There’s a list of books I mean to write, and this one is somehow on it, even though I couldn’t bear to write it, let alone research it. It would be about how in one year three of the world’s worst tyrants – literal madmen – lost their jobs.
In Equatorial Guinea, Macías Nguema was executed. He had done the same to perhaps a quarter of his population.
In the Central African Republic, Jean-Bédel Bokassa – who, after crowning himself emperor, beat to death schoolchildren – was removed by the French. He got to die of old age.
Idi Amin was chased out by a Tanzanian invasion. He got to die of old age too.
I read War in Uganda: the Legacy of Idi Amin, about how Tanzania finally got fed up with the neighbor from hell. It’s by two journalists, Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey, who embedded with the Tanzanian military.
It’s a grim book, and part of what makes it so awful is that after the invasion – which was ruinous for Tanzania – things only got worse in Uganda. “The consensus is that [Milton Obote’s] reign from the end of 1980 until the middle of 1985 was more brutal, and resulting in higher number of deaths, than the whole of Amin’s” (History of Modern Uganda, Richard J. Reid). Anyone who endorses invading other countries for their benefit should at least acquaint themself with what happened in Uganda.
There was, believe it or not, a funny bit in the book. (It’s not, you know, hilarious, but I’m trying to end on an up note.)
I went to the sixth conference of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers in Washington, DC. Below are some highlights. I’ve left a lot out, but must record this: it was the best conference I’ve ever attended.
The kicker is to an obit what the punch line is to a joke. Matt Schudel discussed how to write them. As he put it, “You don’t want to end with a board fade.” An obit should have an emotional core, and the kicker should be the resonating echo. His obit of Vincent Scully shows how both are done.
Emily Langer talked about her project with Georgetown medical students, writing obituaries for those who’ve donated their bodies to the anatomy lab. She also highlighted a guiding question: How is the world different because this person was here? Her obit of German industrialist Berthold Beitz is a moving example.
The Bad and the Ugly
Double Grimmy winner Tom Hawthorn offered counsel on writing obits for the unsavory: tell the truth and hold them accountable. During the discussion, Adam Bernstein recounted getting to know Edward von Kloberg III, who was – even by the standards of DC lobbying – depraved.
Tribute to Jim Nicholson
Jim Nicholson earned renown for his obituaries of everyday people. This obit gives a sense of the man, who “lived at least four different lifetimes.” Andrew Meacham spoke about some of his more remarkable qualities. Mr. Nicholson, who served in Iraq at age 69, was adamant about not wanting his Bronze Star listed on his tombstone: “Awards from bosses go in a box in the shed.” And when his divorce was almost finalized, he learned his wife had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. So he stopped the proceedings and took care of her for over a decade.
Maria Sánchez Díez, during her presentation on practical measures for increasing readership, noted a comment posted on Don Rickles’ obituary. Do yourself a favor and check it out (it’s the one from Mimbres). Moral: Don’t run into Don Rickles if you’re working undercover.
It is my twentieth year of teaching, and I shall share my accumulated wisdom with you now.
First, popping into colleagues’ classrooms and telling them to hold off on starting their lessons because there will be a fire drill momentarily is an indisputably hilarious April Fools’ joke.
Second … well. This one is so important it shall be told in parable. Rise up, gather round.
Once there was a teacher who, at day’s end, had students put their chairs on their desks. But they did this so noisily – indeed, some even took delight in slamming chairs down – that it sounded like Kursk 2.
Increasingly distressed, he finally bade them leave the chairs floored, that he alone might raise them.
He did this for weeks and months. And then one day he checked out his biceps and was all: whoa.
Now every morning he takes down the chairs, and every afternoon he puts them up. He does this with one arm, alternating, curling them as they were weights. His physique ever approaches that of Adonis.
Paul McCartney wrote “Lovely Rita” after getting a parking ticket
The Bee-Gees got the beat for “Jive Talkin'” from the sound of driving on a causeway
After being refused entry to Studio 54, Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards wrote “Le Freak”
Let me stop here and ask: do any of the above excessively tax your capacity to identify cause and effect? OK, the “Le Freak” one makes more sense if you know its working title, but still … am I going too fast for anybody?
I thought not. Weeks after reading this, though, from Brett Anderson’s Coal Black Mornings, I’m still scratching my head:
[Bernard Butler, Suede guitarist] once told me that, bizarrely, he was inspired by the rhythm of Cher’s “The Shoop Shoop Song” after hearing it on the radio and came up with the thrilling, primitive, pounding groove of what was to become “Metal Mickey.”
I read a few rock bios this summer, including Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock by Sammy Hagar. I was not expecting this:
I’ve always been a bit of a mathematician. I started reading and it tripped me out that if you add numbers up, you always come down to one number. You can take, say, 137. 7+3 is 10, plus 1, that’s 11 and that’s 2.
He goes on for a bit, too. He lost me completely with his riff on how 9s disappear. I had no trouble, however, connecting how a speeding ticket inspired him to write “I Can’t Drive 55.”
PS did you know that, after leaving Van Halen, David Lee Roth trained and then worked as an EMT? No joke.
Masha Gessen: We moved to Boston, not the smiliest city in this country.
Tyler Cowen: Quite the contrary.
Summer brought me to Michigan, Illinois, Colorado, and Washington state, and I was once again reminded how much more pleasant people are when they’re not in the Northeast.
I was chatting [see? Even he’s nicer – ed.] with the lady at the counter of the estimable Kilgore Books in Denver when she asked me what Massachusetts was like. I said I supposed it was fine, but that I was wearied by the winters and by – how shall I put this – the sense that, generally speaking, residents of the Commonwealth are not overly preoccupied with excluding discourtesy from daily interaction.
A few days beforehand I’d been in Chicago, at (the estimable) Myopic Books. I’d asked where the Music section was, and was directed there by the clerk. A few minutes later she came over because she just wanted to make sure I knew the section started on another bookshelf. Afterwards I walked up the road to a brewpub and ordered a pilsner. The bartender said they were out, so I asked for an IPA instead. When I was paying the check, she told me that she’d been mistaken – they’d actually had pilsner – and she insisted I not pay for my beer.
Now, I’m not saying either would never have occurred in Boston. But neither is it unimaginable that in Boston such interactions would proceed to threats of injury.
It was in Port Orchard, Washington, however, that I had my most curious exchange.
I’d gone out there to put the old man next to his brother. It was my first big trip solo with the girls, and my packing job persistently revealed omissions. So I found myself in a 7-Eleven buying hair elastics. And the cashier asked:
My grandfather carved the beef and then a servant handed him a dish of potatoes baked in their skins. There are few things better to eat than a potato in its skin, with plenty of butter, but apparently my grandfather did not think so. He rose in his chair at the head of the table and took the potatoes out of the dish one by one and threw one at each picture on the walls.
– The Summing Up, W. Somerset Maugham
[German Foreign Minister] Maas and the ambassador appeared to make small talk at the Bild event, but even that went awry. That same evening, [US Ambassador] Grenell said that, of all people, Maas was a fan of Kid Rock … Maas had never even heard of Kid Rock.
– “German-U.S. Ties Are Breaking Down,” Spiegel Online, August 21, 2019
Standing apart, Major Jaussi said to me, “The mortar is a dangerous weapon if they don’t know where they shoot. They shoot over the troops. If you are in the troop under the fire, you must trust them. We do such exercises, and they have to work.”
“Before they shoot, what do they do to make it safe?” I asked.
There’s also a much-loved tradition of using our landing lights to greet fellow pilots in the world’s most remote skies, where we might cruise for hours without seeing another aircraft. Then, perhaps from 40 miles away or more, we spot the strobe lights of an aircraft approaching at a different altitude. I reach up and flash our landing lights and the other aircraft’s pilots do the same – one of the small, silent courtesies exchanged by pilots who will never know each other, high above the sleeping world.
– “View from the Cockpit,” Mark Vanhoenacker, Financial Times, April 10, 2019
I find this among the loveliest of images. It also reminds me of an early morning this past winter.
I’d taken the dog out for a walk, and there was quite a bit of snow on the ground. We were walking down the bike path, all alone. After a while I saw a solitary figure in the distance. As I approached, he began to wildly wave his arms. Gentle Reader, I confess the uncharity of my reaction: just my luck, I thought, to encounter the local lunatic.
Turns out he was trying to warn me that a snowplow was advancing behind me. I stepped to the side and the driver rolled down his window. I figured he was going to say something pithy about having flouted Darwinism; instead he showed me pictures of his dogs.
Well, folks, I’m going to take a break. Be well. Flash your landing lights and I will too.