True badassery

May 24, 2021 Comments Off on True badassery

It is difficult to know nowadays if a person is a badass or simply highly skilled with #socmed, The Stravver, Instabag, and etcetera. Actually, it’s not that difficult. You can simply assume that they aren’t, because true badassery is real, real rare.

Moreover, badassery typically doesn’t become apparent until a lot of time has passed. The first people who raced Paris-Roubaix were nobodies, idiots riding through rain and mud to a provincial Nowheresville on the Belgian border, itself a veritable Nowherenation.

Only after a hundred years are they now heroes. Forgotten utterly, but nonetheless heroes.

I ran across a book called Southern Sierra Mountain Bike Trails, published in 2001. I can’t recommend it. The content has been replaced and completely updated by The Stravver, Ride with GPS, or my own favorite route-finding app, Gaia GPS.

Even if the content were still fresh, I wouldn’t recommend it.

The author is an 8th Grade science teacher in Bakersfield, and he cannot write. Even with his wife and friends as editors, or maybe because of them, his understanding of grammar is only the vaguest kind of thing, a set of loose and confusing rules that basically follow how he presumably talks. Its vs. it’s. There vs. their. Taut vs. taunt. Semicolon vs. comma. Period vs. run-on sentence. Capitalization of proper names vs. idgaf. Possessive plurals vs. I never heard of apostrophes.

And all that’s in just the first couple of pages. The book is a mess and the writer is an engaging wanker who compensates for carelessness and ignorance by not taking himself seriously.

This of course makes him a potentially great writer and possibly a great person, too: NOT TAKING HIMSELF SERIOUSLY. I need to sit at his feet for a few years. Perhaps one day I, too, will dispense with silly things like speling.

But back to the author, Jonathan Frank, because he’s the subject of this post. He is an engaging and humble Freddie and he is also a certifiable badass. Like, a real one. He badly describes about 32 trails in the southern Sierras, all of which are near where I live, and many of which I’ve personally ridden or pushed my bike up.

Most of these trails are no fucking joke to ride. A few of them are as technical and challenging as anything you will encounter unless you compete professionally, if then.

Simply having ridden all these routes, and then having taken the time to mangle them in a crappy book make Jon a badass. But what makes him certifiable is his recounting of a ride-gone-bad at the end of the book, which I’ll summarize below with the appropriate badass annotations.

  1. He started off about half an hour before nightfall, in the Sierras, in spring, heading for Sherman Pass at 9,200 feet to “start” the ride. [Badass annotation: Have you ever started a ride at night to go up a 15-mile climb into guaranteed snow without a light, or rather, not worried about a light because you had a full moon?]
  2. This was in the late 1990s on a bike with rudimentary rear suspension, 26″ wheels, 32mm tires, caliper brakes, no seat dropper, inner tubes, and was about four sizes too small. [Badass annotation: I will ride whatever the fuck I have.]
  3. He pulled over on the side of the road to sleep. It started to rain. He covered himself with a plastic garbage bag. [Badass annotation: Who just sleeps on the side of the road? Who sleeps in a garbage bag? A fucking badass, that’s who.]
  4. The next day he ran into deep snow, hiked through it, then turned around, found another trail also covered with snow, hiked through it, and then got completely lost at 9,000 feet. His one-day trip was now two days. No food or water. [Badass annotation: Who keeps riding when they hit snow? Snow means “go home.” Who keeps riding without food or water, aside from imminently dead people? A badass, that’s who.]
  5. After losing the trail he slept on the mountain again. A whiteout ensued. His bivouac was on a 10-degree slope. [Badass annotation: None needed.]
  6. The next day he drank from some stream and bushwhacked, carrying his bike for ten hours, getting sliced to pieces by the underbrush. Totally lost. Still hadn’t eaten since the day before. [Badass annotation: Who keeps the stupid bike when you’re fighting for your life? Guess who. Yup. Badass.]
  7. Espies a trail high on a ridge, climbs boulders (bike in one hand, other hand hanging on for dear life), scales a wall, finds the trail, rides back to his truck. [Badass annotation: Come on, rock climbing with a 40-lb. bike? You fucking kidding me?]
  8. Instead of rushing home, hangs around and watches a whitewater competition. Eats a hamburger. Goes home to Bako and mows the lawn. [Badass annotation: Res ipse loquitur.]

This kind of stuff reminds me what life is all about, that is, simply going out and doing things and doing them for the love of doing, not to showcase, to curate, to snobify, to broadcast, or earn the twin evils of approbation and supplication. Just doing it. I wonder if there’s a marketing slogan there somewhere?

END


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Why are people poor?

February 5, 2021 § 22 Comments

I just finished reading a book by Michael Perelman called “The Invention of Capitalism.” It’s one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. Perelman was a teacher at CSU Chico and a prolific writer about economics. I hate economics. However, I love stories, and his book starts out as a great story (for an economist.)

Essentially Perelman explains the hidden mechanism behind the creation of capitalism, also known as “primitive accumulation,” but more commonly as “theft.” In essence, he answers two questions, “Where did capital come from in the first place?” and “Why did people agree to work for wages?”

His answer is primitive accumulation, or the process of forcibly stealing land and self-sufficiency from the peasantry. Only when the peasants lacked land and a means of self-sufficiency would they submit to wage labor, which as anyone who’s every worked for anyone else can readily attest, is a miserable kind of servitude. People are born free and they prefer to stay that way, until of course, they don’t. Perelman also rips apart Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and the classical economists who pretended that all that was needed was the “invisible hand” of laissez-faire market forces to allow capitalism to work.

Perelman’s book details the specific government policies and active criminalization of previously legal livelihoods that were required in order to get capitalism going. Far from being laissez-faire, the only way that capitalism could begin was with determined governmental interference and direction at all levels of peasant society to force them off the land and into poverty. Smith and the classical economists recognized that when faced with poverty and starvation, people would submit to wage slavery, which they have ever since.

I’d add that government interference on behalf of capital has continued unabated, along with primitive accumulation, but that’s something Perelman doesn’t address as his focus is on capitalism’s origins rather than the mechanisms that keep it afloat.

The other fascinating aspect of the book is its secret that the classical economists well understood, that capitalism requires mass poverty in order to function, and that specific policies in early capitalism would be required in order to keep people poor. Starvation, high food prices, and mass misery were recognized as accepted tools to force the peasantry into factories. In their own words, the cruelty and inhumanity of the classical economists prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the benefit of the few was going to be on the backs of the many, the miserable many.

How would capitalism be sustained? According to the classical economists, by enslaving the poor to “wants,” what we now call “consumerism.”

I see this everywhere on my bike, incredibly poor people using what little money they have to buy phones, cars, clothing, and of course the drugs/alcohol/nicotine to which they are addicted. For my entire life I viewed this kind of poverty as an evil byproduct of capitalism that we capitalists have a duty to remedy, but after reading Perelman’s book it’s clear that this poverty is an intended and desirable consequence of capitalism. The only aim of capitalism is to keep wages as low as possible, and this can only be done with a large pool of poor. The moment that pool begins to shrink and wages begin to rise, capital reacts instantaneously.

Doubt it? Look at off-shoring. Look at the resistance to minimum wages. Look at how capital flees states like California in favor of low-tax, low-wage states in the South. Look at the organized and systemic dismantling of labor unions. Capital always seeks conditions where poverty is sufficiently high that people will take the absolute minimum in wage labor. So waiting for poverty to somehow be ameliorated is a chimera; it’s the core aspect of wage labor.

Since it’s Black History Month, I should add that perhaps the most disturbing part of the book was the one that discussed the enslavement of Africans in North America. Because capital and the conditions for incipient capitalism are always created with primitive accumulation a/k/a theft, Perelman makes a watertight case for the argument that the American economy and its later industrialization were built on labor stolen from enslaved Africans and later African-Americans.

One of the most influential classical economists was Edward Gibbon Wakefield, a person who exerted great ideological and later actual political power, and he was explicit about the usefulness and necessity of enslavement in order to jump-start capitalism in conjunction with artificially high land prices that would prevent the enslaved from ever being able to afford land and therefore obtain self-sufficiency. The Australian slave state that used enslaved Irish and English convict labor was the ideal laboratory to build a powerful capitalist economy out of nothing. The “nothing” of course was stolen labor.

This book is as good as any I’ve ever read that attempts to explain why things are the way they are. It points to easily identifiable human character traits that are set forth in the very writing of the classical economists, traits that are as readily observable today as they were three hundred years ago: Greed, racial hate, and mass inhumanity of the worst sort.

No one put it better than proto-capitalist Jeremy Bentham, that great philosopher I studied in college, he who said that the principle that “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,” while also proposing putting all English orphans under his control and setting them to the hardest labor of the most brutal sort: Beginning at the ages of three or four.

END

Writer’s writer

June 2, 2020 § 9 Comments

When I lived in Miami I was alone a lot. There were few people, no traffic, and open vistas with nothing but sky and land as far as you can see.

That would be Miami, Texas, by the way.

I filled my alone with bicycle rides several times a week. There was a small hill you crested leaving town, then a few miles of dead-straight, bitter headwind, then a 90-degree left and a few miles of dead-straight, bitter crosswind, then a 90-degree left and a few miles of holy tailwind, then a 90-degree left and a few miles of shelter in a valley, then I’d be home.

There was never any prospect of meeting another cyclist. If you weren’t up for a couple of hours of wind and heat, or wind and cold, or wind and rain, or wind and snow, or wind and wind, well, this wasn’t going to be much of a riding terrain for you. I enjoyed the alone, punctuated occasionally by a pickup whose driver always raised an index finger about half an inch off the wheel in greeting. Everybody in the county knew the guy on the bicycle.

The other way I filled up my alone was with reading. Most of what I read was about the west, that is, white man’s science fiction. But there was a shelf of books about the west that contained big chunks of true. I had all those books.

In my job I drove a lot, from one end of a very big state to the other, in fact. And one of the towns I drove through one day was Archer. You may know Archer. It’s the home of Larry McMurtry and what was then the world’s greatest bookstore in the world’s most nondescript, forgettably dust-blown town. I think the phrase that comes to mind is “shot with a shit pistol.”

The only book of his I’ve ever read is the first installment of Lonesome Dove. There’s nothing much to say about it other than it is the epitome of what a novel should be: A good yarn that draws you in and holds you there until the very last page.

But his other great books I never read because, jealous. You see, in Lonesome Dove I could track every one of those books that I’d read about the west that weren’t science fiction. It was all there, from J. Frank Dobie’s “The Longhorns” to the historical accounts of the chases and skirmishes that finally broke the Plains Indians in Texas. And it was beautifully dressed up in a magnificent tale.

“Hell,” I thought after finishing Lonesome Dove. “I could’ve written that.”

Not.

But what endeared McMurtry to me wasn’t his storytelling, which was great, and which, I promise, will someday soon cause me to read “Horseman, Pass By,” but rather it was his writing habits.

You see, he gets up every day and first thing he dashes off five or six pages.

Every day.

What does he do after that? No idea. And it really doesn’t matter because he’s a writer, and after he’s written for the day, well, he’s done all that he’s obligated to do per the terms of his contract with himself. Maybe he works in his dust garden or goes back to bed or plays Donkey Kong. Whatever he does after the writing, though, doesn’t matter because he done wrote.

I have poorly adhered to that habit in all things, by which I mean when I’m in a cyclist phase I get up and knock out the ride no matter what, and when I’m in a blogger phase I get up and knock out the blog no matter what, and when I’m in a Chinese phase I get up and knock out the Chinese no matter what, and now, as I’m in a Chaucer phase, I start my day at 4:00 AM with a hot cup of coffee in a Yeti mug and burn another 10-12 lines of Middle English into my aging, thickening, hardening brain.

None of it means anything if you’re of the bent from Ecclesiastes 1, “All is vanity.” To edit the words of a friend describing my Chaucer ambitions, life itself is a vanity project.

But if some of it means something, and if in addition to the vanity project life is going to at least scatter some crumbs for those who come nibbling after you’re gone, well, a good way to approach it is with the solid workmanship of McMurtry. Ring in the day with the thing that matters. The rest?

It’ll take care of itself. And if it doesn’t, I guess there’s always Donkey Kong.

END


Writer’s writer

June 2, 2020 § 9 Comments

When I lived in Miami I was alone a lot. There were few people, no traffic, and open vistas with nothing but sky and land as far as you can see.

That would be Miami, Texas, by the way.

I filled my alone with bicycle rides several times a week. There was a small hill you crested leaving town, then a few miles of dead-straight, bitter headwind, then a 90-degree left and a few miles of dead-straight, bitter crosswind, then a 90-degree left and a few miles of holy tailwind, then a 90-degree left and a few miles of shelter in a valley, then I’d be home.

There was never any prospect of meeting another cyclist. If you weren’t up for a couple of hours of wind and heat, or wind and cold, or wind and rain, or wind and snow, or wind and wind, well, this wasn’t going to be much of a riding terrain for you. I enjoyed the alone, punctuated occasionally by a pickup whose driver always raised an index finger about half an inch off the wheel in greeting. Everybody in the county knew the guy on the bicycle.

The other way I filled up my alone was with reading. Most of what I read was about the west, that is, white man’s science fiction. But there was a shelf of books about the west that contained big chunks of true. I had all those books.

In my job I drove a lot, from one end of a very big state to the other, in fact. And one of the towns I drove through one day was Archer. You may know Archer. It’s the home of Larry McMurtry and what was then the world’s greatest bookstore in the world’s most nondescript, forgettably dust-blown town. I think the phrase that comes to mind is “shot with a shit pistol.”

The only book of his I’ve ever read is the first installment of Lonesome Dove. There’s nothing much to say about it other than it is the epitome of what a novel should be: A good yarn that draws you in and holds you there until the very last page.

But his other great books I never read because, jealous. You see, in Lonesome Dove I could track every one of those books that I’d read about the west that weren’t science fiction. It was all there, from J. Frank Dobie’s “The Longhorns” to the historical accounts of the chases and skirmishes that finally broke the Plains Indians in Texas. And it was beautifully dressed up in a magnificent tale.

“Hell,” I thought after finishing Lonesome Dove. “I could’ve written that.”

Not.

But what endeared McMurtry to me wasn’t his storytelling, which was great, and which, I promise, will someday soon cause me to read “Horseman, Pass By,” but rather it was his writing habits.

You see, he gets up every day and first thing he dashes off five or six pages.

Every day.

What does he do after that? No idea. And it really doesn’t matter because he’s a writer, and after he’s written for the day, well, he’s done all that he’s obligated to do per the terms of his contract with himself. Maybe he works in his dust garden or goes back to bed or plays Donkey Kong. Whatever he does after the writing, though, doesn’t matter because he done wrote.

I have poorly adhered to that habit in all things, by which I mean when I’m in a cyclist phase I get up and knock out the ride no matter what, and when I’m in a blogger phase I get up and knock out the blog no matter what, and when I’m in a Chinese phase I get up and knock out the Chinese no matter what, and now, as I’m in a Chaucer phase, I start my day at 4:00 AM with a hot cup of coffee in a Yeti mug and burn another 10-12 lines of Middle English into my aging, thickening, hardening brain.

None of it means anything if you’re of the bent from Ecclesiastes 1, “All is vanity.” To edit the words of a friend describing my Chaucer ambitions, life itself is a vanity project.

But if some of it means something, and if in addition to the vanity project life is going to at least scatter some crumbs for those who come nibbling after you’re gone, well, a good way to approach it is with the solid workmanship of McMurtry. Ring in the day with the thing that matters. The rest?

It’ll take care of itself. And if it doesn’t, I guess there’s always Donkey Kong.

END


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Rate the app!

February 11, 2020 § 8 Comments

My phone blew up last week, which is to say I got three text messages over a period of four days. And! They were all about the same thing!

The “thing” was the release of the new Chaucer app, a little program that recites the General Prologue in Middle English, and provides extensive notes about the vocabulary and about the historical background of various characters. Somehow, people knew I was interested in Chaucer. Weird.

My first reaction to the app was that it doesn’t work. There is no way for me to actually hear the recitation, no matter how I fiddle with the volume or slam the device onto the edge of the desk, hard. “It’s like it was designed by a 10-year-old,” I fumed, before realizing that if it had been designed by a 10-year-old it would have worked flawlessly.

Instead it was designed by medievalists. I’m not sure that coding was in the curriculum back in those days, wedged in between Latin and Greek. In any event, the app’s most important feature doesn’t work, at least on my phone, which is the only one I care about. Your results may hopefully vary.

But broken app? So what?

The pointe is this, to speken shorte and pleyne, that someone has tried to take Chaucer and yank him out of the ivory tower and put him in the hands of the average swenker. Is that a good thing? Yes, a thousand times, yes!

If the app had worked properly, it would have followed along in the text of the general prologue with the recitation, so you could hear how the text was supposed to be pronounced in Middle English. Of course I say “supposed to be” because, as with virtually all dead languages, there is only a rough approximation of how Middle English really sounded.

Maybe you can download it and it will work for you. The notes are chock-full of interesting tidbits, and give you a sense of how dense Chaucer’s writing was. Most of all, hopefully it will make you want to read more.

END


Chunk it good

March 1, 2019 § 9 Comments

It is a lot more painful than I thought it was going to be, getting rid of books, especially since they are all about cycling. For example, this gem:

This is a great play about local cycling team LJ Velo, and how they built a new racing team so that their star sprunter, Doris Nancy, who won all her races last year, could win all her races again this year, too, but without having to wear the ugliest bicycle underwear in the biz. The patriarch of the team, David Nederland, presides over a dysfunctional family even as he has been diagnosed with hypertrophic gonadism. In the play’s climax, “Big Naddy” finally learns the truth about his gonadism while his errant daughter Doris sprunts around him for the win. Again.

I really enjoyed this book. It is about how a bike racer goes off to fight in Italy during World War I, gets wounded, gets his girlfriend pregnant, rows a boat across Lake Como to escape the Nazis (who hadn’t been invented yet), lives in a cabin, and hangs out with the woman until she dies in childbirth, allowing him to go back to his first love, CBR. Plot criticism: After rowing across Lake Como, the protagonist doesn’t steal a bike and do Il Lombardia. Lame.

This is a super twisted cycling book about a bike racer who doesn’t get along very well with his wife until she gives birth to a child with a birth defect, at which time he decides to improve the relationship by murdering the child, which will also let him get back to his first love, CBR. Unfortunately, he learns just before he murders the child that it doesn’t have a birth defect, but rather an extremely high VO2 max, so high that it is actually VO3, so he keeps the child so that it can grow up to win at Rosena Ranch. Maybe.

This post-modern poem is about a bicycle racer who goes out for a ride one night and meets a bunch of ghosts at CBR, one of whom is wearing Rapha even though he has his own clothing company, and who bears an uncanny resemblance to Diego Tenabina. Super cryptic.

This is another bicyclist-in-WWI novel. The bicyclist has two girlfriends, neither of whom likes him, and both of whom have other boyfriends on the side because all he does is talk about bike racing, and he is always too tired for sex due to posing on the ‘Gram, killing it on the ‘Bag, and occasionally riding his bike but only when it is sunny. (Book was originally published as “Pillow Babies in Love and Heat.”)

This is a collection of poems from the great Chinese bike race promoter Prints, including a beautiful selection of works such as “Why is Race Participation Plummeting?” and “How Can I Charge MORE?” as well as the timeless classic “You are as Beautiful as an Industrial Park Crit.”

Well, I am going to donate all these books to the library. Tomorrow.

_____________________________________

END

A little non-bicycle action

February 3, 2019 § 6 Comments

I’m reading “Capital in the 21st Century” by Thomas Piketty. In many ways it is the first serious, non-polemical update of Karl Marx’s revolutionary work, “Das Kapital,” published in 1867.

If you have ever wondered about inequality, what it is, what it stems from, how it can be measured, and its relationship to capital, this book will blow your mind. It’s written by a brilliant French economist, for people like me who don’t know much about economics or the fundamentals of how wealth is distributed.

I’m less than halfway through the book and it’s already clear: Marx was wrong about some basics, but right about others. Capital, at least as it is regulated–that is, taxed–in the modern world will ultimately devour everyone who depends not on capital to live but on labor. And as Piketty’s research makes clear, it has been this way since at least the 18th Century, if not before.

There are no flaming, revolutionary declamations, only the cool recitation of equations, statistics, analysis, and political facts that show how everyone who works for a wage is being, and will always be, fed to the maw of capital.

Happy reading!

________________________

END

The importance of book slimming

December 10, 2018 § 1 Comment

When I was a kid, I learned that you don’t ever travel without books. We didn’t have computer games or phones of course, and about the only good entertainment was getting into knock-down, drag-out brawls with my brother in the back seat. Those never ended well, first because he would beat the shit out of me, and second because my dad would invariably pull over to the side of the road and beat the shit out of both of us.

You don’t see a lot of kids getting the shit beaten out of them on the side of the road anymore, which is a good thing.

Anyway, in addition to the beatings we learned to travel with books. Our dad always traveled with books, plural, and the older we got and the more independent we became, the more books we took with us when we traveled.

My dad was famous for taking a small library on a two-day trip. In between the beatings and the sleeping and the drinking he never finished even one, but he always had plenty just in case there was a nuclear war and we were stuck in Uvalde for a million years, which is about how long it was gonna take him to read Marx’s Capital.

As a grown man I can’t tell you how many times I’ve traveled with books, plural, and returned home having read only a little bit of one of them. The reason is that you think you’re gonna plow through a dozen books in between here and Augsburg, but in reality you sleep the entire time on the plane or you are drunk or both. Then all that dead time in the airport? You know, the time you were gonna use to chew through those books? Trust me, two chapters and you are asleep, getting neckbone disease from hanging your head on the back of those rubber seats with the steel neck-backs.

Of course you’re not deterred; when you get to the luxury resort in Hohenkirchen-Siegertsbrunn you will flop down beside the pool and read all day. Except you don’t. You tour the town, sleep by the pool, eat way too much, sleep some more, then go to your room and sleep some more again.

On the way home you know you’ll finish at least one book but it’s not possible. The first meal knocks you out, then you watch four movies, then dinner comes, then you’re asleep again, then you wake up and thumb through the in-flight rag for an hour, then you thumb through the in-flight store mag for an hour, then it’s 45 minutes to landing and you’re home.

So a few trips ago, and it was damned hard, I decided to do two things:

  1. Take one book.
  2. Throw it away on the plane if I wasn’t finished with it by the time we landed.

And it worked! I was so afraid of having to throw away an unread book, which is like putting a bunch of kittens in a bag and drowning them, I read the lone book before I even reached my destination. And I found it didn’t matter which book I took, so I’ve learned that the key is to take a really dreadful one that’s been staring at you from under the table for a couple of years, daring you to read it.

Here’s my next victim. He doesn’t stand a chance.

END

———————–

Book curse

November 18, 2018 § 8 Comments

You simply cannot give people books. Please don’t do it. It is a terrible idea every time, so don’t. Just don’t.

The first and most obvious reason to never give anyone a book is because they will never read it, ever. Take, for example, the 984-page opus boringus that I “gave” a “friend” more than five years ago, a biography of Stalin. He writes regularly to say that he still hasn’t read it.

And we both know he never will. The fact that it won a major prize and the author was his wife’s ex is totally unrelated.

The second reason to never give anyone a book is because even it weren’t written by their wife’s ex, it insults them. When you give a book you are telling the “friend” that you know something they don’t, and you would like to ameliorate their pitiful ignorance. Take, for example, the 732-page book that I “gave” a “friend” last year, a novel about a man, a sheep, some catacombs, a compass, three blind wise men, and an odyssey through the Outback. He hasn’t spoken to me since.

The third reason to never give anyone a book is because it is clutter. Old, dead, musty, stinky trees filling up your spacious modern home, or your tiny apartment, or your full-to-busting study? No one in the history of time ever received a book and said, “I know exactly where to put that!” Everyone in the history of time said, “FML! Where am I going to put that?” Or their wife did, and the answer was usually “the dumpster.”

Nor can you fix it by sending them a digital copy, which simply clutters up their already maxed-out iPhone which, like Manslaughter’s, has 10,283 unread text messages, 25,019 unread emails, and a full voicemail box. Or is it a voice mailbox?

Most poisonous of all, however, is the fact when you give a book you are certain to receive one as vengeance, and you will hate it. It will be about ceramic molecular structure, or the sex life of dead people, or a teen vampire novel. Whatever topic you hate most, that’s the one it will be, and whichever author you abhor, she will have written it.

Heavy with the ugly unwanted gift comes of course the heavier and even less wanted obligation to read it, which you won’t, and the concomitant obligation to lie about having read it, which you will. Maybe you will see the friend from across a crowded room and you will scurry to hide behind the cheese tray, but unlucky you! The gift book was about cheese and your nemesis will track you down and glow as he pins you next to the Camembert and asks, “How did you like the book?” knowing full well you either hated it, didn’t read it, or hopefully both. You will silently shake your fist at him, and he at you.

The more you try to figure out a way to pass on a book, especially a wonderful one, the harder it is. You know how friends don’t give friends used underwear and shirts? Books are like that. They simply never fit. The book that changed your life and that you have only decided to pass on after careful consideration and yea, even love? That is guaranteed to be the one book the friend actually does read.

“How did you like the book?” you will ask hopefully, desperately, longingly, after having pestered him for a year.

The friend will look up from his phone, ever so briefly interrupting the flow of vital information about Black Friday online sales. “Uh, it was okay,” he will say, wounding you forever.

So just don’t.

END

———————–

37 years

February 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

My wife’s grandmother was born in 1916, during World War I, and she is a few weeks shy of her 102nd birthday. She came down with the flu about ten days ago and was very sick. The doctor came over to the house and told Yasuko’s family to start making arrangements. The flu, he advised, was absolutely unforgiving amongst centenarians, and there was exactly zero chance that she would have the physical reserves to fight it off.

Her name is Harue, which means “spring,” because that’s when she was born. A few days went by and Harue didn’t die, so the doctor came by to see what was up. “She seems to be fine,” the family said.

The doctor was perplexed. “Never seen anything like it,” he said. “She is tough.”

So the family went back to their routine of taking care of Harue, shuttling her to the senior citizens’ day-out facility, and to the doctor and whatnot. Harue’s demise has been predicted many times, and it could come tomorrow, but so far she has outlived all of her contemporaries, and a whole bunch of her juniors. One hundred and two years is so long a time to live that it doesn’t even make any sense.

Harue is not in very good health if you mean cognizant of what’s going on around her, but she’s in very good health if you mean “alive and kicking.” She has had a very hard life and has lived through things that killed hundreds of millions of people. World wars, plural, famine, pestilence, and of course the meatgrinder of time. And no matter how much longer she lives, her ability to interact with the world around her is greatly, greatly circumscribed, to put it mildly.

What’s left?

All of this got my wife and I to talking about longevity. I’ve never looked up my death date, but I have heard that the longer your relatives live, the longer you will live. So we snuggled up in bed and did some death research. What we found wasn’t very cuddly, at least for me. Yasuko is going to peg out somewhere between 96 and 101. My expiration date is much, much sooner: The longest I can expect to get out of this meatbag is another thirty-seven years. Ninety-one is my max. A more realistic number is in the low 80’s.

Wow.

Thirty-seven years. That’s like, nothing. And if it turns out to be more like twenty-seven, then double wow. That’s like, tomorrow.

Of all the death calculators online, the best one is done by the Aussies, because their premise for the calculator isn’t how much time you have left, but what in the hell are you going to do with what remains? The death calculator, as they see it, should be used as a life calculator. Your hand is on the throttle. Are you going to gently turn it to get as much mileage as you can, or twist the dogdamned thing off?

With the covers pulled up around my chin I thought about all the dead people I know, the great majority of whom are nominally alive. They’ve already scented the stench of the grave and they don’t like it, so all of their daily choices are designed to prolong the number of days that they get to spend figuring out how to prolong the number of days.

WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, AND WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE?

That, to me, seems to be the question.

Maybe a good cup of coffee would help

All of this happened on the heels of two books, one I just finished and one I just dove into. The first is a biography called “Stalin: Paradoxes of Power.” More about that in a later post, but let’s say that great histories should make you act. The other book, a birthmas gift from my son and daughter-in-law, is called “Das Wiener Kaffeehaus,” and it’s a series of vignettes by various great Austrian writers, selections about the deceased institution of the Viennese coffee house. Some of it is hilarious, much of it moving, all of it points to the things that have gone by and raises the question yet again.

I imagined myself on a drizzly February day, seated at the Cafe Hawelka, where I have sat many times, poring over a newspaper, making stupid notes in a notebook, sipping coffee to warm my brain enough to think but not enough to relax. I imagined shuttling between the bakery and the hostel, eating a big loaf of black bread smeared with butter, soaking in those things you can only absorb outside your daily ambit. I imagined the minutes, hours, days, blasting away like Speed Racer, the old one, time is Speed’s Mach 5, waiting for someone perhaps, but certainly not for me.

You know, it is a very thin line between imagining something and doing it. A good cup of coffee is worth traveling for, especially when it’s not really a cup of coffee you’re after. A familiar seat in an old cafe is worth seeking out, isn’t it?

Or is the real value in existence the actuarial calculation of death, toting up years to retirement, mulling over funds you’ll need in your dotage, researching the percentage chance of dying from whatever malady you fear most, obediently listening to the voice of reason that puts off the things that decay and turn to dust the longer you push them aside? Are any of those things really more valuable than a good book, cold rain on the cobbles, a warm cafe, and a hot cup of coffee?

das_wiener_kaffeehaus

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