The brief story of the liberation of a Dave Eggers classic.

My lunch breaks at the office can go one of two ways.  If I’m hungry, which invariably means I skipped breakfast, I either grab a sandwich from Subway, or participate in whatever ill-conceived delivery order my colleagues are assembling.  If I have had a substantial breakfast, however, I tend to use my break to take a walk.  There is a beautiful three-mile path that makes a large rectangle around my office, skirting the water, a park, and, less fortunately, a highway.

Today was one of those walking lunches, and on the erstwhile homestretch, I happened past a used bookstore.  My general approach to this stretch of sidewalk is to carefully avert my eyes, because they have an outdoor bargain rack, and a used bookstore is like flypaper; I get stuck, and have a very hard time leaving.

Resolved to pass by this tempting display without breaking stride, I permitted myself a brief glance at the rack, and that’s where I saw it.

Dave Eggers “What is the What,” one of my favorite books.  Sitting on the top shelf.  The shelf marked “all books fifty cents.”

For those of you unfamiliar, Dave Eggers is among the best writers still producing.  He belongs, loosely, in the Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides school of smart, witty, and engaging writers.  I own, and have read, all of his novels so far, and I am  yet to be disappointed.  “What is the What” is a story about one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” and explores his experience escaping Southern Sudan as well as his acclimation to life in America, his new home.  It is not just good- it is a future classic.

Now, for the past  year or so I have been on a very strict diet of “no new books,” a reluctant acquiescence driven by the twin factors of my lack of shelf space, and my current horde of over one hundred yet-to-be-read novels.  It has taken discipline, but I am slowly whittling down my to-read list, and hope to have it fully under control sometime this century.

For that reason, I resist the urge to purchase new books, even if they’re great, and even if I have been looking for them for a long time.  So ordinarily, purchasing a book I already own- in the same edition, no less- would be unthinkable.

That said, I had a funny reaction to seeing such a great literary marvel listed at such an absurdly low price: I became angry.  Angry at the store for undervaluing this important work, and even more angry at the throngs of people who must have passed by this same shelf and determined, through their inaction, that this book was not worth two quarters.

My brisk walk was at a full halt, my mind was processing these emotions of surprise, anger, and disbelief, when suddenly a single thought intruded to break my internal stalemate: the holidays are coming up in just a few weeks, and I haven’t begun my shopping.

With this realization, I resolved to liberate What is the What from its undeserving bookstore, and from the anonymous fools who failed to snatch it up at such an absurd price.  It is in my bag now, awaiting gifting designation.  Of course, there is always a chance its future recipient will have read this post, and will know that the precious gem I am giving them was acquired for half a buck.  To that future contingent reader, I say only this: “What is the What” is one of the best, most worthwhile stories out there, and it almost felt like theft to obtain it for such a ridiculous price.

And to the owner of the used bookstore on Bell Boulevard, who parted with this classic for so little coin, I have only a single question, nay, a single word to pose to you:



Published in: on November 15, 2013 at 2:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Thanks for Letting Me Choose

Thanking our veterans is more than a cliche or a perfunctory exercise in patriotism- it is sincere, and deserved

I have never served in the armed forces.  Frankly, I never wanted to- I didn’t grow up in a military family, and my interests and talents tilted in a different direction from a very early age.  I wanted to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a writer, or something academic or political; military service did not appeal to me.  Also, crucially, and never-to-be-taken-for-granted, I had a choice.  I did not have to serve.

That is precisely why I am so grateful for our veterans.  Because so many people volunteer, people like me can make a choice, and can choose not to serve if our interests and abilities lie elsewhere.  It hasn’t always been that way in America, and it isn’t that way in many other places in the world.  We have a choice, and we only have that choice because of our volunteers.

During the World Wars of the early to mid-twentieth century, military service was mandated for most able-bodied males.  My grandfather served, as did a great part of his generation.  They were never asked if they felt that military service would benefit their careers, or help them with college, or provide generous benefits.  They were simply told that they were needed, and off they went.

In my father’s generation, the Vietnam conflict-but-not-technically-a-War was much more contentious, and many people in America were against our involvement.  The politics were not as straightforward as in the European wars of a few decades before.  My own father- who shares a birthday with Bill Clinton- was only spared deployment because his “draft number” in the lottery was chosen quite low on the list.  Fate, luck, and family connections determined who was given a choice, and who was required to serve.

Today, our military is all-volunteer, and the prospect of a draft is virtually unthinkable.  I still have my selective service card- one is required for, among other things, student aid- but I keep it more as a memento than a “retrieve in case of emergency” item.

Part of the reason we have this choice is the evolution of warfare because of technology, but we still require trained, professional soldiers to fly our planes, man our bases, deploy our weapons, and maintain a vigilant defense.  Our limited successes in Iraq and Afghanistan were attributable to political missteps, not any failure on a part of our armed forces.  Our great victories, including the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, showcase how powerful and effective our armed forces really are.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, America is still the “force majeur” in the world.  We project our military strength throughout every part of the globe, which both keeps us safe, and deters others from military mischief.  We do this with an army made up entirely of volunteers.

Too often, the debate about cutting military spending is reduced to an attack on our troops.  As one of the frequent advocates for reducing military spending, I can tell you that reduction is completely misplaced.  I support our troops unconditionally, and when I talk about reducing military spending, I have in mind budget-busting armaments, not pay cuts for personnel.

I often hear that some people choose military service because there are no other good options for employment, or education, or advancement, particularly among the less-affluent.  While I am sure the incentives to service play a role in some soldiers’ decisions to enlist, I reject any inference that this makes their service somehow less admirable or less commendable.  My ethos does not require that the decision to join up be made out of patriotism or service alone.  It’s much more simple than that:

I don’t have to serve, because they do.

So, soldiers past and present, you’re going to hear this a lot today, but it’s important, and while I tend towards wordiness I want to tell it to you straight:

Thank You.


Published in: on November 11, 2013 at 11:36 am  Comments (1)  
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Could Wyoming be the Answer?

Congressional districts are not performing as intended, and it is time for a change.  

When I first moved to New York, one of the first things I did was head over to house.gov to find out who would be my new representative.

I’m sure that isn’t exactly a list-topper on most people’s relocation  checklists, but I try to stay engaged in politics, and wanted to be sure I knew who purported to speak on my behalf on capitol hill.

Having identified my member, a Democrat named Grace Meng, I decided to take an additional step that I assumed- wrongly- would be fairly easy.

I wanted to meet her.  I wanted to meet my representative.

Now, I’m not talking about an hour-long meeting to advocate on my issues, debate policy, or lobby for a particular piece of legislation.  My goal was to get a quick handshake and perhaps a three minute conversation to introduce myself, express my support, and pay my respects.  My thinking was that I often write to my member about pending legislation, and my voice might be more effective if the member knows who the hell I am.

What I did not expect was the reaction from Congresswoman Meng’s office when I made this request; they were completely flummoxed.  They told me that she does not keep office hours to meet with constituents, and that if I wanted a meeting, I would have to be a member of a community or lobbying group.  Instead, they offered me a meeting with one of her aides.

I explained, per above, that my sole goal was to get a handshake and a few minutes of introduction.  They flatly told me this was not an option, but helpfully suggested that I could attend one of her town hall meetings, where she “sometimes” shakes hands at the rope line.

Now, one of the often-voiced criticisms of Congress is that lobbyists have too loud a voice, but I was certainly not expecting that unless I were a lobbyist, I could not even request a brief meeting with my member.    So, I did a little bit of research.

During the days of our country’s founding, when the whole legislative system was being designed, George Washington was known for being a peacemaker who seldom advocated for any particular outcome.  However, the one time he actually advocated a position during the Continental Congress, he argued that representative districts of 40,000 people were too large, and that 30,000 was a more appropriate number.  Consequently, the first congressional districts had approximately 30,000 people per member of Congress.

Today, there are on average over 700,000 people living in each district, with variations based on the population of the state.    This is over twenty times the original number, and has made constituent contact far more unwieldy.  How can a member of Congress adequately represent my issues if she doesn’t even have the time to meet with me, unless I belong to a lobby or group?

The rate of growth in Congress has not kept pace with other modern democracies.  We have picked a number of representatives- 435- and we stick with it no matter how large our population grows.  That number was established in 1912, when the population was only 92,000,000; today it has more than tripled.  As a consequence, our voices as voters are diluted in what is ostensibly the people’s house.

Among the competing proposals to fix this problem is what is known as the Wyoming plan.  Here’s how it works: every state is entitled to at least one representative, no matter how small.  Wyoming is currently the smallest state (population around 575,000).  That means your vote counts more in Wyoming than it does in a larger state, like California or New York.

The Wyoming plan would set the size of congressional districts at the population of the smallest state, as counted in the census. This would have the dual benefits of reducing the number of people per district, and making our individual votes more equal than they are today.  If the Wyoming system were currently in effect, there would be around 530 representatives, or 95 more than there are today.

In a healthy democracy, our voices are heard through our representatives.  The system is definitely broken when our representatives do not have time to meet with us, no matter how briefly.  Reducing the size of congressional districts will make the body more accessible, responsive, and responsible to the needs and demands of we, the people.


Published in: on November 7, 2013 at 11:00 am  Comments (1)  
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