Archive for April, 2018

1,260 Books

Every time I pick up an Umberto Eco novel, I launch into the same pep talk mantra: I am smart enough to get this book. I am smart enough to get this book.

This time the book is The Prague Cemetery.

I have had two false starts with the book, but the summary really sells it as a historical mystery set in late nineteenth century Europe. There are the Illuminati, the Jacobins, and, plus, Prague. Also, I’d like to better my record with Eco.

Me: 1

Eco: 2

By page 50 it’s clear that my mantra is wrong and I have made a mistake. I struggle through the next 17 or so pages in a valiant attempt to save some intelligent face, but it’s coming to an end. Every morning I look at the 400 plus pages I have to read in order to say that I read another Eco and I sigh.

Conversation with Lee:

Me: talk me off the cliff.

Lee: Sure.

Me: I am struggling through an Eco book. Should I put it down?

Lee: Yep.

This is unusual since Lee never puts down books before he has finished reading the last page, but before I can ask, he says:

2,400 dude.

Me: 2,400 what?

Lee: 2,400 is the number of books I have left in me to read.

Me: [enter quizzical muttering here]

Lee: I figure I have about 40 more years on the planet and about 60 books a year. So I have about 2,400 books left to read. I ain’t wasting one of them on something I don’t want to read.

Me: [enter eureka/ohm aha here]

Naturally I did the math shortly after hanging up the phone. I am guessing (read: hoping) that I have about 42 years left and average about 30 books a year. That puts me at about 1,260 books I can read before I die.

This makes me glum. To quantify my life in books and to end up at the rather unimpressive number of 1,260 is a bit disappointing. Disappointment leads to panic and panic leads to anger. How can I only have 1,260 books left in me?

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Walmart One

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s Sunday. I’m eating hummus. Things are good. And then I make the mistake of reading the news.

Two days ago an asteroid “the size of a Walmart” passed close by the Earth. What’s close? As regards asteroids and their physical approximation to Earth, “close” is anything closer than we are to the moon. This one was half our average distance to the moon. So, close.

Another alarming detail is that it was moving at 66,000 miles an hour. If it had not disintegrated in our atmosphere, a Walmart flying 66,000 miles an hour might have popped out of the sky and drilled (probably) Russia. I say Russia not with scientific proof, but partially because the two other asteroid strikes in the article both hit Russia, and partially out of better you than me wishful thinking. It’s the price you pay for covering more than an eighth of the planet.

According to the article, the asteroid, 2018 GE3, would have “caused regional, not global damage.” (Side note: call me old fashioned, but we should prioritize better naming things that almost killed us. We didn’t name the Black Widow ‘2901 SPIDHRGLS’ for a reason.) Anyway, I was slightly put at ease by the protection of our atmosphere and asteroids’ propensity to aim themselves at Russia.

But then I make the mistake of looking up more articles about asteroids. I read about their devastating effect on the environment and the fact that many scientists now recognize them as our number one threat for global disaster. Stephen Hawking (you’ve heard of him. pretty smart dude) says that any asteroid over 20 km in diameter that hits Earth will “bring an end to all complex life on Earth.” Any ease I have attained is now completely washed away.

I notice that I can’t stop looking at the sky now. It’s blue and perfect, Prague Castle is carved out in the distance against it. There is a little serenity in this, but then I imagine a Walmart hurting out of the sky at 66,000 miles an hour and hitting it, and serenity is gone. I hoist my binoculars and scan the horizon.

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Five Writers who Know How to Kill a Man

By Alex Gotfryd/CORBIS/Getty Images.

…and who aren’t George R.R. Martin. Let’s leave out the most contemporary and obvious one: George R.R Martin. If you have ears or eyes or know someone who has ears or eyes, then you know Martin’s imagination is epic, and he applies it to the dismantlement of the human body. If characters are cognizant, and I like to think they are, then when one realizes they have been borne into Game of Thrones they probably mutter the Westeros equivalent of “Oy vey” and wonder if they will be melted or eaten by dogs or zombies.

Here are five other writers who are enormously adept at killing a man off. And by “man” I mean anyone or anything with a face, a mother, and a heartbeat that’s on borrowed time.

Stephen King

OK, the obvious one. Stephen King’s talents lie in horror, killing people, clowns, killing people, dissuading people from making fun of the prom queen, and killing people. But because of his ubiquity in the horror genre, King is often overlooked as a writer of tremendous power and whose blood runs as cold as a snake’s fridge. In winter.

What sets him apart from other writers is that he does not care who you are. Other thriller writers might threaten children or the cuddly family pup, but then rescue them at the last moment to ensure that the reader isn’t too shocked and disturbed. But nobody is safe in a King story. Pregnant women. Little kids looking for their paper boat. Children. Family dogs. All have seen their end in Stephen King stories in ways so graphic and horrid so as to make the reader yearn for the safety of a black widow nest.

For examples of King’s cruelty check out Salem’s Lot, Cujo, and It. Cycle of the Werewolf is my favorite; it’s a novella so there’s more kill per page.

Larry McMurtry

Life in the American West was not easy and as proof, you have the books of one of the great American storytellers, Larry McMurtry. Like any great storyteller, he knows that sometimes in a story it’s time to die. Very, very brutally.

Comanche Moon and Lonesome Dove are two of the greatest westerns ever written. (NB: They’re no slouch in the literature department either, Lonesome Dove won the Pulitzer in 1985). And most of the characters that die in them do so in violent and rather grisly manners. Such was life when you wandered out of a town in the nineteenth century and was especially true of those who run afoul of the Comanche, whose creed essentially was to praise Mother Nature, Father Earth and to ruin the frick out of anyone who’s ticked you off or just happened to be nearby and not Comanche at the same time.

So you have lots of creative death and dismemberment that makes you squirm in your seat and implore the literature gods. This includes such hits as skinning people alive and letting them rot in the sun, so (read: too) much emasculation, chewing off fingers, pulling intestines from a living person and tying them to a tree to serve as coyote food, or slow roasting people over fires.

It’s awful(ly wonderful).

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Don’t be Big Brother

The most unlikable guy I’ve ever known used to frequent a dive bar I tended. From 5-7 pm the clientele was mostly blue collar guys, primarily consisting of roofers who had no idea that tip was a verb. After they cleared out, the place was up for grabs. My friends might stop in or young people grabbing cheap beers on their way out on the town. As the night wore on, however, the place became a No Man’s Land of boozers, street kids, crack heads, and homeless that had walked out of the pages of a Bukowski story. This bar has made me appreciate every job I’ve had since I walked through its doors on my last day.

The fact that one guy manages to be the most unlikable of all the characters I dealt with is almost dubiously impressive, like being told by Hunter Thompson that he can’t keep up with your drinking.

His most distinguishing feature was a cigarette burn in the middle of an already inadvisable mustache. He was pure asshole; and he played the part well. He would badger me (or others) for money to have another drink even though he never once tipped me, he went on racist rants against his sister’s boyfriend, who had more integrity in his little finger than this guy would ever possess. He was married and had four children to four other women, a fact which he explained scientifically by pointing out that he’d spent his youth “young, dumb, and full of come.” I’m guessing that most who knew him wished he’d remained the latter.

He came in three nights a week to rendezvous with his mistress. He’d stay until his money was gone, spending it on beer, Yukon Jack, and, as he still does in my darkest nightmares, the jukebox. When he’d saunter over and slip those coins in, I knew what was coming next: In the Ghetto by Elvis Presley.

And he sang. Like sang sang. Like drunk Elvis impersonator doing karaoke sang. He’d shut his eyes, stand in the corner, let out a breath as if tantalizing a stadium of people, and then he’d poke a finger into the air and start out about a child born on a cold and gray Chicago mornin’, and he wouldn’t stop until the song was done and I was climbing into the sink holding the radio. He’d then come back to his stool, breathing heavily and triumphant, to reap the spoils of his success in a heated make out session with his mistress.

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Strive to be a Do Nothing

It’s a slur against someone. You’re such a do nothing!  

And yet, I strive to do nothing. Oh, how I love me some irony.

I try to do nothing every morning for ten minutes; it never works out. I spend the time – usually capping out around four minutes – worrying about what I have to do. Blog. Work out. Plan lessons. Check messages and email. Meetings.

Doing nothing is hard work. When we do nothing, we tell the world that we aren’t playing by its rules for a little bit and we go against our instincts and our guilt. This morning, in an effort to do nothing, I made a list of ways to do nothing. Again, irony.

Go to a Café on a Weekday Morning  

One of my students told me that every morning he sits in a café downstairs from his flat. He gets a coffee, leisurely scrolls through his phone or reads. Sometimes, he said, he just sits there.

I was almost as impressed as I was incredulous. On a weekday morning!?

This seems the most defiant of Do Nothing activities. With a whole day of responsibilities ahead of me, my brain and fingers are on overdrive. I can’t stop moving or thinking. If you can enjoy a cup of coffee on a weekday morning without guilt or stress, then I will gladly suffix your first name with Lama.

Day Drink

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Nationalistic Schadenfreude

I was on the metro once when a German tourist realized he’d had his wallet lifted at the airport and shouted “Sheize!” before storming off the car. Every single person on that car cracked a smile. To this day it is the only time I have ever seen a group of Czechs smile on public transport.

The Czechs love a bit of Schadenfreude – deriving pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. And while I have certainly undertaken aspects of my adoptive country’s cultural habits, like enjoying apocalyptic silence on trams or embracing socks and sandals, this one came as a shock.

I have always prided myself on two things: First, I don’t wish bad things on people, and second, my unusually soft thumb hair. As for the former, I usually wish the best for people and genuinely want them to be happy and healthy. But I have come to understand that I sometimes enjoy seeing people sweat, and my motivations are nationalistic.

For example, there are few things more satisfying than seeing British people become socially uncomfortable. The British are very open about their social awkwardness, but witnessing the push of this particular envelope induces a mildly orgasmic reaction.

A couple of years ago, a British colleague walked into the office only to be confronted with the horror of a surprise birthday party. The agony of discomfort that overtook him as it dawned on him that the party was something like a horrible beauty. I thought he might throw himself out of the window. When they handed him a cake and a handsomely-wrapped present, he almost cried. I wished I’d had a beach chair and a tub of popcorn.

Nearly as satisfying is watching an American food order go wrong. Americans love nothing more than ordering a meal and modifying it until it no longer resembles the meal from which it originated. Anyone who has ever taken any part in a meal near any American knows exactly what I am talking about. Can I get the burger but with chicken instead of beef, with half sweet potato fries and half russets, with kosher sea salt on the russets only? Instead of barbecue sauce, can you do a frog demi-glace with sautéed mushrooms in eggplant oil, and instead of lettuce can I get onions fried in baby-tofu seal fat? Thaaaaanks!

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No Witnesses, Please

We all have guilty pleasures. A pleasure is only guilty when you don’t want other people to see you enjoying that pleasure. So the guy who says “My guilty pleasure is hanging out on the back of my truck drinking Jack Daniels and listening to Johnny Cash” is full of crap.

That guy’s guilty pleasure is dancing around in a towel lip-syncing to Taylor Swift’s Blank Space (this is said with absolutely no experience of having done this).

So let’s just be clear what we’re talking about. Things that you love to do that you don’t want anyone seeing or knowing you do.

Dropping Everything to Excrete

This is more about being 43 years old than a guilty pleasure, but it’s something I don’t want people to see me doing. It all boils down to a window of opportunity consideration. Something has to come out of your (mostly) exit only portals and you go somewhere and let your body do its own yoga.

Trust me. Embrace this. One day you will, nonetheless.

Emotional YouTube

I will not go into details. But with a few drinks under my belt, I am not watching intellectual conversations between Dick Cavett and Gore Vidal.

Singing Songs in French

…which is a language I do not speak. So I just sing gibberish in what I sort of gather is a French accent. Which, again, is not accurate in any way.

My Interview with Conan O’Brien

He was a big fan of my book. We had lattes.

Nightshirts

At bedtime in movies and television, women wear a T-shirt and nothing else and guys wear pajama pants and maybe a T-shirt. It’s masculine and suggests that he’s ready for any emergencies that might occur during the night.

For years I wore pajama pants. And while I slept everything below my waist would become the temperature and humidity of the Amazon. Invariably I’d wake up in the middle of the night and chuck my pants across the room.

I finally came to terms with the fact that I’d rather be comfortable and look feminine than uncomfortable and look masculine. And so I simply wear a longish T-shirt and nothing else. And while you might suggest that is girly, I remind you that Ebenezer Scrooge navigated his way through three Christmas ghosts wearing a nightshirt, and my below-waist sleepy time climate is mild.

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Easter Anxiety

Though I was ready to buy almost any story I heard, I found Easter pretty unlikely when I was a kid. Jesus is sold out by his friends, denied by his legions of followers, killed in a horrible way, buried in a cave, and then after three days emerges, relatively unperturbed as to recent events.

Nah. Never bought it.

Part of my disbelief hinges on the pictures. In the hundreds of artist representations depicting Easter that I saw growing up, above my grandmom’s living room couch or in all of my grade schools, Jesus always seemed a bit wiser, calmer, inspired, a whole lot holier, and maybe a bit roughed up. He definitely appeared ready to move on up to the next place.

Of course now I look at those pictures with a different perspective. With more experience, I see a dude resurrected, climbing out of a pit after a long dark winter, both literal and figurative. Sticking with that metaphor, in the pictures it’s the beginning of spring, lighter, easier going. In almost all of these pictures, sunlight is dramatically present.

I always supposed that the whole scene was meant to convey Jesus’ transition from man to God. Coming out of the grave. Rebirth. In better condition. Transition from man to God. The sunlight. God, grace, optimism, divinity. The liberation from earth and the ascendance to Heaven. But now I think that’s all a crock.

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