I think almost any experience is worthwhile if it makes for a good story.
I am ex a lot of things: newspaper editor, columnist, college English instructor, college journalism instructor, university writing coach, architctural historian, city reformer, congressional liaison and rock-band manager. (Yeah, really.)
Until recently, I was State Department governance advisor in a quiet little Baghdad, Iraq, suburb called Sadr City. Then I became a US Agency for International Development "media" advisor in Afghanistan. I think they meant "journalism advisor," but "media" is trendier and easier to spell. I’m preparing for an assignment to Afghanistan.
When I complained I wasn't doing enough useful advising to justify my pay, I was assigned to work with State and the military negotiating terms with the Afghan government for the Afghan Public Protection Force to guard development projects and NATO convoys. Perhaps under the theory that this job wasn't punishment enough, I became the mission executive secretary, a position something more than an office secretary and significantly less than secretary of state. My job is try to prevent internal and external blunders, calamaties, miscommunications and screw-ups or to fix them if I fail to prevent them. It combines traditional chief-of-staff, communications-director and copy-editor responsibilities.
You can decide if this career shifting indicates adventurous open mindedness or I simply haven't found anything I'm any damn good at doing.
Enumerating my qualities might be boring, and how’d you know if they were true? Does anyone check these bios? Instead, I’ll offer my views on living life. Moses had 10 commandants. I’ve got 14 suggestions:
1. Do your best and move on to the next challenge.
a. If you screw up, do your best to fix it, and move on to the next challenge.
b. If you wrong someone, apologize, do your best to make it right and move on to the next challenge.
c. Contemplation is necessary, but mooning about the past wastes time you might be using better, and it saps the spirit.
2. Tell the truth. Lies undermine trust and damage the social fabric. They also require better memories and more imagination than most of us have.
3. Respect others’ feelings. This goal sometimes conflicts with Number Two. When it does, I try to be as diplomatically truthful as I can, which doesn’t always work. I could just keep my mouth shut, but that’s difficult. See 12a.
4. Be serious about your work, but not yourself.
Pomposity is not the same as being serious (Conversely, being serious about a subject doesn’t require pomposity.)
5. Keep your promises and honor your word. Failing to do so damages social intercourse, and, given the lousy state of affairs, you can get an astonishingly good reputation just by simply doing what you say you will -- assuming you haven’t threatened to do something morally repugnant or mind-bogglingly boneheaded.
6. When you don’t know, admit it. You’ll keep in line with Number Two and reduce the number of times you look like an idiot.
7. Laugh at yourself. Sometimes you unintentionally are funny; we all are.
8. Every one of us can be a jerk at times. The secret is to reduce the frequency and severity of our jackassery. Another reason to remember Number Seven
9. Self-importance is not the same as importance. (See Numbers Four, Seven and Eight.)
10. Remember, you can be wrong. No matter how smart or well-informed we are – and we often think we rank higher in both categories than we do – we can be wrong. (See 1a, 1b and Six. If you find you’ve forgotten this rule, remember Number Seven.)
11. Learn from your mistakes. If you do, your mistakes have value. If you don’t, they’re just a waste of everyone’s time.
12. Don’t shrink from an honorable battle.
a. A good fight for a good cause is the greatest of satisfactions.. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s fun.
b. Know the difference between a fight worth taking on and one better avoided (I’m still working on this one.)
13. Most things really are funny (except almost everything said by radio DJs – and even that is funny in its confusion between idiocy and humor, rudeness and wit, but only in parody, when someone else much funnier than they makes fun of them.)
14. Try to leave the planet in better shape for your having been on it. You’re not alone here. (Although many of us act as if we thought we were. See all the above.)
Simultaneously, I'm fighting to raise the standards of coffee on the embassy compound. It's a daunting job, but, armed with a conical-burr grinder and a French press, I'm ready for the challenge.
Seeing humor in every situation.
I used to think I was good at writing essays, but after this experiment, I'm not sure.
I'm good at analyzing and explaining.
I see humor in every situation.
If I'm walking my dog, Max, it's my dog they notice first. He's big, a gigantic drooling teddy bear, otherwise known as an English mastiff. It is amazing how many people will ask, "Is that a dog or horse," apparently assuming it's an original comment. I always manage to be polite, and Max doesn't mind, but my son usually growls in disgust.
1. Collected Shakespeare: The greatest language and the best
depiction of psychology in English.
2. Collected Poe: Some of the finest American poetry, and the
stories were pioneering black humor. Many forget -- or never
realized -- how funny Poe was.
3. Lorna Doone: Pure childlike decency and great fun. A delight.
4. Pride and Prejudice.
5. Gaudy Night: One of the best -- and most unusual --detective stories and one of the best English novels of manners of the 20th century.
6. Collected Sherlock Holmes: A touchstone of our culture.
7. The Prisoner of Zenda: Perhaps because I've never
completely grown up, and maybe one never should be too
grown-up for this book.
8. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy: A grown-up book if ever there was
one, but a mastery of plotting and character and dialogue.
9. The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in
America: One of the most-perceptive books about American society, by the best writer I know ever to practice sociology.
10. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman: A brilliant physicist's
brilliantly funny, illuminating and self-deprecating memoir.
11. Walden, or A Year in the Woods: Yeah, every undergraduate includes this book, thinking --wrongly --he or she is channeling Thoreau, but the book grows richer with each re-reading.
12. Collected Emerson: He could be stodgy and just plain wrong but he also was insightful and, more than nearly anyone else, helped create modern American intellectualism.
13. Collected Wilde: Some of the wittiest plays, most insightful
criticism and most beautiful children's stories in English.
14. Point Counterpoint: Huxley wasn't terribly good at characters.He essentially took persons he knew, gave them new names and roles in life and stuck them into his novels. The big thing in his books is the breadth and depth of ideas, and they're spectacular. I used to read this novel every year from middle school until college, judging by how much more I understood each time what I'd learned in the preceding year.
15. Our Man in Havana: A delightful satire of British intelligence in pre-revolution Cuba that somehow makes the mess in Iraq
16. Hubris: The most comprehensive book I've seen yet on
explaining the arrogance, deceit and incompetence that led to
the mess in Iraq.
17. April 1865: My favorite book on the U.S. Civil War -- and U.S. constitutional history. Among other remarkable achievements, it argues persuasively that Robert E. Lee was instrumental in saving of union.
18. The Devil's Dictionary: If I were to update Bierce's classic, I'd start with "Cell phone: an electronic device for converting a
private conversation to a public nuisance."
19. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Beginning as a
hysterically funny BBC radio series, this opus has seen life as
remarkably successful low-budget British TV series and a
sadly unsuccessful big-budget film. It's perhaps best known in
book form. From it we learn the exploits of an ordinary
Englishman saved from the destruction of Earth by his friend,
who turns out to be a researcher for a cosmic tour guide. The
answer to life, the universe and everything is 42, but you
have to know the question. Don't Panic.
20. Cyrano de Bergerac: Probably explains everything.
21. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe: We meddle, we destroy.
We still haven’t learned.
22. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco: One of the most
demanding writers since Faulkner – although with better
punctuation – spellbinding.
23. The Moon’s a Balloon: David Niven’s witty memoirs.
24. The Jungle Book: Trashed and trivialized by Disney, a very
adult book for children – and adults.
25. Invisible Man.
26. The Iliad.
27. The Odyssey.
28. Plague Dogs.
29. The Inheritors: Maybe the first great clash of cultures,
between Neanderthaler and Cro-Magnon, from the former’s
point of view.
30. Paradise Lost.
31. Animal Farm.
32. Brideshead Revisited.
33. The Sound and The Fury.
34. The Martian Chronicles.
35. Lord Jim.
36. The Daughter of Time: Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Grant
solves the mystery of Richard III -- really.
37. Main Street
38. The Great Gatsby
39. The Proud Tower: A very readable history of a fascinating
period of history
40. Frankenstein: Published today it would be better
edited, but it’s an astonishing work of imagination, especially
for the time, and all the more amazing that the author was 19.
Movies, equally truncated and randomly ordered:
1. Bridge Over the River Kwai: Courage, decency, duty, honor
and indomitability remain magnificent, even while gone
2. Monty Python and The Holy Grail: The more you know about
the Middle Ages, the funnier it is.
3. The Dawn Patrol: More courage, duty and honor -- and great
4. The Pink Panther: Peter Sellers and David Niven directed by
5. The Haunting: The Robert Wise original, not the bloated,
incoherent remake -- the scariest film I've ever seen, and we
never know if any of it's real.
6. The Bride of Frankenstein: Sad and witty, an intelligent horror film. The character of Dr. Pretorius alone would justify the film.
7. Night of the Hunter: Vividly captures a child's nightmarish
fears, combining German Expressionism and surprising
realism, terrifying, funny and rousing, with great
performances. The only film directed by Charles Laughton.
8. Lord of the Rings: Still more courage, duty and honor. Is a
9. Kind Hearts and Coronets: Wickedly funny, an Alec Guinness
tour de force.
10. The Man in the White Suit: Capitalism and labor skewered by Ealing Studios and Alec Guinness.
11. The Lady Killers: A madcap caper comedy/thriller, with Alec
Guinness -- again!— synthesizing Boris Karloff and Humphrey
Bogart as the criminal mastermind. Skip the remake with Tom Hanks. (What could the Coens have been thinking?)
12. North by Northwest: Can there be anything more to say
about this delight?
13. Robin Hood: The Errol Flynn version (Can anyone even watch the Costner film?)
14. Robin and Marian: Same characters, 20-odd years later. A
great love story and one of the greatest medieval fight scenes in film, between two noble opponents who respect – and try to
destroy – each other.
15. Le Grand Illusion: My last -- and probably greatest --entry in the courage, duty and honor category, with the end of a civilization thrown in, as well. Directed by Jean Renoir.
16. All the Christopher Guest films.
17. The Princess Bride: With Guest as a villain, and
18. Willow: I watched both often with my son as he grew up,
and they remain treasures. With wonderful good humor they celebrate and extol the fairy-tale virtues of courage, faith and romance while spoofing them.
Since we had the book, let's throw in
19. The Prisoner of Zenda: The Ronald Coleman, C. Aubrey Smith, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Raymond Massey, David Niven version.
20. Henry V: Kenneth Brannagh. The best Shakespeare film I've
21. Henry V: Lawrence Oliver, the finest Shakespeare film made
until Brannagh's version.
22. Casablanca: Works on every level: adventure, comedy,
romance. One of the rare examples of multiple creators
fiddling with each other’s work and producing a masterpiece
instead of a shapeless mess.
23. Dr. Strangelove: Satire, farce, great performances and one of the most striking images in film history.
24. Stage Coach: Honor defended, injustice righted and honor
regained, with some of the best character actors in the
25. The Oxbow Incident: A damning indictment of vigilantism and the injustice the self-righteous and ignorant commit in the
pursuit of justice.
26. Duck Soap: The Marx Brothers unleashed on a George S.
27. Day at the Races: One of the few films as funny as:
28. Night at the Opera.
29. Baron Munchausen: Director Terry Gilliam disowned it – perhaps because the making of it was often difficult and disagreeable – but it’s witty, imaginative, delightfully silly and
visually beautiful, evoking Botticelli, Fragonard and Escher.
30. To Have and Have Not: A Faulkner adaption of a Hemmingway story with Humphrey Bogart as an American version of a Greek mythic hero (more Odysseys than Achilles) and the very young Lauren Bacall (You know how to whistle, don’t you?)
31. The Three Musketeers and
32. The Four Musketeers: The Richard Lester versions. Far and away the greatest film adaptions.
33. The Third Man.
34. Citizen Kane.
35. Love Actually.
36. The Best Years of Our Lives.
37. All About Eve.
39. The Great Dictator.
40. The Producers: Mel Brooks made films ranging from amusing
to brilliant. This one falls into the latter class.
I really, absolutely must stop -- this isn't grad school.
I like most cuisines, but especially French; Indian; Sushi; Thai; good salads with mesclun, mushrooms and balsamic vinaigrette; good steak (rare and with a decent sauce); oysters; mussels; clams; red wine, particularly Argentine malbecs, pinot and Syrah, perhaps a bit more Burgundy than Bordeau; methode champagnoise; Madeira – sercial before dinner, malmsey afterwards, if I can find it; dark chocolate; very dark chocolate; even-darker chocolate; baklava; coffee – real coffee, with good beans, preferably Sumatran and Kenyan, roasted dark enough to bring out the oils but not so dark it tastes like charcoal and brewed strong enough to taste like coffee and not rinse water, preferably made in French press or Turkish style in an ibriq (dela in Iraq). I also eat pizza and just about anything else, in case I sound like a complete food snob divorced from culinary reality –- and mutton-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches when the mutton is perky. I love that.
I prefer women (this notion applies to everyone, actually, but we're concerned with dating here) who are:
A. old enough to take responsibility for their actions and to offer a measure of forgiveness to others for theirs. (We all need to cut our fellow mortals some slack.) I've known 19-year-olds who were this mature and 50-year-olds who weren't.
B.young enough to be adventurous -- emotionally, intellectually and physically; intellectually curious; enthusiastic; mentally and physically fit and susceptible to sheer joy. Cannonization or Nobel Prize nominations are not necessary. In the former case, probably not even desirable. Definitely not desirable. Life is a bleak businesss for most humans, but we're among the luckiest people in history, and life is immense fun, if we let it be.
It's sad how many of us seem to lurch almost immediately from adolescence into middle age. Why are there so many 30-something aspiring old farts around? I know guys 20 years younger than I chronologically who are 20 years older in terms of emotional, intellectual and physical condition. If I get to you know you, I'll tell the joke my grandfather made about his funeral when he was 91, and we were in a cemetery for someone else's burial.
One last note: if I'm much beyond your stated maximum age, I won't e-mail you because I don't wish to be a creep. If you're interested, you'll have to go first.