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)

 

These Go to Eleven

 

Because Foch rejected German requests for a ceasefire while the Armistice was being negotiated … sixty-seven hundred and fifty lives were lost and nearly fifteen thousand men were wounded. Worse yet, British, French, and American commanders made certain that the bloodshed continued at full pitch for six hours after the Armistice had been signed. The delegates in Foch’s railway carriage put their signatures to the document just after 5 A.M. on November 11th … Nonetheless, Allied soldiers scheduled to attack that morning did so until the very last minute.

– “A Hundred Years After the Armistice,” New Yorker, November 5, 2018

 

Perhaps the above unfortunates at least found time that morning to contemplate how neat triple elevens looked.

For solemn consideration of two veterans of later wars, please read the latest post on my obit site. It’s about enemy soldiers who met unusually and died in circumstances both probably would not have imagined.

 

Tomboy

 

Sparr’s Drugs, 1960s. Northeastern University Digital Repository Service.

My high school probably had a decent English curriculum, but I don’t recall, because I didn’t read most of the books assigned. I’d buy the Cliff’s Notes at Sparr’s and then read Stephen King novels instead. One day I decided there might be more to literature, so I picked up Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.

I’ve read it at least ten times now. It’s my third favorite novel. (If you really want to hear about it. The world is what it is.)

As it happened, I’d just finished re-reading The Right Stuff last week, and had been thinking a lot about what a marvelous writer Tom Wolfe is. I haven’t read all of his writing, and some of what I’ve read I haven’t liked. But if you told me I had to go read everything he’s ever written, I’d be happy to. (Except maybe his graduate work.)

He taught me good fiction need not plod. I get my love of the well italicized word from him. (I don’t try my hand at exclamation points, though. You put on a top hat, you best be Slash.) He made me look up “tabescent” and lots else.

I ripped off one of his titles for my second short story.

The very first post on this blog was about him.

The whirl, the whirl, the whirl. RIP, sir.

 

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

 

Image result for emmanuel mensah

 

A few years back I lived across the street from a Ghanaian man. One day I expressed to him my condolences on the death of Ghana’s president, whose obituary I’d just read. Kind of weird, yes, but it seemed the neighborly thing to do.

In that neighborly spirit, I offer condolences to all of us on the passing of Pfc. Emmanuel Mensah.

***

Some of my ancestors are from Norway, and I spend my weekdays with many students from other countries our president recently discussed.

I will concede that what’s most important in all of this is not my feelings, but I also wish to record it was crummy to feel the urgent need to assure my kids that America values them.

(Fine, I should be doing that anyway. I’d prefer to be otherwise inspired, though.)

 

File:Executive Order 10924 from NARA.jpg

 

During college I went to see Senator Paul Tsongas, then running for president, give a speech. He told a story about his Peace Corps days in Ethiopia, and seeing on the wall of a villager’s home a photo of JFK. He asked if we should expect the same with our current president. There was much wry laughter, including mine.

His question bears repeating, but not amusement.

 

Initials B.B.

 

The other week my friend Ben sent me the obituary of Y.A. Tittle, remarking he was surprised to learn the man was not long dead. This naturally made me think of Algeria’s first president, Ben Bella.

 

Image result for ben bella

 

You see, just that morning I’d read the following passage about the coup that deposed him:

Ben Bella is said to have been killed. To have been wounded. To be alive. To have been not wounded, but ill. Everything is reported, since nothing is known. One version has him on a ship anchored off Algiers. That version is confuted by a report that they are holding Ben Bella in the Sahara, at an army base. According to another view, he is still staying at the Villa Joly…

Everything is possible, since nothing is known.

The most common version is the official one: that Ben Bella is in Algeria and being well treated. It might even be true.

 

That’s from “Algeria Hides Its Face,” by Ryszard Kapuściński. Seeing as he’d written it in the mid-1960s, I decided to find out what finally happened to Ben Bella.

I must add that my hopes were not high; mortality in 20th century Algeria was not overly characterized by natural causes.

So I was pleased to learn that the official version was more or less true. Ben Bella died in 2012.

 

 

Pettifoggery

 

If we do not speak ill of the dead, who will?

-Harold Bloom

 

Embed from Getty Images

 

Of all the horrors of late, not least is Tom Petty songs everywhere. It had been bad enough to hear them only occasionally.

Into the bargain words like “genius” are being used to describe him. Gentle Reader, we need some unpleasant fact-face interface: Tom Petty’s music is not good.

(And that’s just the music. His lyrics are mere text. Bloom wept.)

E.g. “Learning to Fly” is gemlike insipidity. “I Won’t Back Down” is an artless slog. “Running Down a Dream” seems the work of the Anti-Euphony League.

Etc.

It mystifies me how he hung out with Bob Dylan and Randy Newman yet remained, at least compositionally speaking, unimproved.

Do I have nothing nice to say about him?

Oh, alright. He declined to sue the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which does indicate a generosity of spirit, one that I would certainly lack where the Red Hot Chili Peppers are concerned.

 

 

#ObitEd

 

Your forbearance please, Gentle Reader: you come here for irreverent irrelevance, but this week it’s hard astern.

My students and I read several worthy obituaries in 2016, including those of:

  • “A swinging cat” (per James Brown)
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inspiration
  • A young photographer who went down fighting

Meet them all at Passed Made Present.

More to come this year, both there and here (which will return to normal programming, promise).

 

 

The Pugilist at Rest

 

“For me it was easy: Produce text that was so good, an editor could not reject it,” he said.

 

Every couple years I search the internet to see if there’s any news from A Girl Called Eddy or Thom Jones. Tuesday’s obituary unhappily halves this task.

I owe much to Thom Jones. Although today regarded as astonishingly erudite, there was a youthful spell where I read no fiction. Then one day I was instructed – by a good woman who did what she could for my improvement – to read his short stories. Now not a week passes without me reading made-up stuff.

Years ago I had the great fortune to attend one of his readings. He began it by apologizing for his (perfectly fine) appearance and dedicating the event (with raised fist and no explanation) to his “homeboys in Attica.”

The line for book signing afterward was long, and the slowest I’ve ever seen. Thom Jones was talking to – as in having a conversation with – everyone. When my turn came, I was struck by how genial he was, and how interested he seemed. I don’t remember what we said, except that we talked about Africa, where we’d both spent time.

 

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I met Thom Jones as a reader. Later, when I decided to try writing stories, he was my discouraging inspiration: half “You know, maybe I could do this,” and half “Yeah, but it ain’t gonna be this good.” I’m still right.

Rest in peace, sir. Glad I met you.

 

PS Erin, if you’re reading this, pretty please: we want You Get the Legs You’re Given, not your obituary. Or at least one well before the other.