Monday, November 03, 2008

Can you even see the center from over there?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, eccentrics

A portion of the cover illustration, intended to represent someone's brain, took a second look. I finally realized it is the pilot/thermostat module from a gas furnace. If you are old enough (or your furnace is), you know the drill: twist a red knob and hold for a few seconds while holding a lit match in the pilot hole…then "pop", it's lit, and when you release your twist, the furnace starts with a whoosh.

This is a fitting analogy to an eccentric's mind: a little old-fashioned, a bit particular (or peculiar), and very, very effective. When a self-acknowledged eccentric writes about eccentrics, the reader realizes right off that it truly takes one to know one. Pagan Kennedy, raised with the maxim "Eccentricity is more efficient", brings us a collection of vignettes into the lives of a variety of people who exemplify Richard Feynman's favorite ad slogan: "Think different".

The title story in The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories tracks the life of Dr. Alex Comfort, a mini-biography "in 17 positions." Dr. Comfort tried to single-handedly eliminate monogamy, but found that he'd bit off much more than he could handle. Though we now find that about half of all marriages end before "death do us part", the other half survive. Monogamy is still the most effective way two people can remain intimately related for decades; it has by far the best track record going.

Ms Kennedy's "Introduction" is one of the longest pieces in the book, a micro-autobiography of her writing career, of how she came to embrace journalism written with fiction-writing techniques. Psst: That's a long way of saying "story-telling". She is a story-teller. The stories she tells, with occasional bite-sized epilogues, take us into the realms inhabited by some very different, very engaging, very driven people.

One is not even human. Alex the Gray Parrot has achieved star status by attaining a spoken vocabulary of several hundred words of English, and can (or could) converse with people at a level you'd expect from a youngster who hasn't quite learned sentence syntax...say age 18 months. That's pretty good, from a bird who weighed less than the brain of an 18-month-old. Sadly, Alex has passed away, so we have to wait for someone to train up another parrot to see if this level of performance can be surpassed.

Cheryl Haworth, a women who excels in the formerly "male" sport of weightlifting, dominated the female version of the sport and made a lot of young women feel better about being "big and strong". For a time she was billed as "the strongest woman on earth." The piece was written not long before the 2004 Olympics, and in the postscript we find that Ms Haworth came in 6th in Atlanta. Post-postscript, I find that she also was sixth in 2008 in Beijing, with a combined lift of 259 kg. That means two lifts, by different methods, each around 300 pounds.

Among my favorites is Saul Griffith, in "How to make (almost) anything". He leads a movement to bring cheap, effective designs to many areas that are over-teched. The way the US "made the desert bloom" in the mid-20th Century cannot be repeated in most of the world. They can't afford it. It could take a national economy in some countries to install a set of the pumps needed to run an American irrigation system. But I found myself most enamored of a device Griffith created that produces prescription eyeglasses on-the-spot, quite a bit quicker than a one-hour photo machine, and for tons less money. This is the kind of thinking that reminds me there is still much good in this world.

The last few essays are autobiographical. "Boston Marriage" is most instructive. I'd not heard the term, but I understand the concept: two women living under one roof, with many of the accouterments of marriage, and they may have a gay relationship, or they may not. Her four-year Boston Marriage, to a woman as straight as herself, was very convenient during the time they wished to date their favorite men but not move in with them, or marry them. Eventually, each attained a more intimate male-female relationship that led them to part, at least from under the same roof.

I guess women can do that. My relationships with the roommates I've had during my single years (now several decades past) were not in any way similar to relationships that seem normal to women. Men and women really, really do think differently, and feel differently. At least for a wholly straight man such as I am, no matter how deeply I may love a man, the expression has at most a veneer of affection, compared to the deep affection women so easily express.

I wonder if Ms Kennedy is really so much more of a thinker than women in general, or if it is simply that she managed to convey her thoughtfulness to me better than others before. These essay/stories (or story/essays) induce the reader to think, making them some of the best writing of our time.

1 comment:

Bill Douglas said...

Good eye! It's not everyone that can recognize a chunk of machinery from a gas furnace. were you a technician in another life?
- Bill Douglas, the guy who designed the cover.