What I miss

Image of a Troxler effect from BigThink.com.

This year has felt like several years crammed into one, and almost none of them have been good.

Was it really only eight months ago that life was “normal,” in that — the White House Reality Show notwithstanding — it seemed like a continuation of most of what we’ve experienced during previous decades, and not some remnant of the Middle Ages during a plague outbreak?

Eventually — I keep telling myself — we will return to some degree of the Before. I do hope (with many, many doubts given the behavior of too many people and governments) that we have learned something: about the importance of teachers, hospital personnel, and the invisible working class who keep our societies functional; about the necessity of personal contact; about how easily things can fall apart.

But O, how I miss so many things.

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Sunday read: Swingin’ on the flippity-flop with Nirvana and Pearl Jam

Image from Classic Album Sundays.

(h/t to Will Leitch for the tip)

Sometime in the early ’90s, I remember going into my local Atlanta Macy’s and seeing a large display of overpriced flannel shirts.

Grunge had gone mainstream.

Hell, grunge had gone past mainstream. “Mainstream” is usually acceptable and ignored. This was a shameless attempt by some middle-aged clothing buyer to impress suburban Georgia kids by nodding in their direction — and failing miserably.

The New York Times had been there. In late 1992, the Paper of Record did a piece for its featherweight Styles section on grunge culture. Accompanying the article was a “grunge dictionary,” featuring such commonplace Puget Sound vernacular as “harsh realm” (bummer), “Tom-Tom Club” (uncool outsiders), and my favorite, “swingin’ on the flippity-flop” (hanging out).

Sounds like the bee’s knees, right? I mean, whaddya want, wicker?

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Driving in Manhattan

Image from Pinterest.

It happened again last night: I dreamed I was driving in Manhattan.

This time I was driving down Broadway, the Flatiron Building clearly visible, dead center, from somewhere in the 50s. New York, as it often does in my dreams, looked partially suburban, somewhat denuded of the endless canyons of skyscrapers it has in reality. It was free as well of much of the car traffic.

I had gotten in the far right lane and realized at the last minute that I had to cut over two lanes to continue on Broadway instead of some other unrevealed avenue; I did, with little problem, and the landscape remained suburban, with individual ranch houses with lawns on my left and, soon enough, Madison Square Park on my right.

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A tip of the cap to Major League Baseball

Image from AP via Spectrum News 1.

I had my doubts.

When Major League Baseball announced its 60-game regular season, I thought it was a mistake. It was one thing for the NBA to enclose itself in a bubble to keep Covid-19 at bay; MLB, with its larger roster and teams traveling all over the country, seemed doomed to fall to the disease.

And in the early going, it appeared that I — and many other naysayers — were going to be right. In the first few weeks of the season, several series were postponed due to the virus, and several players were afflicted. A few, including the Braves’ Nick Markakis, said they would sit the season out. (He came back, but not without a scare.)

But now, with the championship series in the books and only the World Series left to play, the sport has marked more than 47 days — that’s close to seven weeks, taking us back to August — without a positive Covid test.

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Sunday read: What it takes

Image from the Associated Press/Andrew Harnik via NBCnews.com.

I’m thinking about Richard Ben Cramer.

I met Cramer, a legendary journalist who died in 2013, in May 2004, when he was on a book tour for his work on the Middle East, “How Israel Lost.” If my faulty memory recalls correctly, our interview was supposed to be a brief conversation about the book, but Cramer never encountered a fellow journalist who didn’t immediately become an old friend, and he invited me to an event he was attending that evening.

Being the starstruck putz I am, I tagged along as he drank and smoked and talked and glad-handed and talked and smoked and talked some more, an entertaining companion with endless stories. At one point, I asked him who he thought would make a good president. He didn’t hesitate.

“I’ve always liked Joe Biden,” he said.

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Review: ‘The Body’ by Bill Bryson

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a famous line by the screenwriter William Goldman about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”

Goldman’s statement seems even more apropos to Bill Bryson’s most recent book, “The Body: A Guide for Occupants.”

Over and over again, despite talking with leading experts and immersing himself in who knows how many books, Bryson has to revert to uncertainty. “We are not quite sure how solid that advice is,” he writes about the proper amount of fat in a diet. “Today [asthma] is common and still not understood,” he says about the respiratory ailment. “Meaningful definition [of pain] is impossible,” he offers.

And, of course, “The field of sex studies has a long history of providing dubious statistics,” Bryson says after reeling off some of the more improbable (“Men think of sex every seven seconds,” “The average amount of time kissing in a lifetime is 20,160 minutes [336 hours].”) That may express a lack of trust about sex, but at least a lack of trust about sex isn’t surprising. Just think of all the jokes about penis size: “What are the three sizes of condom? Small, medium and liar.”

None of this is bad, or even off-putting. But it is surprising, especially from a guy who wrote “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” a book about astronomy and cosmology that, for me at least, provided some real answers — or, at least, pretty well-supported theories — about earth and space. Heck, “Nearly Everything” even got into quantum physics, practically the definition of “uncertainty.” (Just ask Erwin Schrodinger.)

Now, I love Bill Bryson. I particularly love “Nearly Everything,” because it has a wide-eyed curiosity about a subject that, by its nature, invites awe — a nice combination. But for “The Body,” you get the feeling that the author, who’s probably more famous for his books about language (“The Mother Tongue”) and traveling (“I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” “A Walk in the Woods,” “In a Sunburned Country”), decided to turn inward to biology and anatomy and was met with more confusion and frustration than he got from quantum physicists.

Still, “The Body” makes for a typically entertaining read, with Bryson’s love of knowledge and tidbits forever breaking through the “We’re not sure” shrugs.

For example, did you know that Theodor Escherich, who examined our excrement and found a number of microorganisms, including the one now known as E. (for Escherichia) coli, called it Bacteria coli commune? Or that apes don’t have an Achilles tendon? Or that Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian medical instructor, helped eliminate what was called childbed fever simply by recommending doctors wash their hands before doing examinations? Semmelweis, who sounds at least as important as Joseph Lister, was a prophet without honor in his lifetime, losing his job, being committed to an asylum, and beaten to death by his guards. And that was just a little more than 150 years ago.

Medicine has come a long way since then — even if we human beings remain notoriously unpredictable on an individual level. “The Body” came out at the end of last year, so there is no mention of Covid-19, but the reaction of our bodies to that disease is another one for the books, literally: some people asymptomatic, others violently ill, too many dead. It would likely have been a whole chapter in a later edition, but it’s provided no reason to laugh — and laughter is one reason “The Body” makes for a good read.

I wouldn’t say the book is among Bryson’s best. There’s just too much aggravation on the part of the author, who must have wondered what he got into. (It was probably more fun to write about black holes or weird Australian insects.) Moreover, some of the material has already been ably chronicled by Mary Roach, whom Bryson — to his credit — acknowledges when appropriate.

But Bryson is always a welcome guide, so if you’re looking for a breezy tour that takes you from head to toe, “The Body” is a winner. And if you’re still unsure? You know what they say: Ask your doctor.

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Sunday read: Three pieces from a writer you’ve probably never heard of

So many stories. So much talent.

Such a great loss.

Jim Dwyer died Thursday. He was just 64.

Now, you’ve probably never heard of Jim Dwyer. If you’re a thorough reader of The New York Times, you know he wrote the “About New York” column for the Paper of Record, but it’s the kind of column that most national readers of the Times probably skip. In the days when newspapers ruled the world, he may have been syndicated, like his Gotham brethren Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, or Chicago’s Mike Royko, but the Times tended to focus its syndicated love on its op-ed columnists, so New York-centric writers like Dwyer were left to the locals.

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Review: ‘The Silent Patient’ by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Beware the book that is known for its twist.

There’s nothing wrong with twists, of course. The concluding pages of Robertson Davies’ “Fifth Business” are a master class in inducing gasps. Stephen King has been known to pull off a few in his short stories. (I can still remember the shock of the ending of “I Am the Doorway” from “Night Shift.”) Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” left me wondering in a good way.

But if the twist is all you have going for you, then the rest of the book is going to fall to pieces under its weight.

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Eddie Van Halen, 1955-2020

Image from Getty via Rolling Stone.

I was not a Van Halen fan.

This made me unusual among my generation. I entered high school in 1978, when the band released its debut album, and their music was inescapable well into my college years. The local AOR station played “Dance the Night Away” and “And the Cradle Will Rock” enough to wear holes in the grooves; MTV pretty much ran cuts from “1984” nonstop. Van Halen was one of the towering groups of my demographic.

But, in general, it wasn’t my kind of rock. I thought it sounded kinda dumb and flashy and not at all what a ’60s/New Wave-besotted teen listened to. (At least this one.)

But I was, and remain, an Eddie Van Halen fan.

How could I not be? The guy was a genuine guitar wizard, capable of making sounds only imagined by his peers, with speed and dexterity to burn.

And underneath those chops — on display in “Eruption,” “Hot for Teacher,” and the solo to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” among many others — there was genuine soul. He wasn’t a speedfingers for the sake of speed; there was real heart underneath that tapping and bending.

Van Halen died Tuesday of cancer. He was 65.

His work may have been dazzling, but the man himself was rather reserved. My friend Denise Quan had the opportunity to interview Van Halen more than once, and reported that, in person, he was the antithesis to the image of a hard-partying rock star — thoughtful and soft-spoken. (Indeed, he was known to spend hours on tour simply playing guitar in his hotel room. David Lee Roth, on the other hand …) Indeed, he even invented an indestructible instrument, the Wolfgang, to resist the wear-and-tear he gave conventional (that is, non-Eddie Van Halen-created or -altered) guitars.

So I may not have had “Van Halen II” on repeat, but I had (and have) a huge respect for the band’s lead guitarist. He loved the music, and spoke best through his work.

As he told Denise, “Believe it or not, I really don’t have much to say — ’cause the equipment speaks for itself. And so does the music.”

No question about that.

Sunday read: The bus driver

Image from The New Yorker.

Remember how, back when Covid descended, we realized the importance of all those poorly respected, poorly paid jobs? Not the medical occupations — though those, too — but delivery people? Supermarket stockers and cashiers? Teachers? Cooks and servers?

I’ll bet Terence Layne does.

Layne is a New York City bus driver and the central figure in “A Transit Worker’s Survival Story,” a New Yorker feature by Jennifer Gonnerman. It’s my Sunday read.

Layne is a 21-year veteran of the MTA, the New York transit authority, and has become a kind of role model for other transit workers: knowledgeable about the history of New York transit (especially the role Black people have played), active on driver social media groups, chief shop steward at his depot. He knows that bus drivers, like so many others, are generally invisible to the alleged movers and shakers of the big city — politicians, financiers, the kind of people who take a bus about as often as they avoid a tax-deductible lunch.

“Ordinarily we’re not appreciated. We’re not valued. Let’s face it: the squeegee man of the crack era is held in greater regard and higher esteem than a New York City transit bus operator,” Layne said on a video he recorded for some Facebook groups. “We just have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that sometimes the only recognition you’re going to receive is from the woman or man reflected back to you in the mirror as you are preparing for work.”

Layne and his colleagues have had a rough few months. Ridership is way down, thanks to Covid fears. Dozens of transit workers died of the disease. (So did Layne’s father.) Buses now come equipped with plastic barriers; Layne cleans his vehicle frequently.

Layne himself has overcome many obstacles. He drifted into a bad scene during his teen years, ending up in prison. But he earned his GED and worked his way back, taking the bus job in the late ’90s. He jots down poetry and imagistic phrases to capture the flow of the job.

In recent months, as the country has reopened, too many of us have returned to ignoring the everyday people who keep the gears of society oiled. I saw a column in the Atlanta paper that Georgia teachers are being accused of laziness and being “un-American” for wanting better Covid protections in their schools or refusing to work in person unless protocols are enforced. So much for empathy and perspective. Was it only a few months ago that parents were pulling out their hair trying to figure out how to keep their school-aged children involved for six hours a day?

(Many Georgia teachers, like those across the South, don’t have strong unions to defend them.)

Still, the Terence Laynes of the world keep showing up. Yes, they have to earn a living. But it’s a hell of a lot easier to earn a living from your kitchen table, logging in to Zoom meetings, than it is to drive a bus of blue-collar workers up and down New York City streets. We shouldn’t forget about them, no matter how long this plague goes on.

You can read “A Transit Worker’s Survival Story” here.

Bob Gibson, 1935-2020

Image from Getty via The New York Times.


Every baseball fan knows certain numbers. 56. 755. (Sorry, Barry Bonds.) .406. 383. 511.

And 1.12.

That was Bob Gibson’s earned-run average in 1968 — a hair more than a run per nine innings. Gibson had 34 starts in 1968 and gave up more than 3 runs in exactly two of them. (One of those games was against the Dodgers in September. Had he pitched better (!), his ERA may have been below 1.1.) He had 13 shutouts. His ERAs in June and July were 0.50.

Gibson died Friday. The great St. Louis Cardinals pitcher was 84.

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But it’s good television!

I didn’t watch the debate last night. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stomach even 15 uninterrupted minutes of the person a friend calls The Only President We Have.

(“Uninterrupted.” Ironic word choice there, Leopold.)

Based on the ratings — the only yardstick The Only President approves of — it appears I wasn’t alone. The audience was big — about 65 million across eight channels — but that’s still substantially fewer people than the 76 million who watched the first debate between him and Hillary Clinton four years ago.

Still, the numbers may go up when other channels and the Internet are added in, and they’re still the highest for a television program in 2020 than anything outside the Super Bowl. And there’s a reason, beyond the fact that the future of what’s left of the free world depends on the outcome of this election, that debates featuring Mr. “Sir” President do so well: He’s outrageous. He’s his Twitter feed come to life.

He’s good television.

Maybe I should put that phrase in quotes, because “good television” seldom means good television. It means car-wreck television. It means that the so-called cool medium has become hot, and you can’t look away.

At its best — a rare occurrence — good television is immediate and meaningful, a live (or live-on-tape) event that crackles with the energy of live theater.

But usually, “good television” is the equivalent of bad pulp fiction, momentarily enjoyable but soul-suckingly, time-wastingly meaningless. Think your if-it-bleeds-it-leads local newscast. Think pro wrestling. Think reality shows.

Think of a person that term defines. He’s Lonesome Rhodes. He’s Diana Christensen. He’s television incarnate.

There’s nothing left in you that I can live with. You’re one of Howard’s humanoids. If I stay with you, I’ll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like Laureen Hobbs was destroyed. Like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed. You’re television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You’re madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. 

(Is it any coincidence that former GOP strategist Rick Wilson likes to say, “Everything Trump touches dies“?)

I hope the networks — particularly the cable news folks — are happy about the guy who’s given them spectacular profits. Sure, the profits may be Pyrrhic in the long run, what with the state of the country, the world and all.

But, hey, it’s “good television.” In the meantime, we’ll just keep amusing ourselves to death.

You could look it up

I am looking at my reference books.

I have several shelves of them. Lists of hit records. Sports guides. Movie, TV and Broadway chronicles. Trivia encyclopedias. Dictionaries and thesauruses. Collections of quotations. Atlases. Commonplace books.

I don’t know what to do with them.

There was a time when I couldn’t live without them. I studied them in college, when I was on the quiz bowl team. I bought them in my 20s and 30s, gripped by fascination. I referred to them through my 40s and 50s, when I hosted a bar trivia show and frequently wrote questions for it.

But now there’s Wikipedia. Google. Baseball Reference and Allmusic.com. Even a right-click on Word will take you to a list of synonyms. An entire repository of knowledge at my fingertips, usually as up to date as last night’s box score. (My “Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits,” in contrast, was published in 1989.)

I keep telling myself I should get rid of at least half of them — if not 90 percent — but it will be a painful parting.

The first book I ever remember reading, over and over again, was a book called “Questions Children Ask.” (Given that the Internet has everything, of course it’s available on Amazon.) As the title implies, it was full of questions and answers, and had a particularly scary drawing of a poisonous snake that gave me nightmares when I was 6.

I also need to organize my bookshelves.

I also remember finding a 1966 Reader’s Digest Almanac in a family bookcase, and I’d pore over the results of the 1965 World Series. (Dodgers over Twins, 4 games to 3.) And when my parents bought the 1974 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia? Heaven.

I was that kid. I filched a copy of “Felton & Fowler’s Best, Worst, and Most Unusual” from my junior high school. I would ride my bike to the library and spend hours reading bound issues of Time magazine and Sports Illustrated. (I was still doing that in college — the reading, not the bike riding.) When I met the group of College Bowl players who remain my close friends to this day, I knew I had found my people. We would sit in the College Bowl office and read trivia questions to each other. This was our entertainment.

Lest you laugh at such nerdery, it proved profitable for many of us. Though I had middling success on “Jeopardy!” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” I know several multi-day winners of the former, including one guy who won the Tournament of Champions.

So when I look at my reference books, I’m looking at old friends, in more ways than one.

I know. They’re just books, right? And not even correct in some cases. I’ve found errors in a few, and even when the facts are right, the context has changed. Just as in those Rolling Stone lists of greatest albums, once-forgotten figures and events are revived, while others seem impossibly dated. To read portions of “The People’s Almanac” and “The Book of Lists” is to be thrust back into the immediate post-Nixon ’70s. You wonder, this was once important?

Of course, that’s also part of the charm.

One day I’ll buck myself up and weed them out — to a library, if they’ll take them, or to a Little Free Library, if they won’t. But not yet.

I mean, I still have a CD-ROM of Microsoft Bookshelf.

Sunday read: The (maybe, could be, if you say so) greatest albums of all time

Image from Lonnie Timmons III/The Plain Dealer via AL.com.

Many years ago, when I was in high school, I purchased a slim book called “Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums.”

I was already vaguely familiar with the book, compiled by writer Paul Gambaccini, thanks to a list of the top 10 (or 20, I forget) having already appeared in one of the Wallace/Wallechinsky “Book of Lists,” if I recall. It was released in 1978, and reading it today — when pop music has spread out in countless new directions — gives you an idea of what would become the hardened canon for years to come:

  1. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the Beatles
  2. “Blonde on Blonde,” Bob Dylan
  3. “Highway 61 Revisited,” Bob Dylan
  4. “Astral Weeks,” Van Morrison
  5. “Rubber Soul,” the Beatles

And on down the line: “Revolver” at No. 6, “Exile on Main Street” at No. 7 (surprising for the time, given that it was considered one of the weaker Stones albums until later), Love’s “Forever Changes” at No. 16, “Led Zeppelin IV” at No. 29, et cetera. You could already see some trends rising thanks to the coming of punk — lots of Velvet Underground, the Stooges’ “Funhouse” at No. 114 — and some (a lack of funk, high rankings for “Frampton Comes Alive” and Supertramp’s “Even in the Quietest Moments”) that would wither.

(The Supertramp ranking is almost entirely due to critic Ritchie Yorke placing it at No. 1 on his personal top 10. Yorke would later be listed as No. 6 on Greil Marcus’ list of “10 Worst Rock Critics” in “The Book of Rock Lists.”)

“Rock Critics’ Choice” was one of many best-of/ratings works I’ve purchased or read over the years. The first “Book of Rock Lists,” co-edited by Dave Marsh, did a nice job in a closing chapter that consists of nothing but Top 40 singles and albums for the each year between 1955 and 1980. The various editions of “The Rolling Stone Record Buyer’s Guide” cemented its own canon with its 5-star ratings — some of which were vastly changed from previous or in future editions. (The Doors, in particular, were knocked down a peg between the red first edition and the blue second edition.) Spin magazine leaned towards the contrarian; Rolling Stone, no doubt thanks to Jann Wenner’s heavy thumb on its scale, favored the tried and true (and white and classic rock).

I learned from all of them, even if I didn’t buy or listen to the albums they touted. They’re the reason I love Thunderclap Newman’s “Hollywood Dream” (a Record Guide 5-star work), that I’m familiar with Brian Eno’s “Another Green World” (avant garde for its time), that I question the fondness for Sonic Youth (“Daydream Nation,” which was hailed as one of the best albums of the ’80s, has always left me cold).

So now here’s Rolling Stone with a new list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It’s my Sunday read — which I mean literally, as I’ve just dipped into it myself.

Right away, of course, I found entries I vehemently disagree with. Alanis Morrisette’s “Jagged Little Pill” at No. 69. ahead of “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” and “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” among many others? Gotta be trolling. Elvis Costello’s “My Aim Is True” at No. 430? That seems way too low. And what the hell is any Britney Spears album beyond her greatest hits (because she made some amazing singles) doing here?

Which is the point, of course: argument starting.

To give RS great credit, the magazine surveyed a wide variety of contributors — artists, industry figures, journalists. (Too bad we can’t see their individual lists — that would be revealing, I imagine.) I don’t see Wenner‘s thumb anywhere, which makes sense, given that he doesn’t own the magazine anymore. And these lists should be a starting point, not a final say. There’s no reason “Sgt. Pepper,” influential as it is, should always be No. 1. (It’s not even in my personal top five Beatles records, which goes “Revolver,” “The Beatles,” “Rubber Soul,” “Please Please Me” and “Abbey Road,” if you’re wondering. At least as of today.)

Anyway, take a gander. Get angry. Go, “Hmm, I hadn’t thought of that.” Figure out what your favorites are. And if you want to make “Even in the Quietest Moments” No. 1? It’s OK. Ritchie Yorke died a few years ago, so the slot is yours for the taking.

You can read “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” here.

Review: ‘Draft No. 4’ by John McPhee

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It feels so unfair, reviewing a book on writing by John McPhee. The man is a legendary stylist, known for novel-sized articles on subjects like geology and agriculture, spread over multiple issues of The New Yorker. He has an airport scanner’s eye for detail and a knack (he would probably describe it as the result of assiduous research) for the right word and the sturdy metaphor.

On the other hand, your humble McPhee reviewer has made his living (mostly) knocking out features 800 words at a time, articles that – if he were lucky – gave him about four hours for interviews and research and perhaps another few hours to get his paragraphs straight and drop in the word “brobdingnagian” for the entertainment of the copyeditor before a midafternoon deadline. (Admittedly, I’ve done my share of longform, but even then I usually had only about a month to grind out 3,000 words, not years to craft 30,000 like McPhee.) Right away, I feel at a disadvantage.

So it’s perversely heartening to read that Mr. McPhee, despite his many decades in the journalism business, has agonized over his ledes and rendered first drafts (and second drafts, and even third drafts) that were, to use a common newsroom term, shit. Or, alternately, he’s been paralyzed in fear of putting two sentences together.

In fact, in the second chapter of “Draft No. 4,” he describes having to write a Time magazine cover story on comedian Mort Sahl on deadline, “near tears in a catatonic swivet” as the clock ticks down. He had produced one sentence: “The citizen has certain misgivings.” That left him 4,995 words short of what Time demanded. He doesn’t go into great detail on how he got the story done in time; he just mentions that he remembered a recommendation from a high school teacher and organized his notes by theme and chronology. That must have been enough for him, but I’ve tried to organize my notes in similar ways to create a story, and let me tell you, many times they don’t read well. Score one on points for McPhee.

(The more famous story of a stuck writer is that of Tom Wolfe, who was sent to do a story on Southern California hot rod culture for Esquire. Finding himself boxed in – the deadline was the next morning, the photos already laid out – he expressed his exasperation to his editor, Byron Dobell. Dobell suggested Wolfe send him his notes. So Wolfe sat down, began with “Dear Byron,” and wrote a 49-page letter. Upon receipt, Dobell cut the salutation and ran the rest. McPhee offers a similar method of cutting yourself out of a self-created cage in a chapter called “Draft No. 4.”)

I found “Draft No. 4,” the book, more entertaining for stories regarding McPhee’s struggles than I did as a writer’s guide. The Time guillotine blade notwithstanding, McPhee usually has something most reporters don’t: lead time. When researching a New Yorker piece, he’s sometimes had several months to gather research and several more months to write. Admittedly, he doesn’t get paid until he produces the finished product, but it’s still a luxury I’d like to have. (So I say. On other hand, I wouldn’t want to agonize over a single story, no matter how lengthy, for a year.)

Also, in the chapter called “Structure,” he talks about trying to do something – anything – besides telling a story chronologically, leading to structures that look like fractions (with three subjects in the numerator and a fourth subject, linking the other three, in the denominator) or Spirograph wheels. I’ve thought of writing stories like this – I once wrote a story about William Gibson that consisted of short mini-story shards, in tribute to Gibson’s kaleidoscopic visions – but it’s hard. (To quote the Who: “It’s very, very, very, very hard.”)

And so I ended up appreciating “Draft No. 4” more for McPhee’s empathy than his advice on writing. He may have plenty of time for his stories, he may write for The New Yorker, he may teach at Princeton, but he’s been there. For a scribbler like me, who has both lay in bed mentally rewriting ledes at 1 a.m. and who recently managed to write three 10,000-word chapters of a novel in six weeks, reread them, and decided the work thus far was a shallow pile of shit, that’s reassuring.

“If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you’ll never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer,” he writes at one point. I don’t know what that makes the prolific folks like James Patterson and Joyce Carol Oates, but it works for me. I’ll wear my agony proudly.

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Roger Angell, 1920- …

Image from AP via WNYC.

Those of you who know me know I take pride in writing obituaries. They’re an opportunity to sum up a life and pay tribute to the accomplishments and the impact of the deceased.

But it’s better to write about the living. They’re still around to enjoy the words, after all.

Roger Angell turned 100 on Saturday, September 19. I completely overlooked the occasion, even though I’d seen an item last month about an early celebration in his hometown of Brooklin, Maine, and the governor of Maine proclaiming “Roger Angell Day.”

Happily, not only did Angell get to celebrate his birthday six weeks early, he was still around when the actual centenary rolled around. Less happily, it was overshadowed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death the day before, but Angell — who’s always struck me as a modest sort — probably didn’t mind.

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Weekend read: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Image from AP via Forbes.

A nice profile by Jeffrey Toobin.

Her dissent in Shelby County v. Holder (PDF p. 32).

Her dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber (PDF p. 28).

Reading her majority opinion in United States v. Virginia (click on the “Opinion Announcement” link on the left side).

Rest in power, Justice Ginsburg. May your memory be a blessing — and an inspiration.

The least interesting character on ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ is Mrs. Maisel

The 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards are set for Sunday night, and once again “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” earned a boatload of nominations — 20 in all (including the Creative Arts Emmys) — including nods for several regular cast members, guest star Sterling K. Brown, and for outstanding comedy series. The voters obviously liked Season 3 as much as Seasons 1 and 2.

It definitely deserves a few honors, particularly one for Brown, who grabbed the screen every time he appeared as Reggie, manager of Johnny Mathis-style singer Shy Baldwin. But I thought Season 3, overall, was uneven — mainly because the main character, Miriam “Midge” Maisel herself, hasn’t really grown much since Season 1.

In fact, I would say she’s become the least interesting character on the show.

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The new bathroom is here! The new bathroom is here!

Behind this sliding door …

Some people can’t wait to renovate their kitchen. Some people look forward to finishing the basement. Some people want to upgrade their master bathroom into something with an expansive shower stall, a whirlpool bath, and his-and-hers granite sinks.

My wife and I just wanted a powder room.

Our 1907 Pennsylvania twin had all the mod cons for its time: knob-and-tube wiring, a coal furnace in the basement, and a full, if small, bathroom that (I presume) was fully plumbed. (Though not, originally, linked to city sewage — during the building of our deck, our contractor found examples of what must have been a septic tank.) Over the years, much of it’s been updated.

But when we moved in three years ago, there was still just the one bathroom. It was upstairs, too.

We thought it would be easy enough to add another bathroom and expand the living area. We have a fairly roomy backyard and, since neither of us cares much about lawns, we figured we’d just build out back. It had been done by others around the neighborhood. But a more recent ordinance limited the amount of home expansion you could do.

Thankfully, we have a great contractor — Tom Garvey (he’s a top-notch carpenter, too) — and he’s worked closely with the city to make sure we’ve been able to maximize the land we can build on. We added a deck out back three years ago, and, over the past couple months, Tom’s enclosed part of it to make a sunroom.

And, more importantly, a half-bathroom.

Everybody’s happy. The cats are already camped out in the bay window. I have a new place to read. And, yes, there’s that second bathroom.

We won’t be reviving the septic tank, though.

Don’t tell them, but we didn’t build it for them.

Memories of my father

My Great Uncle Lou, me, and my father, Newark, NJ, 1976.

Today is my father’s yahrzeit.

Herbert Charles Leopold died 17 years ago today, early in the morning of September 15, 2003. For me, his death was both a shock — I’d seen him just a couple weeks earlier, and though he was physically hobbled, he was in good spirits — and unhappily not unexpected, as his diabetes was starting to take a toll on his health. He passed quickly, for which I’ve always been grateful.

Four years ago, I wrote this blog entry about him. I was going to try to write something new, but the old entry still holds true, and I don’t think I can say it any better.

My memories of him, years later, are bittersweet. Fathers and sons, the old story.

He was flawed, of course. (Who of us isn’t?) He had a temper. He didn’t take good care of himself, an issue that led to his premature death from diabetes. (He was 65.) He could say cruel things, which made me uncomfortable and occasionally angry. He wasn’t very introspective and was dismissive of my suggestions to try it once in awhile. I sometimes got the feeling that he wondered how his intellectual, sensitive, cautious son could have been the fruit of his loins.

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Sunday read: ‘All I wanted was a full stomach’

Photo by Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times.

Next weekend is the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the new year. Because of the eccentricities of the lunar-based Jewish calendar, the holiday pops up at different times on the Gregorian calendar the Western world uses, which once made me say in front of a rabbi friend, “Rosh Hashanah is late (or early) this year.”

To which he responded, “No, it’s right on time.”

Time, we have learned this year more than most, is an elastic concept. The last six Covid-choked months have seemed to pass achingly slowly, as time does when your world is reduced to your immediate surroundings and any trips outside come with the caution of masks and hand sanitizer.

Psychologically, it’s brutal. So I can only wonder what it was like for someone like Henry Friedman, a Jewish man who spent months on end during World War II hiding in a tiny space in a neighbor’s barn with his mother, brother, and a schoolteacher.

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Belated Movie Review: ‘Jojo Rabbit’

“Belated Movie Review” is an occasional feature in which I review a movie that everybody else has already seen.

I would like to apologize to Taika Waititi.

From the reviews, my impression of “Jojo Rabbit” was that it was a zanier version of “Life Is Beautiful.” OK, I knew it didn’t have concentration camps, but I was worried it was going to be silly until it suddenly got sober and gooey. (Can you tell I hated “Life Is Beautiful”? And Roberto Benigni got TWO Oscars for it!)

Well, “Jojo Rabbit” is no “Life Is Beautiful.” It loses the thread at times, but when it’s on — when Waititi is using the Beatles under the opening credits, or Sam Rockwell is on screen, or Waititi is channeling a Monty Python version of Adolf Hitler — it’s terrific, with energy to burn.

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Image from Il Sorpasso.

I keep thinking about this essay:

Research on prisoners, hermits, soldiers, astronauts, polar explorers and others who have spent extended periods in isolation indicates social skills are like muscles that atrophy from lack of use. People separated from society — by circumstance or by choice — report feeling more socially anxious, impulsive, awkward and intolerant when they return to normal life.

Psychologists and neuroscientists say something similar is happening to all of us now, thanks to the pandemic. We are subtly but inexorably losing our facility and agility in social situations — whether we are aware of it or not. The signs are everywhere: people oversharing on Zoom, overreacting to or misconstruing one another’s behavior, longing for but then not really enjoying contact with others.

I know I feel it. Like many of you, I have spent the last six months in near isolation. My wife was with me at home for most of that time — thank God — but even when she was here, we stayed tight in our little bubble, leaving the house only for grocery shopping and the occasional errand. When I could strike up a conversation with a (masked) stranger in a supermarket line, it felt like a victory.

Contrast that to a normal day, pre-Covid, something I took for granted as “life.” Even aside from going to work — where there were colleagues to talk and joke with — places seemed active. I may have been alone, but I could join in the flow. People ate in groups, kibbitzed in lines, mixed with other human beings without fear of accidentally picking up a dread disease — a disease, it doesn’t have to be said, that automatically isolates you, whether at home or in a hospital.

Worse, it’s a disease that forces you to die separated from loved ones. It’s a disease that goes against everything we need to be — strive to be — as people. It destroys community in the purest sense of the word.

I tell myself that most of what we consider normal goes on. This isn’t Europe in 1942.

Still: I feel anxious. Solitude is different from solitary.

Even the most introverted among us … are wired to crave company. It’s an evolutionary imperative because there’s historically been safety in numbers. Loners had a tough time slaying woolly mammoths and fending off enemy attacks.

So when we are cut off from others, our brains interpret it as a mortal threat. Feeling lonely or isolated is as much a biological signal as hunger or thirst. And just like not eating when you’re starved or not drinking when you’re dehydrated, failing to interact with others when you are lonely leads to negative cognitive, emotional and physiological effects.

I know this ugly era will end (or at least be somewhat controlled by a vaccine, much as many diseases are), but man, this is a long damned tunnel. (And though Europeans and Canadians have also had trying times, what we’re going through in the United States has an added layer of fear and frustration that should have been unnecessary.)

All I know is, if you want to reach out, feel free to drop me a line. Trust me: I’ll welcome the connection.

Belated Movie Review: ‘Trumbo’

“Belated Movie Review” is an occasional feature in which I review a movie that everybody else has already seen.

I’ve watched only a handful of Dalton Trumbo-written movies: “A Guy Named Joe,” “Roman Holiday,” “Spartacus,” “Exodus,” “Papillon,” maybe a couple others. Of those, my favorite is “Roman Holiday,” which has the benefit of Eddie Albert with a beard, Gregory Peck playing Cary Grant, and Audrey Hepburn playing Audrey Hepburn. It’s witty, effervescent, and charming. It doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Other Trumbo films, such as “Spartacus,” did take themselves seriously — it was an important epic, ya know — but it’s also terrific entertainment.

“Trumbo,” the 2015 biopic about Dalton Trumbo, also takes itself very seriously, but with less of a payoff. It’s like one of those ham-handed documentaries they used to show in high school, the kind in which the filmmakers may as well have used flashing neon title cards.

“Trumbo” starts in the late ’40s, with our hero (Bryan Cranston) about to sign a contract with MGM to become the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. He appears to have it all: a movie in the works with good friend Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), a picture-perfect family (Diane Lane plays his wife, Cleo) and an excellent reputation.

But there’s a problem. A few years earlier, Trumbo had joined the Communist Party. Now, with the House Un-American Activities Committee holding hearings and a blacklist in the works, his position is threatened. (Helen Mirren plays the seething Hedda Hopper, constantly rallying Tinseltown against the Red Menace.)

To his credit, Trumbo stays true to his ideals when testifying and actually goes to prison for a time. When he gets out, nobody will hire him, and he has to find fronts and use pseudonyms; “Roman Holiday,” for example, is co-credited to Trumbo’s friend, Ian McLellan Hunter.

He signs on with a pair of B-movie producers, the King Brothers (John Goodman and Stephen Root) and cranks out screenplays for a pittance. He brings in some of his blacklisted friends. He wins an Oscar under an assumed name. He’s befriended by Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger, who book him a major motion picture (Douglas’ “Spartacus”) and promise to give him a credit (Preminger’s “Exodus”).

JFK goes to see “Spartacus,” the blacklist is doomed, Hopper is furious, and Trumbo reclaims his honor. The end. Many of the heroes and villains are so obvious the movie should have been made in black and white.

What saves “Trumbo,” and makes it generally entertaining, are the performances. Cranston is terrific as Trumbo — a little glib at the beginning, but a man who acquires a few shades of gray as the movie goes on. Stuhlbarg doesn’t look or sound much like Robinson, but his agonizing — an avowed liberal, he still names names in front of HUAC — makes him sympathetic. Diane Lane has nothing to do but does her best to do it well. John Goodman is ballsy as Frank King and gets the best lines.

That’s all to the good, because the script — by John McNamara (who, I see, created the weird and underrated ’90s TV series “Profit”) — is paint-by-numbers episodic, and Jay Roach’s direction emphasizes the themes with a sledgehammer. Some characters go nowhere: Louis C.K. appears as an unnecessary composite of several blacklisted writers, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is a menacing inmate whose sole reason for being, it seemed to me, was to show that a big Black guy in prison wasn’t illiterate. After awhile, it seemed like a movie made by checklist.

Certainly, the blacklist was bad, HUAC was made up of grubby hypocrites, and Hedda Hopper was a harridan. But in its clip-cloppy way, “Trumbo” comes across as something you’d see on the History Channel, not the big screen. As a movie, it’s a missed opportunity.

I’ll give it a cautious recommendation for the performances, but if you have to choose between “Trumbo” and “Roman Holiday,” definitely watch the latter. It’s already in black and white, but it feels like glorious full color.

Sunday read: If you don’t read this blog entry, you won’t find out what happened to this dog

Image from National Lampoon via The New York Times.

His name was Mr. Cheeseface, and he was famous.

You may not think so. After all, you’ve probably never heard of him, just as you’ve probably never heard of Spencer Elden or Mariora Goschen. But you’ve seen him.

Mr. Cheeseface is the dog that was on the cover of National Lampoon’s January 1973 issue, themed “Death,” looking nervously (apparently) at a revolver pointed at his head.

And in bold serif type next to his body was the blunt headline, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”

Even today, almost 50 years after it appeared, that cover is celebrated as one of the all-time greatest — right up there with Annie Leibovitz’s Rolling Stone cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cover of “A New Yorker’s View of the World,” and many George Lois-designed covers of Esquire. The cover line is so good, it’s inspired countless parodies. (For my money, the best one was from Texas Monthly: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, Dick Cheney Will Shoot You in the Face.”)

But still, Mr. Cheeseface. Certainly he had a long, wonderful life, right, with other photo shoots and a deserved retirement dinners of ground filet mignon?

Oh, if only.

This week’s Sunday read is from Seven Days, a Vermont-based publication whose Dan Bolles retraced the story of Mr. Cheeseface, both before and after the famous cover.

Warning: It does not have a happy ending, which is telegraphed by the title: “Who Shot Mr. Cheeseface? The Vermont Demise of a Famous Mutt.” (I refrained from making the pun “Trigger Warning” … until now. Sorry.)

I know. The world is terrible enough right now without reading about a dead dog, especially one who didn’t have a long life. But I urge you to read it anyway. Bolles used up plenty of shoe leather in chronicling Mr. Cheeseface’s life, including tidbits that he may have been dosed on hallucinogenics when he was adopted (people did stupid stuff in the ’60s, too) and that he sired a beautiful litter of puppies.

But I especially urge you to read it because Mr. Cheeseface deserves to be remembered for more than posing on the cover of a magazine. As his owner, Jimmy De Pierro, recalled, “I knew from the get-go that this dog was something. He had personality up the ass.”

Dogs have brought us humans so much pleasure. The least we can do is honor them in these difficult times.

You can read “Who Shot Mr. Cheeseface?” here.

Tom Seaver, 1944-2020

Tom Seaver was my hero.

In this I was not exceptional. If you were a boy growing up in the New York area in the late ’60s and early ’70s — if you were a Mets fan — of course Tom Seaver was your hero. He was the Rookie of the Year, the Cy Young winner, the handsome, knee-dirtying fastball thrower from Fresno, the heart of the ever-exciting, ever-Amazin’ Miracle Mets of 1969.

I was 4 when the Mets won that World Series, and I think I attended my first game at Shea two years later. But I feel like I always knew who Tom Seaver was, even when I was too young to pronounce “Tom Seaver.”

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The devil you know

Image from the AP via the American Prospect.

A couple days ago, Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall — the man who keeps me sane — published a post, “Why Are Dems Nervous? Because They’re Dems” (paywall).

His reasons were many and familiar: Democrats are a much more diverse party, and it’s hard to hold its constituencies together. Democrats believe they don’t fight as hard as Republicans. Democrats are innately more skeptical — that is, more empirically minded and aware of weakness — than the GOP, so they worry more.

I’d add one more reason: People hate change, and Democrats are generally the party of change.

Hell, even when they’re the party of staying the same, they’re the party of change. Look at 2000, when Al Gore — almost unopposed in the primaries — was following Bill Clinton, who had presided over the best GDP growth since the Go-Go days of the 1960s. Gore’s proposals were actually fiscally conservative — remember the “lockbox”? — but claims of Democratic profligacy made headway, George W. Bush promised a tax cut, and too many people thought there was no difference between the pair.

As for 2016, there was this candidate who promised to “Make America Great Again,” so even though that sounds like change from the status quo — personified then by a Black president, a woman presidential candidate, and a woman speaker of the House — it was really sounding a retreat to a glorious, golden, manly era when everyone knew their place and Washington wasn’t a swamp. I’m thinking 1 million years B.C.

Anyway, the thing is, people will stay in bad situations because the alternative is unknown and scarier than the familiar. Hell, I consider myself a Democrat and I hate change. When my life feels stuck, I come up with Plans B, C, and Z, and tell myself that making the jump I’ll be in a better place than where I’m at. Yet even a single step in that direction feels like dragging my leg with a 50-pound anchor attached.

Right now, things are bad. People are still dying of Covid-19 — not at the rate they were a couple weeks ago, thankfully, but still at a higher rate than in most other Western countries. People are angry at police shootings and extremists with their weapons and again I want to post that “Network” speech from Howard Beale that leads up to “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” so I will.

And yet the Democrats are nervous because who knows if the polls are right and what about the swing states and he’s trying to take down the Postal Service and people are scared and, well, the president and his party are promising more of the same (and quite forcefully, too). And though more of the same sounds to me like staying in an abusive relationship, it can be hard to leave an abusive relationship.

After all, he did say “I love you.”

Sunday read: Chadwick Boseman, hero

For many people, Chadwick Boseman was more than an actor. He was a hero.

That was particularly true in the Black community, my friend Lisa Respers France writes.

Some of that was due to his role as T’Challa, the King of Wakanda, in “Black Panther,” she writes in an essay, “Chadwick Boseman gave us the superhero we so desperately needed.” It’s my Sunday read.

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Chadwick Boseman, 1976-2020

Image from AP via Indian Express.

When I saw the news last night that Chadwick Boseman had died, I thought it had to be a hoax. Someone had given the Associated Press a faulty tip. Boseman’s Twitter account had been hacked.


It was true. Boseman had been dealing with colon cancer for four years, and yesterday he finally succumbed. He was 43.

There are some actors that bring both chops and dignity, a certain rectitude, to their performances, no matter the character. Gregory Peck comes to mind; Tom Hanks, for all his attempts to try different things, is another.

Boseman had the same ability. It’s no wonder; originally he wanted to write and direct, so he had a multifaceted perspective of what characters require while still giving them humanity. (His degree, from Howard, was in directing.)

But in some ways it’s a shame that he’s being justly celebrated for his performances as Great Men, including Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa/Black Panther, because doing so ignores his range. For all the attention those performances have received, for my money his best performance is that of James Brown in “Get On Up,” because James Brown is nothing if not a complicated figure, and Boseman managed to capture both his wildly changing moods as well as the man’s amazing performing abilities.

Often, Boseman elevated the rather sober biographies he starred in. Movies like “42” and “Marshall” can suffer from stuffy scripts and direction, and it’s up to the actors to show that the characters are human beings, not plaster saints. Boseman did that routinely; he was truly a talented man.

It’s wonderful that audiences finally got a chance to see his talents in a blockbuster like “Black Panther.” (I’m one of those idiots who wishes that good superhero movies like “Black Panther” had less CGI and more scenes between folks like Boseman and Michael B. Jordan.)

It’s a tragedy that we’ll never see what he could have created. Spike Lee tapped into a more complex Boseman, who played squad leader Stormin’ Norman in “Da 5 Bloods,” and the actor recently completed a production of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” directed by George C. Wolfe.

Amazingly, he did this work while getting treatment for the cancer. Even more amazingly, he (and his loved ones and, I assume, some castmates) kept his illness quiet. Kudos to them for being private in our voracious, undignified world.

You’ll be missed, Chadwick Boseman.

And 2020, I’ll just say again: Fuck you.

Whose bass line is it, anyway?

If you don’t watch out, a 10-second search on the Internet can turn into an hour-long trip down the rabbit hole. That’s what happened to me yesterday when I was checking the name of a character on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

One link led to a story that said that Carol Kaye — the obvious basis for “Maisel’s” touring bass player Carole Keen — didn’t like the character’s portrayal. (OK, Kaye was stronger: She called it “kind of like slander.”) But the story also noted that Kaye had been the bassist on a number of Motown hits, including Diana Ross’ version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Whoa, I thought. Carol Kaye played on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”? She played on Motown songs? I thought that work was done by James Jamerson, or maybe Bob Babbitt.

And down the rabbit hole I went.

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Belated Movie Review: ‘Marriage Story’

“Belated Movie Review” is an occasional feature in which I review a movie that everybody else has already seen.

There’s a scene in “Marriage Story” – if you’ve seen the movie, which of course you have, you know which one I’m talking about – in which Adam Driver’s and Scarlett Johansson’s characters begin a civil conversation which escalates into a raging argument. Everything comes out – betrayal, regret, searing pain, ferocious anger – until Driver’s Charlie Barber is collapsed on the floor, crying uncontrollably, comforted by his soon-to-be ex-wife.

In this era of awards-season minutia, in which odd makeup (Nicole Kidman) or renderings of disability (Eddie Redmayne) are seen as nomination fodder, normally I would have dismissed this scene as cynical Oscar bait: a showy display of full-on emotion like Mark Ruffalo’s howl in “Spotlight” (the one false note in that brilliantly deliberate movie). But Driver and Johansson are so honest, so raw, that the scene works. It is earned.

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Sunday read: The soul of the party

Image from Reuters via Politico.

A few days ago, I ordered Kurt Andersen’s latest book, “Evil Geniuses,” about the wealthy groups that steered the Republican Party away from its Main Street, mildly libertarian outlook and into its anti-government, anti-science, anti-immigrant, ferociously pro-gun/fundamentalist religious absolutism. I may have to hold off reading it for awhile, because I’m not in the mood for horror stories right now.

Still, I’m reminded of the politician who helped make it all possible. No, not Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, though they played major roles. (Charles P. Pierce is fond of talking about the “prion disease” that’s been eating away at the GOP since Reagan started feeding the faithful “monkey brains.”)

I’m thinking of Newton Leroy Gingrich. How the former Georgia representative, short-lived House Speaker and current husband to the Ambassador to the Vatican (God loves His little jokes) managed to rip the fabric of America into tiny little angry pieces is the subject of my Sunday read, McKay Coppins’ Atlantic article, “The Man Who Broke Politics.”

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A lesson from New Zealand

Image of Jacinda Ardern from Getty via time.com.

Recently, after more than three months without a Covid-19 case, New Zealand got hit with a new outbreak two weeks ago. It’s a sobering reminder that Covid remains a challenge to control — New Zealand is still trying to figure out how the disease managed to re-emerge given the country’s precautions — and even after a vaccine is approved, nations and municipalities will have to remain on alert.

Nonetheless, the country of 5 million has done an excellent job of keeping Covid in check. Aside from its status as an island nation, giving it some built-in defenses, it clamped own hard with quarantines and testing. Even now, after the new outbreak, the country has tallied 1,665 total cases and just 22 deaths, a fraction of the rate suffered by others.

Still, there always has to be someone sneering “nyaah, nyaah, nyaah” in the back of the classroom. Could it be the classless man who has presided over 5.6 million cases and almost 170,000 deaths — almost one-quarter of the world’s fatalities?

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Review: ‘The Mirror & the Light’ by Hilary Mantel

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished “The Mirror & the Light,” the conclusion to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, about two months ago, but I’ve been intimidated by the prospect of reviewing it. How you review a book that is so brilliantly written –Mantel’s rich, creamy prose is something to savor – and obviously so well researched?

I mean, I actually had to look up some of the delightfully archaic words she drops in. I wish I’d dog-eared the pages so I could list them for you, but trust me, they’re the kinds of words you’ll find in good crossword puzzles.

And yet, I plunge ahead with this review in my middling 21st-century vernacular.

“Plunge” is probably the right word; when you put away “The Mirror & the Light” for the evening, as I did most nights over the course of two months, you feel like you’re coming up for air. Mantel creates a distinct, self-contained world with so many characters you find yourself looking at the helpful cast listing she provides at the outset (or digging into Wiki to see how history judged some of them), and yet her Cromwell feels very contemporary: a cynical, pragmatic lawyer who’s always one step ahead of his rivals and his king, Henry VIII. It is not for him to judge Henry’s capricious romances, casual cruelty, or rapacious eating habits; he’s just trying to keep money in the royal till, protect his own kin, and make sure his neck stays a safe distance away from the executioner’s blade.

It is no spoiler to tell you he does not succeed in the last, and if I’m reading Mantel correctly, it’s for the most Greek of reasons: hubris, crossed with a bit of politics. (I’d call the politics Shakespearean, but the Bard won’t be born until almost a quarter-century after Cromwell’s death. Perhaps Machiavellian? If I recall, the Medici aide’s book makes a cameo in Mantel’s work.)

“The Mirror & the Light” begins just after the second book, “Bring Up the Bodies,” ends, with the death of Anne Boleyn. Henry wants yet another wife, and this time she’d better produce a male heir. He gets his wish in the form of Jane Seymour, but after giving birth to the future Edward VI, Jane dies, and Henry is bereft – or at least wanting companionship – again.

Meanwhile, in rising from a brewer’s abused child to Henry’s right hand, Cromwell – Chancellor of the Exchequer, Principal Secretary, and Lord Privy Seal – has made a lot of enemies. However, as long as Henry’s happy, his enemies have no way of removing him from his elevated position.

With Jane Seymour’s death, Cromwell maneuvers to get Anne of Cleves, a German royal, into Henry’s palace. It seems like a good idea: The marriage will bond Henry with German Protestants and keep the French Catholics at bay. But when Anne is finally brought over to London, she is not to Henry’s liking (and vice versa). The marriage is never consummated.

Cromwell gets the blame, and his enemies heighten the king’s paranoia and fuel rumors about disloyalty. The worst blow comes from the trusted Thomas “Call-Me” Wriothesley (pronounced “Riz-lee”), who – having learned lessons in cunning from the master – decides to stab him in the back. So much for avoiding the king’s wrath, and its penalty.

It’s a rich tapestry, and Mantel takes her time weaving it. But, for me, therein lies the book’s flaw; it’s a bit flabby where “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” were tight. Though it has some wrenching set pieces (the last 50 pages, in which Cromwell is tried and executed, is absolutely dazzling), “The Mirror & the Light” contains too many long, empty stretches to be ranked on the same level as the other two novels. It reminded me of those 800-page biographies in which the biographer feels the need to list absolutely everything she uncovered about her subject — wearying in a biography, and just as wearying in fiction. I occasionally took breaks to read brisker fare.

Nevertheless, even with an overstretched finale, the trilogy is a remarkable achievement. Cromwell is such a fascinating character, a man ahead of his time in so many ways.

His depiction isn’t the only thing with contemporary echoes; I was struck by Mantel’s description of a plague that made its way through 1530s London:

The king had talked of a ceremony at midsummer. But now there are rumours of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces. The Seymours, of course, urge the king to take the risk.

The Seymours would fit right into the current U.S. administration. One wishes there were a Thomas Cromwell around to take them on.

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What I’ve learned from completing the first chapter of my novel

Image from Getty via iStockPhoto.com. Incidentally, if you unscramble those letters, you get the first page of my novel.

For years, people have asked me, “Todd, when are you going to write your novel?” And for years I’ve put them off. “Someday,” I say, or think, or imagine, or despair.


(They’ve also asked me, “Todd, will you please stop boring me with your stupid trivia?” Not yet, I say, not yet. Hah!)

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Sunday read: The greatest horse in the world

From aboard Secretariat, jockey Ron Turcotte looks back at his competition. Photo by Bettman/Corbis via Sportsnet.ca.

I have a book and CD that compiles some of the greatest announcing calls in sports history: “Havlicek stole the ball,” “I don’t believe what I just saw,” and others in that vein.

This morning my iDevice cued up one of my favorites: “He is moving like a tremendous machine.”

That’s Chic Anderson’s call at the 1973 Belmont Stakes, which Secretariat won by an inconceivable 31 lengths. I dare you to watch that video without getting choked up; it’s one of the great sports performances of modern times, and I won’t listen if you say, “Well, it’s just a horse.”

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A bad case of school stomach

Image via Child Mind Institute.

Remember that nervous feeling you got before an important test in school? Your insides would turn to water and your mind would go blank. Perhaps you took some deep breaths in the hope of calming down … but, in general, that feeling of unpreparedness and anxiety didn’t go away until after the test was over.

My wife calls it “school stomach.”

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Eugene Levy, mensch

From Eugene Levy’s Twitter account.

It’s good to see this video of Eugene Levy receiving tributes from friends in honor of his lifetime achievement award at the Newport Beach Film Festival. It’s both funny and touching, much like its subject.

It’s nice that Levy has gained more attention in recent years, now for “Schitt’s Creek,” which is much like the actor — sweet, humorous, a little off-balance, and rich in humanity. Of course, he’s always been so, dating back to his “SCTV” days or as part of Christopher Guest’s improvisational troupe. This exasperated performance as “Alex Trebel” always had me on the floor.

But though it’s nice that Levy is being honored by the Newport Beach Film Festival, what he really needs is an Oscar nomination. I’m one of many who believe he should have gotten one for his performance in “A Mighty Wind,” playing the troubled Mitch Cohen, a folksinger who suffered a breakdown after the split of his duo, Mitch & Mickey.

For much of the movie, his condition is played for laughs. But Levy never lets you forget there’s a real person beneath the burnout, and when he and Catherine O’Hara (as Mickey) sing their big hit, “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” it’s wonderfully heartbreaking — all those years, all that pain and distance, bridged in the looks the two give one another.

Here’s to you, Eugene Levy.

I ain’t goin’ nowhere

Last night, my wife and I watched “Ocean’s Thirteen,” with its glossy, colorful Steven Soderbergh vision of Las Vegas. (The film was OK; I’d review it for Belated Movie Reviews, except I’ve already forgotten most of it besides Soderbergh’s — uh, Peter Andrews’ — cinematography.)

I’ve been to Vegas a few times. I remember driving a lot and, during a couple ill-advised summer visits, going outside as little as possible to avoid the scorching pavement. (Best time to visit: February.) But one nice thing about “Ocean’s Thirteen” is that it captures the romance of the invented city, which is, after all, a bunch of skyscrapers, planned neighborhoods and neon plopped down in the middle of the desert. In fact, perhaps my favorite place to visit in Vegas is the Neon Museum, a literal graveyard of the city’s greatest signs.

We won’t be going to Vegas this year. Or anywhere else. Covid-19 has kept us at home.

I miss traveling. I’m not a constant traveler, and my preference is for nice-but-middling hotels and cheap diners over pricey digs, but I can’t remember a year when I didn’t go somewhere. When I was growing up, my family would pile into our car — the ’72 Gran Torino wagon, the ’76 Delta 88, the ’83 Delta 88 — and hit the road for Houston. Or St. Louis. Or New York. Or, in 1976, Montreal and the Olympics.

As an adult, I took advantage of a year at grad school in Syracuse to spend weekends in Toronto, Boston, Montreal (I love Montreal), New York, and Philadelphia, as well as a couple brief-but-memorable trips to Cooperstown, N.Y.

I’ve gone to several baseball stadiums. I visited Israel (via Lufthansa, which was an adventure in itself). I wandered the grachts of Amsterdam and took the bullet train from Paris to Nice. My journalism fellowship took me to Brazil, Argentina and Turkey.

Not my natural habitat.

This year was supposed to lead to somewhere new: Britain. I had plans — a Beatles tour, the museums, bookstores, perhaps a couple days in Scotland.

It will have to wait. Money’s tight, my wife and I are wary of spending several hours on a plane, and most notably we wouldn’t be able to leave our hotel room.

Traveling in the U.S. is equally fraught. As I’ve noted all too frequently, this country has done a crappy job of controlling the virus, so I’m not going to leave my house in relatively safe eastern Pennsylvania unless it’s absolutely necessary.

My wife and I did socially distance with friends at the Delaware Water Gap — a 45-minute ride — last weekend, so that was nice. And I take occasional trips to the Baker Street Bread Co. in Philadelphia to pick up their excellent challah.

But a real trip, with hotels and rest stops and serendipitous walks and somebody’s used bookstore? 2021 can’t get here soon enough. Preferably with employment and a vaccine.

Review: ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by James C. Collins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” because it was a huge bestseller when it came out in 2001, and I was curious to see a) what made for a good-to-great company; and b) if the companies in the book had maintained their greatness.

Well, the ensuing two decades haven’t been kind to many of the 11 companies profiled in the book.

Circuit City went bankrupt. Fannie Mae was caught in the 2008 financial crisis and was eventually delisted. Gillette is still a great name in personal grooming, but now it’s no longer an independent name, but part of an even bigger company, Procter & Gamble. Pitney Bowes, maker of postage meter technology, was trading at about $80 when the book was published; the stock is now in the single digits. Wells Fargo – well, you know what happened to Wells Fargo.

So were these companies never great to begin win? Was the definition of “great” too narrow?

It’s hard to say. Business is always changing, of course; there was no guarantee that business leaders who read the book and aimed at improving their lot would find greatness simply based on Collins’ anecdotal observations. His principles, which include “Level 5” leadership (a combination of focus and humility), truth-telling, and discipline, could simply serve as traps as much as jumping-off points.

The “Good to Great” principles and flywheel.

“Good to Great” has faltered, I think, because Collins generally used financial success as a proxy for greatness. He wanted to find out how companies that had been muddling along suddenly surged, with their stock value handily beating the market over the course of at least 15 years (without Enron-type chicanery) while their competitors kept muddling – or spiked, only to fall back. So even though he brings up other factors, success ends up coming back to the bottom line. Other aspects of greatness — working conditions, employee treatment, corporate culture – seem secondary.

Of course, I can’t help but be skeptical. I’ve read too many “Dilbert” collections. I’m not a big consumer of business books, but it seems that Collins wrote “Good to Great” with rose-colored glasses; not for him the no-bullshit tone of my favorite business book, “Up the Organization,” where Avis rejuvenator Robert Townsend described the way things too often are at large corporations. (Summary: The lower-level employees are ignored, even though they’re on the front lines. Townsend is big on communication and fair treatment, one reason I like his book so much.)

Also, I wish Collins had discussed greed more. He notes greed IS a factor at poorly run companies, such as former Nucor competitor Bethlehem Steel, in which Collins describes — with justifiable sneers — its monumental office building and cushy executive perks. I used to be able to see the building from my house before it was imploded last year, a vestige of a once-great company.

But in today’s era (and even the ‘90s, when Collins was compiling his research), greed is a big deal. We live in a world where, more than ever, the idea is to come up with a killer app, build up to an IPO, make a few people rich, create a dazzling C-suite, and take over competitors. Or simply play vulture. Wall Street likes those double-digit profit margins instead of steady success, Warren Buffett notwithstanding. So is there even a place for Collins’ brand of greatness?

In fairness, even if some of the book seems anachronistic, I did find things to like in “Good to Great.” Look past the model companies, and the principles – though common sense – still hold up. Don’t spend your profits on an edifice complex. Be honest about your problems. And don’t get caught up in celebrity culture: “The recent spate of boards enamored with celebrity CEOs … is one of the most damaging trends for the long-term health of companies,” Collins wrote 19 years ago.

Still, good companies would do these things anyway. Right?

I hope so. We could use just as many good companies as “great” ones.

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Review: Really, ‘Perry Mason’? (SPOILERS)

Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason. Photo from HBO.

The following story contains spoilers for the finale and the first season of HBO’s “Perry Mason.” If you’d rather not know what happened, stop reading now.

For the most part, I enjoyed HBO’s new noir version of “Perry Mason.” The acting was wonderful — it’s always great to see actors such as Lili Taylor, Stephen Root and Matt Frewer ply their trade — and the plot, though a little more tangled than necessary, seemed properly ripped from early-’30s Los Angeles: a little real estate “Chinatown,” a little Aimee Semple McPherson, a little dark brutality amid the bright palm trees. (To the show’s credit, the movie business was barely mentioned. This is gritty, Art Deco downtown L.A., not the movie colonies towards the coast.)

Best of all was the production design: from the costumes to makeup to special effects, “Perry Mason” was as perfectly wrought as a colorized snapshot, right down to the red Federal Reserve seals on the money. Every detail was thought through.

Except for one: A satisfactory ending. Sunday’s finale was a lost opportunity.

It’s not that I expected a confession on the stand, the way that it would have happened in the Raymond Burr TV show. The show’s setup was too complex for that, involving a baby’s kidnapping and murder, the child’s accused mother, financial shenanigans with an evangelical church, and dirty cops. “Perry Mason” even winked at the TV show, with the first half showing Ennis, the dirty cop who killed the witnesses to the murder, getting grilled by Matthew Rhys’ Mason. Turns out it’s just a rehearsal with the courtroom scenes taking place in Mason’s head.

“Nobody ever confesses on the stand,” Hamilton Burger, the ADA who’s been tutoring Mason, tells him.

Instead, Mason “wins” a mistrial of Emily Dodson, the accused mother, saving her from execution. That makes logical sense, but left something to be desired dramatically. Moreover, at that point the show had about 20 minutes to go. So, I wondered, what about Ennis? What about Sister Alice, who had fled town at the end of the previous episode? What about her church?

There were a few answers, but they were presented as denouement, as if the entire eight-episode run was a prologue to a series to come. (And there’s almost certainly going to be a season 2.) We see scenes of Hamilton Burger, the helpful ADA who’s planning to take on Root’s DA Maynard Barnes, reveal the chicanery of the church. We see Ennis grabbed and drowned, mobster style, by his partner — justice, perhaps, but among thieves, not in a courtroom with the good guys. And we see Tatiana Maslany’s Sister Alice turn up as a diner waitress at the very end, having moved on from the church (which her mother, played by Taylor, has continued).

So: No operatic high notes? No climax? No clear-cut victory?

I mean, I love “Chinatown,” which is as dark as they come. I love “Double Indemnity” and “Sunset Boulevard” and “White Heat.” I appreciate ambiguity. But those films started and ended with corrupted figures who never really escaped their corruption. In some cases, in fact, they just got deeper.

The Perry Mason of HBO’s “Perry Mason” is no white knight — he has scars from World War I, he cuts corners — but he’s still more of a classic hero, and he should get more of a triumph than a mistrial. He should have been able to face down Ennis or the church and truly revealed the rot we know is there. Instead he pulled off the equivalent of squeaking in a lead run on a ground-ball out and then having the game called for rain.

And, if the creators are going for full dark ambiguity, I’d rather have Ennis get away than be killed by his partner.

I’ll be curious to see season 2 of “Perry Mason,” assuming we get rid of Covid long enough for them to shoot one. But season 1 ended with a philosophical lesson, not a climactic aria. All the production design in the world can’t make that satisfactory to me. Not right now, anyway.

Talking with John Lennon and watching Robert Kennedy die

As I mentioned in my Pete Hamill appreciation a couple days go, the guy had a colorful life.

Over the years — besides the countless columns of man-on-the-street prose he turned out — he mixed with the famous, including John Lennon and a certain real estate hawker-somehowturned-president. (“From the sublime to the ridiculous” has never been so appropriate.)

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Photo from AP via History.com.

Last weekend, the New Yorker posted the entirety of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” on its site. The story was originally written for the magazine and published in its issue of August 24, 1946, but for most of us who grew up years later, it was the slim paperback — 152 pages in the 1986 Bantam edition, which I picked up at a used bookstore some years ago — that haunted our youths. It was a mainstay of high school reading lists.

I only read “Hiroshima” once. That was enough. The stories of the sudden flash, the people vaporized, the shadows etched in stone — they were too awful to contemplate more than a single time.

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Pete Hamill, 1935-2020

Pete Hamill. Photo by AP via the New York Post.

Pete Hamill died today. He was 85.

For readers like me, Pete Hamill was a capital-J Journalist. Along with his contemporary and sometime rival Jimmy Breslin, the guy epitomized the New York newsman: close to the action, talking truth to power, filled with swagger and intensity. (It was no surprise that both came from the outer boroughs — Breslin from Queens and Hamill from Brooklyn. Their origins gave them an extra chip on their shoulders, determined to show those Manhattanites that there were another several million people in the Big City.)

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Two poems, one about tuna

As I may have noted, Mulligan the cat has his own clock. (Not a physical clock — though wouldn’t that be something, his oversized paws struggling to pull out the pin to set the alarm?) He likes to eat breakfast around 3 a.m., and isn’t shy about slapping me with his paw to make sure I get up to feed him. For those who are wondering why I give in to his demands: It’s done no good to shut the bedroom door or put him in another room; his scratching and caterwauling could wake Rip Van Winkle. Besides, I usually have to pee.

His excitement, and my dilapidated state of mind, prompted me to compose a poem as I descended the stairs the other day. I hope you enjoy it.

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Another book for the list, maybe

Image from Getty via Medium.com.

I just finished Louis Menand’s New Yorker review of a new biography of Joseph McCarthy, “Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy.” Menand calls attention to the similarities between McCarthy and a certain contemporary leader, but even if he hadn’t, doesn’t all this sound familiar?

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What happened in my breathing session

Image from modkat.com.

As I mentioned in my weekend post, I was going to try to calm my anxiety by doing some slow breathing.

Easier said than done, of course.

Coming into the session, I’d slept pretty well — Mulligan the cat only woke me up once, and my bladder kicked in a contribution a couple hours later — but didn’t get out for a morning walk because it was storming here in Bethlehem. So I had breakfast, read the news, and finally sat down on my folded-up futon on Sunday around 11 a.m. I didn’t bother with crossed legs, just put my hands in my lap and kept my bare feet flat on the floor.

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Weekend read: Taking a breath

Image from Getty Images via history.com.

I suffer from anxiety, and the last few months have not helped: Covid fears, job issues, being more or less trapped at home. So when I saw this Guardian article on slow breathing, I thought, it’s worth a try.

I’ve meditated in the past and it’s been helpful, but I’m terrible about staying in the habit. Sudarshan Kriya, the method talked about by the article author, James Nestor, essentially sounds like a very long meditation session: inhale slowly through the nose, exhale through the mouth. (A paper in the International Journal of Yoga offers more variation.)

Anyway, call this my Saturday and Sunday read. I’ll engage in slow breathing sometime this weekend and report back Monday. (Also, if at all possible, less news and social media.) Even a little bit of calmness would be welcome. And feel free to try it yourself and let me know how it goes.

See you on Monday.

Think the first part of the song, not the “rabbit run” part.