My Life on the Road and
Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles

Lookee! I read what Emma Watson read & You Can Too!

Lookee! I read what Emma Watson read & You Can Too!

Gloria Steinem’s new memoir, A Life on the Road, surprised me. All I knew about Steinem was her role as an early and eloquent, no-nonsense spokesperson for feminism, and the founder of Ms Magazine. I had no idea how she’d become one of the major faces of the women’s lib movement in the 60s and 70s. Now I do.

This book is not about feminism, though. It’s about growing up with a loving father who spent 3/4 of the year on the road – with his family, towing a travel trailer. It tells how Steinem became a touring public speaker, how her experiences shaped her and what she’s learned from them. She was present at Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and was involved in political campaigns for the Kennedys as a journalist and a volunteer. Mostly, though, she writes about brief encounters with college students and cab drivers—the small incidents that make up her life.

Steinem doesn’t drive. She says: “… being isolated in a car was not always or even usually the most rewarding way to travel. I would miss talking to my fellow travelers or looking out the window. How could I enjoy getting there when I couldn’t pay attention?”

And paying attention — listening — is important. I have a notebook page full of quotes from the book, but this one shows up in other reviews: “One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak.”

David Ulin reads his book at Vermin on the Mount.(gosrskypress.bandcamp.com)

David Ulin reads his book at Vermin on the Mount.(gosrskypress.bandcamp.com)

David L. Ulin is the former book critic of the Los Angeles Times and writes for many magazines. Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles is a collection of his own essays about walking in L.A. It is not about our city, but about the concept of our city; not about the streets and local history but about how we view those things. I felt as if I weren’t the target audience, in spite of my love for Los Angeles history. I suspect the book was written more for academics. For example, he sketches, very quickly, a few facts about  Angel’s Flight or the St. Francis Dam disaster, just a sentence or two to support his point about  L.A.’s changing self-concept. If you know the history already, that may be enough. If you don’t know it, though, the book is frustrating.

Ulin’s thesis is interesting: that streets in L.A. are private spaces masquerading as public spaces. We make them private because we travel them enclosed in our cars, never making contact with street life itself.

While he convinced me and I agree, it’s odd, isn’t it, that his presentation lacks personal contact, and keeps readers at a distance.

Steinem’s thesis seems to be that the road one travels keeps one human, no matter the vehicle.

Ulin’s book is about ideas: how do we define and experience our cities and roads? Steinem’s is about personal encounters that make up a life on the road.

Very different books, but with this message in common: You can’t know a neighborhood, a city, or a country by driving through it. You must get out of your car.

(This review — or most of it — was first published in the monthly newsletter LA Mentary)

This morning I saw two mockingbirds fighting a scrub jay above me. They were balancing on cables and tree branches. The mockingbirds would jump and lift off, the way they do when wanting attention, then settle back. The jay was like a bulldog, just ramming and shoving them.

I wonder what the birds thought of the fight?

Have you ever passed an accident and seen a kid, barely old enough to drive, standing on the curb, in acute distress? A girl, hands over her face, crying? Or a guy, hands on his head? OhMyGodMyDadIsGoingToKillMe! OhMyGodHowCouldThisHappen!  You know exactly how they feel. We’ve all been there. You ache for them, poor babies. Yes, honey, this is they worst day ever. You’ll survive.

Well, I wonder if those two mockingbirds are huddling together tonight. Was their nest destroyed? Are they thinking OhMyGodThisIsTheWorstDayEver? Do birds have context for those kind of thoughts? Do they remember this morning?

Just wondering.

Around three weeks ago, I put up my list of the classics of Science Fiction that all fans of the genre should read. I promised a Part II.

Was I nuts? It’s easy to look back a century or more, because time has winnowed the list of novels to something manageable. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; anyone would have come up with those guys! Then there’s Heinlein the Great,Neuromancer and Dune. Simple.

Gazillions of other SF books have been published. How on earth do I build a Part II?

WIth great trepidation and a bucket full of caveats. I haven’t read everything. I wasn’t always paying attention when I read. And what makes classic or great SF is hardly a settled definition; everyone’s got their own opinions.

This is not a list of my favorites, but rather the books that I think had the biggest impact on the world. These novels expanded our minds and pushed our self-imposed boundaries of what might be a little further.

  • 11984coversega8984 by George Orwell introduced us to Big Brother and the idea of mind control by a less-than-benevolent government. Orwell wrote it in 1949 when the title year seemed far away. As 1984 approached, post Viet Nam and post Watergate cover-up, the novel’s warnings began to look less crazy and more plausible. 1984  gave us concepts like newspeak, Big Brother, and thought police, and showed us how our horizons can be controlled, our history rewritten by media, and our lives shrunken to fit the boundaries set out for us.
  • 41ALV5fomnL._AA160_Atlas Shrugged is science fiction, a fact that many of Ayn Rand’s fans forget. Published in 1957 (though it took years to write) it’s set in a dystopian world, with this twist: instead of beginning her story after a cataclysmic, world-destroying event as most novels do, we are plunged into a the middle of the world’s destruction, following heroes that are trying to save it, one way or another. Rand’s world does not seem futuristic to us; Atlas Shrugged was written when trains, rather than planes, were the preferred method of travel, when smoking was fun, and when most women aspired to hook themselves to a strong, protective male, rather than strike out on their own. So it’s a period piece as well as an expression of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy — and a rollicking, imaginative story.
  • found1asIsaac Asimov’s Foundation, the first novel of a series, stands like a glimmering gateway into mounds of mid-century SF, where men are men and women are perky. Can the future be foretold based on the mathematical reading of trends? What can upset those readings? I was debating whether to include the Foundation Series in this book, wondering how to measure its influence, and then I read this 2012 quote by Nobel-prize-winner Paul Krugman:  “I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.” The fictional Seldon, of course, is the founding father of psychohistory, the science which guides the worlds in the Foundation Trilogy to survive the collapse of their empire and the ensuing Dark Ages.
  • left-hand-of-darknessUrsula LeGuin’s gender-bending The Left Hand of Darkness implied that physical sexuality might be expressed differently on other planets and that male and female were not the only categories. Released in 1969, when men and women were beginning to question what gender actually had to do with their choices and lives, and books were beginning to switch from using masculine pronouns for everyone (remember that?) The only explosions in LeGuin’s books were our stereotypes going “boom!” This book won the Nebula and Hugo and has always been highly praised.
  • 1125325The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy showed us that SF could be more than fun, it could be downright hilarious. It could be irreverent and satirical. We could laugh over the earth’s demolition for an intergalactic superhighway and the ridiculousness of life. Would we have been ready for the Disc World books by Terry Pratchett without the Hitchhiker series? Or any of Jasper Fforde’s wild tales? Dunno, and don’t want to find out. SF that makes me laugh out loud in a restaurant and not care how crazy I look is to be treasured as a giant step forward for all.

Shall I continue? I’m debating the inclusion of alternate history, but is that really science fiction? Probably not. How could I leave out Ray Bradbury? Andre Norton? Anne McAffrey? and on and on — but this list is for the books with the biggest impact, not the bodies of work by incredible authors.

If you want more (and why shouldn’t you?) just google “most influential science fiction.” I did, several times, and ended up with a huge to-read list. So maybe next year there will be a Part III.

 

 

12932884_1598507900468945_613133606886174276_nWhy do we act against our own best interest?

I could have gone to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this weekend. Like my friend Lynn to the right. See how happy she is?

I meant to go, but I didn’t volunteer to do booth duty anywhere, so I didn’t have a solemn commitment. And someone asked me to work for them somewhere else, and it was drizzly, and my daughter asked me to babysit, and my car is not so reliable that I just jump in and go like I used to . . .

Man, I’ve got a ton of excuses. Now, pictures of people I know having a great time are showing up all over Facebook and Twitter and I’m realizing I blew it.

Cfp7q9vUMAAHCS9I could’ve gone to one of these great panels that folks are tweeting about. Panels I would pay money for and they’re free and all I had to do was show up!

Last year I listened to John Scalzi talk about the new Red Shirts TV series. I remember in the 90s that I sat in while Tony Hillerman was interviewed, and another time I spent half the day in line to get an autograph from my daughter’s favorite author Dean Koontz. (That poor man signed every darn book for hours, and was gracious and funny the whole time, btw,) I had a blast.

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Robin Quinn tweeted these last two photos. That’s her on the left with fellow writer Esther Pearlman. See that big smile?

My big complaint about the Festival of Books is how crowded it gets, because it’s always on a sunny, beautiful weekend. This would have been the perfect time to go!

I have to learn this lesson every decade or so. Once I was invited to fly to France with a couple and share their vacation. I didn’t go because, well, I’d just taken a long vacation and I couldn’t rationalize the expense and I had all these responsibilities and blah-blah-blah. Then my friends returned with stories and pictures and bottles of Calvados, and I realized that a gift had been held out to me, and I’d turned up my nose.

I got it; I wrote about it: that lost chance was a lesson I’d never forget . . . but I do forget it, often.

Why are we not more opportunistic, in a good way?

I’d kick myself, but I’m averse to pain.

A long, long time ago, there was but one phone company.

One.

We called it Ma Bell, though there were names based on geography: Atlantic Telephone and Telegraph, Pacific Bell, Southwestern Bell, etc. But rest assured, it was one entity. In the 1970s, the courts decided that Ma Bell, in the guise of AT&T and Western Electric, constituted a monopoly under the Sherman Antitrust Act. The 1980s saw the break up of the phone companies, and consumers were vexed, verily.

We had to change! We hates change! We had to select a long distance company, of all things, and dozens of companies were charging multiple rates to different countries during night, day, and business hours. If you chose unwisely you threw your money away or were gouged for placing calls at premium hours. We moved from vexed to wroth.

We were wroth!

And in the midst of such turmoil I recall saying, to all who would listen, that we should have expected this mess. After all, we’d let the courts disable a perfectly good system, one that Ma Bell had set up over decades. It had been in The Phone Company’s best interest to keep equipment in good order and to invest in infrastructure, because they were the ones who’d reap the profits, right? Now, having to share equipment with a bunch of startups — well, what could you expect?

I’d just read Atlas Shrugged, and thought that stood to reason. Take away a company’s reason for operating efficiently, force them to share profits with the unworthy, and you have chaos. Chaos! Hell-in-a-hand-basket chaos!

We should have left Ma Bell alone!

Of course, a few more years passed. Bring on cable TV, underground fiber optic cable, satellite reception, the internet, computers in every home, cell phones in every pocket, and it’s clear: Ma Bell was monolithic block of granite standing on what was about to become the information superhighway. It needed to be dynamited, and dynamited it was.

Two things to learn from this anecdote:

  1. As a prognosticator, I suck. Do not ever ask me to predict anything.
  2. Big big companies can become so traditional and hidebound that they stagnate. It maybe easier, because we still hates changes, but in the long run we cannot just allow them to go on calling the shots. They may begin to rot from the inside.

And so … in Southern California, for the past couple of months, our local news has been dominated by the screw up of another hidebound monolithic utility, Southern California Gas, a part of Sempra Energy. As Angelenos have seen on TV each night, schools closed and thousands of residents have been forced from their Porter Ranch homes because of the worst gas leak in the nation’s history.

For weeks, the Gas Company did nothing. NOTHING. They insisted the gas was not harmful, and when they were forced to pay for housing for those who did not wish to breathe in noxious fumes that made them ill (namby-pamby complainers!) they finally roused themselves to work on stopping the leak.

Turns out they were not using their aging equipment in the safest way possible. Go figure. Turns out there are dozens of such aging containers, also being used in less than the safest way possible, all over the place. Hmph. Turns out the Gas Company doesn’t give a fig about public safety, and no one in the state bureaucracy is calling them to account for that … so why should they care?

Now, the leak has finally been capped. The Gas Company says everything is done, and please stop bothering them. Well, OK, they didn’t actually say that. They just act like that’s what they’re thinking.

This gigantic utility has tried to wriggle out of paying for any extra days to allow people to move back home. They’ve capped the leak, things are fine, trust us and stop lollygagging. They went to court to get out of paying for any extra days of housing for displaced residents. That battle is still being waged, because folks in Porter Ranch say they’re still getting sick and the Gas Company is being forced to conduct tests.

Forced? As in, they poisoned the air with 100,000 tons of methane (that measure is from the Los Angeles Times; I am not exaggerating for once) and made everyone sick and now they don’t think they should have to run any tests? That we should just take their word that the air is not filled with contaminants when said contaminants coat the surfaces of playground equipment?

And here’s what’s so unbelievably rich: The CEO of Sempra Energy just got a $3.17 million bonus!

‘scuse me?

“It’s an outrageous abdication of responsibility,” is the way one consulting firm put it. Now, that firm is probably representing the residents so their statement may be biased. But I don’t represent anyone, and I am biased. Being appalled is a bias, right? Being disgusted? Being indignant over the unethical behavior of the Gas Company biases me.

What is my dream outcome of this unwholesome drama? Well, I’d like to see some handcuffed suits do the perp walk from their lovely executive offices to jail. Seriously.

A public utility is supposed to serve the public. Being monumentally callous about the public health, about families getting sick and testing the air after an accident, and about the risks posed by aging containers seems criminally negligent to me. Or, as Michael Hiltzik puts it in the Times, One would think that operating safely is Job One at a gas utility and a major debacle that lands in the record books would be a major black mark for corporate management.

Maybe we shouldn’t have stopped with the Phone Company back in the 70s and 80s. Maybe all those big utilities should have been dynamited.

Thank you for letting me get that off my chest.

Don’t you hate it when you can’t sleep because your head won’t shut up? It’s my brain, in my body, so I should be able to exert control over it, right? It doesn’t work that way. Judging by the epidemic insomnia of my generation, no one’s brain works that way. Rude little buggers.

Since I’m so alert, I decide to read. Here’s what I see:

“Strictly speaking, you don’t think. Thinking happens to you. The statement “I think” implies volition. It implies that you have a say in the matter, that there is a choice involved on your part. For most people, this is not yet the case. “I think” is just as false a statement as “I digest” or “I circulate my blood.” Digestion happens, circulation happens, thinking happens.

“The voice in the head has a life of its own. Most people are at the mercy of that voice …

At last, someone gets it right. Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth.

320x240Here’s the second quote. It comes from Nog, the first Ferengi cadet in Star Fleet.

In Deep Space Nine, Nog tells Chief O’Brien that he must have faith in the Great Material Continuum. Nog follows up with a definition of the Great Material Continuum, the deep philosophy behind the Rules of Acquisition and Ferengi ethos.  It’s absolutely beautiful so I’ve included the YouTube link below the quote.

“It’s the force that binds the universe together … There are millions upon millions of worlds in the universe, each one filled with too much of one thing and not enough of another. And the Great Continuum flows through them like a mighty river, from have to want and back again. And if we navigate the Continuum with skill and grace, our ship will be filled with everything our hearts desire. 

“The river will provide.”

Better than The Secret, huh?

New science fiction is wonderful. I love John Scalzi, Joshua Fforde, Hugh Howey, and all the rest. But as with any genre, you get more out of a book if you know the classics that came before it.

John Scalzi, for example, makes old ideas fresh, with twists on themes that you never realized were old until he shined them up so pretty. Old Man’s War is even more fun if you know Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

from Sergeij Zwaan's design site: https://sergejzwaanid.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/futursitic-design-versus-science-fiction-design-1/

from Sergeij Zwaan’s design site: https://sergejzwaanid.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/futursitic-design-versus-science-fiction-design-1/

A second reason for reading the classics is that the authors of these books have literally shaped the future they write about.

Social barriers broke down and new ideas gained strength because readers discovered them in great books. Science fiction can play with our minds in a way that nonfiction can’t. It’s one thing to see a mystifying new feat of engineering announced on the news. We don’t even understand it half the time. But in a novel, we get to see what a new thought or invention could do. We can fly through black holes, meld with machines, or rebuild society from the ground up. And that gives us ideas for the real world.

FoodCardsLike Star Trek in the 60s with its little 3.5 inch square computer diskettes, or Deep Space 9 in the early 90s where everybody held a 5 by 7 inch computer that anyone today would recognize as an iPad .  . .  Yeah, that’s why those particular designs ended up in those sizes.  And that is Majel Barrett Roddenberry holding them.

So, this is my list of the best, most classic SF books, for all lovers of the genre. I do not include fantasy. I am inserting links to Amazon’s most economical editions, just in case you can’t wait. And these are not numbered, because that implies best to least, which is not true.

Jules Verne comes first, because he IS the Father of Science Fiction. He wrote wild adventures before anyone thought of calling them science fiction:a Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. . .  pick one, any one! In fact, you can download The Collected Works of Jules Verne: 36 Novels and Short Stories (Unexpurgated Edition) to your Kindle for $1.99. Think of it — all those great stories that you read in abridged, illustrated form when you were a child can be yours to enjoy for just two bucks!

If you’ve never read Jules Verne — or if you’ve only read the comics or seen movies based on his books — you’ll be surprised at just how engaging and exciting the books actually are. The man could tell a story. He sets a fast pace and throws in all the scientific jargon and measurements of his day, some real and some fictionalized. There’s a reason these books have enthralled generations of readers for over a century. They are GOOD.

So pick one of his stories and enjoy.

First US Edition. Clearly, flashy covers were not invented in the 19th century.

First US Edition. Clearly, flashy covers were not invented in the 19th century.

Next, The Time Machine (Dover Thrift Editions) by H. G. Wells. It’s 120 years old but I think it’s the first time travel book ever. Every such adventure since owes something to The Time Machine, because every author since has tried to either create the same Victorian thrill, or something completely different.  According to this Wired article, “Rise of the Machines: Why We Keep Coming Back to the H. G. Wells’ Version of a Dystopian Future,” all dystopian literature goes back to The Time Machine, which H. G. Wells intended as a warning against the unprincipled use of power that science and technology bring. So there.

Also, many TV shows, movies, and modern books — like the wonderful The Map of Time: A Novel by Felix J. Palma — make reference to it in a big way. To be truly well read, you should familiarize yourself with the book.

61bNxPgMY6L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Wells was no slouch; his The War of The Worlds (this link goes right to the .99 Kindle version) came out three years after The Time Machine, in 1898. This is the book behind Orson Welles’ famous Halloween broadcast of 1938 — the radio show that had all America believing that aliens had attacked Earth. Again, with so many movies, books, and TV shows drawing on the book for inspiration, it’s a must for SF fans.

Moving on.

In an early episode of MASH, Hawkeye coaches Radar on how to talk to a nurse who loves classical music. You know, Mozart, Bach, all the biggies. Hawkeye says,  “Bach is easy. If she brings him up you just smile and say, “Ah . . . Bach.” ”

So, “Ah . . .  Heinlein.”

81Nb2a+4epLTwo books from Robert Heinlein are on my list, although he wrote many more and all are great. The first, Stranger in a Strange Land (Remembering Tomorrow) would be tops to almost anybody. How would a human raised by aliens on Mars  react when he is finally brought to Earth? He understands so little, but his piercing insights into our quirks are profound, even troubling.

Since the novel is set in a future century, there are many innovations that I’ve been waiting decades to see — including a career path I’d love: that of a professional witness. In Heinlein’s near-future, all technology can be compromised; no system is hackproof. In the end, we’ve come to realize that only trained individuals of impeccable honesty can be trusted to relate the truth of so many events. I still want to be a professional witness when I grow up.

The book won a Hugo Award in 1963: Heinlein’s third.

Starship_Troopers_(novel)Stranger in a Strange Land lets us see everything through the eyes of a naive outsider, but not all of Heinlein’s work paints so broad and complex a picture. The second Heinlein book I’d recommend is Starship Troopers, another Hugo winner. In a way, this is just a straightforward account of a future soldier’s life. But through his eyes, we learn how a military force has become ensconced into a special niche, how it protects, how it must be separate from all other types of society. Heinlein goes deep, but he is always fascinating and entertaining.

And you cannot help but love his heroes.

Neuromancer_(Book)One book I did not love is Neuromancer by William Gibson. It’s got lots of violence, tough-guy talk, and the action takes place in a seedy, flashy, dog-eat-dog world. But doesn’t that describe a lot of video games? Neuromancer coined the word Cyberspace. The main character is a down-on-his-luck hacker who gets caught up in a web of corporate giants who have blurred the line between reality and the virtual matrix in their battles for control.

Won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick Award in 1984. So the fact that I had trouble caring about the self-serving central characters doesn’t mean diddly. This novel invented cyberpunk, and is well worth your attention.

tumblr_m589qrFffi1qbaom0The last must-read novel on this short list is Dune by Frank Herbert. Dune and its follow-up books knocked Lord of the Rings out of its long-held number one position on all lists of fantasy and SF. Blending mysticism and science in galaxies where science has become, in effect, magic, Dune presents flawed heroes, bloated villains, and concepts that I could not even imagine when I first read of them back in the early 70s.  Superstition is as big a factor as science, and corporate greed and feudalism (with noble houses on top) run the universe. Ecology and the wasting of worlds is a major theme.

George Lucas used a lot of the imagery and ideas from Dune in his own Star Wars movies, which gives readers an advantage when tossing out bits of trivia during screenings. “Sand worms — know where Lucas got that idea?” Now you do.

Stay tuned for Part II …

I haven’t hit rock bottom, and I’m worried.

220px-Eat,_Pray,_Love_–_Elizabeth_Gilbert,_2007So many books full of hope and advice begin with that. Look at Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. She starts on her fabulous journey of enrichment and enlightenment (and engorgement!) by waking in the middle of the night and collapsing in sobs in her own bathroom because she hates her life so much. And then she hears a voice.

It doesn’t say anything earth-shattering. If I remember right, the voice tells her to go back to bed. But she hears it; she knows she has been heard, and she is comforted. And over the next few months, her life turns upside down but she has trust and comfort, largely because of the voice. And of course, we all know how well it worked out for her.

I love Elizabeth Gilbert. Here’s her TED talk.

Another popular guru/coach these days is Panache Desai. His book Soul Signature describes how he hit rock bottom on New Years Eve one year  in Venice, California, and wrestled with his demons, cleaning up his life and getting it back on track afterward.

Creative Commons: Rosie_O'Beirne

Creative Commons: Rosie_O’Beirne

Or talk to anyone who’s survived alcoholism or drug addiction to live clean and sober. They will tell you about the dark night of the soul, the time they hit rock bottom.

I remember a friend describing her first, abusive marriage, and how she would tell her mother, “I can’t take it anymore. I’ve had enough!” And her mother would shake her head and say, “No, you haven’t. You’re still there. You haven’t had enough yet.”

In due time she left that marriage. But her mother was right: she had to hit her personal rock bottom of enough, not just talk about it.

So. I’ve never been an alcoholic or addicted to drugs or beaten by an abuser. I’ve never been down to my last dime, not knowing where the rent was coming from. Never been homeless.

(I’m a Taurus. We agonize over how we’ll pay the rent three months from now. Tomorrow’s rent was arranged 90 days ago. That’s how we roll, OK?)

But please tell me I don’t have to hit rock bottom in order to achieve some sort of renaissance! I mean, really, it makes a great story (Cheryl Strayed’s Wild comes to mind too) but can I skip that icky part, please?

In the interest of honesty, I have cried in my bathroom in the middle of the night. Didn’t hear a voice. Who hasn’t cried in helplessness over their mess of a life on occasion? That’s why we love Elizabeth Gilbert’s story so much–it starts like our own: with a massively fucked up life. We relate!

Reminds me of a quote: “Fate is only fate once it has happened.” Gregory Maguire said that in Lion of a Man, one of his sequels to Wicked, and to me, the best and deepest and most painful of his books.

Gilbert identified a point at which her life turned around. In retrospect, most of us will be able to locate such a point too–but only in retrospect. We can weave a great story around that night that we hit rock bottom and how everything changed afterward, and it won’t be a lie. But it will take years for most of us to realize when it was.

In fact, we will probably be on our deathbeds, watching our entire lives pass by us, before we realize that that–that!–is when it changed. Right there! And we may even point and try to rise up from the bed, then we’ll die and fall back and our great-grandchildren will look at each other and shiver and say, “Wow. What do you suppose she saw?”

This is what I heard on the radio two hours ago, on the news station:

Now that it’s spring, it’s time to honor yourself with that new kitchen you’ve always wanted.

Um . . . in what weird universe does that make sense?

What does a kitchen remodel have to do with spring or with personal honor? Why would a copywriter (I assume it was written by an ad copywriter) think that would catch people’s attention and make them listen?

Well, it did catch my attention, but not in any fashion that would compel me to call this contractor and hire ’em.

Honor myself, buying your service? Just another trope that has crept into our commercial dialogue, along with “You deserve . . . [insert name of overpriced product, weight loss clinic, or attorney here].”

And if one more person responds to a query with, “That’s a great question!” instead of an answer, I’m liable to slap them. Well, not really, because usually the people who say that are sweet. But I’d really prefer the answer, please; I don’t need validation.

Am I just getting old and crotchety?

Firsts. Everybody loves writing and reading about firsts.

The first moon landing: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

First kiss, first love. First heartache. heartbooksGreat topics for novels, always have been.

First car.

A baby’s first steps, first words, get all the attention. There are photos and instant messages to every relative.

Seconds? Does anyone care?

What was said on the second moon landing? Seriously, I believe it was “Well, it may have been a small step for Neil …”

Stories of firsts are neat! they trumpet innovations and make heroes of men and women who’ve pushed our boundaries out. Explorers, inventors, the fearless. Steve Jobs, Sally Ride, Benjamin Franklin.

Lots of books focus on firsts: innovations in certain industries, books on the first woman to do this or that.

What about lasts? They get short shrift. No one ever remembers the last person to do something.

Jackie Kennedy started the tradition of a themed Christmas tree with special ornaments in the White House.* If that tradition is ever dropped, no one will remember the last First Lady to decorate a tree, will they? Traditions are dropped due to lack of interest, so who cares?

VAQUITAThe last passenger pigeon lived out her life in a zoo. What about the last dodo? Will we know of the last vaquita or so many other endangered species?

Who wound up with the last Saturn to be assembled in Spring Hill, Tennessee? Who turned off the lights and locked the doors when Enron emptied out its Houston skyscraper on that last day? Who ordered the last taco sold by the last Pup ‘N’ Taco?

Lasts can be fun. Who was the last president to wear a top hat to his inauguration? John F. Kennedy, Jackie’s husband.

I’d love to see a book about the outdated, the unfashionable, the retrogressive. Folks we can laugh at, not stand in awe of. The last guy with a mullet. The last chick to wear day-of-the-week undies.

Of course, it will change with time. Lasts are open-ended and malleable. Top hats may come back into fashion, and one day Kennedy may lose his standing.

site-2That doesn’t happen often with firsts. Rivals might argue over who was actually first–did Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole; was it Cole’s or Phillippe’s that created the first French dip sandwich?–but once decided, a first position is pretty safe, no matter what might occur after. George Freeth was the first surfer on Southern California beaches. It was 100 years ago; no one’s going to pop up and challenge that.

Lasts can be ephemeral. The last person to go into space will only hold that honor for a few months; the last person to type their thesis on a manual typewriter will no doubt inspire a copycat next year. I had to read about several composers before I could actually identify a definitive last bit of music composed by Cole Porter (it was the score for a 1958 TV show, Aladdin) because creative people leave tons of unpublished work, or change the names of their songs and shows, so what you think is the last thing they wrote actually turns out to be a revamped version of a dud from thirty years earlier.

And the first can be last. For decades, Harper Lee’s first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was also her last – until some greedy agent saw that releasing a second book would make somebody a shitwagon full of cash . . . I’m sorry, did I say that out loud? But it just shows how fragile a “last” designation can be.

So I don’t think I’ll be investing any time writing the Definitive Book of Lasts. It would be a contradiction in terms. But I do hope that some day there will be a last restaurant to feature liver and onions on their menu.

 

*Jackie Kennedy’s White House Christmas tree–along with Lady Bird Johnson’s and other boomer First Ladies–is listed in my Boomer Book of Christmas Memories, of course, and you can click the title-link in the right sidebar to get yourself a copy.