Sunday, February 25, 2007

Vanity Fair

I am a constant, though somewhat plodding, reader. Although not a voracious reader, in that I do not consume with my eyes so many thousands of words per week the way a champion cyclist might pedal so many hundreds of miles in the same space of time, still I always have a book sitting on my night table with a bookmark in it to indicate my progress, and I apply myself to that book as steadily as I can. Sometimes it takes me a month or more to read a volume, as most weekdays my reading is usually confined to bedtime. Books containing seven or eight hundred pages set in small type typically take me a long, long time to get through. I try to read carefully and almost always have a dictionary nearby; I even look up words I know the meanings of just to satisfy some question of nuance or derivation. Of the many joys I get from reading, no feature of it pleases me more than the fact that you’re never up against a clock.

I think the chief reason for why I write is to make me a better reader. Nothing can be more satisfying than to read a book with an eye toward what problems the author sets up for himself and to see how he goes about solving them. I particularly enjoy observing writing styles that, in some cases, feature unusual sentence constructions or, in others, an erratic unfolding of plot. Anybody can read a story for the story’s sake and derive great satisfaction from it, just like someone who has never played football can thoroughly enjoy watching a game on television. However, in the latter case, doesn’t it stand to reason that, for someone who has played the game, or even coached it, and who has a deeper understanding of it, the game must hold more? Having an insight into the athleticism involved, the sacrifices players make to reach that level, an appreciation of the punishment they take, of the finesse and brutality found in each contest, the strategy, working the clock, gamesmanship, the intangibles, and all of that which are lost on guys like me who have never studied a playbook or strapped on shoulder pads, must make the experience of watching a game richer. They enjoy it on a deeper and more meaningful level. So, I suggest, the amateur who writes gives himself an advantage in reading others may not have.

I like to use a bookrest when I read. The one I use, which I’ve had for more than ten years now, is of the simplest design, yet better than any other bookrest I’ve seen. It is made of strong wire, folds flat in three pieces, and holds any size book (not all bookrests do). It can accommodate the skinniest paperback on up to the thickest metropolitan phonebook. I attach two large, black metal clips to either side of the book to keep the volume as open and flat as it can and with the pages spread to their utmost. My favorite thing to do is to go alone to a diner and set my book up on the table to read while eating my meal and drinking my coffee afterward. At home, after dinner, I often sit at the dining room table with my java and follow the same procedure. There’s this one restaurant I have breakfast at nearly every Saturday morning, and I suspect I must be regarded as quite a character there, as I invariably order the same thing and religiously follow my ritual of setting up the bookrest and reading for an hour or more. They probably have a name for me, like The Bookworm or something. And, to complete my eccentric mien, I always ride there on my bike, which means I wear the stretchy black tights as I sit munching on a cheese omelet with eyes fastened to my book. However, as strange as I might appear, it happens from time to time that people come up and ask me where I got the bookrest and compliment me on my reading apparatus; so, even if I appear odd, at least I’m approachable.

The book in my bookrest right now is Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray. I read it before roughly twenty years ago, and, although I’ve forgotten much of it, I’ve never forgotten the character of Becky Sharp, one of the most captivating characters in literature. She’s a scheming, dissembling minx who you can’t help but to like. For the past half year or so I’ve been stuck on Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and now Thackeray, a group who I consider a set, like I used to consider the movie actors Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino a set back in the seventies (now that they’re older they don’t seem so anymore). Dickens is the sentimental one, Trollope the amiable one, and Thackeray the witty one. I really endorse this book and encourage everyone to read it. It’s one of those rare books where the author is omniscient, yet reveals himself to reader, like the puppet master exposing himself to the audience during a performance. Thackeray pulls that off brilliantly. It is a masterpiece. Anyone who’s read Vanity Fair knows what I’m talking about.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Monkey Business

A story making headlines right now is the account of chimpanzees observed to sharpen sticks and using them to spear small, lemur-like creatures for food. Doesn’t it send chills down your spine to hear of this advance, not unlike the first time you viewed our ape ancestors getting the idea to use bones as weapons at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey? The research team, headed by Iowa State University anthropology professor Jill Pruetz, made this discovery between March 2005 to July 2006 in Fongoli, Senegal. Isn’t it funny how discoverers are often congratulated for what they discover, as if (using the present instance) the fact that some chimps are smart enough to sharpen sticks stands as a reflection on themselves? Of course, recognizing the importance of what you see is what makes discovery a laudable thing; and, I suppose, to actually go looking for something and finding it, instead of stumbling upon it, must make it especially fine indeed . . . or does it?

With all this in mind, I recently set up a hidden observation post in my kitchen to test my hypothesis that hungry teenagers, when left on their own and having no money to order pizza, will find a way to feed themselves using what’s available. The two subjects were Daughter Number 1 (19 years old) and Daughter Number 2 (16 years old).

Scanning my notes, here, in brief, are my findings:

8:03 PM: DN1 enters holding stomach, an evident sign of hunger. Attempts to open refrigerator door with teeth. Fails and leaves.

8:32 PM: DN1 and DN2 enter. DN1 shows DN2 refrigerator. Attempts by DN2 to open refrigerator by butting door with head ultimately fail. Finally, DN1 uses her hands and succeeds in pulling the door open.

Skimming ahead, we find both subjects eventually come into possession of a jar of Prego spaghetti sauce, a box of vermicelli, and a cooking pot.

9:52 PM: DN1 fills pot with water and sets on stove. Both subjects watch the pot intently.

10:21 PM: DN2 indicates to DN1 that heat must be applied to boil the water. Both subjects turn their attention to the knobs at the top of the stove.

10:22 PM: DN1, by twisting the knobs, causes fire to appear in one burner. Both subjects scurry in fright to far side of kitchen.

10:23 PM: DN2 sets pot on top of the gas flame.

Skimming still further ahead, we find that both subjects, by working together, boiled the spaghetti, drained the water, separated it out onto two plates, and poured sauce onto each mound, all very complex tasks. But what follows is something no teenager has ever been recorded to do:

11:10 PM: DN1 places dirty plate into dishwasher.

There, my discovery — and completely unlooked for! A teenager actually attempting to clean up after herself! This, I suggest, is extremely rare, and to actually have the event witnessed and recorded is unprecedented!

Please look for the full article to appear soon in the scientific journal Nature.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It’s Nap Time

Last week’s big news story (for me, anyway) was about how on-the-job naps are healthy for you — in fact, according to one Greek study, naps in the workplace might even help your heart by reducing stress. Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before, a midday nap? What a concept! I’m trying to come up with a name for it. Let me see, let me see . . . you sort of “sequester” yourself when you take these naps, so possibly we can base this new word on “sequester” . . . only I don’t like “quest” being in there, it‘s too active; maybe if we were to mute that down a little, we could get something like “see-ester.” And then, being from Boston, I’d like to show my hometown spirit by accenting it to “see-estah.” There! What do you think? I like it. It’s a work in progress — your suggestions are welcome.

I have long believed in the five minute, afternoon catnap. Less than five minutes is not long enough, yet anything longer than five minutes can zonk you out for the rest of the day. My batteries tend to run low somewhere between 1:30 and 3:00 in the afternoon. If I get so tired I need to use one hand to hold my eyelids up, what I typically do is close the door to my office, lay down on my back on the carpet, rest my head on my hands with fingers interlaced, and drift off into a shallow snooze until I’m awakened by my own snort. I stay there for another thirty seconds for the cobwebs to clear, and then I uncertainly get back on my feet like a newborn colt first struggling to stand. Before you know it, I’m back at it, refreshed and ready to attack the rest of the day.

How do you view napping at work? Is it okay, or do you hold fast to the old school, American work ethic and think it’s wrong as sin? Is it better hazy than lazy with you? Do you think snooze eventually leads to booze? Should it be forty hours, not forty winks? Or is there something to this nap business? Do you, in fact, nap yourself? Confess! Confess!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Accountants I Have Known

In the beginning, there was just me. I know it was just me, because “me” was all I could claim when I filled out my federal and state income tax forms. My strong suit was never math, but I could, if I tried hard enough, follow a simple set of instructions. All I needed was a pencil, an eraser, a W-2 form, the blank income tax forms, and those instructions which took me through the whole process step by step. Nothing fancy — which was the way it had to be, for fancy would have surely undone me.

I put the task off each year, sometimes right to the very brink. I can vividly recall one April 15th when I found myself at the post office near midnight finishing up my forms while anxiously stealing glances at a wall clock whose minute hand seemed to move like a propeller. I have no idea why I hated doing my taxes so much, because I always received money back from the government. I suppose I equated it with homework, that laborious affliction that had dogged me for most of my young existence. But I always got the job done.

When I married, there was just me and her. I know it was just me and her, because “me” and “her” were all I could claim at tax time. My wife and I didn’t own anything and there were no little Schprocks to deduct, so my time-honored method of following instructions with a number 2 pencil still held. However, time gradually brought changes, and eventually Daughter Number 1 came along, followed by a condo and a house, and then Daughter Number 2 made her appearance, and finally the missus decided it was time I ceded my job of filling out tax forms to someone who actually knew what he was doing.

Our first accountant was a young guy who advertised his services by stapling flyers to telephone poles with a row of contact information tags at their bottoms. He was a chubby fellow with closely cropped, curly blonde hair and wore tiny, steel-rimmed eyeglasses. He came to our house, accepted all our tax information, asked us a few questions in his most businesslike manner, and then we didn’t see or hear from him again for a month and a half, dangerously close to the filing deadline. We received money back that year, but my wife, who has a nose for money, instinctively knew we could have done better.

A friend of ours recommended a woman she had used for a number of years, so we gave her a try the next time. On the day of our appointment, we loaded both the kids into our station wagon and drove to her house, which was not particularly easy to find. The woman, whose name was Nora, lived in a two-family house with her young son and husband, the latter a Russian immigrant. I rang the bell and immediately heard the vicious barking of a large dog. The door opened and a gigantic german shepherd with glaring, satanic eyes leapt onto the glass of the storm door a perfect picture of rage, its face pressed against the pane in profile, snarling murder and slavering all over the glass. Presently a rotund, bespectacled woman in her thirties grabbed the beast by its collar and dragged it growling and snapping away from the door. From somewhere within we heard a door slam and Nora returned to admit us into her house.

Nora was a genial person. She had the four of us sit in a row on the couch in her living room while she mannishly plopped herself down on the coffee table in front of us, legs apart and forearms resting on thighs like a coach giving a low-key locker room talk to his team. We gave her all our documents and she went through everything on the spot, asking us questions and afterward handing back what she didn’t need. Nora had a bustling air but was in no apparent hurry to usher us out; she liked to talk and kept us there chatting for quite a while. I particularly remember a large aquarium nearby filled with beautiful tropical fish that constantly drew my attention and made it hard for me to focus on what she said. In the end, we decided we liked her and used her for some eight or nine years.

One year, the missus and I arrived for our appointment and, after going through the usual preliminaries with the german shepherd (a different, younger one, but just as menacing; the old one had died), we sat down with Nora in our accustomed way, with us on the couch and her on the coffee table. However, this year was different: she quickly informed us that her husband had left her, leaving her alone with her son and baby daughter. Now, we had seen Nora every year during tax time and had struck an easy friendship with her, but we were by no means intimate and never intended to be. However, despite this footing of light familiarity, she took us through the whole thing, how he had evidently married her only to secure his legal status in this country and had secretly taken up with a female office coworker; how he had practically disowned his children and, in the months leading up to his desertion, rarely had sex with her. It was uncomfortable in a rather juicy way, and the missus and I made all the correct disapproving sounds at the right times. Our tax consultation was more incidental than anything else during that meeting, and we eventually left with our minds reeling over this bizarre intelligence.

A couple of weeks later Nora mailed to us our tax forms. For the first time ever, we actually owed the government money.

We paid her bill, and then the missus tried another accountant recommended by the same friend who had put us on to Nora (this friend had given Nora up the year before). Just my wife went — I didn’t have a chance to attend this meeting. Incredibly, using the same facts and figures Nora had, the new guy managed to make it all work out so we received money back — I think it had something to do with repairs done to our gutters and a little known tax loophole. Whatever the case, we were naturally quite pleased, and were understandably disappointed the following year when we learned he had given up doing taxes altogether.

Another friend of my wife’s told us about her accountant whom she absolutely swore by: Bob. The missus made the appointment and we went to meet Bob at his house one chilly, clear Sunday morning.

Bob, who is white, lived, as he does now, in a rundown, gritty, minority section of Boston. It is an area of the city that makes a caucasian visitor keenly aware of the paleness of his skin, and forces on him the unaccustomed sensation of being a minority himself. His apartment occupied the bottom floor of a triple-decker whose exterior sported dirty vinyl siding of indeterminate color and blistering paint on its trim. To the right of the door were three mailboxes for each of the units with corresponding buzzer buttons below each one. Taped to Bob’s mailbox was his business card, which informed the reader that Bob was an attorney-at-law, a tax consultant, and justice of the peace.

After repeatedly pressing the buzzer and hammering at the door for several minutes, Bob appeared. Small in stature, gnomish in face, dressed in a navy V-necked sweater with white shirt collar and tie, along with brown slacks a quarter-inch too short and sneakers, Bob was one of those people who could be any age. Convincing arguments could be made for him being thirty or fifty. His style of hair, clothing and eyeglasses suited 1983 just as well as 2003. He welcomed us in, conducted us through a small hallway choked with piles of cardboard boxes that climbed the walls at either side, and had us sit in his waiting room while he returned to a client in the room next door.

The waiting room was furnished with unmatched armchairs and a sofa possibly rescued from the curb on trash day; there were a couple of battered, gunmetal grey filing cabinets on one wall, and a small black and white portable TV played a morning news program at a volume several decibels higher than what is comfortable. There were out-of-date magazines spread on a low table bearing mailing labels not addressed to him. The room hadn’t been vacuumed or dusted for a long time. We seated ourselves and patiently watched TV.

Finally Bob was ready for us. He led us into his office which had, in every available corner and nook, more stacks of cardboard boxes crammed with documents. Although not trained as an archaeologist, I nevertheless made the natural assumption that the ones nearest to the top were the most recent, and those boxes at bottom that provided the foundation for these freeform structures which rambled throughout his apartment represented another era. Conceivably, Jimmy Hoffa could have been segmented out into several of those bottom boxes, or perhaps an early draft of the Mayflower Compact was in one. Bob bade us sit in two low chairs placed before a monstrous, battered, ancient oak desk. He stepped around this desk and seated himself in a high-backed office armchair that made him look even more diminutive than he already was. Before him sat an enormous, putty-colored computer monitor. The surface of his desk was a wilderness of clutter: stacks of papers, sorting trays, paperweights, a lamp, a stapler, a three-hole punch and so on. The only clear area was the part immediately around his mouse pad.

There are some people who can, either through sheer force of their personalities or by the way they carry themselves, improve things without altering. They can make cheap, commonplace gadgets seem like fine instruments in their hands, or can impart dignity to squalor with the healing essence of their being. They can appear stately while wearing a rough burlap sack with three holes poked out for two arms and a head, and an old rope tied around their waists for a belt. They can look commanding while seated in a broken-down old buggy drawn by a broken-down old donkey. These rare people can rise above their situations; or, more accurately, they can raise up their situations through their mere presence. Bob was such a person. In his hands, the antique computer became a machine of infinite capacity, and his desk a veritable command center. Bob’s chair was a throne and Bob himself a sultan, ruler of all he surveyed. We instantly knew without being told that when Bob was silent we shouldn’t speak, and when Bob asked questions in his staccato way, we needed to look sharp and answer those questions directly. He was bossy, yet not off-putting. Everything he said was said with conviction and a true note of authority. Here was an accountant, we saw. Here was a man.

Bob’s style was to actually fill out the various tax forms on his computer while we sat there, so we were asked many questions while he tapped away at the keyboard and were required to produce more documents than we had; in the end, a second visit was necessitated to provide him with what was missing. Here were his rules for contacting him: the best times to call were roughly from 3:00 in the afternoon until 5:30, but there was no guarantee he’d pick up the phone if he was busy with a client . . . and it made no sense to leave a voicemail because he wouldn’t listen to it; voicemail was only there to let people know he was still breathing. We shouldn’t send him a fax either, because chances were good he’d never get around to reading it or processing it. Mailing him was even riskier than faxing. You had to actually catch him and hand things to him personally. No other way worked.

So from that day to this I have been in the habit of going directly to Bob’s house to transact any business with him, because whenever I call him, he never picks up the phone. Never. And I will tell you from where the patience to do this springs: Bob delivers. Big time. In the last four years we have had him prepare our taxes, Bob has gotten us oodles of money back. He finds the right forms, he keys in the right numbers, and we enjoy the largesse of the United States government. Last year in particular we got a bundle back from Uncle Sam. So Bob is our man.

Last Saturday I cycled over to Bob’s house to make our appointment for this Sunday morning. He looks the same as ever, just as I suspect he will twenty years from now. We’ll endure the clutter, the loud TV and his sometimes abrasive manner, because we know he will come through. There’s God, there’s family, there’s country, and then there’s Bob. God bless Bob.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

This Does Not Compute

I just got done reading a TIME article on the human brain entitled, “What Is Consciousness?” It turns out we’re robots after all. Who’da thunk it? There is no dichotomy of “mind” and “brain,” but simply “brain.” Spirituality, the afterlife, a soul, all that ethereal stuff is merely wishful thinking (scientists can actually replicate a near-death experience; the blue light at the end of the tunnel has a switch). Free will? We react to stimuli. All poetry, art and inspired thought comes down to a matter of chemicals and tissue. So hand me a tissue.

The next time I get in trouble, I’m going to blame my big dumb brain. It wasn’t me, it was the freaking neurons. Those little guys have been flying around in there like crazy lately. Officer, I couldn’t help speeding, the neurons drove me to it. Honey, I’m sorry I blew the mortgage payment at the track. Love me, hate my neurons. Boss, you’re right, I shouldn’t show up three hours late in a drunken stupor. Can you somehow convince my brain of that? Because it sure as hell won’t listen to me.

Here’s my favorite paragraph from the article:

“Another startling conclusion from the science of consciousness is that the intuitive feeling we have that there’s an executive ‘I’ that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of the muscles, is an illusion. Consciousness turns out to consist of a maelstrom of events distributed across the brain. These events compete for attention, and as one process outshouts the others, the brain rationalizes the outcome after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along.”

In other words, my brain is a little like Alexander Haig. There’s a cheerful thought.

Let me quote another paragraph that didn’t appear in TIME:

“What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!”

Must have been a hell of a robot who wrote that one.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Terror Strikes Beantown

Today’s Terror Warning Level: Mauve

As most of you probably know, Boston was recently terrorized by a little character named Err from the Adult Swim cartoon show Aqua Teen Hunger Force. For many residents, this event brings back harrowing, barely-repressed memories of the time when Magilla Gorilla climbed the statehouse dome and flung bananas down at the mayor back in 1968, or that other incident in the late eighties when Master Splinter and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles held the city under siege until the pizza shops agreed to stop offering anchovies as a topping. The citizens of Boston have certainly endured more than their share of terrorism over the years.

As a public service, The Schprock Report offers this brief list Bostonians can keep handy to help us battle the terrorist threat together.

• Know the difference between a terrorist cell and a terrorist cel.
• Report any unattended Happy Meals you may see, especially near bridges, LNG containers and swing sets.
• Recognize the many shapes WMDs can take, from oversized mallets to exploding cigars.
• Most followers of Islam are our friends and pose no threat whatsoever, but watch out for obvious giveaways like guys named Ali Al-Badguy McKillsalot.
• If you’re in a crowded marketplace and someone yells, “Ah-bee ah-bee ah-bee ah — that’s all folks!,” run like the hell.

• How did Jonny Quest’s dad, Dr. Benton Quest, come to adopt Hadji anyway? Did “Race” Bannon even look into that? Is Hadji really in this country legally? (Editor’s note: not knowing an old cartoon can cost you your life.)
• Vigilantism is no answer; law enforcement should be left to trained professionals, not amateurs. For more information, please visit
• Report any coyote you spot carrying a wooden crate marked “ACME” with a long fuse trailing from it.

The Schprock Report invites all readers to add their potentially life-saving tips to this list in the blog’s comment section. Thank you in advance for your help.