Thursday, May 03, 2012

So many books...

An elderly friend died recently. He lived alone in an assisted living facility, surrounded by memorabilia and books, hundreds of books.

His friends were left to dispose of his possessions and, of course, the books. More than 400 of them.

I thought of my own books as I sorted through his. Many, many, were unread, like my own. They and their selection spoke of his wide-ranging interests. Germany after the great 20th Century wars, wars’ victims, the agonizing state of Palestine and Palestinians, the great ancient lost cities. He had four Bibles.  He had subscribed to the Folio Book Club. Many of those tomes had arrived in the mail and never been opened. Cellophane still enclosed them.

Boxed books, massive art books, several mysteries, biographies. Most unread.

He was a gentle, unassumingly erudite man. He would, when asked, recall his past and his struggles for human rights and dignity for all. He was gay. In his eighties when I met him, he never mentioned being gay. There seemed no reason to. He was at peace with his life and his world.

His library bespoke him: his fascinations, his passions, his curiosities. His library spoke, yes, volumes, of the privilege it was to know him and the honor to be bequeathed responsibility for these books.

He was a member of our Quaker congregation, and it was clear from his bequest that he wanted us to have and to see that his library was put in good hands. And so we sold them cheaply to Quaker Friends and neighbors. I bought five or six. Among them were a boxed Folio edition of Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man,” Calvin Trillin’s warm, evocative “Messages from My Father,” and Jimmy Carter’s impassioned “Palestine. Peace not Apartheid.” I also bought the massive “An Incomplete Education, 3684 things you should have learned but probably didn’t.”

I don’t know whether my friend read any of them. They were clearly well cared for. How many of those 3684 “things” did he absorb? What of the “Rights of Man”? The spines were uncreased except for the Bibles, which may have been handed down for generations, as Bibles often are. The pristine books might have been read. He no doubt cared for his books as he did for all who knew him. As I have said, above all, he was a gentle, deeply caring soul.

Now that I’ve turned seventy, I’ve looked at what I will leave when I die, and what I will have left undone and, yes, unread. I have at least as many books on my shelves. Who will take them, what do they say of me, will they ever be read — by me or anyone else?

Does it matter?

Yes, no and maybe. Especially maybe... You, friends, will decide.

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Something we should live without

What’s wrong with society dropped right out of the middle of my New York Times today.

it was a small advertising brochure for Ben Bridge Jewelers that was pitching sleek watches largely to  one percenters.

The first watch was something called the “Oyster Perpetual Day-Date II” in “18k pink gold with fluted bezel.” (It's the one on the left in the picture.)

I have nothing against the Oyster Perpetual per se although I’m not big on pink watches and I have no idea what a fluted bezel does that a regular bezel can’t do.

What got my attention was the price: $34,700.

I assume someone (or someones) must be buying the Oyster Perpetual Day-Date II” or Rolex wouldn’t be making it.

And who might those folks be?

Someone with enough money to afford the Oyster Perpetual and who clearly wants it. But why?

$34,700 for a watch makes me wonder what they pay for toilet paper or beer or, god forbid, four-wheel transportation.

Are their friends and colleagues impressed? Do they sit around comparing watches. “Oooo... yours is made of pink gold!”

I don’t think so.

You want to know what’s impressive? Not long ago I bought a Timex for $39 at Fred Meyer on sale. No big deal, but compared to the Oyster Perpetual, the Timex’s cost is impressive. It does everything that the Oyster Perpetual does, and, to my plebeian eye, it is better looking. It even glows in the dark when you push in its bezel, which, alas, is non-fluted.

Hey, if I lost my watch while, say, yachting at Newport or golfing at Pebble Beach, I’d only be out $39.

But then purchasers of Oyster Perpetuals probably don’t worry about losing a $34,700 watch in some regatta or sand trap. If they did, they wouldn’t buy pink gold Rolexes in the first place.

What really gets me is for the Rolex price some worthy student could go to a first-rate college for a year. The price tag on the Oyster Perpetual is more money than most Americans make in a year. You can imagine the lift it would provide the guys who live under this city’s bridges.

Presumably such thoughts don’t cross the mind of the Ben Bridge customer. Theirs is another world ruled by entirely different values. Unfortunately, those Rolex-driven values rule our world.

I have to confess, the Oyster Perpetual is the single most expensive watch in the Ben Bridge brochure. The prices work their way down to a cheap-o TW Steel “Canteen Automatic” for $595. “The Canteen” is listed on the very last page as a bargain-basement ticker. For some it must look like a steal, if you don’t mind owning a watch called “The Canteen.”

As for me, I’m sticking with my Timex.

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