Saturday, February 28, 2009

Leaving the Brothers


I just found this in my desk. It was given to me during my exit interview at Lehman Brothers. I left Lehman about a year and a half before it went bankrupt, imploding after 159 years of existence.

This booklet provides practical information with respect to benefits and other such administrative matters. Yet, the formality of its existence seems to imply that it is a life guide for re-entering society after years of captivity.

I started working for Lehman Brothers in early 2001. I suppose I worked there because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I realize how strange that might sound. A Wall Street behemoth is not the typical place to idle away one’s time while attempting to solve the secrets of their universe. Some people might pass such a phase brewing an endless series of espressos at some anonymous Starbucks. I spent it at Lehman.

The first role I had at Lehman was with the firm’s Expense Management team. My managers were accessible, unpretentious people and I liked them right away. The mission of the team was to reduce costs through efficiency and strict policy. Keeping a lean shop, reigning in a Wall Street giant’s excesses seemed an egalitarian mission and I liked operating as a watchdog. Wall Street was beginning a downturn that eventually turned severe after September 11th. Expense Management took equal footing with revenue earners when Lehman began rebuilding.

September 11th came and went. I doubt I have anything more to add to our nation’s collective remembrances of that time, that oddball doorway between the blissful nonsense America once was and the caustic nonsense we’ve now become. I suppose I was more affected by that day than I initially let on. Lehman was right across the street from the North Tower. We saw the planes hit, we saw the people jump, we ran for our lives. I can’t describe it any better than the renderings that have already given by countless voices, most of them more eloquent than mine.

During that time, I took a great deal of solace by being part of the Lehman team. We all got through the dread of that time together. It wasn’t as though something horrible had simply happened to me and me alone. I had others there that had experienced the mayhem as I did. We were there for one another.

I have to admit I liked some parts of that Expense Management role and I did well there for many years. But soon Lehman’s exponential growth overshadowed its need for belt tightening. The company doubled in size, due in part to the acquisition of the asset manager Neuberger Berman but more poignantly due to the acquisition of several mid-size mortgage companies. Most of these companies were located out west, with operations in Colorado, California, Utah and Nebraska. These were essentially factories churning out loans for Mother Lehman who would then securitize them for the market. It was a fluid means of success, of course, dependant on the underlying viability of the loans themselves.

Several years had gone by and the firm had a morphed into more ambiguous culture. The once regular-guy environment began to gravitate towards something more akin to Goldman Sachs. Our Expense Management team became increasing marginalized within this new boundlessly successful Lehman Brothers. It became clear that my role wasn’t leading anywhere and if I were to be perceived as a growing professional, I’d have to transfer into some new department. I’d become an accountant who just wanted to be a writer and a writer who could no longer write.

When I came to the conclusion that I needed to make some sort of change, I did what I normally do when encountering a life-altering revelation: I ignored it and pretended nothing was wrong. I'd always harbored fantasies about breaking out of what was becoming an increasingly predictable career path. Everyone does this one way or another. We all have the dream of the other self, the one who foregoes the demands of life and pursues days of endless meaning, contribution and recognition.

I transferred out of Expense Management into an accounting team that supported Lehman’s Investment Management division. I felt that working closer to the front office of the firm might make me feel more akin to its culture and that I might become a Lehman guy after all. The team I was joining was mostly composed of personnel from Neuberger Berman, that asset management company that Lehman acquired in 2002. I was the first non-Neuberger, Lehman person ever to work on their team. They made no effort to mask their obtuse hatred for the firm that had acquired them; their new de facto home. I was sunk from day one and always treated as an outsider. This is corporate life.

Once in my new role, my interactions with those who ran Asset Management only re-affirmed that I clearly didn’t belong and my choice to further my Wall Street career was a bad misstep. A large portion of my time was spent with one money manager who lived under the constant delusion that our accounting team was understating her monthly revenue, 35% of which formed her compensation (which often yielded her a monthly paycheck of $60,000). During one conversation, she uttered the phrase, ‘you can’t live on this.’

But such dealings with money managers paled in comparison to the culture of sales people. The brokers who’d shepherd clients to the money managers were tainted with an acutely nihilistic instinct towards unrestrained self-compensation. The amorphous rules of compensation made for long days spent on the phones with brokers attempting to resolve their pay issues. Most often, these conversations went as follows:

Me: “But we (Lehman) are only making 75 basis points on this account.”
[Insert Broker Name]: “Yeah, well it was agreed that I’m getting 35 basis points. Ask [Insert Managing Director Name] - he signed off on it.”
Me: “He did?”
[Insert Broker Name]: “Yeah.”
Me: “Did the Compensation Committee approve this?”
[Insert Broker Name]: “I dunno…I think I got an email here…”
Me: “You do realize that (Insert Money Manager name] makes 35 basis points on this as well?”
[Insert Broker Name]: “So?”
Me: “So Lehman Brothers is only making 5 basis points on this account.”
[Insert Broker Name]: “Yeah…so?”

It was time to go. It was time to go anywhere.

I gathered and prepared my formal reasons for leaving. Firstly, I was tired of the commute into New York City. We’d made the move to Westchester County once marriage and children came along. Living in city in my twenties and commuting to it in my thirties were different experiences entirely. The City’s hassles began to overwhelm its charms. I didn’t really even experience New York anymore, only those same ten blocks between the office and Grand Central. It became like a tunnel and the few wonders it offered became a familiar and invisible blur as I’d sprint between train and office, office and train: the bookends of my day. I longed to escape that blur where I might have the autonomy and flexibility that automotive commuting and a suburban office park might offer.

Towards my last years at Lehman, more and more jobs of the accountants and technicians who record and reconcile daily activities and ensure that transactions settle with counterparties, the operators who produce the data necessary for client statements, the internal services that kept the infrastructure of the firm; more and more of these jobs were going to India. The even blend of front office and back office jobs that had long given Wall Street its democratic pulse began to erode. What remained were the unaffected vast population of high earning front office personnel and a residual of back office folk, now vastly outnumbered in influence and increasingly marginalized amid the day to day decision making of the firm.

I’d planned to articulate while quitting that my future life in this lower tier would make for unhappy workdays. This was good in a way, I’d finally evaluated why I was working there, seeking honest reasons beyond the paycheck. I was no longer a young man who could morph one way or another. I’d evolved and began to crystallize some self actualization that was inconsistent with Lehman Brothers. In my exit interview I remember simply saying, I don’t belong here.

Well? Where do you belong then, they asked.

It was a logical question, really an existentialist dilemma. I truly didn’t know the answer and doubt I ever will. I was thirty-four and despite having spent an awful lot of time in Wall Street firms, I hadn’t become rich by osmosis. Expensive cars and country clubs were not to be in my future but more importantly, I’d become okay with this. Self loathing brought on by a perceived lack of success had been gnawing away at me for years. But becoming a husband and a father made me long for as simple an existence as I could maintain in suburban America. I’d taken a look around me and realized I had every material possession I could ever want. I forgave myself for not achieving some vaulted level of success I couldn’t even define in the first place. Armed with that forgiveness, I’d lost my Wall Street religion. Once you stop believing in the gods and gospels of Wall Street, the romance, pomp and circumstance of its church elude you as well.

The woman who was the Chief Administrative Officer for the Asset Management division remarked to my boss that it was a good thing that I was leaving. They could replace me with someone better. That was fine, I figured. There was no sense in being bitter. What she’d said was probably true.

My oldest friends with the firm, the ones I’d gone through 9/11 with - they held a farewell lunch for me at a mid-town steakhouse. They’d all become senior vice presidents and spent most of the lunch talking amongst each other about the latest firm gossip, the rumors of the next big personnel shake-ups. I sat clueless through most of it all, chiming in only when our favorite old stories would resurface.

Full of steak and merlot, I stepped out onto a bright sunlit 52nd Street. There were kisses on the cheeks and pats on the back. And then I was gone.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Objects as witnesses

As an accountant, I find myself with long stretches of time where I’m processing something routine, soulless and time consuming. NPR podcasts have been a lifesaver.

I’ve been hooked on This American Life for over a year now. The show has been on NPR for over a decade (it sometimes takes me a while to find things). It’s really an amazing show and actually got me to return to writing. They essentially pick a theme and then have writers contribute fiction and non-fiction pieces focused on that theme. Their entire library of shows is available on the web here.

If I had to pick a favorite though, it’d definitely be The House by Loon Lake. For this show they devoted the entire hour to Adam Beckman’s story. As a young boy while vacationing in rural New Hampshire, he and some friends happened upon an old abandoned house. Inside, they find a treasure trove of junk – kind of like a rural version of the Collyer Brothers. Young Adam begins to amass a collection of what he finds, letters, personal items belonging to the Mason family, presumably the last occupants.

It is as though the lives lived there had abruptly disappeared, leaving these remaining artifacts untouched. You can’t help but to feel as though something sinister has happened.

Beckman goes back to the house each summer again and again, summoning the courage to explore deeper and deeper into the mystery of what happened to these people. Some years later when he returns, the house has been leveled without a trace. Beckman grows up and though adolescence, his preoccupation with the Mason houses eases, but he always keeps the cache of artifacts.

Years later, Beckman decides he wants to go back and find out if he can solve the nagging mystery of his childhood – what happened to the Masons? What he finds is not what you’d expect.

Ruminating over artifacts from the past is something that actually gives me an adrenaline rush. There is something very powerful in returning to the mysteries of youth. Childhood and adolescence present us with so many unanswerable questions that never get solved.

There is one part of this show that gives me the chills each time I hear it. Beckman’s mother never discouraged his obsession with the Masons. If anything she encouraged it:

“…it was so overwhelmingly abandoned..no one cared to resolve something…that was very offensive to me. Here was a carcass of a house, of a life – nobody cared to give it a proper burial. I felt that it was important that somebody should care. It really didn’t matter that it was an eleven year old boy. Objects have lives…they are witnesses…”

Beckman’s mother then goes on to read a letter from 1940. It is written from a hospital where a woman (not the recipient’s wife) has had his baby. She begs this man to come to her quickly and bring money. She begs him to acknowledge her and her baby. It is wrenching to hear these words and you ache for this woman and her child. Objects have lives.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Loft


There have been two major articles in the NY Times about the famous Jazz Loft of 821 Sixth Avenue in New York. The most recent was in last Sunday’s Times and the first in 2005. I read that first one almost four years ago while riding the morning train en route to work in the city. It left me aching with an addictive sensation. From out of the ether, I’d come upon something of which I desperately wanted to learn more

W. Eugene Smith is considered a pioneer of the photo essay. He was employed by Life magazine to cover the Pacific theatre during WWII, during which he was injured in combat. After the war, he quit conventional photojournalism and had a nervous breakdown. He emerged from this phase, divorced and removed from his suburban life. He eventually took up residency in a loft at 821 Sixth Avenue – the Jazz Loft. There he shared the fourth floor with musician Hall Overton. In the years 1959 through 1965, he spent an immense amount of time and energy recording and photographing all that went on as musicians and artists came and went. Every floor and every stairway had microphones positioned. Allegedly there are 3,000 hours of recordings.

Currently, Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies is undergoing the project of disseminating and documenting this trove. Last weekend’s Times article appears to be a status update on the project but left me woefully unsatisfied. Why can we not hear samples from the tapes? Why are we not able to see images from the nearly 40,000 photographs Smith captured?

I’m fascinated by Smith. In as much as I want to see the world of Jazz through his perspective in that unique setting, I am more drawn to see what his obsessive documenting captured – the street scenes, the recordings he made of late night radio, the conversations among people on the street and amid the halls. What a fantastic time capsule.

Allegedly, this year, there will be a book and a travelling exhibit. Allegedly.

I’m dying to experience some of this material…but when?
(photograph of W. Eugene Smith from NY Times / Harold Feinstein)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

WERW

In 1991, I was a freshman at Syracuse University. I was a business major, though I had yet to take a real business course. Despite this, my years of caddying in Memphis had convinced me that I was going to be a big shot business guy, the next big man in a grey flannel suit.

But life enables sidetracks here and there, thank god. For me, before I plunged into the flames of business school / business life, I was a DJ for WERW.

Syracuse University is renowned for its communications school. As a result the school boasts three radio stations. The biggest is WJPZ, or Z89. Z89 is a commercial juggernaut that competes with local stations for market share. Students who longed to someday produce a morning-zoo type show worked here. The second station, WAER 88.3, or Jazz 88, was for those students who had more of an NPR inclining.

The last and smallest campus station was WERW. Its tag line was 'Real College Radio'. This was to remind listeners that WERW was not commercially or structurally bound, that it was free to determine its own format and that it was avant garde as college radio should be.

Another way WERW distinguished itself was that listeners were actually not able to listen to its broadcasts on a conventional radio. In order to pick up WERW, students had to find a university televisions set (located in dorm lounges, perhaps working or not) and tune into a designated UHF station.

Despite this seemingly futile existence, the station did manage to fill a roster of DJ’s for the week’s 56 three-hour shifts. DJ's at WERW had no real ambitions to become professionals someday. We were just people who liked to sit in a little room playing records for three hours.

I was drawn to the station’s credo of ‘Real College Radio’. Syracuse was a breeding ground for commercial media neophytes and I liked the idea that a station existed with an amorphous format and free form structure. As a new DJ, my programming instructions were simple. If I wanted to play bagpipes…great. Follow it up with punk..great. Whatever. Everything and anything. In fifteen minutes, I was given a tutorial in the basics of the microphone and turntable console. With that, I was ready for my first shift … I was now a DJ.
_________________________________________

I’d spend summers between semesters with my family in Memphis. It provided a polar opposite to my Syracuse experience, like a separate life completely. I’d been playing guitar since I was fifteen. I’d gotten hooked on blues. It was easy in Memphis. I’d been transplanted there at age fourteen. The impossibility of seamless high school assimilation left me often alone, enabling me to rack up a lot of time listening to WEVL, the city’s public station that specialized in blues. My guitar meant a lot to me. It still does but not as much as it did then.

For college beer money, I worked at a country club. There was something about the long days spent in the Memphis sun that my consciousness tried to liken to some indigenous blues experience. I found Pop Tunes in Memphis. It was a time capsule of a music store that still sold blues records, real records, LP’s. This was the early 1990’s and LP’s were about to fade into oblivion. But I found Pop Tunes.

So in the last dying days of the LP, I stocked up all I could. I arrived at Syracuse with an armful of blues LP’s – classic music on a forgotten medium ready to be played at one of the last LP-playing radio stations that’d broadcast without a conventional bandwidth to a minuscule, unidentifiable audience.

_________________________________________________

At midnight on Wednesday nights, I’d show up for my shift. I’d let the record of the last shift run out and then I’d hit the green button for the live mike:

“Hey, what’s up…this is Slimbo. It’s really late. I’m going to get us started with Le Freak, by Chic….” I had three hours to fill. I’d randomly pull records out of the library and literally play anything my hands pulled out. I’d put on an entire album side and let it ride while I went down to the Wimpy Wagon to get a cheeseburger. No one was listening. What did it matter?

But at the top of hour three…it’d be 2am at this point…I’d start my blues hour. I’d pull out my LP’s, that burdensome pack of artifacts I’d schlepped up from Memphis. And then I’d have my blues hour.

My voice would go down an octave. Everything would slow down. Now I'd carefully pick the tracks, always sure to give some deep, meaningful narrative I'd lift off of the back of the LP - liner notes from the original album's issuance. My voice would trail off into a whispering coda and then I'd ease into, "it's sixteen degrees outside right now at 2:43am. You're listening to the Slimbo Blues Hour on WERW."


Occasionally, I'd offer the station's phone number for requests - a kind of lonely call out into an empty forest. Though one time the phone did ring. Startled, I answered it. The person on the other line said nothing.
_____________________________________________

By my sophomore year, the station had gotten a real station identification. There were now playlists. A new student took over as station manager. He was a hard core communications major. We were now given playlists and format requirements. Another senior got the sole blues show that the station was permitting. I think I must have played U2's Achtung Baby about eight thousand times.


My business courses started to heat up. I joined a fraternity because I realized I wasn't going to meet girls sitting in a DJ booth playing old blues records to an audience of one. I quit the station.

I always wondered who that caller was though.




Sunday, February 15, 2009

Omon Ra

A few quick words for Omon Ra.

Victor Pelevin is among the contemporary authors trying to make sense of the shapeshifting world of modern Russian, often to the chagrin of the Putins and Medvedevs.

Pelevin is looking backwards here in Omon Ra, a satirical tale of a Cosmonaut sent to the Moon. His mission is to drive a lunar vehicle to a designated spot. This mission, however, is all Soviet smoke and mirrors and the idealistic Cosmonaut Omon must come to terms with his own existence amid the cardboard message of greatness masking the faux reality of his mission.

Future Star

If there had been a “Slimbo – Future Star” card, it would have been circa 1994. Like Sandy Alomar, I too was embarking on a career replicating my father’s. Right out of school, I’d been drafted into the big show – for me it was the now defunct former great, Arthur Andersen – the New York Yankees of Accounting firms. They gave me a starting salary which was astronomical by college graduate standards.

So there I was - the Slimbo rookie card had me clad in a freshly purchased Brooks Brothers suit (purchased by my father, that is). Instead of ball and glove, you’d see golf bag and briefcase. My hair was that wonderful former helmet of black curls I once held. The back of my card would list private schools, fraternity parties and golf courses as though they were minor league clubs I’d cut my teeth upon.

But the most prominent feature of the “Slimbo – Future Star” card would be the weightless smile I’d wear, much like the one seen on Sandy Jr. or Jim Thome. It’d be a smile fortified with the delusional belief that a future lay ahead rife with uncomplicated relationships and lucrative opportunities that would simply materialize into my outstretched hand like a baseball gently tossed by a teammate.

I love studying the faces on rookie cards. Do they exude the easy-going poise of Jim Thome as he watches an elder teammate knock one out during BP? Or, like John Smoltz, do the faces bear adolescent facial hair attempting to mask the insecurity, the overwhelming mortality felt by a youngster now realizing manhood’s cripplingly fine line between inertia and ecstasy.

Alas, a review of these cards must end with this brutal evaluation: was the “Star” label ever achieved or have the resulting years been rife with disappointment and anonymity?

Perhaps out there in the abyss, someone is pulling their Slimbo rookie card out of a shoebox and asking this very question…

Friday, February 13, 2009

Granta 29

Granta # 29 came out in Winter of 1989. I don't really like Granta anymore. I say that as though I've been a lifelong reader but I haven't. And I'm also not just saying this because of that email I got from Granta, generously sent by one of their interns, stating that my submission was "not worthy of publication". (They may have added "at this time". Or not. I don't recall exactly.)


I came upon this issue among a cache of Grantas on the for-sale shelf at my local library. I bought about a dozen of them for a quarter each. They all dated from between 1987 and 1995. Amid the many great fiction and non-fiction works, many of the articles in these issues capture the emerging new culture in Eastern Europe brought about by the fall of the Soviet Union. Reportage of current incidents like Tiananmen Square are real-time and they make these back issues fantastic time capsules.

Among the works in this issue:
  • Jonathan Raban's 'New World' recalls his journey across the Atlantic on a freighter. Great observations of his eventual destination, 1970's New York City.
  • Patricia Highsmith's 'Scene of the Crime' describes her meditations on the exact spot where the idea for Ripley came to her - the concept of place and why we always are draw to return to places where things happened.
  • Two amazing series of photographs - First -Patrick Zachmann's 'Walled City of Hong Kong', a view into the microcosm of a behemoth apartment block in all its lurid details; and Second -Jill Hartley's haunting 'Poland'.
  • Patrick McGrath describes his unusual boyhood experiences in 'A Childhood in Broadmoor Hospital'. McGrath's father was a medical superintendent there and the place clearly forged much into his consciousness which readers would later see in his writing.

As each new Granta comes out these days, I keep hoping it will feel like these older volumes from the late 80's / early 90's. I suppose this is commensurate with so many things I do...trying return to that which the world has found obsolete.

I also feel odd featuring an item from Slimbo's Shelf that's not readily available at your local bookstore. But back issues of Granta are easily available on Amazon.com. Many used copies can be picked up for a penny (plus S&H).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Iron Cadillac


I was seventeen when I started working at the Tournament Players Club at Southwind. Friends of my parents were members and had pulled some strings to land me a job. This job was one which country clubs usually populate with young men. In the mornings, we'd set up golf carts with members’ bags. At day’s end, we cleaned off the carts and parked them. Club faces would get scrubbed clean and bags neatly stowed. On and off, we took turns driving the range picker that retrieved golf balls from the driving range.

Every summer, the Federal Express-St. Jude Classic (now the Stanford St. Jude Classic) would be played there and most all the major PGA pros would swoop in for the week. The club and the whole city would be abuzz with excitement. Leading up to the tournament, there’d be pro-am’s and celebrity appearances.

As the driving range became an attractive spectacle, The Commercial Appeal decided to do a piece on the range picker. The reporter approached my boss who grunted, pointed to me and then walked away. Then, as a couple dozen people watched, I was interviewed by a reporter.

The other guys I worked with were all slightly older than me. It was hard work, long busy days in unimaginable heat. We couldn’t wear shorts. Though we made minimum wage, the job came with the perk of nominal tips and the ability to play the course on Mondays when it was closed to members. This is why most of them wanted to work there – to play on Mondays. The specter of this promise controlled their week. This was one of the ways I was different from these guys. I could take golf or leave it for the most part. I played golf poorly and primarily took it up as it gave me something to do with my dad.

Another way I differed from these guys was that come summer’s end, I was headed off for my first year at college. One look at me and anyone could tell that I’d had everything in life handed to me with still more to come.

Though my co-workers loved golf, they were not of the country club set. Finding themselves notches below amid stringent Southern aristocracy, they were perhaps doomed to always be on the outside looking in. They were also saddled with marginal work ethics and a sense of entitlement I've found endemic among some southern white men. They either still lived with their parents or they lived in small lousy apartments. They had no real plan for the years ahead other than to play golf, drink beer and get laid.

The day that this article ran, I opened the sports section of the paper and groaned. I could sense what the day would entail for me. The guys I worked with hazed me unmercifully. At every turn, I was reminded in the most unpleasant manner possible that my newfound big-shot status was not appreciated. In truth, we never called the picker the 'Iron Cadillac'. I'd taken some on-the-spot artistic licence with that reporter. Was anything about me real?

The article (which you can read by clicking on the small version at the right) is not something that has been sitting idle on Slimbo’s Shelf awaiting re-discovery. I never kept a copy. I suppose I’m lucky that The Commercial Appeal’s on-line archive starts at 1990. It cost me three bucks to have them email me this.

Arrivederci Beckham...

...and grazie per niente!!

When David Beckham arrived in the United States to play professional soccer, it was like one of those cheesy 1980’s teen movies. The most popular, best looking guy in high school befriends the beleaguered unpopular nerdy kid. He foregoes the in-crowd and the cool kids and through this friendship the nerdy kid is transcended. Because such malarkey never happens in real life, fans of Major League Soccer should never have expected that our homecoming king would stick around to enable said transcendence. And who could blame him?

I certainly don’t. Though he forfeits the Hollywood lifestyle that (I guess) kept the missus happy, he will rid himself of games played with a substantially underwhelming L.A. Galaxy side.

Beckham is not a striker. He is a midfielder who at this stage in his career excels as placing kicks for his teammates to bury in the net. If he doesn’t have good players around him, David Beckham will do nothing for your league other than give the girls something to squeal about. In America’s ESPN highlight minded sports consciousness, no one wanted to watch Becks make passes to Galaxy teammates who either couldn’t score or were out of position.

The people that run MLS are smart, soccer savvy people but they flubbed this one. Why they thought a good team (a good game) would suddenly materialize around Beckham is beyond me. In truth, who knows if it would have benefited the league should Beckham have hoisted the MLS Cup at season’s end with a good team? Perhaps it’d have been a possibility if he’d gone to Red Bull New York. Then again that would have meant he and his glass ankles would be playing on artificial turf in a pathetically vacant Giants Stadium. Yuck. Who could blame him for not wanting that?

Either way, it’s my hope that Becks comes out of this looking like a fly-by-night doofus who can’t make up his mind or at least an inconsiderate prick who clearly didn’t deliver on his quest to build up his sport here in the States. But I know that won’t be the case. In the end, we’ll look like the knuckleheads who thought we could keep the World Game’s darling boy with a league play that can’t even compare with Britain’s third-tier Division One.

It’s good we cut our losses and move on. Soccer will grow in America. But it is going to be slow, deliberate and organic. I hope we learned a lesson here that gimmicks don’t work.

A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces is on my list of stuck-on-desert-island books. It tells the tale of Ignatius Reilly, an obese eccentric medievalist who lives with his mother in the textured world of 1960's New Orleans. Despite the depth of his intellect and education, he has become an self-centered agoraphobe, doted upon by an enabling, beleaguered mother.

But when his mother gets into a bit of legal trouble, Ignatius must leave the comforts of his isolation and get a job. A Confederacy of Dunces is about this train wreck: Ignatius' re-entry into the world. His employment forays, hot dog vending and clerkdom, are hysterical yet it is also tough to bear witness to it all. A rich roster of characters surround Ignatius as this story unfolds, either finding him repugnant or trying to drag him into some legitimate existence.

Despite our experiencing his self-centered cluelessness, we feel for Ignatius as he falls into one folly after another. Perhaps this melancholy wouldn't carry such an edge had author John Kennedy Toole's story been different. In 1969, despondent and unpublished, he took his life on the side of a road. He had been living with his mother in New Orleans. The publishing world, in its boundless genius, had found his work to be unworthy of publication.

Knowing Toole's story, we see how Ignatius, in all his outsized outrageousness embodied the massive disappointment and isolation that living brought upon this author. After Toole's death, his mother took to the task of getting this work published. In 1981, it won a Pulitzer. One can only hope that where ever Toole is, he takes some consolation in that prize.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The People Speak!

Back in October I was lucky enough to get an article published in the Birmingham Post (UK, that is - not Alabama). The piece was about an American soccer fan’s viewpoint after attending one of the games of their beloved Birmingham City Football Club (you can read it here: http://www.birminghampost.net/midlands-birmingham-sport/west-midlands-sports/birmingham-city-fc/2008/10/27/american-gets-his-first-taste-of-soccer-the-birmingham-city-way-65233-22127034/).

A few months later I checked to see if it was still out there in cyberspace and amid my Googling, I noticed that the article had been posted up to the team’s official fan website via their fan forum.
It was then with trepidation that I then gazed down to the three dozen or so comments in the forum that followed. Most of them were quite complementary but here's a few of my favorites (I didn't change any spelling):

--Prooves yanks over exagerate or can't count. Only 17,000 at that game

I had gotten the attendance mixed up with the stadium's capacity...sorry. Then:

--"Oh great, now he's going to teach America thaat all Blues fans are fat with tattooed heads "
--"I know, it's terrible, not all of us have tattoos. "
--"They come over to this country they could at least say things properly!ITS FOOTBALL DAMMIT, NOT SOCCER "

But then people started sticking up for me:

--"Well...., The word "soccer" was actually first used in England as a slang term for Association Football "

--"I can't believe people on here having a sly dig at the guy. So what if he over egged things a bit. It's called journalistic license is all. What I see is a guy from a country the population of which didn't even know they were hosting the World Cup in 1994 spreading the word about our beloved Blues. If he ups the figures a bit, so what. He wasn't giving evidence at court was he FFS"

To be honest, I only used the word 'soccer' as the piece was originally written for an American paper.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Areas of his expertise

The right book for just the right time - this is the key to life. For me, that time was today as I sat in the bleachers for my son's basketball practice. Amid the thunderous clamour of three dozen six year-olds, each carrying on with what seemed like amplified basketballs, Gravity's Rainbow would have been a poor companion to pass the time.

Enter John Hodgman, the PC guy from those obnoxious Mac commercials. His book The Areas of My Expertise can be read in snippets or in long draughts. Either way, you will laugh. I found myself today intermittently watching my son for a few seconds then going back to any random page in this masterpiece and laughing myself stupid.

The areas of Hodgman's expertise include hobos, the Siberian origins of urine drinking, U.S. Presidents who had hooks for hands and vengeful ninjas. And when I say he is an expert on hobos, I mean to say that he has included no less than 700 great hobo names for our reference (Joe Junkpan, Ginbucket Greg, Cleats Onionpocket).

Hodgeman has written the type of book I've always wanted to write: sprawling, illustrated, shape shifting and hilarious. Look for its sequel of course, which is just as amazing.