Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
I recently saw Worplay
, the documentary about crossword masters and the annual crossword tournament in Stamford, Connecticut. After the movie, I began saying something and not knowing precisely what I meant. In a couple of different conversations about the film I told separate people, "Those are my favorite kinds of Americans." I wasn't lying or saying it just because it sounded neat, but I didn't really take it any further.
Last summer, somewhat to my roommate's annoyance, I read a four-hundred page book
by a Wall Street Journal
columnist who quit his job for seven months and dumped all of his resources (really; he hires a staff, cashes in on favors from GMs, interviews players in their locker rooms as though it's for his column...) into winning Tout Wars
, a fantasy league comprised entirely of league insiders and "experts." He does nothing else.
This winter, I read a four hundred page book by a New York Times
writer who dumps many of his resources into becoming a champion Scrabble player. In Word Freak
Stefan Fatsis does nothing but Scrabble for several months. Studies, competes, plays with anagrams.
I also watched the documentary Word Wars
-- featuring many of the same people as Word Freak -- about several top competitors' quest for the biggest tourney victory.
I liked the documentaries. I liked the books. My ears perked up when a recent act on This American Life
featured a weekend-long MIT puzzle competition. These are my favorite kinds of Americans.
A lot of people I talk to about these books and movies and radio magazines are either dismissive or openly resentful of the people featured. The words "losers" and "nerds" seem to come up a lot. But I really love that these people are able to find a way of life that allows for so much fun. Even if it's challenging, tough, brainy fun (that's what makes it addictive, right?), it's still a great deal of fun in one life. Sure, maybe some of my favorite Americans are unhealthily obsessed. Maybe it hinders their ability to do other things. But I love "fests." A marathon amount
of time devoted to something specific, a game or games, having something like that at the center of a life sounds like fun. I love that type of social interaction. I love that these folks really value intellect. I think it's inspiring and heartening that there are so many of them. (If these books and documentaries are to be believed.)
The flip side of the coin is that you could make an argument that they're wasting that intellect on triviality. But I feel like they're having fun with it. And I think that matters a lot. Maybe the most.
I've even convinced myself that these puzzle people are very smart and also manage to not worry as much as I do, to not become as depressed as I do about the future
of America and the world. This belief is based on nothing. But I envy them for it nonetheless. They're great Americans.
The Democratic Presidential primary is a made winner at the box office. The storylines are hard to resist. Senator Barack Obama is a veritable Kennedy
. Hillary Clinton is a warrior
. Al Gore, The Man Who Would Not Run, just won an Oscar
. It's hard to begrudge the press their eagerness over the whole pageant, even if we are much closer to the general election of 2006 than the primaries of 2008.
Senator Obama's very much alive candidacy and his enthusiasm for discussing his biography, have brought race to the center of this enthusiastic American political discussion. The hurricanes on the Gulf Coast in 2005 primed the engine
and Obama's sudden and intense popularity has driven race back into the foreground.
But if the nation's political coverage trends toward horse race handicapping and hand-wringing over perceived missteps and non-issues
, the discussion of race has not been much more high-minded.
The first few weeks following Obama's presidential announcement were spent warming up, complete with a few awkward turns as politicians and their handlers felt their way into a long dormant political arena. Joe Biden, trying to play the gentleman, tripped over himself out of the gate
. The press floated a few stories about Obama not being black enough to really excite black voters
. No discussion has yet become nuanced enough to go far beyond black and white, the presence of Hispanic candidate Bill Richardson notwithstanding.
An odd offshoot of the growing talk of race in contemporary America is a the digging into antebellum America. After George Allen's bizarre fall campaign let loose the genealogy bug
, there was no putting it back. This week, Al Sharpton learned that his slave ancestors were owned by ancestors of the late Strom Thurmond
. The Baltimore Sun reported
that Barack Obama's mother's ancestors had owned slaves. There are three inherent scoops in both stories: white people owned slaves; black people were slaves; people have ancestors. Breaking news, all
. Senator Obama had a reasoned response to the story of his own relatives: "That's no surprise. That's part of our tortured, tangled history."
This past weekend Obama and Clinton crossed paths in Selma, Alabama, where both were speaking to commemorate the 1965 march to Montgomery
. Senator Clinton said some encouraging stuff about the Civil Rights struggle not being over, a welcome change from the pats-on-the-back-all-around-and-I-sure-am-glad-that's-behind-us treatment the movement normally gets. Obama spoke in his charismatic way of mobilizing black voters to revitalize government. But the recreation of the Selma march had the familiar feel of celebrating 40-year-old progress rather than making some of our own. And, let's be honest, the real story was the photo of Senators Obama and Clinton in the same frame
. The racial dynamic of the United States in 2007 remains under-explored.
In a country with such a complicated, tortured, and present racial history it's important that it be a part of the national political discussion. Now, if it would just be about something more substantial than genealogy.