Monday, May 20, 2019

The Song of Kieu by Nguyen Du



I must start by expressing the gratitude I felt to Sarah Wright and Penguin Classics for sending me this new edition of the Vietnamese epic poem, "The Song of Kieu," with lovely translation and introduction by Timothy Allen. This is a new area of literature for me, and I was grateful for the historical context Mr. Allen provided. I found the text to be remarkably readable and lyrical, and I finished it with satisfaction. It stuck with me in the following days, and I was intrigued to learn more about the author and the translator, and that was when I realized what a Trojan horse this gift really was.

First, some context. When I was courting Eleanor, I had a rival. He was (in my biased opinion) a short, weaselly fellow, but oh, how her parents loved him. He came from an established family that owned a successful glove-making company. He had graduated from an esteemed university (salutatorian) and had the option of taking over the family business or going to any number of corporations who were wooing him. He composed music on the french horn, volunteered for civic organizations, and sang opera. Total schmuck. I, on the other hand, had nothing but my sense of humor, my rakish good looks, and a handful of fantastic heirloom family pickle recipes. Hardly a fair fight. I won, obviously, but I did not emerge unscathed. For years, even after we were married, Eleanor's father had a favorite saying when he disapproved of something I did (which was often). He would grumble, "I don't think Walter would have done that." Fucking Walter. My self-esteem never truly recovered from him. Gets my dander up just thinking about him.

Enter Mr. Timothy Allen. Turns out this guy has been an aid worker in just about every impoverished corner of the earth. He can speak a brazilian different languages (if brazilian was a language, he would speak that too). He is an accomplished poet, wins fancy awards, is a professor at an esteemed university, a family man, and occasionally translates epic Vietnamese poems just for kicks. He is an ubermench! Rumor has it that he may also be ambidextrous, can juggle eggs with his eyes closed, and has a patent for biodegradable straws. And what do I do? I sit around in my lazy-boy, reading and drinking gin, make the occasional batch of pickles, and rant on the internet, which I don't even fully understand. I can hear Walter laughing from his grave (I actually have no idea if he is still alive, but the math is against him).

Then I started getting paranoid. I wanted to write something about how beautiful the translation was, but it occurred to me that I really have no way of judging that. The closest I ever got to translating anything was trying to decipher pictorial instructions for making kim chi, and that ended with a giant hole in my backyard full of rotten cabbage. So no points for me. For all I know, he could have made the whole thing up. I mean, is there really an ancient Vietnamese word that translates as "gobshite"? Seems unlikely. From there I started worrying about all the other things we just take on faith to be true. Do camels with two humps really live longer than camels with one hump? Is Fun Dip actually fun? Is the Earth truly flat? Is sea salt really saltier than regular salt? Does God exist? This list goes on. So, to summarize, great book, and I look forward to talking to you about it when I emerge from my existential crisis.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Overstory by Richard Powers


This book has got a lot about trees, which are things I happen to love. They are strong and durable, provide fruit, shade, and oxygen, and I also love the part of The Lord of the Rings when the Ents beat the crap out of some Orcs. Those were some badass trees. When my kids were young, I taught them all about the different trees in our neighborhood. If you live on the Earth, you should be able to identify the things you share it with, that's what I say. If you can't tell the difference between a birch and a beech, no supper! Oh, relax, snowflakes. These days, kids don't even know trees exist because to see them, they would have to look in the opposite direction from their phones. I bet one out of ten kids at most could even tell you the difference between an oak tree and a maple tree. What the hell is wrong with us? But that is not what I'm angry about today.

I also used to take my kids and their friends camping sometimes. We'd learn about trees, of course, and other aspects of nature, and sometimes I would stretch the truth a little bit - all in good fun of course. One time I hid a pile of Raisinettes in the woods, and then I led them "exploring" and stumbled across my pile. I told them that it was either rabbit poop or fox poop, but that they were hard to tell apart. "Rabbit poop is mushier," I said, "Anyone want to feel?" No takers, so I delicately picked up a Raisinette and rolled it around in my hands. "You can sometimes differentiate by smell," I continued. I got my nose right down in there, much to the children's dismay. They were starting to look a little green, I had to admit, but I wasn't about to stop there. "But to be honest, the only real way to tell rabbit poop from fox poop is by taste." Gasps all around. I pretended not to notice and just started popping the Raisinettes in my mouth, chewing pensively, swishing them back and forth in my cheeks while the kids were audibly gagging. "Oh well," I concluded when the pile was gone, "Still not sure. Shall we continue hiking?" I think my son might have been onto me at that point, but I gave him the look that said if he wanted to be led out of the woods at any point in the near future, he had better keep his mouth shut, and he did. On one camping trip I taught the group of kids about extraterrestrial life and then scared the bejeezus out of them by "discovering" a mannequin wrapped in tin foil. Heh - kids are stupid. But of course some of the parents complained after that one and that was the end of the big group camping trips. Parents are stupid too. But that's not what I'm angry about either.

What's really chapping my hide today is what happened in my front yard yesterday. There is a lovely Japanese maple tree that resides between my sidewalk and the street, so technically, on city property. There were city employees out there tapping at it and wielding a truck full of vegetation torture instruments. I asked if something was wrong, if the tree was diseased or something. But they said no, it was just normal maintenance, which turned out to mean that any branch within 30 feet of the ground got maniacally lopped off. I swear those sadistic tree-killers were whooping with joy when they did it, too. Now it's about 60% trunk and looks like a giant purple broccoli. Damn it all.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Godfather by Mario Puzo


I have definitive evidence to suggest that my next-door neighbor Margaret (the one with the schnauzer) and the guy across the street, Darren (I just fell asleep trying to find an adjective to describe his personality) are, as the kids say, in cahoots. I have seen them whispering on multiple occasions, and I doubt they are exchanging pleasantries, because there is nothing pleasant about either of them. I would rather make small talk with Luca Brasi.

It all started over the dandelions. It won't surprise you to learn that I am no fan of dandelions. They are like the sweet pickles of flowers - at first glance they appear enticing, but upon closer inspection, they reveal their sinister nature. Just as sweet pickles offend the very soul of pickling, dandelions seemingly mock the entire panoply of flowers by being beautiful for a day and then undergoing a swan-like metamorphosis in reverse, becoming an insidious, sharp, ugly, expanding blight on the earth. Although perhaps I overstate the point.

In any case, I feel like I have done my due diligence in combating dandelions over the years, although sometimes they do get away from me. It didn't help when my granddaughter Tina told me she would come over and help, and all she did was make a crown out of the yellow ones and blow the white ones all over the yard, setting me back literally years. But look, I was put on this earth to raise kids, not grass, and I don't know how well I did with the former, but it's hard for me to really give a crap about the latter. And I am not about to cover my lawn with chemicals and pollute the whole neighborhood, letting poisons run off into the lake and whatnot, despite the chance that Margaret's schnauzer might come over and become collateral damage. I wouldn't really mind if that happened, but that's not how you should do things. One thing I learned from this book is that if you are going to kill someone, you should do it on principle and with efficiency.

So Darren and Margaret saunter over with their fake smiles and ask about my health and my grandkids, and I can see where this is going. They casually mention that they are treating their lawns and even offered to have "their guy" do mine while he is here. They'll even split the cost! Their theory is something about herd immunity, like measles shots and whatnot, the implication being that by not treating my own lawn, I am ruining theirs. Well, guess what, folks? I have "guys" who do stuff for me too, and you don't want to mess with these people. When I was younger I hung out with this dude called Louie the Elbow, who had two friends named Big Tuna and Mr. Smooches (that moniker was intended to be ironic). Not exactly horse head in the bed types, but at the very least, bullion cube in the shower head types. They would know exactly how to handle his situation, and if Margaret and Darren don't leave me alone, I will go find them in their nursing home, and we will take this shit into our own hands.