Saturday, June 30, 2018

Junkyard Dogs

I grew up near a trucking garage. Not fifty yards from our house, in a residential part of Jersey City, was an industrial garage. It was located at the end of a dead-end. It was fairly small, and I assumed that it only housed or repaired or maintained tractor trucks (it was too small for any trailers).

The garage was guarded by two ferocious dogs. I don't remember their breed, but they were most likely German Shepherds or Doberman Pinschers. They were tethered to the building by a long chain link leash. Whenever us neighborhood kids cut through the cemetery that was next to this garage, we would have to brace ourselves for some ferocious barking and chain snapping as the dogs would hurl themselves again the fence, standing on their hind legs, barking like mad.

My childhood fear of dogs started with them. I was scared that they would bite me, if they could get free of their leash, or somehow jump over the fence. I associated dog barking as meaning menace, and a dog's jumpy, kinetic energy as something uncontrollable. The double whammy of enduring a dog bite and a long needle (for a tetanus shot) made me nervous around any dog, and the fear stayed with me for many years.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Ulysses Reading Diary

Over the long weekend I put together a small web page of diary entries I made while reading Ulysses, by James Joyce. It took me almost three years to finish this masterwork of literature (2009-2012). From my records on LibraryThing, I learned that I also finished reading 100 other books while I made my way slowly through Ulysses.

I look back with satisfaction. Reading Ulysses was one of my bucket list books. I wish I had made more diary entries, because as I think back on the book now, each chapter was a unique challenge, and it would have been good to record how I tackled them. (My main advice: buy a study guide!)

For the literary inclined, visit my Ulysses reading diary at:

Monday, April 30, 2018

My Fiftieth Reckoning

There are two days in the year that we reckon with ourselves. Two days in which we take stock. Take measure. Those two days are New Years Day, and Birthdays. And what bigger reckoning can one have than on their fiftieth birthday? Half a century has gone by, and what have we done with all that time?

I look back and count the good things: my wife, our daughter, our comfortable life together. I consider my haphazard career, and how it has offered a steady livelihood. I remember all those things I pursued, my so-called hobbies, some of which have faded away, replaced by other things to pass the time. I don't know if I have the energy to try new things, but I know I have enough energy to pursue the things that I like.

I think fondly about the people that I've met, across fifty years of living. Some have reached out to me in their own fiftieth year, perhaps to reconstruct or remember a past that we had shared. Many others just remain memories, acquaintances, brief connections that I still remember because remembering feels good. I'm less worried about people forgetting me: perhaps I've forgotten them!

I'd like the remaining years to be happy, but I'd also like it to be kinder, gentler, and less about striving. If life is a mountain to climb, then the mountain is infinitely tall. There's always another peak to chase, and I admit that I'm not as interested to see the view from higher up. I think the view I have now is fine.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

A Book Update

My short e-book, I Couldn't Keep It To a Tweet, has been purchased exactly seven times since its publication in September 2017.

I remember an interview I heard with the singer/songwriter John Oates (of Hall and Oates fame). He was promoting a solo album (1000 Miles of Life, 2008). He said he'd be happy to sell 10,000 copies of this album. Only 10,000? This is one half of Hall and Oates! You'd think 10,000 is what he could sell in its first week!

His perhaps realistic expectations help me with mine. I certainly didn't expect to sell 10,000 copies of my little book. But since my computer book has sold over 2,500 paid units since 2015 (both physical and ebooks), I figured 100 would be a reasonable sales number for my little memoir. Given that 7 is a long way from a 100, I think I'll just lower my expectations. Or maybe I should start advertising.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Beginner Baker

For the past year or so I've been slowly learning how to bake. My first step was making breakfast waffles from a box mix. I was whisking water, eggs, waffle mix and some oil. It was easy and satisfying, and it got me into the kitchen, but it was only the mechanics of baking.

My next step in proper baking was making simple breads. I progressed to the stand mixer, and learned to work with yeast, dough and the oven. My wife, an expert baker, let me flail about in the kitchen, forcing me to trust the recipes. When things felt ambiguous, I called her over for consulting.

I then learned how to make basic pies: key lime pie, chocolate cream pie, and pumpkin pie. More skills are brought to bear, but overall baking is about multitasking. While the crust is baking, the filling can be prepared, or vice versa. Even two or three things are a lot to juggle as a beginner.

I wish I had started baking earlier. Learning to bake has given me a deeper appreciation of my wife's cooking abilities. She has an immense amount of cooking and baking experience, and she applies it every day. I'm now glad I can help with dessert.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

My 2017 Books and Movies

In 2017, I finished 26 books (see my profile on Goodreads).

I finished some terrific books, including Chaos Monkeys (Antonio García Martínez), The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead) and What Happened (Hillary Clinton).

My favorite non-fiction book read in 2017 was Héctor Tobar's Deep Down Dark, the accounting of the 33 Chilean miners who got trapped in a deep mine. Tobar moves easily between the work underground and the work above-ground to get everyone out safely. He heightens what is a simple rescue mission story into a moving meditation on work, love, faith, and hope.

My favorite fiction book read in 2017 was 4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster. Like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it's a coming of age book, but in Auster's hands it's a literary magic trick. The novel watches the growth of a boy into a young man, but Auster examines this life four ways, each life affected by different events and choices. Superb!

I watched 39 movies (see the list on my IMDb). My favorite from last year was Blade Runner 2049, a sequel that perfectly complements the first Blade Runner (released in 1982). The ideas, the cinematography, and the story are just perfect. I also liked and highly recommend Baby Driver (2017) and True Grit (2010).

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I opined to my wife that it would be impossible to pick a favorite fiction book, because there are so many genres and so many great works. She disagreed. "I have an all-time favorite novel: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". I was surprised at her certainty and set out to read the book.

Francie Nolan is the main character of this novel that takes place in the years before the US entered  World War I. Francie is 11 years old when the book opens, and her precocious observations and sharp insights about Brooklyn and its people propel the book. She is both nostalgic and unsympathetic. As she grows older and sees more how the world works, she matures before your eyes. She is 16 at the end of the book, and you realize you've grown up with her.

The book is populated with her first-generation American family: a hard working mother, a lovable lout of a father, and a rambunctious younger brother. She has two aunts that add a lot of zest in her life. Everyone is poor in her part of Brooklyn, yet she has rich experiences because of her keen eye and imagination. So many vivid scenes from this book: her grandmother getting swindled out of her savings, her father's constant singing, getting vaccinated for school, the time she and her brother caught a large Christmas tree for the holidays.

The book brims with universal emotion and experiences. She feels loneliness as she longs for someone to understand her. She rebels against her mother as she starts to spread her wings. She takes bold steps to further herself and her family and you cheer. There is deceit and heartbreak, humor and truth, life and death.

"I'm in awe of this book," I told my wife, when I finished. It's a book about "what it means to be human", writes Anna Quindlen in the introduction of my edition. By the end, I could only wipe away my tears and agree.