He always seemed happy—at least to my 9-year-old self. At my Little League games, he had his photo taken with each team. At the grand opening of a bakery owned by my friend's mom, he showed up at the last minute to personally cut the ribbon. He'd tuck into plates of pasta on Federal Hill, the historically Italian section of my hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. Vincent Cianci—you probably know him as "Buddy"—who died late last month, appeared to relish his job as mayor of "America's greatest city" (at least that's how Providence was described in his campaign literature).
From 1975 to 1984, and again from 1991 to 2002, Cianci held the title long enough to be crowned "The Prince of Providence" by theRead more
My combined roles as television couch potato and language snob have not been easy on me. What I most watch on television is sports and news, with a fair amount of DVDs, these chiefly of English detective stories. Much of this television watching is done in the evening, when, as they say about major-league pitchers who have been hit hard, you can put a fork in me, I'm done. I turn on my television set, in the cant phrases of the day, to kick back, to chill, to knock off for the day.
Except I don't, or at least not quite. Too often someone paid to know better—a newscaster, a sports announcer, a politician, a civil servant—will use a word or phrase that arouses my ire.Read more
Sometimes in January, often in February—always somewhere in the course of the winter—I feel it settling down on me and the season: that icy fog that dulls the senses, the cold that gnaws the bone, the sadness that deadens the will.
A form of "seasonal affective disorder," I've been told such winter depressions are called: a vitamin D deficiency caused by lack of sunshine, maybe, or a rise in melatonin during the shortened daylight hours. Possibly a lack of serotonin. No one knows for sure. But the cure, they say, involves getting outside a little whenever the winter days are bright. Set up an indoor lightbox, buy a bedroom air ionizer, and it'll go away soon enough. Soon enough, they say.Read more
I've never been one for elaborate New Year’s rituals. I don't thump the walls with bread to rid the house of evil spirits, as some do in Ireland. Nor swing caged fireballs around my head to torch last year's misfortune, as they do in Stonehaven, Scotland. I don't make hollow resolutions, since I might fail not in expected ways, but in spectacular new ways yet to be imagined.
If Christmas is about giving, New Year's is about taking. So come New Year's Day, I take a fistful of ibuprofen and a nap. Then, after coming to, I take mental inventory of the old year's final moments, praying it was my wife I goosed as the ball dropped, since a sour-mash fog leaves me easily confused, and all white people start bearing strongRead more
It is sad to walk down a poor street lined with $60,000 houses and to see, as one often does, a $45,000 car in one of the driveways. It is often some kind of macho Mustang, freshly washed, gaudy of hue, souped up, and glittery with detailing. What are these people thinking? Why not get a perfectly good car for $5,000 and put the remainder towards a $100,000 house so your first-grader doesn’t have to sleep in the utility closet? What George Orwell said of poor people's miserable dietary habits can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to their taste in cars: "When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food," he wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier. "YouRead more
Every morning, I make an egg for my son. The task doubles as a chance for daydreaming, a rare occurrence when you're the parent of a toddler. I strap Henry into his chair, toss a few Cheerios in his direction, and get to work.
He doesn't have exacting tastes, so I've learned to ditch the skillet and stovetop in favor of a coffee mug and the microwave. The process takes about a minute and a half: Spray down the mug with a little oil, crack the egg and use a fork to scramble the yolk, nuke it for 25 seconds. I do all this in what feels like a single motion, often before I've had my coffee. At this point, Henry is engrossed in his cereal, and I contemplate, well, eggs.
It started with YouTube.Read more
Christmas these days is signaled not by the music played in shops and the wreaths hung along lampposts, but by the increasingly heavy load of catalogues that begin arriving in the mail late in October. Pity the poor mailman, having to lug such stuff around. These catalogues give recycling a bad name. Recycling them, after all, is the surest guarantee that more will arrive. Best, late at night, when the pollution police are long since in bed, to burn them at a disagreeable neighbor's curb.
I have to confess that once in a red moon I do peek into these catalogues, if only to see how mere conspicuous consumption has evolved into wildly ridiculous consumption. A month or so ago, in one of these catalogues I discovered that one couldRead more
Friends of mine once saved for a trip to Europe by emptying their pockets at the end of each day and placing any money in a big plastic jug. Occasionally, when short of cash, they had to turn the jug upside down and withdraw a bill or two with a pair of tweezers, but the system worked. After a couple years, they bought plane tickets and were on their way.Read more
The other day, sitting around naked in a Bavarian hotel with a woman I'd just met, I thought of the best-mannered person I ever knew. Andrzej came from an elegant Warsaw family. I met him at the very end of his long and difficult life, when he was singing "Sto Lat" at his American grandsons' birthday parties. His gift was for keeping his cool and putting others at ease. One summer weekend in the 1920s he was strolling along some Pomeranian beach when he saw a dapper little man who looked like his father approaching, arm in arm with a much younger woman. Andrzej tipped his hat. Andrzej's father tipped his hat. The two walked by one another without breaking stride.
Andrzej had a feel for these situations.Read more
Having a decidedly anti-romantic view of college, I find myself not entirely opposed to the student radicals besieging campuses across the country.
Once upon a time, universities transmitted knowledge and formed the minds and characters of young adults. But that ended long before I arrived at Johns Hopkins in the mid-1990s.Read more
I taught at a university for 30 years, from 1973 until 2002. The timing of my departure was exquisite. I left before smartphones became endemic and political correctness, with triggering and microaggressions and the rest, kicked in. The courses I taught—in Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, and in something called Advanced Prose Composition—were all electives, and so my sampling of students may have been less than comprehensive, but I liked the kids who wandered into my classes. Twenty-five or so among them have become and remain my friends.Read more
Rummaging around the other evening in a box of magazines and newspaper clippings with my byline, I stumbled upon the November 1975 issue of a journal called the Alternative: An American Spectator. Mindful, as always, of capricious mortality, I have lately been subtracting from the volume of paper my family will inherit, and was briefly discouraged by the several large containers of printed matter in my basement. In the course of tossing out duplicates, however, I noticed that I had saved a half-dozen copies of that issue.Read more
She seemed more curious than frightened, the doe-eyed . . . doe, I suppose, and we studied each other for a long moment or two. She, calm in a farmer’s field, looking over the fence line. And me, unmoving in the wreck, staring back at her through the shattered glass.Read more
I’m a sophisticated guy. A deep thinker, even. Shallowness’s scourge, you might say.
At least that was my line 10 or so years ago, as my family embarked on a trip to Southern California. My younger sister, then around 14, proclaimed before our departure that she hoped we would see a celebrity on our trip.Read more
Now that playoff baseball has returned with the onset of autumn, and baseball becomes more intense, more excellent, and more precious, I’m thinking again about Harvey Dorfman. Little known to most casual fans, he was one of the great men of baseball, for he taught his students and friends and all who knew him how to embody and appreciate the best qualities of the game and embody the best in their lives, too.Read more
We never thought we would find ourselves stocking a pantry in Arizona. But now that Phoenix is our winter base, there we were, on line at the deli counter of a supermarket located in one of the ubiquitous strip malls that we love because they are home to thrusting small businesses as well as huge anchor tenants like the store we were in. After waiting awhile, we realized we were in a take-a-number queue. We remedied the oversight and got number 61. We both remember it because of what followed.Read more
In 1991 I wrote an essay for the American Scholar called “The Ignorant Man’s Guide to Serious Music,” in which I was both the ignorant man and the guide. The essay was about my love for classical music and my hopeless inability to get beyond the stage of a coarse admiration of it. Midway through the essay I remarked on the vast quantity of great music available from the past, and as an example mentioned a composer I had not hitherto heard of named Giuseppe Torelli (1658-1709).Read more
It occurred to me not long ago that, given my age and station in life, I should probably not purchase any more suits. Gazing at the contents of my clothes closet, there can be little doubt that I have more than enough to see me through the balance of my working life, and beyond—if, lest we forget, I am vouchsafed to get there.Read more
Dear reader, don’t take this personally, but sometimes I think of pursuing another line of work. It’s not you, it’s me. Writing is just so hard. The words don’t seem apt, sentences come loose, a draft seems more deserving of the delete button than your readerly attention.Read more
I've always loved the sound of a serpent. Well, no, not really. The 16th-century musical instrument is breathy, buzzy, and inexact—consistently requiring the player to gesture at the note in what’s called falset: using the tension of the lips in the mouthpiece to approximate a tone that the instrument’s fingering and natural overtones don’t want to produce. There was a reason the valved brass tuba swept the serpent out of modern orchestras in the 19th century. The tuba could, like, you know, actually sound the note.Read more
Most summers I’ve had a fruit and vegetable garden, but rarely has my summer reading included much about gardening other than nursery catalogues and seed packets and basic how-to articles. This year has been different. My Summer in a Garden by Charles Dudley Warner, first published in 1870, has had my attention, and it’s a book I’ve found hard to put down.Read more
The difference between man and woman is the force that hauls life forward (as the Talmud remarks) and the origin of everything that is most beautiful in our world. I thought I understood that, but I didn’t until my father died. The whole can transcend the sum of parts, and that’s why Judaism deems marriage sacred. I never truly understood that either.Read more
The psychic wore a long, red skirt. It swirled when she walked, as if mystically stirred. She plopped down across the table from me, checked her iPhone, and lit a cigarette. After a long drag, she coughed. “I’m Jessica,” she said, pronouncing the name in a thick New Jersey husk.
I glanced at my girlfriend, Nan, who was seated beside me. She didn’t return my look—proof of regret, I thought, feeling vindicated.
I didn’t want to be there.Read more
From my living-room windows, I can see two of the three coffee shops within a block of our apartment. Within less than a mile, there are five other coffee shops. In America the coffee shop has for the most part replaced the neighborhood bar, the country club, it used to be said, of the working man. Bars have never been my idea of a good time. Hemingway was, I think, correct when he said that there were only two reasons to go into a bar: the search for complaisant women and the yearning for a fight.Read more
I was in my office, happily encircled by little piles of paper, drafting an article, when real life interrupted.
My wife Cynthia was on the phone. Our sons, she said, had ridden their bicycles—with permission—to the fancy overpriced coffee shop two blocks away to buy caramels. The shop was closed, they found.Read more
Lately my home life has felt like a camping trip. I have been waking at 3 a.m. or so and staring. Stirring at night is one thing—rolling over, drifting into semi-consciousness, having a stray thought or two either to be remembered or not remembered in the morning—but staring is quite another. In the weeks since May, when my father died, those stray thoughts have been vivid enough to seize my attention. Then they bring with them other thoughts, practical and metaphysical. After a few minutes, I’m wide awake.Read more
Have you ever had two dinners in one night? I did, more than 20 years ago, in Budapest. My buddy Todd and I had gone backpacking through Europe, hitting 11 cities in 30 days. As students, we were careful not to overspend, staying at pensions and hostels and crashing at my former host family’s house in Germany. By the time we reached Budapest, our last stop, we’d saved more money than we’d anticipated.Read more
As a lifelong student of the manners and habitat of the American upper-middle, and upper, classes, I am of course a weekly reader of the Vows (weddings) pages in the Sunday New York Times. The tone of these notices has evolved with the years—the weekly essays on one featured couple tend to emphasize politics rather than love, and single-sex mergers are now routine—but the substance remains the same: These are people who take pride in their meritocratic status.Read more
Morning comes like a great bird, sailing over the dark curve of the earth to illuminate the hills and trees. Dawn arrives like an angel’s burning sword, expelling night from the garden of this world. Sunrise melts to fresh dew the last wisps of frost across the lawn, a diamond sparkle in the golden angle of the sun’s first rays, and in the background always plays “Morning Mood,” the opening movement of Grieg’s first Peer Gynt Suite.Read more
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