Saturday, September 29, 2007

Badger Game, Approximately

Right now, the Badgers are in the midst of their second game of the year against the Michigan State Spartans...should be a good one.

Wait, you say, why isn't Will at Camp Randall, like every football Saturday?

Well, I was there, but am not now. Let me explain.

Camp Randall Stadium holds about 82,000 people, about 25-30,ooo of that is the student sections. That is where I sit for most games. That is where I was to sit today (Section P, Row 20, Seat 36 to be precise). So far, so good.

I am inside the stadium, I am going to my seat and, as ever, there is someone sitting there. No problem, I'll just ask one of the friendly Per-Mar Security people to eject the interloper from my seat and we can get on with the show.

Upon asking the aforementioned Per-Mar person, I was told that there was plenty of room in rows above and to seek a seat there. Not something they normally do, but allright. I make my way to near the top of Section P and find a seat as instructed.

Does this clip need any set-up?

The people with the tickets for the seats that I commandeered showed up. I explained politely that I was told to find another spot as it is nigh on impossible to move thirty rows of people and that, as a matter of fact, I was not staying for the whole game (I am even now waiting for a bus to Milwaukee) and that, if they could handle the squeeze for about forty-five minutes, I would be gone.

They were having none of it. I was told, and I quote, "get out of our fucking seats, you fat asshole!"

Well, I never...

I left the seats, deciding that a fight with these people (drunk, but with no notion of how to deal with it) was not advisable as I was just one. I again sought out security, and they did offer to get me to my original seat, but by this point, I was so angry that I suggested to the people who displaced me some possible erotic activites to take place with their mothers and left Camp Randall, walked the several blocks to the Humanities Building and here I am.

What will come of this? An angry letter from me to Barry Alvarez, John Wiley, and Per-Mar Security that will be ignored.

What should have happened? Either I should have been given my seat the first time I asked for it or the fuckwads that made me move should have understood how game days go at Camp Randall and found another seat in the section.

According to the radio, I am missing a hell of a game.

So, to Per-Mar Security (for their idiotic employees), the UW Athletic Department (for not making the student sections general admission) and the amateur drinker assfuckers who caused this I say that I would not give you a squirt of my piss if you were dying of thirst.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Society And Culture: Who Needs Them?

Y'know, it's funny. Sometimes you read something and think that it is complete bullshit, an utter steaming heap of nonsense the first time you read it. Yet, given this gut reaction, the ideas presented therein won't leave you alone. Well, it happens to me...

Just such a thing happened to me this week when I read Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences." I thought, on first glance, his argument was weak, his evidence was worse and the whole thing smacked of sour grapes.

A little background is in order. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote this piece, also called the First Discourse, in 1750 in response to what amounted to an essay contest held by the Academy of Dijon (and, no, it had nothing to do with mustard as far as I can tell). The question that was to be answered was: "Has the restoration of the sciences and arts tended to purify morals?”

Rousseau, in short, answered "no." He argues that societies, such as that of eighteenth century France, that concentrated on the arts and sciences to the detriment of what he calls practical skills, were certainly worse off for doing so. He claims that humankind was much better off before getting entangled with art, science and the whole of what he deems the useless decadence of society and culture in general.

His examples come from history, the most famous being ancient Athens and Sparta. Rousseau states that Athens, who had become complaisant by focusing on art and science, was overrun by the more practical, vigorous and therefore more virtuous Sparta. The larger argument, therefore, was that societies where arts and sciences were the height of culture often get toppled by societies where practical skills and the virtue of the "citizen" are central.

Rousseau won the contest, the prize and started his path to being one of the most influential thinkers (for better or worse) produced by the Western tradition.

Why the knocks against art and science? Rousseau asserts that these pursuits allow people to wear masks that hide their real thoughts, deeds and urges behind a facade of culture and learning. This allows people to lie to each other, causing widespread distrust and the aforementioned decadence. In other words, Rousseau would have hated PBS.

My reaction, as I hinted at above, to this was critical to say the least. He seems to elide over the fact that Sparta was basically a military dictatorship where people weren't free to pursue anything apart from what the state deemed necessary. His other historical examples are equally weak (like claiming that the "savages" of North America had no culture to "poison" them).
This is where the gut reaction came in.

Whenever things that we are always told are good are attacked, no matter how cynical or jaded we claim to be, we always recoil just a little. We are told from youth that culture, arts and sciences are good things and that we should be as interested in them as possible because, well, that's what makes us human. In a superficial way, I guess I can buy that.

What I had more trouble with was when I asked myself the question "what is so damned good about art and science, anyway?" To put it another way "did Rousseau get anything right?" Well, on one score, I think he was dead on.

Think about people you know who consistently beat you over the head with how "cultured" they are. These people who portray the image, in whatever form it takes, that they are "with it," "plugged in" and so far beyond you, you peon, that you would do well to emulate them in your every thought word and deed.

Yeah, a real bunch of assholes, right?

Above, when I say, "in whatever form it takes," that is intentionally broadly defined. These can be people involved in this "scene" or that, discussing/wearing/listening/watching/reading/consuming (really) whatever it may be. These people seem so involved in their "thing" that you must wonder if there is anything else to them. It calls to mind Winston Churchill's famous definition of a fanatic as someone who "won't change their minds and won't change the subject."

And that, friends, is why Rousseau wouldn't leave me alone, though he has been dead for 229 years. He put his finger on people who wear these masks of culture to hide their true selves, which are full of the same fears and hatreds that we all harbor.

Some might say that it is good that we have these masks, or life with other people would become unbearable. Rousseau would say that life with other people is inevitably unbearable and we should rethink the fundamentals of society. That is a discussion for another day.

So, do I agree with Rousseau? Not really, or at least I think he doesn't prove his assertions very well. What I cannot help but notice, though, is how right he seems to be about how people interact with each other.

Is it good that we hide our true selves away?

If Rousseau is wrong, how do arts and sciences lead to a "moral" life?

Can people ever be truly honest with each other?

Are society and culture really as bad for us as Rousseau thinks?

There are no simple answers to these questions. Just because of this, don't be put off of thinking about them.

We owe it to ourselves to consider these questions deeply.

I know I will.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Picture This...

Some of you (here and on Facebook and MySpace) have commented on my pictures.

Yes, it is true that I don't use real pictures of myself because, well, what's the point? Most of you know what I look like and the rest of you probably don't care.

Also, I give the excuse that no image exists of me online or in digital form to use.

That excuse is no longer valid.

So, if you really want to, click here and scroll down to "History 365." There you will find what I actually and really looked like as of Monday morning.

Did you do it? See...told you there was not much point to it.

Hey Nonny, Nonny! I Dislike Thee Greatly!

As I was walking from my office to the library, I happened upon and open air "meeting" of the campus chapter of these people. Oh brother, were they ever "meeting."

Fighting with fake swords and armor; dressing in tights and armor in the heat of the late summer; a fat guy in a monk was all there.

Why is it that these people bother me so much?

As a historian, actually, I have mixed feelings. If this is the way that some people decide to interact with the past, I guess I have no right to stop them. On the other hand, I think the thing that bothers me the most is that they choose to take the "good" parts of the Middle Ages and leave the rest.

They are happy to take the comely wenches, brave men in armor, traditional handicrafts, Busch Light drank out of pewter tankards, quaint speech and so on. What they seem to forget is that the Middle Ages (in most of Europe, at least; the Arabs in Andalusia were doing pretty well, thank you) was extremely nasty.

Even setting disease and the lack of sanitation aside (and that is a lot to set aside), people lived in political arrangements as little better than slaves, beholden to a series of landowners and ekeing out a subsistence existence. You also lived in constant fear of these temporal powers who marshalled spiritual powers to keep you in frightened subjection.

O.K., now add in the disease, stink, rotten food, worse water and sever killer bouts of the plague.

The worst part, in my opinion, was that things never got better. You could never hope to do much better than your father and you could have no such hope for your children. When did things like this start to change in Europe? Oh, about, around the late seventeenth century (like, well, maybe sorta 1690-ish).

I guess they are just hobbyists and if this is how they choose to spend their time, money and effort, hey, good for them. At least they are not dealing smack or writing horrid popular songs.

But you won't find me out there, poncing about, playing at medieval fun. I know too much about the past to have it be any fun at all.

What's more, I have no problem with that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Thirty Years On

This past Sunday, September 9, 2007, at 3:57PM, I officially turned thirty years of age.

At that exact moment, I was paying for a pizza...yeah, typical, I know.

How does it feel to be thirty? This seems to be a question that people like to ask others on their birthdays. I think it is kind of silly, but I'll try to answer it nonetheless.

On one level, I always knew this day was coming. This is based on the fact that I never figured that I would die before my thirtieth birthday.

On another (more meaningful, less smartassy) level, I feel no different at all. So, I'm thirty now. Great. How am I supposed to feel? Older? Wiser?

Some people think of thirty as a milestone and time for reflection on the road behind and the road ahead. I am not really one of those people, but it cannot be ignored that it gives one a bit of pause. I, confronted with this notion, think "much done, much more to do" and get back to it. I know it is funny for a historian to say this, but there is little use to dwelling on one's own past. Oh, it is fun for moments of nostalgia and wistful remembering, but not as a regular diet. If we do, we cease to move forward and evolve and, in a real meaningful way, we die.

Will things in my life ever be the same as they were when I was (fill in the "milestone birthday" here)? A little yes, but mostly no, and thankfully so. I like to think that I am a more complete, better informed, more engaging person that I was in the past and I hope to keep evolving.

Is the world a different place now than it was in 1977? As ever, the answer is yes and no. There is no longer a President Carter, a Soviet Union, double digit inflation or discos in every village and town. There are still idiotic, out of touch leaders, looming and misunderstood foreign enemies, national financial jitters and silly cultural obsessions. So, same as it ever was on that score.

Did I think I would be in a different place at thirty than I am now? Honestly, I couldn't tell you. I just, as I always have, get up, work hard and take my advantages when they come. I guess that's pretty much what we all do. I guess I could say "fifteen or twenty years ago, I would have never thought I would be teaching Irish history to undergrads and trying to learn Latin." What good does that do, really?

I don't believe that there was some special path for me, some personal Sonderweg, where I am driving to some great, preset goal that I have had since birth. I just try to do my best, keep my nose clean and enjoy myself wherever I can. I have responsibilites, but they are far from onerous; I have my fun, but it is nothing outlandish. For a guy with strong opinions about things, in my daily life, I am pretty dull.

I guess, then, that balance between a lively life of the mind and a (relatively) placid outer life is the sort of balance that I like and need. If this is where I was meant to be at thirty, I didn't know it ahead of time, but I must say I don't mind it at all.

So, as I move forward from thirty, I like where I'm at, I know it won't last and I am ever moving ahead...whether it is to the sunlit uplands of success, the gray middling ground of monotony or the dark depths of oblivion, I cannot tell for sure.

All I can do is be as ready as I can, learn to flinch and have fun along the way because life'll kill ya.

Bring it on.

(I realize I made two Warren Zevon references in that one sentence...I should apologize, but Warren never did and neither will I.)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Sums A Lot Up, Really

Please read the post below this one on two funny men who celebrate birthdays today, but I thought this was interesting.

I ran across a great quote from the classic British film noir of 1949, The Third Man. It really sums up a lot about history, culture, society and the like. I guess it is a bit reductive and leaves a lot out, but I thought it was worth repeating nonetheless.

"In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed - but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Happy Birthday, Bob and Pat

Today marks the birthdays of two of my favorite people. Both were indeed born on September 5, both in the Chicago area and I find both incredible amusing, but for completely different reasons.

These two people are, of course, comedy legend Bob Newhart and my brother Pat.

George Robert "Bob" Newhart, who turns seventy-eight today, is possibly my favorite stand-up comedian of all time. Starting with The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart in 1960, Bob captured the American imagination with his dry and witty one-man conversation routines. That album shot to the top of the Billboard charts, beating Elvis and the cast album of The Sound of Music, became the first "spoken word" album to do this, and earned Newhart three Grammy Awards.

The rest of his career was no less lustrous. Starring in The Bob Newhart Show from 1972 to 1977 and Newhart from 1982 to 1990 (which for my money still has the best final episode of any TV show ever), he also starred in films, other TV projects and kept right on performing live. Read more about Bob here, here and here.

His manner and material were, and are, something great. He is the definition of the "sane man in an insane world," affecting his trademark stutter of incredulity at much of what goes on around him. In his classic stand-up routines, his one-sided conversations show some of the best comedic timing since Jack Benny and never seem to show their age too much. His act typifies the put-upon everyman that we can all identify with at some level. From Abe Lincoln's PR man to the pilot on the Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company, from Dr. Bob Hartley to Dick Loudon, he is an American comedic icon and someone who never fails to make me laugh.

Another funny guy, not as well known and beloved of the American people, is my brother Pat. Patrick Michael Shannon, who turns twenty -seven today, is one of the funniest people that I personally know. What makes him funny? Well, his consistently off-the-wall perspective on any given situation, the complete unpredictability of what he will say next and one of the quickest come-back men I have ever seen.

Actually, an interaction between Bob Newhart and my brother would be interesting...Pat represents the insane world in which Newhart's characters often find themselves.

There is not much "Pat content" on the web, but you can visit his bands here and here and his employer here.

Apart from that, Pat is good to people around him, generous to a fault and a person who, when he asks you how you are doing, is actually interested in the answer.

Oh, and he is one of the people I will never challenge to a drinking contest. Ever. There would be no winners, only losers on their way to get their stomachs pumped.

So, on this September 5th, raise a glass and have a laugh for these two favorite comedic sons of the Windy City.

"Same to you, fella!"