Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Staying Sane in Iraq: A Soldier's Story
Hello everyone! I got a remarkable letter last week from a soldier in Iraq named Shaun Feingold. I found his words so inpiring, I asked him if I could post them, and he agreed. So here they are:
At the start of the letter, Shaun says he had read some articles about my books that described me as a humorist. He continues:
"I thought to myself, 'What exactly is a humorist' and as far as I can tell, it's someone who finds the little everyday things in life that make you smile.
I have now been in Iraq for many months and I have found myself to be what I believe is a little bit wiser. One of the things that this wisdom has presented me with is what I think of as little pictures and big pictures. It's very easy to look at the big picture over here and be pessimistic. I'm away from my wife and family for over a year. Every day when I roll out I might get hit by an IED. It's hot. It smells. I can't just relax and drink a beer or a glass of wine. The average American cares more about their $600 tax rebate than the War in Iraq. Just writing that kind of makes me depressed.
That's why I don't look at the big picture. Every day, without fail something happens, something small, that makes me smile. And that's all it takes, that one laugh a day, the little picture, makes it all doable. It's kind of like ignoring the forest so you can see the flowers.
There was one time when myself, another soldier, and an Iraqi Policeman were manning a small traffic checkpoint. It wasn't very busy, maybe a car every ten minutes or so. Mostly it was boring and hot. Anyway, a car pulls up and I said to the driver 'salam.' He looks up at me and says 'How are you, sir?' I ask him if he speaks English and he gets this smile on his face and says to me in a chipper British accent, 'I was on the faculty of Oxford, I bloody well hope I speak English, friend.'
Another time we were patrolling, and of course it was hot. Suddenly in the canal next to us we saw and heard a puppy that we thought was drowning. My company commander, ever the dog lover, unhesitatingly jumped into the waist deep water with all 70lbs of gear on. The puppy was so startled by this that it swam to the other side of the canal and ran away. My commander climbed out of the canal soaking wet with this smile on his face and said, 'Well, I guess I got him out.'
But my favorite moment was one day when we were doing a patrol through a village. There had recently been some sectarian violence and so all of the villagers were scared or angry, none of the adults were out to greet us like they usually do. Anyway, we're walking through this village and I looked over this short stone wall into someone's back yard, and I saw this group of little kids, maybe four or five years old. And they were just being little kids, playing with dolls and toy cars. The violence, the war, the US Army, Sunni, Shia. They didn't know and didn't care.
I could go on, about things like how our two pet dogs always sleep in front of our vehicles, so before a combat patrol we have to wake up or drag these lazy dogs out of the way, or how the wives club still manages to circulate rumors about and to us from half way around the world while we're in a combat zone. Or how I was pulling security outside of a Nahia Council meeting (think: City council), and one of the Iraqi Policemen we were with pulled out his cell phone and started playing that Celine Dion song from "Titanic." (It was funny at first, but then he played it three times).
Maybe I'm just optimistic, maybe I'm too young, but maybe I'm a humorist myself in a way. Even over here there's always a reason to smile, that one little picture a day, and it helps break that big, ugly, 15 month long mural into a bunch wallet sized smiles. Sure, there are still a lot of frowns, but I don't concentrate on those.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Freedom From Choice
When I was very young -- nine or ten -- I asked my parents to explain communism. My mom summarized it this way: In the Soviet Union, you don't have any choices. You can only get vanilla ice cream.
I was horrified. Understandably so. Only vanilla? No Baskin-Robbins' 31-derful flavors?
For most of my life, I've loved freedom of choice. Fetishized it, even. It's the American way. It's why I went to a college that had no requirements and where you can go through all four years writing papers about the usage of umlauts in the names of eighties heavy metal bands (Motley Cru, etc).
I still think communism is a terrible system, and I'm still glad that I got to write a paper on umlauts, if not major in the subject.
But one of the more interesting revelations from my year of living biblically: There are advantages to having freedom FROM choice.
You don't want to give up all choice, of course. An all-vanilla world would be a sad world. But I experienced first-hand the how a life of restricted choice can be satisfying, even paradoxically liberating - especially as our choices multiply like cable channels.
I recently did an interview on newsweek.com in which I talked about how disoriented I was after my year ended. Without all my rules, without the stable architecture of biblical living, I felt unmoored and unanchored. I was overwhelmed by choice.
My know-it-all brother-in-law Eric Schoenberg - who teaches behavioral economics at Columbia - likes to lecture me about an experiment at a grocery store by researchers from Columbia and Stanford. They set up two tables offering free tastes - one had six flavors of jam, the other had 24 flavors of jam. Oddly, more people bought jams from the table with six flavors. The conclusion was that the other table was just too much, too many options.
Biblical living takes away a lot of those jam jars. What should I do on Friday night? Stay at home with the family. Should I waste my time reading about Cameron Diaz’s love life? No. Should I give ten percent of my salary to the needy? Yes. Should I tell the truth? Yes.
My dad always talked about how his hero Albert Einstein owned seven identical suits -- so that he wouldn’t waste any neuronal activity on choosing what to wear.
In one of the more extreme instances of this, I learned from an Orthodox Jew that there is a rabbinically-approved way of putting on your shoes. You put on your right shoe. Then your left shoe. Then you tie your left shoe. Then you go back and tie your right shoe. It sounded like crazy talk to me when I first heard it. But maybe it's not all that different from Einstein's suits.
On the other hand, I learned an equally important lesson from my biblical year: abdicating too much choice is dangerous. You have to choose wisely which rules to obey in the first place.
There's a term -- cafeteria religion -- that is supposed to be a disparaging phrase. It describes those who pick and choose instead of following all of a religions edicts or principles. But after my year, I think cafeteria religion is okay. After all, there's nothing inherently wrong with cafeterias. I've had some delicious meals in cafeterias. I've also had some turkey tetrazzini that made me dry heave. It's all about picking the right parts. You want to take a heaping serving of the parts about compassion, mercy and gratefulness -- instead of the parts about hatred and intolerance. Inspiring leaders may not know everything about food, but maybe the good ones can guide you to what is fresh. They can be like a helpful lunch lady who...okay, I've taken the metaphor way too far.
Oh, a couple of updates on early, pre-publication press happenings (I know boasting isn't biblical, so please forgive this) An article in Esquire
A lovely review in People magazine, coming out tomorrow (the appropriately-named Faith Hill on the cover)
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
The Bible and Polygamy
I spent last year trying to live according to the rules and customs of the Bible. And a few months in, I decided that if I was really going to commit, maybe I should take a shot at polygamy.
It's a huge theme in the Old Testament. Polygamy was, if not the norm, completely accepted in early biblical times. Jacob had two wives (and two concubines). King David had eight. Solomon holds the record with an impressive seven hundred spouses.
Things, of course, have gone sour for polygamy since then. This morning, I was reading about a particularly dark side of polygamy -- namely the (alleged) sleazeball and (accused) megalomaniac Warren Jeffs, the head of a breakaway Mormon sect who is said to have seventy wives. He's going on trial this week for, as the Times puts it, being "an accomplice to rape in arranging polygamous marriages between under-age girls and older men."
I never spoke to Mr. Jeffs during my year, but I did do some research on modern-day polygamists to see how it works.
I was surprised to find out there is a small but passionate Jewish pro-polygamy movement. Ashkenazi Judaism officially banned multiple wives in the eleventh century, when the great European rabbi Gershom ben Judah laid down the one-spouse-only law. But you can still find a sprinkling of ultra-orthodox Jews who want to return to the old days. They argue the rabbinical ban was instituted not for moral reasons, but for practical reasons -- the Jews didn't want Christians to be jealous of their cushy domestic setup. Here's the website where you can order a booklet about it for just $15.
I also spoke to a prominent Christian polygamist. I said multiple spouses is an interesting concept, but how could I convince my current wife, Julie, that she should let me take on a second wife? His suggestion: The preemptive strike. He told me to find a second wife, perform the ceremony, consummate the marriage -- THEN tell my first wife. That way it's a fait accompli. And my first marriage has a better chance of surviving than if I go all wimpy and ask for permission. Hmmm. Sounds about as wise as the time my dad gave my mom a smoke detector as an anniversary gift.
I asked him if the strategy wasn't a bit sneaky and un-Biblical. His reply "It can end up being more cruel to put a wife through a year, five years, 10 years of worrying that you're going to take a second wife."
He then asked if I had a prospective second wife. I told him that our nanny is cute. (My wife agrees. And she's given me permission to have an affair with her, a la Curb Your Enthusiasm. Of course, Julie gave me the offer only because she knew there was no chance the nanny would ever be interested. It's like giving me permission to become a linebacker with the Dolphins).
The polygamist thought this was a good idea. It would give me a nice, practical line of reasoning with my first wife -- we wouldn't have to pay the nanny bills anymore.
In the end, I ignored his advice and I did ask my wife for the green light. And in the end, as I suspected, she put the kibosh on it. I was forced to stick with the conventional single spouse.
The weird thing is, in the past few months, Julie has become quite tolerant of polygamy. Just not in my case. She's addicted to HBO's Big Love, and says it's made her see how the arrangement could work for some people. More emotional support. Readily available backup babysitters. And, as Julie just put it to me: "Chloe's character is good at fixing things so if you marry someone incompetent (no naming names), one of your sister-wives can help you out."
At the end of my conversation with the polygamist, he became quite agitated. He was talking about persecution of fellow polygamists, and how they are put in jail next to criminals and homosexuals. He pronounced the word 'homosexual' with the venom most people reserve for war criminals or Dick Cheney or Crocs.
Apparently, polygamists aren't so tolerant of other types of sexual behavior. Perhaps he should take a lesson from my wife, who thinks polygamy should be legalized, as long as all the parties are consenting adults -- and who is also completely open-minded about gay sex. Though as with polygamy, probably not within her own marriage.
In other news, a couple of nice previews have appeared for The Year of Living Biblically in The New York Daily News, New York magazine and American Way magazine.
Plus, I'm part of this program called Amazon Vine, where they send advance copies of the book to a handful of respected Amazon reviewers. I've been loving the reviews. I was especially touched by the reviewer who wished my sons happy birthday on August 24. Thank you! I'm glad I fessed up in the book to reading my own Amazon reviews so that they knew I'd see it.
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
I don't know what to title this post
I was up in Maine with the family Labor Day weekend. Mini-golf was played. Lobsters were eaten (though not by me). Maine accents were attempted unsuccessfully.
On the ride back, I read an interesting article in Newsweek about a book called "Super Crunchers." The idea is that statistical analysis -- data mining -- is replacing gut decisions in every aspect of life. It's sort of the anti-"Blink." Baseball scouts are being phased out by sophisticated spread sheets. Doctors' intuitions are yielding to evidence-based medicine.
My favorite part, though, was that the author chose his book title by statistical analysis. He tested two titles using Google ads. The first was "The End of Intuition." The second was "Super Crunchers." More people clicked on "Super Crunchers," so that's what you see at the bookstore.
Not a bad idea. Maybe I should start doing it.
I never changed the title of my upcoming book The Year of Living Biblically. That's what it was called from Day One. I'm a fan of the simple, self-explanatory title, and this one just seemed to fit. No need to get too cute.
"The Know-It-All," on the other hand, went through a raft of titles. First, I called it "From A-ak to Zyweic: One Man’s Journey Through the Encyclopedia." Rolls off the tongue, huh? Then there was "Thomas Jefferson Had Clean Feet (and other things I learned from reading the entire encyclopedia)." Or "John Adams Was a Lush (and other things I learned...)" The "Know-It-All" was in a list of about 20 other titles I brainstormed one afternoon; my editor thought it was provocative.
If I were to test it on Google today, I'd run "The Know-It-All" against "The Walking Encyclopedia." I'd love to see how it fared. I also wish Melville had Google ads to test "Moby Dick." I can't imagine that was the most commercial of titles, regardless of whether the slang word was in vogue then. (Speaking of names, I have to say that the name Google is brilliant. It's just fun to say, like baby talk. But it also has a faint patina of intellectualism, since "googol," as you may know, is the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes).
I did some Googling to see if I could find some good discarded book titles from history, but came up empty. (Anyone know any good ones?) I did stumble onto this clever article about the original titles of movies.
American Pie was originally called "Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made for Under $10 Million."
And Pretty Woman was originally called "3000," which was what Julia Roberts' prostitute character supposedly charged for one night.
By the way, it's late Tuesday night/early Wednesday morning. Which means I'm a day late with my self-imposed deadline of posting at least once a week. But I blame it on ancient technology. I finally replaced my four-year-old PowerBook today.
The thing was in critical condition. Every morning, it crashed 20 to 30 times as soon as I clicked it on. I had to keep rebooting it. I felt like I was trying to start a 1972 Plymouth Valiant in January. Also, it was a laptop, but I couldn't move it or it'd crash. The disc drive was broken. So was the space bar (I had to press it three times to get a space). Many of the original Bibles didn't have spaces between the words, so I guess I could have typed in a Bible. But usually, space bars are a good thing.
Anyone have a sadder computer than that? I'll send you a free copy of my upcoming book if you do (and if you're the first to tell me).
Sunday, August 26, 2007
The great awakening of my blog
About a year ago, I came up with a cool new idea.
I noticed that every blogger worth his/her salt posts once a week, twice a week, maybe even every day. So I wondered, how to separate myself from the pack? How can I cut through the clutter?
My brilliant strategy was this: Write a blog post ONCE A YEAR.
That way, I'll be unique. I can claim the title of the least frequent blogger in America. Mine will be a delightfully leisurely alternative in this fast-paced cyberworld. It would increase my allure and mystery.
And another added bonus: If you leave up a single blog post for 12 months, you really begin to accumulate comments. I mean, look at that. Twenty one comments. That makes me look really popular (as long as you don't scrutinize the date of the post). Twenty one! I'm like the Huffington Post here.
Okay, maybe my slow blogging wasn't quite that premeditated. Maybe it's just that my life overwhelmed me.
I've now decided the once-a-year-thing wasn't the best idea. Especially since, well, I have a book coming out in two months and I want to remind people to check it out of the library or buy it. Preferably buy it. Or check it out then buy it. So for the foreseeable future, I'll be blogging at least once a week, probably twice.
So what have I done during the last year when I was studiously not-blogging?
--I wrote another article called I Think You're Fat about a movement known as Radical Honesty, where you’re supposed to say whatever is on your mind. It's as terrifying as it sounds.
--I appeared on Oprah with my crazy Biblical beard (which at the time wasn't too Moses-like yet).
--I started to use more exclamation points and even the occasional emoticon.
--I was fruitful and multiplied.
--I wondered, along with millions of others, whether there was something wrong with my TV because The Sopranos suddenly went black in the middle of the final episode.
--I finished my book The Year of Living Biblically. I know that pride is a sin, so I won't say that I'm proud of the book. But I will say, the year I spent living biblically was an amazing one. Life-changing, even. And I hope I was able to convey the wonder, the surprises and, well, the strangeness, of my journey in my book.
--I decided to try networking socially by joining myspace and facebook. Though I resisted joining something called doostang. A man has to have his standards.
Also, I'm going to start a Bible Question of the Week feature on the blog. So if you have a question about the Bible, please email it to me. It can be anything even vaguely related to the Bible. It doesn't have to be a profound theological question. It could be something like: "Why does the number 40 pop up in the Bible all the time? (40 days of rain, 40 years of wandering, etc.)" I'll do my best to answer. And if I can't, I'll outsource it to one of the Bible experts I met during my year. So feel free to email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday, September 22, 2006
You see, here's the thing...
I know. My blog needs to be watered and fed. It's not getting any TLC. It's languishing like the sad brownish ficus plant in my living room. (I tried to attach a photo of said ficus, but my computer kept crashing).
In my defense: I recently obeyed the first commandment of Biblical living. I was fruitful. I multiplied. My wife gave birth on August 24. And that has been a tad distracting.
Wait, there's more! I’ve been furiously working away to finish my next book, The Year of Living Biblically. I've decided to write the book on computer, not etch it in stone tablets, but it is still taking a good chunk of time.
So when I finish my book in the next couple of weeks (God willing, of course) I'll return to my duties as one of America's top 17 million bloggers. I promise. This time I mean it!
Monday, July 31, 2006
Insane Clown Politics
I'm pretty sure Pfizer somehow took control of the media this past week to boost sales of Zoloft. Every headline is depressing. It just depends what shade of depressing. The sports doping scandals? Mildly depressing. Mel Gibson's Wagnerian ranting? Weirdly depressing. The Mideast crisis? Depressing depressing. Miami Vice's mediocre box office revenue? Well, not that depressing, actually. I'll get over it.
There's one other not-totally-gloomy story I've read in the past seven days.
It's about a Venezuelan comedian named Benjamin Rausseo. He calls himself the "Count of Guacharo" and tells obscenity-laden jokes wearing a straw hat, shorts and flip-flops.
Also: he's running against Hugo Chavez for president of Venezuela. (Hugo Chavez being, of course, the America-detesting leftist leader -- the one Pat Robertson thought it'd be a good idea to assassinate).
The Count seems the modern equivalent of one of my favorite historical characters: Dan Rice. Dan was the 19th century's most famous clown. He wore a top hat, a star-spangled costume and beard -- and is thought to have inspired Uncle Sam's look. He owned a tightrope-walking elephant. He was friends with Abe Lincoln. He liked to put on parodies of Shakespeare. And, in 1868, he made a serious run for the Republican nomination for president.
So that cliche about politicians being clowns? Sometimes -- perhaps not often enough -- it's no metaphor.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
I may be way late to this party, but I loved the Onion's parody of Wikipedia.
As someone who uses Wikipedia too much (sorry Britannica!) I thought it was a nice reminder that finding a few dozen backup sources is probably a good idea. Especially since Wikipedia once said a friend of mine is gay, when, last time I checked (which was yesterday) he has a wife and two kids. (And no, my friend is not the star of MI-III).
Speaking of Wikipedia, I looked up its entry on Doping today because of the Tour de France scandale. The Wikipedia says that ancient Greek Olympic athletes used to eat sheep's testicles to boost testosterone. I can't vouch for whether they were, in fact, sheep's testicles instead of bull testicles or tiger testicles. The Britannica doesn't say. But thought you'd want to know.
By the way, I'm starting to think all sports should start a separate league in which athletes can swallow as many performance enhancing drugs as they please. The MLB Ultra. Or the NBA Plus. Or something. Because, honestly, it'd be pretty interesting to watch. Who wouldn't want to see a 1400-foot home run?
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
I just came across amazingly detailed analysis of my Who Wants to Be a Millionaire strategy by someone who is much smarter than I am. I wish I had talked to this guy before humiliating myself on the show.
Sunday, July 23, 2006
The Tunguska Literary Event
Great news for fans of massive, unexplained Siberian explosions. The Tunguska Event is finally getting the highbrow literary treatement it deserves.
An article in the Guardian says that Pynchon's new novel - his first in nine years - features the T.E. as a plot point. The Guardian says:
A description of the still-untitled book - apparently written by Pynchon himself - has been posted on Amazon.com. It offers a tantalising glimpse of the coming work.
"Spanning the period between the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the years just after world war I, this novel moves from the labour troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.
I have to say, that is one awesome teaser. I would buy it just for the T.E. chapter alone. As I wrote in the Know-It-All, the Tunguska Event has long been a fascination of mine. If you'll allow me to quote myself ever so briefly:
"The Tunguska Event was an 'enormous aerial explosion that, at about 7:40 AM on June 30, 1908, flattened approximately 500,000 acres of pine forest near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River, central Siberia in Russia. The energy of the explosion was equivalent to that of 10 to 15 megatons of TNT. Uncertain evidence of various kinds suggests that the explosion was perhaps caused by a comet fragment colliding with the Earth.' I had more than a passing acquaintance with the Tunguska event. For a couple weeks there, when I was 8 or 9, I was obsessed with it. I had read about the massive Siberian explosion in a collection of unsolved mysteries, and I can now recall the black and white drawing of thousands of trees splayed out on the forest floor. I looked it up in other books after that. I knew all the theories--that the Tunguska event was really the result of a UFO doing target practice, or that it was a chunk of anti-matter that somehow took a left turn and sailed into our atmosphere. Naturally, I worried--if it can happen in Siberia, why can't it happen in Manhattan? Who's to say that I won't be vaporized in the 82nd Street Event."
The Tunguska Event has also been featured in a story co-written by sci fi writer Bruce Sterling and a handful of movies. But Pynchon's will surely be the Sistine Chapel of TE-based fiction.