is "lived in opposition to itself." She justifies/rationalizes her shared responsibility in her husband's conservative administration while disagreeing with much of it. She tries to separate out her love for Charlie from her distaste for his political job. Do you think Alice is happy with how she's handled her life? And do you think her down-to-earth father, who had his saying about fools appearing in public places, would have approved?

CS: I'd say that, by design, American Wife explores these questions more than it answers them. I don't think the answer to whether Alice is happy with how she's handled her life is as straightforward as "yes" or "no" -- it's probably a mix, and it changes depending on the day. This would be a difficult question for any of us to answer, don't you think? As for whether her father would approve, he'd probably feel wary about her living so publicly, but he'd also probably be a bit wowed, as most of us are, by that level of fame and power. By the way, former or current residents of Iowa City reading this interview might be amused to hear that when I read at Prairie Lights last week, Julie Englander asked me if I too lead a life in opposition to itself.

EG: I'm curious who you envisioned as your reader. Liberals might not be interested, thinking it's fluff, and conservatives might assume it's a hit job.

CS: Oh, believe me, I thought of this as I was writing -- that there's enough in the book to turn off Democrats and Republicans for different reasons! But the topics in this book were endlessly interesting to me, and I tend to let my own preoccupations be my guide. I guess that I imagine the people who read American Wife will mostly just be people who like novels, who are interested in the various complications of human relationships and aren't necessarily political junkies.

EG: What has the reaction been from conservatives? Have you heard whether anyone on the "inside" has read it? Were you worried about that aspect? It's funny how a sex scene, for example, that wouldn't raise an eyebrow in a "normal" book suddenly seems fraught with danger and controversy here. We are still talking about fiction, after all.

CS: Mrs. Bush's spokeswoman told a reporter that she herself didn't plan to read it, that Mrs. Bush didn't plan to read it, and that they don't comment on fictional characters, which I thought was pretty diplomatic. If anyone on the inside has read it, I haven't heard, though I do know of some political reporters or former political reporters -- including Maureen Dowd and Joe Klein, who both have written about American Wife and seemed to enjoy it. Their affirmation meant a lot to me because they'd certainly be in positions to notice my gaffes or false notes more easily than the average reader.

EG: Laura Bush has surprised many liberal writers, who presumably loathe her husband, by her knowledge of their work. She is by all accounts a devoted reader, as is your Alice. You describe Laura Bush's approach as "stealth independence." There was that poetry symposium where she invited many writers -- but once it was announced that there would be anti-war poetry, she canceled the event. In your essay you speculate that the poetry might have been acceptable if it had simply happened in the moment, but once it was foretold it became untenable to allow it. What is your view of the benefits of Laura's/Alice's stealth independence?

CS: In a weird way, a person has more credibility if she's not known for consistently voicing the same viewpoint, or even for voicing any viewpoint. For instance, a few months back, Laura Bush made generous comments about both Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, and those comments got much more attention than they might have coming from a Democrat (Rosalynn Carter, for example).

But I also think it's presumptuous for any of us to say what someone in Laura Bush's position should or shouldn't do -- we have to take into account her specific personality and temperament, and what she's comfortable doing. In writing American Wife, I was very influenced by a great biography of her, The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush by Ann Gerhart, and a question Gerhart grapples with is, given that a first lady can be very influential, is it her duty to exercise that influence? Is it a cop-out not to? But, of course, as a Democrat watching Mrs. Bush root for various Republicans at their convention in September, I was wishing she'd use her influence a bit less!

EG: You also wrote: "Literary fiction acknowledges the discrepancy between how we act and what we feel. When I teach creative writing to teenagers, I tell them to think about going with their parents to a party. The people are boring, and the house smells bad, and you just want to leave. In real life, you say to your hosts, 'Thanks so much! I had such a great time!' But fiction admits how boring and smelly it was." That seems like a great way to introduce young writers to the possibilities of writing fiction -- the tension between the interior life and one's exterior actions. How has that worked with your own students?

CS: Hmm ... you should probably ask them! In recent years, I've found myself teaching workshops for adults (like the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference, or a summer course at the Iowa Writers' Workshop) more than for teenagers. But when I've taught teenagers, I feel like part of what's exciting for them is realizing they're "allowed" to write about situations or feelings that they could actually get in trouble for discussing in another class.

EG: I loved Alice's ruminations on her unsolicited fame -- how people come out of the woodwork, people you barely knew, and they all seem to want something, and how she and her husband have to wonder whether they can trust anyone to simply be their friends anymore, and once you reach a very high level of fame that all goes away because you are insulated by a barrier of handlers and so forth. What are you trying to get at in your own mind when you explore these questions of inequality in social standing and unequal access to resources and comfort?

CS: This might sound facile, but the world is an outrageously unfair place, and a lot of us, including me, often choose to pretend this isn't so -- maybe because otherwise we'd be paralyzed by guilt, or just bewildered by the senselessness. Certainly I'm interested in what the obligations are of people who are more fortunate to people who are less fortunate. And I do struggle with feeling like being a fiction writer is a fairly self-indulgent profession, that I am not exactly improving people's lives in any important way. I have often thought that I'd have a lot more respect for myself if I were a social worker instead of a writer.

EG: How is the real-life presidential campaign looking in Missouri, with the country about to "turn the page" on the Bush years? What's your take on how history will view the Bushes?

CS: Well, my fingers are tightly crossed for an Obama victory, and if that comes to pass (please, please, please!), then I suppose a case could be made that some people will have voted for Obama partly in reaction against Bush. It definitely seems like Democrats have learned from some of the mistakes of the 2000 and 2004 elections. Here in Missouri, I take note of every new yard sign in my neighborhood for either McCain or Obama. The Obama ones outnumber the McCain ones, but my fear is that people voting for Obama are excited enough to put out a sign while a lot of people voting for McCain will do it sort of quietly and unenthusiastically. I think an Obama presidency would be (will be?) thrilling.



What do we think of the new Atlantic design? In a vacuum, I like it. But back here in the time-space continuum, it strikes me that retro is never really a vehicle forward, though maybe here, at the end of history--after the universe has begun at least a metaphorical contraction and progress is marked by our ability to parse ever-smaller spaces-- staring hard across the diameter of some illusory cycle of culture has something to recommend it. At least this gerbil, we can say, has managed to build its own wheel.


A Grain of Sand

I just saw this wonderful (short!) piece in the NYT by Steven Millhauser about the particular ambition of short stories, which live generally in the shadows cast by novels, but which can exceed novels, too. I kind of love it.



The Post Turtle on Obama:

"This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America," she said. "We see America as a force of good in this world. We see an America of exceptionalism."

Sure, it's an obnoxious, desperate thing to say. But I don't really care about that. The truth is they've been saying obnoxious, desperate things since July. I doubt it's going to suddenly do what they need it to do.

But this is the second time now that Palin has made a pretty ironic malapropism with the word "exceptionalism." I think she means to say "America is exceptional" rather than "America is full of people who think America is exceptional--like me, for example!", which is actually quite a different statement. She might be surprised who agrees with her on that one.

(I would think, maybe, that a true commitment to American exceptionalism would necessarily include a willful ignorance of the very concept--an historian's term, really-- because it suggests a possibly critical awareness of American Bestitude. To define the belief that America is exceptional with so many syllables, with that stamp of subjectivity, "-ism," after all, is to admit the existence of alternatives--maybe even legitimate ones. That's probably why, in Polk's day, they just called it "manifest destiny." Destiny--the perfect word for the true believer, really, because it removes all inkling of agency, alternative, or qualm.)

I haven't seen any particular coverage of this gaffe. Maybe it's an elitist sort of thing to remark upon, so the real elites are actually too horrified to mention it, lest they be exposed (true story- I had to check wikipedia the other day to be sure that David Brooks isn't the bastard son of a toothless sulphur miner/pentacostal banjoist. He hides it well) .


Like Bush, but Angrier

--and a shittier pilot to boot.

I don't know that there's a lot of new material here-- it all feels sort of vaguely familiar. But RS puts together the personal case against McCain in the face of perhaps the most puzzlingly successful branding of a politician in our lifetimes.

In what might be irony, the McCain brand reminds me of the way people sometimes talk about Obama: as more the symbolic reconciliation of a national shame than as a guy with a platform--or a nuanced and flawed personality. The crucial differences, of course, are in the substance of each candidate that lies underneath that symbolism.

But there are differences in the symbolisms, too. McCain's vietnam is mostly generational, resonating most powerfully with the descendent baby bommers; Obama's is our oldest, and perhaps most persistent national challenge, one that's recurred in every generation of Americans since the first. That's not to say the difference is entirely in Obama's favor. Sure, it seem that Obama rides the bigger symbolic wave. But the bigger the symbol, the deeper the conflicts it contains. The question I wonder about is if--ala Deval Patrick, an easy, if flawed correlary-- the warm and fuzzies he inspires in people make for an inevitable backlash once he's in office.

But yeah, it's not exactly on the top of my list of concerns right now. Right now, I just want to make sure our next president isn't the type to have tantrums so fierce they cause him to pass out.



a heartbeat away

apparently fifty is the new forty, which makes seventy-two the new sixty-two?
see here the top ten oldest world leaders...

Robert Mugabe is the oldest leader in the world.

Detached Yankee navel-gazers unworthy of Nobel literature prize

Top Nobel jurist says Americans are too isolated and insular to merit top literature award, touches off verbal scuffles with Yankee literati.

I do think Horace Engdahl has a point when he says, "They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining."

How far afield does your reading routinely take you? Glancing at my own bookshelf, I would say 80% to 85% of it is American. And I'm a book-crazy ex-pat.

Last foreign book I read: Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan (Nigerian novellas and stories). The book is stunning, marvelous, horrifying. But I automatically snapped back and plowed through three or four American novels in a row without reflecting on my choices -- as if returning home from vacation. That is insular, I think, or at least shows a strong insular tendency.

I think I know why I instinctively reach for the Campbell's soup, though: the rhythms of American speech. That's my mother's milk. When I'm reading a translation, or hell, even something British or Irish, I am aware of the fact throughout. I may like it a great deal -- looking at you, Garcia Marquez, Dickens, Dostoyevsky -- but stylistically it's something else, a relatively exotic work coming out of a different tradition. And my own writing will never sound like it.

I would like to vow to try for a 50/50 split from now on.