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.

Kickers

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 having to get 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,” he said. 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.

Grimmys

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 from Mimbres). Moral: Don’t run into Don Rickles if you’re working undercover.

 

Arma Virumque Cano

 

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.

 

How Bizarre

 

      • 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.

 

Western Civilization

 

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 interactions.

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:

Continue reading “Western Civilization”

LOL

 

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.

Captain Rumpf said, “They go to church.”

La Place de la Concorde Suisse, John McPhee

 

Greetings

 

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.

 

Signal Values 4


Got it.

 

Oh, honey…

 

Commonwealth Books: on the road to Damascus.

 

 

If that’s how you want to go.

 

Wouldn’t “one of the most successful of the pantodonts” made for a kinder introduction?

 

(See also: Signal Values 3)

 

Clipperton

 

I got this globe at a yard sale. Whenever I see students looking at it, I ask if they’re lost.

The other day I noticed France has an island off the coast of Mexico. This was news to me, so I looked it up.

It used to be called – ooh la la – Île de la Passion, but then somehow got named after an English pirate. Its history of human habitation is distinctly unhappy, and has evidently inspired novels. Porcine habitation fared little better; verily, The Ornithologist could be a Tarantino short (“He’s back. And this time, he’s gonna totally pig out”).

Personally, I think Clipperton would have made a good Serge Gainsbourg song.

 

 

Shamrocks and Shenanigans

 

The twins have become enamored of making slime. The other day Twin 2 looked up from hers and said: “Did the elf die yet?”

Now, the thing about Twin 2 is, she gets furious if she has to repeat herself more than once. It’s not the Achillean rage of when she was two, but it’s definitely no joke. And sure enough, my attempts to clarify met with her displeasure. I even tried patting my gut and asking if she meant “diet” – not that this would have shed much light – but it’s important to her to perceive engagement.

Finally I realized she meant not an elf but a leprechaun. At her preschool, for Saint Patrick’s Day, the kids would arrive to find chairs upside down, glitter on the floor, etc, for he had visited the night before. Twin 2 had been complaining that whatever color she’d make the slime, it would gradually fade to white overnight. So, you see, she was wondering if the leprechaun had dyed it.

 

***

This in turn reminded me of a classroom visitor about a decade ago, around the time of the previous post. An admissions officer from a college in Scotland came to talk to my 6th graders. (She’d made her pitch at the Lycée Français, where I had a friend working, and graciously agreed to swing by our school in the afternoon.)

So she began her presentation, which was a slide show dispelling myths that Scotland was all haggis and kilts and etc. The problem was, the students didn’t know much about Scotland in the first place. Finally a kid asked if “the little green guy” was from there. After ascertaining that he meant the leprechaun, she gamely flipped her script and used the slideshow to teach Scotland 101: “So, the bagpipe is one of our traditional instruments…” It was gracefully done.

 

***

Less graceful was my interaction with Twin 2 in the supermarket a couple of weeks ago. She’d asked when I’d make chicken salad again. In retrospect, obviously I should have used active listening skills to buy time (“Ah, so you have a question. And what you’re wondering is…”). Instead, I replied that I had never made chicken salad, and never would make chicken salad, because chicken salad is disgusting.

This set her off, and she became so insistent I’d made it many times that she wound up in tears. Finally I figured out she meant salad with chicken in it (one of my gourmet specialties is chicken tenders on lettuce). I tried to explain to her the difference, unsuccessfully. As far as Twin 2’s concerned, her father doesn’t know chicken salad from chicken shawarma.

 

Ned Vizzini

 

Years ago I taught in a middle school in Brooklyn. One afternoon a week the kids would read silently – well, that was the idea – from a classroom library kept in a wheeled locker.

One day a girl held up the book she was reading and said she’d emailed the author, who replied that he’d come visit. Since kids are, in my experience, second only to adults for saying obviously unbelievable stuff, I nodded and carried on. A couple weeks later we were all in the auditorium with the author up on stage.

I must tell you, Gentle Reader, that this school was not overly distinguished by civility. I figured he’d get his head handed to him. But he talked about his book Be More Chill, and the kids loved it. I was impressed.

 

***

A few years later – almost ten years ago to the day – I emailed Ned Vizzini myself. I was then still teaching in Brooklyn, but now at a less chaotic middle school. I invited him to come talk to our students. He readily agreed. When I told him I didn’t know how much we could pay him, he said just to pay whatever we could.

He gave a talk to all the students in the auditorium, then held a smaller writing workshop. The kids loved it. I gave him a check for one (1) hundred dollars. A few days later I received this:

 

Just to recap: he was paid (significantly) under the going rate, gave a talk to all the students and afterward ran a workshop, then developed and sent me pictures, and a thank-you note, and a letter to the students.

 

***

In the years that followed I’d send him stuff I’d had published. He was always very kind and encouraging. In our last exchange we shared the joke about how writing editorials is like wetting your pants in a blue serge suit (you get a nice warm feeling, and no one notices). He took his life a few months later.

Here’s his New York Times obituary.

 

***

That teenagers find Be More Chill relatable is what convinced Gerald Goehring to produce it. That, and some astonishing stats — Goehring says the cast album has received “well over” 160 million streams.

“How do you plan this?” Goehring says. “How do you market to this? You don’t.”

In fact, Goehring says the off-Broadway run sold out without a penny of traditional advertising — just a social media presence.

 

On the strength of its fans, Be More Chill has moved to Broadway.

 


 

If you’re having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline to talk to a counselor: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

 

Cabul

 

One is reading the Bible. It’s frightfully good, you know.

-VS Naipaul

 

I’ve been reading the Bible, and doing it the way they say you shouldn’t do it, reading it straight through.

It’s tough going, and there’s a lot I don’t get. I may break down and get one of those “How to Read the Bible”-type books. I dislike the How to Read genre only slightly more than the How to Write.

I’m well into the historical books and am pretty worn out by the villainy and massacre. If you told me that reading the historical books of the Old Testament made you laugh, I would probably run for my life.

At least until the other day. For there I was, chuckling at this passage. It’s from 1 Kings, when Solomon is building the temple. He’s buddies with King Hiram of Tyre, who’s been a big help. When it was all done, Solomon wanted to say thanks:

10 Now it happened at the end of twenty years, when Solomon had built the two houses, the house of the LORD and the king’s house

11 (Hiram the king of Tyre had supplied Solomon with cedar and cypress and gold, as much as he desired), that King Solomon then gave Hiram twenty cities in the land of Galilee.

12 Then Hiram went from Tyre to see the cities which Solomon had given them, but they did not please him.

13 So he said, “What kind of cities are these which you have given me, my brother?” And he called them the land of Cabul, as they are to this day.

 

The footnote says Cabul means “good for nothing.” I looked it up and, sure enough, it’s still called that. You’d think at some point there would have been a rebrand.

The other thing I like about this story is that it has a happy ending, which, believe me, doesn’t always happen in Kings:

14 Then Hiram sent the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold.

 

 

Doom! Shake the Room

 

Image result for telephone

1. Apart From That, Mr. Brzezinski


At 3a.m. on 9 November 1979, [National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski was telephoned at home by his military assistant, William Odom, who told him that he had just heard on his communications net that 200 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States … He told Odom to put Strategic Air Command on stand-by. A few seconds later, Odom called again. He now said that NORAD had reported that 2200 missiles had been launched. Brzezinski rang off, got out of bed, took a deep breath, and was just about to place his call to the sleeping President and suggest a full-scale retaliation against the Soviet Union when Odom called for a third time. This time he reported that other warning systems had not picked up the launch of any missiles.

 

That, from 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink, is an amuse-bouche for the tale of Stanislav Petrov, without whose insubordination I’d be writing on a cave wall, if at all.

 

Continue reading “Doom! Shake the Room”

Sandblasted

 

Glances, bases, hearts … That’s what I thought people stole. Who knew this too: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sand_theft

 

***

 

This artist's illustration shows the comet 'Oumuamua racing toward the outskirts of our solar system.
“‘Oumuamua Races Toward Outskirts of Solar System” (Artist’s Concept), NASA/ESA/STScI

 

So, I don’t know how I missed this, but apparently we had an interstellar visitor a while back, ‘Oumuamua. I learned about it from this interview with the chairman of Harvard’s astronomy department. I’ve found myself thinking about what he said a lot, sitting at red lights and stuff. These excerpts should give the idea:

We have no way of knowing whether it’s active technology, or a spaceship that is no longer operative and is continuing to float in space. But if Oumuamua was created together with a whole population of similar objects that were launched randomly, the fact that we discovered it means that its creators launched a quadrillion probes like it to every star in the Milky Way.

***

If to judge by our own behavior, it seems to me that the likeliest explanation is that civilizations develop the technologies that destroy them …The technological window of opportunity might be very small. Sails like these are launched, but they no longer have anyone to broadcast back to.

***

My premise is cosmic modesty … there are more planets like Earth than there are grains of sand on all the shores of all the seas. Imagine a king who manages to seize control of a piece of another country in a horrific battle, and who then thinks of himself as a great, omnipotent ruler. And then imagine that he succeeds in seizing control of all the land, or of the entire world: It would be like an ant that has wrapped its feelers around one grain of sand on a vast seashore. It’s meaningless.

 

As quoth Nigel Tufnel: “It really puts perspective on things, though, doesn’t it?”

 

Special English

 

Years ago I spent some time in Central Africa. I had a shortwave radio, but it was too complicated for me to figure out, and reception wasn’t always that great, so I’d listen to whatever I could pick up. That’s how I learned to dread Voice of America’s Special English. It was like being stuck in a Bob and Ray routine. Two decades later I find myself thankful for its existence.

 

 

Before winter break I had my students read VOA’s abridged version of “The Gift of the Magi,” perfect for English learners. (Seriously: the first few paragraphs of the original are crammed with highfalutin vocabulary.) It’s part of their American Stories series, which offers a canonical sampler, if apparently filtered by expired copyright.

Now, I consider myself passingly acquainted with the literature of my homeland. If you were to demand my immodesty, I would even confess having contributed thereto. But I’ve read only two stories on that list, and “The Gift of the Magi” is one of them. And: Fitz-James O’Brien? Hamlin Garland? Never heard of them. Sheesh.

My one-man book club’s 2019 reading list is shaping up. Yes, I’ll read the unabridged versions.

 

New Year’s Address

 

If you cannot fashion your life as you would like,
endeavour to do this at least,
as much as you can: do not trivialize it
through too much contact with the world,
through too much activity and chatter.

Do not trivialize your life by parading it,
running around displaying it
in the daily stupidity
of cliques and gatherings
until it becomes like a tiresome guest.

 

– “As Much As You Can,” C.P. Cavafy: Selected Poems, translated by Avi Sharon, Penguin Classics, 2008.

 

The Daily Stupidity! How is this not a newspaper? I’d title this blog The Fortnightly Stupidity, but it doesn’t have the same ring, does it.

Anyway, the translator’s bio induced in me powerful jealousy. First, because it says he “works on Wall Street,” which I suspect is a polite way of saying he makes a pile of money. Second, unless there’s more to Wall Street than I’ve understood, poetry translation would not be his day job, and I begrudge those who excel in secondary occupations (present company & Cavafy et al excepted).

I’ve been studying French for twenty-five years and still probably couldn’t translate Hatchimal instructions. I’d certainly lack the grace with which this translator handled “cheat sheet.”

I do, however, know my bas from my elbow.