Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on January 26, 2009


typewriter7          Given my rather firm entrenchment in the young, urban-liberal-hipster demographic made fun of so mercilessly by Christian Lander in Stuff White People Like, it’s probably not surprising that I subscribe to The Economist and Rolling Stone.  What is surprising, however, is the third magazine that regularly visits my mailbox, and I’d be willing to lay a sizable wager on the proposition that most of you, if I gave you ten guesses apiece, wouldn’t come up with Best Life – a monthly periodical from the publishers of Men’s Health targeted at the type of 45-year-old guys who feel compelled to purchase Rolex’s and go on mid-life crisis explorations of Costa Rica.

          Now, literally speaking, I have no idea how I get this magazine.  Two years ago, it just started showing up in my mailbox – addressed to the decidedly unspecific “Joe” at 4501 Maryland.  Yet without either a proper last name on the address label or a specific apartment designation, and despite my having never paid the publishers any money, and my decision to repeatedly ignore their subscription expiration notices, Best Life continues to assault my world like a series of 45-year-old waves crashing into the 28-year-old beach of my existence.  Who signed me up for this publication?  How do the postal carriers continue to place it in my mailbox?  These are questions that I initially dwelt a great deal upon, but I now simply accept its continued appearance, and console myself by finding strange comfort in a never-ending series of articles designed to help me stave off arthritis and prostate cancer as I garner advice on managing my portfolio.

          What’s crazy about life, though, is that once we come to accept these little accidents of fate, they often turn out to be quite fortuitous.  If, for instance, the CD player in my car worked during the winter, I would have never developed my totally awesome current fixation on Katy Perry; and if, by the same token, some mysterious personage had never signed me up for Best Life, the Dr. Wizard’s Advice project would have probably never been born.  You see, it was in a past issue of Best Life that I first read about the dangers of non-organic apples, which has now led to the development of the Dr. Wizard Group, and from the current issue of Best Life, I have gathered the little nugget of information about Barack Obama that has given direction to today’s post.

15_obasketball_lgl          It turns out, apparently, that just like me, the newly inaugurated leader of the free world listens to Jay-Z in the morning when he works out.  Take a second to let that soak in – H to the IZZO!  V to the IZZAY!  Now, I realize there’s a chance that George W. Bush’s iPod might have had some Damn Yankees or some Lynyrd Skynyrd in its rotation, but I’m going to go out on a pretty sturdy limb here and say that this is probably the first time that America’s President has kept it banging with albums that feature a Parental Advisory sticker on the front.  And while I’m pretty certain that Pat Robertson would find this fact horrifying, I find myself strangely reassured by Mr. Obama’s choice in music.  Take it for what it’s worth, but in my opinion, Jay-Z might be the most representative American of the twenty-first century.  He’s a successful media mogul; he’s got his own clothing line that bridges the fine line between urban-wear and high fashion; he’s a part-owner of an NBA franchise that will be instrumental in the final stages of revitalizing Brooklyn; and he’s married to Beyoncé – who finds herself in a dead-heat with Carrie Underwood as the perfect embodiment of American womanhood.  That’s a pretty impressive resume.

          What I really like about Jay-Z, though, is despite often not having a clue exactly what it is that he’s talking about, I find his lyrics to be strangely applicable to almost any life situation.  In much the same way that every time I call my mother to ask for advice she quotes a random verse of The Bible to me that she feels will help answer my questions (and they often seem both quite appropriate and quite useful, if occasionally a bit heavy-handed), I often, when giving advice to my friends or offering commentary on recent developments, somberly quote random Jay-Z lyrics that I feel are appropriate to the moment.  And so today, in my offering on collegiate peer pressure and tobacco use (yet another character trait that I share with our Forty-Fourth President), I offer you this sage piece of wisdom from The Black Album’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”: KEEP THE HECKLER CLOSE, YOU KNOW THEM SMOKERS WILL TEST YA.

          Now, much like verses of The Bible, taken in context, I have no idea what this line exactly means, because it’s kind of confusing.  I can gather, of course, the general sense of the phrase – but I have trouble specifically defining who is represented by the rather metaphorical embodiments of “the heckler” and “the smoker.”  Nevertheless, as in any good sermon, I’m less concerned with a literal explication of the verse than I am with taking this maxim and applying it to your everyday life.  And what I want to say is this: while in some ways the good word of Jay-Z validates sociologists’ long-standing assumption that peer pressure is the number one reason why kids begin smoking, it’s important to know that this peer pressure does not manifest itself in the traditional form of direct manipulation – and understanding this subtle difference is the key to handling the peer pressures associated with nicotine usage.

obama_smoking1          As we all know, there are two laws that apply to smoking in modern America: #1) it is really fucking bad for your health; and #2) every year, despite anything that the Surgeon General might attempt to tell us, millions of new kids will take up the habit.  So, as I’ve been thinking for the past few days what I might possibly tell you that you don’t already know about tobacco, I’ve come up with this little nugget of wisdom about peer pressure.  As a smoker, I don’t care whether you smoke or not – in fact, because I want you to be healthy, I feel that it would probably be in your best interest not to start.  I’m pretty sure that Barack Obama feels the same way, as does almost every smoker I’ve ever met.  In actuality, I’ve never once heard of a situation where a smoker older than 14 years of age tried to push the habit on someone who didn’t already partake.  It doesn’t really work that way.  Smoking is just something that we do, not something that we want you to do.  And we understand how others can view the habit as somewhat gross (I don’t like coming home from a bar in Missouri with my clothes smelling like an ash-tray any more than the next guy).  Still, I smoke, in private, because it has become an integral piece of my writing process over the last twelve years – and I now find the release of dopamine and serotonin that smoking catalyzes to be necessary to the craft; but it certainly must interfere with my marathon running, and I’m pretty sure I’d be faster if my lungs could hold more oxygen.  It’s also scientifically proven that, if I don’t stop someday, I’ll lose 6 or 7 years at the end of my life – which could be the difference between seeing my grandkids graduate college and dying when they are still in high school.  I’m pretty sure that as I grow older this sacrifice will loom larger and larger as one that I wish hadn’t chosen to make.

          As Malcolm Gladwell explains in The Tipping Point, the misconception is that kids are cool because they smoke.  In reality, and I actually think this is changing as America continues to stigmatize the habit, it just so happens that historically many of the kids who have smoked have happened to be the cool ones – and that’s where the rather ethereal persuasive force of peer pressure comes in.  Or, as Jay-Z would say, that’s where “them smokers will test ya.”  But there’s no sense emulating your favorite musician’s lifestyle because you think it will help you become a rock luminary.  Smoking isn’t some mysterious magical force; and it’s not the special elixir that will turn your every day Steve Urkle self into your way cooler alter-ego Stephan.  In this distinction lies everything, and armed with this knowledge, maybe you’ll be a little better informed about the situation before you buy that first pack of Marlboro Lights.  Now, on the other hand, if you want to purchase a product that will actually make you cooler, you might want to think about buying a stick of Old Spice.  It worked, at least according to the commercials, for Brian Urlacher and LL Cool J.


Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on January 23, 2009


typewriter6          I suppose that if I were forced to break down my approach to Dr. Wizard’s Advice, or to life – for that matter, the chips would generally fall somewhere along the line of the old maxim that “honesty is the best policy.”  Now, because I subscribe to this philosophy of forthrightness, I’ve tended to be perhaps more open in these lessons, and in interviews, about my personal strengths and weaknesses than might be prudent.  But I think, all in all, that’s probably more of a good thing than a bad – and has led to most of this project’s early success.  Like Popeye says in the cartoons, and like Eminem echoes on the Marshall Mathers LP, “I am what I am” – and I can’t really change it.

          This being the case, I’m not going to pull any punches in a misguided attempt to hide my character flaws.  For instance, it can be stated without hesitation that I am a horrible dancer, or at least I’ve been told.  On the dance floor, I’ve got essentially one move – and it’s like a really tall guy’s version of the Digital Underground’s “Humpty Dance” – where I “limp to the side like my leg was broken.”  I’m also a pretty horrible correspondent – neither responding to facebook messages nor returning phone calls could truly be considered my forte – so if you call and I don’t call back, don’t feel bad.  It doesn’t mean we’re not still friends.

          At the same time, because this doesn’t do anybody any good either, I’m not going to hide my better attributes out of some sense of false modesty.  When it comes right down to it, I’m a pretty good teacher.  For me to claim that I wasn’t would be essentially the same as for Manute Bol to claim that he wasn’t tall, for Megan Fox to claim that she wasn’t hot, or for Bill Nye to claim that he wasn’t an awesome science guy.  Every semester, I check in near the top of the department in terms of teacher reviews, and I’m the highest rated GMAT teacher in the Midwest.  That’s why I’m qualified to give you advice.

          Now, because I’m a good teacher, and also because I’m young, my classes tend to fill up early in the registration period, and every semester I get contacted by lots of students who hope that, for one reason or another, I’ll let them in as an enrollment overload.  But obviously I can’t do that.  There’s a reason that English courses at Saint Louis University are capped at 30 students – and it has to do with my inability to grade 56 papers at a time for each class I teach without driving a spork through my eye.  So today’s lesson is all about how to be the one lucky student who gets into that otherwise closed class.  And if you want to be that special someone, then now’s the time to pay attention.

          First of all, know that your professor has heard, especially by the time he or she has been on campus for a couple of semesters, every possible reason in the book why you “need” to take the class you so desperately want to get into – and he or she also knows that almost none of them are valid.  For instance, we don’t really believe that you need this class to graduate – at least not immediately.  At every school in America, graduating seniors get to register first, and you’ll get your chance when the time is appropriate.  We also don’t care that you need this class for your major – every major in America has either multiple classes or multiple sections that fill each requirement.

          But at least, I suppose, when you come to us with one of these sad pleas, you’re making a slight effort to tell us what you think we need to hear – even if, in reality, what you really mean to say is that you don’t want to take the other class because it meets on Mondays and Fridays, or you don’t want to take the other class because you hear the professor is mean, or you don’t want to take the other class because it meets at 8:00 in the morning (sometimes, amazingly, students who believe in a similar policy of forthrightness to my own will just come right out and give one of these more honest excuses – and while I admire their ballsy-ness, my class remains closed).  You see, it’s not our problem that your night life or weekends are going to be inconvenienced.  It’s also not our problem that you’ll now have to spend a semester with that old crotchety mean professor.  In fact, it’s not your problem either, because taking a class with your university’s version of angry old Dr. Kleinsasser almost always turns out to be a good thing; it puts hair on your chest.

          If, however, your chest has enough hair already, here’s how you differentiate yourself from the crowd: SHOW LEGITIMATE INTEREST IN THE COURSE MATERIAL.  Last fall, for example, I taught a class on the History and Literature of Chicago.  The course closed on March 19, 2008 – and over the span of the next five months, I received somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty requests for special admittance.  Nineteen of these emails received a curt, “thanks, I’m flattered, but I’m sorry.”  One student, however, navigated successfully through the maze of excuses and found herself a seat in the closed course.  How did she do it?  Well, first, she sent me an email telling me how excited she was about the reading list – and telling me how important it was for her to learn more about her hometown.  Then, before classes started in the fall, she sent me another email telling me about her experience of reading the first two assigned books over the summer, and asking me very specific questions about the texts.  Clearly, this was a student who was going to contribute to class discussion, was going to be enthused about her research project, and was going to write papers that were fun to grade.  And that’s the kind of student I want in class.  In fact, it’s the only legitimate reason that I will ever stretch a course up to 31 students, or – I suppose, if I received enough of these awesome special requests – 56 students.  So, because of the excellent groundwork that she laid, when this particularly enthusiastic Chicagoan showed up on the first day of class, I went next door and stole her an extra desk.

          And that, ladies and gentleman, is the trick.  If you want a coveted, non-existent seat in a course where one shouldn’t exist for you, then all you have to do is make us believe that you’ll make the overall dynamic of the class better, and not make our lives a chore.  Personally, just working inside my normal “M.O.”, I’d prefer this enthusiasm to be legitimately honest – but if one of your character strengths is being an outstanding, if somewhat shady salesman, then just know that your job is make us believe that what we’re teaching is the one thing you find most interesting in the world.  If that’s within your capabilities, then you can tell old angry Dr. Kleinsasser to go to hell.