Book 12 of 52: "David and Goliath", by Malcolm Gladwell

Ever since I picked up Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, I’ve always been a fan of his books.  I’ve read Blink, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw, so when I saw that he had a new book, it was an easy decision for me to add it to my list.

Once again, Gladwell tackles some of our assumptions about how the world should logically work.  In the typical “David and Goliath” story, the titular tale of this book, a tiny underdog goes against overwhelming odds – and somehow perseveres and manages to conquer.  What an unexpected result!

However, is David’s win over Goliath really such a surprise?  Gladwell argues that it is not!  Indeed, in the ancient world, stone-slingers (David) were typically used as the natural military counter to slow, heavy infantry (Goliath).  Why would anyone be surprised by David’s win?

Indeed, as Gladwell goes on to show through a plethora of other examples, many times the individual that we regard as the underdog turns out to have at least one, sometimes several crucial advantages.  Gladwell emphasizes the idea of “near misses” versus “remote misses”.  For example, when talking about a bombing, a near miss might leave an individual wounded.  But when an individual experiences a remote miss, they are not only unharmed by the bomb – but also, since the bomb missed the first time, that individual starts feeling invincible, and is more likely to take on additional risk in the future!

It is this idea of near misses, Gladwell argues, that leads to underdogs often rising up far higher than anyone might predict.  And although the concept sometimes seems extreme, he fills the book with plenty of examples to back it up.

While there aren’t a ton of lessons to take away for improving your personal life or approach towards problems, the book is, as are all of Gladwell’s books, a thoroughly interesting and engaging read.

Time to read: about 3 hours.

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The Man Who Bought Socks

I glanced up from the paperback sci-fi novel held just below the counter as the bell over the front door jangled.  As soon as my eyes focused in on the man’s face, I sighed.  I put the paperback away, bracing myself and taking a deep breath, trying to prep for the confrontation I was sure to begin momentarily.

In my head, I whispered a silent but fervent curse to UPS for delaying the recent clothing shipment to our store.  Didn’t they know that we had regular customers?

Extremely regular, a few of them.

“Hey, Albert,” I called out, leaning over the counter a little and giving a wave of my hand to get the man’s attention as he shuffled in.  “Listen, buddy, little problem…”

The man glanced over at me, pausing in his usual pattern that he followed.  I could see confusion pass briefly across his face, accompanied by some other emotion that I couldn’t quite place.  Was it fear?  “Yeah?” he grunted, looking at me from beneath lowered brows.

“Listen, I know you’re in here every day to pick up a pack of socks,” I said, trying to sound as apologetic as possible.  “But our restocking shipment hasn’t arrived yet, even though it was supposed to be here by Tuesday – and we’re all out, buddy.”

The man blinked, and I braced myself for some sort of assault or tirade.  I really had no clue what was going to come out of this strange little man, but I really just hoped that he wouldn’t start knocking down displays when he freaked out.

I mean, the man has to be some sort of crazy, doesn’t he?  He’s been in every day for the last six months – every single day I’ve worked here – and he’s always buying the same thing.  He strolls in, picks out a single six-pack of white athletic socks, and pays for it in cash.

When I first started working here, I used to imagine that maybe he was some sort of alien, and he was trying to study humanity through socks – or maybe I just read too many dollar store science fiction paperbacks.  All of us employees had our own guesses.  Mary thought that he used them instead of toilet paper.  Carl insisted that the man jerked off into them and then threw them away.  My boss, Tom, swore that he’d once seen the guy eat one.

I really didn’t know what Albert did with these socks, or why he needed a new pair every day – but this day was going to definitely throw a wrench in the works.

I was expecting him to get angry, maybe yell a bit.

But I wasn’t expecting him to stare at me with wide eyes, his whole face going pale with shock.

“No, no,” he gasped out in strangled tones, staggering forward towards my counter.  I leaned back a little, concerned that this might be a ploy to get close so he could take a swing, but the man’s hands just landed on the counter, as if he had to struggle to stay upright.  “No, you can’t be out!”

“I’m really sorry, man,” I offered, not sure how to handle this outburst of sheer panic.

The man stared up at me, his eyes so wide that the irises were fully visible.  “But you don’t understand,” he insisted.  “Now I can’t feed it – and it’s going to spread!

What the hell?  I just stared back at him in confusion.  “What?” I managed.

“The plant!  Oh god, the plant!  If I don’t feed it, it’s going to grow out, searching for food – and once it learns that there’s more, well, it will explode!” the man hissed, waving his arms at me as if this would somehow make things clearer.

I just shook my head at him.  “Plant?  Albert, slow down.  Are you telling me that you feed these socks to a plant?”

For a moment, the man affixed me with one wide eye, glaring at me as if wondering how I could be so dense.  “Yes,” he snarled at me.  “When it crashed into my back yard, I did as ordered.  I was a good little servant.  And I convinced it that only I could bring it the food it wanted.”

I nodded, certain that this guy had to be off his meds for something.

But Albert saw my expression, somehow read my thoughts, and shook his head furiously at me.  “You don’t believe me – not yet,” he accused me.  His hand reached down for his left sleeve, unbuttoning the cuff and hauling it up.  “But just wait!  It will grow, and you’ll see!”

This time, as the man shook his left forearm at me, I felt my mouth drop open as I stared.

All up the man’s arm ran a line of round, puckered scars.  It looked almost like the tentacle of some giant octopus creature had wrapped around him, burning marks into his skin.  I couldn’t think of anything else that could cause such a pattern.

“And now, it will grow!” he continued, shaking his scarred arm at me.  “It only stopped before because I convinced it!  Now, now it will know that I cannot be trusted, and we won’t be able to hold it!”

Inside my head, I felt myself lurching, reality sliding off at an angle.  Albert couldn’t be talking truth, right?  This had to all be some sort of crazy self-delusion.  But I couldn’t tear my eyes away from those scars wrapping around his arm.

“Albert, wait,” I said, my voice sounding to me like it was coming from somewhere far away.  “What if we fight it?”

The man just stared at me, but I was already moving, ducking out from behind the counter.  Fortunately, the store was empty aside from the pair of us and Tom was in back.  My replacement was due in at any minute, and I’d be off duty.

I hurried down the aisles of the store, Albert tagging along behind me.  Finally, I found what I was looking for, and skidded to a stop.  Behind me, I heard the other man suck in a breath.

“It might work,” he said doubtfully.  “There’s a chance.”

I nodded.  “You know, I’ve always wanted to fight an alien,” I remarked, staring up at our store’s selection of weed killer, shears, and other trimming implements.

I reached up and lifted down one of the big pairs of hedge trimmers, feeling its comforting weight in my hands.  “What do you say?” I asked, giving the pair of oversized scissors a test snick together.

For a minute, Albert just stood there, looking at the wall of weaponry.  And then, suddenly, he reached forward and picked up a bottle of poison.

“Let’s do it,” he said fervently.

The two of us loaded up, getting ready for battle…

Danni California: Part 5

Continued from Part 4, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

Ten hours later, the foreman gave each of the workers a nod as they passed by.  In his hands he held a thick stack of thin envelopes, and he handed one of these to each man as they passed.
Danni knew better than to rip the envelope open right away.  The foreman might be a cheap skinflint, but he knew better than to rip off his workers.  He told them all how little they were going to make, and then paid them precisely that.  If he tried anything else, he’d soon be without a crew.
“Hey, Flame-head,” called out a voice next to her.
Danni glanced over at James, the skinny, scrawny youth jogging to catch up with her.  The young man looked half-starved, like always, but he still put on a grin as he loped up beside her – and Danni’s smile in return was genuine.  
“Hey, Skinny-bones,” she replied, the nicknames affectionate rather than insulting.  “How was your long day of grueling labor?”
“Oh, same as always,” the kid replied with a shrug.  His back was still a bit hunched; that tended to happen after spending the whole day picking up the nails that the other workmen dropped.  He, unlike Danni, had already ripped open his pay envelope.  Danni could see the end of it sticking out of a pocket on his oversized, baggy canvas trousers.
“So,” James continued after sucking in another breath, “what are you going to do tonight?  Are we hitting the town?  Living it up like kings?”  He bounced a little as he trotted along, making the pockets of his pants jingle with the change inside.
Danni couldn’t help but smile at the kid’s exuberance, but even though she was only a year older than him, she couldn’t help feeling wiser by many years.  “Yeah, maybe later,” she dismissed his suggestion.  “But first, I gotta go visit my mom.”
James’s eyebrows rose.  “You know, I’ve never gotten to meet your mom?” he said, his tone turning the words into a question. 
Danni stopped and just looked at him for a minute.  Even for those few seconds, she could see the man growing uncomfortable, his shoulders pulling back a little, but he didn’t back away.
“Okay,” she finally said.  “Follow me.”
*
A half hour later, they both stood in silence, looking down at the smooth stone in front of them.
When James finally spoke up again, his voice was hushed, muted of its usual enthusiasm.  “Sorry, Danni,” he said quietly.  “I didn’t know.”
“That’s okay,” the girl replied, reaching out and patting her friend on the shoulder.  Her eyes, however, never left the stone in front of them.
When they arrived, she had bent down and carefully cleared away some of the weeds and taller blades of glass, making sure that the stone was visible.  It wasn’t properly carved, but she’d paid off the tab of one of the masons in town, and he’d chiseled some words into the stone in exchange.
“Might not be carved proper, but at least it’s good granite,” he had remarked as he finished hammering in the words that Danni requested.  “Should last a while if you keep the roots off it.”
And the girl had done so.  Every two weeks, while the rest of her work crew headed down to the bars to fritter away their meager pay so that they could live like rich folks for a night, she would make the hike up to this hill and carefully clear away any errant plants encroaching on the stone.
After another few minutes, Danni opened her mouth again.  “She wanted me to make something,” she said, not looking over at James.
“What, like a house or something?”
She shook her head, the long strands of red hair falling out around her face.  “No, of myself.”  She gestured around, out at the skeletal frames of buildings in the distance, at her dusty and stained clothing.  “She wanted me to be more than just another little poor girl.”
James opened his mouth, but the boy found himself at a rare loss of words.  “Yeah, but no one gets outta here,” he finally said, truth winning out over tact.  “I mean, nobody leaves – there’s nothing else out there.  At least here there’s work, enough to get by.”
He saw Danni nod, but the woman didn’t reply.  “All the money’s owned by the rich folks up north,” he went on.  “And they keep it all in banks, so you can’t even rob ’em!  So we’re all kinda stuck here.”
The girl had straightened up a little, and glanced back at him.  She was taller than James, and as she looked down at him, James thought for a moment that he saw a queer glint in her eyes in the dusk.  
“What?” he asked, confused.
After a second, though, Danni shook her head.  “No, it’s nothing,” she said.  “Forget it.”  
But as they headed down the quiet hill, back towards the hustle and activity of the town, an idea was growing and flowering in her head…

Book 11 of 52: "The ABC Murders" by Agatha Christie

Going back to fiction again!  I’m continuing in my quest to read all of Agatha Christie’s consistently amazing mystery books.

Normally, a mystery book doesn’t reveal the killer right away.  If so, he’s well hidden, and often the last person to be suspected.  We almost certainly don’t get a chapter from his narrative, telling us his full name and what he’s up to.

But there’s a reason why Agatha Christie’s books are anything but normal…
In only the second or third chapter of “The ABC Murders,” we get a short little blurb from a man by the name of Alexander Bonaparte Cust, detailing how he’s considering a new method for selecting a victim.  By gods, we’ve got our murderer!  No need for a detective after all!

But of course, for Christie, nothing’s as simple as it seems at first, and as she leads our mustachioed hero Poirot deeper into this mystery.  As Poirot himself mentions, this is one of his first cases where there’s a murdering spree, and not just a single murder in a cozy group of clear suspects.  How does he hunt down a killer, when it could be anyone in the country?

But of course, it turns out that there are suspects, and we also get a nice glimpse into the operating methods of the police as they investigate, both with and without Poirot’s help.

And once again, at the end, I couldn’t guess the killer.  Damn.  One of these days, I’ll manage it, Christie!

Time to read: 3 hours.  Typical for fiction.

Pickup for the Errand Boy

I pedaled my bike through the maze of narrow streets, my eyes running over the numbers printed on the sides and doorways of the buildings as I whizzed past.  Occasionally, my turning and meandering path would veer me out into traffic, but I ignored the honks and occasional shouts.

Where the hell was this place?

Still pedaling, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the little scrap of paper my boss had handed me.  No, I still had the address correct in my memory.

“1408 Shining Ave,” I read off aloud.  No other directions…

I was on Shining Avenue right now, so finding this place ought to be easy.  But I hadn’t figured on Shining running right into Chinatown – and promptly beginning to weave back and forth, worse than a drunken sailor with a full stomach of whiskey.

Hell, half of the little shops along both sides of this street didn’t even have numbers up on their doorways!  And although I spoke a few pidgin words of Mandarin and Cantonese, they were mainly choice terms for insulting someone’s mother – not so good for navigating.

What sort of shop did a cake decoration place have, anyway?  My boss had sent me out here to get some sort of “specialty wedding topper” for one of our orders.  And like an idiot, I’d gone ahead to grab it, hopping on my bike without asking for any further information.

A few houses down, I spotted an ancient little Asian woman, sitting on the steps to one of these shops and smoking a long-stemmed pipe.  Figuring that I was down to my last option, I hit the brakes and coasted to a stop.

“Excuse me,” I called out, and her hooded eyes rolled over to me.  “Do you know where 1408 Shining-“

Before I’d finished talking, the woman rose up laboriously to her feet.  Without even speaking a word, she reached behind her and opened up the door.

“Oh.  It’s here?” I asked, surprised and a little suspicious of this sudden reversal of my bad luck.

Still, the old woman didn’t speak – she just nodded towards the open door, as if urging me to just get it over with already.

Pausing only to lock my bike to a nearby sapling, I stepped into the doorway.  The shop inside was pitch black, and I couldn’t see my nose in front of my own face.  “Hello?  Is anyone there?”

There was no answer – except for the door behind me swinging shut with a click.

For just an instant, I was lost in blackness.  And then, seconds later, a bright light clicked on, shining into my face and making me lift up my hands to try and shield my eyes.

“Do you have it?”  The voice was strong, deep, authoritative, and rolling out of the darkness beyond the spotlight shining into my face.

“Do I have it – what?” I echoed back, confused.  “Do you have it?”  Had I been supposed to bring something to exchange for this pickup?

The voice didn’t speak – but a rattle sounded, and a battered metal suitcase slid across the floor to land at my feet.

I reached down and picked up the case, not pausing to even glance at the contents.  “Uh, thanks?” I called out into the darkness as I reached behind me for the doorknob out of this place.  I was definitely not going to go on my boss’s next pickup mission!

“Wait!” the voice called out of the darkness.  “And what about what we require?”

Maybe they needed the receipt?  I pulled it out of my pocket and tossed it out beyond the circle of light.  The voice said something else, but I had already opened the door and stepped back outside.

Out on the street, the elderly little Asian woman was gone, but at least my bike was still there.  I tossed the metal briefcase (who delivered cake toppers in a briefcase?) into the basket on the back of my bike, unlocked it, and pedaled off.

From behind me, I suddenly heard the door burst open, and shouting in some language I didn’t understand.  I glanced back over my shoulder as I started to pedal away – and saw several shadowy men wearing what looked like top hats and long yellow trench coats running out, pointing after me and yelling something guttural.

“Dammit,” I cursed, pedaling harder.  Maybe I had been supposed to bring payment after all – but my boss could figure that out.

A couple of the men went running after me, but I veered down Semetary, made an illegal left turn onto Pennywise Boulevard, and cut through a yellow light to merge over to Gilead Street.  I doubted the men would be able to follow that.

But even as I pedaled, I felt doubt and suspicion start to creep up into my mind.  Veering over to a parking lot, I glanced back at the metal case behind me as I slowed to a stop.

I had wondered who would hand over a cake topper in a metal briefcase.  Now, as I set my bike down and lifted the case out of the basket, I could feel my doubt growing.  The case felt wrong, different.

I set the case down on the ground and popped the latches.  Hesitantly, I lifted the lid.

“Dammit,” I muttered again as I stared at the contents.

From inside the case, carefully set into a leather interior, two long, heavy, blued steel revolvers glinted up at me…

Danni California: Part 4

Continued from Part 3, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

As the man in black paused in the retelling of his story, Jenny felt herself rise back up to the present.  She had been sitting and listening for far too long, she suddenly realized.  The bar was still as empty as always, but if her boss came out and spotted her lounging and listening to this story, she’d be in for an earful.

Next to her, Old Hillpaw also started as the young waitress rose up abruptly from her seat.  “Figure I ought to wet your whistle, if you’re gonna keep going,” he commented to the man in black, who answered this with a slow nod.

The man in black didn’t say anything as the two members of his small audience left his table.  He simply returned his attention back to the typewriter, once again slowly pecking out word after word.

Ten minutes later, a scrape across from him made the man in black look up.

His audience had returned, it seemed.  Jenny was once again perching on the edge of her chair, sparrow-like, all the empty tables now glistening after a fresh wipe-down from her rag.  Old Hillpaw was also slowly lowering himself into his own chair, taking pains not to spill the mug of frothy pale beer he held.

A similar mug had been placed in front of him, just outside the swing of his arms as he worked his typewriter, the man in black noted with a faint but undeniable note of satisfaction.  He picked it up, taking a sip and letting the liquid splash across his tongue.

Once he had slaked his thirst, the man in black resumed telling his story.  Despite her apprehension, Jenny couldn’t help but find herself drawn back in.

* * *

The bell was loud and insistent, ringing repeatedly.  Even as she squirmed and turned on the thin, hard mattress, trying to pull the itchy blanket up to cover her ears, Danni couldn’t block out the noise.

Around her, voicing similar grunts and groans of displeasure, she could hear the men waking up and crawling out of their own cots.  None of them wanted to leave the relative comfort of their bedding, but they all knew the punishment for being last.

As the sounds of activity grew louder, the bell still tolling, Danni finally pulled back the blanket with a hiss.  Even at the early hour, the sunlight was streaming into the ramshackle building.  It reflected off of the frost on the few remaining pieces of glass in the windows, and highlighted the motes of dust floating in the air.

The bell finally stopped ringing as Danni fumbled for her boots on the floor.  It was replaced, however, with a voice no more pleasant.  “Up and at ’em, you lazy lugs!” the foreman thundered, stomping into the barracks.  “We got honest work for y’all – maybe the first honest work y’all have done in your lives!”

They all knew better than to rise to the bait in those barbed words.  Danni tightened her frayed coat around her slim body, flexed her fingers in the ragged gloves to try and send some heat into her digits.  Alabama might be the Deep South, but it was still bitingly cold in the mornings.

Once he had roused his reluctant charges from their beds, the foreman’s booming voice switched over to calling off the roles for the day.  Danni kept her head down, focusing on stretching out her stiff limbs, one ear listening for her name.

There – roofing crew.

It was no surprise, she figured, that she ended up on the roof most of the time.  Unlike most of the men around her, she was light and nimble on her feet, with a head for heights.  Up in the rafters, balancing on those thin beams of wood, agility was just as important as strength.

Carl, a disagreeable little man with a face like a rat, sniggered at her as she fell into line for the breakfast slop.  “Watch yer step, missy,” he called out to her.  “Don’t wanna see yuh fall and break nothin’, need a big strong man to take care’ah yuh.”

“Let me know if you see one,” Danni shot back, and the rough laughter of the other workers turned on Carl.  He flushed crimson, but shut his mouth with a click.

Just another day of long, grueling, back-breaking work.  Most of the time, Danni didn’t let herself think too much.  Thinking, she had learned, could very quickly get someone in trouble.  Especially a girl like her.

But when she was standing up in the rafters of that day’s construction project, feeling the breezes rustling her fiery red hair, she couldn’t keep her mind quiet.  Between hammering in nails, Danni would stare off at the horizon, watching the brilliant colors flare as the sun rose up from below the trees.

Sometimes, she could even catch a glimpse of what she imagined was light reflecting from the ocean, the Gulf.

She had never been anything but poor, and she knew that she’d never be anything more.  But still, up above the ground, she could feel the yearning, so strong it was like a physical hook in her stomach, tugging her onward.

To be continued…

Book 10 of 52: "Think Like a Freak" by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

The authors of this book might be recognizable – they’re the same two guys who wrote Freakonomics, followed by the sequel, Superfreakonomics.  They are great at showing how a lot of behavior that, on its face seems irrational, is actually totally logical and can be explained.  They also show how sometimes, making a decision that seems crazy might be the best possible option to do.

Now, in their third book, Think Like a Freak, Levitt and Dubner claim to be able to teach all of us rubes how to think in the same way as them; how to take a situation and turn it on its head, looking at an unusual approach as a solution that might work better than the old “tried and true” method.

So, how do they fare?

In terms of getting all of us to think like Freaks, I have to admit that I’m not super impressed.  A lot of the actual lessons in this book are more “try things and see what happens,” and “don’t be afraid to try something new, even if your boss doesn’t immediately agree.”  Good lessons, sure, but nothing groundbreaking.

But despite the lack of a full, coherent message, the book is very good at doing what Levitt and Dubner do best – providing tons of real-life detailed examples of how people have used strange solutions to solve complex problems.  They discuss:

  • Zappos, the shoe company that gets thousands of applications for each $11/hour position;
  • A “one-and-done” mailing that provides a huge boost in charity donations;
  • A ban on cobras – that resulted in a lot more cobras;
  • Why kids are bad audiences for magicians;
And many more fun topics.
The book is short and fluffy, but it’s still a definitely fun read, and evokes a lot of great conversations, if nothing else.
Time to read: 2 hours.  Seriously, it’s short, and even shorter than it initially feels thanks to a lengthy list of citations.  

"We’re made of star stuff."

I stared down at the control panel spread out in front of me.  Even now, as the entire floor shuddered beneath my chair, I couldn’t help but notice how, well, homemade the whole thing looked.
Over there, wasn’t that lever off of the lawnmower bot that had used to rumble around my backyard?  And I recognized the steering handle in front of me, the one that controlled the angle of the main thrusters, as coming from that old decommissioned hover-junker that had been abandoned in my back yard a few years back after I gave up on it as a side project.
Of course, this craft was a side project, too.  
But this was one that wasn’t a fleeting passion, wasn’t a passing fancy.  I had wanted this for as long as I can remember, ever since my grandfather bounced me on his lap.
“Don’t forget, kid,” he had told me, as his wrinkled hands gripped me firmly and his knee bounced lightly beneath my bottom.  “You’re made of star stuff.”
It wasn’t until I was older, until my grandfather was no longer alive, that I’d really come to understand what his quote truly meant.  But even before I knew the meaning behind the words, it fascinated me.
Our molecules, the very building blocks of our bodies, had been forged in the crucible of stars, stars long since gone in fiery explosions.  We were all created out of those remains, hydrogen atoms compressed into more complex and elaborate structures in the aftermath of their original hosts’ destruction.  We were all forged from molecules, atoms, that had once been part of a fiery fission drive within the wilderness of space.
My father, of course, had reacted in typical protective fashion, ordering me to ignore the wild words of my grandfather.  “Don’t get cocky, kid,” he’d tell me, ruffling my hair, when I tried to ask him questions about stars and the worlds beyond our own.  “The universe is no place to be cocky.  It’s dangerous, and can get you killed.  Better to keep your head down.”
I looked around me at the hand-constructed vehicle in which I sat, my finger poised over the key.  I was definitely not keeping my head down.
I heard a shout, faint but still audible even through this vehicle’s thick shielding.  “Harry!  Come out of there!”
I stood up from the seat with a grunt, pushing aside the unbuckled harness designed to hold me in place if I ever found the courage to fire up the engine.  I climbed down, navigating with difficulty along the wall that was intended to be the floor.  Moving inside the vehicle was tough with it pointed up at the sky, but a few minutes later, I managed to emerge out into the sunlight.
My mother stood out in the field behind our house, staring with her usual doubtfulness at my creation.  “Harry, when are you going to give up on all this craziness?” she asked, with a sigh.  “You’ve had your fun putting it together, but you’ll never actually launch, will you?  I mean, there’s no need!”
“There’s always a need!” I exulted back at her, going through the same steps of the same argument we’d had dozens of times before.  “Mom, we never explored all that’s out there!  We just used a shortcut, dodging around the whole problem instead of facing the challenge head-on!”
“But the portals are safer,” my mother argued, as she’d done so many times before.  “No need to go into space – just hop from our planet to another through the nethers, without needing to wait for travel time, or having to risk riding on top of a giant explosion!  What you’re proposing is so dangerous, so foolhardy-“
“But portals will never show us everything!” I insisted.  “Mom, portals can take us to another planet, but will they ever let us come close to a star, to truly see all that’s out there beyond the places we can comfortably rest?”
My mom crossed her arms.  “The portals protect us from that danger,” she concluded, and I could tell that she refused to hear any more.
But even as I headed inside for dinner, I couldn’t risk one last look back at the big, clunky machine, its nose cone pointed up at the dusky sky.  I had worked hard to wire it all together, to make every weld that held its body intact, to attach the old but reliable fusion engines that were now being sold off cheaply since the entire mode of travel had been abandoned.
The portals were safer, were easier.  They took us straight to our destinations without any fuss of the trip there.  
But they were never going to truly carry us to the stars.  
My grandfather’s words echoed in my head, and I mentally resolved that tomorrow, as soon as the sun rose, I would launch.  
We were made of star stuff, and I was going to see my creator.

The ‘Doubt’ Theory of God

The devil sitting across the table from me leaned back, one hand lazily twirling a finger about an inch above the brim of his coffee cup.  Even though there was nothing physically extending down into the cup itself, the liquid beneath his finger seemed to be moving along with his motions.

In front of me, both of my hands were wrapped around my own coffee cup.  Even after years of working here, of pouring coffee every day for the angels, both holy and fallen, that wandered in here, I still got nervous when talking to them.  Call it mortal nerves, maybe.  I waited for the devil in front of me to respond.

“See, here’s my theory,” the devil across from me finally started.  His voice was cultured, with only the very faintest little hint of a sneer giving any sort of allusion to his true nature.  “We all know that God exists, somewhere, in some form.  Right?  We,” and he waved one hand around in a little circle to encompass the two of us, the coffee shop, the world in general, “wouldn’t be here if He didn’t exist.”

“But we never see him,” I countered.  “And even the angels and devils I’ve talked to haven’t ever spoken with him directly.”

It was true.  Ever since I’d started working here, since I had realized who the real customers of this coffee shop were, I’d begun asking around.  My inquiries were surreptitious at first, but as I grew more comfortable with the immortal agents of Heaven and Hell who filed through here every morning, grumpy and in search of their caffeine fix, I grew bolder.

The devil across from me held up a finger, as if I’d just made his point for him.  “Ah, but that’s just it, isn’t it?” he announced triumphantly, as if he’d scored a point.  “We know that He exists – but at the same time, we don’t know!  We’re doubtful!”

I narrowed my eyes at the man.  Was he just trying to be flippant with me?  He did look the type – if it weren’t for the black clothes that marked him as a fallen angel, he could have fit in at a fraternity house, dressed in a polo with a popped collar and hollering for shots.  His blonde hair was pushed back in a loose curl across his forehead that would generally take hours in front of a mirror.

“What’s your point?” I said shortly.

The devil crossed his arms and looked smug.  “Doubt,” he announced.

“Doubt?”

“Yeah, isn’t that what I just said?  See, I think that this God guy lives on doubt.  He exists, but He can’t demonstrate that He exists, or else He removes all the doubt.  And He must need us to be doubtful for some reason!”

I didn’t feel convinced.  “So God exists… but He is powered by doubt?” I reiterated.

“Yup.  And if He was to start messing around directly, throwing lightning bolts and such, well, that would remove all the doubt!”  The devil looked pleased as punch with this theory.

“Okay…” I paused, trying to decide where to go next.  I still didn’t feel convinced, but I didn’t see how this devil could help me any further.  He was a fairly low ranking devil, but he had been one of the few that seemed agreeable to talking with me.  I was stuck with the customers who seemed friendly, low-powered as they might be.

We sat there in silence for a couple more minutes – I was trying to digest this theory, and the devil was gloating, apparently believing he’d landed another convert.

“So, what does this mean for us?” I finally asked.

“It means we can do whatever we want!” the devil exclaimed.  I almost expected him to add a ‘bro’ onto the end of that sentence.  “See, God can’t jump in and stop us, or else it would prove that He exists – and He can’t do that!”

“But what if He intervenes indirectly?” I countered.  “Like, God doesn’t appear and throw lightning bolts, but there happens to be a thunderstorm in that same place that struck just then.”

The devil across the table frowned.  “Nah, that wouldn’t work, would it?” he mused, looking a little rattled.

“Remember the general who got shot by a cannon after mocking the enemy’s ability to hit anything?” I countered.

The devil looked a little ill.  He lifted up his coffee, but slopped a little as it rose up to his mouth.  “Uh, maybe my theory needs a little detailing,” he stammered, as he rose up quickly from his seat, brushing drops of hot liquid off his black clothes.  “Maybe I’ll let you know once I’ve worked it all out.”

I watched the devil scurry away, and sighed.  Another servant of God who didn’t even know if his boss existed.  Sometimes, I despaired that I’d get anywhere on this.

The bell above the door jangled, jolting me out of my reverie.  Well, at least I could serve coffee.  I hopped up and hurried back behind the counter, putting on a smile as the newest angels entered.

Book 9 of 52: "The C Student’s Guide to Success" by Ron Bliwas

I would like to preface this little review by saying that, despite the title of this book, I am not a C student.  I am, in fact, an A student (at least on a good day), and so I wasn’t sure how useful some of the advice in this book would be.  However, I firmly believed that it was a good idea to know what strategies these C students were using to get ahead of me – so I can crush them at that as well!

Just kidding.  Mostly.

As for the advice of the book itself, a lot of it is rather common sense (although perhaps that’s just my “A student” mentality speaking, and many “C students” don’t realize this stuff).  Common advice in the book includes taking over jobs that no one else wants, going for the challenging risk when others hang back, not being afraid to throw yourself into new experiences, and making sure to learn some new skill at every job.

Bliwas takes a lighter hand with attacking A students, but he does state that many of them, thanks to the connections of success or money, don’t bother with many of these tidbits of advice.  However, many of these suggestions sounded familiar.  Why is that…

…oh yes, because they’re also in every other management and career advice book I’ve read.

For a student who didn’t score the highest grades and is struggling to find a way to connect or succeed in a job, the tips and suggestions given in “The C Student’s Guide to Success” are good.  But don’t let that student believe that they’ve found some hidden secret, some inside track.

Everyone out there is going for these same moves – and that includes many A students.  Sure, some of them believe that connections and grades will get them all the way, but most A students tend to be overachievers – and that comes to their devotion to a job as well as their devotion to studying classroom material.  Those A students were willing to take on the workload of extra credit in their classes, and they’re just as willing to take on the workload of a challenging project or long hours in a career.  Even here, I suspect that many C students will find themselves outflanked.

Overall, Bliwas wrote a decent book.  My two big complaints, in the end, are as such:

1. Bliwas has several “rags to riches” success stories of various friends and business contacts.  These are good stories, and reflect a wide range of viewpoints – but the author always has to use the person’s full name every time they’re referenced!  For some reason, this strikes me as shoddy writing (by 100 pages in, we should remember someone named “Art Frigo”!).  It gets annoying and distracts from the message of the book.

2. As you can see above, the cover of this book features the title, “The C Student’s Guide to Success,” in very big, easy to read letters.  While this is great for advertising the book, it does make me feel a bit uncomfortable about carrying the book around.  “Look at me, I have bad grades!” it shouts out to passerby.

Time to read: 10 hours.  This was a “bedside read” that I struggled to get through, mainly due to the author’s habit of consistently referencing the same individuals over and over, always by their full names, giving me deja vu and making me think I’d already read that section.