Friday, December 31, 2010


A minister named Robert Fulghum wrote a big bestseller a couple of decades back titled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I guess I was a slow learner. All I really need to know I learned in the seventh grade. I share this knowledge now as useful information and advice for the new year:

      Don't worry about it when hair begins to sprout on strange parts of your body. It happens to everybody.
      Your closest friends from last year can suddenly turn into people you just wave at in the hall this year.
      You will always find new friends, unless you appear to really want to find new friends, in which case you will probably eat lunch alone.
     Never eat lunch alone.
     If you want to keep your new friends, learn to forgive them when they stuff live firecrackers in the mouths of toads.
     Always be on the lookout for new new friends.
     Use a public boys' room or girls' room only in the direst emergencies. Large people with hair on all parts of their bodies reside there, and they will take your lunch money.
     Don't make friends with the people you meet in restrooms.
     Bring your own lunch.

      Whenever you are hurt, frightened, or angry, curse.
      Whenever you are especially happy, curse.
      Whenever you are moved in any way, curse.

      Never enter a room that goes by the name "Shop."
      Never try to make anything. Especially never try to make anything that requires tools driven by electricity in a place called "Shop."
      Never touch solder, which is what holds life together. Solder requires the hand-eye coordination of a surgeon, the wisdom of God, and tools driven by electricity. Touch solder, and you will be burned in a place called "Shop."  

       There is always a wall between boys and girls, just like the one that runs through the middle of the gymnasium.
      Every wall has cracks.
      Girls are older than boys. This is true of any girl and any boy, whatever their ages. Girls possess knowledge in both their minds and their bodies that boys are always two years short of obtaining.
      When a girl smiles, it can mean almost anything.
      Never kiss a girl who's chewing gum and wearing braces. That sort of thing can lead to permanent attachments.
      Never carry your books like a girl. Unless you are a girl.
      Keep love to yourself.

      Cover your books.
      It's stupid, unnecessary, and impossible to keep your eyes on your own papers.
      Never put anything in writing that you don't want the teacher to read aloud to the class.
      Embarrassment happens.
      Learn to dance before it's too late.
      Never splash water on your lap before going out in public.
      Never examine the underside of a desk, chair, or anything else. There are things there you don't need to see.
      Never tell your parents what really happened.

      There are some people who care only about the grammar. These people will never be your friends.
      The books you read for school will never teach you as much as the books you find in your parents' nightstand.
      Simplify, simplify. All of life's necessities can fit in a locker eight inches wide.
      Every spring, clean out your locker. There you will find what your life amounts to, including several pairs of sweat socks.
      Remember your combination.
      Shower after gym, despite the hair sprouting in new places.
      Don't cheat on pushups.
      Pay attention.

And most of all, I learned this:
      After a certain age, life consists, not of one comfortable room where you spend the whole day, as in fourth grade, but of many inhospitable rooms that can be reached only by navigating labyrinthian hallways full of people going in the other direction.
      After a certain age, the people in charge of life's many rooms are no longer some version of your mother.
      And that's too bad.

Thursday, December 30, 2010


In 2004, I wrote a longer version of the following column. It's about my mother, who died in 2009 at the age of 93. More specifically, it's about her politics. As we face a new year with the Republicans taking over the House of Representatives, it is worth remembering what the world was like before the New Deal. Many Republicans, as Nobel economist Paul Krugman, among others, has pointed out, wish to return us to the Gilded Age. My mother remembered that time.

 Don’t tell my mother that “liberal” is a dirty word

     I recently spent a week with my 89-year-old mother, Elsie Weathers. After a week with Mom, I worry for the future of the United States. What will happen to our politics when those who remember life before 1932 are dead?
     My mother is not a swing voter. She is not undecided.  She is not an independent. Elsie Weathers is a Democrat. Let me amend that: Elsie Weathers is a DEMOCRAT! The first president my mother ever voted for was FDR. So was the second. And the third. She would like to vote for FDR this year.
     Politics for my mother is simple: The Republicans are the party of the greedy, the Democrats are the party of the needy, and the most important role of government is to protect the needy poor from the greedy rich. My mother has never voted for a Republican.
     My mother grew up on a hardscrabble farm in upstate New York. She was the daughter of Finnish immigrants who never learned to speak English. Her family was poor. She tells many stories of how poor. My favorite is this: My mother has always loved animals. When she was a little girl, she desperately wanted a lamb for Christmas. She begged and begged her parents for a lamb. On Christmas Day she ran downstairs expecting to find her lamb under the Christmas tree. What she got instead was woolen underwear.
      For my mother, all politics is personal. It is all about stories like the lamb and the underwear.
      Socialized medicine? My mother is all for it. After all, she spent four years in a state-subsidized tuberculosis sanitorium in the 1940s. Despite the fact that she nearly died of the disease, my mother remembers that period almost fondly. The doctors and nurses were, in her mind, angels. The government paid for it all. That, my mother believes, is what a government should do.
     Worker protection laws? OSHA? My mother is all for them. She tells of her brother-in-law, Eino, who contracted silicosis in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. He died of it—slowly, agonizingly. The coal mine company never considered protecting him when he worked or helping him after he got sick. They threw him aside and hired someone else they could exploit and sicken.
      Unions? My late sainted father was a union man. My mother still believes it was the reason the phone company never promoted him. She still remembers what the world was like before unions were strong. She repeats the story my father used to tell, of when he was a teenager working for a coal company in Kentucky. His job was to serve food to the workers, who were largely “paid” in food and company-owned housing. (Feeding and housing them was, Mom points out, a way for the coal company to keep the workers under its control. Actual wages the workers could have saved, so they could have improved themselves and maybe moved on to other jobs. The company didn’t like that possibility.) My father told of how the hungry workers would ask him, as he dished out their food, “Just one mo’ poke chop, young mister? Just one?” But he would have been fired if he gave them one.
      Laissez-faire capitalism? My mother tells the story of the January day my father (still a boy working for the coal company) saw one of the workers pick up a piece of coal by the railroad tracks leading out of the coal plant and put it in his pocket, to take home to warm his family. Another worker also witnessed the incident and reported the worker who pocketed the coal. My father was forced to testify against the coal-taker, who was fired. My father felt horrible about it to the day he died. In my mother’s mind, a capitalist is a person who, if not restrained by law, will kill his workers slowly and refuse a lump of coal to a sick and freezing man in order to make an extra buck.
       Abortion? A relation of my mother’s got his girlfriend pregnant in the 1930s. The girl decided to have an abortion, illegal at the time. The abortion was botched. The man watched his girlfriend slowly bleed to death on the backroom bed of an abortion house. My mother also tells of all the girls she knew who kept their babies and were forced by (presumably Republican) social pressure into marriages they hated for a lifetime. My mother believes in clean, safe, legal abortions.
      “Preventive” wars? My mother and my father would have drugged me, put me in the trunk of the car, and driven me across the border into Canada themselves to keep me out of the Vietnam War. The war was about me. She bleeds for every soldier and every child killed in Iraq, one at a time. She lingers over every newspaper story about the boy who enlists against his mother’s wishes and then dies in action. War, like politics, is personal for my mother.
       Liberals? My mother plays bridge with a group of women who rarely discuss politics, but occasionally one of them, usually a generation younger, will begin to rail against liberals. My mother is a shy little stooped-over woman. She never initiates talk about politics. But she will not countenance criticism of liberals, especially in her liberated old age. “I’m a liberal,” she’ll declare, her voice trembling with anger. “And I’m proud of it. In fact, if you want to call me a bleeding-heart liberal, you go right ahead. Because that’s what I am.” Then, if you put her to the test, she will tell you how it was the “liberals” who came up with social security, worker-protection laws, consumer-protection laws, environmental-protection laws, and Medicare, and how it was the Republicans who, consistently and repeatedly, opposed them.
      Protect the needy from the greedy.
      My mother does not trust the rich. In his capacity as president of the New York State School Boards Association (a voluntary job), my father had some school-aid dealings with Nelson Rockefeller when Rockefeller, a Republican, was governor of New York. My father respected Rockefeller, who, by current standards, was something of a liberal himself. (The current Rockefeller in the Senate is a Democrat.) But my mother never trusted Rockefeller, because he was rich. She felt vindicated when he reportedly died in a fancy Park Avenue penthouse while in the arms of a woman who was not his wife.
      When my mother thinks of politicians, she rarely thinks in terms of their policies. (Why consider policies? Democratic policies are good. Republican policies are bad. Q.E.D.) Mrs. Weathers thinks instead in terms of personality. She began despising Richard Nixon in the 1940s, when he first used Red Scare tactics to win a seat in the Senate. His demise in the 1970s was almost an anti-climax for her, she had hated him for so long. She felt disdain, but not disgust, for Ronald Reagan, whom she dismissed as little more than a script-reader. She is even capable (though rarely) of disliking a Democrat; she abhorred Lyndon Johnson. My mother has a fine eye, almost a sixth sense, for spotting the morally corrupt.
       The important question today is this: What will America be like after my mother’s generation dies off–the generation that knew first-hand the world as it was before government put the reins on capitalist greed? After my mother dies, who will replace her? Let’s hope that the world replaces her with others who study a bit of history so they can understand her point of view. But I worry that that won’t happen. I worry about that a lot.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

THE BOY WHO SAID, “SO WHAT?”: A parable on existential themes

     Once upon a time there was a boy who said, “So what?”
     His mother said to him, “Son, eat your vegetables or you won’t grow up to be big and strong.”
     And the boy, who was about five years old, said, “So what?”
     And his mother said, “If you don’t grow up to be big and strong, you won’t be able to get a job.”
     And the boy said, “So what?”
     And his mother, who was a very patient mother, said, “If you don’t get a job, you won’t earn any money, and if you don’t earn any money you won’t have food to eat or a place to live or a wife to love you.”
     And the boy said, “So what?”
     And his mother, who was a very patient mother, said, “If you don’t have food to eat or a place to live or someone to love you, your life will be hard.”
     And the boy, who had big innocent eyes, said, “So what?”
     And his mother, who was not that patient, said, “Eat your vegetables. Or else.”
     And the boy ate his vegetables, but he didn’t seem convinced.
     Later, the mother explained to the boy why he had to go to bed and why he had to go to school and why he had to clean his room. “If you don’t get your sleep, you’ll come down sick,” she said. “If you don’t go to school, the world will confuse you. If you don’t clean your room, someone else will have to do it.”
     And the boy blinked and said, “So what?”
     After a while his mother, who was not a stupid mother, stopped explaining. “Go to bed,” she said. “Go to school. Clean your room. Or else.”
     The boy went to bed, went to school, and cleaned his room, but he didn’t seem convinced.
     A few years later, when the boy’s voice had grown deep, other people explained things to him.
     “If you don’t go to college, you won’t be able to get a good job and make a lot of money,” said a nice woman in an office at his school.
     “So what?” said the boy, plucking a loose thread from his shirt.
     The woman took the boy to a man in a sweater, who sat behind a desk. “What does this make you think of?” said the man, showing the boy a symmetrical blob of dried ink. “What do you think of when I say, ‘Pistachio’? Can you draw a woman?”
     The boy didn’t answer.
     “If you don’t cooperate, we can’t help you,” said the man.
     “So what?” said the boy, looking out a window.
     Later, the boy went to college because his mother told him to, or else, but he didn’t seem convinced.
     In college, more people explained things to the boy.
     “Study business, or you’ll be poor,” said some.
     “Study the arts, or you won’t know what’s beautiful,” said others.
     The boy yawned. “So what?” he said.
     One of the people at the college took an interest in the boy. “I am a professor of philosophy,” he said. “I will show you the reasons for things, or at least the reasons smart people have come up with for things.” And the teacher talked, for a long time.
     When he was done, the boy nodded his head, smiled, and said, “So what?”
     This made the man very angry, and he stomped out of the room, saying, “I can’t teach you anything!”
     “So what?” said the boy, to himself.
     After college, various people—his mother, his grandfather, a girl he knew—told the boy he had to get a job, buy food, find a house, and get married. Or else. The boy got a job, bought food, found a house, and got married, but he didn’t seem convinced.
     One day a man at his job said to the boy, who had a bald spot, “You must work harder. I’m your friend. I’m telling you. You might get fired.”
     The boy said, “So what?” and doodled on an interoffice memo.
     Later, another man at his job, who seemed serious and important, said to the boy, “If you don’t work harder, you’ll be fired.”
     The boy looked at the important man. “So what?” he said.
     The boy was fired, and then he didn’t have a wife, and he stopped buying food, and he stopped having a place to live. People who saw him on the street said to him, “You look terrible! You’re a disgrace! You’re throwing your life away!”
     The boy looked far away and said, “So what?”
     When the boy said, “So what?” people looked at him and blinked their eyes. Then they walked away fast. Even children walked away fast, looking over their shoulders at him.
     One day the boy, who now had gray hair and wrinkled skin, was lying in a bed. People standing around the bed told him, “If you don’t take these pills, you won’t feel better. If we don’t put these tubes in, you won’t get better. If we don’t cut you open, you won’t live long.”
     And the boy shrugged and whispered, “So what?”
     And all the people stomped out except one. She looked like the boy’s mother, only she wore stiff white clothes. She said to the boy, “Look. Close your eyes and rest. Or else.”
     So the boy closed his eyes. And he kept them closed a very long time.
     But he didn’t seem convinced.

The End

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

NO FOOTNOTES NEEDED: My literary esthetic

     I’m about a third of the way through Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom. It’s an admirable book: witty, even eloquent at times; well observed; psychologically acute; nicely plotted; full of vivid, fully realized, interesting characters.  I’m enjoying this book. It deserves the rather exuberant praise it’s received. Anyone who’s written a book has my respect, and Franzen has given us a much-better-than-usual book, so he has my respect, doubled.
     Nevertheless (you saw that “nevertheless” coming, didn’t you, or at least a “but”)—nevertheless,  I am reading Freedom with just a bit of preemptive regret, because I know that, for all its virtues, it is a novel that will not withstand the Test of Time.* Fifty years from now, no one will be reading it except 1) minor anthropologists, sociologists, and historians who want to learn about the U.S. middle-class mindset in the year 2010, and 2) the occasional grad student who is struggling to find a PhD topic. The novel will, as the years progress, have an ever-dwindling audience. A hundred years from now, it will be forgotten altogether. Why? Because it is a novel too much of the here and now and not enough of the everywhere and always.  A Chinese reader who knows English even today would find its cultural allusions culturally elusive. It lacks, as they say, universality.
      I’m always a bit saddened when a novel I like anchors itself to a particular time and place—and therefore prevents itself from sailing off into the distant future and visiting many distant lands. Many elements can anchor a novel in this sad way. In Franzen’s case, one of them is his reliance on brand names and current cultural references. He has a long passage about iPods and MP3 players, for example, and mentions the brand name of a particular kind of outdoor decking (Trex) an unholy number of times (well, three or four times). He refers to celebrities like Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop continually.  If you want a book that takes the brand-name references to even more of an extreme, see Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, which seems to rest on a foundation of New York Times advertisements. What this means is that fifty years from now, no one will be able to read either of those books without footnotes.
      Other elements that can ground a book on the reef of one time and one place are short-lived slang phrases (“23-skiddoo,” anyone? “Whatever.”), heavy emphasis on short-lived contemporary technology (please, no cassette players or Priuses in the Great American Novel),  long descriptions of current fashion (fedoras, capri pants) and references to other contemporary writers (J.K. Rowling, just maybe, but not Tom Clancy).
      The greatest writers require almost no cultural footnotes. Their books’ worlds are pretty much self-contained. All you may need to know is some basic history (for Faulkner, that there had been a U.S. Civil War, for example) or some basic vocabulary (for Melville, perhaps what a harpoon is). The only contemporary celebrities in the Iliad are the characters themselves, who exist fully on the page. (Bob Dylan does not exist fully on Franzen’s pages. E.L. Doctorow has tried occasionally to resurrect real historical figures on the page; it rarely works.) Melville’s otherwise perfect short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” has only one failing for me: its reference to John Jacob Astor in its early pages. Who the hell was John Jacob Astor? (I actually know the answer because I was a bloody American Lit specialist once upon a time, and I had to look him up; now the story usually comes with, yes, footnotes.) John Updike’s Rabbit novels will likewise fail the Test of Time, I fear, if only because the word “Toyota” plays such a big role in them.
      A hundred years from now, what reader will know Toyota, any more than we would know the brand name of a hansom cab in a Dickens novel?
      Dickens never bothered telling us the brand names of his hansom cabs (did he?), and if he did, it wasn’t because those names would have been as important to his novels as Toyota is to Updike or Apple is to Franzen.
      In sum: To the extent that you need footnotes to appreciate  a book, it fails The Test of Time.
      I would go even further: To the extent that a book requires footnotes, it is also an esthetic failure.
      A book should be, to the extent any book can be, self-contained. Of course, the writer will be limited by the vocabulary, and the science, and the other discoveries open to him in his time—but the great writers overcome these limitations. The world of a great book should exist within the book itself. Otherwise, that book is nothing but, as my Columbia professors used to call each book (to my horror), “a cultural artifact.” That is, it is something for historians and anthropologists to exhume, dust off, and examine. Sorry, gentlemen, but I think Huckleberry Finn is more than a shard of pottery.
      I take this argument against footnotes quite far. It is really an argument against outside-the-text literary allusions of any kind. In graduate school, I once made the claim in an American Lit seminar that Moby Dick would be the same book if Ahab were called “Harry” instead of “Ahab.” Our professor, a wonderful then-new teacher named Sacvan Bercovitch, did not bounce me bleeding from the room. Instead, for two hours he let the class chew over the questions of 1) whether the allusion to the Ahab who was a king in the Old Testamtent was important to one’s understanding of the novel, 2) what role external cultural context plays in any work of literature,  and 3) what the role of the literary critic should be—as a delver only inside the text or as an examiner of the influence culture and history exert on a text from the outside, and vice versa. 
       I was too ignorant to know it at the time, but in that seminar that day we were playing out the whole “New Criticism” vs. “Historicist Criticism” argument. Mr. Bercovitch later went on to a spectacular career as a teacher at Columbia and Harvard; he has been called perhaps the world’s greatest “historicist” American lit scholar (look him up on Wikipedia). Columbia’s English Department was a historicist school back then,  but I was more a New Critic, I suppose. (I actually think I was something else altogether.) The professors at Columbia treated me good-naturedly, though. In my PhD orals, one of my examiners said to me, after another discussion about the proper role of criticism, “You’re going to burn in hell with Northrup Frye.” That cracked the room up. I had no idea what he was talking about.
       But this remains a central principle of my literary esthetic: a great work of literature requires no looking outside the text itself. This, of course, means I have serious reservations about some “great” works like, well, just about all of T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s poetry, the novels of John Dos Passos, and most contemporary American novels like Franzen’s. But I still have wide shelves of books that do satisfy my esthetic demands, even contemporary books, such as Bel Canto (by Ann Patchett) and The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver) and Corelli’s Mandolin (Louis de Bernieres) and Lonesome Dove (Larry McMurtry). At their best, all my favorite writers—Faulkner, Melville,  Borges, Garcia Marquez—create  worlds that seem to exist, whole, within their pages.
       No footnotes required.
*So here’s a footnote, anyway! For an interesting discussion of the Test of Time and its implications for literary works, see Law and Literature, by Richard Posner, Chapter One.

Monday, December 27, 2010


In my retirement, I'm trying my hand at creating New York Times-level crossword puzzles. It's great fun for a word person.  Here's a crossword puzzle I created last spring. I sent it to the Times, but they turned it down; they said it wasn't bad but didn't quite fit their requirements. Although I tried following their published specifications for Sunday puzzles, I think I understand now, after further research, why they turned it down. I'll let you decide for yourself if it lives up to the Times' standards. Some friends and family have done this one and liked it. If you enjoy Times-style crossword puzzles, you might want to give this one a go. Please let me know what you think. I'm looking for feedback.


Update: I wrote the following piece in 2010. It is relevant once again in 2012 because Paul Ryan, the Republican nominee for vice-president, has been an avowed disciple of Ayn Rand's economic theories.

Ayn Rand was a third-rate novelist pretending to be a first-rate philosopher. She wrote Harlequin Romances for intellectually pretentious adolescent boys. I know. I was one of those boys.
      By the time I was 17, I had read all of Rand's major works: The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, We the Living, and Anthem. I was put on to them by Eleanor Amidon, a bright, rebellious high school classmate on whom I had a powerful crush. (To this day, Eleanor is one of only two females I know who have liked the works of Ayn Rand. The other is an English-professor friend. I'm sure there are others; I just haven't met them.) As a teenager, I enjoyed Rand's books. They were simple and a little sexy, with just enough harebrained economics and philosophy thrown in to make me think I wasn't wasting my time. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are also very long (the latter over 1,000 pages), which made them seem both literally and intellectually weighty.
      But even at the age of 17, I knew that Rand was a philosophical charlatan. More on that in a minute.
      Rand was born in 1905 and died in 1982. So why am I bothering to write about a mediocre writer who died 28 years ago? Because Rand still wields influence in high places. Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve and arguably the man whose Rand-inspired belief in so-called "free markets" was most responsible for the failures of the American economic system that led to the recent Great Recession, was once a member of Rand's inner circle. The neocon-influencing Cato Institute was founded largely on Ayn Rand's principles, and Glenn Beck devotes whole segments on Fox to singing her praises. Tea Party favorites Ron Paul, and his son Rand, recently elected to Congress, are huge admirers of Ayn Rand; indeed, Tea Party meetings have been known to begin with readings from Atlas Shrugged. (Rand Paul has even gone on YouTube to dispel hope-based rumors that he was named for Ayn Rand, insisting, however, that he does love her work.) The entire neoconservative movement owes a debt to Rand.
     Given all that, it is appropriate to put Ayn Rand in her place. That is, back in the grave.
     Let us consider Ayn Rand's view of the world, as reflected in her novels. She believed that money was the measure of a man (and a woman, though she clearly preferred male heroes). In Ayn Rand's world, all handsome, strong, brilliant people are rich, and all rich people are handsome, strong, and brilliant. In her world, Bill Gates would look like Gregory Peck, and Warren Buffet would have Paul Newman's blue eyes. In her world, Paris Hilton would have the snap and strength of Katharine Hepburn.
     In Rand's world, if you are poor, then you must be lazy, stupid, or weak, and if you are lazy, stupid, or weak, you will be poor, and who cares? In her world, laissez faire capitalism is the only True Way and always results in the talented being rewarded. In her world, the strong and the beautiful meet and make love, but the worthiest woman, though gorgeous, is never soft, and the worthiest man, though intelligent, is never effete. To win a woman in her world, a man has to "take" her and "seize" her. Love-making in her world closely resembles rape. The prose describing these moments is hilariously bad: "They stopped and looked at each other. She knew, only when he did it, that she had known he would. He seized her, she felt her lips [sic] in his mouth, felt her arms grasping him in violent answer, and she knew for the first time how much she had wanted him to do it." (Atlas Shrugged, p. 106.)
     In Rand's world, the hero-capitalists are geniuses not just at making money, but at everything. They are mathematical geniuses and philosophical geniuses, appearing as precocious teenagers in college classrooms and stumping the professors at their own game. The capitalist heroes are even geniuses at sports. When South American billionaire heart throb Francisco D'Anconia (tall, dark, sculpted, of the copper D'Anconias) comes to the U.S., he spends fifteen minutes watching his first baseball game, then steps up to the plate and hits a home run "over a line of oak trees" in his first at-bat (Atlas Shrugged, p. 92). I love the oak trees. That's typical over-the-top Rand. (To be fair, I must say that my English-professor friend who likes Rand defends such passages as acceptable literary hyperbole. I say it's the purplest kind of phony prose.)
      Let me repeat: I liked Ayn Rand's books when I was an adolescent, back in the Sixties. Her comic-book superheroes appealed to me, and of course there was the sex (almost always outside of marriage--ooh la la). But even at the time, I knew she was a fool when it came to the way laissez-faire capitalism worked and the way people behaved in it. The telling issue for me was workers' unions. Rand hated them. Her logic about unions went like this: 1) Unions harbor some workers who are lazy and shiftless. 2) Therefore all unions are evil. 3) Therefore anyone who joins a union is lazy, shiftless, and evil. In her books, all union members are weak, stupid, and good for nothing, or else they are the ignorant dupes of union leaders who are simply exploiting them for their own purposes. To refute this view of the world in 1962, all I had to do was look across the kitchen table each night at my own father, who was a union activist for the Communication Workers of America and was the hardest-working man I knew, and one of the smartest and nicest. In the McCarthyite 1950s, he received anonymous notes at work from people calling him a "red" and a "commie" for his union work. No doubt some of these notes came from Ayn Rand disciples; Rand was a notorious commie-hater. (She had been born, Alisa Rosenbaum, in pre-revolutionary Russia.) In Rand's utopian capitalist world, no such thing as a company store or scrip or a sweat shop had ever existed. The Rockefellers and Vanderbilts and Carnegies were, in her world, saints.
       It was from Rand's depiction of union members that I learned what a "straw man" argument is--a lesson that has served me well ever since. In a "straw man" argument, rather than trying to deal with your opponent's strongest positions, you deal only with his weakest ones, which you usually put in the form of an extreme weak example. Thus, Rand created union members who were smarmy, scrawny, hypocritical, and indolent; they were easier to knock down than someone like my father. The most famous example of the straw man was the "welfare mother driving a Cadillac" imagined by Ronald Reagan's Rand-influenced speechwriters. That woman never existed, as it turns out, but she was easier to argue against than the real poor. Ayn Rand was a past-master of the straw man argument. As I said, the neoconservative movement owes much to her.
      Having said all this, I must also say that I am glad I read the works of Ayn Rand when I did, and I would still recommend them to young people today. In fact, I found much in her philosophy to agree with: her emphasis on the importance of personal pride, on objective reason as opposed to religious faith, on the need to live your life according to your own principles, not simply to please others.
      But please, let us not use the cheap economic pronouncements of a third-rate novelist as the basis for national policy.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


At this time of year, a favorite memory from my childhood always surfaces in me. It is the memory of my father and me going out into our suburban back yard, well after dark, deep into the cold of Long Island winter. Gloves on, my father held the flashlight, and I carried a book of the night sky. Together, for an hour or so, we would try to identify the constellations and name some of the individual stars. This was in the 1950s. This was how I learned to love Orion and Sirius and the two Dippers. Here's a series of seven little poems I've written about looking at the stars with my dad.

Stripped to antennas,
did the trees
sense us as some winter ambiguity,
all humid and complex,
all ribbed and knitted?
Did the January grass
learn some new night-impression,
all steam and dark footprints?
Just us, me and Dad,
out again to check the stars.

The brittle, branchy silhouettes
of winter
defied our suburban kitchen
and the profuse, overbright options
of its motherly cabinets.

Point by blue point,
notions grew
into the constellations
of my childhood evenings.
One by one by one,
specifics broke into sudden light
until the zodiac
defined the sky.

Among the cold backyard bushes—
a red-rimmed flashlight,
a book of blue circles,
Brilliant technician binoculars!
Astonishing positions of glass!
But even they
could not give shape
to the stars.

And every time, it frightened me:
how the face of the moon,
without a whisper,
could be so deeply, deeply broken.

Or, in Kentucky summer,
way past my bedtime,
a sweet purple midnight snack of stars.

Lake and library,
the sky is still dead-distant
and full of fatherly reflections.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


     You never know what kinds of things literary people will find interesting. This month, I am "Feature Artist of the Month" for the online magazine The magazine found my "$20 Haiku" project intriguing enough to feature it. To summarize the project:
     Over a period of 14 years, while living primarily in Memphis and Connecticut, I wrote haiku on the back of $20 bills, which I then spent. I'm offering $1,000 to anyone who returns one of those 170 original bills that have one of my haiku on the back. This is more an exercise in performance art than literature, I think. The essay I wrote about this project, and the haiku themselves, can be seen on connotationpress's site at this link. To read all 170 haiku, click on "Full Screen" at the end of my essay there. The caricature at the end is by my movie-actor friend Chris Ellis (My Cousin Vinny, Apollo 13, Days of Thunder, October Sky, et al.). Chris is very talented.
      Should you not care to go to the magazine's site, here's the caricature:

I fear it captures me all too well.
Here are some of the haiku I wrote. The code above each haiku is the serial number of the $20 bill on which the poem was written; the date is when the poem was written. In honor of the season, these are set in winter:

G85802267E (series 1988A)
(December 5, 1992)
And up. Live trees. Cut your own.
Open until ten. 

(December 13, 2002)
Christmas tree unstrung,
Asymmetrical limbs spread:
Slant adoration.

(December 27, 2002)
Driving Christmas night,
We met wet snow halfway home.
Time fell in slow flakes.

(January 3, 2003)
The children on sleds,
leaving their parents behind,
glide into focus.

(January 3, 2003)
The ducks sit on ice.
How strange for them, this hard stuff,
yesterday below.

(February 11, 2003)
The snow is adept.
It arranges depth on slant 
And branch like slow death. 

(February 28, 2003)
Young man stuck in snow:
“Just dickin’ around,” he grins,
still spinning his wheels.

If you find one of these $20 bills, I'll give you $1,000 for it. Seriously. 




Monday, December 20, 2010

THE CONFESSION OF AN UPTIGHT MAN: Why I refuse a medical procedure that could prolong my life

At age 64, I am, as I've said, in the vanguard of the Baby Boomer generation. This morning I did something that most Boomers—heck, most people of any age—will think is stupid and childish: I cancelled an elective colonoscopy I was scheduled to undergo next Monday.
      Last night, during several hours of productive sleeplessness (a Boomer specialty), I thought hard about whether to undergo the procedure, and by this morning I had decided not to. My reasons, I think, will resonate among the over-50 crowd, although even after I explain them, I suspect most will still think my decision foolish. That doesn’t matter to me. I’m comfortable with it.
      Most Baby Boomers know what a colonoscopy is. In case you don’t: It is a procedure whereby a flexible tube about 1/2 inch in diameter and up to six feet long is inserted into the patient’s rectum and funneled up into his or her large intestine (the colon). The tube contains fiberoptics which send pictures to a videoscreen, allowing a doctor to look for tumors and bumps, called “polyps,” which could be precancerous. If the polyps are discovered early enough, they can be removed and, theoretically, the cancer can be cut out or prevented. About 50,000 people die from colon or rectal cancer every year in the United States. Among cancers, only lung cancer kills more people.
      When he was president, Ronald Reagan had several colonoscopies, which did find polyps; in 1985 he had two feet of his colon removed because cancer was found. Former President George W. Bush had the procedure at least three times (in 1998, 1999 and 2002) and twice had polyps removed. TV personality Katie Couric lost her husband, Jay Monahan, to colon cancer when he was just 42; since then, she has been the most high-profile public advocate for colonoscopies. The American College of Gastroenterology says that colonoscopies are quick, safe, and painless. According to the American Cancer Society, early detection by colonoscopy is the best way to prevent colorectal cancer death, and everyone–male and female–over the age of 50 should have a colonoscopy every five to ten years.
       I was scheduled to undergo my first colonoscopy next Monday. Given all the facts above, why on earth did I cancel it? The reasons reach deep into my character and into my feelings about contemporary medicine. They also reflect my beliefs about life and death.
       My first reason for canceling my colonoscopy is the obvious one: I find it to be an ugly, intrusive, embarrassing procedure that violates everything I value about myself. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t have a lot of dignity to spare, so I’m loath to give up even a smidgeon of what little I have. My primary motive in life is to avoid embarrassment. (It’s the reason I won’t dance in public or sing karaoke or get drunk.) Avoiding embarrassment is not a particularly admirable motivation, but I’ve learned to accept it. I’m also the kind of person who doesn’t like someone else to mess with his body–I’ve never liked the playful jab or the tickle or the unprovoked hug. I am, to be honest, just a little uptight. In fact, the term “tightass” would not be inappropriate for me. Now take that term and weigh it against the description of a colonoscopy in the third paragraph, above. There is not, so to speak, a good fit here.
       My second reason for canceling my colonoscopy has to do with how it came to be scheduled in the first place. I have no symptoms that suggest colon cancer or any other intestinal disease. I have no family history of colorectal cancer. Yet at my most recent physical, last month, my new family physician told me I needed a colonoscopy. Why? Simply because I was over 50. Sheeplike, I agreed to undergo the procedure, purely electively. After all, this was a doctor speaking.
       My family doctor’s office then made arrangements with a gastroenterologist (GE) to perform the colonoscopy this month. I had never met the GE. I was told to go to his office a week before the procedure to pick up a “prep kit” telling me how to get ready for it. When I went to the GE’s office a couple of days ago, a nurse or an assistant–I never found out which–handed me 1) a prescription for a superlaxative and 2) a sheet telling me what not to eat in the week before the colonoscopy: no aspirin, nothing fried, nothing red, nothing with seeds, no apples, no oranges, no nuts, no raisins, no olives, no pepper, no popcorn, no pickles, and so on. The day before the procedure, the sheet said, I was to eat nothing at all except transparent stuff like (not red) Jell-0 and to drink only clear liquids. The evening before, I was to take the superlaxative. On Monday, the day of the procedure, I was not to eat or drink anything at all, although I wasn’t told exactly when on Monday I needed to be at the hospital. I was told that to find out when the procedure was to be done, I had to call the hospital on the Friday before.
       The nurse (assistant?) sent me home with all this information. I never spoke with the gastroenterologist who was going to do the procedure. He didn’t even know what I looked like, much less anything about my personality or my family history or my general health. I didn’t know what he looked like, whether he seemed bright or dim, whether his hands shook or not. No one said anything about, or handed me any information about, the discomfort and risks involved in a colonoscopy. No one told me that the superlaxative would give me fairly violent diarrhea. No one said there was about a 1% chance that I would be allergic to the anesthesia (no one even told me what level of anesthesia would be required—local? general?). No one informed me that I could develop problems at the site the anesthetic was administered or that during the procedure the colonoscope could perforate the wall of my colon, requiring real surgery, or that I might start hemmorhaging. No one told me that air would be pumped into my colon to help the procedure or that the resultant “bloating” could cause “discomfort” or that I might experience some other kinds of  “discomfort” for days after. 
     Looking back, I realize that no one–not my own doctor, not the gastroenterologist’s assistant, and certainly not the invisible GE himself–ever even told me what exactly a colonoscopy was designed to look for, what colorectal cancer was, or how serious a problem it could be. No, all that information I had to seek out for myself. Nearly everything you’ve read about colonoscopy and colorectal cancer in this article I found on the Internet. I’m sure when I arrived at the hospital on Monday, I would have been given a sheet to read telling me some of this. I know I would have been given a disclaimer to sign.
      This is the nature of modern medicine, and it says much about the relationship between doctor and patient in the 21st Century: If a doctor tells you to do something, you are expected to do it, no questions asked. Well, I have some questions, a lot of questions. For example:

  • On average, how much longer does a person who has a colonoscopy live than one who doesn’t?
  • What percentage of people with no symptoms and with no family history of colorectal problems are discovered by colonoscopy to have colon cancer?
  • What large, longterm studies suggest that colonoscopies are actually effective in prolonging life?
  • If I have the colonoscopy and they discover cancer or precancerous polyps, what will my quality of life be after they cut them—and some of my healthy insides—out?

       The nurse in the gastroenterologist’s office told me I could call if I had any questions, but I didn’t call. I’m pretty sure she couldn’t have answered any of these questions, and I didn’t want to embarrass her. I couldn’t even find the answers to these questions on the Internet. My second reason for canceling my colonoscopy, then, was that I resented the way I was led to it by the medical establishment–in darkness and ignorance and under a fog of condescension–and I had been given no compelling reason to submit to such an invasive, uncomfortable and potentially dangerous procedure.
       Finally, there is the matter of life and death, and the few choices one gets to make in such matters. To explain my feelings about that, let me tell about two friends:
       My friend Lee was a tennis teaching pro who worked out regularly. He had a family history of cancer, so he took special care to be on the lookout for cancer signs, and he smeared himself liberally with sunblock to prevent skin cancer. He died of a massive heart attack at age 53.
       A few years later, my friend Tom, another tennis player (and the father of the famous tennis player James Blake), also died. He had a family history of heart disease, so he kept himself in wonderful aerobic condition and ate a vegetarian diet. His cholesterol was well in the safety zone. He died of stomach cancer at age 57.
       As valuable as organizations like the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society are, they have a rather narrow view of the world. The American Heart Association would consider Tom a success story: he didn’t die of a heart attack. The American Cancer Society would consider Lee a success story: he didn’t die of cancer.
       But both Lee and Tom are dead, and I miss them. They did what they were supposed to do (for all I know, they even had colonoscopies), and they’re still dead.
       When I tell people I canceled my colonoscopy, I know what they will say—because it is what Katie Couric says and what the American Cancer Society says. They will say, “But it could save your life!” Well, they’re wrong. It couldn’t save my life. In the end, my life is not savable, because I’m human, and someday I’m going to die–of something. If it’s not cancer, it will be a heart attack. If it’s not a heart attack, it will be a stroke. If it’s not a stroke, it will be a drunk driver. I remember reading a few years back that if you spend the rest of your life eating all the right foods to keep your cholesterol down, you will definitely lower your risk of a heart attack–but you will add only three months to your life span. Because you’ll still die. Of something.
      Thank you, I’ll have the steak.
      Consider Ronald Reagan. In 1985, he had a colonoscopy that found precancerous polyps. The consequent surgery added perhaps 10 years to his life. Now look at the last ten years of Ronald Reagan’s life, during which he plummeted into the bleak chaos of Alzheimer’s disease. If it had been me, I would have taken my chances with colon cancer. Likewise, if it comes to a choice  between colon cancer and a stroke that knocks out my speaking ability, for example, I’ll choose the cancer. And if the cancer is awful enough . . . well, I have no philosophical objection to suicide.
       The fact is, of course, that we can’t choose our diseases. I may get colon cancer. If I do, I’m sure that I will for a time beat myself up for not having had the colonoscopy (after laughing at the irony of it all). But I’ll also recall Tom and Lee and President Reagan. They did what the American Heart Association said, and what the American Cancer Society said, and what the American College of Gastroenterology said. And still they died.
       No, we can’t choose our diseases–but we can choose our cures. Short of suicide, we can’t choose how we’ll die–but we must choose how we’ll live. And as in any choice, the decision about how we care for ourselves should reflect who we are and what we believe. Next Monday, then, I will choose to play tennis.

(An earlier version of this article originally appeared in the online version of The Memphis Flyer in 2008.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

AS LONG AS WE BOTH SHALL LOVE: The institution of marriage is under attack? That’s fine with me.

         I live with a woman who is not my wife. Her name is Gail. We share the same bed, and occasionally we make love to each other. We have been doing this for 18 years. At least once a week, Gail and I look at each other, shake our heads, reach out to hold hands, smile and say how lucky we are to be living such a pleasant life. Honestly. We do. You can ask her.
         People use different terms for the way Gail and I live: cohabitation, living in sin, fornication. I call it simply “living together,” because that’s what it is, and the phrase has a kind of understated poetry: We live, and we get to do it together. According to the 2010 census, there are about 15 million other Americans living together as we do. The Census Bureau says we are “Persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters”--POSSLQs, for short. But POSSLQ doesn’t quite capture the poetry of it.
         Last week, for the five hundredth time, a friend asked me, good-naturedly, “When are you two finally going to get married?”
         I gave him the answer I always give to that question: “Never.”
         Sometimes I’m asked the question differently: “So why don’t you two get married?”
         Again I always answer the same way: “Why should we? There’s absolutely nothing marriage can add to our life together that would make it any better.”
         I was married once, for six years, long ago, to a good woman who was a fine wife and a wonderful mother to our son. The marriage license did nothing to change the fact that we were not right for each other. It did nothing but keep us together longer than we should have stayed together and make us a little unhappier for longer than we should have been. We were, for each other, clothing we had both outgrown, and the law did everything in its power to keep us buttoned tight and strangling.
          It’s popular in some circles (you know which circles they are) to say that today the “sacred institution” of marriage is under attack or threatened--by Hollywood movies, by rap lyrics, by the gay rights movement.
       Personally, I think that if marriage is under attack, that’s a good thing. If the institution of marriage were ended tomorrow, I think the world would be a happier place. “Marriage is an institution,” goes the old joke, “and I’m not ready to be institutionalized yet.” If we keep the institution, I think people should have to live together for years and pass all kinds of written and psychological tests before they are allowed to get married, and I think divorce should be easy. This sounds very Counterculture Sixties, I know, but on this issue I think the Counterculture was right.
         For centuries, of course, marriage laws were a way for the church or the state to control the distribution and accumulation of wealth and land, and to keep the powerful in power. To protect his family legacy, a father made sure that his son married a woman of equal or greater property value, preferably a woman who came with many fields and farms, plus a castle or two; legally joining the wealth of two powerful families helped keep them both powerful. To protect the elite in other ways, certain castes were not allowed to marry other castes, lest they pollute the upper classes; and certain colors were not allowed to marry other colors, lest they dilute the color scheme that kept the dominant color dominant; and certain creeds could marry only within their own creed, lest the church lose its force. Marriage, in other words, was a way to legally assure that like bred with like, so the status quo could be maintained.
         Marriage was also a way to institutionalize the repression of women and to protect the power of men; once married, a wife was legally subject to her husband, and all she owned became his--but not vice versa. Marriage was moreover a way for women to acquire, in exchange for sex and child-bearing, the small measure of economic security legally required of their husbands. And marriage in America has always been a way for the Puritan power structure to suppress the fun of sex. In fact, for nearly all of its history, marriage has had almost nothing to do with love and everything to do with power and control.
           Are things different today? Not much, despite the propaganda to the contrary. But I’ll grant that more men and women than ever before now marry “for love.” Marriage, they say, is a way to demonstrate their lifelong commitment to each other. What I don’t understand is this: What kind of commitment is it that requires a license, a wedding cake, and a thousand laws to ratify it?
           I can honestly say that I don’t comprehend why marriage is so “sacred” to the general population, unless it’s to sustain the economic voltage of those publishing powerhouses, the bridal magazines. There is no need for marriage anymore, if there ever was a need for it. Making sure that fathers provide for the children they sire used to be a respectable reason to encourage people to marry when they had kids, I suppose. But it’s easy enough to put laws on the books that require fathers to support their children, even if the kids are born outside of marriage, and in fact such laws already exist.
          The problem is, love may die, but the law lives on. It’s hard to tell in many marriages where love ends and the law begins. Marriages are not made in heaven, they’re made in licensing offices. They’re not blessed by God, they’re blessed by bureaucrats. There is love in many marriages, but it is love under the umbrella of the law, where the wind and rain and sun that both test and nourish other relationships can’t reach until it’s too late. In many marriages, a single strong gust--a fight over money, a lustful glance at someone else--can blow such a relationship away, because its roots are too shallow, having been sheltered too long by the law.
            It’s not just that marriage is unnecessary, I believe, it’s that it’s actually harmful. It replaces choice with compulsion. It makes that which should be voluntary, compulsory. If I am faithful to my partner because I am legally bound to be faithful, that is no more emotionally meaningful than stopping at red lights. If I live in the same house as my partner only because the law makes it massively inconvenient for me not to, we are no longer living together, we are simply moving toward death together. If statutes are the only thing driving me to provide for my children, then I am a father by statute only.  Marriage replaces affection with the law.
            But love does not flourish under the sheriff’s gun. If I were to marry the person I care for, and the weight of the government can be felt behind my every act of caring, how do I then prove my personal commitment to my spouse? In marriage, every caress becomes an act of public will, not purely personal affection. In marriage, every hug can be seen as a hug of convenience, every kiss a kiss from a court of law. The marriage bonds get all tangled up with the simplest ties of affection.
            Things are clearer for Gail and me, and for others who live together. We know why we’re there on Sunday afternoon, reading the paper on the sofa, looking at each other occasionally and smiling. It has nothing to do with covenants and courts. We’re there because we like each other best. And we’ll be there as long as we both shall love.

For more on this subject, check out the web site I’m also told that the book Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz, is an excellent  history of marriage, though I haven’t read it yet myself. This column originally appeared in the online version of The Memphis Flyer in 2004.


Thursday, December 16, 2010


One of the few things I disagree with President Obama about--but it's a big thing--is his continuation and, indeed, escalation of the war in Afghanistan. The president has had difficult decisions to make about the war. His current strategy in Afghanistan is justifiable; I just happen to think it's wrong and counterproductive. 

Rather than spout my own opinions about the war, let me instead quote from an interview Bill Moyers had with Professor Andrew Bacevich on public television last spring. Bacevich graduated from West Point, was in the army for 23 years, served in Vietnam, got a PhD from Princeton, and is now a highly regarded professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His son was killed in the Iraq war. When Bacevich speaks about the war in Afghanistan, he is much better informed, both intellectually and emotionally, than I could ever be. Below is a small excerpt from what he said last spring. He speaks for me. (Here's the link to the full interview.)

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, we don't learn from history. And there is this persistent, and I think almost inexplicable belief that the use of military force in some godforsaken country on the far side of the planet will not only yield some kind of purposeful result, but by extension, will produce significant benefits for the United States. I mean, one of the obvious things about the Afghanistan war that is so striking and yet so frequently overlooked is that we're now in the ninth year of this war.

It is the longest war in American history. And it is a war for which there is no end in sight. And to my mind, it is a war that is utterly devoid of strategic purpose. And the fact that that gets so little attention from our political leaders, from the press or from our fellow citizens, I think is simply appalling, especially when you consider the amount of money we're spending over there and the lives that are being lost whether American or Afghan.

BILL MOYERS: But President Obama says, our purpose is to prevent the Taliban from creating another rogue state from which the jihadists can attack the United States, as happened on 9/11. Isn't that a strategic purpose?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I mean, if we could wave a magic wand tomorrow and achieve in Afghanistan all the purposes that General McChrystal [since replaced by Gen. Petraeus) would like us to achieve, would the Jihadist threat be substantially reduced as a consequence? And does anybody think that somehow, Jihadism is centered or headquartered in Afghanistan? When you think about it for three seconds, you say, "Well, of course, it's not. It is a transnational movement."

BILL MOYERS: They can come from Yemen. They can come from—

ANDREW BACEVICH: They can come from Brooklyn. So the notion that somehow, because the 9/11 attacks were concocted in this place, as indeed they were, the notion that therefore, the transformation of Afghanistan will provide some guarantee that there won't be another 9/11 is patently absurd. Quite frankly, the notion that we can prevent another 9/11 by invading and occupying and transforming countries is absurd.

BILL MOYERS: In this context, then, what do we do about what is a real threat, from people who want to kill us, the Jihadists. What do we do about that?

ANDREW BACEVICH: First of all, we need to assess the threat realistically. Osama bin Laden is not Adolf Hitler. Al-Qaeda is not Nazi Germany. Al-Qaeda poses a threat. It does not pose an existential threat. We should view Al-Qaeda as the equivalent of an international criminal conspiracy. Sort of a mafia that in some way or another draws its energy or legitimacy from a distorted understanding of a particular religious tradition.

And as with any other international criminal conspiracy, the proper response is a police effort. I mean, a ruthless, sustained, international police effort to identify the thugs, root out the networks and destroy it. Something that would take a long period of time and would no more succeed fully in eliminating the threat than the NYPD is able to fully eliminate criminality in New York City.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

FIT TO BE YULETIDE: The way I look at Christmas

Every year since I was old enough to appreciate the rich, rococo rites of Christmas, the holiday season has bestowed on me an especially personal, intimate gift: a head cold. Come Christmas morn and, as predictably as the solstice itself, I kneel beneath the tree with a runny nose, a raw throat, and the sweaty upper lip of a mild fever.
     When I was a child, this seemed only right and just: after all, one couldn’t expect all those ecstasies—electric trains, pine needles, “Silent Night”—without the world making one suffer somehow at the same time, to sort of even things out. It got to the point that the sicker I felt, the better the Christmas I knew I was having.
     I’m more sophisticated now, of course. I know that a runny nose is really the product of germy crowds in overheated department stores to which one hikes across the frozen wastes of mile-wide parking lots at this stress-filled time of year. Somehow I don’t think I’m better off for that kind of knowledge.
     Perhaps it’s because I’ve always seen Christmas through the rosy haze of a mild delirium that my views of it are what they are. For example:

  • I don’t think Christmas is Too Commercialized. I don’t think it can be too commercialized, despite all the earnest pleadings of thousands of freshman compositions. I’ve been in love with the whole idea of Christmas shopping since as a kid I spent hours—days—happily biking from store to store to spend my paper-route money on a cardigan sweater for Dad and furry pink slippers for Mom—or, in alternate years, slippers for Dad and a furry pink cardigan sweater for Mom. (At one time I actually believed that furry pink animals gave up their lives for those sweaters.) I have always believed that Christmas is simply the time when we trade the tired, the old, and the abstract for the fresh, the new, and the concrete—when our longest-worn, most threadbare affections are magically transformed into Dad’s uncreased slippers, Mom’s unpilled sweater, and brother George’s unscuffed basketball. The whole idea of somebody wearing or, better still, dribbling a bright new manifestation of my love still strikes me as almost painfully beautiful.
  • It doesn’t bother me in the least that Christmas advertising starts way back when jack-o’-lanterns are still on the stoop, or that somebody is making money off the whole deal. Money and advertising are simply vehicles for smoothing the process of turning old affections into new basketballs.
  • When it comes to Christmas, the mall the merrier. The ideal place to celebrate Christmas is the shopping mall, which puts the hum in humanity and the masses in Christmas. I foresee the day when 20,000 New Englanders—whole Connecticut townships—will gather on the morning of December 25 at the regional shopping mall, all 3 1/2 million square feet of it, there to exchange gifts and sing carols and wander joyously among the ever-green department-store treasures of a culture hung heavy with shiny new things to buy. Periodically there will be reports of whole counties experiencing a kind of mass elation, going on giant Christmas Day shopping sprees, everybody buying everything for everybody else in a kind of giving frenzy—the transcendent human counterpoise to the sharks’ feeding frenzies. I can imagine all of New England wearing brand-new fuzzy pink sweaters.
  • If not shopping malls, then hardware stores. A good old neighborhood hardware store, ecumenically managed, is a wonderful place to Christmas shop. What better Christmas present than a brand-spanking-new shovel. Or a rake. Or a wrench. Oh, to find, lying in the cotton snow beneath a Scotch pine on Christmas morning, an open-ended adjustable big enough to handle the kitchen pipes!
  • I believe children should be given everything you can possibly afford to buy them for Christmas. They should not be subjected to righteous sermonizing about how it’s better to give than to receive, or how it’s the thought that counts. Children know better. The great human urge for something new and something more should not be damped. It is what brought the babe and the wise men together in the manger, and it is what will someday have us shaking hands with the natives of Rigel 6.
  • Christmas morning should, by public ordinance, be cold and darkly cloudy with, yes, a hint of snow. (Do I cliché myself? Very well then, I cliché myself.) The Canadian Clipper should bring Arctic air even to Southern California and Miami, and the houses should glow from within. The brightest lights in the world should be those on the Christmas trees, whatever their size, shape, or tensile strength. Our tree this year is a little Fraser fir, barely five feet tall, with a few strings of unreliable lights. On certain evenings, it is known to blind me.
  • Outdoor Christmas lights (preferably of gaudy colors, not some kind of chic white) should not be taken down before Valentine’s Day. The reasons for this are so obvious that I refuse to go into them. Someday, some Columbus of the soul in a New York suburb will actually turn his Christmas lights on during a dreary rush hour in February, and every citizen in every corner of the state will light up into an incandescent smile, not even knowing why.
  • After decades of pondering the question, I now understand that there is no choosing between Chanukah and Christmas. One is eight delicious mini-Christmases; the other, one gorgeous orgy of a morning.
  • The proper attire for Christmas morning is pajamas and a bathrobe. Period.
  • The platitude “Let’s put Christ back in Christmas” strikes me as a suggestion whose piousness would offend the personage in question himself. I can’t believe he would see anything wrong in my wanting to transform my love for my small son into a baseball glove, some high-powered horseshoe magnets, a penlight, a gyroscope, and a five-dollar pocket watch that I rescue from the bottom of a glass counter in the neighborhood hardware store, where it has lain for twenty years. I say, Let’s put the fuzzy pink sweaters and the magnets back in Christmas. As for that bright little baby on that fresh straw in that old manger of a tired world, he’ll always remain the perfect symbol of the need for a new start that Christmas is all about. He’ll never be out of Christmas.

End of sermon. I feel a sore throat coming on. It’s going to be a good one.

(An earlier version of this essay first appeared in Memphis magazine and was syndicated in several other publications in December 1982.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Before he unveiled his theories of Special and then General Relativity, Einstein had already made a name for himself in the world of physics, largely because of some papers he wrote before 1905, his so-called “Miracle Year.” One of those early papers was his PhD dissertation, which was about Brownian motion. This, you may recall from 10th-grade physics, is the bouncing and jiggling movement of particles in a liquid or gas. It is related to the concept of diffusion, which is the gradual spreading of particles throughout a liquid or gas, due largely to Brownian motion.
    We’ve all witnessed diffusion. Drop a pinch of salt into a tank of water, and soon you can taste salt molecules that have spread pretty much evenly throughout the water. (Stirring and heating help but aren’t necessary, given time.) Open a perfume jar in one corner of a room, and, rather quickly, you can smell it in the far corner, because perfume molecules have spread that far, that fast. That’s diffusion. Einstein provided equations to explain how that happens under different conditions. His papers helped prove the existence of atoms. Here’s a nice web page about Brownian motion and diffusion.
     Starting in the 1950s, social scientists began scientifically examining the idea of “diffusion of ideas”—i.e., how ideas, innovations, news, information, customs, symbols, and even changes in language spread throughout societies. Think of how the use of the single-word sentence “Whatever,” or the fashion of the backward baseball cap, or the addiction to Harry Potter spread throughout the society of American youth: Some kids somewhere began each fad, and then it spread--like salt in water or perfume in air.
     I’ve been thinking about diffusion lately in light of the recent tax-cut fight in Congress and the WikiLeaks classified-document leaks. In a sense, they’re both about diffusion.
     Though it probably won’t make me as famous as Einstein, here’s my theory:
     Wealth and information, like salt and perfume, try to spread themselves evenly throughout the world. They want to diffuse. To prevent this spread, rich people and governments create containers or try to freeze the liquid. This is like turning a single gallon of water into four quart containers; now when you put salt in one, it cannot spread to the others. Or like turning the water to ice; the salt cannot diffuse. It’s also like sealing off the room where you opened the perfume.
      But the law of diffusion is powerful. There are natural forces trying to move wealth from the rich to the poor, and information from the those in the know to the ignorant. It takes powerful container walls or freezing temperatures to prevent this from happening. Whole legal systems, for example, are designed to keep wealth from diffusing to the poor (laws banning theft, for example, and protecting inheritances); physical structures like bank vaults and gated communities have the same effect, and so do social codes that, for example, shame the poor into thinking that they must not even ask the rich to share their wealth. Similar walls have been built to contain information: laws that classify government documents, for example, or that censor books and websites, or that close off schoolrooms and colleges and university libraries to some people while letting others (usually those already “in the know”) in.
      The thicker the liquid, the slower diffusion takes place. It happens much faster in gases. (It even happens in solids, but not so’s you’d notice.) My sense of the world today is this: When it comes to information, the world is turning to gas. When it comes to wealth, it’s still liquid, and pretty thick, at that.
      Thanks to the internet, ideas fly through the ether (that imaginary gas that constitutes the digital universe) faster than ever. Actual studies have been done to show that a single idea, such as “sustainable growth” or “global warming,” now moves through the world far more quickly than it did 10 years ago, and the speed at which such ideas diffuse is increasing exponentially. WikiLeaks has merely opened the perfume bottle.
      Rarer are the instances when some of the barriers to wealth diffusion have come down: The New Deal, for example, and the War on Poverty, and the 50-year period when the IRS imposed a 50-91% tax rate on the super-rich. Even today, some politicians would like to warm and stir the water and help the salt to spread.
      But not most politicians.
      Mostly, the barriers to the diffusion of wealth remain up. In the recent debate over tax cuts in Washington, some politicians clearly would prefer that diffusion not take place, that the liquid of American life be made colder and more viscous, or even frozen altogether, so the salt moves through it slowly, if at all. They want the wealth to stay where it is, contained, cold, locked in place. They would even, if they could, make life a solid.
       These politicians can’t turn the digital ether into amber, however, so we know what they’re up to. There is a smell coming from Washington today that is as pervasive as perfume, though not so sweet, and it’s reaching us at the speed of scent.