Category Archives: Confessional

Memphis knows how to throw a party (or something) for St. Pat

catechismNo doubt some will cite this as evidence that my Ménière’s has reached the point at which I need a hearing aid.

But in my defense, my wife was out in the hallway when she said this, and I was in the bathroom with the exhaust fan running — although the door, I admit, was open.

Anyway, she had come upstairs to tell me that her youngest brother was on his way to the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Memphis (my wife’s family, the Phelans, are real Irish Catholics, not pretenders like me), and that he had told her something alarming about that parade.

She said the people on the floats throw catechisms to the crowd.

At least, I thought that’s what she said. I considered it a bit odd — most such parades aren’t that, shall we say, holy — but nevertheless arguably appropriate, since St. Patrick converted the heathen Irish to Christianity.

Then my wife said something odder. She said she thought that sounded “dangerous.” I reflected that maybe so, if they were hardbacks. But they could throw paperbacks, and maybe there are some abridged, pocket-sized versions…

Then she said other things that made me wonder. I asked her to repeat the first thing she’d said.cabbage

This time, I thought she said they were throwing “catechists,” and that did sound dangerous. If you go throwing people, religious education teachers, off of floats, someone could get hurt.

But something about this version sounded even more suspicious, so I finally asked her directly whether she had indeed said they were throwing catechisms or catechists.

She roared with laughter at this point (which frankly I don’t think is the kindest way to deal with my affliction). She had been saying, “cabbages.” They were throwing cabbages from the floats.

Yeah, OK. That could be dangerous.

You can stop laughing now…

Look out! What's that they're throwing? The St. Patrick's Day parade on Beale Street.

Look out! What’s that they’re throwing? The St. Patrick’s Day parade on Beale Street.

I thought Miami was in the Super Bowl. I read the signs wrong…

Dolphins car

I saw this car in traffic this morning, and I though, Aha! Miami is in the Super Bowl! Now I won’t sound completely ignorant if someone brings up the subject!dolphin flag

Like Tom Sawyer, I was proud I had found it out detective fashion; I wouldn’t give shucks for any other way — such, as, for instance, lifting a finger to look it up, which would have been against my principles.

Smugly, I made note to keep my eyes and ears open to see if I could passively learn who the other team was. (There’s pretty much always at least one other team involved in these things, you see.)

And then Bryan had to blow me out of the water with this comment.

Huh. The Eagles and the Patriots. OK. I stand corrected.

But… but… why was this guy flying the Dolphins flags, other than the fact that they went with the color of his car? Is it not customary among football fans to fly such flags on a day when their team is going to play, or in the days leading up to it?

The folkways of you people confuse me…

Oh, the words I’ve wasted!

Hannah presents her young son Samuel to the priest Eli. By Gerbrand van den Eeckhout

Hannah presents her young son Samuel to the priest Eli. By Gerbrand van den Eeckhout

Today’s first reading on the Catholic liturgical calendar is from 1 Samuel, chapter 3. It gets me every time I read this part at the end:

Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him,
not permitting any word of his to be without effect.
Thus all Israel from Dan to Beersheba
came to know that Samuel was an accredited prophet of the LORD.

Imagine that. If I were offered a super power, I might choose that one — that no word of mine would be without effect. Good effect, worthwhile effect. Effect that is pleasing to God.

But as it happens, I’ve wasted thousands upon thousands. And although one gets to utter many, many words in a lifetime on this Earth, the supply is not infinite.

I hang my head at the thought of all those wasted ones…

I just realized I have a mental block on ONE word…

words

About a month or so ago, my wife was riding with me in my pickup truck, and for whatever reason started writing down words that can be derived from “petroleum.” When we got to where we were going, she clipped the pen to the folded sheet of paper she’d been writing on, and left them on the floor of the truck, right behind the manual gearshift.

Periodically, as I’ve gotten into or out of the car, I’ve glanced down at the paper, and thought of another word, and taken a second to add it to the list. The column on the right-hand side are my additions.

I hadn’t added any new ones for a couple of weeks, and then yesterday, it suddenly hit me: I was missing a biggie — a nice, fat, five-letter word that for some time has been more on our minds than a sane person would want it to be.

I guess I’ve just had a sort of mental block, an urge to will that word away.

Can you see what it is?

Merry Christmas, Baby: Now, SPIT!

dna kitOK, so maybe it wasn’t the most romantic gift idea ever. And maybe it was more a present for me than for her.

But I had to give it a shot.

I called my wife a little while ago on this Cyber Monday and mentioned that she hadn’t told me what she wanted for Christmas. She replied that I hadn’t told her what I wanted for Christmas.

After a little back-and-forth about that, I said, Not that this is a related question or anything, but have you ever… thought about having your DNA done?

“I knew it!” she said. She, too, had seen the ads that said there was a special deal ending today: $59 for an Ancestry DNA kit, instead of the usual $99. “You want me to spit into a tube!”

See, I’ve been working pretty hard on her family tree as well as my own. And I’ve had some real success. For instance, one of her great-grandfathers had been kind of a dead end for her, as he died young far from his family. But I’ve managed not only to find his parents, but to carry his line back another five generations before that, back to Germany (we knew the name as Smith, but it was originally Schmidt).

Which is pretty cool, right? And with the data that a DNA analysis would provide, the sky would be the limit! Right?

What an exciting present! At least, I thought so.

She’s thinking about it. She’s probably also wondering what it is in my DNA that makes me this way…

DNA deal

Kyle Michel ponders All Souls’ Day

"All Souls Day" by Jakob Schikaneder, 1888

“All Souls Day” by Jakob Schikaneder, 1888

Earlier this week, the lady who schedules us lectors and eucharistic ministers sent out an email looking for volunteers for the Masses on All Saints Day. I wrote to her to say I could serve at the one at noon, but couldn’t do the evening Mass because of the debate.

But I had to ask her a dumb question, just to be sure: You’re talking about Wednesday, right?

As a convert, I still get confused by some stuff cradle Catholics take for granted, and the distinction between All Saints’ Day (yesterday) and All Souls’ Day (today) is one of those things.

But because we have so much to learn, we examine these things more closely. And an unexamined life, etc.

So I sort of enjoyed this email from Kyle Michel, who like me grew up Southern Baptist before marrying into a Catholic family:

All Souls Day has always been kinda intriguing to me. The idea of praying for all souls gone before you makes you wonder where the heck they’ve all gone. Maybe my Jewish friends are right – you’re here, you make your mark, you’re gone. Or, maybe there’s some kind of next stage – put whatever label you want on it. It would be hard to say that every person who has ever seen a ghost or had some paranormal experience was just imagining it. But everybody who ever died can’t be hanging around or the whole world would look like that Michael Jackson Thriller video. ​
I grew up Southern Baptist and we never had All Souls Day. According to the Baptists, there’s just no need – God’s already sorted them out, no need for further input. The Catholics have more of a Jesse Jackson approach – Keep Hope Alive! That Catholic approach seems a little better suited to a procrastinator like me – give it your best shot while you’re still breathing, but if you fall a little short, you’ve still got a chance.
Though, for Catholics, All Souls Day is still a little uncomfortable because you’re supposed to pray for all those in purgatory, which means you gotta make a call on who you think didn’t quite make it in – awkward!  At the funeral, everyone makes it in, right? Now, I gotta admit I think Uncle Freddie never made the cut!
Lucky for us, this year All Souls Day falls on First Thursday, so you can come down to Main Street and spend the evening thinking about all your dearly departed while walking among your not-yet-departed who probably still need a little prayer themselves.
If you’re out, stop by. We’ll be here at 1520 with our usual fare and selling the records of some of the souls we’re praying for – including a few of those “under-the-counter” ones that belonged to Uncle Freddie.

Kyle sends out these emails every First Thursday, inviting folks to drop by his law office on Main Street. He has the most awesome record collection I’ve ever seen outside of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, and he puts out some of his treasures out to sell from tables on the sidewalk.

You should check it out tonight. I can’t, because I’m doing another Catholic thing: I’m going to the annual Bernardin Lecture. Kristin Heyer of Boston College will speak on “Immigration Ethics in a New Era.”

John Ashbery: He was a poet, and I didn’t know it

Ashbery

The other day, I showed a screenshot from my NYT app in which everything visible on the page was about Hurricane Harvey. Well, that’s not the only thing the paper covers thoroughly.

A couple of days back, poet John Ashbery died, and the Times went pretty big with it — as you see, four separate headlines.

And this made me feel dumb, and out of it.

It got me to thinking: Aside from that anthology of Yeats (which I’ve had since college) that sits on a shelf in our upstairs bathroom, which I may glance at once or twice a year, when do I ever read poetry any more at all? (And let’s be really honest here: When I do pick up the Yeats book, I don’t read anything new — I turn either to “The Second Coming” or “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.”)

Can I even name a living poet? I mean, I sort of think of Elvis Costello as a poet, and some people might cite rappers, but here I’m using a more restrictive definition: Can I name any living people who just write verse without being known for anything else, full-time poets like Yeats and Keats and Coleridge and e.e. cummings, or, I don’t know, Edwin Arlington Robinson (who I had to look up to add to the list, even though I do remember one of his poems)?

No, I cannot. As much as I was immersed in such in school, it’s like poetry was a thing that ceased to exist after graduation, as much a thing of the past as knights in armor. And I’m a guy who’s always made his living with words! If there’s a latter-day belle dame sans merci, or a goat-footed balloon man still out there whistling far and wee, I am unaware of it.

Apparently, this John Ashbery was a major deal. He won every poetry prize there was, and lived to be 90 without my being aware of him.

Were any of y’all as ignorant as I?

Here’s one of his poems:

This Room

The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.
We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.

So now you can say you read some poetry today. How often can you say that?

Here’s what I mean by my essential Tory sensibility

I expect respect for fundamental institutions, such as the rule of law.

I expect respect for fundamental institutions, such as the rule of law.

I’m a conservative guy, on a fundamental level. I sometimes refer to my “Tory sensibility,” and I may be using the words incorrectly, not being a Brit, but at least I know what I mean. And in response to a comment by Doug back here, I tried to explain to others what I mean. And it got long enough that I decided it should be a separate post, because, you know, why waste all that typing?

When I say “conservative,” I mean it in a conservative sense, a traditional sense. No, I’m not trying to claim intellectual descent from Edmund Burke, because frankly I’ve never read Burke. In fact, the whole Burke thing confuses me: How could he be the father of conservatism, and be a Whig?

No, I’m more self-taught in this regard. And, quite frankly, even though I tend to pride myself on thinking things through rationally, this is a gut thing. (That’s what liberals think all conservatism is, don’t they — viscera over mind?) And in fact, it may not be self-taught as much as it relates to things I learned when I was so young I don’t remember learning them, things as basic as how you ought to treat other people (short version: with respect) and such.

And this gut thing of mine causes me to feel disgust at so many who insist that they are “conservative,” when they are institution-destroying radicals. I tried getting at this in early 2008, in a column headlined “Give me that old-time conservatism.” (That link was to The State‘s version, which I was pleased and surprised to find still up. Here’s the blog version, which includes links.)

What returns me to the subject was that call from Jack Van Loan last night, and some of the comments from my blog friends. Doug wrote:

There are more and more players this season who are sitting for the anthem. Marshawn Lynch is probably the most visible right now. To me, it’s a relatively harmless (and probably useless) way for a person to express his displeasure with the events of the day. The best course would be to ignore them if you disagree rather than try to vilify them….

I responded more or less as follows…

It’s outrageous. It’s completely uncivilized behavior. I don’t care what your issue is, you don’t do something that amounts to a general “F___ You!” to the entire nation over that one issue. (OK, I did something inconsistent with my own sensibilities there — chalk it up to my strong feelings on the issue, and my wish to engage the interest of moderns.)

(To elaborate on that point, Doug responded facetiously to my reply by saying “I must have missed Rosa Parks’ pamphlet: ‘Top Ten Reasons I Should Sit In The Front of the Bus’.” Which offered me a perfect opportunity to explain further: What Rosa Parks did was moderate, measured, proportional and to the point. She’d had enough of being disrespected, so she didn’t move. What the football player did was as different from that as night from the day. He flipped off the whole country in order to make an unrelated point. And if you think it is relevant and proportional to the point — if you think the whole country is rotten (which is what disrespecting the flag says) because on rare occasions (proportionally) a cop engages in violence that may or may not be based in his own personal racial attitudes — then you’re not thinking clearly. It’s a matter of focus, a matter of specificity, a matter of clarity.)

This is where my essential, bedrock conservatism comes into play. Real conservatism, not the nihilistic garbage that so many loudly proclaim these days.

I don’t ask much from people in the way of acting civilized. I just expect them not to go out of their way to do things that amount to a slap in the face to their fellow citizens, things that flip off our essential institutions.

I don’t ask you to go to my church. But I expect some respect toward that fundamental institution, toward all such fundamental institutions. If I were an atheist, I’d be a devout one. When someone said a prayer in my presence, I’d respectfully bow my head and be silent until they were done. Because to do otherwise would be disrespectful to the person and his beliefs. It’s like when I was in Thailand, and this lady who had hosted and fed us for two days in her home invited us to kneel beside her at the little Buddhist altar in her home to pray for our safety on the rest of our journey (or so my daughter explained, this being all in Thai), I gladly knelt and bowed my head. If I’d known the Thai for “amen,” I’d have thrown one in. When in Rome.

I feel the same way about other institutions of our civilization (and whatever civilization I’m visiting) — the government, our courts, public schools, the Constitution, the Rule of Law, the military, the national anthem, the flag, and yes, motherhood, the girl next door and apple pie (even though I am allergic to apple pie, so that it benefits me on no way). And I expect a modicum of respect for these things from my fellow citizens. They don’t have to exert themselves; they just need to not go out of their way to insult these things.

And when they do, forgive me if I don’t pay attention to the issue they’re trying to dramatize. If you want to advocate an issue, use your words — don’t use unfocused gestures of insult toward the whole society. That is childish, and I would add, barbaric — senselessly destructive. And I’m not going to hear you.

Use your words.

And yes, motherhood and apple pie and the Girl Next Door (Frank Capra version). Welcome home, George Bailey!

And yes, motherhood and apple pie and the Girl Next Door (Frank Capra version here). Welcome home, George Bailey!

The WSJ’s pricing pushes me over to the NYT

WSJ front 2

When I was in college, one of my journalism professors told me that The Wall Street Journal was perhaps the best-written paper in the country. I didn’t discover how right he was until decades later.

As editorial page editor, I had print subscriptions to the Journal and The New York Times, plus The Economist, Foreign Affairs, The Post and Courier, The Greenville News, The Charlotte Observer and so forth. And I’d try to at least skim the Journal and the Times (as about the only person on the board who wrote about national and international issues, I felt the need to keep up).

But I really got into the Journal when The State made a deal to distribute that paper along our circulation routes. As part of that deal, we got a certain number of comp copies, so I arranged to have one delivered free to my house, brought by the same carrier who delivered The State. I wanted to get the Times at home, too, but the guy who contracts with them in this area refuses to deliver on my side of the river, or so I hear (Samuel Tenenbaum, who also lives in Lexington County, drives to the Publix in Lexington each morning to get his copy.)

I really got hooked on it. This was during the years that Murdoch was turning it into a national-international reporting powerhouse as well as just a financial paper. Every day I looked forward to the three pages of opinion, and on the weekends there was the wonderful Review section, always a feast for the mind.

The Journal wasn’t just a boon to me; my wife took the old copies with her when she tutored a Somali Bantu boy whose family our church was sponsoring, to help him with his English.

But after I got laid off, I had to make a decision whether to keep getting it and paying for it myself. And somehow, I managed to scrape along and keep doing it until sometime late last year, when my subscription ran out and they were not giving me a good-enough deal to keep it going.

To give some perspective: For the last two or three years, I’ve been subscribing to The Washington Post for $29 a year. Online only, but that’s fine — not only do they not circulate here, but I read all my papers on the iPad now. By contrast, I’ve been offered “deals” by WSJ for as much as $400-plus a year.

I chalk that up to the Journal continuing to be a paper that people pay for through their work expenses — or, if they pay for it themselves, they can afford it. I can’t.

To be fair, they kept offering me “professional courtesy” rates, usually about $99 for six months. And I’d think about it and shake my head — $99 for a year, maybe (which I think they offered me in years past). But not six months. Not when I’m getting the Post for $29 a year, and at a time when Jeff Bezos has been investing in the newsroom, and the paper’s political coverage is at least as good as it has ever been. Meanwhile, the WSJ has ditched the Arena section I use to enjoy on Fridays.

It was easy to pass up on these offers at first because, for some reason, the Journal was still letting me read the paper on my iPad app. Since that’s the way I prefer to read it anyway, no problem. But eventually — several weeks ago — they got wise and cut me off there, too.

So, I started reading The Guardian in the mornings in place of the Journal. It’s free, although they keep asking me to be nice and pay. But they don’t do it the right way. I think The Guardian‘s a great read, but they pitch it as though I’d want to support their editorial view, and I can’t go there.

Then, last week, The New York Times came at me with a proposition I couldn’t refuse — I could get the whole paper online for $7.50 a month — or $12.20 a month if I wanted the crossword, and one additional subscription for a friend. Why was this a good deal? Well, I was already subscribing to the NYT crossword iPad app, and was paying $6.99 a month for that alone. (Which I thought was really exorbitant, since I get The New Yorker on my iPad for only $5.99 a month, but hey, I enjoy the crosswords — at least, I do on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.)

So basically, I’d still get my crosswords, and then get the rest of the paper for only $5.51 — or $66.12 a year. With the offer expiring on Sunday, I pulled the trigger Saturday night.

Now, some of you will say — you won’t pay for The Guardian because of its editorial position, but you switch from The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times — the national icons of the right and left, respectively — as though they were interchangeable?

Yep. Because they’re both great, well-written and -edited papers that bring me the world, and offer me something I enjoy reading on every page. Including the editorial pages. I probably disagree with both papers’ editorial boards about equally. But the opinions, especially the op-eds, are lively and though-provoking. And I’m not one of these people who has to agree with a view to enjoy reading it — in fact, I don’t understand such people.

Anyway, it had gotten to where my favorite columnist in the WSJ was Bret Stephens — and he just moved over to the NYT. As I start reading the paper daily, I expect my favorites will be the ones who skew right — Stephens, David Brooks, Ross Douthat — even as my favorites in the WSJ were more to the left, on the rare days when such was to be had.

Anyway, y’all will likely see me citing stories in the Times as much as I used to from the Journal. (Y’all had probably long ago noticed that I point you to the Post a lot.) I’m sure y’all will give me a heads-up if you think I’m getting reprogrammed…

nyt

Of course, I don’t get them either, which is also bad

I didn't get why everybody was so mad in "Network," either.

I didn’t get why everybody was so mad in “Network,” either.

Just to examine the other side of the coin…

My last post quoted a Trump supporter on the subject of his detractors, saying “I just don’t get it.”

Well, far be it from me to let on to be wiser than others when I’m not. (As a Twain protagonist said, “I was born modest; not all over, but in spots.”)

The thing is, I don’t get Trump supporters. Oh, I can cite this or that overt reason that they give for holding the views they do. But I don’t have a good grip on what an editor I used to work with called “the emotional center.” And normally, I would.

After past elections, I’ve pretty much understood what happened, on most levels. Not this time. I read about people having (some of) the same reservations about Trump that I did, and voting for him anyway. And with some of those folks, I understand the underlying emotion — they really, really hated Hillary Clinton. I consider it rather intemperate and unwise to hate anybody that much, but I don’t doubt the force of that impulse.

But there’s something bigger than that going on, something at the root of the nihilism I kept writing about during the election (much to the irritation of some of you). Something that caused people to feel they wanted to blow it all up, regardless of the consequences. Something that made them want to give a grossly unqualified, deeply unfit man the most powerful job on the planet. Something they were just fed up about.

At this point, Doug is jumping up and down, saying, “I knew it! I kept saying you didn’t get it!” But I do get that the impulse was out there. What I don’t get — not being a cynic like Doug — is the rational basis for it.

I hear about “economic dislocation.” But that seems inadequate. I’m a white male who is as economically dislocated (the position I worked my whole life for, and performed very well, has ceased to exist) as anyone, and I strongly suspect that a lot of Trump voters, quite likely most of them, have higher current incomes than I have.

I see the anger is there, and I see it as key to what has happened (it certainly didn’t happen for calm, rational reasons). But I can’t connect to it.

And the feeling is familiar. I felt the same way back in the 1970s, when I saw “Network.”

To this day, I have no idea what Peter Finch’s character was on about when he kept babbling, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” (In the larger sense, I mean — the immediate cause was that he was getting fired.)

Mad as hell about what?, I kept wondering. It made no sense, yet in the film, he turned out to be perfectly in sync with America. The viewers loved it. And that’s the tough part, see. I understood that Howard Beale was unhinged. But why did it strike such a chord?

I thought people running to their windows and shouting about how mad they were about some nonspecific “this” was absurd. I still think that.

I’ve heard all sorts of explanations as to what the Trump voters were mad about beyond the economic stress thing. And I fully believe in some of them — such as the feeling of being ignored and mocked and insulted by coastal elites. That I can dig; it’s based in something real. I can also understand frustration with the mess the parties have made of our politics — but electing Trump always seemed to me the surest way to make things worse, not better. And even if you take every ostensible cause and double it, and add them all together, and throw in Doug’s powerful disgust at government in general, it just does not add up to a justification for what just happened, and keeps happening every day.

It just doesn’t.

And yeah, it may seem stupid for me to try to explain a visceral phenomenon in rational terms, but I do try. I just don’t arrive…

Valentine’s Day has to get better from this point on…

potted-tulips

Last night, I gave platelets, and the morning after I often feel a tad out of it — not quite the thing, you know?

And then the alarm woke me when I was deep, deep into a stress dream — one of those where you’re trying to get a big, complicated (in fact, truly impossible in this case) thing done, and worrying over how to do it, and because you were awakened in the wrong part of the cycle, you have trouble shaking the worried feeling, like part of your brain still believes that you have to solve this problem

OK, maybe you don’t do that, but I do.

When my wife got up, I told her a little about it, and she sort of chuckled at the sillier aspects, which helped put it in perspective a bit, but I still hadn’t shaken the feeling of needing to deal with it when I headed downtown to have breakfast, thinking coffee ought to sort me out…

Well into my second cup, something came to me. Moments later, I Tweeted this:

And I’d been so on top of this! I’d bought those potted tulips on Saturday, way earlier than I usually think about Valentine’s Day.

The day has to get better from this point on, right?

Belated Top Five List: Best Christmas toys ever

15726431_10208249181372897_2002329340568424216_n

Technically, this list is not late, as this is the ninth day of Christmas. In any case, I didn’t see the inspiration for it until today. Also, it’s a slow news day.

My fellow former Cosmic Ha-Ha Dave Moniz posted the above photo on Facebook last week, with this caption:

Patrick and Monica somehow found this vintage “electric baseball” set. What a lovely Christmas gift. Unlike its first cousin, “electric football’ this actually works without little plastic men running in hideous circles or clumping in immovable scrums.

My first thought was, I’d like to try that game out. My second was, I hated to see him run down electric football, which frankly, I liked better than real football. Any of y’all remember those? You’d put your little plastic players on the line of scrimmage, with one of them holding the little felt football, and hit the switch, and the whole stadium started vibrating like mad, causing the men — whose bases were perched up on thin, flexible blades of clear plastic, would start moving independently, one hoped toward the goal line. But really, they went wherever they wanted — which quite frequently was backward.

It was a pretty wild toy, both in concept and execution.

Actually, here I am describing it like something from the distant past, and apparently they still sell these things! Which was a surprise to me. But if you’ve never seen one of these in action, here’s video of a fancy modern version.

Bottom line, I loved my electric football game.

Which got me to thinking: What would be my Top Five Toys Ever, with an emphasis on those received from Santa. Here’s a hastily assembled list, which I may amend as we proceed:

  1. My BB gun — To be specific like the kid in the movie, my Daisy Model 1894 authentic saddle gun. This was probably the greatest surprise of my childhood, as my mother had always assured me I would never get one because — and she actually used this line — I would put my eye out. This was a beautiful rifle, the metal parts a nicely blued steel, with the stock rendered in plastic that at least looked like wood from a distance. The moment I found it under the tree was special: Santa had laid out my new sleeping bag that I was expecting, and the rifle was slipped inside it. This, of course, proved the existence of Santa, because I got it when we were living in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and I don’t think there was a store on the entire continent of South America where my parents could have bought this. I had a lot of fun with it, and never did put my eye out.
  2. Any Official Boy Scout gear — All through my Cub and Boy Scout years, nothing could top any gift that had an official Scout logo on it. These were items that a guy had to have to make his way in the world, to Be Prepared (I had never heard of the Zombie Apocalypse, but I instinctively sensed that every boy should be prepared for it), and the Scout emblem, to my mind at least, spoke unfailingly of quality. I received a bunch of stuff from this category over the years. Some items that stand out are my official Cub Scout pocketknife, and my official Boy Scout mess kit and canteen (which I think I got the same Christmas as the BB gun and sleeping bag, so I cleaned up that year).
  3. Tabletop hockey — As I worked on the list, I thought of something I liked better than electric football. That was the non-electric hockey game my brother and I had — this kind, which had the metal rods that you’d move in and out to move the players across the “ice,” and which you would spin to make them shoot the puck. We had some pretty furious, active games with this, which we would play for hours. I still remember with shame how petulant I got the first time my brother — who is six years younger — beat me at this. But mostly, it was fun.
  4. Cowboy six-shooters — This is a whole category because I had a lot of them in the ’50s and ’60s, but I’m going to zero in on one particular product. Do you remember the Mattel Shootin’ Shell system? The Shootin’ Shell was a three-part piece of ammunition. It had a brass shell with a spring inside, a gray plastic slug that you’d push into the shell until it clicked, and a little round paper cap that you’d stick on the back of the brass shell. When the gun’s hammer hit the back of the shell, the shock would cause the spring to eject the little gray slug out the barrel of the gun, and the cap would go off to provide a semi-realistic sound. Here’s video. Anyway, at one point Mattel released a mechanical adversary with which to have gunfights. He was this villainous-looking little mannequin who, when you pulled a string, would start to draw. If he fired before you, you were “dead.” If you managed to draw, fire and hit him with your Shootin’ Shell slug before his arm got to a certain point, his arm would stop. No, I am not making this up. I was able to shoot from the hip and stop him. And yes, boys of my generation were really into violent toys…
  5. The see-through submarine — This was another one that we got when we lived in Ecuador, which speaks to extra exertions by my parents — they no doubt arranged to get these things from the Base Exchange up in the Panama Canal Zone, via the monthly C-47 that brought nonperishable groceries down to U.S. personnel. Anyway, this was an impressive toy. I had forgotten the name of it, but Google has identified it as the Remco Barracuda Atomic Sub. It was about three feet long, and had a motor that moved it on discreet wheels along the floor (water would have destroyed it), while it automatically fired torpedoes out of the bow. The coolest part, though, was that it had a transparent top deck that you could remove, and move around the little blue plastic crewmen inside. For whatever reason, I seem to recall you could also rearrange the bulkheads — which made it more like a Napoleonic-era warship than an actual sub. A friend of mine, also a Navy brat, had a huge toy aircraft carrier made by the same company. It had a pretty powerful catapult for launching aircraft, but that’s not what we used it for. This kid also had a construction set for building skyscrapers. We’d build a skyscraper, and then launch leftover plastic girders at the building from about six feet away to knock it down. A lot of trouble, but eminently worth the effort.

Honorable mention: Hot Wheels. These came along a little late for me, but I had an awesome time playing with my brother’s Hot Wheels — and my sons’, and my grandson’s (every time I go into Walmart today, I have to fight against the temptation to buy him another — they’re only 94 cents apiece, and they’re awesome!). I had grown up on Matchbox cars and thought they were pretty cool, but Hot Wheels just blew them away. Matchbox would later ape the fast-wheel technology, but they were just playing catch-up from then on.

Yep… guns and war toys and fast cars. But I was an actual kid, not a hypothetical one, and that’s what I liked, and I was lucky enough to come up before these things were thoroughly frowned upon. So there.

Now… what are the vintage toys that make you wax nostalgic?

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Some of the TV shows that keep me from reading books

"Vikings:" Meet Ragnar Lodbrok, my 38th-great grandfather -- maybe.

“Vikings:” Meet Ragnar Lodbrok, my 38th-great grandfather — maybe.

This started as a comment, but I’ve turned it into a separate post.

Over the weekend, I confessed that I just haven’t been reading books the way I once did. One of the reasons, I’m humiliated to admit, is that there is so much compelling television these days. Some of the TV shows that have distracted me over the last year or so:

  • Boardwalk Empire – I’ve finished the first season and am taking a break before plunging into the second. I really like the way this is actually based on historical figures. And I never realized before what a slimeball Warren Harding was.
  • Vikings — I’m in the second season. This is tied to my genealogy obsession. Ragnar Lodbrok, the star character, is a direct ancestor of mine — if he existed. His sons are considered historical, and I’m apparently descended from one, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. But whether they were all brothers and Ragnar was their father seems less certain — he’s a figure in Norse folklore. Sigurd’s mom, Aslaug, may also be a fable.
  • The Last Kingdom — This is related, although fictional. It’s sort of a real-life alternative to Game of Thrones. It’s about the Viking conquest of all of England except Alfred the Great’s Wessex — the titular Last Kingdom. The hero is fictional, but historical figures a prominent characters, such as the aforementioned Alfred and Ubbe, the brother of Sigurd.
  • The Crown — We’ve watched all of that; look forward to another series. My hero is the stuffy Tommy, the senior aide who tries to keep everybody straight and make sure these silly royals do their ruddy duty — except Her Majesty, of course, who always tries to do what’s right.
  • Orphan Black — Taking a break from it after watching the first season. It was getting a little intense.
  • Mr. Robot — I’ve seen all of what’s available on Amazon for free, waiting for more. Rather silly in a political sense — full of anarchist ravings — but engaging. A plus is that the star is Rami Malek, who was so weirdly good as “Snafu” in “The Pacific.”
  • Fortitude — This offbeat murder mystery started off pretty good, but got downright weird. Oh, and don’t make the mistake of thinking you know who the hero is.
  • Okkupert, or Occupied — Speaking of series set in Norway, this one is actually in Norwegian. It was an engaging what-if about what happens after a relatively bloodless invasion of Norway by Russia.
  • River — This is a really good weird one. It’s about a British detective (actually, he’s a cop in Britain, but for some reason is originally Scandinavian) who talks to dead people — in the most calm, matter-of-fact way. But they’re not always terribly informative; he still has to figure out who killed them.
  • Longmire — Why’d they have to get an Australian actor to play a modern Western sheriff? I don’t know, but it works.
  • The Walking Dead — I haven’t watched the latest season to appear on Netflix, which means I’m two years behind the people who watch it the old-fashioned way, as it appears on broadcast TV.
  • The Night Manager — I’m a HUGE fan of the novel and ran out and BOUGHT the series as soon as it appeared — only to have it show up on Amazon Prime for free, so I feel stupid. It was good, although there were changes. One GOOD change was changing the hero’s case officer to a pregnant woman, which really worked. The BAD change was the ending, in which… well, I won’t give it away.
  • House of Cards — I have NOT been able to get into the most recent season. I watched one episode and turned away.
  • Grantchester, Endeavour, Lewis, Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War — Just to toss some of my fave British murder mysteries into one item. I’m sure I’m forgetting some.
  • Poldark — Watched the first season, but just haven’t gotten into the second. This guy just keeps having the same tiresome problems.
  • The Man in the High Castle — I haven’t even made it through three episodes of the FIRST season. I was expecting something awesome like Len Deighton’s SS-GB (another book I’ve read obsessively over the years), but no dice.
  • The Wire — Loved it, but it kind of slowed down for me after about three seasons. The first two were awesome, though.
  • Wolf Hall — This may not count; it may have been more than a year ago. I should watch it again, though, because since then I’ve discovered that a bunch of the characters are apparently related to me. And let me say in my defense that I read both of Hilary Mantel’s books before watching this.
  • The Tudors — I try and try to get into this and fail. I like that the first character addressed by name in the very first episode is an ancestor of mine (diplomat Richard Pace), and I love Maria Doyle Kennedy (a Commitmentette!), but the soft-core porn approach is rather silly. And am I really supposed to believe that everyone in the court was in their 20s and looked like models?

OK, I’m tired of making this list, so I’m not going to get into “The Americans,” “Justified” and others. Additional shows keep popping into my head. Suffice it to say that I find TV very distracting these days…

"The Wire"

“The Wire”

What am I, if I’m not a reader of books?

A few of the books I have either bought for myself, or received as gifts (most of those being ones I ASKED for), but have not finished reading.

A few of the books I have either bought for myself, or received as gifts (most of those being ones I ASKED for), but have not finished reading.

Back when we were first married, my wife gave me a coffee mug that I deeply appreciated, to the extent that I never drank out of it, wanting to preserve it. It had a picture on it of a young boy sitting with his back against a tree and his nose in a book, with the caption, “The sky above and a book to love.”

That really described me as a kid, which I was touched by because she hadn’t known me then — she could just tell. That’s who I was.

But lately… I feel like I’m less myself.

Recently, I Tweeted out (with unintentional irony) an essay in the WSJ about how we all need badly to turn back to reading books:

We need to read and to be readers now more than ever.

We overschedule our days and complain constantly about being too busy. We shop endlessly for stuff we don’t need and then feel oppressed by the clutter that surrounds us. We rarely sleep well or enough. We compare our bodies to the artificial ones we see in magazines and our lives to the exaggerated ones we see on television. We watch cooking shows and then eat fast food. We worry ourselves sick and join gyms we don’t visit. We keep up with hundreds of acquaintances but rarely see our best friends. We bombard ourselves with video clips and emails and instant messages. We even interrupt our interruptions….

Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page….

This brought to the fore one of the many perpetual guilt trips I live with: All the wonderful books I already possess — as a result of telling people I wanted them as gifts, and my loved ones acting upon that stated desire — and have not read.

Recently, I confessed that I still hadn’t read Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow — although I’d had it ever since Fritz Hollings insisted I must read it 12 years ago, and I put it on my wish list and received it soon after, and put it on the shelf.

Well, I’ve started it now, and have been reading it for several weeks, and it has all the ingredients of the kind of book I love — I keep stopping to read aloud good bits to my wife — and I’m all the way up to… Chapter 5. Hamilton has just joined Washington’s staff in the midst of the revolution.

Obviously, as fascinating as it is, I can put it down.

Awhile back — more than 18 months ago, I see — I confessed to y’all that while the First World War is one of those areas I really, really feel that I should learn more about, and I had started on it several months earlier and written about how awesome it was (especially that first chapter, which sets the scene), I still hadn’t finished The Guns of August.

Well, I still haven’t. I bogged down somewhere around the time that it shifted to the Eastern front (although I read enough of that to conclude that Tsar Nicholas’ government was too incompetent to run a lemonade stand, much less such a vast country).

When I mentioned that and several other things I needed to read more about at the time, some of y’all very kindly suggested some books to check out. And I was grateful, but at the back of my mind was this awful, nagging doubt that I’ll have the discipline to get around to reading them. The shelves of unread books that I really, really wanted and already possessed groaned with the combined weight of the books themselves… and my guilt.

And I was right. I still haven’t read them.

Sitting around my house and on my iPad, begun but not finished, are the Hamilton book and The Guns of August; The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of M16 — Life and Death In the British Secret Service, by Gordon Corera; The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, by David McCullough; The War for All the Oceans: From Nelson at the Nile to Napoleon at Waterloo, by Roy Adkins; Trotsky: Downfall Of A Revolutionary, by Bertrand M. Patenaude; A Tale of Two Cities; The Grapes of Wrath; and Moby Dick. That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more.

All of them, with the possible exception of the Trotsky book (I’ve officially given up on that one), started with great promise.

It’s not that I don’t read. I read — or at least skim and dig into the stories that interest me — at least three newspapers a day, plus all the many items that social media draw me to. I suspect I read more news and commentary each day than at any time during my long newspaper career — because so much is immediately available.

And it’s not that I don’t read books. I obsessively reread Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, and occasionally some of my favorites by Nick Hornby, John le Carre (his early stuff, from The Night Manager back), Martin Cruz Smith and, yes, Tom Clancy. I can pass a pleasant moment with them and put them down, because I know that happens next. Ditto with faddish stuff from my youth, such as Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land.

And I occasionally finish a new book, the most recent being, let’s see… Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, by Anthony Beevor. Months and months ago, I now realize.

Why can’t I seem to commit to a new book, and see it through? I suspect it’s because of a number of factors, starting with all that time spent with ephemeral stuff via iPad.

It’s other things, too. I’ve gotten so obsessed with genealogy that I actually spend huge amounts of time on the weekends building my family tree. Several months ago, I had fewer than 1,000 people on it, now I’ve more than 2,600. And just this weekend, I’ve made some surprising discoveries: For instance, one of my apparent ancestors — who rebelled against King John and was declared an outlaw — may have been one of the inspirations for the Robin Hood legend. Really. So I find it hard to tear myself away from that stuff. I’ve learned a lot about dim corners of history I did not know before, just reading context on ancestors. But that reading, so far, has seldom gone deeper than Wikipedia.

The most humiliating reason of all is that, well, there is so much compelling television these days, sucking up my leisure hours. That is something I thought I would never write, especially as a reason for neglecting books, my lifelong love. But while broadcast television (with the exception of ETV and PBS) is a more wasteful wasteland than ever (with some exceptions — I enjoy “Bluebloods,” and don’t forget “The West Wing” was on broadcast), Netflix and Amazon Prime have almost enough offerings to occupy my evenings completely. And I just can’t seem to get around to canceling HBO NOW, despite my best intentions.

Still, I’m almost sure I watch less than most people. Nielsen reported a few months ago that the average adult American consumes media — using tablets, smartphones, personal computers, multimedia devices, video games, radios, DVDs, DVRs and TVs — a total of 10 hours and 39 minutes each day.

Read that figure again, and think about it. It’s not a typo.

This is embarrassing. It’s actually worse than that. It’s an identity crisis. Who AM I, if I’m not reading books? Maybe the Internet has retrained my brain, making it less patient. For whatever reason, an occasional long-form magazine piece, in The New Yorker or some similar venue, is about as long as I go. And most of what I read is no longer than a newspaper column.

I don’t know what’s happened to me. But it’s disorienting. And I need to do something about it…

Some of the books I've lazily read and reread over the years, rather than read something new.

Some of the books I’ve lazily read and reread over the years, rather than read something new.

‘No! The Writing Room is over THERE!…’

writing

I haven’t posted today in part because I accepted Steven Millies’ invitation to go speak to his poli sci class at USC Aiken, and I just got back.

Before I tell you about the class, I want to share this door I found in the Humanities building while looking for Dr. Millies’ class. You’ll see that it leads, according to the formal signage at top, to the Writing Room.

But no! When you look a bit closer (below), things are not what they seem. I don’t know why the wording of the less-formal sign struck me as so funny, but it did. The disagreement was just so stark — This is the Writing Room… NO! This is emphatically NOT the Writing Room. The Writing Room is over THERE, dummy!… The first sentence alone would have been funny. But the second sentence, with the little arrow, is what made it wonderful. I almost picture Marty Feldman pointing and saying, “There wolf! There Writing Room!…

Anyway, I offered to speak to Steven’s class during a conversation after the Bernardin Lecture the other night (he and I serve on the lectureship’s committee), when he told me his American Government class was talking about media this week. He took me up on it.

And I had a blast, especially since I didn’t have to prepare a lecture. I just showed up and answered questions. Sometimes, with undergraduates or younger students, it’s hard to get questions, or at least hard to get relevant ones. This class did great. I hope I did all right for them.

But I seriously, seriously doubt they enjoyed it as much as I did. It’s hard to explain, but standing in front of a room taking and answering questions gets me really jacked up. I don’t know what it is. I’m not crazy about giving a speech, because it’s so… one-way. I stand up there giving a prepared talk, and I look at all those people staring at me, and I wonder, Is this interesting them at all? Is this what they were looking for when they invited me?

And I’m never sure, unless they laugh at a joke or something. So when I’m asked to speak, I always ask whether it’s OK to keep the talk short and move on as soon as possible to Q&A. Then I come alive — and sometimes even the audience seems to enjoy it.

After the class, I ran out to my car, all wired up, to make an important phone call I had scheduled for that time, and I really hope I didn’t… overflow too much on the person I was calling. I may have. I looked when we were done, and the call had lasted 41 minutes. Later, driving back to Columbia, I returned a call from earlier from a reporter at The New York Times wanting to talk about something having to do with SC politics, and I may have overdone that a bit, too. To my great surprise, shortly after that call, I was already back in West Columbia…

So basically, I guess, I’ve been blogging all over people today… just not in writing.

Anyway, I’ll give y’all an Open Thread in the next hour or so. I hope y’all appreciate it more than y’all usually do on a Friday afternoon, harrumph…

room

I don’t have the luxury of making a gesture with my vote

I was glad he was going to lose, but wanted to make a statement about Nixon.

I was glad he was going to lose, but wanted to make a statement about Nixon.

In my morning reading today, I ran across two things that impressed me. Both were from Republicans trying to explain just what a nightmare Trump is. Bret Stephens, deputy editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, had another strong column headlined “My Former Republican Party.” An excerpt:

Foreign policy: In 1947 Harry Truman asked Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to support his efforts to shore up the governments in Greece and Turkey against Soviet aggression. Vandenberg agreed, marking his—and the GOP’s—turn from isolationism to internationalism.

Since then, six Republican presidents have never wavered in their view that a robust system of treaty alliances such as NATO are critical for defending the international liberal order, or that the U.S. should dissuade faraway allies such as South Korea and Saudi Arabia from seeking nuclear weapons, or that states such as Russia should be kept out of regions such as the Middle East.

Where, amid Mr. Trump’s routine denunciations of our allegedly freeloading allies, or Newt Gingrich’s public doubts about defending NATO member Estonia against Russian aggression, or the alt-right’s attacks on “globalism,” or Sean Hannity’s newfound championship of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, is that Republican Party today?…

Then there was the piece from Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post‘s duty conservative, headlined “The Republicans who want to beat Trump by as much as possible.” An excerpt:

Trump and the mind-set of slavish Republicans who follow him deserve repudiation. Some Republicans think the party can be disinfected after the Trump experience and some want to start all over. (“These are generational problems. So maybe over time, over a number of decades, these changes can be made, but the reality is the conservative movement doesn’t have time for that,” said McMullin in defense of the latter approach. “And if the Republican Party can’t make the changes, as wasn’t able to do after 2012, the conservative movement will need a new political vehicle.”)

Either way, McMullin and others who want wholesale change on the right are rooting for Trump’s annihilation and his flacks’ and bully boys’ humiliation. The bigger the margin by which he loses, the more preposterous Trump’s claim that the election is fixed. Indeed, it’s more important for Republicans — if they want to get back their party — to vote against Trump than it is for Democrats. “By taking the leap to Clinton, these Republicans have set an example for all Americans to shed the home-team culture and put country before party,” Stubbs said. Maybe if they can recover some self-respect and devotion to principle by repudiating Trump, they will be prepared to create something superior to replace the GOP.

Absolutely. Republicans who care at all about their party and what it supposedly stands for have far more reason to want to see Trump utterly crushed than Democrats do. If you’re a partisan Democrat, you’re happy for Hillary to just squeak by, giving you more of an excuse to spend the next four years raising money to help you stop those horrid Republicans.

That is, if you’re the blinder sort of partisan Democrat. But whatever your party affiliation or lack thereof, if you understand the situation and care about the country we share, you want to see Trumpism crushed so that it slinks away and is never heard from again.

Which is why I, as a voter who cares, have no choice but to vote for Hillary Clinton. The same goes for you, if you can see it. She’s the only person on the planet who can defeat him, and just squeaking by won’t be enough.

We’ve had some terrific arguments here on the blog about that. And I still run into otherwise reasonable people who think an adequate response to Trump is to vote for neither of them. But that is NOT an adequate response.

Yeah, I understand the concept of using your vote to make a gesture, independent of any consideration of whether the candidate you vote for can win. I’ve done it myself — but only in rare circumstances when I had the luxury to do so. Or thought I did, anyway.

In 1972, my first election, I stood in the booth for awhile, undecided still. But in the end, I decided this: I voted for McGovern. I voted for him purely as a protest. I did it even though I thought he’d be a disaster as president. If the election had been close, if there’d been any chance of my vote deciding the outcome, I’d have voted for Nixon, because I trusted him more to have the judgment and abilities to run the country. But there was NO danger of McGovern winning, and even though I saw Nixon as more competent, I had a big problem with what I was sensing (but did not yet fully know) about Watergate.

So it was a protest vote, pure and simple.

I did the same thing in 1996, although the positions of the parties were reversed (which matters not at all to me, but I realize does to some people). On a personal level, I preferred Dole to Clinton. I thought Dole was the better man. But the abysmal campaign he had run had utterly persuaded me that he would be a disaster as president. He simply lacked the political skills to be effective. Had the election been so close that my vote could conceivably decide it, I’d have voted for Clinton, as the more competent leader between the two. But I had a lot of problems with Clinton by this time, and there was no way my vote would make a difference — South Carolina would go for Dole, and the country would go for Clinton; that was clear by the end. So I expressed my distaste for Clinton by casting my vote for Dole.

Another pure protest, without any intended practical effect.

Silly, really, in both cases. What good is a protest if no one even knows you’re making it? And no one did know (apart from a few intimates), until now. In each case, I was just making a gesture, for my own, private satisfaction. It was childish, in a way — I’m so mad at you I’m going to vote for this guy I don’t even think should win!

In both cases, I thought I had that luxury. This year, I absolutely don’t.

Oh, I could make a private gesture expressing my dissatisfaction with both candidates by, I don’t know, voting for Evan McMullin, or someone else who doesn’t have a chance.

But I can’t. Either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is going to be president, and it is my duty as a citizen to do whatever I can to affect which way it goes. And whatever else I think or feel about Hillary Clinton (I’m not going to waste time here going through a list of her shortcomings, because they are beside the point in light of Trump), she is a person with the skills, experience and understanding to do the job. Donald Trump absolutely does not possess those qualities, and is a walking, talking negation of what this country stands for.

Yeah, she’s probably going to beat him, but that’s by no means certain. (Remember, as Trump keeps reminding us, Brexit was supposed to lose.) And that’s not enough. Trump must lose badly (or “bigly,” if you prefer), as Ms. Rubin suggests.

So I really don’t have the luxury this time to make a gesture with my vote. It matters too much this time.

How could a guy who ran such an awful campaign run the government?

How could a guy who ran such an awful campaign run the government?

Shakespeare, he’s in the alley, but Dylan’s got a Nobel Prize

bob-dylan-square

Dylan at the Civil Rights March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

Finally, the Nobel Prize for Literature goes to a writer whose work I both know and appreciate:

Bob Dylan was named the surprise winner of the Nobel prize for literature in Stockholm today “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

Speaking to reporters after the announcement, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, said she hoped the Academy would not be criticised for its choice.

“The times they are a’changing, perhaps,” she said, comparing the songs of the American songwriter, who had yet to be informed of his win, to the works of Homer and Sappho.

“Of course he [deserves] it – he’s just got it,” she said. “He’s a great poet in the English-speaking tradition. And he is a wonderful sampler, a very original sampler. He embodies the tradition and for 54 years now he has been at it, reinventing himself constantly, creating a new identity.”

Danius said the choice of Dylan may appear surprising, “but if you look far back, … you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, performed, often together with instruments, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan. We still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it. Same thing with Bob Dylan – he can be read and should be read. And he is a great poet in the grand English tradition.”…

Trying to remember the last time this happened for me, I looked back at the list of past winners.

Let’s see: There was V.S. Naipaul in 2001 — I’ve been meaning to read something by him, but haven’t gotten to it….

Ah, William Golding in 1983! Pass me the conch, and I’ll tell you what I know about him.

I’ve read one book by Gabriel García Márquez (1982). Didn’t like it. Even though I thought it would be awesome, being about Simón Bolívar, whom I had been taught to revere in history classes in Ecuador. Instead, it was just… unpleasant… wearying.

1976 — Surely I’ve read something by Saul Bellow… nope. But I have read Bernard Malamud and Chaim Potok, in my defense.

1969-1971 — A three-year streak! I mean, I’ve read “Waiting for Godot,” The Gulag Archipelago and at least one poem by Neruda.

Steinbeck in 1962! Now we’re talking…

1957 — I’ve read The Stranger by Camus. Didn’t like it.

We’ll stop with Hemingway — the one person on this list I have really read avidly — in 1954. That covers my lifetime.

As far as my being able to relate, Dylan blows all but Hemingway away. (And yes, I’m embarrassed to admit this way that no one will say to me, “you’re very well-read, it’s well known.” But this is a blog where we tell truths, is it not?)

This is amazing. Something is happening, and I don’t know what it is. No, wait: I do. Boomers are finally truly in charge. Yay, us! It’s gear, it’s fab, it’s boss, it’s tuff, it’s righteous. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand, etc….

Please don’t send in the clowns

Do you like clowns? Have you ever liked clowns? If so, why?

My earliest memory of clowns is this: I can distinctly remember being surprised, and filled with doubt, when an adult explained to me that they were humans in disguise. I had assumed, based on the evidence, that they were some separate species — like aliens, or some particularly bizarre-looking animal. Hey, I was a little kid. Until somebody told me they were people, I saw no reason to think so.

I wouldn’t say I have a complex about clowns, but I’ve never really warmed up to them, even after learning they were just people. And I find myself wondering how this clowning thing got started, and who it was who decided that they were a nonthreatening form of entertainment for children — something that seems highly unlikely.

A piece in The Guardian today gives a little history:

Nobody laughs at clowns anymore.

Maybe antiquated proto-clowns did make people smile. But the legendary Chinese jester Yu Sze and the imperial Roman stupidus would be unrecognizable to us today.

The first clown who fits our description – painted face, frilly collar – was Joseph Grimaldi, who entertained Londoners in the 19th century but had a decidedly dark side. “I am Grim-all-day,” he told people.

A young Charles Dickens ghost-wrote Grimaldi’s memoirs, a saga of abuse, addiction and agony. “A tale of unmitigated suffering, even when that suffering be mental, possesses but few attractions for the reader; but when, as in this case, a large portion of it is physical,” Dickens wrote, it “grows absolutely distasteful”.

Dickens recognized, even with the very first modern clown, that what fascinates us is not the exaggerated painted face, or the dull face of a man underneath. It’s the tension between the two. The dissonance between what is and what appears to be.

That conflict plucks at some ancient strand of human genetic code….

That’s in a piece that starts with the recent sightings in the Greenville area of threatening clowns.

It’s all very well and good for a newspaper in London to be bemused by these sightings — they’ve got a whole ocean between them and the threat.

Not that I’m worried, you understand. But I am kind of creeped out…

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Today’s mystery earworm: ‘Misty’

This one had me going for more than an hour this morning, and I feel great relief that I finally got to the bottom of it.

I heard the song as a jazz instrumental on the Muzak system at the Cap City Club at breakfast this morning, during a lull in the conversations going on around me. I knew it was an old standard (meaning, from before my time), one that was as familiar as my own heartbeat, but could… not… place it!

Trying to sing along in my mind, I thought the lyric at one point said something about “puppy on a string.”

But that couldn’t be right, could it? Obviously, it would have to be the cliche, “puppet on a string.” Unless, of course, it was a play on the cliche, but I doubted it was. So I started searching on my phone for songs with lyrics containing the phrase, and had trouble getting past the song of that name. Actually, there’s more than one song by that name, although I don’t think I ever heard this one, I’m happy to say.

Then I decided that the last words in the verse were “so much in love.” (Those words turned out to be “holding your hand,” but my words would have worked there just as well, evoking much the same feeling.)

Of course, that produced this. Great pop song, but definitely not what I was seeking.mv5bmtizmtmzotg5n15bml5banbnxkftztcwotc0nzyymq-_v1_uy268_cr40182268_al_

So I gave up trying to figure it out detective-fashion (Tom Sawyer would be ashamed of me) and decided to close my office door and hum it into the SoundHound app on my phone. Since I couldn’t remember the crucial first three notes (“Look at me” in the lyrics), SoundHound wasn’t at all sure what I was humming, but it suggested that maybe, just maybe, I was trying to hum “Misty.”

YES! Finally, I can turn to other things and get on with my day.

Oh, and by the way, the lyric I remembered as “puppy on a string” was “kitten up a tree.” But you can see the association, right? Please say “yes.” Anyway, “puppy” was definitely closer than “puppet.”

That was a toughie…