Daniel Menaker


Friday, September 02, 2016

Maxwell likes to take walks in unfamiliar places. (He also likes to take walks in familiar places.) We’ve been driving him around the corner to the Butternut Basin ski area on Route 23—only five minutes from the Farmhouse–this spring and summer, and he particularly likes that because it is both familiar and unfamiliar. I mean, he knows some interesting stops along the path to the slopes—for instance, a pond, now drained, where ducks used to paddle around as if waiting for Max to run down the shore and bark them airborne. Max still runs down to the edge, like a nostalgist. There’s a stream nearby where he likes to wallow, and some administrative buildings underneath which, given his intense inspection of their gappy foundations, fauna must be lurking. And the slopes, so big and open, offer him new territory to explore.

Max has regularly taken interest in a long pipe—plastic, I think, and about a foot in diameter, raised off the ground by things that, well, raise it off the ground. Little stanchions. Maybe it has another pipe inside it—something involved in snowmaking. It goes up the bunny slope, the westernmost and least-steep of the area. Something has been living in there this non-ski season, near the bottom of the hill, Max seemed to be telling me as he yipped and dodged around and under it. I thought I heard frightened squeals and scrabbling from within. Maxwell couldn’t find access.

So I thought. A few weeks ago, I parked outside the area’s gate, so as not to get gated in when the people who worked there closed it, usually around five o’clock. I let Maxwell off the leash and he dashed down to the pipe, about a hundred yards away. Barking, whining, etc. I jogged down after him. There was a loud scratching/scrambling noise, and the barking suddenly stopped. I saw that Maxwell had something brown and furry in his mouth. It was squealing. He shook his head violently from side to side—it went whupwhupwhupwhup. The squealing stopped. Whupwhupwhup. Pause. Whupwhupwhupwhupwhup.

I got closer. Whatever it was was very dead. I guessed it was a muskrat. Maxwell had it by the scruff of its neck. It hung from his jaws like a big furry “n.”
“Drop it.”
“Are you kidding,” he might as well have said.
“Drop it!” I approached him and he growled at me and moved away. He was panting—exhausted from his first Big Kill.
We did this standoff walkaround—“Drop it!”, approach, growl, evasive tactic– in the parking lot for ten minutes.
How was I going to get him into the car and us and the corpse back to the Farmhouse? I noticed that when I walked away from him he would follow me, at what he must have deemed a prey-safe distance. So I walked back toward the car, and Maxwell followed six or seven yards behind me. I began to think he might want to take this trophy home. I opened the back door for him, like a concierge, and he came right up and jumped onto the back seat, his catch still hanging from his jaws.

Five minutes later, he jumped back out of the car onto our front lawn and began wandering around with this corpse. He was still exhausted, panting like a bellows. When I walked ten or fifteen feet away from him, he dropped his catch. If I went closer, he would pick up the muskrat, if that’s what it was. If I went closer still, he would get up and go farther away and lie down again. How could I keep him from burying this thing or, worse, dining on it, if those were the plans he had in mind?

I got the long green leash—maybe twenty feet long—that we keep on the porch, attached to a rail, which we use for Maxwell in the evening when he wants to be outside but it’s getting dark. I put the latch end through the loop at the other end, making the whole thing into an improvised lasso. I snuck up behind Maxwell when he had dropped the animal and tried to toss the loop around his neck. Missed. But Max didn’t seem particularly upset by this maneuver. (Why not? Because he doesn’t really think—don’t you think?) He just got up, moved away, lay down again, with the critter still in his mouth. Good. The second time I tried the lasso, it went around his head, his jaw, his prey, and his neck, and I pulled it tighter but not too tight.

Maxwell got up and walked away. I followed, holding the lasso leash. Maxwell lay down, let go of the animal, and I pulled on the leash very quickly—quickly enough to keep Max from picking the thing up again. I tied him up to the porch rail, got a shovel, picked up the muskrat, walked down the driveway, crossed the road, and buried Maxwell’s trophy far away from the house. As I put it into the grave, I noticed that its belly was, like, fat. Nah, I said to myself—it’s not pregnant, just fat.
When I got back, I put Maxwell’s shock collar on him and unleashed him. (Please don’t tell me that electric fences are inhumane. What’s really inhumane is letting your dog get run over, in my opinion.) He wandered around the yard looking maybe a little mystified, especially at the spot where he lost his prize, but he was pretty much back to normal.

What do we learn from this microcosmic-nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw incident?

1. My wife and I would laugh to each other about how stymied Maxwell would be if he ever caught anything he chased—squirrel, mouse, mole. Well, whupwhupwhup to that. Maxwell knew exactly what he wanted to do but least did it with humane dispatch.

2. For a dog it’s more or less here this minute, gone the next. No notches on his collar, no victory laps, and, I assume, no regret, no remorse, no nostalgia.

3. People are smarter than dogs.

4. Snowmaking pipes are not dog proof.

5 It was a muskrat. I looked it up. See below.

6. Muskrats need orthodonture.

7. If you don’t wonder about What’s Going On Here and sometimes feel bad about it (without being a wussy Sensitive Plant, of course), try burying a plump muskrat whose neck your cutie dog just snapped.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Maxwell and I were watching “Marcella” on Amazon Fire last night (well, Maxwell was watching if your definition of “watchng” includes “sleeping”)with Nature outside the Farmhouse quiet except for cicadas and their Philip Gla ss-esque single-note trilling. But then it got much less quiet. Amazingly, I heard this–https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqClZLE9X5U (wait a few seconds for the loud thing)–before Maxwell did. However loud you played that, in real life, as we refer to the bizarre happenstance of being here, it was, like, ten times louder than that, and it sounded as close as a smoke alarm inside your house. Maxwell registered it a few seconds later and of course started barking his head off. Me not being a rugged outdoorsman–not hiking here and there and always sleeping under covers rather than the stars–and Maxwell not being a rugged outdoorsdog, we both freaked. It kept on going. It sounded much more feline than avian, and at the moment, long before I was able to Google the call, I thought it might be a wildcat (we have them) or a vocally anomalous coyote (we have coyotes).

We devised a plan, the two of us. Well, not really a plan–more like just a thing we would do. We would go outside and frighten whatever it was off. [Anticlimax spoiler alert: we never got so much as a glimpse of this thing, so if you want to stop reading now, I would understand.] Maxwell would usually be champing at the bit–to misappropriate a zoological cliche–to get out there. But not this time. He hesitated when I offered to hitch him up to the leash and held back as we approached the door to the porch. He had stopped barking, so his head was back on and he seemed really spooked. Don’t forget that the eldritch call was continuing, every few seconds.

I turned on the porch lights and the big overhead light that shines down on the lawn and the driveway from the top of the house, and we went outside. The Bengal tiger or whatever it was stopped its awful threats. For a minute. We were about to go back in the house when the cry came again, this time seemingly somehow even closer–just up the hill from the house.

Maxwell found his bark and really let it go. The Thing answered. Maxwell barked–another wild cry. I found myself suddenly shouting, as loud as I could. Max looked up at me. I swear he seemed surprised. I stopped yelling, Max barked. Yell, bark, yell, bark. We were a team! Kind of a first. It was highly unusual for Max, our diffident, independent fellow, to stay so close and act in such a coordinated fashion.

Oh–I forgot. I had also had gotten a big metal collander out of the kitchen and and a big metal spoon and was clanging away among the barks and yells. Whatever this creature was, we were showing HIM, weren’t we? Though he kept up his fearsome call.

We began to move slowly, and I would also say “atavistically,” if it weren’t so bathetic and pretentious, toward the noise. Right near the old apple tree, right at the bottom of the hill behind the house, the caterwauling stopped. And didn’t start again, even when Max and I stopped barking and shouting and clangng.

Victorious, we returned to the house and “Marcella,” with the cicadas trilling away outside. I sat down, and Maxwell (full name William Maxwell) lay down beside me. Before putting his head down to resume his favorite activity, he looked up at me with what you cannot convince me was not camaraderie.

In our yard in Canterbury New Hampshire. Everything is so loud when your trying to be quiet! Loud chickens, dog, whispers and then the freaking door!!
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Tricks and Treats

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Maxwell does the following tricks on command: sits, lies down, crosses one paw over the other (“Cross your paws”) (this is my own genius idea, though I’m sure millions of other masters–that is, servants–have had same idea), goes around you in a circle to the right, goes around you in a circle to the left, shakes hands wth his right paw, jumps the gun and offers his left paw unbidden unless you caution him not to, which he obeys in an obviously exasperated or forbearing way, rolls over, puts his front paws up on an arm held parallel to the floor and gets a treat over the arm and then gets one under it when you say “over” and “under” in that order and will even do it in reverse order, goes through between your legs and comes back through them and turns in place 360 degrees, stands on his hind legs and pirouettes 360 degrees.
He could learn more tricks, I’m sure, but I figure that as I am who I am if not past it at 75, Maxwell is who he is at 7X7=49 and deserves the respect of his maturity and shoud not be sent back to circus school. I do wish he would come whenever he is told to instead of just as a velleity. We have bought gourmet “training treats” as an inducement to obey the command “Maxwell, come!” every time. But if there is some vile, dead animal in the woods that he feels required to roll and get stinky in, or a UPS guy whom he sees as an intruder to be deafened with barking, forget it, Zuke’s Roasted Pork Recipe Mini Naturals and Cloud Star’s Tricky Trainer Chewy Liver Flavor Wheat- and Corn-Free Training Treats notwithstanding. Zuke is evidently a paradigm of obedience in Durango, Colorado–who, according to the packaging, “sits, stays, and focuses–ready to learn or just enjoy a healthy treat for being such a good boy.”
Well, you go, Zuke. Maxwell will be too busy dirt-swimming with his two front paws after a mole who just scooted under the stone bench in our yard.
For all these complaints and even though I am foregoing most further trick tutelage, I am–as you might guess from this and other efforts at literary Maxwelliana–hoping that he will do one more thing I find myself silently asking him to do. And that is to let me Lie Down for good before he does
Stay, Max!

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Maxwell of course knows when only one of us is here in the Farmhouse at night. Usually but not always me, because my wife usually goes down to NYC to keep an eye on this renovation we are enduring–yes, yes; I know we are very lucky people–and an ear on her intense and growingly important involvement in the hearing-loss community. I want nothing to do with the renovation besides living in it when it is completely done, with not a $400 closet shelf absent. $400–no joke, except for the fact that it is a joke.

Anyway, in the middle of any given mono-spousal night, at, say 2 AM, Maxwell, seizing the main chance and open bed territory, like Putin with Crimea, jumps up on the bed and commences an exhaustive self-grooming. Half an hour, at least. Not only licking his paws and his parts, such as they are, poor guy, but scratching every aspect of his body he can reach, rubbing his snout and elongating himself against the cover as if he were a submarine trying but failing to submerge, snuffling and sneezing like a fat Victorian gentleman after a healthy pinch of snuff. The ear scratching is seismic, because his elbow, if that’s what it it is, does a Hawaiian hula-drummer beat on the bed.

Then suddenly he is barking like mad. For thirty-six pounds, he has the most decibelistic bark you can imagine. In between barking fits, I can hear outside the hoo-hoo-hoos of coyotes in the hills behind our house. Is Maxwell alerting me or does he maybe harbor a yearning to join them? This goes on for ten minutes, Maxwell jumping off the bed, barking and waiting by the bedroom door as if I really might open it, let him go downstairs, open the porch door, and attack or join the coyotes. (Have you been reading about the environmental conflict over coyotes, the one side extolling their intelligence and remarkable adaptability to our ecosystem incursions, the other decrying their merciless predations on flocks and herds and other assemblies of livestock. I’m with the coyotes. Easy for me–herdless as we are–to say.)

He settles down–if you can call his Simone Biles sleeping maneuvers settling down. Until 5:15, when I experience his trampolinesque jump down from the bed and hear his plaintive whimpering at the door. OK, OK. This is unusual and decidedly un-feral and tells me that he needs to go out, if you know what I mean.

Downstairs we go, me in my boxers and T-shirt that says “Clinton Gore 96,” Maxwell much more comely in his handsome and hypo-allergenic fur. Completing my outit, I put on the black rubber high-top boots–with yellow toes (why?)–that I wear to walk him at around 10 every night, the grass on our lawn as wet with dew as it would be from rain, and put Maxwell on his leash. The moon is out. It is just barely getting light in the East–over Boston, I imagine. Maxwell courteously leads me over to his preferred download zone, as far from the house as his shock collar would allow if he were wearing it, as he now all Pavlovianly believes he always is, and takes care of what needs to be taken care of.

It’s tempting to go right back in the house and back to bed, but the light is so eerie and the time of night so unusual, and the time of year–the end of August–so poignant, in its reminder of summer’s end, that I take Max back to the main part of the lawn and just stand there, pondering the imponderables and the *lachrymae rerum*–the tears of things. Maxwell sits down at my side. He has no imponderables, I bet. Unlucky lucky dog.

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Tick Off

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Maxwell had a tick on his rump which had been there for three or four days and had inflated to the size of an M&M. Really disgusting. This one was salmon-colored, maybe from the blood it was engorged with, turning the tiny brown horror huge and pink. This is a bad tick season. Katherine, my wife, had one on the back of her neck and actually went to two doctors for it. The place where it was still hurts, as if the tick had left some subdermal irritant there. Maybe its name was Kilroy. (I read somewhere once that the name “Kilroy” is a sort of Fawkesian anarchist pun combinng “kill” with “*roi*,” French for “king.” There are competing etymology theories. Freudians consider Kilroy’s drooping nose and two fists a symbolic depiction of the male genitalia, and thus a kind of testimony of sexual mischief.)

Speaking of sexual mischief and rumps, last night at a party I met a very smart young spanking fetishist/author named Jillian Keenan who told me that when a child who will go on to have this fetish, or who nascently has it at a young age, is spanked, it is similar to or actually a version of sexual abuse, despite the fact that the parent doesn’t know it.

What a party that was! Also met a guy who the next night was serving guests chocolate ice cream that required seven separate steps for its creation. No–it was NINE. Nine steps and seven days. And before that there was a book party for Peter Kramer and his new book about anti-depressants. He made an, um, well-developed, thank-you speech–to a room brimming with his fellow-shrinks–which featured a sort of hankering paean to New York and its culture of conversation. (I think Dr. Kramer lives in Boston.) At that party, a therapist told the old joke How many shrinks does it take to change a light bulb? Well, first the light bulb has to WANT to change. Along these same mental-health lines, I told the first and only joke I’ve ever made up:

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Dementia who?
I forget.

At that same party, Katherine reunited with David Hellerstein, who, when Katherine was a lowly story editor at theTimes Magazine, wrote a piece that K put on the magazine’s cover. That was a pleasurable re-crossing of paths.

Meanwhile, I am trying and largely failing to figure out how to bring this back around to the tick on Maxwell’s rump. Maybe it’s just all about afflictions. Except for the chocolate ice cream. Or maybe it’s all about love. Of the city, of Katherine, of people and their strangenesses. And of Maxwell. But not of the tick.

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Keyless in the Berkshires

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Originally posted on Facebook:

Maxwell takes two walks a day in the country. One in the morning–“the loop” as my wife, Katherine, and I call it–and often somewhere else in the late afternoon. Back down Peter Menaker Road but this time not the loop but off the loop, to the shore of Lake Buel, where he fetches sticks from the water, jumps over a low wire fence on command, as graceful as a sine curve, and subsequently, dripping wet, goes temporarily nuts, tearing around lakefront properties as if in frantic search of the Golden Bone.
But sometimes for those afternoon walks, in the skiing off- season (there was no real on-season this year) we put him in the car and drive a couple of miles around to the Butternut ski area, park outside the gate, and turn him loose.

First, the geese. A flock of them are (is?) often floating and paddling pointlessly, as far as I can tell on a small and painterly pond near the entrance, and Maxwell dashes down to the pond’s edge, creating havoc among them. They honk and start running on and churning up the water before they achieve their flapping liftoffs. Maxwell pulls up short at the edge of the pond and watches them fly honkingly away, and to my eye he looks mightily pleased with himself.

Then we walk up the slopes and under the chairlifts and down the slopes and in front of the lodge, dreaming of the snows d’antan and in my case, d’when I used to ski. (The first time I tried, I was wearing new bluejeans, and I kept falling, and kept leaving literal blue streaks on the snow. People would point to them from the lifts with some amusement. Jerks. )

Today there was a wrinkle. On our way back to where I had parked, Maxwell went down a little hill to a stream and stepped into it and lapped up some water. I motioned him to go a little farther up the stream, so as to see him wallow a little, and, amazingly, he did, and it was great, because it still wasn’t deep enough for him to go all the way in, but he deliberately listed from one side to the other so as to get as much of himself wet as possible. It’s wonderful to see such pure and simple pleasure so directly conveyed. When he got out, we walked a ways further and I dug into my pockets and gave him a treat. Fifty yards more, and the car. Where are my keys? They’re not in my pockets. They’re not anywhere in sight. S__t. (Mr. F. B. “Al” Gorithm won’t let me boost this post if I spell that word out. Isn’t that kind of f_____g ridiculous, given what we can hear on TV every night and the vitriol spilled out all over this medium every second of the day?) We retrace our steps, which is fine with Maxwell–he would walk or run to the moon if he could. Can’t find them. No extras at the Farmhouse–I have an extra in NYC and my son has one. No immediate help there.
Miraculously, I do have my cell phone and consider calling a cab from Great Barrington to come get me and Max. But there’s a guy in a utilities truck just across from my car and he’s just idling, talking on his phone. I take a deep breath and knock on his window and ask him if he can take us back to the house. Really, unless there’s some urgency he has to attend to, how can he say no? He doesn’t. Maxwell seems to know that as beggars, we cant be choosers, so he sits quietly in the well in front of the front seat instead of trying to share it with me.

A genial, round-faced guy with a short gray beard, our indentured uberized driver tells us his opinions about climate change as he drives us home. He says, “They will say something like, ‘This is the warmest it’s been on this day since 1932’ or something like that and so what I’m thinking is, ‘Well, how does that fit into climate change, exactly?'”

“Well, maybe if you put all the numbers together,” I say.

“Oh, I’m not saying we aren’t having climate change,” he says. “And I’m not saying we are. I’m just saying .” He pulls into our driveway. “Hey–I hope you have an extra set of keys here.”

“Uh, somewhere,” I mutter. In fact, I don’t. I will call my son, Will, and ask him to overnight his keys to me, and I will live on eggs and orange juice and bread and leftover lamb and actually, it’s not so bad, food-wise, now that I think about it. There’s even one of those cellophane envelopes, unopened, of smoked salmon, 120 miles upstream from its original home, Zabar’s. Then, when the keys arrive, I’ll see if I can guilt a neighbor into taking me back around to Butternut. Or maybe someone will drive me and Maxwell back down there tomorrow and I will find the keys.

Since I couldn’t turn on the ignition, I had to leave the windows open. Thunderstorms are coming. Great.

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By Popular Demand

Sunday, June 05, 2016

“By popular demand” indicates that more than one people have demanded whatever it is. Gary Krist asked that I tell about the other person to whom I will not speak. I need one more people to demand it, to make the demand popular. Hmm. Let’s see. OK–*I* demand it.

The other person is Sean Wilsey, whose memoir, “Oh the Glory of It All,” I acquired going on many years ago now. I liked the book a lot–it told a good story about growing up rich and dysfunctional in San Francisco, with one of the best early paeans to skateboarding I know of and what I recall as a hilariously terrifying account of his mother at one point suggesting to him that they both commit suicide. I made an offer for the book, got it. I was Editor in Chief then and was utterly flooded with work, and I didn’t get around to reading and working on the manuscript for four or five weeks, though I think I officially accepted it pretty quickly.

Sean let me know of his impatience. He was going to move the book. I asked him for more time, read it and edited it as quickly as I could–I knew it was going to be successful.

He told me that he had decided to move the book, to Ann Godoff, at Penguin Press, my good former boss at Random House who was fired in a horribly public, shaming way. Just so you know, this means that Sean was breaking a signed contract, presided over by Ann herself, before she was run out of town. But signed contracts in book publishing often hold as much weight as a cotton candy would. (Later on, a writer who had a first-reading agreement with RH sold his book to another publisher without giving us that first or any other look. I called the agent and said, “Hey, we had an option on____’s next book. What’s going on?” She said, “I forgot.”)

I asked Sean to come into my office and he came in bravely, and I will say he took my tirade well. I think it was the only professional tirade I ever delivered. At one point, Sean wiped his brow in an almost cartoon-like way. Four weeks is not a long time to turn a manuscript around. The book whose cover is this blog’s image–“The African Svelte”? Eight weeks. And the editing, by Jenna Johnson, who has since left Houghton Mifflin, was superb. Anyway at one point, I asked Sean if Ann had actively tried to lure him away, and he said, “No–when I talked to her about how long it was taking, she just said, ‘I’m here for you if you need me.'”

It was humiliating for me to have to tell my new boss, Gina Centrello, about this failure on my part and malfeasance on the author’s. She was incredibly nice about it. I was just boiling with anger at Sean, and Gina was pretty philosophical about the whole thing.

By the way, I lied. I didn’t really edit the book after four weeks. I couldn’t. I didn’t really ever edit it thoroughly, even though in an effort to keep it, I gave Sean an edited manuscript. I was too overwhelmed with administrative responsibilities and other proposals and manuscripts. I asked my assistant, Stephanie Higgs, to read and make editorial suggestions about the manuscript, and, reader, I redid some of them in my my own handwriting and added occasional comments and commas of my own. Cringeifying!

To some extent, what Sean did was a fair comeuppance for me. Maybe he intuited that in addition to the four-week delay, I had, largely unconsciously, been taking him and his work a little for granted. He was much younger, callow, spoiled, in my opinion, a kind of literary peon, however accomplished, in comparison to me, master of at least some of what I surveyed. He could wait for my attentions.

That last paragraph: probably the sequellae of too much analysis. However patronizing I may have been–and it wasn’t very–this guy broke an agreement, undertaken by Random House with admiration and enthusiasm, and with a a pretty high $offer. Afterward, I ran into Sean a few times at this or that book party. He came up to me to try to talk. No thanks.

By the way, I once posted about ordering from a Chinese restaurant and hearing the woman on the other end ask, “Do you want utensirs?” Gary Krist, one of the two online begetters of this post, chided me a little for this touch of P.Un-C, suggesting that I had been drinking. There was a little back and forth about “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and so on, an eventually I malbecianly unfriended him. He messaged me, to the effect of what?! Had I really unfriended him? I friended him again and now considel Galy Klist a good fb fliend.

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Noblesse Oblige

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Will Menaker would have been in high school, I think. He had idolized Muhammad Ali ever since we had seen one of the movies about him–was it Will Smith’s biopic, or “The Greatest”? In any case there was an event in New York, in some hotel high-floor event room, to which I had, inexplicably, been invited, and which Mr. Ali was also attending. I knew he would be there and and I think I told Will I would try to get Ali’s autograph for him. More inexplicably still, Lillian Ross, The New Yorker writer and William Shawn’s mistress, also attended this event, whatever it was. Lillian Ross and Muhammad Ali. What function could have put them together in the same room? She was no longer writing for The Talk of the Town very much, as I recall.
Lillian Ross is one of the two people in the world to whom I will not speak, not that she cares, of course. I won’t speak to her because having included me and Chip McGrath, a friend, in an anthology of Talk of the Town pieces at Random House, she dropped us out of the final product. I asked the book’s editor, David Ebershoff, why, and he was politely evasive, saying that Miss Ross thought that McGrath and I hadn’t really been regular Talk writers–which was true. I pressed him, pointing out that there were a few other “irregulars” included in the collection, and he finally told me that at some point as the book progressed, Lillian began to vilify me and McGrath for (I believe) not having supported Shawn during the contentious time when Robert Gottlieb was soon to arrive to take his place as the magazine’s Editor. Something like that. Ebershoff made it clear that Miss Ross had ended up being vituperative about us. Little did she or does she (unless she reads this) know, and, as I’ve said, little would she care, that I thenceforth determined never to speak to her.
Enough about Lillian Ross. Ali. He was there. He was looking good, if a little tremulous. Admirers surrounded him like iron shavings around a big magnet. I couldn’t just bust through and get his autograph. I hung around on the periphery, feeling like a fool and almost hoping that I wouldn’t even get the chance to approach him.
But I did. He was leaving. The crowd around him opened and he started walking in the direction of the elevators, and, miraculously, he was alone, except for a few bodyguards. No one approached him as he made his way. Except me. I figured out how to sort of flank him through this door and then back through that one, and we ended up face-to-face at the elevator bank.
Muhammad? No, Mr. Ali. “Mr. Ali, I’m sorry to bother you on your way out, but I wonder if I could get your autograph. For my son, for my son–you know, for him.”
“Yes, hold on.”
“Thank you.”
“You got paper?”

“Uh, no. Wait.” I somehow foraged some scrap of paper and handed it to Ali.

“You got pen?”

“Uh, no.”

His coterie did not seem to have a pen, either. They did seem impatient.

      “Wait, wait,” I said. I dashed away a few feet and copped a pen from someone else nearby. I went back to Ali. “Here.”
Ali looked at me, sort of scrutinized me. “Hey,” he said. “You know what?”
He said, “You not as dumb as you look. What’s your boy’s name?”

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Brave and Faintly Ridiculous

Sunday, May 22, 2016

If you go near the birdhouse on a pole in the back yard of the farmhouse here in New Marlborough, MA, a house that you inherited from your uncle, the resident bluebirds will dive-bomb you, swooping down right over your head, making these little clicking sounds, which sound a little like a windup kitchen timer–the best they can do in terms of scare tactics against your hulking, primate, earthbound self. They must have bluechicks in there right now. The birdhouse is near the back garden, and you feel guilty for going out to tend it, because it agitates the bluebirds so much.

Who would have predicted that you would be noticing and caring about such things, to say nothing of consulting bird books to help you distinguish between flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers, to say less than nothing of tending a garden, when you were twenty-five and looking for girls in bars and buying scalped tickets to Knicks games and dancing all night and playing pickup basketball in Riverside Park and writing cynical poetry and going to DC to protest the war and sharing summer houses on Fire Island and body surfing out there and idolizing Hunter Thompson and George Jones?

When gorgeous birds right in front of your nose or in back of your uncle’s house earned, from you, a brief appreciative nod at best, after your mother, in her sixties, pointed them out to you?

When you knew you would grow old but never believed it until now, when you have begun to find some kind of world of meaning in a bluebird’s brave and faintly ridiculous aerial assaults and a patch of lettuce and the kale that you don’t even like but grow anyway?

When you never would have guessed that you would be writing something like this, to say nothing of writing at all?

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Right Now

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Breaking news: Going out to walk the dog right now.
Do you not dislike it when NBC’s Lester Holt (who, by the way, has a very slight lisp; check it out; he has prevailed against more than just the one challenge, of being black) says at the beginning of every “Nightly News,” “Nightly News begins right now”? Wouldn’t you prefer just “begins now”? Or, for a laff, “begins more or less now.” Even “begins now” seems a little melodramatic. I mean, what else is he doing there if he’s not about to begin the news? Why doesn’t he say, at the end, “Nightly News ends right now”? And another melodramatic thing: the newscasters are always saying that “millions of people” lie in the path of this or that tornado or flood or other meteorological threat. Well, of course it’s millions of people. Hardly anything meteorologically or even otherwise newsworthy can happen in this country of 330 million without affecting millions of people. “Millions of people” would have been impressive in 1950, maybe. I wonder how many millions of people are annoyed by this trope. Probably not as many as are annoyed by those who use the word “trope.”

This trope ends right now.

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