Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

There is no fucking way I am going to buy gas from a gas station that makes you pay for air. Will not happen. Now I will admit that there is some debate in my family as to whether or not I should be driving at all "at my age," but my mind is sharp as an executioner's blade, and if Ms. Atwood can write a book this good at her age, surely I can handle going to HyVee for some Lean Cuisines and Metamucil.

But back to my point. It does not cost a gas station anything to provide air for you to fill your tires. But one after another, they are installing these indecipherable new air machines that cost 3 dollars and flash a bunch of lights at you while you check your tire pressure. And do you know why? Because people like you let them! You just shrug your shoulders, swipe your Kwik Trip reward card (Hey, free 264 oz. soda!), and surrender. You know where this leads, right? To a corporofascist state that will make Gilead look like Disneyland!

We have been here before, people. I can remember a time 30 years ago when I stopped by my son's house to criticize his lawn care and he offered me bottled water. "How can you buy this stuff?!?!," I exclaimed. "If you do that, people will think it is normal!" He assured me that he had gotten it at a conference and that no one would ever think it would be normal to buy the same water you can get for free, and now look at us! A bunch of brainless sheeple buying bottled water every day like our house was on fire. The only legitimate reason to buy bottled water is to smuggle gin into a baseball game. If you put a little hot clue on the cap, you can make it look unopened. But I digress.

The point is, if you think they will stop at air for tires, you are beyond naive. If you legitimize buying air, you will soon be buying the air you breathe. Giant air conglomerates will control the world's oxygen supply, and they will use it to oppress us all just like on Mars in Total Recall. I knew that movie would come true in the end! And so, even though the cruel irony of burning through gas driving across town to buy gas makes me want to stick a fork in my eye, I will keep doing it. For you. For Offred. For the children.

Friday, September 13, 2019

A Different Time by Michael K. Hill

This is a charming love story with the unique twist that the lovers are connected across decades by the quirk of a magical Camcorder. Which rang true to me, because when we got our first Camcorder, it sure as hell felt like magic. And at my age, I am particularly susceptible to a story that messes with the continuum of time, and it got me thinking about all the things I might do if I could go back and have a second go at it.

Now I recognize that it is convention to say that if you could travel in time that you would first go back and kill Hitler. And I do appreciate that, so yes, first I would kill Hitler. Hooray for me! But then, I have quite a list of important things to get done while in possession of time traveling powers. Top of the agenda is to prevent the invention of many things that have done irreparable damage to modern society. These things include Roombas, clothing for dogs, Tickle Me Elmo, buttonfly jeans, the Macarena, pumpkin spice anything, skateboards, sweet pickles, and guns.

It would be tempting to stop there, having virtually saved modern culture. But I am just too altruistic for my own good. So I would go back and eliminate all acts of major injustice in the world. Like that time in 2005 when Pedro Mendes took a shot from midfield in the last minute of the game and Roy Carroll fumbled it over the line, but a goal was not given because referees always cheat for Manchester United and they always will. I would rectify that bullshit. Also, while I'm at it, racism, sexism, homophobia, and global warming. You're welcome.

But, as a romantic at heart, and inspired by this book, I couldn't stop without finding a way to bring together the lovers whom fate or history deprived of their possibilities - those real life Romeos and Juliets who deserve a second chance. I'm thinking about people like Cleopatra and Marc Antony, Heloise and Abelard, John Keats and Fanny Brawne, Lancelot and Guinevere, Harry and Hermione, my son-in-law Gerry and literally any other human being in the world other than my daughter, Donald Trump and a Kraken, and Bette Davis and yours, truly. You get one guess as to whether or not I will be returning to the present.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

You know what really pisses me off? CLAMS!! For the life of me, I can not figure out what people see in these terrible creatures. Tell me, what is the point of a clam? No, really, I want to know. These ubiquitous little fuckers are ugly, useless, and prone to bring on an existential crisis. I mean it - go open up a clam, take one look and tell me that you still believe in intelligent design. Jesus.

Now that I have that off my chest, I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Egan for this book, because he has provided me with a whole list of additional aquatic animals to be angry at. Sea lampreys, quagga mussels, Asian carp, just to name a few. These are some real nefarious little bastards wreaking havoc on our lakes. I happen to live in a Great Lake state, and I am old enough to remember catching lake trout and not ending up with botulism from out of control algae blooms. It was a beautiful time. Never to be seen again, from what I gather.

I kept waiting for the part of the book that would lay bare the evil of clams, but it never came! And that's what really gets me about these sea-weasels - they have everyone fooled. I mean, everyone knows that zebra mussels are demon spawn, but people think clams are so nice! And tasty! And happy! Bullshit! Happy as a clam? What the hell does a clam have to be happy about? It is immobile, repulsive, and eats algae all day. Kind of reminds me of my mother-in-law, especially in her later years (may she rest in peace).

A little while ago, my son and his girlfriend (yes, miraculously, they are still together) invited me to a "clambake." I do not make a habit of accepting invitations from family (or anyone else for that matter), but I was excited about this because I mistakenly thought it was some kind of ritual in which we would get to kill a shit ton of clams. To my chagrin, they were already dead when we got there, and we were supposed to eat them! Can you believe this shit? But there was gin, so it worked out. In summary, great book!

Monday, August 26, 2019

Canada by Mike Myers

Well, I went to Canada and I didn't die. So I would consider this vacation a success. I don't even know exactly where in Canada I was, but the locals appear to subsist entirely on lobsters and potatoes, so I'm sure some geo-nerd out there can figure it out. And there are lots of cliffs that an old man can "accidentally" fall off of, but I kept my distance from my son-in-law Gerry while we were sightseeing, so no worries. I picked up this book to learn about this country before I visited, but it turns out that it was not a reference book or a travel guide, and this Mike Myers isn't even a historian. He did apparently write some pretty funny shit for a TV show once, so it wasn't that bad.

I'm sure the narrative from my family will be that I ruined this vacation for everyone, but it really was an honest mistake, and they forced my hand in the first place. We were staying in this big cabin not too far from the beach, and a short walk away (even for me) was this little bench behind some bushes with a great view of the ocean. It was a great reading spot, and I sure as hell didn't want the rest of my family to ruin it for me, so I didn't tell anyone about it. Which, as I later explained, was perfectly within my rights.

Now here's something that really pisses me off about Gerry. Whenever we go on vacation, he will pick up pamphlets from the visitor center and then - I shit you not - expound upon what he just read to the rest of us as if he were an expert on local history. I mean, come on. My son Lawrence is an actual historian, and he can't even button his damn shirts correctly, but he doesn't do shit like that. So when Gerry was on a particularly boring diatribe about the origins of confederation, I slipped out the side door and shuffled down to my bench.

At some point while I was reading, I must have fallen asleep (the book was about Canada, after all), but I think I was vaguely aware of some sort of commotion on the beach. When the police started arriving (in cars, not on horses, and without any funny hats to speak of, disappointingly), I stood up and encountered one of Canada's finest. The conversation went approximately like this:

"So, you're missing, eh?"
"I don't think so," (looking at myself to ascertain that I still exist), "Yup. Still here."
"You might want to tell your family that."
"Oh...Well, since you took the trouble to come out here, I wouldn't want to steal your thunder."
"I see. I'll take care of it then."

And that was the last I heard from him. And that was the nicest thing anyone said to me for the rest of the trip!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Today's youth are being corrupted by a host of perverse, corrosive influences - things like strawberry milk, house music, carnival rides that go upside down, and sweet pickles, just to name a few. And I have always counted video games among those destructive forces. I mean, have you even had a conversation with a teenager lately? If you somehow manage to get them to put their phones down for a minute, it's all they talk about!

When I was a kid, we played a game called Tougher, or "Tuffs." Essentially, you took turns punching each other in the chest until one person quit. If you didn't quit, then you were Tuffs. It was a great way to pass the time, built character, and multi-player games required no extra equipment. Nowadays, everyone wants to blow up aliens or monsters or whatever it is, but it's all fake! Instead of getting character, teenagers are getting tendinitis. What a world.

The other day, I was sitting in my front lawn guarding it against my neighbor's schnauzer, who had that look she gets when she's ready to do her business, when I heard the sound of my grandson's skateboard (don't get me started) coming my way. I do appreciate it when he chooses this route home, but I was dismayed to look up and see him 1) on a skateboard, 2) in the street, 3) without a helmet, and 4) LOOKING AT HIS PHONE THE WHOLE TIME! After telling him that the fact that he was still alive was a minor miracle, I demanded that he show me this Fortnite or whatever it was he was playing, but he said that I wasn't ready for Fortnite and offered to show me a different game instead.

Now I don't know what Fortnite is like, but the game he showed me was mind-blowing. It is a kind of wartime simulation, and your job is to defuse a series of bombs before they blow up, killing everyone! I can't even describe the tension as you start looking for bombs. I was sweating terrible old man sweat after only two minutes! There is this grid, and numbers that give you clues about how many bombs are around you, and each time you click on one, you might die! It is called Minesweeper, and I have never done something so intense! The numbers don't really make that much sense, and a bomb could go off any minute! By the time I finished, I was so in need of a gimlet that I made Jackson pour it for me while I tried to slow my breathing down. It took me 624 seconds, but I saved the world! Apparently, there are intermediate and advanced levels as well, but maybe for another day.

There is a truism about war that nothing you can read can really make you understand what it feels like to be there. So we rely on books like this, written with craft, insight, and power to shed a little light on the experience. After reading this book, I felt like I understood the Iraq War in a new way. But thanks to Minesweeper, it's like I was actually there!

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

So yesterday my neighbor, Margaret, accused me of throwing walnuts at her house. Can you believe this shit? I have been accused of many things in my lifetime, including vagary, vulgarity, vacuity, slipping a piece of fake ham onto the buffet at a Golden Corral, lying, cheating, stealing, excessive anger, insufficient anger, an appropriate level of anger directed at the wrong person, hurting my grandson's feelings through excessive pranking, acting my age, not acting my age, smuggling a penguin home from the Shedd Aquarium (that is an urban myth!), farting on purpose, failing to return a library book on time, breaking into the Watergate Hotel, malfeasance, disobedience, moral deviance, sloth, taunting a sloth, and jaywalking. First, I would note that I have a plausible excuse for almost half of those claims! I might also add that none of them are nearly as bad as the things that virtually every character in this book does, so stop looking at me like that.

I demanded to Margaret that she present her evidence that I had thrown the offending walnuts, and she told me that she had seen me do it. So, one point for her. However, one must consider the context! The walnuts are coming from HER tree, dropping onto MY lawn, and my assumption is that this was part of a years-long plan she concocted just to fuck with me. I told her as much, and her defense was that a) she didn't plant the tree (possible, but she looks about 130 years old, and the tree does not, so debatable), b) she can't control nature (didn't see her trying, mind you), and c) my response was still unreasonable and not neighborly. I'll let you be the judge of that.

After all, what does being a good neighbor really mean? Some people, in this book for instance, might try to be a good neighbor by taking in the semi-abandoned child of a pair of derelict drug addicts. Other people, like me, might try to be a good neighbor by teaching someone a lesson about personal responsibility using walnuts. Who can say which is the more noble action? These are the kinds of things philosophers have debated for eternity, and answers are elusive. Not convinced? Fine - then I want you to go google "Trump," read the first article that comes up, and see if you are still mad at me for throwing walnuts.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Golden Monkey by Lance Pototschnik

So now I have a wart. It is truly anyone's guess as to how long it has been there. My granddaughter discovered it while I was trying to bribe her to rub my bunions. Not my most glorious moment. You must realize that I am not even close to flexible enough to get my eyes down near my toes, so the chances of me noticing it on my own were pretty slim. In fact, I can't even say positively that it is a wart. The only diagnostic assessment was my granddaughter yelling, "Oh my God, it's a wart!" She seemed pretty sure though.

Still a lot of unknowns in this story, though. For example, how the hell did it get there? My understanding is that warts are contagious. At least, when Tina was crying and frantically washing her hands, that's what she told me. If that is the case, who would have possibly given it to me? I don't go anywhere. I try to limit my interactions with family, for obvious reasons. I wouldn't ever get close enough to any of my neighbors to allow them to touch me. I seem impervious to something like this. So much so that my assumption is that someone did this to me on purpose. I haven't quite gotten to how or why yet, but I will Miss Marple this shit until I get my revenge.

The next question is, at my age, do I even do anything about it? At my last physical, my doctor said that I would probably live longer if I gave up alcohol, and he had to take two days off to recover from my response. Longer is not always the goal, friends. It is quality of life that matters. And gin for breakfast is high quality. So back off, Dr. Buzzkill, and everyone else too. Tina was in no small hurry to share this story, and the general opinion of the family is to get rid of it. Which may be reason enough to keep it. I certainly didn't expect any sympathy from them, and I was right on that account.

But do you know who I think would be more sympathetic? Lance Pototschnik. This guy seems like a much nicer person than my family. And he has been through the wars as well. Among other things, he has survived a terrible skin disease, Uncontrollable Farting Syndrome, and Aimless Wandering Writer Disorder. And he still seems to have a very positive outlook on life and is able to find humor in painful things and write entertaining stories. He also has a gift for similes. Here's my favorite: "He sounds kind of like Chewbacca if he were really happy to be getting burned alive." I was so intrigued by that description that I found myself trying to recreate that sound. It wasn't easy, but I think I nailed it. The fact that I was practicing in the shower when my son dropped by unannounced for a visit led to an awkward exchange, but at least he didn't notice my wart!