Dumb Ideas That Have Taken Hold

I beg to offer up some half-baked fallacies that many people still find plausible. On serious inspection, they are either unworkable, unattainable, or ill-conceived. Still, our society is often moved to accept, even welcome them.

Gun control. Many Americans are up in arms about the recent mass shootings, growing in numbers each year. Feckless proposals are constantly made urging the feds to end the sale of assault weapons, institute background checks, etc. and so forth. No serious reforms will happen while the GOP is in thrall to the gun industry. As long as Republicans keep playing on the obsessive fears of the MAGA masses, they will never give up their guns and the carnage will continue. Even dogs are shooting people.

Danger from gas stoves. We read lots of stories now about the environmental and health dangers of gas stoves. Really, how hazardous are these for most of us? Are cow burps and farts worse? And what about water heaters and space heaters that use 29% and 69% respectively more gas than stoves? Around 38% of U.S. families (124 million of them) have gas stoves, and who’s going to pay for them to convert to electric induction cooking? The average cost of an induction stove is over $2,200 and the needed electrical upgrades average around $1,000.

Netflix. If you love movies and TV series, there are plenty of alternatives to Netflix, which has become truly pathetic. “Netflix pumps out flavorless assembly line Jello in hopes something, anything, might ensnare a fan base.” If you live outside the U.S. as I do, their library is filled mostly with junk offerings, stupid kid films, repulsive horror shows, and comedies that aren’t funny. In 2022 Netflix lost 1.2 million subscribers and not only because it raised its prices.

Classified documents. Pence and Biden are now found irresponsible and guilty of harboring these papers, though Trump kept not a few but hundreds and refused to give them back. The whole process is outdated and unworkable, “national security” notwithstanding. Six years ago, looking at Clinton’s emails, we knew that “the government is classifying too many documents.” And why are government officials permitted to take them home?

The Doomsday Clock. It was created in 1947 by scientists to point out the dangers of nuclear war to the world. In 2007 it also incorporated climate change. Now, as a metaphor to alert people to incipient catastrophe it’s pretty much ignored. Last Tuesday the Clock was set to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest ever, because of the nuclear dangers in Ukraine. Are climate change and Putin’s posturing equal threats? What happens when we get to 5 seconds? The Clock seems to have become an abstract, ineffective way to promote concern and action.

These feel-good concepts still appeal to many people. And yet they are basically ill-conceived solutions for intractable problems. In our sometimes desperate need to fix things we seem to entertain solutions that create more difficulties than they solve. Like electing George Santos.

The Aging of the President

In many societies the elders have led the way. This is called gerontocracy, giving the alte kakers real political power. In the United States this seems forever to have been the province of Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, Pat Leahy, Jim Clyburn, and Dianne Feinstein—all now on or over the cusp of retirement. Nancy was smart to get out when she did, and Democratic gerontocracy has been under fire.

We know the many stories about Biden’s gaffes, his flare-ups of temper, his halting presentation skills. Gaffes go along with aging, as I can attest. Many in his party would like a younger face for 2024 but the alternatives (and a bruising primary) would make for a daunting situation. You’re not going to get a President Buttigieg in two years.

Assuming he does run in 2024, Mr. Biden will face the defining issue of his age. That, I think, is a major reason for the consistent low standings in his approval ratings. His accomplishments notwithstanding, Joe is still Uncle Joe to those who voted for him and a sometimes doddering old coot to others, i.e., Republicans and many swing voters.

Now comes the documents scandal, which the president’s staff bungled badly: no mea culpa explanations, feckless responses way too slow out of the gate, making light of the situation, altogether deplorable crisis management. Quinnipiac (and I hate to quote Byron York) found that 62% “said Biden acted inappropriately, versus just 21% who said he acted appropriately. That’s nearly a 3-to-1 margin of people who do not believe Biden acted appropriately, which does not bode well for his future attempts to get past the scandal.”

Then there’s the ongoing furor about Hunter, the wayward son. Republicans smell a rat, and the Biden folks have never come clean about all this. The latest revelations about Hunter and his crooked Chinese cohorts seem to make it a still-brewing scandal that the GOP won’t fail to exploit.

In foreign affairs, Uncle Joe is still dogged by how badly he executed the Afghanistan pullout. Still, if his handling of the Ukraine war continues to be successful with the electorate, the stain of that retreat “may be washed away,” in Ross Douthat’s opinion. How Biden handles the jittery economy and the knotty issues of immigration in the next two years may well determine his 2024 fate.

So, of course, will his health—and all the crazy vicissitudes of the world situation. The pressure on Uncle Joe to step down will continue, and I have doubts about whether he will in fact run. God knows I wouldn’t, were I in his shoes, despite his legislative accomplishments.

Biden’s people have urged the White House to “let Biden be himself, even if that occasionally leads to uncomfortable moments on camera.” As I’ve learned about myself, your friends do understand the upsides and downsides of aging. Biden’s decision will rest on whether, given the situation, he understands the conditions and limitations of his own body and mind. I don’t think politics will play a significant role in that.

The Piano

These days, you often can’t give them away, and many fine pianos actually end up in the trash. The market doesn’t care about family or sentimental values or the fact that music may have kept the family together or at least brought home the joy of making music.

In 1931 at the height of the Depression my parents bought a new Steinway grand for their new Chicago apartment. I was born three years later, and the piano (along with 78-rpm records) became my introduction to music—a lifelong passion. My mother played Christmas carols and simple classical pieces on it, dad would hammer out old show tunes, and some notable jazz musicians like Barbara Carroll entertained us at parties.

Other musicians recognized what a great instrument this piano was. When the family moved on from Chicago, so did the piano, to a new home in Highland Park. In 1950 my parents hosted an affair with the Louis Armstrong All-Stars, and Earl Fatha Hines played it and loved it. In the mid-1960s it came to rest in my New York apartment where in 1971 Sir Roland Hanna, the noted jazz musician, came to a party I had and played it. For its later years it took up space at my ex-wife’s house in New Hope, PA.

When Sally and I split up, we had a fight about who would get the piano. At that time she had a house and I was moving around, starting a new life in Rhode Island and doing a lot of itinerant communications work. So she got the piano, and I got the divorce. I think she did play it, a little. But mostly it sat for ten or more years, tuned but unplayed.

When she died the house had to be sold, and I undertook to sell the piano. I wrote to local music schools and got a lot of nice responses and no-thank-yous. I lowered the price and finally got a bite from NYU’s Music Department. They sent two people out from New York to audition the piano. They found it “a very fine instrument” and so we had a deal. Since I used to teach at NYU years ago, I thought it was a perfect home for a pedigreed old Steinway.

Grand pianos are big clunky objects, very heavy. Many people today are perfectly happy with mobile electronic keyboards that offer cheesy programmed accompaniments and sound enhancements. They are light and convenient for band musicians and those content with digital music. As readers of this blog know, I’m never content with digital music even though I do have a Yamaha electric piano to (sometimes) practice on.

Our old family piano in a way held the family together emotionally when we were all younger, analog people. It was more than a fixture; it was a memento of good times and the power of music to create a joyful connection.

Aging Is Not a Disease

The NY Times recently published a piece in which a 41-year-old doctor in Boston muses about advances in the science of anti-aging. She is pregnant with her first child and wonders whether aging is really inevitable. Her dad does pull-ups at age 70 and pursues studies on “how he might slow the ticking clock.” Aging for folks like this is clearly something to be conquered, not accommodated.

“Longevity researchers,” she says, “would tell you that aging itself is a disease that we can understand and treat, cancer and heart disease and dementia only its symptoms.” Hmm, if aging is a disease, I must be pretty sick at 88. I do have age spots but no cancer or heart disease—yet—and no crippling ailments or obvious mental disorders, though some might contest that. So I got lucky in the old age sweepstakes.

I’ve been blessed with good health (with some minor problems) in the last few years, and I look at getting older as something perfectly normal. If I can get another year or so, that would be fine. I don’t fear death, though I might if things change. For now, I look and feel younger than my chronology would predict. Except in the morning.

Getting older, I’ve been drawn to feel that so much of what we do as a society works against nature. We humans can’t even manage ourselves, and all our false notions of progress are usually at the expense of the natural world and those less fortunate. How we respond to climate change will be the ultimate test.

So I find that anti-aging and extending human life are like so many other new tools for fighting off or plundering nature and advancing bogus notions of progress. Work proceeds apace on gene modification, CRISPR, AI, and other high-minded efforts to alter our humanity and improve on what nature gives us. I never thought I’d say this, but why is science always the answer?

A good friend in her mid-70s recently had major surgery for an intestinal blockage. She was quite healthy, and this came as a big shock. So did the resulting colostomy. She’s been depressed, won’t eat, and talks about wanting to just give up. The vicissitudes of our health can change everything.

If good health is everything, why are we so cavalier about it? Could someone in poor health rely on an anti-aging program? Will these programs be just for the rich? Of course they will.

To her credit, Dr. Lamas, the writer, is not wholly convinced that anti-aging science will provide a better life: “it is not entirely clear that having a younger genetic than chronological age confers a longer or better life.” If I continue to be blessed with good genetics and health, old age remains something to treasured—until it’s not.

Oldsters Partying in Puerto

The other night it was a mixed group, oldsters and mid-oldsters and a few younger people. I was probably the most senior of about thirty people there to exchange silly Christmas gifts and watch the sun go down over the Pacific. I knew only about four of these folks and thus looked forward to another evening of isolation, boredom, and social constipation.

This is what happens to many of us, old or not, as parties find us standing alone, drink in hand, listening to the noisy chitchat, resenting the loud music, deciding whether to approach a group and break into their conversation.

Perhaps you’ve experienced this. I used to be a jovial party-goer and party-thrower in my youth, big drinker, life of the party. (See “Nothing Succeeds like Excess.”) Aging often produces a slow process of withdrawal from all that, which is no bad thing. After all, how much small talk can you generate? Who wants to hear more stale political opinions, gossip about the neighbors, indulgent talk about oneself, with never a question about you?

At the party in question I came in with my partner, felt awkward and out of place, said a few hellos, and sat solo for a while to watch the sunset and plot my next (if any) moves. I made up my mind to tough it out so I went to sit with a younger couple eating dubious hors d’oeuvres and had a nice exchange with them.

The rum punch was good and I found people approachable. The gift exchange turned out to be fun, and the atmosphere changed from small pods of talkers to participants in an engaging group activity. I almost felt glad I’d come.

The small group I hang out with in Oaxaca was nothing like this mixed bag. Beach people are different. One older tanned guy in Hawaiian shorts looked like my old college roommate and never stopped talking. Other oldsters simply sat and said little. Women, as usual, carried the day and brought things to life. One looked like Kyrsten Sinema even to wearing a brassy Sinema-style dress. I kept ascribing personalities to these characters.

The point of all this is that aging produces in some of us the urge to withdraw (see “Retreat of the Elders”), which occasionally can come on strong. I’m not a recluse and I do like people, but in small groups or one-on-one. Most parties I can do without; this one—good for observations—wasn’t too bad.

Forced intimacy in any circumstance may work for the young. For most oldsters it just pushes old buttons.

Old People Driving

Jerome’s was gray

On Friday my friend and I drove from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido, a distance of 160 miles, which usually takes a minimum 6-1/2 hours on high mountain roads, through truck traffic, potholes and endless switchbacks. That works out to about 23 miles per hour. It’s a tough drive and took us a bit over 7 hours including a stop for lunch.

I drove the whole way, and in the last 10 miles or so hit two topes (speed bumps) pretty hard—feeling really stupid because I’ve done this road scores of times. On arriving I was so tired and wrung out that I couldn’t meet friends for dinner. It finally came to me that fatigue had made me lose my concentration. And you cannot do that in Mexico.

So no more long-distance solo driving for me. Like many oldsters, usually male, I’ve been proud of my driving. I drove sports cars in my salad days and for a long time thought my capabilities generally persisted. In a short book, I spoke about

avoiding the kind of hubris or testing of fate that old codgers manifest on the roads. Giving up the keys for most of us would relinquish a final vestige of independence. Like coasting downhill on an empty tank. . . . If I had to quit driving I’d be giving up one of the remaining joys in my sedentary life. It’s a matter of maintaining, as we all do, the fiction of one’s life.

So much for that. Hubris is what happens when you’re making other plans. A good local friend of mine drives so badly that I refused a few years ago to ride with him unless he let me drive. He once fell asleep on that same mountain road and nearly killed himself and a companion.

With the arrogance of youth I said to my father Jerome years ago when he was driving too fast in big glitzy Lincolns: “How about letting me drive for a change?” No way that was going to happen because I had told him his new car looked like a Baroque church. So he kept on driving big cars until he once roared through a stop sign, hit another car, and then argued about fault with the insurance company.

Oldsters are naturally jealous about keeping their driving privileges, and they can get very testy about it. Younger relatives may force the issue, but many states have no age restrictions. Make ‘em all take a test, I say. Yet the politics of aging may not let that happen. The AARP opposes this, calling it age discrimination.

And as the public approves of more electronic junk and digital screens in cars, the distractions for seniors and all of us will get worse. Drive safely to your Christmas destinations.

The Physicalities of Aging

I’ve written before about the joys of getting older: first, about some of the social aspects of withdrawal; then about declining brainpower. I’m not quite sure why these pieces drew the attention of my readers. Maybe it’s the aging process itself that binds us old farts together.

To discuss the more physical aspects of aging is a little more risky. Yet we must face up to our own mortality by confronting the commonplace ways our bodies degenerate—or at least have difficulty performing their accustomed functions. Who wants to hear about another’s constipation? Still, a few personal stories may connect with you.

About three years ago I realized that I wasn’t getting enough exercise. I didn’t want to walk much anymore. The sidewalks in Oaxaca are cracked and broken; I was fearful of taking another fall. And how many times can you enjoy hiking around the very same blocks? I used to like going to the gym, so I bought an elliptical trainer.

This is a great machine for exercising a bunch of muscles, plus some low-impact cardio. You know what’s coming, right? I used it faithfully for a while, then progressively abandoned it. Monotony and apathy will overcome all your good intentions. Well, lately I’ve gotten back on it, and it feels good. Let’s see how long this lasts.

It’s very common that as one ages one’s gums recede and gaps appear between the teeth. This is why you see so many old people using toothpicks after eating. You finish a nice dinner and your companion starts poking away at his/her mouth. Now you’ve begun to do it too. My dentist said, “get a Waterpik,” and he was right. The detritus removed after brushing will simply amaze you.

Years ago, my father had a pretentious gold toothpick in a thin leather case. He would produce this and use it at home or after a fine restaurant meal. We observed this many times. Finally my sister said, “Pop, do you have any idea what’s growing in that case? It’s pretty disgusting.” Naturally, this had no effect.

Older people finally don’t care what others think about such habits. That too is part of the aging process.

I find it harder and harder to cut my toenails. Bending over to get a purchase on the nail clipper gets more difficult as one’s arthritis progresses. And the longer the nails grow, the harder it is to cut them neatly. A male friend of mine, now deceased, gave up on the whole thing and regularly went to a podiatrist for, God bless him, a pedicure. I’m not quite there yet.

It may not be in the best of taste to talk publicly about such commonplace things. Older folks are still rather sanitized and Victorian in talking and dealing with bodily needs and functions. The fact that such behaviors are rarely discussed can only mean that we’re less equipped to deal with them as we inevitably age.

What Really Happened at The Dinner

Trump: Ye, my friend, so glad to see you again. Your view of things is so unusual.

Ye: Well, I like Hitler. You know, every human being has something of value that they brought to the table, especially Hitler. I just said that on an interview with Alex Jones, one of our good guys. Why isn’t he here? He knows the Holocaust was fake news. That’s why I brought my dear friend with me, Nick Fuentes. I think you know him.

Trump: Never saw him before in my life. Oh, wait a minute . . . Charlottesville.

Ye: He’s been a good Jew hater from the early days. Now y’all need to get into my campaign to run for president. Don, I want you to be my vice president.

Trump, screaming: You out of your fucking mind? You got no chance at the presidency, bro, not while I’m running. . . .

Of course, what they really said at the dinner is largely beyond imagining and beyond satire. One could just as well try to imagine what Xi Jinping said when he was informed of the recent massive protests. Axios made an attempt to render what the fawning Fuentes said by talking with “sources” present—but never succeeded in finding a smoking gun, just a bunch of servile compliments to Trump.

 I do have to give credit to Andy Borowitz, who wrote that white nationalists gave “scathing Tripadvisor reviews” of the service and food at Mar-a-Lago: “too many ethnic dishes,” they said.

Why Beethoven, and Why Now?

Some of you know I had a partial career as a music critic years ago. (Most everything is now “years ago,” it seems.) I wrote about jazz, the record business, ‘70s rock and, later, classical. My writings were all ephemeral; but the music is not. Most all of it is on record in one form or another, the wine and the dregs.

When I was growing up, a lot of Beethoven echoed in my house. Music was an intrinsic part of our lives, and Beethoven was at the heart of it. I’ve talked about that here and in a book I wrote but not much about Beethoven. Well, the Eroica symphony was a revelation to me as a teenager because it completely broke new musical ground. When I began to really listen to the string quartets in college, they became touchstones of my musical life. Jazz was my daily fare, Beethoven the haute cuisine.

Last night, over leftover noodle casserole, I listened again to all three Rasumovsky Quartets, from Beethoven’s middle and troubled years. There is no music in the world like this. Here is Opus 59, no. 2 of these masterpieces.

I won’t give you a critique here, rather some thoughts that the music evoked. First, the surprising turns this music takes: I remembered that critic Whitney Balliett once called jazz “the sound of surprise.” The three quartets embody surprise in abundance. Second was the stark contrast between the world this music projected and our own disjointed times—the ways in which Beethoven could render his disjointed life and times in the coherence and power of his musical speech.

Later I was to think about how the Eroica Symphony and later the Rasumovsky quartets revolutionized the music of Haydn and Mozart. Here’s how Joseph Kerman put it in his classic work on The Beethoven Quartets:

A new world was being explored, and if the string quartet was going to find a place in it at all, it had to smash the fragile, decorous boundaries set by the classic image of chamber music, . . . a new “symphonized” quartet necessarily had to come into being (p. 151).

Haydn and Mozart provided the building blocks, but the decorous age was clearly over, another instance of the surprising ways the 18th century changed thought and art.

There is no analogue today. The crudeness of our pop music and the irrelevance of much contemporary classical offer no relief from the social and political chaos around us. When I’m hungry I go back to Beethoven.

The recording I listened to is a two-SACD set by the Tokyo String Quartet. The sound is extraordinary, their interpretations exemplary. I have other different but interesting renditions on vinyl by the Guarneri, Budapest, and Juilliard ensembles.

Beethoven would go on to even greater heights of expression in the Late Quartets, one of which (the C-Sharp Minor, Opus 131) would change the way I thought about music forever. More on that later, perhaps.