Winter Campaign

The state of affairs having displeased me, I drove up to New Hampshire on Sundays to volunteer for one of the candidates. This was my most substantive engagement with a presidential campaign since reading What It Takes.

On my first afternoon, I walked in and introduced myself to another volunteer. Amiable guy, and we talked for a bit. Then an organizer put me to work writing postcards. I was bashing them out when I overheard him say to the volunteer, “Anyway, that’s crazy about you and First Reformed.” I curiously looked up, for I’d seen this movie only recently. The organizer said, “Yeah, this guy was in it!” And I instantly recognized the actor. He told me Paul Schrader filmed it in two-and-a-half days, and that all the church scenes were filmed in one morning.

On a later visit I got chatting with another volunteer. He was a retired airline pilot, and mentioned that he’d flown tankers in Vietnam. I told him my old man worked on the tanker line at Boeing in the 1950s. He said he was sure he’d flown some my dad built, because some of the ones he flew were “pretty damn old.” He also told me he flew the last tanker out of Vietnam.

I mentioned to a friend from NH that I was volunteering, and he said, “Oh, we just love people from Massachusetts coming up and telling us how to vote.” I replied I’d be a humble [colloquial term for Commonwealth resident] and pause frequently to ask if I were using too many multi-syllabic words.

I have lots more stories, but will close instead with this observation. It all reminded me a bit of my week of jury duty, when I came away impressed by the process and the seriousness and skill with which people carried out their duties, yet marveled at the disruption to dozens of lives caused by one theft. This time round I kept thinking: Seriously? This is what people go through every four years? Because it’s kind of bonkers.


Three Wise Men

The other day I remarked to a colleague that because I’m teaching English, History, Science, and Math, I feel like a polymath, or at least the 6th grade version of one. Look on my adequate integration of knowledge and understanding, ye Mighty, and despair!


A while back I read a biography of Paul McCartney. The author recounted how, in some social interaction or other, Paul had tried to imitate “the polymath Jonathan Miller.” I figured this was some British thing and forgot about it until later the author again mentioned him trying to imitate Miller. So I looked him up. Dude was indeed a polymath. As his obit states, “he was a medical doctor, with a special interest in neurology; he occasionally left the theater to practice medicine.”


The only thing I knew about John Ruskin was that he was a critic. (Well, I’m also acquainted with a certain anecdote, but propriety forbids recording it here.) So I picked up John Ruskin: An Idiosyncratic Dictionary, in which I learned that the town of Sheffield had asked him to contribute items from his own collection to their new museum. Note the grace with which he handled the request:

My ‘museum’ may perhaps be nothing but a two-windowed garret, but it will have in it nothing but what deserves respect in art and admiration in nature. A great museum in the present state of the public mind is simply an exhibition of the possible modes of doing wrong in art, and an accumulation of uselessly multiplied ugliness in misunderstood nature. Our own museum at Oxford is full of distorted skulls, and your Sheffield ironwork department will necessarily contain the most barbarous abortions that human rudeness has ever produced with human fingers.


Look Up Challenge


Our school recently took the Look Up Challenge. This reminded me of a previous such challenge.

I was at the National Gallery of Art admiring a collection of inkstands when the guard came over. Now, usually when museum guards approach me, it’s to hassle me about my cleats or cigarette. So I had to ask her to repeat her query.

It was: “Did you look up?”

So I did and lo! there was this painting on the ceiling. Totally would have missed it otherwise.

Happy New Year, all. Hope things, and you, are looking up.


Enjoy / Celebrate


This week’s vocabulary words got me thinking that English could stand some joyous calibration of noun and verb. E.g. “Joy to the World” seems rather different from “The beverage you’re about to enjoy is hot.” You don’t get that imbalance with celebration and celebrate, do you.

Anyway, to make it sticky, as we say in the business – and to get wisdom, knowledge, and understanding – I played them “Enjoy Yourself” by the Specials.

I also played Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” Yahoo! etc.


Continue reading “Enjoy / Celebrate”

Referral Madness

“There are other reasons why officials are quitting, but there’s one consistent theme: a total breakdown of respect.”

– “There’s a Shortage of High School Game Officials in Massachusetts, and Abusive Fans Are at Fault,” Boston Globe, November 1, 2019


I have a colleague who refs, and I asked him if he’d read the above article. He gave me a weary look and said: “I don’t need to read about it.” He then told me about the verbal abuse he’d received the night before. It was quite something.

I’ve become interested in officiating for two reasons. First, I listened to Michael Lewis’ podcast, Against the Rules, about the growing lack of respect for referees, both in sports and beyond. Second, this autumn, after decades of absence, I returned to organized sport – slow pitch softball, that is. In accordance with my fielding ability I was assigned catcher, so I spent a lot of time next to umpires. The experience left me with considerable respect for what they do. I mean, you go bring your total focus to some drizzly field on a Monday at 9:15pm in October.

A guy I used to teach with also works as a referee, so I asked him what he’d recommend to improve matters. He sent the following response, which, on the condition of anonymity, he graciously agreed for me to post:


I can only speak to basketball at the youth and high school level, but assignors are struggling to get bodies. No one wants to take the abuse from parents and/or coaches. Everything is on film now and no matter what we do, we’re wrong. We don’t get paid enough to take most of the BS that comes with it. Every parent thinks their kid is getting a scholarship, it’s not happening for 99.9% of them! How about teaching kids sportsmanship and communication skills with teammates, coaches, umpires, referees. Instead, you have these psycho parents and coaches berating officials trying to make some gas money income for the week. It’s a joke.

Couple areas where sports in general could improve at the youth level:

Continue reading “Referral Madness”



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.)

Continue reading “1979”

ObitCon VI


Grimmys Winners: Harrison Smith, Hillel Italie, Maureen O’Donnell, Tom Hawthorn

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.

Obit Lab

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.


Read the obits written by the award winners here.

Post Script

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.