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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.

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!

Sunday, October 27

"If it ain't broke"

I wrote the following in 1986, when I first began keeping a journal, and it seems to be worth passing along even nearly three decades later.

“Words to Live By”
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
If you can’t fix it, don’t break it.
If you don’t break it, use it.
If you can’t use it, lose it.
If you can’t lose it, fake it.
If you can’t fake it, fuck it.
If you can’t fuck it, break it.
But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

For some weird reason, I dreamed most of the above. I was teaching a class and it seemed important to get the words right, and they were coming out right. When I woke up they were still there, so I wrote them down just as you see them. I’m pretty sure the expression “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is current and someone somewhere said it or sang it, but I don’t remember ever having heard it. And what follows that first line is original with me (I think).

And now, twenty-seven years later, I went on-line to find the origination of the phrase, and discovered this:

This one is widely attributed to T. Bert (Thomas Bertram) Lance, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget in Jimmy Carter's 1977 administration. Bert Lance believes he can save Uncle Sam billions if he can get the government to adopt a simple motto: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." He explains: "That's the trouble with government: Fixing things that aren't broken and not fixing things that are broken."

And our government is still trying to fix things and is, instead, breaking them.

Thursday, October 24

Tutored Tiger & Tuffy

Yesterday morning we took the boys in for their procedure (what a sidestepping way to say it) and left them in the capable hands of Dr. Winston. They were still smiling when we left them, but when we picked them up at 3:00, the smiles were sort of frozen. They were still a little groggy from the anesthetic so we let them sleep. But by bedtime, they were pretty much back to their old selves. Well, not quite, and their purring was up in pitch, about an octave. I can’t quite understand why this “procedure” (okay, I’ve been calling it a “tutoring” but we all know we had them castrated) is necessary for male cats who never go outside. It isn’t as though they were going to be fighting amongst themselves to see who would be the alpha cat. It goes without saying that Charlie's the big dog since he weighs about twice what the boys now weigh. And they wouldn’t be getting any lady cats pregnant since they would never see any lady cats (Oh, poor boys). Still, nearly all involved with pets and pet medicine recommend it. And since the Net is such a trove of information, I went there and found this:

“Neutering a male cat is an excellent step to help your young man grow into a loving, well adapted household citizen. The main reason to neuter a male cat is to reduce the incidence of objectionable behaviors that are normal in the feline world but unacceptable in the human world.
Roaming: More than 90% will reduce this behavior with neutering. Approximately 60% reduce this behavior right away
Fighting: More than 90% will reduce this behavior with neutering Approximately 60% reduce this behavior right away
Urine marking: More than 90% will reduce this behavior with neutering. Approximately 80% reduce this behavior right away.
Another reason to neuter a male cat has to do with the physical appearance. Cats neutered prior to puberty (most cats are neutered at approximately age 6 months) do not develop secondary sex characteristics. These include a more muscular body, thickenings around the face called shields, and spines on the penis.”

Okay, now I know—no more roaming (but they had only our house for such roaming so that’s no big deal), no more fighting (but they still engage in playful fighting), and no more urine marking (thank you, Mr. Neuter). And now, also thankfully, neither we nor they will ever have to worry about spines on their penises (whatever that is).

I also looked up cartoons about such a procedure and thought I’d share some of them with you.

Wednesday, October 23

Longfellow & Ogden Nash

I just began reading a Laura Lippman novel, And When She Was Good, and was reminded of the Longfellow poem “There Was a Little Girl.” Such a simple little poem and yet one that’s had a bunch of fellow writers alluding to it, nearly as often as Macbeth’s soliloquy is alluded to in title after title (most famous, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury). Normally, when we think of Longfellow, we think of the Longfellow stuff I used to teach in high school: “The Village Blacksmith,” “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “Excelsior,” and Hiawatha. But he also wrote quite a few poems for children, playing word games just as Ogden Nash did, finding fun in the surprising rhyme, “forehead”—“horrid.” Nash did it over and over with such well-known lines as “Candy is dandy, / But liquor is quicker” (his comment about seducing women), “If called by a panther, / Don’t anther” (excellent advice), or this advice for old people like me:
“Come on in, the Senility is Fine”

People live forever in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg and Tampa,
But you don't have to live forever to become a grampa.
The entrance requirements for grampahood are comparatively mild,
You only have to live until your child has a child.
From that point on you start looking both ways over your shoulder,
Because sometimes you feel thirty years younger and sometimes thirty years older.
Now you begin to realize who it was that reached the height of imbecility,
It was whoever said that grandparents have all the fun and none of the responsibility.
This is the most enticing spiderwebs of a tarradiddle ever spun,
Because everybody would love to have a baby around who was no responsibility and lots of fun,
But I can think of no one but a mooncalf or a gaby
Who would trust their own child to raise a baby.
So you have to personally superintend your grandchild from diapers to pants and from bottle to spoon,
Because you know that your own child hasn't sense enough to come in out of a typhoon.
You don't have to live forever to become a grampa, but if you do want to live forever,
Don't try to be clever;
If you wish to reach the end of the trail with an uncut throat,
Don't go around saying Quote I don't mind being a grampa but I hate being married to a gramma Unquote.

But back to Longfellow and his horrid little girl. Most people don’t realize there’s more to the poem than those first six lines, two more stanzas, in fact, sounding very Ogden Nash-ish.

There was a little girl,
And she had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.

One day she went upstairs,
When her parents, unawares,
In the kitchen were occupied with meals,
And she stood upon her head
In her little trundle-bed,
And then began hooraying with her heels.

Her mother heard the noise,
And she thought it was the boys
A-playing at a combat in the attic;
But when she climbed the stair,
And found Jemima there,
She took and she did spank her most emphatic.

There, that’s enough poetry for one day. I must get back to Laura Lippman’s novel and her version of the horrid little girl.

Tuesday, October 22

Captain Phillips & Tutoring

A quick word or three about Captain Philips: Tom Hanks was a great Captain Phillips; the young Somali, Barkhad Abdi, who played the pirate captain, was great (and, as I understand it, an untrained actor); the tension was gripping, especially when the four pirates boarded the Maerik Alabama and went searching for the crew hiding on this massive cargo ship; and the film was at least twenty minutes too long. Too much time was spent filming the action aboard the lifeboat (and if I was ever put adrift on open seas, I’d want to be in this thing they called a lifeboat). It was good, about three and a half stars out of five, but not as good as the reviews led me to believe.
And here’s my latest picture of the three boys in their cat tree, Charlie and Tiger and Tuffy. The little ones are still smiling, but they’re scheduled to be “tutored” tomorrow and they won’t be smiling for quite a while after that.

Sunday, October 20

Enough Said

Enough Said, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini, was emotionally moving on several levels, much less a comedy than a touching study of two middle-agers finding quiet romance. And always, the viewer is aware of Gandolfini’s demise, feeling a sadness watching the big lovable lug in his final performance. And the performance of these two as they tentatively find each other was a moment to savor. Julia, whom we all still see as Seinfeld’s Elaine, was Eva, a traveling masseuse who had to haul her massage table to each of her clients. She meets Albert (Gandolfini) at a party, and both, jokingly, mention that they’re not attracted to anyone they’ve met. She also meets Marianne, a successful poet who decides she may like to have Eva give her a massage. And the plot, somewhat predictable, moves forward from there. Everyone seems to be divorced and the children move from one parent to the other. Everyone seems to have found their first mate impossible to live with, impossible to love beyond the creation of and bearing of one child. Eva and Albert both have daughters who are about to leave for college and both maintain a friendly connection with their ex-spouses. At first, Eva isn’t sure she wants a relationship with this bearded fellow who unsuccessfully fights his big belly and successfully fights his ear hair, but they both discover how much they have in common, and their love develops slowly, quietly. This is a movie about relationships—mothers and daughters, ex-spouses, well-meaning friends, and tentative new partners. Some viewers might be turned off by Louis-Dreyfus’s facial tics and emotive tricks, her face and eyes flashing from joy to despair to fear to embarrassment to disappointment and back again, eyes playing games, chin moving up and down as we remember it whenever Seinfeld’s Elaine was caught in a lie, but I found it delightful and the main thing that makes this movie worth seeing.

Saturday, October 19

Big Bang Again

We’ve been watching re-runs of The Big Bang Theory, three or four in a row nearly every day for several weeks, and have decided that’s a very funny show. And it’s given us nearly as many lines and labels and crazy situations as The Jerry Seinfeld Show did. Where Elaine had her “Yadda yadda yadda,” Sheldon has his “Bazinga!” when he throws out what he thinks is a joke or a put down. Where George had his “shrinkage” problem after coming out of a chilly ocean, Howard has a robot hand clutching his penis. Where Jerry had his “Hello, Newman,” Sheldon has his three-knock Penny routine. Where Kramer had his eccentric entries into Jerry’s apartment, Raj has his selective mutism, unable to speak to women without an alcoholic reinforcement. Each crazy Seinfeld situation (the bubble boy and the soup Nazi to name only a few) is matched by the craziness in Big Bang—the comic-book store filled with nerds and geeks; Howard’s invisible Jewish mother whom we never see, just hear when she shrieks at Howard through doors and walls; the paintball battles; the “Soft Kitty” song Sheldon has Penny sing to him when he’s sick or sad; Mrs. Wolowitz’s famous brisket dinners; Sheldon’s odd throat music; Sheldon’s duplicating (or trying to duplicate) the Star Trek theme on an electric Theremin; the killer robot contest; Penny’s “Holy crap on a cracker!”; Barry Kripke's Elmer Fuddism when he says to Sheldon, "You wiw nevuh defeat Bawwy Kwipke's wobot!" (He may as well have said, "Hewoh, you wascawy wabbit."); and too many others to mention. I noticed how often scenes are shot involving them eating—at the Cheesecake Factory where Penny works, at the university cafeteria, and in Sheldon and Leonard’s living room with takeout Chinese or Thai—sort of poking around at their plates as they converse. From Season one to this season, their seventh, the humor hasn’t waned, the writing hasn’t devolved.

And speaking of a show’s writing devolving, last week’s Person of Interest had to be one of the worst hours on the tube . . . ever. The dialogue was stupid and the plot was right out of bad tv from the 50’s. I have to think that the show’s producers canned all the original writers and hired a bunch of newbies who don’t know clever dialogue from clich├ęs, don’t know clever plots from transparent rehashes. Even Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson must have been embarrassed by what they were given to say and do. We’ll give this “person” another week before we depersonalize him. They’re very close to losing this person of disinterest, this viewer, that is.

Thursday, October 17

Just Joking

Here’s a sports joke that‘s been around in one form or another for a lot of years. Any fanatic about any sport or any team can relate to it. In this particular case, since the NFL seaso is almost halfway over and since most Green Bay Packers fans can be considered fanatic, that will be the venue.

A man received a free ticket to the Packers home game from his company. Unfortunately, when he arrived at the stadium, he realized the seat he had was in the upper corner of the stadium. He was closer to the Goodyear Blimp than the field. About halfway through the first quarter he saw through his binoculars an empty seat ten rows off the field right on the 50-yard line. He decided to take a chance and made his way through the stadium and around the security guards to the empty seat. As he sat down he asked the gentleman sitting next to him, “Excuse me, but is anyone sitting here?” The man says no. Now, very excited to be in such a great seat for the game, he again asked the man, “This is incredible! Who in their right mind would have a seat like this and not use it?” The man replied, “Well, actually, the seat belongs to me. I was supposed to come with my wife, but she passed away. This is the first Packers game we haven’t seen together since we got married.” “That’s really sad, but still, couldn’t you find someone to take the seat? A friend or close relative?” “No,” the man replied sadly, “They’re all at the funeral.”
* * * * *
And while I’m at it, I guess this might be a good time for a few more jokes.

The Hitman

One morning, a man approached the first tee, only to find another guy approaching from the other side. They began talking and decided to play nine holes together. After teeing off, they set off down the fairway, continuing their chat.

"What do you do?" the first man asked.

"I'm a salesman. What about you?"

"I'm a hitman for the mob," replied the second man. The hitman noticed that the other man started getting a little nervous and continued, "Yeah. I'm the highest paid guy in the business. I'm the best." He stopped and pulled from his bag a fancy, high-powered rifle with an expensive scope. He then asked the man where he lived.

Still nervous ,the man replied, "In a subdivision just west of here."

The hitman placed the gun against his shoulder, faced west, peered through the scope and asked "What color roof ya' got?"

"Gray."

"What color siding?"

"Yellow."

"You got a silver Toyota?"

"Yeah," replied the first man who was now completely amazed by the accuracy of the hitman's equipment. "That's my wife's car."

"That your red pickup next to it?"

Looking baffled the man asked if he could look through the scope. He took the rifle and looked through the scope. Then he looked at the hitman and said, "Hell. That's my buddy Jeff's truck. What the hell is he doing there if I'm . . .?"

The hitman looked through the scope once more. "Your wife a blond?"

"Yeah."

"Your buddy got black hair?"

"Yeah!"

"Well, I don't know how to tell you, but I think you've got a problem. They're going at it like a couple of teenagers in there."

"Problem??! THEY'VE got the problem! I want you to shoot both of them! Right now!"

The hitman paused, then said, "Sure. But it'll cost you. Like I said, I'm the best. I get $5,000 per shot."

"I don't care! Just do it! I want you to shoot her right in the head, then shoot him right in the groin!"

The hitman agreed, turned, and took his firing position. He carefully stared into the sights, taking steady aim. He then said, "You know what, buddy. This is your lucky day. I think I can save you $5,000!"
* * * * * *
Bill, on his 75th birthday, went to see his doctor for a routine checkup and the doctor told him after the exam, “You know, Bill, you’re in remarkable shape for a man your age. You’ve got the body of a fifty-year-old and you might just live forever. By the way, how old was your dad when he died?”

Bill, somewhat perplexed by the question, said, “Oh, did I say he was dead?”

“You mean he’s still alive?” asked the surprised doctor. “How old is he and what kind of shape is he in?”

“He’s 96 and he still goes skiing in Colorado every winter and swims a mile every day during the summer.”

The doctor couldn’t believe it. He said, “Well, how old was your grandfather when he died?”

“Oh, did I say he was dead?” Bill asked.

“You mean to tell me your father and grandfather are both still alive? How active is your grandfather?”

“My granddad rides his bike to and from the rec center in Sun City West where he works out for an hour every day, golfs in the mid-nineties three times a week, and next week he’s getting married again.”

“Good heavens, man, at his age why in the world does he want to get married again?”

“Oh, did I say he wanted to?”
* * * * *
The pastor asked if anyone in the congregation would like to express praise for answered prayers. A lady stood and walked to the podium. She said, “I have a praise. Two months ago, my husband Tom had a terrible bicycle wreck and his scrotum was completely crushed. The pain was excruciating and the doctors didn't know if they could help him.”

You could hear a muffled gasp from the men in the congregation as they imagined the pain that poor Tom must have experienced. “Tom was unable to hold me or the children,” she went on, “and every move caused him terrible pain. We prayed as the doctors performed a delicate operation, and it turned out they were able to piece together the crushed remnants of Tom's scrotum and wrap wire around it to hold it in place.”

Again, the men in the congregation were unnerved and squirmed uncomfortably as they imagined the horrible surgery performed on Tom. “Now,” she announced in a quavering voice, “thank the Lord, Tom is out of the hospital and the doctors say that with time, his scrotum should recover completely.”

All the men sighed with relief. The pastor rose and tentatively asked if anyone else had something to say.

A man stood up and walked slowly to the podium. He said, “I'm Tom.”

The entire congregation held its breath.

“I just want to tell my wife that the word is sternum.”



Wednesday, October 16

Golf Pain

I found this in my files, an essay I wrote for my golf novel Match Play. I thought I could use it and others like it as inter-chapters in the novel, stuff about golf that I'd observed along the way. Never got around to using it but I think it qualifies as interesting for anyone who's ever played this idiotic game.

CLUB NOTES FROM SHALLOW CREEK, “The Knuckle”

I’m fifty-four years old, but I like to think of myself as a young fifty-four. You know, I still walk the course (Who needs a damn cart anyway?), carry my bag, still manage to crank out some pretty long drives, and when I shake hands with strangers I like to think they’re thinking, “Wow! What a grip this guy’s got!” It’s true, I’m rounder around the middle than I used to be, quite a bit rounder, in fact, but generally my health and physique are pretty good for a man my age.

But lately, especially when I get out of bed in the morning, I’ve begun to notice some aches and pains I never noticed before. My Achilles’ tendons where they attach to the heels tend to tighten overnight, and my first steps away from the bed are more like a man walking through hot coals or over broken glass. My wife sees me and says, “What’s the matter?” and I say, “Nothing. Just a little sore this morning.” She says, “Uh huh,” and rolls over and back to sleep. Her Uh huh says worlds to me, Uh huh, you’re fifty-four; uh huh, you should ride in a cart more often; uh huh, you golf too much.

I moan quietly as I hobble to the bathroom, stand one-legged massaging calf muscles, first the right, then the left, do a few trunk twists in the mirror, and renew my daily promise that today, this very day, I’ll start that diet and lose that ten- (twenty?) pound tire around the middle of that otherwise youthful body I see in the glass.

And even the minor parts of me don’t work as well as they once did. A year ago, I mis-hit a long iron so badly that I sprained the knuckle on my left ring-finger. And now, a year later, it’s still painfully swollen and acts as an instant reminder every time I hit a ball out on the toe. The shock wave travels from clubhead to shaft to left ring-finger. My golfing companions have learned to duck when they hear my scream, because about half the time I also lose the club. I think I may have solved the problem by wearing a finger cot inside my glove. A finger cot is a knit cotton finger protector for factory workers, and for my purpose it works wonderfully. It’s thick enough that inside the glove it cushions the knuckle from the shock wave and keeps that finger somewhat immobile on the shaft since I can’t bend it completely as I grip the club. I haven’t screamed in pain for quite a while now, and I think the swelling is finally subsiding. My wife often suggests that I take a month or two away from golf and give it time to heal.

I don’t want to hear it

Tuesday, October 15

Television Complexity

Television has come to dominate our lives to such a degree that I can’t understand how we all find the time to see all that’s worth seeing. I’ve lived through the entire television revolution, growing up when all we had for escape were the radio shows young people listened to in the afternoons, families listened to in the evenings—“Inner Sanctum” (that scary creaking door), “The Lone Ranger” (Hi ho, Silver!), “The Shadow,” (Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of man?), “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy,” and later in the day, “The Jack Benny Show,” “Red Skelton,” “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “George Burns & Gracie Allen,” “Amos and Andy.” Only audio experiences with the video supplied by our imaginations. And then the little boxes showed up in our livingrooms, with tiny pictures in fuzzy black and white, and no one could afford to miss “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Twilight Zone,” “The Fugitive,” “Star Trek,” or “Mission Impossible.” Now that I think about it, I guess we then spent just as many hours, too many hours, in front of either the radio or those primitive little boxes. Then color was introduced to the mix, and the boxes got bigger and bigger. Where once there were only three networks, we began to see the growth of others, starting with Fox and ESPN and then HBO and virtually hundreds of others, now all making their own series and movies and specials, all vying for our time and our money. Too much to see all that’s worth seeing, only twenty-four hours in a day. But we do our best by dvr-ing stuff to watch when we make the time, by watching on all the tiny devices now available, all the I-pads and I-phones, peering into these tiny devices as we walk or work or drive to work. Too often when we’re driving to work. Too much to see, too much to do, too little time. I don’t own any of the tiny devices, so that gives me extra time for living life. And I don’t pay for the premium channels, so I don’t have to make time for the good stuff, like The Sopranos or Homeland or Breaking Bad or any of the other Emmy winners on HBO or Showtime. And of the series available on CBS, NBC, ABC, USA, and TNT, I weed out the ones that are either too complicated or too violent or too self-conscious to allow me to understand what the characters are saying. The too complicated: The Blacklist and Sleepy Hollow. The too violent: American Horror Story and The Following. Then there are the shows that have the characters either whispering or speaking too fast to understand: Person of Interest, NCIS, and, too often, The Good Wife. That leaves the shows I can understand without having to bend my mind too much: Major Crimes, Rizolli and Isles, Blue Bloods, The Mentalist, The Bates Motel, The Americans, and CSI. I almost wish the networks would do more mini-series of five or six episodes which then come to a satisfying conclusion. Top of the Lake did that and I loved it. But all too often, a series will go on and on, with that dreaded five or six or seven month hiatus between seasons, causing me to forget what it was all about from the previous seasons. Or sometimes it will simply disappear because the ratings fell too far below what was acceptable to the network. That may be what happens to The Americans. That’s what happened to Men of a Certain Age, Ray Romano’s inspired examination of three aging buddies and one of the best things ever put on the tube.

Saturday, October 12

Non Sequitur & Babble

Another Non Sequitur, another cat joke. Yeah, Larry, that’ll teach you for not being a cat person. I remember once talking to a fellow employee about our cats. She said, yes, she had cats when she was growing up on a Midwestern farm. They called them kickin’ cats because that’s what they did whenever one got in their way. And now I hope she too has to go to a cat person’s heaven and gets turned away, maybe even kicked in the butt by the kitty gatekeeper.

So much sadness in the news these days, too much insanity. Still too much war in the world, too much terrorist activity, too many sad tales of child abuse, too much bullying. The Glee cast paid tribute to the fallen Finn, Cory Monteith, and I wept along with them as Lea Michele sang “Make You Feel My Love” in memory of his passing, tears simply rolling down her cheeks as she sang, tears rolling down mine as I listened to her. Then there’s the woman who drowned her three kids and just gave birth to her fourth child in a psychiatric ward. What chance does that poor fourth child have in this world? And why didn’t we as a society require that the woman have her tubes tied? All right, all right, I know we can’t Big Brother such an edict. But how can we or God allow such tragic insanity to continue? Adrian Peterson, star running back for the Minnesota Vikings, heard today that his two-year-old son just died from a beating. The boyfriend of Peterson’s ex-girlfriend beat the two-year-old to death. A two-year-old. A sixteen-year-old in Phoenix recently gave birth to a girl in a public restroom and then threw the baby out the window. Twenty-seven impoverished migrants, on a boat bound from Africa to Europe, drowned in the Mediterranean. Joe Bell, father of the Oregon gay teenager who killed himself after being bullied by classmates, was himself killed during his cross-country walk to honor his son, struck by a semi on a Colorado highway. The list goes on and on, like some kind of bad cosmic joke. As I approach the end of my life, I realize more and more just how inconsequential all our lives are. It’s not that our lives aren’t worth living. It’s just that the marks we leave behind are so insubstantial, tiny ripples in an eternal sea. We die and the world moves on. I read all the time and I have all these words in my head, other people’s words. I know the lyrics to most of the Great American Songbook and can play them back in my head, word for word, thousands of songs. I find that I’m writing in my head during most of my waking hours, and, I swear, I’m even doing it in some of my sleeping hours, or that twilight time between waking and sleeping when memory is at its clearest. Why have I spent my whole life stuffing words into my head only to die and have them vanish along with me? I don’t know. But now I think I’m babbling.

Tuesday, October 8

Gravity

In his review of the new film Gravity, starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, Roger Ebert has this to say: “If Gravity were half as good as I think it is, I'd still consider it one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life, thanks to the precision and beauty of its filmmaking.” That’s a pretty heady comment, topped only if he’d said he’d consider it THE greatest moviegoing experience of his life. That’s what I’d say. The plot is as simple as the plot of 127 Hours: one person’s battle to survive a situation in which death is almost inevitable. In 127 Hours, Aron Ralston, played by James Franco, has to cut off his right arm to save himself from a boulder pinning him to a canyon wall. In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, has to somehow make her way from the destroyed space shuttle where she and Matt Kowalsky, played by George Clooney, were working to adjust the Hubble Space Telescope. Space debris has destroyed the shuttle and the two, tethered together, make the journey to the International Space Station, using Kowalsky’s thruster pack to get them there. But when they arrive, they see that one of the Soyuz re-entry capsules is gone and the other is tangled in its re-entry chute, making it useless as a means for them to return to earth. Ryan becomes entangled in a chute cord
but Kowalsky’s momentum is pulling them away from the station. He detaches himself from her, allowing her to pull herself back to the station while he simply drifts away. Both are nearly out of oxygen. She manages to enter the station, finds that the second Soyuz shuttle is out of fuel, and resigns herself to death, with no radio contact with Houston or with Kowalsky, who she now knows is dead. I’ll leave the rest of the story for you to see for yourself when you go to this wonderful film. The plot is simple, the tension almost overwhelming, the scenery breathtaking, the special effects are really special, especially in the 3-D version. I now know what it would be like to be up in space, no longer tethered to Earth, weightless and scared to death.

Wednesday, October 2

Prisoners

In the new film Prisoners, it seems like everyone in it is a prisoner one way or another. The audience may feel a little imprisoned by the length, two and a half hours, but unlike some really long movies, this one movied along nicely and I didn’t feel like a prisoner. Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard play two fathers, Keller Dover and Franklin Birch, whose two young daughters disappear during a Thanksgiving dinner, where the families have gathered at the Birch house. The girls had been seen playing near an ancient rv earlier in the day, and when the two men determine that they’ve been taken, they go in search of the rv. Later that night, the police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), find the vehicle parked near a gas station. When the police approach, the driver pulls out and then smashes directly into a stand of trees. The driver, a young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano, whom you might remember as the boy in There Will Be Blood), is taken into custody and questioned, but with few answers. The man, or boy, is retarded and doesn’t have much to say. When the forensic specialists find no evidence of the girls in the rv, Alex is released, much to the disgust of Keller Dover, who knows in his heart that Alex Jones knows what happened to their two daughters. The plot develops from there, Keller taking the boy and imprisoning him in an old apartment building he owns, hoping to beat the truth out of him. And believe me, there will be blood. Lots of red herrings along the way, clues about other missing children over the years, a pedophile priest, lots of disgusting snakes, and several drawings of mazes. There seemed to be quite a few unanswered questions in the plot, but overall it was a tense, interesting film. Go see it.

Another shot of our two darling kitties, Tiger and Tuffy. It's hard to tell where one body begins and another ends. That's Tuffy on the right and Tiger on the left. But which head goes with which body?

Tuesday, October 1

Non Sequitur

Non Sequitur is on the money again—social networking and blogging that begs someone, anyone, to please pay attention to every thought that slips out of a blogger’s, tweeter’s, facebooker’s head. We’ve always been a nation of talkers instead of listeners, but now we have virtually no listeners and about 600 million talkers. Every new cell phone should have an ap that beeps when a caller stops talking for at least five seconds. Then the call receiver can take over while the call initiator puts the phone in a pocket until the beep signals it’s his/her turn. There. Everyone talking, no one listening. That’s sort of the way this blog works: I talk and talk about almost anything, hoping that someone out there is listening (reading it). And then I hope that someone would hear their beep and begin talking back. In other words, I’d like this blog to be a two-way street, an “I talk” then “you talk” avenue. Facebook does that . . . sort of . . . but the back and forth conversations are so brief and all too often meaningless. Okay, so Facebook informs us of someone’s impending birthday or anniversary and we respond with a “happy bd bro, hope you have a good one.” Whoopie do! Who needs that? It’s like an emoticon or two can substitute for real feelings, or an LOL can take the place of real laughter. I want a card in the mail, a card made by the sender instead of Hallmark bought, a card that required some personalized thought, not just a standard greeting. A $4.95 card does not buy my gratitude, even though it buys a lot more than a Facebook “Happy bd.” All right, then, blog visitors, on November 28, I’ll be celebrating my eightieth birthday. I want lots of caring cards, hard copy in the mail or at the very least, e-mail salutations: jertrav33@aol.com. Mark it on your calendars. Less than two months from now I want to hear from you.

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