OTD in 1910

Eero Saarinen
8/20/1910 – 9/1/1961

Eero Saarinen
8/20/1910 – 9/1/1961

On August 20, 1910, Eero Saarinen was born to design memorable structures.

In a capitalist society such as ours, the choices people make when spending money contain a lot of information.  As expenditures go, it’s hard to imagine a bigger one than a building and even when a corporation or government is the builder, the ultimate decision-makers are people.

Now imagine a world when an entire industry was wrapped in glamour and when charismatic (or reclusive) founders and executives wanted to make the non-utilitarian statement that they represented the future. At a minimum, you get Pucci-painted planes and dramatic terminal buildings.

It was a world waiting for an architect ready to, literally, break the box. Saarinen did.

The Gateway Arch
Photo composition by Daniel Schwen, cc Share Alike 2.5

Saarinen’s most iconic works stand (still) as an homage to the curve. There’s the parabolic Gateway Arch in St. Louis. There’s Washington-Dulles International Airport. And my personal favorite from my airport limo driving days, the TWA Flight Center at JFK .

Back in my driving days, a fare to Kennedy was considered a better run. Closer to the Island with more sneaky ways in and out than LaGuardia. In those early days of deregulation, the Pan Am and TWA terminals, monuments of an earlier era’s personal rivalries, stood kitty-corner across the airport’s central ring, as though the buildings themselves were combatants collecting tribute in the form of paying passengers.

The Pan Am terminal, with its round shape and iconic logo was cool. But the then-TWA Inernational terminal stood out, its arched halves suggesting flight itself. Of the two buildings, only TWA remains, repurposed into a hotel and still serving travellers.

The TWA Flight Center at NY’s JFK Airport.

My high school Spanish teacher, who as a college student worked in the International Arrivals Building as a bi-lingual traveler’s aid, complete with air hostess-like uniform, once told us a story about the TWA terminal. As aides, she and her colleagues were briefed on the airport’s history. TWA, it was said, sprung to Saarinen’s mind and hand after breakfast one morning, as he played with the empty haves of his grapefruit.

It’s as good an explanation as any.

I Have a Special Job

The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground
James Fennimore Cooper

Until I encountered this book containing two novels I was unaware either existed.

I suspect that, except for Cooper scholars and obsessives fixated on early 19th century American literature, such ignorance is a common state. For most people, knowledge of Cooper probably begins and ends with The Last of the Mohicans. After all, it’s been turned into a film multiple times, most recently starring Daniel Day Lewis.

That title is the second in the five-volume series that’s come to be known as The Leatherstocking Tales. Its chronological predecessor, The Deerslayer, which Cooper penned last, was quite the rage among my eighth-grade classmates. The present tale was written much earlier than Cooper’s best-known novels.

In a way, it’s a calculated commercial venture by a man who, deciding he’d try to make a living as a writer, hadn’t had much success. As the golden jubilee of American independence approached, he set pen to paper fleshing out an audacious tale he evidently heard at the home of, if not from the lips of, John Jay. (I’m indebted to Alan Taylor‘s notes for the details of Cooper’s writing life.)

For many children of the Cold War, MAD Magazine‘s “Spy vs Spy” introduced the whole idea.

I may have avoided Cooper until now, but I have not avoided the study of America’s independence and national formation. My passion has always been the intellectual side of the story, but it’s hard to live in any of the original 13 colonies and not cross its warpath. In the northeast, the scenes of consequential battles and acts are closer than anything that happened during the Civil War and, so, have always seemed much more real to me.

This novel upped the ante in the reality department. The setting, the so-called neutral ground of the subtitle, is, mostly, Westchester County, New York. Westchester is not just nearby. It sits atop The Bronx, the borough in which I spent my earliest years. It’s the county in which I went to college, the county in which I co-operated a small business while still in college and the county in which I first held a non-sales job and in which I currently work. There’s even a regional high school named after John Jay in the county’s northern reaches.

The action in The Spy occurs during the War for Independence, closer to the end than the beginning. It involves, initially, the Wharton family, a clan whose sympathies might be expected to lie on the Tory side. The Whartons, when we meet them, are ensconced in their country seat, the Locusts, having moved out from their urban townhouse in the scrum of the war.

Early on, a visitor appears at the estate, a visitor who turns out to be young Henry Wharton, a Captain in His Majesty’s army who has slipped past the official holding line north of Kings Bridge (roughly the northern boundary of today’s Fordham neighborhood in the Bronx) to visit his family: father, two sisters and an aunt.  The American forces are encamped further north, closer to Peekskill and the Hudson River, leaving the area in between under undetermined control. A second mysterious guest known only as Harper also appears

If I am any judge of Westchester geography, the Locusts lies somewhere in the neighborhood of Pepsico‘s present-day headquarters location. And that presents the main problem of this tale.

Our spy, the hero Nathan Hale.
Photo by Christopher De Coro

Mark Twain famously went to town on the implausibilities written into Cooper’s more famous works. Here, we have characters, often on horseback but as likely to be on foot, floating around a 450-square mile area as though they had automobiles. In a critical scene, two characters transit, on foot in the dead of night, a series of hills that in light of day with a marked trail are not a stroll in the park. Somehow, they alight on the Albany Post Road closer to Tarrytown than Peekskill. Traversing the Hudson is rendered as if it was as easy as crossing the Bear Moutain Bridge.

I know, I’m nitpicking. Allowing for how our sense of pace has evolved this novel is, in its own way, a rollicking tale. Repeatedly I found myself thinking that particular scenes seemed like early talking movies when the camera didn’t move so characters spent a lot of time telling each other what was going on. The cast of characters is made for motion pictures. The two sisters support opposite sides in the war. There’s a love story and tale of unrequited love. There’s a pair–a combat surgeon, Dr. Archibald Sitgreaves,  and an infantry officer, Captain John Lawton–engaged in what now would be called a bromance.

Their spy, The Unfortunate Death of Major André

And there’s Harvey Birch who may or may not be a spy. Birch claims to be a simple peddler–a man who manages to wander easily across armed frontiers seemingly engaged in commerce.  If he is a spy, it’s unclear just which side Birch is spying for. Captured more than once, Birch slips out of captivity as easily as some climb out of bed.

I won’t ruin the tale–it is, after all, a thriller–but I’ll note some things that might go unnoticed by audiences who feel the tale drags and who are disinclined to question beyond the text at hand.

The first is that despite the way we tell the story–in both fiction and history books–the War for American Independence was a civil war. The Wharton family presages the family divisions of the 1860s (or the 2020s if you’re feeling apocalyptic about the present).

Another is that the whole idea of spies intrigues people. A war that threw up both Nathan Hale and Major André (executed less than five miles from where I sit typing) was sure to get people thinking. Still more vexing was learning that Washington’s visage, which stares at us from every greenback dollar bill and quarter dollar, was not widely recognized and that his reputation developed after the war. Finally, Cooper realized that the story of America itself offered great literary material, a realization he went on to capitalize from.

A friend who is a literature professor described Cooper as a “good bad writer.” That, I think, is as apt a description as any. Even if the cost of entry is suspending reasonable notions of time and distance.

 

 

In a Private Detective’s Overcoat

Meanwhile Back at the Ranch
Kinky Friedman

I told you I’ve been wasting my time.

What I didn’t tell you was that some wastes of time are less productive than others. And even though the title pictured nearby was bedtime reading, I can’t help feeling Continue reading

Come On Let’s Eat

Independence Day 2022

I hope I’m not the only person exhausted by the incessant need to find things we can’t agree on. That, my friends, is a choice.

So rather than struggle to demonstrate commonality through song, allow me to indulge in something I hope we can easily agree on: food. I recognize food insecurity is real. I also believe meals serve many purposes. So let’s celebrate our country’s culinary bounty and agree that any country fortunate enough to sing about food is a pretty good place.

The link to the expanded playlist appears at the end of the post and, if you can’t wait, right here.

Gimme a Pig Foot and a Bottle of BeerBessie Smith (1933)

What better way to start than with the Empress of the Blues calling for some authentic soul food? As a kid, my grandfather would make “man lunch” a couple of times a year. Pig’s feet (and other nearby parts) figured prominently. Maybe all poorer people share soul.

Beans and Cornbread--Louis Jordan and His Tympani 5 (1949)

The clown prince of jump blues got more mileage out of food and eating as subject matter than anyone else I can think of. One suspects he was a man of large appetites. His good-natured story-songs inspired a Broadway show and New Wave‘s Joe Jackson to get us all dancing the Lindy again.

Watermelon Man–Herbie Hancock (1962)

There was a time in living memory–well, my living memory, at least–when the pop charts contained a much wider range of music than they now do. That included jazz. This piece, from Herbie Hancock’s first album as a leader, was a hit for Mongo Santamaria a couple of years later. If you’re interested, there’s a great video where Herbie explains how this song came together to, of all people, Elvis Costello, after which he plays it in two styles.

CoconutHarry Nilsson (1971)

I’m a latecomer to the Nilsson party and, if I’m honest, I still find myself standing at the entryway debating whether I want to commit. None of that really matters because every party needs cocktail ingredients and in this summertime classic the man who rhymed his surname delivers.

JambalayaProfessor Longhair (c. 1978)

Sometimes a classic jumps genres. I know the die-hard country fans will disagree with me about this (and I will profess my deep love for Hank Williams) but when ‘Fess took this tune down to New Orleans, he made it his own. I can’t hear it any other way and just looking all this up prompted me to make a pot of that Acadian stew for dinner last night. (And now my kitchen smells like Louisiana.)

RC Cola and a Moon Pie-NRBQ (c. 1980)

I often forget that this band, whose fan base has always seemed to really heavily on frat boys and preppies living in the Northeast,  emerged from Florida. So of course they celebrated regional junk food. I dare you not to sing along with the chorus.

BONUS VIDEO AND PLAYLIST

I could go on all day so check out the playlist for extras including some original versions, cocktail songs, alternate versions, the song I nicked the post title from and, maybe, even some classic rock and antipodean pop. (I’m still debating what level of chauvinism I want to embrace this year.)

Enjoy the holiday. Despite being in a bit of a mess, it really is a great country and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. So, let’s not screw it up.

Chicken and HoneyThe LeRoi Brothers (1982)

My roots music fascination is long-lived, so I first heard the group that lured away Fabulous Thunderbirds drummer Mike Buck soon after it was released. It’s got guitars. It’s got twang. It’s got guitars and twang. Who needs anything else?

Shot Through the Heart

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
J.K. Rowling

My long personal nightmare is over. A few weeks ago, after almost a year, my son and I finished our journey through the last of the original Harry Potter novels. I’m not sad to put it behind me.

When the whole Potter phenomena emerged I was clueless. My friends and colleagues who had kids around Harry’s age–Harry is, I believe, 11 at the start of the series–were sucked in. Because Mrs. AHC wound up teaching fourth grade the books soon enough found their way into my house, too.

Still, I resisted. Then I picked up the first book. And I engaged, once again, with fiction, though surprisingly through a genre that had never done much for me. Yes, I had completed the obligatory high school nerd trek through Middle Earth. Even then, though, I recognized it as a work of Catholic allegory. It was never a bridge to Dungeons & Dragons for me.

I had, though, fallen into a fiction-free existence. That itself was odd. There was a time when I’d discover a writer, fall in love and tear through volume after volume. Then I just stopped. I made excuses. I read lots of non-fiction. But the fiction well went dry to the despair of my friends who kept reading.

Whatever dress your Potter comes arrayed in, it’s lot of shelf space, paper and words.

Rowling reawakened my interest in story-telling. For that I’m grateful. But the evolution of the series (and if you’ve read my reflections on these books as Mr. D and I have made our way through the novels you’ve heard this before) highlights everything wrong with the modern publishing business.

I won’t recount all of that here. But the end result is, too often, bloat. When page count helps drive pricing and profitability there’s no incentive to be true to the tenets of good storytelling or respectful of the reader’s time. With the exception of crime fiction writers, many of whom turn out 250 taut pages annually, best-selling authors are allowed to ramble on and on. It’s as though there were a tape loop of cash register bells playing in the editorial offices.

The Deathly Hallows marks the culmination of the Potter saga and, there’s no polite way to say this, it’s a hard slog. At this point, we’re seven years into this neutered, multivolume Britsh-boarding-school bildungsroman and I found my interest flagging. If adolescence is the time during which we start to figure out how to live in the world, I’m not quite sure what our hero, Harry, has learned.

In my faith tradition, hallows are saints.
The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs
By Fra Angelico

Harry has always been a hard nut, a British version of the man whose certainty is a function of his circumstance. He can act courageously, and recklessly. He can protect and nurture others. But the loss that defines his childhood is so enormous he’s forever at some remove from almost everyone else. Perhaps that’s why I originally had so much sympathy for him.

That certainty, those virtues and his loss, though, have locked him In adolescent amber. Over the course of a series that must span close to 3,000 pages, Harry’s emotional and moral growth can be measured in picas.

Maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe the answer lies in the structure of this final volume. It does, after all, start out with a sort of wizardly Fast and Furious meets Black Hawk Down broom-borne firefight and end in the final pitched battle of a magical civil war. What if all the mucking about in forests, at lakesides, on hilltops and moors and clifftops is meant to establish tedium? It surely can’t be to ratchet up the tension; it persists far too long.

Whatever the reasons for the length and structure of the novel, the simple secret of the plot (to nick a line from a song) is that Harry Potter will prevail. It’s one thing to kill off surrogate parents, classmates and other magical beings. Killing off one’s hero just isn’t done in popular fiction.

Sometimes, total victory leaves the world forever changed.

Don’t take my word for it.  For the six previous volumes in the series my son hung on every word. He can tell me facts buried in subplots that I seem never to have encountered before. Here, though, the pace was dictated, in large part, by his avoidance. Tying up all those loose ends might have seemed a good idea for the writer, but it was hell on the reader.

There’s no point going into great detail about the plot because how we get to Harry’s triumph (and I’ll leave it to you, gentle reader, to decide if the denouement qualifies as our hero’s triumph) is all there is to this volume. There may be no mystery involved, but I can at least avoid ruining the unfolding,

Here’s perhaps the greatest irony of revisiting the books that rekindled my reading of fiction: I’ve run out of words to spend on this subject.

But I’m not going to stop reading.

 

 

 

 

Today I Work My Fanny Off

Steve Earle & The Dukes
Sugar Loaf Performing Arts Center
June 14, 2022

Waiting to enter the Sugar Loaf Performing Arts Center, an intimate venue located about 50 miles northwest of New York City in the scenic Wallkill Valley, a friend noted it had been Continue reading

Only a Memory

Memorial Day 2022

Photo: courtesy U.S. Army by Elizabeth Fraser

Once again the unofficial start to the summer season has begun in clouds and rain. Maybe that’s fitting, given recent events.

This year, I think, we ought to also remember the innocent victims, the students and congregants and clubgoers, who also were part of the fabric of our country. Their loss is no less a national wound than anyone who died in combat.

If you are a veteran you may disagree with me. I am not diminishing your service, or that of your fallen comrades. I  respect your time and the risks you took and I am grateful that you served. But we’ve allowed our streets, schools, entertainment palaces and houses of worship to become target zones. And in so doing, we have necessarily expanded the pool of lost lives.

There are, today, dozens of families in New York and Texas left with sure-to-fade memories and the certainty that future dreams will never be realized. Songwriters seem to know that. So, here’s a set of memory songs and a playlist for Memorial Day 2022. If your fave isn’t here, I may have included it there.

In Memory of Elizabeth ReedThe Allman Brothers Band (1970)

Anything, Proust reminded us, can trigger a flood of memories. We don’t always need words to evoke the past. We don’t even necessarily need our own past, at least when it comes to a song title. This early instrumental from the band that created Southern Rock as a genre, legendarily drew its title from a headstone in a Macon, Georgia graveyard. Yet to me, it’s always sounded very personal and evocative.

Memories FadeTears for Fears, (1983)

I was never a big fan of synthesizers. It’s more truthful to say I recoil from them. So for a synth-pop record to lodge in my brain for forty years, there must be songcraft and quality aplenty. The harrowing songs on this debut record–before the smash hit album that let TFF own the mid-80s–still resound. Maybe it’s the pain, evident in this ditty.

Those MemoriesDolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, & Emmylou Harris.(1987)

More typically, memory songs are about lost loves. I suppose that’s almost redundant. Without lost or unrequited loves, why would we need songs? Here, the late 80s country supergroup composed of three of my favorites takes on a familiar tale in a familiar manner to stellar results. As a bonus, the band contains John Starling (g), Leland Sklar (b), Mark O’Connor (v),  David Lindley (m), Herb Pedersen (g), Russ Kunkel (d) and Steve Fishell (st).

Memory LaneMinnie Riperton (1979)

I’d nearly forgotten about Minnie Riperton until I went canvassing for memory songs. There was a time when she was destined for great things, although it turned out her true destiny was to leave us far too early. This 1979 hit showcases her vocal range and serves as a lovely time capsule of late 70’s R&B. You’d never know from the video, itself a period piece from the early days of the form, that she’d be dead seven weeks later.

Only a MemoryThe Smithereens (1988)

A true product of my age and upbringing, in my heart of hearts I believe that guitar-pop songs ought to be about girls. Some bands just instinctively understand this, arguably none more so than New Jersey‘s greatest band, The Smithereens. Here they turn the girl who got away into much more than a memory.

You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory-Johhny Thunders (1978)

Can there be such a thing as a punk standard? And could such a song have been crafted by a notorious junkie? Based on a glance at YouTube I’d say that the answer to both is yes. And what a song. Despair, desperation and defeat in a little more than 2:50. Johnny gets the last word, don’t try.

VIDEO BONUS AND PLAY LIST

Thanks for the MemoryBob Hope (1938)

Even as a kid, I knew that Memorial Day (or Decoration Day as my grandfather insisted on calling it) was about fallen soldiers. And just as certainly I knew that soldiers and sailors had no greater friend than Bob Hope. His USO shows seemed to be aired annually. And this, his signature song first introduced in The Big Broadcast of 1938, was always the last number

Here’s the playlist:

 

 

Forces of Chaos and Anarchy

We Should Have Seen it Coming: From Reagan to Trump–A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution
Gerald Seib

I have gone missing but I have not stopped reading.

That, I suppose, is a statement always at risk of being true. If so, then it’s more true than ever lately as I find my free time diminished and my workday lengthened by an Continue reading

Something Ain’t Right

On the Perils of AI

That’s Artificial Intelligence, the next big thing that’s going to transform us. At least that’s the way futurists and tech visionaries have been telling the story since 1952 or so.

While we await the computer-driven millennium, I think it’s important to maintain some perspective. If you’re a knowledge worker chances are you’ve encountered a colleague, client or C-suite executive smitten with the latest novel technology sure to lead to marketplace domination or a total revolution in whatever sector you toil.

I’m not certain it’s that easy.

Continue reading

Turning to Despair

Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism
Anne Case and Angus Deaton

Joseph Heller once said the effect he was striving for in his second novel, Something Happened, was for the reader to feel like a piece of metal banged into a new shape by the repeated blows of a ball-peen hammer.

I don’t recall feeling that way after reading the novel, but the far more than 400 blows delivered in this book Continue reading

I Had a Real Good Mother and Father

Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir
Christopher Buckley

When it comes to enshrining the obvious, you have to acknowledge the preeminence of the US Supreme Court. “Death is different,” they told us in 1976. The clarification hardly seems necessary.

Yet death, that most unwelcome of drop-by visitors, often seems to bring out the best in some writers, Continue reading

It’s All in the Game

Super Bowl Sunday 2022

Something tells me I shouldn’t ignore our secular mid-winter national holiday. But like almost everyone else, I’ve got to prep for the party!

Since the stove beckons, I’ll limit myself to one simple thought. Sports sort of serve as a metaphor and metaphors serve as almost a Gregg shorthand for things we ought to not overlook.

Maybe, then, we can remember that the teams play the best they can. The fans root for the team they support. And if the game lives up to the playoff season, we all move on either elated or deflated but without rancor.

Despite my demonstrated ability to always root for the losing team, the lad made me engage in the ritual of choosing. Because I once spent a long feverish night in a Cincinnati hotel room, my misery punctuated by the cascading roars of fans enjoying their home team at play, we’re backing the Bengals.

If you’re a Rams fan, enjoy the game!

 

He’s Been Tensing Up His Arms and His Legs

The Best American Sportswriting 2009
Leigh Montville, Guest Editor; Glenn Sharp, Series Editor

I am hopelessly clumsy though not quite an oaf. If one of the seven intelligences is bodily-kinesthetic, that’s the one in which I came up short.

The basics–walking, for instance–I find manageable,  but much more than that presents a challenge. Even the sorts of things that supposedly benefit from drills Continue reading

The Writing on the Wall

A Wealth of Writers: The Newsletter Boom
Late January 2022

Newsletters are not new, though the word itself only first appeared in 1903.

That makes the concept a little bit older than my grandmother. And while Nana went to her rest more than a half-century ago,  the venerable form lumbers on, these days in a digital guise.

Back in the day, a newsletter often looked like the nearby example. Crafted on typewriters at kitchen Continue reading

He’s My Brother

Hardware
Linda Barnes

It’s a dead certainty that more than once I’ve sworn to read more “real” books and less, well, fluff.

Fluff keeps winning.

My hairshirt is at the cleaners so for now I’ll confine myself to the story at hand. Once again we find ourselves Continue reading

Who Invented These Lists?

Mid-January 2022

Photo by Polina Kovaleva from Pexels

In a sense, I’m the last person on earth who should be uttering the above question. Professionally, I’ve had almost daily contact with lists for three-and-a-half decades.

Other folks, especially folks who obsessively tote up their daily tasks or feel compelled to enumerate their annual list of resolves, may Continue reading

I’m Gonna Go Fishing

Surfcaster’s Quest
Roy Rowan

It’s just a fortnight or so past the Feast of St. Stephen,  with sub-zero wind chills and the remnants of a snowstorm lying about less than deep and crisp and even. So, what better time to turn one’s thoughts to fishing?

Allow me to cut to the chase. The present volume offers Continue reading

None But Ourselves Can Free Our Minds

The Source of All Things
Tracy Ross
Backpacker, 11/27/07

Sawtooth Range
Seen from the Sawtooth Valley, Idaho, USA
Photo courtesy Arcoterion under CC BY-SA 3.0

Emerson warned me.

Okay, strictly speaking, that’s not true.

Kay Kier, one of the best professors of American literature I ever encountered, warned me, and the rest of a sweltering summer class at Queens College, to not lightly dismiss the warnings of the man she referred to as Chairman Ralph.

Foremost among these was the admonition to not turn oneself into a prisoner of foolish consistency. The whole world–statesmen and divines according to the Chairman–certainly prefers consistency. Yet it seems to me that a foolish consistency supposes the existence of a wise one, as well as the existence of both wise and foolish inconsistencies.

So, maybe the most unfoolish thing we can do is accept all four. In that spirit, I’m going to unshackle myself from the self-imposed restriction to reflect mostly on long-form writing (which, due to my age, means primarily books) only after I’ve finished them. It’s not a rule I’ve always observed and, lately,  it’s getting in my anthology-reading way. Here’s why.

The whole point of this space is for me to figure out my thinking about what I’ve read.  The entire process is dialectical: there’s what I thought before I read title X. There’s what reading title X causes me to think. And then there’s what I think after I’ve put myself through the process of trying to string together a coherent 1100 words or so on the matter.

Chairman Ralph in 1857

Increasingly, I seem to reach points at which I stop dead.  I’ll read something that dominates my thinking, at least for a while, and if it’s part of a larger whole and I wait to finish the book, I risk losing the opportunity to capture that impact.

That brings me to the rather remarkable story linked to above (and here, too), which I really urge you to read for yourself. I don’t know much more about Tracy Ross than what she lays out in this piece. Her regular beat is outdoor enthusiast magazines and while I’ve been known to enjoy my time en plein aire, I’m hardly the strap-on-a-pack-and-head-for-the-hills kind of guy. Long before there was glamping I was the leading advocate of executive camping.

So, I don’t really spend a lot of time with the outdoor buff books. Typically, I’ll encounter a story from a magazine such as Outside in a sportswriting anthology. And more often than not it’s a tale of limits pushed and unexpected, unwelcome results. It’s almost as if the game- and player-covering scribes hired to edit such volumes can’t conceive that sport might result in death or disability.

Ross’ story is harrowing in the extreme. But the harrowing part has little to do with the wilderness setting. That’s merely, as the title says, the source of all things and also the setting in which Ross enters her own personal hell and the one in which she ultimately begins to find redemption.

The locale for the trip at the heart of this tale is Idaho‘s Sawtooth Range, as raw a wilderness as you’ll find in the lower 48. I say that without the benefit of personal experience but having spent some time in the woods of Colorado. A typical Easterner operating on presumptions of scarcity and density, the ability of the American West to absorb large groups of people and still leave you feeling isolated has always overwhelmed me. It’s hard to wrap your head around just how alone one can be.

A trail view from the Sawtooths in Idaho.
Photo courtesy Katja Schulz., USA, ,CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not just me. One guide, curious if not worried, questions Ross on her hiking alone. “I’m prepared and I’m conservative,” is her answer, a code any Boy Scout will recognize. Ross is no mere Boy Scout. She grew up in Idaho, spending large amounts of time in the Sawtooths. Later, she spends years in Alaska, living remotely at times and ultimately working as a guide at Denali. She’s no tyro.

She’s returned to her childhood haunts, the place where she first experienced and fell in love with the glory of undisturbed nature, in the company of her father, now in his sixties. The man who raised her after the untimely death of her own dad, he’s not just her mother’s second husband, he’s the man who sexually molested Ross.

That abuse started on a camping trip at Redfsh Lake, a favorite destination in the Sawtooths.  And when Ross entered puberty some years later it intensified. Like many teens in similar situations, she contemplated suicide. Unlike many others, she instead had her father arrested.

The story of her teen years–foster care, forced return home, wild abandon, self-destruction–is unfortunately not unique. The wilderness helps her find the road she eventually follows to the point we meet her. She and her dad will hike to a favored place and she’ll get the answers to the big questions she’s been carrying around her entire life.

Can such a scene ever go as planned? I gave up scripting conversations after learning the other player had no way of knowing their lines. You decide for yourself if Ross’ confrontation was satisfying. For me, the gut-punch, more powerful because it spoke to something familiar, came earlier in the tale, during Ross’s first visit to the range, the one on which she was questioned by the guide.

Litle Redfish Lake around 1950. It probably looks much the same today. Magnificent.

That trip lead to the one with her father because she couldn’t, alone, find what she sought. On that earlier trip, Ross, looks at a childhood photo of herself taken at Redfish Lake. As she describes it, it’s a typical picture of childhood innocence, the kind of smiling happy child snapshot that populates the photo albums of many families.  “I became a sad kid after that picture was taken,” she writes. “I’ve been a sad kid ever since.”

It’s hard to conceive that the editor of a magazine titled  Backpacker would publish such a tale. And it’s heartening to know that there’s at least one editor who not only knows a great and powerful story when it comes across his or her desk but who trusts the book’s readers to recognize it, too.

It’s almost enough to make me hang up my cynicism toward the publishing enterprise.

 

There’ll Be New Dreams, Maybe Better Dreams

The Year in Music: The Titular Playlist

My grandmother used to say, “Blessed are they that go in circles, they shall be called wheels.”

It’s always been a bit unclear what that last noun meant. Maybe it literally referred to a wheel. Maybe she was just poking fun at the Beatitudes. Maybe it was her own personal synonym for Lord-knows-what.

Yet somehow I think we’ve all become wheels these past 12 months, scurrying and fretting and endlessly hoping some semblance of normalcy will return–as if there’s an agreed-upon definition of that.

The wise thing, I think, is to dwell upon whatever good fortune we have. For me, that always includes music, now endlessly and bottomlessly available on-demand. I hope you find something to enjoy in this year’s playlist, all of which contributed in various ways as post titles.

And I hope you find a new normal that allows you the space to find enjoyment.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

  1. I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink–Merle Haggard, 1980
  2. Language is a Virus–Laurie Anderson, 1986
  3. Revenge of the Nerds–The Rubinooos, 1984
  4. Roam–B52s,  1989
  5. Candida–Tony Orlando & Dawn, 1970
  6. A Theory–Tracy Chapman, 2008
  7. Sketches of China—Paul Kantner, 1973
  8. The Swamp–That Petrol Emotion, 2001
  9. Libertango–Grace Jones, 1982
  10. A New England–Billy Bragg, 1983
  11. Lights Out–Michael Bloomfield, 1978
  12. Magic Man—Heart,  1975
  13. Picture of Matchstick Men–Camper Van Beethoven, 1989
  14. It Must Have Been the Roses–Grateful Dead, 1980
  15. And She Was–Talking Heads, 1984
  16. Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)–Bessie Smith, 1933
  17. Talk Talk–Talk Talk, 1982
  18. Three Little Birds–Bob Marley, 1978
  19. Mad Dogs & Englishman–Andy Caine · The Easy Virtue Orchestra, 2008
  20. Here Comes the Rain Again–Macy Gray, 2012
  21. Fables and Trouble–Amelia Curran, 2009
  22. U.S. Blues–Grateful Dead, 1974
  23. Sheep–The Housemartins 1986
  24. Undertow–Lisa Hannigan, 2016
  25. The Honesty’s Too Much–Dan Hill, 1978
  26. On Saturday–The Clarks, 2002
  27. Crossword Puzzle Blues–Steve Mardon, 2004
  28. See You in September–The Happenings, 1966
  29. See How We Are–X, 1985
  30. Small Town, John Mellencamp, 1985
  31. Hit it and Quit It—Funkadelic, 1971
  32. Monkey Man—The Rolling Stones, 1970
  33. Beat Surrender–The Jam, 1982
  34. We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thang–Heaven 17, 1982
  35. Harlem Shuffle–Bob & Earl, 1962
  36. Tell Me a Story–Iggy Pop, 1979
  37. Words–Missing Persons, 1982
  38. Teacher, Teacher–Rockpile, 1980
  39. Hold On-En Vogue, 1990
  40. The Republic–Gang of Four, 1980
  41. Oh, Tannenbaum–Vince Guaraldi Trio, 1965
  42. The Circle Game–Joni Mitchell, 1970

Oh Tannenbaum

Close to Christmas, 2021

A year that began in turmoil appears to be gearing up to end in a similar state.

Even the cliches seem to be not up to the task. With uncertainty gone exponential (and how else would you describe the uncertain uncertainty of the moment?) I find myself torn between  Advil and Jameson’s. It’s no help that my oven has died and so I must somehow conjure up a stovetop holiday meal.

While I take a little time cogitating on the best way to address that problem, let me share a simple thought about the season. At a time of year when our hemisphere is more dark than light, we celebrate life. It’s no mystery to me why my Bavarian ancestors and other peoples across Europe chose to festoon trees with. garland and candles. The central Christian feast of the winter is, after all, a birthday party–a celebration of life, and light.

In that spirit, I salute all who are celebrating the great gift of life.

See you next week with the year-end playlist.

Know Your Place in Our Republic

Understanding American Domestic Terrorism: Mobilization Potential and Risk Factors of a New Threat Trajectory
Robert A. Pape and the Chicago Project on Security and Threats

We live in binary times.

We also like to think that’s unique.

I’m not so certain. Roundheads and Cavaliers. Sans-culottes and aristocrats. Montagnards and Girondins. The Wobblies and the AFL. Pick a period, pick a place and I’ll show you two teams.

That, and a good stern talking-to by an anthropologist friend who cares, has enabled me to maintain use of the word tribal in its proper context. Because what we see in our current politics is not, I submit, rooted in the dynamics of small closely-related homogenous groups. What it more closely resembles, at least to me, is the rabid passions exhibited by the fans of sports teams.

Organized athletic competitions started in antiquity. It’s not a stretch to picture the earliest hominids foot-racing. Organizing teams, traveling between cities and campuses, selling tickets, paying players and generating fan loyalty that can extend to painting one’s face or torso in the team colors? You need modern society to create and sustain that sort of commitment.

The fans of each team-nation may have a unique language.  But they share a common approach to pronouns I associate with rabid fandom: the use of the first person plural. “We need better pitching.” “We better pull it together in the second half.” “We’re having a rough season.” The boundary between the entertainer-athletes and the fans is blurred, at least in the minds of the fans. I’d be surprised if anyone on the pitch, field, gridiron, floorboards or ice thinks the fans are part of the athletic, as opposed to the commercial, enterprise.

Some folks (click the image to see an example) think Chuck Jones was aiming for comedy or commerce. I think it was a send-up.

For some people–and in an earlier time, I’d have counted myself among them–politics serves as a spectator sport. Except that the barrier between the fans and the players has always been more porous. The more fervent one’s political beliefs, the more the idea that opponents could oppose each other and yet be friends was as improbable as, well, the post-workday friendship of Chuck Jones‘  Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf.

In politics, though, the fans vote. That means they pick the players. Consequently, the line between the two has faded to virtual nonexistence.

One result is January 6.

That day, a significant number of people who had come to believe the officials had been bought off decided they needed to remind everyone who really controls the game. That these folks were a subgroup of a larger polity hardly mattered. They knew the rules. They knew only their team was capable of winning. They knew something had to be done about the obvious tampering. So they acted.

The question thus arises: was the reaction to the 2020 election a unique set of circumstances? Or has something happened in our society that we need to worry about in the next election cycle?

You don’t have to look very far to find countless numbers of people answering the second question in the affirmative. The Bulwark, started after the demise of The Weekly Standard, was early to the game from the conservative side. In the January 2022 issue, The Atlantic weighs in from the center-left. Neither picture is pretty.

I’d recommend Barton Gellman‘s cover story in The Atlantic as a place to start thinking about the question of our near political future. Or if you have a commute and podcasts figure in it, listen to his conversation with The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes. He covers the same ground. It was in his article that I first learned of Robert Pape’s work.

It’s really worth your time to read this. Just click the image above.

It’s not that I didn’t find the journalism compelling; I found it disturbing. In general, I think it’s a good idea to check sources. When those sources are social science and involve the methods and subjects I’ve studied, I feel obligated to dust off the old toolset. Besides, the dry language of social science might soothe my concerns.

Fat chance. The document (linked to here) is actually a PowerPoint presentation that summarizes three specific studies. It contains more than one sentence like this one, presented as Specific Finding #3 from the first study:

Storming the US Capitol was an act of collective political violence, inspired by a leader, President Trump, and not merely vandalism or trespassing for other purposes. ”
                                                                                                     Slide 41

While I’d welcome the opportunity to dive deeply into the collected data, the summaries, examples and methodological statements presented here provide more than enough to chew on. The work is solid and inarguable. Would I have liked to see a journal-style results table or the ANOVA? Sure. Do I need to? No.

This presentation gathers data collected in the first months of 2021. The researchers have regularly updated their initial study, which focuses on individuals arrested for their activities in January. Those data have been regularly updated though July. That most recent update ought to be read in conjunction with the April release. For skeptics, it’s a demonstration of how to define all the information incorporated in the study, and of how to address factual changes as data are updated.

The survey data presented in Studies 2 and 3 are intended to help understand the prevalence of beliefs such as those held by the people arrested on January 6. Those are of forward-looking interest. But I found myself dwelling on Study 1, which focuses on the arrested folks. Like many others, I’ve wondered who these people are, sometimes if we even inhabit the same country.

Outside the US Capitol, 1/6/2021
Photo by Tyler Merbler from the USA
CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Fact is, the group these people least resemble is the typical person arrested for political violence in the first 19 years of the century. These were not young unemployed men playing dress-up with their militia friends. They were unaffiliated, educated, established professionals and corporate managers from small and mid-sized cities and the fringes of bigger cities.

I didn’t find it strange that states and counties that voted for Donald Trump were less likely to have been home to a protester who turned violent. Such places are secure. In fact,  the most impactful variable is how much change was seen in the non-Hispanic white population of the detainees’ counties.

I won’t say it’s race so much as fear of change. Rural origin turns out to be unimportant. Living in a second or third-tier city worrying about when it becomes the next Chicago may well be the best marker of who’s likely to be susceptible to the Lorelei of political mayhem.

I wish I could say the conclusions the researchers draw are a stretch. The best I can do is muster a half-hearted protest at the possible size of the population willing to take up arms on behalf of their political beliefs. The low-end figure, 3.6 million, is troublingly high, but almost any significant fraction of it is equally so.

“What Doctor, what do we have, a republic or a monarchy?”
“A republic, if you can keep it.”

The higher-end estimate is unimaginable. Were a force of such size to mobilize, the United States as I’ve known it in my lifetime and through my reading of history, would cease to exist.

That’s not a pleasant thought and not just because I have kids who will inherit this mess. The United States is a flawed country that has made mistakes both within and outside its borders. At its best, though, the promise, the ideals and the actual quality of life here have been a beacon to millions.

That I’ve accepted such hackneyed thinking is not just a result of my age. It’s to accept that there’s some truth in even the hoariest of cliches.

Benjamin Franklin said we have a republic if we can keep it. The choice is ours.

 

 

 

 

Lost in the Supermarket

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America
Michael Ruhlman

Like the singer in Mick Jones‘ lyrics, I am quite capable of getting lost in a grocery store. I don’t even need a special offer to entice me. The Clash may have been commenting on consumer society. I just like to food shop.

That, I suppose, could be construed as evidence of just Continue reading

Teacher Teacher Teach Me More

That Day the Rabbi Left Town
Harry Kemelman

More than once in this space I’ve mentioned my teen-aged employment in the local library.

I was always on an alternate path, so alternate I couldn’t even get a typical part-time job. Civil service and exempt from the minimum wage law. In high school. Clearly, I was going places although it really was one of the better jobs I’ve had.

I’ve also mentioned the library’s abundance of crime fiction, a category so vast it warranted two aisles of hard-cover volumes. By the time I was introduced to that trove I was familiar with crime; The Hardy Boys played a large role in my youthful reading. But conceive of it as an adult genre? Sorry, that made no sense. I probably thought lesser of the patrons who made a beeline for that part of the building.

One thing that distinguished those shelves from the others was the presence of series. Publishers of these books took a lot of lessons from the world of fast-moving consumer goods. Packaging counted, especially an instantly recognizable cover layout.

A lot of effort went into titles. Seemingly, a premium was put on any approach that naturally proliferated. You still see these practices today, titles based on letters and numbers with endless variations on simple cover schemes abound. It all serves a purpose, to help the reader find (and purchase) the latest offering.

Packaged just like flavors of Cheerios.

Among the series I found myself shelving, the Rabbi Small books featured prominently. We even had multiple copies of each title.  I suppose that reflected a truth brought over the county line from the New York City boroughs: every ethnic group seems to need its own hero. My town had two synagogues and two Catholic churches. I’m sure there must have been a vaguely Catholic shamus lurking on the shelves, too.

Until Apple Books offered this title for 99 cents, I’d resisted the lure of Kemelman’s corpus. That was more the result of sloth than willfulness. It’s not as though I’d circumscribed crime fiction so as to exclude Jewish authors and tecs. Jake LeVine, Andrew Bergman‘s delicious noir knock-off, was as Jewish as his creator.

There is nothing noir about Rabbi David Small, who in this volume is retiring from his post with a congregation located in the fictional hamlet of Barnard’s Crossing, a town on Boston‘s North Shore. The rabbi is almost non-descript. Perhaps that’s by design. As these things go, about 4% of Massachusetts‘ population is Jewish. That’s roughly in the middle between New York, where nearly 1 in 10 residents is Jewish, and North Dakota, where Jewish residents are as rare as white elephants. (There were 400 in the state in 2020.)

Marblehead, Mass., a neat North Shore town.
Click the photo for a travelog item that  mentions Rabbi Small
Courtesy Jewish Week

Maybe the rabbi and his congregation are just trying to fit in. New England‘s commitment to maintaining its regional sub-culture is evident. So all the things amplified in, say, early Phillip Roth novels–the hondling1, the big machers, the crazy-character-filled mishpuchehs–are toned down here, like January in New Hampshire.

To illustrate just what that means, the imminent arrival of a new rabbi has the congregants in a twist. It’s more than the loss of a familiar face. The rabbi and his wife are a known quantity, members of the community enmeshed in the social life from after-service coffee to holiday dinners. In a close-knit community, they’re family.

The new rabbi, Dana Selig,  presents challenges. It’s not just that he’s young. It’s his behavior. He runs. For exercise. That can’t be a good look for a learned man. He dresses casually in the off-hours. And his wife! She’s a lawyer! With an office! How will that work? It’s not that a rebbitzen has official duties so much as there are expectations of her.

That’s before the dead man shows up at the foot of the driveway of the house the Seligs are renting.

Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. Kemelman is vague but I sort of see the Smalls living on a street like this one.

Meanwhile Rabbi Small is settling into the next chapter of his life. He’s teaching a class at Windmere College of Liberal Arts, in Boston. The Smalls are maintaining their home in Barnard’s Crossing, but they have also taken an apartment in town to reduce the pressures of the commute and enjoy a bit of urban stimulation.

That dead man I mentioned above? He just happens to be a faculty member at the same school. Ultimately, by application of vaguely Talmudic reasoning, the Rabbi identifies the killer of the dead professor.

Two things struck at me as I read this story. The first was the perspective. Without doing any real counting, my guess is that the first-person and omniscient viewpoints occur equally in crime tales. And yet even when the narration is in the third person as in, say, a Carl Hiaasen novel, the impression is nearly the same as if the main character was telling the tale.

Here the author feels much more removed. That may explain the other thing that stood out. There was a lot of explaining. And not about crime-solving either. One thing that makes crime fiction unique is that it breaks the cardinal rules of writers’ workshops. “Write what you know,” they say. “Show, don’t tell.”

These are freshmen at a Catholic college. But the school is in New England and a seminar room is a seminar room.

Most crime novelists do not commit murder. And all seem intent on explaining. They almost require a sidekick to share the details with.

Not Rabbi Small. His presence is quite, well, small, pun intended. And when explanation occurs it’s less about the crime or solving it and more about the differences between Jewish and Christain practice. That Rabbi Small is teaching a course entitled Judaic Thought leaves a lot of room for explication.

There are a number of scenes involving the temple board, the search committee and various congregants. For me, these were the best part of the book. If you’ve always wondered what lies behind the old joke “What do you get when you have two Jews on a desert island? Three synagogues!” you’ll relish these tidbits.

Showing, not telling, at its best.


1 . My go-to reference for real-world translations of Yiddish is the dictionary page at Bubbygram.com . I’m sure there are more formal references available. But Adrienne Guoff’s sensibility, to me, reflects the good-humored way I heard Yiddish used by friends and family-by-marriage, so I’m loyal.

 

 

What Are Words For?

On the Work of Reading

I’ve always thought the purpose of a book, any writing, really. is to prompt one to think. Or think anew.

Lately, though,  my thoughts seem self-propelled, rambling in no particular direction with only a portion of the questions I’m considering attributable to Continue reading

Tell Me a Story

Floating Off the Page: The Best Stories from the Wall Street Journal’s
“Middle Column”

Ken Wells, ed.

By the time I found my first job in an advertising agency I knew I had to play catch-up. Fast.

Until then, I’d been treading water. A sales job. A low-level client-side job. Never really sure if I was making my way in the world or if anything I was doing was ever Continue reading

Do the Harlem Shuffle

The Real Cool Killers
(Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, A Library of America Volume,
Robert Polito, ed)
Chester Himes

Sometimes the work of the editorial hand is more apparent than others.

It’s taken me a while, okay, decades, to understand this. At first, I thought an editor’s job was to fix mistakes. Then I thought it was to just acquire writers. It’s only in recent years, driven mainly by my lazy-man’s habit of reading Continue reading

We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thang

How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them
Jason Stanley

I’m burdened by an unusually retentive memory best defined by what it is not.

I am not one of those Marilu Henner-like people who can recall the events of any calendar day they’ve lived through. Nor do I have a purely eidetic memory, although Continue reading

Succumb to the Beat Surrender

From Obscurity to Infamy to Nothingness
Ruminations on a Lost Love

As tortured paths go, any road that begins in the working-class precincts of the northeastern United States and ends with a Nobel laureate in the Rhineland may be in a class by itself. There’s a through-line, though, I Continue reading

A Fleabit Peanut Monkey

Bad Monkey
Carl Hiaasen

I used to be a serious person. Or at least I thought of myself that way. Nowadays, I’m not so sure.

Some clarification may be in order. I was never a grind, at least the way I understand that term. Grinds, if I’ve got it right, care about things like grades, and credentials and Continue reading

Hit It Then Quit It

The Best American Sportswriting 1994
Tom Boswell, Guest Editor; Glenn Stout, Series Editor

Why,  you may wonder, is anybody spending time reading an anthology of sportswriting from 1994? Even if the contents were confined to coverage of the Little League World Series the subjects would be on the cusp of middle age.

So what gives? I attribute its appearance to a particular Continue reading

Seen it All in a Small Town

Pop. 1280
Jim Thompson

We’ve been here before.

Here is Thompson country. Thompson is Jim Thompson, a post-war writer of crime fiction with a notable penchant for exploring the darker side of life.

And when I say country I mean country. Like many other Thompson tales, this novel is set well away from the urban centers some folks would like us to believe are Continue reading

See You in September

Labor Day 2021

Wistful. The word itself evokes the feeling. Just try to say it without sighing.

If months belonged to adjectives would there be any argument that September is the most wistful? I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. Some of the greatest songs ever written to convey that feeling put the month front and center

So let’s say goodbye to Summer 2021 by celebrating September and all the wistfulness it conveys. There’s an extended playlist available here and at the end.

(NB: Tending, as my lists do, towards older and less popular material, the below videos are, for the most part, not record company productions.)

September Song Johnny Hartman (1955)

Although not widely known, Johnny Hartman might have been the greatest male ballad singer of the 20th century. To the extent that he’s known at all, it’s because of his 1963 collaboration with John Coltrane. Here, on his debut, he delivers a mood-setting version of this Kurt Weill classic.

See You in September The Happenings (1966)

If this mid-60s staple reminds you of another New Jersey foursome you’ll be forgiven because The Four Seasons are of the same time and place. I’ll fess up:  until I went looking for it I’d always assumed this song was one of Frankie Valli‘s lesser vocal performances.  Doppelgangerness aside, it’s an emblematic classic. Jersey boys, it turns out, don’t just come from Newark, they come from Patterson, too.

September Girls Big Star (1974)

The most influential band most people have never heard of had their own take on the year’s ninth month and girls at school. This Alex Chilton-penned confection appeared on the band’s second record. If you ask me, Chilton hadn’t lost a step and even learned a thing or two after The Box Tops disbanded.

September–Earth Wind and  Fire (1978)

Among the sillier things ever said to me was the assertion by a recruited-jock-roommate at a large state university that, as college students, we were now free to listen to “other” music. The other music he had in mind was EWF. I didn’t need his permission. The band was always a guilty pleasure and this song has always delighted me.

September Skies Brian Setzer Orchestra (1994)

Recent readers may not be aware of my Long Island roots or my deep admiration of my near-contemporary, Bellmore‘s King of Twang, Brian Setzer. A triple threat in the playing, singing and songwriting trifecta, here, armed with just a guitar, Nassau County’s heppest cat demonstrates that he learned a couple of tricks from the masters of mid-century mid-fi. The song was written in the 1990s though the full-band version in the playlist sounds like it came from the era of the Rat Pack.

Flaming September Marianne Faithfull (1995)

What does one make of a singer whose earliest success is inextricably linked to the success of her boyfriend’s band and who then went on to release at least two masterful albums recorded a decade and a half apart? The residual sexism in that question aside, Marianne Faithfull more than earned her rightful place in the history of Anglo-American popular music, as demonstrated here in this deep cut from a later record.

Video Bonus and Playlist

Papa was a Rolling Stone The Temptations (1972)

This past Thursday was the 3rd of September so you didn’t think I’d let this one pass, did you? As Motown goes, it doesn’t get much better than this  A song written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield who also took the producer’s chair. Vocals by The Temptations, And every bit of studio magic they could muster. A dance tune that has earned its designation as a masterwork.

Here’s the link to the playlist. Enjoy it and the day off, if you have it off.

Crossword Puzzle Blues

August 2021

I’m not playing coy in not noting the date. But I am aiming to convey a sense of indeterminacy.  It is August, of that I am certain. Yet the actual date itself seems to not matter much at all.

It’s tempting, right about here, to adopt the tone of a self-help guru in the moment before they experienced their great personal breakthrough. That sort of requires a breakthrough, though, and what more can be said of ennui? Believe me, there’s little satisfaction in dissatisfaction.

Funnily enough, while I have my moody moments (more correctly,  many moody moments, according to Mrs. AHC) I’m not generally dissatisfied. I’m pretty certain that in the great lottery of human existence I’m in the winner’s circle. Am I so petty as to be jealous of those folks who have scrambled to the pinnacle?  And if I’ve correctly identified myself as possessing one of the less noble emotions, should I find satisfaction in recognizing such an unseemly, even unsatisfactory, state?

Paragraphs like that last one probably lie behind an observation made by my high school lab partner: it’s easier for smarter people to end up unhappy.

That wasn’t a welcome contribution back in the day, and I probably feel about it now the way our friends–a majority of whom were, at the time, bound for the blue-collar ranks–may have then. It’s self-aggrandizing in an unpalatable way.

I like to think I do the work without cutting too many corners. I recognize real scholarship and talent when I see it. In more honest moments I can admit I possess a limited talent for verbal mimicry but lack any true capacity for insight. And what I’m truly deficient in, and so despise in many others, is the confidence that any of that matters as long as the talent, however modest, can be leveraged to ensure one’s betterment.

This is what happens when the loves that are really distractions–the music, the reading–stop working and seem burdens. Even old standby tactics, like starting another book so the pressure of the unread stack will force completion, stop working.

The only finality I find these days is in crossword puzzles. You start. You fill-in. You correct. And at the last you get a banner that says ‘Finished’ and notice of the time it took you to be a smarty-pants.

Maybe that’s going to have to pass for satisfaction for a while.

I’m Losing Friends, I’m Losing Face

Midsummer 2021

If I’m unable to finish a book I ought to at least prove I keep reading.

What better brain food for a Sunday morning, then, than a sociological take on just what’s going on with folks refusing Continue reading

The Honesty’s Too Much

I spend a lot of time thinking about reading. Not just because I don’t want to bore you, but because I’m paid to think about how to turn words into cold hard cash.

Ultimately, that requires reading and readers. I don’t know if I entirely agree with the arguments Holden Karnofsky recently made on the subject. But they’re provocative and worth considering.

That people skim and search for the relevant tidbit or le mot juste seems inarguable. How that isn’t akin to a sous chef gutting a fish, as Michael O’Malley once put it, appears less clear.

I do agree that writers who seek major time commitments from readers–those penning items  thousands of words long–must consider the audience, if only because you can’t win the argument (or make the sale or get the donation) if you lose the reader.

Read Karnofsky’s post here:

https://www.cold-takes.com/honesty-about-reading/.

Be Adrift on Your Radio

Mid-July 2021

Generationally speaking, I’m less inclined than younger people to ramble on about myself. It’s not as though I don’t have a head full of thoughts containing the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ just like everybody else. It’s more that Continue reading

It’s Sheep We’re Up Against

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American
 Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life
William Deresiewicz

Each of us has an Achilles’ heel, so I find no embarrassment in sharing mine: I’m a sucker for almost every form of biting the hand that feeds you. It’s comforting, somehow, to know that as operating modes go it’s an evergreen.

Admittedly, some corners of the world offer a safer refuge than others for hand-biting. As long as they Continue reading

Wave it Wide and High

July 4, 2021

Puzzling out whether it should be 60 or 100 degrees on the eve of Independence Day seems about as fruitless a task as figuring out whether the country can make it five more years to celebrate its 250th birthday.

But I’m not letting myself give in to despair because, as always, I find some hope and the glimmer of Continue reading

Fables and Troubles

Aesop’s Fables
Aesop, trans. by V.S. Vernon Jones

As I grow older, I wonder if conservative thinkers aren’t on to something when they talk about how people are more alike than not. Although I’m the first to advise ignoring anecdote in favor of seeking more robust evidence, I don’t think I’m alone, as a parent, in Continue reading

Here Comes the Rain Again

Memorial Day 2021

Unofficially the beginning of summer, here in the Northeast the Memorial Day weekend seems to have become the last gasp of April. At least it seems as though, in recent years, there have been more of these cool rainy weekends than not.

What if nature is trying to give us a pause to remember why we even have this holiday? Continue reading

The Rage of Man and Beast

Beowulf
Unknown, trans. by David Wright

As a good example of a Myers-Briggs NTP, I’m forever conceiving grand projects, the greatest number of which fail to come to fruition.

Close readers will note my attempt to sidestep the responsibilities of agency through use of the passive voice. I suppose that makes me a sometimes scoundrel. This Continue reading

Three Little Birds

Mother’s Day 2021

No one can object to a day that celebrates moms. Yet on a day when so many are celebrating their mothers, many others are missing theirs.

I miss my mom daily. And so, because the pressures of the day call me to them, today I’ll just leave you with three great songs Continue reading

All You do is Talk Talk

May Day 2021

In his 1901 book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Sigmund Freud,  introduced a concept he referred to as Fehlleistungen. English translations rendered that mouthful as a Greek word, parapraxis.

I’d bet even money it’s more likely you know the concept rather than either technical term. There’s even a Continue reading

Give the Piano Player a Drink

Down There
David Goodis

Vanity act that this space is, I do like to keep the reader in mind. Arguably, I fail miserably at that task for a simple reason that also explains my academic and career paths: I lack the ability to focus.

Oh, I can complete tasks, but in a world of enticing choices, I like to keep my options open. So, while I could Continue reading

Joining the World of Missing Persons

Honor Kills
Nanci Rathbun

When I was young, I knew two things about Milwaukee: Schlitz was the beer that had made it famous and it was the town the Happy Days/Laverne & Shirley gang called home.

Later, when I began traveling to points west for business, I discovered Midwest Express airlines and its Milwaukee hub. I’m still uncertain whether the allure was the fresh- Continue reading

It Must Have Been the Roses

Easter 2021

Photo by David Bartus from Pexels

It strikes me as more than a bit ironic that the flower most associated with Easter–the Christian feast day celebrating the Ressurection–is also the one most likely to be encountered at a funeral.

Maybe lyricists noticed the same thing. Because when it comes to inspiration, there are only a handful of songs inspired by lilies, Continue reading

Pictures of Matchstick Men

A Box of Matches
Nicholson Baker

It happened gradually, starting sometime. after I
turned 40.

Always an early riser–always being defined as since age 12 or so when my dad helpfully taught me to get up on my own to deliver the Sunday Long Island Press by grabbing the mattress handles and dumping me in a heap–I started Continue reading

He’s a Magic Man

Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince
J. K. Rowling

While in the middle of reading this volume aloud to the lad and lass, I stumbled across an article by Crispin Sartwell entitled Why They Suck: Harry Potter.”  Though Professor Sartwell and I have disagreed,  I find myself in some alignment with him on this matter.

Growing up alongside these tales of the wizarding world’s St. Saviour, one might not notice Continue reading

What to do When the Lights Go Out

Daylight Savings Time 2021

So, you’ve had an “hour” stolen from you.

I’m here to tell you it could be worse.

Because you’ll survive resetting your clocks and have something to complain about for the next two days or so.

I, on the other hand, have a full home network meltdown on my hands. Like everyone else in the age of pandemic, I’m my own IT guy and that’s not a skill set I maintain nor does it come naturally to me. I find myself reduced, then,  to this short post from my phone, as if I were a true digital citizen instead of a visitor from the mechanical age.

Enjoy your day and week. Stay safe. Drink good coffee and hug someone you love.

Peace.

 

Just Looking for Another Girl

A New-England Tale
Catherine Maria Sedgwick

The first street I lived on in the Bronx ran parallel to one of the longer ones in the borough. Each was named for a luminary. Mine was named after the shipbuilder William Henry Webb, whose Institute of Naval Architecture once sat at the foot of it before decamping, as my family did a few years later, for Long Island.

The longer lane, from which mine broke off and later ran back into, was Sedgwick Avenue. Starting at the Harlem River it stretches north until Van Cortlandt Park keeps it from Continue reading

A Brand New Crescent Moon

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss at Forest Hill Stadium
June 4, 2022

As a crescent moon rose over the neo-Tudor facades of nearby apartment buildings, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss entertained a less-than-sold-out crowd to an evening of music that drew liberally from several catalogs: folk music, 1950s R&B, blues and Continue reading