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.’ “