The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

austin weather

taco cabana
Originally uploaded by Mantooth
Well, it's back to mostly normal--nineties, and the rains have (temporarily?) stopped. We had a chance to use the backyard pool and to play outside. But the rains have made this city BUGGY like I've never seen it. The boy has mosquito bites all over his face and legs; he seems to have inherited his father's irresistibility. We have, I'm pleased to report, been able to get some good Mexican food (even Taco Cabana seems very authentic anymore, and boy were we pleased when we had dinner at one of those in Norman, OK just before crossing into Texas), barbecue (good old Artz Rib House, and a trip to either Lockhart or Taylor this weekend), and of course Southern food at Threadgill's. I feel like a tourist, but what the hell. Austin is clearly still booming and it continues to sprawl, apparently uncontrollably. They've been accomplishing some "infill" in places like the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor between 38th and Koenig, but it's mostly ugly condos. If the oilman used to rule this state, it's definitely now the real-estate developer. (Appropriate that I'm "reading," or actually listening to, Jane Smiley's GOOD FAITH, a book about real-estate developers and S&Ls in the 1980s.)

Off to see the Gourds tonight, for which I'm mightily excited.

Friday, July 27, 2007

wedding with turtle and bad guy

wedding with turtle and bad guy
Originally uploaded by Mantooth
He looked good, if a little shaggy, for his aunt's wedding last weekend. But the presence of Raphael the turtle and General Aguila the bad guy was non-negotiable.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

two light books

It's nice to be home, sort of. After a drive from Pittsburgh to Texas, we got four days in steamy Austin before we headed out to Portland for my sister's wedding. (Congratulations to the newlyweds, and all of our admiration for a beautiful wedding.) Now we're back in Austin and I'm getting down to some serious work on this research I'm supposed to be doing. I've been looking at the Alfred A. Knopf archive, especially on the collaboration between Knopf and the USIA's "Books in Translation" program--in the 1950s, the USIA subsidized foreign publication, in places like India and Burma and Japan, of books that would convey a positive image of American culture (such as LIFE WITH FATHER) and American foreign policy (such as REPORT ON THE ATOM). I've also been looking at the papers of people like Stephen Spender, Michael Josselson, and Nicolas Nabokov. Interesting stuff.

Although I shouldn't, I've been doing some light reading. Not HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, but that's in the pipeline (my wife has it now). I started with John O'Hara's APPOINTMENT AT SAMARRA even though I knew absolutely nothing about it--I actually thought it was a T.E. Lawrence-style 1930s intrigue book about Iraq. Well, it's not, but it's fantastic. It's a very cynical, fast-moving story that combines Fitzgerald with Cheever (well, O'Hara was a classic NEW YORKER writer) before the fact. I was surprised at just how cutting, and at times explicit, the book really was. And it's tough. There's also a lot of Nathaniel West in there. I moved on from there to Curtis Sittenfeld's PREP, which just wasn't good. As my wife points out, all young writers have that coming-of-age novel in them, and they want to get it out, and they all think they can do it better than everyone else. Sometimes they're great--CATCHER IN THE RYE, of course, but I also think RULES OF ATTRACTION isn't bad--and sometimes they're weak--MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH, unfortunately. PREP falls into the latter category. It's clich├ęd, and although it has some insights about the class and race and gender dynamics of prep schools and, most interestingly, about prep schools' self-consciousness about how they are perceived by the larger society, most of those insights would be familiar to anyone who's been around America at all these days. It's baggy and long and I'd like someone to explain "show, don't tell" to Sittenfeld, whose training at Iowa should have drilled that into her.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

david brooks on Bush

David Brooks' piece on Bush in today's NEW YORK TIMES is typical of his strategy these days: write from ABOVE the fray about Iraq, observe the personalities and sociological "facts" while ignoring the actual issues. In a column about how Bush is calm about Iraq even as his own party deserts him, Brooks never once bothers to talk about, or ask Bush about, the actual facts of Iraq: the lies to get the war, the shifting justifications for the war, the dishonest linking of Iraq to Al Qaeda both before the invasion and now, the strategy created with PR in mind rather than with actual success, the bullying and demonizing of anyone who dares oppose the administration's infinite wisdom. No, Brooks would rather talk about how Bush and Tolstoy (??? what the hell is that?) have different views of the power of the individual leader to shape history.

His last column was the same thing. In a piece purportedly examining--again, from on high, with a disengaged voice, never once granting that he was a fervent supporter of this bullshit war from day 1--the "endgame" debate in Congress.

At least Bill Kristol has the honesty to continue to advocate for his war, rather than, like Brooks, pretending he is just a disinterested observer.

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Monday, July 16, 2007


There's nothing like 18 hours in a car, only to arrive in steamy Texas at 3am. As I fumbled around our rented house, trying to find the key box and then trying, with no light, to decipher the numbers on the buttons, a very large and unconcerned raccoon watched me from about five feet away and hundreds of mosquitoes, bred in the recent floods here, attacked me. Welcome back.

For all of the dread my wife and I expressed before this trip began, the actual driving--the almost 30 hours of it--wasn't bad at all. Credit for that goes to our boys, who were better and more patient than we could ever have expected. We only did two real pushes after they were asleep, leaving them awake for the majority of the drive, and they did amazingly well. The older boy watched DVDs, played with his new firemen (which my wife bought him in lieu of the army men he wanted--"military toys just don't seem okay these days," she wisely observed), snacked, sang, played tug-of-war with his brother, looked at books, and was just generally great. The baby was very patient and spent a lot of time chewing on plastic toys and on his favorite book.

We got an hour or so of sleep Friday night, then spent Saturday unpacking and getting acquainted with the fantastic place we're rented from an old friend of mine. It's child-friendly to an extreme we've rarely seen (without being completely child-centered) and has incorporated some of the design solutions that we are considering for our own place. Sadly, Texas houses sprawl and have much more space than our little Northeastern Holly House. We met friends for lunch at the Lamar Central Market and just basically re-adjusted to life down here, where it's hot and buggy.

Sunday, July 08, 2007


We're off to Texas for a month, where apparently in addition to being (as ever) an oven it's also deluged with rain. I'm going to get some research done; the wife will be enjoying her new sewing machine and doing a little writing of her own, Boy #1 will be going to "Jump Camp" and "Drama Camp," and the baby (one year old on Friday!) will be doing a little day care, a little making friends, and a little time with Mommy.

The research I'm doing is on the use of modernism as a propaganda weapon in the Cold War, so I've been reading up both on modernism and on American culture during the Cold War. I just finished Russell Lynes 1954 book THE TASTEMAKERS, which was only partially on 1950s culture--most of the book looks at important "tastemaker" figures from the 1830s to the 1950s. It's a fascinating book, very popular in its day but forgotten today for the most part. It combines pretty serious research (into, for instance, the first art gallery in the U.S., the genesis of the craze for "antiques," the fierce combat between partisans of the Gothic and Queen Anne house styles, and the reason that Modernist houses never caught on in the U.S.) with funny, gossipy bits about wealthy peoples' taste. After about a dozen books of high theory and philosophy on modernism, Adorno, Habermas, etc., this was a nice change.

Now I'm going to read through Stephen Spender's papers.

Monday, July 02, 2007

the pirates protest

The media--the POST-GAZETTE, the TRIBUNE-REVIEW, and even Fox Sports Pittsburgh all deemed the June 30 fan walkout a failure. The announcers of the telecast (on which the walkout was not shown) were allowed, after all, to mention it, and did so only to dismiss it as "under 1000 fans," and both newspapers emphasized how the protest "fizzled." (It was a shame, I suppose, that the Pirates were up 6-1 at the time--I suspect that if they'd been down by that much the protest would have been much larger. Even though the protest wasn't as threatening as the Nuttings had feared (causing them to order Pirates media folk and FSN to pay as little attention as credibly possible), they still held true to form: fans who held up a bedsheet reading "WORST MLB OWNERS" on the left-field rotunda were ejected from the park when the Nuttings saw the sign.