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 where you have to go to find violent crime. I’ve read a lot of Thompson’s work and I assure you, he finds plenty of violence amid the good folk of small-town America.

The social scientist in me desperately wants to explore that subject but it’s a little far afield. Here we have a commercial work of art, a masterwork if I believe the name bestowed by the British publisher on the series in which this particular volume appeared.

Increasingly I find myself considering the choices made by publishers. Part of it is a fascination with books as objects for which I have a particular reverence. And part is wondering just why they make the decisions they do.

I’d said in an earlier piece on a Thompson novel that I  first encountered him during an explosive period that saw a lot of post-war noir fiction republished under the Black Lizard imprint. I don’t recall seeing this title back then, although in searching for the cover picture I see they did reprint it. Still, as masterworks go it strikes me as a somewhat minor one.

When I say small town early-20th-century America this is what I mean.

Nick Corey is the lackadaisical-appearing sheriff of Potts County, residing in Pottsville, which is evidently the county seat.  He is, in his own words, suited for nothing more than being high sheriff.

Whether others believe that is an open question made more pertinent by an approaching election. Nick knows what’s going on in his jurisdiction, he just doesn’t bestir himself to do too much about it. I’m not certain I’ve ever before encountered a lawman whose first calling was as a trencherman.

Nick has a wife and a couple of girlfriends and more than a couple of problems, all of which he’s trying to work out between bouts of drinking whiskey, eating beyond a normal man’s fill and tumbling into bed with his mistresses. He even attempts to share his affections with his wife, a woman the word harpy was coined for, but is physically rebuffed.

Thompson has always been an excellent craftsman, excelling in producing tightly plotted tales that often have a twist you didn’t see coming. For some odd reason, the French seem to have done a better job translating Thomson’s sensibility to the screen. Maybe that’s why the best American movie made from one of his books was made by a Brit–Stephen Frears‘ 1990 adaptation of The Grifters

So, Nick Corey. We meet Nick as he’s heading out to catch the morning train, headed for the next big city., or at least a larger town–four to five thousand people easy. While the period is a little vague, to me it seems to be the early decades of the 20th century. There are 20th-century conveniences, such as home phones and cameras, but there are as many if not more horses and wagons than cars and tractors. Nick does a lot of his sherriffing on two feet.

Of course there’s a feed store. There’s always a feed store.
Click on the photo to visit a neat site about Texas towns.)

If we catch glimpses of Nick’s domestic arrangements at the outset, an encounter on the train starts to round out the picture. He sees Amy Mason, a well-off townswoman whom he approaches. Amy, it turns out, was close to becoming Mrs. Corey until Nick got himself in a pickle at a state or county fair and came home with a wife and her idiot brother. Amy is furious.

In the big city Nick visits with Ken Lacey, a lawman so foul he makes every other crooked cop figure in literature seem like an amateur. A violent, brutal, thin-skinned, bully, Sheriff Lacey treats Corey like the bumpkin he believes him to be. He’ll come to regret that decision but, unknowing, he explains the ways of the world to Corey, trying to knock the damn fool ideas he holds out of his head.

Those damn fool ideas have only a little to do with Corey’s role as sheriff. In that department, it’s fair to say Lacey believes Corey isn’t aggressive enough. No, it’s on the matter of race that a lot of folks find Corey lacking. It’s not that Corey is an angel, it’s that he’s less likely to engage in public displays of his attitudes.

I actually think Corey’s relatively benign behavior on race is meant to distract us. Somewhere around page 35 bodies start piling up and each successive killing is more efficient than the last. The only uncertainty is whether the initial killings are mere score-settling or part of some grander scheme.

While this is actually Washington state, it seems about right for the period I envisioned while reading.
(Click on the photo to read more)

Nick Corey, you see, is not the dimwit many believe him to be. He may not be a swaggering legal presence but he plays the people of his town like a well-tuned piano. He secures his re-election with an all too believable rumor campaign and when he’s confronted about it makes short shrift of his opponent and his would-be successor’s most vocal supporter.

On a smaller scale, he manages to turn the inwardly spiraling mess of his personal life completely around. Oh, sure, the cost is more than a few lives, but Nick is all about self-preservation. If he can’t be high sheriff here can he be it it anywhere? He needs to, he must hang on.

Unless, of course, he’s completely bonkers and life in a small town far removed from urban society has sent him around the bend. To say much more is to give away too much of the plot and with Thompson, I find the enjoyment is in discovering just where it’s all been leading.

I haven’t been able to finish a book since June. I could have done worse than get back on the horse with this one.

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

Tu Cherches Quoi, Rencontrer la Mort?

A Maigret Christmas: And other Stories
Georges Simenon

Can crime fiction aspire to literature?

Is it even worth pondering that question? Or am I once again cutting corners, attempting to form a thesis out of a trifle?  As important, can anyone as prolific as Georges Simenon create literary work?

I’m not certain I can answer any of those questions and I’d Continue reading

In a Swamp

Mangrove Lightning
Randy Wayne White

When I took this book out of the local library the clerk at the circulation desk gave me a quizzical look. “It’s winter,” I said, “and I need a Florida fishing break.”

For years, ever since I stumbled upon a Doc Ford novel while preparing to spend a week on Sanibel Island, that’s the role these books have played. I’m told this is the 24th Continue reading

It’s Just a Theory

The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and
the Birth of the People’s Economy

Stephanie Kelton

The only social science that sees its contributions recognized with a Nobel Prize, is economics. So you can forgive the practitioners for mistaking their field of study with chemistry and physics.

If you pause for a moment, though, and consider that the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, is not, in fact, one of the prizes established by the inventor of TNT despite all the energy Continue reading

Take My Hand and I’ll Lead Ya

Candide and Other Stories
Voltaire

I spend too much time on Twitter. That’s not an unusual statement and I suspect that like many other people who might find themselves nodding in agreement I’m not alone in being able to rationalize the time I do spend.

Here’s one such attempt: when there, I indulge in an ongoing discussion about books with a better read, Continue reading

Roam If You Want To

Peripatetic (adj.) : moving or traveling from place to place

In the depths of winter, I always find a splash of color goes a long way in reminding me of the vibrancy of life. And what, I ask you, is more vibrant than a flamboyance of flamingoes?

So while you might think cooler temperatures and longer nights offer a time to catch up, the reality is that my attention span–which has always been a weak spot– Continue reading

Revenge of the Nerds

Tricky Twenty-Two
Janet Evanovich

If you have many of the symptoms of a disease that has killed a lot of people, but not a major convalescence, it’s safe to conclude that you’re either an alien, blessed with an unusually robust autoimmune system or suffering from a related, less virulent bug. I’m betting on the last Continue reading

Language is a Virus

A Note from the Contagious Disease Ward

My plans for 2021 did not include sitting here with a pound, pound, pounding headache that even Excedrin might not alleviate. I suppose that’s the appropriate,  reward for playing nursemaid-on-the-contagious-disease-ward and Mr. Mom for the last week and a half.  I should probably happily accept that having only a few symptoms beats a full house.

So I’m just going to post a video–one of the two Laurie Anderson recordings I can listen to–and crawl back to my misery. I will offer this report, having watched this virus’s progression: it’s a nasty bug, survivable if you’re healthy but damned unpleasant.

Take it seriously. Don’t be foolhardy. A mask isn’t an imposition on your freedom. If people walked from east of the Mississippi to California, you can handle this unusual period in our shared history.

Stay safe.

 

I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink

Pick-Up
(Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, A Library of America Volume)
Charles Willeford

While you’d be forgiven for not remembering why I put this multi-title volume down, I can’t. Part of me thinks such behavior would be more understandable if the book contained works of a single author. I can even offer proof: one of the several Henry James volumes from the Library of America sits across the room, daring me to pick it up Continue reading

A Hell of a Year

The Year in Music: The Titular Playlist

If you’re reading this, you made it.

In any given year some of us don’t. You may know someone who was here at the beginning of 2020 and who you never thought wouldn’t be here now. If that’s so, I wish you peace.

Amidst such a mess, maintaining a tradition might seem silly. But I’ve become a big fan of traditions, recognizing them as a useful Continue reading

Like a Phoenix I Have Risen

Harry Potter and the Oder of the Phoenix
J.K. Rowling

I am happy to report that the lad and I survived our read-aloud Battle of Stalingrad. That may not be the kindest characterization of this longest installment in the Harry Potter series, but it accurately conveys the feeling of endless, dark struggle that permeates the book.

It’s probably appropriate that we began reading in the Continue reading

Going Up The Country

Cry The Beloved Country
Alan Paton

Last I looked, Earth was a pretty good-sized planet. Lots of water, sure, but seven continents, six of them habitable and populated. Plenty of cultural diversity if you put a little effort into looking.

Maybe making the effort is too much to ask. Or maybe there’s some truth to the idea that the engines of our Continue reading

Having Fun Out Here on Panic Beach

Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity
Michael Lewis (ed.)

When is a story not a story? And when should an author, like children of yore, be seen and not heard? And when is modern insanity not terribly different from historical insanity?

I might answer those questions and I might not because I’m not entirely certain what to think about this book, which I selected to distract myself from this year’s Continue reading

Oh Lord I Go for Penguins

Mr. Popper’s Penguins
Richard and Florence Atwater

Childhood maladies that recur in one’s adult years are no fun. I’d much rather the regimen of corn starch baths and phenobarbitol I recall than the loopy steroid-fueled course of therapy I’ve been on the past week. Believe me, the election was small beer by comparison.

Maybe that’s not so. But what’s definitely true is that I found myself sidelined in my various reading projects, let alone writing about them. Even reading the Potter corpus aloud was hit or miss. Luckily, I was able to finish a book I insisted on reading to the kids in the wake of finishing the monster-volume in the Potter series.

I haven’t the strength to address Harry right now, but penguins offer a proven therapeutic respite.  There once was a time when one of the most soothing balms I could offer my tortured soul was to stand staring as the penguins at the Central Park Zoo swam, dived and cavorted. Watching them, I still find it hard to keep a smile off my face, no matter how blue I may feel.

Maybe that goes back to the joy of this book from my childhood. I  hoped to share that feeling with my own kids, but I did have some concerns. From what I remembered, the book was set more or less around the time of its publication: the late 1930s, so the back end of the Great Depression.

Go ahead, try not to smile. I dare you.

In the early 1970s, when I first encountered this misplaced flock, the Depression was an event that had shaped a couple of generations. We didn’t lack for consumer goods, but they were few and singular: one TV (color only arrived in 1971 or 72), one car, one record player, one AM radio in the kitchen. My grandparents told tales of how radio offered much better entertainment than television, even as my grandfather settled in for an evening of Gomer Pyle and Gunsmoke.

So I, at least, had a reference set. My kids, raised in a world of YouTube, DVRs and on-demand video can’t even comprehend the idea of scheduled television let alone reruns. How were they going to react to a world as alien to them as it was familiar to me?

Turns out, pretty well. I think it must be the birds, although Robert Lawson‘s illustrations, recognizable from our earlier encounter with The Story of Ferdinand, probably helped. Let’s see why.

An entire city, it seems, can have a thing for penguins–at least when the city is Pittsburgh.

Mr. Potter is a somewhat scatter-brained house painter living in Stillwater. What I said to my kids when we read this was that I thought Stillwater was like Springfield, common enough for everyone to relate to but not in any particular state, though I knew there was one in Oklahoma. My friends in the Wiki kingdom, though, claim the town is in Minnesota. I’ve no reason to understand why they believe that, the state is never mentioned in the book. So beware the authority of all online oracles and go look for yourself.

I said scatter-brained and that may be unfair. He might be, in his own daydreaming way, a nascent genius. He’s certainly responsible for the still-popular interior design trick of painting one wall a different color, though in his case it seems more a matter of mistake than intent. He’d much rather be lost in the books of polar exploration he spends his free time immersed in.

When we meet him, Mr.Popper is about to settle in for a long winter with his books. It turns out that house painting is a seasonal business and that each year comes with a built-in 6-month sabbatical. Here’s my proof that a story can transcend time: my 9-year old son, upon hearing Mrs. Popper say that money was tight and they’d just have to eat more beans to make ends meet, almost burst into tears. It probably helped that the Popper children, Bill and Janie, are close to his age.

There were plenty of penguins in my own childhood, of course.

Mr. Popper no sooner settles in for his winter routine than when, in a radio address from the South Pole, Admiral Drake calls him out and tells him to look for a surprise. It soon arrives: an Emperor penguin immediately christened Captain Cook after the explorer.

The bird turns the household upside down. Accommodations–costly accommodations–are made. But the bird also attracts attention. Then his spirit and health seem to flag. Mr. Popper contacts an expert at an aquarium. The response comes in two parts: a statement of not knowing what the problem is and delivery of a female penguin who is also ailing. Now the Poppers have two birds and money is even tighter.

But wait, there’s more, much more! Greta, as they quickly christen the new arrival, perks up, then just as quickly flags. But this isn’t ennui; it’s pregnancy. And Greta–an exceptional bird–lays ten eggs. Soon enough the Popper’s have a dozen penguins, each with its name painted on its back so they can be identified. They also have a frozen and flooded basement where the birds romp and, eventually, pick up a trick or two.

Habits of dress like this led the Blues Brothers to call nuns penguins.

It’s those tricks that save the day. The Popper Penguins become a vaudeville act, signed at a movie-star like salary of $5,000 a week. That’s a lot of money even today; in the depths of economic misery, it must have seemed astronomical.

The money solves many problems, but it creates new ones. The act pays its own expenses. Traveling, feeding and bedding down a dozen squawking birds is neither easy nor cheap. Worse, as temperatures begin to rise the birds begin to fail. What to do?

Enter Admiral Drake, back from the South Pole. He has a proposition for Mr. Popper. So, too, does Mr. Greenbaum, a Hollywood producer who’s approached the vaudeville promoter with a film deal. Mr. Popper must choose: say goodbye to his beloved birds, who will seed the first arctic colony of penguins, or hit the show biz big time. (One glory of kid’s books: you can ignore that both these choices are wildly improbable and prone to failure.)

You should read the book to find out what choice Mr. Popper makes. My kids understood it and, seeing as how this was for them (which is what I always tell myself when it’s really for me), that’s what counts.

I Meant to Close the Polls

The Day After Election Day 2020

I’ve as much business as anyone mouthing off about an election in which votes are still being counted. Which is to say I really have no business doing so at all.

That isn’t going to stop me, although I’m going to limit myself to a few observations and implications:

• In a binary situation, there are some things we should be able to agree about.
First and foremost I’d put the absence of open violence and armed voter intimidation in the success column. I’m not talking about the ongoing efforts of one shrinking political party to limit the franchise. I’m talking about what in my darkest moments I feared was possible: ‘citizen militias’ showing up at polling places in multiple states. Maybe our civil disagreements can remain heated, but civil.

There will be plenty of time for autopsies but we need a body first.
I stayed up well past my Benjamin Franklin bedtime and arose before dawn. At each end of my shortened slumbers, talkers and writers were hard at work, explaining away the world as they saw it at that moment. Sure, there are questions. Aren’t there always?  Is polling broken? Was the existence of Silent Trump Supporters proven? Whose strategic missteps mattered more?  I’m as interested as anyone, but really, don’t we all deserve a break? I kind of feel wrung out.

As an idea, civic religion may have been oversold.
For months, I’ve listened to pundits talk about the sacredness of American elections and always thought, what malarkey. Religion belongs in your favorite house of worship on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Politics is transactional and that’s not a bad thing. It means the folks voting against your candidate (who may be friends, neighbors or relatives) don’t think the offered policies will much benefit them, nothing more or less. That’s not a failure, it’s a raging success.

• Whatever the ultimate outcome, this year’s electorate has sent a message.
Bear with me as I dust off an old grad school truism:  response–whether aggregated or individual–contains information. Understanding that information is where the value lies.  Here’s the number one fact: at least 60 million Americans (9:22 AM, 11/5/2020, Washington Post) agreed with enough of President Trump’s message and past actions to say he deserves four more years. They just can’t be ignored or disparaged.

Emotions about politics have never been higher. I think we’d all benefit from turning the temperature down.

But I’ve also been told I think too much.

I’m Off to the Civil War

The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial
Robert Penn Warren

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking it’s time to bone up on the 1850s. In more sober moments I think I should venture even further back. I mean, all those easy-to-confuse Presidents in between Van Buren and Buchanan got up to something, didn’t they?

Premonitions of civil unrest aside, I’m also forever looking for band-aids to slap over Continue reading

Play it Slow

An Ace and a Pair
Blake Banner

Sometimes the reasons I accomplish less than I set out to slap me right upside my head. There exist any number of things I should be reading. More than a few of them currently occupy one of my disjoint literary spaces: books I’ve begun, books I’m actively reading, books I’ve placed in some sort of geeky limbo.

Often enough I’ve been led astray by the siren song of Continue reading

Everything from A to Z

Provence A-Z
Peter Mayle

Travel books–by which I mean books wherein the writer shares with you, placid reader, the fruits of the labors of his or her travels, and not those travel guide books published by Fodor’s and DK that you see anxious tourists tightly gripping while they gum up the streets of the burg in which Continue reading

Climb a Mountain to Reach Yourself

Embracing the Inconceivable: Interspiritual Practice of
Zen and Christianity
Ellen Birx

Often, as I made my way through this brief, gentle volume, I thought of how I’d begin the post I would come to write about it. And while I may work in some of the ideas and anecdotes that surfaced during my interlude with Ms. Birx, I actually need to begin by conceding Continue reading

Gonna Sit Right Down and….

Early Fall 2020

Around here, autumn’s crispness has arrived right on schedule. And while I’ve often tossed around the idea of basing a playlist on my favorite season, I’m not quite ready to do so yet.

What I’ve been dwelling on recently are letters.  Despite email, text and other expedited forms, a physical letter–even better, a handwritten note–still stands out. Is Continue reading

Missin’ Like a Cuckoo Brain

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Ken Kesey

This is not my first encounter with this book. The classics, the things you’re supposed to read when you’re young because you’ll never take the time to read them later in life, those I avoid until they turn up in this space.

Kesey, though,  suffers from the opposite problem with me. There he is,  smack dab in the middle of the great Continue reading

Judge Not

Thoughts on the Passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Justice, United States Supreme Court
1933-2020

A few years back, catching up with an old friend,  I heard a statement that caught me by surprise. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” said the voice from Red State America, “has got to go. She’s the biggest threat to America as a country. ”

It’s still a shocking statement, even if my old buddy now has reason to sleep easier.

How did we get to such a place? Continue reading

The Pain of the Scars That Won’t Heal

The Book of Daniel
E.L. Doctorow

I grabbed this book as I walked out the door for what, to date, is only the second Jersey shore vacation I’ve ever taken. During the first, way back in 1976, I heard a priest (my mom didn’t believe in suspending Catholic rules) deliver a sermon built around E.L.Doctorow‘s recently Continue reading

Workin’ for a Living

Labor Day 2020

As our pandemic summer nears its end I’m grateful that the people I know and care about are safe and healthy. And I’m thankful to be working when so many are not.

Here in the US we celebrate working with a last weekend of ease. And what’s Continue reading

Must Be the Season of the Witch

The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England
Carol F. Karlsen

Although I continue to be baffled by irony as a concept, in practice it’s an unending source of delight. And so, as the Fall semester approaches, I find myself utterly bemused as academia–a business still following a 12th-century model–attempts to reinvent itself on the fly.

A thousand flowers will bloom, no doubt, and each will have fans and foes. But until that inevitable fracas starts Continue reading

The Warmth of the Sun

Gone Fishin’ 2020

There comes a time in every man’s life when he has to admit that stepping back, even if only for a moment, is the wise thing to do. So I’m going to act on that insight and take myself to the beach for a few days. Okay, I’ll take the rest of the brood, too.

I’ve always found the last days of August bring a bit of poignancy with them. No matter what Brian Wilson says, summer isn’t endless and these last lingering days are really a prelude to the glories of autumn. Savor them even as you watch them go. It’s such little things, I find, that feed my soul.

For Daddy’s Girl

The Snake Tatoo
Linda Barnes

One of the things I like to tell myself about the years I spent learning I wasn’t cut out to be an engineer is that I learned the value of efficiency. Now, it strikes me that I’ve been confusing efficiency with economy. That’s no Continue reading

Dreamin’ When I Wrote This

The Best American Essays 2000
Alan Lightman, Guest Editor; Robert Atwan, Series Editor

It’s time to close out the last millennium.

For many people, the arrival of the year 2000 began with celebrating. I spent it on a couch, exhausted from driving hundred-mile circles, redistributing, in safe spaces leant me by kind souls, randomly selected bits and pieces of a life I was about to leave behind, a life I’d worked hard Continue reading

I’m Joining the Professionals

Professional Excellence: Beyond Technical Competence
Alan P. Rositer

What exactly is a professional? You must admit, it’s one of the more challenging words in the English language.

Sometimes it’s an adjective, one often applied to adults paid to play children’s games. Sometimes it’s a noun, intended to convey that the person identifying with it is more rigorously schooled and trained in a particular body Continue reading

When This Battle is Over

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
J. K. Rowling

With midsummer fast approaching, and the next Potter volume just about half-read, now seems as good a time as any to see what our favorite wizard has gotten himself up to. I may come to regret that decision. The reading has slowed down and August has five Sundays this year.

None of which matters to Harry and his two best friends. This installment, year four in the series, stands Continue reading

I Hear Music

Best Music Writing 2010
Ann Powers, Guest Editor; Daphne Carr, Series Editor

The Stone Cottage, in which I sit writing, was not named in a fit of whimsy. It is, quite literally, a small fieldstone and timber structure built around 1909. Architecturally it offers all the accoutrements of that day, which is to say that, as a farm outbuilding constructed for use in a pre- Continue reading

Once in Every Twenty Years

September 11, 2021

I hadn’t planned to do this.

For decades now, I’ve avoided the entire subject, especially on the anniversary.

Of course, I have my story of that day. It lacks the heroic, life-taking/life-saving efforts of the police, fire and EMT Continue reading