Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Unreliable Narrators

I love memoirs, but after years and years of reading them I've finally learned to hone my bullshit detector.  The way someone tells a story-- how they present themselves and their view of the world-- often tells me as much about them as the content of their stories.

I was reminded of this by two recent books I've read.  The first, Chelsea Handler's My Horizontal Life: a Collection of One-Night Stands, was kind of like a mafia movie: I was fascinated by it, but her world is so far removed from my own that I couldn't imagine living in it myself.

I wasn't far into the book before I started to question the veracity of her stories.  I mean, how could one person have such a fabulous, drunken, orgiastic life?  A lot of her stories (or details) seemed ridiculously far-fetched, and as they piled up it made it harder and harder for me to believe them.  Her reputation as a reliable narrator was not helped by the fact that she openly lied to people in almost every story.  In one passage she even talks about how her lies kept getting her into trouble, so she made a resolution to stop lying when she was drunk.  (Sober lying she held on to.)

Handler is a comedian, so it's not like she's doing top-level journalism.  She's just telling funny stories, and she's really good at it.  Still, as I've said many times before, whether or not a story really happened is part of the story.  "IT REALLY HAPPENED!" accounts have a much lower bar than fiction.

I just don't like feeling like I'm being lied to, ya know?


The other book I just finished is Andre Aggasi's memoir, Open.

The thing I noticed from the very first page of this book is: WOW, can Andre tell a story!  A few years ago I read Pete Sampras' book (I don't remember the title and it's not worth looking up) and although it was mildly interesting from a tennis fans' perspective, it really wasn't a very gripping story.  Maybe Pete is just too private, or he really is as dry and boring as his reputation, but his book was stiff and wooden.

Agassi's book, on the other hand, jumps off the page at you.  On the very first page he talks about how he hates tennis, and how he's always hated tennis.  What the what?  One of the best players in the history of the game hated it?  That's some interesting shit.

Although Agassi's book is much better written than Sampras', that doesn't necessarily mean that Andre's a better writer.  After all, these guys often work very closely with journalist/editors, if not outright ghostwriters. So I was under no illusions that Andre was a great writer.  But his voice was there, and it's definitely a more interesting and vibrant voice than Sampras'. Sampras may have been the more successful tennis player, but he can't touch Andre on personality.  

Sampras may have won more tennis, but Agassi has a better book

Even so, as Agassi's book progressed, my bullshit detector started to blink a little.  Details in the story seemed a little too convenient, like his childhood friend pointing to a magazine photo of Brooke Shields and saying, "She could be your wife one day."  (She became his first wife.)  Or when they were married, Brooke putting a picture of a very fit Steffi Graf on their refrigerator to motivate herself to get in shape.  (Graf became his second wife.)

These are amazing coincidences, and the details may be true, but maybe they leave out details-- like maybe Brooke was one of dozens of celebrities his friend said this about.  After 10 years of librarianship and teaching information literacy, I'm finally realizing all the subtle ways that people manipulate information to fit their narrative. (Also, I follow a lot of politics.) 

And sometimes people just outright lie.  Just like Chelsea Handler, Agassi admits to lying in his book.  He tells how he lied in interviews because he just said what he thought the interviewer wanted to hear.  ("I've always loved tennis!") He can't admit difficult things to people close to him, so he lies.  We all do it on occasion, but in this book it happens enough to add to the overall sense that he's not quite leveling with the reader.  

A tennis player is a different kind of celebrity than a comedian.  They usually have publicists to control their image in the media.  Plus there's the simple issue of privacy.  We're simply not entitled to know every intimate thing that happens in a celebrity's life.

But still, I often wondered as I read Agassi's book how accurate it was.  No doubt it was a good story, if a bit overwrought at times.  But how much of it could I trust?

In his acknowledgments at the end of the book, Andre writes quite a bit about the writer he collaborated with.  It seems this writer collected stories from Andre and was mostly responsible for the stellar writing.  Andre even wanted to include his name on the book as a co-author, but was talked out of it.  This is probably typical for a celebrity of his stature.  But it shows how even the book itself was misleading.  The whole time I was thinking about what a great story Andre tells, and it turns out someone else was taking his stories and shaping them for him.      

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I'm a Librarian

The student was just loitering at my desk, trying to strike up a conversation when he asked, in that Bill-And-Ted's Excellent Adventure tone of his, "What do you... do you mind being called a librarian?"

I answered, No, I don't mind at all.  In fact, to be a librarian you need a Master of Library Science degree.  "Not everyone who works in a library is a librarian," I said, "just like not everyone who works in a hospital is a doctor."

The student said, "Wow! You just blew my mind!"


It's not that I equate what I do with saving lives, or that people in hospitals who aren't doctors (and people in libraries who aren't librarians) don't do important work.  Although several students have actually called me a "lifesaver" when I help them find what they're looking for, I don't have a God complex.  Hey, I'm not giving you a kidney-- I'm just finding you a book. 

I think my biggest pet peeve about being a librarian is how people misuse the title.  A librarian is more than just someone who works in a library.  I cringe when a part-time student worker in the library refers to herself as a librarian.  Librarian is a title I spent two years of graduate-level coursework to earn.


Being called a librarian certainly isn't an insult, as the student's question implied.  I was more amused than annoyed by his question, though.  He was so earnest and curious, I couldn't help but appreciate how I had opened his mind.  He kept repeating.. "I had no idea..."

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Invisible Obama

I needed a break from politics.  It was just too depressing to hear all the lies, misrepresentations, anger, and petty squabbling coming from both parties.

This was difficult to do, since I listen to NPR every morning and during much of my commute, and my two favorite TV shows are The Daily Show and Colbert Report.  Watching them was not fun anymore, though, because instead of making me laugh at conservatives, it made me angry.  Angry at their bullying, misrepresentation, hypocrisy, and propaganda.

Listening to the speeches at the GOP convention made me seethe with anger. Not because they held different opinions than me, but at how they mangled the facts.  

Then along came a chair.

Clint Eastwood's painful, cringe-worthy performance of a blathering old man berating a chair on national TV brought out the absurdity of the conservative position toward Obama.  And watching Jon Stewart eviscerate this performance made my day:
Eastwood finally revealed the cognitive dissonance that is the beating heart and soul and fiction of this party. They're so far gone, they're hammering Obama for things Bush did... [like starting the war in Afghanistan].... This president has issues and there are very legitimate debates to be had about his policies and actions, successes and/or failures as president...but I could never wrap my head around why the world and the president that Republicans describe bears so little resemblance to the world and the president that I experience, and now I know why.

There is a President Obama that only Republicans can see.

I've also struggled trying to wrap my head around this invisible Obama.  I've gotten into arguments with people who don't like Obama because he's "arrogant", "pompous", "elitist", "a snob".  Despite the fact that this "snob" was the bi-racial son of a single mother and worked his way through Harvard Law School, then instead of making lots of money in the private sector, started out as a community organizer. These same people who label Obama a "snob" have no problem choosing the millionaire son of a governor over him.

Still, calling someone nasty names is just an opinion, not a fact.  If you feel someone is arrogant, there's no amount of evidence that will dissuade you.  However, there is also a complete fiction around Obama that seems to be gripping entire sections of our population.  He's a socialist.  He's not a U.S. citizen.  He wants to destroy America.  I actually had a family member tell me they think Obama is a Muslim.  Well, there's really no way to have a rational discussion with someone like that. It's like arguing with someone who thinks the moon landing was fake or that 9/11 was an "inside job" (whatever that even means.)

Such theories are ignorant, paranoid, and borderline racist.  Because our president looks different and has a funny name, I believe people are more willing to ascribe things to him that have no basis in reality. (Not that there's anything wrong with being Muslim or socialist, but the people who use those labels sling them as insults.)  In fact, whenever I hear people call him words like "elitist," I can't help but think that that is code for "uppity."  

What angers and saddens me the most about these attacks on Obama is that people have lame, misguided reasons for opposing him.  If you can give me a fair, informed opinion of his policies and why you oppose them, then fine, go ahead and hate him.  If you value your narrow interpretation of Christianity over science and education, he's not your candidate.  If you oppose abortion more than you value women's rights and health, he's not on your side.  If you're against gay rights, he's not so fabulous. If you think large corporations care about your health and well-being, and that the government is evil and has no role to play in solving our problems, don't give Obama your support.

If you want America to go back to the way it was in the 1950's, where Blacks, Hispanics, women, and other minorities knew their place, Obama's not for you.  I mean, seriously, can you believe that in 2012 we're actually having a political debate over birth control?  Republicans have turned a simple, fair mandate that requires all insurance policies to cover birth control (the same way they cover Viagra) into a battle over "religious freedom." ("Religious freedom" for them means "forcing my brand of Christianity on others.")

Let me stress this, because it blows my mind: Republicans don't think birth control is a women's health issue.  I don't know how any moderate woman in America who cares about her rights can reward them for that. Argh!  Poll after poll shows that among almost every demographic other than white men, Obama is leading.  As a white man myself, I don't know how the Republicans can continue to survive as a party that serves such narrow interests. 

Sorry, I have to cut myself off or I'll never stop ranting.  I could list dozens of similar issues that just make my blood boil.  And I hate that.  I hate that it's impossible to have rational, nuanced discussions about politics and how to solve our nation's problems. Because it feels like all I'm doing is playing defense, defending Obama and liberal policies.  And I'll admit it comes from both sides. I also get pissed off when I hear people on the Left say ridiculous shit.  There are times when The Daily Show oversimplifies a complicated issue in order to win rhetorical points.  That annoys me.   

I just want people to be fair.  And I don't see much fairness right now.  Sometimes I just want to give up.  Fuck it.  I have a good job, a comfortable life, health insurance, a supportive family.  I'm incredibly lucky to be living in this time and place. I've got mine, why should I care about people who are too ignorant to understand what's in their own best interest, what's in the interest of our country?  Why do so many poor and middle class people vehemently fight for the rights of rich white men? It makes me want to give up.

As John Steinbeck is purported to have said, Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

Both sides want you to believe that if the Other Guy wins the election, it will be disaster.  The End of America.  I'll tell you a secret.  I'm trying to convince myself that a Romney presidency wouldn't be so catastrophic.  He loves America just as much as Obama does.  He wants to succeed.  And most candidates usually have to move to the middle to get anything done.  Romney was the Republican governor of a liberal state who instituted the model for Obamacare.  He's a centrist.  And to be honest, Romney might be able to get more done simply because Democrats are more willing to work with a Republican president than vice-versa.  All that Obama's accomplished the past four years (and it's been a lot, despite the GOP's empty chair narrative), he's had to do with Republicans blocking him at every turn.  He's bent over backwards to accommodate them, and they still shit all over him.  Presumably they wouldn't do that to Romney.  And if they did, then let the country see what asshat obstructionists they really are.  Ugh, sorry, another rant. 

Whoever wins the election, the world won't end.  Obviously, I know who I'm voting for and why.  I have solid, informed, legitimate policy reasons to think he's the better candidate.  It's not a popularity contest to me. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I believe my reasons are more rational than most of the people who are voting for the other guy.  I don't have to turn one candidate into a caricature in order to vote against him.  

My choice is not between a real person and a chair.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Social Scientist

I was trying to tell someone recently about the Five (+ 1) Tenets of Timicism, and I think I got most of them right.  I'm such a horrible timvangelist, I have trouble remembering the tenets of my very own cult.  (After a quick review I see that I forgot the third tenet, Humor. D'oh!)

Anyway, after my spiel my friend replied that Timicism sounds more like the rules of a social scientist than a religion.

Hm.  I kinda like that description.

Timicism: the "religion" for social scientists.