My son recently asked me the meaning of “justice,” after running across it in a book where “justice” had a law-and-order meaning, where bad men were brought to justice. As the poor kid often finds, Dad can’t answer a simple question without acknowledging all the shades of meaning and nuances and possible contexts. Justice here meant retaliation, I told him, as it often does, but it has a bigger and greater meaning than punishing wrongdoers. There is a justice that we are all responsible for, that is made of respect for others, of mercy, of fairness, of self-correction, the totality of small acts. His eyes glazed over.

Credit: Wesley VanDinter/iStockphoto.com.
Credit: Wesley VanDinter/iStockphoto.com.

I understand that the first kind of justice has a more compelling narrative. It is the justice of superheroes and revenge fantasies, the justice that is often dealt with a righteous blow. It is the justice where we can enjoy that flicker of final recognition in the villain’s eyes before he is swept off of the cliff.

I suppose small children are empowered by these fairy tales of justice, their innate sense of rightness and wrongness affirmed, and themselves placed at the center of goodness. The positive justice that requires sacrifice and patience for incremental change is harder to turn into a compelling story.

So my mind spun long after the boy has fallen asleep. I had been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and wondering how I myself could be a more active agent for justice. I thought about the symbol of justice: the blindfolded woman with the scale, who I visualize with festering eyes beneath the blindfold due to an image from a poem. What image would I replace this with? What metaphor would serve us better? I fell asleep as I pondered this.

And then it was a rough week for justice. We saw two men killed brutally and senselessly by those who are supposed to deal justice. People gathered to demand immediate justice, understandably frustrated that such justice is never swift and rarely sure. And then, in what seems like the kind of retaliatory “justice” I tried to caution my son about, other police officers were killed brutally and senselessly in revenge. It was a week of grief and outrage, hopelessness and cynicism.

And so for him, and for myself, I may turn to those reassuring stories where justice is in the hands of the strong, and see the strong prevail.


The Winds of War/War and Remembrance

The Winds of War War and RemembranceSince January 1 I have been listening to the audiobooks The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk’s immense 2-volume novel about World War II. I finally finished it last night, listening to the final passage twice because it’s so powerful. The books were blockbusters and turned into a hit television miniseries when I was a kid; because I was from a military/diplomatic family, perhaps, they seemed to be on every bookshelf. I don’t know that they have been standing the test of time, though Herman Wouk certainly is, having recently celebrated his 101st birthday (and published a new book at age 100!)

However, I’m a big fan of Wouk, especially City Boy, which I constantly recommend. I put off reading the Winds of War series forever both because I was daunted by its size and because I wasn’t much interested in war novels. This year I finally dived in.

One of the problems with audiobooks is you can’t highlight passages; there were quite a few that I wanted to note, for the portentous gloom on the present or for providing insights into World War II I never had previously.

For the first, there are several times where a passage seemed to be as appropriate to our own times: the easy dismissal of Hitler as a clown upon the national stage, the casual dismissal of concerns about genocide, the fear that refugees might be terrorists, even commentary on how new technologies are changing the world. If it was published in 2016, I might have find some of the analogs too obvious!

On the second: By the 1970s when Wouk completed the second book we must have already been steeped in the lore of World War II: that America selflessly saved the world once they realized Hitler was a monster. Wouk disabuses any reader of that notion, conveying the slow entry into the war, the ambivalence and distrust of intelligence about the Germans’ treatment of Jewish people and others, and the reluctance to take Jewish refugees (sound familiar?) One character in particular is a frustrated diplomat who eventually quits the foreign service because he sees so little response to the alarming information he’s uncovered; there is also a passing vignette about Jewish people escaping from Auschwitz and making their way all the way across Nazi-occupied Europe to bring evidence to the Allies and being met with indifference.

There are also protectionists at home, isolationists, people who don’t want to expend resources in Europe, and another major character (THE major character) is a Naval Officer with amazing insight and precognition laboring to get the U.S. military to even lend equipment to Allied Europe for the war. Wouk doesn’t even spare Jewish Americans, who can be as maddening as antisemites; he gives us this point of view through a Jewish American who eventually ends up at Terezin and Auschwitz and survives; she lives in Europe and sees the problems firsthand, but when she returns home early in the novel she is frustrated at the ambivalence of friends and family, even echoing the wariness of accepting Jewish refugees.

Wouk also presents a series of arguments against America and the Allies through a German military official; his point of view is presented as passages from a book purportedly translated after the war by the naval officer mentioned above. Through his words Wouk presents the German point of view, but also challenges the easy moral superiority of the allies: the English have conquered and colonized the world, the German reminds readers; America is built on genocide of Native Americans and slavery.  I don’t know if Wouk intends to mock liberal Academics by having a Nazi war criminal make the same arguments, or if he means merely to face the facts and force readers to do the same.

Because the thing is, despite all this — and as a devout Jewish writer — Wouk is clearly a patriot, and ultimately his masterpiece is a love letter to America. But his is not a jingoistic, uncritical patriotism: it is a patriotism steeped in true knowledge of his country. Among other revelations is that such a patriot used to exist.

Throughout the novel I felt like the book, despite many flaws, was authentic in a way World War II novels can no longer be, because it is written honestly and from living memory, and not with hindsight or imbued with current political and historical values. But in retrospect, it must be informed by the late 1960s and 1970s when Wouk wrote it, as much as it is the work of a World War II combat veteran. I suspect that Wouk’s purpose was at least partly to address the Vietnam-era anti-military mood, but without asserting a pro-Vietnam-war stance.

Yet, I think the historical importance of the books is that they capture the mood of the war so well, and Wouk incorporates many facts and real people in his book to also make the books a thorough debriefing on the war.

I would be remiss as a reviewer if I didn’t say that this is also fundamentally a statement by a man of faith, affirming his Jewish identity and religion. Early on in the book I wondered why the principal characters were Christians, even anti-Semites (when one of the Henry boys brings home a Jewish fiance, the talk behind is back is vicious). There is one lapsed Jew in Aaron Jastrow, a famous American writer who winds up “stateless” after living in Italy for many years, and is thus cast upon the tides and ends up in Nazi hands. Through his trials Jastrow comes back to his faith; perhaps ironically since it is the identity he tried to cast off that dooms him. Wouk’s writing is at its best here, and the work almost feels confessional. If not exactly against atheism, it is an argument at least for a such-thing as “intellectual man of faith.” That, too — like the unblinded patriot — might be an idea that has fallen on hard times.

Finally, on a personal note: As a fanatic of City Boy, I had to keep reminding myself that this was by the same author. Perhaps the only correspondence is honesty about how bowled over and weakened men/boys can be by love, but there is little similarity between the tall, beautiful, courageous military men who carry Winds of War and the plump, smitten, bookish Herbie Bookbinder. Herbie is deeply relatable; even as I cheered them on, I felt little affinity with the Henry men. Literary novels might fall into bins: the personal/local/autobiographic, and the epic/sweeping/historic. I like both but favor the former. I need to read City Boy yet again and write a fan letter to Mr. Wouk before he turns 102.


When Dads Were Dads


People share photos of their fathers for Father’s Day, and it’s hard to not feel like dads were different then: seeing the black-and-white photos of always handsome men, with wearier brows and more confident eyes than I’ve ever worn. Those old-time dads lived on scraps and fought in wars. When they brought home a refrigerator it was hard won; they saved for it instead of putting it on a credit card. They took nothing for granted. If they over-prized their immaculate lawns, it was because they knew that nobody is promised a square of grass to grow old tending.

Of course those men were more inclined to use the belt, to shut down a child with a stern word, to be uncompromising on expectations. They filled every room with cigarette smoke and called women girls. Maybe your dad was an exception.

The dads of my childhood were transitional dads. Some worked hard and saw war; some never tended a field or murdered strangers. Either one was called “man.” They formed a fast mythology about the old and the new; laughed at Archie Bunker’s malaprops and turned around to vote for Ronald Reagan. They lost their nervous energy and relaxed into the same overstuffed chairs. In the end it didn’t matter where you’d been, only where you were.

Now dads wear Star Wars T-shirts and try to be kind. We debate the existence of “men” on the Internet. We know our children are being sent into a future of acid oceans and over-carbonized air; we accommodate them with comforts and low expectations. Previous dads hoisted their children on their shoulders to watch the parade; now we hoist our children on our shoulder and become the parade. We Instagram ourselves into sepia, to see ourselves as unfailing as the men of the past.

Photo source


A Girl Link? Why Not?

So I am going to do something ubernerdy and voice an opinion on a video game franchise.


The Legend of Zelda is — by far — my favorite video game series, and part of the appeal is its longevity; it is stunning to see how this game has evolved from the 2D bitmapped scroller that was introduced in 1987 to the breathtaking 3D world of Breath of the Wild, which people were recently able to see for the first time, but will have to wait until 2017 to play.

Along the way The Legend of Zelda has had 20 installments, at least three of which were, well, game changers for their era: the original game, A Link to the Past, and Ocarina of Time. Having played the games out of order, I’m fascinated by how well the earlier games anticipate the direction video games are going — the narratives, the open exploratory worlds, and the side-quests are there even in 1991’s A Link to the Past. The characters and settings I’ve come to know and expect are already imagined in a 16-bit format, ready to be reinvented and re-imagined for each generation of games.

OK, so I’m a fan.

The newest game had teaser images like the one above, suggesting that Link — the hero of every game — might be a girl in the next installment. Conversations and buzz and anxiety abounded among fans, so much that it was almost assumed that we would, indeed, see a lady Link. But Nintendo dispelled that rumor this week when they finally announced a release date and whetted our appetites with some sample footage from the game.

Deku_LinkI’m disappointed and a bit annoyed with the official explanation that the triad of Link (hero), Zelda (damsel to be rescued), and Ganon (evil overlord) is unmutable. After all, mutability is one of the most constant elements of these games, both in how they have evolved over the decades and within each game. Link himself has been a wolf, a fish-man (aka Zora), a rock-man (aka Goron), and whatever the heck a deku is, among other incarnations. He has transformed into a giant and has transformed into a tiny little bug-sized creature. Moreover, alternative worlds that overlay with the “real” one is another constant: the darkworld, the twilight realm, etc. A realm of a Linka heroine saving Prince Zeld would fit just fine into the franchise formula, even if it meant switching back and forth between worlds where Link is a male and a world where players guide his female counterpart.

I mean, it wouldn’t kill a guy to play as a girl character for a while, and it would give girls (and longtime women fans) a chance to drive the game a little more.

Based on the earlier teaser material, I’m concerned that the brilliant team behind the franchise really did mean to give the world a female Link, but got scared off by the tiny but vocal slice of the gaming community that hate, hate, hates feminism, anything smacking of feminism, and would disparage the game at the outset as a feminist plot to corrupt the minds of boys and ruin everything because… you know… somehow it would. I dunno. I’ve tried following the logic of those guys and can’t.

It’s too bad. I’m still excited by the new game, but Nintendo obviously blew a big opportunity to be a game changer once again, and I suspect that fear had more to do with that than fealty to formula. But I hold out hope that they’re pulling a fast one to avoid spoilers.



If I Were Super

superheroKid: I wish I had super powers.

Dad: Well, if you could have one, what would it be?

Kid: I would run really fast (mimes running) and have a super punch (mimes punching).

Dad: I think there are better super powers. Like, what if your super power was making people feel good about themselves?

Boy: Thoughtful look

Dad: What if your super power was teaching?

Boy: Nods.

Dad: If you think about it, the super powers most superheroes have any good. Batman has all those super powers, but the Joker never changes. Even when he gets caught he just breaks out of jail. So Batman’s powers don’t change anything. If he was a really good teacher, maybe he could change the Joker. Or if he his super power was healing he could heal the Joker’s inner wounds and make him be a better person.

Boy: Looks down reflectively. 

Dad: So do you think you’d want a super power like that?

Boy: No, I want to run really fast and have a SUPER PUNCH. Leaps forward and pummels imaginary enemy. 

Wouk and Remembrance

Herman WoukI kicked off 2016 by starting The Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk, with the idea of finishing by today, his 101st birthday (which he is alive to celebrate). Alas, I’m only 80-odd hours into the 101 hour audiobook (the numerical coincidence wasn’t lost on me) the two-volume novel comprises. The books are thought provoking and revealing and I’ll have a lot to say about them later, when I’ve actually finished, but I wanted to wish Mr. Wouk a happy birthday.

I’ve been a Wouk fan since high school. My favorite is City Boy, a book I love beyond measure and include in my personal top five. That one and Youngblood Hawke show his bent for humor, but his legacy is his war novels, espcially The Caine Mutiny, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and the two books about the Henry family and World War II. Through Wouk’s novels I’ve gained a lot of appreciation for the men who fought World War II, while also having a much richer and nuanced view of America during the war, which Wouk faithfully records without the “greatest generation” mythmaking.

Byron RobinsonI’ll blog more about the novels later, but a curious coincidence of the books is a major character named Byron Henry. Our own Byron is named for Henry Byron Robinson, his grandfather, who — like Byron in the book — served in the Pacific theater in World War II. My father in law, like both of my grandparents, never regaled people with war stories, but he was haunted by memories of it for the rest of his life. That is, until yesterday, when he died at the age of 93, taking his secrets with him.

By didn’t define himself by his war experience. He liked reading, music, birdwatching. and big cuddly dogs. Most of all, my wife says, “he enjoyed being a dad.” But she also says “he thought about [the war] every day, even if he never talked about it. It was obvious.” We don’t need myth-making but we do need to respect, as Wouk does, the courage and sacrifice those men made.



Taran Wanderer

As a child I was a big fan of the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, and must have read them three times through — the last time when I was fifteen or so. For some reason though I went back and re-read a lot of childhood favorites, I was reluctant to re-read these, partly because fantasy series were few and far between and felt novel when I was a kid; now there is so much of it that follows the same design as Prydain (the well-trodden hero’s journey) I thought I might be annoyed by it even though he did it first (or firstishly).

However, once I did dive in I was hooked. Lloyd Alexander has complex characters and a whimsical sense of humor that makes these book transcend most epic fantasy and subverts the usual expectations for chosen-hero-fulfills-destiny type tales. In fact, Alexander admits in one of the forewords that it wasn’t until halfway through the series that he brushed up his Joseph Campbell so he could bring it around to a satisfactory conclusion — and says so almost apologetically, since it means drifting from the impulsive plot turns that make the first three books so delightful.

Taran WandererThis brings me to Taran Wanderer, which is the fourth in the series. There is a rather typical-for-Prydain beginning, with an evil wizard getting bested by Taran’s quick wits and good luck, but the book then turns into a longish, episodic, and mostly realistic series of experiences as Taran searches for himself: he seeks both knowledge of his parents (growing up as a foundling and presumably an orphan) and of his calling. In the latter ambition he takes up farming, pottery, weaving, and smithing with a series of mentors, becomes passably good at each but decides it is not for him, and then (after a somewhat unlimactic, or at least unresolved, battle with a minor villain), sets back for home with no more answers than he had before, but with fewer questions as testament to his new wisdom.

Sound boring? As a kid I dreaded the second half of the book and may have skipped it on one of my read-throughs. This time, as a grown reader who has put some thought into the interior lives of characters, I was absolutely in awe of the care Alexander takes in shaping Taran’s inner life and the man he is becoming.

I now see the peculiar design of the book as brilliant. The first, more comic and adventurous half of the book involves a series of encounters with powerful men like kings and wizards; the second half with laborers and craftsmen. I see how each of the characters in the first half represents a kind of superficial virtue like ambition, glory, the desire to be loved, or the desire to be feared. The second half exposes Taran to deeper virtues like resiliance and hard work, patience and discipline.

It’s not as preachy as it sounds, though the relatively quieter passages without the humor and adventure found earlier in the series might test immature readers (like it did my boy self). I’d now put it on a short-list with books like Hatchet and The Midnight Fox on my coming-of-age canon, and it’s the first fantasy book I’ve put there. Usually in such books the heroic calling substitutes for growing up.