By Andy Rooney
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I thought to myself, lying in bed one night, in an uncharacteristic moment of modesty, "How much do I have to say that anyone cares about reading?"
If you write for a living, you have to put modesty out of your mind. It is a great privilege to have something you have written preserved in type and printed as a book.
One thing I know is, you can make an essay out of anything. There are times when I've written on subjects about which I know very little. A writer can do that. He has the advantage of being able to look things up, to ask questions of other people more knowledgeable than he. He can sit back and think before putting anything down on paper. This puts the writer one up on readers and often makes him sound smarter than he is. I try to do that. It doesn't seem dishonest. I comb my hair and try to wear decent clothes so I'll look better than I would naked, so why shouldn't I try to write in a style that makes me sound smarter and more interesting than I am?
This book is made up of all essays. The essay is a grand and classic writing format. Igor Stravinsky, the musician, tried to write at one point in his career. He said, "I experience a sort of terror if I sit down to work and find an infinity of possibilities open to me. No effort is conceivable."
Stravinsky said he conquered that terror by turning his creative urge to the seven notes of the scale and writing music. "For then I have something solid and concrete," he said. "I am saved from the anguish of unconditional liberty."
I turn not to the piano, but to the essay form. The essay offers a writer a great deal of freedom but falls short of offering the "unconditional liberty" that stopped Stravinsky. The essay provides a writer boundaries within which he can go to work. Confinement is conducive to creativity.
I am not a great writer, but I don't write badly very often. This passes for good writing. As a matter of fact, there's just so much good writing anyone can take. To some extent, it's like acting. If you notice the acting, it probably isn't good. Good writing shouldn't call a lot of attention to itself, either.
Something happens to a lot of people when they write. Their voice changes—even on paper. They tighten up and are not themselves. One thing of which I am certain is that no one writes as he speaks and no one speaks as he writes. When a writer is faced with the choice of styles, it is always better if he writes more like he speaks. If you know the writer, you should be able to hear his voice as you read the words.
You can't take the idea too far because when we talk we are hesitant, discursive and repetitive. If you make a verbatim transcript of a conversation, it invariably needs to be heavily edited before being printed.
The writer gets a good break in newspapers. His or her name is right there up front, available for credit or blame on whatever has been written. In the arts, it has always bothered me that the writer takes last place. The credits on a movie or a play almost always list the writer in small type where it's hard to find. I never knew why this was because actors are a dime a dozen and good writers are hard to find. The production of a play or a movie or the publication of a book stands still until the writer gets the words down on paper. No one can do anything until the manuscript appears. There are a dozen editors, publishers, directors, producers and investors waiting for one writer to get something down on paper. Then they change it.
Writing an essay is, for me, always a pleasure because people tend to leave it alone. An essay isn't important enough to change.
The essays in this book were written over the past four years. Some of them show their age. I have rewritten small parts of some of them for that reason. Margie, my wife of sixty years, died in 2004 and her name does not appear as often as it originally did because it hurts too much to write it.
We all look for that perfect day when we have enough to do but not too much.
WE'RE WASTING AWAY
Last Saturday, I filled the trunk of my car and the passenger seats behind me with junk and headed for the dump. There were newspapers, empty cardboard boxes, bags of junk mail, advertising flyers, empty bottles, cans and garbage. I enjoy the trip. Next to buying something new, throwing away something old is the most satisfying experience I know.
The garbage men come twice a week but they're very fussy. If the garbage is not packaged the way they like it, they won't take it. That's why I make a trip to the dump every Saturday. It's two miles from our house and I often think big thoughts about throwing things away while I'm driving there.
How much, I got wondering last week, does the whole Earth weigh? New York City alone throws away 24 million pounds of garbage a day. A day! How long will it take us to turn the whole Planet Earth into garbage, throw it away and leave us standing on nothing?
Oil, coal and metal ore are the most obvious extractions, but any place there's a valuable mineral, we dig beneath the surface, take it out and make it into something else. We never put anything back. We disfigure one part of our land by digging something out and another after we use it and throw it away. I say "away," but there's really no such place as "away."
After my visit to the dump, I headed for the supermarket, where I bought $34 worth of groceries. Everything was in something—a can, a box, a bottle, a carton or a bag. When I got to the checkout counter, the cashier separated my cans, boxes, cartons, bottles and bags and put three or four at a time into other bags, boxes or cartons. Whatever came to her hand on the conveyor belt in a bag, she put in another bag. Sometimes she put my paper bags into plastic bags. One bag never seemed to do. If something was in plastic, she put that into paper.
On the way home, I stopped at the dry cleaners. Five of my shirts, which had been laundered, were in a cardboard box. There was a piece of cardboard in the front of each shirt and another cardboard cutout to fit the collar to keep it from getting wrinkled. Clipped to the front of each shirt was a cloth tag that identified the shirt as mine. The suit I had cleaned was on a throwaway hanger, in a plastic bag with a formfitting piece of paper inside over the shoulders of my suit.
When I got home, I put the groceries where they belonged in various hiding places in the kitchen. With the wastebasket at hand, I threw out all the outer bags and wrappers. By the time I'd unwrapped and stored everything, I'd filled the kitchen wastebasket a second time, already getting ready for next Saturday.
It would be interesting to conduct a serious test to determine what percentage of everything we discard. It must be more than 25 percent. I drank the contents of a bottle of Coke and threw the bottle away. The Coca-Cola Company must pay more for the bottle than for what they put in it. Dozens of things we eat come in containers that weigh more and cost the manufacturer more than what they put in them.
We've gone overboard on packaging in the United States and part of the reason is that a bag, a can or a carton provides a place for the producer to display advertising. The average cereal box looks like a roadside billboard.
The Earth we inhabit could end up as one huge, uninhabitable dump.
You'd see me there Saturday mornings . . . throwing stuff away.
JUST ANOTHER DAY
"Days" don't move me much. Memorial Day is not a day I remember friends who died during World War II any more than I remember them other days. Fragmentary memories of them often come to mind, evoked by something I see, hear or experience.
I enjoy thinking of them for a moment, wince at the thought they're gone forever, then put them out of mind and go about my day. Tears come to my eyes unbidden ten times a year when I think of my boyhood friend Obie Slingerland, who died on the deck of the Saratoga when he landed his plane with a bomb hung up in its bay.
I don't need a Memorial Day to remember friends like Obie or Bob O'Connor, Bob Post, Bob Taft, Charley Wood or Bede Irvin. They died in World War II having lived less than half the life I've enjoyed.
We have so many "Days." Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day when I was a kid. At some point, the name was changed to Memorial Day and set aside to honor all war dead. That seemed like a step in the right direction. Armistice Day, a federal holiday, was changed to Veterans Day in 1954.
It seems to me all these "Days" don't really do much for those they're intended to honor. When my mother was alive, I didn't love her more on "Mother's Day." I got caught up with the "Mother's Day" pitch by the card, flower and candy promoters but I always resented it. She would laugh if I bought her flowers or candy, dismissing it as silly and something I didn't have to do. However, I always suspected she might have missed it just a little if I hadn't done it. Margie doesn't sit by the phone waiting for it to ring on Mother's Day but when it did ring at 6 P.M. on May 12, she said, "There's the last one." She'd kept track.
If none of our four children ever called me again on Father's Day or my birthday, it wouldn't make me think they didn't like me. I know them too well.
Columbus Day, St. Patrick's Day and Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday are good rallying days for the Italians, the Irish and black Americans. It's good for them to get together to indicate their pride in their heritage, but I don't think Columbus Day or Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday should be federal holidays. The Irish, at least, have had the good sense to celebrate with their St. Patrick's Day Parade on Sunday when drivers are not trying to get to work.
Washington's Birthday is observed as a federal holiday on the third Monday of February. Twelve states have tried to make sense of honoring Lincoln and Washington by establishing "President's Day" to honor both of them but it isn't a federal holiday. The silly but good holidays are Halloween, Valentine's Day and Thanksgiving. I don't know how we let Thanksgiving in so close to Christmas. It's good if you don't mind having turkey on two occasions so close together.
The fastest-growing religion in the United States is Islam and you can bet the Muslims are going to demand holidays of their own before many moons.
I don't like to see days off proliferate. There are five great American holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. We need Labor Day because it's the real New Year's Day and a signal that summer vacation is over.
STATES BY THE NUMBERS
Minnesota is the best state to live in, according to a book of statistics called State Rankings, put together by Kathleen and Scott Morgan, who live in Kansas, the thirteenth best state to live in.
After Minnesota come Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia and Massachusetts.
The worst states to live in, according to the book, are Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Florida is ranked way down as thirty-ninth best, which is strange, considering how many people choose to go there from some other state to live.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are now about 300 million people in the United States. I'm glad we didn't decide to have a celebration when we hit 300 million because it's nothing to celebrate. Empty lots have been disappearing under houses, apartment buildings and office structures all my life. The more people we have, the more buildings we put up.
It hasn't been long since New York had the largest population of any state but it's been dwarfed in the last twenty years by California. California, with 34 million people, is almost twice as big as New York, with 18 million. Even Texas is bigger than New York now with 20 million people. Lucky Wyoming has fewer than half a million. There are seven other states with fewer than a million people.
The worst statistic is the number of people in state prisons. There were 1,236,476 people locked away in the year 2000, and that figure hasn't changed much. Most prisoners are men. There are only 93,000 women in the pokey. No one seems to know whether women are more honest or just smarter and don't get caught as often.
It costs approximately $60,000 a year to keep each prisoner. You'd think there might be some way prisoners could be put to work and pay their keep. The trouble with that is, of course, if you give a prisoner a job, someone will complain that this deprives an honest person of a job. It just seems like there's so much work to be done in the world that we ought to be able to find something useful for more than a million and a quarter people to do rather than sit in prison cells all day.
A lot of those prisoners probably were put away for stealing cars. In the whole United States, an amazing 1,165,559 cars were stolen in 2000. You wonder why we go to all the trouble of locking them. What good are locks if we have that many cars stolen every year?
People make the most money in Connecticut, where the average salary is $40,870. I live in Connecticut and make more than that and am surrounded by people who make more than I do. Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York are next. The lowest average incomes are in Mississippi, New Mexico and West Virginia. The average salary in those states is about half what it is in Connecticut.
In Massachusetts, 35 percent of the people have college degrees.
Maine is one of my favorite states but it has some unusual statistics. In almost every category, it's near the top or the bottom of the list. For example, more people vote in Maine than almost any other state. It has the most number of veterans per capita, the highest local taxes but a low crime rate.
More people own their own homes, 77 percent, in Michigan and Iowa, and fewest own them in New York, 53 percent. That's because in New York City, there are relatively few private homes. Most people live in rented apartments.
WEATHERING THE STORM
The financial experts who predict trends in the stock market's rise and fall have something in common with meteorologists who tell us what the weather is going to be: They are both wrong about half the time. This makes their guess as good as ours.
Last week, the weather reports we heard in New York were saying we could expect a dusting of snow over the weekend. By Saturday, the reports were upgraded, and on Monday morning, by which time we'd had 14 inches of snow, they were saying we could have as much as 14 inches of snow. All this was unusual because meteorologists are more apt to err on the side of excess to make their reports sound more interesting. Their guess is seldom less than the snow or rain that actually comes down.
On television, the weather reporters pad their parts by saying things like, "There will be an accumulation of 8 inches of snow on the roads tomorrow morning during the rush hour, so allow yourself extra time and drive carefully." Has any driver in history ever driven more carefully because of being admonished to do so by a radio or television announcer?
The traffic reporters and weather experts both give a lot of advice. The traffic reporter will say, "There's a four-car pileup with an overturned tractor trailer on I–90, so stay to your right."
The other advice they like to give, as though they were being helpful, is to travelers: "Kennedy Airport is closed to all traffic, so call your airline in advance for flight information." Have they ever tried to call an airline? Airlines don't have people answering telephones. You have as much chance of getting information about a flight from an airline as you have of finding out whether we're going to war with Iran by calling the White House and asking to talk to President Bush.
Because I had work to do and knew I wouldn't be able to get into New York from our home in Connecticut Monday morning, I drove to New York on Sunday. New York is good with snow, but there's always one building in a block where the tenants don't shovel and it makes it difficult to get around. Snowplows clear the streets but block the crosswalks in the process.
Taxi cabs are scarce after a snowstorm. Cabs have two-wheel drive and bald tires and can't move in snow. Buses come in clusters of three, then none for an hour.
A friend of mine was in town from Des Moines and couldn't leave because the airports were closed. He called me at the office to ask if I'd have dinner with him. His situation made me question how hotels handled incoming reservations when people already in the rooms couldn't get out. Most of the people employed in hotels probably couldn't get to work. How did they get the beds made, the sheets washed?
Monday night, most restaurants in the city were closed because their waiters, cooks and managers couldn't get to work. Suppliers had not supplied them. We found a good restaurant, but I felt guilty after dinner. At home the morning newspaper had been covered with snow and couldn't be found in the driveway. The oil company had come but couldn't get the tanker into our snowbound driveway. There was no way the mailman could get to the box on our front door.
Margie said she was going to try to get the car out in the morning and go to the store.
I wanted to be as nice to her as I knew how, so I told her to drive carefully.
FORGET THE BIRTHDAY GREETINGS
We are awash in remembrance. We need some special occasions in our lives. It's nice to make one out of some anniversary, but eventually, as we accumulate friends over the years and relatives proliferate, there become more special occasions in our lives than we can handle—or even remember.
There are people who never forget a birthday or wedding anniversary and others who never remember one. Some tidy people keep track of these dates in other people's lives in little black books. They spend more time remembering than is called for by the unimportance of many of these occasions. While it may be fitting to make an event out of a fifth, tenth, twenty-fifth or fiftieth wedding anniversary, those like the sixth, eleventh or forty-third would be better forgotten. I resent the remembers.
The idea of making a joyous event out of getting a year older doesn't make sense. We all hate our age. Not only that, we find it ridiculous and humiliating not to be able to blow out the burgeoning number of candles on a cake. And we shouldn't be eating cake anyway.
There are a few people who never mention their birthday because they don't want to call attention to it. This seems more sensible than setting off bells and whistles to proclaim to the world that you're a year closer to the end of your life. I'm more apt to be depressed than elated on the occasion of mine.
We've always tried to soften the blow for people getting old in every way except by ignoring the fact. Old age is called "the golden years," but anyone old enough to fall in that category knows there's nothing golden about them.
Then there's the commonly accepted notion that wisdom comes with age, as if this made aging an occasion for joy. We all know, however, in our heads if not in our hearts, that this is not true. We are as dumb at sixty, seventy, eighty or ninety as we were at twenty-one. We may know more but our brain doesn't work any better, and probably less well, than it ever did. Like the look of our face or the shape of our feet, we're stuck with the brain we came with and it functions with less and less agility as the years pass.
Annual celebrations probably ought to end the day a child blows out the candles on his or her twelfth birthday cake. We leave little monuments of special occasions throughout our lives but there isn't time to stop and celebrate all of them and we should stop trying.
We ignore some of the most important dates in our lives because they're not sentimental occasions. Depending on the state we live in, the fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth and twenty-first birthdays are vital because it is on those days we become old enough to marry, drive, vote or drink. They don't bring funny cards from friends.
What I most want is a couple of weeks during which there are no days to celebrate. That would be worth celebrating.
THE JUNK BUILDING BOOM
There are times when I yearn for a czar or dictator. It would have to be me because I'd disagree with the dictates of any other.
Today I'm thinking how badly we need someone with absolute power in charge of controlling the buildings people erect. I'd not only want to control new construction, I'd also want the power to tear down some of the buildings already up. I'd like to have the power to drive through our small town in Connecticut and mark certain homes and commercial buildings for demolition.
There are monstrosities in every city and town in America. The construction of many of these buildings could have been prevented if we didn't have this perverse notion that people can build anything they want as long as they own the land they put it on. Clearly there should be a law against some buildings. Fair-minded people who object might ask who would decide what could be built and what could not. I'll decide, that's who.
The accepted idea is that what someone does with an empty lot is strictly his or her own business but that isn't true. It's the business of everyone who lives anywhere nearby. An unattractive building intrudes on their lives every day they pass by and are forced to look at it. You could say no one is forced to look at an ugly building but this ignores the magnetic attraction anything unlovely holds for our eyes.
The construction of a home or business in a town should not be taken lightly. Buildings last. An ugly house is practically immortal. Badly built office towers often stand for a hundred years and the rent is still rising. A house may get painted, added to or subtracted from but once one is built, it's there for good as far as our lives are concerned.
There's not a community in America that doesn't have buildings so unattractive that they should be leveled and carted off to the dump in small pieces to raise the value of others in town. (It is incumbent upon me to say here that our house might be considered by some to be a candidate for destruction on grounds of its aesthetic shortcomings.)
"Developer" is a dirty word. Developers are moving in on open fields, wooded hills, vacant lots and even back yards everywhere. In many wealthy communities, they're tearing down perfectly good $500,000 homes to put up $5 million display houses. We need de-developers to undevelop places that were developed badly. As building dictator, I would prohibit the intrusion of one brick or 2-by–4 on a back yard for the purpose of enlarging an existing home. A back yard is more important than any additional bedroom or two-car garage.
The disappearance of back yards in city and suburb followed the demise of the front porch fifty years ago. There was a time when half the population of small-town America sat on its front porch watching the passing scene from a comfortable position in a hammock, swing or rocking chair. No longer. The inaction has moved inside to a position in front of the television set in the living room. People don't live in the living room, they watch there. It has become the watching room.
A city back yard is an oasis cordoned off from the parade of machinery passing by in the street out front. There can be quiet, grass, flowers, peace and tranquillity just a short distance from the frenetic world of moving machinery. In a back yard, flowers do not rush to grow, grass does not have a horn to blow, or radio to blare out. As the population multiplies and the demand for space increases, back yards, like front porches, will become a thing of the ancient past. They'll be replaced by brick and steel with no personality but a life expectancy of 500 years unless, of course, I am appointed the first czar of deconstruction.
LIFE BECOMES LESS NEIGHBORLY
Growing up, I knew everyone on our block and most of the people around the corner and up the street. The Duffeys were on one side, the McAnenys on the other. The Gordons lived next to the Duffeys and the Buckleys were next to them. Dick Stephens lived across the street. He had a chow named Chummy. The Hessbergs were next to the Stephens. Their German Shepherd was called a "police dog."
We have lived for more than fifty years in our present house. Don't ask me to name more than four of ten neighbors who live within 100 yards of us—or any of their dogs. People move more often than they used to. Neighbors have gone out of style in America. No one borrows a cup of sugar.
We are no longer active in many of the hometown organizations whose meetings we once attended regularly. Attendance at the meetings of all local organizations is dramatically lower. A notice in our current town bulletin says, "The Town Meeting scheduled for June 27 was canceled for lack of a quorum."
They're having a terrible time getting anyone to come to Parent-Teacher Association meetings. Even organizations like the American Legion, the Rotary, the Kiwanis and the Knights of Columbus have lost 25 percent of their membership in many communities. Most of the people listed as members no longer go to church. We don't chat over the back fence. We get in the car and go someplace, or stay inside and watch television. Not as many kids are playing Little League baseball.
If we needed a quart of milk, I used to walk down to the grocery store a block from our house. If Tom was in his yard, cutting the grass, I stopped and we talked. Now if we need milk, I get in the car and go to the supermarket.
Margie used to belong to a bridge club, a book club and an investment club. She never missed a meeting. Several years ago, Robert D. Putnam wrote a good book called Bowling Alone. He spoke about the virtues of "civic engagement and social connectedness," saying they produce better schools, economic progress, lower crime and more effective government.
Young people don't get married half the time until they're middleaged, so many of them live in apartments with strangers next door, not neighbors. Gay Americans often keep to themselves, and half of all Americans who marry get divorced. They separate from both spouse and neighbor.
You can't beat a good, hometown newspaper as a cohesive force in a community, but hometown newspapers are having a tough time. The readership of USA Today and newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the
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