My dear friend, Angie Stiepel Case, challenged me to select my ten favorite books and then I’m supposed to nominate ten other friends to do the same- like a Facebook literary chain letter. I adore Angie but I have a paranoid suspicion that this was invented by some fiendish Facebook employee as a means of getting us all to give up precious, marketable details about our literary tastes that will be exploited by aggressive algorithms that will populate our newsfeeds with ever more highly targeted ads designed to penetrate our very psyches.
So here are my ten, complete with humorous anecdotes and memories attached. Considering all the books ever written, I would say my selections reveal me to be a fairly shallow individual who was basically formed in the 70’s and 80’s and never really grew up. But I’m happy that way.
In no particular order:
The World According to Garp– John Irving: The book was better than the movie which starred Robin Williams as Garp. But the film had a great scene that lives in my memory forever. Garp and his wife are looking to buy a house and as they step out of their car onto the driveway, a small plane crashes through the roof of the place. Garp immediately puts an offer on the home asking what are the chances that happens again.
Little Big Man– Thomas Berger: The film directed by Arthur Penn and starring Dustin Hoffman is one of my all-time favorites. Hoffman is the 104-year old Jack Crabb who recounts a life of “injuns,” (raised by the Cheyenne nation) and savage U.S. cavalry, with real life characters like Wild Bill Hickok and George Armstrong Custer. Chief Dan George was nominated for an academy award. Author, Thomas Berger, passed away last July and I bought the book and it is just as fantastic and touching as the movie. He is a terrific writer. In its day, the book and movie were considered a protest of sorts against the U.S. military during the Vietnam War era, but it stands on its own without that baggage and reads like one of the best historical novels on the American west…ever.
Contact– Carl Sagan: Another book turned into a movie starring Jodie Foster and Mathew McConaughey. They are very different works. The movie does the best job ever of depicting the moment contact is made with intelligent life. The audio representation of the contact is not scientifically accurate at all but the poetic license taken is totally justified. The movie does not have what was the mind-blowing ending in Carl Sagan’s novel. One of the best science fiction endings of all time, in my opinion. Hidden, deep, deep in the calculation of Pi, a super computer discovers a pattern that is an undeniable message from an alien force so powerful, it can alter mathematics; a force so clever that it knows its message cannot be found until a civilization builds powerful enough computing skills to demonstrate the necessary technical proficiency and advancement. Carl Sagan!
Lincoln– Gore Vidal: One of the best historical novels of all time. Vidal paints a vivid picture of civil war Washington, complete with its houses of ill repute, the dusty streets, the stench of the canal that ran behind the White House, spies that crossed the Long Bridge to enter Washington from Virginia. A masterful, memorable work.
Chesapeake, Space, Alaska– James A. Michner: Ok, three books listed as one but it’s Michner. I remember reading just about all his books on various beaches over various summers. This trio are my favorites.
Lucifer’s Hammer– Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: One of my favorite post-apocolyptic novels. Big Meteorite hits the Earth head-on. The build-up is terrific. The strike itself is well-described- like the surfers who paddle into the Pacific to catch the wave of their lives- a full-fledged tsunami that leaves one of them dying spectacularly as he slams into a Los Angeles skyscraper. Good stuff.
Rendevous with Rama– Arthur C. Clarke: Layer upon layer of imagination and mind-bending discoveries aboard a gigantic alien vessel with breath-taking detail, a master work by the greatest science fiction writer of all time.
The Iowa Baseball Confederacy– W.P. Kinsella: One of the lesser known baseball novels by the author of Field of Dreams. A bizarre, metaphysical, mysterious journey through the prism of a baseball game that refuses to end.
The Pillars of the Earth– Ken Follet: You have to love a historical novel about the building of cathedrals that stars as its protagonist a man named Tom Builder. The middle ages in a wonderful mix of palace intrigue, intimate character development and medieval architecture.
Breakfast of Champions– Kurt Vonnegut: The favorite author of my youth. I read everything he wrote and then wrote like him. And thought like him. Biting satire; humor with meaning. He was my literary hero. Breakfast of Champions is notable in my life for the following weird reason. I had a final paper due in college- a dense book review due at 8am. At 10pm, I had not written a word. But I had just read Breakfast of Champions. I plopped a coffee and a bottle of no-doz on the 7-11 counter. The cashier must have sensed I was a young college student preparing for a cram session and magically produced a couple of amphetamines. It was destiny. I swear, it’s the only time I ever took white crosses. But that was 1975 and the statute of limitations has surely run out by now.
Anyway, the journey that followed was a spirited creative frenzy, to say the least. For those who may not have read the book, Kurt Vonnegut himself makes an appearance in the novel and totally freaks out his own main character by revealing himself as his creator. I drew up a three-tiered chart explaining each reality-within-reality that Vonnegut constructed. I wrote whimsically about the hilarious diagrams Vonnegut sprinkled throughout the book like the thing that looked pretty much like an asterisk * – which was Vonnegut’s representation of an asshole. I’m sure I wrote other much more intelligent things that I’ve since forgotten because I really was on quite a roll.
I think I may have also written a review of Welcome to the Monkey House. That was a collection of Vonnegut short stories that features my all-time favorite- Thomas Edison’s Shaggy Dog. The famous inventor creates a head-phone-like device that can measure intelligence. He notices his dog looking a little nervous. Edison puts the headphones on the dog and sure enough, the IQ level is three times that of his own. The dog admits the great scam that has been perpetrated on the human race and later has to pay the price, attacked by all the neighborhood dogs who caught wind that he had betrayed the ancient secret.
I drove to school, turned the paper in at precisely 8am drove back home and passed out. The following week I got an A+. On my final. Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut. Always and forever.
I am currently refraining from naming the ten others I would challenge for their favorite books in case this really is a ruse by evil algorithm creators. I will revisit the matter at a later time. I trust this is not like breaking a chain letter and that I now have 7 years of bad luck or something.
– The 7-year-old son of an Australian member of ISIS is pictured holding the decapitated head of a soldier, a photo distributed on social media by his father.
– A white towel drapes the corpse of 18 year old, Mike Brown, an unarmed black man, two days from starting his first day at college, shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri last weekend.
– Far-ranging rockets fly into the night, aimed at Israeli citizens while shells land in “safe” places housing Palestinian refugees, wounding and killing women and children.
– Another 135 people die in a single day from the deadly Ebola virus, now spreading through West Africa.
– An actor and comedian who captured our hearts for over three decades with his obvious love and passion for life, kills himself- the victim of a deep depression.
– An airliner with 300 innocents aboard gets shot out of the sky over Ukraine and it is days before repatriation of the bodies and burials can take place as armed insurgents keep even investigators from reaching the scene.
– Thousands of Central American children who survive a 1,300 mile trek to the American border escaping violent gangs in their home countries, are dispersed throughout towns and villages in the U.S. while the government decides what do with them. In many of those towns, angry protestors demand the children leave and let it be known they are not welcome.
– American politicians forget the art of compromise and the business of governing grinds to a halt as partisan gridlock leaves our Congress as one of the least respected institutions in the nation, unable to address any of the country’s problems.
These eight news stories have one thing in common. These are the headlines of our summer of 2014. I am not alone in remarking about how bleak and horrible the world seems right now. Certainly, for those of us who work in the news business, where these dismal stories are part of our normal routine, it is hard to take. And for those not in the media or journalism worlds, it is all equally appalling and sad.
There is only one answer to this as far as I can tell. The world, despite our best efforts, is not going to fix itself. But you do have the power, mostly, of determining what information you receive. So unplug. Just disconnect every now and then. Don’t watch the news. Stay away from news web sites. Go outside. Breath clean air. Go for a walk. Take in a comedy club. Go to a baseball game. Rediscover your partner.
We all need to take a break from this horrid summer of news. For our own mental health.
Shortly after the Winter Olympics, back when Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and was making moves into eastern Ukraine, he seemed to become the darling of some of the administration’s harshest foreign policy critics.
After the action in Crimea, former New York Mayor, Rudi Giuliani, seemed to admire how the Russian leader was so decisive, telling Fox News’ Neil Cavuto, “[H]e makes a decision and he executes it, quickly. And then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader,” Giuliani said.
In March, Sarah Palin, said this to Sean Hannity:
Well, yes, especially under the commander-in-chief that we have today because Obama’s — the perception of him and his potency across the world is one of such weakness. And you know, look, people are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.
Rush Limbaugh weighed in too:
Well, did you hear that the White House put out a photo of Obama talking on the phone with Vlad, and Obama’s sleeves were rolled up? That was done to make it look like Obama was really working hard—I mean, really taking it seriously. His sleeves were rolled up while on the phone with Putin! Putin probably had his shirt off practicing Tai-Chi while he was talking to Obama.
Michigan Congressman, Mike Rogers, head of the House Intelligence Committee:
Putin is playing chess and I think we’re playing marbles.
You get the drift.
Regrettably for the man who would wrestle bears and drill for oil, it would appear that the luster is now off the big crush. Being connected to the downing of a civilian airliner has that effect. But now it’s getting even worse. Even Europe, deathly afraid of imposing serious sanctions against the Russians for fear of hurting their economies, is beginning to stir. The leaders of Britain, Germany and France had a telephone conference over the weekend and appear to be heading for more substantive actions against Putin.
The Dutch, who suffered more fatalities than any other nation in the downing of the Malaysian airliner, were described at first, as being in a deep state of shock and mourning. But now, after the Russian separatists who control the accident site continue to reportedly restrict access to international investigators; after the disturbingly callous and incompetent handling of the remains of the dead becomes more and more evident- they are described as furious.
Turns out, or so it seems, that Mr. Putin was not playing chess very well. That would require one to look several steps ahead. He doesn’t appear to be the “long-view,” strategic type, to say the least. In fact, I’d say he’s been revealed to be playing a game of one-dimensional checkers all along.
He also strikes me as the type who, when sensing he’s on the losing side, will never give in, and instead of losing graciously, is more likely to upend the entire checker board and stalk off, blaming it all on a sudden gust of wind. Very manly, indeed.
They were spurned almost four years ago to the day. It was on ESPN’s special program, “The Decision,” one of the oddest blends ever of marketing, entertainment and sports “journalism,” that LeBron James announced he was leaving Cleveland and taking his talents to Miami and in an instant became one of the most vilified athletes in pro sports, despised not just in Cleveland but especially in Cleveland (and greater Ohio in general).
But the dream of a half dozen straight NBA titles was emphatically silenced by the San Antonio Spurs who demolished the Miami Heat in the finals and now LeBron tells Sports Illustrated- he’s going back home. This is a way worst Cleveland team than he left so it’s not a bid for immediate glory. It seems to be entirely because it really is home. Home for LeBron (he’s a native of Akron). Home for his wife and family.
Is all forgiven? It seems so. Clevelanders who were burning his jersey four years ago will now be greeting him at the airport with flowers. The Cleveland basketball team’s owner, Dan Gilbert, has even taken down the letter he wrote four years ago calling LeBron a coward. One Cleveland fan tweeted, “It’s pretty amazing how much one man can economically change this city…I just bought a headband for no reason.”
Cleveland, if you haven’t heard, is a hard luck town. No Cleveland team has won a title in any sport in half a century. They come close a lot, which makes it all the more painful. They’ve had great athletes, like LeBron and NFL running back, Jim Brown and former slugger Manny Ramirez. But Cleveland teams have a long and tortured history of leaving their fans just short of euphoria.
The decline of the manufacturing economy has not been kind to Cleveland or Ohio either. Granted, it was not an official Chamber of Commerce video, but I remember not that long ago, watching a hilarious promotional film about Cleveland that ended with “And hey, we’re not Detroit!”
And didn’t they used to be known as “the mistake by the lake?” Or was that Municipal Stadium? I forget. Well, no longer, people. Cleveland is way more now than just the home of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. On Tuesday, the Republicans announced they were holding their 2016 Presidential convention in Cleveland. Earlier in the year the Cleveland Browns signed Texas A&M Quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel. He’s currently slotted as the #2 Quarterback though he’s quickly established himself as the #1 hardest drinking and partying NFL QB since Joe Namath.
So here’s to you Cleveland! Not sure there are any titles in your immediate future, but you sure as hell will be getting a lot of attention. For now, anyway, you are the center of the news universe. Congrats, or something.
So let’s get this straight. Somehow, unbeknown to U.S. intelligence agencies, a major army constitutes out of thin air and in the space of about ten days captures huge Iraqi metropolitan areas and now threatens the Iraqi capital.
In the north, Kurds take over a major city they’ve been eyeing for about a thousand years. Elsewhere, tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers also fold like tents leaving millions of dollars of munitions, tanks and helicopters in the hands of an advancing army so extreme in its beliefs of Sharia law and a hardline Islamic state that, they have actually been disowned by Al Qaeda.
The only thing standing in the way of ISIS (Iraq/Syria Islamic State) and Baghdad are volunteers formed after Friday prayers- oh- and our good friends, the Iranians, who have pledged to help defend the capital.
Who’s to blame for the possible collapse of Iraq into complete and utter chaos?
Here’s a possible list of suspects:
1) The British. They’re the ones who sat in some fancy room after the end of World War I and drew up the boundaries of Iraq with apparently zero thought given to the politics of the various ethnic and religious groups in the country; the Kurds to the north, the Sunni and the Shiites.
2) The Bush administration. Not the first one, the second one. The first Bush White House never completed its invasion of Iraq or toppled Saddam Hussein because of the uncertainties of what might occur if a sudden power vacuum were to open up smack in the heart of the Middle East. Plus, we had no interest in accidentally starting and getting involved in a bitter civil war. The second Bush administration did what it did, and praise them or scold them, the fact is the war and its aftermath ended up putting a Shiite leader in place who has spent the last 8 years taking out several centuries worth of anger against the minority Sunni population that had previously lorded over the majority Shiites.
3) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Not only has he alienated the Sunnis, but it is reported his government is corrupt as the day is long; so corrupt, in fact, that in Mosul, a city of about 2 million people that just got taken over by ISIS, the violent invaders have actually improved city services by, among other things, ending frequent power outages. Of course, in the decree they made public upon their takeover, women are not allowed to leave their homes and anyone in violation of their strict interpretation of Sharia law will be hung or have their feet or hands cut off. But they do get air conditioning.
4) The Obama administration. Responding to an electorate weary of war, and now the victim of what his defenders call disingenuous and hypocritical attacks from those who started the war- his administration has, nevertheless, presided over a national security and intelligence apparatus that has pretty much missed one of the biggest developments in modern Middle East history.
Nice work everybody!
It is one of the staples of 20th and 21st century life that wherever calamity strikes, the media soon follows with microwave and satellite trucks, camera and audio people, producers and reporters. They take over entire towns or city blocks, create parking headaches and traffic jams and manage to intrude on communities that probably would prefer to suffer, grieve and eventually heal- in silence. All of this is mostly for television and it’s all to give the background scene for the all-important TV stand-up reporters need to do to deliver that definitive air of authenticity.
No sireee, this ain’t no live shot from the in-studio satellite news desk with a reporter reading from barely edited wire-service copy; no- this is where the Channel 11 Action News Team proves there’s no disaster too distant that they cannot intrude on any given community’s pain- instantly and live.
By the way, it’s the immediate suffering and grieving that provides the money shots. We never actually get to the healing part because by then the micro-wave and satellite trucks have left and no one cares much or even remembers the given tragedy that occurred some six months earlier.
At UC Santa Barbara, the students decided to revolt and good for them. Turns out that before taking his own life, Elliot Rodger, the misogynistic 22-year-old who shot, stabbed and rammed six of the students to death, and wounded 13 others in his bloody rampage, killed his final victim at a little shop called the I.V. Deli Mart. It was the perfect place for the media circus to invade and encamp for the next 4 or 5 days that the story still had legs.
But the students started intruding back. They got in the background of the reporter stand-ups and they waved signs. “Our tragedy is not your commodity,” read one. “Stop filming our tears,” read another. “Remembrance not Ratings,” read a third. “Let us Heal!” and “News Crews Go Home!” rounded out the sudden anti-media protests.
Bravo to the UC Santa Barbara students and community. And the next time it happens and the anchorman/woman asks the reporter what that ruckus is in the background, for once I’d like to hear something like this: “Well, those are residents of the devastated community repulsed by the fact we are exploiting their grief and suffering. Back to you, Jim.”
After damn near two decades of day care, pre-school, private middle school, public high school and then busting his butt at the university level, real life beckons my son, Charlie Garcia, as the child I brought home wrapped in a blanket one cold January day 22 years ago, graduates with an Audio Engineering degree from Middle Tennessee State University this Saturday.
I know the economy still kind of sucks, Charlie. You’d be forgiven if you feel a little trepidation about entering the great American work force. But here’s why I know you’ll be alright, son.
I think you were 15 when it hit you; when music became not just a fascination but a passion. When it became a direction in life. And like the good, practical Capricorn you are, you dissected every element of what it would take to live your life dedicated to a creative craft. And you have stuck with it with dogged determination. You can count on one hand, my friend, the number of human beings who get a notion of what they want do with their life at that young an age.
That was about the time we met Alex, a real-life audio engineer working in Manhattan, who agreed to meet with us in Greenwich Village one Spring afternoon and who laid out the not-so-glamorous realities of life in the music business. Wrapping up a recording session at 4am and setting up for the next session at 7am. Making good money mixing rap, even if it was classical quartets that were the true love of his creative life. Ah- compromises.
I remember the portable, digital, recording “studio” I had in my apartment that you used to cut your very first mixing teeth, playing a blue telecaster you would later fix up and own as one of your main performance instruments.
I remember the song you wrote called City Lights, inspired by the twinkling beauty of New York City as seen from the 18th floor of a West Side apartment, a song that appropriately enough, was simply about the joy and angst of writing music.
I remember the young man who in his heart of hearts, wanted to be a record producer but fully understood that to get there, you have to know every aspect of music. You need to write and perform. You need to understand music theory and sound waves and acoustic properties. You need to engineer. You need to edit. You need to mix. You need to manage artists. You need people skills and you need the artistic vision to take your projects from inception to fruition.
And then there is the matter of fear- like that you feel none. Who else meets one of the top music producers in the business at a festival, gets his business card and just a few months later, happens to be in Athens, Georgia, rings him up and ends up sharing lunch with the dude who first recorded R.E.M.. Same with the way you are on stage and performing- no fear. Just tenaciousness…and joy.
This is why, in the long term, you will succeed, Charlie. Because the whole time I’ve known you, if you didn’t have the natural skill, then you worked your butt off to get where you needed to go. Whether it was intense physical training so you could be a goalie on your varsity high school soccer team. Or relentlessly practicing guitar, or piano, or drums or banjo or whatever instrument had most recently made its way into your soul.
And if you needed a little extra cash, you never had any qualms doing honest, physical labor, like tearing down walls and floors for a contractor. Success is not something that has ever been handed you. You have achieved it through sweat and effort. You have never lacked in the area of striving and desire.
I suppose there’s some aspect of genetics that plays a role in creating a young man with such character. But that doesn’t do justice to the effort you put into life every day. I know your incredible mom, Laurie Spencer, who raised you largely by herself while I recovered from one journalistic layoff or another, gets the lion’s share of the credit for the kind of man you’ve become- but even that doesn’t do justice to the fact it’s you who have learned life’s sometimes hard lessons and emerged as a strong, gentle, loving, balanced human being.
I suppose I should get some credit for supporting you emotionally and financially, and, yes, it gives me a measure of pride that you graduate with zero debt to your name. But it has been you who got through the drudgery and the glory of four years of college- growing, challenging yourself, discovering; open to all things professional, spiritual, personal.
So let me let you in on a little secret. Your future is unlimited. Your potential is enormous. But success? You have already earned it. You are already a successful man. And in achieving that, my friend, you have ultimately made me a success as well.
Congratulations, Charlie Garcia.