Middlemarch!

So I’ve got this stack of books I’ve read. They’ve all been put down–like one does with a lame beast–but not put to rest. They sit there in the corner of my office, leering at my dustily.

Every time I skim the titles, hazy recollections of plots and characters are jarred loose, and the jagged memories spawn a few mental loops. And before I get back to work I have to tidy up my head-space all over again.

Most of these, but not all, are from my book club, which insists on picking head-pounders on a 4-6 week basis. It’s great stuff, and I keep up… mostly. The rest are those things that the zeitgeist blows before me, things that seemed important at the time. Malcolm Gladwell n’at.

What is noticeably absent from the stack is any coherence, some evidence of a course of study, a systemic exploration of one particular topic or pursuit of a skill or expertise. In other words, no proof that I’m making any progress as a human being, nothing that might result in the enhancement of my well-being: financial, spiritual or otherwise.

I suppose that being a better person will have to wait. But at least my regrets will be fueled with much fine phrasing and many pleasant, if borrowed, bons mots.

But back to those mental loops. Do you know this one? This phrase?

The idea that we’ve got all of these “open loops” in our brains was popularized by a management guy name David Allen in his book Getting Things Done. (Never read it!) Mr. Allen recommended that you close the loops – the nagging, spinning, stresses in the brain – by either taking action, or noting them as to-do’s to be dealt with in a prescribed manner at a later time. “Inbox Zero” would be the goal. It’s worth checking out. A clear head is a good thing to find.

So this stash, the aforementioned stack of great works before me, is a source of many mental loops. But if I blog about a book, write up a morsel or two, encase a few insights in digital goo, I can cross it off of the list for good. That way, I’ll have something to refer to in docile, grandfatherly, later-life senility. I can put the damn thing aside and say with confidence: “Yes, I’ve read that, and here’s my take-away…”

But where to start? Something spicy, something hot, something like…. Middlemarch! Nothing brings the heat like George Eliot!

In all seriousness, I cuddled quite contentedly with the first chapters of Middlemarch this summer, letting the prose fill a few delightfully importuned hours as I sailed north on uncertain seas to gaze upon glaciers. (A family-filled Alaskan cruise, it was.)

But all still-afloat boats reach harbor eventually, and once back in the lower 48, I had to slice through the next 500 pages as though the America’s Cup was within my grasp, finishing mere hours before book club commenced. Whew. Ms. George has many words.

But good words. No slagging here. And she got me on one point, one character, one not-so-pleasant denizen of her tale: Mr. Casaubon.

Mr. Casaubon is pushing past 50, dried up like an old prune in the telling. (I assume that a little yoga, kale and botox would have brought him back ’round.) And he’s dying with work undone. His study is packed with so many papers, sketches and outlines for a great work, yet unfinished. It shall be called… The Key To All Mythologies! But the thing is (spoiler!) that it’s all a load of shit. Just a bunch of half-formed, ultimately uninformed speculations about the ancient history of mankind from the point of view of one pompous old pampered Englishman. Why did he never finish The Key? Because he wasn’t crazy, he knew it was never going to quite add up. Finishing, publishing would have been proof of failure. In a moment he’d go from local genius to provincial crank.

And I sit here, a few feet away from my own box of thoughts, my stack of scratch paper and napkin-scrawled noodlings. And I wonder if it’ll ever amount to anything, if a decent tome or two might someday arise from the pile, if a song worth singing will find voice. Sigh.

Yes, I too am another maker of many notes, a twirler of many mental loops. But I’d still like to put a few down (bang!) before the end catches up to me.

It Is Finished: The Lord Of The Rings

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Hey man, how many times have I told you this? Why don’t you believe me?

For the last time, I’m not a fantasy guy. Nothing against it, but it’s just not my bag. I don’t roll the 12-sided die, never knocked around a comic-con, never LARP’ed or cos-played. I try to catch on, but I’ll never be more than a fandom-conflating dilettante, dropping needless knowledge, tossing out duh!-bombs, in a quixotic attempt to keep up.

Action, adventure, swords and sandals, wizards and warlocks, games and thrones? Fine! Props! But there’s only so much time I can spend there, only so many (hundred) pages I can flip through before I lose the urge to push on. Only so much of my brain sticks to such stuff. My geek-attuned velcro’s on the other side of the noggin.

But I get it, I really do. I came of age not that far away. Probably in the same strip mall. You know the one, the one that’s seen better days, on the frontage road off the old state highway. There’s the comic book shop, then the Chinese take-out. And next door? The record store. We cross paths in the parking lot, met up for some General Tso’s and compare our finds.  You’ll tell me why your dog-eared stash is so fantastic and I’ll tell you about the seminal influence of some bass riff on some other band who actually had a hit. It’s kicks!

The conversation (the gathering, if you will) is magic. We can even head back to my place, pick up a twelve-pack of porch-pops and continue the exchange. That’s what marginally-employed Tuesdays are for. But I’m not going to read the whole book. Just not gonna happen.

But then I did.  Because of book club.

It took me three months to journey through the whole Lord Of The Rings thing, from Shire to Mordor (and back again.)

And I can see why you dig it the way that you do. I can see how if you’re grasping for further faith, ancillary belief, how you could get hooked in there.  The cracks are just big enough, the texts obscure enough to let your faith fill in the rest.  The length, just right. Just short enough to digest once through, but offering endless pearls shining in the depths of continued study. The shrouded knowledge taunts you: Gnostic mysteries known only to those obsessed priests, the venerated trench-cloaked saints who’ve imbibed of the holy streams of the Silmarillion.

Like Holy Writ, it works on many levels: lovable hobbits for the kids, guided by a Shepherd, a resurrected comforter who gathers innocents together, a protector back from the grave. Talking trees and magic rings, shiny things and songs to sing.

But the death is real enough, the peril, the responsibilities, the weakness of the flesh at the mercy of Gracious Fate. Yes, there’s something here for the grownups too.  Something you might miss the first time through. Something deep enough to make you think there might be more, that Tolkien has only cracked open the door, that he’s onto something. Psha! CS Lewis and your prolonged parables!!  Here’s an alternate history of the species, a source of solace for those who wish for something more, an older and better lore. Something to predate Torah and Sutra, an ennobling and grander past to which we can rebuild, conquer. Return as Kings.

I’m not a fantasy guy, but I get it. I really do.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

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“Every summer I fight the dream of running away.”

It was a decade and a half back when I wrote that, on another sweaty night sans AC. With my old basemented band, as we scratched off another chance to win a little national exposure. Our management guy tossed us a tip about a soundtrack contest for an upcoming major motion picture.  The movie, you ask?  None other than that celebrated classic, the Ashton Kutcher vehicle Dude, Where’s My Car?

The song was “Summertime #2” – written during our middle period, the year or so between getting the boys out of the garage and finally getting the garage out of the boys. If I remember it right, we had half a shot of getting our song in the film.  At the time the idea of running an online contest – and the magic of streaming songs over the internet – was still kinda fresh and cool. I think we came in something like twenty out of one hundred. Nowhere near the top, but it was another one of those little affirmations that made us think that we might be on to something if we just kept on truckin’.

The contest needed a one-sentence description to post along with the song. It fell off of my fingers onto the submission form: “Every summer I fight the dream of running away.” The line wasn’t from the lyrics, but it seemed to capture just the right amount of ambiguity for maximum pop-hook potential. Looking back, it’s one truth that I’ve kept tucked tight, hidden away, a constant in my ever-modulating cosmology, my fluctuations of faith. So many hopes and burdens I’ve dropped along the way, but I’ve never quite quit on my Cassady dreams of indestructible machines, my mental montage set to Springsteen. The trip never taken.

All that bites my ankles and nips my nose sooner and sooner every year. As I moved north the tease, the taste of summer breeze comes later and later, and there’s not a drop of unfrozen water to slake the thirst.  And the knees hurt more and more. And the sleep becomes more dear. And crushing the sixer looks less sexy and the sexy looks like too much work. The woo-hoo has up and gone. And now the wild’s just wilderness.

But there’s still that urge, when the mercury skips up past sixty-five, when the weather’s good enough for a ride or a walk or window-down drive. The temptation to start off, to say screw it for a stint or a season. Not forever, mind you. There are good and worthy things to be done in the here if not the now. But for a bit…  You won’t miss me.

Harold Fry, the head-down old hero of Rachel Joyce’s Oprah-approved novel never would have guessed that he needed to do the same. But then he set off to deliver a letter, on foot, to the far side of England. He journeyed from coast to coast, relived a whole life in the space of a few months – he got his legs, found his stride, and then lost it again before returning to the sea.

For once he had a reason to start walking, to see a friend before it was too late, to pay a penance, to find grace.

And here I am. I’m on that dulled edge of midlife, that place where Harold once was, his turning point between the fun-loving, dancing young man and the quieted and scared father, buckled and bent. There’s this danger that what you do here on this half-way plateau will define you for the rest of your days, that what you achieve or foul-up during these years will be stuck with you, chiseled on your tomb. Set in stone, cemented.

Unless you keep quick, unless you keep walking.

And so I do, and so I must. One foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other. I feel my strength grow with each step, my smile stretch and my eyes flicker. Head high, arms wide. My friends, my family they cheer me on. And I find that I’m not dreaming of running way anymore, not fantasizing of flight and its flawed freedom. I’ve given it up, traded it in for a better model. A new hope stirs, one harder to hold but so much more worthy: To live a life of chasing after.

Gweilo

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A friend of mine from the last life taught me that the best way to know a new place is through spine-cracking a good book.  Not a hard-backed history or a glossed-up travel guide, but a real book.  A story.  A solid fiction to open up your reality.

Find a writer with a razoreye for detail, a pitchperfect ear. An author who can seize the great muchness of life and filter it through stinkyreal flesh, through characters of unpure invention. Hang your facts on their broken hearts, their feats and failures, and you’ll start to understand what’s really going on. Let these creations be as spirit guides, ghosts to walk beside you, all-hearing and knowing companions. Faithful friends to ride with you on vomitous busses, to usher you through uncertain cuisine, to code-break customs.

Buzzing with the maxim, I hive-minded my way to a book called Gweilo in the run-up to my first visit to Hong Kong. My new friend for the road was going to be a kid named Martin.

Gweilo, written by Martin Booth, didn’t exactly fit the original criteria: it’s a memoir, not a novel. But you can’t tell me there’s much of a difference between a youthful reminiscence and the bildungsromans that we’ve all adored as gospel truth. Close enough for me.

The plan was to read far and wide before hitting the ground. I wanted a fact-fillable framework in my mind, a matrix to be explored upon touching down. Of course, time ran out and Gweilo shifted from introduction to early-morning companion as my jet-lagged self sprung out of bed too soon too often.

Good too, because blessed synchronicity followed me and Martin on our days. I read about Christmas on The Peak on December 25th.  I traced his rough-climbed journey up to the mountain monastery on the very same morning as our scheduled outing to the Big Buddha that now levitates atop Lan Tau. (The modern pilgrimage is now assisted by subway and bus, but I’d like to go back and do it the old-fashioned way.) Seemed like everywhere I went in this fresh-built city of 7 million was an ancient place already known. Martin had told me about it.

Glad too, because his time in Hong Kong – as the son of a post-war British naval administrator – overlapped precisely with the arrival of my married-into family. This was a part of the history I wasn’t told, or if told, I didn’t understand: That Hong Kong wasn’t much of a place before then, before the revolution, before they all arrived.

Mao-swept, innumerable. Fleers and fliers, a flood of single-suitcased refugees.  A sharp and restless throng who soon haggled and bartered an imperial outpost into the first great engine of the east.

Without Martin, I wouldn’t have known the questions to ask. I wouldn’t have had eyes to catch what my elders could still see. I wouldn’t have known how to find my place, to feel the ghosts between the graves, the ossuaries of the ancestors.

And Martin, full-up with the foolish zeal of youth, rubbed off on me. He gave me courage, lent me his ambition. If this kid could dive in, I knew that I could too.

The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer

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Here’s a book I never thought I’d read. Not that I was against it, quite the opposite, I thought I should. Twain’s been on my short list since I visited his white-washed fences and limestone caverns a few years ago, his boyhood home being just over the Mississippi from my Dad’s place in the free-state of Illinois. I just never thought I’d get around to it.

Books, like bands and brands, get attached to certain slices of life: Narnia for the kids, Harry Potter for the ‘tweens. The epic battle between Beats and Ayn Rand for the undergraduate mind. Which is the long was of saying that I didn’t think Tom Sawyer was for me.

I thought it was for kids, maybe bigger kids at best. The sort of safely-assigned text on which a middle-schooler could practice his prose, a prompt on which to pen a theme.  (A “book report”, in the parlance of my times.) If I didn’t get around to it back then, I doubted I would now. My mistake.

In his preface, Twain states:

Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.

And that he does. Tom reminds me so much of myself, if only I had some major boyhood balls.

This kid gets into it.  He couldn’t be older than eleven or twelve, but he’s already wading waist-deep into the river of life. Sneaking out, running off, practicing tricks nicked from drunks and murderers and thieves. Bleeding and scavenging, thought twice dead but living to tell the tale. This isn’t pure fantasy either, as Twain states: “Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine.”

Here’s what gets me: Somehow we all grow up thinking that yesterday was a more innocent time.  That the good old days have been lost to violence and fear and decay, that Tom Sawyer had it so much better as he lay back on a summer’s night looking up at shinier stars, unobstructed by the haze of modern life.

Nah. Safety first is the motto of our times, all cushy and measles free. If we’ve lost anything, it’s not innocence but grit. Tom and Huck knew how to handle real trouble, and we need them now more than ever. We need our Soda Pops and Pony Boys, our mischievous run-a-mucks, rude boys and rock ‘n rollers. We need ring-leaders to raise up gangs of adventure, to explore new frontiers, to shepherd our sons and daughters to the wild edge and safely back again.

If Tom were here and took a look around, there’s only one thing he’d say: “I can lick you.”

And then he would. He surely would.

Gilead, a Novel by Marilynne Robinson

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Much as I hate moving, a new home does bring hope for a new garden. Spade in hand, I survey my new domain, looking for a ripe spot to notch out a new plot. What I seek is fecundity, and then I plan to slice it down.

Where the grass grows the best is where my plants will too. I hate that. I’d rather try to make something work in the rocky no-man’s land behind the fence or along the garage. But the sun shines where the sun can, and the rain pools in places I can’t always control. So, cruel landlord that I am, I do what I must. The native shoots and leaves I’ll soon slay for the greater good of peppers and tomatoes and peas.

I wonder what the first settlers thought when they arrived in places like Kansas. After walking for weeks through Appalachian mountains, under forests thick enough to blot out the sky, then over the still-green hills of Iowa tumbling up from Mississippi and back down to Missouri. They must have thought they’d hit the Californian desert, that they’d gone too far and should put the Conestoga in reverse. This wouldn’t seem a place to plant a garden. Not to me.

Marilynne Robinson disinters these pioneers of the prairie in her novel Gilead.  It’s an interesting work – conceived as a memoir written by a dying Iowan preacher from the first half of the last century, penned to his young son who’ll soon be growing up without a dad. His forefathers first came to Kansas not to build a life, but out of a sense of altruism. A quick wave of migration flooded the western territory before the Civil War broke loose, as antebellum Jayhawks and Freelanders fought to stake claim in the virgin sod, to bring the new state into the Union on the side of the Abolition.

Under the circumstances, nothing was built to last.

Nor was much built with any permanence just up and over in Iowa, where the bulk of the novel takes place. The town, Gilead, is filled with people from somewhere else – New Englanders mostly, with a few Negroes who ran north and recent European immigrants thrown in. And they’re all willing to move again when trouble comes, when the drought arrives and the dirt starts to blow, when the wars cull their young, or when luck simply runs its course.  While here, they toiled at the ancient work of man – they subdued the black earth, bore babies, established a grid of order on the open land.  But when looking back at Gilead, they find that there wasn’t much that they had left behind.

This is the essential sorrow of the Midwest, and Robinson taps into it like the deep root of a prairie thistle. She welcomes us to the in-between country, or fly-over country as you’d call it now. Always an ephemeral place, a great swath of transition, defined by what it has not more than by what it has. You’ll know it as the place without forests, without mountains, without deserts, without coasts.

Yes, the fullness of life can be known in these parts, there is no reason why anything worth doing can’t be done on this land. Our Reverend looks over his sermons and finds he’s written as much as Augustine and Calvin, that he’s contributed to the scholarly conversation as thoughtfully as any man can. He’s experienced extremes of love and loss, of plenty and want, seen great virtue and heard all manner of confessions from his congregation. As he says, “There have been heroes here, saints and martyrs, and I want you to know that. Because that is the truth even if no one remembers it.”

Nothing is unknown to the people of Gilead, though it wouldn’t do to speak of it in polite company. Still, life is spread thin on this patch of the Earth’s flat crust. Even the wooden church where he preaches wasn’t meant to stand:

“They’ll tear it down once I pass away.”

“A stranger might ask why there is a town here at all. Our own children might ask. And who could answer them? It was just a dogged little outpost in the sand hills, within striking distance of Kansas. That’s all it was meant to be. It was a place John Brown and Jim Lance could fall back on when they needed to heal and rest.  There must have been a hundred little towns like it, set up in the heat of an old urgency that is all forgotten now, and their littleness and their shabbiness, which was the measure of the courage and passion that went into the making of them, now just look awkward and provincial and ridiculous, even to the people who have lived here long enough to know better. It looks ridiculous to me, I truly suspect I never left because I was afraid I would not come back.”

“Just look at this place. Every time a tree gets to a decent size, the wind comes along and breaks it.”

This is the great conundrum of the plains: It’s just as good as anywhere else, but never the best. Caught between gratitude and yearning, stuck in a place that meets our needs but can never satisfy our wants, we are thankful for the blessings yet nagged by a sense of a better life somewhere over the next horizon. The very same drive that brought us here pulls us to move on again, to plant new gardens in new fields. We make a proud use of the present, but as for the past, it fades like Grandpa’s Kansan grave. Half-marked with a wooden cross, soon and sadly lost as another generation moves away.

 

No Country For Old Men

There’s a pessimism here that I can’t believe in anymore.  I know it well, as a clean-scrubbed child of the 80s it lurked all around me.  Paranoia was in the air back then:  From what my little eyes could gather from a television rabbit-eared to Cleveland’s stations, it was all going to hell.

Our cities were crumbling, our small towns left derelict, and the cracks were showing in the stuccoed suburban retreats we all flew to by the 70s. Teens were offing themselves to the back-masked squeals of Judas Priest, satanic cults were taking over the preschools, and you could catch aids from a mosquito. Burning rivers, iron curtains and rusty belts. Nothing was as good as it was, and it was all about to get a lot worse.

For certain generations — for those who grew up nipping at the cup of post-war optimism, or chugging at the trough of boomer expectations, who watched things falls apart once they spawned kids of their own — I get it. Those were some bum years. Grimy, polluted, still clad in the sad polyester that refused to wear out. That’s the setting for No Country, 1980, the hostage and gas crisis era. Malaise.

McCarthy doesn’t have high hopes for what’s to come. No Country For Old Men could be a prequel to The Road. The old fella seems sure that the apocalypse is nigh, and all we can do is hunker down and wait for the sound of horsehoofs in the sky.  No country for old men is right.  The damn kids have taken over and they’re screwing it up. Blessed are the barren. Amen.

Cormac speaks to the fear right on page one:

He was nineteen.  And he told me that he had been planning on killing somebody for about as long as he could remember.  Said that if they turned him out he’d do it again.  Said he knew he was going to hell.  Told it to me out of his own mouth. I don’t know what to make of that.  I surely don’t.  I thought I’d never seen a person like that and it got me to wondering if maybe he was some new kind.  I watched them strap him into the seat and shut the door.  He might of looked a bit nervous about it but that was about all.  I really believe that he knew he was going to be in hell in fifteen minutes.  I believe that.  And I’ve thought about that a lot.  He was not hard to talk to.  Called me Sheriff.  But I didn’t know what to say to him.  What do you say to a man that by his own admission has no soul?

Wicked stuff, but I don’t think it holds. Things are looking better these days. Crime is down, longevity is up. Yes, we keep fighting wars, but the death count is dropping like bombs. There are random acts of violence to grab the headlines, but people that I meet are working towards something better, and seeing the good fruits of their labors. To borrow a phrase, the better angels of our nature have come out on top.

I hope McCarthy has a change of heart before he puts down the pen. There’s still time to see things differently, and he’s a fantastic writer. I love his smoosh-words, things like “sockfeet,” “shavingkit,” and “swivelchair,” and the way the dialogue floats between internal ruminations and slow-spoken conversations.

I’m also glad that the Coen Brothers put this to film. The book is almost custom-screenplayed for them: The soulless Anton Chigurh a dead-ringer for the dusty apocalyptic biker of Raising Arizona, the wizened westerner Sheriff Ed Tom Bell voicing over God’s truth like the stranger from The Big Lebowski. The book sounds like the Coen Brothers, when the Coen Brothers decide to take themselves seriously.

I’ll read some more of him eventually, but I’m in no hurry. There are many good days before me, many great opportunities with which to fill them. And of the reading of many books, there shall be no end.

Shelf Life: The Forgotten Well At World’s End

I’ve never worked so hard to finish a book.

After reading William Morris’s The Well At World’s End, I can feel every aching step, every maddening mile of Prince Ralph’s epic quest to drink the magic draught and save the kingdom from the wiles of wicked men. I can feel the chafe of the bridle, the callous from the bit, my chair-bound behind as sore as if I’d been riding on his saddle, spent arms and weary legs wrapped tight around his armoured knighthood.

If this thing were assigned in some college lit class, it would have slid uncracked to the bottom of my backpack, lost before I hit the lunch-rush at the cafeteria. Of course, I’d look up a few things. Make a few notes on theme and imagery, regurgitate critical reception. Something to sound smart enough to slough through an essay on the exam.

But this wasn’t for school, wasn’t for something as silly as credit. No, this was for something sacred: This was for Book Club.  And the first rule of Book Club is that you read the book for Book Club. (Except when you don’t, but I’m too new to beg a free pass.)

Still, not my cup of tea.

In honesty, I don’t really know how to judge the book. I’ve never been a fantasy guy. Like hip hop, I don’t have a frame of reference to sift the good from the bad, the inventive from the ripped-off. Occasionally, I’ll dip my toe into some Sci-Fi.  That I get, Star Trek and the like, blasting modern conundrums a galaxy away, to better see the self at arm’s length, and with lasers. Phew! Phew!

Fantasy, well that’s a whole ‘nother leap of the imagination. Creating one’s own world from scratch, populating it with creatures, peoples, morals and social structures as you see fit. That’s a trick.

The author was suggested due to his influence on a few other writers: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. You may have heard of those guys. Morris palled around with them, a father-figure of a sort. A mentor perhaps.  The jury’s out as to how much influence he had on the next generation, but his words are still out there, wafting on the public domain. His name will likely pop up in the 3rd-pint round of a geekly discussion, sometime after debating Gandalf vs. Dumbledore.

So who am I to judge? William Morris was ahead of his time, and like young Prince Ralph, he blazed a trail to parts unknown.  Sadly he’ll go down as the Friendster of the Fantasy world, but at least he had the courage to get up and ride, to pen-up dreams of things unseen. A worthy quest indeed.

How Belinda Got Her Beat Back

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“Hey, buy this for me for Christmas.”

So my wife and I have this unspoken arrangement. We spend so much time trying to get Christmas together every year, finding nice things for distant relatives, putting together an impressive yet non-gluttonous pile of surprises for the kids, that we pretty much forget about each other until the blessed day is thrust upon us.  While running our last-minute errands we’ll see something and say, “buy this for me for Christmas” and toss it in the cart, knowing we’ll find it again miraculously gift-wrapped under the tree on Christmas morning.

A pair of jeans on the clearance rack at Target. Office supplies. A bottle of champagne. Whatever. You name it. And yes, it might even be the auto-biography of Belinda Carlisle, whom I found languishing and lonely at the grocery store in a close-out bin. She was wedged between Ricky Martin’s tell-all and Chicken Soup for the CEO’s Soul. Only $2.50 for the hard-covered inside scoop on the Go-Go’s?  Deal!

As you know, I like most anything about people making music (yes, even Gwyneth’s objectively awful Country Strong.) And while Carlisle was reliving the wild early-80’s LA punk scene it was a good read.  Those days were all about the music, the art, the fun of going to shows and being in the know about the latest greatest coolest rock ‘n roll music.  From Devo to David Lee, this girl partied with a lot of interesting kids, all trying to make it on the Sunset Strip.

Her life, way cooler than mine.

But then success hits ya and the wheels come off.  They always do in these things.  At which point it’s hard not to mock her relentlessly for the #richwhitegirlproblems.  Lines like “we were bourgeois on the outside, bohemian on the inside” (spoke as she wrestles with a possible move to southern France) are hard to get behind.

Oh dear, what to do, what to do.

But as the 12-steppers say, you’ve got to “identify and not compare.” Belinda’s just a sweet California girl with a mile-wide, coke-fed wild streak that never went away. I guess if you strip ‘er story of the success and the millions and the home in Provence and the international drug trafficking, there’s a lot there that rings true for any of us. Maybe. Who’s to know what a little fortune and fame would do. I’m just glad that she got it together. Eventually.

And that yes, once again, she’s got the beat.

Running With The Devil: Goethe’s Faust

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So I joined a book club.  Like most good things in life, what we want and what we find we need are different things. Had I the chance to chose a book club from a menu of gatherings, I never would have jumped into one that likes to bite into the classics.  I would have kept it pop, kept it current. Maybe something focused on the confused mutterings of 30-something American boys who write to purge their own lonely maladjustment.  The sort of navel-gazers who wallow indefatigably in their inability to live up to the expectations of the 20th/21st century. You know, guys like me.

I would have been wrong and I would have been shortsighted. There’s a reason you should read what your professors once proposed on those forgotten reading lists. Of course, that list of books you should have read is longer than the day is long, the shadow cast by great writers darker than the night.  But if you take them one at a time, it’s not so bad. And the secret is that most writers are pretty modern after all.  The trappings of technology march on, but human nature slithers slowly.

Goethe’s Faust is based on the age-old tale of a man who hears that rhetorical question of Christ (“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”) and decides to find out for himself. So he makes a deal with the Devil and then things go rolling inexorably down hill.

So consider me surprised to find that such a black-and-white plot should set the stage for a tale layered thick with moral ambiguity. Although wrapped in Christian trappings, Goethe claimed no fealty to the cross. (Or, in his youth, to much of anything.) While it’s tempting to read the scholarly Faust as the hero, or even as Goethe himself, our protagonist might be just as much Mephistopheles.  When you put your words in the mouth of the devil — a devil who’s job it is to deceive — it’s tricky to untangle what the reader ought to believe.

The only clear moral principle is this: Never rest! Never be satisfied! Always act, and always do! That’s not something you’d find in the Bible. It’s opposite of Paul’s “content in all things” and the Our Father’s humble “give us this day our daily bread.” But it is what Goethe has God decree, what Faust strives for, what the Devil tries to trick him to forget.

I expected a fairy tale, but instead I found a work of poetry about appetite, ambition, love/lust/loss, and the proud-pawn state of a thoroughly modern man. There’s nothing dusty about that. Just ask David Lee Roth:

I found the simple life ain’t so simple
When i jumped out, on that road
I got no love, no love you’d call real
Ain’t got nobody, waitin’ at home.

I live my life like there’s no tomorrow
And all I’ve got, I had to steal
Least I don’t need to beg or borrow
Yes i’m livin’ at a pace that kills

I’m running with the Devil…