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This best-selling memoir relates Cheryl Strayed’s 1995 1100-mile Pacific Crest Trail hike, from lower California through Oregon. I’d urged it on one of my book groups, but an outdoorsy member objected vehemently: “You don’t go on such a hike as unprepared as she was. It’s just stupid.”
Strayed, then 26, was kind of messed up, from her mother’s death, her recent divorce, and a heavy heroin bout. She embarked on this extreme hike – without much relevant experience – hoping to find herself. Or something.
Well, she wasn’t totally unprepared; in fact, did quite a lot of planning and prep work, including acquiring a ton of gear, and arranging a series of resupply boxes to be mailed to her along the route. But for all the actually meticulous planning, she did stupidly omit something obvious: a trial run.
“Ton of gear” was a slight overstatement, but only slight. The book describes her organizing it in her motel room the day before starting out, cataloguing all the items. While reading, I’m thinking, “how much does all this weigh?”
Well, somehow Strayed did manage to maneuver what she dubbed “Monster” onto her back, and even to stand up, and walk with it. Eventually a more experienced hiker she meets on the trail persuades her to offload some of her excess burden.
The other obvious (even to me) thing you’d want to test out beforehand is how the boots fit. Fairly critical, you’d think. They seemed to fit fine, in the store. On the trail, not so much.
But later we learn this wasn’t as disastrous as it might seem. The ill-fitting boots were from a company called REI, and after suffering in them for hundreds of miles, wrecking her feet, another hiker tells Strayed to call REI and they’ll send her a larger pair, free. She did, and they did. So after losing the first pair, she managed to hobble on makeshift duct-taped sandals to the next settlement to collect the replacement boots.
Unsurprisingly, Strayed has some glowing words for REI and its customer service. This points up something I’ve stressed often. With all the “corporate-this, corporate-that” invective, many people view businesses in general as impersonal malefactors caring only for profits. And admittedly some are. But this ignores a basic aspect of the human character, and businesses are human enterprises. Most people don’t want to see themselves as evil but, rather, as doing good.
Thus REI’s kind of customer service is not in fact uncommon. (I’ve mentioned my terrific experience with 48 Hour Books.) Many businesses realize it’s actually good for the bottom line. In the long run, it’s those behaving like REI and 48 Hour that succeed and prosper. And, if you think about it, the great majority of your interactions with businesses are altogether positive.
But competition is a crucial factor here. I’ve also written of my less-than-terrific experience with enterprises that don’t really have to compete for my dollar (eBay and the Postal Service). That’s why I’m a believer in free market economics. Any government intervention should aim at greater competition, but too often actually undermines it (by aiding some businesses to the detriment of others).
Another company Strayed lauds is Snapple, whose lemonade was a sublime treat at civilization stops after long hiking stretches. Likewise she makes the reader almost salivate at how luscious a cheeseburger tasted on such occasions. This points up another of my pet themes: how we take civilization and its benefits for granted. Cheryl Strayed, after a couple of weeks roughing it, most certainly did not. Coming out of the woods, a Snapple lemonade and a cheeseburger were for her a Very Big Deal.
So, did the hike straighten out her life? As we used to say in grade school book reports, read Wild and find out.
Finally, you might ask, is there any sex in it? There is. Only one episode, really. But hot enough that it made me put the book down and go looking for my wife.
April is National Poetry Month. So – having authored a novel as well as books about politics, coin collecting, and what I hubristically call philosophy – it’s time for my poetry book.
My wife Therese Broderick is the real poet in the family, with a degree and everything. When she started going to open mikes, I’d go with her. So much left-wing stuff, I once remarked. She replied, “You should do some right-wing poetry.” Not that I’m really “right-wing.” But I tried; it was very hard; the left has all the good tropes. So my first effort was, actually, a parody of a lefty rant. In fact I titled it “Rant.” After I read it at an open mike, one gal gushed that she loved it. I didn’t have the heart to ask if she realized it was a satire.
But my poetry book is apolitical. I had also started giving my wife poems for birthdays and anniversaries and like occasions. This past Valentine’s Day she surprised me with an album housing all those poems that she’d kept – and encouraged me to publish them.
The edgy and imaginative title is Love Poems. (I preferred Love & Sex Poems, but wifey said no.) It contains 37 poems and poem-like things. Some are indeed sexy, some serious, some sappy, some silly (this is called “alliteration,” it’s a poetic device), and a few in Spanish (which my wife has been studying. My own high school Spanish being pretty rusty, I took it as a challenge to see what I could do with a limited vocabulary; though I may have cheated a bit using Google Translate.)
This beautiful book (well, the binding and printing are beautiful at least; done by 48 Hour Books, I can’t recommend them highly enough) is attractively priced at just $3.99; plus $1 mailing cost (within USA; Paypal OK; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; address Box 8600, Albany, NY 12208).
But here is a free sample – this one was for Therese’s Fifty-first birthday:
The latest version!
New and improved!
Fully updated and state-of-the art,
Retaining all the best features
Of the previous versions,
While fixing, of course,
Their bugs and glitches.
I want to launch you on my desktop,
With soft mouse clicks,
Through my fingers
That caress your icon,
My face pressed up
Against the screen,
My eyes devouring
Your luscious code,
Stripped down to
Its naked noughts and ones;
I want to penetrate
Your open logic gate,
You killer app, you.
I can hardly wait
For Therese 5.2
I’ve written before of my difficulties getting it on with women. Being such a rationalist, I thought the way to go about it was to treat them nicely. Silly clueless me. I didn’t grasp the attraction of bad boys. Excitement. Danger. Trouble. It can be like catnip to women. But I was constitutionally incapable of acting the bad boy. Except for one time . . . .
In April 1975, I had a dental appointment. The usual receptionist was away; the dentist’s young daughter was filling in. She seemed pleasant. So after the novocain wore off, I phoned and asked her out. Her name was Pam.
Now, what I mean by “contingency” is how our lives hang by slender threads of probability – or, rather, improbability. Of course it was chance that the receptionist was out that day. And I was seeing that dentist only because, years before, I’d happened to date a girl named Noreen, and somehow the subject came up, and she’d recommended him.
More contingency: on the First of that April in ’75 (“hardly a man is now alive”), while out walking, I had seen a girl shlepping stuff. Maybe fifteen seconds, either way, and our paths wouldn’t have crossed. But they did, she looked hot, so I offered to help her, moving into a big apartment building on my block, that was full of single girls. Its official name was “The Willett.” I called it the Cockteaser Building.
So I pestered this chick, Donna, for a date, she was indifferent, but eventually let me take her to a party she wanted to go to. Soon after our arrival, Donna was draped in the lap of another guy. Soon after that, I told her I’d called a cab. Our ride back was silent.
I am deeply ashamed to say I nevertheless continued to pursue Donna. (She was a looker.) I took her out to dinner. She brought a book along. I said, “You must be expecting a dull evening.” And indeed, at the restaurant, she opened the book. I told her to put it away, and she complied; but again silence descended. Back at the Cockteaser Building, I finally gave Donna my candid evaluation. She just shrugged and walked away.
Contingency: this whole Donna debacle was significant only because at that party, the host, seeing the situation, had taken me aside, and said, “This girl’s no good. I know someone better for you.”
Now, remember Pam, the dentist’s daughter? My date with her hadn’t yet happened. But so bedazzled by Christina was I, that I decided to just blow off Pam. I called her and cancelled – and gave the reason with insouciant, brutal candor. “You’ll survive,” I may even have said. Totally out of character.
The phone rings. “Hi, it’s Pam,” the cheery voice says. Why on Earth would she be calling me? But, after some meaningless chit-chat, she asks me out.
No girl had ever done that. And none had I ever treated so callously. Christina’s mind-warping effect had turned me, momentarily at least, into a bad boy – and that made me (in contrast to my normal milquetoast persona) intriguing and attractive to Pam. She’d apparently spent the ensuing month obsessing about me and psyching herself up for her wildly gutsy phone call.
So my relationship with Pam started on a completely different footing from any preceding one. And, unlike all those others, it lasted – twelve years.
Not all of those years were wonderful. Ten were not. Two were excruciating. But they got me to the place where, on May 2, 1988, I found the girl of my dreams and the love of my life, Therese.
Contingency: Noreen, Donna, Christina, Pam, Therese. Every link in the chain was necessary. No Noreen, no dentist; no Donna, no Christina; no Christina, no bad boy; no bad boy, no 12 years of Pam; no 12 years, no Therese.* Thank you, Donna!
Oh; and yes, Therese lived in the Cockteaser Building. And no, I didn’t act the bad boy with her.
* There was actually a further contingency: after Pam left, I came within a half inch of marrying someone else; only a fluke intervened. But that’s another story.
Russo’s actual title is a backhanded reference to his childhood home town, Gloversville, NY, which figures prominently in the book — “elsewhere” is where he’d much rather be. But the book is mainly centered upon Russo’s mother, Jean. As indeed was he, for most of his life.
Jean worked for GE; though we’re never told precisely what her job was, it was apparently a good one, making her that ‘50s-60s rara avis, a career girl. Russo mentions several times her picture in a slick GE magazine — the epitome of a stylish woman.
Russo’s father, a feckless gambler and boozer, jumped ship early. But Russo kept some contact with him, and eventually he relates that, about age 21, his dad told him, “You know your mother is nuts, right?” It was meant literally, and Russo did know, though it was a shock to confront the truth so bluntly. Yet Russo continued to treat his deeply involved relationship with Jean as the most natural thing in the world.
Their fateful Rubicon was a cross-country trip Russo made, to go to college, in Arizona — with Jean deciding to come along, making it their joint escape from hated Gloversville. She said, and maybe believed, a job was awaiting her at an Arizona GE facility. Not so; and that was when Russo began to realize his mom was “off-kilter.”
But for the next four decades Russo was a B’rer Rabbit stuck to the tar baby of Jean and her idiosyncrasies — though he seemed oddly quite fine with it. This didn’t change with his young marriage to Barbara. There were really, as Princess Di famously said of her own situation, three in the marriage. The book tells us very little about Barbara (which itself is telling), but she must have been either a saint or a masochist to put up with the supervening role that Jean, and Jean’s issues, played in their lives.
A particular torture was finding apartments for Jean, because so many it can’t be this and it can’t be thats did she posit that rare indeed was the apartment she’d agree to occupy. So Russo spent a major chunk of his life apartment hunting for his mother. And even seemingly perfect ones usually wouldn’t work out. And then, when at long last, he’s actually managed to get Jean well settled in a place she likes — he decides, for not very compelling reasons, to move the family. I was thinking, “This is nuts.” (As did Russo himself, before long.)
But “this is nuts” was a recurring thought of mine throughout the book. My own relationship with my parents (and, indeed, with my daughter) was/is frankly toward the other end of the spectrum. At least I haven’t had the kind of intergenerational conflicts that afflict so many people; but nor the depth of intimacy in Elsewhere. Only with my wife do I have such a close relationship. But maybe this is not exactly “normal” either. And while I was contrasting Russo’s situation against my own, I tried to refrain from judging his as bad or wrong. Russo didn’t see it that way, and after all it was his his life, which he actually seemed to find rewarding in a way, and missed when that aspect of it ended.
After Jean’s death, Russo’s daughter has a bout of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; and when he reads up on it, he realizes that’s what Jean had too. And that he had handled it the wrong way, as an enabler, rather than trying to get her proper treatment. His retrospective feelings about his mother become mixed with guilt.
Only once, toward the end, does he ever say he loved her. But “love” is too simple a word anyway. Our connections with other people are tangled with complexities, and that’s what our lives are really all about. In Richard Russo’s case, the focus of all that was his mother; that’s what his life was mainly about. It may not be exactly the kind of life that you or I would wish to live, but we’re not him, and his was, for all its seeming weirdness, a quintessentially human life and, in its way, a rich one.
We saw Pacific Rim because we were at a resort and that was the film shown. The night before was Grown Ups 2; it had a great cast; but also Adam Sandler. We left after 20 minutes. But Pacific Rim was sufficiently entertaining that we watched the whole thing.
Set in the near future, the film’s essence is conveyed in my heading: REALLY BIG monsters. And I do mean BIG. They’re called “Kaiju,” a Japanese word for “monster,” especially of the Godzilla type, and Pacific Rim’s Kaiju are supersized Godzillas on steroids. In researching this blog post (what, you think I just pop them off? They’re intensively researched) I came across this Wikipedia gem: “Kaiju are typically modeled after conventional animals, insects or mythological creatures; however, there are more exotic examples . . . monsters based on traffic lights, faucets and tomatoes [or] based on household objects such as umbrellas and utility ladders.”
I don’t know about you, but I’d love to see a film with umbrella monsters, or utility ladder monsters. Now that’s scary.
But Pacific Rim’s Kaiju are more orthodox beasts; though at least each differs from its confreres. Now, for combating this menace, humanity’s powers-that-be must have seen enough films in this genre to believe that conventional weapons would not work; that bullets and bombs would scarcely tickle them (but see below). I myself might have sought for a biological-type approach. But no; instead, Mankind hits upon the brilliant innovative tactic of . . . wait for it . . . punching them.
This is the Jaeger (pronounced “Yager”) program. “Jaeger” is German for “hunter” (more research). Jaegers are humanoid contraptions (I understand “mecha” is the term of art here (yet more research)) as big as the Kaiju themselves, costing $100 billion each to construct, and deployed to engage Kaiju in fistfights. I kid you not.
Jaegers are piloted by humans, but the task is so daunting it takes two, joined in some kind of mind-meld. You might think they’d have elaborate control panels. But no; they control the Jaeger by miming bodily its intended motions, which are transmitted mechanically by gears and pulleys. Super high-tech!
They do utilize rocket engines. How? Why, of course, to add oomph to their punches! And they have some additional weapons. Late in the film, battling a Kaiju high in the sky – as an apparent last resort – the Jaegermeisters deploy . . . wait for it . . . the sword. Yes; it unfolds like a switchblade, and swiftly slices the Kaiju apart. Why didn’t they use this more? Not in the script. Better to just pick up handfuls of shipping containers to bash Kaiju with. Or ships, to use as clubs. Much cooler visuals.
But lest you think the Jaegers were limited to Fifth Century BC war technology, earlier in the film one’s chest opened to reveal a battery of . . . wait for it . . . cannons. And blew away that Kaiju. But if that would work . . . well, it does make one question the film’s basic logic. Never has so much lavish production value been invested in a premise so fundamentally silly.
Speaking of silly investments, when the Jaegers are failing, humanity turns to Plan B . . . wait for it . . . a wall. Perhaps inspired by Israel’s success keeping out Pales-tinian terrorists. However, Kaiju are tougher customers than Palestinians, and it seemed nobody ran studies of how the wall would work before wasting mega-billions on this cyclopean construction project, which inconveniences the rampaging Kaiju only momentarily.
But (spoiler alert) the Jaegers come through in the end and save us.
Curiously, director Guillermo del Toro is some kind of pacifist, and for all the violence in this hyperslugfest, one never sees a human actually harmed by a Kaiju (except for one quasi-villain swallowed, but even he escapes). “I don’t want people being crushed,” del Toro said (more research); he strangely added: “There is no fear of a copycat kaiju attack because a kaiju saw it on the news and said, ‘I’m going to destroy Seattle.’” Huh?
The Brobdingnagian size of the Kaiju made me recall a (very) short story I read long ago, with even bigger monsters, perhaps the biggest ever the mind of man conceived. Thanks to remembering the last line, I was able to find the story online – to read it click here.
November 27 is my 25th wedding anniversary. Such occasions can be considered meaningless calendrical artifacts. But they do provide prompts for reflection and celebration. Yet in truth I hardly need it, since no day goes by without my reflecting upon and celebrating my marriage.
My wife has said she feels the lack of a sociability brain module that others have; and I feel that myself. There’s a lot of the loner in me. And, when I belatedly got ‘round to hankering after women, I was pretty clueless in going about it. Doubtful of my ability to land a great catch, I’d have settled for less; I cringe to think of some of the unsuitable women I pursued, fortunately without success. It’s an irony that the one I actually did get was the best of them all.
And whereas, for most people, by my stage of life, those fires have dimmed to embers, I am having it backwards – having now what normally comes with youth. It’s said that youth is wasted on the young, and in the sense meant, I certainly wasted mine; but I’m making up for it now, certainly not wasting my elderhood. And the inversion seems advantageous, since now I have the seasoned wisdom to appreciate the gift.
What I mean to say is that I’m actually more in love with my wife than ever. Couplings are supposed to start out passionate and then ratchet down to tamer feelings. This too I’ve inverted. If my marrying Therese was more from intellect than passion – really a utilitarian judgment – that judgment has been wholly vindicated, and the feelings once tame have grown intense.
But, of course, just as my choice 25 years ago was not from heedless passion, nor is my passion now heedless either. It rises from what she is and what we are together. Quite simply, we have a beautiful life together. One of the big mistakes in marriage is the hope of changing the other person – an error we’ve never made. Indeed, acceptance of each’s nature, and allowing each to be him/herself, is a fundamental principle of our marriage. But perhaps for us that’s easy. Or for me, at least; maybe the most annoying things about Therese are her leaving windows open, and dishes in the sink; at which I just smile, small prices to pay for all that’s wonderful about her. How splendid it is to be greeted each morning with her smile.
I’ve read that the key to happiness is: low expectations. You’re less likely to be disappointed, and more likely to be pleasantly surprised. It’s worked for me; I am still in a state of pleasant surprise at what I’ve gotten.
Yet one can see life as ultimately cruel and tragic. Nothing is given to us without its finally being taken away. The beautiful life Therese and I have will end. But no law of the universe decreed our entitlement to such a gift at all. We can only rejoice at what we’ve been given.
“Nestor Chylak killed Kennedy,” was a graffiti I found scratched on a wooden school desk almost 50 years ago. It lodged in my brain because it seemed to neatly satirize already rampant assassination conspiracy theories. I didn’t know who, if anyone, Nestor Chylak was. (A baseball umpire, I just now learned by googling; he had no (known) connection to JFK.)
It’s easy to see why so many people disbelieve the official Warren Commission story. It does seem unlikely that such a messed up twerp like Oswald could have pulled off hitting a moving target so far distant. But the real joker in the deck was Jack Ruby, shooting Oswald on live TV (I was watching), defying reasonable (non-conspiracy) explanation.
Facts are the grist of the conspiracy mill; with bushels of them you can pick out a select few and string them together to concoct whatever tale you want. The JFK assassination entails bushels of facts, factlets, and factoids. And it becomes even easier when you include non-facts.
I recently heard radio interviews with authors of two new JFK conspiracy books. One said Nixon knew Ruby, who had worked for him during the HUAC days. The other said Ruby knew Oswald.
Now, this sounded interesting. I haven’t read either book, so don’t know what evidence is adduced. But I do know “facts” can be asserted without genuine evidence. Anyway, it made me read a bit about Ruby, whose involvement had always seemed so puzzling. Well, his working for Nixon circa 1950 just makes no sense. At that time Ruby was a no-account nobody, a million miles from Washington or Nixon. His knowing Oswald also seems implausible because they inhabited totally different worlds.
What is true is that Ruby had contacts with some big mobsters. However, that all related to issues with the strip clubs Ruby ran. Meantime, he was such an unreliable low-life that it’s hard to imagine entrusting him with any role in some high level plot to kill the president. Or even Oswald.
So why on earth did Ruby shoot Oswald, if not to silence him and cover up some big conspiracy? That idea screams out at us; and yet, this would merely have substituted Ruby as the link to the conspiracy, as weak a link as Oswald himself. Again, if there were some deep conspiracy involving LBJ, the CIA, the Secret Service, the Mafia, etc., would they have relied upon such bozo creeps as Oswald and Ruby?
And can we believe that all these necessary participants (it could not have been the work of just a few): a) agreed to join in such a great crime, with huge personal risk but in many cases nothing to gain; b) executed a convoluted plot so flawlessly that the most intensive of investigations failed to reveal it; c) which plot, incidentally, supposedly required several additional murders; and d) managed to keep all this secret over decades?
Read Tim Weiner’s book, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, and then consider whether such a huge government plot could have succeeded so masterfully and secretly.
Sherlock Holmes said that once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Oswald alone killed Kennedy with two lucky shots. Ruby killed Oswald in a bizarre act that cannot rationally be understood. That’s the improbable truth.
I worked at the New York Public Service Commission from 1970 to 1997. Periodically we have retiree reunion lunches. It can feel like entering a time capsule. Some people seem not to age, or even to improve. At the latest gathering, one who was an old woman 20 years ago was actually looking so good that if I were single . . . but maybe that just shows I’m getting old.
A former colleague, Jeff, was reminiscing about how much fun we used to have back in the day. To illustrate, he quoted a line from one of my own legal briefs, from 1977. It wasn’t even a case he’d worked on, yet he remembered it. Oddly enough, I’d recently stumbled on a copy of that very brief, and showed it to my daughter, to make the same point. Early in my career I had found it advantageous to be known for putting zingers in briefs — it got people to read them.
This one was actually my last as an advocate in the trenches; I’d already been named a judge. So I made the most of that final fling, firing away with all guns blazing, and had a fat target – the telephone company’s petition for rehearing on its rate case, re-arguing points already fully dealt with. One of them I labeled “grass processed through the digestive system of a horse.” I don’t know that that was really so clever, but nevertheless it did become kind of famous among old PSC hands – as evidenced by Jeff’s remembering the line 36 years later!
That – not any of my six books – is probably the only sort of immortality I’ll ever have.
The fall of ’73 was a strenuous time for me. At the PSC where I worked, the utilities we regulated were in crisis. My book about the Albany political machine had just been published. And, as a ward leader, I was deep in a tough election campaign.
One of my foot-soldiers was Dawn, into whose crazy-quilt household crashed her sister, Mickey, having left her husband. Mickey was attractive and dynamic, and I went out with her.
In conversation, the subject of travel came up. I said I could really use a vacation, but had no one to travel with. So Mickey volunteered! We quickly settled on Mexico; it would have to be after the election. “And to make it interesting,” she said, “let’s agree not to see each other till we leave.”
OK, I said. Mickey did make a point of confiding the information that she was considered “a great lay.”
Mind you, I was still practically a virgin then. (I don’t count the hooker in Rome.) So to say I looked forward to this trip would be an understatement.
You might think this tale a little flaky. But it gets worse.
It’s Mickey. She’s gotten a job offer she can’t refuse. Must start right away. No Mexico.
To say I was crushed would be an understatement. I had told everyone at work, and my family, I was going to Mexico with a chick. How puffed up I’d been! What humiliation loomed now! To go alone would be pathetic.
“So how am I supposed to find somebody to go to Mexico in a few hours?” I say to Mickey, seemingly a futile rhetorical question.
“Well, do you know Nancy, who lives here?” Mickey says.
“No. Put her on.”
Nancy says yes. And we go. (In pre-9/11 times, the name on a plane ticket didn’t matter. Remember?)
Nancy proved to be personable and pleasant, and we had a fun adventure together. I did try one polite attempt on her virtue, which was politely rebuffed. Nancy was clear that my paying for the trip didn’t make her my girlfriend. I wasn’t actually pissed about this. It merely made this big blind date with Nancy no different from any other date I’d had.
Ironically, we had to register in hotels as man-and-wife, Mexico being very Catholic. It was also cheap, with a highly favorable exchange rate. Our first night, we dined in a lovely restaurant, a multi-course meal, complete with margaritas. When the bill arrived, in pesos, it translated into two dollars and change.
On the return trip we got stuck overnight in New York, and since my parents lived near the airport, we stayed with them. I’d previously described my intended travel companion as tall, skinny, and dark haired. Nancy was none of those things. They’d already looked askance at my plans, and now were further confuzzled.
After getting home to Albany, I never heard from Nancy again. Nor Mickey; I think she went back to her husband.
In retrospect, there’s something fishy about this story. The “let’s make it interesting” thing. The last-minute phone call. Nancy being ready to go. It had to be some kind of set-up. But why? What was the logic?
Sometimes life doesn’t follow logic. This happened. It remains a mystery to me. Like the Great Seventh Grade Poetry Report mystery. Maybe someday I’ll tell that one.