The Hunger Games

My first feeling after seeing “The Hunger Games” at the theater was that it was good if you like watching teenagers kill each other. I borrowed the book too. The movie follows it very closely. The main difference is that the book is told entirely in the first person from Katniss’s point of view so some of the behind-the-scenes machinations in the Capitol seen in the movie were added by the filmmakers.

The greatest value of the movie was its excellent visualization of the book’s efficient text, the best examples being in the flashy, high-tech fashions of the Capitol such as Caeser Flickerman’s talk show set. A little less impressive were the depictions of the Captiol’s architecture. My wife and I debated about whether the filmmakers intended the city to look drab or if they tried to make it look monumental and fell a bit short.

I’ve heard some jabbering about whether dystopian Panem is meant to represent the follies of a liberal or of a conservative society. I didn’t get any sense of partisanship from Suzanne Collins’ story. I thought it was more about an exploitative civilization that lived in leisurely comfort while distant, hidden people toiled for their benefit. Panem seemed like a combination of ancient Rome, pre-Revolutionary France, and contemporary North Korea but I saw a lot of us (liberal, conservative, or otherwise) in it.

Zinn fanned hell

Just who are “the people” in Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”? One’s claim on membership, it seems, is in direct proportion to the amount of suffering at the hands of others, who in turn are somewhere in the gradient of minions and victims of “the Establishment,” a term Zinn takes care to capitalize. Zinn’s sympathies are with Marxists and anarchists, and for all the people’s history this book contains (at times it reads like a long catalog of revolts, insurrections, uprisings, riots, strikes, and protests), he doesn’t have a high opinion of “the people”, as they are forever being duped into submission by the elites.

I studied American history in college but I never read Zinn’s “A People’s History” (though I now recognize Zinn’s interpretations in some of my professors’ lectures). I’ve just finished with a copy of the 2003 edition which ends with the 2001 terrorist attacks. I’m not sure what made me pick it up all of sudden; maybe the feeling that democracy is starting to slip from our grasp.

But Zinn might have said it was never really in our grasp. According to his book the rich and powerful subvert democracy by tilting the law in their favor and then insisting we all abide by its rule. For example, he writes of our revered Bill of Rights:

The Constitution became even more acceptable to the public at large after the first Congress, responding to criticism, passed a series of amendments known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments seemed to make the new government a guardian of people’s liberties: to speak, to publish, to worship, to petition, to assemble, to be tried fairly, to be secure at home against official intrusion. It was, therefore, perfectly designed to build popular backing for the new government. what was not made clear— it was a time when language of freedom was new and its reality untested— was the shakiness of anyone’s liberty when entrusted to a government of the rich and powerful.

Zinn argues that the system is not just inherently flawed, that it’s set up this way on purpose; for all its guarantees of individual freedoms and liberties, constitutional government is still in the hands of “the Establishment”— the fox guarding the hen house. But whatever the motives were behind the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and whatever the failures to live up to its principles, intent, or promises, does it not represent the popular will? Are “the people’s” wishes illegitimate when they align with those of “the Establishment?”

I’m not sure I buy Zinn’s thesis that American constitutional democracy is “the most ingenious system of control in world history.” I’m also not sure what kind of system he would replace it with. Perhaps a committee of pinko university professors who distribute collective rights and privileges after assessing their grievances.

I understand his point that elites use racism, nationalism, imperialism, and materialism– to divide the larger population against each other. Even before reading this book, I thought a lot about the darker aspects of American history and the only way I can reconcile our national ideals with our record of genocide, imperialism, slavery, and discrimination was an unofficial ideology of white supremacy. That unofficial ideology is now out of fashion, to the degree that even racists try to hide that they are so, a great contrast to the defenders of slavery, Indian removal, overseas expansion, and Jim Crow. An ideology of prosperity seems to have replaced it; we worship growth and security more than we worship democracy.

The greatest value in Zinn’s book is his skepticism and his refusal to follow the usual nationalist narrative about how we got so great. Another perspective, backed up by legitimate scholarship, is always refreshing. Now that we’re not so great, it’s worth taking a look at how we got this way too.

A warm fuzzy

Once a year I drive to an elementary school in the Quad Cities for a National Park Fair put on by third-graders. Each child researches a different national park and makes a display about it. They set up their displays in the gym and kids from other classes visit. When a display has a visitor, the display’s creator reads a short report of interesting facts about that park. They also hand out “souvenirs” like stickers or bookmarks decorated with the park’s name and a picture.

Third graders admire displays about national parks in a school gym.
Third graders admire each other's national park displays in the school gym.

While I’m there, I give a short talk about being a park ranger and then the kids ask me questions. Among the questions I always get is, “How much money do you make?”

The visit is usually the highlight of my work year and, lest I forget amid the routine and the bureaucracy, a good reminder of why I have that job.

Selected for extinction

Speaking of bicycles and wild animals:

I ran over a squirrel this morning on my way to the farmers market, with my bicycle. I couldn’t believe it. Two young squirrels were in the middle of the street doing who-knows-what as I glided downhill. One dashed to the far curb but the other checked back and forth before heading right into my rear wheel. I felt the bump. It must have survived the moment, because when I looked back it was gone. I doubt it will survive though.

Stupid thing. I hate running over animals but that was pure destiny if I’ve ever seen it.

Bike to work

This week was Bike to Work Week and I bicycled to work all five days. Whew.

The weather was good for it excepting the storm that rolled in during commute time Tuesday evening. Then my wife had to pick me up.

During my morning rides I discovered I had a nemesis: an aggressively territorial red-winged blackbird. The blackbirds are ubiquitous along the route. They nest in the grassy ditches along the farm fields. The males  perch above their little kingdoms on the telephone wires that line the road.

I’ve been attacked by blackbirds before, but this one was particularly regular and devious. His particular stretch of road curved steeply over a ridge, so I was moving slow and couldn’t quite look all the way up to see him. I could hear him chirping overhead as he launched himself from the wire and then suddenly a whirring of feathers as he buzzed my right ear from behind. Every single morning in the exact same place (right down to the same crack in the asphalt). I knew he was coming but in my concentration pedaling up the hill he’d still startle me. “Damn you!” I shouted as I shook my fist at him.

Unanswered sneezes

Why sneezes can’t pass without comment, as other involuntary expulsions of air manage to do, is beyond me. But I habitually observe the niceties even though I’ve never been comfortable with them.

I was raised to say, “God bless you” but since I doubt God has anything to do with sneezes or their remedies, I don’t say it anymore. For a while I would say “Gezundheit!” a puzzling invocation of German (a British friend took me to task for that once). Since marrying an Argentinian, I’ve been saying, “Salud!” though it’s not always understood by English speakers. I like it because you can say, “Dinero!” and, “Amor!” for the second and third sneezes respectively.

In trying to invent a suitable sneeze pleasantry I came up with one so universally offensive that from now on if you sneeze and I don’t say anything, it’s because I’m refraining from saying “Sneezus Christ!”

Independent for president

A lady who visited the park today mentioned that it seemed like a good place to stop. She wore business dress and was alone—a sign of an incidental visitor, someone who is in town for other purposes. “Are you traveling?” I asked her.

“I am an independent running for president,” she said as she left.

That’s not something I expected her to hear, for a couple of reasons. One is that presidential candidates avoid anything related to Herbert Hoover as if its radioactive (though the occasional fringe candidate comes during the Iowa caucuses). The other that she didn’t even say who she was, which would be helpful when unknown and seeking votes. To her credit, election campaigning is not allowed in national parks and perhaps she was following that rule strictly. If so, this may a good example of how integrity doesn’t help to win elections.


I had my first good look at a coyote today. I’ve only seen them from a distance before but this one crossed about fifty feet in front of me on bicycle trail between Coralville and North Liberty. I thought at first it was a small deer; with its long legs and quick and effortless gait, it definitely didn’t seem like a dog. But for all its deer-like movements it didn’t look anything like a deer either. The bushy tail gave it away as it paused to look at me and then disappeared into the woods. It’s funny how such a close relative of a dog can be so not dog-like.

Cliff swallows

Crossing the Burlington Street bridge on our bikes yesterday, we saw the bridge’s resident cliff swallows catching insects over the river and returning them to their nests. We looked over the parapet and saw the swallows making their sorties right below us since their nests were right under our feet. Though they moved very quickly we saw the colorful little birds up close and, when we listened closely, we heard the chicks in their nest squeaking for food.

The graveyard of democracy

Our last sight to see in New York was the National September 11 Memorial, a short walk from our hotel. Once I was there I felt l had already seen all I needed from our 24th floor hotel room window.

If there is a real monument to the terrorist attacks it is at the security control. Our tickets were looked at, scanned, and marked at three separate checkpoints. We had to empty our pockets and take off our belts (shoes could stay on). Officious volunteers ordered us to “move up, use every available space” even though there were 100 yards or more of emptiness through the rope maze behind us. At one juncture in this march, instead of  following the person in front of us to the left we had to turn right into an empty space and buttonhook around to the left. I have no idea why. In other words: the usual ritual humiliation we’ve come to expect when traveling or visiting other landmarks or other exercises in liberty. I wonder if this was lost on the memorial’s boosters.

The memorial comprises a plaza, an unfinished museum, and two giant square drains in the footprints of the old twin towers. Names of the dead victims are engraved into the parapets. The bottoms of the drains are not visible from ground level. I understood the intent of the giant drains: placid sheets of water falling off dramatically into a deep void evoked sudden calamity and great loss. But memorializing the footprints of the two great towers as if they are sacred ground annoyed me. Look up from the memorial into any building now casting shadow onto it: soon it will be filled with people selling hedge funds or credit default swaps or performing other morally ambiguous duties. Around the footprints of the towers, where some may have leaped to their deaths or were otherwise snuffed out by the buildings’ collapse, is now just a pavement plaza trampled by us gawkers.

Trying to turn a financial center into hallowed space is simply a tasteless idea. Unlike a preserved battlefield we can learn nothing about the terrorist attacks by the present condition of the land, expect perhaps that we were so cowed by them that the memorial now lays beyond a phalanx of magnetometers and x-ray machines. The addition of the victims names to the memorial did nothing to humanize the place. The approach, which may have been novel and effective at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, totally fails to connect me with the dead. In the temporary museum nearby, a dusty wallet recovered from the wreckage and displayed in a lucite cube did much more for me emotionally.

The disconnect I felt came from the proximity in time of the memorial’s design and construction to the event itself. Most Civil War monuments, for example, were erected a generation or two later to rally citizens around other national challenges and to remind new generations of the old hardships as those who knew them first-hand died off. Most Americans saw the attacks on television, live and then in repeats for months and years afterwards. We think about September 11. 2001 every time a soldier gets killed in Afghanistan or Iraq, or every time we partially disrobe before flying off to spend Thanksgiving with our families. So are we collectively needy of a memorial? Who does it serve? Isn’t it an expensive guilt trip foisted on us by a small group of extroverted mourners? Can’t I feel the national injury without also sharing in another family’s loss?

The memorial’s excess of sentimentality and its vacuum of meaning made me emotional for the wrong reasons and angry at the wrong people. Visiting the place felt like having our national dignity sucked into a pit of despair. I can’t believe this colossal public grief project has held us up for ten years from putting the World Trade Center back together. Getting the place back to normal quickly would have been the real monument to liberty and democracy.