Bookish ramblings for a hot August morning

In which your humble blogger discusses Vegas, his earning potential, and his newfound crush on Sarah Vowell.

Tomorrow morning I'm getting on a plane to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. So for the past few weeks I've found myself having the usual run-up-to-Vegas talk with my friends. If you've ever been to Vegas, you're familiar with this talk: contemplating the number of "free" drinks you'll be consuming, all the money you're sure to win, whether there's a chance for permanent injury when a pair of silicone-enhanced double-Ds come raining down on your forehead from out of the sky. While these conversations are fun and all, what they've mostly highlighted for me is the growing gap between my future earning potential and that of my friends — all of whom, post-college, screwed around for a few years and then eventually embarked upon more or less respectable careers. Whereas I screwed around for a few years, then tried on a respectable career for size, then fled said career as if it were a scabies-infested suit for grad school and abject poverty.

I suppose it's time to face facts: I will probably always be poor. Or, maybe not poor exactly, because I realize there are lots of people who live in real poverty while working menial, no-future jobs and sleeping in squalor and entertaining themselves with only basic cable and dial-up internet service. But I doubt I will ever be rich. Or even upper middle class. Or comfortable. Unless, of course, I decide to give up on the things that I love and re-sell my soul to Corporate America.

Apparently, when my mother was a youngish girl, my grandmother used to tell her that it was just as easy to love a rich man as to love a poor one. Sometimes, at night, I lie in bed and wonder if I could make myself love something different: investment banking, or real estate law, or orthodontia. Because unfortunately, what I really love is fiction writing. And also writing about my unhealthy obsession with pop culture. And, oh yes, editing a literary journal.

Until someone comes along with a new set of mathematical theorems, zero plus zero plus zero will continue to equal zero.

A few days ago, I picked up a copy of The Partly Cloudy Patriot, a collection of essays by Sarah Vowell. Everyone, except me, has apparently known about Sarah Vowell for years. What can I say? I don't listen to enough public radio. I saw her first in a documentary about They Might Be Giants, and then on The Daily Show. And then I was browsing the bookstore one day and saw this collection of essays and thought: why the hell not?

Which leads me to the part of this post where I confess to being in love, just a little bit, with Sarah Vowell, or at least the version of Sarah Vowell that comes across in these essays, the self-proclaimed nerd who loves American history and can write about it in ways that completely charm my pants off. And I am not a history person. I used to fall asleep in high school history, until my teacher, a large Greek woman, would smack me on the back of the head and I would wake up in a puddle of my own drool. In college, I only took one history class, a boring survey course that tried to cover all of Western Civilization in one semester, and I would have slept through that, too, if not for the Sam Kinison-like instructor scaring the shit out of us from the front of the room. Instead my friend Tad and I snuck in travel mugs that concealed a mixture of spiced rum and Coca-Cola and tried our best to feign interest from the back row.

So yes, I am one of those people who is doomed to repeat history because I don't understand it. But then again, I'm not the President of the United States of America or the CEO of some huge multinational corporation. My repeating history tends to involve dating the same types of problematic women over and over again, which, while annoying, isn't exactly going to usher in Armageddon. So perhaps my lack of historical knowledge isn't such a big deal, all things considered.

But how can you not love history when it's recounted like this:

"My whole life, no matter how happy I am, I've always had this nagging feeling that Teddy Roosevelt is looking over my shoulder whispering, 'Is this all you are?' As is my policy toward all well-rounded people, I sort of hate him a little. Roosevelt was a well-read he-man, a bookworm and an athlete, a robust outdoorsman who loved to come home from the hunt and crack open a volume of Hawthorne. He was a jock and a nerd at the same time. As Elting Morrison puts it in his introduction to Roosevelt's autobiography, 'He is certainly the only President who ever read Anna Karenina while on a three-day search for cattle thieves.'"

Or this, after visiting Gettysburg on the anniversary of Lincoln's most famous speech:

"I pay my respects to the bodies, but I'll admit that I am more concerned with the 272 words President Lincoln said about them. The best the slaughtered can usually hope for is a cameo in some kind of art. Mostly, we need a Guernica to remind us of Guernica. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln said of the men who shed their blood, 'the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.' Who did he think he was kidding? We only think of them because we think of him. Robert E. Lee hightailed it out of Gettysburg on the Fourth of July, the same day the Confederates surrendered Vicksburg to U.S. Grant — a big deal at the time because it gave the Feds control of the Mississippi. And yet who these days dwells on Vicksburg, except for the park rangers who work there and a handful of sore losers who whine when they're asked to take the stars and bars off their godforsaken state flags?"

Point is, in reading this book, I've found myself wishing someone like Sarah Vowell could have written my high school American history textbook. Or taught that college World Civ. class in place of the ponytailed screamer who seemed more interested in scaring us into submission than inspiring us to learn.

And the other point is this: here is someone else who loves something not all that many people love, and who has stuck with it and made a nice little life for herself in the process. So maybe there is a bit of hope, after all, for the rest of us. I certainly hope so, because if I have to give up HBO, or my subscription to Entertainment Weekly, I will not be a happy camper.

1 comment:

TMC said...

Unfortunately, thanks to the need to be politically correct, inoffensive, and mildly acceptable to all focus groups, no textbook will ever be as interesting. Instead, groups of oversensitive morons will gather together and pick the blandest, least useful textbook possible in every subject.

You know, a ccertain school district in NYC uses a math textbook that spends one page on the pythagorean theorem, but three pages talking about Roberto Clemente? What the fuck is that?

If you read up on some of the proceedings about choosing these textbooks, you might just lose all faith in the people we pay (via taxes) to raise the next generation of Americans. Especially if you read their rationale for things like this: rejecting a better written textbook in favor of another one that uses more multicultural examples in illustrations, like handicapped children and Eskimos. Or Inuits, or whatever the hell they're called.