Too Soon to Tell
I’ve visited with Calvin Trillin before and it’s usually a reliably enjoyable sojourn. The man is one of the more amusing fellows to peck at a typewriter, especially when the subject is food and/or travel.
Trillin is also one of those guys who is too versatile to be believable. Just when you think you’ve got him pigeon-holed as a humorist, you pick up his Civil Rights era reporting and realize that he’s actually a fine long-form journalist. Wrap your head around that and you find him writing memoirs that are as poignant as anything in the genre.
Then there are the remembrances of his father, his college friend and his wife. I’ve read two of those and each was as touching as any eulogy you will ever encounter. The man has even covered politics.
So why did this volume leave me short?
Perhaps it’s the form, maybe it’s the time period. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Among Trililn’s income streams (I’m sorry, but the man makes is living as a writer and so that’s the appropriate term) is that he is a columnist.
Only recently I noted I have no idea how one becomes a columnist. As with cartoonists, there always seems to be a syndicate involved. And for some reason I have never been able to shake the idea that somehow all syndicates originate in Kansas City. Maybe that’s the connection. Although Trillin is old school and came to New York to be a New Yorker, he’s still a Midwesterner happy to boost his hometown. This could just be a case of flatlanders looking out for flatlanders.
The column thing is important because the present volume is a collection of them spanning a roughly four-year time period staring around 1990. That period stands out vividly for me for a number of reasons. My career was underway, I was living in the City (that’s what we in the Long Island suburbs and our brethren in the boroughs call Manhattan). And I was jumping into my first marriage.
I have to be fair. The fact that I’m counting suggests I may view a significant period of my life from a bitter perspective though I try not to.
At the time, I already knew who Trillin was. I even knew that friends called him Bud although I can’t recall whether I heard that from my ex-wife’s father or her assistant. I’m reasonably certain that one of Bud’s daughters would up as the assistant to my ex’s assistant. But that’s a whole other tale.
That brings us back to the present volume which is a miscellany of things that caught Bud’s attention in the early 90s. That includes, in no particular order, the demise of The New York Times‘ weekly columns on stamp and coin collecting; the retirement of the Tic Tac Toe playing chicken in Chinatown; the advent of the Clinton administration and chain saws.
There are dozens more and you’ll come away from them as you might from an ice cream sundae buffet, aware that you’ve indulged yet not quite sure whether it was good for you and if it’s at all related to that turning in your tummy. The truth is, this is the essence of disposable writing.
I’m not always wearing a hairshirt although it may seem that way. I wouldn’t have discovered Trilllin in the first place if I only read serious stuff. And the food writing was instructive even as it amused. In a way it was The Food Network before that channel launched.
This book, though, is too light. As I said, I think it’s the form, meant to amuse people otherwise engaged in the Op Ed page while eating oatmeal or something else that’s good for them.
I’m not going to beat a dead horse. There are some topical moments that I’d forgotten about. I didn’t, for instance, know that he’d taken on the German approach to child naming, which might interest anyone who’s puzzled over what happens to babies named Apple.
The best bit in the book was about something I hope we don’t see again even if there is a second Clinton Administration. You my recall the Renaissance Weekend, a self-congratulatory, exclusive networking event held at what would otherwise be a mostly empty golf resort while most people are nursing a hangover. In a way it was TED before the internet (although Al Gore was an attendee). I’ll let Bud have the final word since he does a better job than I ever will:
This raises the question of exactly what networking is. If you discount [Philip] Lader‘s tendency to describe the people he knows or wants to meet as having demonstrated “innovative achievement on a national or regional level”–and you can put that language in perspective by understanding that Phyllis George is one of the people so described–networking may bring to mind a phrase you always associated with your Uncle Harry, the one who represented several lines of leather goods and was always so particular about the shine on his shoes and the knot in his tie: “making contacts.”
…a basic principle of what networking has come to mean: it’s more important to know someone than to agree with him.