“The Dispossessed”: A Review

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Much greater and more important than simply a SciFy space-opera. This is a story about utopia, dystopia, and the spark of human beings and societies.

The cover of my copy of The Dispossessed features a spaceship, a planet with a disk of fire spinning narrowly around it, and a scene with a man in a funny coloured robe walking towards a futuristic and utopian city. What can you do: my copy is from 1991. Do not let the science fiction goofyness and marketing strategies put you off from this book, nor underestimate it.

This is more of a thought experiment that plays out in a novel. It is a brilliant unfolding of human psychology and this psychology as it plays out in large-scale human society. We are very much in the territory of Plato’s The Republic, Moore’s Utopia, and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I mention these titles because this is not a dystopian book (like Brave New World). You would not guess it from the title, but LeGuin is out to find out what it would take to make a true human utopian society.

This is an alternate universe, but one which is familiar: it’s the future, and some space travel, but we are not in Star Trek here. There are no scientific miracles, no teleportation, no self-aware robots, etc. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects (and probably part of what makes this book so good) is that technology plays almost no role here. Any role that it does play is clearly seen as a tool of human design; the technology reflects the society.

There is the planet Urras and its desert moon, Anarres. Urras is much like Earth: it’s an ocean planet. But more than that, it depicts the international political situation of the Cold War. There is the rich, capitalist society which has shades of both the US and UK. Then there is a monolithic, very soviet-esque rival-nation, followed by a large, yet incredibly poor nation that stands in for the Third World (and is the sight for proxy wars between the capitalist nation and the soviet nation).

Here is where it gets interesting: on Anarres, anarchists, having fled Urras one hundred and seventy years before the start of the book, have set up a utopian, communistic society. There is no government, no authority, no police. No violence, no ownership, no property. Sexual relations are very open. And yet you have a fully functioning society with a high level of social organisation.

These settlers follow the teachings of Odo, and one gets that sense that her teachings had both an academic Marxist bent, but also a naturalistic and philosophic standpoint. A Marx meets Gandhi figure. LeGuin’s utopian society thus displays an interesting mix of high European far left academic anarcho-communism (Proudhon, Marx) as well as a host of less intense and academically-rigourous-but-maybe-not-so-successful-in-real-life-influences. There is definitely a hint of Amish, Henry David Thoreau, and some Buddhism.

Life is hard on Anarres. And so while there is no property, the flip side is that there is not too much to own anyway; the Odonians are doing okay, but the climate is just too harsh. This is part of the reason that the governments of Urras have decided to leave Anarres alone: there is just nothing there, no reason to settle there. The interesting exception (which reveals the depth of LeGuin’s intelligence) is that there are minerals that can only be mined on Anarres that is crucial to the Urras economy. But because the Odonians are happy to mine and trade the ores for a variety of cheap supplies, the reality is thus that it is cheaper for the governments on Urras to have these anarchists do the mining.

Anarres thus escapes the vortex of capitalism by a trick of luck (or rather they too, are stuck in the vortex because they must mine the ores or they would be invaded).

The book is about Shevek’s journey from Anarres to Urras. Shevek is a brilliant physicist who is closing in on the Theory of Everything which would enable faster than light travel and instantaneous communication over any distance. This is his value and importance to society. His personal journey is to bring the spark back to Odonian society, which has become bogged down in tradition, politics, and general small minded-ness. Thus Shevek is looking to re-ignite the Odonian revolution by going to Urras, though this does not become clear until later.

To what extent is this (leftist) utopian society vulnerable to the conservative/free market criticism that an egalitarian society would crush individual achievement and create a world where everyone is poor (as opposed to some being rich and some being poor)? A little. LeGuin does not create the two worlds equally, remember. Urras is a rich planet. Anarres only supports a handful of species of plants; thus the ossification of Odonian society is not totally based on the lack of incentive. However, this is clearly an anxiety of Shevek and LeGuin (tellingly, Shevek starts up the Syndicate of Initiative in a rebellious move in Oxonian society).

I wonder who LeGuin considers the eponymous dispossessed of the title? The Odonians, who are dispossessed of their home planet (and its abundance), or are they dispossessed of their capitalistic initiative? Or does the title refer to our own personal quest for happiness and meaning in life? Journey and travel is a major theme in this book: being dispossessed implies a search for what has been lost, I think.

So what is this spark that LeGuin is after? I would answer that it is the same thing that Any Rand attempts, and fails, to capture  in her books (let’s not call it a philosophy: that would be depressing). It is something more complex than “initiative”. It is that peculiar mix of true freedom, true justice, and true personal growth that truly enriches a society. The fact that we can understand LeGuin’s conclusion of an un-bitter, gentle rejection of both power/capitalism and anarcho-communialism in favour of a sort of personal growth that grows the whole society (not a defined political project, I admit), says a lot about the quality of this book and LeGuin’s thought.

The next time you see someone reading Ayn Rand, insist that they read this book. This is the only depiction of a utopian society where I thought “this actually makes sense; it could actually work”. LeGuin has really explored the subject, and depicted the problems of both societies extremely well.

Brilliant, and well written. Perhaps not for everyone, but I would say this is a must-read.

“Zeitoun”: A Review

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It’s the story of a Syrian-American man and his American wife, who we find interesting because she converted to Islam before she married a Muslim, and their odyssey through Hurricane Katrina-New Orleans. This is a human-interest story. Yes, there is some disaster porn. Yes, Zeitoun paddles around a flooded New Orleans in a canoe rescuing people and dogs. And yes, there is a “Kafkaesque” nightmare when the police/National Guard decide that Zeitoun just might be a member of the Taliban.

No seriously, It’s quite alarming that part. Like Guantanamo Bay is not just in Guantanamo Bay…

That being said, this book lingers and could easily have been a hundred and fifty pages shorter. We hear about how the wife – Kathy – converts to Islam and meets Zeitoun. We learn about Zeitoun’s family in Syria and how Zeitoun got to be living in New Orleans. Eggers trips over himself stressing how much of a hard-working, religious, family man trying to live the American Dream Zeitoun is. It is primarily a story of an immigrant which has made good, but then is brought low by the forces of institutional racism and paranoia.

And oddly, this is one of the weakest point of the book. I found Zeitoun to be potentially a fascinating individual, but ultimately found him to be one-dimensional. Kathy personal journal from Baptist to Muslim rings shallow, in that one suspects she did it primarily because her friend did. Eggers tries very hard to give these people some depth of character, but one senses that Zeitoun and Kathy have a story to tell but could not for the life of them tell you what it means or what they actually think about it.

There is no academic or reflective depth to this book. During the climax of the story – Zeitoun’s imprisonment – we watch as a Guantanamo Bay is created in downtown New Orleans (the notorious Camp Greyhound). It’s barbaric and shameful. And yet Eggers at no point attempts to perform an expose, or explain who this could come to be, or that we need to do something now so that this sort of thing does not happen again. It was just a human interest story.

I will grudgingly admit there is a vague Odessey-esque whiff from the book. Some of the back story I found genuinely intriguing.   But I did not learn anything; I wanted either a Mark Twain adventure (as I was promised on the inside cover dammit!), a Kafka-esque twisted nightmare through the Department of Homeland Security’s dark innards, or a Zizek-inspired psychological discussion on the subtle link between the War on Terror and the Response to Hurricane Katrina.

In the largest possible sense, it felt like Eggers was attempting to tell the liberal and politically correct story of Hurricane Katrina. All events and actors are carefully polished to put their best foot forward. The entire story is carefully constructed so as to appeal to the widest possible readership (I am thinking here of the tiny old conservative lady who attends a book club), or the lowest possible denominator if you want to be more cynical. It is an attempt to tell both an immigrant’s story and the story of the people of New Orleans and their relationship to local and federal authorities. And in this sense, this book has some value.

Spoiler alert.

The most interesting part of the book for me was at the end where Zeitoun’s arresting officers are interviewed. Thus both sides of the story are presented, and the dichotomy is quite engrossing (or at least it was for me). For Zeitoun, its “Kafka-esque”; a perverse and shattering trip through the underbelly of America’s military/prison/security system. For the arresting officers, one is struck by the combination of “we were worked up psychologically by the media”, “it was just another day…nothing unusual about this”, and an odd ignorance and regret about Zeitoun’s experience.

Basically this “Kafka-esque” system is so twisted because everybody had their head down, narrowly doing their job. Everyone had their blinders set to maximum. The System, the Process was all anyone worried about. The two examples of individuals who make human gestures of help at the end of the book – a missionary at a prison and an assistant DA – happen after being begged or only after Kathy has made a huge emotional scene in front of the DA and reporters. These helpful acts seemed to be only the disappearing gestures of people manning their post in a vast, yet essentially malfunctioning System. Institutional paranoia engendered by the War on Terror splashed over into already broken and racist prison systems.

Finally, there is the role of the national Media. Practically every character says at one point that the media had presented New Orleans as “descended into chaos…rape and pillage and looting and drugs…now a Third World Country”. A specific media claim that is repeated was something like “babies being raped”. The fact that this obvious rumour gained so much credence for a week or so speaks volumes about our mindset and our assumptions.

This media presentation coloured massively the federal response to the crisis. Instead of responding to a genuine humanitarian crisis, the government mounted an invasion. Instead of rescuing and providing hospice, the government roared in, Apocalypse Now style, to restore Law & Order. The results are infamous. This is the real face of racism.

My soon-to-be wife, the lovely Ashley, and I started a tradition (of which we are on year II) of reading the same book and discussing it together as part of our respective birthdays. It is like a private book club. I would recommend this highly as it was led to some great conversations and some great examples of finding out something that you never knew before about the other person.  Zeitoun was my choice for this February.

Worth a read, but perhaps more suited for a dentist’s waiting room rather than your special, arm-chair and wine and soft music reading time book.

“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore”: A Review

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Have you read any of the Harry Potter books?

Have you read any Dan Brown?

I am not insinuating that this book measures up to some sort of orgasmic Brown/Rowling clawing-open-of-heaven. Rather, I simply want to prepare you for the the literary trade winds that undoubtedly dictated the course of this book.

One part Google worship, one part cribbing from the DaVinci Code and National Treasure, and one part hipster story at a cocktail party, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore has a little bit of magic and quite some charm.

I mention the Potter books because Rowling had the ability to create magic out of a normal place: you turn the corner – the right corner – and bam! you find yourself in a magical lane. This sense of magic hidden around corners is what Sloan does best.

For a novel about books and books stores, and one presumes is an ode to book and reading about books, this book seemed to dwell primarily on technology and how technology pretty much blows books and “old knowledge” out of the water completely. I was left with a deflating sense that the past has nothing to offer, and that I should sell me soul to Google as quickly as possible. The future is now, and already I feel outdated.

The little world Sloan created here is sunny and warm. Nothing really bad happens here. There is a “bad guy” but we only can tell he is the bad guy because Sloan knows we have seen enough Hollywood movies to know the story and the characters in advance. There is no mystery here either, and what is very promising in the first few chapters peters out quite quickly.

The book is so cheerful that it made me a little depressed.

Depressed about the caliber of writing, about books, about what it means that the back of the book had major papers raving about the book and I found it to be suitable mostly only for young adults. Technology dominates the story and plot and most of Sloan’s asides (which are witty and often interesting). It felt like the literature world bowing in surrender and long-suffering to its new Lord and Master, the INTERNET.

It is not that I did not enjoy the book, I just felt like I had fallen in to Picador’s plan to try and get Millennials to read books. It just felt ready to be a screenplay in a Pixar movie; not a work of literature.

I am willing to admit that maybe the fact that books that read like literature is exactly what people are not reading anymore; I guess that most people simply do not connect to the themes or the style anymore. They have no patience for worlds of subtle symbolism, lyrical description and poetic truth (as opposed to clinical truth; you know, bar graphs and percentages).

The ancient mystery that Sloan’s alter-ego uncovers and effortlessly unwraps is not solved by Google’s computers. But this only because there is no message that computers can understand; the message we receive in the end from the ancient mystery is hardly worth the effort at all. And Sloan fails to deliver at least a whiff that maybe there are things that computer and technology and get for us.

I know that publishers are insecure about the future of books and their profit margins. We all are. But part of getting people hooked on books will be to deliver content that cannot be got from a Google search.

Probably makes for a decent audio book.

“Invisible Man”: A Review

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First published in 1952, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison has been a fixture of the “American Canon” and has found its way on to high school english teacher’s reading list for their students ever since. Only recently have I gotten around to reading it.

I knew it primarily as a book whose cover had been blown up to wall poster size and placed on the walls inside Barnes & Nobles. As such, I found myself dismissing it.

This was a mistake.

Invisible Man is a masterpiece. And while I will not say that it reaches the first tier of books that I have read (like Anna KareninaMoby Dick, The Things They Carried and The Quiet American for example), it is a strong ‘second tier’ book. It is both beautifully written and a powerful psychological and sociological story as well as a meditation on what it means to be African-American and this communities relationship and future with the white majority.

Ellison’s protagonist, which we suspect is heavily autobiographical, undergoes a personal journey which we can read as symbolic for the journey of the African-American community. Born into a poor share-cropper community in the south, he wins an essay contest. Before he can claim this symbolic reward, he undergoes a savage battle royale with other blacks for a blood-thirsty all-white audience of the local “great and good”.

The symbolic reward is a brief case and scholarship to a black college which we gather is the Tuskegee Institute. He proceeds to become a symbol of the “Atlanta Compromise” mindset which acquiesced to Jim Crow laws. This goes disastrously wrong, and expelled, he moves to New York City.

Here, after a spell of working in American industry, which is a disaster, he is treated in a “factory hospital”. But even this hospital is a front for social domination; a pseudo-scientific psychological lobotomy is preformed and the un-named protagonist undergoes a major crisis of identity.

Finally, in the last third of the book, the protagonist falls in with “the Brotherhood” run by “Brother Jack”. This shadowy organisation we can take to be communism; as the references to “dialectics” and “materialism” and being on “the right side of history” come thick and heavy. Brother Jack at a key moment babbles in some foreign language, and the protagonist becomes obsessed with destroying “the Brotherhood” as simply an other form of white social control of the black community.

The first several chapters I thought were pure literary lyricism. I was sweating: how had I not heard of this book earlier? But to be honest, the book did drag a little. Not to say it becomes boring; it simply is unable to maintain the brilliance of the first few chapters. The plot becomes harder to follow after the protagonist leaves the hospital; the book becomes more literal and less literary/symbolic/metaphorical.

But do not let this dissuade you from reading the book.

For those of you interested in philosophy, I wish I could send copies of Foucault’s works back in time to Ellison when he was writing this book; there is an affinity to later philosophical insights that Ellison seems to be chasing after in Invisible Man. Ultimately, Ellison’s protagonist comes to personal conclusions rather than sweeping socio-political programatic solutions. The reader is left skeptical, as regardless of your political persuasion, you will see your favoured program dragged through the harsh street of reality. This novel manages to really explore the options that African-Americans as individuals and as a community are faced with.

True to its title, the protagonist bounces from one situation to another and quickly has his illusions stripped from him as other characters in the book (with varying levels of symbolic intensity) mistake the protagonist for what ever it is they want or expect or fear. This is the best part of the book. Watch as pillars of the community profess their mindset, ulterior motives, and fears, all projected onto this invisible everyman of a protagonist.

Without revealing too much more, there is also a character who is physically black, but thanks to his WWI European experience is white. And of course this character is kept in an insane asylum. A powerful and interesting character who only makes two brief appearances, but is the sort of character I think someone should do a P.h.D. english paper on.

If you where in any way intrigued or angered by what has been happening in Ferguson, you need to read this book. This book should be required reading in American classrooms.

“Dark Alliance”: A Review

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“The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion.”

It’s the 1980s. It’s the late Cold War. Its the War on Drugs in its most Tom Clancy-esque phase. This book oozes Regan-era America, with its mixture of right-wing ideology internationally and its domestic policies that herald neoliberalism and the post-modern era. This is also a work about American journalism, a stormy discharge of facts; a personal attempt at redemption and vindication.

Set largely in America’s southern border zone stretching from LA to Miami and south to Colombia, this is a tale of government hypocrisy, the bitter, depressing reality of journalism in America, and a study of ideology and power when clocked with the phrase “national security”.

The basic tale is this. South and Central America was a hotbed of Cold War proxy fighting. Every country either had a right-wing government with a left-wing guerrilla insurgency, or a left-wing government with the CIA desperately attempting to topple and sabotage it via a right-wing insurgency.

The Cuban experience: Batista, Castro, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and right-wing Cuban ex-pats in Miami formed the blueprint and ideological framework for what would happen in numerous South American countries over the coming decades. Nicaragua was ruled by the hated Somoza (hereditary) dictatorship. The Somoza regime, maintained ultimately by the financial boons to be had by taking sides in the Cold War, was a puppet of the US. Our Bulgaria. The Nicaraguan Guardia Nacional, or simply, the Guardia, was notorious for its viciousness and efficiency. It was the pet project of the CIA, a bulwark against communism in central America.

So well trained and funded was the Guardia, that Anastasio Somoza confidently predicted that the US would always protect his regime simply to protect its investment in the National Guard. With Jimmy Carter as president, Somoza was wrong. He was ousted in 1979 by the socialistic Sandinistas.

Two things happen as a result. Somoza’s ruling clique and its followers fled the country for the US, where, like Batista’s followers after the Cuban Revolution, they formed a highly politicised immigrant community. Second, the CIA immediately started efforts to undermine and eventually overthrow the Sandinista government. Soon, counter-revolutionary Nicaraguan groups where forming; these groups became known as the “Contras”.

With Reagan’s election, the Cold War entered its final phase, and the Reagan Administration adopted the cause of the Contras as its own. However, funding for the Contras was controlled largely by Congress, and therefore financial support for the Contras movement was never on a firm basis.

Essentially, the CIA provided crucial protection and immunity for key Somocista figures, most notably Norwin Meneses and Danilo Blandon, to import massive amounts of cocaine into the USA, all in the name of providing funds for the Contra organisations. The DEA and Justice and State Departments are all deeply implicated in Webb’s evidence.

The Meneses/Blandon organisation delt cocaine primarily to Ricky Ross, a fascinating character who came to dominate the drug trade in LA. The three men together form the core of the story. It was Ricky Ross who actually actually delt the cocaine and was the marketing brain behind the crack cocaine explosion in south-central LA during the ’80s.

In the end, the whole thing gradually unravelled with the massive Iran-Contra scandal and the fall from power of Oliver North. But not before Webb’s reporting became national news. The tragedy is that despite formidable research and significant circumstantial evidence, the major newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post chose to ignore Webb’s evidence; and published stories that assured their readers that the federal government was not in the business of dealing cocaine.

Eventually, Webb’s editors sabotaged his story and he was effectively forced out of the story and his job. So no happy ending here folks.

The most powerful aspects of the book is the deep connection between the Reagan Administration’s ideological and international goals and its domestic policies. On one hand, this is the “Just Say No” Administration, which ratcheted up the War on Drugs to its highest level. On the other, it is achingly clear that this same administration eagerly looked the other way as cheap cocaine was flown into LA in the name of CIA controlled counterrevolutionary conspiracy. Webb’s story is massively complex and delves into the depths of our society and government where Law & Order and Crime, Degeneracy & Poverty are revealed to be interlinked and intertwined.

Some downsides. Webb’s book reads as the world’s biggest newspaper article. The sheer accumulation of facts and reportage is simply overwhelming. It also feels unverifiable and unfinished. It reads as raw: its both raw emotionally and raw in terms of data. And while the circumstantial evidence and government denials are damning, there is a murky “he said she said” problem.

For example, Person X will say that Person Y is definitely CIA, or definitely CIA backed and was completely involved in running drugs and weapons. There will be a complex story with some unexplained parts; strange airports in Costa Rica for example, or inexplicable early releases from jail. The problem is when Person Y is questioned by Webb, nothing is revealed. Person Y will claim Person W as his contact, and this Person W will be either be totally incommunicado, or will seem to at times be acting without the knowledge of his superiors in his department.

Rather than a conspiracy, it is rather a massive governmental turning-of-the-blind-eye towards what every other person and agency or organisation was doing, and the motivational or organising force was not Reagan or the “White House” but more of a knowledge by high level Washington officials in key departments the ideological priorities of the Reagan Administration. The closest figure of guilt and organisational intelligence is Oliver North. But as North has been crucified with the Iran-Contra affair, it seem that the major figures of the Contra drug dealing scandal have effectively escaped from their crimes and their hypocrisy.

This book is fascinating. It is dark. As I read this book before bedtime, I would have deliciously paranoid dreams about drug deals and government agents running wild across suburban neighbourhoods and south American banana republics. Be prepared, however, for some frustration both in terms of reading, and in terms of conclusion.

This book screams for a vindication and governmental investigation. Webb deserves redemption.

Rutschcommando

Today was my last day as part of the World Cup. No, not soccer, the alpine/downhill ski racing world cup.

For certain parts of Europe (Austria and Switzerland mostly) this is like the Super Bowl amalgamated with the PGA tour. The Alpine World Cup circuit takes place mostly in the Alps, the only exceptions being Lake Louise in Banff, and Beaver Creek in good ole Colorado.

For about two weeks, the Vail Valley area is taken over by Europeans and ski racers instead of week-end warriors from Denver and upper-middle class families from Dallas and Mexico City.

I was lucky enough to volunteer (it all came together at the very last second), and even better, I became part of the “Talon Crew”, the horde of ski junkies that build the race course and maintain it through the duration of the races. This is a surprisingly complex, and labour-inducing task. Let me explain why.

Alpine ski racing has four main events: the Downhill, which has the longest course and the highest speeds. This event is about guts, fury and power. The next is the Super-G which is quite similar to the Downhill, except is a little shorter and features more turns. Next comes the Giant Slalom, which is shorter still, and feature even more turns. The slowest and shorts of the races is Slalom; this race is about discipline, technical expertise, and finesse.

Ideally, the race course should have the surface of an ice rink, except splayed out on the side of a mountain. If at first this seems contrived and artificial, the real reason is that the harder, ice-y surface of the race course is in a certain sense safer. The reasoning behind this is that soft, fluffy snow cannot hold the physical forces at work at ninety miles an hour. Modern ski racing developed as a positive feedback loop between increasing racing speeds and the ability of people to build courses to handle the increased pressures. Technology in the form of plastics for ski boots and ski design and shape have kept pace too.

The result is surprisingly labour-intensive projects whenever there are high-level ski races. All loose or fresh snow must be raked, shovelled, or plowed with skis off the course. To arrest the kinetic forces of a crashing ski racer, a labyrinth of protective nets must be erected; like those you see at golf driving ranges, except in as many as five layers of nets. During the race, the course is constantly repaired; entire crew will be tasked with spraying the blue lines so the racers can maintain a sense of speed and distance.

For these championships, nearly twenty-five hundred people volunteered for a period of close to three weeks. Sometimes the work can be gruelling. And shovelling snow in a snowstorm on the side of a mountain in winter can feel as useless and contradictory as building a sand-castle with the tide coming in fast.

Indeed, I had a taste of what the ancient Egyptians must have felt building the pyramids: a huge labour project with no practical or realistic benefits. And like the ancients, we were paid in bread and beer.

I got lucky with my work crew. They were Europeans: mostly Swiss, Austrians, Germans. A few Norwegians. This means that they were excited to be there. The way a normal American male would be to stand on the field during the Superbowl. They were there to volunteer, yes, but also to watch the races and to see first hand their racing heroes and heroines. To be honest, few Americans know anything about ski racing. Even most of the Talon Crew would be hard pressed to name more then three or four American Ski Team personalities, much less recognize them on the street or on the slope.

The Europeans, however, could. They recognised the old greats, the ageing legends. They hobnobbed with the European ski racers and coaches. Watching the racers prepare for a race, they stood in silent respect (though could not resist taking some pictures and video). There was Thomas, the leader of our crew from Switzerland. Tall, urbane; yellow POC helmet. He seemed to have the money to simply fly around the world volunteering for ski races. There was Stein and Yarson (?) from Norway; they both looked like Robert Redford in Downhill Racer. Stein hinted that he was a seasoned ski racer. I felt embarrassed that I did not recognise him.

There was a Swiss couple, a surly burgher from Austria (who refused to teach me German swear words), some young Germans who were making a real to America out of the whole thing. These were Mattais (traded his Talon Crew jacket for a Germany Ski Team jacket, the lucky dog) and Kathrine (Austrian; spent hours explaining the difference between Austria and Germany) and Timo (who had a funny Swabian accent and was a terrible skier).

We were rutschcommando. The slip crew. Our job was to side slip or snow plow with our skies snow off the course, or to slide out ruts in the course. This is the aristocracy of the ski race volunteer world. You make many laps and are thus quite mobile. You receive large amounts of downtime. It is assumed that you are strong skiers because slipping a course that is literally made of ice can be an intimidating prospect. And when there is a race, there you are with a front row seat to the races in their full glory.

Perhaps most interesting was watching the national stereotypes play out. The Italian racers where flamboyant; they created a space of awareness about them. They preened themselves and joked with each other and us. Meanwhile, the Austrians had a over-serious calisthetics warm up program for their racers, the entire time, being deadly serious and involving stretchy purple ropes. The French coaches were arrogant. The Canadians where surprisingly successful at the races and where at the same time ignored. The Americans were the centre of the US press despite a mediocre showing.

I was intrigued with the teams from the lesser or unknown skiing nations. India. Georgia. Iceland. Chile. Kazakistan. Clearly success at ski racing takes a highly fortuitous combination of geography, money, and interested supporters. Watching Team India ski, I felt like I could make the India ski team. One wonders if these nations will ever field a team to compete with what seems to be the Big Five of ski racing: Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and the USA (and honourable mention to Norway and France).

The world of ski racing is incredibly small. It is incredibly monied. I slipped part of the race course with a fourteen year old girl who has put her high school education on hold to basically train full time for ski racing. She travels the world to New Zealand, Canada, Argentina and Austria and is constantly homesick. How many people can afford to send their child traveling the world? And that, I think, is the secret to World Cup success: the financial backing to literally raise hundreds of ski racers from their earliest years.

Both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies where modelled off of the Olympics. Lots of children and mediocre fireworks. A parade of nations that exceeded the number of nations actually participating. As far as know, Burkina Faso does not have a ski racing team.

All in all, it was a great experience. I made a kaleidoscope of new friends, and felt like I got to hang out with the skiing deities. It was very international. It was a celebration of speed and snow. Memories were made. And much swag was acquired.