Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Inconvenient Magic: Stephen King in the Real World

Stephen King has made me afraid to go down a flight of basement steps in the dark. I’ll never forget the 1976 Pennsylvania power blackout that interrupted my reading his novel Carrie aloud to my girlfriend: we screamed like children and huddled in bed for an hour before either of could get up the nerve to go looking for flashlight. King has made me pump my fist in vengeful satisfaction, like when the little girl in Firestarter finally started incinerating the bad guys He’s even put me at the edge of my seat – literally; I actually fell off on one occasion … I think it was when the dead cat leapt out of the kitchen cabinet in Pet Sematary.

But his new novel gets the one response he’s never managed to provoke before: it made me cry. No chest heaving sobs or sentimental caterwauling; but I couldn’t deny the bittersweet prickle in the eye as I came to the end of his most recent book, 11/22/63. That’s because the people are real, however fantastical their situation, and the way they reconcile themselves to their bizarre, tragic fate holds an austere beauty that will remain with me long after the book is done. As usual with King, there is a supernatural pretext for the story – in this case time travel. But it’s the people themselves that hold King’s interest now.

The story begins when school teacher Jake Epping finds out about a worm hole in time, incongruously located in the store room, behind the kitchen of an old friend’s diner. Al Templeton has been ducking back into April of 1958 for several years, mostly to get cheap beef from Eisenhower-era butchers. Each time he goes back the past resets itself, so he may have been getting the same beef every time. He feels like he has disproved the Ray Bradbury “butterfly effect”, dramatized in the short story “A Sound of Thunder”, where time travelers kill a Jurassic butterfly and create tiny changes that mutate and metastacize over a few million years, ending up with an almost unrecognizable present day (Someone very much like Newt Gingrich is president ….hmmm).

Al returns to a basically unchanged world each time, renewing his faith in the durability of the space-time continuum; and making him dangerously ambitious. He conceives a plan to prevent the Kennedy assassination. He does massive research – as King did, and learns all about Lee Harvey Oswald and his Russian wife Marina and their dysfunctional family life.

But the deed itself turns out to be intractably difficult. First of all, the worm hole isn’t a gull-wing DeLorean with a handy ‘flux capacitor’; in classic King style, it’s just a hole and it always leads to one place and one time: Lisbon, Falls, Maine, behind the textile mill, in April, 1958. That means there’s a lot of time to kill before the assassination – time enough to figure out whether Oswald really acted alone, or even did the deed at all. Killing an innocent man – or one disposable cell of a giant conspiracy – would be an exercise in futility.

No matter how long you stay in the past, only two minutes go by in the present, so Al hasn’t used much ‘present time’ in his quest. But it has taken years off his real life, years spent in ‘the land of Ago’ -- and on top of that he’s gotten sick. Al is dying and he needs to appoint a deputy.

Jake gets the job.

His first trips orient him to a world where a five cent root beer tastes deliriously wonderful, everyone smokes all the time, and cars still have fins. He also meets the ‘yellow card man’ a mysterious bum who seems to live near the worm hole in 1958, and becomes increasingly unhappy about the sudden appearances of dazed individuals from 2011.

Putting the ‘butterfly theory’ to a more stringent test, Jake decides to stop a gruesome mass murder that wiped out the family of one of his extension students. Harry Dunning, , the limping high-school janitor struggling to earn his GED , described the event in a halting “The moment that changed my life” essay. Harry’s alcoholic father killed Harry’s mother as well as his brother and sister on Halloween night, 1958, leaving Harry with a shattered leg, crippled for life.

Jake figures if he can stop that horror and come back to an intact world, the fabric of reality will be able sustain the rescue of JFK also. Without going into the details, the mission doesn’t work out quite as planned. But reality seems sturdy enough to absorb the tweaking.

So Jake goes back in earnest, with a stash of 1958 money, Al’s notes on Oswald and a cheat sheet of sports results to keep him afloat financially.

He starts out living in Dallas, after a detour to Derry, Maine to improve the results of his last meddling with Harry Dunning’s family, now reset. The side trip to Derry is a little treat for long-time King readers, especially those who feel that It, his 1986 epic, was a masterpiece and a crowning achievement (He spoke of retirement for the first time, after that novel was published). The events chronicled in It take place in the 1980s, when the characters are in their thirties, and also in 1958, when they were kids. The evil in Derry is cyclical and though they fought it to a standstill as children they knew they might have to brace for a rematch someday. One interesting point the book makes is that the gang was actually better equipped to deal with the Grand Guignol nightmares of Derry, Maine as innocent kids than they were as chastened, compromised grown-ups.

Anyway: Jakes arrives in Derry just after the first round, and crosses paths with Richie Tozier and Beverly Marsh, giving us a glimpse of two beloved characters from the earlier novel, as they practice the lindy-hop amid the ruins of a picnic. Jake loves dancing, and gives them a quick lesson. Beverly says there were bad things going on in Derry but that’s all over now: everything is fine.

Like time travelers ourselves, we Stephen King fans know better.

Jake hates Derry, and as it turns out he hates Dallas, too. The Book Depository has an evil brooding look to it – just like something out of a Stephen King novel! One quick glimpse at the photograph that adorns the top of Part Five of the novel confirms that impression: it’s a creepy place.

Jake moves to the nearby town of Jodie, gets a job teaching school and falls in love with the new librarian, Sadie Dunhill. It’s a slow- burning easy-going affair, a friendship that starts with him catching her as she trips (she’s a little clumsy), and kindles into love with a few spins on the dance floor. She’s actually quite graceful, when she looks where she’s going.

And as Jake Epping likes to say: Dancing is life.

ButJake, now calling himself George Amberson, has much more on his mind than romance and the school curriculum. He’s tracing Oswald’s movements, pre-bugging the apartments where the family is going to life, gathering the evidence of a conspiracy and making his decision. I hesitate to ‘spoil’ the plot here, but the simple logic of story-telling does seem to require that George not only attempt to stop the assassination, but also succeed. It’s the natural direction of the narrative; it’s hardly a ‘spoiler’ to suggest that a stream will flow downhill.

It’s the rapids along the way that matter.

George decides to stop Oswald but the past has a kind of resistance to it. The past doesn’t want to be changed. Circumstances confound you as you try to wreak that special havoc, as if reality had its own immune system. Downed trees, flat tires, stalled elevators and more all tangle up the plan as the natural order flexes to protect itself. If anything can go wrong it will: Murphy’s Law applied with a supernatural vengeance.

But it has never been easy to take advantage of the supernatural, in Stephen King’s world. Some Puritan part of him needs to extract a heavy toll for power vision or skill beyond the ordinary. I think of the father in Firestarter, whose modest telepathic powers gave him crippling migraines, or the psychic little boy in The Shining whose mental spark roused a whole hotel’s worth of hibernating spooks. The power to bring back the dead didn’t do the hapless protagonist of Pet Sematary much good, and knowing the future was a kind of brain tumor for Johnny Smith, thw doomed hero of King's last Cssandra-with-a-gun story. Foreknmowledge doesn’t do much for poor George Amberson, either. He makes his long-shot bets, and wins them of course; but they bring him to the attention organized crime and soon he has mobsters chasing him. They actually catch him and the brutal beating they administer almost wipes out his memory.

Sadie, meanwhile has been attacked a disfigured by a crazy ex-husband, but George consoles himself that he might be able to change that by another round trip into the past. At least he can take her with him into the shiny new post-JFK survival future, with no Viet Nam war and possibly no Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King assassinations, where micro laser surgery might heal her face in a way that the crude surgical technologies of the cold war era cannot.

The story narrows down into a cattle chute of almost unbearable suspense, as George and Sadie (She knows who he is by this time, and believes it, and shares his mission) hobble and lurch toward their appointment with a revised destiny. I suppose there are some spoilers here, but I confess I often read the end of books early, just to make the suspense bearable. If you find that habit bizarre, and want your reading untainted, stop here and come back when you’re finished with the book. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of days.

Anyway, if you’re still with me -- they manage to stop the assassination, but Oswald kills Sadie and George makes a long desperate run to Lisbon Falls and the worm hole. To go through, to re-set, to start all over again even if he’ll now be five years older than Sadie: to make everything right. But the crazy old alcoholic is still there, and his yellow card is darkening fast. It turns out his job is to guard the worm hole – he’s from some unimaginable future himself. All these tweaks to the world’s time line have set up clashing harmonic vibrations. There are too many of them. The whole of reality could shatter like the glass in that memorex commercial. George must go to the future, and if it turns out to be as horrific as the yellow card man fears, come back once more just to re-set it all and cut off the vibrations. No second chances, no preventing the JFK assassination or Sadie’s injury – not even a glass of root beer!Just a quick, one day-return ticket to set the world to rights.

He almost refuses: the fabric of reality and the space-time continuum seem pretty abstract compared to the chance of seeing Sadie again, whole and healthy, and all the time they could have together, and the chance of saving her from the crazy ex-husband and making a life with her, even if that life and everything around it is heading off some bizarre string theory cliff that only a physicist could understand.

But here's the problem: he’s seen enough of that future to know it’s anything but abstract, and the blighted hellscape he returns to in the new 2011 leaves no room for doubt. George can’t save Kennedy or Sadie, or even himself – but he has to at least try to save the world.

So he goes back once more, and resets time, and returns to an intact 2011, complete with the Warren Report and the Tet Offensive, 9/11, the Iraq War and everything else. By comparison with the radio-active dystopia his good intentions created, it looks pretty good.

And he goes on the internet and finds out that Sadie is still alive. Eighty years old, after a long accomplished life: an organizer and fighter, a rabble rouser and a hero right to the end, still vigorous, still healthy, now being celebrated as Jodie’s “Citizen of the Century.” But she never married, and now she lives alone.

Giving uip on the past, George travels to Jodie one more time, and finds Sadie at the celebration, and asks her to dance:

In the street, couples are jitterbugging. A few of them are even trying to lindy- hop , but none of them can swing it the way Sadie and I could swing it, back in the day. Not even close.

She takes my hand like a woman in a dream. She is in a dream, and so am I. Like all sweet dreams it will be brief … but brevity makes sweetness, doesn’t it? Yes, I think so. Because when the time is gone you can never get it back.

Party lights hang over the street, yellow and red and green. Sadie stumbles over someone’s chair, but I’m ready for this and I catch her easily by the arm.

“Sorry, clumsy,” she says.

“You always were, Sadie. One of your more endearing traits.”

Before she can ask about that I slip my arm around her waist. She slips hers around mine, still looking up at me. The lights skate across her cheeks and shine in her eyes. We clasp hands, fingers folding together naturally, and for me the years fall away like a coat that’s too heavy and too tight. In that moment, I hope on thing above all others: that she was not too busy to find at least one good man …

She speaks in a voice almost too low to be heard over the music. But I hear her – I always did. “Who are you, George?”

“Someone you knew in another life, honey.”

Then the music takes us, the music rolls away the years and we dance.

And that’s where we leave them

So this is a time travel tale and a thriller and a superb piece of speculative fantasy, but most of all it’s a love story and the message it delivers this: you may not be able change the past without catastrophic results, but you can learn to live with it, and even live happily ever after … however short and uncertain ‘ever after’ might be.

That’s cold comfort on rainy autumn afternoon, but I’ll take it.

I suspect you’ll feel the same way.

The Accidental Contractor

I know a number of people who boldly chose second careers and made a success out of it. My father-in-law walked away from a lucrative job in advertising, put the contents of his Connecticut house up for sale as his first inventory and launched himself into the antiques business on Nantucket, founding the beloved Island Attic Industries. One of my best friends quit his father’s cleaning business to start studying and teaching Aikido. An older man I know retired from his consulting firm to take up the theater. He lives in Canada and works steadily there, doing commercial work and acting on stage.

I admire them all. I wish I could be like them.

I didn’t choose my second career. It was thrust upon me against my will, and I only took it up because my first career had been a complete failure. My wife and I were living in Los Angeles in 1979, and she hated it there. “No matter how far you go you’re always in the middle of nowhere,” she complained. “People here think white wine is health food.”

We agreed to give my Hollywood writing career five years to take off; if it didn’t, we’d move to somewhere she wanted to live, which turned out to be Nantucket Massachusetts. By the time my career ticket expired she was expecting our first child, which upped the stakes drastically: she was determined not to raise a kid among the smog and the drive-by shootings.

I will never forget the sense of loss and despair I felt as we organized for the move. Driving from Logan airport to the south coast we passed through the dreary town of Westwood, Ma. … I had been living in Westwood California for five years and the contrast couldn’t have been more bleak if we were moving from Paris to Paris, Texas.

On Nantucket the only jobs available were in real estate, retail and the building trades. There was something soul-suckingly awful about the real estate business, all the greedy people and the boring parties and the half-lies (“You can barely see the dump from here and they never burn trash in the summer.”). Retail just didn’t pay a living wage. So I was hauling roof shingles up thirty foot ladders in February when the man who painted my in-laws’ house offered me a job. ‘It’s indoors, there’s bathroom and it pays two dollars more an hour,” he told me.

I took it.

It soon turned out that I had no aptitude for it at all. I couldn’t set a nail without ruining the board it was driven into, I hammered ‘like a cobbler’ – a dire insult, take my word for it. I couldn't push a roller without tracking little raised lines of paint, or brush a surface without missing parts, usually near the edge. I couldn’t sand a surface smooth or spread joint compound on it without making a lumpy mess. I earned the amused nickname “human dropcloth” and for a while it seemed I could get paint anywhere but on the surface I was aiming for. I knocked over buckets of paint, and broke windows with ladders. I couldn’t cut straight line with a brush. If I tried to reglaze a window I broke the glass; if I tried to paint a window I painted the glass. My one virtue was that I showed up. And I was willing to admit that I knew nothing.

And I did show up, for ten hour days, six and seven days a week, literally hating every minute of it. If you had told me this was going to be my career, I would have laughed at you. If I believed it I would probably have start swigging the paint thinner.

While I toiled away breathing paint fumes and fuming about the injustice of life, my best friend was living in Los Angeles, rising through the ranks of a high-powered internet company. He drove a stylish used Mercedes coupe; I drove the company paint van. I went out there and stayed with him when I managed to finagle a writing gig, and saw his glamorous life at first hand. I kept thinking that one of my little screenwriting jobs would get me back out west permanently. Once I got a ‘development deal’ with a major TV producer – it secured my membership in the Writer’s Guild and it looked like I might finally hit escape velocity. But the producer fired me … failed to ‘pick up’ my option, and few months later I was back sanding a floor, feeling like the poor sap in the Coast Guard brig who found he couldn’t swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco after all. Disgruntled workers even referred to Nantucket as “The Rock.” It seemed grimly appropriate.

One day in particular comes to mind. I was running the big ‘floor walker’ machines over an old floor, trying to strip many layers of paint. There were so many layers in fact that the nail heads in the floor boards were buried and invisible. I had to use 16-grit paper, which was almost impossible to wrap tightly around the sanding drum, and since it looked like sharp pebbles on fly-paper my fingers were soon scraped raw. So that was the routine: ten minutes to tighten the paper on the drum, start the machine then BA RAP-RAP-RAP-RAP-RAP as the drum hit one of those hidden nails and the paper shredded. Start again, rinse and repeat, all day long. I began to think I was being punished but I didn’t know for what. Hubris, perhaps. I had been pretty cocky in L.A. taking my meetings and making my phone calls, in the balmy days when ‘coverage’ meant a script report not the amount of paint you could roll on a wall.

But things changed. I started to get good at the job. I learned new skills. I learned them slowly, haltingly, through some trial but mostly just error … but I learned. I figured out how to brush those first strokes across the board and follow up with the grain so that the edges got painted; I learned how to load my brush enough to let the paint draw the straight line between the wall and the ceiling. And after working on a giant old house on the harbor with sixty windows – 120 sash, twelve-over-twelves, more than 1,300 panes of glass altogether, most of them cracked or broken – I figured out how to glaze windows. Anyone could learn how to do it after doing it 1300 times – even me.

Eventually I went out on my own into the scary world of finding customers and bidding jobs and paying crews while trying to keep my self from going broke. Bid too much nd you don’t get the job; bid too little and it ruins you. One kindly contractor refused my first bid, saying ‘This is way low. You’ll get halfway through the job, realize you’re losing money and either bail or start fucking up. Go home and figure out what it’s really going to cost.” So I did After a while I found I was working less and making more money, tackling interesting renovation jobs surrounded by friends I’d known for years. Knowing how to glaze windows came in handy.

Being my own boss was scary (“I have no work for winter!” and then three days and four phone calls later, “I have too much work for the winter!”) but there was something satisfying about taking a job from start to finish, beginning with a peeling old ruin and ending up with something beautiful. Last year, an acquaintance walked past exterior I had just finished on Main Street, and said “It’s a jewel box!’

Meanwhile my friend was struggling as the internet bubble burst and he had to admit, as he watched people getting laid off and fired all around him, that he really didn’t know what his job consisted of. Selling band width, modifying phone plan contracts, meeting with people to discuss modification of previously existing protocols … or something. He sat in a cubicle and pushed paper and crunched numbers and never saw the beginning or the end of any project or plan. My job was starting to look pretty good, by comparison. I gradually developed an amazing group of fascinating customers who loved their houses and were willing to spend a lot of money to make them nicer. Quite a few of them became my friends. All the people I worked with – the crazy plasterers and PhD candidate tile guys and poetry writing carpenters – had one thing in common. I would never had met them, never even crossed paths with them, if I had become the Hollywood hot-shot I had dreamed about. And that would have been a pity.

None of this meant I stopped writing. I got an MFA working at home with two ten day residencies every year, I wrote a memoir and five novels (I’m working the sixth right now) as well as hundreds of blog posts, all between the hours of five and seven in the morning. I also managed to raise two kids and start surfing again. One summer I surfed too much and almost lost some customers, but it was my choice, and I still smile when I think of the day I’d called the General Contractor to tell him I’d be staying home “catching up on my paperwork.” He saw me ten minutes later, driving to the beach in my wetsuit.

The writing comes in handy on the job, too. We have many foreign painters on the island now, from Eastern Europe and South America and most places in between. It’s the most diverse crowd of workers Nantucket has attracted since the whaling days. They work hard but often their English is rusty and their writing skills nonexistent. I wonder how some of them would have handled the customer whose roofs I power-washed this fall. It was tricky because I couldn’t work on the front roof that faces the street. It was just too dangerous. I broke the news to her when I gave her the bill. Here’s our e-mail exchange:

Subject: Re: Roofs
Were you able to clean the front roof at all? I don't quite understand why this was more challenging than the back side of the roof, which has the same pitch. Obviously, the front side is the most visible part of the entire roof, so the fact that this was the only surface not cleaned is quite disappointing. I understand that you took great pains to figure out how to get to it, but why is this different from any other house whose roof you've cleaned?

To which I replied, honestly feeling like the final payment might be at stake:

I wasn't going to go into the details but ...

Actually the front side is only really visible when you’re driving down the street .... but anyway ---

The roof's pitch was no the problem. Access and stability were the problem The roof is too long for the longest hook ladder to attach over the peak and extend down past the lower roof line. This means that access from below -- from the street, up another ladder -- requires actually climbing on the roof at an angle to get from one ladder to the other. This doesn't seem like such a circus feat until you're actually up there, dragging a power washer. I made the determination that it was too risky and looked to other tactics. Approaching the front from the back seemed good, there's a sort of 'staging area' up there, but there's this little hidden dormer, which makes setting ladder securely on that side of the roof impossible for about half of the length. You have to be able to get up that back-end rise with good footing in order to go over the peak and onto the hook ladder ... not ideal at the best best of times, but very treacherous when an obstacle prevents you from setting up the 'approach' ladder at the back of the roof. You have to remember, within minutes both sides of the roof are soaking wet and slick as glass.

Onto the next idea. A rope -- secured around the chimney. I bought the rope and the harness it would attach to. Ever try to get a leash-harness on your dog? This was like a Chinese puzzle by comparison, all random dangling straps. Still, I figured it out. What I had failed to figure out was that the rope, extending diagonally along the roof to either side, would drop me somewhere between the gutter and and bottom of the second story windows, if indeed the worst happened and it had to catch me at all. That leaves me dangling above the street trying to climb back and secure the power washer. I would leave that to a man with a healthier rotator cuff. I checked with several men younger and more daring than myself. The general consensus was "Get a cherry picker" People use them a lot now, I see them everywhere. Maybe in the Spring we could investigate the cost of that option.

I know you're disappointed. I am, too -- as well as frustrated, stymied and chagrined. Believe me, I was determined to do this -- and spent probably too much time trying to solve the problem. But I finally had to accept defeat -- this round, at least. When I had a question for Bruce Killen's carpenters in the old days, they used to shrug off my worries and say "We have the technology!" We have the technology here, too, to complete this part of this project safely and efficiently.

The pictures re attached.

In response I got the following, which made my day.

Thanks for the detailed explanation, and for your many attempts to make it work.

The photos look great. I'll have the balance mailed to you shortly.


I honestly think I’ll be paid on this job not just for doing the work, but for being able to tell the story of the work I didn’t do.

So here I am, twenty six years later, kids all grown, still painting, still writing, still climbing around on roofs, renovating old houses and actually enjoying myself. I’m independent, even if I do have to grovel and tap-dance from time to time. And I find that I enjoy improving things, even if it’s only old houses. They have personalities for me, above and beyond whatever I may think of their owners. I love them the way you might love a pet; I sometimes feel like I’m grooming an immense placid animal when I’m working on those gorgeous exteriors. I like melting away layer after layer of old coatings (lead, calcimite, oil and latex) to show some lovely detail that’s been smothered under all that paint for a generation. I like the camaraderie of sharing a late night bottle of wine as we finish the trim work ahead of the floor guys or the furniture movers.

As for my friend? The internet company he worked for folded and he’s scrambling now, looking for his own second career. Just as well.

I hope he finds something as unexpected and rewarding as I did.

Parenting for Beginners

When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we started reading the baby books.

The world seemed to be entirely populated with experts on child rearing, and the clamor of their contradictory advice left us stunned and bewildered. Breastfeeding was good; and bad. It should stop at six months, or continue through grade school. Children should sleep with their parents; and sharing a bed would warp them forever. Or actually it really didn’t matter either way. What mattered was when you began toilet training which should be as soon as possible, and put off as long as you could and every concept of timing in between. Cloth diapers were essential; disposal ones were the only way to go. The whole idea of diapers was constrictive and reactionary. Parents should be permissive and strict, corporal punishment was crucial and cruel. Dr. Spock said “Never hit a child in anger.” But the idea of doing it calmly, in accordance with some steely cold blooded disciplinary master plan felt really crazy to us.

Our pediatrician just shrugged. “Make it up as you go along,” he said. “That’s what everyone else does.”

Cold comfort: we had little faith in our deracinated modern ‘instincts’, and scant belief that we could make the right decision in the clutch.

But we did. I guess we did, we must have, if the kids are anything to judge by. They turned out great, and I say that with no preening parental pride. Our greatest accomplishment was not screwing them up. Somehow we managed that. But I’ve seen great young people emerge from abusive, neglectful or just insanely chaotic households, so what’s up with that? Maybe the whole idea of parenting properly is a kind of publishing scam, and nurture will always lose the “nature-nurture” debate. The kids blessed with good genes will prosper in any family, while the ones born weak or damaged will fail, despite the best efforts of the best-read and best intentioned Mom and Dad.

That being said, I think it’s worthwhile, taking a look at some of the ways in which we managed not to screw up our kids. It’s setting the bar low, but it will probably be no more confusing for new parents than the welter of contentious advice we struggled with back in the late summer and fall of 1983. I can’t say that our way is the only way to raise children, or even the best way. I only know it worked for us, and even on paper it seems to make sense. There’s a sort of simple minded logic to it, and simplicity is even better than logic when you have a screaming baby to deal with at midnight, and a job to wake up for the next morning.

I suppose you could say it boils down to ‘going with the flow’, and staying alert enough to understand what the flow is and which way it’s flowing. Breast feeding? The system is already in place. It works pretty well, why fight it? Toilet training? Kids let you know when they get interested in the potty. Help them stick with it, make them feel good about it. Kids want to grow up. Stay out of the way when you can and cheer them on. B.F. Skinner proved more than sixty years ago that praise works better than punishment. He trained pigeons to play ping-pong with what he called ‘operant conditioning’, a purely rewards-based system.

Which is not to advocate the creepy praise-for-everything culture I see around us now, with trophies that say “Participant”, and giddy applause for everything a child does. There are real challenges and real failures lurking out there. My Mom helped me with my French subjunctives; I edited my kids’ English papers. They learned the basics of good writing early. They even knew that ‘writing’ was a gerund in that last sentence. Teaching my son to read was an uphill struggle. He just wasn’t interested. The school said he was dumb, which I knew he wasn’t. They said he had ADD, which I knew he didn’t because he was perfectly capable of concentrating on stuff he was interested in, like the workings of my car. The first book he ever read through all the way by himself was the owner’s manual of my Ford Festiva. Giving it to him feels like inspiration looking back; it felt more like desperation at the time. But it worked. Next step: Robert B. Parker … and from it was a quick jump to Hunter B. Thompson and Robert A. Caro. One Christmas I gave him a subscription to Maxim magazine; the next Christmas all he wanted was a massive textbook for studying Arabic. And I wasn’t even surprised.

Caity knew that she wanted to help people as a life’s work when she was still in High School. That wasn’t my idea or her Mom’s, we didn’t artfully guide her toward a career in social work. We just watched. We watched as she took over the Peers Promoting Aids Awareness organization at the school; we watched as she cut and pasted an essay she’d written for the group into her early admission application to Wheelock; watched as she got in and did brilliantly and we watched as she graduated in the rain, four years later. Our part? Not being gratuitously discouraging or expecting her do something else like go to law school or marry some rich guy. All we had to do was attend every chorus concert and high school musical (She was a tree in the Wizard of OZ), keep her fed and well-rested, take a seat and watch.

So what about discipline? They must have acted not and gotten into trouble now and then. Of course they did. But we never spanked anyone or grounded anyone, or even yelled. It’s not necessary. We didn’t have many rules and the ones we did enforce – mostly concerning sanitation and courtesy – made sense even to an eight year old. And when things got out of hand the punishment didn’t just “fit the crime” it was a function of the crime, the logical extension of the crime. That is, if kids are fighting the car, I can’t drive the car. So the car stops. The fact that sitting in a stationary car is something close to a working definition of Hell for most kids was convenient propinquity. The first time they started screaming and crying in a restaurant, we just left … as dinner was being brought to the table. I had to pay for a meal we didn’t eat but the stunned looks on their faces (I had called their bluff… over food) told the whole story: we can’t eat in a restaurant with screaming children, so we don’t. We never had a problem eating out again.

When I was growing up parents were terrified of what my Mom called the ‘evil companion’ syndrome: their kids falling in with the “wrong crowd”, turning to promiscuity and drugs under the influence of some glamorous Svengali. My Mom never worried about that stuff; and when I became a parent, I didn’t either. She trusted her kids and so I trusted mine. I think that basic faith in the essential level-headed goodness of your children, is the ultimate secret to not screwing them up. If your son is secure and happy, he won’t plunge into some self-destructive spiral of drug addiction (though they may experiment with pot just like you did); if your daughter doesn’t have any ‘father issues’ she won’t fall victim to the predators that prey on girls who do. If you’re really there for your kids, giving them quantity time and not just ‘quality time’, they’ll know it. Between the ages of roughly eight and thirteen, I was my son’s primary companion and best friend (the kind of best friend who makes you brush your teeth and clean your room). He was socially isolated, with only one pal at school, but I wasn’t worried about him. He just was ahead of the curve; no one else got his jokes. But he knew he was funny because he kept me laughing, and he knew he was smart because I’d stay up until two in the morning with him (on a school night!) after a read-aloud session from 1984 that had been intended to lull him to sleep, discussing the theory and practice of oligarchical collectivism. Somewhere around the tenth grade, everyone else caught up and he was suddenly one of the most popular kids in school. I used the capital I’d accumulated in those years to push him about college. I was relentless and he was reluctant. Finally he worked with me for a year, humping ladders and pushing paint. That convinced him, even though he had to struggle through a stint at community college before he could begin at UMass.

Now he’s in DC doing fund raising for Democratic candidates; Caity is in Boston working with HIV positive homeless people, and I’m still watching them, wondering what we did right. And the memory pops up: teaching Caity to ride her bike. The rules were the same: keep up, but run behind them, hands off, but ready to steady them if they start to fall, offer sensible encouragement and then take one quick breath when they ride that bike around the corner, out of sight and gone.

The baby books didn’t tell me that. I wish they had. Learning it myself took twenty years.

My Paul Simon Collection

Much as I admire Paul Simon, I’m sick to death of his Greatest Hits collections. They’re relentless. Only the Mamas and the Papas (It seemed like they had one album and dozens of Greatest Hits albums) impose on our admiration and exploit our ‘completionist’ fan- boy hoarding pathologies with such mercenary gusto. An upcoming boxed ‘collectors’ edition of Graceland, four concert records, a three disc career retrospective box set, and at least three other greatest hits discs, so far … or should I say four of them, since yet another one is going to be released on October 24th.

The worst part of this retread parade is their redundancy. Many of the same songs appear on every collection, from one-of-a-kind masterpieces like Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes to forgettable misfires like Darling Lorraine (off the largely forgettable You’re the One album), for which Simon holds a stubborn affection. Apart from feeling vaguely ripped off buying the same set of songs for the third or fourth or fifth time (not counting all the changing formats – from vinyl and eight-track to cassette to CD to digital download), the worst part of the ritual is that it creates the inexcusable illusion that Simon really hasn’t written that many songs worth anthologizing. Even a recent tribute concert, which began with high-flown speeches praising 40 years of consistent songwriting pretty much ignored everything he’s done since 1986.

But I’m not here just to complain. Whenever I attend a Paul Simon concert it occurs to me that he could have done a completely different set of songs with no loss of quality. The same is true for these endless re-packaging efforts. So, on the eve of the latest redundant reissue (This one is called Songwriter) I’ve decided to offer my DIY compilation. Fifteen minutes on iTunes and you can turn my list into the most unusual and worthwhile anthology of them all. I’ve chosen songs that Paul Simon never sings in concert, songs that have never appeared on any “hits” or ”best of” album, or retrospective. But they’re just as good or better than most of the songs you hear over and over again, in concert after concert , record after record.

Here’s the play list of the new compilation:

Paul Simon - Songwriter
Disc 1
1. The Sound Of Silence (Live at Webster Hall 2011) - new unreleased
2. The Boxer - Paul Simon - Live Central Park
3. Bridge Over Troubled Water - Aretha Franklin - studio version
4. Mother And Child Reunion
5. Tenderness
6. Peace Like A River
7. American Tune
8. Kodachrome
9. Something So Right
10. Late In The Evening
11. Train In The Distance
12. Hearts And Bones
13. Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War
14.Still Crazy After All These Years
15. Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes
16. The Boy In The Bubble
17. Graceland
Disc 2
1. Obvious Child
2. Further To Fly
3. The Cool, Cool River
4. Spirit Voices
5. Born In Puerto Rico
6. Quality
7. Darling Lorraine
8. Look At That
9. Senorita With A Necklace Of Tears
10. That's Me
11. Another Galaxy
12. Father And Daughter
13. Rewrite
14. Love And Hard Times
15. So Beautiful Or So What

And here’s my playlist, with notes

Disc 1

Bleecker Street,

A haunting early ballad, with that young Paul Simon combination of sublime melody, lovely acoustic guitar playing, elegant harmonies … and stunningly pretentious lyrics. Hey, he was twenty. Read your own diaries (or poems) from that era of your own life. Even so, some of the lines work: ‘Voices leaking from a sad cafĂ©/smiling faces try to understand/I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand/ On Bleecker Street”

Song for the Asking

This modest offering from the Bridge Over Troubled Water album, is at least as tuneful as The Only Living Boy in New York ,say (that favorite of car advertisers and indie film-makers), or the title tune, which has been ubiquitous for more than four decades. The deft interior rhyme shows a lyric writer growing up: “This is my song for the asking/Ask me and I will play/So sweetly I’ll make you smile.”

At The Zoo

From the same Multi-platinun Simon and Garfunkel swan song record, this ditty was originally composed for The Graduate. Like much of the music Simon wrote for that film, Mike Nichols rejected it. He was shooting on location at the San Francisco zoo. Lyrics like “It’s a light and tumble journey from the east side to the Park” seemed perversely uncooperative. Paul does annoy people. But the song is lilting and lovely. And charming in its fanciful thumbnail portraits of the animals:” The monkeys stand for honesty/Giraffes are insincere/And the elephants are kindly but they're dumb./Orangutans are skeptical/Of changes in their cages … Zebras are reactionaries,Antelopes are missionaries/Pigeons plot in secrecy/And hamsters turn on frequently…”

Everything Put Together Falls Apart

This tune from the self-titled solo album that appeared in the wake of the big Simon and Garfunkel meltdown, is another secret masterpiece. After the lush orchestrations forced on him by his partner and his record producer (“I’ve been Roy Hallee-d and Art Garfunkled,”as he wrote in his Sullen Desultory Philippic, a few years before), this collection of songs was much simpler, with a live feel. And you can see the lyrics maturing: “Taking downs/To get off to sleep/and ups to start you on your way/After a while/They’ll change your style/I see it happening every day.”


This song, a bittersweet meditation on divorce, closes out the album with a mournful electric piano solo. The bridge warns us: “Love is not game/love is not a toy/Love’s no romance/Love will do you in/ Love will knock you out/ And needless to say/You won’t stand a chance, you won’t stand a chance.” It ends with this plaintive question most of us are still asking: “I’m hungry for Learning/Won’t you answer me please/Can a man and a woman/ Live together in peace?”

Learn How to Fall

Another lost classic, this one on the superlative There Goes Rhymin’ Simon album, from 1974. Who else would spin a dry meteorologist’s phrase like “prevailing winds” into a line like this :”You’ve got to drift in the breeze, before you set your sails/It’s an occupation where the win prevails.” Simon’s hard-working word-play always has a serious point to make.

St. Judy’s Comet

This is the famously ineffective lullaby that never got Harper Simon to sleep. “I sang it once, I sang it twice/I’m gonna sing it three time more/Gonna sing till your resistance is overcome/Cause if I can’t sing my boy to sleep/it makes your famous daddy look so dumb. Look so dumb.” I don’t know … it worked for my kids, I don’t even sing that well.


Backed by The Dixie Humming Birds, its plaintive “You say you care for me/But there’s no tenderness/beneath your honesty” strikes an unusual note in the cool, detached cannon of Simon tunes, where emotion is generally approached sideways. They say Simon fired the whole Capeman orchestra because they weren’t ‘musical enough’ I’m sure he had no such problems with his gospel back-up singers here. The doo-wop harmonies are gorgeous.

My Little Town

This dark little tale, which either concerns a mass murderer or (more likely) someone who just fantasizes about it, was written both as a duet for Simon and Garfunkel and, since it was going to appear on both of their solo albums, a bitter tonic for the chronic sweetness of his erstwhile partner’s solo work. With harsh lyrics inspired by British poet Ted Hughes (“And after it rains/there’s a rainbow/ and all of the colors are black/it’s not that the colors aren’t there/it’s just imagination they lack”), Simon soon comes to the ambivalent but alarming point “In my little town/I never meant nothing, I was just my father’s son/saving my money, dreaming of glory/ twitching like a finger on the trigger of a gun/leaving nothing but the dead and the dying/back in my little town.” With its haunting one-finger piano intro and another dose of the finely-wrought harmonies his fans had been missing, this song is a keeper.

Some Folk’s Lives Roll Easy

This rueful tune’s obscurity can be explained by its complicated melody – nothing you’d sing in the shower; and its downbeat message. Yet it is redeemed (like many Simon songs, notably The Cool Cool River on the official CD) by the bridge, which firms into a much more sing-able tune and one of Simon’s better lyrics, full of self aware, ironic desperation: “Here I am Lord/I’m knocking at your place of business/And I know I aint got no business here/But you said if I ever got so low I was busted/ You could be trusted.”


Simon’s One Trick Pony album never got the success or the praise it deserved, possibly because there was a fair amount of filler on the record (Long, Long Day, God Bless the Absentee), and possibly because(Like The Capeman) it came yoked to another project in another field. The movie One Trick Pony had quite a few problems, but the primary one was asking the audience to accept Paul Simon’s character as a washed-up loser. There was an off-putting reverse vanity about that idea, exacerbated by the fact that Simon wasn’t a particularly good actor. Still, most of the songs were good and deserve a chance to be heard. This tune combines the chilly oblique side of the artist (“The boy has a voice but his voice is his natural disguise/Yeah the boy has a voice but his words don’t connect to his eyes”) with a more frank and open confessional voice: “Oh Marion, I should have believed you when I heard you saying it/the only time love is an easy game/ is when two other people are playing it.” The mental dissonance makes for a memorable song.

Ace in the Hole

The obscurity of this cut remains a mystery. It’s an up-tempo rocker with a lovely bridge. Maybe the slighting reference to Jesus (“Some people say Jesus is their ace in the hole/I’ve never met the man so I don’t really know”) put people off. Or the reference to cocaine (”Two hundred dollars is the price on the street”).

Too bad because it has some of Simon’s most beautiful writing, with lines like “In the hour when the heart is weakest/And memory is strong.” From the bus-riding middle-eight.


This final orphan from the 1980 film sound track is a mournful little tune, celebrating a loved one and subtly invoking the end of the relationship: “Who knows my secret broken bone/Who feels my flesh when I am gone/Who was a witness to the dream/Who kissed my eyes and saw the scream/Lying there/
Nobody/.” Later he adds “Nobody but you,” yet it feels like an elegiac afterthought. Not a rouser, not a toe-tapper; it’s a dirge, really. But a haunting one

Think Too Much (a & b)

These were going to be the title tracks of a Simon and Garfunkel ‘come back’ album, in 1983, with the sly joke hardwired into the name: “Simon and Garfunkel think too much.” Well, at least one of them does. And his thinking around that time was that his erstwhile partner was a resentful lazy arrogant diva who couldn’t be bothered to write his own harmony parts or even show up for rehearsals. So Simon fired Garfunkel, stripped his vocals off all the tracks, and Think Too Much became Hearts and Bones and promptly tanked with a million disappointed fans. Too bad because it was good record and could have been a hit. All Simon ever trots out for the re-packagers are the new title track -- and Train in the Distance, admittedly one of the greats. But the old title track has a lot to be said for it. The fact that Simon wrote two songs about thinking too much is a wry commentary on the process, and the songs chastise the over-worked ‘left side of the brain’. He asks at one point “Have you ever experienced a period of grace/When your brain just takes a seat behind your face?” and concludes with a vision of his departed father holding Paul to his chest, saying “There’s not much more that you can do/Go on and get some rest.”

Song About the Moon

I love this abstract ditty about making art (Yes, he does think too much, deal with it). His consultation moves from the wittily oblique “If you want to write a song about the moon/walk along the craters of the afternoon” to the bizarrely prescriptive “Wash your hands in dreams and lighting/Cut off your hair and whatever is frightening”, finally coming down to earth, saying “If you want to write a song about a face/ Think bout a photograph/That you really can’t remember but you can’t erase.” In the end he’s bluntly exasperated: “If you want to write a song about face/If you want to write a song about the human race/ Then do it/Write a song about the moon.” . There are fifty ways to leave your lover or write a song and it all comes down to one: just do it. Tough medicine, with a shuffle beat.

Disk Two


Graceland was such a tremendous achievement that it has become a generic term – at least among my friends. It means, the best work. Atonement was Ian McEwan’s Graceland; West Side Story was Leonard Bernstein’s; Guernica was Picasso’s. Think of an artist – you’ll figure out their Graceland instantly. Tom Wolfe? Bonfire of the Vanities. Dylan Thomas? Fern Hill. Arthur Miller? Death of a Salesman. There are no bad songs on Graceland, which makes it all the more frustrating the same three or four tunes get continuously recycled, leaving others to languish. Gumboots started as a track by the South African group, Boyoyo Boys, the title song of a bootleg CD that Simon was playing in his car during the career low-point after Hearts and Bones. It’s really where the Graceland album started: long drives where the defeated artist floated his own tune and lyrics over the propulsive South African beats, purely for his own pleasure. You can feel the improvisational lilt in the words: “I was walking down the street when I thought I heard a voice say/”Hey, aint we walking down the same street together on the same day?”/ I said, “Hey Senorita that’s astute/Why don’ we get together and call ourselves and institute?”

I Know What I Know

Another instant classic relegated to the B-side of some forgotten single. The jangling guitar and drum track set up another dose of ironic urban lyrics – the piquant cross-cultural dissonance that irked people most about the album when it first came out. “She moved so easily I could think of was sunlight/ I said ‘Aren’t you the woman who was recently given a Fulbright?’” People who railed on about Simon’s “exploiting” the Soweto musicians he worked with never talked to any of them. He gave them an international audience, full credit on the record … and some of the first (and certainly the biggest) pay checks of their lives, when the royalties started coming in. Joseph Shabalala put it best: “Everybody loves Paul Simon.”

All Around the World, or the myth of Fingerprints

This is the final song on the record, an upbeat rave that indirectly answers the critics of Graceland’s global music experiment: “He said there’s no doubt about it/It was the myth of fingerprints/I’ve seen them all and man they’re all the same.”


The Rhythm of the Saints also holds a ‘generic term’ status for me: the iconic second best effort. If Catch-22 was Joseph Heller’s Graceland, the Something Happened was his Rhythm of the Saints. Schindler’s List was Spielberg’s Graceland; Saving Private Ryan was his Rhythm of the Saints. Pat Conroy? The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. T.S Eliot? Prufrock and Four Quartets. Arthur Miller? Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. It goes on and on. Pick an artist you like; you’ll see the pattern emerge. Even with Tolstoy! Though opinions differ and I think he’d be irked to know that War and Peace is his Rhythm of the Saints. Anyway … Proof is a great song, cannibalized in later (lesser) efforts, like Darling Lorraine. Check out the original.

The Coast

This is arguably the greatest song on a fine record, a cryptic masterpiece whose melodies and harmonies stay with you like the smell of old summer houses or your mother’s handwriting on a forgotten envelope. It’s about music and art and the life of the artist, and the death of the planet and love and loss and pretty much everything else you can think of. Another sublime omission.

She Moves On

This song has won some later renown through Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking; it was written about her and her short-lived marriage to Paul Simon. She’s funny about it; and him. But the song transcends its gossipy roots, with its intricate drum figures and troubling minor-key variations. It’s actually kind of a difficult piece, and no kind of hit (greatest or otherwise); but well worth the effort.

Trailways Bus

Almost ten years passed between Rhythm of the Saints and The Capeman. Once again, Simon got involved in an extra-curricular project – in this case a Broadway show about a Puerto Rican gang member convicted of murder in 1950s New York. He wrote the lyrics with poet Derek Walcott, which was probably a mistake. But the music is all Paul Simon – unlike Graceland—and its mixture of salsa and doo-wop is unique and wonderful. The show flopped for a lot of reasons. I actually got a bootleg of the whole cast album, and most what Simon left off the official record sounded like filler to me; sorry. Simon tried to tell the whole story in songs, which is fine for an oratorio – but he left no space for a libretto, and nothing for actors to do. So it felt stilted and dull on stage. It was recently revived, both at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and (later) at the Delacorte. Both times it was treated as a play for voices, a song cycle … and it did quite well. Even the sternly exigent Ben Brantley at The New York Times had to admit the piece worked when performed in on the shore of Belvedere Pond.

Lines like “When the leaves are dark/I have a hiding place in Central Park” (From Bernadette, see below) must have seemed magical in that setting. Trailways Bus harks back to the lovely bridge of Ace in the Hole (“Riding on this rolling bus/ Beneath the stony sky”) and even further back, to the great American Tune. Buses inspire Simon and this road story of an ex-convict’s long ride west to meet his prison pen pal, takes an angry – and timely -- turn when the bus is rousted by immigration officials. It’s a mournful ballad, but the gentle pulse of the acoustic guitar seems to be driving the wheels and the poignant snapshots of life on the road make this forgotten episode in a lost man’s life stirringly vivid. It’s a keeper.


This single was the first thing I heard from The Capeman, and it gave me hope. This is a love song in Salvatore Agron’s voice, before all the murder and the jail time. It’s innocent, buoyant, beautiful. “Though my words may be jumbled/I’m telling you just how it feels.” The song if full of hope and the hope is laced with bitter irony. But the dark edges keep it memorable.

The Vampires

This brooding song from The Capeman, with its harsh lyrics and its pounding latino beat, sets the mood for the rest of the play. The concussive piano seems to exult in the mean streak of this “spic you scrubbed off the sidewalk”, as Agron refers to himself in the stunning album highlight, Adios Hermanos -- occasionally re-packaged, and thus disqualified from our list.

The gang leader sings the song to Sal. Here he is talking about their hideout:

This is the cave of The Vampires,/Count Dracula's castle,/The very sight could turn a white man grey./Made in the shade, use my umbrella/Black like the night we fly in./That blade is all you need to keep the dogs away.”

The recurrent themes: “We stand for the neighborhood” and more to the point: “If you got the balls, then come on mete mano.” Draw the battle lines clearly. This song is a dangerous object; it feels like a switchblade in your hand. It also boasts one of my all-time favorite lyrics, describing a big Irish gang-member coming out into the street to defend his mother: “Then along comes the son/He looks like a ton/of corned beef floating in beer.”

That’s Where I Belong

There wasn’t a lot to get excited about in Paul Simon’s 2000 album You’re the One. It seemed to be mostly filler, but a few songs stand out and That’s Where I Belong is the best of them. It’s one of those rock n roll declarations, music about making music, and it has a noble ancestry, dating back to Chuck Berry’s Rock and Roll Music though Juluka’s “Mquanga Man” and even Billy Joel’s Baby Grand. The first lines say it all: “Somewhere, in a burst of glory/sound becomes a song/I’m bound to tell a story/That’s where I belong.” Aint it the truth, Paul. Aint it the truth.


This song pounds out a repeated riff, one of Simon’s favorite rave-up techniques, and it goes back through his musical roots to kickstart his auto- biography in a couple of lines:

The first time I heard “Peggy Sue”/I was twelve years old/Russians up in rocket ships/And the war was cold/Now many wars have come and gone/Buddy Holly still goes on/but his catalog was sold.” The song segues into the metaphysical soon after that, but it never loses its sense of humor.

Everything About it is a Love Song

Surprise, released in 2005, began a resurgence that continues through the present day, with Simon’s new record, So Beautiful or So What. A unique collaboration with long-time David Byrne cohort Brian Eno, the album, though not perfect, marked a radical improvement from You’re The One. The only two songs that from this fascinating album that Simon seems willing to repackage are Father and Daughter, a sentimental trifle; and Wartime Prayers, an uneven effort that rises to a kind of lush majesty in its stirring bridge section, before dwindling back to lifeless somnolence as it dwindles to its conclusion. Too bad – there’s part of a great song there. By contrast, Everything About it is a Love Song is a fully realized minor masterpiece.

I can’t play you the tune, but listen to these lyrics: “Early December, and brown as a sparrow/Frost creeping over the pond/I shoot a thought into the future, and it flies like an arrow/Through my lifetime, and beyond/If I ever come back as a tree, or a crow/Or even the windblown dust/Find me on the ancient road/In the song when the wires are hushed/Hurry on and remember me, as I’ll remember you/Far above the golden clouds, the darkness vibrates/
The earth is blue/And everything about it is a love song.”


Paul Simon once remarked that he was always surprised by which songs became hits. That always struck me as disingenuous – hello, it’s the up-tempo ones, Paul. That’s why Graceland was your biggest seller: it’s all up-tempo songs. By the dame token, it seemed to me that Outrageous was the obvious hit from the Surprise album. But it tackles the subject of ageing, and with its repeated question ‘Who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?” it might have put people off. The song fits into a long tradition in Simon’s song writing – the self amused rant – that stretches back as far as A Sullen Desultory Phillipic from the Simon and Garfunkel days, and Have a Good Time, from Still Crazy After All These Years. It’s sprightly fun, with faint overlay of easy-going religiosity, and it deserves a wider audience.

Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean

This is one of my favorite Paul Simon songs ever, alternating sweet melodic lines with a pulsing machine-like Brian Eno electronic beat that snaps you to attention. It tells the story of a man staring his life over, but ultimately being unable to escape his past. A whole novel boiled down to three verses and a clear thematic bridge: “Once upon a time there was an ocean/Now there’s a mountain range/Something unstoppable set into motion/Nothing is different but everything has changed.” This is a song you’ll listen to occasionally – forever.

Dazzling Blue

This is my favorite song from the new record, and I was happy to hear him perform it in concert this spring. It’s a straight-ahead love story, with second act reverse (Miles apart/Though the miles can’t measure distance/Worlds apart/On a rainy afternoon”). The song is autobiographical, a bouquet for his wife, and the final verse is a knockout, going all the way back to their beginning: “Sweet July/And we drove the Montauk highway/and walked along the cliffs above the sea/And we wondered why, and imagined it was someday/And that is how the future came to be.”

The music feels a little like Graceland, with an African spark in the track, and it sticks with you. I find myself singing it at odd times – driving, or thirty-five feet up a ladder on a windy day – just because the music feels so good.

The Afterlife

Finally, the song about what happens after you die. Turns out, you fill out a form and wait on line, just like life -- and the DMV. The irrepressible shuffle beat pulls you toward the final revelation in this dream, and it turns out to be – no surprise -- the ultimate celebration of rock and roll: “When you climb the ladder of time/And the Lord God is near/Face to face in the vastness of space/And your words disappear/And you feel like you’re swimming in an ocean of love, and current strong/But all that remains when you try to explain is fragment of song/ Lord, is it Be Bop a Lula? Or ooh Papa Doo?” Maybe Paul McCartney had glimpsed god when he woke up with the tune of Yesterday in his head. I can believe it.

Well, that’s the record, and just a few days late for Paul’s 70th birthday. It’s no better than the one they’re releasing on October 24th, but it’s a little more interesting and a lot more fun.

Download it and see for yourself.

We're the Punchline: The Real Meaning of a Joke

When I first heard the joke ,years ago, I thought the subtext was something about American ingenuity, and the good natured P.T. Barnum con-men who gave America its lively carnival atmosphere – greed tempered with mischief and a devilish wink of the eye.

Now I know better.

Here’s the joke:

A man walks into a bar. He says to the bartender. I’ll bet you fifty dollars I can bite my own eye. Well, the bartender knows that’s impossible -- an easy fifty bucks. He puts the money on the bar and the man takes out his glass eye, bites it and puts it back. Then he says: I’ll bet you a hundred bucks I can bite my other eye. Well, no one has two glass eyes. Hoping to cancel his losses and double his original bet, the bartender slaps the money down. The man takes out his false teeth and bites his other eye. The bartender is furious. But the man offers him one last bet. “I’ll wager five hundred dollars that I can slide this shot glass all the way along the countertop here, and run beside it, pissing into it – and not get one drop on your bar!” Easy money: that IS impossible. So the man strips down and slides the glass and takes off. He pisses all over the bar. The bartender can’t help himself, he lets out a whoop of victory. But the man at the other end of the bar isn’t so happy. “God damn it!” he snarls. “What’s the matter, buddy?” the bartender asks. “What’s the matter?! This guy just bet me a thousand dollars that he could piss all over your bar and you’d be happy about it!”

Now I finally understand this joke. It isn’t about the good natured prankster and the rubes tricked out of the big tent by the words THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS, thinking it was some new kind of bird.

No this joke is in fact the story of American capitalism today. Set it to music and it could be the marching song of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The con-man is a prototype of all the hedge-fund swindlers and Ponzi schemers, the dot com dodgers and credit default swap dealers.

The bartender is you and me, average Americans betting on common sense, expecting reasonable outcomes, and perhaps also the tea-party dupe, cheering on as his business is vandalized.

The guy the other end of the bar is the investor, the bubble-dude, the my-house-is-an ATM sucker, betting on a ‘sure thing’, always outsmarted by the Madoff mandarins of wall street. It’s a good laugh.

But the joke is on us.

"The Phantom Tollbooth" at 50

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (with illustrations by Jules Feiffer). In honor of that milestone, Random House has put out a new edition, complete with essays by various notable fans on what the book meant to them, growing up. I was not asked to participate. Nether were a lot of other admirers of around my age, so perhaps I speak for some of them when I try to explain why I love this book so much.

I tried to tell the author – he was teaching architecture at Hampshire College in 1973, when I was attending the school. I hunted him down in his office at the Cole Science Center like a spaniel splashing after a downed greenhead duck. By that time the professor was tired of the hunt, though. He informed me in a cantankerous growl that he absolutely no desire to talk about ‘that book’ to anyone, ever again.

Too bad. I had a lot to say.

The book tells the story of a bored little boy named Milo:

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be back in. On the way he thought about coming home,and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered … “It seems to me that almost everything is a waste of time,” he remarked one day as he walked dejectedly home from school. “I can’t see the point of learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is, or how to spell February.” And since no one bothered to explain otherwise, he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.

One day, Milo comes home to find an easily assembled toll booth and a working toy car sitting in his bedroom. With nothing better to do, he puts the toll booth together and drives through it … into ‘the lands beyond’, otherwise known as The Kingdom of Knowledge, a fabulous principality set up in every particular to refute and banish his boredom and indifference to the world around him. He winds up on a quest to save the twin Princesses Rhyme and reason from their captivity in the Mountains of ignorance, with a motley crew of friends and comrades in arms, including the “watch dog”, Tock, whose body is mostly composed of a loudly ticking antique watch, and a large impeccably dressed roach named the Humbug, who at one point, swims several miles in the Sea of Knowledge without getting wet.

I was nine when the book came out and I didn’t get a lot of this. I just like the adventure -- the Kingdom of words (Dictionopolis) and the Kingdom of numbers, (Digitopolis), the scary monsters in the mountains, the happy ending, the glorious scratchy drawings.

But I read the book again when I was twelve, and suddenly got some of the jokes. The ruler of Dictionopolis is King Azaz, the Unabridged; the foods at the feast include rigamaroles, ragamuffins, synonym buns, half-baked ideas…and of course just desserts. The royal vehicle “goes without saying” – that is, it only moves when everyone riding in is silent. In later readings I figured out that the fat dwarf policeman “Short Shrift” was another pun, that the flight across the water to the isle of conclusions was a jump, and it happened whenever you made an assumption based on too little information. The Point of View was not just as scenic overlook – it was a house where the fat man, the thin man the giant and the midget all lived together. Of course they were all the same average-sized man. To a giant, he seemed like a midget, to a fat man he seemed thin …

Each time I read the book – at thirteen, and fifteen, and nineteen – I got more of its sly jokes. I could almost chart my maturing sense of humor and my larger sense of the world around me by the layers of Juster’s story that opened up for me on subsequent readings. And the creatures in the mountains of ignorance, from the wordsnatcher (who takes the words right out of your mouth) to the terrible Trivium, the demon of petty tasks, to the Senses Taker who robs you not just of your senses of smell and taste but also your sense of purpose, proportion and duty, hut can’t steal your sense of humor, all meant much more to be as I got older.

And the final secret of Milo’s quest, the one thing that neither King would share with him, meant the most to me as I launched myself into a tentative adulthood.

The quest was impossible.

They knew that if Milo understood that grim fact, he would give up instantly. So they never told him, and he didn’t give up and he wound up accomplishing the impossible.

That’s a lesson I still hold on to. Things haven’t gotten any easier since I first read The Phantom Tollbooth. But the book’s wit and charm and effervescent optimism always make them a little easier to bear. That’s what I wanted to say to Norton Juster, all those years ago, in his office at Hampshire College. I’d still like to tell him. But the internet is a strange and unpredictable thing. You never know who's reading this stuff. Maybe I just did tell him, after all.

I sure hope so.