Simon Rich is a 30-ish comedy writer (maybe not quite yet, since his bar mitzvah was in 1997). Two weeks ago, I'd never heard of him. I grabbed some David Sedaris off the shelf at the library and perused the new fiction racks, and picked up Rich's novel What in God's Name. It has an organizational chart on the back cover, with God as CEO of Heaven Inc. I figured I'd already read a book this year about Hell as a telemarketing firm and, well, I was at the library. If the first few pages were awful, I'd just return it unread. Wouldn't be the first time.
The premise here is that God created this company (Heaven Inc.) to farm xenon from the earth's atmosphere. It had some side businesses, too, but one day God was bored so he decided to create humans as a diversion. He then went and dropped Heaven's unemployment rate by drawing up all these different human-related departments like prayer intake (God never actually reads the prayers) and the miracle department, where angels work in cubicles to make miracles happen.
One day, frustrated with people, God decides he's just going to extinguish the human race. Forget about his beloved NASCAR, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Yankees. Nobody was listening to his prophet Raoul (who ran around the streets of New York in his underwear with a cardboard sign dictated by God yelling at people), and he was just tired of the enterprise. So God sends his company a memo saying that in a month, all human-related departments are going to close and most people working those jobs will be laid off (but they'd still enjoy some company benefits like discounted gym memberships).
God is going to, instead, open an Asian fusion restaurant called Sola.
Craig, a miracle department employee, convinces God to save the humans if he can answer one prayer. God tells him sure, he just has to call his shot. That is, if the one you pick doesn't work out, you don't get another chance. So Craig and his cubicle neighbor, the newly promoted Eliza, get to work on picking a prayer to answer.
They find what you'd think would be an easy one. A prayer from someone named Sam that he and a girl named Laura get to be together. OK, that's not so easy at first. But take, also, that it's stapled to a related prayer: Laura wants her and Sam to be together. Also, it turns out they live six blocks apart in lower Manhattan.
Obviously the world winds up saved, but the journey's fun, so pick it up and follow along. But here's the thing.
Laura wants to be with Sam, and Sam wants to be with Laura. They have a couple of chances during that month and both just make it awkward. This is apparently a frequent complaint for angels – they keep giving humans every chance in the world to make the right choice, and they keep blowing it.
They don't know it, but Sam and Laura need to kiss to save the world. They want nothing more, anyway, and to do so would literally save the world from extermination.
That thing you've been putting off because it's a little difficult and might perhaps be uncomfortable to start? What if it would save the world if you'd just fucking do it?
How many times have you heard a song and said, "I wish I'd written that"? With me it doesn't happen very often; sure, the royalties on "Call Me Maybe" must be off the charts, but I rarely hear a song I think is clever and moving enough to wonder what was in the writer to create it.
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is one of those beautiful songs I want no part of after reading Alan Light's book about it, The Holy or the Broken.
Cohen's been so tortured by the song throughout his career that he had his agent send the author an email giving his blessing to the project, but the artist himself wasn't going to be part of it.
It took Cohen years to write and finally record the song – he put 80 verses together before finally getting it together in the studio in 1984, and when he finally did, his record company said the album he put it on was awful and refused to release it.
So it languished, again.
Cohen is one of the tortured writer set. Every detail has to be perfect. He's spoken in interviews, Light writes, about being drunk in his underwear on a hotel room floor with papers scattered around him. This is not romance; these are demons.
The version many people are familiar with originates with Jeff Buckley, but the song's history takes a stop-off at John Cale, formerly of The Velvet Underground, first.
Listen to Cohen's version (above, top). It's road-weary. It's weathered. It's sarcastic. On the whole, it's more pessimistic than optimistic.
Cale's version (above, lower left) has the same weathered, pessimistic feel. He is a few years younger than Cohen, but still someone who has been around and lived some life. He first did the song for a Cohen tribute record. When he asked Cohen to send over a lyric sheet, he came home to 15 faxed pages on the floor, with all 80 verses. He picked five for the tribute album, and it was that version that Jeff Buckley (above, lower right) first heard.
You can see how his simple accompaniment derives from Cale's, along with his selection of verses. But Buckley is young – eternally; he died while taking a swim on the way to a recording session – and his version is optimistic and romantic. And there's another thing: Buckley was a perfectionist. If you're familiar with the studio recording he did for "Grace," you know it starts with a breathy sigh. You could certainly interpret that as intimacy, given how sexy his version is. But, Light writes, it was a sigh of exhaustion. They'd done so many takes that night, he was beat.
The song, though, probably would have kept languishing if it weren't for two things that both happened in 2001: The September 11 attacks in the U.S. and the animated film 'Shrek.'
John Cale's version made it into 'Shrek' (Rufus Wainwright is on the soundtrack because Dreamworks had the film and Wainwright), and Jeff Buckley's started appearing over photo montages on the music networks.
And all of a sudden, it was everywhere. It became the default overlay for tragedy montages on TV dramas and sitcoms and in films. And everybody decided they had to cover it, and they had to do their best Jeff Buckley. Here are Wainwright, Allison Crowe and John Bon Jovi:
And somewhere along the line this happened, and Bono – who loved the sardonic humor in Cohen's version when he first heard it – nearly destroyed the song forever, on a 1995 Cohen tribute album.
Oh, my, Bono, what have you done?
It's also now appeared on many seasons of "American Idol" and "X Factor," because, well, it takes some concentration and some range to do the Jeff Buckley version, which is really what's done these days.
My take on the song: I love Buckley's guitar intro; it has such an incredible resolve after a minor buildup. But Cohen's closing verse isn't done nearly enough. It goes like this:
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel so I learned to touch
I've told the truth; I didn't come to fool ya
But even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
My take on the book: This is great if you're a real music nerd. Really, it's not for the weak, the casual fan or the "Pop-Up Video" crowd.
One more version – one of my favorite covers, even if it's not iconic, to go out with.
Here are thoughts on what I've read during the month of January.
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species. Darwin's seminal work is primarily based on a combination of observation and speculation. Say what you want about creation vs. evolution and the scientific method, but Darwin went in, studied, and wrote about what he saw. I think there are a fair number of things we can take away and apply to ourselves today. Go read that post; it's too long to include in a brief summary like this.
Chuck Palahniuk, Damned. Long-time friends and readers will know I'm a big fan of Chuck Palahniuk's books. I've read most of them; I'll probably wind up skipping his portrait of Portland, Oregon, and the "remix" version of his novel Invisible Monsters, which essentially is an alternate ordering of the chapters (I have, however, been waiting for the film version forver – the prose comes together more neatly than did Fight Club, and while the message isn't quite as universal, it's at least as bold).
Our heroin in Damned is a recently-deceased 13-year-old girl who wakes up in hell, where she gets a telemarketing job and recruits new people to hell because, other than the bad smells and general grossness, it's not all that bad. The people are fun and you can do pretty much anything you want. Her parents are a business mogul and a movie star who do lots of fake do-gooder stuff (like show up to awards shows in SmartCars and adopt orphans from third-world countries right before film releases and then tuck them away forever at boarding schools). We get the story of her life, and we get to watch how she turns hell into someplace beautiful.
At its heart, this novel is a humanitarian and religious farce. Palahniuk's continuing in the right direction after bouncing back with Tell-All; I thought Pygmy tried too hard and had a lackluster ending, and I thought Snuff was a complete throwaway. Palahniuk's next novel is reported to be Doomed, a sequel to Damned.
Nick Hornby, High Fidelity. True story: In 1995, my college roommate, Joe, and I could only play one song together on guitar: Peter Frampton's "Baby I Love Your Way." Our outlet during finals week was to play it over and over; so much so that through the open window, we heard our neighbors scream, "No more 'Baby I Love Your Way'!" That's important to the story, because it's that song that reels our protagonist, Rob, a middle-aged record shop owner with a tough relationship history, back into love of music and love of love.
Also, it gave me the opportunity to recount a nearly 20-year-old story of younger-Josh silliness.
The thing I remember most from the film version of "High Fidelity" is Jack Black dancing in the aisles to "Walkin' on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves. That scene happens in the book – Monday morning, that song, everything. And for as fun as I thought the movie was, the novel is so much better. We go through Rob's self-loathing and self-discovery, we go through his break-ups and many more pints of beer than the film lets on.
Plato, Republic. Yeah, I know, between the Darwin and the Plato I didn't exactly do a month of light reading to open up 2013. I did get a major takeaway from Republic, but it's not what you think. Sure, there's the Allegory of the Cave, and Plato really lays out the design of how we think. But it's the way we get there that interests me. It's by way of conversation – Socrates speaking with Glaucon. We don't need to bury ourselves to have an epiphany. Sometimes, it's working it out in a group, or with someone else, that you really get the most important work done.
It reminds me that other than Wednesdays, when I play racquetball, work with a personal trainer and play in a tennis league, the only people I talk to are JB and the checkout people at the grocery store. I need to spend more time with people, expand my viewpoint.
Let's begin by noting that this is not a post about evolution vs. creation. It is by no means an assumption that either argument is right or wrong, and, truth be told, I don't find them to be mutually exclusive. I've recently read Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, and I've found a few things I think are worth taking away and applying to our modern world.
1. Generalization vs. Specialization. This is something that Buckminster Fuller writes about in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Fuller's take is that generalists are important leaders, and they'd best know where to find specialists. That is, if you know a lot about X, you're a great Xer. But I don't want you running the business I own, because we also need people who are great at U, V, W, Y and Z, and you don't know anything about those. What I want is someone who knows enough about U, V, W, X, Y and Z to recognize someone who is great at each – a generalist.
Darwin refers more to the survival of species. If you're a specialist as a species, that's fine, but you'd better really know what you're doing. If you're all about pollinating one plant and eating one species that would otherwise wipe out that plant, you'd better understand population control. If you eat all of your prey, you're simply going to starve to death. If you're a generalist, you have many more options, but you're a lot more spread out as a species – that's bad for safety. So pick your poison.
2. Use begets strength. We sometimes forget this, from a fitness perspective. We spend a lot of time sitting in our culture and tend to think, "Eh, I don't want to lift anything heavier than I need to, it'll just make me tired and lead to injury." But you're more likely to injure a muscle or joint you don't use regularly. Darwin was able to use this knowledge to determine why some creatures had strong hind legs or longer beaks.
3. Domestication vs. the wild. Your dog (yes, the one cuddling with you on your love seat) was descended from a wolf. We have DNA evidence of that. If you need further proof of it, introduce your dog to some strange dogs of different breeds – they will know how to play together and how to hunt together. But your dog, having a life of general safety, will take chances a wolf would never take, like playing in traffic. Domesticating animals takes many – but not all – of their instincts away. They lose some things in an effort to make them better pets. See also, No. 2.
4. Breeding. This is natural to follow from No. 3. In creating dog breeds, we keep certain traits in and leave others out. We can give them floppier ears, or make them run faster, or give them flatter noses, or make them mean (see this documentary; it's fascinating). Darwin recognized this early on. If you want your pigeons bigger, breed the two biggest pigeons you can find, then mate those pigeons with other big pigeons.
Now take a look at humans, and imagine what, with the culture we maintain, we're breeding into and out of ourselves. We're likely breeding in better resistance to toxins (great for those who enjoy eating Twinkies and drinking Gatorade, at least until they take out the BVO, not so great for the future effectiveness of chemotherapy and radiation treatments). We're breeding in larger gluteal muscles (we sit a lot, and we want some padding back there). We're breeding in greater wrist strength (future generations will likely suffer less carpal tunnel). We're breeding out the ability to function without a screen nearby. [OK, not really, but damn, people, get off Twitter and talk to one another occasionally, he wrote as he constructed in his head the Tweets that would refer to this blog post.]
5. Species as an arbitrary designation. We, as humans, must categorize things. If we see a fir tree, it's a tree, but if we see a computer speaker, it's not a tree. Birch? Tree. Scotch tape? Not a tree. We do categories (trees, phones, paper), and then we have to break the categories down (pine, smartphone, construction paper). We do this for two primary reasons: (a) We need to be able to wrap our heads around our world, and categorizing is a great way to do that; and (b) we need a way to communicate &ndashl if I call something a "notebook" and you call it a "coffee cup," we're never going to be able to agree to which object the other is referring. But, Darwin points out, what we call things is fairly arbitrary.
6. Observation. We tend to be very wary these days of anything we can't measure. And it's hurting the progress of our knowledge. Darwin noticed things, because he looked at them. Story: I broke my nose playing baseball as a kid. The ER doctor came in and said, "Your X-rays are negative," and sent me home. Two days later, we went to another doctor, who walked in looking at another set of X-rays. "Your X-rays are negative," he said, and then looked up. "But I can tell by looking at you it's broken." Sure, your Klout score may be an 88, but that doesn't mean you're not an asshole. I have to look at what you're doing on social media to make that determination for myself.
Lesson: Stop relying on measurements; they don't tell you the whole story.
7. Community. For Darwin, this was an ecosystem, a group of animals and plants that needed each other to survive. For us, it's a reminder that we do need communities, interconnected systems that help us to live, and, more importantly, to thrive.
8. Nature and nurture. I mentioned in the introductory paragraph that I don't think evolution and creation are mutually exclusive; it's not a case of nature versus nurture. Both can occur, and my interpretation of his work is that Darwin believed that some aspects of species were a product of genetics, while others came from their surroundings. A dog will, innately, try to get into the trash (it smells food), but you can train it not to. The former is nature, the latter is nurture.
9. Isolation can be beneficial. If a species is getting wiped out in the wild, sequestering a few of its number in zoos or on wildlife reserves greatly increases its chance at survival. We deal with a lot of overwhelm – too much noise, too many screens, too much stuff – sometimes isolating ourselves is best for our individual survival.
10. Adopt new habits. Remember our specialists from No. 1? Sometimes they need to adopt new habits if they're going to survive. So, too, must we adopt new habits to thrive as the world changes around us. How many of us who learned BASIC in the 1980s, writing 150 lines of code to get a ball to move across a screen, thought we'd be able to give a telephone a couple of voice commands and send a video of our kids around the world in a few seconds? The world has a tendency to make vast changes around us, and if we want to grow with the world, we need to change our habits.
11. It's OK to be wrong. Darwin admitted that not only did he not know if a lot of the stuff he wrote about in Origin of Species was correct, he didn't even know if some of it was testable. We don't do nearly enough speculating these days, mostly because we're afraid to be wrong. Being wrong just takes a possibility of the table, but at least you're looking for something new.
What did I miss while reading Darwin? Anything you want to share?
I was a fan of the Hardy Boys mysteries growing up. This evolved into a love for "Unsolved Mysteries" and later "The X-Files." It makes sense, then, that secret societies and their beliefs would appeal to me.
Booth's history stems from hobbyism. He's interested in esoteric thought, and he's sought it throughout his adult life, and he's declined initiation into secret societies because he wanted to write about what he's found. He didn't want to take an oath that disallowed that.
Say what you want about conspiracies, some of the great minds in history – Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, and many more – were parts of groups like the Freemasons, Knights Templar and Rosicrucians, among others.
Roughly every 2150 years, the sun moves into a new zodiacal constellation, and Aquarius is next. I think it's easy to understand this as true. The only real premise you have to accept is that based on Earth's orbital path and rotation, we get different views of the sky. If you need observational proof of that, go to a location with a view of identifiable buildings or landscape (trees, etc.). Take a photo of the sunset, just as the bottom of the sun hits the horizon (or disappears behind the buildings or landscape). Go back in three months and duplicate the photo, then in six months and then in nine months. You'll see the sun is in a different spot in relation to the markings. [Or you had to take the photo from a different point to get the sun in the same relation.]
Some scholars have narrowed the time frame of this astrological transition to sometime between 1980 and 2016. So why not the upcoming solstice? It's as good a date as any.
What does that mean for us and the next few generations? Who the heck knows? Life may not feel any different. But if it does, don't be awfully surprised.
Anyway, that's not the crux of this nearly 600-page book. It's really a look into spirituality (including a large section on Christian spirituality), Sun God myths (Jesus was only the latest in a long line of figures who was born of a virgin Dec. 25, visited by magicians upon birth, called things like "lamb," had 12 disciples, was sold into slavery or imprisonment by one of those disciples, and resurrected after three days), prophets, art, magic and influence.
Booth writes of the beginning of thought, the beginning of language, the beginning of love, and the beginning of romance, as understood in secret histories.
It's not light reading. It took me about four months to absorb it, and I certainly read other books and essays, sometimes putting Booth's tome away for four or five days at a time to let the information sink in.
The book is a wonderful look at a perspective that, in all likelihood, is different from the one of you've been wandering around with, and it's written by a man with a genuine curiosity for both the subject matter and for writing. While the subject matter isn't easily absorbed, the writing style is; you won't need a translator for it.
Happiness research is one of the things that pop psychology has done a lot of the past generation or so. They measure happiness through things like physiology – fatigue, stress levels, that sort of thing – and asking questions. The other thing many of these studies ask is "What would make you more happy?" Frequently the answer is something like more money or more stuff or less debt or more education or something like that.
But what people really want is more time. When follow-up studies are done after people have more money or less debt or more stuff or whatever, they're not showing increased levels of happiness. But when you give people time to pursue their hobbies and spend time with their families and friends, they're much happier.
I spent a lot of my 20s and the first few years of my 30s taking on a lot. Work, school, volunteer work, networking events – I would be out four, five, six nights a week until midnight or after, only to get up at 5am and do it all over again.
I was frequently exhausted.
And I get that way now sometimes, still, but I've done some things to make changes. I go to bed early. I set aside time for hobbies like reading, writing and recreational sports leagues.
Toward the end of getting rid of some of the sense of being overwhelmed that still creeps in, I read a lot of manifesto-type stuff. Things like TheMinimalists.com, Jeff Goins's The Writer's Manifesto, and if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I'm a huge fan of Steven Pressfield's The War of Art and Julien Smith's The Flinch.
One of my favorites of these is one I read recently called How to be Legendary by Johnny B Truant. Here's a guy who knows what it's like to start a novel and then leave it in the closet for 12 years before picking it back up. Who wants to improve his physique and pays a personal trainer a bunch of money to tell him stuff he already knows. Who really just needed to say fuck it and do what he needed to do to spend time with his family and enjoy his life.
One of the take-away quotes for me is this (emphasis mine):
Nobody has any right to tell you that you're going in the wrong direction or that you're not doing as much as you could do. It doesn't matter what you do or how much you do. What matters is that you do the best you can do relative to what you're able to do. This is not a game of money or material rewards or traditional definitions of success. It's a game of you vs. you, and only you have any business steering your own ship.
In other words, you decide what you're going to do and how much you're going to do, and fuck everybody else. You're the only one who can get in your own way, so stand back and let yourself rise.
I'm going to recommend this book for anyone feeling stuck, floundering, or looking to make some change. Also, it's free, so you may as well get the book and take a couple of hours of your time to make a difference in your own life.
Sometimes you have to hit both walls before you find the middle.
Joshua Fields Millburn's novella "Days After the Crash" is a look at life, post-passion and post-tragedy.
Our protagonist, Jody, had some success in music and some success in love and now, divorced and trying to remember what being passionate about music feels like, he gets a call from his estranged, recovering alcoholic mother, who is back on the bottle and, it turns out, sick.
We often talk about needing to hit bottom to start working your way back to the top. I'm a big fan of Millburn's horizontal metaphor instead: find the middle. There you have balance, and wider perspective. And it's scary in the middle – you can move far in any direction and things can come at you from any direction, but if you hang out at the edge, all you can really do is observe.
Millburn is one of the authors of The Minimalists, a blog by a couple of guys who quit high-paying corporate jobs to throw out their crap and really work on the important stuff.
I'm sitting here at my desk looking around, and I see I've cleared off the space in the middle, where the action is happening.
What's all this other crap on my desk? I feel a project coming on.
I recently read Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking (official site). What a revealing read it was for me.
Some of you know me in person. If you do, you probably know me as someone who sits back in crowds and waits for someone to come to me to chat, who enjoys performing behind a guitar and microphone but not mingling with the crowd after, who can draft a great email but pretty much never calls, and in general would prefer to just get interaction over with.
I learned so much about myself from reading this book. It explains why I can write, gather and analyze data, read and learn new technologies for 12 or more hours at a go, but a three-hour shift taking sporadic phone calls and talking to strangers without knowing what the conversation could bring is exhausting to me.
It turns out that introverts prefer to plan, prepare and rehearse; and can be extroverted about causes they're really passionate about, but many of them don't do small talk well and can get overwhelmed in crowds.
I can relate to every little bit of that.
If you are (or suspect you might be) an introvert, or if you have an introvert in your life, I highly recommend reading this book.
This is, in no small part, because I am also a songwriter (and I've dabbled in performance poetry).
When I sit down to write or edit, I either have Mozart in my ears (I have a CD with his 40th and 41st symphonies on it that has irretrievably increased my productivity with frequency), or I have Tom Waits graveling in the headphones, hoping that maybe something will rub off on me. This small bit from "The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House)" is what puts me over the edge.
...a solitary sailor who spends the facts of his life like small change on strangers paws his inside P-coat pocket for a welcomed 25 cents and the last bent butt from a packet of Kents as he dreams of a waitress with Maxwell House eyes and marmalade thighs and scrambled yellow hair.
. Yeah, that.
I'm also a big fan of the late Bill Morrissey, an unassuming, small-framed New Englander who died in his 50s right about this time last year. In addition to recommending to me one of my favorite guitar pickers, Mississippi John Hurt, he wrote a book called Edson, which is one of my favorites because it feels right – like four feet of soft powder on a grey Sunday with a fire in the fireplace and the power out and no chance of getting to the grocery store so you're stuck with the last of the week's wine and Oreos.
Local Twitterer Jason Mintz recommended I read Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I've only read him in translation (he writes in Spanish), but if ever ink spoke like satin sheets, Zafon has found the recipe.
You'll also see in my current reading list I'm back to Hunter S. Thompson. Most of you know I'm a recovering reporter, and Thompson taught me one really important thing that a lot of reporters still won't admit: if I'm part of a story and I still think it's a story, it is a story. "I" and "we" are even more powerful than "he" and "they" because I can describe how someone else thought something went, or I can describe how I saw it. Guess which description is going to come out more interesting reading? The second, of course.
As part of the important stuff, I'm doing more reading. I'm going to keep a lot of books going for a little while, I think. All four books listed here are books I'm currently reading; not what I've recently read.
Days After the Crash by Joshua Fields Millburn. Millburn says that in the Internet age, while genre fiction certainly enjoys a large readership, literary fiction is in decline. I know I'm reading less of it (though I still do have my favorites). He's written this novella to challenge himself, and he's made it challenging for readers (as in, you actually have to focus and pay attention if you want to understand what's going on). The introduction was worth the time; I'm just getting to the meat.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I'm hoping this book gives me a little insight into myself – and not in a Steven Covey sort of way. I'm just through the first chapter, and it's fascinating. In the late 19th century, we were a country that prized character; in the 20th century we became a country that prized charisma. The "extrovert ideal," as Cain labels it (I'm sure she didn't invent the term), says that if we're quiet and reserved and like to think and hang out by ourselves, there's probably something wrong with us. That probably explains the high percentage of people who are on anti-anxiety meds in the U.S.
The Secret History of the World by Mark Booth. It turns out that there are a lot of books with similar titles. Booth has always been fascinated by secret societies (Freemasons, Knights Templar, Rosicrucians, etc.), and he's written a book about some of their beliefs and where we see them in everyday life. Also, he's an editor at a major British publishing house, so he's not some crackpot on the street corner with a pen and a conspiracy theory.