I did have to work with students in person, but we maintained social distancing, masks and other protocols. Other than that, I almost never went out. I wore masks any time I left my house. I checked my temperature daily, sometimes more. I got myself tested in late November: negative.
Nevertheless, around the beginning of February I started feeling easily fatigued when I’d exert myself. A lot of that was shoveling snow — an incredible physical effort to start with — but by late in the month I was feeling short of breath even under normal circumstances. At the same time, my resting heart rate rose more than 20 beats per minute between the beginning of January and today, and though I’m sleeping fine, the heart rate stays high enough that, by the time I awake in the morning, I’m famished, having burned the same amount of calories while I rested as I used to do on very long walks.
It could be something else. I have other health conditions, some of which lend themselves to the same kind of symptoms Covid does. And if I did have Covid, I was completely asymptomatic — no loss of smell or taste, no fever, no days in bed. I’m currently in the midst of some tests to see what the physiological underpinnings are … or the psychological underpinnings, since I also suffer from anxiety.
If 2021 goes as planned, we should be seeing Brendan Fraser in a couple movies this year — one of them a crime thriller, “No Sudden Move,” directed by Steven Soderbergh.
That shouldn’t be exceptional. For many years, from the early ’90s until about 2009, Brendan Fraser was in tons of movies. Some were box office smashes — “The Mummy” series, “George of the Jungle” — and some were critical hits, including “Gods and Monsters,” which should have earned him an Oscar nomination.
He was hot. There’s even an ancient website — it seems to run through about 2005, when Fraser had a photographic exhibit in New Orleans — that walks through his career in the movies and with his photographic hobby, in the days when a personal website was somewhat unusual.
“When Mad came about, it was the reaffirmation of those feelings in print. We were saying, ‘Kids, Madison Avenue is lying to you. Your parents are lying to you. The president is lying to you,’” recalled longtime Mad editor Al Feldstein in 2007.
I’m biased, of course. I was one of the many sucked in by Mad, starting officially with the July 1975 issue with “Airport 1975” on the cover (though there’s a picture of me as an infant reading, or staring at, the September 1965 issue) and continuing for … well, though I stopped buying the magazine as a teenager, I still dip into it from time to time, courtesy the CD-ROM collection Broderbund put out in 1999. (Cheap!)
When I was a kid, I read a creepy book that had a title that went something like “22 Creepy Stories of the Unexplained That Will Give You the Creeps.” It gave me the creeps.
The stories included stuff like a devilish figure whose tracks were seen in 19th-century Britain, a Caribbean family whose mausoleum, no matter how secured, was always in disarray when it was reopened to bring in another coffin, and a Pacific islander (if I recall) who was able to tell when ships would be arriving well before they could be seen on the horizon. That last passed his knowledge to younger members of the area, who did the same for the next generation, but eventually it disappeared. Nobody knows how it was done.
(It would be interesting to find the book now and see how many of the stories remain unexplained, or were made up entirely. Also, it’s interesting what gives you the creeps. I had a “Ripley’s Believe or Not” collection that had a simple drawing of a gravestone somewhere out west on which the death date was listed as “February 30, [year].” I don’t know why that gave me the shivers, but it did.)
We’re still figuring out some mysteries today, ancient — like the Antikythera mechanism, the 2,000-year-old Greek computer that had engineering (if not accuracy) not achieved until many centuries later — and more recent, like Dhaka muslin, a centuries-old fabric that was the most valuable in the world in the late 1700s but whose construction has been lost to time. The latter is the topic of my Sunday read.
I don’t know whether you’d call “Paul Simon: The Life” an authorized biography, but it sure is polite.
Simon did sit down with author Robert Hilburn for many interviews, but according to Hilburn, he didn’t have final say over the result. Nevertheless, Hilburn frequently pulls his punches, giving Simon the benefit of the doubt even when he’s being a prick.
The controversial journey to apartheid South Africa, then being shunned by many artists, to record songs for “Graceland”? Simon ran it by a number of interested parties, including at least one group that stabbed him in the back. Later, when Hilburn talks with Steven Van Zandt – still opposed to the trip years later – Van Zandt comes off as angrily wrongheaded. (Update: And Van Zandt helped save his life!)
The relationship with Simon’s father, Lou, which came off as difficult in a 1990 “60 Minutes” interview with Ed Bradley? Well, he could be hard to please, but he was still Paul’s hero.
I’m not saying Hilburn got it wrong. I think Simon went out of his way to do the right thing in South Africa, and I wasn’t in the studio with Los Lobos (though what Steve Berlin describes in the link above sounds plausible). Nor did I ever meet Lou Simon.
But boy. Hilburn’s Simon is admired by almost everybody – I can’t tell you how many times Quincy Jones is quoted when Hilburn needs a reference to an “artist on a challenging path” – and though Simon is lightly criticized for his perfectionism (to which, frankly, he’s entitled), he’s also overly praised for his generosity. I mean, the guy actually gave Warner Bros. their money back when the film “One Trick Pony” tanked, according to the book.
Still, you can’t deny Simon’s artistry, and Hilburn – who’s been writing about popular music for decades – captures it well. Simon did not emerge fully formed with “The Sound of Silence”; he was a fan of doo-wop who lucked out on a middling, early rock ‘n’ roll hit, “Hey, Schoolgirl,” with a grade-school buddy, Art Garfunkel, and never really strayed from the music business, scraping by for years.
Some of Hilburn’s most interesting stories are in the period between 1957’s “Hey, Schoolgirl” and the sudden takeoff of “The Sound of Silence” in late 1965 after producer Tom Wilson added electric instruments to an acoustic version off the failed album “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.” Simon was a hustler, writing and song-plugging for music publishers in Manhattan with little success while halfheartedly attending Queens College. He worked Village coffeehouses – awkwardly – and kept hustling when he got his shot with Columbia Records, bringing Garfunkel along with him. (Art actually stayed in school well after the duo became stars, earning an M.A. in mathematics from Columbia in 1967. You know, in case the rock ‘n’ roll thing didn’t work out.)
Simon also benefited from connecting with the right people. He made friendships, and improved his chops, during a 1965 stint in England that paid dividends for years. Later in 1965, with “Sound of Silence” rising on the charts, he asked Columbia’s debonair president Goddard Lieberson to recommend a manager. Lieberson suggested either Albert Grossman (who already represented Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary) or a man named Mort Lewis. Simon went with Lewis, who turned out to be a scrupulous guardian.
And the songs. There’s no question Simon is one of the great American songwriters, capable of clever melodies, haunting lyrics, and unusual ideas. If his work had ended with Simon and Garfunkel, he’d still be considered one of the greats: “The Sound of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “The Boxer,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – that’s a career, right there. Add in “American Tune,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “Stranded in a Limousine,” “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” even several songs from the unfairly maligned “The Capeman,” and he’s up there with the legends.
Hilburn has a fondness for quoting entire Simon compositions, something I thought would be tedious – Look! Poetry! – but turns out to be wise, as Simon’s later work, in particular, offers a delicacy and care often missing from capital-S Songwriting. His lyrics take unexpected turns and actually work as verse, though the music does help.
But Hilburn could have been sympathetic to Simon, who sounds like a mostly decent guy, and still been more dispassionate. I can’t help comparing Hilburn’s book to the recent biography of Mike Nichols, a Simon friend who had his own long, successful career. Nichols biographer Mark Harris is hard-pressed to find an actor who doesn’t praise Nichols to the skies, but at the same time what comes across is a sometimes-tortured gentleman who really could be an asshole and make poor decisions – and yet it makes him all the more human and sympathetic. I seldom got that feeling with Simon. He’s an artist, usually a gentleman (and certainly generous), but Hilburn buffs his flaws to a fine sheen.
However, Hilburn does seem fair about one characterization in particular: Art Garfunkel, who comes across as smart, but also petty and truculent, holding grudges for 50 years. Simon earns our sympathy at those times. He seems almost saintly.
It’s my birthday weekend (and I’m lazy), so nothing to single out in my Sunday read. However, there’s no reason you can’t dig into some lengthy articles without falling back on tl;dr. The Internet is full of them!
Meanwhile, enjoy this picture of Oscar and Mulligan.
Ebert has been dead for almost eight years now, but his impact hasn’t faded. The website he founded, rogerebert.com, is filled with the same kind of concise reviews and thoughtful articles he wrote himself for decades; now they’re done by a whole staff of contributors, including Christy Lemire and Matt Zoller Seitz. (His own work, of course, is also available, as well as a blog from his wife, Chaz.) Now that the Internet has made everybody a published critic, one could do worse than emulate Ebert, who tried to find the good even in mediocre films.
What’s more, he always kept a sense of discovery about him — and he brought that spirit to the country through his long-running partnership with Gene Siskel. As I wrote about the pair in an appreciation of Ebert, “They were, in a word, refreshing – especially for those of us, like me, who grew up far from the film centers of New York and Los Angeles. Where else could you get a sense of movies that might never come to your town? Where else could you take part, even from your living room, in the debate between two guys who really knew their stuff, and were entertaining as hell to boot?”
Jones went much deeper.
Now his hands do the talking. They are delicate, long-fingered, wrapped in skin as thin and translucent as silk. He wears his wedding ring on the middle finger of his left hand; he’s lost so much weight since he and Chaz were married in 1992 that it won’t stay where it belongs, especially now that his hands are so busy. There is almost always a pen in one and a spiral notebook or a pad of Post-it notes in the other—unless he’s at home, in which case his fingers are feverishly banging the keys of his MacBook Pro.
I probably read Jones’ story two or three times when it came out. He was fair and he was honest and he captured something … heroic in the midst of struggle. (Ebert would probably hate that I termed his medical battles “heroic.”) It led to a lot of chatter among the chattering classes, which I’m sure Ebert — who enjoyed the spotlight — liked, but it wasn’t written as that kind of “Up Close and Personal” sentimental glurge that TV networks and celebrity magazines like to put out. It was matter-of-fact, like the man himself.
I saw a handful of them — “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Mank,” “Da 5 Bloods” — and I plan to catch up with “Sound of Metal,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and “One Night in Miami,” among others, in due course. But, like probably all of you reading this (that is, both of you), I saw them on my television, in my living room — not in a theater on a big screen among dozens or hundreds of people. And an HDTV, even a home-theater-sized one (which mine isn’t), is no substitute for the moviegoing experience. I mean, I also watch “Saturday Night Live” reruns and the wonderful “Ted Lasso” on a TV.
So, even though many of those Oscar hopefuls probably look great on the big screen, virtually nobody saw them on the big screen. We saw them on streaming services.
As a result, they seem diminished. They’ve become just another TV show, something to flick past as you’re channel-surfing, or to freeze-frame when you go to the bathroom. (I can hear Christopher Nolan sobbing.)
The films of 2020, at least in the way they were presented, are another victim of Covid.
One afternoon in February 1987, back when I still had hopes of being a rock star, I sat down on my bed and tried to write a song. Much to my surprise, it came easily — the only time that’s ever happened to me. I was done, lyrics and all, in less than 30 minutes.
The song was called “Will You Ever Think About Me (When I’m Gone).” Here’s the recording I made a few days later (thanks, Dave), sluggish start, flubs and all:
At the time, I thought I was writing a standard kiss-off song: You weren’t the person I thought you were, so goodbye. But in retrospect, I wonder if the title was channeling one of my deepest fears. Would I be remembered after I die?
It’s not just me, I’m well aware. (“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying” — Woody Allen.) Still, the older I get, the more I wonder what of me will live on. My wife and I don’t have any children. I think of myself as an introvert, so my social circle is small. Yes, the Internet is forever, but besides my CNN bylines and this blog, there really isn’t much else. (I’m not counting the material owned by Mark Zuckerberg, that putz.)
Schofield lost a friend to suicide several years ago, someone who was incredibly generous, someone who thought of Anakana with small gifts and large actions. “I was alive for her even though I was absent. In that moment she chose to remember me. How can I return this gesture now, when she is no longer here?”
So Schofield volunteers. She tries to be there for others. She feels her friend’s spirit. And she hopes this is enough.
“This is where the dead go in our imaginations: They continue to live with us in the moments when we are sad and terrified,” she writes. “They cheer for us. … They coax us through.”
Twenty-one years ago, I lost a good friend. G and I had worked together at a TV station when I returned to Atlanta in 1991, and he helped me get on my feet when I needed some free-lance opportunities. He was a hard-core Braves fan — I’ll never forget the phone call he made late in the 1991 pennant race after the Bravos inexplicably came back from a 6-0 deficit to beat the Reds 7-6 on a ninth-inning Dave Justice homer — and he was remarkably open about his doubts and flaws. One of the latter was drinking, and though he had made attempts to quit, he blamed himself after his child was born with disabilities and used alcohol to take away the pain. One day his body had enough. He was 33.
I miss G. I think about him at odd times (like now). I don’t even have a photo of him, just an image in my mind: linebacker physique, big grin, contagious laugh. I miss him as I miss high school friends gone too soon, as I miss certain colleagues, as I miss my father. Maybe I idealize them; I’m sure I do. But in these lonely pandemic times, when the dead are with us more than is comfortable, I’ll take all the idealization I can muster.
It’s funny. I dislike the idea of holding grudges. That’s a different kind of remembrance — keeping a tight hold of the slights and quarrels that once wounded. All they do is make sure that wound never fully heals. But mourning is another kind of memory. It’s one that says I keep you in my heart, and I hope I’m doing right by you — the best of you — as I continue on this planet after you’re gone. It’s not really about living in the past. It’s about creating the future.
In a time when we have lost so much, it’s the least I can do.
Hunt, famously, was the former CIA agent who got wrapped up in Watergate as one of Richard Nixon’s “plumbers,” who were tasked with stopping administration leaks but ended up planning wiretappings and the Watergate burglary itself. He was a mysterious fellow who ended up as one of the threads Woodward and Bernstein pulled on to unravel the whole scheme.
Now, I’m an agnostic on the Kennedy assassination. It’s always seemed a little odd that an eccentric figure named Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed JFK on November 22, 1963. Surely he must have been connected to something — the Mob, the CIA, Texas oilmen, maybe the whole racket. On the other hand, it’s always seemed odd that an eccentric figure named Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and helped kick off World War I when the archduke’s car, having avoided a thrown grenade not long before, flukily went past him as he was waiting near a delicatessen. History is full of such improbabilities.
I’m not going to get into the details of Hunt’s confession — that’s why I’m linking to Erik Hedegaard’s story. I’m not even sure I believe much of it. Hunt very well could have been one of the “three tramps” in Dallas that day (many sources say otherwise), but he also fingers Lyndon Johnson as one of the conspirators, and having read the most recent volume in Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, I don’t buy that.
“He was a complete self-centered WASP who saw himself as this blue blood from upstate New York,” says his son in the Rolling Stone article. ” ‘I’m better than anybody because I’m white, Protestant and went to Brown, and since I’m in the CIA, I can do anything I want.’ “
You probably don’t. You probably have never heard of Fred Allen. But at his peak, in the 1930s and 1940s, he had one of the most popular radio shows on the air, was hailed as one of America’s foremost humorists, and influenced everybody from contemporaries Jack Benny and Groucho Marx to future talk-show host Johnny Carson (the “Mighty Carson Art Players” was a take on the “Mighty Allen Art Players”). One of the characters on his show, Sen. Beauregard Claghorn, was the inspiration for the Warner Bros. character Foghorn Leghorn.
Do you remember Harold Robbins? James Michener? Fannie Hurst? They were some of the best-selling authors of their day. Robbins was greatly responsible for the kind of sex-dripping novel we now think of as an airport potboiler. Michener wrote doorstops, such as “The Source” and “Hawaii,” that tried to sum up centuries of history through a handful of characters. Hurst, who is name-dropped in Mel Brooks’ song “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst,” wrote some of the best-selling books of the 1920s and ’30s. She was, perhaps, the Jodi Picoult of her day, seizing on social themes and getting hooted at by critics.
Do you remember “Imagine”? The 1971 John Lennon song?
Of course you do. It’s practically an anthem. As recently as last year, Gal Gadot rounded up a bunch of celebrities to sing it in the face of Covid. It didn’t go over well, but it wasn’t the song’s fault.
But if you asked one of Cesar A. Hidalgo’s students at MIT about “Imagine,” she would be clueless, as Hidalgo found out while listening to the song one day.
Today is Valentine’s Day, so instead of whining about the state of the world, I figured I’d look up some nice love stories on the web. But clickbaity websites being what they are, the headlines were enough to make even a Hallmark executive retch: “18 True Romantic Stories That Will Make You Believe in Love,” “True Love: Real-Life Couples Share Their Adorable True Love Stories” (which is the Google headline, not the website headline), “inspiring real-life love stories that will deeply touch your heart and restore your faith in love.” (That last is a description.)
I actually believe in love — hi to my wife, who I hope is enjoying those chocolate-covered strawberries — but as much as I want to go “aw,” I know from experience that love isn’t just those bubbly hearts that fizz in cable movies. It’s friendship and acceptance and — dare I say it? — a little work, too.
They’re from the Guardian and they’re told matter-of-factly. Two of them feature older couples who have seen a few things — widowhood, divorce, rejection. A third is the best kind of right-place-at-right-time story. (I’ve got a friend who has a wonderful one of those featuring an Atlanta ice storm.) I hope they provide some pleasure on this sometimes too-sentimental occasion. (Take it from a sentimental fool.)
Faces can prompt blank looks. Words don’t come easily. Events from his past — a career that’s included Number One hits, success across the decades, praise from Frank Sinatra — have apparently vanished in the recesses of his mind.
Tony Bennett has Alzheimer’s disease. He was diagnosed in 2016, when he was 90. He’s 94 now, and though he still has many moments of clarity, the isolation of Covid hasn’t helped his condition.
But do not weep for Tony Bennett. He is actually an example of what staying active can do to keep the disease in the background. He even performed right up until last March, when Covid brought the curtain down on live performance, and his pianist, Lee Musiker, comes to Bennett’s apartment twice a week to rehearse. (Musiker succeeded Ralph Sharon, who worked with Bennett for five decades.)
I mean that literally. Somewhere, sometime — probably around the time that iPhone apps made publicity-seeking as easy and instantaneous as posting a tweet — many people stopped being bothered by behavior that, in other eras, would have prompted an apology and a temporary drop off the map.
I know there’s an irony here, that bogeyman, “cancel culture.” I once wrote a story about public shaming, and holier-than-thou Twitterers piling on people for one stupid remark can also be stupid, in the fashion of shooting a fly with an elephant gun. But (usually) there’s a sense of morality at play. And (usually) the offender tries to show remorse.
But that requires a sense of shame, a knowledge that you have wronged somebody and want to make amends. Perhaps the other party doesn’t want to forgive; that’s a whole different conversation. (Forgiveness is generally good for you, though.)
I’ve been thinking about all of this — brazen politicians and cable hosts and an unwillingness to give an inch — and it made me think of David Carr. An excerpt from his brilliant book, “The Night of the Gun,” is my Sunday read.
Many years ago, when I was free-lancing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, my editor asked me to provide the copy for a special section on the Boy Scouts. Most of the article pitches we discussed were fairly low-key, ranging from a profile of a local Scout-oriented exhibition to a talk with Eagle Scouts. But one stopped me in my tracks: Could I call Hank Aaron, a Scout growing up, and get his thoughts on Scouting?
A dirty little journalist’s secret — well, MY dirty little journalist secret — is that making cold calls is a knee-knocking affair. It’s your job to approach complete strangers, and sometimes those complete strangers are celebrities whose gatekeepers can hold you off for the foreseeable future while you pursue your one necessary quote or response. Call Hank Aaron? I was shivering with anxiety.
So it took me some time to get up the nerve to call the Atlanta Braves corporate office, where Aaron was an executive, and ask to speak to him. I fully expected the secretary to tell me that Mr. Aaron wasn’t available, and could I leave a message, and I would never hear back. Why would Hank Aaron want to talk about his boyhood as a Boy Scout?
Instead, she put me right through and Aaron got on the line. I honestly don’t remember much of what he said, only that he was thrilled to say it — Scouting really had made a difference for a black boy in Jim Crow-era Mobile, Alabama — as he regaled me with tales of walking to Scout meetings and taking part in activities. For me, who only perceived him as a taciturn slugger and Hall of Famer, it was interview heaven. I would think about it every time I passed Hank Aaron Stadium off I-65 in Mobile when I traveled from Atlanta to visit my parents in New Orleans.
And now Hank Aaron is gone. He died Friday, in his sleep, at age 86. Hank Aaron, the first hitter listed in the Baseball Encyclopedia, still the all-time leader in RBIs and total bases, barely second in HRs, third in hits (a great detail: if you take away Aaron’s 755 home runs, he still has 3,000 hits), the namesake of the award that goes to each league’s top hitter, the incredibly consistent, classy, coolly understated Hank Aaron — Hank Aaron has passed.
The 88 pages of the Jan. 4-Jan.11 issue of The New Yorker contain one feature article, a 39-page chronicle of how Covid-19 went from obscure coronavirus to the colossus of death that has killed 2 million human beings as of mid-January, including close to 400,000 Americans.
I know, I know. You’ve had enough of reading about Covid. I’ve certainly had enough of posting about it. But — and this means no disrespect to the Atlantic’s Ed Yong or the diligent folks at Stat — this piece was written by Lawrence Wright, a terrific writer who wrote the best book on the lead-up to 9/11, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower,” and an excellent work on the Camp David accords, “Thirteen Days in September.” (In an eerie coincidence, “The End of October,” his novel published in May but written earlier, concerns a worldwide pandemic.)
I was going to write something about the events at the Capitol last week. I thought it was interesting how they provided a perversely tragic bookend to the inauguration of the president’s other favorite president, Andrew Jackson, an occasion when mobs overran the White House and Jackson himself had to sneak out a window. (“The reign of King Mob seemed triumphant,” said Supreme Court justice Joseph Story.) To paraphrase Karl Marx, history repeats itself, the first time as farce, the second as tragedy.
But I’m still too angry and upset to deal with it. So I’m going to go to my Happy Place: talking about the Beatles.
You’re probably aware by now that Peter Jackson is taking the raw material of the “Let It Be” sessions and refashioning it into a new documentary, one that appears to be much happier than the sometimes bitter original film, which ended up as the group’s official swan song (and, in fact, appeared after the group had broken up).
I can’t help but think: Is this revisionist history? Or is it closer to the way things were?
And what impact does re-editing our memories have on their impact?
“Let It Be” hasn’t been easily available since the VHS era; I can remember seeing it in a midnight showing at the Abalon Theater in New Orleans sometime around 1980, when midnight movies were a common way of showcasing older or outre works. Its reputation had preceded it: the Beatles seemingly trapped in a different studio than the familiar Abbey Road, constantly surrounded by cameras (in the days before that was a thing), with John bringing Yoko into the inner sanctum and Paul and George bickering over guitar parts.
Harrison, in fact, quit the band during the sessions. He didn’t return for more than a week, but when he did, he brought Billy Preston with him, and the rest of the sessions were calmer.
It’s Harrison’s attitude, along with Lennon’s opinion of the music, that’s colored opinion of “Let It Be” over the years. But McCartney and Starr have their own memories, and with more than five decades gone, we’re apparently going to see a more even-handed take of the era.
Does that mean Lindsay-Hogg’s original version is wrong? Not even he thinks so.
That argument was a small thing but it suggested there was certain amount of tension between them at this time in their life and indeed, why wouldn’t there be tension? They’re musicians and artists and they’ve known each other since they were teenagers and so they got married very young.
And you have to remember the time: the band is past its days of novelty. There are many things amazing about the Beatles, but for me, what often stands out is their energy — an ability to bring the joy of live performance to the studio. Just yesterday, I was listening to “I Want to Tell You,” a Harrison track off “Revolver,” and you can hear the thrill of musicians discovering new parts of themselves, and their love of doing it together.
By early 1969, though, they’d become businessmen and spouses and, above all, more cognizant of their individuality. The White Album, released just a few weeks’ before, showed they could still bring it, but it also showed they didn’t need each other as much as they did a couple years previous.
The White Album has been criticized for its sprawl, which brings up the question: What would you cut? What would you change? That got me pondering the value of good editing. I happen to love John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” but a recent article in The New Yorker mentioned that famed editor Robert Gottlieb wanted Toole to cut some of its set pieces. (Fortunately, they survived.)
In Hollywood, editing can make or break films. In his interview about “Godfather III,” Coppola talks about how “Godfather II,” which some critics consider superior to the first “Godfather,” was originally received at a screening.
When we previewed The Godfather Part II in San Francisco, we had a tepid reaction. And it was a mixed movie, meaning the sound and everything was done. That night, I made 121 changes, which is unheard of, because to make an editorial change when the film already has music and everything is really hard. We went three days later and previewed it again in San Diego, and the difference was night and day, which was the version that generally people value, which is Part II.
I’m reminded of a line told me when I was working on a story about film editor Kevin Tent, who’s done most of Alexander Payne’s films. Another editor said that his position is the most optimistic he knows; editors always think they can save the movie.
“Godfather III” appears to have been improved by Coppola’s changes. What will “Get Back,” the Jackson “Let It Be,” do to the image of the late Beatles? I’ve got a feeling it will add another facet to one of the great stories of recent years.
I grew up in the 1970s, which means that my bloodstream and organs are probably full of contaminants that will take decades, if not centuries, to break down — long after they may have contributed to my death. I’m sure I’ve eaten my share of plastic, inhaled plenty of tar and nicotine, and probably consumed some radioactive heavy metals.
Patterson, who was trained as a chemist but practiced geology and physics, was an eccentric. His discovery that his laboratory was infested with lead prompted him to go to extreme lengths to clean it (as well as hypothesize where the lead came from), at a time before “clean rooms” existed. And that wasn’t all.
On smoggy Pasadena days, he’d amble across the quad wearing two different colored socks and a gas mask. He went distance running when distance running was a hobby for weirdos. He didn’t look or act like a professor. He wore t-shirts, khakis, and desert boots. He refused tenure. Later in his career, he soundproofed his Caltech office and installed two doors, two layers of walls, and two ceilings. As his colleague Thomas Church noted, Patterson was like his rock samples: He did not enjoy being “contaminated” by outside influences.
This made him easy to caricature for the corporate interests — oil and auto companies — that wanted to keep their leaded fuel in the pipeline. After all, it eliminated knocking!
And no-knock leaded gasoline was a small price to pay for all that lead in the environment. After all, miniscule amounts of lead couldn’t cause that much damage. Could it? The leading lead researcher certainly didn’t think so, and nobody was looking over his shoulder.
Kehoe also made mistakes that might have been caught had his work been subject to independent scrutiny. In one study, Kehoe measured the blood of factory workers who regularly handled tetraethyl lead and those who did not. Blood-lead levels were high in both groups. Rather than conclude that both groups were poisoned by the lead in the factory’s air, Kehoe concluded that lead was a natural part of the bloodstream, like iron. This mistake would grow into an unshakeable industry talking point.
Mental Floss’ Lucas Reilly shows how indefatigable Patterson was. The scientist went to Greenland to take samples, then Antarctica. He took days to test each one. What they showed was undeniable: lead contamination had risen sharply in just a few decades. And then he went to a mountain in Yosemite and made his conclusions even stronger.
Oh, we’d polluted with lead before — just ask the ancient Romans — but this was of a scale that was frightening, not to mention unnecessary. After all, we weren’t making utensils, just stopping our cars from making noise.
You should read it all. Sometimes, even against entrenched corporate interests, science (and safety) will out.
"The Year's Awakening"
How do you know that the pilgrim track
Along the belting zodiac
Swept by the sun in his seeming rounds
Is traced by now to the Fishes’ bounds
And into the Ram, when weeks of cloud
Have wrapt the sky in a clammy shroud,
And never as yet a tinct of spring
Has shown in the Earth’s apparelling;
O vespering bird, how do you know,
How do you know?
How do you know, deep underground,
Hid in your bed from sight and sound,
Without a turn in temperature,
With weather life can scarce endure,
That light has won a fraction’s strength,
And day put on some moments’ length,
Whereof in merest rote will come,
Weeks hence, mild airs that do not numb;
O crocus root, how do you know,
How do you know?
- Thomas Hardy
Every year, The New York Times Magazine runs an issue it calls “The Lives They Lived” on the last Sunday of the year. The issue is devoted to highlighting some of the people who passed in the year previous, both the famed and the footnotes.
You’ll know some of the names — Tom Seaver, the legendary Mets pitcher; Chadwick Boseman, the “Black Panther” actor who died, far too young, of colon cancer; Helen Reddy, the celebrated singer. But you’ll also learn about Mimi Jones, who became momentarily famous during the Civil Rights movement for one shocking photograph, and James Harvey, a movie critic’s movie critic.
That’s the joy of “The Lives They Lived,” and the sadness, too — that it takes a special issue of the NYT Magazine to give many of these lives the proper consideration.
Claire McNear’s history of “Jeopardy!”, “Answers in the Form of Questions,” is about what you’d expect: amiable and breezy, optimistic and self-deprecating, with a few nice insights but also few surprises.
I live in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, right in the path of the nor’easter that plowed up the Eastern Seaboard yesterday. We got somewhere between 8 and 12 inches, the third-heaviest December snowfall the Lehigh Valley has ever seen. That’s pretty horrendous, though actually light compared to some of the earlier forecasts, including one from the Weather Service that warned we could get 1 to 2 FEET.
The school system I work for near Philadelphia called a snow day today. Makes sense, even though Philly and near environs got 4-6 inches, because the far reaches of nearby counties got much more. I wouldn’t be going anywhere, anyway. The alley my garage backs up to hasn’t been plowed.
As a kid, snow days mean freedom, but they’re weird when you’re an adult. I barely remember them when I was of an age to enjoy them, since we moved to New Orleans when I was 7, and New Orleans doesn’t have snow days. (Hurricanes and floods, yes.) We may have had a couple when I was in college in Atlanta, and certainly there were a few after I moved back to Atlanta in 1991, but by then I was more concerned with how I was going to drive from A to B in the white stuff if I had to.
Each time, I was fortunate. Even during the 2014 storm — the worst, one that left some of my CNN co-workers stranded for several hours on the highways — I got home in about 90 minutes, a hairy hour longer than my usual commute. And then, well, you stayed put, logged in remotely, and worked.
Today I don’t have to log in remotely, so the day is loose. But given the rest of the 2020 world — Covid, job loss, politics — I feel unsettled. Covid has already trapped us in our houses, so today feels less like a respite than more of the same: more to stew on and chew on, no relief from everyday strains. I tried to do some work on my desktop, but it failed to boot up properly, so even though I’ve backed up most of its hard drive, I’m wondering what I’m forgetting or missing. Sounds like a metaphor. Everything sounds like a metaphor.
And then there are some of the students from the evening GED class I teach. Last night, as the snow came down, a couple of them mentioned that they wouldn’t be getting a snow day. One, I gathered, was listening to my lecture on his phone as he cleared streets; another had to be at work at 6 a.m. to spell a co-worker completing a 12-hour shift. These are the people who truly keep the world turning, as we’ve learned over and over again during Covid. (And, I worry, we keep forgetting, too.) I already had a great deal of admiration for them: Imagine how hard it is to make time to take a thrice-weekly class to prep for your high school diploma while juggling work, children, language issues, and lives. But they’re also the essential workers who allow so many others to work from home.
When all this is over — snow, Covid, the endless doom of 2020 — I hope we all remember.
A few days ago, I thought I’d come down with Covid.
Because that’s the default now, isn’t it? Any other winter, you feel weary and sniffly, you think “cold” or “flu.” But now you think, “my mask wasn’t on tight enough when I went to the DMV” or “a stray sneeze must have been hanging around the room with those kids,” and you’re checking your temperature and your SpO2 every hour and waiting for the Grim Reaper to make his appearance.
For me, it started Wednesday afternoon. Let my quote from my social media post:
So yesterday afternoon I’m feeling a little nauseous. Could be the slightly stale cake; could be the caffeine from three cups of tea on a cold, snow-dusted day. I conduct my 2-hour GED class on Zoom starting at 6. My throat gets rough quickly and by 7:30 I just want class to end. Later, I take my temperature and check my pulse and SpO2 (because now we all have those finger devices, right?). They’re OK, but I still feel, to use the medical term, “icky.” I go to bed around 10.
I sleep heavily, as if I’m glued to the mattress, with lots of dreams. When I wake up in time for work, I still feel fatigued. Any other year, I’d go to work — again, no fever, good stats, just tired. But I call in, because not only do I not want to be sick midway down the turnpike, I definitely don’t want to risk spread (IF I have it).
In retrospect, the most striking part of the experience — besides my panic — was the dreams. I dream often, and try to write down as many as I can remember. But this night was like a quadruple feature of vivid stories: me on the bimah at a synagogue, lying on a large, leather-upholstered platform where a Torah had just been read (with a shard of wood as a yad); me being driven to an assembly by one of my special-needs students in the morning, telling him he’s early, dozing off, and not awakening until 5:30 in the afternoon with my parents talking in the next room of a house.
I have no idea what they mean. I had talked about Judaism and Hanukkah with my students earlier that day, so perhaps religion was on my mind, but there are also bits that have nothing to do with any of that.
Because I’ve read and seen many interviews with Macca, whether in magazines, excerpted in books, or broadcast on air. And yet I never get tired of them, even when it’s obvious he’s playing to the camera (so to speak).
He comes across as a working-class lad made good: still slightly stunned by the success of the Beatles, still trying new things (his new album, “McCartney III,” is due out December 18), still taking great pleasure (perhaps greater pleasure) in his family and friends in this, late in the eighth decade of his long, rich life.
I remember reading a comment by U2’s Bono that, upon arranging to meet McCartney and expecting him to pull up in some priceless overly large car with a chauffeur, McCartney himself pulled up in some little runabout. He tries to keep himself down to earth, even though much of the public would be willing to literally roll out red carpets for him to walk on.
And yet, he’ll always be a Beatle. That’s the way most of us think of him, despite 50 years of him being a non-Beatle, and also despite the perhaps apocryphal story of the 1970s teenagers who found a Beatles album in a record store and said, “Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?”
At the time, though, who knew that almost nothing would ever compare to the music and the impact of the Fab Four? Certainly not the Fabs themselves.
So, for my Sunday read, I dug through the endlessly interesting archives of beatlesinterviews.org. In there there’s this everyday chat with one Mr. P. McCartney, conducted by the BBC’s David Wigg in September 1969. “Abbey Road” was about to be released, and McCartney took the opportunity to talk about his favorite songs on the album, the relationship between the Beatles, and what else was going on in his life. You would never know that the band was just months away from its official split, and the cracks had already started widening. (This was not long before it was revealed that McCartney had died and been replaced by the mysterious William Campbell, but that’s a very different story.)
McCartney has generally been a sunny, optimistic type, and in many respects the tone in this interview is little different from the one he gave The New York Times’ David Marchese. Still, there are nuggets of recognition for future scholars. My favorite is this exchange, when Wigg asks Paul about his just-born daughter:
DAVID: “How is the baby?”
PAUL: (proudly) “She’s fantastic, yes, she’s beautiful. She’s about the best looking baby I’ve ever seen. Nicest. Just started on cereal, took every drop!”
PAUL: “For all the mothers and fathers listening.”
DAVID: “And now, are we going have a ‘Mary’ song?”
PAUL: “I don’t know.”
PAUL: “I don’t know. There’s, we did a song which has Mary in it, but it was written before she was born.”
DAVID: “I see.”
That song may sound familiar.
We now know that “Mary” was a reference to Paul’s mum, and that the idea for the song came to him in a dream. And as he tells the NYT’s Marchese, he’s a big believer in dreams.
When I was growing up and working my way through reference books, one of the tales I saw over and over again was that of Hetty Green, the “Queen of Wall Street” (or the “Witch of Wall Street,” depending on your take), who ended up in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s greatest miser.” (I’m sure the Guinness Book was where I first ran across her name.)
Her story remains shocking in many ways. She amassed a fortune of more than $100 million — more than $2 billion by today’s standards — and was one of the financiers New York City turned to when it ran into financial trouble. And yet she was also one hell of a skinflint, wearing the same dress and underwear until they wore out, rarely washing her hands, and most infamously, trying to find a free clinic for her son for so long that his broken leg had to be amputated.
(Perhaps some spoilers to come. You’ve been warned.)
I shouldn’t have read the review.
Now, I regularly read reviews before reading a book. I like to get an idea of what other people think, and they rarely affect my own opinion. At the least, they’re often good for a laugh – those 1-star Amazon reviews in which people complain about the book because it arrived late. Folks, it’s not the author’s fault that UPS took too long to get the book to your door.
But this review, on Goodreads, stayed with me as I read “Station Eleven,” the generally praised novel by Emily St. John Mandel. And as it forms at least part of my own criticism, I’ll hold back on it for a few paragraphs.
There are more than 200 pages of endnotes in Rick Perlstein’s “Reaganland,” and I have no doubt that the author – who concludes his four-volume history of postwar American conservatism and culture with this book – read every single book, article, squib, and cocktail napkin he mentions.
The work – all 700-plus pages of it (not including the endnotes, or the bibliography, or the index, or the acknowledgments) — is a marvel of detail and synthesis. I lived through the period Perlstein chronicles, having been 11 when Jimmy Carter was elected president and 15 when he was voted out in favor of Ronald Reagan, and I paid pretty close attention to the news (especially for an adolescent). I’ve also read much about the era since. But there are any number of incidents I’d forgotten about, or failed to realize the significance of, until I saw them woven into Perlstein’s ‘70s tapestry: the background of Love Canal, the early flailing of the 1980 Reagan campaign (John Connolly was considered a much more attractive candidate at one time), how far down Carter’s approval ratings were – and how much they rose after the Camp David Accords and the early days of the Iran hostage crisis.
But those events are only the surface. The real story of “Reaganland” is the creation of the conservative messaging subculture and its joining with the religious right, led by such figures as Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich, direct-mail king Richard Viguerie, Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell, and anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly. Together, they helped build an ideology that’s still with us today, one that’s become more homogenous, well-funded, and powerful than they could have ever imagined.
The echoes – or perhaps klaxons – are with us still.
So enjoy the day, or enjoy your sleep, or enjoy catching up on your reading. All I know is I have today’s New York Times, several New Yorkers, various other periodicals, and a few lesson plans to look over.
Disclosure: “Blonde on Blonde” is my favorite album.
In the 39(!) years since I first bought Bob Dylan’s 1966 classic as a curious 16-year-old who’d read about it from best-of lists, it has rarely failed to seduce me. There’s an energy about it that is equaled by few other records in my estimation – “Revolver,” “Moby Grape,” maybe Television’s “Marquee Moon” and the Clash’s “London Calling.” As with those albums, there are unpolished instances where things threaten to go completely off the rails, but that unpredictability only makes the music more powerful and transcendent. I can think of few moments more sublime than, say, the big G chord near the end of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” or the headlong rush into the last chorus of “Brand New Cadillac.”
But “Blonde on Blonde” has something more: Dylan’s lyrics. Opaque, imagistic, funny – “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” always makes me laugh – I don’t read into them as much as the budding A.J. Webermans of our time, but there’s no question that they provide a bottomless well of metaphor for those who seek that kind of thing. (For the rest of us, they just sound good.)
I wish Daryl Sanders’ chronicle of “Blonde on Blonde,” “That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound” – the title comes from Dylan himself, expressing a yearning for what he was hearing in his head – had the same kind of energy and unpredictability. Instead, it’s an adequate biography with some interesting detours, but on the whole simply an extended magazine article.
Sanders does do a service by pointing out that the key to understanding the sound of “Blonde on Blonde” is Nashville, where Dylan relocated after some abortive New York sessions after the success of “Like a Rolling Stone.” That single had peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, making Dylan an unlikely hitmaker after years of others, such as Peter, Paul & Mary and the Byrds, streamlining Dylan’s voice-guitar-harmonica songs into Top 40-friendly pop hits. Though “Stone” was produced by Tom Wilson, Dylan had switched afterwards to Bob Johnston, a Columbia Records staff producer who both gave the bard more freedom and had a better sense on how to record his roughest rock ‘n’ roll edges. (Compare the clanging “Maggie’s Farm,” off the Wilson-produced “Bringing It All Back Home,” with the richer Johnston-produced “Tombstone Blues,” from the follow-up, “Highway 61 Revisited.”)
Johnston had a feeling Dylan would mesh well with some of Nashville’s top session men, including multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, drummer Kenneth Buttrey, pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, bassist Henry Strzelecki, and guitarists Joe South, Wayne Moss, and Mac Gayden. With some established Dylan sidemen, notably organist Al Kooper and guitarist Robbie Robertson, in the mix, “Blonde on Blonde” ended up making Nashville more than the country music capital it had been, with other rock musicians visiting town to get some of the Dylan magic.
In the detail that surprised me most, that magic often came at the end of long – very long – nights. The Nashville session guys would gather in the afternoon at Columbia’s Studio A and Dylan would arrive, usually with songs unfinished. So the session men would get paid for one three-hour session, then a second, sometimes more, as they waited in the canteen, smoking cigarettes or playing pool but not actually playing music. Finally Dylan would emerge and recording would start in earnest, the group, in Sanders’ telling, palpably exhausted.
This is how we got “Fourth Time Around,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” among others. It’s as if the group flicked a switch and the electricity flowed through them.
Another surprise, to me, was how young the Nashville pros were. Perhaps because Music City didn’t seem rock ‘n’ roll friendly in the mid-‘60s, I’d pictured McCoy, Buttrey and the others as mildly grizzled guys in their 30s and 40s, Hank Williams veterans resistant to Dylan’s style. Instead, McCoy was the leader of Nashville’s top rock band, the Escorts, and all of 24 when he started recording “Blonde on Blonde.” Buttrey was 20. The others were only slightly older. (Dylan was 24.)
For all this, Sanders’ book somehow lacks the same electricity – or even the ghost of electricity — that the album has. He goes into minutia about takes and studio chatter, great for a Dylan completist but adding little to the story. He quotes from clippings and other memoirs in a way that seems separate from his story (this is what sometimes makes the book feel like a long magazine article). He turns to people like Robyn Hitchcock and Dave Marsh for commentary; Marsh, who is very much capable of investing his prose with electricity, would have been better off writing his own book.
And the Nashville cats themselves are a rather modest bunch. Dylan surprised them and stretched them, but they are, at bottom, professionals – not wild-eyed Keith Moons shoving TVs out of hotel windows. Making music was, and for many still is, their job, as regular as punching a clock at a factory. They just happen to be very, very good at it, but they’re less good at talking about it.
The phrase “that thin, wild mercury sound” brings to mind a medieval alchemist, combining ingots of rare earth, the fur of feral dogs, and bits of Scripture an igniting it with a literal fiery passion. Perhaps that’s what makes “Blonde on Blonde” so special, a chemistry that can’t be recreated, and Sanders – as the old comparison claims – may as well be dancing about architecture in trying to write about it.
Dylan, of course, doesn’t need to say anything. “Blonde on Blonde” has said it all for him already. Sooner or later, we all know that.
Among the reasons: Neither the Beatles nor Bob Dylan ever placed a song in MTV’s “Top 20 Music Video Countdown”; unlike Dylan, “who has done entire albums with just acoustic guitar and harmonica,” Milli Vanilli’s use of sequencers and synthesizers put them at the cutting edge of music technology; and Milli Vanilli doesn’t “subject its fans to the uncertainty of bad sound systems or sore throats,” instead using pre-recorded vocals to ensure seamless performances.
The column was titled, “World, You Know It’s True.”
According to my birth certificate and my mother — who’s fond of reminding me that she was there — I was born around 4:30 in the morning.
That’s the last time I’ve even halfway desired to emerge so early. And, back then, I doubt I had much of a choice.
More than 55 years later, my eyes show the passage of time and an unwillingness to awaken before the dawn. My wife is envious of my ability to sleep — if I lack an excuse to get up on a weekend, I’ll sleep in until the cats insist I get up — which makes it all the harder when the alarm is set for, say, 5:30 a.m. My father never struggled with such a relatively early hour; he was up, showered, shaved, caffeined, and gone before the sun showed its little yellow face. Me, anything before 6 a.m. may as well be the middle of the night.
More than 30 years ago, “a student from New Orleans, Louisiana” — that would be me — appeared on “Jeopardy!” In the time since, whenever people find out about my quiz show claim to fame, they have two questions: “How did you do?” And: “What is Alex Trebek really like?”
The first question has a simple answer. In an exciting game, I went into Final Jeopardy with a narrow lead over the second-place challenger, missed the question, and left with some nice parting gifts, including a case of Pepsodent and several packages of dried prunes.
The second was much harder, for Trebek — then in just his third year of hosting — had a reputation for standoffishness. In my very limited experience, he appeared only when the show started taping, kept to himself during the commercial breaks, and exchanged some small talk with us after the match was over. He seemed perfectly pleasant, very polished, and smart in a quiet sort of way. It would be years before his more casual, fun-loving side would come out on the show.
Between now and January 20, he has to get a new administration more or less in place, hiring hundreds of officials and generally turning the presidency into one of the nation’s biggest start-up companies.
The votes are being counted. I’m foolishly reading a lot about the process and its possible outcomes, though the usual suspects are saying what everybody knows: We’re a divided country, and regardless of who becomes president, we’re not going to easily fill in the chasm between the Two Americas. (John Edwards had it in terms of economics, but there are so many other indicators that split us. And what’s Edwards up to these days, anyway?)
But I keep coming back to “Network,” a 44-year-old movie which — despite its incredible wordiness and turned-up-to-11 performances — still resonates today. (I know, I’m always coming back to “Network.”)
I was going to write a blog entry just about the great Scot, but what more could I say? He was the best James Bond. (Ian Fleming even gave Bond a Scottish background after seeing Connery’s performance; before that, the Bond author had been against his casting.) He had incredible presence, enough that he could get away with his Scottish accent even when playing Russians and Irishmen. He was Indiana Jones’ father.
But I decided, for once, to leave the obituary writing and appreciations to others.
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.
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).
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.
According to Wikipedia, which has a whole article about this stuff, pictures of cats have appeared on the Internet since practically the beginning of its widespread use. The New York Times, quoted in the Wiki piece, even called cat pictures “that essential building block of the Internet.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.