A Misspent Youth

A Misspent Youth

Let’s get this straight:  While I feel not one jot of guilt for the many ways in which the best years of my young life were squandered, I am very much aware of the many opportunities lost as I mastered skills that would serve no useful purpose in my later life and certainly provided no benefit to society.  What in particular was left unattended?

Well, math, polite conversation, woodburning, knot tying, automobile maintenance, maintenance of any sort really, French, practicing the piano, laundry, letter writing, weeding, emptying the litter box, art, thank you notes, sensible eating, flags of the world, patience, and sundry other worthwhile attainments.  Any of which might have profited me handsomely, or at least might have prevented some of the notable failures that haunted me into late adolescence.

There were a few scattered, half-hearted undertakings, but I lacked ambition and grit, and thus rarely stuck with truly challenging enterprises. The Cub Scouts, for example, expected quite a bit from its Bobcats, Tiger Cubs, Wolves, Bears, Webelos, and Arrows of Light.  I can state that with confidence without having actually navigated my way up the food chain.  This partially successful Bobcat (newcomer rank) sailed through the first level of scouting which involved buying the shirt, patch, and cap.  I suppose I should give a parent some credit for the purchase as my weekly allowance would hardly cover the cost of Cub duds, and, as previously outlined, saving up for something I wanted  would have belonged in the general category of postponing gratification, a skill set I chose not to develop.  The next hurdle involved mastery of the Scout Sign, two fingers held aloft, essentially rabbit ears, a physical challenge I managed easily, and the ability to explain the meaning of the sign (“to help other people” and “to obey”), neither of which seemed very interesting but were at least relatively uncomplicated.  The next step was to memorize the Law of the Pack and the Cub Scout Motto.  I never got to the motto, primarily because the Law of the Pack, which begins with the phrase, “The Cub Scout follows Akela…”,  was so puzzling that I quietly shed my blue beanie and left the pack to its own devices.  My subscription to Boy’s Life, the magazine of scouting, followed me into my freshman year at college, but I never earned a single merit badge, no backpacking badge, no dentistry badge, no leather work badge.

So, how did I spend those formative years?  I read quite a bit, evading the school’s assigned reading almost from the start, lolling happily with Frank and Joe Hardy and their chums, Chet Morton (i.e. “me”, chunky and dim) and Biff Hooper (i.e. “my inner jock” – six feet tall, blonde, and athletic).  Disorganized in every other venture, I began with The Tower Treasure and read the books in order until the start of the eleventh grade, when I found The Viking Symbol Mystery less engaging than I had hoped.  I read books about baseball and football, books about space and time travel, books about lost civilizations, and books about knights and dragons.

In what may have been the most curious impulse but perhaps the most profitable, I read the dictionary and the World Book Encyclopedia.  Had I made the final cut for Jeopardy or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, I might have been able to monetize the hours spent poring over accounts historical, scientific, and technical.  On the other hand, I only had access to the edition of the World Book published in 1917, so some articles probably called for updating.  On the third hand, the descriptions were delicious and far more evocative than those appearing in the 1950’s and ’60s, as was this description of the Basque.

“Basque – a brave, proud, and independent people whom no invaders have ever crushed or expelled from their native province in Northern Spain and the southwestern corner of France, near the Pyrenees.”

Upon consideration, perhaps these were not the most curious of occupations.  I’ve written elsewhere of my fascination with professional wrestling and dissection; as Stan Lee might put it – ‘Nuff Said.  So, yes, I read comics by the truckload as well.  And then …

It pains me to admit that I spent a great deal of time perfecting sound effects of all sorts, many of which punctuated instruction in the classroom, most notably the long whistle of a bomb falling from great height, exploding on impact with at least four separate sorts of concussion.  Impressive but not appreciated.  With regard to impressions, I did a fair Bela Lugosi and Donald Duck, but the sole effect I employ even now, a hair-raising and spot-on evocation of a cat in terminal battle mode, continues to go unappreciated no matter how often I trot it out.

There was no merit badge for the mastery of the “rat tail”, a towel moistened at the tip, curled and snapped in one fluid motion, but it was an entirely necessary protective measure as ten or fifteen boys, a considerable number of whom were hormonally challenged and eager to express their sublimated vitality with aggressive manoeuvres of various degrees of intensity, were herded naked into a shower room each afternoon following required team sport.  I was among the smallest and certainly among the two or three chunkiest, an obvious target, easy to corner, clumsy enough to fall against the bank of radiators.  During the subsequent summer, a well-meaning but likely insane relative thought I would find a visit to a tannery jolly fun.  I did not, and the stench of flayed animals remains with me to this day.  I knew something like that smell, of course, as my wet buttocks and flanks had been frequently pushed into the steaming radiators, leaving vertical burns of varying sizes.  I was reluctant to show these burns to the school nurse, but they were increasingly angry as they went untreated.  I finally swallowed my pride and bared my backside, but I determined not to put myself in danger again.

Thus the rat tail.  Yes, I had to enter the shower room, but carrying a towel, I had a weapon at hand.  I pictured myself Zorro or Lash LaRue, an artist with a whip.  I was and am able to twirl a towel and snap it with precision in a single motion.  As I am rarely assaulted in showers these days, I have to content myself with idly snapping a magazine from a shelf or a toothbrush from the side of the sink.  A dry towel snaps, but a moistened towel delivers a stinging slap, as my toothbrush can attest.

In recent years, I have found that I can kick-start any conversation by asking if my companion has a hidden or secret talent.  It is my experience that everyone does, from the ability to belch the alphabet to the wiggling of ears.  I’ll offer the yowling cat, but I long for the day when a stranger asks if anyone in the room can snap a rat tail with a pop so loud that it sounds like fireworks.  I may have to wait for some time.  Disappointng.

My brother posts frequently on Facebook and YouTube.  Perhaps the time has come for me to offer my own instructional videos.  I have this heavy yellow towel with exactly the right heft;  check local listings.









Here’s Why I Watched Twenty-Eight Hours Of Tennis Last Week

Here’s Why I Watched Twenty-Eight Hours Of Tennis Last Week

First of all, it’s July.

No college football for seven weeks, watching summer league basketball is like watching warm-up drills, college baseball is done, college softball is done, the National Spelling Bee is done, major league baseball was on hiatus for the All Star Game, the Little League World Series hadn’t started yet, and Battle of the Network Stars … well, let’s just remember that last week’s highlight consisted of Corbin Bernsen thumping  Cornelius Smith, Jr. in basketball.

Or, I could watch round-after-round of tennis from Wimbledon.

I confess an unhealthy regard for pomp and circumstance, the trappings of tradition, and the genteel reminder of what sport once looked like in an age of determined, and, yes, blissful, ignorance of a world beyond the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, home to the oldest tennis championship in the world.  The Championships, Wimbledon (usually referred to as Wimbledon) are played on grass courts, the only one of the Grand Slam or major championships to be played on grass.  The which would be more than enough to make Wimbledon refreshingly outdated and charming, even if dangerously close to the merely precious .  By the end f the second week, it is true, the courts show some wear, but at the start, just after they have been trimmed by what is a virtual grass Zamboni, they are magnificent.

Place, then, remarkably fit young men and women, dressed with uniform modesty in white on the courts of green, and the spectacle is unlike most other athletic contests with the obvious exception of the other pastimes played only by mad dogs and Englishmen, games such as croquet, cricket, and lawn bowls, games in which wearing white was eminently sensible at noonday in the far reaches of the now almost forgotten empire.  “Tennis whites” were the standard of dress for decades, deflecting the heat and pronouncing the player wealthy enough to have easily stained clothing dry cleaned, or, one presumes, cast off, given to urchins begging at the gates or to housekeepers puzzled by the prospect of donning a tennis dress.  In addition, tennis sounds different from other sports, at least from the sports I watch.  I have to assume that crowd noise builds in lawn bowls, but just as the tree falling in an empty woods creates an enduring koan, the tumult of the bowls crowd has to remain hypothetical.  Now that golf’s formerly hushed and properly reverential followers have given way to raucous “In The Hole” yahooing, it is only tennis in which decorum remains as essential as Wimbledon’s signature strawberries and cream, decorum so carefully guarded that players wearing black (or blue) underwear are escorted off the courts and advised to make sure that every layer of tennis wear togs as white as the moon on the breast of the new fallen snow .

The sharp contrast of white against a green background is pleasing indeed, but the greater pleasures are best described in contrast to other sports.  Want action?  There are no huddles in tennis, no trips to the mound; coaches are sequestered in seats at a remove from the courts. Yes, there is the opportunity for an instant replay; each player is granted three challenges to the umpires’ calls, But, and this is part of the on-the-ground strategy that sets tennis apart, a challenge used ill-advisedly is a challenge not available in a situation that may determine the outcome of the match.

Want power?  A powerful serve hitting the opponent’s court at up to one hundred and forty miles per hour is comparable in many way to the home run, but that serve is likely to be returned with close to equal force, initiating a true battle, shot-by-shot, game after game.  Some might argue that although tennis is nothing but action, an evenly matched pair of players can play at the height of their powers for hours until one finally outmatches the other.  True, but every minute of that long set or match is filled with constant and often spectacular action.  While a baseball game does occasionally sparkle as a great throw from centerfield catches the runner at the plate, or a third baseman spread eagles on the line to grab a rocket shot to the hot corner, we’re lucky to get one or two web gems per game.  Great tennis shots?  In an exchange on any length, we’ll see at least two or three per point.

Points?  How about this?  There are no ties in tennis; there are no matches that end up nil-to-nil.  One tennis player will score every time the ball is served, and should the game score remain even, a tie-breaking game finishes things off with a flourish.  The outcome of a hockey or soccer game can come down to a shoot-off.  Please.  Tennis does not lower itself to an unseemly trading of powerful serves to end a game.

It should also be noted that tennis is the only major sport I know in which the quality of women’s play and men’s play are recognized and appreciated with equal enthusiasm.   There are cycles, eras in which the men’s game is rich with great rivalry, but there are equally compelling eras in which remarkable women players seem to emerge at the same time. When we speak of tennis legends, we are as likely to think of Martina Navratilova as we are to think of Pete Sampras.  I’m not sure that there is another sport which could produce a female athlete such as Serena Williams who is considered the most dominant athlete of a decade, comparable to Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady.

Every sport has its share of odd characters, and here I’m assuming again that there are croquet cut-ups and bawdy cricketers, and tennis has its share of bad boys and girls, but not as vile as those in, say, the NFL and NBA.   Would I choose to ride in a closed car with any of the NFL’s unreformed wife-beaters?  Uh, no.  Could I survive the same trip with John McEnroe or Ilie Nastase?  Sure.

I have my favorites, to be sure, and Britain’s Andy Murray is not among them.  He went off again, berating an umpire at Wimbledon when a ballboy inadvertently put a women’s ball into play during a match that Murray lost.  Ok, I’m not going to go into the difference at Wimbledon between the ball used by men and that used by women; it has to do with fuzz, and that is outside the scope of this article.  In any case, yes, Murray was foul-mouthed and surly in the heat of battle, but … it was Murray who responded to the off-handed sexism of a reporter who declared that Sam Querrey, who had defeated Murray, would be the first American player to reach a final match at Wimbledon since 2009.  “Male player”, Murray interrupted.  That correction came quickly and in the midst of an interview conducted within minutes of what must have been a devastating loss for Murray.  And, it is Murray who has considered boycotting the Australian Open, another Grand Slam event, as the venue includes a court named after a noted homophobe, Margaret Court.

So I spent some part of two weeks watching the brilliant play and unexpected upsets that Wimbledon brought us this year.  Do I intend to settle in to watch play in the somewhat less rarefied mess that is the US Open, played on hard courts in New York?  Am I preparing for another half-month at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows – Corona Park, Queens?









How Can I Live In The Free World And Not Find Game Of Thrones Spoilers Everywhere I Turn?

How Can I Live In The Free World And Not Find Game Of Thrones Spoilers Everywhere I Turn?

It’s not an addiction. I can stop whenever I want to. It’s just a show; I can live without it. Money’s a little tight; no room for HBO at the moment, and like the grown up that I am, I did not hit savings to buy the Direct TV package. Didn’t even call to see how much it would be to catch the entire new run.

That might not be true.

OK, I did call, but that’s as far as it went, and I made it through the first week without weakening, even though I can’t step out of the house without hearing someone somewhere chattering about the first episode, which I probably wouldn’t watch until the end of the run anyway because I like to wallow in the entire season, living on Epic Chicken Sesame Bars and Cheetos. Which is not to say that I would walk out of a friend’s house if he happened to be screening that episode, figuring I could watch it again when the rest of the series was in the can, although watching with a friend absolutely reduces the probability of Cheetos. Some people get all fidgety when I rub my orange fingers on my socks, but I’m pretty sure that gets off most of the orange.

Yeah. That might not be true either.

In any case, until I’ve saved up enough to feed my unfortunate habit, I’m determined to avoid the entire season without stumbling over the crucial plot developments, which, to be honest, are really character deaths and dismemberment. The actual plot is pretty well clear, unless HBO decides to send George Martin into dragon withdrawal (not a spoiler). I do pretty well at guessing who is next to feel the cold embrace of the White Walkers or the tang of an embolism inducing potion. I admit, I did choke on Cheetos during the Red Wedding. Should have seen that coming.

But, in order to protect myself, I’ll have to avoid popular magazines, which will mean not shopping at my local grocery store as they not only line the checkout aisle with screaming headlines but also have the most provocative right in front of the cashier, so I’d have to pay with my eyes averted, which is obviously not a good look at any time but especially when pushing my card into the reader.

TV is ok, I think, as long as I stay away from anything produced live. I have been watching reruns of Bewitched anyway and have eight years of 24 in the slot for the moment when Dick Sargent replaces Dick York as Darrin. Don’t get me started on the Darrin Syndrome; we’re not stupid, Television.

But, and here’s the rub, I also can’t go on line without an internet buddy to screen the sites I reach, and even then I’ll have to figure out how to go into a coma when pop ups pop up. I do that already in most cases, and, since flaying is no longer as likely as it was in the Ramsay Bolton era, I can probably swerve away before being sucked into a G.O.T. update.

I have tried busking, crowdfunding, selling essential oils — all for naught. Unless an unexpected expense intrudes (buying gas, eating, electricity), I should be able to cough up enough for HBO Now in three months, just about time to put together the seven episodes in what is somewhat misleadingly called Season Seven.

Maybe four months if I splurge on the Epic Chicken Sesame Bars and Cheetos.

Hey, Maybe People Aren’t So Bad After All

Hey, Maybe People Aren’t So Bad After All

I hadn’t realized how thoroughly I had come to expect daily accounts of humans being beastly until I found the story describing the courage and decency displayed by ordinary people in Panama City, Florida, who, seeing children and adults trapped in a ferocious rip tide, joined hands, stepped up, formed a human chain, and put themselves in danger in order to rescue people they didn’t know.

After week after week of defaced temples, graves, and mosques, after swastikas, Klansmen, murders, and bullies, after being assured that there are no safe spaces, I realize that I have allowed myself and my world to shrink.  I have allowed all that is ugly to blur all that I know is lovely.

Political discourse has always brought recrimination and occasionally brought assault upon the character of those in office or the character of those holding a point of view other than one’s own, but we’ve lived through administrations that displeased us without abandoning the rule of law for the most part.  For the most part.  As I write today, it is hard for me to remember that the groovy Sixties included violence on a terrifying scale and moments in which it seemed the Republic as we knew it might not survive. I’d like to take some comfort in believing that just as those wounds healed, the current climate of animosity and distrust might not mean the end of tolerance, civility, and security.

After all, doesn’t everyone need a safe space?

I’m tempted, of course, to use the brave Floridian human chain metaphorically, recognizing the leap of … what?  Faith to be sure.  Faith that people of all sorts cherish life and are willing to go to great lengths to protect it.  Courage too, the summoning of capacities we rarely know, summoning the willingness to step into troubled waters because others need help.

Stories such as this reveal generosity of spirit and shared humanity both moving and restorative, but in addition to the “feel good” appreciation of what others have had the courage to do, they also ask us to question our own willingness to act in the interest of something other than, greater than, ourselves.  I don’t know the ethnicity of those who saved children from drowning.  I don’t know what political convictions they hold or who they love.  I only know that they came together, took a stranger’s hand, and did as a whole what they could not have done alone.




Why Don’t We Wait Until We Get There, Do It Anyway, And I Did That

Why Don’t We Wait Until We Get There, Do It Anyway, And I Did That

I’m trying to change.

I’m finding that old habits die hard, and old ideas die harder.  The weight of every bad decision, the memory of each act of thoughtless unkindness done to others, the stinging charge of every carefully cultivated  resentment is more than enough to slow the progress of change, and, if all of that weren’t enough, archived rationalizations are running relentlessly in the background, convincing me that I’m not the one who needs to change.

OK, so it takes some gumption to slog through all of that and recalibrate – maybe gumption plus the sense that living a nettled and swampy life is not much fun.  I’d like to say that gratitude is my go-to response to all that the world presents, but the truth is that I often react rather than respond, and my first reaction is not always graceful.  Rationalization can only take me so far, and I inevitably end up catching myself being myself again, nettled and swampy, and once again forgetting that I had intended to do better this time around.

I’ve read spiritual guides and self-help books galore and have found much of value there, but when I’m reacting with my dinosaur brain or trapped by my inner petulant child, I need immediate and foolproof correction.  On the spot.  Straightforward and uncomplicated.

Fortunately, I have stumbled upon a few helpful tools, not really mantras, but verbalized reminders that I have learned to consider before spinning out on one of the day’s curves.

I don’t take direct orders well.  Even lighthearted orders.  The British use the phrase, “Don’t get your knickers in  a twist,” jokingly advising that there’s not much to be gained in acting as if the future has already arrived.  It does seem reasonably clear that experiencing the emotional impact of things that might not happen brings neither comfort nor consequence, but I’m inclined to bridle at even this mild injunction. Apparently, I’m stubborn.

Fortunately, I overheard someone on a bus help a child who was very concerned that strawberry ice cream might be gone by the time they arrived at the next stop.  I was not asked and did not offer my opinion, which is a good thing because when intending to comfort, I often revert to the extension of promises I might not be able to keep.  “Of course, there will be strawberry ice cream.  There is always strawberry ice cream.”  Well, maybe not.  There might have been a run on the flavor, or the freezer might have gone on the fritz.  Thieves might have run off with all berry flavored confections; the FDA might have recalled all ice cream starting with “s”.  Who really knows until one knows?

The enlightened parent on my bus simply said, “Why not wait until we get there?”  Not an order.  More a suggestion.  Options still wide open.  Here’s the thing:  I am not wealthy or young.  Things really do tend to loom from time to time.  However, I am really not at my best when I invest all my energy in reaction to the might happen.  Sure, judicious planning makes sense and actually is comforting, but, having done what I might, the possibility of misfortune is always at hand.  So, by the way, is the possibility of lovely and unexpected good fortune.  I get all of that in the abstract, but in the heat of the moment, old habits can kick in, and I have the option of turning on the awfulizer. I also have the option of reminding myself to wait until I get there.

The results are in:  I feel better, act better, and plan better when I choose to wait until … well … whatever happens.

That observation brings me to the second helpful phrase.  Having admitted that I don’t take orders well, I guess I might as well suggest that I would rather not do things that are difficult or uncomfortable.  Preparing our taxes is difficult for me; visiting a sick person in the hospital makes me uncomfortable.  Once again, over the years it has struck me that there are consequences to both action and inaction.  A tax return not filed will bring pain, sorrow, and penalty.  The same can be said of ditching a dental appointment or not putting coins in a parking meter.  Cause and effect.  Not visiting a sick friend, not returning a phone call to a friend in need, not addressing a sticky issue in a relationship, each has consequences.  Cause and effect again, darn it.

It appears that how I feel about the relationship between cause and effect has absolutely nothing to do with how things turn out.  Remember those classic rationalizations on perpetual loop right somewhere next to the limbic system?  Here’s where they pump up the volume and coax me into believing, say,  that there are a dozen reasons why everyone else should pay taxes, but I should not.  Pick one:

Hedge fund guys are probably living in Barbados with the money I lost in 2008, three hundred and twenty-one million people live in the united States – surely the IRS won’t notice if one person not living in the lap of luxury misses a year or two, I don’t think I filed in 1969 – nobody seemed to care, the pothole on my street still hasn’t been fixed – I’m not sure where my tax money goes, people in the United Arab Emirate don’t pay tax, and so on.

In this case, coercion actually has worked; my taxes get done … grudgingly.  But the things I do grudgingly get neatly sorted and filed in that chamber of resentments I mentioned earlier.  I can only speak for myself – life in the chamber of resentments is no fun at all, and given that I only have this life to work with, I’d rather try to work out a way to meet the exigencies of life without grudging up on a regular basis.  That being said, I need help in breaking out of old thinking and found that I do much better when I realize that while I can choose to wish that consequence might be cancelled this year, I can also choose to just do that which ought to be done anyway.

Do it anyway.  See, the magic for me here is that I’m not being bashed for having all the screwy thoughts that I have.  I get to acknowledge the difficulty in doing something I would rather not do.  Sure, it’s uncomfortable having to tell a friend that he is out of line telling offensive jokes.  It is uncomfortable; do it anyway.  Moving the car from the handicapped parking place next to the door all the way to a spot a block a way is a pain.  It is a pain; do it anyway.

Whew!  Who knew I’d get more done and feel a lot better by just doing what I know has to be done.  And we do know.  We always know.

Oddly, I call up the final phrase, “I did that” even more frequently than the others.  It serves two purposes:  Obviously, it brings accountability.  William Carlos Williams wrote poems, but when my wife asks who ate the plums, I have to say, “I did that”.  It also gives me some perspective when I rush to judgment on other people.  I hear someone boasting and pontificating, I prepare to assign him to the lowest ring in Hell, then remember, “Oh, yeah, I did that last week at the picnic”.

It turns out that I’m allergic to accountability. I don’t like to admit my mistakes, don’t like to admit I’m  wrong, don’t like to admit I’ve done something thoughtless or just plain dumb.  A lifetime of weaseling has not done much to prevent the accountability coming my way; it’s just made every situation a bit uglier.  In  the same way that I pretty much always know what ought to be done, I pretty much know when I need to own up and stand accountable.  Apparently, knowing what needs to be done, even if my ego is battered, I have to do it anyway.  I’m a work in progress on this one, but I am increasingly convinced it’s worth the effort.

It turns out that it is actually harder and more painful to wriggle and squirm, deflect and deny, than it is to own up.  Once again, who knew?

Then, this judgment thing.  I am currently unindicted and haven’t killed anyone or carried out acts of unspeakable cruelty, but when it comes to the ordinary catalog of human failings, I have pretty much messed up as frequently as anyone I might choose to judge.  Abandon a friend? I did that.  Make fun of someone behind his back?  I did that.  Want to be the star of the show?  Ta Da!  Pretend to be something or someone I am not?  Did it.  Stretch the truth?  Uh huh.  Bore a roomful of people talking about myself?  Yep.  Try to look cool?  OK, once. And so on.

I used a phrase earlier – catching myself being myself.  That’s really where I find any progress I might make in trying to change those old habits and old ideas.  Here’s the thing though: I am starting to get a kick out of catching myself being my older self.  I am occasionally amused and almost always informed.  “Ah, there it is!  I’m terrified of something that certainly won’t happen today and may never happen.  I’m thinking about not doing what I know is the right thing to do.   I’m trying to be important.  I’m judging that guy when I’ve done what he does.  I don’t want to own up to something I’ve done.”


Now I have the choice to wait until I get there, do something I don’t want to do anyway, and hold myself accountable.

I like having the choice; it feels a little like freedom.







Wait! You Haven’t Read That?

Wait!  You Haven’t Read That?

In my final decade as a teacher of English at Cate School in California, I found great pleasure in adding a course to the elective options given to students in their senior year.  I’d come to miss some of the books I most enjoyed teaching in my early years, and became determined to bring a few back into the classroom.  Fashions in literature change, less rapidly than some other elements in education perhaps, but with significant impact.  Abandoned are a number of books once found in every high school curriculum, from The Iliad and Tess of the D’Urbervilles to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter.   A few familiar standards still appear; The Great Gatsby, for example, appears to have staying power far beyond that of equally highly regarded novels by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck.  Over the years with my sophomores, I had brought back The Odyssey and Of Mice and Men, and had added newer books such as  All the Pretty HorsesNever Let Me Go, and Ordinary People and certainly would have added Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, but there were so many books and so little time left for senior before they sailed into whatever remained of discussion of books in their college years.

So, I grabbed two trimesters for a course entitled, “Wait!  You haven’t read that?”, presenting books that I thought deserved a place in the great conversation between books in the auditorium of the mind.  At the start, Pride and Prejudice had slipped from view, but was soon to gain traction again and take its rightful place on the bookshelf.  I loved teaching the book, but had to give it up  as it gained popularity.  Mansfield Park is ready for the next jump if my successor is looking for a dark horse.  Hemingway’s In Our Time was an obvious choice as were Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, and Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin.  Best book/worst response?  Lolita (worth it!) .  Second Worst Response?  Molly Gloss’ Wildlife (Still hurts).

Ok, with a few spare minutes in retirement and in the spirit of  continuing the adventure, I’m lumping through Infinite Jest with my eldest son as a jesting buddy.  We’ll see.  In the meanwhile, I tell my friends about the authors who have recently jumped on my list, most notably Heidi Julavits, David Mitchell, and Kelly Link, but all of these went out the window this morning when, in an ill-advised moment, I picked up the Spring 2015 edition of Lapham’s Quarterly.

Seriously, unless you have world enough and time to track down the seventy to eighty authors/philosophers/lords of enterprise/scientists/poets/historians whose work is anthologized in each journal dedicated to bringing voices from the widest perspective over the widest span of time to the contemporary reader, remarkable voices collected in order to animate the various themes of the quarterly, don’t even read past the cover  I include the link so that the unwary can appreciate the sweep of ideas taken up in the life of this extraordinary quarterly.

My mistake was in picking up, Volume VII, Number 2 – Swindle and Fraud.  Lewis Lapham is the editor of the Quarterly and its moving force, but also something of a literary firebrand, an American aristocrat with truly democratic sensibilities.  Formerly the editor of Harper’s Magazine, Lapham is a prolific writer whose 2005 film, The American Ruling Class, is one of the most curiously arresting documentaries of its time.  Described as, “… the bedrock of classic academic purity and discipline,” Lapham also enjoys a wicked sense of irony, made clear in his preamble to Swindle and Fraud, in which he compares the emptying of trillions of dollars from the nation’s resources during the Great Recession to Houdini’s performance at the Hippodrome Theater in 1918, a performance in which Houdini made a five ton elephant disappear from the stage.  Writing of the great and general fleecing in 2008, Lapham writes, “Throughout the whole of its extended run, the spectacle drew holiday crowds into the circus tent of the tabloid press, and joyous in Mudville was the feasting on fools.”

Feasting on fools is celebrated in articles written by a range of observers including Bertolt Brecht and William Shakespeare, Bernie Madoff and Charles Ponzi.  Two articles captured me entirely:  “Manila” by Lawrence Osborne in which the author, fascinated by accounts of faked deaths, sets out to perpetrate an act of “pseudocide” by purchasing in Manila an authentic certificate of his own death and an excerpt from David Maurer’s The Big Con in which Maurer presents an extensive guide to the language of the confidence artist.  

The ease with which Osborne was able to buy a death certificate was disturbing, but I was instantly absorbed in tracking down the novel that sent Osborne off on his quest, a meticulously researched book (Osborne assures us it was written,”with an entertainingly maniacal attention to detail”), The Family Business, by Byron Bales, who as a private investigator in Bangkok knew the ins and outs of faked deaths and disappearances throughout Asia;  Amazon will sell me the paperback copy for thirty-five dollars, but I can pop it on my Kindle for less than three bucks.

Except that, I have to read The Big Con if only to further broaden my grasp of confidence lingo.  I’m ok with “The Big Store” (essentially the con run in The Sting) and “The Money Box” (a con in which the mark buys a machine he believes will actually make genuine paper money), but “Cackle-bladder”?  “Tin Mittens”?  “Laying the flue”?

Except that, I just finished “The Fully Licensed Whore, or, The Wife” by Patricia Highsmith, which is stunningly understated, as in this passage: “Sarah’s idea was to kill Sylvester with good food, with kindness, in a sense, with wifely duty.” This short piece by Highsmith is but one of the eighty or so spider webs into which Lapham is pleased to toss me, each of which carries me off into yet another web.  I last read Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley more than four years ago, intending at the time to follow up with the other four books in “The Ripliad”, so there goes tonight’s bout with Infinite Jest.

Wait!  You haven’t read those?

Eloise, Robin Hood, and Temps Perdu

Eloise, Robin Hood, and Temps Perdu

It happens that I’ve been thinking quite a lot about children’s literature for the past few days.  My favorite conversations often begin with discussion of shared books, and memories of books beloved in childhood equally animate an exchange with old friends or new acquaintances, and, the remembering seems to elicit other sensory moments, forgotten, now recovered.

It occurs to me now that the first awareness I had of thought, of mentation not attached to some immediate response, came as I tried to puzzle out the relationship between letters, symbols, and the ideas they portrayed.  We really are asking an awful lot of children as we expect them to take the mastery of their language, perhaps the most daunting and important cerebral task they will ever undertake, a complex and subtle figurative construct in its own right, acquired only recently and still not completely mastered, (unless your four-year old can handle the subjunctive mood) and apply it to simultaneous symbolic translation.  Shoot!   When I look at it that way, I feel pretty darned good about the progress I made through the first two grades.  Reading is mildly miraculous; no wonder I’m so attached to books.  Of course, I have sentimental attachment to the first books I read on my own, books such as Bobby Had A Nickel, a primer in financial planning, perhaps not the most arresting of tales, and yet …

“Bobby had a nickel.  A nickel all his own.  Should he buy an _____ or an ice cream cone?”

I’ve forgotten what his other choice was, probably because the ice cream cone seemed the obvious investment to me.  What comes to mind is, “… should he buy an igloo or an ice cream cone”, which scans but seems unlikely.  In any case, the mystery remains alive as a cognitive triumph I failed to celebrate at the time.

The gradations of children’s literature today appear to be more finely stratified than those in my day, if, in fact, there were any gradations.  Somewhere after Babar and Celeste faced the machinations of Rataxes the Rhino, I found the 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Stuart Little, the Oz books, Little Women, then Robin Hood.  By the age of ten, I was reading indiscriminately, hopping from Smokey the Cow Horse, written and illustrated by Will James, to Robert Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky, which had been serialized in Boys’ Life Magazine.

I should probably be grateful that I came of age before the young adult novel was a genre.  There were books in which children came of age, of course, but they tended to move along,  concentrating on immediate issues to be handled and zipping right past awkward adolescent angst and self-absorption, on to whatever became of narrators who survived the end of childhood.  I suppose Great Expectations would be considered a Young Adult book if Dickens was pumping classics out on a weekly basis these days in his Zine.  Huck Finn?  Kidnapped?  The Count of Monte Cristo?  All of which would make sense as I am told by those who elect not to publish writers such as … never mind …  that the only profitable market is in  YA literature, which is no longer a genre but an empire of genres, directed at consumers between the ages of ten and twenty-four.

To return to this morning’s reflection, in addition to books deemed “classics”, such as Huckleberry Finn and Oliver Twist, there were some books commonly presented to children that were oddly not really for children at all; they seem to have been written in the expectation that adults would find it wryly amusing that their children had walked through a looking-glass into some fairly disturbing settings.  Alice in Wonderland, for example, is a darkish fantasy, an allegory, a puzzling adventure in logical reasoning, and a true example of literary nonsense.  It was clear that I was supposed to find it charming, but as a child, I found logical nonsense nonsensical; I was not amused.  I was expected to read it so I read it, but I felt put upon and badly used.

And so we come to Eloise, essentially a picture book, written by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Hilary Knight.  The original book was subtitled, A Book for Precocious Grown-Ups, intended, I suppose, to amuse adults who immediately passed the book to children, presenting them with a model of precociousness that was simultaneously an unatainable fantasy for any child not living a life of grotesquely advantaged financial circumstance and a terrifying nightmare for any child recognizing abandonment, no matter how deliciously precocious Eloise’s language, or how stylishly pink and black the decor, or how cute the turtle.

Again, I was supposed to love it; I did not.  But …

Lots of children did, seeing Eloise as a strong, resourceful, empowered girl, making more than the best of her situation, claiming her power.

So, abandonment issues obviously driving the bus, I shoved Eloise aside and picked up The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire, written and illustrated by Howard Pyle.  It was a bubbling good read for a boy of twelve, and I remain very fond of Pyle’s illustrations.  Why Pyle added an epilogue to the book in which Robin is dispatched by a treacherous cousin, not simply killed, but ensanguined, bled to death, I cannot guess.  Yes, I fell for the twist in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  Yes, also  Gone Girl, Shutter Island, “The Lottery”.  But I recovered from surprise quickly in those cases; I still smell the copper pools of Robin Hood’s blood lo these many years.

Perhaps I should thank Pyle for preparing me for a lifetime of loss and betrayal; maybe I needed Robin’s death to inoculate me against sappy frivol and fantasy.  All I can say after all these years is that the books I met as a young person are still with me, for good or for ill; they travel with me, more vivid in my memory than the days in which they were read, always at the edge of recall.  Oh, and if you think the 500 Hats of Bartholemew Cubbins is pretty snappy, take a look at James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks, in which the dangerous Duke admits, “We all have flaws; mine is being wicked.”


Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales.