What I Read in 2018

If I was the sort to make New Year’s resolutions, I would resolve to read more and write more in 2019. Last year, I read 18 books — far fewer than some other years, but significantly more than the 2 I finished in 2017. Normally, I write this post on New Year’s Day but I’m just now getting around to it. So, for better or worse, here’s what I read in 2018.

The first book I finished last year was Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand. I first came across Elizabeth Hand reading her Cass Neary novels. These stories are nothing like those novels but are intriguing and peculiar. When I announced on Facebook that I had finished this collection I noted that the sheer variety of voices in the stories is very impressive.

In 2017, having learned that Philip Pullman was writing a new trilogy related to his previous trilogy His Dark Materials, I reread The Golden Compass. My 2nd and 3rd books in 2018 were The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass (the other two books of the trilogy). These novels are ostensibly for young adult readers but I would recommend them to anyone. They’re a brilliantly executed trio of novels. The first book of Pullman’s new trilogy The Book of Dust has been published and is titled La Belle Sauvage. I plan to read it this year.

Because I’ve been having trouble maintaining my reading habit for the last several years, I’ve been doing a lot of rereads (I’m not sure that that is good strategy but it’s what I’ve been doing). I reread The Dark Door by Kate Wilhelm. It’s sort of a mash up of science fiction and mystery and, while not great, is an enjoyable read.

Next, I reread The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I read this novel the first time when I was in college and loved it. Rereading it in middle age made its dark and depressing story more poignant and moving. I’ve read several other Walker Percy novels over the decades and he’s always worthwhile.

The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse is as silly as it sounds. On the other hand, Robert Rankin’s wordplay and plotting are delightful. It’s set in Toy City and most of the characters are toys of various sorts. As Rankin might write, it’s the sort of book that one would like if one likes that sort of thing.

Someone gave me a copy of Dark Light by Randy Wayne White. It’s a pretty good suspense/mystery novel with good characters and plotting. After a hurricane disturbs the Gulf of Mexico, a sunken boat is discovered. When the main character and his colleagues attempt a salvage operation, things get ugly and interesting. It’s quite a compelling story but, amazingly, there were a number of misspellings and grammatical errors (and not in dialogue!). Mr. White needs a better editor. I may look for his other novels because, as I noted, the story is compelling.

Donald Westlake is a master of the comic crime novel. I reread The Fugitive Pigeon and enjoyed it immensely. It’s about a loser who runs his uncle’s bar. The uncle is a mobster and Charlie Poole (the loser) understands that his main role at the bar is to occasionally receive a package and hold it until someone picks it up. One day, some hit men show up to dispatch Charlie. He manages to escape and the rest of the novel involves him trying to stay alive and learn why he is being targeted. It’s a lot of fun (as is any Westlake novel).

Next I read Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut. Remarkably, I had never read this Vonnegut novel before (I devoured them continually when I was younger). It’s the story of a boy who accidentally shoots and kills a woman when he recklessly discharges a rifle out his window. As with all Vonnegut novels, it’s funny and sad and deeply imaginative.

10:04 by Ben Lerner is a peculiar novel. The main character is an author who has just gotten a good publishing deal and, at the same time, learned that he has a medical condition that could cause him to die at any time. Meanwhile, his best friend has asked him to help her have a baby. It’s a very contemporary novel (set in current day New York with an awareness of climate change) and is very worthwhile. Lerner is a poet and, as you might expect, his prose is exquisite.

Another reread, Sweet, Sweet Poison is the 2nd novel by Kate Wilhelm I read this year (after The Dark Door). It’s a pretty good mystery in which Constance and Charlie (Wilhelm’s sleuth couple figured in several of her novels) are called to a small town to investigate the poisoning of a dog. Things rapidly get complicated.

Kathryn Kramer is a wonderful writer who is not as well known as she should be. I happened across her first novel — A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space — years ago and loved it. I tried to find other novels by her but was stymied by the difficult fact that she shares a name with a prolific romance writer (this was before Google, etc.). I put out a query on the Usenet (do you remember Usenet?) group “alt.20thcentury.fiction” to see what I could learn. Thrillingly, the author Richard Powers answered me and told me that Kramer taught at Middlebury College and that her other two books were Rattlesnake Farming (which I loved) and Sweet Water (which I started but didn’t finish years ago). This year I finished Sweet Water and found it an excellent literary mystery and a solid story of the complications of married life.

Next I read Possessions by the psychoanalyst/philosopher/literary critic Julia Kristeva. It’s a surreal mystery about a woman in a mythical town who has been murdered and beheaded. It was a bit of a difficult book but the prose was lovely which really made me admire the translator. I understand that Possessions is a sequel. Perhaps I’ll read the first one this year.

On a roll reading public intellectuals, I next read The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag. It’s a “novel of ideas” but also a romance set in enlightenment Naples. It’s a very good novel (not really what I usually read) with lovely writing and flawed, almost unloveable characters.

Another reread, Icelander by Dustin Long is a baffling mystery of a novel. It’s difficult to summarize — but it’s a murder mystery that takes place in Iceland. It’s very strange but, nonetheless, very enjoyable.

The Toyminator is the sequel to The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse which I read earlier in the year. It’s silly and fun and Robert Rankin’s wordplay is entertaining.

Next, I reread The Tidewater Tales by John Barth. It’s a big, ambitious novel that, among other things, presumes to extend the stories of Scheherazade, Odysseus, and Don Quixote. It also extends, peripherally, the story of the main characters of Barth’s previous novel Sabbatical. I love John Barth and I love this book.

I read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler years ago. In my memory, it was a heartwarming story of an odd family in which one of the sons opens a restaurant that tries to serve customers what they need rather than what they would order. When I reread it this year, I found it to be the tale of an entirely dysfunctional family and its themes are loneliness and despair (perhaps that middle age thing again). Still, Tyler is a master novelist and it is, in fact, very good.

Next, amid the carnival that put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, I began to reread Generation of Swine by Hunter S. Thompson. It was the subtitle that caught my eye as I browsed my bookshelves while following the Kavanaugh hearings: “Tales of Shame and Degradation in the 80s”. I was enthralled for a while reading this collection of Thompson’s pieces from that decade and was amazed at how the writer’s warped style predicted the current state of our union. For some reason, I got bogged down and didn’t finish the book and, in fact, didn’t read a line for the rest of the year.

I did considerably better than the two books of 2017 but my hope is to do much better in 2019 than I did in 2018. Onward.

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Arming Teachers

In one of his later movies, The Shootist, John Wayne plays an aging gunfighter who’s dying of cancer.  He’s living at a boarding house with a widow (Lauren Bacall) and her son (Ron Howard).  He gives a shooting lesson to the son which prompts the boy to ask how it was that Wayne always came out on top in a gunfight.  Wayne replies:

“It isn’t always being fast or even accurate that counts. It’s being willing. I found out early that most men, regardless of cause or need, aren’t willing. They blink an eye or draw a breath before they pull the trigger. I won’t.”

I thought about this exchange considering President Trump’s notion of arming teachers who are most adept with weapons to address our all too frequent shooting rampages in schools.  Knowing one’s weapon and having skill would both be important in confronting such a situation. But how many of those teachers “regardless of cause or need” would be willing to shoot an attacker (particularly one that very likely looks like the students they work with everyday) without hesitation.  And, if said teacher could shoot a threat without hesitation, would we want them teaching our students?

President Trump, when making this proposal to enhance the safety of our schools puts an emphasis on deterrence — making sure a would be intruder knows that some personnel are armed and that they’ll encounter “big trouble” if they enter a school.  This completely ignores the historical fact that most such attackers expect or intend to die as they execute their missions.

Preventing such tragedies is a complex endeavor.  Certainly, the root problem is the alienation and anger of young men (nearly always) to the extent that they are willing to murder and die to, I don’t know, exact retribution for how they have suffered?  That, I think, is the key element that must be understood and solved.  That could be a multi-generational effort.

I’m somewhat conflicted about gun control as an answer.  There is some level of truth that an angry young person will find a way to to the damage that he intends.  On the other hand, easy access to weapons that fire powerful rounds, very quickly and in great numbers makes it a simple matter to murder many people in a short amount of time.  Limiting access to such powerful weapons isn’t a panacea but it could help stem the bloodshed until the underlying problem (alienation and anger) can be understood and addressed.

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What I Read in 2017

Sadly, I only finished two books in 2017.

I reread The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.  I began rereading the series upon learning that Pullman would publish another trilogy that constitutes a companion (Pullman says it’s neither a sequel nor a prequel — it’s an equel) to His Dark Materials.  The first volume of that series was published in October of 2017 and is called The Book of Dust.  This year, I hope to reread the other two books from His Dark Materials and then move on to The Book of DustThe Golden Compass was just as delightful as it was the first time I read it.

I also read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth.  The novel posits an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh won the election of 1940 denying Franklin Roosevelt a third term.  Lindbergh immediately puts the country on the path to fascism because a foreign power has leverage over him.  A particularly apt book for the past year.

I will try mightily to restore my reading habit.  I genuinely hope that the post I’ll write about a year from now:  What I Read in 2018 will be a much longer one.

Happy New Year.

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Books I Read in 2016

I read more than many people do.  I always aspire to read more than I have.  I was a little dismayed this year when I finished a book in early November and couldn’t quite get myself to start another.  Looking over my list of what I’ve read though, this is consistent with a pattern.  In 2015, I finished my last book of the year in early December and then finished the next book in February of 2016.  For some reason, in the months of the year thought to be best disposed to reading, I fail to put eyes to page.

The first book I read in 2016 (finished in February) was a young adult novel Hoot by Carl Hiassen.  I’d enjoyed several Carl Hiassen novels previously so, when a friend gave me a copy of the novel, I read it.  It’s a fun story about a kid who discovers that a nearby development project will destroy the habitat of some birds.  Further, the developers have fraudulently gotten the go ahead for the project by hiding the existence of the bird population.  As with a lot of young adult novels, it’s a tale about how kids can get things done despite adult myopia and inaction.  One of my favorite things about the book is that a familiar kids’ book trope gets turned on its head.  That trope involves enemies finding common cause and working together.  Hiassen trolls the trope in front of the reader but the outcome is unexpected.  Good read for young and old.

Prodigal Summer by Babara Kingsolver was a good novel, deftly plotted and the writing is lovely.  There are a lot of intertwined stories stories and they combine to develop a theme that nature will take care of itself.  That mankind, despite his hostility to particular kinds of nature is within nature itself so the same sufficiency applies.  There are a lot of interesting and entertaining characters.

The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith represents a new addition to my lists of what I’ve read.  For whatever reason, I’ve only represented novels in my list.  I’ve decided recently to read more short stories and, moreover, to read collections together (rather than a story here and a story there).  So, this book of short stories is included.  I’ve also decided to include the non-fiction books I read so this year’s list will include those as well.

One notable thing about The Whole Story and Other Stories is that there is no story within called “The Whole Story”.  The other notable thing is that these are generally experimental fictions that read fluidly.  I’m given to liking metafiction and other flavors of writing that play with forms and words but often the writing suffers from the writer’s efforts in that direction.  This is a lovely collection.

The next book I finished was The Big Bamboo by Tim Dorsey.  If you’ve enjoyed Carl Hiassen’s Florida based mysteries, there is a good chance you’ll enjoy Tim Dorsey.  One might describe The Big Bamboo as a madcap mystery.  The two primary characters are (somehow) both vicious and lovable.  This book is far from a great novel but is wildly entertaining and, so, recommended.

The first non-fiction book (of my list):  Secrets of the Soul:  A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis was written by Eli Zaretsky.  Freud’s reputation has suffered over the last several decades (although there are still large numbers of adherents and offshoot schools of Freudian thought) but that’s largely because most people’s understanding is a caricature of what Freud developed.  He did get a number of things wrong to be sure; and many of those things he that subsequently revised are those that still generate negative opinions respecting his reputation.

The most interesting thing about Secrets of the Soul though is that it traces the development of psychoanalytic thought through the cultural and social movements and phenomena of the 20th century.  Since history, as it is taught in United States schools focuses largely on foreign policy and wars it’s quite revealing to get a glimpse of what comprised social thought in various phases of the 20th century.  One particularly striking thing that stuck with me:  prior to the Industrial Revolution there was basically no concept of a “private (individual) life.”  People were inextricably defined by their families and their employment.  While that may sound peculiar on the surface, Zaretsky spends a good deal of time explaining why and how that was so.  As with a lot of non-fiction, this book isn’t for everyone but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Next is Jasper Fforde’s One of Our Thursdays Is Missing.  I’ve read a number of Fforde’s books including several of the Thursday Next series and generally enjoy them.  I may have missed one or two of the novels in the series which may be why I didn’t like this one as much as those I’ve read before.  In the Thursday Next world, there is a Bookworld and a Real World.  The Bookworld has its own special police Jurisfiction charged with making sure that plots go on as designed with every reading.  However, characters in the Bookworld know that they are characters in books and so sometimes become bored and restless.  Thursday Next is a literary detective who is called upon to investigate malfeasance and other problems when they develop.  Whimsical but brilliantly written and a lot of fun.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Fripp is a sort of illustrated short story that sort of masquerades as a children’s book.  Like most of George Saunders’ ouevre, it’s quite strange and unsettling.

If you’re a Carl Hiassen fan,  A Death in China (which he wrote with Bill Montalbano) may not be your cup of tea.  Rather than a Hiassen romp through strange characters and situations, this is much more a taut thriller.  It’s not a great novel but it’s a good story and worth reading if you enjoy that sort of novel.

I had never read Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis before even though I read a good deal of postwar British fiction at one time.  The main character is a somewhat likable fellow with some rather self destructive tendencies.  This goes a bit further than merely pushing against the exasperation borne of the expected pageant of academic life.  Nonetheless, as the tile indicates, good fortune seems to find him.

Laura Lippman was chosen to edit Baltimore Noir — a collection of darkish short stories set in various neighborhoods and locales in Baltimore.  Baltimore Noir is part of a series of books set in a number of cities but following the same pattern.  As is common, the collection is uneven but there are a number of wonderful stories here.  It’s particularly enjoyable if you’re quite familiar with Baltimore’s neighborhoods and quirky charms.

A Son of the Circus is rather a departure (I think) for John Irving — although I haven’t read an Irving novel for quite awhile.  It’s the story of an Indian orthopedic surgeon who lives in Canada but spends a good deal of time in India volunteering his services at a children’s hospital.  The main character is equally at home in both cultures which is to say: not entirely.  There’s an exploration of racism and social mores in both countries.  What makes it unique for Irving (to me) is that there’s a decades long sort of murder mystery that weaves through the plot.  A quite good novel.

If you’ve never read a novel by Christopher Moore, remedy that right away.  I think that after finishing The Serpent of Venice I have read every one of his books (except a graphic novel called Griff that I just saw on the author’s Amazon page).  The Serpent of Venice is the continuing adventures of Pocket — hero of Moore’s prior novel Fool.  Fool was a retelling of King Lear from the perspective of Lear’s jester Pocket.  This novel is a mashup of “A Cask of Amontillado” and The Merchant of Venice.  It’s quite a good novel and is both wildly entertaining and well written.  It behooves me (“behooves” is a word that my son believes should come back in style so I’m trying to help that along) to mention Moore’s novel Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal which, the whimsical title notwithstanding, is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

Karen Russell’s collection of stories Vampires In the Lemon Grove was my introduction to her writing.  I think there are two Russell books on my “to read” list but this was my first. I enjoyed the stories which were strange to varying extents.  The title story is about two vampires who, during their long (perhaps perpetual) lives have determined that much of what they believe about vampires (themselves) comes from popular mythology about them.  For example, the blood isn’t necessary.  In fact, it doesn’t help.  I will continue to look for Karen Russell at the library and in bookstores.

The first reread on the list:  Total Loss Farm:  A Year in the Life was written by Raymond Mungo and published in 1970.  Mungo’s first book Famous Long Ago chronicled the creation of the Liberation News Service in the 60s which aimed to be an Associated Press (if you will) for the alternative news magazines that were springing up around the nation as resistance to the Vietnam War and the grey flannel suit culture inherited from the 50s developed.  As many such endeavors do, the effort resulted in divisions, hostilities, rivalries and, eventually, disillusionment for a number of the principals.  Total Loss Farm chronicles Mungo’s and his friends’ lives after they move to a commune in Vermont — mostly city kids learning to live off the land and with each other.  I was happy to read it again and would recommend it to anyone.

The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner (poet and novelist) is a curious book.  It begins with a line from poet Marianne Moore “I too dislike it” (poetry) and the goes on an extended meditation about poetry as an object of scorn and the impossibility of writing it.  It’s a fairly short book and despite the fact that I’m glad I read it, I was glad it wasn’t any longer.

There has been a lot of literature coming out of Scandinavia recently — particularly crime novels.  Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason is such a mystery set in Iceland.  The protagonist is a jaded police detective, divorced and with a grown daughter that is always in trouble of some kind.  As with a lot of crime/mystery novels, the focus is on the character and the plot is a way of exposing the nuances and quirks that shape that character.  Still, the plot and intricate rape and murder story is engaging and satisfying.

I thought I had read The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells before but, unless I forgot it entirely, I was mistaken.  I’m sorry to report that, although there were a lot of things I liked about the novel I didn’t enjoy it very much.  Among the good aspects — there are disadvantages to being invisible as well as advantages; also, I liked the technical issues associated with being invisible.  For example, after eating, the invisible man must hide because his meal is visible internally until such time as it is assimilated with his body.  I may try another H. G. Wells book but this didn’t really move me.

To me, Richard Powers is perhaps the best English language novelist who is alive and still producing.  Generosity:  An Enhancement is a very good novel.  The central character is an Algerian woman who, despite having grown up in civil war and having lost much of her family, is nonetheless preternaturally happy.  The surrounding story has to do with high technology and its promises and perils.  There is interest in doing a genomic study on Thassadit (the Algerian) to determine if there is a genetic basis for her disposition that could be used to enhance the lives of others.  The mix of intelligence and superb prose makes for a fantastic read.  I recommend this and any of Powers’ work to anyone.

I was happy to find a novel by Elizabeth Hand at the library.  I read her novel Generation Loss a few years ago after buying it at a used bookstore.  I enjoyed that and was surprised to find that she wasn’t represented at all in the local library system.  A few months ago, I found Hard Light in the stacks and snatched it up.  It features the same protagonist as Generation Loss:  Cass Neary, once a photographer of the New York punk scene on her way up, now living and drinking hard.  Although there is a plot, the novel reads more like a continuing saga of this tough, albeit broken, woman than a traditional novel.  Neary is reminiscent of one of James Crumley’s characters — taking drugs and boozing through the curious things that keep happening while, almost by accident (seemingly), a story develops in the background.  As for recommendation, I’m reminded of someone’s quip “you’ll probably like it if this is the sort of thing you like.”

That makes 19 books for the year — a total of 5,532 pages.  I hope to read more in 2017 and I look forward to spending even more time describing the books this time next year.  If you made it this far, thak you for reading.  Please feel free to comment and/or make suggestions.

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Free Speech and the National Anthem

At the time that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked on September 11th, 2001, I was working as a Division Manager for a company that did work, nearly exclusively, for the Federal Government.  Shortly after the attacks, the higher ups in my company distributed little flag lapel pins to all the Division Managers including me. Although I’m hardly a fan of US militarism and imperialism, I wore the pin because it was expected — just like the sort of silly accoutrement called a necktie that I wore every day. As a Division Manager, I met with customers and potential customers in the federal government nearly daily.  Thus I was representing the company to those federal agencies and wore the pin not as a patriotic statement but as a marketing ploy — which it surely was.

If I was asked to distribute the pins to my employees I would have done so but may have balked if I was told to force them to wear the flag.

I was thinking about those flag pins over the last week or so after observing how much vitriol was directed at Colin Kaepernick (and a few supporters) for failing to stand for the national anthem.  The attacks on him got silly:  conflating his refusal with disrespecting troops that have died while on military tours, “love it or leave it” sorts of comments and other nonsense.  There were also rebuttals, some from veterans, that claimed that Kaepernick’s right to sit was the sort of freedom they had been defending.  There was also the rather apt observation that few if any people, preparing to watch a game in their own home on television, stand, hand on heart, as the anthem is broadcast.  It’s a different story at the stadium, though, because we are on display and if we don’t participate in the ritual, we call attention to ourselves.  I’m not denying that some of us feel real patriotic feeling while standing for the ritual, I’m saying that social pressure rather than patriotism is the main motivation.

In fact, the reality of this ritual and its associated social pressure is precisely the reason that Kaepernick stayed seated.  He was protesting and protest is futile if unnoticed.  He, and the several players around the league that have joined him in exercising free speech know that such statements carry risk:  loss of product endorsement opportunities and other by products of their celebrity.  Yet the subject of their protest, the perceived maltreatment and injustice directed at black people in this country seemed worth the risks.

This morning, the Baltimore Sun offered an editorial in response to Baltimore Oriole Adam Jones’ comments that the reason such protests weren’t happening among baseball players was that baseball was a “white man’s game.”  He noted that Donald Trump has said far more offensive things with garnering anything close to the hostile vitriol  that Kaepernick and others have suffered.  The editorial board wrote:  

What’s the difference between Mr. Trump’s speech and Mr. Kaepernick’s? Mr. Trump is talking about the concerns of working-class whites, and Mr. Kaepernick and his supporters are talking about blacks.

This made me think:  what if the original protester who sat during the national anthem was a veteran and he was protesting the deplorable treatment many of our veterans experience after their service is complete?  I think nearly everyone in the country would agree that no veteran should be homeless, no veteran should be hungry and begging on the side of the road, no veteran should be unable to receive needed medical and mental health services.

I doubt the reaction would have been so blatantly hostile, so vitriolic, so damning of the protesters’ failure to adhere to the ritual.

We are very uncomfortable with the idea that our social and civic institutions are rife with racial injustice.  So, uncomfortable that many of us deny it entirely.  I can’t help but think that it’s Kaepernick’s message, rather than the protest itself, that is the source of the anger and hate directed at him and his supporters.

 

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Deception, or Modern Business

Some time ago, by either an act of the Maryland State Legislature or a change in the Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR) (or perhaps a combination of both), utility consumers in Maryland were provided with an opportunity to buy energy from suppliers other than the Baltimore Gas & Electric Company (BG&E).  I don’t really understand how this works and I’m not particularly interested — this fact is the preface for the incidents I want to write about.

As more and more of these alternate energy supply companies were certified by the Maryland Public Service Commission, more and more young people were canvassing my neighborhood trying to persuade customers to purchase energy from their company rather than from BG&E.  However, not every consumer may have realized that these people were not representing BG&E.  There was a very similar script used by canvassers from the various companies working my neighborhood.

Typically, a well dressed young man with a clipboard and conspicuous badge would knock on the door.

Young man:  Good morning.  I’m from the power company and we want to make sure that you’re not paying too much for your electricity.

Me:  (noting that the badge does not say BG&E) What power company?

YM: We’re making sure that you’re getting the best rates for your electricity.  Can you please find your latest utility bill and bring it to me so I can go over it with you.

Me: No.  Goodbye.

Typically, the young person would persist until I stepped back inside and shut the door.

Now, I suspect that looking at the bill would confirm that I was buying my power from BG&E and not getting the best possible rate.  Naturally, I want to get the best price possible for utilities (and everything else) but I wasn’t interested in pursuing the conversation because I found the approach deceptive.  And, at least 3 different energy providers used the same approach.

I thought about this the other day when another incident occurred.  I was sitting on my front porch reading and enjoying the nice spring afternoon.  Someone walking down the street greeted me.  Looking up from my book I smiled and waved at the well dressed young man on the sidewalk.  Curiously, he said “Would you vote for me?”  I said “Maybe.  Who are you?”  He politely asked if he could come onto the porch and I invited him up.  He told me his name and that he was in a program to help him gain experience and enable him to get a job.  He told me that he had grown up in Georgia, that he had lost his older brothers to criminal violence and that he had gotten in trouble as well.  So, now he was involved with this program to help him get a leg up and succeed.

At this point I told him that I had been out of work for quite a long time and that if money was involved, I couldn’t help him.  He handed me this small portfolio with the name of the program, his name and he pointed to a bolded line near the bottom that said “We are not seeking donations.”

I said “OK, since I’m not able to contribute, I just didn’t want to waste your time.”

He turned the page of the portfolio and showed me a list of names which he said were neighbors that he had already visited who had helped him (I didn’t recognize any of the names).  Next to the names were columns with various numbers in them.  He told me that they were ratings.  On the next page, there was a rubric explaining the ratings.  I could rate him for how well he presented himself, how well dressed he was, friendliness, etc.

He then turned a page again and there was a list of magazines for which I could buy subscriptions.  He said:  “I know that a lot of people don’t read magazines anymore, they read things online.  But, you can purchase the subscription and donate it to the program and they’ll make the reading material available to young people in underprivileged neighborhoods.”

He was selling magazine subscriptions.  And, if I didn’t want the magazine(s) I could subscribe anyway and not be bothered by receiving them.

I reminded him that I was not in a position to give him any money.  He was disappointed but pleasant.  I said that I’d be happy to rate him in terms of his presentation, friendliness etc.  “It doesn’t help if you don’t buy a subscription.”  I wished him luck and he left.

This really bothered me.  I had no reason to doubt his sincerity.  After all, there are much easier hustles that don’t require walking around in a suit on a warm afternoon.  What bothered me is the suspicion that the “program” was scamming him.

The approach, like that of the “power company” guys, was scripted.  As soon as I expressed unwillingness to part with any money, he had a quick and unambiguous answer: “Not seeking donations.”  The conversation was peppered with topics like “work ethic” and “values”.  He seemed to be a nice young man and I wanted to help him.  But, as with the “power company” guys, I found the approach deceptive.

I suspect that the “program” is making promises about what it can do for the young man while getting him to do door to door selling for as little compensation as possible.  The “program” even acknowledges that what it is selling is something that few people want but it has a sales force to persuade one to purchase it anyway.  I’m at least as cynical as the next guy so I assume that the “program” is scamming the young man.

But here’s the thing:  even if the “program” is legitimate and it aims to help people that have been in trouble learn to comport themselves and conduct business;  even if the purchased subscriptions that the buyers don’t want are actually donated to people in underprivileged areas; even if everything is on the up and up, there’s a problem.

They’re teaching young people that deception and misdirection are the skills one should master to succeed at life.  As a cynic, I recognize that that these are valuable, if morally dubious, skills.  But, even in a corrupt capitalist society, deception and misdirection should be survival skills — not the playbook itself.

 

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The Monty Hall Problem

I’ve decided that, when I read something I like a lot, I’m going to link to it on this blog. This is a short story by Rebekah Bergman that I enjoyed reading.  I like to think that there are people who occasionally read this so, I hope you’ll enjoy it too.

 

 

 

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Good Friday — A Memory

The honeysuckle on my neighbor’s fence was blooming.  I was standing in the alley behind my house, slightly up the bank to my neighbor’s fence, sampling and enjoying the honeysuckle blossoms.  In my memory, I am alone — a rare thing because my baby boomer neighborhood teemed with children.  I went to Catholic school and was off because it was Good Friday.  It was a mild, sunny, spring day.

Something occurred to me and I looked at the watch I’d gotten when I made my first communion a year or so before.  I checked the time and then looked at the sky.  Good Friday commemorates the day that Jesus was crucified and died for our sins.  In school, they had told us that He died at about 3 pm.  At that time, on Good Friday, they said, the sky would darken with clouds and would remain so for a short while in sympathy with the death of our Savior.

I looked at my watch again.  It was 3 pm.  I looked at the sky.  The sun was shining brightly with fluffy, occasional clouds against the bright blue sky.  Well, they said at about 3 pm. The scent of the honeysuckle wafted on the breeze and I tore off and sucked another blossom — wondering if it would be a sin to be enjoying sweet nectar at the moment that Jesus had died.  Sacrilegiously, the sky continued its beautiful, brightness all afternoon never darkening in the least until after dinner when it always did.

I considered some rationalizations.  After all, Jesus hadn’t been crucified in Towson, Maryland, so 3 pm here at home wouldn’t correspond with 3 pm in Golgotha.  Perhaps my teachers didn’t understand time differences.  Perhaps, when the Julian calendar was adopted, the real Good Friday had shifted?  No, because Good Friday and Easter were on different dates each year — I wondered why that was so.

I was a committed Catholic back then.  Children raised in religious households believe fervently and completely when they are young — particularly, if that religion is reinforced with instruction from nuns and priests at school.  I was deeply disappointed that the sky never darkened.  It was as though I’d gone outside to watch an eclipse and it never happened.  It seemed wrong and, although it didn’t shake my faith, it was rather profoundly disturbing.

Reflecting on this, I wonder why Father or Sister told the story in the way they did.  The idea of the sky darkening at the moment of Jesus’ death is dramatic high theatre — and, I suppose, that was the point.  But, didn’t they consider kids like me who’d be looking for the miracle, a corroboration that could only occur haphazardly at best?  I wonder about the other stories and drama used to instruct us as we grew up.  Fanciful stories about math or science yield to the notion of metaphor in time with no subsequent dilution of the idea of truth.  Such dramatic devices in religious instruction, though, need to be carefully considered and skillfully rendered.  As I said, the sky’s failure to darken that Good Friday didn’t affect my faith directly but it may have been a contributing factor to my eventual disbelief.

So, I think that the reason that I was told that the sky would fill and darken with clouds was that the teacher was talking to the rapt eyes in front of him or her, emphasizing the solemnity of the event, teaching in the moment.  Perhaps they gave no thought at all to a little boy, on a spring afternoon, in front of a fragrant honeysuckle vine, alone with his thoughts.

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Republican Concern Trolling for Merrick Garland

Commentators of the GOP stripe are aghast that Obama would do this, STOOP to do this, to Merrick Garland, a well respected, moderate Circuit Court judge.  After all, Mitch and his gang have sworn off having hearings, ’cause they’re standing on principle and precedent that doesn’t exist.  But they know that their supporters have a vague and malleable view of history.

More to the point, how could mean old Obama do this to anyone, much less a well respected judge like Judge Garland?  See, because Merrick Garland is such a naif, such an innocent rube, that he went along with the nomination with no idea of what he was in for.  It doesn’t matter if Mitch’s gang has history on their side or not:  what matters is what Obama did to this honorable man.

I have no problem believing that the GOP leadership is as clueless as they sound. Although, they’re taking pains to try to sound principled (and failing for at least half the people).  My point this time, as it often is about this sort of Republican casuistry, is the contempt they obviously have for their faithful constituents.

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Fun On A Snowy Day in Baltimore

On Friday evening, the snow started falling.  The forecast had coalesced around the word “blizzard” but lots of people were out and about enjoying the first snow of the season. Diane and I met friends at Grand Cru — the wine bar in nearby Belvedere Square.  Despite the fact that it’s an easy walk, I drove over entertaining the idea of leaving my car in the upstairs parking garage.  If the forecasts were correct, history indicated that my street would be impassable for at least a few days.  There were a few reasons why being housebound for several days seemed unacceptable.

It was a normal Friday night at the bar.  We used to come here all the time but, when Grand Cru changed hands nearly a year ago a lot changed.  Nelson Carey, the former proprieter who died suddenly in July, 2014 used to say that bar crowds were fickle — they’d come for a while and, suddenly, go elsewhere.  Some of the old bartenders left immediately.  Others left gradually over the first months that the new Grand Cru was open.  There are still a few of them left and I’m always happy to see them.  A lot of the regulars that drew me in nearly everyday for several years, simply stopped coming.  And with that exodus, the pull on me to go see who might be there diminished quickly. However, Diane and I still go over most Friday nights because some of our regular cronies are usually there.

I should clarify that there’s nothing particularly wrong with the new Grand Cru — although there are a few things that are irritating.  Rather, it’s just not the same bar.  It couldn’t be.  In fact, well before the Carey family sold the bar, it had already changed.  As the saying goes, after Nelson died, his absence was palpable.  The old Grand Cru was deflating before our eyes.  So, the new Grand Cru is not a bad place, it’s just a different place and no matter what the new management did, that difference was inevitable.

So, Friday evening at the bar was a regular Grand Cru Friday.  Many of our friends were there and, as usual we enjoyed each others’ company.  Perhaps it was my imagination, or my own anticipation of the snowfall, but everyone was very happy and energetic.  We had a very nice time.

When we left, I abandoned my plan to leave the car.  The wind had picked up and it was snowing hard although it had accumulated only an inch or so.  The car is in the driveway and there it will remain at least until Monday perhaps longer.

On Saturday morning, we awoke to about 8 inches of snow.  The wind was wailing and it was snowing furiously.  We pretty much stuck to our usual Saturday morning routines and every so often, we’d check the accumulation.  On the Grand Cru Facebook page on Friday, they had posted promising to be open for the duration of the storm (well, normal hours anyway) with a few specials:  a free glass of hot mulled wine for coming in the door and a promotion which promised a dollar off for every inch of accumulated snow on checks of at least $30.  A number of our friends live within walking distance of the bar and we’d made tentative plans to meet there on Saturday afternoon.

In the early afternoon, phones and computers started bleeping with text messages and Facebook messages and pretty soon, Diane and I were suiting up to walk to Belvedere Square.

 

OutFrontThis is what it looked like as we went out the front door.  Of course, this doesn’t describe the amount of snow swirling in the sharp wind.  Since I can see without my glasses, I had the forethought to put them in a pocket before venturing out.  Even so, for much of the walk I could barely see anything.  Diane can’t see anything without her glasses so as her glasses frosted and accumulated snow, she had to rely on following the orange blob that was my coat.  We walked up our street, struggling a bit to stay upright and in the tire tracks that some brave soul had made not very long before.  We were counting on Belvedere Avenue to be fairly walkable and were looking forward to getting out of the deep stuff.  Near the corner of Belvedere a snow plow — not one of the big serious snow plows but a large truck with a blade mounted in front — was stuck in the snow.  The driver was working with a shovel to get himself free and was maintaining a reasonably good mood. There was a time when I would have pitched in to try to get him moving but that time was ten years and a few injured spinal disks ago.  To get by the plow, we had to walk through the deep snow that went right up to the sides of the truck.  Fortunately, we could hold on to the rails along the bed of the truck which helped us stay upright but the snow, seriously,  came to mid thigh on me.

As we anticipated, Belvedere Avenue was much easier going.  Although it was snow covered, it had been plowed and the snow was packed down.  There was virtually no traffic so we walked down the middle of the street.  We still couldn’t see very well.  The traffic light at Belvedere and Clearspring was easily visible and helped us remember that we were in very familiar territory.  And the bar was perhaps 100 yards from that traffic light.

There was a car, not even a 4 wheel drive vehicle but an older station wagon, stuck in the intersection.  The driver was standing beside the car as we stumbled past.  Diane said “The bar’s open,” and he just said that he couldn’t leave the car there.  He said he needed a shovel.  We certainly weren’t going to walk back home to get a shovel for him so we wished him luck and kept going.  I marveled that someone would venture out in a car utterly unsuited for the weather without anticipating the need for a shovel or other things that might help unstick his car if it happened.

There were a few plows working the parking lots at Belvedere Square but there wasn’t a single car in them.  As we struggled across the parking lot, I was thinking “they better be open!”  Soon, though, we saw the lights on through the double doors.  As we entered we were greeted warmly.  Surprisingly, there were at least 20 people there including one of the friends we were coming to meet.  After I cleared the snow from my beard and brushed off my coat and hat, we sat at a table and Jack, one of the bartenders, brought us each a glass of mulled wine.  Lovely.

They had let the kitchen staff off for the day but had made a nice black bean chili that they were offering for a dollar a bowl.  Everyone was very friendly and happy and there was an implicit understanding that we were all neighbors since none of us had driven there.

JengaGrandCru

There was a giant Jenga game going on.  I had never seen Jenga blocks of this size but there they were.  Diane and our friend Nancy took their turns removing and replacing blocks but I was content to stay in my seat and watch.

Lots of laughter and shrieks when the tower tumbled to the floor.

Being the sort of day it was, I forgot my age and along with my customary beer or wine, there were shots of spirits consumed.  Fortunately, we must have remained prudent because neither of us were worse for the wear because of the whisky.

Our neighbor across the street from our house had invited us and other near neighbors to come that evening for a blizzard party.  I had been planning to walk back later in the day to go to The Swallow At The Hollow , another neighborhood bar that had promised to be open, to watch the Maryland Terrapin basketball game.  I knew, though, that once I got back home, I wasn’t going to make that walk again in the same day.  So, neighbor’s blizzard party was on the agenda.  Regardless, we still had to walk back and, putting that task off, we stayed at Grand Cru until we had just enough time to get home, get presentable (remove snow from beard, etc.) before crossing the street to the party.

Here’s a picture of Diane sitting across from me with the Grand Cru bar in the backgrounDianeGCd.  We still had to bundle up and make the walk home but, first, another round or so.  One group came in and I thought that the man had brought some children with him.  It’s not all that unusual for children to be at the bar, at least during the day, but it seemed an odd thing to do in the middle of a blizzard.  As it turns out, it was just that one of the men in the group was quite tall and the two “children” turned out to be lovely young women.  Other friends came in, some were new and some we knew but everything was just friendly and nice.  It was as if, just for awhile, the ghost of the old Grand Cru presided and informed the new Grand Cru. It was a lovely afternoon.

When we walked home, it was still snowing heavily but the wind had tempered and we were able to see fairly well.  Somehow, the stranded station wagon was gone although, looking at the snow where it had been, it was unclear how it could have happened.  When we got to Clearspring, the snow plow that had been stuck was gone — although the hip deep snow at the bottom of the street was testament to the fact that the driver must have backed up the hill and gone down our street to be on his way.  The snow on the ground sparkled under the street lights.  The last stretch, down our street, was as hard as it had been when we ventured out.  We were delighted to find that, while we were gone, the kids had shoveled a path from the front porch to the road.  And, equally fortuitous, the neighbor who we were to visit for the blizzard party had similarly cleared a path.  So, the idea of venturing out again wasn’t daunting at all.

We had a lovely evening meeting with neighbors, some old friends some new faces, eating soup and drinking wine.  After a few hours, back in the house, I’d put pajama pants and slippers on and was enjoying a final glass of wine.  I wasn’t surprised to hear the phrase in my head that told me that “all was right with the world.”  Well, that’s clearly not entirely true, but in my life, in my slice of Baltimore, with my family and friends . . . it was.

 

 

 

 

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