Here are a couple of take-aways we can apply to everyday life.
Touch. Watching the dog sniff around, I know that he understands his world by smell. If he doesn't recognize a smell, he'll taste or touch, and if he can't figure out the origin of the smell, he'll look around for it. I've thought, though, that in the way that he understands his world by smell, we understand by sight. I was wrong. We understand by touch. A tiger doesn't appear dangerous if you don't know what torn flesh feels like, but once you know what that the touch brought by a tiger is dangerous, you only have to perceive a tiger is present to get the hell out of Dodge. You're unlikely to stick around until it bites you to find out if it's a hologram or even just an audio recording.
Similarly, we only understand a coffee table's utility because we touch it and place something upon it; if we merely see it, it's useless to us – it could just as easily be a reflection in a mirror if we don't touch it.
Your starting point is arbitrary. You can start from wherever you want, or more accurately, you can call your starting point whatever you want to call it. We generally start counting at 1, but we could start at 496 with the same consequence. If you're walking 15 yards, you can start at 0 and get arrive at 15 yards, or you can start at 7,236 yards and arrive at 7,251 yards and have traversed the same distance.
Apply this to your life; let's say you're broke and want to make $1,000,000. You can call your zero point $1,000,000 and have the goal of reaching $2,000,000, as long as you understand your scale in relation to the scale everyone else uses. That sounds like a useful self-confidence boost.
Sun Tzu's The Art of War has long been a manual for field battle, and, for not quite as long, a manual for management in the business world and even sales. But reading it recently, this is what stood out to me:
7. There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.
8. There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.
9. There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted
We have, of course, found notes beyond the pentatonic (though not many), and now understand white and black not as primary colors but as, respectively, the combination of all colors and the absence of all color.
But take this point to heart. All of the wonderful variety in life can be drilled down to a few basic attributes. When these simple attributes are combined in various ratios, we get all the beauty in the world. Start with small pieces, and let it grow.
I'm an occasional admirer of Irvine Welsh's work. Not occasional as in, "some of his stuff's OK;" more like occasional as in, "OK, it's been a while. I think it's time to read another Irvine Welsh novel."
Our protagonist, Ray Lennox, is a cop on vacation in Miami Beach after finally helping bring down a serial pedophile/murderer. He's in recovery — again — from a cocaine habit and needs some time away to plan his wedding with his bride-to-be, Trudi.
But Lennox gets off his anti-anxiety medication and falls off the wagon for just one night — and finds himself single-handedly trying to bring down a child sex ring on this side of the pond.
Crime is paced a whole lot slower than Trainspotting or Skagboys – it moves at a speed that allows Welsh to develop his characters, and create dialogue that's a lot less frantic than his most famous works.
Author Matthew Parker is old for his age, but getting younger. He grew up with a mother who taught him how to sell drugs and didn't go straight until she made some counterfeit bills and discovered they were awful. His sister managed to build a good life, but one of his brothers was murdered and the other committed suicide.
Parker himself was in and out of prisons from 1987 until 2002, when he finally got clean. And then he got his MFA in creative writing from Columbia.
Larceny In My Blood follows Parker through life, through finding his way through the culture of prison, and trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and finally succeeding in kicking drugs. Parker elucidates the problems felons have finding work, enrolling in schools and earning trust.
Parker has been off drugs and out of prison since 2002, and has had quite a journey, and is off to a flying start to his writing career. Larceny is a tough book – it's about prison and drugs and sex and real life (and Parker drew his penis a lot for the book) – and while the timeline bounces around a little bit, it was a great read. It's one of those pieces of art that will always stick with me, like Benjamin Bratt's portrayal of Miguel Piñero or the first time I really took the time to look at Picasso's Guernica.
If you've not been to the city of Savannah, Georgia, I can't recommend it enough. It's antebellum south – that is, it was built before the Civil War, and it's progressing in the small business and craft movement. The original city was built on a grid around a series of squares – in-neighborhood parks – that range in size from a couple of live oak trees with a half dozen benches to Forsyth at the south, with a fountain and a theater space and a cafe and plenty of space to run, play some pickup soccer or what have you.
It has a river running through it (the convention center is on the opposite bank from much of the old city, and a ferry will swing you across so you don't need to drive the bridge back and forth), and most of its eastern suburbs are islands.
Literary novelist John Jakes writes a lot of historical fiction, and his Savannah is such a book. It takes place around Christmas, 1864, as Sherman is marching from Atlanta, torching cities along the way, headed for Charleston via Savannah (Charleston, S.C., is about an hour and a half up the freeway – they would have approached by water). Its protagonists are a 12-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy; he heads to the front lines, she is a rebellious sort – the kind of rebel who kicks a Yankee in the shin and runs off yelling, "I don't care if I just kicked Sherman himself!" When, in fact, she did.
The book includes some personal exploration as regards slavery, lots of Yankee-Rebel relationships and, of course, there's war, thievery and Christmas.
My favorite historical bit, though, was something about Christmas. By the 1860s, Christmas was starting to become more popular, but the most conservative people still considered a slave holiday, instead exchanging gifts on New Year's Day. Stores were non-committal, selling "holiday" gifts instead. Sound familiar?
It's a very fast, easy read, and my local library appears to have plenty of Jakes' stuff on its shelves, so I'll be reading more this year.
Need some reading recommendations? These are the books I read in 2013.
• Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
• Damned, Chuck Palahniuk
• High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
• Republic, Plato
• The Holy or the Broken, Alan Light
• A Day in the Life of a Minimalist, Joshua Fields Millburn
• Triburbia, Karl Taro Greenfield
• Electric Barracuda, Tim Dorsey
• The Invisible Man, H.G. Wells
• Naked, David Sedaris
• What in God's Name, Simon Rich
• When Elves Attack, Tim Dorsey
• Skagboys, Irvine Welsh
• The Prisoner of Heaven, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
• A Walk in the Snark, Rachel Thompson
• Night, Elie Wiesel
• It's Not About the Tights, Chris Brogan
• How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming, Mike Brown
• Relativity, Albert Einstein
• Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, Richard Feynman
• CTRL ALT Delete, Mitch Joel
• Born Standing Up, Steve Martin
• Possible Side Effects, Augusten Burroughs
• Choose Yourself!, James Altucher
• Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, David Sedaris
• Born on a Blue Day, Daniel Tammet
• Walden, Henry David Thoreau
• Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau
• A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
• I Was Told There'd Be Cake, Sloane Crosley
• Ignorance, Stuart Firestein
• Dubliners, James Joyce
• Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, R. Buckminster Fuller
• Confessions of a Sociopath, M.E. Thomas
• Growth Hacker Marketing, Ryan Holiday
• Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
• The Indie Writer's Survival Guide, James O'Brien
• The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, Charlie Papazian
From left: Richard Feynman, Mike Brown and Albert Einstein. Photos from WikiMedia Commons.
It's been an interesting year for me. Mostly because I'm learning stuff again. Not going to school, doing stuff in a structured way. I don't particularly have the patience for that anymore. I have what I feel I need in the way of credentials. With a little better preparation, I could have been in that position 12 years ago, but hey, live and learn, right? As long as we learn from it, I guess.
As you may have noticed from that list over on the right, I've read a lot this year, and it's not all fluff. [Some of it is, for sure, but one needs entertainment and humor, too, right?]
I tend to notice details, and I'm a reasonably curious human being. While you're noticing the pile of garbage on the ground, I'm seeing a piece of string in the pile and wanting to know what it's attached to. And while you want to know why this pile of garbage is on the ground, I want to know how it's useful to me.
That's where I'm a bit different, I guess. It's not a judgment; that's just how I'm wired. And I know that some of you don't care why the pile of garbage is on the ground, you just want it cleaned up.
One of the great things about the universe we live in is that much of it has already been discovered and people have been writing manuals on it for millennia. Sure, we discover new things and learn that the old manuals have something fundamentally wrong with them – that doesn't make them any less interesting, and we could certainly learn something from the progression of thought (it will help our own thought progress as well).
And when you do, you don't have to start from scratch. Sure, get the basic foundations, but then you don't have to discover something for everybody else. Someone's most likely already done that, and you can learn for you. Yeah, be selfish about it.
Reading Einstein's Relativity was not really eye-opening. We kind of understand the theory, even when we're little kids. I'm sitting in a coffee shop while I'm writing this, and cars are driving by. They are moving relative to me and to my chair. My chair and I are moving relative to the cars. I am not moving relative to my chair. Einstein showed us how to measure that and figured out what it meant as things got smaller and smaller and faster and faster. That's interesting to me, though, again, not eye-opening.
I did, however, enjoy some of Einstein's humor. At the beginning of the book, he was us measuring the distance to a cloud by building a rod from the ground to the cloud and then measuring the rod (I'm guessing other translations probably have us taking standard-size rods and counting how many of them we stack to get to the cloud). Later, he has someone suspended in a chest floating through space. This is totally "3 Stooges" physics, and you know it's Shemp going up in that chest, but Curly putting the finishing touches on the rod before the thing topples over.
In case you missed it a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Richard Feynman, who was so curious about the way things worked that when he felt his research stagnating, he went out and watched students play on the quad. A Frisbee got him working again (this was one of the guys who helped invent the atomic bomb – something he did not because he wanted to vanquish the enemy, but more because it was a physics problem he wanted to solve).
The other guy in that photo montage up at the top of this post is Mike Brown. He had Pluto declassified as a planet. He didn't set out to ruin Pluto. Rather, he set out to find another planet and instead found something that was bigger than Pluto but clearly not a planet. And he did this because he was curious about space. He had been since he walked out his door as a child and looked up.
You don't know everything. Go out there and learn about something you're interested in. Enjoy marketing? Learn about some of the psychology behind it, rather than just about what works. Enjoy coffee? Find out what roasting style you like best, and why. Enjoy beer or wine? Take the time to make your own, see what the process is like. Make sure you make some bad stuff, too – you want to know what you did wrong, as well.
Richard Feynman was a problem-solver. He got to be a problem solver by tinkering, and he tinkered because he was curious. Moreover, his parents encouraged his curiosity.
In that video up there (it's well worth 50 minutes of your time, by the way), he discusses learning about inertia. He noticed the funny way a ball rolled around in a wagon, and he asked his father about it. His father told him to watch again, that the ball actually behaved differently from how he thought, and then he explained why.
His father taught him the value of learning, as opposed to knowing.
With this, as Feynman relates in his memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he was running around his neighborhood repairing radios when he was a young boy. He found them interesting, he played with them, and when someone had a broken radio he would pace around their living room trying thinking about how to fix it, and then he'd fix it.
People were astonished.
Now, you probably know Feynman's name because he was part of the Manhattan Project. And he won a Nobel Prize (something he didn't want because of the extra attention, but upon learning that it would be more of a hassle to turn it down, he accepted it). And he taught for a long time. Or you just watch too much "Big Bang Theory."
What strikes me about Feynman is his curiosity, and his willingness to follow that curiosity. Here's a guy who wanted to know how radios worked, so he took them apart and played with the pieces.
Later in life, he wanted to learn how to draw, so he took a class and wound up having a gallery show.
He thought it would be fun to learn the drums, go to Brazil and play at Carnival. So he did.
While he enjoyed teaching, it sometimes led him to get stuck in his own work. One time, he went out on the quad and saw some students throwing around a disk (a Frisbee, though there weren't Frisbees yet). He noticed it wobbled, soared and curved. He went and did some calculations, and it helped in his work on subatomic particles.
There's that tinkerer again.
Another thing that strikes me about Feynman can only really be described as selfishness. If he didn't want the hassle of a committee position, he didn't take it. If he didn't want to go to a party, he didn't go. We only have so much time, why not have fun with it?
And have fun he did: He was a prankster as a college student, leaving tips under full glasses of water turned upside-down, stealing doors from rooms in his fraternity. He writes that he used to do some of his work at a strip club. Nobody bothered him, he didn't bother anybody, and the owner would send over a free soda every night.
Take three action items from Feynman, then.
(1) Leave your house and find something you know nothing about. Leave your house, because if the thing is in your house, you've been ignoring it long enough that it won't sustain your interest for very long. It could be coffee roasting, snowblowers, the physics of how chalk sticks to a board – anything. Now, learn all about it. This will take you some time. If you figured it out in an hour, you didn't get the point.
Now, report on it. If you have a blog, post it there. If you don't, use my comments section. If you think your story's absolutely awesome and you don't have a blog, email me and maybe we'll do a guest post here.
Mine: I've begun home-brewing beer, just this past weekend. I've been a beer fan since – well, since I was 4 and I was already only drinking my dad's brand – and over the past few years I've become a fan of craft brews. So I'm going to start making my own. I sort of expect that the first batch will fail. It's not fermenting as quickly as expected, and while I know a scotch ale is more malty than hoppy and has a low-ish ABV, I think we might be looking at something a little too sweet and flat. The second batch will be better because I'll work with it a little differently. Beyond that, I'll start experimenting with flavors and probably fail a few times. Either way, it's something new – and it's committing to a process (really, it takes at least three weeks before it's drinkable).
(2) Say no to something. Make it something you really don't want to do but that society dictates you should do. Feynman tried to turn down the Nobel prize. When he finally accepted it, he managed to say no to a banquet in his honor. When Woody Allen won an Oscar for "Annie Hall," he was in Manhattan playing his clarinet at a weekly gig. He snuck out the back door, unplugged the phone and read about it in the paper the next day. He said no to sitting around uncomfortably on the other side of the country waiting to see if his name would be called.
Mine: I'm not sure on this one, honestly. I'm in the fortunate situation that I get to choose just about all my interactions. There's the give-and-take of a relationship, but other than that, you pretty much have to come ring my doorbell (and hope I answer) to get me to make an unplanned social interaction.
(3) Go do something at a place it's not the norm to do it. I used to go to bars, sit in a crowded spot and read. Since I was typically reading something interesting, it led me to interesting conversations with interesting people. I met someone who described himself as a freelance lawyer while I was reading Barry Glassner's The Culture of Fear at Al's Wine & Whiskey in downtown Syracuse. That was one interesting dude. I wound up giving him the book when I was done.
Another time I was reading the Sunday New York Times at a now-defunct chain coffee shop on the north side (I had friends who worked behind the counter, making the coffee, er, awfully affordable) when someone came up and admonished me from getting all my news from such a liberal source. Until I pulled out a Wall Street Journal. No more political discussions over newspapers for me, thanks.
Mine: Now that school's back in session and the public playgrounds are free of children during the day, I'll do some playground workouts. [Adult males are generally discouraged from hanging out on playgrounds when they don't have kids; just sayin'.] There are lots of opportunities to climb and do bodyweight exercises, and plenty of opportunity for people walking or driving by to stare. It also gives me the chance to walk with the dog and bring him to the "gym."
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.