Monday, December 26, 2011


[The second-best reading experience of my life. As I'm a huge fan of New Orleans and spent days roaming it, the novel was both familiar and historical, capturing a time two decades earlier when the Crescent City was different, smaller even, than the one I became enchanted with. A footnote follows this essay.]

A Confederacy of Dunces

I’d seen the book many times, sitting at eye level, the cartoonish characters on the cover almost in motion, a fat guy wearing a green hunting cap (the kind with ear flaps) posing in a Jack Benny-ish gesture of simpering disdain.

The book had raised some controversy, for being a comedy about the South, it had struck the many exposed nerves of the “Dixie Gentry.” The author, John Kennedy O’Toole, had woven an outrageous tale centered on one of the most improbable, undefinable and fascinating characters to ever lumber, thunder and gambole across the printed page. That this character and his supporting cast happened to accurately skewer Southern life, mores, society and misperceptions-taken-as-Gospel only added well-deserved insult to insight.

The novel, the brilliant outpouring of a young man’s talent and ambition, almost didn’t see the light of day. Depressed over his inability to find a publisher, Kennedy committed suicide seven years after finishing Dunces. It fell upon his mother, a teacher of dramatic arts and avid reader, to find someone who could see in the manuscript what she had seen. Rejection followed rejection over several years. Then she collared Walker Percy and practically forced him to read it. As the novelist says in his Introduction, he reluctantly read it at first hoping it was bad, then with increasing wonder until he was overwhelmed. In 1980, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize.

Ignatius J. Reilly is described as “part Falstaff, part Don Quixote” by some lazy reviewer. Reilly is much, much more. Philosophical, dependent, arrogant, erudite, lazy, intuitive, confused, passionate, analytical, funny, bone-headed, pathetic, sensitive and insensitive, a heroic coward wrapped in stained bedsheets, Reilly stands alone as a literary creation. As you read the novel, you shake your head in disbelief, and if you are a writer, you gape in Percy-like awe at what Kennedy flung at the page with devastating accuracy.

And beyond Reilly is a cast of deftly-written portraits that feel more like biographies than fiction. Time and again the reader with Southern memories will find familiar “faces” and scenes that seem as if Kennedy had sat on the collective porches of Southern families and simply taken notes.

I’ve read Dunces six times now and I look forward to a half-dozen more readings in the coming years. The novel lulls you in like the French Quarter on a foggy morn, odd and quiet, eerie even, then erupts into a raucous romp that carries you along to a bittersweet end. Few novels are more absorbing; even fewer have such soul.

[Sadly, I won't make it to 12 readings. A seventh was enjoyable, but the 8th...felt sad. There was nothing new in it, no nuances I could discover. Maybe the problem is me, but when I finished it this time, I said to my wife, "I feel like I'm saying goodbye to an old friend." Maybe I'm wrong about that.]

Monday, December 19, 2011


[My usual sleep pattern in college was to sleep between 4:00 and 7:30 AM. I could do that for about three weeks, then I'd crash for about 10 hours one night and be back to "normal." I also noticed that I would stay up progressively later every night, and since I couldn't sleep when the sun came up, I had to avoid hitting that "sunrise wall." Aussie football made me hit it more often than not.]

Australian Rules Football

At 4 AM, TV used to be a wasteland. Even with the advent of cable, the darkest hours were populated by black-and-white B-movies, odd reruns and the occasional preacher desperate for attention. It isn’t much better now, because the peak moment of pre-dawn TV was Australian Rules Football.

ESPN was barely gaining momentum when, without fanfare, they started showing tapes of a sport that combined the high-impact action of rugby with the high-scoring drama of basketball and was simply mesmerizing to watch. Rugged guys in colorful uniforms of sleeveless T-shirts and shorts would run down and across an oval field, passing a large ovoid ball by punching it like a weak volleyball serve, by kicking it through the air or—daringly—by dribbling it in mid-run. Points were scored by kicking the ball throught two tall uprights or between a tall upright and a shorter one. Referees in long white coats and perky hats would indicate the score with mechanical gestures pre-dating “The Robot.”

Without explanation, with color commentary that assumed you were an Aussie fan and simply added to player bios that read like excised drafts of a Crocodile Dundee script, the action and intensity drew you in almost against your will. The play never stopped, and like in soccer, injuries (a few a game) were tended to on the field. I once saw a player knocked down, start getting attention from the trainer, only to bolt up and try to tackle an opponent and get even more viciously knocked out, forcing the trainer to sigh deeply, pick up his equipment bag and run over to the new mid-field “bedside.”

The hand-passing and dribbling seemed quaint and awkward, but the real drama was in “marks,” kicks that soared high and far across the field and were secured by players jumping like—well, kangaroos—to catch it in mid-air. The catches were not unchallenged: short of grabbing the other player, anything went. I saw a player run, leap, plant his left foot in the opposing player’s back for greater height and catch the ball while slamming the opponent to the turf, a catch so spectacular it was shown before and after almost every game.

Scores were often 80 points or higher per team as each goal was worth 6 points and a “behind” worth 1 point. Momentum could and did shift often and in one spectacular match, a league doormat overcame a 36 point deficit in the closing minutes to defeat a perennial winner, a sort of “Cubs beat the Yankees” scenario that was thrilling to watch. So what if I couldn’t tell one team from the other? I know a great game when I see one.

And so did thousands of others, especially in Australia. Despite its size (about 20% smaller than the States), Down Under is not nearly as populated as you might think. At the time, the total population of the country was around 14 million persons, and yet, these matches often had attendance that numbered over 100,000 fans. To give you an idea of what that really means, imagine a Sunday football game in Green Bay… with 12 million fans in the Stadium. All of them cheering, waving, singing, screaming, swaying and stomping their feet in the best soccer-crowd tradition.

The games were exciting, the marks were often spectacular, the close-ups of players who were “veterans” after 20 games and looked like middle-aged hockey players though they were 24 or 25, the drama of athletes playing hard because pride demanded no less and the sheer fun of being able to watch all this at 4 in the freakin’ morning was too much to pass up. But eventually, Life changed its rhythm, ESPN changed its schedule and Aussie Rules Football dropped off my radar. Still, the sporting excitement and pageantry remain a vivid, happy memory of the night’s quietest time.

Monday, December 12, 2011


[Fencing is the only sport I've taken up that I haven't played or participated in to the point of obsession. I've spent hours in a day playing baseball, basketball, tennis, football, ping pong and racquetball, but I never got that chance with fencing. It's like I'm missing something. I recently took up golf and haven't hit that obsessive level...yet.]

Fencing Wounds

I took up fencing in 1986 as a way of trying a new sport. Always a fan of swordsmanship, I quickly discovered that fencing was serious effort, not trivial play, and that I enjoyed the challenges immensely.

I quickly became the second-best fencer in our small group and trained harder with our Captain, an accomplished modern pentathlete. One Wednesday evening, after sweating out a grueling 20-minute session, he asked me if I wanted to compete in a fencing tournament. I agreed instantly.

The tournament was held in New Orleans. A large, stuffy gym served as the stage for an old-fashioned club challenge, a “them-against-us” day of fencing with human judges instead of electric machines. The local club had about 30 members and though ours was half as big, only 5 of us had made the trip. We decided on a round-robin format, by divisions, and began fencing.

My first match pitted me against a burly, wide-bodied fencer. Because of the other matches, all the judges in ours were his club members. I noticed this, slipped on my mask and we began. My style was quite aggressive, relying on my reflexes and footwork to streak in and make rapid lunges. Almost immediately I scored and at my pause, he lunged at my chest. “Point.”

I returned to my spot when I noticed I was down 0-1. I questioned it, but the guy behind my opponent, who should have seen my touch, shook his head. Settling in, we resumed. Again I made a fast approach and scored, only to have the point awarded to my opponent, by the same “judge.” Down 0-2. The mask seemed to fade away as I attacked, scoring clearly on my opponent without him touching me in return. And once again, the same bastard shook his head, denying me the point.

I removed my mask to stare at him. Bad form. Like I cared. He pushed his glasses up, crossed his arms over his chest and avoided my eyes. He knew. The match resumed and I eventually lost 2-5. I should have won by that score. My first true fencing match and I had lost.

Four more matches and I won them all easily. Then my final match and as the luck of the draw would have it, my opponent was the near-sighted bastard of my first match. I almost ran to the strip. We shook hands and he gave me a weak smile. I was ready. Masks on, we began.

In an instant, I knew I could beat him. But I wanted more. With cold certainty, I created an attack pattern—up, down, side, then down—and kept it going until I scored. We resumed and I kept the same pattern, but scored from another angle. I did the same on the third point. And as he again assumed his en garde position, I knew I had him. 

I started advancing, sword high. He stepped back. I closed and started my pattern: up, down, side… He went down and I immediately lunged, sword straight, my entire body a line of furious thrust from foil tip to left foot. I aimed through him, the tip slamming into the vest exactly where his heart was. As if punched by a heavyweight, he slumped back and fell down clumsily.

I straightened up slowly, the rush of energy flowing down and away. He groaned, grabbing his chest and his teammates came over. Edward, our captain, looked at me, his eyes boring into mine. Quickly, the bastard’s friends removed vest, sweatshirt and T-shirt. I stepped off the strip to wait. They left.

I won that match by forfeit and made it to the finals, where once again I faced the same stocky guy…with four of his club members as judges. I noticed no one from my club volunteered to judge and Edward couldn’t do it because he’d lost to the stocky guy in the semi-finals. 

I scored 9 times, but lost 4-5. What a surprise. The stocky guy even apologized. 

As I was packing my gear, the near-sighted bastard ambled over slowly, his face a mask of pain. He kept rubbing his chest, just above the heart. “Look,” he pouted, raising his sweatshirt and T-shirt to show me an already-bruised and swelling plum-sized knot on his pasty flesh. “You hurt me!”

I stared back at him until he lowered his shirts and started to shuffle his feet. Surprisingly, he extended his hand.

“I was aiming for more,” I said and walked away, his hand ignored.

Bad form. Like I cared.

Monday, December 5, 2011


[I have dreams about being here, in this restaurant, even after all these years. I know Ruby's is gone and with that loss, there's no sense in me going back to that town. I'm a guy who can spend a week eating hot dogs and canned vegetables, but if I had a week to eat anything I wanted, I would spend it all at Ruby's.]

Ruby's Chinese Restaurant

You would call it nondescript. A low brick building with a small semblance of a pagoda design on the roof above the front door, set in the left corner. The parking lot was shared by an apartment complex and there were plenty of times when I know residents had to park far from their spot because the restaurant was full.

People would drive two hours one way for dinner at Ruby’s. The moment you walked in, you left the routine behind and entered a tiny corner of the exotic. The overwhelming impression was of red—on the floor, the walls, lanterns, booths and decorations. But not the same red: shades of red that called the eye and made the room warm and expansive.

Everyone who worked at Ruby’s was Asian. Extremely polite, ranging from reticent to friendly, but always attentive. The menu was huge, and if you tried pronouncing the sonorous dish names in Chinese, the waiter or waitress would say the number; if you said the number, you’d hear the words. I stuck to the English descriptions, and over the years, tried all of the almost 200 dishes they served.

I had my favorites—Mo Shu, Sizzling Rice Soup, Mongolian Beef, Moo Goo Gai Pan—and whether it was a favorite or a new dish, I was never disappointed. Not once. In the middle of my run of weekly visits, I actually focused more on seeing if something would go wrong rather than on enjoying the experience. Fortunately, that ended quickly.

Most of the time, I’d dine alone, so food was the only focus. I learned to appreciate green tea, my consumption rising over the years from one cup to a pot or maybe two in the winter. If I ate with a group and Bill was there, we’d both pass on entrees until the Mongolian Beef appeared, then we’d pretend not to be hogging it as we polished off the entire plate.

Dining at Ruby’s was always… spiritual. Believe me, I tried to avoid using that word. Recorded as an incident, a visit to Ruby’s was prosaic: one entered, ordered, was served, ate, paid and departed; nothing intrinsically metaphysical about any of that. But the time I spent there was somehow sharper, brighter, clearer, more real.

Maybe it was the night I’d arrived a bit later than usual and as soon as I’d finished eating, Ruby’s began closing around me. As I got up to leave, one of the waiters came to me and, without a word, motioned for me to sit at the long table that flanked the kitchen entrance. It was usually reserved for special parties as it oversaw the entire L-shaped restaurant. (The private room had a smaller table, tucked in the short arm of the L.)

I sat down as the door swung open and every employee of Ruby’s came in carrying a bowl, tureen, plate or pot. Without a wasted motion, almost a dozen dishes were arranged with artistry, water glasses filled and tea served. Ruby’s owners, a middle-aged couple with friendly eyes, came in, sat down and everyone began to eat.

I hesitated. Chinese was flitting back and forth interspersed with laughter and food floating onto plates all around me. The owner caught my eye and smiled. He pointed at a dish placed in front of me that somehow I had missed. Mongolian Beef. No one had touched it.

My hesitation ended. I took a small portion and passed the Mongolian Beef into the stream criss-crossing the table. Dishes came my way, contributed new flavors to my plate and were passed on. The only words I spoke during that meal were “Thank you” and “This?” No one spoke to me. No one needed to. I was asked to share their private moment and had been welcomed.

I never went to Ruby’s after that expecting to be invited, but I never turned it down, no matter how much I’d eaten. I marveled at how comfortable I could feel while being the only non-speaker at the table. I was both guest—honored and treated with deference—and family, maybe like the quiet cousin from a far province.

On a wintry November night, at the end of the meal, I announced I was leaving town. As if rehearsed, everyone bowed to me and then converged, patting me on the shoulders, shaking my hands, even gently tugging my hair. As I groped for the words to thank them, the owner and his wife went to the kitchen, then came back and handed me a small box. It contained a small dragon, made of golden wire with red lacquer. A strip of paper was curled atop the figurine, adorned with Chinese characters. Tapping my shoulder, he pointed at the paper and said: “Wherever you go, our heart follows.” I nodded as my throat tightened. “You come back anytime.”

I nodded again, said good night and walked out into the cold, never to return. In some way, I never really left.

Read Free E-Books

Just use this handy app: ">Gil C. Schmidt At Work