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BUMPER STICKER CULTURE



April has been Bertrand Russell month for me. The last four weeks I have been on an insatiable Bertrand binge. Ravenous for Bertrand. Gluttonous for Russell. And so forth.

I'm not sure who turned me onto the 20th century Brit. It wasn't a friend, and not because nobody I know reads, but because I know nobody. I must have come across a reference to the author in some other book I had been reading.

This audo-didact and voracious polymath - Wikipedia has him listed as philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate - has a way with the English language which is unparalleled. Damn can the man write. His sentences are long and sometimes ornate, but you get the gist, because his prose is so crystal clear. It's as if he gives you direct access to his mind. You get to become another person. And not just anyone. Russell may have been a born genius, but as the author of dozens of books, he sure put in a lot of practice. He also found time to marry four times and sire almost as many children. Not impossible for a guy who was nearly a centenarian. Add that to his credentials, almost.

Russell wrote lengthy works on mathematics and philosophy, and shorter treatise-type books on, well, anything that caught his fancy. Including marriage and politics and today's topic du jour, happiness. His Conquest on Happiness, which appeared in 1930, may have birthed the self-help genre. While it is true that many of his writings were so erudite and abstruse as to appeal only to the expert in his various fields, it was in addressing the layperson that Russell made his living. Thus the book on happiness. Which leads me to believe that if his sentences could be parsed by the average Joe or Jane of his day, people were much more literate back then than we are in today's Twitter age. I consider myself reasonably well-read - indeed reading is my hobby of choice and I don't tweet - but some of his longer passages really tax the concentration, they are so information-dense! Call me obtuse. Seriously, talk about brain porn. I am convinced that if you took a high school sophomore and gave him three short works of Russell's to peruse, he'd instantly improve his SAT and ACT scores by a couple hundred points. Okay, that's my plug for today.

Speaking of today, I just downloaded his Proposed Roads to Freedom. Debating whether to purchase the book didn't take long, because it's free on Kindle. But as is my wont, I did read some of the customer reviews. And I was struck by one which read: "I believe there is nothing by B. Russel (Brussell, if you like) that isn't amazing. Everything by him is quotable."

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that when I read this I jumped for joy at this endorsement of my new favorite author. And you are partly true. While I do agree that "Brussell" is amazing, I lament the fact that he is probably quoted much more often than he is read. And not just by his fans. Google the author and up come dozens of his sayings. They seem to encapsulate his philosophy, but can you really capture in 10 words the essence of what it takes an author 10,000 to set forth? I don't think so, at least not in the case of Mr. Russell, who was painstakingly pithy. If he felt that writing a series of short maxims would better convey his message, he probably would have done so. Instead, his autobiography runs 750 pages. Nowadays such a hefty tome is less likely to be read cover to cover as to be used as a projectile weapon, because bricks aren't cheap in my neighborhood. And so I jump for joy on one leg, or for pithy's sake, just hop.

I bring up quotables because I sometimes like to while away a few minutes by visiting friends' Instagram accounts. These girls, and there are three - two of whom I've been romantically involved with, and I might have had a hat trick, but though I tried my darnedest for at least a kiss from the third she never did write me back - and anyway all three girls like to litter the 'net with pretty pictures of themselves, on which they superimpose power phrases. Things like "be impeccable with your word" and other stuff from books I've read. I'm not saying I know the authors of all the quotes in question, for I have not read every book and the source is almost never cited. But these aphorisms are without exception of the "quote of the day" flavor generally featured on desk calendars and bumper stickers. Not anymore, because phones double as daily planners and because bumper stickers are now considered gauche. Most people lease their automobiles rather than own them and therefore do not wish to deface property which they'll have to return in a year and be fined for the scratches. Because those stickers are impossible to cleanly remove, and I've tried. The bumper sticker that I remember most vividly (because I used to own it) went "Practice random acts of kindness." A twist on the "random acts of violence" quote, making the sticker, in a sense, a quote of a quote, or doubly derivative. Excuse me, I was in my twenties.

But quotes are like fast food. Like a burger and fries, which deliver a huge burst of empty calories for cheap, pat sayings deliver ponderous mouthfuls of their own, which took the author lots of time to think up. However, the experience of reading the quote, although seemingly quick and efficient, really doesn't benefit your life at all. You are not privy to the thought process that generated the quote. You read it out of context. And you forget about it by the time you reach the period (if there is one) and are onto the rest of your less than impeccable day. Because really absorbing the message can only come from sitting with the author for an hour or a day or a week or however long it takes to get through the work, depending on your schedule. You must really spend time with him, enter his world, marry his mind, and only then can you be sure that the full meaning of the words will sink in. So Instagram quotes are like fast food. Cheap and easy and non-nutritious. At least they don't make you fat, so there is that.

Reciting a quote is not the same as independent thought. It's just mindless transcription, which gratifies your ego because people think you're witty or charming or intelligent and "like" you - at least until the next pseudo-friend pilfers an adage that one ups the one you stole.

Ironically (or not) these girls that reliably spray their digital pages with famous quotes are some of the most unreliable girls I have ever met. One of them, the one that I knew carnally, whom we'll call Megan because that's her name, recently sent me an email asking that I write her a diet plan. Megan wants a six-pack (abs, not beer) and says she's unable to kick her carb addiction. She swears that when we hung out last summer and I made her lunch and dinner every day for a week while we were having sex - though not at the same time because blood can't be two places at once and I like to stand at attention when called - when I cooked for her it was the first time that she can remember not craving sugar. And the last, because since we parted ways (also last summer) her sweet tooth has had free rein. 

I didn't remind Megan that during our weekend of summer love, when we stopped cooking and cuddling long enough to visit the market, I bought carrots and she came away with a king-sized bar of chocolate which she devoured before we were halfway home. I didn't remind my erstwhile companion of this because I didn't wish to dispel the notion that my diet plan is the cure for sugarholicism, if that's even a word, and also because I was really hoping to see her again. So I invited her to my house where over a home-cooked meal we'd discuss these abs of hers and by the end of the meal she'd come away with a tried-and-true plan for bringing her washboard-to-be into swift existence. And maybe I'd be rewarded with a kiss. I didn't mention the part about a kiss. Maybe I should have. Because Megan never got back to me. 

WTF! If you don't want to hang out, just say so. I can take it. I'm a big boy. I'll send you a list of foods to consume in a heartbeat if you think face-to-face outdated and just want the Cliff Note version. But not to give me the courtesy of a yay or nay after I took the time to reply to your request (and in under an hour after receiving it, I might add) is the height of inconsideration, irresponsibility and unreliability. I use three pseudo-synonyms where one would do so you can tell how strongly I feel about the matter. It's bad manners. And this girl has a PhD! I think they should teach etiquette in grad school, because someone needs a refresher course in basic civility even more than she needs dietary council. Come to think of it, every girl I've fraternized with since Megan has behaved exactly the same way. They are noncommittal and incommunicado. Take that to your SAT. Now I know California gurls can be flaky, but this is ridiculous. Forgive them Lord, for they are only in their twenties. The fault may be mine, but I have never seen so many instances of dropping the ball. 

Speaking of balls, I used to be a team player. Back in school I was on varsity baseball and soccer. And if my teammates had been as selfish as these girls are, we'd never have won league. We'd never have even fielded a team. Here's a quote: "Showing up is 80 percent of life." If Woody Allen's (or whoever's) words were the rule, these bitches would flunk out of school. 

Which is why I've banished them from my heart, and gone so far as to give up group endeavors, including sex. I play with myself these days. I run, and I ride, I swim, I lift, and when the urge seizes me, I (use your imagination). Me myself and I is a lot more company than Megan and Kelly and Samantha, oh and Patty, all of whom have proven to be less than friendly to me. They can have their slogans, I'm through - at least until the next one comes along. One day these cuties will find that even with their heavy sayings and their instant friends, without some old fashioned face-to-face, without someone to count on who knows them and cares, the world can be a really lonely place. Digital kisses are just not the same. But I take nothing personally. I can do this, because I read the Ruiz!

Let me conclude by saying that book knowledge, while important, cannot replace life experience. That's probably a quote too, because it's true. But pasting truisms to a webpage is not the same as reading the material in which these "life lessons" are found. Parroting pat maxims is really just a socially-acceptable form of plagiarism. Bumper stickers be damned. If you too read Ruiz, you'll realize that a lot of thought goes into living impeccably. To truly live, you must think! And also get back to me.

Alas, as Russell himself once put it, "Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so." Now if I can just find my own catchy way of saying the same thing. Speaking of catchy:



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