Monday, May 1, 2023

Dull. Dull. Dull.

I can forgive my father for all the things I wasn't taught by him thanks to one or two or three things I was taught by him. 

He was absent most of my childhood. Aside from the occasional catch or some early-morning failed fishing escapade, we seldom did any of that Hugh Beaumont stuff you can still watch on TV if you tune into an episode or a hundred of Leave it To Beaver or some other kaleidoscope of black and white suburbia. 

My father had never had a father and he passed that lacuna on to me. He worked, as I tried to, to overcome that deficit--but pluck only takes you so far. 

And so my entire sex talk and girl talk was just three words long. "Don't be wild," he said one night as I was preparing to go out and be wild. I'm still not much good with girls, or anyone else for that matter.

Be that as it may, my father taught me how to read and how to enjoy it. 

For that I am indebted. I regret I never let him know that.

That started when I was top-bunk-young in the tiny rectangle I shared with my older brother, Fred. My father, when he was home and sober, would read us a book by Dr. Seuss, carefully pausing just before the rhyme word of each couplet or quatrain. Fred and I would race to answer with the missing rhyme.

Not only did that force an appreciation of listening, rhyme and rhythm, it heightened my already acute competitive sense. I had to fight for the word at the end of nearly every other line.

The second thing I was taught by him was to revere the book reviews in The New York Times. Most people (this is dataless conjecture now--so you can consider me a pundit) don't read book reviews any more than they read books. But reading the book reviewed in a book review is not the sole point of reading a book review.

As my father pointed out, they're usually written by some of the best writers in the business. Staff book reviewers uphold a pretty high standard--at least at the Times and The Wall Street Journal--but outside help often comes from leading lights in the various fields they're writing about. It's not unusual to have a noted novelist or politician reviewing a book and getting their perspective. As computer pioneer Allen Kay once said, "A change in perspective is worth 80-points of IQ." And good book reviews give you that change.

Just now, it's Friday afternoon as I write this, I was reading a New York Times book review with a headline so good I don't know how any sentient person could pass it by.

We used to write good headlines in advertising and they did a job we've forgotten about. They stopped people. They led them to the body copy. They might even have handed people a laugh or something to think about and remember.

The review above looks at three books about warfare past and present. I was most stuck on the review of the book pictured below, which you can buy here.

In the review, I found a single clause that stopped me. It made me think about my father, about reading and about slogging through complication while wielding an intellectual machete. Sometimes you have to cut through a lot of vines to get to the pithy core of the matter. That's called life.

Here's the passage that stopped me, with the key phrase highlighted. 

It's sad, I think, how much our species skips over because it's not as exciting as a football game, a fireworks display, a performance by Siegfried and Roy, or a pharma commercial. 

While I am not by nature a patient person, I have a certain resolute ability to slog. As Baseball Annie Savoy says in "Bull Durham," "...a guy'll listen to anything if he thinks it's foreplay." That is, an overture to the opera that's coming.

Much of our world, I think, is sullied because we have a societal addiction to bright lights, fanfare and banality. Sometimes we have to deal with intellectual foreplay. We have to sit on our hands and pay attention to the tough stuff--intelligent thoughts diseases, climate change, the criminal justice system, the tax code and more. As a culture, we don't have patience anymore--if we ever did--for investigations that don't yield immediate spectacular results while splattering mud and blood along the way.

I think maybe my father taught me that, too. That dull is tough but importance makes dull worth it. I think, we've forgotten that. And because we've forgotten that, a lot of what is important is currently under threat if not completely lost. 

Thank you for reading this far.

I hope it wasn't too dull.

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