I spent yesterday fixing a book case. I didn’t plan to. It was just one of those things. I happened to walk past it, looked up at the top and noticed that it had walked about an inch from where I wedged it against the ceiling about a year ago.

This was no ordinary book case. I built it out of two by fours and several slabs of rough-cut three quarter inch plywood. It probably weighs at least a hundred pounds empty, maybe three or four hundred pounds after I load it up with books, record albums and an old Underwood cast-iron typewriter. When a monster like that starts to tip over, no matter how slowly, I feel I pretty much have to drop whatever I’m doing and fix it.

I always meant to fix it in place eventually. I thought I had plenty of time to do it. I really thought it was wedged in so tight between the ceiling and floor that it couldn’t possibly fall over any time soon, but I was wrong. I should have realized that, with us walking across the floor above it month after month, and the natural expansion and contraction of the frame of the house through the seasons, there was no chance it wouldn’t fall over in just a year or two. I was awfully lucky to have caught it before it all went crashing to the floor.

So I spent pretty much all afternoon and part of the evening unloading books from the shelves, taking the frame of the book case apart, measuring and cutting, drilling holes, driving screws, and reloading the books so they wouldn’t be sitting on the floor where the bugs and the cold could get into them and wreck havoc of one kind or another. I tried every way I could think of to make repairs without taking all the books out and piling them on the floor, but in the end I realized that would be a half-assed fix and bowed to the inevitable. Also, if there was any chance the whole thing might tip over on top of me, better it was empty than full of books.

father’s day

It’s father’s day, a day I can claim entirely as my own to do with however I please. Just waste it doing nothing, or even less than nothing, if I want to. “Less than nothing doesn’t even make sense,” you say. “How can you do less than nothing?” You know how people say, “That’s a half-hour of my life I’ll never get back?” I spent the last half-hour watching videos of Louis C K on YouTube. The only way I can possibly rationalize that I was being productive in any way is that I was taking in oxygen and cranking out carbon dioxide so the green, leafy organisms around me could have lunch. And if modern science is to be believed, not that many people do, there’s already plenty of carbon dioxide in the air, so I’m really reaching, but give me a break, I was just trying to show you how completely and utterly I can waste my time today.

And here I am blogging. There goes another half-hour of my life.

If I had any kind of conscience at all I’d be putting up the book cases I finally brought home from the outlet store last weekend. About six weeks ago I ordered a pair of book cases from one of those stores that orders unfinished furniture from the manufacturer at a discount, sort of. They were still kind of pricey but I was at the point where I realized I was never going to build them myself. I figured, if I bought them already together, then all I’d have to do is fix them to the wall – Done! It’s a good idea. It could have worked.

But the project suffered from inertia almost from the minute I placed my order. First of all, it turned out that the store was on the point of financial collapse. I didn’t find this out under weeks later, when they sent me a “Going Out Of Business” flier in the mail many weeks later. Not that it made any difference to whether or not I got the book cases, it was just sort of a harbinger of things to come. I strolled in, found the book cases I wanted, found a sales person and asked her if I could order a couple. She took me over to the island in the middle of the store where they kept all the paperwork and the catalogs and had a computer set up. Another sales person was sitting in front of the computer surfing the internet while she ate take-out food from one of several boxes she had laid out around the keyboard. Keeping it classy at the furniture store.

When I placed my order, I asked the sales person if they had a delivery service. She said they did not, but she knew a guy with a truck who would deliver it for sixty bucks. She didn’t even blink when she said that, and I didn’t, either. I figured, what the heck? How could some anonymous guy with a truck be worse than any of the dozens of people who have moved my personal effects from one house to the next over the years? We’ve moved house at least a half-dozen times in the twenty-one years we’ve been married, and several of the teams that I’ve welcomed into my home to move our family’s possessions appeared to have been hired that morning, probably not through any formal system of application and interview. I think it was more like, the guy driving the truck spotted a couple of homeless dudes on a park bench while he was waiting for a light to change, rolled down the window and offered them twenty bucks each for a couple hours’ work. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I even wish the guy who showed up alone and told me I’d have to help if we had to be moved out that day had been as enterprising. We did have to be out that day. We all packed and moved a lot of boxes that day.

Where was I? Oh, that’s right: The sales lady at the unfinished furniture store told me she knew a guy, so I told her to please give him a call to find out when he could deliver the book cases, then let me know so we could arrange a date for delivery. A week passed, no call. As a matter of fact, by the end of the first week I’d completely forgotten I’d ordered a pair of book cases and probably would never have remembered if it hadn’t occurred to B to ask me, in the middle of the next week, when we could expect to have those book cases delivered, and I said something very on-the-ball, like, “Uh, yeah … those book cases … I’d better call and ask about that.” Clueless.

And I wasn’t the only one. Nobody answered the phone when I called, so I left a message, something like, “Hi, I ordered a couple of book cases about a week ago and you said you’d call me back to let me know when you could have them delivered. Please give me a call.” When she called me back later that day, she had no memory of ever talking to me about having them delivered. “But I could give him a call right now if you like.” For whatever reason, though, I didn’t feel like waiting for delivery any longer. “No, never mind. I’ll come pick them up myself this weekend.” She apologized for the oversight, I made sure I knew what her hours were, and that was the last time I spoke to her for MORE THAN A WEEK.

I’m a procrastinator. It’s what I do.

When I finally called her back a week and a half later she was still so very sorry about failing to have the book cases delivered to me that she felt she had to apologize again, so I didn’t feel all that bad about my lazy-ass attitude, even though I should have. I rented a van, got T to ride with me to the store and we loaded the book cases up and drove off with them. They were huge book cases, eight feet high. Made of white pine, they weren’t all that heavy but they were so tall that I would never have been able to manhandle them all by myself without dropping them every couple steps and gouging great gashes in the sides by clunking them against corners and other people. When we finally got them in the house they filled up one end of the room, which was just as I wanted it, only I want them at the other end.

I want towering book cases on either side of the window. I’ll have to build up a pedestal for each of them because there’s some duct work that’ll have to run underneath, and they’re so tall that they’ll have to be fixed to the wall so that, when they’re loaded to the rafters, and I imagine each of them will easily hold two-hundred pounds of books, they won’t tip over one random day and squish somebody I love like a worm. I’m putting these book cases up in a spare bedroom where guests stay overnight. It’d be one hell of a way to start the day. Wake up with the sun shining in your face, open your eyes just in time to see a wall of books free-falling toward you. The end.

I figured out how to build a pedestal and even pieced one together earlier this week but haven’t installed it yet. It would be simple, I just have to get off my butt and do it. Same with installing rails across the back to strengthen each book case and make it possible to fix them to the wall. I woke up yesterday morning with a very clear idea how I can do that, but again, I have to actually lift a finger, and I’m currently using said finger to type. But I could stop, I guess.


A friend at work caught me reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb while I stood outside the main entrance of the office building, read the cover, and said, “Well, this can’t be good. Does it come with blueprints and directions?”

Funnily enough, when I bought the book I had the idea that it was going to be exactly that kind of techno-geek gadget fest, but it turns out to be a long, deep look at the beginnings of modern physics, starting with Leo Szilard, the Hungarian physicist who first realized that it should be possible to release the awesome energies that hold an atom together by starting a chain reaction. Not only that, when he was attending the University of Berlin he solved a problem in thermodynamics that one of his teachers, a certain Albert Einstein, thought was impossible, and took it to him to show him how it was done.

In the second chapter, J.J. Thomson pieces together a cathode ray tube and Ernest Rutherford’s experiments with it lead to the discovery of radioactivity. This little bit of backtracking is a way of explaining how Szilard twigged to the idea of chain reactions in the first place by first explaining how experimenters like Thomson and Rutherford noodled out the structure of the atom. All this was happening back in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. That just kills me. Back when the trains were pulled by steam engines, these guys were learning how to split the atom.

I’ve just started chapter three where Niels Bohr has just made his big entrance, and may have to read it several times, because Bohr is laying the groundwork for quantum physics. Billiard balls smashing against each other I can handle, but there’s so much more to it that that now that I have to think about every single word. Still a great read, though.


Here’s what I love about buying the vast majority of the used books I’ve collected over the years from the shelves of the local thift store, Saint Vincent de Paul’s. Each and every day that the weather allows it, I take a walk from the office on East Washington Ave down the Yahara river foot path to Lake Monona, turn south up one of the back streets, usually Spaight or Rutledge, until I get to Baldwin, which I follow back to East Wash to get back to work. Gets me out of the office for about forty minutes to breathe some fresh air and restore my sanity.

St. Vinnie’s just happens to be located at the corner of Baldwin and Williamson street, so I end up stopping there at least once or twice a week. Most of the time I walk out ten minutes later empty-handed, but every once in a while my eye stops on the spine of a book that’s not like any of the other trade paperbacks and I step a little closer to check out the title, author or publisher. Last Thursday I had to squint especially hard to make out the faded gold leaf stamped into the worn binding of a volume titled “Hopkins and Roosevelt.” That could only be Harry Hopkins, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s most trusted and loyal cabinet members, and a man who’d made recurring appearances in the many books about the Great Depression I’ve read in the past two or three years. I’d never run across a book that was principally about him before, but after thumbing through the first few pages I liked it enough to tuck it under my arm and head for the checkout.

When I got home I googled the author, Robert Sherwood, to find out more about him because, I’m ashamed to admit now, his name didn’t ring a bell even though he turned out to be one of the founding members of the Algonquin Round Table, a contributor to Vanity Fair and one of FDR’s speech writers. The book I just happened to pick off the shelf because I was curious to learn more about Harry Hopkins turned out to be a Pulitzer prize-winning for Sherwood. And I took it home on a whim for only a dollar!

Weekend Fun

And so ends a lovely three-day weekend we filled by reading books and watching videos.

I’m still working on A Crack In The Edge Of The World, Simon Winchester’s history of the San Francisco earthquake, only he’s so into geology it’s more like a history of the entire planet’s geological past. Seriously, he goes all the way back to the formation of the earth as a protoplanet to explain plate tectonics. The earthquake doesn’t happen until he’s two hundred pages into the book. He’s a geology nerd right down to the bone. I didn’t get an inkling of this when I read his book about Krakatoa, so he must have kept his nerdiness in check through that book, but he not only let it out for this one, he did it while drinking pots of coffee or snorting crack or something that made him take off at a gallop. Not that it’s a bad thing, but it takes a lot of determination to keep up with that kind of mania.

My Darling B just started Last Call, a book about Prohibition. When I opened the book to flip through it last night, I found a photo of a crowd of hundreds of people carrying signs that said WE WANT BEER in huge block letters. I may have to read that next.

And for video entertainment we finished the first season of The Wire Saturday Night, a series I was not at all sure I would like when we started, because, you know, another cop show? I’ve seen so many cop shows I’m just not that interested any more, but this one turned out to have a few good characters in it and by the time we got to the last disk I was asking B if she’d put in a request for the next season. She had, so I know what we’ll be watching next weekend.

B also brought home a copy of Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room because she apparently can’t go a day without making herself even more pissed off about Our Current Economic Crisis. Say what you want about these Enron assholes, you’ve got to admit that anyone who can convince investors to cough up money to buy futures in weather is a salesman’s salesman, the cream of the crop. B doesn’t admire this kind of economic inventiveness. For the rest of the night, she walked around the house, shaking her head while muttering “Bastards!” under her breath. I keep asking her why she watches this kind of stuff when it upsets her so. She doesn’t know. And she keeps on watching.

The Path Between The Seas

I enjoy reading about the turn of the century quite a lot. Not the last turn of the century, that one was a cosmic let-down. I’m talking about the ten or fifteen years on either side of the line dividing the 1800s and the 1900s. It’s easily the most interesting history of modern humankind. On one side you’ve got a steam-powered civilization that still believed disease was caused by marsh gas or loose virtue, and on the other side you’ve got science, electricity and the growing belief that human ingenuity would rid the globe of all pestilence and create a shiny, bright future for everyone.

Unfortunately, the next fifteen years after that is war, revolution, economic ruin and fearing fear itself. That’s why I like to stick to the turn of the century. It was a time in which it seemed as though humankind was poised on the brink of being able to do literally anything we set our most brilliant minds to. The Panama Canal, for instance. The best engineers of the School of Bridges and Roads, a science academy in France that was second to none in all the world, thought nothing of the task when they set out to cut a sea-level canal across the isthmus of Panama. Oh, those mountains? Pay them no mind. We’ll have your canal running straight through them in just a few years.

Too bad the guy who dreamed up the project had dreams bigger than the science of engineering could accommodate at the time. Even more unfortunately, the science of medicine hadn’t advanced as far as engineering had. Twenty thousand dead men later, mostly victims of yellow fever and malaria, the bankrupted French beat a hasty retreat from the isthmus and waited for Teddy Roosevelt to take a poke at the Colombians with a Big Stick.

Maybe Teddy didn’t handle the political situation exactly as it should have been, but he had everything he needed to get the job done. Most importantly, he had a doctor who knew how to eliminate yellow fever by wiping out the mosquitoes that carry it, an idea that most other doctors still thought was batshit crazy. And he had engineers who knew how to literally move mountains. The secret was choo-choo trains. Write that one down in your notebook for the next time you’re on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Once Teddy got these guys down to the isthmus, the completion of the canal, and David McCullough’s six-hundred page book The Path Between The Seas, was almost anticlimactic. Loved every page.

Colonel Roosevelt

I finished Colonel Roosevelt two and a half weeks after I started, partly because it’s five hundred seventy pages of solidly-written biography, and party because I put it on pause to read three other books. It’s not that the subject was uninteresting (perish the thought!) or the writing was poor (never!), it was me. I get distracted easily. Oooooo, shiny!

I had to read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars because My Darling B put it on hold for me at the library, which I thought would work out just fine. It was a new book and I was way down on the list, so I thought i had plenty of time. I was about a hundred fifty pages into Colonel Roosevelt when it came in. Should’ve known that would happen.

And Griftopia was just sitting there on the coffee table one day and I have such a good time reading Matt Taibbi. I don’t think anybody could fault me for taking a weekend off to read that. The third book was Berlin, a graphic novel that I didn’t finish because it sucked; I read three chapters until I couldn’t motivate myself to pick it up off the bedstand any more and threw myself back into reading Colonel Roosevelt.

My Darling B bought a copy of this last book in Edmund Morris’s three-volume biography of one of the largest personalities that America will ever know after she heard me going gaga over the news that it had just been published. I heard the author on NPR in the wee small hours while making the morning pot of mud and otherwise trying to make myself ready to face another day in cubicle hell (if there was a god, it would not tolerate the existence of office cubicles), and even though I was still swamped in the morning’s miasma I couldn’t help babble about it. A little later in the week we saw Morris on The Daily Show, telling Jon Stewart how Roosevelt learned the most heartbreaking lesson of war when his son Archie was killed in a dogfight over Europe. I put the book on reserve the next time we went to the library. I was number three hundred-something, even though they hadn’t bought a copy yet.

Both Timber and I read the first two volumes of the biography and have passed many an evening at the dining room table debating who was a badder badass, TR or Chuck Norris; TR or John Wayne; TR or zombies. TR always wins. For Christmas I stuffing his stocking with a t-shirt with Teddy’s face on it, cropped down to the pince-nez and teeth that made him so recognizable (the post office famously delivered a letter that was addressed with nothing more than a line sketch of those almond-eyed spectacles over a picket-fence set of choppers.) He’s going to like this last volume as much as I did, when he gets the chance to read it. He’s got as much on his TBR list as I do.

But he’ll read it. I’ll make sure he does. Not that I’ll have to twist his arm much.

Colonel Roosevelt begins with Teddy’s year-long African safari, right after he left office, where he shot something like a million animals, in round numbers. After you kill a couple thousand, you can round up to a million. He loved nature, but he also loved blowing it away. He didn’t seem to have any problem with the conflict that was apparent there. Quite a lot of his life was like that.

He went on a grand tour of Europe after the safari, then went home to find his good friend, Taft, had made a mess of his presidency, so he ran against Taft in the next election and they got into a nearly life-long Adams-Jefferson estrangement that didn’t get patched up until almost the day before Roosevelt died. Besides alienating Taft, he ran as a Progressive party candidate and split the Republican vote, ironically becoming just as responsible for getting Wilson into office as Taft was, although he would hardly admit that to himself or anyone else.

Then, in his mid-fifties he went on an expedition through South America, charting an unknown river and nearly getting eaten alive by sepsis and malaria. He came back just in time to agitate for getting the US into the war. He loved war almost as much as he loved shooting big game, for much the same reasons. When the US finally got into war, all he wanted was to raise a division of cavalry and die gloriously in battle, as if that sort of thing was still done. Wilson wouldn’t hear of it, so he used what influence he still had to make sure his sons all got in and sent to the front lines as quickly as possible. It was so important for him to get into the fight, even vicariously, but he didn’t know how hard losing a son would hit him until it happened. And that was perhaps the greatest life-changing event he had since he was a sickly child.

All by itself, this is a really very amazing book. You wouldn’t have to read the first two volumes to get a feeling for many of the complex facets of Roosevelt’s personality, although it would certainly help. But all by itself, there’s quite a story here, and many chapters that are all but impossible to put down.


I started Griftopia on Saturday and finished it on Sunday, one book in one weekend. It was that much fun to read. It was also infuriating, but that’s what it was supposed to be, so good on Matt Taibbi.

Griftopia is a collection of articles Taibbi wrote for Rolling Stone magazine about our current economic crisis, and if you think it’s just about over, you won’t after you read this book, so pick your reading material carefully.

Something else to watch out for: Taibbi pulls no punches. When he thinks someone’s acting like an asshole, he calls that guy an asshole. The first chapter of the book, about Alan Greenspan’s rise to power, is titled “The Biggest Asshole in the Universe.” I don’t know how Taibbi avoids being sued six ways from Sunday. Maybe he doesn’t, and all his royalties go straight to his legal defense fund.

I have to admit, the name-calling was just a bit of a turn-off. I don’t mind it when it comes from someone like Lewis Black, but he’s a comedian. Taibbi has a reputation as a gonzo journalist, and as a career that’s supposed to make a little name-calling all right, but to my way of thinking it sends conflicting signals. Name-calling is making fun of people, the way unsophisticated children make fun of people, and a book like this seems to be anything but unsophisticated. I had some trouble reconciling the mean-spirited name-calling with the sophisticated deconstruction of fiduciary malfeasance.

And if Taibbi was not attempting to write to a sophisticated audience, then where the hell did he get off writing a line like this one:

“Almost everyone in America is familiar with the Sherman Antitrust Act, and most people have a fairly good idea of why it was enacted.”

Almost everyone? Really? I live in a college town, and I’ll bet a crisp new fifty-dollar bill I could walk into any coffee shop on State Street and utterly fail to find ten people who could demonstrate their familiarity with the Sherman Antitrust Act or tell me why it was enacted.

But I have to admit Griftopia was still a fun book to read. I can enjoy reading a book I have disagreements with.


Dammit dammit dammit! I promised myself I wasn’t going to check out a book from the library yesterday. I’m only a hundred fifty pages from the end of the Roosevelt biography, I can’t start another book now. When My Darling B asked me to drop her off so she could pick up her hold requests, I told myself, Self, don’t you even go into that library, because you know what’ll happen!

Aw, shut up, I snapped back at myself, it’s not like I have zero self-control. I can walk past a book without picking it up, you know.

So I went inside with B and then, because I was feeling so supremely self-confident about having truckloads of self-control, I mosied over to the new releases bookshelf to see what the library had just acquired. There was the usual pop-culture drek, a few interesting-looking biographies, another history of baseball (is it possible there’s someone or something baseball-related that hasn’t been given five-hundred pages of exposure by now?), and so on. Nothing I couldn’t glance at and walk away from.

But then there was … COLOSSUS! What a BIG book! And what a BIG title! And there’s a photo of a GREAT BIG DAM on the cover! The HOOVER dam! One of the biggest, coolest gadgets on the planet! What kind of self-respecting gadget guy wouldn’t take it home to look it over and possibly spend every spare moment during breaks and lunch and waiting for a ride hom, reading it obsessively from cover to cover? I MUST HAVE IT! AAAAAAAGGGGGHHH!


History Nerds

Chatting with a coworker this morning, I had one of the strangest experiences of my life. Yes, of my life! We were discussing the busy examination schedule that day and he mentioned that he had been tapped to step in and give the tester a break now and again, and “wouldn’t you know it, I didn’t bring a book with me today.”

I facetiously offered him my copy of the Teddy Roosevelt biography I’m reading, expecting the usually momentary silence, followed by the usual polite thanks and tactful refusal I get whenever I recommend the latest really great book about dead people that I’m currently immersed in. To my stunned surprise he not only said thanks, he said in a perfect deadpan that it was his ambition to read a good biography of every one of the U.S. presidents.

Then it was my turn to respond with silence. When I found my voice again all I could think to say was, “You’re messing with me, aren’t you?”

But no, he was completely sincere, and we had an incredible conversation about our favorite authors and the earliest presidents and who was the most awesome founding father. He was sure it was Alexander Hamilton, and recommended the biography by Ron Chernow, which I think I have stashed away somewhere, still unread. I stuck up for David McCullough, and recommended 1776, his terrifically lucid account of the very iffy landmark year of the American revolution.

I’m absolutely gobsmacked at having finally met another history nerd, after so many years of wondering where all the people were who read the kooky kind of books I do. They live! And now I’ve seen on in nature. Amazing.