Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

I can shovel my own damn sidewalk, thank you very much! You may wonder why every pre-teen in the neighborhood suddenly wants to ring my doorbell and offer me "help" with the snow. It's not the first snow of the year, and I've been out there plenty of times on my own already. And where were they then? Sending dirty pictures on the internet, no doubt! But I know what's going on here. Now it's winter break, and all these damn kids are driving their parents crazy. "What ever shall with do with our little hellians," they wonder... "I know! Let's foist them off on the old guy!" So here they come, one by one, looking to tick off the volunteering box on their college applications. Six years until they apply, but their expensive private tutors have told them they should start logging their hours now and prepping for the ACT. I wouldn't mind so much if I could just give them 5 bucks and send them on their way. But no, their parents have told them not to take my money. They just want to help and spend a little "quality time" with me. Which means that I have to invite them in, pretend to be grateful, give them cocoa, and regale them with made up stories about what the world was like "in my day." "Really, mister? I didn't know you had to eat bark off of trees to survive!" "Damn straight, Johnny! Now when does school start up again?" And if I don't, all those parents have their little passive aggressive ways of exacting revenge. They will park their SUV in front of my house for days at a time, let their schnauzer crap on my lawn (I'm watching you, Margaret!), or hammer those stupid little wooden faces into their trees at an angle that I can't avoid when looking out my front window. Anyway, it won't always be like this. As Kolbert clearly and elegantly describes, we are totally fucking up the world, and soon snow at this latitude will be a thing of the past. It will be a tropical paradise around here, and just imagine what that will do for my property value! We bought this house for 17,000 dollars, and thanks to climate change, it will be a gold mine. That's right - global warming can't come fast enough for me. And I mean that quite literally, because it can't possibly come fast enough for me to reap the benefits before I die. So some other schmo will inevitably get my house and cash in on the misfortune of the rest of the world, and it  really chaps my hide that it won't be me. Story of my life, I guess. The other great thing about this book is that I finally understand the scientific evidence behind the asteroid theory of dinosaur extinction. When I think about the number of dinner parties at which I could have used that information, it makes me want to weep into my gimlet.

Friday, December 28, 2018

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A timeless classic for the holidays. In my house, Christmas came and went, along with the whole extended family, and the whole time I was thinking, "Didn't I just have to do all this shit like a month ago?" There is absolutely no sense in putting Thanksgiving and Christmas so close to one another, especially with a family like mine. I mean, really, the photos of kids doing amazing things on the basketball court and their incredible grades have not changed enough to warrant me having to see and hear about them again so soon. True to form, all hell pretty much broke loose, and in the end, I'm sure I will be seen as the villain of the piece, but in truth, that honor should go to Cousin Jim. The crazy thing is - I shit you not - I do not even really know whose cousin Cousin Jim is. Usually adults don't go by Cousin Anything, so that's weird to start with, and I'm pretty sure he married into the family at some point, because I have no memory of him as a child. Although, based on the looks of him, it's hard to imagine him ever having been a child, so perhaps he is some kind of non-human cyborg or something that was created in adult form from the beginning. That would explain his social skills. In any case, he started it, which is important to remember. In fact, you might say he started it years ago, but on this particular occasion, he brought up politics in the first place, and he is the one who brought it to the next level by calling me "racist against white people." In MY house, no less! OK, technically it is my daughter's house and her husband's, but we helped them with the down payment, so that's pretty much the same. And don't forget it, Gerry! You'd still be renting that rat-infested duplex without me! Now then, I tend to be pretty tolerant of people of most political persuasions. I have always said that if you are not a Liberal at age 20, then you have no heart, and if you are still a Liberal at age 50, then you have no brain. At this point, I hardly even remember 50, and I don't know what to do with politics these days. I am certainly no bleeding heart, but Republicans in this country have lost their damn minds, so I'm not sure there's anyplace left for reasonable people like me, but that is not the point. The point is that Cousin Jim is an idiot, and it is possible that I hit him with a chicken wing. Not the wing shaped one, but the drummie one, if it matters.  And if I did, he certainly deserved it, and I would think I might get a compliment or two for my arm strength at this age, but no, everyone seemed to think that I had crossed a line somewhere, and I had to go into my fake senility act to escape the marauding hordes. And Jim, with all the righteous outrage of people who have had everything given to them their entire lives, played the victim in the whole affair. So Merry Christmas everyone! I guess it's like Tiny Tim says in the end, "God bless it, get out of my damn house! You should have been a decent human the whole time!"

Friday, December 21, 2018

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil Degrasse Tyson

What the hell is the deal with kombucha? Give me a minute here, and let me see if I've got this right. You start with some kind of disgusting mushroom thing called a scoby (which as far as I understand is not even a word), only guess what, it's not a mushroom (phew!), it's a bunch of bacteria and yeast living in a mega-colony preparing to take over the world (oh shit). Then you drop this thing that looks like it came out of the nose of a hippopotamus into an actually edible beverage like tea? While you're at it, it just so happens I have some old milk you can piss in and then take to that party Friday night if you want. Sure to blow the socks off of all those hippies. But here's what really gets me. I can get behind the general idea of fermenting things because then you can get drunk on them. But after choking down a glass of what is essentially homemade vinegar made by my grandson's friend (who I might point out could use a shower) out of pure charity, I was then clobbered with the revelation that there's hardly even any alcohol in this shit! The whole thing makes even less sense than this book. Now I have seen this guy on TV, and he is a funny dude, but this book had no jokes! How can I understand astrophysics with no jokes? I saw Tyson on Jon Stewart's show a couple of times. A short man, that Stewart, but pretty smart. I, on the other hand, must not be so smart, because even this dumbed down version of space science was beyond my vodka-addled brain. Or maybe I was not the intended audience, because I am certainly not in a hurry. Nothing to do today but sit around and puke up kombucha. I was with him for the big bang stuff, but it got away from me quickly. In the end, I was left with more questions than answers. Big questions, like where the hell do the scobies come from anyway? Is there some kind of scoby farm in a cave somewhere, tended to by mountain people who have never seen sunlight? Or goblins perhaps? And how were they discovered? And who the hell thought, when they discovered it, "I think that thing is probably edible." I think that a good rule of thumb is that if people have not been eating something regularly since before you were born, it's probably some made up pseudo-food at least partially responsible for the increase in cancer rates and autism. You want something with vinegar - eat a damn pickle!

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

My kids signed me up for an exercise class at Anytime Fitness. They told me it would help me "stay healthy" and "meet people my age." The undercurrents of those two comments could carry someone away to sea. But truth be told, it is walking distance from my house and I don't really have a whole lot to do, so I agreed to try it out. I had just finished this wonderful novel, and I was eager to find someone to talk to about Colombian history and conspiracy theories in general. But I figured I shouldn't just jump in with a comment about Rafael Uribe Uribe, so I tried to warm up the crowd with, "Good morning! Do any of you walking corpses like to read?" Cue crickets chirping. I believe I saw someone drool. So no luck there, but all in all, the class was not so bad. It's good to know that my body can still perform most of its basic gross motor functions, albeit in a somewhat slower manner than in the past. And the class leader was not nearly as annoying as one would expect from someone willing to take that job. At the end of the day, I might have gone back if it weren't for the altercation I had with the kid on the way out. This gentleman, if I may profane the term, looked to be about 19, with a baggy shirt that he had cut the sleeves off, seemingly with a pair of left-handed safety scissors. It appeared that he had used a random number generator to determine which parts of his head would be shaved and which would be spared. And as I was getting ready to leave, I distinctly heard him say to his girlfriend, the aspiring Spandex model, "It smells like old people in here." I thought for a few moments about how often I had told my children to ignore people's rude comments and walk away, and I realized, not for the first time, what bullshit advice that is. So I calmly turned in his direction and said, "I'm sorry - did you ask me something?" He said he hadn't and smiled at his girlfriend, but I was not to be deterred. "Oh," I replied, "I thought you had said something about how it smells like old people in here." He stopped abruptly and turned back with an ashen look on his face. Busted, sucker. My daughter has told me that I have an exquisite talent for taking a joke too far. But I see it more like juicing an orange. If you squeeze once or twice, you will get plenty of juice. But if you're willing to push just a little harder, you get that extra bit that makes it all the more satisfying, and you know you haven't wasted anything. So I went totally dead pan and took a deep breath in through my nose. "Oh," I continued, "I smell it now...But I'm not sure it's old person smell. <pause> It's something a little mustier...maybe...sweaty balls?" Then I locked his eyes without smiling, just a quizzical look on my face like we were in it together, trying to decipher this mysterious aroma. His mouth was open, but he didn't say anything, so I shrugged and turned away, but I caught a definite subtle smirk on his girlfriend's face, and I figured that was worth the price of the rest of the classes I won't be attending.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Becoming by Michelle Obama

It is only December 11, and I have already had it with Christmas music. If I hear the sound of sleigh bells one more time - I shit you not - I will stick pencils in my ear drums. My kids keep telling me I have to get out more, but every time I so much as get into someone's car, I am assaulted by the most saccharine, frivolous musical insults known to man. It is quite a mixed message. Yesterday, on our coffee date, it was so bad that I had no choice but to demand that my daughter stop the car so I could get out and walk the rest of the way to the coffee shop. I recognize that the gesture was slightly juvenile, but I think I made my point. I can guarantee you that Michelle never makes Barack listen to this shit. And vice versa. And when Eleanor was alive, god bless her, she knew how to embrace the holiday season with a little more subtlety and grace than people seem to be able to these days. We observed a variety of holidays in our house, what with our different backgrounds, and we managed to take the best of each and deliver the message of the season to our children without all this materialism, gaudiness, and god damn terrible music that seem to define them today. As I walked down the hill toward the coffee shop yesterday, I was thinking about those holidays when our kids were young. They were good times, simpler times maybe - at least in my memory they were. When I got to the bottom, I was in a good mood, partly from those memories and partly from having given my daughter the business a little bit. And we had a nice time. Short-lived, however, because she had to put me in my place and made me walk back up the hill to the car! And believe me, my back is paying for it today. Thanks Obama.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman

My son came over yesterday and wanted to talk about our favorite childhood memories. I assume he is on some kind of new pop-psychology self-help kick or something. Anyway, his wistful reminiscences about time reminded of me this book, so I re-read it while I was smoking a brisket. It's not too long, which makes it suitable for today's youth. But you have to stop and think at times, so that rules out most of you. In the novel, Einstein imagines all kinds of different worlds where time functions differently - time goes forward, backward, moves out in concentric circles, stops randomly, is a function of altitude, etc. Nice stuff to imagine, actually, although it seemed to lack what may be the true experience of time, which is that it is a function of age. You will possibly understand this when you are older, but no guarantees. As a child, time scarcely even exists. I can remember running home from school, playing stickball in the street until dusk, swinging by the deli to try to get a discount knish before they closed, falling asleep the minute my head hit the pillow, and waking the next day hardly distinguishing it from the last. Time really has no  meaning until you have a true sense of the impermanence of life. When Eleanor and I were young, with two babies, we finally knew that feeling. We savored each day with them, but we knew it was temporary and that time was slowly pulling them away from us. And each year it got faster and faster. When Eleanor got sick, it was like a freight train hurtling into the distance, and I never caught up. And what now? When there is less to lose, time slows down again, and you find yourself just waiting around to die. But fuck all that - time for brisket!