Colin Powell, 1937 – 2021

I was meaning to leave poor Colin Powell alone today — and all future days, too — but I am just the teensiest bit weary of the continuous eulogizing that’s been going on all day.


Powell was a young man who — like far too many of our young men — thought that the best way to solve a problem was by violence. How else do you explain his love for the military? And no matter how much his friends declare him a man of peace, a man who “understood that war was a last resort,” he spent his life in wars in various places around the world, as a young officer and as a four-star general, all of them of extremely dubious value to his country, unless you count gratuitous ass-kicking as “value.”

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In the Name of Love

Mary Wilson, a former member of The Supremes, is escorted after singing the national anthem in Detroit on April 4, 2019.
Photo: Carlos Osorio / AP

Today a loving goodbye to Ms. Mary Wilson, who has died at the age of 76.

I’ve been hearing snippets of her work with The Supremes all day, and it reminded me again the importance of the Motown contribution to the music so many millions of us grew up with. It was, as they said, “The Sound of Young America. Wilson “only” sang backup behind Diana Ross, but she did it perfectly, with poise and grace as the group cranked out hit after hit in the 60s and 70s. That’s her in the foreground of the thumbnail below, although in the video she’s on the right (Diana’s left). We miss you already, Mary.

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Molly the Cat is Gone

She had her way with us for 20 years…

…and now she has left us behind, left our world. I can clearly remember the day she strolled into our lives, a skinny, hungry stray kitten, eyeing my yogurt. Barb and I had both grown up with dogs, and we were unsure about this little girl. We had just moved into the house, the first place we’d had together where we could get a dog, and here was this scruffy little thing, needy, persistent, too proud to beg.

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Leaving The Table

I have loved the music and words of Leonard Cohen since I first encountered him in 1964.

I used to joke that if you dared to listen to a whole Leonard Cohen album at one sitting you’d have to have a counselor on hand, because you would become so sad you might decide to take your life.

Today, however, I am listening to DJ Chris Douridas’ sweet tribute to Leonard on KCRW in Los Angeles. My heart is in pieces, but the music is graceful and healing, melancholy and uplifting. I’m grateful that Leonard was in the world at the same time as me, and that his spirit was woven through my life in the best and worst of it, and that he shared with us his graceful sadness and his gentle smiles.

I say goodbye today, but I will return to him for the rest of my life.


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Janey and I were traveling aimlessly through the beautiful state of Oregon, taking turns at the wheel of my 1964 VW bus.

It was August 8, 1974, and we were headed for Crater Lake when we heard the news on the radio — Nixon was set to deliver an important speech. The Watergate affair had been occupying the top spot on the evening news for months, but we had been out of the loop for a week or more, so we didn’t know for sure what almost everyone else in the country knew: that Nixon was being forced out of office.Nixon

It’s difficult to describe the impact Richard Nixon had on my generation. He was every bit as important as President Kennedy, the earnest, slightly creepy A/V Club guy to Kennedy’s dashing frat boy. And even though we know that politics ain’t beanbag, Nixon found ways to reduce it to its most brutal elements, and he was good at it. He lost some Big Ones, but he won more than he lost. Elected for the first time just a few months before I was born, and stretching all the way through to just before my 25th birthday, Nixon haunted the hallways of our lives, in his dark blue suit and his five o’clock shadow, never looking straight at us, always seeming to harbor some hidden motive.

He had gone from Congress to Eisenhower’s Vice President in 1952, but after his first term in the number two job, the Republican Party wanted him gone, and, under pressure to leave Ike’s ticket in 1956, he went on television and gave the famous Checker’s speech, saving his job and surprising the political old hands of the day. Again, I thought he was finished after he lost the 1960 presidential election to JFK, who apparently had learned from Nixon himself the power of TV. Silly me. Two years later Nixon was back making a credible run for Pat Brown’s job as governor of California. In his concession speech it seemed that even Nixon himself figured his career was over, telling the press that they “wouldn’t have Dick Nixon to kick around” anymore.

But then came Dallas, and LBJ, and later LBJ’s decision not to run for reelection in 1968. Rested and fit, Nixon was back, and this time he won all the marbles. He was like a zombie that we just couldn’t kill, no matter how many times we didn’t vote for him.

Up to this point he was only a political opponent with whom I strongly disagreed. And disagreeable it was to have him in the White House, even if he did open relations with China and authorize the creation of the EPA. But once he got the top job, something must have changed in Nixon. Maybe it was simply the feeling that he had nothing more to strive for, or maybe he really was crazy all along, but by the time of the 1972 election he had become delusional, paranoid and criminal. He won that election, but he had begun to disintegrate psychologically.

His presidency was unraveling. He was caught sending burglars to break into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, keeping an “enemies list” of journalists, and authorizing “hush money” to keep witnesses quiet. And he was tape recording the whole thing, keeping an audio record for future prosecutors. During the two years after his second inaugural he was revealed as the dirty Tricky Dick we all remember. Not some weasel-assed nobody like Grover Norquist, but the President of the United States! It was appalling.

Janey and I got to some lodge on Crater Lake that afternoon. The grounds appeared deserted, but when we went into the bar, there were hundreds of people crowded in, watching the television. I have never seen such rapt attention to any political speech before or since. It was as if we were holding our collective breath. Only a week before, under order from the Supreme Court, Nixon had been forced to release his secretly recorded tapes. Tip O’Neill had told reporters that the House Judiciary Committee was going to vote — Democrats and Republicans alike — to impeach the President. Nixon was cornered, and I’m not proud today to say that I enjoyed seeing the rat trapped as he was.

Nixon made a dignified speech, not exactly beating around the bush, but stalling and offering excuses for a while before he got to point, which of course was that he was “not a quitter,” but he was quitting. He took no responsibility for what was happening to him. There was no way he could have stayed in office, but sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if he had apologized, admitted his wrongdoing, and left the world stage quietly. Would Republicans still feel they had to find a way to impeach Clinton and Obama?

Either way, Janey and I shared a long kiss, and soon — very soon, actually — we forgot all about Richard Nixon. But he’s still with us, in ways few historical figures can ever be. Many of us who lived through the Nixon years, what Gerald Ford would call “our long national nightmare,” wake up occasionally in a cold sweat, as an imagined footfall sounds just outside a door, and it takes a moment to remember — he’s is not coming back.

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A Reminiscence

My father was born on this day in 1913.

If he had lived, he would be 98 today. But he died a long time ago, exactly 19 years after I was born. He was rip snorting drunk a good portion of those 19 years, and just plain not around for a few of them, so I only knew him the way a child knows his parents. We never got to talk at a time when I was mature enough to ask the important questions, let alone understand the answers. A lot of what I think I know is pieced together from things he told me, or things I heard from others.

He came from a huge Catholic family. I am out of touch with almost all of them now, and I don’t remember most of them anyway, but he had something like five brothers and three or four sisters. By his own admission he was a troublemaker in grade school, and claimed to have quit altogether after 5th grade. I have no idea what he was into from then until his teens, but as a young man he joined the National Guard. I suspect that he had no particular patriotic motive, but just needed the cash during the depression of the 1930’s.

He was in the infantry in Europe during World War 2. I gather his mission was to lay communication wire. He said the Germans were jamming the radios, or maybe they were listening in, I don’t know, so the Allies resorted to laying telephone wire across the battlefields, for secure command and control. He got out of the Army in 1946.

I have come to think of the war years as the defining time of his life. Some of my earliest memories are of him getting liquored up and desperately trying to relive his days as a staff sergeant, gathering his little family and forcing us to listen to him describe mostly routine military stuff, like marching and saluting and polishing your boots and making your bed so a coin would bounce on the bedspread.

These topics didn’t come up when he wasn’t drinking, so I came to associate military talk with the angry, threatening drunk in our house. I don’t know if getting drunk made him think back to his Army days or if his experience in the Army made him want to get drunk. Once — only once — he told me of an actual combat incident, a time when he managed to blow up a German military vehicle, knowing that two soldiers were inside of it. I have no idea how he did it, or even if it really happened, but he wept in front of me when he told the story. I was confused at the time: Weren’t these Germans the enemy? What was wrong with incinerating them? Why would a grown man — a soldier — cry about it? Today I think I know.

I disappointed him. I wasn’t a brawler like him, or — during his lifetime — a drinker. I didn’t care to fish or hunt like he did with his brothers. I was a soft kid, a reader, a musician. I was in college during the last year of his life, and he had already written me off as an over educated oaf — his words exactly. I hope my memory is not playing tricks on me when I tell you that in his last few months I made my peace with him. Not directly face to face, because you can’t do that with an addict, but in my heart I forgave him, and I loved him, because he was my dad and he’d had it impossibly hard and he didn’t know how to deal with the whirlwind that was his life.

I don’t know if my father loved me, his firstborn. My parents had five children, and thinking back over those years it now seems to me that he — they — must have been scrambling like crazy to keep up with the life they had made for themselves. They survived the Depression, served in the War, then got married in a fever and before they knew it, had five kids. I’m sure it was all they could do to keep it together.

But I do know that I got an electric train for my fifth Christmas. A Lionel electric train. Just a small oval track, a locomotive and three cars, but it was a complete surprise and, to me, the best gift ever. It was set up and circling the base of the Christmas tree when I first saw it. Many years later my mother told me that he had bought it for me on the day I was born.

Happy birthday Pop, and thanks.

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The Lion is Dead

Ted Kennedy

For those of us who remember Camelot, this is a somber final moment.

Ted Kennedy was the last of the brothers, and the only one who got to live out his life. He screwed up a few times, but I believe he made up for those during his 40 years in the United States Senate. He was a champion of civil rights, Americans with disabilities, immigration reform and health care reform.

Born to privilege, he spent his life defending the vulnerable. We are better off as a people for the laws he wrote, sponsored, fought for and got passed.

So long, Senator. Thank you for your service.

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John, at Rest

John Updike, novelist, died today at the age of 76.

John UpdikeFor at least a decade I was lost in Updike’s books. He wrote about love, God, human need and greed, about how Life happens when you are busy doing something else. He won two Pullitzer prizes, but he didn’t let that stop him from writing more good books.

He tracked one of his characters — Harry Angstrom — in his “Rabbit…” quartet from coming of age, through an entire adult life, all the way to his grave. I took Rabbit’s death pretty hard when I read about it, but this one pains me more.

Thanks, Mr. Updike, for a lifetime of great stories. It’s been good to know you.

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