Sneaked or Snuck

The TV newsreader said that the burglars snuck into the building after midnight. I thought how my grade school teacher Miss Dahlberg hated snuck. It was not as high on her antipathy list as ain’t, but it was close. Snuck, she preached, was slang.  All who used it betrayed their lack of education. It was uncouth; inelegant. “Sneaked, sneaked, sneaked,” she exhorted.

But in all circles that I encounter today, spoken and written, it is largely snuck. A dictionary’s note says that snuck is now used by people of all educational levels, and while snuck may once have been regarded as “nonstandard, . . . it can no longer be regarded so.”

Language changes. Even so, I try, perhaps in deference to that teacher to say sneaked.  But why? I actually find it mildly difficult to enunciate. My tongue has to do a dance between the “k” and “d” that I think makes my pronunciation odd. Snuck is easier to say, and since both the meaning of snuck and sneaked is clear, how can the use of either be sneered at?

Why stick to the traditional grammatical rules if the meaning is clear? Does it really matter if we say: “He is different from a pedant” or “He is different than a pedant”?

Language, however, does not always change to remove artificial distinctions. It adds newly needed words and definitions. Many of the common words we use when discussing computers, for example, did not exist a century ago. Of course, these are necessary words, and the lexicon should increase. But the definitions for existing words also change even when there is no apparent need for the change, and oft times the new meanings do not bring greater clarity. Sometimes they only create redundancies or even contradictions.

So, for example, precipitate means to bring about suddenly. (I think of those high school chemistry experiments where the beaker was filled with a liquid holding something in suspension. A chemical was added and almost instantly solid particles floated to the bottom.  The precipitate appeared precipitately.)  Precipitous referred to a precipice and meant something extremely steep, but over time precipitous got confused with precipitate, and now precipitous not only refers to steepness, it also means precipitate. This new definition for precipitous added nothing useful to the language, but nothing seems lost from the language by it. And my guess is that the context almost always makes clear which definition of precipitous is meant.

Sometimes, however, a definition is added to a word that is inconsistent with an existing definition. Presently once meant only “in the near future, soon.” Presently now, however, means “now.” These definitions are inconsistent. What is soon is not now, but the two usages are hard to confuse because the tenses that accompany the word make clear presently’s meaning. “He will be here presently” can’t mean now. “He is presently here” can’t mean soon. (Although presently can and should be dropped from that second sentence because the sentence’s meaning stays the same without it.)

But sometimes a new meaning gets added to a word that can cause confusion. Verbal once only meant “consisting of words.” Verbal now also means spoken and not written. A written statement is thus simultaneously not verbal and verbal. Most often the intended meaning is no doubt gleaned from the context, but verbal meaning oral adds nothing to the language and sometimes does cause confusion. Not every added definition is an advance or harmless. A valuable linguistic distinction has been lost now that verbal also means oral.

Do you have new definitions of old words that you would like to see disappear?


I am pleased to see that Anthony Scaramucci is back in the news but not because I care about his views of President Trump. Instead, as during his eleven days as White House communications director, I hope that his prominence will  bring cult showings of the movie “Scaramouche” starring Stewart Granger, and this will bring a revival of the author Rafael Sabatini, who, of course, wrote the marvelous book Scaramouche as well as the equally delightful Captain Blood, and this will lead to cult double features of Granger’s “Scaramouche” and Errol Flynn’s “Captain Blood,” and all this would lead to a revival of Baroness Orczy and her novel The Scarlet Pimpernel, and this would lead to cult showings of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” starring Leslie Howard. Right now, we seem to need some swashbuckling heroes.

In the old days, including during my career in criminal defense, when a person informed the police about (i.e., ratted on) another, it was said that the informant had “dropped a dime” on the other one. No one calls a cop on a pay phone with a dime any more. So today, what is the informant doing?

The blonde server told us she was from Siberia. She elaborated. From western Siberia, from Siberia near Kazakhstan. She said, “From the nice part of Siberia.” Who knew?

As I walked to the subway, I heard a street person in a doorway say to no one in particular, “Did you see that old couple who just walked by?  They did it.”

My friend worked for Nokia. She liked the work except for the trips to the headquarters in Finland, even though it amused her that Helsinki was the only place where she saw women with blonde roots.

I got to the escalator at a local Target. A man carrying more stuff than I offered to let me go first, but I insisted that he proceed. When I got to the escalator with him in front, I realized that the escalator was not working. I said to him, “But I expected you to get it to work.” He immediately replied, “That’s just what my wife says.”

As I passed a group of toddlers after some rain, I heard the teacher calmly state, “It is your choice whether you walk in any puddles.  But first think about whether that is a good choice.”

If the Gospels are divinely inspired, why did He inspire four different people who wrote four different accounts inconsistent with each other? Wouldn’t it have been better to have one comprehensive narrative so that those without faith would have less to pick at?

A Sunday School teacher once said to me, “There are three main religions in this country: Christians, Jews, and Catholics.”

“I believe in children praying—well, women, too, but I rather think God expects men to be more self-reliant.” Joseph Conrad, Victory.

The Transylvania/Mormon Question

The university/museum boat trip down the Danube from Vienna to the Black Sea was not as satisfying as I had hoped. The lectures were not very informative and the stops in various cities were too brief to feel that I had even begun to see a place. Even so, I did get the sense that, although these countries may be neighbors and share much, they differ in essential ways. In one, for example, there was a strong security presence—armed men with automatic weapons outside the museums and in formation in the squares—while in another only one or two cops were spotted. In one country, mule-drawn carts were prevalent, while in others I saw only motorized vehicles.

I did learn yet again of deficiencies in my knowledge. Some were rather trivial. I failed the Budapest guide’s question, “What is the second largest Hungarian city in the world?” His answer: Cleveland, Ohio. (Perhaps there was a time that Cleveland held that distinction, but I doubt it does now.)

Some other knowledge gaps were less trivial. I knew that World War I was vital to understanding today’s world, but I did not fully grasp how much that war’s aftermath continues to affect Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, especially the Middle East). This was driven home when I learned that the same days were simultaneously a period of mourning in Hungary while a period of celebration in Romania. This stems from the Treaty of Trianon. Okay, maybe you know more than I do, but I had never heard of the Treaty of Trianon, which helped to end World War I. I thought that the Treaty of Versailles had done that, but the Versailles Treaty did not stand alone. The Treaty of Trianon (it is some consolation to my bruised ego that this treaty was signed in Versailles at the Grand Trianon Palace) was negotiated in 1920 between the Allies and the Kingdom of Hungary. Austria-Hungary had fought with Germany and was dissolved into separate states after World War I. The Treaty of Trianon demarcated Hungary’s borders, which are nearly the same today.

The treaty proclaimed that all of Transylvania, including the part that had been in Austria-Hungary, was now Romanian, even though about a third of Transylvania’s population was ethnic Hungarian. Thus, the anniversary of that treaty is met with mourning in Hungary and celebration in Romania. It may be nearly a century later, but the memories are still firmly in place.

While I did not know enough to get all the history, sociology, or demography I might have out of the trip, I did pick up a useful social tip: Make an effort, if the opportunity exists, to befriend any Mormons on your trip. Talk with them; hang out with them; eat with them. This is partly because all the Mormons I have met have been bright, charming, engaging, entertaining folk, but also for another reason: They don’t drink. On trips like this Danube cruise, many meals are included in the tour price, and sometimes wine comes with the dinner. If so, a bottle or carafe or two may be placed on the tables. (I am not the kind of traveler whose tours have been so exclusive that the group is small enough that all can be placed at one dinner table; instead, there have been a number of tables with the travelers free to go to any place setting.) Stay with your new Mormon friends. We did, and there was more wine and vodka some of the time for us.

Now you might think you don’t have to find a Mormon; you can find any teetotalers. I warn you, however, avoid the teetotaling non-Mormon Christian groups. (If you want to see an interesting reaction, ask Mormons whether they are Christian.) In my experience, the teetotaling Baptists, for example, are quite different from the teetotaling Mormons. (I was raised in such a Baptist church. Take the Bible literally, I heard preached. I also heard that when the Bible said “wine,” it really meant “Concord grape juice.” I had some trouble with the inconsistency.) Those Baptists don’t just abstain, they think all should shun alcohol, the devil’s brew. (Thus, prohibition.) This view does not make for a good dinner companion when you are reaching for your third glass of pinot. The Mormons, however, seem to hold the attitude that while they will not drink alcohol (or coffee), they will not pass judgment on those who do. Thus, they are good dining partners, especially when you get their share of the wine.

Contemplation, Respect, Grief

I did today what I often do when I go by one; I visited and pondered a cemetery. Surely cemeteries have been created to be visited, and you should stop in, especially if it is a nice day.

Different cemeteries have different charms. Well maintained ones are often beautiful. Lush landscaping. Mature trees. Birds. Squirrels. The rundown cemetery has the fascination of the wonder of lost stories and forgotten lives.

Although the cemetery I visited today contained the graves of many of the famous, I did not seek them out.  I never do. Instead I look at random inscriptions. 1880-1942.  1921-2010. Beloved. Mother. You Will Live in Our Hearts Forever. Somehow this gives me peace except for those like 2004-2008, 1909-1919, which produce a sadness for those who were left behind. In an old cemetery where the tombstones are so weathered that I can only guess at what the inscriptions read, I feel as if the scene is trying to impart some transcendental message, but I never catch it.

I don’t know if my interest in cemeteries existed before I worked in one. Until then my contact with the death industry had been sparse. My grandfather, who lived in the upper flat of our two-story house, died when I was in high school. (He died on his seventieth birthday.  His son, my father, lived until 80. Ergo, by my impeccable logic, I get until 90.) Surely there must have been a funeral, but I have no memory of it.

But also when in high school, Mr. U died. Although I had no contact with Mr. U, he had been an important figure in education in my town and had a school named after him. I was among those tapped to be the student representatives at a funeral-home ceremony for him. Up until then, I had seen dead people primarily on TV and movie cowboy shows, and these “corpses” always seemed as if they were going to sit up in a moment. But as I entered, there was not only a group of frightening adults (I did not know them, and I was shy; I tried to avoid talking even to parents of friends), but also an open casket with the remains, my lightning-quick mind concluded, of Mr. U. Adults tried to talk to me; I would have found this difficult no matter what, but I kept trying not to look over at the dead guy. And was that makeup?

My first real exposure to a cemetery came in the summer at the end of high school when I had a job in a local cemetery. There I did not look on the dead.  Instead, I was the main watering guy.  It was a hot, dry season. A portion of the cemetery did not have underground sprinklers; hoses were used to water the grass there. Each morning I would do a round turning on spigots that had attached hoses. This took about ninetyminutes, and I made a second round. I turned off the spigot, walked to the end of the hose, moved the sprinkler to an unwatered patch, walked back to the spigot, turned it on, and then repeated this pattern at the next spigot until the end of the work day when I turned off the spigots. This might seem boring and lonely, but it was not to me. I had trouble talking with the adults who worked there, and I found the cemetery a place for peaceful contemplation. The work suited. (Except that the hoses were black and black stuff got imbedded in my fingers’ whorls. My hands looked dirty, and that bothered me because this was the summer when I was sure that I was going to unbutton a blouse, maybe unbutton many blouses. But, I feared, not if my hands looked grossly dirty. I scrubbed, and scrubbed and scrubbed. Lava soap was my friend. So was Boraxo. They didn’t really work.)

The cemetery’s full-time employees did the core work. They dug the graves; they lowered the casket after a service; they filled in the hole; they landscaped after the burial. Only once in a while, usually on a weekend when enough of the full-timers were not on call, did I assist. On one Saturday when I was helping, I was waiting for the mourners to leave the grave site so that we could shovel in and level the soil. Then we would be through, and I might have the time to make my baseball game. But two or three mourners lingered and lingered. I must have indicated my impatience, and one of the full-time workers quietly but firmly told me to have respect for those still there. That struck me. This physical laborer, who must have seen a comparable scene many times, could see beyond himself to the humanity of those others. His was not just a job to feed his family, but also one to serve those others. I was embarrassed for myself.

On another Saturday, after the family and friends had left, we went to the grave to do our tasks. The casket was suspended over the grave by one of those machines with canvas stretchers.  A crank lowered the casket to the bottom of what really was a six-foot hole.  Then one of the stretchers was detached from the machine and pulled under the casket and up to the other side. In the normal course, the soil that had been put to the side of the grave was shoveled into the hole, and the ground raked. A few days later, after the soil’s settling, this raw ground would be landscaped. But this time, after the lowering, the stretchers got stuck. The full-timers tried this and that, but the canvas strips were not freed. Finally, the crew chief looked at me, pointed at the hole, and told me to deal with the situation. Either free the canvas or toss the loose end back up so the casket could be raised, and the process started anew. To this fit youngster, seemingly no big deal. But, and it was big but, the grave was only a few inches wider and longer than the casket. I was not really jumping into a six-foot hole; I was really going to leap onto a casket. In an instant, an image stuck in my mind. My feet would crash through the casket, and I would be standing on a dead person. Or I would go through the lid, slip, and be lying face to face with a corpse. And other variations of this theme. Of course, these were false worries. The casket was not a pine box loosely hammered together. It was one of the Cadillacs sold by funeral homes to those who probably could not afford it. That lid could handle a lot more than my 148 pounds. It was going to hold more than that when the grave was filled in. I jumped, quickly freed the stretcher, and clambered out without incident. But those images were stuck. I had nightmares for days, maybe even weeks, and I won’t be surprised if in writing about this, that I don’t have nightmares again.

A few weeks later I was called to the cemetery office. The manager was there with a tiny, old man. A small box was on the counter. It contained the ashes of the man’s wife. The manager instructed me to carry the container to a specified place in the cemetery where a hole for the box had already been dug. I should lower the container and then help the man fill the hole.

I lifted the container. It was heavy. Very heavy. I stumbled a bit, but then moved on. I had never before carried human ashes, and I wondered how they could weigh so much. The man started to talk about his wife as we shuffled on. I half listened as I did generally with adults and tried to say as little as possible. Although I tried to hide them, he may have seen my struggles with the box and said that it was lined with lead. I wondered why he would have his wife cremated and have the remains in the kind of container meant to prevent decay. He talked more and more about his wife. I could almost touch his love for her. Then he started to talk about her death. It had been a slow, wasting disease. I could tell it had been awful. He said that by the end he barely recognized her. She did not look like the person he had been in love with for over sixty years. He said that he had wanted an open-casket funeral, but . . . Cremation had not always been the plan.

I had learned some stuff that summer. I was a teenage boy and (therefore) a wiseass, but I had been taught that I should respect the grief of others. After the man had tossed a handful of soil on the box, as I was about to shovel in more, I finally said, I guess you are going to miss her very much. He cried.

So, what is the proper response to this grief of others especially when they are relative strangers and you did not know or barely knew the loved one? Silence? Platitudes? (So sorry for your loss?) Something else?


What does it say about our patriotism or our education that the words of the national anthem now appear on those large scoreboards at sporting events?

In a park or outside an old house, I would come across a hand pump as a kid. Of course, I had to try it. The first couple strokes always seemed hard, but with minimal persistence they became easier. As I pumped, I would wonder if the pump still worked. Was there really water down there? Sometimes the effort produced nothing, but with others, a little water would spurt out. That sight produced a quickened, more forceful stroke. Then larger spurts, and finally, a stream without interruption. These efforts always produced a smile and a sense of accomplishment. Yet again, a satisfaction that most in a younger generation will never have.

“He is a prince.” Doesn’t sound derogatory; it is, in fact, a compliment. But compare: “She is a princess.”

There was such a difference between a woman’s magazine and a girlie magazine.

It was a typical Brooklyn supermarket—narrow aisles with small shopping carts and a limited selection. I was surprised to see ping pong balls. Brooklyn homes don’t have basement rec rooms or other places for table tennis. When I mentioned this to the nonbinary progeny, the NBP gave me an interesting look and said only a bit condescendingly, “The balls aren’t for ping pong. They are for beer pong.” Yet another time for me to feel my ignorance. And my age.

The man with the clipboard and distinctive vest approached me and said, “Do you like puppies?” Already late for an appointment and not wanting to be trapped by another fundraiser, I shook my head, kept moving and then, to my surprise, said, “I hate ‘em.” As I went by the clipboard man, he said, “You would be perfect for this.” I kept walking out of the subway.

Should I worry about my mental health? After the colonoscopy, I was told that everything was normal, and my first reaction was, “I went through all of that for nothing!”

The pessimist. Whenever I see a man walking with a flower bouquet, I wonder what he is apologizing for.

Questions I did not expect to be asked on the subway.  The young, purple-haired woman wearing a frayed, but clearly “vintage” jacket said, “Excuse me. Do you know geometry?” I looked over and she pointed to a sketch book on her lap.  An octagon was carefully drawn.  (During the ride I learned that it was going to be a frame for a mirror, and she was on her way to buy some reclaimed wood.)  She said, “If the diameter is sixteen inches, can you calculate the circumference?” I couldn’t.

What is your reaction when you are bored and turn on a sports channel just looking for anything competitive to pass the time and you find that a dog show is on?

A Tale of Two Cultures

            The spouse likes to lead book groups. She works very hard at it. She reads the book two or three times. I often read the book that will be discussed, and she will bounce her ideas that she might raise with the group off me. I have never participated in one of her book discussions. We have decided that my presence would make her too nervous, but I am confident that she does an excellent job.

            Some find it surprising that she is so good at it. After all, she was a scientist—a research neuroimmunologist–and those who are not familiar with science, which includes all too many of us, often think scientists are generally isolated in a tiny world of esoterica.

            The spouse was not always a scientist. While she took some science courses in college, she majored in English. She then went on to get a master’s in English at the University of Chicago. We came to New York, and she kicked around some publishing houses. She found her advancement there hampered by being a “girl,” but she also realized that she had always really wanted to be a biologist. Working part-time, she went to New York’s City College to get science credits, including organic chemistry, that she needed to get into graduate school. She then was accepted into Cornell Medical School, where she got a Ph.D.

The road to being a scientist is a long one—graduate school, and then years of a post-doctoral fellowship, and finally, if one is lucky, a lab of one’s own, which she got and ran until she recently retired. But during all that time, she continued to read detective stories, classic literature, bestsellers, history. She is not alone. Her best scientific friends also read.

I don’t find this surprising. Of course, many scientists such as C.P. Snow, Richard Feynman, Lewis Thomas, and E.O. Wilson have been outstanding writers. (Freud wrote some interesting books, but only under the most generous definition can he be labeled a “scientist.”) While those extraordinary scientist-writers just might be regarded as exceptional, there is actually a systemic connection between good writers and good scientists.

Successful scientists are curious about the world. They want to understand nature and the universe and set out to explore the unknown. A relative once said to me that the spouse and I led such safe, ordinary, unadventurous lives. I, not surprisingly bristled, and wanted to lash back with all the James Bondish things in my life (if I could have thought of any), but mostly I was offended on behalf of the spouse. I replied, “She is a scientist, and she goes off to work each day trying to see and understand things that have never been seen or understood before with no guarantee that that will happen. Few things could be more adventuresome or daring than that!”

Research scientists are always seeking what has not been found before, and they do it with a wonder about the world. On some level, every scientist I know thinks nature is marvelous and feels a certain glee when something new is discovered about it.

The good writer also sets out to find what has not been found before, but in the writer’s case, it is a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a character, or a story. The writer, too, has to have a wonder about the world and observe it and learn from it. He or she must be able to see and remember what the rest of us cannot. They are part of the intelligent people that Blaise Pascal described: “The more intelligent a man is, the more originality he discovers in men. Ordinary people see no difference between men.” The good writer often sees distinctions and distinctiveness where others all see the same, not only in other people, but in many facets of the world. The good writer can describe or explain what many of us fail to see. As a result, our world expands. The scientist, who also seeks a greater understanding of the world, I think, can especially appreciate what a good writer has done.

Of course, the truths articulated by the scientist and the good writer are not the same. Perhaps this is too often a one-way street; while the scientist can understand the fresh insights or observations of the good writer, the scientist’s findings are often not understood outside the scientific community. But in their seeking of the previously unknown, both the good scientist and the good writer add to an understanding of the world.  As Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd say in Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, “If you can trace the neural pathways of criminality, do you know more about criminals than Dostoyevsky knows? No, you know something different.”

We should not be surprised that scientists appreciate good literature and insightful history, or at least I am not surprised that the spouse does. You can ask her about microglia and the like, but if you want to think more deeply about The Gentleman from Moscow, The Sound and The Fury, The Children Act, Pere Goriot, or Where the Crawdads Sing, she has some questions for you.

You’d Think I Crumble . . . That’s Me in the Corner

A decade or so ago I went to Israel on an unusual junket—all expenses paid to study terrorism from an Israeli perspective. My reactions were all over the map.

As a kid, “shekels” was a slang term for money, but now I was buying chewing gum with that decidedly non-biblical currency. Back then I had often looked at the pictures and maps in my Thomas Nelson Revised Standard Version Bible during the boring parts of church, but only when I went to Israel, did I realize how small the country is.  (Bethlehem is but six miles from Jerusalem.) More than once on the trip, I was told that Israel is about the same size as New Jersey. (Is there any other way that New Jersey is like the Holy Land?)

Of course, especially on this trip, there were constant reminders of terrorism—the disco across from our Tel Aviv hotel where partygoers were bombed waiting to enter; the Gaza checkpoint where soldiers had been killed; the meeting with the man disfigured by an incendiary device tossed into his car. These reminders of terrorism made it hard to remember that someone in Israel is more likely to be killed in a car accident than by a terrorist and that per capita more people are killed by guns in America than by terrorists in Israel even though guns are everywhere in Israel. Soldiers carrying guns are a common sight. (My favorite—a soldier in sandals carrying a gun slung over one shoulder and the biggest, reddest purse I’d ever seen balancing on her other side.)

One image of Israel: security, security, security. Searches to get into the hotel; lengthy interrogations and more to get into the Knesset. Sometimes I did wonder about the efficacy of these measures. The first time I went to a restaurant the guard controlling admission did a cursory search. The second time, he simply said, “Have you got a gun?” I said no and was nodded in. Would a terrorist tell him he had a gun? By the third day at the hotel, our group was generally waved around the security check point. Does that mean a terrorist committed to staying at the hotel for at least three days could then avoid security? Or is it that I and the rest of the group did not look Palestinian?

My northern European looks did not stop El Al from subjecting me to rigorous scrutiny. Going I was pulled aside from the other passengers, interrogated, and my suitcase thoroughly, I say thoroughly, inspected. Returning it happened again, but then I had a touch of turista, and the experience seemed to take even longer. I did get on the plane even though I had fudged the truth. On the day of departure, it was market time near the hotel. I went to poke around and ended up buying some gifts of Dead Sea mud and some bee products. I did not give much mind to these casual purchases until I was asked at the airport whether my items came from the stall in the market, or whether the seller had gone into the back to get the facial mask and pollen rejuvenator. Sick I may have been, but the mind quickly decided the right answer for getting on board—I picked them off the shelf, handed them to the proprietor, and then paid for them. Everything was in my sight.  But as soon as I said that I was not absolutely sure that I really knew how the transaction went. Wanting to get home, I did not voice this little doubt. I was a bit a nervous on most of the return flight.

We were exposed to many intriguing people—terrorism experts in academic institutions; drone pilots; agents who were incredible marksmen and, as indicated by a film of an actual incident, could snatch a suspected terrorist off the street, throw him in a van, and drive off in a matter of seconds. Perhaps most striking was the professional interrogator for one of the intelligence agencies. He entered the room, and his bearing, his aura was such that I would have told him anything he asked me. He maintained that a professional interrogator almost never needed to use physical force, implying that Americans did not have professional interrogators, but he also went on to discuss whether shaking a subject should be considered torture.

I also saw more usual tourist sights—the cars haphazardly parked; the Tel Aviv waterfront;  Caesarea being set for a beautiful evening, seaside wedding reception; the I-would-not-believe-it-if-I-had-not-seen-it rest stop in homage to the King, not David or Solomon, but Elvis Presley.

We spent a few hours touring Jerusalem. Our guide for the day impressed me when, for reasons no longer remembered, he talked about the obverse of a coin. Note, not the obverse side of a coin, which would have been incorrect. I was unsure if I had ever heard a native English speaker use “obverse,” and my admiration increased when I found out he was certified to give tours in many languages in addition to English. He took us in and out of many religious places, and of course, it was important to remember whether the place was Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, or Muslim in order to put a hat on or take it off. I think the Upper Room was pointed out, but then another place was said to be perhaps the site of the Last Supper. Mary’s burial place was there, but, then again, a location in Turkey is venerated as the place where her Assumption took place, and of course, it is not clear to Assumption believers whether she actually died. (And I think that some believe she died in India.)

We passed stations of the cross and the crucifixion and burial places. I wondered how people could be so sure that these were the right locations and why there was no marker for the doorway where the Wandering Jew refused aid. Perhaps these doubts about authenticity led me to blasphemous thoughts. I was told to plunge my arm through a hole so that I could feel the rock on which the True Cross stood. As I did, my mind returned to the sixth grade Halloween parties where, blindfolded, we put our hands into bowls of grapes and spaghetti and told we were feeling eyeballs and guts. Of course, many of these now revered sites were “authenticated” centuries after the events by, I believe, Constantine’s mother, who also collected many relics, perhaps the relics that Mark Twain later saw, and amusingly wrote about, in his travels to the Continent and the Holy Land. Even if they are in the places where the events happened, I wondered why they are regarded as holy sites. If a religion is universal, then no place could be more sacred than another.

But the most striking part of the Jerusalem trip was its beginning and end. Before we entered, the obverse-coin guide brought us to a place that overlooked Jerusalem. He pointed out things in the old city; where Bethlehem was and is; the Palestinian-controlled territory; the wall marking the boundary (although Israelis called it a fence, not a wall); and the mural-painted wall (this was called a wall) behind us, which prevented Palestinians down below from shooting into Israeli apartments up above.

Our location was a parking lot, and a nearby food van was, like many other Israeli places, playing old American rock and roll. The third song I noticed was Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. I almost laughed at the remarkable fortuity. I know that the song is about a woman’s strength in rejecting a lover who walked out, but what better chorus could there be as I looked out over Israel and Jerusalem than I WILL SURVIVE.

During this trip because of the sensitive places we often visited—military and intelligence facilities—we were accompanied by heavily armed, young men, and in Jerusalem I fell into step with such an escort. A few moments later, some men rounded a corner shouting and elbowing others aside. I asked the escort, born and raised in Israel, what that was about, and he replied, “Just some Arabs showing off.” He and I exited the old city together, and I was visually assaulted by a row of tacky tourist shops. American rock and roll came from them, too, and the first song I heard outside the old city was R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion. I smiled and said to the escort, “That doesn’t seem right for Jerusalem.” He stopped, paused a beat, and thoughtfully said, “I think that is the only way.”

Is that right? Can there only be peace if we lose our religion?


I have a book in my hand. It seems permanent, not so much the physical object, but the content. And, of course, to some extent that is true. I have read books that were published a century, two centuries ago, but most books, even well-received ones, are quickly forgotten. Whenever I get a book out of the library, I look at the return dates stamped in the book. Most of the older ones have not been checked out in years. A physical book may still be on somebody’s shelves, but does it really exist if it is not read?

Often when a football player injures one leg, people from the sideline help him to stand up, and the player then puts his arm around one of those helpers and  limps off the field. The helping person is often, not surprisingly, much smaller than the player, and the player often can’t put much weight on the helper, and the two often have trouble syncing their walk. Instead, the teams ought to keep canes on the sidelines. The player would be able to get off the field better with a cane than with his arm around another. But I guess the cane would undercut the image of manly youthfulness, or is it youthful manliness?

At a dinner party, a guest mispronounced a word. Other people at the table, either out of ignorance or out of politeness, pronounced the word in the same wrong way. I avoided using the word. What should one do in such a circumstance?

A friend who is an architect was showing me the wonderful additions he had recently done to his house. I asked, “Are you through?” He replied, “An architect never says it is done because then it can be judged.”

Was the philosopher (or was it a comedian?) right when he said, “If you want to prepare your child for real life, give her a Where’s Waldo book without any Waldos.”

Why is it when you sleep fitfully all night that you are sound asleep when it is time to get up?

A play idea for the Beckett or Sartre in you: Imagine that redwoods are sentient and can communicate. Setting: A redwood grove with three or four trees. What would be the conversations over the thousand years that the redwoods were next to each other unable to be alone or find other company? And then what happens when one of the trees finally dies?

You are Jewish if your mother is Jewish, I am told. But what if your mother converts to Judaism after you were born?

The person I took to be a conservative was railing against the big government program of food stamps. Her clinching argument was that someone she knew should have been on food stamps but did not qualify.

What did couples differ over before they could argue about how best to load a dishwasher?

What Me, Prejudiced

Let me give you some facts. Then form your image.

The couple is in their sixties. They are retired. By dress and bearing, they are above middle class, but it is hard to tell how far above. He is a long time representative in the state legislature. Maybe even had been Speaker of the House. In South Dakota. He made his living as a lawyer. Not in for whatever passes for a metropolis out there, but in Spearfish, which, the woman maintains, has a population of 12,000. In the western part of state, near Wyoming. She was in education. Asked if she had been a school teacher, she was quick to say, “And principal.”

From these facts, what assumptions would you make about them? I had a friend who was raised in a Dakota, but for the life of me, I don’t remember which one. Is there really a difference? I do remember him telling me that some Dakota relative of his raised turkeys. When he was about the size of the birds, nasty creatures he assured me, they scared him mightily, and he would sprint through the yard to get to the safety of the farmhouse. This couple, however, was definitely from that lower Dakota and did not raise turkeys.

The images, or shall we say the prejudices, I might have had from this information would, however, have to have been not so much tempered as shattered by additional factors. I was in my local bar in December a few years having a beer and potato fritters when this couple sat down next to me at the bar. I was quite confident from their look that they were not from the neighborhood, but they seemed perfectly relaxed as they ordered a beer, a glass of wine, and a pretzel. The bartender said something, and they replied, “South Dakota,” and that brought me into the conversation.

When asked what they were doing in a neighborhood bar in not the trendiest part of Brooklyn, they gave a multi-part answer. Most of their retired friends from South Dakota were Arizona snowbirds; they wanted something different. The couple had moved to a garden apartment in an Upper Westside townhouse and now sought to do something in New York every day. They were in my area to go to the Irondale, a non-traditional theater carved from a reclaimed Sunday School auditorium connected to a historic church. They were going to see the Nutcracker Rouge, which was described as a “Baroque Burlesque Confection.” I knew little about it except that it was quite raunchy. I don’t know about you, but my stereotypes of a small-town South Dakota lawyer/politician and principal did not include retirement to Manhattan much less attending a nearly naked Nutcracker in an obscure performance space in Brooklyn. I try to think of myself as open, but sometimes when I am surprised by somebody, I realize how much baggage I unconsciously carry in making quick assumptions about others.

And what would be your images when you hear of Spearfish, South Dakota? I certainly was not surprised that some later, quick research disclosed that it was over 90% white, but I was surprised by its climate. I jumped to the conclusion that it would be bitterly cold for the winter; in fact, the high temperatures average near forty degrees in January and February. Spearfish, however, is known more for some unusual weather. On the morning of January 22, 1943, the temperature was minus four Fahrenheit. A Chinook wind blew and within two minutes, the temperature was a plus 45 degrees Fahrenheit. That two-minute temperature swing is the world record. Hey, what world records does your town hold? The woman, Katie, told me that the temperature continued to rise into the fifties that morning. Then the warm wind dissipated, and the temperatures dropped to below zero in the next half hour. This plunge, a bit more gradual but greater than the earlier rise, was still so rapid that windows cracked.

The South Dakota couple, Jim I think his name was, was interesting, charming, and amusing. Right after they left, I felt as if I had made a mistake. I should have gotten their contact information so that I could have invited them to dinner. And perhaps see if I would find other prejudices of mine I was not aware of.

Could That Be the Famous Writer?

When I picked up the tickets, I heard the ticket seller say that the play was sold out. I had made my purchase online from a discount source, as I almost always do, and that site enjoined buyers to pick up tickets early. This time I had, and I went outside to seek a quick bite to eat.  The theater doors had not yet opened, and a ticket-line monitor was trying to herd the early arrivals into an orderly procession. Someone behind me spoke, and I heard “Jonathan.” I assumed he was giving his name to the TLM in case tickets were not picked up or returned. I was about to continue my quest for a sandwich (later found at Pret), when I heard, “Jonathan and the last name is F-O-E-R.” I turned around and saw a man, not that tall, with scruffy facial hair. A striking woman behind him saw my movement and smiled a bit, but my attention went to the TLM, who had stopped writing on a pad to ask, “Like the writer?” Almost as if embarrassed, he silently replied with a small head movement.

My thoughts ping ponged. Should I say how impressive I had found Everything is Illuminated and that friend Judy thought it was one of the best things she had ever read?  Would I have to pretend I had read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (which I did later read)? Should I try for a brief conversation and ask if he was working on anything? (Since this incident, he has published another book.) Should I offer him my one ticket and then ask that striking woman, from whom I averted my eyes because I did not want to stare, for a drink?  If I said anything, was I really trying to give him a compliment or just trying to show off that I was literate enough to have read him?

With these thoughts ricocheting, I walked away. I have felt that we unique-in-our-way-but-ordinary-people should not intrude on celebrities. Some of this feeling comes from decades ago when I attended a Liza Minnelli concert, and whispers in the audience said that Jackie Onassis was there. I looked down from my first-row balcony seat, and yup, she was right below. At intermission, what seemed like half the audience walked towards the stage in the aisle where she sat, turned around, and walked back in order to see her. She sat in her seat, composed, ignored the parade, and talked to her companion. I thought how hard it could be for a celebrity to do what the rest of us can take for granted, and I vowed not to be such a gawker.

I have, however, found myself nodding. At the intermission of another play which I don’t remember, I saw the actor who a long time ago did the ads where he dared you to knock a battery off his shoulder.  Our eyes met.  I nodded.  He nodded back.  He was standing alone, and I did wonder if he, like I, had come alone. When I saw Sam Waterston walking west on West 23rd Street as I walked east, I again nodded, and he nodded back. Once before, I almost broke my nod policy. Shortly before a performance of the Flying Karamazov Brothers (I am a sucker for juggled chainsaws), I was at a urinal, when Jerry Orbach appeared at the adjacent spot. I wanted to say how much I had enjoyed his performance in 42nd Street on Broadway and that I hoped besides Law and Order he would do more song and dance roles. Few were better than he, but he and I only exchanged nods. And, of course, in New York, there have been other celebrity sightings, but almost always with no external reaction from me.

I have wondered if celebrities have advice for how us non-celebrities should react when we see them. Do they want to be acknowledged in some way? How? Or do they want to be ignored? What is the celebrity’s reaction if a stranger wants to engage in conversation or give words of praise? Or take a picture? I heard Paul McCartney in a TV interview (my closest encounter with him was being in the same baseball stadium with him) say that he would not take a selfie with strangers, but he would talk with them.

Of course, I am sure that different celebrities have different reactions to us ordinary folk, but are there some sort of general rules? Perhaps the source of the fame matters? I assume that well-known actors are approached often and this can be wearing, but is that true for writers whose faces may not have been imprinted on us?  I certainly would not have known that the man behind me had written a book that I admire if I had not heard him give his name.  I did feel more of an urge to say something to him than I have had to the actors I have passed. Perhaps that is because I expect that a well-regarded author would have interesting things to say while I am not sure that that holds true for other celebrities.

What would you have done if you were standing next to Jonathan Safran Foer?  And would your answer change if, as I am 80 percent sure, his companion was Michelle Williams?

But if anyone knows him, tell Jonathan that he looks much too young to be such a distinguished author. And I truly have admired his writing. Also tell his brother Joshua that I found his memory book fascinating. (I wish I could remember that book’s title.)