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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