This year

The train was stopped, doors open, at the Belmont platform during the evening commute. A tall young man on the platform pushed a grey-haired lady so that she fell down inside the train. The man yelled, “Don’t you push me, bitch!” and stalked away down the platform. The lady got up quickly, yelling in Spanish.  

Passengers called the train’s operator for help and he came back to offer assistance to the grey-haired lady but she just yelled more Spanish and then turned her back on the operator.  

While this was going on, a man at the other end of the car called out, “Let’s move it!  I’ve got PLACES to go!” Another man said quietly, “What places you gotta go — your mother’s basement?”

There were good people on the train; the operator knew how to be gentle with strangers in distress and there were women speaking in calming voices to our local version of Abbott and Costello. Try to remember the good parts. 


“At the end of February 1978 he [Roddy Llewellyn] flew to Mustique for a holiday, but was ‘badly run down,’ and went to hospital in Barbados. ‘His faeces were pitch-black,’ records Nigel Dempster, with off-putting omniscience, in his semi-authorized biography.”

From the book Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown.

Bob Dylan, Clothes Line Saga

When talking about a Bob Dylan song, I’m not one of those guys who’s going to analyze the lyrics and tell you that “the plowman” was really Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Agriculture and “the senator” was a reference to Barry Goldwater. The songs generally leave enough ambiguity for many interpretations. 

The song “Clothes Line Saga” is from the Basement Tapes album recorded in 1967. I still think it’s funny, like when I first heard it 35 years ago. 

The first verse is about a family hanging just-washed clothes on the clothesline outside. The second verse starts with:

The next day everybody got up
Seein’ if the clothes were dry
The dogs were barking, a neighbor passed
Mama, of course, she said, “Hi!”

The singer’s tone might suggest that he's resigned to the fact that Mama will always be the most sociable one in the family. Then the part that got me when I first heard it:

“Have you heard the news?” he said, with a grin
“The Vice-President’s gone mad!”
“Where?” “Downtown.” “When?” “Last night”
“Hmm, say, that’s too bad!”
“Well, there’s nothin’ we can do about it,” said the neighbor
“It’s just somethin’ we’re gonna have to forget”
“Yes, I guess so,” said Ma
Then she asked me if the clothes was still wet

On one hand, the news story is remarkable. On the other hand, the folks in the song accept it stoically and go back to chores. In the third and final verse there’s some small talk and the singer brings the dry clothes into the house. And every day for two years now I keep thinking “Well, there’s nothin’ we can do about it, it’s just somethin’ we’re gonna have to forget” and I do the laundry.

Lyrics copyright © 1969 by Dwarf Music; renewed 1997 by Dwarf Music

Ladies at lunch

From the novel Raney by Clyde Edgerton.

“I guess you have less cholesterol if you don’t eat meat,” says Aunt Naomi.

“There are health advantages,” said Mrs. Shepherd. “And also our women’s group has been concentrating on how eating less meat can help curtail hunger in the third world.” 

“On another planet?” says Aunt Naomi.

“Oh, no. Developing nations,” says Mrs. Shepherd. She finished chewing and swallowed. “Developing nations."


I think this approach is too harsh: Headline "Task force sets goal of cutting Illinois female inmate population in half.”

This phase has to pass soon, of doctors’ assistants’ ending every sentence with “for me.” “Would you sit down there for me?” “Would you hold out your left arm for me?” If the assistants said that all day long, I imagine in some cases it accidentally happened again after work during marital relations but you’ll have to make up your own joke for that.

I used to listen to Penn Jillette’s podcast but he spent so much time talking about atheism, a concept with which I could be sympathetic. I quit listening because he was preaching to the unconverted. 

I'm not sure apathy is the word

Years ago, Gloria Estafan advised me that the rhythm was going to get me -- I'm only just now starting to lower my guard. 

I saw Mom and Dad on Father’s Day a couple weeks ago. We were talking about how extremely hot weather can lead to people dying where they live, like in Chicago in the summer of 1995. My dad said he didn’t understand why people didn’t know enough to get out of the heat. Later that day he said he didn’t understand why some people kill themselves in response to online bullying. Every Father’s Day at some point I think of the same question: What word means the opposite of empathy?

Every time I see that thrift shop advertising three socks for a dollar I have a mental grimace. 

The Information by Martin Amis

In The Information by Martin Amis, six-year-old Marco asks his father Richard a question:

"Daddy? Are you bold?”

“I sometimes like to think so, yes, Marco.”

“Will you always be bold?”

"Despite the ills that await life’s balm, Marco, though made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, to strive, to seek —"

“Have you always been bold? How did you get bold?”

Richard closed his eyes. He dropped his pen onto the desktop and said, “You mean bald. Go elsewhere, Marco.”

The child remained. He went on gazing at his father’s hair. “Have you got male-pattern boldness?”

“I suppose so. I suppose that’s the kind I’ve got.”


From the Anita Loos novel But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1927) in which we read the diary of Lorelei Lee:
Well, a dramatic travelling company had come to San Diego called The Frederick Morgan Players, and one Wednesday afternoon when Dorothy was playing hookey from school, as usual, she attended the matinay. Well, the production that day was called “The Tail of Two Cities” and the gentleman who portrayed the title role was Frederick Morgan himself.
And Frederick Morgan had the type of personality that, as soon as he came out on the stage, everybody knew he was there. Because he had the habit of walking on backwards, so that the audience could not see his face. And as soon as he felt that they could hardly stand the suspence any longer, he would suddenly turn around quick and hold a pose. And Dorothy says that when he did it, the thrill that went down her spine almost made her think that the back of her chair had been wired for electricity.

Deep breath

I pushed the gate and it would only swing open a little and then freeze, but I was able to slide through sideways, same as every Saturday for the last three months.  I was getting onto the premises of the newly built headquarters of the place where I volunteer once a week.  I had heard that there were other eccentricities in the new construction that also weren’t quite perfected yet (the larger parking lot gate, a sink in the utility room). 

Suitcase wheels sounded behind me, outside the gate.  It was Amelia, the stout senior citizen who also volunteered on Saturdays.  She was towing the suitcase, toddling at her usual slow pace.  The week before, she had asked me what to do with a dirty dish and I said as tactfully as I could that the volunteers just wash stuff like that when we find it; we don’t need to ask permission.  

Amelia was naturally a bit dim and here she came trundling up to the gate, not knowing it was broken and wouldn’t open enough to let her through — forget about the suitcase.  “I’m sorry this gate won’t let you through, I’m afraid,” I said, and she said hi, pulled on the gate, and it opened 90 degrees giving her all the room she needed to follow me into the building. 

Age matters

Things could be worse — what if your last name was Alzheimer and you had to deal with an obligatory joke every time you met someone?

An acquaintance, a middle-aged man, approached a college campus building at the same time as a young woman.  They got to the door at the same time and the man opened the door for the woman.  She stopped and said that he was committing a Micro-aggression by acting as if she couldn’t open the door for herself.  The man gave a little apology and that was the end of that.  

On the other hand, if the man had opened the door for an elderly woman, she probably would’ve appreciated it.  I should learn from this and try to calculate my etiquette based on an instant demographic analysis of strangers.  Age can make a difference. 

It’s like that billboard I kept seeing this month for a new TV show called Siren, about a mermaid.  Luckily for ratings sake, the mermaid happens to resemble a skinny 22-year-old supermodel.  If the mermaid had instead been 75 years old, in average physical shape for an American of that vintage, and suffering from osteoporosis, the show would probably attract a smaller audience.  The age thing.

The old man sat in front of me on the bus.  His head was shaved.  He had a bump located behind his right ear.  If I had pressed on the bump I believe it would’ve made a high-pitched squeak like a dog toy.  My left hand clamped down on my right hand.


After one month
The little grey cat is still hiding under my sofa, scared of his new home.  The big orange cat is new here too but likes the place and walks freely through every room.  He’s seen Grey but doesn’t go under the sofa to meet him; he's content to rule the apartment alone.

After two months
Grey came out from under the sofa for the first time.  I was eating breakfast.  Grey walked slowly up to Orange and they touched noses.  Grey flinched at every sound in the room and soon scampered back under the sofa, his white paws flashing.  Orange didn’t care. 

After three months
Grey wants to get to know Orange.  Orange wants to be left alone.  When Grey gets within six inches of Orange a fight breaks out with ugly snarling noises, but when I break it up there’s no harm done.  And after a minute Grey goes right back to sniff Orange’s face.  Orange stands still now.  It looks like Grey saying “Are you OK?”

After six months
Orange is sleeping on my lap as he has from day one.  Grey walks in the room; Orange sees this and gets up, hops down, and leaves the room.  Grey hops onto my lap, curls up and falls asleep.  This happens every week now. 

Whenever I get home from work, little Grey greets me at the door and Orange hangs back, not wanting to come near Grey.

After one year
Every night, Orange sleeps at the foot of my bed.  Grey had been sleeping in the living room.  One night at bedtime Grey tried to hop onto the bed with Orange and a horrible fight broke out.  Orange will continue to defend the bed as his territory.  

After one year, six months
I work a half day, getting home at 1:00 pm, a rare thing. No cats greet me at the door.  I go into the bedroom and find Orange and Grey sleeping on the bed, two furry circles just a foot apart.  They look up at me frowning.  They put their heads down, one after the other, to sleep again.

After two years
Grey walks up to Orange every day at some point.  Grey bows his head and Orange forcefully licks the top and back of Grey’s head for ten seconds.  Grey walks away, no fuss.

"I don't want any trouble"

I started taking self-defense lessons. There’s a full-length mirror covering one wall of the training room. In my practicing of defensive moves I look like a marionette operated by a puppeteer who’s being tickled by a spastic giant sitting on a wobbly chair.

Luckily I haven’t punched myself in the head yet. In these early stages,  I’m awkward and the experienced students are graceful; their movements hit the target with accuracy and force. 

In matters of physical coordination I have to remind myself that a long time ago I didn’t know how to tie a necktie and now it’s something I’ve done thousands of times without thinking. If only attackers could be intimidated by the sight of me staring at them unblinking while tying a four-in-hand knot.

It’s been decades since I was this uncomfortable in a learning situation; last time it was piano lessons I was forced to take for a few years. Out of principle, I never played piano after I was allowed to quit. Just as well; I can’t imagine a scenario where there’s a gun to my head and the request is for a Scott Joplin rag in a “sprightly” mode.