Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Seven Things

Zenpuindit tagged me with the "7X7 Meme." I'm honored and horrified at the same time. Only seven books? I'll do the best I can. The meme goes like this:

1. Seven things to do before I die
2. Seven things I cannot do
3. Seven things that attract me to (...)
4. Seven things I say most often
5. Seven books (or series) that I love
6. Seven movies I watch over and over again (or would if I had time)
7. Seven people I want to join in, too.

1. Before I die

  • Watch my son grow up into a fine man and tell him how proud of him I am for it

  • Down a Singapore sling in the bar of the Raffles Hotel

  • Make my wife feel every day like the most beautiful, desired woman on earth.

  • Drive around in a 1960 Chevy Impala ragtop. The one with the chrome jet on the side. Or some similar car. My first cars were big old gunboats from the early '60s. They weren't classics then. That was the mid-'70s, and they were just old beaters. But boy, do I miss them, and now they're pricey collector's items, out of my range. I hate bucket seats. Give me one of those big long vinyl bench seats you can reach across and pull your girl to your side on a cold night. Give me a window with a wing to flick open to dangle your cigarette out. Give me a steering wheel as big as the tire.

  • Grow spiritually.

  • Be stunt director on a "babes behind bars" film.

  • See the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere.

2. Can't Do It

  • Eat a forkful of lima beans without gagging
  • resist temptation
  • get the lyrics to "Who Can It Be Now?" out of my head
  • hit for power
  • watch sports on TV
  • whistle
  • tell a lie convincingly

3. What attracts me to ...

I chose to fill in the blank with "... my wife."

  • Because when I walk down the street and some young thing slathered in gauds sashays past me without a glance at the big ugly mug who temporarily intrudes on her space, I think, "Not only is my girl much hotter at 35 than you'll be; she's hotter than you are now."

  • Because she does not tolerate the cheap, the phony, the slipshod; bad beer, fast food, dull places -- we can live life more intensely.

  • Because she's a stone freak who will dance a wild, writhing half-naked sexual dance on top of a slick bar in an edgy roadhouse. And then the next day put on her business clothes and drive her Volvo to work and stitch the lining of a coat and cook a casserole.

  • Because she's been a better mother figure to my son than his own mother was.

  • Because she has brought a sweet insanity into my male world. All the clocks in my house used to read the same time -- the correct time. Now no two are on the same moment and none is correct. She has a byzantine system in which all clocks run fast, and they run faster the farther they are from her ultimate destination -- the bedroom alarm is about 25 minutes fast, the kitchen wall clock about 10 minutes, and the dashboard clock in the Prius is 5 minutes fast. It's charming.

  • Because she has made such bad choices in boyfriends in her life that, by comparison, I look like something heaven-sent.

  • Because she knows how to program my furshlugginer cell phone.

4. I'm likely to say

  • "Where was the last place you remember seeing it?" (every parent of a teenager knows this one)
  • "Not since I left the bar."
  • "Dis house sho' goin' crazy."
  • "If it's '$1.50 for a scoop of your favorite ice cream,' how much is it for a flavor I don't like so much?"
  • "Someday."
  • "And when I plugged her in, she just blew up."
  • "If I keep driving I'm bound to see something I recognize."

5. Books I love.

Aieee, this is the painful one. At least it's not phrased in the usual "desert island" scenario, but on the other hand, in that one I can cheat by saying things like "Complete Shakespeare anthology!"

Love ... love. How do you define "love" in this sense? There are books I only read once that never have left me. There are books I go back to over and over and over, books I own that are in tatters from being opened so often. That's "love" in the "Velveteen Rabbit" sense, but can you love a dictionary?

I'm using the word "love" as the lever to pry seven titles out of the library, which is going to be an arbitrary work in any case. Books I love are to me like people I love. They have personalities, voices, and you know them so well but you never tire of them. They're the ones you reach for in idle moments for the sheer pleasure of them. They're the ones whose flaws only make them more endearing.

They're books that are, in some sense, truly yours, not everyone's. Yes, I love "Lord of the Rings," or Bruce Catton's Civil War books or "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," but who doesn't? It's like saying, "I want to do Jennifer Anniston." Well, yeah, right, who doesn't?

So here's what I came up with:

  • "The Perennial Philadelphians : The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy", by Nathaniel Burt. A sociological study of some of the strangest and most normal people on earth. It's honestly the funniest book I've ever read; funnier even than "Catch-22." But I'm from there, so maybe it won't work on you. An excerpt:

    One of the best authenticated, most flagrant and recent examples of Philadelphia aplomb was the case of Mrs. Isaac Clothier and the burglar. For several years the Main Line has been enlivened by the raids of a man known as the 'Bandana Bandit.' Presumably once a butler, he robbed only the best people, seeming to know not only who they were, but where they cached the stuff. It was, in fact, a sort of painful honor to be robbed by him. The Clothiers' turn came when Mrs. Clothier was alone in the house and in bed. The bandit walked into her bedroom. She turned on the light, sat up and said, "Now, my dear man, you know I never keep any money in the house. There's nothing but those little things on my bureau my children gave me, they really wouldn't be worth your while. Why don't you just go downstairs and have a glass of milk?" He did, and left.

  • "The Pound Era," by Hugh Kenner. Noble, eccentric, brilliant, beautiful.

    "The Pound Era" is his masterpiece. "The Poetry of Ezra Pound" was written in two months (on a picnic table outside a cabin in the Canadian woods); "The Pound Era" took ten years. While it was in the making, he published two wittily perceptive diversions, "The Stoic Comedians" and "The Counterfeiters." If "The Pound Era" is a symphony, these are string quartets. There are enough insights in them to fuel a dozen associate professors for a year. Hugh wrote them while driving his children to school. In those heroic days he typed, making carbons. He’d lucked onto a ton of typing paper at a warehouse clearance.

  • "Centaur," by John Updike.

    This portrait of small-town life in Pennsylvania is seen through the eyes of Chiron, the centaur of Greek mythology. On the surface, this is a novel about teenager Peter Caldwell and his father George Caldwell, a schoolteacher at Olinger High. Gradually, however, it becomes clear that Peter and George are really Prometheus and Chiron, and that all the other characters and events find correspondences in Greek mythology. John Updike has said that this early novel is loosely based on his own relationship with his father, who was a schoolteacher.

  • "Description of Greece," Pausanius.

    The Hellenistic traveller trekked across Greece after its glory was gone to seed but not yet destroyed. There's something recognizably modern about Pausanius. He is the urbane, modern man of manners, a decent sort who doesn't get the jokes, and he rambles over the dusty hills and wild glens of Greece encountering at every turn relics and rituals of the old brute gods, and it both shocks and fascinates him.

    It's the mundane-ness of his book that intrigues me. This isn't the clashing climaxes of history that you find in Herodotus or Thucydides. But this is classical Greece as it would have looked and felt if you'd actually gone back in time and walked through it on a spring day. You can hear the breeze in the pines on the coast of Elis and the cawing of the crows.

    Pausanius pokes his head in the old shrines and shows you how they still looked when they were painted and decorated and had their images and idols intact. Now all that's left of them are shattered marble blocks scattered over the landscape.

  • "De l'amour," by Stendhal.

    At the beginning of the 19th century, the magnificent Stendhal turned his genius to dissecting the emotion that had played so much havoc with his own life. In De l'amour (On Love), the novelist eccentrically tabulates the psychological impulses behind every aspect of eros (not excluding unexpected "failure" or impotence). The most celebrated chapters analyze what happens when we fall in love. A bare branch, Stendhal tells us, may be left in the depths of a salt mine, and after a few months it will be covered with "shimmering, glittering diamonds, so that the original bough is no longer recognizable." A similar "crystallization," he says, forms around an adored mistress, to whom our minds attribute every beauty and perfection. Mathilde may appear quite ordinary to the world's eyes, but to the man in her thrall even her little tics and crotchets are suddenly bathed in a celestial light.

  • "Just Around the Corner: A Highly Selective History of the Thirties", by Robert Bendiner. When I was starting out in journalism, we used to get occasional visits in our weekly newspaper office from an old fellow named Bill Springfield, who dressed stylishly and regaled us with tales of his days as a reporter in the 1930s and World War II (complete with photo album). This book reminds me of him. Turbulent times, bad times, but for those who were young men then, like Bendiner, it was the time of their lives. He gives it to you so that you feel it was a part of your youth, too; written with the eyes of an inhabitant, not a historian.

  • "Birth of the Modern," by Paul Johnson. The tour-de-force historian covers the world from 1815 to 1830 in 1,000 pages that read like 100. The anecdotal style of history can degenerate into a series of threaded cliches, but in Johnson's hands the anecdotes perform properly; they illuminate the truths rather than distracting from them.

  • "The White Goddess," by Robert Graves. One of the great, glorious, mad, brilliant wrong guesses of history.

  • "The Cyberiad," by Stanisław Lem. Polish science fiction fables from a very prickly character.

OK, that's nine, not seven. So sue me.

6. Movies. Definitely "would if I had time," since I hardly ever have time to watch movies, but here they are:

  • Animal House
  • Outlaw Josey Wales
  • Monty Python & the Holy Grail
  • The Producers (1968 version)
  • Ed Wood
  • The Thirteenth Warrior
  • Hard Day's Night

What can I say? I'm a guy.

7. Who's next?

Ah, the usual suspects: