Sunday, December 24, 2006

The 48 Laws of Power

by Robert Greene
Laws 6-13

Apparently, during the year that I spent in Japan The 48 Laws of Power became extremely popular, especially among those in the hip-hop community. This was all news to me, particularly since I'd bought the book about six months before I left the States and hadn't found it terribly interesting. I'd made it to Law 5 ("So Much Depends On Reputation - Guard It With Your Life") and decided that I could wait until I returned from Japan to finish it. Well, I'm back now and I'm determined to finally finish it. Strangely enough, I'm finding it more interesting reading the second time around, but maybe not for the reasons that have made it so popular.

I'm less interested in the Laws themselves than I am in the history that Greene uses to illustrate those laws. Even if I do think that most of the Laws are little too cutthroat for my idealistic tastes, I love reading about the disastrous love affairs of Lola Mendez, the double-dealings of Talleyrand, and the gullibility of Al Capone. The only explanation I have for this is that, having studied Classical Civilization for four years, it makes sense that I would find the story of the Corinthian and Corcoran ambassadors at Athens more interesting and, to me at least, more informative than the law itself ("Law 13: When Asking for Help, Appeal To People's Self-Interest - Never To Their Mercy Or Gratitude").

As for the Laws themselves, well I've already stated that I think I'm a little too idealistic to fully appreciate their feasibility and usefulness. There are certainly some Laws I can appreciate ("Law 10: Infection: Avoid The Unhappy And The Unlucky" and Law 13: (see above) for instance). But most of the Laws I find too ambiguous and too dependent upon your own particular situation and the people with whom you are dealing to be of any use at all. Few of any of the laws are infallible. In fact, the only one that is infallible so far is Law 10 (see above) according to Greene himself.

The one thing that Greene has managed to impress upon me so far is something I knew before I even picked up the book. That is that attaining and keeping power is difficult, arduous, and, at times, dangerous work. I can understand the reasons why someone would like to have the kind of power that Greene discusses in the 48 Laws. After all, we all like to have at least a little power over ourselves and others. But to attain the kind of power it takes to reach "Master" status just seems like too much manipulative, unhappy work to me. There never seems to be a point at which you're allowed to just enjoy your life and your position. During Law 11 ("Learn To Keep People Dependent On You") Greene writes, "You cannot rest at ease, and what good is power if it brings you no peace?" Amen, Greene. Amen. That's the kind of law I can get behind.

How to Sail Across the Atlantic

by Paul Bennett
from The Best American Travel Writing 2006

Out of all of the great images and lessons on sailing around the world Paul Bennet presents in "How to Sail Across the Atlantic," this image sticks with me the most: On trying to remove an obstruction in their boat's plumbing he writes, "As I pulled the hose free from the valve...(I)n the next moment, the obstruction in question shot out the line with fire-hose ferocity. It caked the walls, the ceiling, and the floor. It covered me completely from head to toe. I can say, unequivocally that being showed with another person's crap has been the single worse experience of my life." It sounds like something from a gross-out comedy movie: both funny and disgusting at the same time. It might also be a part of the reason why I enjoyed this selection.

Besides learning how not to repair the plumbing on a boat, Bennet divulges many other valuable lessons such as pirates are still real, tankers can come out of nowhere and split your boat in half in a second, on average, it takes amature sailors four and half years to circumnavigate the world, and whales are just as dangerous as sharks in the open water. Despite all of that, it all still sounds hopelessly romantic to me. I just returned from my first cruise a week ago, and there is definately something to said for being able to look out your window and see nothing but blue, blue ocean. I bet it is scary, expensive, and exhausting to set sail around the world but the rewards - the sights you'd see, the things you'd do along the way - would be well worth it. I love a good adventure.

The Selling of the Last Savage

by Michael Behar
from The Best American Travel Writing 2006

How can you not like a selection that begins with a sentence like this: “I’m somewhere in a godforsaken rain forest on the north coast of West Papua, Indonesia, and I’m ready to get the hell out of here.” Talk about gripping. The rest of Behar’s account is no less so as he recounts his experiences on an expedition called First Contact, an exploratory trek in West Papua in which participants attempt to make contact with tribes who have never seen outsiders. Several times throughout the piece, Behar questions whether First Contact is a hoax. We’re never entirely sure if it is, mainly because, even after all that he experiences on the trek, Behar is never entirely sure himself. One thing Behar is sure of though is his very real fear when, at one point, members of a native tribe rush out of the bush shooting arrows above his head. If it is a hoax, it is apparently very well done.

Besides the question of whether there are even “uncontacted” tribes left to be discovered, Behar questions whether it’s even ethical to “contact” these tribes if there were. At one point during the expedition, Behar says, “That’s when I notice that their hands are trembling. They look absolutely terrified. A wave of guilt washes over me…‘We shouldn’t be doing this. They’re really freaked out.’” Is it ethical to seek out remote jungle tribes just for the cheap thrill – if $8, 000 a pop could be considered cheap – of getting a peek at a people never seen before? Consider this: What if you, living the way that you do, eating the way that you do, were the out-of-date oddity (Brave New World anyone?)? How pissed off and terrified would you be if some scary-looking stranger invaded your home, inspected your life, and took pictures to show the amazed family back home? I don’t know about you, but I think a lot of people might do what some West Papuans do: shoot first and ask questions later.

At one point during the expedition, Kelly Woolford, the creator and leader of First Contact, says to Behar, “Papuans are scared of the unknown.” The question is: At the end of the day, aren’t we all?