I shook hands with a billionaire today. In a couple of weeks, we’ll have a meeting where he says I can, and I quote, “tell me what you need.” This is it, fellows. This is my chance to pitch someone on my lifelong dream of becoming an ornamental hermit. “Yes, sir, I’ve been thinking it over, and I’m going to need a grotto, a folly or two, a custom-built library…”
My cousin says that Furber hardly knows anyone by their real name. He identifies them by some nickname in connection with the fiddles they buy from him or get him to repair, or by some personal peculiarity.
— Samuel Butler, The Notebooks of Samuel Butler
Now that I think about it, we have a large group of people whom we “know” in the sense that we see them regularly enough, and even talk to them sometimes, but we’ve never been formally introduced, so we often don’t know their names. This is no problem; in fact, I find that I often prefer to know people by the nicknames (and occasional backstories) we give them. When we do discover their real names, it’s always disappointing, like the moment when a child learns that Santa doesn’t exist. Here’s a list of some of the characters who populate our semi-imaginary world.
Starting with the world of used-and-rare book dealers, there’s Ponytail Ashtray. She and her husband are smokers, and she has a long ponytail. Plus, “Ashtray” is a pun on her real last name. Foul-mouthed, loud and excitable, she brings a white-trash element to the slightly more reserved atmosphere of book-dealing (that’s not a slur; she describes herself that way).
Muppet Man somehow manages to resemble a composite of Muppet characters. A little bit of Beaker, a little Gonzo, a little Scooter, he has an odd, bouncy way of walking that even looks like he’s being moved along on a wire. He owns several t-shirts with classic book covers on them, which he ritually wears to sales. A fellow Wodehouse fan, we always greet each other with a hearty, “What ho, old bean!”
Walter, named for the Dude’s best friend Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. No, he hasn’t pulled a gun on anyone, but — well, first, you have to imagine his appearance. Average height, paunchy, wide-eyed and bespectacled, a trim little mustache and neatly combed salt-and-pepper hair, he always wears a field vest with all his tools of the trade in the many pockets. His voice sounds very much like Jimmy Stewart. Strikes you as a kindly grandpa who spends his days fishing on the lake. One day, he told us a story, apropos of nothing as I recall, about a confrontation he had at a sale with some obnoxious dealer who threw a blanket over a table of books and tried to claim everything underneath it. Walter said he calmly folded the blanket up and informed the man, upon his objecting, that he had faced many more dangerous people than him in his time, and furthermore, had learned in the military several ways to take a man’s life with nothing more than a finger. “Here, let me show you,” he said to Muppet Man next to him in line, who had a look of incredulous horror on his face as Walter put one arm around his shoulders while demonstrating the proper placement of the index finger next to the jugular vein. This isn’t ‘Nam, Walter, this is book dealing. There are rules.
Berkeley Hunt, a thoroughly unpleasant lady. Without fail, she manages to get into a shouting confrontation within three minutes of every sale we see her at. As far as I can tell, the common denominator in all this rancor eludes her. We heard her once, in a calmer moment, telling someone she’d recently moved here from Berkeley, CA. Berkeley + her winning personality + Cockney rhyming slang = Berkeley Hunt.
Yuri and Svetlana. He looks like a disheveled Talmudic scholar, in ill-fitting polo shirts and flip-flops, with his nose frequently pressed into a book Samuel Johnson-style; she always has her long hair tightly braided and wears old-fashioned long dresses and long boots. “That religious couple,” as other dealers call them. He’s affable, she’s aloof to the point of being generally considered unfriendly. She seems to do most of the work; he mostly seems to flit from book to book like a nearsighted honeybee, leaving nose prints on the pages.
Kneepads, a burly, bearded man named for his habit of always wearing knee and elbow pads to sales, as if expecting a pickup volleyball game to break out. (Sometimes accompanied by his young daughters, always wearing Little House on the Prairie-style dresses, whom we’ve dubbed Shinguard, Helmet, etc. in keeping with tradition.) His truck used to proudly sport Infowars bumper stickers; I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that he’s somewhere in the QAnon universe these days, maybe holed up in a bunker with years of supplies. He has what’s commonly known as “crazy eyes.”
Philly John, loquacious and good-natured, always fun to pass the time with, seemingly interested in just about anything. Not to be confused with Delaware John, the former professor, who kept me company on a frigid January morning talking about early colonial American history while waiting for a sale to open (we were the only two idiots devoted enough to be there that early).
The Assassin, an elderly lady. Prim and fastidious, usually dressed in shades of lavender or pink, she has a restrained composure about her in everything from her movements to her facial expressions that suggests extraordinary self-control. Her habit of methodically putting on latex gloves a few minutes before every sale was the finishing touch that earned her the name. You could just as easily imagine her sneaking up behind someone with a garrote or setting up on a rooftop with a sniper rifle as perusing dusty old books.
The Hobbit. She appears barefoot at every sale, even in the dead of winter, standing on the cold sidewalk with her gnarly, callused, filthy feet. Best to not get down on the floor to look through the boxes under the table when she’s nearby.
Heroin Chic(k), from NYC. Nice enough to talk to, but good Lord, those haunting, piercing eyes, those starving-artist clothes, that gaunt frame, and that apparent indifference to deodorant.
The Fitzminions. A husband/wife team. He’s a pastor, one of my favorite people to pass the time in conversation with at sales. He always manages to seem freshly amazed at the stupidity and spitefulness of human nature. He’s well over six feet tall, completely bald, with wide eyes and thick lenses. It took me a while to figure out who he reminded me of, but eventually I got it.
Shrek and Donkey. A Russian uncle and nephew, respectively. At one sale, while talking to Shrek outside, he saw his nephew bringing the car in to a nearby parking spot. “Luke at dhis,” he said in his Russian accent, “he luke like Donkey from the Shrek movie!” He smiled and waved, which made his nephew flash a toothy grin. Sure enough, the resemblance was uncanny.
Among truck drivers we see often in the course of our day job, Cornbread is our favorite. His predecessor told us that he was from Minnesota, so we should be sure to ask him if he was from Iowa, or the Dakotas, because “they hate that, apparently.” Luckily, he’s Minnesota Genuine Nice, so he enjoys the razzing.
Beepy McGee is one of the few UPS drivers who abide by the regulations requiring them to beep the horn when backing up. He enjoys it so much he beeps upon arrival, while backing up, and as he leaves. We imagine him just cruising down the street like Herbie the Love Bug or something, beeping happily to everyone he sees, with the grill of his truck curved in a smile.
Red is named for her omnipresent red manicure, which she strives to maintain against all odds in a physical job. “It’s one of the few things you can do to make this uniform look pretty,” she said. Tall and lanky, almost always wearing shades, she’s one of the few women in a strongly male manual labor environment and as such, is subject to the usual double-standards, like being thought “stuck up” for simply being professional. Cornbread told us that the guys at the depot all wonder, “Where does she stop to pee on a rural route like this?” One time, she showed up to pick up a heavy amount of outgoing parcels when we were expecting Beepy McGee. We joked that we had been eager to see whether we could make him cry when he saw how much he had to take. She smirked and said, “Well, he’d probably cry before I would.” Cool and tough.
Bald Boss is the supervisor who occasionally rides shotgun when training new drivers. Lately, he’s been sporting a wild, prophet-in-the-wilderness beard, which Cornbread says is due to his having joined a new religious “cult.” An anti-vaxxer and a survivalist with an actual bunker, he’s a good reminder of why it’s best to keep most conversations superficial and brief. People are mostly nuts once you scratch the surface.
At the gym, there’s Bun Affleck. He looks remarkably like the buff Batman-era Ben Affleck, only with his long hair up in a man bun. Either closeted, or extremely confident in his sexuality, he frequently wears skimpy, bright pink shorts, which match his bright pink lifting shoes. The “Virginity Rocks!” t-shirt gives me a Christian Youth camp counselor vibe, though.
Ace of Spades has the tattoo on his leg, among many others. He drives what looks like a the result of a monster truck mating with an amphibious assault vehicle, and gives off a strong OORAH impression in everything he does, from his swagger, to the way he martial-arts shadowboxes in between sets, to his over-the-top “This [picture of an automatic rifle] is the tool – I AM THE WEAPON” shirts. And yet, he’s only an ordinary police officer. His frequent workout partner is Mrs. Smith. Watching her run through her circuit one day while I was on the treadmill, I was amazed at her strength and endurance. She looks like a lethal human weapon, so when we found out that she’s actually from Eastern Europe, we named her after the Angelina Jolie spy/assassin character. We invented an elaborate backstory for her, in which she’s an undercover operative assigned to keep watch over a Russian expat living in the area who made an enemy of Putin before leaving. When she’s not causing men to question their masculinity in comparison with her superhuman standards, she’s foiling yet another attempt by Putin’s henchmen to poison her client.
Cap doesn’t completely resemble Captain America, but he earned the name because there’s just something so all-American wholesome about his friendly, welcoming manner. When we found out that one of the women working at the desk was his wife, she became Peggy, naturally.
Angry Amish looks like he was ostracized from his community once he started listening to metal music, getting tattooed, and lifting weights, but he kept the beard. I’ve rarely seen him speak to anyone, and only once did I see a faint smile. He keeps to himself among us English.
The Todd is named after the dudebro surgeon from the brilliant TV show Scrubs, thanks to his habit of constantly stealing admiring glances at himself in the mirror. Not just when doing reps, but also when simply placing the dumbbells back on the rack, or walking to his next station. I can totally see him giving a “self-five for the Big Dawg!” in appreciation of his physique.
Upon reflection, I have to say that I have a richer fantasy life than I would have guessed.
Starting within a couple of days after Halloween, I saw Christmas decorations appearing in and on neighboring houses. Now, within a three-mile radius of my house, I’ve counted at least seven instances of lights on porches, stockings and candles hanging in windows, fully-decorated trees in family-room windows, and even an electric nativity scene! Look, people, we’ve all had a very trying year, but that’s no excuse for letting our standards completely evaporate. Let me offer you some guidelines for proper observance of the season.
- Starting on November 20th, you may start singing and listening to Christmas music, at least by yourself (some style guides say it’s better to wait until later in the month before playing seasonal music in a shared environment). 35 days is plenty of time to enjoy all the musical delights the holiday has to offer. It’s best to start with the light-hearted carols at the end of November, and progress to the choral music in December.
- Decorations may go up during the week of Thanksgiving, depending on your circumstances. For instance, we’ll be hosting my parents this year, so our decorations won’t go up until the day after. If my parents were hosting, however, I might start decorating earlier in the week. Thanksgiving Day, one of the few days that actually count as a day off from work, at least for me, is a good time to put up any outside decorations. The general rule is, start decorating inside the house and work your way outside.
- I don’t know about you, but we heard William Dean Howells’ story Christmas Every Day read to us in elementary school, which taught us respect for keeping holidays in their proper place. What would happen if it were Christmas every day? You’d soon be sick of it. How does it start? When you start stepping on Halloween’s heels out of impatience. Maybe you need to re-acquaint yourselves with this story.
- Remember, November is not the boring middle child stuck in between its two more flamboyant siblings. Autumn deserves our contemplative attention for a bit longer; there’s no need to hurry into winter already. Stop looking forward to presents and turn your focus back toward the falling leaves, the encroaching twilight, and a sense of gratitude.
I trust we won’t need to have this talk again.
There are men I know who can wake themselves at any time to the minute. They say to themselves literally, as they lay their heads upon the pillow, “Four-thirty,” “Four-forty-five,” or “Five-fifteen,” as the case may be; and as the clock strikes they open their eyes. It is very wonderful this; the more one dwells upon it, the greater the mystery grows. Some Ego within us, acting quite independently of our conscious self, must be capable of counting the hours while we sleep. Unaided by clock or sun, or any other medium known to our five senses, it keeps watch through the darkness. At the exact moment it whispers “Time!” and we awake.
…In my own case my inward watchman is, perhaps, somewhat out of practice. He does his best; but he is over-anxious; he worries himself, and loses count. I say to him, maybe, “Five-thirty, please;” and he wakes me with a start at half-past two. I look at my watch. He suggests that, perhaps, I forgot to wind it up. I put it to my ear; it is still going. He thinks, maybe, something has happened to it; he is confident himself it is half-past five, if not a little later. To satisfy him, I put on a pair of slippers and go downstairs to inspect the dining-room clock. What happens to a man when he wanders about the house in the middle of the night, clad in a dressing-gown and a pair of slippers, there is no need to recount; most men know by experience. Everything—especially everything with a sharp corner—takes a cowardly delight in hitting him. When you are wearing a pair of stout boots, things get out of your way; when you venture among furniture in woolwork slippers and no socks, it comes at you and kicks you. I return to bed bad tempered, and refusing to listen to his further absurd suggestion that all the clocks in the house have entered into a conspiracy against me, take half an hour to get to sleep again. From four to five he wakes me every ten minutes. I wish I had never said a word to him about the thing. At five o’clock he goes to sleep himself, worn out, and leaves it to the girl, who does it half an hour later than usual.
— Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel
On Saturday morning, I woke up at around 3:30 with intellectual labor pains. A few loose ideas that had been quickening in my brain earlier decided they were fully formed and ready to go, so I had to get up and give birth to that morning’s post. I was a little tired later on, but it was worth the sacrifice.
This morning, I was again awake around 3:30. Yesterday we had been down in North Carolina, and at one point, getting back in the car, I dropped my wallet and it bounced just underneath. I had to get down on my knees to reach under and get it, but it was fine. Nothing fell out. Still, apparently there was some lingering trauma, because twelve hours later, my brain was absolutely convinced that I had either left my wallet or at least some important contents from it in a parking lot in Greensboro. I managed to subdue the fear without having to get up and check on my wallet’s well-being, but of course, my brain was like, “Hey, since you’re up, here’s all these other vitally important matters I’d like to bring to your attention!” Needless to say, none of them were even slightly important. I refused to negotiate and eventually fell back asleep.
If my Garmin wrist device is to be believed, I only get about forty-five minutes of “deep” sleep per night, with another two to three hours of REM, and the remaining four-plus classified as “light.” That seems accurate to me. I do seem to have the ability to set an internal alarm clock, and it doesn’t take much to wake me up. Most of the time, I fall back asleep just as easily, but the problem is that it only takes a couple instances of my inward watchman’s anxiousness to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think to myself, “Man, I sure hope I don’t wake up with my brain on fire at 3:30 again.” He incompletely overhears that and thinks, “What’s that? A request for another 3:30 wake-up call? Great! Let me just gather up all these vitally important notes I’ve been taking for the last month for tomorrow morning’s meeting…”
TRAVELING THRU WESTERN CANADA STOP GOT FOOT OF SNOW HERE STOP SNOWBOUND WITH FOUR KIDS UNDER AGE OF TEN STOP I MEAN ITS ONLY SEPT FFS STOP I GIVE UP STOP TURNING INTO WENDIGO STOP
Today marks fourteen years since I began inflicting my thoughts on the public, or, if you prefer, tagging the alleyways of the web with my digital graffiti. In January of that same year, a wonderful site called Futility Closet took its first steps into the world. And yet, until Alan Jacobs mentioned it last week, I had never once heard of it. On the one hand, I’m dismayed to think that it could possibly have remained unknown to me all this time. Who has time to read that many archives? On the other hand, how cool it is to still find nice surprises like that, tucked away on the picturesque country roads of the web, far from the congested eight-lane superhighways leading to and from the social media skyscrapers and the big-box clickbait retail giants. Here’s to hoping for a few more in the coming years. (If any of you are keeping any other delightful secrets from me, I will be quite cross.)
We had a close call
I didn’t even see it, then another one
I hardly believed it at all
— Band of Horses, “The General Specific”
♫ Doo, doo, doo, lookin’ out my back ♫—WHOA!
So, yes, I was working in the garage yesterday morning when I heard such a clatter, as if a garbage truck had picked up a dumpster and dashed it against the ground in a fit of rage. Running back into the house, I met the Lady of the House coming from the opposite direction. We converged at the door to the back porch, where we saw that one of our oaken neighbors had dropped in for a visit.
We had just had solar panels installed earlier this week, and for a confused second, I thought that somehow they had come loose and gone sliding off the roof. But no, the crash I heard was the tree destroying our above-ground swimming pool. The people who built the house had installed it; it was a really nice one, with a deck custom-built around it (pretty similar to this one.) Incredibly, the deck itself was unscathed. A section of the gutter was torn off (you can see it pinned to the screen in the picture), but it just so happened to be the section that we were going to repair soon anyway. The branches fell inches short of the roof; not a single shingle was damaged. The solar panels were safe, thank goodness. It missed the propane tank by a few feet, thank goodness once more (with feeling this time!). And the pool needed some minor repairs to the plumbing, so we hadn’t even opened it this season anyway. Insurance should cover replacement value, though honestly, we probably won’t bother to replace it. A check for several thousand dollars can be far more useful in other ways than replacing a luxury item that only gets used three or four months a year anyway. All in all, we couldn’t have possibly planned it any better had we tried.
Last year, our car got totaled when a high-school girl, late for her prom pictures, tried to dart across the highway in front of us from a side road and didn’t time it well enough. We clipped her rear end and sent her into a spin, where the truck coming up in the left lane got her on the opposite front end and pushed her into the grassy median. She was shaken up, but no one was hurt. As it happened, we were looking at the possibility of some expensive engine work on that car, but the insurance payout covered everything we owed plus another thousand or so toward a new vehicle (which we bought outright). Now, as someone who has logged over a million miles in nearly thirty years of various driving/delivery careers, I despise stupid, inattentive drivers. I’ve seen countless accidents and damn-near accidents, especially on interstates, and have probably spent a week of my life, if you total up the hours, being stuck in traffic behind an accident or detouring around it. As I’ve said before, bring on the driverless cars. People are too unforgivably stupid to be trusted with them. So, as you can imagine, I was furious at the time. We could easily have been killed by some hormone-addled, airhead teenager, the avatar of all the dangerous morons I’d seen over the years tailgating people at eighty miles per hour while fiddlydicking with their stupid phones. But once I’d calmed down, I had to admit: this was clearly the best possible outcome, all things considered. We couldn’t have possibly planned it any better had we tried.
It’s a strange feeling to be grateful for disasters. It feels a bit like making cutesy noises at a wild animal that could easily decide to maul you. These near-misses turned out to be quite beneficial, but intellectually assenting to that fact calls one’s attention to the uncomfortable reminder that very little of one’s life is actually under one’s control. I’m not a religious believer, but I’m still sensitive to when a situation calls for the humble recognition of how lucky we are to have as much good fortune as we do. No amount of human brilliance or technological mastery will ever completely remove fate’s teeth and claws. For every person who happily burbles about what a blessing in disguise a disaster turned out to be, there are countless more in silent graves who couldn’t be reached for comment. Maybe one day we won’t be so fortunate anymore ourselves. All we can do is be aware, feel small, and move on — perhaps a bit more tentatively at first, but eventually, as we always do, slipping back into complacency and self-centeredness.
Some new 23andMe results came in. Now I can see specific regions my ancestors lived in:
(Lublin Voivodeship, Silesian Voivodeship, and Podkarpackie Voivodeship)
(Lucerne, St. Gallen and Schwyz)
(Šibenik-Knin County and Sisak-Moslavina County)
(Glasgow City, Leicestershire and Greater London)
Eleven inches of snow yesterday. Sixty yards of driveway needing to be cleared for delivery trucks. I whistled for my trusty steed —
— and away we went.
Yes, the snow was light and powdery enough that I was able to sweep the driveway with an old broom that has lived at this house longer than I have. Three or four swinging arcs was all it took to get down to ground. My neighbor, a Good Samaritan who goes down the road on his tractor after heavy snowstorms, clearing everyone’s driveway for them, hailed me as he approached. “You want me to hit it?” he asked. “You about got it already, ain’tcha!” I’d already had a good hour-and-a-quarter workout, so I gratefully let him finish it off for me. It’s amazing to me how easily — and willfully — we forget this, but a little vigorous exercise first thing in the morning always makes the day feel more productive, in addition to the usual health benefits.
It’s rare that we get any significant snow before the new year. Usually, it’s February or, lately, even March before we get the serious storms. Our financial planning consultant was telling us a few weeks ago that they were supposedly predicting a much snowier winter for us than usual, but I usually chalk such things up to Farmer’s Almanac rumors. I guess we’ll see. Ironically, we had been down in North Carolina on Friday and Saturday, but had to jettison our original plan to stay through Sunday due to the storm. They apparently got it worse than we did, with ice mixed in to bring down trees and power lines. I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever had to head north to escape a winter storm.
Still, it sure does look pretty along with the neighborhood Christmas lights. And I enjoy snow much more now that I no longer have to drive in it for work.
Take heart, for even as the scorching sun and suffocating humidity crescendo to a hellish Summerdämmerung, the first red maple leaves are here to promise us an imminent end to the sweltering misery.