The History of the Human Body

This book is life-changing and altered many of my views on health and wellness. The author, a Harvard evolutionary biologist named Daniel Lieberman, was quoted extensively in Born to Run. I need to reread and document it some day soon.


Appetite For Self-Destruction

I’m intrigued by the so-called “fall” of the music industry because it coincided with a distinct rise in my interest in music. Maybe I’m a contrarian, but I re-started listening to music and purchasing albums after a long, post-college layoff that ended with my first digital music player. I now listen with a relatively selective ear and buy considerable amounts of music because of digital. But if you listen to the record executives, they blame digital for the precipitous decline in album sales over the last 20 years.



I bought this book after the author, Jeff Pearlman, got a chance to push it on ChicagoSide. His plea to rethink the negativity and vitriol spewed out by John Kass and Mike Ditka inspired me to give it a whirl. I’m damn glad I did, for multiple reasons.


Father’s Day

Previous to this I’d read two books by Buzz Bissinger, Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August, two of the finest sports books ever. A little over a year ago I started following Bissinger on Twitter (@buzzbissinger) and I discovered that he had a much wider bandwidth than sports, which led me to this book, Father’s Day, one of his non-sports endeavors. It chronicles a cross-country road trip (Philly to LA) he took with his 24-year-old son Zach in 2007, who has brain damage from complications at birth. It was emotional stuff. I was moved from the get-go and it didn’t let up.

Because I follow Bissinger pretty closely, I feel like I know him. I don’t know him really, not like I know a friend, but I have at least a peek below the surface, so I’m familiar with his life in more than just a casual way. The first writer I remember following religiously as a kid was a Detroit-based sportswriter named Joe Falls, but I didn’t really know him. I didn’t care, plus there was no internet, so it was harder. In a similar vein though, I would look forward to what Falls had to say about the sports news of the day via his columns in The Sporting News and the Detroit News.

But wow, talk about getting to know someone, this book is a deep dive into Bissinger’s character. I still don’t know him, of course, but for me, this level of detail enriches every thing he writes and says. I trust him as a source of insight and analysis now more than ever. He’s a great American writer, make no mistake about it, so pay attention; don’t turn away, regardless of how profane or sordid it gets, or you’re going to miss important stuff.

He doesn’t sugarcoat anything; not in this book, not in any book, not in his columns, not on Twitter. Ever.

Why sugarcoat it? My son is mentally retarded. (Kindle loc 157)

Bissinger’s exploration of his relationship with Zach during the road trip is the core of this book. He’s in a unique place to sort through the emotions of having a child like Zach. First of all, Zach has a twin brother Gerry who was born without brain damage, giving Bissinger ample points of comparison. Secondly, Bissinger speaks his mind to a fault, apparently feeling no compunction to hold back regardless of what kind of light it shines on him. This combination of material, perception, and honesty leads to an amazing amount of insight into a beautiful relationship. Here’s what I’m talking about. It’s a moment when they’re in Milwaukee struggling to find a Kopp’s that Zach wants to eat at:

I call directory assistance to at least figure out the spelling and get an address. The silence separates. I am increasingly finding the entire trip pointless, a vain exercise in molding Zach into something he cannot be, fantasizing that the open road would lead to a greater sense of togetherness and understanding, that in our intimate privacy I would be able to bore into his soul and pull out a string of sparkles. I want a different son at this moment. I deserve a different son. I glance over at Zach and fill up with familiar self-hatred. I realize the cop was right: I do have an impairment, an emotional impairment, the anger of what happened, the helplessness, the forever haunt of watching my newborn son through a hospital window bloody and breakable. (Kindle Loc. 1842)

At times it’s gut-wrenching, painful, but it has to be this way so the reader can understand what a wonderful kid Zach is, and to understand what he can teach us about ourselves and others. I loved this next moment, often highlighted by Kindle readers, where Bissinger reflects on “liberating” his son from a menial job by finding him something in the mail room of a prestigious Philly law firm:

It wasn’t Zach’s liberation. It was mine alone, since Zach made no distinction about people as long as they were decent to him. He had no concept of status so he did not care about it. I had never ever heard him speak with malice or jealousy of anyone, which had to do with his always seeing the world in the literal and concrete without the spin of his own agenda. Which does raise the question of why it takes brain damage to be kind and honest and true instead of insecure and behind-the-back vindictive as so many of us are. Why is abstract thought so inherently vicious, too often interpreting events so they tout ourselves and condemn others? (Kindle loc. 802)

There’s more about Zach as they travel through Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Odessa, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, but it has deviations along the way. At times it feels like a travel book, documenting quirky and interesting things about America. It has aspects of a call-for-action for better care of the mentally disabled. It could also be a handbook for parents of kids like Zach as they wrestle with important life choices regarding their children.

For me, I loved the stuff about the writing life – Bissinger’s writing life. Here’s how he felt passing the house he lived in while writing Friday Night Lights in Odessa, Texas:

It was in the house on Frederick where I wrote Friday Night Lights in 1989 and 1990 in a tiny second-floor study with a computer on one side and a corkboard filled with index cards on the other. No Internet. No smartphone. No Google. No distractions except those inside my own mind. Every day I put on headphones and juiced up the music of Bon Jovi and Tears for Fears and the Alan Parsons Project to stimulate and write with the head-spinning frenzy of Schroeder. It was about the work then, not the commercial prospects and the book tour. It was the most creative joy I ever felt, the only sustained time I woke up not with the dread of writing but with the exhilaration of it. Zach’s whisper of farewell is also mine. (Kindle loc. 1911)

That makes me want to read Friday Night Lights again. Bissinger spends a fair amount of time in Odessa and he’s written a separate follow-up to the book. I haven’t read the follow-up yet, but the parts in Father’s Day about Boobie Miles and the Chavez family have me anticipating it. Friday Night Lights is both the greatest football book ever and the greatest football movie ever. If you haven’t seen them and you say you like football, you’re a phony. The book tears at Bissinger though, it rips him apart:

I knew when it was published I would never top it no matter how hard I tried, and after almost twenty years, I still have not topped it. It all happened when I was thirty-five. The success opened all sorts of avenues, but it also hung over me. It was a wonderful thing to be known for something that had lasted for so long. It was a terrible thing to be known for something that had happened so long ago. It sounds like self-pity, but it wasn’t self-pity. It was the fear of being tapped out and topped out, the rest of my life a vain search. (Kindle loc. 2507)

But it’s not all dark and brooding. Bissinger can see the bright side and it carries extra weight with me when he articulates how kind and caring people can be, because you know it’s real. He marvels at how fairly and normally everyone in Odessa treats Zach.

And it strikes me as far more than ironic that it is here in Odessa, where so many people hated me and I hated certain aspects of the town with equal ferocity, that every single person we encounter treats Zach the way he should always be treated, which is just like everyone else. (Kindle loc. 2507)

The last stop in Los Angeles finds Bissinger in Hollywood, meeting up with Zach’s twin Gerry, visiting with Peter Berg (Bissinger’s cousin), and hanging out on the set of Hancock, among other things. The wrap-up is especially emotional.

This book is for anyone with a soul. I loved it.


Guitar Zero

Impulse buy alert! It was such an impulse that I can’t even recall what actually prompted it. I’m interested in brain health, lifelong learning, and rock ’n roll, so there’s a prompt in there somewhere. I’m certainly getting forgetful in my old age.

Here’s the gist of the book; a psych professor named Gary Marcus takes a sabbatical to learn to play guitar, testing on himself the notion that it’s way more difficult to learn technical stuff late in life. When I say late in life, I’m talking about maybe forty years of age.

Awesome book. What a cool guy.

I’m forty five and I’m worried about my brain. I can tell it’s struggling, which is a bad thing, because I’m already not very smart. Logic problems that used to be easy, aren’t. Things I used to remember, I don’t.

But I’ve also made progress. I feel like I can relate disparate sets of knowledge better than I’ve ever been able to. From an emotional standpoint, I feel like I’m more open-minded and thoughtful than ever.

But is it too late? Am I past my “critical period” of learning? Am I destined to be a dumb guy who sits around all day watching TV? Should I just get used to people shaking their heads in disgust when I spew profanities towards them after they tell me something that doesn’t comply with my world view?

I hope not. Marcus gives me hope, and I’m starting to take action. Here’s what he says about “critical periods” as they relate to language:

The more people have actually studied critical periods, the shakier the data have become. Although adults rarely achieve the same level of fluency that children do, the scientific research suggests that differences typically pertain more to accent than to grammar. Meanwhile, contrary to popular belief, there’s no magical window that slams shut the moment puberty begins. In fact, in recent years scientists have identified a number of people who have managed to learn second languages with near-native fluency, even though they only started as adults. (Kindle loc 84)

Note, “near-native fluency” is really, really hard.

Studies do abound that show how much more efficient it is to learn complex stuff at a young age, but is age a factor? Is it the only factor?

If kids outshine adults, it’s probably not because they are quicker to learn but simply because they are more persistent; the same drive that can lead them to watch the same episode of a TV show five days in a row without any signs of losing interest can lead a child who aspires to play an instrument to practice the same riff over and over again. (Kindle loc 1433)

Aha, so now we are getting to the heart of the matter. The more I look into it, the more evident how flimsy it is to use the excuse of “I’m old” for being stupid. In fact, at some point people will respond to my “I’m old” comments with, “Nope, you’re just lazy and close-minded with no drive.”

That will hurt, but it won’t crush me. In fact, it may push me to try and build more gray matter. That’s what it’s all about – increasing your gray matter by learning new stuff. Your physical, emotional, and intellectual selves all act the same way, use it and it gets stronger, and better, and faster. It may not even matter what that use is, be it learning music or otherwise.

People develop more gray matter when they develop skill in music, for example, but gray matter has also been shown to increase as people learn to juggle or learn to type. (Kindle loc 519)

There is a lot of rich stuff in this book about your brain. It’s a great mix of Marcus’ personal experience matched up with scientific studies. Marcus does some wonderful work here and I’ll eventually read a few of his other books.

The psychological parts of this book are very rewarding. That’s not all though. I haven’t even touched on the musical aspects yet, which are just as rewarding. This book has re-invigorated my respect for music and makes me want to learn more about it. I won’t go to the length of picking up an electric guitar and trying to learn some chords, but I am going to start paying more attention to things. I just want to be able to at least entertain the thought of thinking about music like Marcus began to after learning to play guitar:

I also understood the music I heard vastly better than when I’d begun the project. I could pick out bass lines, recognize different drumming patterns, and tell what techniques different guitarists used. I had developed a sense of arrangement and how different songs were put together. (Kindle loc 2882)

I don’t know for sure how I’m going to get there. The problem is, time. There’s not much of it. Being able to take a one year sabbatical would be nice.

In the interim, I’m trying to integrate things that improve my cognitive well-being into my everyday life. This blog is a good example from a couple of angles. The setup and administration of it is unfamiliar territory, requiring research and application of new skills/knowledge. Additionally, writing is outside of my comfort my zone, and anything outside of the comfort zone is a cognitive bonanza. On another front, I’m changing my running style from a heel-strike to a forefoot-strike. It requires a ton of concentration to retrain an important mind-body connection which has been in place for thirty plus years. It’s like learning a new skill. Plus there’s a lot of support for the cognitive benefits of regular exercise.

These items really don’t take any incremental time, but may not be adequate. At some point, I need to learn another language, take another vacation to a foreign country, and/or add a new sport to the mix (XT50 is actually helping already I think). This stuff can’t wait until retirement, for sure.

Well, that puts a lot on my plate. That’s gotta be good for my brain.


God, Country, Notre Dame

My rocky relationship with the Catholic Church started when I was a kid and had to attend catechism classes on Tuesday nights, which caused me to miss Happy Days. The sex abuse scandal really had me questioning things and now I find myself a askew with the prioritization on matters of sex and relationships (same-sex marriage, contraception, abortion).

Things were most amicable in college, probably because of Fr. Hesburgh. People who dislike or disrespect him are probably either hard line, far right Catholics, or anti-religious as a matter of course. Rick Santorum displays a general disgust with the job Catholic universities have been doing and probably blames Fr. Hesburgh for pushing an agenda that contributed to an overall cultural corrosion. This would be bad, when you consider all the good Fr. Hesburgh accomplished in his life.

Gail gave me this book back in 1990. In fact, she got it autographed (pictured). I’ve been hauling it around between apartments and houses for 22 years now without cracking it open, but was prompted to read it when a high school buddy asked me a few weeks ago, “Why did Catholics vote for Obama?”

If you believe the stats, most polls peg the percent of Catholics who voted for Obama in 2008 at around 54%. My buddy’s theory, I think, was that it should have been much lower.

There’s a continuum of Catholic values that you can slap on the political spectrum. On the left you have things like helping the poor, expanding human rights, and world peace. On the right you have things like protecting the unborn, outlawing same-sex marriage, and controlling embryonic stem cell research. In general, it appears that Catholics weight the things on the left a little more than the things on the right, barely.

Enough of the politics for now, let’s get to Fr. Ted.

Early on you start getting a sense for his feelings on charity, race relations, and world peace, his big three hot buttons. Here’s a telling comment:

Father Bill, who was in his late forties at the time, told me something that has stayed with me, and I pass it on now. He never worried about being conned, he told me. If a panhandler asked for a dollar or something to eat, he always gave it to him because it was better to give the buck or the sandwich to someone who didn’t need it than withhold something from someone who did. (pg 41)

This folksy charm belies a high-achiever; a person who spoke five languages and eventually gathered 150 honorary degrees; a person who had the ear of presidents, world leaders, and corporate moguls and who used these connections to advance his view of Catholic values.

Here’s him talking to JFK:

On occasion I took him to task for what I considered at the time his reluctance to commit the federal government to an all-out fight against racial discrimination, particularly in the Deep South. I thought he was too cautious in leading the country on civil rights because of the perceived political liabilities inherent in such a battle. (pg 104)

Here’s him relating conversations with Ike:

… On another occasion, I heard him say, “Every dollar spent for armaments comes out of the hide of some hungry child or some underdeveloped nation.” I used to quote that line in my own speeches and most people thought that statement came from a pope or a peace activist, but I had it straight from Dwight D. Eisenhower. (pg 105)

Fr. Hesburgh practiced what he preached on these things. He was on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from it’s inception in 1957 through 1972. Those were important years for civil rights. In fact, to hear Fr. Hesburgh tell it, one of the most important Civil Rights documents was inked on Notre Dame soil. In 1959, the final report for the commission’s first two years was due and the team was overworked and frustrated with the American judiciary system. They ended up working on the report (and fishing, and drinking) at Notre Dame’s northern Wisconsin summer camp. Here are the results:

When we met with President Eisenhower in September, he said he could not understand how a commission with three Democrats who were all southerners, and two Republicans and an independent who were all Northerners, could possibly vote six-to-zero on eleven recommendations and five-to-one on the other. I told Ike that he had not appointed just Republicans and Democrats or Northerners and Southerners, he had appointed six fishermen.

Fr. Hesburgh was also the Vatican’s delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1956 through 1970. Wow, consider all the things that happened during these years and how influential a Catholic priest was. It’s kind of startling when you think about it.

He made Notre Dame co-educational in 1972. Shortly after that, Roe vs Wade passed, disallowing restrictions on abortion. This goes without mention in the book really, except for a short discussion he had about abortion with Jimmy Carter in 1976.

I think his agenda would falter today, it was a different time. I’m not saying it would be unpopular, but I think there would be more of a push from the right on religious values, which didn’t seem to have much momentum in his day.

The sex abuse scandal diminished the standing of almost all Catholic leaders. In retrospect, all of the good Fr. Hesburgh did had the backdrop of a rampantly corrupt church hierarchy that didn’t do enough to stop priests from abusing young people. A church hierarchy, by the way, that he was constantly at odds with. What if he’d been born 25 years later and these issues of world peace and racism had not tugged at him? Would he have focused his efforts on stopping the abuse? Or would it have not mattered?

I don’t know.

He retired when I was a sophomore in 1987. He is Notre Dame, the primary architect of the university we have today. Here’s an official summary of his life by the university.

He’s 94 years old now and understandably not involved in the day-to-day at the university. I think he would have been out in front of the President Obama graduation speech. I bet it would have gone off without all of the hullabaloo. At times the university and its community, especially the athletic department, seem to forget about the values he instilled. Fr. Ted had to rein in one of our most famous coaches, Frank Leahy (87–11–9, five national championships), because “he was running what amounted to an autonomous fiefdom.” I wonder what he would say about our sports program today.


Little Heathens

A long time ago (a few years), I used to listen to the NYT Book Review podcast. That’s where I first heard about this book, they mentioned it and gave it some critical acclaim. In fact, it was getting critical acclaim from a lot of book types. It’s one woman’s story of growing up on an Iowa farm. It’s a very simple topic, but I need me a little simple, so I grabbed the used paperback during my most recent buying binge at the Brown Elephant (Oak Park).

I think about my book reading life sometimes. It’s not so simple anymore.

I spend a lot of time figuring out what books I’m going to read. I take notes and highlight stuff while I read. And finally, I write up one of these takes. It’s a detailed three step process of discovery, execution, and review. What am I doing?

The old reading process, the one I followed in my childhood, was much simpler, but still three steps.

  • Pick up book
  • Read book
  • Put book down

Right or wrong, that ain’t how it works anymore. And I’m not sure if I’m better off or not. That’s one feeling I got from reading this book. Are we better off in this modern age?

Mildred Armstrong Kalish tells stories about her early childhood during the Great Depression. She didn’t have running water, had to hang her clothes out to dry, and couldn’t afford to buy books, but she had a wonderful time full of unconditional love, character building moments, humorous escapades, and learning experiences. Here’s how she sums it up in her own words:

Retrospection can be illuminating, it can be numbing, it can be sobering; it can be fruitful, it can gladden my heart, and it can drown me in despair. But looking back on my early days on our farm in Iowa, I find that I take enormous satisfaction in my memories of the past, and my reflections on how that time, so rich, so satisfying, so fulfilling, yet so undeniably challenging, affected me (pg 269).

She recaps many moments, some highly personal, and at times completely baring her soul. It’s all very innocent and honest. I admit, I got emotional a few times. Here’s one of my favorites:

I think it is a universal trait to wallow in memories of the the tastes, fragrances, and textures of foods from one’s childhood. Proust probably wasn’t the first to celebrate this phenomenon on paper, but he is certainly the one who became famous for launching an entire novel with a description of a well-remembered fragrance – that of the madeleine. The smell of bacon is what brings back a flood of memories to me, and the closest I come to Proust’s experience is the joy that comes over me when I conjure up the taste of a sandwich made of homemade bread spread with smoked bacon drippings, toped with the thinnest slices of crisp red radishes freshly harvested from the garden, and sprinkled over with coarse salt. Bacon fat was as important in our kitchen as chicken fat is in a Jewish kitchen. In those days we saved all of the grease left over after frying bacon to use for frying bread, eggs, and potatoes, and often to flavor vegetables. Of course, that was long before we had any knowledge of cholesterol (page 120-1).

That Proust reference relates to his book In Search of Lost Time, which you can read about here in the Wikipedia article.

She also talks about her bond with nature. She really appreciates the feel of a day, a special sunset, and the ferocity of mother nature. For me, a hot, humid early morning at the golf course brings back a flood of memories of early morning forays as a kid. Just the smell and feel of the air are comforting. Kalish has similar experiences. She recounts rainstorms at the farm:

Mama taught us to love rainstorms so much that even the weather was an entertainment. When the thunderheads began to build up in the west, she would gather the four of us to admire the way they boiled and climbed higher and higher; we watched mesmerized as the black clouds advanced swiftly, turning darker and more threatening as they got closer, while thunder and lightning flashed from the topmost clouds to the very ground. Transfixed, we would watch the great wall of rain advance slowly across the oat field, eagerly awaiting the brief moment when raindrops the size of plums pelted us. And then came the deluge, engulfing us in a gigantic drapery of rain. We all reveled in such an event. Some years later when I read Mark Twain’s description of a Midwest thunderstorm, I had what E.B. White called a “spirit laid against spirit” reaction. I knew exactly what Twain was writing about. … (pg 221)

Kalish describes a reading nirvana, a certain “knowing exactly” what the author was writing about. You’ll certainly get that feeling a couple of times during this book even if you’re only remotely in touch with your childhood. It does grab you and make you think about how the world has changed, or if it has really changed at all. And if it has changed, is it better? Or does it really matter?

There are no easy answers to these questions. I’ve lived in a large urban area for 21 years but I’m writing this as I spend a few days in my mid-sized hometown, far removed from the big city. I know the world has changed, but I have trouble discerning if the change in the world around me is a function of the time or the setting. The American experience varies so widely by region and we are so mobile as a country, that I doubt the naked eye or a gut feeling can discern an overall change in the most basic sentiments of 300 million people.

Are kids lazier and meaner? Is greed more prevalent? Have we lost core values like thrift and hard work? Is our national attention span getting shorter because of the internet?

I don’t know. I’m not smart enough to sort through that before I die. And it’s really not the point of this book to answer those questions. Kalish is just giving us the facts of her youth and explaining to how they shaped her life. I think she feels it’s worth reflecting on the same for ourselves. I’ve been doing some reflecting a lot lately and I agree with Kalish, it can be “sobering and fruitful.”

She makes no proclamations about the state of the world and doesn’t preach to the reader. This book is simple, but my mind conjured up some complicated questions as I read it. Well done by Kalish, she seems like a cool woman.


Assassination Vacation

This is yet another book I discovered via Nick Hornby and his fine book-about-books entitled Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. At the end of that post, back in March of 2006, I mentioned that I wanted to read Assassination Vacation. It’s amazing that a book I read five years ago is still influencing my reading life. It was brought to mind recently because I saw Sarah Vowell on Letterman and I thought she was hilarious. I finally complied with my proclamation from five years ago and bought Assassination Vacation for the Kindle.

This is part history book, part political commentary, and part travel book. Additionally, it’s all funny. Her writing is just as hilarious as the Letterman interview. Her humor is not for everyone, it’s often dark, negative, and sarcastic. She’s kind of like a mean Bill Bryson. I love it though, in fact, I think it’s brilliant.

Vowell, for some reason, is obsessed with presidential assassinations. She likes to visit assassination sites and view memorabilia from the horrific events. She’s especially excited if there’s a plaque commemorating something related to the assassination. Here is a passage illustrating the giddiness she often feels when she encounters an assassination-related site, in this case it’s a visit to the site of Mary Surratt’s boarding house:

Mary Surratt’s D.C. boardinghouse, where John Wilkes Booth gathered his co-conspirators to plot Lincoln’s death, is now a Chinese restaurant called Wok & Roll. I place an order for broccoli and bubble tea, then squint at an historic marker in front of the restaurant quoting Andrew Johnson that this was “the nest in which the egg was hatched.”

If you can’t tell, she’s especially excited by Abraham Lincoln, her favorite president. She’s a staunch defender of persecuted peoples and critical of our country’s treatment of Native Americans and African Americans, which could have something to do with why she reveres Lincoln so. She pulls no punches and you can feel her anger when she talks about those who have wronged others in the name of race, including family members. For example, she discusses the grandfather paradox while relating the story of the grandson of Dr. Mudd as he tries to clear his grandfather’s name, and then contrasts this to her feelings towards her great-great-grandfather:

What I like about the grandfather paradox is that it treats time travel not as some lofty exercise in cultural tourism – looking over Melville’s shoulder as he wrote Moby-Dick – but as a petty excuse to bicker with and gun down one’s own relatives. I just so happen to have a grandfather who deserved it, my great-great-grandfather, John Vowell. The reason why I would set the wayback machine for the sole purpose of rubbing him out is this: In the 1860s, the teenage John Vowell joined up with pro-slavery guerrilla warrior William Clarke Quantrill, who has been called the “most hated man in the Civil War,” which is saying something.

Sarah, you had me at “rubbing him out,” you wacky woman.

Mostly, this book is a hodgepodge of facts, figures, and commentary related to the first three presidential assassinations:

  1. Lincoln (April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth)
  2. Garfield (July 2, 1881, Charles J. Guiteau)
  3. McKinley (September 6, 1901, Leon Czolgosz)

She’s focused on these three, I think, because they’re linked by Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who “was in close proximity” to all three assassinations. Robert Todd Lincoln gets a fair amount of space in this book as do a whole host of other characters. Vowell creatively brings in a bunch of tangential characters and weaves them into this milieu of political commentary and travelogue. Well done.

Yes, she has a political take that not all are going to agree with, especially Republicans and who think we’ve always been on the right track with our foreign policy. If you’re of this ilk, you may find Vowell full of hard edges. She wrote this book during the Iraq war and says:

When I told a friend I was writing about the McKinley administration, he turned up his nose and asked, “Why the hell would anyone want to read about that?” “Oh, I don’t know,” I answered. “Maybe because we seem to be reliving it?”

Even so, she shows her sentimental side often, like this passage about Garfield’s pessimism and his love for books:

As for me, coming across that downbeat commencement speech was the first time I really liked Garfield. It’s hard to have strong feelings about him. Before, I didn’t mind him, and of course I sympathized with his bum luck of a death. But I find his book addiction endearing, even a little titillating considering that he would sneak away from the house and the House to carry on a love affair with Jane Austen. In his diary he raves about an afternoon spent rearranging his library in a way that reminds me of the druggy glow you can hear in Lou Reed’s voice on “Heroin.”

Or she’ll speak lovingly of her nephew Owen, who accompanies her on many legs of the assassination vacation:

I have not been particularly shocked by how much I love Owen, but I am continually pleasantly surprised by how much I like him. He’s truly morbid. When he broke his collarbone by falling down some stairs he was playing on, an emergency room nurse tried to comfort him by giving him a cuddly stuffed lamb to play with. My sister, hoping to prompt a “thank you,” asked him, “What do you say, Owen?” He handed back the lamb, informing the nurse, “I like spooky stuff.”

I also liked the Chicago tie-ins; inevitable, you would think, because of Lincoln, but they’re a little more subtle than you would expect. For instance, she manages to throw in Daniel Burnham and Frank Lloyd Wright:

Secondly, with a building as iconic as the Lincoln Memorial, it’s such a given, seems so inevitable, I cannot imagine the Mall without it. Moreover, it’s so universally revered it’s hard to believe there were ever protests against the way it looked. But when Daniel Burnham, Cass Gilbert, Daniel Chester French, and their fellow commissioners chose Henry Bacon’s Greek temple design for the Lincoln Memorial in 1913, the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects, led by an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, threw a fit.

I’ll mention it again, this was a nice combo of humor and history and a great book. It will enlighten and entertain, and run you through a series of differing emotions. What more could you ask of a good book?


Just Kids

I was traveling in January, flipping through the channels in a Courtyard by Marriott, and came across Charlie Rose interviewing some woman. I didn’t know who it was but she was talking about rock ’n roll and something grabbed me about her. I eventually found out that the woman was artist/rocker/poet Patti Smith and she was talking mostly about her very special relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe and how it affected her life and music.

Mind you, I was not very familiar with these people. Heck, I get Patti (Patty) Smiths (Smyths) mixed up. I did a little research and it led me to this book. Just so you know, at the risk of insulting your pop-culture knowledge, this book is not about John McEnroe’s wife.

The meat of the book takes place between 1967 and 1975. In 1967 Smith moved to New York City to explore her artistic self. Through a series of chance meetings, she ended up building a relationship with Mapplethorpe and moved in with him before the end of the year. They had a romantic relationship, but weren’t completely compatible in the romance department because Mapplethorpe was gay. Their relationship was on a deeper level, they were much more than friends. They found in each other a perfect counterpart to support the others art. How lucky they were to find each other.

They struggled as starving artists but they gained some momentum in 1969 when they moved to the Chelsea Hotel. That’s when the excitement starts. The Chelsea Hotel was the center of the pop-culture universe in 1969. Here is how Smith describes a typical night in the El Quixote, a bar-restaurant attached to the Chelsea Hotel.

I was wearing a long rayon navy dress with white polka dots and a straw hat, my East of Eden outfit. At the table to my left, Janis Joplin was holding court with her band. To my far right were Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, along with members of Country Joe and the Fish. At the last table facing the door was Jimi Hendrix, his head lowered, eating with his hat on, across from a blonde. There were musicians everywhere, sitting before tables laid with mounds of shrimp with green sauce, paella, pitchers of sangria, and bottles of tequila.

This only scratched the surface. Besides the musicians, it was a hub for writers, poets, actors, painters, and sculptors. Smith and Mapplethorpe thrived in this atmosphere. They bounded along for a few years, supporting each other at every turn; Mapplethorpe exploring photography and partaking in the drug culture, Smith drawing, writing poetry, and dabbling in music, but staying out of the drug culture. In fact, in 1970 Smith was confronted with the opportunity to shoot up:

I almost fainted. I couldn’t even look at the syringe, let alone put it in my arm. “I’m not doing that,” I said.

They were shocked. “You never shot up?”

Everyone took it for granted that I did drugs because of the way I looked. I refused to shoot up.

She bought her first guitar in mid-July 1970 and got her first taste of fame after a successful poetry reading in 1971. However, she repelled this fame, despite questioning herself.

I thought of something I learned from reading Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas by Mari Sandoz. Crazy Horse believes that he will be victorious in battle, but if he stops to take spoils from the battlefield, he will be defeated.

By late 1972, neither had hit it big, but things were changing. Mapplethorpe met Sam Wagstaff, who became his lifetime partner and patron. Smith met Allen Lanier (Blue Öyster Cult), who inspired her music career and remained her companion throughout most of the 70s. With these new relationships, they left the Chelsea Hotel and sort of parted ways, but they still “lived within walking distance of each other.”

This little exchange in 1973 between Smith and Mapplethorpe should give a feel for the relationship; despite living apart and having others in their lives, they were still close:

I had seen The Harder They Come, and was stirred by the music. When I began listening to the soundtrack, following its trail to Big Youth and the Roys, U and I, it led me back to Ethiopia. I found irresistible the Rastafarian connection to Solomon and Sheba, and the Abyssinia of Rimbaud, and somewhere along the line I decided to try their sacred herb.

That was my secret pleasure until Robert caught me sitting alone, trying to stuff some pot in an empty Kool cigarette wrapper. I had no idea how to roll a joint. I was a little embarrassed, but he sat down on the floor, picked the seeds out of my small stash of Mexican pot, and rolled me a couple of skinny joints. He just grinned at me and we had a smoke, our first together.

After that, as fun as it was, I kept my pot smoking to myself, listening to Screaming Target, writing impossible prose. I never thought of pot as a social drug. I liked to use it to work, to think, and eventually for improvising with Lenny Kaye and Richard Sohl as the three of us would gather under a frankincense tree dreaming of Haile Selassie.

In 1975 she cut her first album, Horses, and Mapplethorpe took the picture for the cover. Smith says about the cover, “When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us.”

By 1978, they had pretty much arrived.

In 1978 Robert was immersed in photography. His elaborate framing mirrored his relationship with geometric forms. He had produced classical portraits, uniquely sexual flowers, and had pushed pornography into the realm of art. His present task was mastering light and achieving the densest blacks.

Also in 1978, “Because the Night,” Smith’s collaboration with Bruce Springsteen rose to number 13 on the top 40 chart. Smith describes Robert’s reaction as “admiration without envy, our brother-sister language.”

“Patti,” he drawled, “you got famous before me.”

In 1979 Smith married Fred Sonic Smith and moved out of New York. The book fast forwards at this point, because, I’m assuming, they became less dependent on each other. They were no longer “just kids,” but adults with families, spouses, partners, and careers.

ROBERT WAS DIAGNOSED WITH AIDS AT THE SAME time I found I was carrying my second child. It was 1986, late September, and the trees were heavy with pears. I felt ill with flulike symptoms, but my intuitive Armenian doctor told me that I wasn’t sick but in the early stages of pregnancy. “What you have dreamed for has come true,” he told me. Later, I sat amazed in my kitchen and thought that it was an auspicious time to call Robert.

Mapplethorpe died in 1989. It hit Smith hard. She went with her family to the beach to make sense of things.

Finally, by the sea, where God is everywhere, I gradually calmed. I stood looking at the sky. The clouds were the colors of a Raphael. A wounded rose. I had the sensation he had painted it himself. You will see him. You will know him. You will know his hand. These words came to me and I knew I would one day see a sky drawn by Robert’s hand.

Not sure I get all of that, but it’s beautiful writing. I didn’t really get the sense that she was religious so the God reference took me off-guard a little. The book ends here. I really enjoyed it. The story of their relationship was interesting and so was the discussion of this highly charged time of artistic rebellion.


The Gun

Occasionally I’ll read Wired Magazine. Mind you, I could do without magazines, they seem to clutter up the place. Heck, if it’s worth reading consistently, I’ll just subscribe online. However, my wife is an infovore so we do end up having a ton of magazines in our home (including Wired) and I do hammer through many of them. Same issue with cable; I’ll say, “I don’t need cable,” just before embarking on a ten hour college football watching binge. If it’s there, I’ll use it. I’m no stranger to hypocrisy. Anyway, because of all the magazines lying around, I happened to stumble upon an article in last month’s Wired about the AK-47 and I was compelled to get the book.

It’s called The Gun and it was written by a guy named C.J. Chivers. It’s part history, part social studies, and part politics. It’s all good. The gun referenced in the title is the Avtomat Kalishnikova 47. Avtomat because it’s an automatic – excess energy from the bullet is captured to work the mechanism such that the next bullet is seated and ready to fire without any human intervention. Kalishnikova because the man credited for it’s invention was one Michael Kalishnikov, although we will find out that he was definitely not solely responsible. And 47 because the year that the invention was basically complete and settled on was 1947.

Here’s the point of the AK-47 according to Chivers:

It was so reliable, even when soaked in bog water and coated with sand, that its Soviet testers had trouble making it jam. And its design was a testament to simplicity, so much so that its basic operation might be grasped within minutes, and Soviet teachers would soon learn that it could be disassembled and reassembled by Slavic schoolboys in less than thirty seconds flat. Together these traits meant that once this weapon was distributed, the small-statured, the mechanically disinclined, the dimwitted, and the untrained might be able to wield, with little difficulty or instruction, a lightweight automatic rifle that could push out blistering fire for the lengths of two or three football fields. For the purpose for which it was designed—as a device that allowed ordinary men to kill other men without extensive training or undue complications—this was an eminently well-conceived tool.

Chilling stuff isn’t it? Chivers is an ex-Marine and shared a Pulitzer for coverage of the war in Afghanistan. He seems to be qualified to sort through the history of this gun and makes it highly interesting. It’s about a lot more than the AK-47 though. He starts back in the Civil War, when Richard Gatling wrote a letter to Abe Lincoln describing the benefits of his hand-cranked machine gun. Gatling gave way to Hiram Maxim, who’s gun, unlike Gatling’s, was automatic. By the end of World War I, machine guns were everywhere, but one had still not been built that was small enough to be wielded effectively by one man; especially a small, untrained, dimwitted man, as Chivers would say. The German’s broke through thanks to Hugo Schmeisser and the American’s invented the Tommy Gun, but these had drawbacks that would eventually be addressed by the AK-47.

The former Soviet Union got this thing right. Notice, I didn’t say Kalishnikov got this thing right. Sure, he was instrumental, but for the most part, the invention “flowed from official directives and widespread collaboration and not from a flash of inspiration.” It was well-conceived and well-made, but then it got pushed it out to Soviet allies, and distribution went through the roof. Chivers talks about how other countries tweaked it throughout the 1950s making it even better, so by the time the Vietnam war rolled around it was decades ahead of the M-16, America’s flawed answer to the assault rifle. We really botched things. This quote by Chivers encapsulates things pretty well:

On the level of anticipating security threats, the Pentagon did not recognize the risks to its forces or its allies from the AK-47’s capabilities and global production. And as for designing infantry firearms, it remained obstinately committed to high-powered cartridges and rifles that fired them. Part of the bedrock belief was tradition. As with the European affection for bayonet and cavalry charges at the turn of the century, America was the victim of romance—with old-fashioned rifles and the sharpshooting riflemen who carried them.

Man, we screwed up, and it had a hugely negative effect on our ability succeed in Vietnam. Chivers puts it out there, that the AK-47 was a major factor in how obstinate our enemies were in Vietnam. He really throws the Army and Robert McNamara under the bus in a big way:

The early M-16 and its ammunition formed a combination not ready for war. They were a flawed pair emerging from a flawed development history. Prone to malfunction, they were forced into troops’ hands through a clash of wills and egos in Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s Pentagon.

He lays this thing at McNamara’s feet and details the negative reaction our troops in Vietnam had to using the M-16 and how vocal they were about it’s drawbacks. It’s not a pretty picture (don’t worry, we eventually figured it out and now the M-16 is solid). But in truth, Vietnam was a drop in the bucket compared to the fame that the AK-47 would achieve. In 1972, it figured prominently in the abduction of Jewish athletes in the Munich Olympics. This allowed the gun to make a leap, an infamous leap:

… After Munich, the Kalashnikov’s utility in crimes against civilians and public order would be demonstrated repeatedly, in hijackings, hostage seizures, assassinations, suicide rifle attacks, and summary executions, sometimes before video cameras, designed to sow hatred and fear.

This is what the AK-47 is today, the weapon of choice for terrorists and drug dealers, along with huge guerilla armies, often supplied by the US.

In this way, the United States military, since 2001, became one of the largest known purchasers of Kalashnikov assault rifles, which it has handed out by the tens of thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These things aren’t going away either.

The final factor will be time. Kalashnikovs are sturdy, but not indestructible. They can and do break—sometimes when backed over by an armored vehicle or car, sometimes when struck by bullets or shrapnel, occasionally when warped by fire. If left exposed and unattended long enough, they can succumb to pitting, corrosion, and rust. With the passing of many years, the combined tally of these forces will bring an end to these weapons. But in another half-century, or century, the rifles will have broken, one by one, and the chance exists that they will no longer be a significant factor in war, terror, atrocity, and crime, and they will stop being a barometer of the insecurity gripping many regions of the world. Until that time, they will remain in view and in use.

I love the wry humor (“sometimes when backed over by an armored vehicle or car”). They’ve reached saturation folks, they’re all over the place in numbers so innumerable that it may not make any sense to try and systematically rid the world of them, like we attempt to do with nukes and land mines. So instead, let’s learn from it. Let’s try and duplicate it’s success in our business and personal lives. This product is still thriving after more than 60 years. Sixty years! Here are a few lessons Chivers conveys.

  • Don’t stray from project goals. Analyze the desired use case, set goals, and stay the course.
  • Design for the lesser skilled, the least knowledgeable, the careless, and the destructive.
  • Buck conventional wisdom for the sake of simplicity. Prioritize form over function, know when heavy and loose is not a negative.
  • Make upgrades and iterations simple, and do them rapidly. Testing and debugging are part of the process, not an afterthought.
  • State projects benefit greatly from openness and competition. All organizations should be cognizant of the fact that a closed-door procurement session could be suboptimal.

I’m sure there are other lessons. It’s too bad such an item of mass destruction gets to reinforce these ideas.