Saturday, November 11, 2006

Elections and what darkness really means

This week was my favorite November holiday--Election Day! And as you might imagine, I am pretty happy. That said, there was no moment of blinding joy--I wasn't sure whether it was time to crack the champagne when CNN called the House for the Democrats, when the returns came in enough to guarantee the House or what, and the Senate was pending for a few days. And Chris Bell and Barbara Radnofsky did not win, so that was a bit of a downer on an otherwise good day, when Republicans in general got the smackdown. But it's beginning to sink in, slowly but surely.

I spent E-Night in Tegucigalpa and en route back to San Manuel I stopped by Charlie's site at Rio Negro. I thought my site was remote--and to be sure, it is--but his is something else. It's 300 people, and the only public transportation there comes in the form of riding in the back of a pickup truck for two and a half hours. He can get cell phone service with an antenna, but there is no electricity.

I once saw rural electrification on a top ten list of important technological advances of the 20th century, and I think we (er, I, at least) forget how big a deal it is that just whenever you want, bam, you have light, whenever you want. But let me tell you something: it is a really tremendously big deal. Until about 1920, I suppose everybody lived like this. But lately, we've lost touch with what it means to be "in the dark." As I was trying to manage with candles and flashlights, it made me think that for pre-electric populations, the Book of Common Prayer's frequent mention of the dark would have meant a lot more than it does to us:
Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Oh yes indeed, electricity is a huge deal, and we'd better not forget it.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Predictably provincial?

As Howard Fineman put it in his 2005 column "Lessons in unity from Pittsburgh,"


Pittsburgh is the Bigs, but is hundreds of miles from the biggest of the big leagues (New York and Chicago). Set off alone in Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburghers are united in their splendid isolation and in pride in being better than those other more famous places. When I was a kid, it was both a boast and a curse that everything in our city was the biggest or best "between New York and Chicago." All that really meant was that we had it over Cleveland.

This is more or less true, and borne out by my experiences as an (ex-)Pittsburgher spending time with people from other parts of the country, whether in Houston, in a study abroad program, or with other Peace Corps people. In these groups — unlike, for instance, my middle school — the vast majority of people are not from Pittsburgh and don’t know and haven’t heard, much less care, about whatever provincial concerns or experiences I may have had there. (Though I will say that out of my Peace Corps training class of 50, there were four — a full eight percent! — of us from Pennsylvania, and one other guy from Allegheny County, so the ratio is a lot better there than at Rice.)

So while it’s rare that I come across someone who hasn’t heard of the Steelers (or, as I’ve taken to calling them in my pride-in-absentia the “World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers”), for many of my friends and colleagues, their knowledge of the Steel City begins and ends there. Maybe they’ve had a layover at PIT or driven through (or bypassed on I-76 or I-79), but I’ve met precious few actual visitors to Pittsburgh. (Though to be fair, only recently I met a guy in Santa Rosa, here in Honduras, whose college roommate was from Pittsburgh and had apparently gone home with him for a weekend or something, and could was excited to no end when I introduced myself as being from there, ranting and raving about Primanti Brothers’, among other things he spent the weekend doing.)

So you may imagine my surprise when I finally read through the August 21/28, 2006, edition of Newsweek, and found no fewer than four references to my hometown! (Newsweek’s Latin American International edition is distributed to all Peace Corps Volunteers in Honduras though it often takes a little while for them to filter through to all the different sites.) I don’t think it’s fair to attribute it to any bias on Newsweek’s part — though Fineman is a Senior Editor of the publication — because in the three other editions that most recently came, there were exactly zero references.

So here they are, with a bit of context.

  1. In an article about the War on Terror five years after 9/11, a reference in passing about other prospective terrorist plots:
    "A few weeks after 9/11, for instance, authorities in Pennsylvania received a frightening tip from an FBI office overseas: terrorists had a nuclear device on a train somewhere between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. ... Within a day it had been traced back to a conversation between two men overheard at a urinal in Ukraine.

    Characteristically, some time later, Bush made a mordant joke of the scare. "Is this another Ukrainian urinal incident?" he would sarcastically inquire when some alarming but shaky intelligence came across his desk.
  2. A Top Ten list (extended down to 45th place) accompanying an article by Yale President Richard Levin on internationalism in higher education mentions that the University of Pittsburgh is the 32nd best “global” university (whatever that means, though the feature’s blurb says it takes into account openness, diversity and distinction in research).

  3. Talking about his experiences at Juilliard, Itzhak Perlman says that he was surrounded by Yankees fans in New York, but didn’t jump on the bandwagon.

    One of my most memorable experiences isn’t musical; I made a terrible mistake and said I was a Pittsburgh Pirates fan when everyone was a Yankees fan. For me, the name "Pirates" just sounded kind of nice. As it happened, the Pirates actually won the World Series that year. Of course everyone was very upset (laughs): I almost got killed!
  4. Mark Kamlet, the provost of Carnegie Mellon, is quoted about CMU’s branch campus in Qatar. The article never uses the name “Pittsburgh,” but discerning minds will know that the former Carnegie Institute of Technology is located in an ambiguous area between Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and Oakland.

Some of these are tangential, I realize, but c’mon. It was almost like I was reading the Post-Gazette! A copy of the Post-Gazette that had been delivered to me in Honduras.

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