Category Archives: Just for Fun

Posts that are not intended to be taken too seriously

Take Your Time

PleasuresOfReadingReading is fundamental. Those of us who grew up hearing that slogan have never forgotten it. The part that I wish had stuck better is just a touch shorter: reading is fun. Or it can be. Should be. Alan Jacobs’ little book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is like an extended essay on the subject. As a professor of literature, Jacobs has considerable experience encouraging people to read, and in his book he makes a case for reading what you want to read (reading on a Whim, he calls it). Wisely he recognizes that many would-be readers are discouraged by being instructed to read that which they don’t find appealing. I learned quite a lot from the suggestions contained herein, and I’ve been reading so long that I thought I knew pretty much what I needed to know about it. Perhaps the most fundamental issue (apart from reading itself) is that many of us expect to be told what to read. We second-guess our own judgment, feeling we need an expert to tell us how to do it. Like singing in public, it’s intimidating to come across someone better read than oneself. Jacobs advocates reading what gives you pleasure and not worrying about what others think.

Recognizing that readers are spoiled for choice, Jacobs addresses, among other topics, rereading. And taking notes. And reading slowly. I recall speed-reading courses advertised, ironically, on television. At college you could take courses in improving your quota of pages turned. There is a specific kind of reading, as Jacobs notes—reading for information—where this may be helpful. This is different than reading for pleasure, or even reading for understanding. In the case of the Bible (Jacobs taught at Wheaton before moving on to Baylor) many people, he suggests, read for information rather than for understanding. When reading for pleasure taking your time is a virtue. Getting to know a book requires rereading. We need to make time for what is important.

Jacobs makes the point that readers are a minority sect. There have always been fewer of us than there have been of those who don’t read. We are, in his words, a tribe. We can generally spot one another. Those of us who can’t walk past a bookstore will recognize ourselves in the pages of this meditation. Those who spend long hours with books become like them, in some respects. Familiar, layered, and requiring more and more attention. Like the reading that it advocates, this book itself is a delight to read. There is so much in this brief volume that it’s difficult to summarize in the short-form writing that I use on this blog. I found myself wishing for an index so that I might find my favorite passages again. Then I realized that perhaps this absence was intentional. Maybe I’ll have to reread it, taking notes as I go. What a wonderful thought.

Circus of the Absurd

As long as I’m thinking about ethics, my thoughts turn to the fair. Every August our county 4-H Fair becomes an event in our lives. Since my family has been involved with 4-H for many years, we always try to spend as much time there as we can afford. Jobs and daily life tend to get in the way, of course. While there we get to see the animals that are missing from our lives, and reconnect with art and culture. Robotics are now part of our local fair, and this is the first year that I’ve ever seen pigs there. And there were the political booths. Just around the corner from where the sheriff’s office was giving out free gun locks to prevent kids from shooting someone accidentally was the booth supporting Trump. I’ve never been so strongly tempted in my life to walk up to a total stranger and say, “You are kidding, right?” But no, like the Donald himself, a flashy large sign displayed their ignorance for all to see. We live in the era of the delightfully uninformed.

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I’m no political pundit. I tend not to trust any politicians much. I distrust businessmen even more. The fact is the only thing you need to be a viable candidate for President is money. Over the past several weeks Trump has shown himself to be anything but qualified for political office. Major newspapers run articles that seriously question his sanity. And yet here are good people who don’t have the sense to maybe put up an embarrassed, small sign saying “Sorry folks, we’ll try again in 2020.” We find it hard to admit our mistakes. Especially when the stakes are so terribly high.

I go to the fair to support 4-H and to enjoy an evening out with my family. Although I spend most of every day in a different state working in an isolated cubicle, I can always count on seeing people I know at the fair. I enjoy the arts tent where young folks are making their first steps into lives filled with creativity and imagination. The more technical tents can be intimidating where kids a quarter my age are launching model rockets and those under half my age are building robots. In the herpetology tent I see a snake amid a bed of shredded newspaper. He’s hiding under the photo of a prominent non-politician who has a large booth displaying his name just across the grounds. And I remind myself this is the first year they’ve had a swine tent. I wonder if anything will be the same next year.

Flying with Strangers

TSAThe world is safe now. It’s okay—you can unlock your doors and windows at last. I have the proof right before me. Two weeks ago I was out of town. To get to my final destination I had to fly. I travel light. Seeing families at the airport with stacks of suitcases, I often wonder what people find necessary to take with them. It depends on the destination, I suppose. If you’re skiing you’ll need different gear than if you’re snorkeling. Or spelunking. In my bag there’s just the same old togs I wear at home. Never a clothes horse, I seldom update my wardrobe. I’m not into extreme sports, and for hiking, well, I can wear what I’m wearing right now. One thing is universal, I suspect. Underwear. We all have tucked away in our bag somewhere that necessary item of human social politeness. That’s why the world is safe, you see. I have in front of me a slip of paper informing me that the Transportation Security Administration has looked at my underwear and declared it safe. Go ahead and fly the friendly skies. Just make sure your underwear is clean.

Long ago I learned that if I fly alone I will be singled out for added security checks. I’m a bearded man. A non-conformist. My beard isn’t one of those consisting of trendy hipster stubble either. Just a regular beard. No fuss, no muss. My life is far too busy for me to spend extra time scraping off hair that will only grow back. I have enough pointless tasks as it is. But once you’ve seen the TSA agents looking you in the face and pointing you to the extra-search line time and again, you start to notice patterns. Especially since nearly every TSA agent in Newark parks in the same airport lot as I do and rides the same shuttle in. Sometimes there are so many of them that they ask if I’m lost. No, just looking for a restroom so that I can check my underwear before you do.

The truly ironic part—and I appreciate irony so I know that there’s no way that an agent can know this—is that I’ve been a life-long pacifist. The draft was reinstituted when I was just the right age to sign up. I was a conscientious objector. One of my uncles was too, during the Second World War. The very title of the conflict should’ve made the need for more objectors obvious. I wouldn’t knowingly hurt another person. Or animal. I step over worms after it rains and will yield to an ant on the sidewalk. Still, you’d better check my suitcase just to be sure. To me, it seems the world might benefit from teaching more people to respect those who are different. Bearded men and those whose skin tone differs are not evil. We just don’t have the time to get to know them before we throw their bag onto the conveyor belt.

Words for Play

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Maybe you’ve seen it too.  Corporate-style psychobabble.  Memos land on your desk, whether real or virtual, jostling with neologisms, indicating the trendy new directions the business is going.  Apparently a legal requirement is that old vocabulary is vorboten in such information-bytes.  You can’t call a spade a spade—it might confuse somebody.  Do you mean a playing card spade, or something to dig with?  And do people even use spades anymore?  Why not call them loam-moving facilitators?  Isn’t that really what they are?  If you can get through a memorandum without a dictionary (slang or otherwise) you’re much more fluent in my native language than me. Or I.  I often wonder how much this has to do with an inherent inferiority complex.  A cog in this corporate machine has to prove it’s usefulness.  If nobody can understand what you’re doing, it seems, your job is secure.  I imagine think tanks as being like big aquaria, but with fewer viable ideas than captive fish.  I once read a memo that had to give each and every stage of a process a chic new name.  I felt like I needed to update my wardrobe and get a fashionable haircut just to read the thing.

Perhaps it’s just that a simply guy like yours truly prefers things explained clearly.  I can imagine a meeting taking place where nobody really understands what’s going on but they all have to nod their heads in approval for fear of feeling stupid.  New phrases, of course, have their place.  We needed a portmanteau for “telephone” back in the day, since there had been nothing like it before.  Most of my memos, by contrast, have been about plain old things that have been around for centuries.  Or millennia.  And if an old word is used, such as “idea,” it has to be in quotes.  Business must find a way of ensuring stakeholders that it’s on top of the latest developments.  Who uses a fax any more?  Most people consider email outmoded.  The period itself, I’ve read, is about to go extinct.  Still we have time to make up corporate-speak.

I work in the publishing industry, which is notoriously slow.  Unhurried attention to detail is a sign of quality.  If you want a book to be good, you need to take your time at every stage of the process.  Sure, a book can be churned out mere days after an important event, but if you read it you’ll see the corners that have been cut.  We even received an issue of Time once that had the “e” accidentally chopped off by a hasty cutting machine.  You want quality, you need to take your tim.  Adopting the newest coinage in the busyness business hardly seems a way for minting success.  Utilizing quality ideas isn’t the same as the fabrication of nonce words.  Of course, attention to detail takes away from time that could be spent making more money.  Churning out new verbiage creates the illusion of being ahead of the game.  If you need a dictionary to understand what your company is doing, perhaps it’s a good thing to work in publishing, even if you have to look words up online.

Biological Imperative

DiamondNothing used to make you feel smarter than being in a British bookstore. With that curious blend of proper, insane, and bawdy, books are displayed that you might find surprising. Alarming, even. Last year as I strolled around Blackwells in Oxford, I spied Why is Sex Fun?, by Jared Diamond. I mean, it was sitting right there, face-up, on a table with perfectly respectable, straight-laced books. Curious, but not curious enough to pick it up in a public place, I remembered the title so that I might find it on Amazon, where it could arrive in a nice, safe, opaque box. I finally stored up enough points on Amazon to get it, but then the problem was how to read it. I do a great deal of my reading on public transit—a place where you inordinately care what others might think of you. Finally, planning a seating strategy that would hide the cover by sitting on the left-hand side, next to the window, I took the book along, hoping it would keep me interested to and from work.

Subtitled The Evolution of Human Sexuality, the book isn’t salacious at all. It is scientific, but not clinical. I’ve mentioned before that all religions have something—quite a lot, usually—to say about sex. While religion doesn’t play into Diamond’s book, morality does. What I found interesting is his use of the phrase “God or Darwin,” which comes up a few places in the book. Diamond is a witty writer, and he explains that not all his phraseology is to be taken literally, but I appreciated his hedging his bets, nevertheless.

This book isn’t really titillating. In fact, it’s somewhat depressing. Perhaps it’s just phrasing again, but the production of offspring is described in economic terms. Resources, investment, efficiency, and the like. I think back to being a child. My family life wasn’t ideal, but I never thought of myself as anyone’s resource or investment. I was just me. That delusion stayed with me until I started working in the corporate world. I quickly discovered that others considered me a resource. “Human resources,” we call it. An investment. My efficiency was valued. Was it God or was it Darwin? Although I learned a lot from this little book, I wonder if it was worth the effort of having to hide the cover on the commute. After all, we’re all stuck together on this bus, units of investment, born to yield a profit. Why not have a little fun on the way?

Philosophies of Reading

I like my Starter. For those of you unaccustomed to New Jersey Transit buses and their ways, a Starter is a person who makes sure the buses scheduled to arrive at her or his gate do so on time. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. If a bus is late, or AWOL, the Starter takes the heat from angry would-be passengers. Since they’re present “on the ground,” angry people lash out with their frustration. My regular Starter recognizes me. I’m usually early in my line, so I appear about the same place most days. My routine is, well, routine. I get to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, pull out my book, and read. Starters can’t really get involved in anything like a book because their job requires constant interruptions. Even when no buses are coming in because of an accident in the Lincoln Tunnel, they still have to answer questions and hold up the occasional crucifix. My Starter came to me the other day, as I was reading, and asked me what I thought of an incident four days earlier. To put this in context, the incident happened on Friday. I was there for it, in my usual spot, and this was Tuesday. Clearly it still bothered the Starter that someone had come out and yelled at him for not getting us a bus on time.

I sympathized. Starters can’t materialize objects. If they could, they wouldn’t be Starters. Yet, I realized as I turned back to my book, that I had lost some reading time. I don’t mind helping out my Starter, but it occurred to me that there are a couple of different philosophies behind reading while waiting for, and on, the bus. Many people, I suspect, read to pass the time. I don’t know what they’re reading, since much of it is on a flat device, but knowing that research reading is nearly impossible on the bus, I suspect they are just reading to make the weary time go quicker. Others, I know, read for content. For me, reading is very seldom passing time. I read because reading is what I want to do.

Commuting behavior isn’t conducive to my life choices. No longer do people sit quietly on the bus, respecting that inherent violence of awaking before 4 a.m. to try to get to the city before traffic inevitably makes you late. Devices make their unmuted bodily noises and glare in your face. The guy next to you pulls out his wide-screen laptop, while tapping away on his phone. Or pulls our her iPad to watch a movie with fast-paced images splashing in your face. The book is demanding company. Your time, your attention, your concentration are required to get the most out of it. I don’t mind supporting my Starter. I feel for the ennui of my fellow commuters. I also crave time alone with my books.

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Paraleipomenon

EarnestI suspect, like most people, I missed quite a few classics in school. This was the ’70’s when new and experimental were still the rage. One of the must-reads I missed was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. As usual when approaching books like this, I’m delighted at the sheer number of famous lines I’ve repeatedly heard, whispering to myself, “So that’s where that comes from!” as I go. Since I expect you, my cultured reader, have walked on the Wilde side, I need not provide any of these lines here. I won’t even have to go over the plot. The edition I read, however, contained lines and scenes that did not make it into the canonical version. As an erstwhile writer, I know that final versions seldom resemble those that felt so magical at their penning. Cuts must be made. Editors must be satisfied. And so goes the life of the writer.

It was one of these cut lines that caught my eye. With Wilde’s keen wit, the clergy, represented by Dr. Chasuble. (For those liturgically challenged readers, a chasuble is a priestly vestment in the Roman and Anglican traditions.) In an unfortunately stricken scene the minister says, “I am compelled, like most of my brother clergy, to treat scientific subjects from the point of view of sentiment. But that is more impressive I think. Accurate knowledge is out of place in a pulpit. It is secular.” Accurate knowledge is secular. That thought stayed with me long after reading the out-takes and deleted scenes of the play. Those that remain contain priceless comments about the church and the dangers of christenings. This particular gem, from the cutting room floor, would be hilarious were it not so often true. It explains, for example, creationism.

It’s a fair wager that science remains, even today, a subject that flummoxes clergy and laity alike. It is the new revelation, after all. No truth cannot be reduced to numbers. Even my scribbling this post is mere electro-chemical signals jumping synapses like electro-chemical salmon dying to spawn. We’ve simply substituted one clergy for another. When’s the last time a preacher has been cited as an authority on anything? What with televangelists setting the bar (for anything we see on the media is necessarily representative), it stands to reason that no real intelligence lies here. By default we nod toward those who hold the paten and chalice of empirical evidence. As it is now, but never was, and shall be forever, amen. Who’s being earnest now?