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.