Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Review: The Lives of the Mind

The Lives the the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse
Roger Kimball
Ivan R. Dee; Chicago (2002)

"In the faculty of writing nonsense, stupidity is no match for genius." -- Walter Bagehot

Imagine how cool it would be if you had correspondence with a friend who shared your literary tastes and philosophical bent, was far better read than you, and was willing to distill the essentials of such epistemologically convoluted thinkers as Hegel into delightful and digestible essays. Such a friend would be estimable, indeed! And, if you are, as I am, lucky enough to be familiar with the work of The New Criterion's Roger Kimball, then you can have a taste of such a friendship.

Had Mr. Kimball sat down with me precisely in mind as his intended audience, he could scarcely have written a more captivating book. I loved everything about this loosely themed collection of essays on some of the most diabolical, some of the most pertinent, some of the most influential thinkers that have shaped our modern understanding of who and why we are. My husband hates philosophy; I philo it. In fact, sitting about musing on various deep, unanswerable questions, preferably with wine and friends and a fire, while outside raindrops fall from leaden skies to pelt the sodden earth, would be a favorite activity of mine, if I could just find some local friends with whom to share these contemplative confabs. Guess I'll have to import them from Chicago. So, I am all alone with Mr. Kimball, while he schools me on philosophers I have read (Decartes, Kierkegaard, Russell), philosophers of whom I had heard (Hegel, Schopenhauer, Santayana, Schiller), and a few of whom I'd never even heard (Wittgenstein, Stove).

But, Lives of the Mind is much more than essays on those lofty gentlemen. Here is the great political philosopher, Alexis deTocqueville; here is the comic novelist, P.G. Wodehouse; here is the prolific Victorian, Anthony Trollope. Rounding it out is the universally known, but seldom read, Plutarch; the French commentator, Aron; French caricaturist, Damuier; and the delightfully difficult to categorize, Bagehot. Roger Kimball brings to each subject a keen eye for the satirical and a surprisingly wicked wit. When he respects an author, he can make you love them by proxy. See if you do not walk away from this book and immediately start reading Wodehouse. C'mon, I dare you. And even when he is skeptical about the value of certain thinkers, such as, say, Hegel, he is still able to offer a readable critique that is saturated with wry humor. All of this combines to make an exceptionally fun adventure through some of the most opaque minds and obscure meditations that have influenced modern intellectual life.

Since Mr. Kimball loves -- nay, relishes -- language and the art of the aphorism, one of the principal treats of Lives of the Mind is the trove of one- and two-liners he unearths from his subjects, polishes, and displays for the reader's amusement and edification. Sometimes funny, sometimes profound, these observational gems are worth the price of admission. Two of the main beneficiaries of this appreciation are Lichtenberg and Péguy, both of whom might have escaped notice had they not been particularly adept at pontifications of the proverbial sort. My favorite from Charles Péguy is, "He who does not bellow the truth when he knows the truth makes himself the accomplice of liars and forgers." To which Kierkegaard might answer, "Subjectivity is truth!" And there's a whole can of worms. One cannot bellow subjectivity; I prefer truth as truth, not truth as perception. But, to spend a good hour or two wrestling those things to the ground is one of the purest pleasures of reading Mr. Kimball's book.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Abstract Compound Noun Based Upon a Transitive Verb and Its Direct Object Day!

Happy Turkey Day!

No, no, no!

Let's not let Thanksgiving get away from us. We have the ubiquitous and banal "Happy Holidays" and Santa Claus for Christmas. We have the Easter Bunny and egg hunts for Resurrection Sunday. We have Halloween. But let us not give up the purity of Thanksgiving by downgrading it to commemorate only the carnal, when we ought to remember the spiritual.

Thanksgiving is an abstract noun -- a noun, like love and peace, that is intangible. It is also a compound noun, made up of two stand-alone words. The second word in the compound is a gerund -- a noun based upon a verb. The verb upon which it is based is a transitive verb -- a verb which needs to be paired with an object in order to make sense. Ain't English fun?

What I am saying here is that there is a lot packed into the abstract, proper noun we have given to a holiday celebrated the fourth Thursday in November across America.

When you give thanks, "give" is the transitive verb, and "thanks" is its direct object. But, implied between them -- though often not stated outright -- is a pesky indirect object. That is the "to whom" of the statement. You simply cannot "give" something without someone on the other end. And it is the indirect object that will be the stumbling block for so many.

You cannot give thanks without have someone to receive them. You do not sit down to write a thank-you note without an intended recipient. You can give chocolate bars out all day, but, unless you find someone to take them, you'll be no poorer in chocolate at the end of the day than you were at the beginning. To some people, this is not a bad proposition. But, in order for words to have meaning, we must know what we mean when we say them. That is why it was so funny to hear Michael Medved interviewing a spokesman from the American Humanist Society on the radio last week.

Mr. Medved asked the man whether he would be celebrating Thanksgiving in a couple days. The man said, yes, of course he would. Mr. Medved then asked him who he would be thanking on the holiday. The man said that he would be giving thanks for his family and his country and all the other warm and fuzzies. Mr. Medved probed him: Yes, but whom will you be thanking? The man was slightly confused and said he was thankful for all those things in his life, but that he wasn't thanking anyone in particular for them. Mr. Medved pressed the point that when you feel thankful, those thanks are meant for a particular person. The humanist answered that a general feeling of thankfulness needed no other entity involved. Mr. Medved, in the interest of pacing, let the matter drop there.

If you are thankful (adjective) you are, quite literally, full of thanks. "Thanks" is another noun based upon a verb. To be full of thanks means that you have had your fill of the action of thanking. Thanking is another transitive verb, this one needs only a direct object -- whom or what are you thanking? Oh, well, I'm not actually thanking anyone -- I am merely giving thanks in a general, non-committal, non-theistic sort of way. Ah, but implied in the verb "to give" is that vexing old indirect object. You can leave him out, but he is there nonetheless. The Pilgrim settlers knew to Whom they gave thanks; Abraham Lincoln knew to Whom he was giving thanks; and, despite the increasing secularization of our society, more than 80% of Americans know to Whom they will give thanks this Thanksgiving Day.

Now, that is not to say that you cannot give thanks to others as well on Thanksgiving Day. You can, if you choose, give thanks to your parents for bringing you into this world; you can give thanks to your wife for cooking a delicious dinner; you can give thanks to your husband for busting his arse day after day to provide for your family. And these are all well and good. But, to pretend that the holiday (contracted from "holy day") of Thanksgiving in America was founded to be anything other than a day set aside so that we can, as a nation, pause together to thank our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer for all the nouns that fill our lives -- tangible and intangible -- is to blind ourselves in a highly comical way. I suspect that our humanist friend on the radio did not wish to say that his thanks is given to his friends and family because he, like every human, has eternity written on his heart and knows that -- while thanks for the immediate things of this world can often be given to other people -- the great and good and breathtaking things can only be attributed to God.

So, let us not forget all the meaning crammed into that delightfully complex noun, thanksgiving. And, please, let us not give into the temptation to strip another holiday of its spiritual implications by employing the cute, but carnal, salutation, "Happy Turkey Day!"

Monday, November 23, 2009

Book Review: Going Rogue: An American Life

1 Kings 19 tells the story of the prophet Elijah's fleeing that stinking heathen queen Jezebel. He ended up in that great, vague biblical setting of testing and redemption -- the wilderness, plopped himself under a broom tree, and, with typical Old Testament histrionics, prayed that he might die. Angels came to comfort him. And, just like sympathetic church ladies would thousands of years in the future for their suffering co-congregants, they brought him cake. Thus, the lesson of this story is, when you've used up your last strength running for your life, battling an antagonistic foe, hitting dead ends, and even when you have given up hope, cake helps. At birthdays and weddings, at funerals and during illnesses, at the end of one dream or at the kindling of a new one, cake has a role to play.

Sarah Palin understands the significance and salutary effects of cake. Were it only for that reason, I would like her.

But, there are many, many more reasons to like this former governor of the Last Frontier State. I will confess that I went into reading Going Rogue: An American Life already knowing several of those reasons. I finished the book knowing myriad more. So, like most reviews I write (or anyone else writes, for that matter), this comes from a partial and prejudiced point of view. I am a Palinista -- or, at least, a junior one. The Governor speaks to the issues about which I care and takes stances with which I agree. I voted for her in 2008 (and that old guy she was running with), and I would vote for her again, gladly. And yet, I do not think that this book was written for me.

Michael Medved recently stated on his radio show that the reason Sarah Palin wrote this book was that "she needed the money." Well, I am sure she could use the money. With five kids and a stack of legal bills from defending herself against frivolous ethics complaints filed during her governorship, who couldn't use an extra mil or two? But, I respectfully disagree with Mr. Medved. Gov. Palin has enough speaking requests with large price tags attached lined up to fulfill years of time and generate heaps of income. She did not "need" to write this book. I think that she wrote it to retake command of the narrative of her life, which was ripped from her during the scurrilous media feeding frenzy that surrounded this formerly obscure politician who dared to treat her running mate's opponent as the rather silly, grandiose, empty suit that he unfortunately is.

All of a sudden, this popular governor, this cheerful can-do woman of strength and character forged in the rugged beauty of our largest state, this wife of one and mother of five who was recruited for local office when she was in her late twenties and built a reputation for practical, ethical leadership among her constituents that led to an improbable -- yet gratifyingly American -- rise to the highest executive office to correct a state riddled with corruption and pork, this spitfire, this plain-speaker, this startlingly clear communicator was being portrayed by openly hostile news writers and broadcasters as a brainless, corrupt, hickish, diva-ish, incompetent, mean-spirited, unmotherly, uncaring, Bible-thumping-flat-earth-believing, manipulative philistine. Sheesh. Do you remember watching that media circus unfold? It was not a great moment for the fourth estate, to put it mildly. But anybody with any sort of curiosity could have sorted through the muck to find the truth. I was one of those who did. But, like I said, this book was not written for me.

So, what about the book itself? You know I like the lady; what did I think of the book? Well, I read close to 100 books a year, and very few come from the bestsellers lists. While everyone else is talking about the latest schmaltzy weeper from Oprah's book club, I'm digging up Isabel Paterson novels from inter-library loan. Autobiographies are a tough sell for me. I can count on one hand the number I have read and liked. An autobiography of a current political figure? Get outta here, and don't show your face until you've brought me some Roger Kimball or Alan Jacobs as a peace offering! And yet, I ordered Going Rogue on the first day that I could. I figured that, because I like Gov. Palin so much, it could be like eating Turkish Delight -- the way you imagine Turkish Delight will taste when you are a nine-year-old reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; not the way it actually tastes when you finally get a hold of some as an adult (which is bloody awful, in my opinion). Or, it could be horrible -- too ambitious, too imitative, overly-stylized, long on policy, short on personality -- making all the mistakes the McCain campaign did when they tried to turn Sarah Palin into a GOP-droid.

I am happy to report, this book is the former. In fact, I stayed up until 4:00 AM this morning to finish it, so engrossed was I. Sarah Palin has a keen sense of who she is and what she has to offer, and that comes through so clearly in this book. I know that she had a collaborator named Lynn Vincent who helped her organize and format her story; but, I think, I really do think, that the voice is all Sarah Palin's. It rings true. There is really a sense that she is talking to you -- not crafting a great work of literature for posterity and fame, but just telling you her story -- with humor, warmth, grace and humility. It is an easy read, not a deep read, by any means. Should Sarah Palin never again run for or get elected to office, it will likely fade away, lost in the mists of time and relegated to the musty shelves of antiquarian booksellers. But, I am glad to have read it. It sets out in plain language who she is, where she came from, what she's accomplished, and what she believes. It is refreshingly energetic and optimistic -- were she given the chance, Sarah Palin could soothe the wounds of this battered land with the balm of her upbeat common sense -- and, quite amazingly, free from rancor. She treats far more gently and compassionately than I would the people who have made her life miserable for the past two years. And I guess that is because, in the realest and truest sense, her life has not been miserable at all. No matter what has been thrown at her, she just stands firm in her faith and with her family and friends, and does the right thing. From the advance reviews I had read, I expected at least a bit of a self-pity party; instead, she lives out 2 Corinthians 4:8-10.

More than any other political figure, Sarah Palin invokes the name, message, leadership, and influence of Ronald Reagan. Good choice, indeed. We're big President Reagan fans in this house. But, I would like to offer up that, to me, the political figure Gov. Palin most evokes is Grover Cleveland, our nation's most unjustly neglected president, and my personal favorite. In her record of public service before the hoopla of her national candidacy, Sarah Palin had the quiet, solid fidelity to conviction that characterized the honest leadership of President Cleveland. Rising from a modest background, unable to afford university (he "read law" with a firm to become a lawyer), recruited into politics as sheriff of Buffalo, NY, mayor of same (known as "The Wasilla of New York" in the late 1800's -- OK, I made that up), governor of New York, president of the United States -- the only one to serve two non-consecutive terms. His motto when governor was "Public Office is a Public Trust." He was known as "Grover the Good." He cut taxes and spending. As one of his biographers, Allan Nevins, wrote in 1932, "He had no endowments that thousands of men do not have. He possessed honesty, courage, firmness, independence, and common sense. But, he possessed them in a degree that others did not." Time will tell whether Governor Palin can parallel his success; I have every confidence that she can, if she so chooses.

Michael Medved, whom I love, but who has been driving me crazy with his dismissive comments about Gov. Palin lately, expressed his disappointment that this book was vague and short on policy. Again, I would say that Going Rogue, while a gratifying read for her supporters, was written for one main purpose: reclaiming the life narrative of Sarah Palin. She does that admirably -- addressing just about every rumor and falsehood that I can recall recoiling from during her vice presidential campaign. Her candor is remarkable -- she does not shy away from the horrible things said about her daughters and her marriage and her sweet baby, Trig. She is so patient in revisiting ground that must be terribly painful for her, simply to set the record straight. She is rightly proud of what she was able to accomplish in her short term as governor of Alaska. In fact, she goes quite in depth into Alaskan policies and politics -- spelling out in a clear and concise way (if not exactly spellbinding for this Outsider) the rigmarole of the Alaskan pipeline, butting heads with oil companies, crafting the ACES proposal to incentivize more petroleum exploration and development, and so on. Should she ever wish to write a book-length treatment of public policy proposals, I am sure she would write a readable and reasoned one; this book was never meant to be that.

The wretchedly run McCain campaign is too frustrating for words. I wish Gov. Palin had "gone rogue" from day one. Her take on that debacle is all there, and far too generous in spirit, in my opinion. But, to me, it was most heartbreaking to read about her decision to resign from the governorship of Alaska. She was basically railroaded out of office by a system that allows ethics violation charges to be brought against the executive branch of state government without any penalty to the filer should the accusations prove false. Every charge brought against Governor Palin was dismissed. Every charge. And yet, she had to defend herself out of her own pocket and eventually racked up half a million dollars in legal bills. And, what seems to have hurt her even more personally, these frivolous suits were wasting the time and money of Alaskan taxpayers. She has a grave feeling of responsibility in how she uses other people's money that you frankly do not see a lot of in politics today. And yet, your heart breaks for the state of Alaska when you realize that they had to lose such a dedicated and devoted public servant -- whose love for her state shines out of every page of this book -- because of the politics of personal destruction.

In the arctic north, you cannot sit still for a moment. You have to build that fire, or you'll freeze to death and even your dog will abandon you. Ask Jack London. And Sarah Palin seems to have that restless spirit in abundance. She ends her book with a chapter on "the way forward," in which she gives a brief overview of what is becoming her trademark brand of common sense conservatism. She looks toward America's future with optimism; I look torward her future with anticipation. I can hardly wait to see what she'll do next.

On the day she announced her upcoming resignation from the governorship at the end of July 2009, after the press conference, in her kitchen with her close friends and family, after closing one chapter in her life and looking forward, always forward, with excitement to the next adventure life had in store for her, she ate some cake. Elijah would be proud.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Book Review: Ayn Rand and the World She Made

Ayn Rand was neither adorable nor trivial, but here goes:

When I was a senior in high school, I would ditch at least one class almost every day. In true nerd-rebel fashion, I would spend most days holed up in the library, trying to look like a casual stopper-by from one of the many local colleges, reading whatever I could get my hands on -- Madame Bovary, The Color Purple, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Lolita, etc. Other days, I would escape to the special secret hiding place I had found on campus and read Ayn Rand. Of her four novels, The Fountainhead was my favorite. I must have read it at least six or seven times in my teenage years. We the Living, Ayn's fulfillment of a promise to tell the world of the Russian "graveyard" she had fled in the 1920's, came in a close second; Anthem, her novelette of a futuristic dystopian vision, a distant third. Amazingly, I never took to Atlas Shrugged, her own self-proclaimed adventure-sci-fi-philosophical literary masterpiece. I think I've only read that one, at most, two times; although, I would return again and again to the Twentieth Century Motors story in the middle, relishing its perfect encapsulation of what living out the communistic creed of "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" might mean in reality rather than abstraction. Of course, I read most of her non-fiction as well. My favorite of those was Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

Over the years of my young adulthood, I bought every Ayn Rand book available -- from her published journals and letters to her previously unpublished fiction to the Barbara Branden biography to the Nathaniel Branden memoir to supplementary works like The Ideas of Ayn Rand by Ronald Merrill. While never a committed Objectivist (the philosophy derived from Rand's fiction and exposited in her non-fiction), I certainly had a deep admiration and appreciation for this fascinating and original author. Though not raised in a religious household, I had always believed in God -- until Ayn's avowal of atheism convinced me that that was foolish. I fell into hero-worship -- her highest ideal -- and composed poems to my boyfriend with lines like:

They asked me to bow to mediocrity/To the peasant on the street/
They said that I should kneel down/And kiss his diseased feet/
They called him a beacon of the human race/And I fear that must be true
For the masses breed in the gutter/But the gods created you

I smile now to read those lines -- so obviously written under the spell of Ayn Rand's Weltanschauung.

I became a Christian in 1995, at the age of 21. How in the world did this happen to such a fan of Ayn Rand? Well, it's a long story and not really pertinent here. Suffice to say that, although I continued reading Ayn Rand's work -- especially The Fountainhead -- with pleasure, I started questioning in my mind whether her ideas could mesh with the truth I had found in Christianity. Whenever her philosophical assertions collided directly with my burgeoning faith, I had to check my premises -- and Ayn Rand came up short. I read her less and less often -- not so much from a conscious decision, but because my mind and reading times were now engaged in a different direction.

In 2005, in the centennial month of Ayn Rand's birth, I decided to honor her by re-reading my favorite book, The Fountainhead. It had been several years since I had read her at all. I tried and tried to get through it, but I simply could not relate anymore to the characters or even, really, the plot. The resonance was gone. I chuckle to think that Ayn Rand would see this rejection as a grave moral, epistemological and metaphysical failure and denounce me forthwith as a hopeless mystic and probably throw in a second-hander, a mooch, and a nothing to boot. I knew then that it was over; I sold off most of my Ayn Rand collection of books to make way for a prolific philosophical theologian, novelist, essayist, and all-around nice guy with whom I had recently fallen in love -- G.K. Chesterton.

This long introduction to a review of the new biography of Ayn Rand is meant to show that, while I am quite familiar, though rusty, in my knowledge of her work, I am by no means still a follower or ardent admirer. Which may, in true Objectivist fashion, lead many to dismiss what I have to say. And that's OK. This review is for the rest of us -- people who may or may not agree with some or much of what she had to say, but still find her a thoroughly interesting and singular thinker.

Ayn Rand and the World She Made
Anne C. Heller
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 567 pages -- 150 of those are notes (2009)

Who is Ayn Rand? was a biographical booklet published in 1962. Written by Barbara and Nathaniel Branden, it offered curious readers of the best-selling books, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, a glimpse into the life of their author. This "official" version of Ayn Rand's life followed the tightly controlled public persona she was so good and creating and maintaining. She was presented as "a unique creative force compelled to struggle against a crass, corrupt, unthinking, and indifferent world in order to write and guide her masterpieces into print" (p. 328). This tantalizing, though extremely fractional biographical sketch would be the only view into the life of one of the 20th Century's most powerful, original, insightful, divisive, startling and captivating thinkers until 1986, when Barbara Branden wrote The Passion of Ayn Rand.

The Passion of Ayn Rand was a revelation to many. For the first time, details of Ayn's childhood were discussed, her early struggles in America were delineated, and her 14-year affair with a man twenty-five years her junior, Ms. Branden's husband, Nathaniel, was exposed. The book is beautifully written, strikingly sympathetic, and a far more complete picture of both the woman and creative genius than had ever been presented before. And yet, written through the filter of Ms. Branden's own experience and without much of the information that had yet to come to light from Rand's childhood in revolutionary Russia, The Passion of Ayn Rand was still subjective and incomplete.

I suppose no such thing as a "complete" life story can ever be written -- certainly not as a biography, nor probably even as an autobiography. Seemingly little, inconsequential things can have a big impact or hold a key to a trait or belief, but never get recorded because of their presumed triviality. And even those among us who try to be most honest in our self-assessments will always encounter blind-spots and hidden places onto which we are unable or unwilling to shed light. Keeping these ideas in mind, Anne C. Heller has probably written the most complete portrait of the woman and thinker Ayn Rand that we are likely ever to have until that day when all is revealed. Ayn Rand and the World She Made is an exquisite, highly readable, fast-paced biography that I could not put down without great effort and a wounded feeling of self-abnegation. Even with interruptions, I finished this book in two days' time.

Ms. Heller's interest in her subject came, not as a youthful reader seduced by Rand's remarkably heroic and romantic view of man, but as a woman in her forties who was given Francisco D'Anconia's monologue on the value of money (Atlas Shrugged) when editing an article for a financial magazine. Impressed and surprised by the logical constructs of the speech and its moral implications, Ms. Heller decided to investigate the rest Ms. Rand's work. To her amazement, she discovered that no one had written a biography of this influential thinker since The Passion of Ayn Rand. She began researching for her own contribution to Randology about five years ago.

Ms. Heller benefited in her writing about Ayn in two particular ways. First, she is not a "follower" of Rand's, not an advocate of her philosophy, not a groveling toady to the keepers of the flame -- Leonard Peikoff and his ilk. Yet, she is also not one of those who hates and denounces every idea or premise of Ayn's, either. Thus, there is a remarkable even-handedness to this portrayal of an historically divisive personality. Secondly, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, records in Russia have been opened to the public that were not available when Ms. Branden was writing her biography in the 1980's. So, the story of Ayn's early years and her family's history is far more fleshed out and far less subjective than what Ayn Rand was willing to share as an adult.

Ms. Heller's premise is a simple and elegant one: Alissa Rosenbaum, a precocious, independent, arrogant, homely, brilliant and outcast Jewish child who grew up in the precariously anti-Semitic bosom of Russian Orthodoxy during the tumultuous early years of twentieth century St. Petersburg, became Ayn Rand, the famous and infamous American author of unmitigated individualism and unapologetic selfishness, by creating from earliest childhood her own world, populated with her own kind of people, and sharing that vision through the medium of literature. However, Ayn Rand's comfort with and eventual over-reliance upon this created world appears to have left her ill-equipped her for the vagaries and complexities of this real one. While it was useful during her early years of struggle and rejection professionally -- that is, holding onto and escaping into the world of her heroes bolstered her resolve to write her own story as triumphantly as theirs -- it was, in the end, a tragic detriment to her personal relationships and self-knowledge.

While reading this book, two different thoughts kept recurring. The first was that "I really do not like this person," which I don't think would have bothered Ayn Rand in the least. The second was that "I feel terribly sorry for this person," about which I think she would have had much indignation, indeed. Ms. Heller's premise -- that Ayn Rand was trapped in the perpetual childhood of Alissa Rosenbaum -- is borne out by Rand's seeming inability to sustain any sort of mutually reciprocated relationship with people of her own age and intellectual stature with whom she differentiated in an opinion to two, but with whom she was essentially in agreement. Friendship after friendship, associate after associate, follower after follower falls away from her life. And she just seems so lonely in the end. But justifiably so. And if you couldn't hang onto Isabel Paterson -- who just might be the coolest writer/thinker of the 20th century -- as a friend, then what's the matter with you, anyway?

The most gratifying part of Ayn Rand and the World She Made is Ms. Heller's description of Rand's eventual heir, Leonard Peikoff. My father and I have always suspected that he is a weaselly little toady of a fellow, and our suspicions are beautifully confirmed in Ms. Heller's wry take on the one follower who was obsequious enough to remain in her good graces until the end. You have to imagine that Ayn Rand was more than a little disappointed that the end result of all her hero-worshipping ways was that oleaginous sycophant, Peikoff.

This book is so interesting on every level. Every aspect of Ms. Rand's life is given equal weight: her childhood, her escape from revolutionary Russia, her young adulthood in America, her fiction, her philosophy, her affair, her cult, her legacy. Ms. Heller rightly admires and captures the scintillating clarity of Ayn Rand's arguments for her beliefs. Nathaniel Branden, after meeting Ayn Rand for the first time, called her "Mrs. Logic" and Ms. Heller does an excellent job of showing why that was so. Ayn Rand dared to make moral arguments for economic freedom at a time when most advocates of capitalism were resigned to preaching it as merely practical; these arguments are still powerful (and mostly ignored) half a century later.

One last point of particular interest to me is that Ms. Heller goes more into depth about Ayn Rand's antagonism to religion, and Christianity in particular, than either the Branden biography or Branden memoir did. For instance, while I knew that she was an avowed atheist from her early adolescence, I did not realize until reading this biography how much she really saw Christian faith as a force of evil in the world. Much of this can be traced to the deeply anti-Semitic nature of the Russian Orthodox church at the turn of the century -- which often used hateful rhetoric to rile up the peasants against the far more economically successful Jewish enclaves. This is a sad legacy of Christianity, but one that I think the Church has done much to redress.

Anyone -- whether friend or foe or somewhere in between -- would do well to pick of this biography and give it a read. It is a simply splendid account of an amazing life.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cake Decorating Contest 2009

Once again, the budding pastry chefs at Rainier Christian Schools Maple Valley Elementary have put their creative talents to work in the annual PTF cake decorating competition. You may remember Sadie's entry last year:

She won first prize for her Kindergarten class, and she surely deserved it. This snowman was not only her own design, she did everything herself (except maybe tying the knot on the "scarf"). Good job, Sadie!

This year, Sadie got it into her head that she wanted to do a turkey pilgrim cake. We have a Thanksgiving figurine that sits on our dining room table in November that is, indeed, a turkey wearing a pilgrim hat. Sadie wanted to replicate that in cake form. So, we put our heads together and sketched out what such a cake might look like. A frenzy of food coloring, fondant, and frosting led to this little gobbler's entry into the cake contest:

A confession: I feel a bit guilty this year. I helped Sadie far more than for last year's entry. She conceived the idea, made the tail feathers, frosted the cake, formed the eyes and the wings out of fondant (and Jelly Bellies for the pupils of the eyes). I was going to let her sculpt the head and neck out of Truffle Cake Mix (a no-bake mixture made of cake crumbs, almond paste, honey, brown sugar and a few other sticky-icky things), because I thought the consistency would be like Play-doh, and Sadie is quite a good sculptress for a six-year-old. But, I had the hardest time getting the mixture to come together as a shapable substance. So I battled the mix while Sadie took a bath, tamed it into the approximate shape of a turkey's cognitive center (such as it is), and left it for Sadie to modify as she saw fit. She actually liked what I did, but was mad that I hadn't left it for her. So, it wasn't her fault that I did that part.

Anyway, win or lose, he is a rather charming bird.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Hypocrisy of the Night Owl

OK, I don't know why I didn't just take the booklight out of her room last night. That would have been the proactive and responsible thing to do. She had it on her nightstand and her magazine was propped up right next to it, still open at the page we had stopped her to go to bed. Jason noted the booklight's presence and said, "Don't read tonight after we leave the room." I observed the small luminary and said, "Don't stay up and read -- you'll never get out of bed on time in the morning if you do." Sadie didn't really say anything back to us, which is to her credit. She does not like to tell outright falsehoods.

So we kissed her and prayed and kissed her again and said "g'night." And we went to our room to make the bed -- not a euphemism; I had just washed the sheets. And, after we were done, Jason pricked his ear toward Sadie's room and confided, "She's reading in there." I whispered, "Well, I'll pounce in and surprise her."

I threw open her door with a big "Aha!" I was met with silence and darkness.

"Not to worry," I reported to Jason. "She's already asleep." Except, she wasn't. She was just faster and wilier than her mom.

So, this morning, at 8:10 AM I swooped into Sadie's room, swept the covers from her prostrate form, opened the shutters and said, "Good morning, sleepy-head! Time to get up! What do you want for breakfast?" She muttered and groaned and clawed the covers back up over her head.

Do I really need to spell out the rest? It was like reliving a scene from my own childhood. Except, now I was the cruel, heartless mother and Sadie was the oppressed, tired victim of a diurnal world. And, even as I was parroting back the exact phrases my mother used against my own grumblings and complaints, my heart just wasn't in it. Secretly, oh so secretly, I was on Sadie's side. Because, I think that staying up as late as you want to read and then sleeping in as late as possible in the morning is just about the best thing ever.

I remember as a child being so in love with books that I would risk the formidable wrath of my mother to sneak on a light after bedtime and peruse the magical world of the written word well into the night. My keen ears were always on alert for the ominous sound of my mother's footsteps coming down the hall. Then, quick as a flash, the light was off and I was still. (Ah, my own motherly pride swells to think that Sadie must have inherited my particular genius for this ruse.) As soon as the steps retreated, click went the light and back into wonder I went. Of course, in the morning, the same drama was played out: I wailed and moaned and booed and hissed and my mother, exerting both her will of iron and uncanny ability to brook no dissent, would march me out of bed and through the morning routine and off to school. So it was with me and Sadie this morning.

You know, I had always planned on homeschooling my children. When I first told this to Jason, back in the day, he laughed and commented, "You just don't want to have to get up early to take them to school." And there was more than a kernel of truth in that. In my mind, I could see myself, surround by a chirping, adoring brood, going on learning adventures in the afternoons, reading and journaling all night, and sleeping in a peaceful jumble every morning. My life has not played out that way. I was given a social butterfly for a daughter who thrives in the company of many children and excels in school to a great degree. I was blessed by the most awesome job ever in the loving care of the sweet little girl I nanny -- an almost perfect job with one flaw: I have to arise in the wee sma's to get ready for her arrival. Ouch! So, Sadie is in school, which she loves; except, she also loves to read and stay up late. And there's the rub.

So, I am a hypocrite -- the night owl who doth hoot too much. While I argue and assert that, yes, it is important to get up early and get to school on time, and, no, staying up late to read is not appropriate on school nights, and I don't care that you're tired, that's your own fault, I really want to send Sadie back to bed, slough off school, and hang out with her all day, reading and talking and learning together. Do you think that there is a chance here that my extrovert of a child will someday prefer to be homeschooled? Will the lure of late night adventures in the realm of the printed page someday outweigh the call of leading your social set at school? I can only hope. One thing is sure: once I stop watching Rylee and Sadie is on summer vacation, it's going to be a hoot and a half for two very nocturnal creatures.