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Right off, I am a big fan of the Seinfeld TV show.  I have heard  many times the description of it as “a show about nothing.” The show’s original premise was that it was a show about  how Jerry Seinfeld, a standup comic, uses the everyday things in his life as material for his comedy. It opens with a bit of standup and for some episodes that bit ties into the episode.

Most episodes have at least three intertwining plots. For example, in episode 51, “The Contest,” George confesses that “My mother caught me.” They never say  “masturbating” in the episode, but its clear.  George says he’ll never do “that” again. The gang is skeptical and Jerry, Kramer and George make a $100 bet to see who can abstain the longest. Elaine wants in on the contest, but has to put in $150, because the guys claim that it easier for women to abstain.

We switch to Kramer’s infatuation with a woman in the apartment across the street who walks around in her apartment naked with the curtains open. He watches her, goes back to his place and returns to slap down his $100. “I’m out. I’m out of the contest.”

Switch to George visiting his mother because she was hospitalized after catching George in the act with her Glamour magazine earlier. His new attraction is watching the shadowy silhouettes of his mom’s attractive roommate getting a sponge bath from an attractive nurse.

Switch to Elaine at her gym when she finds out that John F. Kennedy, Jr. also uses the gym. She plots to meet up with him.

Jerry is frustrated because the woman he’s dating won’t have sex with him since she wants to remain a virgin.

All of them are unable to sleep – except for Kramer.

Elaine arranges to meet Kennedy outside Jerry’s apartment later. The thought of them hooking up is more than she can handle and she is the second person out of the contest.

Jerry’s virgin is finally ready for sex, but Jerry makes the mistake of mentioning the contest and she leaves in disgust. Elaine arrives believing Kennedy stood her up, but George tells her that Kennedy did come, but missed her and went with the virgin. They then see Kramer with the naked woman across the street.

So, who won the contest? Jerry or George?  Not revealed here. In the fifth-season episode “The Puffy Shirt”, George mentions that he “won a contest” in a conversation about masturbation, but in the series finale, he confesses that he cheated.

That’s a lot of nothing.

In Seinfeld‘s 43rd episode, things get meta. Jerry and George pitch a sitcom to television executives and George says (mostly because they have no real ideas to pitch) that it will be a show where “nothing happens.” It gets picked up and the show that they develop is what we know as Seinfeld, with a George, Elaine, Kramer and Jerry as himself.

A book about the series, Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, has a lot to say about that nothing concept. People often point to the episode “The Chinese Restaurant” in season two.  The episode is about Jerry, Elaine and George (no Kramer) waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant. That’s it. Yes, George tries to use the pay phone (pre-mobile phones) and Jerry can’t place a woman that he is sure he has met before, but really they just wait and talk.

The episode is set in real time, without scene-breaks. NBC execs were not thrilled with it because it had no real storyline. C-creator/writer Larry David threatened to quit if the network forced major changes to the script. NBC gave in to production, but postponed broadcast to the near end of the season.

But if you really want to take a deep dive on Seinfeld nothingness, the video above by Evan Puschak (Nerdwriter) connects the show and its nothingness to 19th-century novelist Gustave Flaubert.

Apparently, in an 1852 letter, Flaubert wrote about his his ambition to write “a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style.”  It may not have achieved all of that, but the novel was Madame Bovary.

If you really want to view Seinfeld as a show about nothing more literally, watch the video below which is an edit of moments from the series when nothing happens. Turn off the sound for a Zen of Seinfeld experience.

 

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Mr. g is God, but small g god. Probably not the one you were taught about. He is the protagonist of a novel carrying his name written by Alan Lightman.

Right off, I’ll say that Mr. g, the book, worked for me because he is the god I have come to believe exists. If I had to explain him to you or hang a label on this god, I would say look up “Deism.”

Deism is something I have so far only touched lightly on here in the past. It is the belief in a supreme being,  a creator, who could but chooses not to intervene in the universe.

It is not a new belief. It was an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that took in a number of the founding fathers of the United States. They accepted the existence of a creator on the basis of reason but rejected belief in a supernatural deity who interacts with humankind.

This “fictional God” (we could have a discussion about that term) exists in a Void before any creation along with his Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva. I cannot explain who they represent or even why they exist. I understand why the Creator couldn’t have creator parents but…

Mr g is omnipotent but not omniscient. He creates universes. He put creatures into one. And then he lets it go on its own. (I was going to say he lets it evolve but that is a troublesome word.) It is trial and error. Though he has created rules/laws for these universes, he is surprised by what occurs.

There is also Belhor and his toadies living in the Void. Is B the Devil or just a way to question and challenge him and allow him to explain things.

The book actually avoids outright talk of religion, though the idea of a soul or something that lives on beyond the mortal life is brought up by Uncle Deva. But, like Deism, if a religion, it is one whose followers believe in a God who “created the universe, established its rules of behavior, set it going, left, and
hasn’t been seen since.”

I depart from that description in that I believe that his God can and may occasionally interfere with the course of human events, as Mr. g does once in the book.

A creator God as all-powerful but not all-knowing is probably not a comfortable fit for most readers.

Lightman also wrote Einstein’s Dreams, a collection of stories that are dreamed by Albert Einstein in 1905 as he ponders in his waking life time, relativity and physics.

Each dream/story explores another possibility. In one dream, time is circular and we are fated to repeat the good and bad over and over. But in another one, time stands still and people cling desperately to what they have in fear of it going away.

Lightman teaches in the humanities at MIT and his books span science, theology, and philosophy. Sometimes, as with Mr. g,  he both ignores and observes the questions that arise when those three things cross paths.

Albert Einstein once said “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

http://www.deism.com/

http://www.religioustolerance.org/deism.htm

https://cmsw.mit.edu/alan-lightman/

 

A self-help book is one that is written with the intention to instruct its readers on solving personal problems. If you can still find a local bookstore, there is a good chance that a shelf or wall is devoted to books of this genre.

These books take their name from a book actually titled Self-Help. It was a 1859 best-seller by Samuel Smiles. That name and author is for real. Samuel Smiles (1812 – 1904), was a Scottish author and government reformer, and his book promoted thrift and claimed that poverty was caused largely by irresponsible habits. The book has been called “the bible of mid-Victorian liberalism” and made him quite a celebrity.

Well before that, a book of manners published in 1558 suggests: ‘It is also an unpleasant habit to lift another person’s wine or his food to your nose and smell it’.”  I agree.

But guides to how to live your life are even older. It could be argued that the ancient Egyptian “Codes” of conduct and the Bible were self-help or at least partially intended for self-improvement.

I have very strong memories of Charles Atlas who ran ads in almost every comic book I read as a kid. As a weakling 12-year-old reading a Superman comic, the idea of using  “dynamic tension”  to become really strong and avoid bullies “kicking sand in your face” was very appealing. Charles Atlas was a bodybuilder who came up with a system of physical exercise back in the 1920s, but the ads were running strong in the 1960s. (“Dynamic Tension” is a registered trademark of Charles Atlas, Ltd and their website still looks a lot like those ads from almost a 100 years ago.)

The Charles Atlas method was all about putting muscle against muscle. No weights or equipment needed. That was very appealing to a kid with only a weekly allowance. We even did a variation of this in our school gym classes that the teachers called “isometrics.” I recall a gym teacher telling us, “Look at lions and tigers. They don’t use any equipment. they stretch and push muscle against muscle.” it made sense to me.

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People was probably the first book I ever encountered on a bookshelf that was clearly “self-help.” It is one of the first best-selling self-help books and was first published in 1936. It is also still around. (Self-help books have legs!) It has sold over 30 million copies worldwide. It even made Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential books.

Like Charles Atlas, Carnegie’s self-help promises sound really tempting: make people like you; win people to your way of thinking; change people without arousing resentment.

One topic that has perennial appeal is love. In the Middle Ages, there were “Conduir-amour” – guides in love matters – published.  In classical Rome, Cicero’s On Friendship and On Duties and Ovid’s Art of Love even produced a sequel – Remedy of Love. They are the forerunners of the many volumes published about where to go to meet mates (most of them are intended for male readers), how to start a conversation, keep them interested, and ultimately how to have the best sex.

I think there is probably some good advice in all these self-help books. But I, like most of you, am lazy. We want really fast and easy ways to solve our problems.  10-Minute Mindfulness: 71 Habits for Living in the Present Moment sure sounds easier than easier than going away for a Zen retreat weekend and sitting uncomfortably for hours. Remember those 1-minute manager books? Yeah, I’ve got a minute. Change my life.

Sometimes we need help but part of the help we need is to be motivated to read a book that will help us.

By the BookAnd so, as I have posted a few times about podcasts I currently enjoy, I must recommend one for all of us lazy types that need help. It is By the Book, a self-help book podcast in which the hosts – comedian Jolenta Greenberg and serious skeptic Kristen Meinzer – test out self-help books for us.

In each episode, they live by the rules of a different self-help book for two weeks and report back on what worked and what didn’t. You can grab the nuggets of wisdom from each book without having to buy it or read it.

Of course, there is the possibility that a book might actually be life-changing.

I first knew of Kristen by going on many Movie Date[s] with her. She was the co-host of the much-missed Movie Date podcast where Rafer Guzman weekly pretended that he was on the date with Kristen. (She has since married and so our movie dates ended.) But now I have By the Book, which just finished its first season, and it is funny, irreverent, thoughtful, highly personal and a great listen. And it is free. You can’t lose. Money-back guarantee.

The show also has a nice community on Facebook where I seem to be one of the few (perhaps the only) male participant. What’s up with that? Are guys not even able to admit to needing help?

I got to thinking that maybe the ladies should test out a self-help book for guys (their husbands show up in the podcasts, so they might help). I did a search on self-help books for men about love and the  search results were frightening – almost all books for women about men. They ranged from how to get a guy – The Power of the Pussy: Get What You Want From Men: Love, Respect, Commitment and More! through How to Get & Keep The Man of Your Dreams: by Staying True to Your Core Self  – all the way to the land of F*CK Him! – Nice Girls Always Finish Single – “A guide for sassy women who want to get back in control of their love life” (The Truth about his weird behavior, … of commitment and sudden loss of interest). Long titles are clearly key to self-help success.

I did not buy any of those titles for my wife.  Instead, maybe I will read 100 Ways to Love Your Wife: A Life-long Journey of Learning to Love Each Other. It was written by a guy, but it probably would have been better if it was written by a woman. As a pre-teen, I used to read my sister’s copies of Seventeen, Teen, Cosmopolitan et al because I figured those articles on “5 Ways to Get That Guy” would give me tips on how to get a girl or at least warn me about what they were plotting.

I didn’t buy the 100 Ways book. Maybe Kristen and Jolenta will read it and pick out 7 ways that are really good and I can use them for the week before our anniversary.


Want to browse the many opportunities you have for helping improve yourself?  Try this link.

 

 

 

I stumbled upon several videos this morning related to John Updike, and that set me off thinking again about one of my favorite authors.

I always admired his three pages per day writer’s requirement. He really worked at his writing.  It paid off. He had a 50+ year career and has 67 books listed on his Wikipedia bibliography that includes 21 novels, 18 short-story collections, 12 books of poetry, 4 children’s books, and 12 collections of non-fiction. Many of my favorite pieces of his fiction are found among his 186 short stories.

I wasn’t reading Updike in 1960. That was the year he was 28 (I was 7) and published his second novel, Rabbit, Run.  The New York Times called the book a “shabby domestic tragedy,” but also “a notable triumph of intelligence and compassion.” I would read it during the summer 0f 1968 after I had read a book of his stories, Pigeon Feathers, and then his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair.

The stories especially appealed to me, since I saw myself as a budding short story writer and was reading Hemingway, Salinger, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and other story writers too. I would go on to read almost all the stories and novels in chronological order of their publication. I wanted to write little, perfect stories like “A&P” about a boy working at the checkout counter in a supermarket and the three young pretty girls who walk in wearing nothing but bathing suits. That little plot unfolds quickly and tragically and, like many Salinger protagonists, I identified strongly with that kid.

My freshman year of college as an English major, I was assigned to read his newest novel, Rabbit Redux.  a sequel to the first Rabbit book.

My wife shared many of my readings in our years together. I gave her my copy of the sexy Couples when we were dating, and we both read Marry Me when it came out and we were a few years from being married ourselves.  Updike chronicles many marriages and many uncouplings, some based on his own life story.

Updike received two Pulitzer Prizes for two of the four Rabbit novels. There is also “Rabbit Remembered” a long story (or novella) that came later. Those tales chronicle Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, an ex- high-school basketball star who first deserts his wife and son and then explores sexuality, marriage, parenting and also the time he is passing through in America.

This first video I found is a casual interview with Updike at the time of the fourth Rabbit novel, Rabbit at Rest, which ends Harry’s life. It is a sad book about grandpa Harry with his Florida condo, still dealing with his son, Nelson and his wife, Janice, and the 1989 that is post-Reagan time of debt, AIDS, and President Bush 41. It won him another Pulitzer Prize.

What interested me in this video was his own thoughts about death.

This second video is John’s son, David Updike, interviewed about being the child of a writer. David is also a writer I have enjoyed reading. I have his children’s books and his books of stories and they are very good.  It certainly must have been more negative than positive to be the son of John Updike and wanting to be a writer.

I like in this video David’s decision that he would give up writing a piece of fiction if it meant hurting someone he cared about. I don’t think his father held that belief.

John Updike received much praise in his lifetime for his writing. He also was pretty strongly disliked by some of his fellow writers and by feminists. He was, like too many famous men I admire, not a very good husband or father.

But I think even those who are not fans concede that is prose is beautiful, often poetic.

I came to John Updike’s poetry much later than the books and stories. I love reading poetry, and I like some of his poems, but I feel like his prose had more poetry in it than many of the poems. I have used a few of his poems on my poetry blog

He died of lung cancer in January 2009.

I took this passage from Updike’s wonderful story “Pigeon Feathers” and broke the sentences into more “poetic” line breaks using his punctuation most of the time. It is a small poem on what it means to be dead as seen by teenaged David as he walks at night across his farm home to the outhouse and imagines a grave.

A long hole in the ground,
no wider than your body,
down which you are drawn
while the white faces above recede.

You try to reach them but your arms are pinned.
Shovels pour dirt into your face.
There you will be forever,
in an upright position,
blind and silent,
and in time no one will remember you,
and you will never be called by any angel.

As strata of rock shift,
your fingers elongate,
and your teeth are distended sideways
in a great underground grimace
indistinguishable from a strip of chalk.

“All grown-ups were once children — although few of them remember it.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This past week was the birthday of French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. He was born in Lyon, France in 1900. Saint-Exupéry was a renowned pilot, but is best known now for his classic “children’s” novella, Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) published in 1943.

Though it is usually labeled as children’s literature, many adults cherish this little book too. I had not read the book until I was an adult. My wife as a teacher of French used the book in her classes.

I took out her copy of the book and paged through it with my cup of matcha tea this morning.

The Little Prince is about a little boy, a prince, who lives on a planet so small he can watch the sun set 44 times a day. He falls to Earth and befriends a stranded pilot.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry grew up being fascinated by airplanes. He was conscripted at 21 into the French air force and qualified as military pilot a year later.

By 1926, he’d helped establish airmail routes over Northwest Africa, the South Atlantic, and South America, which made him a pioneer in postal aviation.

In 1935, while trying to win a competition by breaking the speed record in an air race from Paris to Saigon, he and his mechanic crashed in the Sahara desert.

They wandered for four days with little food or water. A Bedouin found them and administered a native remedy to rehydrate them. Saint-Exupéry used some of this experience when writing The Little Prince.

The Little Prince is considered a classic of literature. It is about loneliness, friendship, and philosophy.

In 1944, Saint-Exupéry flew a reconnaissance mission over France and never returned. It was assumed his plane had crashed in the Alps, but more than 60 years later, the wreckage was recovered from the Mediterranean seabed, not far from Provence.

When he was asked how he would like to die, Saint-Exupéry chose water. He said: “You don’t feel yourself dying. You simply feel as if you’re falling asleep and beginning to dream.”

The Little Prince was published after his death and has been translated into over 250 languages and dialects, including Braille, and sells 2 million copies annually.

The artwork in the book is Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors.  He wrote two other books about flying, the non-fiction Wind, Sand and Stars and a novel, Night Flight.

There is a live-action film and an animated film version of the story. There is a museum for the Little Prince in Japan.

But the book is the thing.  As the sun was setting today – it only happens once a day on our home planet, which makes it more precious – I looked back into the book again and had another cup of tea.

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret:
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

www.thelittleprince.com

Musé du petit prince, Hakone, Japan (Wikimedia)

 

 

castle

It’s 1962 and America has lost WWII. The east is the Greater Nazi Reich and the west is the Japanese Pacific States.

In The Man in the High Castle, a novel by Philip K. Dick,  this is the alternate history of the world. The United States and the Allied forces lost the war. This was the novel that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction.

He was better known before that novel became a TV series for his fiction that was adapted for films, such as the two film Blade Runner films that are based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  That novel, set in 2021, portrays a world where another World War has killed millions and moved much of mankind off-planet. Because so many species became extinct on Earth, people cherish living creatures,  but the less expensive alternatives are very realistic “simulacra” of  horses, birds, cats – and also humans. On Mars, these androids are common and so well made to be indistinguishable from true humans.

On Earth, there is fear about what these artificial humans might do and the government has banned them. Many of them go into hiding, some live among human beings, undetected. The novels’s protagonist, Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford in the film adaptation), is one of the officially sanctioned bounty hunters who find rogue androids and “retire” them.

Dick’s fiction approached and crossed the lines of popular science fiction, the serious novel of ideas, and the reality of his time and now our present and future.

The Man in the High Castle won the Hugo Award in 1963 and is one of my favorites of his novels, but Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) published 36 science fiction novels and 121 short stories, so there is plenty of his work to read – and to still be adapted.

Castle has a “novel within the novel” structure and so there is an alternate history within this alternate history. That internal novel is titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by the character Hawthorne Abendsen. (Minor Spoiler: Hawthorne is the man in the high castle) In this version the Allies defeat the Axis but not in the same ways or with the same results as the actual historical outcome. The Bible verse “The grasshopper shall be a burden” (Ecclesiastes 12:5) is supposed to be the title’s inspiration.

In season two of the Amazon TV series version, they play off the novel and the films that the “Man in the High Castle” has released that show the alternative history where the United States defeated the Nazis and Japan.  Of course, the Germans have tried to destroy all the copies of the film. In Dick’s novel plotline, the Grasshopper book is banned in the occupied U.S., but widely read in the Pacific, and its publication is legal in the neutral countries.

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy tells of  President Roosevelt surviving an assassination attempt but not trying for a third term. The next President, Rexford Tugwell, pulls the Pacific fleet out of Pearl Harbor, saving it from Japanese attack. When the U.S. enters WWII, it is a well-equipped naval power. In this version, Italy reneges on its membership in the Axis Powers and betrays them.  At the end of the war, the Nazi leaders—including Adolf Hitler—are tried for their war crimes.

Philip K. Dick (PKD) said the main inspiration for writing The Man in the High Castle was the novel Bring the Jubilee, a 1953 novel by Ward Moore of an alternate nineteenth-century U.S. wherein the Confederate States of America won the American Civil War.

The Man in the High Castle became a television series in 2015 produced by Amazon Studios that is somewhat loosely based on the 1962 novel. There have been two seasons with a third forthcoming. If you are an Amazon Prime member, you can watch the series free. If not, some video from the series is available on YouTube that gives you a sense of how the series has progressed.

I know that the idea and images of the series turn off some people. My wife gave up on watching it with me. (She was creeped out right away by the version of “Edelweiss” used as the theme song.) In a 1976 interview with Philip Dick , he said he had planned to write a sequel to The Man in the High Castle, but couldn’t make any real progress because he was too disturbed by his research for the two books and he could not mentally bear “to go back and read about Nazis again.”

He regarded the published novel as intentionally having an open ending that could segue into a sequel . He even suggested that perhaps the sequel might be a collaboration with another author:. Perhaps, the Amazon series would be to his liking.

The other books that he acknowledged inspired and disturbed him when writing the novel include The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962), The Goebbels Diaries (1948), and Foxes of the Desert (1960). He also acknowledged the influence of the 1950 translation of the ancient classic I Ching by Richard Wilhelm. That text is not only read and used by characters in his novel, but was used in its divination way by Dick himself to make decisions about the plot of The Man in the High Castle.

Two chapters of the sequel were published in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick. They touch on the Nazis using time-travel visits to a parallel world in which they lost the war, but stealing nuclear weapons from that world to bring back to their reality.

Dick said that his 1967 The Ganymede Takeover began as a sequel to The Man in the High Castle, but evolved into a new unrelated story. Some portions were used in VALIS, published in 1985, three years after Dick’s death.

Philip K. Dick’s later work turned toward deeply personal, metaphysical questions concerning the nature of God.

Eleven of his novels and short stories have been adapted to film, most notably Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly.

He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2005. His work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages.

I believe PKD would have at least been amused by this android version of him.

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Hands off Hello Not all labyrinths are traps Happy to be inside but already missing summer outdoors.  The plant feels the same way. There’s something in the first cold nights when autumn teases winter that seem to require a fire. Still drinking morning tea in the afternoon.  #teaetiquette

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