Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on November 19, 2008


typewriter2          When it comes right down to it, the human memory is a very strange beast.  For instance, I’m relatively certain that I watched other television stations while I was growing up (surely my parents made me watch PBS), but the only station that I can actively remember tuning into as a child was Chicago’s WGN, and the only programs I can specifically remember watching are the Bozo the Clown show, the Harry Carey and Steve Stone broadcasts of daytime Chicago Cubs games, and the Richard Pryor movie Brewster’s Millions.  What makes this all the weirder is that I have no idea, in actuality, whether WGN ever even aired the movie Brewster’s Millions, but in my mind, it played every day, all day long, except for the brief one hour interval in the morning where Bozo had his bucket-toss game and the three hour interval in the afternoon where Harry Carey got drunk and waxed philosophic about the unreal nature of Shawon Dunston’s throwing arm.  Weird, huh?  But this is the kind of shit that I have filed away in the corner of my brain devoted to remembering being ten years old, and not, unfortunately, what my Great-Grandma looked like – and I have a feeling that these memories are etched up there in stone.  In fact, if I had to guess what it is that I’ll be talking about when I’m old, decrepit, and riddled with Alzheimer’s disease, I’d put money on the fact that it will be some crazy mash-up of Harry Carey calling the fictional exhibition baseball game between Brewster’s Hackensack Devils and the New York Yankees, and Bozo the Clown encouraging all of us to vote for “None of the Above.”

          Now, what, you might find yourself asking, does this have to do with today’s lesson?  Well, allow me to explain.  You see, there’s a scene in Brewster’s Millions where Richard Pryor pays 1.25 million dollars for the famous “Inverted Jenny” stamp, then ingeniously uses it as legal tender to mail a postcard.  (The movie’s conceit was that Brewster had to spend 30 million dollars in 30 days, all without acquiring anything of material value, if he wanted to inherit his dead rich uncle’s much larger fortune.)  And I remember asking my Mom why anyone would pay over a million dollars for a stamp when you could buy, at the time, a perfectly good one for 21 cents.  She then went on to explain to me the concept of philately, or stamp-collecting – and ever since, philately has been connected in my brain to Brewster and his millions.

          Now, I’ve never gotten personally involved in philately, which literally translates from the Greek as “friend of things exempt from duties and taxes,” (evidently the Spartans and the Athenians didn’t have a postal service, or even the Pony Express), but I’m amazed at the number of people out there who really dig it.  In fact, stamp-collecting is such a popular pastime that the American Philatelic Society boasts over 44,000 members – and in the United States, we have not one, but two, museums devoted to the science of stamps.  The point that I’m driving towards is not that you should all join a campus philatelic society (would you believe that the Philatelic Club of Royal College is the largest student organization in Sri Lanka?), even though I have a deep appreciation for Benjamin Franklin (America’s most famous postmaster-general) and Karl Malone (America’s other most famous mailman and “postmaster”).  Rather, my point is to emphasize that there are a whole lot of people out there in the world who have some really strange hobbies, and no matter how weird your interests are, you can find other people out there who are into what you’re into.  Luckily for you, college is the perfect place to start on this quest.

          You see, one of the things that makes campus life so exciting and bizarre is that any self-respecting college has at least 200 sanctioned student organizations – and at least a dozen of them are bound to be so esoteric that they’d make good fodder for The Onion.  Did you know, for example, that Harvard has a club devoted to playing the children’s game Tiddlywinks (which sounds like it might be a euphemism for something sexual, but isn’t), or that Princeton has a club devoted to dressing up like Marcel Marceau and practicing the art of miming?  It’s true – look it up.  And…if that’s not your cup of tea…how about M.I.T.’s Assassins Club, which sponsors a never-ending game of paintball, only with Nerf darts, or the University of Chicago’s Shire of Grey Gargoyles of the Society for Creative Anachronism?  Again true, and a hell of a name.

          Now, truth be told, all four of these clubs sound fucking crazy to me, yet all four of these clubs boast multiple members, and are currently extremely active.  In fact, on second thought, I’d kind of like to go check them out – because I’m pretty sure most of these folks are incredibly interesting – and maybe you should too.  The bottom line of today’s lesson is that college is the time to try new things, and to actually do in your spare time what it is you like to do.  No more piano lessons, no more soccer practice – unless you like to play the piano or are attending SLU on a soccer scholarship.  Instead, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be really fond of stamps, and you’re the kind of person who likes to get out there, meet new people, and learn a little about the history of great mail, you can switch hobbies completely by becoming a philatelist.  No one’s there to tell you that you can’t try it out, and there’s no time like the present.  Unless, that is, you’re a member of the Shire of Grey Gargoyles, in which case there is evidently no time like the past, with a few random bits of the chronologically inaccurate present thrown in for good measure.  


Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on November 17, 2008


typewriter9          When Warren Zevon died in 2003, he was surprised to find himself in Rock and Roll Heaven, where there is, in fact, one hell of a band.  Anyway, upon his arrival, St. Peter started showing him around, and walked him into this beautiful music studio where Jimmy Hendrix was blasting away on the guitar, John Bonham was hammering the drums, and George Harrison was whittling a lute out of this 300-foot tall Sequoia.  All of the sudden, the jam session stopped, as Bono walked through the studio doors.  “Holy shit,” Zevon says to St. Peter, “I had no idea that Bono had died!  When did that happen?”  St. Peter shook his head sadly, gave the great songwriter a meaningful look, and quickly whispered into Zevon’s ear.  “Shut up, you idiot.  That’s God…He just likes to pretend He’s Bono.”


          You want to know who’s really hard to make fun of?  Bono – that’s who.  Because even though he wears those goofy sunglasses and every U2 video is basically just a tribute to his ever-growing legacy, I’m pretty sure that he’s a better person than the rest of us – which always makes jokes about him sound a little hollow and petty.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that at this very moment, while I’m wallowing in existential angst and trying to piece my life together one day at a time, Bono is on a plane to Africa to deliver food to the Sudanese, after which he’ll catch the last flight to Bangladesh for a week of reforestation and meetings with the executive board of Grameen Bank.  Now, maybe it’s easier to be a great fusion philanthropist once you are already filthy fucking rich – after all, it seems to be the impetus that led Bill Gates and Andrew Carnegie to charitable work – but regardless, and I can’t believe I’m writing this down, we could all take a lesson from Bono, and participate in a little more philanthropy.

          Unfortunately, because I’m not God (and I’m not even Bono), I can’t tell you the ultimate secret of life.  That is, I can’t tell you exactly why we’re here on this planet, or what comes next.  I can, however, share with you what I believe to be the secret of living the best life possible – and that is to balance your personal responsibilities with your responsibilities to society at large as you develop into adulthood.  At it’s most basic level, that’s what Dr. Wizard’s Advice for College Students is all about; I’m trying to help you maximize your potential both on the hallowed grounds of campus and in the murky world of life.  Luckily for us, Lesson #36 bridges the gap between your two nascent responsibilities, and is useful on both fronts.  You see, in the long run, nothing is quite as good for you as the act of engaging in charitable work – it will make you a better student, a better manager of your time, and will give you this warm fuzzy feeling that makes your life feel worthwhile.  Llikewise, in the long run, nothing else you do in life matters as much as the things you do for other people – because if there’s a scorecard at the end of the game, that’s what’s on the top of the list.

           Now, earlier I alluded to the fact that perhaps it is easier to become a philanthropist once you have already stacked away a fat pile of cash.  This, I believe, is true – but it’s also no excuse for you to be a completely self-absorbed prick right now, when you still don’t have what you’d consider to be much money.  What we must remember as Americans, particularly as Americans who have been fortunate enough to receive a college education, is that relatively speaking – we are all pretty rich when you stop to think about it.  In fact, according to a 2006 United Nations study, the median level of worldwide income in the year 2003 was only $2,161 per family.  So, let’s put that in perspective – that’s about what the average 14-year-old makes in one summer of mowing half-a-dozen lawns.  And that…means that over 3 billion people are looking up the socio-economic food-chain at your pimply faced kid brother.  And that…means that over 3 billion people would give anything in their power to have the advantages in life that you have.  And that…means that if you don’t decide to do something with your privilege, you completely suck at life.

          So, my challenge to you, as we’ve now reached the halfway point of Dr. Wizard’s Advice, is to make some time each week to do something for the poor – because even though they may make more than $2,161 a year, there are plenty of poor people right here in your community – wherever that may be.  Make sandwiches at a local homeless shelter, build playground equipment in a poor neighborhood, volunteer for Habitat for Humanity – just, for Christ’s sake, do something.  I’m not saying you have to be Bono, and you have to learn How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, but get the fuck off your ass and get out there into the world – somewhere Where the Streets Have No Name (or, perhaps, somewhere where the streets are named MLK – because most of the neighborhoods that front that street could usually use a little help as well).  It’s not a request, and it’s not coming from me.  It’s an order from the 3 billion souls in this universe that haven’t got what you’ve got.  And it’s advice that I need to do a better job of following myself.