Review: ‘1Q84’ by Haruki Murakami

1Q841Q84 by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

According to my Goodreads log, I started the 1,157 paperback-bound pages of Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84” on July 14. Last night, on November 27, I finally finished it.

In the four months, 13 days, 2 hours and 31 minutes it took me to read the book, a solar eclipse worked its way across the United States; Glen Campbell died; hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria struck the United States and Caribbean; Hugh Hefner died; 58 people were killed in a mass shooting in Las Vegas; Fats Domino died; 26 people were killed in a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas; and Prince Harry got engaged. Donald Trump was in his 27th year as president.

Also, I read a handful of other books, including Joshua Green’s “Devil’s Bargain,” Andy Weir’s “Artemis” and George Orwell’s “1984.” It was Murakami who inspired me (and my book club) to pick up Orwell again. It was a nice respite while it lasted.

Well, a lot happens when you’re trudging through nonsense.

I will say, unlike so many other events of the past few months, “1Q84” didn’t leave death and destruction in its wake. However, it did keep me from reading at least four other books and a stack of New Yorkers.

The story does start out with a bang. In the year 1984, Aomame is a pretty young fitness instructor on the cusp of 30 who has a job to do: kill a man. On her way to her assignation, she gets out of a cab and, upon descending a freeway staircase, she enters another world – one almost exactly like this one except it has two moons.

(Oh, and the parallel Earth is apparently controlled by the Little People. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

The other main character is a math teacher on the cusp of 30 named Tengo. He teaches to make ends meet; his real focus is writing. His publisher puts him together with a teenager named Fuka-Eri, who has written a raw manuscript called “Air Chrysalis.” Tengo’s job is to polish the book. He, too, crosses over into the world that Aomame calls “1Q84” (the Q is a pun in Japanese) and gets entangled with the cult that Fuka-Eri escaped. (“Air Chrysalis” also contains references to the Little People. This is significant.)

There’s an eerie connection between Aomame and Tengo. When the two were 10 years old, they were two lonely children at the same elementary school, and — for a brief moment — held hands. This is an experience neither has ever forgotten, and both are convinced that the other is The One. For the next 1,000 pages, they will attempt to reconnect, and then the world will end in an orgasm of explosive passion.

Well, no. You’re not really sure what’s going to happen when they meet, or if they’ll meet, or what their meeting will mean. But essentially, the attempt to reconnect is the plot driver. And as a driver, it’s the equivalent of an Uber guy taking you all over town before getting to your destination, which he finally approaches doing 10 miles per hour.

Fortunately, as you’d expect with Murakami, there are also lots of other plots, some unusual – a ghostly NHK fee collector who harasses people, a creepy private detective on the trail of Aomame and Tengo – and some straight out of a thriller.

Perhaps the best involves the cult, Sakigake, that Fuka-Eri has escaped and Aomame used to belong to. A sequence in which Aomame is tasked with killing the Sakigake leader becomes both a master class in suspense and a philosophical argument about responsibility. Another section, in which Tengo goes to a small city to care for his distant, dying father, is a moving meditation on regret.

And then there’s the private detective, Ushikawa. He’s a former lawyer with a misshapen head and an outwardly odious appearance, and early on, he’s no more than a Peter Lorre character, offering Tengo hush money and quietly threatening him. But in the last third of the novel (which was published as three books in Japan) he comes into his own, rationalizing his work as he comes closer to unraveling the Aomame-Tengo mystery. He’s fascinating, repulsive, and worthy of his own book.

But that’s the thing about “1Q84” – there are LOTS of books within its pages. I wish Murakami would have chosen one and streamlined the rest, or somehow made the whole thing more picaresque. Instead, it’s every bit as baggy as its 1,100-plus pages would have you fear. There are musings on food, blind alleys on the characters’ backgrounds (what DID happen to Tengo’s mother? Your guess is as good as mine), lots of lush copy on breasts (“Aomame thought again of Tamaki. She remembered her smooth, beautifully shaped breasts. So different from my own underdeveloped chest, she thought. But those beautiful breasts are now gone forever”), and virtually no explanation of the Little People.

The Little People can apparently get bigger once they crawl out of people’s mouths. And they say “ho-ho” a lot, like Disney’s Dwarves. They also build air chrysalises. I don’t know their thoughts on breasts.

There were many times during my months of reading I put on my old English major hat in attempts to figure out “1Q84’s” depths. Is Murakami making comparisons to Orwell’s “1984”? If so, it’s only in the sketchiest ways. What is the symbolism of the two moons? Seemingly nothing more than a way to separate Earth 1 from Earth 2. Why is Ushikawa’s tongue a mossy green, like the second moon? Maybe he didn’t brush his teeth enough. That’s my theory, anyway.

I had high hopes for “1Q84.” I loved “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” which packed powerful tales of the 1930s Manchurian war into its broader plot. And there’s no question Murakami is a talented writer, capable of turning a phrase or sustaining the thrills of his off-kilter worlds. But the jumbled “1Q84” really could have used an editor.

It’s ironic. “1Q84” wants to be, among other things, a book about the power of storytelling, about losing yourself in another world. And, certainly, there are some books in which you reach the final page and then exhale, as if you’ve just come up for air. But upon finishing “1Q84,” I knew two things: Donald Trump was still in his 27th year as president, and I’d rather visit Orwell’s Room 101 than slog through “1Q84” again.

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Review: ‘1984’ by George Orwell

19841984 by George Orwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Years ago, when I was in college, I took a class in utopian literature. Things started out with genuine, if sometimes satirical, visions of a better world: “Utopia,” “Looking Backward,” “News from Nowhere.”

Then the reading list took a turn for the dark, with the 20th-century one-two punch of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984.”

I hadn’t read Orwell since then, but how could you forget “1984”? It’s become part of our very language: “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “memory hole.” Even the author’s name has come to signify a horrific, totalitarian society where everybody is under surveillance – a sad kind of immortality for a man who wrote some thoughtful and amusing stuff.

So when my book club decided to read it, I wondered how it would hold up – if there was a novel underneath the infamous terms.

Now that I’ve reread it, I’m not sure.

There’s a story there, all right. Three decades after an atomic war has reduced chunks of civilization to gray and rubble, Winston Smith works in Oceania’s Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite history according to the events of the present. If Party members have been vaporized in the ensuing years, Smith writes them out of existence; if an economic forecast fails to meet the actual result, Smith tweaks the prediction so it’s come true. (Underpromise and overdeliver – that’s the way of Oceania.) He’s discontented with his lot, but in a furtive way. About his only rebellion is buying a diary and writing down his actual thoughts, even while he hides them from the ever-present telescreen.

Then he meets Julia, and his life turns upside-down. She’s sexually ravenous and openly adventurous, at least by 1984 standards. She finds ways to meet him and get black-market goods; he rents a room from an antiques dealer who seems surprisingly untouched by the modern world. Why, the dealer never even bought a telescreen.

Winston and Julia meet for regular assignations, and when Winston is contacted by his colleague O’Brien – a possible revolutionary member of the “Brotherhood” — he imagines himself as part of Oceania’s resistance. He reads the samizdat of Emmanuel Goldstein, the invisible rebel who represents Big Brother’s opposite, and entertains the idea of a coming revolution.

It’s not to be, of course. O’Brien isn’t a part of the Brotherhood, but a key member of the establishment. Winston is tortured and broken down, physically and psychologically. The end is as downbeat as they come, an image of a drunken, empty man who knows one thing: “He loved Big Brother.”

I couldn’t help but think of so many of “1984’s” children while reading the book. O’Brien’s speeches in the third and final section were obvious influences on Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” character Arthur Jensen, who is alternately calming and chilling. And Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil,” especially, takes Orwell’s vision and fleshes it out brilliantly; for all that movie’s flaws, nothing in “1984” can match Gilliam’s sheer imagination – ductwork and pneumatic tubes – not to mention the fiendish Central Services.

As a novel, though, “1984” often falls short — more polemic than fiction masterpiece. Frankly, I was rather bored by the first two sections. There’s lots of tell, not show. Winston is the most rounded character in the book, but there’s little backstory to him – no idea how he got from orphan with disappeared parents to low-level ministry worker. Julia is even flatter. She’s a cynical life force with an amazing sex drive, more symbol than person, and there’s no suggestion of what attracts her to Winston besides a snap judgment she made upon seeing his face. She cares little about history or philosophy – she dozes off while Winston reads Goldstein’s book aloud to her – and throws herself into their affair with more energy than love. (Though, given the circumstances of life in 1984, it’s hard to blame her.)

But the final section – the torture and breakage of Winston at the hands of O’Brien – well, that still has the power to terrify. O’Brien’s speeches sound like every politician who’s ever wanted to say, “Do you believe me or your own eyes?”, except without the humor. (I had a bitter laugh at his dismissal of the fossil record: “Have you ever seen those bones, Winston? Of course not. Nineteenth-century biologists invented them. Before man there was nothing.” Has the Creation Museum been reading Orwell?) It’s easy to see why the book still resonates. When I was in college, we had visions of Brezhnev’s bleak USSR taking over the world; now, the world is doing a pretty good job on its own.

I can’t say I enjoyed “1984.” If you’re going to read Orwell, I’d recommend first dipping into his essays, especially “Shooting an Elephant” and “Politics and the English Language” (the latter a dry run for elements of “1984”). But the book still has the power to shock and warn. For that alone, I hope it’s never dropped into the memory hole.

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Review: ‘Devil’s Bargain’ by Joshua Green

Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the PresidencyDevil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The most important sentence in “Devil’s Bargain,” Joshua Green’s book about Steve Bannon and his role in getting Donald Trump elected president, isn’t about either Bannon or Trump, but about something more general: communications.

“As the world was learning,” Green concludes a section on Trump the audience savant, “television and politics were not so different.”

I’d like to add, neither are politics and professional wrestling. Or politics and the post-broadband Internet. These days, they all seem to reward short attention spans, black-and-white thinking (literally so, given our level of discourse on race) and tribalism.

So much for #MAGA.

I’d been looking forward to reading this book since seeing Green’s article about Bannon on Bloomberg last year. At the time, Bannon struck me as a scary character, a smart guy who had a particular populist right-wing ideology (one which, it should seem obvious, I generally disagree with) and the shrewdness to spread it widely. “Devil’s Bargain” expands on much of that, and its most interesting sections are less about Bannon than how he recognized some of the movements of our time.

For example, video games. Back in 2005, Bannon left a job with a Hollywood agency to join a Hong Kong-based company that wanted to effectively monetize the “gold farming” engaged in by “World of Warcraft” players. In short, though the weapons and valuables in “World of Warcraft” are mere pixels, people were willing to pay real money for them. The company Bannon joined failed — the maker of “World of Warcraft” frowned on gold farming and found ways to crush it — but Bannon recognized an entirely untapped market, boy-men who lived almost entirely in cyberspace.

“If you trace a line backward from Trump’s election, it doesn’t take long before you encounter online networks of motivated gamers and message-board denizens such as the ones who populate Trump-crazed boards like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit,” Green writes. These are the folks who live for the lulz, concoct nasty (should I say deplorable?) memes and enjoy trolling more than actually engaging in real life.

So much for Silicon Valley’s high-minded view of human nature.

Then there is how “The Apprentice” burnished Trump’s image. Now, anyone who lived within shouting distance of New York from about 1985 to the mid-2000s probably thought of Donald Trump as a buffoon, a guy who couldn’t even make a profit on a casino. But he was always on the cover of the New York tabloids — the guy could move newspapers — and that’s what initially helped him become the face of the NBC reality show. (I recall an interview with Jeff Zucker, then an NBC executive and now CNN’s president, about how he noticed Trump always helped sell copies of the New York Post, so let’s put him on a reality show. And thus we end up with a real-life version of “A Face in the Crowd.” Thanks, Jeff!) “The Apprentice” literally made Trump bankable, and with an interesting market: minorities.

Green again:

“[The producers] did a wonderful job of showing America as it was even then: multiethnic, multiracial, and multigenerational,” said [ad agency head Monique] Nelson. … The popularity extended to Trump himself, who, according to private demographic research conducted at the time, was even more popular with African Americans and Hispanic viewers than he was with Caucasian audiences.

Finally, there was Breitbart News, which Bannon took over after the death of its namesake, right-wing rabble-rouser Andrew Breitbart. Like Trump, Breitbart made no apologies when it got the story wrong, as long as it moved the applause (or outrage) needle. “Narrative truth was his priority rather than factual truth,” said one editor of Bannon.

Which is pretty much the story of how cable TV news, abetted by the Internet, helped put Trump over the top. What other candidate got airtime for his (or her) every speech? The ratings were good, and as CBS’ Les Moonves noted, everybody was making money. (Thanks, Les!) What Trump said — or meant (I’m not sure I know the difference) — didn’t matter. He was gold. I’m reminded of a Ronald Reagan staffer, who thanked a news broadcast for showing the president surrounded by a perfect scene (no doubt arranged by the masterful Michael Deaver) despite the bad news that prompted the story. After all, a picture was worth a thousand words — and the actual news was drowned out by the images.

Trump, simply by force of personality, took that to the next level. Nothing he’d done — the bankruptcies, the lack of issue knowledge, the stories about his poor behavior — could overcome his sheer entertainment value. Add that to the country’s anger and Hillary Clinton’s own faults, and he had just enough to squeak over the line. (Whoops! I meant “win by the biggest landslide in the history of the world.”)

This doesn’t downplay Bannon’s brilliance — or Trump’s shrewdness. Bannon has had his share of setbacks, but he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time (he made a mint out of “Seinfeld,” though he only took a piece of the then-struggling show because not taking it would blow a deal) and having the right friends (Green has an interesting, if slightly disturbing, portrait of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who underwrote Breitbart and helped fund aspects of Trump’s campaign). His philosophy was the right fit for the time. As for the Only President We Have, he’s long valued the reach of the press — whether it’s for him or agin him — and he has a remarkable ability to get and hold attention, like a 12-year-old firing spitballs from the back of the class while calling the civics teacher “Mr. Poopypants.”

Ironically, “Devil’s Bargain” loses steam as the 2016 campaign heats up, perhaps because it’s too soon to go deep. But the other three-quarters are well worth your time. That is, if you still have an attention span left.

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Review: ‘Pinpoint’ by Greg Milner

Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our MindsPinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds by Greg Milner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A few years ago, I read Greg Milner’s “Perfecting Sound Forever.” That book, about the history of recorded music, was engaging, funny and often enlightening — even as it got bogged down in the techno-speak of computer files in its last chapter or so. I was hoping for the same from “Pinpoint.”

Well, “Pinpoint” was enlightening in places. But it too often wasn’t engaging, and it definitely wasn’t funny.

I don’t know if I should entirely blame Milner. The subtitle promises much but doesn’t quite deliver. Yes, we’re probably too reliant on GPS these days, which means that many people can’t read a map — or they trust the godlike voice of GPS so much they end up driving into lakes. That’s just one chapter, though. And yeah, there’s something about our internal compass that’s gotten lost, thanks to GPS — after all, why bother to memorize star charts or be able to count waves if this digital machine will do it for you? (That’s another chapter — and we’ve been losing knowledge to machines for ages, including being able to recite Homer from memory the way the old Greek griot did himself.)

But perhaps the bigger problem is that this book is both too small — a pop history of GPS and accompanying technology — and too big — trying to take on every aspect of how GPS has changed modern life. So we get how GPS and atomic clocks are pretty much at the heart of every bit of technology we have these days (and woe is us if they fail), as well as capsule histories of a few companies that made mints from the technology, such as Magellan and Garmin. A deeper dive on either side may have made for a better book.

I didn’t dislike “Pinpoint.” Early chapters on navigation and satellites were promising. Milner is a fine writer and he obviously did his research. But the book lacks the passion of “Perfecting Sound,” which means that I wasn’t hurrying back to it when I put it down.

Maybe it would have been better to map out something different.

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Frank Deford, 1938-2017

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Image from The New York Times.

Well, shit.

Frank Deford has died. He was 78. The cause of death hasn’t been revealed, but according to his wife, he’d been treated for pneumonia recently. I wonder if he’d been more ill than he’d let on; it was less than a month ago that he gave his last of 1,656 commentaries — 37 years’ worth — for NPR.

It’s a tremendous loss for anyone who cares about writing, particularly that form known as the long magazine article — the “bonus story,” as his longtime home Sports Illustrated called it — of depth and compassion.

I don’t know if I can describe him as an influence — though his erudite style couldn’t help but appeal to a much less polished writer like me — but he was certainly a guiding star.

I read my father’s subscription to SI as a child, but for years I seldom got deeper than Herman Weiskopf’s summary of the week in baseball. Sometime during my teenage years, that started changing, and I gained an appreciation for William Nack, Steve Wulf and — especially — Deford. I still remember his piece on Mississippi football coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan almost 35 years after it first appeared. It’s one of the great stories in journalism history, as far as I’m concerned.

It began:

Robert Victor Sullivan, whom you’ve surely never heard of, was the toughest coach of them all. He was so tough he had to have two tough nicknames, Bull and Cyclone, and his name was usually recorded this way: coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan or coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan.

How could you not read that?

Deford also was the editor of The National, the legendary national sports paper that lasted just a couple years in the early ’90s. It deserved better, but its failure wasn’t for lack of trying. Grantland — another writers’ site that died before its time — had a great oral history of it a few years ago.

He was as charming in person as he was on the page. I had the good fortune to interview him for “The Old Ball Game,” a book he wrote about John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. (Of course, when I received the review copy, how could I not book an interview? I’m no hard-bitten journalist, and I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to talk to one of my heroes.)

Anyway, he lived a long, purposeful life, and you could do worse to pick up one of his books — or, better, immerse yourself in SI’s Vault. You’ll find plenty of Deford in there. His “bonus stories” were truly treasures.

Todd plans, God laughs

I’m typing this on my phone, so forgive the lack of links and polish.

The reason I’m typing it on my phone is that I have no wifi. Even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to type it on my easier-to-type-on iPad because I can’t find it. I think I left it in my overnight bag back at the hotel — this after checking the room at least twice to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything after a week’s stay. 

I should back up. I’ve moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to take a job with Lutron, the lighting control technology company. My last weeks in Atlanta were hectic and anxiety-ridden, not least because I was leaving a place I’ve called home for most of my life, and also because — despite being quite conscious of my decisions — realizing how little control I had over the situation, emotionally and otherwise. I was at the mercy and schedule of movers, realtors, bankers and Georgia State University, where I was teaching. About all I could do was make sure the cats were squared away, keep my wife (away on a fellowship) informed, and hold on. 

Time was going to move whether I liked it or not.

So I gave my final, I let the movers do their thing, I closed on the Atlanta house, I picked up the cats and headed north. I had decent weather and the cats were well behaved. I got here last Saturday and checked into a Staybridge Suites in advance of my first real week at Lutron. (I actually started in March, but knew I was headed back to Atlanta for six weeks.)

The work was fine. But I also closed on my Bethlehem house, a twin built in 1907. It’s been well cared-for, but you still can’t compare it with a modern residence built in 1992. We had an amazing and large kitchen in Atlanta; here there’s barely enough cabinet space for glasses and plates. Our master bedroom had plenty of space and an adjoining bath; this four-bedroom place has one bath, total. (We’re planning/hoping to add a second, but see the title of this post.) We chose it for location — it’s walkable to downtown — and knew what we were getting, but still …

Anyway, aside from the mountains of boxes, the house has taken on a smell. The next-door neighbor says a skunk must have gotten under the porch, or maybe he got in a fight there. Either way, the stink ranges from annoying to bad. I called a pest control guy, but he can’t get here until Friday. I’d open the windows, but the skunk mating (presumably — apparently this is the season, and if the female doesn’t like the male …) has coincided with a cold snap.

Meanwhile, I can’t find the green bag that contains the iPad. I could swear I threw it in the car, but I don’t see it in the house, and I put everything down in the same area. There’s a possibility it’s buried, but I’ll bet I left it — which means, goodbye, iPad. (Yes, “Find my iPad” is activated, but it only works if it’s online, which it’s not.)

And then there’s the endless unpacking. I haven’t even started on the books yet. I swear this time I’m going to get rid of most of them. Moving is hard enough without toting around dozens of boxes of books you’ve read — or may never read. I’ll let the libraries take over.

Anyway, I’d say things can only get better, but I’m Jewish, so I’ll assume nothing. (Next steps include changing my car license and registration, but Pennsylvania’s car registration rules are onerous — a non-laminated Social Security card? I’m lucky I know where my SS card is! Fortunately, not with the iPad bag.)

The cats are enjoying things, though. And they’re a joy to watch. And next week Sarah will be here — as will the ISP guy. 

Incidentally, isn’t it time we make internet as easy a utility as water or electricity, in that you just call and they just switch the name?

Addendum, Sunday, 11:01 a.m.: I found the bag! It was, indeed, buried — and in a corner where it hadn’t been before. Yes!

The story in the attic

I’ve been slowly — very slowly — making my way through the house and alternately getting rid of some stuff and packing other things in advance of my move. It’s been eerie and melancholy.

I filled five bags full of books to take to a trusted local shop, and I felt like I was pulling out fingernails. Last night I went through my CD racks to weed out discs that have been thoroughly burned or seldom listened to, and still I felt like I’d chipped away pieces of my soul.

I would not get along with Marie Kondo.

But what’s been more sobering, in some respects, was finding old documents I’d completely forgotten about. There was a time — a time before journalism became my full-time job — that I thought I’d be a fiction writer. I was never very prolific, but apparently I was more disciplined than I recalled. In memory, until taking a creative writing course during my fellowship year at Michigan, I hadn’t written a short story since college. (Side note: Amber Hunt, your photographs are always welcome sights on the KWF page.) But in reality, apparently I was doing more than that: Among the papers I found in the attic was a short story I’d written around 1993. Attached to it was a rejection letter from The New Yorker.

I have no memory of writing that story, or sending it off to The New Yorker.

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Review: ‘Poisoning the Press’ by Mark Feldstein

Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal CulturePoisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture by Mark Feldstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am fascinated by Richard Nixon.

The man is straight out of Shakespeare — sometimes Iago, sometimes Lear, sometimes (in his better, though rare, moments) Prince Hal himself. (Never Falstaff, though.) Nobody doubts his brilliance or cunning, but oh, what venality. He could never get over the contempt he had for the kinds of people LBJ called “the Harvards” — those golden boys who effortlessly controlled the levers of power and sneered at awkward ladder-climbers like Richard Nixon.

Mark Feldstein’s “Poisoning the Press” pairs Nixon with one of his fiercest critics, muckraking columnist Jack Anderson. In Anderson, Nixon had more than a foe in the media — he had someone who was surprisingly like the 37th president himself. Like Nixon, Anderson had a ne’er-do-well brother and a fractious relationship with his father; like Nixon, Anderson was a working-class striver; like Nixon, Anderson grew fond of a wealthy lifestyle at the expense of his ethics. (One of Anderson’s early gets had to do with payoffs Nixon received from rich benefactors. Anderson would later sacrifice much of his regard for money.)

Naturally, the two became mortal enemies.

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This blog has been quiet …

feeling_fatigued_and_drained_ayurvedic_tips_to_re-energize_yourself

… because a) I’ve had a lot of work; b) I’m dealing with the legal and financial bureaucracy that comes with buying and selling a house; c) I’m supposed to be cleaning out the attic (and my bookshelves and record collection) in advance of said buying and selling, but after an initial attempt last weekend, I’m a bit immobilized.

That last will be addressed in a future blog entry to be titled, “The things you discover while moving, part 1.” Which is to say, Who was this person I was 25 years ago?