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My books can be purchased as e-books for only $1.99. If interested, just click here: Books.
Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life is the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
In case anyone is interested in any of my past posts, you can find an archive list at the bottom of this page.

Tuesday, December 31

New Year's Eve

I said I was done blogging for a while, but I just can't leave the year hanging without saying goodbye. So, goodbye, 2013. Sorry, but I won't miss you. You provided me with too many aches and pains and too many trips to the dentist. Will 2014 be any better? I certainly hope so.
Another day of bright sunshine and calm air, just like we’ve had for about the last week. How nice to live here in Arizona while the rest of the country is in a deep freeze. And it’s the end of another year. We’re having a steak and potato for dinner, after which we’ll probably watch a few Big Bangs and catch up on Major Crimes and Rizzoli and Isles before toddling off to bed around 10:00. Such excitement for us old folks. And tomorrow Rosalie is going to 4-Paws to care for her kitties and I’m going to feast on more football. Last night I watched the ASU Sun Devils look more like moondogs, losing to TCU in the Fiesta Bowl, and it wasn’t even close as TCU wanted it more than the moondogs did. Too bad they had to look so bad on national coverage. But the Suns simply destroyed the Clippers in LA, winning it handily by nineteen. Now, after only thirty games, they’ve won as many as Las Vegas picked them to win for the whole season. Wow, I wish I’d put some money on them before the season began. But hindsight is always better than foresight.


Sunday, December 29

Time Out & American Hustle

I seem to be all tapped out of things to write about. I don’t know if it’s just me or if it’s a lack of subject matter. The year is grinding to a conclusion; the nation is slowly returning to financial stability despite all the screaming about the Affordable Care Act; the NFL is moving into playoff mode with the Cardinals getting screwed out of a playoff spot; new movies are still grist for my mill but I’m sick of reviewing them; our three kitties are all nearly into adulthood and give me nothing new on which to comment; and all my old-age aches and pains are too painful to broadcast. So I guess I’ll take some time off to reinvent myself, or to regain some mental vigor (“Vigor” rhymes with “rigor.”)
But before I momentarily retire, I have a few comments about a film I saw yesterday. The critics are almost unanimous in their acclaim for American Hustle, but I felt a little like I’d been the one who was hustled. I hated the plot, which had me confused from start to finish, but I loved watching the five principals strut their acting stuff, especially Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, a tubby, balding 1970’s con man. And Amy Adams, with her boobs hanging out for most of her scenes, as Bale’s fellow con-person and lover. And Bradley Cooper as Richie DiMaso, a curly-headed eager-beaver FBI agent who cons the con team into helping him con assorted politicians and mobsters into wiretap confessions of their larceny. And speaking of 70’s coifs, at the movie’s start, Bale spends several minutes carefully doing an intricate comb-over with a super-glued hairpiece, and Jeremy Renner, as Mayor Carmine Polito, has a pompadour that would out-pomp Elvis. Jennifer Lawrence is interesting as Bale’s screaming Jersey wife who sticks her nose into the final con and disrupts the whole game. A good movie for watching everyone trying to win Oscar nominations, a good movie for enjoying the music of the 70’s and the hair and clothing styles of that period. But the story left me empty.

Thursday, December 26

Christmas Day & Light of the World

Christmas Day with clear skies and rising temperatures. A very nice day in the Valley, and the promise that soon, after too much to eat and too many house guests, we’ll have the holiday behind us. There just seems to be too much festive pressure this time of year, with carols assailing us at every turn, with too many concerns about buying friends and relatives gifts they truly want or need, with too many conversations competing for center state, with endless strings of Christmas specials on the tube. I sound more and more Ebenezerish in my dotage, but I must confess I’ll be happy when January one is here. I want my quiet, regulated life back. And then 2014 will be hurtling by, marked Super Bowl, March Madness, the Masters, and so on until I’ll be peering ahead to Thanksgiving and Black Friday and then you-know-what. And so it goes.

No one writes about evil the way James Lee Burke does—evil men and evil deeds. I’m just beginning his latest Dave Robicheaux saga, Light of the World, in which a trio of men seem to form a dark triptych of evil. It’s set in Montana, where Dave and his daughter Alafair and his good friend Clete Purcell and his daughter Gretchen are visiting a retired English professor. And soon we meet three men who out-devil the Devil: Bill Pepper, a sheriff’s deputy with a mean streak several miles wide; Asa Surrette, a serial killer that Alafair tried to interview for a book she was writing; and Wyatt Dixon, who may or may not have tried to kill Alafair with an arrow that just missed her head. Another good Burke read with the typical nod to Faulkner and his Southern Gothic voice even though the setting is now Montana. Here’s a part of his opening commentary: “Police officers keep secrets, not unlike soldiers who return home from foreign battlefields with a syndrome that survivors of the Great War called the thousand-yard stare. I believe that the account of the apple taken from the forbidden trees is a metaphorical warning about looking too deeply into the darker potential of the human soul. The photographs of the inmates at Bergen-Belsen or Andersonville Prison or the bodies in the ditch at My Lai disturb us in a singular fashion because those instances of egregious human cruelty were committed for the most part by baptized Christians. At some point we close the book containing photographs of this kind and put it away and convince ourselves that the events were an aberration, the consequence of leaving soldiers too long in the field or letting a handful of misanthropes take control of a bureaucracy. It is not in our interest to extrapolate a larger meaning. ¶ Hitler, Nero, Ted Bundy, the Bitch of Buchenwald? Their deeds are not ours. ¶ But if these individuals are not like us, if they do not descend from the same gene pool and have the same DNA, then who were they and what turned them into monsters?”

I can't wait to see how Dave and Clete deal with these three badasses.

Friday, December 20

Holiday Greetings, 2013

Here we are again, with several changes to my usual Holiday epistle. In this age of electronic communication, sending out Hallmark cards seems too old fashioned, too out of date, too expensive, too unnecessary if all I’m going to do is send a card with our names attached—no news, no personalization. In my case, no letter of time passing and technological advances, no complaints of cell phones and cell phoners (or should that be, cell phonies?) who continue to chat while driving, or worse yet, text while driving. I think I say pretty much what I want to say on this blog, so I won’t bend any ears or tweak any noses here in this greeting.

Isn’t it odd that even the word “holidays” expresses an archaic meaning for this modern age? Holidays, holy days. Now this season seems more concerned with gift giving and receiving than with any holiness. More’s the pity. Even the attached card is my unconscious inclusion of unholy things—Christmas trees and Santa Clauses and presents and cute little mice and kitties. No sign of any silent nights or oriental kings or figures on a cross. Forgive me for that oversight. And forgive me for going back to a card I put together when we still put up trees and swept up needles and sent out tardy seasonal cards.

To all of my regular readers as well as those who might stumble onto this blog, I wish you a Merry Christmas, but I also wish you a more holy Christmas, one in which we all spend more time being thankful for world peace, for friends, for a holiness we need to hold onto in difficult times. Oh, and by the way, may your new year be bountiful and peaceful.

Thursday, December 19

Obituaries Again

At the end of September, I ruminated about obituaries and how I was affected by them. Well, I'm ruminating again, saying much the same thing I said almost three months ago. Forgive me my repetition. Lately, I’ve come to examine the obituaries in several papers, not looking to see if I’m listed but to see if I know anyone there. My hometown paper, The Mobridge Tribune, usually has only two or three deaths notices a week, and since I no longer know most of that town’s residents, I hardly ever read about anyone I know. But school classmates are mentioned even though most of us relocated as soon as possible after graduation. We still feel a connection to that tiny, dusty South Dakota village located on the banks of the river by which it got its name. My youth was so Huck Finnish. One by one my classmates fall. I think we’re now down to about half of the original fifty-eight, shrinking each year by one or two. I wonder which one of us will be the last man or woman standing. And when that time comes, will the one of us return to our roots for a one-person reunion on the Fourth of July? Probably not since the last one would probably not be standing . . . or walking . . . or even crawling. And the old hometown would no longer even slightly resemble the home we once knew. I have better luck finding obituaried people in our local news (Better luck?). We Sun City Westerners drop with great regularity. The sounds of our local firemen rushing to the site of a rescue call fills the air four or five times a day. We always mutter to ourselves when we hear that claxon call, “Well, there’s another house for sale.” I even check the large Phoenix Independent. The odds against my spotting anyone I know are about the same as winning that megamillion lottery we just had. But I look anyway, just to check out the ages at which those people died, comparing them to my own numbers. I also glance at the small section listing the birthdays of well-known people. I saw today that Cicely Tyson is a year younger than I. And Jennifer Beals is now fifty. Oh, the humanity. It was only a year or so ago that she was Flashdancing. And Brad Pitt hit fifty a few days ago. Whoa! I remember as if it were only yesterday when he rode with Thelma and Louise in their ill-fated Thunderbird convertible. I’ve noticed that most of the listings are for ages under fifty, and I don’t recognize most of them. I’m sure that one of these days I won’t remember why I’m examining the obituaries. Or maybe not even remembering what an obituary is.

Monday, December 16

Three Movie Reviews

A few quickie reviews.

I saw 12 Years a Slave almost three weeks ago and couldn’t figure out what to say about it. Critics have raved about the acting, especially that of Chiwetel Ejifor as Solomon Northrup, a free black violinist in 1841, and Michael Fassbender as Master Epps, the brutal, strangely dual-personality Louisiana plantation owner who winds up with Northrup when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. The movie was difficult to watch as director Steve McQueen gave us a no-holds-barred view of this country less than two hundred years ago, showed us what atrocities some whites could inflict on other human beings with a completely blind eye to their inhumanity. It was a film that we needed to see, just in case any of us forgot what a horrible institution slavery was. But I can’t see the acting of Ejifor or Fassbender as being academy award worthy. Good, but not great.

Then there’s Matthew McConaughey’s performance in Dallas Buyers’ Club. Wow! He’ll certainly be nominated for best actor, maybe even win it. Just picture him as we saw him in some of his other films: Mud, The Lincoln Lawyer, A Time to Kill, Reign of Fire, and two of his better known romcoms The Wedding Planner and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. About six feet tall, maybe 185 pounds, a handsome hunk who likes to take his shirt off. Well, he lost 45 pounds for this role as Ron Woodroof in Dallas. That’s a bunch of weight, to go down to about 140. He was portraying Woodroof, a racist homophobe in 1985, a boozer, a smoker, a womanizer, a snorter of cocaine. And when he was admitted to a hospital for an injury, he was told he was HIV+ and had only about thirty days to live. He set out to prove the diagnosis wrong. He talked a hospital orderly into selling him AZT pills, the drug that was then in trial status. It was soon discovered that large doses of AZT was as toxic and dangerous as it was an aid to the treatment of Aids. The drug-supplying orderly gave him the name of a doctor in Mexico who was treating Aids patients with other FDA non-approved drugs. And then he started smuggling large quantities of these drugs back into the U.S. for his own use and to sell to other Aids patients. When he found out how illegal such sales were, he began a club called the Dallas Buyers’ Club, to which people could join for a monthly fee and then get his drugs free. And all the while he has this running battle with the FDA. But he ran the club for seven years before he died. A gritty story about a gritty subject, but McConaughey played it to the hilt—scrawny, bleary-eyed, pale, dying. And by the end he had come to understand and even like most of his fellow Aids victims, especially Rayon, played brilliantly by Jared Leto, a transgender victim who helped Woodroof in his drug club. Jennifer Garner was also in it as Dr. Eva Saks, but hers was only a bit part while McConaughey and Leto will both probably be nominated for best awards. Oh yes, and an odd fact about McConaughey: he’s afraid of revolving doors.

And finally, To Catch a Thief, with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. Amazing how our memories of old movies can be so different when we see them at dramatically different times. I remember getting High Noon from Netflix a few years ago and couldn’t believe how hokey it was. I was remembering it as one of the great films I’d ever seen. And then the reality of fifty or more years later. It just wasn’t very good. The same can be said of Mr. Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. It was supposed to be suspenseful, as are all of Alfred’s flicks supposed to be. But instead it was slapsticky silly. Bad acting, silly story. Now I’ll have to get Rear Window and The Birds and see if they are also silly and unsuspenseful. Sorry Mr. Hitchcock wherever you are.

Sunday, December 15

Sunday and The Boys

It’s a Sunday, with the day dawning clear and calm, a bit chilly, but what I think of as chilly anymore really isn’t when one considers how frigid the rest of the country is. Thinning blood, creaky bones. And for the first time I’m playing Christmas music. Right now I’ve created a Pandora station of holiday music to play on my back-room television. Right now, Mannheim Steamroller is quietly giving me their rendition of “Silent Night.” I guess ten days before the event is about right for the barrage of carols we hear on nearly all radio stations, the holiday specials on the tube. Jimmy Stewart is once again finding his wonderful life, and Frosty is melting all over the ether. Hallmark has a new one tonight, Finding Christmas, and I know if we watch it that I’ll tear up during the commercials. Such a sentimental marshmallow I am. What seem like a hundred or more bowl games will soon begin making their ubiquitous appearances. Lots of NFL action today but nothing of interest in golf, the Franklin Templeton Shootout and the Father/Son Challenge. Whoopie do. The real golf season doesn’t get started until the AT&T at Pebble Beach in February and the match play World Golf Championship at the end of February here in Arizona, the Cadillac World Championship in Florida in early March, and Arnie’s invitational in late March. Then the Masters in April and another year of golf from then on, with Tiger trying once again to win a major. I hope he does just to quiet the talking heads who keep saying they doubt he can win another.

Our two boys, Tiger and Tuffy, are now almost six months old, kitty teenagers and no longer the terrible twos they were just a few months ago. But they’re still driving us crazy. This year we’ll have a non-decorated Christmas—no tree, no table stuff like the fat snowman we got a decade ago, no strings of lights hanging anywhere. The boys would have everything on the floor just after we put it up, chewing on Mr. Snowman, on the downed light strings, on the upended tree. We love them dearly, and they’re so very sweet . . . when they’re sleeping. But when they’re awake, oh my. Yesterday morning while I was golfing, Rosalie heard a loud crash in the laundry room, rushed there to find the million glassy remains of a Mason jar in which she’d kept tiny multi-colored glass beads. The boys had discovered it on the window sill behind our freezer, and one had climbed up on a nearby paper shredder, then leaped onto the window sill and decided to see what would happen if a curious paw could move the jar thing to the edge. And down it came to the tiled floor, with glass shards and glass beads everywhere—under the freezer, under the washer and dryer, into the food and water dishes, into the litter box. I’m so sorry Rosalie had to clean it all up. I’m so glad I wasn’t here to witness the devastation.
And Charlie just sits and watches these two bad boys, shaking his head at their misbehavior. He’s such a good fellow. And Tiger and Tuffy will soon leave their teens and become responsible adults. End of childhood and into manhood. Sort of sad to see them leave their kittenhood, but then, as with our own children, it was nice to have an empty nest. This won’t be an empty cat nest, but we’ll be able to put trinkets and trees out again without worrying that the boys, now men, might pull anything down to see how much noise they can make.
People who aren’t owned by dogs or cats don’t know what they’re missing. A few years ago, Rosalie’s sister Bonnie, who died last year at ninety-five, spent a horrific five months alone in her house during an unusually cold winter, alone except for occasional guests dropping by, the television that she seldom watched, the local radio station telling her about local news and local weather. Not really much company on those long winter days and nights. If she’d only had a dog or cat to share her house and time. Phyllis, Rosalie’s other sister, lived alone in her apartment for the last twenty years before she died recently. How much fuller her life would have been is she’d had a cat or dog to greet her whenever she went for a walk. Dogless or catless people just don’t know what they’re missing.
Just look at the sleeping Tiger, resting in his favorite spot. Isn't he sweet? (As long as he's sleeping.)

Thursday, December 12

Billy Collins

I forget if I ever shared this poem with anyone. My good friend Anne Smith sent it to me a few years ago and I just discovered it again, momentarily lost among the million documents I’ve saved on my computer. It’s too good and too relevant to someone my age not to share it with others who may have been touched by a friend’s or relative’s dementia or Alzheimer’s. Billy Collins was appointed as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, and, according to one of many Google searches, is the modern equivalent of Robert Frost. Since I’m an ardent Frostian fan, I think I may have to find more of Billy Collins’ poetry. But then, I may forget what it was I was looking for.

“Forgetfulness,” by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Saturday, December 7

Gray Clouds, Silver Lining

Yes, there really is a sun behind all those gray clouds. Yesterday was cold and ugly, as it was all over the country. And it put me in one of those ugly gray funks that pose too many questions without any answers. I wrote that gray piece about good and bad death and what lies beyond the dark conclusion to life. Pretty depressing, right? I went back to my memoirs and read what I had to say several years ago about my religious and philosophical beliefs, and I found them refreshingly cogent. Enough so that I’m going to include them here.
* * * * * *
I was a science fiction addict, so religious explanations of the universe never made much sense to me. It was provable scientifically that our planet, Earth, was a tiny insignificant little speck in the immensity of the universe, third planet out from a tiny insignificant little star set way off in a corner of our galaxy, the Milky Way, one of an infinite number of galaxies in the immensity of time and space. That we could be the only intelligent life in that immensity made no sense to me. I always believed that we created God in our own image, not the other way around.

And as for our souls and what happens to us after we die, I always believed that we would live again in the next closest to us genetically. If I had one son, his mother and I would be combined psychically in that son. If we had more than one child, we would be spread out among them. But there would be a continued consciousness evolving and spreading out into the future. Walt Whitman said something like that in Leaves of Grass, that our individual spirit is one speck in an ocean of spirituality and that when we are born we are removed from that pool and placed here in this physical space for the length of our lives, to be returned to the spiritual pool when we die, to await our next time in life. Reincarnation, yes, but not involving insects and lesser animal species. But I take it one step further and believe the human connection must be more direct, a genetic connection, not a random placement.

James Hall, in his novel Buzz Cut, paraphrased from the Tibetan Book of the Dead: “The soul when set loose from the body begins to roam the dark plains of afterlife searching for some speck of light. Finally seeing it, moving toward it, then entering it as the sperm enters the vagina and battles its way up the hostile twists of tube to reach the great mother egg. A dead man wanders until he sees his new parents, then reenters the world through their moment of great pleasure. Becoming a child again, a disembodied scream. All of it starting over and over and over.” I think that’s pretty much what I’ve believed all my life, but never said it so well.

What, then, is God, or some creative force? I don’t believe there is a single creative force. I think life began at some distant time and that all life is a combined force that evolves and spreads out in many different forms in many different parts of the universe. That life force is Godhead. I’m a part of it, everything that has life and motion is part of it. The substance of our universe isn’t part of it anymore than the husks of our bodies are a part of it. When we die, the shell that held our spark of life returns to the substance from which it came. But the spark returns to the body of the life force—Whitman’s pool of spirituality.

Most people haven’t really thought it through and instead let their church or church leaders do their thinking for them. They accept on faith what the church tells them, the church’s explanations of life and death and good and evil and the nature of the universe. Most of them are afraid of death and need the comfort of a social organization to lessen their fears. Most of them believe that good people attend church and evil people don’t.

I believe in the humanity and teachings of Christ. I believe that there is evil in the universe and that we have to combat it through a universal or personal code of ethics, a morality we need to work at and to pass on to our children. Christ was a messiah, a messenger who brought that code of ethics for us to follow. But he wasn’t a messenger from God. He wasn’t the son of God. And he won’t be reappearing tomorrow or any tomorrow thereafter.

Death makes little sense to me. I’ve often thought, if there really is a God, that he must be an unfeeling bastard, allowing the bestiality we read about in the papers every day, allowing the unfair deaths and tragedies that occur all around us. And cruelest of all, the span of our years is like some awful practical joke. Just when we become skillful physically or mentally, just when we’re able to answer most of the questions we asked throughout our lives, it’s time to die. This is the plan of a God who pulls wings from flies. About a quarter of a century ago, Peggy Lee made popular a song called “Is That All There Is?” When I first heard it I thought it was the most cynical, despairing, darkest set of lyrics I’d ever heard. It was, still is, but the words are becoming more and more personal. Is that all there is? Just this ridiculously short span of time without any meaning and then an eternity of nothing? I hope not. But I guess I won’t really find out for sure until it’s too late to report back to the living.

Life, even though painfully short, beats the alternative. Even when we become so weary we’d like to get off the train, we can’t. Somewhere I read that life is like dancing with a gorilla. You don’t stop when you get tired, you stop when the gorilla gets tired. So I guess I’ll just keep dancing.

Friday, December 6

The Grim Reaper

More and more often, my body keeps reminding me that I’m getting old. No, not “getting” old; I AM old. Every morning, Arthur Eyetis wakes me up and then screams at me as I prop my weight on an arm to hoist my aching body out of bed. The shoulder aches, the lower back moans, my feet tingle. I take two ibuprofen every morning, along with a handful of other meds, and they keep me relatively pain-free throughout the day. I feel like I’m relatively healthy compared to a lot of the oldies I see at Safeway or at Hole-in-One, the restaurant where we breakfast quite often. I see them shuffling to the restroom, tiny steps, backs hunched over their walker, faces contorted with the effort. But lately I notice a sway in my gait, and the gait is a lot slower than it used to be. Now that I’m an octogenarian, I’m thinking more and more about that exit door just down the hall, with the green ripper behind it waiting for me. A little girl in one of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series overheard her parents talking about the Grim Reaper and thought they were describing some green monster who ripped people apart, thus the Green Ripper. I don’t envision any ripper or black-cloaked figure with a scythe. I know death is a kind of farewell, a closing down. But what comes after? I don’t believe in God, at least not the God of any of the world’s religions. No heaven, no hell, no limbo.

Some deaths are better than others. My father fell dead from a heart attack, one moment here, next moment gone. That was a good death even though too soon at sixty-eight. My mother lived ninety-four years, taking care of herself even though legally blind for her last decade. She fell and broke a hip, was hospitalized, and never recovered, dying within a week and a half. A good death. Brother Dick drowned in a motel pool at eighty-five. A tragic death, but quick, a good death. You get the idea—the time between relatively good health and death should be short, quick, not agonizingly drawn out in some hospital bed or in a wheelchair in a Golden Bridge assisted living place. “Golden Bridge,” now there’s a misnomer if I ever saw one. A bad death is that one just described, mind and memory gone but blood still pumping. When the quality of life dips below what is acceptable, we should be given the right to say goodbye. My sister-in-law, ninety-two, is presently caught in that awful corridor between acceptable and unacceptable life, for two years gradually succumbing to Alzheimer’s. That’s my idea of a bad death. We should all have an off button somewhere handy, a button we could hit when life is no longer acceptable. I know, I know. What if we no longer have a mind to determine when that time comes? Ay, there’s the rub.

Thursday, December 5

The Mentalist


Like a lot of us who, for five and a half seasons, have faithfully followed The Mentalist’s Patrick Jane in his obsessive quest for Red John, we were pretty sick of all the weekly mention of this badass who not only killed Jane’s wife and daughter but countless others. Finally, finally, even the writers had had enough and decided to let Jane find him and kill him. Good riddance to bad rubbish, as we used to say in my youth. But the series never made clear how RJ could have enlisted the number of people in his evil doings, never made clear why RJ decided to kill Jane’s wife and daughter, never made clear what would happen to the RJ followers when RJ was gone. And most curious of all, after Jane strangles RJ and calls Teresa to apologize for what he’d gotten her into and to tell her goodbye, suddenly two years have passed. The folks at the CBI have been scattered to the winds: Teresa Lisbon is now in uniform as a police chief; Wayne Rigsby and Grace Van Pelt, now married, are heads of a security firm; Kimball Cho is now in the FBI; and Patrick is now beach bumming on an island somewhere south of the border, sort of just waiting around until he can figure out a way to get back into the U.S. Two years. We went from what we presumed was the present to a time two years in the future. While Jane is bumming, he meets Kim Fischer, a teacher there on the island for a short holiday break. They connect and agree to having dinner together. Then Jane is severely beaten by a local drug dealer’s thugs, after which Kim takes him back to his room and leaves him to return to the U.S. Apparently, Kim (an FBI agent, not a teacher) and Agent Abbott, the FBI agent who’s been tailing Jane for two years, will be recurring characters in the future, and Rigsby and Van Pelt will be shown the door. I’m happy to say that this new plot line is a welcome relief from the old line, almost like starting over with a new series starring Simon Baker as a new Mentalist. And then we’ll have two romantic possibilities the writers can milk for all they’re worth—Teresa Lisbon and Agent Kim Fischer. Should be interesting.

Tuesday, December 3

Philomena

We just saw the Judi Dench film called Philomena and were touched by her performance as well as by this story of a woman’s search for a son she’d lost to the Catholic nuns in Ireland fifty years before. The story was touching, maybe a bit tear-jerky, but I don’t mind having a few of my tears jerked or my heart strings plucked. Every now and then, we all need a good cry even if it isn’t for our own problems or heartaches. Dame Judi didn’t do anything phenomenal; she just showed us an older woman who lived a simple life and maintained her faith in God and the Catholic Church despite what they had done to her in her youth. I didn’t realize before seeing this movie that it touched on the reprehensible Magdalene Houses in Ireland in the first half of last century. One of the most vivid film memories I have is of The Magdalene Sisters, a black and white indictment of these Irish places that imprisoned young girls who had “sinned” in the eyes of their parents and the Catholic nuns who ran these houses. The women were kept under lock and key and made to work at chores like doing laundry for townspeople, and they were there for their lifetimes unless they could somehow find someone to bail them out for up to five hundred pounds, usually a sum that was impossible to come by. Philomena Lee had to stay there for four years, able to see her son every now and then as he grew up under the care of the nuns. Aaron, her son, when he was four, was sold to an American couple for a thousand pounds. Now, forty-six years later, she wants to find him, to see how his life has been, maybe to ask him for his forgiveness for having allowed him to be taken from her. She enlists the aid of a journalist, and together, they find him and learn the story of his life. The film may soon be forgotten, but my images of Judi Dench will be with me forever, just as those scenes from The Magdalene Sisters are with me forever. The filmmakers chose to do a lot of full face shots of her as she traveled with Martin in their search.
There she was, old face with lines and crags, eyes rheumy, but I could still see the young Judi Dench beneath the mask, the beauty she must have been in her youth. I’ll be pulling for her when the Oscars are announced.

Monday, December 2

Big Brother

I’ve been gone for a while, taking time out to play with my new toy, the iPad mini. So much to discover, so much to learn, so much to practice. I just can’t believe how complex this thing is. All you Smart phoners already know what these little gadgets can do—access the internet, get breaking news and weather reports, go on Facebook, watch popular YouTube stuff, watch movies and tv series episodes, get weather, financial trends, medical news, and all the porn one could ever desire. Well, I can do all that on my computer but I never thought I could do it on this tiny device. I tried using the on-screen keyboard for writing e-mails, but it was way too slow a process. So I went to the Apple store in our nearby Arrowhead Mall. Mobs of people there, all scrambling for the latest Apple stuff. I wandered, found the rack of keyboards, found an ultrathin keyboard for the iPad mini, tackled one of the very busy Apple nerds to see if this was what I needed. “Oh, sure,” he said. “That’ll work.” I said, “Okay, I’d like to buy it.” “Okay,” he said. “Let me get a sales clerk to check you out.” He handed me off to Carl and his seeing-eye dog Claire Bear, a friendly black lab who was content to be under the counter while his master took care of holiday shoppers. Carl scanned my purchase with his magic wand, then swiped my credit card on a small black device that looked like a cell phone. He asked me for my name and address and my e-mail address. I just had to ask him how he was entering all that info into his sales log without being able to see the keys. He gave me a Stevie Wonder smile and pointed to the ear bud in his ear. “The machine tells me when I pass my stylus over the keys which ones to hit.” Just plain magic, a blind man leading a blind shopper through a sale. I thanked him and hurried out with my booty, eager to get home and try it out. The technological advances, especially those in electronics, have been so sudden and so dramatic that I find myself speculating about the near and distant future. The exponential curve for such advance has become so steep, I think it may simply tip over and fall backwards. I envision a time when science may be able to install a small computer into a contact lens allowing a person to see what’s in front of him and also be able to speech-activate a retinal mini-computer. Or maybe they could simply implant it in the front of the brain. Instead of that bottle in front of me or the frontal lobotomy, a frontal computer. I see a time in our near future when electric autos will drive us to our destinations without our having to drive them. I see houses taking care of themselves without human intervention. I remember Ray Bradbury’s story from 1950, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” in which a house simply died after a nuclear war, with no one to instruct it. These houses of the future will be able to clean themselves, heat and cool themselves, turn lights on and off, play music low or loud, remind us of appointments and schedules, cook for us, do our laundry. All we’ll do is occupy them. Oh, wait, we already have such houses. I see a time when movies and tv shows will no longer need live actors, but will simply use computer processing to digitize characters and settings. Oh, wait, we can already do that. I see the demise of shopping areas, replaced by huge warehouses that take internet orders and deliver them to our doorsteps by tiny delivery drones. Oh, wait, I just saw where Amazon already has such planned for the very near future.

Meanwhile, as we become ever more able to film and save nearly every location and every person in those locations, we will lose any privacy we may have once had. Is this scenario for the future good or bad? I have no idea. But I’m sure Big Brother knows.

Friday, November 29

Thanksgiving & The Sound of Music

Thanksgiving has come and gone, followed by that silly Black Friday mania. Why would so many people feel so compelled to go out and fight the traffic and stand in line and fight the crowds and spend oodles of cash on stuff they may not even need, just to get those ridiculous discounts? “Tis a mystery. I’m glad I didn’t have to do it. We had a very nice Thanksgiving (or birthgiving, as one of my Facebook friends called it) dinner provided by our local Safeway grocery store—12 pound pre-cooked turkey, corn bread stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, dozen rolls, and a small pumpkin pie. Perfect for the three of us, my wife and I and daughter Jeri, and it would have easily fed six or seven. Best of all, the prep for it all was simple and the post-dinner cleanup a breeze. Thank you, Mrs. Safeway. We toyed with the idea of sticking a candle on the pie to commemorate my birthday but decided against it. After eating too much, I don’t think I’d have had enough energy to blow out even one candle, let alone eighty. Eighty might have set our house on fire. But now we’re on the eve of December with a short hop to Christmas and then to another new year. Tempus fugit.

There’s been a lot of hype recently about the upcoming NBC showing of a live Sound of Music, with Carrie Underwood playing Maria. Last Tuesday we went to the Arizona Broadway Theatre, our nearby dinner theatre, and saw Sound, and let me say that the girl who played Maria, Trisha Hart Disworth, would have made Julie Andrews proud. ABT just keeps getting better and better. The show opened with the seven nuns and the Mother Abbess behind a scrim screen, the abbey and castle and mountains on the scrim, a lighted abbey window behind them, four pillars and a high gated fence in front of them, and they sang the vespers a cappella. Enough to take my breath away. Then the fence and pillars exited left and right, the backdrop went up, the scrim went up, and Maria was there, lying on the stage with the mountains on a backdrop, and we hear the oh so familiar strains of the hills being alive. And what a voice Maria had. The sets and costumes and singing were wonderful. The voices of Maria and the Mother Abbess were fine enough for Broadway. I see that Audra MacDonald is playing the mother superior in the live production, and she has a great operatic voice, but I don’t think she’ll be any better than ABT’s Ariana Valdes. Anyone who might read this who lives in our Valley of the Sun should go see this ABT production. It was spectacular.

Tuesday, November 26

SYTYCD

Both of us were still feeling uneasy about our trip into downtown Phoenix for the SYTYCD show. We left at 5:30, assuming about thirty minutes to get to the theatre where we’d park and then find some place nearby for a light dinner. Wrong on almost all counts. It was dark by the time we’d gone only a few miles, and our unfamiliarity with Phoenix made it more like forty-five minutes. Lots of traffic, most of which was going the other way or the trip would have been even longer, but what seemed like an endless line of light in my eyes made the drive difficult. After half an hour, I put aside my male pride in never needing directions and stopped at a Circle K to ask how much farther to Van Buren St. Another mile or two, the clerk told me Middle Easternly. We drove on, found our turnoff, found the parking garage, and got parked by 6:20, with cars and people all over the place. And the people were all streaming to Comerica Theatre. We decided we wouldn’t have time for a cocktail and a bit to eat. Instead, we got in a line of several hundred people waiting to get in. Security guards checked all bags and purses for suspicious stuff like guns and explosives, but I think it was more for spotting forbidden bottles of water and soda. Just like at baseball stadiums, Comerica wanted to sell you five buck popcorn, five buck bottles of water. So I grudgingly bought both as a substitute for dinner. Comerica, like the garage next door, looked brand new—very high ceiling, seating on two levels with a balcony above, and lots of seats, all really small and close together with very little leg room. We found our seats, heaved a sigh, and sat with our bucket of popcorn and one bottle of water. We had nearly an hour before the show was to begin, so we munched and watched people-watched as they come in. Two huge girls sat down two rows in front of us. One of them was so big-butted I didn’t think she had a chance of fitting in one of these tiny seats. But she oozed her way in, flesh sort of flopping out on both sides. I pitied the poor lady who was seated next to her. If the world’s unluckiest person were flying cross country, this girl would be the one who’d be sitting right next to him in the aisle seat with another just like her in the window seat. The people kept coming in and the seats kept filling. I could only guess what the capacity of Comerica would be, but lots and lots of seats. I looked it up this morning, 5,000. Now our seats were dead center, but back so far the stage looked tiny. And I paid $48 apiece. I’m guessing the seats in the lower section nearer the stage would have been quite a bit higher. And when everybody was in and seated, it looked like it was at least 95% filled. That’s a bunch of people and a bunch of money for this show. A very young girl was seated next to Rosalie and another next to me. They had to have been interested in dance to sit so quietly and attentively through the two-hour performance. Finally, Nigel Lythgoe appeared like Oz on a large screen at the back of the stage and got it started, telling us what we were going to see, who all the dancers were. Then the music began and the fourteen dancers all danced down the aisles from the rear and onto the stage, where they did a lengthy number to “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Then it was almost an hour of steady dance numbers, mostly doubles, some group stuff, and all ten of the finalists doing a short solo. Choreographers from the show introduced some of the numbers via the big screen—Sonya Tayeh (she of the strange hair styles and body piercing), Tyce Diorio, Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, Mandy Moore, and Travis Wall. Most of the dance numbers featured the winners from season 10: Amy Yakima and Du-Shaunt Stegal (Fik-shun) as well as the two runnersup, Jasmine Harper (she with the legs that go forever) and Aaron Turner (the husky tapper that learned how to do it all). A short intermission and then another hour before it was over. The only things missing were Mary Murphy and her screaming and Cat Deeley and her blond beauty. It was exciting, it was moving, it was great dancing, with great music and lighting effects. But the performers were so very far away. I found that during the solos, when each dancer was shown on that large back screen, I was watching the screen instead of the live dancer on stage. As with sporting events, watching it on the tube is closer to the action than any seat in the house. So too was this performance. The one thing that sitting in one’s house watching televised football or basketball or So You Think You Can Dance can’t duplicate is the energy of the crowd. We and the other 4500 or so people in the audience cheered and applauded and ooed and aahed together whenever a dancer or dance number did something spectacular. That togetherness felt good. But I’m not sure it was worth the time and money we invested in it. I’m glad we went, but neither of us will make such a trip again.

Monday, November 25

iPad & Other Stuff

I’m learning. Fighting my way through the intricacies of my new iPad Mini. Saturday I figured out how to get the iPad synched with my computer through iTunes and transferred nearly a thousand music tracks. And I now know how to get on line, where I went to Lulu.com and downloaded all my books at 99 cents apiece. Then on to Amazon where I bought the new one by Sandford, Storm Front, and one I’ve been looking for by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl. And I think I’ve mastered the tiny keyboard even though my fingers seem too large for the tiny keys. Now I have to get acquainted with Siri, the lovely lady that Big Bang Theory's Raj fell in love with. I don’t know what she can do for me, but it will be nice to hear her lovely voice. Then I went to the apps store and downloaded half a dozen, the Weather Channel, a couple of news outlets, and some games (free cell and Sudoku and a few golf). The next thing I have to learn: how to take pictures and videos. Then I’ll have it all and except for the writing I do on Word, I’ll be able to semi-abandon my computer, the beast that keeps getting slower and slower every day.

This past weekend was a really good one for Arizona sports. First, AU simply crushed the Oregon ducks. Then ASU maybe didn’t crush but certainly bruised UCLA. The Cardinals really did crush or maybe even smashed the Colts. And the Suns won their seventh game, this one over Orlando. This may have been the most successful weekend for Arizona sports ever.

Tonight we’re driving in to Phoenix to see the finalists from this season’s So You Think You Can Dance do their stuff. It should be fun to see these kids live and right there in front of us instead on the tube. I must confess, though, that I have some misgivings about getting to the theatre. I’d rather not have to drive into Phoenix simply because it all seems so complicated and somehow threatening. We see on the news these horrific stories about drive-by shootings and accidents and muggings and car-jackings. I know, I know, that’s just the negative news every big city has to show us every night. But still, we’re old, and we worry about such things happening to us. But we’ll be all right, and the show will be spectacular. I’ll let you know how it was tomorrow.

Saturday, November 23

Ipad Magic

On Thursday, I went to Best Buy to get some kind of tablet for my birthday. After all, this year is a major benchmark in my life and I felt that I deserved an expensive present. In the old days, a tablet was a cheap spiral-bound notebook in which one wrote stuff, a quarter or half a buck at most. No longer. Now it’s a really expensive thing one can write in or do all sorts of things, and it costs about one and a half arms and legs. At first I thought I’d like an IPad Air, the latest Apple to fall from the tree, but I changed my mind when I finally found all the tablets on display, about twenty from various IPads to Windows to Samsungs to Kindles to Nooks, all in differing sizes and capabilities. And every one of those had two or three or four people checking them out, everyone looking much smarter in their examinations than I. I’m not a novice when it comes to computers, but I’m less than a child when it comes to these new, tiny things that seem able to perform magic on their tiny screens. I sort of wandered around, trying not to look too stupid, checking prices, reading the descriptive blurbs about each one. I assumed all of them would have a manual that explained how the magic happened. So, since I’ve always been a quick sell, I grabbed a geek and told him I wanted an IPad Mini, 16 gigs, for just over $300, up to about $360 with a leather cover and tax. I wonder how many spiral-bound tablets I might have bought with that much money. About seven or eight hundred. Then I raced home like a little kid with a new toy. But, I discovered, what a really complicated toy, sort of like that piece of elaborate furniture we bring home in a box, umpteen pieces with umpteen different sized screws and bolts and nuts with the directions in Chinese. I found that I first had to hook it up to my computer, then connect to my Qwest broadband and WIFI. But I didn’t have a password that would allow me to continue the setup. Duh! So I called for help. Since Qwest was a part of my Century Link account, I called them, spoke to Edna, who asked me for all my account details and put me on hold for a transfer to the tech squad. Then, after ten minutes, I got through to a technical support geek named Leonard, who asked me all the same questions about my account. I’m not sure what nationality Leonard was or where he was located, but it sure wasn’t anywhere in the U.S. Oddly, though, he didn’t sound Indian. Is it racist of me to say that? Most technical support for electronic gadgets is in India. Are there young men named Leonard in India? So Leonard, way too fast in language I could barely understand, finally managed to give me a password that would work with my Qwest account. What should have been simple became much too complex—a nearly incomprehensible geek spewing way too many words at me, trying to sell me way too many upgrades to my internet service. I finally interrupted him and said, “Thank you, Leonard. Goodbye,” and hung up. Was that rude of me? I hope not. Then it was back to my IPad with my new password. Yay! It worked. And I suddenly had bells and whistles and sleight of hand stuff I couldn’t begin to decipher: a camera, an Apple apps store (475,000 apps to choose from, some to buy and some free, none of which struck me as something I needed), the ITunes store, maps, magazines, free books (none of which I wanted), access to my e-mails, internet access to any site I might want to visit, a tiny keyboard for texting or filling in information requests. Oh, yes, and the manual? I went to the Apple site and downloaded 137 pages of instructions on how to use this magical platter. That’s right, one hundred and thirty-seven pages for this tiny toy. Now I have to figure out how I can transfer some of my music from computer to IPad, how to download e-books, how to transfer photos, how to take pictures and videos. I’ll tackle all that tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 20

The Bad Boys

Remember when your children were still children, going through that awful transition from two to three? Remember those terrible times when your children became little devils just beginning to learn what they could and couldn’t get away with? Well, our two little boys, Tiger and Tuffy, seem to be in the middle of those terrible twos because they’re putting us to the test. Nothing seems to be too high for them to leap onto, no glassware not under lock and key is safe from their inquisitive paws, no artificial flowers can escape their tiny teeth, no window cords or electrical cords or phone cords seem to be out of bounds for their mischief.. They will look us in the eye and give us that two-year-old’s cherubic smile, all the while thinking about what they might next do to bug mom and dad. Our chairs and sofa tremble at their approach for fear of their razor-sharp little claws. Our house is littered with tiny play mice and round plastic balls and yet there are at least five or six that have been shoved under hutch or chairs or stove. And each time after we fish these lost items out from their hiding places, the boys almost immediately knock them under again. Just like Longfellow’s little girl I wrote about a while ago, the one with the curl in the middle of her forehead, the boys, usually when they’re sleeping, can be such good little boys, but when they’re awake, when they’re bad, they’re horrid. Soon, though, too soon, like all two-year-olds, they’ll pass through this phase to kitty adolescence and then to adulthood. And then, like Charlie, they’ll be mostly model citizens. Mostly. That's Tuffy sleeping in his window seat. Doesn't he look angelic? And Tiger is in his favorite chair in the living room. Doesn't he look angelic? Then there's Charlie, now the responsible adult in the trio, looking aloofly innocent, just as he always does, awake or asleep.

Tuesday, November 19

ED

A very long time ago, in a country far far away, my wife and others in town were shocked when the 5 & 10 store dared to put a Kotex display in their front window, right out there for the innocent eyes of women and little children to see. Back then discreet men and women never spoke of such things, let alone have them displayed for the whole world to see. How dare the store owners advertise a female product like that, dare to take it out of its brown paper disguise and show it nakedly in a front window. Get out the rails, boys, pluck a few chickens, heat up the tar and ride them out of town.

We’ve come a long way since then. Now we’re bombarded by countless tv ads for ED cures, Cialis and Viagra companies promising aging men that anytime the coital urge hits them they too can sit out in nature in twin bathtubs, basking in the knowledge that they could hump like rabbits with the drop of a little blue pill, warning them with wordy disclaimers that in case their erector sets keep them up for more than four hours they should call a physician. And in case the pills don’t help, they should get a prescription for Axiron or Androgel to increase testosterone. A little dab’ll do ya in each arm pit, and—Voila!—energy and strength and sexual drive like never before. What’s next? Last night we saw an ad for Trojan lubricants. I’m just glad they didn’t show us how and where to apply it. Stay tuned, that’ll soon be on the tube.

Thursday, November 14

The "Esh" Phoneme

When one faithfully keeps a journal for over twenty years, it’s odd how remembered events and thoughts can disappear into the sea of words. I recently mentioned one of my pet English language anomalies—the many different spellings we have for the “esh” phoneme. I know I wrote an essay about it, listing all the words that exemplify the various “esh” spellings. Can I find it? No way. It’s somewhere, but I don’t know where. I’d have to wade through four or five thousand journal pages to find it, and though I’m fond of my own words, I’m not four or five thousand pages fond.

Here it is again, with most of the examples, but not all. It serves my purpose for showing how agonizingly complex English spelling and pronunciation is.
1. “sh” – devilish. So far, so good, the obvious choice for our “esh” spelling.
2. “s” – sugar, sure. Okay, does the “u” after the “s” cause it to come out as “esh”? What about “nauseous?” Is the “s” acting alone or is it working with the “e”? (This word can be pronounced three ways, but the preferred way is with the “esh.”)
3. “se” – nauseous. One way or the other, “s” alone or “se.”
4. “si” – compulsion, expulsion
5. “sc” – fascist
6. “sch” – (Most borrowed from German, but many also from Yiddish) schist, schilling, schmaltz, schmo, schnooze, schnapps, schmuck (Careful who you call a schmuck; in Yiddish it basically means “penis.”), and a double example, schottische (an “esh” on both ends)
7. “sche” – schottische
8. “ss” – fissure, issue
9. “ssi” – mission. Is the “i’ working with the “ss”? What happens when the “i” is removed? You get “misson,” which loses the “esh”; therefore, the “i” must be working with the “ss” to make the “esh.”
10. “c” – commercial, racial, facial, delicious, atrocious
11. “ch” – chute, chartreuse, champagne, chamois (mostly borrowed from French), , Chinook (an oddity which can be pronounced with hard “ch” when it signifies a native American tribe or as an “esh” when it means a warm wind)
12. “t” – novitiate, Horatio, fellatio
13. “ti” – confidential, exemption, motion, palatial (But isn’t it odd that in “palatial” the “c” from “palace” has changed to a “t”?)
14. “xi” – anxious (But odd that the “x” changes to a “z” sound in “anxiety.”)
15. “chs” – fuchsia (a lone oddity in that it derives from Leonhard Fuchs, a 16th century German botanist)
16. “psh" - pshaw (often mispronounced as “pishaw”)

A few more examples of the way English can mystify people seeking to learn our language. “Sew” and “few” look like they should be pronounced with the same vowel quality, “oo.” But “sew” is like “so” and “few” is with a diphthong that sounds like “eee-uw,” that sound of disgust when we see something yucky. And “gone” and “dawn” rhyme, but their spellings are dramatically different. Then there’s the “mb” problem, words that use this spelling but which choose to make the “b” silent, and each time, the “o” that’s trapped in front of it changes color: “bomb”- “ comb”-“tomb.” How’s that for inconsistency?

Tuesday, November 12

Phoenix Sports & Old Hookers

Last weekend was great for Arizona sports. Or maybe I should say for Phoenix sports since AU got busted by UCLA. But the ASU Sundevils squeaked out a win over the Utah Utes, the Cardinals came from behind to squeak it out over the Houston Texans, and the surprising Suns slapped the visiting Pelicans up alongside the head to move to 5-2 and in first place in the Pacific Division. All the talking heads forecast the Suns to win no more than twenty-one or –two all season. Even the Vegas bookmakers had them winning only eighteen. But they seem to be fooling everyone. New coach Jeff Hornacek has to be partly responsible. He’s got them playing tough at both ends, just as he did in his playing days. I hope next weekend sees as many bright spots as this last one did.

Last Saturday I went to my book signing with anxious heart, a little like stage fright. I was afraid it would be a negative repeat of my other failed attempts to attract readers to my books. And it was. I sat there for two hours listening to my fellow book-signer Gale Leach rapturously describe her books to the few people who stopped by. But no one wanted to hear my rapture. Don Rasmussen, a fellow book-signer scheduled for next Saturday, introduced himself, saying he just wanted to see what it was all about. But then he stood there like a book groupie for almost an hour, just aching to talk about his book. H’d written an autobiography about his life in the military and in coaching and the early days of ESPN. I wanted to say to him, “Are you crazy? Who but your children gives a rat’s ass about your life story?” But I didn’t say it, just let him go on and on about it while I pretended to listen. After two hours of sitting on a very hard chair, chatting briefly with my two faithful golf buddies who showed up, I heaved a sigh of relief and left Gifts to Go, swearing never again to put myself up for sale like some cheap hooker under a streetlight, having all potential Johns pull up beside me, take one look, and go screeching away as fast as their wheels would take them. Nope. No thanks. I’m too old and too disheartened about book selling to go through that again. I’ll just squeeze my hooker legs together and close up shop.

Sunday, November 10

Insomnia

What does one do in the depth of night when one wakes up and stares in the darkness at the inside of one’s eyelids? Well, old English teachers lie there and obsess on the vagaries of English spelling and pronunciation. How, I ask myself, can any non-English speaking person learn to read, write, or pronounce English when we have so many spelling and pronunciation anomalies? I think of “though” and then add a “t” to make “thought.” Okay, two different vowel sounds for the “ou” (“oh” and “aw”) with the “gh” silent. Then I add an “r” to make “through” and I now have an “oo” sound. Now I find a diphthong in “bough” and “sough” (which can be pronounced as either “sow” or “suff” and is obviously related to “sigh”). I heave a deep sigh and go on to “cough” and “tough,” with vowel sounds like “aw” and “uh” and the “gh” so longer silent but sounding like a rough “eff.” And all this is only the tip of the iceberg of the English spelling conundrum. Don’t even get me started on the “esh” phoneme in English. I tried, successful finally, to get back to sleep. Although it was rough, I thought it through, fought for sleep, and then soughed like a bough in a midnight breeze.

Thursday, November 7

Book Signing

This Saturday, November 9, from 11:30 to 1:30, I'll be at a book signing at a little shop called Gifts to Go. I'd really appreciate it if any of you who live in the area and read this blog could come to it, not necessarily to buy any books, but just to support me in this venture and maybe chat a bit. This place is located directly east of the QT just before you enter Sun City. There are a series of shops facing west, Gifts to Go is the northernmost of these shops. I'll be there signing my golf novel Match Play and the children's book Life in the Arbor. Thanks in advance to any of you who drop in.

Christmas "Stuff"

It’s that time again, time for the Christmas catalogues to start pouring into our mailbox. My wife and I are old enough that we no longer need to fill our house with “stuff.” In fact, we’re sort of in a “getting rid of” mode, either giving away or selling things we no longer have a need for or a special attachment to. I’ve gotten rid of most of my many cd’s (which was easy because I have all the tracks downloaded onto my computer) and a bunch of my books (which wasn’t so easy as I have, all through my life, bonded with books, taking them to my heart, the ugly ones as well as the beautiful). But that still leaves all the knickknacks we’ve bought over the years—the Priscilla Hillman kitty collectibles from Hallmark, the set of Wildflower Angels representing each month, the many glass paperweights, the crystal sets of assorted dishes too good to use but good enough to keep in our dining room hutch, the paintings by Rosalie’s father and my mother and the wooden carvings by Rosalie’s father. Just stuff, but stuff that enriches our lives. But we don’t need to add to that list, and that’s what such Christmas catalogues offer us, entice us into buying. The latest catalogue, and probably the classiest of the lot, is Signals, out of Ohio. Jewelry, wall hangings, music boxes, unusual clocks and watches, wind chimes, etc. All moderately priced and tasteful. For example, there’s a personalized wall hanging portraying a snowy landscape with two parallel rows of winter trees enclosing this saying, “I can’t promise that I’ll be here for the rest of your life, but I can promise that I’ll love you for the rest of mine.” A bit corny, but the price is right and the sentiment is genuine, even though borrowed. They also advertise three music boxes that are tempting: a harp playing “Music of the Night,” a violin playing “Blue Danube,” and a grand piano playing “Für Elise.” Do we need another music box? No, definitely no. There’s also a sign to hang on one’s front door that instructs visitors, “Doorbell Broken. Yell ‘Ding Dong!’ really loud.” Whimsical, but I love whimsy. And then, of course, there are all the t-shirts and sweatshirts with comic sayings. I love the sayings, but I don’t need any more t-shirts or sweatshirts. The old English teacher in me finds the following clever and cute and accurate:
1. Keep clam and proofread. Loose your cool and it’s easy to make misteaks.
2. “I” before “e” except when eight weird, feisty neighbors seize a surfeit of weighty heifers.
3. The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.
4. Seven days without a pun makes one weak.
5. Santa’s helpers are subordinate clauses.
6. A backward poet writes inverse.
7. Her bootlegging was illegal, but I loved her still.
8. A tardy cannibal gets the cold shoulder.
9. Never play cards in the Serengeti—there are too many cheetahs.
10. I regret not developing my photographic memory.
11. And my favorite of all in this age of talkers: Listen and silent have the same letters. Coincidence?

Tuesday, November 5

Dental Implants

Yesterday I went to my dentist (a student at Midwestern Dental School) and had four implants placed in my upper jaw. I don't think these young people realize how painful it is to sit in a dental chair for up to three hours straight, especially when the sitter is fast approaching eighty and really really has to pee. So I was there for nearly three hours with four people all having some portion of their hands in my mouth, not necessarily all at the same time, but it seemed like all four had a hand in it--a dental surgeon who was instructing my two students as he cut and hacked and pounded, my head student who was helping by holding my lips open, my secondary student who was manning the water and suction deelybob, and another assistant whose job it was to scrub away the blood on my lips and bottom jaw. I think if one had to devise a method of torture even quicker and more efficient than water-boarding, this might be it. They also did something I wouldn't have dreamed could be part of this procedure, pounding on each implant post with a tiny mallet. The NFL is worried about concussions. Well, dentists who use a tiny mallet on the inside of one's head should also be worried about causing concussions.
I was reminded of the old Dustin Hoffman movie, Marathon Man, in which Dustin is tortured by Dr. Christian Szell (played by Sir Laurence Olivier at his macabre best), who used his Auschwitz dental training to drill on Dustin’s teeth to get him to reveal the hiding place of some diamonds. I’d have given up the diamonds in a flash. You may be wondering why I was having four implants. They're evenly spaced along my upper gum ridge and will serve as anchors for my upper dental plate, sort of snap-on buttons like shirts and jackets sometimes have. I feel much better today than I did when I came home yesterday. But if I had to do it again, I'd pass.

Sunday, November 3

When She Was Good

When She Was Good is a most unusual novel by Laura Lippman,. Or maybe I should say, it contains a most unusual main character. Helen Lewis is a prostitute who becomes a madam and runs her escort service like a well-oiled machine, making sure her “girls” are protected from disease as well as customers, or “clients” as she likes to refer to them. And she extensively screens the men before accepting them as clients, most of whom are influential movers and shakers in the Baltimore and DC areas. She is almost entirely a self-made woman, never graduating from high school because her abusive father insisted she go to work instead of wasting her time in school. But she reads and reads, thinking if she can’t get a normal education she’ll get one on her own. When she was eighteen, dancing, both pole and lap, she was living with Billy, an addict and a loser, but it’s there that she meets Val Deluca, who takes her in, supposedly only temporarily. But he pimps her out and she works for him until he’s sent to prison for killing Martin, the young man he’d been grooming as his second in command. But since Helen (now renamed Heloise) has such good business acumen, she takes over the business and runs it better and more profitably than Val did. Helen, or Heloise, is a remarkable character in that she’s in a dirty business but she’s such a good and intelligent person who treats both her escorts and the clients with fairness and respect. Lippman is a sneaky good writer, nothing flamboyant about her style but she has her moments. Let me show just a few examples:

“Heloise feels as if she can pinpoint the exact location of her heart. It is like a pigeon caught in a chimney, flapping its wings, desperate to get out, blind in the darkness.”

“She really does look fine. If one didn’t know of Sophie’s former glory, she might even seem reasonably attractive. But the lusciousness is gone. She’s like a piece of fruit on its way to being overripe. There’s no visible decay, but you wouldn’t want to bite into her for fear that the sensation would be mushy and mealy.”

“They were a self-contained unit, together almost sixty years, not even particularly perturbed by the infrequency with which they saw their grown children. They were like two trees that had grown together, and they would probably topple together. “

Anyone who likes well-written thrillers should try some of Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series or any of her stand-alone novels.

Friday, November 1

Tiger Woods

Forgive me for beating this drum again, just as I have for so many years. All you Tiger haters out there won’t like what I have to say about the man, especially after he showed the world his feet of clay with his infamous sex scandal. In the years since Tiger’s father died, and in these past three years after Tiger’s domestic screw-up, Tiger’s career isn’t as certain as it once seemed to be. Granted, it’s still pretty great, but just think what it might have been, what it still might be. Tiger’s father devoted his son’s life to becoming the best ever, and Tiger went along with it to an unbelievable degree. What must it have been like for the other tour players during that first decade of Tiger’s career? Playing for second place most weeks, I guess. I hope I live long enough to see how it all plays out. By the end of last season, he’s won 79 PGA tour events, only three behind Snead’s 82 (but some of Snead’s are questionable at best), and Snead, like Vijah Singh, played in nearly every tournament that came down the pike, many with weak fields. Tiger plays in only the most prestigious tournaments, with the strongest fields. What if he’d decided to play a thirty or thirty-five week schedule per year? He could easily have won another three more each of the past dozen years, bringing his total to somewhere around 115. The number of records he holds is remarkable—number of years as top money winner, number of cuts made, number of consecutive cuts made (142), number of consecutive weeks ranked as number 1, number of consecutive PGA victories in a row—7 in 2006-07, 6 in 1999-2000 (second only to Byron Nelson’s 11 in a row). He’s won 27.2% of the tournaments he’s entered. His influence on the tour has been tremendous, almost single-handedly increasing the amount of prize money now available to tour players. He played probably the best golf anyone has ever known in that magical year of 2000-2001. He was then king, and his reign continued for nearly the entire first decade of this century. And then he blew it. But maybe he can right the ship and regain his title. He was and still might be the most powerful figure any sport has ever seen. Paul Azinger once said he thought Tiger was the greatest athlete of all-time, an assessment I’d have to agree with.

Wednesday, October 30

Tiger & Hairspray

I couldn't resist. That's Tiger taking his leisure among the books on a bottom shelf. The boys are now five months old and they're still kittens, getting into kittensih trouble. We can't have any strings hanging down anywhere or they'll get after them. All the drape cords now have to be tied up beyond their reach; the chain on our overhead bedroom fan got attacked two nights ago with Tuffy not only turning on the light but also shutting off the fan. We didn't think he could possibly leap that high. We were wrong. But soon, too soon, as with darling children, they'll grow out of such behavior and then they'll be more serious adults. How sad that we all have to be adults for most of our lives.

We went to the Arizona Broadway Theatre last night for their production of Hairspray. One word best describes it: Energetic. I'm not a particular fan of rock music or the kind of dance that goes with it, but this one, set in 1962 Baltimore with young Tracy Turnblad trying to get onto a local televised dance show similar to American Bandstand, had me snapping my fingers along with the dancers. ABT has gotten so professional in all aspects of musical theatre and here again they didn't disappoint. Twenty-six cast members, about equally white and black, gave us this story of the early Civil Rights Movement as seen in Baltimore a long time ago, when Tracy and her friends took steps to integrate the then all white cast of The Corny Collins Show, culminating in the Miss Teenage Hairspray Pageant. It was a fun night at ABT, and the cocktails and meal were excellent. Next up is the more familiar Sound of Music. I can't wait to see what they do with that one.

Tuesday, October 29

Reading for Survival

John D. MacDonald wrote twenty-one novels in the series about Travis McGee, the true tough guy protagonist for this literary generation, the “salvage consultant” who lived on his houseboat, The Busted Flush, docked at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar Marina, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. MacDonald’s style can, at times, be maddeningly cute, especially when he describes the many females McGee encounters along the way. Or maybe, since they’re all written in the first person point of view, it’s McGee’s style and not MacDonald’s. It’s hard to separate author from hero, MacDonald from McGee. And then there are times when either MacDonald or McGee says something that just knocks the socks off the reader. If you’ve never read any of the multi-colored McGees, you should try him. Maybe he’ll knock one or two of your socks off, just as he has for me. Here are what two well-known writers had to say about MacDonald and the influence he had on them:
"To diggers a thousand years from now... the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen." Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

"When you despair of what passes for storytelling in today's dumbed-down video 'culture,' I have a prescription that works every time: Return to the Masters. Turn on some Gershwin, Ellington, Cole Porter, curl up, and open to the first page of a John D. MacDonald novel. You shall be restored! The Deep Blue Goodbye would be a great start." Joseph Wambaugh

The following essay was written just before MacDonald’s death in 1986, less an essay than a fictional dialogue between McGee and his good friend Meyer, the brilliant economist who lives alongside McGee on his cruiser, the Thorstein Veblen. Meyer is not only a brilliant economist; he’s simply brilliant in everything. This essay uses Meyer to state MacDonald’s ideas about the importance of reading. You may not agree with everything Meyer has to say, but I guarantee he’ll hit you between the eyes with one or two of his points.


John D. MacDonald – “Reading for Survival” (an essay published in 1987 for the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress)

The theme will be the terrible isolation of the nonreader, his life without meaning or substance because he cannot comprehend the world in which he lives. The best way to make my words fall usefully upon deaf ears is to use such colorful language that it will be quoted, sooner or later, to a great many of the nonreaders. (John D.Macdonald, to the Center for the Book, October 1985)

The big thunder-engine of early summer was moving into sync along Florida’s east coast, sloshing millions of tons of water onto the baked land and running off too quickly— as it always does.
An impressive line of anvil clouds marched ashore on that Friday afternoon in June, electrocuting golfers, setting off burglar alarms, knocking out phone and power lines, scaring the whey out of the newcomers.
Meyer’s live-aboard cruiser, the Thorstein Veblen, had been hauled for some bottom work, and he was spending the day aboard my houseboat, the Busted Flush. I was doing a job I hate and had avoided for too long, sorting out the music cassettes, setting aside the giveaways and the ones to erase, getting them all back into the right boxes.
After a very impressive flash/ crack/ boom the lights went out, the air conditioning groaned to a stop, and the refrigerator made a gargling sound and faded into silence. Wind gusts were tilting and creaking the old houseboat. I looked out and saw how high the heavy rain was bouncing off the decks and superstructure of my neighbors at Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale.
Meyer put his book aside and levered himself up out of my best chair. He yawned and stretched, a broad, solid bear of a man, a hairy freelance economist, teacher, and lecturer, a friend of man and beast.
“Too dark for reading.” I said.
“I wasn’t reading, Travis.”
“Please excuse me. My mistake. You had the book open and you were staring down at the pages and I thought . . . foolishly enough . . .”
“I was thinking about something. A passage in the book started me thinking about something.”
“Like what?”
No reply. I don’t think he heard me. When you and I think, it is a fairly simple process. A lot of fuzzy notions bump about in our skulls like play toys in a roiled swimming pool. With brute force and exasperation we sort them into a row and reach a conclusion, the quicker the better. With Meyer it is quite a different process. He has a skull like a house I read about once, where an old lady kept building on rooms because she thought if she ever stopped building she would die. It became an architectural maze, hundreds of rooms stuck on every which way. Meyer knows his way around his rooms. He knows where the libraries are, and the little laboratories, the computer rooms, the print shop, the studios. When he thinks, he wanders from room to room, looking at a book here, a pamphlet there, a specimen across the hall. His ideas are compilations of the thought and wisdom
he has accumulated up until now.
I knew that if I kept my mouth shut he would probably show me an edge of his idea, a quick flash of it, a suggestion of its shape. Later, when he had worked it over, smoothed it out, tucked in the dangling edges, he might tell me the whole thing—provided he thought it was in an area that might interest me, and that I could comprehend.
I took a pair of battery lanterns out of a locker, put one on the coffee table and took the other into the galley alcove. I saw no point in starting up my own generator. The rain had cooled the afternoon all the way down to probably eighty degrees. But if the power stayed off, my ice supply was endangered, and I decided to use it to save it. I did not ask him to join me in a Boodles on the rocks. I went ahead and made two of them in the big old-fashioned glasses and went to where he stood and put one in his hand.
He raised it slowly, absently, to his lips, took a swallow. It startled him. He looked at the drink and then at me. “Sorry,” he said. “I was just . . .”
“I know. Thinking.”
He took another swallow. He walked over and sat by the coffee table and put his drink near the lantern.
“Strange thing about an idea,” he said. “You can never tell whether it is so totally obvious it seems simple-minded, or whether it is composed of relationships you should have seen before. Most ideas are merely structures—things built on bits of knowledge and insight you already possess. If the knowledge you possess is in error, the structure will be flawed.”
I sat across from him. “What’s this one about?
“Maybe the stress of survival.”
“I’ve been stressed now and then .”
“I am thinking of the long range. Hundreds of thousands of years. Millions of years. The stress of survival caused adaptations. Specific adaptations. The neck of the giraffe. The cushioned brain of the woodpecker. The nematocysts of the Portuguese man-of-war.”
“The what?”
“The poisonous areas on the tentacles.”
“Oh.”
“Specific adaptations developed over long periods of time to preserve the species. Grazing animals which lived on the leaves of trees had to grow longer and longer necks, or starve. Just as man breeds show dogs and beef cattle. And turkeys with so much weight of breast meat, their legs are all sinew. Biological evolution creates precise adaptations so that a creature can survive in one single environment. And certainly man has developed through biological evolution. What man has grown for himself over millennia is this wondrous stack of neurons and blood vessels encased in bone.” And he rapped himself on the skull with his knuckles.
“A lot of church people aren’t going to think too much of your idea, if this is the way you have to lead into it.”
“Creationism? Garden of Eden? The world is six thousand years old? Every word in the Bible is true? Everybody has a right to his or her belief, Travis. But no one has the right to impose it by statute and ordinance on anyone else against his or her will. These days the Shiites are trying to impose on the Sunnis their particular version of the Koran. A very warlike version. Forcible imposition doesn’t work.”
“Okay, Meyer. Let’s assume mankind grew this brain. How come?”
“He grew it very quickly, in probably just one million years, which is only a moment in geological time. The first creature we can legitimately call manlike evolved most probably in Africa near the equator, possibly in the valley of the Omo River in Ethiopia near Lake Rudolph and the Great Rift Valley. Down in the hard baked sludge of two million years ago, the anthropologists found our ancestors, along with the animals he hunted. The animals have not changed to any great extent over the past two million years, but man has changed dramatically.”
“How come?”
“Let me give you some background. We can safely assume a common ancestor for man, ape, and monkey about fifty million years ago. The lemur, with fingernails instead of claws, opposed thumb, eyes in the front of its head. Man and monkey took divergent paths thirty million years ago. Our records of the intervening millions of years are sketchy until we come to Australopithecus africanus, a creature about four feet tall with a brain weighing a pound and a half. He knew how to make a weapon by hammering a rock with another rock until the edge was sharp.
He lived in a moist jungle climate. He ate fruits, berries, roots, stalks, and small animals. But then came the challenge. A great and lasting drought, changing the climate, challenging him, stressing him.
“We pick up on him again a million years later. Homo erectus. He has spread a long way from Africa. Peking man, found in China. Fossil skulls in Germany. The Neanderthal in the Middle East. He has a three-pound brain, as big as ours today. He is taller. There have been improvements in the structure of his hand, making it better for grasping and better for delicate work. Lots of changes in the brain centers. You understand of course that I use the generic he, meaning mankind—men, women, and children. I yield to no man in my respect for women and my awareness of their equality, but I refuse to corrupt the language with those grotesque mannerisms which began, I believe, with chairperson.”
He got up slowly, frowning, he swallowed some of his drink, put the glass down, and began pacing back and forth, four steps forward, for steps aft. He was switching lecture mode. I have seen him do it before. I cease to be McGee and become Audience. He gathers his thoughts and speaks with care, in rounded sentences, pausing from time to time to look at the Audience.
“Let us try to imagine a day in the life of Homo erectus one and half million years ago, when he is in the middle of those great changes. He is a member of a group. They are roving hunters. They will stayed in an area, I shelters they contrive, until food tocks in that area are depleted. His group, his tribe, has begun to accumulate a store of knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Knowledge and myth. He will have been told of and shown the hundreds of different plants and trees which bear some relationship to his survival. Never eat the fruit of this bush. To heal a cut, crush the leaves of this plant and tie them to the wound with a length of vine. He will have to know the characteristic tracks and spoor of hundreds of creatures. To all the information he has been given, he will add the knowledge he has picked up, his personal storehouse. The only place he can store all the data necessary to survival is in his head.
“Picture him as a member of a hunting party, advancing through scrub land. He will be tense, using every sense. Aware of any change in the direction of the breeze. He will be listening, watching, scenting, with hundreds of dangers in his memory banks, thousands of experiences of the hunt in mind. He will have to have learned how to make weapons, learned a crude pharmacology, learned about fire, learned the vulnerability and the danger of many creatures, learned his place in
his social order, learned how to fight other men, how to instruct children, how to build shelters. Perhaps, most important of all, he has learned that he will have to keep on learning and remembering or he might die in a very sudden and bloody manner, just as he has seen individuals of his tribe die when they forgot some essential crumb of knowledge.
“This is a demanding life. It is full of stress. And the key to survival is memory! That’s what takes up most of the room in our skulls. Out of memory comes the learning of relationships, and out of that comes creative change, improvements, reductions of risk. And there is a constant selectivity at work. The inattentive child is eaten by wild dogs. The forgetful man is killed by the snake he should have seen. Those dull of wit are overwhelmed by the need to remember so many things, and so they perish and the species is improved thereby.
“Mankind, growing ever more adaptable as his brain size increased, survived the three great Ice Ages. He learned to follow great herds of animals near the edge of the ice, and that style of existence fifteen thousand years ago probably foreshadowed the lifestyle of the herders, who owned their flocks later on. The cave paintings of twenty thousand years ago in Spain and France reveal the things important to man at that time and place, the cultural bias toward the hunt, and the accumulated knowledge of the animals he stalked.”
At that moment the power came back on. The little servo mechanisms went pockety queek, and came back to life. I turned the lanterns off and stowed them. I fixed fresh drinks.
As I gave Meyer his drink I said, “just where the hell are you going with all this?”
“I want to refine it somewhat before I tell you the rest of it.”
“Are you showing off?”
“I tend to do that from time to time.”
“Thanks for the prehistory lesson.”
“Don’t take it too seriously. I’ve taken a few liberties with accepted fact here and there. But so do the archaeologists and the anthropologists. Many of them believe Australopithecus africanus was a dead end. Speculation is not a sin. Maybe three hundred thousand years ago is the right date for the appearance of the brain we now possess. What do you feel like eating?”
“I’ve been thinking about enchiladas, frijoles, huevos, and those little skinny red peppers.”
Meyer beamed. “Splendid suggestion!”

Meyer and I ate that night at Raoul’s in North Lauderdale. As we finished, another line of storms came rumbling in off the Atlantic and the rain came thrashing down. So we settled back into our booth in the back of the place and ordered another couple of bottles of Dos Equis beer, dark, velvety, and cold.
“To get back to our ancestors,” Meyer said.
“I didn’t think I had your full attention.”
“Sorry about that. It’s some kind of involuntary schizophrenia. I keep thinking about ancient man even when I’m talking about something else. For most of that two million years we ere discussing, man was a hunter and a forager. But by ten thousand years ago he was cultivating plants, domesticating animals, and building more permanent shelters. Why did he start that? It was a process of logic. If you control your environment, control your food sources, then you do not have to depend on luck. You depend on hard work and on more learning and remembering and handing down to your children and the younger members of the tribe what you have learned and remembered. The animal behavior experts discovered long ago that those animals which have the least amount of trouble living off their environment are the ones with the most curiosity, and the ones likely to have some sense of play. Otters, crows, squirrels, dolphin. Once man regulated his environment he began to have time to be more curious, perhaps more playful.
“Let me underline again, Travis, the importance of memory. Memory was the only record man had. Plants, animals, weather, fire, illness, weapons, warfare, tracking, digging, building, cultivating, birthing, dying, traveling… his brain had grown big and convoluted under the stress of the remembering of all manner of crucial data. He was in a constant sweat to remember, because to forget was to die. With the memories in his head he could begin to build relationships.”
“Relationships? What kind?”
“An animal skull would make a cup, and an easier way to drink than to lie flat on the bank of the stream. He kneels in moist clay, sees the round bowl-like depression he leaves in the clay, realizes the shape relationship, wonders if the clay can be dug out of the bank, and dried in the sun. When that doesn’t work he wonders if a more strenuous drying, as in the heat of a fire, would make the cup shape more permanent. And so, with a brain able to seek relationships between
remembered facts, mankind entered the pottery age seven thousand years ago and, with his sense of mystery and playfulness, began to make symbols in the clay on the sides of his vessels.”
He stares across at me, one black eyebrow raised in question, and I nodded. I knew what he meant but did not know where this history lesson was going.
“And in the same process he came up with the needle, the sling, the harness, the button, the hatchet… hundreds of homely objects designed to make life easier. And each new device led to refinements and to other related devices. And, four thousand years after he learned to make pottery, he invented the wheel. But I don’t want to lose the thread of my argument in a discussion of things.
“Inevitably, Travis, man acquired so many artifacts he had to devise some way of keeping track of them. He had gone beyond the capacity of memory. The first writings we know of, other than the famous Code of Hammurabi in 1800 B.C., are records of shipments of goods in the Middle East. Pots and grain and tools. Writing and reading were elitist skills for fifteen hundred years and more, and then along came Johann Gutenberg in the fifteenth century with the invention of moveable type. And that is when they began to fill the libraries of the world with the record of
mankind, his tools, his history, his wars, famines, voyages, metallurgy, romances, superstitions, inventions . . .”
Then Meyer did an odd thing. He reached across the table and clamped a thick hand around my forearm just above the wrist. I could feel the pressure of it. His gaze was very intense. “What we did to ourselves, Travis, within the past four hundred years, has been to make memory, as a key to the survival of the individual obsolete.”
He leaned back with a look of satisfaction.
“So keep going.” I said.
He shook his head. “Your turn, my friend. I’ve shown you the rock. Now you have to tip it over and look for the bugs.”
“I hate it when you do this.”
“No you don’t. You have a hard time getting started, but you’re always pleased with yourself when you find out you’re actually thinking.”
I sighed. “Okay. You are saying that mankind got to be king of the hill because for a million years he had to remember a lot of details in the world around him or something might eat him. The brain grew like a muscle.”
“A crude analogy, but I’ll accept it.”
“Thanks. And now memory is not all that critical. I mean you can survive without having to remember much. Like remember to stop at red lights, take your pills, lock your doors. We don’t have to stalk anything in the jungle, or remember the shapes of leaves. So that takes away a big problem, doesn’t it?”
“Does it create a bigger one?”
It is always irritating when he prods me, and sits back with his blue eyes alert and bright, waiting for me to pick up on the clues.
“I’ll give it a shot. Okay. It must mean that a lot of the capacity of the brain is going unused. Are you saying it is going to atrophy?”
“No. What should people be doing with that capacity?”
“There’s a clue for you in something Mark Twain said. ‘The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.’”
A small light glimmered in the back of my skull. I have my own kind of smarts. My brain works well in its own terrain, but it doesn’t follow Meyer’s patterns.
“Okay then,” I said finally. “Back in prehistory man learned and remembered everything he had to know about survival in his world. Then he invented so many tricks and tools, he had to invent writing. More stuff got written down than any man could possibly remember. Or use. Books are artificial memory. And it’s there when you want it. But for just surviving, you don’t need the books. Not anymore.”
He nodded. “So why are we doing such a poor job surviving as a species, Travis?”
“Last I heard there were five billion of us.”
“In greater danger with each passing day.”
“Is this going to turn into one of your bomb lectures?”
“Not at all. That might be one part of it. Try this for size. The man of a million years ago used exposure, experience, and all his senses to acquired, in memory, a useful picture of reality. His world was small in scope, limited to what he could see, hear, taste, eat kill, carry, and use. The world today, to the man walking in a wilderness, is still the same size. But to the man who can read and also remember, it is huge and it is monstrously complicated. The man who can read and
remember and ponder the big realities is a man keyed to survival of the species. These big realities are the histories of nations, cultures, religions, politics, and the total history of man—from biology to technology. He does not have to read everything. That’s an asinine concept. He should have access to everything, but have enough education to differentiate between slanted tracts and balanced studies, between hysterical preachings and carefully researched data.
“Another critical reality is the geography of nations and the world, from the movement of tectonic plates to the disappearing of the rain forests, form the breeding of resistant strains of grain to the increasing lifelessness of the sea, from the melting of ice caps to the history of the great changes of climate on the globe, from famines to abundance.
“And a critical area is that of the physical condition of man, the curious inner storms that warp his mind and leave him unable to perceive reality, the role of DNA in his body cells, the probable future medical skill of controlling genetic heritage, the history of plagues and superstitions about the body, the present ability of science to prolong life beyond the point where it has any meaning left, the role of health care and welfare, the current infestation of mind-rotting drugs.
“The final critical reality is the reality of science, a geometric progression of discovery and implementation, space flight and toxic wastes, genetic engineering and acid rain, microchips and endangered species. To be aware of the world you live in you must be aware of the constant change wrought by science, and the price we pay for every advance.
“These are our realities, and, like our ancestors of fifty thousand years ago, if we—as a species rather than as an individual—are uninformed, or careless, or indifferent to the facts, then survival as a species is in serious doubt.
“How do we relate to reality? How do we begin to comprehend it? By using that same marvelous brain our ancestor used. By the exercise of memory. How do we stock the stores of memory? By reading, Travis. Reading! Complex ideas and complex relationships are not transmitted by body language, by brainstorming sessions, by the boob tube or the boom box. You cannot turn back the pages of a television show and review a part you did not quite understand. You can’t carry conversations around in your coat pocket.
“I would not demand that a man read ponderous tomes, or try to read everything—any more than I would expect our ancestor to examine every single leaf on a plant he remembers as being poisonous. I would expect that in his reading—which should be wide ranging, fiction, history, poetry, political science—he would acquire the equivalent of a liberal arts education and acquire also what I think of as the educated climate of mind, a climate characterized by skepticism, irony, doubt, hope, and a passion to learn more and remember more.”
“How many of those do we have these days?”
“A pitifully small percentage of the race, and growing smaller every year. Sixty million Americans, one out of every three adults—according to an article I read recently in Psychology Today—cannot read well enough to understand a help-wanted ad, or the warning label on household cleaners, or an electric bill, or the instructions on a package of medicine. They are disenfranchised, completely cut off from any knowledge of history, literature, and science. And because they can’t read they become negative role models for their children, who, in their turn, will become a new generation of illiterates, of victims.”
“What happened to the schools?”
“The pedagogues decided learning should be fun. For a long time they gave up the phonetics and phonetic drill. Learn words by their shape. And they gave up keeping students back until they could pass the class work. There were lots of field strips. Still are. Lots of athletics and games. Kids can slide through without any special effort. Call it the Len Bias syndrome. At the time of his death he had been taking five classes at the University of Maryland, was failing them all, had given up two of them, and had stopped attending the remaining three. He would have been
hard pressed to write a third grade theme, a simple three- or four- sentence description of a bunny rabbit. A fabulous athlete with a skull full of wet noodles. Quite obviously his attitude was that he did not need all that book shit.”
“Maybe he didn’t.”
“The life unexamined is the life unlived. Can one examine his own life without reference to the realities in which he lives? The political, geographical, historical, philosophical, scientific, religious realities? He does not have to know all aspects with some kind of deadly precision. He has to know the truth of them, the shape and the size, their place in relation to each other. He has to know them in the context to which the reasonable and rational and thoughtful men of his times have assigned them.”
Meyer frowned. “I’m wandering a bit. I should come up with a good analogy, something that will nail it down. Something to pull it together. I’ll have to depend on my constructive insomnia. At three in the morning I’ll work out something.”
“I can hardly wait.”
“Sarcasm is not your most endearing talent, McGee. It’s not raining. It’s late. Raoul has walked by us twice, sighing. Poker dollars for the tab?”
He selected one of my dollars and I picked one of his. It had two pair, eights and threes. He came up with three tens. I paid.

We didn’t have a chance to talk until the following Tuesday afternoon. It was a fabulous day in Lauderdale. All the hard rains had washed the air clean. The humidity was down in the fifties and the temperature was down in the mid-seventies. We walked across the pedestrian bridge to the beach and Meyer sat in the shade of his favorite tree while I took my forty-five minutes of compulsive behavior—fifteen minutes of trying to run parallel to the beach in waist-deep water—
try it, you won’t like it. Then a half hour divided between breast stroke, back stroke, crawl, and porpoising, giving each one of them my most strenuous shot. I slowed down by strolling up the beach and back, and was breathing almost normally when I got back into the shade of Meyer’s tree.
“Your energy disheartens me,” he said.
“It’s all character. And it feels great when I stop.”
“I have all the analogies worked out.”
“Great. I sort of lost track of where you were going.”
“Dos Equis will do that to you. Ready?”
“That fellow fifty thousand years ago with all the survival memories packed into his head, we will call him Mog for convenience’ sake. He is hunting alone in brush country, dressed in hides, spear in his right hand. He is jogging at a pace he can maintain for hours. And he is looking to left and right, searching for signs of something he can eat, or something he does not wish to be eaten by. At times he stops and listens for a long minute, head uptilted, snuffling the breeze. He takes
care to travel into the breeze. And from time to time he looks behind him. He has names for the kinds of trees, brush, and grasses. For all the animals and insects and birds in his part of the world. He knows what to expect from every aspect of his environment. It is all packed into memory. And his intelligence perceives the relationships between the artifacts of his environment.
“Suddenly on the far side of a knoll he comes upon a pyramid of fresh fruit stacked upon broad green leaves. He distances himself from it, moving laterally so that he can keep it in view. There are no trees in that area which bear that variety of fruit, nor any trees or bushes with broad leaves. He is familiar with the act of baiting a trap, and so he looks everywhere except at the fruit, and he listens intently, and he makes a wide and careful circle, testing the air for any strange scent, and studying the ground for any kind of track. He ransacks his memory. He knows of no animal which would or could do this. Leaving gifts is not a practice of his people or of any other tribe he has had contact with. His gods are in the hearts of trees, in lightning, in thunder, in hard rain and violent winds. They do not leave gifts.
“And so, because this violates all his experience, all his store of memory, all the reality of his world, he doesn’t go near the fruit. He continues his hunt. We can imagine a younger man appearing hours later, less wary, less informed, more gullible. We can make up some horrid pictures. When he touches the fruit, in that instant giant black pincers erupt out of the dust, grasp him and haul him, screaming, down into the concealed cavern the creature had dug.”
“Good grief, Meyer! They need you on the networks.”
“An analogy has to have two sides. We go to our modern Mog. We will call him Smith. He has a bachelor of science degree from a state university. He reads a great deal. History, science, philosophy, fiction, natural history, geography, politics. When he comes upon contradictions in what he reds, he is capable of sorting things out and arriving at a reasonable truth of the matter. He knows the shapes of the large realities of the world he lives in. his memory is packed with the information he needs. He knows that ancient Islam used the astrolabe to determine the direction of
Mecca, that amino acids are the building blocks of life, that the continents are adrift on tectonic plates. He knows where the Andaman Islands are, and he can identify the constellations.”
The lecture was postponed for a while, without seeming to stare, we watched three lovely young girls walk by, engaged in animated conversation, with laughter and gestures.
I said to Meyer, “May I quibble? Isn’t the world of Smith one hell of a lot more complicated than the world of Mog?”
“I thought so, up to a few years ago. And then I read about the problems people in Africa have trying to insert animals back into the wild after raising them. They have a refuge on the perimeter of one of the parks. Orphaned baby creatures are brought to them. It can take up to ten years of careful exposure before hose animals can become totally independent. If they go charging out there without preparation, they are soon dead. It is a more complex environment than you would think. More cruel, more deadly. And the rules are never obvious.
“Now we must have Smith come upon the fruit stacked waiting for him out in the brush country. The shiny ripe fruit on the green leaves. This takes the form of a totally unexpected job offer from a company involved in developing condominium projects. It will pay twice what he is making. And so he walks around it, a very alert and skeptical man. His memory is packed full of data which applies directly and indirectly to this offer from the blue. Sociology, economics, political theory, psychology, business practice. He looks for tracks. He snuffs the breeze. He listens with great care. And he says no thanks. The potential employer is in a high risk area. They have contracts which might not be renewed. Middle management turnover is high.”
“But isn’t that just common sense, Meyer, to turn it down?”
“Common sense is uncommon, dear boy. And in more cases than you could imagine, it comes from reading widely, and from remembering. In fiction Smith had read about land scams. In magazines he had read about the dubious future of the condominium concept. In newspapers he had read about the banks going under because of bad real estate loans. All these things merged in his mind and added up to ‘No, thanks.’”
“So the big black pincers didn’t reach up out of the dust and grab him by the wallet.”
"The nonreader in our culture wants to believe. He is the one born every minute. The world is so vastly confusing and baffling to him that he feels there has to be some simple answer to everything that troubles him. And so, out of pure emptiness, he will eagerly embrace spiritualism, yoga, a banana diet, or some callous frippery like Dianetics, L. Ron Hubbard’s personal path to infinite riches, a strange amalgam of sociological truisms and psychological truths masquerading under invented semiscientific terms, and sold to the beginner at a nice profit.”
Meyer opened the back pages of his book and brought out a newspaper clipping. “This,” he said, “is from an editorial in the American Spectator written by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., and published in the July 1986 issue. Mr. Tyrrell is a bit of a smart-ass, but he uses the language well. And I quote: ‘Here in America, as elsewhere, there will always be tremulous little people of dim intellect and hyperactive imagination, burning for explanations to all life's vicissitudes. They grow impatient with learned analyses of the present. They are defeated by histories that illuminate the past. No species of scholarship or analysis could ever satisfy them; for they need that Wondrous Explanation that will quiet all their fears, thrill them with villains to revile, and never tax their feeble powers of intellection.’
"The same idea was said in a different way by Eric Hoffer, the old dock-walloper, in his book years ago titled The True Believer. Hoffer's theory was that the best fanatics are people who have nothing in their heads but wind, smoke, and emptiness. Then if any idea manages to slip in there, it does not matter how insipid or grotesque that idea might be, it will expand to fill all the available emptiness, and it takes over the individual and all his actions. He cannot hear any voice but his own. He is beyond reason, beyond argumentation. He is right and everyone who does not believe exactly the same as he is wrong.
“There’s a lot of it going on lately. True believers who believe that every word in the Bible is the literal truth. Only a grievously uneducated person could believe that. The most elementary course in the history of Christianity will explain that the Bible is a conglomeration of bits and pieces from many varied sources during many different epochs, and that most of it has been translated from one language to another several times, with nuances lost and added all along the way. To take one of the most widely known errors—whether typo or a flaw in translation, we do not know—the bit about the camel being unable to pass through the eye of a needle. There is general agreement that there was an arched entrance in the ancient wall of an ancient city, so narrow that it was called the Needle’s Eye. A laden camel has cargo slung upon its flanks in such a manner that it could not pass through the gate. An unladen camel could walk through. Thus we have a more satisfying simile, relating the laden camel to the man laden with riches who could not enter the kingdom of heaven. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of similar errors, leaving many portions of the text without meaning. And event the nonsense passages are not improved by being reprinted in basic fifth-grade-English, a recent and deplorable trend.
“The Bible is a powerful piece of ecclesiastical literature, a poetic and historical document. But to believe it is literal truth is nonsense, acceptable only to the gullible. To believe that every word is true demeans the Bible. It insults it. It turns the Bible into some sort of magic talisman with meanings accessible only to the chief wizard. To believe every word is true deprives the reading of the Bible of any meaning and turns it into a magic ceremony, as empty as the spinning of the prayer wheels in the village streets of the Himalayas.
“It is in the interest of unscrupulous men who presume to teach the Word of God to insist that their flock accept the Bible as literal truth. This gives those men the option of translating those parts which seem obscure, translating them into terms which always favor the translator.
“Creationism is a case in point. They want it taught in the schools. What is there to teach? That God created the earth six thousand years ago? They say that it is as respectable a point of view as the Theory of Evolution. Out of their abysmal ignorance comes the idea that theory in this context means some kind of assumption open to dispute, not yet proven, whereas the word is used in the same way it is used in the theory of diminishing returns, or the theory of relativity. Those
theories are not open to dispute because the proof of their correctness is available to anyone who can read. As to the age of the earth, measure how long it takes the tiny creatures which make up the coral reefs which have become the Florida Keys to build one inch of structure from the sea floor. Divide that time period into the height of the keys and you get a minimum figure of ten million years. The Himalayas are still rising, still being pushed upward at a measurable inch at a time by the pressure of a vast tectonic plate against he Asiatic land mass. How ling did it take to push flat land up into six-mile-high mountains?
"My point is that the man who reads is using the fabulous memory storage and relationship analysis of the brain his ancestors developed eons ago. He is facilitating his survival in the contemporary world. He will recognize the pockets of fanaticism around him and know what is causing these universal foci of dementia. Of course, he will be called an egghead or a bleeding heart or a secular humanist, but he can lean back and, in a certain way, enjoy the marvelously crackpot rantings of a Jesse Helms, a Botha, a Meese, a Kohmeni, a Falwell, a Qaddafi, a Gorbachev, an Ortega, a Noriega----people from both ends of every spectrum, whooping and leaping and frothing, absolutely livid at the idea their particular warped vision of reality is not shared by everyone. Their basic lack of education, of reading, of being able to comprehend the great truths of reality has left empty places in their heads, into which great mischief has crept."
Inside his head he was pacing back and forth on his private podium, grasping his lecture notes, string imperiously at his Audience from time to time.
“Hey, Meyer,” I said. “I believe you. You’ve sold me.”
He came slowly back down to earth. “Sorry. I do go on, don’t I?” give me about a year and I will get this whole concept sorted out. The brain developed over such a brilliant period of our history, the memory refined as a survival tool, and then disuse, ignorance, mischief, disaster. The Devil makes work for idle brains. May I make just one more point?”
“Could I stop you?”
“Not easily. Take a quick look at terrorism. In Ireland, in Africa, in the Middle East. Most active terrorists are between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. We keep making the automatic assumption that they know something of the world, of history, of politics, of geography. But that assumption is wrong. Totally wrong. They are manipulated by men who have the same thing in their heads that the kids have—nothing but hate, anger, machismo, a sense of fraternity, and access to explosives. Their world is just as tiny as Mog’s world. And as dangerous. They hunt their supposed enemies with the cleverness Mog hunted antelope, and care as much about the victims, about their terror and how they die.”
“And you have a cure for all this, of course.”
“You mock me, Travis. If identifying the disease is the first step toward a cure, then I may have taken the first step. Education, literacy, reading, thinking, remembering. Using the brain which was developed by a million years of stress. Just think of all the grotesque, embarrassing concepts which would disappear were we all readers! How about that contingent of nutcakes which swears the Holocaust never happened, that it is all Zionist propaganda? And there are still flat-earth people who say the lights in the night sky are holes in the canopy which covers us. There is a
psychiatric mafia which believes that the way to process your average psychopath is to dump him or her out onto the city streets, clutching a lithium prescription he or she is unable to read and unable to get filled. The two mighty nations of the world are like two men locked in a phone booth, each clutching ten hand grenades. This is called Mutually Assured Destruction. The wise men of the two great nations believe the solution lies in making more hand grenades while doing research projects to keep the other fellow’s grenades from exploding. You can dip up a bucket full of ocean water anywhere in the world and find traces of oil and plastic in it. The polar ice caps are beginning to melt. The forests are disappearing. There is a current rapid rate of desertification throughout the world. There are five billion of us now, and yet a bumbling old man marches around the world denouncing birth control in the name of religion. Fanatic nuts, meriting Hoffer’s diagnosis of them, bomb abortion clinics in some kind of paroxysm of elitism. Were abortion illegal, only the women
of means could afford to go to more enlightened countries for medical services. Bleak, my boy. Bleak indeed. And so let us trudge back toward home, and stop at the bar at the Seaview for something tall and cold, with rum in it.”
“Beautifully said,” I told him.
On the way back I told him that he had made me feel guilty about my frivolous reading fare of late, and what might I read that would patch up my comprehension and my conscience at the same time.
Meyer thought about it until we had our drinks. He took a sip, sighed and said, “I’ll lend you my copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.”
I am halfway through it. And the world has a different look, a slightly altered reality. That fourteenth century was the pits!

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